Rutherford and Son at the National Theatre review ****

Rutherford and Son

National Theatre Lyttleton, 16th May 2019

It is not difficult to see what Githa Sowerby’s photo feminist play from 1912, and brought back to life at the Royal Court by feminist theatre company Mrs Worthington’s Daughters in 1980, now has such a secure place in the repertory. Its characters and its dialogue simply have so much to say about what it was to be a woman, and indeed man, in the stifling atmosphere of Northern England at the turn of the C19. I don’t what to go all Marxist on you but the way the play examines the relationship between capital and labour, the cultural superstructure that is built atop it and patriarchal repression still looks astonishing even when compared to contemporary plays which mine the same territory.

It offers rounded characters despite, or maybe because of, the economy of dialogue and even has an absorbing plot centred on the “invention” of John Jr. However it does go on a bit, especially in the first hour set-up, and the action, contained within one room of the Rutherford house, can get, intentionally, claustrophobic. (Yet more nods to the master Ibsen).

Director Polly Findlay wisely offers us a little relief by taking a couple of intervals (prefacing each act, including the opening, with Northern folk songs from Kerry Andrew and Sarah Dacey) and jogging the pace along where possible. (I’ve just noticed the run time is down to 2 1/2 hours with interval so sounds like a bit of judicious streamlining has been administered). Lizzie Clachlan’s set however has no truck with abstraction: a perfectly realised slice of Victorian melancholia, emphasised by Charles Balfour’s gloomy lighting and (Ibsen-ian) rain. The setting is 1912 Tyneside. In real life Gita Sowerby’s father, like Rutherford, ran the family glass-making business in Gateshead, at a time when this small stretch of the Tyne dominated the global glass industry, before the family left for London in 1896 after the business went t*ts up. We are therefore treated to some full on Geordie accents, (courtesy of the voice and dialect work of Simon Money and Daniele Lydon), which, feel free to call me a patronising Southern twat, just occasionally got lost in translation from my perch at the back of the stalls.

Against this atmospheric backdrop the A list cast get properly stuck in to Githa Sowerby’s text. Now I don’t need to tell you how good an actor Roger Allam is. You are reading this so must have some interest in the theatre and the dramatic arts. Therefore you will know him from his innumerable stage roles, (a recent favourite was John Christie in The Moderate Soprano), his films, or off the telly, (the laconic Peter Mannion in The Thick Of It whose spirit he memorably exploited with a couple of the best one-liners in the whole of GoT as Illyrio Mopatis right at the beginning).

Anyway here he is magnificent. Daddy Rutherford is a cantankerous, despotic bully who is prepared to sacrifice all of life’s pleasures and his family, John Jr (Sam Troughton), Richard (Harry Hepple) and Janet (Justine Mitchell), on the altar of his business and, by implication, his legacy. Or is he? Whilst I am not defending the old sh*t I do think that showing some sign of deeply buried humanity and empathy, as Mr Allam did, yields dividends. Even Rutherford presumably loved his wife and kids once and, as his final promise to Mary (Anjana Vasan) shows, there is some feeling even in this ostensibly commercial transaction. Having to hand over control of the company he built to the bank and a Board has only served to make him work harder, grow tighter and turn his autocracy on those nearest to him. But he is doomed to lose the control he has over his family, mirroring the loss of control of his company. An alienated capitalist disfigured by profit in a society that will move away from him. Very clever.

And, dare I say, these three kids, whilst all having their reasons, are bloody annoying in their own way. Just to be clear I am not imposing some sort of privileged male revisionism on the play. Just that, by exposing the subtlety of the text, Polly Findlay got me to thinking about the play in a way that I had not after seeing Northern Broadsides version with the inimitable Barrie Rutter in the lead in 2013. Love has been squeezed out of the house, as Janet memorably observes, no doubt about that, but the idea that it might have been different once just made me admire the play even more. Githa Sowerby, even when her masterpiece first appeared, to great acclaim, was patronised, as all women were at that time, so the last thing her memory needs is some fat bloke, whose only qualification is that he has seen a few plays recently, upticking, but I was genuinely gobsmacked by just how much depth there is in these characters even beyond what I had remembered from a couple of previous viewings. Everyone thinks they can make everyone else happier in the play. Everyone spectacularly fails to do so.

