The Thelmas, Vault Festival 2020, 30th January 2020
Now I cannot pretend that everything on offer at the Vault Festival is my cup of tea. I suspect most of the comedy and monologues are aimed at a much younger and less hidebound audience than the Tourist and I am only slowly easing my way into the politics of identity (still seeing most of the world’s problems, besides the most obvious right now, as issues of political economy). More interesting to me then is the more conventional work from the many innovative theatre companies which tread the, er, arches.
Even so there is a lot to choose from and, whilst the Festival offers a winning combination of convenience, value and grunge-y camaraderie, (remember the Tourist is a denizen of leafy SW London where grunge is scarce), there is a limit to even his attendance. So if it sounds interesting, and better still, is a known quantity, then it gets my vote. Last year The Thelmas brought the memorable Ladykiller by Madeline Gould to the Festival. This year NOTCH and this, Santi and Naz. Written by Guleraana Mir and Afshan D’Souza-Lodhi and directed by Madelaine Moore, this two hander is set against the backdrop of Indian partition on the end of British rule and independence in August 1947.
And backdrop is what it is. This is no heavy handed history, external events are only fleetingly referenced, but instead is a coming of age love story concentrating on two close friends in their teenage years, (from 1945 to 1949), Muslim Naz (Ashna Rabheru) and Sikh Santi (Rose-Marie Christian). Their families, the personalities in the village where they live, their friends, their hopes, fears and plans for the future are all carefully, wittily and movingly described. The Cage may be one of the Vault’s larger spaces but, at just 90 odd souls, it is still pretty intimate, and director, designer (Sascha Gilmour), lighting designer (Rajiv Pattini) and compose/sound designer (Sarah Sayeed) all combine to subtly conjure up the Punjab. However it is the performances, including movement, of our two principals, that really convinces. S&N is just over an hour but in that short time we come to know both young women and fell the pain of their coming separation. In particular Ashna Rabheru’s Naz, who is betrothed to an older man, sees sparky trenchancy replaced with grim maturity, is captivating. Mind you Rose-Marie Christian’s studious Santi matches her stride for stride.
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.
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.
The UK premiere of Israeli playwright Maya Arad Yasur’s “strikingly original, audacious thriller”. Hmm. Striking yes. Original. I guess so. Audacious thriller. Not so sure. It is a fascinating story with a powerful message but its formal construction serves to distract and obfuscate rather than illuminate.
An Israeli violinist, living in Amsterdam, and about to give birth, receives an unpaid gas bill dating from 1945. From this premise the cast of four, deliberately diverse, tell the story of how this came to happen ranging across time, place and character. They start off bickering about where to start, interrupt, and comment on, each other, fracture and distort their narratives and regularly interrupt to ring a bell to amplify or translate. It takes time to adjust to the structure and the script is packed with details, repetitions, overtones and undertones, which can make events hard to follow.
Maya Arad Yasur (through Eran Edry’s translation) makes sure we understand the complexity and self-fabrication of narrative through her conceit and highlights the corrosive effect of hostility to the “other” but the expansion into contemporary conflict has the perverse effect of blunting the central historical fact. Over 75% of the Jewish population in the Netherlands was murdered by the Nazis and once the war was over, those returning home were forced to pay the utility bills of their wartime occupiers. The unnamed violinist’s own investigation, and disturbing discovery, and her personal journey as immigrant and mother to be, strike me as more than enough to make the point. Especially when the “scenes”, the arrival of the €1700 bill, the blithe response of the bureaucrat, the paranoiac unease in the supermarket, the birth anxiety, the “discussions” with her agent and the hairdresser, emerge through the conceptual fog. Dramatisation would have equally served as provocation and testament. We might then have been better able to see more clearly what she could see in a “foreign” place haunted by history.
