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

Nora: A Doll’s House

Young Vic Theatre, 10th February 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Dolls Saw at the Vault Festival review ****

What the Dolls Saw

House of Macabre, Vault Festival, 5th February 2020

Off to the Vaults again, this time with the SO, to What the Dolls Saw from the all women House of Macabre company. It is a dark comedy, as one might have guessed, penned by Nic Lamont, who specialises in such things and plays Megan, one of three sisters who return to their childhood home for the funeral of their father.

Prissy Megan is a children’s author, though her stories, surprise, surprise, sport something of the night, spirited Christine (Holly Morgan) is an investigative journalist and Zara (Sasha Wilson) is currently between careers having returned from the US, with, a mute ward in the form of Belle (Rebecca O’Brien) who, as we shall see, is handy with puppets. Improbable I know but such is the nature of the genre. Mother Rose (Rosy Fordham) is fond of the sauce, reminisces about her life on stage when a child and lacks the maternal instinct. Aunt Lily, now no longer with us, brought up the girls, Dad was, drum roll please, a renowned doll-maker. The sisters decide to delve into their parents’ past and air their findings on Christine’s podcast. They find more than they bargained for.

Hopefully all this conjures up a house of horror vibe but all delivered in a sassy contemporary way. The Pit, with its pews, barrel-vaulted roof and musky scent is one of the Vaults more atmospheric venues, enhanced by the lighting design of Holly Ellis, the spooky set of Benjy Adams complete with doll displays and an original  sound design from Icelandic composer Odinn Orn Hilmarsson. The shadow puppetry of Rebecca O’Brien lends an air of cinematic Expressionism to the fairy tales based on Megan’s latest, rejected, children’s book.

If this was played straight it would have come off as a bit too much fan-girl amateurism. Fortunately, the ensemble have written the story, and perform it, for laughs. It isn’t overly arch however, genre clichés nurtured not scorned, the cast don’t mug inappropriately, and I think there are strands of real experience in the three quirky sisters’ lives. Which means when the story does turn properly Poe-ish, as the history comes out, it is surprisingly effective. It isn’t Ghost Stories jump-scarey, not is it League of Gentlemen twisty, but it is smart, and it is occasionally thrilling. For which director Lisa Millar deserves immense credit. OK so the tone sometimes wavers, and maybe the company have bitten off a little more than they can chew given obvious limitations, but this was still a very enjoyable way to spend an hour. The SO is a doyenne of the ghost story format, though is, as you know, notoriously hard to please, and The Pit seating did no favours to her, but it still passed muster.

This is a very talented writing and creative team and I, for one, would be very excited if they were given, say, a small screen commission to work with.

Leopoldstadt at Wyndhams Theatre review ****

Leopoldstadt

Wyndham’s Theatre, 29th January 2020

A new play from the venerable 82 year old Sir Tom Stoppard. Not our greatest living playwright. That is Caryl Churchill, but he does know his way around a text. So booked early, for early in the run and before knowing too much about it.

You will likely know by now that Sir Tom has chosen to delve into his family’s own history and his Jewish heritage for this play, which I can see would be a fitting swansong, if swansong it is. He was born in Czechoslovakia, but escaped to Britain with his family ahead of the Nazi occupation, and was educated in India and then Yorkshire. Whilst he had become aware in the 1990s of the full extent of his roots, (which his mother had chosen to shield him from), as well as the fact that many of his relatives had died in Nazi concentration camps, and he had indicated that he would likely write a play based on this history, he had been ambivalent about making it too personal.

I don’t know how much of the plot, and specifically the key events which punctuate it, are drawn from TS’s own family history, nor indeed how closely the characters resemble his own forebears, (though the character of Leo is surely autobiographical), but there is no doubting his emotional investment in this grand saga. Particularly at the end, in an epilogue which is as moving as anything you might ever see on stage.

