Friday, November 08, 2013

Blueabeard, Soho Theatre

We do love a monster. It's a recurrent cultural trope - Lecter, Dexter, Dracula - men who can rip you to pieces, who can make you bleed. Hattie Naylor’s monologue dives deep under the skin of one such man as he seeks out submissive women for sexually violent encounters. If the women ask too much of him, if they dare to dig into his past, the encounters are fatally terminated.
Lee Lyford’s production is a pitch black trip into the bloodiest of chambers. Paul Mundell’s performance as this killer of women, this wolf in sharp clothing, is a thing of precision, every word weighted, every vowel relished, every smile controlled and loaded. Though superficially charismatic, there are times when even his eyes seem to blacken with hate. In the middle of this Lyford lets him cut loose and suddenly this measured man is dancing like a wild thing, fists pumping, arms twirling, breath heaving from him in ragged bursts.
Hayley Grindle’s design accentuates the sense of unease, with six slender strip lights glinting like neon ribs and a seventh suspended from chains up above. A leather armchair sits in the centre of the stage like a throne and beneath Mundell’s words there’s a constant ominous under-pulse, enhancing the sense of claustrophobia. The piece loses its footing a little as it nears its resolution and there’s a sense that, in some ways, it feeds the machine it sets out to critique, but for all this it’s still a gripping and incredibly intense experience.
Reviewed for The Stage

Monday, October 28, 2013

Fatherland, Battersea Arts Centre

A circle is chalked on the floor, a space for spell-casting and spirit conjuring. Then the drums begin to thunder, louder, louder, and the woman in the grey suit starts to dance, a series of ritualised movements, toe and heel, arms aloft, the dance of her fathers.

Nic Green’s new show is an exploration of absence, the spaces between people. Can a relationship exist with someone who is not there? Who has never been there? Inspired by Green’s own experiences of meeting her Scottish father for the first and only time as a sixteen year old, Fatherland is about the space we create for ourselves in the world and the way we define ourselves in relation to others, even if they have never really been present in our lives.

We are played into the room by bagpipes and sit arrayed on all four sides of the space. Green begins by assembling a choir of ‘fathers’ from the men in the audience and engages them in a poetic pre-scripted exchange, a refracted conversation with a man she met only once and who she struggles to recall in any real detail, what he looked like, which pub they went to; he’s the ghost in the room, the ghost within her. Her approach is delicate, the man, and the land from which he came, are like invisible tethers tying her to something which is hard to pin down; there’s a drifting quality to the show in the beginning. At times it’s almost too cobwebby, the lilting language cloudlike and lacking in solidity. That’s perhaps the point, the absence of anchor, the sensation of floating free, but from the audience’s perspective there’s not a lot to grab onto; we drift too, but not always with her.

And then the drums kick in. A wild, tribal heart-thump; a primal, pounding sound. Green starts to dance, shedding clothes as she does so. First her jacket, than her shirt, than her trousers, until she’s bare except for her Louise Brooks bob and her tartan-tailed knickers, blue as woad. She dances with her head high, cheeks colouring with the effort and a single streak of sweat licking down her back like a second spine. Her dance combines the quality of a battle cry with the abandonment of dancing around in your bedroom when you know no one is watching, breasts bobbing, flesh quivering with each rhythmic stamp. I look around the room and people are beaming.

Then, as she slows, as the drums still, the whisky bottles emerge. Single malt. Islay. A peaty smell fills the air as we fill our glasses, passing the bottle from hand to hand, row to row. A toast is raised. A couple of people clink their glasses. Then another two, then another, and suddenly the room is filled with the music of the charged glass, as we, smoke- throated, are invited to connect with each other and with her, to share this moment.

Even when the piece is elusive and remote, as it sometimes is in the beginning, there’s a warmth to it, a sense of invitation. This is something Green excels at, having created Trilogy, a three stranded piece exploring contemporary feminism that centred on a celebration of the female form, a gloriously naked dance sequence in which Green, her fellow performers and a whole host of volunteers bared all and invited women in the audience to do the same. While the piece as whole was messy in places and somewhat front-loaded (so to speak), there was something inescapably joyous about that dance: all that jumping, stamping, shaking. The beauty of bodies in motion.

And I was up there with them, one of a hundred or so, naked on the Barbican stage, roaring and leaping, arms in the air, skin bright under the lights. It seems trite to say it, but it was freeing, putting yourself out there like that, letting yourself go; the sense of unity between the participants was strong and Green made sure that the experience was a positive one for all involved, easing us into it, making sure everyone felt comfortable. For someone who finds the idea of public speaking anxiety inducing it was as unexposed as I’ve ever felt in front of an audience and it genuinely made me examine my relationship with my body.

This piece has a similar strength, though this time Green stands alone – dances alone. It’s a more personal, inward piece, but in its roar, in its thunder, it draws its audience together.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Saturday, September 28, 2013

London Stories, Battersea Arts Centre

A dialogue review of BAC's new 1-on-1-on-1 festival between myself and Catherine Love. We went on different nights and experienced different routes and a different collection of storytellers.

The full piece is over Exeunt.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Edward II, National Theatre

If Dexter has taught us anything it’s that when the heavy duty plastic sheeting starts gets rolled out things are bound to get messy. Yet in Joe Hill-Gibbins production most of the mess comes before this moment, the cacophony replaced by a quiet, desperate tension, the appalling gentleness of Edward’s inevitable demise made all the more powerful by the noise and excess that came earlier.

Hill-Gibbins’ take on Marlowe has a similar chaotic, near operatic energy to his recent version of The Changeling for the Young Vic. But just as that lost some of its focus and intensity when taken from the smaller Maria studio and blown up and out to fill the Main House, this too feels a bit hyper-aware of the size of the space it’s required to fill.

The opening sequence has a kind of familiar gloss, an almost Donmar-ish aesthetic, as John Heffernan’s king sits upright on his throne, his crown gleaming against a cloth of gold. But when the curtain lifts we’re instead presented with a series of stage flats, MDF battlements, stripped-down, fragile, transitory. Lizzie Clachan’s design takes full advantage of the depth and height of the Olivier with Hill-Gibbins again making interesting use of closed doors, spaces into which we can’t quite see, rooms in which conspiracies can be hatched amid silver curls of cigarette smoke.

After the opening coronation scene, the production becomes increasingly stylistically layered, making much use of Brechtian title cards and video, running Headlong into Katie Mitchell territory. It’s an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach, chock-full of references. Live recorded footage is used to convey a sense of up-the-nostril Blair Witch proximity to a world that might otherwise seem remote on the cavernous stage. One memorable sequence, which recalls the meta-theatrical playfulness of Rupert Goold’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, uses the external architecture of the National Theatre itself – its turrets and stairwells, its blocky concrete eminence – as a backdrop for the introduction of Spencer and Baldock. The cry of ‘drums’ becomes a defining one, with a throbbing, pulsing, humming running through things.

Yet at times it feels more like a tick-list of directorial influences rather than a cohesive universe. There are sinister helmeted henchmen – Three Kingdoms by way of Knightmare – and much gleeful anachronism. But this approach pays off in the end: as Edward’s balsa wood kingdom is toppled, the production stills itself too and the final scenes have a chilling and bleak power.

When fully robed in the opening scenes, Heffernan’s Edward combines the studied regal air of Eddie Redmayne’s Richard II with something of Disney’s other lion king; in the beginning he’s bratty and petulant, a foot stamper rather than a thumb-sucker, albeit one with a massive hard-on for Koyle Soller’s Gaveston, a drainpipe-jeaned yank outsider who makes a parkour-style entrance from the stalls, bounding onto the stage, wrapping himself around Edward’s body, locking lips. In an apt yet poignant piece of mirroring, Soller will later be the one to finish Edward when he returns as the assassin Lightbody. Despite the ominous expanse of plastic sheeting, there is no blood, just one lone broken man, the life leaking from him.

Good as both Heffernan and Soller are, they’re matched by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s deeply charismatic Mortimer and by Vanessa Kirby, whose crimson Isabella has the calculating aspect of Cersei Lannister. Near mute in the first half of the play and wearing a wig last seen on Guy of Gisbourne in Maid Marian and her Merry Men, Bettrys Jones’ Prince Edward really comes to life in the last few scenes, to unnerving effect; there’s strong support too from Kirsty Bushell and Penny Layden in some creative examples of cross-gender casting.

The production might well place the visual ahead of the lyrical, it might take a craft knife to some of those ‘mighty lines’ but these plays aren’t going anywhere, they can take it. It does however fall short of the queasy, bloated brilliance of Hill-Gibbins’ The Changeling, but that’s perhaps because it keeps its foot hovering just over the brake, it never quite lets rip, it never quite floors it, even though it threatens to on occasion.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, September 13, 2013

Edinburgh 2013: Stand By for Tape Back-Up

It’s human to seek patterns in apparent chaos, to hear voices in white noise, to sculpt shapes and faces from clouds. Ross Sutherland’s show is concerned with this phenomenon, with synchronicity, the ‘meaningful coincidence.’

