Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Review Low Level Panic

Low Level Panic
by Claire McIntyre

The Order Of The Bath

Ah, 1988 ...  when Kraft was cheese and Heinz was beanz and never the twain would meet. A merger was arranged between breakaway Social Democrat and the Liberal Party. Margaret Thatcher was on the throne in office. Topless Page Three girls still boosted sales of The Sun newspapers. Comic Relief launched Red Nose Day on TV. The church was discussing the possibility of female vicars. Kids and adults were gripped by the video game craze.

And Clare McIntyre's curious collage of a play Low Level Panic was first performed at The Royal Court..

The play ostensibly covers  a night and a day in the life of three young women. A comedy drama,  part soap gone radical, probably influenced by Nancy Friday's influential tome My Secret Garden on women's sexual fantasies, and a nexus for a cocktail of 1980s' pressures, personal, political and commercial contradictions. 

In well-paced and nuanced revival, the entire play is set in the bathroom of an all-female house-share. Rosanna Vize's clever four-cornered design, complete with avocado bath, toilet, free-standing door and vertical neon lit rails rising like outsize towel racks to the ceiling, gives director Chelsea Walke and movement director Ita O'Brien enormous flexibility.

The play's opening coup de théâtre still makes a - ahem - splash. Plumpish and shaggy-permed Jo (Katherine Pearce) and her more intense slim blonde housemate Mary (Sophie Melville) are relaxing in the bathroom. Mary, cigarette in hand, is perched on the toilet cistern at an open window. And Jo is starkers, naturally, as she's soaking in the bath using all the hot water.

Jo is also baring all as regards her fantasies laced with Hollywood-, pop video- and advertising-style luxury where the body, upmarket cars and sexual partners she yearns for are perfect specimens of the human race. All of which falls away when she mounts the scales.

While demure and groomed Celia (Samantha Pearl)  could either be a beautician or have just stepped out of a beauty parlour complete with an array of beauty products. The main strand of the plot follows Mary, the only one whose career we glimpse freeing herself from the shackles of a past sexual assault.

In spite of this, there are a fair amount of laughs - some things never change for women and in house-share bathrooms ;). There's some terrific dialogue between the women and the embarassment of parties rings true. But the monologues, despite the best efforts of sound designer Richard Hamarton and lighting designer Elliot Griggs to create a separate psychic space, do feel clunky.

It's a slick production and it struck us maybe back in 1988, it was a little more raw and makeshift. Still, the issues raised of body image and the use and abuse of women sexually in the global marketplace are still with us.

So there's plenty to reflect on and some very ingenious staging by Walker. Certainly at 80 minutes, it's a play well worth seeing without outstaying its welcome and its an upper range amber light from TLT and her own little luxury limousine. 

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Review New Nigerians

New Nigerians
by Oladipe Agboluaje

Trading Places

An ebullient if uneven satire has landed in Hackney in the shape of New Nigerians, a dissection of political jockeying for power and deal making in Africa's most populous and oil-rich country. 

We enter this world through presidential hopeful Greatness Ogholi (Patrice Naiambana) practising his speech as the sole socialist candidate and reaching beyond the stage, speaking directly to the audience to bolster his electoral support and dream of a united Nigeria standing behind him.

The practicalities are handled by a savvy pot-smoking female colleague Chinasa (Gbemisola Ikumelo) with her own virtual Twitter and familial power base, holding her own in her inimitable way despite the male-dominated set up.

Meanwhile Ogholi finds himself thrashing out a pact with rival party businessman politician Danladi Musa, once a mortal enemy, and union leader Comrade Edobor (both played by Tunde Euba) to gain power. But he always has nationalisation, free healthcare and free education cemented in as cornerstones of his political agenda.

Briskly directed by Rosamunde Hutt, this is a garrulous, atmospheric play and production, almost bursting at the seams, resource-rich with issues, events, ideas and setbacks besetting an emerging economy.

