Thursday, 25 August 2016

Review The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
by Mohsin Hamid
Adapted From The Novel For Stage By Stephanie Street

The Way Of The World

It's another trip to the National Youth Theatre which has taken up temporary residence in the Finborough Theatre. This time it's for the last of its trio of summer plays, a densely packed and sensitive adaptation of Mohsin Hamid's Man Booker Prize shortlisted fable The Reluctant Fundamentalist. 

Directed with steely sensitivity and pace by Prasanna Puwanarajah, Stephanie Street's play follows chameleon Changez, a clever if at first malleable young Pakistani Princeton University scholarship student, shaped by a mix of colonial and indigenous literature and movies,  who immerses himself in the American Dream. 

At first welcomed into a Wall Street consulting firm as an analyst, everything changes (no pun intended, Changez is the Urdu version of the name Ghenghis) utterly after the September 11th attacks,

Played in the round with minmal props, a black, white flecked floor and the window overlooking the Finborough Road alternately exposed and shuttered, this is a thought-provoking and elusive play with a fine cast of young actors.      

Akshay Sharan is the eponymous Reluctant Fundamentalist Changez, the polite, quizzical and courteous scholar,  who, suddenly turned into an object of suspicion, eventually finds himself pulled between New York and Lahore.

The piece itself with little shafts of humour, carefully anchors itself in true events and attitudes while wrapping itself in an enigmatic playfulness. All of  which gives it the feel of a literary riddle. But it's also  a meditation on the legacies of imperialism and a spy thriller, as well as a dissection of American and Muslim countries' attitudes after 9/11.

In some ways its complexity is its strength and its weakness, with a lot crammed in a play lastng just a tad over 90 minutes,  although it fits with the subtle uncertainly underlying the reliability of Changez's role as narrator.  

From a Pakistani tea house, Changez with his brother Hafez (Abubakar Khan) take us through the journey from Lahore to New York and back again on two levels. For one, the high-flying graduate turned corporate warrior for whom "the new normal" is being part of the Manhattan elite. 

For the more understated other, Hafez becomes an Everyman waiter,  serving drinks while occasionally engaging with the audience to show something more unique and specific than global bland titbits served to the entitled at their gatherings. 

Changez is plucked out of the crop of graduates by Jim (Laurence Bown), an executive at valuation firm Underwood Samson. Yet as the play ingeniously dripfeeds us, Changez's own background, isn't as under privileged as the casual Slumdog assumptions of those like Jim. who has his own mixed motives for hiring Changez, would indicate.

He quickly embraces the company culture of binary valuation, outshining his colleagues, all chasing the spoils of corporate competition: focussed, wary April (Jennifer Walser), professorial Wainwright (Jasmine Jones) and outranked Brit Neil (Joseph Allan).

Alongside his success is his tender love affair wih aspiring writer, Erica (Alice Harding) to whom Changez cleaves yet finds himself  distanced, eventually literally when her nurse (Reece Miller) relays her story

Erica's own self-conscious clinging to the memory of a childhood sweetheart and disintegration into mental illness after 9/11 become part of Changez's internalized experiences and the aspiration for control of his story and his own sphere of influence over the audience.. 

With lighting by Guy Hoare and sound by Paul Freeman intricately defining both the outside world and psychic spaces, this is a deliberately destabilizing, entangled  piece  with a cinematic feel.  

Fine skeins of literary and movie references threaded through the script bring a historical depth and a resonance to The Reluctant Fundmentalist. A thoughtful and beautifully performed finale piece at the Finborough gains an unambiguous green light from TLT and her motorised literary assistant.      

Friday, 19 August 2016

Review Bitches

by Bola Agbaje

Meme Girls

Back in the day Charles Dickens and James Joyce were much exercised by their work being reprinted in USA territories without their permission - and, more importantly, without royalties paid. Of course they did receive credit for their work (otherwise it probably wouldn't have sold), but what the hell would they have made of the internet?

Here at TLT Towers, we thank heaven, we are a major pretend multinational corporation with insurance for such matters and packs of rottweiler lawyers to reduce any copyright infringer to a quivering, impecunious pulp.

But having seen Bola Agbaje's Bitches now at the Finborough Theatre, we are wondering whether we can dispense with our premiums and simply reach for our phone's video function.

