Friday, April 30, 2010

Pressure Drop at the Wellcome Collection

Pressure Drop, the first theatrical work to be staged at the Wellcome Collection, describes itself – fairly accurately – as "part gig, part play, part installation." Billy Bragg and his band provide live musical accompaniment to Mick Gordon’s play on Englishness, identity and what it means to come home.

The centre’s exhibition space, recently home to an exhibition on identity to which this is an apt coda, has been strikingly designed for the production by Tim Scutt; dotted around the room are three separate sets: a suburban living room, a pub and a chapel, all united by a great red rip which runs around the walls.

There is also a stage, on which Bragg and his band sit, providing songs that are interspersed with the scenes of the play. There is initially a bit of banter between Bragg and the audience - he starts by summing up promenade theatre for the uninitiated: “you walk up and down the room; if you see a light, go towards it” – but his presence and his playing soon becomes part of the fabric of the production.
The story itself is a (very) well worn one, but it is well-executed. Two brothers are reunited by a family funeral. One, Jon, has left home – a rundown, recession-hit town on the outskirts of London – some years back and has become successful trader in New York; the other, Jack, has stayed behind, married and had a son, but the recent loss of his job has left him adrift. Now Tony (a volatile David Kennedy), his friend since childhood, heavy-set, short-fused and confrontational, is trying to get Jack to run as local councillor for a far right party with a three-letter name and Jack, despite some reservations, can see the appeal, of regaining his voice, ceasing to be passive.

It’s fair to say his dad wouldn’t have approved. The recently deceased Ron, their reggae loving father – the title song by Toots and the Maytels is the music he’s requested for his funeral – regularly emerges from his coffin to offer sage advice from beyond the grave.

Gordon’s play is heavy-handed in places, particularly in its handling of a subplot involving a stolen knife and a stabbing, but the writing is also nicely textured and – mostly – free of didacticism. There are few hard and true lines, a lot of muddy middle ground. Jon is appalled at what Tony is asking Jack to do, but then he also lives a comfortable life, far away from the difficulties they face. Tony is not just a one-note thug, but a father who has lost a son, and through this lens his anger and his hate become more understandable, if not acceptable.

Though in many ways quite conventional, the play springs a few nice narrative surprises, which are well handled by director Christopher Haydon. The cast all give strong performances - particularly Justin Salinger as Jon, the ambivalent outsider, whose feels both distaste and longing for a place that is no longer his home – and the hybrid format, half gig, half play, really works. The pacing of the piece is well managed, with sufficient room left between the scenes for the audience to make their way around the space. But it’s the believability of the characters and their predicament, the warmth of the piece, which ends up shining through. The final scenes are moving and uplifting in equal measure (if a little too clean and contrived) and Bragg and his band lift it that little bit further.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Micro at the Gate

Pierre Rigal’s follow up to his wonderful solo show Press, also staged at the Gate, is a curious hybrid. Part garage jam, part dance piece, part something else entirely, it’s at times inspired, at times a bit directionless.

Described by Rigal as a ‘physical concert’, Micro is like a rock gig in which the performers are as likely to play each other as their instruments. The tiny Gate stage has been equipped with drum kit, guitars, keyboards and amplifiers, while the band takes the form of a charismatic quartet of French performers, three men and one woman, all clad in black vintage rock T-shirts: Bowie and the Ramones.

In between more straightforwardly performed songs there are sequences in which the group, Melanie Chartreux, Malik Djoudi, Gwenael Drapeau and Julien Lepreux, use one another as human xylophones and turn the demo instructions on the keyboard into a kind of free-form riff. There’s a nice line in wit running through the piece, which is full of inventive instances of physical comedy. Chartreux’s spike-heeled sandals are used as drums and, in one memorable routine, they split into pairs, using alternate arms to play their instruments. It’s made to look effortless but clearly requires a superb level of musicianship and timing.

The choreography revolves totally around the instruments and the music gives the piece its pulse. The merging of the performer with their instrument is a recurring theme, given full weight in a welcome encore where the drummer seems almost as if he is possessed, giggling as he runs around the stage in a kind of drumming frenzy. The instruments are repeatedly used as masks, rendering the performer faceless as they play, half man, half guitar.

From a slow beginning, in which the performers emerge from behind their equipment, crawling on to the stage - a kind of a birth – the piece builds like any gig, the songs getting stronger, taking over.

Not everything works; there’s some slightly wonky robot dancing, an overlong air guitar sequence, and the piece as a whole, goes on a bit too long, but taken on its own unique terms this is a memorable and inventive show. It might not share the same wealth of ideas as the compelling and intense Press, but Micro is an exciting and energetic merging of forms, performed with real wit and skill.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Posh at the Royal Court

Laura Wade’s provocative new play about class privilege concerns an elite Oxford dining club not entirely dissimilar from the now notorious Bullingdon Club of which David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson were all members.

The ten undergraduate members of the Riot Club dress in bow ties and tail coats and quaff wine by the bottle in an attempt to get totally "chateaued". They have a complex set of rules and any breach is met with a forfeit. Bin liners are affixed to the back of each chair to deal with the inevitable physical consequences of such excess and the object of the evening is to create as much havoc as possible.