Ironically Nigeria's name was coined by a female journalist, a distant cousin of playwright Bernard Shaw. For behind the gaudy facade and broad humour, Oladipe Agboluaje has written a quasi-Shavian play of ideas, ideals versus expediency.

Ogholi's ideals become a drill in political rhetoric,  "It is time we see our elite for what they are: a parody of our Western counterparts, rentiers and middlemen who sell off all our resources ..." But at the same time, the parody works as a two-way mirror, with echos within the play of a leadership deal allegedly struck over restaurant napkins for 'an electable candidate' in the much smaller country which was once Nigeria's colonial master.

Using our old ally Google, we also find the play is bang up-to-the-date about Nigeria: minimum wage, the foreign currency squeeze after the fall in petroleum prices. As well as on-going issues and trends such as the health travails of the President, Boko Haram, the threat of breakaway states, the division between Islam, Christianity and the atheism of the old radical left, the position of girls and women, the rise of hashtag online politics overtaking even the offline intersection of football and politics.

We do have our own particular issue over Chinasa's supposed enjoyment of a sexual practice converted into a gag but this may be part of a drug haze male delusion. Structurally also the play sometimes seems to lose its way in its effort to cover a lot of ground and run Ogholi's marital problems as a parallel plot, but it is redeemed by the brio of the characters and the vitality of the subject matter.

If the meaning of the term 'new world order' has always been nebulous, surely many imagined after the collapse of the Soviet bloc that the nation state and supra-national organisations would fill the vacuum.

Instead, many would say, the current state of flux is more in tune with Margaret Thatcher's comment, in hindsight double-edged, in the 1980s equivalent of a twitter feed, magazine Woman's Own: 'There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first'.

New Nigerians stays energetically in the African context as a reflection on the state of the world. It's certainly raw and not without its flaws but it's an amber/green light for its vigorous embrace of matters which affect us all.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Review A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange
by Anthony Burgess

The Young Ones

Surely we are now living firmly in a post-Clockwork Orange age? We're certainly now living in the post-Brexit (a made-up word which could have come from the pen of A Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess - or one of Brugess's biggest influences, James Joyce). Beethoven and Schiller's Ode To Joy so prominent in Burgess's 1962 novel and the later film adaptation has taken on another resonance.

Heavens, Salford is even the home of the BBC.

The dystopian tale of 15-year old Alex and his fall from gang leader to crippled patient and political pawn is best known through the infamous Stanley Kubrick movie.  Theatre company Action To The Word currently returns to London with its staging of A Clockwork Orange, using Burgess's own 1987 playscript. First seen eight years' ago on the London Fringe at the Camden Galleries, it became a hit at the Edinburgh Festival before a tour abroad.

We have to say we feel that A Clockwork Orange, the satiric novel and movie, has aged better than Action To The Word's production. This stage version works best when the narrative is clear, with unambiguous and thought-provoking reversals such as when former gang members become the forces of vengeful law and order.  

Nevertheless, this all-male production wears rather wearyingly the influences of its own time, especially an over stylized choreography which makes it somewhat a ballet mécanique going against the grain of Burgess's novel and play.

It also feels like a piece which relies rather heavily on A Clockwork Orange's reputation preceding it. The doubling and tripling up of roles, all clad in geometric black and white with dashes of orange, is definitely confusing for a newcomer to the story.The lack of women and caricatural drag makes it more akin to a Jean Genet piece than  the Burgess work which despite the fantastical element was still rooted in many ways in National Servicethe Angry Young Men set of writers and the Cold War.

For there are obvious echoes of Chinese and Soviet psychiatric brainwashing and social experimentation in the medical "cure" for criminal behaviour, as well as some of the weird psychiatric thinking which did exist in Britain and the USA.  But there's also a hook in post-war literature commonly thought of as grittily realistic such as the borstal-set The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner.

So much of Burgess's original grittiness, wit and the brutality is lost as the production, directed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones, becomes a homoerotic ballet of muscular torsos.

