Catching up (Part 6)

June 2021

Oleanna – Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath – 28th June – *****

Finally an opportunity to scratch that travel itch. The SO was forced to drive the Tourist around some of the loveliest parts of Northern England in early June, but the attractions were almost entirely architectural and natural, and there was, I admit, a surfeit of Medieval buildings. (Turns out the highlight however was avian, namely puffins, and best of all, a pair of hen harriers). After a jaunt to Bristol, what a marvellous city, confronting its past and building its future, the Tourist also joined the SO in Bath, which is altogether more sedate and in danger of being pickled in its Regency past.

A chance to see Oleanna at the compact Ustinov Studio though, which had initially been another C19 casualty, and which has been on the Tourist’s wish list for some time. David Mamet’s artistry has faded alarmingly in recent years, Bitter Wheat was a mess, but Oleanna ranks alongside Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed the Plow as his finest stage works IMHO. Oleanna, in its examination of privilege, power and language, against the backdrop of an accusation of sexual harassment sets out to, and succeeds in, goading and provoking an audience. Its two characters, student Carol (Rosie Sheehy) and professor John (Jonathan Slinger), alternately elicit audience sympathy and loathing, as Mamet runs through its controversial gears. It was intended to cause controversy, written as its was, just after the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination proceedings during the GHW Bush presidency in 1991. And it is no less relevant today. You can make up your own mind where you stand on the issues it explores. What struck me was how far Mamet was prepared to go in eliciting sympathy, even justification, for John as the consequences of his actions become clear, whilst ramping up Carol’s “politically correct” hostility and lack of empathy, not least in her using the “group” to pursue her case and in demanding John’s books are banned.

Yet Carol is right and John is wrong, though to be fair, this is made absolute in the shocking ending. John oversteps boundaries at the outset. He may see his patronising self importance as Platonic but we see how his language and movement disturbs and violates Carol. She is worried and confused at the outset but, as she calls out John’s behaviour, she gains in confidence and eloquence as he deflates into narcissistic victimhood. The complexity and ambiguity of Mamet’s dialogue has probably been amplified through time but the way in which Carol and John talk, but fail to listen ,and the symmetry in their unresolved narrative arcs, is highly effective. Rosie Sheehy (who is surely destined for a long and fulfilling stage career) and Jonathan Slinger are equally superb, in action as well as word, as the battle for “supremacy” shifts from linguistic to physical. A good play to be right up front. I can’t imagine anyone improving on Lucy Bailey’s direction.

The Death of a Black Man – Hampstead Theatre – 17th June – ***

The Tourist’s other June outing wasn’t quite so rewarding. The idea of staging Hampstead Theatre Classics, landmark plays that originally premiered at HT, to celebrate the theatre’s 60th anniversary, was inspired and, in retrospect, was prudent in the event of the coming calamity. The Dumb Waiter delivered, but then one might have expected that, it being Pinter, but the subsequent plays weren’t quite as convincing. I couldn’t squeeze The Two Character Play after it was rescheduled, but it does sound like it is at the more challenging end of Tennessee Williams’s oeuvre, though given I am warming up on TW, and it starred Kate O’Flynn and Zubin Varla, it was a shame to miss it. More of Night, Mother in a future post, but, suffice to say, that it, like The Death of a Black Man, probably impressed more on its opening than it does now. Some plays don’t age as well as others. That is one of the many beauties of drama. It doesn’t make the play poor or flawed, just that its concerns, its style, its relevance, changes though time. And, of course, there are those gems that, for whatever reason fade into obscurity only to be rescued in future generations by enterprising creatives.

Alfred Fagon was born in Jamaica and, after emigrating to Britain, he served in the army and worked on the railways before he took up acting and then playwriting. In the 1970’s and early 1980’s his was an important voice in black British drama, before his untimely death, and disgraceful treatment even thereafter by local police, who claimed they couldn’t identify his body. (It continues. Fagon’s bust in St Paul’s Bristol was apparently vandalised by some knuckleheads in retribution for the Colston toppling).

