Mother of Him at the Park Theatre ****

Mother of Him

Park Theatre, 19th September 2019

I confess that the main motivation for seeing Mother of Him was Tracy-Ann Oberman. You will probably know her from her many, and varied, TV roles but she is also a feted stage actor. However until now I had only seen her once before: in Party Time and Celebration, part of Jamie Lloyd’s season of one act Pinter plays, where she shone amidst such acting luminaries as Ron Cook, Phil Davies, Celia Imrie and John Simm.

Here she played Brenda Kapowitz, a single mother in Toronto, estranged from Steven (Neil Sheffield), with two sons, Matthew (Scott Folan) and Jason (young Harri Agarwal at my performance). This was not your average family drama however as Matthew stands accused, alongside a friend, of raping three young women necessitating house arrest and the early appearance of lawyer Robert (Simon Hepworth).

Canadian writer Evan Placey based this, his debut play, on a true story but this is no crime, trial or punishment drama with the action all taking place in the family home in the lead up to the trial. Instead Mr Placey focuses almost entirely on Brenda as she oscillates between belief in Matthew’s innocence and her natural urge to protect her son(s) and disgust at what he might have done. She seeks to shield Jason from the truth whilst husband Steven seems to shirk responsibility instead trying to prise Jason from his mother. Matthew is curiously inert, making no attempt to defend or explain himself when questioned by Robert, maybe in misguided loyalty to his dominant friend or maybe because he is in denial. This even extends to his scenes with his girlfriend Jess (Anjelica Serra) who seeks him out despite Brenda’s misgivings.

Now I am not sure if Mr Placey intended to shift the axis of the plot quite so markedly or just underwrote the other characters. Director Max Lindsay, who has brought Evan Placey’s previous plays to the UK, plainly thought the former, and, given the acting prowess of Tracy-Ann Oberman, why not. Her Brenda is understandably angry, with Matthew, with her husband, at times with her lawyer and at the press parked outside their apartment, who we hear but do not see, and who are pointing blame at her. She is determined to hold things together, including her work, but is also vulnerable, as she runs the gauntlet of emotions, some very uncomfortable, that Mr Placey’s text unflinchingly explores. Her frustration with Matthew’s impenetrability is made more acute because of her, I think, previously controlling nature. The end, for both of them, as they face separation, is both painful and tender.

T-AO is brilliant, sharp and affecting, even when the interactions with the rest of the cast don’t quite ring true. This is not down to the dialogue, more, I would say, because of how the characters have been created in relation to Brenda. Get over this, and the dominant acting it required, as I did, and what you have is an intriguing play brought into focus by a commanding central performance. Lee Newby’s monochrome set, whilst good on paper, wasn’t quite up to the task, dramatically, or practically at this performance, and did get a little in the way of the story.

The producers here were also responsible for What Shadows, Pressure and Madame Rubinstein, at the Park, and this comes close to matching them. Whilst the writing isn’t anywhere near that of Bruce Norris, whose Downstate at the National recently similarly sought to avoid passing judgement on the actions of its protagonists, it did, similarly, try to address the reality of heinous crimes though not here accused or victim. I do hope I will be able to see TA-O again. Maybe next time back in Shakespeare.

A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic review *****

A Very Expensive Poison

Old Vic Theatre, 9th September 2019

Lucy Prebble wrote The Effect, ENRON and The Sugar Syndrome all of which were rightly lauded. She is currently one of the writers on Succession the best thing on the telly in this, or any other, year. And Guardian journalist Luke Harding writes vital books about the modern state, two of which have already been made into films. So this adaptation of his book A Very Expensive Poison: The Definitive Story of the Murder of Litvinenko and Russia’s War with the West was always going to be A BIG THING. And so it proved. The Old Vic is always a good place to spy luvvie types on their nights off and the evening we (the SO and the Blonde Bombshells) went was no exception. I won’t say who the Tourist fawned over this time. Just that it was almost as great a pleasure as the play itself.

