The Phlebotomist at Hampstead Theatre review *****

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The Phlebotomist

Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, 2nd May 2018

The Phlebotomist is sold out for the rest of its runs. So you had better hope that it pitches up elsewhere, ideally with the current cast and creatives, for it really is an excellent play. There are three almighty talents on show here. Writer Ella Road in this her debut play, actor Jude Anouka who just keeps on getting better and better and director Sam Yates who proved his mettle with Glengarry Glen Ross recently, but here extracts the maximum amount of tension and drama out of what is already a smartly plotted story.

It is another one of these near future dystopian dramas, which playwrights are currently obsessed with. No real surprise there. Us liberal, luvvie types are never happier than when warning ourselves, (for we are the audience), about the impending disasters that beset us, ideally disasters precipitated by the very technologies which we benefit from most. Ella Road’s story starts with a slightly different, and I think more chilling and realistic premise, that blood samples will be used to provide a detailed genetic profile, an early prognosis of what medical conditions will impact you through your life and even your behavioural characteristics. You can avoid the test but this will impact your educational, employment, credit and relationship prospects and looks shifty. Of course taking the test, and finding out the details all wrapped up in a rating out of 10, will also impact those prospects.

Bea (Jade Anouka) is the phlebotomist, (no I didn’t know either), who administers the test. She, quite literally, bumps into Aaron, (a fine performance from Rory Fleck Byrne, a new name to me), who turns out to be a descendant of the poet Lord Tennyson. They fall in love (and look like they do such is the chemistry between them). Turns out they both have high scores. Char, Bea’s friend, (a spirited Cherrelle Skeete, also new to me), does not and she abandons her career to campaign against the system, after an attempt at deception. The only other character is David (Vincent Ebrahim) a softly spoken, sagacious porter at the hospital Bea works in.

I won’t elaborate. Suffice to say that Ella Road provides enough disclosures to keep the plot moving along but not too many to raise eyebrows. The world she conjures up cleverly eschews compulsion, there is no evil state organ here, implying benign, market driven compliance, (as with so many informational threats to our privacy). Avoidance and manipulation of the test results are, rightly, key elements of the plot. It all feels very real. It asks some big questions, even tackling the stain of eugenics, but never, ever, appears didactic. How much should we know about our genetic make-up? Should this ever be made public? How “perfect” do we want to be? Ms Road has an unmistakeable view but ensures all three main characters elicit our sympathy.

The dialogue between those characters is believable, the monologues perfectly placed, there is humour and there is even a memorable tomato based metaphor (you’ll see). It is something that Charlie Brooker and the Black Mirror team would have been proud to come up with, but this is achieved without their giant budget, and, I think, has far more emotional clout. Rosanna Vize offers a simple, grey transverse set at the HT Downstairs, a few chairs and other props. Zoe Spurr’s lighting and Alex Twiselton’s sound are similarly economic but very effective. Costume changes are effected on-stage. The production is helped enormously by Duncan McLean’s snappy video work which offers social and political context so that the play, which at its heart, is a story about the relationships between Bea and Aaron, and Bea and Char, is never overwhelmed by its central conceit.

Jade Anouka was mesmerising in the Phyllida Lloyd Donmar Warehouse Shakespeare trilogy, as Ariel, as Mark Antony and as Hotspur. She was the only saving grace in the otherwise execrable Jamie Lloyd Faustus. You may have seen her in the recent ITV production of the Trauma, by Mike Bartlett. She was the daughter of Adrian Lester’s high-flying surgeon. When John Simm, who plays the embittered father of one of Mr Lester’s patients, invades the family home, her fear jumps through the screen into your living room. (How Mike Bartlett keeps getting away with these electrically charged finales verging on the melodramatic beats me, but he does).

Up close as here, she is bloody marvellous to watch. A completely natural performer. Not to decry her three colleagues but it is difficult to take your eyes off her. Sam Yates does seem to have a knack of ensuring that great stage actors, (and I am putting Ms Anouka in that category), are great on stage. Not as easy as it sounds. I offer the evidence of, especially, Christian Slater, but also Robert Glenister, Stanley Townsend and Don Warrington in Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse (Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse Theatre review ****), Emily Barber in The Globe Cymbeline, Jane Horrocks in East is East, his collaboration with Ruth Wilson. Why he hasn’t been offered a big gig at the National is a mystery to me.

