“Master Harold” … and the boys at the National Theatre review *****

“Master Harold” … and the boys

National Theatre Lyttleton, 26th October 2019

I was surprised by this. Not by the content. Athol Fugard, like his compatriot in the plastic arts William Kentridge, has more than enough inspiration to fuel his art from the history of his nation. Master Harold, like the other plays of his I have seen, therefore deals with the legacy of apartheid. But, being a three hander, with precocious schoolboy Hally whiling away an afternoon at the teahouse owned by his parents in the company of waiter Sam and helper Willie, and most obviously autobiographical, it offers more dramatic dimensionality than the two handers which typify AF’s classic work.

It helps that this is, as far as I can work out, a near perfect production, directed by Roy Alexander Weise, about to take on the joint AD role with Bryony Shanahan at the Royal Exchange Manchester, and responsible for Nine Night and The Mountaintop, (and slated to deliver a revival of Roy Williams’s Sucker Punch at TRSE and an Antigone at the Lyric Hammersmith), on a satisfyingly realistic set courtesy of his regular collaborator Rajha Shakiry. With two actors, Lucien Msamati (Sam) and Hammed Animashaun (Willie) at the top of their games and one, Anson Boon (Hally), who looks like he is poised for great things. Young Anson, with TV series The Feed and Shadowplay, and films, Sulphur and White, The Winter Lake and Sam Mendes’s one take WWI drama, 1917, is about to come to a screen near you, and, on the basis of his performance as Master Harold here, I can see why.

Now I am assuming that a lad from Northampton, who didn’t go to drama school, hasn’t done much in the way of Anglo white middle class South African, specifically Port Elizabeth, mid C20 (1950 to be exact), accents before. With the help of company voice coach Simon Money, and dialect specialist Joel Trill, though he nails it. To be fair this is an exact impersonation of AF’s own voice, winding back seven decades so up an octave, but it is still very convincing. As are the corresponding accents of LM, Sam’s education and knowledge outstripping his position, and HA.

AF’s father was a disabled jazz pianist and his Mum ran a boarding house at tea shop in PE. As well as being a top bloke and brilliant story-teller ,(an essay in the programme tracks his career as an activist and creator of subversive theatre, alongside collaborators Winston Ntshona and John Kani, academic and film-maker), he is also plainly a clever bloke. As, therefore, is the fictional Hally.

On the afternoon of the play Hally’s Mum has gone to visit the alcoholic Dad in hospital and phone calls reveal the strain on the family, with Hally pleading with Mum not to let Dad be discharged. The older Sam (45) is plainly a surrogate father and foil to Hally’s intellectual curiosity with Willie as more of a playful contemporary. Sam and Willie have clearly been looking after Hally for much of his life. The mood is relaxed, with Hally’s patronising attitude, and Sam and Willie’s tolerance thereof, just a given. Willie has asked Sam to help him learn to dance (ballroom crossed cultural divides in SA and here it is a metaphor for life). The conversation between the “friends” flows across a range of subjects. Yet we never forget that Sam and Willie are employees and that the condescending Hally is the “boss”, and eventually, in a fit of pique, Hally loses control and the racial divide is starkly expressed. This pivotal moment, and what follows, even as you guess something is coming, is still very shocking and as powerful a symbol of the stain of apartheid as one could imagine.

The play was banned in South Africa so received its first performances in New York in 1982. Its exposure of the corrosive effect of apartheid, the deflecting subservience of the blacks, the oppressive entitlement of the whites, is all the more affecting because of the lyrical and intellectual nature of AF’s dialogue and the depth of the emotional bonds between the characters. Like all his plays it takes its time, which can weigh down on the drama, and, at first, the writing seems forced, but I think reflects the reality of the complex relationship. It may be that AF has exaggerated the flaws in his autobiographical self, but, as we learn of Hally’s disgust at what caring for his father involves, and his lack of friends his own age, of Willie’s “real” life outside the tea shop as he gets on with the tasks he is set, and we see Sam’s dignity in the face of the everyday injustice that has stunted his life, I think it rings true.

A Taste of Honey at Richmond Theatre review ***

A Taste Of Honey

Richmond Theatre, 9th October 2019

Not quite sure I know how a production such as this is taken under the wing of the National Theatre, and let’s face it it’s none of my business anyway. But I do think I can work out why this particular tour, which has taken in in some fair sized commercial theatres came to pass. This production of A Taste of Honey, with Lesley Sharp and Kate O’Flynn in the leads, was a qualified success in 2014 on the South Bank. But the NT needs to be more, er, National. So spread the cost and risk so that the NT provides the brand and product and the theatres stump up the cash. Take a renowned play, though probably better known as a film, with historical appeal and contemporary relevance, and wait for the curious punters to roll in. Let Bijan Sheibani, who has since had a monster hit with Barber Shop Chronicles, (which, in another of the coincidences that continue to punctuate the Tourist’s cultural adventures, I saw for the first time literally the next day), show his best. And cast big TV and musicals star Jodie Prenger as the brassy Helen, alongside relative newcomer, Gemma Dobson as punchy daughter Josephine.

Shelagh Delaney famously wrote A Taste of Honey, the archetypal kitchen sink drama, when she was just 19. It would be pretty unusual for a working class woman to announce herself as a writer for theatre in this way in 2019. To do so in 1958 was, literally, a miracle. For which Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop, who first staged it at the Theatre Royal Stratford, were rightly grateful. Whilst she never quite went on to repeat the success of this mix of rich characterisation, sincere dialogue and dramatic allusion in her subsequent work, (the harsh reviews for her second play The Lion in Love stopped her from writing for the stage for the next 20 years), her place in theatrical history. Her ambition was fuelled after seeing a production of Terence Rattigan’s Variations on a Theme and thinking she could do better. She was right. But in a world dominated by grammar school boys, she was never entirely at home, despite her fierce intelligence.

