Humble Boy at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

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Humble Boy

Orange Tree Theatre, 11th April 2018

Sometimes it can be tricky to put your finger on exactly why a play doesn’t quite work for you. Other times it is easy. This was one of the latter. For me, writer Charlotte Jones lavishes so much attention on shoehorning in all her ideas, themes and research, and emphasising the foibles of character, that she forgets to create a worthwhile story. Not a problem if the play were formally inventive but the set-up here could hardly be more unremarkable.

Felix Humble is a chubby, geeky astro-physicist man-child prone to warbling on about the theory of everything, M theory, string theory, event horizons and the like. Not by way of explanation, more like the kind of pseud who writes a blog on culture without really knowing what he is talking about. Amateur entomologist Daddy has died and Felix comes home to Mummy, Flora, who has got rid of Daddy’s bees and lacks the maternal touch. There is a gardener, (guess who that is), lurking in the flowerbeds who is prone to profundity and knows all the Latin names. Mummy has taken up with a yokel made good, George Pye, who owns a coach company, likes a drink and is the antithesis of Daddy. Mummy has a friend Mercy, to bully, and provide extra comic relief. George has a daughter, Rosie, that Felix improbably impregnated before he took off to the dreaming spires. Felix, it turns out, is a Daddy too. Mummy and Felix acidly snipe, Felix and George spar, Rosie tells Felix to man up. Mercy bites back. There is an embarrassing Ayckbournish dinner party. Mummy and Felix, sort of reconcile. Dady’s ghost exits.

What with the bees, the epigrams, the Hamlet references, the “science-y” stuff, the pithy lines, the cod-psychology, it reeks of “cleverness”. And that is probably what did for me. The performances are fine, especially Jonathan Broadbent as Felix and Belinda Lang as Flora, though Paul Bradley as George, Rebekah Hinds as Rosie, and especially Christopher Ravenscroft as Jim, have a few uncomfortable lines to hurdle over. Best of all though was Selina Cadell’s Mercy mostly I think because her comedy and pathos was more rooted in sympathy than intellect. Simon Daw’s garden design uses every available millimetre of the OT stage, and Paul Miller’s direction, is, as always, on the money in terms of pacing.

i am just not sure this is as good a play as it, and others, think it is. Nothing wrong with taking Hamlet as your starting point, it is the greatest play ever written after all, but then I would have liked some surprises. Dramatic surprises, not guess the allusion. Mummy as queen bee, Flora having a bee named after her, Felix trying to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable, the name Humble. And many, many more.

It won awards when premiered at the NT in 2001 with Simon Russell Beale and Diana Rigg in the lead roles and I can see why the luvvies loved it. There are some funny lines, even if you can see them coming, and the dialogue moves apace, even when the clunky disclosures come into play. There is a convincing prosthetic surprise and a sharp sight gag. The two main characters though eventually become irritating and the play collapses inward, black hole like, into its conceited core.

Waspish yes. Stinging no.

Coraline at the Barbican Theatre review ****

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Coraline

Barbican Theatre, 7th April 2018

Was I the only person in the audience who knew nothing about Neil Gaiman’s 2003 cult children’s fantasy novella from whence came Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera Coraline? It certainly felt like it. To be fair the provenance had dawned on me some time before the performance, but when I booked my perch it was the composer which drew me in not the subject. I guess if I had known more I might not have taken the plunge for fear of feeling a bit odd amongst this very youthful, in parts, audience. I am glad ignorance prevailed for I can report that this was a very fine entertainment indeed.

