the end of history …. at the Royal Court Theatre review ***

the end of history …

Royal Court Theatre, 29th July 2019

Jack Thorne, (recents include H. Potter, Woyzeck, Junkyard and Kiri and The Virtues on the box), writing, (so blame him for the lower case affectation). John Tiffany, (H. Potter, Road, The Glass Menagerie), directing. A cast of Lesley Sharp, David Morrissey, Kate O’Flynn, Laurie Davidson, Zoe Boyle and Sam Swainsbury. A family drama set against the travails of the political Left across the last two decades. Whose title references Fukuyama’s dodgy theory about the triumph of neoliberalism. All at the Royal Court.

What could go wrong? Well not much as it happens. On the other hand it never really delivered on its promise. Acting top notch as you might expect. Same true of the directing and the set (Grace Smart), lighting (Jack Knowles), sound (Tom Gibbons), score (Imogen Heap) and, especially in the choreographed passages between the acts, movement (Steven Hoggett). Never dull, in fact engaging throughout with sharp dialogue and rounded characters. But …. it just didn’t really surprise with the way it handled the big issues it purported to tackle.

Heart-on-sleeve Sal (Lesley Sharp), a veteran of Greenham Common, and David (David Morrissey), are old school Labour intellectual types living in Newbury. Shabby (not chic) interior. Piles of books. “Ethnic” art. It’s 1997. They have no truck with Blair and his gain about to get elected. Carl (Sam Swainsbury) is bringing his posh, moneyed new girlfriend Harriet (Zoe Boyle) home for the weekend and awkward daughter Polly (Kate O’Flynn) is up from Cambridge to join in the fun/interrogation. Which just leaves youngest Tom (Laurie Davidson) finishing his detention and dashing back from school.

The family doesn’t hold back in the ensuing ding-dongs with plenty of sarcasm, pointed argument and negotiation, and there is a real sense of shared history, but it just doesn’t really go anywhere. We see the children face down their own triumph and disasters and there is a, somewhat predictable, plot twist at the end, (when it is now 2017 after we have passed Act 2’s 2007). Sal and David grow increasingly disillusioned with the world around them, and veer towards self-acknowledged parody, but with no specific event for us to latch on to the effect is of waves of, albeit quotable, dialogue flowing over us and no persuasive narrative arc.

A shame in some ways. A theatrical dissection of the failure of progressive politics is not unique but is still necessary and with this writer, director and cast more might have been achieved.

Woyzeck at the Old Vic review ***

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Woyzeck

The Old Vic, 27th May 2017

One day soon the Old Vic under the aegis of its ambitious Artistic Director, Mathew Warchus, is going to come up with an absolute stonker. The strategy of taking a classic play, or new work from a top flight current playwright, stuffing it with stars of stage and screen, wheeling in the brightest directors and other collaborators (if Mr Warchus doesn’t himself take the helm), and then bringing to a steady boil is surely going to pay off. We have come mighty close in the last couple of years; for me Tim Minchin’s musical Groundhog Day was a triumph but the straight plays have, for one reason or another, not quite smashed the ball out of the park.

The production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead saw fine performances from Daniel Radcliffe and, especially, Joshua McGuire, and sure-footed direction from Stoppard veteran David Leveaux, but it is Stoppard, so there is no indulgence for any lapse of concentration by (me) the audience. Art contained three fine performances from Rufus Sewell, Paul Ritter and Tim Ke,y but not enough to persuade me that this play remains rather too pleased with itself. In retrospect there should have been no surprise at all that Glenda Jackson gave us a peremptory Lear, but Deborah Warner’s directing didn’t fully solve some of the play’s issues for me (I am all for massaging the text here to enhance proceedings), and there was some jarring casting. I can’t exactly say why, but the Caretaker directed by Mr Warchus himself didn’t quite deliver that electric thrill that Pinter can serve up when it all comes together, despite an outstandingly wheedling Davies from Tim Spall. And the Master Builder with Ralph Fiennes was frustrating, largely because of Sarah Snook’s Hilde I am afraid. I loved The Hairy Ape with Bertie Carvel (next up as young Robert Murdoch in Ink at the Almeida). In fact, for me, it has been the most successful of the productions since Mr Warchus’s tenure commenced, but I get that early Expressionist Eugene O’Neill is not for everyone. Finally the less said about Future Conditional the better, although the idea was sound.

So I was hoping that Woyzeck might be the one. I fear it was not, though John Boyega’s tragic performance was riveting (let’s hope after this debut he doesn’t get lost to Hollywood). Now part of the problem may be that I only know the story here from Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck. This is a musical masterpiece which I am slowly getting to grips with having seen a handful of productions now. Whilst Berg himself wrote the libretto he was keen, at least based on what he said, to retain the “essential character” of Georg Buchner’s 1837 play (the poor fella died aged 23) with “its many short scenes, its abrupt and sometimes brutal language, and its stark, if haunted, realism…”. If you have never seen the opera (and you should) then, trust me, he does.

So I can’t be sure just exactly how far Jack Thorne’s new adaptation deviates from Buchner’s fragmentary, unfinished text. But I know a man who does which is why the SO and the TFP’s were fairly willingly cajoled into joining me. And it is fair to say that Mr TFP, who is all over German literature, and I, were both a bit bamboozled by this.

