Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Review Clybourne Park

Guest reviewer Francis Beckett encounters simmering tensions and outrageous punchlines in a revival of a hit American play currently on tour.
Clybourne Park
By Bruce Norris

Race Up The Housing Ladder

It's 1959 and middle-aged Chicago couple Russ and Bev plan to sell their home in middle-class Clybourne Park. 

They have never met the couple to whom they are selling when their neighbour, Karl, arrives to tell them that the family is black. Will they please reconsider the sale, for if it goes through, bang goes the neighbourhood?

It's fifty years later and act two. Many of Clybourne Park’s houses now have black owners. Yet Russ and Bev’s old house is again in the hands of a white couple who want to rebuild on a larger scale and are forced to negotiate their plans, sullenly, line by line, with their black neighbours.

That's the plot outline without giving too much away for those readers who didn't see the first UK production at The Royal Court Theatre in 2010.

For writer Bruce Norris is himself a past master in the art of withholding information until we are clamouring for it. His playwright's trick is simple but effective. Just when we are on the verge of a revelation - someone interrupts, with a delaying witless conventional piety.

From the opening moments, director Daniel Buckroyd's production from the Mercury Theatre in Colchester  is both painful and achingly funny. The forced jollity of Russ and Bev, as they try and squeeze what little life there is out of some very poor jokes masks, we later learn, a deep-rooted grief.

As Russ, Mark Womack gives an intelligent, carefully-judged performance supporting Rebecca Manley's dominant Bev – desperate, brittle, over-the-top.

We come to care about Bev and Russ, their courage and dignity in the face of hardship, despite our recognition of their instinctive racism imbibed with their mother's milk. 

Heartrendingly, Bev fails to comprehend the insult when she presses gifts on dignified and thoughtful couple,  black maid Francine (Gloria Onitri) and husband Albert (Wole Sawyerr).

“Ma’am, we don’t want your things, we got our own things.”

“Well, then, I don’t know what the world’s coming to.”

Meanwhile, we could cheerfully throttle Ben Deery's hyperactive Karl every time he explains laboriously how he has nothing against black people, doesn’t believe they're inferior. It’s just that – oh, hell, you ever see a black person skiing? That's enough proof for him black folks want to be different.

The same cast re-emerge as a later generation of new characters in the second act. 

Now Gloria Onitiri's Lena is fluent and sophisticated. She brings protracted jousting, as to what constitutes a racially offensive joke, to a crashing end with her own devastating quip, unrepeatable not only because it would be a spoiler, but also too shocking even for my own North London dinner parties!

Billed as a drama about racism, it's more accurate to say it's one about race, the relationship between races, burdened and hobbled by history. A marvellous play, faultlessly performed. A green light and a recommendation to rush along and see this production while you can.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Review The Comedy About A Bank Robbery

The Comedy About A Bank Robbery
By Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Sbields

Diamond Geezers

TLT and her own little getaway car broke into the Criterion Theatre to see the latest offering of Mischief Theatre which previously scored a big success with The Play That Goes Wrong, still running, and Peter Pan Goes Wrong, poised to return to the West End.

We have to admit, even if it blots our copybook as theatrical know-it-alls, that we haven't seen either of these, so it was with a hopeful heart and an open mind we entered the parallel universe of Mischief Theatre.

And you really, really can't complain that this is show that doesn't do what it says on the tin with a title like The Comedy About A Bank Robbery. :)

For this play, the writing trio of Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields have decided to locate the action in 1958 Minneapolis (real-life home of the Artist,now sadly, formerly known as Prince, the Coen Brothers and Bob Dylan). 


Because the action starts off with thieves in a Canadian prison  - well, actually a corporate effort by prison guards and prisoners -  determining to steal a diamond belonging to a Hungarian Prince visiting the local bigwigs. Quite what a prince is doing representing Communist Hungary is never quite elucidated, but hey ... :)

Meanwhile the widowed bank manager (Henry Lewis) and the world oldest intern  - not sure again if there were banking interns in 1958, rather medical and political ones, but hey ...;) - Warren (Jonathan Sayer)  are being regular duped by his daughter Caprice (female Charlie Russell),.

And the cashier Ruth (Nancy Wallinger) has a minor criminal for a son (Dave Hearn) who just happens to know one of the criminals and is lured into the heist. And so on and so on.

