Catching up (Part 1)

February 2020

Yep. You read that right. February 2020. Just before you know what kicked off and the stages went dark. You would have thought that the last 18 months would have given the Tourist plenty of time and inclination to continue reporting on his cultural journey. But no. Despite his multiple privileges which meant the pandemic had minimal impact on his day to day existence he still fell into the pit marked “intellectual lethargy” spending way to much time looking at a screen and moaning about the world.

But a repeated dose of live theatre (along with Oxford/Astra Zeneca’s elixir – thank you) has, you may or may not be pleased to hear, given him back his mojo. And he has remembered just how useful it is to record what he sees and hears to make sure he keeps on learning and stops grumbling.

So a quick catch up to complete the archives and then some recent highlights. The watchword is brevity. So a few lines only.

The Tin Drum – Coronet Theatre. 24th February 2020. *****. A separate post finally completed.

Tryst – Chiswick Playhouse. 25th February 2020. ****. Front row in this charming space. Second time around at the CP of a play first seen a couple of decades ago. Karoline Leach’s script is based on the real life story of bigamist con-man George Joseph Smith, a serial killer infamous for the Brides in the Bath Murders at the start of the 20th century.¬†Fred Perry played George with a mixture of menace and charm. Scarlett Brookes (just seen again by the Tourist at the Orange Tree) was more successful as the bright but naive shop assistant Adelaide Pinchkin dreaming of a better life. Power shifts intriguingly though the production, directed by Phoebe Barran and mostly narrated, sometimes dragged a little and dialled down the suspense. A smart set from Jessica Staton with the two actors artfully shifted props. Overall the SO and I were entertained. Mind you this was right up our collective street.

Pass Over – Kiln Theatre. 26th February 2020. ****. Antoinette Nwandu’s 2017 play was filmed in 2018 by no less a creative genius than Spike Lee. So we are dealing with a highly regarded rendering of contemporary Black experience here. Easy to see why Kiln’s AD Indhu Rubasingham was keen to take this one for herself. Moses (Paapa Essiedu) and Kitch (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) are on an American city street corner shooting the breeze and dreaming of lives they will never have passe Vladimir and Estragon. This space though, simply staged by Robert Jones, is gradually revealed as limiting and threatening. Their swagger is matched by their fear of the police. They meet Mister (Alexander Eliot), a folksy eccentric with white suit and picnic basket, whose condescending offer of food and friendship masks racist privilege and manufactured offence. Absurdist but not tortuous, packed with allusion, to history, the Old Testament, contemporary race politics, heavy with carefully chosen dialogue but never dense. Tonal uncertainty can ruin plays of this type but not here, though it is at its best when its political message is not directly articulated as in the beginning of Act 2. Paapa Essiedu and Gershwyn Eustache Jr knock it out of the park as the nervy Moses and wistful Kitch but Alexander Eliot, as he did with Solyony in Rebecca Frecknall’s dreamy Three Sisters at the Almeida, mastered a very tough gig as both Mister and the overtly racist policeman Occifer. Can’t help thinking this needs a wider and bigger audience.

A Number – Bridge Theatre. 26th February 2020. ****. Caryl Churchill’s masterpiece from 2002 about cloning, its possibilities and its pitfalls, was given a robust workout by director Polly Findlay, with Roger Allam as the shambling father, Salter, and Colin Morgan as the sons. Once you get over the initial set up, which of the estranged sons is the “unsatisfactory real thing” and which are the clones, then there is not much in the way of CC’s usual formal experimentation or surrealist play on show here. And, in order to explore the various consequences of the subject matter, scientific, philosophical, ethical, familial, and otherwise, CC loads up with some sparkling dialogue. None of the sparse ellipses that characterise her very latest works. The setting from Lizzie Clachlan was dowdily domestic, the humour, of which there is plenty, played up, especially by the ever-droll Mr Allam. Salter didn’t really think through when he opted to “improve” on the original and the emotional effects on his son, and the copies, requested and rogue, were well played, without losing sight of the core “hard problem” of what it is to actually be human and how we “identify”. Colin Morgan offered a convincing degree of differentiation, Bernard 1 angry, Bernard 2 confused, “Michael” no 3 nonchalant, but this effort meant he, and Roger Allam, didn’t always connect or clash as much as they might/should. And some of the clues about the relationship between father and son didn’t always land. The play runs to an hour but felt a little longer with CC pauses and tics and some deliberately disorientating stage revolves between the five “acts”. Another production with, coincidentally given the above, Paapa Essiedu and Lennie James (a first on stage for me), and directed by Churchill specialist Lyndsey Turner, will appear at the Old Vic in early 2022. I can’t wait to compare, contrast and, as always on repeated viewing of CC’s work, learn and love more.

