Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Review Boudica (PREVIEW)

by Tristran Bernays

No Man's Land

Many of us (ok, TLT and her own metallic chariot) had previously only the vaguest impression of a Celtic  warrior queen Boudica with flowing locks taking on allcomers and emerging victorious.

The life of Boudica, whose image has varied according to the world picture of those who wrote about her, had a more tragic trajectory than we realised and is now the subject of a vigorous new verse play by Tristan Bernays filling the Shakespeare's Globe stage.

It's certainly an apt and clever choice, for it feels like a Shakespearean story, a proud Queen uniting the British tribes against the might of the Roman Empire.

However, it also feels appropriate to wonder if Shakespeare's pen would have chided her for hubris and unfeminine behaviour in more certain terms than the imperial Victorian image of the queen of Iceni tribe handed down more recently.

The Queen is a historical figure wrapped in a myth and probably an appropriate heroine for our double edged Brexit age. In the present version, it's woman power but also with a certain amount of questioning and a non pejorative modern slant.

But of course before Brexit there was Game Of Thrones and various swashbuckling mythological and historical TV serials in a Hollywood genre which has enjoyed a revival of popularity in recent times.

Directed by Eleanor Rhode, Boudica's life  makes for an epic re-telling, often in verse, with plenty of energy. If it is a tad unsubtle in its television-like structure and modern mash up, it still demands to be taken on its own terms as a tale of adventure and betrayal.

The writer himself says in the programme he wants to make a blockbuster action film onstage with battling women at its centre. And just as much as colonialization, it is a dramatic discussion of war including a hint of Cold War as defeat closes in.

Again it may not always be subtle, baldly questioning when defence becomes attack in a debate over the nature of conflict in post Second World War terms. But reiteration in the baldest terms suits the energetic style and there's a pleasing working of the audience as the British tribes rally.

Preceded by a drumming soundscape and  narrator (Anna-Maria Nabirye) dressed in the uniform of African rebels and child soldiers, the martial widowed Boudica (Gina McKee) and her two daughters, clad in robes with weapons at their side, make their regal entrances.

They have arrived to claim their share of the kingdom of the Iceni. Their husband and father had enjoyed favours including loans,  as a client king, from the Roman conquerors.

However expediently for the colonizers including the fey procurator Caius Deciamus (Samuel Collings) in a knatty brocade coat, suited and booted in cuban heels, Roman law only recognizes primogeniture and there's not a male heir in sight. 

Far from recognizing the danger and a hierarchy where woman are not even recognized as minor players, the Queen protests and is bound and lashed with a whip by soldiers while her daughters Blodwyn (Natalie Simpson) and Alonna (Joan Iyola) are given as trophies of empire to the troops and raped starting a cycle of rebellion and revenge.

The action takes place on a plain but versatile wooden stage, designed by Tom Piper, with ladders against the Globe's pillars backed by a stockade with simple but effective extras coming in as they are needed.

There may not be an especially complex subtext and we wondered whether rape was defined then in the same terms as now. The modern colonial elements are signposted a mile (or is that 1,609 metres?!) off,  but historical and mythical movies and TV series have conditioned us to such mash ups and artistic licence.   .

There's some zombie choreography (choreographer Tom Jackson Greaves)  lots of clashing swords, a spectacular aerial attack, a seering curse and bloody revenge.

The chief of the Belgics (Abraham Popoola),is a charasmatic huge punk tree trunk of a man, "There's madness and there's Badvoc!". The uneasy unification of the tribes under Boudica is sealed by Cunobeline (Forbes Masson), another chieftain who overomes his doubts,  with  a rock concert rendition of The Clash's London Calling.

The jokes are sometimes of the Monty Python/Blackadder genre but with more swearing: "Honey of course he's got news, he's the f******g messenger!". Boudicca  may not be the most complicated of characters, written as veering between the military and motherhood, but gives a stirring mix of Elizabeth I and Henry V rhetoric standing in front of the microphone to urge her troops.

There may be a risk of the lines descending into the parodic when we hear, "What has Rome done to you? and there are shades of the musical Salad Days in a scifi deus ex machina as Boudicca falters. However another piece of action makes sure the audience just takes in the visuals and doesn't stop to think too much.