In Stand By for Tape Back-Up, Sutherland riffs on found footage from an old video cassette belonging to his grandfather. He uses these clips, culled from the pop cultural backdrop of his 1980s childhood – The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Ghostbusters, The Crystal Maze, Jaws – as the inspiration for a series of poetic pieces. The tape plays out behind him as he performs and his words are guided by the images, circling, syncing, each new loop of the tape generating fresh collisions. Pause. Rewind. Replay.

This is perhaps the most potent of Sutherland’s linguistic exercises to date. Previously he’s played with substitution and translation, machine-made poetics, participatory experiments in heckling, but here the formal inventiveness and iterative experimentation is coupled with something even more emotionally explorative. The effect is hypnotic, simultaneously soothing and rousing, the language ripe and bright. With each groundhog twist through the same set of images, each spin of a skinny-limbed Will Smith above the head of his Philly playground antagonist, things reset and another layer of interpretation is added.

The video footage seems to infect the verse: Sutherland is not just describing what’s happening on screen, it’s more subtle and symbiotic than that. He’s dancing with it, driven by it. It reminded me of the ghosting process in the Wooster Group’s Hamlet, a production in which the actors weren’t just engaged in restaging and recreating Richard Burton’s famous Broadway production but were somehow inhabited by the spectral monochrome world which played out on the screens behind them, an act of channelling, a dash of the uncanny. I was also put in mind of Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s epic Life and Times, or at least the first two episodes, in which the minutiae of one woman’s life, all the little tics and rhythms of conversational speech, complete with pauses, ‘ers’ and ‘ums’ were rendered poetic through repetition. There’s something similarly alchemical going on here.

Nostalgia can be a grubby currency, cheaply traded (especially on the Fringe), but shared cultural memory has an undeniable emotional charge which Sutherland taps into, exploring his relationship with his grandfather, both as a child and as an adult, evoking a sense of inheritance and human continuation through a collage of the shows he once watched as a boy.

The clip of The Crystal Maze shows a woman repeatedly failing to understand the rules of the game despite her teammates’ urgent shouted instructions; she comes close to solving it, but bails in the final seconds. No matter how many times you repeat it, whatever spin you put on it, that crucial button remains unpressed, the elusive crystal unclaimed. The Jaws sequence is perhaps not quite as strong as the others, but it serves a purpose in terms of textural variety and the Natwest ad coda is a beautiful fist-pump of a finale.

This a wonderfully layered piece, touching, funny and linguistically thrilling; a show which works on a whole host of levels, a show threaded with modern madeleines and great, green ghosts in the machine.

Pause. Rewind. Replay.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, September 09, 2013

Edinburgh 2013: On The Beach

John Osborne’s On the Beach provides its audience with a chance to draw breath amid the noise of the Fringe. It’s a quiet, contemplative piece, an act of taking stock. Over the course of the show Osborne describes in detail a walk he once took along Weymouth beach on a rare sunny English afternoon, a minor act of escape.

He gives us potted portraits of the people he encounters – the man reading an Irvine Welsh novel in his deck chair, the family playing a game of cricket together, and the elderly couple who remember the beach before it was clotted with stag and hen parties, for whom it provides a respite from a world that’s galloped on ahead of them – imagining their backstories.

The beach at Weymouth is a place Osborne last visited at the age of eleven and memory, both personal and cultural, shape this show. The British seaside is a strange kind of borderland, a place of Greeneland seediness and melancholy as well as ice cream cheer and arcade fire. Osborne captures that contrast through a process of collage. Some of his observations are simple, even a little mundane, but through a process of gentle layering a picture is painted. The show is not specifically about the decline of a place the or the laying of coastal ghosts, it’s not a hymn to what once was, rather a brief, refreshing paddle in what remains. It deals in nostalgia in the lightest of ways with the understanding that looking back won’t heal you, but it is important if you’re to move forwards.

Osborne’s conversational style of delivery is delicate, even hesitant in places; it’s the antithesis of aggressive, his words lapping like waves, his demeanour that of a slightly hung over, rumpled puppy. His story is intercut with music – Belle and Sebastian, Nina Nastasia’s apt ‘Our Day Trip’ – and seaside imagery is projected on the wall behind him: merry-go-rounds and time-bleached photographs, a solitary figure sitting on a bench and staring out at the water. An excursion to Great Yarmouth, care of a friend of his who lives by the sea but hates the feel of sand beneath her feet, feels digressive and underdeveloped in comparison to the rest of the material.

It’s the accumulation of detail that really makes the piece shine. There’s a sadness to it but also a hopefulness, a courage in its quietness. It invites its audience to slow down, remove their shoes and open their eyes, to walk with him for a while, an invitation which feels particularly necessary and welcome amid the clamour of the Edinburgh Fringe.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, August 26, 2013

Edinburgh 2013: Birdhouse

There was a moment in the BBC’s rather one-note Hitchcock biodrama,The Girl, in which a tortoise-like, prosthetic-laden Toby Jones, playing the great director, repeatedly hurled live birds towards Sienna Miller’s immaculate ice-blonde head. Jammy Voo do something similar inBirdhouse, flinging ideas at the audience like winged things which flap and bat and peck at you without settling, without coming into land.

The initial premise presents us with a group of tweedy middle aged women, all dressed in guano-spattered vintage jackets and calf-length skirts, who have taken shelter in the Coronet cinema in the besieged Bodega Bay and are watching the events of Hitchcock’s 1963 film, The Birds, play out from the periphery. In later scenes they also use Du Maurier’s unexplained bird-black cloud as a metaphor for a more general sense of terror, of the unknown, of violence raining from the sky.

Both of these ideas are intriguing: their waltzing with such an iconic film and their tentative exploration of the power of nightmares. But both seem only to have been brushed against in what is more akin to a curious cabaret with musical accompaniment provided by a man in a popcorn booth. The songs are rather beautiful and the lo-fi shadow puppet sequences which pepper the show have real charm – particularly one in which a series of shadowy telegraph poles roll past a car windscreen brilliantly recreating the effect of rear-projection footage in an old movie – but there’s a disconnected, half-formed feel to the piece as a whole.

From an aesthetic point of the view the show is appealing and delightfully inventive. There’s a game show sequence in which two of the women are obliged to answer questions about collective nouns while a third arranges tiny black pegs on a clothes line above a model of the Brenner house. Sometimes the effect of the show is unsettling – when eggs emerge from their mouths or a crow jams its glinting beak into a woman’s eye – sometimes it’s just odd. There’s also quite a bit of bird puppetry, both of the shadow and feathered variety, some spectacular birds’ nest hair-dos and a fair bit of general Lecoqing about.

Structurally the piece feels like a thematically connected series of sketches with an ornithological obsession. Much of what these are funny and playful; the piece’s riffing on the language of 1960s cinema is witty and the songs are superbly executed, but it remains an opaque and distant thing, and the idea of transposing Hitchcockian dread to a contemporary world, the social spread of anxiety and paranoia, is only ever teasingly examined.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, August 23, 2013

Edinburgh 2013: Each of Us

Ben Moor’s latest solo show is a delicate, glinting thing. It takes its audience on a quest for treasure and finds it in words, in the imagination, in each other, in a hot dark room in Edinburgh.

The play is ribboned with wit and word play, with linguistic zig-zaggery, images that lodge themselves firmly and deeply in the memory. Moor excels at taking familiar things and twisting them, spinning them a degree or two away from the expected. The universe he describes is recognisable and yet not. Concepts are inverted, upended, stood on their heads. There’s a streak of absurdist humour at play too in this story of relationships and connection and the hope we keep locked in boxes, a dash of Lewis Carroll. It’s hard to condense what is so text-heavy without merely repeating favourite lines or ideas or images. Part of the pleasure is in letting the story wrap its arms around you, like a hug. A big wordy hug.

The plot meanders through a series of chance encounters had by a narrator – a corporate thwart by profession, a generator of institutional incompetence – who has recently gone through a break up from his wife, Radium. It’s a mirror world Moor’s created here, but not in a satirical sense, instead it’s almost science-fictiony in its skewed view of things, a world in which the lonely reunite with people with whom they didn’t go to school and where children play with dystopian Lego. And yet it’s also very much the world we’ve made, a world where true communication can get lost amid the noise and we sometimes need to pause and remember what matters, what’s precious to us.

There’s nothing inherently theatrical about any of this. It’s just Moor talking, though his stage presence, if that’s the right term, is part of the appeal, measured, gentle, eccentric, slightly vulnerable. He pads around the studio space barefoot, a little hesitant at times. And yet he holds your attention throughout, transports you into his universe.

