Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse review *****

Sweat

Donmar Warehouse, 24th January 2019

Who is the greatest living playwright (in the English language). Caryl Churchill. Obviously. Who is, in the opinion of the Tourist, probably the most talented playwright under 40 in Britain today. Ella Hickson. What was the best original play the Tourist saw last year. John by Annie Baker. And the best play so far this year. Sweat by Lynn Nottage.

So far this year the Tourist has seen 19 plays (well 18 and a half to be exact of which more in a future post. Actually it is quite a bit more than that but I have condensed the Pinter at Pinter season ). Too many. Certainly but such is the life of the friendless, privileged layabout.

Only 4 by women though. Not good enough. Either by me or the industry. Last year, (I shall refrain from the total number – it is embarrassing), just 25% of the plays of the plays I saw were by women. If I take just new plays (not classics or revivals) the ratio edges towards 40%. Not great but getting better.

Before I get started I note that Sweat is transferring to the Gielgud Theatre from 7th June for 6 weeks or so. If you haven’t seen it don’t hesitate.

Sweat is set largely in a bar in a de-industrialising town in the rust belt of the American North East. Lynn Nottage and her team spent over two years interviewing residents of Reading, Pennsylvania in preparation for writing the play. Now, as I know from having seen another Pulitzer Prize winning entertainment, Julia Wolfe’s oratorio Anthracite Fields, Reading was, in its heyday through the second half of the C19 and first few decades of the C20, a powerhouse of US industry built on iron and then steel, its proximity to coalfields and on the railway. Its fall was precipitous however and it became, by the time of the 2011 census, one of the poorest cities in the entire country, though it is now being reinvented as a centre for cycling nationally.

Ms Nottage’s play is set in 2000, though it begins in 2008, with the release of Jason (Patrick Gibson) from prison into the hands of probation officer Evan (Sule Rimi who has, thankfully, popped up on numerous occasions for my viewing pleasure). Jason is “reunited” with once friend Chris (Osy Ikhile). Neither is in a good place. We then flash back to see how we got to that place. Jason’s mum Cynthia (Claire Perkins), Chris’s mum Tracey (Martha Plimpton) and Jessie (Leanne Best) are celebrating in the bar managed by Stan (Stuart McQuarrie) and where Hispanic-American Oscar (Sebastian Viveros) is employed. Cynthia is estranged from husband Brucie (Wil Johnson) who has spiralled downwards after being shut out from the factory during a strike some years ago. All three, tough, women are also employed at the local steel-works, as are the boys, (though Chris wants another life), and as was Stan until an industrial accident, and it is against this back-drop that the story unfolds.

Now you might be thinking, uh-oh, this is going to be one of those terribly worthy political plays where a finger-pointing, hand-wringing lesson about economic and social injustice sucks the life out of the drama and leaves you with conscience enhanced but ever so slightly bored. Well nothing could be further from the truth. The relationships between the characters, and the extraordinary, often moving, dialogue, that describes them is perfectly pitched. The play is flawlessly plotted, structured and executed. The fact that Lynn Nottage is able to locate this within a broader economic and social context (blimey, she even nails the mixed blessings of NAFTA), to conjure up time and place (and history) and to explore fault-lines along racial, class and gender divides, without getting in the way of the personal drama, is what makes this such a complete work of theatre. This is fiction, with no trace of verbatim, but the process of its creation, the people that Ms Nottage talked too, make it very real.

There is nothing redemptive or uplifting here but that is the reality of the damage that the economic dislocation and industrial change has brought to the region and by implication, those left behind in the US and across the Western world. The play opened in New York in 2016 just before Trump’s election. It could not be more relevant. The shattering of the American Dream is hardly a novel subject for drama but Sweat brings home the causes and consequences of the shift away from heavy industry and manufacturing, from managed capitalism, through financial capitalism into the information age. Ms Nottage has said that “we are a nation that has lost our narrative”, which sums up the disillusionment, rage and frustration which is now being vented by those that have lost out and, for whom, the dignity of labour has been upended and faith shattered in a system which was supposed to protect them. Setting the play in an all-American bar, rather than the workplace itself, is a masterstroke, for this is an arena in which the tensions can truly erupt.

Even a play this perfect still needs cast and creatives to deliver. Indeed any flaw in delivery would probably be more visible. Fortunately we are in the secure hands of director Lynette Linton, assistant at the Donmar and now in the hot seat at the Bush. Frankie Bradshaw’s set is wonderful as the bar descends, altar-like, inside a framework of steel girders, supported by Oliver Fenwick’s lighting design and George Dennis’s sound. The cast is uniformly exemplary, another triumph for dialect coach Charmian Hoare, (though this Brit is no expert), with Claire Perkins particularly excellent as the striving Cynthia and Martha Plimpton just, and for once the vernacular is justified, awesome.