 

 

Caroline, or Change at the Hampstead Theatre review *****

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Caroline, or Change

Hampstead Theatre, 18th April 2018

How many exceptions does it take before the rule is unproven?

I don’t, as a rule, like musicals, as I have oft repeated on these very pages. I absolutely adored this though. That might be because it isn’t your classic show tunes, jazz hands, fake emotion overload. It might be because Jeanine Tesori’s eclectic score ranges across the history of African-American music, (with help from Jewish American music, and plenty more besides), and reminds us how lost contemporary human culture would be without it. it might be because CoC is operatic in intent and form. It might be because it is through-composed with no awkward recitative exposition. It might be because it is formally inventive, what with its singing appliances, swinging moon (!), split level and revolving stage, courtesy of Fly Davies, and repeated metaphors. It might be because Tony Kushner is a playwright, and here book and lyric writer, of fierce intelligence, politically engaged, unafraid of tackling big issues, or incorporating his own, real, experiences into his work. It might be because Sharon D. Clarke is just about the most powerful actor to be seen anywhere on the British stage. There are moments in this where her entire body quivers under the weight of Black American history. And when she sings. OMG as the young’uns would have it. And she’s not the only one knocking it out the park. Abiona Omanua as Emmie runs her a pretty close second in her own way.

This production was praised to the skies on its original outing at Chichester. I believed the hype, but ummed and ahhed about booking for the Hampstead transfer, trying to rope in some chums. No takers, the SO didn’t bite, her aversion to musicals being ideologically sounder than mine, so I ended up taking the plunge on my tod. In the end it was probably more the urge to collect productions of Mr Kushner’s work that swung it rather than these reviews. At times I was engrossed by both Angels in America at the NT and IHO here at Hampstead even if, ten minutes later, I baulked at his indulgence. His translation of Mother Courage was also used in the so-so recent production of Mother Courage at Southwark Playhouse. I can see why he likes Brecht.

Well I only need to have paid attention to the 5* reviews, and so should you now that this is transferring to the Playhouse Theatre, from late November through to early February next year. I strongly recommend you get tickets. And don’t skimp. It is rubbish upstairs in the Playhouse and you need to take in all the set. I also see that the prices for decent seats, whilst not cheap, are not eye-gougingly expensive.

Music first. Jeanine Tesori’s score is magnificent. I assume it was composed for the orchestral forces on show in this production, 11 strong, with Nigel Lilley conducting. They are certainly put through their paces with Haydnesque chamber passages, a Jewish klezmer dance, hymns and folk tunes wedded to gospel, blues, soul, jazz and spirituals. And still room for a couple of show-tunes. If this all sounds a bit rich, it isn’t. The rhythms are simple and infectious and the melodies and motifs clear and recognisable even to this untrained ear. Ms Tesori doesn’t waste a note. What is most extraordinary is how she renders Tony Kushner’s text so immediately musical, as, presumably, he doesn’t write that way. There is a good interview in the programme, as there always is, from Will Mortimer of the Hampstead Theatre, with TK and JT where they describe their creative process. They seem to like working together. There is also an article written by TK setting out the genesis of CoC and a helpful essay on domestic workers in the US from slavery through the civil rights movement to the present day The HT programmes are always excellent in this regard, with material directly relevant to the production and not too removed or abstract as can sometimes be the case.

Whilst all of the orchestra sounded terrific to me I would highlight the brass and woodwind contributions of Alice Lee and John Graham. Their instruments were always likely to get the lion’s share of the expressive lines, given Mr Kushner is unafraid of emotion, but they sure know how to deliver them. In total I counted 53 songs. Like I say there is no filler, but you can work out for yourselves that, across the couple of hours of performances this means nothing outstays its welcome, so we have dynamism to match the musical invention.

