On Bear Ridge at the Royal Court Theatre review ***

On Bear Ridge

Royal Court Theatre, 21st November 2019

Knockout premise. Some splendid dialogue. Beguiling, complex characters. Inspired design courtesy of Cai Dyfans. Supported by the lighting of Elliot Griggs and sound of Mike Beer, And engaging performances from the outstanding Welsh cast of Rhys Ifans, Rakie Ayola (the first time I had seen her on stage), Sion Daniel Young and Jason Hughes.

So what was it that left me a little underwhelmed by Ed Thomas’s latest play On Bear Ridge, transferring to the RC after opening at Cardiff’s Sherman. I guess it was the age old problem of development and resolution. Having taken so much care to set up a potent setting, (not always the case when it comes to the theatrical post-apocalyptic), and to flesh out generous back stories for devoted couple, irascible butcher John Daniel and calming wife Noni, their slaughterman apprentice Ifan William (Sion Daniel Young) and the Captain, an exhausted, deserting soldier (Jason Hughes), the narrative seems to runs out of steam, even as the, often startling poetry, accumulates. This is a play about nostalgia, memory, loss and glottophagy (look it up), as the couple, holed up in their dilapidated Welsh mountain home, feel the past, and the wider world, slip away from them. Lists of meat cuts, old customers, even John Daniel’s trousers are seized on to fix their history. they reference a dying “Old Language”. It soon becomes clear though that what really holds them together, and Ifan William, is the love of Twm Siencyn, their son and his best friend/lover.

It is not a long play, just over 80 minutes, and, to be fair. never drags, but I wonder if Ed Thomas could not have been more incisive with his text. The Beckettian dialogue he spins is incisive and immersive, earthy and lyrical, fluently invoking time, place and character, but in the absence of evolution in the plot meant this might have worked better at under an hour. No shame in brevity when your facility with language is so adept, though ET has spent most of the last two decades writing for the small screen. Mr Thomas shared direction with RC head honcho Vicky Featherstone so I might reasonably assume that over-writing, not execution, was the cause of my slight misgivings.

I see the Sherman is set to stage another Welsh post apocalypse saga in the form of and adaptation Manon Steffan Ros’ novel Llyfr Glas Nebo. And JJoe Murphy, the incoming AD, is set to direct a new adaptation of An Enemy of the People, from Brad Birch (another doyen of the theatrical Welsh mountain sub-genre with Black Mountain), set in South Wales.

Ghost Stories at the Lyric Hammersmith ****

Ghost Stories

Lyric Hammersmith, 18th April 2019

BD, LD, MS and SO joined the Tourist for this.

Here is what we learnt.

A. Don’t see the film version first.

B. If you follow A. You will be sh*tting yourself.

C. if you don’t follow A this is still very, very effective.

I won’t say much. There are three connected stories. It is cleverly written by Jeremy Dyson, (The League of Gentlemen, Funland, Psychobitches amongst others), and Andy Nyman, (versatile actor and Derren Brown collaborator), and brilliantly realised by the creative team of Sean Holmes/Joe Murphy (direction), Jon Bauser (design), James Farncombe (lighting), Nick Manning (sound) and Scott Penrose (special effects), and many more no doubt. The cast here, Garry Cooper, Simon Lipkin, Preston Nyman (yes Andy’s boy) and Richard Sutton, throw themselves into it.

It has been around for nearly a decade now but the Lyric was the theatre that first commissioned it, in fact it was pretty much the first thing Sean Holmes did when he took over. So, if like us, (doh, like you’d see it twice – maybe yes actually), you have never seen it, this seems like the fitting place to go. And, at 20 quid a pop it’s a bargain. And businesslike in duration at just 80 minutes.

So you think you won’t be scared by theatre? Get along to the LH with some mates in the best few weeks and test the proposition.

