Genesis Inc at the Hampstead Theatre review **

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Genesis Inc.

Hampstead Theatre Upstairs, 25th June 2018

Sometimes less is more. A lesson that writer Jemma Kennedy and director Laurie Sansom here chose to, if not ignore, certainly bypass. Made even more frustrating because, at the kernel of this play, and in its execution, are some very good ideas. I applaud the ambition of the creative team at the Hampstead Theatre under Edward Hall, and the variety of the offerings, but it does mean that, just occasionally, there is a misfire amongst the hits and the deserved West End transfers. Some of my favourite productions over the last couple of years, (Gloria, Prism, The Firm, Dry Powder, The Phlebotomist and Describe the Night), have shown at the HT, both Upstairs and Downstairs, and often I have enjoyed them more than the critics. Sadly Genesis Inc. was not one of them.

Jemma Kennedy, who is also a screenwriter, has based her first major commission for the stage, (I believe), on her own experience of IVF treatment. She has also chosen to write a comedy. So far, so good. There is a vital personal and political story to be told about the commercialisation of reproduction and fertility in an ageing capitalist society and the dilemmas this creates. She has well-structured arguments to present, and, with distressed couple Jeff (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) and Serena (Rita Arya), and prospective single parent banker Bridget (Laura Howard), sympathetic, and sufficiently complex, characters to present those arguments. Harry Enfield plays Dr Marshall, the medical entrepreneur behind the fertility clinic that the three of them turn to. There are some pointed exchanges, sharp observation and some very funny lines,

But Ms Kennedy cannot then resist the temptation to add complication through additional characters and formal invention. And this is where the play goes awry. Bridget has a gay, impecunious, teacher friend/housemate/ex, Miles, played by Arthur Darvill who does a musical turn and falls for the priest, Father Scales (Arthur Wilson), at the school he rocks up in. He needs money to get on the property ladder so decides to sell his sperm for a few quid. Serena’s Mum, and dead Great-GrandMum, (played by Shobu Kapoor), poke their noses in. There is a sub-plot involving a social worker and salt of the earth victim of domestic violence played by the wonderful Claire Perkins, who also plays the childless alpha-female boss at the investment bank she works in. They, of course, get to IPO Dr Marshall’s clinic. Karl Marx and Susan Sontag are wheeled in. There is even a biblical scene involving Old Testament Abraham, wife Sarah, (90 years old when she conceived if you believe the big book), concubine Hagar and son Ishmael, and even, as you can probably guess by now, God himself. And maybe more startling, Serena’s ovary and vagina get to say a few words

All this is thrown in to allow Jemma Kennedy to make important points about the way in which women and their fertility has been treated through history and how the patriarchy and capitalism have degraded reproduction. This scattergun approach, taking aim at so many different targets, leads to some odd tonal shifts though, especially in the fantasy scenes, and especially at the end, and results in a distractingly complex set from Jess Curtis and some awkward on stage prop-shifting and costume-changing, (there are 42 named roles!).

It was a more than a little frustrating because there was so much in the basic premise, the satire of the moral framework which supports this unsavoury industry, which seems to trade on hope through unsubstantiated claims. Ms Kennedy is a smart enough writer I think to have made some of her points, and still got the laughs, within the context of the narrower personal stories. Harry Enfield is still an awkward stage presence, as he was in Once In A Lifetime at the Young Vic, but here his charm, alongside comic SA accent, masking a more ruthless commercial streak, seemed to work. Kirsty Besterman, as his officious assistant and sales jockey, had some choice lines. The stress that the IVF treatment put on the relationship between Jeff and Serena was well observed as was Bridget’s struggle to balance her desire for a child, by freezing her eggs, with career and demand for a relationship. Arthur Darvill has an unsteady naivety which matched his character and gamely rose to the challenges he was posed.

