The King of Hell’s Palace at the Hampstead Theatre review ***

The King of Hell’s Palace

Hampstead Theatre, 17th September 2019

This was an interesting choice as the first production in Roxana Silbert’s inaugural season at the Hampstead Theatre. A play based on a true story about corruption scandal in China. From a US playwright, (who spent part of her childhood living in China), Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, with an established reputation: her play The World Of Extreme Happiness, which covers similar ground, and offers similar criticism as TKOHP, came to the National in 2013. Directed by veteran director Michael Boyd, (last here with Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide …., and on top form with Tamburlaine at the RSC last year). With a largely British East Asian cast, (though the one exception, US import Celeste Den, understandably attracted some ire given the paucity of BEA casting generally in UK theatre).

Yet the biggest surprise of all was just how clunky the play was. It is an ambitious story well worth telling, no doubt about that,. but to tell it Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig lays on the exposition with a veritable trowel. In the first half especially character after character is made to explain what is happening in momentum-throttling detail. Often for no good reason as it really isn’t that difficult to fathom what is going on. OK so maybe the multiple doubling, and more, of roles starts off as being a little confusing, and I guess part of the aim of the explanation is to delineate each character, but the main players quickly emerge. Ms Den plays Yin Yin, an expert in epidemiology at a Ministry of Health institute. Christopher Goh is her initially supportive, but ultimately pusillanimous, scientist husband Shen. Kok-Hwa Lie is his brother and Yin-Yin’s boss Kuan, who oversees the dastardly scheme, driven by avarice and Party loyalty, and Millicent Wong is Jasmine, the Lady Macbethian nurse who becomes his shameless sidekick.

This four also play members of the extended family of farmers, alongside Aidan Cheng, Tuyen Do, veteran actor Togo Igawa and Vincent Lai, which is destroyed by the get-rich-quick scandal. In 1989 blood plasma collection stations spring up rapidly in rural China to sell to local blood product companies. By 1992, when TKOHP begins, the practice has spread to Henan province with the samples eventually being exported to an unscrupulous US pharma company. Peasants and local officials are rapidly enriched. But this leads to the rapid spread of Hepatitis C and HIV infection. Even after the industry is regulated. Cover ups follow. The State finally admits to the extent of HIV/AIDS in the early 2000s. Even so another blood plasma and vaccine scandal erupts in early 2019. All this was documented by Dr Wang Shuping, on whom the character of Yin Yin is based, and who, like the character, was finally forced to flee China for the US. As you will surmise the good doctor, who I gather attended the emotional press night, is not especially well liked by the Chinese state who would rather the play disappeared.

Like I say good story with relevance beyond its setting. But to pack its many short scenes in to a couple of hours ex interval, required substantial inventiveness on the part of Michael Boyd, movement director Liz Ranken and the rest of the creative team, notably Colin Grenfell’s lighting. Entrances and exits come thick and fast from the central opening at the back of Tom Piper’s sparse set, from side doors and from either side of the stalls. This is accelerated by a cunning pair of moving walkways that run through the middle of the stage, and offer visual metaphor at crucial points. Myriad costume changes are largely achieved off stage and props carted on and off by the cast. It is a triumph of logistics but, along with the expository overload in dialogue described above, does rather come at the expense of character insight.

Even so, given the enthusiasm of the cast, the intricacy of the staging and as the true extent of the crime is laid bare in the second half, it is difficult not to be carried along by the narrative of greed. It isn’t Ibsen’s Enemy of the People (more of that soon – watch this space) but it is shocking and it does highlight Yin Yin’s bravery and the sacrifice she is prepared to make. And it is clearly written and made by people who care which counts for a lot.

Edmond de Bergerac at Richmond Theatre review ****

Edmond de Bergerac

Richmond Theatre, 1st May 2019

Alexis Michalik is a loving looking chap. Oozes Gallic charm. The wunderkind of French theatre. So its good to know he is half-British. He kicked off as an actor but it is his plays, which have run to packed houses in Paris and beyond, and garnered multiple awards (5 Molieres for Edmond), which he directs himself, that have turned him into a star. First Le Porteur d’Histoire, then Le Cercle des Illusionnistes, most recently Intra Muros, which was adapted in English at the Park Theatre recently (though didn’t get great reviews). His most famous play though is Edmond which appeared in 2016, a theatrical paean to the creator of Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand, and already made into a film.

