After a false start, (the indolent Tourist failed to wake up in time on the appointed on-sale day and this sold out fast), a couple of returns were secured so it was off to the Dorfman with MS in tow for Ella Hickson’s latest play. With high expectations given Ms Hickson’s last two outings, The Writer and Oil, both at the Almeida. Expectations that were, largely, met.
I say Ella Hickson but without the sound wizards of Ben and Max Ringham Anna would not have been possible. For, as I am sure your seasoned theatregoers know, the USP of the play is that the audience listens to the proceedings on stage through headphones. The action being set in the modish East Berlin apartment of Ann (Phoebe Fox) and Hans (Paul Bazely) Weber in 1968, expertly designed by Vicki Mortimer. Anna enters in the dark, potters about. Hans joins her, returning from work. They are about to host a party to celebrate Hans’s promotion. Their elder neighbour, Elena Hildebrand (the ever wonderful Diana Quick), joins them before Hans’s work colleague pitch up en masse, including his intimidating boss Christian Neumann (Max Bennett).
Anna is nervous of Herr Neumann and, with a nod to Death and the Maiden, we soon find out why. Or do we? Across the brief 70 minutes or so Ms Hickson pops in a few twists whilst ramping up the tension as the party drinks flow. We are listening in from Anna’s aural standpoint, as it were, so it’s pretty clear all is not what it seems, though to be fair I didn’t see the end coming. Maybe it didn’t quite hang together dramatically but as a way of conjuring up an atmosphere of claustrophobia, surveillance and suspicion, the cornerstone of Communist East Germany, the technology certainly did the job. And just to be sure we embrace the spying vibe. we are separated from the Dorfman stage by a glasss wall.
The cast, especially those aforementioned as well as Nathalie Armin, Jamie Bradley, Michael Gould, Georgia Landers, Lara Rossi and Duane Walcott, all rose to the technical challenge even if they had limited opportunity to get under the skin of the characters. And director Natalie Abrahami, and movement guru Anna Morrissey, deserve immense credit for orchestrating the party. Phoebe Fox has to portray a range of real, and fake, emotions as Anna and sometimes, much like the play itself, which has to support a number of themes inside its thriller structure, doesn’t quite manage to keepit together. But it is still impossible not to get immersed in the story, even if it warranted twice the length, and you never stop marvelling at what the Ringham boys are punching down your lugholes. Not sure I would want to experience theatre this way every day of the week, (the whole point is that this was not a communal experience), but, like Simon McBurney’s The Encounter, you need to try this once.
It is not difficult to see what Githa Sowerby’s photo feminist play from 1912, and brought back to life at the Royal Court by feminist theatre company Mrs Worthington’s Daughters in 1980, now has such a secure place in the repertory. Its characters and its dialogue simply have so much to say about what it was to be a woman, and indeed man, in the stifling atmosphere of Northern England at the turn of the C19. I don’t what to go all Marxist on you but the way the play examines the relationship between capital and labour, the cultural superstructure that is built atop it and patriarchal repression still looks astonishing even when compared to contemporary plays which mine the same territory.
It offers rounded characters despite, or maybe because of, the economy of dialogue and even has an absorbing plot centred on the “invention” of John Jr. However it does go on a bit, especially in the first hour set-up, and the action, contained within one room of the Rutherford house, can get, intentionally, claustrophobic. (Yet more nods to the master Ibsen).
Director Polly Findlay wisely offers us a little relief by taking a couple of intervals (prefacing each act, including the opening, with Northern folk songs from Kerry Andrew and Sarah Dacey) and jogging the pace along where possible. (I’ve just noticed the run time is down to 2 1/2 hours with interval so sounds like a bit of judicious streamlining has been administered). Lizzie Clachlan’s set however has no truck with abstraction: a perfectly realised slice of Victorian melancholia, emphasised by Charles Balfour’s gloomy lighting and (Ibsen-ian) rain. The setting is 1912 Tyneside. In real life Gita Sowerby’s father, like Rutherford, ran the family glass-making business in Gateshead, at a time when this small stretch of the Tyne dominated the global glass industry, before the family left for London in 1896 after the business went t*ts up. We are therefore treated to some full on Geordie accents, (courtesy of the voice and dialect work of Simon Money and Daniele Lydon), which, feel free to call me a patronising Southern twat, just occasionally got lost in translation from my perch at the back of the stalls.
Against this atmospheric backdrop the A list cast get properly stuck in to Githa Sowerby’s text. Now I don’t need to tell you how good an actor Roger Allam is. You are reading this so must have some interest in the theatre and the dramatic arts. Therefore you will know him from his innumerable stage roles, (a recent favourite was John Christie in The Moderate Soprano), his films, or off the telly, (the laconic Peter Mannion in The Thick Of It whose spirit he memorably exploited with a couple of the best one-liners in the whole of GoT as Illyrio Mopatis right at the beginning).
