Catching up (Part 6)

June 2021

Oleanna – Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath – 28th June – *****

Finally an opportunity to scratch that travel itch. The SO was forced to drive the Tourist around some of the loveliest parts of Northern England in early June, but the attractions were almost entirely architectural and natural, and there was, I admit, a surfeit of Medieval buildings. (Turns out the highlight however was avian, namely puffins, and best of all, a pair of hen harriers). After a jaunt to Bristol, what a marvellous city, confronting its past and building its future, the Tourist also joined the SO in Bath, which is altogether more sedate and in danger of being pickled in its Regency past.

A chance to see Oleanna at the compact Ustinov Studio though, which had initially been another C19 casualty, and which has been on the Tourist’s wish list for some time. David Mamet’s artistry has faded alarmingly in recent years, Bitter Wheat was a mess, but Oleanna ranks alongside Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed the Plow as his finest stage works IMHO. Oleanna, in its examination of privilege, power and language, against the backdrop of an accusation of sexual harassment sets out to, and succeeds in, goading and provoking an audience. Its two characters, student Carol (Rosie Sheehy) and professor John (Jonathan Slinger), alternately elicit audience sympathy and loathing, as Mamet runs through its controversial gears. It was intended to cause controversy, written as its was, just after the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination proceedings during the GHW Bush presidency in 1991. And it is no less relevant today. You can make up your own mind where you stand on the issues it explores. What struck me was how far Mamet was prepared to go in eliciting sympathy, even justification, for John as the consequences of his actions become clear, whilst ramping up Carol’s “politically correct” hostility and lack of empathy, not least in her using the “group” to pursue her case and in demanding John’s books are banned.

Yet Carol is right and John is wrong, though to be fair, this is made absolute in the shocking ending. John oversteps boundaries at the outset. He may see his patronising self importance as Platonic but we see how his language and movement disturbs and violates Carol. She is worried and confused at the outset but, as she calls out John’s behaviour, she gains in confidence and eloquence as he deflates into narcissistic victimhood. The complexity and ambiguity of Mamet’s dialogue has probably been amplified through time but the way in which Carol and John talk, but fail to listen ,and the symmetry in their unresolved narrative arcs, is highly effective. Rosie Sheehy (who is surely destined for a long and fulfilling stage career) and Jonathan Slinger are equally superb, in action as well as word, as the battle for “supremacy” shifts from linguistic to physical. A good play to be right up front. I can’t imagine anyone improving on Lucy Bailey’s direction.

The Death of a Black Man – Hampstead Theatre – 17th June – ***

The Tourist’s other June outing wasn’t quite so rewarding. The idea of staging Hampstead Theatre Classics, landmark plays that originally premiered at HT, to celebrate the theatre’s 60th anniversary, was inspired and, in retrospect, was prudent in the event of the coming calamity. The Dumb Waiter delivered, but then one might have expected that, it being Pinter, but the subsequent plays weren’t quite as convincing. I couldn’t squeeze The Two Character Play after it was rescheduled, but it does sound like it is at the more challenging end of Tennessee Williams’s oeuvre, though given I am warming up on TW, and it starred Kate O’Flynn and Zubin Varla, it was a shame to miss it. More of Night, Mother in a future post, but, suffice to say, that it, like The Death of a Black Man, probably impressed more on its opening than it does now. Some plays don’t age as well as others. That is one of the many beauties of drama. It doesn’t make the play poor or flawed, just that its concerns, its style, its relevance, changes though time. And, of course, there are those gems that, for whatever reason fade into obscurity only to be rescued in future generations by enterprising creatives.

Alfred Fagon was born in Jamaica and, after emigrating to Britain, he served in the army and worked on the railways before he took up acting and then playwriting. In the 1970’s and early 1980’s his was an important voice in black British drama, before his untimely death, and disgraceful treatment even thereafter by local police, who claimed they couldn’t identify his body. (It continues. Fagon’s bust in St Paul’s Bristol was apparently vandalised by some knuckleheads in retribution for the Colston toppling).

TDOABM premiered at HT in 1975. This was its first revival. It tells the story of 18 year old Shakie (Nickcolia King-N’Da) and Stumpie (Toyin Omari-Kinch), best friends as well as business partners, and posh social worker Jackie (Natalie Simpson), the slightly older mother of Shakie’s child who has come to stay in Shakie’s flat in Chelsea. The conversations between the three of them run the gauntlet across race, gender and politics, in, initially at least, a naturalistic way. Shakie and Stumpie are determined to get on and make money, but their schemes are contrasted, Shakie is selling “African” artefacts to boho whites, whereas Stumpie is aiming to take back black music from its white appropriators. Interesting ideas are presented even if these are sometimes jumbled up. However, the second half takes a Pinteresque turn, namely The Homecoming, after Shakie’s musician father dies and the boys look to imprison and “sell” Jackie, with her apparent consent. The callous misogyny (and in parts blatant anti-semitism) is deliberately provocative but I am not sure if Mr Fagon quite pulls it off. This is true despite the best efforts of cast (especially Natalie Simpson who has a really tricky part to play here), director Dawn Walton, designer Simon Kenny who serves up a bright slice of deconstructing 70’s aesthetic and lighting designer Johanna Town. The experience and argument feels very real and must haver been revelatory to audiences in its time, but plot and character become more forced as the play shifts towards abstraction.

The alchemy of light. Botanical subjects. Historical overview. An investigation into process. A range of artistic practices and images. All done in under an hour on a quiet Wednesday afternoon. With a nice sandwich to follow. What’s not to like. Very pleased I bought the catalogue.

