An Adventure at the Bush Theatre review ****

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An Adventure

Bush Theatre, 26th September 2018

Now I cannot pretend that, when the lovely people at the Bush moved the matinee performance of An Adventure that I attended forward by an hour, and indicated it had metamorphosed into a three hour plus extravaganza, I wasn’t concerned. And reading the proper reviews, which were variable, but generally pointed to narrative ambition trumping dramatic momentum, didn’t help.

Well I can report that this is, give or take, a wonderful story, superbly, and smartly, told. The Bush is still claiming a 3 hour 15 minute running time but it isn’t, it certainly doesn’t feel anywhere near it, and there are a couple of intervals to catch your anyway. If anything I would have liked, whisper it, a bit more. It kicks off with feisty Gudjarati Jyoti, ostensibly 16, interviewing callow Rasik, ostensibly 22, one of the five suitors chosen by her father, on a stormy night on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in post-partition India in 1954. Not best qualified, Rasik doesn’t start his wooing too well but eventually, after a little sparring, Jyoti warms to him and the match is made. It is a cracking opening scene with emotional warmth set against the non-naturalistic set of Rosanna Vize, a golden plinth flanked by Louise Rhodes-Brown’s video designs (which help to anchor time and place throughout). The second scene, on a beach where Rasik, who can’t swim, clings on to Jyoti, is no less powerful and is the metaphor from which the rest of the story unfolds.

We then track the couple through Nairobi, during the fight for Kenyan independence in the late 1950’s, where Rasik goes into business with patriot David and buys him land, to London where the couple arrive in 1968, through the 1970’s, and daughter Sonal, and back to India, for the funeral of Joyti’s mother, where we meet niece Joy, and then finally Nairobi, in the present day. Along the way we see the India diaspora experience unfold, with exposition which generally doesn’t interrupt the flow, entwined with the personal journey of the couple. Home, emigration, immigration, post-colonialism, racism, gender roles, political activism, ageing, parenthood, the tyranny of everyday life, in fact just about everything that matters, is lightly ticked off along the way, but all is coherent.

The first part, (and the finale), in Kenya, is the most pointed in terms of political message, contrasting Kikuyu David’s support for violent Mau-Mau resistance with Rasik’s more pragmatic faith in a peaceful transition. This in turn contrasts with the personal politics of Jyoti who joins a union and campaigns to improve the conditions of British Asian working women in the 1970s. At the same time we see the racism that Rasik endures in his work and the strains that the struggle to get on put on their marriage. We see the next generation in the shape of Sonal looking to move up and on through education and travel encountering Jyoti’s motherly resistance.

This is though more a love story than history lesson and is all the more successful for it. In the final scenes, with the couple in their seventies, Rasik’s sight failing and mobility impaired, they look back and this, frankly, is where it really connected emotionally. I cannot claim to understand the journey of Jyoti and Rasik but I can certainly empathise with the prosaic intimacy of their relationship. For these final scenes Jyoti and Rasik are played by Nila Aalia and Selva Rasalingam, but you can still feel the essence of the characters shaped by the superb Anjana Vasan and Shubham Saraf in the earlier years. Jyoti may be headstrong but her inner strength shines through from the off. Rasik may be less certain, earnest in his youth, irascible in his old age, but they make an entirely believable couple. Writer Vinay Patel based his story on the life of his grandparents which is maybe just why.

Mr Patel’s expansive tale wears its learning pretty lightly. As with his previous work, notably his play True Brits and his TV drama Murdered By My Father, he shows that he has a way with story and character and can conjure up a lot of content from relatively straightforward starting points. An Adventure is more ambitious that his previous works, and maybe this time he has tried to pack a bit too much in to create his odyssey of marriage, but it is still a very entertaining and skilful attempt. I imagine he is a confident young man and I suspect he believes, as do I, that he will get even better from here. Madani Younis is, unsurprisingly, a completely sympathetic directorial presence; you get the feeling writer and director brought the best out of each other from the very start of the project. It will be very interesting to see what Mr Younis brings to the South Bank in his new role.

The cast, including a resolute Martins Imhangbe as David and impressive work from Aysha Kala as Sonal/Joy, is well matched to character, though, for me, Anjana Vasan stood out, as she did Life of Galileo at the Young Vic and Behind the Beautiful Forevers at the NT. Sally Ferguson’s lighting and Ed Clarke’s sound were able to navigate the intimate and expansive as the story demanded.