Anyway here he is magnificent. Daddy Rutherford is a cantankerous, despotic bully who is prepared to sacrifice all of life’s pleasures and his family, John Jr (Sam Troughton), Richard (Harry Hepple) and Janet (Justine Mitchell), on the altar of his business and, by implication, his legacy. Or is he? Whilst I am not defending the old sh*t I do think that showing some sign of deeply buried humanity and empathy, as Mr Allam did, yields dividends. Even Rutherford presumably loved his wife and kids once and, as his final promise to Mary (Anjana Vasan) shows, there is some feeling even in this ostensibly commercial transaction. Having to hand over control of the company he built to the bank and a Board has only served to make him work harder, grow tighter and turn his autocracy on those nearest to him. But he is doomed to lose the control he has over his family, mirroring the loss of control of his company. An alienated capitalist disfigured by profit in a society that will move away from him. Very clever.
And, dare I say, these three kids, whilst all having their reasons, are bloody annoying in their own way. Just to be clear I am not imposing some sort of privileged male revisionism on the play. Just that, by exposing the subtlety of the text, Polly Findlay got me to thinking about the play in a way that I had not after seeing Northern Broadsides version with the inimitable Barrie Rutter in the lead in 2013. Love has been squeezed out of the house, as Janet memorably observes, no doubt about that, but the idea that it might have been different once just made me admire the play even more. Githa Sowerby, even when her masterpiece first appeared, to great acclaim, was patronised, as all women were at that time, so the last thing her memory needs is some fat bloke, whose only qualification is that he has seen a few plays recently, upticking, but I was genuinely gobsmacked by just how much depth there is in these characters even beyond what I had remembered from a couple of previous viewings. Everyone thinks they can make everyone else happier in the play. Everyone spectacularly fails to do so.
Sam Troughton is also one of my favourite stage actors, most recently as everybloke Danny opposite Justine Mitchell’s Laura in David Eldridge’s whip-smart Beginning or, seizing the opportunity in what was otherwise a slightly pedestrian affair, as the various, flawed, men-children in Nina Raine’s Stories. His John Jr is desperate from the off. Desperate for Daddy’s approval even as he hates the f*cker, wasting his education, running off to that London, marrying Mary who is “beneath” him, running back to the family home, seeking to extract his birthright through his “invention”, venting his frustration on his own family. The Ibsen-ian sins of the father are listed on the weak, vacillating, quasi-hysterical, son. It was heart-breaking, (well maybe I exaggerate a bit, it’s just a play), to watch his continued self-deception even as Mary was shuffling him out the door as he set off once again to fail to seek fame and fortune.
Justine Mitchell is another brilliant actor who invariably stands out in whatever she appears in. See Beginning above but also, for me, in Anne Washburn’s opus Shipwreck, in Vivienne Franzmann’s Bodies, in the Donmar’s Arturo Ui and in the NT’s Plough and the Stars.. Hell she can even make sense of Restoration comedy. There are multiple layers of bitter, ironic resentment in her Janet because of the way she has been treated by her father and the Victorian/Edwardian patriarchy but this is still a powerful, sensual woman as we see in the scenes with Joe Armstrong’s blunt Martin, whose loyalty to Rutherford, (which itself maybe be the false consciousness of the oppressed), is put to the test. The release when Janet “confesses” to the affair, and Rutherford boots her out, following hot on the heels of Mrs Henderson’s (Sally Rodgers) p*ssed up tirade against Rutherford for the way he treated her son, is immense.
Harry Hepple as the younger son Dick, a curate, a profession old Rutherford regards with sneering disdain, who determines to escape to another parish in Southport, has less to play with but also makes the most of it. Anjana Vasan, so, so good in An Adventure at the Bush, and with smaller roles in Rebecca’s Frecknall’s lauded production of Summer and Smoke and the Young Vic Life of Galileo, represents the future as Mary, exercising her agency and opinion from the start in marked contrast to Barbara Marten’s aunt Ann, who is almost parodic as a woman whose behaviour and thinking is entirely dictated by the archaic values of the “society” around her.
Marvellous play, perfectly realised by a director who trusts the author, with a cast, to borrow the literary cliche, at the peak of its powers. OK, so much like its characters, it can’t quite escape its Edwardian roots, three acts, unity of time, place and action, painstaking exposition, which requires commitment from you the audience but once drawn in there is enough in the climaxes in the story, and especially, the detail of the context, to keep the committed theatre nut as happy as a sandboy. (A phrase from the C18 I gather which refers to the lashed up lads who were paid in drink to deliver and spread sand on the floor of pubs to soak up the various forms of sh*t. A much vivid indictment of the evils of unregulated capitalism is tricky to imagine).
So if this sounds like your sort of thing then you shouldn’t hesitate, there’s plenty of tickets left. If it doesn’t probably best not to be brave here. The Tourist though, having missed the Orange Tree revival of Githa Sowerby’s other major play, The Stepmother, is now firmly on the look-out for a chance to rectify.
Time to update my London theatre recommendations. The last list from February 2019 turned out pretty well and a fair few from that are still available for selection. Now I know I go on a bit, and offer too many options, so I have taken the wider selection below, considered quality, certainty, availability (if they are sold out or won’t be extended they don’t appear) and chronology, and picked out the eight very best which should not be missed IHMO. The first four are tried, tested and, Lehman Trilogy excepted, aren’t too pricey. The final four are classy classics with top-drawer creatives in the saddle.
