Directors’ Festival at the Orange Tree Theatre 2018 review

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Directors’ Festival 2018

Katie Johnstone ****

Precious Little Talent ****

In the Night-Time (Before the Sun Rises) ****

Right it was a brilliant idea last year. It was a brilliant idea this year. And it will be a brilliant idea next year (Directors’ Festival at the Orange Tree Theatre review). As part of their MA’s at the nearby St Mary’s University, (in close conjunction with the OT itself), let three talented young directors loose on some superb short contemporary plays written by three equally talented young playwrights. Let us la-di-dah local culture vultures and a bunch of the directors’ fellow students and mates enjoy the results. And charge just a few quid for the proceeds. The Orange Tree now is getting close to Almeida-like levels of consistency, it is a superb space to see intimate two and three handers like these and the works, whether new, recent or revival, are so well chosen that you wonder why others can’t seem to beat them to the punch.

Anyway here was a new play (Katie Johnstone) from the prolific pen of Luke Barnes who writes for and about you young-uns, a revival of the second published play from the brilliant Ella Hickson (Precious Little Talent), she of Oil and The Writer fame, written in 2012, and a production of Nina Segal’s first play (In the Night-Time) which premiered at the Gate in 2016. Unsurprisingly these are all very fine works. Perhaps also unsurprisingly given the quality of last years’ productions they are all amazingly well directed by, respectively, Samson Hawkins, Dominique Chapman and Evangeline Cullingworth. I can’t be sure, in the absence of scripts, just how much they had to work with in terms of the look, feel and pace of each of the plays but I have to say, in every case, these were as inventive and as dramatic solutions to the limitations that the OT space imposes that I could wish to see, or indeed have seen.

Samson Hawkins is AD of his own company, tomfool, and assisted on the recent OT production of Romeo and Juliet and appears to be joining the team at the Oxford Playhouse. Dominique Chapman assisted on Joe Whtie’s excellent debut play at the OT, Mayfly (Mayfly at the Orange Tree Theatre review *****) and is freelance and works at the Globe. Evangeline Cullingworth assisted on Humble Boy and is associated with the Royal Court and the Gate. On the strength of these three shows I expect them all to go far. They all worked with set designer Eleanor Bull and OT lighting and sound regulars Stuart Burgess and Anna Clock to deliver equally dynamic productions and to allow their talented casts to shine.

I am not sure if this was intended but it seemed to me that all three plays were linked in that they all dealt with the crushing of youthful dreams in one way or another.

The eponymous Katie Johnstone is determined not to end up stacking shelves in Tesco alongside Mum and her bessie, and taking up with any old local lad. She wants to get to college and start her own business. Exams, and not knowing what sort of business, are no barrier to her dreams. In the end she can’t escape but Georgia May Hughes, on her main stage debut, shows us a feisty and powerful young woman whose humanity shows through even when her hopes and dreams are dashed. Kristin Atherton who caught my eye in the RSC Rome season is very good as Mum and friend Janet and Reuben Johnson also shines as all the male characters and, especially, as the fox, a recurring and intelligently used symbolic presence. There is a real energy to the production and it packs a lot into just over an hour.

Precious Little Talent tells the story of fervent young American student Sam and somewhat mordant British expat Joey meeting in New York in 2008 just after the election of Obama. This is a night to remember for both of them though their memories don’t quite coincide it transpires. We see that Sam also helps look after his neighbour George who has dementia. It turns out that George is Joey’s Dad. Sam’s crush on Joey never fades and he comes to London to try to persuade her to come back to New York and give up on her going-nowhere jobs and life. There’s a lot more to it than that, as you might expect from the pen of Ella Hickson, as it explores the relationships between each of the three principals, contrasting Sam’s optimism with Joey’s disillusionment, the fracturing of the father/daughter bond and the frustrations of George’s illness. Not a line is wasted and Matt Jessup and Rebecca Collingwood are outstanding as the two young’ers with Simon Shepherd, (you will know him off the telly), lending George an air of deliberate pathos.

Nina Segal’s In the Night-Time is a more experimental play which follows one young couple’s sleepless night with their newborn baby. This is the jumping off point for a fantasia of words and movement telling the story of their relationship to this point, their hopes, fears, dreams, frustrations, all amplified by their extreme tiredness and centred on the child they have together brought into the world.. It is far from naturalistic but still manage to convey just how scary those first few days are with baby number one, (though the SO and MSMM would both fairly point out that I was f*ck all use all those years ago). Ms Cullingworth asks a lot of her actors and Man (Ziggy Heath) and, especially, Woman (Anna Leong Brophy) don’t hold back, pulling us, the audience, into their story. There is also some nifty work from the stage management team pushing prop after prop through the centre staged cot. It didn’t all come off but when it worked it packed a powerful emotional and dramatic punch.

