The Gift at the Theatre Royal Stratford East review ***

The Gift

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 8th February 2020

Another in the lengthening list of contemporary plays where the reach of ambition exceeds the grasp of execution. Janice Okoh has set her sights on “imperialism, cross-racial adoption, cultural appropriation … and tea” with her “outrageous” play set firstly, in Victorian Brighton in 1862, and then in a present-day village in Cheshire. It has some thought-provoking, and funny, dialogue and some arresting scenes, born of its formal invention (and doubling), but it doesn’t quite hang together and loses focus, and turns preachily didactic, after the first two acts.

In the first act Sarah Bonetta Davies played by newbie Shannon Hayes is a Yoruba princess, orphaned, enslaved, rescued and then “adopted”, as was her “fashion”, by Queen Victoria, and now about to return to her African “home”. She attempts to school her unrefined black maid Aggie (Donna Berlin) in the etiquette of tea drinking before being join by Yoruba husband James (Dave Fishley), peremptory “aunt” Mrs Schoen (Rebecca Charles), benevolent Reverend Venn (Richard Teverson) and social climber Harriet Walker (Joanna Brookes). Interesting because Sarah Bonetta Davies was a real person (with a fascinating legacy) and interesting because of the way Janice Okoh uses this classic drawing play set up to explore her themes.

Then a switch to the tasteful front room in Cheshire where new white neighbours, artisan baker Harriet (Rebecca Charles) and Ben (Richard Teverson), have come to visit black professional couple James (Dave Fishley) and our latter-day Sarah (Donna Berlin), armed with muffins. Tea, of every possible hue, is taken. Through a mix of misplaced good intentions and weakly concealed racism, the white couple’s woke-ish self-image unravels and they start digging and don’t stop, especially when it comes to the subject of James’s and Sarah’s adopted, white, daughter, Victoria. James and Sarah initially pass off the unconscious gaffes but, especially when Ben’s comments turn offensive, then push back, inducing the inevitable “well if that’s how you feel” wounded umbrage from Harriet and Ben. Ms Okoh absolutely nails this scene with laugh out loud satirical writing of the highest quality.

A powerful scene follows where modern Sarah, worn out from the casual bigotry, strips and walks off rear stage through a series of light box squares. Interval. And then the return for the tea party showdown between the oblivious Queen Victoria (Joanna Brookes) and the furious Sarah BD. Great concept but tension has defused and Sarah’s arguments become too sustained. And Aggie reappears as some sort of time-lord oracle. Intentions are exemplary, but the structure becomes all too visible and the drama climaxes with a thud.

Though not for want of creative nous. Dawn Walton, who founded Eclipse Theatre, the co-producer of The Gift alongside the Belgrade Coventry, handles the detail of each act with surety, with Simon Kenny’s set, Johanna Town’s lighting and Adrienne Quartly’s sound, all chipping in, but even she can’t quite bring together each strand of the narrative. And the cast, especially Donna Berlin, (last seen by the Tourist at the Arcola in Great Apes – please give that beacon of East London culture, as well as this one here, some cash), plainly relish Janice Okoh’s dialogue.

I would still be very keen to see more of Ms Okoh’s work, particularly if she were to challenge the audience with “just” ideas and dialogue and not form as well. Nonetheless The Gift counts as another in the growing list of plays that Nadia Fell has programmed at the TRSE that talk up to its diverse audiences as well as entertain. They are coming back soon(ish) I hope. With a panto. We’ll need it.

Three Sisters at the National Theatre review ***

Three Sisters

National Theatre Lyttleton, 9th December 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Doll’s House at the Lyric Hammersmith review *****

A Doll’s House

Lyric Hammersmith, 18th September 2019

You can never have too much Nora. After Samuel Adamson’s gender fluid Wife at the Kiln, and this adaptation from Tanika Gupta set in colonial India, the Tourist has the 3 for the price of 1, Glasgow Citizens, radical re-working from Steff Smith coming to the Young Vic and then Robert Icke’s take in Amsterdam next year.

Of course no modern creative in their right mind is going to offer up a straight up and down Doll’s House but it is a testament to old Henrik’s genius that it can stand all sorts of updating and alteration. And that’s not just because of its feminist message but also because its a cracking plot.

Tanika Gupta’s plays and adaptations have explored her cultural heritage, race and female agency in myriad ways before. Just before this her version of Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice attracted excellent reviews at the Manchester Royal Exchange and this re-setting of Ibsen’s masterpiece to Calcutta, still in 1879 as in the original, was originally aired as a BBC radio play in 2012. Nora becomes Niru an intelligent young Bengali woman married to English colonial tax collector bureaucrat Tom Helmer. He plainly loves her but more as exoticised plaything, “my little Indian princess”, than partner and insists she convert from her “heathen” religion to Christianity ahead of their marriage. With minimal changes to the “past coming back to haunt her” plot which heralds Niru’s liberation, Tanika Gupta very effectively explores the impact of race and colonialism, as well as gender politics, in her text. The power that Tom exerts over Niru flows not just from his sex but also the assumption of his cultural superiority, his religion and the state.