TDOABM premiered at HT in 1975. This was its first revival. It tells the story of 18 year old Shakie (Nickcolia King-N’Da) and Stumpie (Toyin Omari-Kinch), best friends as well as business partners, and posh social worker Jackie (Natalie Simpson), the slightly older mother of Shakie’s child who has come to stay in Shakie’s flat in Chelsea. The conversations between the three of them run the gauntlet across race, gender and politics, in, initially at least, a naturalistic way. Shakie and Stumpie are determined to get on and make money, but their schemes are contrasted, Shakie is selling “African” artefacts to boho whites, whereas Stumpie is aiming to take back black music from its white appropriators. Interesting ideas are presented even if these are sometimes jumbled up. However, the second half takes a Pinteresque turn, namely The Homecoming, after Shakie’s musician father dies and the boys look to imprison and “sell” Jackie, with her apparent consent. The callous misogyny (and in parts blatant anti-semitism) is deliberately provocative but I am not sure if Mr Fagon quite pulls it off. This is true despite the best efforts of cast (especially Natalie Simpson who has a really tricky part to play here), director Dawn Walton, designer Simon Kenny who serves up a bright slice of deconstructing 70’s aesthetic and lighting designer Johanna Town. The experience and argument feels very real and must haver been revelatory to audiences in its time, but plot and character become more forced as the play shifts towards abstraction.

The alchemy of light. Botanical subjects. Historical overview. An investigation into process. A range of artistic practices and images. All done in under an hour on a quiet Wednesday afternoon. With a nice sandwich to follow. What’s not to like. Very pleased I bought the catalogue.

Only other entertainment of note was a filmed play The Merthyr Stigmatist from the Sherman Theatre. Welsh playwright Lia Parry presents 16 year old Carys, truculent, trying to escape detention with what seems like a whopper. Every Friday she claims stigmata on her palms, now spreading to her feet, begin to bleed. And, in the workaday streets of Merthyr Tydfil, there are plenty who want to believe she is telling the truth. Her teacher Sian thinks she is self harming, and as a local girl now returned, wants to offer her protection and a “way out”. Carys is having none of it. From this divine composition Ms Parry fashions a story about left-behind but proud communities for which the stigmata is a metaphor, belief and belonging. It zips along, both characters prowling around the abstract schoolroom set designed by Elin Steele (which holds a surprise coup de theatre at the climax), gathering intensity under Emma Callander’s direction. Newcomer Bethan McLean brings vitality and depth to Carys whilst Bethan Mary-James carefully plots Sian’s insecurities. It would be good to see this reach a wider live audience.

Catching up (Part 5)

May 2021

La Clemenza di Tito – Royal Opera House – 18th May – ***

First live event out of the block in 2021. A visit to the socially distanced ROH with BUD to see La Clemenza di Tito, Mozart.s late opera, from 1791, with libretto from  by Caterino Mazzolà, after Pietro Metastasio. 

Now first up I must say like the ROH more than half empty. The price to seating value in the ROH is normally dreadful, even in the stalls (never done a fancy box mind) and I have had some major run ins with rude punters there, proof that the entitled, including me, are a generally dispiriting bunch. Anyway this time I went cheap(ish), front of amphitheatre, yielding a good enough view, and no BUD squashing. No bar scrum at the interval and everyone masked up, unlike now where the majority can’t be arsed. People, it’s just a bit of cloth, intended to help others out (not least those who work there), not the beating drum of totalitarianism. So get over yourselves.

Anyway I had put in a bit of research by watching the Bergen National Opera LCDT production stream a few weeks earlier though, frankly, the plot ain’t rocket science.

Imperial Rome. Vitellia seeks revenge against Emperor Tito because his dad deposed her Dad. She winds up Tito’s mate Sesto, who fancies her something rotten, to sort him out, but then she calls him off because she, Vitellia, now reckons she can pull and marry Tito. I know the old “I want him dead, I want to wed” routine. We’ve all done it. Tito though plumps for Servilia, Sesto’s sister, as his bride, and sends Annio, Sesto’s mate, off to tell her. An in person proposal clearly beneath him. But, uh-oh, Anno loves Servilia, and she requites, so she tells Tito and he does the decent thing and steps away. However Vitellia hears about this and goes apeshit, once again telling Sesto to top Tito. For reasons that weren’t entirely clear to me, beyond the excuse for a cracking aria, “Parto, parto, ma tu, ben mio”. And then, blow me, if Tito doesn’t decide to marry Vitellia who realises that bullying his mate into being his hit-man is not a good look. Sesto goes for the old “burn down the Capitol” assassination technique which strikes me as a bit OTT. Everyone reacts with horror thinking Tito is now toast, literally, but Vitellia manages to muzzle Sesto before he blabs. Curtain.Interval.

