Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Animals and Children Took to the Streets at BAC

The Bayou is the sore on the underside of the city, a place where cockroaches congregate and children run wild; it’s cankerous and festering, riddled with petty crime and suspicious stains.

This is the setting for the latest offering by 1927, the company responsible for the darkly enchanting
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, and it once again sees them blending live performance with animation to create something that resembles a living graphic novel.

This new piece feels more developed and ambitious than their earlier show; while Devil consisted of a series of amusingly macabre vignettes, this piece presents a more wholly realised world. There’s a greater clarity of voice and vision, a keener eye for the grotesque.

Suzanne Andrade’s script focuses on a group of characters who live in the sticky, seedy Bayou Mansions on Red Herring Street. Agnes Eaves moves into the building with her little cartoon daughter Evie and a vague notion that she can solve some of the social problems with craft workshops and an abundance of yogurt pots filled with PVA glue. The building’s caretaker, who is diligently saving his paycheques to buy his way out of the place, takes a shine to Agnes, but his attentions go unnoticed. At the same time the marauding silhouette children start to stray into the city’s parks and, what is worse, to make demands – “we want what you have” - so the mayor decides to round them all up and pump them full of drugs that will make them docile and compliant.

The fantastical elements help to sweeten what is a surprisingly bitter, if decidedly timely, pill. The faint strains of A Spoonful of Sugar can even be heard at one point as the authorities prepare to dope the children into submission. What might have floundered or appeared heavy-handed in a more conventional dramatic production is here able to sneak past the guards and wave its placards. The show is ribboned with a sense of bleak resignation; as the owner of the Bayou junk shop explains to her revolutionary-minded daughter Zelda, the leader of a pirate street gang: if you’re “born in the Bayou, you die in the Bayou.” This is a show that presents its audience with the illusion of choice between an idealist and a realist ending but inevitably comes down on the side of the real: no happy endings here, the grind continues.

Paul Barritt’s animation, sepia toned and splashed with crimson, is rich with reference from the Constructivists through to Jean Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen. The meshing of live action and animation proves more versatile than before. While a certain static quality is inevitable, it only adds to the distinctive style of the piece and motion is successfully and amusingly conveyed by having streets spiral away behind the protagonists as they run on the spot. Despite the use of Cyrillic lettering and Soviet fonts, the piece is not rooted in any one place or time, which allows it a greater resonance and, while there are plenty of sight gags and teasing details, the animations also works in harmony with Andrade’s witty and pleasingly rhythmic script.

The Bayou’s various characters are divvied up between Andrade and Esme Appleton, their faces greased a moon-like white, while Lillian Henley provides live musical accompaniment throughout. Among their various roles, Andrade mutely plays the shock-headed caretaker, with Jamie Adams’ perfectly-pitched voice-over supplying his thoughts, while Appleton plays Agnes with her sweetly wholehearted belief that with enough dried pasta shapes and poster paint you can successfully heal an oozing wound.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Monday, December 13, 2010

Bea at Soho Theatre

Bea is first seen bouncing on her bed. A Madonna song is playing on the stereo as she springs about her bedroom with an adolescent energy. Yet as Mick Gordon’s new play unfolds it becomes clear that this exuberant, excitable young woman is the inner Bea, the real Bea is only occasionally glimpsed lying limp on the bed she never leaves.

Gordon’s previous On Theatre projects have been collaborative, co-written with people like A C. Grayling (On Religion) or the neuropsychologist Paul Broks (
On Emotion). This new play is a solo effort and eschews the ‘On’ moniker, though On Empathy or On Euthanasia would be fitting subtitles.

Bea is a young woman with a chronic, debilitating condition that has seen her confined to bed for eight years. She’s in need of constant care; someone else has to feed her, to wash her, to dress her. Her mother, a prickly, protective barrister, hires the camp and verbally incontinent Ray as her daughter’s new carer. He’s verbose but sensitive and Bea is able to communicate with him, though how much of what she says to him is actually vocalised is unclear. What is clear is that Bea wants to die; she does not consider her life to be worth living any longer and wants to end it, something she will need help to achieve. She dictates a letter to Ray to this end so that she can better explain her wish to her mother.

While Bea’s decision to end her life provides the play with its core, the tone of the piece is upbeat and vibrant, almost aggressively so in places. It seems determined not to be a downer, not until it needs to be. And so, for the most part, this is very much a play about life and living; the inner Bea cannot be contained for long and she frequently takes over, laughing and singing and dancing. Alice Woodward's colourful set reflects this. It’s dominated by an oversized bed and a backboard studded with gaudy earrings; it’s a teenage space, punctured by the occasional piece of grey medical kit; in many ways it looks as if a pause button has been pressed, her bedroom still looks like that of a girl, not of the woman she has become. Time in this room has stopped. There’s poignancy in the details: the party dresses unworn (except by Ray) and the furniture unused.

Sometimes the play is thin-skinned, in that its internal workings all too visible – this is particularly true when Ray describes a common test for autism and explains the concept of mind-blindness. A question is clearly posed to the audience: how possible is it for us to understand another person’s pain? At other times the play is less keen to explain itself and there remains a question mark over how Bea and Ray communicate; how many of their interactions are verbal, how many are sensed? How much of what Bea ‘says’ does she actually say? Her mother sometimes appears not to hear her at all, but is this just part of her character, this need not to hear the things that will be too difficult or upsetting? It’s true that as the play progresses Bea’s mother seems better able to hear her.

Often this doesn’t matter and it’s enough that Ray understands her and makes her happy, but it become more pertinent when he administers certain services to the sex-starved Bea. This is presented as a liberating and appealingly anarchic moment (Ray has just completed a most unique reading of A Streetcar Named Desire) but even so there’s a sense of uneasiness about what is actually occurring.

In both tone and content the production is reminiscent of Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia, a play which contrasted a young mentally ill woman’s inner world with her stark, bleak, medicated reality, though in that world the line between the two was a solid one, a brutal cut off, whereas here Bea slips and slides between her two states.

All three performances are strong. Pippa Nixon manages to convey both Bea’s inner vitality and the physical reality of her situation. Al Weaver is hurricane-like as Ray; his comic energy is remarkable, words simply spill from him, a constant flow, which while just as the character is written is in some ways too much – he’s too dominant a force. Paula Wilcox is, by necessity, more understated as Bea’s brittle mother.

Gordon’s previous plays have been in the business of sparking debate, setting up questions and situations that require picking over, and yet here the fundamental question of Bea’s desire to die goes oddly unchallenged. It is presented as necessary and right, which may well be true but the audience is left with little space to decide this for themselves. That said Gordon manages to avoid pressing too many overtly emotional buttons and the play is thought-provoking, genuinely funny and undeniably powerful: life plays the lead here and death is very much a supporting character.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Quality Street at the Finborough Theatre

First performed in 1901 in New York, J.M Barrie’s romantic comedy was a hugely popular thing in its day, and did indeed inspire the brand of chocolates that still bear its name. Though there was a time when it was oft-revived, the play hasn’t been staged in London since 1946, but the Finborough, who also recently staged Barrie’s What Every Woman Knows, have decided to rectify that, reviving it as part of their continuing Rediscoveries season.
Louise Hill’s production is light of foot and warm of heart. Barrie’s play is set during the Napoleonic Wars; when dashing doctor Valentine Brown enlists in the army, Phoebe Throsell abandons her hopes of marrying him and resigns herself to life as a faded old maid and reluctant school teacher. When he returns some years later, Phoebe is stung by the fact he thinks she has not aged well, that he seems to find her weary and beaten-down, so she pretends to be the flighty young thing she presumes all men desire. She lets her hair down (literally, loosing her ringlets from her school mistress’s cap) and dresses up in what she had once hoped would be her wedding gown; she simpers and giggles. The transformation is such that Brown does not recognise her and Phoebe ends up masquerading as her own gauche young niece, Livvy, her deception becoming more and more tangled as events progress. Eventually Brown ends up escorting young ‘Livvy’ to a ball to mark the Battle of Waterloo and she is pursued by every red-blooded and red-coated man in attendance.

Though Barrie’s play occasionally oozes sentiment it is not without charm. The scenes with Phoebe and her invented niece are pleasingly nimble and witty, and beneath the good natured sheen Barrie seems particularly attuned to the plight of the unmarried woman without means. Not that he dwells too long on such issues – this is not Harley Granville Barker – and Barrie soon returns to the business of steering his two lovers together.

