Two Ladies at the Bridge Theatre review *

Two Ladies

Bridge Theatre, 2nd October 2019

Well on the plus side the new season just announced at the Bridge looks to be a humdinger. A revival of Caryl Churchill’s A Number, directed by Polly Findlay with Roger Allam and Colin Morgan as Salter and son(s), Nick Hytner taking on an adaptation of Philip Pullman, La Belle Sauvage, following on from his triumph with His Dark Materials during the NT years, a new play by Paula Vogel based on They Shoot Horses Don’t They, directed by Marianne Elliot, and a new adaptation of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman starring Simon Russell Beale. Avid readers of this blog will note that not hours ago, in the review of Peer Gynt, the Tourist pleaded for a new version of this very play. Serendipity indeed.

Which makes me far less inclined to be unkind about Two Ladies. But really? Why did this get a run? A plot riddled with holes which starts off as implausible and ends up as truly incredible. A pair of unlikely leading characters, which despite the best efforts of both Zoe Wannamaker and fine Croatian actress Zrinka Cviesic, blurt out all manner of candid disclosures within minutes of meeting each other. And three paper thin supporting characters, played by Yoli Fuller, Lorna Brown and Rahhad Chaar, whose only purpose is to trot out a mesh of hoary stereotypes. They are, like the ladies, alarmingly keen to unpack their emotional baggage at every opportunity. Minimal research, a naive, if well-intentioned, political message and some very workmanlike dialogue and exposition. I spent too long thinking it was going to be some sort of absurd satire which would deliberately break out of its naturalistic bounds to make its comic points but no, it was, even with a few wry touches, pretty much played straight.

ZW plays Helen, the liberal British journalist wife of the younger French president (sound familiar). ZC is Sophia, the Croatian trophy model wife of the older American president (sound familiar). Their husbands are at a conference on the French Riviera where the POTUS is seeking the support of the Republique for a retaliatory attack on some bad guys, (I can only assume that, for once, us supine Brits told him to fuck off). However some naughty protestors have hijacked proceedings so that the first we see of the ladies is them being rushed into and empty conference room punctiliously designed by Anna Fleischle with Sophia’s elegant white suit smeared in blood (sound familiar). They then get down to slagging off their husbands, bemoaning their respective lots and hatching a preposterous plan to get the attention of both power and people.

Whilst I haven’t seen any of her work before Nancy Harris is an established playwright with a solid reputation. Which makes how this got to the Bridge stage even more of a mystery. Charitably you could argue that it might have been rushed. The extracts from the diaries of various partners of men in power in the programme suggests that there is a play to be written on the subject and the exclusion of women from power is still a vital topic for modern (and earlier) drama. But certainly not in the form of the simplistic tick-list of issues displayed here. Perhaps too Nick Hytner, having commissioned the play and with a theatre to fill, backed his own directorial skills to make it work and paper over the tonal inconsistencies. He was wrong.

Still the good news is that it was all over in 90 minutes and there was no interval (which I had expected). Which meant the SO was quick to forgive. Me, not the play.

Hedda Tesman at the Minerva Theatre Chichester review ***

Hedda Tesman

Minerva Theatre Chichester, 26th September 2019

This counts as a disappointment. Not because of the source material. Hedda Gabler for goodness sake. Nor the cast though I will come back to this. There were plenty of actors on show, Haydn Gwynne, Anthony Calf, Jonathan Hyde, Natalie Simpson and Irfan Shamji, who have stood out and given much pleasure in previous performances. Anna Fleischle’s design was as accomplished as her previous work, realistic and spacious. And I think Holly Race Roughan’s direction, (this is the first time I have seen the work of this Headlong associate), was as faithful to the adapted text and action as possible. It was never dull, full of thoughtful detail and as robust a plot as the day Ibsen dreamt it up in 1891.

No I mean it was a disappointment as I was hoping for so much more. The idea of taking one of, maybe the, greatest female roles in theatre and reworking it, to move the story forward not just to the modern day, but also to age Hedda, George and Brack by three decades, was intriguing. And Cordelia Lynn, whose adaptation of Three Sisters for the Almeida, was so successful, (even if Rebecca Frecknall’s direction over-egged the indeterminate), seemed like just the woman for the job. And text wise she was. It’s just that the premise didn’t deliver on its promise.

