The Tourist’s first visit to the Tabard Theatre in leafy Chiswick, which given its proximity, its longevity, it has been around since 1985, and the quirky breadth of its repertoire, new plays and revivals, own and other productions, must count as a massive oversight. Still better late than never.
Now one way or another I have seen a fair few of playwright Simon Stephens’ original plays and adaptations. Mind you there are a fair few of them, him being a prolific, and very effective, story teller. He probably veers a little towards being a playwright’s (and creatives’s) playwright than a “populist”, he is popular with those arty Continental types, but I would contend he is not as knotty as some of his contemporaries, like that Crimp chap. And he definitely has a way with words.
Harper Regan premiered at the National Theatre in 2008, (directed by the splendid Marianne Elliot and with the equally splendid Lesley Sharp in the title role), and tells the story, across 11 chronological scenes, of an eponymous early forties everywoman as she embarks on a journey from her home in Uxbridge to Stockport, and then Manchester, before returning to he family a couple of days later. Her husband has been convicted, maybe wrongly, of abuse and can no longer teach. Her daughter may not be able to afford university. Her father is dying, hence the trip, and her relationship with her mother is “strained” to say the least. Along the way we encounter her prat of a boss in the office she works in, who is bizarrely reluctant to let her take time off, she meets a student peer of her daughter, has a flirt, which doesn’t end too well, with an alpha nut-job journalist bloke she meets in a pub, then another, arranged, sexual encounter in a hotel room with a somewhat older, kinder fellow, and has it out with Mum. No uplifting ending here folks.
As usual with Mr Stephens the play doesn’t offer up its secrets quickly or indeed clearly. That is not to say that its dialogue, centred on Harper, and flecked with humour and darkness, (though this is not a “black comedy”), is opaque. Just that its musings, on the power relationships between the men and women, on family, on death and everyday moralities, emerge cumulatively from Harper’s journey. Mr Stephens is not afraid of exploring some pretty unpleasant facets of the human condition through his characters, and this play is no exception, and there is always an awkward, unsettling quality to the apparently naturalistic interactions of the characters. The small stage piles up with secrets, guilt, frustration, evasion and aggression. A metaphor for what lurks beneath in buttoned-up Blighty, a lesson on women’s subordination or a provocation by a veteran of the form? All of the above. Simon Stephens plays with a number of themes without quite pining then down.
It takes a bit of actorly doing to capture Harper’s mix of defensiveness and assertion in her “roles” as wife, mother, daughter, employee and sexual being but Emily Happisburgh was up to the task. She is, with TV veteran Jenny Kirsch, one half of Contentment Productions whose laudable aim is to give “a greater platform to complex female voices”. This was a pretty good place to start. I can’t vouch for how director Pollyanna Newcombe has approached the detail of the text but it felt to me like she had captured the tone, pace and mood of the play.
The Tabard is, as studio theatres above pubs generally are, a cosy space so set and props had to be man and woman handled between the scenes which, with choreographed movement and blasts of sound, actually enhanced the episodic, fractured nature of the story. Ms Happisburgh was admirably supported by Philip Gill, Joseph Langdon, Cameron Robertson, Marcus McManus, Alma Reising and, especially, Bea Watson in her stage debut.
I can see why this sort of thing might leave some frustrated but even on a overly-sultry Saturday afternoon I was drawn in by both play and production. Oh and a big thank you to the Tabard. I was poorly for my initial booked performance but the very kind people at TT were more than happy to change to another performance and wish me well.
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is probably going to be your next Prime Minister, chosen by a hundred thousand or so duffers average age in the 70s. Sovereignty? Democracy? If that doesn’t make you laugh nothing will. Anyway the rise of the tousled haired, Latin mangling, philandering, fustian journalist/politician, even without the gift of his impending premiership (his aim at Eton was to become “king of the world”) should, you would think, provide fertile ground for a satirical comedy.
After all this is a bloke who had both British and American citizenship, has Turkish, French and Russian ancestry, was born into an educated family, whose Dad worked for the EU, (I know hard to believe), overcame deafness as a nipper, speaks French fluently, had all the advantages, yet still takes a dig at Johnny Foreigner whenever he can like the godfather of gammon that he is. I see he won a scholarship to Eton where he worked on his eccentricity, changed his religious affiliation, (a harbinger of flip-flopping things to come), excelled in classics despite a somewhat indolent attitude and edited the school rage. At Oxford some have alleged that he toyed with the SDP in oder to secured the position of president of the Union, though, like so many other things, poor old BoJo has no memory of this. (I actually believe Boris when he says a line of coke had no effect on him: even this being insufficient to stimulate a full days’ work from him). Apparently he was mightily cheesed off he didn’t’t get a First.