I reckon all three of these productions would merit a further outing and I intend to watch the future careers of these directors, and the less experienced cast members here, with close interest. Put this in your diary for next year. You won’t regret it.

Mayfly at the Orange Tree Theatre review *****

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Mayfly

Orange Tree Theatre, 21st May 2018

A play set in a rural location about a family processing grief. Not a million miles away from the not entirely successful Nightfall at the Bridge Theatre I hear you clamour. (Nightfall at the Bridge Theatre review ***). Well yes after a fashion. Joe White’s debut play though benefits, unlike Nightfall, from its location, in the round in the intimate OT space, and because its writing is tighter, funnier and more affecting. This may not be the most innovative play in terms of form and subject that you will ever see but it is a mightily polished effort which marks Joe White out as another talent to add to the list of young British playwrights.

Harry, (a disarmingly genuine performance from Irfan Shamji), works in a rural pub that is closing down. He encounters the plainly damaged pig farmer Ben (Simon Scardifield) trying to take his own life in the river. It is a Sunday in early May in Shropshire. (There are allusions to Housman, Auden and even Breughel through the play. Mr White clearly knows his elegiac English, and Flemish, onions). Loops, played superbly by Evelyn Hoskins, “hard as fuck me”, remembers Harry from some school cadet trip and means to make him her boyfriend. Cat, played by Niky Wardley, completing the quartet of marvellous actors, is lonely and makes an embarrassing pass at Harry in the pub. We soon see that Ben and Cats marriage is stressed to breaking point and immature daughter Loops is trapped. Their pain stems from the death of their young lad, Adam, son and brother. Harry gets sucked in when he comes to eat with them. He too is grieving. Some, limited, catharsis follows. The End.

All in one day. Like the life of the mayfly. The play works because Mr White is neither afraid of, nor forces through, the emotional core at the heart of his story and because it is very funny, more so than many comedies you might see. The naturalistic lilt of the character’s speech is expertly captured but there is still room for telling metaphor. The crumbling of the social and economic fabric in rural areas lurks in the background mirroring the household’s breakdown. When the pub goes all that will remain will be a Spar and a betting shop.

Mayfly is sympathetically directed here by Guy Jones, one of Paul Miller’s proteges at the OT, and the set from Cecile Tremolieres is inventive, (as it was for Suzy Storck at the Gate last year). I’d be surprised if this play doesn’t pop up again elsewhere and I certainly recommend tracking Mr White’s career. The plot here is just occasionally derivative. With a bigger and more complex idea I reckon he might surprise, big time.

An Oak Tree the Orange Tree Theatre review ****

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An Oak Tree

Orange Tree Theatre, 13th May 2018

Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree has been on my theatrical wish list for a little while now. First performed in 2005 at the Edinburgh Fringe it was, I understand, inspired by Michael Craig-Martin’s, (he of the day-glo technology), seminal work of conceptual art of the same name (see above) which “explains” why a glass of water balanced on a shelf is, in fact, an oak tree. Absolutely guaranteed to make the philistine’s blood boil. As so, to some extent, would Tim Crouch’s best known play.

Caryl Churchill no less described the play as “about theatre, a magic trick, a laugh and a vivid experience of grief, and it spoils you for a while for other plays”. Turns out that, for once, Ms Churchill maybe over-egging it a tad but it is still a fascinating work. Mr Crouch plays a stage hypnotist, complete with shiny waistcoat and cheap patter, whose act is crumbling, we discover, following a road accident which led to the death of a young girl (or maybe not). The other actor plays the father of the girl, Andy, who he encounters at one of his shows. The play then is ostensibly about guilt and grief, and how we process these emotions, a theatrical staple which has become something of a specialism at the OT.

