After the resounding success of Madame Rubinstein at the Park Theatre a couple of years ago it was a pretty easy sell to get BUD, KCK and the SO along to the same venue to see our favourite potty-mouthed, near-octogenarian National Treasure, Miriam Margoyles’s latest theatrical outing. SATOG however, whilst, when it got going, offering the twinkly eyed MM opportunities to deliver trademark laugh out loud waspish epithets, was a very different kettle of fish to the straight comedy of Madame R, as either of its lead characters might have said.
MM played the cantakerous Old Girl, Nell Stock, holed up in her shabby east End house, with 50 year old, live at home son Sydney, played by the much admired Mark Hadfield, who, I am ashamed to say, I didn’t initially recognise. Maybe that was because to say Sydney is peculiar would be a massive understatement. He is the archetypal oddball loner and he and Mum are locked into a textbook love-hate relationship. The setting smacks of Steptoe and Son and the dialogue that writer Eugene O’Hare employs to express the toxic dynamic hints at Pinter, or, in contemporary terms, maybe a palatable Enda Walsh . Sydney holds some fairly rum, if unconvincing, opinions, about women and foreigners, and when he does go out, nurses a pint in the local whilst pretending to be with friends. Nell simultaneously detests and relishes the hold she has over him.
Nell’s mobility is limited, spends most of her time in a wheelchair, and needs constant care. Cue Irish home help Marion Fee (Vivien Parry), all round good egg and saviour to the little Catholic orphans of London. After some variable, in terms of length and quality, set up scenes, we discover that Nell is looking to cut Sydney out of her will and deny him the inheritance of the house on which he is fixated.
Which is why I had anticipated an Ortonesque payback in the second half involving some artful double crossing between the three and the acerbic humour ramped up. I was wrong, Instead the guilt which binds Nell and Sydney together, hinted at earlier with Sydney’s fear of sirens, is given a full blown reveal complete with lighting (Tina MacHugh) and sound (Dyfan Jones) effects.
I assume that it was Mr O’Hare’s deliberate intention to shift tone through his play but it left the Tourist unable to settle on plot and character. Which is a shame because when MM and MH got going in the second half, before the overwrought ending, this was a fine black comedy. Vivien Parry had less success trying to persuade us of Marion’s ambivalence. Philip Breen’s direction gives the actors time and space to deliver the lines, as does the elaborate set of co-designers, Ruth Hall and Max Jones. But despite the championing of the director and cast the play never quite hits its stride. Nothing wrong with mixing comedy and tragedy, the lodestar of best dramatists in history. It’s just that without a thorough stir the ingredients can sometimes be half-baked and a bit too lumpy to satisfactorily digest.
P.S. Would be great if the next time MM takes to this, or another London stage, it would be in a reprise of her one woman show. Ideally as unexpurgated as possible. Or better still if the production of Lady In The Van that the good people of Melbourne, MM’s adopted home, enjoyed last year could find its way here.
I confess that the main motivation for seeing Mother of Him was Tracy-Ann Oberman. You will probably know her from her many, and varied, TV roles but she is also a feted stage actor. However until now I had only seen her once before: in Party Time and Celebration, part of Jamie Lloyd’s season of one act Pinter plays, where she shone amidst such acting luminaries as Ron Cook, Phil Davies, Celia Imrie and John Simm.
Here she played Brenda Kapowitz, a single mother in Toronto, estranged from Steven (Neil Sheffield), with two sons, Matthew (Scott Folan) and Jason (young Harri Agarwal at my performance). This was not your average family drama however as Matthew stands accused, alongside a friend, of raping three young women necessitating house arrest and the early appearance of lawyer Robert (Simon Hepworth).
Canadian writer Evan Placey based this, his debut play, on a true story but this is no crime, trial or punishment drama with the action all taking place in the family home in the lead up to the trial. Instead Mr Placey focuses almost entirely on Brenda as she oscillates between belief in Matthew’s innocence and her natural urge to protect her son(s) and disgust at what he might have done. She seeks to shield Jason from the truth whilst husband Steven seems to shirk responsibility instead trying to prise Jason from his mother. Matthew is curiously inert, making no attempt to defend or explain himself when questioned by Robert, maybe in misguided loyalty to his dominant friend or maybe because he is in denial. This even extends to his scenes with his girlfriend Jess (Anjelica Serra) who seeks him out despite Brenda’s misgivings.
