You Stupid Darkness! at the Southwark Playhouse review *****

You Stupid Darkness!

Southwark Playhouse, 28th January 2020

With a whimper not a bang. That’s how the world ends in Sam Steiner’s new play. Though, given where we are now, (and as many reviews of this play seem to demand), you might be forgiven for thinking our selfish species will want to engineer something more dramatic for the end of days. Except, of course, it won’t be the end of days. It will just be the end of us. An incredibly adaptable species that wasn’t half as clever as it thought it was, after a miniscule time on Earth engineered its own extinction, whilst, unforgivably, though there is nothing to forgive, taking most of the rest of the planet’s life with it.

We never know what exactly what is going on outside the room in which our four volunteers, Frances, Angie, Joey and Angie, come every Tuesday night to Brightline to offer comfort to strangers, Samaritans style, on the phone. But it isn’t good, the weather is awful, infrastructure is failing and the team turn up in gas masks. Everything is plainly not going to be OK, keeping calm and carrying on is the default, not the resolute, choice. The phones may still be working, donuts (and this would matter to me) are still on sale, daily routines are still being followed, but, if you are familiar with the analogy, the water temperature is increasing and the frog is being boiled.

Turns out that our four characters each face their own personal misfortunes and, despite their temperamental differences, turn to each other, as well as their callers, for solace. Frances (Jenni Maitland) leads the team, is the eternal optimist, dispensing management mumbo-jumbo, but, pregnant in an increasingly sterile world, petrified at what the future holds for her unborn child. Tense Joey (Andrew Finnigan) is wise beyond his years, Jon (Andy Rush), the fatalistic foil to Frances’s buoyancy, is trapped in a failing relationship and fragile Angie (some scene stealing from Lydia Larsen, until she exits for much of the second half, we don’t find out why), empathises with callers by opening up herself.

Sam Steiner wisely forces no grand narrative or formal experiment on his play. There is not much in the way of plot. Nothing very dramatic happens. There is no great resolution or even much of an ending beyond the backers of the helpline pulling their funding. The comedy, and pathos, flows naturally from the conversation. Amy Jane Cook’s set is similarly low-key. Lights turn off. Kettles fuse. Posters fall off walls. Paintwork is peeling. Dominic Kennedy’s sound design also limits gesture and director James Grieve is unafraid of the pause. This unhurried approach pays dividends though means that the energy of the production, like the lights (Peter Small), occasionally dips, and it wasn’t to everyone’s taste on a less than half full Tuesday matinee but it suited me (and judging by the laughter a handful of others). And, if as I suspect, Mr Steiner’s aim was to find optimism in the bleak mundane, he indutiably succeeded.

I now wish I has seen Sam Steiner’s last play, also realised through Paines Plough, King Kanye about a white woman who wakes up one day to discover she is Kanye West, and, prior to that, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, in which the conceit is that language itself is rationed. I an a sucker for concept and imagination and Mr Steiner seems to have the gift. And he can right dialogue to match. I will watch his future career with interest.

Shook at the Southwark Playhouse review *****

Shook

Southwark Playhouse, 16th November 2019

The Papatango New Writing Prize is apparently the biggest of its kind in the UK, offering its winner the guarantee of a production and a commission to support a follow up play. The Funeral Director, Hanna, Trestle, Foxfinder, and especially Matt Grinter’s Orca, have all impressed me. Many of the writers have gone on to successful careers. This year’s winner, Shook, is as good, if not better than its predecessors, and, on the basis of this, I pray that its writer Samuel Bailey, has more ideas up his sleeve.