I am all for experimentation and can’t fault the performances of Daniel Abelson, Fiston Barek, Michal Horowicz and Hara Yannas but, at the end of the day, this was harder work than I wanted it to be. Director Matthew Xia, as the new head honcho of the Actors Touring Company, who co-produced this with the OT and Theatre Royal Plymouth, is obviously a true believer in the power of the work though his previous engagements, Blood Knot here, Wish List at the Royal Court and the revival of Blue/Orange at the Young Vic, show his is equally at home in more naturalistic forms. Here though he opts to exaggerate the already contrived structure with lurches in tone and pace, simple staging (designed by Naomi Kuyck-Cohen) with dissonant props and constant motion (Jennifer Jackson).
The production will run in Plymouth in February next year before moving on to Salisbury, Glasgow, Manchester, Oxford, Coventry, Leeds, Birmingham, Newcastle and Bath. On balance? You should see it.
I know what I need. A bit more Ibsen. There are reasons why theatre-makers keep returning to the master and the slew of high profile productions in London this year alone is a reminder of why. I would probably plump for Ian Rickson’s Rosmersholm as the best of the bunch but there have been others that have captured the great playwright’s unique cocktail of thrilling drama, scathing political and moral critique and meticulous psychological insight.
Right now I crave a John Gabriel Borkman, a play that I have never seen and which I gather offers a challenge to directors in reconciling its melodramatic, symbolic final act to the realism of what has proceeded it. I don’t suppose I will have to wait too long though. In the meantime Peer Gynt, the romance, fantasy, epic, modernist mix of surrealism, poetry, naturalism and confessional, written in Danish verse over five acts, that has been challenging and delighting theatre makers and audiences since it first tore up the rule book in 1867. The last time I saw it was at the Arcola in Theatre an der Ruhr inventive two hander in German, (yep, I know what you are thinking). This could hardly be more different. The full resources of the Edinburgh Festival and National Theatre on the Olivier stage in a new, free adaptation by David Hare (with byline after Henrik Ibsen), directed by the venerable Jonathan Kent with sets and costumes from opera whizz Richard Hudson and with a cast of 25 led by James McArdle.
I confess I am still feeling my way into Peer Gynt and I recognise that David Hare here, whilst sticking closely to Ibsen’s plot, materially updated its content to satirise contemporary issues. I guess we should have expected nothing less from Mr Hare and his gift for the elegant, incisive and amusing turn of phrase remained undimmed. There are times when the exact target of Mr Hare’s ire became a little confused and/or indulgent but generally this is a text to savour.
Peer Gynt is a fantasist who creates his own narratives, his own view of his self, which, it turns out, is a long way from the reality even when he “succeeds”as well as when he “fails”. Pretty easy then to see why Mr Hare and Mr Kent would be attracted to this story of a life built on vacillation, invention and entitlement in our digital world of self-obsession and distortion at both the individual and societal level. As Ibsen trenchantly observed “if you lie, are you real?”. And the message of Peer, here Peter, Gynt is, if you are going to make stuff up and avoid knuckling down, go big. Who knows where you may end up. POTUS even? After all the play itself has generated its own reality with an annual festival, a sculpture park, a prize for best Norwegian thing of the year, numerous films, TV presentations, ballets, operas, musicals, Greig’s music and innumerable professional and amateur productions.
McArdle’s Gynt is a demobbed soldier returning to his Scottish village of Dunoon recounting tales of his bravery that bear and uncanny resemblance to seminal scenes from war movies. His Mum, Ann Louise Ross, puts up with his nonsense but the villagers, as we see at the wedding, are less forgiving. He kidnaps the bride, falls for Sabine (Anya Chalotra), a kind young immigrant woman, is banished, meets some line dancing cowgirls (Lauren Ellis-Steele, Hannah Visocchi, Dani Heron), gets shit-faced, bangs his head, dreams of a troll king (Jonathan Coy) and fathering a child with a his daughter (Tamsin Carroll), meets a gnomic chap called the Boyg (Nabil Shaban), wakes up, rejects a life with the faithful Sabine, movingly watches his Mum pass away, runs off, becomes an evil oligarch, a pilgrim, a fake guru and ends up chatting to the deranged inmates of an asylum. He heads for home, is shipwrecked, meets the aptly named Weird Passenger (Guy Henry) and finally has it out in the philosophical steakhouse with the Boyg and the learned Button-Moulder (Oliver Ford Davies), who teaches him the fundamental difference between self-absorption and self-realisation.
