A Kind of People at the Royal Court Theatre review ****

A Kind of People

Royal Court Downstairs, 16th December 2019

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was a new playwriting name for me. No longer. A Kind of People takes a not uncommon subject, racism in contemporary Britain, and not uncommon set-ups, a mixed race marriage, friendships, a party, a workplace, and conjures up an insightful and nuanced drama, with (mostly) credible dialogue and (mostly) well-rounded characters. If this sounds like I am damming with faint prose I am not. Getting this type of play just right, without getting preachy or taking too unlikely a turn, is not easy so hats off to both writer, and director Michael Buffong from Tawala.

Given the impact that GKB’s previous plays have had my ignorance of her work extends well beyond remiss. Her first play Behsharam (Sensation) was a great success, Behzti (Dishonour), which included the rape of a young woman in a gurdwara, won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2005, before being chased off the Birmingham Rep stage by British Sikh protestors. Her next Behud (Beyond Belief) drew on her experiences around Behzti, followed by Londonee, Fourteen, Khandan (Family), Elephant and Dishoom!. As far as I can work out all of this draw on her own life and Sikh heritage whilst A Kind of People expands beyond this.

Nicky (Claire-Louise Cordwell) and Gary (Richie Campbell), childhood sweethearts, now married with three kids, just about managing, are throwing a small party. Gary’s white best mate and work colleague, Mark (Thomas Coombes), is a permanent fixture, Mo (Asif Khan) and Anjum (Manjinder Virk), British Asian friends and neighbours, are a bit better off, Karen (Petra Letang), Gary’s sister and Nicky’s best mate, has just broken up with her partner. Gary’s boss at the electrical engineering company, Victoria (Amy Morgan), pitches up, overdoes it on the prosecco and retires, disgracefully, after a bout of overtly racist behaviour.

All is then forgiven? Not really. And then Gary goes for a promotion, which he doesn’t get despite being well qualified. He blames Victoria. Things unravel from there. See what I mean. No bombshells, disclosures, blasts from the past, or anything else to drive an audience double-take. GKB’s meticulous dialogue explores each character’s motivations and reactions without judgement leaving us to decide who is taking and causing offence and whether the consequences are justified. Maybe there are moments when dialogue to advance the plot, flesh out back stories and build the arguments emerges just a little too artificially, but hey, it’s a play not “real life”.

Fair to say that this production also benefits from two central performances that skilfully mine the ambivalence of the text. The only time I have seen Claire-Louise Cordwell on stage was in the dreadful A Tale of Two Cities at the Open Air Theatre for which she takes no blame. Like her, Richie Campbell is also a TV veteran and the experience of both in gritty screen drama and even soaps shines through. This is well beyond soap cliche however, though I note that GKB cut her teeth on Eastenders and has form with The Archers, but the trick of drawing attention to thorny socio-political tensions through heightened individual dilemmas, bears comparison. (Early on Victoria remarks that the party is “so nice, just like off the telly”). Multiple points of view, uncomfortable truths, flawed but empathetic personalities. Gary is casually sexist, Victoria is, at best, full on white gaze, Anjum explicitly classist when it comes to her son’s education, Mark is jealous and manipulative.

Anna Fleischle’s set switches briskly between the couple’s council flat and the workplace, and the park where the play, poignantly, concludes, in flashback. So that nothing gets in the way of the audience’s, palpable, reactions to the unfolding drama. I would hazard a guess that All Kinds of People is a play that has been allowed time to develop and that GKB has been generous in taking on the advice and suggestions of her various collaborators. Which will have helped make it such a tight, effective and vital story.

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra at the Barbican Hall review ****

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Trevor Pinnock (director), Rachel Redmond (soprano), Claudia Huckle (alto), James Way (tenor), Ashley Riches (bass), Zürcher Sing-Akademie

Barbican Hall, 11th December 2019

The Tourist’s annual Messiah. Almost Billy No Mates. But eventually MSBDB1 stepped into the breach. For which many thanks as Messiah is best shared.

