Smile Upon Us Lord review at the Barbican Theatre review ***


Smile Upon Us, Lord

Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia, Barbican Theatre, 1st March 2018

OK. Sometimes you just have to accept that an artistic endeavour is a bit beyond your reach. For whatever reason it just doesn’t click. That is what happened here with Smile Upon Us, Lord. There was much to enjoy visually, there was the bones of an interesting story and there was the rare opportunity to see some of Russia’s finest stage actors perform. But there just wasn’t enough there for me to really engage with so ultimately I was unmoved. Not indifferent. Just unable to fully grasp what I was being shown. No matter.

Turning up to productions at the Barbican performed by renowned theatre companies from around the world, the Netherlands (Toneelgroep Amsterdam), Australia (Malthouse), Germany (Schaubhne Berlin), Japan (Ninagawa), has proved a profitable strategy recently. The Vaktangov State Academic Theatre of Russia was hugely acclaimed last time they popped over to perform an adaption of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and, prior to that, an unconstrained Uncle Vanya. Well maybe not popped over given the huge ensemble and tons of kit that comes with them. Anyway I missed both of these because a) I am an idiot and b) it all sounded a bit intimidating. Armed with greater knowledge, more time and a new-found enthusiasm for all things theatrical I wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice/thrice. The house was packed with a welcome contingent of Russian speakers, Russophiles and students of Russian culture, and, maybe, expat Lithuanians as well.

For, as it happens SUUL is actually based on two novels, A Kid for Two Farthings and Smile to Us, O Lord by the pre-eminent Lithuanian writer Grigory Yaakov Kanovich. He was born into a traditional Jewish family in Lithuania. escaped with his parents in WWII seeking refuge in Kazakhstan then Russia, before returning to Vilnius. He has written more than ten novels which document the history of Jewry in Eastern Europe from the C19 through to the present day., as well as stage works and screenplays. He has been awarded numerous prizes, medals and prestigious awards in Lithuania and he now lives in Israel.

Now as it happens the Artistic Director of VSATR is also Lithuanian, Rimas Tuminas. The germination of SULL began in the 1990s with a plan to shoot a film. Presumably the theatrical potential was recognised as certain of the story lines were drawn out and as Mr Tuminas and his creative team worked with his Russian cast to create what we now see. The story starts in a shtetl, “small town” in Yiddish, a part urban, part rural Jewish community which was largely wiped out by the Holocaust. Efraim Dudak, an irascible stone-cutter played by Sergey Makovetskiy on the night I saw it, receives a letter informing his son is to be tried and potentially executed for an attempted political assassination in Vilnius. He resolves to go to see him leaving behind his beloved she-goat played by Yulia Rutberg (yep, that’s right, she played the goat like a slow-waltzing Miss Havisham). He is joined by water-carrier Smule-Sender Lazarek, (Evgeny Knyazev), and eccentric depressive Avner Rosenthal, played by Viktor Sukhorukov, (the pick of the seasoned cast), who has been reduced to penury after his shop burned down. The journey is hazardous, there are wolves, bandits and soldiers, and unpredictable and they meet a fair few rum characters along the way, including a “blind” con-man (Victor Dobronrarov) and an enigmatic “Palestinian” Grigory Antipenko

A kind of jaunty Beckettian road-trip if you will. Without maintained roads, and just a horse and cart, conjured up in a hugely imaginative way by designer Adomas Jacovskis. Now early C20 Jewish life in Lithuania is, it will come as no surprise, a world that is unfamiliar to me, and it was intriguing to see this conjured up on stage. This was overlain with a lyrical, poetic story with much philosophical musing from our heroes. There is humour tinged with despair, magic and banality. It is meandering, discursive and there is not much in the way of plot. Some of this connects, some of it, frankly, does not, there may well have been allusions that went right over my head, but there is just about enough impetus to keep the whole thing trundling on, much like the cart.

Am I glad I saw it? I think so. Would I see it again? I’m not sure. Did I really understand it? No. Is it worth getting wound up about it? Certainly not. Life is too short for low-level regret.