Now I am not sure if Mr Placey intended to shift the axis of the plot quite so markedly or just underwrote the other characters. Director Max Lindsay, who has brought Evan Placey’s previous plays to the UK, plainly thought the former, and, given the acting prowess of Tracy-Ann Oberman, why not. Her Brenda is understandably angry, with Matthew, with her husband, at times with her lawyer and at the press parked outside their apartment, who we hear but do not see, and who are pointing blame at her. She is determined to hold things together, including her work, but is also vulnerable, as she runs the gauntlet of emotions, some very uncomfortable, that Mr Placey’s text unflinchingly explores. Her frustration with Matthew’s impenetrability is made more acute because of her, I think, previously controlling nature. The end, for both of them, as they face separation, is both painful and tender.
T-AO is brilliant, sharp and affecting, even when the interactions with the rest of the cast don’t quite ring true. This is not down to the dialogue, more, I would say, because of how the characters have been created in relation to Brenda. Get over this, and the dominant acting it required, as I did, and what you have is an intriguing play brought into focus by a commanding central performance. Lee Newby’s monochrome set, whilst good on paper, wasn’t quite up to the task, dramatically, or practically at this performance, and did get a little in the way of the story.
The producers here were also responsible for What Shadows, Pressure and Madame Rubinstein, at the Park, and this comes close to matching them. Whilst the writing isn’t anywhere near that of Bruce Norris, whose Downstate at the National recently similarly sought to avoid passing judgement on the actions of its protagonists, it did, similarly, try to address the reality of heinous crimes though not here accused or victim. I do hope I will be able to see TA-O again. Maybe next time back in Shakespeare.
I am ashamed to say this but myself and LD were just a teensy teensy bit disappointed when we discovered that the guest at our performance of Whodunnit (Unrehearsed) at the Park Theatre was Clarke Peters. To recap. Park AD Jez Bond and writing/directing collaborator Mark Cameron created their parody Whoduunit (is there any other kind?) to raise a few quid to help fund the Park’s ongoing whirlwind of good, (and occasionally not so good it must be said), entertainments. To get the good people of North London, or in our case SW London, to dip their hands in their pockets, a volunteer was promised from luvvieworld who would play the role of the “Inspector” with the vital caveat that they wouldn’t see a script, and we wouldn’t know who they were, until the performance began.
Comedy luminaries such as Sandi Toksvig and Tim Vine (LD’s faves) had signed up alongside top drawer actors such as Adrian Dunbar, Jim Broadbent and Joanna Lumley (the Tourist’s). It was probably fair to say that, of all the candidates, Clarke Peters had, for us two, the lowest name recognition. Which I think reveals a shocking level of ignorance on our part. For you culture vultures will know that Mr Peters was a lynchpin of The Wire, has had a successful musical stage career in London and on Broadway, wrote Five Guys Named Moe and has an extensive UK TV bio. Pretty much none of which we had seen. And the worst thing of all. The Tourist had actually seen Mr Peters on stage just a few months ago. In the Old Vic production of Miller’s The American Clock. Which frankly is unforgivable.
All of which, as it turned out mattered not a jot. As Mr Peters was wonderful. Of course once we had seen and heard him it was clear we sort of did know who he was. Even so we were still blown away by how funny he was. Messrs Bond and Cameron have created a witty script ticking off every possible creaky murder mystery trope, and the rest of the cast, Candida Gubbins as housekeeper Anne Watt, Lewis Bruniges as her son and the handyman Jack Watt, Patrick Ryecart as the aristo owner of the house, Rigby Dangle and Omar Ibrahim as the suspicious stranger, Oscar Weissenberginelli, were all terrific. Though I would reserve special praise for Natasha Cottriall as Rigby’s daughter Felicity Dangle.
However the show can only be as amusing as the “star” allows given that they were fed their lines, and directions, via an earpiece, from Robert Blackwood. And this is where Mr Peters was so impressive. Not only did he enter into the spirit of the thing, with ad libs, inventions and playing off the rest of the cast, but actually he managed to create a character and sustain a plot over the couple of hours of the story. Of course it was all nonsense. But I suspect it wouldn’t have been half as funny if the “star” was uneasy with the technology and/or timing and therefore defaulted to too much mugging and derailing the proceedings. Mr Peters, once he was in the swing of things, certainly did not whilst still finding and milking a few repeated gags. The best of which involved an imaginary door, French chanson and a very alert team on the sound desk.
I gather this venture was a success for the Park, so, if they are tempted to roll it out again, you might want to give it a whirl.
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is probably going to be your next Prime Minister, chosen by a hundred thousand or so duffers average age in the 70s. Sovereignty? Democracy? If that doesn’t make you laugh nothing will. Anyway the rise of the tousled haired, Latin mangling, philandering, fustian journalist/politician, even without the gift of his impending premiership (his aim at Eton was to become “king of the world”) should, you would think, provide fertile ground for a satirical comedy.