Best of all Lynn Nottage didn’t just helicopter in to extract her story and then move on (as it happens now to a work around the life of Michael Jackson – crikey!). No, she and the team, went back to show the play and to engage in many ways with the community across multiple projects. Drama matters. The Greeks knew that. Hard to see how it could matter more than with Sweat.

Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields at King’s Place review *****

Bang on a Can All Stars, BBC Singers, Tecwyn Evans (conductor)

Kings Place Hall One, 19th January 2019

I had heard a few snippets of Julia Wolfe’s compositions but freely admit this was a bit of a leap into the unknown. Still what I had heard seemed interesting, I was keen to take in a few of the excellent looking concerts programmed as part of the year long Venus Unwrapped season at Kings Place, focussing on women composers, and Anthracite Fields is an acclaimed work that won a Pulitzer Prize.

It is an oratorio for choir and chamber ensemble which was premiered in Philadelphia in 2014 by the Mendelssohn Club Chorus and the Bang On A Can All Stars, Julia Wolfe being on of the founders of BOAC, alongside Michael Gordon and David Lang. It is scored for bass (acoustic and electric and here played by Robert Black), keyboards (Vicky Chow), percussion (David Cossin), cello (Mariel Roberts), guitar/voice (Mark Stewart) and clarinet/bass clarinet (Ken Thomson) and, as well as the choir, also requires the services of a sound engineer (Andrew Cotton) and accompanying visuals (Jeff Sung and Don Cieslik).

The piece is a tribute to those who “persevered and endured in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region”. Julia Wolfe grew up in Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania which lies to the South of the coal producing region, Anthracite is the purest form of coal, was mined from the turn of the C19, and by the turn of the C20 the region was powering much of America’s heavy industry. However through the first half of C20 the region declined in importance as the reserves were exhausted and, by the 1960’s, mining had essentially ended. It plays an important role in American industrial and labour history and Ms Wolfe is not the only artist to have explored its legacy. Less than one week later, the Tourist was privileged to see another top drawer, Pulitzer Prize winning, creative work which took inspiration from near this region, Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat, based in Reading, Pennsylvania, which, over a century, turned from one of the richest to one of the poorest cities in the USA.

Julia Wolfe herself had previously addressed the plight of the American worker in Steel Hammer, her “art ballad” about the folk hero John Henry. Her text for Anthracite Fields is drawn from various sources, oral histories and interviews (including her own), local rhymes, a coal advertisement, geological descriptions, a mining accident index, a list of contemporary daily activities that use coal power and an impassioned political speech by John L Lewis, a past head of the United Mine Workers Union.

It is made up of five movements together lasting just over an hour. In Foundation, a kind of dark chorale, the choir intone the names of miners killed in accidents, but only those named John with one syllable surnames, there being so many who died. It ends with further chant of representative polysyllabic names which give a flavour of the diversity of countries from which the miners emigrated to this small corner of one State. There is also a poetic passage drawn from the geology of coal formation. Breaker Boys takes a series of nervy rhymes and an interview and describes the painful work of the Breaker Boys, children employed to sort debris from the coal as it came down the chutes from the heads of the mine-shafts. Think folk-rock. The third movement Speech takes the aforementioned John L Lewis’s powerful oratory, “if we must grind up human flesh and bones”, sung here by BOACAS veteran Mark Stewart with choral responses. Flowers is inspired by the list of flowers Barbara Powell, literally a coal-miner’s daughter, recited during an interview with Ms Wolfe. It is gentler in tone than the other movements and, over its memorable rhythmic base, the choir explores some haunting harmonies. The last movement is another list, of activities followed by a rhyme about Phoebe Snow, a fictitious NYC socialite created for an advert whose white gown was unsullied during her railway journey, so pure was the coal fuelling the engine.

Now there is nothing difficult about Julia Wolfe’s music in Anthracite Fields. Quite the reverse. It is almost alarming in its immediacy. At its core it is a minimalist work, driven by the dirge-like rhythms laid down by the various members of the ensemble, and it is not afraid of grungy rock’n’roll. There is plenty of instrumental colour and the 20 or so strong choir have plenty of opportunities to show off. Here, in the well-balanced but enclosed acoustic of Kings Place Hall One, initially at least the band had the upper hand but this seem to be corrected through the second half of Foundation, or maybe it my ears adjusting.

