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.

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.

The Permanent Way at The Vaults review *****

The Permanent Way

The Vaults, 13th October 2019

I have to hand it Debbie Hicks and Alexander Lass, producer and director of The Permanent Way. Whilst David Hare’s 2003 verbatim dissection of the Tory rail privatisation in the 1990s, and the four fatal disasters which followed, is an undeniably powerful piece of theatre, which was praised at the time, it takes guts to revive it. Especially in a two month run. With a cast of nine. Admittedly the economics at the Vaults are attractive for theatre makers and performers, that is why the Festival goes from strength to strength, and the USP of a site specific production about the railways, under Waterloo with trains rumbling every few minutes, is self evident. And a few coats, uniforms, lamps and four benches is all that was needed set and costume wise (Ruth Hall). Even so I was surprised when this was announced, though very pleased as it had been on my watch list for years.

I was even more surprised that the Vaults was packed with twenty somethings on the Sunday afternoon when I attended. I guess this is ancient history from their perspective but then again, as our politics and civic discourse becomes more polarised, and with rail nationalisation firmly on Labour’s policy agenda, I guess the relevance of the play needs no explanation.

Now when I was their age, fresh out of uni, and keen to do something worthwhile, I sought work in the public sector. Civil service exams completed it was off for interviews at various departments (at least I think that was the chronology). Ever the statto, Department of Transport was top of the list. Some kind mandarin chaps quizzed me on the thorny issue of rail privatisation, already firmly on Thatcher’s agenda. To paraphrase I said it was a shite idea. How to split infrastructure from operations and how to make competition work across a fixed capital public good? The chaps didn’t really demur. Didn’t get an offer mind but it was pretty clear that if this jejune, if opinionated, grad could see this was bonkers idea, then so could everyone tasked to make it happen. From one entity to 113.

And so it came to pass. David Hare offers us a High Powered Treasury Thinker (Lucas Howe), a Senior Civil Servant (Jonathan Coote) and an Investment Banker (Anna Acton) to walk us through the how and why of privatisation, all retrospectively seeking exculpation. Wendy (Sakuntanla Ramanee), in a neat touch, just makes the tea. A turn of the political wheel and we meet John Prescott (Paul Dodds) and a Senior Rail Executive (Tej Obano) who ooze complacency. A Very Experienced Rail Engineer (Jonathan Tafler) warns of the dangers presented by the split of responsibilities and the lax safety regime, driven by commercial imperatives, before the four “accidents” are forensically examined. Southall (19th September 1997, 7 dead, 150 injured), Ladbroke Grove (5th October 1999, 31 dead, 523 injured), Hatfield (17th October 2000, 4 dead, 70+ injured) and Potters Bar (10th May 2002, 7 dead, 76 injured). For those that doubt the connections, after all the actions taken in the years after these tragedies, there have been minimal fatalities on Britain’s railways, outside of incidents on level crossings.

The cast, including Jacqui Dubois and Gabrielle Lloyd as well as the above, take on the roles of the bereaved, union leaders, campaigners and pivotally, a British Transport Policeman (Jonathan Coote), the MD of the eventually nationalised Railtrack (Lucas Hare), yes it turned out you couldn’t leave the infrastructure in private sector hands, and a Bereaved Widow, the author Nina Bawden, whose husband died at Potters Bar (Gabrielle Lloyd). The diversion into the schisms between the various groups of the bereaved feels prescient.

The play was inspired by Guardian journalist Ian Jack’s book, the Crash That Stopped Britain, and was based on interviews carried out by the cast of those involved selected by Max Stafford-Clark and transport journalist Christian Wolmar, (who I see is not standing this time as the Labour candidate in Richmond Park where, one expects, the hypocrite and quarter billionaire Zac Goldsmith, will lose out to the Lib Dems). This process is classic Joint Stock Theatre, which was founded by Hare and Stafford-Clark and out of which the original creator of The Permanent Way, Out of Joint …. well, emerged.

