Hedda Tesman at the Minerva Theatre Chichester review ***

Hedda Tesman

Minerva Theatre Chichester, 26th September 2019

This counts as a disappointment. Not because of the source material. Hedda Gabler for goodness sake. Nor the cast though I will come back to this. There were plenty of actors on show, Haydn Gwynne, Anthony Calf, Jonathan Hyde, Natalie Simpson and Irfan Shamji, who have stood out and given much pleasure in previous performances. Anna Fleischle’s design was as accomplished as her previous work, realistic and spacious. And I think Holly Race Roughan’s direction, (this is the first time I have seen the work of this Headlong associate), was as faithful to the adapted text and action as possible. It was never dull, full of thoughtful detail and as robust a plot as the day Ibsen dreamt it up in 1891.

No I mean it was a disappointment as I was hoping for so much more. The idea of taking one of, maybe the, greatest female roles in theatre and reworking it, to move the story forward not just to the modern day, but also to age Hedda, George and Brack by three decades, was intriguing. And Cordelia Lynn, whose adaptation of Three Sisters for the Almeida, was so successful, (even if Rebecca Frecknall’s direction over-egged the indeterminate), seemed like just the woman for the job. And text wise she was. It’s just that the premise didn’t deliver on its promise.

We start with level-headed cleaner Bertha (Rebecca Oldfield) sorting out the slightly fusty country house that George and Hedda have returned to from the US. When Anthony Calf’s George breezes in he is recognisably an older, and even more painfully underachieving, version of his younger self who hasn’t yet made it to professor but is still buoyed up by innate enthusiasm. Hedda herself, shuffling in in dressing gown and slippers, is now brimful with regret and reflects this in every, often cruel and acerbic, word. She is a Tesman now through and through, middle-aged and largely “invisible”, the Gabler of her youth a distant memory. Thea Tesman (Natalie Simpson) is now the daughter that Hedda was carrying in the original play and not the rival for Eilert, now Elijah’s, (Irfan Shamji) affection. To say mother and daughter, who is the same age as Hedda in the original, weren’t close would be something of an understatement. Thea “trapped” Hedda in the marriage, (postpartum depression is hinted at), motherhood robbed her of her own academic career and duty, in the form of Daddy Gabler, the general whose giant portrait is one of the first things to find a place in the new home, has kept her there. Threatening, amongst other things, to burn your child’s hair, as we discover, was probably never going to engender much in the way of affection.

George is working on improving his big idea but it is plain his intellect still lags behind Elijah. Thea, who has left her husband, is in love with that intellect and thinks she can “rescue” Elijah from his depression and excessive drinking, as she works with him on the sequel to his best-seller. The affair with a younger Hedda still haunts him. Brack (Jonathan Hyde) is still a shit-stirring perv and Aunt Julie (Jacqueline Clarke). Boys’ drunken night out, the temptation of Thea and Elijah’s manuscript, (no USB sticks here), the pair of pistols, Elijah’s messy death, Brack’s blackmail and …. well you know the end, are are still intact. But …. Ibsen’s puissant plot only works if you are invested in the set-up.

And here, I am afraid, I was not. Not because I couldn’t believe that Hedda would have stuck around, though I had my doubts, but because, having done so, she would then have taken this way out. Some Ibsen works because the characters seek to escape the past. Others, like Hedda Gabler, because they fear their future. To use old Henrik’s genius as a point of departure often pay dividends but to mix up chronology and therefore motivation, as here, did not. Haydn Gwynne did her admirable best to solve this conundrum but never quite cracked it, too much self-loathing, and, though it pains me to say it, having seen his air of gentle vulnerability fit the bill perfectly in Ms Lynne’s razor-sharp satire One for Sorrow at the Royal Court and Joe White’s outstanding debut play Mayfly at the Orange Tree, Irfan Shamji seemed completely miscast as Elijah.

In some ways given the space, the cast, the top notch creatives (Ruth Chan’s music, complete with off stage tinkling hinting at Hedda’s past pianistic akills,George Dennis’s sound, Zoe Spurr’s lighting) I sort of wished Cordelia Lynn had abandoned the Ibsen plot and explored some of the more tantalising relationships that she opened up. The scenes between this Hedda and the very fine Natalie Simpson as Thea for example showed this potential. Envy of Thea in the original, and the denigration this fosters, partly defines and explains Hedda, (along with the conflicted Daddy worship). And, from this, maybe draw out more explicitly the contrasts between the economic, class and emotional condition of the, now four, women in the play, and how societal change has impacted recent generations.

