A Doll’s House at the Lyric Hammersmith review *****

A Doll’s House

Lyric Hammersmith, 18th September 2019

You can never have too much Nora. After Samuel Adamson’s gender fluid Wife at the Kiln, and this adaptation from Tanika Gupta set in colonial India, the Tourist has the 3 for the price of 1, Glasgow Citizens, radical re-working from Steff Smith coming to the Young Vic and then Robert Icke’s take in Amsterdam next year.

Of course no modern creative in their right mind is going to offer up a straight up and down Doll’s House but it is a testament to old Henrik’s genius that it can stand all sorts of updating and alteration. And that’s not just because of its feminist message but also because its a cracking plot.

Tanika Gupta’s plays and adaptations have explored her cultural heritage, race and female agency in myriad ways before. Just before this her version of Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice attracted excellent reviews at the Manchester Royal Exchange and this re-setting of Ibsen’s masterpiece to Calcutta, still in 1879 as in the original, was originally aired as a BBC radio play in 2012. Nora becomes Niru an intelligent young Bengali woman married to English colonial tax collector bureaucrat Tom Helmer. He plainly loves her but more as exoticised plaything, “my little Indian princess”, than partner and insists she convert from her “heathen” religion to Christianity ahead of their marriage. With minimal changes to the “past coming back to haunt her” plot which heralds Niru’s liberation, Tanika Gupta very effectively explores the impact of race and colonialism, as well as gender politics, in her text. The power that Tom exerts over Niru flows not just from his sex but also the assumption of his cultural superiority, his religion and the state.

The setting also lends resonance to Dr Rank’s (Colin Tierney) creepy feelings for Niru and his liberal concerns about what the injustices inflicted by the colonial regime might catalyse and clerk Kaushik Das’s, (the Krogtad character played by Assad Zaman), motives for his “blackmail”. And to the sacrifices and social position of Mrs Lahiri (Tripti Tripuraneni), Niru’s now widowed childhood friend, and maid Uma (Arinder Sadhra), who is driven to leave her children by economic necessity. These connotations flow elegantly from the concept however and don’t get in the way of the central narrative.

Incoming AD at the Lyric Rachel O’Riordan chose to direct the production herself to kick off her tenure, (she will also oversee the revival of Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love later in this season), and she has made a splendid job of it. I am afraid Belfast, Perth and Cardiff, her previous residences, were just a little too far even for the intrepid Tourist so his previous encounters with Ms O’Riordan’s work have been restricted to the somewhat underwhelming Foxfinder revival at the Ambassador’s and the powerful Gary Owen plays, Killology and Iphigenia in Splott, (will someone please give Sophie Melville a big starring role on the telly). Whilst Tanika Gupta’s many layered adaptation and Henrik’s plot would be hard to make a mess of, the fact is that this was perfectly judged, building tension without ever losing sight of message.

Lily Arnold’s set, the tiered courtyard of the Helmer’s rather too comfortable house, heavy doors to the outside world backstage dead centre, Kevin Treacy’s lighting, Gregory Clarke’s sound and, especially, Arun Ghosh’s on stage music, were similarly on the money, lending atmosphere and supporting the drama. Above all though it was the performances of the two leads which won us over. For I was accompanied by BD. Now I may have slightly oversold the feminist credentials of HI, BD being a very modern and persuasive advocate of female equality, but she was still much taken with the setting and the story. And with Anjana Vasan. Now this is the second time the Tourist has seen Ms Vasan anchor a fine play, after Vinay Patel’s An Adventure at the Bush (which touched on post-colonial experience in India, Kenya and Britain), and what with her noteworthy supporting turns in Rutherford and Sons at the NT, Summer and Smoke at the Almeida and Life of Galileo at the Young Vic, it is pretty clear the secret is out. This though was another level as she depicted the journey for which Nora is renowned whilst laying on top the conflicted perspective that Niru, in this very different society and place, could offer.

