Parliament Square at the Bush Theatre review *****

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Parliament Square

Bush Theatre, 6th December 2017

As a few slightly unkind people have pointed out most of the “reviews” I somewhat sadly post on this “blog” are worse than useless as, more often than not, they appear after the event. Fair criticism but I can’t be toddling off to everything in the first week and I judge that most plays at least are best seen about two thirds of the way through. If they have flaws by then, they can be corrected where possible, or parts excised if really necessary. Cast can get the full measure of character and interaction, timings, pauses and rhythm honed. So I reckon I will get more for my money. So yah boo to you.

In this case though I am doing you a favour. Parliament Square runs until 6th January having first appeared at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, there are plenty of tickets left and full price is just twenty quid. The main space at the Bush is airy, comfy and sightlines are terrific. Oh and it is a mightily good play, with an excellent cast, skilfully directed by emerging talent Jude Christian. It has an absorbing central concept, just how far will an individual go to protest against injustice, is formally inventive, each of the three sections has some sort of clever conceit, and it is very well written by James Fritz. It is probably fair to say that the ending is a little too calculated. On the other hand the first section, in large part thanks to exceptional performances from Esther Smith and Lois Chimimba, is as exhilarating a piece of theatre as I have seen this year.

The play won the Judges Award for Playwriting in the¬†Bruntwood Prize in 2015 and, like other plays I have seen which have been recognised here, it has that spark of invigorating originality from the outset which characterises the best new writing. Kat (Esther Smith) gets up one morning, skips work, leaves her husband and young daughter behind, gets the train to London, and commits a premeditated, dramatic, act of self sacrifice. Through the first act, Fifteen Seconds, she is, literally, coached by her conscience in the form of Lois Chimimba, (last seen by me in the unfairly maligned Common, in Peter Pan and in the excellent Diary of A Madman at the Gate). Lois Chimimba also doubles up as Jo, Kat’s sullen teenage daughter in the final act, Fifteen Years. I expect she, and Esther Smith, will go on to bigger, (and maybe even better), things as they are both superb actors.

Kat “fails” in her protest thanks to an intervention by Catherine, another excellent performance from Seraphina Beh. In the second act, Fifteen Steps, we see Kat, vividly and painfully, reconstructing her life and explaining why she did what she did to husband (a perplexed Damola Adelaja), mother (a bluntly perceptive Joanne Howarth) and health professionals (a sympathetic doctor in Jamie Zubairi and demanding physiotherapist in Kelly Hotten) as well as, eventually, to Catherine herself. The rest you can see for yourself.

James Fritz’s writing is very spare but very accurate. We never get to know exactly what Kat is protesting against but it doesn’t matter. We do get to contemplate why someone might choose this idealistic course to try to make a difference, why some might be inspired and some revulsed and why some might see this as futile and selfish. Jude Christian’s direction, (along with Fly Davis’s design, lighting from Jack Knowles, sound from Ben and Max Ringham and movement from Jennifer Jackson), is perfectly matched to the text. There is nothing extraneous here but the required ambiguity about the wisdom of such action is brilliantly conveyed.

James Fritz’s previous plays (The Fall, Comment is Free, Ross and Rachel and Four Minutes and Twelve Seconds) have garnered significant acclaim. I can see why. This is great theatre, well executed. You will come out likely annoyed by some of the behaviour of the characters, but, that is kind of the point given the subject. I think you will admire both writing and acting though. So get along to the Bush. Now.

Common at the National Theatre review ***

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Common

National Theatre, 28th June 2017

Is it possible to feel sorry for a play? Common has had some pretty poor reviews from the criterati and the public alike and there are tons of tickets left for the month or so left on the run.

Well I can’t pretend it isn’t without some pretty deep flaws but I didn’t think it was as bad as some have painted. As usual the Tourist has come late to the run. I gather it has been subject to some judicious cuts and it might be that the cast has become more attuned to playwright DC Moore’s curious and fruity language. It is a bit bonkers and a long way from what I had expected but I have seen much worse.

Our heroine Mary, played by Anne-Marie Duff who proves once again she is incapable of a having an off day at work, returns to her unspecified “home” after a spell in the den of iniquity that is London. Why she returns is never made clear. She might be seeking to exact revenge on her “brother” King (John Dagleish), she might be returning to her love, and “sister” Laura (a spirited Cush Jumbo), she might be seeking to help the ‘”villagers” succumb to the pernicious consequences of land enclosure. She has run ins with a bunch of Irish labourers, with the “Lord” (a perfectly cast though somewhat reticent Tim McMullan) and the Lord’s henchman Heron (Trevor Fox in full on Geordie) and with assorted villagers including the naive Eggy Tom (a touching Lois Chimimba). She, Mary, dies, is resurrected and then wreaks various revenges. Is she a con-woman, a seer, a harbinger? Who knows.

The programme some excellent essays. One is on the impact of enclosure on rural England from the late Medieval period, through the Tudors and, most aggressively, in the last C18 and early C19, when Common is set (1809). Capital has been screwing over labour, in more or less brutal ways, from the off and there is hardly anything more vital for theatre to examine. Another essay is on the importance of magic and spirits in the everyday existence of the “common people” alongside established religion and in the absence of universal education. These are interesting and important themes that the play seeks to explore. However, the slipperiness of the plot, and the focus on how the characters sound and look, serves to obscure these themes in my view.

DC Moore’s text in parts is written in a mangled, “rustic” English (think Yoda as a Wurzel) with plenty of profanity. Most of the criterati don’t seem to get on with this at all. I did. It takes a bit of getting used to but I think this, together with the lighting (Paula Constable deserves a special mention), the sound, the costumes, the set (though once again the Olivier stage offered too much space to the production) and the appropriate music written by Stephen Warbeck, all served to create an atmosphere which I think worked to the play’s advantage. And, as I have indicated, the performances, in large part, gave as good as they got with the material on offer.

The faults then for me largely lie in the meandering plot and the absence of an overarching narrative. This was not some non naturalistic, surreal or absurdist theatre. There was a story and there were ideas; they simply didn’t coalesce. I think Jeremy Herrin, the director, and the Headlong production team, who can normally be relied upon to manufacture a “hit”, probably know Common is a way off what they all hoped to create, but I for one would still applaud their bravery in trying to make this work.

So overall then I don’t think this is quite the turkey that some have painted it as. Yes it does fall down on many counts but it is also, in my view, interesting in other ways. You have been warned but if your expectations have been set low you might be pleasantly surprised if you do splurge all of ¬£15 on one of the remaining performances.

And I wouldn’t mind betting that one day, after a re-write and a re-think, it comes back and is heralded as a misunderstood classic. Mind you it won’t be at the National I suspect.