Music first. It isn’t MAT’s most inventive composition that is true though there are more than enough surprises to hold the attention of the musicophile. What it does do is fit Rory Mullarkey’s bracingly direct libretto, and Mr Gaiman’s pleasingly dark fable like the proverbial glove. It is through-composed, retaining MAT’s trademark spiky, jazzy, Stravinskian, often dissonant, tonality, with very little accommodation to its intended audience. Yet the musical ideas are plain enough even to the untutored ear (including mine). Our ageing actresses singing across the melody in their big number, their waltzes shifting to tangoes as we jump the house “divide”, the mouse orchestra, the close harmonies when ghosts are abroad and the way the Mother’s music darkens as we move from Good to Bad. Sian Edwards is an outstanding advocate of smaller scale new opera music, (she conducted the premiere of MAT’s debut opera Greek). The  Britten Sinfonia are about the best advocates of new music in this country. Put them together and the results are unsurprisingly sublime, bringing life to the score even when it flagged a touch. And Britten, whose Noye’s Fludde might be the best opera involving children because it, er, involves a lot of children, feels like he was an influence here.

Coraline, sung on this occasion by Robyn Allegra Parton, is a bolshie tween, who has just moved in to a new home with overbearing Mum, Kitty Whately, and kindly, inventor Dad, Alexander Robin Baker. The neighbours, Mr Bobo (Harry Nicoll), and the Misses Spink (Gillian Keith) and Forcible (Frances McCafferty), are a bit odd to say the least. The former directs a mouse orchestra and the latter were one time, fruity thespians. The front room of the flat has a door; Coraline walks through it to discover …. a mirror image of the room and parents with sown-up eyes, and another mother bent on evil. You can guess the rest even if you don’t know it. And even if you can’t guess there are plenty of people who could tell you.

If I am honest the couple of hours ex-interval running time could have been squeezed down to 90 minutes straight through, though I guess this might have tested the patience of some of the younger members of the audience. I have to say the youngsters were impeccably behaved throughout, reflecting the quality of what they were seeing and hearing, and putting to shame many an older audience what with their coughs, fidgeting, phone screens and snacking. Having just wrestled with a couple of excitable nephew/nieces the prior weekend I can appreciate just how well-behaved this audience was.

I can see why Rory Mullarkey felt the need to labour the story with excess exposition to ensure everyone knew where we were, but there was the odd time when the recitative might have been condensed. This too might have focussed the ear more on the best of MAT’s invention, and the fine stagecraft marshalled under Aletta Collin’s direction. The magic in particular was a tad underwhelming. On the other hand Giles Cadle’s claustrophobic revolving set, at the front of the otherwise blacked-out cavernous Barbican Theatre stage, was a marvel

The cast though was terrific, especially Robyn Allegra Parton as our heroine, who has a lot of singing to get through, and Kitty Whately as Bad Mum/Good Mum. Apparently Ms Whately had a bit of a sore throat for this performance. Only just about audible and it certainly did not inhibit her performance in any way. I recently saw her Sesto in Giulio Cesare, where she also stood out. Even with my ropey ears I heard most every line, which I can’t always claim is the case when the RSC treads the boards here.

Now this is a fair distance from Mr Turnage’s shocking breakthrough opera Greek, based on Stephen Berkhoff’s play, in turn drawn from Sophocles’s tragedy, Oedipus Rex. To this day that remains one of the finest pieces of musical theatre I have ever witnessed, at the ENO in 1990. His last full length opera, Anna Nicole, wasn’t too kid friendly either. I have never seen The Silver Tassie, based on Sean O’Casey’s anti-war play, though there is a concert performance in the diary.

I see MAT has indicated he may call it a day on opera after some critical muppets have had a pop at the score for Coraline, berating its relative simplicity. That would be a great shame IMHO. There is no doubt the audience was thoroughly bowled over by MAT’s family opera, even if these critics, who presumably never were, or never had, kids, are too blinkered to appreciate its appeal.

I don’t doubt a fair few of these critics get off on the gross, uber-mensch, toddler fantasies of racist, anti-semite Richard Wagner. Hmmmm…..

Fanny and Alexander at the Old Vic review ****

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Fanny and Alexander

Old Vic Theatre, 4th April 2017

I WILL USE BLOCK CAPITAL FOR EMPHASIS AS WE SLIGHTLY UNHINGED KEYBOARD WARRIORS ARE WONT TO DO.

