Monday, 31 October 2016

Review Harrogate

by Al Smith

Father Takes Stock

Harrogate the play started its life as part of the High Tide Festival and, after a short run at the Royal Court Theatre,  is now embarking on a national tour between 1 and 16 November: the Farnham Maltings in Surrey, the artsdepot in North Finchley, Harlow Playhouse, The North Wall, OxfordCanterbury's Marlowe Studio, The Garage in NorwichThe Cornerstone in Didcot, The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds and the Cambridge Junction

An 80-minute two hander, it stars Nigel Lindsay, last seen by us in Speed-The-Plow, as the apparent father of a 15 year schoolgirl played by Sarah Ridgeway who also doubles as wife and mother. It's received mostly rave reviews, although it strikes us as a marmite type of play.

It's set in what seems to be the family flat, designed by Tom Piper on a clinical white traverse stage (we caught it on the last day of its run at the Royal Court) with a kitchen island at one end, two equally gleaming white chairs, and a wall on which, eventually, a photo of the parents hangs on the other.

While mining with precision the relationship between a Dad and his teenage daughter,  the play nevertheless leaves a question mark continually hanging over their identities,what is true and what is not. The script ambiguously, especially in view of Sarah Ridgeway's transformation into the medic wife in the final scene, only names the characters as "Him" and "Her".

Past and present also coalesce within a sort of audit, with secrets and reveals, of the parents' marriage and their daughter's life as words and incidents repeat themselves in different patterns.

It has something in common with Blue Heart, which we enjoyed recently, with its repetitions and the acting is impeccable. In fact, it is altogether cool, glossy, clinical and slick, even at the moments when it would appear to be at its most heartfelt - and most cruel.

There's certainly tricksy quality, but maybe the clues are there. In the father's profession of reinsurance (there's quite a bit of financial vocabulary and acronyms), the language of computer games, in the unseen mother of the daughter's best friend who has forged her career in performance psychology and the rhythm of a binary computer program at work.

This felt to us a somewhat one-dimensional play and as if it could be part of larger piece; Unlike Blue Heart the repetitions do not feel true alternatives but part of a closed circuit learning process where the memory of past conversations is solely there so that the incidents and vocabulary can be rearranged.

The father's relationship with his daughter may be unhealthy or maybe it is just he cannot let go, trying to train her to be a smart machine with a degree of independence, which includes a mysterious stay at Harrogate, but always thinking she will come back to him.

There's an undercurrent of corruption in the dialogue, although it's kept deliberately ambiguous as to whether it is commercial or sexual or both TLT and her mechanical sidekick found it a little precious, as if we were going to be tested afterward on whether we'd noticed the links between the scenes - and so then writing a review of this could be a self-fulfilling prophecy!

Still the staccato rhythms are sharply delineated by director Richard Twyman and fluently performed even if its narrating style and stylized format left us rather uninvolved. It's an amber light for a clean-cut but ultimately just a little bit too regimented a piece for us.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Review Magnificence

by Howard Brenton

The State We're In

Which play links squatters, bailiffs, Che Guevara t-shirts, Cambridge University, constables, Brixton Prison, situationism, bonkbuster novel The Carpetbaggers, graffitti, public lavatories the welfare state, Edward Heath's Tory government, a revolutionary banner with a tendency to sag, John Marston's Jacobean satire The Malcontent, baked beans, the clap, the High Court, Winston Churchill ...

(Takes a breath!) ... The church,  investigative current affairs programme World In Action, Chairman Mao, the BBC, calor gas lamps, dustbin men, Hollywood stars Caroll Baker and Steve McQueen, cornflakes, Marmite, Mickey Mouse, the Paymaster General, French writer Jean Genet, the Weathermen, Black Panthers, the Apollo Moon Landing, the Stars and Stripes, the Hammer and Sickle, Benny Hill, Marilyn Monroe, Jesus, China, champagne, The House of Lords, the biblical Song of Songs and a London Times obituary?

You may have guessed by the title of this review, it's Howard Brenton's 1973 Royal Court Theatre play Magnificence. This uneven, but complex and fierce play is very much rooted in the student politics, arguments, idealism and violence of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Finborough Theatre production has certainly garnered an impressive cast of theatrical luminaries of that generation to help fund it -   Judi Dench, David Edgar, David Hare, Joanna Lumley, Tom Stoppard and Harriet Walter (in case you are the type who wants to complain, the programme/play script acknowlegments studiously avoid the use of Honours' List titles) among others.

A group of squatters during the housing shortage of the 1970s break into an empty derelict house (Phil Lindley's evocative and adaptable peeling-wallpaper set, equally a squat, a Cambridge college and an English garden).