Annio announces big Tito isn’t dead; the corpse Sesto saw was another geezer (yep really) and that he only stabbed another bloke dressed as Tito. Annio persuades Sesto to stay and face the music, but the Court finds him guilty. Annio begs Tito to go easy his bessie and offer him a way out. But pig-headed Sesto says he deserves to be executed, “Deh, per questo istante solo”, so Tito, because he can, (thats autocracy for you), tears up the death warrant. Final twist. Just before Tito can reveal his mercy trip at the Games (where other poor buggers are about to be torn apart by lions), Vitellia confesses that it was all her idea, but Tito, now puffed up on all this clemency lark, lets her off too. Universally acknowledged, Tito, for a tyrant, is a top bloke.

Now you can probably see some flimsy propaganda at work here. And indeed, LCDT was commissioned by the Estates of Bohemia, on the coronation of Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor (which was still a thing), as King of Bohemia, to keep the nobles sweet. Remember the great and good all over Europe were sh*tting their collective pants about what was going on in France, so it was good to remind them that Leopold was having now of that Revolution nonsense in his back yard.

Metastasio’s libretto was already an opera standard, but Mazzola edited it down when WAM came on board, seeing a big purse, Salieri having turned down the gig. And our Wolfie turned it round sharpish, 18 days apparently. Maybe it shows. It isn’t on a par with Figaro and Don Giovanni but, hey, it’s Mozart so it is a) now pretty popular and b) in places sublime. Both BUD and the Tourist couldn’t go all in though: ULTZ’s monochrome set gets shunted around a fair bit and Richard Jones’s direction, in part to accommodate Covid 19 restrictions seemed disjointed at times, with on stage actions not always clear in intention or delivery. We warmed to Emily d’Angelo’s babyface, footballing (?), Sestus far more than the star turn here of Nicole Chevalier as Vitellia (who sometimes risibly over-acted, though she can sing) with Edgaras Montvidas’s Tito lacking a little authority, visually and aurally. Angela Brower (Annio) and Christina Gansch (Servilia) looked and sounded more comfortable. The “intimate” scenes notably between Sesto and Tito proved more affecting than the “public” scenes which were a bit underpowered, unfortunate given the nature of power vibe is what I think Mr Jones was aiming for. The orchestra, under Mark Wrigglesworth, delivered though, in my bank you can always step on the gas more with Classical scores, the harpsichord continuo made its way up to the gods and the chorus, sadly offstage, was lovely.

Flight – Bridge Theatre – 27th May – ****

A very different live theatrical experience a few days later. BD and I had planned to go to see Flight during the late 2020 window but missed out as it was serially canned. So glad I persisted. Vox Motus, led by Jamie Harrison and Candice Edmunds, promise “a theatre of story-telling visuals, transformational design, magic, comedy, music, physical performance, puppetry, multi-media and most importantly thrills.” To be fair Flight doesn’t quite live up to that promise but only because of its format and not in its impact. It is conceptually simple; a revolving diorama containing miniature models in lit-up boxes with an accompanying soundtrack on headphones. After a bit of necessary C19 induced marshalling we were shown to our individual booths and straight into the story of Aryan (voiced by Farshid Rokey) and Kabir (Nalini Chetty), Afghan orphans who are orphaned Afghan boys who make the hazardous journey from Kabul to London. Along the way they nearly freeze to death in a lorry, are enslaved and forced to pick fruit, encounter hatred and compassion. They make it but there is no happy ending. The models are beautifully crafted, some of the tableaux extremely imaginative and the text involving. Maybe the revolve it is a bit slow and the juggling of viewpoints horizontally and vertically a little sapping, but the story is so heartfelt that this can be forgiven. The innovation format drives home the message. Forced migration isn’t going to go away. Likely the reverse. Lines on a map won’t make any difference. Hate won’t work. Love might.

Walden – Harold Pinter Theatre – 29th May – ***

Producer Sonia Friedman, who pretty much single-handedly gets quality theatre into the commercial West End, what we might call a vital actor in the theatre economic ecosystem, was quick out of the blocks with her Re:Emerge series post lockdown. Anna X was a hit at the 2019 Vault Festival, J’Ouvert (still availble on BBC I Player) came via Battersea’s finest Theatre 503 and Walden, which I plumped for, was a new work from New Yorker Amy Berryman. For me the draw was Ian Rickson as director, though a cast of Gemma Arterton, Fehinti Balogun and, especially, Lydia Wilson, helped. Gemma Arterton is a better actor than her credits suggest, her performance in Josie Rourke’s Saint Joan at the Donmar is evidence thereof, similarly Fehinti Balogun is set for a stellar career (as is his namesake Michael, he of the extraordinary backstory, check it out). Lydia Wilson, however, was my favourite going in after spying her in Rebecca Frecknall’s Almeida Duchess of Malfi and the Cheek by Jowl Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and, post this performance remains so, though there isn’t much in it.

