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

The Unreturning

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 24th January 2019

Denizens of Leicester, Swansea and Oxford. Consider yourself lucky. There is still time for you to catch the tour of Frantic Assembly’s The Unreturning which has already travelled to Plymouth, (the Theatre Royal who cannily commissioned it), Southampton, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Birmingham and Chichester, as well as Stratford East. For make no mistake this is a fine piece of theatre that deserves your attention for a number of very good reasons.

First off Anna Jordan is clearly a very talented playwright. I haven’t seen Yen, her much lauded breakthrough play, though on the strength of this I really hope it is revived soon. I am though looking forward to what she brings to Brecht’s Mother Courage which she has adapted and which has just opened at the Royal Exchange Manchester.

In The Unreturning she has interwoven the stories of George, Frankie and Nat, who return to their home town of Scarborough, damaged from their experience of war. In 1918 George is shellshocked after his experiences in the trenches in WWI and his wife Rose cannot cope with his breakdown; in 2013 disgraced Frankie is not welcomed back as a hero from his turn in Iraq and cannot put a lid on his anger; and Nat is stricken by guilt about the brother Finn he left behind after escaping as a refugee to Norway in 2026 from a future British civil war. Scarborough may be home but they are not welcome. Time may move on but the issues the returning combatants face remain the same.

This is no naturalistic drama however as Ms Jordan has created a far more episodic and lyrical structure for drama and text. That is not to say that the narrative does not quickly come into focus. The three opening monologues which together form a prologue, describe what each of the three protagonists are aching to experience when they come home, and that, together with the experiences they bring back with them (which go well beyond the simple “war is hell”), forms the nub of the play. In each case the multiple characters that Ms Jordan also introduces, as well as the prudent use of a chorus, serve to flesh out the personal histories and create real drama. The chorus, as well as further monologues, also n’tbring real poetry to contrast with the dialogue of each short scene.

As if that was enough, Frantic Assembly’s trademark physicality also brings a further, thrilling, dimension.. At first glance, Andrzej Goulding’s set, a revolving (when pushed, no fancy technology at TRSE) shipping container, is hardly revolutionary, but when combined with his strikingg video design (for which he is more renowned), Zoe Spurr’s prominent lighting design and Pete Malkin’s bold electronic soundscapes, the effect is invigorating. Especially when combined with a four strong cast who are constantly in motion. It is difficult to believe that they play all twenty five named parts, in addition to the chorus, as well as shifting sets and props. An immense technical achievement, especially when I see no attributed movement director. Though as it happens the stock-in-trade of director here, Neil Bettles, who is a Frantic Assembly Associate Director, is movement.

Of course with this much activity it occasionally takes a second or two to work out exactly who is who in each scene though the reason for each of the supporting characters being there is plain enough to fathom. The cast. Jared Garfield (Frankie), Joe Layton (George), Jonnie Riordan (Nat) and Kieton Saunders-Brown (Finn), are all past alumni of Frantic Assembly’s Ignition project which each year supports twelve young men from across Britain from backgrounds which normally preclude access to drama education to create a performance over a week in London. Whilst all of them have gone on to successful TV and theatre careers they have come together to work on The Unreturning offering conclusive proof, if such where needed, of just how effective this venture has been. They are all tremendous, not just in the effort they put in, but in the way they tease out character from relatively few lines and from the ensemble effect they create. I would happily watch this team, with this creative team, in a future production. In fact I would watch them all again in an extended version of each of the three intertwining stories.

Regular readers of this blog will know that the Touris,t given that he loves his theatre, and, he contends, chooses wisely, is easily pleased. But you don’t have to take his word of it. The matinee performance he attended was chock-a-block with local schoolkids, the TRSE not having forgotten its local identity even as AD Nadia Fall looks to broaden its audience and create destination theatre (which this most certainly is). Always a discerning audience, there was the usual shuffling and tittering early doors but pretty soon these young’uns where as gripped as I was.

