Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Miniaturists

Confession: I have never been to a Miniaturists at the Arcola before. Oh sure I have considered it, I have talked about maybe possibly doing so one day, but thus far I have utterly failed to get myself over to Hackney on a Sunday due to my own ingrained indolence. Until, that is, this past weekend, where the chance to see one of Helen Smith’s plays properly staged (with strawberries and cornflakes and everything) proved too tempting to resist.

And it was more than worth grappling with the broken Northern Line to get there: six short plays, none longer than 20 minutes, a lovely variety in terms of style, tone and approach, a fair higher standard of performance than one would expect from pieces with such a short rehearsal time and the pleasure of knowing that for every coconut cream you bite into there’s likely to be a piece of praline along in a minute. Or something. Just go with it.

Anyway there was wine and there were Whingers and there was the lovely Stephen Sharkey who took the time to stop and say hello and generally be charming despite presumably having much more pressing things to attend to.

There are some more words over here if you’re interested…

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Rose

My mother hasn’t featured on this blog for a while, simply because I haven’t been able to persuade her to come to the theatre with me in some months. The idea of traipsing into London on a cold night just to see a play is not her idea of fun; preferring as she does a kind of semi-hibernation in winter months involving lots of Cabernet Sauvignon and selected DVD box sets (she is quite taken with Mad Men).

Though she gets a kind of stricken look on her face every time I so much as pick up a copy of Time Out or the Guardian Guide in her presence, last week she, without prompting, mentioned that she might quite maybe want to see that thing with the Scottish chap in it (that Scottish chap being Ken Stott, we eventually established after further discussion and not James McAvoy). Her enthusiasm trailed off a bit when she realised I was serious about arranging tickets but I was not going to let such an opportunity pass.

The Rose in Kingston is the nearest theatre to where she lived and they happened to be playing host to Ed Hall’s all male theatre company Propeller who were doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in tandem with The Merchant of Venice. The former seemed like a fair comprise. My mother was less sure, having not enjoyed the last few Shakespeares I subjected her to, but I mentioned that there was a large bar and I absolutely, definitely would not make her sit on the floor as I sometimes do at the Rose (the cheapest tickets, the best views and even at home I usually opt for the floorboards over the sofa anyway – so it works for me). There was an unspoken agreement that pre-show drinks were on me.

The production is broadly performed and entertaining, a bit laboured in places but good fun. It’s an all male company and the performers playing female roles do little to signify femininity except for putting on skirts and speaking in a higher tone of voice: the actors all sport close cropped hair and stubbled chins. There’s some neat playing about with gender roles: when squabbling in the forest, Hermia and Helena square up like football fans in a pub brawl while Demetrious and Lysander scrap like schoolgirls in a playground. Puck wears stripy tights, a tutu and a pair of glittery ruby slippers. But other than that it’s a pretty straightforward run through, not quite as bawdy and well-paced as the Globe’s recent production. My mother looked a little perplexed at times but I think she may just have been working out the logistics of nipping downstairs for an interval cigarette.

At the end her verdict was: “OK”, “quite funny in places” and “not as long as I thought it would be.” All of which is more positive than I expected. She couldn’t quite fathom why the woman next to us was “laughing like she wanted everyone to notice she was laughing,” but this is an improvement on the time she spent much of a (admittedly fairly pedestrian) production of As You Like It glaring at the large man who was taking up more than his fair share of the bench they were sharing and scribbling notes throughout – who turned out to be Peter Hall.

She has tentatively agreed to come and see something else with me in a couple of weeks provided it's not another Shakespeare, though she says she must first “check the work diary” which I think is a euphemism for seeing if she can’t find something better to do, but still – I’ll take that as a yes.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Going Solo

Just wanted to direct you to this piece over on the Guardian Theatre Blog about an unintended private performance I attended last week at the Courtyard Theatre.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

England People Very Nice at the National

Richard Bean’s recent play The English Game took a look at England through the prism of the cricket pitch. It was as warm and subtle a piece of writing as his latest is broad and brash.