Six actors and seven characters, (well eight when you include younger daughter Roshni who literally phones in at the end), is not a lot to span this much history and geography. Then again the best way in drama to understand the big stuff is to see its repercussions at the human level. This is where Vinay Patel’s play works. He gets away with shoehorning in maybe just a bit too much of what he wantt to say because the characters are so real and the dialogue, with a few overly dreamy, symbolic interruptions, so apothegmatic. Above all there is that fearless enthusiasm for the power of drama that the best writers convey which makes this, for all its obvious faults, work.

Leave Taking at the Bush Theatre review *****

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Leave Taking

Bush Theatre, 13th June 2018

I confess I had never heard of Winsome Pinnock’s 1987 play Leave Taking until this season’s announcement for the Bush. Shocking for someone who considers themselves to be a theatre obsessive. I still have so much to learn.

Still theatre is always the best way to confront ignorance and so it proved here. Leave Taking deals, amongst many other things, with the Black British experience, and specifically the experience of those whose heritage is rooted in Jamaica. In that regard it foreshadowed, and inspired, Natasha Gordon’s excellent Nine Night at the National Theatre recently (Nine Night at the National Theatre review *****) and, like Nine Night, it used comedy to telling effect to entertain and to make its points about the dissonant experiences of first, and subsequent, generation British-Jamaicans. Unlike Nine Night however, it was not overstuffed with plot-lines and the story was confined to, effectively, one family. It might just be, therefore, a stronger play. Definitely a must see – if not this time at the next revival, for there will surely be one.

(BTW Nine Night is transferring to Trafalgar Studios for December and January and must be seen if you haven’t already).

Also before I start warbling on about the Leave Taking I would also highlight the excellent BBC documentary Black and British: A Forgotten History. I guess it will pop up on I Player one day. If so take a look. You will learn a lot. Black Britons have been part of our shared history since Roman times. The picture above, featuring a black trumpeter is from an illuminated manuscript from 1511.

Enid (Sarah Niles), having emigrated from Jamaica, is a single parent living in North London with her daughters, the studious Viv (Nicholle Cherrie) and the restless Del (Seraphina Beh). Brod (Wil Johnson), Enid’s brother-in-law, (her husband abandoned his family long ago), is a frequent visitor. The play opens with Enid taking the girls to see Mai (Adjoa Andoh), the local Obeah Woman, in her somewhat untidy flat. Enid is looking for help with Del who she fears may get into trouble. Mai isn’t much interested in helping but does make a connection with Del. Brod pays a visit to the family flat and talks of the old days in Jamaica. Del returns from a night out. Brod and Enid have a history. Enid talks a call from her sister whose pleas for financial help annoy Enid. Viv tells her mum she doesn’t want to go to university. Del leaves home and moves in with Mai. Enid comes to see Mai. Brod gets drunk and goes to Mai’s place. Del and Mai have a heart-to-heart. Enid comes round.

Now I admit that it all sounds fairly uneventful when described in such stark terms. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are few plays that I have ever seen that get right inside all of its characters, and not just the main protagonists, with such accuracy, using such volitional dialogue. That is not to say that the dialogue isn’t very rich, and very funny, just that Winsome Pinnock had no need to “force” anything out of the mouths of the five characters to tell her story and make her arguments. The eight scenes are so entirely realistic, and naturalistic, that when director Madani Younis felt the urge to play around a bit, with a bit of dripping water and stage puddles, the audience was, rightly, nonplussed. No need for metaphor when the writing speaks for itself.

However fine the play is, it still needed a cast to match and everyone here was on sparkling form. I adore seeing Adjoa Andoh on stage. In Nick Hytner’s recent Julius Caesar at the Bridge she near stole the show, against formidable competition, as a painfully, sardonic Casca. In her hands, Mai was prickly, found of her stout, and her powers uncertain, but her implacable inner strength offered Enid, and Viv, in very different ways, succour. Wil Johnson, with his nostalgic reminiscences of his early years in Jamaica, showed how Brod had never reconciled himself to his new home and offered a clear, and moving, reason why he stayed.

Seraphina Beh was excellent before on this very stage in James Fritz’s Parliament Square (Parliament Square at the Bush Theatre review *****) and she repeated the trick here revealing the self-doubt that lay beneath Dels rebellious exterior. Nicholle Cherrie had less overt opportunity to flesh out Viv, (since Leave Taking is drawn in part from Winsome Pinnock’s own North London upbringing I assume this is the character closest to her young self), but still showed us the frustration that can stunt the older, sensible, more bookish sibling.

