Thursday, 27 July 2017

Review The Marriage Of Kim K

The attractive concept of a reality TV musical and Mozart opera mash-up is marred by technical sound issues, finds Peter Barker.

The Marriage Of Kim K
Music: Stephen Hyde
Words: Leo Mercer

Spouses Settling The Score 

The timeless themes of love and relationships underpin this musical riff on reality television's "famous for being famous" Kim Kardashian's brief marriage to a basketball star.

The Marriage of Kim K is a clever attempt to fuse old and new - Kardashian's nuptials with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's and Lorenzo da Ponte's The Marriage of Figaro.

It's a marvellous idea with new compositions from composer Stephen Hyde, who also directs and stars, and lyrics and book from Leo Mercer. A flippant tale of celebrity culture plays alongside the Count and Countess Almaviva in the eighteenth century opera.

We follow the lives of three couples in three different, yet linked, domestic situations characterised by three different musical styles. The couple on a sofa in New York, the celebrity couple in Los Angeles and the Count and Countess in Spain.

The design by Anthony Newton divides the stage into three - the metropolitan apartment of the New York couple, the Kardashian and Humphries media blitz in Los Angeles and the Seville of the original Mozart opera.  

This set enables the action to go to and fro and run in parallel, kicked off by the different priorities of couple lawyer Amelia and composer Stephen - she is hooked by Kim's appearances on TV, he's untouched by celebrity culture and wants to listen to Mozart.

Meanwhile Kim Kardashian (Yasemin Gulumser) and sportsman Kris Humphries (James Edge)  have a tempestuous time in their private lives, publicly expressed on social media. Back in Spain, Count and Countess Almaviva  are similarly having a bit of a barney.

However the major problem of the evening (and it is a very big and unavoidable problem) was an extremely dodgy sound system, the microphoning making unintelligible much of the story and the satire of The Marriage of Kim K.

This was very frustrating, especially as iy appears to be a show full of invention directed by Stephen Hyde who, also merging life and reality, takes the part of composer Stephen with his real-life partner as his wife Amelia who also happens to be called Amelia Gabriel.

The real Stephen also has composed the music, a mixture of classical, pop and electronic,  played by a band of cello, violin, viola, percussion and keyboards.

The Marriage of Kim K is part of the Grimeborne opera season at the Arcola Theatre but the majority of the cast are from musical theatre who don't emerge well from the sound problems.

Emily Burnett as the Countess stands out among the singers. However it is noticeable she and Nathan Bellis as the Count are the strongest performers -  and the only trained  opera singers amongst the cast.

In true opera buffa style, the audience thrills at the wild swings of emotions and a satisfyingly neat and emotionally fulfilling conclusion. There was enough energy to intrigue me at times, but the overwhelming sense was of unfulfilled potential.

Even though it's a good idea and the second act was an improvement on the first, the technical blunders make it a red/amber light. 

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Review The End Of Hope/Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against A Brick Wall

Peter Barker relishes two very different one-act plays about romantic relationships, both stylishly directed and performed.    

The End Of Hope
by David Ireland
Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against A Brick Wall
by Brad Birch


An evening at the Orange Tree Theatre sees the revival of a pair of intense two-handers - a comedy by established Belfast playwright and actor David Ireland and a poetic drama from young writer Brad Birch. 

The End Of Hope charts a night of casual sex between Dermot (Rufus Wright), apparently "Ireland's greatest living poet",  and Janet (Elinor Lawless), a supermarket worker with low self-esteem about her looks.

This is set against a Northern Irish backdrop and, yes, there is a Catholic and Protestant element but the focus is on an unlikely romance between a man and a woman with a dark, comedic twist.

Janet hides herself behind a mouse mask, even if she proves eventually to be a ballsy personality  and disclosures about a past relationship reveal a bizarre secret.

Ireland’s script is witty, outrageous, surreal and inventive, providing an entertaining and sometimes shocking hour of theatre on an effective simple set, a bed in the middle of the space, from designer Max Dorey.

Wright and Lawless have terrific chemistry, commanding the audience's attention as an odd couple -  atheist, Protestant, former Catholic, mouse impersonator, married man.

Ireland's play can be tricksy, as well as entertaining, and director Max Elton confidently handles the pacing, laughs and tricky changes of tone from jokiness to threat and back again.  All in all, a play and production meriting a green light.

