Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Review Richard III

Richard III
by William Shakespeare

Hard Hatted Richard

Would any Royal parent even consider naming their kid Richard? It doesn't look like we'll be having Richard  IV any time soon with William Shakespeare's fictional creation colonizing our minds for centuries.

Then again, we haven't had a James recently either, so that debunks that theory - a bit like Richard III Shakespearean literary theory - a view  pushed forward, then replaced by another but its reptilian hide can take whatever current fashions throw at it.

For if you remember, the skeleton of Richard complete with poor twisted spine was uncovered in the full glare of the media spotlight in 2012 and it is with a re-enactment of this image that the Almeida production directed by Rupert Goold begins, together with an audio snippet of a BBC news report.

Indeed the last Plantaganet king's lair and Kingdom is sunk far below the Leicester City Council car park on the Islington stage with a giant drill bit, or is it a outsize crown - or is it a UFO - suspended on high?

For TLT and her cohort-in-crime have to admit they spent the first twenty minutes or so of this Richard III trying to work out exactly what Hildegarde Bechtler's design was. 

Luckily it didn't distract us from following the twists and turns of the legend that is Richard  (Ralph Fiennes) but we did find this a strange production.

We are all for innovative settings and time mash up, but we think we should have been more caught up in the play rather than our brains working overtime to decipher what the setting and the costumes signified. 

The turtle neck jumper and dark suits? Is this some gesture towards Jan Kott's Shakespeare Our Contemporary, a glance towards communist totalitariansm? Or is it collaborationist France or some computer game mash up where skulls are collected on the back wall? Still the final battles are satisfyingly in full armour with a particular burnished glow.

When Richard comes forward on the dimly lit stage and grasps the audience by the scruff of the neck, "determined to prove a villain", it feels like a coherent take on the play. The drills have unearthed a cave where Richard is destined to act out his villainy again and again, trapped in his own subterranean theatre for time immemorial.

But a diplomat he ain't. Sure he confuses young Lady Anne (Joanna Vanderham), widow of Prince Edward (senior) whom he has murdered, but he's - literally - up front about the unadulterated power he has over her and she's far more coerced than reluctantly charmed.

It's not only the audience that understands his double dealing (even though sitting mid stalls a couple of times we missed the action in a pit in the stage because of poor sight lines) but all the characters,  perhaps not realising howfar he can and does go. 

In this stage world of uneasy alliances, the ascent to power starts with his own brother. Clarence (Scott Handy) does not believe his sibling would betray him, not so much out of filial ties but he cannot see the advantage to Richard. When faced with Richard's treachery, he, entirely plausibly and calculatingly, pleads for his life and never loses hope of living on before he is drowned (we won't spoil it for folks who don't know the exact method).

Do we admire Richard in this production? Perhaps if we had not seen other productions or read the text it would have fallen better with us. But there is a lot of use of types and tropes familiar from TV and cinema which do not serve the detailed ambiguities of this devilish Shakespeare text. He does not seem so clever but more a man of brute force on the verge of lunacy by the end whom others allow to gain power by either backing down or thinking they can use him.

Our couple of moments of empathy were physical. During horseplay after the young Prince Edward and the Duke of York (Lukas Rolfe and Oliver Whitehouse on the night we attended) arrive on the scene when the whole audience gave a collective "ouch" as the weakness of Richard's body was exposed. And just watching Richard sitting in profile, the furrows of the lines in his forehead deepening as he planned his next move.   

The expedient world of murder continues when the murderer (Daniel Cerqueira) brings into  the Royal boardroom a head chopping block as if it were a portable barbecue, just a tool of the trade purchased from a famous shopping website. The victim this time is Hastings (James Garnon), too busy always looking at the latest gossip on his mobile phone and finishing off the paperwork to catch the zeitgeist and threat around him.

There are plenty of such individual performances which catch the eye and ear but to our mind the production failed to hang sufficiently together overall The distraction of wondering why oh why sometimes just became too much.

Just why, oh why, was Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Margaret dressed in a boilersuit? But hers was an interesting interpretation, a dementia grandmother, yet her first exit conveying it was perhaps a front to save herself when she could not save other wives and mothers from her sidelined fate.