Only other entertainment of note was a filmed play The Merthyr Stigmatist from the Sherman Theatre. Welsh playwright Lia Parry presents 16 year old Carys, truculent, trying to escape detention with what seems like a whopper. Every Friday she claims stigmata on her palms, now spreading to her feet, begin to bleed. And, in the workaday streets of Merthyr Tydfil, there are plenty who want to believe she is telling the truth. Her teacher Sian thinks she is self harming, and as a local girl now returned, wants to offer her protection and a “way out”. Carys is having none of it. From this divine composition Ms Parry fashions a story about left-behind but proud communities for which the stigmata is a metaphor, belief and belonging. It zips along, both characters prowling around the abstract schoolroom set designed by Elin Steele (which holds a surprise coup de theatre at the climax), gathering intensity under Emma Callander’s direction. Newcomer Bethan McLean brings vitality and depth to Carys whilst Bethan Mary-James carefully plots Sian’s insecurities. It would be good to see this reach a wider live audience.

Catching up (Part 3)

April 2020 to December 2020

In which the Tourist condenses down 2020, in and out of lockdown, mostly watching stuff on a screen. Don’t worry he also took walks, saw punters when permitted and growled at the state of his disappointing nation, but it is only now he is back out in the live cultural realm, receiving “multiple inputs” as BUD would have it, that the cognitive slide has stopped. I know, egregious first world world privilege, but this is a blog about culture so forgive my insensitivity.

Where to start. A few highlights of the filmed performances I saw over the year I think, then the same for the “digital” theatre which I consumed and also a word on the “live” performances that snuck in under the wire as restrictions lifted and were then reimposed. Chronologically because I am naturally idle and that is easier. BTW the idea of a “freedom day” per our comedy government raises my liberal, remainer, metropolitan elite hackles but, on the other hand, it couldn’t have come quicker for my theatre ecosystem chums.

April 2020.

First out of the block was one of Schaubuhne Berlin‘s performance streams, namely Hamlet filmed at the Avignon Festival, with Thomas Ostermeier in the directorial chair and Lars Eidinger as the eponymous prince, so mad with toddler tantrums that he couldn’t be mad surely. Bordering on the slapstick, with earth, blood and water liberally splashed around, breaking the fourth wall, cuts galore, extra, incongruous lines, “to be or not to be” a drunken rant, Gertrude and Ophelia psychosexually doubled up, by playing up the comedy and meta-theatre in Hamlet, Ostermeier locates new truths in the greatest of plays (?). Elsinore as excess. Not for those who like their Shakespeare all sing-song verse and doublets. I bloody loved it. As I did later in the month with the company’s take on Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. The scene where the audience is invited into the central political debate, after Stockmann’s prescient rant about liberal hypocrisy, is electrifying. Even in German. What I would have given to see this when it came to London in 2014. What a tit I was for missing it. This is utterly contemporary, Stockmann and mates even have a rock band rehearsal, the conflicts personal as much as political. I am biased since this is one of my favourite Ibsen’s but it is enthralling and a perfect vehicle for TO’s brand of “Capitalist realism” theatre. Finally there was SB’s take on Orlando this time with Katie Mitchell directing with Jenny Konig superb as Virginia Woolf’s eponymous hero/heroine in an adaptation from Alice Birch. This was due to come to the Barbican in this very month but, perforce, was cancelled There are times when I find KM and AB’s aesthetic baffling (The Malady of Death) even as I absorb the provocation, but here it all comes together. And, thanks to the customary live narration and live and pre-recorded video projection, it works brilliantly on the small screen where an expert is guiding your eye (not always the case with KM’s regie-theatre). In contrast to Sally Potter’s lush film version, also brilliant in part thanks to Tilda Swinton’s performance, KM works the comedy, almost rompishly, and revels in the anachronistic artificiality of the story. I hope that SB will be back in London soon but, in their absence, the Tourist will have to live up to his name and get on the train to Berlin.

Another highlight was the filmed version of the Old Vic production of Arthur Miller’s Crucible with Yael Farber at her very best directing and Richard Armitage as John Porter showing he can act as well as well as take his shirt off and shoot up baddies. YF’s brooding atmospherics and measured pacing bring a real sense of paranoia to Salem adding to the petty vengeances. The trinity of Procter, wife Elizabeth (Anna Madeley) and scheming Abigail (Samantha Colley) have real strength and depth, and the thrilling power of the final act is full beam. The political allegory takes a back seat to a critique of religious intolerance and hypocrisy. It is also brilliantly shot and edited, something you can’t say about all filmed productions. Well worth seeing.

Other standouts in a busy viewing month (ahh the novelty of armchair viewing, tea, biscuits and pee breaks) were Breach Theatre‘s It’s True. It’s True, It’s True dramatising the rape trial of Artemisia Gentileschi and Imitating the Dog‘s Night of the Living Dead REMIX, the live frame by frame reconstruction of the George A Romero Zombie classic satire. Genius. Both are available still to watch.

Also of note. The Peter Grimes filmed on the beach at Aldeburgh from the Festival, Sophie Melville’s firecracker of a performance in Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott, the Glyndebourne Fairy Queen, Maxine Peake’s Hamlet, an RSC Two Gentleman of Verona (a play I had never seen before completing the Bard set) and a revisit of Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night at the NT with Tamsin Greig. Pretty sure the enterprising amongst you can find all of these to stream.

May 2020.

More Schaubuhne Berlin. This time Thomas Ostermeier’s take on Hedda Gabler. Ripped out of its buttoned up C19 Norwegian context this petulant, anomieic Hedda, brilliantly captured by Katharina Schüttler, can’t be satisfied by men or material, rails against her bourgeois cage, here a modernist glass house, but can’t give it up. So her suicide is more “you’ll all be sorry when I’m gone” than her only escape from masculine tyranny. And no-one notices. OK so a lot of Ibsen’s delicious text is lost but this is still a thrilling re-imaging of a classic.