They find themselves under siege from "murder in my heart" Slaughter the freelance bailiff (Chris Porter) acting for an unnamed landlord. An ex British mainland and colonial policeman, he's already been exposed in a TV documentary for a fatal misdemeanour, but is nevertheless backed by a philosophical constable (Tim Faulkner).

The squatters, whose first act is to spray slogans on the walls, are a motley crew, led by libertarian Jed (Joel Gillman) with his pregnant soft-hearted, homemaking girlfriend Mary (Daisy Hughes) in tow.

Plus the more easily swayed, apologetic Will (Will Bliss) with a Uriah Heep turn of phrase, "Doing our 'umble best, Ma'am, to wreck Society", denim-clad Veronica (Eva-Jane Willis) on two weeks' holiday from the BBC and the more quietly-spoken and observant Cliff (Tyson Douglas). 

The constable allows the bailiff to raid the premises. In fact,  it is the clash between the new (the police constable's concern over the health and safety of a calor gas lamp) with the old (the bailiff's subsequent unregulated private sector violence) which leads directly to Mary losing her baby, Jed's imprisonment and a final path to destruction.

In between the action switches to the rarified environs of Cambridge's ivory tower and a meeting between  don Babs (Hayward B Morse) and his smooth talking grey tinted former tutee, lover and now a new breed of managerial MP Alice (Tim Faulkner again).  

Magnificence has a  rawness, political and literary inclusiveness which are both its strength and weakness. Indeed, Brenton was fresh from writing fringe plays when he was given space at the Royal Court with director Max Stafford-Clark.

The writer using part naturalism, a part Mr Punch stylized Jacobean satiric style grapples with a mosaic of competing issues of some complexity including the archaic leftovers of another age within a new, educated society.

Even the Chief Constable of the local force (force being the operative word) has a Cambridge degree and the Special Branch have tutored the constable in the ins and outs of factional politics and theories.

In 1973 Oxbridge was also still allowed the special privilege of their own top and bowler-hatted police forces (which Cambridge still retains) and a substantial property portfolio.  Simultaneously Lord Eccles held the purse strings as Her Majesty's Paymaster General and as Minister for the Arts.

The scene which has lasted the best remains the Cambridge scene, done full justice by Morse and Faulkner, with not only the recognizably Not The 1948 Show or  Pythonesque, intellectual playfulness but also ultimately a controlled fury. 

Yet the play feels torn inside itself. It has something in common with Seán O'Casey without the dramatic polish but some of the poetry.  Finding a dramatic structure for the avalanche of issues becomes problematic and the sudden reappearance, after a considerable absence, at the play's end of Cliff with a final response (harking back to the Royal Court's two scandalous playwrights - John Osborne and Granville Barker) only serves to emphasize the flaws.

Neverthess it still has currency in our twentieth first century. It's a neat irony this Finborough Theatre revival  coincides with the hoo ha over Bob Dylan's disruptive silence regarding the Nobel Prize for Literature - Alfred Nobel being the inventor of gelignite which, along with a stylized take on literature, features largely in the play.

Mind you, the current housing crisis and the re-emergence of stories about presidential hopeful Donald Trump's landlord past also make the invalid court eviction notice and harassment of tenants still relevant.

This tragi-comic piece is directed with clarity and pace by Josh Roche benefitting from Joe Price's lighting design signalling the deliberate changes in style.

The title Magnificence with its mixed root meaning of grandeur and pomposity feels accurate for this unwieldy, experimental, hit-and-miss play. At the same  time its jabs of sporadic ferocity still hit the spot.

It's an upper range amber light from your agent provocateur reviewer and her own four-wheeled agent of revolution. 

Monday, 24 October 2016

Review The Autumn Garden

The Autumn Garden
by Lillian Hellman

Sweethearts and Scoundrels

On a trip to Alabama, TLT recalls a memorable tour of antebellum mansions on the Gulf Coast where a genteel Daughter of The American Revolution evoked times past. Including the institutionalised prostitution (which crossed the racial divide) of which the sons of the leading families partook, practically as an obligation, from an early age.

The Autumn Garden, first produced in 1951, deftly combines the secrets and scandals of life in the American Southern states, national and international politics and Hollywood in a deceptively languid piece by Alabama-born Lillian Hellman, also a former Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) script reader and a Hollywood screenwriter.

In fact, despite the recorded Chekovian inspiration and obvious similarity with fellow southerner Tennessee Williams, it struck us an American Terence Rattigan might be an apt comparison in Anthony Biggs' s production which, by the end, packs a definite punch.

Set in 1949, the owner of one of those Gulf Coast antebellum mansions which has seen better days, Constance (Hilary MacLean), has sold her family's New Orleans' town house on the death of her parents and attempts to resolve a debt-ridden estate.