Sam Troughton is also one of my favourite stage actors, most recently as everybloke Danny opposite Justine Mitchell’s Laura in David Eldridge’s whip-smart Beginning or, seizing the opportunity in what was otherwise a slightly pedestrian affair, as the various, flawed, men-children in Nina Raine’s Stories. His John Jr is desperate from the off. Desperate for Daddy’s approval even as he hates the f*cker, wasting his education, running off to that London, marrying Mary who is “beneath” him, running back to the family home, seeking to extract his birthright through his “invention”, venting his frustration on his own family. The Ibsen-ian sins of the father are listed on the weak, vacillating, quasi-hysterical, son. It was heart-breaking, (well maybe I exaggerate a bit, it’s just a play), to watch his continued self-deception even as Mary was shuffling him out the door as he set off once again to fail to seek fame and fortune.

Justine Mitchell is another brilliant actor who invariably stands out in whatever she appears in. See Beginning above but also, for me, in Anne Washburn’s opus Shipwreck, in Vivienne Franzmann’s Bodies, in the Donmar’s Arturo Ui and in the NT’s Plough and the Stars.. Hell she can even make sense of Restoration comedy. There are multiple layers of bitter, ironic resentment in her Janet because of the way she has been treated by her father and the Victorian/Edwardian patriarchy but this is still a powerful, sensual woman as we see in the scenes with Joe Armstrong’s blunt Martin, whose loyalty to Rutherford, (which itself maybe be the false consciousness of the oppressed), is put to the test. The release when Janet “confesses” to the affair, and Rutherford boots her out, following hot on the heels of Mrs Henderson’s (Sally Rodgers) p*ssed up tirade against Rutherford for the way he treated her son, is immense.

Harry Hepple as the younger son Dick, a curate, a profession old Rutherford regards with sneering disdain, who determines to escape to another parish in Southport, has less to play with but also makes the most of it. Anjana Vasan, so, so good in An Adventure at the Bush, and with smaller roles in Rebecca’s Frecknall’s lauded production of Summer and Smoke and the Young Vic Life of Galileo, represents the future as Mary, exercising her agency and opinion from the start in marked contrast to Barbara Marten’s aunt Ann, who is almost parodic as a woman whose behaviour and thinking is entirely dictated by the archaic values of the “society” around her.

Marvellous play, perfectly realised by a director who trusts the author, with a cast, to borrow the literary cliche, at the peak of its powers. OK, so much like its characters, it can’t quite escape its Edwardian roots, three acts, unity of time, place and action, painstaking exposition, which requires commitment from you the audience but once drawn in there is enough in the climaxes in the story, and especially, the detail of the context, to keep the committed theatre nut as happy as a sandboy. (A phrase from the C18 I gather which refers to the lashed up lads who were paid in drink to deliver and spread sand on the floor of pubs to soak up the various forms of sh*t. A much vivid indictment of the evils of unregulated capitalism is tricky to imagine).

So if this sounds like your sort of thing then you shouldn’t hesitate, there’s plenty of tickets left. If it doesn’t probably best not to be brave here. The Tourist though, having missed the Orange Tree revival of Githa Sowerby’s other major play, The Stepmother, is now firmly on the look-out for a chance to rectify.

White Pearl at the Royal Court Theatre review ***

White Pearl

Royal Court tHeatre, 13th May 2019

White Pearl offers an undeniably intriguing premise for a satire. A Singapore based cosmetics company is pilloried on social media when a racist ad created by a partner is leaked onto a French You Tube account and subsequently goes viral. Cue an often scathing, fearless and witty examination of intra-Asian racial stereotyping, corporate culture, brand values, social media outrage and any other hypocrisy that is unwise enough to step into the territory that Thai-Australian playwright Anchuli Felicia King has set her eye on. Yet, after the targets are set up and knocked down, it seems that all she can then do is return and repeat to diminishing effect. Great beginning, promising middle, but not sure there was ever a clear end in sight. Still at just 90 minutes it knew when its work was done. And this sat, old, privileged, white bloke learnt a lot about stuff who knew nothing about.

Farzana Dua Elahe plays Priya Singh, the haughty, Indian-Singaporean, founder of Clearday which, somewhat murkily, ends up with a best seller in its skin-whitening product, White Pearl, a massive success. Moi Tran’s simple set, and Natasha Chivers’s lighting, offer an appropriately clinical corporate head office which is backed, alternately, by a raised platform hiding the loos (!) and a vast video wall. Assistant Sunny Lee (Katie Leung) is Chinese Singaporean whose American “dudebro” argot is Hokkien accented. Built Suttikul (Kae Alexander) is a privileged, and wry, Thai-American, having an affair with conceited French would-be journo Marcel Benoit (Arty Froushan). Soo-Jin Park (Minhee Yeo) is the South Korean scientist who is responsible for sourcing the production of White Pearl. Xiao Chen (Momo Yeun) is from a well connected Chinese family who may now have found itself on the wrong side of the regime. Ruki Minami (Kanako Nakano) is the new recruit office manager, who comes up with the marketing message for White Pearl.