On the subject of flawed heroines, and currently the subject of intense study by the Tourist, next up was Blanche Dubois in the form of Gillian Anderson in Benedict Andrews’ 2014 A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic. Ben Foster as Stanley and Vanessa Kirkby (showing why she was destined for higher things) as Stella are superb but Ms Anderson, who doesn’t always get it right, was perfectly cast, capturing the many , and there are many, sides of our Blanche. Treat yourself. It’s on NT at Home. As is the NT Frankenstein double header with Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch alternating as creature and doctor under Danny Boyle’s explosive direction. (Also now on Prime I think). Missed this on stage so was overjoyed to catch this and was not disappointed.

Also of note. A Wozzeck from Dutch National Opera, Alexander Zeldin’s LOVE at the NT, revisits of Simon Godwin’s Antony and Cleopatra at the NT, Complicite’s The Encounter and Simon Stephens’s Sea Wall with Andrew Scott. Midnight Your Time from the Donmar Warehouse was a pretty successful Zoom based revival from Michael Longhurst with script by Adam Brace though largely thanks to Diana Quick’s turn as the lonely, domineering do-gooder mother Judy. Oh, and Bound from the Southwark Playhouse, a pretty good play written and directed by Jesse Briton (though terrible footage) which tells the tale of trawlermen in Brixham. Yey.

June 2020.

The above is just the best of the best from a couple of months of intensive “digital” theatre. By June I can see that the sun had come out, I started taking my cinematic responsibilities more seriously and the theatre online opportunities diminished. Schaubuhne Berlin‘s take on Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi was another highlight but didn’t match Robert Icke’s electrifying, and subversive, adaptation at the Almeida from 2019. I wasn’t quite as taken with the Donmar Warehouse Coriolanus as I had hoped, with Tom Hiddleston as the eponymous kvetch directed by Josie Rourke but it was still worth the long wait.

Otherwise a pair of revisits stood out. This House, James Graham’s breakthrough political comedy at the NT and The Madness of King George with Mark Gatiss from the Nottingham Playhouse.

July 2020.

The BBC’s anthology of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads was the standout in July. Some new additions to the canon but my favourites were Imelda Staunton, Harriet Walter, Lesley Manville and Monica Dolan, though they also happen to be my favourite actors from an enviably talented dozen.

Otherwise there was the Glyndebourne Billy Budd and a revisit, with BD and LD who loved it, of Nick Hytner’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the Bridge as well as the NT Amadeus with Lucien Msamati.

And our first “live” event for a few months. At the Garden Museum. Derek Jarman: My Garden’s Boundaries are the Horizon. Mind you there wasn’t much too it but it was good to tick something off.

August 2020.

Amongst the welcome staycation action there were a fair few digital entertainments of note. A magnificent Turn of the Screw at Garsington Opera with a perfectly balanced cast and a striking set from Christopher Oram. I will definitely need to look out for the work of director Louisa Muller. I see it is a highlight of their 2022 season but I can’t be doing with the faff of getting there, the price they charge and the dressing up like a toff. Followed by the RSC Timon of Athens with Kathryn Hunter in the lead. Directed by …. yep, Simon Godwin once again. Timon of Athens as a play makes perfect sense to me as did this production and not just because of Ms Hunter’s performance. The very different Simon Russell Beale also convinced at the NT under Nick Hytner. The knotty parable of a rich man who falls and then, through a process of ironic self-enlightenment, turns on the commercialised society that made him works as well in C21 London as it does in ancient Athens. Yes there are a few plot holes and unexplained appearances/retreats but that is the case in a lot of Shakespeare.

And then there was the classic Glyndebourne The Rake’s Progress with designs by David Hockney and directed by John Cox. More opera. Well bits of. Namely extracts from the Holland Festival/Dutch National Opera/Royal Conservatoire The Hague staging of Stockhausen’s Aus Licht. Itself a selection, over three days mind and covering 15 hours, from the total seven day opera which runs to 29 hours. Mind blowing. Another reason why Holland might just be the greatest country on earth.

September 2020.

The first appearance of theatre made to be streamed. First out of the blocks, the Old Vic with Three Kings a monologue written by Stephen Beresford delivered by Andrew Scott as Patrick. BD and SO sat in and we were all transfixed by this eloquent “sins of the father revisited …..” story. Better still was Faith Healer, Brian Friel’s triple memory monologue play which is both a) brilliant and b) made for the Zoom format. Especially when you have the fantastic Michael Sheen playing the fantastic Francis Hardy, in full on Welshness, Indira Varma as his long suffering wife Grace, and David Threlfall as an uber cockney manager Teddy. Loved the play, love the production.

But lo. There was more. Some live theatre. As the Bridge brought the Bennett Talking Heads monologues to the stage (****). We opted for The Shrine (a new addition) with Monica Dolan as Lorna who discovers there was more to husband Clifford than met the eye after his fatal motorcycle accident. Very funny. And then A Bed Among the Lentils with Lesley Manville utterly convincing as vicar’s wife Susan who seeks solace at the corner shop. Just glorious.

It didn’t end there. Two live exhibitions. The Andy Warhol at Tate Modern (***) which was good but I guess lacked discovery and the Electronic: From Kraftwerk to The Chemical Brothers music history at the Design Museum (**) where I sort of lost interest after Kraftwerk and 80s synths but BD was very enamoured.

There was a cracking Prom broadcast with the London Sinfonietta serving up an eclectic programme of modern.contemporary faves including Philip Glass’s Facades, Julia Wolfe’s East Broadway (for toy piano) a couple of Conlon Nancarrow Player Piano Studies, Tansy Davies’s funk workout neon, Edmund Finnis in situ, Anna Meredith’s Axeman for electrified bassoon and Steve Reich City Life. Tremendous.

