Sancho: An Act of Remembrance at the Orange Tree Theatre review ****

Paterson Joseph – Sancho: An Act of Remembrance

Orange Tree Theatre, 30th June 2019

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.

King Hedley II at the Theatre Royal Stratford East review ****

King Hedley II

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 6th June 2019

The Pittsburgh (or Century) Cycle. Ten plays written by August Wilson (above) charting the African- American experience in the US in each decade of the C20. All bar one set in the same Pittsburgh Hill district, where August Wilson grew up. In the 1920s and 1930s this district was the hub of jazz culture. By the 1980s however, as the community was left behind and the planners, unsympathetically, moved in, Pittsburgh suffered the same fate as many other inner city areas in the US. The Cycle is not strictly chronological but is often connected. There were Pulitzer Prizes for Fences and The Piano Lesson. AW was inspired by, in his own words, blues music, the writing of Argentinian Jose Luis Borges, the African-American playwright Amiri Baraka and the African-American artist Romare Bearden, (most well know for his powerful work in collage).

So far the Tourist has seen this, Fences (with Lenny Henry as lead Troy Maxson) and the NT production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom with its A list cast led by Sharon D Clarke. And I have Two Trains Running coming up at the Royal and Derngate with the others on the bucket list. From the experiences so far this are slow-burn, emotional, painstakingly constructed dramas which carefully scrutinise characters, showing the joys, frustrations and disappointments of their everyday lives. Very specific in terms of time, place and setting, but universal in terms of message. Political with a small “p”. Measured and naturalistic.

King Hedley II certainly take its time, clocking in at near 3 1/2 hours, and starts small ending on a more melodramatic scale, almost Chekovian. All the action takes place in the back yard of Ruby’s (Martina Laird) brownhouse on Pittsburgh Hill, and silence, or any non-naturalistic trickery, is not part of the gig. So you have to want to hear these people speak. Fortunately the words Mr Wilson puts into their mouths are powerful, real and compelling. Which gives the cast here, under the direction of Nadia Fall, plenty to get their acting teeth into. Ms Fall’s first season in charge at the TRSE has been a triumph. Her second season looks like it will be a repeat. A combination of home-grown and brought in productions that celebrate diversity, are relevant and, above all, are entertaining. The house is filling up and reaching out. That’s impressive.

Anyway King Henley II was probably the pick of the crop on last year’s announcement, (though I would suggest The Village, The Unreturning and Equus, which is transferring to Trafalgar Studios and deserves your attention, all turned out to be better), on the strength of Mr Wilson’s reputation, the generous support of Mr Wilson’s widow Constanaza Romero, and the casting of Lenny Henry. As I know from Fences, Othello and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, our Lenny is a magnetic stage presence and packs an emotional acting punch. In some ways he is almost too big a character. However here, in the role of Elmore, he takes something of, well I hesitate to call it a back seat, but he is not the linch-pin of the action. That role belongs to Aaron Pierre who plays the eponymous title character, and he is, properly, awesome.

Mr Pierre hails from Lewisham, where he went to the local college, before getting into LAMDA. His professional debut was as Cassio in last year’s Othello which marked Sir Mark Rylance’s return to the Globe. He’s done a bit of telly as well, (he will appear in Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railway on Amazon), but this is this first stage lead. He will be a big star no doubt. And, just to be clear, he doesn’t play for Shrewsbury Town.

King Hedley II is an ex-con who returns to his childhood home after serving seven years for murder but is having difficulty adjusting back to life. He wants to provide for wife Tonya (Cherrelle Skeete) and start a family but employment proves elusive, this being 1985 in Reagan’s America/ So he conjures up a plan with his upbeat best mate Mister (Dexter Flanders) to sell knock-off refrigerators to the local community. Once they have saved enough they will then set up a video store. The plan, you will not be surprised to learn, doesn’t come off. King Hedley and Tonya share the house with Ruby. Hedley’s mother, though the relationship between mother and son is fractured. Ruby left Hedley to pursue a singing career so that he was brought up by his aunt, whose house this was, and is angry that she has returned to claim the house after his aunt died. Stool Pigeon (Leo Wringer), who is something of a fire and brimstone prophet, lives next door and, whilst we never see her, the death of Aunt Ester (“a washer of souls”), who appears in other plays in the Cycle, hangs heavy over the action. Many of the characters here first appear in Seven Guitars the play which premiered before KHII, in 1995, which is set in the 1940’s.