Still, anti-hero Alex (Jonno Davies) is more convincing as he weakens in the second half of the one-act 90 minute piece. Simon Cotton's writer F Alexander (whose novel is of course called A Clockwork Orange) and Dr Brodsky also stood out for us.

However overall this production, in the age of internet cut-and-paste and institutionalised knee jerk reactions, when we now can look back at Top Of The Pops and peroxide-blond Jimmy Savile repeats with a knowledge of brutal abuse, feels a bit of a mechanical clockwork orange in itself. An amber light for a production which has the outer skin of a juicy fruit but  has been "cured" on the inside, preserved but dried out.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Review Dubailand

by Carmen Nasr

The Arabian Sites

When Otto Von Bismarck, the Chancellor of the German Empire, led the way in introducing the world's first social insurance for German citizens in the 1880s, it was for practical rather than idealistic reasons.

The measures could ensure a steady supply of healthy citizens for German industry, the armed forces and to compete for a workforce, reducing the debilitating mass emigration of workers to the USA where such measures did not exist.

Carmen Nasr's precise and compelling play Dubailand concentrates on a 21st century tale of economic migration and lack of employment rights: The relationship between exploited Indian migrant workers and the boom Emirate city of Dubai in the present-day global economy.

Two tales intertwine and finally merge: an Indian worker brought over to build the gleaming glass and concrete tower blocks, living in what amounts to slave conditions, unable to send money back to his family; a British PR middle manager living in luxury whose position is jeopardized by the arrival of a UK female friend, an aspiring investigative journalist angling for her big break.

With 18 short, sharp scenes, this carefully written piece, directed by Georgie Staight, unravels the lives of the Indian builder Amar (Adi Chugh) and the British media worker Jamie (Nicholas Banks) against the unreal reality of Dubai. The play has a deceptively simple feel but slyly inserts the more complex duplicitious exchange between India and Dubai states through the elegant ruthlessness of politically-savvy PR executive Deena (Reena Lalbihari),  

The minimalist design by Bex Kemp using neon vertical tubes and perspex boxes is clever. Nevertheless the production falls down in failing to follow one of the stage directions of the published text. By leaving out the portrait hanging on the wall of Dubai's ruler Sheik Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, there is  no sense of the hierarchy within Dubai and how the state distributes contracts and acts as ultimate authority.

We had to google vigorously to discover the control exercised by companies set up by the Dubai ruling family, the Department of Labour permits which construction firms have to obtain for their foreign workers and what seem to be unenforced labour regulations.

Even so, the play itself does makes oblique references to Dubai as a British protectorate, its "marzipan" managerial set-up, the world of loans and credit where ex-pats falling on hard times are as vulnerable as other migrant workers, and hidden or ignored state regulation within a smooth dramatic structure.

It certainly gave us enough information to dig up the facts from the internet and understand how the fates of the various nationals in Dubailand also reflects the role the nations play in the Dubai mosaic.

British-Lebanese playwright Nasr has done a shrewd job in distilling dramatically troubling and sometimes fatal contradictions which affect us all in the brave new world of public-private partnership and state-allowed and promoted credit and loans. In an age of Brexit uncertainty when migrant workers in the UK and Brits in continental Europe also find themselves in a precarious situation, it's an amber/green light for a slick but heartfelt drama.

Review Anyone Can Whistle

Anyone Can Whistle
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Arthur Laurents

You Just Put Your Lips Together And Blow

Taken at its simple level, the plot of 1964 musical Anyone Can Whistle sounds like it could be a lost Preston Sturges satire. An American town has fallen on hard times.

There's a drought, the factory has closed, the mayoress's unpopularity is at an all-time high and the most flourishing business in town is the local lunatic asylum.

In the midst of the economic slump and adverse weather conditions, the mayoress and her cohorts concoct an elaborate scam to turn their town into the American equivalent of Lourdes.

A magical stream of water suddenly spouting from a rock with the aim of attracting tourist pilgrims and revitalising the factory as a "miracle water" bottling factory.

