Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Review Blue Heart

Blue Heart
by Caryl Churchill

The Discreet Harm Of The Bourgeoisie

Ah, it turns out Boris Johnson was only following in the footsteps of Caryl Churchill in presenting alternate scenarios in writing.

For the first play Heart's Desire, part of a double bill under the title Blue Heart, does exactly that in director David Mercatali's sparky revival at the Orange Tree Theatre in association with Bristol's Tobacco Factory Theatres.

First performed successfully in 1997 (and we suspect the politics and events swirling around at that time underpins the two plays), Heart's Desire and Blue Kettle turn out to feel just as perky in 2016.

Equally interestingly in different ways the plays leave space for the audience to almost become an expectant character, write its own script and achieve a kind of satisfying dissatisfaction with its own interpretation.

We should of course mention the plays are also very funny.

In Heart's Desire, a family on the verge of a meal together await the return of a 30-something daughter from Australia. But this becomes a kind of Groundhog Day moment without the upbeat trajectory or memory of previous occasions.

Dad Brian (a lugubrious turn from Andy De La Tour), grounded Alice (Amelda Brown) and girlish Auntie Maisie (Amanda Boxer) seem doomed to repeat the same scenario again and again.

At first the variations are obvious. The subtle rumble of a tube train (sound effects Max Pappenheim) trails a phone call any family would dread. But afterwards in the repetition controllable verbal sparring becomes more flagrantly random and is interrupted by another wildcard arrival of alcoholic son Lewis (Alex Beckett).

When daughter Susy (Mona Goodwin) finally arrives, she has the cut glass tones of a Noel Coward character before - yes, it's all cut off for another round of our expectations fulfilled and then denied.

We certainly don't want to spoil the spontaneity but a visit from a Pinteresque totalitarian bureaucrat, an outsize bird in need of a manicure and a firearms' episode all figure, along with a Beckettian-crossed-with-Kafkaesque carnivorous human version of a dog chasing its own tail.

The second play of the evening Blue Kettle eats into itself in another way. A middle-aged man Derek (Alex Beckett) sets out to con several elderly woman from different stratas of society that he is the baby each of them gave up for adoption many years previously in the hope of money and property.

But at the same time there's just a touch of the patronising superior actor or even playwright about him, policing the women thinking he can measure and control their reactions. As his plans implode, words take on a linguistic life of their own and finally break down, just as painters can eschew photographic realism with outlandish colours and disintegration on the canvas.

This is an unsettling yet invigorating evening with a fine cast in a pared-down effective set from Angela Davies and lighting from Chris Swain sharply defining scenes.

It's a green light for plays with enough of a hook in shared human experiences to wrench us out of the comic absurd into more achingly human personal and political territory of trust and betrayal.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Review Ragtime

Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens

The Grand Illusion

If ever a musical was designed to fit the word "epic", surely Ragtime is that musical, a sweeping panorama of American life which artfully combines a child's eye view of an expansionist yet democratic, idealistic nation with complex adult concerns.

Adapted from a sprawling 1975 novel, which was followed by a 1981 movie, the musical distills the pre-First World War story into the tale of a WASP family - mother, father and little Edgar - a Jewish immigrant father and young daughter and, last but not least, a proud black musician and his lover who buy into the American dream only to suffer numerous injustices because of their race.
Its score encompasses the music of ragtime turning from the joyous to ominous, the rhythms of marching songs. soaring melodies of aspiration and love. Thom Southerland's production has many fine moments with a 24-strong cast of actor-musicians playing out the syncopated trail of ambition and tragedy.

Old and new, fictional and real life characters wend their way through and collide in the story of Ragtime filtered through the picture book and derring-do imagination of Edgar (Ethan Quinn alternating with Samuel Peterson) who pointedly also shares his first name with the writer of the original novel.