We are invited into the bedroom of "Sons of Bitches", screen names Funke (Tara Tijani) and Cleo (Kat Humphrey) teenage vlogger - a blogger who records his or her blog on video - wannabes about to sit their "A" levels.

They quickly tidy up and make the bed when there is a vlog be recorded, slipping in and out of their personas,as they switch the camera off and on and react, and are defined, by their web followers.

It's an ambitious play tackling some knotty issues - Funke is black, a city girl with a Nigerian mother while Cleo is white and apparently from a rural community.

Directed by Valentina Veschi, the pacing sometimes feels a little awry and forced. Nonetheless the two young actors master a deluge of words and debates within a bright Pokemon pink strung with fairy lights bedroom encased in a four poster bed shape, designed by Emma Bailey.

Funke is the dominant partner financially and in personality, making TLT wonder whether there is some influence of Claude Chabrol's Les Biches. Continually looking at themselves in the mirror or on screen the pair seemed trapped in a bedroom loop.

However, even when it feels like neural feedback, the sound effects (sound: Will Alder) give a clue that there ia a history going on, starting with the sound of a dial up connection.

Within an ersatz rapp/hip hop framework, the playwright Agbaje covers a lot of ground.

The way women are portrayed and portray themselves, online provocation and offence. The power of the internet to create villains with posts passed on unthinkingly and no demand for evidence.

How video and the internet impact on questions of and real life incidents concerning race. The girls are professional enough to have a script but, although it is unspoken, don't seem to have any form of sponsorshiip - if this isn't all a fantasy life..

Mixing rap culture with trolling and the copycat and reproductive nature of social media, the audience, as in The Fall, surrounds the bed set on three sides. The play appears to try and  work on juxtaposition with Funke especially giving glimpses the girls are possibly posher than their street cred personas

It's a sometimes interesting but not totally successful attempt to bring to the stage the pulsing, febrile nature of social media with its mix of emotional and commerical.

Like Darknet, it starts from an interesting premise. But it's a play which feels as if it knew its ending before the main part was written and this seems to skew a thought-through exploration, mere references substituting for insight.

 In other words, it suffers from some of the same problems as aspects of the internet it seeks to critique. So for a play that feels as if it needs more  work, an assed out amber light. 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Review 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips

946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips
Adapted by Michael Morpurgo & Emma Rice
Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo

Jiving For Victory

On a balmy August evening, it was off to the South Bank and Shakespeare's Globe for an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's Second World War children's novel.

This family-friendly play with songs focuses on 12 year old Lily (Katy Owen, last seen as Puck in A Midsummer's Night Dream)  and her cat Tips (a puppet expertly handled by Nhandi Behebe). Lily's father, a Devon farmer, has been called up, leaving Lily, her Mum Dorothy and her Grandpa to tend the farm and the animals.

That is, until American GIs descend upon their villages and towns in preparation for the D-Day Landings in 1944 when all the residents are ousted from their homes to create a military training ground.

This is a bustling, rumbustious play directed with broad brush strokes by Emma Rice. In an era when often small-scale plays are often over expanded to fit large stages, this design by Lez Brotherston triumphantly fills the space with musicians on the balcony above, huge aircraft propellers on the pillars activated by chain pulleys and sandbags on either side.

Michael Morpurgo was inspired by a real-life tragedy when a landings' rehearsal with an American convoy, left exposed when a British vessel went into port for repairs and a SNAFU over radio frequencies, killed nearly a 1,000 American soldiers and sailors off the Devon  coast.

With a mash up of songs, some original (composer Stu Baker) and some from the decades after the the Second World War, energetic jitterbug choreography (Rice with Etta Murfitt) and broad comedy, there's a lot to enjoy for all kids and grown ups. At the same time dramatically there is sometimes a piecemeal feel.

Several stories deal with important personal and huge subjects: A young girl's special relationship with her cat and the up-and-down relationship with her absent father; War; The arrival of black GIs in Britain and their reception by country folk; evacuees coming from the cities; A French Jewish refugee; The taking away of homes by the military; Coping with bereavement and coming forward in time the parent-child relationship after the mother's working life is over and the generation gap.

