Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Visitors, Bush Theatre

Barney Norris’ tiny knife of a play was staged to acclaim at the Arcola earlier this year and now transfers to the Bush Theatre. Tender, unexpectedly funny and warm, it’s a delicate thing - but one capable of upending its audience.
There’s a ripeness to Norris’ writing. Each character feels alive. The interplay between Edie and Arthur is full of little winks and prickles. Their middle-aged, soon to be divorced son Stephen, sensitively played by Simon Muller, is also achingly drawn; a man trying to remain practical in his actions, while all too acutely aware of what his life lacks, perhaps even a little jealous of the depth of his parents’ love. Even Eleanor Wyld’s blue-haired home help Kate is more than just a narrative prop; she grows too.Linda Bassett and Robin Soans play Arthur and Edie, a long-married couple who have lived together on the same farm for decades; we can chart their relationship in every glance and joke and gesture. Their marriage, their scrap of history, has been quiet, and while they are not without regrets, they have carried each other along. Now Edie’s memories, her sense of self, are slowly being eroded by dementia, and she knows she’s going. Decisions need to be taken about their future, for what happens when they can no longer care for each other.
Alice Hamilton’s large-hearted, affecting production is beautifully judged, and the performances from all concerned, but particularly Bassett and Soans, are rich and real and generous.
Reviewed for The Stage

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Near Gone, Bush Theatre

Goran Bregović fittingly refers to his vast ensemble of musicians, trumpeters, choristers and backing singers as the Weddings and Funerals Orchestra. His compositions draw on the musical traditions of the Balkans, of the Eastern European Roma, of Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia, of Turkey – and of Bulgaria – they are songs of elation and celebration but also lament. Bregović is perhaps best known for collaborating with and soudtracking the work of the Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica and one of his most popular songs, ‘Kalashnikov,’ is taken from the soundtrack of Kusturica’s massive, messy allegory, Underground; it’s a sky-punching, foot-stamping, pistol-firing, rakia-downing, midnight embrace of a song (though not lacking in irony, teetering at times on pastiche). It is a song I have definitely danced to when drunk at least once.

It’s also a song that erupts several times throughout Two Destination Language’s thoughtful, quietly moving Near Gone – performed at the Bush as part of Radar – a show about trauma and distance. Katherina and Alister stand on a stage framed by bunches of white flowers (carnations I think, weddings and funerals again). They begin to tell us as story, with Katherina – who is from Sofia – speaking in Bulgarian, and Alister, after a beat, translating. At first her story sounds not unlike a 1970s language textbook. She tells us Sofia is very hot in the summer, she lists the abundant produce of the green markets – pears, peaches, berries red and blue – she tells us the women are very beautiful. All this is accompanied with by a series of gestures and movements which Alister, slightly reluctantly, mimics.

Katherina then starts to describe her parents’ house. She takes a long time doing this, honing in on small details, as if putting something off. Occasionally the translation machine breaks down: Alister gets a word wrong or misses a piece of information and needs to be corrected, thus calling attention to and extending the process. There is a gap, a lag, like you used to have with long distance phone calls.

Eventually Katherina starts to describe a serious accident that befell her younger sister, and the anguish of uncertainty, of waiting to see whether she would recover. The details are revisited and picked over, relived: the length of time it took for the ambulance to arrive, the doctors standing outside the hospital smoking. Her story is interspersed with blasts of Bregović’s ‘Kalashnikov’ to which she dances energetically but not chaotically, holding a bunch of flowers in each of her hands, strewing petals across the stage. While it is a song which invites abandon, there is a sense of ritual and order in her dance though it becomes more ragged with each new iteration, her cheeks flushing pink, her breathing getting heavier. It is a draining, emptying process.

Alister can only watch as she goes through these motions (and emotions). For while this is a show about trauma, it is also about distance, about being caught between states and places, being far away, geographically and culturally, from the place you want and need to be, about how to exist in that awful pause: waiting for news to come, good or bad.

I found that I was able to understand about half of the words in Bulgarian, which meant I was both waiting for Alister’s translation to clarify things while patching together Katherina’s words as she said them, getting trapped between what I understood and that which remained hazy and unclear, which in the end seemed an apt way to experience it.

For it turns out this is not only a piece about grief and distance but also about what it is to bridge these gaps, cultural, linguistic and emotional, to emerge out of the other side intact, to connect with someone else, to share this dance together.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Grand Guignol, Southwark Playhouse

Gouge is a good word. It has a nice mouth-feel, ripe and round and red as a cherry. There’s a fair bit of gouging in Carl Grose’s homage to the notorious Théâtre du Grand Guignol, as well as some plucking and spurting and severing – and you can put money on the fact that blood will at some point incarnadine the theatre’s white tile walls

The whole set is fucking lovely in fact. They’ve built a raised stage and proscenium arch with wooden side panels that would not look out of place at a chapel, thick red curtains and a creaking and rickety roof, all within Southwark Playhouse’s Large space.

Grose and director Simon Stokes have pitched things perfectly. The play operates as both a potted history, celebration and pastiche of the repertoire of the famous Theatre of Blood. The best known plays – The Laboratory of Hallucinations and Crime in a Madhouse – are re-enacted but we also get a flavour of life behind the scenes: the interplay between their star writer André de Lorde - who penned so many of their tales of insanity and murder and came to be known as the ‘Prince of Terror’, (here played by an affable, almost chipper Jonathan Broadbent) – the theatre owner, and the acting company. The tone touches on Hammer-y camp sometimes but stays the right side of the line.

While the characters remain stock types, the cast have fun playing with them. Andy Williams does double duty as the theatre manager, Max Maurey, as well as cameoing as de Lorde’s inspiration and muse, Edgar Allen Poe (as played by Vincent Price shouldering a stuffed raven), while Robert Portal has a great time eating up the scenery as the Grand Guignol’s leading man, Georges Paulais, and Emily Raymond gives a similarly ripe performance as the scream queen of her day, Paula Maxa, “the most assassinated woman in the world”, whose lot was to be brutally dispatched and violated on stage in a series of ingenious and bloody ways.

Paul Chequer plays Ratineau, the man responsible for many of the props and make-up effects of the Grand Guignol, and designer Alex Doidge-Green has – wonderfully – recreated several of these objects and devices. There are curious and gruesome surgical tools, slithering tentacles of intestine, an abundance of clotted, matted hair, slashed and flayed and acid-eroded prosthetics, and various alarming contraptions into which a person can be clamped and tethered. A machine for the reanimation of severed heads is a particular delight.

Matthew Pearson plays de Lorde’s sometime collaborator, the experimental psychiatrist Alfred Binet – a nervy sort of fellow, a fainter – and the play’s more messy moments are interspersed with conversations between the two about the genesis of horror in the human mind, whether it takes some form of real life trauma to generate such macabre fantasies, whether they serve a psychological purpose.

