Directors’ Festival at the Orange Tree Theatre 2018 review

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Directors’ Festival 2018

Katie Johnstone ****

Precious Little Talent ****

In the Night-Time (Before the Sun Rises) ****

Right it was a brilliant idea last year. It was a brilliant idea this year. And it will be a brilliant idea next year (Directors’ Festival at the Orange Tree Theatre review). As part of their MA’s at the nearby St Mary’s University, (in close conjunction with the OT itself), let three talented young directors loose on some superb short contemporary plays written by three equally talented young playwrights. Let us la-di-dah local culture vultures and a bunch of the directors’ fellow students and mates enjoy the results. And charge just a few quid for the proceeds. The Orange Tree now is getting close to Almeida-like levels of consistency, it is a superb space to see intimate two and three handers like these and the works, whether new, recent or revival, are so well chosen that you wonder why others can’t seem to beat them to the punch.

Anyway here was a new play (Katie Johnstone) from the prolific pen of Luke Barnes who writes for and about you young-uns, a revival of the second published play from the brilliant Ella Hickson (Precious Little Talent), she of Oil and The Writer fame, written in 2012, and a production of Nina Segal’s first play (In the Night-Time) which premiered at the Gate in 2016. Unsurprisingly these are all very fine works. Perhaps also unsurprisingly given the quality of last years’ productions they are all amazingly well directed by, respectively, Samson Hawkins, Dominique Chapman and Evangeline Cullingworth. I can’t be sure, in the absence of scripts, just how much they had to work with in terms of the look, feel and pace of each of the plays but I have to say, in every case, these were as inventive and as dramatic solutions to the limitations that the OT space imposes that I could wish to see, or indeed have seen.

Samson Hawkins is AD of his own company, tomfool, and assisted on the recent OT production of Romeo and Juliet and appears to be joining the team at the Oxford Playhouse. Dominique Chapman assisted on Joe Whtie’s excellent debut play at the OT, Mayfly (Mayfly at the Orange Tree Theatre review *****) and is freelance and works at the Globe. Evangeline Cullingworth assisted on Humble Boy and is associated with the Royal Court and the Gate. On the strength of these three shows I expect them all to go far. They all worked with set designer Eleanor Bull and OT lighting and sound regulars Stuart Burgess and Anna Clock to deliver equally dynamic productions and to allow their talented casts to shine.

I am not sure if this was intended but it seemed to me that all three plays were linked in that they all dealt with the crushing of youthful dreams in one way or another.

The eponymous Katie Johnstone is determined not to end up stacking shelves in Tesco alongside Mum and her bessie, and taking up with any old local lad. She wants to get to college and start her own business. Exams, and not knowing what sort of business, are no barrier to her dreams. In the end she can’t escape but Georgia May Hughes, on her main stage debut, shows us a feisty and powerful young woman whose humanity shows through even when her hopes and dreams are dashed. Kristin Atherton who caught my eye in the RSC Rome season is very good as Mum and friend Janet and Reuben Johnson also shines as all the male characters and, especially, as the fox, a recurring and intelligently used symbolic presence. There is a real energy to the production and it packs a lot into just over an hour.

Precious Little Talent tells the story of fervent young American student Sam and somewhat mordant British expat Joey meeting in New York in 2008 just after the election of Obama. This is a night to remember for both of them though their memories don’t quite coincide it transpires. We see that Sam also helps look after his neighbour George who has dementia. It turns out that George is Joey’s Dad. Sam’s crush on Joey never fades and he comes to London to try to persuade her to come back to New York and give up on her going-nowhere jobs and life. There’s a lot more to it than that, as you might expect from the pen of Ella Hickson, as it explores the relationships between each of the three principals, contrasting Sam’s optimism with Joey’s disillusionment, the fracturing of the father/daughter bond and the frustrations of George’s illness. Not a line is wasted and Matt Jessup and Rebecca Collingwood are outstanding as the two young’ers with Simon Shepherd, (you will know him off the telly), lending George an air of deliberate pathos.

Nina Segal’s In the Night-Time is a more experimental play which follows one young couple’s sleepless night with their newborn baby. This is the jumping off point for a fantasia of words and movement telling the story of their relationship to this point, their hopes, fears, dreams, frustrations, all amplified by their extreme tiredness and centred on the child they have together brought into the world.. It is far from naturalistic but still manage to convey just how scary those first few days are with baby number one, (though the SO and MSMM would both fairly point out that I was f*ck all use all those years ago). Ms Cullingworth asks a lot of her actors and Man (Ziggy Heath) and, especially, Woman (Anna Leong Brophy) don’t hold back, pulling us, the audience, into their story. There is also some nifty work from the stage management team pushing prop after prop through the centre staged cot. It didn’t all come off but when it worked it packed a powerful emotional and dramatic punch.