Now the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra is one of the many top drawer German period music ensembles and Trevor Pinnock, where he is a principal guest conductor, needs no introduction. Since leaving the group he founded, The English Concert, now directed by Harry Bicket, he has followed a portfolio career, conducting, performing on the harpsichord and teaching. Handel and especially Bach are his specialisms apparent in the many benchmark recordings, a few of which are cherished by the Tourist.

His 1988 Messiah recording changed the way most professional outfits engage with the work in terms of instrumentation, tempi, dynamics and texture. Of course if a choir of billions is still your bag then be my guest. But trust me this is better.

He didn’t rush things here with the FBO, in contrast to some other period ensembles and Handel’s foot tapping fugal tunes were given space to breathe. Trumpets and timpani kept in reserve until required. Which added clarity to the text and allowed each of the soloists to make an impact. (Though I was marginally more partial to Claudia Huckle’s graceful alto and Ashley Riches’s, er rich, bass-baritone. Marginally mind, and Rachel Redmond belied her last minute substitution especially in …. Redeemer … ). The Zürcher Sing-Akademie was divided 8 to a part and pretty much vibrato free. No OTT operatics here. Less a punch to the gut. More a massage of the temples. Lighter, brighter and more transparent than big Brit choruses. Just the way I like it.

Fairview at the Young Vic review ***

Fairview

Young Vic Theatre, 11th December 2019

Fell like a bit of a fraud putting pen to paper on this. For, I confess, I did not completely understand Fairview. African-American playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for the play. The conceit is ingenious. A birthday dinner for the grandma in a well to do African American family is first dramatised straight, in pointed sit-com fashion, then through the eyes of four candid white “observers” through voice-over and then on stage in various, exaggerated, performative personas.

It is a dazzling formal experiment which skewers the racist assumptions which underpin white America’s loaded, appropriating view of black American culture. Representation trapped by definition in a racist framework. The “white gaze”. It made me think. And it made me uncomfortable. Guilty even. But I don’t know what to do with these feelings. BD tells me to change. To question everything about my privilege. And then? Give it up? Stay away? Engage? Who decides? Who defines? The infinite regress of identity examination. Meanwhile the rich c*nts, of which I am one, go on getting richer. And the world burns.

And, as I say, many of the references, the pointers, the lessons if you will, that the white characters discuss in Act 2 and then garishly visualise in Act 3 are outside of my cultural milieu. Leaving me lost. Tom Scutt’s designs, Nadia Latif’s intricate direction and the fearless performances of Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Donna Banya (especially at the finale), Nicola Hughes and Rhashan Stone, and then David Dawson, Julie Dray, Matthew Needham and Esther Smith, are simultaneously intoxicating and precise. The fourth wall is smashed. And then some. Much like my head after watching this. It needs to be seen.

My top ten theatre productions of 2019

Even this is a month too late. Hopeless. Anywhere here is my take on the best theatre of 2019.

There were a lot of really good productions in 2019. But these were the ones which pinned me to my seat. Where I was wowed by just what theatre can do. With the writer always at the beating heart.

More or less in order.

  1. Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse. Lynn Nottage’s document of de-industrialised America wore its research lightly and didn’t forget to be a gripping personal drama.
  2. All My Sons at the Old Vic. Jeremy Herrin and A list cast knew exactly how to ratchet up Miller’s didactic tragedy ….
  3. Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic. ….. and Marianne Elliott got right inside Willy’s wretched head.
  4. Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads at the Spiegeltent Chichester. Immersed in Roy Williams’s vital examination of race and nationhood.
  5. Ovid’s Metamorphoses from Pants on Fire at the Vaults Festival. Just hilarious Greek myth sketch collection transposed on a shoestring to WWII Britain.
  6. The Watsons at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Laura Wade’s brilliant riff on authorship drawn from Jane Austen’s unfinished novel.
  7. Shook at the Southwark Playhouse. Samuel Bailey’s oh so alive Papatango winning debut play. (See it at Trafalgar Studios from April).
  8. Shipwreck at the Almeida Theatre. Anne Washburn’s extraordinary liberal guilt, state of the nation debate fantasia.
  9. Medea from International Theater Amsterdam at the Barbican. The world’s greatest theatre company update one of the world’s greatest ever stories.
  10. Small Island at the National Theatre. Andrea Levy’s mesmerising story gloriously brought to life on the Olivier stage.