But amongst the screen viewings to my surprise the highlight of the month was La Monnaie/de Munt‘s recording of a 2107 production of Luca Silla. Director Tobias Kratzer carved out a jewel from relatively meagre materials by Mozart’s standards in this early opera (composed at just 16) which tells the story of the rise, fall and redemption of a Roman tyrant. BUD, who accommodated with grace all my suggestions for shared lockdown viewing, strongly agreed.

October 2020.

No live theatre this month. You never quite know where you are with our callow cabinet. A couple of exhibitions however. Young Rembrandt at the Ashmolean (****), proof that even the very greatest have to work hard to exploit their talent. All sorts of stuff that I am never likely to see again. So glad I got to see it. And joy of joys we got to see Artemisia at the National Gallery (*****) which I thought we had lost to the pandemic. To be fair there were a few Biblical group scene commissions which to me were less impressive and, understandably a few omissions, and I have already gone out of my way to look at her paintings on show in venues that I have visited, (the NG itself, Palazzo Pitti, Uffizi, Prado, in Bologna, Seville, Pisa), but that still left a clutch of stunning works to take in. Don’t like the underground space in the NG (I know it is perfectly lit), too hot and busy, but still stopped in my tracks by St Cecilia, Mary Magdalene and Cleopatra, for it is in the portrayals powerful women that AG excelled.

A couple of live streamed theatre treats, the Mark Gatiss (with Adrian Scarborough) Ghost Stories from the Nottingham Playhouse which cut the muster and a revisit of ITA‘s Medea which once again astounded. A fair few streamed concerts this month. Igor Levit went out of his way to entertain during lockdown, I caught a Beethoven recital from Wigmore Hall, finally saw the RSC production of Tom Morton-Smith’s play Oppenheimer and the whole family enjoyed the interactive online adventure The Mermaid’s Tongue (and went on to its precursor Plymouth Point) from a couple of Punchdrunk alumni.

November 2020.

By now the live or specially made for streamed theatre was coming thick and fast. Now I am firmly in the camp that sees recordings of theatre productions, or live streamed events, as additive to, rather than a substitute for, live theatre. I appreciate if you can get get to a live show, or missed it, then of course, you should see it on a screen. I understand that your armchair is way better for back, bum and neck than most theatre seats and refreshments come better, quicker and cheaper. And don’t get me started on the toilets. After all I have wasted more than enough text complaining here about West End theatres. I also believe that some of the made for streaming theatre of the past 18 months or so has been interesting and innovative in its use of technology. But it’s just no the same as sitting in a dark room with other punters wondering what is going to happen next on that stage. I had forgotten just how much I miss the electricity and the immersion.

Having said that What a Carve Up!, based on the Jonathan Coe novel, a co-production from The Barn Theatre in Cirencester, the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich and the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield was a triumph and by some way the best digital theatre work we saw during lockdown. Coe’s novel is a satire which examines the workings of power during the 1980s through the lens of the predominantly unpleasant upper class family the Winshaws. But it is also a whodunnit as Michael) Owen, at the behest of Tabitha Winshaw is tasked with documenting the murky family past. And it is this thread that Henry Filloux-Bennett, the AD at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, and director, Tamara Harvey from Theatr Clywd, wisely chose to pull on. What a Carve Up! not only switches in time but also employs multiple narrators, in first and third person, across different genre styles. And its protagonist spends a lot of time holed up in his flat shuffling papers and watching videos. A narrative collage if you will that is perfect then for splicing between “live” interviews, direct to camera Zoom addresses, film excerpts, TV and radio clips and photos. Especially as HF-B reverses the “chronology” of the story, starting with the murders, and filters out material not relevant to the central mystery. More inspired by, than faithful interpretation then, but gripping nonetheless. Especially with a cast that includes Alfred Enoch, (a new character Raymond, the son of Michael), Fiona Button and Tamzin Outhwaite as well as the voices of Derek Jacobi, Stephen Fry, Griff Rhys Jones and Sharon D Clarke. Is it theatre? Who cares when it is this good.

Not quite in the same league in terms of story, structure and execution, but still engrossing and technically adept was the Original Theatre Company’s Apollo 13: The Dark Side of the Moon which dramatised that il fated expedition predominantly through close ups of the three astronauts as well as video footage and an imposing score from Sophie Cotton. Writer Torben Betts also explores the racial tension between Michael Salami’s Fred Haise, here cast as an African American, and Tom Chambers as the rightwing Jack Swigert. Credit to directors Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters and film director Tristan Shepherd for their realisation.

By way of contrast Little Wars by Carl McCasland from Ginger Quiff Theatre was limited to the simple Zoom reading format though the story, an imagined dinner party involving Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Dorothy Parke, Lillian Hellman, Agatha Christie and anti-fascist freedom fighter Muriel Gardiner and the cast, Juliet Stevenson, Debbie Chazen, Natasha Karp, Catherine Russell Sarah Solemani, Sophie Thompson and, best of all, Linda Bassett went a long way to overcoming this.

We also saw a slew of excellent filmed live productions, in order of impact: Sarah Kane’s Crave at Chichester Festival Theatre, a powerful and surprisingly lyrical evocation of love, pain and pleasure, under Tinuke Craig’s potent direction, with committed performances from Alfred Enoch (hello again), Wendy Kweh, Jonathan Slinger and, especially, Erin Doherty; Who Killed My Father, a current favourite of Continental European directors, a monologue from ITA based on Edouard Louis’s impassioned testament to his own father and the treatment of the poor and marginalised in France, with the world’s greatest actor, Hans Kesting, at the top of his game; Death of England Delroy, part 2 of Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’s ongoing NT trilogy examining race, masculinity and other state of the nation gubbins, with Michael Balogun commanding (we missed this live thanks to a period of isolation, bah); and 15 Heroines, the inspired collection of 15 short monologues by women playwrights shaping narratives to the voices of Ovid’s women brought to us by the enterprising Jermyn Street Theatre.