Some of his jokes are blunter than others (though this is very much comparative) and he’s not afraid of a pun when the moment calls for one (not a bad thing by any means). I would have appreciated more in the way of narrative momentum, but that’s a question of taste more than anything else. The piece as a whole speaks of the need for human connection, to be known, to be seen, to be held. “We are all transmitters and receivers of stories”, he says at one point and if you love language and the places it can take you, then you’ll listen to the story he has to tell.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Edinburgh 2013: I Wish I was Lonely

At the 2003 Edinburgh Book Festival Douglas Coupland, on tour to promote Hey Nostradamus!, asked his audience to help him recreate an installation piece he’d created in response to the shootings at Columbine. Coupland had been fascinated by something one of the first police officers on the scene had said to the press. The sound that met him in that empty cafeteria, he’d explained, was not one of eerie silence but a growing tide of noise as one by one the students’ mobile phone began to ring, to sing, from within their abandoned bags and backpacks. He likened the sound to a flock of tropical birds. In a tent in Charlotte Square Gardens, Coupland asked people to exchange numbers and ring the person sitting next to them, and gradually the tent began to chirp and trill, the sound building, slowly at first but rising in volume: an insistent, unanswered chorus.

In times of disaster we reach for our phones, seeking contact, reassurance, to be cradled by someone else’s voice. Hannah Jane Walker and Chris Thorpe, co-creators of The Oh Fuck Moment, are interested in this impulse, in the way our relationship with these devices has reframed our ideas of intimacy and absence. Is it possible to be truly alone with a phone in our pocket? Are our relationships with the people we’re close to changing by the fact we never have to wait to share something with them, a joke, an idle observation, a piece of news that might upend their life forever?

We are encouraged on entry to leave our phones on, to remain connected, reachable. Walker and Thorpe actively welcome this potential for external intrusion and are cool with the poetry of their show being punctured by brief blasts of Beyonce and the blips and ribbets of incoming text alerts. If someone’s phone rings, they’re instructed to answer. “Sorry, I’m in a show.” “Yes. In a show. Right now.”

The audience are dispersed around the room on chairs, our phones in our hands and someone else’s number penciled on a piece of card. We are told to leave each other voice mails. As we key in the numbers and the first few phones begin to chirp I find myself picturing a field of invisible lasers, a kind of cat’s cradle of green beams connecting us all. I know how that’s not how it works but the image is appealing and, as phone after phone start to ring, I find myself visualising the lines that join us all together. One girl mistimes her call, answers instead, and ends up speaking to twin voices, the one in the room and the one in her ear. The lag between the two seems to unsettle her. “Hello?” she repeats anxiously, suspiciously. “Hello?”

Together we turn text messages into found poetry and experience the strange, transient intimacy of having a stranger’s words arrive in our inbox. Later Thorpe asks us to place our phones in a chalk circle in the middle of the room, a simple act which underlines what talismanic objects these thin, glinting things are to most people, digital tefillin, memory boxes. There they sit sun-spotted on the floorboards as he stalks among them like a crotchety giant. A couple of people get visibly twitchy, suffering from separation anxiety.

Walker’s more ambivalent relationship to her phone, her tendency to let texts go unanswered, her reluctance to respond instantly and immediately, is one I recognise. I often forget to switch mine on and rarely do I answer it unless I am somewhere indoors, somewhere quiet, somewhere safe. I do not relish the constant connection, the updates and alerts. I do not want to be locatable, traceable. I like to be able to shut the world up for a while, to be solitary, to focus on one thing without interruption, to hide in plain sight.

My scuffed seven-year-old Nokia looked so sad and small among the buckshot circle of sleek devices. As we create a wave of words, an undulating conga line of verse that rings the room, I start to wonder about interaction and this web from which I have chosen to exclude myself. Will this minor act of disconnection have increasing social consequences? Am I painting myself out of the world? Is the physic space gained worth the trade off, to be shut out, cut off from this process of continual engagement? On balance I still think it is, but, interestingly, with less certainty than I once did.

At one point Thorpe eyes one particular phone and snaps, stomps, shattering it underfoot. People gasp and whimper, than let out a collective sigh of relief when they realise it’s not their precious thing that has been Hulk-smashed into plastic debris. They’re safe.

And it’s a prop of course, a plant.

Except…on this occasion it’s not: something goes awry and it transpires that the battered, trampled phone actually does belong to a member of the audience, who is oddly accepting of this act of vandalism. This injection of accidental reality gives the performance an extra frisson. How would you react if your phone was suddenly erased, your connection suddenly severed? (Thorpe, to his credit, deals with his own oh-fuck moment swiftly and hugely apologetically, dashing off to secure a replacement immediately afterwards).

It’s easy thing to say, that a piece of theatre is thought provoking, but in this case I do sit in the sunny Drill Hall cafĂ© afterwards and think about the piece and my response to it, studying my black box, thinking about the things it holds and wondering if I’d be brave enough to silence it for good.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Edinburgh 2013: Knee Deep

There’s a wild free-running energy to Knee Deep. The four performers hurl themselves at one another, rubber-banding off one another’s bodies, teetering on the edge of stage. They stand on each other’s shoulders, climbing each other like vines, before dangling from the ceiling like human chandeliers.

This is the circus of exertion, the emphasis placed on the body and the limits to which it can be pushed. Performed by Australian circus troupe Casus within the crimson cocoon of the Spiegeltent, the audience are close enough to see them sweat, to watch their muscles pulse with the effort. It’s not that it’s not polished, because it is, but we’re also made aware of the element of risk involved.

The company are clearly interested in fragility. This is established in the opening sequence in which Emma Serjeant, the company’s only female member, places a couple of boxes of eggs on the stage. She then places her weight first on to one box than the other, standing on the eggs. They don’t crack; they don’t shatter – they bear her, hold her. It’s a striking image, performed with grace and delicacy.

The show takes the form of a series of wordless vignettes, some solo, some in which all four share the stage. There is much leaping, balancing and tumbling followed by silk and rope-work. They tread on one another’s shoulders, backs, even heads, and spin and throw each other around the place as if they were dolls; they turn their bodies into totems, sculptures, bearing each other’s weight. They hang off each other in various rather alarming ways, performing the kind of lifts and balances that make the audience wince and gasp and laugh all at the same time. Many of the routines resemble a kind of human parkour with the performers limbs standing in for the bollards and railings and other urban obstacles. Spectacular as much of this is though, the small touches – the brief smiles that pass between performers, the nods of reassurance – are just as central to the
feel of the piece.

Half way through the performance they strip down to their briefs and the show becomes a celebration of skin. Both Serjeant and Nantano Fa'anana have elaborate tattoos and these become part of the aesthetic of the piece, the ink like armour, their strength only emphasised. Fa'anana slaps at his bare chest and legs, slowly at first but quicker, quicker, a rhythm building, his body his instrument.

Later the eggs make a return, miraculously remaining intact, uncracked; there’s a sequence with wine bottles which is also elegantly, playfully executed, the eggs and bottles making us all too aware of how breakable people can be. They don’t overplay it, but it’s still a potent image.

While it’s true that a couple of the sequences feel superfluous – there’s some classic blockhead business with a hammer and a nail, some tepid hula-hooping – this is an exhilarating hour of contemporary circus that also makes you think a little differently about the body and its capabilities, both theirs and your own.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Edinburgh 2013: The Events

Are there limits to human compassion? Are some acts so awful that they can never be fully understood, never mind, forgiven? These questions sit at the heart of David Greig’s new play for ATC and the Traverse.

The piece, which grew out of conversations which took place after Anders Breivik’s island massacre in Norway in 2011, was created in close collaboration with director Ramin Gray.

Claire – the only named character – is a vicar who has survived a mass shooting incident which has left many people in her community choir dead, only narrowly escaping being shot herself.  Claire is consumed by the need to know how such a thing could happen; she’s desperate to figure out why someone would commit such an act, why someone would take up a gun and kill and kill and kill again. This need to find an answer, to turn the events of that day into something she can process and rationalise, consumes her. Her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, she’s not sleeping, and she’s taken to imposing unwelcome spiritual healing rituals on the surviving choir members.

The perpetrator, she discovers, had a fairly troubled childhood, but it wasn’t any more troubled than many people’s – is there a line, a level of damage, which would make his violence more understandable? Would it have made a difference of he were insane? If his rampage was the result of aberrant brain chemistry? Or are there some things which are beyond comprehension, monstrous, evil? Rudi Dharmalingum plays the unnamed perpetrator – as well as several other characters, including Claire’s councillor and her girlfriend – as a flat voiced, detached figure, neither a rage machine nor a frothing monster, but a man who barely seems to understand his own motivations. He talks about tribalism, Vikings, the need to protect his kind, the failure of multiculturalism, but he’s no zealot. At one point he goes on a berserker vision quest and ends up retching like a cat with a hair ball – Grieg doesn’t shy away from humour, in blurring the line between the appalling and the absurd.

The most striking aspect of the production – which plays out on a stage near-naked except for a few benches at the back, a tea urn on a table, a piano and a pile of blue plastic stacking chairs – is the presence of a local choir. In every city to which the production will tour, a different choir will participate. Their voices join together with Claire’s, forming a chorus, but their non-actor status – they read their lines from folders – means that they are somehow both physically present and absent at the same time. It’s an effective device, a potent reminder of those that have been silenced – who are no longer there with Claire – and of those that continue to sing, to live.

