Friday, December 23, 2011

The Snow Queen at the Rose Theatre

The set alone is a source of wonder. Paper artist, Su Blackwell, in her first design project for the stage has created a delicate, wintry world of trees, cottages and lampposts that appear to have been snipped from the pages of a paperback. Black lettering nests against white, making an apt and charming backdrop for Charles Way’s adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy story.

Young Gerda is a nervy girl, prone to panic attacks and terrified of her bad-tempered schoolmaster father, Mr Overskou. When her classmates take turns to dance in front of one another, she can’t bring herself to join in and her best friend Cei has to calm her down. Though Cei and Gerda have been friends and playmates all their lives, Mr Overskou disapproves of the boy’s dreamy ways and forbids them to see one another; it is then that Cei falls under the Snow Queen’s spell. A shard of mirror pierces his heart and he becomes cold and cruel before being whisked off to the Queen’s winter palace and forced to piece together the shattered fragments of her magic mirror. But though the townspeople believe Cei to have drowned, Gerda refuses to accept this and sets off to find him.

Way’s adaptation has Gerda travel through the changing seasons with winter forever on her tail. In spring she encounters talking flowers and a secateurs-wielding gardener; in summer she encounters a gaggle of Hooray Henry types and in autumn she encounters a robber gang and an ageing reindeer. There’s much wit and invention in the visual detail (umbrellas turn into autumn leaves, paper butterflies alight on paper trees, billowing white fabric is used to create a downhill sleigh ride) and some gentle humour in the writing. Gerda grows slowly in confidence and strength as the story progresses, declining to give up her red boots to the spoilt Sloaney teen princess and taking on the robber queen in a dance contest, but the production doesn’t overplay her emotional growth and this aspect of the writing is handled with a pleasingly light touch.

If anything Natascha Metherell’s production is too gentle and sedate. It has its moments of comedy and its moments of chill but there are a few too many slack patches that cause outbreaks of fidgeting amongst the younger members of the audience. Sara Stewart’s towering, ice-eyed Snow Queen is also the source of some genuine cries of alarm and, in one child’s case, a fountaining of frightened, urgent tears. The production seems better pitched at slightly older children than at the very young.

Some strong performances help compensate for occasional failings in pace. Bettrys Jones is compelling as Gerda, her initial anxiety and fretfulness slowly transforming into maturity and strength, and there is some good support from Michael Matus as the menacing Mr Overskou (who also cameos as a decidedly camp daffodil) and Deirdra Morris as the archetypal kindly, wise grandmother. What’s missing, despite all its considerable polish, is any real emotional tug or genuine sense of peril; it’s all a little too neat and tidy and lacks the wild fringes of the best children’s theatre.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, December 09, 2011

The Ladykillers at the Gielgud Theatre

Though Graham Linehan’s stage adaptation of this classic 1955 Ealing comedy is superficially appealing on a number of levels, taken as a whole it doesn't quite satisfy.

Peter Capaldi plays the reptilian Professor Marcus – first revealed to the audience in silhouette – the head of a criminal gang who hides out in the Kings Cross house of kindly Mrs Wilberforce (Marcia Warren) under the pretence of being members of a string quintet.  

It's hard to fault the cast, but while the film celebrates the triumph of something fundamentally English in a murky post-war world, Linehan seems far more interested in mining the story for its comic potential. As a result the production is stuffed with recurring gags and physical comedy, but there's something very broad about the way the whole thing is pitched and it only really hits its stride in the second half, when the robbery has been committed and the silliness gives way to something more sinister. As tension mounts between the gang members and they begin to turn against one another, Sean Foley’s production takes on the dark air of a fairy tale. There's also more than a trace of the contemporary heist movie to proceedings: Reservoir Dogs is cited as an inspiration and there’s even, I believe, a visual reference to The Taking of Pelham 123. 

Linehan deviates from the film in some entertaining ways; a sequence in which the gang are forced to perform for Mrs Wilberforce’s elderly friends and have to try and pass their ineptitude off as musical experimentation is particularly amusing. But the piece never sustains this level of invention and at points comes close to pantomime.  

Michael Taylor’s gloriously skewed, expressionistic set creates a sense of physical and moral subsidence which the production never fully capitalises on but the cast are clearly enjoying themselves which goes some way to compensate for the occasional sags in pacing and the overlabouring of some of the jokes. Warren is deliciously dithery as Mrs Wilberforce, fragile yet far more formidable than the men around her will credit, and Capaldi clearly relishes his villainous role, stalking the stage like a Lotte Reiniger shadow puppet, revelling in each hike of an eyebrow and each long-legged stride. Clive Rowe, James Fleet, Ben Miller and Stephen Wight are also on good form as, respectively, the slow-witted but well-meaning One Round; the nervy Major with a fondness for women’s formal wear; the volatile Romanian gangster with a near pathological dislike of old ladies; and the amphetamine-driven Harry, who comes across like a more docile version of Brighton Rock’s Pinkie Brown with a penchant for housework.

Reviewed for Theatermania

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Riot Acts at Richmix

A collection of words written in response to Penned in the Margins' Riot Acts, itself a form of response to the summer's riots. The evening featured new work in scratch form from Luke Wright, The Hurly Burly, Sophie Woolley and Greg McLaren. You can read the full piece on Exeunt. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Judgement Day at The Print Room

Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken, takes the form of a heightened and poetic piece of self-examination, a man looking back at his life and work through a convex lens. A sense of finality pulses through the writing, a kind of breathless urgency.

Condensed and retitled by Mike Poulton, the play concerns Arnold Rubek, an aging sculptor who, having made both his reputation and his fortune many years ago with his masterwork, Judgement Day, is now enjoying the trapping of his success. Though he is respected and materially well off, Maia, his attractive and (much) younger wife resents him and he is all too aware that his days of producing great work are behind him.

He contents himself on commercial projects, corporate hackwork, sculpting bankers and merchants, and has tied himself to a young woman who bores him. In private moments he invites her to sit on his knee with a rather queasy Humbert Humbert tilt to his voice, but it’s clear that whatever affection once existed between them has long since turned to dust.

When his former muse, the mysterious Irena, appears at their mountain retreat, he is obliged to look back at the man – and the artist – he once was. Irena is a living ghost, a limbo-locked figure who feels that Rubek’s use of her image, her life, was an act of violation. While he has moved on without a backward glance, she has remained, trapped, drifting wraith-like through the mountain mist like an ageing Lucy Westenra; Rubek has drained something vital from her and she can neither forgive nor forget. She refers to his masterpiece as “their child” and is appalled at the thought of its existence apart from herself.

Rubek is obliged, for the first time it seems, to consider her role in its creation. The play pulls no punches in its depiction of the sculptor as a supremely self-involved and emotionally blinkered individual. Michael Pennington plays him with a calm naturalism, his voice rich and telling, providing a solid balance to Penny Downie’s more heightened and manic performance as Irena; shrouded in white, the pins working their way loose from her hair, she is by turns menacing and pathetic. Though at times her performance feels too stylised, there is a potent energy when she is on stage with Pennington. They both feel gripped by some deeper force. As a result the relationship between Sara Vickers’ Maia and her would-be lover, Philip Correia’s randy Baron, is eclipsed.

Poulton brings out the humour and humanity of Ibsen’s play, grounding it in the recognisable and counterbalancing its more abstract passages. James Dacre’s production is intense without being unrelenting. It takes this big, at times unwieldy play and makes it work in a small space. In this he’s aided by Mike Britton’s elegant traverse set which provides a sleek and contemporary frame of cool mountain blue for the period costumes (the wine-red of Maia’s skirts look particularly striking against this background). A single rock and a building mist are all it takes to transport the characters to a place precipitous in more than one sense. As the play draws to a close, Rubek and Irena are left to face each other and the unknown, reaching upwards into night.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Saturday, November 19, 2011

We are Three Sisters at the Rose Theatre

“We are three sisters.” It is like an incantation. Surrounded by wind-lashed moorland, with tombstones looming at the window, the Brontë sisters wrote words that would survive them, in the process becoming semi-mythic themselves. Blake Morrison’s play for Northern Broadsides acknowledges the pull that the sisters’ lives still exert, the need to keep repeating and retelling their story.

Morrison draws deliberately on Chekhov’s Three Sisters, transporting events and people from the Brontës’ lives into a Chekhovian framework. It’s an elegant device, particularly because the parallels between the two sets of women were not entirely accidental and Chekhov may, at least in part, have been influenced by the inhabitants of the Haworth parsonage.