A revamped dream sequence, an inordinate amount of innovation from Richard Hudson, Mark Henderson (lighting), Christopher Shutt (sound), Polly Bennett (movement), Dick Straker (video), Paul Benzing (fight), Chris Fisher (illusions), and all their colleagues, original composition from Paul Englishby and musicians led by Kevin Amos, the discipline imposed by Mr Kent, a couple of intervals and a willing audience all pulled together to make this happen. Was it worth it? For me yes. I am not entirely sure if this Peer Gynt’s reach exceeds its grasp, (come to think of it that is sort of PG himself’s problem), but, thanks to largely to Mr Hare’s script and Mr McArdle’s brobdingnagian performance, (see what I have done there, referencing Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, another genre-bending fantasy satire to which novelists still look today), I now know what Ibsen was trying to tell us. And, as importantly , I spent 3.5 hours immersed in a bloody good yarn.
Which I see is not an opinion shared by many of the critics who variously seem to have had it in for Mr Hare, the production, the play, the set and the direction. Oh well. It takes all sorts.
He’s only gone and done it again. Robert Icke, the departing Associate Director at the Almeida, has ended on a high. Like that is any great surprise. Once again he has taken a classic text, this time Arthur Schnitzler’s dissection of anti-Semitism in pre WWI Vienna, and updated it for our contemporary age. Though to be fair it is a pretty good story even without the deconstruction and reconstruction. Yet by expanding the critique, and the central dilemma which underpins it, beyond religion and cultural identity and into gender and race, through both his adaptation and the casting, Mr Icke opens up a whole Pandora’s box of unresolved questions.
There are times when the clever dick nature of the project can irritate but, as I have said before, in the context of his Wild Duck on this stage, he is so, well, clever, that he gets away with it. His self professed aim is to clear away the fusty patina of performance history and get back to the roots of these often disturbing and radical plays. Professor Bernhardi fits the bill perfectly. But as well as bringing the play alive for a modern audience, and making them think, so hard that sometimes it hurts, Mr Icke also rarely fails to entertain us, ensuring the plot is as transparent as the message and the characters.
Of course we are fortunate that one of his favourite collaborators Juliet Stevenson was up for the central role of Doctor Ruth Wolff, an authority in Alzheimer’s disease, who heads up the Elizabeth Institute. She is a secular Jew who doesn’t suffer fools gladly and is dedicated to her calling. She is however unable to prevent a 14 year old Catholic girl from dying who has been admitted to the hospital after a self-administered abortion. She refuses to allow a priest to see the girl just before she passes, a decision that splits her team and has repercussions, social media outrage, petitions and political debate, when it leaks to the outside world. The Institute’s funding is threatened and Dr Wolf is forced to choose between her principles and self sacrifice.
This plot sticks fairly closely to Schnitzler’s original but divisions within the Institute, and outside, open up along gender and racial lines, as well as between Catholic and Jew. This is made more striking as we see that the cast largely plays characters which do not “fit” our perception of their identity and are not identified by name in the programme. Even after you grasp this central conceit it can still surprise, notably when we discover the priest is black. We see how medical ethics are shaped by professional and public opinion, and economics, and how identity, and the language which defines and contains it, can be co-opted for personal and political gain.