It packs a huge emotional punch and there is nothing subtle about its messages. Bearing all this mind, and if you are prepared to be immersed in the concept, music and projections, you are in for a treat, should this return, as it should (this was its UK premiere). I should imagine it would be even more powerful in the version for a larger choir, 150 strong. It certainly deserves a bigger audience than this though I get that this sort of fusion, which is at the core of the Bang on a Can ethos, lies a bit beyond normal musical boundaries.

True West at the Vaudeville Theatre review ****

True West

Vaudeville Theatre, 10th January 2019

The Tourist’s first viewing of a Sam Shepherd play. A couple of near misses, but this, with Matthew Dunster directing and Johnny Flynn as one of the two brothers was not to be missed. I was less sure about the acting merits of Kit Harington having actively avoided that Game of Thrones and not having seen any of his film work. The only exposure the SO and I have had, (quite literally it turned out with his botty on show), was his Faustus in the lamentable Jamie Lloyd outing a couple of years ago. (BTW Mr Lloyd may not have convinced us in Marlowe but in Pinter, as he is now proving, he is the bee’s knees).

Well as it turns out Mr Harington puts in a more than creditable stint as Austin, the screenwriter younger brother to Johnny Flynn’s maverick petty thief Lee. Or at least we should assume they are brothers. Sam Shepherd’s near-naturalistic text and setting, (apparently he was a right one for stage directions), have led many to conclude that what we are seeing is two sides of Austin’s character which emerge as he is holed up in central California in Mum’s holiday retreat.

As I had anticipated Johnny Flynn, on whom I have a small crush, was magnificent. From Jerusalem, through Twelfth Night, Hangmen, and now this on stage, Lovesick, Genius, his Dobbin in Vanity Fair and his scene stealing Felix in Les Miserables on BBC right now, and then his utterly brilliant Pascal, alongside the equally wonderful Jessie Buckley, (who I also have a similarly sized crush on), everything he does is, well, genius. Can’t vouch for his music, other than the Detectorists score and his contribution in this play, but another sign of his all-round wonderfulness. He has charisma, plainly, but he is able to mould that personality and presence, through speech, expression and movement, to the character he is playing.

Lee is volatile and unpredictable, a restless wanderer, the embodiment of the True West of America, a chancer, but enough of an opportunist to seize his opportunity when Donald Sage Mackay’s film producer, Saul, visits to check on Austin’s progress. Whilst I was a little unconvinced by this plot shift that leads to the inversion of Lee and Austin’s relationship, Austin now getting in the hair of Lee as he tries, hopelessly, to write his own script, as I was by the brawl that follows the arrival of their exasperated Mom, (Madeleine Potter in an underwritten hospital pass of a role), there was plenty in the dialogue and semiotics to keep me gainfully entertained.

Sam Shepherd’s key concerns, the dysfunctionality of family as a metaphor for the dysfunctionality of American society, are common to most of his mature plays. He started off in a more absurdist, comic vein and was a pivotal figure in all that late Sixties, psychedelic, experimental New York artistic scene. However, it is his quintet of plays. created in a decade span from the mid 1970’s, which define his writing legacy. True West (1980), alongside, Curse of the Starving Class (1976) and Buried Child (1979) make up the Family Trilogy, which was followed by Fool For Love (1983) and A Lie of the Mind (1985). These are the plays that generally get revived, (there are a lot more besides), and these are the plays I will now need to hunt out to complete my education. I can see that, without the right cast and direction, they might have the capacity for tedium, fortunately not the case here.

The way Austin initially seeks to calm his elder sibling, (they haven’t seen each other for 5 years), to forestall any conflict, eventually handing over the keys to his car. The guilt Austin feels about their alcoholic father. The golfing one-upmanship. Austin’s dismissal of Lee’s hackneyed plot for his film idea. The admissions of jealously of each other’s lives. Conformity and financial success vs rebellion, freedom and moral ambiguity. Head vs gut. The inversions as Lee calms Austin after Saul drops his script, Lee begging the drunken Austin to let him concentrate. Not the stuff of every brother relationship but enough for anyone similarly blessed, (hello little Bruv), to recognise. I can certainly see why some might want to go beyond the straightforward reading of the play, especially as things get out of control towards the end, and the signifiers of the “vanishing West” pile up, but I was happy enough sticking with the obvious.

If I am scrupulously honest the play worked best when Messrs Flynn and Harrington were bad boys, rather than when they tamed their instincts, and I got a bit peeved by the stilted proceedings later on, which come close to questioning the worth of all that has preceded. Jon Bausor’s set and Joshua Carr’s lighting were effective but a little compromised by the Vaudeville’s proscenium and architecture. All in all though, and if you like either, or better still both, of these lads, well worth the trip.