But there’s a twist. The actor playing Andy, here Kate Hardie, hasn’t seen the play or the script before. Which leaves her being guided, like hypnosis, with a mixture of spoken and whispered instructions, headphones and script in hand, by Tim Crouch, in and out or character. It takes time for us, and her, to believe in Andy, though “he’ always remains slightly, and rightly, bewildered. Mr Crouch, on top of his “directing” duties also plays a character putting on an act, hypnotising an audience no less, and imagining an audience in parallel with us the real audience. We are asked to accept at various points that a chair is the dead child and that the grieving father in turns believes that an oak tree, (actually a tree which is part of the OT set for other current productions just in case this wasn’t all meta enough), is in fact his dead daughter, not just her spirit nor a symbol. It really is to him. This is analogous to the explanation of the Craig-Martin art work which informed the play. Indeed Mr Crouch exits the auditorium to fetch a glass of water at one point.

The wonder is that, as Mr Crouch piles on the deconstruction in his essay on performative language, counterpointing art and life, representation and reality, absence and presence, the artifice and magic of theatre, we actually end up caring about these two characters because of, and not in spite of, the form. No dry, academic exercise but a real play, albeit one with many conceptual layers through its 70 minutes.

You need to see it. And I need to see more of this magician’s work.

 

 

 

 

Humble Boy at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

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Humble Boy

Orange Tree Theatre, 11th April 2018

Sometimes it can be tricky to put your finger on exactly why a play doesn’t quite work for you. Other times it is easy. This was one of the latter. For me, writer Charlotte Jones lavishes so much attention on shoehorning in all her ideas, themes and research, and emphasising the foibles of character, that she forgets to create a worthwhile story. Not a problem if the play were formally inventive but the set-up here could hardly be more unremarkable.

Felix Humble is a chubby, geeky astro-physicist man-child prone to warbling on about the theory of everything, M theory, string theory, event horizons and the like. Not by way of explanation, more like the kind of pseud who writes a blog on culture without really knowing what he is talking about. Amateur entomologist Daddy has died and Felix comes home to Mummy, Flora, who has got rid of Daddy’s bees and lacks the maternal touch. There is a gardener, (guess who that is), lurking in the flowerbeds who is prone to profundity and knows all the Latin names. Mummy has taken up with a yokel made good, George Pye, who owns a coach company, likes a drink and is the antithesis of Daddy. Mummy has a friend Mercy, to bully, and provide extra comic relief. George has a daughter, Rosie, that Felix improbably impregnated before he took off to the dreaming spires. Felix, it turns out, is a Daddy too. Mummy and Felix acidly snipe, Felix and George spar, Rosie tells Felix to man up. Mercy bites back. There is an embarrassing Ayckbournish dinner party. Mummy and Felix, sort of reconcile. Dady’s ghost exits.

What with the bees, the epigrams, the Hamlet references, the “science-y” stuff, the pithy lines, the cod-psychology, it reeks of “cleverness”. And that is probably what did for me. The performances are fine, especially Jonathan Broadbent as Felix and Belinda Lang as Flora, though Paul Bradley as George, Rebekah Hinds as Rosie, and especially Christopher Ravenscroft as Jim, have a few uncomfortable lines to hurdle over. Best of all though was Selina Cadell’s Mercy mostly I think because her comedy and pathos was more rooted in sympathy than intellect. Simon Daw’s garden design uses every available millimetre of the OT stage, and Paul Miller’s direction, is, as always, on the money in terms of pacing.

i am just not sure this is as good a play as it, and others, think it is. Nothing wrong with taking Hamlet as your starting point, it is the greatest play ever written after all, but then I would have liked some surprises. Dramatic surprises, not guess the allusion. Mummy as queen bee, Flora having a bee named after her, Felix trying to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable, the name Humble. And many, many more.

It won awards when premiered at the NT in 2001 with Simon Russell Beale and Diana Rigg in the lead roles and I can see why the luvvies loved it. There are some funny lines, even if you can see them coming, and the dialogue moves apace, even when the clunky disclosures come into play. There is a convincing prosthetic surprise and a sharp sight gag. The two main characters though eventually become irritating and the play collapses inward, black hole like, into its conceited core.

Waspish yes. Stinging no.

A (flawed) guide to London theatres

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When I was a young teenager I took to making up some very odd games. I wasn’t lonely, with a handful of very good friends as I remember, and my very earliest encounters with the ladies were amongst my most successful, since my true nature, an awkward mix of the needy and the misanthropic, had yet to be revealed. I was something of a swot, what you might call bookish and then, as now, was sometimes a little confused by what others did or said in social situations. But definitely not on any sort of spectrum I reckon, beyond that of the awkward 16 year old lad with lank, long hair, (despite the advent of punk), robust flares, bumfluff and the ability to make a pint of lager last a whole evening.

