For King and Country at the Southwark Playhouse review ***

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For King and Country

Southwark Playhouse, 17th July 2018

You get all sorts of theatre at the Southwark Playhouse. Bold, experimental stuff, new works, revivals, youth theatre, musicals. classics. You name it, someone will put it on. It doesn’t always fly, but very rarely does it disappoint. That would be my overall take on For King and Country. The play was written by John Wilson and premiered in 1964 with a cast including Richard Briers, Leonard Rossiter and John Hurt. All greatly missed. It is based on part of the novel Return to the Wood by one JL Hodson, (nope me neither), and was quickly made into a very successful film with Leo McKern, Dirk Bogarde and Tom Courtney, (who at least thankfully is still showing his immense acting talent on screen). I haven’t seen the film, at least I don’t think I have.

There is nothing tricksy about this story. A proper, straight up and drama which is nonetheless very moving. 306 men in the British army were executed for cowardice in WWI. It is thought that many of them suffered from shell-shock, or, more correctly, post-traumatic stress disorder. The play tells the (fictional) story of one of them. Private Hamp, (a fine performance here from Adam Lawrence), has, almost absent-mindedly, wandered back from the front line at Passchendaele in an attempt to return home to London. He is captured by the military police and put on trial for cowardice and desertion. The increasingly sympathetic Lieutenant Hargreaves, played by Lloyd Everitt, does his level best to defend him. The President of the Court (Peter Ellis, all stiff upper lip) isn’t going to be swayed by the appeals of the youthful Padre (Eugene Simon), wrestling with his faith, placing more weight on the testimony of the weak-willed Medical Officer O’Sullivan (Andrew Cullum) who told Hemp to pull himself together and prescribed useless laxatives. Both the medical officer and Hemp’s CO Lieutenant Webb (Henry Proffit, suitably obnoxious), fear the consequences on the “morale” of the troops if they accept that Hemp’s behaviour requires sympathy and treatment, not condemnation, and are keen to sacrifice him as an example to others. However the Court can see that mercy is required.

A courtroom drama, a set-up guaranteed, from our contemporary perspective, to make the blood boil with anger at the cruelty of the military machine, and a plot which holds sufficient suspense such that, whilst fearing the worse in terms of outcome, you hope for the best. Yet what really makes the play interesting is the character of Hemp himself. Hargreaves, and another officer, Lieutenant Midgeley (Fergal Coghlan) do everything they can to explain Hemp’s behaviour, but he is passive, preferring to place his faith in Hargreaves oratorical skills. We see something of the class divide between the officers and the rank and file and we also learn that Hemp, a volunteer, is the last of his company alive, a friend was blown up by a shell in a foxhole and that his wife has left him back home.

Director Paul Tomlinson doesn’t do any funny stuff, the play neither requires nor deserves it, and designer Jacqueline Gunn has come up with a convincing set. The production comes courtesy of the Dilated Theatre Company, under AD Alexander Neal, which focusses on the political, plays by the likes of Barrie Keefe for example. All up then a fine play, diligently performed, even if it didn’t push any theatrical boundaries. It takes a bit longer than it should to get going but the second half definitely draws you in.

Finally remember that it took until 2006 before these 306 “deserters” were finally granted posthumous pardons, and only then thanks to the efforts of the family of Private Henry Farr and after a long legal battle. FFS. You have to wonder at idiocy of the Establishment sometimes.

 

Directors’ Festival at the Orange Tree Theatre 2018 review

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Directors’ Festival 2018

Katie Johnstone ****

Precious Little Talent ****

In the Night-Time (Before the Sun Rises) ****

Right it was a brilliant idea last year. It was a brilliant idea this year. And it will be a brilliant idea next year (Directors’ Festival at the Orange Tree Theatre review). As part of their MA’s at the nearby St Mary’s University, (in close conjunction with the OT itself), let three talented young directors loose on some superb short contemporary plays written by three equally talented young playwrights. Let us la-di-dah local culture vultures and a bunch of the directors’ fellow students and mates enjoy the results. And charge just a few quid for the proceeds. The Orange Tree now is getting close to Almeida-like levels of consistency, it is a superb space to see intimate two and three handers like these and the works, whether new, recent or revival, are so well chosen that you wonder why others can’t seem to beat them to the punch.