Though the play stands up well on its own as a piece of biographical drama, there’s pleasure to be taken in appreciating the many ways Morrison has woven together the Brontës’ world with that of the Prozorovs: the sibling harmonies and rivalries, the proximity of death – both plays begin with the remembering of a parent’s funeral. But it doesn’t adhere to its source too closely, breaking away from the template altogether in the later stages of the play; Morrison refers to it as a “shadow text”, one that inspires rather than dictates.

Though the timeline is condensed, Morrison’s play takes place at the most pivotal point in the sisters’ lives, when their books had finally found publishers and Charlotte in particular was starting to experience the first glow of literary success. This was to prove exposing and disconcerting to Emily who was content to shelter behind her pseudonym and pointedly did not join her sisters on their first tentative journey to London. Though London is a place the sisters ache for, it is a subtler form of longing than Chekhov’s sisters feel for Moscow, and Emily in particular makes her ambivalence felt.

Natasha’s ill-advised green sash in Chekhov’s play has become a dress the colour of limes, a retina-searing garment which stands out a mile next to the palette of matt browns and greys of the Brontës. The dress may as well have been Jezebel red, such is its effect; its wearer, Mrs Lydia Robinson, is Branwell’s older, married lover, here depicted as a cruel and manipulative woman with few redeeming traits (we know she is no good because she’s nasty to Tabby, the Brontës’ frail and ageing housekeeper).

Morrison has his Mrs Robinson paying a fictional visit to the sisters, much to their shock and displeasure. The other interlopers into their guarded world are all men – and all found wanting. John Branwell plays the local doctor, poignantly sporting a soft spot for Anne because she reminds him of her dead mother, whom he once loved. Marc Parry plays a rather feeble curate and director Barrie Rutter plays a self-promoting teacher to generally humorous effect. Fittingly it’s those playing the sisters who stand out. Rebecca Hutchinson’s Anne gets to escape her elder sisters’ shadows and speak of her own hopes; Catherine Kinsella’s Charlotte is the most grounded and subtly ambitious of the three and Sophia di Martino captures Emily’s volatility but also conveys a touch of knowing wit.

The play is less strong at providing social context and the references to events outside the parsonage walls, the Chartist riots for example, often feel heavy-handed; the same can be said of the handling of some of the background biographical detail. Branwell’s rapid decline into a stumbling drunk with a penchant for dipping into the family funds is also rather forced. The play is far better at sketching the tensions between the siblings, as that famous family portrait, with Branwell’s face blotted out by his own hand, watches over them from the far wall.

Rutter’s production can feel a little slow-paced and stiff; it sometimes lumbers rather than glides, and it lacks the energy and physicality of Shared Experience’s exploration of the same narrative ground. But it never feels like mere intellectual exercise; the play has an elegance of expression and an – eventual – emotional power as the three sisters, already coughing ominously, look ahead to their shared future.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Next Time I'll Sing To You at the Orange Tree Theatre

The stage is naked except for a small raised platform and a deflated air mattress. The ceiling glitters with fibre optic stars. Beneath these, a group of characters debate the nature of existence and reality, using theatre and the nature of performance as a broader metaphor for life (and death). Their conversation, which is studded with intentionally bad jokes and poetic digressions, swings back and forth but never settles.

First performed in 1962, James Saunders’ play was inspired by the story of the hermit of Great Canfield, a man who spent over three decades living in almost total isolation in a tiny hut. Was he some kind of contemporary saint or was he just a lonely old man prompted to reject the world after the young girl with whom he was fixated rejected him?

The play was the first ever directed by the Orange Tree’s Artistic Director, Sam Walters, and Saunders went on to have a strong association with the theatre throughout his life. Saunders’ next big project, according to the programme, was a stage adaptation of Iris Murdoch’s novel, The Italian Girl, which seems apt as there is a lot of thematic overlap – but Murdoch usually embedded her philosophical exploring within a stronger structure than Saunders uses here.

The piece constantly comments on itself, picking itself apart. The performers remark on how they are going through the same motions, night after night, and on how nothing much has actually happened yet. “Yes, we get the metaphor,” is the weary reply. The director takes on the mantel of creator, the ultimate auteur, while the performers are deemed to be somnambulistic figures, neither fully awake nor asleep, with the exception of one man who eventually starts to merge with the figure of the hermit. There’s plenty of Pirandello here; Beckett and Ionesco too. You can almost see the spines lining Saunders’ library. Though frequently witty and undeniably smart, the play at times feels like a collection of his interests and obsessions, a primer in existential thinking, rather than anything more cohesive and relatable.

The cast cope well with the particular tone and rhythm of the play. Brendan Patricks is elegantly arrogant as Dust while Aiden Gillet succeeds in bringing out the spiritual quality of his director figure, Rudge. Roger Parkins’ character Meff, there primarily to provide relatively light relief, has dated far less well though he does his best with what he’s been given, and Holly Elmes, as Lizzie (one half of a pair of interchangeable identical twins), is required to do little beyond look almost permanently bewildered.

Unfortunately along with all this 1960s intellectual enquiry, the play comes with a hefty dose of 1960s chauvinism, complete with jokes about rape. Anthony Clark’s production attempts to counteract this by turning it into a period piece, complete with corduroy trousers and snug black turtlenecks, an ashtray quickly filling with the remnants of skinny cigarettes. But by rooting it so firmly in time, the light that shines around the edges of the text is dulled. The play becomes a fixed, rigid thing rather than something questing and illuminating. It’s easy to see what excited people about this play and how it came to influence other writers. At times it is still possible to feel the electricity of ideas at work, but in framing this as a heritage piece Clark has neutralised the play in more ways than one.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Changeling at Southwark Playhouse

Snip, snip. Snip, snip. Michael Oakley’s production of Middleton and Rowley’s Jacobean tragedy has taken the secateurs to the text. Gone is the madhouse subplot, leaving only the story of the duplicitous Beatrice-Joanna and her murky sexual entanglement with the bitter, volatile De Flores. But this secondary narrative strand does more than provide a comic counterweight to the central story, it feeds into it, shadowing it, paralleling it. Insanity takes many shapes, many forms in this play.

Oakley’s second conceptual experiment is to take the play’s many asides and turn them into pre-recorded voice over. Oakley, a past JMK Award-winner, admits in his programme notes that this is a risk, and the resulting disconnect between the internal and external is problematic. In theory the idea does chime nicely with the play’s use of doubling, but the recorded sequences seem flattened out and the production never quite solves the problem of how the cast should interact with them – they occasional resort to brow furrowing and other ‘thinking’ signifiers.

The production has been given a contemporary setting complete with seemingly obligatory CCTV monitors. There’s something vaguely 1980s about the aesthetic with its grubby filing cabinets and Beatrice-Joanna’s skin-tight black lace dress; a collision of Basic Instinct and Sliver. But the surveillance theme isn’t really picked up on, the monitors are only really brought into play during one scene, and the production suffers from a lack of claustrophobia, from a sense of these two people being unable to escape each other’s hold.

David Caves simmers as De Flores, a born gentleman forced to serve others; resentment permeates his every gesture and when he gets a chance to right what he sees as a slight, an insult, he leaps at it, relishes it. He seems to compensate for both his reduced circumstances and his marked face, his perceived ‘ugliness’, through hyper-masculine behaviour. He is not a hunched Caliban figure, muscles bulge beneath his short-sleeved white shirt; he even (just about) pulls off De Flores’ penchant for glove-sniffing.

Fiona Hampton is not quite as convincing as the fickle Beatrice-Joanna, a woman happy to manipulate De Flores into getting what she wants (having the unfortunate Alonzo iced so she can marry the dashing Alsemero), but who fails to anticipate the repercussions of her actions. While she is stronger in the early scenes, clearly enjoying the power she has over him, and she succeeds in showing how Beatrice-Joanna’s initial distaste for the man evolves into something more complex and interesting, as the situation escalates her performance seems to lose power.

Again, claustrophobia – or the lack of it – is an issue. Shorn of context, Beatrice-Joanna no longer seems backed into a corner by circumstance and her choices make even less sense. By ditching the madhouse subplot, the more blackly comic elements of the play, particularly the delicious absurdity of the virginity test, feel adrift and more than a little silly. There’s a strong case to be made for updating The Changeling; with its themes of social hierarchy – Beatrice Joanna’s sense of entitlement pitched against De Flores’ resentment – it has a particular contemporary resonance; but Oakley’s production is neither as sexually or as emotionally charged as it might be and while his approach to sound design is intriguing it also doesn’t quite make a case for itself.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, November 07, 2011

Memoirs of a Biscuit Tin at Jackson's Lane Theatre

This house is a lost house; cobwebbed, dilapidated and dusty, it has been forgotten. The old woman who once lived here has disappeared but no one has come looking for her; she is remembered only by the house itself. The chimney, the wall and the floor are given physical form. Clad in Miss Havisham rags, simpering and mugging like Playschool presenters they pine for their lost owner. Slowly, using objects scattered around the abandoned house they piece together the life of the missing woman: they give her a name, a past, a story.

