Thursday, 29 September 2016
By Stephen Kelman
Adapted by Gbolahan Obisesan
Wild About Harri
The past is always with us, even when current events sweep us along. And while Pigeon English is startlingly contemporary, there's also a backward echo to the tragedy of little Damilola Taylor. But as this adaptation of the novel by Stephen Kelman makes clear, there's always a doppelgänger somewhere in the world in the present, future and past.
This picaresque play follows the life of Ghanaian immigrant, Harri (Seraphina Beh in cross gender casting), an 11 year old schoolboy who with his best mate Dean sets out CSI-style to solve the murder by stabbing of a young basketball ace near Luxembourg House on a London estate.
Framed Shakespearean-style with a poetic prologue (Charlotte Law) who also pushes the narrative along with diary entry type interjections, not of time but of locations.
Directed by Anna Niland with electronic and natural vocal beatboxing sound effects mixed with African inflections, we are given a map of and hear the pulse of Harri's world - estate, the ninth floor flat of Harri's family in Luxembourg House, the school, the Jubilee Centre community hall with a place for an immigrant chapel, the bus stop, the pub, the laundrette, the bins, the Catholic Church, all touched by the tribal gangs where it's either for or against, and overhead the sounds of the cooing, fluttering pigeons.
For Harri's migrant family, his shift-working midwife mother (Chineyne Ezeudu) and his sister Lydia (Daisy Fairclough), has also flown in to this country, leaving behind the father and baby sister Agnes with only the occasional tenuous telephone connection.
In the tribal world on the London estate everyone is making sacrifices, tributes and offerings from the schoolyard to the gangs to the Opoku family having to pay Caribbean Julius (Joshua Lyster-Downer) to whom the mother's sister, Sonia (Shalisha James-Davis) has attached herself. But Sonia has made her own sacrifice to escape the authorities, burning off the skin on her finger tips so she has no finger prints.
The two-hour piece has a televisual feel, even, or perhaps more so, with the abused Never Normal Girl of the prologue and Harri speaking directly to the audience. The plot strands could make up a several episodes, sometimes veering off in colourful, characterful, observational directions, although a little jam packed for a stage production.
It's loud, brash and energetic with Harri, even if he is led astray or a bystander to misdemeanours, an unfailing optimist and sweet child in this new country. In short, a child with every hope for the years ahead.
Cecelia Carey's set of slender scaffolding conjures up the nooks and crannies of the estate, the schoolyard and schoolroom, inside and outside space. It raises the action on different levels, filled with geometric shapes, providing the kids of the estate with their own pigeon lofts. All fronted by a clverly constructed tunnel entrance, half representing the whole, through which we watch the action.
Beh is a determined Harri, intent on his trainers with a crush on fellow classmate Poppy whom we see only though his eyes. Felix MacKenzie Barrow as best friend Dean contrasts well, a mixture of the gormless and the streetwise.
Fairclough's Lydia tries to make her way in grown up matters beyond her years with equally adrift but threatening mates Maquita (Arianna Beadie) and Chantelle (Natasha Heliotis). There's good work too from Nathaniel Wade as the worldly preacher, Joe Pierson as the yo-yoing Jordan, who may be more dangerous than he seems, and Kwami Odoom as gang leader X-fire with Shiv Jalota as gang member Dizzy.
Some of the best scenes are the intimate, domestic ones with Chineyne Ezeudu as Momma, alongside Shalisha James-Davis as her glamorous sister, Sonia, and Joshua Lyster-Downer as moneylender Julius with the two children, Harri and Lydia.
Pigeon English is never glib but it does feel sometimes as if it is doing too much, despite the themes threaded through to integrate the plot and hints of wider political contexts. It's a zestful episodic tale of linking stories swirling around Harri vividly and excitingly, where life for everyone, young and old, becomes riskier and riskier. Like the life it portrays it's flawed but an intense and passionate piece and it's another amber/green light for a multifaceted both spiritual and disturbingly earthbound play
Wednesday, 28 September 2016
Romeo and Juliet
Written by William Shakespeare
Adapted by Owen Horsley
Love And Death In The Officers' Mess
It's the perfect fit, of course, for the National Youth Theatre (NYT), as director Kate Hewitt notes in the NYT 60th anniversary brochure. The young star-crossed lovers Romeo (James Mace) and Juliet (Shalisha James-Davis) held back by their elders and a hidebound adversarial family-based society.
Owen Horsely's adaptation is a neatly pared down Romeo and Juliet, while keeping the lyricism and major speeches, with scenes intercut, well-paced by adaptor and director. It's a world of shadows, spotlights and echoes set in 1956 with the military still at the centre of life, conscription only ending four years later, but Britain, as in The Entertainer, increasingly unsure of its status in the world.
Indeed this seems linked to Juliet's father Capulet (Felix Mackenzie-Barrow), arranging her marriage to American Paris (Nathaniel Wade), who is enjoying dressing like the Brits and partaking in British artistocratic pastimes in an enjoyable scene, part of the sharp and vigorous version of this tragedy
But there is also the feel of the Notting Hill Riots and the moneyed nightclub world of Ruth Ellis, guns replacing traditional swords, with the Capulet parents singing in sultry tones their lines at the masqued ball where the young lovers meet - Capulet in dress uniform, Lady Capulet (Natasha Heliotis) in a decadent old-gold strapless number.