The two other female roles, redhead Queen Elizabeth (Aislín McGuckin), widowed by the death of King Edward (David Annen) during the play, and the Duchess  of York (Susan Engel), mother of Edward, Clarence and Richard, are both distinctive presences, sharply defined. 

Nevertheless, again they suffer from having to compete with a production filled with recognizable types and tropes, however well performed,  from TV and cinema, which simplify the nuances and ambiguities of the Shakespearean text.

At the same time, Buckingham (Finbar Lynch recently seen in the National's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) is a compelling partner in crime with Richard, held like the murderers by Richard's purse and promise of future rewards. 

This is an extremely clear production with flashes of sound in between, and sometimes during action in, scenes like a Law and Order episode. 

Its point may be the flattening over the centuries of Richard's flesh and blood into literary legend with television last in a long line of culprits. However ending the play with the 2012 excavation did not leave us with a rumination on the vagaries of power or Richard as the villain having all the best tunes or the fate of women in the play or how literature or vested interest history has treated Richard..  

Rather we wondered whether it will work better for us when it is an NT Live broadcast and we shine an amber light on this Richard III of great clarity set in a surreal landscape.     

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Review Maggie and Pierre

Maggie and Pierre
by Lynda Griffiths With Paul Thompson 

Tailor Made First Lady
Who started the cult of the glamorous first lady? Maybe it was Evita and certainly Jackie Onassis is in the running. Rather less of an icon in our times and still a survivor is Margaret Trudeau, former wife of the late Canadian prime minister Pierre and mother of the recently elected head of the Canadian government, Justin

TLT vaguely remembered her, always assuming she was Franco-Canadian like husband Pierre with her dark good looks. This was completely wrong, we discovered, going to see Maggie and Pierre, a one-woman play, which caused a sensation in Canada in 1980 when it was first produced. 

The one-act play is structured around three characters: wild child Maggie, the much older and intellectual Pierre and a fictitious journalist named Henry who acts as a quasi narrator. 

Created originally by and for Montreal actress Lynda Griffiths with writer Paul Thompson, it was developed while Pierre Trudeau was still in office in an epoque when such topicality was far rarer than it is now. 

While the show is called Maggie and Pierre, this is really Maggie's show. Indeed, we thought one possible interpretation was a rather conventional "woman has mental illness and has two male alter egos". 

But we think, if we're not making a gross presumption, we can see why this play struck a nerve 35 or so years ago when the glamorous couple gave the nation of Canada, a former British colony, a unique selling point on the world stage in a media-led age, two years before the formal final divorceprocedures separated it  from the British Empire.

The character of reporter Henry in the then stereotype gaberdine raincoat introduces us to Maggie, the 22 year old Margaret Sinclair of Ottawa. Maggie, Pierre and Henry are played by Kelly Burke whose energy manages to keep up the momentum of the play  and brings an impish charm to Maggie.

The story itself could have come out of a novel written by a modern George Eliot or some such if it wasn't all true - or at least as true as a play can be. First elected prime minister in 1968, Pierre remained single until marrying Maggie, 30 years his junior, in 1971. 

Much in the play is implicit and while we see Maggie, a political science graduate,  and Pierre meeting in Tahiti in a monologue cum duologue, it feels as if it may have been an arranged meeting for the bachelor Prime Minister, if not an arranged marriage. 

A Canadian audience would have known Margaret was from Scottish-Canadian political ancestry while Pierre was born to a French Canadian father and a mother of mixed Scottish and French descent. The over-explanation of the effects of the media glare and the much lighter touch when it comes to assumed knowledge about their background is one of the problems of the play for audiences outside Canada.

This feels very much like a pre-internet, 20th century play when  the contemporary intersection of media, celebrity, politicsm  myth making and the bringing down of political leaders to the human level was still a novelty on stage.

 In our times when these matters have been explored many times both in the theatre and in real life with the exposure of the political class and royal families commonplace, this is all run of the mill.

Still the portrayal of Maggie is fascinating. We are continually aware with the presence of Henry that the gossip columns and media spotlight on an apparently flower child, hippy-dippy youth cut short by marriage, babies in quick succession, exposure to drugs and the celebrity lifestyle contributed to her very public mental breakdown. 

