The Funeral Director at the Southwark Playhouse review ****

The Funeral Director

Southwark Playhouse, 6th November 2018

The Papatango New Writing Prize, which kicked off in 2009, is the first and only playwriting award which guarantees the winner a full scale professional production, a share of the takings and a commission for a follow up. Whilst I missed last year’s winner Trestle by Stewart Pringle at the SP (my bad), the 2016 winner Orca by Matt Grinter, also at the SP, was one of the best plays I have seen in the past few years, Dawn King’s Foxfinder, which won in 2011, may not have been shown to best effect in its last outing but is still a very fine play, (https://athomehefeelslikeatourist.blog/2018/09/21/foxfinder-at-the-ambassadors-theatre-review/) and the 2012 runner-up Tom Morton-Smith went on to write the marvellous Oppenheimer for the RSC.

So The Funeral Director by Iman Qureshi comes with some pedigree. Which, by and large, it lives up to. It is a little too deliberate, the plot a little too pat in places, but it offers up opportunities for its four strong cast to portray strong, heartfelt emotion in the dilemmas that they face, which Jessica Clark, Tom Morley, Maanuv Thiara and, especially, Aryana Ramkhalawon, seized with relish.

Ayesha has inherited her Mum’s Muslim funeral parlour in the Midlands which she runs with her husband Zeyd. It is not an easy living but the couple get by and seem to be happy in the circumstances, having come together in an arranged marriage in their teens, even if Ayesha is reluctant to acquiesce to Zeyd’s desire for children. Their equilibrium however is disturbed when the visibly distressed Tom turns up at the parlour asking for his partner Ahad, who has committed suicide, to be buried. They turn him away, fearful of the reaction of their community if they agree. Ayesha then bumps into her close childhood schoolfriend Janey who has returned from her career as a lawyer in London to see her ill mother. From these two events, Iman Qureshi explores issues of sexuality in the context of Islamic faith, in what I think was a thought-provoking and sensitive way. 

Its themes are weighty, complex and relevant but the play has its moments of tension as secrets unravel, as well as some sharp comedy, along the way, and a couple of real lump in the throat exchanges. Amy Jane Cook’s set design, ingeniously wedged traversely, in the SP Little space, combines the reception/office (sofa, cushions, flowers) and business (gurney, sink, kafans) areas of the parlour, augmented by Jack Weir’s lighting and the sound design of Max Pappenheim neatly ties in to Ayesha’s unfulfilled singing dreams.

It would be pretty difficult to hide the quandaries that all four characters face inside a more subtle plot so Ms Qureshi wisely doesn’t even try. We can see where the story is headed but, with Hannah Hauer-King’s unmediated direction, and the heart on the sleeve performances, it shouldn’t matter to the audience. Arayana Ramkhalawon does such a fine job at showing Ayesha’s inherent strength that when her facade finally crumbles and she admits her real self it is genuinely moving. Maanuv Thiara’s Zeyd plainly loves Ayesha, is a decent man, and offers argument predicated on reason as well as faith to justify his stance. Initially Jessica Clark’s Janey feels a little too assertive but this is justified by her past. Tom Morley has less opportunity to convince as the bag of nerves, and angry, Tom. 

It is pretty clear to me that Iman Qureshi is more than capable of writing persuasive dialogue for her characters which carefully set out and explore their worlds. Maybe a little more of this and a less of the issue-heavy argument might yield an even more involving result. Mind you what do I know. I haven’t one a prize for anything other than accountancy. Which, literally, suggests the measure of this particular man. 