This admirably clear abridgement focuses more on the out-of-date class system than on the feuding Capulets and Montagues and Hewitt directs with a sure hand. Juliet's father is an officer and, especially with a glass of scotch in his hand, a bully both to his wife and his daughter.
The mothers of both Romeo (Catrin Walker-Booth) and Juliet mother dress in the latest Paris couture sucking on cigarette holders, while Romeo has joined the ranks of the Teds, although he and his friends and cousins can don bow ties and dickeys when the occasion demands.
Juliet is a charmingly vulnerable schoolgirlish sparrow-like figure in gingham and bobby socks and in bedroom white slip while Romeo is a fresh faced army cadet in waiting.
A group dance element (movement Polly Bennett), pushing the plot forward, along with judicious use of blackouts, is established from the prologue along with an original, dissonant, throbbing soundtrack (music and sound Dom James and Tommy Antonio).
There's a fluidity to the simple set (design by Cecilia Carey), a black box, depending on painterly shapes, with a versatile moveable rectangular dais.
White strips hang down and white and sooty black upright boards work simply but effectively, especially in the balcony scene. There are always others in the shadows ready to slip into their scenes and there's a bold use of colour filters (lighting by Elliot Griggs).
Juliet comes into her own in the second act, slipping into her own version of Parisian couture in pastel shades and visibly maturing. It's certainly a production where clothes (costume Helena Bonner) maketh the man and woman.
The supporting cast, apart from the Friar in glowing light turquoise robe, have a mash up of costumes ranging from teddy boy to some 21st century bare midriff wear at the dance (where there's a Charleston rather than Rock 'n Roll) to Peaky Blinders style caps and suits.
Mace and James-Davis give solid performances. Joshua Lyster-Downer as Friar Laurence, Arianna Beadie as the matronly Scottish nurse, part nanny, part beauty salon operative, part SRN, Michael Kinsey as the Prince give distinctive interpretations.
There's also a well-judged brief performance by Daisy Fairclough as Balthasar, Romeo's close confidente.
Juliet's relationship with her father and mother and with her business-like nurse and Romeo's with the Friar bring the story into a strong and modern focus. The latter finds his best laid plans scuppered by one message which fails to reach its target like a vital email sitting in the outbox.
This is a fast-moving, well-drilled production - we even wondered what a one act 90 minute' version, rather than two hours and two acts, could do taking the lovers from childhood to falling in love to death without a break and increasing the emotional stakes between the actors and with the audience. Even so, an amber/green light for a precisely directed spare, and well thought-through updating of Romeo and Juliet.
Monday, 26 September 2016
Music, Book & Lyrics by
Elliot Davis & James Bourne
Back in the day, TLT is of the television generation who watched the black and white images of an astronaut taking man's (yes it had to be a man ...) first step on the moon. And then gazed at the moon in the sky and thought, "There's someone up there!".
So TLT and her own little space shuttle had high hopes of Out There, a musical about this great achievement filtered through three generations of one family.
It's 1969 and NASA has named Newman Carter (Shane Gibb), to the pride and delight of his wife Hope (Thea Jo Wolfe) and young son David, as lead astronaut for the first expedition to the moon. He's the man in the news until earthly tragedy strikes the Newman family and Newman disappears, leaving his son to be brought up by his aunt Celia (Jodee Conrad).
Roll on 40 years and we discover David (Neil Moors) is now the hotshot American head of Carter Galactica, a company he runs with the help of lawyer Linda Wares (Melissa Bayern). The plan is to launch a commercial spaceline and allow tourist travel to the moon
However Linda's duties also include fielding off police and mitigating punishments meted out to David's talented but tearaway son Logan (Luke Street) who has chosen the life of a petty criminal over studying engineering at college.
When Linda can no longer keep Logan out of jail, he takes off, one step ahead of the law, with the help of his Aunt Celia who gives him a letter to deliver to an old friend, Ned Thomas (Dave Willets), in the stagnating Texan town of Hope.
The corrupt local sherriff Pack (Melissa Veszi), aided by henchmen Billy (Adam Pettit) and Stan (Rhys Owen) is out to sell all the land in Hope off to a chemical waste firm, but is blocked by Ned who refuses join in the party.
When Logan arrives in town with the letter he puzzingly finds himself rejected by elderly Ned. However after a rocky start he develops a relationship with him, finds love interest in the local (female) mechanic Jaimie (Imelda Warren-Green) before discovering Ned's true identity and a further secret on Ned's farm.
The best-known name in the show is Dave Willets as Ned whose experience and control are self-evident. The score, by James Bourne (of McBusted fame) is tuneful enough with a tinge of country and western and keyboard and guitar accompaniement (musical director Joe Louis Robinson).
Director Michael Burgen takes us through the twentieth century story with gusto on a stage surrounded by the audience on two sides. The narrative flows, almost entirely sung through.
But it's when the story jumps ahead in time that it starts to fall apart and the shoestring production loses its bearings. A staging choice to use a corner entrance rather than the main stage area also doesn't do the production any favours.