FOR JUST £12 YOU CAN GO AND SEE ONE OF THE REMAINING PERFORMANCES OF FANNY AND ALEXANDER.

That’s right. All seats for the last week of the run are just £12. Even if you hated Ingmar Bergman and this was a load of tosh that would be a bargain. As it happens you shouldn’t and certainly not this, his most approachable story, and it isn’t. There are some 3* reviews for sure, mostly griping about how it doesn’t match up to the film. OF COURSE IT BLOODY DOESN’T.

Bergman took 6 months to shoot it. After 6 months of planning with art director Anna Asp. It is, in the full version, over 5 hours long. There are over 60 speaking parts and more extras than Brexiters in London. It occupies two worlds, reality and something removed from it. It looks beautiful, that’s why it got it’s Oscars. (I have a mind to persuade LD to spend a year in Uppsala University based solely on the film). There are over 1500 costumes. In short he chucked the entire kitchen sink at it, (there may have been several sinks, I will need to schedule another viewing to check). If Bergman had entered it in the category it would have won Best Picture, instead of the eventual winner in 1984, Terms of Endearment. The film about the making of the film is a great film. The autographical material at the heart of the film was enough for Bergman to spawn further work on film and TV.

It is a fairy tale of sorts, but with some real world joy and cruelty. It is mythic in scope, but at its centre are two families. It nods, sometimes vigorously, to Ibsen, Strindberg and Shakespeare. It might be Oedipal. It skewers religion. It sticks two fingers up to authority. In short there is an awful lot going on her. And all within the confines of a conventional Victorian melodrama (sort of). It’s a Top 100 film, certainly, Top 20 probably, and definitely a Top 10 foreign language film for me (though these lists don’t actually exist so beware the hyperbole).

It was never going to be fully captured on stage. Stephen Beresford’s adaptation is not the first time a dramatist has tried to capture Bergman on the stage, and it won’t be the last. Our friend Ivo van Hove has a particular penchant for the Bergman adaptation (After the Rehearsal at the Barbican Theatre review ***). It isn’t easy. I wonder if the best director of Bergman on stage might have been Ingmar Bergman, theatre director (I don’t know if he ever put his own work on stage).

Anyway wisely it seems to me, Matthew Warchus in commissioning the project, Mr Beresford in adapting this sublime material and Max Webster as director have plotted a course through “adult fairy tale” and family saga, and not got too hung up on all the rest. If you just accept the production for what it is I believe you will be, if not maybe transfixed, at least fully engaged by the essentially simple story.

Tom Pye’s set elegantly conjures up the Ekdahl apartment in the theatre, all crimson, before shrinking and transforming into the monochrome “prison” of the Bishop’s palace in the second half. There is constant movement, and a lot of scene changes, but this  brings the required vibrancy and energy to proceedings. The magic works, in a kind of pantomime-ish way. The plot is fleshed out by announcements side-stage which accompany the set-piece meals. Dialogue, where it is not lifted moreorless intact from the film, is snappy and to the point. Mr Beresford has found some real humour. The characters are only really sketched out but no matter, as there is enough to support plot, and the sketches are balanced across the key roles.

Of course this approach leaves a lot off the table. Penelope Wilton’s Helena might have stepped in from a Wildean comedy, Michael Pennington’s Isaak from a certain Shakespeare play, Sargon Yelda’s Oscar is a little earnest (especially as ghost) and it is hard to understand why Catherine’s Walker’s Emilie would marry Bishop Edvard. Kevin Doyle, for my money (I paid more than £12 remember), actually gets more into, and out of, Vergerus, than the rest of the cast, conveying something of his torment. The infidelities of Jonathan Slinger’s Gustav Adolf are played for laughs, though he got applause when he let rip into the Bishop, and Thomas Arnold as Carl and Karina Fernandez as Lydia are morose and not much else. You will need to resist the urge to boo and hiss Lolita Chakrabarti and Annie Firbank’s when they morph into the Vergerus ladies. Gloria Obianyo gets a bit of the requisite strangeness out of Ismael.