Death of a Salesman at the Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester review *****

Death of  a Salesman

Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester, 12th November 2018

The greatest English language play from the second half of the C20? Waiting for Godot? All That Fall? Or maybe Beckett’s Endgame? No, too tricky by half. A Streetcar Named Desire? It just about sneaks in time-wise but too narrow in scope. Long Day’s Journey Into Night? Maybe but O’Neill has one tone, though certainly not one dimension. Staying in the US perhaps yu might say Glengarry Glen Ross or Angels in America? Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Or perhaps you think us Brits top the Yankees. Stoppard or Pinter. Or, my personal favourite Caryl Churchill. Serious Money, Top Girls, Cloud 9 or The Skriker anyone?

Nah. It is pretty hard not to argue that Arthur Miller comes out on top. So then it is just which play. A View from the Bridge? Perhaps though much depends on performance. The Crucible? Bullet proof and the mighty Billers reckons it is Miller’s best. For me though it might just be Death of a Salesman. Mind you I have only seen it once before this, though I see London is set to have a bite of the cherry next year with a new production at the Young Vic directed by Marianne Elliot (War Horse, Curious Incident, Angels in America, Company) with Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman, Sharon D Clarke as Linda and Arinze Kene as Biff. I wouldn’t hang about if I were you. This will sell out before it opens I’m sure.

Anyway this production will follow the Manchester Royal Exchange production in seeing Willy through African-American eyes. Adding an extra dimension to the unravelling of his particular American Dream, particularly here with a white wife, making Willy’s and the boys “exclusion” even more pointed. The thing about Death of a Salesman is that you get the big picture satire of the “Dream”, the promise that everyone in America will have the opportunity to achieve riches and success through hard work, application and initiative, but you also get a family tragedy, set across just 48 hours, of near Grecian proportions. All filtered through a formal experiment, as time and event overlap in Willy’s head, which demands attention, but is never intimidating, for the audience. From the very first line Willy utters “it’s all right, I came back” you know what these characters are saying and why they are saying it. If you cannot feel the pain of Willy and those around him then I respectfully suggest you go back to your home planet.

Sarah Churchwell, who is a professor of American Literature at the University of London, has written a very interesting programme note which explains that Willy’s failure to reap the rewards he thinks he deserves, the wealth and the status, the “success”, also points to the perversion of an original “American Dream” which was predicated not just on the trappings of consumerism, but was rooted in a “pursuit of happiness” that hadn’t been degraded by individualistic capitalism. If you “win” all the material trappings are yours. If you “lose” then don’t expect any reciprocal duty of care from the society around you. Blimey. Even if you might not entirely agree with this, the point that Miller’s play, and it’s not so sub-by sub-texts, can hold up under the weight of such interpretation, whilst still putting you through the emotional grinder, is testament to its brilliance. 

I’ll spare you, and me, some half-baked amateur analysis. You can do that yourselves. What about this production? Well this was the Tourist’s inaugural visit to the Royal Exchange now that he is a full-time layabout. Mancunians have much to be proud of in their city, but surely the Royal Exchange must rank somewhere near the top. A super space, a sphere plonked inside the Great Hall of the Victorian commodities exchange, refurbished last after the 1996 IRA bomb, with vibrant public spaces and bars/restaurants spaced around the auditorium. Sorry if I sound like a patronising London twat but I was bowled over. Inside is even better. Now I may have benefitted from splashing out on a front row, stalls seat, but this is, by some way the most comfortable perch I have ever viewed from. I am back for the Mother Courage next year, (and the revival of The Skull in Connemara up the road at the Oldham Coliseum). Can’t wait. 

Now obviously this being my first visit to the Royal Exchange this means that I have missed AD Sarah Frankcom’s previous hits as director, notably the collaborations with Maxine Peake. The Masque of Anarchy, Hamlet, The Skriker, A Streetcar Named Desire, Happy Days. For which I can only blamed personal greed for just like Willy I spent too long chasing money and not enough time feeding the brain. 

Anyway, holding back the tears of disappointment, at least now I was able to see another Royal Exchange regular, Don Warrington, collaborating with Ms Frankcom. I saw his Lear from Talawa Theatre on the telly, which, unlike many others, did not disappoint, but seeing Mr Warrington in the flesh here was mind-blowing. He is a few years older than Willy who is 63, and I assume that Arthur Miller saw Willy as white not black, but as far as I am concerned Don Warrington was Willy Loman. Maybe I am losing the plot like Willy but this for me was as real as theatre gets. It probably helps that I was front row, in the round, with Leslie Ferguson’s stripped back set presenting no obstructions, but this was electric. 