These sequences can be a little dry at times, they can slow the pace of things, though to be fair the production would probably feel rather relentless without them. A better balance is, however, struck in the properly juddering second half, when the layers of reality within the world of the play start to overlap, when the Grand Guignol starts to exert its crimson-fingered grip, when the blood begins to pool and ooze and drip.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Henry IV, Donmar Warehouse

You come in via the back door. In this sort-of sequel to her all-female Julius Caesar at the Donmar, Phyllida Lloyd has retained the women’s prison setting. This extends to the way you enter the space. Having collected your tickets from a bar across the street the audience are made to file in up the back stairs while being brusquely instructed by ushers dressed as prison guards to turn our phones off or risk having them confiscated. Inside the lighting is stark and unforgiving, while the seating in the lower part of the theatre has been replaced with equally unforgiving grey plastic chairs. There are institutional posters on the walls and a few more guards dotted around the space. It’s the same flirting-with-immersive approach the Young Vic took to their Hamlet, but once the play proper begins there’s no further interaction.

The two parts of Henry IV have been whittled down to a taut two hours, the pace rarely flagging, the energy considerable, and as with Lloyd’s Julius Caesar there’s a framing device, the inmates performing a play within a play, which allows for a handful of moments when the performers drop out of ‘character’, mainly to swear or scrap with one another.

As a result there are times when there’s a sense that the underlying relationships between the women are being echoed in their onstage dynamics, though this isn’t explored all that much as an idea – we are never shown who these women are and what they mean to one another beyond the world of the play – it does, however, add a shading to certain exchanges, most notably when Ashley McGuire’s Falstaff makes a fart noise at the end of one of Harriet Walters’ most kingly speeches and Walters shoots her a stern reprimanding look.

And Walters is brilliantly kingly. There’s something majestic about her whole demeanour, contemplative, intelligent, quietly commanding, even in a shapeless grey tracksuit, a ratty dressing gown and a crown made of old Cola cans (As a result of having watched too much Oz at an impressionable age I was a bit worried about the presence of all this jagged metal, but most of the violence is dance-like, stylised and shank-free – until the last ragged battle between Hal and Hotspur).

In fact dance and music are central to Lloyd’s production; the whole thing is permeated with this idea that music has the power to lift people out of restrictive environments, to transport, to liberate. The cold grey brick of the back wall is frequently filled with light, star dappled, as the performers slide into song. Sharon Rooney’s Lady Percy has a particularly affecting moment, a gentle, lilting lament.

This is, let’s be clear, an inventive and exciting production, but as beautifully done as so much of it was, I couldn’t help feel that it tries to explain itself too much, to find ways of accounting for the fact that all these women are together on stage, instead of just revelling in it – because it is a thing worth revelling in. But I began to feel as if there was something almost apologetic in the prison setting. Both this and Julius Caesar have been produced in collaboration with Clean Break, a theatre company which works with women in the prison system, and this is great and commendable – and, yes, there’s a also logic to the institutional setting, in terms of the power play and the shifting allegiances and the absence of men. They definitely make the case for choosing this path, part of me just wishes – especially since this is the second time around for the concept – they didn’t feel the need to justify and contextualise the casting in this way – because, regardless of setting, the cast are amazing.

Alongside Walters, Jade Anouka’s Hotspur is a fucking force, with her red wedge of hair; she has this deliciously rangy, rolling performance style, light footed and limber, and – as her performance in Sabrina Mahfouz’s Chef showed – she has a strong poetic sense, there’s a musicality to her delivery. Cynthia Erivo is similarly physical in her performance, if more compact and contained. Like Kenard in The Wire, she’s tiny but you wouldn’t want to cross her. McGuire’s Falstaff is a wonderfully rumbling presence, using her superficial joviality as both a shield and a weapon, while Clare Dunne’s Hal is fiery but smart, clearly playing the long game

All that said, the rivalries and divisions – the Oz-like tribalism that only seems to surface towards the end – don’t feel all that well developed and it’s the tender moments that linger longest, like Rooney and Anouka’s embrace; their reluctance to let each other go.

And there’s something fascinating and timely about the ways in which the production prods at gender identity and its construction. The prison setting is part of this I guess – the shaved heads, the undercuts, the make-up free faces, the tracksuits and gym gear. Androgyny in various guises is part of the aesthetic – Walters’ face, as Henry, looks a little bit like Jeremy Irons crossed with Marlow Moss – which calls the attention to the weight our society places on women continuing to look feminine as they age. But she is never de-sexed by this, nor is there any ‘man-acting’, rather she and the rest of the cast get to probe the interplay between their masculine and feminine traits in ways not often given room to in the mainstream. Strength is a part of this. Because these women are strong. Really bloody strong. There’s this brilliant sequence in which Anouka, Erivo and Ann Ogbomo’s Worcester do a seemingly effortless series of acrobatic chin lifts and push ups and it’s such a pleasure to watch, this focus on women’s strength – physical as well as emotional – this display of power, untethered as it is to the cat-suits and slink of comic books or the acceptable athleticism of the sports world.

So it comes as a bit of a slap when the house-lights snap on at the end and the prison guards come back in to break up the performance. It feels like a reassertion of something that was thrillingly absent during the course of the play.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Starlore for Beginners, Theatre 503

“To life, to life, l’chaim.” Robert stands baffled on his kitchen chair belting out lyrics from Fiddler on the Roof. He’s not a singer. Not even in the shower. This newfound musicality, his girlfriend suspects, is the result of something else: the dislocated soul of her late husband, a dybbuk, intent on making an involuntary Topol of her current boyfriend.

The supernatural laces its way through Samantha Ellis’ writing. This quarter of shorts also proves her point – discussed at greater length here – that the short play can also “be huge and voluptuous and intellectually rangy, at the same time as being lean and punchy, taut and fleet.” All together the four run to just three quarters of an hour and yet there’s an awful lot going on within these tiny plays: grief, love, and life – complex knotty ideas about identity and a dash of the uncanny. These supernatural undercurrents are most explicit in Unfinished, in which a couple have to deal with the returning presence of her dead spouse. The play manages to speak about what it is to begin to live romantically again after the loss of a husband while having a bit of dark strange fun with the idea of Jewish possession (it could have been worse, it could have been Yentl).

These plays while short are never slight; the way in which Ellis deploys detail is both elegant and effective, world building with a small nod here and a half-line there, trusting the audience to meet her in the middle. There’s a lot of humour in the writing as well as a vast amount of charm. The last of the four, the title play – about a woman with epilepsy slowly allowing herself to be loved, letting her walls drop and letting her new partner get emotionally closer to her – is given an extra layer of loveliness by the fact that the two characters are working backstage on a production of Mutiny! the musical.

