What the Dolls Saw at the Vault Festival review ****

What the Dolls Saw

House of Macabre, Vault Festival, 5th February 2020

Off to the Vaults again, this time with the SO, to What the Dolls Saw from the all women House of Macabre company. It is a dark comedy, as one might have guessed, penned by Nic Lamont, who specialises in such things and plays Megan, one of three sisters who return to their childhood home for the funeral of their father.

Prissy Megan is a children’s author, though her stories, surprise, surprise, sport something of the night, spirited Christine (Holly Morgan) is an investigative journalist and Zara (Sasha Wilson) is currently between careers having returned from the US, with, a mute ward in the form of Belle (Rebecca O’Brien) who, as we shall see, is handy with puppets. Improbable I know but such is the nature of the genre. Mother Rose (Rosy Fordham) is fond of the sauce, reminisces about her life on stage when a child and lacks the maternal instinct. Aunt Lily, now no longer with us, brought up the girls, Dad was, drum roll please, a renowned doll-maker. The sisters decide to delve into their parents’ past and air their findings on Christine’s podcast. They find more than they bargained for.

Hopefully all this conjures up a house of horror vibe but all delivered in a sassy contemporary way. The Pit, with its pews, barrel-vaulted roof and musky scent is one of the Vaults more atmospheric venues, enhanced by the lighting design of Holly Ellis, the spooky set of Benjy Adams complete with doll displays and an original  sound design from Icelandic composer Odinn Orn Hilmarsson. The shadow puppetry of Rebecca O’Brien lends an air of cinematic Expressionism to the fairy tales based on Megan’s latest, rejected, children’s book.

If this was played straight it would have come off as a bit too much fan-girl amateurism. Fortunately, the ensemble have written the story, and perform it, for laughs. It isn’t overly arch however, genre clichés nurtured not scorned, the cast don’t mug inappropriately, and I think there are strands of real experience in the three quirky sisters’ lives. Which means when the story does turn properly Poe-ish, as the history comes out, it is surprisingly effective. It isn’t Ghost Stories jump-scarey, not is it League of Gentlemen twisty, but it is smart, and it is occasionally thrilling. For which director Lisa Millar deserves immense credit. OK so the tone sometimes wavers, and maybe the company have bitten off a little more than they can chew given obvious limitations, but this was still a very enjoyable way to spend an hour. The SO is a doyenne of the ghost story format, though is, as you know, notoriously hard to please, and The Pit seating did no favours to her, but it still passed muster.

This is a very talented writing and creative team and I, for one, would be very excited if they were given, say, a small screen commission to work with.

Faustus: That Damned Woman at the Lyric Hammersmith review ***

Faustus: That Damned Woman

Lyric Hammersmith, 5th February 2020

I bet Chris Bush was good at English at school and maybe beyond. In the precis question. For she has an unerring eye/ear/pen for taking complicated/contentious/convoluted issues and dramas and rendering them explicable, topical and entertaining. Kicking off with TONY! The Blair Musical from 2007, through a series of productions based and performed in her native Sheffield to her take on Pericles for the NT’s Public Arts project. I haven’t seen The Assassination of Katie Hopkins, the play that is, though would like to. The play that is …. Even a narcissistic cretin, who takes money for voicing offence, and who has choked and failed in her “career” on multiple occasions, deserves our sympathy, though not our attention.

Music and inclusiveness have formed central planks of CB’s work with Standing at the Sky’s Edge, co-written with Richard Hawley, set to grace the NT when normal service is reviewed. With Faustus TDW however she has chosen to contemporarise, (as she did with the mystery plays), and gender switch, the overly ambitious man about town and time, made famous by Marlowe and Goethe. With mixed results. It’s looks brilliant, there are some sound ideas beyond the gender inversion, and, for those of us new(ish) to the story, it is easy to follow, but some of the dialogue doesn’t quite match the ambition and it features a bold central performance from Jodie McNee which doesn’t help us to get beyond the cipher.

Johanna Faustus works hard alongside apothecary Dad (Barnaby Power) in plague-ridden 1660s London after Mum is executed for witchcraft. God isn’t going to dispense justice so our Johanna bites Lucifer’s (also Barnaby Power) hand off when he offers the deal. 144 years, 6x more than the male Faust, no requirement to be taken consecutively. Yet she, unlike her hubristic mythic counterpart, sets out on an altruistic path, first in her ‘hood and then, after a quick-fire Enlightenment education, a melodramatic Victorian London, through time, Cloud Atlas style, to a far future as CEO of a pharma company set on delivering eternal life to the masses. She meets various women (and some men) along the way, Elizabeth Garrett, Marie and Pierre Curie, variously played by Katherine Carlton, Alicia Charles, Tim Samuels and Emmanuella Cole, and is accompanied by her camp Mephistopheles (Danny Lee-Wynter), decked out in a natty white suit, Cuban heels and rouge, and ever quip-ready.

Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s set design may well be the star of the show, an expansive cavern, expressively lit by Richard Howell, like the inside of a whale, though it does come to dominate. There are a few enjoyable effects, notably in the recreation of the Seven Deadly Sins, assisted by Giles Thomas’s sound and Ian William Galloway’s video. Headlong director Caroline Byrne keeps things moving along, though this comes at the expense of the questions, of faith, of female agency and oppression, of mortality, technology, free-will, redemption, which themselves are rather jumbled up. Ambition and imagination has been a feature of the UK stage over the last few years, but Faustus TDW does, like some of its predecessors, push the envelope a little too far and risks looking a bit daft.