As the crisis for the company escalates, and as we shift between scenes, the video wall offers us ever more extreme tweets from around the world. The whip-smart dialogue, as blame for the f*ck-up ricochets around the group and attempts to stem the damage are proposed, and the way in which layers of history, identity, culture, class, colourism, racism, diaspora-ism, (I know it isn’t a thing but you will know what I mean), are exposed, left me breathless in a good way. By comparison the mocking of corporate behaviour was a little less secure.

The punctiliously assembled cast deliver this heady brew with conviction, though these are not, as you might have surmised, “round” characters, and I can’t faultNana Dakin’s vigorous direction. But it still feels to me that plot and structure remained at the planning stage to be superseded by ideas and the, admittedly, delicious dialogue.

It occurred to me that, as a mini-series, releasing some of the tossed-away sub-plots, relishing the short, sharp scenes, taking the foot off the gas just a bit, opening up the characters and their back-stories, whilst still preserving the acid invigoration of Anchuli Felicia King’s lines, this would be brilliant. Mind you I guessing that, for all their garlanding, the likes of Sky, Amazon and Netflix, do still trot out some appallingly formulaic sh*te amongst the jewels. Still that’s “content” for you. Luckily for us we also still have Sloane Square’s bastion of writing.

All My Sons at the Old Vic Theatre review *****

All My Sons

Old Vic Theatre, 10th May 2019

Take Arthur Miller’s most “Greek” and, probably, most moralising play. Wheel in a couple of Hollywood heavyweights (Bill Pullman and Sally Field, Neve before seen on a UK stage). Add a couple of high recognition and talented Brit actors (Jenna Coleman and Colin Morgan). And a supporting cast at the top of its game (Sule Rimi, Gunnar Cauthery, Kayla Meike, Bessie Carter and Oliver Johnstone). Design an entirely naturalistic, picket fenced, clapboard house set (Max Jones) draft an A team for lighting (Richard Howell), sound (Carolyn Downing) and video (Duncan McLean). Put Headlong chief Jeremy Herrin in charge, a man with a proven record of delivering serious, yet still entertaining, popular theatre (This House, Labour of Love, People, Places and Things, The Never, Junkyard and Wolf Hall/Brin up the Bodies). Kick off proceedings at a gentle canter but slowly and surely racket up the tension as the disclosures tumble out and the velocity of the dialogue accelerates. Don’t hold anything back at the end. Mr Miller certainly didn’t.

No surprise then that the Old Vic has a hit on its hands playing to packed houses with no need for the occasional discounting that has dogged a few, very good in my opinion, productions in the last couple of years (notably Fanny and Alexander). If you are to believe the Blonde Bombshells, BUD, KCK and the SO, and you should, this is well deserved. After a near miss with Three Sisters I have the team back in the palm of my booking blind hand.

So what is about the play and production that works so well? The last time I saw it, at the Rose Theatre in 2016, director Michael Rudman took a similar unfussy approach to proceedings, with a near identical set and some strong performances from Penny Downie as Kate Keller, Alex Waldmann as son Chris Keller and David Horovitch as Joe Keller, the “common man” and flawed “hero” of Miller’s tragedy. But it never really caught fire as here.

This is largely down to the quartet of excellent performances at the heart of the play. Though we have had a couple of contrarian opinions elsewhere in the viewing circle that mostly centre on the casting of Bill Pullman as Joe, which I can acknowledge but not agree with.

Bill Pullman started out as a stage actor but, as far as I can see, got sidetracked, as one might, by the big bucks of Hollywood. It is fair to say not everything he has laid down on celluloid has been of the highest quality though, also fair to say, I don’t know most of his films. He does have a very particular style of delivery though which, for me, works to great effect here. The pitch of his performance is pretty much unchanged throughout, but its amplitude is constantly changing. Alternately sympathetic, matey, defensive, aggressive, wheedling underneath the homespun, bumbling exterior, this is a man who who knows one day his secret will break him but continues to deny it even to himself, until right at the end. Sally Field as Kate, is similarly covering up, and therefore refuses to accept that her pilot son Larry died in the war, casting a protective cordon around her family. When she finally “finds out” the truth her impassiveness speaks volumes. In my pretty limited experience the stars of the American big screen generally hold back on stage, (a notable exception being Christian Slater in the recent Glengarry Glen Ross). That’s close-ups for you. It can seen underpowered, (and I wouldn’t want to see this production from up in the gods). Jeremy Herrin tough, with his master of pace, finds a way to turn this to advantage, “naturalising” the exposition of the first act and making the sh*t-hit-fan third act even more devastating

It was a joy to see Jenna Coleman as Ann Deever take to the stage after her phenomenally successful TV career. Her exchanges with Sally Field, as she and Chris seek her approval, are extremely affecting. For me though, Colin Morgan as Chris was the star of the show. Racked with survivor guilt from his brother’s death, and buried anger from his own war experiences, and then seeing his chance of happiness through a life with Ann turn to ashes as his father’s sins, (which deep down I think he knows), are revealed. Mr Morgan, as in Translations at the NT, (though this is a very different role even if he again stands at the centre of the plot), is dynamic and enthralling.