These are all there but sometimes feel skated over even though there are soe moments of charming insight and much of the more touching sentiment is loaded into songs movingly sung by American GI Harry (Nande Bebhe again).

In fact, one episode of war imagined by the young girl in the 1940s as a playground competition between Hitler and Churchill certainly had a germ of truth for your own true Brit duo.

An elderly relative who lived in France during World War II as a child once told TLT that when she heard about "La Guerre" (the war), she thought French leader Pétain and Hitler would go somewhere with their ceremonial uniforms and swords and fight a duel, explaining that was all she knew from the books she had read.

In the computer game world, young boy Boowie (Adam Sopp who also plays evacuee Barry) doesn't care for keeping a diary like his Gran (Mike Shepherd) as a young girl, although he's persuaded to read it eventually. We could have done with more of these moments integrated into the story. While the comedy was welcome, it also sometimes outstayed its welcome rather than pushing the story along.

Nevetheless this is first and foremost a children's show and, while it may be worth asking when booking tickets for little ones about sightlines in The Globe, it's certainly a brisk and fun take on a moment in history.

Plus seeing actors take on different characters, then puppeteering or picking up musical instruments and also being given an explanation of why the all-singing, all-dancing Blues Man (Adebayo Bolaji) is all seeing may well give kids an insight into stagecraft. So it's an amber/green light from your own fly-the-flag-of-world-0f-theatre duo!

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Review Groundhog Day The Musical

Groundhog Day The Musical
Music & Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Book by Danny Rubin

Ready For My Retake, Punxsutawney Phil!

A new musical by an already successful songwriter reuniting with the director of his most celebrated work, along with a book by a screenwriter of an acknowledged comedy classic was always going to be an event.

An event which is at least as big as the  folksy Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

The ingeniously simple but ever giving premise of the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, the ill-tempered TV weather forecaster Phil Connors (Andy Karl) doomed to repeat for ever one day while those around him are unaware of the time loop, is never going to fail.

And for 21st century audiences which have lived through the development of computer games, the repetition and psychological modifications have a modern, familiar feel.

The repeated day is Groundhog Day in a rural borough of Pennsylvania where Puxsutawney Phil is brought out each February 2nd to predict how long winter will last. Perhaps the nearest we have in Europe is British-born Paul the Octopus.

But that's being silly ;). Back to the serious stuff. Matthew Warchus takes the helm as director with an ingenious toy town set design by Rob Howell and energetic choreography by Peter Darling. And of course the music and lyrics by Tim Minchin.

There's a smart-aleck sketch like feel to the show giving this musical more of an updated One Man, Two Guvnors vibe. Complete with snow, it's a kind of seasonal show for every season, Phil in TV Land mixed with Dickens' Scrooge mixed with Moliere's Le Misanthrope (hey, read that last again, once you've learnt to speak French to ingratiate yourself with us just like Phil Connors with producer Rita!).

It has to be said a few dirtier jokes also make it much more 18 than a PG certificate.

Karl as human Phil is far more of a handsome City slicker than the movie version as the town metaphorically and literally revolves around him. The film plot is all there but this Phil Connors is less of a crumpled cynic who has never moved out of local news than a high flying graduate who feels he has come down in the world.

The love interest, TV producer Rita (Carlyss Peer) and cameraman Larry (Eugene McCoy) like the townsfolk dress casually compared with the suited Connors who looks like a Wall Street executive parachuted into a Peanuts-style comic strip or other more kiddie like literature.

The score and plot whip through the story at breakneck speed. At the moment it does feel as if some of the timing for the repetition needs to bed in to extract the maximum comedy and pathos from the  psychodelic time warp (Mary Poppins or a Roald Dahl adaptation, it ain't!) as the marching band and groundhog festivities come round faster and faster.

Song-wise the score  is stronger in the second act than the first but there are quaint rhymes, puns and gags to hold the attention and sell the show.  Georgina Hagen as Nancy, a one-night stand during Phil's don't-care period on the time loop, also brings distinctive vocals to her song Playing Nancy in the second act.

This reflects too the filmic conceit at the heart of the movie and the musical. We're in a fast changing world of  movie  frames continually shot and re-shot. All in all, it's colourful and contemporary, so it's a crowd pleasing amber/green light.