Noura is the most grounded of the quartet, no witches, no spirits, but it too manages to unpack something complicated and intricate. Taking the form of a dialogue between a young half-Iraqi girl and her belly-dancing instructor, the play explores what it was to be from a place and how much of our identity comes from a sense of belonging, and how much of it we construct. It’s beautifully handled by Olivia Sweeney and Lydia King, the emotional terrain, the nature of their relationship, shifting several times over a brief span of time.

The opening play, Cat in a Sieve, demonstrates that the form is not limiting in terms of setting and scope, set in the reign of James, pitting the King against a ragged girl accused of witchcraft.

Ellis has a great sense of structure and shape and none of the plays hang around any longer than they need to in order to make their mark, to say their piece. While watching a series of shorts instead of a full length plays does require a small recalibration – and perhaps more could have been done with the transition between the pieces, to thread them together – this is a rich and ranging experience, more satisfying than many things double the length.

Reviewed for Exeunt

The Me Plays, Old Red Lion

In the first play in his double bill of poetic, gently introspective, semi-autobiographical plays, Junkie, Andrew Maddock’s ‘Me’, wearing an unwise Topman jumper, is readying himself to go on a date with a woman that he has only ever met online, having swiped to the right on her photo on Tinder.

The play swims between memories of adolescence – the illicit buzz he felt as a teenager when first discovering porn in the pages of a magazine – and the man he has become, a little overweight and overwhelmed, but also isolated, islanded, by the constant availability of such imagery online. He agonises over whether or not to leave a ‘x’ at the end of his texts and holds his breath during those exquisite little gaps between the moment when a message is delivered and the moment in which it is seen. In “this digital age” his socialise unease is exacerbated and it’s easier to retreat into his cocoon, his self-made cage, than to meet new people, to risk rejection. While pornography is central to the piece, it’s never laddish or casual about it; instead it explores with intelligence the appeal of such imagery in a confusing world where irl interaction is fraught with insecurity and anxiety.

Potent as Junkie is the second piece is the stronger of the two; it’s a darker, more complex play. The red jumper has been ditched for a hospital gown and paper pants, as Maddock’s ‘Me’ awaits the results of a biopsy. Similar in structure to Junkie, Hi Life, I Win skips back and forth between childhood memories and the present but the writing here is freer and more fluid. Scenes of teenage rebellion, recollections of a volatile, frustrated adolescence within a constricting Catholic education system, are contrasted with tender and reflective scenes in which he awaits the results of his tests. The levity of the flashbacks gradually gives way to something darker and harder as he mourns his grandfather and stumbles in search meaning, and there are some highly poignant passages about what it is to be the son of a single mum, the closeness of that relationship.

Both pieces are laced with cultural references – the stuff of being a teenager in the 1990s: Gladiators, the Spice Girls and MSN messenger – but it’s gently done, the writing doesn’t hang on them; they just provide pleasant moments of connection if you happen to share them.

The decision to write in verse pays off as Maddock has a strong command of his text, the rhythms of it, the shape of it. The set by Charlie Marie Austin, a Tron-like cage of fluorescent strips elegantly lit by Christopher Nairne, is simple but striking, though its potential as a backdrop seems a little underexplored. While there’s an occasional static quality to Ryan Bradley’s production, Maddock’s warmth as a performer, his openness, and the sense of exposure contained in both pieces, overcomes this.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Edinburgh 2014: Spine, Underbelly

The stage is book-thick, book-rich, beautifully book-full. Rosie Wyatt stands in the middle of this sea of shelves. Her character, Amy, has a right mouth on her. Once the words start they don’t stop. Her story is one of an unlikely friendship. Amy admits that she can be quite handful and her past behaviour -robbing houses, getting sacked from her job in a hairdresser after a spectacular outburst – has resulted in both her friends and family turning away from her. It’s at her lowest, loneliest point that she meets the woman she calls Mrs Glenda, a frail old lady in pop socks who lives in a vast Victorian house stuffed full of the books that she liberated from a library after the council decided to close it down.

Clara Brennan’s monologue, initially performed in a shorter version as part of Theatre Uncut, is full of energy; there’s anger in there but also uplift. It takes what could have been a predictable set up, what is in fact a slightly predictable set up – the education of a wayward young girl by a wise old woman whose health is fading – and turns it into something truly moving and optimistic and heartfelt. While there’s a lot to enjoy about the writing, in the way it blends the political and personal, its undercurrent of radicalism, Wyatt’s performance is also a joy; she’s full of adolescent urgency, taut with it – there’s no let up, it’s like she absolutely has to share her story with you, right here, right now, she has no choice in the matter, she needs you to hear this. Wyatt knows how to handle a monologue, how to hook an audience; she was captivating in Jack Thorne’s Bunny back in 2010 and here she plays a similarly outwardly confident young woman who beneath her mouth and bluster is quite vulnerable. The intensity of her delivery here is a little exhausting but the approach pays off and by the end both Wyatt and a large proportion of the audience are welling up.

Brennan’s play is a hymn to the written word, to the beauty of books and the power they contain within their pages, as well as to the necessity of protecting this power and making sure future generations have access to it. It’s also about community, about the need to listen to one another, to talk to one another, the things that can be achieved if people join together. Though never preachy this is a play with a message.

Directed by Bethany Pitts, the production can feel a bit one-note at times, a bit relentless. There’s no pause, no respite, but by the end as Amy starts to contemplate her legacy and to appreciate the importance of what has been passed on to her, the warmth and sincerity of the piece and Wyatt’s giddy, galloping performance come together to create something moving and memorable.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Edinburgh 2014: Backstage in Biscuit Land, Pleasance Courtyard

One of Jess Thom’s friends once described her Tourettes Syndrome as a “crazy language generating machine” and that’s pretty much the perfect encapsulation for the neurological condition which causes a range of involuntary verbal and motor tics, and makes her say the word ‘biscuit’ anything up to 16,000 times a day. In addition to all those ‘biscuits,’ common tics include ‘hedgehog,’ ‘cats’, and ‘hello’, as well as a wide range of expletives – though as she points out only a small percentage of people with Tourettes have swearing tics, she just happens to be one of them.

Her show is designed to explore what it is to have Tourettes, how the tics affect her day to day life and how isolating it can be at times but also to celebrate the creative energy of them, their playful poetic quality. She’s assisted in this task by ‘Chopin’, the show’s co-creator who’s there to help keep her at least vaguely on script, but who also serves as a verbal dancing partner, improvising and riffing on Jess’s more surreal outpourings. On the day I saw it, one of the audience members also had Tourettes so there was a further unpredictable element in the room which added to the experience.