We start with level-headed cleaner Bertha (Rebecca Oldfield) sorting out the slightly fusty country house that George and Hedda have returned to from the US. When Anthony Calf’s George breezes in he is recognisably an older, and even more painfully underachieving, version of his younger self who hasn’t yet made it to professor but is still buoyed up by innate enthusiasm. Hedda herself, shuffling in in dressing gown and slippers, is now brimful with regret and reflects this in every, often cruel and acerbic, word. She is a Tesman now through and through, middle-aged and largely “invisible”, the Gabler of her youth a distant memory. Thea Tesman (Natalie Simpson) is now the daughter that Hedda was carrying in the original play and not the rival for Eilert, now Elijah’s, (Irfan Shamji) affection. To say mother and daughter, who is the same age as Hedda in the original, weren’t close would be something of an understatement. Thea “trapped” Hedda in the marriage, (postpartum depression is hinted at), motherhood robbed her of her own academic career and duty, in the form of Daddy Gabler, the general whose giant portrait is one of the first things to find a place in the new home, has kept her there. Threatening, amongst other things, to burn your child’s hair, as we discover, was probably never going to engender much in the way of affection.

George is working on improving his big idea but it is plain his intellect still lags behind Elijah. Thea, who has left her husband, is in love with that intellect and thinks she can “rescue” Elijah from his depression and excessive drinking, as she works with him on the sequel to his best-seller. The affair with a younger Hedda still haunts him. Brack (Jonathan Hyde) is still a shit-stirring perv and Aunt Julie (Jacqueline Clarke). Boys’ drunken night out, the temptation of Thea and Elijah’s manuscript, (no USB sticks here), the pair of pistols, Elijah’s messy death, Brack’s blackmail and …. well you know the end, are are still intact. But …. Ibsen’s puissant plot only works if you are invested in the set-up.

And here, I am afraid, I was not. Not because I couldn’t believe that Hedda would have stuck around, though I had my doubts, but because, having done so, she would then have taken this way out. Some Ibsen works because the characters seek to escape the past. Others, like Hedda Gabler, because they fear their future. To use old Henrik’s genius as a point of departure often pay dividends but to mix up chronology and therefore motivation, as here, did not. Haydn Gwynne did her admirable best to solve this conundrum but never quite cracked it, too much self-loathing, and, though it pains me to say it, having seen his air of gentle vulnerability fit the bill perfectly in Ms Lynne’s razor-sharp satire One for Sorrow at the Royal Court and Joe White’s outstanding debut play Mayfly at the Orange Tree, Irfan Shamji seemed completely miscast as Elijah.

In some ways given the space, the cast, the top notch creatives (Ruth Chan’s music, complete with off stage tinkling hinting at Hedda’s past pianistic akills,George Dennis’s sound, Zoe Spurr’s lighting) I sort of wished Cordelia Lynn had abandoned the Ibsen plot and explored some of the more tantalising relationships that she opened up. The scenes between this Hedda and the very fine Natalie Simpson as Thea for example showed this potential. Envy of Thea in the original, and the denigration this fosters, partly defines and explains Hedda, (along with the conflicted Daddy worship). And, from this, maybe draw out more explicitly the contrasts between the economic, class and emotional condition of the, now four, women in the play, and how societal change has impacted recent generations.

So all in all not quite up to Headlong’s best who, when they get it right (All My Sons, Mother Courage, This House, People, Places & Things, Junkyard, American Psycho, 1984, Chimerica, The Effect, Medea, Enron), are just about the finest purveyors of theatre in this country. Still a good idea with plenty to admire but one that, like its lead, seemed to lose the courage of its convictions the longer it went on.

Three Sisters at the Almeida Theatre review ****

Three Sisters

Almeida Theatre, 25th April 2019

It creeps up on you this Three Sisters. As with her feted take on Tennessee Williams’s neglected Summer and Smoke last year, Almeida Associate Director Rebecca Frecknall is unafraid of letting the play take its time to unfold and delivers a similar, dreamy quality to events in this Chekhov staple. And, with Cordelia Lynn’s loose-limbed, idiomatic, yet poetic, adaptation, (draw from Helen Rappaport’s literal translation), and Hildegard Bechtler’s barely-there set and timeless costumes, (if there had been some old rope lying around I would have guessed she were the taking the p*ss), she has some very willing accomplices. This is a Three Sisters pretty much stripped of context or artifice, no birch trees or big frocks here, where we are forced to focus entirely on the relationships between the characters. Time, space and place, and even action at some points, are erased to just leave people, their language and their interaction (or lack thereof – there aren’t many great listeners is Chekhov).

Fair enough. This is, after all a play about (father and mother-less) three sisters and their dodgy brother (I’ve always wondered if Anton C had a Bronte thing going on), bored sh*tless and pointlessly dreaming of returning to the buzz of metropolitan Moscow. And marriage. And its frustrations. And parenthood. And its frustrations. And old age. And its frustrations. And work. And its frustrations. And money. And its frustrations. And unrequited love and its frustrations. And idealism. And its frustrations. And denial. And its frustrations. And sacrifice. And emotional manipulation. And politics. And class. And knowledge. And drink. In fact the whole meaning of life gig. There’s a party. A bunch of soldiers come. There’s a duel. Then they go. A clock gets smashed. A piano doesn’t get played. And, in the background, there is the march of history with the first Russian Revolution just 5 years away from when AC completed TS.