I won’t spoil since the production has some weeks to go, but the shift to the divided Berlin of 1981, the insertion of an extensive back story for the lead and some fairly radical shifting around of events and character action/motivation (notably for Marie, Woyzeck’s wife, Andrews, his mate here, and Maggie, the Captain’s wife) didn’t entirely work for me. The social criticism in Buchner’s work was less evident (how grinding poverty and real hunger leaves the “lower classes” unable to sustain a “moral” life). The depiction (and causes) of Woyzeck’s psychosis were a little forced through some of the the extended dream sequences. The dehumanisng impact of military service seemed to get lost a little inside one man’s struggle with his own demons.

If I am honest I think the laudable attempt to update the play (this is not some plea for “authenticity”) and offer a more complete narrative, left the production poised uneasily between a sort of TV drama realism (Mr Thorne’s comfort zone  as he himself freely admits in the programme), and the more usual Expressionist tableau (most obviously visible in set and sound design), which didn’t quite do it for me. This tension between naturalistic and expressionistic is the conundrum at the heart of Buchner’s text I gather, but Jack Thorne and director Joe Murphy’s solutions seem to drag the structure down. Sometimes less can be more.

There are some memorable images though, especially if you are partial to a bit of simulated shagging, a gentleman’s full frontal, topless ladies and red marigolds (rubber not floral), and other borderline theatrical cliches. The supporting performances are all robust. So maybe, in the spirit of the less is more advice, you might find this more rewarding than me if you go in without too much expectation or preconception.

So next up at the Old Vic is Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country, which he is self-directing (with Joe Murphy assisting). Stardust will be sprinkled courtesy of Bob Dylan’s music and we have an interesting and expansive cast (including Ron Cook, Sheila Atim, Shirley Henderson, all firm favourites of mine). The setting in Minnesota intrigues (so no Steinbeckian dust bowl tragedy or Southern family saga I assume). Maybe this will be the one then.

 

 

 

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Old Vic review ****

more time required

The cast for the revival of Art

Junkyard at the Rose Theatre review *****

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Junkyard

Rose Theatre Kingston, 30th April 2017

Once again I am writing some thoughts about a play (well musical in this case) which has been and gone. I really haven’t got the hang of this have I. Still this blog is mostly to stop me from annoying the rest of the family so I guess it doesn’t matter.

So Junkyard was/is a co-production between Headlong, the Rose, the mighty Bristol Old Vic and Theatre Clwyd. The book and lyrics come from one Jack Thorne, the creative brain behind the Harry Potter play which garnered all the accolades at the recent Olivier Awards, and who is directing the Woyzeck about to open at the Old Vic with John Boyega in the lead. I know Woyzeck through Berg’s opera and I am looking forward to this big time. Jack Thorne also co-wrote the This is England film series with Shane Meadows which I highly recommend if you have never seen it.

As an aside I cannot bear this Potter stuff. MS loved the books when he was a boy, LD is addicted to the films, we had a wonderful day out at that Potter World thingy (one of those many occasions when I have been forced to eat humble pie) and I think JK Rowling is a marvellous human being. But I still think it is calculated, derivative nonsense.

Anyway Tourist try not to alienate your audience.

So why go to see Junkyard? And worse still why drag BD along? It might have been her turn to “go with Dad to see something otherwise he will moan on about how no-one cares about him despite all he has done for us” but on paper a musical about kids in a playground in the late 1970s is not designed to wow the sophisticated, worldly, WhatsApp-arati

As well as the massive stamp of quality from this being Headlong and directed by Jeremy Herrin (most recently People, Places and Things and This House), the main draw in booking was Erin Doherty. She plays the lead Fiz in this production and it her smiling face in the promotional pic above. And I think she is going to be a massive stage star. This is the second time I have seen her lead a play. First time was in Wish List, the Bruntwood Prize winning debut play by Katherine Soper at the Royal Court. This was a very moving account of a pair of siblings struggling to get by in today’s Britain. Erin Doherty as Tamsin was riveting as she maintained a quiet, optimistic dignity despite the wearying array of pressures she had to bear.

The mark of a great play/production for me is whether in sticks in your mind and you come back to it weeks and months after you have seen it. So far this year Wish List, along with Winter Solstice at the Orange Tree, the Almeida Hamlet, Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Roman Tragedies and The Kid Stays in the Picture fit this bill. I suspect Consent at the NT will also join the list.

Anyway stop rambling. Junkyard is terrific. I don’t really like musicals but the songs here are short and catchy, and emerge directly from the prose like a kind of West Country singspiel, and the music by composer Steven Warbeck could barely be appear to be any simpler (much trickier to do that it sounds I reckon). The plot is hardly imaginative, a bunch of troubled kids (the “junk”) at a Bristol school in the dark days of 1979 are roped into helping an idealist “youth worker” type, Rick, into constructing an adventure playground out of junk materials. They resist at first, they come round, the school authorities step in to close it down, it mysteriously burns down, but the kids rebuild and it is saved for the next generation. Literally the oldest “look what us kids can do if we really want to” plot in the book.

But OMG it packs an emotional punch. It is very, very funny, the kids are foul mouthed, arch and knowing, and easy to root for. The issues they face, with “chaotic” (as I believe the papers call it) family lives are beautifully rendered with simple brush strokes and the drama very real. The set is a fully paid up member of the cast. The energy and enthusiasm of the cast is infectious – cliche I know but they really did look like they were having a great time – and whilst I singled out Erin Doherty there wasn’t a duff line, note or step in the house

So this old curmudgeon ends up surreptitiously wiping a tear from his eye at the end and BD had to admit, unprompted, that she really enjoyed it. We didn’t quite become as unselfconscious as the play and performers in front of us but it took us mighty close. An absolute joy.