Shook is set in a young offenders institute where three young men, with expectant partners, are taking a class in parenthood facilitated by Grace (Andre Hall). Jonjo (Josef Davies) is initially skittish, agonised by the violent crime he has committed, whose nature and context takes time to emerge. Scouser Cain (Josh Finan) is incapable of self-censorship and sports an empty swagger. In contrast Riyad (Ivan Oyik) is more self-assured, deadpan in attitude, but keen to use education to help him thrive post his impending release. Samuel Bailey’s pin sharp dialogue initially accentuates the masculine banter, and is very funny, but gradually the deeper truths about the three young men emerge. Cain’s hyper-activity masks his helplessness, life inside preferable to the chaos of his upbringing, to Jonjo’s harrowing realisation that his reaction to provocation has ruined his chance of the normal family life he craves and Riyad’s temper and bravado sabotage his fierce intelligence. They may be young offenders, the exchange of sweets reminds us of their youth, but upbringing, society and system seem destined to conspire to break any chance they have of rehabilitation.

The characters are brilliantly crafted, back-stories and expectations, emerging naturally which is remarkable given the deliberately confined setting, and is helped by having the matter-of-fact Andrea as an emotional foil to contrast with the disclosures that emerge from the three men’s burgeoning friendship. The play doesn’t set out to be didactic or hammer home a message but still secures the audience’s sympathy for the wasted lives that seem set to emerge. The classes may ultimately be futile but at least offer some opportunity of catharsis for the three.

Jasmine Swan’s naturalistic set, is perfectly realised, and director George Turvey, focusses as much on the movement and non-verbal, as verbal, communication between characters, which, given the quality of the dialogue, is no mean achievement. Above all though it is the three young actors who utterly persuade. We are asked to imagine their lives before, beyond and outside, that we do so reflects their total commitment.

Fascinated to see what Mr Bailey comes up with next.

Other People’s Money at Southwark Playhouse review ***

Other People’s Money

Southwark Playhouse, 23rd April 2019

The Tourist is a generous man. As a cursory glance at his “recommendations” on this blog will reveal. He accentuates the positive. And so it will prove here. Jerry Sterner’s play Other People’s Money was a big hit, when it first appeared, off Broadway in 1989. So big that it spawned a film, directed by Norman Jewison, and starring Danny DeVito. Mr Sterner never really matched this play, though I see that he had sufficient wit to have his headstone inscribed “finally, a plot”.

Whilst I can certainly imagine Mr DeVito, with his trademark New Jersey wisecrackery, relishing the lines delivered by Lawrence “Larry the Liquidator” Garfinkle (Garfield in the film, recognising the lazy stereotype), I can also concur, based on this production from Blue Touch Paper, that the film, like the play, falls a little short of the coruscating satire on 1980s US capitalist excesses that it purports to be. For that look no further than Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. The evil asset stripper Larry is more concerned with his one-liners than making a case for unfettered, free market Darwinism and his opponent, Andrew “Jorgy” Jorgenson, is just way too homespun to persuade as the benevolent CEO of family business New England Wire and Cable. And Kate Sullivan, daughter of Bea, Jorgy’s second wife and loyal assistant, is pretty unconvincing as the lawyer (not banker) called in to mount a defence against Larry’s hostile predation, (on the company as well as her virtue). The play makes some good points about the uneasy relationship between the shareholders that provide the capital to the industrialist who put it to work and gets a few details of process right. But it also, trust me, gets a fair few wrong and gets bogged down in cliche and homily. The ending, as with much of the comedy “chemistry” between Kate and Larry, is troubling.

Yet it does have a fair few good lines, some dynamism, if predictability, in it sub-plots and, in the hands of director Katherine Farmer, clips along at a fair pace. The traverse stage setting of Emily Leonard, means quick transitions from Jorgy’s office, battered desk and chairs, in the wire factory to Larry’s Manhattan lair, black and steel gleaming furniture and cubist artwork, and she has sourced some full on 80’s power dressing costumes. This though, like the main plot, locks the action down in its period which blunts any attempt at relevance.

For my money, (no pun intended), Beth Steel’s Labyrinth, which went back to the late 1970s and LatAm debt crisis had much more to say about the risks, and rewards, that the last four decades of financial capitalism have brought to the world and Sarah Burgess’s Dry Powder was a far more accurate, and detailed, blackly comic take on the individuality amorality that can ensue. And, as drama, probably because the real life tale is just so outrageous, Lucy Prebble’s Enron is far stronger. Oh, and of course, the genius Caryl Churchill nailed the genre in 1987 with Serious Money.

