Catching up (Part 1)

February 2020

Yep. You read that right. February 2020. Just before you know what kicked off and the stages went dark. You would have thought that the last 18 months would have given the Tourist plenty of time and inclination to continue reporting on his cultural journey. But no. Despite his multiple privileges which meant the pandemic had minimal impact on his day to day existence he still fell into the pit marked “intellectual lethargy” spending way to much time looking at a screen and moaning about the world.

But a repeated dose of live theatre (along with Oxford/Astra Zeneca’s elixir – thank you) has, you may or may not be pleased to hear, given him back his mojo. And he has remembered just how useful it is to record what he sees and hears to make sure he keeps on learning and stops grumbling.

So a quick catch up to complete the archives and then some recent highlights. The watchword is brevity. So a few lines only.

The Tin Drum – Coronet Theatre. 24th February 2020. *****. A separate post finally completed.

Tryst – Chiswick Playhouse. 25th February 2020. ****. Front row in this charming space. Second time around at the CP of a play first seen a couple of decades ago. Karoline Leach’s script is based on the real life story of bigamist con-man George Joseph Smith, a serial killer infamous for the Brides in the Bath Murders at the start of the 20th century.¬†Fred Perry played George with a mixture of menace and charm. Scarlett Brookes (just seen again by the Tourist at the Orange Tree) was more successful as the bright but naive shop assistant Adelaide Pinchkin dreaming of a better life. Power shifts intriguingly though the production, directed by Phoebe Barran and mostly narrated, sometimes dragged a little and dialled down the suspense. A smart set from Jessica Staton with the two actors artfully shifted props. Overall the SO and I were entertained. Mind you this was right up our collective street.

Pass Over – Kiln Theatre. 26th February 2020. ****. Antoinette Nwandu’s 2017 play was filmed in 2018 by no less a creative genius than Spike Lee. So we are dealing with a highly regarded rendering of contemporary Black experience here. Easy to see why Kiln’s AD Indhu Rubasingham was keen to take this one for herself. Moses (Paapa Essiedu) and Kitch (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) are on an American city street corner shooting the breeze and dreaming of lives they will never have passe Vladimir and Estragon. This space though, simply staged by Robert Jones, is gradually revealed as limiting and threatening. Their swagger is matched by their fear of the police. They meet Mister (Alexander Eliot), a folksy eccentric with white suit and picnic basket, whose condescending offer of food and friendship masks racist privilege and manufactured offence. Absurdist but not tortuous, packed with allusion, to history, the Old Testament, contemporary race politics, heavy with carefully chosen dialogue but never dense. Tonal uncertainty can ruin plays of this type but not here, though it is at its best when its political message is not directly articulated as in the beginning of Act 2. Paapa Essiedu and Gershwyn Eustache Jr knock it out of the park as the nervy Moses and wistful Kitch but Alexander Eliot, as he did with Solyony in Rebecca Frecknall’s dreamy Three Sisters at the Almeida, mastered a very tough gig as both Mister and the overtly racist policeman Occifer. Can’t help thinking this needs a wider and bigger audience.

A Number – Bridge Theatre. 26th February 2020. ****. Caryl Churchill’s masterpiece from 2002 about cloning, its possibilities and its pitfalls, was given a robust workout by director Polly Findlay, with Roger Allam as the shambling father, Salter, and Colin Morgan as the sons. Once you get over the initial set up, which of the estranged sons is the “unsatisfactory real thing” and which are the clones, then there is not much in the way of CC’s usual formal experimentation or surrealist play on show here. And, in order to explore the various consequences of the subject matter, scientific, philosophical, ethical, familial, and otherwise, CC loads up with some sparkling dialogue. None of the sparse ellipses that characterise her very latest works. The setting from Lizzie Clachlan was dowdily domestic, the humour, of which there is plenty, played up, especially by the ever-droll Mr Allam. Salter didn’t really think through when he opted to “improve” on the original and the emotional effects on his son, and the copies, requested and rogue, were well played, without losing sight of the core “hard problem” of what it is to actually be human and how we “identify”. Colin Morgan offered a convincing degree of differentiation, Bernard 1 angry, Bernard 2 confused, “Michael” no 3 nonchalant, but this effort meant he, and Roger Allam, didn’t always connect or clash as much as they might/should. And some of the clues about the relationship between father and son didn’t always land. The play runs to an hour but felt a little longer with CC pauses and tics and some deliberately disorientating stage revolves between the five “acts”. Another production with, coincidentally given the above, Paapa Essiedu and Lennie James (a first on stage for me), and directed by Churchill specialist Lyndsey Turner, will appear at the Old Vic in early 2022. I can’t wait to compare, contrast and, as always on repeated viewing of CC’s work, learn and love more.