Death of England. National Theatre Dorfman. 29th February 2020. *****. Apropos of nothing, and paraphrasing for dramatic effect, someone said in my hearing recently that Rafe Spall didn’t make for a convincing Judge Brack in Ivo van Hove’s 2016 Hedda Gabler at the NT. Something along the lines of not nasty enough. My first reaction was to disagree; in a production stripped of its historical context, his was a deliberately unsubtle and brutally physical Brack. But actually they had a point. There is a whiff of little boy lost about Mr Spall which left a scintilla of doubt. In Roy William’s and Clint Dyer’s one man confessional/state of the nation play, Death of England, this vulnerability, however, literally repaid us with interest. Spall played Essex’s finest, Michael, grieving son to a dear and recently departed, but racist father, and best friend to Delroy, who is his sister’s partner. Along the way Spall also takes in his Dad, Delroy’s Mum, a restaurant owner with a vital story to tell, amongst others. He does all this at lightening speed, in both voice and movement, plucking props out of nooks and crannies from Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and ULTZ’s St George’s Cross transverse stage and with occasional asides to the audience. There is much to like, and dislike, about Michael, a confident, lairy swagger fuelled by coke, convulsed by his Dad’s death, riven by contradiction about what it means to be white, male and working class in Britain today. Spall’s performance was hyper, exaggerated by Jackie Shemesh’s often glaring lighting, paralleling Michael’s own psyche, barreling towards the tour de force of his climatic drunken funeral oration. As in Roy William’s Sing Your Heart Out …. , football, nationhood and racism are intertwined though here more as metaphor, Dad dies just after the semi-final loss in 2018, than plot. Now with added Brexit. Michael knows what he is supposed to be against but what exactly is he for? OK so the script wobbles a bit on occasion and the intensity of performance and Clint Dyer’s direction makes it easier to recognise that completely understand the paradox of Michael but it was impossible not to be bowled over by its commitment.

What else that month? A couple of concerts. The Bang on a Can All Stars, champions of post-minimalism with a mixed programme including John Adams (The Chairman Dances), Julia Wolfe (Flower Power), Steve Martland (Horses of Instruction) and Philip Glass (Symphony No 2 arranged for string Orchestra), which was OK but nothing more and an energetic, spirited and ultimately convincing recital from pianist Boris Giltburg of Beethoven sonatas (Ops 26, 57, 109 and 111).

Hansard at the National Theatre review ****

Hansard

National Theatre Lyttleton, 26th August 2019

Simon Woods is an actor who has appeared in TV shows such as Rome, Cranford and Spooks and films including Pride and Prejudice and Starter for 10, though I am afraid I don’t recognise him. He also went to Eton, then Oxford where he read English, had a relationship with Rosamund Pike, who obviously I do recognise, and is now married to Christopher Bailey the ex-CEO and creative head at luxury goods outfit Burberry. So you will have to forgive me for being a little suspicious that he was able to get his first play produced by the National Theatre no less. And what’s more with Simon Godwin directing. And, to top it all, with Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan doing the acting honours in the two-hander.

Well it turns out that talent alone is just about the reason why this honour was bestowed on his inaugural effort. I do wonder whether it would have been quite as rewarding without these two outstanding actors and the plot “twist” is signposted so early on that the last third of the play is a little deflated. And actually if you want to see a couple, poisoned by the loss or absence of a child, chip away at each other then Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Little Eyolf would serve you better. Oh, and whilst I recognise that there are and have been, couples of power with divergent political views, I wasn’t entirely persuaded either by Diana Hesketh’s socialist leanings, or the arch-Conservatism of her MP husband Robin. And many of the lines do rather obviously play to its liberal, metropolitan elite audience. Mind you, the catalyst for the plot, Section 28 of the Local Government Act which was repealed in 2003, was one of the ugliest pieces of legislation to make it to the statute books in the modern era. If it all goes tits up, as if it hasn’t done so already, don’t be surprised if the shitheads come out of the reactionary backwoods demanding something similar. Be vigilant people.

In spite of all these flaws, Hansard is a good watch and there are some absolute zingers in the dialogue. Hildegard Bechtler’s set is the elongated kitchen/diner of the Hesketh’s comfy Aga-ised country home and, given unity of time (1988) and place (Cotswolds), Jackie Shemesh’s lighting and Christopher Shutt’s sound simply (I know, it isn’t that simple) has to move through the afternoon from Robin’s return from Leeds, where he has endured the ritual humiliation of Question Time, through to their guests about to arrive for supper. So everything rests on the actors and the director.

Who, unsurprisingly, deliver. Lindsay Duncan’s Diana is bitter, bored and fond of a tipple. Alex Jennings’s Robin is high-handed, entitled and misogynistic with the cynical antipathy of the diehard Thatcherite. Given that they only have each other, in the play, to ricochet off it is amazing that they both manage early on to show their shared vulnerabilities and to even suggest why they might have fallen in love. Given the denouement it might have been better to have explicitly explored more of this emotional backdrop, and the way tragedy drove them apart not together, at the expense of some of the politics. Then again this might have tested the patience of the audience (Hansard runs to a neat 80 minutes) and imperilled some of the funnier lines. It is hard to imagine a more apposite epigram for our times than Diana’s “the insatiable desire of the people of this country to be fucked by an old Etonian”.

On the strength of Hansard I’ll wager Mr Woods will be back with his next writing effort in short order. After all actors and directors, even when they as good as here, can only work with the text they have. When SW finds a story, plot and spectacle to match the dexterity he has with dialogue and character, perhaps over an expanded cast, then there is a real chance he will strike dramatic gold.

And I will go to the grave wishing I had seen more of these two actors on stage. Top Girls, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, The Homecoming and now this is not a bad way to enjoy the art of Lindsay Duncan but its not enough. Similarly Alex Jennings’s Alan Bennett collaborations, My Fair Lady, Richard II, The Alchemist and this are paltry, if treasured, returns on my theatre going investment. Too bust working when I should have been enjoying myself. There is a reason why Mr Jennings wins so many awards. He might just be the best of his generation.