All My Sons first appeared in 1947. AM’s first efforts attracted critical acclaim but his previous Broadway opening in 1944, The Man Who Had All The Luck, was a flop closing after just 4 performances. Thank goodness he didn’t give up. All My Sons doesn’t quite scale the heights of its successors, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible and A View from the Bridge, but, as the standing ovation here demonstrated, (mind you that is par for the course now and no bad thing – these creatives deserve our gratitude), it delivers a whacking great emotional punch to the gut. Maybe not quite as much food for thought or structural elegance as those successors, and there are a few near McGuffins, (that letter), in the plot, but this is what drama is all about. You might occasionally rankle at the way AM controls the flow of information, and elevates dialogue over action, but you’ll still be hanging on every word as you catch up with what the various characters know, don’t know and learn about the central hubris. There’s also the old Miller criticism chestnut of veiled misogyny given that Ann acts primarily as the catalyst of the emerging truth and Kate is seen as somehow manipulating those around here. You might also, as a couple of our crew did, question the end, but, hey, that’s catharsis folks.

Well I didn’t know this. AMS is actually based on a true story which AM’s mother-in-law pointed out about an Ohio based aeronautical company that conspired with army inspection officers to approve defective aircraft engines for military use, eventually leading to a congressional investigation. I can see why this would have piqued AM’s interest. It could accommodate his overarching concern, the corruption of the American Dream, but here his critique of capitalist individualism riding roughshod over socialist collectivism, found an unambiguous moral centre in one family’s story. Whatever one’s political persuasion, putting profit above the safety of young men fighting for their country and for freedom is surely a no-no, but then again sending them to war in the first place shows a remarkable lack of collective intelligence on the part of the human race. Joe made the execrable decision, (or absence of decision), but did he feel the pressure from the military and the ideal of family? Where AM is really smart though is in taking inspiration not just from the Greeks, (All My Sons even strictly obeys the unities of time, place and action), but also from Ibsen, specifically The Wild Duck, where Hakon Werle’s wealth and influence is built on a crime that his former business partner, Old Ekdal, took the rap for.

There is also a pop at the veracity of the legal justice, (both Ann and brother George (Oliver Johnstone) believe their father is guilty and Joe innocent because the investigation said so), the frustrations, resentments and contradictions of “normal” small town America families, the Bayliss’ and the Lubeys,( though at least they don’t have the back story of the Kellers and the Deevers), are exposed, as are class and education. In the end though the story of a man, (or woman), losing, (or finding), their honour has brought us together for thousands of years (as all you GoT fans know). Hard to imagine anything better.

Of course all that was before we went down the road a week later to see The Death of a Salesman. Crikey.

Other People’s Money at Southwark Playhouse review ***

Other People’s Money

Southwark Playhouse, 23rd April 2019

The Tourist is a generous man. As a cursory glance at his “recommendations” on this blog will reveal. He accentuates the positive. And so it will prove here. Jerry Sterner’s play Other People’s Money was a big hit, when it first appeared, off Broadway in 1989. So big that it spawned a film, directed by Norman Jewison, and starring Danny DeVito. Mr Sterner never really matched this play, though I see that he had sufficient wit to have his headstone inscribed “finally, a plot”.

Whilst I can certainly imagine Mr DeVito, with his trademark New Jersey wisecrackery, relishing the lines delivered by Lawrence “Larry the Liquidator” Garfinkle (Garfield in the film, recognising the lazy stereotype), I can also concur, based on this production from Blue Touch Paper, that the film, like the play, falls a little short of the coruscating satire on 1980s US capitalist excesses that it purports to be. For that look no further than Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. The evil asset stripper Larry is more concerned with his one-liners than making a case for unfettered, free market Darwinism and his opponent, Andrew “Jorgy” Jorgenson, is just way too homespun to persuade as the benevolent CEO of family business New England Wire and Cable. And Kate Sullivan, daughter of Bea, Jorgy’s second wife and loyal assistant, is pretty unconvincing as the lawyer (not banker) called in to mount a defence against Larry’s hostile predation, (on the company as well as her virtue). The play makes some good points about the uneasy relationship between the shareholders that provide the capital to the industrialist who put it to work and gets a few details of process right. But it also, trust me, gets a fair few wrong and gets bogged down in cliche and homily. The ending, as with much of the comedy “chemistry” between Kate and Larry, is troubling.

