Twitstorm at the Park Theatre review ***

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Twitstorm

Park Theatre, 15th June 2017

Right then. Where to start with Twitstorm, a new play by Chris England, which has a couple more weeks to run at the Park Theatre.

Well once again the Park has taken an intriguing and a la mode idea and stuffed it full of faces off the telly to pull in the punters. However once again it has not quite lived up to the billing, although this in large part I think reflects the mixed messaging on the part of the writer.

In essence it is a satire on the modern predilection for mock outrage on social media. Jason Merrells plays Guy Manton a supercilious day-time TV presenter of a show called “Arguing the Toss” who prides himself on being the scourge of “political correctness”. It is not too difficult to see writer Chris England’s own alter ego in this character though he himself has chosen to play Rupert, Guy’s manager. Guy’s writing partner, Neil, played by the instantly recognisable Justin Edwards whose facial tics are comedy gold, resentfully takes something of a professional back seat and still hankers after Guy’s wife Bex, played by Clare Goose. With minimal preamble Tom Moutchi is pitched in to proceedings as Ike, the now grown up “child from Africa” that Bex and Guy had disinterestedly “sponsored” and who is invited to stay.

Obviously this plot device bears little scrutiny but it’s what you do with it that matters so we can let it pass for the moment. From this beginning (and incorporating the excellent Ben Kavanagh doubling as work colleague Steve and new media commentariat Daniel Priest) Mr England fashions his satire as (no detail to avoid spoiling) Guy’s twitter feed posts a highly offensive tweet which provokes a media frenzy, and then parlays into a further bizarre plot twist involving Ike.

Now clearly there is scope for a very interesting satire to evolve from this premise. Unfortunately Twitstorm is not quite that satire. It definitely succeeds in pricking the bubble of the self serving, sententious nature of the modern entertainment and digital media eco-system. Guy is a grotesque and deluded egotist and Jason Merrells captures his type perfectly. If Mr England had just stuck to the story of his downfall we would, I believe, have had a funnier and more successful play. But his compulsion to turn his acerbic pen against all manner of “things we are no longer allowed to say” creates some frankly very odd and uncomfortable moments.

Just to be clear I get that satire has no boundaries and we should not be afraid of saying the unsayable. But some of the lines here and bits of the plot look like they have dropped straight out of some 1970s “blimey Dad did people really say/think that in those days” sitcom. And therein lies the problem. Even if these crass lapses in tone are intended to be ironic they just weren’t funny and make Mr England sound like some apoplectic Mail reading sub Clarkson. It feels like the Ike character has been shoehorned in to an underwritten plot simply so Mr England can up the outrage quotient. Having done this the play then gets trapped by its own deus ex machina. This is not a farce (though the middle class show home set gives that impression), so taking liberties by piling up the improbable detracts from the justified ridicule.

So these are the drawbacks. Unfortunately for this liberal, PC, metropolitan elite Guardian reader it was also pretty funny at times. And as I said its scattergun approach to bringing down modern cultural shibboleths does sometimes hit the target, even if the intent is unclear. It is also interesting to think about that dividing line between what is funny for the “right” reasons and what is funny for the “wrong” reasons. I worship at the altar of comedian Stewart Lee but find Mrs Brown’s Boys puerile and unfunny. But given my class, education and world view that is not surprising.

So I would ignore the reviews that dismiss this out of hand, and ignore most of what I have said above and go see for yourself. At the very least it will clarify your thoughts on what you and others find funny and where you sit on the “political correctness gone mad” and “synthetic outrage” debates. Which, in Mr England’s defence, I suppose, was what he was trying to do in the first place.

 

Destination Unknown film review *****

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Destination Unknown, 15th June 2017

Destination Unknown is a very powerful documentary about the survivors of the WWII Holocaust.

Director Claire Ferguson has taken the testimony of thirteen Jewish survivors largely from Poland and carefully, but decisively, built up their powerful narratives before, during and after the Holocaust. The film shifts rapidly between each of the survivors and intercuts footage of the camps and of life inside the ghettos, as well as family snapshots from after the war. This means there is perhaps less of a focus on the straight to camera “talking-head” descriptive testimony that you might be familiar with from other similar documentaries. However with a powerful score in the background this does make for a tellingly more direct emotional response from the audience.

The anger of some of the victims, in particular the redoubtable Ed Mosberg, is palpable. Mr Mosberg, into his nineties, continues to tirelessly lecture audiences asking them “never to forget and never to forgive”. It is this that I found most affecting. A number of the interviewees survived the Krakow camp where the notorious Amon Guth was Commandant and whose inhumanity was documented in the book and film Schindler’s List.