Anyway here was a new play (Katie Johnstone) from the prolific pen of Luke Barnes who writes for and about you young-uns, a revival of the second published play from the brilliant Ella Hickson (Precious Little Talent), she of Oil and The Writer fame, written in 2012, and a production of Nina Segal’s first play (In the Night-Time) which premiered at the Gate in 2016. Unsurprisingly these are all very fine works. Perhaps also unsurprisingly given the quality of last years’ productions they are all amazingly well directed by, respectively, Samson Hawkins, Dominique Chapman and Evangeline Cullingworth. I can’t be sure, in the absence of scripts, just how much they had to work with in terms of the look, feel and pace of each of the plays but I have to say, in every case, these were as inventive and as dramatic solutions to the limitations that the OT space imposes that I could wish to see, or indeed have seen.

Samson Hawkins is AD of his own company, tomfool, and assisted on the recent OT production of Romeo and Juliet and appears to be joining the team at the Oxford Playhouse. Dominique Chapman assisted on Joe Whtie’s excellent debut play at the OT, Mayfly (Mayfly at the Orange Tree Theatre review *****) and is freelance and works at the Globe. Evangeline Cullingworth assisted on Humble Boy and is associated with the Royal Court and the Gate. On the strength of these three shows I expect them all to go far. They all worked with set designer Eleanor Bull and OT lighting and sound regulars Stuart Burgess and Anna Clock to deliver equally dynamic productions and to allow their talented casts to shine.

I am not sure if this was intended but it seemed to me that all three plays were linked in that they all dealt with the crushing of youthful dreams in one way or another.

The eponymous Katie Johnstone is determined not to end up stacking shelves in Tesco alongside Mum and her bessie, and taking up with any old local lad. She wants to get to college and start her own business. Exams, and not knowing what sort of business, are no barrier to her dreams. In the end she can’t escape but Georgia May Hughes, on her main stage debut, shows us a feisty and powerful young woman whose humanity shows through even when her hopes and dreams are dashed. Kristin Atherton who caught my eye in the RSC Rome season is very good as Mum and friend Janet and Reuben Johnson also shines as all the male characters and, especially, as the fox, a recurring and intelligently used symbolic presence. There is a real energy to the production and it packs a lot into just over an hour.

Precious Little Talent tells the story of fervent young American student Sam and somewhat mordant British expat Joey meeting in New York in 2008 just after the election of Obama. This is a night to remember for both of them though their memories don’t quite coincide it transpires. We see that Sam also helps look after his neighbour George who has dementia. It turns out that George is Joey’s Dad. Sam’s crush on Joey never fades and he comes to London to try to persuade her to come back to New York and give up on her going-nowhere jobs and life. There’s a lot more to it than that, as you might expect from the pen of Ella Hickson, as it explores the relationships between each of the three principals, contrasting Sam’s optimism with Joey’s disillusionment, the fracturing of the father/daughter bond and the frustrations of George’s illness. Not a line is wasted and Matt Jessup and Rebecca Collingwood are outstanding as the two young’ers with Simon Shepherd, (you will know him off the telly), lending George an air of deliberate pathos.

Nina Segal’s In the Night-Time is a more experimental play which follows one young couple’s sleepless night with their newborn baby. This is the jumping off point for a fantasia of words and movement telling the story of their relationship to this point, their hopes, fears, dreams, frustrations, all amplified by their extreme tiredness and centred on the child they have together brought into the world.. It is far from naturalistic but still manage to convey just how scary those first few days are with baby number one, (though the SO and MSMM would both fairly point out that I was f*ck all use all those years ago). Ms Cullingworth asks a lot of her actors and Man (Ziggy Heath) and, especially, Woman (Anna Leong Brophy) don’t hold back, pulling us, the audience, into their story. There is also some nifty work from the stage management team pushing prop after prop through the centre staged cot. It didn’t all come off but when it worked it packed a powerful emotional and dramatic punch.

I reckon all three of these productions would merit a further outing and I intend to watch the future careers of these directors, and the less experienced cast members here, with close interest. Put this in your diary for next year. You won’t regret it.