Naomi Wirthner is outstanding as the deputy plotting to oust Ruth, accurately capturing male entitlement. Paul Higgins plays the passionate priest with an agenda and Ria Zmitrowicz is once again captivating as the young transgender friend that Ruth inadvertently betrays. Pamela Nomvete and Oliver Alvin-Wilson, as Ruth’s loyal colleagues are pitted against Daniel Rabin, Mariah Louca and, eventually, Kirsty Rider who all see warped principle and pragmatic advantage, in turning against her. All this takes place against the clinical, fluid set design of Hildegard Bechtler, never black or white but shades of grey, with lighting and sound from Natasha Chivers and Tom Gibbons to match. And a live drumming performance from Hannah Ledwidge which serves to discomfort and ratchet up the tension.
If all this sound too tricksy, or woke-y, well it isn’t. Juliet Stevenson brilliantly portrays Ruth as some-one who is right, but hard to like, obdurate and emotionally naive. Her final monologue is shattering, played in conjunction with Joy Richardson, her lost partner, “Charlie”. RI keeps pulling us into arguments that simultaneously assert the inviolability of identity and the strictures and contradictions it can impose. The dichotomy between “freedom to” and “freedom from” as my old history teacher taught me all those years ago. The scene where the sceptical Ruth is interrogated for a TV show “Take the Debate” is the most acute satire of identity politics. And all this is done with sacrificing any momentum in the story: quite the reverse, the near 3 hours just bombs along.
The religious schism which informs the original play just about survives the expansion (primarily through the “right to life” debate which the unseen girl’s abortion precipitates), and there will be some for whom all this subversion detracts from the plot but the Tourist, once again, was awed by Mr Icke’s theatrical genius. I am signed up for his next outing with ITA in Amsterdam based on The Doll’s House and I see his version of Chekhov’s Ivanov is currently pulling then in in Stuttgart. I hope we see him back in Blighty soon though too, ideally having another pop at the Greeks, or maybe some Marlowe or Webster.
No great surprise to learn that this is transferring to the Duke of York’s Theatre from April next year. If you didn’t catch it at the Almeida here’s your shot at redemption.
How difficult can it be to get to Kilburn? Very it would seem if you are the Tourist, this being the second time this year that he has missed the start of a matinee performance, (and having cut it perilously fine on another occasion). Message to self. Stop twatting about with the Overground and buses to get here and stick to the Jubilee.
Anyway it was a somewhat frustrating idea to watch the first scene of Wife on the tiny black and white stage telly, however accommodating the ever friendly front of house. Aussie Samuel Adamson’s latest play, (you may know him from The Light Princess musical at the NT of his Chekhov/Ibsen adaptations), is an intertwining affair which examines the relationships of four couples from 1959 to an imagined 2049. Ibsen is the stepping off point. Specially A Doll’s House, (there is a lot of Doll’s House inspiration coming up, see the Lyric Hammersmith, the Young Vic and International Theater Amsterdam).
After that scene and the infamous door slam, Wife opens with stiff-necked Robert (Joshua James) properly wound up after the performance, which he sees as an attack on the sanctity of marriage. His wife Daisy (Karen Fishwick), who dragged him along, doesn’t agree. She is in love with Nora the character and yearns for a similar freedom. Things ratchet up when we find out she is also in love with the actress, Suzannah (Sirine Saba) who plays Nora in the production. This is the scene I missed “live” but it was still plainly a compelling set up even if I couldn’t completely follow the subsequent ding-dong exchange of ideas and feelings between these three characters .
Next up 1988 and a couple of young gay men, with something of a class difference, the posh, volatile Ivar, (Joshua James again, named after one of Nora’s children), railing against the straight world, Thatcher and Section 28 and the younger, not-yet-out Eric (Calam Lynch) . They have retired to the pub after a Norwegian language version of the Doll’s House, and, after some exquisite verbal jousting, are joined by another Suzannah. On to 2019 and Clare (Karen Fishwick again) and Finn (the versatile Joshua James) who are at the Kiln Theatre bar (!) waiting for ….. well not the Suzannah who breezes in from the avowedly queer production of A Doll’s House being staged but Ivar, now 58 (Richard Cant, who also plays Peter in the first Doll’s House and the pub landlord in Scene 2), now bruised by life, and, after a while, his younger husband, bitchy actor Cas (Calam Lynch again). Clare and Ivar, as you pretty quickly surmise are connected.
