Monday, 13 July 2015

Review The Mentalists

The Mentalists
By Richard Bean

Utopia Or Bust

Imagine, if you will, a Finsbury Park bed and breakfast hotel room. It’s a bit grungy, a nylon bedspread on the double bed, a trouser press on one side, a chair looking like it comes from a hospital ward on the other. A TV mounted on the wall, an ensuite bathroom behind a curtain. A phone on the wall, a plate of meat sandwiches covered with cling film and bowl of fruit.

Rather different from the luxury hotel of the Greek finance minister, The Mentalists’ hotel room has no headed notepaper as far as we could tell. Nevertheless a joke about the Greeks seems now to have an added resonance in this 2002 play.

Enter two men. Ted (Stephen Merchant in a respectable stage debut) or “China” to his friend. He’s a boy-scoutish beanpole, skinny legs poking out of long shorts and short sleeved shirt, fleet manager in a cleaning products firm.  So far, so ordinary with a raft of credit cards even if they do bounce ... But then there’s his scheme, based on the “radical behaviourism” theory of a (real) dodgy social scientist to correct the world with a Utopian community. That’s if Ted can get at least a thousand people at £29.99 each (!!!).

Morrie (Steffan Rhodri hitting exactly the right reassuring tone) is the camp yet butch Walthamstow hairdresser who has agreed to film a promotional video for his friend. Seemingly more stable, he nevertheless has a side line in porn films and tall tales. Like a fluctuating stock exchange, his imaginary father in one fantasy “was the only British boxer to have boxed at every weight. He could put it on, lose it, and then put it on again. Chips.”  But also with material concerns: “Can we sort the money out first China?”

A mini-diversion: have you returned to this blog, lured again by a Twitter or Facebook link  and expecting a review in our modestly ;) inimitable style? Then, in a non-hairdressing way, you have been conditioned.

However if you are a stranger who decided to take Google for a walk and the belief ran through your mind spontaneously the premise of our review is attractive, you are an example of mentalism.  At least, simply speaking and if we understand correctly, that’s the difference between the behaviourist and the mentalist schools of psychology.

Industrial psychologist turned stand up turned playwright Richard Bean wrote this two hander,  as part homage to Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter,  for a National Theatre festival and there are plenty of gags to keep the laughter coming in this two act one hour and 50 minute piece. At the same time, it feels more gag led than character or plot-based and the production a little over-blown for an intimate fringe-type play. We even wondered at one point if it would have worked better set in California on the fringes of Hollywood.

Nevertheless, amazingly, Bean in this 2002 play, methodically directed by Abbey Wright, seems to have had a magic globe, with Ted mentioning a test drive in Iceland (predicting the 2008 financial crash?) and Morrie Cyprus (2012 financial crash?), followed by the uncanny cracks about the Greeks.

The plot when it does kick in feels rather contrived and goes for far fetched cliché, despite Ted’s plan having (an unmentioned) parallel in real life, the government “nudge nudge” agency

Even so, one could say every audience could conform to behaviourism (“Hey, it’s Stephen Merchant, it’s a Richard Bean play, I will laugh, it will be funny!”) or mentalism (“What the hell, know nothing about this, but at these prices it had better be good!”), so maybe in the end it’s two actors in a play riffing on theories. And then of course we the audience are being experimented on like lab rats or Pavlov’s dog. ;) A TLT mentalist or behaviourist (depending on your school of thought) amber light.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Review Little Malcolm And His Struggle Against The Eunuchs

Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against The Eunuchs
by David Halliwell 

Malcolm's Kampf

What a treat! Traffic lights in a play! Far be it that Traffic Light Theatregoer and her little limo ever identify with or are influenced by thespian japes! Yet there was a frisson of pleasure as four 1960s’ Huddersfield art student revolutionaries overran the lights in the dark comedy “Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against The Eunuchs” by the late David Halliwell,  directed by Clive Judd in a three hour version.

Veteran director Mike Leigh, aged 22, took on Little Malcolm (formerly named "One Long Wank" but this was still the age of the Lord Chamberlain as censor) fresh from RADA in 1965. The original script would have run about 17 hours, although he managed to cut it down to a mere –er – six at its first performance.   

Needless to say it flopped, but since then completed a pared-down West End and Broadway run with John Hurt, became an acclaimed movie produced by George Harrison  (shelved for many years, after the Beatles' split, with solvent assets falling into the hands of The Official Receiver’s office) and has had various successful theatre runs.

Expelled from art school by his arch nemesis, the unseen principal Mr Allard, Malcolm Scrawdyke (Daniel Easton in a performance growing in stature as the play progressed), running out of coins for his meter,  determines to grab “absolute power” with his Dynamic Erection party from those he deems his enemies characterised as “eunuchs"
From his local stronghold with his cronies, manipulative Irwin Ingham (Barney McElholm), artist Wick Blagdon (Laurie Jamieson), would be novelist and eventual rival Dennis Charles Nipple (Scott Arthur), he plots to kidnap and blackmail Allard plus steal a Stanley Spencer painting.

