DNA and The Fall: National Youth Theatre at the Southwark Playhouse review *****

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DNA, The Fall – National Youth Theatre

Southwark Playhouse, 11th May and 14th May 2018

Let’s imagine you want to go to the theatre. To see a proper play. Let’s take the revival of Red for example at the Wyndham’s. 90 minutes straight through so not too taxing. Big name actor, Alfred Molina, in the lead. Michael Grandage directing. Very strong reviews just out. Best seats in the house? £120 in the middle of the stalls. Over £80 around that. Maybe if you wait they will come cheaper but who knows.

Par for the West End course now. Any alternative? Well yes as it happens.

For just £20, you could have ponied up to the Southwark Playhouse over the last three weeks or so (too late now – as usual I took too long to review this), plonked yourself in the front row and seen the gifted students of the NYT deliver some superb theatre, written for them, courtesy of two of this country’s finest playwrights. Dennis Kelly (DNA) was the writer behind Girls and Boys at the Royal Court which is off to New York with its dazzling lead Carey Mulligan (Girls and Boys at the Royal Court review *****), as well as Mathilda of course, and young James Fritz (The Fall) already has a string of prizes to his name, is cooking up something for the Hampstead Theatre and was the author of the vivid Parliament Square at the Bush (Parliament Square at the Bush Theatre review *****).

Mark me there were some superb actors at work for the performances I attended. In DNA Kitty Schneider as the taciturn, sociopathic Phil and, especially, Katie Ann Dolling as the garrulous Leah stood out. In The Fall I was particularly struck by the performances of Niyi Akin and Jesse Bateson and Troy Richards and Sophie Couch as the two couples. But honestly the acting of the entire ensemble in both plays was as good as, if not better, than most of what I see in major London theatres by established professionals. No fear. That’s the difference. And I am not being patronising or making allowances for these young’uns.

DNA, from 2007 and now a core GCSE text, follows a gang of teenagers after an “accident” that leads to the death of one of their members, Adam. They cover up to escape any consequences of their bullying, with Phil taking the lead. There is a twist or two. The way in which the play explores peer pressure and group dynamics, the need to belong and the effects of guilt Raskolnikov-style, in a not entirely naturalistic way, is fascinating. The relationship between Leah, painfully, and comically, self-aware as she desperately tries to impress an unresponsive Phil is particularly well-written.

The Fall explores the increasing divide between an older generation needing care but hoarding capital, and a younger generation who don’t see why they should be burdened and want the cash. Pretty topical huh. Mr Fritz is not a genteel writer, and wades in feet first with argument, humour and drama aplenty. Boy and Girl need somewhere to shag and end up in the house of the old, rich bloke that Girl helps care for. They discover, much to Boy’s disgust, he is lying in bed, close to death. One and Two’s relationship is charted from first meeting, through marriage, a child, poorly paid work, tiny rented flats, via a quick-fire exchange as they make and unmake the bed.linen. One’s Mum needs looking after, but what will happen to the flat she owns? In the final scene four old people, A.B,C and D, are holed up in a care home. They have a state sponsored option to die and release funds for their kids.

Like Parliament Square you might find the calculated structure of the play grating. Not me though. The energy, which the cast, complete with dance between scenes, revelled in, and the ambition, the play makes a lot of points in its 70 mins, bowled me over. As with DNA the performances were outstanding. I would love to see Mr Fritz re-write this from a reverse perspective, aged fear rather than millennial angst. Maybe when he is a bit older? That would be intriguing.

As an aside please do remember that the generational wealth gap which we are all banging on about, is as nothing compared to the class wealth gap. Knocking off the old early may not have the desired effect kids. Everyone will still suffer from plundering the earth willy-nilly and from voraciously conjuring up fictitious assets with fictitious debt pulled from the future. Still that’s Homo Sapiens for you. Exceptionalists prone to tantrums, unable to defer gratification.

The Fall was directed by Matt Harrison, DNA by Sean Hollands. Bravo chaps. I expect to see a lot more of their work in the future.

