King Hedley II at the Theatre Royal Stratford East review ****

King Hedley II

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 6th June 2019

The Pittsburgh (or Century) Cycle. Ten plays written by August Wilson (above) charting the African- American experience in the US in each decade of the C20. All bar one set in the same Pittsburgh Hill district, where August Wilson grew up. In the 1920s and 1930s this district was the hub of jazz culture. By the 1980s however, as the community was left behind and the planners, unsympathetically, moved in, Pittsburgh suffered the same fate as many other inner city areas in the US. The Cycle is not strictly chronological but is often connected. There were Pulitzer Prizes for Fences and The Piano Lesson. AW was inspired by, in his own words, blues music, the writing of Argentinian Jose Luis Borges, the African-American playwright Amiri Baraka and the African-American artist Romare Bearden, (most well know for his powerful work in collage).

So far the Tourist has seen this, Fences (with Lenny Henry as lead Troy Maxson) and the NT production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom with its A list cast led by Sharon D Clarke. And I have Two Trains Running coming up at the Royal and Derngate with the others on the bucket list. From the experiences so far this are slow-burn, emotional, painstakingly constructed dramas which carefully scrutinise characters, showing the joys, frustrations and disappointments of their everyday lives. Very specific in terms of time, place and setting, but universal in terms of message. Political with a small “p”. Measured and naturalistic.

King Hedley II certainly take its time, clocking in at near 3 1/2 hours, and starts small ending on a more melodramatic scale, almost Chekovian. All the action takes place in the back yard of Ruby’s (Martina Laird) brownhouse on Pittsburgh Hill, and silence, or any non-naturalistic trickery, is not part of the gig. So you have to want to hear these people speak. Fortunately the words Mr Wilson puts into their mouths are powerful, real and compelling. Which gives the cast here, under the direction of Nadia Fall, plenty to get their acting teeth into. Ms Fall’s first season in charge at the TRSE has been a triumph. Her second season looks like it will be a repeat. A combination of home-grown and brought in productions that celebrate diversity, are relevant and, above all, are entertaining. The house is filling up and reaching out. That’s impressive.

Anyway King Henley II was probably the pick of the crop on last year’s announcement, (though I would suggest The Village, The Unreturning and Equus, which is transferring to Trafalgar Studios and deserves your attention, all turned out to be better), on the strength of Mr Wilson’s reputation, the generous support of Mr Wilson’s widow Constanaza Romero, and the casting of Lenny Henry. As I know from Fences, Othello and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, our Lenny is a magnetic stage presence and packs an emotional acting punch. In some ways he is almost too big a character. However here, in the role of Elmore, he takes something of, well I hesitate to call it a back seat, but he is not the linch-pin of the action. That role belongs to Aaron Pierre who plays the eponymous title character, and he is, properly, awesome.

Mr Pierre hails from Lewisham, where he went to the local college, before getting into LAMDA. His professional debut was as Cassio in last year’s Othello which marked Sir Mark Rylance’s return to the Globe. He’s done a bit of telly as well, (he will appear in Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railway on Amazon), but this is this first stage lead. He will be a big star no doubt. And, just to be clear, he doesn’t play for Shrewsbury Town.

King Hedley II is an ex-con who returns to his childhood home after serving seven years for murder but is having difficulty adjusting back to life. He wants to provide for wife Tonya (Cherrelle Skeete) and start a family but employment proves elusive, this being 1985 in Reagan’s America/ So he conjures up a plan with his upbeat best mate Mister (Dexter Flanders) to sell knock-off refrigerators to the local community. Once they have saved enough they will then set up a video store. The plan, you will not be surprised to learn, doesn’t come off. King Hedley and Tonya share the house with Ruby. Hedley’s mother, though the relationship between mother and son is fractured. Ruby left Hedley to pursue a singing career so that he was brought up by his aunt, whose house this was, and is angry that she has returned to claim the house after his aunt died. Stool Pigeon (Leo Wringer), who is something of a fire and brimstone prophet, lives next door and, whilst we never see her, the death of Aunt Ester (“a washer of souls”), who appears in other plays in the Cycle, hangs heavy over the action. Many of the characters here first appear in Seven Guitars the play which premiered before KHII, in 1995, which is set in the 1940’s.