Patsy Ferran is back with Ms Frecknall after her award winning performance in S&S but as Olga the oldest, unmarried, sister and the self sacrificing glue that holds the family, just about together. She is mesmeric but actually has less to say and do than Pearl Chanda as Masha or Ria Zmitrowicz as the youngest Irina. Here Irina veers towards needy, self-obsessed, Gen Z-er, reinforcing the abstracted nature of the interpretation. In any one else’s hands this might not have worked but Ria Zmitrowicz is good enough to get away with it, For me though Pearl Chanda as the sardonic Masha is the pick of the three. Masha is the engine room of the play, the catalyst for its sharp humour and for the changes in the direction of the meandering plot. Her infatuation with Peter McDonald’s solemn philosophising widower Lieutenant Vershinin, needs to mix a genuine passion with a sort of bored, going through the motions. And she needs to bait her cuckolded Latin teacher husband Kulygin who knows exactly what is going on. Elliot Levy’s portrayal of Kulygin certainly captured his foolishness and compulsion to deflect tension with humour but not so much his underlying sadness and yearning for Olga.

The other central female character is Natasha, (another precise performance by a favourite of mine Lois Chimimba), who goes from gauche, brittle servant to imperious lady of the house after marrying the weak, vacillating Andrey (Freddie Meredith) who spunks the, limited, family fortune away gambling. Natasha, with her doting on her new born son Bobik, her antipathy to devoted family retainer Anfisa (Annie Firbank) and her pursuit of the unseen Protopopov, the head of the local council which Andrey joins to give him purpose, is here the most conventionally Chekhovian, at least from my memory of previous productions I have seen.

Mind you my memory is far from perfect as, for a few minutes in the second act I think I may have drifted off into The Cherry Orchard as I confused the confused Ferapont (Eric MacLennan) with Firs and the drunk army doctor Chetbutykin (Alan Williams) with Leonid Andreieveitch Gayev. Fortunately the ever attentive BB’s, who, along with my other guests, BUD, KCK and, of course, the SO, put me right and, as usual, saw in the production all that I missed. This is one of the joys of Chekhov. We all agreed on the overall tone of the play, in a word melancholic, and the direction of the plot, but because there is so much of themselves explicitly voiced by these complex characters we all focussed on different facets and dimensions off their existence, to then share our findings, albeit briefly, at the end.

Normally having set out situation and the arrivals, (there are always arrivals and a departure, after moreorless dramatic disclosures, in Chekhov), here the soldiers, including the unfortunate Baron Tuzenbach (Shubham Saraf) who pines for Irina, a troubled poet Solyony (Alexander Eliot), photographer Fedotik (Akshay Sharan) and Rode (Sonny Poon Tip), AC plays start to move through the gears drawing you in with major key attempted resolutions, before drifting off into a minor key conclusion. Not here though. Once the pace is set, at Irina’s name day party, it doesn’t really alter. It is as if the ominous, “keep calm and carry on even if it is all going to sh*t” ending feeds backwards into the rest of the play. But the absence of any distraction here, (dusky lighting and ambient sound by Jack Knowles and George Dennis are as non-specific as set and costumes), the intimacy of the space, the dedication of cast and director to the intention and, especially, Cordelia Lynn’s adaptation reeled us all in and held us there. It feels its length, just shy of three hours, and there are times when words, and only words, test the patience but ultimately it is a rewarding, if nebulous, experience.

For it is perfectly possible to never get out of a wistful second gear in Three Sisters. Nick Hytner did this in his 2003 NT production, despite a cracking cast. I plumped for this in contrast to Michael Blakemore’s West End production a few months later. Which appears to have been a mistake even though MB used a Christopher Hampton rather than a Michael Frayn adaptation. Alternatively, as Benedict Andrews proved at the Young Vic in 2012, it is possible to pimp it up, rev up to fifth gear and set out on the highway. That wasn’t perfect but it was bloody exciting in parts. I think I have seen a couple of other takes before record-keeping began, (yes I am a boy and I like making lists), but don’r remember them too well but there’s always the ennui.

I see the reviews are a bit all over the place. I can see why. In this case I think the only way to be sure is to see for yourself. And, if you like it, then mark down Rebecca Frecknall’s next outing. I suspect she will have her way with Ibsen one day soon. That could be very interesting. Meanwhile we have another Three Sisters in the pipeline. This time at the NT with Inua Ellams shifting the action to 1960s Nigeria and with Nadia Fall in the director’s chair. Neither, in my experience, reach for the soporific so this should be fun.

