The Plough and the Stars at the Lyric Hammersmith review ***


The Plough and the Stars

Lyric Hammersmith, 26th March 2018

One way or another I see a fair amount of theatre. Making up for lost time I guess. Anyway this requires a reasonable degree of organisation. Nothing a small child couldn’t cope with but I do need to be on top of the diary. Very occasionally there is a system error. I say system. Obviously it’s my stupidity. One casualty was the National Theatre’s revival of The Plough and the Stars in summer 2016. It never got into the diary, I failed to check the fail-safe lists and ended up in Sicily en famille before I realised the mistake. Reviews weren’t great, Sicily was, (even if we found ourselves once again on top of a very steep hill despite strict instructions to the booker, me, to avoid this). And I had only paid £15 for the ticket thanks to that nice Mr Dorfman who uses his Travelex fortune to support the NT. Even so it irked me. Still does. It’s always the little things isn’t it?

Anyway that meant postponing my first exposure to the renowned Irish playwright Sean O’Casey until this production, That’s right. No Juno and the Paycock or The Silver Tassie yet, (though I am signed up for the concert performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera based on the latter at the Barbican in November).

So I have some catching up to do. First impressions? Well I can see why Mr O’Casey’s work might divide opinion. The mixture of trenchant politics, (all sides come in for a walloping from socialist SO’C), comedy filtered through working class Dublin lives that, with hindsight, teeters perilously close to Oirish cliche, and melodramatic tragedy, takes a bit of getting used to. I see from Michael Billington’s review of the 2016 NT production that it took him a bit of time to get into the swing of things that time round. Same thing happened to me in this production. I also, shamefacedly, have to admit my ears had to adjust a bit to the vernacular accents on display, the drift of SO’C’s prose. Yet once it all got going, and subsequently having thought about, and done a bit more work on, the play, I am starting to see where the advocates of SO’C are coming from. (The programme contains a pair of fine articles on the way in which the Easter Rising, and women’s role in Irish independence, have been interpreted over the years). If it is good enough for the mighty Mr Billington, who should be knighted and canonised for his services to the theatre illiterati like me, then it is good enough for me to sit up and take notice.

This production in its original “anniversary” incarnation at the Abbey Theatre Dublin has a very fine Irish cast which has been brought over to West London largely intact. Now it wouldn’t be Sean Holmes, (don’t be deceived by the name – he’s English), as director if there wasn’t a bit of “auteristic” subversion instituted into proceedings and so it is here. Jon Bauser’s set is low budget but ingenious with scaffolding creating the Dublin tenements, or maybe now tower blocks, and graffitied plywood standing as walls. A fair amount of cheap (I assume) lager spills out on to the stage. Paul Keogan’s lighting is similarly severe. Catherine Fay’s costume design is resolutely modern-day, particularly striking when the British soldiers first appear. This means that the setting, 1916 Dublin at the time of the Easter Rising, can echo across subsequent years in the island of Ireland. I see the point. Patriotism, whether derived from a line on a map or a different shade of god, is an ugly f*cker. And it’s always the least advantaged that lost the most.

The everyday humour which fuels the first act in the living room of the Clitheroe’s flat, and in the pub in the second act, is confidently delivered. Remember this is November 1915, the Nationalists including the trade unionist Irish Citizens Army, are organising. The relationship between Ian Lloyd Anderson’s Jack and Kate Stanley Brennan’s Nora is believably tender, and then strained, when Jack is re-recruited to the cause despite Nora’s desperate intervention. On the other hand whilst individually, Niall Buggy’s buffoonish veteran Uncle Peter, Phelim Drew’s lovable drunkard carpenter Fluther Good, Janet Moran’s effervescent charwoman Mrs Gogan, Ciaran O’Brien sanctimonious Marxist Young Covey, are all individually fine performances they don’t always seem to naturally occupy the same space.

This slightly stilted tone continues through into the pub with Nyree Yergainharsian forthright prostitute Rosie Redmond. However, once the fight between Mrs Gogan and Hilda Fay’s bitter Protestant Bessie Burgess breaks out, the tone shifts, for the better in my view. Now the way external events catch up with the individual characters starts to add texture. SO’C’s critique of the “heroic” telling of this passage in Irish history is manifest even if you know very little about it. The compassion of the women in the play is highlighted, especially Bessie Burgess, the best role here. The fear that violent struggle precipitates, as the soldiers break into Bessie’s attic, is palpable.