When Mr Warrington was sat in front of me, hunched forward, fingers twitching, the weight of his disappointment weighing down his body, it was as much as I could do to stop myself jumping forward and shouting “don’t do it Willy”. When the inevitable happened at the end I admit to a tear. Maybe Don Warrington is petulant, snappish, irritable and dominating in real life. Maybe he has been crushed by the weight of his own expectations. Maybe he hears things. I doubt it. I reckon he is more like the wry, smooth, relaxed-in-the-paddock police commissioner in Death in Paradise. Either way he is a brilliant actor. Performance of the year so far this year, no question, and there has been some pretty stiff competition. Only wish I had seen him in All My Sons here in 2016.

Mind you Ashley Zhangazha’s Biff runs him pretty close. It has been my pleasure to see Mr Zhangazha’s on a few occasions now, Terror, The Lottery of Love, Human Animals and most, recently, carrying the Public Arts  community version of Pericles at the NT, but again this was another step up. That is not to downplay Maureen Beattie’s Linda or Buom Tihngang’s Happy, or the supporting cast, but the scene where Willy and Biff argue is hair on the back of the neck stiff. It felt like Biff, even in his football days, just didn’t want to believe. Another highlight is the first appearance of Trevor A Toussaint’s imposing Uncle Ben, Willy’s successful, but now dead, brother. Don Warrington’s Willy visibly shrinks when he sees him. Or Howard’s (Rupert Hill) agonising embarrassment when Willy begs him, getting ever hoarser, for a desk job. Or Willy’s pathetic excuses when Biff turns up, in flashback at the Boston hotel, to find him with “Miss Francis” (Rina Mahoney). Or the touching devotion that Linda shows in believing the family’s money problems are on the brink of being solved.

The original title of Miller’s play was, famously, The Inside of His Head. Willy’s interior world and the exterior reality are in constant flux. To stage a production with this much clarity, on a copper disc, with no scenery bar a few branches overhead, no rooms, and few props, in a raised circle on which the non-speaking cast rest.and watch, in a theatre in the round, which itself is in a sphere, could hardly have been more apposite. This staging, together with the casting, may make for a less immediate connection than in other, more “traditional” productions but, for me, Death of a Salesman is as much food for the brain as blood for the heart, if you will forgive the mangled metaphors. And it brings home, from this now 70 year old play, that Willy is still right here, right now in many men. 

A triumph. 

Porgy and Bess at the ENO review ****

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Porgy and Bess

English National Opera, 31st October 2018

It has been a long time coming. This co-production, together with the Met and the Dutch National Opera, is the first time it has appeared on the Coliseum stage. The re-written version, with book by Suzanne Lori-Parks, (which attracted the ire of Stephen Sondheim no less), popped up at the Open Air Theatre a few years ago and I gather that Welsh National Opera staged the Cape Town Opera production transcribed to South Africa in 2009. Prior to that I believe you have to go back to Trevor Nunn’s various tilts, at Glyndebourne in 1986, the Royal Opera House in 1992 and the less than successful musical theatre version, with speech replacing recitative, from 2006 at the Savoy. (Which, I have surmised, was what my special guests for this evening BUD and KCK, must have seen).

You’d think with all those tunes it would be a far more regular feature. On the other hand, one look at the set, and the massed cast at the opening of this production, perhaps reminds you why it is such an infrequent visitor. This must have cost a few bob. And assembling this many fine black singers from around the world, for this amount of time, will have required a patient, and skilled, logistical hand. The ENO has come under the cosh in the last few years, often unfairly in my view, so it is terrific to see that this has been a resounding critical and commercial success with standing room only across the run.

That is not so say it is perfect, at least from where the Tourist was sitting. (Nothing wrong with the view mind, though the old back was playing up a bit). The First Act does go on a bit: a fair few punters took the steamboat whistle as their cue to head to the bar. The chopping and changing of the time signatures in the jazzier parts of the score gets a bit wearing and I wouldn’t have minded if debutante conductor John Wilson has taken some passages at a greater lick. Not to say that he dawdled, just that I am all for brevity and clarity when it comes to orchestral music.

The plot and characterisation is very much of its time, Charleston in South Carolina in the 1920s. Not woke for sure. Even in the 1930s casts and creatives wrestled with the stereotypes that the opera presents. By the 1960s the opera had been pretty much consigned to the dustbin: no-one would perform it. It wasn’t just the characterisation, plot and language that vexed but also the appropriation of musical styles. In the last few decades performers have reclaimed the piece however, notably in South Africa. Ira Gershwin refused permission for the opera to be performed with white casts under apartheid as he and George had from the outset. Their stipulation for black only casts hasn’t always been maintained however, most notably by the Hungarian State Opera in their last season with a predominantly white cast, which looked, on the face of it, like a political provocation.