There are some crisp and visceral vocal ensembles from the first song Ragtime to the fine Getting Ready Rag led by black musician Coalhouse Walker Jr (Ako Mitchell) and the resonant New Music. Anita Louise Combe as Edgar's mother transforms from restrained wife to a person in her own right, providing one of the highlights  of the show in Back To Before. As well as Seyi Omooba's solo (and professional debut) in the thrilling Till We Reach That Day.

There's a feel of pioneer America in the saloon bar set with scattered stars on the wood panelling, designed by Tom Rogers and Toots Butcher. This musical manages no mean feat in intertwining the birth of the movies, the rights of women, tabloid journalism and the growing strength of the workers' movement in America with a sprinkling of literary references.

Nevertheless with a large cast, the stage does sometimes feel over-busy and there are occasional lapses.  Sitting in the third row, there were times when the mic levels disrupted the piece. This was particularly evident, despite a fine performance by Jennifer Saayeng as Coalhouse's lover Sarah, in the crescendo of one of the show's best known songs, Your Daddy's Son.

The separate ultimate fates of Sarah and Coalhouse also felt slightly diluted - Sarah's moment of tragedy by the sound levels of the ensemble and a lack of tension in Coalhouse's final act.  At these times, the action and ironies needed sharper definiton. 

Yet, the beauty of the score and the intelligence of the lyrics and book with its touches of humour still shine through. Even in the more seemingly peripheral role of escape artist Harry Houdini (Christopher Dickins), there is a double resonance, very subtly, both politics and entertainment, to the chains binding him.

As the show underlines it is Houdini who has the most knowledge and understanding about himself and America,  "he knew he was only an illusionist". It's an amber/green light for a flawed but energetic and exciting production.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Review Oil

by Ella Hickson

Cold Comfort Farm

In the week  President Buhari of Nigeria (a petroleum nation) said his wife belonged "to my kitchen", we filled our tank and drove to see Ella Hickson's take on the oil industry. Indeed Oil marries the growth of our dependence on this fossil fuel with the emancipation of women.

At its centre is May (Anne-Marie Duff) . We follow her progress over more than a century, seeking not so much a room, but an energy resource, of her own. 

Maybe it is a magical mystery tour of a female Flying Dutchman fuelled by oil before it becomes a dwindling resource. Maybe it is more a psychological tour of a woman's mind and life with designer Vicki Mortimer, lighting by Lucy Carter and sound by Peter Rice at times subtly indicating electrical synapses of the brain.

We first encounter May in 1889 as the pregnant wife who has married into a Devon farming family labouring on the land from sunrise to sunset, constantly needing to chop wood for fuel with candlelight a nighttime luxury.

This freezing and spartan existence is interrupted by the arrival of a stetson-wearing American (Sam Swann). He demonstrates to them  the smelly convenience of kerosene lamps and introduces the concept of land acquisition, stubbornly refused by the family despite May's attraction to this brave new world of money, commerce and light.  It is at this point pregnant May seems to start on a journey leaping through electrical synapses of time

The play (or more accurately five shorter linked plays with the recurring characters of May and also her daughter Amy played by Yolanda Kettle), is sandwiched between two songs  an English folk song, There Were Three Ravens, and ends with Justin Bieber's Love Yourself.

There are five time shifts flagged up, three in the past: The 1880s, Britain's imperial sphere of influence in the Persian oil fields in 1908  and the formica kitchen of a (female) oil executive's Hampstead home in the 1970s, then forward to 2021 in the Iraqi desert with a British woman MP determined to bring her daughter home by hook or by crook.

Thirty years after that, it's finally back to the future at the Singer farm where oil is rationed - mother and daughter left to fend for themselves in one room barely able to afford commercially rationed oil and the cycle starting again with a new world power and salesperson with a proposed solution to all our energy problems. 

We'll make no bones about it. This is a strange one, perhaps with something in common with the Royal Court's space fantasy X. And with references, lots of references, relevant but barely integrated, the scenes sometimes feeling sketch-like.