I understand that some of the interviewees have passed away since they talked to producer Llion Roberts. These testimonies are vital. There are only a limited number of screenings but I am sure, in time, you will find an opportunity to see this film. You should.

 

An Octoroon at the Orange Tree Theatre review ****

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An Octoroon

Orange Tree Theatre, 14th June 2017

Crikey. An Octoroon. I am not entirely sure what I saw and learnt here. I do know it will stay in the memory for many years though and I am very glad I saw this.

Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins takes the bones of early Irish playwright/impresario Dion Boucicault’s hugely popular 1859 melodrama, The Octoroon, to create a riveting meditation on slavery and on black voices in the theatre. (As an aside this immediately puts the lie to the idea of American drama only really getting going in the C20 – there was clearly vibrant theatre in the C19 – it just might not be palatable to modern audiences).

It starts with lead actor Ken Nwosu (last seen by me as a laconic Face in the RSC’s tip top Alchemist) ambling on in his undies ostensibly as the “black” playwright BJJ to explain why he came to write the play and what he wanted to say. Droll and self reverential. We start to guess we are in for a treat. He then starts to “white-up” in order to play George the lead in DB’s original. He is joined by Kevin Trainor playing DB who proceeds to go “red-face”. The assistant to BJJ played by Alistair Toovey then also “blacks up” to play two different slaves, Pete and Paul, on George’s soon-to-be inherited plantation.

All the female characters, in contrast, are played by “colour-appropriate” actors – I don’t know how else to say that. Emmanuella Cole and Vivian Oparah play Dido and Minnie, house slaves in George’s inheritance plantation, though their sass is entirely contemporary. Iola Evans is Zoe, the Octoroon of the title whose father I think was George’s uncle, and who is one-eighth black. This means that George cannot marry her. Celeste Dodwell is Dora, a rich, white, heiress neighbour who is pursuing George. Cassie Clare plays Grace, a pregnant slave and Br’er Rabbit (I am still not entirely sure why). Oh and lest I forget, Ken Nwsosu also plays M’Closky the evil neighbour (and former overseer on the plantation) who tries to secure George’s land and slaves on the death of his aunt.

All clear? It will be. The plot of DB’s play revolves around a mortgage foreclosure and an intercepted letter and sees the villain M’Closky’s dastardly deeds undone with the help of cutting edge technology (for the 1850’s), to whit, a camera. It is, despite its material, a rollickingly good tale by itself which BJJ plainly recognises. It both uncomfortably wallows in the conventions of its time and the subject of its setting, but also partially unpicks those mores. With BJJ himself then subverting and critiquing DB’s play and by implication the nature of racial stereotyping, whilst getting plenty of laughs along the way, it is unlike anything you will ever see. There is all manner of deconstruction going on – quite literally at one point as the stage is pulled to pieces. A lot of references passed me by but there was enough to feast on despite this.

I know this sounds preposterously oblique but the whole mash-up put me in mind of the work of artist Robert Rauschenberg who also created funny and insightful works from stuff he “found”. BJJ shows a similar fierce intelligence and delight in unsettling his audience. This is play as well as a play. You will be properly entertained in a broad Vaudevillian way but simultaneously made to squirm and therefore think long and hard about race and the theatre’s depiction of race.

Highly recommended. Another hit for the ever inventive Orange Tree. The cast is outstanding, director Ned Bennett pulls all the strands together, (and trust me there are many), and the solutions that designer Georgia Lowe has conjured up to deal with the limitations of the OT stage are endlessly inventive. I am now looking forward to BJJ’s next play, Gloria, which is coming up very soon at the Hampstead Theatre, though I gather it could not be more different in subject.

 

 

Murray Perahia at the Barbican Hall review ***

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Murray Perahia

Barbican Hall, 11th June 2017

  • J S Bach – French Suite No 6 in E major, BWV 817
  • Schubert – 4 Impromptus Op 142, D 935
  • Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K 511
  • Beethoven -Sonata No 32 in C minor, Op 111

Murray Perahia is a great pianist. No doubt about that. And I am always keen to hear his Beethoven interpretations. However the last few concerts I have seen in London from him have been a mixed bag. The solo recital this time last year was a little underwhelming with a fine Mozart A minor sonata offset by a curiously underpowered Hammerklavier. In contrast his Beethoven Piano Concertos 2 and 4 earlier this year, with the Academy of St Martins in the Fields which he also directed, were marvellous. Another performance of PC No 4 under the mighty Bernard Haitink’s baton was also sensational.