Louise Hill (who also directed What Every Woman Knows) presents a faithful production which contains just the right amount of knowingness. It’s a difficult balance to strike and she hits it. It’s played fairly straight, with only the faintest hike of an eyebrow. Claire Redcliffe pitches her performance perfectly as Phoebe, bright and sparky, self-aware but not too removed. James Russell on the other hand is a touch too arch as Valentine. Though he returns from the war damaged and bandaged, there’s no real sense that he’s a changed man and his sudden interest in Phoebe seems to drop out of nowhere. He’s suitably dashing and has a nice wry manner, but one wishes for a hint of something more beneath the surface. Catherine Harvey brings a level of nuance and warmth to the character of Patty, the Throssels’ maid, whose optimism in regards to matters of love provides a neat contrast to that of Phoebe and her elder sister.
A large cast is squeezed with ease onto the tiny Finborough stage, while Hill manages to orchestrate all the various entrances and exits well and to make, if not exactly a virtue, than at least not a failing of the lengthy and low-tech scene changes.
The play may not be the fizziest or fiercest of comedies – and it contains some lines that are thoroughly steeped in syrup - but it’s entirely possible to see why it was so popular in its time, and in the plight of Phoebe, unmarried and fearful for her future alone, it still has a degree of resonance.

An extended version of a review for The Stage.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Kin at the Royal Court

EV Crowe’s first full length play for the Royal Court paints a bleak picture of boarding school life. It concerns two young room-mates, Janey and Mimi, both ten. Theirs is a stark world, lit by strip lights and entirely lacking in comfort, cold in more ways than one. Because the play is set in the mid-1990s the payphone, providing a lone link to home, is a central part of their lives and as such the site of conflict and emotion, the holding back of tears. 

While Kin can be superficially linked to the work of Polly Stenham and Anya Reiss, plays by young women depicting the turbulent lives of middle class children, it’s in some ways a less daring piece. Where Crowe – whose short playDoris Day is currently showing at Soho Theatre as part of their Charged season – really excels is in creating atmosphere, in capturing the vocabulary of the dormitory (anorexia casually abbreviated to ‘annie’ and so forth). The patterns of the girls’ conversations feel plausible and their interactions, alternatively hostile and affectionate, are equally convincing. Janey is cruel to Mimi, both physically and emotionally, yet she is a solid thing in a world of uncertainty, more tangible then her absent parents, and as such is more important; Mimi hates and loves her in equal measure.

The play is less strong structurally. Crowe sets up a scene and then backspins to show the events leading up to it. Yet the play lacks shape and meanders dramatically. This is perhaps necessary to illustrate the repetitious nature of their existence – as it’s twice pointed out the girls have to endure five more years of this before they reach Lower Sixth – but it makes for a rather flat theatrical experience.

The characters are younger than in Stenham and Reiss’s plays. It’s only a couple of years but it makes a difference. Their adult banter and expletive-heavy dialogue feels very much like a case of them testing themselves and each other, pushing the boundaries. It’s far less unnerving than the sexual confidence and emotional confusion of twelve year old Delilah in Reiss’s Spur of the Moment. In fact it’s the adults, or at least their teacher Mrs B (played by a permanently frazzled looking Annette Badland), who seem overly keen to credit them with more sexual experience and understanding than they actually have.

The production also relies rather too much on the mischievous juxtaposition of these sweet-looking girls and the constant stream of ‘fucks’ that spill from their mouths. This is particularly evident when the girls sing Once in Royal David’s City, faces torch-lit and beaming, only to conclude with a casual, “Who the fuck was David?”

Jeremy Herrin (who directed both Spur of the Moment and both of Stenham’s plays) clearly has a knack for drawing strong performances from a young cast. All the girls are making their professional stage debuts and they make a good, if occasionally hesitant, job of their demanding roles. But despite this the play remains sealed off and difficult to penetrate, especially if that’s not a world you’ve known. There are hints of something more reaching in the writing, a very faint sniff of Lindsay Anderson’s If…. Mrs B describes her charges as small dogs and this is echoed in the howling and growling outside the windows, but it’s not something the play builds on. It’s by nature an insular world that Crowe is depicting but it could be made more open, more inviting, instead the play keeps its audience at arm’s length.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Coalition at Theatre 503 (Yellow Programme)

The gulf between concept and excution can sometimes be a wide one. For Theatre 503’s Coalition season, ten playwrights have been paired with ten artists: musicians, illustrators, choreographers and, in one case, a puppeteer, to create ten short pieces intended as a response to the incoming government.

The resulting pieces have been split into two programmes (labelled, for obvious reasons, ‘yellow’ and ‘blue’). I saw the yellow programme therby missing Gordon Brown’s whistle-stop visit to the Battersea theatre to catch his speech writer Kirsty McNeill’s Dexterity, part of the blue programme. 

Perhaps inevitably given the format the quality varied - some of the pieces felt bitty and repetitious while others were more intriguing and better developed. Two of them, the vaguely Orwellian We Are Where We Are by Telegraphtheatre critic Dominic Cavendish and comedy troupe Clever Peter and Shotgun Civil Partnership in the Rose Garden by Lola Stephenson and supplemented by songs from cabaret duo Bourgeois and Maurice, felt more like skits than short plays; though enthusiastically performed they were both drawn out beyond their natural end point. In the former a benefits claimant is interoggated by two suited men (one yellow-tied, the other blue-tied) who are keen to reclassify him; it ends in a darkly absurdist place but takes a long while to get there. In the latter piece a gardner forms an uneasy alliance with the shotgun-wielding man who wants to rob his wealthy employer. Their plotting was repeatedly interrupted by the woman in question, clad in evening dress and feather boa, but while her musical interjections are initially amusing, they reap diminishing returns. Both pieces felt blunt in tone and heavy-handed in execution.

More interesting was Of the Willing, the collaboration between Rex Obano (whose promising play Slaves was staged at Theatre 503 earlier this year) and choreographer Mina Aidoo. This felt more like more thought had been put into the idea of artistic cooperation and better demonstatred the creative potential of such collisions. The resulting dance piece was set in part to a twitter feed concerning tuition fees and voiced in a robotic monologue, the dancers combining juvenile arse waggling with frustrated writhing. It was more eloquent while using less words.

The last two plays on the bill were more satisfyingly rounded. Ben Ockrent’s funny and poignant Bedrooms, Dens and other Forms of Magic, the least overtly political playlet, is a tale of two teenagers: Tilly is cocky and rebellious and Neil is nervy and easy to overlook. Susie Hogarth’s illustrations are charming if not as fully integrated into the piece as they could be. Ockrent manages to shape the characters and their relationship - they were friends as younger children but have drifted apart –and say something about the way ones ideals and allegiances shift as one gets older.

The most striking piece of the night was Ella Hickson’s PMQ, which cut to the quick, envisioning David Cameron (a diginified Richard Lintern), preparing himself for his first Prime Minister’s Questions, his confidence repeatedly undercut by a guitar-toting Gwendolen Chatfield, singing the lyrics to Mumford and Sons' Little Lion Man while impishly informing him he has a stain on his trousers and reminding him that some questions are unanswerable. It’s a direct piece, simultaneously brazen yet compassionate, which brushes aside the sniping and swiping to examine Cameron as a man, ambitious, self-assured yet fallible, human - a man who has lost things. Hickson, as her plays Hot Mess and Precious Little Talent, showed is an exciting writer, keen to stretch herself to knew places and in this short piece she does just that, bucking against the black and white, creating something shaded.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Monday, November 22, 2010

Joseph K at the Gate Theatre

It begins with a knock at the door. From the moment on his thirtieth birthday when two blandly efficient men in suits arrest Joseph K for an unspecified crime his life starts to crumble.

His mobile phone no longer works, a block has been put on his passport and he can only withdraw £20 at a time from a cash point. Even the radio appears to have it in for him.

Comedian Tom Basden’s effective contemporary reworking of Kafka’s The Trial is a playful yet tense and sinister piece of writing. The predicament of the lead character slots all too easily into a recognisable world of communicative brick walls and social alienation.

Joseph K, increasingly desperate to escape the charges against him, attempts to battle a system designed to send him in endless loops. He is pitched into an ocean of paperwork, automated telephone systems, and smiling employees with HNDs in empathy but no capacity to actually help him; release is always just teasingly out of reach.