I have to say though that young Misha Handley, who was Alexander at my showing, was superb, from his very first solo scene in front of the curtains. It is easily enough to praise “child” actors, though it often comes across as patronising. I can’t tell you if his three colleagues are as good, but if they are then they must all keep up with drama school. OK so the lines flowed naturally from the drama but I couldn’t see the acting here. This could never be a world seen through his eyes alone, how would that be possible without close-ups and POV shots, but the production and his performance still made it feel as if it was, when the action really kicked in, anchored in his perspective.

So ignore the reviews, relax and be carried away by this story of good and evil. Then see the film, long version, and realise what was, not missing, but different. The play is still well over 3 hours, though with a couple of intervals, and especially in the second and third “acts” when things hot up, it never feels like it. It’s resolutely not a “memory” play, and it can’t replicate the camera’s eye. But it is enjoyable and if you go in with the right attitude, you will be sumptuously entertained. It certainly delivers on more of its promise than other recent productions at the Old Vic.

P.S. I see Stephen Beresford comes from Dartmouth. Adding further to my list of “important people from South Devon”.

 

 

Great Apes at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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Great Apes

Arcola Theatre, 31st March 2018

I sort of lost track with Will Self the author after The Book of Dave. His sprawling, satirical fantasies with a lot of big words, unreliable narratives and narrators, drugs, mental dislocation, is never short of imagination and ideas, but aren’t always that easy, or pleasurable, to read. He is very clever and very funny, and he knows it, and really likes to show it. His influences are many, and obvious, Ballard, Burroughs, Heller, and then back through Kafka, Joyce, Voltaire and Swift. I gather he too has given up on the novel, all of them, not just his.

I did enjoy Great Apes however and its successor How the Dead Live. Our protagonist, artist Simon Dykes (Simon/simian geddit), whose prime artistic concern is, surprise, surprise, perspective, wakes up after a bender to find his girlfriend, Sarah, is a chimpanzee. And so is everybody else. His human “delusion” means he is taken in by psychiatrist Zack Busner, Will Self’s stock character, here an alpha male chimp. From this transparent inversion Self shines a light on human, and chimpanzee behaviours, we’re not so different, and on the nature of mental illness and reality. Because the satire is so primitive, as it were, and has been done to death in those wretched Planet of the Apes films, Self has to concentrate his powers on the narrative and the characters in a way that sometimes escapes him in the other novels. By colliding chimpanzee and human society and culture, Self sheds light on our own behaviours, fears and dysfunctions. It is also adroitly pokes fun at our own human exceptionalism. London, drugs, mental illness, “false” narratives are all explored, as you would expect, but there also some affecting exploration of relationships, which you don’t really expect from the lugubrious Mr Self.

In short its is clever yes, but with a purpose, and it has a proper plot. How then to put it on stage. Well first break it down into the key scenes. Mr Self’s detailed imagining of this alternative society has to run alongside the story of Simon’s journey from human “reality” through “delusion” and eventually to explanation, and Dr Busner’s rise and fall. To get it on to the Arcola stage needed some perspicacious work from adapter Patrick Marmion, which we have. It also needed the creative team of director Oscar Pearce, designer Sarah Beaton, lighting designer Matt Haskins, sound designer Dan Balfour, movement director Jonnie Riordan, costume supervisor Kate Hemstock and the puppetry team of Tom Espiner and Mala Kirkman-Richards, to combine to reveal enough to allow our imaginations to do the rest. In this they succeeded, a remarkable achievement given limitations of space and budget.

Perhaps the most important technical contribution however came from chimpanzee physicality and vocalisation consultant Peter Elliott. Now I will stake a wild guess that there aren’t too many people with that particular job title. His bio shows that he has worked on a number of major films involving primates, real and imagined, and, most remarkably, it says he became the first ever person to integrate with the colony of chimps at the University of Oklahoma.

