Friday, November 30, 2007

A South African Double Bill

Right, there was going to be a lame intro here about the imminence of Christmas and how generally unprepared I am, but it was Not Very Interesting and has gone the way of the delete key. So instead I shall simply cut to the chase. Yesterday I was at the Young Vic to see both shows in their double bill of South African re-workings of familiar stories. First up, A Christmas Carol or Ikrismas Kherol if you will. This opens with one of the most visually striking sequences I’ve seen in a while; it made me jiggle in my seat with pleasure. Starting in darkness, a group of miners, guided by the torch beams of their helmets, stomp down from the galleries above the stage, and proceed to use chains and drums to replicate the cacophony of life in the mine. It’s unsubtle and rather batters the senses, but it works – works better than perhaps any other element of the show, where pesky things like narrative start getting in the way.

Scrooge is played by singer Pauline Malefane, a mezzo-soprano I believe, who won acclaim as Carmen a couple of years back. She is, in accordance with the story, visited by three ghosts. The first of these spirits is a lady in a prim white suit who shows Scrooge images of her impoverished childhood. These, in an interesting touch, are projected on to a white screen across the back of the stage, having been shot on digital video. They reveal that Scrooge’s mother died when she was a young age and that she had a sister who was forced into prostitution in order to support them both, who then also died. These scenes, filmed in the townships of South Africa, are played out in silence with the performers adding sound-effects, vocals and narration where necessary. They also provide a dramatic counterpoint to the show’s opening, where the workings of a gold mine were conjured so vibrantly; these video sequences have the opposite effect. What we see is ‘realer’ but also, conversely, more distant, less alive. The production devotes a good chunk of its running time to these videos as well, which I felt rather knocked it off balance.

Because this is A Christmas Carol, one cannot escape without a moral message being rammed home before the curtain falls (or, rather in the case of this show, before the upbeat percussive finale) but they just about managed to swing these scenes, using bundles of cloth to make the 'every three seconds a child dies of want and ignorance' line less hectoring than it might have been.

I also caught the second production, which will be playing in rep with A Christmas Carol, a version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute by the same company, with Malefane now playing the Queen of the Night. Now, opera remains one of my cultural blindspots, so I have no other productions to compare this to. But I enjoyed it a lot, everything was done with a degree of visual flair. I have no idea why there was a trio of ladies in lavender suits with angels’ wings but I know I liked it. And the children I could see in the front row were bouncing along happily rather than sullenly swinging their legs, a fairly good indicator of how well a show like this is working.

However, perhaps to invoke appropriately wintery feelings in the audience, it was absolutely freezing in the Young Vic for both performances. Take a coat - and be prepared to wear it.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Some Kind Of Bliss?

It’s been a particularly busy week, both theatre-wise and other stuff-wise - hence the gap in blogging.

Backtracking to Thursday night and I was at the Trafalgar Studios, the little downstairs one, to see Samuel Adamson’s new play, a one-woman show called Some Kind Of Bliss.

Adamson appears to be a bit of a contentious figure in the blogosphere, with many disliking his frothy and whimsical Southwark Fair with an intensity I never quite understood. However, while I quite enjoyed the latter – mainly as a result of Rory Kinnear’s endearing performance – I found his most recent work a frustratingly flimsy and tedious thing. A woman goes for a walk, that’s about the gist of it. She walks from London Bridge to Lulu’s house in Greenwich (she’s a celebrity lifestyle journalist for the Daily Mail), and during the course of this walk she has sex, gets mugged and steals an ice cream van – all things we know from the start, thanks to an overstuffed opening line: “Today - after I'd had the electric sex, got clobbered, killed the dog and parked the hijacked ice-cream van - I found the pop legend's house in Greenwich."

To her credit, Lucy Briers is highly watchable as Rachel, the woman in question, and there are a few sharp lines; but, really, how hard is it to get a laugh at the expense of the Daily Mail? The play shows an underlying love for London’s neglected corners that I found appealing, but whenever things promised to get interesting, Adamson undermined himself by driving the narrative off on odd, forced tangents, and I soon ceased to care about Rachel’s vague marital crisis.

The play did however allow me to meet Ian Shuttleworth in a non-online context for the first time, which was lovely, even if I failed to say one remotely interesting thing during our brief conversation.

