The Outsider at the Print Room Coronet review ****

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The Outsider

Print Room Coronet, 19th September 2018

Tricky one this. I can’t pretend I was pinned back in my seat by the two and a half hours of Ben Okri’s adaptation of Albert Camus’ absurd existentialist classic written in 1942. Abbey Wright’s careful direction injects a little humour, (a dog is played by a mop and the trial scene is undercut with satire), but otherwise doesn’t take liberties with either Camus’ story or this intelligent text. The monochrome set, complete with multiple fans, and costume designs of Richard Hudson, bolster the sense of ennui. The Print Room dry ice machine gets yet another comprehensive work out. The plot, French Algerian bloke, bored at work as a clerk, can’t really get worked up about Mum’s death, finds girlfriend but can’t commit, gets involved with rum type neighbour, gets very hot, kills Algerian, is tried and condemned without really explaining himself, has its moments but isn’t going to pack them in at the Victoria Palace any time soon.

Yet this unhurried, unequivocal approach slowly and surely yields dividends assisted by an outstanding performance from Sam Frenchum. Now the Tourist got an inkling into of the talent of young Sam in the role of Hal in the Park Theatre’s excellent revival of Joe Orton’s Loot this time last year. Hal may not be the sharpest too in the box, so needs to be played dumb to get the laughs, but we need to see how his jealously of lover and criminal sidekick intensifies through the farce. That we got. Here though the young man, who is on stage throughout, rises up to a different challenge, gradually uncovering a man in Mersault, who reveals nothing. His delivery is deliberately monotone but far from mechanical. I expect him to go on to bigger things from here (actorally if not philosophically).

The pace gives the audience plenty of time to ruminate on what drives Mersault and why he is like he is. In the same way as the book. Ostensibly simple, almost banal, Mersault’s story yields pointed insight into the human condition, and specifically, the notion of alienation, of Mersault being a “stranger” or “outsider” to his own life and in the society around him. His utter indifference. Of course you might think it is a load of pretentious Gallic guff which only those who think too much and/or have too much time on their hands could possibly think is of any value. You might be right but I respectfully suggest you give it a go. After all you surely must have experienced the feeling of being utterly bemused by what is going on around you or unable to summon up apparently required emotions. Camus’ absurdist philosophy, his utter scepticism, is pretty bleak but it is ultimately truthfully humanist, even if it doesn’t always feel very human and can jar with post-modern sensibilities. It still needs to be understood though.

The book is written in the first person. Ben Okri has preserved that structure with Mersault speaking direct to audience in key passages to detail his experiences, perceptions, feelings, motivations, or more precisely lack thereof, whilst mixing this up with action across 13 speaking characters (and a few brave community locals). His first date with Marie Cardona (an innocently upbeat Vera Chok) on the beach, the murder, when he is alone in the cell and large parts of the courtroom scenes are straight narrative: the interactions with Raymond (an intimidating Sam Alexander), the undertaker and his defence lawyer (Josh Barrow moving swiftly on from his fine performance in The Silk Road at Trafalgar Studios), his boss and the prosecuting lawyer (David Carlyle) and the director and examining magistrate (Mark Penfold) are largely dialogue, though even here the sense that Mersault is at once removed from his own “reality” is palpable. Mind you he certainly “comes alive” when he violently rejects religion in the powerful scene with the chaplain (John Atterbury).

Mr Okri has preserved the minimalist quality of Camus’ text, or at least the translation I remember reading years ago, but still offers enough “colour” for Abbey Wright, lighting designer David Plater, sound designer Matt Regan and movement director Joyce Henderson to work with. Mind you he doesn’t quite scale the spartan heights of Robert Smith lyrics in The Cure’s early classic Killing An Arab.

If you do take the opportunity to see this production at the Print Room, there are a handful of tickets left, or if it pops up elsewhere, which it should, then don’t miss the accompanying short film by Mitra Tabrizian with text, in Arabic, once again from Ben Okri, which imagines events from the perspective of the Arab. Camus’ novel is discomforting in many ways, as was his principled ambivalence to Algerian independence, but giving a voice to the nameless Arab, here Mohamed Moulfath, (in the play Archie Backhouse), in a way similar to the 2014 novel The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, offers a valuable alternative perspective.