Mark Rose as Jorgy’s duplicitous COO William Coles, offered the most convincing performance, and kept the plot on track with his expositional narration. The rest, a shouty Michael Brandon as Jorgy, US born Amy Burke as “sassy” Kate, Lin Blakley, an Eastenders regular I gather, as the apple-pie Bea, and an uncomfortable looking Rob Locke as Larry, also over-egged it for me. The relationships between the characters were therefore as thinly drawn as the characters themselves.

So as an occasionally sparky period piece with the odd flash of insight it works. As an examination of the confrontation between these perspectives and the archetypes that populate them, with any contemporary relevance, or as family/individual drama, it falls a fair way short.

The Rubenstein Kiss at the Southwark Playhouse review ****

The Rubinstein Kiss

Southwark Playhouse, 9th April 2019

I liked this. A lot. Certainly more than I might have expected given the string of lukewarm reviews. I liked the way the important story was told, the structure, a later generation revisits and is shaped by its shared history, the three believable relationships that lie at the heart of the play, the way director Joe Harmston and designer Sean Cavanagh, (and a punchy contribution on sound from Matthew Bugg), made very effective use of the SP’s larger space, in transverse, to convey changes in time and place and, especially, I liked the committed performances from the cast of seven.

James Phillips’s play is based on the life and, still contested, crimes of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs were convicted and executed in 1953, at the height of the Cold War, after spying for the Soviet Union, allegedly having passed secrets about nuclear weapon design secured by Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass. The play disregards the trial itself, focussing instead on the early lives of the Rosenberg’s and Greenglass’s, the interrogation of Julius Rosenberg and, in a constructive framing device, the attempts in later decades to clear their names after the executions.

Katie Eldred (a splendid stage debut performance) plays history teacher Anna Levi who meets lawyer Matthew Rubenstein (a similarly persuasive, if occasionally overly clamorous, Dario Coates) at an exhibition in 1970s NYC where he is staring at an iconic picture. It turns out that this is his parents kissing, (there is a similar image of the actual Rosenbergs, though the above is the most reproduced). I don’t think it is giving too much away to say that Anna and Matthew have a connection beyond the sexual relationship that follows, namely that he is the son of the Rubensteins and that she is the daughter of David Girshfeld (Sean Rigby) and Rachel Liebermann (Eva-Jane Willis). We go back in time to the small apartment where the earnest Jakob Rubenstein (Henry Proffit) and his spirited wife Esther (Ruby Rentall), who gave up a promising singing career, first set up home and bring up Matthew. Having left the army, where he worked in the nuclear bomb testing facilities in Nevada, (at a time when only the US had this technology), David is invited by Jakob to join his electricals business, allowing David and Rachel to also have a child, Anna. We see how Jakob and Esther’s upbringing, a child of the Great Depression, education and Jewish heritage inform their Communist idealism and sympathy for Soviet Russia (as did so many of their class and background did at the time). We also discover how Jakob was fired from his job as an engineer at a New Jersey facility which carried out research on missile systems for the army because of his CP membership.

In a series of flash-forwards, sometimes acted out in parallel, we also see how Jakob refused to renounce those ideals and confess to his crimes of espionage even when facing trial and under interrogation from FBI agent Stephen Cranmer, a man of considerably more complexity than you might expect, required an appropriately nuanced performance from Stephen Billington. And we see how and why David turns against Jakob and Esther, confesses his own involvement and implicates Jakob as the head of a Soviet spy ring. We also return to Anna and Matthew whose relationship is transformed by the revelation of their shared parental history and by Matthew’s involvement in the campaign to clear his parent’s names.