So what’s it about? It is the 1960s in Lake Charles, Louisiana. It is hot and humid.. Caroline Thibodeaux is an African American mother of four kids, Emmie, whose consciousness is being raised by the Civil Rights protests, Jackie and Joe (I am really sorry I don’t know which young actors where in the hotseat on the day of the performance I attended), and an elder son in the army. Caroline’s drunk, abusive husband is long gone. She works as maid to the Gellman family, Stuart Gellman, his second wife Rose Stopnick Gellman, and young Noah (based on Tony Kushner himself). We also get to meet Caroline’s friend Dotty Moffett, trying to “better herself” through night school, and the Gellman grandparents and Grandpa Stopnick, in various imagined scenes, and when they visit Louisiana from New York.

Oh and we are introduced to a singing washing machine, a dryer, a Supremes style trio representing the radio, a moon on a swing and a bus. As you do. These fantasy elements make perfect sense in the context of the story Kushner and Tesori are telling, and provide further contrasts to the already rich mix created by Ms Tesori’s music and by Mr Kushner’s sharp, poetic, lyrical, emotional, analytical, metaphysical and often very funny lyrics. One detail in particular, the illuminated red ring around Ako Mitchell’s neck, to simulate the dryer, but suggesting something way more horrific from America’s past, shows just how many ideas are at work here.

In 1963 self-absorbed Noah is 8, (sorry, as with the boys, I can’t be sure who played Noah), and prone to bothering Caroline, and lighting her cigarettes, as she launders in the Gellman house basement. Noah’s mum recently died of cancer and the relationship with step-mum is delicate. Stuart, still grieving, and Rose’s relationship isn’t perfect either. Caroline gets paid $30 a week. Rose offers her food rather than a raise, and later, condescendingly suggests she take the small change the family leave in their pockets, especially Noah. This idea of change, (both personal for Caroline, and politically for her family and community), and of the unequal economic relationship between the Gellmans and Caroline, of which they are all acutely conscious, is central to the drama, and presents an extraordinarily powerful metaphor.

The assassination of JFK, and his legacy, and the destruction of a statue of a Confederate soldier at the local Lake Charles courthouse, provide wider social and political context and, in the case of the latter, acute contemporary resonance, given, for example, the ugly events last year in Charlottesville. The politics ramps up before, during and after the Chanukah party in the first half of Act 2, which, for me, served up half an hour of the most vital theatre I have seen ever seen anywhere. The aftermath of the party, and an elusive $20 bill, prompts a bust up between Caroline and Noah and then some sort of spiritual epiphany for Caroline, culminating in the passionate song Lot’s Wife, which made me, and half the audience, quietly blu. Emmie though has the last, defiant, word.

Caroline is angry, sullen and resentful at the hand that life has dealt her, but her faith, her dignity, her conditioning and the stark fact that she needs to feed her family, means she cannot fight back. Emmie, from the next generation, can though. Mr Kushner points out in the programme how damaging the failure to resolve issues of race and poverty has been to the American politic, but he also offers a message than change is still possible.

The Hampstead stage is just about big enough to contain the set, though I gather it was more expansive at Chichester, but small enough to let us savour every line and note. I don’t think I missed a word and Michael Longhurst’s direction was exemplary (if you’ve see Amadeus at the National you’ll know what he’s about), ably assisted by Ann Yee’s intricate choreography.

In my own little fantasy world of reviews on this blog site I dole out stars like candy, largely because I get so excited with how much marvellous culture London offers that I really do feel like I am in the proverbial sweet shop. This though is a brook no argument 5* masterpiece.

The best thing I have seen this year. And I was perched up in the gods wishing I was much closer and had booked sooner.

You must see it.

 

Dry Powder at the Hampstead Theatre review ****

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Dry Powder

Hampstead Theatre, 29th January 2018

At last a play about the world of “high finance” which does not wade in with both feet in some ham-fisted (I know, mangled metaphors), didactic attempt to explain to the audience why it is “evil”. Actually that is a little unfair as most plays I have seen in recent years which tackle this subject have been more nuanced. But none has taken the impartial, but ultimately more insightful, stance here adopted by Sarah Burgess.

We are all complicit in the fiction of money, or, more exactly, credit. No money, no exchange. No credit, no growth. For every transaction there is a buyer and a seller. Fear, greed, supply, demand, the price mechanism. All tricky to avoid. You can argue long and hard about the distribution of the “benefits” that flow from capitalist economic organisation, and debate whether the externalities, or excesses, that it promotes are a price worth paying, (there I go again), but no-one seems to have found a viable alternative.

