Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) at the Lyric Hammersmith review ***

Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs)

Lyric Hammersmith, 22nd May 2019

Never seen John Gay’s ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera, though have seen Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, on which it is based, a couple of times. Have been waiting patiently for a production of Britten’s 1948 adaptation to pop up again having missed a couple of past opportunities. So it seemed a good idea in the meantime to take in this version, co-produced by Kneehigh and the Liverpool Everyman/Playhouse in which writer Carl Grose, composer Charles Hazlewood and director Mike Shepherd have reimagined the story for a contemporary audience using an eclectic mix of musical genres.

And, by and large, it was a good idea, even if it was a little overstuffed with Kneehiggh’s usual bag of tricks. The John Gay original was written as an antidote to the ever more preposterous gods, monsters and love story Baroque Italian style operas filling London theatres. Often cobbled together from other works with divas insisting on their own favourite arias regardless of context, rambling on for hours and with daft plots, they were ripe for satire. Remember too that the early C18 was a golden age for political satire led by Hogarth, Swift and Pope in print. (In fact it was the latter two who first suggested the idea of TBO to Gay). C18 toff Britain was busy racking up debt, sticking it too Johnny Foreigner and getting rich on the proceeds of slavery, whilst all around absolute poverty was rife. Sound familiar?

Gay and the other writers of so called Augustan drama were also pushing back against the Restoration comedies and nasty she-tragedies of the previous decades, creating middle and lower class characters mired in a world of corruption. The aim was not necessarily to highlight the social and economic injustice meted out to the poor, there was still a strong Christian and moral tone of instruction to the works, but to vent the frustration of the mercantile “libertarian” class at the “conservative” aristocracy and its political sycophants. Gay’s particular target in The Beggar’s Opera was actually the divisive Whig prime minister Robert Walpole and specifically his involvement in bailing out the original investors in the South Sea Bubble.

The 69 songs, across 45 short scenes, originally were to be sung without musical accompaniment but Johann Christoph Pepusch was brought in at the last minute to create a score for the mix of largely Scottish and French folk melodies, chucking in popular broadsheet ballads, opera arias lifted straight from the like of Handel, church hymns and even an overture. The punters lapped it up and it spawned multiple imitations, (though this is the only ballad opera which is still performed), and influenced much of the comic opera and musical theatre which followed in the C19 and C20. I see that it enjoyed a lengthy revival at this very theatre in the 1920s.

Carl Grose has kept most of the main characters, the Peachums (Martin Hyder and Rina Fatania), daughter Polly (Angela Hardie), Lockit (Giles King) and daughter Lucy (Beverly Rudd), Filch (Georgia Frost) and, of course Macheath (Dominic Marsh), and the bones of the plot including a repurposed, and instructive, parody ending, though here Macheath is a contract killer tasked with bumping off the virtuous Mayor, (and his innocent mutt), to make way for Peachum. Charles Hazlewood has thrown in electro, grime, dubstep, noire, trip hop rhythms as well as some punk and ska, alongside snatches of Purcell, Handel and even Greensleeves (from the original), to foot-tapping effect. By and large it all hangs together and I can’t fault the cast for effort. The dance routines (courtesy of Etta Murfitt) are entertaining and there are some effective visual treats, not least of which is the titular dead dog in the suitcase. The on stage musicians, who also take on key parts, notably violinist Patrycja Kujawska as Widow Goodman, cannot be faulted.

But Michael Vale’s set, complete with scaffolding and slide, whilst initially impressive, at times becomes an obstacle course for the cast to negotiate and multiple costume changes only add to the complications. Adding in a Punch and Judy routine, assorted puppetry (marshalled by Sarah Wright)and other creative trickery ends up slowing down proceedings and interrupting the momentum in what is intended to be a high energy entertainment. Sometimes less is more, especially if the intention is to make some points about the iniquity of the contemporary political class. I know this kitchen sink, amateur circus look is a keynote of some of Kneehigh’s work but it does rather blunt the satirical intent.