The opening act is not all doom and gloom, there’s plenty of bantz, but Hedley’s anger at the cards that life has dealt him, as he slouches in his chair in the yard, fiddles with his gun and tries to plant some seeds, is palpable. Into this volatile mix comes Elmore, Lenny Henry’s character, an ex-lover of Ruby and a hustler and chancer with a natty (if you like 70’s suits) dress sense. Hedley, as we find out, has good reason to resent Elmore and tensions build.

There are several strands to the story and Mr Wilson and Ms Fall are determined to give them all a fair hearing which does mean the play drags a little before it all comes together. The ending aims at tragedy but doesn’t quite scale the heights of the Greeks or Arthur Miller. Fate, male violence, the impact of the past on the present, the crushing of hope brought on by Reaganomics, individual responsibility, all are themes which are rehearsed in some often wordy monologues. Peter McKintosh’s set is a faithful retention of the brownstone terrace but there is little therefore to distract the eye. Howard Harrison’s lighting is a treat and there are a few, though maybe not enough, musical distractions, alongside Christopher Shutt’s electronic sound design.

Stones in His Pockets at the Rose Kingston review ***

Stones in His Pockets

Rose Theatre Kingston, 1st March 2019

Like Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, and written at the same time, Marie Jones’s Stones in His Pockets is a comedy which examines the impact when a Hollywood film crew descends on a small Irish community. But where one is sharp, dark and intriguing, this, for all of the sorrow at the heart of the play, is a much slighter affair, and can’t seem to make up its mind whether it is satirises or celebrating the outsider view of Ireland it examines. Maybe it was just the production, but the two hander structure, with both actors jumping incessantly between characters, seems to animate the broader, physical humour at the expense of the message about tired stereotyping which, I think, Marie Jones is trying to get across.

Not that it wasn’t funny in places. Though not as funny for me as it seemed to be for others. Some of the audience at the Rose were doubled up in mirth, others sat near stony-faced. Still there was pretty enthusiastic applause at the end for the efforts of Owen Sharpe (Jake) and Kevin Trainor (Charlie), which was very well deserved. Yet I had expected something more given the reception the play was afforded in its early years as it snowballed from its Belfast Lyric premiere, through a community tour, Edinburgh Fringe, the Tricycle and then into the West End for an award winning run of three years. Though perhaps this reflected the combined talents of actors Sean Campion and Conleth Hill (last seen by me steadfastly refusing to be out-acted by no less than Imelda Staunton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf). It has been revived on numerous occasions in Ireland, the UK and around the world. I even note that Kare Conradi, the AD of the Norwegian Ibsen Theatre (who was over here for The Lady From the Sea a couple of weeks ago), did a stint in a production over there. If it works in the land of Ibsen then who am I to argue.

Charlie Conlon and Jake Quinn are two friends in a rural town in County Kerry who sign up as extras for the Hollywood film. Charlie, on the run from his failed business, has written a script he dreams will be made into a film. Jake has recently returned from NYC, knows everyone in the village, and is besotted by the star of the movie, Caroline. The producers, directors and crew only care about getting the film done on time with plausibility, plot and accents taking a back seat. The “colourful” locals are initially excited at the arrival of Hollywood but soon tire of the glamour, and things take a turn for the worse when one of the villagers, druggie Sean, commits suicide after being humiliated by Caroline in the local pub. The flashpoint is Sean’s funeral. Jake and Charlie get the chance to pitch the script but it is rejected by the film’s for being insufficiently romantic and commercial.

Easy enough to see the tension between the Hollywood view of Ireland and reality. Martin McDonagh takes more direct aim at the liberties taken by Robert J Flaherty in his “documentary” Man of Aran in 1934, but the intent is similar. This touring co-production (with Bath Theatre Royal), is directed by Lindsay Posner, who has delivered it in NYC recently, and is as safe a pair of hands as it is possible to get, whether in classic or lighter theatrical fare (Mamet, Miller, Ben Johnson and Noises Off being particular highlights in my book). Peter McKintosh’s set is your standard Irish outdoorsy caper (see Rae Smith’s bigger budget version for the NT’s Translations last year), with the two actors manipulating a large chest to simulate the indoor scenes.

