Monday, 30 May 2016

Review The Threepenny Opera

The Threepenny Opera
by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
In collaboration with Elisabeth Hauptmann
In a new adaptation by Simon Stephens

Pickpocket Follies

Even before Bert Brecht and Kurt Weill adapted The Beggar's Opera, a pioneering eighteenth century English satiric ballad play, later a huge London success in 1920 adapted by Nigel Playfair and Arnold Bennett from John Gay's original, there was a Berlin connection.

Gay had used commonly known folk airs and tunes from popular operas such as those of German-born George Frederick Handel. And the arranger of Gay's songs was Berlin-born John Christopher Pepusch. Of course, the king of Britain was also German-born, still reigning over Hanoverian domains. 

But by the time Berlin-born Brecht, using Marxist principles as a springboard, and composer Weill wrote Die Dreigroschenoper for their company of actors and cabaret artistes, Germany had lost the First World War and its empire and ousted its own Royal family - cousins of the British royals - in favour of a war-reparations' blighted republic plagued by political and gangland street fighting. And of course Marx and Engels had lived in England and kept the British Empire in mind for their analyses of capitalism.

So what do we get for our equivalent of 3d entry fee, the £15 Travelex, at the National Theatre? Simon Stephens has been recruited by the National Theatre's artistic director Rufus Norris, who also directs, to write a new version of Brecht and Weill's adaptation of John Gay's (keep up those at the back!) musical, this time set in a time-limbo Limehouse and Soho.

We have never seen another production of the German classic, but it seems the mix of Dickensian and Jack The Ripper London has given way in this update to a mash up London. The coronation of Victoria (another German speaker!) is now that of an unnamed King who by the fashions worn and the references made could be a fictional collage of anyone from Edward VIII to Prince Harry. 

Polly Peachum (Rosalie Craig), accountant daughter of Soho gangland boss Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum (Nick Holder)  and his sozzled but scheming wife Celia (Haydn Gwynne), has secretly married Captain MacHeath (Rory Kinnear), an ex-soldier gangster who served with the soon-to-be crowned King in the army and knows where the bodies are buried. His army connections serve him further with another crooked ex-army colleague being Chief Inspector "Tiger" Brown (Peter de Jersey). 

Nevertheless his marriage to  Polly, while he continues to frequent brothels and doesn't break off with the police chief's daughter Lucy (Debbie Kurup), starts  a chain of events which sees his own criminal empire gradually unravel before - well, you'll have to go and see it to find out what happens.;)

The Beggar's Opera itself amalgamated sly digs at the vogue for opera with political satire against then prime minister Robert Walpole and incorporating outlaws such as real life double dealer Jonathan Wild as part of a criminal ruling class deliberately equated with the political class. So in that sense Brecht and Weill were following a traditional route in creating their updated thieving-class opera for the opening in 1928 of Theater am Schiffbauerdamm following the success of The Beggar's Opera in London.

Designed by Vicki Mortimer, the current production has a set with paper and wood scenery flats, easily torn by characters climbing centre stage for their theatrical moments. Scaffolding, a crescent moon  and ladders also draw attention to the theatricality of the piece which even those with the only the slightest, and second hand, acquaintance with Brecht's work know as his trademark.

Although the ladders, judging by a programme note, may possibly, along with Peachum pere's apron also be masonic symbolism with a gesture towards Mozart. Kinnear makes MacHeath a hard-bitten stocky military veteran rather than a decadent charmer.

The star for us was Rosalie Craig's Polly Peachum whose voice rose above a rather busy production (making it difficult to assess the strength of the script) where we found many of the songs did not have the clarity and impact we expected. However the show's most famous song, Mac The Knife, is sung clearly by George Ikediashi's Balladeer (by-the-by, surely an influence on Sondheim's Assassins?) at the beginning and yes, it's true to say, MacHeath does have an extremely large knife ...

Drawing attention in my second hand interpretation of Brecht to my text as text in this critique :), I had exactly the same feeling as fellow blogger Rev Stan that I would have liked to have seen an earlier translation to compare with this one. This show felt a tad predictable and imprisoned rather than reaching out with bite and resonance. Almost, dare one say it, a production for those who want to recognize and tick off with satisfaction what they view as Brechtian elements.