Yet it does have a fair few good lines, some dynamism, if predictability, in it sub-plots and, in the hands of director Katherine Farmer, clips along at a fair pace. The traverse stage setting of Emily Leonard, means quick transitions from Jorgy’s office, battered desk and chairs, in the wire factory to Larry’s Manhattan lair, black and steel gleaming furniture and cubist artwork, and she has sourced some full on 80’s power dressing costumes. This though, like the main plot, locks the action down in its period which blunts any attempt at relevance.

For my money, (no pun intended), Beth Steel’s Labyrinth, which went back to the late 1970s and LatAm debt crisis had much more to say about the risks, and rewards, that the last four decades of financial capitalism have brought to the world and Sarah Burgess’s Dry Powder was a far more accurate, and detailed, blackly comic take on the individuality amorality that can ensue. And, as drama, probably because the real life tale is just so outrageous, Lucy Prebble’s Enron is far stronger. Oh, and of course, the genius Caryl Churchill nailed the genre in 1987 with Serious Money.

Mark Rose as Jorgy’s duplicitous COO William Coles, offered the most convincing performance, and kept the plot on track with his expositional narration. The rest, a shouty Michael Brandon as Jorgy, US born Amy Burke as “sassy” Kate, Lin Blakley, an Eastenders regular I gather, as the apple-pie Bea, and an uncomfortable looking Rob Locke as Larry, also over-egged it for me. The relationships between the characters were therefore as thinly drawn as the characters themselves.

So as an occasionally sparky period piece with the odd flash of insight it works. As an examination of the confrontation between these perspectives and the archetypes that populate them, with any contemporary relevance, or as family/individual drama, it falls a fair way short.

The Price at the Wyndham’s Theatre review ****

The Price

Wyndham’s Theatre, 10th April 2019

Pretty pleased with myself here. Played chicken with Delfont Mackintosh Theatres and won, eventually getting a cheap, in a known, if not entirely comfortable, berth at the Wyndham’s near the end of the run. Arthur Miller, David Suchet, Brendan Coyle and some very strong reviews from the original outing at the Theatre Royal Bath. I was never going to miss it but patience was rewarded.

Though not in quite the way I expected. The big draw here is obviously the masterly David Suchet who the Tourist has not see on stage nearly enough times, though his turns in Long Day’s Journey Into Night and All My Sons are cherished memories. And the chance to see a rarely performed Miller play, the second in this year’s unofficial London season, (The American Clock at the Old Vic, The Crucible at the Yard, All My Sons at the Old Vic and Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic – maybe someone should have another crack at the plays from the early 1990s, The Ride Down Mt Morgan, The Last Yankee and Broken Glass).

Mr Suchet plays Gregory Solomon, the elderly Jewish anti dealer who comes to give a valuation for the contents of the Franz family apartment. Mr Solomon is not however the central character in the play. That belongs to Victor Franz, a senior policeman, who together with his wife, Esther, meet Mr Solomon at the apartment having finally decided to sell up. They are unexpectedly joined by Victor’s estranged surgeon brother Walter. Cue the usual Arthur Miller family disintegration as the past is raked over, centred on the two brother’s relationship with their difficult father and the life opportunities, missed or otherwise, this therefore afforded them. Secrets spill out. Arguments ensue. Some tentative reconciliation. Life goes on.

This reminds me. If you should sense that you are stumbling into an Arthur Miller type. dysfunctional family type vibe, here’s my advice. Got it all out in the open early doors. Otherwise you risk one of these interminable confessionals. Great theatre. Not good for the rellies though. All My Sons next which makes The Price look like a minor fraternal tiff.

Anyway, not having to shoulder the burden of dissension, Mr Suchet is free to flex his comic muscles. Which he does. Brilliantly. You can probably guess that there is more than a whiff of cliche about Gregory Solomon but David Suchet still lands a laugh with every wisecrack, whilst still building a believable picture of a character who has watched his world change around him. It’s not just the words. It’s the way every action, every dart of the eyes, arch of the head or twist of the fingers serves an acting purpose. Even peeling a hard boiled egg. Which makes his slightly clunky transition into a sort of Chorus, as Mr Solomon acts as the moral arbiter, (there’s a clue in his name folks), between the brothers and Esther, entirely plausible. You can always see the joins in Mr Miller’s plotting but like Shakespeare and Euripides all is forgiven as the drama is ramped up to the next level.

