Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Review King Lear (PREVIEW)

King Lear 
by William Shakespeare

Pop Up Britain

Would the rain hold off? That was the question in TLT's mind as she slalomed her way through the crowd towards the edge of the Globe stage with its pillars swathed in tarpaulin for Shakespeare's play of fractions and factions.

Of course a storm at the appropriate time would be nature's seal of approbation for one of the then Jacobean playwright William Shakespeare's most famous scenes - the storm scene both inciting and reflecting the madness of King Lear in the play first known to be performed in 1606.

Kevin McNally, best known for his role as Joshamee Gibbs in the Pirates Of The Caribbean movie franchise,  takes on the title role in Shakespeare's Globe production directed by Nancy Meckler.

He's a very neat, one could almost call him dapper, Lear with a snowy white manicured beard and designer tattoos.

This Lear dresses in a not-quite-a-military uniform as if he were a corporate man with a penchant for vodka shots who has turned to a fashion choice of freshly laundered and ironed jacket and trousers in shades of khaki brown and beige.

There's a huge KEEP OUT daubed on the nailed up doors of the stage (designer Rosanna Vize) torn down by the motley crew of performers invading the stage with their shabby suitcases and creating a makeshift pop up Britain for this King Lear.

A goods trolley roll container from a warehouse (maybe in the age of the internet it's also warehouse Britain) lies on its side ready for them.

So these squatters zip up their windcheaters, turn their baseball caps, pull their beanies down over their ears. And lay a golden cloak and golden circlet crown on the ground for Lear, King of the Britons.

The daughters of Lear stand on crates, ready for their father to address them while the King's Fool (Loren O'Dair)  is a delicate Pierrot musician with a tear painted on her cheek, playing the violin.

Gloucester (Burt Caesar) is a credulous complacent astrology-believing  senior courtier in an Edwardian red velvet smoking jacket whose good and bad sides are embodied in his sons, all-too-gullible Edgar (Joshua Jameson) and driven, bitter illegitimate Edmund (Ralph Davis). 

The Duke of Kent becomes "Our Lady Of Kent" (Saskia Reeves), a bespectacled sensible woman politican in white jacket, skirt, blouse and court shoes, holding a large black book of accounts or minutes of the Royal court proceedings  or maybe a version of the Domesday Book, a book of land deeds.

She narrowly avoids a throttling when her position is ripped from her after she dares to question Lear's wisdom in giving up his kingdom in favour of his daughters and, more pertinently for a patriarchal monarchy, his sons-in-law.

There's Goneril (Emily Burni), thin and sallow with pursed red lipstick lips, hair scraped back in a bun, a small cape around her bony shoulders.  Regan (Sirine Saba), black hair streaming down her back, is fleshier, more voluptuous in a silky white halter neck, a fur pagan pelt stole and long velvet skirt.

They pile on the flattery.  Cordelia (Anjana Vasan) famously says nothing, a small figure in over sized, virginal white high waisted robe and silver adornments,  all ripped from her by her angry father to reveal a plain slip which could pass equally for a 1960s dress.

This is a solid, vigorous flat cap production with clear verse speaking - ideal for exam students who, despite cuts, want to hear the text. At the same time, it didn't blow TLT or her own automotive courtier away.

The use of  the cage-like warehouse roll goods container for the tearing out of Gloucester's eyes by  Cornwall (Faz Singhateh), the changing of Edgar and the pitting of sister against sister over their deceitful lover Edmund felt rather laboured.

The best things about the production?

Saskia Reeves's sturdily loyal Kent with extra resonance when disguised she answers the question, "How now, what art thou?" with "A man, sir".

 And  Joshua James's loose-limbed scampering Edgar, the only character who via a lunatic vagrant disguise, really gets low down and dirty truly gaining the sympathy of the audience and credibly transforming into a thoughtful statesman by the end.

Otherwise it's altogether too clean and laundered and  a lacklustre mash up of the traditional and the modern in dress and delivery.

This otherwise conventional production of King Lear does extract a fair amount of comedy out of Lear's contradictions and his realisation of his two elder daughters' treachery, but it does feel this is at the expense of power and pathos.