In practice, it became one of Stephen Sondheim's and Arthur Laurents's worst received musicals running for just nine days and seeing it, it's not hard to tell why.

Instead of sticking to the basic story, it feels like a piece where intertextuality has gone - well - mad. Or maybe a musical which, while musically experimental, feels as if it is equally a testing board for the stories of several potential musicals drawing on the successful plays and musicals of previous years.

All it needs are a couple of characters called Steve Sondheim and Artie Laurents squabbling over which story to use and maybe it would turn into a piece called something like - oh we dunno - Work in Progress ...

The Union Theatre production directed by Phil Willmott is efficient without doing anything to  bring clarity to a piece which may be about political and show business confusion but needs something more to sort it out.

Acoustically speaking, Oliver Stanley as the hapless "practising idealist" Hapgood, a new quixotic patient who masquerades as a doctor, seems to find the correct volume in the Union space.

Rachel DeLooze's Nurse Faye Apple, who falls in love with the new medic and determines to expose the fraud, sings Anyone Can Whistle touchingly and brings a sense of energy and fun in her own French disguise in "Come Play Wiz Me". But sometimes words are lost.

We did wonder also whether a race element to the musical was played down. Certainly a bit of research revealed that one of the patients/citizens Martin was originally meant to be played by a black actor (even if we did enjoy Mitchell Lathbury's performance).

But some of Nurse Apple's lyrics as well could take on a different resonance with a black actress in the role as would the kiss with Hapgood. Having said that, Barbara Streisand was originally mooted for the role in the first 1964 production which was eventually taken by Lee Remick.
As regards the intertextuality, on the plus side Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper (Felicity Duncan) parades like Hello Dolly's Dolly Levi gone rogue. But then, uh-oh, there's a look back to Gypsy, the embryo of a St Bernadette story, a touch of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, more than a tad of the whimsy and politics of Finian's Rainbow,  a sudden short lived comparison to the opening of the Suez Canal (?!!!).

Are there also gestures towards Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar? And then  Maurice Maeterlinck's The Bluebird seems to pop up and also Noel Coward's medley of one-act plays Tonight At 8.30.

They line up like coralled citizens and psychiatric patients in Anyone Can Whistle. Then there are the plethora of themes:  a political subtext touching on the US electoral system, the invidious position of those caught up in the change of policy towards the Soviet Union triggered by the Cold War and even a nuts and bolts injunction to "tear up the records" adding to the mix. 

Mind you, Dr Detmold (Richard Foster King) of the Cookie Jar, the mental home for the socially pressured, does say at one point he's writing a story, so maybe the Sondheim/Laurents characters are there piled into one character.

This doesn't make the book any less muddled. As one song goes: "Who is who?/Which is who?/Who is what? Which is who?"

Having said that, the choreography by Holly Hughes, considering the small space, is pretty spectacular combining in minature the balletic vibe of Carousel with the verve of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers - we really can't help joining in the references to other works! And the three-strong band of electric guitar, drums led by Richard Baker on piano feels spot on.

This could well have been the pathway to more successful musicals by Sondheim in other collaborations and also ahead of its time in that politically driven psychological strategies of confusion are now arguably exposed for all to see.  But it is difficult to argue that folks will want to flock to see a plain weird piece of musical theatre.

It has its moments with the songs There Won't Be Trumpets and  Anyone Can Whistle, so it's an amber light for a piece which has proved a hard nut to crack even for Sondheim and Laurents - who was the first production's director - themselves.  Oh and in case you don't recognize the quote in our strapline, we just can't resist giving a link to a strangely apt Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart scene from To Have and To Have Not.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Review Killing Time

Killing Time
by Zöe Mills

Whose Life Is It Anyway?

Hester is  a feisty elderly woman used to getting her own way. A once celebrated concert cellist, her decline has now been sealed by a diagnosis of cancer.

Living alone, she exists mainly on a diet of Rioja wine and pills but remains financially independent and surprisingly hip with a wireless connection allowing former PA George (Robin Herford) to contact her via Skype.