The setting also lends resonance to Dr Rank’s (Colin Tierney) creepy feelings for Niru and his liberal concerns about what the injustices inflicted by the colonial regime might catalyse and clerk Kaushik Das’s, (the Krogtad character played by Assad Zaman), motives for his “blackmail”. And to the sacrifices and social position of Mrs Lahiri (Tripti Tripuraneni), Niru’s now widowed childhood friend, and maid Uma (Arinder Sadhra), who is driven to leave her children by economic necessity. These connotations flow elegantly from the concept however and don’t get in the way of the central narrative.

Incoming AD at the Lyric Rachel O’Riordan chose to direct the production herself to kick off her tenure, (she will also oversee the revival of Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love later in this season), and she has made a splendid job of it. I am afraid Belfast, Perth and Cardiff, her previous residences, were just a little too far even for the intrepid Tourist so his previous encounters with Ms O’Riordan’s work have been restricted to the somewhat underwhelming Foxfinder revival at the Ambassador’s and the powerful Gary Owen plays, Killology and Iphigenia in Splott, (will someone please give Sophie Melville a big starring role on the telly). Whilst Tanika Gupta’s many layered adaptation and Henrik’s plot would be hard to make a mess of, the fact is that this was perfectly judged, building tension without ever losing sight of message.

Lily Arnold’s set, the tiered courtyard of the Helmer’s rather too comfortable house, heavy doors to the outside world backstage dead centre, Kevin Treacy’s lighting, Gregory Clarke’s sound and, especially, Arun Ghosh’s on stage music, were similarly on the money, lending atmosphere and supporting the drama. Above all though it was the performances of the two leads which won us over. For I was accompanied by BD. Now I may have slightly oversold the feminist credentials of HI, BD being a very modern and persuasive advocate of female equality, but she was still much taken with the setting and the story. And with Anjana Vasan. Now this is the second time the Tourist has seen Ms Vasan anchor a fine play, after Vinay Patel’s An Adventure at the Bush (which touched on post-colonial experience in India, Kenya and Britain), and what with her noteworthy supporting turns in Rutherford and Sons at the NT, Summer and Smoke at the Almeida and Life of Galileo at the Young Vic, it is pretty clear the secret is out. This though was another level as she depicted the journey for which Nora is renowned whilst laying on top the conflicted perspective that Niru, in this very different society and place, could offer.

Whilst Elliot Cowan didn’t quite get to offer as many dimensions with Tom, he is largely a patronising, self-regarding shit, most notably at the end, when his ugly racism is laid bare as he fears the scandal that threatens to envelope the couple, and then pretends everything can go back to normal when a way out is revealed thanks to Das’s repentance at Mrs Lahiri’s behest. The famous confrontation scene ahead of the even more famous exit was electric, especially given the stakes for Niru are arguably even greater than for the average Nora. Now the last time I saw Mr Cowan was as the host at the holiday home which provided the setting for Anne Washburn’s brilliant dissection of liberal America Shipwreck at the Almeida. Where he doubled up as a kind of mythic tyrant Trump. Bloody scary. He is a tall bloke: the physical contrast with the elfin Ms Vasan added to the mental tussle between the Helmers. I also note that Mr Cowan had an important part too as the idealistic journalist Charlie in the NT revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s African post-colonial epic Les Blancs.

Anyway my guess is both are leads jumped at the opportunity to take on these roles and I for one am glad they did. Like I say A Doll’s House is going to be the subject of constant innovation but you could wait a long time before seeing an interpretation as intelligent and thought provoking as this. West End producers are constantly on the hunt for a popular classic> they could do far worse than this production though I get that no super big names are involved here. Mind you I am pretty sure Anjana Vasan will be one day.

The Secret River at the National Theatre review ****

The Secret River

National Theatre Olivier, 29th August 2019

This must have been tough. Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Secret River is an epic production, in terms of the story it tells and the way it tells it, involving numerous creatives and a large cast, over 40 people in total. All came over to headline the Edinburgh Festival and then move on to the NT. And then the heart of the production, Ningali Lawford-Wolf, a leading First Nations activist and performer, who played Dhirrumbin, the narrator of the story, passed away suddenly in Edinburgh. Her family and the creative team agreed to go ahead, Pauline Whyman stepped in and we were fortunate enough to see, (and hear and smell), this marvellous slice of theatre. So thank you all.

Now when I say epic this doesn’t mean the play loses the human dimension. The Secret River, based on Kate Grenville’s award winning novel, (part of a trilogy), is a fiction intended to explore Australia’s colonial past but at its heart are two families struggling to survive. Ms Grenville was prompted to write the book, following the May 2000 Reconciliation Walk, to understand the history of her ancestor, Solomon Wiseman, who settled on the Hawkesbury River. It tells the story of William Thornhill whose death sentence for petty theft is commuted to transportation to New South Wales for life in 1806. He arrives with wife Sal and children and is eventually able to buy his freedom to start afresh. The family’s encounters with the Aboriginal people of Australia, and their relationship with other settlers, good and bad, is explored, culminating in violence. Thornhill’s determination to own and tame “his” 100 acres of land is contrasted with the Aboriginal family’s bewilderment at the very idea and with Sal’s desire to return “home”. Thornhill may be a good man in some ways but cannot stop himself from dehumanising his indigenous neighbours, though by the end his guilt is manifest.