What is extraordinary is that David Hare added very little in terms of connecting tissue to the interviews. All he did was extract and order. Given the subject matter it is unsurprising just how vital and moving so much of the testimony is. What is surprising however is just how well it works as drama. There is a bit of policy wonking at the start but nothing intimidating and by the time we got to the aftermath of the crashes I was properly immersed. Of course it helps that this interests, and angers, me, but I think the rest of the audience were similarly engrossed.

For that we must thank director Alexander Lees, the movement, in a very tight transverse space, of Sian Williams, the lighting of Rick Fisher and the sound of Roly Witherow. And a very committed cast. The setting helped but this would have been just as effective in a standard theatre. A string of 3* reviews seemed a little stingy in my view. Political theatre at its best. And every single word is true.

Of course you could always just nip “upstairs” to see the complex in action, or, more often than not, inaction. And this at the London terminal for South Western Railways, better looked after than most because all us posh types use it. An under-invested infrastructure, owned and operated by the state at arms length through Network Rail, (most of the track, stations and signalling), regulated by the Office of Rail Regulation, with passenger train operators under short term franchises awarded by the Department of Transport, or through open access, and freight operators through open competition, paying to use that infrastructure. Rolling stock in the hands of leasing companies, sub-contractors a plenty for maintenance. Most franchises receive subsidies, with contracts and legalese rampant, conditions on service, punctualities and control of fares never ending. And of course there is the irony that one way or another most of the operating companies involve a European state owned rail company (Keolis, Deutsche Bahn, Nederlandse Spoorwegen, MTR Hong Kong and soon Trenitalia). Ooh and then there’s LNER, accidentally nationalised. I am pretty sure this was never the intention of the Thatcherite nutters. We pay more (fares and subsidies) and get less. Go figure.

Faith, Hope and Charity at the National Theatre review ****

Faith, Hope and Charity

National Theatre Dorfman, 8th October 2019

I didn’t catch the first two plays in Alexander Zeldin’s trilogy, Beyond Caring (zero hours contracts) and Love (a homeless hostel), about life for the disadvantaged in modern Britain. In fact worse that that I didn’t even know about them. And seeing Faith, Hope and Charity was something of a last minute decision driven by the strong reviews and a timing loose end.

Well more fool me. Creating a devised play about everyday life where not much happens but which still packs a powerful emotional and political punch is not easy. FH&C doesn’t shout, preach or hector because it doesn’t need to. It comes from the same place as the film collaborations of Ken Loach and Paul Laverty and I would imagine is driven by the same passion, but its mood is altogether more eloquent. Mr Zeldin’s other work, a play based on Lars van Trier’s The Idiots, directing Macbeth in Korea, Romeo and Juliet in Italy and operas in Russia (including Ades’s Powder Her Face) suggests he is a man of many talents and I can’t wait to see more of his work.

The simply astounding Cecilia Noble plays plays Hazel, a kind, redoubtable woman who volunteered to cook lunch for those in need in a dilapidated community hall on the edge of a nameless British town. With her soft, calm voice and unflappable temperament Hazel could hardly be more different from Ms Noble’s two previous roles on the Dorfman stage, as no-nonsense probation office in Bruce Norris’s Downstate and as comedic force of nature Aunt Maggie in Natasha’s Gordon’s brilliant Nine Night.

She is joined by reforming ex-criminal Mason, another superb performance from Nick Holder, who is setting up a choir, as much to aid his own rehabilitation as to help the locals. He starts to assist in the kitchen. The array of regulars include cranky pensioner Bernard (veteran stage actor Alan Williams) who can’t face his empty home, timorous Tharwa (Hind Swareldahab) and her daughter Tala, the extremely anxious Karl (Dayo Koleosho) always waiting for his carer, the truculent Anthony (Corey Peterson). And Beth (Susan Lynch), with teenage son Marc (Bobby Stallwood), whose chaotic life means she has lost custody of her 4 year old daughter, Faith, and is arguing with the court authorities to secure her return.