So life, even when facing death, continues. There's episodes of Corrie to watch. Surrounded by packing boxes, she plays the cello on a plastic bath stool and gulps her pills.

That's until Sarah, apparently a trainee social worker, shows up and disrupts Hester's erratic routine of cello playing, wine drinking, prescription pill popping, receiving Skype messages and TV watching.

This is essentially a two-hander starring mother and daughter Brigit Forsyth and Zöe Mills, the latter also the writer of the play. Or maybe two plays - for this feels like two character pieces stitched together: A mystery surrounding Sarah with a 21st century social media fetish and Hester's pugnacious hermit-like existence trapped between her previous international, and sometimes salacious, lifestyle and her current vulnerability.

There's certainly a plot, but despite an obviously deliberate decision to leave it inferred, it's somewhat muffled by the character studies of Hester and Sarah. We thought we could also detect a subtext dealing with changes in television and the National Health Service. Yet all these elements do feel yoked together which somewhat deadens the pace of the script.

The plausibility of a dying woman left almost entirely alone except for a phone call from social services also begs questions. However this is perhaps not beyond the realms of possibility as a recent celebrity death in a luxury apartment block illustrates.

The design of Paul Colwell cleverly inserts packing box shapes in the wall which could equally be dated 1960s' décor and also manages to include a revolve to reflect Hester's mental state. Kostis Mousikos and Alan Walsh's projections encompass George's Skyping, evoke the mood of Sarah's outside life and time travels through Hester's past, alongside mystic offstage cello notes (sound design by Harry Johnson) .

At the same time, it struck us, the projections give a clue that this is again a theatre piece which might not show the seams so much on screen.  On stage this feels like a workmanlike writing debut for Mills. So, it's an amber light for a piece with solid performances directed by Antony Eden with an eye to the play's potential.

Review Thriller Live

The amazing musical talent that is Michael Jackson lives on for Carolin Kopplin as she parties, hand in glove, at the record-breaking tribute show Thriller Live. 

Thriller Live
Original Concept and Book by Adrian Grant
Music and Lyrics by Various Artists

Love Never Felt So Good

Last weekend Thriller Live, the crowd-pleasing celebration of Michael Jackson's life and work of singer, beat a long-held record established by Jesus Christ Superstar to become one of the longest running musicals in the history of London's West End.

The show, which has also toured the world, has now clocked up 3,358 performances at the Lyric Theatre in London's Shaftesbury Avenue, Created by Adrian Grant, it opened eight years ago in the West End, celebrating the career of pop music superstar Michael Jackson, who unexpectedly died in dubious circumstances less than six months later.

What makes this show such a huge success? Thriller Live is certainly not a musical in the traditional sense. There is no story, only the slightest of  narratives pointing out the highlights in Jackson's career. His difficult childhood and his troubled life are not mentioned because this is not what this show is about.

It is pure celebration - Michael Jackson's talent and his back catalogue of memorable music are its subject  - a "song, dance and video spectacular" with the feel of a rock concert.

Beginning with his years as a child performer in family act The Jackson 5, this energetic and slick show follows Jackson's career, focussing on the numerous hits, demonstrating the range and versatility of an outstanding entertainer.

Influenced by James Brown and Jackie Wilson and after a spell with Steeltown Records in the Jackson family home town of Gary, Indiana, the group moved labels to the legendary Motown record company where Michael quickly emerged as the lead singer.

In the 1970s, Jackson began experimenting with disco, pop, rock, funk, and R&B at the start of a varied solo career. Developing his own distinctive style and solo career, including through pioneering pop videos, he is a massive influence on many contemporary musicians.

Among the lead vocalists paying homage to the King of Pop in Thriller Live, Haydon Eshun, puts his own personal stamp on the Jackson oeuvre. A former member of boyband Ultimate KAOS, Eshun has now notched up more than 2,500 performances in Thriller Live after eight years with the show.