The play takes place in the burgundy-walled private dining room of an Oxfordshire country pub. One of their number, Guy – his eye on the presidency – has customised the menu to include a ten bird roast, while another, Harry, rocks up in his fencing gear; Dimitri rides in on a newly purchased vintage Triumph motorbike and new boys Ed and Miles are still slightly perturbed that in the name of initiation someone has jizzed all over their college rooms.

These young men have wealth, property (there’s a lengthy rant about the National Trust and how awful it is to have the public traipsing through their family homes), connections, and a deeply held sense of entitlement. They are also, to a man, weak, cowardly, immature and whiny. Wade gradually builds up their belief that money can get them anything they want; at first it’s a few extras favours, small things, but later, as the wine flows, they think nothing of offering the landlord’s daughter cash to perform sexual acts. Their grasp on the realities of how other people live is slim and their attitude to women is, at best, condescending, at worst dripping in misogyny. When their behaviour veers from being merely obnoxious towards something altogether uglier, it’s telling that their first response is to fret about the consequences for their futures.

The most outspoken of their number is Leo Bill’s Alistair who gets a number of impassioned monologues about how people of their class and position have allowed themselves to be carried away on a tide of mediocrity. He believes it is time to reclaim their birth right as members of the ruling class, to rule.

There are other strong performances from Harry Hadden-Paton as the incredibly self-assured Harry (“I always win”) and David Dawson as Hugo, who tries to present himself as slightly more refined than the others. Daniel Ryan’s pub landlord and Fiona Button, as his daughter, Rachel, provide a necessary counterpoint to their indulgence.

Lyndsey Turner’s production is well-paced and inventive, with the interludes between scenes covered by some delightfully incongruous a capella singing, and Wade’s writing is witty and very entertaining. There are flashes of charm in these young men before they degenerate into a braying wine-fuelled mob, but she allows them few, if any, redeeming features; none of them emerge as fully rounded characters – they are just variants on a type. It would have been nice to see a glimmer of goodness or the capacity to change in at least one of them, but the play is more intent on banging its drum.

Wade suggests that clubs like these are not only an excuse for bad behaviour, but an opportunity to gain ties that will last a lifetime, favours to be repaid at some future date when they’re all comfortably ensconced in some position of authority. The final scenes glitter with conspiracy, but it all feels rather over-done, the play having already stated its case several times over by this point.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Monday, April 12, 2010

Andersen's English at Hampstead Theatre

Despite its title Sebastian Barry’s play, Andersen's English is far more about the life of Charles Dickens than about that of the Danish poet and writer Hans Christian Andersen.

Barry’s play is set during the summer of 1857 when Andersen visited Dickens at his home in Gad’s Hill in Kent intending to stay a fortnight but eventually staying on for five weeks. Directed by Max Stafford-Clark for Out of Joint, the play is a strange mixture of culture clash comedy and domestic drama that manages to shed little light on the characters of either of these eccentric but gifted men.

As Andersen does not speak English particularly well he is oblivious to much of the tension within the Dickens family. He is only dimly aware of all the torment and disharmony around him and departs with the impression of having stayed in a warm and loving household.

Dickens, as written by Barry, is a fairly unpleasant and controlling man, who has grown tired of his wife, Catherine, the mother of his many children. He has a complex and close though unconsummated relationship with Catherine’s sister Georgie and is about to fall for the young actress Ellen Ternan, with whom he starred on stage in Wilkie Collins’ The Frozen Deep. Catherine will eventually be banished from the family home entirely.

The scenes concerning Dickens’ family life are, at times, engrossing but the play features many odd lurches in tone. Some scenes are played as broad comedy, others as wrenching drama, and the two never really knit together. With the exception of two brief scenes at the beginning and end of the play, Barry never allows Andersen to speak in his own language; his English is fractured and mangled, halting and awkward, making it impossible to get a sense of him as man. Barry presents his surface quirks – he carries a length of rope in his suitcase in case a fire breaks out – but denies him his own true voice.

The production itself also features unexpected and not altogether successful tonal shifts. Rather ungainly puppets are used to stand in for some of the Dickens children and the cast occasionally break into song. Though there is some pleasure to be taken in the way the cast trample over Lucy Osborne’s attractively cluttered set, turning dining chairs into stepping stones and a grand piano into a hilltop picnic spot, the production feels like it is struggling with itself, unsure of what it really wants to be.

David Rintoul (in an amusingly elaborate wig) plays Dickens as a talented yet demanding and difficult man, who is rather over-fond of his own voice, while Niamh Cusack gives the play its emotional centre, as the hard done by Catherine, stung by her rejection by her husband, worn down by the bearing of so many children (ten in all), and desperately scared for her son Walt who is being dispatched to India by a rather disinterested Dickens.

Danny Sapani does what he can with the character of Andersen, suggesting a measure of sadness beneath all the surface oddity, but the device of focusing on Andersen’s broken English never really justifies itself. The audience does not see the Dickens’ household through his eyes nor does it gain much in the way of insight into Andersen as a man. Catherine is the only one who seems to connect with him, but even their freindship is not developed as much as it could have been.

