Poison at the Orange Tree theatre review ****

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Poison

Orange Tree Theatre, 28th November 2017

Sometimes all you want from a play is for it to do exactly what it says on the packet. No sub-plots, symbolism, pointless characters, formal invention, stilted message. Just a powerful and involving story, well told. This is exactly what renowned Dutch playwright, Lot Vekemans, does in Poison. No wonder it has been translated and performed in multiple locations. Another terrific acquisition by Paul Miller and the Orange Tree team. Here it is translated by Rina Vergano who is the go-to for Dutch and Flemish texts.

Mind you this doesn’t make this a play that will have been easy to write, create or act in, and, in some ways, it isn’t easy to watch. Its subject, the loss of a child and the impact it has on a couple, is about as painful a subject as it is possible to imagine, for a “domestic” drama. Yet Ms Vekemans, takes us through all the ramifications of this dreadful event, with such a sure and sensitive hand that every line seems to ring true. A divorced couple meet in an unremarkable chapel building in a cemetery in France. (Blue carpet tiles, the designer’s catch-all for the banal, which Simon Daw wisely embraces here, along with those other staples, water-cooler and vending machine). We never get to know there names as, even after a separation of 9 years, they have no need to employ them. They were torn apart by the death of their son, Jakob, in a road accident, which eventually led to the journalist husband walking out on the millennial New Year’s Eve. They are here ostensibly to discuss what will happy to his body given that the land it lies in is contaminated. No one else turns up though (for reasons that become clear halfway through). They talk. There is pain, humour, tenderness, recrimination, jealousy, goading, misconception. In fact there is everything you might imagine a couple in this situation would put themselves through.

Paul Miller seems to have focussed on the “rediscoveries” in the last couple of years at the OT. Here he reminds us he can do contemporary plays standing on his head as well. Not literally. Like I say at the top there is no attempt to get directorially clever with the text here. There is no need. Movement, gesture, pauses, tensions, as well as words, everything worked.

This needed a couple of top drawer performances which, with Claire Price and Zubin Varla (who I have seen a bit of recently), is exactly what we got. Claire Price showed us a woman who could not move forward. Not because she was not trying nor because she was flawed in some dramatic sense. Just because she couldn’t accept what had happened. Which makes sense I think. She could be funny, she could be scathing, she could be analytical but always brittle and nervous underneath. Zubin Varla’s stilted ex husband had tried to moved on, (a new wife, a move to France from Holland), but was struggling with guilt for doing so. I swear I could hear him thinking at times. His intention to write a book about their bereavement is met with anger and incomprehension by her. The pain of their shared past infects this present but will continue into the future unless they can find some way to make it stop. There is some slight hope of redemption to this end at the end, but it is fragile.

Even beyond the bereavement itself though what is really, really striking about the play, in just 80 minutes, is the way it conjures up the whole skein of connections that a parted couple can recreate on meeting up, both comfortable and awkward, in movement, gestures and words. I was watching two real people, intimate strangers if you will, undergoing real experiences in pretty much real time. You’d think that would be easy to dramatise. It isn’t. This really was very, very good. It is one of those plays that gets better as you remember it.

Every Brilliant Thing at the Orange Tree Theatre review ****

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Every Brilliant Thing

Orange Tree Theatre, 17th October 2017

This jolly looking fellow is Jonny Donahoe. He is currently the latest incumbent in the one man show, Every Brilliant Thing, at the Orange Tree Theatre. The play was originally written by Duncan Macmillan (he of People, Places and Things, Lungs, 2071 and a bunch of masterpieces in German) in 2013, and has basically been travelling round the world, to venues big and small, ever since. This is the last leg of the latest incarnation. It was commissioned by Paines Plough, that wonderful institution, dreamt up in a pub four decades ago, which acts as a national theatre for new plays.

EBT tells the story of a seven year old who begins to make lists of things that make life worth living for in response to his mother’s depression. It charts the relationships between the boy as he moves into adulthood, with his Dad, his Mum, who attempts to take her own life, and, eventually, girlfriend. Jonny Donahoe uses the audience to call out items on the list and, for some lucky punters, to play key characters in the narrative. So those who are shy of audience interaction need to hide in the shadows. What this brings though is intimacy and empathy in buckets. Particularly in the cozy surroundings of the Orange Tree.