Maison Foo’s poignant if rather broad-brush production was inspired by the performers’ experiences of working with the elderly. There’s something very touching in the way the fragments of a person who has been diminished and eroded by dementia are pieced back together, making them whole, even if the company have saddled both the piece and themselves with an awkward and overly elaborate narrative framework. The performers spend a very long time establishing that it is the house itself that is telling the story: so we see the floor getting overexcited at the memory of the hoover, while the chimney alternates between soot-clogged coughing and minor flirtations with the front row.

The stagecraft is impressive, blending elements of clowning and physical theatre with puppetry, and there is something particularly satisfying in the way they utilise every prop to create a recognisable world: a balloon and a piece of fabric become a small child, a coat-stand becomes a dashing young suitor, a picnic blanket and a straw hat create a fleeting yet idyllic afternoon in the sun. But while these shards of memory, these glimpses into the past, are often genuinely moving, in the favouring of the archetypal over the specific, the production is self-limiting. Mrs Benjamin, the woman who is both the absence and the presence at the centre of the piece, is not so much an individual as a portrait of every aging person whose sun-flecked past has faded to grey.

While it’s well-intentioned (the company are touring the work in partnership with Dementia UK) and well-executed, there is something a little twee in its presentation. It’s at its strongest when exploring the cruelty of dementia, conveying a strong sense of bewilderment, decay and increasing distress, but the depiction of life leading up to this moment is more formulaic, the milestones obvious and the storytelling simple: courtship, marriage, bereavement. The method of telling is visually appealing but dramatically the piece is rather narrow, and while the concept of the house as narrator is a resonant one, it feels too blunt, too literal.

The strongest sequences are also the darkest and most jarring, scenes that elegantly evoke loneliness and decline in old age, social isolation and its consequences, but elsewhere the company rather hammer their point home in a way that teeters on the edge of being patronising. It’s when they unshackle themselves from this tendency and trust their material and their audience more, that the production’s considerable charms become clear.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Revenge of the Grand Guignol at the Courtyard Theatre

The centrepiece of the London Horror Festival is Revenge of the Grand Guignol, a series of four vignettes inspired by the plays of the infamous Parisian Theatre and, in particular, by the work of the Grand Guignol playwright André de Lord.

The first piece, The Laboratory of Hallucinations, is the most explicitly linked to the French original. In an isolated clinic, a scientist is conducting brain experiments on terminal patients, tapping their frontal lobes, tinkering with their internal machinery. His wife decides she can no longer stand to stay with him, to be menaced and threatened, to listen to the screams emanating from the basement, so along with her somewhat unreliable lover she plots her escape. It takes a while – perhaps too long – for the premise to be established, but the piece eventually comes together, combining a campy Hammer quality with a lick of David Cronenberg-esque unpleasantness, but while this was the most faithful adaptation it was also the weakest; it did, however, serve as an interesting counterpoint to the pieces that followed.

By contrast, the second play, Stewart Pringle’s As Ye Sow, is the most successful of the four. An elderly man (a well-pitched performance by Jeffrey Mayhew) is visited by his daughter in the care home where he now resides, having been in decline since his wife’s disappearance eight years ago. His daughter has a scheme to remedy their financial worries, but when she explains it to her father he becomes increasingly fretful and upset. Elegantly blending elements of J-Horror – technology offers no solace here, the television and the radio are not your friends – with domestic drama, the piece contains some proper jolts but it’s the small details, the things half-glimpsed and half-heard, which really unnerve.

The third piece, Hero, sees de Lorde’s 1902 play Au Téléphone updated to the age of Skype. A medical student conducts a web-cam conversation with his girlfriend who is halfway across the world, working as a teacher in Russia. The student (nicely played by James Utechin), we eventually learn, is concealing another woman in his room, and what begins as the most light-hearted play of the night, soon begins to wrong-foot its audience; the initial jokiness falls away in favour of a drawn out, stark conclusion. Though Tom Richards’ update introduces a visual component and thereby opens up what was originally one-sided and left to the imagination, it doesn’t diminish its effectiveness – in fact it feels very much in keeping with the original’s suggestion that the devices designed to connect people can end up emphasising the distance between them.

The Blind Women, the final part of the varied quartet, has an air of Ballardian disconnect. It’s ostensibly set during the Blitz, but could easily be set during some future conflict; it has a floating, unsteady quality which is only enhanced by the harsh, jarring industrial sound effects. A young woman comes to work at a wartime munitions factory staffed predominantly by blind women where she immediately triggers the resentment of Greta (a menacing Scarlet Sweeney), a woman hardened, scarred, and more than a little unhinged. It’s the most overtly horrific of the four plays but interestingly, despite the escalating tension created by the proliferation of sharp things, it’s not as effective as the previous two pieces.

The production as a whole has a pleasing tonal variety, though possibly more could have been done to compensate for the lengthy set changes. And, in lieu of a David Warner or a Robert Powell figure to knit everything together, some form of title card might have better helped to shape things, to mark out the lines between each separate play. But, these small concerns aside, what impresses most of all about the production is its avoidance of cheap laughs and easy scares in favour of a focus on the psychology of horror, and the way in which the most successful of the plays here manage to tap into contemporary fears while still honouring their Grand Guignol origins.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Interview: Ché Walker

My interview with actor, playwright and director, Ché Walker, about directing John Patrick Shanley's two-hander, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, is now up on Exeunt. We talked about his being a 'rehearsal room baby' and the challenges and pleasures of directing in a space like The Vault at Southwark Playhouse. You can read the full interview here.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Earthquakes in London at Richmond Theatre

As Mike Bartlett’s 13 opens at the National Theatre, this earlier foray into the apocalyptic and multi-stranded is currently on a UK tour. Earthquakes in London is a huge, sprawling play, both in time and scope, a cocktail of stylistic devices and narrative possibilities.

The snaking staging and immersive nature of Rupert Goold’s original production has been flat-packed for a proscenium stage by tour director Caroline Steinbeis, but it still throbs with energy. Music permeates the piece; there is a burlesque sequence, a chorus line of cloned Sloanes in black sunglasses and some spirited drunken dancing to Arcade Fire.

Bartlett’s play has a kaleidoscopic quality and the story only gradually comes into focus; the connections between the characters are revealed gradually, scene by scene. At the centre of the play are three sisters: Sarah, the eldest, is a Liberal Democrat minister; Freya is lonely, heavily pregnant, and grappling with her fears about brining another life into a broken world; while the youngest, Jasmine, is unanchored in every sense – she has recently been kicked out of university and feels increasingly estranged from her family and surroundings, swigging Ouzo from the bottle in an effort to blot things out. The sisters’ climatologist father abandoned them years ago after their mother’s death leaving Sarah to raise Freya and Jasmine alone; he now lives an equally isolated life in a remote part of Scotland, convinced the world is on the brink of imminent environmental collapse.

Occasionally the characterisation veers close to formula. This is particularly true of the character of Tom, a student protestor whose family in Eritrea are dealing with the tangible effects of climate change. He is the polar opposite of Jasmine, whose half-baked piece of protest performance art seems like a childish attempt to get her older sister’s attention rather than anything more reasoned. Tom’s anger seems justified but it walks hand in hand with a rather sniffy sense of self-righteousness; his fury sings out yet his methods are underhand. As characters they seem too carefully fixed at different ends of the apathy/engagement scale.

The character of Lib Dem Minister Sarah is more intriguing. A woman in a senior role in government with a slightly rocky home life, her principles being slowly eroded, she could so easily have been a caricature but in Bartlett’s hands she is a shaded creation, confident and capable in the political arena yet not devoid of warmth or humour, qualities only enhanced by Tracy-Ann Oberman’s well-judged performance.

Having established this complex and engaging web of characters and stories, the play becomes even more ambitious in its aims, sending out feelers into the future, dabbling in dream sequence and origin myth, a quasi-Biblical reboot of a broken world. For all its audacity it doesn’t quite come off. The play works better as a pluralised portrait of contemporary unease, the growing tide of anxiety, the groping for a solution. This is echoed in the choreography, which is often jagged and robotic. From the identikit Hampstead housewives to the department stores sales assistant who matches her make up to the store’s lighting scheme, the play is stuffed with automatons, consumers, cogs in a machine on the verge of crashing, fussing over their Fair Trade ‘good coffee’ as the world collapses around them.