Not having read the book I can’t be sure how tightly Andrew Bovell’s adaptation cleaves to the original story, but director Neil Armfield, associate Stephen Page and dramaturg Matthew Whittet take full advantage of the dramatic opportunity it affords. A simple brown ochre suspended cloth creates a cliff face thanks to set designer Stephen Curtis, Tess Schofield offers simple but authentic costumes and Mark Howett’s lighting is superb. The sound design of Steve Francis and especially the score of composer Iain Grandage, brilliantly realised by Isaac Hayward through piano (keys and strings), cello and electronics, is one of the best I have ever experienced. The full extent of the Olivier stage, and theatrical technique, is used to conjure up this bend of the Hawkesbury River in 1813/14.

The play was first performed in 2013 in Sydney to rave reviews. Which is unsurprising giving just how well the story is told and the power of the message. But you don’t need to be Australian to appreciate that message. The ugly truth of colonisation and the damage done to the culture and society of First Nations people (in Australia and by implication elsewhere) is laid bare but through metaphor not didactically, and the motivations of the characters are made real in actions as much as words. The indigenous Dharug family begins by voicing their apprehension at what the settlers might bring, whilst Thornhill justifies his claim to the land by saying they are effectively nomads who choose not secure land or crops. Curiosity gives way to conflict. Any hope of shared understanding soon flounders on the greed, and/or desperation, of the settlers.

The performances are excellent led by Georgia Adamson as the ruminative Sal, Nathanial Dean as her less thoughtful husband, Elma Kris doubling up as Buryia and Dulla Din, the wife of Blackwood (Colin Moody), Dubs Yunupingu, similarly as Gilyaggan and Muruli, Major “Moogy” Sumner AM as the patriarch Yalamundi, Joshua Brennan as the conniving Dan Oldfield, Jeremy Sims as the vicious Smasher Sullivan and Bruce Spence as the erudite Loveday. (For those of a certain vintage you will remember Bruce as the pilot in Mad Max 2 and 3).

And, of course, Pauline Whyman. Her narration needs to shape and reflect the rhythm of the story, which can’t have been easy after, literally, a few hours of rehearsal. Dhirrumbin is the Dharug name for the Hawkesbury, suggesting, as much of her script does, that she was their long before any human ever arrived. And that she knows how this tragedy will end. It is she that provides the way into not just this place but also the emotional hinterland of the two peoples and, specifically provides the Dharug with a voice for us to understand. Unlike the book the play doesn’t just see these people solely through the eyes of the white settlers. Initially however Andrew Bovell and his team had no language for them to speak. Until actor Richard Green joined the original cast. As a Dharug man he was able to show that their language was very much alive and went on translate and show the cast how to speak and sing it. The Anglicised names of the Dharug in the book could now be reclaimed in their own language and we could begin to understand how they might perceive a history which they had not written.

A theatre saddo, loafer and tightwad like the Tourist can be relied on to fill in the surveys that theatres send out post performance. Do you go to the theatre to be entertained, inspired or educated they say. In the case of The Secret River I can definitively say all three. Equally. And the SO who came along is set to read the book. No higher praise is possible.

The Tempest at Greenwich Theatre review ****

The Tempest

Greenwich Theatre, 16th February 2019

As my dear old mum would say “sometimes Michael you would forget your head if it wasn’t screwed on”. Not for the first time the Tourist managed to leave the programme for this performance by Lazarus Theatre Company of The Tempest in a shopping basket in Marks and Spencer’s. Which regrettably means I can’t call out all the excellent performances of this generally young and upcoming cast. Sorry.

I can however once again recommend director Ricky Dukes’s way with classic texts. The Tempest followed on from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lord of the Flies and Edward II. All at the Greenwich Theatre and all created on a shoestring. There is an energy, vitality and intelligence that this director and company bring to their interpretations that put many a bigger company and budget to shame. To be fair this doesn’t quite match the best of the Tempests the Tourist has seen in recent years, the all female Donmar version from Phyllida Lloyd or the technologically enhanced RSC version with Simon Russell Beale, or my all time favourite from the RSC in 1989 with John Wood as Prospero, but it delivered some fresh (to me) insights and some proper spectacle.

Casting a female (or indeed non-binary) Prospero is not new. But casting a man as Miranda is to me. Micha Colombo’s Prospero was a benign, loving mother, seemingly devoid of rancour at her fate. She was always going to forgive the nasty Milanese and Neapolitans. Alexander de Fronseca as Miranda (no changes to text required) was the picture of innocence. No sign of the perplexing street-wisery that overtakes some Mirandas in order to simulate agency in the romance. Aaron Peters was a little less secure as Ferdinand, (he suffered, along with the shipwrecked aristos from some sizeable cuts to the text), but they made a lovely couple (and Prospero here seems to agree from the start). Abigail Clay’s Ariel had all the right, sprite moves but, mirroring Prospero, was more accepting of his/her bondage and keen to get the job done and taste freedom. Having Antonio (Peace Oseyenum) as a sister to Prospero also made for an interesting perspective.