Act and Terminal 3 at the Print Room Coronet review ***

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Act, Terminal 3

The Print Room, Coronet, 13th June 2018

Lars Noren is considered by many of those who purport to know about these things to be Sweden’s greatest living playwright. He certainly looks the part. His writing is oft compared to Beckett and Pinter. The Print Room is a terrific space. The intimacy of fringe with, if you are careful, a comfortable enough perch and an atmospheric bar. And a bargain on Wednesday night. As a dedicated Scandi-phile I was well up for this.

Mind you I had read enough to realise this wasn’t set to be an evening of Cooney-ish farce. Once again I invite you to look at our Mr Noren above, This was going to be spikey, elusive, provocative, an air of brooding unease pervading the whole, in short proper European “art-theatre”. No conventional narrative of course. Past, present and futures unclear. Cast having to work extra hard to earn their corn (which they all did, admirably). Well it certainly lived up to the billing. Which was both good and bad.

Act sets out to explore the “symbiotic” relationship between State and Terrorist and was originally located in West Germany in the 1970s and the incarceration of Ulrike Meinhof. Director Anthony Nielsen has chosen to re-imagine the play in a near future USA post a Second Civil War where “red” secessionist states have been occupied by an authoritarian, left-leaning government. Interesting, a la mode, but ultimately unnecessary in my view, and not immediately obvious from the dialogue. G, venomously played by Barnaby Power, albeit with an improbable Southern drawl, is a doctor for the regime, holed up in some makeshift hospital/prison full of symbolic Americana. Temi Wilkey is M, the enemy of the state set to undergo further (?) examination/interrogation. They may have had a past encounter. There is little in the way of argument or context in their exchanges which are more along the lines of a psychological arm-wrestle as each takes their own experiences and beliefs to alternately cajole and belittle the other. I guess the overriding aim is, Foucault-like, to show the inter-dependence of captive and captor, and there are some arresting lines, as it were, but it was frustratingly opaque.

Terminal 3, again some 45 minutes or so, was a little more straightforward, but not by much. Two couples emerge either side of a screen centre stage courtesy of designer Laura Hopkins, imposingly lit by Nigel Edwards, and with buckets of dry ice. It transpires that Man and Woman (of course Mr Noren doesn’t dilute his art with names), Barnaby Power and Hannah Young have come to a hospital chapel of sorts to identify the body of their dead son. In contrast He and She (!), Robert Stocks and Temi Wilkey, are in a hospital as She is about to give birth. At least I think that was the set-up. This then becomes the stepping off point for a dense exploration of the impact of the beginning and end of life on the two couples. Mr Nielson’s direction, as the couples seem disorientated by their situations, fumbling in near darkness towards the end, (terminal ?), was unyieldingly gnomic.

So puzzling, inaccessible, provocative. Yes. And maybe just a bit daft. Yep, maybe. But here’s the thing. Like so many of these more challenging theatrical experiences it does stay in the memory, and sometimes for longer than more straightforwardly enjoyable entertainments. I have a recollection that none other than the mighty Caryl Churchill once said that she aimed to create a few lasting impressions in the audience for her plays. Anything more not being possible given the nature of memory. She might not have said this though given she doesn’t say much and my memory is fallible, or do I mean malleable. You get the idea. Not saying these two short plays really qualify but, by making me search for meaning, they might persist.

The Open House at the Print Room Coronet review ***

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The Open House

The Print Room Coronet, 27th January 2018

Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, Sam Shepherd, Lillian Hellman. All succeeded at writing a Great American Play, or in some cases Plays, about dysfunctional families. In an entirely naturalistic way. It is the meat and drink of American drama.

I am no expert but I suspect there have also been multiple attempts to subvert this staple. That is what writer, Will Eno, is about here. Open House is another collaboration with Bath Theatre Royal’s Ustinov Studio, which has proved fruitful to date. I was reeled in by the Bath reviews, by the concept, but most of all by Greg Hicks, who is a marvellous actor IMHO. His Richard II at the Arcola was one of my favourite turns of last year. And, all things considered, I am glad I went along, though I have to confess this is a play that delights rather more in its central idea and its structure, than in its characters.

