Snowflake at the Kiln Theatre review ****

Snowflake

Kiln Theatre, 28th December 2019

Lucky family. Never know what Dad is going to serve up as their Christmas theatrical treat(s). And always careful to at least try to conceal their disappointment. Having banked the virtual certain success of Mischief Theatre’s Magic Goes Wrong (of which more to come), and comforted by the reviews from its original run in Oxford last year, the Tourist felt confident enough to take a punt on this. And BD had already enjoyed one Snowflake provocation in the form of the second half of the incomparable Stewart Lee’s new show.

Now IMHO Mike Bartlett is incapable of writing bad plays, or indeed screenplays. They may not always come off entirely, as here, but there will always be enough in terms of concept, narrative, character, text, idea, form, to get your teeth into. He doesn’t mind tugging a few strings, emotionally or in terms of argument, or taking a few liberties with construction. Which explains Snowflake’s, appeal, and, slight, downfall.

Andy (Elliot Levey, who has a habit of popping up in all manner of fine work, which, in some cases, is partly down to him) has hired a church hall in Oxfordshire on Christmas Eve. We soon lean that he is rehearsing for a possible meeting with his estranged daughter Maya (Ellen Robertson) who left home after the death of her mother, from whom Andy is still grieving. Mr Bartlett doesn’t make this too easy however devoting the whole first half, over 40 minutes, to a monologue in which Andy reveals his attempts to trace Maya and his own weaknesses and biases. This is not a man possessed of much in the way of self-awareness. Give or take your archetypal Boomer and, as such, far too reminiscent of dear Dad, sparking a lively family debate at the interval, largely between BD and the Tourist refereed by the SO and LD.

We knew the perspective would shift, but the catalyst, the arrival of straight-talking Gen Z’er Natalie, (Amber James, whose career I have been attentively following since the Guildhall, through the RSC), though not straight, was as unequivocal as I have come to expect from this writer. Natalie has come to collect crockery after and Xmas lunch and pretty soon the two are at loggerheads over political and social values, and, especially, identity. Both are typical of their “generation” but neither are cliches, and, on this, and given his gift for the gab, Mike Bartlett is able to hang some fine, credible and funny, dialogue and some spicey argument. And when Maya finally arrives MB, again with open heart, sets up the argument for private and public reconciliation of differences.

Easy enough to pick holes, which we did, but this was for me, if less for the others, a satisfying, shrewd and warming slice of theatre. Claire Lizzimore’s direction was well honed after the first run, rolling with the pronounced ebb and flow of the narrative, and Jeremy Herbert’s community hall set fit the Kiln (remember this was once Foresters Hall) to the manor born. And, whilst Ellen Robertson had a little less on her plate than her colleagues all three served up an acting feast. Ideal Christmas fare then.

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.

Sydney and the Old Girl at the Park Theatre review ***

Sydney and the Old Girl

Park Theatre, 1st November 2019

After the resounding success of Madame Rubinstein at the Park Theatre a couple of years ago it was a pretty easy sell to get BUD, KCK and the SO along to the same venue to see our favourite potty-mouthed, near-octogenarian National Treasure, Miriam Margoyles’s latest theatrical outing. SATOG however, whilst, when it got going, offering the twinkly eyed MM opportunities to deliver trademark laugh out loud waspish epithets, was a very different kettle of fish to the straight comedy of Madame R, as either of its lead characters might have said.

MM played the cantakerous Old Girl, Nell Stock, holed up in her shabby east End house, with 50 year old, live at home son Sydney, played by the much admired Mark Hadfield, who, I am ashamed to say, I didn’t initially recognise. Maybe that was because to say Sydney is peculiar would be a massive understatement. He is the archetypal oddball loner and he and Mum are locked into a textbook love-hate relationship. The setting smacks of Steptoe and Son and the dialogue that writer Eugene O’Hare employs to express the toxic dynamic hints at Pinter, or, in contemporary terms, maybe a palatable Enda Walsh . Sydney holds some fairly rum, if unconvincing, opinions, about women and foreigners, and when he does go out, nurses a pint in the local whilst pretending to be with friends. Nell simultaneously detests and relishes the hold she has over him.

Nell’s mobility is limited, spends most of her time in a wheelchair, and needs constant care. Cue Irish home help Marion Fee (Vivien Parry), all round good egg and saviour to the little Catholic orphans of London. After some variable, in terms of length and quality, set up scenes, we discover that Nell is looking to cut Sydney out of her will and deny him the inheritance of the house on which he is fixated.