While DW Griffith' was portraying Limehouse in at least one of his silent moviea, this production makes the decision to bring in Keystone cops and have at least one Buster Keaton moment. While this is a fictional London, surely there is a rich seam in its history to be mined and fictionalized? 

Soho's past with its notorious porn squad, even elements of Lord Lucan's disappearance and in the current day the changing of London into residential investments for the super rich and international institutional pension funds - surely there is scope for these or other matters without distracting from the original story in its enduringly flexible framework?

OK, we haven't seen that much Brecht - Schweyk in the Second World War in the 1980s and Mother Courage in 2009, both at the National - or Weill (One Touch of Venus and Lady In The Dark). But these all had the ability to surprise. This felt safe rather than dangerous and stimulating and unlikely to attract the cross section of audiences the original 1928 production lured into the theatre. So we're still looking for an updated Beggar's and Threepenny Opera for our times but, in the meantime, for this version an amber light.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Review A View From Islington North

A View From Islington North
Five Political Satires
The Mother by Mark Ravenhill
Tickets Are Now On Sale by Caryl  Churchill
The Accidental Leader by Alistair Beaton
Ayn Rand Takes A Stand by David Hare
How To Get Ahead In Politics by Stella Feehilly

The State We're In

A View From Islington North seemed a promising title. Maybe, we thought, containing some of the irony we detected in John Osborne's lawyer narrator in the other political play seen the same day.  But what emerged was a curiously neutered set of playlets with Caryl Churchill's Tickets Are Now On Sale a slick but dispiriting reflection for us of the show itself.

For those who go often to the theatre, all these writers' names are "brands" and certainly their styles in these playlets fo the most part are instantly recognizable. Something Churchill's brief play oddly, if maybe unintentionally, reflects on.

In front of a window, with a countryside scene straight out of a healthy yoghurt or cholesterol lowering margarine commercial, sits a tall, dark and handsome man (Steve John Shepherd). A frisky blonde (Sarah Alexander), modern (she wears shapely, tight fitting trousers!) comes into his space periodically to discuss their relationship in glossier and glossier business and advertising-speak, divided by airy chimes as if sections of their love talk were an advertising break.

It's simple, quick and effective, but in the words of German poet Hans Magnus Enzenberger, We know we know ...  And all that talk of brands, well it crossed our mind, that was exactly what was happening here. Rather than a dissection of attitudes across the smallest but arguably one of the most influential constituencies in the country, the evening felt sold on names and left behind by regular topical sketch shows such as long-running Newsrevue

Like Caryl Churchill's play, Mark Ravenhill's play The Mother had its premiere at The Royal Court theatre some years ago.

Two soldiers, one an older woman (Jane Wymark), the other a young man (Joseph Prowen), have arrived at the home of a soldier to break the worst possible news to his mother (Sarah Alexander).

Well, the mother turns out to be a dressing-gowned dysfunctional, a diagnosed depressive who uses a series of expletives and reverses her status from victim to aggressor before expressing, alone, her pain. It's a good idea but the stereotype "woman on a sink estate" makes for a less than convincing satire.

In fact, the far more intriguing female character is the 50 something childless female informant, a career soldier whose few words made us wonder about her life.  And what about the toll on the informants and the relationship between them as they go from door to door, if the same folks are used all the time? 

One of three new plays The Accidental Leader by Alistair Beaton  felt like well-worn territory, ground already covered by Yes Minister and The Thick Of It when parliament as sitcom still felt newish.  Albeit even with the latter we'd already had The New Statesman and (the British) quasi satirical House of Cards An MP (Bruce Alexander) is coordinating the troops to oust the Labour leader when the best-laid plans fall apart with the biggest blow when even youngster Ollie (Joseph Prowen) understands whose goose is well and truly cooked.

Ann Mitchell's big and blowsy Russian-accented Ayn Rand considerably livens up proceedings in David Hare's riff on the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Steve John Shepherd with perhaps deliberately some of the same mannerisms as Mr Perfect in Carly Churchill's earlier piece) and Theresa May (Jane Wymark) given lessons in novelistic free market politics and economics. But once we catch on to the premise, any wit seeps away to leave only the performance (albeit a memorable one).