Father, (yes it is one of those trendy no-name jobs), played by the aforesaid Mr Hicks, is a cantankerous, misanthropic, sarcastic bully. Confined to a wheelchair post a stroke he pokes, probes, belittles and demeans the family that has gathered to celebrate a wedding anniversary. Long suffering wife and Mother Teresa Banham (last seen by me in the rash Dessert at the Southwark Playhouse) tries hard to blunt his barbs and smooth things over but her heart isn’t in it anymore. Son (Ralph Davies) and Daughter (Lindsey Campbell) make nervous family small talk but are constantly shot down by their irascible Dad. Finally Uncle (Crispin Letts) seems lost in his own world, still grieving from the loss of his wife. So far so miserable. It is on occasion very funny, in that cringey, lemon-sucking way, Mr Eno has an ear for the rhythms of this painful family gathering and the cast lap it up. Tom Piper’s set along with Madeleine Girling’s costumes, Oliver Fenwick’s lighting and Andrea J Cox’s sound all contrive to create an atmosphere of utter blandness. Colour is absent.

Food is needed and Daughter volunteers to head out to the deli. And one by one, for various reasons the family leaves. And one by one the family returns, but in a different guise. Daughter is now a realtor who is set to sell the house. Son is a handyman come to fix a couple of things, Uncle a prospective buyer, Wife his partner. Father is last to leave and is mystified by what is going on, (despite prompting the shift by revealing he wanted to sell up), until he returns as the buyer’s friend and lawyer. And, with all this coming and going, colour and light seep in. The conversations more from pained recrimination to upbeat geniality, focussed on the here and now and the future, not the past. In short from pessimism to optimism. It is a gratifying watch, replete with clever touches to support the inversion, but it doesn’t seem to say much beyond the central conceit and doesn’t really interrogate the characters.

Mr Eno is apparently a one for formal innovation and that is no bad thing. But he also seems to have the comic touch and in some ways the satire on family life here may ironically have been more acute if this had been structured in a more straightforward way. Still, it intrigued and made me laugh, and Michael Boyd’s direction, is, as you would expect, entirely sympathetic to the project.

 

 

 

Some ideas for the culturally inclined in London

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Here is a very brief round-up, (apparently I can drone on a bit so have tried to be disciplined), of the current and forthcoming major theatre and exhibition events in London that have caught my eye (and ear). I have a list of classical concerts which is still good to go for those that way inclined (Some forthcoming classical music concert ideas (with a bit of nostalgia thrown in) and will take a look at the best of the forthcoming seasons at the two major opera houses in another post.

No particular order and not at all obscure. There should be tickets available for all of these but in some cases you may need to get your finger out.

Hope this helps if, unlike me, you are not over endowed with time.

Theatre

I can vouch for the first four below and the rest are those which I think are likely to be the most likely to turn into “must-sees”.

  • Hamlet – Harold Pinter Theatre – June to September 2017

If you think Shakespeare is not for you then think again. Andrew Scott as our eponymous prince could be chatting to you in the pub it is that easy to follow (mind you, you’d think he was a bit of a nutter) and Robert Icke’s direction is revelatory. Plenty of tickets and whilst it’s not cheap they aren’t gouging your eyes out compared to other West End shows. Here’s what I thought.

Hamlet at the Almeida review *****

  • The Ferryman – Gielgud Theatre – June to October 2017

This will almost certainly be the best play of 2017 and will be an oft revived classic. It is better than writer Jez Butterworth’s previous masterpiece, Jerusalem. Prices are steep but the Gielgud is a theatre where the cheap seats are tolerable. If you see one play this year make this it.

The Ferryman at the Royal Court Theatre review *****

  • Babette’s Feast – Print Room Coronet – to early June 2017

There are a couple of weeks left on this. Probably helps if you know the film or book. I was enchanted though proper reviews less so. Loads of tickets, cheap as chips, not demanding at all, lovely venue.

Babette’s Feast at the Print Room Coronet review ****

  • Othello – Wilton’s Music Hall – to early June 2017

Again just a couple of weeks left here. Once again perfect Shakespeare for those who don’t think it is for them. Big Will’s best play and an outstandingly dynamic production. Another atmospheric venue, though I would say get right up close. A bargain for this much class.

Othello at Wilton’s Music Hall review ****

  • The Tempest – Barbican Theatre – July and August 2017

This is the RSC transfer from Stratford. Simon Russell Beale, our best stage actor, as Prospero. Some fancy dan technology is employed. Reviews generally positive though you always get sniffiness from broadsheets whenever RSC plays a bit fast and loose with big Will. Not cheap but at least at the Barbican you will be comfy (if you don’t go too cheap).

