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

Out of Water

Orange Tree Theatre, 9th May 2019

The Tourist was much taken with Zoe Cooper’s last play, Jess and Joe Forever, also at the Orange Tree, in 2016. A coming of age story which charted the relationship of Joe, Norfolk born and bred, and Jess, posh and up from London for her holidays, but with, quite literally, a difference. In Out of Water she has, on a somewhat broader scale, created another uplifting story of difference and acceptance, this time set in the North East. She has a light and witty touch, but there is something more, an emotional depth that gradually emerges out her beautiful writing which marks here out as a dramatist of genuine talent.

Forthright Kit (Zoe West) is a police officer who returns to her native South Shields with her diffident partner Claire (Lucy Briggs-Owen) who is a teacher and is expecting their first child. Kit’s family, give or take, is accepting of the lesbian couple but Claire, a posh-ish Home Counties type, who has landed a job in a local school to facilitate inclusion and work with certain of the pupils, finds it more difficult to adjust. Her attempts to reach out to non-binary Fish (Tilda Wickham), who dreams of the sea, and is regarded with suspicion by her prosaic peers, are received warily and provoke misgivings from others.

These three excellent actors also play a bevy of other characters, Kit’s down to earth Mum, the head teacher that recruits Claire, Brendan, the disciplinarian PE teacher who gets results, a lippy school-kid, amongst others. All turn out to be not quite what they seem as Ms Cooper mines the arguments about how we define who we are. Scenes slide into each other, Georgie folk songs evoke a sense of place, this being the Orange Tree, the parquet floor of Camilla Clarke’s set open up to reveal the “sea” beneath, there is a fish tank in one corner, a ladder in another. In one effective scene Fish lip-syncs to a David Attenborough nature programme. The symbolism is maybe a touch heavy handed and the narration to supplement the dialogue is maybe a little overdone but it does mean Ms Cooper, and director Guy Jones, are able to cover a lot of ground and allows the subtlety of the themes she is exploring to fully emerge.

My London theatre recommendations May 2019

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.

DO NOT MISS

Sweat – Gielgud Theatre.

Touching the Void – Duke of York’s Theatre.

The Lehman Trilogy– Piccadilly Theatre.

Small Island – National Theatre Olivier.

Blood Wedding– Young Vic.

Noises Off – Lyric Hammersmith.

The Doctor – Almeida Theatre.

Hansard – National Theatre Lyttleton.

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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.

Blood Knot at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

Blood Knot

Orange Tree Theatre, 19th March 2019

To date I have only seen two plays by Athol Fugard. Both bravely examine racial politics in a South Africa divided by apartheid. Both are two-handers examining the relationship between two men, John and Winston, two prisoners on Robben Island practicing for a performance of Antigone in The Island, and here, in Blood Knot, half-brothers Morris and Zachariah who share a tiny shack in the “Coloured” section of Port Elizabeth. In both plays Mr Fugard is not afraid of taking his time, building out character, situation and message with a wealth of detail. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but, on both occasions, I have found myself being drawn in to the intense relationships where one man is “freer” than another in a society utterly disfigured by state-sanctioned racism. Though not enough timely convinced by the dramatic qualities.

Mr Fugard, who is actor and director as well as novelist and playwright, has been working at his craft for over five decades, has packed a lot into his life and has garnered numerous awards in the UK, US as well as his native SA. (He even has a theatre complex in Cape Town named after him which is about to show Kunene and the King after its run at the RSC).

Now I am assuming Blood Knot holds a special place in AF’s heart as he acted alongside his friend and colleague Zakes Mogae at the world premiere in Johannesburg in 1961, multiracial theatre in defiance of the regime. In the same year SA became a Republic and left the British Commonwealth, 69 unarmed black protestors were shot dead by South African police, the Sharpeville Massacre, and Nelson Mandela and the rest of the ANC Executive were found not guilty of treason by the SA High Court. The following year though Mandela was arrested, tried and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island.