The people who work in high finance are pretty much the same as the people who don’t. Even at the very top of the tree the only difference, generally, is that they worked harder at school. There is no secret initiation ceremony that turns them into rapacious c*nts. Daddy’s job is not paramount. The are’t all card carrying Republicans or Tories. They have lives, of a sort. They aren’t capitalists with top hats. The capital they manipulate is often your pensions or investment, or has been created by governments on your behalf, so that you can have the things you want when you want them. Most of what they do isn’t shady or clandestine. It is just really, really dull.

Once they get to the top, or near the top, of the tree though it is difficult for them not to be sucked into the drug of self-importance. Being paid big bucks drives, and distorts, behaviours of course. But it is not the reason why these people do what they do. It is simply the scorecard. One house, two houses, three houses. One car, two cars, three cars. One painting, two paintings, three paintings. This is not what brings pleasure. What drives them is a combination of perceived power and self importance, and, most importantly, intellectual satisfaction. Thinking fast about a lot of things and betting on outcomes is what makes the game addictive.

This, I think, is what Ms Burgess seeks to explore in the play. And she does it, most effectively, through witty comedy. The play is by no means perfect but it does, through its four characters, show what can happen to those who get sucked into this bubble. Rick, played by Aiden McArdle, is the founding partner of a smallish private equity firm. He, and the firm, are attracting press opprobrium, thanks to his forthcoming, lavish, wedding (“only one elephant” at the engagement party), which leaked out on the same day as mass redundancy at one of the firm’s investments. He has set his two junior partners, Seth (Tom Riley) and Jenny (Hayley Atwell), to compete. Seth has brought a deal, Californian icon Landmark Luggage, to the table. The price is very attractive because Seth has persuaded the seller, via the CEO Jeff (Joseph Balerrama), that the firm will invest, grow the business online and preserve jobs. A press friendly “America First” proposal. Rick though asks Jenny to look at the case for relocating production across the border. Jenny comes back with a full on asset-stripping, outsource to Bangladesh, squeeze out cash, lever up to pinch a dividend, private equity caricature scenario.

From this set up flows some accurate, if not entirely, surprising paybacks. What makes it work is Sarah Burgess’s attention to the dialogue. Yes, she peppers the scenes with the technical language of private equity, (but is careful to provide context and explanations so if you don’t get it you’re not trying), and there is plenty of swearing. She does though capture the direct, combative, intense but often petty, point-scoring, smart-arse rhythm of this world. Everything here is about winning the argument. Consequences are often abstract. Everyone is very clever but argument tends to the reductive.

You might hear a bit of Mamet in the dialogue. I was reminded of the intent of the City comedies of Jonson and the Restoration, (and not just from the, I think, copious use of Purcell in Max Pappenheim’s sound design). A subtler tone perhaps. No need to accentuate the venality, hypocrisy and pomposity of the targets as in that era, but the same essential dramatic device. Use wit to illuminate self-interest.

You will be drawn to the performance of Hayley Atwell as Jenny. This is a fascinating study. She is not defined by her gender. Not wife, mother, love interest, victim. That is quite rare even in contemporary theatre. Charmless and devoid of “emotional intelligence”. Driven by the logic of return on capital but failing to see what cannot be measured. Saying sorry with no concept of why she should be. Exaggerated it may be but from this extreme emerges a lot of laughs and no little truth. But brilliant as Ms Atwell is it is not just about Jenny. Seth represents another bundle of personality traits. A charming self-assured salesmen who smoothly secures the trust of his clients. He comes to question the morality of Jenny’s management plan for Landmark, but only because he has “lost the game”. He is certainly not prepared to trade his status and back his own plan. Rick is immune to self-doubt his past success makes him think he is infallible. Aiden McArdle is all controlled, demanding aggression. It comes as no surprise that he will take capital from anyone to prop up his firm. Joseph Balerrama’s Jeff exudes a kind of fragile bonhomie but this, unsurprisingly, masks a ruthlessness that is revealed when his agency and price are tested.

Sarah Burgess has clearly delved deep and understood her research and rightly focussed on where it led her. Her writing is assured, droll and perfectly pitched. Anna Ledwich, (who also directed Beth Steel’s Labyrinth on this stage which came at this world from a different era and different asset class), offered sympathetic guidance. The design of Andrew D Edwards, with its revolving mirrors, and I think video of smoke at one point was maybe a bit overstated but no matter.