This past week I also saw an appealingly dark slice of drama at the Tristan Bates Theatre, a small studio space off Shaftesbury Avenue – just over the road from the resurrected Fopp. They Have Oak Trees In North Carolina was a tense, well-acted ninety minute drama written by Sarah Wooley. Recent events have given it an unnerving topicality. It concerns a middle-aged married couple, whose young son disappeared over twenty years ago while they were on a family holiday in Florida – his body was never found, his story never resolved. Two decades on, an American man turns up on their doorstep, claiming to be the boy they lost. As I said, the play, a co-production with Theatre 503, is well written and strongly performed, but it’s given an inevitable, if unintended weight by events surrounding disappearance of Madeline McCann. It’s almost impossible to watch without thinking of where the McCanns will be some twenty years on from now, without wondering when and how – and if – their story will end.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Pretty In Punk

The Bush Theatre is on the tiny side, I know this. But I've never had another person near enough sitting in my lap as I did last night. The place was packed, and having inadvisably chosen to sit on the highest level of seating, I felt rather squeezed in. But I suppose the crush of bodies is fitting given the subject matter of the current production.

Mike Packer's play is about a punk band called tHe dYsFUnCKshOnalZ! (also the name of play, which I'm sure will go down a treat with arts page subs). This particular band burned briefly in the 1970s and then faded from view after a messy post-gig brawl left one of their number, lead singer Billy Abortion, minus a lung. He is now working a shelf-stacker with only a cupboard full of pharmaceuticals for company. But though his screw-the-system attitude still very much intact, when an American credit card company offers the group a substantial sum of money to use their best known song in a commercial, his principles don’t prevent him from taking their cash. Then it transpires there's even more money to be had if they're willing to perform at the launch party gig – the only catch is they'll have to trade their punk garb for logo-covered turtlenecks and sing new, corporate-approved lyrics.

It’s a neat set-up, but once Packer has all the narrative elements in place it begins to feel as if he’s actually not really that sure whether his characters' adherence to the punk credo of their youth is admirable or pathetic. And, as a result, it is difficult to care overly in their predicament. The play also has an awkward ratio of ‘funny’ to ‘not funny’ – in places it’s very entertaining indeed, but there are large chunks that fell flat, whole scenes where you got a sense that you should be laughing, that you were supposed to be sliding of your seat in mirth at the irony of it all, only you weren’t, because the material wasn’t quite strong enough.

Fortunately some inspired performances help to flesh out the occasionally thin writing - Pearce Quigley, as the band’s dishevelled drummer, has this superbly stoned, stuttering delivery that turns nearly every line he utters into a punch line. And Rupert Proctor, as Billy, is so aggressively energetic that during one particularly frantic rant I worried he might pop something vital.

The actors get to perform the band’s songs too, and did so rather impressively, I thought. I also liked the fact that the set design, a collage of faded gig posters, had been extended down the stairwell and into the Bush’s teensy box office area.

As for the play, I suspect it may work better in a West End setting, where its broadness and occasional lapses into sentimentality wouldn’t be so glaring; on the miniscule Bush stage it felt unwieldy, but I could see how it might appeal to a wider audience.

Monday, November 19, 2007

A(nother) Night At The Orange Tree

There are many reasons not to like the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. It’s in Richmond for one thing. And it stages safe, solid productions designed to appeal to Richmond audiences. These tend to be done in period costume on naturalistic sets, which usually take an age to change between scenes, as there is always much twiddling with side-tables and crystal decanters and silverware. There's also a faintly irritating all-in-the-family taint to the productions too, which nearly always star Octavia Walters, daughter of the theatre’s founder and artistic director Sam Walters.

And yet, for all this, I feel considerable affection for the Orange Tree. It doesn’t tend to experiment or to surprise, but instead it does a particular thing and does it very well. In the main this means staging rarely performed plays with some kind of social weight to them. Last season was all about the work of GBS and his contemporaries, this season it’s a more loosely linked collection of plays by women dramatists.

The last thing I saw there was Daphne du Maurier’s The Years Between, perhaps not an amazing bit of writing, but still a gripping story, well-told, that questioned a woman’s position, both in the context of marriage and in society in general, in a manner that I found quite resonant.

The current production is Elizabeth Barker’s Chains was written in 1909 and is about duty and responsibility. It concerns Charley Wilson, a ‘quill-pusher’ in the City, who’s life is stirred up by the announcement of a colleague that he’s going to quit his steady job and chance his luck in Australia. Though Charley’s existence is one of hard graft and ceaseless routine, living from Sunday to Sunday, it takes his friend’s decision to really wake him up to how unhappy he is with his lot. His dilemma is reflected against that of his sister-in-law Maggie (played by – well fancy that – a certain Octavia Walters – who admittedly is pretty good in the role). Unlike Charley’s wife, who is an uncomplaining, eternally optimistic sort, her sister Maggie has fire inside her; though she is engaged to marry a wealthy man, and is, as a result, guaranteed a comfortable life, she burns to do something more, to see something more of the world – to live. She sympathises with Charley’s predicament and urges him to follow his instincts, despite the upset it might cause.