The constant changing of clothes, albeit for the other characters as well as for Maggie herself, seems to have some link to the mention of her Yves St Laurent couture. This made us wonder, in a parallel with Princess Diana, about the practical pressures of her position as a walking slim and svelte advertisement for fashion houses. Also her incursion  into the world of pop music celebrity exchanging her Pierre with the Rolling xPierresx Stones.

The characters of Henry and Pierre seem less vivid, but perhaps deliberately so, seen though the eyes of Maggie. Maggie comes through in full modern colour while Henry and Pierre, both part of male-dominated professions and hierarchies, remain in sepia. 

Yet there is something visceral and touching when Henry brings to the fore the amazement and male awkwardness of the otherwise blase press corps when Maggie decides to chat familiarly with them. This seems a turning point, before Princess Diana's own use of the media and if anything a far greater surprise in more buttoned up times. Whether intentially or unintentionally, it pushes the envelope in breaking down the stuffy legacy of Empire and its structures. 

The very real tensions, a child of the politically active 60s turned into the stifled wife of a politician expected to buckle down to the role and expectations she would become mother of a dynasty (more in line with the Sinclair past than that of the Trudeau family) are all there, if sometimes implicit. 

Meanwhile Henry describes the atmosphere round Pierre himself with women throwing themselves at his feet "more like a coronation".  It may be Henry or an exreme Maggie through Henry who remarks, "This is the kind of emotion that fostered fascism". 

Equal national tensions between French speaking and Anglophone Canadians and the eruption of terrorism,  forcing liberal progressivism into possible repression is simply and effectively conveyed.

But again the play assumes a certain amount of background knowledge which may leave British audiences thinking  these events a little too lightly sketched.

The words Reason Over Passion (Trudeau's motto, we learnt after outside research) presides over proceedings on a red and white covered screen. Maggie eventually rips letters down, leaving a phrase which will have subscribers to the (hoax) theories of the DaVinci Code in paroxysms thinking  they have discerned some great secret in the French Scottish connection.   

Not having the text we don't know if this is in the text or an addition by director Eduard Lewis who otherwise directs a sturdy production of a sometimes dated but still resonant and interesting play. 

Nelly Burke grapples well with a role created by the actress who originally developed by improvisation and  played the part, a tough ask for anyone. So priding ourselves on our own blend of reason and passion ;), it's an amber light from TLT and her own motorised political aide. 

Friday, 24 June 2016

Review No Villain

No Villain
by Arthur Miller

Look Back In Anger

The year 1936 was an unhappy time for many Jewish immigrant families in America. Yet at the same the children of immigrants, albeit often cash-strapped, were receiving the kind of education their parents and grandparents could only dream of growing up in European and Russian towns and villages.

Children like Arthur Miller who took up playwriting and penned No Villain only as a means to receive an Avery Hopwood award to finance his journalism major college fees.

He was given the award, swapped to playwritng and the rest of course is history.  But in a feat of literary excavation, nearly 80 years later, director Sean Turner has unearthed this remarkably mature and complex previously unstaged piece by the 20 year Miller  in the University of Michigan archive.

Following an initial sell-out run at the Old Red Lion, No Villain has now transferred to the Trafalgar Studios. Abe Simon (David Bromley) has risen out of piece work garment making in New York to become the owner of his own furriers' workshop.

Yet to expand, like many others in the manufacturers' trust of which he is a part, he has taken out bank loans,  working with the tightest possible margins.

The line between prosperity and defaulting is worryingly fine and when rag trade shipping clerks who transport the coats to retailers go on strike, the situation is desperate.

So much so, Abe is even willing to taken advantage of workplace workhorse Frank (Michael Lyle) who ends up bloodstained after attempting to smuggle boxes of coats through the picket lines.

At home, Abe lives with wife Esther (Nesba Crenshaw), his daughter Maxine (Helen Coles), son Ben (George Turvey) and his elderly father-in-law (Kenneth Jay), the bridge between the old world and new world of business.

In the 1927 movie The Jazz Singer the protagonist in dispute with his father cuts himself off. There is no such rift in No Villain between Abe and his synagogue-going father-in-law.