 

 

 

 

Cell Mates at the Hampstead Theatre review ***

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Cell Mates

Hampstead Theatre, 10th January 2018

This was my first experience of the work of prolific playwright/novelist/diarist/academic Simon Gray whose stage texts were so adored by luminaries such as Peter Hall, Harold Pinter, (who directed many of his premieres), and Alan Bates, (who starred in them). Cell Mates, of course, is (in)famous for being the play that national treasure, and all round wonderful person, Stephen Fry bailed out of whilst suffering a bout of depression. Simon Gray in turn wrote, somewhat acerbically, about this very episode.

This is the first London revival of the play since that fateful night in 1985. It is based on the true story of the relationship between notorious Dutch-born, British spy and double agent George Blake, and Irish petty criminal and fixer Sean Bourke. After divulging top secret intelligence and details of military exercises to the Soviets in the 1960s Blake had been sentenced to 42 years for treason. In Wormwood Scrubs he met Bourke and they hatched a plan to “spring” Blake in 1966, with help from communist sympathisers on the outside, who then fled to “sanctuary” in Moscow. When Bourke got out he followed Blake to Moscow and then found himself trapped there, by the KGB, with, it seems, the connivance of Blake.

So a meaty story of prison breakout and spy drama. But Simon Gray is less interested in the plot which might naturally unfold from this extraordinary story and more in the relationship between the two men. Both clearly were remarkable in their own ways. Blake, by all accounts, was a gifted, if flawed, character. Schooled in Egypt after his father’s early death, flirting with religious vocation, he joined the Dutch resistance in his teens, was caught by the Nazis, but escaped to Britain. His linguistic skills saw him posted to some hairy places fairly early on in his career before he was turned by a Soviet agent whilst he was imprisoned in Korea. His idealogical shift had, ironically, been fuelled in part by a course in Russian he took at Cambridge. Bourke, as his plan demonstrates, was a resourceful man, with a liking for a drink, and ” a strong sense of the dramatic, an ability to dissemble and an obsessive pride” to use Blake’s own words. Textbook Irish Rover.

We see the conspiracy hatched in prison, the immediate aftermath of the breakout and then four scenes set over a year or so in Blake’s flat in Moscow. So with this back story, and these characters, you might expect high drama. You would be wrong. The tone is surprisingly low-key. The two men clearly come to depend on each other but we do not, I think, really understand why. They find themselves effectively imprisoned once again and I guess we are supposed to reflect on how this came to pass, and whether, in the case of Blake (who is still holed up in Moscow in his 90s), a life of duplicity doomed him to permanent unhappiness and loneliness.

There is some, unsubtle, humour provided by the two KGB agents played by Danny Lee Wynter and Philip Bird, who “observe’ the pair along with maid Zinaida played by Cara Horgan. The two leads, Emmet Byrne as Bourke and, especially, Geoffrey Streatfeild as Blake, do an admirable job in fleshing out the enigmatic couple and Edward delicately directs what is clearly a cherished project for him.

Overall it was just a little too restrained for my liking though. I could see that I was watching something worthwhile but I was never quite persuaded that it really was worth my while. Alan Bennett’s double header, Single Spies, is also by no means a perfect drama, but shed more light, for me, on the curious mix of arrogance, principle and self-loathing that seemed to compel the likes of Blunt, Burgess and Blake on their journey to treachery.

The Firm at the Hampstead Theatre review *****

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The Firm

Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, 22nd November 2017

How does the Tourist choose whether to see a play?

Writer first, since he/she is the wellspring from which all else flows. In the end all there is is text, actors and audience. And observers and observed have nothing to share without the text. Poor text, poor play. Nothing anyone else can do about that.

Venue second. A function of convenience and familiarity, but also, not unreasonably, if you have enjoyed one production at a theatre, you may well enjoy another. This will probably reflect the vision of the artistic team and the rather grubbier fact of the demographic the executive team wants to prise cash from. On the downside, there are venues where comfort is so compromised that price does not represent value and must be avoided.