Much of the play focuses on Charley grappling with the decision to stay or to leave, to do what’s expected of him or to take a chance - to do ‘the done thing’ or the right thing - but though this eventually became a little repetitive, I loved the rather dark way Barker chooses to end things, twisting what should be a happy announcement into something far more ambiguous.

Though it was very Orange Tree - in every sense - this was a strong production, and it passed the crucial in-the-round test: despite the cosiness of the venue, the stately pacing of the drama and the average age of the audience, I didn’t spot a single sleeper – not always the case at this particular venue.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Lateness Averted

On bus. Slow bus. Checking watch. Getting rather too close to start of play for my liking. Bus still slow. And doing random loop through back streets I swear it has never taken before. Crap. Finally jump off bus, pelt down street, pass Kingsland Road shouty drunk, and reach theatre. Attempt to appear marginally less flustered than I actually am as I request my ticket. Fail. Enter theatre. Just in time.

Phew, I never usually cut things that close. I am much better organised than that. Oh, yes. Anyway, the play, the point of all that dashing: Tim Stimpson’s One, Nineteen, currently being perfomed in the Arcola’s baby back alley studio on a stage bare bar the odd sandbag and folding chair.

The title refers to the date of a catastrophic storm that devastates an area of England. But though it touches on the implications of climate change, this is not a post-apocalyptic, the whole-world’s-going-to-hell type play, but a more familiar media satire, taking the events in New Orleans as a cue to explore how the media responds to a disaster of this scale.

So Stimpson presents us with a series of characters, often in conversation with invisible interviewers. First up we get a few blanket-clad survivors, then he settles on individual stories: an environmental activist, a politician who becomes something of a scapegoat, a self-satisfied rock star who is quick to spearhead a huge concert at Wembley to raise aid, and at the heart of all this, a young mother who was separated from her three children as the waters rose, and whose story has inadvertently become the human interest hook on to which all the journalists cling. These children’s names, "Sam, Jack and little Chloe" – it's always ‘little’ Chloe – become something of a mantra throughout the play in a depressingly plausible manner. The satirical elements are at time rather heavy-handed, but I enjoyed the way the stories intersected, the pacing was taut and it managed to touch on the subjects of climate change and environmental upheaval without being preachy or overly doomy.

Plus, and here's praise, it was engaging enough for me to - just - about be able to blot out the noise from above. I‘ve not seen Jenufa which is playing in the Arcola’s main space, but from the sounds of things, it has a cast of possibly around three hundred.

Oh, and there's another "enjoyably off-the-wall" Observer post over here.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Brotherly Love

“Oh, she may be weary. And them young girls they do get weary…”

Oh, don’t they just. But, while I was in something of a melancholic slump when I arrived at the Young Vic last night, it soon lifted – their current production can’t help but lift you up. The Brothers Size by Tarell Alvin McCraney pulls elements of Yoruba myth into an American setting. In practice this results in one of the more vibrant, tingle-inducing things I’ve seen this year.

The production is simply staged, in-the-round (or, actually, in-the-square as the Whingers would no doubt point out), the audience seated around the four walls of the Young Vic’s Maria studio. There is no set. Just a black floor, onto which a circle is chalked in the opening minutes. A handful of red chalk is then thrown down into the same space and this then marks the actors’ clothes and skin as the evening progresses. There are no props either and the actors speak their stage directions as well as performing the actions. This sounds a little dry when described, but all these elements contribute to the distinctive rhythms of the play, its particular texture and flow. Ditto, the live musical accompaniment.

McCraney’s play concerns two brothers: Ogun and Oshoosi Size. Ogun, the eldest, is the solid, responsible and hard-working type, who has built up a successful auto-repair business. The younger Oshoosi is more flighty and easily-swayed. He has just been released from prison, so Ogun sets him up with a job in his shop, to Oshoosi’s initial displeasure. Their reunion is threatened by an ex-cell mate of Oshoosi’s, Elegba, who turns up with an old car to flog and something menacing in his demeanor.

The actors playing the brothers, Nyasha Hatendi as Ogun and Obi Abili as Oshooshi have a superb rapport, most overtly displayed when they launch into a wonderful duet of Otis Redding’s Try A Little Tenderness, singing and dancing – and doing air piano – along to the recording. It’s a brilliant moment.