Basden takes some targeted swipes, particularly at the inanity of radio talk shows, but the production’s strengths lie in the general sense of powerlessness and impotence Joseph feels in the face of the tyranny of bureaucracy – something that’s as potent as it’s ever been. It’s this idea of inescapability that lingers, this and the idea of an inevitable drip-down: even as his confidence and sanity deteriorate, Joseph is shown treating others with the same offhand callousness with which the system is treating him.

Pip Carter, as Joseph K, is suitably business-like and upright to begin with so that his gradual reduction into desperation and, eventually, into mute supplication are all the more unsettling to watch. Basden, Tim Key and Sian Brooke divide the remaining characters between them and this use of recurring faces is used to underscore Joseph’s paranoia. As in Basden’s previous play, Party, Key is particularly effective as a performer, playing both an arrogant dressing gown-clad lawyer who refuses to deal with clients not conversant in Latin and Joseph’s nervy underling at the bank whose career prospects rest on an appraisal he has repeatedly failed to complete.

Lyndsey Turner’s production maintains a number of balances, between the comic and the chilling, between a recognisable world and something more absurd and extreme. The tiny Gate stage is made to feel remarkably versatile but the pacing at times is a bit jagged, with frequent scene changes that require the donning and shedding of clothes and the rearranging of furniture; the covering fuzz of white noise doesn’t quite prevent these moments from feeling like lulls and from diluting the otherwise not inconsiderable tension.

At times Joseph’s decline can be read as one man’s consumption by mental illness, as he becomes convinced the radio is saying his name and that everyone, his colleagues, and even his brother, is out to get him. But the play twins this with a sense that the system really is out to drive him to edge, that there are walls he’ll never scale no matter how hard he tries and there are innumerable frameworks in place to prevent him from doing just that.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Glass Menagerie at the Young Vic

Tennessee Williams intended The Glass Menagerie to have the texture of memory. The events of the play, as he envisioned them, would have a delicate relationship with the real, an evocative and almost expressionistic atmosphere. Music was to play a key role and a series of title cards and images were to be projected on a screen between scenes, a snippet of dialogue or a spray of blue roses.

This last device was abandoned before the original staging and director Joe Hill-Gibbons does not resurrect it here, but he does attempt to honour other aspects of Williams’ ‘memory play’ through his use of lighting and music.
The production opens with a beautifully executed visual flourish, a splash of stage magic, but though a solid attempt has been made to integrate these elements into the production (that superb opening moment being a good example) some of the early scenes feel heavy and tethered. Things only really coalesce in the second half when many of the stylistic devices are dropped and Williams’ dialogue is allowed to stand alone.

Amanda, the Wingfield matriarch is an ageing southern belle transplanted to a St Louis tenement but still ‘clinging frantically to another place and time’, to her girlhood in Blue Mountain where she once entertained seventeen gentlemen callers in one afternoon. Terrified that her daughter Laura, a desperately shy girl whose chief pleasures are her Victrola records and her collection of tiny glass animals, will end up an old maid, she pesters her son Tom – an overt stand-in for Williams - to invite one of his warehouse colleagues to dinner.

It is the scene between Laura and the Jim, the gentleman caller, a man she hankered after at high school, which makes this production sing rather than hum. Until this point it totters along - there are moments of overplaying and sudden shifts in tone - but a kind of calm descends when Jim arrives at the door.

As in his recent Young Vic production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Hill-Gibbins is fond of placing actors at the very front of the stage with their backs to the audience during key exchanges, thus shifting the attention to the face of the listener. In this context it’s a successful tactic, creating a connecting thread between the audience and Laura, allowing them to study her face as it relaxes and brightens. Played out against a white dividing curtain, Williams’ rich dialogue, with all its pathos, humour and warmth, is foregrounded.

As Amanda, Deborah Findlay is sturdier than the mother described by Williams and she uses this as an advantage. Decked out in the lace and sparkle of her cotillion dress, she captures some of the poignant absurdity of this middle aged woman giggling and flirting with abandon, but she also captures her fierce maternal spirit, her nous (women, she declares as she buttons Laura into a hill of frills and ribbon, are “pretty traps”) and her determination to provide a secure future for her daughter.

In the publicity material Sinead Matthews’ Laura is shown with glorious, almost white blonde hair, but in the production itself, she is saddled with a mousy, lumpy wig and her performance sometimes seems like a collection of tics – a limp, a (not always convincing) stutter – her fragility more external than internal, but this changes as the play progresses. When Jim arrives Laura emerges as a person: brave, funny and self-knowing.

Leo Bill is angular and aggressive as Tom, the shoebox Shakespeare longing for escape; his frustration with his lot is evident even in the rapid, ravenous way in which he eats. Kyle Soller, given permission by the text to be ‘a nice ordinary young man’, is charming and self-confident as Jim, his performance less heightened than the others, his character vain but not unperceptive and not unkind, a man not unfamiliar with disappointment.

Dominated by a smiling photo of the absent father in his army cap, Jeremy Herbert’s set is an inside-outside affair, combing fire escapes and raw brick walls with the trappings of the Wingfield apartment. The music is supplied live by a pianist and percussionist perched up on the gallery; the latter, appropriately, has a collection of glasses at his disposal. It is, however, the snippets of song coming from the dancehall across the street that have the biggest emotional impact. As Jim and Laura listen he asks her to dance with him and, after some hesitation, she gives in; she dances.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Monday, November 15, 2010

Charged at Soho Theatre

Founded thirty years ago, Clean Break is a theatre company that specialises in the staging of new writing intended to reflect the experiences of women whose lives have come in contact with the criminal justice system.

Their recent productions include plays by Chloe Moss and Lucy Kirkwood (the superb 
It Felt Empty..., so atmospherically staged at the Arcola) and their current project is particularly ambitious in scope, taking the form of six short plays, which have been grouped into two separate cycles to be staged in various spaces around Soho Theatre

As with similar theatrical collages some of the pieces are better realised than others, but while there is an inevitable bittiness and some of the pieces feel constrained, the interesting dramatic parallels between the plays and some strong acting go a good way towards remedying this.

The first of these triple bills features new work by Rebecca Pritchard, Winsome Pinnock and Chloe Moss, of which Pritchard’s play, Dream Pill, staged by Tessa Walker in the theatre’s basement restaurant is perhaps the most harrowing and unsettling. Written from the perspective of two young Nigerian girls, both under ten, the play wades into the ugly world of child prostitution. It’s potently performed by Danielle Vitalis and Samantha Pearl, both all too convincingly child-like in their movements and interactions, the former fixing her bright, questioning eyes on various audience members. In the context of the play, the noise from the bar above suddenly takes on an ominous air and the sight of Pearl tottering unsteadily up the stairs in ill-fitting heels is almost too much to take.

Chloe Moss’ Fatal Light is less unrelenting in its intensity but still capable of emotional rawness. Unfolding in reverse order, it tells the story of a young mother with mental health problems who ends up in prison and features another strong performance from Ashley McGuire as the stoic grandmother. It contains some intriguing dramatic seeds but it feels a bit thin in its current state, as if it could have been fleshed out further.

Winsome Pinnock’s Taken, performed in the theatre’s top floor studio space, is another cross-generational tale and one that provides an interesting counterpoint to Moss’ play. A twitchy young girl towing a pram turns up on recovering addict Della’s door claiming to be her daughter. Whereas the bonds between the women in Moss’ play were strong and the daughter’s mental health issues was slowly driving the family apart, in Pinnock’s play abandonment and substance abuse have taken their toll on the characters and memory is untrustworthy. Caroline Steinbeis’ production only partially brings out the play’s increasing dreamlike quality and the ambiguities of the text feel like they could have been made more of.

The second cycle features work by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, EV Crowe, and Sam Holcroft. Crowe, whose new full length play, Kin, opens at the Royal Court next week, focuses her attention on what it is to be a woman in today’s police force. InDoris Day, flatmates Anna and Daisy, both police women, have different coping strategies. The play examines the inherent contradictions of their situation. There’s the necessity of working as part of a team and all that entails, but there’s also the question of workplace sexism and whether this should be tolerated or challenged. This is where they differ, over the point on which it becomes necessary to raise one’s voice and risk the fallout. The play circles its subject, looking at it from several angles and providing a plausible sketch of what it is to be a woman in a male-dominated profession, but it feels rather hurried and abrupt. In a nice piece of continuity Emma Noakes who plays Daisy, also plays the consoling policewoman in Fatal Light.