  • Macbeth – Barbican Theatre – 5th to 8th October 2017

More bloody Shakespeare. Literally. On this you are going to have to trust me. Ninagawa is a Japanese theatre company renowned for its revelatory productions. So in Japanese with surtitles. But when these top class international companies come to the Barbican it is usually off the scale awesome. I’ve been waiting years to see them. Enough tickets left at £50 quid a pop but it will sell out I think.

  • The Suppliant Women – Young Vic – 13th to 25th November 2017

Reviews when this was shown at Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh were very good. Aeschylus, so one of them Greeks, updated to shed light on the refugee crisis. Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, and you can probably wait until closer to opening, but I still think this will turn into a must see.

  • Ink – Almeida Theatre – June to August 2017

Writer James Graham’s last major outing, This House, about politics in 1970s Britain, was hilarious and insightful. This is based on the early life of Rupert Murdoch so expect a similar skewering. Directed by Almeida’s own Rupert Goold with Bertie Carvel the lead (the sh*t of a husband in that Doctor Foster off the telly). I have very high hopes for this,

  • Against – Almeida Theatre – August and September 2017

New play which sounds like it is about some crazy US billionaire taking over the world (I could be hopelessly wrong as Almeida doesn’t tell you much). Written by American wunderkind Chris Shin, directed by master of clarity Ian Rickson, and with Ben Wishaw in the lead. Don’t know how much availability as public booking only opens 25th May, but I would get in quick here and buy blind. Almeida now a lot comfier with the padded seats and still a bargain for what is normally world class theatre.

  • Prism – Hampstead Theatre – September and October 2017

New play from the marvellous Terry Johnson who writes brainy comedy Robert Lindsay in the lead role of a retired cinematographer. I have a feeling there will be more to this than meets the eye (!!) and will buy blind on the public booking opening. Usually around £30 a ticket so if it turns into a hit, as Hampstead productions sometimes do, it is a bargain.

  • Young Marx – The Bridge Theatre – October to December 2017

So this is the opener from the team at the Bridge which is the first large scale commercial theatre to be opened in London for decades. The genius Nick Hytner directs and the play is written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman. The last time these three came together out popped One Man, Two Guvnors. Rory Kinnear and Oliver Chris (trust me you will know him off the telly) play the young Marx and Engels in London. Hard to think of a set up that could get me more excited but if any part appeals to you I would book now. There are loads of performances so no urgency but, if they have any sense at all, the seats here will be v. comfy with good views as it is all brand new, so taking a punt on a cheap seat will probably turn out well.

  • Julius Caesar – The Bridge Theatre – January to April 2018

Bridge again. Julius Caesar so probably need to know what you are letting yourself in for as solus Roman Shakespeare’s can sometimes frustrate. BUT with David Morrissey, Ben Wishaw, David Calder and Michelle Fairley, it is a super heavyweight cast. Same logic as above – it might be worth booking early and nabbing a cheap seat on the assumption they would be mad not to serve up the best auditorium in London if the venture is to succeed.

  • The Retreat – Park Theatre – November 2017

The Park often puts on stuff that sounds way better than it actually turns out to be, but this looks the pick of its forthcoming intriguing bunch. Written by Sam Bain (Peep Show and Fresh Meat) and directed by Kathy Burke. Comedy about a City high flyer who gives it all up but can’t escape the past. If anything is guaranteed to wheel in the North London 40 and 50 somethings then this is it. No cast announcement yet but I bet they rope some comic into the lead.

  • The Real Thing – The Rose Theatre Kingston – 2nd to 14th October

A co-production with Theatre Royal Bath and Cambridge Arts Theatre of one of Stoppard’s greatest plays. I really want this to be a cracking revival for my local.

Exhibitions

Here is the pick of the forthcoming blockbusters which I hope to get to see. The Jasper Johns and the Cezanne Portraits are the ones I am most excited about.