Now a story like this isn’t going to work without an actor who is up to the task. Mr Donahoe most certainly is. He is a comedian by trade which partly explains why this is so funny. That, and the expertly crafted writing of Duncan Macmillan. I seem to remember that People, Places and Things also had a few laughs scattered throughout. Its subject, addiction, was also an unlikely candidate for mirth. Having said that, when Mr Donahoe needed to ratchet up the pathos, he was just as adept. There is something of the child still about our Jonny which, even as he ages, ideally fits the character, and it is impossible not to bowled along by his enthusiasm, even for a grumpy old git like the Tourist.

A play about how to deal with depression could easily have been too whimsical or too maudlin. It is not. To call it “life-affirming” risks cliche but it gets pretty close. Should this pop up again in your neck of the woods go see it. Then you can add it to your own list of brilliant things.

 

Directors’ Festival at the Orange Tree Theatre review

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Directors’ Festival 2017

Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against A Wall ***

The End of Hope *****

Albert’s Boy ***

Orange Tree Theatre, 26th, 27th, 28th July 2017

Now this really is a mighty fine idea. Take five short plays by some of Britain’s finest contemporary playwrights and hand them over to five talented young directors currently completing their MA’s at the local St Mary’s University (just down the road). Assemble fine actors and students to support the enterprise, carve out a week of rep, and charge just £7.50 a ticket to us punters. Everyone’s a winner.

Now I was only able to make 3 of the 5 offers, missing out Enda Walsh’s Misterman and Kate Tempest’s Wasted. But the three I did see where very good, and, in the case of David Ireland’s The End of Hope, outstanding.

Brad Birch has form at the Orange Tree with his The Brink being performed a couple of years ago and Black Mountain coming up. Even Stillness …. has some of the qualities I observed in the Brink. There is an anger and paranoia in the way characters react to contemporary life which is interesting if not entirely satisfying. In the Brink the lead character, teacher Nick, may have stumbled across a conspiracy or may be cracking under the stress of the job. It is funny and sharp but, once the direction of travel was established, seemed to run out of steam a bit for me. Here,  Even Stillness ….. shows a couple, Him and Her, in full on alienation at work mode, who then slowly retreat into each other at home, but whose rejection of their rubbish modern life spells another type of disaster. It is spiky and angry but in some ways lacks surprise. On the other hand it is hard to see how the direction of Hannah de Ville and the acting of Orlando James (last seen by me as a convincing Leontes in Cheek by Jowl’s Winter’s Tale) and Georgina Campbell could have been bettered.

Albert’s Boy is, I believe, the first play from the pen of James Graham. Mr Graham is now the master of the socio-political comedy – witness Ink at the Almeida (Ink at the Almeida Theatre review *****). This two hander sees Andrew Langtree’s Bucky, friend of the family and Korea vet/POW, visiting Robert Gill’s Einstein, in the US in 1953. Einstein is tortured by his involvement in the programme that led to the launching of the atomic bombs, Bucky is scarred by his recent internment. Cue an examination of the big picture political landscape of the times and smaller scale demons of our two leads. Like Mr Graham’s more mature works this has some laugh out loud lines and easy to digest learnings. yet is is a little worthy and static. Once again though I couldn’t fault cast or the direction of Kate Campbell.

Now I have to say I think The End of Hope is a terrific play. I ended up having to cancel Cypress Avenue at the Royal Court last year (bloody kids were up to something) which annoyed me immensely. And I missed Everything Between Us at the Finborough recently. That was stupid judging by this. The End of Hope takes a slightly surreal one night stand and proceeds to mercilessly skewer notions of identity, political, religious, sexual, the nature of fame, high and low culture and pretty much anything else that takes Mr Ireland’s fancy over 50 minutes or so. It is hilariously funny with twists and turns which are not at all forced. As with his other plays sectarian division in his native Northern Ireland acts as the backdrop for the satire. But this is far from geographically bound. Breathless stuff with a real chemistry between Elinor Lawless and Rufus Wright as Janet and Dermot. And hats off to director Max Elton. I suspect getting the pace of performance right here is much trickier than it looks.

So there we have. Three fine plays. Theatre alive and well in the hands of these lovely young people and an urgent need to see more of David Ireland’s plays.

Some forthcoming London theatre ideas

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So we have had a few new season announcements over the past few weeks so here is a wrap up of what I think looks interesting in terms of stuff coming up on various London stages.

To spare you crawling through all this guff here is my top ten, including the best of these recent new season announcements in my view, and some other incumbent recommendations.