Sam Holcroft’s Dancing Bears, a play about gang violence, also explores the idea of female solidarity in a macho culture. Track-suit clad with faces half hidden by hoods, the four female performers begin by playing young male gang member who swagger about the place (they are described in the text as ‘walking on hot coals’), forever shifting from foot to foot with a kind of itchy urgency. Then one by one these volatile young men peel of their hoodies to become young women, who tired of being misused and impregnated by the men around them, draw together, forming a gang of their own, only to begin to emulate the male behaviour that initially alienated them.

The central play of this second triple bill is Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s That Almost Unnameable Lust, probably the most wholly satisfying piece of either cycle. The play is set in a women’s prison where a well-intentioned but na├»ve young writer tries to get the female inmates to open up and share their experiences with her. Elegantly written, with some subtle and moving passages, Lenkiewicz's play serves to crystallise something about theatre of this kind, about the whole exercise in fact, in the way it subtly interrogates the writer’s role, the inevitable impotence of the observer. Empathy only counts for so much.

While the plays have their individual weaknesses, viewed together they paint a compelling picture of a system that fails women on numerous levels (some alarming statistics were provided on suicide and self-harm rates in women’s prisons). Of the two cycles, the second has the edge but there's a lot to be said for seeing both if you can.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Saturn Returns at the Finborough Theatre

Noah Haidle’s play revisits the same character at three pivotal moments in his life. Gustin Novak is first seen as a man of 88, comparatively sprightly and in good health for a man of his age, but desperately, desperately alone. His wife and daughter are long dead and he has to beg and cajole a young nursing assistant to spend time with him.

The title of the play refers to an astrological phenomenon involving the orbit of Saturn. Every 30 years or so the planet returns to the same position it was at during a person’s birth and, in doing so, it is meant to herald a major event in a person’s life, a test of character, an emotional upheaval.

Haidle uses this idea as jumping-off point from which to interlace scenes of the older Novak with those from two earlier points in his life, both as a young married man of 28 and as a middle-aged widower of 58.

The play, originally staged at the Lincoln Centre in New York in 2008, is infused with a sense of loss. The elderly Novak, living in a house crammed with memories, many of them painful, yearns for company. His middle-aged self is no less needy. He loves his daughter deeply, but their relationship is forever shadowed by the figure of her dead mother and his constant demands end up pushing her away. Even as a younger man Novak’s life is not free from tension; his wife, Loretta, is troubled by the absence of children in their marriage and hints at other losses, a sadness that dogs her days and makes the long hours at home without him tough to bear.

Both the writing and the performances of the actors playing Novak over the three periods of his life (Richard Evans, Nicholas Gecks and Christopher Harper) create a sense of consistency of character – they all perch on the floor in front of the armchair rather than sitting in it. Haidle’s use of echoes, of recurring phrases in the dialogue, is elegant and not overstated, but doesn’t quite compensate for the fact that, to be blunt, Novak, at all points in his life, is a bit of a shit. He’s needy, demanding, self-sabotaging and a teller of awful jokes. His repeated digs at fat women leave a sour taste and his quick, cruel tongue is a source of upset for both his wife and his daughter. He’s an alienating figure, for both the women in his life and, at times, the audience.

Lisa Caruccio Came plays the three female roles, wife, daughter and the young nurse (whose physical resemblance to the daughter is noted), with sensitivity and sure-footedness. On stage for all but the brief moments it takes to change costumes, she ably switches between the three, differentiating them while also suggesting a sense of cohesion in Novak’s relationship with each of these women, something underlined by the fact that the play text requires these three characters be played by the same performer.

The three actors playing Novak go some way to rendering this often spiky and difficult character palatable without ever completely defanging him. Gecks has perhaps the hardest task as the middle aged incarnation of the man, selfish and volatile, yet not without charm, his relationship with his daughter complicated by the pain he still feels at the loss of her mother and his own fear of being alone.

Andrew Lenson’s production for the Finborough is suitably intense, the emotional pitch of the piece building gradually as the three versions of Novak begin to share stage space and eventually start to interact; like small town American versions of Dickensian Christmas spirits they plead across the years with their other selves to act differently, to make other choices, but their voices go unheeded. While the tone of the writing is unfocused in places and Novak is a hard man to love, the cumulative effect of the piece is fairly potent and it succeeds as a study of need and the self-haunting of memory.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Two-Character Play at Jermyn Street Theatre

Though at times elusive, The Two-Character Play is a pleasingly rich and layered piece. First performed in 1967 and rewritten and revised several times since, this rarely performed Tennessee Williams play meshes elements of Pirandello and Beckett’s Endgame with the gothic insularity of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and a measure of Williams’ own life experiences.

The play’s two characters, Felice and Clare, a brother and sister, are stuck in a chilly, seemingly abandoned theatre in some unspecified city. She is an actress, he a writer. Together they begin to perform their own two character play about another brother and sister, a reclusive pair living in a house in the Deep South surrounded by a wall of sunflowers.
Something ugly and bloody happened to their parents and now the siblings never go outside. The phone has been cut off and the mail is no longer delivered; local kids throw stones at their windows. The pair make half-hearted attempts to reengage with the world, but these always end in self-sabotage.

In one of the play’s more explicit moments, the characters agree that: “theatres are prisons to players and writers of plays.” The idea of insanity and imprisonment ribbons the text. They often speak of becoming 'lost' in the play, to the point that though the space they're performing in is cold, they are able to shed their coats and feel the warmth of a southern summer day. The lines between worlds are blurred.

Both sets of characters, the performers and the roles they inhabit, seem caught in a kind of limbo, forced to loop through the same scenes, never reaching a satisfying conclusion, repeating and repeating, cutting lines, re-writing, tweaking.

It’s easy to see why Williams was so fond of this play. The Two-Character Play is a poetic and elegant, circular and self-aware, containing reflections within reflections; there’s plenty of humour and warmth on display too, which serves to balance out the play’s more impenetrable moments. Gene David Kirk’s production successfully makes the case for it as an exciting, experimental piece of writing, rather than a limp, forgotten thing that’s been dusted down for the sake of it. His staging is incredibly atmospheric, and even when the text sometimes meanders, as it does in places, this necessary sense of intensity is sustained (though an interval - perhaps unnecessary in a play of this length - does threaten to scupper things).

The cast seem completely tuned in to the idiosyncratic rhythms of the text. Both performers ably switch between the two different realities of the piece, their accents deepening as they become submerged in the play within the play. Catherine Cusack is suitably fragile-looking yet not without humour as the twitchy, pill-popping sister while Paul McEwan has a kind of dishevelled dignity as Felice (which extends to his portrayal of the other brother, the one within the play), keeping an ever-watchful eye on his sister yet also clearly beset by his own anxieties.

The staging is simple yet effective. Alice Walkling’s set does double duty for both of the play’s realities and its half-finished, crumbling, cluttered feel is very much in keeping with the mood of the piece, while Kirk keeps a commendably solid grip on this, at times slippery, play right until the end when, as it nears its finish, the lighting is slowly dimmed and the world of the characters is narrowed further until they are finally trapped together in a single spotlight.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Novecento at Trafalgar Studios

The complex intertwining of music and myth inherent in the lives of so many famous jazz musicians of the past forms the heart of this second in the Donmar Warehouse’s season of plays of at the Trafalgar Studios, a monologue by Alessandro Baricco, Italian author of the fable-like Silk.

The prodigiously named Danny Boodmann T D Lemon Novecento was abandoned as a baby, left in a lemon crate aboard a transatlantic ocean liner. Named (in part) for the new century into which he was born, the foundling grows up on board the ship and never sets foot upon land. For him the ocean is home, bordered by docks and ports, while land is limitless and terrifying, land is the there-be-monsters place of nightmares.

Though he never receives a lesson, Novecento turns out to be a supremely gifted pianist, entertaining the passengers in steerage with his hypnotic music. He becomes the stuff of legend, as both an ocean-bound eccentric and a God-given jazz innovator; talk spreads far and wide about his music and people even travel in third class for the sole purpose of hearing him play.