Blood Knot, and AF’s other work (with his wife Sheila), his public support of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (which led to an international boycott of SA theatre) and the increasing international presence of his work outside SA, led to restrictions on his movement, including confiscation of his passport, and to constant surveillance and harassment. He worked alongside the progressive black theatre company, the Sergeant Players in the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in The Island, written with its original leads, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, as well as Sizwe Bansi is Dead, with its more obvious Brechtian and Absurd influences, also from 1972. His other most well known plays, A Lesson From Aloes, (which I stupidly missed when it appeared at the Finborough recently), Master Harold … and the boys, which is about to be revived at the NT, and The Road to Mecca, date from the late 1970s and 1980s, but he hasn’t slowed down continuing to examine the issues which have arisen in SA society since the end of apartheid.

Morris (Nathan McCullen) can pass as white but, for reasons that are never made entirely clear, has returned to live with his half-brother Zachariah (Kalungi Ssebandeke, who wrote the very well regarded Assata Taught Me performed at the Gate a couple of years ago). Under Apartheid, people defined as “Coloured” had a different status to those classed as White, Black, East Asian or Cape Malay. This meant that they were not confined to Homelands but their movement and employment was still heavily restricted and their economic prospects constrained. But, as you might expect, such classifications of those with mixed heritage, as well as being reprehensible in principle were difficult to “police” in practice. This is what the play explores.

The fastidious Morris looks after the shack whilst Zac trudges off to work every day. They dream of saving enough from Zac’s earnings to buy a farm, live frugally, with minimal social interaction but share a rich life of imagination. Zac, with Morris’s help since he is literate, strikes up a pen-pal relationship with a woman, but, when they realise she is white, with a policeman brother, they decide that Morris will have to take up her offer of a date in Zac’s place. Zac spends their savings on a fine “white” suit for the meeting, but, when the girl breaks off the correspondence, the clothes become the catalyst for a surreal, and increasingly provocative and complex role-play, or worse, where Morris, as “white” starts to bully Zac, and Zac in turn, harbours a desire to kill Morris. There is no resolution. They are tied together by familial love, but shattered by the system that they live in.

Given the quality of the dialogue, the sure hand of director Matthew Xia, now in charge of the Actors Touring Company and who was behind the revival of Sizwe Banzi is Dead at the Young Vic in 2014, and a very effective set from Basia Binkowska, (who also impressed in the Lyric Hammersmith OthelloMacbeth), I suspect I was always going to be partial to the idea of this. However the careful performances of both actors, with a palpable chemistry between them, definitely helped. I can’t pretend that the claustrophobic, dense structure and rhythm of the play, especially as it moves into the ambiguous final third, didn’t occasionally frustrate and I wasn’t entirely convinced by the distracting electronic sound design of Xana. After two powerful, if sometimes ponderous, performances of AF’s plays I think the next bite of the cherry needs to have a little more dramatic variety and a bigger cast. I gather Master Harold … has one extra character. Phew.

Bodies at the Southwark Playhouse review ****

Bodies

Southwark Playhouse, 26th February 2019

Two’s Company is a theatre company which set out to explore plays written at the time of the Great War but has subsequently gone on to stage the English premiere of Hemingway’s only play and some Pinter productions. Here it has revived one of the most successful of James Saunders’s plays which originally premiered at the Orange Tree Richmond in 1977 before transferring to Hampstead Theatre and the West End. This is the first revival in 20 years or so.

James Saunders (1925-2004) was initially a champion of the Theatre of the Absurd, and even in his later work, (he wrote some 70 plays in all), he sought to push theatrical boundaries. He was closely associated firstly with the Questors Theatre in Ealing, (now one of the largest independent amateur theatres in Europe), and subsequently the Orange Tree.

Now I am not quite sure what attracted the prurient me to this intricate tale of wife-swapping in 1970s West London. Actually that snide observation does play and production a massive disservice. This really is a stealthily constructed portrait of marriage which has universal lessons beyond its central conceit.