Richard III at the Alexandra Park Theatre review ***

Richard III

Headlong, Alexandra Park Theatre, 17th March 2019

Right. Let’s get the gripe out of the way. Maybe in the smaller venues where this production will tour it might creep up to a 4* but Alexandra Park Theatre, whilst an undeniably superb space after the refurbishment, is just a little too cavernous to accommodate the claustrophobic history/tragedy/comedy/thriller/psychodrama/vaudeville which is Dickie 3.

Chiara Stephenson’s Gothic, dark, old-school castle with a twist, namely the introduction of multiple full length, revolving mirrors, together with the lighting of Elliot Griggs, is a winner set-wise. But it utilises barely a third of the huge proscenium stage, and I would guess, since all is shielded in dark fabric, only a similar portion of the depth. To rectify this the actors, in addition to coming on and off through the glass revolves, enter from the auditorium to the side of the stage, and, for the London scene, pop up in the “slips” and bark back to the stage. It is the right look for John Haidar’s galvanic production and Tom Mothersdale scorpion delivery as Dickie but seems lost in all this volume. As do the lines. Not because of the delivery. In most cases this is sound as a pound but set against George Dennis’s throbbing, pounding, electronic sound the intensity is diluted, and occasionally, for the aurally challenged such as the Tourist, lost completely.

Now this being a Headlong production, (albeit in conjunction with Ally Pally, the Bristol Old Vic, Royal and Derngate and Oxford Playhouse, all of which it will travel to, as well as the Cambridge Arts Theatre and Home Manchester), there is still much to admire. With the Mother Courage, This House, Labour of Love, People, Places and Things, Junkyard, The Absence of War, American Psycho, 1984, Chimerica, The Effect, Medea and Enron, Headlong has been responsible for some of the best theatre the Tourist has seen in recent years. He even liked Common, John Haidar’s last outing, putting him in a minority of one. He would therefore never miss anything the company produces. All My Sons at the Old Vic and Hedda Tesman at Chichester already signed up with willing guests.

John Haidar has opted to sneak in a bit of Henry VI to provide context, (complete with first taste of murder before that “winter” even starts), juggles the standard text and cuts out superfluous characters, though doubling is kept to a minimum, and generally encourages a lively approach to the verse, (though nowhere near the gallop of Joe Hill-Gibbons’s Richard II at the Almeida recently) . This means each half barely ticks over into the hour. The focus then, as it should be, is on Tom Mothersdale’s Richard, and the “family” saga, if you will, a family from which Richard is permanently excluded, rather than the politics. Tom Kanji’s Clarence doesn’t take up too much time, the other assassinations are similarly rapidly dispatched, Stefan Adegbola’s smug Buckingham and Heledd Gywnn’s Hastings, (as arresting a presence as she was in the Tobacco Factory’s Henry V), take precedence in the jostling for power, and the scenes with the three women, Dickie’s, to say the least, disappointed, Mum, the Duchess of York (Eileen Nicholas), Edward IV’s Scottish widow Elizabeth (Derbhle Crotty) and sacrificial lamb Anne (Leila Mimmack), are given plenty of air time.

With Heledd Gwynn doubling up as Ratcliffe, Tom Kanji as Catesby and Leila Mimmack as Norfolk, the production achieves an admirable gender balance and also tips Richard’s murderous ascendancy into a joint enterprise, at least until he shafts his mates. The main cast is completed with John Sackville’s ghostly Henry VI, Michael Matus as Edward IV and then Stanley and Caleb Roberts as Richmond (and utility messenger). The stage then is literally set, what with the opening soliloquy and those mirrors, for Dickie to slay his way to the ghostly visitations. Each murder is marked by a red flash and a loud buzz just to make sure we get it.

Now the Tourist has seen young Mothersdale up close in the slightly disappointing Dealing with Clair at the OT recently, in the magnificent John by Annie Baker, as well as roles in Cleansed at the NT and Oil at the Almeida. He’s got it, no doubt. As he shows here. And, as he capers around the stage, in dark Burgundy suit and leather caliper, long-limbed, lank-locked, threatening, cajoling, pleading, squirming at Mummy’s rejection, he is certainly the “bottled spider” of Will’s description. But I am not sure he finds an angle. There is the caricature Richard of Thomas More Tudor myth, as Reformation Elizabethan England found its way in the world ordained by God. There is Richard as psycho executing to a plan, villainy as predestination. There is nudge, nudge, wink, wink comedy Richard who recruits us into the fun. Or there is poor, diddums, “nobody loves me so I’m going to show you” Richard who can’t stop once he gets started. And more. With multiple permutations.

Here we seem to get a bit of everything in this swift, safe production. Not the monomaniac man-child, (any resemblance to a current world leader is surely entirely deliberate), of the brilliant Hans Kesting in Kings of War, not the compulsive egotist of Lars Eidinger in the Schaubuhne production at the Barbican, not the amoral sociopath of Ralph Fiennes at the Almeida with that infamous rape scene, not the trad manipulator of Mark Rylance at the Globe. Of the other recent Dickie’s that the Tourist has enjoyed Tom Mothersdale comes closest to Greg Hicks’ take in the pint-sized, though still extremely effective production, under Mehmet Ergen at the Arcola in 2017. Except that Greg Hicks made every single word count and plumbed some very ugly depths in Richard’s misogynism and unquenchable grievance. And with chain permanently attaching arm to leg he offered a stark visual reminder of his “deformation”.