Novecento’s story is narrated by his friend, the trumpeter Tim Tooney. His delivery is feverish and hip flask-fuelled as he relives the years they spent at sea together. Mark Bonnar’s performance is energetic and animated, sweaty and intense, and conveys a strong sense that this is a tale that has grown as it’s been retold (and retold and retold). There’s a loose-collared, bar room vibe to his narration that doesn’t detract from the magic but does underline it with doubt. The love for his friend and the hold that the past has on him have coloured his story and allowed it to fly.

This storytelling reaches its peak as Tooney describes a jazz duel between Novecento and the incredulous and over-confident Jelly Roll Morton, self-styled sire of jazz, with the two pianists trading increasingly complex riffs. There’s a similarly glorious moment where Tooney and Novocento ride a piano back and forth across the ship’s parquet ballroom floor during a storm, with Novecento playing the whole way. Only in the last twenty minutes or so does the writing lose its grip. The finale is baggy and melodramatic when compared to what has gone before.

Novecento’s phenomenal playing remains, of course, unheard, limited to Tooney's descriptions of its brilliance - his playing, we are told, is ‘impossible’, untethered to the ‘normal notes’ - but the production is not free of music, far from it - a dream-like lilt underscores the whole piece.

Paul Wills’ set, in its use of muted colours, feels in keeping with the Donmar’s familiar visual palette, while his use of riveted metal, dangling chains and copper piping evokes the clanking belly of the ship. Those rippling chains simultaneously give a sense of being on deck with the ocean beyond, a sense enhanced by Paul Keogan’s softly shifting lighting.

Director Roisin McBrinn, whose work this season was, in part, designed to showcase, knows how to handle a monologue, how to bring texture and pace to the text; she previously directed Mark O'Rowe’s ink-black triptych, Crestfall, at Theatre 503 and this piece achieves similar glimmers of intensity. Bonnar’s performance, while very big, very physical, in his gestures and delivery (clambering about on the set, hurling himself to the floor as he describes a storm) is also deceptively controlled. There’s a line that he observes and only on a couple of occasions does it feel as if he was overplaying things; again these moments were towards the end when the piece began to unravel and never quite righted itself.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Friday, October 29, 2010

Palace of the End at the Arcola Theatre

This Arcola’s staging of Judith Thompson’s triptych of monologues about Iraq is nothing if not timely, coinciding as it does with both the recent Wikileaks revelations and the results of the inquest into the death of Dr David Kelly. But even if it hadn’t arrived at such an apt time, Jessica Swale’s production would still exert considerable power. The combination of some fine, fine writing and Swale’s superb use of the Arcola’s intimate second studio leaves the audience dazed and unsettled.

The play is divided into three strands. In the first of these Jade Williams plays a young soldier clearly based in large part on Lynndie England. Pregnant and fearful for her future, she feels little real regret for her actions, yet Thompson’s nunaced portrait does not demonise her. It’s a layered account of a young woman from West Virginia for whom casual cruelty has always featured large in her life. She simply doesn’t see the people she has tortured and humiliated as fully human and seems more perturbed about the (mostly vile) comments flying around about her on the internet, especially the ones where she is called ‘ugly’ and, worse, ‘a feminist.’ In Williams’ hands, this woman - this girl - appears simultaneosuly appalled and thrilled at the situation she has found herself in.

The second monologue features Robin Soans in compelling form as Dr David Kelly, contemplating his actions (and his inaction) as he awaits death on Harrowdown Hill. Soans was excellent in the Arcola’s recent production of Pieces of Vincent, and here he gives another powerful performance, one that suucessfully takes a figure from the headlines and makes a man of him once more, a husband, a father, fallible but also noble. Collected and genial at first, he becomes increasingly anguished as he recounts the death of an Iraqi bookseller and his family, people he was close to, a seeming catalyst for his decision to speak out.

The final thread concerns Nehrjas, an Iraqi woman played by Imogen Smith. At first her warm recollections come as welcome relief after the intensity of the David Kelly sequence, but this section is ultimately no less harrowing, as Nehrjas describes the appalling torture of herself and her children at the hands of Saddam’s Secret Police. Smith gives a rich and dignified performance, one that trusts the potency of the text. This last piece provides context for the first two, rooting them, and yet the story exists for itself, it never feels like it’s serving a purpose.

This is not verbatim theatre, the words are drawn from imagination but rooted in truth. This gives Thompson a degree of freedom; there are subtle echoes in the writing, recurring images of flying, of falling, Alice-like, through the looking glass. But Thompson never strays too far from recognisable events. There are some beautiful passages but they’re always anchored to something solid.

Though it’s a common pitfall of monologue-based theatre, Swale’s production is never static; if anything the opposite is true. The actors pace the space, engaging with audience, meeting their eyes. Soans in particular makes the audience aware of the complicity inherent in inaction, making full use of the capacity for connection in such a small venue. He fixes the audience with an interrogative stare, before calmly thanking those gathered for being here to share his last moments.

Simon Kenny’s simple design - twin glass cubes and a solitary tree (which comes to have dual significance) - both divides and unites the three speakers and the stories are further delineated by Christopher Nairne’s lighting, the colour subtly shifting from piece to piece. All these elements are neatly tied together, and the resulting production exerts a considerable and lasting hold. There isn't much time left for the Arcola in their current home (click here for more details of their appeal); if this is one of the last things staged in this space, it makes for a memorable way to bow out.

An extended version of a review that appeared in The Stage.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Charming Man at Theatre 503

Gabriel Bisset-Smith’s new play asks a pertinent question - is it possible to retain one’s integrity within the grip of the political machine? The resulting answer gets lost in a production that, while ambitious in scope, is also problematically muddled and unconvincing.

The main character, Darren, is a youth centre worker who, following an impassioned outburst at a local political meeting, rather improbably becomes the Green Party’s candidate for Number 10. Darren’s lack of political nous, his outsider status, is deemed an asset, but he’s also black and gay and the combination of both these factors works against him in the polls. If he’s to going have a real shot at the top he’ll have to fundamentally change who he is.

The tone of Bisset-Smith’s writing varies wildly, from the broad comedy of Lib Dems on Ice to something much more serious and contemplative: the erosion of Darren’s principles as he succumbs to the continued pressure to make compromises. But the play all too often seems to equate satire with extremes of character and of situation. So among its sizeable roster of characters, it incorporates a South African conspiracy theorist millionaire, the shadowy money man behind the Green Party, who explains that Obama’s election was down to a decade long project involving the oeuvre of Morgan Freeman and the insertion of a black president into the TV show 24. There’s also a hard-line right wing radio shock jock on whose show Darren volunteers to make an appearance. It’s possible to see what Bisset-Smith was aiming for in these scenes but too often the results feel naive rather than amusingly exaggerated or absurd.

Satire, of this particular stripe at least, needs to at least feel like it has a basis in something real or something the audience recognises as real, and Bisset-Smith’s play never really achieves this. The political side of things, the main thrust of the play, feels awkward and poorly thought through in a way that undermines the more successful elements. A number of the topical gags are properly funny, there are some interesting narrative slivers buried in the overstuffed script and the scenes between Darren and his boyfriend Luke feel plausibly intimate and genuinely warm, but the political material swerves all over the place and some of the scenarios really stretch credulity to snapping point, tipping from satire into silliness. Libby Watson’s sticky-backed plastic set doesn’t help matters; cheap and shiny, more Blue Peter than corridors of power, it further undermines the text.

The concept of even the most good-hearted and well-intentioned of men being broken down by a system that places only superficial emphasis on those attributes is a potent one, but Paul Robinson’s production only ever skates around this theme and doesn’t quite find a way of making it work.

The cast do well to ground the play and David Verrey in particular gives a well-judged and amusing turn as pompous politico Marcus, who jumps ship from the Greens when Darren is appointed, while Syrus Lowe is suitably charming yet understated in the main role, as the decent young man forced into the spotlight.

An extended version of a review that appeared in The Stage

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tribes at the Royal Court

For the family in Nina Raine’s new play, Tribes, most meals seem to end in disarray. It’s par for the course, unexceptional, the dining table doubling as battlefield.

Christopher, an academic, clearly relishes a full-throated, calculatedly un-PC rant, while his would-be novelist wife, Beth, and his children Daniel and Ruth all fight to have their say. Opinions are aired, weaknesses are honed in on and picked at and dinner inevitably turns into a cacophonous mess with everyone talking at once and no one really listening to what the others have to say.