Anne, on the surface the archetypal bored housewife, and Mervyn, frazzled and erudite English (head) teacher, are the embittered Ealing couple whose barbed conversation is fuelled by Scotch. So far, so Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. They meet younger couple Helen and David, something in marketing, and become bessies. However we join them a decade after they initially befriended, Helen and David having returned to the seething maelstrom that is Esher from the US. We discover that they left after the couples swapped, the casual affair of Anne and David countered by Helen’s more calculated seduction of Mervyn, and then returned to, their partners, all those years ago. Helen and David have undergone some fairly intensive therapy to overcome the emotional impact, whilst Anne and Mervyn have simply buried it and their other “neuroses”. The therapy in question was a actual thing, Erhard Seminars Training, which the programme explains, went well beyond the usual hippyish 1970s mumbo-jumbo into some fairly aggressive group interventions. Worked for some apparently, though the organisation was dogged by accusations of brainwashing, bullying and extortion.

Anyway it has turned David, and Helen on the surface, into models of emotional stoicism and patronising rejectors of consumerism. Mervyn though is having none of that and, niceties dispatched, starts to pick away, at hypocrisies past and present, culminating in a full-on, pissed-up, stripped-bare (not literally but it might have worked) diatribe. These are all well-read people, they read on stage, which makes their opening expositional monologues, and subsequent conversation and interaction, all the more articulate. James Saunders clearly had a gift for provocative dialogue and the lucid four hander set-up is the perfect vehicle to show this off, especially when contrasted with an off-stage sub-plot of Simpson, a troubled, poetry obsessed, student of Mervyn’s.

Out of the mouths of his morally compromised characters Mr Saunders seems to conjure up rafts of argument that never feel too forced or contrived. Indulgent, middle-class philosophising under pressure can become tiresome in some playwright’s hands. Not here. I’ll admit that the absence of interruption feels a little less than naturalistic at first but is explained by Anne’s hauteur and the younger couple’s therapy. This leaves Mervyn as the apoplectic centrepiece and Tim Welton certainly lets it all come out in his closing heft of a monologue, an impassioned defence of human frailty. Annabel Mullion as Anne may not be gifted with quite the same knockout lines but when she gets her chance she offers a masterclass in waspish scorn from her chaise longue. Peter Prentice’s David, complete with black polo-neck, exudes the priggish certainty of the spiritual convert, and Alix Dunmore cleverly reveals the doubt under the surface of the willowy Helen.

Alex Marker’s set is a faithful Abigail’s Party like reconstruction of a 1970s lounge split by a jagged line, (and some sort of Atomium caper), to symbolise the fissures in the relationships. Costumes (Emily Stuart) and lighting (Neill Brinkworth) all expertly capture the 70s vibe and Tricia Thorn’s delicate direction doesn’t even attempt to distract from this excellent text.

I’ll admit that there were a couple of brief longuers across the two hours or so, but nothing to trouble the Tourist’s lardy bum on the Southwark Little’s ungenerous benches. The Tourist has sat through a few “lost classics” in the past few years that were nothing of the sort. This was, give or take, the real deal. It would be interesting to see more of James Saunders work though I doubt it will happen. (I also see that he was responsible for the script of Bloomers, the sit-com which starred the much-missed Richard Beckinsale of Rising damp and Porridge fame, before his untimely death. Never saw it. Mind you it sounds like it was infected by bog-standard 1970s misogyny).

The Double Dealer at the Orange Tree review ****

The Double Dealer

Orange Tree Theatre, 7th January 2019

Now everyone know’s that Restoration comedy is a tricky customer. What with the humour built on misogyny, that’s if it is funny at all. The satire of a social class few of us recognise. Texts are so thick, built on repartee, wordplay, punning and double entendre. Plots and sub-plots are labyrinthine. Intrigues, trysts, disguise, mistaken identity, off stage shenanigans, eavesdropping, knob gags, duplicity, comeuppances. Characters are stock: rakes, roues, ingenues, cuckolds, randy older women, buffoons. The debt to French and Spanish contemporaries, Jacobean classics, commedia dell’arte and the Roman foundations of Plautus and chums, is obvious even if it is firmly of its time.