Having said this, there is a gesture towards homelessness in a corporate Britain, with a courageous military soul drained into pointless voilence, and the Kingdom's division did make us think of the union, Brexit and the implications for the island of Ireland.

The rain held off and, while this wasn't top notch for us, this brisk and admirably clear (and maybe televisual?) version of Lear is still an excellent upper range amber light introduction for those coming fresh to the Bard.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Review The Trial Of Le Singe

A show inspired by Napoleonic War monkey business ultimately disappoints Francis Beckett.

The Trial of Le Singe
by Matthew Jameson  

Funky But Clunky Monkey

The Trial of Le Singe, directed and written by Matthew Jameson, is a rough and ready reconstruction of a Napoleonic Wars legend.

A monkey washed up on a beach near Hartlepool in a cage was apparently mistaken by locals for a rascally French spy.  Promising material for what could be a thought-provoking but hilarious show.

Or just a damn good piece of slapstick. But here’s the thing about slapstick.  It has to be funny.  Constantly, achingly funny.  Otherwise, it’s tedious.

Here’s another thing.  Just doing a slapstick sort of thing, like putting a man with hairy legs into a miniskirt and blonde wig and having him mince about a bit ... You know, it isn’t in itself funny, however well it’s done (and in this production, Bertie Cox does it  magnificently.)

It’s made funny by the context and, however absurd, the motivation for it, and if you don’t provide either, you’ll find that no one laughs.

I first learnt this as a boy when I was reduced to helpless mirth watching the patron saint of detrouserment,  Brian Rix  losing his trousers on stage. Why it was funny, I didn't understand at the time. Only later did I realise detrouserment is only funny when a writer constructs a scene around it to make it funny.

Here’s a third thing about slapstick.  It doesn’t suddenly become satire when someone mentions Brexit.

Of course the content of The Trial Of Le Singe  can easily lend itself to some comments about the foolishness of Brexit.

The farce that emerges at The Water Rats contains lots and lots of slapstick and a few good lines – the best I think being: “The one ‘orse in this town were a donkey, and that were shot before I were born.”

The show certainly does boast six very young, very talented, hard-working and enthusiastic actors, five of them being graduates of E15 Acting School.

Lloyd McDonagh makes a wonderfully agile, sympathetic, but definitely simian French monkey. Meanwhile Leah Kirby is the only woman cast member, but  she doesn't play the only woman character, instead making a convincing sad, lonely village idiot.

Matthew Jameson himself is excellent as a gruff and cynical landlord – he seems to be a much better actor and director than writer – and Eddy Larry is a fine town drunk.

William Hastings as the toff is hampered by some unconvincing dialogue and a rather puzzling costume decision which has him wearing a frock coat above a pair of tights.

Good as they are, they struggle to raise laughs in a shipwreck of a show. All of them are reduced by the end to bellowing their lines in the hope of raising a few laughs which, in a tiny venue like The Water Rats, is jarring rather than funny.

Well done to the company The Heretical Historians for realising this local legend is strong material for our times, but it's let down by the execution and, in the end, I can only offer a lower range amber light.

Review Dangling

by Abigail Hood

Charlotte's Web

Dangling tries to cover a lot of issues - missing children,  fathers who are wrongly suspected, those who may have and those who have committed crimes, abusive relationships, the effect on marriages, all interlaced with hints of recent sex abuse news stories.

Charlotte is a London escort girl who may once have been a runaway and has ended up in the hands of a manipulative pimp Matt (Christopher Lane). Her world collides with Greg (Jasper Jacob), a teacher and father of a missing girl and then also Greg's wife, Jane (Tracey Wilkinson).

Seemingly running parallel are the lives in Oldham of Danny (Philip D McQuillan) and his younger sister, Kate (Charlotte Brooke)  with an unstable mother Helen (Maggie Saunders) and a violent jailbird father Ken (Ian Gain).

This new play by Abigail Hood. who also plays Charlotte, attempts additionally to include a psychological filter of 20th century screen culture through Danny's friend Kev (Stephen Boyce) and parent Helen.

Dangling has a strong cast and some powerful moments. However ultimately this is is a play that becomes a prisoner of its own concept and has what feels like a mix of devised drama shoehorned  into a schematic framework.