Then there is the subject. Not always easy to divine for new plays from the blurbs, teasers and trailers but something needs to pique my interest. As it happens most new drama has its finger firmly on the pulse or contrives relevance from places or times far removed from my cosy little world.

Director next. Same principle as the writer, if you have enjoyed their way of doing things once you may well do again, though this is not guaranteed.

Reviews of course, but the Tourist’s addiction and simple economics (why paid 70 quid in the West End when I can get a top seat for half the price or less at the original production at the Royal Court or Almeida), means that reviews only help for transferred in productions.

Cast, relevant but not a deal breaker, though expectations rise when favourite names are announced.

Ideally a number of these factors come together. Sometimes though the Tourist takes a punt. As he did with The Firm. Downstairs at the Hampstead normally serves me well, but this is by no means guaranteed. I was interested in the subject, a gang reunited, but concerned it might lurch into cliche. I knew nothing about the work of playwright Roy Williams, director Denis Lawson or designer Alex Marker. I had not seen any of the cast on stage as far as I could remember (based on their bios), with the exception of Clarence Smith. I would like to pretend I had a feeling but I didn’t. And to cap it all I pushed my just-in-time arrival strategy to the limit. So a quick Jimmy, an inward groan at the 1hr 40mins run time and the only seat left tucked in a far corner (mind you the HT Downstairs benches are comfy).

As it turns out this is an excellent play and probably the biggest surprise of the year for me. Alex Marker’s set transformed the reconfigured Downstairs space into a “sophisticated” urban bar, complete with pristine Wurlitzer juke box and array of aspirational spirits brands. We first encounter the nattily dressed Gus (Clinton Blake) who owns the bar (and as we discover quite a tidy portfolio of assets elsewhere) bantering with Leslie (Jay Simpson), the archetypal (and white) Sarf Londoner who has recently left prison. Gus and Leslie are waiting for Shaun to arrive. A party in his honour is planned followed by a night out on the town and then a trip to the Palace (Selhurst Park not down the Mall, for regrettably they are Eagles) the next day. Shaun never comes. The rest of the “The Firm” do pitch up though, first stout Trent (Delroy Atkinson) followed by a nervous and limping Selwyn (Clarence Smith). But Selwyn brings a young stranger with him, Fraser (Simon Coombs) who, for various reasons, unsettles the gang. He comes with a proposal.

I’ll stop there. This all sounds way more mysterious than it actually is. This is an absolutely riveting insight into the nature of manhood, the camaraderie of criminality, the value of loyalties, the meaning of success and the trials of friendship. These forty/fifty somethings were happiest in the past, right the way back to when they first embarked on their “life of crime”, by The Wall near their school. The pace at which Roy Williams releases the many revelations that show who the characters are and what they have become, is perfect. We learn enough, but not too much, to keep the dramatic intensity on the boil. We see the damage the past has done and we witness the final break-up of the gang. We see the love and the jealousy the mates have. There is a Pinteresque threat of violence and malice as you might expect throughout, most notably from Gus, who was the leader of the gang, and who is the only one to have avoided a stretch inside. He probes and manipulates the others, until they begin, in their various ways to fight back.

It is also very funny. The dialogue is utterly believable, the banter is spot on. The interplay between the cast is superb. Clinton Blake’s Gus is preening bully, but it is clear from the off that he is troubled. Jay Simpson excels as Leslie, the mediator and the joker, who is trying to start again. (If anyone is ever looking for a Joe Strummer in a play about the Clash here’s you man). Delroy Atkinson as Trent, at first submissive, gradually asserts himself and, in a very powerful scene, shows himself as the only one of the gang capable of pacifying the psychologically damaged and desperate Selwyn of Clarence Smith. Simon Coombs as “younger” Fraser is insolent and cocky, but, in a neat inversion, shows some maturity that escapes the others. His final scene with a defeated Gus is gripping.

The play offers no moral perspective on gang membership. It does make abundantly clear though that for men of current, this and proceeding generations, in the absence of other opportunities, this way of life, and the crime that comes with it, is the clearest path to securing the validation and respect of others. It also shows how fragile this respect can turn out to me and how poor men are in admitting, articulating and coping with their frailties and failings.