Here then are the selections from the various categories. Enjoy.
ON NOW AND STAMPED WITH THE TOURIST’S APPROVAL
Death of a Salesman – Young Vic. Along with Sweat the play of the year so far. Brilliant text, brilliant direction, brilliant cast. The best version I have ever seen. Of course this was always going to be the case so you should have listened to me months ago. Sold out now so the only way to see it will be if/when it transfers. My guess is, if it happens at all, it will end up on Broadway before coming back to London but don’t hold your breath.
Small Island – National Theatre Olivier. If you know the Andrea Levy epic novel about two couples in post war Jamaica and Britain, (or have watched the TV adaptation), you are in for a treat. If you don’t, well you still are. There are tickets left later in the run and, in terms of scale, stagecraft and story, you are definitely getting your money’s worth.
Rosmersholm – Duke of York’s Theatre. OK so it probably helps if you are Ibsen trained, and be prepared for the performance from the Stephen Toast school of acting from Tom Burke, but this is a superb production of an under-appreciated play with its finger on lots of pulses – moral, social, gender and political hypocrisies and contradictions . It isn’t jolly though. Plenty of tickets left but try to find a discount.
All My Sons – Old Vic. As with Death of a Salesman I told you so and it has now sold out. Probably Miller’s most moralising play and Bill Pullman’s performance is idiosyncratic for some, but the play is bullet-proof anyway. Will it transfer? Depends on the two Americans. My advice? Make sure next time a classic Miller is reunited with top-drawer cast and creative teams you just buy ahead.
Out of Water – Orange Tree Theatre. A beautifully written and uplifting three hander set in the North East about difference and acceptance. Playwright Zoe Cooper has a light and witty touch and the cast are excellent.
ANNA – National Theatre Dorfman. OK so this has already started but I haven’t seen a review yet. Ella Hickson, who is probably our most talented young playwright, and the Ringham brothers, sound maestros, combine in a tale set in East Berlin in 1968 which the audience will hear through headphones. Think Stasiland and Lives of Others. It is sold out so you will have to sniff out returns on the day.
BOOKING AHEAD AND STAMPED WITH THE TOURIST’S APPROVAL
Sweat – Gielgud Theatre. Transferring after the sell-out run at the Donmar. Lynn Nottage’s conscientiously researched drama about blue collar America is the best play I have seen this year, bar Death of a Salesman, and one of the best in in the last 5 years. Nothing tricksy here just really powerful theatre. The impact of de-industrialisation in the rust belt on three women friends and their families.
Equus – Trafalgar Studios. Just announced. Theatre Royal Stratford East’s superb production of Peter Shaffer’s classic play is transferring. You have to get your head around the concept, the relationship between a damaged young man with an erotic fixation on horses and his psychologist, but you won’t see more committed and exciting staging, direction and performances.
The Lehman Trilogy– Piccadilly Theatre. I told you to see it at the NT last year. If you ignored me, do not make the same mistake twice. An acting masterclass as the three leads take us through the history of the leaders of the eponymous investment bank and thereby the history of America since the mid C19.
Touching the Void – Duke of York’s Theatre. So the tale of Joe Simpson, the mountaineer left for dead by his partner who then survived against all the odds, is a obviously powerfully dramatic, hence his book and the subsequent, superb, film. But the way cast and creatives have then turned this into something that works in a theatre, with just a few props, some flashbacks and some inspired physicality, is marvellous. I saw this in Bristol before it went on tour and can thoroughly recommend it.
YET TO OPEN BUT YOU WOULD BE A MUG NOT TO TAKE THE PLUNGE
Blood Wedding– Young Vic. Lorca’s “not quite the happiest day of their lives” for a couple in rural Spain will be directed by Yael Farber (this should suit her style). The last time the Young Vic did Lorca it was an overwhelming Yerma. It will probably be atmospheric, stylised. angry and emotional.
Bitter Wheat– Garrick Theatre. World premiere of new play by David Mamet about Weinstein with John Malkovich in the lead. Woo hoo.
Noises Off – Lyric Hammersmith. The funniest play ever written returning to the theatre where it premiered in 1982. It may be theoretically possible to make a mess of Michael’s Frayn’s farce in two halves, seen from front of stage and then backstage, but I reckon it is unlikely with director Jeremy Herrin in charge. If you have never seen it you will be stunned by its technical construction and laughs per minute. And just £20 a ticket.
Appropriate – Donmar Warehouse. Branden Jacob-Jenkins take on the dysfunctional American family drama and confront their racist past finally comes to London. No messing with form as in his previous plays (An Octoroon, Gloria) but this young playwright has the knack.
A Very Expensive Poison – Old Vic. Lucy Prebble wrote Enron, one of the best plays of the last decade, about the financial crisis. She is finally back with this, based on the real life thriller book by heroic British journalist Luke Harding about the Russian spy poisoned in London. Espionage and power politics. Could be a stunner.