Hogarth’s Progress at the Rose Kingston review ***

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Hogarth’s Progress: The Art of Success and The Taste of the Town

Rose Theatre Kingston, 21st October 2018

South West London was a popular place for the cultural, liberal, metropolitan elite in the first half of the C18. It still is. Hogarth, Horace Walpole, David Garrick, Henry Fielding, Alexander Pope, Henrietta Howard (the King’s mistress no less), Lord Burlington, Richard Steele, Paul Whitehead, Lady Mary Montagu, John Beard, Kitty Clive, Peg Woffington, James Thomson, John Moody, GF Handel (for one summer), Stephen Duck, John Stuart, Thomas Twining, Augustin Heckel. Oh, and early on in the period, no less than the Queen herself, Anne, at Hampton Court, following in the footsteps of William and Mary. Royalty and the Thames is what made it desirable,

OK so I can’t pretend I had heard of all of these luminaries but some of the big names, Walpole, Garrick and Fielding, play a big part in Nick Dear’s brace of plays about one of the area’s most famous residents, Hogarth himself. The first play, The Art of Success, premiered at the RSC way back in 1986, with Michael Kitchen and Niamh Cusack starring (seen last year on this very stage in the marvellous adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels (My Brilliant Friend at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****). This tells the story of Hogarth’s early years carousing his way through Georgian London with Henry Fielding and their mates, Frank and Oliver. The new, companion, piece, The Taste of the Town, revisits Hogarth, now in Chiswick, at the end of his life (1697-1764). His house is now supported by the Hogarth Trust, owned and run by LB Hounslow and can be visited most afternoons. Worth a peak especially if you take in he neo-Palladian beauty that is the recently refurbished Chiswick House just round the corner. And, once in your life, you have to see the flamboyant spectacle that is Strawberry Hill House. This is why interior designers are best avoided.

Now for those who aren’t familiar with William Hogarth, he was a painter, printmaker, social critic and cartoonist in the first half of the C18. This period saw a huge increase in the wealth of Britain, (in full union with Scotland from 1707), built on trade, specifically trade in people, specifically slavery. With this came the rise of the liberal Whigs who took power from the Tories in 1715 and drew their support from the new industrial and merchant classes. It was a period of vigorous political debate. At least it was if you were rich. If you were poor …. well you were still f*cked over as always. Anyway Hogarth and his mates were dead centre in this cultural maelstrom, specifically in criticism of the great and good. Journals, newspapers, pamphlets, clubs, all mushroomed. And these boys were bad to the bone.

Hogarth himself came from a less privileged background, enough to get an apprenticeship as an engraver, but precarious enough to see his teacher Dad have spels in the debtors prison. This is where his satirical edge was sharpened. His morality tale “comic strips”, such as A Harlot’s Progress and A Rake’s Progress, were dead popular at the time and have remained so ever since, and sort of defined the entire genre. Yet he was also a renowned painter, largely society portraiture that being the mode at the time, and the tension between his “popular” and his “high” art is one of the themes that Nick Dear explores in the plays.

Dear also doesn’t hold back on portraying the seedier side of Georgian life. The Art of Success kicks off with Hogarth (Bryan Dick), Fielding (Jack Derges), Frank (Ben Deery) and Oliver (Ian Hallard) lashed up after a meeting of the Beefsteak Club and contemplating their next move, which is going to involve sex for money I am afraid. There is a lot of this sort of thing going on in the first play set in the 1730s. Indeed Hogarth’s relationship with prostitute Louisa (Emma Cunniffe), and its discovery by his wife Jane (Ruby Bentall) forms a major part of the plot of this play, such as it is. Alongside his encounter with murderess Sarah Sprackling (Jasmine Jones) who was the subject of The Harlot’s Progress and who seeks to wrest control of her image back from Hogarth after he draws her in prison. This question of who “owns” a representation in art, the observer or the observed, is another central theme of the play.