In the end, no score, however good, can survive an uncertain book, even though there were indications of more characters and a more ample story, of which more later. As it stands, the makeshift style of the cardboard scenery (Nik Corrall's set), which could have been charmingly whimsical, becomes indicative of a makeshift plot clumsily combining fantastical elements with a supposedly more gritty, political tale mixed with slapstick.
TLT can see this working if it were made clear everything we see and hear is percolated through the world evoked by TV series and films from the mid twentieth century onwards. In fact, the first scenes with young David Carter watching TV, playing with a space rocket and a cartoon rocket on the back wall may suggest this.
The posible framework of a clever childlike, but not childish, patchwork of popular TV and movie tropes never comes into fruition. Instead, we're presented with a clunky series of face-value clichés and indications that parts of the plot may have been cut.
The mid twentieth century Disney optimism about space travel and its benefits, the 1970s urban movie grit of Logan and his car thieving pals, the successful father and his rebel-without-a-cause son, the comic "Dukes of Hazard" law enforcement, the town council's fight to save their town from a destructive corporation (the stuff of many a movie) all could have provided a witty structure with room for new twists.
The mention of environmental protestors and the putting into the mouth of the female sheriff of what are obviously the lines of a journalist made TLT and her automotive redneck wonder what had been cut.
A quick web search revealed a 2011 two-day production by the Youth Music Theatre with a fuller score. The journalist in this version appears on first blush to have been a villain in cahoots with the elected law enforcer. This may explain a verse about "smelling a story" sung, rather glaringly inappropriately, by the police chief. It seems to us quite appropriate to take away one villain in that case but leaving those lines in the mouth of the another just didn't fit.
The subjects of journalism and environmental damage are also strong subjects which can last through the years. They seem to be present a tad more forcefully in the 2011 version and, with research and thought, could still have added depth without unbalancing the space story.
For it could have resonated now in 2016 with real-life current news about an environmental journalist, oil pipelines and and native American land which has caused international disquiet concerning policing, local politicians, corporations and the impact on journalism. Melissa Veszi playing the sheriff in Out There does have a native American look/Mexican look and the repetition of needing access to fuel in the musical also chimes with this news story.
A townsfolk comment about putting on a show, which seemed strangely out of place at the performance we saw, also fell into place when we realised that a song Step by Step had been cut. This bound the themes of space, the construction of a space rocket, the saving of a township, two young people falling in love, the putting together of a news story, the creation of a musical and the gradual coming together of grandfather, son and grandson.
There were other incongruities. Logan, who is white, bridles at being called "boy" by his father and grandfather, something out of sync with their other speech patterns, in a strange Coriolanus-type theme which goes nowhere.
It is possible that the whole is a prescription-drug-fuelled fantasy of a dying old man with the town and corporate plot still outside the fantasy. But this kind of ambiguity is never allowed air to breathe and the different stories never fully integrated.
The cast of eleven all acquit themselves in the singing stakes, while there are a few very wobbly American accents. This, looking back at the 2011 production, seems be a musical pulled and pushed out of existence since then instead of developed. An amber light for the performances and such a shame that, with so much being lost in the process, something valuable may have been submerged out there.
Sunday, 25 September 2016
William Shakespeare's Cymbeline Renamed and Reclaimed
Romans (Rap) In Britain
As far as TLT could recall from her dim and distant past of Shakespeare studies, Cymbeline is a bit of a ragbag of Shakespeare's Greatest Hits. Echoes of King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night abound.
It's also part of that loose association of plays in lit crit which are known as "problem" plays (but also a romance or tragicomedy) with its improbable plot and eponymous character who is out of the picture for much of the play's running time.
Director Matthew Dunster's adaptation focuses instead squarely on the character of Imogen, daughter of kingpin drug dealer Cymbeline, who in any case always has the most lines in the play, far more than the King of the Britons, her father.
In fact, TLT's little but learned hatchback reminded her there are only four Shakespeare plays with women in the titles. Like joint bank accounts, the male name automatically comes first in Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida and it's only in The Merry Wives of Windsor where women stand merrily alone.
Cymbeline (Jonathan McGuinness) is Britain's most powerful drug dealer running a gang producing a factory conveyor belt's worth of Class A substances. Meanwhile far off Rome is home to a rival white tracksuited bling drugs' gang.
One of Cymbeline's lieutenants Belarius (Martin Marquez) is falsely accused of treachery and in revenge for unjustified exile steals Cymbeline's two sons Aviragus (William Grint) and Guiderius (Scott Karim) bringing them up as his own. Only Imogen (Maddy Hill) remains within the drugs' gang compound.
Previously, Cymbeline had brought Posthumus (Ira Mandela Siobhan), the son of another of his lieutenants, who had been murdered into his inner sanctum. With gangland members as nannies Imogen and Posthumumus are brought up together eventually getting it together and secretly making it legal as wife and husband.
But Cymbeline has married again and the new Queen Bee in the drugs' gang (Claire-Louise Cordwell) has a definite sting. She and Cymbeline want Imogen to marry her cocky son Cloten (Joshua Lacey) from a previous marriage. So when Cymbeline discovers the marriage of Imogen and Posthumus, he banishes the latter to keep them apart.