Having said all that I can absolutely see why the creative team, led by James Robinson AD of the Opera Theatre of St Louis, on his ENO debut, have played this absolutely straight, (and I suspect they always had one eye on the reception from the punters at the Met). Putting the condescension to one side, the characters in Porgy and Bess, even if there are probably too many, are more emotionally rounded than in most opera, and the drama, with its mythic underpinning, more engaging. This in large part reflects the work of Dorothy and DuBose Heyward from whose play and book the story is taken. That doesn’t mean it is without flaw however. Porgy’s seeming accommodation of his poverty and disability, Bess’s total lack of agency and final descent: these require a great deal more exploration than the few lines that opera can offer, especially one where so many other voices are heard. And Gershwin’s music as it slips from folk to jazz to blues to gospel to spiritual to, very obviously in the melodies of some big songs, his own Jewish heritage, doesn’t always match up to the psychology of the character. Say what you like about Mozart and Da Ponte’s plots, when words fall short and music needed to take over, Wolfgang was your man.

George Gershwin’s ability to mix popular, musical theatre with high art classical composition is there from the very beginning of the piece. The jazzy theme for full orchestra that emerges from the frenetic opening, with the entire cast on stage, drops down to a simple piano roll. Then Clara emerges and launches into you know what. If there has ever been a tune that more defines time and place in musical theatre, the bluesy Summertime is it. It’s hot, we are on Catfish Row and, for a lullaby about protecting the child, there is something infinitely sad about it. Which of course there is when it subsequently re-appears later on before the murder of Robbins by Crown and after the fatal storm.

Up to now George and lyricist brother Ira had delivered Broadway musical but George was determined to filter this through European classical modernism to create a unique American opera style, just as Bernstein would in the following decades. They must have got something right in this their operatic debut. The programme mentions an estimate of 25,000 version of Summertime. Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and The Fun Boy Three in my library. From there on, for all the twist and turns of the music when it stands alone or supports the recitative (and kind of arioso), for all of the musical call-forwards, call-backs and motifs it is the songs and arias that the audience came to hear. Gone, Gone Gone, spirituals My Man’s Gone Now and It Take A Long Pull To Get There, It Ain’t Necessarily So, love duet Bess You Is My Woman Now,, Oh Doctor Jesus, Oh Lawd I’m On My Way., even banjo song I Got Plenty of Nuttin’.  Hard not to be carried away by that lot.

I have said before that I am not up to the task of commenting on the technical skill of the performers and, for me, acting in opera is as important as singing. If I had to pick out individuals then I would plump for Eric Greene’s rich, powerful baritone voice, which builds through the evening, and the poignancy he brings to Porgy. Nadine Benjamin’s sweet, sensitive Clara and Frederick Ballentine’s oily Sportin’ Life also stood out and I was taken with, at our performance, Gweneth-Ann Rand’s noble Serena and Tichina Vaughn’s gritty (acting not voice!) Maria. Soprano Nicole Cabell’s Bess was a little too reticent at times and Nmon Ford’s Crown, complete with rippling torso, a little too brisk, but what do I know. It is though when the chorus and orchestra come together in the big set-pieces, the fights, the murder, the funeral, the prayer-meetings, when the opera really takes off, and this chorus drawn from as far apart as the US, South Africa and New Zealand, was as good as I have heard anywhere. This was when I got the “opera buzz”. I am looking forward to the War Requiem that will follow at the ENO from this chorus.

For all the story-telling, playing, singing and dancing (courtesy of Dianne McIntyre) though, it was the look of the production that was perhaps the best thing about it. The set from legendary American designer Michael Yeargan, gives us the the bare bones of the Catfish Row tenements. The flesh then comes from another legend, lighting designer Donald Holder and the video design of our own Luke Halls, who is about the best in the business. No innovative representation or symbolism here. Sun, rain, water, daybreak, twilight, moonlight, quick time, slow time, public space, private space. All were vividly imagined. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are equally effective. Wheeling out the best of Broadway and pooling the budgets of the three producing houses has paid dividends handsomely. Even the SO to whom plot is everything was bowled over by the look as were keen companions BUD and KCK. We definitely got our money’s worth.

I see that I have a recording of Porgy and Bess, the LPO under Simon Rattle. I don’t listen to it though. I do listen to Miles Davis’ instrumental versions though, which are all over the shop. Not sure what that means. Essence of trumpet maybe.