In the hands of Antony Banks as director, alongside period costumes and a striking, if s;lightly unwieldy, set from Andrew D Edwards, some fine video work from Douglas O’Connell, lighting from James Whiteside, sound from Max Pappenheim and music from Olly Fox, scene after scene unfolds with distinctive verisimilitude. The Queen, Caroline of Brunswick (Susannah Harker complete with comedy German accent) gets a look in, and reveals herself ken to get inside Hogarth’s britches, as does Prime Minister Robert Walpole (Mark Umbers) who reveals himself keen to see a liaison between Sarah and Jane (it’s a long story). Walpole indeed cuts a deal with Hogarth to push through the copyright deal that WH craves to stop his work being ripped off. Yet, alongside Fielding he rails against the political censorship that Walpole introduced to the theatre, a process that persisted until 1968.

This personality parade though gives an inkling into the plays’ problems. The comedy smut becomes a little wary after a while and the crowbarring into the script of biographical and historical fact after fact leaves little room for any change of pace or tone. There is the vulgar, which is fun, or there is the art history lecture, which is a little less so, once you know what is coming. The repellent power of men over women in the Georgian booms out through both plays but to no great end, as the strands are never pulled together..

The second play with Hogarth now retired to Chiswick, and railing against rivals like Sir Joshua Reynolds feels even slighter in some ways. Hogarth is now played by Keith Allen. One word. Irascible. Perfect casting. Jane Hogarth, now played by Susannah Harker, puts up with his grumpiness and abuse, but is a little tired of the suburban life. Hogarth and his mother-in-law, Lady Thornhill, the majestic Sylvestra Le Touzel initially in full on Lady Bracknell mode, do little to disguise there dislike. Things perk up for Hogarth however when old chum, near neighbour and charming egoist David Garrick (Mark Umbers) comes to call and the two go on a road trip. Of sorts. On foot. Down the Thames. Drink intervenes and Hogarth swans off to visit another local celeb, the ostentatious Horace Walpole (Ian Hallard, who seems to be having a lot of fun) who has dissed Hogarth’s painting skills in his stab at classicism Sigismunda (which is. to be honest, pretty limp). They argue, they make up. More misadventure etc, etc.

It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the history lesson. I really did. It’s not that I wasn’t impressed by the acting, notably Bryan Dick, (who impressed in Great Apes and Two Noble Kinsmen recently on stage and as Joe Orton on the box), and Keith Allen, as the main event. And many of the scenes are, of themselves, striking and entertaining. It’s just that the plot, and the arguments it seeks to explore, seem to have been welded together from the events and the personae that are portrayed, and the bawdy and the pedagogic never quite gel.

There is a book, which we seem to have acquired, which you can find in most National Trust shops. Scenes From Georgian Life by Margaret Wiles. It is a collection of period caricatures and cartoons, including some from Hogarth. From the tamer end of his oeuvre for sure. We wouldn’t want to upset the gentle, middle classes. Nick Dear’s two sketch plays are muckier and cleverer but ultimately not that much more impactful.

One for Sorrow at the Royal Court Theatre ****

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One For Sorrow

Royal Court Theatre, 5th July 2018

Sometimes I wonder why I bother with this blog. It takes me so long to get round to seeing and commenting on anything that any post here is worse than useless to the unlucky reader who inadvertently stumbles across it. And all it ever does is recycle far more learned opinions from more talented commentators and bloggers. I can’t be doing with social media so no-one gets to hear about it anyway. I could pretend I like it that way but that would be untrue: my ego needs as much stroking as the next man or woman. I’m just a bit intimidated by this new world of immediate communication.

Sometimes, as here with One for Sorrow, I even momentarily forget what is is that I have seen. Which, in essence, is why I keep going. For there is no better way to learn than writing stuff down and learning through consuming culture is where I am at. So here we go again.

The premise for One for Sorrow was intriguing if not entirely novel – young, privileged, “middle-class”, idealist type invites “victim” of attack in London into the family home despite the misgivings of her liberal family – and playwright Cordelia Lynn was, by all accounts, someone worth listening too. The Royal Court certainly believes in her talent. And I can confirm that, broadly, they are right (no surprise there), and that the play delivers on its promise, even if it does get a little stuck in a cul-de-sac plot-wise towards the end.