Now this being Lucy Prebble we were never going to get a straightforward narrative. Even so the sheer invention on/in show was breathtaking. First though a quick reminder of the story. Alexander Litvinenko was an officer of the Russian FSB secret police who specialised in investigating the links between the state and organised crime. In 1998 he and other officers publicly accused their superiors of ordering the assassination of oligarch, and thorn in Putin’s side, Boris Berezovsky. He was acquitted but re-arrested, and when the charges were again dismissed, he fled to London with his family, where he was granted asylum, wrote articles and books accusing the FSB and others of terrorist acts and worked with British intelligence. In November 2006 he suddenly fell ill and was hospitalised. It transpired that he had been poisoned by a lethal radioactive dose of polonium-210. The subsequent British investigation pinned the blame on Andrey Lugovoy a former member of Russia’s Federal Protection Service but he could not be extradited. Litvinenko’s widow Marina, together with biologist Alexander Goldfarb, tirelessly sought justice for her husband and a coroner’s inquiry was set up in 2011. This was eventually, after much foot dragging by the Home Office, (yep one T May was in charge), followed up with a public enquiry which in 2016 conclusively ruled that his murder was sponsored by the FSB and likely conducted with the direct approval of FSB director Nikolai Patrushev and Putin himself.

Not difficult to understand why Luke Harding would want to document this extraordinary story or why Lucy Prebble could see its dramatic potential. The action centres on the indefatigable Marina (MyAnna Buring) and, in a series of slickly staged flash-backs, forwards and sideways, jumping across genres, tackles the who, how and why of the crime. I would be a liar if I can remember all the striking scenes but let’s try a few. The song and dance routine in a quasi brothel led by Peter Polycarpou’s Berezovsky. Amanda Hadingue as Professor Dombey giving a rapid fire 101 lecture on the history of radiation complete with puppets, Tom Brooke’s oddball Alexander Litvinenko serving up deadpan humour from the hospital bed which regularly appears on stage in a thrice, the two incompetent stooges played by Lloyd Hutchinson and Michael Shaeffer sent to carry out the assassination, the super meta-theatricality of Reece Shearsmith’s petulant, but still sinister, Putin commenting unreliably from the Old Vic boxes, the tell-tale trail of radiation handprints, the powerful direct address to the audience from Marina, and, finally, Alexander.

Of course the whole idea is to mess around with the truth in order to show how the modern state messes about with the truth. This near vaudevillian approach to political satire is not especially new (for LP herself), indeed I could imagine Joan Littlewood lapping this text up in the heyday of the Theatre Workshop, but the juxtaposition with such a serious subject is what makes this so interesting and, in some ways, challenging. OK so I can see why some might tire of all the theatrical fun and games but the abrupt shifts in tone, with humour constantly undercutting the serious narrative, worked for us, and, judging by the reaction, the audience including my new celebrity friend.

Bringing all this together will have tested the directorial powers of John Crowley, who has spent most of the last decade on a movie set. However this is the man who brought Martin McDonagh’s Pillowman to the NT stage so this wasn’t going to phase him. Mind you success was in no small measure due to the versatile box set of Tom Scutt, the choreography of Aletta Collins and remarkably nifty stage management from Anthony Field, Jenefer Tait and Ruby Webb.

I have said it before and I’ll say it again. If you want to make a powerful political point in the theatre then humour is your best bet. But it is also the most difficult way to do so. Maybe this isn’t absolutely perfect but given how much Lucy Prebble has gifted us here, as in her previous plays, it is as close as dammit and for that we should be grateful.

Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) at the Lyric Hammersmith review ***

Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs)

Lyric Hammersmith, 22nd May 2019

Never seen John Gay’s ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera, though have seen Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, on which it is based, a couple of times. Have been waiting patiently for a production of Britten’s 1948 adaptation to pop up again having missed a couple of past opportunities. So it seemed a good idea in the meantime to take in this version, co-produced by Kneehigh and the Liverpool Everyman/Playhouse in which writer Carl Grose, composer Charles Hazlewood and director Mike Shepherd have reimagined the story for a contemporary audience using an eclectic mix of musical genres.

And, by and large, it was a good idea, even if it was a little overstuffed with Kneehiggh’s usual bag of tricks. The John Gay original was written as an antidote to the ever more preposterous gods, monsters and love story Baroque Italian style operas filling London theatres. Often cobbled together from other works with divas insisting on their own favourite arias regardless of context, rambling on for hours and with daft plots, they were ripe for satire. Remember too that the early C18 was a golden age for political satire led by Hogarth, Swift and Pope in print. (In fact it was the latter two who first suggested the idea of TBO to Gay). C18 toff Britain was busy racking up debt, sticking it too Johnny Foreigner and getting rich on the proceeds of slavery, whilst all around absolute poverty was rife. Sound familiar?

