The Watsons at the Menier Chocolate Factory review *****

The Watsons

Menier Chocolate Factory, 16th November 2019

Fannyed about and failed to book this when it came to Chichester. Wasn’t about to make the same mistake again so quick off the mark when the transfer to the MCF was announced and a three line whip to include the SO and, a new fellow traveller, TSLOM, whose literary knowledge might even exceed that of the SO herself.

Anyway, and at the risk of coming all over key board warrior alone in his bedroom, IT IS ABSOLUTELY VITAL THAT YOU DO NOT MISS THIS ON ITS THIRD OUTING. It will show at the Harold Pinter Theatre from 8th May to 26th September, and there are plenty of tickets left, which gives you no excuse even if you wait.

For this is one of the funniest and smartest plays you are likely to see in this or any other year. No great surprise given Laura Wade’s track record (Home, I’m Darling, Tipping the Velvet, Posh, Alice, Breathing Corpses, Colder Than Here) and a sympathetic, I assume, director in the form of partner Samuel West (Prue and Timmy’s boy for you canal lovers).

Easy enough to find out the central premise. The Watsons was a novel from 1803/4 that Jane Austen abandoned, (as she did in 1817 with Sanditon, which, as I am sure you are aware, Andrew Davies and ITV recently “completed”). JA produced about 80 pages, laying out all the characters, and some clues as to where it would end up, though whether as novella or full blown novel isn’t clear. Apparently loads of punters have had a stab at completing it, the Austen industry being a continuing British success story, though I doubt have been as successful in their efforts as Ms Wade.

On to the bijou stage at the MCF, mediated through Ben Stones’s, ingenious white box with props and plinth stage, and Mike Ashcroft’s precise movement direction, we meet all the characters from the original novel at a ball, obviously. Emma Watson (Grace Molony – perfect) is the youngest daughter of a widowed, and poorly, clergyman (John Wilson Goddard). She was brought up by a wealthy aunt, and is thus educated and refined, but after her benefactor remarries, she returns home to Daddy and her daft sister Margaret (Rhianna McGreevy). The sisters are, by dint of economic circumstance, looking to make a “good match”, with more than one eye on the dashing, though plainly caddish, Tom Musgrave (Laurence Ubong Williams). His shortcomings are identified by Emma’s level headed eldest sister Elizabeth (Paksie Vernon). Their neighbours include super toff, Lady Osborne (Jane Booker) and her super awkward son (Joe Bannister), and his sprightly sister (Cat White). At the ball, accompanied by kindly chaperone Mrs Edwards (Elaine Claxton), she is introduced to local vicar Mr Howard (Tim Delap), a potential Mr Right, even if he veers towards the priggish, and his eager young nephew, Charles. Soon after Margaret returns home with grasping brother Robert (Sam Alexander) and his snobbish wife Mary (Sophie Duval). Nanny (Sally Bankes), looks on bemused.

So far, so, er, Jame Austen. And then the maid arrives, who is, to say the least a bit lippy and forward. Yes it is, and I am giving nothing away here, our very own playwright Laura (played by Louise Ford -also perfect), hot from “reality” to rescue Emma from making a crappy marriage choice from the three candidates, and boost female agency. When Emma, who isn’t, it must be said, altogether happy with the intervention, and the rest of the cast, have adjusted to this surprising turn of events the fun really begins. Meta doesn’t begin to describe as the cast take umbrage with being “characters” in a “play” and rebel against Laura’s authorship of their “lives”. This permits the dissection of class and gender, as in previous plays by Ms Wade, but against the backdrop of who owns a story, genius in the context that this was both unfinished and that so many of us have an obsessive interest in its author and her books, and the social mores it represents, well beyond what is there on the page, (JA I mean not LW, though, of course, as the conceit unfolds, we are very much invested in LW, the character of LW the playwright).

There are precedents for the play, notably Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, which LW self-deprecatingly admits, but this is much more immediate in its impact. LW doesn’t abandon the comedy that flows from parody, though there are no cheap laughs here, nor does she abandon the search for logic in the face of what she is articulating. Even if that logic is as daft as the very idea of the willing suspension of disbelief in the first place. This is not clever-clever, up its own arse theory theatre, though. It will make you think about its themes but never at the expense of making you chuckle.