As I do from these talented actors. The major drama schools churn out beautiful actors from elite backgrounds. (I don’t use the term middle-class any more – it is meaningless). If my kids had any acting talent, and were not compromised by father having been hit by the ugly stick, despite their mothers’ beauty, they could be amongst them. But only because Dad was lucky to benefit from one of this country’s regular waves of capital expansion driven by financial intermediation. As I understand the NYT ethos though, access is not dependent on finance. So it is your duty to support it. I will remind you next time.

 

 

The Country Wife at Southwark Playhouse review ***

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The Country Wife

Southwark Playhouse, 17th April 2018

I haven’t seen that many Restoration comedies. In fact if I take the list of notable examples of the genre offered up by Wiki I see it is a grand total of one, in the form of the NT’s Beaux Stratagem from 2015, directed by the versatile Simon Godwin. It was OK but I can’t say I was bowled over. Still anyone with the Tourist’s theatrical pretensions needs to master the form so he leapt at the chance to see this production of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife courtesy of Morphic Graffiti. Especially at the bargain basement price of a tenner. There is no cheaper, or often, better way to see theatre in London than through Southwark Playhouse’s Pay As You Go offer. All Londoners should be compulsorily enrolled for their own cultural good.

Luke Fredericks and Stewart Charlesworth are the brains behind Morphic Graffiti which they set up in 2012. I see that the majority of their well received work to date has been musicals, including a version of the problematic Rodgers and Hammerstein work Carousel at the Arcola. That would explain why this Country Wife has some absolutely marvellous song and dance routines between scenes. The entire cast dances its way through the intricate set changes to a backdrop of abridged jazz-swing versions of pop “classics”. The choreography is in keeping with the 1920s “Bright Young Things” setting, for that is the period Messrs Fredericks and Charlesworth have alighted on to shed new light on Wycherley’s original written in 1675. The idea is that the privileged Bohemians of 1920s London, with their drink and drug excesses, their music and fancy dress parties and their sexual licentiousness, had a lot in common with their, probably, frock and wig wearing ancestors in Charles II’s time. Apparently Charly 2 was notoriously potty-mouthed.

The Restoration saw  a reaction against the puritanism of the Protectorate. The theatre was restored, and frou-frou, baroque-y, Frenchiness was all the rage. Moliere, albeit hyped up, was the inspiration for the Restoration playwrights who satirised, albeit lovingly, etiquette, manners, class and sex. The Country Wife was at the more explicit end of the spectrum with its knob and fanny double entendres and it was banned from performance from 1753, as those miserable Georgians and Tories gained ascendance, until 1924.

Which circles back to the backdrop here. I can see that some of the characters here, the foppish dandy Sparkish, the roue Harry Horner, the horny cougar Lady Fidget and the eponymous country wife looking to widen her horizons as it were, Margery Pinchwife, might fit the Bright Young Things template. In contrast the cuckolds, Pinchwife and Sir Jasper Fidget are the older generation against which the young’uns rebel. But surely the Restoration, and these comedies which prick it, was a time a time of deception and hypocrisy. The look may have been flamboyant but there were presumably social mores which governed public behaviour, even if, in private, anything was up for grabs. In contrast those BYT’s revelled in their visible outrageousness and were flagrant self publicists, Made in Chelsea types but obviously not so dumb as fat Spence, toddler Jamie and Bonky. In short if Harry got horny in the 1920’s in this company, surely he would need no elaborate ruse to get his leg over.

I fear I maybe overthinking this but my point is I am not entirely sure the concept stacked up even if the look, especially Stewart Charlesworth’s set and costumes, movement, Heather Douglas, and sound, Neil Rigg, was appealing. Apparently Luke Fredericks took a few liberties with the text and cut his dramatis personae, I wouldn’t know, but it didn’t do any damage to the plot as far as I could make out. Mind you, even with plays I know well, I will always get familiar with the outline of the plot in advance. The SO thinks this is mad but I reckon if you have a rough idea of what is going on there is more joy to be had from performances, characters, insights, messages, spectacle and the like. And I am notoriously slow on the uptake.