Review Marilyn & Sinatra

A new play about the real-life love affair of two American icons fails to get under their skin and, Francis Beckett finds, relies on celebrity status rather than dramatic insight.   

Marilyn & Sinatra
by Sandro Monetti

They Did It Their Way

The tiny Jermyn Street Theatre tucked away in the heart of London's West End seems to make a speciality of interesting showbiz retrospectives.

Some years ago that I saw NF Simpson’s last play there, written in the great absurdist’s nineties, shortly before his death, his first play for decades.   

A while before that, I had an entertaining and interesting evening there hearing Stefan Bednarczyk revive Flanders and Swann.  And their next production is to be a revival of a really interesting period piece, The Dover Road, by AA Milne, the creator of Christopher Robin.

So why does Marilyn & Sinatra directed by writer Sandro Monetti – on the face of it, just Jermyn Street’s sort of show – offer neither entertainment nor insight?

Partly, I think, it’s the subject matter. This is the second show about the life of Marilyn Monroe I’ve seen this year, and the other one - Norma Jeane: The Musical at the Lost Theatre – didn’t work either. 

On the face of it, Marilyn is a gift: the sex symbol, the pills and drink, the suicide, the famous husbands and lovers – Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Arthur Miller, Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra.  But it’s too much of a gift.  Writers and directors seem to feel that all they have to do it to put the life, or part of it, on the stage, and they have a hit show on their hands.

If there is an insight in this one, it’s that Marilyn played Sinatra records the night she died, which indicates she was probably in love with him. That’s enough to sustain a paragraph in a biography, but not a whole stage show – even just an hour long one, like this.
The show tells the story of Monroe and Sinatra’s romance, such as it is, and strings it together with some instantly recognisable songs, some of which we associate with Sinatra.  (And some we don't. I wondered what Rodgers & Hammerstein's Some Enchanted Evening was doing there. Mr Google tells me that Sinatra did sing it once. Not a lot of people know that.)

The two actors, Erin Gavin (Footballers' Wives) as Monroe and Jeff Bratz  (an America's Got Talent alumnus) as Sinatra, do the best they can to lift it, but in such a small, intimate venue like the Jermyn Street Theatre you can’t disguise the fact that they both look wrong.

Bratz has a nice singing voice, and it’s a pleasure to hear him sing songs we know well, but he doesn’t look a bit like Sinatra, and he sounds much too simple and straightforward. 

Gavin is nice looking in a completely different way from Monroe, and it’s painful to watch her caricature of the Monroe sex appeal and the famous Monroe wiggle. And any performance would be fatally wounded by her blonde wig, which looks like tangled white wire superglued to her head.

I can’t recommend this, I fear: it’s a red light. But I’ll trot along to their next show.  I have high hopes of The Dover Road.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Review Allegro

Book and Lyrics Oscar Hammerstein II
Music Richard Rodgers

Notes From A Small Town 

A new day and a new musical - new to us, that is! Allegro, a lesser known 1947 Rogers and Hammerstein show which followed Oklahoma!, the movie musical State Fair and Carousel in their canon and before they thematically travelled outside the United States for South Pacific.

In Rodgers and Hammerstein terms, it was a flop, although still notched up a respectable 315 Broadway performances and even, according to some accounts, made a small profit, although it failed to transfer to London for a run.

Inspired in theme by Our Town, the plot follows the life of Joseph Taylor jr (Gary Tushaw), the son of a doctor (Steve Watts), in rural small town America.

In a kind of Portrait of The Medic As A Young Man (and maybe influenced by Scottish novel The Citadel),  we're taken on a psychological and literal journey from Joe's birth in 1905 to his midlife crisis  after he finds his medical ideals tarnished by Chicago hospital boards, trustees and big business.

And in Thom Southerland's engaging production, it feels like a transitional piece, a show deliberately exploring and willing to confront unfinished business.

After a quick Google about American politics in this period, we feel, in some ways, the trajectory of this musical with unresolved finale reflects a question mark hanging over American government at the time.

Harry S Truman had become president following FD Roosevelt's premature death and was trying to push through his "Fair Deal" with its call for universal health insurance, never enacted during his tenure, and the giving of federal aid for the construction of hospitals in poorer areas of America. 