However the performance of this evening came from Sion Lloyd as Victor Franz. Brendan Coyle, who I can vouch is as good as it gets on his day, was indisposed so Mr Lloyd as understudy stepped in. Hard to believe he hadn’t been there throughout the run. Timing perfect. The early exchanges with Sara Stewart’s Esther, (also excellent despite limited material), quickly revealed the frustration and disappointment underneath his genial exterior. When it came to the set-to scenes with Adrian Lukis’s imperious Walter, as it becomes clear that Victor was left to pick up the pieces after the family business collapsed in the Crash, freeing Walter to go on to college and secure financial success, he really came to life though. A put-upon man visibly not comfortable in his own skin to happy with his lot. This is where the rift between the brothers becomes the metaphor, Miller’s constant preoccupation, for the damage to individuals and families wrought by the systematic failure of the American, capitalist, Dream. Price, or value, as Solomon points out in his key intervention. Deal, or no deal. The Price is drawn from the same autobiographical inspiration for Miller as The American Clock – Miller’s brother Kermit became the Walter while he went on to academic and writing success – the family textile business having gone under in the Depression.

It is a wordy play, and can feel it, especially when the laughs fade in the second half, highlighted further by Simon Higlett’s claustrophobic set, furniture alarmingly suspended from the cueing to encase the proscenium stage. But, as usual with Miller, all the words count and there is no sense of pointless repetition. Moreover director Jonathan Church is unafraid of letting the dialogue and actors do their work, no snatching here, so that all the resonances, psychological, mythological and political, cumulatively hit home. It isn’t vintage Miller, no real sub-plots to open up the central arguments, but it is easy to see why, when it does crop up, (it didn’t bowl then over on its first outing in 1968), it can fill houses and allows actors to give of their best.

Which brings me back to Sion Lloyd. It looks like Mr Lloyd is a seasoned performer in the nether-world of West End musicals which the Tourist studiously avoids. On the basis on this performance I hope he finds a few meaty. “straight” theatre roles to get his teeth into. David Suchet applauded him generously at the curtain call. I don’t think he was just being professionally courteous.

Top Girls at the National Theatre review ****

Top Girls

National Theatre Lyttleton, 4th April 2019

OK. So I might have oversold this one. It is still Caryl Churchill. With that extraordinary opening act. And that carefully calibrated feminist message, as relevant now as it was when it first appeared in 1982, of how to balance “success” in work and as a mother. The argument between collective and individualistic strands of feminism. To ape the patriarchal norms or to reject them.

But as an introduction to the greatest living playwright in the English language? Maybe this wasn’t the production. So profuse apologies to those most faithful of the Tourist’s recommendation followers, BUD and KCK, who came along. And to the most long suffering of all, in so many ways, the SO, whose previous CC exposure was the brilliant (to me), but admittedly knotty and OTT, production of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire on this very stage in 2015. I hope my chums could see where I was coming from even as the flaws in the production became apparent.

Not that these flaws were substantial. The opening scene here has a cast to die for, Siobhan Redmond as the indomitable Isabella Bird, Amanda Lawrence as the ebullient Pope Joan, Wendy Kweh as the enigmatic Lady Nijo, Ashley McGuire as the laconic Dull Gret and Lucy Ellinson as the most obviously misused Patient Griselda. The way CC takes Marlene’s drunken dinner party celebration and transforms it into a confessional which explosively, hilariously and movingly transcribes the fate of women, real and fictional, across time and geography, and specifically the way the patriarchy determines their roles as mothers, is still, for me about the most riveting half hour of theatre I have ever seen. Especially when the technical challenges of the multiple, simultaneous, conversations are, as here, perfectly realised, not to say the getting pissed part. And all presided over by the dauntless Marlene about to take the top job at the Top Girls employment agency. Katherine Kingsley, who you will probably know best from her musical theatre roles, initially locates Marlene firmly in the 1980’s Thatcherite, “ballsy”, power woman mode. To watch her equivocation, and Suffolk accent, emerge in the later scenes is a measure of just how good a performance this is.

The second scene, (here the usual order is shuffled a little), sees stage debutant Liv Hill, (Three Girls, on the telly, just watch it – though for my money Ria Zmitrowicz is actually the best of the trio of talent on display), initially at least, convincing as the immature Angie, sharing her angst with younger chum Kit (Ashna Rabheru). The two actors are confined to a small box room stage right as the technicians crack on, quietly, with transforming the space behind.