I see that the proper reviewers were generally not as overwhelmed as I was with many emphasising the triumph of technical style over dramatic substance. They are wrong. Yes it is a viscerally exciting piece, with a clear message, but it is also expertly constructed and beautifully written. I know we are only a couple of months in, and this is not quite the best play the Tourist has seen this year, that honour goes to Sweat at the Donmar, (now transferring to the Gielgud I see – do not miss), but I reckon it it will prove one of the most ambitious and memorable theatrical experiences of this or any other year.

The Wolves at the Theatre Royal Stratford East review ****

soccer-1392175_1920

The Wolves

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 26th October 2018

…. or 3 stars if you would prefer the opinion of LD which may be more relevant since she should have a greater affinity with the subjects of Sarah DeLappe’s novel debut play. The SO similarly enjoyed the production but was less enthusiastic than the Tourist. Thus proving that association with the subject/object in theatre may not always be the best indicator of potential satisfaction.

It was very heartening to see a full, and young, house at TRSE drawn in, I would guess by the subject, and by the reputation of the play. I have remarked before on just how attractively Nadia Fall’s first season as AD at the TRSE is shaping up what with this, The Village just gone, and The Unreturning (by Anna Jordan and produced by Frantic Assembly), Equus (from English Touring Theatre) and August Wilson’s King Hedley II (with Lenny Henry), to come.

So what’s to like about The Wolves. First off the subject. 9 diverse young women who are part of an indoor soccer (that’s football to you and me) team in middle, middle America. Second the dialogue. Their animated conversations centre on what is important in their lives. School, families, relationships, futures, politics, emotions, well-being, fears, frustrations. With 9 characters across 90 minutes, each carrying some specific trait relevant to their age and gender it was probably too much to ask that they become fully rounded individuals, but I certainly wanted to hear them. We laugh with, not at them, adult perspectives are peripheral, and the specifics of identity, obstacle and dilemma are not rammed down our throats. Not wives, not daughters, not girlfriends, not objectified, not victims.

This the play, with one minor exception, sails through the Bechdel test: there are other new plays emerging which featured strong, determined young women, but they are still few and far between. At least it would sail through the test if the women were named. For Sarah DeLappe has deliberately eschewed giving the women names, instead they refer to their kit numbers. This, together with the fact that each scene is played out during their warm-ups ahead of their competitive games, complete with movement guided by Ayse Tashkiran and ball skills courtesy of West Ham, (no comment from this Spurs fan), creates an echo of the military boot camp at the outset of a war movie, as Sarah DeLappe intended. Without of course the violence and toxic masculinity.

Rosie Elnile’s set, artificial turf enveloped by bright green inflatable walls, is striking, though this and the bright lighting and abrupt sound of Joshua Pharo and the Ringham brothers, brings a harshness which detracts from the musicality of the movement and dialogue. There is no connection to a world out there, (their grasp of global geo-politics is deliberately restricted), not a problem for yours truly, but this is I think what left LD a little perplexed. There is a plot of sorts, new player turns up to unsettle the equilibrium of the team, and a twist at the end, but even a director of Ellen McDougall’s imagination, cannot quite prevent it from feeling a little contrived and tacked on.

Now I am a shocker for identifying the authenticity of accents. I fake a bit of Mockney to make myself feel more “working-class” which is truly pathetic, and deep down, you can still hear the Devonian roots in me straining to get out, but I am about as boringly Home Counties as it gets. So, for the first couple of scenes, I was convinced that the cast was the real deal having come over en masse for the run. Nonsense obviously, made more so when it dawned on me that I had seen several of the actors before: Seraphina Beh (Leave Taking and Parliament Square at the Bush), Nina Bowers (Twilight at the Gate), Rosie Sheehy (Escape the Scaffold and The Hairy Ape) and Rosabell Laurenti-Sellers (at the Guildhall where she trained). They, and the rest of the cast, Annabel Baldwin, Lauren Grace, Francesca Henry, Shalisha James-Davis and Hannah Jarrett-Scott, were just so convincingly American, thanks to Michaela Kennen’s voice guidance. Preserving the balance of the ensemble, whilst sketching out the characters and, to paraphrase the mighty Harry Redknapp, “f*cking running around a bit”, is an exacting challenge but each and every one of the cast rose to it.