The Hunt – Almeida Theatre. Will probably help if you know the film with Mads Mikkelsen about a teacher who is wrongly accused of child sexual abuse in Denmark. It’s in because the Almeida and Rupert Goold the director rarely mess up.
The Doctor – Almeida Theatre. It is Robert Icke directing. It is Juliet Stevenson in the lead. It is at the Almeida. That’s all you need to know. Based on the classic play by Schnitzler about a doctor in early C20 Vienna destroyed by anti-semitism. Has a trial in it that will be meat and drink to Mr Icke. I am very excited by this.
RISKIER PUNTS TO BOOK AHEAD ON
Glass. Kill. Bluebeard – Royal Court Theatre. Three new short plays by Caryl Churchill. I’ve realised that, like Shakespeare, recommending productions by CC to non theatre obsessives doesn’t always pay off, (the Top Girls at the NT wasn’t perfect I admit), but she is still a genius.
Hansard – National Theatre. Not much to go on. A comedy about a Tory MP and his wife. But Simon Godwin is directing and best of all it has Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan in the lead. Obviously I am not the only one to realise that is a classy combination so it has sold out but they will likely conjure up more dates so look out and just buy blind.
Magic Goes Wrong – Vaudeville Theatre. If you are familiar with Mischief Theatre then this, created with magicians Penn and Teller, has to be seen. It will probably run for years but why not treat yourself for Christmas.
When the Crows Visit – Kiln Theatre. Ibsen’s Ghosts revamped and relocated to modern day India. The Kiln in Kilburn, along with the Arcola in Dalston and the Theatre Royal Stratford East, are all on a roll at the moment in terms of repertoire that isn’t too fringe-y but still diverse. This is the most intriguing offer.
Top Girls. Downstate. Small Island. Follies which I can vouch for from the first run. And now this Tartuffe. All superb. If the NT is still going through a dodgy patch artistically then f*ck knows how good it is going to be when it gets back on track. This punter for one is very happy. And having paid £15 for this, as well as Small Island, and just a few notes more for Downstate, combined this has to represent just about the best bullseye the Tourist has ever spent.
For those of you Londoners, (I accept that for those outside the capital the N in NT may be a source of frustration despite the NT Live and touring initiatives), who whinge about not being able to get to see the NT “sold-out” productions I say the following. Sign up. Watch the updates. Book early. And take a risk. There will always be a few hot playwrights or big name actor productions where the members will beat you to it, but generally you will be OK. Risk a few quid. Worst case if your busy social life means when the date looms you are positively FOMO’d then, for a couple of quid, you can get credit for next time. And, if it does turn out to be sh*te, think of it as a necessary donation to maintain society’s cultural fabric. Any one of these recent productions was still eminently, and cheaply, bookable just a few weeks in advance. If you wait for reviews and chase the big hits you’ll end up paying twice the price in some cramped West End mausoleum. Here endeth the lesson.
Until now I hadn’t seen a convincing adaptation of Tartuffe or, frankly, any of Moliere’s plays. Started too late in my learning and maybe just unlucky. Played with too much fidelity to the “original” conception and it’s just unfunny caricature. Depart too far from the central hypothesis of hypocrisy, especially religious, or cram to much in in a bid for relevance and it can become chaotic or risibly naive. Keith A Comedy?, Patrick Marmion’s take at the Arcola recently smacked of the latter. As for the recent RSC Tartuffe, no comment. Sounded interesting but just a bit too far for the Tourist to go to knacker his back again in the Swan.
For this version, at the time of booking, I didn’t know the cast and, in any event, had never see anything by our Tartuffe here, Dennis O’Hare. Translator/adaptor John Donnelly was also new to me. Forget actors. I can’t stress enough how important the role of the adaptor is to making ye olde theatre work for modern, attention deficit audiences. But, as I say, in this case, no form guide. So that just left director Blanche McIntyre as the only confirmed draw. That was enough however. Ms McIntyre was the canny brains behind the RSC’s 2017 Titus Andronicus with David Troughton in the lead and The Writer, Ella Hickson’s brilliant feminist discourse at the Almeida last year. Next up she will tackle Bartholomew Fair at the Sam Wanamaker.
What can I say? Result. John Donnelly and Blanche McIntyre have created a Tartuffe who genuinely appears to believe his own hype and an Orgon (Kevin Doyle) who desperately wants his sins expiated. He is a speculator who has made a fortune trading around some dodgy war time activity facilitated by the government. (Think big oil, Cheney and Iraq if you find this too hard to believe). He is holed up with family, and Tartuffe himself, in his hyper-designed Highgate palace, Robert Jones’s set offering a nod to French baroque routed through World of Interiors.