The show as a whole is insightful and engaging, demonstrating how normal tasks like making a cup of tea can be pretty tricky if you have a tic-driven tendency to hit yourself in the face, but it also genuinely makes you think about spontaneity, imagination and the creative process. There’s a wonderful linguistic richness to her tics. Between the biscuits she will suddenly come out with a “trigonometry anthrax” or a “Keith Chegwin is dead” or some “Roman Catholic sheepdogs.” Chopin’s mother’s tits are a frequent subject of analysis. And sometimes she’ll launch into an absurdist word-wave, an insta-poem of surreal magnificence. I was reminded of Oliver Sacks’ essay, dated now but still fascinating, about Witty, Ticcy Ray who relished his wild, Tourettic energy and channelled it into music.

Thom’s tics are often very funny and at the start she ensures the audience they are welcome to laugh at them, but they also allow her to view the world and there’s a lovely moment where she describes the way her tics latch onto things that she might otherwise miss, that they make her more aware of the beauty of the world around her, the changing seasons. She talks about her tics as if they have their own force of personality, a kind of co-habitation; her tics are excited by squeaky noises, they have a mischievous quality.

She also uses the show to make a serious point about the arts and accessibility. Her tics have in the past made visiting the theatre difficult and she was once asked to sit in a screened-off sound booth to avoid disrupting a performance, an event she found deeply humiliating. Theatre needs to be more inventive in the way it deals with this, instead of issuing finger-wagging charters, it should be look at finding models that include and welcome everyone. Thom’s been trying to see more shows while she’s in Edinburgh – she writes about the experience in more detail here – and she happened to be in the audience of the Secret Theatre company’s A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts on the night I went to see it, a show which was able to fold her tics into its own flow in a really exciting way and included a particularly beautifully timed deployment of the word “Nando’s.” I also think, in a strange way, Thom’s show would be a great one to see following Ross Sutherland’s brilliant Standby for Tape Back-Up, because in a way there’s a degree of overlap in the way they explore patterning and language and the place where poetry comes from. He doesn’t end on a song about animal sex though.

It would have been interesting to see more made of the backdrop – a collage of objects inspired by Jess’s tics including a highly unsettling Babygro – to see more interplay between the visual and the verbal, but the verbal is pretty thrilling in its own right.

All this, and you get a biscuit.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, September 01, 2014

Edinburgh 2014: Circa - Beyond, Underbelly

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the lack of female-led super hero movies. Joss Whedon’s attempts to bring Wonder Woman to the big screen came to nothing and while there’s apparently a female-led Marvel project on the cards for 2017, there’s a general sense of timidity about the whole thing

Well, fuck that, because Rowan Heydon White, of Australian contemporary circus company Circa, is Wonder Woman. She’s amazing. She can throws her male co-performers through the air, she can balance them on her back, she can catch their bodies in mid-flight with the same ease as one might catch a ball; at one point she takes a Rubik’s Cube and proceeds to solve it, while her company members clamber all over her, distracting her, standing on her, clinging to her. Like I said, she’s super.

There’s an edge of the uncanny to this show. An uneasy, dreamlike quality where giant rabbits frolic in the mist, bodies bend in unwise ways and people cluck and caw like birds. Theirs is a subverted world and while the performance celebrates the astonishing things of which the human body is capable – its strengths, its flexibility – it does so in a playful, intelligent way. “There’s a line between human and animal, between madness and sanity, between logic and dream,” the opening voice over intones. There’s no narrative as such, but this idea of the animalistic runs through the whole piece. We are all of us flesh.

The production has been around for a while – I first saw it in a Spiegeltent in Norwich last year – but it feels more developed now, the weirder elements, the air of oddness, better integrated into the piece. Several sequences have been dropped – the burlesque tennis racket contortion dance is no more and its loss is not felt. There are very few props, a trapeze, a couple of climbing bars, a stretch of black silk. Costumes are similarly minimal, apart from bear suits and bunny heads which lend the piece a darkly cartoonish aesthetic. Each performer gets a solo spot in which to showcase their particular skill set, self-destructive tumbling, some dizzying silk-work, a beautiful, nimble fingered paper waltz to the music of Bonnie Tyler. The group sequences, in which they hurl chairs through the air and fling themselves about the space, are if anything even more dazzling.

Along with the incongruous Frank Sinatra soundtrack, the applause of the audience is continually punctuated by little gasps and winces and squeals of excitement. There’s laughter too, because it’s hard not to laugh when a man in an oversized bear suit shimmies up a pole while Bach’s Goldberg Variations plays in the background. It’s a brilliant, beautiful, ridiculous moment of which this show contains many.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Edinburgh 2014: The Duck Pond, Bedlam

Some of my favourite shows of this year’s Fringe have involved people screaming. Men bellowing and raging in pain, woman shrieking in atonal, primal synchrony. But while screaming is sometimes a necessary response to the world, it’s not unwelcome to see a show whose defining characteristic is loveliness, which sets out to leave you beaming and – literally – feeds its audience cake.

withWings’ The Duck Pond is a candyfloss-flecked reworking of Tchaivosky‘s Swan Lake sans swans. Prince Siegfried has just turned 21 and is under pressure to marry. In truth he’s not much interested in girls but nonetheless his mother presses ahead with finding him a bride. As part of his birthday celebrations he visits a travelling fair, and as the moon rises he hooks himself a lucky duck – and ends up falling in love.

Odin, as is the way of such things, has been placed under a spell by the owner of the fair, a malevolent magician called Rothbart. By day he is a yellow plastic duck bobbing among his brethren but under the light of a balloon moon, he becomes human.

The production is all feathers and honey and loveliness. It is sweet and charming and packed full of little inventive touches designed to make you smile. There is music and dancing and the inevitable cascade of glitter, a dinky carousel, a coke bottle orchestra, and, as it’s a birthday, there are presents for everyone. The high point is a wonderfully playful and charming musical montage sequence in which the young Prince falls head over pointe for his enchanted duckling.

James Bennet and Tom Coxon both giving appealing performances as the Prince and his paramour, the musical number are skilfully performed and emotionally charged, sweeping over the audience, carrying you along on a wave of sugar water. Some of the ballet is a little wibbly and the shift towards the play’s tragic conclusion is a bit abrupt, but the ending is proper lump-in-the-throat stuff and there’s something hugely endearing and loveable about the whole exercise.

It’s a very youthful production, but in an energising way. You can clearly see the ripples of influences at work here, you can tell which companies these guys admire, it’s a little bit Kneehigh, a little bit Antler, a little bit Little Bulb, but there’s also plenty of invention and their attention to detail is admirable, even the programmes have been designed to look like party invites, a lovely touch. The whole thing has charm in abundance (though if you’re allergic to bobble-hatted whimsy this might not be one for you) but what’s lacking is a clear sense of identity as a company and they’re clearly more at ease with the visual than the verbal. They just need to pin that down, to find a voice that’s theirs alone.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Sunday, July 06, 2014

After a War, Battersea Arts Centre

I had not expected orchids.