Before he goes into exile to Rome, Imogen and Posthumus exchange love tokens: He gives her a bracelet and she gives him a diamond ring.
The rest of the play pivots round a bet with devious Giacomo (Matthew Needham), placed against Imogen retaining her virtue which Posthumus is lured into and tricked by whilst in exile, Imogen escaping Cloten's clutches in disguise as a boy, the Romans and Brits in gang warfare and how Cymbeline's family is reunited, the fortunes of Belarius and finally Posthumus restored and the latter coming to see how wrong he has been about Imogen's supposed adultery.
With its rather awkward mix of pantomine, fairytale, Britain's mythic history and revenge tragedy-like gruesomeness, it's already a romcom which fits with a certain modern cinematic sensibility.The updating of Cymbeline to embrace gangland culture isn't entirely new. There's a 2014 US movie set in biker culture directed by Michael Almereyda ending with Imogen and Posthumus riding off into the sunset on a motorbike and freedom.
But this is set in current day London, including a historical nod to West Side Story and The Long Good Friday, with its transparent butcher's shop curtains, rap, hip hop and electronic music - Skepta's Man, Daft Punk's Get Lucky amongst others - and gangland honour culture. Branded tracksuits are the gang uniform in an interpretation, cutting out much of the supernatural gumph, giving the story in some respects recognition and clarity for modern audiences.
It's also literally an electric show - the Globe stage is flooded with artificial light and miked and electricity is bound up with the drugs' gang concept of the show (design by Jon Bausor and lighting by Lee Curran). That's to say the hydroponic drug "farms" with their steep electricity bills.
At the same time, there's a certain cost to the balance of the play. Rather than Imogen as a Renaissance babe (ok, maid) emerging with untutored virtue out of barbarous Britain, Imogen, although clean of drugs, ends up as a potential narcotics' gang matriarch.
That's not to say this version of the play does not work on its own terms It does. It's loud and it's brash. There's some clever, punchy updating of the text through pauses and modern speech patterns giving new meaning to old words.
There's a little too much hand gesturing and self-conscious feel to Maddy Hill's Imogen, more comfortable on the Globe stage when she dons her male disguise and becomes an active figure rather than the previously more passive recipient of bad news.
There's also a notable playful and tender performance from Grint's Averagus with deaf signing feeling a natural part of the play. Nevertheless the updating doesn't have the rigour and attention as this season's other problematic play "The Taming Of The Shrew".
It flattens Cymbeline into a gangland tale and the comedy and violence no longer form part of a delicate Shakespearean meditation on inherent nobility threading together the pastoral, the court and the supernatural in its concerns, language and dramatic contrasts.
Without these skeins giving the possibility of a more idealistic existence, it also feels rather lengthy. But - and in these days, it's a big (positive) but - the dancing (choreography Christopher Akrill), blunt black comedy, music, aerial acrobatics and choice use of pauses to twist lines into current speak may still find an appreciative audience, especially those who come to Cymbeline for the first time in this version focussed on Imogen. An amber light for an electric performance which, despite its flaws, still leaves many in the audience on a high.
Saturday, 24 September 2016
We at TLT Towers welcome Carolin Kopplin who brings continental spice to the TLT mix! Munich-born Carolin trained as a lawyer and dramaturge before living and working in the USA. She is now a writer and translator based in London and, of course, the newest recruit to the TLT team.
Father Comes Back From The Wars (Parts 1,2 &3)
by Suzan-Lori Parks
Of Human Bondage
A slave on a West Texas plantation called Hero and his personal odyssey through the American Civil War and its aftermath is the focus of Father Comes Back From The Wars. Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks combines elements of Greek drama with Homer's Odyssey and a philosophical debate on the concept of freedom in a powerful trilogy of plays.
In the first part, "A Measure Of A Man", set in 1862. Hero (Steve Toussaint) is faced with a dilemma. His master has promised to free him if Hero joins the Confederate army. But should he fight against the army that wants to abolish slavery in the South? Or should he maim himself to evade the military? And, even more importantly, will his master keep his promise?
Hero's wife, Penny, (Nadine Marshall) urges him to stay home. His father (Leo Wringer) and many of his fellow slaves, who also make him the subject of a wager, want him to go, not just because they will face severe punishment by the "boss-master" if Hero refuses..
The second part, "A Battle In The Wilderness", takes us on to the battlefield. The Colonel (John Stahl), Hero's master, has captured a Union soldier Smith (Tom Bateman) and keeps him locked up in a tiny wooden cage.
To pass the time, the Colonel plays his banjo and forces his prisoner to sing rebel songs. But Smith changes the lyrics, the Colonel loses interest and instead challenges him on his beliefs about freedom and slavery.
The final section, "The Union Of My Confederate Parts" sees Hero returning from the war and the parallels to The Odyssey become particularly striking. Hero has changed his name to Ulysses, after Commander-in-Chief Ulysses S Grant, and his wife Penny (Penelope from the Greek epic) has been fending off wooers in his absence.
The slaves have been sold off or died with only Penny or Homer (Jimmy Akingbola) remaining. Hero's talking cross-eyed dog Odd-See (Dex Lee) miraculously returns to fulfil the function of Messenger, reporting on Hero's journey and lightening the more sombre mood of this act.