Mr Zeldin’s script makes plain the impact of austerity on the lives of his characters, the leaky community hall is eventually closed down due to lack of funds, but this is no grim polemic. His characters may be struggling but they are resilient, they are compassionate and, at times, optimistic. There is humour and joy through the various scenes, the Christmas lunch, the offer by Hazel to take in Faith though she has her own family issue, the relationship between Mason and Beth, the cheesy choral anthem “You’ve Got The Music In You”, but the realities of the impact of the broken social care system always looms large.

Natasha Jenkins’ set and Marc William’s utilitarian lighting is as note perfect as the dialogue. Mr Zeldin spent two years researching this play and it shows. Of course I know a couple of hours assuaging the guilt of a comfortable and sympathetic metropolitan audience makes fuck all difference to those people at the pointy end of austerity. Though I might respectively suggest the following.

  • Banish from your mind any thoughts that those in need are at fault. In any way. Ever. You are not better or cleverer. Just luckier.
  • Vote the right way. You know what to do.
  • Give ¬£10 a month to the Trussell Trust. Pay for it by doing something veggie, green or healthy.

And now for the rant.

Local authorities will have seen an average 77% decrease in government funding in the four years to 2020. In real terms overall local government spending will have seen a fall in real terms of 30% since 2010. In the last 5 years food bank use in the UK has risen by 73%. According to the TUC` 3.1 mn children with working parents now live below the poverty line.

Austerity failed. Sucking demand out of a brittle economy will always fail. Spend on health (20%), education (15%) and pensions (15%) is going to run ahead of real growth and inflation. Slicing spend elsewhere and pretending that any job, however lowly paid and precarious, makes for healthy employment is nonsense. The UK cannot have the services it wants without paying for them. And if we don’t pay for them in the long run we will, as we are now, pay for it. Hiding debt by buying shitty assets was never a long term solution. We are already, public and private, the most indebted major economy on earth. Pretending we can cut ourselves off from Europe and pursue some buccaneering independent future is bollocks. Our debt cost will rise as our currency croaks and capital and labour will fuck off elsewhere.

The solution is simple. Pay more tax. Everyone who can afford it. The argument is over whether that be on wealth or income, not how much. And borrow more. A lot more. Everyone else is. And debt is cheap because there is no alternative. But use it to invest, support and drive sustainable growth, not buy votes. And right this minute end the farcical Brexit pantomime by immediate revocation. Doing something idiotic just because you don’t want to lose face, or hope that will make it go away is, well, idiotic. Time for toddler Britain to end the tantrum and face realities.

Merry Christmas.

Plenty at the Chichester Festival Theatre review ****

Plenty

Chichester Festival Theatre, 27th June 2019

Sir David Hare has written a fair few plays. Important plays. As well as TV screenplays and film scripts. I’ve only seen a handful but it’s not difficult to work out why the old boy is so important. Even if some would suggest he has gone off the boil a bit in recent years. Maybe that’s true though for me there was still much to admire in his last two plays I’m Not Running and his adaptation of The Red Barn, and in the TV drama Collateral. Is he Britain’s greatest living playwright? I think Mr Stoppard’s admirers would have something to say about that and, for me, Caryl Churchill, trumps them both.

So to this revival of Plenty. It wasn’t Sir David’s first success in the theatre. Slag from 1970, performed at the Royal Court, was the breakthrough with Knuckle, Brassneck, (written in collaboration with Howard Brenton as was 1985’s Pravda, a truly great play which is still lodged in my mind), and, especially, Fanshen, the Joint Stock workshopped production about land reform in revolutionary China, all attracting considerable attention. But Plenty stands as one o the clearest expositions of his talent. At least so I was told by those in the know. So I leapt at the chance to nip down to Chichester to see this new production. Especially as the CFT had handed the keys over to a talented, but not big name, cast (with maybe one obvious exception) and creative team.

Mind you director Kate Hewitt had already shown her gifts to the good people of Chichester in last year’s revival of Mike Bartlett’s Cock in the Minerva and again, at the Young Vic, with Jesus Hopped the A Train. Designer Georgia Lowe also worked on Cock and has come up with some grand designs for recent ETT productions and An Octoroon which the Tourist has enjoyed. For Plenty she has produced a lean but richly toned representation with further depth courtesy of Lee Curran’s lighting, Giles Thomas’s sound and Nina Dunn’s backgrounds and close up live video. There are a lot of scene changes in Plenty as the action flips from 1943 to 1956 and 1962. Every scene looks the part in this production and none of these changes get in the way of the story.