Irfan Shamji, who stole the show in Joe White’s excellent debut play Mayfly at the Orange Tree (Mayfly at the Orange Tree Theatre review *****), plays the stranger John. The scene is set with his breathless voiceover as we sit in total darkness. He has a gentle, yet intense, presence that convinces you that he might just be the perpetrator, rather than the victim, of the atrocities that have descended on the capital. Pearl Chanda captures elder daughter Imogen’s air of stubborn righteousness, but also her desire to test her own, and her family’s, commitment to the politics of tolerance. When John turns up after responding to Imogen’s social media invitation to help he is understandably agitated and disheveled but his defensiveness, rucksack and refusal to remove his coat, sow the first seeds of doubt in the family. The sublime Sarah Woodward and the unshowy Neil Dudgeon are perfectly cast as Guardianista parents Emma and Bill, and Kitty Archer, as the breezily self-absorbed, excitable younger daughter Chloe, on her stage debut, also turns in a fine performance to complete the quintet. Ms Lynn has a way of pinpointing not just what this family would say if such an existential threat were posed to them but exactly how they would say it. Shades of Pinter, whose estate commissioned this play.

As the scale of the terror outside becomes apparent, up to and including gunshots on the surrounding streets, and a direct personal connection is unveiled, the tensions within the family, catalysed by John, ratchet up, and the gulf between what they say and how they act, widens. John’s sympathies, and his engineering knowledge, create greater uncertainty and, to Imogen’s disgust, the rest of the family turns on him. The problem is that, in order to maintain the suspense, “is he or isn’t he”, the plot does go round in circles somewhat and the arguments become a little over-extended. However with writing, acting and directing, from the ever reliable James MacDonald, of this quality it is pretty easy to forgive the meandering momentum in the second half.

The culture of fear (and fascination) of terrorist violence, the hypocrisy of the “liberal elite” (that’s me), the impetuosity of youth, the hollowness of hashtag activism, all are eloquently exposed. The title comes from a story Imogen tells about a trapped magpie in the house, bird symbolism being de riguer in London theatre recently. I was reminded of Winter Solstice, the superb play by Roland Schimmelpfenning, which, taking different subject matter also skewered the crisis of liberalism in Western society.

It was a warm day outside, (state the bleedin’ obvious why don’t you Tourist), so I can’t be sure if a dial turn on the air-con, or deliberation, accounted for the streaks of moisture that emerged on the walls of Laura Hopkin’s efficient set but it certainly helped add to the unsettling tenor of the play, alongside Max Pappenheim’s dynamic sound design.

Ms Lynn has the dramatic knack, no doubt about that. I suspect there is much more to come from her pen. She also writes opera librettos apparently and is a mean pianist. She’s only 29.

Dry Powder at the Hampstead Theatre review ****

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Dry Powder

Hampstead Theatre, 29th January 2018

At last a play about the world of “high finance” which does not wade in with both feet in some ham-fisted (I know, mangled metaphors), didactic attempt to explain to the audience why it is “evil”. Actually that is a little unfair as most plays I have seen in recent years which tackle this subject have been more nuanced. But none has taken the impartial, but ultimately more insightful, stance here adopted by Sarah Burgess.

We are all complicit in the fiction of money, or, more exactly, credit. No money, no exchange. No credit, no growth. For every transaction there is a buyer and a seller. Fear, greed, supply, demand, the price mechanism. All tricky to avoid. You can argue long and hard about the distribution of the “benefits” that flow from capitalist economic organisation, and debate whether the externalities, or excesses, that it promotes are a price worth paying, (there I go again), but no-one seems to have found a viable alternative.