Another softer dynamic is introduced through the younger daughter Alonna. A meeting with the enemy general (Clifford Samuel) ends in a glimmer of more civilised behaviour when he promises honourably he will insure she leaves free of harm.

It's clunky, perhaps trying to pile in too many issues,  but also funky and the cleverest thing about it is a reversal of the TV genre, which draws on classic literature, back into Shakespearean stage terms. It certainly could also work in even bigger venues and it's not often TLT would say that,, so it's an amber/green light!

Review The Blinding Light

The Blinding Light
by Howard Brenton

Down But Not Out In Paris

Fin de siècle Paris and a famous writer is holed up in a seedy hotel doing decidedly weird stuff in the bathroom.

Howard Brenton's new play tangles itself with a few months in the life of Swedish writer, poet and painter August Strindberg, the "other" Scandinavian playwright.

For those not up on world playwriting, Norwegian Henrik Ibsen is probably slightly higher on the league table of Scandinavian playwrights in terms of fame, something which comes up in Brenton's sometimes witty but rather static and opaque take on this episode in Strindberg's life.

It should be enough for anyone coming new to Strindberg and this play to know only this. Certainly there's a pretty strong cast with Jasper Britton as the fiery, choleric Strindberg. He has shut himself away to pursue his weird science - the ancient dream of alchemy to transform base metals to gold.

So much for his theories - the play starts with a face off between the dishevelled and disturbed Strindberg, clad in his underwear and an artisan's apron, his hands stained with the chemicals needed for his experiments and forthright, dark-haired hotel cleaner, Lola (Laura Morgan) trying to do her job.

After that comes a succession of his former wives in what is,possibly a hallucinatory Faustian pageant. First of all, bossy aristocrat Siri von Essen (imperious Susannah Harker), an actress and mother of his two children. Then Frida Uhl (Gala Gordon who could have stepped out of a Gustav Klimt portrait), an Austrian writer, barely out of her teens when she first met and married Strindberg bearing him another daughter.

It's a neat irony that the elder of his wives' real first name reflects an authoritarian piece of Apple software (isn't all "helpful" computer software by its nature authoritarian?). Is Brenton playing on this? Who knows but he and maybe his director Tom Littler in a detailed and measured production?.

Yet in the midst of Strindberg's rantings and paranoia (he liberally takes swigs of what may be absinthe), the occasional futuristic reference crops up. Strindberg, we hear from one wife, "made his excuses and left" like some old-style tabloid hack.

The name of the celebrated movie from Ingmar Bergman (another Scandinavian!) Wild Strawberries also comes into his conversation. Such references and his assailing by inner and outer voices almost turn The Blinding Light into a Stephen King-style science fiction time travelling story.

Indeed, despite a polished staging, Max Pappenheim's soundscape made TLT and her own definitely non-imaginary sidekick (a talking, theatre reviewing car, what are you accusing TLT of? 😉) wonder whether this was originally intended for radio and maybe a prospect for a feature film.

This might explain, despite a grippingly intense, feverishly wild Britton and nicely stylized performances from Morgan, Harker and Gale, who cross over "real" life, painting and literature in one fell swoop, why The Blinding Light partly didn't quite work for TLT & Co.

The other part was like the recent Mrs Orwell: the name dropping and theorizing  might have the cogniscenti chuckling knowingly. However,  unless you know your Wedekind from your Swedenborg, audience members might drift off, drawn in again by only the occasional glimpse of a story.

There is a threat from Siri which finally materializes, only to dissolve through the help of the canny chambermaid. But in the end it feels as if The Blinding Light might work better as an opera with all its internal conflict and duologues with women in Strindberg's life.

Just in case, this sounds altogether too gloomy, it's worth adding there is a sense of irony and some comical juxtapositions transformed into a kind of writer's (and literary agent's) crafty happy ending when Strindberg, transformed, breaks through his own brick wall.

It's 90 minutes with good performances, if sometimes the writing itself seems rather studied and self conscious. There's an ingenious design by Cherry Truluck for Lucky Bert with gravy-brown late 19th century furniture in front of abstract painted screens, spot-on costumes from Emily Stuart and impressive lighting from William Reynolds,

The Blinding Light starts off well and ends well,  but the script  sinks into rather undramatic verbosity part of the way through, despite some redeeming humour and the best efforts of the director and cast. All in all, the voices assailing the collective mind of TLT and her jalopy whisper amber light.       