Dennis O’Hare’s Tartuffe comes with prayer beads, topknot, bizarre South American accent and compromised personal hygiene. His spiritual philosophising veers from trite to acute. His religion is eclectic but filled with Goop-y self-help, lifestyle, homilies. Kevin Doyle’s agitated Organ believes the rest of his family sees his family’s antipathy to Tartuffe’s wisdom as reflecting their selfish claims on him and his wealth. So far, so recognisable. The difference here is that our shaman Tartuffe might just be right rather than the pious Christian hypocrite of most interpretations. And Orgon might just be justified in ridding himself of his ill-gotten gains and the guilt that comes with it to try to live a simpler life, albeit steeped in nostalgia. And there is a hint of something more like love in their complex relationship. (Maybe the pink and green neon St Sebastian on the back wall had something to say about this?)
From this starting point Mr Donnelly builds a consistent thesis all the way through to the expeditious deus ex machina which concludes the business. Here Orgon is saved from Tartuffe’s disclosure because the government doesn’t want its illegal war-time activities disclosed. Tartuffe is still the vehicle for much comedy but his genuine belief in his mission shifts the focus of the play into more satirical territory, closer to Moliere’s original intention. The original was quickly banned, not because Louis XIV, (and the public by all accounts), didn’t love it but because the Church and Aristocracy couldn’t stomach the p*ss taking.
The rhyming couplets, at least until the end, are abandoned which allows the retributive message, the farce in the plot, the fine jokes (Spymonkey’s Toby Park was involved) and the characters, (with their roots in the stock characters of Roman comedy), to emerge with more than usual clarity. Money makes their worlds go around and Orgon is the ATM. Kitty Archer, (who stood out in her debut One for Sorrow at the Royal Court), as daughter Marianne is a spoilt brat, but painfully aware of it, as she debates the forced marriage to Tartuffe per Daddy’s demands, or pauperdom with posh “street poet” boyfriend Valere, (some cracking lines for Geoffrey Lumb – “rhyme is a bourgeois concept”). Susan Engel does a fine turn as Orgon’s dismissive mother Pernelle who even, at one point, starts to fall for Tartuffe’s logic. Olivia Williams as wife Elmire shines in the “seduction” scene, here showing the wrong done to women by being used as sexual pawns in male games. Hari Dhillon’s Cleante and Kathy Kiera Clarke as Dorinne both offer a knowing, though still selfish, take on the action. Enyi Okoronkwo’s doltish son Damis gets some good laughs out of being a few lines off the pace.
I can see why some might want their Tartuffe to be lighter and less didactic. See the pic above. More comedy less message. Tough. There’ll probably be the same bunch who can’t contemplate Shakespeare without doublets. The reason theatre lives is because it changes as we do. And Tartuffe is a classic because it can speak to all times. This certainly did.
If you know Andrea Levy’s Small Island either from the original 2004 book, (not me I confess), or the 2009 Two part BBC adaptation with script from Sarah Williams and Paula Milne and starring the inimitable Ruth Wilson and Naomie Harris then you will know roughly what to expect from Helen Edmundson’s adaptation directed by NT head honcho Rufus Norris. This is an epic social history, set in post-WWII Jamaica and London, and centred on the lives of two ordinary couples, or more specifically two, extraordinary, women, Hortense and Queenie.
It is a brilliant story, brilliantly told, but, even with the NT’s formidable financial and creative resources to hand, it was still an ambitious ask to bring it to life on the stage. Now I reckon Rufus Norris has been unfairly pilloried in some quarters during his stewardship at the NT. Not all the new commissions have come off but there have been some absolute belters as well. Keeping the progressive and conservative stakeholder congregations onside at the NT would test the patience of a saint, especially in these interesting times, and I reckon RN has had a pretty good stab at it. And a couple of the projects where he has taken the director’s helm himself, Everyman and Mosquitos, were superb. Yet for me he is at his best when pulling together multiple narratives and kaleidoscopic forms; as long as the writing on which any work is created is up to snuff and the stories he helps tell make an immediate emotional connection. London Road, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, The Amen Corner, Feast, (both of which I missed), Festen and, I gather his takes on Cabaret, all fit that bill. So I was pretty sure this would work and fill the Oliver stage with technicolour life again.
And it does. Superbly. We first meet Hortense (Leah Harvey) in the Jamaican school she teaches in alongside glamorous American Mrs Ryder (Amy Forrest). A hurricane is coming. Michael (CJ Beckford), the rebellious son of Mr Philip (Trevor Laird) and Miss Ma (Jacqueline Boatswain), who are also Hortense’s, very strict, stand-in parents, (she is the illegitimate daughter of Mr Philip’s affluent white cousin). arrives. Hortense loves Michael but he has eyes only for Mrs Ryder. Cue a brilliant set piece prologue, bravura lighting (Paul Anderson), sound (Ian Dickinson) and, especially, projection design from Jon Driscoll, taking us through the storm, interspersed with Michael and Hortense’s childhood, (not sure who played little M and H but blimey they are brave), and an explosive argument at the dinner table. In this Tempest-ian prologue it soon becomes clear we are in for an aural and visual treat thanks to these creatives in tandem with the sedulous stage and costume design of Katrina Lindsay, music of Benjamin Kwasi Burrell and movement of Coral Messam. Heaven knows how many hours they all put in but not was worth it.