All this seems to follow much of the actual Rosenberg case, though we don’r really get to understand what exactly the Rubensteins, and David, did, nor, convincingly, why. Nor the events that have unfolded in the last couple of decades which point to the guilt of the Rosenbergs and have changed the way in which the cause celebre is viewed, now focussed on whether the punishment was appropriate to the crime. This is more about the relationships at the heart of the events, embellished and re-imagined, and all the better for it. There may well be another play located in the arrest, indictment, (the way the Greenglass’s changed their evidence is much simplified in TRK), trial, conviction and execution but it might not work effectively as drama and would be pretty thorny to grasp. There have certainly been other dramatic treatments of the people behind the facts on stage as well as film, though I can’t vouch for any of them. As an aside Roy Cohn, who later went on to play a leading role in the McCarthy trials and act for the Trump family, was involved in the Rosenberg prosecution case. And, as all good students of theatre will know, his particular brand of amoral, wanker-ism was spectacularly aired in Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America.

So James Phillips has packed a lot into his award winning play which by and large works. This is its first revival following its premiere in 2006 and it is easy to see why Joe Harmston and the Devil You Know company alighted on it. I am happy to forgive Mr Harmston for his hyperbolic comments about its relevance to the “end of days apocalypse of division” we now face. Threats to the enlightened consensus are permanent and democracy always fallible. And, from what I read, there is much to debate around the “rights and wrongs” of the Rosenberg case. But, as drama, this really worked for me. When I fill in one of those stock surveys the major theatres send out to us regular attendees I always tick the “I want to be educated” and “I want to be entertained” boxes. Job done here. On both counts.

Bodies at the Southwark Playhouse review ****

Bodies

Southwark Playhouse, 26th February 2019

Two’s Company is a theatre company which set out to explore plays written at the time of the Great War but has subsequently gone on to stage the English premiere of Hemingway’s only play and some Pinter productions. Here it has revived one of the most successful of James Saunders’s plays which originally premiered at the Orange Tree Richmond in 1977 before transferring to Hampstead Theatre and the West End. This is the first revival in 20 years or so.

James Saunders (1925-2004) was initially a champion of the Theatre of the Absurd, and even in his later work, (he wrote some 70 plays in all), he sought to push theatrical boundaries. He was closely associated firstly with the Questors Theatre in Ealing, (now one of the largest independent amateur theatres in Europe), and subsequently the Orange Tree.

Now I am not quite sure what attracted the prurient me to this intricate tale of wife-swapping in 1970s West London. Actually that snide observation does play and production a massive disservice. This really is a stealthily constructed portrait of marriage which has universal lessons beyond its central conceit.

Anne, on the surface the archetypal bored housewife, and Mervyn, frazzled and erudite English (head) teacher, are the embittered Ealing couple whose barbed conversation is fuelled by Scotch. So far, so Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. They meet younger couple Helen and David, something in marketing, and become bessies. However we join them a decade after they initially befriended, Helen and David having returned to the seething maelstrom that is Esher from the US. We discover that they left after the couples swapped, the casual affair of Anne and David countered by Helen’s more calculated seduction of Mervyn, and then returned to, their partners, all those years ago. Helen and David have undergone some fairly intensive therapy to overcome the emotional impact, whilst Anne and Mervyn have simply buried it and their other “neuroses”. The therapy in question was a actual thing, Erhard Seminars Training, which the programme explains, went well beyond the usual hippyish 1970s mumbo-jumbo into some fairly aggressive group interventions. Worked for some apparently, though the organisation was dogged by accusations of brainwashing, bullying and extortion.

Anyway it has turned David, and Helen on the surface, into models of emotional stoicism and patronising rejectors of consumerism. Mervyn though is having none of that and, niceties dispatched, starts to pick away, at hypocrisies past and present, culminating in a full-on, pissed-up, stripped-bare (not literally but it might have worked) diatribe. These are all well-read people, they read on stage, which makes their opening expositional monologues, and subsequent conversation and interaction, all the more articulate. James Saunders clearly had a gift for provocative dialogue and the lucid four hander set-up is the perfect vehicle to show this off, especially when contrasted with an off-stage sub-plot of Simpson, a troubled, poetry obsessed, student of Mervyn’s.