I am also guessing the cast has down too much auditioning for primate work in the past. The way they combined voice, body and the simple props, benches, ladders and specialised crutches, (not sure if they have a special name), to simulate chimpanzee movement, sound and behaviour, was really impressive. Whilst Bryan Dick playing Simon and Ruth Lass playing Dr Zack, that’s right, in a piece of inspired casting we had a woman playing the alpha male here just to mess up our heads a bit more, the other five actors doubled up, or more. Yep they had to take on the character of not just one but several different chimpanzees. I was particularly struck by the performance of Ruth Everett as Busner’s assistant Jane Bowen, artist Tabitha Buckfast and Eve Knight, a film-maker.

Now I will admit with so much to pack in there were times when ambition overreached execution. Some of the plot had to be chivvied along especially towards the end. To have covered everything in the book would have been technically and dramatically impossible, and some of the intelligent subtleties and artistic allusion of the book gets a bit lost along the way.

Still you will end the evening definitely entertained, in awe of the technical achievement and with plenty to think about even if you may not entirely connect to the characters. Then again they’re chimps aren’t they? How would you connect to them? They’re animals aren’t they? They’re not as special as us are they what with out technology, language and civilisation?

 

Vincent River at the Park Theatre review ****

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Vincent River

Park Theatre, 29th March 2018

I wonder if the 2070s equivalents of the Finborough Theatre or the Orange Tree Theatre, will be lauded for their Philip Ridley revivals. Mr Ridley’s subject matter and idiom means he is a nailed on certainty to get multiple airings in today’s theatrical world. His art, his novels particularly for young adults, his screenplays, his songs and his plays, again especially those aimed at the youth and away from old fellas like me, have a vitality and urgency, and attention grabbing narrative invention, which is hard to resist.

On paper his first play The Pitchfork Disney takes your breathe away. In the flesh, as it were, it is even more extraordinary. Remember this “in yer face” work was the first of its kind and budding young playwrights everywhere still likely harbour ambitions, knowingly or unknowingly, to capture some of its essence. The Fastest Clock in the Universe, in its dissection of self-image, and Ghost From a Perfect Place, loaded up with more graphic violence, built on its foundations. The ugly themes the plays explore, and our complicity with those themes as observers, remain compelling over two decades later.

And yet there is a bit of me that thinks they might be utter sh*te even as I am watching them, the shock tactics, and their torture porn narratives, pleading with us to see meaning in all this misery. Usual conundrum: are we in some way thrilled by this transgressive violence or are we chin-stroking at what is wrong in the human condition. Compounded by the fact that Mr Ridley is soooo imaginative a writer that you can’t take your eyes off his plays, even as you clock the dissonances.

I don’t know any of the plays which followed these debuts, the Brothers Trilogy, Tender Napalm, Shivered and the later adult plays. I saw the recent staging of the six monologues that make up Angry at the Southwark Playhouse. Not good I am afraid, like a student attempt at sketching out some short “Philip Ridley” style plays and a couple of limp jokes.

So I wasn’t sure what to expect from this revival of Vincent River, Mr Ridley’s fourth adult play, written in 2000, which followed the breakthrough trilogy. Well I can concur with those criterati who say this might just be his best play. There is a violent act which lies at the heart of the play, the theme is clear and vitally important, the behaviour if the characters unpredictable, the story is in real time, there are a couple of lightly shocking interactions and, yes, some drink, drugs and swearing. Yet, importantly, we get to see and feel the impact of real life horror on two real life people uncluttered by Mr Ridley’s fantasy.

Whilst the “twist”, such as it is, is unlikely to surprise I will spare you the detail. A middle aged woman Anita is moving into a threadbare flat in Dagenham having moved from LB Hackney, (Mr Ridley’s cabbie like enthusiasm for London’s geography is on show as usual though Shoreditch has moved on a bit since then). Her son Vincent has been murdered in what transpires was a brutal homophobic attack at a disused railway station. Davey arrives. He clams to have discovered Vincent’s body whilst walking his girlfriend home. The play then explores, across a compact 80 minutes, the connection between the two.