  1. The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre. So I know the decent seats are exorbitantly priced and this has come in for a bit of “paddywackery” backlash but it is still a towering play and is a must see.
  2. Hamlet at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Ditto. This is just a brilliant Hamlet from Andrew Scott and must be seen whatever you view on Will S.
  3. Network at the National Theatre. Should be a cracker – more details below
  4. Macbeth at the Barbican. In Japanese (with surtitles) but this is a classic production which I am very excited about.
  5. I Am Rachel Corrie at the Young Vic. Erin Doherty in the lead in this revival.
  6. Gundog at the Royal Court Theatre. I have a feeling this will be good.
  7. Albion at the Almeida Theatre. The next hit from the Almeida?
  8. Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre. I have banged on about this before but all is in place for the Bridge’s first offer.
  9. Insignificance at the Arcola Theatre. Revival of Terry Johnson brainy classic.
  10. Poison at the Orange Tree Theatre. I think this will be another triumph of discovery at Paul Miller’s Orange Tree.

More detail below.

Young Vic

New season is up. Best of the bunch for me is a revival of I Am Rachel Corrie based on the eponymous activists diaries with Erin Doherty in the lead. I have said before that I think Ms Doherty will become a stage legend and this should support that idea. The Jungle also caught my eye, with a whole bunch of tip-top creatives weaving stories from the Calais refugee camp. This is the sort of thing the Young Vic excels at. I am also looking forward to Wings with Juliet Stevenson in the lead and the Suppliant Women.

Royal Court Theatre

A whole bunch of goodies in the new season with three takes on the impact of war, Minefield, Bad Roads and Goats, and a US transfer, Grimly Handsome which has already sold out. My money is on My Mum’s a Twat a debut play from Anoushka Warden which RC’s Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone is directing, Girls and Boys, a relationship drama from Dennis Kelly (who writes for the telly) and directed by Lyndsey Turner, and, sounding best of all, Gundog, which has a nice ring of folk horror about it in the blurb. As usual with the RC there is not much to go on but I have a very good feeling about this. Ms Featherstone also directing.

Almeida Theatre

The Almeida can’t put a foot wrong under Rupert Goold with Ink the latest hit (sold out at the Almeida but go see it in the West End Transfer – you won’t regret it). I am booked for all 3 of the new season productions.

Mr Goold himself will direct Albion, Mike Bartlett’s new play. This has “state of the nation” written all over it but Mr Bartlett is a terrific writer so no need to fear. His last outing Wild at the Hampstead was good if not outstanding but this seems to have all the ingredients including a rareish outing for Victoria Hamilton on stage (you will have seen her in numerous period dramas).

Also intriguing is the Twilight Zone a world premiere from Anne Washburn based on, you guessed it, the Twilight Zone TV series from the 60’s. Now I can’t pretend I was bowled over by Ms Washburn’s Mr Burns but you have to admit this sounds quite exciting especially as it will be directed by the reliably controversial opera director Richard Jones.

After all this excitement the last play in the new season is a bit more classical in Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke directed by Rebecca Frecknall (who has taken on this relative rarity before at the Southwark Playhouse) and with Patsy Ferran seemingly perfectly cast in the lead.

Donmar Warehouse

There are still a few tickets left for the new version of Ibsen’s Lady from the Sea and more for the Knives in Hens revival which should show director Yael Farber in her best light after the tricky Salome at the NT. Knives in Hens is a spare, poetic love triangle that gets regular revivals because, er, it is very, very good.

Old Vic 

Tickets now on sale for The Divide the new dystopian drama from the pen of Alan Ayckbourn. It is in two parts and I have no idea how it will pan out. It will be premiered at the Edinburgh Festival so probably worth waiting to see how it is received. It does have my favourite Erin Doherty (see My Name Is Rachel Corrie) above so I have already taken the plunge to get my favourite seats but I might have gone too early.

Arcola Theatre

A slew of interesting stuff in the new season including the Grimeborn opera offerings, but the standout plays for me look like the revivals of Terry Johnson’s Insignificance (his new play Prism is also coming up at the Hampstead Theatre) and Howard Barker’s Judith: A Parting from the Body with Catherine Cusack in the lead.

Orange Tree Theatre

Everything in the new season looks interesting to me including productions of Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing, Elinor Cook’s Out of Love and Brad Birch’s Black Mountain, but I think the UK premiere of Poison by Dutch writer Lot Vekermans may turn out to be the best of the bunch.