Mind you Marlowe’s anti-hero does drone on a bit, is an annoying clever dick and uses his expensively secured special powers to mostly make practical jokes and perform crowd-pleasing tricks. Which, to be fair, is probably what this bloke would do as well. On that basis we have to applaud the two CB’s for setting out an alternative. It just might have been better to restrict the inversion to the historical starting point. Still I enjoyed it and kind of liked its can-do punky attitude. A fine foil to the rather more technologically adroit achievement of Katie Mitchell and Alice Birch’s adaptation of Orlando which Schaubuhne Berlin kindly streamed the other day. Perhaps I should have a look see at what the mainstream female time traveller in Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor Who is up to these days.

The Welkin at the National Theatre review ****

The Welkin

National Theatre Lyttleton, 4th February 2020

Rural Suffolk. 1759. A court case. There was only ever going to be one companion for the Tourist’s visit to see The Welkin. Step forward MS. A Tractor Boy by upbringing, if not birth, and an expert on all things legal and rural in the Medieval and Early Modern. Dad once again wells with pride as he writes these words.

Now admittedly this was a bit late for his practice and a little early for mine but the subject, a jury of 12 matrons mulling over the case of one Sally Poppy who may or may not be pregnant, the writer, Lucy Kirkwood no less, (NSFW, Chimerica, The Children, Mosquitoes on stage, and with Adult Material coming soon to Channel 4 and certain to rile the blue-rinses), director, James MacDonald, and a bravura all female, (well just about), cast, still had us very excited pre-game.

Natasha Cottriall (Whodunnit Unrehearsed), Jenny Galloway (The Starry Messenger), Haydn Gwynne (Coriolanus, Hedda Tesman), Zainab Hasan (Tamburlaine), Aysha Kala (An Adventure), Wendy Kweh (Top Girls, Describe the Night), Cecilia Noble (Faith, Hope and Charity, Downstate, Nine Night, The Amen Corner), Maxine Peake (Avalanche, Hamlet), Dawn Sievewright, June Watson (Uncle Vanya, John, Road, Escaped Alone, Good People), Hara Yannas (Amsterdam, Dealing With Clair, The Treatment, Oresteia), Brigid Zegeni (I’m Not Running, Twelfth Night) and Ria Zmitrowicz (The Doctor, Three Sisters, Gundog, X). What a line up. And the credits are just those I can testify too. At the risk of unwarranted favouritism, Cecilia Noble and Maxine Peake would be in my top 10 stage actresses if I had such a thing, and reading June Watson’s credits suggest she is literally incapable of backing a theatrical nag.

With this much acting talent on show there were instances when I thought that Lucy Kirkwood and the NT might be guilty of delighting us too much. Even with 2.5 hours running time, and an attempt at equitable distribution, some of the actors didn’t quite get the airtime to flesh out character. And Bunny Christie’s set, a grand Georgian municipal hall, with impressive, working, (in the sense of the Devil’s ingress in the first act’s concluding coup de theatre), fireplace, and Lee Curran’s bright lighting, created a clinical, painterly doll’s house effect which marooned many of the cast. I can see why the creatives wanted to restrict the furniture to a minimum, and, with the help of Imogen Knight’s movement, blocking was exemplary, but with a dozen or man bodies always on stage it did distract from the detail.

Mind you, prior to the main event, there were some stunning tableaux, as the women stepped out of a line to introduce themselves and, courtesy of a compartmentalised light-box, they performed their literal women’s work to the repetitive rhythm of Carolyn Downing’s sound design. (A nod to Kate Bush came later with a acapella Running Up That Hill; This Woman’s Work might also have hit the spot. After all you can never get enough of the greatest single musician of our age).

As did the funny accents. It was Suffolk and many of our matrons were of the middling, or lower, sort, even Haydn Gwynne’s apparent toff, but some were better at projecting beyond the activity than others.

Still minor quibbles. What mattered was the story, and the feminist message, and here I can report Ms Kirkwood and those charged with bringing this scale entertainment to life, played a blinder. Now there is no getting away from it. The Welkin is not a million miles away from Twelve Angry Men. Except that it involves a jury of women judging another woman in a time and place when such female agency was rare. And this, I was reliably informed by MS, was no flight of authorial fancy. “Matrons” were tasked with checking the veracity of claims to pregnancy from medieval times through to the early C19, and you smart people will no doubt recall the “offer” to Elizabeth Proctor to avoid the noose whilst she was pregnant. The Twelve Angry Men parallel continues into the device of having one woman, Maxine Peake’s Elizabeth Luke, as the Henry Fonda sympathetic voice of reason/conscience, entreating her peers, who, initially at least, have very different, and largely disdainful, views on Sally Poppy’s guilt and fidelity.

However the reasons for Elizabeth’s Luke’s persuasions, in a twist that is just about concealed for long enough, turn the play into something more than a commentary on justice and fairness. The perspectives of the matrons, the methods by which they assess Sally, their arguments and conversations, and especially the way in which, eventually, a man, Doctor Willis (Laurence Ubong Williams who also plays Sally’s grudgeful husband and the Justice), and his callous technology, is called upon to decide, all point up women’s experience and biology in a patriarchal world, then, and, by implication, now. And to cap it all there is nothing remotely sympathetic about Sally Poppy herself, guilty of infanticide according to her cuckolded husband, though she is still a victim of male power, (and, in a shocking conclusion, of class, even in death). Which allows Ria Zmitrowicz to go full-on stroppy in her portrayal which she is, based on recent turns at the Almeida, very, very good at.