All three however were excellent in a play which, having started with a bang, but failed to develop its interesting themes, relying instead on the somewhat limited opposition between two sisters, Stella (GA) and Cassie (LW). It’s the near future, climate change has ravaged Earth, so it’s time for Homo Sapiens to ravage the rest of the solar system. Stella was the designer of the off Earth settlements, Cassie a botanist thereon. High achievers both, Daddy was a big cheese at NASA and don’t they both know it, Stella has turned her back on the Project to shack up with climate activist Ryan, Cassie drops by (though this is a cabin in backwoods America, where the water is still clean) to try to persuade her back into the fold. Believable debates ensue about the fate of man and woman kind, principle vs pragmatism, scientific duty and ethics, ambition and fulfilment, laced with a bit of sexual frisson, all against a backdrop of sisterly rivalry. The text matches the concept, Mr Rickson’s tempo is note perfect as usual, it is just that Ms Berryman, having laid it all out can’t find anywhere to go thereafter so dramatically it just fizzles out. A bit more bite, a bit more ambiguity and this could be a very powerful play.

Best of the rest

A couple of live exhibitions on top of these three outings. Matthew Barney’s Redoubt at the Hayward Gallery (***), a multimedia exploration of Ovid’s Diana and Actaeon, which I assume is also a climate change plea, was just too dense for the Tourist to fully appreciate. Mr Barney has created a (long) silent film where he figures as The Engraver, a ranger in the Idaho Rockies, who tracks and is tracked by a sharpshooter Annette Wachter, and her two sidekicks, a Watching Virgin and a Tracking Virgin. Woods, rocks, water, snow, trailer, skies, skis, rifles, deer, wolves, cougars, bears, copper plate and its processing, there is a lot to take in, ad I confess to bewilderment when I trawled through this back home. However the sculptural output, burnt, scarred trees amalgamated with coppers, alloys, resins, plastics, often in the form of gun parts, is fascinating, the copper plates marginally less so. As are the myths and facts that flow from Barney’s investigation. I only scratched the surface (no pun intended) but it isn’t difficult to see why he has such a high reputation in artistic circles.

South African portrait photographer Zanele Muholi is also lauded, though the focus of their practice is very different, as the Tate Modern retrospective (***) revealed. Across 260 works they describe the lives of South Africa’s Black lesbian, gay, trans, queer and intersex communities. Their perspective may change but their intent, to show love and joy, bodily delight, as well as sickening trauma (“corrective” rape still exists in SA) and discrimination, and thereby shift perceptions, is unyielding. Political as well as political, dripping with satire. Makes you think, makes you stare. BD is better placed to walk you through the context. I was bowled over, in parts, by the beauty, aesthetic and intelligence of the later staged images, especially the self-portraits. And genuinely saddened by the realisation that some of their subjects and collaborators were now dead, victims of violence and HIV/Aids.

Which just leaves a couple of baroque concerts and a couple of theatrical entertainments on screen. Pale Sister (also available as part of the lights Up series on I Player) has Lisa Dwan playing Ismene, Antigone’s sister, written for her by Irish man of letters, Colm Toibin and directed by Trevor Nunn. I yield to no man in defence of the virtues of Ms Dwan, but the monologue actually steers too closely to the Sophocles inspiration when I was hoping for some departure. Still well worth watching.

Much better, and actually a surprise highlight of my on line viewing, was Bristol based Wardrobe Ensemble’s distillation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Tamsin Hurtado Clarke and Jesse Meadows, along with director Tom Brennan and dramaturg James Newton, have preserved, indeed in some ways, enhanced, the essence of Fitzgerald’s elegant skewering of the American Dream, condensing it down to just 90 minutes and imaging as one long, and increasingly, desperate party. They neck champagne from paper cups, sing and dance, make use of a few props. The two actors play all the key characters, Jay Gatsby, Nick Garraway, Jordan Baker, Daisy and Tom Buchanan, George and Myrtle Wilson, even managing to convince when simultaneous dialogue is required. FS-G’s heightened plot, as in the book, is easy to digest. OK so the material trappings of these shallow lifestyles is obscured as is the duplicitous complexity of the characters therefore sacrificing some of the novel’s bite. On the other hand their often ambiguous sexual identity is brought into focus as is the tragedy at its heart. Well worth seeing.

