Pilgrims at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

Pilgrims

Directors’ Festival 2019, Orange Tree Theatre, 7th August 2019

The Tourist is a firm fan of the annual Directors’ Festival at the Orange Tree which gives students taking the theatre directing MA at nearby St Mary’s Uni, (in conjunction with the OT), an opportunity to try their hand at a full scale production. Unfortunately this year other commitments and a diary cock-up, (entirely my fault I admit SO), left me only seeing one of the four productions. Pilgrims directed by Ellie Goodall.

This was chosen largely on the strength of writer Elinor Cook, specifically Out of Love which appeared here at the OT last year and her adaptation of The Lady from the Sea which Kwame Kwei-Armah directed at the Donmar in 2017. She has a rare gift for lyrical dialogue and elastic character wrapped up in temporally uncertain, non-naturalistic settings. (And, I might say, a wonderful first name). Pilgrims followed the same pattern. Though not quite as effectively as Out of Love it must be said.

It tells the story, well stories since we see all three perspectives, of the love triangle between two mountaineering friends Will (Nicholas Armfield) and Dan (Luke MacGregor), and would be folklore academic, and our narrator, Rachel (Adeyinka Akinrinade). The extrovert, excitable Will and the deeper, introverted Dan are famous in their world for having climbed Everest together aged 18. But their climbing partnership is starting to fray. Rachel falls for Will first but, later, it is Dan with whom she makes a real connection. Not ground-breaking stuff in terms of set-up but from this Ms Cook explores themes such as female agency, gender expectations and male ambition through flash-backs and flash-forwards as the two men face danger on their latest, virgin, climb. In tales of derring-do men usually do the derring and women wait on the sidelines for their return. Not here.

Chris McDonnell’s lighting and, especially, Lex Kosanke’s sound do a grand job in taking us from mountainside to bar to front room which renders the simple props that the cast cart around on Cory Shipp’s set somewhat redundant. All three actors are, moreorless, on top of Ms Cook’s zigzagging text, though Adekinya Akinrinade has the best of the evening (as is meant to be) and Ellie Goodall’s direction shows she has a firm grip on plot and character.

It is just that sometimes Elinor Cook’s eloquent prose, (with its references to the Penelope of Homer’s Odyssey and Mary Magdalene), may just be a little too fractured, trying to do too much, (ideas, image, exposition, dialogue), with too little. Not for one moment suggesting a non-linear, lyrical approach to story-telling is a problem, far from it, that is what theatre is for. Just that in this case the warmth and humour which characterised Out of Love was less apparent and the message, the marginalisation of women in life as well as stories, might have stood a more direct approach and a less compressed structure.

Mind you I am an old bloke so maybe beyond understanding. Though, if it helps, I can categorically stay I wouldn’t be stupid enough to climb a mountain just to prove how manly I was.

Out of Love at the Orange Tree Theatre review ****

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Out of Love

Orange Tree Theatre, 6th February 2018

The second of the three co-productions with Paines Plough and Theatre Clywd and, for me, somewhat more persuasive than Black Mountain (Black Mountain at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***), though very different in subject and scope. Mind you, in both cases, out the door at 7, a quick dramatic fix, and back home by 9ish for a cup of tea, is surely the perfect evening. Out of Love is from the pen of Elinor Cook and garnered acclaim last year at Edinburgh with this same creative team and cast.

Now the SO and I were not entirely persuaded by the recent Donmar Warehouse production of Lady From the Sea, which was adapted by Elinor Cook, though, on my part, this is because I like my Ibsen icy. (The Lady from the Sea at the Donmar Warehouse review ***). There is no doubt though that she is a writer who persuasively captures the experience of women. At least I think so, as it is tricky to judge from my perspective as a fat, old, privileged white bloke. I did learn a lot about the two characters, Lorna and Grace, at the heart of this play.

Now telling the story of two friends, throughout their lives, is not revolutionary. Especially when one escapes their roots and one remains. This, after all, lies at the heart of Elena Ferrante’s quartet, (though I accept there is a great deal more here to feast on), which April de Angelis and Melly Still so ingeniously brought to the stage last year (My Brilliant Friend at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****).