One suspects that some of the production’s visual originality is reduced by being forced into a more conventional space: seven people frugging in neon wigs does not a wild party make, particularly when framed by a proscenium, and the revolve is decidedly arthritic, audibly wheezing and creaking as it turns. And while the thrust and ambition of Bartlett’s writing is undimmed, little can disguise the fact that the play starts to unravel well before the end.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, October 24, 2011

Terror 2011 at Soho Theatre


Terror isn’t quite the word. Disquieting? Yes, perhaps. Creepy? In places. This collection of short plays doesn't really come close to creating genuine terror in its audience, but then nor does it seem to be trying to: it seems to prize the nervous, slightly grossed out chuckle more highly than the scream of real dread and distress.

This peripatetic annual celebration of the macabre and unsettling, last seen at Southwark Playhouse, has been rehomed in Soho Theatre’s basement cabaret space and this relocation seems to have informed the production as a whole because the musical interludes are given almost as much time and room as the plays themselves. The songs, co-written by Desmond O’Connor and Cabaret Whore, Sarah-Louise Young, are spectacularly off-colour: a country and western ditty about abortion, a ballad about anorexics in love. The resulting laughter is often halting and awkward, slow to flow, arriving in guilty little bursts. But by addressing and involving the audience, the songs knit together a production that might otherwise have felt too tonally choppy, too disparate in approach and execution.

Of all the playwrights on the bill, Lucy Kirkwood has taken this merging of music and theatre furthest. Her contribution to the evening is a piece of burlesque, conceived with performer Eleanor Buchan, in which a be-tasselled dancer falls under her own dark spell. It juxtaposes a jokey, nod-wink style with something distinctly icky but doesn’t really leave itself anywhere to go once the premise has been established.

The opening piece, Dave Florez’s The Waiting Mortuary, is similarly stuck. Two nineteenth century doctors debate whether the body laid out on the slab before them has actually expired. The tone of the play – more of a sketch really – is weirdly pitched, a pastiche that seems unsure quite how seriously it wants the audience to take it. Carl Grose’s comic verse monologue, Wormy Close, performed by Amanda Lawrence achieves a far better balance between the horrible and the comic. It’s a silly but endearing piece, a kind of goryJackanory that benefits from Lawrence’s strong sense of timing and delivery. Tom Holloway’s play, If I Stay I Would Only Be in Your Way, is a two-hander that owes a debt to Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters. It’s more genuinely unsettling but it over-plays its hand. There’s something to be said for taking something beyond what appears to be its natural end point and stretching it further than good sense or taste might dictate, but it’s not a gamble that quite pays off, and the resulting laughter is fitful and diminishing.

The most unnerving piece of the night, and also the most successful, is Jack Thorne’s The Gong. Thorne is a writer who knows how to create tension, who understands how to feed information to his audience in the most potent way possible before confirming their worst fears. A torch-lit Ciaran Kellgren stalks around the room, smoking intensely as he recounts his experience of being working class at Cambridge University, and the lengths he will go to fit in, to prove he belongs. It’s a jarring and unpleasant piece, and one that achieves in words what the other plays never quite manage even with all their splatter and seepage and shrieking.

Reviewed for Exeunt

The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton

The Duke of Milan strides round the stage in a pair of be-ribboned PVC knee boots, his hands sheathed in fingerless black leather gloves. This is a Milan of flashbulbs and high fashion overseen by a Karl Lagerfeld-esque colossus, the kind a man who tweezes sushi into his mouth while barking at hapless underlings. Music pounds and bodies writhe and somewhere beneath the din and the flicker there is a trace of Shakespeare.

There’s a sense of disconnect to Matthew Dunster’s new production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a piece made in collaboration with RashDash. Dunster is clearly enamoured with the company – after seeing their work at the Edinburgh Fringe, he was determined to create something with them – but while many of their most appealing traits, their energy, their physicality, have made their way into this broad reworking of Shakespeare’s early comedy, so have some of the company’s limitations, the messiness of intention, and, chiefly, the way in which they knit together – or rather frequently fail to – the text with the choreography.

There were similar issues with RashDash’s previous pieces, Another Someone and Scary Gorgeous. The imaginative physical sequences always seemed to sit above and apart from the narrative – and the same is true here; only when working with an established text, rather than a piece of their own devising, it feels all the more marked.

The production is lively and bright, musical and colourful, but there’s often a sense that the words are secondary to the visuals. RashDash’s Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen play, respectively, Julia, Proteus’ homely Veronese sweetheart, and Sylvia, the glamorous daughter of the Milanese Duke; while Julia flutters over her lover’s every letter, Sylvia is the pouting, strutting object of much male attention and fascination, a woman on a – literal – pedestal, with her near-naked image splashed across banners.

In comparison to the throb and debauchery of Milan, Verona is depicted as suburban and small fry, a town populated by beaming kids in well-pressed khakis; in the over-stretched opening scene, the titular two gentlemen brandish guitars and sing a peppy song about seeking fortune and freedom elsewhere. There’s wit and invention in such devices, but a lack of subtlety, the point is forced home, the comparisons are laboured. There are long periods given over to music and movement where no one speaks a word of verse, and there’s an adolescent quality to some of the humour, a seeming belief that all this cussing and snorting and stripping is more daring than it is.

Clemmie Sveaas plays Proteus’ inept servant, Launce, as an escapee from Ugly Betty toting a plastic lapdog in a designer handbag, but her scenes soon start to grate and this is before she ends up relieving herself in a plastic cup. By making this clownish secondary character female and by focusing the audience’s attentions firmly on Julia and Sylvia over the various gentlemen, the production seems to be tugging in an interesting direction, but this is neither a fully feminised or feminist account of the text and some of the choices seem to have been made for visual appeal rather than to make a particular point.

In fact there seems to be two conflicting desires at work here. On one hand it feels like an attempt to stage a frothy homage to the play, in the vein of Ten Things I Hate About You or Clueless, and in these moments the text feels like an obstacle. This is frustrating, as some of the more successful episodes come when the background noise subsides and the words are given room. This is most evident in the morally knotty final scenes when Sylvia is threatened with rape and then seemingly bartered; Dunster’s production plays up the sinister implications of this transaction, but then undoes the power of these closing moments by ending on a song and giving the women back their voices.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, October 14, 2011

Interview: Tena Štivičić.

My interview with Croatian playwright, Tena Štivičić, about her latest play Invisible, a co-production with the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, is now up on Exeunt. We discussed the idea of migration as theme and as context and she talked about her work for the Ulysses Theatre on the Croatian Island of Brijuni. You can read the full interview here.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Playboy of the Western World at the Old Vic

When J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World was first performed in Dublin in 1907, the audience exploded over its moral murkiness and its perceived ridicule of Irish village life, with particular ire reserved for the very notion of Mayo woman parading in their shifts, something which is referenced in the text but not actually shown.

The play is now considered Synge’s masterpiece and fully cemented in the canon of 20thcentury Irish drama, a thing to be revered and handled with due care. So it’s difficult to make that leap back in time, to fully grasp what so inflamed its original audience, causing them to riot in the stalls; John Crowley’s production for the Old Vic does little to help bridge that gap for, though undeniably lively, it’s distinctly polished in tone, overly polite.

Former Misfit Robert Sheehan, here making his stage debut, plays the young interloper, Christy Mahon, who arrives breathless and footsore at a Mayo shebeen late at night and immediately starts to sweet-talk the locals. When he first arrives, he’s a hunched and diminished figure, ‘destroyed by walking’ but the minute he lets slip that he’s killed his bully of a ‘da’, delivering a fatal blow that near enough split the man down the middle, then the community starts to look at him differently. Sheehan’s physicality reflects this change; gradually he uncurls and unfurls, like a flower turning to face the sun. When he moves, he’s like a gangly marionette, oddly jointed and long of limb; though Sheehan is probably too pretty for the role, his awkward way of holding himself, his crab-like, wary stance, goes some way to overcome this.

Christy suddenly goes from being a nonentity to a man anointed with the sparkle of scandal. Instead of condemning him for his actions, the local folk seem excited by his story. He is a like a star in their midst, white knight and rock god rolled into one, and the source of much female adulation. The publican’s daughter Pegeen Mike takes an instant shine to him, but she has to compete for his affections with the predatory Widow Quinn. Christy can’t quite believe his luck; he talks with increasing rapidity and energy, as if he’s worried the spell will be broken if he ever shuts up.

Sheehan is somewhat cowed by the force of the two female leads. As the volatile Pegeen, Ruth Negga almost visibly glitters; there is heat in her gaze but also metal, and she is not a woman you would want to cross. The same can be said of Niamh Cusack, as the Widow Quinn; she fixes her sights on Christy and is adept at steering the situation in an attempt to get her way. Compared to the sodden, quaking Mayo menfolk, these two make a formidable pair.

Scott Pask’s detailed set consists of a rotating two-room shack, a stone walled collage of greys and browns with a string of laundry slung to its side – grinding rural poverty lavishly and expensively recreated. A clutch of villagers with fiddles and accordions set off each scene and provide bridging music as the house slowly twists and slides into place.