Cyrano is the most performed play in the French language. A massive hit when it hit Paris in 1897, a broad fictionalisation of a real life nobleman, novelist, playwright, epistolarian and duelist in C17 France (1619-1655), written entirely in classical alexandrine verse (12 syllables per line) and about the most uplifting love story you are ever likely to see. Apparently the curtain call on the first night went on for over an hour and the French Foreign Minister emerged from the audience to go backstage and pin the Legion D’Honneur on Rostand there and then.

Cyrano regularly gets an airing in British theatres, luvvies love it, usually in Anthony Burgess’s wonderful translation, and you may well know know it from the film adaptations, either the faithful French classic version from 1990 starring Gerard Depardieu and directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau (there were others before this) or the rather freer 1987 interpretation Roxanne starring Steve Martin and directed by the underrated Aussie director Fred Schepisi.

If it you have never seen a version you are probably aware of Cyrano’s defining feature, to wit, his huge nose. This is what prevents him wooing his beautiful cousin Roxane who he adores. When he befriends the handsome but inarticulate Christian, who also falls for Roxane’s charms, he sees a way to woo her vicariously with his exquisite love poetry. It works, Roxane and Christian are secretly engaged, but there love in turn attracts the wrath of yet another suitor, the Comte de Guiche who sends the lads off to the brutal war with the Spanish. Cyrano, on Christian’s behalf, but unbeknownst to him, writes to Roxane every day though and eventually Roxane comes to the front. She loves the poet and Christian realising the pretence asks Cyrano to confront Roxane and explain. He doesn’t drop his mate in it though, Christian is killed in battle, Cyrano sees off the Spanish.

Over the next 14 years, Cyrano, now a satirist, visits Roxane every day in the convent she has holed up in mourning Christian. Finally, after sustaining a head wound, he arrives late and faints. Roxane asks him to read one of “Christian’s letters” but in the dark he recites in from memory. He dies. Roxane realises her true love. Cue tears. At least for the Tourist (and not in the Steve Martin version). You would have to be made of stone not to get caught up in this.

Now that is actually the film plot, there’s a bit more to the play, but that’s the gist of it. Except, of course, the plot is turned into something transcendent by the verse. Can’t speak French but Anthony Burgess, albeit with what apparently is know as a “sprung” rhythm, is faithful to Rostand’s intention.

It is on the French language curriculum and is regularly revived in France so Alexis Michalik was taking a bit of a risk with his text. a bit like Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman with their script for Shakespeare in Love the 1998 Oscar winning film starring Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow and Judi Dench, directed by John Madden. Like SIL, Edmond, (de Bergerac here to avoid confusion with a David Mamet film), mixes the “real life” business of putting on a play with the plot of the play itself, in this case just the one play though.

Edmond Rostand (here Freddie Fox) is a failing twenty something poet, playwright and dreamer drawing his sorrows in drink with beau monde, womanising mate Leo (Robin Morrissey). Steadfast wife Rosemonde (Sarah Ridgeway) is on his case to provide for her and his two kids. In desperation he pitches an idea to the famous actor Constant Coquelin (Henry Goodman); an heroic comedy, based on the life of Cyrano de Bergerac, for the Christmas slot. Only problem. He hasn’t written anything. Still, the legendary Sarah Bernhardt (Josie Lawrence) believes in Edmond, and the services of diva Maria Legault (Chizzy Akudolu) to star in the play are secured. A couple of wide-boy Corsican producer/gangsters, the Floury brothers, step in with the cash (Nick Cavaliere and Simon Gregor) and, always at the last minute, Edmond delivers his three, then four, then five, act masterpiece.

We meet the prim Georges Feydeau (David Langham), Rostand’s rival and the master of farce, the philosophising Monsieur Honore (Delroy Atkinson) owner of the bar, where, along with the Palais Royal theatre, and the Rostand house, the bulk of the scenes are set, Jean (Harry Kershaw), M. Coquelin’s beloved son, would be pastry chef and terrible actor, and Jeanne (Gina Bramhill), the wardrobe mistress and saviour of the premiere who captures Leo’s heart, aided, of course, by Edmond’s words. Which are, you guessed it, what gets Rostand’s creative juices flowing when to comes to writing the play.