I expected Daniel Kitson wouldn’t be able to resist the opportunity to used the pandemic as material and an opportunity for formal experimentation. In Dot, Dot, Dot, he toured the nation’s theatres performing to an audience of …. no-one. At least not live. I picked the stream from the Tobacco Factory to hear his alternatively poignant and hilarious dissection of the impact of lockdown on our everyday lives and human connections, the schtick being a table of Post it notes acting as prompts. Maybe not vintage Kitson but good enough for now.

There was enough in the filmed performance of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia from the Vaudeville Theatre to persuade us of its many merits but the quality of the stream was just too poor, though we were warned. In contrast the filmed performance of Richard Eyre’s brisk Almeida Theatre production of Ibsen’s Ghosts from 2013 was exemplary both technically and dramatically, and not just because Lesley Manville played Mrs Alving.

A few other plays and concerts but nothing to write home about so on to December and that bizarre British obsession with Christmas.

December 2020.

A couple of live productions managed to sneak in before doors closed again. A fine revival of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter at Hampstead Theatre (****) with Alex Newman as Ben and Shane Zaza as Gus, directed by Alice Hamilton. Not quite up to the Jamie Lloyd Pinter season version from 2019, or the more recent Old Vic offer, but it is too good a play to disappoint. And, at the Rose Kingston, Shit Actually (****) from fringe favourites Shit Theatre, aka Rebecca Biscuit and Louise Mothersole, whose deconstructed tribute to Love Actually’s women is way funnier and more thought proving than we had any right to expect.

Unfortunately the streamed theatre the Tourist took in this month wasn’t up to much; the NT production of panto Dick Whittington felt a bit rushed and predictable, and the RSC Troy Story, which I had high hopes for, turned out to be no more than a fairly mediocre and static reading.

In contrast, with limited means at their disposal, Grange Park Opera made a powerful case for someone to create a full blow stage production of Benjamin Britten’s pacifist “TV” opera, Owen Wingrave, and VOPERA, along with the LPO, produced the definitive virtual opera in Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, designed by Leanne Vandenbussche and directed by Rachael Hewer. Do try and track it down.

I would repeat that advice for Jack Thorne’s A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic which is about to open on stage and for Blackeyed Theatre’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde which is currently on tour.

Catching up (Part 1)

February 2020

Yep. You read that right. February 2020. Just before you know what kicked off and the stages went dark. You would have thought that the last 18 months would have given the Tourist plenty of time and inclination to continue reporting on his cultural journey. But no. Despite his multiple privileges which meant the pandemic had minimal impact on his day to day existence he still fell into the pit marked “intellectual lethargy” spending way to much time looking at a screen and moaning about the world.

But a repeated dose of live theatre (along with Oxford/Astra Zeneca’s elixir – thank you) has, you may or may not be pleased to hear, given him back his mojo. And he has remembered just how useful it is to record what he sees and hears to make sure he keeps on learning and stops grumbling.

So a quick catch up to complete the archives and then some recent highlights. The watchword is brevity. So a few lines only.

The Tin Drum – Coronet Theatre. 24th February 2020. *****. A separate post finally completed.

Tryst – Chiswick Playhouse. 25th February 2020. ****. Front row in this charming space. Second time around at the CP of a play first seen a couple of decades ago. Karoline Leach’s script is based on the real life story of bigamist con-man George Joseph Smith, a serial killer infamous for the Brides in the Bath Murders at the start of the 20th century. Fred Perry played George with a mixture of menace and charm. Scarlett Brookes (just seen again by the Tourist at the Orange Tree) was more successful as the bright but naive shop assistant Adelaide Pinchkin dreaming of a better life. Power shifts intriguingly though the production, directed by Phoebe Barran and mostly narrated, sometimes dragged a little and dialled down the suspense. A smart set from Jessica Staton with the two actors artfully shifted props. Overall the SO and I were entertained. Mind you this was right up our collective street.

Pass Over – Kiln Theatre. 26th February 2020. ****. Antoinette Nwandu’s 2017 play was filmed in 2018 by no less a creative genius than Spike Lee. So we are dealing with a highly regarded rendering of contemporary Black experience here. Easy to see why Kiln’s AD Indhu Rubasingham was keen to take this one for herself. Moses (Paapa Essiedu) and Kitch (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) are on an American city street corner shooting the breeze and dreaming of lives they will never have passe Vladimir and Estragon. This space though, simply staged by Robert Jones, is gradually revealed as limiting and threatening. Their swagger is matched by their fear of the police. They meet Mister (Alexander Eliot), a folksy eccentric with white suit and picnic basket, whose condescending offer of food and friendship masks racist privilege and manufactured offence. Absurdist but not tortuous, packed with allusion, to history, the Old Testament, contemporary race politics, heavy with carefully chosen dialogue but never dense. Tonal uncertainty can ruin plays of this type but not here, though it is at its best when its political message is not directly articulated as in the beginning of Act 2. Paapa Essiedu and Gershwyn Eustache Jr knock it out of the park as the nervy Moses and wistful Kitch but Alexander Eliot, as he did with Solyony in Rebecca Frecknall’s dreamy Three Sisters at the Almeida, mastered a very tough gig as both Mister and the overtly racist policeman Occifer. Can’t help thinking this needs a wider and bigger audience.