There is plenty of humour, (much of it at the expense of Philip McGinley’s steward Mr Coombes), and poignancy in the dialogue and in the woman’s stories, and pacing in the disclosure to keep us on our toes, even if the set-up itself is, as I said earlier, somewhat static with words superseding action. Ms Kirkwood’s scholarship is never self-serving, and exposition, whilst not entirely mixed in to plot, doesn’t irk. This was a time when Enlightenment was supposed to banish superstition, specifically here witchcraft, the year of Halley’s comet, all of which LK explores in the women’s exchanges.

The wider message is how the justice system serves women differently. Until 1920, outside of this special case, women could not sit of juries or be judges. Women weren’t considered “capable” of administering justice. Crimes against women were ignored. Even now supposed promiscuity and culpability still colours the judgements of men, and other women, in rape cases. Women commit very little crime, but are often judged more harshly when they do.

An important play then with more to chew on even if it didn’t quite deliver the tense narrative it promised. Lucy Kirkwood and her collaborators were probably more concerned with the context around these women’s stories rather than the story itself and with delivering a production of exemplary quality, and event if you will, rather than pinning us back in our seats. For the cerebral MS and his Dad keen to fake knowledge, this was just the ticket but I can see why some reviewers found it just a little intellectually over-stuffed. It couldn’t match the economy or bite of Caryl Churchill but Lucy Kirkwood is edging closer to the godhead, in ambition if not quite execution.

Beckett Trilogy at the Jermyn Street Theatre review ****(and some other at-home Beckett stuff)

Beckett Trilogy: Krapp’s Last Tape, Eh Joe, The Old Tune

Jermyn Street Theatre, 4th February 2020

Fragments: Beckett by Brook – Rough for Theatre I, Rockaby, Act Without Words II, Neither , Come and Go – VIMEO, Bouffes du Nord – 26th March 2020

Endgame/Rough for Theatre II – Digital Theatre, Old Vic – 9th April 2020

Having put in countless theatre hours over the last few years the Tourist feels ready to get to grips with another of the “writers who changed theatre” in the form of one Samuel Beckett. Anyone with a passing interest in culture generally, and theatre particularly, is going to have encountered the great Irishman, but, to the uninitiated like me his reputation is fearsome. Still no time like the present.

Especially when the equally fearsome Peter Brooke, similarly ascetic and similarly a Parisian expat, has kindly posted up a recording of his (and Marie-Helene Estienne’s) production of Fragments: Beckett by Brook from the Bouffes du Nord in 2018 (and last in London in 2008). I have had a couple of cracks at Mr Brooke and Ms Estienne’s oeuvre with mixed success, Battlefield at the Young Vic, their take on The Mahabharata, and The Prisoner at the NT, both works of elongated, and exacting, beauty. Fragments comprises five short pieces by Beckett, Rough for Theatre I, Rockaby, Act Without Words II, Neither and Come and Go, performed by, drum roll please, Kathryn Hunter, Jos Houben and Marcello Magni. Jacques Lecoq alumni, and all round stage acting royalty, especially when it comes to the tough, avant garde-y stuff.

Now it doesn’t take a genius to work out that Beckett, in addition to posing questions about language, memory, purpose, mortality, despair, isolation, confinement, observation, connection, indeed, the whole futility, with tenacity, of human existence and nature-of-the-self gig, liked a laugh, especially of the mordant, and/or gallows absurd, kind. Which is what PB and the three actors mine in Fragments. It isn’t too much of a leap from this to Python. Honestly. Of course it helps that Belgian actor Jos Houben is peerless as a physical comedy theatre actor, that Kathryn Hunter is the very definition of “shape-shifter”, (whatever you do do not miss an opportunity to see her on stage, most recently in the RSC Timon of Athens), and that Marcello Magni was a founder member of Complicite, (the other two are regular collaborators), about as innovative a theatre company as it gets. Oh, and he was also the voice of Pingu.

Rough for Theatre I is probably the trickiest customer on the bill. A blind beggar, busking on his fiddle, teams up with another chap who has lost a leg. Both reference past lovers/carers/family. They might be abandoned. They search for food. Mutual support turns to annoyance and, maybe, violence. A lot of the classic Beckett stuff is on show, a couple of cranky fellas bound in uneasy interdependence. But it doesn’t quite persuade and turns into a long, old 20 minutes.

Rockaby, with the archetypal old woman, W, in a rocking chair, the ghostly vibe, the simple, pre-recorded, dimeter verse echoing a lullaby, the hypnotic stresses and repetitions, (each of the four sections begins with “more”), the gradual withdrawal of W from the world, and her eventual death, is a work that most definitely does work. Especially in the hands, and eyes, and mouth, of Kathryn Hunter. There isn’t much here to express, but express she does, packing all manner of emotion into less than 10 minutes. Fuck life as W says. But do it gently.

Act Without Words II, like its companion piece, and the likes of Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Krapp’s Last Tape was written ion the 1950s, but unlike them it is a mime piece. Two fellas, of course, emerge consecutively from sacks on stage after being prodded by a large pole, before engaging in their, presumably daily, routines. One is chaotic, a hypochondriac, the other fastidious, a clock-watcher. A recipe for audience bemusement? You might think so from the sound of it, but, in the hands of Messrs Houten and Magni, it is hilarious, Laurel and Hardy-esque, one of the funniest things I have seen on stage. With Rockaby and now this I think I can see the attraction of Beckett.

And Come and Go only added to the attraction. Three middle-aged women, Flo, Vi and Ru, friends since childhood, Houten and Magni decked out with coats, hats and a bit of rouge, sit on a bench, natter, and then, as each moves away in turn, a whispered secret something is exchanged between the remaining pair. At the end they link hands in the “old way”, a Celtic knot. I can imagine this scenario might come across as foreboding, a reference to incipient illness or death, we don’t actually hear the secrets, but in this production it is comic, the whispers more gossipy or bitching. More Cissie and Ada (google it) than “staring into the void”. After all we all like to chide our friends behind their backs with our other friends in the guise of concern.

