You Stupid Darkness! at the Southwark Playhouse review *****

You Stupid Darkness!

Southwark Playhouse, 28th January 2020

With a whimper not a bang. That’s how the world ends in Sam Steiner’s new play. Though, given where we are now, (and as many reviews of this play seem to demand), you might be forgiven for thinking our selfish species will want to engineer something more dramatic for the end of days. Except, of course, it won’t be the end of days. It will just be the end of us. An incredibly adaptable species that wasn’t half as clever as it thought it was, after a miniscule time on Earth engineered its own extinction, whilst, unforgivably, though there is nothing to forgive, taking most of the rest of the planet’s life with it.

We never know what exactly what is going on outside the room in which our four volunteers, Frances, Angie, Joey and Angie, come every Tuesday night to Brightline to offer comfort to strangers, Samaritans style, on the phone. But it isn’t good, the weather is awful, infrastructure is failing and the team turn up in gas masks. Everything is plainly not going to be OK, keeping calm and carrying on is the default, not the resolute, choice. The phones may still be working, donuts (and this would matter to me) are still on sale, daily routines are still being followed, but, if you are familiar with the analogy, the water temperature is increasing and the frog is being boiled.

Turns out that our four characters each face their own personal misfortunes and, despite their temperamental differences, turn to each other, as well as their callers, for solace. Frances (Jenni Maitland) leads the team, is the eternal optimist, dispensing management mumbo-jumbo, but, pregnant in an increasingly sterile world, petrified at what the future holds for her unborn child. Tense Joey (Andrew Finnigan) is wise beyond his years, Jon (Andy Rush), the fatalistic foil to Frances’s buoyancy, is trapped in a failing relationship and fragile Angie (some scene stealing from Lydia Larsen, until she exits for much of the second half, we don’t find out why), empathises with callers by opening up herself.

Sam Steiner wisely forces no grand narrative or formal experiment on his play. There is not much in the way of plot. Nothing very dramatic happens. There is no great resolution or even much of an ending beyond the backers of the helpline pulling their funding. The comedy, and pathos, flows naturally from the conversation. Amy Jane Cook’s set is similarly low-key. Lights turn off. Kettles fuse. Posters fall off walls. Paintwork is peeling. Dominic Kennedy’s sound design also limits gesture and director James Grieve is unafraid of the pause. This unhurried approach pays dividends though means that the energy of the production, like the lights (Peter Small), occasionally dips, and it wasn’t to everyone’s taste on a less than half full Tuesday matinee but it suited me (and judging by the laughter a handful of others). And, if as I suspect, Mr Steiner’s aim was to find optimism in the bleak mundane, he indutiably succeeded.

I now wish I has seen Sam Steiner’s last play, also realised through Paines Plough, King Kanye about a white woman who wakes up one day to discover she is Kanye West, and, prior to that, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, in which the conceit is that language itself is rationed. I an a sucker for concept and imagination and Mr Steiner seems to have the gift. And he can right dialogue to match. I will watch his future career with interest.

The Funeral Director at the Southwark Playhouse review ****

The Funeral Director

Southwark Playhouse, 6th November 2018

The Papatango New Writing Prize, which kicked off in 2009, is the first and only playwriting award which guarantees the winner a full scale professional production, a share of the takings and a commission for a follow up. Whilst I missed last year’s winner Trestle by Stewart Pringle at the SP (my bad), the 2016 winner Orca by Matt Grinter, also at the SP, was one of the best plays I have seen in the past few years, Dawn King’s Foxfinder, which won in 2011, may not have been shown to best effect in its last outing but is still a very fine play, (https://athomehefeelslikeatourist.blog/2018/09/21/foxfinder-at-the-ambassadors-theatre-review/) and the 2012 runner-up Tom Morton-Smith went on to write the marvellous Oppenheimer for the RSC.

So The Funeral Director by Iman Qureshi comes with some pedigree. Which, by and large, it lives up to. It is a little too deliberate, the plot a little too pat in places, but it offers up opportunities for its four strong cast to portray strong, heartfelt emotion in the dilemmas that they face, which Jessica Clark, Tom Morley, Maanuv Thiara and, especially, Aryana Ramkhalawon, seized with relish.