On hooks from the ceiling dangle objects from the characters' lives and director Kevin Tomlinson uses long grey benches at first effectively to create the different stage spaces on an otherwise minimal set with few land-level props.

Nevertheless the scene changes with different bench combinations, alhtough ingenious, become a little wearisome when this theatre piece reveals itself increasingly to be written mostly as a televisual and not a stage drama

The actors also have to grapple with clumsy shifts in tone. In addtition to soap style drama and melodrama, there are some, admittedly quite subtle, surreal time shift mash ups and the sudden introduction of an element which reminded TLT of a celebrated plot from now defunct soap Brookside with a touch of Tennessee Williams  and Joe Orton  thrown in for good measure.

TLT did wonder whether the lives of blonde Charlotte and dark haired Kate might eventually merge into one as there is the implication of a circular trajectory to the piece, but this never happened, at least not explicitly.

Instead there are  heartfelt moments, with some effective lines probably garnered from research, and every member of the cast is given an opportunity to shine at some point during the play.

However it's a patchwork of issue driven drama about missing and abused children, while certainly all subject  matter deserving examination, and ready-formed characters yoked uneasily together rather than an organically grown plot.
There is an intriguing ambivalence in the character of Greg but ultimately this feels like the first draft of possbilities for a TV drama trying to adhere to a stage format  rather than a thought-through stage drama in its own right and it's an amber light.

Review Tales From The Arabian Nights

Tales From The Arabian Nights
Adapted by Farhana Sheikh

Love Is A Many-Storied Thing

Kings, grand viziers, masters and slaves, courtiers, talking animals, royal executioners, auctioneers, princesses, rich merchants, kitchen boys and beggars all inhabit the compendium of stories known as The Arabian Nights.

London Bubble Theatre and writer Farhana Sheikh also conjure them up in what must be one of London's loveliest settings on a clear summer's evening - Greenwich Park with its slopes and hills filled with greenery and birdsong.

This promenade version of the Middle Eastern, Arabic and Asian tales picks out a scattering of the  stories.

We are led through the "sadness and cruelty of  kings", magical happenings and some individual and communal happy endings before we come to the best known story of vizier's daughter Shahrazade who weaves tales to save her life. 

Director Jonathan Petherbridge and designer Yasuko Hasegawa Fujihara keep the design and the props simple with the costumes mixing 18th century European peasant Sunday best and the wide sashes of oriental dress.

In this version, the Shahrazade story is itself framed within and is  part of the story of King Shariya who discovers the infidelity of a favoured wife and vows revenge on women.

The seven-strong cast, some of whom also play instruments, inhabit a range of characters. Among these, there's the princess (Rose-Marie Christian) who finds herself affianced to a goat (Nicholas Goode who is also the piece's composer),  but then it turns out ...

Aha, it's only proper that we leave a Shahrazade cliffhanger and not give everything away in a review.

Suffice to say Russeni Fisher as Khalifa is pulled this way and that, like his own fisherman's net, with tempting magical offers and reversals.

As well as plucking music out of various stringed instrumens, Laurie Jamieson is the slave who tells a story once a year against a stunning twilight backcloth of the Thames with the glimmering lights of gleaming London skyscrapers.

Joyce Henderson is a celtic talking ape and Simon Startin plays several vainglorious monarchs while Leila Ayad plays the beguiling storyteller Shahrazade herself.

It's a performance that starts with a store of copious goodwill. However the promenade element eventually breaks up any fluidity as we took ourselves from location to location.

While the route, positioning of the various grassy stages and lighting had obviously been thought out, the script and staging feels increasingly scrappy and piecemeal. So that the addition of songs and dance does not have the richness and beauty one would expect.

Much of this is also because it's a two-act show of about three hours which should be much shorter and without an interval, especially as it's also marketed as a children's show.

Even if the natural scenery in Greenwich park is stunning, there also needed to be something more in the design to evoke the exotic atmosphere of the orient.

It may be that Sheikh's play with its mercantile allusions and magic would work better entirely in the light and on the flat.
However TLT has to judge from what was presented. The show, although becoming sometimes more and more talky, along with its audience lost energy as it stretched on in the dark.
It's the kind of subject matter which raises great expectations of a magical mix of the literate, raucous and the erotic with mercantile and imperial realities catering with supple humour for both adults and children.