National Theatre

I am seeing Angels in America shortly (always seem to end up near the end of the run) so review will follow. Common is still trundling on – I didn’t think it was too bad but others were less forgiving (Common at the National Theatre review ***). No official reviews for Mosquitoes by Lucy Kirkwood which kicked off recently but I am looking forward to this immensely. Unfortunately the run is sold out so queueing on the day is the only way in.

Coming up are Follies, the Sondheim musical with Imelda Staunton belting out the tunes, Oslo, the sold out Broadway transfer which already has a West End transfer, St George and the Dragon, which I would take a punt on as a “modern folk tale” (expect Brexit allusions) written by Rory Mullarkey and directed by Lyndsey Turner, and Beginning, which I am guessing is a relationship drama (I assume with twists) written by David Eldridge and directed by the inestimable Polly Findlay.

My highest hopes are reserved for Network, based on the mid 70s Oscar winning film satire on the media, to be adapted by Lee Hall, directed by Ivo van Hove and with Bryan Cranston in the lead. Now film adaptions and Ivo van Hove disappointed on the last outing (Obsession at the Barbican – Obsession at the Barbican Theatre review ***) but I still would take the risk. This isn’t going to work if it follows the minimal, psychological insight route so I am assuming it will look more like Mr van Hove’s relentlessly busy Shakespearean efforts. There are tickets left for later in the run.

Barbican Theatres

Mr van Hove will also be bringing his Tonnelgroep Amsterdam team to the Barbican for After the Rehearsal/Persona and the main theatre will also show all the RSC Roman Shakespeares transferring from Stratford. I am signed up for the marathon Smile On Us Lord (I hope he/she does) from Russia’s Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre though I recognise this might be a bit hardcore for most. I do think the Ninagawa company’s Macbeth will be worth the £50 though. This is a revival was the production that first brought this innovative visual feast to the “West” so it really is a “once in a lifetime” theatrical experience.

 

My favourite London theatre of 2016

Right then. I know what you are thinking. Doesn’t this numpty know that it’s June 2017. Bit pointless talking about theatre from last year then. Well yes, you may well have a point. However this blog only started in March 2017 and it’s mine anyway so I can do what I like. And the idea primarily is to help identify some lessons about good stuff to come in future, whether it be from writer, director, cast, other creatives or venue. Anyway I suspect all you theatre obsessives will know where I am coming from anyway.

1. Hangmen – Wyndham’s Theatre/Royal Court Theatre

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So i know that technically this was from 2015. But we didn’t get to see it until the transfer to the Wyndham’s Theatre having missed the Royal Court run because I am an idiot who failed to book it in time.

It is an extraordinary work. There is no-one who writes for the stage (or film) like Martin McDonagh, though there are echoes to me of the likes of Pinter and Tarantino. It is the combination of fierce intelligence, violence, humour and atmosphere. If you don’t know the plays then you may know his films, notably In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.

So if this, or the Pillowman, A Behanding in Spokane or any of the five Galway plays from the 1990s, are revived we should pay attention depending on who takes it on. If he makes another film we should also pay attention.

If we are in New York at the beginning of next year then we should see this production of Hangmen at the Linda Gross Theater. Please just go.

We should see what Matthew Dunster, the director, can do with his adaptation of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities at the Open Air Theatre this summer (his involvement with the Globe has been mixed – I can’t really comment as the Globe is off limits for me as it is too uncomfortable – sorry).

If and when Johnny Flynn stops singing and acting in mini-series (he is in that Einstein thing apparently – you know it is everywhere on the tube), and takes on another stage role we should go – he is mesmeric – and appears only to do top-notch theatre, Propellor Shakespeares, Richard Bean’s The Heretic, Butterworth’s Jerusalem and Rylance’s Globe Twelfth Night (though I didn’t get on with this).

And best of all we should be salivating at the prospect of David Morrissey taking on the role of Mark Antony at the new Bridge Theatre alongside Ben Wishaw, Michelle Fairley and David Calder. With Nick Hytner directing. We had a few magnificent productions of Julius Caesar recently but this has the potential to match them.

Oh and finally if there is one theatre where you should just buy “blind” if you have any interest at all in the subject based on the admittedly thin blurbs they provide just book it. Pick of the current bunch for me of the current season is Anatomy of a Suicide.

2. Yerma – Young Vic Theatre

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So if you have any interest in London theatre you are probably all over this. BUT if you haven’t seen it (the performances later this year sold out sharpish) or if you don’t think this serious theatre caper is for you, then I highly recommend you watch it at the cinema through the NT Live thingamabob on 31st August.