Whilst Elliot Cowan didn’t quite get to offer as many dimensions with Tom, he is largely a patronising, self-regarding shit, most notably at the end, when his ugly racism is laid bare as he fears the scandal that threatens to envelope the couple, and then pretends everything can go back to normal when a way out is revealed thanks to Das’s repentance at Mrs Lahiri’s behest. The famous confrontation scene ahead of the even more famous exit was electric, especially given the stakes for Niru are arguably even greater than for the average Nora. Now the last time I saw Mr Cowan was as the host at the holiday home which provided the setting for Anne Washburn’s brilliant dissection of liberal America Shipwreck at the Almeida. Where he doubled up as a kind of mythic tyrant Trump. Bloody scary. He is a tall bloke: the physical contrast with the elfin Ms Vasan added to the mental tussle between the Helmers. I also note that Mr Cowan had an important part too as the idealistic journalist Charlie in the NT revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s African post-colonial epic Les Blancs.

Anyway my guess is both are leads jumped at the opportunity to take on these roles and I for one am glad they did. Like I say A Doll’s House is going to be the subject of constant innovation but you could wait a long time before seeing an interpretation as intelligent and thought provoking as this. West End producers are constantly on the hunt for a popular classic> they could do far worse than this production though I get that no super big names are involved here. Mind you I am pretty sure Anjana Vasan will be one day.

Noises Off at the Lyric Hammersmith review ****

Noises Off

Lyric Hammersmith, 24th July 2019

Noises Off will transfer to the Garrick Theatre from 27th September.

It is a generally accepted truism in luvvie-world that Michael Frayn’s Noises Off is one of the funniest plays. An opinion with which the Tourist heartily concurs.¬†Alongside Lysistrata and The Frogs, most of Shakespeare’s comedies, Volpone and The Alchemist, Tartuffe, Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters (Richard Bean’s version will appear on screen again on 26th September and a revival is due at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch), Uncle Vanya, Loot, The Real Thing, Serious Money, Dead Funny, The Habit of Art, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Hangmen and The Play That Goes Wrong (whose makers have, not unreasonably, made a few quid following Michael’s Frayn’s lead). There’s probably a fair few more. But I haven’t seen them yet.

So I wasn’t about to miss this revival at the Lyric. And nor should you when it transfers to the West End. You know the drill or can easily find out. We see a touring performance of a sex farce, Nothing On, by one “Robin Housemonger”, or more precisely three performances of its first act: first in technical rehearsal at midnight the night before opening in Weston-Super-Mare, then from backstage a month later in Ashton-under-Lyme and finally from front of stage in Stockton-on-Tees at the end of the run. This is not an entirely happy troupe and the relationships between the cast, director and technical staff are, shall we say, complicated. Especially when their vanities, problems, passions and tantrums bleed into the performance. To, as the cliche goes, “hilarious effect”. So we get comedy driven by character, (notably the gap between on and off stage personas), situation, plot, wit and spectacle, through farce, slapstick and props. It is a treat for eyes, ears and also brain, as there is abundant comic logic just below the surface treats.

It requires immense skill to pull off. Not just from the cast but also from the creative team. To deliver a play within a play that doesn’t actually get pulled off. Michael Frayn completed the play in 1982 though the idea first came to him when watching one of his own farces, The Two of Us, from backstage in 1970. As with all of Mr Frayn’s plays, serious or comedy, he doesn’t stop where other writers might have done. He goes on buffing and polishing to create something close to perfection. Which I would contend he did, precisely, first time round here. though it hasn’t stopped him reworking it for subsequent revivals, and, as he reveals in the programme, actually editing out some unfortunate misprints which appeared in the original. Which is itself pretty amusing in a meta sort of way.