Still I can’t pretend I didn’t laugh, or jig about a bit, and the whole thing is done in just over a couple of hours. There’s a few days left at the Lyric and then the production moves on to complete the tour in Exeter, Cheltenham, Bristol and Galway.

Approaching Empty at the Kiln Theatre review ***

Approaching Empty

Kiln Theatre, 16th January 2019

An overly optimistic faith, despite a welter of evidence to the contrary, in the combined efforts of South Western Railway and Network Rail’s ability to convey passengers to the stated destination on time meant that the Tourist pitched up late for this showing. So he had to watch the set up in Ishy Din’s new play on one of those little black and white TV screens that theatres provide for latecomers (and production crew obviously) where the sound is reedy thin and where the lighting comes across like a molten sun on stage. Not the first time either. Please make sure you never take the Tourist’s casual attitude to pre-performance timekeeping.

Anyway it is April 2013 and we are in a minicab office in Middlesborough. Mansha is marshalling the cabs through a mic whilst bored twenty-something Shazad is phonearsing (this being my all-encompassing term for texting/browsing/Instagramming/WhatsApping/taking selfies/looking at cats/admiring themselves/trolling/dying a small death at the fake success of others/Candy Crushing and whatever else it is you people do on your phones). The telly in the background pipes up with coverage of Mrs Thatcher’s funeral. Raf enters, coughing.

Now it transpires that sharp Raf is the owner of Kings Cars, Shazad is his vague son, supposedly learning the ropes, and Mansha is Raf’s mate from way back, and manager of the cab office. We hear from feisty Sameena, a new driver, who comes back to the office, as does the gullible Sully, Mansha’s son in law, and we hear talk of Sameena’s younger brother Tony, who plays a pivotal role at the end. From these characters Ishy Din builds a story of a friendship, missed opportunities, family ties and a double-crossing all wrapped up in a critique of neo-liberal economics (with Mansha and Raf’s different takes on Thatcher’s legacy being the catalyst). Mr Din was himself a taxi-driver in this very city, and the dialogue rings true and the sympathetic characters arrive fully formed. The problem is the somewhat lumbering plot and telegraphed reveals. It is not a bad story, quite the reverse, but in his haste to crank it up the playwright smothers the interchanges between his characters, which is where the play is most affecting. Less might well have been more.

As it is we do take away how Mansha and Raf, as first generation Pakistani immigrants, have gone from hard, but dignified, graft in the factory, to a more precarious existence in the service economy, and how many, and not just in this community (the intention was to write a drama which could equally well be set elsewhere in “left-behind”, post-industrial Britain), end up skirting the law in some way. Rosa Maggiore set looks the part and Pooja Ghal’s direction is supportive of people, place and message. Kammy Darweish as Mansha is the epitome of careworn decency and Nicholas Khan as Raf neatly treads the line between arrogant, shifty and desperate. I will look out again for Karan Gill who impressed as Shazad. I have seen Rina Fatania (Sameena) and Nicholas Prasad (Sully) so was not surprised by the way they end humour out of their characters. Maanuv Thiara was left to do what he could with textbook thug Tany.

This is the second of a proposed trilogy about Asian men in Britain, with theatre company Tamasha, following his debut Snookered from 2012. Ishy Din came late to the scriptwriting game but it’s pretty easy to see he has the ear. The last play will focus on men who leave families to work here with the intention of returning “home”. I will look out for that and for his earlier work. Whilst Approaching Empty, in its dissection of a community whose bonds are fracturing under the stress of financialised capitalism, doesn’t quite scale the heights of, say, Sweat at the Donmar, it is definitely worth seeing, and when Mr Din reins in his desire for action, slows it all down and focuses on family and faith, he is going to write a classic.