And, in a final meta flourish, the finale is set in 2042, with an extract from a naturalistic play featuring Daisy, Robert, Suzannah and Marjorie (Pamela Hardman), a dresser. Now the whole point of this journey through time and coupledom is to show we are no closing to reconciling the struggle between the need to explore individual freedom, and the desire for equality, in domestic relationships, than Ibsen and his characters were in 1879.
In other hands this have could have become more than a little tricksy or worthy or muddled, but Mr Adamson pulls it off largely through the quality of his dialogue, they are some terrific lines and witty observations, and the way in which the cast it self has to shift pretty radically between the characters, even those that are linked by family ties, notably Joshua James (who has a knack of standing out in smaller roles in previous productions that the Tourist has enjoyed), Karen Fishwick (following her RSC stint, a fine Juliet, and Our Ladies from NT Scotland) and Calam Lynch (whose Claudio in the Rose Kingston’s Much Ado attracted disproportionate attention from LD, and not just for his acting talent). All three young actors served up really fine performances.
Of course it helped that Kiln AD Indhu Rubasingham took the chair herself lending customary energy to the production and papering over the cracks when words and actions pushed a little towards the artificial: these people don’t really do reflective silences. Richard Kent probably had more fun designing the costumes that the somewhat unremarkable set, as did Alexander Caplen with his sound contribution and Guy Hoare with lighting.
The proper reviews were, rightly, pretty positive overall. I have a very strong feeling that this will not be the last we see of this play.If so the Tourist will make damm sure he turns up on time.
OK. So let me get this out of the way at the beginning. Paterson Joseph’s one man homage to Charles Ignatius Sancho, the first Black Briton to vote, sometimes comes across as just a little too fulsomely luvvie. Not over-acting but certainly not holding back. Mr Joseph passionately cares about this project. And Mr Sancho was a big man. In every sense. Who lived a big life. And his story is indisputably worth telling. So I will forgive the occasionally overly exuberant portrayal and tell you why you should seen this if you have any interest at all, which you should, in this subject.
Mr Sancho was born on a Spanish slave ship bound for modern day Colombia around 1729. His mother died very soon after and his father, crushed by this and the Middle Passage, took his own life after they landed. His owner sent Sancho to Greenwich in London to be the plaything of three daft sisters. The Second Duke of Montagu took a shine to the young fella, taught him to read and took him in when he escaped the sisters. He worked as butler for the Duchess and received a pension when she died. He married a West Indian woman, had seven kids and saw service again in the revived Montagu household. He was famously painted by Gainsborough, (the image that first intrigued PJ), and exchanged letters with Laurence Sterne . His writings became a key prop in the abolitionist cause and, after setting up as a greengrocer, Sancho was able to pursue a career as playwright, composer and occasional actor. Financial independence left him qualified to vote. His colourful and forthright letters were published shortly after his death in 1780.
Even if Sancho were of no historical or cultural importance you can see that this life would be cat-mint to an actor looking to create a solo show. The fact that Patterson Joseph was able to tell this particular story takes it into another league. There are now black British actors knocking it out of the park every day on the stage, and in Hollywood, and there are increasingly playwrights of colour in the UK emerging to tell their own stories. But this is something different given Sancho’s place in history, which echoes down the decades through Windrush and into the present day, and the fact that PJ was one of the first black actors to appear with the RSC in the early 1990’s even if you may know him better from his various TV roles.
The play dates from 2015 and has toured on and off since then. This was a one-off at the OT on a Sunday night with a pretty good turnout from the somewhat restricted Richmond theatre-going demographic. Given how much passion and emery PJ commits to his portrayal I am not surprised it was one night only. PJ freely admits to a hefty dose of dramatic licence in the way he has detailed the story, (is Sancho Panza really a namesake?), and kicks off with some break the ice, fourth wall pounding, shop observation of what it is to be a black actor. He never once takes his eyes off the audience. All of the audience it seemed. He has also given Sancho a soft lisp and a fine line in self-deprecation. Which means when it comes to the more harrowing episodes in Sancho’s history there is a real impact. And he packs in a lot of reference.