The Tempest is about many things: autobiography, art, learning, theatrical illusion, magic, Manichaeism, justice, revenge, forgiveness, free-will, sexuality, post-colonialism and male dominance. It is about as pure a Romance form as big Will conjured up (ha, ha) and strictly obeys the unities of time, place and action, (though with all the supernatural goings-on it is pretty clear that WS is taking the Aristotelian p*ss). It has bags of Classical allusion in text and plot. Overall though, and despite the “flat” nature of the characters, I think the message is that it is good to be alive and good to be human. That is certainly the case here.

Mr Dukes once again makes abundant and inventive use of light (Stuart Glover) and sound (Sam Glossop) to offset a limited budget (I assume) for set and costume (Rachel Dingle). Prospero’s island is imagined as a light filled hexagon on the stage floor which opens up at the front, to reveal a deep blue sea. The light shifts with the narrative so that by the end the stage is bathed in red. Light, sound and the energetic cast literally kick up a storm at the opening. The dance and drone rhythms punctuate the rest of the play. It doesn’t always work but when it does it is undeniably effective. Costumes are work-a-day modern dress except for Prospero, where Micha Colombo is clad in green and red fairy ball-gown and cape (which works far better than it sounds). There is constant movement from the cast with the aisles and auditorium once again playing a part. Umbrellas double up as swords and, rainbow coloured, as props during the masque, here imagined as a blessing, with a shower of gold. Iris and Ceres are thus symbolised without the need for a tiresome “faerie pageant”. Trinculo’s (David Clayton) Union Jack boxers and Stephano’s (James Altson) clipped Home Counties vowels gently hammer home the colonialist theme.

Some of the cast coped with the poetry of redacted text rather better than others. For me the standouts were James Altson and especially Micha Colombo herself. I seem to remember from reading her bio that she has devoted a fair amount of theatrical energy to the other side of the stage, in narration, voice-overs and corporate work , as well as with Lazarus. On the basis of this performance I am surprised she hasn’t landed some bigger roles. Her delivery of the lines is crisp with perfect rhythm and, assuming this is the Prospero that the director imagined, her performance was perfectly pitched. I wish I had an Aunty like this Prospero when I was younger. She would have made me a better person.

Next up (after a re-run of AMSND) is Salome. Suspect Mr Dukes will have some fun here. The blurb is promising “full male nudity, gun shots and scenes of a sexual and violent nature”. Surprise, surprise.

Cuzco at Theatre 503 review ***

Cuzco

Theatre 503, 13th February 2019

Wednesday afternoon. Quite nice weather as I recall. Near the end of the run. No great surprise that Theatre 503, (above the Latchmere in Battersea), was home to just a few, presumably, lost souls including your intrepid correspondent. Hopefully a few more punters pitched up for the more sociable slots as this play, about a couple “finding themselves” on the Inca trail, whilst not overwhelming at the time, has actually, and unexpectedly, lodged in my memory.

It is written by Víctor Sánchez Rodríguez, a young playwright with quite a reputation in his native Spain, and here translated by William Gregory. The nameless couple, played here with fearless commitment by Dilek Rose and Gareth Jones, are holed up in a hotel room in Cuzco, the historic capital of the Inca Empire, destroyed by the Conquistadors. She is feeling a bit peeky. He is frustrated that he has to go sightseeing on his own. Their relationship is plainly a bit rocky but as She, who is Spanish and riddled with post colonial guilt, rejects the tourist trappings to get “in touch” with the locals, and He contemplates a threesome with a vacuous rich US couple, things start to spiral out of control. She ends up rejecting her life in Europe to “come home” to a world replete with Inca symbolism. He cannot “follow” her and gets increasingly paranoid.

As quotidian dialogue gives way to philosophical monologue the play does go a bit kooky, but its themes still come across clearly and, briskly directed across its 70 minutes by Kate O’Connor, it doesn’t hang about. It did sometimes feel that the writer (and probably the translator) were straining a bit too hard for effect over content, and the simple set of Stephanie Williams, dictated by necessity, constrained the imagination. Mind you Max Pappenheim’s sound design did it best to open up the vistas, geographical and psychological.

Holidays eh. Always bring out the worst in people.

The Madness of George III at the Nottingham Playhouse review *****

The Madness of George III

Nottingham Playhouse, 13th November 2018

Flushed with success from his visit to Manchester the Tourist hopped on a train across the Peak District to the proud city of Sheffield, (where I see the Theatres will be staging a Rutherford and Sons next year ahead of a version at the NT, and will then attempt to stage The Life of Pi, which should be interesting), and then on to Nottingham.

An interesting exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary – Feminisms, Gender, Resistance – but the main aim of the visit was the Playhouse and The Madness of George III. Now I booked this on the assumption, as with the Death of a Salesman at the Royal Exchange, that this was as near to a sure-fire winner as it was possible to get in theatrical terms. Alan Bennett at his witty best, but armed here with a riveting biographical story, directed by the ebullient new(ish) Artistic Director at the Playhouse, Adam Penford, and with Mark Gatiss in the lead, and Adrian Scarborough as Dr Willis, in a uniformly excellent cast. 