After all this is a bloke who had both British and American citizenship, has Turkish, French and Russian ancestry, was born into an educated family, whose Dad worked for the EU, (I know hard to believe), overcame deafness as a nipper, speaks French fluently, had all the advantages, yet still takes a dig at Johnny Foreigner whenever he can like the godfather of gammon that he is. I see he won a scholarship to Eton where he worked on his eccentricity, changed his religious affiliation, (a harbinger of flip-flopping things to come), excelled in classics despite a somewhat indolent attitude and edited the school rage. At Oxford some have alleged that he toyed with the SDP in oder to secured the position of president of the Union, though, like so many other things, poor old BoJo has no memory of this. (I actually believe Boris when he says a line of coke had no effect on him: even this being insufficient to stimulate a full days’ work from him). Apparently he was mightily cheesed off he didn’t’t get a First.
He lasted a week in management consultancy, before the family got him into the Times, where he was promptly sacked for making stuff up. Then placed in the Telegraph where his career as liar in chief about the EU began. In some ways it is the ultimate irony that the man who is likely to preside over the final collapse of the Conservative and Unionist Party over something that really shouldn’t matter to it is the man who was largely responsible for fuelling the division between Europhile and Eurosceptic in the first place. After receiving a small dose of liberalism from his marriage to Marina Wheeler, and time spent in Islington, he cracked on with delivering some of his most offensive apophthegms in his Telegraph column. “Piccanniny”, “watermelon” or, more latterly, “letterbox”, I can’t decide which is the most unpleasant. Though one of the less remembered, his reference to gay men as “tank-topped bum-boys”, runs them close. This whole thing, Fartage does it as well, where some privileged, rich, straight, white, middle-aged bloke pretends to be taking on the Establishment, and saying “the things that can’t be said”, in a world where “political correctness has gone mad”, just drives me potty.
Not getting sacked when he was asked to divulge the address of a journalist so that his bessie from school, convicted fraudster Darius Guppy, could have the hack beaten up, was another low point I had forgotten about. On to the Spectator and GQ where he regularly filed his copy late, (which, given its quality, is hard to fathom), and then all his TV turns. Convicted fraudster, though now I see pardoned by the whiter than white Donald Trump, (himself only having been involved in the 3.500 or so court cases), Conrad Black, then promoted him to editor the Spectator turning it into the self-parody of Conservatism that it is today.
Finally parachuted into the safe seat of Henley when the principled Michael Heseltine retired, as a journalist with a sideline as an MP, he pitched up to a few votes in the House, and gave, in his own words, a few “crap” speeches. He did support Ken Clarke, of all people, in the leadership campaign that IDS won, a random act of good judgement, but also got reprimanded subsequently by Michael Howard for letting though the infamous Spectator article which trotted out the filth about the victims of Hillsborough which The Sun had so evilly kicked off. Next up he refused to resign as Arts Minister when he was caught lying about his affair with Spectator columnist Petronella Wyatt, so Michael Howard was forced to sack him.
Still no matter. His mate from Oxford, “call-me Dave” Cameron, installed him as shadow higher education minister ( a job his principled younger brother Jo also held), but then another alleged affair, booted off the Spectator by Andrew Neil, but still raking in half a million a year from his media work, he then got the gig as London mayor in a campaign masterminded by Lynton Crosby (the Aussie evil genius behind his current job application).
Still keeping his “chicken-feed” £250K salary from the Telegraph column (and failing to make promised donations), he pitched up late for a few early meetings, failed to get a planning permission, might have had a further affair, over claimed on expenses, denied London’s pollution levels, recruited cronies and came up with hare-brained vanity schemes. Still he was always a “laugh” which remains his key qualification for high office it seems and he occasionally said and did the right thing to confound us liberal metropolitan elite lefty types, though he could just as easily revert to type moments later. And London felt proud.
Back to the House of Commons, kept at a distance by Cameron and then his fateful decision to throw in his lot with the Vote Leave campaign. And all that bollocks on the bus, about Turkey (subsequently denied), that face he pulled the morning after when Leave won, and then, after Cameron walked, the political assassination by Michael Gove and his missus which put paid to BoJo’s ambition that time round. This is roughly where Jonathan Maitland’s play kicks off, with a dinner party given by Boris and Marina Wheeler attended by Gove, Sarah Vine and, somewhat bizarrely, Evgeny Lebedev, the owner, with his Dad, of the Evening Standard and The Independent.