He lasted a week in management consultancy, before the family got him into the Times, where he was promptly sacked for making stuff up. Then placed in the Telegraph where his career as liar in chief about the EU began. In some ways it is the ultimate irony that the man who is likely to preside over the final collapse of the Conservative and Unionist Party over something that really shouldn’t matter to it is the man who was largely responsible for fuelling the division between Europhile and Eurosceptic in the first place. After receiving a small dose of liberalism from his marriage to Marina Wheeler, and time spent in Islington, he cracked on with delivering some of his most offensive apophthegms in his Telegraph column. “Piccanniny”, “watermelon” or, more latterly, “letterbox”, I can’t decide which is the most unpleasant. Though one of the less remembered, his reference to gay men as “tank-topped bum-boys”, runs them close. This whole thing, Fartage does it as well, where some privileged, rich, straight, white, middle-aged bloke pretends to be taking on the Establishment, and saying “the things that can’t be said”, in a world where “political correctness has gone mad”, just drives me potty.
Not getting sacked when he was asked to divulge the address of a journalist so that his bessie from school, convicted fraudster Darius Guppy, could have the hack beaten up, was another low point I had forgotten about. On to the Spectator and GQ where he regularly filed his copy late, (which, given its quality, is hard to fathom), and then all his TV turns. Convicted fraudster, though now I see pardoned by the whiter than white Donald Trump, (himself only having been involved in the 3.500 or so court cases), Conrad Black, then promoted him to editor the Spectator turning it into the self-parody of Conservatism that it is today.
Finally parachuted into the safe seat of Henley when the principled Michael Heseltine retired, as a journalist with a sideline as an MP, he pitched up to a few votes in the House, and gave, in his own words, a few “crap” speeches. He did support Ken Clarke, of all people, in the leadership campaign that IDS won, a random act of good judgement, but also got reprimanded subsequently by Michael Howard for letting though the infamous Spectator article which trotted out the filth about the victims of Hillsborough which The Sun had so evilly kicked off. Next up he refused to resign as Arts Minister when he was caught lying about his affair with Spectator columnist Petronella Wyatt, so Michael Howard was forced to sack him.
Still no matter. His mate from Oxford, “call-me Dave” Cameron, installed him as shadow higher education minister ( a job his principled younger brother Jo also held), but then another alleged affair, booted off the Spectator by Andrew Neil, but still raking in half a million a year from his media work, he then got the gig as London mayor in a campaign masterminded by Lynton Crosby (the Aussie evil genius behind his current job application).
Still keeping his “chicken-feed” £250K salary from the Telegraph column (and failing to make promised donations), he pitched up late for a few early meetings, failed to get a planning permission, might have had a further affair, over claimed on expenses, denied London’s pollution levels, recruited cronies and came up with hare-brained vanity schemes. Still he was always a “laugh” which remains his key qualification for high office it seems and he occasionally said and did the right thing to confound us liberal metropolitan elite lefty types, though he could just as easily revert to type moments later. And London felt proud.
Back to the House of Commons, kept at a distance by Cameron and then his fateful decision to throw in his lot with the Vote Leave campaign. And all that bollocks on the bus, about Turkey (subsequently denied), that face he pulled the morning after when Leave won, and then, after Cameron walked, the political assassination by Michael Gove and his missus which put paid to BoJo’s ambition that time round. This is roughly where Jonathan Maitland’s play kicks off, with a dinner party given by Boris and Marina Wheeler attended by Gove, Sarah Vine and, somewhat bizarrely, Evgeny Lebedev, the owner, with his Dad, of the Evening Standard and The Independent.
Before we get on to the play though let’s wrap up on the real Boris. That nice Mrs May thought it would be a good idea to make him Foreign Secretary. To neuter his threat some thought. That didn’t turn out too well did it. But surely, even at a time when a Government is literally paralysed but its inability to deliver the undeliverable in Brexit, the way in which BoJo conducted himself in this position of high office should disqualify from the top job. Support for Erdogan, the House of Saud (in contravention of Government policy), his intervention in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the gaffe quoting Kipling in Myanmar, his advice to the Libyan city of Sirte, his reprimand by UK Statistics Authority, his nonsense on the Irish border, that missed vote, breach of the Ministerial Code, his lusty support for British business, and finally, his flounce out, alongside the loafer’s loafer, David Davies, when Brexit turned just that little bit tricky, unicorn-delivery wise. All achieved in a couple of years.
Since then plotting, ramping up the racism for the benefit of Conservative members, failing to declare earnings on nine occasions, the “suicide vest” comment, flirting with Bannon and Trump, the “spaffing” remark in the context of child abuse allegations, another Europe lie confirmed by the Independent Press Standards Office. and the idiot flirting with no-deal. For remember even if the Tory party goes all spineless and worried about preferment when it comes to the inevitable no-confidence vote which will follow Boris’s coronation, or he gets tempted by prorogation, (yes people, in the country that “gave democracy to the world”, we actually have candidates for Prime Minister who wish to emulate Medieval kings), we will still be tied in negotiations with Europe for the rest of most of our natural lives. Yep even BoJo the clown can’t make it all go away.
