Labour of Love at the Noel Coward Theatre review *****

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Labour of Love

Noel Coward Theatre, 15th November 2017

The Tourist is wracked with guilt. A couple of lovely women who were sat next to him asked his opinion at the interval as to whether James Graham’s Ink or Labour of Love was the better play. He said Ink. By the time this was finished he had changed his mind. Ink is a fabulous play (Ink at the Almeida Theatre review *****), don’t get me wrong, with superb performances and a delightful set, but Labour of Love is funnier, and, in its own way, quite moving. There are one or two occasions where Mr Graham’s script goes for the easy laugh, or is slightly too blunt in terms of characterisation, but as in his other plays, all is forgiven because of the sheer level of entertainment which is delivered.

Two plays in the West End, Quiz playing in Chichester (and surely West End bound), This House embarking on a national tour next year, a commission, The Culture: A Farce in Two Acts, for Hull Truck in the pipeline and, I bet, some revivals of his earlier Finborough Theatre plays will pop up. It seems the boy wonder can do no wrong.

That’s because he has the gift. Writing consistently very funny plays, with real dramatic momentum, gentle formal innovation, about relatively recent events, which manage to examine big and important issues, (the way power is wielded in our modern democracy), and which pack in the punters, is not easy. Otherwise everyone would be at it. Yet James Graham makes it look effortless. And he is in the groove. No doubt about that.

Labour of Love charts the course of the Labour Party through the seven General Elections from 1992 through to 2017. The wheeze is that the first half shows events in reverse, the second then rolls forward again. Martin Freeman plays David Lyons, an initially ambitious Blairite, who is tasked in 1990 by Party HQ with fighting a “safe” Labour seat in Nottinghamshire, near where he was brought up. His ambitious lawyer wife Elizabeth, (well played by Rachael Stirling, given the somewhat one-dimensional hand she was dealt), initially intends being his constituency agent but is reluctant. In steps Jean Whittaker (Tamsin Greig) who was married to Terry, the previous MP before he became ill. She knows the ropes and is Nottinghamshire through and through. The MP and his inherited agent then play out, over the years, the struggles between the left and the right of the Labour party, the democratic socialists and the social democrats, against the backdrop of a Northern town that falls further and further behind through the 1990s and 2000s.

The relationship between David and Jean is alternately wittingly combative and awkwardly tender and is, eventually, consummated (don’t worry, not literally). Kwong Loke plays Mr Shen a Chinese industrialist who might prove the town’s employment salvation, Susan Wokoma is Margot Midler ,who is roped in as a local activist, and Dickon Tyrell is Len Prior, council member, old school Labour and, for a time, Jean’s second husband.

You have to feel sorry for Sarah Lancashire who was initially cast as Jean but had to withdraw on doctor’s advice. Her loss however was Tamsin Greig’s gain. And ours. Jean is an absolute peach of a role. And Ms Greig, who might be our greatest current comic stage actress, literally wolfs it up. She is marvellous. As with her Malvolia at the National before this (Twelfth Night at the National Theatre review ****) it is not just that she is a master of timing but that she can connect with the whole audience wherever she is on stage and in whatever she is saying. And, as in Twelfth Night, when the tone shifts so does she. Immediately. And we the audience follow her. Immediately. Martin Freeman is equally at home as David, in particular when he gets to deliver a rousing soliloquy, on the virtue of pragmatic Government rather than the sanctimony of permanent Opposition, which saw the audience break into spontaneous applause.

This is a joint production between Michael Grandage and Jeremy Herrin’s Headlong with the latter in the director’s chair. He may have misfired a little with Common at the National, but he is back on form here having previously brought This House to life. Lee Newby’s set is as workaday as you like and a big call out to wig and hair director Richard Mawbey, who convincingly took the leads backwards and forwards through the three decades. Also vital in plotting the history is the video and projection design of Duncan Maclean and the master sound designer Paul Arditti has some fun with the soundtrack.

Labour of Love. Labour of course, that is the subject. Labour of Love because it is pretty clear where James Graham’s sympathies lie, though he scrupulously avoids the soapbox. Labour of Love as a pun on his writing skill maybe, as this feels like it was anything but a struggle to create. And Labour of Love because David and Jean’s witty sparring has more than an air of Benedick and Beatrice about it. A popular playwright, banging out the texts, selling out the theatres, engaged with the politics of the day, making us laugh, (sometimes with the most obvious of material), and making us think. It worked five hundred years ago. It is working for James Graham now. Maybe this is the lost Love’s Labours Won.

