Ravens at the Hampstead Theatre review ***

Ravens: Spassky vs Fischer

Hampstead Theatre, 18th December 2019

I can see why Tom Morton-Smith would have alighted on the infamous chess match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in 1972 in Reykjavik. There are a ton of tomes on the subject and, after all, if it was good enough to spark the imagination of the ABBA boys …..

A proxy for the Cold War, then at its height, the clash between two ideologies, the “chess machine” Spassky up against the “maverick genius” Fischer, maybe the greatest player of all. No wonder the world was enthralled by the contest in a way that chess has never repeated. Added to which was Fischer’s erratic personality, he was never formally diagnosed, but he left the US, dropped out of competitive chess for two decades after winning this World Championship, got into legal scuffles, and devoted much of his time to vicious anti-Semitism.

Plenty of scope for drama then. TM-S’s smash hit Oppenheimer, which the Tourist, annoyingly, never saw, it coinciding with his peak poorly, so please someone revive it soon, similarly dealt with heightened personal drama set against the backdrop of big geo-political stuff. Other earlier plays have also successfully ploughed the same furrow.

So why didn’t it quite lift off then? Well the action is concentrated on the hall in which the match took place and various ante, hotel and other rooms around this. No faulting the way in which Jamie Vartan’s design, Howard Harrison’s lighting, Philip Stewart’s composition and sound, Jack Phelan’s video and, especially, Mike Ashcroft’s movement all combine to bring animation and excitement to the various confrontations, between and within the two “teams”, and between Spassky and Fischer during and outside the game. All overseen by Annabelle Comyn’s rhythmic direction. The two lead performances are also vivid and credible, Ronan Raftery as the self-contained but somehow melancholic Spassky, and, especially, Robert Emms as the aggressive Fischer. He has a lot more “personality” to play with, drawn out in some striking scenes on the telephone to the voice of Henry Kissinger (Solomon Israel) and his Jewish mother Regina (Emma Pallant). The rest of the cast, (wisely opened up a bit gender wise as I am guessing the reality was almost entirely geezer), don’t have too much opportunity to delve into character though Philip Desmueles has a decent crack as the German chess arbiter Lothar Schmid as does Buffy Davis doubling as the US team, bumptious head honcho Fred Cramer and Bobby’s mentor Lina Grumette.

T M-S’s dialogue too is incisive, and light on forced exposition, though it can’t quite escape chess-y banter, and all of the controversies of the match are rehearsed, notably the bizarre requests and counter-requests that tried the patience of the stoical Icelandic organisers and which was borne of mutual paranoia, notably from Bobby. My favourite was the argument over the chairs.

Like I say it is a cracking story. But not quite a cracking play. For the problem is that, however good the staging and the text, this is a tale of repetitions, which diminish in their return to the audience across the near 3 hours of the play. The scenes may differ, and are, to repeat, entertainingly executed, but don’t really move the narrative on. And, of course, we know the ending. Which means the political and psychological context needs to be explored in more depth than here. We get a sense of the financial and ideological stakes, the way in which Fischer’s mind games undermined a Russian team with an eye on their own government’s reaction, (though Spassky was avowedly apolitical,) and an insight into Bobby’s own, damaged, neuroses, but nothing that really surprises, provokes or disturbs.

My guess is that, having focussed on bringing the “facts” to kinetic life, by the time T M-S went looking underneath the play was already “done”. It might have been more interesting to step outside the detail of the match itself and start elsewhere, in flash-back from Bobby’s later life maybe (though I see that is pretty cliched). The imagined scene between Bobby and his Icelandic bodyguard Saemundur Palsson (Gary Shelford), which lends the play its title, is perhaps a pointer to want might have been of TM-S had left the facts behind.

The Watsons at the Menier Chocolate Factory review *****

The Watsons

Menier Chocolate Factory, 16th November 2019

Fannyed about and failed to book this when it came to Chichester. Wasn’t about to make the same mistake again so quick off the mark when the transfer to the MCF was announced and a three line whip to include the SO and, a new fellow traveller, TSLOM, whose literary knowledge might even exceed that of the SO herself.

Anyway, and at the risk of coming all over key board warrior alone in his bedroom, IT IS ABSOLUTELY VITAL THAT YOU DO NOT MISS THIS ON ITS THIRD OUTING. It will show at the Harold Pinter Theatre from 8th May to 26th September, and there are plenty of tickets left, which gives you no excuse even if you wait.

For this is one of the funniest and smartest plays you are likely to see in this or any other year. No great surprise given Laura Wade’s track record (Home, I’m Darling, Tipping the Velvet, Posh, Alice, Breathing Corpses, Colder Than Here) and a sympathetic, I assume, director in the form of partner Samuel West (Prue and Timmy’s boy for you canal lovers).