There certainly is a magic in the park surroundings but Tales From The Arabian Nights needs a tighter, more coherent framework to make it a truly spellbinding performance and it's a lower range amber light.  

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Review Catastrophists

A new comedy catches the zeitgeist but fails to live up to its initial promise, says Francis Beckett.

by Jack Stanley 

Apocalypse Soon
I so wanted to like Catastrophists.

The idea is rich with comic possibilities. Husband and wife Harry and Raf, well paid employees and denizens of leafy Barnes, go to their second home in the Cotswolds and invite the neighbours to dinner. 

In this case, it's Peter and Claudia from the field next door, with a carbon-neutral yurt to call home. A couple who live as part of a survivalist commune and also believe the end of the world is nigh

Catastrophists has three good performances and a brilliant one (Elizabeth Donnelly as the monstrous Raf).

Director Cameron Cook with designer Beth Colley have created, in the very small space available to them, a set you can believe is the living room of a second home in the Cotswolds.

The play opens well, with a truly funny and entirely believable argument between Raf and Harry (Alexander Stutt) about whether to serve crisps or flatbread with the guacamole. 

When Claudia (Patsy Blower) arrives, Raf says: “I love your hoodie. It’s so… unapologetic.” In deference to her guests, Raf has dressed in what she calls “hippie chic.”

But after half an hour or so, the script by Jack Stanley loses its way. The more we get to know about the characters, the harder it is to believe in them, until by the end even these four good actors - including Edmund Dehn as Peter - are reduced to bellowing their lines in this tiny venue.  

It is not clear – and there's nothing Ms Donnelly can do to make it clear – why Raf is so desperate for her guests’ approval. Peter and Claudia never quite make sense.  And when Raf has been built up as a rather strong character who knows her own mind, it is not at all clear why the sight of a goat through the window reduces her to a gibbering wreck.

 The White Bear Theatre deserves support. It’s survived the gentrification of its host pub with nothing worse than a move to a tiny but workable theatre upstairs, and it has a coherent new writing policy.

However, this script badly needs someone being cruel to be kind. I have an idea there is rather a good play hidden in there somewhere, but Jack Stanley hasn't written that script, and I can just about muster an amber light for the play that has emerged..

Review Armide

A seventeenth century temptress lures reviewer Peter Barker into a tempestuous evening of operatic delight.

Music by Jean-Baptiste Lully
Words and Text by Philippe Quinault

The Battlefield Of Love

When a Middle-Eastern warrior princess meets a Western soldier, we somehow suspect no good will come of it.

And so it turns out but, perhaps surprisingly, this is the plot of an elegant yet passionate seventeenth century Baroque opera, one of the latest offerings in the Arcola Theatre’s Grimeborn Festival.

Armide, here in an enchanting revival by the enterprising Ensemble OrQuesta and Brazilian director Márcio da Silva, is generally recognized as one of Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lully's masterpieces composd towards the end of his career in 1686.

With librettist and playwright Philippe Quinault, Lully had already developed a pioneering complexity of character development through declamatory recitative and soliloquies.

Armide is an Islamic warrior princess who, possessing irresistible sexual charms for men while remaining immune to love's dart, defeats and captures knights of The Crusade.

Nevertheless love conquers the temptress for the first time when she encounters the Christian knight Renaud, who alone amongst the crusaders, remains unvanquished by her.

Armide, who is also a sorceress, summons up all her powers of enchantment to bind Renaud to her, but her passion is real while he is bound to her by sorcery alone. 

Through Armide's torment, this opera becomes an exquisite Baroque treatise on the nature of  desire with the conflict between vengeance and love framed within the innovative tragédie lyrique form.  

Performomh in French with English surtitles, Rosemary Carlton-Willis makes a captivating Armide with a fierce yet tender performance demonstrating intelligence and vocal range.

As Renaud, Guy Withers brings charming presence, a bright tenor and precise lyrical characterisation.  

Da Silva, as well as directing, displays a fine baritone in the role of La Haine, the demon of Hate invoked by Armide to overcome her feelings of love with vengeance.