The farming family is called Singer, maybe a gesture towards the mechanisation of women's manual labour into commerce, on machines which still needed drops of oil.  A British officer in Iran has the surname Samuel, the same as one ofthe founders of the Shell oil company.

There is also a reference to menstruation as May hired as waitress gets "blood on the napkins". And so it goes, often managing to stitch in references a few snippets of history but without knowing that history, the effect is random, in fact frustrating, for an audience member.

Even the publicity photo shows Anne-Marie Duff looking for all the world like Bernard Shaw's Eliza Doolittle seated in a modern - er - kitchen. Presumably with all the electrical goods and the materials used to build the kitchen products, in one way or other, of oil.

It is this mash up which makes this feel like a rather clumsy attempt to tie together and mirror many magpie elements in a confused woman's mind. It seems strange for example, that in 1908 a Persian waiting woman would be paid monthly, even when paid in cash, as if she were on a modern salary paid in retrospect into a bank account.

Or that a 15-year old schoolgirl in 1970 when Libya effectively started to nationalize its oil fields talks about leaving school at 16. The school leaving age was only raised from 15 to 16 in 1972. In the last section the Singer farm of the future, when oil is scarce, is suddenly not in Devon but in Cornwall.

Maybe there is also an attempt to chart a history of literature - for example, Virginia Woolf time-travelling,  a countryside idyll imagined by Amy's 1970s' boyfriend Nate sounds like something out of Arnold Wesker's 1959 play "I'm Talking About Jerusalem"

There are a lot of "maybes" because while there are the occasional witty elements, there appears to be no heart to Oil and, although there are constant references to and attempts to foreground oil, it does not seem the main concern of the writer Ella Hickson (or dramaturge Jenny Worton).

The cast give their all and there's fluent direction by Carrie Cracknell, using video projections (Luke Halls) as well as lighting and sound to link the plays. However if confusion is one of the themes, it unfortunately is reflected in the structure of the piece.

The disparate themes feel shoehorned in rather than an artistic choice growing naturally out of the content. It did made us wonder whether it was originally conceived for the screen rather than on stage.

These are certainly women who do not stay chained to the kitchen sink, but despite a strong cast and direction, our own wells do not gush over for Oil and we give it an amber light. And TLT and her own little gas guzzler may well take up the popcorn and watch again the, albeit male-dominated, movie and Oscar-winning performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood based on Upton Sinclair's Oil!

Review Mountains Of Madness

Carolin Kopplin explores the strange world of cult science writer HP Lovecraft and finds thrills in a dramatisation of a classic horror story.

Mountains of Madness
by H.P. Lovecraft, adapted by TL Wiswell

Land That Time Forgot

The London Horror Festival has found its new home at the Old Red Lion Theatre. The UK's original and largest festival of horror in the performing arts has scared audiences since 2011, celebrating suspense, originality, and the macabre.

T. L. Wiswell's adaptation of cult science fiction writer HP Lovecraft's 1931 novella brings to the stage the nightmarish fate of  a geological expedition to the Antarctic from which few of the researchers returned.

Six years later, Dr. Willa Dyer (Sasha Wilson), the leader of the expedition,  shares the disturbing secret of what happened in those regions in the hope of deterring another team of explorers who aim to go to the same "cryptic world of frozen death".

Playwright TL Wiswell's reimagining of the classic story transforms the explorers into female scientists and moves the action back to the 1920s in a 50-minute piece which is clearly a labour of love for director Lorenzo Peter Mason. 

The apparently rational structure of  a college science lecture draws the audience into disquieting events as Dyer relates how, beyond a hitherto unknown mountain range higher than The Himalayas, her expedition members discover not only ancient ruins but also a dangerous secret.

Their discoveries take them beyond the boundaries of known science with life forms unidentifiable as plants or animals but, far more devastatingly, they also find both researchers and dogs left at their camp slaughtered..

Dr. Dyer's suspenseful recollection of the events during the ill-fated journey is aided by Peabodie (Natalie Morgan) and Danforth (Libby Grant), two members of the research team. 