Stewart Lee: Snowflake/Tornado review *****

Stewart Lee: Snowflake/Tornado

Leicester Square Theatre, 10th December 2019

It’s Stewart Lee. He is so far above other comedians that it makes me wonder why they bother. Of course it is a 5* review. Even when he is meandering he is a genius. Here the show was delayed by a power failure. Just more for him to get his teeth into. This double header routine is already lighter than the shows of recent years. The old boy is mellowing. But it is still as sharp as it needs to be and he wants it to be.

Went with BD who, by virtue of age, education and upbringing will not lot anything offensive pass. This is the only fat, bearded, privileged, cantankerous, white, straight, fifty-something bloke that she has the time of day for. Apart from Dad of course. And that is touch and go. I took her to see Ben Elton a week or so later. Based on my memory and our shared love of Blackadder. He was awful. An embarrassment. Pretending to be aware but reverting to lazy, tired cliche. I didn’t need BD to tell me what was wrong. We walked as soon as we could.

SL, beyond the deconstruction, reconstruction, repetition, dissonance, surreality, clever-clever, childish, audience prodding, provocation, intimidation, irony, sarcasm, faux self-regard, self-deprecation, is an optimist, a moral crusader who cannot tolerate hypocrisy even in himself. In a world where everyone is seeking offence or victimhood, he is critical in all senses. Of course you already know that and will have already signed up to see the show. Of which there are many. As he says, without him us liberals have been “starved of the opportunity to participate in mass agreement”. If you haven’t why don’t you go and see what all the fuss is about.

Snowflake works because it defends the “politically correct” that the uncritical rail against largely through the confrontation they employ. The attack of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s comedy conceit. The painful put-down of Ricky Gervais “saying the unsayable”. Tornado works through incongruity. The confused Netflix listing, the Alan Bennett expansion and the Dave Chapelle anecdote. And those on just the hooks on which so many other laughs are secured.

For he is very, very, very funny.

Three Sisters at the National Theatre review ***

Three Sisters

National Theatre Lyttleton, 9th December 2019

Opportunity partially missed I am afraid. Inua Ellams has come up with a brilliant idea by transporting Chekhov to 1960s Nigeria, specifically during the Biafaran Civil War. Yet his urge to educate and contextualise leaves the dialogue heavy on exposition. And, in deference to the Russian master, his adaptation retains the key elements of AC’s plot, which then leads to a few incongruous shifts in the narrative.

It certainly looks the part with Katrina Lindsay’s mobile set, and especially extensive costumes, along with Peter Mumford’s lighting design, and especially Donato Wharton’s sound design, creating a real sense of time and place. The music, under the direction of Michael Henry, also contributes significantly. The cast is top drawer, with some particular favourites of mine showcasing their talents: Ronke Adekoleuejo (previously The Mountaintop, Cyprus Avenue), Tobi Bamtefa (The Last King of Scotland, Network), Ken Nwosu (An Octoroon, As You Like It, The Alchemist, and Sticks and Stones on the telly recently), Sule Rimi (American Clock, All My Sons, Glass/Kill/Bluebeard/Imp, Sweat, Measure for Measure, Love and Information, The Rolling Stone) and Natalie Simpson (Cymbeline, Hedda Tesman, Honour, The Cardinal). They, and their colleagues, definitely have their moments but in such a broad panorama, with many shifts in pace, action and tone, didn’t really get the opportunity to get under the skin of their characters.