I can’t pretend this is quite up to the very high mark set by Lindsay Posner’s revival at the Old Vic in 2012. But it comes close. As it happens all the family saw that including LD, only 10 at the time. It is still, she says, the funniest thing she has ever seen, (along with the Mischief Theatre portfolio, so if you are tempted to take the nippers along don’t hesitate. In this production Headlong’s Jeremy Herrin directs which is helpful since he is the master of the high octane. Max Jones’s set does exactly what is required, front and back, as does Amy Mae’s lighting and Lorna Munden’s sound (which is at is most accomplished in the second act when the actors are effectively silent). And Complicite’s movement director, Joyce Henderson, shows why she is one of the best in the business.

Now it was pretty hot in the Lyric the night we went. Which wasn’t great for MIL who had to leave at the interval with the SO. A shame because I would have valued her opinion, since she is even more parsimonious with her praise that the SO. Still a thumbs up for the first half. It also meant that Daniel Rigby, as “leading man” Garry Lejeune probably lost a few pounds given how much he physically had to do. I was also taken with Lloyd Owen’s take on his namesake director, the supercilious predator Lloyd Dallas and with Jonathan Cullen’s take on the neurotic Frederick Fellowes. Frankly though a cast that includes the likes of Meera Seal as Dotty Otley who bankrolls the fictitious play, Simon Rouse as dipso lurvie Selsdon Mowbray and Debra Gillett as the maternal Belinda Blair, as well as Amy Morgan as the dramatically challenged Brooke Ashton, Lois Chimimba as put upon ASM Poppy and Enyi Okoronkwo as the even more put upon SM Tim, was always going to get this right, which with a couple of hutches they did handsomely.

Noises Off premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith, directed by Michael Frayn’s chief collaborator Michael Blakemore. It went on to a five year run in the West End. I hope they make a few quid from this revival.

And that Rachel O’Riordan’s in augural season turns out to be as good as it looks. There are still prime seats for a tenner at the previews of Solaris, Love, Love, Love and Antigone. Which frankly is a steal. The biggest bargain in London theatres anywhere right now IMHO.

Foxfinder at the Ambassadors Theatre review ***

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Foxfinder

Ambassadors Theatre, 10th September 2018

I had not seen Dawn King’s feted breakthrough play Foxfinder but I can see why it caused such a stir when it appeared in 2011 and why it is being made into a film. A near(ish) post-war dystopia, where a shadowy authoritarian regime has taken power following economic collapse and has elevated the fox to an existential threat to agricultural production. Think folk horror, Crucible, 1984, Handmaid’s Tale, Witchfinder General; a disquieting vision of a society ruled through fear¬†and false ideology. (The foxes in our garden are bloody annoying and there is an unpleasant history of rabbit massacre which I will refrain from detailing here, but humanity’s arch enemy seems a tad harsh).

Unfortunately this production doesn’t really conjure up the required unease and at times the cast actually looked a little uncomfortable in their imagined world. The set design from Gary McCann, where basic farmhouse kitchen merges into woodland, is a solid start though jars a little in the proscenium stage of the Ambassadors. This is, by old-skool West End standards, an intimate theatre but this is still a play that is probably more suited to a more claustrophobic setting. (Mind you designer Rae Smith pulled off an extraordinary design coup for Barney Norris’s otherwise slightly underwhelming rural saga at the Bridge Theatre recently). Paul Anderson’s lighting, (bar a couple of missed spots), and Simon Slater’s sound and composition also fit the bill, though once again I could imagine a more dramatic realisation in a more modern space.

Rachel O’Riordan, (who will be moving to the Lyric Hammersmith next year after a very successful stint at the Sherman Cardiff), is a director of proven pedigree, most notably with Gary Owen’s excellent plays. Here however she cannot seem to ratchet up sufficient atmosphere and tension. This in large part I think to the cast. Now I gather that Iwan Rheon has something of a reputation from his stints on the telly in Misfits and as a baddie in Game of Thrones. Now in the interests of full disclosure I have no view on this Game of Thrones caper. I don’t have the patience for multiple series viewed through a screen. 3 hours tops for me. Maybe in two parts. And in the theatre where stories come alive and technology can’t mask mediocrity. A text, some actors, an audience. That’s all you need. And all those who try to bully me in to watching GoT by telling me it’s like Shakespeare always seems to be busy when I offer up the chance to see yet another Lear. Which tells me it isn’t really.