Many of the cast take on multiple other roles, we even meet Maurice Ravel and Anton Chekhov at one point, in the quick-fire and frenetic scenes. Movement director Liam Steel, in this production from the Birmingham Rep does an outstanding job, alongside director Roxana Gilbert in marshalling all this activity. Edmond de Rostand is not pure farce or musical but at times it looks like it. The plot is cleverly constructed, if a bit baggy, drifting in and out of the plot of Cyrano itself, the cast give their all and the set that Robert Innes Hopkins has created is brilliantly versatile allowing the sevens to shift rapidly with no loss of momentum.

I think it may have left some of the Richmond Theatre midweek matinee audience a bit nonplussed but that wouldn’t be the first time. For me, and I hope the audiences at the Birmingham Rep, York Grand Opera House, Royal and Derngate Northampton and Cambridge Arts Theatre where it toured prior to this, it was a delight. It deserves a bigger audience, why not the West End. Fair enough it would help to know a little big about its foundations, less of a problem in France where, as I have said, Cyrano de Bergerac is part of the cultural fabric, and there are occasions where M. Michalik is perhaps overly in love with his creation but for me it was one of the, positive, theatrical surprises of the year so far.

I haven’t seen nearly enough of Roxana Silbert’s work for the Birmingham Rep or, prior to that, Paines Plough. I was taken with Chris Hannan’s What Shadows which came to the Park Theatre, though that had a lot to do with Ian McDiarmid’s complex portrayal of Enoch Powell, and I can thoroughly recommend the Birmingham Rep’s latest co-production with the Rose Kingston, an adaptation of Captain Correlli’s Mandarin. I guess, when Ms Silbert joins the Hampstead Tate as AD I will be able to make a more informed judgement.

I wouldn’t want to single out any one member of the cast of Edmond but, if forced, I would highlight Freddie Fox whose performance is up there with his Tristan Tzara in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties. His default mood is despondency but, as the frazzled nerves give way to a determination to succeed, and the tender affection for Jeanne builds, (don’t worry he doesn’t cheat on Rosemonde in a clever inversion of Cyrano), so we get to see a rounded hero emerge. I am also partial to Delroy Atkinson who was so good in Roy Williams’ The Firm, (still on at Hampstead), though he, like the rest of the players, stays in one dimension. If you know Henry Goodman and Josie Lawrence from other performances you certainly won’t be disappointed.

Now apparently the original Cyrano play was responsible for the word panache finding its way into the English language. M. Michalik aims, and succeeds, in capturing that spirit. I suspect even the master of comic opera translation into English, Jeremy Sams, may have been stretched to the limit in bringing clarity to the chaos here, but, if you just roll with the comic punches, and are in love with theatre, then you really should try to see this should it pop up elsewhere. The show is funny, clever and, in the end, like its inspiration, heart-warming.

Cost of Living at the Hampstead Theatre review ****

Cost of Living

Hampstead Theatre, 27th February 2019

I can’t remember the last time I attended a performance at the Hampstead Theatre Upstairs or Downstairs that wasn’t, to all intents and purposes, full. Matinee or evening. Not a great surprise given the theatre’s reputation and location but still a testament to the winning mix of premieres of new plays by Brit drama royalty, (Mike Bartlett, Howard Brenton, Michael Frayn, Simon Gary, David Hare, Terry J0hnson, Nick Payne, Joe Penhall, Nina Raine< Beth Steel and Roy Williams for example), a smattering of revived recent classics, some vital new voices, some canny transfers and some top quality heavyweight American imports. When Edward Hall took over as AD decade ago, (alongside Executive Producer Greg Ripley-Duggan), the theatre was on its knees. Now it is thriving. All this without public subsidy. It will be interesting to see how Roxana Silbert, coming in now that Mr Hall is moving on, builds on his legacy.