There is much to like here. Lorca’s original play, Simon Stone’s radical re-write and direction, Lizzie Clachan’s stark but effective staging, the performances of Maureen Beattie, John MacMillan, Charlotte Randle, Thalissa Teixeira and, especially, Brendan Cowell. But in the end it is all about Billie Piper. You will be hard pressed to ever see a more emotionally involving performance at the theatre. No holding back at all.

My guess is we will have to wait a couple of years before Ms Piper returns to the stage but whatever she does after this and The Effect is likely to be mandatory (I didn’t get through Great Britain, Richard Bean’s satire at the NT though I had a good excuse).

And if we want to see Mr Stone’s magic elsewhere then we need to follow Toneelgroep Amsterdam where he has productions of Medea and an Ibsen mash-up. Will be interesting to see whether either comes to London at any point.

As for the Young Vic well right now the Life of Galileo by Brecht is playing with, drum roll please, Brendan Cowell, in the lead. Tickets still available and I loved it.

3. Uncle Vanya – Almeida Theatre

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This seemed to sneak under the wire a bit. I thought it was outstanding. Maybe director Robert Icke’s Red Barn at the National Theatre or his version of Schiller’s Mary Stuart with Lia Williams  and Juliet Stevenson garnered more attention, or perhaps everyone was taking a breather after Mr Icke had smashed it out of the park with his Oresteia for the Almeida in 2015. Any way up he is the most exciting director right now in the UK and this cemented that reputation.

Mr Icke himself updated the text and shifted the “action” to rural England. The production took its time and the sense of ennui was attenuated by Hildegard Bechtler’s slowly revolving set. And Paul Rhys as Vanya/John could hardy be bettered with his man-child lost demeanour. The rest of the cast, notably Jessica Brown Findlay, Vanessa Kirby, Hilton McCrae and Tobias Menzies, collectively kept their ends up. The detail of the characterisations was riveting. The individual pyscho-dramas perhaps can more to the fore pushing the social context back a bit but I reckon you can have a bit too much of the “everything’s about to go tits up in Russia and these minor aristos don’t know it” benefit of hindsight in Chekhov anyway. It is always better when you you get more of sarky Anton nailing the “shit just happens” frustrations of life.

So if you are one of the infinitesimally tiny number of regular readers of this blog you will know that I have high hopes for the next couple of productions at the Almeida: Ink by James Graham (writer of This House which may yet turn out to be an instruction manual for the vicissitudes of minority government in the UK) directed by Rupert Goold with Bertie Carvel and Richard Doyle and then Against by Christopher Shinn and directed by Ian Rickson with Ben Wishaw in the lead.

Meanwhile one of Robert Icke’s next projects is an Oedipus with Toneelgroep Amsterdam and with Hans Kesting in the lead. I pray this come to London as Hans Kesting without question is the best stage actor I have seen. OMG.

4. Kings of War – Barbican Theatre

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Talking of Hans Kesting here is a picture of him as Richard III in the Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s production of Kings of War at the Barbican. TA premiered this production in 2015 and brought in to London last year. It takes five Shakespeare history plays, Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3 and Richard III, and mashes them up to extract the best bits in a four and a half hour spectacle that gets to the heart of what political power means.

Is it better than the similarly envisioned Roman Tragedies? (review here – Roman Tragedies at the Barbican review *****). I couldn’t tell you. There are both works of astonishing theatre. There have been a few let downs from TA and its inspirational artistic director Ivo van Hove, notably Obsession, but this showcases what he and his ensemble is capable of. So, as and when, this returns do not miss it.

And Mr van Hove has a number of forthcoming engagements on the London stage with Network coming up later in the year at the National the pick of the bunch.

5. Escaped Alone – Royal Court Theatre

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I have something of a weakness for unsubstantiated hyperbole. But here goes. Caryl Churchill is the greatest British playwright since Shakespeare. The best theatre plays with ideas and form and creates lasting impressions in the mind which simply cannot be replicated by any other artistic medium. Caryl Churchill does this again and again and again. No hype, no endless interviews explaining what she is doing/has done. Just perfectly formed, intense works that magically appear and seem to have addressed everything worth addressing over the past five decades or so. I just wish I had seen more of them.