But when elder son Ben, who has dedicated himself to the firm, eventually breaks away from an arranged marriage and the traditional father-in-law, son-in-law financial set up, he tears the fabric of his family apart and more

This is a sly, certainly not face-value play. With the benefit of hindsight, some may be  quick to assume it is a juvenile work blocking an examination of it as a stand-alone play with its own mix of ingenuity and irony.

Brother Arnold (Alex Forsythe) returns home for college, head stuffed full of theories and tries to shoehorn  his mother's legitimate fears into the latest psychiatric theory.

The shipping clerks on strike could just as well be commandeered to destroy the small-time businessmen on loans (something charted in Jerome Weidmann's almost contemporary 1937 novel I Can Get It For You Wholesale).

By 1936 US moneylenders were calling in their loans from Europe and Russia. Successful immigrant businessmen (they were mostly men!), like Carl Laemmle of Universal Pictures, could no longer send back money to fund their home towns and regions, including the pension funds.

Nearly every Jewish immigrant family, many of whom had lost everything during the Wall Street Crash, were receiving letters from  relatives scapegoated in the lands of their birth, begging for a sponsor and a shipping line ticket to allow them to emigrate.

No Villain with its disclaimer of a title in an America and Europe filled wth corporate states and inter-nation loans is an important, astonishingly mature work, albeit with its echoes of Clifford Odets's Waiting For Lefty,  for a 20 year old journalist major.

With the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and, above all, the betrayal of the show trials and purges, often targetting Jews, in Russia, Miller heeded the calls of a desperate people seeking escape while facing  the reality of  life in America.

Of course the Miller family's experience including losses in the Wall Street Crash informs this play, even taking his own mother's surname for the fictional grandfather's surname.

Yet it feels reductive and blinkering to over-identify the play with autobiography. There is a playwright's hand behind the artful concertina of family and world events.

If the call to action at the end feels rushed and hollow after a funeral and foreclosure, that's probably because, with world  events as they were, it was meant to be - political affiliation the best option but, many knew by then, not a solution.

This is not a perfect production, sometimes suffering from over-gesturing and a caricatural feel,  but it is a clear one with an atmospheric hallway and living room  set by Max Dorey transforming cleverly and simply into the factory floor

It also benefits from  an outstanding performance by George Turvey as Ben. An amber/green light for an uneven but crisp production of a play which should now become a staple of theatrical programming.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Review Gertrude - The Cry

Gertrude - The Cry
by Howard Barker

That Obscure Object Of Desire

What, Sigmund Freud might have asked, does Gertrude in Shakespeare's Hamlet want? And equally, what does playwright Howard Barker want? This, after seeing his mysterious 2002 reimagining of Shakespeare's Hamlet focussing not on the "sweet prince", but Hamlet's mother and an accomplice to murder, Gertrude.

Directed by Chris Hislop, this is a mainly well-paced and impressive production. Izabella Urbanowicz  leads the cast as the eponymous Gertrude, a dishevelled, yet sluttishly alluring predatory long-legged she-wolf  loping down the white traverse catwalk stage designed by Felicity Reid.

Where Gertrude leads, her erstwhile brother-in-law Claudius follows with no real thought for the consequences except in his will to possess the Queen as if it were some out of control erotic chess game where the pieces are also the players.

The play begins with the act (in all senses of the word), which Shakespeare turns into an  reenactment, of King Hamlet senior's murder by his brother Claudius (Alexander Hulme), lover of Gertrude. Furthermore in Barker's version the adulterous pair perform a graphic sex act on the dying man as if to imprint frames from a pornographic film on the murdered King's retinas.

At one end of the catwalk are indeed video projections which heighten the sense of visceral voyeurism and molecular ebb and flow. In this Elsinore, power in the capital is to be grasped, often with little regard for the future but as an animal act of possession. Family ties dissolve in the sexual and power-grabbing competition.

And this would be almost laughable except for an insurance. Underwritten by a black humour which increases the tragic intensity, a modern post Second World War sensibility combines with primeval animal instincts in this play.

Gertrude's son, Hamlet (Jamie Hutchins), turns out to be a child man.  He's half Dennis the Meance, jumped out of the pages of The Beano with bovver boots and half City slicker with red braces. He prides himself on his intellectual capabilities in dissecting the political structure, while still complacent and mysogynist in a world  predicated on a male heir.