The way the play blends the comic with slivers of the macabre, its tectonic shift from the light-hearted to the unsettling, now seems almost too commonplace to be worthy of comment, but Synge was particularly revolutionary in this regard and his influence can be seen everywhere, in the work of Martin McDonagh, and in the gentle (and not so gentle) mockery of Father Ted. This revolutionary quality – and the lyrical brilliance of the language, its glorious musicality – is evoked by Crowley’s production without ever being completely convincing. Everything about it is very nice, both to look at and to listen to, but there’s something missing from its middle, the vital thump of a heart.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, September 26, 2011

Me, Myself and Miss Gibbs at Camden People's Theatre

Francesca Millican-Slater is an inadvertent detective. The discovery in a Totnes junk shop of a postcard bearing an enigmatic message which was sent in 1910 to a Miss L Gibbs of Southwark kick-started a process of investigation that was to last a number of years. During this time Millican-Slater combed through census data and various archives until she gradually narrowed the gap between herself and Miss Gibbs.

The resulting show is as much, if not more, concerned with the directions in which her research takes her than with the mystery of the postcard itself. Millican-Slater attacks her project in a manner that borders on the obsessive, interspersing her telling of the story with video recordings of her younger self responding to each small new discovery. She starts to think of Miss Gibbs as, in some ways, her own, forming an emotional connection between herself and this young woman who lived a century ago, a bond which becomes increasingly evident in her voice as she describes the process of historical digging, particularly in the tender, caring way she talks about Miss Gibbs and her family.

The stage is scattered with the debris of Millican-Slater’s investigation – a quilting of train tickets, maps, and photographs – and, as she speaks, she lays each newly unearthed document and certificate in a line on the floor at her feet, a visual representation of the trail of discovery, the piecing together of the past. She has a chatty, open and engaging performance style, which is reflected in the way the audience’s discussions about her discoveries continue long after the piece has come to an end.

Though Millican-Slater was only able to discover the bare bones of Miss Gibbs’ existence – the births, marriages and deaths – this is enough for a loose-lined portrait of the person, and the world in which she lived, to start to take shape. The obvious point of reference for an exercise like this is the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? and the resultant mania for genealogy, though what makes the piece all the more interesting is Millican-Slater’s decision not to delve around in her own family’s past. There is a sense of serendipity in the way the postcard first spoke to her and demanded that its story be told, but she’s also careful to interrogate her own motivations in making this show; she remains both aware and wary of turning Miss Gibbs’ life into “her own personal soap opera.”

There’s also a thread of nostalgia running through the show about the way our relationship with the past is changing; the internet is making raw data more accessible but it is also making the process of research less personal, less hands-on, and dulling the joy of the chance discovery, the beautiful coincidence.

In the end Miss Gibbs and her postcard are just the seeds in a piece about what it is to be remembered and to be missed, about the need to leave our own particular print on this world and on the people in it while we are able. By this reckoning, though long dead, Miss Gibbs still exists in the context of Millican-Slater’s show and her story will now be spread further still, contained in the memories of those who have seen it.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, September 23, 2011

When Did You Last See My Mother? at Trafalgar Studios

Ian is eighteen years old but conducts himself with the air of one who’s lived longer and experienced more of the world. He’s all talk, an adolescent raconteur, a verbal volcano in a herringbone tank top and National Health spectacles. But beneath the precocity, the intellectual self-confidence, he’s manipulative and emotionally frozen, incapable of gauging the consequences of his behaviour on others.

Christopher Hampton’s debut play was written in 1964 when he was also just eighteen. The play was picked up by the agent Peggy Ramsey and ended up being staged by the Royal Court when Hampton was still only twenty. Hampton’s writing is very astute about what it is to be young and arrogant and confident of your own charisma but also utterly wrapped up in your own wants. Yet, for all its assurance, the play also shares some of the characteristics of its young lead: it has a tendency to show off and displays a taste for melodrama.

The character of Ian, the public school educated orphan lusting after his flatmate Jimmy, is a particularly difficult one to pull off. His behaviour at times is vile and brattish; he becomes particularly waspish when faced with the girl Jimmy has a bit of a thing for, his attitude tipping towards the misogynistic, and he seems to really relish pushing people’s buttons until they lose their tempers. But Harry Melling nails it. While he’s convincingly obnoxious and hateful, he’s also something of a charmer, a man of calculated attack. He’s always ‘on’, always playing to an audience, and even when a frustrated Jimmy leaves him to his own devices, he can’t help but provide a running commentary as he pootles round his empty bedsit. At times you want to slap his face, hard and repeatedly, at times you marvel at his chutzpah; he’s like a teenage version of Butley (a play it predates), Simon Gray’s self-sabotaging academic who takes great pains to push away the people foolish enough to care about him. Melling can be over-mannered as an actor – he was the shrillest thing on stage in Deborah Warner’s production of The School for Scandal, no easy task – but under Blanche McIntyre’s direction this is not the case. As Ian, he is, as McIntyre admits, an “utter fucker” at times, but he’s also completely compelling.

McIntyre nimbly negotiates the play’s line between humour and pathos. Her production is rooted very much in a particular time with Nicky Bunch’s detailed set recreating the boys’ 1960s bedsit, complete with Formica foldaway table, a buckled mustard-coloured sofa and a floral curtain concealing the kitchenette. While Ian’s rather too rapid seduction of Jimmy’s elegant mother isn’t entirely convincing, the openness of his feelings for Jimmy and the seeming easiness of his sexuality still feels exciting, especially given the era in which it’s set.

The final scene doesn’t quite deliver the emotional kick for which it seems designed; it feels far too neat and predictable a way to tie things up, the result of a young writer looking for a convenient escape route. But this doesn’t overshadow the production’s many strengths and the pleasing complexity of the central character, a role to which Melling brings the intensity it deserves. Sam Swainsbury, as Jimmy, the object of Ian’s attentions, provides a cool, easy-going and necessary counterpoint to Melling’s energy. And, as Jimmy’s mother, Mrs Evans, Abigail Cruttendan gracefully conveys a deep reservoir of suburban sadness and longing under her smartly-tailored coat and white gloves.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson at the Arts Theatre

The last time this Out of Joint production was performed in London it was in Dr Johnson’s house in Gough Square, in the garret where he worked on his dictionary propped in his three-legged chair. In terms of intimacy and atmosphere it was always going to be difficult venue to equal, and it’s certainly not matched by the bland, boxy basement space of the Arts Theatre, which has a stale, sap-sucking quality all of its own.

Cribbed from Boswell’s Life of Johnson with a smattering from his London journals as well as from A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, this is potted Johnson, hopping between the key events in the life of the Lichfield-born lexicographer, essayist, clubman and failed dramatist. Johnson describes how he was taken to be touched by Queen Anne as a child to cure his scrofula; he talks about his curious marriage to Tetty, some twenty years his senior and the object of ridicule of many of Johnson’s friends, including his one-time student David Garrick; he dances around the various controversies surrounding his pension and bemoans the lack of trees in Scotland.

A familiar picture comes together of a man who was both hugely sociable, who found company and human connection absolutely fundamental to his life, but was also prone to melancholy, perennially black-dogged; a man of appetite, tics and habits, he could show great restraint but could not be moderate (he was known to drink 14 cups of tea in one sitting); he was also, of course, a man of great wit and learning, and Johnson’s aphorisms and definitions provide the largest laughs, with critics “a species of dung beetle” and the Scottish coming in for a particular kicking, and all the best known lines duly trotted out.

Boswell does his (inevitable) bit, acting as friend, antagonist, interrogator, as well as taking some predictable pleasure in recounting his amorous activities “in armour” on Westminster Bridge and his resultant bouts of venereal disease. The role of Boswell, along with the majority of the minor characters – King George III, a preening Sir Joshua Reynolds – were originally played by co-adaptor Russell Barr, but illness has forced him to pull out of the London run and so these parts are played – ably despite having to step in at such short notice – by Luke Griffin. Barr’s Jack Russell, Katie, who represented Johnson’s ageing, finicky cat, Hodge, in the original run is also no longer present.

The piece consists mainly of the two men either bickering or each relating their own strand of the story, speaking in turns. As Johnson, Ian Redford both looks and sounds the part; in his fizzy white wig, he closely resembles portraits of the man and he injects a measure of pathos into his recollections, a sense of emotional isolation, without over-egging things. A puzzling decision has been made to cast Trudie Styler as Hester Thrale, brewer’s wife, society hostess and the object of Johnson’s affections. Her eventual marriage to an Italian music master is presented as one of the major upsets of his life, but while Styler’s performance is fine, her appearance in the last twenty minutes does rather disrupt the dynamic of what has up until then been an engaging, if overly talky and rather flatly staged, two-hander.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, September 09, 2011

TeZuKa at Sadler's Wells

There are moments of astonishing intricacy and beauty sunk within this cluttered homage to the work of manga master Osamu Tezuka. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s multi-disciplinary piece is at times gloriously inventive but it also feels over-seasoned and tangled, squid-limbed.