What’s most interesting about the production is the way that, with its fragmentary structure and slightly detached quality enhanced by the presence of the choir, it manages to explore a situation which is incredibly horrific and upsetting without being overtly horrific and upsetting itself, maintaining a sense of space around the subject which allows its audience to think, to breathe, without putting them through an emotional wringer. Greig and Gray could rip you apart if they chose to, of that I’m fairly sure, but they pull back, build in barriers, and it’s a stronger piece for this.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, August 05, 2013

Edinburgh 2013: Fleabag

Phoebe Waller-Bridge is an arresting looking woman: tall, slim, long of limb, with a kiss curl of dark hair – and a filthy mouth. From those pretty lips spills a stained tale of anal sex, menstrual threesomes, pornography of every stripe and shade and lashings of masturbation. Some of what she says draws gasps – the kind of gasps that begin as half-laughs. There’s still, it seems, a little electric tickle when a good-looking woman with a crystalline voice talks dirty – and Fleabag, which Waller-Bridge also wrote, revels in this, probing and stroking the line between empowerment and degradation.

She plays a confident, aggressively sexual young woman who takes pleasure in the power she has over men. The worst thing she can imagine is someone not finding her attractive. But her strutting fuck-me-or-fuck-off attitude is tempered by an absence, a need, a ghosting behind the eyes.

The solo show initially takes the shape of a job interview with Waller-Bridge perched on a stool under the cruel corrugated ceiling of the Underbelly, responding to a man’s disembodied recorded voice. It then segues into a confessional, with her addressing the audience directly. At first the character is played for laughs. She’s good at pushing buttons with her well lubricated fingers, taking delight in our disquiet at her more outrageous tales (“does this mean I have a huge arsehole?” she muses after an impromptu backdoor festival fuck), but gradually cracks start to appear as we find out that her boyfriend has left her (she claims not to be too fussed by this, is adamant that he’ll come crawling back), she’s estranged from both her father and sister, her closest friend recently died and the business she runs is failing.

All this rampant wanking and sexual questing begins to feel like desperation, hole-filling of a more psychological kind. There’s a beautiful extended sequence in which she mimes undressing and taking photos with her phone of her breasts and vagina in a disabled toilet, click-clicking away with her finger, while her head is tilted to one side, her gaze vacant, the antithesis of eroticism.

Waller-Bridge’s performance is riveting: candid, split open, fruit-fleshed. She expertly manages the release of information, the timing, the tonal shifts and slips. But I do wonder whether, from a dramatic perspective, the trajectory of the piece was a bit too obvious – whether it would have been more exciting and interesting to do away with the damage and make the character even harder and more unrepentant, to really push things. As it is, there were times where the piece made me wince, made me uncomfortable – and then made me consider exactly why it made me feel uncomfortable (would me response have been the same if a man was saying the same things, telling the same stories? I doubt it, though I’m not sure).

Fleabag is a confrontational piece of comic writing, a funny, nasty, sharp-edged account of sexual self-sabotage and debasement that leaves its sticky fingerprints all over your skin.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, Temple Studios

I really like the group review as a format, especially for something as huge in scale as the new show by Punchdrunk.

Stewart Pringle, Lauren Mooney, William Drew and I discussed our varying experiences of the new show, the idea of active spectatorship and the piece's relationship to the world of video games.

The full conversation is on Exeunt.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Cripple of Inishmaan, Noel Coward Theatre

The switchback rhythms of Martin McDonagh’s dialogue must present a challenge to any actor. In their lilting, his lines are almost musical, glittering with wicked humour, but they also has a very distinctive cadence – timing is all, a half second either way is all it takes to tip the train from its tracks. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson nailed it in In Bruges. The cast of Michael Grandage’s revival – the third production in his West End season after Privates on Parade and the lacklustre Peter and Alice – hit the mark in places but all too often the tempo feels just a little out, a little off. We’re talking micro-beats here, slivers of seconds, but they still matter.

Daniel Radcliffe plays the title character, Billy Claven, a young orphan known to all on the island of Inishmaan as Cripple Billy. Since his parents drowned in mysterious circumstances, he’s been raised by the two spinsters who run the local shop and is regarded as something of an odd sort, a little bit touched, for he spends his days staring at cows or, worse, reading books; he’s a figure of mockery for most and is constantly teased by the flame-haired, egg-pegging ‘Slippy’ Helen for whom he harbours a soft spot.

This is a real ensemble piece (though you wouldn’t know it from the posters) and McDonagh’s play is as much a portrait of a community, as it is of an individual. The suffocating nature of life on the island, where a fracas between a cat and a goose is deemed worthy of relating by the town gossip, is disrupted by the arrival of film maker Robert Flaherty on the neighbouring Inishmore, to make his seminal early documentary Man of Aran. Billy scents an opportunity to escape and he does all he can to take it.

Radcliffe has clearly given a lot of thought to the physicality of his character. One leg drags stiffly, unbending at the knee, while one hand sits rigid and twisted against his chest; occasionally his good hand brushes lightly against the curled one, as if it’s a source of solace. Though Billy’s movements are awkward and jerky, Radcliffe also brings a sort of youthful determination to the character, both physically – encapsulated in the way he slithers unaided down a rope into the harbour – and in the way he engineers his flight to Hollywood. It may take him longer than most but he gets where he wants to go in the end.

There’s a gentleness and openness to Radcliffe’s performance. It avoids heavy-handed poor-me pathos; his Billy doesn’t revel, nor does he meekly resign himself to the hand life has dealt him. Grandage’s production also features a brilliant double-act between Gillian Hanna and Ingrid Craigie as Billy’s adoptive aunts, who clearly love him despite their sternness. Their sisterly bickering and their quiet despair when Billy leaves are warmly portrayed.

The Cripple of Inishmaan is probably Martin McDonagh’s softest-souled play (though this is very much a relative thing – he still takes rather a lot of pleasure in dangling a little sprig of hope over poor Billy’s head) and Grandage’s production softens it further, humanising the characters rather than making grotesques of them. The play brings a sense of Beckettian repetition to their isolated island world, with its grey days, its sense of time snailing by, its Alpine stacks of tinned peas – which is all Billy’s aunties seem to sell in their shop. McDonagh also plays interesting games with Irish types. There’s thematic overlap with both Marie Jones’ Stones in his Pockets, Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth and even Father Ted, the emergence of Ireland as a cultural product. “Ireland mustn’t be such a bad place if French fellas want to live in Ireland,” Helen says and this refrain echoes through the play as their way of life is fixed, filmed, and sent into the world.

And yet for a play which is so much about representation, there are times when the production seems content to skate on the surface of things. Christopher Oram’s blocky polystyrene set is a case in point and looks a bit like it’s been cobbled together from left over pieces of the one from the Old Vic’s production of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. For all its considerable polish and Radcliffe’s generous, unshowy performance, there are things about the production that don’t quite click. These are mainly small, subtle things but they add up. Helen’s hair is a little bit too bright and lush, the characters’ clothes a little bit too artfully grubby and distressed and while the play does have a heart, its beat is erratic and irregular at best.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Amen Corner, National Theatre

In a production full of soaring choral moments, it’s the undercurrent of silent strength that sounds loudest in this revival of James Baldwin’s 1955 play. When Sharon D. Clarke’s Sister Odessa faces down the grumblers and the gossips in her sister’s church, she stands firm, arms solemnly folded, dignified in the face of their snipping and griping, their small-mindedness and back-biting. She’s steady as a stone, a force to be reckoned with, even though she barely says a word.

This quality of quiet, feminine strength stripes through Baldwin’s play; his women know what it is to struggle – they understand hunger and grief and loss all too well.

Marianne Jean Baptiste plays Sister Margaret, the iron-minded pastor of a Harlem tabernacle who has raised her young son on her own after being abandoned by her musician husband. When she is in full flow as a preacher she is capable of generating waves of euphoria in her congregation; though small in stature she fills the room, white-robed, her voice rising and falling like the tide, her hands drifting heavenward, sending her flock into ecstatic paroxysms. She councils her congregation to put the Lord above all else in the world, to go hungry rather than take that job driving a liquor truck, to empty their pockets into the collection plate, to do everything they can in the service of God. He is everywhere and in everything. The church elders always greet each other with the exultation to ‘Praise the Lord’ - it’s the first thing that leaves their lips when they meet.

Sister Margaret faces a double test of her faith when her husband, Luke, returns unexpectedly, sick yet unrepentant, quivering with fever, his lungs ravaged by TB; at the same time her son is proving himself to be a talented young musician who’s not content just to play piano in church, he wants to ‘live in the world’ instead. There’s dissent too among her flock, who start to question the status of a female pastor and question quite how she can afford a shiny new frigidaire while they can hardly make ends meet.

Baldwin’s addict father left his mother when he was young and the man who replaced him was none too pleasant either, but despite this he does not make Margaret a saint; she is complex, proud, and over-comfortable in her position of power in the community. When the poorer members of her church complain about their situation, she doesn’t really hear them. And when it turns out that the reasons her relationship with Luke collapsed are more messy than she led on, and that, in reality, it was her that did the leaving, walking out him after the death of their child to make a go of it on her own, they have their ammunition.  As the church elders use this against her, the repeated calls of ‘Praise the Lord’ start to sound increasingly hollow, a way of excusing the most craven behaviour.