The people who work in high finance are pretty much the same as the people who don’t. Even at the very top of the tree the only difference, generally, is that they worked harder at school. There is no secret initiation ceremony that turns them into rapacious c*nts. Daddy’s job is not paramount. The are’t all card carrying Republicans or Tories. They have lives, of a sort. They aren’t capitalists with top hats. The capital they manipulate is often your pensions or investment, or has been created by governments on your behalf, so that you can have the things you want when you want them. Most of what they do isn’t shady or clandestine. It is just really, really dull.

Once they get to the top, or near the top, of the tree though it is difficult for them not to be sucked into the drug of self-importance. Being paid big bucks drives, and distorts, behaviours of course. But it is not the reason why these people do what they do. It is simply the scorecard. One house, two houses, three houses. One car, two cars, three cars. One painting, two paintings, three paintings. This is not what brings pleasure. What drives them is a combination of perceived power and self importance, and, most importantly, intellectual satisfaction. Thinking fast about a lot of things and betting on outcomes is what makes the game addictive.

This, I think, is what Ms Burgess seeks to explore in the play. And she does it, most effectively, through witty comedy. The play is by no means perfect but it does, through its four characters, show what can happen to those who get sucked into this bubble. Rick, played by Aiden McArdle, is the founding partner of a smallish private equity firm. He, and the firm, are attracting press opprobrium, thanks to his forthcoming, lavish, wedding (“only one elephant” at the engagement party), which leaked out on the same day as mass redundancy at one of the firm’s investments. He has set his two junior partners, Seth (Tom Riley) and Jenny (Hayley Atwell), to compete. Seth has brought a deal, Californian icon Landmark Luggage, to the table. The price is very attractive because Seth has persuaded the seller, via the CEO Jeff (Joseph Balerrama), that the firm will invest, grow the business online and preserve jobs. A press friendly “America First” proposal. Rick though asks Jenny to look at the case for relocating production across the border. Jenny comes back with a full on asset-stripping, outsource to Bangladesh, squeeze out cash, lever up to pinch a dividend, private equity caricature scenario.

From this set up flows some accurate, if not entirely, surprising paybacks. What makes it work is Sarah Burgess’s attention to the dialogue. Yes, she peppers the scenes with the technical language of private equity, (but is careful to provide context and explanations so if you don’t get it you’re not trying), and there is plenty of swearing. She does though capture the direct, combative, intense but often petty, point-scoring, smart-arse rhythm of this world. Everything here is about winning the argument. Consequences are often abstract. Everyone is very clever but argument tends to the reductive.

You might hear a bit of Mamet in the dialogue. I was reminded of the intent of the City comedies of Jonson and the Restoration, (and not just from the, I think, copious use of Purcell in Max Pappenheim’s sound design). A subtler tone perhaps. No need to accentuate the venality, hypocrisy and pomposity of the targets as in that era, but the same essential dramatic device. Use wit to illuminate self-interest.

You will be drawn to the performance of Hayley Atwell as Jenny. This is a fascinating study. She is not defined by her gender. Not wife, mother, love interest, victim. That is quite rare even in contemporary theatre. Charmless and devoid of “emotional intelligence”. Driven by the logic of return on capital but failing to see what cannot be measured. Saying sorry with no concept of why she should be. Exaggerated it may be but from this extreme emerges a lot of laughs and no little truth. But brilliant as Ms Atwell is it is not just about Jenny. Seth represents another bundle of personality traits. A charming self-assured salesmen who smoothly secures the trust of his clients. He comes to question the morality of Jenny’s management plan for Landmark, but only because he has “lost the game”. He is certainly not prepared to trade his status and back his own plan. Rick is immune to self-doubt his past success makes him think he is infallible. Aiden McArdle is all controlled, demanding aggression. It comes as no surprise that he will take capital from anyone to prop up his firm. Joseph Balerrama’s Jeff exudes a kind of fragile bonhomie but this, unsurprisingly, masks a ruthlessness that is revealed when his agency and price are tested.