You never quite lose the feeling that there is an “actor” at work here and, like all one-person dramas, the need to maintain our interest can lead to a surfeit of costumes, props, movements, impressions, comedy turns, pathos and energy. But all this is deliberate and the combination of PJ’s charisma and the story more than compensates. This would be bloody brilliant as a Sunday night BBC mini-series. And I bet the lead, (at least for the older Sancho part – sorry PJ, would do it for minimum equity rates.
Here’s a quote from PJ about how he feels after bringing this story to life. “I now walk the streets of London knowing that probably 30,000 black people were walking these same streets 250 years ago. Knowing that makes me feel solid.” The politics and exhortation embedded in this 60 minute piece are plain of all to see but this is also an uplifting and entertaining piece of theatre and a committed piece of acting.
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.
If you know Andrea Levy’s Small Island either from the original 2004 book, (not me I confess), or the 2009 Two part BBC adaptation with script from Sarah Williams and Paula Milne and starring the inimitable Ruth Wilson and Naomie Harris then you will know roughly what to expect from Helen Edmundson’s adaptation directed by NT head honcho Rufus Norris. This is an epic social history, set in post-WWII Jamaica and London, and centred on the lives of two ordinary couples, or more specifically two, extraordinary, women, Hortense and Queenie.
It is a brilliant story, brilliantly told, but, even with the NT’s formidable financial and creative resources to hand, it was still an ambitious ask to bring it to life on the stage. Now I reckon Rufus Norris has been unfairly pilloried in some quarters during his stewardship at the NT. Not all the new commissions have come off but there have been some absolute belters as well. Keeping the progressive and conservative stakeholder congregations onside at the NT would test the patience of a saint, especially in these interesting times, and I reckon RN has had a pretty good stab at it. And a couple of the projects where he has taken the director’s helm himself, Everyman and Mosquitos, were superb. Yet for me he is at his best when pulling together multiple narratives and kaleidoscopic forms; as long as the writing on which any work is created is up to snuff and the stories he helps tell make an immediate emotional connection. London Road, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, The Amen Corner, Feast, (both of which I missed), Festen and, I gather his takes on Cabaret, all fit that bill. So I was pretty sure this would work and fill the Oliver stage with technicolour life again.
And it does. Superbly. We first meet Hortense (Leah Harvey) in the Jamaican school she teaches in alongside glamorous American Mrs Ryder (Amy Forrest). A hurricane is coming. Michael (CJ Beckford), the rebellious son of Mr Philip (Trevor Laird) and Miss Ma (Jacqueline Boatswain), who are also Hortense’s, very strict, stand-in parents, (she is the illegitimate daughter of Mr Philip’s affluent white cousin). arrives. Hortense loves Michael but he has eyes only for Mrs Ryder. Cue a brilliant set piece prologue, bravura lighting (Paul Anderson), sound (Ian Dickinson) and, especially, projection design from Jon Driscoll, taking us through the storm, interspersed with Michael and Hortense’s childhood, (not sure who played little M and H but blimey they are brave), and an explosive argument at the dinner table. In this Tempest-ian prologue it soon becomes clear we are in for an aural and visual treat thanks to these creatives in tandem with the sedulous stage and costume design of Katrina Lindsay, music of Benjamin Kwasi Burrell and movement of Coral Messam. Heaven knows how many hours they all put in but not was worth it.
This is worth the ticket price alone. Especially if, like the Tourist, you only pay £15. The proper reviews have come in and they are excellent. If Billers at the Guardian and DC at the Telegraph both say 5 stars then you would be a t*t to miss it. There are plenty of tickets left towards the end of the run from which to take your pick. With acting of this level and stories with this much passion I would happily have paid £75 for centre front stalls but trust me, with stagecraft of this quality and scale you’ll be fine in the cheap seats as well.