Before we get on to the play though let’s wrap up on the real Boris. That nice Mrs May thought it would be a good idea to make him Foreign Secretary. To neuter his threat some thought. That didn’t turn out too well did it. But surely, even at a time when a Government is literally paralysed but its inability to deliver the undeliverable in Brexit, the way in which BoJo conducted himself in this position of high office should disqualify from the top job. Support for Erdogan, the House of Saud (in contravention of Government policy), his intervention in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the gaffe quoting Kipling in Myanmar, his advice to the Libyan city of Sirte, his reprimand by UK Statistics Authority, his nonsense on the Irish border, that missed vote, breach of the Ministerial Code, his lusty support for British business, and finally, his flounce out, alongside the loafer’s loafer, David Davies, when Brexit turned just that little bit tricky, unicorn-delivery wise. All achieved in a couple of years.
Since then plotting, ramping up the racism for the benefit of Conservative members, failing to declare earnings on nine occasions, the “suicide vest” comment, flirting with Bannon and Trump, the “spaffing” remark in the context of child abuse allegations, another Europe lie confirmed by the Independent Press Standards Office. and the idiot flirting with no-deal. For remember even if the Tory party goes all spineless and worried about preferment when it comes to the inevitable no-confidence vote which will follow Boris’s coronation, or he gets tempted by prorogation, (yes people, in the country that “gave democracy to the world”, we actually have candidates for Prime Minister who wish to emulate Medieval kings), we will still be tied in negotiations with Europe for the rest of most of our natural lives. Yep even BoJo the clown can’t make it all go away.
Right that’s off my chest. So what about this play. Well I am afraid that, with all this material to play with, and the gift of relevance, Mr Maitland’s play didn’t really come across as much more than a few, admittedly quite good, impressions by the assembled cast, Will Barton as Boris, Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Gove (and parliamentary agent Jack), Davina Moon as Marina Wheeler and spad Caitlin, Tim Walters as Lebedev, Huw Edwards and Tony Blair, Arabella Weir as Sarah Vine, Leila, a Tory Chair and, intriguingly, Winston Churchill and finally, Steve Nallon, doing his Thatcher routine.
Now as you might gather there are plenty of blasts from the past who appear to help guide BoJo as he lurches from wannabe Winston, inheritor of Mrs T’s monetarist/household economics and social authoritarianism, and then back to one-nation liberalism courtesy of Blair. Good idea. Not brilliantly executed. The second half throws us forward to 2029 with BoJo plotting a comeback on a platform of “Brentry”. Again shrewd set up but not enough is done with it. The first half takes place at a dinner party, with the Goves and our name dropping Russian publisher, (as I speak the Standard has just come out for Johnson – not sure what George Osborne’s game is there), when MG bounces BoJo into supporting Vote Leave. There is a ton of tired exposition which makes the repeated gags pall even more.
So some intriguing ideas, and a target that could hardly been more topical or richer in opportunity, but I am afraid Jonathan Maitland’s lines don’t really match his ideas. There are a few good jokes but it is just not barbed enough as satire. In fact it edges close to playful hagiography at times. At our performance the edgiest moment actually came when one audience member, to the chagrin of her partner, enthusiastically applauded at a Make Britain Great Again peroration that the real Boris tosses off in perfunctory fashion, (see how easy it is to talk like the peroxide prat). Not a good look in liberal, Metropolitan elite North London. Director Lotte Wakeham and designer Louie Whitemore have both delivered better than this.
In the real world I see the coppers have turned up to an altercation at the latest incarnation of Chez Johnson. No doubt the Tory membership, whose response to “no deal” economic chaos is apparently “bring it on”, will see this as further confirmation of his “man of the people” status. You literally couldn’t make this stuff up. In retrospect maybe I have been a little unfair on Mr Maitland. Reality here is beyond satire.
Not quite sure why this didn’t entirely work for me. Alexander Bodin Sophir takes an intriguing story, the escape of 7500 Jews by boat from Copenhagen to Sweden in 1943 just before the Nazis were about to round them up, and puts it into the mouths of a Swedish historian, his German daughter, his Danish-Jewish friend and the latter’s wife as they are holed up at the couple’s house following a power cut. Mr ABS, in this his first play, has the passion to tell the story, his own grandparents escaped this way, and he has put the hours in research-wise, unsurprising given his day-job as documentary maker. He also contrives a punchy, if slightly overwrought, twist to proceedings at the end.
Actually I think I do know why. In the effort to cover all the contended reasons as to how and why these events happened, and to elide this with dramatic personal disclosures, ABS perhaps asks his text and dialogue to do just a bit too much heavy lifting and makes his characters just a bit too predictable.
