The Silk Road at Trafalgar Studios review ****

the-silk-road-2840198_1920

The Silk Road

Trafalgar Studios 2, 23rd August 2018

The modern day Silk Road was the first major darknet marketplace, closed down in 2013 when the FBI arrested its alleged founder Ross Ulbricht and banged him up for life. I didn’t know that. As far as I was concerned it was the main trading route from West to East through near three millenia until the early 1700’s, (these trade deals can take an awfully long time to set up I fear). I am hoping my confusion poses no surprise to you.

Writer Alex Oates has taken the the modern-day Silk Road as the starting point for his pithy and vivid one-hander, ostensibly a plea for libertarian freedom in a digital world, in reality a sharply observed and very funny coming of age story about Geordie teenager Bruce Blakemore. That it succeeds as well as it does is down to an exhilaratingly dynamic performance by newcomer Josh Barrow. He commits everything, not just in his portrayal of loner Bruce, but in the sweet Nan whose knitting skills he ropes into his ingenious, if illegal, money-making scheme, memorably, the nightclub bouncer and dodgy owner Shaggy who are his, unwitting, accomplices as well as his posh girlfriend who kick starts his habit.

Josh Barrow slips in and out of the distinctive characters in the story, as well as narrating in the first person, at lightning speed. He doesn’t hang about either, constantly on the move in the tiny Trafalgar Studios 2 space. At one point an audience member is briefly press-ganged into the action but, throughout, the constant asides from young Mr Barrow means he engages with all of us. He has bags of charm, natural comic timing and surprising emotional depth. No doubt a lot of hard work went into this performance, along with director Dominic Shaw, but it flows effortlessly. I note that he is not the first actor to take on the role, James Baxter in 2014 in Edinburgh (funded by an anonymous Bitcoin donation it seems, proof that the comedy cryptocurrency can have some value), but I can’t imagine it topped this.

A one hander, coming it at less that an hour, probably didn’t justify the prices that Trafalgar Studios was looking for at the open but, when halved, it became a very attractive proposition. I know everyone involved deserves to be fairly rewarded for their work but I can’t help feeling more realistic pricing at the off would have dragged more punters in to see this excellent play and performance. The SO and I took in a matinee but I can’t help feeling there is a lot of opportunity for a slice of reasonably priced, straight to the point pre-dinner/drinks contemporary theatre in this fair metropolis and TS is perfectly positioned to do it. More like this please.

 

The Red Lion at Trafalgar Studios review ****

the-red-lion-01

The Red Lion

Trafalgar Studios 2, 1st December 2017

Patrick Marber is a talented chap. Directing, adapting, writing screenplays, comedy material. Yet he is at his best when he writes original plays, or maybe even, as in this case, where he remakes his own texts. (Having said that his screenplay for Notes on a Scandal might be his finest work. Zoe Heller’s novel, Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Richard Eyre directing, a Philip Glass screenplay. Did the producers have pictures of the SO and I when they were discussing their ideal target demographic for this film?)

I didn’t get to see this at the National in 2015 so was delighted to see this relatively rapid revival, courtesy of Newcastle’s Live Theatre, turn up at the smaller space at Trafalgar Studios. I have to confess I am not the biggest fan of the TS generally, too many imprecise productions relying on cast name recognition to pull in the punters, too pricey and not the comfiest seating. Whilst the seating in TS2, at least where I was, is challenging, the value equation here was sound. It will be interesting to see what happens when the spaces are revamped as is the plan.

So, not knowing the play from first time round, I cannot be sure what Mr Marber has refined here to get it down to 90 minutes or so (from the original 150) but, whatever it was, it seems to have worked based on a quick perusal of the proper reviews this time vs last time. The TS2 stage, with a design by Patrick Connellan, certainly looks the part, a small, dank changing room, kitted out (literally) in perfect detail, you can practically smell the sweat, the grass, the mud, the liniment (actually you really can smell this), the aftershave. Those in the front row are in danger of being picked for next Saturday’s game they are that close. Patrick Marber based the play on his experiences as a director and saviour, with others, of non league Lewes FC, but anyone who has ever played the game at pretty much any level will know this place.

What Marber is able to do here, I gather more successfully than the original, is to use football as a metaphor for life, as so many writers have down in the past, but to avoid the cliche and melodrama that has cursed so many similar of these endeavours. The dialogue is still alive to the rhythms of football, and to the banality of its expression, and there is ruthless dissection of the ugly underbelly of the “beautiful” game. I am always struck by the romantic yet resigned mythologising, the “sporting ideal’ if you like, that some, otherwise rational, men of my acquaintance reserve for their football obsessions. The notion that this is just a very poorly managed branch of the entertainment industry, prone to the worst excesses of capitalist venality and institutional malfunction, just seems to pass them by.