We are reliant on our two actors to let go in this highly charged scenario and, fortunately, they do. Moods change in an instance. I do not think I have ever seen Louise Jameson on stage before though she has had an illustrious theatre career with the RSC and the National Theatre. You will know her best from the telly. Sounds like she is taking on more work in the theatre. Thank goodness. This is not an easy role but you wouldn’t know it from this performance. Anita is grieving for sure, but she is also angry, with her son’s killers yes, with the authorities of course, but also with herself. She still hasn’t yet quite come to terms with her dead son’s sexuality. Tricky to convey. I hope she won’t mind me saying though that debutante, (just about), Thomas Mahy, might have have outshone her. He is a real talent. When the going gets tough and emotional, as it does with his monologue near the end, he is shatteringly convincing. He is more vulnerable than menacing at the start but that worked for me. These characters agree to be honest with each other to seek truth and maybe some absolution. This pair of actors need to be similarly honest. They are.

Robert Chevara is a new director to me though now I see what he can do, and has done, in the world of opera specifically, I see I have been the loser. The play doesn’t require complication. Nicolai Hart Hansen’s set and Martin’s Langthorne’s lighting oblige. The Park 90 space fits the bill. This needs to be seen up close. Mind you I don’t suppose this is the product placement Tanqueray and FeverTree, Anita’s chosen tipple, were looking for,

I see that, for once even allowing for how far I have got behind in documenting my cultural adventures, (trust me you learn a lot by having to write about what you see), this production is still on for a few more performances. Go see it. Obviously if you a big fan of blockbuster musicals this may not be your bag but if you want to see what Philip Ridley is about, without the overt savagery, then this is for you.

So I think this at least will be a play that will be revived at the other end of the century. Hopefully as a warning about the dark times when people were attacked and even killed for their sexuality. Though given that has been true for many centuries I wouldn’t bet on it. Yet another thing to curse organised religion for. The well from which much intolerance springs.

I note that there was indeed another production of this very play in Manchester contiguous with this. As for Mr Ridley’s other plays. Of course they will appear, if only because there is a long line in the history of drama, back to the beginning, which seeks to shock its audience both for noble and ignoble purposes. And Mr Ridley, for all his narrative innovation, (and the gifts he serves up to designers), does have the words to back up his conceits of character and location.

Mind you at the pace with which society, and the art that reflects it, is changing who knows what will be de jour in 50 years time. Maybe there will be no live theatre – just a virtual reality experience you conjure up yourself. Like dreams and imagination. Whatever you do don’t click “I accept” and hand those over to the tech corporatocracy.

 

 

The Plough and the Stars at the Lyric Hammersmith review ***

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The Plough and the Stars

Lyric Hammersmith, 26th March 2018

One way or another I see a fair amount of theatre. Making up for lost time I guess. Anyway this requires a reasonable degree of organisation. Nothing a small child couldn’t cope with but I do need to be on top of the diary. Very occasionally there is a system error. I say system. Obviously it’s my stupidity. One casualty was the National Theatre’s revival of The Plough and the Stars in summer 2016. It never got into the diary, I failed to check the fail-safe lists and ended up in Sicily en famille before I realised the mistake. Reviews weren’t great, Sicily was, (even if we found ourselves once again on top of a very steep hill despite strict instructions to the booker, me, to avoid this). And I had only paid £15 for the ticket thanks to that nice Mr Dorfman who uses his Travelex fortune to support the NT. Even so it irked me. Still does. It’s always the little things isn’t it?

Anyway that meant postponing my first exposure to the renowned Irish playwright Sean O’Casey until this production, That’s right. No Juno and the Paycock or The Silver Tassie yet, (though I am signed up for the concert performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera based on the latter at the Barbican in November).