It is Hanukkah, 2001 in the Scandi chic interior (courtesy of designer William Fricker) of the house of Abraham (David Bamber) and Sara (Julia Swift). They are preparing for a visit from Lars (Neil McCaul) and Eva (Dorothea Myer-Bennett). Lars is researching the events surrounding the evacuation. Abraham, as an observant Jew, is convinced that it was the result of the heroic resistance of the Danish people, and divine intercession, whilst Lars, an atheist, is convinced there was collusion between the Danish government, which had avoided the excesses of occupation elsewhere in Europe through flexible accommodation, and certain sympathetic Nazi higher-ups. Personal recollection, both men where 8 in 1943 plays a part as their friendship arose from a family connection formed at the time. Memories prove somewhat flawed and events open to interpretation especially when a few McGuffinish momentos are chucked in.
Cue snowstorm to ensure the debate rages and then lay on top some past history between the calm Sara and Lars and the fact that Eva, a novelist, sees her identity stemming largely from her German mother, now divorced from Lars. It isn’t tricky to guess the outcomes but all this intrigue does detract from the historical interrogation, and vice versa. ABS’s dialogue smartly, and comically, undercuts some of the more hyperbolic exchanges, notably from Sara and Eva (I am very keen on Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s no nonsense acting talent – here she did a lot with very little). The versatile David Bamber is always a joy to watch whatever he is doing (last seen by me as Noel in Julia Davies’s gloriously smutty Camping – and indelible memory) and the is no exception. Neil McCaul, as the “truth is everything” academic is maybe asked to turn up the apoplectic dial once too often but this does serve an obvious purpose.
The competing narratives of what actually happened are well articulated in Kate Fahy’s production, but she could maybe have cranked the pace up. The parallels with present day Denmark, and by implication the rest of Europe, get a little lost and the science vs religion arguments are a bit heavy handed. I came out actually wishing ABS hand found a way to simply focus on the arguments about what actually happened, and therefore the “truth of history”, in a much shorter double-hander, and reversed the passive-aggressive relationship of Abraham and Lars. Alternatively the personal drama could have proved the catalyst from which the historical argument obliquely emerged.
Never, ever, marry a writer. That’s the main lesson I learnt from Honour. Jessica Murray-Smith’s 2003 play, much revived, which premiered at the NT with Ellen Atkins and Corin Redgrave, tracks the break up of a 32 year marriage when literary heavyweight George falls for calculating younger woman journalist Claudia. He leaves behind bewildered wife Honor, whose successful writing career was cut short when daughter Sophie, who is pretty livid about all of this, came along.
Across its two hours or so there is no doubt that Ms Murray-Smith covers all the bases. George’s priggish self-satisfaction. The hypocritical, “mid-life crisis”, vanity that allows him to fall for Claudia despite mocking a friend who does similar. His blustering erudition. Honor’s sacrifice of career and legacy to “support” George and bring up Sophie. Her shock, bemusement, anger and acceptance of what has happened to her. The generational gap between her and Claudia who has put career ahead of relationship and sees others in the light of what they can do for her. “Some women use loyalty as a way of justifying their sacrifice of themselves”. Claudia’s manifest certainty, at least until it starts to go wrong, as it was inevitably going to do, with George. Sophie’s anger with her Dad and exasperation with her Mum, and the gap in academic success, if not emotional intelligence, between her and Claudia, her near predecessor at Cambridge. The fading of passion in marriage, the value of monogamy, the betrayal of adultery, the idea of honour in love.
Yet the whole thing is curiously bloodless, as if the characters are acting out their reactions to each other and the situation. Which of course they are. But what I mean is the dialogue itself just doesn’t always persuade. This is not because these people lack eloquence and the ability to express themselves. Quite the reverse. They are INTELLECTUALS and that is how they talk. All the time. About everything that happens. Perhaps this is exactly how people of this class and position would behave in this situation. It is hard to connect though especially when a scene is contrived to explain to us the difference between naturalism and realism in drama.
This is nothing to do with the cast however. Producers Tiny Fires have assembled a super quartet, and under director Paul Robinson, I have to think they delivered the lines exactly as intended. If anything Katie Brayben as Claudia, who shows here that she is so much more than a musical star, and Natalie Simpson as Sophie outshone even the venerables Henry Goodman and Imogen Stubbs. I have been fortunate enough to see pretty much every professional stage performance of Ms Simpson (The Cardinal at Southwark Playhouse, as Ophelia in the Simon Godwin Hamlet opposite Paapa Essiedu, as Cordelia in the last RSC Lear, in Melly Still’s very fine RSC Cymbeline and as Juliet in Joe Hill-Gibbons’s Young Vic Measure for Measure). She is going to go a very, very long way.