In essence The Country Wife is a bunch of people looking for a shag, with randy Harry Horner, played rather too straight by Eddie Eyre, pretending he is impotent so he can get close to the ladies without arousing suspicion, Pinchwife’s young and “inexperienced” new, yokel wife Margery (a winning Nancy Sullivan) embracing all the City has to offer, and Harry’s droll chum Frank Harcourt (Leo Starr) nabbing the lovely Alithea (Siubhan Harrison) from under the nose of the camp chump Sparkish (Daniel Cane who sets out to, and succeeds, rather too obviously, in stealing the show). Mabel Clements caught the eye doubling up as knowing servant Lucy and vivacious Dainty Fidget, sister in law of Lady F, played by Sarah Lam who seemed to me to most embrace the tenor of the text. Richard Clews as the preposterously misogynistic Pinchwife, Sam Graham as Sir Jasper F and Joshua Hill as Harry’s other wing-man, Dorilant, completed the cast.

Now these plays are famous in part for offering the first proper meaty parts for women (no filth intended0, not dressed up boys, and for making stars of the actors and actresses who starred in them. You’ll have to pick you own way through the sexual politics, guided by the director, to decide if the women here have real agency, and how sympathetic Wycherley is to his three male archetypes, Horner’s libertine lad, Pinchwife’s brutal possessive or Harcourt’s upstanding hunk, but it does seem amenable to various interpretations. Most of all though it has to be funny I guess and this is where, maybe, this production, came a little unstuck. I can’t fault the pace, but what with so much to think about, including lighting from Sam Waddington which highlighted every aside to the audience, I didn’t think the lines were delivered with perhaps as much relish as they deserved.

The regular reader of this blog (hello!) will know that I claim not to like musicals. Based on the music and choreography, if not maybe the play itself, I will certainly look at for Morphic Graffiti’s forays into that genre. Especially if they reel out the proverbial row of tents. They look like they are good a that.

 

 

 

The War Has Not Yet Started at the Southwark Playhouse review ***

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The War Has Not Yet Started

Southwark Playhouse, 18th January 2018

I don’t really read that much anymore. Which means I take a rather circuitous route to the acquisition of knowledge and satisfaction of curiosity. The page has been replaced by the stage, the museum and gallery, visits, music and my dear friend, Wiki. Books can then fill in the gaps. (Though I must call out the wonderful OUP Very Short Introductions. If I need a way in to something brainy here is where I start. Bite and pocket sized, though a bit variable in tone.)

This means some “stuff” has become more prominent that other “stuff” in my head. Bear in mind the capacity of my head RAM has opened up exponentially now that is is largely free of my work-life specialist subject. I knew a lot about very little. Now I am trying to find out a little about a lot. Which suits me as I am a consummate bullshitter who relies on knowing a tiny bit more than any conversational partner, and a sonorous delivery that bores them into agreeing with me.

One of the things that has crept up on me in the journey has been the modern(ish) history and state of Russia. A bit of Chekhov, too much Shostakovich, a handful of art exhibitions and a couple of conversations, and, to paraphrase Winnie Churchill, the enigma is revealed. Well not revealed but I go from nothing to something. It is a tiny something, but, at the risk of going all epistemological on your ass, it is more than I know about the state of Hounslow, my next door neighbours or our cat.

The point is that the relationship between State, as in the instruments of power, and the individual, has been a fertile one for the Russian/Soviet Artist. In the rapid lurch from backward, pre-revolutionary, feudal autocracy, through Revolution to oligarchical Capitalism, it looks like it has paid to keep things close to your chest.

Which in a roundabout way brings me to TWHNYS. Mikhail Durnenkov is an actor on stage and TV, as well as a playwright, living in Moscow. The Drunks, written with brother Vyacheslav, aired at the RSC a few years ago, in a translation by the marvellous Nina Raine. I didn’t see it but, from the sound of it, it is a satirical comedy, tracing a long line back through to Gogol, that took the unfortunate adventures of an Everyman, a soldier, as a metaphor for modern Russia and its history.

TWHNYS is a more discursive, experimental affair brought to the Southwark Playhouse in a translation by Noah Birksted-Breen, by way of the Theatre Royal Plymouth. Unconnected characters play out 12 seemingly unconnected vignettes, some banal, some more striking, over 80 minutes or so. Apparently they can be played in any order with any number of actors. Here we have three. Sarah Hadland, (Stevie in Miranda, she of the allure!), Mark Quartly, last seem by me as the gymnastic “real” Aerial alongside his real-time holographic doppelganger in the RSC Tempest, and, most strikingly, Hannah Britland. Many of the scenes are set within the family unit or deal with the impact of violence and propaganda. There is black comedy, confusion, menace, little in the way of entry or exit from the scenes and much obfuscation. The scenarios are all recognisable but throughout is an air of mistrust and uncertainty that sort of compels.

