Shook at the Southwark Playhouse review *****

Shook

Southwark Playhouse, 16th November 2019

The Papatango New Writing Prize is apparently the biggest of its kind in the UK, offering its winner the guarantee of a production and a commission to support a follow up play. The Funeral Director, Hanna, Trestle, Foxfinder, and especially Matt Grinter’s Orca, have all impressed me. Many of the writers have gone on to successful careers. This year’s winner, Shook, is as good, if not better than its predecessors, and, on the basis of this, I pray that its writer Samuel Bailey, has more ideas up his sleeve.

Shook is set in a young offenders institute where three young men, with expectant partners, are taking a class in parenthood facilitated by Grace (Andre Hall). Jonjo (Josef Davies) is initially skittish, agonised by the violent crime he has committed, whose nature and context takes time to emerge. Scouser Cain (Josh Finan) is incapable of self-censorship and sports an empty swagger. In contrast Riyad (Ivan Oyik) is more self-assured, deadpan in attitude, but keen to use education to help him thrive post his impending release. Samuel Bailey’s pin sharp dialogue initially accentuates the masculine banter, and is very funny, but gradually the deeper truths about the three young men emerge. Cain’s hyper-activity masks his helplessness, life inside preferable to the chaos of his upbringing, to Jonjo’s harrowing realisation that his reaction to provocation has ruined his chance of the normal family life he craves and Riyad’s temper and bravado sabotage his fierce intelligence. They may be young offenders, the exchange of sweets reminds us of their youth, but upbringing, society and system seem destined to conspire to break any chance they have of rehabilitation.

The characters are brilliantly crafted, back-stories and expectations, emerging naturally which is remarkable given the deliberately confined setting, and is helped by having the matter-of-fact Andrea as an emotional foil to contrast with the disclosures that emerge from the three men’s burgeoning friendship. The play doesn’t set out to be didactic or hammer home a message but still secures the audience’s sympathy for the wasted lives that seem set to emerge. The classes may ultimately be futile but at least offer some opportunity of catharsis for the three.

Jasmine Swan’s naturalistic set, is perfectly realised, and director George Turvey, focusses as much on the movement and non-verbal, as verbal, communication between characters, which, given the quality of the dialogue, is no mean achievement. Above all though it is the three young actors who utterly persuade. We are asked to imagine their lives before, beyond and outside, that we do so reflects their total commitment.

Fascinated to see what Mr Bailey comes up with next.

Little Baby Jesus at the Orange Tree Theatre review ****

Little Baby Jesus

Orange Tree Theatre, 28th October 2019

No flies on this. Arinze Kene’s coming of age play which first appeared at the OvalHouse in 2011 is high octane stuff. Which here, under the direction of this year’s winner of the JMK Award, Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu, and a committed cast of Anyebe Godwin as Kehinde, Rachel Nwokoro as Joanne and Khai Shaw as Rugrat, got the production it deserved. (I see there are all deservedly up for Offie Awards). Missing AK’s one man show Misty in 2018 has become even more of an oversight on the basis of this but his take on Biff Loman in the Young Vic Death of a Salesman ranks as one of the best in London theatre in 2019.

Joanne carries a lot of swagger and attitude but worries about her mum’s mental health. Kehinde is a sensitive soul with his eye on a mixed race girl. Rugrat is the class clown who lacks direction. All are negotiating their way through inner city life. School, relationships, gangs, parents, emotions, money, ambition. But this is no fulmination of worthy dialogue. Instead AK mixes monologue, poetry, audience address and participation, recollection, history, comedy, physical theatre, dance, song, to tell their, interconnected, stories, notably Kehinde’s search for his now absent twin sister. It is generous, exciting, uplifting, and sometimes a little confusing as these stories overlap and are often left hanging. It starts off with laughs, a lot of them, but ends up somewhere far more contemplative.

If stage acting is about losing the fear then, trust me, these three show no fear. It really pains me to say this, so good are all three, but Rachel Nwokoro, has got IT. I can see that she has no interest in being tied down to a traditional acting career but I dearly hope I see her on stage again.

Tara Usher’s design is admirably straightforward , Bethany Gupwell’s lighting, dominated by an overhead halo, just about keeps up, Nicola Chang’s sound is superb and I hope DK Fashola, as movement consultant, got properly rewarded for his contribution.

Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu has directed a number of his own plays, including Sweet Like Chocolate, Boy, but I think I am right in saying this is his biggest directing gig to date. There are a number of established BME British directors, Indhu Rubasingham obviously, Nadia Fall, Lynette Linton at the Bush, (and who directed Sweat at the Donmar, my choice for best play of 2019), Roy Alexander Weise, about to take up the, shared, reins at the Royal Exchange Manchester, Nancy Medina, Matthew Xia, Beijan Sheibani, as well as up and coming talents such as Nicole Charles, Ola Ince, Gbolahan Obisesan and Emily Lim, all of whose work I have seen in the last few months. There’s a way to go but this, along with the wealth of BME acting, and lately writing, talent getting an opportunity to tell their stories, is encouraging. It permits me to see and hear stories that I would otherwise not. Which, when you come to think of it, is the whole point of theatre.

P.S. The photo of the Orange Tree was taken a few years ago. The sharp eyed amongst you will see the poster promoting the OT’s trilogy based on Middlemarch from 2013. Not, if I am honest, an unqualified success but an opportunity to remind me to implore you, in this, the week of the bicentenary of her birth, to read Middlemarch. Either for the first time. Or again. It is the greatest story ever told in the English language. Even if it is about the middle class in middle England.

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.

Class at the Bush Theatre review ***

Class

Bush Theatre, 15th May 2019

Good intention. Examine the way the education process, despite the best intentions of those who operate it, can fail those who start with least advantage. Interesting central conceit. Take the parents whose son is the subject of their meeting with his teacher, and show them as their child selves. And some fine observation on class, expectation, educational prejudice and the language that educators use. Ultimately though both the Tourist and the SO weren’t completely convinced by the play’s apparent conclusions and by some of the narrative leaps taken along the way.

Dubliners Brian (Stephen Jones) and Donna (Sarah Morris) are the estranged parents of Jayden who have been called in to meet his teacher Ray McCafferty (Will O’Connell). Taxi driver Brian arrives early and his discomfort with environment, (this was his old school), and situation, (he is conscious about his own educational achievement), is palpable. Ray, in his eminently reasonable primary school teacher way, does his best to reassure him. Donna arrives and Ray explains that Jayden has fallen behind in his literary and might need some help, perhaps including the intervention of an educational psychologist. So far so awkward. We then switch to Jayden and Kaylie (again played by Stephen Jones and Sarah Morris) in a “homework club” with Mr McCafferty, attempting to engage their attention. When we switch back to Brian and Donna, after Ray exits to get the required paperwork, they discuss what to do with Jayden and show signs of the affection that still inhabits their relationship. When McCafferty returns however, and Jayden’s issue shifts from a learning “difference” to a “difficulty” and even possible dyslexia, and even a potential catalyst for “delinquency”, things start to kick off as his botched attempts to intervene on behalf of another pupil are revealed, the reasons for the break up of Brian and Donna are rehearsed and both men’s tempers spiral out of control.

A couple more plot ratchets and we’re done. Left with the slightly unsatisfactory feeling that writers (and directors) Iseult Golden and David Horan felt compelled to privilege dramatic tension over further character development. I can see why but, given the quality of the dialogue, laced with humour, in the first half, to us it seemed something of a waste. On the other hand it isn’t easy to see where they might have otherwise gone with the story and the fear of “fizzle out” is understandably. deeply ingrained in the creative writing psyche. Given successful runs in Dublin, Galway and Edinburgh, it is perhaps unsurprising that cast and direction is so accomplished and Maree Kearns set and costume design will be familiar to any parent and teacher either side of the Irish Sea. (The Tourist’s ample behind would often inadvertently take a tiny chair with it after parent teacher meetings at the local primary).

Out of Water at the Orange Tree Theatre review *****

Out of Water

Orange Tree Theatre, 9th May 2019

The Tourist was much taken with Zoe Cooper’s last play, Jess and Joe Forever, also at the Orange Tree, in 2016. A coming of age story which charted the relationship of Joe, Norfolk born and bred, and Jess, posh and up from London for her holidays, but with, quite literally, a difference. In Out of Water she has, on a somewhat broader scale, created another uplifting story of difference and acceptance, this time set in the North East. She has a light and witty touch, but there is something more, an emotional depth that gradually emerges out her beautiful writing which marks here out as a dramatist of genuine talent.