We kick off in Vienna in 1899 at a gathering of the Merz and Jakobovicz families at Christmas (and later passover). Bullish businessman Hermann Merz (Adrian Scarborough, on his usual top form) is married to gentile Gretl (Faye Castelow), having, pragmatically, converted to her Catholicism. They have one son Jacob. Hermann’s sister Eva (Alexis Zegerman) is married to obsessive mathematician Ludwig Jakobovicz (Ed Stoppard, yes, he is) who has two sisters, Wilma (Clara Francis), married to Ernst (Aaron Neil), and Hanna (Dorothea Myer-Bennett, continuing the Tourist’s fortunate habit of seeing everything she does on stage), who is married to Kurt (Alexander Newland, who we meet later on). With their various kids, cook Poldi (Sadie Shimmin), parlour maid Hilde (Felicity Davidson), nursemaid Jana (Natalie Law) and all presided over by Grandma Emilia (Caroline Gruber). Thank goodness for the family tree in the programme which the Tourist furtively turned to early doors.

With this many characters, and to set the contextual and didactic balls rolling, and because this is what Sir Tom does best, there is a lot of serious chat going on, as we learn how these well-to-do, educated and largely assimilated Jewish families see themselves, their faith, culture and economy, at a time of great change in Europe’s still premier metropolis. And, inevitably in the first act, bucketloads of exposition. The Merz family doesn’t live in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt district but its status as the centre of Jewish life in the city looms large. The anti-semitism is subtle as well as overt, but its deep historical roots are unmistakeable. Hermann tries and fails to join the jockey club, Ludwig’s hopes of a professorship are far-fetched, and ugly truths are revealed, along with the superb Luke Thallon’s cruel Aryan officer, Fritz.

The play really gets going then after the interval, as we move first to 1924, another family gathering for a circumcision, meeting the cosmopolitan children of the four couples, and then, momentously 1938, and the grandchildren. This is the cue for high drama, for example, the forced repossession of the Merz family home, and eviction, Kristallnacht (vividly realised through Adam Cork’s brilliant sound design), the memory of Pauli (Ilan Galkoff) lost in the WWWi trenches. Then, finally to 1955, when Leo (Luke Thallon), the English emigre son of Nellie (Eleanor Wyld), daughter of Eva and Ludwig, and Nathan (Sebastian Armesto, also doubling), son of Sally (Ayve Leventis), daughter of Wilma and Ernst, are brought together by Nathan’s sister, Rosa (Jenna Augen). This, or something like it, is, I’d like to think, how Sir T first encountered his own history, and planted the seed for Leopoldstadt.

The dialogue is direct, even during the debates on, variously, identity, assimilation, prejudice, Zionism, the recurring history is familiar and there is none of the intellectual trickery that powers Sir T’s back catalogue though there is a bit of heavy lifting from a recurring cat’s cradle metaphor. The family’s beliefs in science, justice and rationality are crushed by the rise of Nazism, but it is the personal loss more than the collective that, eventually strikes home, with Hermann’s descent the most affecting. It is a slow burn mind you, and Patrick Marber’s direction is perhaps a little too respectful. Richard Hudson’s painterly design. together with Neil Austin’s lighting and Brigitte Riefenstuhl’s costumes ooze period detail, but further hinder any opportunity for many of the 26 strong cast (not including the kids) to make a distinct mark.

Still if this is to be Sir T’s last play then why shouldn’t he tell his story his way, given his immense contribution to British and World theatre across his career. At our early viewing (the SO was a more than willing accomplice) the audience was engrossed throughout, if nor utterly captivated, and I suspect many will have been grateful to have had their emotions, perhaps even more than their intellects, engaged. The story of this horror has been told in many ways before, and should continue to be told, but Sir T has found a way to tell it that, whilst not theatrically radical, is profoundly moving, as well as stuffed with learning.

I have no doubt it will be back when we reach the other side, and it is not hard to see it being repurposed for the small screen.

Snowflake at the Kiln Theatre review ****

Snowflake

Kiln Theatre, 28th December 2019

Lucky family. Never know what Dad is going to serve up as their Christmas theatrical treat(s). And always careful to at least try to conceal their disappointment. Having banked the virtual certain success of Mischief Theatre’s Magic Goes Wrong (of which more to come), and comforted by the reviews from its original run in Oxford last year, the Tourist felt confident enough to take a punt on this. And BD had already enjoyed one Snowflake provocation in the form of the second half of the incomparable Stewart Lee’s new show.