Liz Cooke simple, blue set, marked with lighting strips and with a natty curl in one corner (the Park 200 has go in-the-round for this production) is intended to evoke a competitive space, a boxing ring. This is a similar conceit to that seen in Mike Bartlett’s Cock at the recent Chichester revival, also a four hander about a love triangle but, I think, far more successful, largely because the dialogue of the protagonists is riddled with uncertainty and rationality of behaviour is in short supply (Cock at the Minerva Theatre review ****).
With actors of this quality on this form, and with its squarely “middle-class” concerns (why is that the elite always insists on calling itself “middle-class”?) and flavours, I think this probably deserves, and may well get, a wider audience. Just make sure you put on your best speaking voice if you go.
Never has the truism “a hard act to follow” been more apposite than with The Rise and Fall of Little Voice and Jane Horrocks. Jim Cartwright wrote the part for her after he heard her extraordinary vocal mimicry in rehearsal and, after transferring stage performance to screen, this is what I guess she will be remembered for. Or maybe Bubble. In Ab Fab. Either way she is a very fine actor as her recent turn in Instructions for Correct Assembly at the Royal Court reiterated (Instructions For Correct Assembly at the Royal Court Theatre review ****).
That is not to say that there haven’t been plenty of revivals since the original in 1992. And there are probably tons of amateur singers with a decent pair of lungs who have also had a go. Jim Cartwright, as this, and maybe even more so Road, shows, has a natural dramatic gift. Maybe he hasn’t quite matched the brilliance of his first decade but his lines are just so good that is is difficult for cast and director not to entertain in his plays. Squeezing every last drop out of his stories however does require real talent such as that delivered by the likes of Lemn Sissay, Michelle Fairley, June Watson and Liz White, with director John Tiffany, in last year’s Royal Court revival of Road. (road at the Royal Court Theatre review ****). This didn’t quite scale those heights but I still thoroughly enjoyed it.
The calling card of this production, from new company The Land of Green Ginger at the Park, was having LV and Mari played by real life Mother and Daughter Sally George and Rafaella Hutchinson. You will likely know Sally George from the telly but she has an illustrious stage CV as well and Ms Hutchinson, as well as following Mum onto the small screen, has singing experience. I was certainly struck by her acting as LV, particularly early on in the more vulnerable passages, but her singing mimicry, notably in the lower registers, was a little more variable. Mum however was as brassily vulgar as you like, alternately grating and sympathetic, dignity never entirely crumbling. With fine support from Kevin McMonagle as Ray Say, Shaun Prendergast as Mr Boo, Linford Johnson as Billy and, especially, Jamie-Rose Monk as Sadie, (who, remember, is allowedT no real voice), this was a very solidly directed (Tom Latter) rendition of this emotionally direct play. Jacob Hughes’s albeit very literal set continued the run of fine realisations in this space.
I would venture to suggest that this narrative of linguistically and culturally rich, but emotionally and economically deprived working class women, which is in a sense what both LV and Mari are, trying to make themselves heard above the men that prey on them, isn’t terrifically fashionable in dramatic circles right now. Playwrights seem more focussed on broader identity and global catastrophe than on class. A shame in some ways. For when it works a punch to the gut, laced with humour as hear, can be so much more memorable than a dry tap on the brain.
Comic gold is not universal. We all have a different take on what is funny. The casting of Les Dennis in Extras (S1 E4) as a washed up, needy TV star in a pantomime, whose young fiancee is copping off with a stagehand, was a stroke of genius by its creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Specifically the scene where he is literally baring his all to Gervais in the changing room is as funny as funny gets. As it turns out this was a turning point in Les’s life and career lifting him out of a dark period after a marital break-up (visible on the execrable Big Brother apparently). Ironic too that Messrs Gervais and Merchant’s own comedy oeuvres have been largely downhill since then.
Anyway it means that Jolly Les is surely the go to casting choice if you are writing and producing a play about a washed up comedian whose career comes crashing down after making a racist joke. Which is exactly what writer and director Danny Robins and Hannah Price did with The End of the Pier. More than enough to reel me and the SO in to seeing it.