All this has been achieved without compromising on quality or intellectual heft. Cost of Living being a perfect example, the hundredth premiere since Edward Hall came in. Martyna Majok’s four hander is another Pulitzer Prize winner seeing its UK premiere at the HT, (with one original cast member in Katy Sullivan who plays Ani), which looks at the marginalised in US society, through the voices of two people with disabilities and their carers. Ms Majok drew from her own experiences as a carer, (amongst many other precarious jobs, a first generation Polish immigrant to the US, with her mother, trying to build a career as a playwright), splicing together the opening monologue in a bar from Eddie (Adrian Lester), with a short play she had written about an academic wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, John (Jack Hunter) and his carer Jess (Emily Barber) and yet another short work with characters which became Ani (a bilateral above knee amputee) and husband Eddie. Whilst initially there isn’t much to link the three stories, Ms Majok just about brings the strands together by the end, though this is still more successful as a character, rather than plot, driven narrative.

That it works is in large part down to the accuracy of the writing and the performance of the cast. We learn how little money three of the characters have to get by on, (the exception being John), the “cost of living”, but, more importantly, we get to see how the three relationships develop, (Jess ends up with Eddie at the end – I’ll refrain from explaining how or why). There is dry humour and some moving, though utterly unsentimental, episodes, but always with a natural cadence in the dialogue and a clear-sighted purpose. Ms Majok, by choosing to just show, rather than confront or evade, stereotypes of people with disabilities and those who look after them, has created an involving, and entertaining, play whose minor structural flaws are easily forgiven.

Mind you this sort of had me with Eddie’s expansive opening monologue, or more accurately one-sided dialogue. He is in a bar buying drinks for a stranger and telling some of his, broken, life story. Now it helps that this was delivered by Adrian Lester who is a master of his craft and, if I am honest, the main reason I snapped up a ticket. Mr Lester may have devoted much of his considerable talent to film and TV but when he pitches up on stage it is always essential viewing as I know from the Hytner NT Othello with Rory Kinnear, (one of the Tourist’s best ever theatre experiences), and in Red Velvet, written by his missus. I am no expert on accents but his Eddie seemed utterly plausible and the way he pleads, pauses, corrects himself, changes expressions, reacts to the unseen stranger, engages with us but without breaking the wall, is just riveting.

Eddie is estranged from the feisty Ani, with a new partner, after the car accident that left her quadriplegic, but, when his truck-driving work dries up, he offers to become her paid carer despite her misgivings. Their shared past is revisited, often with great tenderness, but there is always the sense that Eddie is seeking redemption, despite not being to blame for the accident, and that Ani is only slowly coming to terms with her changed circumstances.

Jess may have recently graduated from Princeton but takes on the role as John’s carer to make ends meet alongside working in a dodgy all-night bar. John’s independent income allows him to pursue his academic career, also at Princeton, free from money worries but also gives him privilege. What makes him interesting is that he knows, and bluntly expresses, this. He is as matter of fact as the other three, struggling, characters and this is where the message of the play lies in its implicit criticism of the US healthcare and welfare systems.

Mr Lester’s performance as the gentle, melancholic Eddie is matched by his fellow cast. Katy Sullivan is mesmeric as Ani. whose wary, hard-arsed exterior only thinly masks a warm and loving interior. The bath scene is about as generous a scene as you could ever see on stage. Presumably because acting is so easy for her, Katy Sullivan is also a producer, writer and four time US 100m (T42) Paralympian champion. Martyna Majok asks a lot of Jack Hunter and Emily Barber to build a believable relationship from a few short scenes which also carry a much of the intellectual meat of the play, and it is to their credit that they pull this off. John verges on the overbearing and, initially, bluntly looks down on Jess. She in turn is defensive and evasive. A warm friendship blooms around their transactional relationship though their crucial, dislocating, final scene slightly strains credulity. The shower scene though, mirroring the bath scene of the other couple, is similarly affecting.

I knew I recognised Emily Barber but couldn’t place where. Turns out she was the Speaker, as Antigone, in the staging of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex at the Royal Festival Hall, a few years back. Top Kudos as Sophocles himself might have said. I also see Jack Hunter moonlights as a comedian. That figures. He has an easy confidence that suggests a bright stage future.