I can certainly see why the idea of stripping out the sub-plots and fantasy sequences would not have been an option for Ms Kennedy or director Laurie Sansom. The ambition to emulate the dense intellectual and theatrical experience of say an Angels in America, (cited by Edward Hall in the programme), is laudable but it didn’t really come off. And, by over-egging the pudding, I was left dissatisfied with the whole. Intrigued yes, entertained at times, made to think for sure, but just that bit uncomfortable that everyone involved was straining too hard to pull this off.

 

 

 

The Moderate Soprano at the Duke of York’s Theatre review ****

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The Moderate Soprano

Duke of York’s Theatre, 7th June 1018

There are a couple of weeks to go in the run of David Hare’s The Moderate Soprano at the Duke of York’s Theatre. There are plenty of (discounted) tickets left. You could do a lot worse than seeing this if you are after a bit of last minute theatre action. It charts the relationship of eccentric millionaire type John Christie and his singer wife Audrey Mildmay, (and the bunch of pre WWII emigres from Central Europe who helped them), as they set out to create the Glyndebourne Opera Festival in, essentially, their back garden. So if a gentle, though still involving, tale of toffs ill-advisedly pursuing their opera dream appeals don’t hesitate. If not I’d understand but you would be missing a treat from one of out greatest living playwrights.

Roger Allam, complete with convincing bald pate courtesy of make-up, and preposterously high-waisted linen trousers, plays Captain John Christie a textbook British oddball who inherited the Glyndebourne estate but didn’t then loaf around Brideshead style, instead leading his troops from the front in WWI, teaching science at Eton and then poking his nose into to matters of Efficiency in the matter of Government in WWII. He loved the opera, specifically Wagner, (I gather some people do though it beats me why), making regular pilgrimages to Bayreuth. He eventually finds love, late in life, and marries English soprano singer Audrey Mildmay played by Nancy Caroll, after much persistent wooing.

The Captain hatches a plan to build a small. 300 seater, opera house in the grounds of the estate, as you do. He recruits conductor Fritz Busch as Musical Director, (his brother was the founder of the legendary Busch Quartet), Professor Carl Ebert as Artistic Director and Rudolf Bing as Festival Director and overall marketing supremo. All three have escaped Nazi Germany, Bing, (whose extraordinary life is worthy of its own dramatisation), because he was a well-to-do Jew married to a Russian ballerina, Busch because his artistic freedom was curtailed (in savage fashion) by Nazi sympathisers, including his own orchestra at one point, and Ebert because of his voluble criticism of the regime. In a series of informal meetings between the five we learn, as does Christie who is initially sanguine about the changes in the Germany he admires, how the regime has attacked the culture it hates, how Christie’s arm is twisted such that Mozart, not Wagner, becomes the staple of the inaugural pre-war seasons for reasons of practicality and how Audrey becomes the glue that holds the whole project together (and gets to sing). Christie aim was to ring world class opera to Britain, previously accustomed to more amateurish fare, and to do this he turned to the best that Europe had to offer.

The most powerful scenes however, in large part thanks to the supreme skill of both Nancy Carroll and Roger Allam, are the flash forwards after the Christies have passed on the baton of running the Festival and as Audrey’s health progressively deteriorates. Audrey and their two kids were sent by Christie to the safety of Canada during the War but, unable to receive money from England, Audrey needed to sing to get by, which eventually led to a bust up with Busch when he refused to cast her in his Cosi at the Met, the shop where he, and Bing, had pitched up post Glyndebourne. They eventually made up and Busch returned to Sussex from 1950. It seems that Audrey was poorly throughout when she returned, often cancelling performances, but was still able to support Christie at Glyndebourne, help Bing set up the Edinburgh Festival, (yes that Edinburgh Festival), and sit on the Arts Council. What a trooper.

We see her near the end, having lost her sight despite surgery for high blood pressure, and the devotion and love between her and Christie pours out off the stage. I am a sucker for watching art portraying old people still plainly in love but I defy you not to be drawn in. Christie in turn is looked after, by faithful retainer Jane Smith (Jade Williams) after Nancy passes away. Lovely stuff.