There are some fine moments, the “seductions”, the ghosts behind the mirrors, TM cringing at Mother’s curses and her recoiling from his touch, some meaningful gobbing, the writhing in the Bosworth mud at the end, and, like I say, this will probably work better at, say, Bristol or Oxford, but I would have preferred a more thoughtful, and yes, longer, interpretation. Still the one thing you know about Richard III’s, like Macbeth’s, Lear’s and Number 38’s, there will be another one along shortly.

Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse review *****

Sweat

Donmar Warehouse, 24th January 2019

Who is the greatest living playwright (in the English language). Caryl Churchill. Obviously. Who is, in the opinion of the Tourist, probably the most talented playwright under 40 in Britain today. Ella Hickson. What was the best original play the Tourist saw last year. John by Annie Baker. And the best play so far this year. Sweat by Lynn Nottage.

So far this year the Tourist has seen 19 plays (well 18 and a half to be exact of which more in a future post. Actually it is quite a bit more than that but I have condensed the Pinter at Pinter season ). Too many. Certainly but such is the life of the friendless, privileged layabout.

Only 4 by women though. Not good enough. Either by me or the industry. Last year, (I shall refrain from the total number – it is embarrassing), just 25% of the plays of the plays I saw were by women. If I take just new plays (not classics or revivals) the ratio edges towards 40%. Not great but getting better.

Before I get started I note that Sweat is transferring to the Gielgud Theatre from 7th June for 6 weeks or so. If you haven’t seen it don’t hesitate.

Sweat is set largely in a bar in a de-industrialising town in the rust belt of the American North East. Lynn Nottage and her team spent over two years interviewing residents of Reading, Pennsylvania in preparation for writing the play. Now, as I know from having seen another Pulitzer Prize winning entertainment, Julia Wolfe’s oratorio Anthracite Fields, Reading was, in its heyday through the second half of the C19 and first few decades of the C20, a powerhouse of US industry built on iron and then steel, its proximity to coalfields and on the railway. Its fall was precipitous however and it became, by the time of the 2011 census, one of the poorest cities in the entire country, though it is now being reinvented as a centre for cycling nationally.

Ms Nottage’s play is set in 2000, though it begins in 2008, with the release of Jason (Patrick Gibson) from prison into the hands of probation officer Evan (Sule Rimi who has, thankfully, popped up on numerous occasions for my viewing pleasure). Jason is “reunited” with once friend Chris (Osy Ikhile). Neither is in a good place. We then flash back to see how we got to that place. Jason’s mum Cynthia (Claire Perkins), Chris’s mum Tracey (Martha Plimpton) and Jessie (Leanne Best) are celebrating in the bar managed by Stan (Stuart McQuarrie) and where Hispanic-American Oscar (Sebastian Viveros) is employed. Cynthia is estranged from husband Brucie (Wil Johnson) who has spiralled downwards after being shut out from the factory during a strike some years ago. All three, tough, women are also employed at the local steel-works, as are the boys, (though Chris wants another life), and as was Stan until an industrial accident, and it is against this back-drop that the story unfolds.

Now you might be thinking, uh-oh, this is going to be one of those terribly worthy political plays where a finger-pointing, hand-wringing lesson about economic and social injustice sucks the life out of the drama and leaves you with conscience enhanced but ever so slightly bored. Well nothing could be further from the truth. The relationships between the characters, and the extraordinary, often moving, dialogue, that describes them is perfectly pitched. The play is flawlessly plotted, structured and executed. The fact that Lynn Nottage is able to locate this within a broader economic and social context (blimey, she even nails the mixed blessings of NAFTA), to conjure up time and place (and history) and to explore fault-lines along racial, class and gender divides, without getting in the way of the personal drama, is what makes this such a complete work of theatre. This is fiction, with no trace of verbatim, but the process of its creation, the people that Ms Nottage talked too, make it very real.

There is nothing redemptive or uplifting here but that is the reality of the damage that the economic dislocation and industrial change has brought to the region and by implication, those left behind in the US and across the Western world. The play opened in New York in 2016 just before Trump’s election. It could not be more relevant. The shattering of the American Dream is hardly a novel subject for drama but Sweat brings home the causes and consequences of the shift away from heavy industry and manufacturing, from managed capitalism, through financial capitalism into the information age. Ms Nottage has said that “we are a nation that has lost our narrative”, which sums up the disillusionment, rage and frustration which is now being vented by those that have lost out and, for whom, the dignity of labour has been upended and faith shattered in a system which was supposed to protect them. Setting the play in an all-American bar, rather than the workplace itself, is a masterstroke, for this is an arena in which the tensions can truly erupt.

