Cock at the Minerva Theatre review ****

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Cock

Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 10th October 2018

Another addition to my collection of Mike Bartlett plays. I have professed my admiration for his work on numerous occasions on these pages. You see he just writes gripping drama. Hyper-real, sometimes going a bit over the top, but that is what you pay your money to see. Or at least I think you should. He can range widely across subjects, big and small. And he experiments with form. All in all probably the best of the current generation of British dramatists, of which there is currently a very fine crop. Just need a revival of 13 which I missed on its first outing.

Cock is a comedy which focusses on the machinations of the somewhat weak-willed John (Luke Thallon) as he attempts to choose between his two lovers M (Matthew Needham) and W (Isabella Laughland). It is a sort of companion piece to Bull, written a few years later, about workplace bullying. Both examine the “games that people play” and were kind of inspired by bull-fighting (and cock-fighting) which MB discovered were still very much alive when he visited Mexico City. There are no scene headings or stage directions or props in Cock, only lines between each of the “bouts” between characters (here marked with an electronic “bell”). MB stipulates that there should be “no mime”. He evens leaves out full stops and commas to express natural speech rhythms and inserts blanks to create equivalent pauses. So all your are left with is 2, then 3, then 4 actors circling each other and tumbling out the lines. Just the verbal sparring if you will. Of which there is plenty. It sounds tricksy but it is anything but as MB cannot help putting the right words, at the right time, into his characters. Emotions, as in his other works, are heightened by the formal structure. Everything is clarified.

It transpires that John was pretty young when he moved in with M. M is a bit of an emotional bully but when John wants out after seven years it’s pretty clear M is devastated. Especially when John falls in love with a woman. W doesn’t care that, until now, John has been gay. She pushes John into choosing when M invites them to, what you can probably divine, an “awks” dinner party. Especially when M’s Dad F (Simon Chandler) turns up.

There are plenty of killer comic lines but what MB really nails is the constant, and often brutal, ebb and flow of coercion and pleading that all four employ to get what they want out of the situation. John is agonised by having to decide between M and W, and by implication his sexual identity, bisexual not sitting comfortably, but he is also loving the attention. M is all over the words “emotional blackmail” but he does not want to lose John. W appears more reasonable but she is still determined to “win”. The world has moved on and become more fluid in terms of sexual identity but MB’s play still plainly shows that there are personal costs (and benefits) to be negotiated in all relationships. Monogamy exerts a powerful hold on all of us it seems. I would stab a guess that Cock is the sort of play Pierre de Marivaux would be writing if he were alive today.

This is I think the first time I have been party to Kate Hewitt’s direction. If there is a better way of showing off this play, here in the round, I can’t imagine it. I see she is in the chair for Jesus Hopped The A Train at the Young Vic next year. Excellent. I have espyed the Matthew Needham at the Almeida, and after this he will reprise his role as John (no relation) in Rebecca Frecknall’s production of Summer and Smoke at the Duke of York’s and Luke Thallon stood out in MB’s Albion at the same house and, I gather, in the Young Vic The Inheritance. I’ve only seen Isabella Laughland on the telly. Anyway even a chump like me can see all three actors are destined for even greater things. I can’t imagine Georgia Lowe will get an easier gig than this in terms of design, a red square on the floor in this red auditorium, but it still is the exact right solution.

With Press, his journalism drama, now over, until the next time presumably, I can’t wait for MB’s next work. I loved Press, obvs, most notably because it seemed to wind up many members of the fourth estate because “that’s not how a newspaper works”. Numbnuts. That’s the point. It’s a drama. Which uses your grubby, noble and powerful profession to shine a light on contemporary mores. Not a documentary. Which is also not “real” and constructed. As is your own “reality”. And your stories.

 

Not Talking at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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Not Talking

Arcola Theatre, 5th May 2018

Not Talking is, in his own words, Mike Bartlett’s first “proper” play. It won prizes when first aired on BBC Radio, (with Richard Briers and June Whitfield no less), but it was written for the stage and, here. courtesy of production company Defibrillator, it has it first theatrical outing.

You may well know Mr Bartlett from his TV outings, Doctor Foster, Trauma or maybe the TV adaptation of his play King Charles III. (It always tickles me that the TV critic of the execrable rag the Daily Mail gave this a 0* review whereas the sharp-witted theatre critic gave it 5*). Or maybe you have seen one of his other plays, Albion (Albion at the Almeida Theatre review ****), Wild, Game, An Intervention, Bull, 13, Earthquakes in London, Cock, the adaptation of Chariots of Fire or his brilliant version of Medea with Headlong. His writing is innovative and fearless, and full of colour. If a big dramatic concept or twist is required he will jump in with both feet, and the quality of his writing is so good that he always gets away with it.