According to his own grandmother (Liza Keast), Hamlet is "a bore and a moralist" This is also a Hamlet who becomes King learning the language of dispute but, like other characters, more and more disconnected as dangerous events unravel.

The other characters in Hamlet are fused into a new trio. Maybe Prince Hamlet has inherited a feeling of immunity from his paternal grandmother Isola who has herself survived the fruit of her womb, her two sons, turning on each other.

Isola appears to have confidence she can still handle her daughter-in-law, as she feels her way through the wild twists and turns of the Elsinore royal court. A court shaped by the destructive trail left by Getrude accompanied by her unregulated cry, a cry, she says, which is "never false".

Meanwhile the man servant Cascan, a strong presence in the heavily-built Stephen Oswald, seems at first the most in control of his destiny - but with a touch of the agent provocateur undercover police officer in spite of saying "a servant may not urge".

Ragusa (LJ Reeves), far from being a lonely Orphelia figure, remains self-contained rather than disconnected and marries Hamlet in a loveless match. But Gertrude excruciatingly attaches herself to Hamlet's friend, Albert Duke of Mecklenberg, although by the end of the play there is just a hint this relationship may swing in Albert's rather than Gertrude's favour.    

Getrude could be construed as a woman exercising power through her untrammelled sexuality and fertility. But this is just as much, through character, a disquisition on the state, the monarchy in the modern age, royal yet servants and citizens, its intersection with a country's institutions and with a market-driven global economy.

The play lasts some two hours with an interval, which sometimes feels long, but this is a powerful piece, boldly acted and directed. With some topless female nudity, anger and danger always threatening to spill over from the catwalk, it's an amber/green light from TLT.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Review It Is Easy To Be Dead

It Is Easy To Be Dead
By Neil McPherson

An Unsentimental Education

Charles Hamilton Sorley was a name TLT and her motorised steed knew faintly from anthologies  and his poem Such, Such Is Death was familiar. But other than his name and that poem, he was an unknown quantity when we set off to the Finborough Theatre for a new biographical play on his life.

And it proved to be a gentle revelation in this solidly contructed piece directed by Max Key with Alexander Knox as Charlie whose life was cut short by a sniper's bullet at the age of twenty on a French battlefield in the autumn of 1915.

It Is Easy To Be Dead, the title is taken from a poem, is a clear dramatised introduction to his life and work which brings home all too keenly his enormous promise. He was a signficant posthuous influence on fellow Marlborough College pupil, Siegfried Sassoon after  Robert Graves had discovered Sorley poems and shown them to his friend.

However McPherson has chosen understandably not to define Sorley by  assocations with other First World War poets but to let him take centre stage alone as an original and intriguing voice.

Designed cleverly by Phil Lindley to accomodate the videos and war scenes, the setting is the study and parlour of his parents, William Ritchie Sorley (Tom Marshall) a professor of moral philosophy with ties to German academia, and Janet Colquhoun Sorley (Jenny Lee), a suffragette who determined that Charlie's memory should live on. 

Certainly his life is worth exploring. He comes through as a figure ready to straddle the transition between Victorian imperial philanthropism and twentieth century welfare state, curious, generous, with an unsentimental recognition of his privileged position and eager to accumulate experience across class and country divides.

Playwright McPherson makes the play's outer framework the reflections of Charlie's parents after his death interspersed with  projections (video designer Rob Mills), along with the music of  parlour female piano player (Elizabeth Rossiter) and singer (Hugh Benson), the latter almost like a Charles Sorley alter ego with a repertoire of the classical and the popular.

We follow the young man's journey from Marlborough School where he excelled in both sport and academic subjects to Oxford to the horrors of the French battlefields. In between came a lpre-war episode when he furthered his studies in Germany where he both admired the German way of life and noted the increasing militarism and anti-semitism amongst student fraternities.. 

We did recall that maybe this type of relationship with Germany and the German people was not so unusual. Even in the Second World War film Colonel Blimp, the Colonel also has a youthful trip to Germany and a life-long German friend.

While McPherson confines himself to Sorley's own words, imbuing the piece with accuracy and authenticity,  it also somewhat imprisons the playwright and prevents the wider context.