Neither is a poem of sorts, just 87 words, in ten lines, with apparently just 3 commas. That’s minimalism for you. It is some kind of dialectical journey, maybe to death, who knows. Kathryn Hunter can’t make its meaning clear but blimey does she make every word count.

All in all then highly recommended (it’s still on Vimeo). How all the little tragi-comic stuff can shed a light on all the big stuff which rattles around in our heads. Not, as Peter Brooke says, wall to wall despair and pessimism as Beckett reputation dictates. And showing how the best actors can reveal, even to the dubious like the Tourist, that there is more to Beckett than initially meets the eye, and ear.

On to Endgame. Or to be more precise Rough for Theatre I and then Endgame. From the Old Vic. Now my scheduled performance was a casualty of you know what but the nice people at the Old Vic offered up a filmed version of the production which I snapped up. Now, before the interruption, the draw of Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming, had ensured brisk business for something relatively challenging judging by the wait it took me to secure my favourite perch. For Endgame, Fin de partie in the original French, (the language Beckett always initially used), does jog on a bit coming in at 80 minutes. It is bracketed up there with the likes of Waiting for Godot in the Beckett canon, and, whilst the critics response to the production was decidedly mixed, there was enough to make me gently expectant.

I have to say didn’t really get on with it though. Whether this was down to play or to performance, it is difficult to say. Having now see what PR and M-HE could do with Beckett in Fragments, (and, as you will see below, what Trevor Nunn was able to serve up in his Beckett trilogy), I think the director, here Richard Jones, might have been culpable. True the director’s freedom to interpret is proscribed by the still vice-like grip exerted by the Beckett estate, demanding compliance with the great man’s stage directions, and by the stripping away of realist anchors, the lack of plot, the minimalist aesthetic and so on. Even so I still think the thematic repetition, this really is about four troubled souls going round in circles, and the skill of certain the actors, left Mr Jones only really scratching the surface.

Alan Cumming played Hamm, confined to a chair, (with a rather distracting pair of fake stick-thin beanie legs on permanent display), with a splenetic camp which at first amused but soon curdled. And Daniel Radcliffe, who to his credit, seeks out acting challenges in an almost penitent way since the screen Potter juggernaut was wound up, is similarly one-dimensional as restless servant/foundling Clov. I am afraid he does’t really seem to get with the profundity, opting for a superficial humour in word and deed. The two don’t feel that they have spent an eternity locked together. Contrast this with Karl Johnson and Jane Horrocks, (with facial prosthetics which really do convince), as Magg and Nell, Hamm’s parents, living in wheelie bins downstage left. Much less to say, but by not trying to grasp for comedy that isn’t there, both convey far more .

In order to get under the surface of “life is absurd”, and “in the midst of death we are in life”, (or maybe it’s the other way round), I think I can see that creatives need to delve a bit deeper. If all we see is the outward character, like a realist play, here Hamm as childish despot “actor” doing a turn primarily for himself, or Clov as mild-mannered extra from the Ministry of Silly Walks, it just become too much hard work to listen to what Beckett was saying. I am guessing the existential bitterness at the core of Endgame really is the deal but having the confidence to see that through feels like a big ask. As Hamm says “nothing is funnier than unhappiness” but only I guess if you don’t try too hard to make it too funny in the first place. I will need to try again with the play to test the theory or to accept that it could just be that I simply don’t have the patience to see it through in which case, mea culpa.

As it happens I preferred Rough for Theatre II. Two bureaucrats, Bertrand and Morvan, are in a room assessing the evidence as to whether would be suicide Croker, (Jackson Milner standing stock still for half an hour with his back to us – bravo fella), should jump or not. There is a contrast between the two, Cumming’s Bertrand is sweary, impulsive, keen to crack on, Radcliffe’s Morvan, more measured, though indecisive. The scenario is milked for gags as it echoes the likes of It’s A Wonderful Life, Here Comes Mr Jordan and A Matter of Life and Death from the 1940s. Croker might have been rejected, he might be ill, he might be a tortured artist. The comments of the various witnesses from Croker’s life are mostly banal, only occasionally poignant or profound. The banter between B and V edges towards Shakespearean wordplay, as well as the more visible vaudeville. The end is ambiguous. It could be Pinter, which is probably why I much preferred it

Right finally to the Jermyn Street trilogy. Sorry that took so long but this is how I learn. Firstly the intimacy of the JST served these plays very well especially Krapp’s Last Tape and Eh Joe. Secondly the cast. David Threlfall, James Hayes, Niall Buggy and, even if in voice only, Lisa Dwan have the measure of Beckett. It is rare to see Lisa Dwan’s name in print without the words “foremost Beckett interpreter/scholar” appended, (Not I, the one with the mouth, is her particular Beckett party piece), though she has plenty of other heavyweight acting credits to her name in Ireland and elsewhere, as does fellow Irish actor Niall Buggy. David Threlfall is just an all round top geezer, last seen on stage as the RSC Don Quixote, who has played Beckett on screen, albeit in the hit and miss comedy series Urban Myths. James Hayes has been treading the boards for as long as the Tourist has been mortal, and collaborated with Trevor Nunn at the JST in radio play All That Fall in 2012 with Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon.