Originally staged at the Public Theater in New York, director Jo Bonney's production now has an excellent British cast. Toussaint's Hero is an imposing presence, the archetype of a hero, yet seriously flawed. Marshall portrays Penny with strength and vulnerability. Akingbola impresses as the rebellious Homer, whose foot was cut off after he tried to run away. Bateman gives a forceful performance as Smith.
Although over three hours' long, this skilfully directed, intriguing work never has a dull moment. Neil Patel's atmospheric set and Steven Bargonetti's bluesy music transport us straight to the American south.
Writer Parks sets the bar high in the first three of nine planned plays, employing ancient forms to tell a still very relevant story. It's a green light for a trilogy uncovering how the precarious position for African-Americans during the long-past Civil War still resonates today.
Friday, 23 September 2016
by Zach Helm
Imitation Of Life
Hollywood comes to Kingston Upon Thames with publicity justifiably headlining "John Malkovich Directs" in UPPER CASE above the title of the play, Good Canary. Although we should add the two leads, Skins' Freya Mavor and Harry Lloyd each get a photo and equal size lettering.
But then again, this play by Zach Helm (he gets equal size lettering below the title) has been pet project of the Hollywood star for some time. It was first performed in a French translation at the Théâtre Comedia in Paris and then, in Spanish, as El Buen Canaria at Mexico City's Teatro de los Insurgentes.
Now the Rose Theatre hosts the English language world première. Writer Jack (Lloyd) suddenly achieves the overnight fame dreamt of by many an aspiring novelist. After a glowing review by critic Mulholland (an acerbic Simon Wilson), Jack's gritty (and read for that, pretty filthy) novel shoots to top of the bestseller list.
But, in the opinion of the New York literati, his new best friends, Jack comes with baggage. Annie (Mavor), Jack's wife, is the centre of his life but she is also a bulimic junkie, hooked on amphetamines with a tendency to slice through the chauvinist small talk at deal-making dinner parties with a mixture of insight and violent insults - or rather, violent insults and insight in that order.
This is indeed a slickly directed play with Mavor giving a tour-de-force performance in a role not unlike that of Denise Gough in People, Places & Things. Lloyd as Jack manages the tricky balance as the supportive husband and ambitious career-climber. It is he who gives her the caged yellow canary (a live one on stage!) of the play's title.
The canary, we are told through words projected on the backdrop at the beginning, was used by miners to warn if the air was filling with toxic gases. However, by the end of the play, when the canary appears to have fluttered away, we weren't quite sure what exactly this signified, although we had a rough idea that Annie was equated to the caged bird.
The set by Pierre-François Limbosch is inventive and sets up its own visual discussion on the clichéd relationship of art and a tormented life. There is a clever use of projections and the backdrop is brushed with painterly daubs. Equally, there is an evocation of at least one famously anguished painting.
A café with adjacent road in New York, seen in different scenes from outside and inside, has a resemblance to Montmartre's paintings for tourists. Characters exit scenes stepping out of frames or slip out as if between the canvases of two paintings. At one point, a publisher's office and the couple's sparsely furnished apartment even slide together to resemble the archetypal poverty-stricken artist's garret.
Yet this, with the music by Nicolas Errèra and sound design by Jon Nicholls, somehow still serves to emphasize the cinematic nature of the script. We couldn't help thinking this was a movie that was never made. There's an attempt to make a virtue out of this - the use of surtitles instead of speech signifies the start of a slide into predominantly visual melodrama reminiscent of silent movies.
Sylvia (Sally Rogers), the wife of the wealthy publisher out to lure Jack into his publishing house, feels like a character which would benefit from being in a movie rather than a stage version, especially with scenes split between two rooms and groups of characters.
There is also a subtle time mash up feel. Publisher Charlie (a strikingly charismatic performance by Shepherd) could have stepped out of the 1960s. Drug dealer Jeff (Ilan Goodman combining shambling geniality and a belief he's in business rather than a criminal enterprise) could be from a 1980s' police procedural.
The dialogue of the wealthier publisher Stuart (marvellously glib Michael Simkins) apparently with the money for a lucrative advance and critic Mulholland has the feel of pre-internet unguarded comment.
We did sense, however, particularly when Stuart, having admitted that he'd not read Jack's novel, later proudly announces he has read Chapter 7 (ambiguous in the USA with its meaning of insolvency) that there might be another hidden plot to the Good Canary.
So all in all, it's well directed and acted, even if the script leaves a few too many question marks. We're still not sure what happened to that cute little bird, but TLT and her sidekick in their own cheep and cheerful way award a canary-coloured amber light for an evening with plenty of highlights.
Tuesday, 20 September 2016
No Man's Land
by Harold Pinter
The Batting Order
After the first performance of Harold Pinter's absurdist No Man's Land back in the Cold War days of 1975, the Times critic Irving Wardle said it was "... palpably the work of our best living poet in its command of language and its power to errect a coherent structure in a twilight zone of confusion and dismay."