Barry has also grafted on a subplot about Dickens’ young Irish housemaid, a young woman with whom Walt is besotted and who finds herself pregnant. Though Lisa Kerr’s performance in this role is spirited and enjoyable this strand of the play feels superfluous, adding another splash of colour to what is an already muddy palette.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Friday, April 09, 2010

Polar Bears at the Donmar Warehouse

There’s an inherent difficulty in writing about mental illness. It’s something so profoundly internal, so ungraspable to those on the outside, that often it’s easier to depict the effect that a person’s behaviour has on those that love them rather than attempt to truly enter that person’s world. Mark Haddon’s dark, fractured debut play has moments of rawness and insight but it doesn’t quite avoid falling into familiar traps.

Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time took its readers inside the mind of a boy with Asperger’s, but, in his play, a certain distance is maintained between the audience and Kay, the central character, a young woman suffering from bipolar disorder.

Haddon’s play explores Kay’s relationship with both her mother and brother as well as with John, the man who will become her husband. John prides himself on being grounded and steady; he thinks he can keep Kay safe from herself, he sees himself as the person “holding her kite string.”

The play is intentionally unsettling. Time is a liquid thing and the scenes are shown out of order; some are clearly imaginary, events happening in Kay’s mind, but it is a strength of Jamie Lloyd’s production that it is never quite evident how much of what the play depicts is actually happening. From the macabre calm of the opening scene onwards, there is a potent, dreamlike quality to the staging that is intensified as the play progresses.

It is revealed that Kay’s father committed suicide when she was a girl and his father, in turn, was also mentally ill; Kay’s condition is talked about like a family curse, handed down through the generations, the flipside of her artistic talents (she dreams of illustrating children’s books) which she may have inherited from her mother. Both her mother and brother are deeply protective of her, but it is implied their protectiveness is in some ways damaging, keeping her dependent (her mother, living out in a lonely old house by a river, repeatedly asks for reassurance that Kay will never leave her). John, though initially besotted by her vibrancy, finds himself falling into the same patterns once the reality and relentlessness of her condition becomes apparent.

Jodhi May’s performance as Kay is well-judged, capturing both the extreme highs and lows of her illness; Haddon shows her sitting rain-soaked on the roof, wide-eyed with wonder about the possibility of other worlds and the idea of neutrinos streaming through her body. He also shows her foetal and fearful on the floor, terrified and sealed within her own dark sphere.

Paul Hilton captures the complexity of Kay’s brother Sandy, who dutifully sounds out her potential boyfriends for suitability but also perhaps envies his sister’s instability, especially as his childhood was equally marked by tragedy and yet he has managed to live a comparatively normal life. Celia Imrie also gives a strong performance as Kay’s mother, though, as written, her character is the least convincing. Her need to keep Kay close to her is juxtaposed with her confession of the relief she felt following her husband’s death, freeing her from the constant fear. In these moments of revelation the writing feels a little too blunt and controlled.

Richard Coyle’s genial John is the most ambiguous of the characters, but in making him an academic philosopher, Haddon too obviously makes him the mouthpiece for the play’s Big Questions about life and love and the inevitability of decay. This device somewhat limits him as a character.

Haddon clearly relishes the puzzle-like quality of the play and provides plenty of questions to be picked over but he’s also not immune to cliché. Kay explains the beauty and the pain of her condition via a lengthy fairy tale and, in a somewhat tonally misjudged scene, she converses with Jesus. The simple two-level set, designed by Soutra Gilmour, is effective, neatly echoing the split within Kay, but the ominous flickering lighting again seems a step too far into the familiar: mental illness by numbers.

This is a play that plants itself firmly in the mind, but it’s most effective when it’s stillest, when it allows its audience to catch a glimpse of Kay as a person rather than as a device, a conduit for narrative game-playing and philosophical debate.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Notebook of Trigorin at the Finborough

Tennessee Williams’ “free adaptation” of Chekhov’s The Seagull was written near the end of his life. Williams was fascinated with Chekhov’s play and his version, transplanted to the American South, is infused with his own particular preoccupations. The characters are as much his as Chekhov’s. Arkadina is something of a one-note diva figure, domineering, vain and self-obsessed; she’s the kind of woman who hurls herself dramatically to the floor when she fears she won’t get her own way.

Trigorin is pushed into the foreground and is, by turns, far less submissive and more knowing; seemingly bisexual, he feels that the recognition of his feminine as well as masculine side is a necessary part of being a writer. Nina is delicate and pure yet easily led. Phil Willmott’s production of this intriguing yet difficult play is compelling yet also contains moments of real awkwardness.

While Carolyn Backhouse pitches things well, keeping Arkadina just the right side of caricature, and Stephen Billington’s Trigorin is suitably ambiguous, some of the performances waver. Nonetheless the production is elegantly staged, with Kim Alwyn and Aimee Sajjan-Servaes’s simple set inverted between acts so that the inside of the house becomes the garden and vice versa, and offers a rare chance to see a fascinating if flawed play.

Reviewed for The Stage