Cherkaoui’s choreography merges animated sequences and live performance in a manner that brings to mind 1927′s The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, his dancers interacting with images created by Japanese video artist Taiki Ueda projected on the screen behind them. Scrolls spill from the ceiling and kanji are formed and then dissolve into rivers of ink. A group of musicians sit on a platform on one side performing Nitin Sawhney’s atmospheric score while a table sits at the very front of the stage on which artists materials are strewn.

The dancers adopt the personas of Tezuka’s characters: one jitters, shimmies and fizzes like Astro Boy in his tiny shorts and bright red boots, another dons the flowing jacket and silver mane of Black Jack, the mercenary surgeon. A semi-naked man grapples in a pseudo-sexual way with a priest, in an overt reminder that Tezuka’s work was not just cutesy stuff for kids, far from it; he was willing to engage with taboo subjects, like sexuality, in ways that are decidedly more Robert Crumb than Walt Disney.

There are echoes of Cherkaoui’s earlier work, Sutra, in the piece too, both in the figure of the fanboy, the cultural outsider looking in, and in the figure of director – or the artist in this case – actively controlling the performers’ movements from the side-lines: at one point a piece of paper becomes like a voodoo doll, with a dancer flapping and folding as the paper is wafted in the air beside him. Two of the Shaolin Monks from Sutra also reappear and engage in a striking martial arts sequence as a series of cartoon ‘pows’ fly across the screen behind them, eventually merging like microbes to form a placid, floating Buddha.

The piece at times gets mired in the need to explain itself; there are long spoken sequences in French with the surtitles awkwardly placed on monitors at the sides of the room. The audience ends up being tugged three ways – in the act of reading, listening and watching – and this proves frustrating after a while. Some of what we’re told, about bacterial communication, ‘quorom sensing’ and Japan’s capacity for renewal after nuclear and natural disaster, is fascinating, but there’s too much of it. Even if the piece eventually archly acknowledges this excess of exposition, it still doesn’t quite excuse it.

There is also a sense of the material being over-stretched; the majority of the memorable images come in the tauter first half. The pictographic roots of Japanese kanji and their natural evolution into manga are fluidly evoked: lines, becoming words becoming whole worlds. Calligraphy is a recurring theme, ink on white paper, the elegance and precision each brush stroke; yet by the end. the performers’ limbs are smeared with ink and the delicate scrolls have become roads on which to walk. The philosophy of Buddhism which permeated Tezuka’s work – the connectedness of all living things - is also explored through Cherkaoui’s choreography.

It’s the interlacing of animation with live performance that leaves the deepest impression. Witty, playful and impeccably timed, these sequences are the things the audience are most likely to remember. But as it stretches onwards the piece loses this playful quality and becomes more sombre in tone as columns of ink are shown collapsing in the wake of a great wave.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

truth and reconciliation at the royal court

The floor is blanketed in black. This fine covering, like volcanic sand, scorched earth, becomes increasingly mottled as it is disturbed by pacing feet, the white wood underneath shows through as the earth is churned.

The new play by debbie tucker green interlaces stories from some of the most brutal conflicts of recent years. These stories are set not during the conflicts themselves but in the aftermath, years blurred by uncertainty and unanswered questions. The play explores the search for resolution and the agony of not knowing what happened to your wife, your husband, your child: the absence of an ending, any ending.

Designer Lisa Marie Hall has laid out the space like a courtroom, with the audience circled around the edges on hard, wooden seats onto which names have been scratched, marks made. Dates and locations have also been etched in the wood of the walls, like make-shift tombstones. The play begins with a scene from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A family are made to wait – more waiting to add to all the years they’ve already waited. The mother refuses to sit; she will remain standing until she is acknowledged, until she is given something tangible.

The South African strand bookends the play but green also visits Zimbabwe Rwanda, Northern Ireland and Bosnia; the characters are, for the most part, nameless while the language is economical, elliptical, to the point of being repetitious. A recurring motif sees people discussing where to sit, when to sit, picking over the little details as their loss floods into the spaces between, in acknowledgement of the fact that there is only so much words can achieve.

The stories echo one another, emotional tension co-existing with the mundane. This repetition, this constant circling, is – by necessity – at times frustrating: the play is constantly shifting, pulling back, holding back, disinclined to settle. Yet occasionally it sharpens its focus, and everything becomes tauter, clearer. The South African mother, powerfully played by Pamela Nomvete, articulates the pain of waiting for so many long years to end up here, facing an empty chair. A volatile Northern Irish woman bristles at having to defend the actions of her son. A dead Rwandan man confronts the man who killed him, left his wife a widow, forces him to remember.

The images that persist are those of doggedness and determination in the face of silence, the need to keep going even if to find the truth – or a version of it – will mean encountering fresh pain. Two Serbian men appear to barter over who will admit to a war crime, as if the thing that matters most is that someone – anyone – accepts blame, someone holds up their hands (which felt particularly pertinent with Mladic and Hadzic now awaiting trial in The Hague).

Some of the threads are more developed than others, but this helps establish the universal nature of the situation in which these characters find themselves: one story blends into the next, and while some come close to resolution, others are left hanging, incomplete. Throughout the play, the spare language pulses and flutters, with a kind of insectile delicacy, but when it hits, it hits hard.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Edinburgh: The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley at the Pleasance Courtyard

Chris Goode’s solo show takes a familiar shape. It’s a comforting, coming-of-age narrative in which a young boy meets an outsider who helps him find his way in the world; it’s Stig of the Dump with jokes about Radiohead; it’s just lovely on very many levels.

Fourteen year old Shirley carries around a lot of baggage. For one thing, his parents’ have seen fit to give him a girl’s name – that doesn’t help; he’s besotted with the captain of his school’s cross-country running team, the stick-on plastic stars on his bedroom ceiling have never deigned to glow in the dark, and then there’s the case he keeps under his bed: a boxed promise, dwindling despite his best efforts to look after it, to keep it safe.

Things begin to look up for Shirley when he meets Wound Man, a ‘freelance social interventionist’ or, to put it more succinctly, a super hero. Wound Man is a walking version of one of those medical illustrations from the Middle Ages showing the various damages a body can receive in battle. Weaponry of all forms sprouts from his limbs: spears, maces, arrowheads, clubs; one hand dangles by a sinewy thread and he has a tendency to clank when he walks. He’s a human Swiss army knife in snazzy silver pants. His pain is external, overt, and people find they start to feel better merely by being in his presence.

Wound Man shows Shirley how to be brave, to grow, to cope with his grief and his sexuality but also to be open to the possibility of happiness and love in his life. It is an incredibly warm piece of storytelling, gentle in delivery, and surprisingly funny in places.

This is a smaller scale version of a show originally commissioned for the 2009 Queer Up North festival. The animation sequences described in previous outings are absent but the simple set still evokes the world of an adolescent boy via an apt fanning of X-Men comics, a Rubik’s cube, a handful of Asimov novels and some discarded socks.

Goode delivers the piece in true Jackanory fashion. He deepens his voice slightly when delivering Wound Man’s lines, but otherwise he tells his audience who said what rather than acting out the narrative. He’s an affable and engaging performer who manages to convey the story’s emotional shifts in an elegant, economical way, so that when he does let loose, when his delivery quickens, the audience are picked up and swept along with him. A central fantasy sequence which tells of a vast menagerie spilling through suburban streets is a prime an example of this. Goode becomes more excitable as the music picks up and the descriptions of the animals become sillier and surreal.

The piece, as a whole, is incredibly disarming and the manner of delivery is at times deceptive. Goode doesn’t appear to be doing all that much and yet the story exerts a considerable emotional hold: as a piece of writing it’s full of subtlety and unforced pathos, never straying into overt sentiment; as a piece of theatre, it’s also very effective, the kind of thing that makes people who don’t know each other exchange little smiles of wet-eyed delight as they collect their bags and jackets at the end.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Edinburgh: Opposition at Zoo Southside

“Are you happy being Ed Milliband?” This is not a question with which I ever anticipated having to grapple; fortunately the process of ‘being Ed Milliband’, for the purposes of this show by the spoken word artist Hannah Silva, involved nothing more traumatic than the wearing of a name badge and the reading of a slogan at a chosen moment.