Out of the mouths of his morally compromised characters Mr Saunders seems to conjure up rafts of argument that never feel too forced or contrived. Indulgent, middle-class philosophising under pressure can become tiresome in some playwright’s hands. Not here. I’ll admit that the absence of interruption feels a little less than naturalistic at first but is explained by Anne’s hauteur and the younger couple’s therapy. This leaves Mervyn as the apoplectic centrepiece and Tim Welton certainly lets it all come out in his closing heft of a monologue, an impassioned defence of human frailty. Annabel Mullion as Anne may not be gifted with quite the same knockout lines but when she gets her chance she offers a masterclass in waspish scorn from her chaise longue. Peter Prentice’s David, complete with black polo-neck, exudes the priggish certainty of the spiritual convert, and Alix Dunmore cleverly reveals the doubt under the surface of the willowy Helen.

Alex Marker’s set is a faithful Abigail’s Party like reconstruction of a 1970s lounge split by a jagged line, (and some sort of Atomium caper), to symbolise the fissures in the relationships. Costumes (Emily Stuart) and lighting (Neill Brinkworth) all expertly capture the 70s vibe and Tricia Thorn’s delicate direction doesn’t even attempt to distract from this excellent text.

I’ll admit that there were a couple of brief longuers across the two hours or so, but nothing to trouble the Tourist’s lardy bum on the Southwark Little’s ungenerous benches. The Tourist has sat through a few “lost classics” in the past few years that were nothing of the sort. This was, give or take, the real deal. It would be interesting to see more of James Saunders work though I doubt it will happen. (I also see that he was responsible for the script of Bloomers, the sit-com which starred the much-missed Richard Beckinsale of Rising damp and Porridge fame, before his untimely death. Never saw it. Mind you it sounds like it was infected by bog-standard 1970s misogyny).

The Funeral Director at the Southwark Playhouse review ****

The Funeral Director

Southwark Playhouse, 6th November 2018

The Papatango New Writing Prize, which kicked off in 2009, is the first and only playwriting award which guarantees the winner a full scale professional production, a share of the takings and a commission for a follow up. Whilst I missed last year’s winner Trestle by Stewart Pringle at the SP (my bad), the 2016 winner Orca by Matt Grinter, also at the SP, was one of the best plays I have seen in the past few years, Dawn King’s Foxfinder, which won in 2011, may not have been shown to best effect in its last outing but is still a very fine play, (https://athomehefeelslikeatourist.blog/2018/09/21/foxfinder-at-the-ambassadors-theatre-review/) and the 2012 runner-up Tom Morton-Smith went on to write the marvellous Oppenheimer for the RSC.

So The Funeral Director by Iman Qureshi comes with some pedigree. Which, by and large, it lives up to. It is a little too deliberate, the plot a little too pat in places, but it offers up opportunities for its four strong cast to portray strong, heartfelt emotion in the dilemmas that they face, which Jessica Clark, Tom Morley, Maanuv Thiara and, especially, Aryana Ramkhalawon, seized with relish.

Ayesha has inherited her Mum’s Muslim funeral parlour in the Midlands which she runs with her husband Zeyd. It is not an easy living but the couple get by and seem to be happy in the circumstances, having come together in an arranged marriage in their teens, even if Ayesha is reluctant to acquiesce to Zeyd’s desire for children. Their equilibrium however is disturbed when the visibly distressed Tom turns up at the parlour asking for his partner Ahad, who has committed suicide, to be buried. They turn him away, fearful of the reaction of their community if they agree. Ayesha then bumps into her close childhood schoolfriend Janey who has returned from her career as a lawyer in London to see her ill mother. From these two events, Iman Qureshi explores issues of sexuality in the context of Islamic faith, in what I think was a thought-provoking and sensitive way. 