As director he also shows resourcefulness on an obviously limited budget. Candlelight, for example, ingeniously reveals an underworld of monsters during the travails and terrifying journey of two knights, Ubalde of baritone John Holland-Avery and the Danish Knight the tenor Hiroshi Kanazawa. 

The set and props are meagre - two  battered chairs, a tarnished candelabra and a throw cast over several stage plinths convey Armide's fantasy world.

Nevertheless, the minimal staging is more than made up by a memorable musical performance. This includes the small six-piece orchestra of harpsichord, archlute, violin, viola, gamba and cello  conducted by Matthew Morgan.

The Arcola production is a rare outing for a thrilling opera which in the seventeenth century proved a crowd pleaser and broke new ground with its psychological portrayal of Armide's dilemma.

Ensemble OrQuesta's version does justice to this fascinating piece with accomplished instrumentals and vocals. With only one performance left, this comes highly recommended and it's a green light for a night of rapture and tragedy.    

Friday, 11 August 2017

Review A Spoonful Of Sherman

A Spoonful Of Sherman
Music & Lyrics by Richard M Sherman & Robert B Sherman
Al Sherman and Robert J Sherman
Book by Robert J Sherman
Conceived by Robert J Sherman & Colin Billing

Worth A Lot More Than Tuppence

Awww, back in the day when TLT was an motorless tricycle learner driver, she treasured her mini-cache of  LPs (remember those?) amongst which was The Story And Songs From Mary Poppins with an illustrated booklet.
So even though she'd never seen the movie and the album (ah, those old fashioned words!) wasn't even the Disney film soundtrack, TLT and her very own like-minded chitty of an automobile can sing along to all the songs such as supercalifragi - califragi ...  califragi- er -lipstick  ... well, you know the one she means.

Now comes along an 85 minute celebration of the Sherman family tune- and wordsmithery, A Spoonful of Sherman. 

The title puns of course on another of the most famous Mary Poppins's songs, A Spoonful Of Sugar, apparently inspired by the polio vaccine sugar lump but ask TLT's seven year old self who wrote it - she probably would say, "Mary Poppins of course!".

No, dear, it was in reality written by the  New-York Sherman Brothers whose fame unusually lies in songs for movie musicals with the stage shows coming only relatively recently after the celluloid fact.

Yet the brothers were only  the fourth musical generation of an emigrant family from Stepantsy near Kiev in the Ukraine which arrived, via by-royal-appointment freelance musician posts in the Austro-Hungarian Emperor's court, in the musical melting pot of 1906 New York.
Musical director Christopher Hamilton at the piano with vocalists (with more than a smidgeon of subtle yet spot-on choreography as well directed by Stewart Nicholls) Helena Blackman and Daniel Boys join a fifth generation songwriting Sherman, Robert J, at the Brasserie Zedel's Crazy Coqs cabaret room.

Musically the show begins with granddad Al, born  in the old country, who became a successful Tinpan Alley composer, in an age dominated by music publishers and  song sheet music.

Al was a master of the in-demand upbeat ditties such as Save Your Sorrow (For Tomorrow) with Buddy De Sylva and anthem to sports and dating (surely an American high school surefire hit!), "You Gotta Be A Football Hero", written with lyricists Al "Blueberry Hill" Lewis and Buddy Fields.

At the same time, with fellow songwriters Nat Burton and Arthur Altman, he could also turn his hand to a wistful wartime song There's A Harbour Of Dreamboats.

This song put TLT in mind of another celebrated 1940s' contemporary song - Walter Kent's and, ahhh, that's why!, Nat Burton's White Cliffs Of Dover.

However it's the brothers who certainly as the show puts it, wrote "The Songbook of  Your [TLT's] Childhood" and since, as far as TLT can remember, the booklet had the words and possibly the music on the long playing record, it's no exaggeration!

Not being musical specialists, TLT and her little jalopy had no idea 60s' bubblegum pop classic You're Sixteen was written by the fraternal duo in 1960  - beating Neil Sedaka's Sweet Sixteen by a year, even if The Sound Of Music's Sixteen Going On Seventeen  was a year before.