Understandably the Beckett estate rates Trevor Nunn, now 80. He is, after all, pretty much the Father of the House when it comes to theatre direction. Unlike Richard Jones whose USP is showy, scatter-gun, (though often brilliant), opera. Max Pappenheim is able to conjure up a sound design with real impact in a space he knows well and I assume David Howe, normally to be found lighting up the West End, said yes straight away when he got the Nunn call. The monochrome world, specified for Krapp’s Last Tape, persists throughout. Old age and memory is what links the three works. What four old men remember and what they forget.

Krapp’s Last Tape, from 1958, the year after Endgame, was big draw here, with James Hayes, literally, in the chair. Krapp on his 69th birthday, and sporting a natty pair of snakeskin shoes, sets out to make a tape (reel-to-reel kids, ask Grandad, though make sure it is by phone) documenting the last year and to review a similar tape he made when he was 39, made after he had returned from celebrating that birthday in the pub. This tape mocks the commentary of another tape he made in his mid twenties. He is more interested in the definition of the word “viduity” than the death of his mother. (The table is piled up with tapes, a ledger and the dictionary). Some memories annoy him, others, notably a romantic tryst in a punt, enchant him. The 39 year old is confident in the choices he has made, the 69 year old full of regret, notably in his writing. Is this his “final” tape?

Beckett was 52 when he wrote it. You can read whatever you want into it but it seems easy to just take it as autobiography and revel in the power and construction of memory. Failures in love, in work and in drink. It went through many drafts, much like our memories I suppose. The Wiki page is very helpful in fleshing out the characters, real and fictional, mentioned in the monologue and in describing Beckett’s own position at the time of writing.

I can’t pretend I was hanging on every word of James Hayes’s mesmerising performance. but that is because I ended up revisiting my own past in my mind. What better praise can I offer?

Eh Joe is pretty scary. It was SB’s first play for television, first performed in 1966 by Jack MacGowan, for whom it was written, with Sian Philips as The Voice. Joe, in his fifties, is sitting alone on his bed in dressing gown and slippers, with a camera trained on him. He gets up to check windows, curtains, door, cupboard and bed as if in fear. The camera cuts to a close-up of his face from just a metre away which slowly zooms in, nine times, through the remaining 15 minutes or so. Joe is relaxed, though confined, staring at, though not into the camera. Then the voice, here Lisa Dwan, starts hammering away at him, the recording heavily miked, accusatory, recalling their relationship and his abandoning of another woman who attempts suicide. She is the guilt-ridden voice inside his head I guess, the feminine judge of his masculine sin. He has excised the voices of his mother, father and others who may have loved him. The Voice’s words brim with violence. There is Catholic and sexual guilt aplenty. Niall Buggy, for a man who doesn’t speak, is riveting and now I get why Lisa Dwan is so well regarded. Once again it is all about the getting the rhythm and melody of the language to convey interiority.

Lisa Dwan was 12 when she saw Eh Joe on the telly. It stayed with her. I’m not surprised.

Fortunately we were then given a break before The Old Tune, which compared to the two previous plays, was a breeze. Rarely performed, it is a free translation by Beckett of a 1960 radio play, La Manivelle (The Crank) by his Swiss-French mate Robert Pinget. Niall Buggy and David Threlfall are a couple of Dublin old-timers, Gorman and Cream, shooting the breeze on, of course, a bench. They share memories, all the way back to early childhood, but can’t always agree on exactly what. It’s got some laughs.

So that’s that then. No doubt I will be back to Beckett. But for the moment, at least when the performers are on song, memories are made of this ….

Swive at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse review ****

Swive

Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, 3rd February 2020

I am very partial to the work of Ella Hickson. Precious Little Talent, Boys, Oil, The Writer, ANNA, all have met their, expansive, ambition. Splendid theatre with something powerful to say. With Swive she has collaborated with director Natalie Abrahami, (who marshalled cast and technology so effectively in ANNA), and has alighted on the life of Elizabeth I, not a novel subject for dramatic treatment, in theatre, film or small screen, but still a vital subject for the dissection of women and power. (The SO, BD and LD scored an early collective lockdown viewing success with Josie Rourke’s cinematic debut Mary, Queen of Scots, for example).

The play is small scale, mixing the political with the domestic, and casts two actors, Nina Cassells as the young Princess Elizabeth, (as well as an unnamed Court washerwoman and Lady Katherine Grey) and Abigail Cruttenden as Queen Elizabeth, (as well as her step-mother Catherine Parr, and her predecessor Mary Tudor). In a series of short scenes, enlivened by Ben Stokes’s sly, chip-boarded, candlelit set and teasing costumes, we see how the young and mature Elizabeth negotiate the patronising and miscalculation of significant male influences, Michael Gould as long time adviser and Protestant defender William Cecil, and Colin Tierney as pervy “step” father Thomas Seymour and hubbie-in-waiting Robert Dudley, and how this extraordinary woman was able, ultimately to rise above patriarchal repression and dominate Court and Country.

This is no dry history though. Key events are obliquely referenced but EH’s and NA’s dialogue is more concerned with the how and why of Elizabeth’s tortuous negotiations, rather than the what, before and during her reign. Overcoming her “illegitimacy”, avoiding the fall-out from the association with the scheming Seymour, countering the threats posed by half- brother Teddy VI, and “bloody” half-sister Catholic, Mary Tudor, stringing Dudley along and pimping him out to Scots Mary, claiming the right to be head of the Church as well as the State, despite Cecil and the other geezer’s misgivings, (yet not, if she had married, head of her family), the obsession with her, and others, uberty (yep new word for me). All are cleverly crammed in but the vernacular words the two Elizabeths use to highlight their dilemmas could come from any woman now, asked to justify herself when justification is unjust and unwarranted.