Right that’s off my chest. So what about this play. Well I am afraid that, with all this material to play with, and the gift of relevance, Mr Maitland’s play didn’t really come across as much more than a few, admittedly quite good, impressions by the assembled cast, Will Barton as Boris, Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Gove (and parliamentary agent Jack), Davina Moon as Marina Wheeler and spad Caitlin, Tim Walters as Lebedev, Huw Edwards and Tony Blair, Arabella Weir as Sarah Vine, Leila, a Tory Chair and, intriguingly, Winston Churchill and finally, Steve Nallon, doing his Thatcher routine.
Now as you might gather there are plenty of blasts from the past who appear to help guide BoJo as he lurches from wannabe Winston, inheritor of Mrs T’s monetarist/household economics and social authoritarianism, and then back to one-nation liberalism courtesy of Blair. Good idea. Not brilliantly executed. The second half throws us forward to 2029 with BoJo plotting a comeback on a platform of “Brentry”. Again shrewd set up but not enough is done with it. The first half takes place at a dinner party, with the Goves and our name dropping Russian publisher, (as I speak the Standard has just come out for Johnson – not sure what George Osborne’s game is there), when MG bounces BoJo into supporting Vote Leave. There is a ton of tired exposition which makes the repeated gags pall even more.
So some intriguing ideas, and a target that could hardly been more topical or richer in opportunity, but I am afraid Jonathan Maitland’s lines don’t really match his ideas. There are a few good jokes but it is just not barbed enough as satire. In fact it edges close to playful hagiography at times. At our performance the edgiest moment actually came when one audience member, to the chagrin of her partner, enthusiastically applauded at a Make Britain Great Again peroration that the real Boris tosses off in perfunctory fashion, (see how easy it is to talk like the peroxide prat). Not a good look in liberal, Metropolitan elite North London. Director Lotte Wakeham and designer Louie Whitemore have both delivered better than this.
In the real world I see the coppers have turned up to an altercation at the latest incarnation of Chez Johnson. No doubt the Tory membership, whose response to “no deal” economic chaos is apparently “bring it on”, will see this as further confirmation of his “man of the people” status. You literally couldn’t make this stuff up. In retrospect maybe I have been a little unfair on Mr Maitland. Reality here is beyond satire.
Now I’ll be honest, until I started taking this theatre malarkey seriously, I had only the faintest idea of what Thornton Wilder’s most famous play, Our Town, was about. And even going in to this production at the Open Air I confess to some scepticism as to the reasons why it is so highly regarded. I am a sucker for “meta-theatre”, fiddling around with the realms of what is possible on stage and breaking all the naturalistic rules of theatre, but this still sounded a little too, well, American and homespun, and I couldn’t quite see how it would elevate itself it to something more profound. Still this is what the experts told me it would do and I, for one, choose not to ignore the experts, (especially when it comes to, for example, cardiac surgery – for, without one such expert, you wouldn’t be reading this).
Well I can report that the experts, once again, do know what they are talking about. Written in 1938 OT tells the story of the fictional American small town of Grover’s Corner in the years 1901 to 1913, (I gather the photo above is taken from the original Broadway production). The play is set in the theatre in which it is being performed, designed here by Rosie Elnile as simply a bank of temporary seats at the back of the Open Air stage, and we have a narrator in the form of the theatre’s stage manager (Laura Rodgers) who guides us through the characters and the scenes, addresses us directly, introduces specialist “speakers” and fields “questions” from the audience. With the exception of one scene the cast is in modern dress and there is minimal use of props, largely just a couple of table and chairs to symbolise the two main households, the Webb’s and the Gibbs’s, and plenty of miming.
Thornton Wilder apparently insisted that the play “should be performed without sentimentality or ponderousness–simply, dryly, and sincerely,” a request that director Ellen McDougall, AD at the Gate, sticks to with the exception of shifting the “action” from 1938 to an even more timeless today.
Act 1 centres on the daily life of the town, waking up to a normal day in 1901. We get lectures on the history and geography of the town, (one of many reasons why the swot Tourist took to the play), and we meet the main protagonists Frank Gibbs (Karl Collins), the town doctor, his wife Julia (Pandora Colin) and their two children, sporty, tearaway son George (Arthur Hughes) and younger sister Rebecca (Miriam Nyarko), Charles Webb (Tom Edden), editor of the local paper, wife Myrtle (Thusitha Jayasundera) and their bookish daughter Emily (Francesca Henry) and younger brother Wally (I think Tumo Reestang in this performance). Act II concentrates on the courtship and wedding day of Emily and George in 1904. The mood changes in Act III, in 1913, when we are taken to the cemetery outside Grover’s Corner and see who has passed in the intervening years including Emily, who returns to life to look back, regretfully, on her 12th birthday.