I may be guilty of reading too much into the play but that is what I saw. I highly recommend it. Roy Williams actually references Goodfellas and West Side Story in the dialogue to remind us of other masterful portrayals of this subject. Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t Goodfellas, but in its own way it is similarly involving. I understand that Mr Williams has mined issues of race, sport, poverty, random violence and teen parenthood in previous works, as well as the father/son relationship in Soul, his last play about the death of Marvyn Gaye. I really hope I get an opportunity to see some of them. He really, really has the measure of his stories and characters.

 

 

 

Slaves of Solitude at the Hampstead Theatre review ***

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Slaves of Solitude

Hampstead Theatre, 8th November 2017

As this blog testifies I spend a lot of time in theatres, (too much I think), but the SO is far more circumspect in her choices. Occasionally, very occasionally, the SO’s desire to see a play, and her enjoyment thereof, outstrips mine. Slaves of Solitude was one such occasion, though we both agreed that this fell a little short of our expectations.

Patrick Hamilton (1904-1962) was a writer and playwright whose star is now very firmly in the ascendant after many years of neglect. His studies of working class London life between the wars, such as Hangover Square and the trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, (adapted for TV a few years ago), bear comparison with Dickens. They are populated by recognisable characters and shot through with a sardonic wit. Early on he was an actor and his most famous plays, Gaslight and Rope, were both made into successful films (Gaslight twice in the UK and then the US – obviously the UK version is superior). If you know either of these films, especially Hitchcock’s version of Rope, then you will appreciate how skilled Mr Hamilton was at creating gripping thrillers, though these plays are somewhat removed from his novels.

He was not it seems, a happy chappie. Left scarred by a car accident in his twenties, disdainful of the culture around him and a committed Marxist, he sank into alcoholism and died at 58. Despite his heavy drinking he kept writing throughout although the tone of his work darkened through time. Slaves of Solitude is the only one of his novels set during WWII and is apparently a “lighter” work than some of his other novels.

The novel has been adapted for the stage by Nicholas Wright who is a dab hand at this sort of thing and is an admirer of Hamilton, along with master director Jonathan Kent, whose last major outing was the Chichester Young Chekhov Trilogy. The play is set in a genteel boarding house in Henley-on-Thames run by the brisk, but warm-hearted, Mrs Payne (Susan Porrett) and Irish assistant Sheila (a fine professional debut from Eimear O’Neill). It is December 1943. Residents include the redoubtable Mrs Barrett (Gwen Taylor) and the kindly spinster Miss Steele (Amanda Walker) and the bombastic, blazered Mr Thwaites (an authentic Clive Francis relishing the character’s preposterous turns of phrase). There is also the enigmatic Mr Prest (Richard Tate) who spends a lot of time up in London.

Our “heroine” is Miss Roach , a pitch perfect Fenella Woolgar with her prim exterior reserve concealing a more passionate, though buried interior. She works in publishing and has been forced to leave London to escape the Blitz. This is the stiff upper lip England of fading Empire, adapting to the war time privation of ration books, blackouts and the arrival of American troops. We see early on that the women are far more willing than the nasty, misogynistic, bullying Mr Thwaites to sympathise with the plight of individual “enemies” caught up in the war. This is put to the test after Miss Roach meets vivacious German emigre Vicky Kugelmann, (a magnetic performance by Lucy Cohu), who proceeds to move in to the boarding house.

Miss Roach’s afternoons in the pub also contrive for her to meet Lieutenant Dayton Pike (Daon Broni), a friendly American GI, who begins to chat her up. Casting Pike as a black soldier, in contrast to the book, creates a heightened level of interest which Mr Wright’s adaption capably, if not forensically, explores. Roach and Pike’s subsequent affair is complicated by the presence of Vicky and by Pike’s own excessive drinking. An impromptu party at the boarding house gets out of hand with, inevitably, unfortunate consequences. Miss Roach escapes but Pike catches up with her for one final goodbye.

Now Patrick’s Hamilton gift for characterisation and creating atmosphere is splendid. The set and costume design (the Hampstead excels in this) from Tim Hatley is ingenious and puts us right inside the dining room of the boarding house and the saloon bar of the pub. These are emotionally stiff, but still sympathetic, people. The established social order has been thrown into turmoil by the war. Outsiders have arrived. Risks can be taken, particularly by women, leading to behaviour which would have been shunned before the war. Yet there are still consequences.