Edward Hall’s fluid direction is matched by the design of Michael Pavelka (new to me) who sketches out the four spaces, the bar, Ani’s functional flat, John’s tasteful apartment and Eddie’s threadbare motel room without getting in the way of the movement (with two wheelchairs) required to complement the dialogue.

Hopefully the HT will continue to get more than its fair share of the best of contemporary US plays to London to set alongside this and the likes of Gloria, Describe the Night, Good People, Rabbit Hole and The Humans which the Tourist has enjoyed in recent years.

What Shadows at the Park Theatre review ****

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What Shadows

Park Theatre, 19th October 2005

The Park Theatre has pulled off a bit of a coup in bringing the Birmingham Rep’s production of What Shadows to London. It has been a deserved sell out. I have some misgivings, there were times when the didactisism verged on the patronising, shared by the SO who I dragged up to North London, but these were more than compensated by the brisk plot and a very fine performance from Ian McDiarmid.

Pretty much everything Mr McDiarmid touches turns to dramatic gold whether as director, (The Almeida bloomed under his joint stewardship with Jonathan Kent), or as actor on stage, large or small screen. He inhabits every character he plays. Let’s be honest he is by some margin the best actor in Star Wars.

What Shadows was no exception. He is Enoch Powell. Worth seeing for the way he captures Powell’s voice and gait alone. In the performance we went to, in the scene where his erstwhile friend, journalist Clem Jones, throws the script of the infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech to the floor in disgust, most of the pages landed on Ian McDiarmid’s shoe. The way he slowly withdrew his foot, as if he relished the content but at the same time knew the sh*tstorm he would create, was masterly. I can’t believe this was deliberately staged. It just happened but he was able to take this serendipitous accident and turn it into a telling detail. Or maybe i just imagined. Either way he was very, very real.

Chris Hannan’s script takes Enoch Powell’s 1968 speech to the General Assembly of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre, which led to his sacking by Ted Heath, as its subject. Powell’s scholarly brilliance, his skills as a rhetorician, his significant contribution in WWII, his trenchant views on the European Union and on free market economics, only appear in passing.  I pretty much disagree with everything he stands for politically but his influence on Conservative, and broader right wing politics, in this country has been undeniably profound (despite, or perhaps because of, the amount of time he spent criticising his own party).

But it is his views on race that turned him into a bogeyman and this is where Chris Hannan is focussed. He cleverly weaves the friendship that Powell and his briskly entitled wife Pamela (Joanne Pearce) had with Clem Jones (Nicholas Le Prevost, last seen by me in the excellent Winter Solstice at the Orange Tree which was a similarly uncomfortable watch) and Quaker wife Grace (Paula Wilcox) into the story. Similarly he takes the character of Marjorie Jones (Paula Wilcox again), the “only white woman” on a street in Birmingham, and the subject of another of Powell’s speeches, and charts her relationship with black woman, Joyce Cruikshank, and her daughter Rose Cruikshank, (both played by Amelia Donkor) as well as second husband Bobby (Waleed Akhtar). Rose herself has become an academic specialising in black history who is looking to probe the now retired Powell as part of her research. We see that she has both suffered and been the cause of past racism. She recruits Sofia (Joanne Pearce again), an older ex-colleague who career was cut short, in part by Rose’s actions, as a result of her own unpalatable opinions on race.

Whilst this set-up looks a bit awkward on paper it just about works in practice, thanks to the actors and to Roxana Silbert’s forthright direction. Having created this web of relationships to explore the politics of race and difference, Mr Hannan is then occasionally guilty of asking his characters to ram the points home which I think would naturally have emerged from the story, particularly in the case of Rose and Sofia.

Having said that though this is still a very fine play with a magnetic central performance. Powell’s own peculiar “otherness” which played a part in the thwarting of his own ambition, and his monumental self-belief, are brilliantly captured by script and actor. In my view this was no prophet but a dangerous demagogue. In his mind though prophet is exactly what he wanted to be. Our society has moved a long way since his heyday, though we seem no closer to bridging the divide between those he look out to the rest of the world and those who think we can close in, cut ourselves off and blame others for our plight.