Silva’s ‘Little Political Speech Opera’ takes the form of a collage, a collection of slogans, stock phrases and spin. Through a process of cutting and splicing, looping and repetition, any residual meaning these words may have held soon seeps away, creating a semantic vacuum where everything is better, bigger, and bolder.

Silva, grey-suited and neck-tied, is already spouting words as we sit, a steady drip-drip of sound delivered with a forced smile: “spend, borrow, spend, borrow, tax, tax.” This act of deconstruction and morpheme-extraction ends up creating a Dadaist stream of banalities and absurdities – something akin to verbal bird-song – which Silva then takes one step further via the use of a loop pedal. Through a process of sonic layering, this lexical minestrone forms a backdrop over which she then recites poetry or plays the flute.

The piece fuses the words of Thatcher, Obama, Reagan, Churchill and Cameron with a dash of the BBC weather report. Any distinction between them, any dividing line, is soon blotted and lost. At one point she leads her audience in an extended episode of call-and-response. We bat slogans back and forth, again and again, until they are just noise, a vapida cappella chorus.

It’s all part of an increasingly dense thicket of words in which it seems that the more people speak, the less they have to say: the chirp and babble of Twitter, with its constant prompt of: ‘what’s happening?; the streaming of status updates; the stern remonstrations of the Sat-Nav: “U-turn, you-turn”. Silva’s not the first to pick and chip at political speechifying, the hollowness of spin, but rarely has it been done with such vigour. Her performance is also physically intricate: she jerks and twitches, grins and grimaces; at times it’s like watching a kind of Tourettian body-popper at work.

Though there’s a – perhaps inevitable, given the nature of the piece – slack patch in the middle of things, Silva succeeds in both creating an inventive and arresting piece of performance and in making the audience actively think about language, its uses and misuses, the potency of words.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Edinburgh: Watch Me Fall at Summerhall

Chuck Yeager, the test pilot and American aviation legend who first broke the sound barrier, is encapsulated in the final pages of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff as a flaming figure dropping from the sky, a human comet with a tail of silk, suckered by gravity. Ejected from a jet travelling at twice the speed of sound, his parachute became entangled in his ejector seat and his face started to melt as he fell. Wolfe’s ‘master of the sky’ had been brought down to earth, but he survived to fly again and one of the book’s abiding images is of this molten man striding across the sand, unvanquished.

Men like Yeager, and daredevil stuntman Evel Knieval, provide the inspiration behind Action Hero’s Watch Me Fall. The company are interested in what it is to strive, to rise, to fail, to fall; to launch oneself into the unknown, come through the other side, broken, bloody, scarred, and then do it all over again. A black track has been etched in the floor of the Summerhall Dissecting Room and on this track James Stenhouse and Gemma Paintin prepare to recreate Knievel’s Caesar Palace fountain jump with just a child’s bike, a crash helmet and a plentiful supply of Coca-Cola. The stunt itself is almost an afterthought; the piece exists in the hype, the build, the whoop and roar of the crowd. She wears a star-spangled dress, he’s clad in a red T-shirt and jeans; together they work the audience, charging them up, stoking the sense of anticipation, that we are about to witness An Event.

A number of audience members have already been given disposable cameras by this point, with which to record proceedings and the room is filled with the intermittent click and flare of their bulbs, paparazzi starbursts, pin-pricks of white light. Stenhouse begins by setting his helmet on fire before batting the air with his hands to whip up the crowd. He holds aloft two bottles of Coca-Cola, like plastic trophies, or a pair of liquid dumbbells, his arm muscles taught in a show of strength. He then proceeds to pour the contents down Paintin’s throat, the wet stuff spilling down her front, staining her dress, gagging her, stinging her eyes. It rapidly ceases to be funny, becomes sickly and unsettling, a reminder that where there is an almost foolhardy level of courage and bravado there is also often a corresponding selfishness and disregard; in this way the piece chimes with that other memorable scene from Wolfe’s book, the opening tableau of waiting wives, flinching at every phone-call, every knock at the door; these are the women left to lip-bite on the sidelines as their husbands hurl themselves into the sky, again and again and again.

It’s this impulse, this compulsion, to keep taking leaps that Action Hero is exploring. That and the messy edges of spectacle, the hollow echo beneath the buzz of the crowd; if the whole thing fizzles slightly before its 50 minutes is up, it’s kind of apt.

Finally Stenhouse takes up his tiny bike and rides, hits the ramp, tips, tumbles, sprawls. It’s abrupt, clumsy: over. And while he doesn’t soar, nor does he melt.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Edinburgh: Skittles at the Pleasance Courtyard

Richard Marsh’s solo show is a very funny falling-in-and-out-of-love-story that’s more sweet than it is bitter, though it’s a fair bit of both. Marsh tells the story of ‘Richard’, a man who looks a lot like him, and who falls hopelessly in love and want and need with a girl called Siobhan, who has the two vital attributes he looks for in a woman, being someone who is both beautiful and who also finds him funny.

The piece charts the path of their relationship; they begin by sharing first Silk Cuts then Skittles on the chilly steps outside the office where they both work. Eventually he builds up the confidence to make a move and very soon they are moving in together, camping out on the floor of a cramped unfurnished flat. They dash towards marriage with almost unseemly haste and all too quickly find themselves in the midst of a cinematic American honeymoon, facing the open road together with a second-hand car rainbow-armoured with the titular sweet. But as they light out for the Grand Canyon, Thelma-and-Louising across vast American plains, reality intrudes on their Hollywood moment.

It turns out the US is a pretty big place and that long hours in a hot car will test any relationship, especially one where the couple have yet to fully discover each other’s faults and kinks and tickles. No vibrating roadside motel bed can halt the fall. The way Marsh evokes the gradual erosion of their bliss is deftly handled, the subtle shifts, the slow hardening. The piece becomes a break up story, a verbal essay in the unfolding of hope. Love does not find a way, it ebbs away, evaporates into the hot desert night.

Marsh’s story is told in a poetic stream, his rhymes are rapid and punchy though often economical; he doesn’t luxuriate in lexical possibility, rather the rhythm is the thing, the zing of the delivery, the ding-ding-ding that drives the piece along. The writing is witty – you find yourself laughing both at and with ‘Richard’ – but it’s also often touching and raw, increasingly so as the piece progresses and the Skittles start to moulder and rot.

The ending is an exercise in understated poignancy, a gentle act of looking forward and an acknowledgement that most hurt fades with time. Marsh is a genial performer, comfortable with an audience and confident in his delivery, but the writing is at times lacking in textural variety, the quick, snippy rhythm could stand to be broken up. But his grasp of narrative compensates for this, the story holds tightly onto its audience at the end. And there are free sweets. Free sweets salve all.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Edinburgh: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

In Haruki Murikami’s fiction a sense of menace often pervades the mundane and the most familiar things have the capacity to disturb and unsettle, to scratch like a cat. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Toru Okada is searching. Both his wife and his moggy have vanished from his life; his days are spent hazily, folding laundry in his flat, waiting.

Many of Murikami’s novels contain a detective element, a puzzle to be solved. But just as in the work of Raymond Chandler, the thing being searched for is often secondary, and the process of investigation and exploration takes precedence. Toru is a reluctant protagonist in the classic Chandleresque tradition, stumbling through his own story, encountering sinister figures and truanting schoolgirls, malevolent dream police, half-seen shadows, and a trace of the woman he thought his wife was.

Film producer Stephen Earnhart’s adaptation has taken seven years to bring to the stage; he even spent time living in Japan, but still it struggles – perhaps unavoidably – to condense this hefty, 600+ page novel, to evoke its many layers. The production is foggy and tangled with an episodic choppiness, and it feels too obviously like a thing abridged, reduced. That is not to say it is without beauty or power but the piece is permeated by a sense of disconnect. In some ways this is fitting – syncing with the often dream-like, distant quality of the novel – but it’s too pervasive; the constant shifting in tone becomes tiring and the technical elements of the production never seem entirely integrated.

Performed both in English and Japanese, with surtitles on screens at the side of the stage, this should be the very essence of this year’s EIF, an exercise in cross-cultural conversation and exploration, and yet it contrives to strand itself in between two worlds. The production at times feels like a grab-bag of Japanese cultural markers – bunraku puppetry, butoh-inspired modes of movement, shrill, garish television shows in which people are humiliated, an unsubtle nod to the Ringu films – everything heaped in together.

The tentative friendship between Toru and May Kasahara, the smart schoolgirl with a sly, witty tongue, suffers most. In Earnhart’s version she is brattish and stroppy and it’s hard to fathom why James Yaegashi’s amiable Toru puts up with her. There’s no obligation for a stage adaptation to be slavish to its source, but this curtailed version of the text doesn’t fully satisfy on theatrical terms either. There are individual moments that dazzle, flashes of Lynchian nightmare and unexpected sparks of comedy, but they stand apart from one another. Despite the stacking of scenes, signs, silhouettes, the piece as a whole is often lacking in atmosphere; all the technical elements are in place, but everything remains rather flat and I was left wondering what you’d make of it if you had no prior knowledge of the novel.