Unfortunately we see that this precarious world will be shattered via a flash forward at the opening which, for me, was unnecessary. The plot drifts along fairly predictably until a lurch into something more melodramatic in the second half, and the ending, which is intended to offer a modicum of solace is a little abrupt. These shortcomings were broadly compensated by the overall “feel” of the production however. Yet I was left with the nagging doubt that this was one of those subtle stories that might have been better left on the page and not taken to the stage. Whilst I do sometimes find his work annoying and frustrating I can’t help feeling that Terence Rattigan has cornered the market in theatrical British forlornness.

Gloria at the Hampstead Theatre review ****

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Gloria

Hampstead Theatre, 4th July 2017

Right. This might actually be a review of, albeit dubious, utility. There are 3 weeks or so left on the run and there are  a fair few tickets left. And this is a fine piece of theatre with an interesting premise, formal innovation, enough material to cogitate on but not so taxing as to ruin your night out, and all in the convivial and convenient location that is the Hampstead Theatre.

The proper reviews give you a realistic flavour, though I think they maybe oversell the “frustrated millenials in workplace” drama that characterises the first half, and undersell the sharpness of the satire on “ownership of stories in today’s world of commoditised fake empathy” that drives the second half.

On the face of it this is a very different play from flavour of the month Branden Jacobs-Jenkins last London outing, An Octoroon at the Orange Tree (review here An Octoroon at the Orange Tree Theatre review ****). That play was a dissertation on the notion of identity in the theatre using the guts of C19 playwright’s Dion Boucicault’s “slavery” melodrama, The Octoroon. Very clever, very entertaining. Gloria is also clever and entertaining but in a more subtle way (one coup de theatre aside). Moreover it also riffs on the ownership of narratives which for me is something theatre is uniquely able to address.

The first half is set in an NYC magazine publishing house where three put-upon late 20s assistants bemoan their lot with a mixture of anger, humour and resignation. Kae Alexander plays Kendra, an entitled Asian-American princess who is long on railing against the iniquity of the thwarted career opportunities for her generation, but short on any work ethic that might help to change this. Ellie Kendrick (last seem by me out-Oscaring all those Hollywood chumps in the brilliant film The Levelling, which cost about the same as one Oscar night table of goodie bags to make) plays Ani, whose outward show of sweetness and light likely masks a more ruthless streak. Colin Morgan (you know Merlin in a former life) plays Dean, just turned 30 and still lapdog to unseen editor Nan. They are joined by the seemingly ineffectual intern Miles (Bayo Gbadamosi), and visited by the eponymous frustrated office lifer Gloria (Sian Clifford) and stressed fact checker Lorin.

The detail of the frustrations that each of these characters face is well observed (BJJ spent a few years at Vanity Fair) and pretty funny. This first half does get close to outstaying its welcome but BJJ has a cunning and surprising trick up his sleeve to bridge us into the second half. I will leave the description there: suffice to say that the second half explores its chosen themes with the same economy and insight as the first. I see some of the criterati don’t recognise the office workplace on show here: I think that says more about them than it will about you (assuming you are not some ancient has-been like me and the other educated pensioner types who are always getting in the way of the more worthy younger punters in the quality London theatres).

In contrast to An Octoroon this play is not chock full of meta devices and playful alienating effects. It is, broadly, a naturalistic structure but the use of doubling for “new” characters in the second half, whilst hardly revolutionary, works well, at least for me. I can’t wait to see more of BJJ’s plays over here. and, given the reception afforded to this and An Octoroon, these should not be too long in coming. And best of all when asked in the programme interview who his favourite playwright is, he answered Caryl Churchill. What an astute young(ish) man.

I am dubious about filling a cast up with young names off the telly even if it does offer the prospect of better economics for producers/artistic directors. Here however it worked a treat. The entire cast was faultless but our three millenials shone. Michael Longhurst is blessed with the ability to perfectly pace any play he directs and Lizzie Clachan turned in another set which which offered an elegant solution to functional necessity. It is possible to make a vernacular theatrical settings elegant, but I bet it’s not easy.

So if I were you I would give this a whirl. Worst case you get to here a bit of JS Bach (a slightly different take on Gloria).