It is really tricky to make this sort of writing work and I am not sure how much is lost in translation, not of the language, but from Moscow to London. Whilst much of the contemporary zeitgeist which Mr Durnenkov is trying to capture is universal, it might make just a bit more sense there rather than here. Cultural specificity is a slippery waif and I always try my best to ditch the dangerous fiction of borders when thinking about this sort of entertainment, but I was still struck by how much the mood of the play fitted with what I think I have learnt about the Russian mindset.

Still anxiety is anxiety wherever you live and the cast and director Gordon Anderson, (who has experience of this sort of mood from his League of Gentlemen days), seem to be enjoying it. Andy Purves’s lighting design is noteworthy.

Go see for yourself. I am still making my mind up.

 

The Here and This and Now at the Southwark Playhouse review ****

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The Here and This and Now

Southwark Playhouse, 10th January 2017

OK homo sapiens. Enough with the exceptionalism. There is nothing special about you. Maybe you are more “intelligent” than any species that has inhabited the earth so far but you have only been around for a couple of hundred thousand years. Peanuts. You will likely be just background extinction, likely a consequence of your own selfish, insatiable behaviours. Annoyingly you will take a load more species with you. But your Holocene existence will barely register in earth history terms and you will be soon forgotten. Actually never remembered. And you will have proved pretty rubbish in terms of adapting to your environment for all your boasts if you can’t even manage a million years of existence.

So, whatever dystopian future awaits, no point getting too worked up about it. Worth trying to slow it down a bit but all your technology and institutions won’t prevent the inevitable.

Happy New Year.

Which brings me to THATAN. (I thought the acronym sounded suitably sci-fi and pharmacological, appropriate to the play). Southwark Playhouse has snapped up this and the forthcoming The War Has Not Yet Started from the Theatre Royal Plymouth. Great theatre, great city, great county. And, give or take a couple of flaws, it is well they did. For this latest offering from fashion journalist turned playwright, (and Plymouthian), Glenn Waldron, is, at its best, very, very funny. It kicks off with its four characters, Niall (Simon Darwen), Helen, (Becci Gemmell), Gemma (Tala Gouveia) and Robbie (Andy Rush), at an off-site (or away-day, take your pick, it is still one of modern Western capitalisms most unattractive inventions). It transpires they are sales reps for a pharma company. Niall, the boss, is making a pitch. The script they work from is excruciating but very funny. Newbie Gemma then has a faltering turn, followed by bolshie cynic Robbie, and finally the less assured, turning into hysterical, Helen. Mr Waldron’s observation here is truly acute, and because of this, his satire is bitingly effective. They are selling a useless drug for, prosaically, liver spots with minimal benefits in a desperate, faux-sincere way.

Then the gears switch. First Gemma and Robbie do a “what is life all about” dialogue, with background flirting. Slight but still effective, with its message of savouring the “special moments” in life. And then we roll forward to the 2020’s, post apocalypse, caused by, ta-dah, increased antibiotic resistance which has led to half the population popping its clogs. I won’t spoil the scene. Suffice to say that Mr Waldron gets away with this outrageous leap in tone, because, once again, his writing is laugh out loud funny. And best forget about Bill Paterson’s sonorous contribution at the very end.

The performances are uniformly perfectly pitched, Bob Bailey’s design does just about what it needs to do and Simon Stokes direction shows why his Plymouth stronghold is such a vital hub.

So forgive Glenn Waldron for joining the long list of playwrights wrestling with the “what will wipe us out” schtick and applaud the fact he has, at least, found a new scenario. Forgive the slightly clumsy shift in tone and banish any implausibilities which pop into your head. Just relish the very funny. black comedy that he has served up. And will him to find a way to take the tone he has expertly crafted in the first half of this 80 minute play and inject into another contemporary story. For that might result in something truly magnificent. I can now see I was an utter berk for missing his previous work, Natives, at this very venue. On the strength of this I hope it pops up elsewhere one day soon.