This is worth the ticket price alone. Especially if, like the Tourist, you only pay £15. The proper reviews have come in and they are excellent. If Billers at the Guardian and DC at the Telegraph both say 5 stars then you would be a t*t to miss it. There are plenty of tickets left towards the end of the run from which to take your pick. With acting of this level and stories with this much passion I would happily have paid £75 for centre front stalls but trust me, with stagecraft of this quality and scale you’ll be fine in the cheap seats as well.
Now the characters do take a little time to fully come to life. The setting does dwarf the actors a little in the prologue and, in the preview I attended, the delivery of the dialogue initially lacked a bit of fizz. But when we move to England, the “mother country”, to meet Queenie (Aisling Loftus) and her awkward, repressed suitor, bank clerk Bernard (Andrew Rothney), and then track the progress of Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr), during the war as an airman and then when he returns after the war, with Hortense who has married him to realise here dream of escape, things really begin to crank up.
Andrea Levy’s story, replayed deftly by Helen Edmundson, is built on memorable episodes which together create an irresistible momentum topped, at the end of the first, long, half by the arrival of the Empire Windrush, and then in the shorter, more constrained second half, set in 1948, by the return of Bernard and the momentous decision which finally binds the two couples. Queenie’s date with Bernard in the cinema, her first encounter with Michael’s irresistible charm after he too arrives in GB to fight for Empire, Hortense mistaking Gilbert for Michael on first meeting, the ill-fated fight in Yorkshire, Hortense’s desperate betrayal of best friend Celia (Shiloh Coke). Queenie’s tender care for her traumatised father-in-law Arthur (David Fielder), the overt racism Gilbert and Hortense encounter, as postie and would-be teacher, (audience visibly outraged), and from Bernard after he returns. And many more. Each scene is expertly navigated and beautifully mounted.
Small Island is, of course, primarily about race and prejudice, and the journey that the protagonists take, both geographical and emotional. It reflects Andrea Levy’s own, mixed race heritage, and the legacy of Empire. In this adaptation though, and maybe just because of the brilliance of Leah Harvey as the proud, uptight, determined Hortense and Aisling Loftus as the openhearted, optimistic but tough Queenie, I was particularly drawn to the compromises the women had to make to carve out any sort of meaningful life for themselves. All the main characters have dreams that, in order to be realised need to confront unpalatable realities, but the two women, in their own, intertwined, ways have so much more to overcome. This, ultimately, is what makes them so sympathetic and the story itself so warm, uplifting and, dare I say, inspirational.
Without the somewhat syrupy narration, and with the exuberant, (even in some of the darker passages), innovation which was required to bring each scene to life, this stage version is more moving and satisfying than the TV version. It is around three hours, even without the interval, but it never feels like it and, though I can’t be sure not having read the book, it seems to offer a more than faithful distillation of Ms Levy’s intention. Unfortunately she passed away in February before the play opened so we can’t be sure but she was apparently fully signed up to director and adaptor’s vision . The programme contains an extract from her 2014 essay “Back To My Own Country”. Everyone should read it.
“We are here because you were there.” I was particularly struck by this quote from Ambalavaner Sivanandan, prime mover in the Institute of Race Relations, highlighted in the programme notes from Leah Cowan. Remember everyone who came to Britain from Jamaica and elsewhere was a British citizen. Same rights as my grandad. Who just happened to be, I knew even as a child brought up in an entirely white monoculture, an ugly, visceral racist. He’s long gone. Yet it seems the open abuse he habitually lobbed at his black neighbours still hasn’t.
Small Island with bowl you over as a piece of theatre, make you laugh and maybe even cry, but it should also make you think long and hard about our shared history. Do go.
(As an aside can I beg Naomie Harris, Hortense in the TV adaptation, to return to the London stage. You will know her from her film roles as Eve Moneypenny in the last few Bonds or Moonlight, amongst others. I think the last time she was in the theatre was in Danny Boyle’s amazing sounding Frankenstein which I never got to see. Come to think of it it would be good to see Mr Boyle’s boundless imagination let loose again on the Olivier stage. He would fill it I am sure. As for Ruth Wilson, Queenie in the TV Small Island, anyone who saw her magic in Ivo van Hove/Patrick Marber’s Hedda Gabler will be counting the days to her UK stage return).
Sweat, Shipwreck and now Downstate. Some of the best new plays I have seen this year have come from established US playwrights. Whilst Brits can usually be relied upon to come up with more innovative theatre in terms of subject and form, (well maybe Shipwreck fits that bill), if you want talky, gritty, politicised, soundly structured drama then the American heavyweights fit the bill. I guess it reflects their history, we are currently being treated to a Miller-fest in London, one of the greats, and, socially, culturally and political, the US theatre community has much to comment on right now.
We have more to look forward to later in the year with the world premiere of David Mamet’s latest play Bitter Wheat, a “farce” inspired by the Weinstein scandal, Appropriate, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s take on the classic American family drama at the Donmar, Fairview at the Young Vic, the Pulitzer Prize winner from Jackie Sibblies Drury and The Starry Messenger from Kenneth Lonergan. Judging from the reviews in the US, (they do go on a bit those Broadway critics – mind you, pot, kettle, black), they are all well worth seeing. And maybe later in the year, or next year, we have Antipodes from the mighty Annie Baker to look forward to at the NT.