Even a play this perfect still needs cast and creatives to deliver. Indeed any flaw in delivery would probably be more visible. Fortunately we are in the secure hands of director Lynette Linton, assistant at the Donmar and now in the hot seat at the Bush. Frankie Bradshaw’s set is wonderful as the bar descends, altar-like, inside a framework of steel girders, supported by Oliver Fenwick’s lighting design and George Dennis’s sound. The cast is uniformly exemplary, another triumph for dialect coach Charmian Hoare, (though this Brit is no expert), with Claire Perkins particularly excellent as the striving Cynthia and Martha Plimpton just, and for once the vernacular is justified, awesome.

Best of all Lynn Nottage didn’t just helicopter in to extract her story and then move on (as it happens now to a work around the life of Michael Jackson – crikey!). No, she and the team, went back to show the play and to engage in many ways with the community across multiple projects. Drama matters. The Greeks knew that. Hard to see how it could matter more than with Sweat.

A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre review ****

andersen-hc

A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter

Bridge Theatre, 13th October 2018

OK then. All of you fans of densely-plotted, cerebral, potty-mouthed, fairy-tale, political, splatter, revenge, comedy fantasies. Your ship has come in.

I have a strong feeling that Martin McDonagh’s new play at the Bridge will, in years to come, form the basis for many a Theatre and Drama Studies students’ dissertation. Let’s just say he doesn’t hold back here. All of his tics, tropes and obsessions are on show: moral instability, savage humour, verbal aggression, twisted irony, brutal violence, calculated abuse, punishment, justice and revenge, inversions, post-modernist borrowings, self-reverence, complex allusion, high and low art juxtapositions, exaggerations, call-backs, call-forwards and protean plot twists.

In a word: meta.

Once again he is pushing the audience, deliberately transgressive, a kind of theatrical meta-regression to keep us on our toes, but this time, unlike the best of his work, it doesn’t quite hang together on first viewing. The rhythm of the language is less immediately persuasive, less precise, (even allowing for a few timing issues at this early performance). It cannot be missed mind you, and it may be that the production will tighten up through the run, but overall I found it a little less convincing than Hangmen or The Lieutenant of Inishmore, or Three Billboards … or In Bruges. In these the intricate plotting and more naturalistic settings make for a more satisfying whole. On the other hand AVVVDM might turn out to have more intellectual depth: I am simply not clever enough to take it all in on one viewing. Probably closest to Seven Psychopaths for you students of MM, a film even he described as maybe a bit too meta, but one which I think gets better on repeated viewing.

AVVVDM is drawn from Mr McDonagh’s 1995 play The Pillowman, which was first performed in 2003 at the NT and also starred Jim Broadbent, (who plays Hans Christian Anderson in AVVVDM), as cop Tupolski, alongside David Tennant, Nigel Lindsay and Adam Godley. In this play a writer, living in an unspecified totalitarian theocracy, is accused of murders which mimic the plots of his own fairy tales. It is a bit Gothic, it captures the power of literature, there’s some Kafka going on, the ethical dilemma is fascinating if a little forced, of course there is violent imagery and of course there is humour.Like all of McDonagh’s plays The Pillowman’s morality is slippery, though not really ambiguous; it is normally pretty clear what he is saying, just that its compass is oscillating so rapidly between perspectives of right and wrong that we in turn start to lose our bearings.

Once again it he world of “fairy tales” that forms the starting point for AVVVDM. In fact the “plot” looks to be drawn from The Shakespeare Room, which Michal, Katurian’s damaged brother, references in The Pillowman. In this story it turns out that Shakespeare’s plays were written by a pygmy woman he kept in a box. MM has described in the past, reiterated in the programme here, how he made up fairy tales in his teens for his older brother John. One of these formed the basis for another of Katurian’s stories in The Pillowman, The Tale of the Town on the River, which tells how the Pied Piper “saved” one of the children by chopping off his toes. And so fairy tales get darker and darker with the telling.

AVVVDM kicks off with Hans Christian Andersen giving a contrived recital of The Little Mermaid. Now it turns out that the real HCA was an awkward character, abused at school, with unrequited longings for men and women but likely celibate. One of the objects of his affections, Edvard Collin (Lee Knight), is in the crowd in this opening scene. And, incongruously, also there, well there in HCA’s mind, cue the scary music, are a couple of blood encrusted, walking and talking, corpses, Barry (Graeme Hawley) and Dirk (Ryan Pope), sporting fine moustaches. Well this is a fairy tale after all. Cut to the attic of HCA’s townhouse where, surprise, surprise, we discover that he has a secret, namely a Congolese pygmy, Marjory, in a box, who is writing his stories.