Cleo Higgins, best known as the lead singer in  1990 R’n’B combo Cleopatra, also does full justice to such iconic hits as "Man in the Mirror", "Blame It On the Boogie" and "Thriller".

Meanwhile a recent newcomer to the show, Reece Bahia, sings a touching rendition of “She’s Out of My Life” and whips up the excitement with "Beat It".  He first saw the show as a child and his appearance is testament to the enduring appeal of Michael Jackson's legacy on both sides of the footlights.

Designed by Jonathan Park, the set is composed of various stages, lit up by LED panels in an explosion of colours and images.

The relentlessly upbeat concert format, slickly directed and choreographed by Gary Lloyd, keeps up the momentum.  A team of dancers in colourful costumes, courtesy of Shooting Flowers, execute skilful, athletic  routines including Jackson's iconic moonwalk and some stunning acrobatics.

John Maher's outstanding live band, hidden behind the central panels, effortlessly masters the different genres needed for the show including some rousing bass player solos delighting the audience.
Thriller Live has the vibe of a rock concert and would certainly have the audience dancing in the aisles if there were enough space in the compact Lyric Theatre.

It could benefit from a cut or two as the running time of 2 hours 30 minutes feels quite long. Nevertheless it's an amber/green light for a dazzling spectacle and tribute to a superb showman with continual appeal for home-grown and tourist audiences alike.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Review The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin (Preview)

The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin
Book, Music & Lyrics by Kirsten Childs

Enclosed By White Picket Fences

There's a ghost haunting The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin. Not as we thought at first, the double-edged spirit of all-black reviews such as Bubbling Brown Sugar or Ain't Misbehavin' that we saw more years ago than we care to remember.

Even the name of our plucky little (and then older) heroine had a connection to the ghost. The Bubbly Black Girl (we won't be repeating the full title over and over again) is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age musical centred on the ever-optimistic Viveca Stanton as she attempts to follow her dreams.

Viveca is no Little Orphan Annie, even if they may share a particular brand of wearying optimism.  This little black girl with braids and white bows, a sunny disposition and, unwittingly, white ambitions, lives a middle class white picket fence life in 1960s' Los Angeles with her Mommy (Sharon Wattis) and Daddy (Trevor A Toussaint).

Indeed bubbly Viveca has "a twinkle in her eye/a bounce in her step/and a have a nice day smile.../both parents in her home/And not a welfare cheque in sight".

Like many a little girl, she starts aspiring to be a ballet dancer - not an easy task for anyone, never mind a little black girl, even now.  On top of trying to live her life and compete in California, there is the legacy of the 1963 Alabama church bombings. Not only with the deaths of four little black girls but also the lack of convictions for many years.

This joyous cartoon-like musical with a narrative that zips along is jam-packed with songs. pop, funk, R&B, jazz often filtered through a universe of musicals and sketch scenes, powered out by the four-strong band led by musical director Jordan Li-Smith. With all the performers having great voices, the 10-strong cast, directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo, all have their moments to shine.

An early highlight has a round with Viveca and her blonde talking doll (Jessica Pardoe). But even the beloved doll turns out to have her own pertinent secret.  Karis Jack and Sophia MacKay as the young and older Viveca are both vocal power houses,  matching the energy and infectious rhythms of the show

The second act had better volume levels at the preview TLT attended and Mykal Rand's choreography comes into its own. Shelley Williams gives a show stopping satirical performance as the pea-popping granny of a New York boyfriend (Ashley Joseph) whose infidelity seems inbued by genetic nurture more than nature

There's a Chorus Line vibe in "I am a dancer" when the young Viveca and her classmates are at the barre. One girl dreams of being away with her "husband-to-be Paul McCartney" while the lone boy (Jay Marsh) is picked for the lead but also longs to leave. Meanwhile dedicated Viveca has to face the reality of casting for a black girl at an early age.

This is bookended by a second act audition scene which mixes Sweet Charity with South Park as director Bob (Matt Dempsey) sends out mixed messages. Being a woman in the business is hard enough, never mind being a black woman.