Marber probes these failings but also, as his wont, explores the complexity of male interaction. Trust and loyalty, hopes and dreams, betrayals and deceptions, bravado and vulnerability, all are displayed. Each of the three characters, Stephen Tompkinson’s desperate manager Kidd, John Bowler’s weary retainer Yates and Dean Bone’s talented youngster Jordan, are all flawed in some way, and have misplaced their moral compasses in the pursuit of footballing glory. All of them need to make grubby compromises in order to survive in the world they inhabit. Like I said metaphors abound.

Stephen Tompkinson always seems to bring out the emotional frailties of the men he plays and this is no exception. Kidd is living alone, divorced, broke. He is also a cynical bully, albeit weak and toothless. Football is all he has. It is the last minute of extra time and he needs a break. Jordan’s skill might just provide it. Jordan though harbours a secret beneath his apparent integrity. Dean Bone is on the ball from the opening whistle, asking what’s in it for him. Yates wants a piece of the glory, his own life having collapsed until the club offered a lifeline. He once lifted the trophies, now all he does is clean them. John Bowler’s lines benefit most I suspect from the relocation to the North East in this production. His body may be broken, but his mind, and his words, are sharp enough. Soon enough all three sense an opportunity, ┬ábut all three are doomed to see it slide away, but cannot accept the blame for this lies within.

This may sound like an arduous slog. It is anything but. The moral tragedy is leavened with plenty of humour and, under the sure touch of director Max Roberts, the play rattles along to its conclusion (which may actually have been just a touch too rushed).

So a tightly orchestrated production of a now tightly drawn script with much to say about football, masculinity and life. Let us hope that Mr Marber can find another subject which spurs him to write another original play in the not too distant future. His talent requires it.

 

 

 

 

The Philanthropist at Trafalgar Studios review *

6126-1487766065-thephilanthropistencorebrands500x500px

The Philanthropist

Trafalgar Studios One, 6th July

So the Philanthropist has been and gone. A combination of a visit late in the run, the Tourist’s usual dilatoriness and a holiday meant no review until now. Probably just as well. This wasn’t great I have to say.

I think I just have to accept that where others see a sharp wit in the writing of Christopher Hampton I just see a rather tired, dated smartarsery I am afraid. I seem to remember enjoying Les Liaisons Dangereuses (play and film) all those years ago but the recent Donmar revival left me a bit cold. Same thing apples to some of his screenplay adaptions like The History Man and Atonement for example. But one is supposed to admire him so I thought I would give this a whirl.

In other contexts I am also very partial to the cast on show here notably Simon Bird and Tom Rosenthal in the magnificent Friday Night Dinner and Matt Berry in his various incarnations (with IT Crowd matching FND as a family favourite chez Tourist). Here though they weren’t really up to the task I fear. Simon Bird did an excellent impression of Simon Bird but that wasn’t really what I think the part required. Matt Berry could have got away with a full on Toast performance here playing an arrogant writer, but was curiously underpowered. Tom Rosenthal was better but his performance along with the character just started to grate. Lily Cole was captivately dreadful. Only Charlotte Ritchie as Mr Bird’s put upon girlfriend really gained the measure of the piece.

A bunch of 70’s academic types and hanger ons moping about and behaving carelessly turned out not to be my cup of tea and the jokes were stilted. I am sure director, the lovely Simon Callow, had an idea of what he wanted but it didn’t seem to get through to his cast. I just didn’t care about any of them and barely laughed.

So a lesson for the tourist. when buying think text first, director second and cast last of all. And do not take a punt on novelties. And stay wary of the Trafalgar Studios which seems wedded to such novelty to pull in the audience (and full price, it ain’t cheap).

It isn’t the worst play the Tourist has seen in the last few years. That accolade goes to Jamie Lloyd’s excruciatingly bad Faustus at the Duke of York’s. I know the idea here was to get a new audience into the theatre by getting Kit Harington to flash his bum at them but we had to walk out of this halfway through.

And talking of walkouts we did the same at the Open Air Theatre’s Tale of Two Cities recently. No review as I only managed the first half but you can check out the proper reviews. Believe them. This is a dog’s breakfast where the laudable concept and over complex staging end up grinding the Dickens’s story into the dust. And whilst I pride myself on being as sweary and as confrontational as the next man the Open Air really isn’t the place to do this when you are asking families to part with their cash for a magical evening’s entertainment.