Brad Birch's play, first seen at the Soho Theatre in 2013, is a far more serious drama, but not without moments of wit.

Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against a Brick Wall has a serious intent, examining the emptiness of modern life. However the playwright's bold ambitions are undermined by a hackneyed scenario.  

We are drawn into the mundane lives and thoughts, through soliloquies, of Him and Her, a young city worker couple (Orlando James and Georgina Campbell) utterly disillusioned with their stale, flat and unprofitable worlds.

This is a play from a young writer about 20-somethings, ruled by the clock, technology, bills and everything else that makes up modern life.

However, for those who remember it, there is a feel of Reginald Perrin territory, admittedly with more swearing and less middle-aged, in the rebellion against their repetitive, corporate-driven life: "This isn't reality, this is the f****ing office".

We are given their diurnal round -- waking, eating, travelling, working, drinking, sleeping played out on another strikingly effective and ingenious Max Dorey set.

Two benches are the only furniture serving as desk, bed, barricade, office. The two rebels grasp the eye-catching splash-of-colour orange props waiting for them on hooks hanging from the ceiling.

Under director Hannah De Ville’s focussed, rhythmic direction , there's enough momentum to allow us to accept the artificiality of the the characters breaking the fourth wall relaying their innermost thoughts. 

However this piece's structure, rather than the direction,  after establishing with energy its questions about modern life, lets the play down. The ending feels downbeat and unsatisfying after the previous pace and exuberance and it's an amber light.

These two plays, with lighting by Stuart Burgess and sound by Richard Bell, form part of a Directors' Festival  showcasing directors on  the Orange Tree Theatre and St Mary's University Theatre Directing MA.

Judging by these productions, it's well worth grabbing one of the £7.50 tickets and seeing any of the plays before the festival ends on Saturday, July 29.

Alongside the pieces I saw, the run includes Albert's Boy by James Graham directed by Kate Campbell, Misterman by Enda Walsh directed by Grace Vaughan and Wasted by Kate Tempest directed by Jamie Woods.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Review I Loved Lucy

A play about a television icon makes Francis Beckett ponder on the cult of celebrity nostalgia infecting current playwriting.  

I Loved Lucy
By Lee Tannen

After The Ball Is Over

Younger theatregoers start here. I Love Lucy was a 1950s' American sitcom which was also shown here starring Lucille Ball and her first husband Desi Arnaz.

The series was fast and funny and established Ball as one of the earliest great female comics.  Children used to badger their parents to be allowed to stay up and watch it.  (I speak on this with authority.)

In the late seventies, when Lucille was in her late sixties, she met a young man in his twenties called Lee Tannen, distantly related to her second husband, who had grown up hero-worshipping her.

He was her friend for most of the last ten years of her life, and he has now written this two-hander play about that friendship.

The best thing about the evening is a wonderful performance by Sandra Dickinson who spits out her lines in just the way I imagine Lucille in old age would have done.

Lee is played with great assurance by Matthew Scott, but he is hampered by having very little to work with.

We learn early on that he is a gay, neurotic Jewish New Yorker and an unsuccessful writer. For the rest, his devotion to Lucille has to substitute for character and, directed by Anthony Biggs, Mr Scott does well to make that even remotely convincing, obliged as he is to tell us frequently, in slightly different ways, how wonderful she is.

The story goes like this. Lee meets Lucy, is overawed, but manages to forge a strong friendship with her. She takes him to parties and first nights, but mostly they play backgammon, and talk, and occasionally what they say is quite funny.

At the end of Act One they fall out, and at the start of Act Two they make it up again. And at the end of Act Two (normally reviewers do not reveal the denouement, but in this case I don’t think I will spoil anyone’s enjoyment) she dies.

That’s it, really, except that after she dies the author seems to remember a few things he wanted to say about what a great genius she was that he hasn’t squeezed in earlier, and detains us for another ten minutes or so while he says them.

There seems to be a growing view in London theatre that if your central character is a famous actor, you need only recount what happened and you can call it theatre.

I’ve seen a couple of shows recently that appear to have been written on that premise, and I don’t buy it.

I need a plot to hold my attention or, at least, an overarching theme or some clever and unexpected insights; and if none are present, then I need a lot of very funny lines.