I reckon all three of these productions would merit a further outing and I intend to watch the future careers of these directors, and the less experienced cast members here, with close interest. Put this in your diary for next year. You won’t regret it.

The Writer at the Almeida Theatre review *****

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The Writer

Almeida Theatre, 9th May 2018

The Writer is …. an absolutely staggering piece of …. writing. No other way to say it. I’d wager there were a few punters in the audience that disagree with me but I think Ella Hickson, along with director Blanche McIntyre and the rest of the creative team, and an outstanding cast, have conjured up a masterpiece. In the same breath it provokes, educates and entertains. It deserves a much wider audience that the well-heeled punters like the Tourist who make up the Almeida throng. Whilst the Almeida may not immediately struck you as part of the solution to the problem of access for telling stories from women on stage, it was heartening to see this project realised there.

It starts with an impellent Lara Rossi, (who is more than a match for Romola Garai, superb as the eponymous Writer), playing a young actor/writer who, post performance, eloquently demolishes the lazy, sexist premises on which a complacent Samuel West’s direction is constructed. As she says theatre is “famous people, doing boring things badly”! Men are judged on what they produce, women on how fuckable they are. They have inevitably met before. We discover though that they are acting out the Writer’s text and sharply shift to a staged Q&A in which the nervous, tongue-tied Writer’s work is undermined by the “real” Director imperiously played by Michael Gould who praises its “promise” but inveigles against it lack of “structure”. Just who is going to watch this sort of stuff?

Scene two switches to the home of the Writer and partner, also Samuel West, who bullies and cajoles the Writer into agreeing to adapting her work into a film. It is all about him. She yearns for, and needs, more. The “biological clock” is invoked. The next, I think deliberately disorientating and galling, scene sees the Writer in a safe, supportive female only space, a jungle-y retreat of sorts, invoking Semele and other Origin mythological mumbo-jumbo (with some fantastic realisation from Richard Howell’s lighting, Emma Laxton’s sound and Zakk Hein’s video). Scene four sees the now confident Writer arguing with Michael Gould’s director about the play to date. He is viciously pulling the prior scene apart, whilst patronisingly banging on about the “rawness” of the opening. The final scene sees the writer with another partner, this time played by Lara Rossi. The compromises and imbalances of scene two are revisited.

From this structure Ella Hickson is able to explore fundamental arguments about how power, the patriarchy and contemporary capitalism, (as Lara Rossi’s character explains early on), affects, and infects, the creative process, art and the theatre and our relationships. It is a polemic of sorts, but Ms Hickson dissects her material, with fearless, supple and sceptical self-awareness. It confronts and confounds the audience, for sure, is intellectually reflexive, but avoids aggressive predictable dialectic. It revels in, and reveals, the artifice of theatre. Which in some ways makes Romola Garai’s performance, remember she has to convincingly “act” this all out, even more remarkable.

If thats sounds like a recipe for a dry evening, think again. The “drama” is delivered with real passion, even anger, with wit, and with a formal inventiveness, that left the Tourist with bum glued to his seat, ears straining, mouth open. Anna Fleischle’s design, (and the on-stage managers), intelligently accommodate the play’s inversions with repeated construction and de-construction. Ultimately though it is the control that Ella Hickson exerts over her themes, assisted by Blanche McIntyre, that makes this brilliant. It twists and turns but it knows exactly what it is doing and saying.

I learnt a lot. I recognise the behaviours exhibited by the men on stage here, especially Samuel West in the second scene. I don’t know how to avoid them. I do know I had to think very hard about what I would say about the play. It will make you want to argue. Ideally not while it is going on although maybe we should.

At one point, forgive me I forget when, the point is made that the Writer will move on to more established theatrical storytelling forms. Presumably this will be so for Ms Hickson thought I doubt she will write anything as powerful as this story about the struggle to tell women’s stories. Mind you Oil was a work of near genius in my book and also shows she isn’t going to fuck about with little subjects. I think she might just be the best and most challenging writer for the British stage right now. Ignore those who will say this is just irritating, indulgent self-therapy. They are wrong. Leave them to watch nonsense like that revival of Absolute Hell or Rattigan knock-offs. This is what theatre is all about.