The Phlebotomist at Hampstead Theatre review *****

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The Phlebotomist

Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, 2nd May 2018

The Phlebotomist is sold out for the rest of its runs. So you had better hope that it pitches up elsewhere, ideally with the current cast and creatives, for it really is an excellent play. There are three almighty talents on show here. Writer Ella Road in this her debut play, actor Jude Anouka who just keeps on getting better and better and director Sam Yates who proved his mettle with Glengarry Glen Ross recently, but here extracts the maximum amount of tension and drama out of what is already a smartly plotted story.

It is another one of these near future dystopian dramas, which playwrights are currently obsessed with. No real surprise there. Us liberal, luvvie types are never happier than when warning ourselves, (for we are the audience), about the impending disasters that beset us, ideally disasters precipitated by the very technologies which we benefit from most. Ella Road’s story starts with a slightly different, and I think more chilling and realistic premise, that blood samples will be used to provide a detailed genetic profile, an early prognosis of what medical conditions will impact you through your life and even your behavioural characteristics. You can avoid the test but this will impact your educational, employment, credit and relationship prospects and looks shifty. Of course taking the test, and finding out the details all wrapped up in a rating out of 10, will also impact those prospects.

Bea (Jade Anouka) is the phlebotomist, (no I didn’t know either), who administers the test. She, quite literally, bumps into Aaron, (a fine performance from Rory Fleck Byrne, a new name to me), who turns out to be a descendant of the poet Lord Tennyson. They fall in love (and look like they do such is the chemistry between them). Turns out they both have high scores. Char, Bea’s friend, (a spirited Cherrelle Skeete, also new to me), does not and she abandons her career to campaign against the system, after an attempt at deception. The only other character is David (Vincent Ebrahim) a softly spoken, sagacious porter at the hospital Bea works in.

I won’t elaborate. Suffice to say that Ella Road provides enough disclosures to keep the plot moving along but not too many to raise eyebrows. The world she conjures up cleverly eschews compulsion, there is no evil state organ here, implying benign, market driven compliance, (as with so many informational threats to our privacy). Avoidance and manipulation of the test results are, rightly, key elements of the plot. It all feels very real. It asks some big questions, even tackling the stain of eugenics, but never, ever, appears didactic. How much should we know about our genetic make-up? Should this ever be made public? How “perfect” do we want to be? Ms Road has an unmistakeable view but ensures all three main characters elicit our sympathy.

The dialogue between those characters is believable, the monologues perfectly placed, there is humour and there is even a memorable tomato based metaphor (you’ll see). It is something that Charlie Brooker and the Black Mirror team would have been proud to come up with, but this is achieved without their giant budget, and, I think, has far more emotional clout. Rosanna Vize offers a simple, grey transverse set at the HT Downstairs, a few chairs and other props. Zoe Spurr’s lighting and Alex Twiselton’s sound are similarly economic but very effective. Costume changes are effected on-stage. The production is helped enormously by Duncan McLean’s snappy video work which offers social and political context so that the play, which at its heart, is a story about the relationships between Bea and Aaron, and Bea and Char, is never overwhelmed by its central conceit.

Jade Anouka was mesmerising in the Phyllida Lloyd Donmar Warehouse Shakespeare trilogy, as Ariel, as Mark Antony and as Hotspur. She was the only saving grace in the otherwise execrable Jamie Lloyd Faustus. You may have seen her in the recent ITV production of the Trauma, by Mike Bartlett. She was the daughter of Adrian Lester’s high-flying surgeon. When John Simm, who plays the embittered father of one of Mr Lester’s patients, invades the family home, her fear jumps through the screen into your living room. (How Mike Bartlett keeps getting away with these electrically charged finales verging on the melodramatic beats me, but he does).

Up close as here, she is bloody marvellous to watch. A completely natural performer. Not to decry her three colleagues but it is difficult to take your eyes off her. Sam Yates does seem to have a knack of ensuring that great stage actors, (and I am putting Ms Anouka in that category), are great on stage. Not as easy as it sounds. I offer the evidence of, especially, Christian Slater, but also Robert Glenister, Stanley Townsend and Don Warrington in Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse (Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse Theatre review ****), Emily Barber in The Globe Cymbeline, Jane Horrocks in East is East, his collaboration with Ruth Wilson. Why he hasn’t been offered a big gig at the National is a mystery to me.

 

 

Natural Selection exhibition at the Former Newington Library review *****

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Andy Holden and Peter Holden: Natural Selection

Artangel at the Former Newington Library, 24th November 2017

This might just be the best exhibition I have seen this year. The Former Newington Library was new to me I confess, and reeks of institutional instruction, which matched the tone of this “installation” to a tee. Apparently it used to contained the natural history collection of a father and son, Richard and Henry Cumming. Well done to Artangel for sniffing out the space and to video artist/cartoonist/animator Andy Holden, (who i See has his own band, the Grubby Mitts), and his ornithologist Dad, Peter, for creating this marvel.