Easy enough to find out the central premise. The Watsons was a novel from 1803/4 that Jane Austen abandoned, (as she did in 1817 with Sanditon, which, as I am sure you are aware, Andrew Davies and ITV recently “completed”). JA produced about 80 pages, laying out all the characters, and some clues as to where it would end up, though whether as novella or full blown novel isn’t clear. Apparently loads of punters have had a stab at completing it, the Austen industry being a continuing British success story, though I doubt have been as successful in their efforts as Ms Wade.

On to the bijou stage at the MCF, mediated through Ben Stones’s, ingenious white box with props and plinth stage, and Mike Ashcroft’s precise movement direction, we meet all the characters from the original novel at a ball, obviously. Emma Watson (Grace Molony – perfect) is the youngest daughter of a widowed, and poorly, clergyman (John Wilson Goddard). She was brought up by a wealthy aunt, and is thus educated and refined, but after her benefactor remarries, she returns home to Daddy and her daft sister Margaret (Rhianna McGreevy). The sisters are, by dint of economic circumstance, looking to make a “good match”, with more than one eye on the dashing, though plainly caddish, Tom Musgrave (Laurence Ubong Williams). His shortcomings are identified by Emma’s level headed eldest sister Elizabeth (Paksie Vernon). Their neighbours include super toff, Lady Osborne (Jane Booker) and her super awkward son (Joe Bannister), and his sprightly sister (Cat White). At the ball, accompanied by kindly chaperone Mrs Edwards (Elaine Claxton), she is introduced to local vicar Mr Howard (Tim Delap), a potential Mr Right, even if he veers towards the priggish, and his eager young nephew, Charles. Soon after Margaret returns home with grasping brother Robert (Sam Alexander) and his snobbish wife Mary (Sophie Duval). Nanny (Sally Bankes), looks on bemused.

So far, so, er, Jame Austen. And then the maid arrives, who is, to say the least a bit lippy and forward. Yes it is, and I am giving nothing away here, our very own playwright Laura (played by Louise Ford -also perfect), hot from “reality” to rescue Emma from making a crappy marriage choice from the three candidates, and boost female agency. When Emma, who isn’t, it must be said, altogether happy with the intervention, and the rest of the cast, have adjusted to this surprising turn of events the fun really begins. Meta doesn’t begin to describe as the cast take umbrage with being “characters” in a “play” and rebel against Laura’s authorship of their “lives”. This permits the dissection of class and gender, as in previous plays by Ms Wade, but against the backdrop of who owns a story, genius in the context that this was both unfinished and that so many of us have an obsessive interest in its author and her books, and the social mores it represents, well beyond what is there on the page, (JA I mean not LW, though, of course, as the conceit unfolds, we are very much invested in LW, the character of LW the playwright).

There are precedents for the play, notably Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, which LW self-deprecatingly admits, but this is much more immediate in its impact. LW doesn’t abandon the comedy that flows from parody, though there are no cheap laughs here, nor does she abandon the search for logic in the face of what she is articulating. Even if that logic is as daft as the very idea of the willing suspension of disbelief in the first place. This is not clever-clever, up its own arse theory theatre, though. It will make you think about its themes but never at the expense of making you chuckle.

Sam West’s direction, and Ben Stokes’s costumes, are geared to this purpose, the conventions of period drama never entirely subverted even when the cast threatens anarchy to plot, and there is a knowing warmth throughout. This may be satire, but everyone involved plainly loves, and fetishises Austen, as much, if not more than the audience. When the production, including Richard Howell’s lighting, Gregory Clarke’s sound and Isobel Waller-Bridge’s music, opens up on the Harold Pinter stage expect the brilliance of Laura Wade’s creation to be even more apparent.

Repeat. Do not miss this.

The Lovely Bones at the Rose Theatre Kingston review *****

The Lovely Bones

Rose Theatre Kingston, 26th October 2019

The Lovely Bones, co-produced by Birmingham Rep, Royal and Derngate, Northern Stage and Liverpool Everyman, is just to wrap up its tour in Chichester. If you saw it good on you. If you didn’t then make sure you sign up for what ever director Melly Still does next. After triumphs such as My Brilliant Friend, which you can catch at the NT as we speak, Captain Corelli’s Mandarin, her RSC Cymbeline, and further back her NT Coram’s Boy, it is plain she is the Queen of physical theatre adaptation. What with her role as Associate at the Rose, and with Christopher Haydon about to arrive as the new Artistic Director, and better seating, things are really looking up for the Tourist’s local theatre.