This is when the deep stuff about how to live life to the full when it is so short, and how we are all connected in time and place, and out into the cosmos, is let loose. You would be forgiven for thinking this might come over all schmaltzy and, trust me, the cyclical Tourist is ever alert to such manipulation. It does not though and that is where the play most confounds. It was a pretty hot day at the Open Air, and the Tourist foolishly swapped shade for view, and the matinee crowd was the usual bunch of us old and economically inactive and the reluctant school-teens. So I can’t pretend this was some massive communal epiphany. Nonetheless the messages that Thornton Wilder wraps up in his deliberately “simple” meta-play do resonate and I now understand why the play is so highly regarded and so oft performed especially in the US.
I can see how some might not want to go beyond the moral homage to a simpler, more “authentic” past, with a central love story and a sad ending, but it is also hard to avoid the way Wilder stretches, examines and undercuts this surface reading and not just through formal experimentation. I have banged on before about how American art, in its broadest sense, explored in the inter-war years the dichotomy of modern, urban America and its mythic, rural past. This seems to me to spring from the same well. There may not be an explicit nod to the darkness which was to befall Europe, from which the US largely escaped, but there are, as there were so effectively in Annie Baker’s John, ghosts from the Civil War past as well as references to the coming depopulation and the stultifying effects of conformity to home, hearth, gender roles and church.
Some of the proper reviews have a bit of a dig at the production precisely because of its fidelity to Mr Wilder’s original intention. I disagree though, as I say, not having seen it before meant there was no novelty to wear off. Ellen McDougall is not a director who fights shy of radical theatre, (she was assistant to Katie Mitchell and Marianne Elliott and her first production at the Gate, The Unknown Island was a metaphorical riot), but here, outside of the diverse 19 strong cast, the female stage manager, casual clothes and a few, well placed, choruses, as I say, she seems to play it pretty straight.
I suppose you could go all gung ho and start meta-ing the meta and conjuring up all sorts of allusions to darker times. (What is it with everyone in the theatre aching for contemporary relevance and proof that we live in dangerous times anyway. I am not saying our world today doesn’t have some Grade A wankers in positions of power but I would rather live here, now, than as a slave in C5 BCE Athens, a factory worker in C19 Manchester or a homosexual in Nazi Germany). I also accept that this might not, unusually, be a work that benefits from the Open Air setting, though Act III might be enhanced by the twilight of an evening show.
But I see it worked for Billers in the Guardian and that’s good enough for me. I was already a big fan of Laura Rodgers who stood out in Pressure, Rules for Living, Winter Solstice and Tipping the Velvet and I was also struck by Francesca Henry who appeared in another production directed by Ellen McDougall, The Wolves. Karl Collins and Arthur Hughes also managed to create character beyond imitation. This is though, an ensemble piece, and the whole cast stepped up.
(P.S. I was never going to be unaffected by the wedding of a young Gibbs, some three weeks after the real thing).
Never seen John Gay’s ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera, though have seen Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, on which it is based, a couple of times. Have been waiting patiently for a production of Britten’s 1948 adaptation to pop up again having missed a couple of past opportunities. So it seemed a good idea in the meantime to take in this version, co-produced by Kneehigh and the Liverpool Everyman/Playhouse in which writer Carl Grose, composer Charles Hazlewood and director Mike Shepherd have reimagined the story for a contemporary audience using an eclectic mix of musical genres.
And, by and large, it was a good idea, even if it was a little overstuffed with Kneehiggh’s usual bag of tricks. The John Gay original was written as an antidote to the ever more preposterous gods, monsters and love story Baroque Italian style operas filling London theatres. Often cobbled together from other works with divas insisting on their own favourite arias regardless of context, rambling on for hours and with daft plots, they were ripe for satire. Remember too that the early C18 was a golden age for political satire led by Hogarth, Swift and Pope in print. (In fact it was the latter two who first suggested the idea of TBO to Gay). C18 toff Britain was busy racking up debt, sticking it too Johnny Foreigner and getting rich on the proceeds of slavery, whilst all around absolute poverty was rife. Sound familiar?
Gay and the other writers of so called Augustan drama were also pushing back against the Restoration comedies and nasty she-tragedies of the previous decades, creating middle and lower class characters mired in a world of corruption. The aim was not necessarily to highlight the social and economic injustice meted out to the poor, there was still a strong Christian and moral tone of instruction to the works, but to vent the frustration of the mercantile “libertarian” class at the “conservative” aristocracy and its political sycophants. Gay’s particular target in The Beggar’s Opera was actually the divisive Whig prime minister Robert Walpole and specifically his involvement in bailing out the original investors in the South Sea Bubble.