This equivalence of then and now occasionally fails, the perpetual question of the succession for example as Lady Katherine Grey blows her chances, but the message so vital and the delivery so lucid that it doesn’t matter. Abigail Cruttenden is as deliciously peremptory as you might imagine and Nina Cassells masks the young Elizabeth’s decisiveness with a precocious air of vulnerability. Both are adept at turning the arguments of the men back on themselves.

There are some laugh-out loud zingers, the artifice of the SW Playhouse is acknowledged right at the beginning, and even the candle snuffing and relighting seems rhetorical. All this, the 90 minute run time, a paracetamol and and a wisely chosen perch, meant the Tourist’s back remained in fine-(ish) fettle until the trot back to London Bridge. Not quite enough to persuade him that visits to the SWP, and the Globe, should not remain few and far between given the hair-shirt comfort levels, but more than enough to ensure that Ella Hickson’s remains very near the top of his list of favourite contemporary playwrights.

Beethoven Weekender at the Barbican review

Beethoven Weekender

“This could be the closest thing to heaven …. “. No not the Tears for Fears dirge from 2004 but one of the many fine singles from the vastly under-rated, and alas short-lived, Kane Gang from 1984. The KG, along with the magnificent Prefab Sprout, and the rather less remembered and post-punky Daintees, at least in my mind, were the apogee of the early 80s British pop/blue eyed soul bands hailing from the North East’s Kitchenware Records in the 1980s. Rich melodies, lush production, and often orchestration, skilled song-writing.. What has this got to do with Beethoven I hear you cry. Well nothing actually. It is just this was the song that popped into my head as I enjoyed a fine fry up for lunch courtesy of Fast Break on Day 1 of the Barbican Beethoven Weekender in early February. Plainly I was in a good mood.

Obviously the celebration of the 250th year since Beethoven’s birth has now been put on hold during these troubled times. (The Tourist had intended to take in Bonn on his Spring train break). Once again I apologise for rabbiting on about a classical music gig from many weeks ago when there is so much more of import going on around us. However I was able to attend a smattering of Beethoven programmes prior to the lockdown taking effect but frankly nothing came close to this offering from the Barbican. All the symphonies, courtesy of some of the UK’s finest orchestras based outside London, interspersed with other, well thought through and informative contributions featuring bits and pieces of LvB’s piano, quartet and violin chamber works, alongside some other, moreorless quirky, responses made up this excellent Festival. And all for just £45. That’s right. The greatest music ever written, (in the Western art canon at least), spread over two full days with change from a bullseye.

I was very taken with the exhibits, ear trumpets, the great man’s violin, the Warhol print, drawn from the Beethoven Haus collection in Bonn, with the Beethoven Bites contributions from various young composers and performers, many drawn from the ranks of the Guildhall School, and Matthew Herbert’s deconstruction/ reconstruction of the Ninth, especially Together, which takes 30 or so recordings of the third movement and plays them simultaneously to the same time frame. This shows how performance can differ, not just in tempo, but also in tuning, pitch, recording technique, dynamics.

Christopher Park’s readings of various of the Bagatelles at St Luke’s Old Street was surprisingly involving, despite the always interesting interruptions by Gerald McBurney reading eye witness accounts of LvB’s playing (and scheming). Daniel Sepec is the only musician (I think) entrusted with playing Beethoven’s own fiddle, and he was joined in Milton Court by Tobias Schabenberger (fortepiano), Taj Murray (violin) and Silke Avenhaus (piano) for extracts from early violin sonatas and the Kreutzer. The Beeb’s Sara Mohr-Pietsch paid tribute to George Bridgewater, the Afro-European musician who inspired LvB’s greatest sonata and was its original dedicatee. And the marvellous Carducci Quartet, in the Pit, were joined by uber-luvvie Simon Callow for intense extracts from various string quartets interspersed with letters from LvB, to family, to collaborators, and, of course, his Immortal Beloved. Now Mr Callow is rightly renowned for his ability to put us through the emotional wringer, but, from my perch very close to him, I can confirm the old boy shed a real tear or two. Terrific.

Still it’s the Symphonies that put the meat on the bones of this celebration and I can report that we were treated to performances of the highest quality, all brought together with enthusiastic wisdom from uber Beethoven fan-boy John Suchet. I won’t babble on about the works themselves or the detail of the performances. All I can say is that I need to get out, of London, more. Although, based on the stunning interpretation of the Fifth and Sixth from Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic *****, Liverpool’s (and Oslo’s) loss will be London’s gain when the young(ish) Russian comes permanently to the Royal Philharmonic. I expected much and wasn’t disappointed. If there is a better way to spend a Saturday morning then you had better tell me.

Lars Vogt and the Royal Northern Sinfonia **** (finally there is a connection with Newcastle) put everything and more into the Seventh and Eighth, and jst about edged Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Orchestra’s **** more thoughtful takes on the Second and Fourth. But this may reflect my preference for Seven and Eight in the pecking order. The programme notes certainly don’t imply that Ms Gražinytė-Tyla thought that she was in any way getting the short straw with Two and Four and the performances were testament to this. I think I am right in saying that she has shaken off you know what. A good reason to explore some of the good stuff the CBSO has posted up to take us through the coming weeks/months, including the documentary about their gifted musical director prodigy.

In fact the riches that the world’s orchestras have offered up in the past few weeks have to be seen and heard to be believed. The Concertgebouw probably takes the biscuit, I have started working my way through the Ivan Fischer Beethoven cycle, but take a look too at the offers from the Berlin Philharmonie, the LSO, the LPO, Wigmore Hall, the BRSO and, my favourite so far, the Monteverdi Orchestra and Choir. And, at this rate, no one will ever enter an opera house again. Just kidding but there is a lot to see for free right now. Though not for free as all us privileged types should be financially supporting our cultural institutions right now, as well, of course as those in the front line, and less fortunate than ourselves.