So all in all not quite up to Headlong’s best who, when they get it right (All My Sons, Mother Courage, This House, People, Places & Things, Junkyard, American Psycho, 1984, Chimerica, The Effect, Medea, Enron), are just about the finest purveyors of theatre in this country. Still a good idea with plenty to admire but one that, like its lead, seemed to lose the courage of its convictions the longer it went on.

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 Phlebotomist at Hampstead Theatre review *****

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The Phlebotomist

Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, 2nd May 2018

The Phlebotomist is sold out for the rest of its runs. So you had better hope that it pitches up elsewhere, ideally with the current cast and creatives, for it really is an excellent play. There are three almighty talents on show here. Writer Ella Road in this her debut play, actor Jude Anouka who just keeps on getting better and better and director Sam Yates who proved his mettle with Glengarry Glen Ross recently, but here extracts the maximum amount of tension and drama out of what is already a smartly plotted story.

It is another one of these near future dystopian dramas, which playwrights are currently obsessed with. No real surprise there. Us liberal, luvvie types are never happier than when warning ourselves, (for we are the audience), about the impending disasters that beset us, ideally disasters precipitated by the very technologies which we benefit from most. Ella Road’s story starts with a slightly different, and I think more chilling and realistic premise, that blood samples will be used to provide a detailed genetic profile, an early prognosis of what medical conditions will impact you through your life and even your behavioural characteristics. You can avoid the test but this will impact your educational, employment, credit and relationship prospects and looks shifty. Of course taking the test, and finding out the details all wrapped up in a rating out of 10, will also impact those prospects.

Bea (Jade Anouka) is the phlebotomist, (no I didn’t know either), who administers the test. She, quite literally, bumps into Aaron, (a fine performance from Rory Fleck Byrne, a new name to me), who turns out to be a descendant of the poet Lord Tennyson. They fall in love (and look like they do such is the chemistry between them). Turns out they both have high scores. Char, Bea’s friend, (a spirited Cherrelle Skeete, also new to me), does not and she abandons her career to campaign against the system, after an attempt at deception. The only other character is David (Vincent Ebrahim) a softly spoken, sagacious porter at the hospital Bea works in.

I won’t elaborate. Suffice to say that Ella Road provides enough disclosures to keep the plot moving along but not too many to raise eyebrows. The world she conjures up cleverly eschews compulsion, there is no evil state organ here, implying benign, market driven compliance, (as with so many informational threats to our privacy). Avoidance and manipulation of the test results are, rightly, key elements of the plot. It all feels very real. It asks some big questions, even tackling the stain of eugenics, but never, ever, appears didactic. How much should we know about our genetic make-up? Should this ever be made public? How “perfect” do we want to be? Ms Road has an unmistakeable view but ensures all three main characters elicit our sympathy.

The dialogue between those characters is believable, the monologues perfectly placed, there is humour and there is even a memorable tomato based metaphor (you’ll see). It is something that Charlie Brooker and the Black Mirror team would have been proud to come up with, but this is achieved without their giant budget, and, I think, has far more emotional clout. Rosanna Vize offers a simple, grey transverse set at the HT Downstairs, a few chairs and other props. Zoe Spurr’s lighting and Alex Twiselton’s sound are similarly economic but very effective. Costume changes are effected on-stage. The production is helped enormously by Duncan McLean’s snappy video work which offers social and political context so that the play, which at its¬†heart, is a story about the relationships between Bea and Aaron, and Bea and Char, is never overwhelmed by its central conceit.

Jade Anouka was mesmerising in the Phyllida Lloyd Donmar Warehouse Shakespeare trilogy, as Ariel, as Mark Antony and as Hotspur. She was the only saving grace in the otherwise execrable Jamie Lloyd Faustus. You may have seen her in the recent ITV production of the Trauma, by Mike Bartlett. She was the daughter of Adrian Lester’s high-flying surgeon. When John Simm, who plays the embittered father of one of Mr Lester’s patients, invades the family home, her fear jumps through the screen into your living room. (How Mike Bartlett keeps getting away with these electrically charged finales verging on the melodramatic beats me, but he does).

Up close as here, she is bloody marvellous to watch. A completely natural performer. Not to decry her three colleagues but it is difficult to take your eyes off her. Sam Yates does seem to have a knack of ensuring that great stage actors, (and I am putting Ms Anouka in that category), are great on stage. Not as easy as it sounds. I offer the evidence of, especially, Christian Slater, but also¬†Robert Glenister, Stanley Townsend and Don Warrington in Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse (Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse Theatre review ****), Emily Barber in The Globe Cymbeline, Jane Horrocks in East is East, his collaboration with Ruth Wilson. Why he hasn’t been offered a big gig at the National is a mystery to me.