It's the ghost of Bob Fosse, from Damn Yankees to Chicago, which looms over the show - who did indeed hire the musical's creator Kirsten Childs for his shows. And one of whose early leading roles was in Pal Joey opposite a Scandinavian actress - Viveca Lindfors.

The funky design by Rosa Maggiora gives an abstract quality to The Bubbly Black Girl with huge neon-lit block letters spelling L and A in the first act fronted by other platform levels. Tim Reid's video designs on three screens evoke Los Angeles and then New York "where all the f***ed up people go" in the second act.  

There's also no doubt this is a strange and complex one in a genre - the musical - which wouldn't exist as it does without black music and performers.  Originally produced in 2000, it varies wildly in tone between a Candide-like innocence, satire and serious social comment.

So it's certainly a psychological slalom. But that's because, it feels to us, it is trying to encompass a world where split personalities are the norm and fact can easily outpace fiction at any time.

Part of this is, we deduce, because Childs chooses to portray life through a sometimes Bell Curve of confused messages from musical theatre and the wider world  It's a clever idea but it also proves to be a confusing framework, which perhaps would work better on screen.

In its sketch-like structure, this show has plenty of highlights, often with stronger music than lyrics. Childs has obviously tried to pack in a number of parallel, at times deliberately grating, worlds, entertainment fashions and trends with flashes of anger, insight and plenty of sincerity. It's an amber light for what feels like a pioneering but difficult and flawed musical which TLT is glad to have seen.    

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Review Run The Beast Down

The latest member of the TLT community is Peter Barker, who worked on local newspapers before stints at ITN, UK and China news agency branches and on free commuter paper Metro. He now reviews a compelling new play as a City slicker fallen on tough times goes native in London's feral landscape.  

Run The Beast Down
by Titas Halder

Brush With The Wild Side

As many a London resident will tell you, foxes are a menace; unwelcome in the city, tearing into rubbish bags, looking for hidden trifles and trotting the sidewalk with a cheek that makes you want to call the hunt -  if only Tony Blair hadn't banned it, damn him!

But it’s the fox within the man that Titas Halder’s new play ‘Run the Beast Down’ pursues at the Finborough Theatre.

Arrive early in the auditorium and the inventive soundscape from on-stage DJ Chris Bartholomew working decks and computers with virtuosity will greet you.

After that, the main man, Charlie, appears in what is otherwise essentially a one-man play  -- played with vulpine good looks and energy by the charismatic Ben Aldridge.

He is truly a creature of these times, probably a sure bet for a successful life with a loving partner, a high-flying job (in the City) and the sought-after London apartment. 

OK, he may also be a TK Maxx kind of guy; clad in cheap black jeans, cheaper black T-shirt and bold-coloured sneakers. But can you tell from the outside what the man is -- what motivates him, what has shaped him, what he is?

And will he beat the pack chasing him, or get cornered?

Our rummaging through Charlie’s rubbish begins with the unexpected woes which descend on him all at once -- he loses his job and has been - sort of -  burgled. At least his girlfriend has left him, taking almost everything, apart from the curtains.

Insomniac Charlie is the filter through which we experience his increasingly bizarre environment and the people around him. Writer Halder demonstrates considerable flair, building the momentum of a fantastical mental and physical journey with a poetic wit. In Aldridge’s Charlie he certainly finds an actor who can rise to the task -- his transformations of mood and movement are seamlessly defined.

The mystery at the heart of the play, the threats, whether real or imagined, and Charlie's metamorphosis are intriguing. Yet, it must be said at the same time, he is just another one of those middle class 20-something London guys you see on the tube whom you'd assume has a good job and comes from a relatively privileged background. So he remains neither quite heroic enough to be admired nor twisted enough to be... well, admired.

But we can pity him and, when he dissolves, there is literally and metaphorically something of everybody about him.

As Charlie unravels, we see him maniacally writing a label for each new scene on the floor of the stage until, finally, there is little space left untouched. The bare plinth set, designed by Anthony Lamble, with a rear wall of thick upright metal tubes and LED lighting,  is ultimately not even covered with words, just a crowded jumble of letters.