Indeed there may even be a direct political musical reference with the first song Joseph Taylor Jr reminding us of a July Garland hit, written by Harold Rome, Franklin D Roosevelt Jones.

Allegro, of course, is an Italian word, both a musical term for "fast, quickly and bright" and a dance term meaning brisk or fast steps incorporating any step where a dancer jumps. The choreography for the 16-strong cast by Lee Proud is equally bright and breezy with Dean Austin leading a band of eight with keys, bass, drums, reeds, trumpet, trombone and French horn. 

Played in the traverse, it dawned (we hope correctly!) on TLT and her own little motorised helpmate that the mobile ladders and configurations designed by Alexander Lamble reflected musical, as well as wooden, staves so that the cast itself becomes part of a visual musical notation.

So this innovative show with fragmented songs and choric commentary works on several levels.

A visual musical composition, a straightforward, some would say hokey tale, of a young man drawn away from his vocation to keep up an affluent lifestyle which had become far more precarious since the Wall Street Crash, the career and compromises of Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves and the politcal atmosphere of the time.

While some may criticise the lyrics of songs like"A Fellow Needs A Girl", it struck us with harder edged songs such as The Gentleman Is A Dope sung with characterful verve and vigour by Kate Bernstein as Nurse Emily West and the title song Allegro about the tempo of modern life and money, there's more to this piece than a homely fable. Juxtaposition brings irony and hope.

This is an enjoyable production of a rarely-seen piece. Emily Bull brings depth and takes the audience along with her in  the role of wayward, ambitious wife Jennie while Julia J Nagel displays soaring vocals as watchful mother Marjorie.

It's perhaps not a perfect show, but then life ain't perfect either and we give Allegro an uncompromised green light for a delicately precise and tender production.       

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Review Children Of Eden

Children of Eden
Book by John Caird
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Based on a concept by Charles Lisanby

The Generation Game

Along to The Union Theatre, that little ark of musicals which punches above its weight (a mixed metaphor if ever there was one!) for Children of Eden. Giving a new slant to ancient stories, this biblical musical uses the infinitely flexible dramatic framework of the Old Testament, the story of Adam and Eve and then Noah and The Flood.

To be honest, biblical musicals do not always rock our boat, so it was something of a surprise when we found ourselves gripped and, yes, unexpectedly moved by this many-layered fascinating show, directed here with panache and sensitivity by Christian Durham. 

Created by New Yorker Steven "Wicked" Schwartz and English director John "Les Miz" and "Nicholas Nickleby" Caird, this piece has at its core the initially joyous and then choppy and poignant relationship between parent and child and casts an Anglo-American eye on the Book of Genesis.

God, always called The Father in the show, is a Brit (a haughty yet affectionate Joey Dexter) and more like a clean cut corporate Chief Executive, General or modern King cum President, or a kind of Platonic financial regulator - and, above all, a human Dad. 

Yet his complacent best-laid plans go awry when he puts into practice his ideas. He's also a God who, as Children of Eden progresses, shows himself without the experience of sharing his life with an equal. In the end, without an absolute resolution, the Children of Eden have something to teach him.

The show has a chequered history and received less than kind reviews when it rushed into production in 1991 in an available but outsize theatre in London. With audiences then staying away, glued to their TV sets watching coverage of The First Gulf War,  it took several re-writes, community theatre and youth productions to produce the present version.

After a bit of a cheesy beginning (the show rather than the performers), TLT and her own right-hand fired-up chariot found their initial resistance broken down.  The child-like rhythms and simple tunes build up into something more complex as they reflect the increasing complexity and perplexity of this world from joyously newly minted to multifaceted experience. 

But maybe this makes it sound more complicated than it should for a bitter sweet lyrical tale with characterful choreography by Lucie Pankhurst which takes an audience of diverse belief and non-belief with it. 

American-accented Adam and Eve (Stephen Barry and Natasha O'Brien capturing affectively snub-nosed, wide-eyed infant delight in character and song)  joyously partake in everything around them.

Musical director Inga Davis-Rutter plays keyboard in the four-piece band which also includes bass, drums and reeds. In a pleasingly unmicrophoned performance, occasionally words do get lost but this is outweighed by clarity in the narrative and otherwise strong singing and affecting harmonies. 