Death of England. National Theatre Dorfman. 29th February 2020. *****. Apropos of nothing, and paraphrasing for dramatic effect, someone said in my hearing recently that Rafe Spall didn’t make for a convincing Judge Brack in Ivo van Hove’s 2016 Hedda Gabler at the NT. Something along the lines of not nasty enough. My first reaction was to disagree; in a production stripped of its historical context, his was a deliberately unsubtle and brutally physical Brack. But actually they had a point. There is a whiff of little boy lost about Mr Spall which left a scintilla of doubt. In Roy William’s and Clint Dyer’s one man confessional/state of the nation play, Death of England, this vulnerability, however, literally repaid us with interest. Spall played Essex’s finest, Michael, grieving son to a dear and recently departed, but racist father, and best friend to Delroy, who is his sister’s partner. Along the way Spall also takes in his Dad, Delroy’s Mum, a restaurant owner with a vital story to tell, amongst others. He does all this at lightening speed, in both voice and movement, plucking props out of nooks and crannies from Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and ULTZ’s St George’s Cross transverse stage and with occasional asides to the audience. There is much to like, and dislike, about Michael, a confident, lairy swagger fuelled by coke, convulsed by his Dad’s death, riven by contradiction about what it means to be white, male and working class in Britain today. Spall’s performance was hyper, exaggerated by Jackie Shemesh’s often glaring lighting, paralleling Michael’s own psyche, barreling towards the tour de force of his climatic drunken funeral oration. As in Roy William’s Sing Your Heart Out …. , football, nationhood and racism are intertwined though here more as metaphor, Dad dies just after the semi-final loss in 2018, than plot. Now with added Brexit. Michael knows what he is supposed to be against but what exactly is he for? OK so the script wobbles a bit on occasion and the intensity of performance and Clint Dyer’s direction makes it easier to recognise that completely understand the paradox of Michael but it was impossible not to be bowled over by its commitment.

What else that month? A couple of concerts. The Bang on a Can All Stars, champions of post-minimalism with a mixed programme including John Adams (The Chairman Dances), Julia Wolfe (Flower Power), Steve Martland (Horses of Instruction) and Philip Glass (Symphony No 2 arranged for string Orchestra), which was OK but nothing more and an energetic, spirited and ultimately convincing recital from pianist Boris Giltburg of Beethoven sonatas (Ops 26, 57, 109 and 111).

Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads at the Spiegeltent Chichester

Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads

Spigeltent, Chichester Festival Theatre, 17th October 2019

There are a few candidates for my favourite play of 2019. Lynn Nottage’s stunning Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse, or either of the revivals of the Miller classics at the Old and Young Vics respectively, All My Sons and Death of a Salesman. Still TBD but this revival of Roy Williams’s 2002 play about racism, nationalism, football and aggressive masculinity will run them close. So far I have only seen this and RW’s previous offering, The Firm, but I am most definitely a fan. He writes about stuff that matters, politics, race, institutions, friendship, identity and obvs, Marvin Gaye, with big gestures and authentic dialogue. As far as I can tell his work pulls no punches, literally in some cases, and he doesn’t hold back from examining uncomfortable truths about our society. The good news is that TRSE is set to revive Sucker Punch next year directed by Roy Alexander Weise and that Rafe Spall will star in the monologue RW has co-written with Clint Dyer at the NT, Death of England.

