A Kind of People at the Royal Court Theatre review ****

A Kind of People

Royal Court Downstairs, 16th December 2019

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was a new playwriting name for me. No longer. A Kind of People takes a not uncommon subject, racism in contemporary Britain, and not uncommon set-ups, a mixed race marriage, friendships, a party, a workplace, and conjures up an insightful and nuanced drama, with (mostly) credible dialogue and (mostly) well-rounded characters. If this sounds like I am damming with faint prose I am not. Getting this type of play just right, without getting preachy or taking too unlikely a turn, is not easy so hats off to both writer, and director Michael Buffong from Tawala.

Given the impact that GKB’s previous plays have had my ignorance of her work extends well beyond remiss. Her first play Behsharam (Sensation) was a great success, Behzti (Dishonour), which included the rape of a young woman in a gurdwara, won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2005, before being chased off the Birmingham Rep stage by British Sikh protestors. Her next Behud (Beyond Belief) drew on her experiences around Behzti, followed by Londonee, Fourteen, Khandan (Family), Elephant and Dishoom!. As far as I can work out all of this draw on her own life and Sikh heritage whilst A Kind of People expands beyond this.

Nicky (Claire-Louise Cordwell) and Gary (Richie Campbell), childhood sweethearts, now married with three kids, just about managing, are throwing a small party. Gary’s white best mate and work colleague, Mark (Thomas Coombes), is a permanent fixture, Mo (Asif Khan) and Anjum (Manjinder Virk), British Asian friends and neighbours, are a bit better off, Karen (Petra Letang), Gary’s sister and Nicky’s best mate, has just broken up with her partner. Gary’s boss at the electrical engineering company, Victoria (Amy Morgan), pitches up, overdoes it on the prosecco and retires, disgracefully, after a bout of overtly racist behaviour.

All is then forgiven? Not really. And then Gary goes for a promotion, which he doesn’t get despite being well qualified. He blames Victoria. Things unravel from there. See what I mean. No bombshells, disclosures, blasts from the past, or anything else to drive an audience double-take. GKB’s meticulous dialogue explores each character’s motivations and reactions without judgement leaving us to decide who is taking and causing offence and whether the consequences are justified. Maybe there are moments when dialogue to advance the plot, flesh out back stories and build the arguments emerges just a little too artificially, but hey, it’s a play not “real life”.

Fair to say that this production also benefits from two central performances that skilfully mine the ambivalence of the text. The only time I have seen Claire-Louise Cordwell on stage was in the dreadful A Tale of Two Cities at the Open Air Theatre for which she takes no blame. Like her, Richie Campbell is also a TV veteran and the experience of both in gritty screen drama and even soaps shines through. This is well beyond soap cliche however, though I note that GKB cut her teeth on Eastenders and has form with The Archers, but the trick of drawing attention to thorny socio-political tensions through heightened individual dilemmas, bears comparison. (Early on Victoria remarks that the party is “so nice, just like off the telly”). Multiple points of view, uncomfortable truths, flawed but empathetic personalities. Gary is casually sexist, Victoria is, at best, full on white gaze, Anjum explicitly classist when it comes to her son’s education, Mark is jealous and manipulative.

Anna Fleischle’s set switches briskly between the couple’s council flat and the workplace, and the park where the play, poignantly, concludes, in flashback. So that nothing gets in the way of the audience’s, palpable, reactions to the unfolding drama. I would hazard a guess that All Kinds of People is a play that has been allowed time to develop and that GKB has been generous in taking on the advice and suggestions of her various collaborators. Which will have helped make it such a tight, effective and vital story.

Blood Wedding at the Young Vic review ****

Blood Wedding

Young Vic, 11th October 2019

I got a bit nervous going into this. For those who don’t know, South African director Yael Farber has a certain style, an aesthetic, and approach to interpretation of classic plays, which isn’t too everyone’s taste. For me it works. Mies Julie, Knives in Hens, Les Blancs, even the much derided Salome at the NT, all drew me in. Very satisfying. We have her take on Hamlet also at the Young Vic to look forward to next year and newbie, the Boulevard Theatre, has lined her up to direct her compatriot, Athol Fugard’s, Hello and Goodbye.

For Blood Wedding though I had roped in the SO, a more forbidding critic, who is not, as most chums rightly are, as tolerant as the Tourist of, shall we say directorial longueurs. And this was near 2 hours straight through. On the benches of the Young Vic main space. And with her back playing up.