The play is structured around a series of monologues with the group’s winter adventures interspersed. All the while party policies become suffused with their own insecurities and fear of women.Wrapped in party flags and banners, their actions driven by treacherous words eventually take a turn for the sinister reaching a pinnacle with a show trial (Scott Arthur at his resonant best as the defendant) with fabricated 'facts' and violence. 

The audience sits on two sides of a performance area, Scrawdyke’s bedsit cum studio. An evocative blackboard Lowry-type industrial town in white chalk serves as backdrop with a cleverly concealed door from designer Jemima Robinson.  The discerningly used jazz snippets (there are a record player and LPs on the set) and drum sound effects (shades of  recent demagogue movie Whiplash?) by Giles Thomas also deserve an accolade with lighting from Elanor Higgins.   

The first half was marred by some impenetrable accents, apart from McElholm’s distinctive Irwin, though the laughs still came thick and fast. Nevertheless the accents miraculously gained in clarity in the second act.

And it is very funny. Watching, we were reminded of the best of Tony Hancock, maybe Till Death Do Us Part, and, very much in the second act, of Harold Pinter. 

Yet this baggy monster of a play about a monster and his acolytes stands on its own two feet,  assimilating Napoleon, Hitler and gas chambers, Doestoevsky, Nietzche,  Shaw, Lord of The Flies, Joyce, Chaplin, Look Back In Anger, Cole Porter, Kafka, Orwell and probably more. At the same time perhaps looking forward in more innocuous form, John Sullivan’s sitcom Citizen Smith and Rik Mayall, Ben Elton and Lisa Mayer’s The Young Ones

Of course the play’s iconography may be very much rooted in an analysis of the conditions leading to the rise of Hitler with the Ministries of Justice, Propaganda and the courts in key roles.  While with  the Trotskyite and Stalinist factions of the 1950s and 1960s’ in the Soviet Union and beyond,  grants could equally mean  “Soviet gold” (or copeks for the meter!) for foreign agents as much as British local education authority funding for students (sadly topical).

The same ambivalence emerges in the Pinteresque second act, with the bedsit named as 3a Commercial Chambers – a Tony Hancock-type address if ever there was one. Yet the legalistic manoeuvrings also reminiscent of some perverted barristers’ chambers metamorphose into a state-of-the-nation comment on post imperial Cold War Britain starved of resources as much as the National Socialist corporate state and Soviet Union. 

A late violent episode against the only woman in the piece Ann Gedge (a nuanced performance by Rochenda Sandall) reminded us of Pinter’s Lenny punching an old lady, left by her brother “in law”, in The Homecoming when Lenny clears snow for the borough council 

All in all, the second act of Little Malcolm felt far more of an organic whole than the first. It’s a bit touch and go before that. Still, at the end of three hours, it all felt needed. The charismatic characters with the integral intricate twists and turns of thought keep the play fresh for its 50th anniversary - and there's traffic lights too! :) So an amber/green light from TLT!

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Review Orson's Shadow

Orson’s Shadow 
by Austin Pendleton
From an idea of Judith Auberjonois 

Suitable Lives For Treatment 

After a disastrous theatre run of his Shakespeare adaptation Chimes At Midnight, Orson Welles rolls into London in 1960 to direct Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright at The Royal Court.  Olivier himself is in the midst of a marriage break up with troubled film star wife Vivien Leigh and about to leave her for his young co-star

Welles, while hating the play, absurdist French drama Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco, is lured by the chance to work with Olivier and raise his profile to find finance for his movie pitches from either the Eastern bloc or the Middle East. Instead the collaboration is mired in acrimony and pettiness with Olivier going behind the exasperated Welles's back, giving directorial notes to the cast.

Austin Pendleton, who acted with Welles in Catch 22 (see 2m 31s), fleshed out this little-known episode with some artistic liberties in 2000 and turned it into a well-received backstage play Orson’s Shadow. Now it receives its UK premiere at Southwark Playhouse directed by Alice Hamilton.

Set at a time when television was starting to take hold and just before the onset of new stars growing up with film rather than theatre or radio, this Cold War piece captures the moment of ageing stars caught adrift.

A middle aged Welles (John Hodgkinson) with Falstaffian girth, unresponsive to diet pills as he gulps down multiple steaks, tries to discard his reputation as a one-hit wonder with Citizen Kane. Olivier (Adrian Lukis)  flushed with his success in Angry Young Man John Osborne’s Suez play The Entertainer, albeit harking back to a past age of music hall,  is about to found the National Theatre with enfant terrible Marxist theatre critic Kenneth Tynan (Edward Bennet)

Indeed the travails of Welles and Olivier seem to be presented mostly through the filter of Tynan as narrator, with a soupçon of unreliability, portrayed as a fixer. 

Both rhinoceroses in their own way, the lumberingly obese yet sure-footed Welles and the scheming yet insecure Olivier cross swords. Pendleton also inserts into the mix Olivier’s lover, Joan Plowright (Louise Ford), a straightforward personality of the new acting generation standing her ground between the rivals.