The reverses of fortune in Stella Feehily's How To Get Ahead In  Politics  also have a familiar feel with Bruce Alexander as an MP again but this time a successful Chief Whip protecting at any cost the party's reputation,  covering up for habitual sexual harassment offences and chronic alcoholism.

We struggled to find any conclusions or questions posed about the view from Islington North. The plays ranged from the predictable to the slick and,, directed by Max Stafford-Clark, the staging was skilfully unobtrusive. Yet it felt more like a scattergun display of wares, ending with a chorus of Billy Bragg's No Buddy, No, than pieces, either individually or overall, with real bite.  If you go, determined to be entertained by star name writers, it may well work for you. But otherwise it only just about slips into an amber light.

Review A Subject Of Scandal And Concern

A Subject of Scandal and Concern
by John Osborne

Our Daily Bread

Nearly twenty years before an English jury found a magazine editor guilty of blasphemy and almost fifty years before the abolition of blasphemy as an offence, John Osborne wrote a TV screenplay, A Subject of Scandal and Concern directed by Tony Richardson for the BBC Sunday Night Play in 1960, first produced for the stage in Notthingham two years later.  

Osborne had looked at contemporary documents on the case of socialist lecturer George Holyoake (Jamie Muscato), the last person jailed in 1842 for blasphemy in England and, from them, fashioned this play. This is no The Crucible, but deliberately so. It is a carefully measured series of snapshot scenes  from days leading up and during the trial and imprisonment of  Holyoake.

As presented in the play, Holyoake is a self-educated man, carefully spoken but a stammerer, who was somewhat uneasily linked with reformer Robert Owen. He is poorly renumerated for his pains giving lectures travelling from parish to parish. His starving wife (Caroline Moroney) and child, like many others caught up in the upheaval of the industrial revolution, are on the poverty line and have to lodge with her sister.

Holyoake doggedly pursues his lecture schedule including a talk in Cheltenham on  "Home Colonization, Emigration and the Poor Law" where he is ambushed by a question on man's  duty to God from the audience, a ready-made story for the local press, although Holyoake, an atheist, is reluctant to touch on any matter related to religion.

This is a sweetly-short hour-long play intelligently and fluently directed by Jimmy Walters with an equally ingeniously simple set of wooden benches and stone walls from designer Philip Lindley matching the fluid staging and scene changes (choreographer Ste Clough). 

Osborne's script also manages to allay possible accusations of a chattering classes' play on a working-class story by a careful structure with a modern-day lawyer narrator (Doron Davidson)  giving "information" and by the end, a touch of  irony.

It sent this journeyman critic, and car companion, as well to Google to look up Holyoake who turned out to be more esconced in the rivalries of  newspapers and political reform than the bare dramatic facts of the play want to state.

In the play we see a dramatically satisfying  predicament of a man who can find no way out but to answer with logic and coherence. A man who discovers himself abandoned to magistrate (Richard Shanks) and jury, with local newspaper printer and journalist in tow,  determined to maintain the power of the church and parish.

It is also curiously satisfying to complete the jigsaw with our own research, the main pieces already put in place by the play. Something which, even before geeks at the Rand Corporation began experimenting with the internet, was maybe the aim of the playwright. 

For, incredible as it seems ;), people at the time the play was written and broadcast used buildings where they could borrow books including reference tomes, some still not available on the internet but still to be found in print form in libraries, if the books and buildings have not been sold off.  

Interestingly, the late film critic Philip French also pointed out that in the 1960s stammering became fashionable in plays as a sign of integrity versus silver tongued liars and fraudsters.  So  documentary plays and protagonists with speech impediments were part of a general trend.  

But as has been noted on our blog several times, the playwriting world itself was still subject to the Lord Chamberlain's edict. And the welfare state (as Elvis Costello noted in the lyrics of Let Him Dangle) did not extend to abolition of the death penalty. So this combination of canny popularism, political activism and the ability to pique our curiosity makes for a fulfilling hour.