Now IMHO Mike Bartlett is incapable of writing bad plays, or indeed screenplays. They may not always come off entirely, as here, but there will always be enough in terms of concept, narrative, character, text, idea, form, to get your teeth into. He doesn’t mind tugging a few strings, emotionally or in terms of argument, or taking a few liberties with construction. Which explains Snowflake’s, appeal, and, slight, downfall.

Andy (Elliot Levey, who has a habit of popping up in all manner of fine work, which, in some cases, is partly down to him) has hired a church hall in Oxfordshire on Christmas Eve. We soon lean that he is rehearsing for a possible meeting with his estranged daughter Maya (Ellen Robertson) who left home after the death of her mother, from whom Andy is still grieving. Mr Bartlett doesn’t make this too easy however devoting the whole first half, over 40 minutes, to a monologue in which Andy reveals his attempts to trace Maya and his own weaknesses and biases. This is not a man possessed of much in the way of self-awareness. Give or take your archetypal Boomer and, as such, far too reminiscent of dear Dad, sparking a lively family debate at the interval, largely between BD and the Tourist refereed by the SO and LD.

We knew the perspective would shift, but the catalyst, the arrival of straight-talking Gen Z’er Natalie, (Amber James, whose career I have been attentively following since the Guildhall, through the RSC), though not straight, was as unequivocal as I have come to expect from this writer. Natalie has come to collect crockery after and Xmas lunch and pretty soon the two are at loggerheads over political and social values, and, especially, identity. Both are typical of their “generation” but neither are cliches, and, on this, and given his gift for the gab, Mike Bartlett is able to hang some fine, credible and funny, dialogue and some spicey argument. And when Maya finally arrives MB, again with open heart, sets up the argument for private and public reconciliation of differences.

Easy enough to pick holes, which we did, but this was for me, if less for the others, a satisfying, shrewd and warming slice of theatre. Claire Lizzimore’s direction was well honed after the first run, rolling with the pronounced ebb and flow of the narrative, and Jeremy Herbert’s community hall set fit the Kiln (remember this was once Foresters Hall) to the manor born. And, whilst Ellen Robertson had a little less on her plate than her colleagues all three served up an acting feast. Ideal Christmas fare then.

A Kind of People at the Royal Court Theatre review ****

A Kind of People

Royal Court Downstairs, 16th December 2019

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was a new playwriting name for me. No longer. A Kind of People takes a not uncommon subject, racism in contemporary Britain, and not uncommon set-ups, a mixed race marriage, friendships, a party, a workplace, and conjures up an insightful and nuanced drama, with (mostly) credible dialogue and (mostly) well-rounded characters. If this sounds like I am damming with faint prose I am not. Getting this type of play just right, without getting preachy or taking too unlikely a turn, is not easy so hats off to both writer, and director Michael Buffong from Tawala.

Given the impact that GKB’s previous plays have had my ignorance of her work extends well beyond remiss. Her first play Behsharam (Sensation) was a great success, Behzti (Dishonour), which included the rape of a young woman in a gurdwara, won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2005, before being chased off the Birmingham Rep stage by British Sikh protestors. Her next Behud (Beyond Belief) drew on her experiences around Behzti, followed by Londonee, Fourteen, Khandan (Family), Elephant and Dishoom!. As far as I can work out all of this draw on her own life and Sikh heritage whilst A Kind of People expands beyond this.

Nicky (Claire-Louise Cordwell) and Gary (Richie Campbell), childhood sweethearts, now married with three kids, just about managing, are throwing a small party. Gary’s white best mate and work colleague, Mark (Thomas Coombes), is a permanent fixture, Mo (Asif Khan) and Anjum (Manjinder Virk), British Asian friends and neighbours, are a bit better off, Karen (Petra Letang), Gary’s sister and Nicky’s best mate, has just broken up with her partner. Gary’s boss at the electrical engineering company, Victoria (Amy Morgan), pitches up, overdoes it on the prosecco and retires, disgracefully, after a bout of overtly racist behaviour.