The 69 songs, across 45 short scenes, originally were to be sung without musical accompaniment but Johann Christoph Pepusch was brought in at the last minute to create a score for the mix of largely Scottish and French folk melodies, chucking in popular broadsheet ballads, opera arias lifted straight from the like of Handel, church hymns and even an overture. The punters lapped it up and it spawned multiple imitations, (though this is the only ballad opera which is still performed), and influenced much of the comic opera and musical theatre which followed in the C19 and C20. I see that it enjoyed a lengthy revival at this very theatre in the 1920s.
Carl Grose has kept most of the main characters, the Peachums (Martin Hyder and Rina Fatania), daughter Polly (Angela Hardie), Lockit (Giles King) and daughter Lucy (Beverly Rudd), Filch (Georgia Frost) and, of course Macheath (Dominic Marsh), and the bones of the plot including a repurposed, and instructive, parody ending, though here Macheath is a contract killer tasked with bumping off the virtuous Mayor, (and his innocent mutt), to make way for Peachum. Charles Hazlewood has thrown in electro, grime, dubstep, noire, trip hop rhythms as well as some punk and ska, alongside snatches of Purcell, Handel and even Greensleeves (from the original), to foot-tapping effect. By and large it all hangs together and I can’t fault the cast for effort. The dance routines (courtesy of Etta Murfitt) are entertaining and there are some effective visual treats, not least of which is the titular dead dog in the suitcase. The on stage musicians, who also take on key parts, notably violinist Patrycja Kujawska as Widow Goodman, cannot be faulted.
But Michael Vale’s set, complete with scaffolding and slide, whilst initially impressive, at times becomes an obstacle course for the cast to negotiate and multiple costume changes only add to the complications. Adding in a Punch and Judy routine, assorted puppetry (marshalled by Sarah Wright)and other creative trickery ends up slowing down proceedings and interrupting the momentum in what is intended to be a high energy entertainment. Sometimes less is more, especially if the intention is to make some points about the iniquity of the contemporary political class. I know this kitchen sink, amateur circus look is a keynote of some of Kneehigh’s work but it does rather blunt the satirical intent.
Still I can’t pretend I didn’t laugh, or jig about a bit, and the whole thing is done in just over a couple of hours. There’s a few days left at the Lyric and then the production moves on to complete the tour in Exeter, Cheltenham, Bristol and Galway.
For those of you who, understandably, don’t have the time or inclination to filter through the vast opportunity set that is the London “subsidised” theatre sector and just want to spend your hard-earned coin on a proven theatrical production then the next few months is shaping up nicely. The following all have the Tourist’s cast iron guarantee seal of approval and, more importantly that of proper critics and audiences, so you can buy without fear of disappointment. Of course you must first check the subject is up your Strasse but the execution, in all the below cases, is top notch.
Sweat at the Gielgud Theatre. Lynn Nottage’s brilliant dissection of what’s wrong in America. Decently discounted for performances in the next couple of weeks.
The Lehman Trilogy at the Piccadilly Theatre. Three peerless actors in a history of the Lehman dynasty. Though here you have to pay up for the rest of the run.
Touching the Void at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Theatrical magic telling the story of Joe Simpson’s agonising descent down a mountain. A little bit of discounting for the beginning of the run in November.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin at the Harold Pinter Theatre. More theatrical magic condensing Louis de Bernieres sprawling novel about love and war. Again there are some offers which make this very good value for money.
Equus at the Trafalgar Studios. A mesmerising production of Peter Shaffer’s classic play about a young man wth an unhealthy obsession with horses and his psychologist saviour.
The Son at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Florian Zeller’s gripping new play about a depressed teen. Marginal discounting in August.
Rosmersholm at the Duke of York’s. Though be sure you like Ibsen. A rare West End bargain.
However topping all of this is the just announced transfer of the Young Vic Death of a Salesman to the Piccadilly Theatre from end October. Of course you could keep an eye out for returns on the day for the sold out run at the Young Vic or better still you could have listened to the Tourist months ago when he said this would be the play of the year. Because it is. But whatever you do don’t miss it.
And one final polite request before I tell you why it is so good. Bag some tickets to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre. Just seen it. Nick Hytner has only gone and done it again. Reimaging Shakespeare for our world, with a twist. I don’t care if you are “bored” by Shakespeare. You won’t be here. I am going to go again.
Oh and if I had to pick one sure fire winner from what’s coming up it would be Robert Icke’s version of The Doctor at the Almeida with Juliet Stevenson.
Right finally back to The Death of a Salesman. Now, as any fool knows, this is Arthur Miller’s masterpiece. It is Mr TFP’s favourite play. Wise man. Mrs TFP now knows why. As does the SO who, unusually, would fully endorse my 5* opinion. And this production shows the play off to maximum effect.