I’ve swerved a few in my time, including recently the Donmar Way of the World, which sounded a bit too full-on. There was a Simon Godwin Beaux Stratagem at the NT a few years ago which had its moments and the “Bright Young Things” Country Wife last year from Morphic Graffiti was diverting in parts but I am still waiting to be shown the “real thing”. Director Selina Cadell, who is a veteran of the Restoration, (you know what I mean), as both actor and, increasingly, director, (Love for Love at the RSC, Way of the World at Theatre Royal, Northampton, The Rivals at the Arcola, in addition to a Stravinsky Rake’s Progress at Wilton’s), offers valuable insight in the programme. To make the comedy work actors need to trust the text and stop their natural, modern tendency to interpret and emote.

I can see the sense of that and also the idea that we the audience shouldn’t worry too much about trying to unravel the plot. To that end, in this Double Dealer, William Congreve’s 1694 less successful follow up to his hit debut The Old Bachelor, Selina Cadell and Eliza Thompson have offered up a short prologue telling us to do exactly that. So, with that in mind, I settled in, though, given the string of less than enthusiastic reviews, expectations were low.

So I was more than a little surprised when I found myself starting to enjoy the proceedings. Not to the point of being converted to the Restoration cause but certainly enough to justify 4*, admittedly on the Tourist’s extremely flawed, subjective and overly generous ranking system. (I reason that all involved have gone to the effort so it is only reasonable for me to be generous in my appreciation. And the hard laws of cognitive dissonance mean I am hardly likely to admit I ballsed up by booking to see something in the first place).

This is not to say that the plot isn’t convoluted. Earnest young Mellefont (Lloyd Everitt), heir and nephew to Lord Touchwood (Jonathan Coy) can’t wait to marry Cynthia (Zoe Waiter) who is the daughter by a former wife of Sir Paul Plyant (Simon Chandler). Sir Paul is also the brother of Lady Touchwood (also Zoe Waites) who just happens to have the hots for young Mellefont. Lady T, rejected by said Mellefont, gets the hump and resolves to ruin his reputation. She recruits the rakish Maskwell (Edward MacLiam), the Double Dealer of the title, and Lady T’s former lover, into her plot. As it happens the villain Maskwell is actually in love with the virtuous Cynthia. So Maskwell attempts to persuade Sir Paul P that his missus, the randy Lady P (Jenny Rainsford), is getting it on with Mellefont, and Lord T that Mellefont also has designs on his wife. Into this fray are plunged Mellefont’s mate Careless (Dharmesh Patel), Lord Froth (Paul Reid) and his pretentious wife Lady Froth (Hannah Stokely) who responds to the advances of coxcomb Brisk (Jonathan Broadbent), who also plays a chaplain as the trysts pile up and the plots unravel.

Easy really. Seriously though, a quick scan of Wiki, as you might prior to a Shakespeare, Marlowe or Jonson play, a shifty glance at your programme as the various punters run on and off in the first few minutes, and it becomes pretty easy to follow. So I am not sure that constitutes a fair criticism. The constant entrances and exits do get a little repetitive but so it can in Shakespeare history plays and there ain’t a lot of options space-wise at the OT, that is normally one of its joys. The reasons for the doubling of Lady Touchwood and Cynthia remain a mystery but Zoe Waites offers more than sufficient distinction between the two, in some ways rather to the detriment of her colourless Cynthia. And, when we get to the scene where Cynthia eavesdrops on Lady T’s intrigues, we witness the rather daft sight of her rolling on her side to signify who is speaking. Still at least she didn’t have one of those split down the middle costumes on.