Up in the attic of the Battersea Arts Centre there is a calm green room filled with flowers. In the background voices speak softly, soothingly. It lends the space a Sunday afternoon stillness.

It is a delicate gesture, this room, which is part of The Listening Post, an installation by Tom Chivers and James Wilkes drawing on the stories of Battersea residents during the First World War. Lines from local poet Edward Thomas have been pasted on the walls. Voices whisper from speakers. In the war years Battersea Town Hall was used as a recruiting office and the Council Chamber used as a courtroom to try conscientious objectors. From the orchid room you ascend, passing under the rafters, noting stray roller skates and flickering clips of Charlie Chaplin; the overlapping voices are underscored by an ominous aeroplane drone and suggestive of suspicions hissed over back garden fences, the twitch of the curtain.

As part of LIFT, Tim Etchells and 14-18 NOW, After a War, described as a ‘three day takeover’ of Battersea Arts Centre is an attempt to explore the lesser known stories of the First World War, and the wars that followed, through a series of installations, talks and performances spread across and weekend and throughout the various rooms of the BAC. The stories told came from Africa, the former Yugoslavia, and South America, emphasising the global, that this was a war that encompassed the whole world.

The idea is to chart your own path through the day, though this can lead to lulls, and while it allows welcome breaks for contemplation it also creating a slightly disjointed, fragmented feeling. Later in the day Stan’s Café will be performing Finger, Trigger, Bullet, Gun, a piece in which chains of dominoes will be used to represent the men who fell, and The Tiger Lillies are hymning doomed youth, but during the afternoon it is possible to dip in and out of rooms, to listen to the looping memories of BBC foreign correspondent Lara Pawson while sitting in a high-backed armchair, to watch videos of Argentine men who served as soldiers during the Falklands War recounting their experiences, in Lola Arias’ installation Veterans, to sit on one of the carpet-covered benches that dot the BAC staircase and read through a long list of conflicts, some familiar, some less so, which forms Martin John Callanan’sWars in My Lifetime.

Bask at The Listening Post, a baize board and a map of the local area provide further snippets of stories, tales of early aviation, of suspect German bakeries. In the last room, a quartet of green bankers’ lamps mark out a space to sit and listen to further accounts of what it was to speak for peace in a time of war, to take that stand. The installation uses the atmosphere of these attic spaces to its advantage, the walls still mottled from Masque of the Red Death, the building seems to be speaking to you, telling you its stories. The speakers glint on the wall, unblinking, like little black eyes looking down on you, speaking, yes, but also watching and listening. The piece as a whole, I felt, could have benefited from more visual richness – I am greedy, I want more of these stories, and the chosen objects feel somewhat scattered – but as a response to the space and an engagement with the building, it draws you in.

In between shows I go and listen to Amber Burchart’s informative talk about the various shifts in fashion that occurred during the First World War. She is an engaging speaker, taking in the origins of the trench coat, the retinal delight that was dazzle camouflage and the Sapeur movement in the Congo in a short space of time.

Two pieces of performance dig deeper into the African experience of war. In the first, Statue of Loss, Congolese dancer Faustin Linyekula twists and contorts his body, his torso smeared with white, to a recording of the scratchy, haunting chant of a Congolese soldier in a Prisoner of War camp. These were men who were being disappeared, their role in the war erased, even as they were fighting and dying for the country that had colonised them. This ritualistic piece of movement and music, Flamme Kapaya playing guitar from his seat at the back of the room (the same Council Chamber where Battersea’s conscientious objectors were made to account for themselves and where two days ago Forced Entertainment performed the relentless, hypnotic, The Notebook) is an act of remembering.

Inua Ellams’ approach is verbal rather than physical. The Long Song Goodbye is a piece of storytelling which Ellams performs while sitting at a desk surrounded by mountains of bureaucratic clutter, ziggurats of paperwork. Each line of the play begins with the word ‘because’. ‘Because he’, ‘because it,’ ‘because they.’ It lends this melodic, flowing story of a father and son’s separation a sense of the fated.

There are more stories, further fragments, happening in other rooms. The day has a scratchy feel, of ideas being worked out and refined. It’s at its most engaging as an experience when the individual pieces echo one another, when unexpected parallels and contrasts emerge, when you open a door and stumble into a room full of orchids.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, June 23, 2014

Where on earth is Hamlet?

"The battle rages on. By lamp-light. At high speed. With a 3am kebab. With Steven Berkoff. Farce turns to horror. In a caravan. Haunted by a pigeon."

This year's Edinburgh Fringe programme condensed, continued over on Exeunt.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

In The Heights, Southwark Playhouse

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, a multiple Tony-winner which opened on Broadway back in 2008, is a large-hearted affair. Set in New York’s Washington Heights, a neighbourhood with a large Latin American population, it charts the stories of a number of characters, different generations of immigrants and their American-born offspring – money worries, family strife, love both requited and not – over a number of sticky city nights.

There’s a gentleness to all this, a sense of affection. The harsher side of urban life is not up for dissection here; despite the heatwave, this isn’t Do The Right Thing. Miranda is keener to explore the way immigrant communities work, the interconnectedness, the support network; this is undercut only by the poignant feeling that ever-rising rents will soon start to have an impact on this way of life, diluting things, forcing people to move out and apart.

Luke Sheppard’s London production captures the show’s energy, its capacity for uplift. It’s a deliciously vibrant production, the stage an arena for Drew McOnie’s often dizzying choreography. The music meanwhile is a mix of Latin sounds and hip-hop influences. The lyrics are consistently smart and funny, even if the sound quality means that some of the zippier lines get lost.

The performances are nicely judged, giving necessary shape to a large cast of characters, some drawn in marker pen, others in fine-liner. The heart of the piece is provided by Sam MacKay as the good-natured bodega-owner Usnavi, a decent guy who feels a little adrift following the death of his parents. Not that he’s lacking in family, the production makes clear, not with Eve Polycarpou’s Abuela Claudia and Damian Buhagiar’s mouthy young Sonny living nearby. Everyone looks out for one another in this neighbourhood; book-writer Quiara Alegria Hudes makes it clear that this comes at the cost of privacy – everyone knows each other’s business too and a girl can’t drop out of university without everyone soon finding out about it – but the production, in the main, is a celebration of community.

The set, a mix graffiti tags and corrugated metal, is relegated to the back wall, so that Sheppard and McOnie can fill the Southwark Playhouse stage with popping bodies and twirling skirts. There are a couple of stand-out sequences – the dramatic double of ‘The Club’ and ‘Blackout’ which ends the first act among them – but the production as a whole has a cumulative cheering effect, drawing the audience in, lifting them up.