Into ….. the Top Girls agency. Which is where the full glory of the period detail of Ian MacNeil’s set and Merle Hansel’s costumes, (so superb for the dinner party), are revealed. And which also highlights one of those modest flaws is the production. By anchoring the look of the play so firmly in the year when it was written it encouraged the audience to do the same. The universality of the messages were diluted. Those of us who are old enough to recall the period, (all the Tourist’s party I am afraid), were drawn into thinking about the archetypes and behaviour of the period rather than the wider issues examined in the play, and I suspect you younger folk will have been affected more by the story here than its implications.

For it is, especially as we turn into Scene 4, and the not so big reveal, a mightily powerful piece of drama, especially when actors of the calibre of Ms Kingsley, and Lucy Black as her sister Joyce, are charged with delivering CC’s brilliant text. I don’t suppose I will ever tire of the thrill of listening to Ms Churchill’s dialogue. Complex and ambiguous ideas, observations and dilemmas framed in entirely natural dialogue, (even sometimes when how it is framed is formally inventive or even, frankly, a bit weird). There is so much dialectic revealed in Marlene and Joyce’s final argument that it is hard to keep up and yet it also sounds and feels exactly like the kind of set-to that any sisters might have had, at least in the modern world, about family, choices, dreams and disappointments, as well as politics. Family and/or career. Collective and/or individualistic feminism. All in less than half an hour.

And yet, as many critics have observed, this production, because the NT could, by not having actors double up from the first scene into the office scene, loses much of its resonance. CC didn’t specify doubling. That is just the way it has generally been done, a cast of seven for the simple reason of cost. But it certainly, at least when I have seen the play before, has far greater impact as the women that emerge from the interviews, Jeanine, who just want to travel and be with her husband, Louise, who has devoted her life to her job but still watched men promoted over her, and Shona forced to exaggerate her experience, as well as Mrs Kidd, who comes to plead for husband Howard who had expected to get the job Marlene has secured. This pivotal scene loses some impact because of the introduction of new faces, (the SO observed that she was expecting the dinner party guests to reappear in new guises and she has never seen Top Girls before), and maybe because, in an attempt to fill the Lyttleton stage, there is a fair bit of superfluous movement and furniture in this agency scene.

Director Lyndsey Turner, unsurprisingly given her experience in reviving Caryl Churchill’s work, pretty much nails the words, from Marlene’s initial instructions to the waitresses at the restaurant, (of course they are women), through to Angie’s final, plaintive, cries for her Mum at the end. This is such a rich play, just read it, and, with a cast of this distinction, the words can’t help but leap from the page. It is just that the look and feel of the production, even with the solid contributions of Jack Knowles (lighting) and Christopher Shutt (sound), didn’t quite work for me. Still to watch 18 women, (many of whom, in the “lesser” roles, were new to me), line up across the stage at the curtain call was pretty awesome. I doubt I will see that again.

I don’t doubt though that I will get another opportunity to see Top Girls. The programme lists 25 English language productions since the Royal Court premiere. With 6 last year alone, (though its been 8 years since the last major revival in the UK from Out of Joint).

That’s the thing with Caryl Churchill. She changes the game whilst being ahead of it.


Mother Courage and her Children at the Royal Exchange Manchester review ****

Mother Courage and her Children

Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester, 28th February 2019

Brecht. Royal Exchange. Headlong (This House, People, Places and Things, Labour of Love, Common, Junkyard, 1984, The Glass Menagerie, American Psycho and Enron – and that’s just what I can vouchsafe), Anna Jordan adapting, Amy Hodge, the Associate Director alongside Jeremy Herrin at Headlong and Julie Hesmondhalgh as Mother Courage (“MC”) herself.

Strap yourself in. This was bound to be an exhilarating theatrical ride. And so it was. Full of great visual moments. Even if the transposition of the story to a future (2080’s) European war, Reds against Blues in a continent divided up by grids, probably subtracted from, rather than added to, its contemporary relevance. Brecht finished Mother Courage in 1939 and he pointedly set it in the Thirty Years War of 1618 to 1648, proportionately the most destructive conflict in human history, as a message of the forthcoming horror. The greatest “anti-war” dramatic statement of all time? Probably, though it is more analysis than fulmination. One pf the greatest plays of the C20, and all time? Certainly. So f*ck about with it at your peril.

On the other hand the whole point of BB’s epic, Verfremdungseffekt, theatre is to set the audience on its toes and get the grey matter working overtime, and to let the theatre makers create their own take. Which they certainly do here. With the utmost respect to Ms Hesmondhalgh who is predictably a mighty presence, the star of the show is a repurposed ice cream van, standing in for the cart of the original text. Not something I expect to write again on these pages. Joanna Scotcher’s design looks like it came from it was sneaked out of a forgotten storeroom at a Hollywood studio marked “Vietnam War/Mad Max for charity”, right the way down to Yvette’s (Hedydd Dylan) pink plastic “catsuit”. There isn’t much in the way of fixed bric-a-brac as it should be in Brecht and as is warranted by the Royal Exchange’s in-the-round space. Which left the van, sans engine but still with its jingle intact, free to perambulate across the stage, pulled, before their respective early demises, by each of MC’s three kids, Eilif (Conor Glean), Swiss Cheese (Simeon Blake-Hall) and Kattrin (Rose Ayling Ellis). Foods, drink, water, shirts, uniform, clothes, guns, furniture, you name it, MC stocked it in the ramshackle van. Everything you need to profit from a prolonged war. It even doubles up as a nightclub.