Review Ishq

Catherine Kelly manages to enjoy the spectacular design of a new Anglo-Punjabi musical, despite a deeply flawed book and score.

Book by Mushfiq Murshed
Lyrics by Farooq Beg, Owen Smith and Ian Brandon
Music by Ian Brandon and Emu Fuzön

Trying To Feel The Love

This musical, combining Pakistani and British talent, draws on a story which has delighted generations in Pakistan. It's a romantic and tragic tale from Punjabi literature, reminiscent of star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet.

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of Pakistan's independence, the story of wealthy beauty Heer and the flute playing cowherd Ranjha, kept apart by caste, class and religion,  arrived on the stage of Sadler's Wells promising a spectacular blend of music and dance.

Indeed, there were audible gasps from the audience as a 15th century temple and vast courtyard were conjured up as if by magic in stunning projections designed by Declan Randall.

However, the magic soon evaporated as this mutated into a jaunty  ensemble opening musical number emulating a sub-Disneyesque style from composers Ian Brandon and Emu of Pakistani pop rock group Fuzön with lyrics by  Farooq Beg, who also directs, Owen Smith, as well as Brandon.

The story of Heer and Ranjha,  immortalised in 18th century verse by Sufi saint Waris Shah,  is here adapted by Mushfig Murshed using simplistic rhyming couplets with many confusing modern references. 

This awkward mash up continued throughout an admittedly visually colourful and lavish production, with modern and traditional choreography from Owen Smith and Suhaee Abro.

The highlight of the show was undoubtedly the stunning visuals. The expanses of rural farmlands, breathtaking palace palisades and awe-inspiring Sufi temples rose up in loving, painterly detail.

Meanwhile striking geometrical patterns evoked the eternal, transforming the limited stage space into endless spiritual vistas.

Equally the glorious costumes of Samina Aslan and Rabia Sana, along with the props and jewellery of Anila Rubab, were a veritable explosion of colour in keeping with the traditional tale.

It's a pity this wasn't matched by more reliance on the traditional rhythms and music of Pakistan in what could have been a pioneering Sufi musical. Yet the creators of the score for this literary romance chose a jarring bland musical format for the adaptation instead of introducing the audience to a rich cultural heritage.

The young cast, constricted by clunky dialogue, a poorly paced narrative and clunky direction with contrived blocking, had to resort to one-dimensional, pantomine-like characterisation.

All kudos then to Arti Mirwanni–Daltry and Irfan Damani who stood out as Heera's parents adding more natural inflections to the cumbersome couplets with their characterful performances.

Other opportunities were missed. The choreography during a wrestling competition failed to capture any sense of the high stakes or excitement of athletic combat. Given choreographer Suhaee Abro's expertise in classical Indian dance, including Sufi, Kathak and Bharatnatayan, it was frustrating that none of these appeared on stage. 

There was a short mesmeric Sufi whirling sequence but this seemed to come out of the blue, existing in isolation. For the most part, the dance routines, neither traditional nor fusion, failed to make an impression as another form of story telling.

It may be the creative team are more used to staging spectacles in large stadia and heritage locations than to developing engaging stories and songs for the stage.

There's certainly potential in the Ishq story  -- Ishq means love, an earthly, passionate but pure and unconditional love - with its compelling, centuries-old storyline.

However, overall the characterisations were underdeveloped within a muddled, piecemeal, heavy handed approach and a mixed bag of musical styles, talent and performances.   Sadly, I could not feel the Ishq, earthly or otherwise although, for the visuals, it just about scrapes into a red/amber light.

Review The Knowledge

In an era of satnavs and Uber, a classic comedy drama about black cab drivers in training passes the test for Peter Barker.  

The Knowledge
by Jack Rosenthal
Adapted for Stage By Simon Block

Be Lucky!

The Knowledge, for those without the knowledge, is the ordeal all would-be taxi drivers of London's iconic black cabs must undergo to earn the right to ply for hire on the city streets.

Those applying, known as Knowledge boys and girls, need to learn the 20,000 streets within a six miles' radius of Charing Cross and how these link together in what are called "runs".