The play is often over emphatic and heavy of hand – the way the elders suddenly turn against Margaret seems too quick, too simplistic – but the central performances are powerful and Rufus Norris’ production creates a enveloping sense of community, a world, mainly of women, with the church at its heart, filling the Olivier with ceiling-lifted gospel music. Marianne Jean-Baptiste traces Margaret’s journey from near-complacency in her faith and her position in the community to raw confrontation with what it really means to love. Sharon D. Clarke’s Odessa is a calm, capable presence, unruffled and wise. Cecilia Noble is a cupcake-voiced delight as the most sanctimonious of the elders, a pastel-suited woman who uses her virginity as a weapon, a demonstration of the strength of her commitment to God. And though it’s the women you go home remembering, Lucian Msamati’s Luke is also more than a man gone bad; he’s been as undone by the death of their daughter as Margaret has.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, June 07, 2013

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Globe Theatre

Deep in the forest there are dark things: horned half-men and furry beasts, creatures of English myth. Dominic Dromgoole’s production is populated by animalistic fairies with antler crowns, green men and women, wreathed in leaves and daubed with earth. There’s a carnality to them too, these creatures; Titania’s desire for Bottom is hot and hungry – you can almost see the steam rising – while the bare-chested Oberon will occasionally envelop his Puck in a long, lingering embrace.

The forest seems to taint the four young lovers too, creeping around their ankles like ivy, encircling them. Each time they appear on stage, they have shed one more layer of finery; their shirts come untucked and their stockings straggle, their faces become increasingly caked in dirt. The forest infects them and there becomes less and less to distinguish them from the fairy folk.

This sense of pastoral unease is off-set by the broadly comic mechanicals scenes. They’re first seen tip-tap their way onto the stage in a kind of clog dance (a recurring device). Pearce Quigley’s magnificent Bottom manages to be both gentle and understated in his delivery while simultaneously stealing every scene he’s in like a child scrumping apples. His is a melancholic Bottom, though also rather vain and touchy, prone to strops. He makes a show of never remembering Peter Quince’s name and likewise refers to the play they are putting on as the tragedy of Pyramus and Thingy. The final performance of the play, in all its tragical mirth, sees the company erect a teeny theatre, a kind of rickety mini-Globe onto which they all cram, a structure which requires regular mid-scene repairs, the stage hand slithering between Bottom’s legs as he attempts to address his chink.

Michelle Terry is a lustful, rich-voiced Titania but also an intriguing Hippolyta, full of ambivalence for Theseus, shrinking from his touch and enjoying the disruptive antics of the mechanicals rather too much (there’s also a fascinating essay by Terry on Hippolyta and the Amazons in the programme, which is well worth reading). John Light is a bounding, bearded Oberon, clambering about the stage and swinging from its pillars, while Matthew Tennyson’s Puck is lanky and somewhat adolescent in energy, his sudden fits of energy giving in to shoulder-shrugs and inattentive yawns, a creature in need of distraction. Luke Thompson, making his professional debut as Lysander, stands out among the love-struck quartet, consumed by this sudden surge of new feeling, grinning like a little boy.

While the comic scenes are a source of revelry with every potential joke sniffed out and made much of, with each mechanical granted their moment, whether it be the wall’s trousers escaping or Bottom’s inability to remember his lines, the Pyramus and Thisbe sequence does feel rather over-extended. Though the laughs duly come, there are times when the jokes feel laboured and you can practically see the performers striving and straining, steering the play away from the twilight magic of some of the earlier scenes in the process. Though there are some pleasing subversions, particularly the way the company approaches the final, almost obligatory, jig, Dromgoole’s production is most potent when evoking a sense of mystical menace, the forest not as lovers’ playground but as a world of hunter and hunted.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Narrated by an Ancient Tree

"All the way from Belgium. Artificial insemination and tears. "

My annual trawl through the Edinburgh Fringe programme. The product, as ever, of a lot of coffee; a mixture of optimism and fear. The piece in full here. 

Friday, May 31, 2013

Circa: Beyond, Spiegeltent, Norwich

These animal men – and women – hang suspended from the ceiling, limbs taut. Silks twine around ankles; bodies bend in unnatural ways before dropping to the floor, gasps gusting from the audience.

Beyond, the new circus show from Brisbane-based company Circa, attempts to explore the ‘animal’ element in us all. To this end they often wear oversized bunny heads and cuddly bear suits while pushing their bodies to the edge of their capabilities. It sounds absurd, but this dash of the cartoonish syncs with the feel of the piece, a little bit dreamlike, a little bit skewed, a little bit silly.

Broken down into a series of sequences set to music, the show features contortionism, aerial work and a nerve-racking balancing act. The performance as a whole is incredibly athletic and physical and, as with the company’s previous work, the body’s frailties are as much on display as its strengths. In the intimate tent setting it’s possible to see the performers’ muscles pulse, their arms tremble with the effort involved and the sweat course down their faces.

Group displays are interspersed with solo turns. A plastic water bottle is used to replicate the spinal creaks and cracks as the performers twist and jerk around the stage, voodooing each other, and even though we can see the source of the sound, the audience still wince as one with each little crick. One of the performers arches her back and Linda Blairs around the room in the most unnerving manner, later she slithers towards the roof in a reptilian fashion.

Failure, or at least the potential for it, is written into their work. A balancing act featuring tin cans and a set of boxes threatens to go wrong – and at one point one box does drop to the ground – but the fact that we can see how difficult it is to achieve, and can read the strain on the performer’s face and in their eyes, makes it easier to appreciate the skill involved. If it was completely seamless, smooth and slick as sticky-backed plastic (or Cirque du Soleil), it wouldn’t be quite so entrancing.

On the other hand, when things go to plan, it’s pretty astounding too. In one of the most staggering sequences a performer almost casually completes a Rubik’s cube while her co-stars hurl themselves at her, clambering over and up her as if she were a tree.

Familiar stunts are rewritten. The act of squeezing through a stringless tennis racket is twisted by having it performed by one of the troupe’s female members. In lace stockings and a beribboned basque, she edges it over her body, but the sexual/striptease elements of the act are turned in on themselves. Her breasts refuse to play along and she has to shove and smush and force them through the racket’s aperture. She ends up with the racket resting around her hips, its handle waggling like a phallus.

This is a warmer show than some of their previous productions, the backing music including Frank Sinatra and Amanda Palmer playing Radiohead on her ukulele. The introduction of the human voice into the mix softens the overall aesthetic, creating points of connection and juxtaposition. The bear suits and bunny heads add to this effect, though as a device they feel underdeveloped. The thematic focus on the human/animal divide is fascinating in theory, but having set out their terms, the company don’t mine this seam as much as they might. This results in a captivating display of contemporary circus, but one that doesn’t fully tap into the promised beyond.
Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

The Weir, Donmar Warehouse

Conor McPherson’s 1997 play is one of words not actions. Stories are told, traded like currency; talk becomes an art form. The Weir is set in a rural Irish pub, beautifully evoked by designer Tom Scutt, a building of old stone wreathed in thin mist, with tatty rattan lampshades and walls the colour of old men’s thumbs.

The Guinness pump is on the fritz so garage-owner Jack is forced to grapple valiantly with the bottled stout. He’s one of a number of lonely souls who congregate nightly for a couple of pints and a ‘small one’ or two. Drinking with him is Brendan, the pub’s relatively young landlord, and Jim, the local handyman whose life revolves around his aging, fading Mammy. But the pattern of this particular evening is disrupted by the arrival of Finbar, a local businessman, who having flitted to the city, now sports a cream linen suit and an air of urban flash; he is accompanied by Valerie a “blow-in from Dublin” who has just bought a house in the area.

In an effort to appeal to this stranger in their midst, a rare female presence (the alarmed response when she requests a glass of white wine is one of the production’s funniest moments), the men start to tell stories, to conjure a landscape steeped in myth and memory. There is talk of fairy roads, of strange nocturnal knockings, of still, staring figures spotted on stairs or in graveyards. They each relate their own small encounter with the uncanny, moments – whether frozen or fevered – when they seemed to glimpse something beyond.

These are stories, one senses, that have been trotted out often before, fetched up on dark nights, spun out over a succession of glasses of stout. In many ways they’re fairly pedestrian, nothing to truly prickle the skin. The pleasure’s more in the telling than the tale.

While the men start out trying to charm Valerie, and maybe even to tease her a bit, after a while their stories become less about local ghosts and more revealing of themselves and their regrets, wants and losses. It’s a subtle shift, so when Valerie, buoyed by such talk, begins to tell her own harrowing tale, the delicate balance of things is upset as she careens into a place of true pain and heartbreak. It pulls all the men up short but it doesn’t entirely capsize the night, instead this interloper is gently enfolded into their small world.