I think it might just become a much better play in the second half. I can see that the brazen looting, young Moliser’s death from TB, (some convincing coughing on demand from Julie Maguire decked out in tribal footie shirts), Nora’s stillbirth and delirium and Bessie’s sacrifice create a tonal shift into something as bleakly overblown as the first half was comically pigeonholed. Yet is feels more sedulous, certainly in this production.

It is a hard thing to bring out the complexity of ordinary people living on the periphery of historical change. Weaving a drama from this, whilst still setting out to upset just about everyone involved in creating the narrative which idealised this change, is surely doubly difficult. You can see why the play had such an impact when first performed at the Abbey in 1926. I can also see why its status as “canonic” theatre also makes it a tricky piece to get right. This might not have been the perfect production on first viewing but I suspect I will grow to like SO’C with more exposure.

I took the wrong route home, (bus not tube since you ask), which meant that an earnest  young chap, I suspect gently in his cups, politely asked for my programme lying on the seat. He carefully asked my opinion on the play. I was a little sniffy. I now regret that. I do hope he went.

Final aside. Apparently SO’C lived in Totnes. And died in Torquay. I didn’t know that. Seems like there is more to the Tourist’s birthplace than he ever realised. The more you learn the more the more the connections build.


Saved at Guildhall School Milton Court Studio review ****



Milton Court Studio, 10th February 2018

Now one of the manifold pleasures of being a layabout theatre addict is the ability to pitch up midweek to one of the invariably excellent performances served up by the students at London’s prestigious drama schools. Outstanding talent, likely to go on to glittering careers, matched by similarly gifted technicians and creatives and often guided by big name directors and designers. The auditoria at the Guildhall and RADA are some of the best in London, state of the art, comfortable, with perfect sight lines, and tickets are a bargain.

What’e not to like. Well as one, slightly confused, old boy at one performance I attended remarked afterwards, “they’re a bit young aren’t they”. Even if we accept the literal truth of this it rarely matters, with audaciousness often trumping inexperience. Best of all it often gives the curious theatre-goer a chance to see “classic” plays which maybe don’t often get an airing for one reason or another.

That certainly describes Saved. Edward Bond’s (in)famous 1965 play. The play premiered at the Royal Court Theatre to a private audience, as writer and director, William Gaskell, refused to make the cuts demanded by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office to secure a licence. The Lord Chamberlain decided to prosecute. The theatrical world was outraged, and, despite those involved in the production pleading guilty and getting fined, the absurdity of this censorship eventually helped to hasten the demise of this licensing system in 1968. The play was then immediately revived at the Royal Court, but was rarely performed thereafter, (in large part because Mr Bond rejects most professional requests to perform it), until Sean Holmes, (of course given his pedigree with provocative theatre), took it on in 2011 at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Autodidact Edward Bond, (there he is above), brought all the violence he had seen through the war years, and in his working-class upbringing, to bear on Saved, his second full length play. Indeed violence is the theme that runs through much of his work and his influence on later generations of British playwrights is patent. Saved is set in the South London of the 1960’s, socially, culturally and economically impoverished. This is no “kitchen-sink” period piece though. In some way it could have been written yesterday with a few tweaks to the language, (it being a fairly hackneyed, “gor-blimey”, argot with fairly pedestrian swearing).

Len and Pam hook up. They go boating, where Pam meets Fred, who she falls for even though he is a prize sh*t. Len has moved in with Pam and her parents, Mary and Harry. Theirs is not a happy marriage. Pam has a child by Fred, though neither turn out to be naturally suited to parenthood it’s fair to say. Fred goes fishing, watched by Len. Fred’s mates turn up ,as does Pam with the baby. She leaves the baby. Goading each other on, the gang taunts, and then stones, the baby in its pram. When Pam returns she doesn’t realise her child is dead. Fred is jailed for his part in the crime. When he gets out Pam begs him to come back to her. Len and Mary flirt. There is a huge row. Len fixes a broken chair: offering some hope of redemption at the end.

It may sound like bleak, visceral stuff. The central scene which so offended the critics at the public premiere is brutally shocking. As shocking as I have seen on stage. Violence may permeate contemporary culture, but theatre makes it more “real”. To the gang the baby is no more than a “thing”, such is their poverty of empathy. Despite this extreme, the play seems to me to present some real truths about an alienated society and the psychological damage it inflicts on people. No need to chuck drink, drugs, crime, consumerism, media into the mix. The essence of the relationships, fuelled by anger, resentment, bitterness, jealousy, boredom and frustration, rang true to me without foregrounding these addictions. The violence simmering under the surface of humanity colours each scene, each line, each interaction. The tone is not moralising, hectoring or judgemental. These are delicate, damaged, hopeless people. The final, wordless scene, is almost as affecting as the central, brutal scene.