Indeed putting in context the songs (including lyricists' rhyming dictionaries!) was all part of the fun of this solidly enjoyable show for your own automotive duo. 

For this reason, it was the inclusion of the brothers' grandpoppy's roots in Austro-Hungary (where the waltz king Johann Strauss and all those operettas come from) and the brothers' pop Al Sherman (who also had a hobby later incorporated in another famous song) with Robert J's more recent works such as Music Of The Spheres, which made A Spoonful Of Sherman a full-bodied experience for us. 

Helena Blackman soaring soprano easily encompassed a range of 20th century song styles from perky 1920s to near operetta to the limpid notes and musical hall idiom of Sherman Brothers' songs.

Meanwhile Daniel Boys put his own Eastenders stamp on chimney sweep Bert's songs from Mary Poppins and the doowop jazzy Jungle Book numbers (which TLT originally learned through  Kenny Ball and His Jazzman.on the Morecambe and Wise Show).

Nevertheless it's the beautiful, tender harmonies of Blackman and Boys, especially with Feed The Birds (tuppence a bag!) which will stay with us.

However, a further surprise when Robert J took to the piano and sang the River Song from the 1973 musical adaptation of Tom Sawyer - TLT is certain there was reference to the very first word of James Joyce's epic and very musical novel Finnegans Wake (Robert B - Robert J's Dad, keep up at the back! 😉 - was a literature major!).

It's a practically perfect introduction drawing on a family fistful of songwriting characters, sadly missed and still living.

A family spanning  the change from songsheet publishing to movie technology - in a different way from, say, another Imperial Russian emigrant songwriter, Irving Berlin - with an inextricable golden link to movie mogul Walt Disney and the influence on the soundtracks of numerous films which have followed. So we're saving our sorrow for tomorrow 😀 and it's a green light.   

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Review boom

by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb

From Here To Eternity

boom by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb is not to be confused with Boum!, French singer Charles Trenet's pulsating song and ode to life and love where biology has taken over marked by a thumping heartbeat.

But this is the surreal enforced household of Jules - who has reinvented his name as a tribute to French science fiction and surrealist novelist Jules Verne -  and his visitor - female Jo (aha, did you really think it might turn out to be Jim for - er - Jemima - ? - to carry our artificially imposed French theme?).

Jules, a marine biologist, under the pretext of an online lonely hearts ad promising "intensely significant coupling" has lured to his student pad cum lab cum bunker,  Jo. She's a world-weary journalism student from England who is careless about whom she couples with, looking to churn out an article for an assignment.

But Jules has found out that, through his study of fish, that the earth's population is about to go boom! in the negative sense of the word and, driven by a biological and intellectual imperative, is set on saving the human race.

There are a few not insurmountable difficulties.

Jules, who calls a fish in tank Dorothy after the Wizard Of Oz heroine, is gay, even if he recognizes the necessity to create a huge family tree out of a little bush sprig.

While Jo, who also suffers from periodic blackouts, definitely does not want to procreate and a bond between the two seems highly unlikely. .

As the comet approaches the earth, it looks like Jules may be running out of options.

But wait, who is that - that mouthy, percussive museum worker with an array of levers and whose drumbeats intermittently frame the action?  That's Barbara who is your unreliable narrator tour guide to the end of the world and new beginnings.

This three-hander was first performed, and well-received by critics, in New York in 2008 the year the lever was pulled, bursting the credit bubble with the crunch.

The deliberate artificiality, the farcical destruction and creation myth obviously hit a nerve when scientist Jules recounts how his mother "couldn't have picked a worse time to go on a tour of unreinforced masonry in California".

However director Katherine Nesbitt seems unsure of how to hide the flaws of this energetic, raw piece.

Nicole Sawyerr as the journalist in training is clear and focussed but never seems to really get a handle on Jo's determination to turn the random into journalism and her lapses into unconsciousness.

Will Merrick gives good value as theorizing Jules, nicely inept as the graduate whose best laid plans go wrong from a combination of his own incompetence and outside circumstances.

Mandi Symonds's green-suited Barbara, regulating the action, making the Wizard of Oz persona her own, gradually becomes more and more part of the story. Even if her inivtation for the audience to take her into its confidence and purchase the institution's "pamphlets" plant increasing seeds of doubt.