Mr Tannen doesn't offer any of these things. There are a few good lines, but not enough of them, and  they are not good enough.

“What did the doctor say to the midget? I’m afraid you’re going to have to be a little patient” is about as good as it gets, unless you prefer “Lucy loved Oprah when Oprah still had a last name.”

I’ll stretch to an amber light on the basis that it’s always a pleasure to watch top class actors at work.

Review The Hired Man

The Hired Man
Book By Melvyn Bragg
Music And Lyrics By Howard Goodall

Market Forces

Many folks in Britain researching their family tree will come across the abbreviation "ag lab" - that is, agricultural labourer, once one of the most common occupations in the country. 

So it is for Melvyn Bragg who based his 1969 novel, turned into a 1984 musical with the then young composer and lyricist Howard Goodall, on the life of his Cumbrian agricultural labourer grandfather.

The upheavals of the industrial revolution made the position of the agricultural labourer far more precarious than ever before. By the turn of the century, they were truly subjugated to the law of supply and demand. Landless male farm workers and female servants would swarm to hiring fairs and try to sell their services to farmers who found it a buyers' market.

Chronicling rural life and the struggles of John Tallentire (Ifan Gwilym-Jones), the farm worker turned coal miner, his wife Emily  (Rebecca Gililland) and their family against a backdrop of industrial and global upheaval,  The Hired Man is steeped in the British folksong and choral tradition.

Yet Goodall also cites German-born composer Kurt Weill, most famous for this collaboration with left-wing writer Bertolt Brecht, as an influence and we thought we detected the impact of  Blood Brothers and, in some of the themes, Fiddler On The Roof combined interestingly with the feel of radical William Blake's very English vision of Jerusalem.

One of the strengths of The Union Theatre has always been an opportunity for an audiences to see and hear unmiked performances.  However on a summer's evening, this plus point does become a minus as the soloists compete against the air conditioning  and an over loud orchestra (alhtough we're not sure if it is entirely the fault of the three-strong orchestra or the staging making poor use of the performing space's acoustics).

The ensemble choral ballads and the duets therefore fare best, such as the stirring Song Of The Hired Men and Day Follows Day. The most moving moments come in director Brendan Matthew's and choreographer Charlotte Tooth's searingly effective staging of the First World War scenes.    

Maybe we wished the effect of the landscape could have been evoked more in this production. However, the toughness and tragedy still comes through in a piece which wears its influences lightly. 

In the central role of John Tallentire, Gwilym-Jones makes the most of a thinly-drawn but tenacious role.

As his spouse Emily, Rebecca Gillenhall is sometimes a little stiff but possesses a beautiful, tender soprano.

Luke Kelly as the ne'er-do-well farmer's son, Sam Peggs as John's brother Isaac with the instinct of a speculator and Jonathan Carlton as the union organiser brother Seth also make an impact.
Inevitably some of the scenes turn to melodrama. However there is a spare, unsentimental quality to The Hired Man which prevents this seeming shoehorned in. Despite the acoustic problems,  this musical and production feels robust and resilient.

Some of the story, stretching over 20 years, may be a little too hastily covered in Braggs's book for the musical, but this is also a tale which keeps a hook in a truthful family past.

We sensed, for example, that the disease blighting one of the female characters could just as much have been industrial disease from exposure to coal dust brought home from the mines on the men folks' clothing as tuberculosis. 

Yet it also has a resonance now in the age of zero hours' contracts and the "gig" economy. It seems that recent news stories want us to buy into the illusion that we are all equally hired men and women. 

While the comparison may seem almost laughable, some of the vocabulary of the market place used nowadays by the highest paid employees, especially in the public sector, to justify their pay and the way they are employed becomes a distortion of the notion of hired men and women at a "fair" rate.

The Hired Man's thread of dignity and honesty in its treatment of past generations tied to the land and the coalface can encompass such meanings. All of which are reflected in an integrated range of musical styles and some outstanding moments here in performance. So it's an amber/green light.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Review The Blues Brothers - Summer Special

The Blues Brothers - Summer Special
Based on the characters and film written by Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi

Live, Thrive And Survive

"It is what it is ...", that was the verdict in the ladies' toilet after the show as we strangers stood by the  sinks discussing the show.