Which is why I had anticipated an Ortonesque payback in the second half involving some artful double crossing between the three and the acerbic humour ramped up. I was wrong, Instead the guilt which binds Nell and Sydney together, hinted at earlier with Sydney’s fear of sirens, is given a full blown reveal complete with lighting (Tina MacHugh) and sound (Dyfan Jones) effects.

I assume that it was Mr O’Hare’s deliberate intention to shift tone through his play but it left the Tourist unable to settle on plot and character. Which is a shame because when MM and MH got going in the second half, before the overwrought ending, this was a fine black comedy. Vivien Parry had less success trying to persuade us of Marion’s ambivalence. Philip Breen’s direction gives the actors time and space to deliver the lines, as does the elaborate set of co-designers, Ruth Hall and Max Jones. But despite the championing of the director and cast the play never quite hits its stride. Nothing wrong with mixing comedy and tragedy, the lodestar of best dramatists in history. It’s just that without a thorough stir the ingredients can sometimes be half-baked and a bit too lumpy to satisfactorily digest.

P.S. Would be great if the next time MM takes to this, or another London stage, it would be in a reprise of her one woman show. Ideally as unexpurgated as possible. Or better still if the production of Lady In The Van that the good people of Melbourne, MM’s adopted home, enjoyed last year could find its way here.

Little Baby Jesus at the Orange Tree Theatre review ****

Little Baby Jesus

Orange Tree Theatre, 28th October 2019

No flies on this. Arinze Kene’s coming of age play which first appeared at the OvalHouse in 2011 is high octane stuff. Which here, under the direction of this year’s winner of the JMK Award, Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu, and a committed cast of Anyebe Godwin as Kehinde, Rachel Nwokoro as Joanne and Khai Shaw as Rugrat, got the production it deserved. (I see there are all deservedly up for Offie Awards). Missing AK’s one man show Misty in 2018 has become even more of an oversight on the basis of this but his take on Biff Loman in the Young Vic Death of a Salesman ranks as one of the best in London theatre in 2019.

Joanne carries a lot of swagger and attitude but worries about her mum’s mental health. Kehinde is a sensitive soul with his eye on a mixed race girl. Rugrat is the class clown who lacks direction. All are negotiating their way through inner city life. School, relationships, gangs, parents, emotions, money, ambition. But this is no fulmination of worthy dialogue. Instead AK mixes monologue, poetry, audience address and participation, recollection, history, comedy, physical theatre, dance, song, to tell their, interconnected, stories, notably Kehinde’s search for his now absent twin sister. It is generous, exciting, uplifting, and sometimes a little confusing as these stories overlap and are often left hanging. It starts off with laughs, a lot of them, but ends up somewhere far more contemplative.

If stage acting is about losing the fear then, trust me, these three show no fear. It really pains me to say this, so good are all three, but Rachel Nwokoro, has got IT. I can see that she has no interest in being tied down to a traditional acting career but I dearly hope I see her on stage again.

Tara Usher’s design is admirably straightforward , Bethany Gupwell’s lighting, dominated by an overhead halo, just about keeps up, Nicola Chang’s sound is superb and I hope DK Fashola, as movement consultant, got properly rewarded for his contribution.

Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu has directed a number of his own plays, including Sweet Like Chocolate, Boy, but I think I am right in saying this is his biggest directing gig to date. There are a number of established BME British directors, Indhu Rubasingham obviously, Nadia Fall, Lynette Linton at the Bush, (and who directed Sweat at the Donmar, my choice for best play of 2019), Roy Alexander Weise, about to take up the, shared, reins at the Royal Exchange Manchester, Nancy Medina, Matthew Xia, Beijan Sheibani, as well as up and coming talents such as Nicole Charles, Ola Ince, Gbolahan Obisesan and Emily Lim, all of whose work I have seen in the last few months. There’s a way to go but this, along with the wealth of BME acting, and lately writing, talent getting an opportunity to tell their stories, is encouraging. It permits me to see and hear stories that I would otherwise not. Which, when you come to think of it, is the whole point of theatre.

P.S. The photo of the Orange Tree was taken a few years ago. The sharp eyed amongst you will see the poster promoting the OT’s trilogy based on Middlemarch from 2013. Not, if I am honest, an unqualified success but an opportunity to remind me to implore you, in this, the week of the bicentenary of her birth, to read Middlemarch. Either for the first time. Or again. It is the greatest story ever told in the English language. Even if it is about the middle class in middle England.

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.