The score carries the story through like links in the chain with inventive staging by Durham and design by Kingsley Hall with pastel nursery colours changing to harder edged grays and reds.

The journey starts from The Father's mighty preliminary act of imagination "Let It Be" put into reality  through Adam and Eve's entry into Eden with the diverting "The Naming" of animals, the first unaswerable question, all  leading naturally to Eve's divination of a pulsating living world with the possiblity of change in "The Spark of Creation".

The song titles give a clue that the chase for fulfilment is as much about new found lands and creative human aspiration through the company of others, in music or in any walk of life as Godly injunction. 

Gabriel Mokake as the snake brings humour, verve and a credible argument, along with the storytelling chorus, for eating the apple of knowledge in "The Pursuit of Excellence". 

And this is a show which brings dramatic life to fundamental arguments with reason, passion and lyricism on all sides within a family circle rippling out over generations.  

With a dynamic take onthe striking down by Cain (young Turk Guy Woolf) of Abel (wide-eyed Daniel Miles) destined never to reach manhood, the first act of the family saga ends in a touching plea by elderly widowed matriarch Eve for "second chances" fearing For yet taking pride in the brood of her creation. 

The second act is deliberately less fluent, the knots in the human story, as The Father seeks his ideal, become knottier and knottier. The first African-inflected song Generations introduces economically the passage of time and spreading of flourishing human tribes around the planet.

Yet the thread is continued by the doubling of the actors as the descendants of Adam and Eve and the contact with The Father ebbing and flowing as the humans pursue their own course. 

The story is followed though with the tale of Noah and Mama Noah, The Flood and youngest son Japeth (Guy Woolf again), defying his father to take the servant girl Yonah (Nikita Johal, with a native American look, stepping out of the storyteller chorus) as his bride. 

She becomes his wife - and equal - with the aspiration for the ideal always kept alive. Nevertheless there remains a troubling messier hurt, an irresolvable, contradictory unease alongside a story of release and redemption for future generations, giving this piece its modern currency. 

So, as we're only human, we award a green light for an enchanting, fresh minted take on ancient tales. 

Friday, 12 August 2016

Review The Burnt Part Boys

The Burnt Part Boys
Book by Mariana Elder
Music by Chris Miller
Lyrics by Nathan Tysen

 To The Mountaintop  

It's 1962 in a mining town of West Virginia where, until a fatal underground disaster 12 years previously, the whole of the community depended on the company owning the mine.

The Burnt Part Boys is a coming-of-age musical centring on fatherless 14 year old Pete (a tender performance by Joseph Peacock), obsessed with John Wayne movie The Alamo, who views the closed mine as a shrine and grave to his Dad and the others who died in the accident.  

Hearing on the transistor radio of his older brother Jake (Chris Jenkins) that the company will be re-opening the mine, Pete, inspired by a mixture of grief and his favourite movie, determines to take action. 

He persuades his friend Dusty (Ryan Heenan, sweetly combining bumptiousness and vulnerability), who also lost his father, to accompany him up the mountain to Burnt Part, the mine scorched by a fire following the fatal accident. However Pete doesn't tell his companion the second part of his plan to keep the mine closed for ever. 

This should have the makings of a stonking, much-at-stake story, with a book by Marianna Elder and music by Chris Miller and lyrics by Nathan Tysen. But this tale doesn't deliver the courage of its beginnings.  

The historical, political, native American and cinema references promise greatly at the start with a tinge of sophisticated Sondheim amid the hillbilly country and bluegrass style. Yet the possibilities are not followed through by the creators of this musical who seem content to rest on the laurels of a good idea.

Even so, there's good work here in this theatre-in-the-round production fluidly directed by Matthew Iliffe with Charlie Morgan Jones's lighting design in the Park90 studio space. It also benefits from  a minimal set of ropes, drapes and lamps hanging from the ceiling designed by Rachel Wingate, just enough to let the audience's imagination do the rest.

The band led by Nick Barstow on keyboard with violin, guitar, bass and percussion give lively and nuanced accompaniment.

