Cyrano de Bergerac at the Playhouse Theatre review *****

Cyrano de Bergerac

Playhouse Theatre, 30th January 2020

I appreciate the utter pointlessness of me rabbiting on right now about theatre productions that have come and gone but since I am ill equipped to do anything but stay out of the way as instructed, then forgive me my indulgence. Actually I can, as maybe some of you can, by shifting a few quid in the direction of those that need it. Theatres, homeless charities, food banks and women’s refuges all need the money you are saving from staying. If you find yourself, like me, in a position of fortunate security right now this is the least you can do.

The Tourist is not a big fan of the value/comfort ratio offered at the Playhouse Theatre. Compounded with the aggressive pricing strategy pursued by the Jamie Lloyd Company and producers in the current season as they seek to hook the punters in with big name stars of the big screen. And, whilst being a big fan of his librettos for the operas of George Benjamin, I have been a little underwhelmed by recent productions of Martin Crimp’s own plays.

Still there is a reason why (I think I am right in saying this) Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac is the most oft performed play in the French language, subject to many interpretations at home and abroad. And, plainly, the critics adored it. So, after a long wait, the Tourist finally secured a ticket for his favoured pitch at said Playhouse at a fair price and settled in to see what all the fuss was about.

Well if you have seen it, live or via the cinema broadcast before you know what put paid to Life As We Knew It, then you will know that the hype is to be believed. It remains just a slam dunk brilliant story but MC’s jaw dropping contemporised verse translation/adaptation, Soutra Gilmour’s stripped bare set and a magnificent cast led by a magnetic James McAvoy, have turned it into landmark theatre.

Modern dress, microphones, bare wood stage, cast always on show, minimal propping. All the art regie-theatre tropes are on display. You don’t get much to look at for your money. Not even a false nose. But what you do get is brilliant story telling which thrillingly celebrates the art of language and communication. Between characters, actors and audience. This is still supposed to be a French theatre in 1640. But there are no visual clues. Everyone is miked. With supplementary beat-box courtesy of Vaneeka Dadhria.

Of course the style, in all senses, was set to appeal to a younger than normal audience. The young adults at the performance the Tourist attended brought infectious energy which melted even this curmudgeonly heart. but the real triumph is the way that James McAvoy as proud artist/hero Cyrano, Eben Figuieredo as sincere jock/lover Christian and Anita-Joy Uwajeh as a feminist/intellectual Roxane are all simultaneously confident and vulnerable, desperate for and dismissive of, love, in a way that is both right now and timeless. This yin and yang from the central menage a trois, with the added prodding, pimping and pumping from the other characters, (notably Michele Austin as cook/poet and Tom Edden as baddie De Guiche), seeps into the rhythm of the text, alternately muscular and tender. The cast never lose sight of the story and there are, even with the threadbare visual resources, some stunning scenes, aided and abetted by Jon Clark’s lighting and the Ringham boys’ sound design, notably the classic wooing switch. But it is MC’s text that is the star of the show. Along with the amazing Mr McAvoy. Like Jamie Lloyd we all know the Scottish fella has just got it. White Teeth, Last King of Scotland, State of Play, The Ruling Class. All proof for me with no need to touch any of his Hollywood blockbusters.

Jamie Lloyd’s triumphant direction, (with a shout out to Polly Bennett’s movement), make this stylised take zip along, nothing getting in the way of poetry or character. OK so there are times when the imperative to claim immediate relevance masks the pathos, especially at the rushed conclusion, (though there were still plenty of throat lumps, oohs and aahs in my audience), but this is a still price to pay for the meaning uncovered and excitement generated by the production.

You Stupid Darkness! at the Southwark Playhouse review *****

You Stupid Darkness!

Southwark Playhouse, 28th January 2020

With a whimper not a bang. That’s how the world ends in Sam Steiner’s new play. Though, given where we are now, (and as many reviews of this play seem to demand), you might be forgiven for thinking our selfish species will want to engineer something more dramatic for the end of days. Except, of course, it won’t be the end of days. It will just be the end of us. An incredibly adaptable species that wasn’t half as clever as it thought it was, after a miniscule time on Earth engineered its own extinction, whilst, unforgivably, though there is nothing to forgive, taking most of the rest of the planet’s life with it.