All this is visible in Not Talking. We have four characters, James, Amanda, Lucy and Mark. James and Lucy have been married for many years but have drifted apart. They don’t talk to each other. Mark and Amanda are soldiers at the same barracks who fall for each other. Something happens that neither one of them can really share. It turns out that there is a connection between the couples.

I’ll stop there. The plot is too absorbing to reveal and there are still plenty of tickets up for grabs through to 2nd June. You would be a mug not to see this.

David Horovitch who plays James is a top drawer stage actor, last seen by me in All My Sons at the Rose Kingston alongside Penny Downie. Kika Markham who plays Lucy is similarly theatrical royalty. She played Lena in Caryl Churchill’s magnificent Escaped Alone and her mate, Tony Kushner no less, wrote a one hour monologue for her in his play Homebody/Kabul. You would be hard pressed to see two finer actors on the London stage and here they are at the Arcola for 20 quid. Gemma Lawrence and Lawrence Walker who make up the quartet are less experienced but equally as good as they renowned colleagues. This is the first time I have seen any of James Hiller’s work, the AD of Defibrillator. Nothing he does gets in the way of Mr Bartlett’s riveting plot, which is equally well served by Amy Jane Cook’s simple set.

Now you might argue that Mr Bartlett is a little too ready to pump up the dramatic volume, or that his message, don’t bury secrets, is a little too patent. Who cares when it is this involving and this well presented.

Take a friend. You’ll have someone to talk to afterwards.

The Phlebotomist at Hampstead Theatre review *****

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The Phlebotomist

Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, 2nd May 2018

The Phlebotomist is sold out for the rest of its runs. So you had better hope that it pitches up elsewhere, ideally with the current cast and creatives, for it really is an excellent play. There are three almighty talents on show here. Writer Ella Road in this her debut play, actor Jude Anouka who just keeps on getting better and better and director Sam Yates who proved his mettle with Glengarry Glen Ross recently, but here extracts the maximum amount of tension and drama out of what is already a smartly plotted story.

It is another one of these near future dystopian dramas, which playwrights are currently obsessed with. No real surprise there. Us liberal, luvvie types are never happier than when warning ourselves, (for we are the audience), about the impending disasters that beset us, ideally disasters precipitated by the very technologies which we benefit from most. Ella Road’s story starts with a slightly different, and I think more chilling and realistic premise, that blood samples will be used to provide a detailed genetic profile, an early prognosis of what medical conditions will impact you through your life and even your behavioural characteristics. You can avoid the test but this will impact your educational, employment, credit and relationship prospects and looks shifty. Of course taking the test, and finding out the details all wrapped up in a rating out of 10, will also impact those prospects.

Bea (Jade Anouka) is the phlebotomist, (no I didn’t know either), who administers the test. She, quite literally, bumps into Aaron, (a fine performance from Rory Fleck Byrne, a new name to me), who turns out to be a descendant of the poet Lord Tennyson. They fall in love (and look like they do such is the chemistry between them). Turns out they both have high scores. Char, Bea’s friend, (a spirited Cherrelle Skeete, also new to me), does not and she abandons her career to campaign against the system, after an attempt at deception. The only other character is David (Vincent Ebrahim) a softly spoken, sagacious porter at the hospital Bea works in.

I won’t elaborate. Suffice to say that Ella Road provides enough disclosures to keep the plot moving along but not too many to raise eyebrows. The world she conjures up cleverly eschews compulsion, there is no evil state organ here, implying benign, market driven compliance, (as with so many informational threats to our privacy). Avoidance and manipulation of the test results are, rightly, key elements of the plot. It all feels very real. It asks some big questions, even tackling the stain of eugenics, but never, ever, appears didactic. How much should we know about our genetic make-up? Should this ever be made public? How “perfect” do we want to be? Ms Road has an unmistakeable view but ensures all three main characters elicit our sympathy.

The dialogue between those characters is believable, the monologues perfectly placed, there is humour and there is even a memorable tomato based metaphor (you’ll see). It is something that Charlie Brooker and the Black Mirror team would have been proud to come up with, but this is achieved without their giant budget, and, I think, has far more emotional clout. Rosanna Vize offers a simple, grey transverse set at the HT Downstairs, a few chairs and other props. Zoe Spurr’s lighting and Alex Twiselton’s sound are similarly economic but very effective. Costume changes are effected on-stage. The production is helped enormously by Duncan McLean’s snappy video work which offers social and political context so that the play, which at its heart, is a story about the relationships between Bea and Aaron, and Bea and Char, is never overwhelmed by its central conceit.