God of Carnage at the Rose Theatre Kingston ***

God of Carnage

Rose Theatre Kingston, 11th February 2020

I remain ambivalent about the work of French playwright Yasmina Reza. I can see why she would wish to lampoon “middle-class” mores in her contemporary comedies of manners. There is, after all, a long and illustrious dramatic tradition of doing so. Especially en francais. Think Moliere. Or French cinema. I can also take pleasure from the set-ups as they develop. That is assuming that the master of French translation, Christopher Hampton, is faithful in his rendition, which I don’t think anyone would argue with.

No the problem lies in the characters she creates and the plots she weaves. Both are subservient to the message. And the message is not nearly as profound as it threatens to be. The plays are short, God of Carnage is just 90 minutes, but, damningly, could be shorter. Put simply, as wiser heads than this have observed, the plays are not nearly as clever as they think they are. In contrast to their illustrious forbears, which are. If you don’t believe me try Theatre L’Odeon’s School for Wives, streaming now, or Renoir’s La regle de jeu, which is all it’s cracked up to be.

Anyway, knowing this, from previous performances of Ms Reza’s Art, about three friends who fall out over a contemporary work of art which one of them purchases, and Life x3 where the comic staple of a disastrous dinner party is replayed three times with slight plot variations, the SO and I settled in at the Rose for this Theatre Royal Bath transfer. I see Billers nominated God of Carnage to appear in the Guardian’s top 50 plays of this century: a rare misstep from the old boy. It was lauded during its original West End in 2008, (it debuted in Germany in 2006), with a cast of Ralph Fiennes, Tamsin Grieg, Janet McTeer and Ken Stott no less, and with Old Vic head honcho Matthew Warchus directing, winning an Olivier and packing in the punters, but that, to me, looks generous.

Of course, it could be that this production didn’t do it justice but, with tragi-comedy/satire expert Lindsay Posner in the director’s chair and London émigré Elizabeth McGovern and Nigel Lindsay and Simon Paisley Day and Samantha Spiro as the two couples, I doubt it. (Just look at their combined stage credits if you don’t believe me). Eleven-year old Ferdinand has belted his would be chum Bruno in the playground because he wouldn’t let him join the gang knocking out two of his teeth. The parents meet to chew things over. It starts civilly but once the drink flows and worldviews collide things get tasty. EMG is Veronica the anally-retentive, passive-aggressive American liberal, writing a book on Darfur, with NL, somewhat improbably, her vulgar self-made man husband. SPD is an arrogant lawyer, never off his phone, who sees no value for the meeting, SS his initially reasonable, then increasingly precious wife, a “wealth management consultant”. All then have money and all the attitudes that, at least in Ms Reza’s eyes, come with it. Misogyny, racism, homophobia are all given a run-out.

I can imagine that the changes of tone, from exaggerated politeness to barbed accusation could offer greater heft in another production, (Roman Polanski adapted it with YR’s screenplay, for the cinema and smart punters rate it), but this came across as more outre sit-com, and, eventually farce, than biting satire.

Still, in fairness, we laughed, quite a lot, and, occasionally, squirmed, as the adults regressed into the very childish argument they have come together to resolve. YR can’t but help chucking in some lines of cod-philosophy which become increasingly grating, and the characters have an annoying habit of telegraphing their lines, but, when it does hit home, it is undeniably effective. Peter McKintosh’s set, and props, offer an accurate check-list of bourgeois taste, and sharp colour contrast, though the light fitting which hangs, Damocles-like, over the room is a bit heavy-handed. LP’s direction works hard to match movement to text. No-one sits still for a moment. And, although the Tourist has eschewed the drink for near a decade now, it’s a bit disconcerting to see four people go from a civilised sip to barking shit-faced in the space of half an hour.

Simultaneously irritating and entertaining then.