Anyway Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra *** were quite able to match the RCO in their performance of the Eroica, which got a little muddled in the development of the opening Allegro con brio and in some of the variations in the Finale, though their interpretation of the First more than passed muster. I have to say though that the least convincing interpretation in the cycle was the closing Ninth from the Halle Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder ***. Sopranos Elizabeth Watts and Sarah Castle were bulldozed a little, the balance between orchestra and chorus didn’t feel right and the tempi overall were too measured for me especially in the slow movement. Still it’s the Choral, it capped an amazing couple of days and I still went home happily humming the Ode to Joy.

Something to hang on to until this is all over.

PS. The programme notes to accompany the Weekender are excellent BTW. To the point essays on Beethoven’s various disappointments in life (family, love and deafness), his idealist politics, his cultural impact and some wham bam notes on the symphonies.

The Haystack at the Hampstead Theatre review ****

The Haystack

Hampstead Theatre, 31st January 2020

Al Blyth is not your typical playwright. Having studied Econometrics and Mathematical Economics, (disciplines that spend an inordinate amount of time wishing away the presence of us unpredictable humans), he went on to work as a research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, though the urge to dramatize never left him. Mind you I suspect the encouragement of his missus, Sam Holcroft, also a playwright (Rules for Living), helped. Still heartless policy wonking’s loss is our gain and Mr Blyth’s previous life certainly helped shaped The Haystack, his first full length play.

It is a gripper. Easy to say why HT’s new AD, Roxana Silbert, reserved this for her directing debut in her first season. (In fact she had already encountered Al Blyth’s work from her previous tenure at Plaines Plough). AB is, as we all should be, profoundly concerned about the potential for State overreach in our world, but, rather than serving up a ranting polemic to draw attention to this, he has written a thriller anchored in a love story and buddy banter. The setting is GCHQ, (which probably now knows more about you than you do yourself), where a couple of IT geeks, Zef (Enyi Okoronkwo) and Neil (Oliver Johnstone) have been seconded to rustle up some algorithm programmes (or some such) to test the efficacy of the agency’s databases. AB’s point is not that this vast network of information is being used for nefarious purposes, just that the UK, uniquely amongst developed democracies, and thanks to the cobbled together “constitution”, lacks the safeguards to prevent abuse.

We are plunged into the lads’ digital world, brilliantly realised through the kinetic set design of Tom Piper, the lighting of HT regular Rick Fisher, the sound design of the Ringham brothers and the video of Duncan McLean, (a line up more suited to this play is hard to imagine). Gradually it becomes clear to both the no-nonsense boss Hannah (Sarah Woodward) and us the audience that the boys are on to something, but it is when Neil, against Zef’s advice and the rules, starts stalking Cora Preece (Rona Morison) that things really hot up. For bolshie, but somewhat naive, Cora is a Guardian blogger/wannabe journalist, on the rebound from Rob (Oli Higginson), getting her teeth into a story involving Ameera (Sirine Saba), the ex-wife of a really dodgy Saudi businessman type, against the wishes of her seasoned home affairs editor Denise (Lucy Black). Things unsurprisingly turn nasty, as the boys stumble into the story, with much of the story told in flashback or through ingenious use of contiguous conversations (shout to the precise movement mapping of Wayne Parsons).

OK so, even with the pacy direction and invariant dialogue, it does go on a bit, and there are moments of Spooks like cliche, but the twists in the second half, and the multiple issues AB confronts, do ensure we forgive some of the blatancy of the set-up. And Rona Morison, who regular readers will know I have a very high regard for, manages to squeeze out ambiguity in her performance of Cora that simply isn’t there on the page. I can see why some punters might get snide-y about the play, but I was carried along by plot and direction, whilst still thinking about its message.

Santi and Naz at the Vault Festival review ****

Santi and Naz

The Thelmas, Vault Festival 2020, 30th January 2020

Now I cannot pretend that everything on offer at the Vault Festival is my cup of tea. I suspect most of the comedy and monologues are aimed at a much younger and less hidebound audience than the Tourist and I am only slowly easing my way into the politics of identity (still seeing most of the world’s problems, besides the most obvious right now, as issues of political economy). More interesting to me then is the more conventional work from the many innovative theatre companies which tread the, er, arches.

Even so there is a lot to choose from and, whilst the Festival offers a winning combination of convenience, value and grunge-y camaraderie, (remember the Tourist is a denizen of leafy SW London where grunge is scarce), there is a limit to even his attendance. So if it sounds interesting, and better still, is a known quantity, then it gets my vote. Last year The Thelmas brought the memorable Ladykiller by Madeline Gould to the Festival. This year NOTCH and this, Santi and Naz. Written by Guleraana Mir and Afshan D’Souza-Lodhi and directed by Madelaine Moore, this two hander is set against the backdrop of Indian partition on the end of British rule and independence in August 1947.

And backdrop is what it is. This is no heavy handed history, external events are only fleetingly referenced, but instead is a coming of age love story concentrating on two close friends in their teenage years, (from 1945 to 1949), Muslim Naz (Ashna Rabheru) and Sikh Santi (Rose-Marie Christian). Their families, the personalities in the village where they live, their friends, their hopes, fears and plans for the future are all carefully, wittily and movingly described. The Cage may be one of the Vault’s larger spaces but, at just 90 odd souls, it is still pretty intimate, and director, designer (Sascha Gilmour), lighting designer (Rajiv Pattini) and compose/sound designer (Sarah Sayeed) all combine to subtly conjure up the Punjab. However it is the performances, including movement, of our two principals, that really convinces. S&N is just over an hour but in that short time we come to know both young women and fell the pain of their coming separation. In particular Ashna Rabheru’s Naz, who is betrothed to an older man, sees sparky trenchancy replaced with grim maturity, is captivating. Mind you Rose-Marie Christian’s studious Santi matches her stride for stride.