The only family member who refrains from diving in is Billy. Born deaf, despite his excellent lip reading skills he struggles to keep up when his family are in full flow, teasing and needling one another, sometimes with affection, sometimes with cruel acuity; rarely does anyone ever pause to make sure Billy isn’t being left behind.

Things change when Billy meets Sylvia. The daughter of deaf parents, she’s losing her hearing as a result of a genetic condition; she’s also teaching Billy to sign, something to which his father has always been resistant, and in doing so she opens up a new world to him. But, in an ironic twist, it’s a world with which Sylvia is increasingly starting to struggle; she finds the hierarchies and rivalries of the deaf community alienating, the insularity alarming.

There’s an overabundance of parallels at work here; some of Raine’s narrative devices that are just a little bit too pat, a little bit too mechanical. Both Billy’s parents write for a living, words are their business, and yet they fail to grasp Billy’s need for connection through language. This point is repeatedly underlined; Christopher, who steadfastly refuses to learn to sign, is even taking Chinese lessons. As the play progresses its subtly dwindles. While Billy becomes more confident, his brother Daniel (who just happens to be writing a thesis on language) is sinking into mental illness, his childhood stutter re-emerging, so as one brother finds his voice, the other loses his.

The performances show no such heavy-handedness. Jacob Casselden, a deaf actor, plays Billy with a calm, wry quality. Accustomed to being stuck on the sidelines, his character’s gradual emergence and growth is deftly handled. Playing opposite him, as Sylvia, Michelle Terry is (once again) controlled and compelling. Her character’s distress at the loss of her hearing is palpable and her response - wary, bemused, unsettled - to Billy’s feuding brood is convincing. She also gently modifies her voice as the play progresses to give a sense of her condition worsening.

Stanley Townsend is suitably larger than life as the booming, bearded Christopher and Kika Markham, Harry Treadaway and Pheobe Waller-Bridge are all on strong form as Beth, Daniel and Ruth respectively, though the two women’s roles are rather thin in comparison.

Mark Thompson’s simple set has a gauze screen that serves a dual purpose, dividing the space and allowing for the projection of surtitles. Most of the early scenes are conducted around the dining table but the piano, partially shielded from view, comes into its own at the end of the first act as Sylvia sits down to play. It’s a poignant moment, well executed, and subtler than some later scenes, beautifully illustrating that while Sylvia will always have the memory of music, Billy will not, something that causes them both disquiet.

The first half of Roger Michell’s production is crackling and energetic, full of familial one-upmanship and some inspired expletive-riddled dialogue (eating his wife’s seafood pasta is, according to Christopher, “like being fucked in the face by a crab”), but this momentum doesn’t quite carry through into the second half as events become more fragmented and unconvincing.

Yet despite this eventual falling off Raine’s play provides some real insight into the way that families communicate (or, rather, often fail to) and into just how painfully isolating it can be not to be able to hear in a world that makes few allowances for this fact.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Friday, October 15, 2010

Ivan and the Dogs at Soho Theatre

Moscow in the 1990s, when Yeltsin was still in power, was a harsh place for those with little money. While the elite feasted, many people struggled to feed their families. Pets were frequently abandoned in desperation; wild dogs roamed the streets.

Four year old Ivan’s world is a volatile one; his stepfather is a violent drunk and his mother spends much of her time weeping in fear. One morning the boy makes a run for it only to end up on the streets and forced to fend for himself.

His first attempts to find shelter result in him being kicked and taunted by a group of vagrant children but he eventually finds solace and security with a pack of wild dogs.

Ivan spends two years with his canine companions, developing an ever stronger bond with the head of the pack, a white dog he names Belka. He begs by day and is always careful to share his food with the dogs. As the nights grow colder he is eventually allowed into their den where he curls up with them for warmth.

Based on the true experiences of Ivan Mishukov (a potent story that also inspired NIE’s My Life with the Dogs), Hattie Naylor’s monologue has a gentle, fable-like quality. The simple set consists of a square white box in which actor Rad Kaim perches. As Ivan Kaim’s performance is quiet but compelling, vulnerable and open; he is often still and silent, as if lost in memory, but sometimes his face brightens and fills with delight. His movements and manner are subtly childlike but he never overplays this aspect of his performance.

Initially written for radio, Naylor’s play lacks immediacy. Ivan describes the way his behaviour becomes more doglike during his time on the streets, but as he is speaking from some future point a lot is left to the audience’s imagination. There’s never any real jeopardy over Ivan’s survival and Naylor seems more interested in how he survives, his gradual acceptance by the pack and the sense of connection he feels with the animals. Director Ellen McDougall resists the urge to have Kaim show this transition through his performance and a distance is always maintained between the Ivan on stage and the Ivan being described - the audience are told about, but don't ever really see, the small boy who learns to bark and growl in order to survive.

The gentle tone of this ATC and Soho Theatre co-production is accentuated by the sound design: Ivan’s monologue is interspersed with short bursts of pre-recorded Russian voices and, at one point, the poignant sound of a child singing. Occasionally the faint silhouettes of running dogs are projected on the set, ethereal and transient shapes which are more than a little reminiscent of Watership Down’s spirit bunnies, but for the most part the focus is on Kaim and he holds the attention throughout.

Though Naylor’s play supplies plenty of grim descriptions of the things Ivan witnesses while on the streets - blank-eyed glue sniffing children, tramps being brutally beaten and stripped - they’re not as penetrating as they might be and the overall tone is actually one of hope and optimism. The play, while never sentimental, is at times romantic about Ivan's situation and Naylor only very superficially explores what life might be like for Ivan after his experiences; she chooses instead, perhaps wisely, to end things on an uplifting note.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Onassis at the Novello Theatre

It must have required some considerable effort to take a life as eventful as that of shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis and render it so theatrically flat and unsatisfying.

Martin Sherman’s biographical drama first surfaced in Chichester a couple of years ago but despite considerable reworking the version that has now reached the West End is static and unforgivably dull.

That said, it can’t be accused of being short on plot. Drawing on Peter Evans’ book, Nemesis, the play covers his marriage to Jackie Kennedy, his off-and-on relationship with Maria Callas and even suggests that Onassis may have had some financial involvement in Robert Kennedy’s assassination. At one point (in one of the production’s funnier moments) director Nancy Meckler has to resort to using a flow chart projected on to the back of the set in order to illustrate the complex web of copulation in the Onassis set.

Sherman has appropriated some of the trappings of Greek tragedy – there’s a chorus of Onassis’ employees on hand to comment on the action and the characters make frequent calls upon the gods – but any sense of real tragedy is absent. The key events are reported rather than staged which adds to the sense of distance and only very occasionally are the characters allowed to collide.

Robert Lindsay, in the title role, captures some of the man’s brash charisma and doesn’t shy from depicting his unpleasantness and volatility, but there’s often a forced quality to his performance even if this in part seems to stem from the method of staging. Information is continually hurled at the audience in a way that minimises the emotional impact of even the most tragic of events. When Onassis crumbles on hearing of the death of his son, it’s a rare showy moment but one with little real power.

Lindsay is not allowed much opportunity to dig beneath the surface of his character and is forced to fall back on his not inconsiderable charm, clicking his heels to the regular bursts of bouzouki music and cursing with relish. His Onassis is never a figure one can empathise with and it’s easy to see why he occasionally overplays things, it feels like a compensatory measure for the play’s lack of dramatic drive. The other characters fare little better. Lydia Leonard, as Jackie, does her best with an underwritten role, but it’s difficult to figure out what her true feelings are towards Onassis at any stage in their relationship; Anna Francolini, drifting round the set in a kimono as the side-lined Maria Callas, her voice lost, has even less to do. Gawn Grainger, as Onassis’ right hand man Costa, is saddled with the bulk of the narration but he at least delivers this smoothly.

The sleek, clean design, by Katrina Lindsay, effectively conveys a world of Mediterranean wealth, of yachts and heat and money. The pool of water at the front of the stage is mirrored in the lighting, but this device, like so much in the production becomes repetitive and tired well before the end.

Reviewed for Theatermania

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Enlightenment at Hampstead Theatre

Edward Hall begins his first season as Artistic Director at Hampstead Theatre with a new play by Shelagh Stephenson, a writer whose career was shaped by the theatre (her early play The Memory of Water was staged there in the 1990s).