Though still clearly interested in ideas of Englishness and how one becomes English, England People Very Nice deals in stereotypes and coarse humour; instead of using a fine brush it uses a stonking great roller.

Immigration is the theme and Bean focuses his attentions on Bethnal Green, the corner of East London that was once the main place of settlement for the Huguenots fleeing France, then became home to a sizeable Jewish community before becoming, as it is now, home to the largest Bengali community outside of Bangladesh.

This shifting cultural landscape is symbolised by their place of worship, the Great London Mosque on the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier Street, formerly the Spitalfields Great Synagogue, formerly a Huguenot chuch.

Bean’s play is framed by scenes set within a detention centre for immigrants, who while waiting to hear whether they’ve been granted leave to remain in the country, have devised a piece of theatre about the various arrivals in Bethnal Green across the centuries. These scenes neatly provide the set up for a number of upcoming jokes including a delightfully silly gag about being "on the wagon."
There then follows a short introductory sequence that covers the various waves of invasion from the Romans, Saxons and Danes, bringing us up to the arrival of the Huguenots in the late 17th century, ousted from Catholic France. Next come the Irish (shown as prone to incest and criminal behaviour), then the Jews fleeing the progroms of Eastern Europe – much to the anxiety of the existing English Jews – and then, as the centuries flip further forwards, the arrival of Asian immigrants, during the Second World War and the years afterwards.

Each new set of arrivals is met with scorn by the inhabitants of the local pub, spitting venom about the "facking frogs" and "facking Micks." As each group is assimilated they are depicted as becoming hostile to those who arrive after them; it’s a cyclical process, the play is saying, as in a late scene we even see the Bengali immigrants griping about the way the Somalis are getting preferential treatment at the housing office.

Bean crams in a lot of intriguing historical detail – the bombing of the underground by anarchists at Aldersgate Station, the pelting of Orthodox Jews with bacon sandwiches by young radicals: all real events – but this sits at odds with the play’s overall broad comic tone. The cartoonish graphics projected onto the set, though amusing at times, also act as a barrier to getting emotionally involved in proceedings. Through dealing with stereotypes and rarely digging beneath the surface, Bean paints a pretty dismal picture of what it means to be an immigrant in London. Along the way, we are shown the invention of the Biro and Chicken Tikka Masala, but these barely scratch the surface of exploring how immigrants influence and enrich a culture.

A love story is streamed through the generations and this adds a brief glimmer of hope to the play, depicting how people from different backgrounds can and do connect with one another. But this is undermined by scenes in the second half that focus on how, in some parts of the Muslim community, the pattern is being reversed, how young people are becoming more traditionally minded, more fundamentalist in their thinking then their parents were. But again Bean only touches the surface, there is no real exploration of why this is happening (interestingly this opens in the week after Alia Bano’s Shades at the Royal Court, which provides a more thorough dissection of the various threads that make up the British Muslim community).

There are some nice performances from the large cast, particularly from Michelle Terry as one half of the cross-generational love story, and Nicholas Hytner's production is swooping and energetic and, at times, very funny, if in a somewhat crude way. The play is a good example of the Monsterist tradition of which Bean is a proponent - theatre unafraid of being big in terms of scale and scope - but it falls down at a crucial hurdle in that it is never really successful in picking apart what it means to come to this country and make it your home.

Reviewed for musicOMH

I have, rightly I suspect, been called overly idealistic when I pound on about such matters, but this play though broad in scope seemed oddly narrow in its outlook. Also, both myself and my teacher friend who tagged along for the evening, felt there was something a bit predicable in focusing on Bethnal Green and its environs, the history of which I've seen documented in a fair few books in recent years. London has weathered so many shifts and changes, it would have been nice to have seen some less familiar areas explored. Ive not seen many depictions of the West London my grandparents came to, or for that matter the area of London in which I now live.