Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Review The Entertainer

The Entertainer
by John Osborne

The End Of The Pier Show

When music hall declined in post Second World War Britain, it wasn't just shows and venues that were lost. A whole economic infrastructure of halls linked by the railway network, agents, theatrical digs and a communal experience was also ousted.

Written by John Osborne at the age of 27, The Entertainer charts the dying days of veteran Archie Rice's (Kenneth Branagh) musical hall and end-of-the-pier act on to which he has tacked on a nude revue to keep the punters coming.

Archie lives hand-to-mouth, a boarding house life on the circuit with his second wife Phoebe ( a magnificently blowsy and touching Greta Scaatchi) and his son Frank (Jonah Hauer-King), who has served a prison sentence for refusing compulsory military conscription. His daughter Jean (Sophie McShera) from Archie's first wife lives in London where she has become involved, on what seems to be a naive basis, in left wing politics.

Alongside their crumbling existence  is one of Britain's last doomed imperial military adventures in 1956 to stop the nationalization of the Suez Canal leading to the capture of the couple's son in the conflict, the more obediently conscripted Mick, while serving his country.

The set designed by Christopher Oram encloses the family's domestic space in a dilapidated music hall. Director Rob Ashford also chooses to blend stylizations from TV and film, music hall's nemeses, seeping into the family drama. This may well work on screen but, in terms of this play, sits more uneasily in a theatre.

So the showgirls are Billy Cotton glamour girls and Archie himself is reminiscent of a toned Gene Kelly rather than a seedy roué. Nonetheless, it's one interpretation, and one which may pay dividends when the show is broadcast on Thursday 27th October.

But we were not sure it does justice on stage to the structure of Osborne's play, surely a forerunner of shows such as Oh! What A Lovely War. The satire of The Entertainer also predates the raft of 1960s satire with Beyond The Fringe and That Was The Week That Was.  

It did strike us that in 1956 the name Archie was perhaps most readily associated with the popular radio ventriloquist doll Archie Andrews

This may give a way into the Brechtian variety show sequences and Archie's proclamation that he is "dead behind the eyes". It. even intersects with Osborne's Archie's love life with both the dummy and the entertainer with much younger girlfriends.  

Most of all, this turns Archie's performances, his set piece misogyny and racism into grotesque mouthpieces, inherited it seems partly from his father Billy (Gawn Grainger) who may also be the one with the connections and management skills.

There are moments of  power, especially in the second act when the fate of soldier son Mick resonates strongly with our times. But, although it is in the script, there is little sense of a family and entertainment industry caught in an unholy trap, a mirror of fractured global politics and ideologies.

In the end, this feels like a too controlled and manicured production rather than a deadly Cold War Swiftian dart.There's more to be mined here and it's an amber light from TLT and her automotive music hall stooge.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Review They Drink It In The Congo

A witty and angry new play about a well-intentioned  festival in London  vividly portrays the problems afflicting resource-rich Congo, writes Frances Beckett. 

They Drink It In The Congo
by Adam Brace

Culture For Sale

A young woman, Stef, is appointed to run a festival of Congolese culture in London. Clever, politically alert and committed, and scarred by what she saw when she visited the Congo as a volunteer, she determines that it is going to be done properly; this is not going to be the Congolese as seen through the prism of fashionable London, but as the Congolese see it. But it doesn’t work out that way.

Writer Adam Brace – this is just his second full length play – believes in researching what he writes about. The play straddles four worlds, all of which Mr Brace has taken the trouble and care to understand.

There’s the small world of London’s NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and charities, rather pompously calling itself the voluntary sector, powerful and with control of substantial public and private funding, with its private jargon and its own private jealousies.

There’s the Congolese community in London, an equally tiny world but with far less power, riven, like many diaspora communities, by bitter and destructive internal politics.  

There is the brittle world inhabited by London’s journalists and public relations consultants. And there is the Congo itself.

Congo, where a man being forced at gunpoint to be the first of several men to rape his own 13-year-old daughter is just part of life’s rich pageant; a land where, as one character reminds us, they had just one chance in the last sixty years of becoming a peaceful land; that chance was called Patrice Lumumba, in whose 1961 murder, evidence strongly suggests,  the Americans may have been deeply complicit.

These worlds are put together with great dramatic skill to make a compelling narrative. Mr Brace is an accomplished writer who understands that dramatic and important subject matter is not enough to hold his audiences. He makes us care about his characters as individuals. And he makes us laugh surprisingly often, given the grimness of the subject matter. 

There’s a hysterically funny detrousering scene which could easily have been written for the late Brian Rix. And there are quite a lot of rather good jokes.  “There’s no easy way to say this.”  “Is it a Welsh village?”