But enacting an entire Subbuteo World Cup, sixteen teams, (these were the days when FIFA could just about control its financial appetites – if you want to see what the future, actually present, of human “governance” looks like, like no further than the masters of the beautiful game), then quarters, semis and a final. All stats carefully recorded in a special notebook. All done on my own. That’s right. I played with myself, (no titters at the back please). Which meant that, whilst pretending to myself that this was an entirely objective exercise exercise, I got to see England play Holland in the final. England because that’s the fiction that is most deep-rooted in my psychology. But Holland won. Retribution for the injustice meted outed in the “real” World Cup final in 1974, (and, though I did not know it, but somehow feared it, again in 1978), and an early indication of my rabid pro-Europeanism.

Sounds a bit weird right. Except that PlayStations hadn’t been invented. So I like to think of myself as an early adopter, not a sad adolescent.

Anyway responsibility, albeit of a most shrunken kind, has meant I have had to let go of such childish things but I still like a good list, dictated by me, which purports to be based on “facts” but is in fact nothing of the kind. Though, as you know, (tautology alert), there are no such things as facts, only theories yet to be unproven, and “information” is mediated, and mutilated, by both provider and consumer. Do not believe anything, least of all if it comes out of your own head. Proud to be a sceptic.

So you can safely ignore what follows.

Since theatre is my current passion, I thought I would tot up the ratings that I had given the entertainments I had enjoyed over the past three years, derive some averages, adjust for frequencies and thereby show what London theatres reliably put on the best work. Thereby confirming my own biases, with my own biased ratings, mashed through a filter of spurious statistical analysis. Just the kind of woeful shite that organisations, opinion formers and your governors do everyday apparently on your behalf.

So here’s my top ten (well eleven actually). Turns out that it is a proven fact (!) that the Almeida under Rupert Goold is the best of the bunch, the Royal Court is a thing of wonder, especially when you reflect on the fact that the work is almost entirely new, and the National Theatre under Rufus Norris is not, repeat not, undergoing any sort of existential crisis, despite what some would say. The trouble with all those right-wing cultural commentators is that they are only happy when they have something to moan about; they can only argue the negative. I hope the Theatre Royal Haymarket continues its more enlightened programming under the new owners. The Young Vic remains the most exciting major theatre, even if that means a few misfires, and the one where I learn the most. The Barbican benefits from the RSC and the International companies that come through the door. The Donmar rarely drops a bollock but here you really have to be quick at the gate to get a seat. The Arcola and The Orange Tree get my vote for best of the fringe, and the Gate for those with more adventurous tastes. The Old Vic doesn’t always belt it out of the park but is pretty reliable.

In fact overall I doubt there is anything here that would surprise the seasoned theatre-goer. thus adding a nice line in utter pointlessness to the sins of commission I have already committed in compiling, and worst still, writing up this list.

There are a couple of lessons though for the more casual consumer of drama. Firstly, do not think for one moment that watching a film or series on a tiny screen can in any way match the thrill of live theatre, and secondly, if you want to avoid being the sap who comments that “I would liked to have seen that but it was all sold out before the reviews appeared … ” or end up paying three times the price for a painfully uncomfortable seat in some West End mausoleum, then sign yourself up to the Almeida, Royal Court and National lists and take the plunge as soon as you seen something half-interesting.

  1. Almeida Theatre 4.33
  2. Royal Court Theatre 3.87
  3. National Theatre 3.81
  4. Theatre Royal Haymarket 3.80
  5. Young Vic 3.79
  6. Barbican Theatre 3.78
  7. Donmar Warehouse 3.75
  8. Arcola Theatre 3.71
  9. Orange Tree Theatre 3.67
  10. Old Vic 3.60
  11. The Gate Theatre 3.60

Out of Love at the Orange Tree Theatre review ****

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Out of Love

Orange Tree Theatre, 6th February 2018

The second of the three co-productions with Paines Plough and Theatre Clywd and, for me, somewhat more persuasive than Black Mountain (Black Mountain at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***), though very different in subject and scope. Mind you, in both cases, out the door at 7, a quick dramatic fix, and back home by 9ish for a cup of tea, is surely the perfect evening. Out of Love is from the pen of Elinor Cook and garnered acclaim last year at Edinburgh with this same creative team and cast.