The gap between what is real and what Willy Loman imagines, between what Willy, and his two sons, Biff and Happy, think they can be and what they are is, a metaphor for the souring of the American Dream, that repeatedly and methodically bashes you over the head until it, as it should, hurts. But the personal tragedy should also be, as it is here, a massive emotional rush, as we see Willy fall apart, Linda Loman watching on, with a love that still cannot save him, Biff finally voicing his own pain and Happy trying to pretend his way out of his own disappointments. To elevate this into the drama stratosphere however, a director and creative team have to completely embrace Miller’s formal innovation. Being the stuff that goes on in Willy’s head. After all the original title for the play was The Inside of His Head. Especially all the memories from the past in Willy’s long first act reverie after he returns from his failed sales trip, (for which dreaming, personally, I blame the cheese sandwich).
Which Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cornwell, with the not inconsiderable assistance of Anna Fleischle’s set design, the barest, illuminated floating outlines of the Loman house, the Wagner office, Boston hotel room, Frank’s Chop House, the accompanying lighting design of Aideen Malone, Carolyn Downing’s sound and, especially, the composition of Femi Temowo. Miller specified a flute: this production delivers much, much more musically. Anna Fleischle writes bravely in the programme of how her own father’s suicide in Munich when she was in her 20’s and he, like Willy, in his 5o’s, informed her intention to capture the space between the real and the illusory.
With sound, light and held poses delineating the flashbacks in Willy’s head, visible to those around him as he mumbles t0 the past, ad especially his big brother Uncle Ben, the next thing we need is a sympathetic Willy. This we get from Wendell Pierce. Now not being a big consumer of US TV drama, (and never having made it beyond series 1 of The Wire – still on the bucket list), and never, as far as I can work out, having seen any of his film performances, the Tourist had no real expectation about Mr Pierce going in. If I am honest I would say I marginally preferred the last Willy I saw, Don Warrington, in the Royal Exchange production directed by Sarah Frankcom. Mr Warrington is a big man, his Willy prouder (as it were), crushed by the disappointment off his life. Wendell Pierce by contrast, in his slightly too big suit, straining to hear the voices from the past, still clutching at imagined opportunities to turn his, or Biff’s, or Happy’s, lives towards success, clinging to the idea of his being “well liked”, is a far more vulnerable Willy, perhaps closer to the text.
His portrayal leaves substantial scope for Sharon D Clarke to show us just how “good” a person Linda is. Whether acting or singing, Ms Grant is a force of nature. It’s what she holds back you see. When she finally lets rip at the boys after they abandon Willy at the restaurant, banging the table as she commands, “attention must be paid”, and then, when she asks Willy for forgiveness for not being able to cry at the bare funeral, I was in bits. Still am writing this.
And, as if that wasn’t enough there is Arinze Kene’s Biff. Now, as anyone who has seen Mr Kene on stage will know, this young man is prodigiously talented. As both a performer, and as he showed with Misty, as a writer. And Biff Loman might just be the greatest “supporting” actor male role in C20 theatre. As Arinze Kene shows here. When he finally rounds on Willy, for the witnessed sin with the Woman, I confess I was bloody scared. I am guessing that for Mr Kene some of Biff’s situation is personal. I gather that the 14 year old Arinze first got the acting bug when he stumbled into a workshop at the Arcola by accident. Yet another reason to thank the Arcola and Mehmet Ergen
There are multiple reasons why casting the Loman’s as an African-American family in pre-Civil Rights America works, but the cumulative frustration that crushes Biff as he realises that racism lies behind his disappointments, is one of the most powerful. All done with context and one line left hanging, (for that is the only liberty Marianne Elliot has taken with the text). How anyone will ever revert to a white Loman family after this, (and a near similar thesis for the Royal Exchange production), stumps me. Even the story of Ben making his fortune in Africa in a diamond mine takes on a whole new perspective.
Which just leaves Martins Imhangbe to complete the family quartet. Now Happy, as a role, can suffer against the dazzling characterisations of his Dad, Mum and Bro. Not here though. Mr Imhangbe, who impressed in An Adventure at the Bush, nailed Happy’s swagger, confidence and conciliatory optimism, whilst still recognising his own ambition is slowly being diminished.
The rest of the cast doesn’t disappoint when they are called upon in their key scenes: Trevor Cooper’s Charley when he lends money to an ungrateful Willy, now taking on an even sharper edge; Joseph Mydell imperiously striding off stage and up the aisle as Willy calls after the “ghost” of Ben; Ian Bonar as Bernard, now the lawyer, interrogating Willy as to why Biff flunked summer school, and then again as the very faintly disparaging waiter; Matthew Seadon-Young as the visibly flinching Howard when an humiliated Willy begs him for a desk job and all he wants to do is show off his new fangled tape recorder; Maggie Service as the indelicate, and white, Woman; and Jennifer Saayang and Nenda Neurer as the playful Miss Forsythe and her friend Letta.
Like I say. Tourist’s favourite play so far this year. As he thought it would be. Don’t miss it.