We did not personally mine this quote from the esteemed Mr Wardle but owe its excavation to the programme introduction of director Sean Mathias's current production, which also doffs its cap to a quote from the equally esteemed Mr Billington from that time, 'a mixture of "admiration, respect and bewilderment". Ah, those heady days, when print was king and the word blog would have been viewed as some kind of unforgiveable newspaper misprint!
All of which is to say that No Man's Land, we would be presumptuous enough to believe, is very much a product of its time, a class system, a literary and Oxbridge hierachy. It's still got heft and bite. However it's a slow burner for current audiences, now when surreal humour and intricate power play has entered mainstream television and internet.
Step into the breach, Sir Patrick Stewart as eminent man of letters, Hirst, and Sir Ian McKellen as Spooner, a dishevelled lesser poet. Spooner enters the twilight zone, after a chance encounter on Hampstead Heath - ho, hum - and an invitation back for one - or several - drinks.
The twilight zone turns out to be a huge circular domed drinking room with panelled walls, designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, within Hirst's North London abode. Up above we see the the night outline of tree tops against the transparent roof. Strangely it reminded us of a space ship come to earth in what seems to be Hampstead. Perhaps not unusual though for some individually commissioned Hampstead architecture of the time. The room almost empty in its luxury, aside from a padded leather chair and some other sparse furnishings.
The two trade stories and memories. Yet we are never sure about them. Are they true recollections coloured by one-upmanship? Spooner, apparently reduced to collecting glasses in a pub for a pittance, could be desperate to keep his own end up with a university contemporary. Or he could be exercising literary skills, with a liberal amount of dirty mindedness, in a competitive manner, somewhat reminiscent, it seemed to us, of Jean Genet's "The Maids".
There's a rhythmic, musical feel as the lines jump back and forth between the pair of elderly gents as part of their mind games and twilight zone competition. But it's not just a two hander.
Spooner, after leaving behind rivalry with Hirst for the possibility of a position in his household, suddenly finds different competition. It appears in the shape of Hirst's male secretary or "amanuensis", John "Jack" Foster (Damien Molony) and manservant cum bodyguard Briggs (Owen Teale) and a whole new generation of posturing.
Pinter used the names of cricketers for his characters, carefully picked. Hirst a Yorkshire cricketer, a "player" rather than a "gentleman" who first worked as a weaver and in a dyeing firm before becoming known for cricket and his swing bowling. Spooner, a public school-educated Lancashire man and celebrated for his batting prowess. Foster, another public schoolboy, England captain and middle order batsman. Finally Briggs, a professional cricketer and noted spin bowler, who crossed over from Yorkshire to Lancashire.
So we may gasp and be left bewildered at the foresight of Harold Pinter using the word "Google" in his script. However, a passing knowledge of cricket's googly will make this an accidental glimpse of future technology. Continuing this glossary, we should add that, less cryptically, Jack Straw's Castle was then a listed pub (now luxury apartments since 2002 closure), not some citadel of a future and somewhat controversial Home, Foreign and Justice Secretary.
Just to let you gen up before you go - for you surely will go, like us, to see two legends of British acting at full throttle in a classic play, matched with Game Of Throne's Teale as Briggs and Molony as Foster. The latter is all set to step into the literary shoes of Hirst - if Spooner does not hinder his plans.
The lines are thrown like skilfully bowled cricket balls and equally skilfully batted away. We still feel The Caretaker, Betrayal, The Dumb Waiter (the three Pinter plays we have previously seen) are more accessible. Yet there's an undoubted power to the twilight zone of No Man's Land.
Written at a moment when the reach of literary magazines, funded by who knows what or who, the left or right wing Oxbridge set was on the cusp of the wane. And a Hackney lad, the son of a Jewish ladies' tailor and a housewife, a cricket fanatic, could eventually be thought of as a modern Shakespeare.
It's an upper range amber light from TLT and her own motorised amanuensis for an occasion they wouldn't have missed, even for the complete editions of Wisden.
by Nathaniel Martello-White
The Broken Branch
Another play about a family tree cracking and snapping but this time the roots of the familial problems go deeper than First World Problems in Nathaniel Martello-White's Torn directed by Richard Twyman in the Jerwood Theatre upstairs at the Royal Court.
We enter what appears to be an institutional room with wooden floor, moulded plastic grey plastic chairs for the audience in a round - a few raised up at the back like bar chairs, the only concession, along with lighting and sound, to the theatrical space designed by Ultz.
Already in the room is Angel (Adelle Leonce) who converses with the audience, helps herself to a drink from the tea urn on a table in one corner. So Angel is aware that people are watching as she draws out chairs for the family members, we are about to learn, she has drawn together. But for what?
Maybe at first it seems like a showdown - we know from Angel's first anouncement to us, something bad happened - but after a while, it seems that even Angel does not even know why she has brought the eight family members together and what she expects. Except she knows, we have seen this at the beginning of course, she is showing us.
Although the family at first trickle in with few words, just uncertainty as to why they have been called together, the trickle of words soon turns into a deluge. The audience has to adjust to the criss-crossing conversations and rising cadences as emotions boil up and over.
At one point an analogy to a flock of birds of prey becomes explicit and it seems this is how the play is structured. The lone one at first and gradually more and more flock in and greet and peck at each other.