Ayesha has inherited her Mum’s Muslim funeral parlour in the Midlands which she runs with her husband Zeyd. It is not an easy living but the couple get by and seem to be happy in the circumstances, having come together in an arranged marriage in their teens, even if Ayesha is reluctant to acquiesce to Zeyd’s desire for children. Their equilibrium however is disturbed when the visibly distressed Tom turns up at the parlour asking for his partner Ahad, who has committed suicide, to be buried. They turn him away, fearful of the reaction of their community if they agree. Ayesha then bumps into her close childhood schoolfriend Janey who has returned from her career as a lawyer in London to see her ill mother. From these two events, Iman Qureshi explores issues of sexuality in the context of Islamic faith, in what I think was a thought-provoking and sensitive way. 

Its themes are weighty, complex and relevant but the play has its moments of tension as secrets unravel, as well as some sharp comedy, along the way, and a couple of real lump in the throat exchanges. Amy Jane Cook’s set design, ingeniously wedged traversely, in the SP Little space, combines the reception/office (sofa, cushions, flowers) and business (gurney, sink, kafans) areas of the parlour, augmented by Jack Weir’s lighting and the sound design of Max Pappenheim neatly ties in to Ayesha’s unfulfilled singing dreams.

It would be pretty difficult to hide the quandaries that all four characters face inside a more subtle plot so Ms Qureshi wisely doesn’t even try. We can see where the story is headed but, with Hannah Hauer-King’s unmediated direction, and the heart on the sleeve performances, it shouldn’t matter to the audience. Arayana Ramkhalawon does such a fine job at showing Ayesha’s inherent strength that when her facade finally crumbles and she admits her real self it is genuinely moving. Maanuv Thiara’s Zeyd plainly loves Ayesha, is a decent man, and offers argument predicated on reason as well as faith to justify his stance. Initially Jessica Clark’s Janey feels a little too assertive but this is justified by her past. Tom Morley has less opportunity to convince as the bag of nerves, and angry, Tom. 

It is pretty clear to me that Iman Qureshi is more than capable of writing persuasive dialogue for her characters which carefully set out and explore their worlds. Maybe a little more of this and a less of the issue-heavy argument might yield an even more involving result. Mind you what do I know. I haven’t one a prize for anything other than accountancy. Which, literally, suggests the measure of this particular man. 

Not Talking at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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Not Talking

Arcola Theatre, 5th May 2018

Not Talking is, in his own words, Mike Bartlett’s first “proper” play. It won prizes when first aired on BBC Radio, (with Richard Briers and June Whitfield no less), but it was written for the stage and, here. courtesy of production company Defibrillator, it has it first theatrical outing.

You may well know Mr Bartlett from his TV outings, Doctor Foster, Trauma or maybe the TV adaptation of his play King Charles III. (It always tickles me that the TV critic of the execrable rag the Daily Mail gave this a 0* review whereas the sharp-witted theatre critic gave it 5*). Or maybe you have seen one of his other plays, Albion (Albion at the Almeida Theatre review ****), Wild, Game, An Intervention, Bull, 13, Earthquakes in London, Cock, the adaptation of Chariots of Fire or his brilliant version of Medea with Headlong. His writing is innovative and fearless, and full of colour. If a big dramatic concept or twist is required he will jump in with both feet, and the quality of his writing is so good that he always gets away with it.

All this is visible in Not Talking. We have four characters, James, Amanda, Lucy and Mark. James and Lucy have been married for many years but have drifted apart. They don’t talk to each other. Mark and Amanda are soldiers at the same barracks who fall for each other. Something happens that neither one of them can really share. It turns out that there is a connection between the couples.

I’ll stop there. The plot is too absorbing to reveal and there are still plenty of tickets up for grabs through to 2nd June. You would be a mug not to see this.

David Horovitch who plays James is a top drawer stage actor, last seen by me in All My Sons at the Rose Kingston alongside Penny Downie. Kika Markham who plays Lucy is similarly theatrical royalty. She played Lena in Caryl Churchill’s magnificent Escaped Alone and her mate, Tony Kushner no less, wrote a one hour monologue for her in his play Homebody/Kabul. You would be hard pressed to see two finer actors on the London stage and here they are at the Arcola for 20 quid. Gemma Lawrence and Lawrence Walker who make up the quartet are less experienced but equally as good as they renowned colleagues. This is the first time I have seen any of James Hiller’s work, the AD of Defibrillator. Nothing he does gets in the way of Mr Bartlett’s riveting plot, which is equally well served by Amy Jane Cook’s simple set.

Now you might argue that Mr Bartlett is a little too ready to pump up the dramatic volume, or that his message, don’t bury secrets, is a little too patent. Who cares when it is this involving and this well presented.

Take a friend. You’ll have someone to talk to afterwards.