Curtains at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****



Rose Theatre Kingston, 1st March 2018

Stage comedies don’t always stand the test of time too well. Comedy is elusive enough in the first place and may often be more rooted than tragedy to specific times, places or events. Comedic fashion chops and changes and what is acceptable shifts with the zeitgeist. Repetition does not always serve it well. This is as true of comedy from the last few decades as it is from hundreds of years ago. If a comedy play wins an award, especially an award for “best newcomer”, than alarm bells should sound for any subsequent revival.

Stephen Bill’s Curtains from 1987 won many just such awards, and repeated the trick when it was revived in New York a decade later. Added to that it’s a comedy about death. Set in the West Midlands. The second comedy about death set in the West Midlands I have seen in the last couple of weeks after the Guildhall’s Schools splendid production of Laura Wade’s Colder Than Here. (Colder Than Here at Guildhall School Milton Court Studio review *****). Maybe this very specific sub-genre holds a special fascination for me. Hm.

So I approached this with trepidation. I shouldn’t have. This is, by and large, a very smart play, directed by Lindsay Posner, who I assume was keen to revive it, which should be playing to packed houses at the Rose. I may be biased, because it is on the doorstep, but I really do think that, despite having no Artistic Director, the Rose is astutely delivering some high quality, uncluttered, proper theatre, sometimes in collaboration, sometimes, as here I think, off its own bat. Maybe not quite matching the Orange Tree in terms of innovation but streets ahead of the safety first pap that the Richmond Theatre largely relies on.

It’s that old Ayckbourn-ian staple, the family gathering, (which didn’t work as well in my last visit here for Sam Holcroft’s novel Rules for Living, another “best newcomer” – Rules For Living review at the Rose Theatre Kingston ***). It’s Ida’s (Sandra Voe) birthday. We are in her threadbare front room, courtesy of designer Peter McKintosh. She is stuck in her wheelchair with advanced dementia, her eyesight and hearing fading, surrounded by her two daughters, a splendidly po-faced Margaret (Wendy Mottingham) and a restless Katherine (Saskia Reeves and their respective husbands, the punctilious Geoffrey (Jonathan Coy) and the candid Douglas (Tim Dutton). Geoffrey and Margaret’s son Michael is also in attendance.

Now the somewhat gauche Michael is played by none other than Leo Bill, the son of the playwright. Do not be alarmed though, there is no nepotism at work here. Mr Bill junior is a fine comic actor as I know from his Bottom in Joe-Hill Gibbons’s characteristically bold Midsummer Night’s Dream (A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Young Vic review ****). Now Bottom is funny. There is a clue in the name. And Shakespeare, who was good with gags, created him. Yet sometimes once you have done the donkey head and Titania fancying him, the belly-aches can ease up. Not so with Leo Bill who, with body, face and words, and a pair of tights, held the whole of the school-kid contingent in the palm of his hand, not to mention us old grumpers.

Dad Stephen Bill is probably much better known for his TV scripts than his plays, but it seems like he retired some time ago. So I think I can be confident that young Bill is here on merit; his performance certainly suggests so. The birthday party is completed by neighbour Mrs Jackson (Marjorie Yates), who, along with Michael who lives in the house, takes care of Ida, and, subsequently by a third sister, free spirit Susan (Caroline Catz) who is something of a black sheep, and winds Margaret up something rotten.

The fussing around Ida, drinks, sandwiches and cake are served in quick succession, and the importing of her reactions by the sisters, is spot on. It soon become clear though that there are tensions over how Ida should be cared for as she approaches the end, amidst the familiar, familial carping. This is the debate that lies at the heart of the play. How should families deal with with end of life, both practically and emotionally? As the population ages, and the cost of social care rises, this is, in turn, an increasing concern, as we have seen, for society as a whole. Mr Bill is a little guilty of shoe-horning various positions into the mouths of his characters, but the writing is still sufficiently airy to withstand this.

There is a fairly sharp tonal shift at the end of the first which sets up the argument in the second act, and which I shall refrain from describing. Suffice to say it works. There are a couple of incongruous moments which show the age of the play, notably some casual racism, a reminder of the mutability of comedy which I have remarked on above. Overall though this is a very well written play, keenly observed, darkly comic and with some trenchant argument. There is a hint of edgy, Orton-lite about proceedings, which is a very good thing, and Mr Bill has a handy knack of making his dialogue sound natural, often funny, but never “sit-com forced”.

Hats off to whoever thought to revive this.