It is not difficult to see what Githa Sowerby’s photo feminist play from 1912, and brought back to life at the Royal Court by feminist theatre company Mrs Worthington’s Daughters in 1980, now has such a secure place in the repertory. Its characters and its dialogue simply have so much to say about what it was to be a woman, and indeed man, in the stifling atmosphere of Northern England at the turn of the C19. I don’t what to go all Marxist on you but the way the play examines the relationship between capital and labour, the cultural superstructure that is built atop it and patriarchal repression still looks astonishing even when compared to contemporary plays which mine the same territory.
It offers rounded characters despite, or maybe because of, the economy of dialogue and even has an absorbing plot centred on the “invention” of John Jr. However it does go on a bit, especially in the first hour set-up, and the action, contained within one room of the Rutherford house, can get, intentionally, claustrophobic. (Yet more nods to the master Ibsen).
Director Polly Findlay wisely offers us a little relief by taking a couple of intervals (prefacing each act, including the opening, with Northern folk songs from Kerry Andrew and Sarah Dacey) and jogging the pace along where possible. (I’ve just noticed the run time is down to 2 1/2 hours with interval so sounds like a bit of judicious streamlining has been administered). Lizzie Clachlan’s set however has no truck with abstraction: a perfectly realised slice of Victorian melancholia, emphasised by Charles Balfour’s gloomy lighting and (Ibsen-ian) rain. The setting is 1912 Tyneside. In real life Gita Sowerby’s father, like Rutherford, ran the family glass-making business in Gateshead, at a time when this small stretch of the Tyne dominated the global glass industry, before the family left for London in 1896 after the business went t*ts up. We are therefore treated to some full on Geordie accents, (courtesy of the voice and dialect work of Simon Money and Daniele Lydon), which, feel free to call me a patronising Southern twat, just occasionally got lost in translation from my perch at the back of the stalls.
Against this atmospheric backdrop the A list cast get properly stuck in to Githa Sowerby’s text. Now I don’t need to tell you how good an actor Roger Allam is. You are reading this so must have some interest in the theatre and the dramatic arts. Therefore you will know him from his innumerable stage roles, (a recent favourite was John Christie in The Moderate Soprano), his films, or off the telly, (the laconic Peter Mannion in The Thick Of It whose spirit he memorably exploited with a couple of the best one-liners in the whole of GoT as Illyrio Mopatis right at the beginning).
Anyway here he is magnificent. Daddy Rutherford is a cantankerous, despotic bully who is prepared to sacrifice all of life’s pleasures and his family, John Jr (Sam Troughton), Richard (Harry Hepple) and Janet (Justine Mitchell), on the altar of his business and, by implication, his legacy. Or is he? Whilst I am not defending the old sh*t I do think that showing some sign of deeply buried humanity and empathy, as Mr Allam did, yields dividends. Even Rutherford presumably loved his wife and kids once and, as his final promise to Mary (Anjana Vasan) shows, there is some feeling even in this ostensibly commercial transaction. Having to hand over control of the company he built to the bank and a Board has only served to make him work harder, grow tighter and turn his autocracy on those nearest to him. But he is doomed to lose the control he has over his family, mirroring the loss of control of his company. An alienated capitalist disfigured by profit in a society that will move away from him. Very clever.
And, dare I say, these three kids, whilst all having their reasons, are bloody annoying in their own way. Just to be clear I am not imposing some sort of privileged male revisionism on the play. Just that, by exposing the subtlety of the text, Polly Findlay got me to thinking about the play in a way that I had not after seeing Northern Broadsides version with the inimitable Barrie Rutter in the lead in 2013. Love has been squeezed out of the house, as Janet memorably observes, no doubt about that, but the idea that it might have been different once just made me admire the play even more. Githa Sowerby, even when her masterpiece first appeared, to great acclaim, was patronised, as all women were at that time, so the last thing her memory needs is some fat bloke, whose only qualification is that he has seen a few plays recently, upticking, but I was genuinely gobsmacked by just how much depth there is in these characters even beyond what I had remembered from a couple of previous viewings. Everyone thinks they can make everyone else happier in the play. Everyone spectacularly fails to do so.
Sam Troughton is also one of my favourite stage actors, most recently as everybloke Danny opposite Justine Mitchell’s Laura in David Eldridge’s whip-smart Beginning or, seizing the opportunity in what was otherwise a slightly pedestrian affair, as the various, flawed, men-children in Nina Raine’s Stories. His John Jr is desperate from the off. Desperate for Daddy’s approval even as he hates the f*cker, wasting his education, running off to that London, marrying Mary who is “beneath” him, running back to the family home, seeking to extract his birthright through his “invention”, venting his frustration on his own family. The Ibsen-ian sins of the father are listed on the weak, vacillating, quasi-hysterical, son. It was heart-breaking, (well maybe I exaggerate a bit, it’s just a play), to watch his continued self-deception even as Mary was shuffling him out the door as he set off once again to fail to seek fame and fortune.