All is then forgiven? Not really. And then Gary goes for a promotion, which he doesn’t get despite being well qualified. He blames Victoria. Things unravel from there. See what I mean. No bombshells, disclosures, blasts from the past, or anything else to drive an audience double-take. GKB’s meticulous dialogue explores each character’s motivations and reactions without judgement leaving us to decide who is taking and causing offence and whether the consequences are justified. Maybe there are moments when dialogue to advance the plot, flesh out back stories and build the arguments emerges just a little too artificially, but hey, it’s a play not “real life”.

Fair to say that this production also benefits from two central performances that skilfully mine the ambivalence of the text. The only time I have seen Claire-Louise Cordwell on stage was in the dreadful A Tale of Two Cities at the Open Air Theatre for which she takes no blame. Like her, Richie Campbell is also a TV veteran and the experience of both in gritty screen drama and even soaps shines through. This is well beyond soap cliche however, though I note that GKB cut her teeth on Eastenders and has form with The Archers, but the trick of drawing attention to thorny socio-political tensions through heightened individual dilemmas, bears comparison. (Early on Victoria remarks that the party is “so nice, just like off the telly”). Multiple points of view, uncomfortable truths, flawed but empathetic personalities. Gary is casually sexist, Victoria is, at best, full on white gaze, Anjum explicitly classist when it comes to her son’s education, Mark is jealous and manipulative.

Anna Fleischle’s set switches briskly between the couple’s council flat and the workplace, and the park where the play, poignantly, concludes, in flashback. So that nothing gets in the way of the audience’s, palpable, reactions to the unfolding drama. I would hazard a guess that All Kinds of People is a play that has been allowed time to develop and that GKB has been generous in taking on the advice and suggestions of her various collaborators. Which will have helped make it such a tight, effective and vital story.

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 Day in the Life of Joe Egg at Trafalgar Studios review *****

A Day in the Life of Joe Egg

Trafalgar Studios, 30th November 2019

Not a fan of the Trafalgar Studios which has been asking daft prices for mediocre seating in the last year or so, (though it seems to have eased up a bit now and is nowhere near as egregious as another ATG venue the Playhouse Theatre). So waited this out and finally secured a decent perch at the back (which to be fair is not too much of a problem in this venue, sight-line wise).

Peter Nichols’ most (in)famous play had been on my wish list for a few years. Written in 1967 and first staged at the Citizens Theatre, (also on my theatrical to-do list and mention of which just sparked a 3 hour diversion though the web – focus Tourist focus). The play, which has subsequently been turned into big and small screen versions, tells the story of married couple, stoical Sheila (here played by the marvellous Claire Skinner) and overwought Bri (equally marvellous Toby Stephens) and their daughter Joe, who has cerebral palsy, and is played by less-abled actor Storme Toolis. They are joined by liberal do-gooder Freddie (Clarence Smith), who runs the am-dram group which Sheila has joined, and his heartless younger partner Pam (Lucy Eaton) and then by Bri’s tactless and hidebound mother (effortlessly played by Patricia Hodge).

The caustic play examines the coping mechanisms that Sheila and Bri have created to bolster their failing marriage and to look after Joe, who is confined to a wheelchair and cannot directly communicate. Sheila just gets on with it but Bri is starting to unravel. What makes this such a powerful play is the tone that Peter Nichols adopts; an ironic, almost detached humour with little in the way of sentiment or homily. I can see why some might find Bri in particular, with his black humour and lack of fortitude, a difficult character and might view this approach to disability as somehow inappropriate or capricious. I disagree. The way the couple act and speak is entirely believable and relatable and shows the reality of disability and the love the family needs to stick together.

It is true that in the over 50 years since the play appears attitudes to disability have changed, (though as Storme Toolis observes in the programme less able young people and their families still often struggle to secure the resources they need to improve life quality), and the subject a far less “controversial” source for drama. The private role-play that the couple employ to verbalise and visualise Joe’s emotions and to leaven the routine therefore sounds even more awkward particularly in the hands of Toby Stephens who is, presumably at director Simon Evans’s behest, keen to show up Bri’s desperation and guilt at wishing for Joe’s institutionalisation. The differences between the couples attitudes to Joe, Sheila’s unconditional love compared to Bri’s self pitying are most visible in the direct to audience addresses that Peter Nichols’ uses to reveal their interior thoughts, (about each other and Joe), and to provide back-story.