Nora: A Doll’s House at the Young Vic review ****

Nora: A Doll’s House

Young Vic Theatre, 10th February 2020

It is not difficult to see why theatre-makers, and audiences, continue to be drawn to drawn to Ibsen’s masterpiece, now over 140 years old. First and foremost, there is the still extraordinarily powerful message. Just think what old Henrik would have written if he had actually set out to write a feminist manifesto and not used the real-life experience of a family friend. Then there are the complex fully rounded characters, not just Nora herself, but Helmer, Rank, Kristine, Krogstad and Anne Marie, a mixture of good, bad and indifferent, shaped by, and shaping, the society they are immersed in. Of course, our sympathies are drawn towards the women’s predicaments, with indignation reserved for the patriarchal men and the way they treat those women, but, as ever with Ibsen, there is plenty of grey to ponder in between the black and white. Then there is the plot. Enough twists, believable disclosure, that ending, getting close enough to melodrama to please even the casual theatrical punter but offering enough pleasure to those who seek repeated viewings.

And then there is its seemingly infinite elasticity. We may have moved on from the stifling morality of late C19 Norwegian society and the “exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint” that HI observed, but his skill and intention in framing a more universal message of personal freedom and self-expression is, if anything, even more relevant in our world today. As last year’s queer reworking of the play, in Samuel Adamson’s Wife at the Kiln Theatre, demonstrated. (He has previous with reinterpretation of the play, though with psychology rather than gender, in his 2003 adaptation at the Southwark Playhouse).

I am still most drawn to those interpretations which stick closely to Ibsen’s structure, plot and characters though am always up for an interpretation that shifts time, place and/or look. The best of the recent crop was Tanika Gupta’s resetting to colonial India at the Lyric Hammersmith, recently streamed for one day only. Going further back I gather the 2009 Donmar production from Zinnie Harris was a bit of a damp squib despite a stellar cast, (Anderson G, just seen on the NT/YV stream as a peerless Blanche Dubois, Stephens T, Lesser A, Fitzgerald T and Eccleston C). I would certainly have liked to have seen Thomas Ostermeier’s hand grenade reworking based on what he did with Hedda Gabler just shown on the Schaubuhne Berlin streamfest.

Mind you, from the sound of it, the Royal Exchange outing from 2013 sounds like it would have been my glass of akevitt, with Greg Hersov in the director’s chair using Bryony Lavery’s reliable adaptation and with Cush Jumbo as Nora. (I do so hope we will get to see her Hamlet at the YV though I am not holding my breath – oops quite literally as I write this they have had to can it pro tem). Completing the history lesson Nora’s last visit to the Young Vic itself was in 2012 I believe with Hattie Monahan courtesy of Carrie Cracknell which I will watch one day soon on a streaming service near me.

And so to Nora: A Doll’s Hose. This re-think, from Stef Smith (Human Animals, Royal Court), by way of Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre, offered more than enough to chew on. As you probably already know , this comment coming a full 2 months and change after the production closed, (just a week or so early as the curtains came down everywhere), her big idea is to offer us three different Noras: from 1918, the year women finally git the vote, 1968, the “Sexual revolution” and the introduction of the pill, and 2018, the dawn of MeToo., against a backdrop of austerity Britain Though with one actor, Luke Norris, as husband, in a quick-change, of character as well as costume, masterclass.

We gain in Nora dimensionality, as social and, notably, economic context and mundane duty, especially childcare, are fitted to period. 1918 Nora (Amaka Okafor), is patronised, yet remains dignified, in her care of war-damaged Thomas 1, 1968 Nora (Natalie Klamar) is a bundle of nerves, popping pills, bullied by Thomas 2 and 2018 Nora (Anna Russell-Martin), weighed down by debt and childcare seeks solace in drink, Thomas 3 being abusive and bugger all use. Stef Smith cleverly finds ways to keep the broad brush strokes of HI’s plot visible and the choreography of Elizabeth Freestone’s direction, (and especially EJ Boyle’s movement), through Tom Piper’s skeletal set, signifying door and not much more, beefed up with Lee Curran’s lighting and Michael John McCarthy’s sound/composition, as we zip back and forth in time, is remarkable.

However with Mark Arends tripling up as xx Nathan, Zephryn Tattie as xxx Daniel and the three Nora leads also interchanging as her mate, and, in the swinging sixties lover, Christine, it can, even with excellent performances all round (wrong to have favourites, but most impressively, Anna Russell-Martin) it does get a bit breathless with, er, breadth supplanting depth of character. No question it works as innovative theatre making and it conveys its feminist message smartly with rhythm in words and actions, bar a rather maladroit coda. We, the SO, BUD and KCK, could have done with a pie and a pint to discuss further in what, it transpired was our last pre-lockdown outing. But it could have done with drilling down further, and more finely, into the detail of the thoughts it provoked. Maybe in a more focussed, original, contemporary, play with just a faint echo to the Ibsen that Stef Smith so plainly, and rightly, is inspired by.

