Two Trains Running at the Royal and Derngate review ***

Two Trains Running

Royal and Derngate Northampton, 12th September 2019

Another instalment in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle though, four in, the Tourist still has some way to go. Two Trains Running premiered in 1990 and is set in the turbulent 1960s – remember each of the ten play series covers one of the decades of the C20 and all bar one (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) are set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh.

All the action in TTR, well words really, for August Wilson’s plays prize dialogue and character over plot, both their strength and their weakness, takes place in 1969 in the neighbourhood diner owned and run by Memphis Lee (Andrew French). The 1960’s saw the economic decline of the Hill District, once a byword for prosperity and cultural relevance in Black America, accelerate, prompting intervention from the Pittsburgh Urban Development Authority. Vast swathes of the neighbourhood were demolished to be replaced by a white elephant Civic Arena and failed public housing projects. Many residents were displaced and the redevelopment became an object lesson in how not to do “urban renewal“. Memphis’s business has seen better days but now he is holding out for the price he thinks it is worth from the City authorities, not just for the money but also to take a stand for the overlooked and disparaged community. He dreams of returning to his Southern roots from where he and so many others were compelled to escape in earlier, darker, decades. Frankie Bradshaw’s set captures this transition with the beautifully detailed diner sporting a hole in its roof above which is suspended a massive wrecking ball.

Memphis is assisted by cook and waitress Risa (Anita-Joy Uwajeh) who constantly has to push back against her boss’s criticism and the sexist comments and assumptions of the regulars. These include the assured West (Geoff Aymer), the local undertaker whose business is thriving, hustler Wolf (Ray Emmet Brown), who uses the diner’s phone to run a numbers racket, and the stoic Holloway, an unemployed painter and decorator, (Leon Herbert). Most poignant though is Hambone, (the excellent Derek Ezenagu), brought low by his obsession with getting fairly paid by the white butcher customer for work he did twenty years ago. The outside world relentlessly encroaches upon the lives of the company, first when the animated ex-con Sterling (Michael Salami) returns to the Hill looking for work and for Risa, and as the rallies, protesting racial injustice, increase in intensity.

Impossible to fault all the performances or the careful direction of Nancy Medina, who was similarly adept with Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman at the Young Vic and, I gather, Inua Ellams’s The Half God of Rainfall at the Kiln. Easy to see why she has won both the Peter Hall Directors Award and the Genesis Future Director Award. The lighting and sound design from other young talents Amy Mae and Ed Lewis was equally accomplished. Which means the somewhat discursive nature of events of stage is down to August Wilson alone. That is not to say that the lyrical dialogue, what and how the characters say, isn’t pitch perfect. Just that there is rather to much of it. Too many layers if you will. This is true of the other plays in the cycle I believe but here the contrast of individual reversals with societal transformation is just a little too carefully wrought.

As a production it matches the high standards previously set by English Touring Theatre. As a play maybe not quite as convincing as the others in the cycle I have seen. Still very keen to see further instalments however and given the resonance of the parts that AW wrote for black actors I expect I won’t be waiting too much longer for just such an opportunity.

The Pope at the Royal and Derngate review ****

The Pope

Royal and Derngate Theatre Northampton, 13th June 2019

I suspect Kiwi Anthony McCarten has trousered a few quid in the last fewyears. What with writing the screenplay for The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody. But he has returned to his roots with this play, The Pope. Well maybe not exactly since this is actually going to end up as a film, released later this year, entitled Two Popes,(which to be fair is a more literally correct title), and starring Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins. Whether these two titans of the stage and screen will match their two peers on show here in Northampton will likely be moot but I can report that this is a cracking story which, whilst packing a powerful dramatic punch, will likely benefit from the expanded breadth and location that film can bring.

Particularly in the first half of the story. The Pope takes the real life “abdication” of Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, (Anton Lesser) who is then succeeded by the current Pope Francis, Jorge Bergoglio, (Nicholas Woodeson), to contrast the conservative and liberal theological and practical viewpoints in the Catholic Church. When the two meet, after PBXVI summons PF to Rome to tell him of his intention, we get a good old fashioned dualistic debate which, in the hands of AL and and NW is absolutely gripping. In the first half however, when we get to see how each of them “got to where they are now” practically and philosophically, each with the help of a nun sidekick, the theatre is a good bit clunkier.