 

 

Directors’ Festival at the Orange Tree Theatre review

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Directors’ Festival 2017

Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against A Wall ***

The End of Hope *****

Albert’s Boy ***

Orange Tree Theatre, 26th, 27th, 28th July 2017

Now this really is a mighty fine idea. Take five short plays by some of Britain’s finest contemporary playwrights and hand them over to five talented young directors currently completing their MA’s at the local St Mary’s University (just down the road). Assemble fine actors and students to support the enterprise, carve out a week of rep, and charge just £7.50 a ticket to us punters. Everyone’s a winner.

Now I was only able to make 3 of the 5 offers, missing out Enda Walsh’s Misterman and Kate Tempest’s Wasted. But the three I did see where very good, and, in the case of David Ireland’s The End of Hope, outstanding.

Brad Birch has form at the Orange Tree with his The Brink being performed a couple of years ago and Black Mountain coming up. Even Stillness …. has some of the qualities I observed in the Brink. There is an anger and paranoia in the way characters react to contemporary life which is interesting if not entirely satisfying. In the Brink the lead character, teacher Nick, may have stumbled across a conspiracy or may be cracking under the stress of the job. It is funny and sharp but, once the direction of travel was established, seemed to run out of steam a bit for me. Here,  Even Stillness ….. shows a couple, Him and Her, in full on alienation at work mode, who then slowly retreat into each other at home, but whose rejection of their rubbish modern life spells another type of disaster. It is spiky and angry but in some ways lacks surprise. On the other hand it is hard to see how the direction of Hannah de Ville and the acting of Orlando James (last seen by me as a convincing Leontes in Cheek by Jowl’s Winter’s Tale) and Georgina Campbell could have been bettered.

Albert’s Boy is, I believe, the first play from the pen of James Graham. Mr Graham is now the master of the socio-political comedy – witness Ink at the Almeida (Ink at the Almeida Theatre review *****). This two hander sees Andrew Langtree’s Bucky, friend of the family and Korea vet/POW, visiting Robert Gill’s Einstein, in the US in 1953. Einstein is tortured by his involvement in the programme that led to the launching of the atomic bombs, Bucky is scarred by his recent internment. Cue an examination of the big picture political landscape of the times and smaller scale demons of our two leads. Like Mr Graham’s more mature works this has some laugh out loud lines and easy to digest learnings. yet is is a little worthy and static. Once again though I couldn’t fault cast or the direction of Kate Campbell.

Now I have to say I think The End of Hope is a terrific play. I ended up having to cancel Cypress Avenue at the Royal Court last year (bloody kids were up to something) which annoyed me immensely. And I missed Everything Between Us at the Finborough recently. That was stupid judging by this. The End of Hope takes a slightly surreal one night stand and proceeds to mercilessly skewer notions of identity, political, religious, sexual, the nature of fame, high and low culture and pretty much anything else that takes Mr Ireland’s fancy over 50 minutes or so. It is hilariously funny with twists and turns which are not at all forced. As with his other plays sectarian division in his native Northern Ireland acts as the backdrop for the satire. But this is far from geographically bound. Breathless stuff with a real chemistry between Elinor Lawless and Rufus Wright as Janet and Dermot. And hats off to director Max Elton. I suspect getting the pace of performance right here is much trickier than it looks.

So there we have. Three fine plays. Theatre alive and well in the hands of these lovely young people and an urgent need to see more of David Ireland’s plays.

Ink at the Almeida Theatre review *****

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Ink

Almeida Theatre, 24th July 2017

Recipe for a very satisfying night at the theatre.