Of course Chekhov’s original play can work in all manner of settings and, as long as translators/adaptors remain true to the tragi-comic timbre, the text can be whatever they want it to be. Inua Ellams’s sisters Onuzo, melancholic but politically aware Lolo (Sarah Niles), restless and resentful Nne Chukwu (Natalie Simpson), who was married at just 12, and initially playful, eventually broken, Udo (Rachael Ofori, who impressed), and brother Dimgba (Tobi Bamtefa), are a long way from where they were brought up, cosmopolitan Lagos, as Igbos returned to the east of the country as war breaks out. Their geographical and psychological separation, and the presence of the Biafran army, fits AC like a glove. Ronke Adekoluejo, as Dimgba’s Yoruba vulgar wife Abosede, adds a bullying edge of superiority to brash comedy, as she takes over the family home. I learnt a lot about modern Nigerian history, the baleful influence once again of the colonising Brits, the coup and counter-coup ahead of Biafra’s declaration of independence in 1967, the ethnic divisions, the war waged through bombing and blockades, the role of women in the war. And I have added Half of a Yellow Sun to my, admittedly thin, holiday reading list. But I didn’t really learn very much about the family, and the attarctions, at the heart of the drama.

Knowing the story made it pretty easy to fill in the gaps and to see how IE had weaved in the key symbols and events in the plot. The birthday party, the fire, here the result of an impressively staged airborne bomb strike, the clock, the photo, the duel. If one were new to Three Sisters I could imagine some of the interactions might have felt a little hazy amidst the spectacle but that didn’t seem to faze the enthusiastic audience at this preview performance. I see that, whilst there are tickets remaining through the rest of the run for the next three weeks (sorry, so far behind), it is been pretty successful and the crowd on our outing, was very enthusiastic, as well as, by NT standards, pretty diverse.

BTW all those dullards taking a pop at Rufus Norris’s tenure at the NT should recognise what he has done to extend the reach of the institution. I appreciate that there is still a way to go but here was a classic play, skilfully adapted by a British-Nigerian artist of immense talent, directed by one of the very best AD’s around right now, Nadia Fall at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Can’t see that would have happened under previous NT regimes. Anything that reduces the proportion of entitled, old, white duffers like me in the NT audience is a good thing.

Though I have to say that, whilst Ms Fall showed her customary energy in the set-piece scenes, and mined the comedy in text and character, even she couldn’t find a way of marrying the big picture events outside the frame and the personal, domestic drama at the core of AC’s masterpiece. Still on the plus side there was none of the sense of ennui that can pervade some productions that are too literal (or, sorry to say, too Russian). I am with those who say that Inua Ellams could have made an even better play by running even further away from the original.

Death in Venice at the Royal Opera House *****

Death in Venice

Royal Opera House, 3rd December 2019

Fresh from the superlative semi-staged version of Peter Grimes from Ed Gardner, the Bergen PO and assorted chums and straight into this. A top drawer new version of Death in Venice from David McVicar. I have fond memories of seeing Deborah Warner’s production of DIV at the ENO with, guess who, Edward Gardner on conducting duty, which also bewitched the SO, (who has also been persuaded by The Turn of the Screw and, though she may not know it, is going to be a fan of Britten opera).

Now I am partial to BB and his operas. As you can see from recent viewings documented hereabouts. They are up there with the best of British cultural expression, indeed the best from anywhere. But that doesn’t me they are all perfect or that creatives can’t fall down when tackling them. Paul Bunyan is a bit bonkers, (the recent ENO outing wisely went with the flow), the Rape of Lucretia has a pretentious and inappropriately Christian libretto from Ronald Duncan, you need to be in the right mood for the Church Parables, I have never seen Owen Wingrave live or in the TV original and Gloriana is, well, just a bit crap. Even the musically bullet-proof, Grimes, TTOTS, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, need sympathetic performers and directors. Billy Budd is always a tricky customer. The comedies/children’s operas are too generous to fail other than in the eyes and ears of the flinty-hearted.