  • Giacometti – Tate Modern – just opened until 10th September 2017
  • Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains – V and A – until 1st October 2017
  • Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction – Barbican Art Gallery – from 3rd June 2017
  • Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! – Serpentine Gallery – from 8th June 2017
  • Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth – Royal Academy – from 23rd September 2017
  • Opera: Passion, Power and Politics – V and A – from 30th September 2017
  • Cezanne Portraits – National Portrait Gallery – from 26th October 2017
  • Monochrome: Painting in Black and White – National Gallery – from 30th October 2017
  • Impressionists in London – Tate Britain – from 2nd November 2017
  • Red Star Over Russia – Tate Modern – from 8th November 2017
  • Modigliani – Tate Modern – from 23rd November 2017

 

 

Babette’s Feast at the Print Room Coronet review ****

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Babette’s Feast

Print Room at the Coronet, 10th May, 2017

Ahh Babette’s Feast. A gently understated but uplifting Oscar winning film directed by Gabriel Axel (it beat Au Revoir Les Enfants to the 1987 foreign film prize !!) that ranks pretty high up on my list of all time faves. Of course being the literary simpleton that I am, I know nothing of the Karen Blixen (pen name Isaak Dinesen) book on which the film was based nor of Ms Blixen herself. Other than, you guessed it, the film version of her memoir Out of Africa. So just as well then that I have the insight of the SO who is on top of (not literally) Ms Blixen’s work though, to my surprise, confessed to not having read Babette’s Feast. She does do a mightily convincing impression of Meryl Streep playing Blixen/Dinesen though.

So we went into this adaptation with high hopes but I confess lowish expectations just in case. The recent adaptations of films/books for the stage that I have seen have been mixed, Red Barn, City of Glass and, it sounds like, Obsession, on the debit side of the ledger, offset by the successes of My Brilliant Friend, The Kid Stays in the Picture and The Plague. Anyway I have to report that I think this Babette’s Feast is a resounding success.

There is a deal of poetry in the source material so getting a poet by trade, Glyn Maxwell, to write the play was inspired. There are a few minutes at the beginning when Babette, played by the striking Sheila Atim (who, along with Leah Harvey and Jade Anouka, blew my socks off in the Donmar Shakespeare trilogy alongside the splendid Harriet Walter, and is now set to star in the Old Vic’s Girl from the North Country), came on a bit strong with the lyricism. But the reasons for all of this became clear as we moved through the story which was told through spare but still elegant prose and with simple but haunting staging.

At its heart this is a tale of an outsider being embraced by a community and she, in turn, showing them that joy can be found here on earth as well as the heaven that they imagine. As well as capturing the harshness and drabness of a life in a village perched at the periphery (Northern Norway in the book, windswept Jutland, beautifully, in the film) it also shows how adherence to strict religious orthodoxy can also limit opportunity and imagination. The two daughters, Martine and Philippa, of an austere, though well meaning pastor father, find joy in love (a man in a uniform) and singing (the sublime Mozart) respectively, but no escape from duty. Babette in turn, is forced to flee Paris as the Commune is suppressed in 1871, and, through a fateful connection, finds sanctuary in the village. The suspicion of the tight-knit villagers, shown with real humour here, turns to love as Babette’s true art is revealed.

Wonderful stuff. And Mr Maxwell’s writing and Bill Buckhurst’s direction really resonant as we come to understand the loss that Babette has endured and as we empathise with the plight of the refugee. We also grasp the redemption that art (here in the form of opera and cuisine) can offer. Yet this is all laid bare without sacrificing the fairy-tale quality of Blixen’s work.

The experienced cast playing the more mature characters are uniformly top notch but, as well as Ms Atim, I would particularly draw attention to the performances of Rachel Winters as young Philippa and Whoopie van Raam as young Martine (in her professional debut – she was one of a collection of tremendously talented female actors I saw in a final year Guildhall School production of Caryl Churchill’s masterpiece, Top Girls).

This was our first visit to the Print Room at the Coronet in Notting Hill. What an absolutely enchanting space. It has the same shabby vibe as Wilton’s Music Hall and the dressing and lighting (you can’t beat a bit of candlelight) in the bar especially is tres romantique. Nice, open stage and a compact, but still airy auditorium. Mind you if you are a big unit beware the seats at the front of the “rear’ stalls where a low wall doubles up as a effective instrument of circulatory torture.

I see there are plenty of tickets left so I really think if you can carve out the time over the next month or so this is a splendid night out and at c. 100mins straight through, hardly demanding.