Lloyd Everett gives more definition to Mellefont but the the star turn by a country mile is Jenny Rainsford’s Lady Plyant, who is hilarious, both in the delivery of her lines and her movement. Hannah Stokely also gets real laughs out of Lady Froth and Edward MacLiam gradually, though not entirely, fleshes Maskwell out beyond the pantomime. The rest of the cast is solid if not always spectacular. As an aside I think this might have been my first full house in terms of the ten strong cast. All seen in the last couple of years in other productions. Madeleine Girling’s set did the job as did Rosalind Ebbutt’s costume’s and Vince Herbert’s lighting though I couldn’t escape the feeling, (very rare at the OT where less is normally defiantly more), that more space and more money would have helped.

BUT what I can say is that this was a production which persuaded me that Restoration Comedy can be not just something I, (and I suspect most audiences), should enjoy, but something that I could enjoy, and in fact something that I would enjoy. If there were an entire cast operating at the same level as, say, Jenny Rainsford here, so that every line, every exchange, every character trait, every situation, registered then it could be very bright and very witty. If this were overlaid with more expansive visual cues, the entertainment could be further enhanced. Not to the exclusion of the text but in support thereof. And if the differences between the characters are fully defined by movement, costume and through variations in the rhythm of dialogue and action then the plot should be less of a hurdle.

Even the most perfect production might have its work cut out to bring relevancy to the social satire or to contemporise the sexual politics. Congreve’s play dates from the period of the second wave of Restoration comedy from 1690 through the turn of the C18 which broadened out the interaction between social classes beyond the purely aristocratic subjects of the original craze from 1660 to 1680. Even so it is still essentially a bunch of toffs running around stunting innuendos the Carry On script writers might have rejected. Easy to see why the stuffy Victorians took umbrage and the plays fell out of fashion.

This is the first production of the Double Dealer in London for a few decades. It’s not perfect. The tension between the pantomimic and the dramatic is never really resolved. There is precious little weight to the characters. The space constrains, even though the play is nominally set in the “gallery” of Lord T’s house over the three hours of the (unabridged) play. Yet, despite this, the Tourist sniggered a fair bit and emerged in quite a perky mood. Which is not always the case post theatricals. And, armed with a greater understanding of the genre, hoping, one day, to chalk up a 5* Restoration comedy.

https://athomehefeelslikeatourist.blog/2018/04/27/the-country-wife-at-southwark-playhouse-review/

Dealing With Clair at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

Dealing With Clair

Orange Tree Theatre, 30th November 2019

The Orange Tree, along with the Royal Court, must presumably be one of Martin Crimp’s favourite theatres. Whilst he has primarily been engaged with writing libretti for George Benjamin’s excellent trio of operas in recent years, Into the Little Hill, Written on Skin and Lessons in Love and Violence, and will have his next play, When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, premiering at the National next year (the Tourist has tickets, yea), many of his early plays started life at the Orange Tree, where he was championed by Sam Walters.

So it was nice to see the Orange Tree hosting English Touring Theatre’s revival of MC’s breakthrough play 30 years after its premiere in this very house. Surprisingly I managed to rope the SO and the Blonde Bombshells into the evening. Now, whilst I have an inordinate amount of time for the opera collaborations and his Chekhov translation, I am still making my mind up on Mr Crimp’s original drama. Mind you this was only the second such exposure, after The Treatment at the Almeida. Now there is no doubt there is something substantial there in his caustic stories which pick away at the underbelly of human behaviours, and in the painfully direct language he employs to tell them, but there is also a streak of irksome pretension which needles me.

Clair (Lizzy Watts) is an estate agent acting for the increasingly loathsome bourgeois yuppie couple Mike (Tom Mothersdale) and Liz (Hara Yannas). Anna (Roseanna Frascona) is their ill-used Italian au-pair. Art-dealer James (Michael Gould) is the increasingly threatening potential buyer. The cast is completed by Gabriel Akuwudike who variously plays Clair’s colleague, a builder and Anna’s boyfriend.