So I have some catching up to do. First impressions? Well I can see why Mr O’Casey’s work might divide opinion. The mixture of trenchant politics, (all sides come in for a walloping from socialist SO’C), comedy filtered through working class Dublin lives that, with hindsight, teeters perilously close to Oirish cliche, and melodramatic tragedy, takes a bit of getting used to. I see from Michael Billington’s review of the 2016 NT production that it took him a bit of time to get into the swing of things that time round. Same thing happened to me in this production. I also, shamefacedly, have to admit my ears had to adjust a bit to the vernacular accents on display, the drift of SO’C’s prose. Yet once it all got going, and subsequently having thought about, and done a bit more work on, the play, I am starting to see where the advocates of SO’C are coming from. (The programme contains a pair of fine articles on the way in which the Easter Rising, and women’s role in Irish independence, have been interpreted over the years). If it is good enough for the mighty Mr Billington, who should be knighted and canonised for his services to the theatre illiterati like me, then it is good enough for me to sit up and take notice.

This production in its original “anniversary” incarnation at the Abbey Theatre Dublin has a very fine Irish cast which has been brought over to West London largely intact. Now it wouldn’t be Sean Holmes, (don’t be deceived by the name – he’s English), as director if there wasn’t a bit of “auteristic” subversion instituted into proceedings and so it is here. Jon Bauser’s set is low budget but ingenious with scaffolding creating the Dublin tenements, or maybe now tower blocks, and graffitied plywood standing as walls. A fair amount of cheap (I assume) lager spills out on to the stage. Paul Keogan’s lighting is similarly severe. Catherine Fay’s costume design is resolutely modern-day, particularly striking when the British soldiers first appear. This means that the setting, 1916 Dublin at the time of the Easter Rising, can echo across subsequent years in the island of Ireland. I see the point. Patriotism, whether derived from a line on a map or a different shade of god, is an ugly f*cker. And it’s always the least advantaged that lost the most.

The everyday humour which fuels the first act in the living room of the Clitheroe’s flat, and in the pub in the second act, is confidently delivered. Remember this is November 1915, the Nationalists including the trade unionist Irish Citizens Army, are organising. The relationship between Ian Lloyd Anderson’s Jack and Kate Stanley Brennan’s Nora is believably tender, and then strained, when Jack is re-recruited to the cause despite Nora’s desperate intervention. On the other hand whilst individually, Niall Buggy’s buffoonish veteran Uncle Peter, Phelim Drew’s lovable drunkard carpenter Fluther Good, Janet Moran’s effervescent charwoman Mrs Gogan, Ciaran O’Brien sanctimonious Marxist Young Covey, are all individually fine performances they don’t always seem to naturally occupy the same space.

This slightly stilted tone continues through into the pub with Nyree Yergainharsian forthright prostitute Rosie Redmond. However, once the fight between Mrs Gogan and Hilda Fay’s bitter Protestant Bessie Burgess breaks out, the tone shifts, for the better in my view. Now the way external events catch up with the individual characters starts to add texture. SO’C’s critique of the “heroic” telling of this passage in Irish history is manifest even if you know very little about it. The compassion of the women in the play is highlighted, especially Bessie Burgess, the best role here. The fear that violent struggle precipitates, as the soldiers break into Bessie’s attic, is palpable.

I think it might just become a much better play in the second half. I can see that the brazen looting, young Moliser’s death from TB, (some convincing coughing on demand from Julie Maguire decked out in tribal footie shirts), Nora’s stillbirth and delirium and Bessie’s sacrifice create a tonal shift into something as bleakly overblown as the first half was comically pigeonholed. Yet is feels more sedulous, certainly in this production.

It is a hard thing to bring out the complexity of ordinary people living on the periphery of historical change. Weaving a drama from this, whilst still setting out to upset just about everyone involved in creating the narrative which idealised this change, is surely doubly difficult. You can see why the play had such an impact when first performed at the Abbey in 1926. I can also see why its status as “canonic” theatre also makes it a tricky piece to get right. This might not have been the perfect production on first viewing but I suspect I will grow to like SO’C with more exposure.

I took the wrong route home, (bus not tube since you ask), which meant that an earnest  young chap, I suspect gently in his cups, politely asked for my programme lying on the seat. He carefully asked my opinion on the play. I was a little sniffy. I now regret that. I do hope he went.