Justine Mitchell is another brilliant actor who invariably stands out in whatever she appears in. See Beginning above but also, for me, in Anne Washburn’s opus Shipwreck, in Vivienne Franzmann’s Bodies, in the Donmar’s Arturo Ui and in the NT’s Plough and the Stars.. Hell she can even make sense of Restoration comedy. There are multiple layers of bitter, ironic resentment in her Janet because of the way she has been treated by her father and the Victorian/Edwardian patriarchy but this is still a powerful, sensual woman as we see in the scenes with Joe Armstrong’s blunt Martin, whose loyalty to Rutherford, (which itself maybe be the false consciousness of the oppressed), is put to the test. The release when Janet “confesses” to the affair, and Rutherford boots her out, following hot on the heels of Mrs Henderson’s (Sally Rodgers) p*ssed up tirade against Rutherford for the way he treated her son, is immense.
Harry Hepple as the younger son Dick, a curate, a profession old Rutherford regards with sneering disdain, who determines to escape to another parish in Southport, has less to play with but also makes the most of it. Anjana Vasan, so, so good in An Adventure at the Bush, and with smaller roles in Rebecca’s Frecknall’s lauded production of Summer and Smoke and the Young Vic Life of Galileo, represents the future as Mary, exercising her agency and opinion from the start in marked contrast to Barbara Marten’s aunt Ann, who is almost parodic as a woman whose behaviour and thinking is entirely dictated by the archaic values of the “society” around her.
Marvellous play, perfectly realised by a director who trusts the author, with a cast, to borrow the literary cliche, at the peak of its powers. OK, so much like its characters, it can’t quite escape its Edwardian roots, three acts, unity of time, place and action, painstaking exposition, which requires commitment from you the audience but once drawn in there is enough in the climaxes in the story, and especially, the detail of the context, to keep the committed theatre nut as happy as a sandboy. (A phrase from the C18 I gather which refers to the lashed up lads who were paid in drink to deliver and spread sand on the floor of pubs to soak up the various forms of sh*t. A much vivid indictment of the evils of unregulated capitalism is tricky to imagine).
So if this sounds like your sort of thing then you shouldn’t hesitate, there’s plenty of tickets left. If it doesn’t probably best not to be brave here. The Tourist though, having missed the Orange Tree revival of Githa Sowerby’s other major play, The Stepmother, is now firmly on the look-out for a chance to rectify.
Good intention. Examine the way the education process, despite the best intentions of those who operate it, can fail those who start with least advantage. Interesting central conceit. Take the parents whose son is the subject of their meeting with his teacher, and show them as their child selves. And some fine observation on class, expectation, educational prejudice and the language that educators use. Ultimately though both the Tourist and the SO weren’t completely convinced by the play’s apparent conclusions and by some of the narrative leaps taken along the way.
Dubliners Brian (Stephen Jones) and Donna (Sarah Morris) are the estranged parents of Jayden who have been called in to meet his teacher Ray McCafferty (Will O’Connell). Taxi driver Brian arrives early and his discomfort with environment, (this was his old school), and situation, (he is conscious about his own educational achievement), is palpable. Ray, in his eminently reasonable primary school teacher way, does his best to reassure him. Donna arrives and Ray explains that Jayden has fallen behind in his literary and might need some help, perhaps including the intervention of an educational psychologist. So far so awkward. We then switch to Jayden and Kaylie (again played by Stephen Jones and Sarah Morris) in a “homework club” with Mr McCafferty, attempting to engage their attention. When we switch back to Brian and Donna, after Ray exits to get the required paperwork, they discuss what to do with Jayden and show signs of the affection that still inhabits their relationship. When McCafferty returns however, and Jayden’s issue shifts from a learning “difference” to a “difficulty” and even possible dyslexia, and even a potential catalyst for “delinquency”, things start to kick off as his botched attempts to intervene on behalf of another pupil are revealed, the reasons for the break up of Brian and Donna are rehearsed and both men’s tempers spiral out of control.
A couple more plot ratchets and we’re done. Left with the slightly unsatisfactory feeling that writers (and directors) Iseult Golden and David Horan felt compelled to privilege dramatic tension over further character development. I can see why but, given the quality of the dialogue, laced with humour, in the first half, to us it seemed something of a waste. On the other hand it isn’t easy to see where they might have otherwise gone with the story and the fear of “fizzle out” is understandably. deeply ingrained in the creative writing psyche. Given successful runs in Dublin, Galway and Edinburgh, it is perhaps unsurprising that cast and direction is so accomplished and Maree Kearns set and costume design will be familiar to any parent and teacher either side of the Irish Sea. (The Tourist’s ample behind would often inadvertently take a tiny chair with it after parent teacher meetings at the local primary).