Spiegeltents are wood and canvas tents which originated in Belgium in the C19 for the purpose of travelling entertainment. Perfect for housing the replica of the King George pub, designed by Joanna Scotcher, in which SYHOFTL is set, on the afternoon of Saturday the 7th October 2000 for the England-Germany World Cup qualifier at Wembley (the one after which Keegan walked as manager). Or at least the tent would be if it wasn’t lashing down with rain outside. Of course this was one of those days where the deluge was followed and preceded by clear skies, (that’s climate change for you), but I am pleased to report that the tent, bar a bit of shaking, stood up to the storm. What it did mean is that for 5 minutes or so the cast had to bellow to make themselves heard and it added another dose of ferocity to what is already a play steeped in violence. Terrific atmosphere.

It opens with Jimmy (Martyn Ellis, more usually a musicals man), the father of landlady Gina (Sian Reese-Williams) pottering in the pub ahead of the match. Now this being South West London, (I want to call it as a non-gentrified of Fulham), everyone has a full on Eastenders type accent, quite something coming from as Welsh as it gets, Ms Reese-Williams, who excels here. They are joined by her lippy teenage son Glen (Billy Kennedy) and her ex Mark (Mark Springer) who recently left the army. When they leave Glen, desperate to be accepted on the “street”, is left with two of his new friends Duane (Harold Addo) and tough-guy Bad “T” (Dajay Brown) who bully Glen and try to steal drinks from the bar. Gina returns and chides them. One by one the rest of the pub team regulars turn up, in England kit regalia, to watch the match. Pub football team captain Lawrie (Richard Riddell) who is looking for a fight and nakedly racist, his conciliatory ex copper brother Lee (Alexander Cobb), the mendacious Alan (Michael Hodgson) who, it transpires, is a local councillor for far right political party Britain First, Becks (James Jack Ryan), Jess (Kirsty J Curtis), Phil (Rob Compton) and finally Barry (Makir Ahmed), Mark’s conflicted younger brother.

Against the backdrop of the game, banter turns to threat, debate to violence, fuelled by alcohol. The tenor of the dialogue reflects this. It is, at times, funny, as well as viscerally disturbing, and the cast, superbly marshalled by director Nicole Charles whose last outing was Emilia at the Globe, completely immerse themselves in their roles. This is vital theatre, not just because of the staging, but also because it dares to expose the reality of racism and misogyny in C21 Britain. I have rarely seen a trio of performances more affecting than those of Richard Riddell, whose twitching belligerence seems to hid some deeper resentment, Mark Springer whose spell as a squaddie leaves him aggrieved and determined to confront the racism of his former friends, and Michael Hodgson whose needling of Mark and whose warped arguments are especially unnerving. (He also stood out as first the Porter and then Duke Capulet in the last RSC season).

RW also packs in plenty of plot, which I can see some might feel veers towards the melodramatic; the arrival of the coppers after Glen’s phone is nicked, as well as Sharon (Jennifer Daley), Duane’s Mum, at the end of the first act, (and which memorably here, saw a police car actually arrive outside the tent), and even more so the tragic conclusion. But it certainly gets you on the edge of your seat.

You don’t need to be reminded that racism is still associated with football. And the kind of attitudes and behaviours that are depicted in SYHOFTL are also still prevalent. Relevance, character, language and spectacle make this production a classic. What’s more, for once, I was one of the older members in this matinee audience. I can see why the this might have frightened the pensioner horses of Chichester but the students, for I am pretty sure that’s who they were, were transfixed.

I understand the Spiegeltent went on to host a variety of one-nighters after the run of SYHOFTL. If you ask me there must surely be case for bringing this production up to the big smoke as has happened with so many CFT productions. I can see an ideal pitch on the South Bank next door to the National. In which case I implore you to grab a ticket. In an ideal world an enterprising producer would find a way to overcome the health and safety and blocking issues and stage this in a pub. Downstairs from a theatre upstairs would be a neat inversion. Imagine this in the Latchmere below the 503. What would be a real shame is if this superb realisation of this modern classic didn’t reach an extended audience.