As it turned out I had nothing to fear. Lorca’s play, (his day job was poet after all), has a mythic and elegiac quality perfectly suited to Ms Farber’s ethereal approach, though this tale of forbidden love and revenge is not without drama and lends itself to a clear feminist interpretation. All this and more was on show at the Young Vic. A barely there, in the round, set design from Susan Hilferty, with occasional visual declamation via doors on one side, some artful cascades and a rope and harness which permitted muscular bad boy Leonardo (Gavin Drea) and absconding (nameless) Bride (Aoife Duffin) the striking means to pretend gallop. The intervention of the symbolic Moon (Thalissa Teixera), who can now add superb flamenco singing to her acting flair, and woodcutters (Roger Jean Nsengiyumva and Faaiz Mbelizi) made perfect, just about, sense. The bold lighting of Natasha Chivers, the score of Isobel Waller-Bridge, the spectral hum of Emma Laxton’s sound design, the balletic movement of Imogen Knight, witness the closing fight (overseen by Kate Waters) and subsequent requiem.

Most of all though Marina Carr’s beautiful translation. By shifting the setting of Lorca’s revenge tragedy to rural Ireland, though never quite leaving 1930’s Andalusia behind, Ms Faber allowed Ms Carr the opportunity to conjure an English language translation which was sympathetic to the poetry, metaphor and idiom of the Spanish original. A colonised Irish interior, suppressed by Church and State, bears obvious similarities to the paralysed, benighted Spain that Lorca delineated, critiqued and celebrated in his rural trilogy (Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba as well as BW). The hybrid setting also allowed the natural casting of the magnificent Olwen Fouere as the grizzled, austere Mother and the equally magnificent Brid Brennan as the Weaver. If I tell you that Annie Firbank as the Housekeeper and Steffan Rhodri as the outraged Father also graced the stage, along with relative newcomers Scarlett Brookes, (watch her closely in future) as Leonardo’s spurned wife and David Walmsley as the equally wronged Groom, then you can see that this was a grade A cast top to toe.

Lorca’s story is straightforward. Mother reminds son (the Groom) that his Dad and Bro were killed by the men of the Felix family next door. A dispute over land. Leonardo Felix and the Bride are still in love. Mrs Leonardo knows. The Mother finds out as well but decides to visit the Bride and her Dad. The wedding goes ahead by Leonardo turns up and steals the Bride. Outrage. Vengeance. Fight. Deaths. Sacrifice. It is very heady stuff but its chimerical qualities mean it is a long way from melodrama or even Greek tragedy. Closer to fable.

Anyway Yael Farber and Marina Carr have done a little nip and tuck with the plot but all the primitive elements are still there. That this is a traditional, brutally patriarchal society is never in doubt, as much but what the older women say, as the men, and yet there is still a sense of agency in the striking performances of Aoife Duffin and Scarlett Brooks. There is intentional comedy in the vernacular passages and there is no unintentional comedy in the brutal and fantastical scenes, (though once or twice it skirts close near the end – it is the women who mop up the blood). The cumulative effect is undeniably powerful even when the pace edges towards the, shall we say, Largo. In fact there is something of the minor key symphonic in Yael Farber’s reading.

I am not sure I would recommend this to fans of the Lion King or indeed anyway unfamiliar with this deliberately stylised auteur approach to theatre. On reflection I shouldn’t really have worried about the SO’s reaction. She reads books. Proper books. Lots of them. We are drowning in theme. Imagination, to augment the visual abstraction, is therefore no limitation for her.

Uncle Vanya at the Hampstead Theatre review ****

Uncle Vanya

Hampstead Theatre, 12th January 2019

Should you be tempted to follow the Tourist into a life of excess …. theatre-going … then I have a warning. These luvvies do put on a lot of Shakespeare. No surprise there I guess. But they also really, really love their Chekhov. As will you after prolonged exposure. But I had not realised just how much there is lurking about. Particularly when you remember there are only really five full plays to choose from. There are a also handful of one-acters and “Platonov”, but basically you are going to get to know these five pretty quickly, particularly when you consider that, whisper it, they all explore similar themes in similar settings. Mind you, given the day-job as a doctor and the billions of short stories he wrote you could never say our Anton was an idler.

It’s the tragic-comedy thing I think. That’s what the directors, casts and, obviously, us audiences are attracted to. And the fact that there are so many layers. And that the characters, even if they are of a certain class at a certain time in a certain place, grapple with the real stuff of life. In short they spend a lot of time basically f*cking it up in one way or another, as we all do. The misery of dashed expectation.

The Chekhov industry also benefits from the seemingly unquenchable desire of other playwrights to adapt his dramas. Not just new works in some way drawn from or inspired by the great man, but countless new adaptations generally now taken directly from literal translations, which the dramatists have then stamped their own ideas, idiom and style on. And I am only talking about the English versions. Samuel Adamson, Torben Betts, Ranjit Bolt, Martin Crimp, Michael Frayn, Brian Friel, Pam Gems, Peter Gill, Christopher Hampton, David Hare, David Harrower, Robert Icke, David Lan, Mike Poulton, Carol Rocamora, Simon Stephens, Tom Stoppard and Nicholas Wright. That’s just the playwrights I have heard of. A very illustrious list I am sure you will agree.