She has been reduced to running the family's holiday home as a summer boarding house. with the help of black factotum Leon (Salim Sai), dependent on the family's circle of friends for guests.

Now she nervously awaits the return of an old beau, glib artist Nick Denery (Mark Healy)  with his wife Nina (Madalena Alberto), from Paris with their German maid (Leonie Schliesing) where he apparently spent the Second World War fairly comfortably under Nazi occupation.

Meanwhile, also staying as guests are a distinguished Boston-born member of the military, General Benjamin Briggs (Tom Mannion), who seems ready to embrace a new progressive order and is estranged from his ditzy movie-going southern belle wife Rose (Lucy Akhurst) and their two grown up sons.

Constance, at a time the European continent had become dependent on American Marshall Aid, has taken in her seemingly demure French niece Sophie (Madeleine Millar), daughter of her dead brother Sam and a French seamstress.

Sophie has come to a business like arrangement to marry young bachelor Frederic Ellis (Sam Coulson) who has literary aspirations and a substantial allowance from his grandmother (Susan Porrett), via his mother Carrie (Gretchen Egolf). Also on the guest register is hard-drinking banker Ned Crossman (Mark Aiken) whom Denery confuses with his brother Willy and whose love for Constance has now become a jaded memory.
The Autumn Garden is surpassed in fame by Hellman's two other plays Little Foxes in which former MGM star Elizabeth Taylor made her stage debut in 1981, and The Children's Hour.

Despite an effective set of faded glory designed by Gregor Donnelly, it struck us that maybe it was written as a movie, or even a soap for radio or that brash relative newcomer on the media scene, television. Still there is plenty of stagecraft, and the ensemble all give fluent and precise performances.

Once the second act gets underway, the previous hints about Hollywood politics and cover-ups become more explicit yet the Chekovian story of unrequited love and lives in the American South remains undimmed and stands on its own account.

Hellman herself was, to say the least, a divisive character. Once she, Showboat star Paul Robeson and Death of A Salesman playwright Arthur Miller were grouped together as radicals. She and lover Dashiell Hammett refused to name names to the House of UnAmerican Activities (unlike, for example, MGM actor Robert Taylor),  but she later irretrievably tainted her copybook.

In the public perception she remained a seemingly unreconstructed defender of Stalin, spouting falsehoods in a novel and movie she insisted was a partial factual memoir (even if Tom Stoppard, amongst others, has questioned the nature of literary memoirs in his recently revived Travesties), exposing herself in an undignified spat when she accused a fellow novelist of slandering her as "a liar" on a TV chat show and fell into the hands of lawyers just before her death.

Yet, as Biggs implies in the programme notes, whatever her mendacious literary and monetary manoeuvring, her reputation could well have suffered, with her skill as a writer downplayed, because she was a woman who played a man's game but was not tolerated as a man would be.

Just as Hellman's own reputation can be simple or complex, subject to the motivations of those portraying her, so The Autumn Garden is skilfully constructed, a simple tale of the South or a multifaceted piece. An amber/green light for a worthwhile  and careful revival.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Review Blue Heart

Blue Heart
by Caryl Churchill

The Discreet Harm Of The Bourgeoisie

Ah, it turns out Boris Johnson was only following in the footsteps of Caryl Churchill in presenting alternate scenarios in writing.

For the first play Heart's Desire, part of a double bill under the title Blue Heart, does exactly that in director David Mercatali's sparky revival at the Orange Tree Theatre in association with Bristol's Tobacco Factory Theatres.

First performed successfully in 1997 (and we suspect the politics and events swirling around at that time underpins the two plays), Heart's Desire and Blue Kettle turn out to feel just as perky in 2016.

Equally interestingly in different ways the plays leave space for the audience to almost become an expectant character, write its own script and achieve a kind of satisfying dissatisfaction with its own interpretation.

We should of course mention the plays are also very funny.

In Heart's Desire, a family on the verge of a meal together await the return of a 30-something daughter from Australia. But this becomes a kind of Groundhog Day moment without the upbeat trajectory or memory of previous occasions.

Dad Brian (a lugubrious turn from Andy De La Tour), grounded Alice (Amelda Brown) and girlish Auntie Maisie (Amanda Boxer) seem doomed to repeat the same scenario again and again.

At first the variations are obvious. The subtle rumble of a tube train (sound effects Max Pappenheim) trails a phone call any family would dread. But afterwards in the repetition controllable verbal sparring becomes more flagrantly random and is interrupted by another wildcard arrival of alcoholic son Lewis (Alex Beckett).

When daughter Susy (Mona Goodwin) finally arrives, she has the cut glass tones of a Noel Coward character before - yes, it's all cut off for another round of our expectations fulfilled and then denied.