Directed by Mark Bell on a cooperative basis with the Mischief Theatre company, the premise seems to be a homage - exactly what that means is explained in the programme - to heist movies with a few recognizable types thrown in for good measure - for example Mitch Ruscitti (Henry Shields) is a Brandoesque bad boy.  

Ever since the success of Richard Bean's adaptation of Goldoni's Servant Of Two Masters as One Man Two Guvnors, it seems to us that a new genre has developed of the sketch show play.

But One Man Two Guvnors had a solid plot, albeit filled with variety turns. The Comedy About  A Bank Robbery struck TLT and her cohort in crime as plot almost entirely overtaken by random gags and sketches.

So we guess it's a Marmite experience and the audience member is either going to buy into this stuff as zany and laughter-inducing or find it a wearying parade of jokes being milked until, some might say, they curdle.

There's a supermarionation feel to some of the characters - that's a style not a criticism - and, again, you either take to it or you don't. The set design by David Farley is slick, sliding from a Canadian jail via a car journey to the bank offices to a bedroom to the bank vault.

The show took off far more for us in the second act with the heist itself as the would-be heisters (is there such a word?!) clamber for the hot rock as they are lowered into the bank.

All in all, it was a mixed swag bag for we fun-loving criminals. The Comedy About A Bank Robbery  may have benefited fro some heavy cutting. Still, it scrapes through into an amber light and it's up to you whether it sounds like a "Wanted" experience or you prefer to avoid the crime scene.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Review Silver Gym

Silver Gym
By Nichola McAuliffe

Stepping Out

Off to the heart of Essex, Hornchurch, where Daniel Radcliffe took his driving test (beep, beep kudos to you Dan!), home of the eponymous Kathy in Paul Simon's hit written for his English love Kathy's Song - and of the Queen's Theatre in Billet Lane.   

We came to see Silver Gym, a new comedy by actress and writer Nichola McAuliffe.  She plays Stella, ex military police, who has sunk her life savings into a lease from the council for a gym housed in a run-down building covenanted as a "community asset"  - unless the building is condemned allowing vulture developers to make their move

So far, so good. But it has to be said, we found it more of a situation comedy on stage than a play and a pilot episode to boot, introducing the characters and familiar situations 

There were some gestures towards theatricality a subtext indicating the history of women and money. And maybe, just maybe, the glib but double edged finale with a chorus of Dem Bones has a resonance in our all-too-connected world.

Nevertheless, whether it should at this point have been put on stage as a fully-fledged play is debateable.

There were some dubious jokes which could be misconstrued. Meanwhile,stereotypes abounded.. The ditsy blonde - well actually the Yorkshire-born Chinese airhead (Houmi Miura); the pious Nigerian wife in a niqab, trainers and sweat band (Susan Aderin); the Jamaican housing officer now on the dole (Suzanna Bygrave); the Liverpuddlian armed robber's wife (Pauline Daniels); the Jewish pole dancer (Kim Ismay) and the secretive posh housewife seeking IVF (Carol Sloman).  

The one man is the singing Barbadian grocer Franklyn (Peter Straker) who uses the facilities of Silver Gym to prop up his business.  We could see the main plot twist coming from several treadmills away, but, in between it all, frustratingly, there were glimses of building blocks for something far edgier and wittier.

McAuliffe is sturdy Captain Stella trying to make her mark on civvy street and deal methodically with the chaos around her. This all has a down-to-earth plausibility and could be an interesting anchor for a comedy drama.

Director Glen Walford, designer Amy Yardly, lighting man Mark Jonathan and sound from Dan Crews allowed the sitcom scenes to transition smoothly.

There was enough in place to make TLT and her own number-plated second-in-command to believe it could be developed for stage or broadcast - including the missing character, another unnamed armed forces' veteran described inn a throw-away joke who uses his prosthetic leg in creative ways.  

So, it was mildly amusing in parts, cringe-making in others. And it's almost like the traffic lights are shorting, jumping from red to amber to red, back to amber and, oops, it's red again! But somehow it eventually just about flickers into a amber  light, as golden as the sunflower peeping through on stage at one point,  for the idea and determined performances by the cast who insured the show must go on.