Moderately entertaining. For sure. Thought provoking. Nope, Fraid not.

Measure for Measure at the Donmar Warehouse review *****

Measure for Measure

Donmar Warehouse, 22nd November 2018

BOGOF. An inelegant retail term, Buy one get one free. Which is exactly what you get here. Two stripped-down, straight to the point versions of Will’s 1604 riff on justice, told as mirror images with gender reversal. 

So much gender swapping in Shakespeare, whilst interesting, and occasionally illuminating fails to serve a real purpose. So many shouty attempts to point up how “relevant” Shakespeare is to today come over as heavy-handed or desperate. Of course Will is for now, for “all time” because he understood and could illuminate human nature, our psychology whether as individuals or in a  social context, which is the same now as it was in Jacobean times. However there are undeniably times when Will’s punctilious gender politics radar flies a little off course. So some gentle coaxing, some redirection, is needed to change the point of attack.

And this is what Josie Rourke has done in this production. Problem play? Not here. Whilst not everything at the Donmar has come off during her stewardship of the Donmar alongside Executive Producer Kate Pakenham, the productions she has directed (notably St Joan, The Vote, Privacy, Coriolanus, The Weir and Berenice) have all be outstanding IMHO. The Donmar legacy is substantial and IMHO the last few seasons have always been interesting, with some palpable gems, the houses packed and, I am guessing, audiences broadening. Remember where JR and KP took over they were the first women to run a major London theatre. Fortunately now they are not quite alone.

Anyway she has a way with Shakespeare and is unafraid of making bold decisions to shed new light on the works. Now MFM, like its near companion the Merchant of Venice, is intended to be comic in form but deals with serious moral and ethical issues, as the title, drawn from you know who in the new Testament, implies. The slipperiness of justice and mercy are highlighted through abuses of power, in the context of a decadent and troubled society. But, as usual WS doesn’t offer up a simple morality play. He draws on the internal conflicts within the main characters to cover all the bases. Usual story, with no ambiguity, no grey areas, no “tragicomedy”, no complexity, there is a risk of no drama, just a lesson. Even saying this MFM, along with All’s Well That Ends Well and, for somewhat different reasons, Troilus and Cressida is a tricky customer. From classical comedy to medieval Romance to Renaissance satire, and any number of combinations in between, these are fascinating plays.

Angelo, not his ostensible boss, Escalus, is left by the Duke of Vienna to enforce the laws of the corrupted, morally lax state. When the novice nun Isabella comes to plead for mercy on behalf of her brother Claudio, condemned to die for the sin of pre-marital fornication, (which incidentally the 18 year old Will S and the 26 year old Anne Hathaway “committed” pre wedding), he tries to seduce her by trading Claudio’s life for her body. She refuses and threatens to unmask him. Angelo sneers that no-one will believe her. The Duke meanwhile, disguised as a Friar, after telling Claudio he has to accept his tragic fate, then comes up with the classic Renaissance comedy bed switch to trick Angelo into sleeping with his abandoned fiancee Mariana (it was very, very dark in those days) thinking she is Isabella. 

This is the point where verse turns to prose, the Friar unmasks as the Duke, Angelo turns up the treachery dial, and dubious plot manipulation leads to the not actually dead Claudio (there has been a comedy “head” switch to explain this) reunited with Isabella, Angelo forced into marrying Mariana (and the comic lead Lucio to a prostitute, just to ram home the point) and the Duke “proposing” to Isabella. So “tragedy” is averted but far from a comic ending.

So the formal justice of the state is contrasted with the concept of natural justice, the morality and ethics of the individual with that of society and the Church, and lustful and venal behaviour gets its comeuppance, or doesn’t. 

Now it would seem that the Jacobean mind was a bit more up for this lurching from comic to tragic, from deep and dark to light and fluffy, to allow the playwright (here, as the Duke, in the form of an on-stage agent) to push his characters where he (rarely she) will regardless of credibility, cogency or tone. We seem to be less flexible nowadays. Complexity and ambivalence are OK but moral uncertainty is unsettling. The setting for MFM, almost exclusively “indoors”, with dungeons, palaces, courts and chambers also lends any humour a darker, sourer edge than the knockabout and wordplay outdoors in some of the more obviously comic plays. 