Top drawer.

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

Cyrano de Bergerac

Playhouse Theatre, 30th January 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leopoldstadt at Wyndhams Theatre review ****

Leopoldstadt

Wyndham’s Theatre, 29th January 2020

A new play from the venerable 82 year old Sir Tom Stoppard. Not our greatest living playwright. That is Caryl Churchill, but he does know his way around a text. So booked early, for early in the run and before knowing too much about it.

You will likely know by now that Sir Tom has chosen to delve into his family’s own history and his Jewish heritage for this play, which I can see would be a fitting swansong, if swansong it is. He was born in Czechoslovakia, but escaped to Britain with his family ahead of the Nazi occupation, and was educated in India and then Yorkshire. Whilst he had become aware in the 1990s of the full extent of his roots, (which his mother had chosen to shield him from), as well as the fact that many of his relatives had died in Nazi concentration camps, and he had indicated that he would likely write a play based on this history, he had been ambivalent about making it too personal.

I don’t know how much of the plot, and specifically the key events which punctuate it, are drawn from TS’s own family history, nor indeed how closely the characters resemble his own forebears, (though the character of Leo is surely autobiographical), but there is no doubting his emotional investment in this grand saga. Particularly at the end, in an epilogue which is as moving as anything you might ever see on stage.

We kick off in Vienna in 1899 at a gathering of the Merz and Jakobovicz families at Christmas (and later passover). Bullish businessman Hermann Merz (Adrian Scarborough, on his usual top form) is married to gentile Gretl (Faye Castelow), having, pragmatically, converted to her Catholicism. They have one son Jacob. Hermann’s sister Eva (Alexis Zegerman) is married to obsessive mathematician Ludwig Jakobovicz (Ed Stoppard, yes, he is) who has two sisters, Wilma (Clara Francis), married to Ernst (Aaron Neil), and Hanna (Dorothea Myer-Bennett, continuing the Tourist’s fortunate habit of seeing everything she does on stage), who is married to Kurt (Alexander Newland, who we meet later on). With their various kids, cook Poldi (Sadie Shimmin), parlour maid Hilde (Felicity Davidson), nursemaid Jana (Natalie Law) and all presided over by Grandma Emilia (Caroline Gruber). Thank goodness for the family tree in the programme which the Tourist furtively turned to early doors.

With this many characters, and to set the contextual and didactic balls rolling, and because this is what Sir Tom does best, there is a lot of serious chat going on, as we learn how these well-to-do, educated and largely assimilated Jewish families see themselves, their faith, culture and economy, at a time of great change in Europe’s still premier metropolis. And, inevitably in the first act, bucketloads of exposition. The Merz family doesn’t live in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt district but its status as the centre of Jewish life in the city looms large. The anti-semitism is subtle as well as overt, but its deep historical roots are unmistakeable. Hermann tries and fails to join the jockey club, Ludwig’s hopes of a professorship are far-fetched, and ugly truths are revealed, along with the superb Luke Thallon’s cruel Aryan officer, Fritz.

The play really gets going then after the interval, as we move first to 1924, another family gathering for a circumcision, meeting the cosmopolitan children of the four couples, and then, momentously 1938, and the grandchildren. This is the cue for high drama, for example, the forced repossession of the Merz family home, and eviction, Kristallnacht (vividly realised through Adam Cork’s brilliant sound design), the memory of Pauli (Ilan Galkoff) lost in the WWWi trenches. Then, finally to 1955, when Leo (Luke Thallon), the English emigre son of Nellie (Eleanor Wyld), daughter of Eva and Ludwig, and Nathan (Sebastian Armesto, also doubling), son of Sally (Ayve Leventis), daughter of Wilma and Ernst, are brought together by Nathan’s sister, Rosa (Jenna Augen). This, or something like it, is, I’d like to think, how Sir T first encountered his own history, and planted the seed for Leopoldstadt.

The dialogue is direct, even during the debates on, variously, identity, assimilation, prejudice, Zionism, the recurring history is familiar and there is none of the intellectual trickery that powers Sir T’s back catalogue though there is a bit of heavy lifting from a recurring cat’s cradle metaphor. The family’s beliefs in science, justice and rationality are crushed by the rise of Nazism, but it is the personal loss more than the collective that, eventually strikes home, with Hermann’s descent the most affecting. It is a slow burn mind you, and Patrick Marber’s direction is perhaps a little too respectful. Richard Hudson’s painterly design. together with Neil Austin’s lighting and Brigitte Riefenstuhl’s costumes ooze period detail, but further hinder any opportunity for many of the 26 strong cast (not including the kids) to make a distinct mark.

Still if this is to be Sir T’s last play then why shouldn’t he tell his story his way, given his immense contribution to British and World theatre across his career. At our early viewing (the SO was a more than willing accomplice) the audience was engrossed throughout, if nor utterly captivated, and I suspect many will have been grateful to have had their emotions, perhaps even more than their intellects, engaged. The story of this horror has been told in many ways before, and should continue to be told, but Sir T has found a way to tell it that, whilst not theatrically radical, is profoundly moving, as well as stuffed with learning.

I have no doubt it will be back when we reach the other side, and it is not hard to see it being repurposed for the small screen.