That’ll be it for Nora this year I think. The Tourist’s annual outing to Amsterdam and the ITA to see Robert Icke’s Children of Nora was a casualty of our times, though the Jamie Lloyd production based on Frank McGuinness’s adaptation and starring Hollywood royalty Jessica Chastain is still planned for July. We’ll see.

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.

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.

When the Crows Visit at the Kiln Theatre review ****

When the Crows Visit

Kiln Theatre, 6th November 2019

An adaptation of Ibsen’s Ghosts, relocated to modern day India. Seems like a good idea no? It was. In fact better than I had expected even with its visible flaws.. Anupama Chandrasekhar has written a play that takes the Norwegian master more as inspiration than instruction and created her own, hard-hitting, response to male violence, female exoneration and the visitation of the sins of the father on the son. And with a crack cast and Indhu Rubasingham directing it is powerfully realised.

Bally Gill, who shone as Romeo in the RSC production last year, plays Akshay, the spoilt entitled son of Hema, (the marvellous Ayesha Dharker who you will recognise from big and small screen), who, along with grandma Jaya (Bollywood veteran Soni Razdan in full-on say what you think mode), fawns over him. We first meet him at the games company he works for in Mumbai, getting a dressing down for the failure of his latest idea from David (Paul G Raymond), the school friend and now successful entrepreneur, who was cajoled into giving Akshay a job because of family connections. Uma, (Miriam Haque who also plays Hema’s progressive sister), gets the nod from David to work on a new game, denting Akshay’s pride. He is still sulking when the three go to a bar for after work drinks. Later he vents his fury in an horrific act of violence with a clear real life antecedent.

He runs back to Mummy and we watch as the truth comes out. But Akshay’s guilt is not punished. Instead the corrupt police inspector, (a somewhat mannered Asif Khan, who plays neighbour Gopi in a similar way), and Hema concoct a plan to shift the blame and Akshay’s toxic aggression turns against Ragini (Aryana Ramkhalawon), the carer for the irascible Jaya. Whilst the development of the story is sickeningly predictable, Ms Chandrasekhar, has her writing hand firmly on the disclosure tiller, ratcheting up the tension, through to the explosive ending. Family history, as you might surmise from the source, plays a big part in this disclosure. There is no hope here; just brutal truth.

The dialogue is leavened with Hindu religious monologues from Jaya and the pesky crows, (realised by the puppetry of Matt Hutchison), which she feeds provide a symbolic edge well matched to Richard Kent’s claustrophobic, shadowy Chennai mansion house set, accented by Oliver Fenwick’s lighting and the Ringham brothers sound.

It isn’t subtle, teetering close to melodrama at times, and the original victim of Akshay’s horrific crime has no voice. There are, early on, humorous lines built on stereotype. Many reviewers recoiled from both play and production seeing sensationalism. But I was not clear if they were saying this subject shouldn’t be dramatised, or shouldn’t be dramatised this way. Personally I trust writer and director here and if the narrative and characters didn’t fit received wisdom then, for me, so much the better in terms of getting the message across. This is not a subject or setting that regularly finds its way on to mainstream London stages. There is nothing nuanced about the grotesque, misogynist violence which disfigures all societies, not just India, and reminding audiences outside the normal echo chambers of understanding seems to me a laudable aim. The casual and callous way with which female victims of male violence are portrayed every day of the week on the telly, or elsewhere in popular and high culture seems to me to be a far more pertinent target than this uncomfortable play.

Posh at the Rose Kingston review ****

Posh

Rose Theatre Kingston, 15th October 2019

Another play on the wish list. Not that Laura Wade’s Posh hasn’t had regular outing since it first appeared at the Royal Court in 2010. And, memorably it was made into a film The Riot Club, in 2014 directed by Danish director Lone Scherfig to Ms Wade’s screenplay . A thinly veiled satire on the covert Bullingdon Club, where Oxford University’s finest men get shitfaced and cause havoc all in the name of …. well wankerdom and entitlement I suppose. Open only to super toffs from the “top” public schools. Expensive threads, fancy dining and immediate payment for damage done in whatever venue is daft enough to let them in, Call me Dave and BoJo the Clown were members. Enough said. Apparently as the world moves on, Oxbridge democratises its intake and thanks in part to the play, there are very few dickheads who are up for this now. It may die soon. Hurrah.