Sam West’s direction, and Ben Stokes’s costumes, are geared to this purpose, the conventions of period drama never entirely subverted even when the cast threatens anarchy to plot, and there is a knowing warmth throughout. This may be satire, but everyone involved plainly loves, and fetishises Austen, as much, if not more than the audience. When the production, including Richard Howell’s lighting, Gregory Clarke’s sound and Isobel Waller-Bridge’s music, opens up on the Harold Pinter stage expect the brilliance of Laura Wade’s creation to be even more apparent.

Repeat. Do not miss this.

Faith, Hope and Charity at the National Theatre review ****

Faith, Hope and Charity

National Theatre Dorfman, 8th October 2019

I didn’t catch the first two plays in Alexander Zeldin’s trilogy, Beyond Caring (zero hours contracts) and Love (a homeless hostel), about life for the disadvantaged in modern Britain. In fact worse that that I didn’t even know about them. And seeing Faith, Hope and Charity was something of a last minute decision driven by the strong reviews and a timing loose end.

Well more fool me. Creating a devised play about everyday life where not much happens but which still packs a powerful emotional and political punch is not easy. FH&C doesn’t shout, preach or hector because it doesn’t need to. It comes from the same place as the film collaborations of Ken Loach and Paul Laverty and I would imagine is driven by the same passion, but its mood is altogether more eloquent. Mr Zeldin’s other work, a play based on Lars van Trier’s The Idiots, directing Macbeth in Korea, Romeo and Juliet in Italy and operas in Russia (including Ades’s Powder Her Face) suggests he is a man of many talents and I can’t wait to see more of his work.

The simply astounding Cecilia Noble plays plays Hazel, a kind, redoubtable woman who volunteered to cook lunch for those in need in a dilapidated community hall on the edge of a nameless British town. With her soft, calm voice and unflappable temperament Hazel could hardly be more different from Ms Noble’s two previous roles on the Dorfman stage, as no-nonsense probation office in Bruce Norris’s Downstate and as comedic force of nature Aunt Maggie in Natasha’s Gordon’s brilliant Nine Night.

She is joined by reforming ex-criminal Mason, another superb performance from Nick Holder, who is setting up a choir, as much to aid his own rehabilitation as to help the locals. He starts to assist in the kitchen. The array of regulars include cranky pensioner Bernard (veteran stage actor Alan Williams) who can’t face his empty home, timorous Tharwa (Hind Swareldahab) and her daughter Tala, the extremely anxious Karl (Dayo Koleosho) always waiting for his carer, the truculent Anthony (Corey Peterson). And Beth (Susan Lynch), with teenage son Marc (Bobby Stallwood), whose chaotic life means she has lost custody of her 4 year old daughter, Faith, and is arguing with the court authorities to secure her return.

Mr Zeldin’s script makes plain the impact of austerity on the lives of his characters, the leaky community hall is eventually closed down due to lack of funds, but this is no grim polemic. His characters may be struggling but they are resilient, they are compassionate and, at times, optimistic. There is humour and joy through the various scenes, the Christmas lunch, the offer by Hazel to take in Faith though she has her own family issue, the relationship between Mason and Beth, the cheesy choral anthem “You’ve Got The Music In You”, but the realities of the impact of the broken social care system always looms large.

Natasha Jenkins’ set and Marc William’s utilitarian lighting is as note perfect as the dialogue. Mr Zeldin spent two years researching this play and it shows. Of course I know a couple of hours assuaging the guilt of a comfortable and sympathetic metropolitan audience makes fuck all difference to those people at the pointy end of austerity. Though I might respectively suggest the following.

  • Banish from your mind any thoughts that those in need are at fault. In any way. Ever. You are not better or cleverer. Just luckier.
  • Vote the right way. You know what to do.
  • Give £10 a month to the Trussell Trust. Pay for it by doing something veggie, green or healthy.

And now for the rant.