Chilling sound effects from Keri Danielle Chesser, as well as slide projections and inventively ghoulish makeup prove effective in transporting the audience from the lecture room to an icy hell.  

Director Lorenzo Peter Mason's production is beautifully designed by Anna Sances and clearly influenced by silent film. An amber/green light and a must for any Lovecraft fan.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Review The Dresser

The Dresser
by Ronald Harwood

On The Chessboard

The King is in his counting house in Ronald Harewood's 1980 play The Dresser,  but his health is failing and mental faculties faltering. Yet he remains literally a man of many roles, running a Shakespearean repertory company during World War II bombing and taking on Shakespeare's King Lear, Richard III and, yes, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice in alternate performances.

Played here by Ken Stott, "Sir" the actor/manager inherits the legacy of actors like Edmund Kean in more ways than one.  He maintains a precarious hierarchy, in a manner part galley slave gangmaster, part headmaster, touring the British Isles.

All the while, he's kept on his feet, chivvied, bolstered by and nannied on to the boards by his dresser for 16 years, superstitious yet expedient Norman (Reece Shearsmith).

A comedy, a tragedy and - in the case of Norman - a touch of music hall variety, The Dresser hearks back to a repertory system age when theatre became part of, and was in part bailed out, by the national war effort.   But here the countdown to the production of King Lear, instead of an ordered chessboard,  is as out of sync as the Lear mad scene, mired, we are subtly reminded, in the dangerous politics of the time.

At its centre Stott captivates and repels with his fruity tones and timing as the collapsing, mercurial, selfish Sir.

Sir who is dependent on the lure of the footlights to impress and bring fresh meat to the company yet still determined, however haphazardly, to keep what he sees as "the faith".  

The only male actors available are those not called up - too old or invalided out. Like bespectacled Geoffrey (Simon Rouse), with the air of a civil servant rather than a thespian, unexpectedly elevated to the role of Fool. Or a saturnine Oxenby (Adam Jackson-Smith) who could possibly be a communist or maybe something else, at any rate out for "a new world order", especially if it involves  a play he has written.  

While "Sir" is "sir" to his company, it is his apparent consort who is truly "Her Ladyship" (a Wagneresque Harriet Thorpe), the daughter of a Baronet, although perhaps first brought in like another minor artistocrat's daughter who is mentioned and whose mother invested money in the company.

Also part of the aging thespian's retinue is the efficient stage manager spinster, Madge (Selina Cadell), whom we learn was dazzled at the start of her career by the footlights and "Sir" but has now having given up all hope of that first passion for  him being reciprocated,

Directed by Sean Foley, The Dresser takes place on a handsome, detailed set designed by Michael Taylor. A crossways' dressing room with corridor at the side occupies the first act and a revolving set revealing backstage, the wings and finally full frontal performance in the second, with neat musical transitions by Ben and Max Ringham and lighting from James Farncombe.

Inspired by Ronald Harwood's time as a dresser for Donald Wolfit, there's plenty of kingly pomp, as much as farcical missed entrances, in the play within the play. As well as visceral insight when the lives of the protagonists and the Shakespearean drama superimpose on each other.  Yet this is no sentimental trip down memory lane.

Despite the comedy, The Dresser is a sad, bitter play focussing on a theatrical world which subsists as a perpetually under-funded hierarchy of coercion and exploitation.

With its sporadic, if gentle, hints that performance also underpins violent debt-fuelled politics, it's a green light for this strange, double-edged dissection of a touring company at war.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Review Darkness, Darkness

Francis Beckett admires the historical accuracy and heart in a murder mystery linked to a highly-charged, divisive turning point of Britain's recent industrial past.

Darkness, Darkness
by John Harvey

Strikers and Lovers

Set in Nottinghamshire during the miners’ strike, Darkness, Darkness is at once a thoughtful play about the 1984-5 miners' strike and a whodunnit. 