The characters are all well-defined although there was some struggling with accents causing lines and lyrics to be lost. Nevertheless this musical gives an opportunity for some splendid choral harmonies as well as individual turns and duets by Pete, brother Jake, the latter's friend Chet (Chris Jenkins and David Leopold grasping the mettle and giving depth to teens given responsibilities too soon). 

David Haydn brings singing ability and humour as Pete's movie and American folklore fantasy figures fusing eventually into his lost father. Jonathan Bourne as Dusty's ghostly father also gives a glimpse of a fine voice in an eleventh-hour solo moment. 

Meanwhile Grace Osborn as wildcat Frances also sings characterfully in a pleasingly Katherine Hepburn-tinged performance.

At the same time, it's a curious mixture of  a musical with heart with touching moments and a musical by numbers letting the grit of mining life slip away.  

The story notably drops at what should have been the most dramatic moment just before the delivrance of the boys and Frances from underground. Titles such as "I Made It" and some of the references in the lyrics nevertheless give a clue to what could have been a more complex musical paralleling mining, family trees, filmmaking and the creation of a musical.

So. the potential of the story is never mined (pardon the pun!) by the writers. And yet ... the choral singing gives an indication that a bigger cast might add an epic dimension. 

And while it might be heresy with such spirited performances, we did wonder whether the story would have had more trajectory if it had been the "Burnt Part Girls" and brought in other implications. Ouch, there, we've said it! In the meantime, it's a canary-coloured amber light from TLT and her little wagon at the coalface.


Thursday, 11 August 2016

Review The Fall

The Fall
by James Fritz

A Leasehold On Life

Celebrating its sixtieth year, the National Youth Theatre (NYT) of Great Britain has taken up temporary residence at bijou theatrical fringe powerhouse The Finborough with The Fall, a youthful play - about growing old.

Award-winning playwright James Fritz, who himself benefited from the NYT actor training scheme, has crafted a quietly ambitious three-part, hour long youth-to-death play, equally as a fable about economics and art as the ageing process.

The character names, "girl" (LaTanya Peterkin) and "boy" (Oliver Clayton)  in the first part give a clue to the literary Everyman quality of the play. A paid daily companion and her boyfriend are eager to find a place to have sex. They invade the supposedly empty private home of a  geriatric client of the young woman, a solicitor approaching his centenary, using the keys entrusted to her.

As they indulge ritualistic animal functions of life and envy the homeowner,  the comfort of the home is only conjured up through words at odds with the clinical looking bed at the centre of the stage space surrounded by the audience on three sides.

The scene is set as we hear about the girl's mundane duties: Watering the plants, cleanng and chatting to her client. Yet the harsh tone cuts through when she preens herself for being "nice" - and then adds "he pays me".

Meanwhile the athletic boy underlines his buff, healthy status, dismissing his link with ancestors for the here and now. He uses the bed for  push ups, his entry into the  "county trials" assured (presumably for athletics rather than the archaic county courts of the lawyer), wooing the girl with a pop song from the sixties.

Indeed, this act has a radiophonic quality and needs slightly more precise direction to bring out the reason for tell and not show. Still, it effectively displays a modern employer-employee relationship with the property-owning moribund elderly lawyer hanging on to life which, in its grotesque finale could still have come out of  Dickensian times.

Remniniscent in style of the BBC TV licence advert, the second part brings us into the much faster moving media age, with director Matt Harrison showing a strong hand.  A couple, numerically labelled ONE (Katya Morrison) and TWO (James Morley), mechanically pulling apart and making up a bed as they age from youth to middle age, courtship to a twisted midlife crisis.

 At first TWO worries about meeting her fiancee ONE's Mum, then it's their tenancy, the roof over their head, jobs and, after procreation creates a male heir,  the future for their own little descendant. The play then slyly curls round to give a different and increasingly desperate focus on the older generation. 

As the years pass, we feel how, as the social insurances for the couple fall away, the woman unlinked to her partner's mother by blood, grows dominant,  willing to accommodate the unthinkable for the sake of her child. While, it seems even the authorities collude with her, unwilling to bring a contemporary generation to book.