Even better, he extracts humour from the way his characters rub against each other.  The Congolese on her committee berate Stef for being paid £28,000 a year to run the festival, and her public relations officer ex-boyfriend Tony - Richard Goulding - bursts out: “She’s a Cambridge graduate, she is seriously employable, she’s chosen to do this.” Later Tony says: “Good job you didn’t tell them what you really earn.”  “I did” says Stef.  “Good God” says Tony. 

An influential Congolese pastor tells Stef: “You have my support.” She is delighted, until she realises that she cannot use his name, cannot ask him to say anything publicly, cannot tell anyone: “I support you. You have my prayers.” 

Cleverly directed in the round by Michael Longhurst, the cast is led by the magnificent Fiona Button, whom I last saw as a wonderful Isabelle in Jean Anouilh’s Ring Round the Moon at the Playhouse Theatre

She doesn’t just play Stef; she inhabits the character. I am certain her preparation must have included hours spent in long, bitchy voluntary sector committee meetings.

Other standout performances in a uniformly good cast include Anna-Maria Nabirye as Congolese scientist Anne-Marie and Sidney Cole as the Pastor.

They Drink It In The Congo manages the really difficult trick of being, at one and the same time, a play that has something important to say, and an entertaining night at the theatre. A green light and the best of luck to it.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Review The Roundabout

The Roundabout
By JB Priestley

A Day In The Country

Watching the rare revival of this 1931 play, a naughty thought crossed the mind of TLT. What if JB Priestlley, Oscar Wilde  (from beyond the grave), Bernard Shaw and Kaufman and Hart,  the latter probably by wire across the Atlantic, had got together and decided to write a piece for the stage as if one playwright and as a game of consequences?

For that's exactly what the plot and dialogue felt for us in this drawing room comedy, written originally for actress Peggy Ashcroft during a short-lived love affair with Priestley. Ashcroft passed on it and a subsequent production was mounted in Liverpool.

It's a strange, uneven script, given a solid production directed by Hugh Ross at Finsbury Park's Park Theatre, with an oddly mechanically zingy aphoristic feel, where the characters are vastly stronger than the plot. 

Aristocrat and financier Lord Kettlewell (Brian Protheroe), although maintaining a substantial country house household, is insolvent and trying to reduce costs by discarding his mistress Hilda Lancicort (Carol Starks).

In the midst of his travails, he is ambushed by the arrival of his long-lost daughter Pamela (Bessie Carter), from whom, along with her mother Rose (Lisa Bowerman), he has been estranged for many years. 

Pamela has arrived after a trip to the Soviet Union, bringing with her fellow communist Staggles (Steven Blakeley) whose tough ideological stance disguises a rather more illegitimate appreciation of capitalist wine and women. 

An appreciation which oversteps the mark when he presses his unwanted attentions on the pretty maidservant Alice (Annie Jackson), behaving more like a licentious eighteenth century nobleman than then adherent of an austere cause  bringing equality to the masses.

The frailest of plots has a set simply but effectively indicating a Tudor-style mansion with overarching beams (designer:Polly Sullivan). But couched somewhere beneath it all is an a subtext dwelling on shifts in power - from painting and theatre to the mechanised medium of film, from silent movies to sound, the failure of the Soviet ideal, international politics alongside economic woes.  

All entangled as Parsons the butler (Derek Hutchinson), who has his own run of good luck cruelly snatched away, drunkenly observes, "in a shtate of gre-aet social confusion".

Nevertheless there's an oddly self conscious feel to the shifts as well in style and tone in the writing. While jolie laide Pamela pushes the plot along, the mournfully humorous leftover of imperial Edwardian Britain, down-at-heel idler Churton Saunders (Hugo Sachs) is like a silent movie character with a clear view but bypassed by events, but still tolerated on a small stipend on the studio lot. 

Meantime the inpecunious widowed Lady Knightsbridge (Richenda Carey) shows an imperiously focussed saleswoman manner in drumming up business for her family with her own take on political events: "Communists, eh? Is there any money in it, because I'm looking for something for Agatha's younger girl - dreadfully plain, poor thing!".

Maybe the play was caught halfway between theatre and cinema and its own push between agitprop and entertainment. 

Comrade Staggles, a character in Blakeley's performance still with a decidedly modern if caricatural feel in our times, ostensibly talks about the bloated capitalist classes when we know Lord Kettlewell is on his uppers. 

But Staggles could just as well to be talking about the fake life of luxury portrayed on the big screen, "this rich, artificial sort of life, where you're eating and drinking all day, and all the women are parading their sexual charms." 

So, a bit of a curio in the Priestley canon in a production which sometimes still has to find its rhythm but with strong enough characterisations and performances to carry it through to the upper ranges of an amber light.

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 careful 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 minimal 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 becomes 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, with online provocation and offence. The power of the internet to create villains with posts passed on unthinkingly and no demand for evidence. This is all covered.

Also 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!