However the play is alternately thought-provoking and tedious with the incomprehension and isolation of Jules and Jo becoming grating.

Meanwhile Barbara's downfall and (dubious) resilience feels a long time coming. There's something there but, although some aspects of this tall tale grew on TLT, it felt spread mighty thinly over an eternity of 90 or so minutes. A lower range amber light.

Review Mrs Orwell

Mrs Orwell
by Tony Cox

Gentlemen's Relish

Post-Second World War. In the Soviet Union citizens were used to everything being in short supply and whispered about the corruption of those in authority who got more than their fair share plus access to foreign goods.

In Britain, paper rationing had just ended in 1949 but other rationing continued. The writer known as George Orwell had become the author of a bestseller Animal Farm, having eventually hit a post war Cold War zeitgeist, and then 1984, a sensation in the western publishing world.

The bio-drama Mrs Orwell begins with the male writer and essayist rather than the eponymous second wife, Sonia Brownell.

She is a 31 year old, glamorous blonde, as luminous and perky as a sunflower and the efficient literary magazine assistant editor to which Orwell was a contributor

Mrs Orwell, as the title and name implies (although George Orwell was a pseudonym), is for good or ill defined by George Orwell.

Orwell of course was a pseudonym (or  "mask" as one character remarks) for novels and especially essays which caught the imagination of a post-war generation - the persona of a plain speaking Englishman with socialist tendencies espousing values of decency.

This play by Tony Cox rather cleverly but far too subtly, in the opinion of TLT, seems to be a dream of Sonia as conjured up by George Orwell (né Eric Blair) and the male gaze.

Cox is light touch on Sonia who was the writer's second wife, marrying him in his hospital bed three months before his sudden death from a haemorrhage, who hasn't always had a good press.

It is also believed, the author partly based the character of Julia in his most famous novel 1984, although the play decides not to explicitly mention this.

Instead  Cressida Bonas has the difficult task on stage of embodying Sonia Brownell through the filter of Julia - becoming a creature of the famous writer's imagination addled by illness prescription drugs and eventually also a Scotch haze. 

In this Bonas, suitably svelte and cut-glass, does exceptionally well, as far as it goes, in spite of it being a tough ask.

But there is a vacuum at the centre of the play. In this, by coincidence, it rather resembles the fictional matriarch of Apologia where a reputation precedes a woman with hardly any supporting evidence..

Nevertheless in the case of the play Mrs Orwell and real-life perceptions of Sonia as a stereotype grasping and unstable widow in charge of the literary estate after her husband's death, this isn't necessarily wholly a criticism.

The personality of the excitable Orwell (or should we say Blair) is far more filled out  matched by a beguiling performance from Peter Hamilton Dyer who embodies the public schoolboy enthusiasm, including a taste for comfort food such as dumplings and Gentleman's Relish, which turns interestingly into something more hard-edged in the second act.

Rose Ede as the nurse has to cope with a stereotyped role but still manages to give a glimpse of underlying scepticism about the various visitors filing in to see the celebrity writer whose work Hollywood was by this time clamouring to put on screen.

She also shares a moment with the writer's new wife where the audience can glimpse the generous, practical side of Sonia's nature.

Publisher Fred Warburg is portrayed by playwright Cox and played by Robert Stocks as a stolid, methodical businessman balancing the interests of Orwell and keeping some secrets for Sonia yet excluding her from the male club.

This part of the play doesn't always add up  (and is somewhat at variance with the real Westminster School, Oxford-educated, First World War army officer publisher) but may again be explained by the prism of Orwell's imagination. Even so, he is given a clunky expositional speech in the second act which rather breaks up the fluidity of the production.

Edmund Digby Jones gives a charismatic if creepy performance as artist Lucian Freud. Yet he's introduced to us first with Orwell which again rather skews the audience's view of Sonia's close relationship with him. We never get to know that she had known Freud from her days as an artist's model.

So Sonia remains an enigma with her radiant photogenic film star good looks. No mention is made of her shared heritage with Eric Blair, both born in colonial India before returning to England. Or her schooldays with future film star Vivian Leigh, although it may explain an otherwise cryptic desire specifically referenced at the end of the play.