Gay and the other writers of so called Augustan drama were also pushing back against the Restoration comedies and nasty she-tragedies of the previous decades, creating middle and lower class characters mired in a world of corruption. The aim was not necessarily to highlight the social and economic injustice meted out to the poor, there was still a strong Christian and moral tone of instruction to the works, but to vent the frustration of the mercantile “libertarian” class at the “conservative” aristocracy and its political sycophants. Gay’s particular target in The Beggar’s Opera was actually the divisive Whig prime minister Robert Walpole and specifically his involvement in bailing out the original investors in the South Sea Bubble.

The 69 songs, across 45 short scenes, originally were to be sung without musical accompaniment but Johann Christoph Pepusch was brought in at the last minute to create a score for the mix of largely Scottish and French folk melodies, chucking in popular broadsheet ballads, opera arias lifted straight from the like of Handel, church hymns and even an overture. The punters lapped it up and it spawned multiple imitations, (though this is the only ballad opera which is still performed), and influenced much of the comic opera and musical theatre which followed in the C19 and C20. I see that it enjoyed a lengthy revival at this very theatre in the 1920s.

Carl Grose has kept most of the main characters, the Peachums (Martin Hyder and Rina Fatania), daughter Polly (Angela Hardie), Lockit (Giles King) and daughter Lucy (Beverly Rudd), Filch (Georgia Frost) and, of course Macheath (Dominic Marsh), and the bones of the plot including a repurposed, and instructive, parody ending, though here Macheath is a contract killer tasked with bumping off the virtuous Mayor, (and his innocent mutt), to make way for Peachum. Charles Hazlewood has thrown in electro, grime, dubstep, noire, trip hop rhythms as well as some punk and ska, alongside snatches of Purcell, Handel and even Greensleeves (from the original), to foot-tapping effect. By and large it all hangs together and I can’t fault the cast for effort. The dance routines (courtesy of Etta Murfitt) are entertaining and there are some effective visual treats, not least of which is the titular dead dog in the suitcase. The on stage musicians, who also take on key parts, notably violinist Patrycja Kujawska as Widow Goodman, cannot be faulted.

But Michael Vale’s set, complete with scaffolding and slide, whilst initially impressive, at times becomes an obstacle course for the cast to negotiate and multiple costume changes only add to the complications. Adding in a Punch and Judy routine, assorted puppetry (marshalled by Sarah Wright)and other creative trickery ends up slowing down proceedings and interrupting the momentum in what is intended to be a high energy entertainment. Sometimes less is more, especially if the intention is to make some points about the iniquity of the contemporary political class. I know this kitchen sink, amateur circus look is a keynote of some of Kneehigh’s work but it does rather blunt the satirical intent.

Still I can’t pretend I didn’t laugh, or jig about a bit, and the whole thing is done in just over a couple of hours. There’s a few days left at the Lyric and then the production moves on to complete the tour in Exeter, Cheltenham, Bristol and Galway.

Downstate at the National Theatre review *****

Downstate

National Theatre Dorfman, 17th April 2019

Sweat, Shipwreck and now Downstate. Some of the best new plays I have seen this year have come from established US playwrights. Whilst Brits can usually be relied upon to come up with more innovative theatre in terms of subject and form, (well maybe Shipwreck fits that bill), if you want talky, gritty, politicised, soundly structured drama then the American heavyweights fit the bill. I guess it reflects their history, we are currently being treated to a Miller-fest in London, one of the greats, and, socially, culturally and political, the US theatre community has much to comment on right now.

We have more to look forward to later in the year with the world premiere of David Mamet’s latest play Bitter Wheat, a “farce” inspired by the Weinstein scandal, Appropriate, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s take on the classic American family drama at the Donmar, Fairview at the Young Vic, the Pulitzer Prize winner from Jackie Sibblies Drury and The Starry Messenger from Kenneth Lonergan. Judging from the reviews in the US, (they do go on a bit those Broadway critics – mind you, pot, kettle, black), they are all well worth seeing. And maybe later in the year, or next year, we have Antipodes from the mighty Annie Baker to look forward to at the NT.