Its themes are weighty, complex and relevant but the play has its moments of tension as secrets unravel, as well as some sharp comedy, along the way, and a couple of real lump in the throat exchanges. Amy Jane Cook’s set design, ingeniously wedged traversely, in the SP Little space, combines the reception/office (sofa, cushions, flowers) and business (gurney, sink, kafans) areas of the parlour, augmented by Jack Weir’s lighting and the sound design of Max Pappenheim neatly ties in to Ayesha’s unfulfilled singing dreams.

It would be pretty difficult to hide the quandaries that all four characters face inside a more subtle plot so Ms Qureshi wisely doesn’t even try. We can see where the story is headed but, with Hannah Hauer-King’s unmediated direction, and the heart on the sleeve performances, it shouldn’t matter to the audience. Arayana Ramkhalawon does such a fine job at showing Ayesha’s inherent strength that when her facade finally crumbles and she admits her real self it is genuinely moving. Maanuv Thiara’s Zeyd plainly loves Ayesha, is a decent man, and offers argument predicated on reason as well as faith to justify his stance. Initially Jessica Clark’s Janey feels a little too assertive but this is justified by her past. Tom Morley has less opportunity to convince as the bag of nerves, and angry, Tom. 

It is pretty clear to me that Iman Qureshi is more than capable of writing persuasive dialogue for her characters which carefully set out and explore their worlds. Maybe a little more of this and a less of the issue-heavy argument might yield an even more involving result. Mind you what do I know. I haven’t one a prize for anything other than accountancy. Which, literally, suggests the measure of this particular man. 

The Sweet Science of Bruising at the Southwark Playhouse review ****

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The Sweet Science of Bruising

Southwark Playhouse, 16th October 2018

Now that MS, BD and LD have turned into exemplars of their youthful generation, (I am their Dad so may be biased), we no longer watch Doctor Who. However with Malorie Blackman, Ed Hime, Pete McTighe and Vinay Patel (An Adventure at the Bush Theatre review ****) on the writing roster, and Jodie Whittaker as the good Doctor, perhaps I need to rethink.

Even more so since the writing team also comprises Joy Wilkinson, who is the pen behind The Sweet Science of Bruising, which is, if you get your skates on, still playing at the Little at Southwark Playhouse. Joy Wilkinson first wrote the play in 2007 but it has taken until now for it to be stage thanks to the enlightened team at Troupe theatre under Ashley Cook, (who takes on three of the minor males roles here), responsible for Rasheeda Speaking, Dear Brutus and The Cardinal (The Cardinal at the Southwark Playhouse review ***), and the theatrical factory that is the Southwark Playhouse.

The reason it has taken so long to come to life is that it demands (here) 10 actors for 15 named parts. Thus making it an expensive proposition to stage. Still here it is, and what a fine, and novel, play it is. Its subject is the world of women’s boxing in pre-suffrage, Victorian times, 1869 to be exact. Its message is powerfully feminist. Four women, earnest nurse and would-be doctor Violet Hunter (Sophie Bleasdale), clever Irish street-walker Matty Blackwell (Jessica Regan), suppressed and abused upper class wife Anna Lamb (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) and gutsy Northern pugilist Polly Stokes (Fiona Skinner), a real life boxer, come to the boxing club of “Professor” Charlie Sharp (Bruce Alexander) to seek fame, fortune, validation, redemption and political awakening.

Joy Wilkinson cleverly intertwines their personal stories with the oppression and prejudice that women faced from men and society in Victorian times, with boxing, it transpires, the perfect metaphor to realise this. It proceeds energetically across 26 scenes. Director Kirsty Patrick Ward, designer Anna Reid and, especially, fight and movement director Alison de Burgh bring the spirit of time, place and spectacle alive. There are a few scenes where the message is a little shoe-horned in, as often happens when playwrights wish to expose their scholarship, but this is more than compensated by the genuine connection Ms Wilkinson creates to the stories of these four (yes four, how good is that) women.

There is an awful lot of drivel shown on stages much bigger than this, with much less to say and much less entertaining. This really should find a bigger home, or, if there is any justice, some shrewd TV type should commission Joy Wilkinson to adapt it for the telly.