This diversion was sparked by an interesting essay in the programme which looks at the translation and adaptation process and, in particular, how necessary or desirable it is to stay close to the language and/or spirit of Chekhov’s original text. Given AC’s ability to capture the universal, as well as the very particular, I can see why this continues to be a source of immense fascination to these clever and talented people.

Particularly when you consider the fact that this play, Uncle Vanya, is itself based on AC’s own earlier play The Wood Demon. This was written in 1889 though never published but sufficient manuscripts survived and many patient Russian theatre companies have given it a go. AC was pressured into writing it by his publisher Aleksey Suvorin who also contributed plot and even some text. By all accounts he was a bit rubbish but when he lost interest AC kept going and, after it was rejected by three theatres, The Wood Demon eventually got a showing only to be crucified by critics and (small) audiences alike. AC though didn’t give up on it, retaining two-thirds of the text but cutting the cast back to 9 main characters, (previously many of these had “doubles’ of one sort or another), upping the autobiographical contribution, (prevalent in all the plays), reworking Suvorin’s nepotistic bequest and stripping out a load of poncey literary references. And changing a crucial bit of plot, from a successful to a failed, suicide. Result? Well not quite overnight success,Uncle Vanya had a few provincial outings and a bit of a run in with the censors before the triumphant opening in Moscow, but it is, arguably, his most perfect work.

It was probably then only a matter of time before Terry Johnson joined the roll call of other very clever playwrights listed above and had his own shot at Chekhov. Here he upped the interpretative stakes by taking on the role of director as well, (and casting daughter Alice Bailey Johnson as Sonia). My regular reader will know that I am more than favourably disposed to the work of Mr Johnson, despite being a relatively late-comer, with his last original outing, Prism, in this very house, turning into one of those plays that continues to pop up in the memory.

Well he unashamedly opts for the traditional when it comes to the setting, though Tim Shortall’s design cleverly morphs the interior and exterior of stylised dacha with silver birches, and Ben Ormerod’s lighting attractively rings the diurnal and seasonal changes. And there is some mighty fine tailoring on show. The production thus continues the HT’s long run of exquisite sets. (Mind you, having set up the look of fin de circle rural Russia, the soundscape of Emma Laxton doesn’t do much to offer an aural equivalent). TJ has no truck with any of, for example, the modish Anglicisation of Robert Icke’s Vanya at the Almeida. The language is simple, direct and idiomatic. “Modest” is what Terry Johnson, in his own words, set out to achieve and a modest production is what he delivers.

Whilst this might, at times, leave a little bit of the characters’ complexity of motive of the table it does make for a beautifully crisp plot development. Who does what to whom is very easy to grasp and this leaves plenty of headspace to ponder why they do what they do. AC famously said he was better at writing middles than ends and beginnings and this straight reading emphasises that and doesn’t encourage too much in the way of contextual or historical analysis. It is though very funny. Mr Johnson is alert to the humour in Chekhov and, as director, he can, er, direct us towards it. Whilst still showing up the vulnerabilities and venoms that lie behind it.

Alan Cox is a perky, self-aware Vanya. He can’t resist conspiratorially pointing out the failings of others though he well knows his own. He could have been a contender but now he is mordantly shuffling towards …. nothingness. Robin Soans as Serebryakov is fall of flatulent entitlement and Kirsty Oswald, who stepped in at the last minute to replace debutant Abbey Lee, is an unusually sensitive Yelena. (Apparently she kicked off with script in hand in which case she has come a very long way very quickly. Bravo). Alice Bailey Johnson similarly gives us a Sonya who is more assertive than normal, completing, with June Watson’s Marina, a triumvirate of women who bear the burden of supporting their various menfolk. Kika Markham also turns in a solid performance as Maryia, blindly in thrall to her son-in-law’s feeble academic reputation, as does Alec Newman as pickled idealist doctor, and babe magnet by geographical isolation, Astrov, and David Shaw-Parker as the permanently chipper hanger-on Telyeghin.

The Tourist caught one of the last performances, which, in a classic as richly textured as this, is normally not a bad idea. which means it’s gone now. However, if you are still a Vanya virgin don’t despair, (at least not at all you see it). Just like the 38 bus there be another one along shortly.

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

writer

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.