Now Bruce Norris is most renowned for his play Clybourne Park from 2010, a kind of sequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun from 1959, and The Low Road from 2013, which is pretty much at the top of my “you f*ckwit, how did you manage to miss that” list since its premiere at the Royal Court with a cast to die for. Property, race, the contradictions of capitalism, the marginalised. These are the beefy concerns of Mr Norris and many of his peers. And Mr Norris has an advantage in that his work is usually brought to life by the world famous, (well in certain circles), Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.
Downstate premiered at Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre last year but, having been jointly commissioned by the NT, the company, including our own Cecilia Noble and Aimee Lou Wood, has been preserved for the London premiere. And it shows. This is ensemble acting at its best, and, I assume, the weeks of performance have polished up Mr Norris’s already sparkling dialogue to the jewel we see here. Downstate is not an easy subject to dramatise. Four paedophiles, released from prison but restricted in terms of movement (electronic tags and restriction zones), money, jobs and access to technology by state laws, are sharing a house in downstate Illinois overseen by weary police probation officer Ivy (Cecilia Noble). The elderly Fred (Francis Guinan) is wheelchair bound and the play starts with him listening to the testimony of one of his two victims, Andy (Tim Hopper) accompanied by his wife Em, (Matilda Ziegler). Andy, fresh from a survivors group, is plainly damaged and angry and determined to hear Fred acknowledge the abuse. Fred, who in all respects appears a kindly, almost naive old man, admits the crime but more as a matter of fact than remorse.
Fred is cared for by Dee (K Todd Freeman), a witty, intelligent and acerbic gay man, who still loves the young man, pointedly a Lost Boy in a production of Peter Pan, who was his evident victim. Gio (Glen Davies) is a garrulous younger man who refuses to accept he committed an offence, having had sex with young woman who “lied” about her age and, in breach of the conditions which govern his freedom, has befriended his young co-worker, bolshie Effie (Aimee Lou Wood) . The quartet is completed by Hispanic American Felix (Eddie Torres), who is barred from any contact with his family having abused one of his daughters. Like Gio, he has turned to religion, to atone and deflect.
Bruce Norris has thus created a realistic situation, (the programme offers some vital insights into the way sex offenders are treated in the US after they have nominally served their sentences), and four believable characters who cover the spectrum in terms of offences and the way in which they accept and acknowledge their actions. The play highlights the way in which society seeks to punish and secure revenge for these crimes as well as the debilitating impact on these men of the need to secure “protection” for any future potential recidivism. Punishing offenders for crimes that they have yet to commit is what makes sex offenders a special category of criminal. Which apparently doesn’t work anyway.
The brilliance of Mr Norris’s writing is that, without in any way lessening the impact of the suffering of the victims, Andy continues to play a central, if ambiguous, role throughout, we are asked to see them as sympathetic individuals, not monsters, and to listen to their accounts of what they did and who they are. They all see themselves in some way as victims. The uneasy fact is we start to understand, if never accept, why they would believe this and persist with the self-pity. Some of the bait and switches, and the speechifying, is a little mechanical, and I have still to make up my mind about the ending, but this is forgivable given the drama and dimensionality that it creates. It is not a comfortable watch but it grips from start to finish, and, if ultimately the task of a great playwright is to make you grapple with complex moral issues, without providing definitive answers, whilst still telling a story, then Mr Norris has delivered. It pokes and provokes, with no little humour, and even manages to generate audible audience gasps. That makes it a great play.
Todd Rosenthal’s set, Clint Ramos’s costumes, Adam Silverman’s lighting and Carolyn Downing’s sound, are note perfect. We are in the house with the characters. Pam McKinnon, who is the AD of the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, is a long time collaborator with Bruce Norris. It shows. The rhythm here is well nigh perfect. And the cast is, as I said, superb. Normally when I say this it actually means one or two members didn’t quite bring the A game that most of their colleagues did. Not here though. Even so, if I had to pick out one performance, it would be K Todd Freeman’s Dee. It is he who has to say most of the unsayable.
I would be surprised if, like Clybourne Park, this doesn’t quickly become a staple, and, whilst I find it hard to believe a future production could match this, it is a play you must see. If only to reflect on how easy it would be to fail when dramatising these issues, (Lucy Prebble has fortunately gone on to bigger and better things since her debut The Sugar Syndrome which addressed a similar subject). Mr Norris is a brave writer, like many of the peers mentioned above. I look forward to seeing more of his work.
OK. So I might have oversold this one. It is still Caryl Churchill. With that extraordinary opening act. And that carefully calibrated feminist message, as relevant now as it was when it first appeared in 1982, of how to balance “success” in work and as a mother. The argument between collective and individualistic strands of feminism. To ape the patriarchal norms or to reject them.