And sure-fire winner it turned out to be. Apparently it has become the biggest box-office hit in the Playhouse’s history. It was screened to millions (I may be exaggerating here) via the NT Live cinema programme and ensured a bunch of critics left their London mansions to deliver a slew of 4* and 5* reviews. The audience on the evening the Tourist attended plainly loved, explicit in the congratulations during the after-show discussions.

I saw the original NT production with Nigel Hawthorne as George back in 1991, the Apollo Theatre revival a few years ago with David Haig at his actorly best, and have seen the film version a fair few times. So you can probably tell I am a bit of a fan. I will assume that, since you are one of the very select band reading this, that you are too, so won’t bore you with plot or historical details. If you don’t I suggest you see the film tout suite. 

So what was so good about this production? Well first off Adam Penford has cut out a handful of scenes. AB’s play is already, like most of his work, structured as a series of very short scenes in multiple locations. This guarantees momentum but, allied with AB’s constant urge not to leave a potential quip on the table (which is why it is a comedy after all), can mean the characters, other than the King, come across as a bit thinly sketched. Cutting scenes out might seem counter-intuitive but it does actually mean we become more focussed on the “tragedy” of the King’s breakdown, and then the jubilation of his apparent recovery. I was also more aware here of the King’s relationship with his retinue. The political machinations, Whig vs Tory, the plotting of the Prince Regent and his faction, took a bit more of a back seat.

George III’s 59 year rule saw not just the Regency crisis, but the “loss” of American, the union of GB and Ireland, wars in Europe and throughout the burgeoning Empire, rivalry with France, the Agricultural Revolution and the accumulation of capital to fuel the Industrial Revolution, a new way to finance the monarchy, constitutional change and scientific advances (which George was keenly interested in when he was on top form). Whilst AB’s play only incidentally touches many of these profound changes it does brilliantly capture the dichotomy between the public and private life of the monarchy and the metaphor of the King’s breakdown mirroring the political struggle catalysed by the American War of Independence. 

The dynamism of the production was also very well served by Robert Jones’s ingenious set. The various locations were smartly rendered with a series of Georgian style duck-egg painted flats, on stage and suspended, which were moved into place with no interruption to the action at all. Richard Howell’s lighting design, Tom Gibbons’ sound and Lizzi Gee’s movement, as well as some blisteringly quick costume changes, all further contributed to the pace and period feel of the production (most memorably at the end of the first half). A theatre set to point up the theatricality which underpins royalty. 

However, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the performance of Mark Gatiss that really made the difference. Adrian Scarborough’s Dr Willis, alarmingly forthright in his proto-psychiatric treatment of the King, (pointing up that he was just a man), in the second half, Debra Gillett’s devoted Queen Charlotte, Louise Jameson’s callous Dr Warren, Nicholas Bishop’s morose Pitt, Amanda Hadingue’s presumptuous Fox and Will Scolding’s nincompoop Prince Regent all caught the eye, but all eyes were on Mr Gatiss. As you might expect the comedy flowed easy for him: but better still was the way he caught the pathos of the king as he was plunged into a mania which he could not control but which he understood. “I am not going out of my mind, my mind is going out of me”. The production also doesn’t hold back from showing the physical pain that was inflicted on him by doctors who didn’t have a clue what they were doing. Mr Gattis’s detailing of the King’s speech, tics, convulsions and agonies is mesmerising. Adam Penford was keen to offer a more sympathetic, and contemporary reading, of the King’s mental illness and to avoid seeing his behaviour solely through the lens of humour. Thanks to Mark Gattis’s performance he certainly succeeded. 

History play, political drama, comedy. tragedy? This production makes the case for all of these in a forthright way. Thank you Nottingham Playhouse. I’ll be back. 

A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre review ****

andersen-hc

A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter

Bridge Theatre, 13th October 2018

OK then. All of you fans of densely-plotted, cerebral, potty-mouthed, fairy-tale, political, splatter, revenge, comedy fantasies. Your ship has come in.

I have a strong feeling that Martin McDonagh’s new play at the Bridge will, in years to come, form the basis for many a Theatre and Drama Studies students’ dissertation. Let’s just say he doesn’t hold back here. All of his tics, tropes and obsessions are on show: moral instability, savage humour, verbal aggression, twisted irony, brutal violence, calculated abuse, punishment, justice and revenge, inversions, post-modernist borrowings, self-reverence, complex allusion, high and low art juxtapositions, exaggerations, call-backs, call-forwards and protean plot twists.

In a word: meta.

Once again he is pushing the audience, deliberately transgressive, a kind of theatrical meta-regression to keep us on our toes, but this time, unlike the best of his work, it doesn’t quite hang together on first viewing. The rhythm of the language is less immediately persuasive, less precise, (even allowing for a few timing issues at this early performance). It cannot be missed mind you, and it may be that the production will tighten up through the run, but overall I found it a little less convincing than Hangmen or The Lieutenant of Inishmore, or Three Billboards … or In Bruges. In these the intricate plotting and more naturalistic settings make for a more satisfying whole. On the other hand AVVVDM might turn out to have more intellectual depth: I am simply not clever enough to take it all in on one viewing. Probably closest to Seven Psychopaths for you students of MM, a film even he described as maybe a bit too meta, but one which I think gets better on repeated viewing.