Of course BoJo, like so much in his dodgy past, has renounced the Club and is no doubt cracking on with penning vague policy about banging up the real crims who get lashed up and smash things up on a Saturday night.

Anyway Ms Wade’s play is far more than just an excuse for us snarky grammar school types to vent our indignation at those whose confidence far exceeds their ability. As with Home, I’m Darling and The Watsons, Ms Wade dissects misogyny, here it its most repellent incarnation, as well as class. Her early plays show that she can turn her writing hand to just about anything ranging across subjects, concepts and form, but it is the execution that she stands out. Writing plays that are this dramatically sharp, theatrically entertaining and above all, this funny, is a rare gift.

Now the Rose Kingston unsurprisingly made much of the appearance of one Tyger Drew-Honey, the undeniably good looking young man who first appeared on our screens in the comedy Outnumbered, this being his stage debut. He plays Alexander Ryle the villain of the piece, though he has stiff competition, but this is most definitely an ensemble play. I can report that young Tyger did himself proud, especially in the second half when his twisted, fascistic take on class envy fired up his chums, and in the epilogue when Jeremy (Simon Rhodes), the Tory MP uncle of George Balfour (Joseph Tyler Todd) offers him a job despite, or maybe because as the Club, past and present, closed ranks, he was held responsible for the evening’s outrages. Mr Rhodes does a nice line in Establishment privilege and Mr Todd, an ex Cambridge graduate setting out on his acting career was superb as the butt of all jokes, George.

He wasn’t the only recent Cambridge graduate on show. Adam Mirsky who played airhead Guy Bellingfield, Chris Born who was James Leighton-Masters, the increasingly reluctant President, Isobel Laidler who played the molested daughter of the pub’s proprietor, Rachel, are all alumni though I am guessing are a long way from the characters they are playing. If it helps, knowing a few young’uns of recent vintage from that very place, I am pretty sure that the Posh-types are now very thin on the ground there though it is a shame a previous generation has its incompetent hands now on the levers of power. George Prentice who played aristo Miles Richards (Bristol), Matthew Entwhistle who played Toby Richards and Ollie Appleby who played the gay Hugo Fraser-Tyrwhitt (Exeter) are all current undergraduates at unis which will also have, potentially, offered some insight into their characterisations. The cast was completed by Jack Whittle as Harry Villiers, Jamie Littlewood as nouveau riche Greek scion Dmitri Mitropolous, Taylor Mee as Ed Montgomery, Ellie Nunn as Charlie, the sex worker who shows up the boys for what they are, and Peter McNeil O’Connor as the pub owner Chris whose trust is betrayed.

No point highlighting any particular performance. The play is written to give everyone an opportunity to alternately elicit the audience’s amusement, fury and sympathy. Will Coombs’ set, the private dining room of the pub, didn’t quite have the measure of the expansive Rose stage but at least this gave room for the histrionics of the Club to play out. Lucy Hughes’s direction blocked well in this regard and she had an eye and eye for the rhythm and pacing of the play. Whilst Ms Hughes has spent many years teaching this is also her professional debut. I’d be surprised if she doesn’t get another gig sharpish.

Posh is, intentionally, a brutal play and Ms Hughes didn’t pull any punches. Maybe a little forced at the beginning but once the ten members of the club are assembled the production caught fire. The misplaced pride in the Club’s history, the portraits of long dead members looking down on them, the pathetic ritualistic traditions, the empty bragging and swaggering, the bullying and exploiting of weakness, the sexual predation, the condescension and contempt All faithfully rendered. The original production featured such luminaries as Leo Bill, David Dawson, Joshua McGuire, Richard Goulding, Harry Hadden-Paton, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Tom Mison, Kit Harington and James Norton. Didn’t harm their careers. Here’s hoping some of the raw talent on show here, which gives the production such energy, gets a similar break.

Of course there is the risk of an ambiguity at the heart of Posh. Are we laughing at, or with, the Club? I think Ms Wade’s intention is clear however and Lucy Hughes, in her direct reading, reflected this. Hopefully if I ever see it again it will be a period piece, such behaviour consigned to the dustbin of history. Somehow I have my doubts.