In an age where our state institutions are increasingly fragmented seemingly on a local basis, many would say creating a commercial maze with a loss of  accountability, the deceptively straightforward and artful structure of this play encapsulates a tangle of still relevant issues Even perhaps a ready-made historical subject for Ken Loach? A green light for a short play with a long reach.  

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Review Blue/Orange

by Joe Penhall


Imagine a world where the police detain a citizen without trial and any crime committed and then wash their hands of him or her. Where the detainee is transformed into a patient and  handed over to doctors and a hospital ward which, in the words of Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange, is effectively "a prison".

Where self-regulation rules, opinions rather than proof are regarded as evidence, where medicine is turned into a tribal greasy pole and patients are blank canvases used to support the ambitions and aims of consultants. And it seems from Penhall's piece the doctors to preserve the illusion hide from the detainee that their ability to keep the citizen can be overruled by tribunal after 28 days.

Welcome to the world of the section.

Except watching senior consultant Robert (David Haig), his junior Bruce (Luke Norris) manoeuvre and debate over black detainee Christopher (Daniel Kaluuya) as to shall-he-stay? or shall-he-go?, TLT and her own compos mentis companion were not so sure.

For Christopher, who seems to incorporate at various times all the different opinions, more than tinged with racial bias, of the medics as regards types of patients, comes from the "White City" estate, was picked up for "acting funny" - those seeking to break into TV comedy, watch out - in Shepherd's Bush market.

Ok, he also believes he is the natural son of "Butcher of the Bush" Idi Amin but if it's a  delusion (who knows when nobody seems to need any proof except opinion), it's a harmless one. Only once is mention of suicide brought up and we're never quite sure if it's convenient for the records or if he really has suicidal thoughts. 

As the consultants talk and behaviour grows more and more outrageous and crude, something began to dawn on your intrepid twosome. For surely the consulting room in the square designed by Jeremy Herbert, surrounded by the audience who entered through a basement National Health Service waiting room which could still be seen, at times, through gaps in the stage.beneath, could stand for any national institution?

Mentions of the property boom, institutionalised racism, sporting fixtures with the vagueness surrounding the section all segued nicely into our own theory about this play. Hey, we may not have a book deal like manipulative consultant Robert, with David Haig channelling by increments his own inner God/Jesus/Archbishop complex,  but we definitely can publish!

For it doesn't seem as if you need the inmates taking over the asylum when you have these docs who all seem to have their own lawyers as well for extra insurance.

But hang on a moment, Shepherd's Bush, White City, the market, could playwright J Penhall Esq in his 2000 play possibly be talking about another institution, now again on the brink of yet another major upheaval? :o No, surely not?!

Anyway director Matthew Xia keeps the more subtle and the nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw balls expertly in the air at the same time and the three-strong cast show, in the words of Marx (Groucho and Chico, that is) 'Sanity Clause, Sanity Clause, there ain't no Sanity Clause'! So we promote Blue/Orange to a big bucks TLT apple green light

Review Kenny Morgan

Francis Beckett is engrossed by the relationships at the centre of a new play about the fate of celebrated playwright Terence Rattigan's young lover.

Kenny Morgan
By Mike Poulton

The End Of The Affair

The playwright Terence Rattigan had a long love affair with a young actor called Kenny Morgan. Morgan left Rattigan for a younger, bisexual actor who in turn left him, and Morgan killed himself in 1949. On this basis of fact, playwright Mike Poulton, who adapted Wolf Hall for the stage, has built a fine, gripping, sometimes very funny and occasionally flawed play directed by Lucy Bailey.

The three men at the heart of the love triangle, on whom the play depends, are carefully and sensitively drawn so that we care about what happens to each of them, and they are brought to life in three fine performances: the wealthy, slightly cynical but ultimately caring and vulnerable Rattigan by Simon Dutton, the louche young lover Alec by Pierro Niel-Mee and the clinging Kenny – the most important of the lot, and the hardest, for it’s very easy to lose patience with people who wail “But I love him!” – by Paul Keating. 

The minor characters are a different matter. There are two small parts for women, and they are both sloppily written. 