Now some might recoil from Ms Still’s insistence on the primacy of visual spectacle alongside the text. Not me. And not, based on a spot of vox-popping of neighbours post performance, the audiences. Or it must be said most critics. To which we must give many thanks to adapter Bryony Lavery. Ms Lavery is set for a busy 2020. Her 1997 original play Last Easter will have its London premiere at the Orange Tree, she is adapting Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage for the Bridge Theatre, her adaptation of Oliver Twist with Ramps on the Moon will tour, her adaptation of Oscar and the Pink Lady will take the stage in Sheffield and Theatre Royal Stratford East have chosen her musical version of Red Riding Hood for its Xmas 2020 panto. Not bad for a pensioner.

It is pretty easy to see why collaborators keep returning to her as an adapter of broad appeal theatre. Of course the subject and structure of The Lovely Bones, which is narrated by the now dead Susie Salmon, raped and murdered by a neighbour aged 14, may not quite fall into the category broad appeal. But Alice Sebbold’s 2002 debut book was a best seller and the 2009 film directed by Peter Jackson, whilst generating a mixed critical response, grossed around US$100mn. So safe to say it has “brand recognition”. And, whilst the subject matter is initially, and self evidently, unsettling, the way the story develops, with Susie torn between willing her family and friends to nail her killer and watching them get on with their lives and get over her death, is more compelling. In someone ways it is an unsentimental story told, deliberately, in a sentimental way. There is a Heaven but not that of Christian dogma, her family is broken by her death, but it still celebrates American family and community, it does operate like a slickly paced, artfully plotted thriller, but that was not the real point of its writing, there is some supernatural mumbo-jumbo but, obviously given the initial formal liberty the reader will take it in her stride, and the baddie does get his comeuppance in a melodramatic twist.

So there is enough in the way of event and character to justify a theatrical interpretation. And the mechanism by which Ms Laverty and Ms Still realise this is disarmingly straightforward, In the book Susie narrates whilst looking down on family, friends and the killer from her Heaven. Here Susie walks among them, although of course they cannot see or sense her. Until, of course, they can. Heaven, with its host of other victims, led by Franny (Avita Jay) who becomes Susie’s mentor, appears and disappears at the drop of a jump light, but mostly we are in the world of the living with the brilliant Charlotte Beaumont’s teen Susie as stroppy cheerleader in her own investigation armed only with conviction and banana yellow loons.

Ava Innes Jabares-Pita’s set is overhung with a huge sloping two way mirror, not a new conceit but one that works to great effect here, as we are drawn to see events from two different perspectives. Otherwise we have a bare stage with floor lighting to symbolise house, and with the busy cast carting stuff on and off stage (cornfield, clapboard houses, clothing) to advance the many scenes. As with Ms Still’s previous work, it is lighting (Matt Haskins), sound (Helen Skiera), music (Dave Price, whose playlist guides us efficiently through 70s and 80s) and movement (Mike Ashcroft) which generate the thrills through the brilliantly choreographed ensemble. Scenes begin as quickly as others end so that the whole story is crammed into less than a couple of hours and there are countless moments of theatrical ingenuity.

Of course with all this visual activity theatre-makers run the risk of scrambling the plot and cartooning the characters. Not here though. Ms Laverty gives us as much dialogue as we need, leaning on Susie’s punchy narration, without, as far as I could make out, condensing any of the key plot elements . And the characterisations, Dad Jack’s (Jack Sandle) guilt and grief, Mum Abigail’s (Catrin Aaron) withdrawal, sister Lindsey’s (Fanta Barrie) indefatigability, detective Len Fennerman’s (Huw Parmenter) entanglement, are all sufficiently well sketched to hit home. OK so maybe the various friends, mysterio-goth Ruth Connors (Leigh Lothian), sensitive boyfriend material Ray Singh (Samuel Gosrani), (and his No Nonsense Mum Ruana), and the additional composites created in the form of Sophie (Radhika Aggarwal) and Leah (Leah Haile), only just about stand up to scrutiny, but this is true of the book too. And the less said about hard drinking, homily wielding Grandma Lyn (Lynda Rookie) who comes to look after the family when Abigail leaves, the better.

Nicholas Khan as the killer Harvey screams creepy psycho from the off, but as with the rest of the production, and in keeping with the book, effect and momentum are prioritised over psychological insight. He is convincing mind you. Then again so is Samuel Gosrani doubling up as family dog Holiday who is, in that doggy way, immediately on to Harvey. Those familiar with Melly Still’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin will know just what the actor as animal routine can bring to this sort of production.

Of course there are times when theatre is best served by two people getting deep and wordy. But its real power lies in its dynamism and in the shared experience, and, in this regard, Melly Still is, in my book, a brilliant practitioner. I am willing to bet that the version of The Lovely Bones on the night that I enjoyed it, (for just a tenner, grab those secret seats people), will have looked different to that presented on the first night in Birmingham. Which is exactly as I would want it to be.