Less a musical or a cabaret and more a tribute show, it trades of course on the NBC's Saturday Night Live musical sketch-turned-hit 1980 movie with Dan Ackroyd and the late John Belushi, along with the iconic black suits, pork pie hats and those sunglasses. .

So you know what you're getting -  a string of well-known songs, loud and raucous which won't tax many brain cells as band and singers blast out the songs. And of course it's clean-living, enjoyable stuff without the substance abuse which accompanied the making of the movie.

And, if as director John Landis said, it was the first movie to gross more in the overseas, than the American domestic, market it's understandable that it's also spawned numerous "official" and "unofficial" shows.

But in the words of the production team, this show has "the blessing of the team behind the original Blues Brothers and ...also includes material created under the guidance of Judith Belushi [co-creator's John Belushi's widow]."

Joshua Mumby, who also directs, is Elwood Blues, the tall harmonica-playing thin one, and roly-poly tumbling David Kristopher-Brown is Jake Blues. A slick pair of sassy backing singers the Stax Sisters also have solo turns,  blonde Hannah Kee and brunette Helen Hart. While Arnold Mabhena channels his Cab Calloway, Ray Charles and James Brown complete the singing line up.

Above are three signs of The Blues Brothers' haunts - Bob's Country Bunker, Palace Hotel and Soul Food Cafe. But these are all static acknowledgments of the movie and there's no repartee we heard regarding The Hippodrome which may have made us feel that The Blue Brothers had landed in the UK and at a musically historic venue.  

The songs come thick and fast starting with Steve Winwood's Gimme Some Loving, then Hey Bartender before whipping it up with Rollin' Rollin' Rollin' from the 1950s cowboy series Rawhide, Hart's rendition of Aretha Franklin's and Ted White's  Think (Freedom).and then back to the Brothers for Taj Mahal's and James Rachell's She Caught The Katy and so it goes on .

The voices are obviously powerful, the dancing (choreographer Lily Howkins) and band energetic but it does become one damn song after another (with an interval). The format itself feels rather dated and just a little bit tired. Yes, there are more buzzy interludes when we're treated to giant bumble bee costumes in Slim Harpo's I'm A King Bee, but we sense this is the umpteenth performance with the same gag.

The band led by James Robert Ball on piano boasts electric guitars, drums, trombone, trumpet, saxophone keep up the pace and the volume and join gamely in the summer time theme when its time to don the Hawaiian shirts and garlands with a touch of Mexican to boot. So it's all pretty polished holiday camp jollity.   

If you're a fan of The Blues Brothers, you might very well, do the Twist, the Swim, the Monkey, the Mashed Potato and the Tailfeather to get tickets. Otherwise it's an amber light perfectly serviceable show which could do with a bit of a refresher. But hey, to paraphrase a song, everybody needs somebody or something to love ...  It is what it is ...

Friday, 21 July 2017

Review Three

by Sophie Ellerby

What Will Survive Of Us Is Love

The future seems brighter than ever before for one family.

A call centre promotion is in sight for eldest Rochelle (Alice Vilanculo) who is going steady with policeman Dan (Emanuel Vuso).

Carefree schoolgirl Tia (Ikra Ali) is on the cusp of womanhood and her 16th birthday. Maybe the middle sister Jaz (Courtney Spencer) is drifting and a bit wild, but they're all looking forward to Tia's birthday party and, even better, their Dad, released from prison, is going to be able to join them.

But that same night their lives are torn apart by a terrible event, family relationships shattered and the three young women are tainted by association, although entirely innocent.

Director Anna Niland orchestrates the 19-strong cast in a play which, while covering a range of issues, manages retain the emotional core between the three sisters at its centre.

Three is a full-length play lasting just over two hours  with actors about to graduate from the National Youth Theatre's Playing Up scheme.

There's an impressive debut by Vilanculo as the rock of the family who finds everything she thought of as solid crumbling away. There is also a delicate performance from Ali as the youngest who has to grow up quickly, while Spencer convinces as troubled third sister Jaz

But the other actors in supporting roles are also equal to a thought-provoking, ambitious piece. Jordan Bangura and Dionne Brown as an expectant young couple, Abby Russell as the publicity hungry call centre boss and Aston McAuley as a grieving son impressively mix humour and seriousness.
It's a tribute to the writing, directing and acting that it was only late in the play that TLT realised the drama draws loosely on the structure and characters in Chekhov's The Three Sisters. Playwright Ellerby manages to make the story her own, looping in issues but keeping the situations real with all the question marks hanging over them.