Mrs Orwell is neatly directed by Jimmy Walters keeping up the momentum with Jeremy Walmsley's music bridging the scenes. There's a deceptively simple and effective hospital room design by  Rebecca Brower. Nevertheless the corridor windows also transform themselves almost into cinema screens for some of the action.

However there are a few elements which marr the theatrical experience, chiefly the assumption that an audience new to the story will be able to pick up on the name dropping. By the same token, it may be  a play that has been thinned down and some necessary information left out.

Whatever, lack of background sometimes leaves holes in an otherwise skilful  patchwork and out-of-context jusxtapositions do undermine a more complex dramatic and humanly credible analysis.

It needs a little more like the piquant moment when Sonia is dragged by her husband, his publisher and Lucian Freud, who sees the opportunity for a loan, into a business arrangement and when we realise just how vulnerable and how potentially dangerous the situation is for her. An amber/green light.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Review Apologia

by Alexi Kaye Campbell

The Last Supper

It's a luxurious country kitchen on the birthday of Kristin, an American-born divorced Marxist academic in her sixties. She's awaiting a fellow veteran of radical 1960s' politics and  her two sons, whom she hardly ever sees, with their partners for a celebration dinner

Peter who is in banking arrives punctually with his physiotherapist girlfriend Trudi while Simon, preceded by his TV actress wife, creeps in more surreptitiously.

Kristin was an activist during the anti-Vietnam war marches in Grosvenor Square and the Paris student demos of 1968. A bundle of hurt and recriminations soon emerges triggered by Kristin's just published memoirs, which she claims were written only to chart her professional life, where her two children fail to get a mention. 

This play was originally staged in 2009 on the intimate stage of the Bush Theatre before it moved to its present venue. It may be something is lost in a larger venue. There's nothing wrong with what is there, but this family drama feels frustratingly under-developed.

Frustrating especially because the juxtaposition of banking, evangelical Christianity, television fame, academia and the legacy of 1968 with the personal cost to a woman and her family is an attractive and thought-provoking premise. 

Nevertheless it remained for TLT  a play of five characters in search of a plot.  Jamie Lloyd directs a solid, straightforward production. There is a marvellously detailed widescreen set from Soutra Gilmour with just a glimpse of a corridor through an open door and a Renaissance portrait with a young woman's telling glance.

However while Stockard Channing is fine as blinkered old leftie and mother Kristin, she is a curiously passive character around whom the others circulate and comment.

Laura Carmichael as Christian evangelist Trudi shines brightest of the satellites with a naturalness in  turning often unforgiving lines into thoughtful responses in  this family drama.

Otherwise Joseph Milson doubles as Kristin's sons, Peter and brother Simon, both isolated in their own way by their parents' actions. Freeman Agyeman is the actress, increasingly estranged from Simon, who reveals her own motivations in life as well as art. Desmond Barrit makes the best of a stereotypical wisecracking gay best friend, a veteran also of the 1960s' protesting frontline.

Our googling reveals the term apologia - from the Greek - to be "A formal written defence of one's opinions or conduct", a rhetorical format not to be confused with apology as an expression of regret.

In some ways, TLT felt, this play tries to combine the two with the unrepentent activist having put forth in print a defence of what she calls her professional life and her sons yearning for something more from her - perhaps something less a defence and more an apologetic understanding of what has happened to all of them.

Yet the nitty gritty exploration is not there - the trial, just or unjust, a show trial or a genuine investigation - never comes. We're never quite sure about the nature of Kristin's past actions or her perceived fault in anything but the most general terms.

The characters are there, but the issues seem thinly drawn with digressions, even if we may suspect the play teeters on the verge of asking whether if she were a man and a father instead of a mother, the same reproaches would be there.

The potentially most interesting relationship is that between Kristin and her prospective American daughter-in-law Trudi, who doesn't pretend to be an intellectual and met Kristin's son Peter at a prayer meeting. However this is a drama which may have looked better on the drawing board than on stage. 

Practically each character has his or her own moment of "apologia" but, for us it felt stretched out and it's an amber light.