Elinor Cook though has shaken this up though by abandoning strict chronology. Instead we get a series of rapid, kaleidoscopic scenes which chart the women’s relationship with each other, with their parents, with their various partners and, poignantly, with Grace’s child, Martha. Grace is the feistier and more headstrong of the two, Lorna more measured and initially less confident. From the outset, a game of “weddings” in the park, we see that Lorna attracts more male attention, which fuels Grace’s jealously and protectiveness. Lorna has rejected her absent father but resents her stepfather’s attempts to cool the intensity of the friendship. Lorna’s academic success sees her go to university and build a career. Grace falls for local lad Mike and falls pregnant, and cannot follow Lorna’s path. This creates a gap between them that proves difficult to bridge.

Like I say, nothing exceptional in the plot. Yet Elinor Cook’s writing is so exact and so true to life that, together with the dynamic structure, we are fully drawn into the friendship. Katie Elin-Salt is very impressive as Grace, her outward show of gobbiness failing to conceal her wounded vulnerability. Sally Messham matches her showing how Lorna grows in confidence, and independence, as she pushes back against family, partners and, yes, Grace. Hasan Dixon has his work cut out playing the eight, count ’em, incidental male roles, but any marginal audience confusion in the first few minutes soon evaporates. No costume changes, no lighting or sound pyrotechnics, (in contrast to Black Mountain), so we are reliant on text and actors. Oh and some very nifty work from Movement director Jennifer Jackson to demarcate both characters and place.

So a frank, smart, poignant, realistic, if not naturalistic, portrait of a friendship, which creates a deep impressions, actually impressions, over its compact 70 minutes. Definitely worth a visit, there are a couple of weeks left to run, and, if you are anywhere close by, it would be a crime to miss it.

 

The Lady from the Sea at the Donmar Warehouse review ***

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The Lady From The Sea

Donmar Warehouse, 23rd November 2017

I have an uneasy relationship with Henrik Ibsen and this is the first time I have seen The Lady From The Sea, (though I note that plenty of the usual Ibsen obsessions are on show in it). So I may not be best placed to make a reliable judgement. Then again this blog is really only intended for me to process what I have seen so, strictly, if I am both author and reader here, we can both agree that nothing of what follows matters.

Except that the SO was present. And what she thinks does matter. To me at least. And her view echoed mine. We were not completely persuaded that the Caribbean setting of Elinor Cook’s spikey adaption added an extra dimension to proceedings, even if it satisfied the high watery metaphor count,¬†and we felt that Nikki Amuka-Bird’s admittedly full-blooded performance as an unhinged Ellida didn’t entirely articulate with the other characters, especially Finbar Lych’s diffident, decent Wangel. We get that Ibsen doesn’t have to be cold deep fjords, birch trees and not saying what you mean, and that it is beholden on us, the audience, to work with Ibsen and his interpreters to get to the bottom of the drama, but direction and setting just meant this production didn’t suck us in the way the best Ibsen does.

I like it best when I am simultaneously fascinated by, and want to figuratively slap Ibsen’s characters, (not literally obviously, that is worse than eating or arsing about with your phone in terms of theatre etiquette). Ellida is torn between her duty and her desire, to escape for sure, but more importantly to take control of her stultifying life. Bolette is presented with a similar dilemma, duty or desire, albeit without some flash, bad-boy Stranger sailor hanging around. Hilde, as we see when she leads Solness a merry dance in The Master Builder, is free, even if here she is still missing her real Mum. The blokes, in their different ways, have the scales lifted from their eyes, at least Wangel and Arnholm do. Poor Lyngstrand in this production is just a knob, albeit quite funny, as his artistic pretensions are mocked.

That’s the guts of what I see. Ellida, like Hedda, Nora. Helene, Rita and Ibsen’s other women, are not easy to play, but, for me, it is made immeasurably harder if the stifling nature of the society, and, as here, the marriage, they find themselves in, is not foregrounded. We may be a long way from Europe here, in a land built on oppression, but this is never really explored. Reasons for Ellida’s emotional “prisoner’s dilemma” are easy to see, sexual frustration, the loss of a child, an incomplete memory of first “love”, smothered ambition, thwarted intelligence, but solutions should remain knotty and incomplete, even as they appear. At times the production was a little too direct which left some of the intended haunting allusion and symbolism looking pretty awkward.

Kwame Kwei-Armah presents his and Ms Cook’s case with accuracy against the jaunty set of Tom Scutt, but it never really catches fire. Mind you we were both struck with Helena Wilson’s clever Bolette and Ellie Bamber’s pointed Hilde. I reckon both of them could get properly stuck into an appropriate leading role in a new play.