Now the SO and I were not entirely persuaded by the recent Donmar Warehouse production of Lady From the Sea, which was adapted by Elinor Cook, though, on my part, this is because I like my Ibsen icy. (The Lady from the Sea at the Donmar Warehouse review ***). There is no doubt though that she is a writer who persuasively captures the experience of women. At least I think so, as it is tricky to judge from my perspective as a fat, old, privileged white bloke. I did learn a lot about the two characters, Lorna and Grace, at the heart of this play.

Now telling the story of two friends, throughout their lives, is not revolutionary. Especially when one escapes their roots and one remains. This, after all, lies at the heart of Elena Ferrante’s quartet, (though I accept there is a great deal more here to feast on), which April de Angelis and Melly Still so ingeniously brought to the stage last year (My Brilliant Friend at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****).

Elinor Cook though has shaken this up though by abandoning strict chronology. Instead we get a series of rapid, kaleidoscopic scenes which chart the women’s relationship with each other, with their parents, with their various partners and, poignantly, with Grace’s child, Martha. Grace is the feistier and more headstrong of the two, Lorna more measured and initially less confident. From the outset, a game of “weddings” in the park, we see that Lorna attracts more male attention, which fuels Grace’s jealously and protectiveness. Lorna has rejected her absent father but resents her stepfather’s attempts to cool the intensity of the friendship. Lorna’s academic success sees her go to university and build a career. Grace falls for local lad Mike and falls pregnant, and cannot follow Lorna’s path. This creates a gap between them that proves difficult to bridge.

Like I say, nothing exceptional in the plot. Yet Elinor Cook’s writing is so exact and so true to life that, together with the dynamic structure, we are fully drawn into the friendship. Katie Elin-Salt is very impressive as Grace, her outward show of gobbiness failing to conceal her wounded vulnerability. Sally Messham matches her showing how Lorna grows in confidence, and independence, as she pushes back against family, partners and, yes, Grace. Hasan Dixon has his work cut out playing the eight, count ’em, incidental male roles, but any marginal audience confusion in the first few minutes soon evaporates. No costume changes, no lighting or sound pyrotechnics, (in contrast to Black Mountain), so we are reliant on text and actors. Oh and some very nifty work from Movement director Jennifer Jackson to demarcate both characters and place.

So a frank, smart, poignant, realistic, if not naturalistic, portrait of a friendship, which creates a deep impressions, actually impressions, over its compact 70 minutes. Definitely worth a visit, there are a couple of weeks left to run, and, if you are anywhere close by, it would be a crime to miss it.

 

Black Mountain at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

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Black Mountain

Orange Tree Theatre, 5th February 2018

The latest in a long string of ambitious, but not outrageously so, projects from the OT, this time commissioned in conjunction with trusty partners Theatre Clywd and Paines Plough. Three plays, in rep, from OT favourites, Brad Birch, Elinor Cook and Sarah McDonald-Hughes, with a cast of three, Hasan Dixon, Sally Messham and Katie Elin-Salt, directed by James Grieve.

Black Mountain is the third play I have seen from Brad Birch at the OT. Like its predecessors, The Brink and Even Stillness Breathes Slowly Against A Wall (Directors’ Festival at the Orange Tree Theatre review), I was intrigued, engaged but not entirely convinced. Billed as a “tense, psychological thriller about betrayal and forgiveness” it certainly delivers on atmosphere. The intimate OT space was pumped full of dry ice and Peter Small’s lighting, and Dominic Kennedy’s sound, combined to convince me at least that we were holed up in some isolated cottage in the country. For this is where Rebecca (Katie Elin-Salt) and Paul (Hasan Dixon) have retired to to focus on repairing their relationship. Time to be honest and time to listen to each other, which they do, though with limited success. But, guess what, someone else is watching. Helen (Sally Messham) has turned up. Cue a twist or two, and strong strains of something in the woodshed.

Rebecca and Paul are sleeping separately. Any easy intimacy has disappeared. They are wary of each other and recrimination is their default mode of communication. Brad Birch’s dialogue is taut. He certainly captures Paul’s increasing paranoia and the anger that both women feel. Yet this also means that the relationships at the heart of the play don’t quite ring true. The plot, which to be fair, crackles, and the mood of the play, take precedence over the characters.

This is the impression I formed in the other two plays from Mr Birch that I have seen. The Brink presents a teacher who may, or may not, have discovered a bomb under his school. Even Stillness … sees a couple retreat from the world. All located in the world, but at the edge. I see he is currently working on a version of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Both sound right up his street. I reckon he should have a crack at an all out Greek style bloodbath. That might be fun.