Josie Rourke’s production is also a delicate thing, an environment in which any one false note would ring loud. The performances are all measured and knit well together. Ardal O’Hanlan’s slightly dim Jim conveys a kind of baggy sadness while Dervla Kirwan’s Valerie moves from nervy, girly outsider to centre of attention, without ever letting the character get eaten up by grief; her performance is anchored and steady. The play’s true masterstroke is in not letting Valerie’s moment of revelation crown the night, instead it comes full circle, letting Brian Cox’s craggy bachelor Jack weave the last story, describing one tiny act, one small gesture of kindness in a time when he thought he was lost, and a chance he let slide through his fingers years ago but which nags at him still, the ghost on his shoulder, the thing he will have to carry throughout his days. While his first story is told for show, this last one comes from some deeper place: he gives it to her.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, April 26, 2013

Othello, National Theatre

My, but she takes a long time to die, Desdemona, twitching on her barrack mattress, doll-blonde and bare-legged, as her husband crushes the breath from her. Just when he thinks the deed is done, she splutters back to life, pleading. He could stop then, could maybe save her, but he’s gone too far, so he plunges on, laying his weight on her until she is still, his hands wrapped round her delicate neck. It’s awful and protracted and upsetting – as it should be – with Nicholas Hytner’s production making much of their physical disparity, the brutality of it: she’s so fragile-looking and exposed, in her knickers and the tiny child-like T-shirt she wears to bed, his muscled, uniformed form all but obliterating her.

It’s sexual too, all that writhing, there on the contested bed. Adrian Lester’s Othello doesn’t rape her, but there are intimations of reclamation in the methodical way he goes about putting out her light, still palpably, physically drawn to her, even when he his sniffing her sheets to detect traces of betrayal.

Hytner’s production is the third in a sort-of triptych, together with his Henry V(starring Lester) and hisHamlet (starring Kinnear) and it shares a similar contemporary earth-toned aesthetic. At its best it succeeds in saying some interesting things about the weaponisation of men in the military, with Othello, the career soldier, pinwheeling from love-struck to rage-fuelled in half a heartbeat, his jealousy so intense it makes him vomit. And though Iago tries to rationalise his hatred, it seems to spring from some deeper, primordial place, controlling him rather than the other way round.

With their faces close-cropped and deep shadowed, their eyes burning out at you, the NT poster campaign pits Lester and Kinnear against each other like prize fighters, the Rumble in the Olivier if you will, and it’s difficult not to look at it through this frame, though it seems reductive to do so as both performances are powerful, both rich in their own way. Lester’s Othello is commanding and full of fire – he has a voice you could warm yourself by and hulks out convincingly, flipping over a table with a flick of his wrist whilst roaring with rage – but it’s perhaps the nature of the play that Kinnear’s Iago is the more compelling figure (though it’s in no way inevitable that Iago should dominate – Chiwetel Ejiofor in the Donmar’s 2008 version remains one of the most intense, controlled Shakespearean performances I’ve seen), coming across as a bit of a bruiser, Phil Mitchell with added smarts, driven, cold-eyed and calculating but with a dash of the schoolboy in the way he air-punches and victory shimmies when he gets one over on the object of his malice. As with his Hamlet, Kinnear’s performance has a kind of ease to it, there’s a clarity of intention to his delivery, and he juggles the verse as if he spoke that way every day, though there are times when the mechanics of it all feel a bit too visible.

Olivia Vinall’s Desdemona fades into the background a bit, but that’s again perhaps a consequence of the role. (In making Desdemona an absence, The Q Brothers’ Othello the Remix – performed as part of the Globe to Globe festival last year – was one of the more interesting readings of this play and the placing of women within it). Lyndsey Marshal’s Emelia, while furious and forceful in her loyalty, seems a bit trapped in a role that feels particularly contradictory in its modern context.

For while the production’s military setting makes sense in terms of translating the hierarchies and power games – this man’s, man’s, man’s world – into a recognisable present, embroidered handkerchiefs aside, there are times when it feels a bit tired, a bit ‘done’, a rehashed Iraqistan which we’ve seen before and we will see again. It does at least allow for a great, lively and messy, mess-room scene - with a couple of bikini pin-ups the only thing to break up the bare walls - in which Jonathan Bailey’s Cassio is forced to chug down a lager fountain while being beerily cheered on by his fellow soldiers.

Vicki Mortimer’s flood-lit military base of a set is intentionally bulky and ugly, a transient space, devoid of home comforts, all concrete, harsh strip-lighting, and cheap plaster board walls: when Othello punches out in anger his fist goes straight through. Though there’s something a bit effortful about the set, with its numerous sliding panels allowing various bedrooms, offices and yards to emerge and retreat, its very blankness is an asset, for in this fenced-in place of sun and sweat and tension and little in the way of distraction which doesn’t come in a can, it’s plausible that here passions, jealousies, petty vendettas, could grow and spread unchecked like bacteria on a petri dish.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Interview: Little Bulb

The creators of Orpheus at the BAC - as well as Operation Greenfield and the gorgeous Crocosmia - on music, myth, the ensemble as family, and what it's like to live on site at the Arts Centre while developing work.

Read the full interview on Exeunt.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Seagull, Nuffield Theatre

With his shoulders shaking and his body bent low, Boris Trigorin brings himself off as his lover Irina verbally pleasures him, praising his creative skill, his gifts as a writer. It’s a glitteringly satirical moment, the writer as wanker. Once done, he appears to mop up the resulting mess with a page from his trusty notebook, the receptacle of so much mental seed-spilling.

We’re on first-name terms with the characters in John Donnelly’s adaption of The Seagull, no awkward, tongue-teasing patronyms here; Nina bares a breast while performing Konstantin’s fevered failure of a play and everyone says ‘bollocks’ a lot. But there’s more to this reworking than a generous scattering of swearwords, while Donnelly and director Blanche McIntyre haven’t quite burned the text and built on its ashes, as Konstantin wants to do to the ‘old theatre’ that so frustrates him, they have created something that feels contemporary, a thing of now, without ever forcing its hand. It’s not aggressive in its modernity, but it makes you look at the play afresh.

The characters talk about the strange veneer of fame and what it means to be an artist in terms that are recognisable, while Masha does her self-mourning in an LBD and sunglasses before adopting, on her marriage, a shapeless cardigan, the eternal garment of defeat.

McIntyre once again shows that she is a superb director of actors. Abigail Cruttenden’s Irina is not a theatrical caricature but a woman of a certain age and type, confident of her attractiveness, her centrality to the world, but still easily threatened, flippant in her treatment of Konstantin’s artistic endeavours, capable of breaking him with a single brutally dismissive line. Pearl Chanda’s Nina is all adolescent intensity, harbouring a consuming crush on Gyuri Sarossy’s Boris, a girl all too easily swept along on other people’s waves. Alexander Cobb’s Konstantin is a contradictory figure, an earnest young man convinced he can shrug off the past and create something entirely new, that he is the one to show the world where it’s been going wrong, while also a bit of a mummy’s boy (he even calls her ‘mummy’), desperate for Irina’s approval and praise.

There is a lot of comedy in Donnelly’s adaption, the situations, characters and collisions mined for their inherent humour, and more than a dash of audacity in his approach coupled with nice line in metatheatrical commentary. McIntyre’s production makes much use of the aside, the characters stepping to the front of the stage to address the audience directly. Laura Hopkins’ minimal design places a silvery screen at the back of the stage, a lake-like still thing, like a blank page in a notebook, upon which the characters scrawl (or rather spray, as they use squirt bottles, theatrical Windowlene), its clean clear surface becoming increasingly streaked and murky. There is no set as such, just a long wooden platform on a pivot, which serves as a jetty, a dining table, and in one of the production’s only missteps, a giant see-saw. The scene in which Irina and Nina lounge on this device, occasionally over-balancing the other, feels like an exercise in overstatement; the lighting however is gorgeous and golden throughout, each scene subtly shaded.

While the anguish of Konstantin and Nina’s last meeting – the latter damp-eyed and desperate, rapidly unravelling – isn’t as gutting as it might be, and the production struggles slightly to make the transition from tragicomedy to tragedy, it does what it sets out to do: it takes a play so frequently staged –Anya Reiss’ (by all accounts pallid) adaptation was only just performed at Southwark Playhouse in November last year – and makes a case for revisiting it once more, rooting Chekhov’s concerns in a world that belongs to us.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Vanessa and Virginia. Riverside Studios

We are loving vultures, as fascinated by the hand that holds the pen, the face behind the easel, as with the words and work those people produce. We can’t keep from picking, through letters and diaries, through the layers of the lives of this small group of friends and lovers who lived a century ago, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the person who once was, who once wept and lusted and dreamed and created.

Susan Sellers’ novel Vanessa and Virginia tells the story of the Stephen sisters – the girls who would become Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf – from the viewpoint of Vanessa, tracing their complex, entangled relationship from their earliest days in the nursery through to Virginia’s suicide.