When Sorley mentions his ambition, for example, to undertake social work or become a working men's college instructor, we wondered whether he was influenced at Oxford by the work of Toynbee Hall which would brought him into contact with London's East End.

Similarly we wondered how his viewpoint as a Scotsman coloured his and his father's obvious affliation with German culture and its social insurance system, with which Britain was only just catching up.

The influence of his strong minded parents, the element of school rivalry in the promotion of the poets who emerged during the First World War, Charlie's place as a Scots poet are all loose threads which, we felt, the playwright might have taken up and woven together.

The structure seems straightforward, although we detected a possibly more complex relationship in the play with the authors Sorley encountered on the page during his all-to-short life. Nevertheless Sorley's fresh individual voice comes through loud and clear.

This is a play with all the groundwork done, so an amber light for a dramatised life which made us want to know more.. Given further development, It Is Easy To Be Dead has the potential to deepen our understanding of a turning point in European history and has already made a distinctive contribution to giving Charles Hamilton Sorley his rightful place amidst better-known contemporaries.

Review The Donkey Show - A Midsummer Night's Disco

The Donkey Show - A Midsummer Night's Disco
Created by Randy Weiner and Diane Paulus

To Sleep, Perchance to Boogie

If there were twentieth century equivalents of Greek myths, New York's Studio 54 would surely qualify as Mount Olympus. For there 1970s' celebrity gods and goddesses, including one Donald Trump,  in the era between the Pill and Aids, reigned supreme with alcohol and other "nectar"on tap and entered into the stuff of legend.

Such goings on have undergone a transmogrification into an immersive, raunchy disco version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream", The Donkey Show,   "something rich and strange" (ok, wrong play, right author). Or as one New York Times critic put it "A Donna Summer Night's Dream".

Originating in New York, it  has now landed again this side of the pond at The Proud in Camden.  Created by husband and wife team, Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner with members of their theatre company Project 400, The Donkey Show ran for six years off-Broadway  and then had a spell (geddit?!) at the Edinburgh Festival and in London.

How pleased Donald Trump would be to be linked, however tangentially, to lust-fuelled mortals in  a performance bearing the same icon as that of the Democratic Party and a Mexican sex show, who knows?  

Still, TLT and her own little motorised glitterball joined the groundlings punters at Oberon's Club complete with a Master/Mistress of Ceremonies, a splendidly sequinned and  roller skating Lady Puck (James Gillan) with a giant -- oh, you'll have to go along to Camden to find out about that oversize thingymajig ... ;)

It's enormous fun with appropriately for the Dream, a bawdy hen and stag night atmosphere appealing to a mixed age group and under 18 tailored performances available at an earlier time on Saturday and Sundays. 

Yet don't look and listen for Shakespeare's verses flowing like drinks from the bar. 

All that blank verse is replaced by a string of 70s' disco hits, but these prove more than a gimmick. For they make for a surprisingly clear small-scale Midsummer Night's Dream and just as much a tribute to the throbbing music and story telling in the lyrics of disco era songs as the power of the Bard's plotting. "Don't Leave Me This Way", "I'm your Boogie Man", "Knock on Wood", "It's Raining Men", "You Sexy Thing" and "We Are Family" to name but a few.

The story is obviously simplified and Bottom becomes doubled (maybe after taking some of the copious amounts of substances on offer to the characters) into two goofy toothed Vinnies (Siobhan Athwal and Bronté Barbé) garbed in  the garish colours of a Mad Magazine cover, seducing gymnatically supple Tytania (Melissa Bayern).

Helena becomes bespectacled Helen (Bronté Barbé again - sorta Rosemary in Hong Kong Phooey). Demetrius, hey that's Dimitri (Siobhan Athwal again, but like the 70s comedy Soap, confused, you won't be?!) is the sleaze for whom the more demure but determined Helen has a pash. But he is after curly blondy curvy Mia (Vikki Stone who also becomes bearded owner Oberon with shades and cigar in hand).  

OK, Club Oberon et al is essentially now a franchise with the original having started its run in 1999 but this potion has a definite potency hooked in the fantastical reality of Studio 54. After all, didn't one of the two founders reportedly make something, some might say, of an ass of himself by declaring publicly, "The profits are astronomical, only the Mafia does it better". Uh, oh ... Cue raid by tax authorities ... 