Hedda Tesman at the Minerva Theatre Chichester review ***

Hedda Tesman

Minerva Theatre Chichester, 26th September 2019

This counts as a disappointment. Not because of the source material. Hedda Gabler for goodness sake. Nor the cast though I will come back to this. There were plenty of actors on show, Haydn Gwynne, Anthony Calf, Jonathan Hyde, Natalie Simpson and Irfan Shamji, who have stood out and given much pleasure in previous performances. Anna Fleischle’s design was as accomplished as her previous work, realistic and spacious. And I think Holly Race Roughan’s direction, (this is the first time I have seen the work of this Headlong associate), was as faithful to the adapted text and action as possible. It was never dull, full of thoughtful detail and as robust a plot as the day Ibsen dreamt it up in 1891.

No I mean it was a disappointment as I was hoping for so much more. The idea of taking one of, maybe the, greatest female roles in theatre and reworking it, to move the story forward not just to the modern day, but also to age Hedda, George and Brack by three decades, was intriguing. And Cordelia Lynn, whose adaptation of Three Sisters for the Almeida, was so successful, (even if Rebecca Frecknall’s direction over-egged the indeterminate), seemed like just the woman for the job. And text wise she was. It’s just that the premise didn’t deliver on its promise.

We start with level-headed cleaner Bertha (Rebecca Oldfield) sorting out the slightly fusty country house that George and Hedda have returned to from the US. When Anthony Calf’s George breezes in he is recognisably an older, and even more painfully underachieving, version of his younger self who hasn’t yet made it to professor but is still buoyed up by innate enthusiasm. Hedda herself, shuffling in in dressing gown and slippers, is now brimful with regret and reflects this in every, often cruel and acerbic, word. She is a Tesman now through and through, middle-aged and largely “invisible”, the Gabler of her youth a distant memory. Thea Tesman (Natalie Simpson) is now the daughter that Hedda was carrying in the original play and not the rival for Eilert, now Elijah’s, (Irfan Shamji) affection. To say mother and daughter, who is the same age as Hedda in the original, weren’t close would be something of an understatement. Thea “trapped” Hedda in the marriage, (postpartum depression is hinted at), motherhood robbed her of her own academic career and duty, in the form of Daddy Gabler, the general whose giant portrait is one of the first things to find a place in the new home, has kept her there. Threatening, amongst other things, to burn your child’s hair, as we discover, was probably never going to engender much in the way of affection.

George is working on improving his big idea but it is plain his intellect still lags behind Elijah. Thea, who has left her husband, is in love with that intellect and thinks she can “rescue” Elijah from his depression and excessive drinking, as she works with him on the sequel to his best-seller. The affair with a younger Hedda still haunts him. Brack (Jonathan Hyde) is still a shit-stirring perv and Aunt Julie (Jacqueline Clarke). Boys’ drunken night out, the temptation of Thea and Elijah’s manuscript, (no USB sticks here), the pair of pistols, Elijah’s messy death, Brack’s blackmail and …. well you know the end, are are still intact. But …. Ibsen’s puissant plot only works if you are invested in the set-up.

And here, I am afraid, I was not. Not because I couldn’t believe that Hedda would have stuck around, though I had my doubts, but because, having done so, she would then have taken this way out. Some Ibsen works because the characters seek to escape the past. Others, like Hedda Gabler, because they fear their future. To use old Henrik’s genius as a point of departure often pay dividends but to mix up chronology and therefore motivation, as here, did not. Haydn Gwynne did her admirable best to solve this conundrum but never quite cracked it, too much self-loathing, and, though it pains me to say it, having seen his air of gentle vulnerability fit the bill perfectly in Ms Lynne’s razor-sharp satire One for Sorrow at the Royal Court and Joe White’s outstanding debut play Mayfly at the Orange Tree, Irfan Shamji seemed completely miscast as Elijah.

In some ways given the space, the cast, the top notch creatives (Ruth Chan’s music, complete with off stage tinkling hinting at Hedda’s past pianistic akills,George Dennis’s sound, Zoe Spurr’s lighting) I sort of wished Cordelia Lynn had abandoned the Ibsen plot and explored some of the more tantalising relationships that she opened up. The scenes between this Hedda and the very fine Natalie Simpson as Thea for example showed this potential. Envy of Thea in the original, and the denigration this fosters, partly defines and explains Hedda, (along with the conflicted Daddy worship). And, from this, maybe draw out more explicitly the contrasts between the economic, class and emotional condition of the, now four, women in the play, and how societal change has impacted recent generations.