In 1979 a tale of unemployed men and one women attempting The Knowledge caught the imagination of the British public in an enormously popular TV film written by the late Jack Rosenthal and directed by Bob Brooks.

Now The Knowledge has reached  Charing Cross Theatre in a stage adaptation by Simon Block, directed by Maureen Lipman who appeared in the original TV film 38 years ago and also happens to be the wife of writer Rosenthal.

The play's bones and flesh remain Rosenthal's work in a faithful adaptation. This does mean however it still retains a screenplay feel with a series of quick short scenes and a multiplicity of characters.

Nevertheless director Lipman keeps up the momentum and a nine-strong cast play out the trials and tribulations of the oddball applicants on Nicolai Hart-Hansen's two tier set.

The Public Carriage Office examiner's office, ever-present, perches on a central mezzanine while the domestic scenes roll out front of stage.

Above are London street signs -- Kennington Park Road, Brixton Road, Whitehall and a pair of traffic lights which signal the progress of the would-be cabbies.

The main focus is on taxi novice Chris (Fabien Frankel), goaded by his girlfriend Janet (Alice Felgate) into trying for his cabbie's green badge.

Ted (Ben Caplan), aided by wife Val (Jenna Augen) is also trying to join the ranks and live up to a tradition of passing The Knowledge and joining the family taxi driving dynasty.

Gordon (James Alexandrou) uses The Knowledge as an alibi to cheat on his long-suffering wife Brenda (Celine Abrahams) while Miss Staveley (Louise Callaghan) is the only woman applicant. 

The spectre hanging over all of them is the prospect of not succeeding and the embodiment of that is examiner Mr Burgess.

The monstrous Burgess is a classic comic creation, here captured by a stand-out Steven Pacey judging the applicants from his desk in Penton Street, N1.

What you get in the film which is missing from the stage are the streets of London in spite of a soundtrack with The Clash's London Calling, The Jam's Town Called Malice and Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street.

But on stage the wide ranging shots of London and the applicants investigating the intricate web of thoroughfares are a lack. For Rosenthal's original script was as much an affectionate look at the highways and byways of the capital as a dramatic glimpse into the training of cabbies.

A little later, Ian Drury and The Blockheads performed their own love song to London the Bus Driver's Prayer - "Our Father who art in Hendon, Harrow Road be thy name".

Rosenthal's earlier The Knowledge comes from a similar place. It is definitely and defiantly a piece of its time. Just as cabbies with The Knowledge retain a human flexibility and nous which cannot be replaced by technology,  so the script remains entertaining, very funny and humane and it's an amber/green light.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Review Agent Of Influence

Francis Beckett infiltrates the murky world of pre-Second World War espionage through a fictional fashion correspondent in an enjoyable new play.

Agent of Influence
by Sarah Sigal

The Spy Who Came In From The Catwalk

In 1936, at the time of the abdication crisis, Lady Pamela More is the elegant fashion correspondent for The Times newspaper. She is uninterested in politics:  “I leave politics to the politicians.”

Indeed, at most, she views Germany’s new leader through the eyes of a London sophisticate who thinks all that shouting and goose-stepping is in rather poor taste: “I know Mr Hitler has done a lot for Germany, but it does look over the top.”

And she never asks about the First World War, then known simply as The Great War: “Far too gloomy.”

Yet by 1939 she is an experienced and courageous spy for (I assume) MI5, providing crucial information on the near-treasonable activities of the former king Edward VIII and his wife, the former Wallis Simpson, now the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

She is also able to face her own past, including a botched abortion leaving her unable to have children, which neither her mother nor her husband know about.

The story of the fictional Lady Pamela is told with sensitivity and masterly understatement by writer Sarah Sigal and performed to cut glass perfection by Rebecca Dunn.

Dunn's Lady Pamela is brittle at the start, but conveys the vulnerability beneath the veneer. When she speaks as someone else – Wallis Simpson, say – she does an excellent impression. However, it's not so polished that we ever doubt it's Lady Pamela doing it herself.

There's a minimalist set by Lucky Bert and Jessica Beck directs Dunn with not too many costume changes, as befits the director of a one-woman play in a charming but tiny fringe theatre.