ATOH is still remarkable for its absence of judgement, its focus on two irreverent women, its atmosphere and its poetry. Helen and Josephine rub along, and rub up against each other, in their dingy Salford flat. Helen escapes with booze and dickhead blokes, namely one-eyed spiv Peter (Tom Varey). Teenager Josephine escapes through a fling with Nigerian sailor Jimmie (Durone Stokes). Pregnant she then turns to her gay, arty student best friend Geoffrey (another talented newcomer Stuart Thompson) for tea, sympathy and bitching.

If you don’t the story it is pretty easy to guess, its novelty, and scandal, having worn off with repeated replication. No matter it is still brilliantly executed. Or at least it would be in this production if it wasn’t for the endless and unnecessary scene changes, the very busy set from Hildegard Bechtler ,which just didn’t fit properly into the Richmond stage, the fussy lighting of Paul Anderson, and the jazz interludes from the three piece band of David O’Brien, Alex Davis and George Bird, awkwardly wedged on stage, with music from Benjamin Kwasi Burrell and on stage singing. In moderation all of these elements would work but it was all just a bit too much distraction for a text that doesn’t need and, towards the end, does, whisper it, run out of steam a bit.

Whilst I am at it Jodie Prenger and Tom Varey also verge a little too much on the side of over expression which leaves the determined yet vulnerable Gemma Dobson as the best of the five strong cast.

I am very glad that I got to see this important slice of theatrical history and I think it will do well when it comes to London at the end of the tour at the Trafalgar Studios. But if we want a better idea of why it is, even through the prism of sixty years of social change, (for the better of course), such vital drama, then Tony Richardson’s film is a better bet. I see Rita Tushingham (there she is above), whose debut role as Josephine was lauded nearly as much as Shelagh Delaney’s screenplay, is starring in Edgar Wright’s upcoming horror film alongside other legends Diana Rigg, (any way else out there fantasising about Lady Oleanna turning up at their Christmas lunch), and Terence Stamp. I wonder why. Looking forward to that.

Blues in the Night at the Kiln Theatre review ***

Blues in the Night

Kiln Theatre, 31st July 2019

Right. I’ll cut to the chase. Blues in the Night isn’t really a work of drama. Or really musical theatre. It is a nostalgic revue purporting to tell the story of three women, the Lady (Sharon D Clarke), the Woman (Debbie Kurup) and the Girl (Gemma Sutton), who have been variously misused by men in their lives, holed up in a cheap, seedy hotel in pre-war Chicago. They are joined by the spivish Man (Clive Rowe), who they have all encountered, a couple of hustler/bartender types (Aston New and Joseph Poulton) and, surprise, surprise, an on-stage band. With minimal spoken narrative, barely any characterisation and no real story to speak of, these archetypes proceed to sing and dance their way, in various combinations, through 25 mostly torch, blues and jazz standards over the course of a couple of hours.

To be fair I doubt that African-American director Sheldon Epps intended any more than this when he first dreamt this up in 1980. This is a vehicle to showcase the music and, to a lesser extent, and less successfully, highlight the plight of the three women it portrays. It first appeared in London at the Donmar in 1987, to some acclaim, but this is its first revival for 30 years. 

So, providing you bear all that in mind, and don’t go expecting much in the way of interaction between the characters, or much insight into their inner lives beyond mooching about their lost “loves”, drowning their sorrows in whiskey and fags or boasting about their conquests, then you are in for a treat. Or you would have been if you had seen it before the run ended. The set design of Robert Jones, which foregrounds the “bedrooms” of the three women where many of the songs are performed (with a fully stocked bar at the back!), the on-stage band of Shaney Forbes (drums), Stuart Brooks (trumpet), Horace Cardew (sax, clarinet, flute), Rachel Espeute (double bass, led by Mark Dickman on piano, and the sprightly direction of Susie McKenna, are all excellent. Lotte Collett’s costumes also hit the mark. 

Gemma Sutton’s voice is a little underpowered compared to Debbie Kurup’s, though the tiresome stereotype of the Girl did her no favours. Clive Rowe though can swing and manages somehow to conjure up the bumptious cockiness of the Man from next to no material, with a fine voice especially in lower registers. 

But let’s be honest. The main (only?) reason to see this was Sharon D Clarke. She doesn’t have much opportunity to display her formidable acting skills but who cares given that voice. The stand out is when she gets to sing Wasted Life Blues. “Wonder what will become of poor me”. Close your eyes and Bessie Smith (above) could be in the house. OK so this isn’t really close to her extraordinary performance in Caroline, Or Change, or in the title role in NT’s revival of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or even as Linda Loman in the Young Vic Death of a Salesman, (my theatrical highlight of this or any other year is hearing her rebuke Biff and Happy when they mock Willy), but it is still tremendous stuff. Go see her outshine the rest of the cast and blow the roof off in a West End musical potboiler or watch her define “hidden depths” on the telly for sure, but ideally catch her in something like the above, with a bit more dramatic heft, to see just how she commands the stage, singing or speaking. 

The other songs written by Ms Smith, Baby Doll, Blue, Blue, Dirty No-Gooder Blues, It Makes My Love Come Down, Nobody Knows When You’re Down And Out and Reckless Blues, also outshine the contributions of the other composers but it’s still pretty hard not to enjoy the likes of Kitchen Man (Ms Clarke saucing it up), Harold Arden’s eponymous Blues in the Night or Lover Man. 

The SO, who is partial to both Ms Clarke and the Kiln, agreed. Looked good, sounded great, eminently forgettable.