So all in all not quite up to Headlong’s best who, when they get it right (All My Sons, Mother Courage, This House, People, Places & Things, Junkyard, American Psycho, 1984, Chimerica, The Effect, Medea, Enron), are just about the finest purveyors of theatre in this country. Still a good idea with plenty to admire but one that, like its lead, seemed to lose the courage of its convictions the longer it went on.

The Night of the Iguana at the Noel Coward Theatre review ***

The Night of the Iguana

Noel Coward Theatre, 16th September 2019

Last minute purchase. Just about worthwhile. The Night of the Iguana is not normally considered one of Tennessee William’s greatest hits, and I am certainly no TW completist, but the cast, the director, James Macdonald, the designer, Rae Smith, the pretty good, if mixed, reviews and, yes, the price drew me in.

The inspiration for the play came when TW met another young writer, just returned from Tahiti, in Mexico in September 1940, who was also afflicted with the same “troubled heart” that plagued him. Recognition of his talent, and money, was scarce, and TW was close to giving up, but this kindred soul, the environment, and a bunch of perky Germans, sympathetic to the Nazi cause, who appear in the play, spurred him on. A few rum cocktails, long suicidal and literary chats, and a perilous road trip with another guest, seemed to revive our Tennessee and TNOTI was the result. He turned the original 1948 short story into a one act play in 1959 and then into the three acts in 1961.

It concerns the lugubrious Reverend T Lawrence Shannon (Clive Owen) a washed up tourist guide and ex-priest, booted out of his church after an inappropriate relationship with a Sunday school teacher alongside borderline blasphemy. He visits the Mexican resort run by Maxine Faulk (Anna Gunn), the widow of his best friend Fred. She is assisted by a couple of workshy local lads (Daniel Chaves and Manuel Pacific). Alongside the aforementioned incongruous Germans, (Alasdair Baker, Timothy Blore, Karin Carlson and Penelope Woodman), we also meet the grumbling Judith Fellowes (Finty Williams), who leads the tour group which Shannon serially disappoints, and Charlotte Goodall (Emma Channing), a 16 year old member of the group who he may have seduced. More importantly the ageing poet Jonathan Coffin “Nonno” (Julian Glover) then arrives with his niece carer, spinster Hannah Jelkes (Lia Williams). Wheelchair bound Nonno is on his last legs and the couple rely on charity and artistic hustles to get by.

They are an odd bunch who frankly exhibit some pretty dodgy behaviours. Rev Shannon is supposed to be some kind of melancholic, tortured soul, who has lost his faith and suffered a breakdown, but is still irresistible to women. Maxine, (you will know Anna Gunn from her turn as Skyler in Breaking Bad), is pretty direct in her sexual desire, as is, more disturbingly, Charlotte, who says next to nothing, and Hannah is soon apparently under his spell. Yet, with his drinking and self pity, stumbling around the stage in crumpled linen suit, Clive Owen doesn’t highlight any particular hidden depths. Judith may well come across as typecast harridan but she probably has the measure of the man.

Now this being Tennessee Williams, there is poetry in the dialogue between these rather curious characters, even as the plot goes nowhere, and this, alongside Rae Smith’s set, the hotel verandah backed by a massive cliff and verdant planting, Max Pappenheim’s atmospheric sound and, especially, Neil Austin’s lighting, from bright day to dark night via electric storm, is enough to hold one’s attention. And then there is Lia Williams. She normally finds a way to steal the show, even in supporting roles on screen (The Capture, Kiri, The Crown and The Missing) or stage (The Prime of Miss Julie, Mary Stuart, Oresteia, Skylight), but here the rest of the cast are, metaphorically, in her shadow. In the 1964 film version no less an actor than Deborah Kerr played the role alongside Richard Burton and Ava Gardner, so you can probably imagine there is enough for a skilled actor to work on, but Ms Williams is astonishing. Sharp tongued when required, notably in her spats with Maxine, (who was played by Bette Davies in the original Broadway production so you get the idea), dismissive of Shannon’s indulgence, and drinking, yet utterly bewitching when describing her only brief sexual liaisons to him in the third act confessional scene.

TW wrote a ton more full length and one act plays after TNOTI but as his mental health deteriorated, his drug use increased and relationships failed to match that with soulmate Frank Merlo who died in 1963, nothing came close. I still quite make up my mind where TW sits in the pantheon of great playwrights but, for a few minutes as the two lead characters realised how much happier their lives might have been if they could only have been more like the other, I could, once again, forgive the pun, see the attraction. Like Chekhov a chronicler of lost, and odd, souls.