So for me a success because I got to see into an unfamiliar, yet recognisable, place in a witty and dynamic way. Maybe less interesting to LD precisely because it is familiar, in which case the fact that the story doesn’t really go anywhere, and the various “secrets” that are revealed about each of the young women are never properly developed, was more of a drawback. Team sport as metaphor for life is beyond cliche but Ms DeLappe has smartly subverted the trope by omitting victory or defeat. I will be very interested to see where she goes next.

 

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

village-333070_1920

The Village

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 27th September 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Our Country’s Good at Theatre Royal Stratford review ****

a_view_of_botany_bay_a1475003h

Our Country’s Good

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 28th April 2018

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good is one of my favourite plays. As it is for many theatre-goers. The context, the “First Fleet” of British convicts sent to Australia with their Royal Marine guards in the 1780s, and the setting, Sydney Cove in New South Wales, are intriguing; the characters, which cover a broad spectrum of society at the time, are many, but go beyond mere sketches; the plot, incorporating a play within a play (sort of) as the convicts set out to stage a version of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer guided by the well-meaning Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, is perspicacious; and the messages many and critical. Above all it is accessible but not simplistic.

The play is based on Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker, which I haven’t, shamefully read, and the novel and these historical events, (without the Farquhar play), were loosely dramatised by Jimmy McGovern a couple of years ago in the BBC series Banished. It is also no great surprise that the play is used as a text for various English Language examinations.

Can art, and specifically the theatre, play a part in “reforming” and rehabilitating criminals? Is “criminality” innate or born out of desperation? How is justice dispensed? What is a fair punishment for petty crimes? Why is society ashamed of taking retribution? How do the class system,¬† and gender relationships, respond to, and evolve in, a new, and hostile, environment? How damaging is the force of colonisation?

These are some of the more obvious themes which the play contends with but there is also a pointed examination of the way in which we communicate, most obviously through the character of John Wisehammer, an outsider as a Jew, but who is educated and can read and write, in the relationship between Midshipman Harry Brewer and Duckling Smith, and in the lines from the Recruiting Officer itself. It also, through the play, shows what people are capable of if they are given an opportunity.

This production, the third from the seven theatre consortium that makes up Ramps on the Moon, underscores these dimensions. Ramps on the Moon is made up of a company of D/deaf, disabled, hearing and non-disabled cast and creatives who seek a similarly diverse audience and, outside of the productions, aim to ensure D/deaf and disabled people see the theatre as a realistic option on both sides of the curtain.

From my perspective, as non-disabled, the opportunity to see and hear the various solutions employed to present the drama and connect to the audience, was most welcome. The use of BSL and interpretation in particular added a whole new dimension to the play’s central message about the power of theatre and about who can make it. Jon Nicholls’s sound design and composition was first class, even between scenes. The production uses less doubling than the text allows, which sharpens the divide between captive and captor and lends clarity at the expense of the intended ambiguity. As it happened at the performance I attended Colin Connor ended up playing Harry Brewer as well as the prize shit Major Robbie Ross, a man beyond redemption. Serendipity indeed as he is a fine actor, though his eventual mental and physical collapse was a little restrained.

Caroline Parker, both in her role as “Shitty” Meg Long, as the voiceover and as BSL interpreter for Emily Rose Salter’s Duckling amongst others was excellent. Ms Salter, in this her debut performance, gives a master class in communication without words, poignant and aggressive as the action demanded. I was also drawn to Tom Dawze’s enigmatic Wisehammer, Gbemisola Ikumelo’s truculent Liz Morden, who remember eventually speaks out to save her life and secure justice, and Alex Nowak’s preposterous Sideway and priggish Reverend Johnson.

Fiona Buffini did a superb job in bringing all these elements together, including that part of the technology that was visible to me, and ensured that the plot was clear and ideas were foregrounded. She couldn’t quite avoid the signalling and exposition that characterises a handful of Ms Wertenbaker’s scenes, but that is true of every version I have seen, and there were a few moments where pacing was a little off-beam. Overall though this is a fine production that deserves to be seen by as wider audience as possible (it still has to go to Sheffield and Birmingham), and which sheds new light on this remarkable play.