There's some mild, perfectly comfortable interaction between the bronzed, cupid-like fairies and we customers. It's standing throughout (including the male/female security officer on stilts who you must look up to - boom, boom!). 

How to resist an entertaining hour of a shake-and-boogie-on-down peer into a hallucinogenic classic using New York excess clubbing during its bankrupt times without which, surely, we would never had that British 70's classic The Stud. It's a "it is what it is" green light from TLT.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Review Vassa Zheleznova

Vassa Zheleznova
by Maxim Gorky
in a new version by Emily Juniper

TLT still thinks fondly of The Onedin Line, the Liverpool-based shipping saga on the BBC in the 1970s, originally envisaged as a contemporary tale but eventually transposed to the nineteenth century when the creator found shipping companies at the time to be run by anonymous corporate boards instead of dynamic entrepreneurs.

TLT's own landlocked hatchback sailboat  also gives a gentle reminder how we relished greatly the cheesily enjoyable Onassis which still managed to elegantly illustrate dramatically networks of oil pipelines.

Playwright and artist Emily Juniper has now adapted Maxim Gorky's play Vassa Zheleznova, with the eponymous  matriarch (played by Siân Polhill-Thomas) ruling a 1990s' Liverpool shipping dynasty.  

She married into the family after being seduced when an underage groupie by her husband Sergei (Luke Shaw), who had briefly found fame as a rock star.  Now, in the midst of the 1995 Liverpool dockers' strike, Vassa desperately attempts to hold business and family together after the death, in which she has a hand, of her criminally depraved and publicly shamed husband.

Maxim Gorky based Vassa on real-life pre Russian Revolution upper class female shipping magnates. In his play she presides over a family losing its grip on power amidst blackmail, murder and child molestation.

The Liverpool dockers' strike, which had international ramifications, was actually about a privatised dock company (albeit with a substantial government shareholding)  and the sacking of hundreds of dockers for secondary picketing rather than involving a family-owned business. Juniper makes an interesting attempt to fuse state, local government, unions and political factions into one woman and her family which doesn't quite come off.

Vassa Zheleznova is played out in the smaller black box Southwark Playhouse studio on a modular stage which is unclipped and shifted during the 90 minutes' running time. Vassa sits in her office silently smoking, echoing the famous low down and dirty image of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Around her, on the docks, the dockers in sou'westers man the picket lines, their undefined mutterings possibly also the sound of radio messages on global marine highways.

So far, so good but the production as the story gets underway is marred, especially at the start, with some characters' voices dropping (too much like film acting!) and the meeting point of Scouse accent and audibility not always found. We were sitting in the third row and occasionally the sightlines were poor, causing us to miss some vital moments.  

The story itself is strong and the melding of Liverpool with the Russian named characters gives an international flavour. But, having determined to follow an overblown (in the best sense of the word), soap opera/thriller style, the production seems to lose the courage of its convictions.

What could be, at least at first before descending into mayhem and pathos, a carnival of fascinating and witty grotesques living a shameless monied existence never lives up to its potential. 

Polhill-Thomas as the eponymous anti-heroine who shoots seagulls for fun does what she can but her repartee lacks the necessary demonic wit to fascinate us. There's good work from Andy McLeod as Vassa's dissolute army veteran brother, also once part of Sergei's rock combo, who dreams drunkenly of a come-back. Equally so from Christopher Hughes, as a double-dealing company spy (reflecting real-life infiltration of the Liverpool dockers) and boyfriend of the public school dropout daughter Natalia played by Nicole Hartley. 

Amelia Donkor also impresses in her doubling as the sexually harassed office junior Lisa and Rachel, environmental activists' leader (again weaving in neatly a real-life situation) and Vassa's daughter-in-law. As Anna, Kate Sawyer is the recognisably sensible personal assistant in a world gone wrong, while Joss Wyre is the second daughter with fey idealistic notions.

So the concept is terrific, the clumsy execution less so.  There are highlights, particularly a tableau near the end when director Rachel Valentine-Smith brings the circle of corruption and vulnerability into visual focus. So, those times of insight and the general concept  of this adaptation just about gain the production an amber light.   