But as an introduction to the greatest living playwright in the English language? Maybe this wasn’t the production. So profuse apologies to those most faithful of the Tourist’s recommendation followers, BUD and KCK, who came along. And to the most long suffering of all, in so many ways, the SO, whose previous CC exposure was the brilliant (to me), but admittedly knotty and OTT, production of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire on this very stage in 2015. I hope my chums could see where I was coming from even as the flaws in the production became apparent.
Not that these flaws were substantial. The opening scene here has a cast to die for, Siobhan Redmond as the indomitable Isabella Bird, Amanda Lawrence as the ebullient Pope Joan, Wendy Kweh as the enigmatic Lady Nijo, Ashley McGuire as the laconic Dull Gret and Lucy Ellinson as the most obviously misused Patient Griselda. The way CC takes Marlene’s drunken dinner party celebration and transforms it into a confessional which explosively, hilariously and movingly transcribes the fate of women, real and fictional, across time and geography, and specifically the way the patriarchy determines their roles as mothers, is still, for me about the most riveting half hour of theatre I have ever seen. Especially when the technical challenges of the multiple, simultaneous, conversations are, as here, perfectly realised, not to say the getting pissed part. And all presided over by the dauntless Marlene about to take the top job at the Top Girls employment agency. Katherine Kingsley, who you will probably know best from her musical theatre roles, initially locates Marlene firmly in the 1980’s Thatcherite, “ballsy”, power woman mode. To watch her equivocation, and Suffolk accent, emerge in the later scenes is a measure of just how good a performance this is.
The second scene, (here the usual order is shuffled a little), sees stage debutant Liv Hill, (Three Girls, on the telly, just watch it – though for my money Ria Zmitrowicz is actually the best of the trio of talent on display), initially at least, convincing as the immature Angie, sharing her angst with younger chum Kit (Ashna Rabheru). The two actors are confined to a small box room stage right as the technicians crack on, quietly, with transforming the space behind.
Into ….. the Top Girls agency. Which is where the full glory of the period detail of Ian MacNeil’s set and Merle Hansel’s costumes, (so superb for the dinner party), are revealed. And which also highlights one of those modest flaws is the production. By anchoring the look of the play so firmly in the year when it was written it encouraged the audience to do the same. The universality of the messages were diluted. Those of us who are old enough to recall the period, (all the Tourist’s party I am afraid), were drawn into thinking about the archetypes and behaviour of the period rather than the wider issues examined in the play, and I suspect you younger folk will have been affected more by the story here than its implications.
For it is, especially as we turn into Scene 4, and the not so big reveal, a mightily powerful piece of drama, especially when actors of the calibre of Ms Kingsley, and Lucy Black as her sister Joyce, are charged with delivering CC’s brilliant text. I don’t suppose I will ever tire of the thrill of listening to Ms Churchill’s dialogue. Complex and ambiguous ideas, observations and dilemmas framed in entirely natural dialogue, (even sometimes when how it is framed is formally inventive or even, frankly, a bit weird). There is so much dialectic revealed in Marlene and Joyce’s final argument that it is hard to keep up and yet it also sounds and feels exactly like the kind of set-to that any sisters might have had, at least in the modern world, about family, choices, dreams and disappointments, as well as politics. Family and/or career. Collective and/or individualistic feminism. All in less than half an hour.
And yet, as many critics have observed, this production, because the NT could, by not having actors double up from the first scene into the office scene, loses much of its resonance. CC didn’t specify doubling. That is just the way it has generally been done, a cast of seven for the simple reason of cost. But it certainly, at least when I have seen the play before, has far greater impact as the women that emerge from the interviews, Jeanine, who just want to travel and be with her husband, Louise, who has devoted her life to her job but still watched men promoted over her, and Shona forced to exaggerate her experience, as well as Mrs Kidd, who comes to plead for husband Howard who had expected to get the job Marlene has secured. This pivotal scene loses some impact because of the introduction of new faces, (the SO observed that she was expecting the dinner party guests to reappear in new guises and she has never seen Top Girls before), and maybe because, in an attempt to fill the Lyttleton stage, there is a fair bit of superfluous movement and furniture in this agency scene.
Director Lyndsey Turner, unsurprisingly given her experience in reviving Caryl Churchill’s work, pretty much nails the words, from Marlene’s initial instructions to the waitresses at the restaurant, (of course they are women), through to Angie’s final, plaintive, cries for her Mum at the end. This is such a rich play, just read it, and, with a cast of this distinction, the words can’t help but leap from the page. It is just that the look and feel of the production, even with the solid contributions of Jack Knowles (lighting) and Christopher Shutt (sound), didn’t quite work for me. Still to watch 18 women, (many of whom, in the “lesser” roles, were new to me), line up across the stage at the curtain call was pretty awesome. I doubt I will see that again.
I don’t doubt though that I will get another opportunity to see Top Girls. The programme lists 25 English language productions since the Royal Court premiere. With 6 last year alone, (though its been 8 years since the last major revival in the UK from Out of Joint).
That’s the thing with Caryl Churchill. She changes the game whilst being ahead of it.