In the second half, as the views of the other characters on disability, Joe and the couple are gently skewered, the humour becomes more comfortable and the play less raw, though maybe less powerful and humane as a consequence. Whilst the two leads excel the rest of the cast are careful to eschew caricature despite the obvious unease of their characters around Joe, and at the centre of it all is Joe. There is enough drama, and surprise, built into PN’s plot, even if it is unsurprising, and Peter McKintosh’s faithful 1960s room set, out of which Bri and Sheila step, alongside Prema Mehta’s broad lighting and Edward Lewis’s sound, create no serious distractions.

It probably comes as no surprise that Peter Nicholls, with wife Thelma, based the play on their own experience of bringing up disabled daughter, Abigail, who died aged 11. He went on to tackle big issues though the 1970s in other plays, The National Health, Poppy, Passion Play, Blue Murder and Privates on Parade, through formal experimentation (with copious reference, as in ADITLOJE to music hall and vaudeville), and ironic humour. However in 1982 he retired, apparently dissatisfied with the way his work was presented and was seen as unfashionable by many. Yet, based on this and what I have read about these plays, I would think there is an opportunity for contemporary theatre-makers to have a go at revisiting other of his frank, if sometimes unsubtle works, as has been done with Passion Play for example. Prickly and unsettling is not such a bad thing for theatre. PN passed away just before this revival opened but I hope he had a chance to see the justice that was I think done here to his breakthrough play.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Queens Theatre Hornchurch review ****

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Queens Theatre, Hornchurch, 14th November 2019

From one side of London to the other. All on track until the very last gasp, so snuck in a few minutes late to this. A big thanks to the very helpful ushers at this friendly house. TBQOL isn’t starved of revivals but this was my first live viewing of Martin McDonagh’s first play, though somewhat nominally since the next two in the Leenane Trilogy, A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West, as well as the first two of the Aran Islands trilogy, followed hot on its heels in the mid 90s. Hence my completist determination to see it.

And the fact that it had attracted some decent reviews at the run at Hull Truck, the co-producer. Whose veracity I can testify to. Designer Sara Perks has delivered a Connemara farmhouse, shared by Mag Folan (Maureen McCarthy) and daughter Maureen (Siobhan O’Kelly), required for all these plays, but with a twist. The walls are half-built, foretasting Maureen’s escape, though beyond the walls all is dark, in Jess Addinall’s moody lighting design. (There is an interview with young Ms Addinall, who started as a temporary technician at Hull Truck, which shines a light !! on her work and ambitions).

At its heart this is a simple story. 70 year old Mag is suffocating the 40 year old Maureen, who, after her two sisters married off, grudgingly tends to her every whim, tea, porridge, lumpy Complan. When she meets old schoolfriend Pato Dooley (Nicholas Boulton) at the farewell party of a visiting American uncle the chance to escape beckons, despite Mag’s interventions. The only other character is messenger Ray (Laurence Pybus), Pato’s younger brother, default setting bewildered, distracted by casual violence. This being MM the course of true love doesn’t run smoothly and things don’t end well.

It is brilliantly written, with exquisite dialogue, by turns comic and tragic, (my favourite, the crucial fire poker is casually described by Mag as “of sentimental value”), and a sturdy plot. That’s why it won a ton of awards when it first appeared in 1996, in Galway itself, before the Royal Court run and then transferring to Broadway in 1998. It is also, intertwined with the bitterness and regret, of all three characters, brimful of pathos, perhaps more so than the other Irish plays. Maggie McCarthy, slumped in her chair, allows us to see Mag’s vulnerability even as she passively-aggressively plots to keep Maureen in her place. Nicholas Boulton shows us the deep sadness at the core of Pato, happy neither in London, where he goes to work, and home in Leenane, and the excitement with which he imagines a new life with Maureen in Boston. And Siobhan O’Kelly is mesmerising as Maureen, whose past, and isolation, explains her awkward, exaggerated behaviours. Daughters turn into their mothers. Who’d have known.