Which I think is why productions of MFM, The Merchant of Venice, The Winter’s Tale and Timon of Athens which, whilst being careful not to completely jettison the tonal unevenness and behavioural uncertainties of the texts, offer up a firm(ish) contemporary ethical framework. You need to know where you are so you can then work out where you aren’t as it were, whilst still enjoying all the usual Shakespeare stuff, language, plot twists, rapid scene changes, rule-breaking, bonkers settings (here we are Vienna but everyone has an Italian name reflecting WS’s source, a 1578 play by George Whetstone called Promos and Cassandra). 

So this means Angelo’s blackmail, Venice’s anti-semitism, Leontes’s jealously, the greed, corruption and misanthropy of Timon and “friends” all need to be drawn out and signalled before being muddied. 

Anyway enough of the amateur criticism. What Josie Rourke has done is get to the heart of the male domination which underpins MFM through a, as it turns out, not so simple reversal. So take one, in “period” dress, sees Hayley Attwell as Isabella and Jack Lowden as Angelo in a speeded up, but largely complete, run through and the Duke, Nicholas Burns, as her nemesis at the close. Take two, it’s now 2018 and we are in modern dress, phones brandished, sees the switch of Isabella and Angelo’s lines, so with pronoun and other minor deft changes, we now see Angelo, as a member of some unspecified radical church organisation, as the chaste “victim” and Isabella as the predator. Except that it doesn’t quite pan out that way. 

As Isabella, Hayley Attwell is resolute and defiant convincing us that her principles trump her desire to save her brother’s life but also her yielding to a pragmatic way out. We are in no doubt though of the predatory bargain that the sententious hypocrite Angelo tries to strike (and its obvious parallels for the MeToo generation). And, when the manipulative Duke traps Isabella at the end with his marriage “proposal” she lets out an anguished howl and screams into his face (and, by implication, the face of every bloke through history). Cue dissolve. Part two. Now the blunt and unfeeling enabler of the law, Hayley Atwell is equally as convincing as she soliloquises about her lust for Angelo. Admittedly the mechanics of her move on Angelo and his rejection now stretch credulity a little but it still intrigues. However the most powerful moments come as it becomes clear that even now Isabella is the victim of the men around her, as she is mocked and shamed by them, tricked into bed with (now male ex) Frederick (Ben Allen), and them married off by a gloating Duke, who in turn now lusts after and entraps Angelo. 

Now you might think that this conceptual trickery might prove to be hard going. You would be wrong. The story moves along at a hell of a lick, both times, with minor characters excised, “head” and crowd scenes thinned out and Mariana downplayed. Peter McKintosh bare stage doesn’t get in the way of the message. Ms Atwell, who frankly I could watch for several hours just wrapping Xmas presents, is matched by Jack Lowden. Sule Rimi, as he has been in a number of recent productions I have seen, is also hypnotic as Claudio (especially in his cyclical rejection of the Duke/Friar’s pep talk ahead of his impending death second time around), and the comic interventions of Matt Bardock as Lucio, Jackie Clune as a now female, Russian inflected Pompey and Rachel Denning as Miss Overdone are delicious. 

This was Josie Rourke’s penultimate production at the DW. This theatre’s loss will be film’s gain. Which reminds me. I must see her Mary, Queen of Scots with Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan

The Marriage of Figaro at the ENO review *****

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The Marriage of Figaro

English National Opera, 12th April 2018

It isn’t easy to think of a better opera than the Marriage of Figaro. And, as we culture vultures know, when opera works there is scarcely any entertainment to match it. It is just a shame that opera so rarely all comes together. It did here though making a perfect treat for BUD, and myself, as we continue to advance the young fella’s cultural education. One more Mozart to go, Cosi fan tutte, maybe the ROH revival next year, Britten now opening up, chuck in some Janacek after that and I’ll find a contemporary candidate which won’t scare him off.