Novelist John Harvey has adapted one adventure from his Charlie Resnick detective series about the investigation of a cold case – the murder of a miner’s wife during the strike and part of its theme is the bitter conflict between striking Yorkshire miners and working Nottinghamshire miners.  

Having written a history of the strike (Marching to the Fault Line by Francis Beckett and David Hencke, Constable), I was glad to see that John Harvey had done his research and has a deep understanding of the emotions the strike created.  

In fact, surprisingly given that he is a professional crime writer, the play is stronger when re-creating the strike than when dramatizing the investigation. 

Indeed Nottingham Playhouse's locally-inspired current season is brave and interesting. New work strongly connected to the city of Nottingham and the county of Nottinghamshire fills its studio space and main stage, directed with care and love. 

In the studio space, there's another subterranean tale, The Underground Man, a new play about William Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, the Fifth Duke of Portland, an eccentric Nottinghamshire aristocrat who created the now famous tunnels at Welbeck Abbey

While my single evening in Nottingham allowed for only one play, I did get to talk to playwright Nick Wood, and get a flavour of another interesting Nottinghamshire-inspired theatrical adventure in addition to the riveting crime and coal play that is Darkness Darkness. 

The murder victim, Jenny Hardwick (a wonderful, restless performance from Elizabeth Twells) is married to a staid working Nottinghamshire miner (Chris Donnelly) and having an affair with a striking Yorkshire miner (John Askew).

Decades later Charlie Resnick, impressively brought to brooding, contemplative life by David Fleeshman, carries out the investigation into the unsolved case, aided by a young, female, black high-flying colleague Catherine Njoroge (a convincing and combative Simone Saunders.)

The cast is excellent – there is not a weak link anywhere. Husband and lover naturally are the first suspects when it comes to investigating her murder. I shall not of course tell you whodunnit, but, while remaining engrossed, I have to report that I had it nailed well before the end of the first act.

The script moves rapidly from place to place, with a traditional realistic set clearly out of the question. John Harvey himself writes that he didn't want to be "tied down by over-realistic and detailed sets ... allow[ing] for a more impressionistic evocation of place and a fluid relationship with time.”

An ingenious set device from designer Ruth Sutcliffe permits scene to follow scene quite smoothly. The time shifts are well handled by writer and director Jack McNamara – the play moves frequently and seamlessly between 1984 and the twenty first century investigation.

There is a less sure touch when it comes to the sub plots concerning the personal lives of the two detectives – they probably work well in the novel, but seem a little contrived on the stage.

Darkness Darkness may not be as well-executed as Wonderland by coalminer's daughter, Beth Steel, recently performed at the Hampstead Theatre, but that is an impossibly high bar to jump.

The Nottingham Playhouse has a fine play inextricably linked to an event three decades ago that still rouses passions locally and had vast repercussions for the city. It’s a magnificent achievement by writer, director, cast, and a brave adventure by the theatre. A green light from me – get to it if you can. 

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Review Travesties

by Tom Stoppard

The Biggest Bet

Life is drawing to an end for Henry Carr. He's not so much forgetful or senile as bloody annoyed. He obviously wants to join the ranks of the respected, those who knew and encouraged the genius which manifested itself in Zurich during World War One.

The only trouble is that the genius, acclaimed by a deluge of accolades by all and sundry (ok, by those in publishing and academia - we're safe as the genius himself made fun of them), is a certain Mr James Joyce (1882 -1941).  We're at the start of Travesties, a 1974 play written by Tom Stoppard.

Now Henry (Tom Hollander) is forcing himself to join the Joyce (played here by Peter McDonald) bandwagon, minueting around possible biographies. He rehearses different plausible versions of the past as if preparing evidence for a court case  - or at least in case he is quizzed by a publisher, literary editor or reader. Wavering between eulogy and fury.

"Memories of James Joyce. James Joyce As I Knew Him. The James Joyce I Knew. Through The Courts With James Joyce .. To those of us who knew him, Joyce's genius was never in doubt ... an amazing intellect ..." until we get to "... in short, a liar and a hypocrite, a tight-fisted, sponging fornicating drunk not worth the paper ..."