A Number – Bridge Theatre. 26th February 2020. ****. Caryl Churchill’s masterpiece from 2002 about cloning, its possibilities and its pitfalls, was given a robust workout by director Polly Findlay, with Roger Allam as the shambling father, Salter, and Colin Morgan as the sons. Once you get over the initial set up, which of the estranged sons is the “unsatisfactory real thing” and which are the clones, then there is not much in the way of CC’s usual formal experimentation or surrealist play on show here. And, in order to explore the various consequences of the subject matter, scientific, philosophical, ethical, familial, and otherwise, CC loads up with some sparkling dialogue. None of the sparse ellipses that characterise her very latest works. The setting from Lizzie Clachlan was dowdily domestic, the humour, of which there is plenty, played up, especially by the ever-droll Mr Allam. Salter didn’t really think through when he opted to “improve” on the original and the emotional effects on his son, and the copies, requested and rogue, were well played, without losing sight of the core “hard problem” of what it is to actually be human and how we “identify”. Colin Morgan offered a convincing degree of differentiation, Bernard 1 angry, Bernard 2 confused, “Michael” no 3 nonchalant, but this effort meant he, and Roger Allam, didn’t always connect or clash as much as they might/should. And some of the clues about the relationship between father and son didn’t always land. The play runs to an hour but felt a little longer with CC pauses and tics and some deliberately disorientating stage revolves between the five “acts”. Another production with, coincidentally given the above, Paapa Essiedu and Lennie James (a first on stage for me), and directed by Churchill specialist Lyndsey Turner, will appear at the Old Vic in early 2022. I can’t wait to compare, contrast and, as always on repeated viewing of CC’s work, learn and love more.

Death of England. National Theatre Dorfman. 29th February 2020. *****. Apropos of nothing, and paraphrasing for dramatic effect, someone said in my hearing recently that Rafe Spall didn’t make for a convincing Judge Brack in Ivo van Hove’s 2016 Hedda Gabler at the NT. Something along the lines of not nasty enough. My first reaction was to disagree; in a production stripped of its historical context, his was a deliberately unsubtle and brutally physical Brack. But actually they had a point. There is a whiff of little boy lost about Mr Spall which left a scintilla of doubt. In Roy William’s and Clint Dyer’s one man confessional/state of the nation play, Death of England, this vulnerability, however, literally repaid us with interest. Spall played Essex’s finest, Michael, grieving son to a dear and recently departed, but racist father, and best friend to Delroy, who is his sister’s partner. Along the way Spall also takes in his Dad, Delroy’s Mum, a restaurant owner with a vital story to tell, amongst others. He does all this at lightening speed, in both voice and movement, plucking props out of nooks and crannies from Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and ULTZ’s St George’s Cross transverse stage and with occasional asides to the audience. There is much to like, and dislike, about Michael, a confident, lairy swagger fuelled by coke, convulsed by his Dad’s death, riven by contradiction about what it means to be white, male and working class in Britain today. Spall’s performance was hyper, exaggerated by Jackie Shemesh’s often glaring lighting, paralleling Michael’s own psyche, barreling towards the tour de force of his climatic drunken funeral oration. As in Roy William’s Sing Your Heart Out …. , football, nationhood and racism are intertwined though here more as metaphor, Dad dies just after the semi-final loss in 2018, than plot. Now with added Brexit. Michael knows what he is supposed to be against but what exactly is he for? OK so the script wobbles a bit on occasion and the intensity of performance and Clint Dyer’s direction makes it easier to recognise that completely understand the paradox of Michael but it was impossible not to be bowled over by its commitment.

What else that month? A couple of concerts. The Bang on a Can All Stars, champions of post-minimalism with a mixed programme including John Adams (The Chairman Dances), Julia Wolfe (Flower Power), Steve Martland (Horses of Instruction) and Philip Glass (Symphony No 2 arranged for string Orchestra), which was OK but nothing more and an energetic, spirited and ultimately convincing recital from pianist Boris Giltburg of Beethoven sonatas (Ops 26, 57, 109 and 111).

The Gift at the Theatre Royal Stratford East review ***

The Gift

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 8th February 2020

Another in the lengthening list of contemporary plays where the reach of ambition exceeds the grasp of execution. Janice Okoh has set her sights on “imperialism, cross-racial adoption, cultural appropriation … and tea” with her “outrageous” play set firstly, in Victorian Brighton in 1862, and then in a present-day village in Cheshire. It has some thought-provoking, and funny, dialogue and some arresting scenes, born of its formal invention (and doubling), but it doesn’t quite hang together and loses focus, and turns preachily didactic, after the first two acts.

In the first act Sarah Bonetta Davies played by newbie Shannon Hayes is a Yoruba princess, orphaned, enslaved, rescued and then “adopted”, as was her “fashion”, by Queen Victoria, and now about to return to her African “home”. She attempts to school her unrefined black maid Aggie (Donna Berlin) in the etiquette of tea drinking before being join by Yoruba husband James (Dave Fishley), peremptory “aunt” Mrs Schoen (Rebecca Charles), benevolent Reverend Venn (Richard Teverson) and social climber Harriet Walker (Joanna Brookes). Interesting because Sarah Bonetta Davies was a real person (with a fascinating legacy) and interesting because of the way Janice Okoh uses this classic drawing play set up to explore her themes.

Then a switch to the tasteful front room in Cheshire where new white neighbours, artisan baker Harriet (Rebecca Charles) and Ben (Richard Teverson), have come to visit black professional couple James (Dave Fishley) and our latter-day Sarah (Donna Berlin), armed with muffins. Tea, of every possible hue, is taken. Through a mix of misplaced good intentions and weakly concealed racism, the white couple’s woke-ish self-image unravels and they start digging and don’t stop, especially when it comes to the subject of James’s and Sarah’s adopted, white, daughter, Victoria. James and Sarah initially pass off the unconscious gaffes but, especially when Ben’s comments turn offensive, then push back, inducing the inevitable “well if that’s how you feel” wounded umbrage from Harriet and Ben. Ms Okoh absolutely nails this scene with laugh out loud satirical writing of the highest quality.