Meanwhile exotic Vivien Leigh (Gina Bellman) floats in like some spirit conjured up by both Tynan’s malevolent yet grudgingly admiring imagination and Olivier’s Svengali impulses. Add to this, a fictional Irish stagehand Sean (Ciaran O’Brien).

Infused with wry humour and a mash up of acting styles from melodrama to naturalism with a gallop through playwriting history,  this ambitious production can be interesting but is also uneven. Despite Tynan’s naturalistic ironic commentary played against the deliberate staginess of the first act, there is a sense of self conscious exposition and name dropping.

The interlacing of acting styles, character and back story finds more purpose in the second act, when Tynan, despite himself,  is sucked into the action and the reason for the play’s title brought into focus. An amber light from TLT and automotive companion.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Review Measure For Measure

Measure For Measure
By William Shakespeare 

Whose Law Is It Anyway?

It was hot, hot, hot at The Globe and that wasn’t just the sex and corruption on view in Shakespeare’s 1604 (or thereabouts) ‘problem’ play Measure For Measure. For the groundlings’ fans were fluttering as we sweltered in a catch-it-while-it-lasts fully-fledged British heatwave!

For those who don’t know the latest 1604 salacious gossip, the puritan Lord Angelo (Kurt Egyiawan), deputizing for the Duke of Vienna (Dominic Rowan) and a martinet when it comes to enforcing the law of no sex without marriage, has been caught trying to having his wicked way with novice nun Isabella (Mariah Gale). 

A bit rich, since Isabella only came to him to plead for her brother Claudio’s (Joel MacCormack) life after the latter admitted getting one Juliet (no, not that Juliet, another one in the shape of Naana Agyei-Ampadu) up the duff and now faces execution. 

And the state, after turning a blind eye for many a year, has suddenly found itself shocked, shocked to find debauchery and brothels on nearly every street corner.
Will Angelo get away with it? Will Isabella save her brother? And how will she save her brother? And will Duke Vincentio save Vienna, even if it thinks it doesn’t need saving?

Well, it is termed a comedy rather than a tragedy, so perhaps you can guess at least some of the answers. And Artistic Director’s Dominic Dromgoole’s swansong production at The Globe certainly seeks to milk every ounce of comedy with the bawdiest of bawds (Petra Massey), a light-footed roly poly Constable (crowd-pleasing Dean Nolan) a wobbly man toy who seems to be able to right himself after numerous tumbles, a Duke who seems to have leapt off the alternative comedy circuit and even a play on the name of Claudio reminiscent of the Mel Brooks’ Frankenstein pronounciation quip  

But Measure For Measure is also a late, dark play alongside Troilus and Cressida, A Winter’s Tale and The Tempest with echos of The Merchant of Venice and, while harking back to the mores of another age, strangely modern in its take on economic, sex and marriage issues. 

Claudio has broken the law with Juliet because she cannot marry while her merchant relatives keep back her dowry to use in their business. There’s the fear of single motherhood. The Duke, who doesn’t want to be the baddie, allowing brothels for many years and then stamping down on them, delegates responsibility to others. 

Angelo of course would now be ripe titillating hypocrite fodder for many a tabloid. For the broadsheets also, having rejected on spurious grounds fiancée Marianne (Rosie Hilal) after she loses her dowry and the implications of the “private order” to expedite Claudio’s execution.  

Even the crude pun on marriage by the-pimp-turned-assistant-executioner Pompey (Trevor Fox) almost (but not quite) makes equals of husbands and wives: “If the man be a bachelor, sir, I can; but if he a married man, he’s his wife’s head and I can never cut off a woman’s head.” 

The Duke’s words give Juliet’s lover a status in modern lingo: “Your partner, as I hear, must die tomorrow.” And his final words to Isabella have a modern ring: “What’s mine is yours and what is yours is mine”, taking their relationship with each other outside the realms of family and dowry. 

So how well does this production marry the dark and lighter shades? The bawds are rightly called bawds and fill the large Globe stage, but it does sometimes feel like comic overload undermining the darker aspects of a play examining weighty issues. 

However, Mariah Gale makes an intriguing Isabelle – initially an over schooled student, shying away from life, with rehearsed speeches before finding her own voice and clear-sighted disgust as first her brother’s and then her own situation becomes more and more desperate. In the final scene, as she retreats to a chair and tries to make sense of the situation,  we believe in her baptism of fire into worldliness, the uncertainty of events and people.

Kurt Egyiawan’s Angelo is more inscrutable and it does feel sometimes that his interpretation is the play straining at the bit for a modern dress version.  

Indeed, the New Orleans tinge to the music made a pleasing and somehow plausible mash-up in this production.

It’s with the Duke that the problems of this problem play are highlighted. In this ultimate ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodies’ play, he seems a  figure hoofing it. This brings out a lot of humour in his tonsured disguise as a religious friar but this personality seems at odds to the supposed restoration of order at the end of the play, despite his humble profession on his knees asking Isabella for her hand in marriage. 

So the different measures of this production were not always equal for us, but we award it a golden sunshiny amber light.