Admittedly there’s not a huge amount of room for nuance when it comes to character though David Bedella does a good job of conveying paternal turmoil, as a hard-working man determined to do well by his family. That’s not to say the production is without emotional texture; while the plotting is predictable – Usnavi’s sold one of his customers a winning lottery, where might this be leading? – and there are few hard edges of which to speak, the tone is rarely cloying and a couple of moments are genuinely and unexpectedly moving in their exploration of what it is to move to another country in search of a better life, to leave one family behind only to find another.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Secret Cinema 21

After attempting something slightly different with their not so secret tie-in with Wes Anderson’s newly released The Grand Budapest Hotel – discussed in more detail here – the Secret Cinema team have pitched back into the black for their latest event.

The air of mystery is obviously a huge part of the process, the seeding of clues on social media – in this case a few evocative quotes and some details about an American mayoral campaign – is a key part of the experience. Once you’ve acquired your ticket, you’re assigned a ‘character’ and are told the location and given the dress code for the evening, but they still keep it zipped when it comes to the name of the film. While there’s much fun to be had in trying to unpick all this, there’s also the pressing question of what happens if the film turns out to be one you don’t like? Will it still be an experience worth having? A willingness to gamble certainly comes in handy (in more than one way, it turns out).

They’ve been doing this for a good few years now, tweaking things along the way but the concept remains the same. You’re buying a ticket not just to see a mystery film, but to participate in an immersive experience inspired, both directly and indirectly, by the world of that film. They’ve done Blade Runner and The Shawshank Redemption in the past, while recent experiences have been based on The Third Man and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil; for the latter a vast disused office building in Croydon was transformed into the headquarters of a shadowy corporation but the results received quite a mixed response from audiences, the chief complaints being that the space was just too large and the cinema part of the experience – the screening of the film itself, on a series of small television monitors and projected on the side of the building – felt like an afterthought.

It looks like they’ve taken at least some of the audience feedback on board. Secret Cinema 21 seems more manageable in scale than their take on Brazil. You have the best part of two hours to explore the space before the screening, with time for further carousing afterwards. It helps that they’ve snagged a peach of a building for this one, a beautiful historic venue with its own array of secrets. They’ve also sourced some gorgeous things with which to furnish it and the whole space is attractively wreathed in whisky mist. But while it’s tempting to make comparisons, this isn’t Punchdrunk and the level of detail isn’t quite up to their standards, you soon start to spot the duct tape covering up wires, the cheap paper table cloths, the fact that the dollars have clearly been printed by photocopier. Small details, but ones capable of pulling you out of the world. Some of the rooms are dazzling, particularly those which made the most out of the building’s original art deco features and the grand central staircase, others feel a bit empty.

While Secret Cinema don’t really market what they do as being ‘immersive’ theatre in the conventional sense, the performance element is fairly central to the experience. You are given identities and tasks are assigned on arrival, usually involving tracking down various characters to squeeze them for ‘information.’ This has the effect of making you explore the space fully, racing up stairs and into basement drinking dens, sidling up to people by the roulette table, but I would definitely have appreciated a greater degree of narrative clarity, a bit more in the way of incentive; there didn’t seem to be much at stake over whether or not you completed these tasks, apart from the acquisition of more photocopier dollars.

Whereas Punchdrunk at its most enchanting feels like entering a dream world, it’s essentially a solitary experience, with the other masked figures (and their pointy elbows) part of the alien landscape, Secret Cinema is altogether more social. I took a friend, the Lawyer, who fully embraced the role-playing potential (particularly the double-dealing and bribery, the thrill of the grift), testing the interactive elements to the full. Some of the performers seemed more than capable of rolling with this, creating defined characters and having a lot of fun with it, while others seemed far less capable of keeping track of all the various micro-narratives they’d set in motion. I found myself feeling particularly frustrated when we’d finally completed our given task only to be dismissed with a hardboiled shrug. This was a recurring theme. Sure, this was in keeping with the world of the film, and made sense in that context, but it became grating after a while, repeatedly being told to ‘get lost’ or some such in a honey-thick American drawl. It also had the effect of shutting down my willingness to play.

The film turned out to be one I’ve always liked and the band and the dancing that followed was hugely enjoyable, but I found some of the interactive elements frustratingly undercooked and there was a creeping feeling of negativity that sucked the fun out of some exchanges. As an exercise in dress-up and play-acting for grown-ups, one liberally lubricated by booze – a temporary act of escape – it has a lot going for it, but I think I would have felt far more kindly disposed towards it, flaws and all, if it hadn’t felt so grasping.

This is my main problem with this incarnation of Secret Cinema. It’s currently priced in line with Punchdrunk (them again, sorry) but that’s just the start. Once inside there are numerous opportunities to part you with your green – not just bars and ‘diners’ but photographers too. The mark ups are pretty eye-watering, cocktails are OK, but £4 for a small can of warmish beer is a rip-off whichever way you paint it. The level of detail shown elsewhere seemed conspicuous by its absence too, cheap wine in cheap wine glasses at high prices, olives in plastic pots – perhaps if they’d been presented in an era-appropriate manner, if there’d been a bit more love and a little less grab, these niggles would have niggled less but as it was I became more aware of the cracks – the shoddy state of the ladies’ loos, the cloakroom attendants who seemed supremely pissed off at having to deal with wet umbrellas – than I might otherwise have been.

I had a grand time with my Lawyer, once we found each other – they have a tendency to split groups up on arrival – but a lot of that was down to how we chose to engage with it. On watching the film it was also possible to fully appreciate the little jokes, references and clues laced through what had gone before, how cleverly they’d built on tiny details and sub-sub-plots in the source material to create the world in which we’d just been playing, but this came a bit too late and didn’t quite make up for the sense of being squeezed.

Written for Exeunt

Friday, April 25, 2014

Orpheus, Battersea Arts Centre

Little Bulb Theatre’s enchanting reworking of the Orpheus myth returns to the Grand Hall at Battersea Arts Centre and if anything it’s even more magical on second viewing.

It’s a delicious thing, this show. Frankly, given the amazing space they’ve been given to play in and the proven appeal of many of the ingredients they’ve chosen to play with, it would be a surprise if it were otherwise. But that’s not to diminish Littlle Bulb’s invention and skill. Much like in a Wes Anderson film there are boxes within boxes, frames within frames, to their handling of the narrative. The story of Orpheus is told in the style of 1930s Parisian cabaret, with the Great Hall bedecked with red velvet and an array of tables in front of the stage behind which sit more conventional raked seating. The lovers are portrayed by legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt and an Édith Piaf-alike chanteuse Yvette Pépin as played by Little Bulb’s Dominic Conway and Eugenie Pastor. While Conway’s Orpheus remains mute, a calm, smiling presence, his guitar speaking for him, the angular Pastor purrs and smoulders as Piaf/Pepin/Eurydice, rolling her words around, revelling in the undulations of her accent.