The one aspect of the production that does penetrate, that does pierce, is the music, performed live by Bora Yoon in a striking black-feathered headdress. She creates a hypnotic soundscape, all lapping waves and metallic clangs, the filigree drip of water being poured into a bowl, and it is this music that provides the pulse that rest of the production so often sadly lacks.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, August 22, 2011

Edinburgh: Whistle at Zoo

This solo show by poet Martin Figura is astonishing. It’s astonishing not because of its staging, which is very still and simple, but by virtue of the story Figura tells – when he was just nine years old, his father killed his mother – and the way he chooses to tell it.

Whistle is a collection of poems, performed in a matter-of-fact style, about Figura’s family and childhood. This awful shadow of his mother’s death is the heart of the piece and yet at the same time it is part of a broader story. Figura’s father came from Silesia to the UK following the Second World War, having served for a short time in the German army. In this country he met and married Figura’s mother, young and besotted, always immaculately dresses, a wearer of white gloves. They were happy for some time but his father became increasingly ill and paranoid, suspicious of everything and everyone.

The piece is full of details, picked out by a poet’s eye: the marble-barrelled pens bought to fill school pencil-cases, the Cliff Richard quiffs of his boyhood, the smell of pickled cabbage and Polish sausage, the women in black who flocked round him like birds on a visit to his father’s homeland. The writing also marks itself out by the things omitted. Figura steers purposefully away from extremes of emotion; he shares his story but leaves things unsaid, untold. The poems are left to do their work, a boy’s world vanishes. We glimpse Figura and his sister floating ‘equidistant, not just from the walls, but the floor and ceiling too’, orbited by relatives and the inevitable priest. We glimpse a car pulling, peeling away from the pavement, a childhood being left behind.

An old Box Brownie camera sits on a table one side of the stage and a series of still images are projected on the other: toothy, gleaming family photographs, a Man from UNCLE membership card and, of course, the newspaper headlines, his father’s face stark in black and white. All that is left of the smiling time is celluloid, sepia, coiled in a film canister: the fireplace his father built, the easy chair, a gloved hand on a shoulder.

Figura would later be abandoned once more by relatives and brought up within the care system. But this is not a piece about blame, nor is it one conceived in anger – though there are inevitable traces of pain. It’s an elegant account of a family’s history, the stories behind the snapshots, the shadows that shape a life, painted in words and frozen images, memory given voice.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Edinburgh: Translunar Paradise at the Pleasance Dome

Theatre Ad Infinitum’s incredibly touching piece of mime theatre is an exercise in delicacy. It wordlessly journeys through the lives of two people, through all the stages of their marriage, from young love to loss in old age.

The piece is beautifully executed, full of precise and well-judged visual detail. There’s elegance in the piece’s economy, in the way it uses gesture and repeated motifs to convey the story of a whole life lived. The performers hold masks to their faces when playing the older versions of their characters; they waltz with these masks, putting them on and removing them again, as if in a tangle of memories, the past bleeding into the present – the poignancy of one man looking back.

The wordless nature of the piece means that only extremes of emotion are easily conveyed, the highs and the lows, while the muddy middle ground of marriage tends to get ignored. Instead they present a collage of moments of great joy mixed with moments of anguish and trauma: the loss of a child, the departure of the husband to war. The performances are wonderful to watch, full of subtly and warmth. George Mann (who also directs) and Deborah Pugh are both superb, both in the precise, slightly stylised nature of their movements and in the way they convey real affection and connection between the couple. The look of the piece, with the masks and the minimal colour palette, is one of European animation – it has a stop motion quality. Kim Heron’s music, making uses of both vocals and accordion, give the play its pulse, a drifting, time shifting grace.

The production is at times a little too obvious, tugging on the heart-strings with more force than is perhaps necessary, but it’s also full of genuinely moving moments: the old man frozen in mourning, facing life alone after all these years. The production has an elegant, dream-like quality that is almost hypnotic; the repetitions of the piece, the recurring steps, become soothing, familiar – it’s as if you are entering a half-way world where this couple are forever engaged in the act of parting. Needless to say there was quite a lot of quiet sobbing in the audience by the time the piece came to an end.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Edinburgh: 2401 Objects at the Pleasance Courtyard

Analogue’s latest production invites its audience to think about memory, about how and what we remember, the complex process of sifting and retrieval that takes places, and what happens when the brain fails to function as it should. 2401 Objects tells the story of Patient HM, one of the most famous case studies in neurology. HM’s brain has been sliced ad preserved for research purposes; it survives as a series of slices and has furthered the understanding of the relationship between the physical structure of the brain and the way we store memories.

Just as Rebecca Skloot’s recent book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, told the human story behind the HeLa cell line, Analogue tell the story of Henry Molaison, a young American man whose epilepsy led him to undergo experimental brain surgery. The production begins with the recorded voice of Dr Jacopo Annese, a neuroscientist at the Brain Observatory. Following this brief introduction, we are introduced to two Molaisons. Firstly we see him as an old man, institutionalised, capable of completing crosswords, but completely unable to recall a conversation he had five minutes earlier; later we see him as a younger man, shyly engaging in conversation with his neighbour’s daughter.

The young Molaison suffered from several severe seizures a day and his debilitating epilepsy prevented him from holding down a job or moving out of the family home. In 1953 he underwent radical brain surgery, with an ambitious surgeon removing his hippocampi (which are strikingly described as resembling two sea horses). While the surgery did succeed in ridding him of his epilepsy, it also prevented him from forming new memories – and though it didn’t affect his procedural memory, it meant he was essentially trapped in the past. The reality of his situation is poignantly evoked through scenes in which the elderly Molaison, engagingly played by Pieter Lawman, interacts with his patient young nurse. He repeatedly recalls an event from his youth and she listens, each time responding as if hearing it afresh. Molaison does not think of himself as old, and is baffled by his reflection; he also has no recollection of his mother’s death and each time he realises his loss, he is distressed.

Analogue’s use of multimedia techniques, merging video and live performance, is more successful here than in their previous show, Beachy Head. Images are projected on a raised transparent screen and the cast are able to stand both behind and in front of these projections; there is also a fabric strip at the bottom of this screen, under which the performers frequently duck and tumble, vanishing into the black. The piece is nicely played, particularly by Lawman but also by Sebastien Lawson as both Dr Annese and the young Henry, and Melody Grove as both Molaison’s nurse and mother. While it ends a little abruptly, the production succeeds in making its audience pause to consider their internal workings, the mechanics of memory, and to appreciate Molaison’s unique contribution to medical research.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, August 08, 2011

Edinburgh: Kalagora at Zoo Roxy

Kalagora is a hymn to cities, to their richness, their colour, their noise, sprawl and energy, and to the process of cultural merging, mixing and melting that categorises the urban experience.

Poet Siddhartha Bose has lived in three of the biggest, most distinctive cities in the world. Born in Mumbai, he spent several years in New York before moving to London. His show is a jazz-inflected poetic monologue exploring this journey, his words fused with music and images. In the city of that size you can lose yourself, find yourself, be someone else if you so wish. Bose’s show captures that heady urban experience, the taxi drivers and the rough sleepers, the shifting skies and the glitter of glass.

Kalagora is a Hindi word meaning black man/white man and Bose (or, at least, his onstage persona) explores how his urban existence has shaped him, how his identity is defined as much by the places in which he’s lived as by his race or religion. His story takes in charged encounters with airport officials, a boisterous millennium eve party in Manhattan, and what it means to be an illegal immigrant, paperless and under suspicion.

The audio-visual elements of the production enrich what could otherwise be a static experience. Pankaj Awasthi’s music is paired with filmed images of all three metropolises, a striking string of faces and places, the cinema of the city life, the traffic, the neon, the hum. Nor is Bose a stiff, still performer, a reciter, instead he makes the words come alive. His voice is resonant and versatile, switching between accents with ease; he’s also an engaging performer, confident and capable of conveying subtle shifts in emotion.

He has also published a book of poems on the same theme under the same title but this is not a straight-forward reading of those lines. Thought has been given to bringing out the theatrical aspect of the material, to make it work in a performance context: as Bose describes the chaos and clamour of Bombay, he draws a circle in vermilion sand on the floor; later, having landed in Manhattan, he inks a similar circle around his eye. Striking as the language often is there is a sense that still more could be done with this material, to lift and link these words, to sync the visual with the verbal, to condense the modern megapolis into a black box.

Reviewed for Exeunt