Niland carefully paces a play, veering towards screenplay with its quick-cut scene changes, drawing it back into a theatrical experience alongside movement director Kane Husbands.   A police raid and the increasing media spotlight are ingeniously and economically evoked. 

The set designed by Kate Lane makes full use of the Arcola Space. The main stage is flanked by two spaces, stage left and right, in the midst of the audience - a bedroom on one side and a bench on a patch of grass on the other.

On an upper tier composer Roly Botha like a club DJ controls  the inventive and affecting soundscape, put together with John Castle who also does lighting,

We saw it on the first night of a three-night run until July 22 and the flaws were minor - the occasional dropped voice, perhaps understandable as well with the televisual nature of Ellerby's sophisticated script.

This is an intriguing and substantial set of emerging talent, both in the acting and the script in a play which uses rather than is controlled by cliché to become truly poignant and searching. It's a green light.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Review Much Ado About Nothing (Preview)

Much Ado About Nothing
by William Shakespeare

Once Upon A Time In Mexico

It's Mucho Ado About Nothing with sombreros, ponchos and cigarillos at Shakespeare's Globe set in the midst of the Mexican Revolution in the early years of the 20th century.

The steam clears revealing wooden slatted railway wagons spanning the stage, a  means of moving people and supplies from and to the home encampment.  

The grubby rebels, the leader Don Pedro (Steve John Shepherd),  lanky, moustachioed Benedick (Matthew Needham) and young puppy rebel Claudio (Marcello Cruz) arrive on horses, cleverly evoked by riders on stilts and wire horses' heads.

Here the women stride around with rifles and belts of bullets criss crossing their female apparel. 

In the chauvinist rebel camp environment, there is also Don Pedro's sister, the saturnine Juana (Jo Dockery). It's a gender swap from the original Shakespeare text and the male machismo surrounding her gives some motivation for her bitterness and jealousy.

Directed by Matthew Dunster, it all works surprisingly well. Don Pedro is a slightly insecure Pancho Villa figure at a time when several factions were fighting for dominance in Mexico. The tough Leonato (Martin Marquez in a fine performance), complete with  black eye patch, is still slightly vulnerable when it comes to family honour.

Beatrice (Beatriz Romilly) is his slightly older niece, a slightly more careworn woman than her hardy but still more than slightly fragile cousin Hero (Anya Chalotra).

The music from composer James Maloney and the three-strong band led by Zands Duggan with Matt Bacon on guitar and Miguel Gorodi on trumpet, conjures up a hot, dusty and vibrant Mexico. But it also works dramatically, signalling the mood of the oncoming action and enabling fluid, clear scene changes for the audience.

Anna Fleischle's design keeps it simple: The train wagons from the National Railways of Mexico  provide the backdrop. On one side stands a blue and white tiled pillar with an altar and a Madonna shrine. On the other side, a pillar has a wooden bench curving round as a seat and a perch for the beer bottles.

Away from the main stage is another island platform in the midde of the groundlings, serving as a second stage. 

The tricks played on Beatrice and Benedict make sense in the boredom of the anti-climactic periods between fighting.  The easily-swayed males and their vulnerability, alongside machismo, makes sense of the savage rejection of Hero, not only by Claudio but also Don Pedro and her own father Leonato. 

The place names are changed to suit Mexico. The currency of course is the peso and the masked ball with Fleischle's flamboyant brightly colouried Mexican costumes  becomes a lusty but formalised celebration of the bull and virility. 

In this version, Dogberry becomes Dog Berry (Ewan Wardrop), an American movie director who mangles words in translation. 

His box camera footage helps uncover the villain of the piece and if the storyline feels a little strained, that's more the nature of Shakespearean comedy than this production. 

For a Hollywood newsreel and movie director really did accompany Sancho Panza in real life and there was even a contract, if a little less spectacular and prescriptive than some implied.

It's an earthy, bright and gaudy Much Ado with the music effortlessly flagging up the comic and serious moments.  

Very much an ensemble piece from Beatrice and Benedick, through Don Pedro, Juana, Hero, Claudio and Hero, to the sweetly-singing child soldier (Lucy Brandon), it's a green light for a mucho enjoyable Much Ado About Nothing.  