All three have sufficient sense of history and respect for the nineteen thirties to convey the period authentically and avoid judging the action and characters by the standards of a later period.

The piece does rely on a few slightly dodgy historical assertions – not that I mind: that’s the nature of drama.

But we don’t know that the Duchess of Windsor had an affair with Hitler’s ambassador to Britain, Joachim von Ribbentrop. If she did, MI5 did not know about it. The only inconclusive evidence for it was unearthed after the Second World War and immediately suppressed by Prime Minister Clement's Attlee's  government.

We don’t know that the Windsors passed secrets to Hitler's Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess, only that they had contact with him before the war; and it’s quite unlikely they would have had any secrets worth passing on.

It’s also pretty unlikely that the fashion correspondent of the Times in 1936 would have disliked and despised Diana Mitford, previously the wife of brewing heir Bryan Guinness but by then married to Britain’s fascist leader Oswald Mosley.

If  she did, she would have kept it to herself: the Mitfords were popular and fashionable in the circles Lady Pamela would have moved in.

And Lady Pamela is recruited by the handsome spymaster Charles, with whom she has an affair. In fact, she could only have been recruited by M – Maxwell Knight of MI5 - who not only considered it wrong to have an affair with his agents, but was also impotent.

However Lady Pamela's story and exploits are a nicely honed fiction. At about 75 minutes without an interval, this is an interesting, entertaining piece wittily written with a splendid central performance and well worth a green light.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Doubt, A Parable

A fraught adversarial situation between nun and priest within a New York Catholic school during a time of social change fully engages Peter Barker. 

Doubt, A Parable
by John Patrick Shanley 

Truth And Consequences

Sister Aloysius Beavier is the sternly upright conservative headmistress of a New York Roman Catholic school in 1964 which has just accepted its first black pupil from the working class population of the Bronx.

Now purely circumstantial evidence leads her  to suspect a young, progressive priest with an otherwise attractive personality, Father Brendan O'Flynn, may be guilty of molesting the new boy.

John Patrick Shanley's play tackles the nature of faith in oneself as well as in others and in self-policing, hierarchical institutions.

Doubt swirls around the allegations, but Sister Aloysius, the principal of a school attached to the local Catholic Church, does not allow herself to entertain any uncertainty.

She sets out to prove his guilt, not so much Miss Marple as a Miss Wimple who has already drawn her conclusions and now is working backwards to find the proof.

She's a small but steely and tenacious figure against the taller frame of the urbane Father Flynn, marking the division between the two not only in personality but in a hierachy.

For the priest always outranks the nun and the protocols for handling discomforting complaints easily turn into a dead end process and a means of suppression.

Both a melodrama and a witty thriller mystery, writer John Patrick Shanley's 2005 play therefore pits the austere female principal, played by Stella Gonet, against Jonathan Chamber's charismatic priest.

Doubt is a four-hander play with three women and one man structured around a series of duologue scenes punctuated by monologues, among which are sermons delivered to a congregation.

It's a tense 90 minutes revealing unexpected but all-too-human complications and the atmosphere of an era - the USA's first Catholic president John F Kennedy had just been assassinated.

Even the title Doubt, A Parable has an ironic 21st century ambivalent edge - for when was a parable ever uncertain? -  as nun and priest battle it out verbally and manoeuvre on the stained glass floor under the chandelier of PJ McEvoy's ecclesiastical set design.

Directed by Ché Walker, there are terrific performances from the whole cast which also includes Clare Latham as the idealistic, enthusiastic young teacher Sister James and Jo Martin's mother of the alleged victim who has her own understandable reasons for not making waves. 

Doubt is a tautly constructed play where no character has the monopoly on probity and the Catholic Church's powerful reach brings unexpected but logical reactions when religion becomes a team game.

This is highlighted in a compelling scene between Sister Aloysius and the mother of the allegedly abused boy who, focussed on a better life for her son, is willing to accept some risk as long as the boy benefits.

However, this is a production that falls at the very last hurdle. Instead of leaving the question of the priest's guilt or innocence open, it seems to interpret a final ruse by the nun followed by the priest conceding to her as an indication there is no room for doubt.