It will be hard to match this though. Figaro may be the least daft and offensive of the classic Mozart operas but it still takes a wily director to render the sexual politics and dissection of class conflict entirely palatable to my modern eyes. Fiona Shaw certainly does this in her production, revived here for the second time with Peter Relton doing the honours. When I have something meaty to chew on in terms of message, to add to the comedy, and, of course, that divine, (might as well trot out the cliches), music, then there is nothing to do but sit back and enjoy. Singers who can act, constant movement through an imaginative. labyrinthine set from Peter McKintosh which intrigues and illuminates (and revolves, a lot!), and a concept which doesn’t overwhelm the story, but points up its darkest elements and is true to the Sevillian setting.

Now there is no doubt an army of opera bores who can tell me how much better it would be with top drawer international stars or a big name maestro in the pit. Piffle I say. What I like is an ensemble who can create a drama, rather than stepping off the plane, plonking themselves centre stage, screeching and then milking the applause. I was also more than satisfied with young Matthew Kofi Waldren’s handling of the ever exact ENO Orchestra. MKW is assistant to Martyn Brabbins and, in this uncluttered performance, was a more than capable deputy.

Even a musical numbnut like the Tourist can hear that Lucy Crowe, now graduated to the role of Countess, possesses a voice of exquisite power once she gets in the groove. When she comes in with that first aria hairs on backs of necks collectively stood on ends. Even when conspiring with Susanna to get back at the cocksure Count there was a tinge of heartache stiffened with revenge in her demeanour. Ashley Riches’s Count may not match her singing but he shows us a brutally direct aristo who is more confused than contrite when he gets his comeuppance. Thomas Oliemans may not be the most savvy of Figaros but he is perky enough. Rhian Lois as Susanna was the stand out for me though, as good as actor as I have seen on any stage, with a voice that needed no sur-titling. Katie Coventry’s Cherubino wasn’t annoying – that’s rare praise in my book.

Best of all though is getting to hear Jeremy Sams’s English translation of Da Ponte’s libretto in turn based on Beaumarchais’s play. The originals are exemplars of energy, suppleness and wit. Mr Sams’s verse matches them. It is often laugh out loud funny but still doesn’t blunt the sharper edges that puncture the mistaken identity and cupboard-hiding bromides. This is a comedy of cruelty not romance, as the Picasso-like bull skulls, (and minotaur allusions), the weapons, the confrontations, the barbs, the contracts, the tantrums, remind us. The cast, like the characters, relished turning the screw on each other. Remember this is a story where one woman (Marcellina) wouldn’t hesitate to use the law to catch her man (Figaro), a young boy (Cherubino) can’t keep his c*ck in his britches, the Countess agrees to feign adultery, she and her own fiance pimp out Susanna to the Count, a marriage (Marcellina and Bartolo) is agreed to legitimise an illegitimate child, Figaro is prepared to beat up his fiance on the basis of a lost pin and a bunch of blokes lurk beyond trees to watch the Count getting it on with Susanna. Nice eh.

The droit du seigneur that the Count will not relinquish may be the dramatic crux, but there is much more to Mozart/da Ponte’s plot, (even when it is shorn of the revolutionary monologue from Figaro berating the Count to be found in Beaumarchais). Fiona Shaw draws this out in ways that other, more frivolous, productions do not. Having the Countess walk out at the finale made sense. Men in positions of power haven’t changed much it seems so need to be reminded why then they are being w*nkers.

So a wonderful production of a wonderful opera. Don’t just take my word for it. Ask BUD.

 

 

The York Realist at the Donmar Warehouse review *****

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The York Realist

Donmar Warehouse, 22nd March 2018

Live in Sheffield? Like theatre? Then you must go see this production of the 2001 play, The York Realist, which is on at the Crucible for the next couple of weeks. Live in Sheffield and no interest in the theatre? Even more reason to go. The family at the centre of this play went to see the York Mystery Plays and they were bowled over by it. The same will happen to you if you see this. Cast iron guarantee.

This is the first time I have seen a play from the pen of Peter Gill and I can’t imagine a more sympathetic production. This revival is a co-production between the Donmar and Sheffield Theatres and, if this is what Artistic Director Robert Hastie, serves up to the good people of Sheffield on a regular basis then I might just have to move there. I see there is a production of Caryl Churchill’s epic, by her standards, Love and Information set for early July. I’ve signed up. For those with the attention span of a gnat this is the play for you.