Now the play was originally written a couple of years after the still unsolved disappearance of the estate agent Suzy Lamplugh in Fulham (and who is commemorated in a stained glass window just down the road from the OT in East Sheen). Coincidentally the police were pursuing a new lead in the case as this revival opened. For those familiar with the circumstances of these tragic events it isn’t too difficult to guess where MC goes with the plot. But what he was really trying to expose was the venality of the time, the greed of the property owning classes, as well as playing with his usual themes of power and violence. It could have been written yesterday alas.

Fly Davies has delivered a cube on a raised platform in the centre of the OT stage masked by diaphanous gauze curtains and coldly lit by Joshua Carr. This only serves to heighten the voyeuristic quality that permeates MC’s play. We begin with Clair in her tiny, train-blighted flat on the phone to an unseen caller setting out, for want of a better term, the aggression that underpins the “art of the deal”. Every one of the cast, (even Gabriel Akuwudike at the end), is tasked with drawing out the worst traits in each of the protagonists, (and way more in the case of Michael Gould as James’s sadistic intent is revealed), whilst making sure we know they are still “one of us”. It is an unsettling watch in that respect and, for me, Lizzy Watts, given the truncated part she played, was particularly adept in capturing Clair’s ambitious pragmatism to get on and get the sale done even as her discomfort with James’s behaviour grew.

Clair’s flat also serves as the location for the disturbing, and slightly hyperbolic, ending but most of the action tales place in Mike and Liz’s house which they are looking to trade up from, (see how transactional language now permeates the everyday and which MC cleverly elides with the “business” of relationship). They start off blathering on about their “ethical” stance but their evasive attitudes, their treatment of Anna and the conversations they have behind the backs of Clair and, after his first viewing, James, reveal their true avaricious and condescending colours. Pretty soon they are making jokes about the “crumbling spine” of the buyer they happily gazump and gleefully ramping up the price they will settle for. Hara Yannas and, especially, Tom Mothersdale have plenty of opportunity to reveal the odiousness of the couple which, in terms of their performances, they relish.

Michael Gould as James runs the gamut from curt and business-like, through slightly odd, to Pinteresque menacing, then into creepy, sinister and finally full blown abusive psycho. I do hope in real life he is a kindly uncle type for here, in the scenes with Clair especially, he genuinely made me fell queasy, which is ironic in some ways, given that in a particularly memorable scene, Mike is the one who is actually sick in the play.

So some very fine performances, dextrously directed by ETT director Richard Twyman, of an intelligent play, built out of considered language and symbols, with streaks of dark humour, which deals with the dark side of human nature. So what’s not to like Tourist? Well I think it might just be the cumulative effect of the slightly off-kilter naturalism of the action and dialogue. It feels to me, with the odd stresses and unbroken pessimism, to be about 5% away from where it should be. I appreciate that is a daft thing to say, and I wish to be clear that it is not the subject or the form that I mildly object to, just the tone which I found a little wearing over the 100 minutes. And, whilst I am sure that MC is, like Pinter, merely highlighting the iniquity of misogynistic threat through his characters, thereby to condemn it, it would be reassuring if he this was occasionally made a little more explicit.

Mind you, like all good theatre, the bloody thing has got stuck in my head ever since, and, even with the misgivings, I am looking forward to his new play, so clearly MC is doing something right even as I think he might not be. The SO, hasn’t volunteered much of an opinion on DWC, not one to waste her words, but is happy enough to join me in the next leg of the Crimp journey.

Losing Venice at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

L0064135 Map of Venice

Losing Venice

Orange Tree Theatre, 24th September 2018

A modicum of research was all that was required to realise that this was going to be a curious, but also intriguing, entertainment. Which is near enough exactly what it was. Jo Clifford’s play was a hit at the Edinburgh fringe when it first appeared in 1985. With its story of a great Empire now in decline, and its scrutiny of strict gender roles in society, it is easy to see why the OT’s Paul Miller was drawn to revive it. The play certainly chimes with key contemporary debates on Brexit and toxic masculinity, and Jo Clifford’s own personal journey makes it more absorbing, but it is, structurally at least, something of an acquired taste.