The actors play this as a cut-and-dry situation and this ending jars, given the complexities of the situation presented beforehand. Nevertheless for everything else in a demanding, pacey and thought provoking play, it's a green light. 

Friday, 8 September 2017

Review Seven Letters

Seven Letters
by Rian Flatley

A Song at Twilight

A nostalgic play, Seven Letters comes from the pen of writer/director Rian Flatley, focussing on the memories and twilight lives of women care home residents  with chequered pasts.

While the stories fulfil well-worn stereotypes and it feels like a one-act play stretched into two acts, it is lifted from the stereotypical by some charmingly simple but effective original songs woven into the plot.

Faye is a well-travelled lively hippy chick Irish pensioner. Tempie is a staid, middle class matronly Home Counties' sort,  keen on her crossword puzzles.

Frail Lena has a multilingual past with a tragic incident cruelly snatching away her chance of lasting happiness. American born Hannah is, she says, in for short term respite care but increasingly losing her mind and a grasp of what is going on.

They are cared for by chavvy, but good hearted young Summer who is willing to sit down and chat to them about her life outside the home. 

The seven-women play is structured as a series of monologues and flashbacks linked by group scenes where past and current lives are discussed and chirpy Summer serves tea, ginger snaps and feeds them snippets of information.

In its own past, Seven Letters has been made into a short film. Indeed the way scenes are shaped appears more suited to a screenplay than the trajectory of theatre with a few of the audience at the interval unsure whether it was the end of the play or an interval.

Nevertheless there are some pleasing performances, chiefly Teresa Jennings as feisty Faye, Kate Winder's patient and courteous Lena and Linny Bushy's crafty but vague Hannah with sweet-voiced Charlotte Reynolds as young songbird Faye.

Claire Gollop is starchy Tempie while Alice Taylor plays good-time girl care assistant Summer. 

However this is still a work in progess. The characters are hampered by some heavy-handed dialogue and there is need of dramaturgy to realise the full potential of the music and give point as to why Faye is the only woman with a younger self on stage.

An outside director might also bring in more nuance and, for instance, allow the group chatter to overlap, varying the rhythm of the conversation, rather than having a pause after each character speaks.

While not a musical, there certainly is also potential for experiment in the weaving together of song, drama and spoken lines slipping into the rhythm of music or into song.

But there needs to be a sharper focus on character development and the merging and diverging of fantasy and reality. 

The care home scenario is a staple of new writing. However, there is always scope for a refreshing and tweaking of the genre. This play really has something in its use of the original compositions of  musical director Lindsay Bridgewater who accompanies on keyboards and also at one point participates wittily in the action.

Seven Letters runs until Saturday September 9 at the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham and will have another four-day run at the Hampton Hill Theatre from January 17 next year.

It is overlong and rather clunky and over literal and one wishes sometimes for a more modern interpretation of old age.

However, given more development, it could through both spoken and sung scenes become something much more. There's potential for structural music and spoken word innnovation with a juxtaposition of poignancy, sentimentality alongside a harder edge. It's an amber light.  

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Review Wait Until Dark

Wait Until Dark
by Frederick Knott

Double Dealing

This 1967 play by the son-of-Quaker missionaries, Frederick Knott may seem like a dated traditional thriller, Yet it is really far more of a psychological helter skelter riff on the horror genre and product of a psychedelic and actorly age.

This seam was mined more fully in 1967, the year  following its stage premiere, in a suspenseful movie version directed by Terence Young, like Knott born in China, when it was a successful vehicle for Audrey Hepburn as the blind heroine in a Greenwich Village basement flat.

This, however, does not necessarily make this play a gripping piece for a 21st century audience.

Set now in London, a young woman is home alone in a basement flat where she is terrorized by a trio of criminals, with one murder already under their belts, searching for a stash of drugs.  

Sight impaired actor Karina Jones is Susy, both quivering victim and resourceful 1960s' hip chick, who gradually realises the utter implausibility of what she is being told by a series of characters impersonated by the wrongdoers.

Yet this seems part of a consciously double layer of implausibility. The plot is triggered by a husband (Oliver Mellor) who naviely agrees to bring a doll from Amsterdam to London for an attractive fellow passenger with a sob story about a sick child.

A naive young fellow you may think? Well, in this case it's a photographer. In the 1960s.  A seasoned traveller who doesn't realize any of the dangers. Hmm. 