A powerful scene follows where modern Sarah, worn out from the casual bigotry, strips and walks off rear stage through a series of light box squares. Interval. And then the return for the tea party showdown between the oblivious Queen Victoria (Joanna Brookes) and the furious Sarah BD. Great concept but tension has defused and Sarah’s arguments become too sustained. And Aggie reappears as some sort of time-lord oracle. Intentions are exemplary, but the structure becomes all too visible and the drama climaxes with a thud.

Though not for want of creative nous. Dawn Walton, who founded Eclipse Theatre, the co-producer of The Gift alongside the Belgrade Coventry, handles the detail of each act with surety, with Simon Kenny’s set, Johanna Town’s lighting and Adrienne Quartly’s sound, all chipping in, but even she can’t quite bring together each strand of the narrative. And the cast, especially Donna Berlin, (last seen by the Tourist at the Arcola in Great Apes – please give that beacon of East London culture, as well as this one here, some cash), plainly relish Janice Okoh’s dialogue.

I would still be very keen to see more of Ms Okoh’s work, particularly if she were to challenge the audience with “just” ideas and dialogue and not form as well. Nonetheless The Gift counts as another in the growing list of plays that Nadia Fell has programmed at the TRSE that talk up to its diverse audiences as well as entertain. They are coming back soon(ish) I hope. With a panto. We’ll need it.

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

A Kind of People

Royal Court Downstairs, 16th December 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fairview at the Young Vic review ***

Fairview

Young Vic Theatre, 11th December 2019

Fell like a bit of a fraud putting pen to paper on this. For, I confess, I did not completely understand Fairview. African-American playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for the play. The conceit is ingenious. A birthday dinner for the grandma in a well to do African American family is first dramatised straight, in pointed sit-com fashion, then through the eyes of four candid white “observers” through voice-over and then on stage in various, exaggerated, performative personas.

It is a dazzling formal experiment which skewers the racist assumptions which underpin white America’s loaded, appropriating view of black American culture. Representation trapped by definition in a racist framework. The “white gaze”. It made me think. And it made me uncomfortable. Guilty even. But I don’t know what to do with these feelings. BD tells me to change. To question everything about my privilege. And then? Give it up? Stay away? Engage? Who decides? Who defines? The infinite regress of identity examination. Meanwhile the rich c*nts, of which I am one, go on getting richer. And the world burns.

And, as I say, many of the references, the pointers, the lessons if you will, that the white characters discuss in Act 2 and then garishly visualise in Act 3 are outside of my cultural milieu. Leaving me lost. Tom Scutt’s designs, Nadia Latif’s intricate direction and the fearless performances of Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Donna Banya (especially at the finale), Nicola Hughes and Rhashan Stone, and then David Dawson, Julie Dray, Matthew Needham and Esther Smith, are simultaneously intoxicating and precise. The fourth wall is smashed. And then some. Much like my head after watching this. It needs to be seen.

“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.

Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads at the Spiegeltent Chichester

Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads

Spigeltent, Chichester Festival Theatre, 17th October 2019

There are a few candidates for my favourite play of 2019. Lynn Nottage’s stunning Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse, or either of the revivals of the Miller classics at the Old and Young Vics respectively, All My Sons and Death of a Salesman. Still TBD but this revival of Roy Williams’s 2002 play about racism, nationalism, football and aggressive masculinity will run them close. So far I have only seen this and RW’s previous offering, The Firm, but I am most definitely a fan. He writes about stuff that matters, politics, race, institutions, friendship, identity and obvs, Marvin Gaye, with big gestures and authentic dialogue. As far as I can tell his work pulls no punches, literally in some cases, and he doesn’t hold back from examining uncomfortable truths about our society. The good news is that TRSE is set to revive Sucker Punch next year directed by Roy Alexander Weise and that Rafe Spall will star in the monologue RW has co-written with Clint Dyer at the NT, Death of England.

Spiegeltents are wood and canvas tents which originated in Belgium in the C19 for the purpose of travelling entertainment. Perfect for housing the replica of the King George pub, designed by Joanna Scotcher, in which SYHOFTL is set, on the afternoon of Saturday the 7th October 2000 for the England-Germany World Cup qualifier at Wembley (the one after which Keegan walked as manager). Or at least the tent would be if it wasn’t lashing down with rain outside. Of course this was one of those days where the deluge was followed and preceded by clear skies, (that’s climate change for you), but I am pleased to report that the tent, bar a bit of shaking, stood up to the storm. What it did mean is that for 5 minutes or so the cast had to bellow to make themselves heard and it added another dose of ferocity to what is already a play steeped in violence. Terrific atmosphere.

It opens with Jimmy (Martyn Ellis, more usually a musicals man), the father of landlady Gina (Sian Reese-Williams) pottering in the pub ahead of the match. Now this being South West London, (I want to call it as a non-gentrified of Fulham), everyone has a full on Eastenders type accent, quite something coming from as Welsh as it gets, Ms Reese-Williams, who excels here. They are joined by her lippy teenage son Glen (Billy Kennedy) and her ex Mark (Mark Springer) who recently left the army. When they leave Glen, desperate to be accepted on the “street”, is left with two of his new friends Duane (Harold Addo) and tough-guy Bad “T” (Dajay Brown) who bully Glen and try to steal drinks from the bar. Gina returns and chides them. One by one the rest of the pub team regulars turn up, in England kit regalia, to watch the match. Pub football team captain Lawrie (Richard Riddell) who is looking for a fight and nakedly racist, his conciliatory ex copper brother Lee (Alexander Cobb), the mendacious Alan (Michael Hodgson) who, it transpires, is a local councillor for far right political party Britain First, Becks (James Jack Ryan), Jess (Kirsty J Curtis), Phil (Rob Compton) and finally Barry (Makir Ahmed), Mark’s conflicted younger brother.