The title was inspired by the idea that post war Britain would be a land of “plenty”, an idea that Sir David has always been keen to contend. In Plenty he does this through the life of Susan Traherne, a heroine in the wartime Special Operations Executive whose life after the war is blighted by disappointment and regret. As the wife of a repressed career diplomat, Raymond Brock, she cannot replicate the rush of her secret missions behind enemy lines and, as depression sets in, she in turn drags down her husband. Their childlessness being the most crushing outcome both literally and metaphorically. Apparently 75% of the women engaged by the SOE divorced soon after the war. Susan’s own decline is intended to mirror that of post war Britain with Raymond’s postings and specifically his actions alongside boss Sir Leonard Darwin at the time of the Suez Crisis creating a brilliant counterpoint.

This is what Sir David does. Mixes the political and the personal. The way in which an individual’s life is intertwined with the, here, upper class, repressed British society into which they are thrust. Fair to say he is not the only dramatist who has ploughed this particular furrow. But he is amongst the best. Because he has the gift for the gab. Lines spill effortlessly out of the mouths of his characters. Any exposition, and with all these big themes lurking in the not-so background, a lot of ground needs to be covered, flows naturally in the dialogue. OK so maybe they get to the big picture arguments a bit too rapidly but then again in Plenty, as in his other plays, his people actually live in the big picture.

But this never detracts from the interior journey of the main protagonists. Here Susan and Raymond. Sir David may be a Chekhov groupie like so many of his illustrious peers but Susan Traherne might have stepped straight out of the pages of an Ibsen classic. In reverse trajectory. And with a nod to Rattigan’s Hester in The Deep Blue Sea which CFT also revived earlier in the year. Same class, same period, (though TDBS is set over one day compared to the 20 years of Plenty), same frustrations. This is a woman trying to revive the agency of her past life whilst surrounded by men determined, for reasons moreorless deliberate, to thwart her.

You have probably surmised that Susan Traherne is a gift of a part but it takes an actor of rare skill to do justice to it. Rachael Stirling is just such an actor. (Mind you if your Mum is Diana Ring I guess you wee genetically predisposed to be brilliant on stage). She refrains from laying on too thickly ST’s descent into depression and, maybe, psychosis, and handles the shifting time frames with ease. The bitter sarcasm she levels at, most memorably, the dinner party guests at the height of the Suez crisis and, then again, in 1962 at Raymond’s bosses at the FCO, is not entirely absent even at the outset when she meets “Codename Lazar” (Rupert Young) and “A Frenchman” (Raphael Desprez) in occupied France. She’s brutally honest in a social and political milieu that doesn’t want to listen. Which is what makes the play so popular with us lefty, liberal types though in far too subtle a way to register with the gammons, then and now. As it happens I am not sure I share Sir David’s implied pessimism about the direction of GB’s travel since the war. There have been periods of ascent over the past decades, but I do think this is usually despite, not thanks to, the c*cks who are generally in the box seats.

Rory Keenan never loses sight of the fact that Raymond Brock is a bit of a dick imprisoned by his own values and upbringing but he still offers¬†emotional support above and beyond for the woman he loves. Yolanda Kettle offers light(-ish) relief as ST’s life long chum Alice Park, an archetypal toff playing at the bohemian, but with a freedom ST years for, and Antony Calf and Nick Sampson also shine as the two knighted diplomat, the latter more sceptical of the Establishment system than the former.

“State of the Nation” and, for want of a better phrase, the dramatisation of institutional structures, is what we have paid Sir David Hare to deliver over the last five decades. Too many lightly sketched characters? Too many targets for his ire? Or too preoccupied with fighting the battles of previous years? A sometimes uncomfortable shoehorning of the personal into the political. All maybe true but this ain’t easy and, with line after line, Is David shows us why he is as good as it gets with this sort of stuff. And Plenty is about as good as it gets as an example of his sort of stuff.