The Shape of Water film review *****

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The Shape of Water, 26th February 2018

I have to confess I wasn’t that interested in seeing The Shape of Water, (I am pleased with my little conceptual joke here). The trailers suggested this was likely in a similar vein to Guillermo Del Toro’s previous gothic horror/romance/fantasy films: lovely to look at but tedious to watch. Yet the reviews were persuasive, Sally Hawkins is a tip-top favourite of mine and I was getting into the swing of seeing all the Oscar nominated films in the manner of a sad armchair critic.

So off I went. Dear reader, I was bewitched. This is not, on the face of it, a complicated fable, but it has a lot to say. Sally Hawkins plays Eliza Esposito, an orphan who has not spoken since being found on a riverbank with scars on her throat. She works as a cleaner at Occam, an aerospace military research facility in Cold War America. Our symbolic “monster”, a merman/amphibian of sorts, direct from the Amazon, arrives. So far, so Del Toro. Class A psycho nutjob, Strickland, played with splenetic relish by the versatile Michael Shannon, is tasked with looking after the creature, which he does, cruelly. Restless scientist Hofstetler, (an austere Michael Stuhlbarg), objects, but, as a Russian spy, he has ulterior motives. Eliza, through that tried and trusted combination of eggs and music, falls in love with the creature and hatches a plan to release him, roping in kindly, gay, commercial artist neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) and voluble colleague Zelda (another engaging performance from Octavia Hill). You can guess the rest.

Good triumphs over evil, naturally and there is thrill, if not suspense, in the break-out. This is a timeless story. Beauty and the Beast, set against a world of US-Soviet paranoia. You can feel the references to other classic films, even if, like me, you don’t know what they are. There is an echo of the silent movie greats as well as a nod to the monster movies of the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed Eliza and Giles actually live above a cinema the Orpheum (courtesy of Toronto, as so many of the exterior shots are). It is chock-full of repeated motifs and symbols. Mr Del Toro has a hand in the writing, but has wisely co-opted Vanessa Taylor, who wrote some of the early episodes of Game of Thrones. It shows. There is a hard-edged realism which punctures the fantasy and lends structure to the story.

Unsurprisingly the film looks exquisite with blues and greens predominating and all sorts of arresting images wrung from Mr Del Toro’s box of tricks. Water, water, everywhere. Costumes from Luis Sequeira, Paul Austerberry’s designs, Alexandre Desplat’s inventive score and, especially, Dan Lausten’s cinematography, all coalesce to bring the story to life. Frankly though none of this can work if the two, effectively wordless, performances of the two leads don’t convince. Getting zipped in to a merman/amphibian suit for hours on end and trying to convey emotion through face and body movement alone is a job few can master. Just as well Mr Del Toro has his long time “monster” collaborator, Doug Jones, on hand.

Now it doesn’t take a genius to work out that Sally Hawkins is a gifted actress. I saw her first in 2000 in a pair of Shakespeare productions at the Open Air Theatre. was struck by her performances in the TV adaptions of Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith and Persuasion, by her collaborations with Mike Leigh and, most impressively, by her performance alongside Rafe Spall in Nick Payne’s Constellations. The two of them turned that into a much better play than it really was, and it was pretty good to start with. Here, as Eliza, she is transcendent. I don’t care how grizzled and cynical you are, this is a love story you should buy into.

So there you have it. I am fortunate to have had the time to see all the Oscar nominated best films, bar Call Me By Your Name. I enjoyed all of them, but only this, Phantom Thread and Three Billboards … really seemed to me to harness the power of cinema. Films where you know the direction of travel or where the camera is just pointed at the action can be satisfying but what I crave is uncertainty and surprise. And insight into the human condition. I see the other films I really liked last year would fail to make the grade because they are either a) “foreign”, b) tiny, in budget, not scope, c) actually from the prior year or d) maybe a bit too full on. I would have shoved Mother!, Detroit and The Florida Project into the list if I where in charge. Mind you, all pointless since Three Billboards … is, unarguably, the best of the chosen bunch but, to my immense surprise, The Shape of Water, runs it close.

I should have realised. Never underestimate a fat bloke born in 1964 (or 1963) with a terrible beard and ill-kempt hair who spends too much time locked in his imagination.