And they are dangerous issues to peck at: the consequences of mixed race, yes, harking back to past slavery but also feeding into current issues. Slave owning and present day debt collection merge together with child abuse emerging from both.
At just over ninety minutes, the story shifts and turns around fractured family and time lines. It's a hard ask for an audience to concentrate intently all the time and there are moments when the action seems to sag into too much intricacy, shouting matches and huge-eyed Angel can only be static, standing apart as a bystander.
Yet a story with many layers over time and space does emerge of a child torn from the mainstream of her family by past and present economics, a family pitted against itself and manipulated in spite of itself by a criminal stepfather. It's not perfect as we've indicated but stand out performances do emerge from Leonce as Angel, her mother known only as Twin 1, Indra Ové, Roger Griffiths as Angel's father Brian, Kirsty Bushell as both fairer Aunty J and white Irish Nanny and James Hillier as stepfather Steve.
Director Twyman with lighting by Charles Balfour and sound by Gareth Fry keep up the pace and it's an amber/green TLT light for this difficult but rewarding play.
Monday, 19 September 2016
Things I Know To Be True
by Andrew Bovell
Never Promised You A Rose Garden
Somewhere in the suburbs of Adelaide live the Price family. Father Bob (Ewan Stewart) tends his garden complete with manicured rose bushes, years after taking redundancy from a car factory. Mum Fran (Imogen Stubbs) now wears the earning trousers, working as a nurse at the local hospital while keeping the household together.
Meanwhile the four grown-up kids are spreading their wings in tentative flight with varying degrees of success. The youngest Rosie (Kirsty Oswald) sets off alone on a gap year in Europe, ending up in Berlin only to have her heart broken, her Euros stolen and to be ordered out of the house where a night of passion turns out to be a defeat and soulless trickery.
The expectations of Pip (Natalie Casey) sour and she hardens herself, ambitious in her work and love life, willing to leave her husband and, temporarily, her kids for a new job and lover in Vancouver.
The two sons are drawn with less detail. Tender Mark (Matthew Barker), an adored brother is ready to make a momentous change in his life. Shiny-suited wide-boy accountant Ben (Richard Mylan) is determined to compete and party with his colleagues before discovering he will be offered up as a token sacrifice by them when things go wrong.
Originally premiered in Adelaide in May this year (2016), the actors in the London staging co-directed by Geordie Brookman and Scott Graham, keep their English accents. This reminded us somewhat of at least one fairly recent production of Our Town which worked well. But in this case, we're not so sure.
Nevertheless Imogen Stubbs is outstanding as the family matriarch bluff, northern Fran, even if the script sometimes slightly jars making her more male than Stewart's more gentle, seemingly solitary father Bob, a gardener with his wheelbarrow, eventually in vain, laying out the boundaries in a medieval rose garden.
While it was written earlier than the vote, this felt for us something of a Brexit Commonwealth tale. Rosie is robbed of her heart and Euros in Berlin and has to return to her family. Pip ends up in Vancouver with a question mark over the future of her children.
Mark seems to only have one story line and we never learn his trade or profession but he advises his sometimes unwittingly crass parents to learn about his choice in life through books and websites. Ben's story is really intriguing - maybe this is why it feels pushed down in this production but never followed through with its implications for his trade, his fate and his family's future seemingly bound into extra-judicial financial servitude for what he has done.
The whole is polished, with fluid staging (set and lighting by Geoff Cobham with music by Nils Frahm) and choreography to reflect mental states and change the pace. Even so, the piece felt hugely influenced by recent TV family dramas such as Transparent with its different threads on family members.
In its effort to be global, on stage at least, something appears to be lost. There are times when, like some rebellious family member, we even felt resentful we were somehow being subjected to a gentle but insistent indoctrination in "Things I Know To Be True" which made us more obstinate in our analysis rather than enveloping us in the story.
There's a lot to admire - Natalie Casey and Ewan Stewart especially match Stubbs' powerhouse performance in their own ways - and some of the audience around us were wiping away tears by the end. However, it left us unaffected and, while technically superb, it's an amber light.
PS However we can't resist reference to a 1970s' country and western crossover classic which sprang to mind and seems fitting for this piece. .
Sunday, 18 September 2016
Jess and Joe Forever
by Zoe Cooper
A Rural Gavotte
Once TLT lived in a one-horse village (the horse belonged to someone else). There was a pub, a few residential roads, the overgrown tracks of disused ralway lines axed by the Beeching cuts and a bridge from which the occasional de-nested fledgling used to fall which she tried to nurse back to health.
You had to climb over several stiles through fields of sheep or cows - according to the season - to reach the next village. Here was the church, the post office cum shop and the primary school, so small two years were put together in one classroom (Old fogyishly she declares: "it never did us any harm!" ;)) So we felt amply qualified for Jess and Joe Forever, set in a Norfolk village.
Except of course in TLT's past house prices hardly moved, credit was scarcely discussed and banks were for the monthly salaries of parents (mostly fathers) or for businesses. Secondary schools were the big town secondary modern or the two single-sex public schools. The latter were kept afloat by fees which the armed forces paid outright for the children of the military and the local authority's payments for local kids like yours truly who passed the eleven plus.