Just a shame some berk in the audience seemed incapable of turning their phone off, twice, much to the chagrin of Ms O’Kelly. If you don’t know how your phone works (which I surmise was the issue here), ask someone younger (yep it was an early boomer), or, better sill, don’t bring it to the theatre. Whatever it is can wait. You are not that important.

My guess is that Hull Truck AD Mark Babych is a big fan of McDonagh’s. Mind you who isn’t. The SO and I still rate Hangmen as the best play we have seen in recent years, LD’s favourite was the Michael Grandage revival of The Lieutenant of Inishmore with Aidan Turner, and everyone I know who saw A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter, despite its flaws, hasn’t forgotten it in a hurry. Mr Babych has plainly lavished a great deal of care on this production and I am a little surprised that it hasn’t toured. Still, London audiences will have another chance to see the play at the Lyric Hammersmith later next year, in a production directed by LH AD Rachel O’Riordan (she kicked off her inaugural season with the superb version of A Doll’s House written by Tanika Gupta).

The Tourist recently saw another play centred on a dysfunctional mother-child relationship, Eugene O’Hare’s misfiring Sydney and the Old Girl at the Park. Chalk and cheese, This is how it should be done.

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

When the Crows Visit

Kiln Theatre, 6th November 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Sydney and the Old Girl at the Park Theatre review ***

Sydney and the Old Girl

Park Theatre, 1st November 2019

After the resounding success of Madame Rubinstein at the Park Theatre a couple of years ago it was a pretty easy sell to get BUD, KCK and the SO along to the same venue to see our favourite potty-mouthed, near-octogenarian National Treasure, Miriam Margoyles’s latest theatrical outing. SATOG however, whilst, when it got going, offering the twinkly eyed MM opportunities to deliver trademark laugh out loud waspish epithets, was a very different kettle of fish to the straight comedy of Madame R, as either of its lead characters might have said.

MM played the cantakerous Old Girl, Nell Stock, holed up in her shabby east End house, with 50 year old, live at home son Sydney, played by the much admired Mark Hadfield, who, I am ashamed to say, I didn’t initially recognise. Maybe that was because to say Sydney is peculiar would be a massive understatement. He is the archetypal oddball loner and he and Mum are locked into a textbook love-hate relationship. The setting smacks of Steptoe and Son and the dialogue that writer Eugene O’Hare employs to express the toxic dynamic hints at Pinter, or, in contemporary terms, maybe a palatable Enda Walsh . Sydney holds some fairly rum, if unconvincing, opinions, about women and foreigners, and when he does go out, nurses a pint in the local whilst pretending to be with friends. Nell simultaneously detests and relishes the hold she has over him.

Nell’s mobility is limited, spends most of her time in a wheelchair, and needs constant care. Cue Irish home help Marion Fee (Vivien Parry), all round good egg and saviour to the little Catholic orphans of London. After some variable, in terms of length and quality, set up scenes, we discover that Nell is looking to cut Sydney out of her will and deny him the inheritance of the house on which he is fixated.

Which is why I had anticipated an Ortonesque payback in the second half involving some artful double crossing between the three and the acerbic humour ramped up. I was wrong, Instead the guilt which binds Nell and Sydney together, hinted at earlier with Sydney’s fear of sirens, is given a full blown reveal complete with lighting (Tina MacHugh) and sound (Dyfan Jones) effects.

I assume that it was Mr O’Hare’s deliberate intention to shift tone through his play but it left the Tourist unable to settle on plot and character. Which is a shame because when MM and MH got going in the second half, before the overwrought ending, this was a fine black comedy. Vivien Parry had less success trying to persuade us of Marion’s ambivalence. Philip Breen’s direction gives the actors time and space to deliver the lines, as does the elaborate set of co-designers, Ruth Hall and Max Jones. But despite the championing of the director and cast the play never quite hits its stride. Nothing wrong with mixing comedy and tragedy, the lodestar of best dramatists in history. It’s just that without a thorough stir the ingredients can sometimes be half-baked and a bit too lumpy to satisfactorily digest.

P.S. Would be great if the next time MM takes to this, or another London stage, it would be in a reprise of her one woman show. Ideally as unexpurgated as possible. Or better still if the production of Lady In The Van that the good people of Melbourne, MM’s adopted home, enjoyed last year could find its way here.