However Enid is the plum part here and Sarah Niles grabbed it with both hands. I don’t think Enid has buried her heritage, just been forced to sidestep it whilst she gets on with the tough business of bringing up two children, by herself, in a country that was, and is, ambivalent about her presence. In the first couple of productions of Leave Taking at Liverpool Everyman and the Lyric Hammersmith Enid was played by Ellen Thomas. You might know her from her numerous TV, especially soap opera, roles. She is a first-rate stage actor as well, as her performance in Bonnie Greer’s uneven take on The Cherry Orchard at Theatre Royal Stratford a couple of years ago. I would like to have seen her play Edith. It is not as if the theatrical canon is overrun with roles for strong, black, mature women. Indeed the NT revival of Leave Taking in 1995 (the last before this apparently) was the first play by a back woman on our national stage and the first time a black women writer and director worked together there. It is getting better I guess but given the power of this play, and Nine Night, I for one would like to see a lot more.

You would think that honesty was an easy quality for a playwright and a play to conjure up. You’d be wrong. It’s all an illusion, a story, so showing real people grappling with real life in such an eloquent, witty and emotionally powerful way, and with no formal shenanigans, is only rarely delivered in my experience. This play is as fresh and relevant as the day it was written and definitely ranks as a “modern classic” in my book.

 

Parliament Square at the Bush Theatre review *****

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Parliament Square

Bush Theatre, 6th December 2017

As a few slightly unkind people have pointed out most of the “reviews” I somewhat sadly post on this “blog” are worse than useless as, more often than not, they appear after the event. Fair criticism but I can’t be toddling off to everything in the first week and I judge that most plays at least are best seen about two thirds of the way through. If they have flaws by then, they can be corrected where possible, or parts excised if really necessary. Cast can get the full measure of character and interaction, timings, pauses and rhythm honed. So I reckon I will get more for my money. So yah boo to you.

In this case though I am doing you a favour. Parliament Square runs until 6th January having first appeared at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, there are plenty of tickets left and full price is just twenty quid. The main space at the Bush is airy, comfy and sightlines are terrific. Oh and it is a mightily good play, with an excellent cast, skilfully directed by emerging talent Jude Christian. It has an absorbing central concept, just how far will an individual go to protest against injustice, is formally inventive, each of the three sections has some sort of clever conceit, and it is very well written by James Fritz. It is probably fair to say that the ending is a little too calculated. On the other hand the first section, in large part thanks to exceptional performances from Esther Smith and Lois Chimimba, is as exhilarating a piece of theatre as I have seen this year.

The play won the Judges Award for Playwriting in the Bruntwood Prize in 2015 and, like other plays I have seen which have been recognised here, it has that spark of invigorating originality from the outset which characterises the best new writing. Kat (Esther Smith) gets up one morning, skips work, leaves her husband and young daughter behind, gets the train to London, and commits a premeditated, dramatic, act of self sacrifice. Through the first act, Fifteen Seconds, she is, literally, coached by her conscience in the form of Lois Chimimba, (last seen by me in the unfairly maligned Common, in Peter Pan and in the excellent Diary of A Madman at the Gate). Lois Chimimba also doubles up as Jo, Kat’s sullen teenage daughter in the final act, Fifteen Years. I expect she, and Esther Smith, will go on to bigger, (and maybe even better), things as they are both superb actors.

Kat “fails” in her protest thanks to an intervention by Catherine, another excellent performance from Seraphina Beh. In the second act, Fifteen Steps, we see Kat, vividly and painfully, reconstructing her life and explaining why she did what she did to husband (a perplexed Damola Adelaja), mother (a bluntly perceptive Joanne Howarth) and health professionals (a sympathetic doctor in Jamie Zubairi and demanding physiotherapist in Kelly Hotten) as well as, eventually, to Catherine herself. The rest you can see for yourself.

James Fritz’s writing is very spare but very accurate. We never get to know exactly what Kat is protesting against but it doesn’t matter. We do get to contemplate why someone might choose this idealistic course to try to make a difference, why some might be inspired and some revulsed and why some might see this as futile and selfish. Jude Christian’s direction, (along with Fly Davis’s design, lighting from Jack Knowles, sound from Ben and Max Ringham and movement from Jennifer Jackson), is perfectly matched to the text. There is nothing extraneous here but the required ambiguity about the wisdom of such action is brilliantly conveyed.

James Fritz’s previous plays (The Fall, Comment is Free, Ross and Rachel and Four Minutes and Twelve Seconds) have garnered significant acclaim. I can see why. This is great theatre, well executed. You will come out likely annoyed by some of the behaviour of the characters, but, that is kind of the point given the subject. I think you will admire both writing and acting though. So get along to the Bush. Now.

Heather at the Bush Theatre review *****

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Heather

Bush Theatre, 8th November 2017

For me the best plays take a very few ideas, or even better one idea, and then explore those ideas from multiple perspectives. If the writer loads up the text with too many ideas and messages, usually because he/she can and “it would be a shame not to” it can lead to confusion and drift in my simple mind. Less, as is so often the case, is usually more.

Thomas Eccleshare’s play Heather sticks fast to this rule and I loved it. It first popped up at the Tobacco Factory in 2014, again in Edinburgh I gather, and is now at the Bush for a couple more weeks. I implore you to see it.

I won’t detail the plot and central conceit as this would spoil the elegant twist. The play takes a children’s novel, in the vein of that wretched Potter (love JK Rowling, hate her work, sorry), as a springboard to explore the question of authorial identity and the relationship between art and the nature of the artist that creates it. We get to think about who we find acceptable in the creation of mainstream culture, how culture is represented, owned and marketed and whether rehabilitation is possible or desirable.

There is formal invention in the structure of the play, again I won’t delve too deeply to avoid spoiling, and some very clever and funny wordplay. The three parts of the play do not always entirely ring true but this is sort of the point in a play about how we should regard the representation of the written word. The two actors, Ashley Gerlach and Charlotte Mella, have the characters and the relationship between them absolutely nailed down, and the pace and rhythm of the production under Valentina Ceschi’s direction (she partners the writer in the Dancing Brick company) is spot on. As is the design of Lily Arnold.

That’s it. I won’t labour the point. Along with The End of Hope at the Soho Theatre this is the best way I can think of to spend an hour, (actually slightly less in the case of Heather), this weekend. Take a friend, discuss, eat.

London theatre update

So a few things to note since the last London theatre update.

Booking opens 5th May (earlier for members of various hues) for the new batch of productions at the National Theatre. I reckon tickets for Follies, the Sondheim musical with a cast of thousands and the pocket rocket Imelda Staunton in the lead, will sell like the proverbial hot cakes. I also have my eye on Mosquitoes, the new play by Lucy Kirkwood (Chimerica, NSFW, The Children) with Olivia Colman off the telly.

Booking for the 4 way RSC Shakespeare Roman plays extravaganza is now open at the Barbican.

The new Bridge Theatre inaugural season is announced and I am so excited. Public booking opens 27th April. I recommend all 3 of the openers. Young Marx with Rory Kinnear as Marx, Oliver Chris as Engels, written by Richard Bean and Clive Colman and directed by Nicholas Hytner himself. The Julius Caesar not only has Ben Wishaw as Brutus but David Morrissey (last seen in the magnificent Hangmen by Martin McDonagh – best play of the last 3 years) as Mark Antony. And there is a new work, Nightfall by Barney Norris, which sounds intriguing (the refurbished Bush Theatre has While We’re Here, another new play by busy Barney, coming up). And the Bridge has lined up future new works by Nina Raine (about Bach yesssssss !!!! with Simon Russell Beale yessssss !!!), whose Consent I have yet to see at the NT, and by Lucy Prebble based on Bizet’s opera Carmen, as well as by Sam Holcroft and Lucinda Coxon.

Against at the Almeida will be booking from mid May.

The Old Vic is set to stage The Divide, the new play by Alan Ayckbourn, set in a future dystopian England, after a run at the Edinburgh Festival. Sounds like a cracker, mind you not too many laughs I am guessing from the blurb. No booking details yet.

I am casting an eye over Little Foot (by South African playwright Craig Higginson) and Doubt, A Parable (JP Shanley which was made into a film I gather) at the Southwark Playhouse (who are also bringing back Kiki’s Delivery Service which is a belter if you have littl’uns).

Everything Between Us (by David Ireland), Food and Mr Gillie look like the best of the bunch in the new Finborough theatre season.

And I have booked 3 of the 5 offerings at the end of July at the Orange Tree where they are letting young directors’, studying at St Mary’s round the corner in Strawberry Hill, loose on early plays by James Graham, Brad Birch, David Ireland, Enda Walsh and Kate Tempest. £7.50 a pop to support aspiring talent. Go on.

Finally I am weighing up the RSC Queen Anne at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in the transfer from Stratford but can’t quite make up my mind though Romola Garai in the lead may tip the balance.

Happy theatre going.