We never know what exactly what is going on outside the room in which our four volunteers, Frances, Angie, Joey and Angie, come every Tuesday night to Brightline to offer comfort to strangers, Samaritans style, on the phone. But it isn’t good, the weather is awful, infrastructure is failing and the team turn up in gas masks. Everything is plainly not going to be OK, keeping calm and carrying on is the default, not the resolute, choice. The phones may still be working, donuts (and this would matter to me) are still on sale, daily routines are still being followed, but, if you are familiar with the analogy, the water temperature is increasing and the frog is being boiled.

Turns out that our four characters each face their own personal misfortunes and, despite their temperamental differences, turn to each other, as well as their callers, for solace. Frances (Jenni Maitland) leads the team, is the eternal optimist, dispensing management mumbo-jumbo, but, pregnant in an increasingly sterile world, petrified at what the future holds for her unborn child. Tense Joey (Andrew Finnigan) is wise beyond his years, Jon (Andy Rush), the fatalistic foil to Frances’s buoyancy, is trapped in a failing relationship and fragile Angie (some scene stealing from Lydia Larsen, until she exits for much of the second half, we don’t find out why), empathises with callers by opening up herself.

Sam Steiner wisely forces no grand narrative or formal experiment on his play. There is not much in the way of plot. Nothing very dramatic happens. There is no great resolution or even much of an ending beyond the backers of the helpline pulling their funding. The comedy, and pathos, flows naturally from the conversation. Amy Jane Cook’s set is similarly low-key. Lights turn off. Kettles fuse. Posters fall off walls. Paintwork is peeling. Dominic Kennedy’s sound design also limits gesture and director James Grieve is unafraid of the pause. This unhurried approach pays dividends though means that the energy of the production, like the lights (Peter Small), occasionally dips, and it wasn’t to everyone’s taste on a less than half full Tuesday matinee but it suited me (and judging by the laughter a handful of others). And, if as I suspect, Mr Steiner’s aim was to find optimism in the bleak mundane, he indutiably succeeded.

I now wish I has seen Sam Steiner’s last play, also realised through Paines Plough, King Kanye about a white woman who wakes up one day to discover she is Kanye West, and, prior to that, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, in which the conceit is that language itself is rationed. I an a sucker for concept and imagination and Mr Steiner seems to have the gift. And he can right dialogue to match. I will watch his future career with interest.

The Sugar Syndrome at the Orange Tree Theatre review ****

The Sugar Syndrome

Orange Tree Theatre, 27th January 2020

With last year’s A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic, The Effect from 2012, (about to be revived at the fancy newish Boulevard), and ENRON from 2010, as well as Secret Diary of a Cal Girl and, most recently, the utterly brilliant Succession, Lucy Prebble has desrevedly become one of our most feted writers for stage and screen. The Sugar Syndrome dates from 2003 and was her first full length play, winning awards and getting an airing at the Royal Court directed by one Marianne Elliott, who has similarly gone on to bigger and better things.

It may not be a perfect play, the two central characters, 17 year old Dani, who is has left hospital after treatment for an eating disorder, and Tim, in his thirties, and being monitored after a spell in prison for sex offences, are exaggerated, and defined largely by their behaviours. Their meeting, after Dani poses as a young boy in a chat room, and subsequent friendship, with Dani seeking psychological equivalence and Tim rapidly opening up, is uncomfortable and doesn’t quite ring true. On the other hand it does allow Ms Prebble to explore questions around on-line personae, (well before many others – this was still the MySpace era with Zuckerberg only just about to kick off at Harvard), addiction, self-harm, paedophilia and relationship, and her extraordinary ear for memorable dialogue is as plain here as it is in the later texts.

Debutante Jessica Rhodes goes all in with Dani, a fearless, physically expressive performance. Dani’s worldly-wise exterior is paper-thin, whereas John Hollingworth is asked to hold back in his portrayal of the guilt-ridden Tim. We will see Jessica Rhodes again soon of that I have no doubt. Alexandra Gilbreath is Jan, Dani’s Mum, who truly doesn’t understand her, and Ali Barouti is Lewis, the older boyfriend that Dani also meets on-line and who she strings along, and whose jealously catalyses the disturbing, if not surprising, conclusion. Oscar Toeman’s direction, alongside Rebecca Brower’s set and Elliott Griggs’s lighting design, creates a sharp delineation between the on-line and real worlds. This, and the performances, help to focus Ms Prebble’s slightly over-plotted narrative.

Even it’s faults, this is still an arresting play for a 22 year old to have written and I was a little surprised to see that the OT could claim is as the first major revival.

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.