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Review Dessert

by Oliver Cotton

The Last Supper

There's a real hunger for plays with a new take on financial inequality and the state we're in. But there has to be a fresh insight and Oliver Cotton's new play, Dessert, directed by Sir Trevor Nunn, seems curiously dated and unrigorous in its analysis.

Financier Sir Hugh Fennell (Michael Simkins) and his wife Gill (Alexandra Gilbreath) are domiciled in the UK in a palatial spread surrounded by a collection of paintings.

They are entertaining an equally affluent Connecticut business associate Wesley Barnes (Stuart Milligan) and his blonde, dippy wife Meredith (Teresa Banham).

And they've just reached dessert.

Loyal factotum Roger (Graham Turner) is about to serve the cheese, after they've gorged on something delicious in a tarragon sauce, when their smug bonhomie is suddenly plunged literally into darkness.

Afghanistan veteran Eddie (Stephen Hagan), terribly maimed during active service, invades their dining room with a gun, having disabled  the mansion's electricity and security system.

He's demanding justice for his stroke-ridden newsagent father who had put all his and his wife's life savings into a Fennell company which subsequently collapsed and from which Sir Hugh had walked away.

We were wondering about the dramatist's choice of the newsagent trade for Eddie's Dad - itself under siege from supermarkets for its core products - print newspapers (which have their own problems), cigarettes and lottery tickets.

However this never developed into anything, although there was, late on, peculiarly a variation on the six Ws, taught to all trainee journalists, which also appears in Ink this season.

We guess it was deliberate that at the start a meal was made, in all senses of the word, of a variety of culinary herbs and that Sir Hugh's surname is Fennell, but we don't for the life of us know why. It's that kind of show.

If it had then become a full-blown satire, with or without herbs, it might have gripped us. But even the trigger event for Eddie seems wildly implausible in a jarring way.

Newsagents have a professional association which also gives some financial pointers. Presumably Eddy's parents were not the only alleged victims of Sir Hugh and his (unmentioned) lawyers and accountants.

Surely, in the age of the internet, those who had lost their money would organise themselves into a pressure group and even, heaven forbid, contact the press? 

But it seems that Eddie's Mum and Dad instead flailed from solicitor to (self) regulatory bodies which were mentioned.

This is a bit of a clunky criticism on our part, picking on what some might see as a small part of the play. Nevertheless, we do feel it's indicative of the comedy drama's force-fed scenarios which simply do not hang together.

In the midst of being held hostage, each of the diners, the hostage taker and the Man Friday launch into speeches filled with a set of under developed, under researched passing references to issues.

Not even a moment when a tap on a glass chimes like the New York Stock Exchange bell can save this play. We get the soundbites but no fresh insights.

On the plus side, a fine cast do what they can with the woefully underdeveloped material and thinly-drawn characters they've been handed. There's also a handsome set from Rachel Stone evoking the mansion and its picture gallery.

Yes, there's been Enron, Bernie Madoff, the Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and the Pension Protection Fund affair and now, tragically, the trail of bank-backed companies involved with the Grenfell Tower fire, amongst many others.

However Dessert feels like simplistic political agit-prop rather than an attempt to grapple wittily and dramatically with the landscape of global finance, wars in the name of defence and public goods falling into private pockets. So it's a famine rather than feast red/amber light.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Review Twilight Song

Twilight Song
by Kevin Elyot

Ah! Sweet Mystery Of Life

Twilight Song, written by the late Kevin Elyot in 2014 just before his death, is an odd little playwriting confection about some odd fellows and a woman. 

Analyse it closely and it turns out to be a tawdry tale of impregnation, loans, property, possible professional fraud, furtive sexual encounters, time slippages and blackmail, all wrapped  in colourful tissue paper and tied with a great big ribbon bow.

We can't begin to add up all the self-consciously theatrical and cinematic styles it seems to go through - there's a touch of Rattigan, definitely some Noel Coward and Alfred Hitchcock, even a snippet of Christopher Isherwood, Charles Dickens and DH Lawrence (or is it EM Foster ...?) and, hey, is that Monty Python parody?

This is the première of Elyot's last play and, despite some sluggish moments, director Anthony Banks gives us a stylish production set on James Cotterill's wooden round stage living room with a settee, curved French windows, mahogany gramophone and a silver drinks' trolley to create a Scotch haze. 