All this is accompanied by a gravelly narration from none other than Tom Waits. From here MM weaves together the genocide in the Congo Free State in the late C19 with the real life friendship of Charles Dickens (Phil Daniels) and HCA, which unravelled when HCA overstayed his welcome on a visit in 1857. I’ll stop there. Let’s just say the plot plays fast and loose with fact, fiction and time.

I guess MM’s main thrust is to contrast the near unbelievable horror of King Leopold II’s direct, private rule of the Congo from 1885 to 1908, where maybe ten million died, and which scarred the country through Belgian colonial rule, and post independence, with the pygmy population suffering most, (as it still does today), with the maudlin tales of innocence and virtue standing fast against corrupting forces of both HCA and Dickens. It is hard to avoid the stories told by the latter, they permeate Western culture: the barbarous reality of the former though, a couple of decades later, and far worse than anything imagined in fiction, is still barely known by many, including me until now.

The fact that MM tells this story in the form of a comedy, in an expletive-ridden contemporary vernacular, is only to be expected from MM. Casting Jim Broadbent and Phil Daniels, who are, by virtue of career and demeanour, are distinctively Dickensian, is surely no accident. After all a new MM script will pretty much guarantee any actor from his roster of favourites will sign up, sight unseen. Both went all out for laughs, many of which were at the broad end of the subtlety scale. Emily Berrington, as she so often does, near steals the scenes she is in as the earthy Mrs Catherine Dickens. I loved the sweary kids as well. Paul Bradley, as the inexplicit Press Man, also turned in his customarily fine performance.

However the play would not be possible without the formidable Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles as Marjory, (and later Ogechi, you’ll see). From the moment she emerged from the box, suspended from the ceiling in Anna Fleischle’s amazing set, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. This was BUD, and KCK’s, first exposure to the wonderful and frightening world of Martin McDonagh. The SO was converted at Hangmen. When we emerged, not a little bewildered, after the 90 minutes, we debated the play long into the night. OK then maybe not long into the night, but certainly as long as it took to have a drink, some rarebit (highly recommended) and some madeleines, in the excellent Bridge foyer. Anyway BUD, being the analytical sort of chap he is, couldn’t get over the fact that the play could only exist with Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles in the role. Surely it must have been written for her?

I agree. But not for the obvious reasons of appearance. Simply because she is an outstanding actor. Sardonic, bitter, vengeful, powerful yet also vulnerable, compassionate and forlorn. Don’t get me wrong she delivers plenty of killer (literally) comic lines but she also carries the entire weight of the emotional and political substance of the play on her shoulders. This is her professional debut. Extraordinary.

Now director Matthew Dunster, and Anna Fleischle, have previous with Martin McDonagh, having brought the Royal Court production of Hangmen into being. (Mr Dunster also has form with HCA, directing the Pet Shop Boys’ ballet adaptation of his story The Most Incredible Thing. Messrs Tennant and Lowe know a thing or two about stagecraft challenges but they are not a patch on MM).

Even so I suspect director and designer, and the rest of the creative team, James Maloney (music), Philip Gladwell (lighting), George Dennis (sound), Chris Fisher (illusions), Finn Ross (video) and Susanna Peretz (wigs and prosthetics), must have rolled their collective eyes at their first meeting. How were they going to make this leap of mischievous imagination from page to stage? Impressively, as it turns out.

So you see the thing with MM is there is just so much there. So many echoes yet uniquely his own voice. Scorsese, Malick, Pinter, Tarantino, Synge, Le Fanu, Mamet, Beckett, Borges, punk. Insert your own thoughts here. I for one really what to believe he likes The Fall.

A master story-teller. With maybe, in this case, not quite a master story. It might annoy you. It might frustrate you. It might provoke you. It might overwhelm you with “WTF” moments. It should make you laugh, (assuming you know a little of what you are letting yourself in for). It will certainly make you think. And you definitely won’t forget it in a hurry.

Nine Night at the National Theatre review *****

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Nine Night

National Theatre Dorfman, 3rd May 2018

You never quite know what you are going to get at the National Theatre. Mind you the Dorfman has turned into a pretty safe bet. After a painful 90 minutes, (it seemed much longer), sitting through the first half of Absolute Hell in the Lyttleton, I was praying for theatrical Heaven. And I’m an atheist. No review of Absolute Hell because we left at the interval. The SO might have been more forgiving but I can’t recall seeing a worse play. Not a worse production. Design, direction and cast did what they could but I just think there are some “classic” plays, which Absolute Hell purports to be, that are nothing of the sort. A few drunks and sexual libertines careering round a stage, with no plot or message to speak of, might do it for some plummy critics, but it doesn’t cut it in today’s world. We weren’t the only ones to feel that way. The NT has come in for a few knocks in the last couple of years, undeservedly in my view, but why this was revived, and why Joe Hill-Gibbins as director wanted to get involved, is a mystery to me.