 

The Wolves at the Theatre Royal Stratford East review ****

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The Wolves

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 26th October 2018

…. or 3 stars if you would prefer the opinion of LD which may be more relevant since she should have a greater affinity with the subjects of Sarah DeLappe’s novel debut play. The SO similarly enjoyed the production but was less enthusiastic than the Tourist. Thus proving that association with the subject/object in theatre may not always be the best indicator of potential satisfaction.

It was very heartening to see a full, and young, house at TRSE drawn in, I would guess by the subject, and by the reputation of the play. I have remarked before on just how attractively Nadia Fall’s first season as AD at the TRSE is shaping up what with this, The Village just gone, and The Unreturning (by Anna Jordan and produced by Frantic Assembly), Equus (from English Touring Theatre) and August Wilson’s King Hedley II (with Lenny Henry), to come.

So what’s to like about The Wolves. First off the subject. 9 diverse young women who are part of an indoor soccer (that’s football to you and me) team in middle, middle America. Second the dialogue. Their animated conversations centre on what is important in their lives. School, families, relationships, futures, politics, emotions, well-being, fears, frustrations. With 9 characters across 90 minutes, each carrying some specific trait relevant to their age and gender it was probably too much to ask that they become fully rounded individuals, but I certainly wanted to hear them. We laugh with, not at them, adult perspectives are peripheral, and the specifics of identity, obstacle and dilemma are not rammed down our throats. Not wives, not daughters, not girlfriends, not objectified, not victims.

This the play, with one minor exception, sails through the Bechdel test: there are other new plays emerging which featured strong, determined young women, but they are still few and far between. At least it would sail through the test if the women were named. For Sarah DeLappe has deliberately eschewed giving the women names, instead they refer to their kit numbers. This, together with the fact that each scene is played out during their warm-ups ahead of their competitive games, complete with movement guided by Ayse Tashkiran and ball skills courtesy of West Ham, (no comment from this Spurs fan), creates an echo of the military boot camp at the outset of a war movie, as Sarah DeLappe intended. Without of course the violence and toxic masculinity.

Rosie Elnile’s set, artificial turf enveloped by bright green inflatable walls, is striking, though this and the bright lighting and abrupt sound of Joshua Pharo and the Ringham brothers, brings a harshness which detracts from the musicality of the movement and dialogue. There is no connection to a world out there, (their grasp of global geo-politics is deliberately restricted), not a problem for yours truly, but this is I think what left LD a little perplexed. There is a plot of sorts, new player turns up to unsettle the equilibrium of the team, and a twist at the end, but even a director of Ellen McDougall’s imagination, cannot quite prevent it from feeling a little contrived and tacked on.

Now I am a shocker for identifying the authenticity of accents. I fake a bit of Mockney to make myself feel more “working-class” which is truly pathetic, and deep down, you can still hear the Devonian roots in me straining to get out, but I am about as boringly Home Counties as it gets. So, for the first couple of scenes, I was convinced that the cast was the real deal having come over en masse for the run. Nonsense obviously, made more so when it dawned on me that I had seen several of the actors before: Seraphina Beh (Leave Taking and Parliament Square at the Bush), Nina Bowers (Twilight at the Gate), Rosie Sheehy (Escape the Scaffold and The Hairy Ape) and Rosabell Laurenti-Sellers (at the Guildhall where she trained). They, and the rest of the cast, Annabel Baldwin, Lauren Grace, Francesca Henry, Shalisha James-Davis and Hannah Jarrett-Scott, were just so convincingly American, thanks to Michaela Kennen’s voice guidance. Preserving the balance of the ensemble, whilst sketching out the characters and, to paraphrase the mighty Harry Redknapp, “f*cking running around a bit”, is an exacting challenge but each and every one of the cast rose to it.

So for me a success because I got to see into an unfamiliar, yet recognisable, place in a witty and dynamic way. Maybe less interesting to LD precisely because it is familiar, in which case the fact that the story doesn’t really go anywhere, and the various “secrets” that are revealed about each of the young women are never properly developed, was more of a drawback. Team sport as metaphor for life is beyond cliche but Ms DeLappe has smartly subverted the trope by omitting victory or defeat. I will be very interested to see where she goes next.

 

The Humans at the Hampstead Theatre review ****

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The Humans

Hampstead Theatre Main Stage, 3rd October 2018

Sometimes it can feel like the whole history of US theatrical drama is one long story of family dysfunctionality. Mind you you can see why. When it works, Miller, O’Neill, Williams, Albee, Shepherd, Wilson, Kushner, to name a few, it is hard to top. The immediacy and thrill of recognition, with the visceral power of the Greeks. Ideally you need some fairly immediate character flaws, a specific social and/or economic milieu and enough humour to leaven the tragedy. Then you can hit the jackpot of “state-of-the-nation” relevance with “deep, psychological” human insight. That’s why playwrights keep plugging away. at the genre

Of course the drawbacks can be obvious. Indulgence seasoned with too much autobiography, bombast, captivity of form and an all round failure to recognise that what you think is a resonantly universal experience may actually be just plain bloody dull to the audience.