I fear I may have given a bit too much of the story away but perhaps this means you can see why David Hare, who I assume loves the opera, was drawn to it. Now I have to admit that I would love to see Mr Hare rustle up one of those searing, state of the nation multi-character extravaganzas of old, much like his recent Collateral on the telly. On the other hand his more “domestic”, heir-to-Rattigan, ordinary-made-extraordinary dramas, of which this is a prime example, are just as satisfying. Jeremy Herrin, who has form with both writer and cast, directs with his usual flair, Bob Crowley’s new set opens up to reveal stunning interior and exterior representations of Glyndebourne itself, including Christie’s impressive organ, (no tittering at the back), ably assisted by Paule Constable’s lighting and Simon Baker’s sound designs.

Paul Jesson as Busch, Anthony Calf as Ebert and, especially, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Bing are all perfectly cast and tremendous foils for Mr Allam and Ms Carroll, who reprise their roles from the original Hampstead Theatre run. The comedy, which is wired in to Mr Hare’s text, is beautifully executed, to sweetly contrast with the pathos.

Now I ave never been, nor would I ever go, to Glyndebourne. For the same price as even a ticket upstairs at Glyndebourne I could get a couple of luxury visits to Covent Garden, and several years worth of fun from my normal high up perch, or three or four trips to the ENO. I don’t have an evening suit and would vehemently object to wearing one anyway. And I can’t be arsed to travel to Sussex with a bunch of braying toffs. Oh, and as I have said before, most of the classic canon in the world of opera, which is Glyndebourne’s meat and drink, is a dreadful bore. So I can assure you my enjoyment of this play has nothing to do with any great love of the institution despite the fact I am a shocking cutural snob. It is just a very pleasing presentation of a very interesting story, unafraid of its explicit Romanticism.

Describe the Night at the Hampstead Theatre review ****

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Describe The Night

Hampstead Theatre, 23rd May 2018

In our country the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Describe the Night hasn’t gone down too well with the London critics. The SO and I think they might have missed a trick. It is ambitious, ranging across several periods of Soviet and post Soviet Russian history, with a fairly cavalier approach to naturalism, and mixes fact and fiction, real and imagined events. Its workshop-py creative methodology shows through, but it was for us highly effective and enlightening. We’ve seen a fair few other plays that have fallen far shorter, despite their more limited intent. So hats off to Rajiv Joseph the writer for giving this a go. I see he won an OBIE, off Broadway award, for best new play with this. That’s probably a bit generous, (or New York is lamentably short of new work which I refuse to believe), but it’s proof that this isn’t the disappointment some have claimed it to be.

Polly Sullivan’s design sees a cliff wall of grey metal filing cabinets punctuated with a raised corridor and spiral staircase down to a dark open space with a couple of spindly birches. This, with some nifty work from Johanna Town’s lighting and Richard Hammarton’s sound, serves as backdrop for an underground KGB/NKVD filing room, an interrogation room, a minicab office, a plush Moscow apartment, a sparsely furnished flat and a forest exterior. The action kicks off in Poland in 1920 during the Russo-Polish war, (a conflict itself near forgotten), where we meet Isaac Emmauilovich Babel played by Ben Caplin and Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov played by David Birrell. Both actors are superb by the way.

Now Babel was a writer whose stories about his childhood and this war were initially feted by the Soviet authorities but who was eventually arrested, his work confiscated, and he was executed in 1940. Yezhov was a small man, a party functionary, who drank to excess, but rose to become a favourite of Stalin and head of the NKVD through the Great Purge. Eventually though he fell foul of Stalin, his wife Yevgenia Solomonovna Feigenburg (Rebecca O’Mara) was arrested, and he too was executed in 1940, despite trying to save his skin by ratting on his friends including Babel. The photos above show how he was famously “non-person-ned” out of history.