Then on to future Soviet leader Lenin (Forbes Masson) out to commandeer artistic pursuits for the revolutionary ideals on whom, Carr having outlived them all, can only rue the day that he never laid a bet when they all lived in Zurich. Along with Romanian Tristan Tzara (Freddie Fox), founder of "anti-art" - er - art movement Da da.

As you may have gathered, this is a genre of memory play. Stoppard has taken a footnote in the magisterial Richard Ellman 1959 biography of James Joyce in which Henry Carr appears and spun it into Travesties. Carr, who like Joyce had worked in a bank, was an ex-soldier, invalided out of combat, working in a minor British consular role.

Joyce recruited Carr to play Algernon ("the other one" in  Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest) on an amateur basis in an acting troupe of which  Joyce was business manager. However, the whole affair ended in acrimony for Carr and Joyce - and in the Zurich district courts with each in the hands of lawyers.

Directed by Patrick Marber, this is essentially a high-brow farce set in Carr's lodgings and Zurich public library which like the earlier Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead becomes a play within a classic play. This time it's The Importance Of Being Earnest intricately intertwined in the action.

As in literary memoirs where fact and fiction interweave, Wilde's Gwendolen (Amy Morgan) is Carr's sister who ends up as amenuensis to the great man in this tale. That is, Joyce relies on her as he dictates Ulysses (in which Joyce exacted revenge on Carr for claiming he was owed money for his costume and allegedly libelling the author - that damn fact and fiction again!).

Meanwhile Wilde's Cecily (Clare Foster) is turned into a Zurich librarian (although in this travesty changes later on into a more male donnish lecturer on the Russian Revolution). Tristan Tzara falls for her but has to invent in Wildean manner a less radical brother due to her conservative inclinations.

"Confused?",  you probably will be. Unlike Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead, the possible tragic and human consequences of war and putting theory into practice feel mightily submerged in the wordplay and literary allusions.

Nevertheless the consequences are there. For in one sense or another, Zurich is conveyed as a city of refugees and political manipulation where art, politics and historical events of the past  all too easily solidify in a record which puts a selective import on disparate strands.

For while we may laugh at Carr's inadequate ramblings when putting together his own book, they are also recognizable as precisely the sort of literary memoirs which are the currency of literary and academic lionization.

And Switzerland's position in wartime seemingly divorced from the conflict is always there. As is Carr's butler Bennett (Tim Wallers) with his succinct diplomatic bag newspaper summaries of the situation. In reality, Bennett was in charge of Carr and the consulate in Zurich, so here as butler he is  is literally a "public servant". Even if his transformation into a PG Wodehouse type character also has resonance.

It feels both a problem and a strength that our sympathies tend to turn towards Carr as an uncanonized character in this gallery of secular saints. Nevertheless, the play relies on an inordinate amount of background knowledge which, speaking frankly, hardly seems part of the mainstream in our twentieth first century internet world.

The detailed care lavished on the set and costumes, the timing and entrances and exits, the merging of Finnegans Wake language into Carr's muddled or maybe experimental recollections make this almost a biblical theatrical text in itself. Yet it's the visuals which stick in the mind, despite quickfire, fine performances by the cast.

Carr's torment and disgust at Joyce's undisputed genius held us - the other characters filtered through Carr's mind perhaps seem less original in our own quickfire, algorithmic world. This feels now very much a play put together rather than organically grown. Lenin and his wife Nadya (Sarah Quist) may be deliberately distanced with dialogue taken from books Carr has read to make up for being in their proximity without meeting them but this adds to the collage effect.

We have to say the current public exposure of the coopting of artists into political partisanship make the juxtapositions a little old hat now. But, it is true, a hat which like wars and revolutions and Henry Carr's boater in The Importance Of Being Earnest, always needs to be paid for. So it's a quickfire kerching! amber light from TLT and her very own car (without the double r) critic!