Dreams too play a large part in the narrative – a dream state indicated by a red cross being shone through the chalk circle. But McCraney manages to blend these more stylised aspects with a story that truly hooks you; the brothers’ love for each other, their reliance on one another and the lengths they’d be willing to go for one another, are powerfully and movingly portrayed throughout. All this in an interval-less ninety minutes as well.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Studio 68 on Lavender Hill

Just got home from the BAC where, alongside The Masque of The Red Death, they are also showing Will Adamsdale’s Human Compute. Adamsdale won the Perrier a while back for his play Jackson’s Way and friends of mine whose opinion is usually sound on such things got very excited about his more recent work The Receipt.

Human Computer is playing in Studio 68, a part of the BAC unpenetrated by Punchdrunk. It’s a small space, but it was only half full tonight, which made Adamsdale’s show, which has elements of audience participation, into a sweetly collaborative experience. “Gosh,” he said, surveying the tiny crowd “it’s like being back in Edinburgh.” Hopefully this was a Monday night blip, as this is one of the funniest shows I’ve seen in a long while. Adamsdale takes his technophobia and turns it into the basis of this amiably meandering routine where he dissects the workings of his computer, fashioning all the various windows and icons out of battered bits of cardboard. He revels in his ignorance, claiming his knowledge of the internet runs to once looking at a cricket website, “which was good.”

But it’s not the premise that makes this show work, indeed the premise spelt out like this probably makes Human Computer sound rather nothing much-y. No, the real joy comes via Adamsdale’s disarmingly flustered and tongue-tied delivery. That and the numerous impeccably timed and beautifully constructed lines he throws in as asides; the stories that don’t really go anywhere but are still very amusing and, that rarest of things, the comic song that is actually genuinely funny. He even copes with, what I imagine is, one of the main pitfalls of an audience participation show – mistakenly assigning a key role to the one chap determined to show off to everyone how funny he is – without a trace of irritation.

The show takes a surreal detour in its last quarter, in which Adamsdale becomes trapped in his computer and has to go on a virus-busting quest, which I felt didn’t really come off, it certainly didn't have the same impact as some of the earlier material. But I’ve not laughed this frequently and this fully at anything in quite some time, so, hey, he's forgiven.

There was some talk of whisking people off to join the post-show revelry of the Masque next door afterwards, but I didn’t stick around long enough to see if that happened. I did however add to my tally of theatrical-blogging Andrews by running into Andy Field before the show began.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Fringe Etiquette

This past Thursday, I swept across London, be-scarfed and be-gloved, to Greenwich Playhouse, an above-a-pub space right next to Greenwich train station (which is handy as I don’t know Greenwich at all and suspect the chances of me getting lost en route if it were otherwise, would be high). Anyway, they are staging Hedda Gabler at the moment, in what is a solid if unremarkable production.

I shan’t pick holes in it here, however there’s one incident I can’t let pass uncommented on. In the audience there were several girls who were clearly studying the play for a course and had come along because they felt they should. And the production, while well done in places, did have the odd awkward moment, a fair scattering of stiffly delivered line, at which these girls laughed openly and in an increasingly less discrete fashion. The Playhouse is an intimate space and these girls were sat on the front row so that every wave of their giggling and sneering must have been audible to the actors. It was just so deeply inconsiderate; they even joked about intentionally trying to break the actors' concentration. Thinking back on it, I should have gently said something to them, rather than just impotently sitting there and frowning at the backs of their heads.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

An Over-Familiar Song

I am very fond of Theatre 503. I may have mentioned this before. The standard of work they put on is consistently high and, just within the last year, I’ve seen some startlingly good stuff there: George Gotts’ Cocoa, Stephen Brown’s Future Me and Jason Hall’s GBS. Having said that, I have been rather pathetic in getting over there of late and, much to my shame, missed Ben Ellis’ The Final Shot entirely. I was back there last night though, this time to see John Donnelley’s Songs Of Grace and Redemption

The play focuses on a number of characters whose lives intersect: an Icelandic bartender with a violent ex. A none-too-bright thug for hire with a learning disabled sister. A social worker in an unhappy relationship. A chap whose wife has just left him for his own father. It has its fair share of nicely comic moments, some very funny indeed (I certainly will find it difficult not to snigger next time I hear the word ‘crumble’) but often it felt quite heavily derivative – especially in a scene where one character tries to coerce another into shooting him - I felt I had seen near-identical confrontations before.

Despite some good performances, the coincidence-driven narrative really struggled to take shape on stage, I thought. It felt forced and ungainly. Lyn Gardner said it felt like “a pilot for a Channel 4 series” but actually, what I was reminded of again and again, was the wave of low-budget indie cinema that bubbled up in the mid 1990s, films that can be loosely grouped under the banner ‘starring Steve Buscemi’. Night On Earth, Living In Oblivion or Richard Linklater’s Slacker. Something of that ilk. Indeed I heard someone mention Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes in the bar afterwards so this impression wasn’t mine alone.