Escaped Alone, in under an hour, explored the nightmare of apocalyptic, ecological collapse in a hilariously surrealist way, intertwined with, at turns, the banal and sinister fears and stories of four mature women ostensibly chatting in a back garden. That is my attempt at a summary but it does no justice at all to the ideas and images that just pour out of this play. As always with Caryl Churchill you just marvel at the alchemy of how so much insight into the big questions of humanity flows from these non-naturalistic, but never truly absurd, structures.

So as and when the next new play appears just go. And the same advice applies to any Churchill revival, anywhere. anytime.

6. Oil – Almeida Theatre

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Back to the Almeida for Ella Hickson’s ambitious play Oil, directed by Carrie Cracknell and with the magnificent Anne-Marie Duff in the lead. So I get that the text and the pacing of the production was a little uneven but I didn’t care. Ms Hickson created such a compelling narrative, mixing the geo-political epic with a detailed mother-daughter relationship which hits you on some many levels. I have seen Anne-Marie Duff steal the show in a number of very different plays but she has never been better than in this role. And I doubt there is a better director in Britain today of towering female roles than Ms Cracknell (The Deep Blue Sea, A Doll’s House and Medea are recent examples).

Now it looks like Anne-Marie Duff’s latest outing at the National Theatre, Common, is getting a bit of a pasting. I will be taking a peek shortly so will make up my own mind. She is also pencilled in to a Macbeth next year alongside Rory Kinnear and directed by Rufus Norris. Surely that will be unmissable.

As for Ella Hickson, I would love to see a revival of Boys, and I think that it is only a matter of time before she pens an undisputed contemporary classic. And if anyone knows what Carrie Cracknell is tackling next I would love to know.

We are blessed in this country right now with a generation of outstanding female playwrights and directors but I for one would like to see way more come through. This play shows why.

7. The Rolling Stone – Orange Tree Theatre

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Royal Court, Almeida and Young Vic all unsurprisingly represented in my top ten list and I have no doubt they will be again this year. As will, I suspect, the Orange Tree which continues to turn out work of the highest quality, whether revivals or new plays. They may not always be my cup of tea but artistic director Paul Miller and his team seem to have an extraordinary knack of identifying and staging rich theatrical material.

The Rolling Stone by Chris Urch was a winner of the biennial Bruntwood Prize winner in 2013 and premiered at the Royal Exchange Manchester so was hardly a secret. But it was still terrific to see the Orange Tree pick it up for its London premiere and it deservedly won a slew of Offies (the London fringe theatre awards).

It is an examination of the persecution that gay men face in Uganda largely told through the words and actions of one family. It packs an extraordinarily powerful emotional punch and will leave you seething with anger at the actions of church, state and media which combine to pursue a modern witch-hunt.

This is Chris Urch’s second play and I await with interest his next project which I believe is a screenplay for a biopic of the life of Alexander McQueen. And without exception I keep my eye out for the excellent cast, Faith Alabi, Fiston Barek, Jo Martin, Julian Moore-Cook, Faith Omole and Sule Rimi (who has popped up in a number of subsequent productions I have seen and has been uniformly excellent in these).

8. Les Blancs – National Theatre

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The proper luvvies are in a little bit of a tizzy over Rufus Norris’s stewardship of the National. I admit it has become a bit of a lottery, particularly when it comes to the Olivier stage, but there have been some belting productions in the last couple of years. And for me this was the best of the bunch last year.

Now this probably reflects the fact that I have never seen A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry masterpiece. Following this version of Les Blancs it is now right at the front of the queue of plays that I simply must see. I was bowled over by this version of Les Blancs. It is an immense play which explores post-colonialism in 1960s Africa with an unforgiving eye. There is a lot of grand speechifying to advance the arguments but the didacticism never proceeds to simplistic resolution. I gather Ms Hansberry’s husband, Robert Nemiroff, had a major hand in completing this play after her untimely death. The set, sound, lighting, music and even smell could not have been bettered and for once I think the best seat in the house was upstairs at the back since there was so much to savour.

South African director Yael Farber seems to have presided over a duffer with Salome currently on at the National (I haven’t seen it yet) but her direction in this Les Blancs was sublime. And I don’t know what stage Danny Sapani will next grace (you will have seen him on the telly) but wherever it is I will try to go.

9. Orca – Southwark Playhouse

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This was Matt Grinter’s debut play which won the Paptango new writing prize. I thought it was brilliant. In just 75 minutes Mr Grinter conjures up a place which seems far removed from our modern world and his tale of ritual abuse in a closed community conjures up a real sense of foreboding. I suppose some might label it “folk horror” at a pinch but it was just so much smarter than that label implies. It confronts the reality of the outrages that even today are visited upon women by men who hold power over them.