AVVVDM is drawn from Mr McDonagh’s 1995 play The Pillowman, which was first performed in 2003 at the NT and also starred Jim Broadbent, (who plays Hans Christian Anderson in AVVVDM), as cop Tupolski, alongside David Tennant, Nigel Lindsay and Adam Godley. In this play a writer, living in an unspecified totalitarian theocracy, is accused of murders which mimic the plots of his own fairy tales. It is a bit Gothic, it captures the power of literature, there’s some Kafka going on, the ethical dilemma is fascinating if a little forced, of course there is violent imagery and of course there is humour.Like all of McDonagh’s plays The Pillowman’s morality is slippery, though not really ambiguous; it is normally pretty clear what he is saying, just that its compass is oscillating so rapidly between perspectives of right and wrong that we in turn start to lose our bearings.

Once again it he world of “fairy tales” that forms the starting point for AVVVDM. In fact the “plot” looks to be drawn from The Shakespeare Room, which Michal, Katurian’s damaged brother, references in The Pillowman. In this story it turns out that Shakespeare’s plays were written by a pygmy woman he kept in a box. MM has described in the past, reiterated in the programme here, how he made up fairy tales in his teens for his older brother John. One of these formed the basis for another of Katurian’s stories in The Pillowman, The Tale of the Town on the River, which tells how the Pied Piper “saved” one of the children by chopping off his toes. And so fairy tales get darker and darker with the telling.

AVVVDM kicks off with Hans Christian Andersen giving a contrived recital of The Little Mermaid. Now it turns out that the real HCA was an awkward character, abused at school, with unrequited longings for men and women but likely celibate. One of the objects of his affections, Edvard Collin (Lee Knight), is in the crowd in this opening scene. And, incongruously, also there, well there in HCA’s mind, cue the scary music, are a couple of blood encrusted, walking and talking, corpses, Barry (Graeme Hawley) and Dirk (Ryan Pope), sporting fine moustaches. Well this is a fairy tale after all. Cut to the attic of HCA’s townhouse where, surprise, surprise, we discover that he has a secret, namely a Congolese pygmy, Marjory, in a box, who is writing his stories.

All this is accompanied by a gravelly narration from none other than Tom Waits. From here MM weaves together the genocide in the Congo Free State in the late C19 with the real life friendship of Charles Dickens (Phil Daniels) and HCA, which unravelled when HCA overstayed his welcome on a visit in 1857. I’ll stop there. Let’s just say the plot plays fast and loose with fact, fiction and time.

I guess MM’s main thrust is to contrast the near unbelievable horror of King Leopold II’s direct, private rule of the Congo from 1885 to 1908, where maybe ten million died, and which scarred the country through Belgian colonial rule, and post independence, with the pygmy population suffering most, (as it still does today), with the maudlin tales of innocence and virtue standing fast against corrupting forces of both HCA and Dickens. It is hard to avoid the stories told by the latter, they permeate Western culture: the barbarous reality of the former though, a couple of decades later, and far worse than anything imagined in fiction, is still barely known by many, including me until now.

The fact that MM tells this story in the form of a comedy, in an expletive-ridden contemporary vernacular, is only to be expected from MM. Casting Jim Broadbent and Phil Daniels, who are, by virtue of career and demeanour, are distinctively Dickensian, is surely no accident. After all a new MM script will pretty much guarantee any actor from his roster of favourites will sign up, sight unseen. Both went all out for laughs, many of which were at the broad end of the subtlety scale. Emily Berrington, as she so often does, near steals the scenes she is in as the earthy Mrs Catherine Dickens. I loved the sweary kids as well. Paul Bradley, as the inexplicit Press Man, also turned in his customarily fine performance.

However the play would not be possible without the formidable Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles as Marjory, (and later Ogechi, you’ll see). From the moment she emerged from the box, suspended from the ceiling in Anna Fleischle’s amazing set, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. This was BUD, and KCK’s, first exposure to the wonderful and frightening world of Martin McDonagh. The SO was converted at Hangmen. When we emerged, not a little bewildered, after the 90 minutes, we debated the play long into the night. OK then maybe not long into the night, but certainly as long as it took to have a drink, some rarebit (highly recommended) and some madeleines, in the excellent Bridge foyer. Anyway BUD, being the analytical sort of chap he is, couldn’t get over the fact that the play could only exist with Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles in the role. Surely it must have been written for her?

I agree. But not for the obvious reasons of appearance. Simply because she is an outstanding actor. Sardonic, bitter, vengeful, powerful yet also vulnerable, compassionate and forlorn. Don’t get me wrong she delivers plenty of killer (literally) comic lines but she also carries the entire weight of the emotional and political substance of the play on her shoulders. This is her professional debut. Extraordinary.

Now director Matthew Dunster, and Anna Fleischle, have previous with Martin McDonagh, having brought the Royal Court production of Hangmen into being. (Mr Dunster also has form with HCA, directing the Pet Shop Boys’ ballet adaptation of his story The Most Incredible Thing. Messrs Tennant and Lowe know a thing or two about stagecraft challenges but they are not a patch on MM).