It has been adapted for the stage by Woolf scholar Elizabeth Wright, who has pared down and sharpened the original text. The fragmented poetic structure of the novel remains, though the filter of Vanessa’s thoughts is less overt; Virginia is brought more clearly into focus as a character, as a presence – she is given shape and skin, a voice, though Vanessa still speaks the majority of the lines.

The resulting play is like a series of sketches with the other members of the Bloomsbury set pushed to the periphery. The sisters are both deeply needful of one another and also envious of the other’s successes; they know just where best to prick the other to draw blood. Emma Gersch’s production captures this sibling heat, the centrality of it to their well-being, their hunger for each other’s love. On the surface Vanessa appears to be the most stable one, less prone to collapse, less brittle – she is shocked by the ice of Virginia’s tongue, the unabashedly cruel way she speaks of Ottoline Morrell, with her “great beaky face – yet she was capable of deep passion and her lasting desire for the homosexual artist Duncan Grant is shown to be a potent, painful thing, a relationship which could never come to anything beyond friendship, though it would eventually result in the birth of a daughter.

The play shows how strong and necessary the bond between the sisters was. As children they were surrounded by death and loss, their family slowly shrinking. Their mother died when they were still small and a beloved older half-sister, Stella, followed soon afterwards; their brother Thoby would also die young. They had only each other to cling to. Another step-brother George was reputedly a predatory figure and their father was emotionally remote while at the same time needy and fretful, carping over the household accounts which he expected young Vanessa to manage on her own, until he too passed away and the girls were finally able to escape the oppressive Victorian atmosphere of their Kensington home and live as and how they wished. (Within reason of course, they couldn’t do without their servants).

There are times though when the production feels like it is ticking Bloomsbury boxes, with fleeting mentions of Vita, Carrington, Maynard Keynes, and Roger Fry. In fact there are chunks of the play that might prove difficult to unstitch without at least a passing knowledge of this world, its inhabitants, and the numerous ways in which they are interconnected. In its use of soliloquy the play can feel static at times and the drama is at its strongest when the two sisters are interacting, sparking off each other, alternatively vulnerably and hostile.

The staging takes its cues from the dreamlike structure of the play, fragmented, sing-songy and drifting. At the beginning the actors, Kitty Randle as Vanessa and Alice Frankham as Virginia, gambol across the stage like little girls before gradually letting down their skirts, throwing off their pinafores and growing up, becoming women. The occasional use of dance adds to this dreamlike feel, though this does start to feel repetitious after a while. The adaptation lifts nearly all of its words directly from the book and there are some phrases that, even though they sit easy on the page, don’t work as well when put in people’s mouths, (a description of Virginia’s eyes as “snake-green”, a reference to Grant’s “seed”) but again this is less jarring in the context of an aging Vanessa looking back at her life, penning her memories.

Kate Unwin’s set, a canopy of low-hanging objects – a parasol, a mirror, a fishing net - conveys something of the Charleston clutter of the artist’s studio, while Jeremy Thurlow’s original piano score echoes the undulations of the sisters’ relationship. Randle and Frankham age and fade subtly and convincingly. Vanessa would struggle to recover from the death of her son; Virginia couldn’t bear the thought of suffering another mental breakdown: their descent into a grief they could not save each other from is movingly conveyed.

The play presents its audience with a not altogether unfamiliar portrait of these two women, it doesn’t really challenge the image of them we have come to expect, not of Virginia anyway, she remains brilliant and difficult and magnificent and aloof; Vanessa on the other hand is allowed to emerge from behind that easel, and this is where the play’s real strength lies.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Peter and Alice, Noel Coward Theatre

John Logan’s Peter and Alice – the only new play in Michael Grandage’s current West End season – trades in information. It’s all tell. Logan envisages a meeting between the elderly Alice Liddell-Hargreaves and Peter Llewellyn Davies, now a war-shattered young man. It’s an idea ripe with potential, and these two did apparently meet briefly at one point, but instead of having them engage in some form of recognisable conversation – reflecting on the characters they inspired, Lewis Carroll’s Alice and JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, and the world they feel they have disappointed by committing the twin sins of growing up and growing old – they spend much of the time exchanging potted biographies.

The results are strangely static, Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw stand at opposite sides of the stage and relate their characters’ stories and because they’re Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw, theatrical alchemists both, this is often magical and moving, but rather dramatically flat all the same.

Logan slowly starts to give shape to the pattern of their flashbacks by introducing the characters of Carroll and Barrie – the Reverend Dodgson and Uncle Jim (played by Nicholas Farrell and Derek Riddell as two similarly suited and reticent men)– and poking around in the psyche of these two complex individuals, men who seemed altogether easier and happier immersed in the world of children than of adults and who did their best to fix the objects of their particular affections and obsessions in a state of eternal childhood. Alice asks bluntly if Peter was molested, and he replies that he was not, at least not physically, but it’s clear that he regarded what Barrie did to him, what he took from him, as a kind of abuse. The play shows that both characters were, to a degree, composites – there were three Liddell sisters and five Llewellyn Davies boys, and Peter was by all accounts far more timid and nervy than his dashing and adventurous brother, Michael – but they were the namesakes and so they carried the weight of that connection.

On top of this Logan places a third layer in the form of the archetypal stage/page Peter Pan and Alice, played by Olly Alexander and Ruby Bentall, both eye-wide and arm-wide in their performances, him in a ragged green tunic with a cloud of disobedient hair, her in a broad, blue dress with long blonde tresses, a walking John Tenniel illustration. These two hover in the background, like lost shadows, and occasionally pass comment – there are sweet moments when they glance tenderly at their other selves, or smilingly reveal little hidden things, like the flask of gin in Peter’s pocket – but the relationship between the three dramaturgical layers is always fuzzy. The effect is a little like picking up a copy of a newspaper where the print colours haven’t quite synced.

Occasionally the play threatens to do something a bit more intricate, as in the scene where Dench’s Alice recalls a conversation with Dodgson in the dark room of his photographic studio, him struggling to put into words exactly what she means to him while clutching her fragile, frozen image in his hands. Later Logan seeds Michael’s probable suicide – sliding under the water of Sandford Pool with his close friend clasped to him – in a scene that shows the growing prickliness of Barrie towards the young man. But these moments are brief and over quickly.

The lead performances give the piece its weight. Judi Dench is magnificent, shucking off her initially haughty and brittle exterior like a fur stole, loosening her spine and her smile as she recalls herself as a child, giggling, gambolling – she did something similar in Peter Hall’s otherwise stiff and stately Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose Theatre and it’s similarly enchanting here. Beneath his tweeds, Whishaw is a black bundle of anguish, a man on all too close terms with death. Llewellyn Davies had a rough life: along with his brother’s death, he lost both his parents early to cancer – his mother’s death swift, his father’s horribly drawn out, disfiguring and pain-wracked – while another brother perished in the war. Whishaw’s Peter is at first gentle in his melancholy, soft-spoken and emotionally contained. But when he cracks and recalls his own time in the mud of the trenches, and the psychological toll of all that death and loss, it’s awful and it’s raw and it’s amazing, all at the same time.

Grandage’s production is also beautiful to look at. Christopher Oram’s set is, initially, typical of his designs at the Donmar Warehouse, all dark tones and diffused light, the sun seeping down into a book-lined room through smeared and murky glass. But as Peter and Alice go back into their respective pasts, this is replaced by a toybox of a theatre, filled with a succession of vibrant painted flats in Crayola colours that part and lift as the characters push further back into their memories; the stage becomes a Never-Wonderland of poster paint palm trees and storybook lagoons, with the face of the Cheshire cat looming above like a twisted moon. Visually fitting as this all is, it also highlights the play’s theatrical lack, its filmic bittiness, the way it strives to be elegiac and haunting – and in its best moments succeeds – but also feels like it may have been a more potent experience on screen than on stage.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Winslow Boy, Old Vic

The emotional undercurrents of Rattigan’s plays swirl like swans’ legs beneath the clipped, clean surface of things. For all its exploration of the line between what is right and what is just, its bucking against the power of the Navy to dispense punishment as it sees fit, with no proper trial, his 1946 period piece, The Winslow Boy, is in many ways most potent as a portrait of a family in times of change.

Arthur Winslow, the Edwardian patriarch played with a silvery glint by Henry Goodman, is a superficially stern man, gruff, moustachioed and stiff of lip, but his underlying humanity is always evident. While he is willing to sacrifice both the family finances and even eventually his own health for the sake of seeing right done, he is never blind to the great cost of his actions; he comprehends all too clearly the toll his fight is taking and yet he cannot drop it, cannot let it fall. In amongst this, it his relationship with his outspoken, cigarette-smoking, suffragette daughter Catherine and their understanding of each other’s drives and beliefs, which forms the heartbeat of the play.

The play is a courtroom drama in essence though it never strays beyond the drawing room of the Kensington home of the Winslows, with its William Morris wallpaper, its mahogany side-tables, nut-brown leather wingchairs and notably charming curtains. When the youngest Winslow, thirteen year old Robbie is sacked from Osborne Naval College for the theft of a five shilling postal order, his father decides to take the case to trial, employing one of the country’s most pre-eminent barristers in order to do so. Based on the case of a young man called Archer Shee who was expelled in similar circumstances in 1911, the fight becomes bigger than the family, a cause celebre, with journalists cluttering the front steps and the parlour maid volubly reporting back on the day’s legal proceedings. In the process, Robbie, is slowly erased from his own story, dozing on the sofa as vital discussions take place over his head.