In this concert we had a similarly puzzling evening. The Bach was the best of the bunch, played with great clarity and musicality and with that lovely counterpoint revealed in all its perky glory. I won’t comment on the Schubert – I just don’t really get on with it – but the audience was clearly persuaded. I didn’t know the mournful Mozart Rondo but this was a compelling rendition so I will need to check it out.

The Beethoven, his final sonata, with its curious structure and strange, ethereal musings, took a bit of time to get going. Mr Perahia’s treatment of the Maestoso opening of the first movement was more deliberate than the recordings I know (Pollini and Paul Lewis are my favourites) but by the time we reached the fugal development, which uses the whole keyboard, it was back in the groove. The longer second movement, with its six variations largely in C major, was much more convincing and here I got lost in the beauty of Beethoven’s music. The movement is near 20 minutes in total but always seems timeless to me.

So a fine evening of solo piano music but not quite as engrossing as I had hoped.

Richard III at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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Richard III

Arcola Theatre, 10th June 2017

I have had a surfeit of Dickie IIIs over the last few years. Mind you I am not complaining.

Mark Rylance on his return to the Globe found a vulnerable, despairing Richard who didn’t seem to care about his actions. Ralph Fiennes was a ruthlessly efficient c**t which left next to no room for audience complicity. Lars Erdinger was the narcissistic showman, even in the buff, in the Schaubuhne Berlin production at the Barbican. Benedict Cumberbatch, in the Hollow Crown II version (just get this on DVD if you “don’t like Shakespeare” and then change your mind), upped the comedy quotient which I enjoyed but was ingratiating for others. Robert Sheehan (the pretty boy off the telly’s Misfits) was one of the best things in Trevor Nunn’s marathon, “proper Shakespeare” War of the Roses at the Rose Kingston (yep all in one day for me) with his youth offering up a more bolshie Dickie. Best of all was Hans Kesting in Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Kings of War. Like the War of the Roses this had the advantage of providing the back-story for Richard’s tale that the standalone productions don’t have, which ensures the other characters are in the flow of the action from the off. Kesting, with his tight fitting suit and birthmark but with no limp or withered arm, created a Richard with physical presence and superior intelligence who is able to bully all those around him. His actions almost seem reasonable such was his charisma making the final “I am a villain” monologue, when his loneliness is laid bare, here delivered to a mirror, even more disturbing.

I have to say though that Greg Hicks, in this Arcola production directed by its inestimable head honcho Mehmet Ergen, tops the lot. This is because he captured all of the facets of what it is to be a Richard III in my view. Now remember this is a piece of Tudor propaganda as filtered through Will S’s imagination so no need to get too hung up on the “reality” of the body count or the misogyny. A bloody route to kingship was par for the English course through most of history. What matters is how the performance and production seeks to balance the contradiction between the audience’s repulsion and attraction to our leading man and the dialectic between the thirst for power and the self loathing that torments him. The best plays obviously feast on contradiction and big Will serves these up in spadefuls in this play.

Greg Hicks was not setting out to play the joker here, though the delivery of some of the classic asides to audience served that purpose. His crystal clear delivery of the lines, together with changes of tone and phrasing, and the masterful use of pauses, revealed intent in ways that had not been clear to me before, notably in the “group’ scenes with Rivers, Hastings and Stanley. His constant movement of face and body (with leg permanently chained to arm) and habit of getting right in the face of the other characters emphasised the desire to twist events to his advantage. This was a Richard in a hurry. The crown was the payback for the hate meted out to him in the past. The unhidden misogyny and careless manipulation was simply the means to this end. Not “pure evil”, not a charming pantomime villain, not solely motivated by self hate and a desire to avenge, self-aware but still consumed by the deception of rightful inheritance. This is when an intervention by a trained psychotherapist in childhood might had saved a whole lot of bother later on.

The compact Arcola space with its steepish seating, the sparse staging and costumes, sympathetic staging and lighting, all served to focus attention on the actors. The support from this medium sized cast (there was a bit of doubling) was admirable, particularly Paul Kemp as Clarence/Stanley, Sara Powell (so good in the recent The Plague on this very stage) as Elizabeth and Matthew Sim as a full-on psycho henchman Catesby, but matching Mr Hicks proved a big ask.