And, if like me, your youngest lets out an entirely solitary, and very loud, yelp at probably the least scary of the jump-scare moments, you will, also, p*ss yourself laughing.

The Jungle at the Playhouse Theatre review *****

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The Jungle

Playhouse Theatre, 4th October 2018

So this was my second attempt to see The Jungle. I had to bail out of the first halfway through as my back wasn’t up to squatting on the floor of the Young Vic. This is not a complaint. Given the subject it is a shameful indictment of just how privileged I am to have come this far in life, and to be this stuffed with entitlement, that I can’t even sit through a couple of hours of theatre without complaining. What a pr*ck.

Given that I couldn’t find a way of getting to see another performance in the Young Vic run I was relieved when this transfer to was announced. This time I was able to secure a more suitable berth in the “Cliffs of Dover” in a Playhouse Theatre transformed by Miriam Buether’s remarkable set. For make no mistake this is a simply marvellous piece of critical theatre. The posters advertising the play highlight the string of 5* reviews. Believe them. There are a few seats left in the remaining weeks. Grab one as I doubt, given the size, and diversity of the cast, that this will be easily staged again in the near future. It is off to St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn so any New Yorkers reading this really have no excuse.

Anyone who vituperatively blathers on about “immigrants” and “asylum seekers” should be made to see this. It probably won’t change their minds, lack of empathy often runs deep, but it might force them to consider, at least for a couple of hours, an alternative, and human, point of view. Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson have written a “history” of the expansion of the refugee camp at Sangatte to over 6000 people, the eponymous Jungle, in the 18 months prior to its clearance by police in October 2016. (Though there are now still a couple of thousand people living rough in the area).

The two Joes set up the Good Chance theatre in the camp. They are now working in Paris. Read about them here. https://www.goodchance.org.uk/. Then give them some money.

This story is largely told through the relationship of two key characters, Syrian wordsmith Safi, who also acts as narrator, and Salar, the de facto leader of the Afghan community and the founder of the restaurant, The Afghan Cafe, the subject of the famous review by AA Gill, which is the setting for the action. Other members of the various communities, a French official and those who came to help, are also lucidly portrayed. In all there are some 23 named roles permanently occupying the “promenade” stage and its various interstices. With the audience seated around them though it often feels like more.

Directors Stephen Daldry, (who only ever deals in theatrical gold now), and Justin Martin have conjured up a riot of movement, sound, dance, music, video, conflict, language and costume, with the help of some of the best in the business (Paul Arditti, Jon Clark and Terry King for instance). The cast is superb. I would pick out Ammar Haj Ahmad as Safi, Ben Turner as Salar, Rachel Redford as idealist teacher Beth, Nahel Tzegai as the calming Helene and Dominic Rowan as the rational Derek, but frankly the whole ensemble is beyond committed.

The thing is though that beyond the production, the activity, the atmosphere of spontaneity, the performance, the polemic, the vital message of hope and despair, there is a bloody fantastic play here. Vivid human emotions are laid bare in just a few lines. The debate between the “optimist” Safi and the “realist” Mahmoud as to how to respond to their situation is electric. The suffering, and salvation, of the Sudanese teenager Okot (John Pfumojena, is humbling. The pride and determination of the camp is palpable. The motives of the volunteers are examined. The conflicts between communities are revealed. Individual journeys are graphically relayed. No-one leaves family, work, culture, community, education, society because they want to nick your hospital bed or school place, people of Britain. They come because the alternative is harassment, dislocation, destitution, torture or worse. Escaping a war zone or failed state is an act of desperation not a punt on economic advancement. And Britain is a destination because we are, (or were), tolerant and we have the language. Those should be reasons to be proud. Not running away and seeking two fingers up to the rest of Europe (and the world).

Throughout the play 6 year old Little Amal (Erin Rushidi I think at the performance I attended) flits wordlessly around the action. Apparently we tried, and try, to prevent these little kids getting to relatives in the UK. Breaks your heart.

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