Mother Courage and Her Children at the Southwark Playhouse review ***

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Mother Courage and Her Children

Southwark Playhouse, 7th November 2017

Hmmm. I am torn. This was a mixed bag and no mistake.

The good stuff first. Well it is Brecht so there will always be big issues to chew on, although here the anti-war appeal that lies at the heart of the play felt curiously understated. The production does have a ramshackle design from Barney George which I was quite taken by and which seemed to capture the ravages of a long drawn out war on a society. The transverse staging and the constraining of the larger Southwark Playhouse space had some advantages, particularly when it came to observing the best of the cast. Mind you this did put paid to the Brechtian distancing effect. Hannah Chissick’s direction had some nice touches though this seemed to lack an overall coherent vision. I like the folksy song arrangements by Duke Special which are drawn from the 2009 NT production. Tony Kushner’s translation from 2006 is strong on characterisation but seems somehow to play down the “epic” nature of the action, though the production was partly responsible.

Best of all was the swaggering performance of Josie Lawrence as Mother Courage. Whilst there was a part of me that would have liked a more hard-bitten Courage to ram home the war as commercial opportunity message, her more sympathetic spirit paid dividends in the scenes with her “children”, the Chaplain and the Cook. David Shelley and Ben Fox in these latter two roles also turned in strong performances, as did Laura Checkley’s brassy Yvette and, especially Phoebe Vigor’s Kattrin. I was less convinced though by the rest of the cast whose tone seemed uncertain, notably the sons, Swiss Cheese played by Julian Moore-Cook and Eilif played by Jake Philips Head. Don’t get me wrong, the boxes were largely ticked, it just seemed to me that motivation and understanding was sometimes lacking.

This lack of conviction was ultimately why the production was only a qualified success for me. There were some powerful scenes notably when Courage disowns the corpse of Swiss Cheese, when Courage turns down the Cook’s offer to escape to Utrecht and especially at the end when Kattrin is beating the drum to warn the townspeople, but many of the other scenes have less definition, and those that do work rely too much on the sympathy generated by the performers, which risks melodrama, and which Brecht specifically wanted to eschew. This should be far more threatening and dislocating to convey the true horror and to reveal the economic and religious imperatives that underpin war, whether in the Early Modern Age or now, in the throes of Late Capitalism.

An avowedly non-specific staging also risks, as it does here, the distancing effect offered through Brecht’s setting in the Thirty Years War of the early C17 between Catholic and Protestant. We are supposed to be immersed in Brecht’s epic story but also to think long and hard about what he is telling us, and I am not sure we were fully afforded that opportunity. We are allowed to understand why Courage does what she does, because she has to to survive, but we are not supposed to like her.

The transverse staging was complicated by some early scenes which took place partially in a mezzanine which was, literally, a pain in the neck for half the audience. Music, sound and lighting worked with the staging but the lack of space constrained the pattern of movement, (to avoid problematic sightlines),  which had the perverse effect of slowing the momentum at times.

My conclusion. A brave attempt which is worth seeing for Josie Lawrence’s fine, if ultimately flawed, performance and for some of the ingenuity of the creatives in trying to make this work in this space. And because it is Mother Courage and Brecht. But there have been, and there will be, more coherent and biting productions which do more to reveal the layers of Brecht’s art, passion and instruction.

 

Doubt, A Parable at the Southwark Playhouse review ***

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Doubt, A Parable

Southwark Playhouse, 26th September 2017

Once again a review of a play whose run is over. Apologies. This revival of Doubt, A Parable, by US playwright JP Shanley, was efficiently directed by Che Walker, but turned out to be a little slighter in form and content than I had expected. Its original premiere on Broadway in 2005 led to 4 Tony Awards in that year and the award of the Pulitzer Prize for drama. A film version from 2008, which I had not seen, sported the combined talents of Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davies.