I’m sure someone, quite probably someone called Andrew, could weigh in with some lengthy thoughts about theatre that - at least appears to - take its primary creative cues from other media. I just know, in terms of this play, that while my attention was held throughout, I was aware of a creeping need for something more solid, for these characters to be linked together in a more organic fashion and for their stories to lead somewhere a little more unexpected. I think Donnelly has real ability as a writer, but I was just too aware of the mechanics of the writing – and, when one of the characters died, my first thought was “well, I figured one of them wouldn’t make it to the end” which is not what I want to be thinking or feeling at such a juncture. It was however the first play I’ve seen that used Facebook as a narrative device, which I found genuinely interesting.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Plays, Pies and Pints

Knocking off work a little early on Friday, I headed over to London Bridge station where the entrance to Shunt Vaults can be found. This sprawling underground space is playing host to Paines Plough’s latest venture: A Play, A Pie and A Pint.

That’s theatre food and alcohol wrapped up in one neat little package, I obviously had to investigate. I was accompanied on this most strenuous of research exercises by Helen Smith. Neither of us had been inside Shunt vaults before, so were unsure what to expect as an usher led us through the (very) dark meandering corridors to a small, better lit space where we queued for the titular pies and pints – or in my case a glass of red.

For the play part of the evening, we were then herded up a small flight of stairs. The performance space itself was of an ‘intimate’ nature, encompassing a scattering of chairs. There were no tables and the seats were quite close together, but it was just about possible to tackle my pie and wine without upending either in my lap. The play itself, the first of four, was David Greig’s Being Norwegian, a simple sketch of a thing about a man and a woman who meet in a bar. It was a neat, nicely performed two-hander which managed to be both amusing and also quite poignant. It was also only around 45 minutes long so, with a start time of 6pm, it left us with much of the evening to spare afterwards. Fortunately tickets also allow you to linger in the Shunt Vaults themselves, an atmospheric space, a bit self-consciously ramshackle, but actually a rather appealing venue in which to while away the night.

At this point things get a little hazy, as accustomed to the Theatre component of my evening finishing at a slightly later hour, the repeated trips to the bar rather took their toll on me. I suspect I was rather, um, exuberant; certainly the friends we ran into at a later stage in the evening (when I dragged Helen off to Canteen on the South Bank) took every opportunity to snigger when I caught up with them on the weekend.

The whole Play, Pie and Pint experience struck me as a neatly alliterative gimmick at first, entertaining but perhaps a little wobbly in execution. However, it was fun enough for me to want to go back later in the month and catch one of the other plays, perhaps with some more people in tow, though I’ll understand if Helen decides to have ‘other plans’ that night.

Thursday, November 01, 2007


I have been meme'd. How exciting. Weeks ago actually, by Ben Ellis. And I was going to respond, I was, but then my computer broke for a bit and then I broke for a bit and I just got sidetracked. But now the Whingers have batted it back in my direction, so I can't put it off any longer.

Here it is: List 5 things that certain people (who are not deserving of being your friend anyway) may consider to be "totally lame," but you are, despite the possible stigma, totally proud of. Own it.

1. I get an Amelie-like surge of pleasure from the tiniest things. The snap that dark chocolate makes when you break it, the smell of fresh basil when you rub it between your fingers, the composition of a well-shaped sentence and, yes, the plink-fizz of an ice cube being dropped into a G&T.

2. As a child I had a blue stuffed rabbit. Which I called Burt. Even though I was adamant it was a girl rabbit. I may possibly still have it somewhere. Not on display or anything, but you know, around. Oh sod it, who am I kidding? It's in the wardrobe at my mum's house and I would never throw it away, ever.

3. I was also a bit of a comic book geek. My uncle had all these old Marvel comics dating back years and they were wonderful. As a result there's still a little corner of my brain that's wholly devoted to trivia about villains in Spiderman and the like. Oh and Tin Tin, I wanted to be Tin Tin so badly.

4. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince. Makes me cry. Every Single Time I Read It.

5. I’m kind of proud of the fact that I can’t drive. I know it’s counter-intuitive to be proud of not being able to do something, but while it was never intended as such, it has come to feel like a minor act of rebellion and I suspect I will resist for some time yet...

There. I am supposed to tag five others, but initially at least I will just extend the baton to Anna Waits, Sean In The Stalls and my friend Juice, who has lost his blogging mojo of late.