It all apparently started when Andy, who could have stepped straight out of a 1970s Open University TV programme, saw a blackbird building a nest in Dad’s garden. Cravatted Peter Holden, who could in turn have stepped straight off Blue Peter, (in fact he was did), is an avian guru and, when Andy returned home after art school, their shared passion was rekindled. This then, even before we get to the bird and other stuff, is a poignant study of a father and son relationship. (It even begins with Andy in the pram wrestling with a book on birds).

After a series of joint lectures Andy started to gather material for the first part of the exhibition on bird’s nests. Upstairs there are some marvellous examples of nests contained in a vitrine in an “old style” museum format, another collection of feathers, a smattering of bark, a giant recreation of a bowerbird’s bower and some other bits and pieces. Not all is what is seems: this turned wooden objects are created from sonograms of bird song and some of the nests were created by Andy and mixed in with the real thing. Art and nature start to intertwine.

A quick perusal and then you sit down for the video with father and son taking it in turns to explain and illuminate, whilst a central screen shows footage from their own field trips, as well as various documentaries and the like. They look like old style nature documentaries but as father and son range through types of nests, nest sites and nest materials, some fascinating themes emerge. Peter Holden focusses on the “scientific” explanations of nesting behaviour, Andy gets you thinking about the bird as creator, even “artist”. The “practical” and the “beautiful” are explored.

How do those birds who build these elaborate structures “know” what to do? Do they have a picture in their “minds” of what they want the nest to look like? Why does the bowerbird go to so much effort in creating his bower, and the extraordinary display of themed objects he gathers? How does this relate to the Holdens’ own collections? Can it really just be a process of “sexual selection”? How do partners, families and communities collaborate (various bird species of course but also here father and son)?

Downstairs we first encounter a rook character in a cartoon strip that Andy created which has his father Peter as a “Mr Holden” charged with keeping the rook in line. The father/son relationship mined further. 

We also have another “collection”, How the Artist was Lead to a Study of Nature, which recreates the hoard of 7,130 eggs police discovered at a “collector’s house in 2006. These eggs are laid out on the floor in cardboard and plastic boxes, as they were on discovery, which also emphasises their fragility and increases the level of temptation for us the audience as these are undeniably beautiful objects. As a kid I was fascinated by birds, and the opportunities the world of ornithology gave to a boy who craved the pleasure of classification. Observing, ordering, listing, collecting. This never extended to eggs, that was already forbidden, but I could see the attraction. This, fortunately, never developed into a full blown, twitching habit, I have seen the impact this can have first hand, but I understand the obsession.

Next door is a video installation, The Opposite of Time, narrated this time by Andy Holden alone, in the form of an animated crow who first appeared in Peter’s RSPB magazine contributions. The crow passes through real habitats, notably when charting the battle between egg “collectors’ and the RSPB and volunteers over the first ospreys to return to Scotland in the 1960s. However the crow, who ages, also flies across multiple paintings, representing the best of the British landscape artistic tradition (Constable, Turner, Nash, Ravilious, Hockney). There is a further screen showing photos and some film which documents the history of egg collecting in the UK, from aristocratic pursuit by “gentlemen of science”, through to the 1954 Act which criminalised it and finally on to the “working-class” undercover activity of more recent decades.

This becomes an insightful analysis of the psychology of collecting, and how the public and scientific consensus on the morality of the “hobby” has changed through time. What makes the desire to possess so powerful that “collectors’ are prepared to destroy the very thing they purport to love? How can we enjoy such aesthetically exquisite objects, knowing their history? What gives humans the right to collect from nature? Why were toffs feted for their “scientific advances”, whilst the dispossessed collectors of today are banged up?

There are multiple parallels through the exhibition with “human” artists. The materials used by sculptors (Andy Goldsworthy), the landscape artists (Richard Long’s mud), the forms we encounter (Barbara Hepworth eggs), the collections and classifications of conceptualists (Susan Hiller), the ready mades and found objects tradition (from Duchamp on), the Pollock like lines on many of the eggs, the watercolour like pastels. Play your own game with this.

So there you have it. A natural history programme. An introduction to aesthetics. A history of landscape art. A lecture on class. Science and art. Father and son. Nature and nurture. Passion and obsession. Nerdiness. Eccentricity. Nostalgia. Some very pretty things. All in a couple of ramshackle rooms in SE17. The exhibition was extended but I think is now over. I do hope it gets another outing. I really, really need to see it again. 

 

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle at Wyndham’s Theatre review ****

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Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

Wyndham’s Theatre, 9th November 2017

Everyone’s at it. The “science” play. Science, whether directly through using theory to inform plot, or indirectly, often through the impact of ecological or other catastrophe, has underpinned many of the best new plays I have seen in the last couple of years. Steff Smiths’s Human Animals, Nick Payne’s Constellations and Elegy, The Forbidden Zone from Schaubuhne Berlin, Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone, Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children and Mosquitoes and Christopher Shinn’s Against all have a healthy dose of science in the mix.