The setting is a fishing community on an island to the north of Scotland I surmised. An elder sister Maggie played by Rona Morison tries to prevent her younger sister Fan (Carla Langley) from undergoing the same unspecified but clearly dreadful fate which she refused to endure. Their father (Simon Gregor) won’t step in because he cannot face continuing to be shunned by the rest of the tight knit community. The patriarchal head of the community The Father played by Aden Gillett is genuinely one of the most disturbing characters I have ever seen on stage,

I’ll stop there just in case it gets revived but this was a riveting watch under the direction of Alice Hamilton. And the set by Frankie Bradshaw in the smaller space in the Southwark Playhouse (where they put on all the good stuff) was beyond ingenious. I don’t know if I imagined the cold, damp sea air that night, or whether that was all part of the production, but I really felt I was cut off from the rest of the world and not a few yards from the Elephant and Castle.

I await Matt Grinter’s next writing excursion with extreme interest.

10. Julius Caesar – Donmar King’s Cross

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This is what Shakespeare is all about. Phyllida Lloyd and her all female cast led by the redoubtable Harriet Walter added The Tempest to the previous productions of Julius Caesar and Henry IV and set them up in a temporary stage at bargain prices in Kings Cross. All three took the venerable texts and smashed them over your head. Breathtaking.

I pick Julius Caesar solely because it is my favourite of the three plays. And I think the setting of all three plays in a women’s prison achieved most resonance in this play with its themes of conflict and the misuse of power. Directorial concepts in Shakespeare are vital in my view to illuminate the timeless brilliance of the insight but they can fall flat. Not here.

I think Harriet Walter’s Brutus is the best I have seen and I would also, if pushed, single out Jade Anouka’s Mark Antony (to add to her amazing Ariel in The Tempest). She was the only decent contributor to the dreadful Jamie Lloyd Faustus and I await her next major role with interest. The same goes for Sheila Atim who next pitches up in Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic.

Harriet Walter can read the phone directory and I would still go and Phyllida Lloyd could direct a bunch of phone directories and I would still go.

Best of all this Julius Caesar will be in cinemas soon so catch it if you haven’t already seen it.

 

So there we go. My favourites from last year. Honourable mentions also to Complicite’s Encounter which I finally got to see at the Barbican, Schaubuhne Berlin’s The Forbidden Zone also at the Barbican, Tim Minchin’s Groundhog Day musical at the Old Vic, and Jess and Joe Forever by Zoe Cooper and Blue Heart by the mighty Caryl Churchill both at the Orange Tree.

This year is ramping up to be similarly fine for London theatre with plenty of contenders already. Enjoy.

 

 

An Octoroon at the Orange Tree Theatre review ****

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An Octoroon

Orange Tree Theatre, 14th June 2017

Crikey. An Octoroon. I am not entirely sure what I saw and learnt here. I do know it will stay in the memory for many years though and I am very glad I saw this.

Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins takes the bones of early Irish playwright/impresario Dion Boucicault’s hugely popular 1859 melodrama, The Octoroon, to create a riveting meditation on slavery and on black voices in the theatre. (As an aside this immediately puts the lie to the idea of American drama only really getting going in the C20 – there was clearly vibrant theatre in the C19 – it just might not be palatable to modern audiences).

It starts with lead actor Ken Nwosu (last seen by me as a laconic Face in the RSC’s tip top Alchemist) ambling on in his undies ostensibly as the “black” playwright BJJ to explain why he came to write the play and what he wanted to say. Droll and self reverential. We start to guess we are in for a treat. He then starts to “white-up” in order to play George the lead in DB’s original. He is joined by Kevin Trainor playing DB who proceeds to go “red-face”. The assistant to BJJ played by Alistair Toovey then also “blacks up” to play two different slaves, Pete and Paul, on George’s soon-to-be inherited plantation.

All the female characters, in contrast, are played by “colour-appropriate” actors – I don’t know how else to say that. Emmanuella Cole and Vivian Oparah play Dido and Minnie, house slaves in George’s inheritance plantation, though their sass is entirely contemporary. Iola Evans is Zoe, the Octoroon of the title whose father I think was George’s uncle, and who is one-eighth black. This means that George cannot marry her. Celeste Dodwell is Dora, a rich, white, heiress neighbour who is pursuing George. Cassie Clare plays Grace, a pregnant slave and Br’er Rabbit (I am still not entirely sure why). Oh and lest I forget, Ken Nwsosu also plays M’Closky the evil neighbour (and former overseer on the plantation) who tries to secure George’s land and slaves on the death of his aunt.