  1. Choose your company. I spend the vast majority of my theatre going life flying solo. So it is such a pleasure to be joined by some choice chums. In this case the SO, the Blonde Bombshells, BUD and KCK. Lovely.
  2. Have a bite to eat beforehand. Now having a “pre-theatre supper”, (I f*****g loathe the concept of “supper” and all who refer to it – it is called dinner), is sailing perilously close to the limits of poncey stuckuppery as far as I am concerned. But I have to say plate of delicious comestibles at that Ottolenghi realy did hit the spot even if the price/volume interplay was very suspect. I may go again. What a toff I have become.
  3. Go to the Almeida Theatre. This is starting to get silly. As far as I can see the Almeida under Rupert Goold has not put a foot wrong in the last four years and is now, in my humble opinion, London’s best theatre. Mr Goold is blessed with Robert Icke as a wingman and can call on just about any stage acting heavyweight he fancies. And he and his team are fortunate to be well oiled by the cash of the professional and chattering classes of Islington. But what has been most impressive for me is the string of new works that have been showcased alongside the classics. As proof I give you Hamlet, Mary Stuart, Oil, They Drink it in the Congo, Richard III, Uncle Vanya, Little Eyof, Medea, Oresteia, Bakkhai, Carmen Disruption, Game, King Charles III. 1984 and American Pyscho. All great and, in many cases, outstanding works of theatre. Even the misfires have had something of value.
  4. Choose your writer, James Graham. Now it looks to me as if Mr Graham has found his groove and is now busy perfecting it. Dramatising relatively recent socio-political events brings recognition to us, the audience, which means we can ruminate on the parallels with the right now, whilst still being thoroughly entertained. Mr Graham just has the knack of picking and writing a good story. That is not as easy as it sounds. In the case of Ink he has gone one stage further than in This House for me by shining a light on the genesis of the populist tabloid, here the Sun, just at the point when maybe, the power of this particular beast is waning. The story of the first year of the Sun, following Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the title in 1969, turns out to be theatrical gold. Murdoch’s desire to take on the British establishment and “give the people what they want”. his relationship with editor Larry Lamb, Lamb’s own personal battle with Daily Mirror editor and mentor Hugh Cudlipp, the pulling together of a team of Fleet Street rejects, waifs and strays to create the new style tabloid, the shocking kidnapping and death of Muriel McKay, wife of Murdoch’s lieutenant, the provocation of Page 3: all of this is deftly and pacily explored by Mr Graham in an often acutely amusing way. The motives for recasting journalism and the press in the UK are laid bare: the consequences we know from the intervening decades. Brilliant stuff.
  5. Savour the performances. Unsurprisingly the attention of the critics has focussed on Bertie Carvel’s Murdoch. It’s another bravura performance from an actor who seems to relish “the method” as far as I can see. I thoroughly enjoyed the physicality of his Yank in the Old Vic’s Hairy Ape (which was underrated in my view) and here he captures the awkwardness of Murdoch, his prudishness, his curious accent and his “outsider” psychology perfectly. He is not the caricature demon we “liberal” types need him to be but he is the archetype of “destructive capitalism”. (As an aside I once had a breakfast meeting in Washington. Rupert Murdoch sat down alone on the table next to us. His presence dominated our meeting for the next hour. All he did was eat toast and read the paper but all eyes were on him.) However, if I were Bertie I might have fancied taking on the Lamb role instead. On the other hand Richard Coyle does such a good job there was probably no vacancy. I have seen, and I am sure will see, more virtuoso, scenery chewing, thespianism on stage this year (Lars Erdinger/Greg Hicks in Richard III, Andrew Garfield in Angels in America, Cherry Jones in the Glass Menagerie, Andrew Scott in Hamlet, Brendan Cowell in Life of Galileo, by way of example) but Mr Coyle absolutely nails this from the off. This is a character whose seems compelled to test boundaries. He carries much more of the play than I expected but, even so, this really is an ensemble piece, and that is what makes the “us against the world” dynamic so persuasive.
  6. Take your hat off to Rupert Goold as director. I could be wrong but I reckon that Mr Goold is one of those rare leaders who can control his own ego. What you see on the stage in his productions is what writers, cast, designers and all the other good folk around want to show. I am guessing he guides, he doesn’t dictate. the world needs more leaders like that. My guess is Mr Murdoch would disagree.
  7. Set, Light, Sound, Action.  It is a tabloid in 1969/1970. Activity, headlines, demarcations, flares, eyeliner, dodgy haircuts and dodgy views. You can conjure up a picture in your mind I reckon but what you actually get far surpasses this. Bunny Christie’s set is the antithesis of minimal but so perfectly captures place and time. Some of the movement and dance (yep) is very witty and the scene elucidating the production process is inspired.

All in all a tip, top piece of theatre that I defy anyone not to enjoy. It lifts you up and carries you along from the open and makes you laugh, whilst still getting a little bit vexed about how this instrument of shabby, public discourse could have become so powerful.

So if it were to pop up in a transfer, as so much of the Almeida’s work now does, and you haven’t seen it, don’t hesitate. A proper story. Popular not populist.