Now Bruce Norris is most renowned for his play Clybourne Park from 2010, a kind of sequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun from 1959, and The Low Road from 2013, which is pretty much at the top of my “you f*ckwit, how did you manage to miss that” list since its premiere at the Royal Court with a cast to die for. Property, race, the contradictions of capitalism, the marginalised. These are the beefy concerns of Mr Norris and many of his peers. And Mr Norris has an advantage in that his work is usually brought to life by the world famous, (well in certain circles), Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.

Downstate premiered at Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre last year but, having been jointly commissioned by the NT, the company, including our own Cecilia Noble and Aimee Lou Wood, has been preserved for the London premiere. And it shows. This is ensemble acting at its best, and, I assume, the weeks of performance have polished up Mr Norris’s already sparkling dialogue to the jewel we see here. Downstate is not an easy subject to dramatise. Four paedophiles, released from prison but restricted in terms of movement (electronic tags and restriction zones), money, jobs and access to technology by state laws, are sharing a house in downstate Illinois overseen by weary police probation officer Ivy (Cecilia Noble). The elderly Fred (Francis Guinan) is wheelchair bound and the play starts with him listening to the testimony of one of his two victims, Andy (Tim Hopper) accompanied by his wife Em, (Matilda Ziegler). Andy, fresh from a survivors group, is plainly damaged and angry and determined to hear Fred acknowledge the abuse. Fred, who in all respects appears a kindly, almost naive old man, admits the crime but more as a matter of fact than remorse.

Fred is cared for by Dee (K Todd Freeman), a witty, intelligent and acerbic gay man, who still loves the young man, pointedly a Lost Boy in a production of Peter Pan, who was his evident victim. Gio (Glen Davies) is a garrulous younger man who refuses to accept he committed an offence, having had sex with young woman who “lied” about her age and, in breach of the conditions which govern his freedom, has befriended his young co-worker, bolshie Effie (Aimee Lou Wood) . The quartet is completed by Hispanic American Felix (Eddie Torres), who is barred from any contact with his family having abused one of his daughters. Like Gio, he has turned to religion, to atone and deflect.

Bruce Norris has thus created a realistic situation, (the programme offers some vital insights into the way sex offenders are treated in the US after they have nominally served their sentences), and four believable characters who cover the spectrum in terms of offences and the way in which they accept and acknowledge their actions. The play highlights the way in which society seeks to punish and secure revenge for these crimes as well as the debilitating impact on these men of the need to secure “protection” for any future potential recidivism. Punishing offenders for crimes that they have yet to commit is what makes sex offenders a special category of criminal. Which apparently doesn’t work anyway.

The brilliance of Mr Norris’s writing is that, without in any way lessening the impact of the suffering of the victims, Andy continues to play a central, if ambiguous, role throughout, we are asked to see them as sympathetic individuals, not monsters, and to listen to their accounts of what they did and who they are. They all see themselves in some way as victims. The uneasy fact is we start to understand, if never accept, why they would believe this and persist with the self-pity. Some of the bait and switches, and the speechifying, is a little mechanical, and I have still to make up my mind about the ending, but this is forgivable given the drama and dimensionality that it creates. It is not a comfortable watch but it grips from start to finish, and, if ultimately the task of a great playwright is to make you grapple with complex moral issues, without providing definitive answers, whilst still telling a story, then Mr Norris has delivered. It pokes and provokes, with no little humour, and even manages to generate audible audience gasps. That makes it a great play.

Todd Rosenthal’s set, Clint Ramos’s costumes, Adam Silverman’s lighting and Carolyn Downing’s sound, are note perfect. We are in the house with the characters. Pam McKinnon, who is the AD of the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, is a long time collaborator with Bruce Norris. It shows. The rhythm here is well nigh perfect. And the cast is, as I said, superb. Normally when I say this it actually means one or two members didn’t quite bring the A game that most of their colleagues did. Not here though. Even so, if I had to pick out one performance, it would be K Todd Freeman’s Dee. It is he who has to say most of the unsayable.

I would be surprised if, like Clybourne Park, this doesn’t quickly become a staple, and, whilst I find it hard to believe a future production could match this, it is a play you must see. If only to reflect on how easy it would be to fail when dramatising these issues, (Lucy Prebble has fortunately gone on to bigger and better things since her debut The Sugar Syndrome which addressed a similar subject). Mr Norris is a brave writer, like many of the peers mentioned above. I look forward to seeing more of his work.