Music (Jim Fortune), which nods back to Weill, sound (Carolyn Downing) and lighting (Lizzie Powell) was similarly pimped up to match the setting and aesthetic. Musician Nick Lynn, positioned in the circle, served up, often at MC’s request, a barrage of sound at times to set alongside some of the gentler, folksy numbers. And Movement Director Raquel Meseguer put the hours in to marshal the nine strong cast through the 12 scenes (covering 12 years of the conflict).

Now the Tourist knows from Anna Jordan’s other recent, superb, work with Frantic Assembly, The Unreturning, that she is the doyenne when it comes to ambitious, physical theatre. And so it proves here. This adaptation comes in at a couple of hours. It can drift closer to three. With the on-stage intros to each scene and some fairly direct exposition it is easy enough to follow even for the uninitiated, and all the narrative elements are intact, but it scampers along at a heck of a lick and, with all the visual stimulus, the constant motion, the soundscape, the dizzying array of accents, there just isn’t much time to think about what is going on and what Brecht is telling us.

Not a complaint. The production looks and sounds so good that this is easily forgiven but don’t come here looking for any gestural detail in the main relationships, between MC and the children, or between MC and respectively the Cook (Guy Rhys), the Chaplain (Kevin McMonagle) and Yvette. Julie Hesmondhalgh and the rest of the cast, notably these three, are too good for Brecht’s messages not to sink in but the true horrors, the deal with the Recruiting Officer to conscript Eilif, Swiss Cheese’s torture, MC’s denial of her son after the botched ransom, Kattrin’s rape, Eilif’s execution, the Cook’s rejection of Kattrin and Kattrin’s sacrifice don’t always register as strongly as they might. Mind you the bleak conclusion certainly does: MC taking up the van’s harness as a single fire burns out.

MC’s determination, even desire, to profit however from the war, despite the damage it does to her and those around her, does ring clear. Julie H is a ballsy, artful fiercely protective but, ultimately wary and realistic, MC. As she should be. This isn’t Hollywood – we are supposed to engage emotionally with the characters but not be emotionally manipulated by them. Ultimately we aren’t really supposed to sympathise with MC, just to understand why she has to act as she does, to see the damage that war does to those at its periphery as well as the fighting protagonists. MC thinks that her business is the way to safeguard her children. Manifestly it is not. We see that. She cannot.

And to see how war, when churned through the prism of difference and ideology, is an integral part of the economic sub-structure, orchestrated by the powerful. One day perhaps Brecht’s lesson will have no relevance. No sign right now though we should remember that the global and supra-national institutions which were built post WWII to rein back our worst excesses have largely succeeded in restricting conflict to the national, or intra-national, level, though still often as proxies for economic accumulation.

Which is why MCAHC will go on being restaged and re-imagined (Lynn Nottage’s Ruined for example) for new audiences to watch and learn. At the matinee performance the Tourist attended there were, as is to be expected, throngs of school students. They seemed to be all over it. I assumed it was still some sort of set text for drama students. Apparently not. Only Brit playwrights good enough for the Government when it comes to reaching GCSE drama. Interesting in the context of the breakdown of the political order in Europe that this adaptation presages. Still we should be grateful that this shower of a Government hasn’t interfered with syllabus and teaching for, what, all of a couple of years. And, unless the nutters back down, they won’t be able to for many years to come as they sort out the never-ending shower of sh*t that is coming down the tracks once we have “Brexited”. It’s only just begun folks. And not in a nice, Karen Carpenterish kind of way.

Got me to thinking about what our proud youth study for drama at A level. Faustus, Lysistrata, Woyzeck, Antigone, Much Ado About Nothing, A Servant to Two Masters, Hedda Gabler, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Jerusalem, Yerma, The Glass Menagerie, Metamorphosis, Cloud Nine, Our Country’s Good, Bronte, Earthquakes in London, Stockholm, The Crucible, The Visit. Across the various boards. Bloody Hell. If they master that lot then I have nothing to fear for they will know everything there is to know about the human condition. Drama is integral to democracy and citizenship. Ask Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides.