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

The Gift

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 8th February 2020

Another in the lengthening list of contemporary plays where the reach of ambition exceeds the grasp of execution. Janice Okoh has set her sights on “imperialism, cross-racial adoption, cultural appropriation … and tea” with her “outrageous” play set firstly, in Victorian Brighton in 1862, and then in a present-day village in Cheshire. It has some thought-provoking, and funny, dialogue and some arresting scenes, born of its formal invention (and doubling), but it doesn’t quite hang together and loses focus, and turns preachily didactic, after the first two acts.

In the first act Sarah Bonetta Davies played by newbie Shannon Hayes is a Yoruba princess, orphaned, enslaved, rescued and then “adopted”, as was her “fashion”, by Queen Victoria, and now about to return to her African “home”. She attempts to school her unrefined black maid Aggie (Donna Berlin) in the etiquette of tea drinking before being join by Yoruba husband James (Dave Fishley), peremptory “aunt” Mrs Schoen (Rebecca Charles), benevolent Reverend Venn (Richard Teverson) and social climber Harriet Walker (Joanna Brookes). Interesting because Sarah Bonetta Davies was a real person (with a fascinating legacy) and interesting because of the way Janice Okoh uses this classic drawing play set up to explore her themes.

Then a switch to the tasteful front room in Cheshire where new white neighbours, artisan baker Harriet (Rebecca Charles) and Ben (Richard Teverson), have come to visit black professional couple James (Dave Fishley) and our latter-day Sarah (Donna Berlin), armed with muffins. Tea, of every possible hue, is taken. Through a mix of misplaced good intentions and weakly concealed racism, the white couple’s woke-ish self-image unravels and they start digging and don’t stop, especially when it comes to the subject of James’s and Sarah’s adopted, white, daughter, Victoria. James and Sarah initially pass off the unconscious gaffes but, especially when Ben’s comments turn offensive, then push back, inducing the inevitable “well if that’s how you feel” wounded umbrage from Harriet and Ben. Ms Okoh absolutely nails this scene with laugh out loud satirical writing of the highest quality.

A powerful scene follows where modern Sarah, worn out from the casual bigotry, strips and walks off rear stage through a series of light box squares. Interval. And then the return for the tea party showdown between the oblivious Queen Victoria (Joanna Brookes) and the furious Sarah BD. Great concept but tension has defused and Sarah’s arguments become too sustained. And Aggie reappears as some sort of time-lord oracle. Intentions are exemplary, but the structure becomes all too visible and the drama climaxes with a thud.

Though not for want of creative nous. Dawn Walton, who founded Eclipse Theatre, the co-producer of The Gift alongside the Belgrade Coventry, handles the detail of each act with surety, with Simon Kenny’s set, Johanna Town’s lighting and Adrienne Quartly’s sound, all chipping in, but even she can’t quite bring together each strand of the narrative. And the cast, especially Donna Berlin, (last seen by the Tourist at the Arcola in Great Apes – please give that beacon of East London culture, as well as this one here, some cash), plainly relish Janice Okoh’s dialogue.

I would still be very keen to see more of Ms Okoh’s work, particularly if she were to challenge the audience with “just” ideas and dialogue and not form as well. Nonetheless The Gift counts as another in the growing list of plays that Nadia Fell has programmed at the TRSE that talk up to its diverse audiences as well as entertain. They are coming back soon(ish) I hope. With a panto. We’ll need it.

Great Apes at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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Great Apes

Arcola Theatre, 31st March 2018

I sort of lost track with Will Self the author after The Book of Dave. His sprawling, satirical fantasies with a lot of big words, unreliable narratives and narrators, drugs, mental dislocation, is never short of imagination and ideas, but aren’t always that easy, or pleasurable, to read. He is very clever and very funny, and he knows it, and really likes to show it. His influences are many, and obvious, Ballard, Burroughs, Heller, and then back through Kafka, Joyce, Voltaire and Swift. I gather he too has given up on the novel, all of them, not just his.

I did enjoy Great Apes however and its successor How the Dead Live. Our protagonist, artist Simon Dykes (Simon/simian geddit), whose prime artistic concern is, surprise, surprise, perspective, wakes up after a bender to find his girlfriend, Sarah, is a chimpanzee. And so is everybody else. His human “delusion” means he is taken in by psychiatrist Zack Busner, Will Self’s stock character, here an alpha male chimp. From this transparent inversion Self shines a light on human, and chimpanzee behaviours, we’re not so different, and on the nature of mental illness and reality. Because the satire is so primitive, as it were, and has been done to death in those wretched Planet of the Apes films, Self has to concentrate his powers on the narrative and the characters in a way that sometimes escapes him in the other novels. By colliding chimpanzee and human society and culture, Self sheds light on our own behaviours, fears and dysfunctions. It is also adroitly pokes fun at our own human exceptionalism. London, drugs, mental illness, “false” narratives are all explored, as you would expect, but there also some affecting exploration of relationships, which you don’t really expect from the lugubrious Mr Self.

In short its is clever yes, but with a purpose, and it has a proper plot. How then to put it on stage. Well first break it down into the key scenes. Mr Self’s detailed imagining of this alternative society has to run alongside the story of Simon’s journey from human “reality” through “delusion” and eventually to explanation, and Dr Busner’s rise and fall. To get it on to the Arcola stage needed some perspicacious work from adapter Patrick Marmion, which we have. It also needed the creative team of director Oscar Pearce, designer Sarah Beaton, lighting designer Matt Haskins, sound designer Dan Balfour, movement director Jonnie Riordan, costume supervisor Kate Hemstock and the puppetry team of Tom Espiner and Mala Kirkman-Richards, to combine to reveal enough to allow our imaginations to do the rest. In this they succeeded, a remarkable achievement given limitations of space and budget.

Perhaps the most important technical contribution however came from chimpanzee physicality and vocalisation consultant Peter Elliott. Now I will stake a wild guess that there aren’t too many people with that particular job title. His bio shows that he has worked on a number of major films involving primates, real and imagined, and, most remarkably, it says he became the first ever person to integrate with the colony of chimps at the University of Oklahoma.

I am also guessing the cast has down too much auditioning for primate work in the past. The way they combined voice, body and the simple props, benches, ladders and specialised crutches, (not sure if they have a special name), to simulate chimpanzee movement, sound and behaviour, was really impressive. Whilst Bryan Dick playing Simon and Ruth Lass playing Dr Zack, that’s right, in a piece of inspired casting we had a woman playing the alpha male here just to mess up our heads a bit more, the other five actors doubled up, or more. Yep they had to take on the character of not just one but several different chimpanzees. I was particularly struck by the performance of Ruth Everett as Busner’s assistant Jane Bowen, artist Tabitha Buckfast and Eve Knight, a film-maker.

Now I will admit with so much to pack in there were times when ambition overreached execution. Some of the plot had to be chivvied along especially towards the end. To have covered everything in the book would have been technically and dramatically impossible, and some of the intelligent subtleties and artistic allusion of the book gets a bit lost along the way.

Still you will end the evening definitely entertained, in awe of the technical achievement and with plenty to think about even if you may not entirely connect to the characters. Then again they’re chimps aren’t they? How would you connect to them? They’re animals aren’t they? They’re not as special as us are they what with out technology, language and civilisation?