The opening act is not all doom and gloom, there’s plenty of bantz, but Hedley’s anger at the cards that life has dealt him, as he slouches in his chair in the yard, fiddles with his gun and tries to plant some seeds, is palpable. Into this volatile mix comes Elmore, Lenny Henry’s character, an ex-lover of Ruby and a hustler and chancer with a natty (if you like 70’s suits) dress sense. Hedley, as we find out, has good reason to resent Elmore and tensions build.

There are several strands to the story and Mr Wilson and Ms Fall are determined to give them all a fair hearing which does mean the play drags a little before it all comes together. The ending aims at tragedy but doesn’t quite scale the heights of the Greeks or Arthur Miller. Fate, male violence, the impact of the past on the present, the crushing of hope brought on by Reaganomics, individual responsibility, all are themes which are rehearsed in some often wordy monologues. Peter McKintosh’s set is a faithful retention of the brownstone terrace but there is little therefore to distract the eye. Howard Harrison’s lighting is a treat and there are a few, though maybe not enough, musical distractions, alongside Christopher Shutt’s electronic sound design.

White Pearl at the Royal Court Theatre review ***

White Pearl

Royal Court tHeatre, 13th May 2019

White Pearl offers an undeniably intriguing premise for a satire. A Singapore based cosmetics company is pilloried on social media when a racist ad created by a partner is leaked onto a French You Tube account and subsequently goes viral. Cue an often scathing, fearless and witty examination of intra-Asian racial stereotyping, corporate culture, brand values, social media outrage and any other hypocrisy that is unwise enough to step into the territory that Thai-Australian playwright Anchuli Felicia King has set her eye on. Yet, after the targets are set up and knocked down, it seems that all she can then do is return and repeat to diminishing effect. Great beginning, promising middle, but not sure there was ever a clear end in sight. Still at just 90 minutes it knew when its work was done. And this sat, old, privileged, white bloke learnt a lot about stuff who knew nothing about.

Farzana Dua Elahe plays Priya Singh, the haughty, Indian-Singaporean, founder of Clearday which, somewhat murkily, ends up with a best seller in its skin-whitening product, White Pearl, a massive success. Moi Tran’s simple set, and Natasha Chivers’s lighting, offer an appropriately clinical corporate head office which is backed, alternately, by a raised platform hiding the loos (!) and a vast video wall. Assistant Sunny Lee (Katie Leung) is Chinese Singaporean whose American “dudebro” argot is Hokkien accented. Built Suttikul (Kae Alexander) is a privileged, and wry, Thai-American, having an affair with conceited French would-be journo Marcel Benoit (Arty Froushan). Soo-Jin Park (Minhee Yeo) is the South Korean scientist who is responsible for sourcing the production of White Pearl. Xiao Chen (Momo Yeun) is from a well connected Chinese family who may now have found itself on the wrong side of the regime. Ruki Minami (Kanako Nakano) is the new recruit office manager, who comes up with the marketing message for White Pearl.

As the crisis for the company escalates, and as we shift between scenes, the video wall offers us ever more extreme tweets from around the world. The whip-smart dialogue, as blame for the f*ck-up ricochets around the group and attempts to stem the damage are proposed, and the way in which layers of history, identity, culture, class, colourism, racism, diaspora-ism, (I know it isn’t a thing but you will know what I mean), are exposed, left me breathless in a good way. By comparison the mocking of corporate behaviour was a little less secure.

The punctiliously assembled cast deliver this heady brew with conviction, though these are not, as you might have surmised, “round” characters, and I can’t faultNana Dakin’s vigorous direction. But it still feels to me that plot and structure remained at the planning stage to be superseded by ideas and the, admittedly, delicious dialogue.

It occurred to me that, as a mini-series, releasing some of the tossed-away sub-plots, relishing the short, sharp scenes, taking the foot off the gas just a bit, opening up the characters and their back-stories, whilst still preserving the acid invigoration of Anchuli Felicia King’s lines, this would be brilliant. Mind you I guessing that, for all their garlanding, the likes of Sky, Amazon and Netflix, do still trot out some appallingly formulaic sh*te amongst the jewels. Still that’s “content” for you. Luckily for us we also still have Sloane Square’s bastion of writing.

Small Island at the National Theatre review *****

Small Island

National Theatre Olivier

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).