Edward Bond’s plays were increasingly ignored from the 1980s, in part reflecting his own dissatisfaction with contemporary theatre practice. His most recent plays have been largely confined to the Big Brum company in Birmingham in this country, though his work is more widely performed in Europe, especially France. This is a shame, if that is the right word for drama suffused with violence. I would love to see, Early Morning, the surreal satire that followed Saved, or his other “classic”, Bingo, which puts a violent twist on Shakespeare’s later years. In fact, on the basis of Saved, I would try any of his work now that I have read about it.

He does though allow students to take on his work regularly. Which gave this accomplished cast an opportunity they all grasped with both hands. Toheeb Jimoh as Len had something of the observer about him, complicit in his manipulation by Pam, Fred and Mary. Shalifa Kaddu’s Pam was riveting, initially confident, crushed by Fred’s rejection, finally consumed by anger. I was also extremely impressed by Ellie Rawnsley as Mary, who effortlessly captured the brassy bearing and rancour of a character twice her age. Similarly Alex James-Cox, with very little dialogue until his heart to heart with Len near the end, shows Harry as a careworn, shuffling man clinging to routine to fill the void of his life and marriage. Joe Bolland, who played Fred, was perhaps the most assured. This is a powerful, brilliantly constructed play, make no mistake, and this cast, under experienced director John Haidar, did it real justice.


The Seagull at the Lyric Hammersmith review ***


The Seagull

Lyric Hammersmith, 9th October 2017

Right where I come from seagulls are a bloody menace. There are times when I feel the same way about Chekhov. You sit there thinking all his people are self-indulgent, lovelorn whingers who just need to lighten up and get a grip. But slowly, or more rapidly if it is class production, the lines pile up, you begin to understand and care about the characters, and the unsettling mix of everyday tragedy and comedy wields its magic. Life probably is a series of frustrations and missed expectations, which can sometimes get out of hand. When an audience collectively connects with one of AC’s characters mid-monologue it is one of theatre’s greatest pleasures. But this “theatre of mood” isn’t always the easiest of drama to pull off so I get why some people approach our Anton with trepidation.

I always think of AC’s four “great” plays as a sort of theme, more accurately themes, and variations. An impoverished landowner, the beautiful, and sometimes ageing woman, maybe an actress, who returns, and is constantly seeking validation, maybe a matriarchal dame, a young idealist/artist head over heels in love, the frustrated sibling stuck in the country, the young innocent woman (one or both parents lost to her) in love with the wrong bloke, a successful artist/writer/academic looking back to his youth, a discontented schoolteacher, maybe cuckolded, a wise doctor, a faithful retainer, soldiers of various rank, various lippy servants. You can mix them all up and they vary in each play, and Three Sisters deviates a fair bit, but these egotistical archetypes of Russian society populate the plays.

We are normally a long way from the city, to the frustration of all and sundry, and money, getting it and keeping it, is a big issue. Always bubbling away in the background is the ossified nature of the Russian society and economy at the time and the fact that this could not continue. The disparities of wealth and opportunity between AC’s characters is acute, remember these are provincial bourgeoisie so not the very richest, and serfs are generally absent or incidental. The life of the mind, and therefore some riffing on the nature of life and art (and specifically the theatre in The Seagull), will usually get worked over by AC. And, of course, love, romantic and familial, permeates the whole.

And that gun, real or metaphorical.

Back to this Seagull. You may have guessed from the above that I don’t like my Chekhov to shift too far from the socio-economic backdrop against which it was written. That doesn’t mean I need naturalistic sets and costumes. Just that the class structure should be articulated and the sense of place palpable. AC was a father of naturalism, and the plays to me are more about theme, character and rhythm than plot or spectacle. In this production, director Sean Holmes and designer Hyemi Shin have opted to shake it up a bit visually which I think de-emphasies the context I describe above,

I also found the performances a little variable in tone which meant that the whole took a bit longer to get going than normal. This is definitely not the fault of Simon Stephens new adaption which I thought was terrific. It just seemed to me that the actors approached the characters in slightly different ways, so that the multiplicity of love triangles was a little veiled at first. However after our poor seagull puts in his appearance things started to coalesce.

Nicholas Gleaves’s Boris started off in slightly diffident fashion but once he got into the monologues lamenting the fate of the writer, and the prison of the creative impulse, he found his stride. Lesley Sharp’s self-obsessed Irina, unsurprisingly was on the money from the off. Brian Vernel’s Konstantin was initially more petulant than idealist, and I wasn’t entirely won over by his passion for Nina, but his final scenes were very persuasive. I have seen more guileless Nina’s than Adelayo Adedayo’s, but that made the scenes with Boris more tenable. Paul Higgins’s Hugo and Nicholas Tennant’s Peter were striking but the other “minor” characters seemed a little less vivid than in other productions.