Sarah Burgess has clearly delved deep and understood her research and rightly focussed on where it led her. Her writing is assured, droll and perfectly pitched. Anna Ledwich, (who also directed Beth Steel’s Labyrinth on this stage which came at this world from a different era and different asset class), offered sympathetic guidance. The design of Andrew D Edwards, with its revolving mirrors, and I think video of smoke at one point was maybe a bit overstated but no matter.

 

 

 

 

Miss Julie at the Jermyn Street Theatre review ***

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Miss Julie

Jermyn Street Theatre, 27th November 2017

Grinding my way through the classics of naturalistic drama. Actually not grinding, that makes it sound like too much of a slog, but I can’t pretend it is all unalloyed joy. Turns out that Chekhov is likely the man for me and Ibsen works only intermittently. This was my first Miss Julie, so early days for Sweden’s finest, but based on this, and a past The Father and Creditors, I don’t think I am going to be his greatest fan. I am conscious that the critics across the spectrum lapped this up, and I can’t fault the acting, direction or staging, so any misgivings must lie in the play or possibly the adaption, here newly minted by Howard Brenton. I won’t have the latter though, since a) Howard Brenton is the gold standard in other adaptions, b) he is at pains to tell us in the text that he wanted to stay as close to the original based on the literal translation from Agnes Broome, and c) his play Pravda was the thing that turned me on to the theatre.

Now it strikes me that, for a claustrophobic play set solely in the kitchen of a Swedish manor house, want you want is a claustrophobic theatre and a set which captures said kitchen. Which is precisely what you get from Louie Whitemore. In immense detail. With kidneys frying on the stove. Director Tom Littler, now in the hot-seat at JST, is happy to let Izabella Urbanowicz who plays cook Kristin prepare and cook the meal before James Sheldon’s valet Jean bounds in after having dropped into the Midsummer’s party we can hear going on in the background (courtesy of Max Pappenheim’s sound design). So a confident start. A bit of gentle banter about Miss Julie’s erratic behaviour and some gentle exchanges between the couple and we’re all set for the arrival of the eponymous flirt. I think Izabella Urbanowicz nailed Kristin’s cautious conservatism, (we see it later with references to her faith), and her utilitarian approach to her choice of husband to be. James Sheldon in contrast exuded a kind of boyish restlessness that served him well in the dialogue with each of the women. There was affection between the servant couple, no doubt, but also, I sensed a slight distance.

So all looking good for Charlotte Hamblin’s white-dressed Miss Julie to set the ball rolling towards the sex, anger, imagined disgrace and disappointment which follows. I gather Ms Hamblin is famous for being some-one in Downton Abbey, so this upstairs/downstairs stuff was presumably a breeze for her. I have seen a few bios which include everyone’s favourite period drama, and it has so far proved to be a mark of quality for the stage performance. Which therefore makes it mystifying as to why Downton Abbey itself is so unbelievably bad. Anyway Ms Hamblin was suitably bored, sexy, desperate and rash and Mr Sheldon was suitably horny, angry, boorish and rash to make the attraction very believable. She gets to lash out at the way she is shackled by class and status. So does he. But we are also acutely aware from the off that the distance between is not as great as it seems and, at the societal level, is starting to close. So it’s all there.

My marginal unease comes as we move into the “what are we going to do now” bit. Miss Julie’s collapse into nervous panic and Jean’s swinging mixture of motives are all part of the fun I guess but it tested my patience and I started to drift away from proceedings. Passion can veer from love to hate in an instance, and passion across class barriers is never going to end well for one, or the other or both. AS however seems to want to have his cake and eat it, then whip out another cake and have another go, as the couple ride their emotional rollercoaster. Miss Julie is the victim in this production but that only serves to heighten Strindberg’s not so buried misogyny.

As you can see I am confused and need to think a bit more about this. Must try harder. At the end of the day though I can’t pretend I was gripped throughout and, if this production is as adept as the critics have said, then I may have to conclude that AS is out of my limited reach. Never mind, there’s lots more theatre to explore.