And then there was Nine Night. Which is an absolute crackerjack of a play. OK so there are maybe a few too many plot strands spinning around and left unfinished at the end but it doesn’t really matter as there is so much to enjoy from what is wrapped up in just 100 minutes. It never ever drags. In fact I wanted more. Maybe someone could even prevail upon writer Natasha Gordon to create further plays drawn from this milieu and these characters. There is more than enough here to justify it.

It leaves me speechless that this is Ms Gordon’s debut play. I see that she is of Jamaican descent. Which was pretty handy when it came to writing Nine Night. The title refers to the ninth night after a death in Jamaican culture, a celebration involving food, drink, talking, stories, music, dancing (here Kumina rituals from eastern Jamaica) to support the bereaved, pay respects to the deceased and to properly bid them farewell. I understand that many of the traditions have been altered through time and when transposed, as here, into another place, today’s London, but the connections back to the belief systems of an Africa before monotheistic religions can be tracked. These customs are what lie behind the shattering conclusion to the play.

Single Mum Lorraine is caring for her Mum, Gloria. Her brother Robert is an entrepreneurial type married to Sophie, who is white. They are childless. Lorraine’s daughter Anita in turn has a baby daughter with partner Nathan (neither of whom we see). Lorraine and Robert have a half-sister, Trudy, who remained in Jamaica when Gloria, whose husband Alvin left her with the kids, came over to seek work as part of the Windrush generation. When Gloria subsequently passes we also get to see a lot of her cousin Aunt Maggie, and husband Vince. So we have three generations of Britons of Jamaican heritage, and Trudy herself when she comes over, all under the same roof. Celebration and, it probably won’t surprise you to know, recrimination, ensues.

By the way it is a hell of a roof. Or, to be exact. room under a roof in Rajha Shakiry’s beautifully detailed set. George Dennis’s sound design, crammed with off-stage dancehall rhythms is also a delight.

Families coming together after a death, and processing their grief, is theatrical meat and drink. This is different though because of the push and pull between two cultures in the past and in the present, the quality of the writing and the immediacy of the characters. Lorraine’s frustrations at being a single parent and then  having to give up her career to be the carer, and at having to organise all the celebrations, are universal as are Robert’s thwarted financial ambitions and his sense of male entitlement. Sophie is unconditionally accepted by her relations but still, however well intentioned, manages to say the wrong things. Trudy’s brash exterior barely conceals real pain at being left behind. Anita’s struggles to reconcile her heritage with her home also seemed well crafted to me (though I would have happily heard more from her).

Which brings me to Aunt Maggie. Now it may turn out, when this play is revived, as I am sure it will be, that it transpires that only Cecilia Noble could do justice to the part, though so juicy is the role that I doubt it. Certainly she turns in a performance that, on the face of it, steals not just this show, but every show now on across London. Aunt Maggie is a force of comedic nature who turns out a string of belly-aching laughs. The proper reviews have identified the best of these though you have to be there to really savour the delivery. If you ask me though it is Cecilia Noble’s facial expressions, (even from where I was up in the balcony), her movements and the tonal shift at the end that turn this into a shoe-in for an award if there is any justice. For just a few moments I may just have believed in a a world of spirits thanks to Cecilia. Silly me.

For my money though she is not the best actor on the stage. That accolade belongs to Franc Ashman as the careworn coper who cannot allow herself to grieve. Not to say that Oliver Alvin-Wilson as Robert, Ricky Fearon as Uncle Vince, Michelle Greenridge as Trudy, Hattie Ledbury as Sophie and Rebekah Murrell as Anita don’t deliver, they do, just that Franc Ashman lends a real depth to Lorraine. And she, rather than the prior generation, articulates the shame of a country that, even now, will appropriate a community’s labour, whether freely give or not, but will not fully accept its culture, or even, as we now see, grant it legal equivalence in belonging.

I haven’t seen any of the productions where Roy Alexander Weise was in the director’s chair though I see that he was an Assistant on some masterpieces of the last few years at the Royal Court; X, Escaped Alone, Hangmen and Liberian Girl. He is destined for great things. I cannot know what Natasha Gordon would have hoped for when she finished her draft but if it looked and worked any better than this I’d be surprised. The plot and action work like clockwork. The performances are great and in some cases, as I say, outstanding. By putting the weight on the right lines in each of the scenes Mr Weise turns the slight hurdle of over-plotting in Ms Gordon’s text into a desire for us the audience to know more about these people, their back-stories, and their futures.

Nine Night definitely ticks the National box in the National Theatre moniker. It also, unequivocally, ticks the Theatre box. So now it needs to be seen by a bigger audience. A tour maybe? A transfer? That would count as progress.