Friday, 17 June 2016

Review Happy To Help

Francis Beckett finds a young writer's analysis of the cut-throat cash and carry culture fulfils an urgent need for fierce political playwriting by a new generation.

Happy to Help
by Michael Ross

The Costs Of Convenience

Last night I met the young radical playwright for whom we have waited for far too long. His name is Michael Ross, he works as a sales assistant in the bookshop at the National Theatre and I had never before heard of him.  

I met him in the interval of his press night. His play Happy to Help does for twenty first century Britain what Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman did for 1950s' America. There has never been a time when we need radical political theatre so urgently and have so little of it. 

Here, at last, is a great, bold, angry play about the human cost of twenty first century capitalism, tightly and densely plotted in a very traditional way and peopled with real individuals whom we can understand and care about.

In the 1950s and 1960s we had playwright Arnold Wesker, many of whose plays are angry, socialist statements about working-class life turned into urgent theatre, as well as Trevor Griffiths and others. 

Then came David Hare, Caryl Churchill and others, who, in the 1980s, enabled theatre to rise to the challenge of Thatcherism. Churchill's Serious Money ends memorably with the City traders' anthem for the 1987 general election:

"pissed and promiscuous, the money's ridiculous
send her victorious for five fucking morious 
Five more glorious years"

The likes of Hare can still command the biggest stage in the country, the National Theatre, for overtly political work. But they do it differently now. 

Hare's The Power of Yes in 2009 was billed as a dramatic attempt to understand the financial crisis by interviewing experts. He said it was not a play but a story and he was right: properly subbed, it would have made an excellent New Statesman feature. But it was not a play. Anyway, Hare was a writer of an earlier generation.

The few new political writers talked about race and gender, not class and money. It was starting to look as though, after 30 years of neo­liberal government, theatre had given up hope of changing the economic balance of power. 

Perhaps theatre’s growing reliance on commercial sponsorship squeezes out radical theatre, as the former Arts Council chief, the late Sir Roy Shaw, warned us it might.

The best new political playwright to have emerged in the last several years that I’m aware of is Steve Waters, whose play about the introduction of free schools, Little Platoons, arrived at the Bush Theatre in 2011, and its canvas was far more limited than that of  Happy To Help, Ross’s play. 

In the first scene, a farmer, driven to destitution by the supermarkets, is forced to sell his land to one of them. Immediately we move on 15 years, to the inside of the resulting Frisca supermarket, with underpaid shelf stackers bullied by managers who are themselves bullied in turn by the top brass at head office. There’s talk of forming a union, but that sort of talk brings swift retribution. 

Then Managing Director Tony (Charles Armstrong) arrives to spend a week undercover as "Derek" on the shop floor, and see for himself the staff morale he believes he has created.

The play is full of pointedly funny one liners. Let’s have Christmas Day shopping, says the Managing Director: “This is a secular country, for God’s sake. If we do have a religion any more, it’s shopping.…. It’s only right that our places of worship should be open.” 

When a young shelf stacker, Josh (Ben Mann), suggests forming a union, his mate Elliot (Jonny Weldon) says no: “I’m an anarchist. Joining a union is like putting a few cushions down in your cage.” “Union agitation” says the manager Vicky (Katherine Kotz) “pollutes the stream from which we all draw sustenance.” “I don’t have a fallback” says Josh, a would-be rock star forced into supermarket drudgery. “If you have a fallback, you end up falling back on it.”

Happy To Help is expertly directed in minimalist manner by Roxy Cook and a fine cast,  also including David Baukham and Rachel Marwood,, make the most of the characters.

This play isn’t perfect. Bits of the plot still creak. One or two smaller characters, especially the big cheese from the USA, feel like types rather than people. Yet it s hits home overall and Happy to Help merits a green light. It looks to me like the theatrical arm of Owen Jones’s challenging books Chavs - Ross told me he used Chavs as a source of information on supermarkets - and The Establishment.

Right now it’s confined to the Park Theatre’s smaller stage, part of the Park’s script accelerator programme for new writers and producers. I hope the National Theatre does not take too long to work out that it has an important emerging radical playwright under its nose. It’s that thin, rather shy young man serving customers in the downstairs bookshop.