Forthright Kit (Zoe West) is a police officer who returns to her native South Shields with her diffident partner Claire (Lucy Briggs-Owen) who is a teacher and is expecting their first child. Kit’s family, give or take, is accepting of the lesbian couple but Claire, a posh-ish Home Counties type, who has landed a job in a local school to facilitate inclusion and work with certain of the pupils, finds it more difficult to adjust. Her attempts to reach out to non-binary Fish (Tilda Wickham), who dreams of the sea, and is regarded with suspicion by her prosaic peers, are received warily and provoke misgivings from others.

These three excellent actors also play a bevy of other characters, Kit’s down to earth Mum, the head teacher that recruits Claire, Brendan, the disciplinarian PE teacher who gets results, a lippy school-kid, amongst others. All turn out to be not quite what they seem as Ms Cooper mines the arguments about how we define who we are. Scenes slide into each other, Georgie folk songs evoke a sense of place, this being the Orange Tree, the parquet floor of Camilla Clarke’s set open up to reveal the “sea” beneath, there is a fish tank in one corner, a ladder in another. In one effective scene Fish lip-syncs to a David Attenborough nature programme. The symbolism is maybe a touch heavy handed and the narration to supplement the dialogue is maybe a little overdone but it does mean Ms Cooper, and director Guy Jones, are able to cover a lot of ground and allows the subtlety of the themes she is exploring to fully emerge.

Jude at the Hampstead Theatre review ***

Jude

Hampstead Theatre, 8th May 2019

I am guessing if you are the playwright responsible for The Churchill Play, Epsom Downs, The Romans in Britain, Pravda, Paul, 55 Days and Lawrence After Arabia you can get to write pretty much what you like. Especially if you plainly have a history of not giving a f*ck what people think of your work.

And if you are the outgoing director of the Hampstead Theatre, which you resurrected, (with your team), from near collapse a decade ago you also have the right to choose your swan song. And the writer who offered up five of his plays for you to stage over those ten years certainly deserves your loyalty.

But this is, no doubt, a tricky, uneven and, ultimately, not entirely convincing work. Howard Brenton has taken the bones of the story of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, repurposed it for our time, and then, in what might have seemed like a good idea at the time, added a kind of chorus in the form of Euripides himself.

His Jude is a female Syrian refugee, self-taught in Ancient Greek and the Classics, who, working as a cleaner, improbably secures a place at Oxford on the whim of a lesbian don, Deirdre. After having married a pig farmer. And with a cousin, (yes there a bit of unconvincing cuz-luv per Hardy,) who gets a bit carried way with his religious fervours and end up being surveilled as a terrorist by one of the Prof’s ex students. And Euripides, also self taught, comes to our Jude in dreams. Because he was, as Mr Brenton says, bloody good at this drama lark and interested in the story of refugees, minorities and strangers.

The play’s main message I think is that society must find a place for its geniuses but on to this already rickety framework, HB has a pop, in a moreorless non-PC way, at all manner of targets. Racism, nativism, fear of the other, Brexit, dumbing down and cultural ignorance, tokenism, institutional hypocrisy, the power of the state and surveillance, masks, the bicameral mind (nope, me neither). All liberally sprinkled with quotes from the Iliad.

HB’s heart is definitely in the right place, and there is plenty to chew over, but the execution is often idiosyncratic, the dramatic momentum uneven and the arguments scatter-gun. No amount of directorial patience from Edward Hall, or creative ingenuity from designer Ashley Martin-Davies, can mask (ha, ha) the structural flaws. Isabella Nefar does have a bloody, (literally at one point in a rather forced nod to Hardy), good crack at pulling the contradictions of her character together and Caroline Loncq gets well deserved laughs out of Deirdre. Paul Brennen wears his Euripides mask well and doubles up as one of the spooks, (remember HB wrote for the TV show of the same name), alongside Shanaya Rafaat. But Anna Savya as Jude’s aunt, (her father was killed back home but he is the one who fuelled her ambition, natch), March Husey as the naive cousin, Luke McGregor as the doltish husband Jack and Emily Taafe as Jude’s A level teacher are all stymied by some awkward dialogue and thin characterisation.