The Village at Theatre Royal Stratford East review ****

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The Village

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 27th September 2018

One of the many advantages of the idle life of culture is the opportunity to savour the coincidences that it routinely throws up. I see a play, Losing Venice, about the end of Empire, written in a style which apes the dramatists of the Spanish Golden Age. (Losing Venice at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***). A couple of days later I see a play, An Adventure, about the immigrant’s journey out of India. (An Adventure at the Bush Theatre review ****). The next day I see a play, The Village, drawn from the most famous play from arguably the most famous playwright of the Spanish Golden Age, Fuenteovejuna by Lope de Veja, recast in modern rural India, still bearing the scars of post-colonialism. Learn, enjoy, repeat.

Lope de Veja’s 1619 story, based on a real incident in the village of the same nameĀ  in Castile in 1476, is pretty much guaranteed to get the pulse racing. A tale of honour, justice, reputation and chastity as so many of the Golden Age plays were, though here slightly subverted, which accounts for its continuing relevance. The women of the village, unable to stomach any more abuse from the local army chief, rise up to collectively kill him. They refuse to incriminate each other saying only that “Fuenteovejuna did it”. April de Angelis, who make such a fine job of adapting Elena Ferrante’s quartet My Brilliant Friend for the Rose Kingston stage (My Brilliant Friend at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****), sticks pretty close to the plot of the original whilst offering up a text peopled with recognisably human characters. And, with a swagger that largely worked for me, much of the text is written in verse, which adds rhythm and pace to the story.

This, together with Nadia Fall’s kinetic direction and some top class performances especially from Anya Chalotra as Jyoti, and in his own villainous way, Art Malik, are what turns this from what might have been a sullen melodrama, into something altogether more supple and uplifting. The production might have benefitted from a bigger stage to accommodate Joanna Scotcher’s sloping set, and a little more technical sophistication, but, if this is the harbinger of things to come at Stratford Royal Theatre East under Nadia Fall, and the 18/19 season has great potential, then maybe SRTE can become a destination theatre as it was in the glory days of Joan Littlewood (who staged Fuenteovejuna in 1955), rather than an occasional, one-off hit machine (like Five Guys Named Moe).

No need to take my word for it. To save BD from sitting around all day in her PJ’s in front of a screen (though justified by an imminent return to uni) I dragged her alone. Only marginally easier to impress than her Mother, she agreed that this was a powerful, and satisfying, piece of theatre. And, even more extraordinary FKD, who has reason to know, and a bunch of her friends, gave it the thumbs up. Lopa de Veja’s original, whilst not directly informed by Catholic oppression, was a response to the violence of the Inquisition. AdA’s update similar doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to its portrayal of the BJP and the rise of Hindu nationalism.

The rural village, Sahaspur, is getting on with the business of life with Jyoti, daughter of of the joint mayor, Ramdev (Neil D’Souza), the bashful subject of the ardent affections of local Muslim lad Farooq (Scott Karim). He is egged on by comic sidekick Mango (Ameet Chana), she by no-nonsense buddy Panna (Rina Fatania). Both eke out plenty of laughs. Accents are more Bradford than Kolkata. When the sadist Inspector Gangwar (Art Malik) turns up, with soldier sidekicks Ved and Gopi, to fix the election for privileged BJP scion Vihaan (Naeem Hayat), the villagers are cowered, and then outraged, after he rapes Jyoti. The election is contested by Ishani (Sudha Bhuchar) for Congress with adviser Mekhal (Arian Nik) in tow, and it is she who is sent to investigate the Inspector’s murder.

A gripping tale for sure. And Nadia Fall’s high energy direction, with movement from Polly Bennett (especially striking in the revenge scene), lighting from Paul Pyant, sound from Helen Atkinson and composer Niraj Chang (with live on-stage music and Hindi songs courtesy of Japit Kaur), really brings it to life. Yet it will still make you angry that even now this kind of oppression is commonplace, and that horrific sexual violence in India (and elsewhere) is still legitimised by power. The mechanics of the ending are a little less than credible, but no matter, the message of successful resistance is the right one.