All clear? It will be. The plot of DB’s play revolves around a mortgage foreclosure and an intercepted letter and sees the villain M’Closky’s dastardly deeds undone with the help of cutting edge technology (for the 1850’s), to whit, a camera. It is, despite its material, a rollickingly good tale by itself which BJJ plainly recognises. It both uncomfortably wallows in the conventions of its time and the subject of its setting, but also partially unpicks those mores. With BJJ himself then subverting and critiquing DB’s play and by implication the nature of racial stereotyping, whilst getting plenty of laughs along the way, it is unlike anything you will ever see. There is all manner of deconstruction going on – quite literally at one point as the stage is pulled to pieces. A lot of references passed me by but there was enough to feast on despite this.

I know this sounds preposterously oblique but the whole mash-up put me in mind of the work of artist Robert Rauschenberg who also created funny and insightful works from stuff he “found”. BJJ shows a similar fierce intelligence and delight in unsettling his audience. This is play as well as a play. You will be properly entertained in a broad Vaudevillian way but simultaneously made to squirm and therefore think long and hard about race and the theatre’s depiction of race.

Highly recommended. Another hit for the ever inventive Orange Tree. The cast is outstanding, director Ned Bennett pulls all the strands together, (and trust me there are many), and the solutions that designer Georgia Lowe has conjured up to deal with the limitations of the OT stage are endlessly inventive. I am now looking forward to BJJ’s next play, Gloria, which is coming up very soon at the Hampstead Theatre, though I gather it could not be more different in subject.

 

 

London theatre update

So a few things to note since the last London theatre update.

Booking opens 5th May (earlier for members of various hues) for the new batch of productions at the National Theatre. I reckon tickets for Follies, the Sondheim musical with a cast of thousands and the pocket rocket Imelda Staunton in the lead, will sell like the proverbial hot cakes. I also have my eye on Mosquitoes, the new play by Lucy Kirkwood (Chimerica, NSFW, The Children) with Olivia Colman off the telly.

Booking for the 4 way RSC Shakespeare Roman plays extravaganza is now open at the Barbican.

The new Bridge Theatre inaugural season is announced and I am so excited. Public booking opens 27th April. I recommend all 3 of the openers. Young Marx with Rory Kinnear as Marx, Oliver Chris as Engels, written by Richard Bean and Clive Colman and directed by Nicholas Hytner himself. The Julius Caesar not only has Ben Wishaw as Brutus but David Morrissey (last seen in the magnificent Hangmen by Martin McDonagh – best play of the last 3 years) as Mark Antony. And there is a new work, Nightfall by Barney Norris, which sounds intriguing (the refurbished Bush Theatre has While We’re Here, another new play by busy Barney, coming up). And the Bridge has lined up future new works by Nina Raine (about Bach yesssssss !!!! with Simon Russell Beale yessssss !!!), whose Consent I have yet to see at the NT, and by Lucy Prebble based on Bizet’s opera Carmen, as well as by Sam Holcroft and Lucinda Coxon.

Against at the Almeida will be booking from mid May.

The Old Vic is set to stage The Divide, the new play by Alan Ayckbourn, set in a future dystopian England, after a run at the Edinburgh Festival. Sounds like a cracker, mind you not too many laughs I am guessing from the blurb. No booking details yet.

I am casting an eye over Little Foot (by South African playwright Craig Higginson) and Doubt, A Parable (JP Shanley which was made into a film I gather) at the Southwark Playhouse (who are also bringing back Kiki’s Delivery Service which is a belter if you have littl’uns).

Everything Between Us (by David Ireland), Food and Mr Gillie look like the best of the bunch in the new Finborough theatre season.

And I have booked 3 of the 5 offerings at the end of July at the Orange Tree where they are letting young directors’, studying at St Mary’s round the corner in Strawberry Hill, loose on early plays by James Graham, Brad Birch, David Ireland, Enda Walsh and Kate Tempest. £7.50 a pop to support aspiring talent. Go on.

Finally I am weighing up the RSC Queen Anne at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in the transfer from Stratford but can’t quite make up my mind though Romola Garai in the lead may tip the balance.

Happy theatre going.