Now the characters do take a little time to fully come to life. The setting does dwarf the actors a little in the prologue and, in the preview I attended, the delivery of the dialogue initially lacked a bit of fizz. But when we move to England, the “mother country”, to meet Queenie (Aisling Loftus) and her awkward, repressed suitor, bank clerk Bernard (Andrew Rothney), and then track the progress of Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr), during the war as an airman and then when he returns after the war, with Hortense who has married him to realise here dream of escape, things really begin to crank up.
Andrea Levy’s story, replayed deftly by Helen Edmundson, is built on memorable episodes which together create an irresistible momentum topped, at the end of the first, long, half by the arrival of the Empire Windrush, and then in the shorter, more constrained second half, set in 1948, by the return of Bernard and the momentous decision which finally binds the two couples. Queenie’s date with Bernard in the cinema, her first encounter with Michael’s irresistible charm after he too arrives in GB to fight for Empire, Hortense mistaking Gilbert for Michael on first meeting, the ill-fated fight in Yorkshire, Hortense’s desperate betrayal of best friend Celia (Shiloh Coke). Queenie’s tender care for her traumatised father-in-law Arthur (David Fielder), the overt racism Gilbert and Hortense encounter, as postie and would-be teacher, (audience visibly outraged), and from Bernard after he returns. And many more. Each scene is expertly navigated and beautifully mounted.
Small Island is, of course, primarily about race and prejudice, and the journey that the protagonists take, both geographical and emotional. It reflects Andrea Levy’s own, mixed race heritage, and the legacy of Empire. In this adaptation though, and maybe just because of the brilliance of Leah Harvey as the proud, uptight, determined Hortense and Aisling Loftus as the openhearted, optimistic but tough Queenie, I was particularly drawn to the compromises the women had to make to carve out any sort of meaningful life for themselves. All the main characters have dreams that, in order to be realised need to confront unpalatable realities, but the two women, in their own, intertwined, ways have so much more to overcome. This, ultimately, is what makes them so sympathetic and the story itself so warm, uplifting and, dare I say, inspirational.
Without the somewhat syrupy narration, and with the exuberant, (even in some of the darker passages), innovation which was required to bring each scene to life, this stage version is more moving and satisfying than the TV version. It is around three hours, even without the interval, but it never feels like it and, though I can’t be sure not having read the book, it seems to offer a more than faithful distillation of Ms Levy’s intention. Unfortunately she passed away in February before the play opened so we can’t be sure but she was apparently fully signed up to director and adaptor’s vision . The programme contains an extract from her 2014 essay “Back To My Own Country”. Everyone should read it.
“We are here because you were there.” I was particularly struck by this quote from Ambalavaner Sivanandan, prime mover in the Institute of Race Relations, highlighted in the programme notes from Leah Cowan. Remember everyone who came to Britain from Jamaica and elsewhere was a British citizen. Same rights as my grandad. Who just happened to be, I knew even as a child brought up in an entirely white monoculture, an ugly, visceral racist. He’s long gone. Yet it seems the open abuse he habitually lobbed at his black neighbours still hasn’t.
Small Island with bowl you over as a piece of theatre, make you laugh and maybe even cry, but it should also make you think long and hard about our shared history. Do go.
(As an aside can I beg Naomie Harris, Hortense in the TV adaptation, to return to the London stage. You will know her from her film roles as Eve Moneypenny in the last few Bonds or Moonlight, amongst others. I think the last time she was in the theatre was in Danny Boyle’s amazing sounding Frankenstein which I never got to see. Come to think of it it would be good to see Mr Boyle’s boundless imagination let loose again on the Olivier stage. He would fill it I am sure. As for Ruth Wilson, Queenie in the TV Small Island, anyone who saw her magic in Ivo van Hove/Patrick Marber’s Hedda Gabler will be counting the days to her UK stage return).