Kenny’s landlady is a monster in her scenes in Act One, and then all motherly concern at the end of Act Two, with no plausible explanation for the change offered; Marlene Sidaway does the only thing she can do, which is to say her lines with total conviction.   

The young woman Alec sleeps with has one brief scene when she is required to stay on the stage far longer than is plausible because it suits the author’s convenience. Lowenna Melrose performs it well, but can’t make it credible.

Kenny’s neighbour Mr Ritter is a Jewish refugee, a struck off doctor – we never quite understand why he was struck off. He is there principally, I think, to make the point to Kenny that Jews in Germany just half a decade previously had no choice but to die; while Kenny has the choice, and talk of suicide is somewhat self-indulgent.

 “Are you a psycho-analyst?”   “No, but I was brought up in Vienna.”   

George Irving plays him thoughtfully, but gives him an accent which I could not place - not the light, charming Mitteleuropa accent he would actually have had.

The only minor character who hangs together, and whose back story we understand, is Kenny’s other neighbour Mr Lloyd, well played by Matthew Bulgo.

Mike Poulton has given us a good play, but with a little more attention to detail he could have given us a better one. 

Characters light cigarettes in a room which, we have just been told, is full of gas, where no one should strike a match; Kenny’s backstory – since this is 1949 and he met Rattigan ten years ago – must surely include time in the army, or time avoiding going into the army, but it is never mentioned; doctors cannot be called out because they have to be paid for, but this is 1949, and the National Health Service was founded the previous year, still a cause of wonder, awe and gratitude.

Taking these factors into consideration, this play is too flawed quite to deserve top marks. So, it's an amber/green light for Kenny Morgan, but a good evening in the theatre all the same.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Review Running Wild

Running Wild
Adapted by Samuel Adamson
From the novel by Michael Morpurgo

A Family And Other Animals

The herd of humans, collectively known as a theatre audience, showed its usual resilience at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre as the heavens opened. But luckily it passed and even added to the environmental accuracy of park greenery melding with the rain forests of Indonesia for an adaptation by Samuel Adamson of Michael Morpurgo's best-selling children's novel, Running Wild.

On a stage of concentric tree bark rings, we follow the bildung of young Lilly (Ava Potter), left fatherless after her soldier Dad (Ira Mandela Siobhan) is killed in the Iraq War, who travels to Indonesia with her Mum (Hattie Ladbury). Caught up in the tsunami, her life is saved by the beach elephant Oona who senses the impending tidal wave and races inland with the bewildered child on her back.

But Lilly quickly wises up and proves her own resilience and kindness, adapting to her new jungle life, helped in part by her childhood favourite Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book to which her father had introduced her.

It's a tale dramatised somewhat perfunctorily by Adamson and, even with the imaginative staging, such as the sea of undulating blue srips transformed into the tidal waves, at first seems somewhat stretched to fill the capacious Regent's Park stage. But even more of an asset is the triumphant puppetry of Gyre and Gimble's Finn Caldwell and Toby Obié which finally won us over. 

We honestly thought for one heartstopping moment, when the wrinkled grey head of Oona the elephant turned the corner of the theatre entrance and moved towards us, co-directors Timothy Sheader and Dale Rooks had raided nearby London Zoo for a real pachyderm!

And the buffoonery (yes, that really is the collective noun!) of orangutans and the predatory elegant tiger (accompanied by the William Blake verse)  excite awe and poignancy as the story kicks in big-time with a group of poachers led by sleazy Mr Anthony (Stephen Ventura) whose fortune derives from the ecologically disastrous trade in palm oil, as well as the illegal sale of orangutans and other animals.

The character of Lilly becomes Willy in some performances, Potter alternating wiith Joshua Fernandes and Tyler Osborne.While The Jungle Book is in part of manual for life, the translation into twenty first century terms - a condemnation of war, the capture and slaughter of animals and the exploitation of  trees for palm oil - while more than commendable, sometimes dramatically feels rather preachy, probably to the converted.

Still there's plenty of spectacle in the show to enjoy and Lilly is a feisty character for the kids in the audience, especially the girls, to identify with. Plus the relationship of Lilly with the animals is touchingly realised, so an upper level amber light  from we theatre human cubs for the opening play in the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre season.