Much of the storytelling takes the form of a series of mime sequences and tableaux performed against a backdrop of Debussy and silent movie style-captions. The cast don bunny ears and buck teeth to play woodland creatures or drape and cape themselves in white to play the denizens of the underworld. The dancing is intentionally heavy-footed, and there’s an air of polished amateurishness to the whole enterprise which is mostly pitched at just the right level to render it endearing rather than overly arch. The musicianship as ever is exemplary, but then that’s something of a given with these guys.

Alexander Scott’s production has some truly dazzling moments, particularly in the second half. The song ‘La Chanson de Perséphone’ performed by Tom Penn in male falsetto reminiscent of Anthony and the Johnsons is genuinely haunting, the deployment of the Grand Hall’s mighty organ remains an incredible, reverberative treat, and the climactic sequence – Orpheus and Eurydice’s last desperate dash towards the light – has the audience holding their breath.

While the staging on the whole feels slightly tighter than it did first time around, there are some issues with the lengthy ‘jazz’ interval. While the audience are encouraged to come and go as they wish while the band plays on, few did, and the resulting drag threatens to, if not quite break, than at least dent the production’s spell. This isn’t Little Bulb’s most ambitious show – it doesn’t have the delicacy or the heart-knotting quality of Crocosmia or the divisive alien energy of Squally Showers - it’s a romantic response to an incredible space, a confection, albeit an exquisite one – but taken as an experience in itself, as a night of music and magic and fizz and copious, warm-hearted charm, it’s vastly entertaining and intensely happy-making.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Fatal Attraction, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction was a pretty nasty piece of a film-making, but a coldly efficient one; it set out to hit nerves and it succeeded. The character of Alex, as played by Glenn Close, single, childless, superficially confident but deeply needy, tactical self-harmer, a wrecker of homes and a boiler of bunnies, was written to put the fear of god into men of a certain age, and it worked, speaking to the social anxieties of the time and becoming the highest grossing film of 1987 in the process.

And now it’s here in the West End. Not an update, not even an adaptation really. Just the screenplay served up on stage. Very, very little has been done to address how the material might work in a theatrical setting. The biggest change by far is the reinstatement of writer James Dearden’s original ending. Alex was supposed to kill herself at the end of the movie, implicating Michael Douglas’ philandering New York lawyer Dan in her death. It was downbeat, bleak, made much more sense from a psychological perspective (at least within the universe of the movie), and – famously – went down like a lead balloon with audiences during test screenings. So a new ending was shot, in which Anne Archer’s betrayed wife got to blow the bitch away in the bathtub, although evidently neither Lyne nor Dearden were ever particularly pleased with it.

Given all that, it’s possible to see why Dearden might want to revisit the material, if rather harder to grasp what might be in it for anyone else. And because it follows the film so closely (up until the end at least), it’s impossible not to play the scene-by-scene comparison game and to find Trevor Nunn’s stage version wanting. For one thing, the attraction – kind of a crucial element – is pretty much absent. The early flirtation between Mark Bazeley’s Dan and Natascha McElhone’s striking, stylish business woman, Alex, is one of the better realised scenes, but it still doesn’t suggest the kind of heat that would make Dan risk so much so quickly. There’s also very little sex, bar a bit of heavy petting in an elevator: there’s no sweaty bed-sheet action, Bazeley doesn’t get to do that awkward trouser dance round Alex’s glamorous Manhattan loft and her kitchen sink, perhaps mercifully, remains buttock-free

The production is also curiously difficult to locate in time. A decision has clearly been taken not to set the thing in the 1980s. No-one sports a poodle perm, no one smokes, and the clothes are contemporary. But it’s a very odd kind of update. There are a couple of references to email and even one mention of Facebook, but no one has an iPad, no one sends a text, even the iPhones have the tinny rings of much older mobiles. Hardly any attempt has been made to explore the role the internet might play in Alex’s insertion of herself into Dan’s life – the one thing that might have given this production an edge of interest, instead it inhabits a sort of weird half-way space, a feeling only enhanced by the fact the characters spend so much time on the phone, calling – or failing to call – one another, having bitty, broken conversations while standing on opposite sides of the stage.

And then there’s the sexual politics. Obviously extramarital affairs were not the preserve of the 1980s, and the film was pretty ugly and reactionary even for its time, but it was reflective of a certain social, urban unease. Here, again, the production doesn’t quite seem to know where to put itself. “Girls like sex as much as boys,” Dan’s sweaty-palmed and recently divorced friend excitedly informs him, as if Sex and the City had never happened (though for all Kristin Davis’s Beth gets to do, it may as well not have done). The suggestion that Alex’s age and childlessness, coupled with the trauma of a past miscarriage, might be the root of her unbalanced behaviour – which is if anything emphasised here – is pretty dizzyingly offensive, regardless of when it’s supposed to be set.

McElhone has a degree of poise and presence as Alex, playing her as a more vulnerable, damaged character than Close did, but if anything her metamorphosis from being a woman rightfully pissed off at Dan’s abandonment to a stabby pixie dream girl is even harder to swallow as a result. Bazeley, meanwhile, just about convinces as a man in too deep; he gets across the character’s spinelessness, but lacks Douglas’ charisma. Occasionally he gets to deliver a few lines of soliloquy/voice-over but these feel as if they’ve been designed to paper over the set changes rather than to offer any psychological insight.

The set changes quite a lot by the way. Sometimes a few moving electric blue panels are used to convey a sense of the city, other sets are more detailed and realist (and fiddly to assemble). There’s also a very large cast for what could well have been played as a two hander, like they’re justifying the high cost of tickets by populating the stage. People are forever strolling purposefully from one side of the set to the other or standing in little whispery huddles that are meant to convey that we are in a “hot new bar” or a busy Manhattan law office.

Nunn seems to give up completely on making the piece theatrically viable towards the end; when Alex makes off with Dan’s daughter and a frantic Beth crashes her car in pursuit, it all happens off-stage, complete with comedy car crash sound effect. The final confrontation between Alex and Dan, in which he’s so incensed he comes close to killing her, plays out as one lumbering clunky fight scene, utterly lacking in momentum. And when the police come for Dan in the concluding moments one of them brings the bloody knife with him in a handy backpack, for the benefit of those who may have dozed off.