Now I hasten to say that once I had adjusted to the shape of the production it did the business, such that by Acts 3 and 4 I was firmly in the Chekhovian zone. If you fancy a Chekhov fix then this is certainly one to see. I just prefer my Chekhov to be a little more obviously rooted in its time and place, and for all the instruments in Chekhov’s orchestra to be in the same key if that makes sense. The version of The Seagull offered up at the NT last year, as part of the Chichester Young Chekhov trilogy, was certainly in the groove, and I also preferred the one served up at the Open Air Theatre a couple of years ago. Mind you the performance I attended there was interrupted by the noise from a party at the US ambassador’s gaff next door. I could just about forgive the near hour long break in my entertainment but not the fact that the Yanks had chosen Duran Duran to colour theirs. Appalling taste.

BTW. I remember seeing Duran Duran in the early 80s. Backcombed hair and full on make-up. Me that is. Meant I ditched the specs to preserve my illusion of New Romantic glamour. Which then meant I couldn’t see a thing. Which then meant there was nothing to detract from the music. Purgatory.

Second BTW. Has anyone else noticed the preponderance of Lesser and Greater Black Backed Gulls popping up all over London. Herring and Black Headed Gulls are ten a penny but these big b*ggers shouldn’t be here should they? Maybe Hitchcock was on to something in The Birds. Other than fawning over Tippi Hedren of course.

Third BTW. Talking of Hitchcock and Ms Hedren I see there are still a fair few tickets fat the ENO for Nico Muhly’s new opera Marnie based on the Winston Graham book which Hitchcock committed to film. I think this will be a belter. And I hope the new ENO season can pull in the punters and get the haters off their backs.


Terror at the Lyric Hammersmith review ****



Lyric Hammersmith, 19th June 2017

Terror is not your typical piece of theatre. It is a courtroom drama yes, but not in the form of a classic “did he/she or didn’t he/she do it”. Nor is it especially interested in probing the psychological make-up of accused, victim or legal representatives. Instead it is focussed on a classic moral dilemma: which takes precedence, the rule of law and the principles that lie behind it, or the conscience of the individual.

Writer Ferdinand von Schirach sets the stakes pretty high though. The defendant Lars Koch (Ashley Zhangazha) is an exemplary major and fighter pilot in the German air force. He has admitted shooting down a commercial plane which had been hijacked by a terrorist. In doing so 164 people have died but potentially he has saved the lives of 70,000 in a football stadium, the known target of the terrorist. The facts are succinctly laid out by Christian Lauterbach (John Lightbody), the air force officer tasked with co-ordinating any response to this sort of event. Major Koch was expressly ordered not to shoot down the plane but chose to go ahead. The judge (Tanya Moodie), prosecuting (Emma Fielding) and defence (Forbes Masson) counsels lay out the arguments with some eloquence and pull in a few classic examples from ethics and moral philosophy (the trolley problem for example). We also here the testimony of one of the victim’s wives played by Shanaya Rafaat.

We the audience then toddle off to the short interval, have a debate about what we think (as a number of people around me were doing – Billy No Mates here once again had to have a debate inside his head) and then return to press a button to decide if the major is guilty or not guilty.

It is thought provoking stuff but only works as a piece of theatre because of the canniness of the writing. Mr von Schirach’s day job is as a lawyer. I am guessing he is a flipping good lawyer. I have no idea how “accurate” a representation of the German legal system this “trial” is, but I am not sure it matters, so deftly is the dilemma set up. The set design by the very talented Anna Fleische is imposing and the direction by the Lyric’s own Sean Holmes is typically confident. The excellent cast also rises to the occasion. For me though the real hero here is translator David Tushingham. The role of translator is often overlooked but if I admired the economy of the text here this evidently reflects the skill of translator as well as playwright. I note that Mr Tushingham also translated Winter Solstice by Richard Schimmelpfenning which enthralled me at the Orange Tree earlier in the year. He was also dramaturg for the Forbidden Zone, one of Schaubuhne Berlin’s finest exports to these shores.

So if you and some mates are looking for a thought provoking night out, (with plenty of time for some grub and/or a livener or two afterwards as this comes in well under 2 hours even with the break), then you could do worse than secure some tickets for Terror. And after it is all over, check out the Lyric website to see how your audience jury compared to the many previously across the world. I won’t say what I thought.