Final aside. Apparently SO’C lived in Totnes. And died in Torquay. I didn’t know that. Seems like there is more to the Tourist’s birthplace than he ever realised. The more you learn the more the more the connections build.

 

The Great Wave at the National Theatre review ****

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The Great Wave

National Theatre, 24th Mar 2018

Now theatre can do a lot of things. Delve deep into the psychology of characters and shed light on the human condition. Convey a passionate and heartfelt message. Put poetry into the mouths of actors. Dispense shock and awe through sound, light and material. And, of course, tell stories. And sometimes those stories are so fascinating that the rest can take a back seat. So it is with The Great Wave.

Japanese/Northern Irish playwright Francis Turnly has alighted on an absolute belter of a story to tell in his play and he doesn’t let anything get in the way of its telling. Bolshie Hanako, (a performance of great breadth from Kirsty Rider given Hanako has to hide her true feelings for much of the play and age 25 years), is winding up swotty sister Reiko, (Kae Alexander who is rapidly turning into one of my favourite young actors), and putative boyfriend Tetsuo, (Leo Wan, last seen by me in Yellow Earth’s stripped down version of Tamburlaine the Great). She flounces off in a huff to the beach near where they live on a stormy night and disappears. Mum Etsuko (Rosalind Chao), Reiko and Tetsuo won’t accept that she was swept out to sea and  won’t give up on the search for her, badgering police chief Takeshi (who initially suspects Tetsuo), and eventually government minister Jiro, (both played by David Yip,) to find the truth. It transpires that Hanako has been abducted by the North Korean regime so she can train spy Jung Sun (Tuyen Do) to pass as Japanese all under the watchful eye of an Official, (a marvellous turn by Kwong Loke). And there’s more, involving smart performances from Vincent Lai and Frances Mayli McCann.

This really happened, to a handful of Japanese citizens, as you may or not know. That would be enough maybe in itself. Where Mr Turnley is really clever is drawing out the human dramas at the centre of this thriller and, gently, pointing out the political accommodations that allowed it to persist from 1979, before finally, unravelling. in 2002. He also, again without taking a sledgehammer to proceedings, shows how the histories of Japan and Korea are intertwined and paralleled to some degree. Finally, and maybe most importantly, he asks us how identity and self is actually constructed. Why did Hanako “co-operate”? Why do Jung Sun and the Official believe in, and do, what they do? How was this allowed to happen? I won’t answer as there are a few more performances left (grab a ticket) but, rest assured, you will get wrapped up in the journey. You will also, if you are an old softie like me, actually be quite moved at points. And you will, as you should, reflect on today’s geo-politics.

Tom Piper’s set, a simple revolve with uncluttered, but still authentic, cube rooms, means the episodic structure of the play, jumping between Japan and North Korea, flows without interruption. The sound design of Alexander Caplan’s stealthily kicks in to good effect as well. There are some occasions where the economy of Mr Turnley’s prose becomes a little clunky but this can be forgiven as it gets us from A to B quickly, which frankly, with a story this good, is what you want.

With a powerful story, simply told, the last thing you need is a director over-egging the souffle, as it were. Indhu Rubasingham was never going to do that. What she does do though, so deftly you barely notice, is put the right people in the right place at the right time to highlight the emotion of the story. That takes real skill. When she gets her own theatre back, (the Tricycle), after all the investment, expect fireworks.

BD, being a Japano- and Koreano- phile, was never going to be allowed to miss this. Not quite as difficult to please as her mother when it comes to the theatre, she is still a stern critic. Didn’t move a muscle from start to finish. And I am rewarded with multiple future credits.

So a real-life thriller that, like the set it is set upon, revolves around and around until it becomes something more surprisingly profound. I suppose the fine British East Asian cast could have been afforded more lines to show off their class, and bring full complexity to their characters, but, if so, this may well have clocked in at well over 3 hours, and the suspense dissipated. Like I say, sometimes the story is so good it just needs telling.