Even so it is pretty easy to see why Mr McCarten is such a good writer for the screen. There is, once we are into the swing of things, some sparkling dialogue and some properly powerful ding-dong. You don’t have to be a student of the Catholic Church or of religion generally to get the arguments. Of course it helps that Ratzinger is a buttoned up German, brought up in Nazi Germany, and a stickler for tradition, God’s Rottweiler as he was dubbed. He is devoted to Mozart, cabaret and some dog based soap opera (!). Bergoglio in contrast was a football loving, tango dancing Argentinian whose liberation theology was forged during the very dark days of the junta. He has a playful sense of humour, likes The Beatles and, I reckon, an eye for the ladies. And he becomes the first Jesuit Pope.

The regular reader of this blog will know that the Tourist takes a very dim view of organised religion in all its forms, (though he is somewhat hypocritically a massive fan of Christian art and architecture). And those Catholics seem to still be so f*cked up about sex. And cannot seem to confront the stain of abuse. All this angst though provides the ruminative material for Mr McCarten’s thoroughly researched, though speculative, text. The way that the contrasts between the two also highlight their similarities, such that antagonism and suspicion eventually resolves into mutual respect for each other and the bedrock of their shared faith, is a tale as old as the hills. After all it is Ratzinger who wants to break with 700 years of tradition and resign rather than die with his boots on in the Vatican.

Of course whilst Mr McCarten has the knack of drawing you in and pumping you up, he can’t resist, as those familiar with the films above will know, turning the emotional hyperbole dial up to 11. But whilst this occasionally grates it is easily forgiven especially when delivered by two actors of this calibre. I have no idea how Nicholas Woodeson has plotted his career through stage and screen. Maybe he just does what ever he fancies. But he is always bang on the money. Anton Lesser may have more of a classical bent, and I have some very fond early memories of him on the RSC stage, but he is similarly brilliant in whatever he does. It was genuinely thrilling to see him back in a theatre. Watching the two of them knock seven bells out of each other philosophically and then make up in some sort of liturgical bromance was delicious. And all this for less than a tenner.

Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins will have their work cut out to top this even if one might argue they are even bigger draws. (For my money Anton Lesser and Jonathan Pryce, along with Diana Rigg, Charles Dance and Stephen Dillane, were the very best of the illustrious bunch that showed the way to the newbies in GOT).

Even with these two leads and peppy script the play needed direction though and once again James Dacre was the man for the job. I guess having Paul Dace as your Dad, going to Eton, then Cambridge, and an intensive spell in US theatre, was never going to be a recipe for doubt or apprehension but you still have to admire the young man’s ambition. He may have inherited a space and a legacy from previous AD Laurie Sansom but even so it is easy to see why the R&D continues to scoop regional theatre awards. It might not be too much of a trek for the Tourist from the Smoke to Northampton but for theatre of this quality he would happily sit on a train for hours. Just take this 2019 Made in Northampton season. So far Our Lady of Kibeho (en route to Theatre Royal Straford), the terrific adaptation of The Remains of the Day., a belting Ghosts, Headlong’s Richard III with Tom Mothersdale. Just opening Complicite’s The Last of the Pelican Daughters. To come August Wilson’s Two Trains Running and A View From The Bridge to add to the R&D’s Miller stable. I assume the R&D makes a decent enough turn from all the touring of its productions but I strongly recommend if Northampton is anywhere near you you come join us old folk who still dominate and swell the coffers further.

Whilst the two female supporting roles of Sister Brigitta and Sister Sophia largely serve as devices to illuminate the Popes’ back stories Faith Alabi and Lynsey Beauchamp are as committed as the leads. And no expense has been spared on the elegant set and costumes courtesy of Jonathan Fensom, the lighting and sound designs of Charles Balfour and David Gregory respectively and even the composition from Anne Dudley and the video from Duncan McLean. There is nothing that would look out of place here on St Martins Lane. Who knows maybe after the film, (and the book, did I mention that?), that is precisely where it well end up.