Like the set, the lighting from Rob Mill is versatile, unintrusive, without gimmickry. Equally the electronic score orchestrated by Bartholomew and sound by Ben and Max Kingham  complements the pace of the play and makes a significant contribution to the evening.

Director Hannah Price keeps the feral drama tightly focussed, skilfully maintaining the precarious balance of Charlie's flamboyant high-wire act which must reach the end of the line before he really crashes and burns. This 80-minute debut from writer Titas Halder, developed at Canterbury's Marlowe Theatre, emerges polished and sharp in Price's production with Aldridge's gripping  performance all deserving a green light. 

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Review The Glass Menagerie

A  fine revival sheds fresh light  for reviewer Francis Beckett on the fragile mother and daughter relationship in a landmark 20th century American play.

The Glass Menagerie
by Tennessee Williams

Lost Horizon 

Tennessee Williams's classic memory play The Glass Menagerie is, as director John Tiffany says,  "pure heartache and pure craft".

Technically it is a perfect play, minutely observed, occurring in one claustrophobic space. Small things, that are to make a difference at the end, are unobtrusively seeded at the start: the glass animal collection; the charm of the man we are to meet in the second act. The plot hangs together. There are no moments which make you think afterwards "I don't quite believe that".

In 1930s' St Louis, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi, lives former southern belle Amanda, deserted years ago by her drunken husband. Living with her are her two adult children: Tom, who works in a local warehouse and hates it, but cannot leave because the family depends on the small income he earns; and Laura, the disabled and chronically shy daughter. 

Amanda knows that the only way to secure her daughter's future in a society which does not value women, especially shy women with ungainly legs, is to make sure she is well married. When Tom finally agrees to invite a workmate home, it seems to Amanda that her prayers have been answered.

She works on the project of getting her daughter married with all the dedication, unselfishness and blind obsessiveness that Jane Austen's Mrs Bennett puts into the same project. In fact, Mrs Bennett, transferred to another century and another continent, would have been very like Amanda. (I mean that as a compliment, as I happen to think Mrs Bennett has been traduced by most people who have written about her, including her creator.)

And it is the actor playing Amanda upon whom this play hinges. If she convinces, so will the play. Cherry Jones convinces in spades. You can see just what drives her; what it has taken to bring up two children by herself in that society, and how it has drained her; why she is what she is; and why she is slowly, but surely, driving her beloved children away. Jones puts in a truly magnificent performance.

She provides several wonderful moments, but two of them stick in my mind. One is when she learns there is to be a gentleman caller whom she can hope her daughter may charm, and she suddenly sees her dismal, cheaply-furnisheed apartment through the eyes she expects him to bring to it. The other is when the gentleman caller arrives, and she cannot stop talking to him - or selling her duaghter's charms as though she is selling soap flakes. 

Amanda is based on the playwright's mother and Tom on the playwright himself. Michael Esper puts in a fine performance as Tom, dreams clashing with duty, and Kate O'Flynn is heartbreakingly good as the shy, crippled Laura. The scene where her mother insists she answers the door to the gentleman caller shows us in just a few seconds the ways in which we kill the spirit of those we love the most: both women are slowly stifling each other.  

Brian J Smith, the gentleman caller, is also a pure delight: an amusing, popular, handsome, thoroughly decent young man, wishing his fellow human beings nothing but good, knowing in the end, to his utter distress, he has only done harm.  

John Tiffany's direction of the four-strong cast is neatly understated, but I was not at all sure about designer Bob Crowley's set. There was a kind of tower which, I think, was supposed to signify higher landings in a high-rise apartment block, but only suggested to me a castle in Fairyland; and there was also a puzzling dumb show.  

But this is a small criticism. Tiffany's The Glass Menagerie is a wholly convincing, moving, sensitive production of one of the great plays of the 20th century.I urge you to go and see it. A green light from me.