Against the backdrop of the game, banter turns to threat, debate to violence, fuelled by alcohol. The tenor of the dialogue reflects this. It is, at times, funny, as well as viscerally disturbing, and the cast, superbly marshalled by director Nicole Charles whose last outing was Emilia at the Globe, completely immerse themselves in their roles. This is vital theatre, not just because of the staging, but also because it dares to expose the reality of racism and misogyny in C21 Britain. I have rarely seen a trio of performances more affecting than those of Richard Riddell, whose twitching belligerence seems to hid some deeper resentment, Mark Springer whose spell as a squaddie leaves him aggrieved and determined to confront the racism of his former friends, and Michael Hodgson whose needling of Mark and whose warped arguments are especially unnerving. (He also stood out as first the Porter and then Duke Capulet in the last RSC season).

RW also packs in plenty of plot, which I can see some might feel veers towards the melodramatic; the arrival of the coppers after Glen’s phone is nicked, as well as Sharon (Jennifer Daley), Duane’s Mum, at the end of the first act, (and which memorably here, saw a police car actually arrive outside the tent), and even more so the tragic conclusion. But it certainly gets you on the edge of your seat.

You don’t need to be reminded that racism is still associated with football. And the kind of attitudes and behaviours that are depicted in SYHOFTL are also still prevalent. Relevance, character, language and spectacle make this production a classic. What’s more, for once, I was one of the older members in this matinee audience. I can see why the this might have frightened the pensioner horses of Chichester but the students, for I am pretty sure that’s who they were, were transfixed.

I understand the Spiegeltent went on to host a variety of one-nighters after the run of SYHOFTL. If you ask me there must surely be case for bringing this production up to the big smoke as has happened with so many CFT productions. I can see an ideal pitch on the South Bank next door to the National. In which case I implore you to grab a ticket. In an ideal world an enterprising producer would find a way to overcome the health and safety and blocking issues and stage this in a pub. Downstairs from a theatre upstairs would be a neat inversion. Imagine this in the Latchmere below the 503. What would be a real shame is if this superb realisation of this modern classic didn’t reach an extended audience.

Appropriate at the Donmar Warehouse review *****

Appropriate

Donmar Warehouse, 3rd October 2019

After deconstructing a Victorian melodrama in An Octoroon and satirising modern tragedy in Gloria, London now gets to see Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s 2013 take on the dysfunctional American family drama. Only this time the secret which lies at the heart of the Lafayette family is about as shocking as it gets. Move over O’Neill, Williams, Miller, Albee, Hansberry, Wilson, Shepherd and Letts.

Franz (Edward Hogg), Toni (Monica Dolan) and Bo (Steven Mackintosh) have come back to the family home in Arkansas following their Dad’s death, with the intention of selling house and contents. Franz (Francois) is a classic fuck-up, addled by past addiction, but now seeking redemption with new, very young, new-ager girlfriend River (Tafline Steen). He is still hiding something however. Bo (Beauregarde), egged on by Jewish wife Rachael (Jaimi Barbakoff), wants, and needs, to extract the cash asap and get out. They have two kids, Gen Z tween, Cassidy (Isabella Pappas)and hyper 8 year old Ainsley (Oliver Savell). Toni, the eldest, was left to look after their increasingly difficult and infirm father, is therefore the dictionary definition of long-suffering and is keen that everyone knows it. She is joined by slacker teen son Rhys Thurston (Charles Furness).

Not much happens beyond the inevitable arguments and raking over of the past. But this is not just a forum for the frustrations and grudges of the three siblings, though the fact that they seem incapable of restraint makes that forum often mordantly comic. The discovery of a book of photographs of black lynching victims, and worse, suggests that their father, who spent most of his life in the North East before retiring to the family pile, was no upright liberal but the worst sort of racist. Legacy and loss take on a far darker tone with each character’s. mostly, worst traits reflected through the prism of this pivotal disclosure.

As in BJ-J’s other plays, the plotting is perfect, the rhythm sublime and the dialogue riveting. What turns this into one of the best plays of this year though is Fly Davies’s breathtaking set, the junk filled interior of the dilapidated plantation house, which together with Anna Watson’s lighting and Donato Wharton’s, into a gothic place dripping with memory and history. More than that though is Ola Ince’s direction. Ms Ince worked as Assistant to Phyllida Lloyd in the Donmar all woman Shakespeare trilogy as well as Associate positions at the Finborough, the Lyric Hammersmith, Theatre Royal Stratford East and, now, the Royal Court, where she directed Poet in da Corner. On the strength of this I expect her to sustain a glittering career. Everything fell into place faultlessly to deliver a drama which thrilled and edified in equal measure.

Now it helps that all the cast brought their A games to the performance. And it helps even more if one of them is Monica Dolan. Even when she barely has anything to work with Ms Dolan ends up being the best of the best on stage and screen. When it is just her, as in her debut play monologue The B*easts, which should be a GCSE text already, or she has something to really sink her teeth into as here with Toni (Antoinette), she is, cliche alert, a force of acting nature. Bitter doesn’t even come close. And then, as the family history unfolds, increasingly vulnerable. I had to do the thing where I look away to a point above the stage to prevent and embarrassing blub near the end. Magnificent.

Appropriate is audacious, clever, funny, twisty, surprising, absorbing and insightful. By not hammering home, or resolving, the consequences of denying America’s racial past, in fact here that past is turned by the family into potential commodity, he makes us even more aware. The play is haunted by the ghosts of dramatists past. But it knows and relishes that. And what a genius title.

The Doctor at the Almeida Theatre review *****

The Doctor

Almeida Theatre, 13th September 2019

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.