Joe is a scrawny motherless farmer's son, while Jess is a "townie" whose parents have a holiday home in the unnamed hamlet, a villa on Lake Garda and a live-in nanny for their plump, good-natured daughter.
In some ways, this is a play which touches on the new class system: the self-conscious Jess knowing but not quite understanding why she is better travelled, has an Eastern European nanny and why her boarding school is viewed as a superior sort of establishment.
Meanwhile Joe has a secret, revealed late in the hour long play which makes him less rash, more reserved and watchful than Jess who is a little girl eager to please and impress and a tad lonely. She is almost like some over-eager playwright or screenwriter, for even at nine (and three quarters), she knows the term "inciting incident".
Indeed it struck your apple-cheeked theatregoing duo that this little tale of class, nature, changing seasons, prejudice, literature and economic downturns might work very well as a movie. Rooted in Norfolk, but surely equally at home in Florida or the deep south of America?
Like a lot of new writing nowadays, it has a slightly studied but pleasingly rhythmic script self-consciously threaded with Ovidian and novelistic references. Yet it also allows for charming, well-paced performances, as the protagonists awkwardly dance verbally around each other - Nicola Coughlan as blonde Jess and Rhys Isaac-Jones as dark and thoughtful Joe.
It's precisely paced by director Derek Bond on James Perkins' formal pastel grey, green and yellow chequer board set, heaped with untidy earth from the almost-opening scene as Joe digs cattle troughs interrupted by the curious, friendly Jess.
The scenes over the years are delineated by a rather self-conscious clicking of fingers and flash of lights. We are introduced into the geography of the village. At its centre the church with the lacuna, left by a vicar dealing with more than one parish, filled by those in the vilage who feel qualified to be lay preachers and provide the village's moral compass.
Meanwhile the children's lives seem to be mapped out by their education - Jess to a fee-paying boarding school, while Joe's position appears more nebulous.
There is at least one glimpse of an above-average intelligence but a rather more puzzling reference to more mundane school affairs which makes him seem a unique pupil - the reasons for which are eventually revealed.
Jess and Joe Forever is a likeable jigsaw of a play with strong central performances. The writing could afford to relax a little, over intent sometimes on breaking the fourth wall.
Nevertheless the sensitive production and the script's appealing grace attracts an amber/green light from your yeoman theatre reviewer TLT and her little automotive sidekick ploughing the theatrical furrows.
Friday, 16 September 2016
Francis Beckett bathes in the nostalgia and delusion of a late Tennessee Williams' play set in America's deep south and is equally beguiled by the historic Coronet Theatre.
A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur
by Tennessee Williams
Beer And Skittishness
The Print Room at The Coronet is one of those places which tell you that there is still hope for London. Even without the full refurbishment it deserves, it is magnificent.
Arriving for a performance of the 1970s' Tennessee Williams' play A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur, I started in the bar, standing with producer Veronica Humphris on a fiercely sloping floor surrounded by walls in a deep shade of red, huge and ornate doors, and eccentric wall hangings.
She told me about plans to restore it to its former glory, if the money can be found. The theatre had a distinguished early career after its opening in 1898, graced by the likes of Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt.
It became a cinema in 1923, then narrowly escaped closure and conversion into a McDonaldshamburger joint An energetic campaign saved it for theatre and, while it now has smaller scale performance spaces run by a charity, it's still a wonderful temporary compromise.
At this performance the great red columns of the original theatre merge seamlessly into the red walls of a beautiful and meticulous set (designer: Fotini Dimou.) for the one-act drama set in Missouri directed by Michael Oakley.
Dorothea is a fragile Southern Belle, not unlike Tennessee Williams’s more famous Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, is in love with a man whom we are sure (correctly) from the start will turn out to be a scoundrel .
She exercises furiously in an effort to maintain her allure. On her the evening turns, and she is brought to magnificent and entirely believable life by Laura Rogers, who will be the fittest woman in London by the end of the run.
Debbie Chazen as Bodey offers exactly the right mix of resignation and disappointment, hope and kindness. Hermione Gulliford is excellent as the scheming, manipulative Helena, who threatens to disrupt their lives, and there is a nice cameo of demented neighbour, Miss Gluck, from Julia Watson.
Yet the character who came to life most strongly for me was a character we never meet, Bodey’s brother Buddy. Bodey and Buddy are of German ancestry. Both are overweight, but Buddy encourages his expanding girth with plentiful daily supplies of beer and bratwurst, while he indulges a cigar smoking habit.
He appears to be a solid citizen, not just physically, and, encouraged by his sister, he has set his sights on getting Dorothea to share his life. Having reduced his daily beer intake, he vows to cut it down even further.
But one suspects that this is more his sister’s project than Buddy’s own, and it is her dreams of nephews and nieces she can nurture which will really be shattered if it does not come off. At the end, it looks as though it might come off, and the author seems rather to approve of this outcome; I beg to disagree with the author.
The play is a little predictable, but we quickly learn to care about what happens to Dorothea and Bodey. It does not offer the emotional charge of Tennessee Wiliams’s more famous work, but it has a charm and humour which they lack. It’s a good evening in the theatre; a green light from me.