In the ending that was originally filmed, Close’s Alex slits her own throat, falling out of frame just as the blood starts to flow, with a few strains of Madame Butterfly playing in the background. Here Nunn has her bathed in red light, wearing a flowing kimono, plunging the knife into her belly, with Callas in full belt. All told, his production has the effect of ridding a thriller of the majority of its thrills (even the bunny boiling is fumbled), stripping the character of Beth of what little agency she ever had and making Lyne’s film feel like an exercise in taste and restraint.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Major Tom, BAC

Though hers is ostensibly a solo show, Victoria Melody is never alone on stage. She shares the space with her beloved basset hound, the Major Tom of the title, a magnificent beast; a creature of melancholic dignity – which he maintains even when being reluctantly made to parade around the stage. Rumpled and stumpy, his snout is framed by a pair of silken conker-coloured ears; he regards a proffered dog treat as if it had disappointed him in some profound way before curling up on his cushion and falling asleep, a state in which he spends most of the show.

The presence of her canine companion adds an extra element of liveness to the piece – every mildly inquisitive lift of his head, every tentative stretch and lumber into a more comfortable corner of the stage, is met with coos and giggles from the audience. This is never disruptive though; his presence is a pleasure, it adds to the show’s charm and warmth, and proves rather fitting in a piece which is, after all, about the culture of display.

Melody is interested in tribes, their codes, rules and rituals. She immerses herself in worlds, allows her life and her work to intersect and overlap in interesting ways. In the case of Major Tom, it’s the world of championship dog show handling she’s exploring while at the same time charting her active involvement in the beauty pageant circuit. She spent a year as Mrs Brighton, attending functions, cutting ribbons, teetering in vertiginous heels across rain-swept car parks, jiving in a tiara at Brighton Pride, before going on to compete for the title of Mrs England. Major Tom meanwhile proves such a hit on the amateur dog show circuit that Melody decides to enter him for Crufts.

The two strands of the show feed on one another. Melody juxtaposes her own physical transformation into beauty queen material – hair extensions, spray tan, endless sessions in the gym to shift the weight she had purposefully piled on over the ‘best Christmas ever’ – with her attempts to break into professional dog show handling with Major Tom. Both are subject to a ridiculous amount of physical scrutiny, prodded and poked, assessed and found wanting. He is deemed to have too big a rib cage, while a plastic surgeon tells Melody her mouth is upside down.

Melody intersperses accounts of her experiences with video footage – including a hilarious montage in which both herself and Major Tom are subject to an intense and somewhat extreme grooming regime. At times there seems to be a dash of Louis Theroux to her approach, though she gets far more deeply immersed and enmeshed in the worlds she’s exploring than he does, rather than remaining a wry outsider. This makes the show more personal, but also in some ways less bladed. The people she meets along the way – the beauticians, her fellow contestants, the various “Brians” of the basset hound world – remain sketches, briefly glimpsed, rather than emerging as characters in their own right. The piece focuses more on the codes and processes, the subtle hierarchies, rather than the people who participate and their motivations for doing so. It’s much less exploitative and uncomfortable as a result but also creates a degree of distance. We’re viewing these universes through her eyes, through her lens.

While I found myself wanting more analysis, I recognise that’s not what Melody was out to do here. She engages with these worlds on their own terms and presents us with their quirks and absurdities as she encounters them, without passing judgement, without drawing conclusions, leaving it all out there for the audience to digest. And as an exercise in light-shining, in briefly granting us a glimpses into shadowed and closed corners of British life, the show is never less than engaging. Melody is an affable, generous performer, funny and honest – and of course she has Major Tom as her stage-mate and sidekick, whose very presence – even while dozing, which he does for roughly 83% of the evening – is brightening.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Coriolanus, Donmar Warehouse

Coriolanus is a man of the battlefield. War is a language he speaks with fluency. It is the way he has been raised. But what makes him such a potent force in a time of conflict, a fire-eyed, driven machine of a man, doesn’t translate to the political arena. And this proves his undoing.

Making his return to the Donmar stage, Tom Hiddleston revels in the knottiness and complexity of the character. He last performed here as Cassio in Michael Grandage’s Othello, in which he more than held his own alongside the magnetic, magnificent Chiwetel Ejiofor and in many ways eclipsed Ewan McGregor’s Iago. Now – following his Asgardian interlude – he confirms what a capable and engaging stage actor he can be; his performance is one of clarity but it’s also layered: he is proud, courageous, arrogant and vain all at the same time. It’s a very physical performance, he struts and grapples, simmers and winces, and yet he always keeps something back; he won’t give of himself to the people, won’t use his scars as trophies. He bristles at the position into which he has been pushed and fumes at the people in front of whom he must display himself and lay himself bare.
Josie Rourke’s production is an intensely corporeal one, all skin and sweat and blood. It contains some striking imagery: at one point Hiddleston stands before us green-garlanded with blood rivering his face like a red masque of death; later, as the adrenaline of battle dissipates, he flinches and grits his teeth as he bathes the blood of others from his ravaged body. The choreography of the early fight scenes is slick and physical – Coriolanus and his enemy hurl each other about the stage, dashing each other to the floor – but it’s almost too slick, and there are times when you find yourself marvelling at the technical effort involved, at the clank of cutlass on cutlass, at the force with which the punches appear to land, rather than feeling any sense of the rawness and mess of warfare. (Though, at least, when they finally cast their weapons aside and grapple on the floor you do get a glimpse of this).

The cast wear a mixture of leather breastplates and tight black jeans, with neckerchiefs tied at their throats and clothing which is intentionally asymmetric. They wouldn’t look entirely out of place hanging out with Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton in the subways of 1980s New York. Later the banished Coriolanus wears a cowl so precise in its raggedness that you can almost see the kiddie scissor marks. And, yes, there’s more than a dash of Loki the trickster in these later scenes, as he twists and infiltrates, smiling his enigmatic smile.

The supporting performances are also very strong. Coriolanus’ formidable mother Voluminia is the kind of woman who swells with pride at the thought of her son being wounded on the battlefield and Deborah Findlay gives a fittingly impassioned performance though she doesn’t have the ice-eyed majesty of Vanessa Redgrave, who played the role in the 2011 film (but, then, who does?). Mark Gatiss is soft-spoken and delicately paternal as Coriolanus’ advisor Menenius and the scene of his rejection is one of the play’s most moving, while Borgen’s Birgitte Hjort Sørensen does what she can with a role that says so much with silence, as the cast-aside wife.

The back wall of the stage is strewn with graffiti (of the actual, spray-painted kind) to which more is added digitally, the slogan “grain at our own price” multiplying and spreading as the soundtrack thumps and pounds. This feels like a misstep, a half-hearted way of insisting on the play’s ‘now-ness’ while also undermining it, and, much like the choice of costumes, making it feel oddly dated. The sense of hunger and want which underscores the text and its exploration of power and the reasons people lead don’t really need to be underlined quite so heavily.

In the end these things don’t really get in the way of what is an engaging production. Hiddleston is a compelling central figure and the visuals are very often memorable, but there’s a gloss and polish to it all, a sense of engineering which subtly undercuts its potency.
Reviewed for Exeunt