Yet, despite all of this, I quite took to Howard Breton’s misguided intellectualism and stylistic kitchen sink-ism. What most of the audience made of it though is anyone’s guess. What with this, David Hare’s not shooting the lights out with I’m Not Running, ditto (actually worse) with Alan Ayckbourn in The Divide, Michael Frayn retired and not a peep for years from Tom Stoppard, maybe the best days of the grand old men of British theatre are behind them.

Thanks heavens for the mighty Caryl Churchill then. The new season at the Royal Court is advertising there new short plays Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. “A girl made of glass. Gods and murders. A serial killer’s friends“. That’s all there is by way of intro. That’s all I need. I can’t wait.

The Cane at the Royal Court Theatre review ***

The Cane

Royal Court Theatre, 21st January 2019

Somehow, until now, the Tourist has failed to see any of the work of Mark Ravenhill, either as writer, performer or director, or even his columns in the Guardian, surprising given the Tourist’s status as a paid up Guardianista. There was a recent revival of his breakthrough play, Shopping and Fucking, at the Lyric Hammersmith, but sadly the performance the Tourist signed up for was cancelled. (Made worse by the fact that the Tourist had gone straight to the theatre from an outing elsewhere during a period of deliberate mobile phone estrangement. It should be possible to chuck the bloody thing away, and to this day the Tourist doggedly persists without data, ring-tone or any social media, but realistically the everyday organisation of modern life prohibits a complete embargo. That, and the unhealthy compulsion to surf free wi-fi so as to rubber-neck the latest instalment in the Brexit car-crash).

Anyway the chance to see Mr Ravenhill’s latest play, after a hiatus of many years, at the ever reliable Royal Court, and its apparent subject, the education system, was not to be missed, and the SO agreed. Especially when directed by RC AD Vicky Featherstone and with a cast comprising Alun Armstrong, Maggie Steed and Nicola Walker. You will know all three off the telly, but their stage appearances are all too rare, though Maggie Steed was in the first instalment of Jamie Lloyd’s current Pinter anthology, and it was a privilege to watch Nicola Walker’s brand of nervy, restless emotional plasticity being applied to the role of Beatrice in Ivo van Hove’s A View From The Bridge.

Vicky Featherstone kicks off proceedings at a fair lick as we learn that Edward’s (Alum Armstrong) retirement as a teacher after 45 dedicated years is being disturbed by his historical engagement with capital punishment and by his school’s imminent takeover by an academy. There is a mob of kids outside Edward and Maureen’s (Maggie Steed) house and their estranged daughter Anna (Nicola Walker) has now turned up. It is a somewhat improbable set up but no matter. Mt Ravenhill uses this as a jumping off point to explore the uneasy relationship between the fretful couple and their seething daughter, how we apply the morality of the present to actions in the past, how much responsibility an individual should assume, and how much an institution, for excessive punishment and how violence and disciple become conflated, accepted and even internalised,

Within this tricky web Mark Ravenhill, using precise and considered language, cleverly shifts moral perspectives around and between the questions and the characters, sometimes even on a line by line basis. He asks a lot of questions but is never so crass as to give clear answers. There is a constant undercurrent of tension and hostility fuelled by the subject matter, and the symbolic cane, the weight of the past and the menacing family dynamic, visually realised in Chloe Lamford’s off-kilter, grim, and increasingly claustrophobic, set. The three actors are superb in the way they draw us in to this queasy moral maze. The looks they give each other, the barbs that they spit out, the arguments they advance and retreat from, the flashes of violence and acquiescence, all are expressively portrayed. However, over the unbroken 100 minutes or so, the flaws of all three characters become unremitting, the premise becomes over-stretched and just a teensy bit too slippery and the dialogue just a bit too predictably adversarial.

It made us squirm, it made us think and the acting is top notch. But this is a play that deliberately sets the audience outside its world. Fair enough but it might have worked better for us in more concentrated form, or with some eventual solid pay-off to all the rug-pulls and hypocrisy exposures.