Mind you this is nothing new. The brainy playwrights have been at it for decades. Think of Stoppard’s The Hard Problem, even Brecht’s Life of Galileo, the mighty Caryl Churchill’s A Number and Love and Information. Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s After Darwin. Indeed Michael Frayn in Copenhagen even took Werner Heisenberg himself as the subject for his play. Nor is it really surprising given the importance of mathematics and physics to our lives. After all it is the role of theatre to comment on, engage with and maybe even influence the big ideas that underpin our world. But it does take a fierce intellect to make this sciencey stuff work.

It was probably only a matter of time before the prolific, eclectic and clever Simon Stephens came up with his own variation. Like Lucy Kirkwood in Mosquitoes he takes a big idea from theoretical physics to create a metaphor for the actions of his characters, though I am not sure he is as successful. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that if we measure the position of a particle with ever greater precision, then at some point we have to accept a correspondingly increasing imprecision in our measurement of the particle’s momentum. (Thank you Wiki and the programme – I would be lost without you). When we look at the little stuff, like electrons, its behaviour sometimes emulates a particle bouncing around but sometimes it is like a wave. Apparently “vagueness” is built into nature at the quantum scale. Yet we humans are always deluding ourselves that we have control and that there is order around us. We live at a larger scale than the quantum so see the physical world obey laws and we can trust the effect of statistical averaging.

Allied to the Uncertainty Principle is the idea of the observer effect. The act of observing will influence the phenomenon being observed. At the quantum scale for us to “see” and electron, a photon apparently must interact with it, thus changing the path of the electron. You can see why this concept might appeal to the inventive playwright. 

(I will refrain from opening up to the idea that some neuroscience even suggests our concept of “free will” is an illusion. “Free won’t” maybe, but the electrical activity in or brains that prompts an action seems to come before our “conscious” realisation of the intended action. Get your head round that). 

Anyway this randomness is the idea Mr Stephens builds into his play. Unpredictability is built into our lives. When forty something garrulous, and dissatisfied, American expat Georgie Burns (Anne-Marie Duff) randomly kisses, on the back of the neck, mid seventies lonely butcher Alex Priest (Kenneth Cranham) on a bench in St Pancras station, no-one, least of all them, could have predicted where this would lead. As it happens it leads to a beautifully observed affair which brings happiness and lashings of extra life to both

Now I guess that, at the end of the day, you might be able to take any other boy meets girl (or boy meets boy, or girl meets girl, or other feasible combinations) stage double hander and overlay the same idea. Nick Payne’s Constellations covered similar territory albeit with a very different formal structure. Indeed if you jettisoned old Heisenberg and just took the play on its own merits you wouldn’t lose much. You would ask yourself why would Georgie ever approach Alex in the first place, but might soon be persuaded as to why, and indeed would be offered some alternative explanations. The question of the age gap would loom large but fairly soon be dismissed, as it should be. Some of the twists in the romance might seem a little contrived but then you could say the same about all romances, real or imagined.

That the play works independent of its big ideas is down to the performances, and to a lesser extent, the sure direction of Marianne Elliot, the much praised set of Bunny Christie and the lighting of Paule Constable. In Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham we have here two actors at the top of their game. In fact they are so at the top of their game that they are both banging in hat-tricks on a weekly basis like the love-child of Harry Kane and Cristiano Ronaldo. Ms Duff is always better than the play she leads, even when the play itself is perfect. Saint Joan, Cause Celebre, Strange Interlude, Husbands and Sons, Oil, the unfairly maligned Common. In her every major London stage role in the last few years she has, to overwork the sporting metaphors, banged it out the park. Of course, there may be some cause and effect here, as I will see everything she stars in. Even so, for my money, she is on a par with the theatrical dames of the prior generation. I am literally wetting myself with excitement at next year’s NT Macbeth with her and Rory Kinnear.

Now I was not as impressed as the smart money with Florian Zeller’s The Father thinking it a bit too tricksy, (mind you I had an uncomfy perch on the night of performance so my view might, literally, have been guided by arse), but there was no doubting Mr Cranham’s sterling performance. Here his Alex starts off, unsurprisingly, a little discombobulated by Georgie’s approaches. As the relationship unfolds, and he opens up, we see the joy fill first his face and, eventually, his whole body. Ms Duff similarly is as skilled in bringing Georgie to life through her movement as much as her words. Together their timing is perfect with the interplay of lines, and pauses, perfectly modulated. As Alex explains, when talking about his love of music, it is all about “the space between the notes”. They get it.

My guess is that, in lesser hands, this might all be far less effective. Simon Stephens is a wise man I think because he seems to know how important is the rest of the collaborative eco-system. Whether this be the writers whose works he has adapted (Chekhov on multiple occasions, Mark Haddon for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Bizet for Carmen Disruption) or directors (Marianne Elliot, here and many times before, Carrie Cracknell, Katie Mitchell and, successfully, the erratic Ivo van Hove).

More importantly he is a very wise man because, as he says in the programme, “I think I only write plays because I’ve never been in The Fall”. There are those of us who recognise that the most important artist in the world is alive, well (hopefully) and using his free over 60s bus pass in Prestwich, and those of you who don’t.