Even so I suspect director and designer, and the rest of the creative team, James Maloney (music), Philip Gladwell (lighting), George Dennis (sound), Chris Fisher (illusions), Finn Ross (video) and Susanna Peretz (wigs and prosthetics), must have rolled their collective eyes at their first meeting. How were they going to make this leap of mischievous imagination from page to stage? Impressively, as it turns out.

So you see the thing with MM is there is just so much there. So many echoes yet uniquely his own voice. Scorsese, Malick, Pinter, Tarantino, Synge, Le Fanu, Mamet, Beckett, Borges, punk. Insert your own thoughts here. I for one really what to believe he likes The Fall.

A master story-teller. With maybe, in this case, not quite a master story. It might annoy you. It might frustrate you. It might provoke you. It might overwhelm you with “WTF” moments. It should make you laugh, (assuming you know a little of what you are letting yourself in for). It will certainly make you think. And you definitely won’t forget it in a hurry.

An Adventure at the Bush Theatre review ****

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An Adventure

Bush Theatre, 26th September 2018

Now I cannot pretend that, when the lovely people at the Bush moved the matinee performance of An Adventure that I attended forward by an hour, and indicated it had metamorphosed into a three hour plus extravaganza, I wasn’t concerned. And reading the proper reviews, which were variable, but generally pointed to narrative ambition trumping dramatic momentum, didn’t help.

Well I can report that this is, give or take, a wonderful story, superbly, and smartly, told. The Bush is still claiming a 3 hour 15 minute running time but it isn’t, it certainly doesn’t feel anywhere near it, and there are a couple of intervals to catch your breath anyway. If anything I would have liked, whisper it, a bit more. It kicks off with feisty Gudjarati Jyoti, ostensibly 16, interviewing callow Rasik, ostensibly 22, one of the five suitors chosen by her father, on a stormy night on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in post-partition India in 1954. Not best qualified, Rasik doesn’t start his wooing too well but eventually, after a little sparring, Jyoti warms to him and the match is made. It is a cracking opening scene with emotional warmth set against the non-naturalistic set of Rosanna Vize, a golden plinth flanked by Louise Rhodes-Brown’s video designs (which help to anchor time and place throughout). The second scene, on a beach where Rasik, who can’t swim, clings on to Jyoti, is no less powerful and is the metaphor from which the rest of the story unfolds.

We then track the couple through Nairobi, during the fight for Kenyan independence in the late 1950’s, where Rasik goes into business with patriot David and buys him land, to London where the couple arrive in 1968, through the 1970’s, and daughter Sonal, and back to India, for the funeral of Joyti’s mother, where we meet niece Joy, and then finally Nairobi, in the present day. Along the way we see the India diaspora experience unfold, with exposition which generally doesn’t interrupt the flow, entwined with the personal journey of the couple. Home, emigration, immigration, post-colonialism, racism, gender roles, political activism, ageing, parenthood, the tyranny of everyday life, in fact just about everything that matters, is lightly ticked off along the way, but all is coherent.

The first part, (and the finale), in Kenya, is the most pointed in terms of political message, contrasting Kikuyu David’s support for violent Mau-Mau resistance with Rasik’s more pragmatic faith in a peaceful transition. This in turn contrasts with the personal politics of Jyoti who joins a union and campaigns to improve the conditions of British Asian working women in the 1970s. At the same time we see the racism that Rasik endures in his work and the strains that the struggle to get on put on their marriage. We see the next generation in the shape of Sonal looking to move up and on through education and travel encountering Jyoti’s motherly resistance.

This is though more a love story than history lesson and is all the more successful for it. In the final scenes, with the couple in their seventies, Rasik’s sight failing and mobility impaired, they look back and this, frankly, is where it really connected emotionally. I cannot claim to understand the journey of Jyoti and Rasik but I can certainly empathise with the prosaic intimacy of their relationship. For these final scenes Jyoti and Rasik are played by Nila Aalia and Selva Rasalingam, but you can still feel the essence of the characters shaped by the superb Anjana Vasan and Shubham Saraf in the earlier years. Jyoti may be headstrong but her inner strength shines through from the off. Rasik may be less certain, earnest in his youth, irascible in his old age, but they make an entirely believable couple. Writer Vinay Patel based his story on the life of his grandparents which is maybe just why.

Mr Patel’s expansive tale wears its learning pretty lightly. As with his previous work, notably his play True Brits and his TV drama Murdered By My Father, he shows that he has a way with story and character and can conjure up a lot of content from relatively straightforward starting points. An Adventure is more ambitious that his previous works, and maybe this time he has tried to pack a bit too much in to create his odyssey of marriage, but it is still a very entertaining and skilful attempt. I imagine he is a confident young man and I suspect he believes, as do I, that he will get even better from here. Madani Younis is, unsurprisingly, a completely sympathetic directorial presence; you get the feeling writer and director brought the best out of each other from the very start of the project. It will be very interesting to see what Mr Younis brings to the South Bank in his new role.