Back to The York Realist. The “York Realist” was, probably, the writer of 8 of the 48 individual plays or pageants which make up the York version of the Medieval Mystery Plays. These were constructed as a way of bringing the Bible stories to the hoi-polloi, both as performers and audience, through the C14, C15 and C16. The 8 plays in question are characterised by the broad, Yorkshire vernacular in the text, lending them an everyday realism. A production of the Mystery Plays is what brings together the protagonists in the play, John and George, in the early 1960s. Peter Gill too has conjured up a completely naturalistic play, over four acts and set entirely in one set, the main room of the tied cottage which agricultural labourer George shares with his unnamed Mother. George’s sister Barbara lives nearby with husband Arthur and son Jack, and nearest neighbour Doreen is a regular visitor.

There is a little formal experimentation in terms of chronology but none of the shenanigans ushered in to British play-writing by the likes of Beckett, Pinter, Osborne, Bond, Churchill and Stoppard. The plays opens with John visiting George after his Mother has died, before we revert to the early days of their relationship. At its heart this is the love story of John and George and it is a very affecting love story indeed, (some parallels with the recent debut film from Francis Lee, God’s Own Country, I gather).

Well-spoken southerner John, a doe-eyed, polite Jonathan Bailey, is the assistant director at the Mystery Plays, (as indeed Peter Gill was in his youth in the 1960s). George is a blunt, muscular, salt of the earth type who can’t commit to sticking with the play. It is hard to imagine anyone else but the excellent Ben Batt playing the part. John has come to persuade him back to the play. Their attraction is obvious from the start and both actors are completely convincing in their relationship. George’s seduction is amusingly direct, John’s coyness easily overcome

Their relationship flounders more on the rocks of class and geography than the reaction of family, who have tacitly accepted George’s sexuality. George feels bound, or maybe chooses, to stay looking after ailing Mother, Downton’s Lesley Nicol, and eventually bows to what seems inevitable by taking up with the humble, attentive Doreen (Katie West), who has been waiting all her life for him despite his identity. With minimal and unforced dialogue, and some very gentle disclosure, we also get to see the ambitions and frustrations of bluff Arthur (Matthew Wilson), indefatigable Barbara (Lucy Black) and Brian Fletcher’s Jack who seems destined, if reluctant, to take up farm labouring.

What is so brilliant about Peter Gill’s writing is the way, within this entirely naturalistic scenario, he draws out the themes he wishes to explore. John’s slightly patronising middle class fascination with the past, the rural and the antique, (though he isn’t prepared to abandon his life and work in London and creature comforts to live in the country), George’s acknowledgement of all that London has to offer but his fear of moving (“I live here”), the denial of identity, the pull of family, gender roles, the allure of self-sacrifice and devotion, the limitations placed on aspiring working class actors, the power of theatre and its appropriation as “high culture”, the inequity of tied farming. None of this is rammed down your throat, and perhaps the biggest dichotomy, the fact that gay relationships were still illegal in the early 1960s, is made more telling by its near absence in the story.

Apparently Peter Gill has a long association with the Donmar as writer and director. Just shows how much I know. I was aware of his guiding hand behind the Riverside Studios in its heyday in the late 1970s and his association with the National Theatre Studio in the 1980s. I see that the new Riverside Studios is close to completion, (passed it on the bus the other day), though I think it will be devoted once again to TV. I only got the bus because I didn’t have time to walk along that part of the Chiswick riverside where Peter Gill lived. That’s one of the joys of culture-vulturism. All the little coincidences and connections.

I can’t imagine Robert Hastie’s direction, Peter McKintosh’s design, Paul Pyant’s lighting and Emma Laxton’s sound being bettered. I do note that some of the proper critics think this has improved on the original production at the Royal Court in 2002. I can tell you it is a very fine play and, if they match this, I hope to see other revivals of Mr Gill’s work. Meanwhile people of Sheffield you know what to do.

 

 

Curtains at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****

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Curtains

Rose Theatre Kingston, 1st March 2018

Stage comedies don’t always stand the test of time too well. Comedy is elusive enough in the first place and may often be more rooted than tragedy to specific times, places or events. Comedic fashion chops and changes and what is acceptable shifts with the zeitgeist. Repetition does not always serve it well. This is as true of comedy from the last few decades as it is from hundreds of years ago. If a comedy play wins an award, especially an award for “best newcomer”, than alarm bells should sound for any subsequent revival.