Jade Anouka was mesmerising in the Phyllida Lloyd Donmar Warehouse Shakespeare trilogy, as Ariel, as Mark Antony and as Hotspur. She was the only saving grace in the otherwise execrable Jamie Lloyd Faustus. You may have seen her in the recent ITV production of the Trauma, by Mike Bartlett. She was the daughter of Adrian Lester’s high-flying surgeon. When John Simm, who plays the embittered father of one of Mr Lester’s patients, invades the family home, her fear jumps through the screen into your living room. (How Mike Bartlett keeps getting away with these electrically charged finales verging on the melodramatic beats me, but he does).

Up close as here, she is bloody marvellous to watch. A completely natural performer. Not to decry her three colleagues but it is difficult to take your eyes off her. Sam Yates does seem to have a knack of ensuring that great stage actors, (and I am putting Ms Anouka in that category), are great on stage. Not as easy as it sounds. I offer the evidence of, especially, Christian Slater, but also Robert Glenister, Stanley Townsend and Don Warrington in Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse (Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse Theatre review ****), Emily Barber in The Globe Cymbeline, Jane Horrocks in East is East, his collaboration with Ruth Wilson. Why he hasn’t been offered a big gig at the National is a mystery to me.

 

 

Albion at the Almeida Theatre review ****

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Albion

Almeida Theatre, 21st October 2017

Now we all know Mike Bartlett is a great writer. If you don’t know his stage work then, if you love your telly in the UK, you will likely have come across his mini-series Doctor Foster. So you will know that he can write a totally gripping story and that he is not averse in taking liberties with plot construction in order to generate a few outrageous WTF moments. Now it helps that this series was blessed with some top-drawer acting talent in Suranne Jones, (up next in a revival of Frozen alongside Jason Watkins and Nina Sosanya at Theatre Royal Haymarket in what looks like casting made in heaven), the chameleonic Bertie Carvel (I would watch anything he does), Adam James (ditto and who is a Mike Bartlett veteran) and the gifted Victoria Hamilton.

And it is Ms Hamilton who takes the leading role of Audrey Walters in Albion. She is, quite simply, brilliant. I will get to the play shortly but just let me wax lyrical about Victoria Hamilton for a bit. Her Audrey is sharp, snappy, curt, brusque, tactless. A seemingly detached mother. A wife who takes her (second) husband for granted. A friend who has no interest in the life of her oldest chum. An alpha businesswoman. Yet she is also very funny, and, as we increasingly find out, vulnerable. At the heart of Mr Bartlett’s rich text it seems that Audrey, in all her contradiction, is all of us, or more specifically, is this country, whatever it might be. I guess the clue was always in the title but Albion is an allegory which takes a substantial domestic family drama as the mechanism to explore issues of national identity, place and heritage. The Brexit convulsions ooze out of the very earth, of which there is plenty on stage, though the accursed word is never mentioned.

It is a bloody marvellous role and an equally marvellous performance. You may have seen Ms Hamilton in other roles on the telly, maybe in costume dramas and the like, and I envy you if you have seen her on the stage, for she is an infrequent board-treader. Her stage reputation is immense though. I can now see why. I have no right to ask, as someone who sits around on his lardy arse most days, but PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE Victoria, come back to the stage soon when this one is over. Mind you if this doesn’t get a West End transfer, I’ll be gobsmacked (though I can see some logistical challenges).

Panegyric over. What about the play? Our Audrey has left her successful “home-stuff” business in the hands of the minions. She has bought a pile she knew from childhood in rural Oxfordshire. and left London behind. It is the garden that matters to her though. It had been created by a certain Mr Weatherbury and was of immense national importance. It has gone to rack and ruin. Audrey wants to sink some of cash into restoring it to its former glory (see where we are going ….), and create a memorial to the dead of the Great War, and, we quickly learn, her son James, who was pointlessly killed in one of the recent wars. With her come her browbeaten, though wryly optimistic, husband Paul (a spot on Nicholas Rowe) and self-absorbed, millenial daughter Zara (an anxious Charlotte Hope) who wants to write and would rather be in London. Audrey inherits a couple of retainers in husband/gardener and wife/housekeeper Matthew (Christopher Fairbank, hard to imagine anyone else better suited to the part) and Cheryl (Margot Leicester, who shows perfect comic timing) but they are getting on a bit so Audrey, somewhat tactlessly, recruits ambitious Polish cleaning entrepreneur Krystyna (Edyta Budnik), and the rather enigmatic local boy Gabriel (a compelling Luke Thallon) to help . Our cast is completed by Anna (Vinette Robinson, who convinces in what is a tricky role), who is James’s grieving girlfriend, Katherine Sanchez (Helen Schlesinger), very successful writer, best friend of Audrey since university and overt “remainer”, and conservative neighbour, Edward (Nigel Betts).