Local authorities will have seen an average 77% decrease in government funding in the four years to 2020. In real terms overall local government spending will have seen a fall in real terms of 30% since 2010. In the last 5 years food bank use in the UK has risen by 73%. According to the TUC` 3.1 mn children with working parents now live below the poverty line.

Austerity failed. Sucking demand out of a brittle economy will always fail. Spend on health (20%), education (15%) and pensions (15%) is going to run ahead of real growth and inflation. Slicing spend elsewhere and pretending that any job, however lowly paid and precarious, makes for healthy employment is nonsense. The UK cannot have the services it wants without paying for them. And if we don’t pay for them in the long run we will, as we are now, pay for it. Hiding debt by buying shitty assets was never a long term solution. We are already, public and private, the most indebted major economy on earth. Pretending we can cut ourselves off from Europe and pursue some buccaneering independent future is bollocks. Our debt cost will rise as our currency croaks and capital and labour will fuck off elsewhere.

The solution is simple. Pay more tax. Everyone who can afford it. The argument is over whether that be on wealth or income, not how much. And borrow more. A lot more. Everyone else is. And debt is cheap because there is no alternative. But use it to invest, support and drive sustainable growth, not buy votes. And right this minute end the farcical Brexit pantomime by immediate revocation. Doing something idiotic just because you don’t want to lose face, or hope that will make it go away is, well, idiotic. Time for toddler Britain to end the tantrum and face realities.

Merry Christmas.

Pilgrims at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

Pilgrims

Directors’ Festival 2019, Orange Tree Theatre, 7th August 2019

The Tourist is a firm fan of the annual Directors’ Festival at the Orange Tree which gives students taking the theatre directing MA at nearby St Mary’s Uni, (in conjunction with the OT), an opportunity to try their hand at a full scale production. Unfortunately this year other commitments and a diary cock-up, (entirely my fault I admit SO), left me only seeing one of the four productions. Pilgrims directed by Ellie Goodall.

This was chosen largely on the strength of writer Elinor Cook, specifically Out of Love which appeared here at the OT last year and her adaptation of The Lady from the Sea which Kwame Kwei-Armah directed at the Donmar in 2017. She has a rare gift for lyrical dialogue and elastic character wrapped up in temporally uncertain, non-naturalistic settings. (And, I might say, a wonderful first name). Pilgrims followed the same pattern. Though not quite as effectively as Out of Love it must be said.

It tells the story, well stories since we see all three perspectives, of the love triangle between two mountaineering friends Will (Nicholas Armfield) and Dan (Luke MacGregor), and would be folklore academic, and our narrator, Rachel (Adeyinka Akinrinade). The extrovert, excitable Will and the deeper, introverted Dan are famous in their world for having climbed Everest together aged 18. But their climbing partnership is starting to fray. Rachel falls for Will first but, later, it is Dan with whom she makes a real connection. Not ground-breaking stuff in terms of set-up but from this Ms Cook explores themes such as female agency, gender expectations and male ambition through flash-backs and flash-forwards as the two men face danger on their latest, virgin, climb. In tales of derring-do men usually do the derring and women wait on the sidelines for their return. Not here.

Chris McDonnell’s lighting and, especially, Lex Kosanke’s sound do a grand job in taking us from mountainside to bar to front room which renders the simple props that the cast cart around on Cory Shipp’s set somewhat redundant. All three actors are, moreorless, on top of Ms Cook’s zigzagging text, though Adekinya Akinrinade has the best of the evening (as is meant to be) and Ellie Goodall’s direction shows she has a firm grip on plot and character.

It is just that sometimes Elinor Cook’s eloquent prose, (with its references to the Penelope of Homer’s Odyssey and Mary Magdalene), may just be a little too fractured, trying to do too much, (ideas, image, exposition, dialogue), with too little. Not for one moment suggesting a non-linear, lyrical approach to story-telling is a problem, far from it, that is what theatre is for. Just that in this case the warmth and humour which characterised Out of Love was less apparent and the message, the marginalisation of women in life as well as stories, might have stood a more direct approach and a less compressed structure.

Mind you I am an old bloke so maybe beyond understanding. Though, if it helps, I can categorically stay I wouldn’t be stupid enough to climb a mountain just to prove how manly I was.