Stephen Bill’s Curtains from 1987 won many just such awards, and repeated the trick when it was revived in New York a decade later. Added to that it’s a comedy about death. Set in the West Midlands. The second comedy about death set in the West Midlands I have seen in the last couple of weeks after the Guildhall’s Schools splendid production of Laura Wade’s Colder Than Here. (Colder Than Here at Guildhall School Milton Court Studio review *****). Maybe this very specific sub-genre holds a special fascination for me. Hm.

So I approached this with trepidation. I shouldn’t have. This is, by and large, a very smart play, directed by Lindsay Posner, who I assume was keen to revive it, which should be playing to packed houses at the Rose. I may be biased, because it is on the doorstep, but I really do think that, despite having no Artistic Director, the Rose is astutely delivering some high quality, uncluttered, proper theatre, sometimes in collaboration, sometimes, as here I think, off its own bat. Maybe not quite matching the Orange Tree in terms of innovation but streets ahead of the safety first pap that the Richmond Theatre largely relies on.

It’s that old Ayckbourn-ian staple, the family gathering, (which didn’t work as well in my last visit here for Sam Holcroft’s novel Rules for Living, another “best newcomer” – Rules For Living review at the Rose Theatre Kingston ***). It’s Ida’s (Sandra Voe) birthday. We are in her threadbare front room, courtesy of designer Peter McKintosh. She is stuck in her wheelchair with advanced dementia, her eyesight and hearing fading, surrounded by her two daughters, a splendidly po-faced Margaret (Wendy Mottingham) and a restless Katherine (Saskia Reeves and their respective husbands, the punctilious Geoffrey (Jonathan Coy) and the candid Douglas (Tim Dutton). Geoffrey and Margaret’s son Michael is also in attendance.

Now the somewhat gauche Michael is played by none other than Leo Bill, the son of the playwright. Do not be alarmed though, there is no nepotism at work here. Mr Bill junior is a fine comic actor as I know from his Bottom in Joe-Hill Gibbons’s characteristically bold Midsummer Night’s Dream (A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Young Vic review ****). Now Bottom is funny. There is a clue in the name. And Shakespeare, who was good with gags, created him. Yet sometimes once you have done the donkey head and Titania fancying him, the belly-aches can ease up. Not so with Leo Bill who, with body, face and words, and a pair of tights, held the whole of the school-kid contingent in the palm of his hand, not to mention us old grumpers.

Dad Stephen Bill is probably much better known for his TV scripts than his plays, but it seems like he retired some time ago. So I think I can be confident that young Bill is here on merit; his performance certainly suggests so. The birthday party is completed by neighbour Mrs Jackson (Marjorie Yates), who, along with Michael who lives in the house, takes care of Ida, and, subsequently by a third sister, free spirit Susan (Caroline Catz) who is something of a black sheep, and winds Margaret up something rotten.

The fussing around Ida, drinks, sandwiches and cake are served in quick succession, and the importing of her reactions by the sisters, is spot on. It soon become clear though that there are tensions over how Ida should be cared for as she approaches the end, amidst the familiar, familial carping. This is the debate that lies at the heart of the play. How should families deal with with end of life, both practically and emotionally? As the population ages, and the cost of social care rises, this is, in turn, an increasing concern, as we have seen, for society as a whole. Mr Bill is a little guilty of shoe-horning various positions into the mouths of his characters, but the writing is still sufficiently airy to withstand this.

There is a fairly sharp tonal shift at the end of the first which sets up the argument in the second act, and which I shall refrain from describing. Suffice to say it works. There are a couple of incongruous moments which show the age of the play, notably some casual racism, a reminder of the mutability of comedy which I have remarked on above. Overall though this is a very well written play, keenly observed, darkly comic and with some trenchant argument. There is a hint of edgy, Orton-lite about proceedings, which is a very good thing, and Mr Bill has a handy knack of making his dialogue sound natural, often funny, but never “sit-com forced”.

Hats off to whoever thought to revive this.