Some say Death in Venice is also a trick(s)y opera though I have never really understood why .(Maybe it’s because it isn’t a simple, straight A to B, with obstacles, misogynistic love story). Here David McVicar got the Edwardian look and feel spot on. DIV is a set, costume and lighting designer’s wet dream and Vicki Mortimer and Paule Constable duly delivered to create exquisite, cinematic, vertical and horizontal tableaux across the 17 scenes with maximum efficiency and impact. The water of the lagoon ever present in the backdrop. With no f*cking around with interpretation. Visconti and Mann would be purring in their graves, (or suing for plagiarism), so precise was the realisation. Even the gondola looked real. And that was with two fellas pushing it. Lynne Page similarly brought just enough to the table with the choreography of the dance scenes. Realistic with just enough grace and artistry especially from our lovely, knowing teenage Tadzio (Leo Dixon) and his irate chum Jaschiu (Olly Bell).

But the real triumph was not having our van Aschenbach go too full-on, homo-erotic, pretentious, unhinged, tortured artist too early. He really is a bit of a ninnyhammer getting all lathered up with the young boys, the culture, the heat, the plague, the offuscazione, all those words, all that useless beauty, that Apollonian/Dionysian dialectic, all that bloody philosophising. (Honestly Gustav, don’t beat yourself up mate). He is though a clever cookie, in control mentally and physically until the lurgy properly strikes, and he can eloquently verbalise. At length. Immense length. In Myfanwy Piper’s appropriately mannered libretto. Brought to life by the beautiful voice of Mark Padmore. Who can act. Even to the back of the stalls.

This isn’t quite a one-man show. The support of Gerald Finley as Traveller/Fop/Gondolier/Manager/Barber/Player/Voice of Dionysius made this very special. Has there ever been a more inspired piece of operatic doubling (and not just in the service of cheap laughs and flimsy plotting) or a more talented singer/actor to pull it off? And, as if that wasn’t enough we get the sweet counter-tenor of Tim Mead interjecting as hunky tourist Apollo. And the never-ending stream of “extras” including the likes of Elizabeth McGorian as the Lady of the Pearls and, get this, Rebecca Evans as the Strawberry Seller.

But the ever present, tireless Mr Padmore is what made this special as we go deep inside von Aschenbach’s head. An operatic Hamlet. What is real and what is imagined? Messrs McVicar and Padmore don’t tell, giving the creepy Don’t Look Now Venice a wide berth, but do largely make sense of GvA’s meanderings and even make him seem human rather than the vessel for Thomas Mann’s symbolism and aestheticism. Not that it matters. BB’s music is so clever, haunting, sparse, ascetic, with the repetitions, motifs, and the gamelan shimmers, that it tells the story, conjures up place and inhabits character all by itself. Even at the end, like GvA consumed by his own mortality, BB was turning out perfection with that poignant passacaglia, (a link back to the Doric Quartet’s muscular performance of BB’s final quartet a couple of weeks previous), and Richard Farnes and the ROH orchestra know exactly what is required of them. This score then is the truly beautiful.

25 years since the ROH last staged DIV but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t come back soonest. So go see what I mean. And pay up for a decent perch as, by ROH standards, Britten comes cheap. All the toffs seemingly never tiring of OTT Italian C19 flim-flammery or worse still Wagnerian guff.

I see I have a couple more outings with Gustav van Aschenbach later in the year. Ivo van Hove and Ramsay Naar will be bringing ITA’s interpretation over to the Barbican in April with music from Nico Muhly and the great Greg Hicks will be serving up his solo turn at the Arcola in June. I expect they will be quite different.