Skip over this far fetched initial scenario, just as the farce audience should lose itself in laughter, this melodramatic wind up relies on surprise, excitement and satisfaction as a series of sadism and shocks are lined up for resilient Susy to knock down.

The play was directed first by Arthur "Bonnie and Clyde" Penn on Broadway with Lee Remick, quickly followed by a West End production with Honor Blackman in the starring role.  

Maybe one day some enterprising theatre bod can transform it into a satisfying semi parodic (somewhat in the style of Joe Orton's Loot) stylistic success.

But for the time being it remains, at the very least, both an extremely knotty play and a creaky period piece with longeurs.  It may also need a more heightened radiophonic soundscape to reflect Susy's experience as she grows in awareness. 

Knott, a Cambridge law graduate and ex-army man, is said, famously, to have hated writing. However he still managed to pen two workmanlike plays out of a very small output which were turned into classic movies - Hitchcock's Dial M For Murder starring Grace Kelly and Wait Until Dark

His first success came when a play which failed to find a producer was picked up by the BBC and after its first TV transmission was passed on to Alfred Hitchcock for a movie.

TLT and her cohort in theatrical crime couldn't help feeling that maybe by the time of Wait Until Dark, Knott was pitching at a movie deal from the start. As a play, it's far more suited to radio, a medium in many ways more closely allied to cinema than the stage.

It's not hard to see why Knott's writing was congenial to the styles of Hitchcock and early James Bond director Young. This is a plot which has to work like a clockwork thriller equivalent of farce.

The mechanics have to whirr inexorably round and the shocks slot into place with a satisfying frisson. A vein of humour in the play shows an awareness of its artificiality and artifice.

It seems to TLT and her quick-change-artiste automotive pal that Wait Until Dark can only work if the villains are understood to be both villainous and a cast of actors playing sadistic tricks in 'real' life.

 Actors with a mix of styles ranging from barnstorming melodrama to method acting straight out of The Studio.

Is this possible? Not on the evidence of this uneven producton directed by Alastair Whatley and the most recent productons, it seems. Even the actor Peter Sallis who played the chief villain in the original West End production directed by Anthony Sharp said it was "a difficult play to read and a difficult play in a way to put over".

It remains the original Cold War chiller thriller - a fridge or ice box plays a huge part in a rather confusing denouement. It does seem mightily stretched out over two acts and two hours and 20 minutes. In terms of tension, it's decidedly lukewarm rather than a red hot crucible.

Having said that, there are good performances from Jones and her young poppet of a neighbour, as strapped up as Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, Shannon Rewcroft. Jack Ellis does convey effectively increasing doubt over his role in the drugs' plot and Tim Treloar makes a menacing Roat adding considerable pep in the second act.

This is a touring production, in Richmond until Saturday and then moving to runs in Cheltenham, Cambridge, Salisbury, Exeter, Lichfield, Malvern, Southend, Ipswich, Cardiff, York and Guildford.

As a historical piece in a gallery of theatrical curios, it is interesting. As a piece of drama, it does fall short for today's savvy audience and we can only give a red/amber light. 

Review Hyem (Yem, Hjem, Home)

Peter Barker makes himself at home with a warm-hearted play marking the debut of a promising writer. 

Hyem (Yem, Hjem, Home)
by Philip Correia

Where The Heart Is

On a run-down Northumberland estate, Sylv and husband Mick keep open house for s series of young misfits, alongside a dog and a python named after screen icons Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh.   
Hyem is a Geordie colloquialism for home, and home is a place where safety isn’t assured for children or adults, according to Philip Correia’s flawed but vastly enjoyable first play.

Surrounded by hostile neighbours, Sylv (Charlie Hardwick) from the North East and Mick (Patrick Driver), a committed far-left winger originally from down south, have welcomed a disparate collection of young outsiders. into their hyem.

First comes tattooed, rebellious Dean (Joe Blakemore), then teenage schoolgirls Laura (Aimee Kelly) and Shelley (Sarah Balfour) and now the teenage boy Dummey (Ryan Nolan).

Writer Correia, originally from Blyth and also an actor, has a sharp ear for dialogue, a nice line in   banter and comedy and creates an interestingly fraught situation as the new arrival causes resentment in the loose hierachy of the household.