The role of the lawyer Sir Robert Morton, so dapper in his evening clothes, Sahara-dry in temperament and casual in his brilliance, is a gift of a part for actors with a tendency towards scene-eating, but Peter Sullivan’s portrayal is more delicate and realistic in proportion; he doesn’t dominate the stage, doesn’t over-balance the see-saw. So when his courtroom persona does emerge, when he aggressively interrogates Charlie Rowe’s whimpering but adamant Robbie before dangling a way out in front of him like kipper to a kitten, it’s all the more powerful.

Naomi Frederick is similarly precise in her performance as the principled sister Catherine, who sees one fiancĂ© ditch her as the family name is smeared across the daily papers, and is forced to fend off another kindly but unsuitable suitor, all the time knowing that her age and independent spirit make her chances of marriage increasingly unlikely. Deborah Findlay clearly relishes the moment when Mrs Winslow finally gets to crack, to shed her smile and blaze at her husband about the extent of the sacrifice the family has been obliged to make as a result of his unshakeable two-year pursuit of what he holds to be right. But though Henry Goodman’s Arthur gradually weakens physically, his resolve never leaves him; his eyes shine even as his hands shake.

Lindsay Posner’s production conforms to everything you’d expect a production of Rattigan at the Old Vic to be. It’s elegant, stately, the performers moving about the stage as if moving about a stage, not a domestic space, arraying themselves in tidy semi-circles and appealing tableaux, never bunching or crowding. This choreography is somehow all the more obvious here, because while Peter McKintosh’s drawing room set has been elongated to fill the stage, it intentionally neglects the vertical, leaving a large black void above, an odd mouth. As a production, it’s all very, very solid, and very decently done, but it’s strangely cool in places, a little too slick, this despite Rattigan’s inherent warmth and charm and heart.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, March 18, 2013

Interview: Refugee Boy

I recently spoke to the poet Lemn Sissay and West Yorkshire Playhouse's Associate Director Alex Chisholm about the process of bringing  Benjamin Zephaniah’s acclaimed novel, Refugee Boy, to the stage.

You can read the feature in full at The Stage.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Interview: Richard Marsh and Katie Bonna

In a back room at an empty Theatre Royal Drury Lane - which is currently under refurbishment and covered in seemingly entirely covered in plastic sheeting in preparation for the arrival of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - I spoke to Richard Marsh and Katie Bonna about dramatic poetry, the differences between assuming a poetic persona and playing a character, and their two-hander Dirty Great Love Story, which was one of my favourite shows at last year's Edinburgh Fringe.

You can read the full interview on Exeunt.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Stepmother, Orange Tree Theatre


Githa Sowerby’s The Stepmother was given a one-off performance in 1924 but has not been seen on a London stage since then. Now the Orange Tree has done what they do best, unearthing the play on one of their regular rummages through the archives and giving it a solid, engaging if slightly stately and stodgy staging.

Sowerby’s best known play, Rutherford and Son, is frequently revived (Northern Broadsides are touring it at the moment) and anthologised, but despite being relatively unknown, The Stepmother reveals itself to be just as interesting a piece of work, full of feminist fury at the way a woman’s fate - and her fortune – can be so easily buffeted about by the whims of men.

Lois, orphaned and alone in the world, has been working as the paid companion to a wealthy spinster; now, following the death of her employer, she stands to inherit a considerable sum. But the dead woman’s grasping brother Eustace Gaydon has no intention of seeing his late sister’s money slide out of his grabby, grubby grasp.

After a rather padded prologue set in 1911, which establishes Lois’ predicament, the play leaps forwards in time by ten years to the 1920s where we discover that Eustace has solved his financial problems by marrying the unfortunate girl. The adult Lois is now a successful business woman, managing her own dressmaking company while also acting as a mother figure to his two young daughters, but despite her evident business acumen, it’s her husband who signs the cheques and has final say in how her money is spent. Sowerby’s anger at this state of affairs pulses through the play - her feckless artist father having squandered both his own fortune as well as his wife’s – and it’s this fire that gives her writing its potency,

The figure of the stepmother, so often maligned - an upsetter of nests and a terroriser of children - is here made engagingly sympathetic. Lois is little more than a child herself when she is made to take the place of a dead wife and mother (one suspects she was given little in the way of a choice in the matter) and the bond between Lois and Eustace’s older daughter Monica is delicately drawn; not dissimilar in age their relationship is one of friendship and empathy at the other’s plight, rare and refreshing in its harmony. When Eustace is at his most badly behaved and caddish, it is to Lois the daughters turn.

There are echoes of Jane Eyre here, but this is a Rochester driven only by self-interest and his own financial mismanagement. Eustace, played by Christopher Ravenscroft - normally such an avuncular Sam Waterstone-y presence - is a proper hissable villain, the kind of man who scoffs “what’s a woman’s word in business?” as he – literally – trousers his wife’s savings. The performances on the whole are as solid and reliable as they usually are at the Orange Tree, all very well-pitched for the intimate space, with Katie McGuinness conveying a suitable mixture of smarts and vulnerability as Lois and Jennifer Higham agreeably wide-eyed and kind-hearted as Monica.

Sowerby’s writing is intriguingly shaded, particularly in regards to the character of Lois, who is far from a one-dimensional victim; her eventual journey into the arms of a lover is also depicted with a refreshing amount of sympathy, an escape route from an intolerable situation - though it’s telling that he also tinkers with her finances behind her back.

Sam Walters’ production is – as ever at this venue – of a certain degree of polish and intelligence, investing the play with tension and a degree of humour too, but its power is diluted somewhat by issues of pacing; the numerous fiddly scene changes - dominated by the interminable shifting of chairs and unfurling of rugs - allow rather too much of Sowerby’s anger to evaporate.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Sunday, February 10, 2013

In the Beginning was the End, Somerset House

Down we go: down one staircase and then another, down into the warren of basements and sub-basements beneath the grand Italianate courtyard of Somerset House. Tristan Sharps, director of dreamthinkspeak, has a fascination with the spaces above, behind, between and below; his new production occupies a huge swathe of hidden rooms and corridors beneath that central courtyard, the bits of the building into which few people ever venture, a series of half-glimpsed corners usually concealed behind gates and locked doors, down dusty neglected stairwells.

Somerset House is a gift of a space for a project like this, vast and labyrinthine; there’s a lovely rabbit hole-y sensation when you first file down into the dark, leaving behind the sanctioned public spaces.

The production, which takes place in three separate but interconnected parts of the building – the East Wing and the West Wing of Somerset House as well as the old engineering department of King’s College – is, in turn, roughly divided into three separate but interconnected sections. The first is flickering world full of drawers and doors; bathed in sickly subterranean light, it’s a dark alien space in which your own reflected image in a window or on a television screen occasionally catches you off guard. Machine parts litter the desks and chalk marks infest the walls: the overspillings of overloaded minds. There is a sense of abandonment about these first rooms, an eerie quality intensified by ominous humming sounds and the numerous signs warning you about sheer drops, hazardous chemicals and silent alarms.

The next phase is – in stark contrast – very clinical in design: a bright, white world. Signs inform us that this is the headquarters of an international technology company called Fusion International. As we move from room to room, an array of products are demonstrated for our benefit; there’s something sinister about this space too, this underground laboratory, with its white-coated employees speaking rapidly in a variety of tongues.

Eventually these employees start to rebel against the system that constrains them, performing an act of rejection and liberation; together they create a Biblical tableau of bodies ascending, an image which is both classical in its aesthetic and incredibly vulnerable and human at the same time.

Whereas with large scale installations by companies like Punchdrunk, if you’re not one to follow the crowd you can sometimes find yourself floating through a series of beautiful but empty rooms, missing out on the most exciting scenes and set pieces. Here, while you can and should wander off and explore, there’s less far less chance of missing something vital. While each audience member has a degree of control in how they experience the piece, everyone’s journey encompasses the same key points.

The production was inspired by what Sharps calls an ‘apocalyptic doodle’ by Leonardo da Vinci, entitled “A Cloudburst of Material Possessions”, which depicts a great flood of manmade objects, a tide of things. While this single image provided the seed that branched and grew and became In the Beginning, it’s not necessary to know this as you explore. Part of the pleasure is in joining the dots for yourself, piecing it all together, picking up on the recurring imagery – of flood, of technological obsolescence – which flow through the production. Though there are times when it all feels a little too elusive and opaque, it is full of striking images as well as a surprising amount of humour; as an experience, In the Beginning is part psychogeographic adventure, part concrete poem (in the most literal sense), a fascinating descent into a world of rooms beneath rooms beneath rooms, of city striations, the trickle of water omnipresent.

Reviewed for Exeunt