The cast, including a resolute Martins Imhangbe as David and impressive work from Aysha Kala as Sonal/Joy, is well matched to character, though, for me, Anjana Vasan stood out, as she did Life of Galileo at the Young Vic and Behind the Beautiful Forevers at the NT. Sally Ferguson’s lighting and Ed Clarke’s sound were able to navigate the intimate and expansive as the story demanded.

Six actors and seven characters, (well eight when you include younger daughter Roshni who literally phones in at the end), is not a lot to span this much history and geography. Then again the best way in drama to understand the big stuff is to see its repercussions at the human level. This is where Vinay Patel’s play works. He gets away with shoehorning in maybe just a bit too much of what he wantt to say because the characters are so real and the dialogue, with a few overly dreamy, symbolic interruptions, so apothegmatic. Above all there is that fearless enthusiasm for the power of drama that the best writers convey which makes this, for all its obvious faults, work.

The Outsider at the Print Room Coronet review ****

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The Outsider

Print Room Coronet, 19th September 2018

Tricky one this. I can’t pretend I was pinned back in my seat by the two and a half hours of Ben Okri’s adaptation of Albert Camus’ absurd existentialist classic written in 1942. Abbey Wright’s careful direction injects a little humour, (a dog is played by a mop and the trial scene is undercut with satire), but otherwise doesn’t take liberties with either Camus’ story or this intelligent text. The monochrome set, complete with multiple fans, and costume designs of Richard Hudson, bolster the sense of ennui. The Print Room dry ice machine gets yet another comprehensive work out. The plot, French Algerian bloke, bored at work as a clerk, can’t really get worked up about Mum’s death, finds girlfriend but can’t commit, gets involved with rum type neighbour, gets very hot, kills Algerian, is tried and condemned without really explaining himself, has its moments but isn’t going to pack them in at the Victoria Palace any time soon.

Yet this unhurried, unequivocal approach slowly and surely yields dividends assisted by an outstanding performance from Sam Frenchum. Now the Tourist got an inkling into of the talent of young Sam in the role of Hal in the Park Theatre’s excellent revival of Joe Orton’s Loot this time last year. Hal may not be the sharpest too in the box, so needs to be played dumb to get the laughs, but we need to see how his jealously of lover and criminal sidekick intensifies through the farce. That we got. Here though the young man, who is on stage throughout, rises up to a different challenge, gradually uncovering a man in Mersault, who reveals nothing. His delivery is deliberately monotone but far from mechanical. I expect him to go on to bigger things from here (actorally if not philosophically).

The pace gives the audience plenty of time to ruminate on what drives Mersault and why he is like he is. In the same way as the book. Ostensibly simple, almost banal, Mersault’s story yields pointed insight into the human condition, and specifically, the notion of alienation, of Mersault being a “stranger” or “outsider” to his own life and in the society around him. His utter indifference. Of course you might think it is a load of pretentious Gallic guff which only those who think too much and/or have too much time on their hands could possibly think is of any value. You might be right but I respectfully suggest you give it a go. After all you surely must have experienced the feeling of being utterly bemused by what is going on around you or unable to summon up apparently required emotions. Camus’ absurdist philosophy, his utter scepticism, is pretty bleak but it is ultimately truthfully humanist, even if it doesn’t always feel very human and can jar with post-modern sensibilities. It still needs to be understood though.

The book is written in the first person. Ben Okri has preserved that structure with Mersault speaking direct to audience in key passages to detail his experiences, perceptions, feelings, motivations, or more precisely lack thereof, whilst mixing this up with action across 13 speaking characters (and a few brave community locals). His first date with Marie Cardona (an innocently upbeat Vera Chok) on the beach, the murder, when he is alone in the cell and large parts of the courtroom scenes are straight narrative: the interactions with Raymond (an intimidating Sam Alexander), the undertaker and his defence lawyer (Josh Barrow moving swiftly on from his fine performance in The Silk Road at Trafalgar Studios), his boss and the prosecuting lawyer (David Carlyle) and the director and examining magistrate (Mark Penfold) are largely dialogue, though even here the sense that Mersault is at once removed from his own “reality” is palpable. Mind you he certainly “comes alive” when he violently rejects religion in the powerful scene with the chaplain (John Atterbury).

Mr Okri has preserved the minimalist quality of Camus’ text, or at least the translation I remember reading years ago, but still offers enough “colour” for Abbey Wright, lighting designer David Plater, sound designer Matt Regan and movement director Joyce Henderson to work with. Mind you he doesn’t quite scale the spartan heights of Robert Smith lyrics in The Cure’s early classic Killing An Arab.

If you do take the opportunity to see this production at the Print Room, there are a handful of tickets left, or if it pops up elsewhere, which it should, then don’t miss the accompanying short film by Mitra Tabrizian with text, in Arabic, once again from Ben Okri, which imagines events from the perspective of the Arab. Camus’ novel is discomforting in many ways, as was his principled ambivalence to Algerian independence, but giving a voice to the nameless Arab, here Mohamed Moulfath, (in the play Archie Backhouse), in a way similar to the 2014 novel The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, offers a valuable alternative perspective.