The joy is that this is actually a pretty good play. Funny, insightful, well structured and with some strong performances and not just from Les. His character Bobby was part of an, unsurprisingly, Northern double act, Chalk and Cheese. From working men’s clubs through to Saturday Night TV stardom they had it all into the 1980s. Eddie Cheese, now dead, was an unrepentant racist bully but it is Bobby who ends up telling the (unheard) joke, perhaps against his better nature, which catapults their careers, just when the audience, thanks to alternative comedy, is moving on. The twist is that Bobby’s son, Michael, played by Blake Harrison, (you know Neil from The Inbetweeners), is also now a household name “observational” comedian, with a partner Jenna, (the very talented Tala Gouviea), who is a TV comedy commissioning executive and fully paid up member of the LME.
Now as I write this I can see that the set-up does all sound a bit predictable. But the way in which Mr Robins goes on to develop the set-up is anything but. The politics of comedy, (and race and class), are smartly pulled to pieces, the relationship between father and son is similarly dissected and there is a brilliantly funny ending courtesy of Nitin Ganatra, who plays Mohammed, a schoolmate of Michael who comes back to haunt him. OK so there are a couple of clunky McGuffins to facilitate some plot switchbacks, and Michael’s character turns a little too adroitly on a attitudinal sixpence towards the end, but no matter, as once it gets going this is thoroughly entertaining stuff. Danny Robins is not the only TV/radio sitcom writer to be commissioned for the Park stage but on the strength of this I bet he gets another crack at a full length play. He has an ear for dialogue and could certainly succeed with subtler fare. Mind you I have to admit that some of the funniest lines in the play are Bobby’s cringey old-skool one-liners.
Hannah Price, (who I think worked with no less than John Malkovich on his The Good Canary at the Kingston Rose last year), directs with vigour and does a pretty guide job of patching over the contrivances and James Turner’s set, which shifts from Bobby’s Blackpool flat to backstage at the studio where Michael’s show is filmed, has a real flair for detail. As an aside the designers for productions at the Park seem to me to always be very well served by those who put their sets together so a big shout out to the chippies and the rest of the team. In our performance there was a problem with the sound but the team soldiered on regardless and came up with a couple of belts and braces solutions when it mattered.
There are better plays which address the nature of comedy, Trevor Griffith’s masterful Comedians and Terry Johnson’s Dead Funny for example, but this is a very entertaining, if occasionally overly earnest, addition.
This was a curious confection. Playwright Torben Betts (there his is above) has, by all accounts, made a very creditable stab exploring the comic social realism so expertly, and prolifically, mined by his one time mentor Alan Ayckbourn. Here is another to follow the likes of Invincible and Muswell Hill (also set in a kitchen). I hadn’t seen any of his work before, other than his adaption of Chekhov’s Seagull at the Open Air Theatre, which displayed his sympathy for the Russian master.
With Janie Dee in the title role, so superb in the NT’s Follies, as Caroline, a celebrity TV chef whose “perfect” life starts to unravel, this sounded interesting. Which, in some ways, it was. The problem is that it couldn’t quite make up its mind what it wanted to be or say. Nothing wrong with flipping between comedy and tragedy, this is after all, what the mighty Chekhov and all his subsequent acolytes have strived to perfect. The British middle class family, and specifically the British middle class marriage, is a perfect dramatic target and is guaranteed to put knowing bums on theatrical seats. (Remember the phrase “middle class” in this, and most other, contexts doesn’t actually mean those in the middle. It means those at the top who assuage their guilt, and give themselves room to complain about their entitled lot, by pretending they are in the middle. I should know. I am one of them).
In Monogamy though the comedy, whilst often very witty was just too broad, veering into farce. The satire was just too obvious, the targets too cliched. The tragedy too contrived. I am pretty sure this technicolour effect was what Mr Betts set out to achieve, assisted by Alistair Whatley’s direction, but it left me a little muddled despite some satisfying individual elements.
The play opens with the effortlessly capable Caroline rehearsing in the kitchen of her house which, temporarily is doubling up as her TV show kitchen. After the show her new PA, the coked-up Amanda, very amusingly played by Genevieve Gaunt with sub-Russell Brand verbal strangles, breezes in and announces the tabloids have got pics of Caroline pouring herself out of a bar after a big night out. It is wine o’clock though and Caroline, glass in hand, starts preparing for a party to celebrate son Leo’s Cambridge graduation. Leo (Jack Archer) is brooding, indulgently left-wing, gay and looking for his parents approval/spoiling for a fight as he comes out. We discover that builder Graeme (Jack Sandle), polishing up the house for sale, is having an affair with Caroline. As if this wasn’t enough the second act sees the return of the utterly over the top husband Mike return from his round of golf, (played with blustering, red-faced, apoplectic aplomb by Patrick Ryecart), and the arrival of Sally, (an under-utilised Charlie Brooks), bent on revenge for her husband’s infidelity. And the action ratchets up from there to a blackly comic conclusion, a knife standing in for the Chekhovian gun.