So this means I have no idea if Mr Rheon is a convincing screen presence. In Foxfinder I am afraid he didn’t really seem to get to grips with his character. William Bloor is a young zealot, still in his teens, who is the eponymous Foxfinder sent to investigate why the farm of Samuel Covey (Paul Nicholls) and Judith Covey (Heida Reed) is “underperforming”. The regime believes that an infestation of foxes is the cause, the fox having been elevated to demonic proportions in this debilitated world. William has been trained from an early age to root out and investigate the vulpine threat. The combination of his youth, inexperience and indoctrination should leave him with the fragile “certainty” of the true believer but we don’t really feel that at the beginning of this production. He comes across as more meter inspector than inquisitor.

Paul Nicholls and Heida Reed are also known more for their TV work than stage experience. Whilst individually they moreorless convince, Samuel is the bluff farmer who just wants to get William out of his hair as soon as he can whilst Judith is more concerned for the consequences of being found “guilty”, their relationship doesn’t feel comfortable, meaning the real reason for the farm’s failure is emotionally underpowered. As the three unravel in their different ways and begin to question what they believe we should be on the edge of our seats. Unfortunately though the drama just didn’t really catch fire. Bryony Hannah as the defiant neighbour Sarah Box (every dystopia needs one) was more persuasive. but didn’t have much to play with.

So a play with an excellent central conceit which I think weaves in enough plot development and moral questioning to enthral but needs to threaten and haunt to really work. Nothing wrong with serving up actors whose careers have focussed on the screen but in such an intense four hander maybe the marketing imperative here trumped the creative. Worth seeing but not as intriguing as I had hoped.

 

Killology at the Royal Court Theatre review ****

killology

Killology

Royal Court Theatre, 8th June 2017

There are a few plays every year where I kick myself that I missed them. Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Stott from 2015 was definitely one of them. So I was determined to see Killology (pre-reviews) even though I wasn’t entirely persuaded by the Royal Court blurb. I shouldn’t have worried, there was way more to this play than this teaser implied. If I was a brighter boy I probably also would have conducted a rudimentary search of the title for this would have led me to the inspiration for Mr Owen’s play Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, who research is referenced in the text.

Killology deals with male failure and violence, notions of responsibility and the troubled relationships of son to father and father to son. It is not an easy watch. Through a series of pacey, interlocking, non-linear monologues, it tracks the stories of three men, Alan, his son Davey and Paul, whose own unseen father also looms large. Alan has left Davey to the care of his mother. Davey is bullied, and with no viable alternative he takes revenge on his tormentors, but, in turn, the bullies take revenge on him. This act of torture is animated by a shooter video-game. Killology. Alan in parallel takes revenge on Paul, who is the creator of the game. Paul describes the pain and anger that has damaged him, and skewed his own morality, because his own unseen scornful father only sees his failings.

There are a few convenient leaps in these narratives, but these devices are easily forgiven as they get to the core of the humiliations that fuel the violent reactions. There is no proselytising from Mr Owen, no glib answers and no simple resolutions even if he does explore the possibility of good in one of the apparent narratives. Monologues are, of course, brilliant story telling vehicles as they make us, the audience, create detailed pictures in the theatre of our minds (sorry for the unquestioning dualism here – just run with it). Yet sometimes this means the emotional power is compromised. Not here. This really packs a visceral punch.

Rachel O’Riordan (the artistic director of the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff) directs the work with flexed efficiency amplified by the set of Gary McCann and the sound world of Sam Jones. An awful lot is asked of all three actors but they respond magnificently. Sean Gleeson captures the sense of Alan as a broken man with no hope of redemption. Richard Mylan turns Paul into a repellent nihilist but still invokes our compassion as we learn what shaped him. And Sion Daniel Young as Davey simply astonishes.