The two meet in a forest near Smolensk as Babel is trying to “describe the night” around him. The literal Yezhov has very little of the poet about him, Babel relishes metaphor,  and the two debate the nature of facts and truth. They strike up a firm, if unlikely, friendship. We move forward to 1930s Moscow where we see Babel, whose estranged wife is in Paris, begin his affair with Yevgenia, (which, in reality, had started earlier before she married Yezhov). In the next scene we have whizzed forward to 2010 and Smolensk, where the plane taking the Polish president, his wife and various political and military elite to the commemoration of the Katyn massacre of 1940, has just crashed. Journalist Mariya (Wendy Kweh) is looking to evade the police and enlists the help of Feliks (Joel MacCormack) to made good her escape so she can tell the story.

For those that don’t know the crash is still the subject of conspiracy theories, despite the Polish and Russian authorities concluding it was down to human error, and the Katyn massacre saw the murder of some 22000 Polish military and intelligentsia by the NKVD, although Soviet authorities only finally admitted this in 2010 having previously blamed the Nazis.

We also seen Wendy Kweh as cantankerous Mrs Petrovna and her “daughter” Urzula, played by newcomer Siena Kelly, living in Dresden in 1989. Urzula wants to escape to the West. They have come to the attention of Vova, extravagantly played by Steve John Shepherd, who you might know as one Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. We see our putative Putin rewriting his own history in a confrontation with Yezkov, who has “lived on” to control the files of the NKVD/KGB. The real Putin’s early history is somewhat uncertain. Urzula may be the grand-daughter of the illegitimate child of Babel and Yevgenia, who ended up in an asylum thanks to Yezkov, unable to distinguish Babel’s stories from her own memory. Vova also interrogates, unpleasantly, Mariya, mirroring Yezkov’s interrogation of Babel.

And so the stories weave together and what is true and what is fiction becomes ever more uncertain. Babel’s diary, started in 1920, becomes the physical link between the “scenes”. Some have seen parallels in th eplay with other contemporary regimes alongside Russia where the truth is routinely manipulated. Rajiv Joseph is after all an American playwright. There is certainly much to ponder on from Mr Joseph’s particular narratives. and from his mix of fact and fiction, with even some magic realism thrown in, (never be tempted to drink leech soup). History has always been uncertain, from the moment it is “made”. Leaders and states have always sought to confound “truth”. limited only by their shame and intelligence, or lack thereof. The multiplicity of viewpoint that curses our contemporary digital world might seem like it has “never been as bad as this” but it has, as this century of Russian “history”, shows us. People lie. History is rewritten. Truth is fiction and fiction truth where only art might be trusted. The scale of Russia’s current strategy of disinformation may be exaggerated by technology but it certainly isn’t novel.

We thought that Rajiv Joseph’s text and Lisa Spirling’s (AD of Theatre 503) unhurried direction turned into an invigorating display of these “realities”. The cast all seem to have adopted a slightly forced quality in their delivery, which is though entirely consistent with the structure of the play and the world it inhabits. The “workshopped” construction, this version is different from its NYC cousin, does sometimes mean the pace eases ever so slightly, and the play is, perforce, disjointed, but the rewards more than justify this. (I am much happier saying this about Describe the Night than Maly Theatre’s Life and Fate, a similar dramatic exploration of Russian history). There is dark humour throughout. I can imagine a more fleet-footed production, (Stoppard and Kushner, also writers who relish the interplay of ideas and theatre, similarly need momentum), but the play is already asking a fair bit from its audience, (there is definitely a case for reading the excellent HT programme in advance), so a less stagey approach might risk confusion.

For the moment though this is well worth the effort. There are a few performances left at the HT but I have a feeling this will come back in some form or other and will be a “grower” whose reputation will grow with time. Not everything is what it initially seems maybe.

PS. The foyer of the HT contains some of the material from David King’s splendid collection of Soviet graphic art and photographs which formed the backbone of the recent excellent Tate Modern exhibition. There are a few links below to reviews of other cultural events that plough a similar furrow. Treat yourself.

Red Star Over Russia at Tate Modern review ****

Life and Fate at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review ***

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov at Tate Modern review ****

The War Has Not Yet Started at the Southwark Playhouse review ***

The Death of Stalin film review ****

Russian Art at the Royal Academy review ****

 

 

 

 

 

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.