He peoples the stage with some well-drawn characters and there are strong moments and scenes. Shelleyand Dummey have to grapple with the six-foot python escaping and Mick gives Dummey a driving lesson in some hilarious set pieces.

However the characters are often stronger than the plot. While it's 2003 with Brits and Americans poised to topple Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq and a career in the military having taken away the couple's son, this all feels more like wallpaper than an integral part of the story.

There are moments when possible plots - a political cadet school, intimations about sexual grooming - present themselves but they are then dismissed.  The script does have a tendency to drift away and is structured more like a screenplay than a stage piece.

In spite of this, director Jonny Kelly draws excellent performances from all the cast with Nolan’s initially taciturn and round-shouldered Dummey as the innocent heart of the play.

Balfour’s energy as Shelley and Kelly’s innocent seductress Laura convey powerfully the urges of teenage life while also having half a foot in the more guileless world of childhood.

Designer Jasmine Swan has assembled an evocatively jumbled set. The front room has a cheap sofa and an even cheaper print painting of an idealized young girl complemented by a plethora of photos framed on the wall -- portraits of families, cars and memories.

Playwright Correia nevertheless veers towards televisual soap opera, especially in the final 20 minutes where a short series of shocks leaves each character at a climatically hysterical end to their arcs.

This strikes a jarring, contrived note in an amber light play which still shows Correia to be a playwright of enormous promise.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Review Hamlet

More about kin than kings, Peter Barker is pleasantly surprised by an odd, but intriguing,  fast-moving Hamlet

by William Shakespeare

Everything And The Kitchen Sink

Keep It In The Family could be a tongue-in-cheek alternative title for Hamlet, but the Brandreth family take it literally as the cue for their cut-down version of Shakespeare’s most celebrated play.

It's the tale of Hamlet, a self-examining Danish prince increasingly out of sync with his times after his father’s death and the sudden marriage of his mother to his uncle.

Updated to the modern age, directors Simon Evans and David Aula with script editor Imogen Bond have produced a 90-minute one-act play which has the speed of a TV drama  or movie.

We're in an affluent middle-class kitchen, an attractively detailed set from Polly Sullivan,  with oak cupboards, other pine furniture and a handy set of knives, just in case they're needed.

Benet Brandreth tackles the role of Hamlet, while his wife actress Kosha Engler and his Dad, Gyles, former MP and current media personality, split the rest of the roles.

By day (when he's not doing the matinées!) Benet is an intellectual property lawyer and an expert in rhetoric working with, among others, the RSC.

As might be expected, his delivery is very clear, but it's also a very different kind of interpretation - an unsympathetic, bad-tempered, entitled public schoolboy who, deliberately, often shouts his soliloquys at the audience.

Yet, he is relaxed and witty on first meeting an old university friend. Plus his rendition of "to be or not to be",  first read from a philosophy book and then turned into a debate with himself, worked for me. 

Gyles Brandeth captures Claudius's man-in-power hypocrisy and oily charm, as well as the complacent pomposity of Polonius, notably in the funny and realistic exchange with his son Laertes.

But here a minus kicks in. Having actors double up on the spot left me wondering if this was a dialogue between father and son or father and daughter - with both of Polonius's children acted by the otherwise excellent Kosha Engler.

Despite some entertaining programme notes by Gyles, I did wish I'd brought a Hamlet crib for my companion who came knowing nothing about the play.

We both pondered the script and directorial decisions which left Engler, for instance, doing a confusing immediate switch from garlanded Orphelia to her vengeful brother Laertes - also complete with garland. Similarly the switches between Claudius and Polonius were not always clear.

Nevertheless, there's a certain wit to the staging and a daring knife game which gives an adventurous twist to the fight scenes, sustaining the pace and tension.

Preconceptions about Brandeth senior dismissed, this proved to be an entertaining, if sometimes confusing, evening. The relatively short running time and swiftly moving action kept me hooked.

There's a certain panache to the performances of the trio and, dare I say it, Gyles Brandeth proves his acting chops and I wouldn't mind seeing more of him on the stage.  There are flaws but I still enjoyed this Hamlet enough to award an amber/green light.