The Humans came with some cracking reviews out of NYC, four Tony Awards and full houses through its runs and tour. Edward Hall, who is off to pastures new having transformed the HT, treading a fine line between the popular and the pioneering, says he was desperate to nab this for the HT. Then again he says that about everything he has imported from the US. Here though the Roundabout Theatre production has come hook, line and sinker from Broadway with cast, director, Joe Mantello, and creatives, David Zinn (scenic), Sarah Laux (costume), Justin Townsend (lighting), Fitz Pattton (sound). And I suspect that is what made all the difference.

The Humans starts in the most cliched fashion. The Blake family meets for Thanksgiving. In the recently acquired Chinatown basement duplex flat of voluble, fervent daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele), who is recently married to the assiduous, slightly superior Richard Saad (Arian Moayed). Solicitous Mum Dierdre (Jayne Houdyshell) and decent Dad Erik (Reed Birney) have come to the city from Pennsylvania with wheelchair-bound grandma Fiona “Momo” (Lauren Klein). They are joined by big sister Aimee (Cassie Beck). Cue a round of rapid family banter as the parents bemoan the location of the flat, Grandma’s incapacities are revealed and Aimee’s work pressures highlighted. All robust, knockabout stuff, very witty, but you have heard it a million times. Then slowly, but surely, perspectives begin to shift. In entirely naturalistic fashion we get see the financial, emotional and intellectual pressures and insecurities weighing down on this all-American family, so that, like the best of these sort of plays, it holds up a mirror to contemporary US society. At the same time a faint sense of unease, the uncanny, starts to pervade the flat. Not quite with the same intensity as say, Annie Baker’s John (John at the National Theatre review *****), but, with the building itself burbling and croaking, lights flickering, enough to add a further, if not in my view entirely successful, dimension.

The play is in real time, though the family let a lot of food go to waste (!), and the revelations tumble out in an entirely believable way. Brigid’s creative frustrations and Richard’s never-ending studying. Aimee’s girlfriend troubles, her partner has just left her, and illness is set to curtail her banking career. But it is Mum and Dad’s troubles, and the need to care for grandma, which most bring home the precariousness of life for even “middle” Americans. Depression, dementia, illness, making ends meet, rejection, even bowel problems, get a look in, but this is a play that never feels dour. Nor is it some bash-you-over-the-head polemic. These are still people you very quickly care for and hope that things get better for them. The ups, and downs, and general messiness, of family are adroitly set out. Love, and resilience, might just see them through. Or maybe not, since resolution does not follow revelation.

All this in just 90 minutes. And all thanks to the writing talent of Stephen Karam. It will probably come as no surprise, based on the above, when I tell you that Mr Karam’s last stage outing in 2016, (The Humans dates from 2014), was an adaptation of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, and that his was the pen behind the recent screen version of The Seagull, (which got so-so reviews, so has been relegated to my Netflix list). Tragicomedy is his thing, and his ear for the way people who are close actually converse, cross-talking, sniping, apologising, is remarkable. And it is razor-sharp funny.

The performances are outstanding. Timing is impeccable, like clockwork. I guess no great surprise given how long the company have been together on the play but it is still as strong an ensemble as you are ever likely to see. Many of them have worked before with the playwright and Arian Moayed who plays Richard even roomed with Stephen Karam at college apparently. The set, on two levels, joined by a spiral staircase, is sublime, and, with the harsh artificial lighting, conjures up the kind of grim, monochrome, institutional atmosphere that, even when the couple have unpacked, can never truly become a “home”. The six family members are, with some cleverly crafted exceptions, always on stage, there are no breaks or fades here, but the set means we can also see where they are not as it were, the empty rooms, which adds to the sense that of this not being your standard family drama, all crammed into one room.

I am assuming that Stephen’s Karam’s previous full length plays, Speech and Debate, centred on three misfit teenagers, and Sons of the Prophet, a story about a Lebanese- American family (reflecting his own Maronite Christian heritage), haven’t yet crossed the Atlantic. Based on The Humans I think there is a more than fair case for some-one putting that right. Thanks to Edward Hall I have seen a number of excellent plays at Hampstead Theatre from US playwrights in the last couple of years: Dry Powder by Sarah Burgess, Describe The Night by Rajiv Joseph, Gloria by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and a brace of Tony Kushner’s. And now this.  I do hope his successor carries on the tradition.