No commentary on what happens next. I insist you see for yourself. There are though some moments of very high drama as the tensions between the characters unfold. Some of these scenes push us to the edge of credulity but, as with Mr Bartlett’s other work, he gets away with it because it is so damnably thrilling. 

Rupert Goold’s direction doesn’t stand in the way of any of this, indeed positively encourages it, and it gives his lighting (Neil Austin), sound (Gregory Clarke) and movement (Rebecca Frecknall) colleagues room to have some real fun. All the action is set in the red garden “room” of Weatherbury’s original design. Miriam Buether’s “thrust” forward design is a cracker. A raised oval lawn with trusty oak tree and seat at the back and with a bed all around which is transformed halfway through. This England indeed. 

If the set up above sounds like a certain Mr Anton Chekhov you’d be right. It unashamedly has Cherry Orchard crawling all over it, and, greedy bugger that he is, he even takes a few feathers out of The Seagull. Why not though? Chekhov being the perfect template for showcasing the intersection of the personal and the political, the delineation of class, the weight of history and the vice of nostalgia. The garden itself is a quintessential metaphor for change. We English have always been good at gardens and don’t we just love ’em. Chekhov meshes comedy, tragedy and banality whilst hurling in a few bombshells. Mr Bartlett does the same.

Into this set-up then is layered a whole series of perspectives of what “we”, have been, are now, and, possibly, are going to be, now “we” have taken this unprecedented step. The short answer, if you were to ask me, is that “we” have been monumentally stupid. Mr Bartlett, as you might expect, is rather less dogmatic, and offers ambiguity (and indeed his greatest nod to Chekhov), at the end. He reminds us that even dear old Blighty is regularly convulsed by clashes between those who welcome the future, and those who cling to the past. Because, in some way or other, we all embrace this dichotomy.

The text swirls with meaning. Perhaps a little too much. This is what holds me back from a full-on JFG 5* review. Direction, staging, performances – all tip top. Garden as metaphor, check. Chekhov as inspiration, check. Formal structure, check. Narrative arc, check. Plot and characters, check. Ideas and meaning, a qualified check. Not the subject, no way, nothing right now more important could appear on a London stage. Just that maybe a few of the threads can could have been pulled a little more tightly together.

Minor criticism. This is still a hefty slab of theatre which captures the zeitgeist. Maybe not quite as immediately remarkable as the last combination of Mike Bartlett and Rupert Goold at this very venue, King Charles III. But it may well turn out to have even greater resonance as, brace yourselves, the impact of this Brexit caper has only just begun.

 

The Cherry Orchard at Milton Court Theatre review ***

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The Cherry Orchard

Milton Court Theatre, 17th October 2017

I have remarked before on the attractions of the Guildhall School final year productions. Lovely venue, clear interpretations which eschew directorial licence, and the chance to see some potential future stars of stage and screen.

I must say these students are an extraordinarily attractive bunch. I guess an acting factory isn’t that interested in churning out fat uglies like yours truly. Shame since people are a diverse lot. As our leading British thespians bear witness too. This also highlights the other caveat which I would raise about these productions. Obviously if everyone on stage is in their twenties those tasked with playing the more mature characters are presented with a challenge that the age appropriate characters are spared. I have to say though that overall, the entire cast performed admirably, especially in the second half, though for me the standout performances came from Georgina Beedle as Madame Lyubov Andreievna Ranevskaya and Mhairi Gayer as Anya.

The Chekhovian symphony always takes a little time to build as we embrace the characters, both in terms of their individual psychologies, and what they stand for in pre-Revolution Russian society. Director Christian Burgess let each of the actors find their voices without rushing things, which softened some of the slightly uneven casting. This was Tom Stoppard’s translation. Since Chekhov pervades a great deal of his own work it is no surprise that it hits the spot. Any playwright worth his or her salt will take a shot at adapting Chekhov but some are more sympathetic than others. This production (designed by Polly Sullivan) was as historically specific as it is possible to get – ushankas, birch trees, even a samovar I think. A complete contrast to the current Sherman Theatre interpretation from Gary Owen and Rachel O’Riordan which sounds terrific. I see too that Mike Bartlett is not averse to infusing his latest (great) play Albion with the spirit of the Cherry Orchard, both directly in terms of plot and also through the character of Audrey Walters, (Victoria Hamilton turns in one of the best performances of the year – just see it).

For of course there are always plenty of themes in Chekhov’s plays that resonate with today’s world. That is generally because there is just a lot in Chekhov’s plays full stop. Regret about an imagined past is a powerful driver of society in the present and that applies throughout human written history (I may have made that up but you get the point). These regrets and disappointments are played out through the personal, and always with a wry humour in the background.

Overall then a fine production. Not the best you will ever see, but that is unsurprising. And the two actors I mention above have a bright future ahead of them. Mind you, what do I know.