So you can see. Sit-comish staples, farcical energy, a hotch-potch of targets. Mike is a banker. And a philanderer. Obviously. Caroline is a Christian. Improbably., and her faith offers no protection from the demolition of family and fame. Sally is depressed, conveyed with real pathos by Charlie Brooks, but drowned by the rest of the shenanigans. Salt of the earth type Graeme turns out to have not so hidden depths of compassion. Amanda thinks they are all w*nkers, a fair enough assessment in the circumstances though she is the very embodiment of annoying. Though it may not be her fault as, McGuffin alert, her Mum has just died. Leo and Daddy make up, sort of.
It is genuinely hard not to like much of the detail and the performances, and I for one would be happy to acquire the kitchen conjured up in James Perkins’s set, but all together it overwhelms to the point of underwhelming if you see what I mean. I am pretty sure Torben Betts will hit the theatrical jackpot (and he can write other, more serious fare). This just doesn’t quite cohere. Having said that I gather it is set to tour in 2019, after a mini-tour prior to the run at the Park, and I would certainly look out for it if it comes near you.
I had high hopes for Pressure. I have said before that the Park Theatre has a knack of mounting a wide array of productions, which, on paper at least, sound interesting, though execution can be variable. If I am honest Pressure, initially, wasn’t one of them. But the reviews from previous performances in Edinburgh and Chichester and the presence as writer, and performer, of David Haig, and the Park’s always jolly atmosphere, reeled me in. When it transpired that the production was transferring to the West End, (the Ambassador’s Theatre from, in a nod to its content, the 6th June), I confess to feeling inwardly smug that I had got in early, along with the full houses which the Park has secured.
Talking of smug, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, there is a faint air of the self-satisfied about Mr Haig’s performances. Most recently I have seen him play the arrogant, borderline racist Dr Robert Smith in the Young Vic’s revival of Joe Penhall’s marvellous play Blue/Orange alongside some blokes called Daniel Kaluuya and Luke Norris who you might know. Let us hope Mr Penhall’s latest offering, Mood Music, at the Old Vic matches this. He also played the enigmatic Player in the said Old Vic’s recent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In both cases, and in some of his telly roles, he nails down the patronising pomposity of a certain type of middle-aged Brit expert, whilst revealing any vulnerability or desperation that might lie behind the surface.
I am sure that, outside work, he could not be more different, though his writing, the text of Pressure is intimidatingly exact in terms of directions, suggests otherwise. Regardless, what I can say is that when he gets his teeth into a character there are few more stirring sights than Mr Haig in full flow. So if I tell you that he has written a dramatic account of the real life contribution of meteorologist, Group Captain James Stagg, to the D Day invasion on June 6th 1944, it will likely not come as too much of a surprise. GC Stagg, on this account, was a dour, uncompromising Scot, who staked his reputation on convincing the Supreme Allied Commander General Eisenhower, here played by Malcolm Sinclair, to first hold off, and then go ahead with the invasion plans, despite apparently overwhelming evidence to the contrary and the opinion of his breezy American counterpart Colonel Irving P Krick (Philip Cairns).
It would have made a gripping black and white film in the 1950s or even a one off TV drama today. And that, in part, is something of its problem. It is a powerful story, but, once the die is cast, it is theatrically predictable and Mr Haig presents it that way. The pressure on GC Stagg is, compounded by his wife’s troubled pregnancy. The isobars on the charts measure pressure. We see the pressure mount on Eisenhower as he makes his fateful decisions. There are no real surprises in what the characters do or say and there are times when they verge on cliche.
On the other hand Mr Haig has wisely introduced a major female role in the form of Kay Summersby, the aide-de-camp to Eisenhower. She is played with clip-vowelled exactitude by Laura Rodgers, who I admired in Rules for Living at the Rose Kingston and Winter Solstice at the Orange Tree, (a play that continues to linger long in the mind). Malcolm Sinclair as Eisenhower is also impressive though I have no idea what the man himself was like, and the rest of the cast lend solid support. Director John Dove has collaborated with Mr Haig before on his most famous play (and film) My Boy Jack, based on the relationship between Rudyard Kipling and his son, so doesn’t mess about with Mr Haig’s story.
I appreciate that I am sounding a bit sniffy about Pressure. I don’t mean to be. It is, in its own conventional way, very effective and David Haig turns in an exemplary performance. If this sounds like your sort of thing then don’t hesitate to get down to the Ambassador’s.