Tim Delap plays the Pedro Tellez Geron (1574-1624) the third Duke of Osuna, a military adventurer, who, after becoming Viceroy of Sicily, and then of Naples, for Golden Age Spain, plotted to conquer Venice. The plot was uncovered and Osuna subsequently fell from favour after Philip III’s death in 1621. Jo Clifford’s play teams the Duke up with Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas, (played by Christopher Logan), a poet and secretary to Queen Ana in the Spanish Court of Felipe II. He put himself about a bit, generally ruffled feathers and was one of the prime exponents of a dramatic writing style at the time known as Conceptismo, characterised by rapid rhythm, directness, simple vocabulary, witty metaphors and word-play. It prized multiple meanings and conceptual intricacies, in stark contrast to the ornateness of rival style at the time of Culteranismo. Both were obsessed with honour, reputation and chastity building on the sort of flummery that had bedevilled the world of secular culture for centuries prior.

Now knowing this, and that Jo Clifford had previously translated some of the greats from Spanish Golden Age theatre such as Calderon de la Barca, and you can begin to understand the structure of Losing Venice. For this to is a story with multiple meanings which moves rapidly across space and time and appears quite stylised. Ms Clifford sought to take a current (in the 1980s) sensibility on politics and gender and fuse it with this ostensibly “true” history with a contemporary (for 1618) dramatic style. Designer Jess Curtis in this revival has highlighted this synthesis with her costumes which mix the Golden Age with a 1980s post-punk, New Romantic look.

The adventures of the strutting Duke and affected Quevodo draw in other parties, servants Pablo (Remus Brooks), Maria (Eleanor Fanyinka), the rejected and oddly coiffed Duchess (Florence Roberts, also a Priest), Secretary (Dan Wheeler who also provides some music), the grouchy King (David Verrey) and the prosaic “Mr and Mrs Doge” (David Verrey and Eleanor Fanyinka again). A key role is that of the Sister here played by Tia Bannon and not, unfortunately given the extra dimension this would have brought, the originally cast Josh-Susan Enright. Not that Ms Bannon didn’t try to fully commit, as did her colleagues, to the play. It is just that it is so striking in tone that I wasn’t entirely clear just how “inside” the characters Paul Miller wished them to be. The knowing, and sometimes farcical, tone, the sense that the performers, indeed the whole play, was “looking into” the events as a metaphor or lesson for something else, the decline of Empire and the desire of boys to always go fighting, didn’t completely take over, such that it could just be read as a rapid, and somewhat bitty, and increasingly odd, history play, (where I would guess most of the audience didn’t know the history).

Still once you adjusted to this idiosyncratic form there was stuff to savour and it didn’t drag on, even giving us an interval to ponder what was going on. The Duke doesn’t really do consequences, is locked in the past, sees everything as a contest and takes vanity to extremes. His fading libido is conjoined with that of his country. All in all a prize dickhead not unlike a few of our current crop of deluded politicians. Quevedo’s pen may be mightier than his sword but his fine words don’t necessarily resonate with his master and there are a whole heap of unbuttered parsnips here. The women and servants look on with various degrees of exasperation. Eleanor Mayinka stands out as the sympathetic Maria but maybe just because she is the most sincere character in the play.

So this might be a play whose novelty has played out, or it might be a play that was over-praised in the first place. Or maybe it is, as my Mum would have said, “too clever for its own good”. Or maybe it is a production where the normally very reliable Paul Miller couldn’t quite make up his mind. Or rather where he couldn’t quite pin down this slippery, and odd, fish. Or maybe, for once, the OT space was a hindrance not a help. I think it might be a little bit of all of these things but offsetting this is a spark of invention and bravado that I, for one, am always happy to see. Even if it didn’t quite come off, I can safely say I haven’t ever seen anything like it. And that it itself is no small praise. A counter to the excess of lazy literalism which pollutes the body politic is surely no bad thing.