Ugly Lies the Bone at the National Theatre review ****

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Ugly Lies the Bone

National Theatre, 28th March 2017

Tricky one this. It was by no means perfect, a little too thinly drawn for me, but there was so much to applaud that I think it worthy of a strong positive review.

The playwright, Lindsay Ferrentino is entirely new to me, but the string of awards, the intriguing content and the imprimatur of the NT, was enough to sucker me in. The play focuses on Jess, played by a massive¬†favourite of mine Kate Fleetwood (her performance in Medea at the Almeida, directed I recall by hubby Rupert Goold, and written by a Kate Atkinson in full-on spleen venting mode, was a cracker), who returns ravaged physically and mentally from tours in Afghanistan to her native Space Coast Florida. She undergoes a pioneering virtual reality therapy, which gives set designer Es Devlin and her video, lighting and sound colleagues carte blanche to pump up the pyrotechnics, and boy do they seize the opportunity, whilst rebuilding relationships with sister (Olivia Darnley), an old flame (Ralf Little), sister’s maybe dodgy boyfriend (Kris Marshall) and eventually mother.

The text is direct but funny, Ms Fleetwood draws out Jess’s p*ssed-offedness with the world brilliantly, the supporting cast are uniformly excellent and Indhu Rubasingham’s direction (how is that Tricycle refurb going?) is clear as a bell. The reliance of Jess’s hometown on the NASA space programme is also well articulated to mirror Jess’s personal demons. So all good. I just wanted a little bit more. The technical pyrotechnics were a bit guilty of overshadowing the personal dramas, and the urge to maintain a lightish touch and neatish resolutions, left me liking the characters more than caring for them. Smaller stage, more lines, less fancy-dan stuff might have served it better.

Anyway definitely worth seeing though (on for a few more weeks and plenty of tickets) and I hope to see more of Ms Ferrentino’s work.

Balm in Gilead at the Guildhall School review ***

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Balm in Gilead

Silk Street Theatre, 27th March 2017

Less a review, more a plug for the terrific music, drama and opera on offer to you, the London public, from the massively talented students (and teachers) at the Guildhall School on the Barbican site. There’s all manner of free stuff and for no more than ¬£10-20 there are plays and operas of the highest quality.

Balm in Gilead was the last play I saw there. Written in the mid 1960s by Lanford Wilson who I didn’t know before this, the play is set in a contemporary New York cafe frequented by assorted prostitutes, addicts and petty criminals. Think Taxi Driver without the Travis nutjob. There are many stories on show but the key narrative is the relationship between Joe, a drug dealer who is in too deep, and Darlene a recent, and naive, arrival in the City.

There are all manner of formal devices employed here. A large cast of largely unsympathetic characters, though sympathetically played, a lot of overlapping dialogue, simultaneous scenes, a fugal song at the beginning and end to highlight the vicious circle in which the characters are trapped, cutaways where characters amplify the plot. The set design was masterful allowing these formal devices to take wing and the cast uniformly strong in putting the case for what I suspect can be a tricky play to convince an audience.

So what else has caught my eye at the School. Well the student’s contribution to the recent Philip Glass days in the Milton Court Concert Hall (which has one of the best acoustics in London I think) was outstanding. Myself and MS thoroughly enjoyed the Tale of Januarie, a new opera by Julian Philips and Stephen Plaice. On the face of it an opera, written in Middle English, based on a bit of Chaucer, with a dense and powerful score, is not an easy sell, but it was pretty much packed out and the kids absolutely nailed it. In the Milton Court Theatre I have also enjoyed a Crucible which exceeded most of the “professional” productions i have seen (this is one of my favourite plays) and a Top Girls (another favourite) which was similarly outstanding. I also had good reports of the recent Great Expectations from TB and partner.

So if you are interested in the future of culture and a cheapskate like me, don’t hesitate to get along to the School’s performances. In the new season I am drawn to The Wager, a contemporary Chinese opera co-produced with the Shanghai Opera, and the Gershwin musical Crazy for You.