Lia and Nick’s 20-year-old son, Adam, has disappeared while on his gap year. They suspect he may have been caught up in a terrorist attack in Indonesia but can’t be sure. They have been left in an awful limbo; not knowing whether he is alive or dead they are unable to grieve, unable to continue living - Lia has even taken to consulting psychics in her need for answers, for closure.

Meanwhile Joanna, a young film maker, is very keen to televise their story, but while she professes an affinity with Lia - for, as she keeps reminding them, she's "a mother myself" - it’s clear her own career comes first.

Stephenson’s play is – to a point – compelling, the twisty plot keeps the audience guessing and it has a real narrative tug. But the writing is also chilly and clunky and often implausible. Lia spends an awful lot of time dissecting her predicament, to the extent that it clouds out her grief – her words are just words, unanchored to anything resembling real emotion.

There’s an uncertainty of tone to Edward Hall’s production. The early scenes not only suffer from an excess of exposition but they also have an awkward comic edge to them, a whiff of sitcom, especially those featuring Polly Kemp’s perky medium. Fortunately things shift at the play’s midway point and a welcome darkness sets in with the arrival of a mysterious young man into the family home. So significant is this change in gear that it almost feels as if the play could jettison its opening scenes to no ill effect.

The production, when it finally hits its stride, is well-paced and the plot holds the attention but Hall can’t quite disguise the stiffness of some of the writing nor the frequent lapses in credibility. When Paul Freeman, as Lia’s gruff MP father, blusters in at the end and starts behaving bluntly but sensibly it just highlights how frustratingly everyone else has been acting before then.

In a play that touches on the connectedness of things there’s a failure of all the various elements to intermesh. Lia’s many digressions, on chaos theory, the impossibility of trying to protect one’s children from the awful randomness of the world and the human capacity for goodness, seem superfluous to the story being told; one can hear the voice of the writer bleeding through. In amongst this Stephenson occasionally touches on something potent and true, like Lia’s quietly expressed anxiety that if she goes to the cinema with Nick she might enjoy herself, may even laugh, but these moments of emotional complexity are too few and far between.

Francis O’Connor’s sleek, curved white set is very striking, as is the use of projections on the ceilings and walls to create different locations, a park, and most effectively, an airport, but these potentially haunting and evocative visuals don’t quite click with the action on stage; again there’s a failure to completely mesh.

The cast do a decent enough job with the material. Julie Graham just about copes with a role that, though central, feels strangely half-formed and incomplete. Richard Clothier fares slightly better as her husband, Nick, though there’s a chilly impotence to his character too; he has little to do but bristle. It’s Tim Weston-Jones who really stands out, playing this young mixed up interloper with a suitable blend of brightness and menace; the scenes that he’s in are increasingly tense and provide the atmospheric kick the production is crying out for.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Hamlet at the National Theatre

Rory Kinnear is a very cerebral actor. It’s often possible to see the things clicking and connecting behind his eyes, but here in his long-mooted Hamlet for the National Theatre, this only works in his favour.

He speaks with a clearness of tone and freshness of voice, as if the words were just occurring to him, and, even when he is still, a sense of inner desperation remains.

His Hamlet is a mercurial figure, sometimes self-pitying, sometimes hard-edged and cunning; a young man pinioned by circumstance. When, rather self-consciously shamming insanity, he curls himself up in his trunk and pulls down the lid, there’s a palpable feeling that he wishes he could stay like that, balled up with a book, secure and safe, and shut out the hell he’s found himself in.

The production belongs to Kinnear. Nicholas Hytner’s direction is solid and polished but also rather safe and occasionally uninspired. The overriding sense is of a watched world: dark suited men with earpieces glide through anonymous corridors, people listen behind doors and silent figures can often be glimpsed through windows or submerged in shadow. It is impossible to be truly alone in this environment – there is always someone looking on or listening in.

Kinnear is first glimpsed in his mourning suit, looking stiff-spined and awkward as people buzz around him, an afterthought in his own home. Claudius’s first speech has become an on-camera address and once it’s all wrapped up everyone visibly slumps while Gertrude reaches for the first of many glasses of bubbly. The playing out of events for public consumption is a recurring theme and Hytner’s production contains visual echoes of The West Wing as well as touches of something more sinister and Soviet.

Patrick Malahide is a sly and understated Claudius while Clare Higgins plays Gertrude as a groomed and glossy political wife, crammed into a pencil skirt and high heels, masking her complicity with drink; but, in a production of great clarity, her motivations remain the haziest of all the characters and Higgins rarely allows the audience a handle on what she is feeling or thinking, a barrier remains in place.

Ruth Negga is a sparky Ophelia and has a real sense of sibling warmth with Alex Lanipekun's Laertes but, as is often the case, comes unstuck with the mad scenes, and just seems silly gliding round the stage on an overly symbolic shopping trolley papered with her dead father’s image.

Vicki Mortimer’s design enhances this idea of the ‘corridors of power’; the palace is an elegant but anonymous space, sparely furnished, chilly and shifting, with Hamlet’s book-strewn and messy quarters standing out in contrast. Though Hytner’s production can be a bit obvious, a bit blunt in places, and some of the innovations seem misplaced – the matching T-shirts whipped out to accompany the players’ performance are a case in point, stretching credulity – it’s very well-paced and has real dramatic propulsion, thanks in large part to Kinnear.

Kinnear’s somewhat studenty Prince is pitched into a hellish mess and made to confront himself and his world for what seems the first time; his is a very human Hamlet, smacking his hand against a desk with such force he hurts himself, smoking through his soliloquies. It’s his performance that sticks, that roots itself deep, a thoughtful portrayal that never feels mechanical, always fresh, considered and touchingly real.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Passion at the Donmar Warehouse

The Donmar Warehouse begins its celebrations of Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday with a staging of the composer’s 1994 musical, an emotionally complex piece based on the Italian film Passion D’Amore.

Giorgio (David Thaxton), a handsome young military officer, is in the midst of a consuming affair with Clara (Scarlett Strallen), a married Milanese woman, when he is posted to a remote mountain garrison.

Initially he finds this separation tortuous; he dreams of her and longs for her perfumed letters to arrive. Soon his gentle manner and bookish ways bring him to the attention of Fosca (Elena Roger), the colonel's invalid cousin. Being far from conventionally beautiful, a plain and sharp featured woman, Fosca has never been loved and her loneliness manifests itself in an intense burning for Giorgio. She throws herself at him both emotionally and, at times, physically. At first he is alarmed, repelled even, but there is something about the pureness and unbending quality of her love that comes to move him.

Elena Roger, returning to the Donmar following her Olivier Award-winning performance in Piaf, stands up to the challenge of playing a character as knotty as Fosca. She is at times both desperate and pathetic in the depth of her need, her emotions running out of control, yet Roger manages to balance out her character’s rather too frequent episodes of neurotic collapse with a clear-eyed pragmatism about the hand that life has dealt her.

Jamie Lloyd’s production brings an emotional potency to the piece while doing little to conceal quite how strange it is at times. There is something rather chilling and predatory about Fosca and the way she clings to Giorgio with an almost animal need. Her passion seems to have been building in her for years; it only took one kind deed to unlock it. Giorgio himself often appears to have very little to do with it so quickly and completely does she latch onto him.

Though Roger’s is the showier role, Thaxton is no less compelling as a man being slowly eroded by the heat of Fosca’s need. He does not shy away from showing how Giorgio’s acceptance of Fosca’s devotion comes at a considerable cost to him. Physically powerful in the opening scenes, he towers over the diminutive Roger but seems to shrink in stature as the story progresses, until finally he is left contorted and whimpering on the floor, broken.

Sondheim’s score lacks stand out numbers and is instead a work of layers and recurring motifs, its power slowly building. Lloyd’s production makes the most of the Donmar’s compact stage; the ensemble scenes are well handled, succinctly portraying the somewhat boorish atmosphere of the garrison, and it is strikingly designed, with a shimmering and beautiful set by Christopher Oram.

Yet there is something rather unsettling about the piece as a whole which Lloyd taps into and exploits; the abiding feeling is not one of love conquering insurmountable odds but something altogether darker and more ambiguous.