We know Greg Hicks is an outstanding Shakespearian actor having been and done it with the RSC and NT and I hope there are many more to come. But I would love to see him revisit some Pinter, create a hard-arsed Volpone or have the lead role in a future Martin McDonagh play.  For the moment though I have this performance to savour.

Robots at the Science Museum review *****

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Robots

Science Museum, 7th June 2017

The Robots exhibition at the Science Museum is now around half way into its run (ends 3rd September) and with school holidays done and dusted I figured it was safe to take the plunge and have a look. Mid afternoon slot and near empty when I went in.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like children. I have three of them in my collection and over the years they have provided me with hours of, albeit expensive, entertainment. There was even a time when this exhibition might have been, with appropriate concessions granted after intense negotiation, a candidate for a “family trip out”. But time marches on so now I am flying solo with this sort of thing. 

Anyway an opportunity to have a good nose around. I had high hopes. The Cosmonauts exhibition from a couple of years ago at the Science Museum was a triumph. The exhibition certainly starts with a flourish with a collection of Medieval and Early Modern automata and other beautifully constructed machines. I would have been happy just with these though I suspect they may not be exactly what the average punter has in mind when it comes to robots. These pieces are, understandably, in vitrines, and the atmospheric lighting veers towards the murky, but they are beguiling.

If I am honest the next section is a bit half hearted. I guess it would have been possible to assemble a few crackerjack machines from the golden age of the industrial revolution across the West in C19, but, again, this might not have sat neatly with the exhibition offer. What followed this was also a little underwhelming, a collection of classic “science fiction” style toy robots from the mid C20 with accompanying imagery, and some full size early humanoid-like robots. You know the score. Knocked up by earnest blokes with beards in sheds using whatever materials they had lying around. Ingenious.

It is though the final couple of sections that really sends the head spinning. There are demonstrations of the key current areas of focus for roboticists through some well chosen exhibits accompanied by short explanatory videos from the top boffins in each field. And then we see, and in a couple of cases, get to play with, some of the most advanced commercial robots from the last decade. I defy anyone not to be swept along by the possibilities that are opening up. The curators though also diligently explore some of the wider issues that will arise from a world where robots become more widespread.

So all up if you have any curiosity at all about this subject, and you probably should, then get along if you haven’t already. Kids of all ages welcome. Despite my curmudgeonly comments above.

Killology at the Royal Court Theatre review ****

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Killology

Royal Court Theatre, 8th June 2017

There are a few plays every year where I kick myself that I missed them. Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Stott from 2015 was definitely one of them. So I was determined to see Killology (pre-reviews) even though I wasn’t entirely persuaded by the Royal Court blurb. I shouldn’t have worried, there was way more to this play than this teaser implied. If I was a brighter boy I probably also would have conducted a rudimentary search of the title for this would have led me to the inspiration for Mr Owen’s play Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, who research is referenced in the text.

Killology deals with male failure and violence, notions of responsibility and the troubled relationships of son to father and father to son. It is not an easy watch. Through a series of pacey, interlocking, non-linear monologues, it tracks the stories of three men, Alan, his son Davey and Paul, whose own unseen father also looms large. Alan has left Davey to the care of his mother. Davey is bullied, and with no viable alternative he takes revenge on his tormentors, but, in turn, the bullies take revenge on him. This act of torture is animated by a shooter video-game. Killology. Alan in parallel takes revenge on Paul, who is the creator of the game. Paul describes the pain and anger that has damaged him, and skewed his own morality, because his own unseen scornful father only sees his failings.

There are a few convenient leaps in these narratives, but these devices are easily forgiven as they get to the core of the humiliations that fuel the violent reactions. There is no proselytising from Mr Owen, no glib answers and no simple resolutions even if he does explore the possibility of good in one of the apparent narratives. Monologues are, of course, brilliant story telling vehicles as they make us, the audience, create detailed pictures in the theatre of our minds (sorry for the unquestioning dualism here – just run with it). Yet sometimes this means the emotional power is compromised. Not here. This really packs a visceral punch.

Rachel O’Riordan (the artistic director of the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff) directs the work with flexed efficiency amplified by the set of Gary McCann and the sound world of Sam Jones. An awful lot is asked of all three actors but they respond magnificently. Sean Gleeson captures the sense of Alan as a broken man with no hope of redemption. Richard Mylan turns Paul into a repellent nihilist but still invokes our compassion as we learn what shaped him. And Sion Daniel Young as Davey simply astonishes.