 

The York Realist at the Donmar Warehouse review *****

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The York Realist

Donmar Warehouse, 22nd March 2018

Live in Sheffield? Like theatre? Then you must go see this production of the 2001 play, The York Realist, which is on at the Crucible for the next couple of weeks. Live in Sheffield and no interest in the theatre? Even more reason to go. The family at the centre of this play went to see the York Mystery Plays and they were bowled over by it. The same will happen to you if you see this. Cast iron guarantee.

This is the first time I have seen a play from the pen of Peter Gill and I can’t imagine a more sympathetic production. This revival is a co-production between the Donmar and Sheffield Theatres and, if this is what Artistic Director Robert Hastie, serves up to the good people of Sheffield on a regular basis then I might just have to move there. I see there is a production of Caryl Churchill’s epic, by her standards, Love and Information set for early July. I’ve signed up. For those with the attention span of a gnat this is the play for you.

Back to The York Realist. The “York Realist” was, probably, the writer of 8 of the 48 individual plays or pageants which make up the York version of the Medieval Mystery Plays. These were constructed as a way of bringing the Bible stories to the hoi-polloi, both as performers and audience, through the C14, C15 and C16. The 8 plays in question are characterised by the broad, Yorkshire vernacular in the text, lending them an everyday realism. A production of the Mystery Plays is what brings together the protagonists in the play, John and George, in the early 1960s. Peter Gill too has conjured up a completely naturalistic play, over four acts and set entirely in one set, the main room of the tied cottage which agricultural labourer George shares with his unnamed Mother. George’s sister Barbara lives nearby with husband Arthur and son Jack, and nearest neighbour Doreen is a regular visitor.

There is a little formal experimentation in terms of chronology but none of the shenanigans ushered in to British play-writing by the likes of Beckett, Pinter, Osborne, Bond, Churchill and Stoppard. The plays opens with John visiting George after his Mother has died, before we revert to the early days of their relationship. At its heart this is the love story of John and George and it is a very affecting love story indeed, (some parallels with the recent debut film from Francis Lee, God’s Own Country, I gather).

Well-spoken southerner John, a doe-eyed, polite Jonathan Bailey, is the assistant director at the Mystery Plays, (as indeed Peter Gill was in his youth in the 1960s). George is a blunt, muscular, salt of the earth type who can’t commit to sticking with the play. It is hard to imagine anyone else but the excellent Ben Batt playing the part. John has come to persuade him back to the play. Their attraction is obvious from the start and both actors are completely convincing in their relationship. George’s seduction is amusingly direct, John’s coyness easily overcome

Their relationship flounders more on the rocks of class and geography than the reaction of family, who have tacitly accepted George’s sexuality. George feels bound, or maybe chooses, to stay looking after ailing Mother,¬†Downton’s Lesley Nicol, and eventually bows to what seems inevitable by taking up with the humble, attentive Doreen (Katie West), who has been waiting all her life for him despite his identity. With minimal and unforced dialogue, and some very gentle disclosure, we also get to see the ambitions and frustrations of bluff Arthur (Matthew Wilson), indefatigable Barbara (Lucy Black) and Brian Fletcher’s Jack who seems destined, if reluctant, to take up farm labouring.

What is so brilliant about Peter Gill’s writing is the way, within this entirely naturalistic scenario, he draws out the themes he wishes to explore. John’s slightly patronising middle class fascination with the past, the rural and the antique, (though he isn’t prepared to abandon his life and work in London and creature comforts to live in the country), George’s acknowledgement of all that London has to offer but his fear of moving (“I live here”), the denial of identity, the pull of family, gender roles, the allure of self-sacrifice and devotion, the limitations placed on aspiring working class actors, the power of theatre and its appropriation as “high culture”, the inequity of tied farming. None of this is rammed down your throat, and perhaps the biggest dichotomy, the fact that gay relationships were still illegal in the early 1960s, is made more telling by its near absence in the story.

Apparently Peter Gill has a long association with the Donmar as writer and director. Just shows how much I know. I was aware of his guiding hand behind the Riverside Studios in its heyday in the late 1970s and his association with the National Theatre Studio in the 1980s. I see that the new Riverside Studios is close to completion, (passed it on the bus the other day), though I think it will be devoted once again to TV. I only got the bus because I didn’t have time to walk along that part of the Chiswick riverside where Peter Gill lived. That’s one of the joys of culture-vulturism. All the little coincidences and connections.

I can’t imagine Robert Hastie’s direction, Peter McKintosh’s design, Paul Pyant’s lighting and Emma Laxton’s sound being bettered. I do note that some of the proper critics think this has improved on the original production at the Royal Court in 2002. I can tell you it is a very fine play and, if they match this, I hope to see other revivals of Mr Gill’s work. Meanwhile people of Sheffield you know what to do.