Reviewed for Theatermania

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Aliens at the Bush Theatre

Annie Baker’s The Aliens harks back to the slacker subgenre best encapsulated in the mid-1990s by the early films of Richard Linklater and the plays of Eric Bogosian; in fact, superficially at least, Baker's play brings to mind Clerks-era Kevin Smith - minus the rooftop hockey and the scatological excess.

The play, which debuted at New York’s Rattlestick Theatre earlier this year, is set in the yard behind a Vermont coffee shop. This is the place where thirty-something drop-outs Jasper and KJ spend their days, sitting and smoking and talking.

Though they once toyed with the idea of starting a band together – The Aliens was one of many band names they considered - Jasper is now intent on penning a Bukowski-influenced novel while KJ’s energies (if that’s not too strong a term) go into perfecting a better blend of shroom tea.

Theirs is a life of Beckettian repetition and stasis, punctured by occasional interruptions from Evan, a high school student who works at the coffee shop and is worried their presence will get him to trouble. Though he’s initially wary, a gentle friendship grows between them and they end up sitting in the yard together on the Fourth of July, eating brownies as fireworks explode on the other side of the fence.

There’s a measured and elegant quality to Baker’s writing, a precision; her dialogue is full of small silences punctuated by an occasional intense verbal volley (the need for frequent pauses in delivery is specified in the script). Yet in her own slow-burning way she conveys a strong sense of a parallel America, one driven by a different dream.

The play is compassionately directed by Peter Gill, who draws warm performances from Ralf Little, as KJ, and Mackenzie Crook, as Jasper. Both men manage to make these directionless and occasionally frustrating characters sympathetic and endearing, though at times it’s a delicate line; Crook’s Jasper is marginally the more enigmatic of two, hollow-cheeked and mentally tormented by his crazy sometime girlfriend, Andrea. But it’s Olly Alexander’s nervy, hesitant Evan who makes the strongest mark, quietly awestruck by his involvement with this pair of outsiders, never quite shaking off his adolescent awkwardness but nonetheless growing in confidence. There’s something incredibly tender about the glow of contentment on his face as he lights his first cigarette and plucks up the courage to call a girl he likes.

Lucy Osborne’s set has the audience seated almost on top of the performers in a well-realised recreation of the coffee shop’s grubby back yard, complete with trash cans, concrete floor and a corrugated iron wall over which the actors are occasionally required to haul themselves. Yet it’s oddly unclaustrophobic, despite the physical closeness – the nature of the Gill’s direction and the play itself ensures a level of emotional distance is maintained.

The play’s delicacy eventually works against it. It feels overstretched, something only enhanced by unnecessary interval, and while the narrative is not entirely empty of incident, its gentle aimlessness doesn’t entirely sustain it. The performances are the things that stick, along with the overall atmosphere of the piece, the unhurried pace, this feel for the people who are "not even near to being one of them", who are always destined to be on the wrong side of the fence to the parade and the cheers and the fireworks.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

National Youth Theatre: Relish

The trajectory is not an unfamiliar one. A talented young chef rises to prominence on the back of his skill and innovative thinking in the kitchen; he becomes rich and famous but also over-confident. He overextends himself, and though his cookery books are bestsellers, he also embarks on a number of ill-judged projects and product endorsements, losing sight of the passion and talent that his career was founded on.

Based on Ruth Cowen’s book of the same name, James Graham’s lively play for the National Youth Theatre charts the life of Alexis Soyer, arguably Britain’s first celebrity chef.

Fleeing to London following the French revolution, the young Alexis, gifted but also determined and hard-working, rises rapidly to become head chef at the newly opened Reform Club. But his success soon goes to his head. The word genius is bandied about and he believes it. He makes the error of thinking that he is indispensible, that the success of the Reform is down to him alone, and takes to berating club members who dare to request a little more pepper on their lamb.

The story is ripe with modern parallels and Graham’s playful if episodic script makes much of them. There are references to Masterchef and a more general commentary on contemporary celebrity. The play also includes irreverent portraits of Queen Victoria, Mary Seacole, Madame Tussaud and Florence Nightingale, the latter of whom is depicted as an utter egoist, a foul-tongued rump-slapper with little regard for the men under her care.

A lot of care has clearly gone into the look of Paul Roseby’s production. The two-level set successfully conveys the world of the kitchens below and the club above, with a little lift to show transition between the two. Though Soyer wears period costume, everyone else wears chefs’ whites, and the majority of props and costumes have been fashioned out of kitchen utensils. Queen Victoria’s skirts are a clinking carapace of whisks and ladles while Soyer’s prima ballerina lover wears a tutu emblazoned with washing up gloves. When the action shifts to the Crimea, one unfortunate soldier oozes innards in the form of a string of sausages.

James Walker is suitably charismatic as Soyer but the production is hampered by its sizeable cast. There are forty performers in all and while there are some scenes that benefit from this, more often than not the sheer volume of bodies makes for a cluttered, messy production. There is little room for connection between characters and the production takes a while to find its feet, the early scenes clogged and noisy. There are also more practical problems with vocal projection; some cast members are better at it than others and several lines of dialogue get swallowed up by the high-ceilinged space.

Things tighten up considerably in the second half; the narrative grip of Soyer’s story is allowed to take hold and there is genuine poignancy in the later scenes. The large ensemble cast is used more judiciously and there is space for some strong individual acting from both Walker and Hanna Morrish as his ill-fated wife, Emma. To use one of the food metaphors so prevalent in the play: it's a rich dish, one with rather too much going on but with a clarity of flavour that comes through in the end.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Deathtrap at the Noel Coward Theatre

In order to generate publicity for his 1959 thriller The Tingler the film director William Castle is supposed to have installed buzzers under the seats of certain cinemas in which the film was playing in order to give his audience a rather literal jolt.

From the way the women in front of me leapt into the air during a key moment in Matthew Warchus’ revival of Ira Levin’s 1978 comedy thriller, Deathtrap, it looked a lot like Castle had been tinkering with their chairs.

For the most part Warchus’ production is a slick and solid revival of a play that doesn't quite make the case for all the love that has been lavished on it. There are a couple of proper shocks but there’s also a constant flow of self-reference, which is amusing at first but becomes a little tedious towards the end.

The play begins with faded playwright Sidney Bruhl receiving a manuscript in the post from a former student. Bruhl hasn’t had a hit in years and has been living off his wife’s money so this play, a well-constructed, marketable “five-character, two-act thriller with laughs in all the right places,” is the kind of thing he might literally kill for. He invites the young writer to his Connecticut cottage to talk things through as his increasingly nervous wife, Myra, watches on, worried about what her husband might be driven to do.

The story that follows is stuffed with twists and bluffs and double crosses. Part of the joy comes in the element of surprise, in not seeing these turns and lurches coming (the programme urges the audience not to give things away and spoil it for others), so it’s difficult to discuss the plot further without divulging too much.

Levin’s play doubles as a pastiche of the genre it inhabits and the characters are forever pointing out how what’s happening would make a good play. In fact in the second act, one of them begins to write that very play, adding to the already thick layer of self-reference. The first half is rather talky and slow to get going but, once it’s been established that nothing is quite what it initially appears, Warchus maintains an admirably high level of tension (that fact that Bruhl’s home is strewn with weapons, theatrical souvenirs and antique finds, helps considerably in this regard).

Though it’s probably fair to assume that the meta elements of Levin’s play felt fresher when it was first staged, the constant commenting on its own structure, which begins as a fairly witty conceit, soon becomes an overused device, one that acknowledges but doesn’t compensate for the occasional weaknesses of the writing; it sometimes feels as if the play is not so much winking at the audience as winking at itself in a mirror just over their shoulder.

That said, Simon Russell Beale is predictably delightful as Bruhl; his timing is impeccable, each gesture and glance well-judged, and he gives the character a surprising level of emotional complexity, one perhaps not supplied by the writing. Glee’s Jonathan Groff is able enough as the young playwright, Clifford, respectful and eager but also clearly ambitious. Claire Skinner however seems ill at ease as Myra, her accent wavering, and Estelle Parsons casts asides any notion of nuance in her cameo as the psychic Swede, Helga ten Dorp.

Rob Howell’s beamed barn-like set is impressive and full of shadows, an effect heightened during the inevitable climactic thunderstorm. But though the production as a whole is undemanding and fun, it can feel a bit overstretched and at times a bit self-satisfied; its entertaining nature however helps override some of these niggles.

Reviewed for musicOMH