The third part links intricately with the past and looks forward to a dystopian future honing in on the last generation clinging to a memory of privacy, family ties,  natural love, geographical roots and, yes, those old-fashioned things, computer games. ;)

Now they are merely letters, A (Hannah Farnhill), B (Matilda Doran-Cobham), C (Simeon Blake-Hall)  and D (Ben Butler) to be filed away in a cell around a bed, away from the sight of the younger generation and with the choice (or so it seems) to live or take medication to die.

Here the lighting of Seth Rook Williams brings an added chiaroscuro dimension while the non gender specific casting reflects the gradual flattening of real people in real places into mere algebra.

With an affecting central performance by Hannah Farnhill as the latest entrant into this limbo land where the explanations of the "Liaison" (Katya Morrison again) for the other disappearing residents link up with her role as younger mother in the previous act.

The whole cast, dressed in grey, go from music festival energy to more militarised robotic disappointment in between the acts around the bed (design Chris Hone). This is a subtle and disciplined piece reflecting on the move from literature to screen, the title and ending indicating James Joyce's epic Finnegan's Wake as a template.

Whereas the Wake concentrated on the atomized artificial speed of lives on film, Fritz examines an age moving into the automated response of  algorithms clashing with the prime and withering of fragile human love, blood and flesh   An amber/green light for a brave and thoughtful production.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Review The Spoils

The Spoils
by Jesse Eisenberg


There's something of a Jack-in-a-box quality to Ben (Jesse Eisenberg) the central character - it seems a bit much even to call him an anti-hero - in The Social Network star's sharply sour own comedy, 'The Spoils'.

Every time he appears knocked back, defeated, disoriented by too much pot smoking, his wizened, jeering face and wiry body pops up again to taunt those within his orbit.

Mind you, he can afford it. His apartment, prime real estate in the midst of New York, is gifted him by his wealthy Dad (no Mom  in sight) who subsidises Ben's lifestyle, passing as a documentary filmmaker, even after expulsion from film school.

Sharing the apartment, overlooking the Empire State Building, is Nepalese MBA student Kalyan (The Big Bang Theory's Kunal Nayyar), living rent free, already a published author of a book on how to bring economic reform to his country.

When Ben runs into soon-to-be married banker Ted (Alfie Allen, one of two superb British replacements for the original off-Broadway 2015 cast), an elementary school contemporary, the scene is set for a dinner party where Ben can exercise his fulsome repertoire of goading skills.

The meal is prepared by sweet-natured Kalyan who is also eager to gain an interview at Ted's prestigious Wall Street firm with his Indian medical intern girlfriend Reshma (Billions' Annapurna Sriram), whom Ben relishes needling, as one of the guests.

Completing an uncomfortable quintet is Ted's fiancée, teacher Sarah (Katie Brayben, the second excellent British cast member, recently seen in My Mother Said I Never Should) who was also a fellow elementary school pupil.

Ben focuses in on Sarah, aiming to break up her relationship with the seemingly amiable Ted while revealing to her a childhood obsession with her of a particularly grotesque scatalogical nature.

It's all terrifically well-acted with memorable characters in an affluent but precarious and savage world.

But in its sitcom-gone-sour mode, while the slick direction by Scott Elliott and performances are inherently theatrical, with the plot hanging on minutiae, this feels like a movie.

What to make of the subject matter?

Watch out for Ben's unexpected anecdotal flash of academic intelligence telling a joke based in US history. Alongside the title 'The Spoils' with its ancient Greek ring of winner-takes-all transmuted into 'To The Victor The Spoils' during a famously corrupt moment in American politics,  this may all give a clue.

There is also just a touch of novelist Philip Roth's character of Merry Levov, the dysfunctional fat rich privileged daughter turned anorexic terrorist (soon to be on screen in a movie version) in Ben.

And there's a double edge to the finale. Some may feel it a sentimental cop out but others may see a disturbing channelling of Ben's perverse energies by the banker and educator couple pitching him a cover (up) story as they put him back in his box.

For surely Ted's affable exterior is able to survive in the cut throat Wall Street environment of which we're given a glimpse through Kalyan's account of his interview when he finally wises up to reality outside academic exchange?

'The Spoils' is slick and powerful but can feel somehow incomplete as a stage production, so an amber/green light from TLT and her motorised theatregoing comrade-in-arms. But judge for yourself before the August 13 end of the run.