It's a slickly, but rather mechanically, put together play and it rather feels as if the playwright put together the themes going around  rather than a deeply-felt piece. 

Maybe it was intended to go a bit deeper into the gay influence on literature, film and television and what this meant before and after 1967 legislation, yet this never really develops, even in metaphor.  

Still, after a slow and rather stilted beginning, the story does take hold. Barry (Paul Higgins) is a middle-aged gay retired pharmacist who lives with his mother in a North London Victorian villa. While she takes her regular weekly trip to Kent, he invites an estate agent (Adam Garcia) to give a valuation and other services. 

Centred on the house, this modern day encounter slips back to the 1960s and delicate girlish bride Isabella (Bryony Hannah) welcoming two old codgers into her marital home. 

Charles (Hugh Ross), an elderly doctor and seemingly someone's uncle. Harry (Philip Bretherton), a dodgy married solicitor, like Charles, seems well lodged in his current comfortable middle-class existence even if it seems the two men have a past. 

Slipping back and forth in time, by the end we can piece together the story and obtain a sense of an ending but, while it may have been meant as a satire or parody, it comes across as a rather lacklustre playwriting effort.

References to Conservative but pro Welfare State prime minister MacMillan and 1960s emigration to Australia are flagged up as well as a wife's thwarted career.

However, in the end it feels as if we've been lured to spy through the keyhole at a rather insubstantial and too self-satisfied mystery story and it's an amber light. 

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Review Bodies

Peter Barker is intrigued by a play tracing a global transaction which a London couple hopes will bring them the child of their dreams.

by Vivienne Franzmann

Great Expectations

Clem and Josh are desperately trying for a baby. However the well-off middle-class, middle-aged media couple are paying for the creation of a baby who would not otherwise exist.

The egg donor comes from Russia, while across the world an impoverished woman in India is the surrogate mother carrying the egg fertilized by Josh's sperm.

Bodies is a new play from Vivienne Franzmann examining the purchase of parenthood and the bringing to life of another human being with a genetic connection as a paid-for hybrid commodity.

Unable to conceive their own child, Clem and Josh allow their longing for a family dictate their actions without regard for the welfare of and consequences for others around them. 

These others include surrogate mother Lakshmi in India, Salma Hoque skilfully managing wide-ranging shifts of emotions, and Philip Goldacre's touching portrayal of Clem's cantankerous, stroke-stricken, trade unionist father who nevertheless sticks to his socialist values.

Many would regard the situation of the London couple (Justine Mitchell and Jonathan McGuinness) as a first world problem, motivated by dubiously selfish concerns. Unlike the Sex Pistols' song of the same title, the problem and solution is not forced on Clem.

Scientific advance is now a gateway to unprecedented arrangements and Franzmann's play examines where respect for our own and other people's bodies begins and ends.

It also poses the question about what personal fulfilment in our advanced technological age should mean.

The play provides a skilful framework for these questions and issues with a poignant fantasy as a dramatic device. Clem meets and speaks with the unborn child, a young woman of 16 years in a sure-footed, striking performance by Hannah Rae.

This daughter can cross psychic and physical boundaries, moving from Clem's English house to the dormitory of the surrogate Indian mother. The child becomes like an inverse ghost of Hamlet's father, also a victim of other people's actions, but looking to the family's future instead of the past.

Within such an emotionally overwrought situation,  there is nevertheless state intervention,  counterbalancing the illusion that our deepest desires, consumerism and the market are the only factors in a seemingly endless case of supply and demand.

Director Jude Christian, designer Gabriella Slade with Joshua Pharo on lighting  convincingly stage digital connectivity enabling clear changes of scene and context in a fast-moving plot.

Slade's beige softwood set with sliding doors makes for an effective contemporary backdrop with a round window smoothly transforming into a screen with videos created by Meghna Gupta.

However the play at 90 minutes, despite cuts to the published text,  does seem overlong. There is also some clunky dialogue and the final pay off felt confusing, but Franzmann does have the ability to spring surprises and drive the story forward.

The affluence of Clem and Joshua's life, the exploitation of the less advantaged at home and abroad, fertility, loss, and motherhood are all deftly handled. It's an amber/green light for a compelling tale which impressively mines the social and emotional implications of surrogacy.