So I had expected big things. And, whilst this is a taut and intelligent exploration of a vital story, which offers scope for fine performances, I was a little disappointed at the strict naturalism of the play, its basic structure and its lack of multiple perspectives. The play is set in St Nicholas Church School in the Bronx in 1964. Father Brendan Flynn played by Jonathan Chambers is an apparently caring and popular progressive parish priest. Arch conservative Sister Aloysius, a suitably flinty Stella Gonet, is the school principal and is concerned that Father Flynn may be abusing his position. She invocates the younger Sister James (a wide eyed Clare Latham) to assist her in confirming her suspicions. They confront Flynn. His denial prompts Aloysius to turn to the mother of Donald Muller, the supposed victim, but she chooses to look the other way. Sister Aloysius refuses to relent and engineers a ruse which eventually pushes Father Flynn out, but through promotion to another school.

We never know whether or not Father Flynn is guilty of the abuse and JP Shanley’s text is meticulous in the way it creates doubt in our minds, as well as the four characters, throughout the 90 minute piece. The confrontations, between the two Sisters, Father Flynn and the Sisters, individually and together, between Sister Aloysius and Mrs Muller, and very well constructed and the language rings true. The sermons that Flynn delivers, on doubt at the outset, and later on gossip, are also sound theatrical devices to advance argument.

Yet it still all felt just a little predictable with characters that were just a little stilted. The tone of the play, exacerbated, by PJ McEvoy’s dark, shadowy set which imagines the space between the school and church buildings, is appropriately stifling but this does make the whole production a little one-paced. Mind you the performances of all four actors were admirable especially Stella Gonet who powerfully rendered Sister Aloysius’s external certainty and internal doubt and Jo Martin (last seen by me in the excellent Rolling Stone at The Orange Tree) who persuaded us why Mrs Muller might be prepared to overlook the possible abuse of her son, who is the only African-American in the school, “in his own interests”.

This a play that is definitely worth seeing as it adroitly explores the issue of abuse within the Catholic Church and it is a fine text, which, as all good theatre should do, embraces ambiguity and interpretation. By leaving us guessing however, to up the dramatic ante, it leaves rather too many loose ends to be truly great I think.

Dessert at the Southwark Playhouse review ***

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Dessert

Southwark Playhouse, 5th August

Dessert is the first play I have seen from actor/playwright Oliver Cotton and I have to say that overall I enjoyed it. Subtle it ain’t but it makes its points with a deal of humour, and occasionally, an enlightening punch. The title gives an insight: it’s a dinner party, dessert is coming, until a turn of events forces characters and audience to contemplate whether what they get in life is fair: whether they get their “just desserts”.

Hugh Fennell (played with amoral certainty by Michael Simkins) is a very rich self made man, who seems to have made his money buying and selling public companies. (As usual with dramatic accounts of “people in finance” Mr Cotton exhibits a pretty shaking understanding of how modern, neo-liberal mixed economies work which irks me immensely, but, no matter, we have our demon). He and his underwritten wife, Gill, (Alexandra Gilbreath) are entertaining American friends, slimey Wesley Barnes (Stuart Milligan) and Meredith (Teresa Banham). Dinner is served by Roger (a fine Graham Turner), the Fennells’ “man” who from the off shows signs of mental instability. The dinner party sets up a quick debate around provenance in art, price and value via Hugh’s newly acquired “maybe” Giorgione.

Cue the arrival of Eddie Williams (a splendid performance littered with malevolent sarcasm from Stephen Hagan). Now I would hesitate to call the “elite class dinner party interrupted by a stranger (real or imagined) with malicious intent” hackneyed but it is hardly untested. No matter. It works. Eddie is a soldier, leg damaged in Afghanistan, whose newsagent Dad invested life savings (lesson: always diversify your assets) into one of Hugh’s “companies”. It went belly up though Hugh somehow secured a whopping pension as a result. We then have an accident with the aforementioned painting and heated arguments over whether the Fennells and Barnes’s “deserve” their wealth. Some of this is perfunctory but some is insightful and there are a couple of speeches from Eddie which Stephen Hagan invests with real passion. No dumb squaddie cliche here. And the twist by which Eddie plans to exact revenge is sweet.

Under Trevor Nunn’s direction the play trips along and nothing is left uncovered. It is laugh at loud at points. But it is simplistic. That is not to say we need some even-handed defence extolling the virtues of capitalism. Far from it. But once its main point is made the play doesn’t really move on. Still full house at the SP who clearly loved it.