We certainly don't want to spoil the spontaneity but a visit from a Pinteresque totalitarian bureaucrat, an outsize bird in need of a manicure and a firearms' episode all figure, along with a Beckettian-crossed-with-Kafkaesque carnivorous human version of a dog chasing its own tail.

The second play of the evening Blue Kettle eats into itself in another way. A middle-aged man Derek (Alex Beckett) sets out to con several elderly woman from different stratas of society that he is the baby each of them gave up for adoption many years previously in the hope of money and property.

But at the same time there's just a touch of the patronising superior actor or even playwright about him, policing the women thinking he can measure and control their reactions. As his plans implode, words take on a linguistic life of their own and finally break down, just as painters can eschew photographic realism with outlandish colours and disintegration on the canvas.

This is an unsettling yet invigorating evening with a fine cast in a pared-down effective set from Angela Davies and lighting from Chris Swain sharply defining scenes.

It's a green light for plays with enough of a hook in shared human experiences to wrench us out of the comic absurd into more achingly human personal and political territory of trust and betrayal.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Review Ragtime

Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens

The Grand Illusion

If ever a musical was designed to fit the word "epic", surely Ragtime is that musical, a sweeping panorama of American life which artfully combines a child's eye view of an expansionist yet democratic, idealistic nation with complex adult concerns.

Adapted from a sprawling 1975 novel, which was followed by a 1981 movie, the musical distills the pre-First World War story into the tale of a WASP family - mother, father and little Edgar - a Jewish immigrant father and young daughter and, last but not least, a proud black musician and his lover who buy into the American dream only to suffer numerous injustices because of their race.
Its score encompasses the music of ragtime turning from the joyous to ominous, the rhythms of marching songs. soaring melodies of aspiration and love. Thom Southerland's production has many fine moments with a 24-strong cast of actor-musicians playing out the syncopated trail of ambition and tragedy.

Old and new, fictional and real life characters wend their way through and collide in the story of Ragtime filtered through the picture book and derring-do imagination of Edgar (Ethan Quinn alternating with Samuel Peterson) who pointedly also shares his first name with the writer of the original novel.

There are some crisp and visceral vocal ensembles from the first song Ragtime to the fine Getting Ready Rag led by black musician Coalhouse Walker Jr (Ako Mitchell) and the resonant New Music. Anita Louise Combe as Edgar's mother transforms from restrained wife to a person in her own right, providing one of the highlights  of the show in Back To Before. As well as Seyi Omooba's solo (and professional debut) in the thrilling Till We Reach That Day.

There's a feel of pioneer America in the saloon bar set with scattered stars on the wood panelling, designed by Tom Rogers and Toots Butcher. This musical manages no mean feat in intertwining the birth of the movies, the rights of women, tabloid journalism and the growing strength of the workers' movement in America with a sprinkling of literary references.

Nevertheless with a large cast, the stage does sometimes feel over-busy and there are occasional lapses.  Sitting in the third row, there were times when the mic levels disrupted the piece. This was particularly evident, despite a fine performance by Jennifer Saayeng as Coalhouse's lover Sarah, in the crescendo of one of the show's best known songs, Your Daddy's Son.

The separate ultimate fates of Sarah and Coalhouse also felt slightly diluted - Sarah's moment of tragedy by the sound levels of the ensemble and a lack of tension in Coalhouse's final act.  At these times, the action and ironies needed sharper definiton. 

Yet, the beauty of the score and the intelligence of the lyrics and book with its touches of humour still shine through. Even in the more seemingly peripheral role of escape artist Harry Houdini (Christopher Dickins), there is a double resonance, very subtly, both politics and entertainment, to the chains binding him.

As the show underlines it is Houdini who has the most knowledge and understanding about himself and America,  "he knew he was only an illusionist". It's an amber/green light for a flawed but energetic and exciting production.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Review Oil

by Ella Hickson

Cold Comfort Farm

In the week  President Buhari of Nigeria (a petroleum nation) said his wife belonged "to my kitchen", we filled our tank and drove to see Ella Hickson's take on the oil industry. Indeed Oil marries the growth of our dependence on this fossil fuel with the emancipation of women.

At its centre is May (Anne-Marie Duff) . We follow her progress over more than a century, seeking not so much a room, but an energy resource, of her own. 

Maybe it is a magical mystery tour of a female Flying Dutchman fuelled by oil before it becomes a dwindling resource. Maybe it is more a psychological tour of a woman's mind and life with designer Vicki Mortimer, lighting by Lucy Carter and sound by Peter Rice at times subtly indicating electrical synapses of the brain.

We first encounter May in 1889 as the pregnant wife who has married into a Devon farming family labouring on the land from sunrise to sunset, constantly needing to chop wood for fuel with candlelight a nighttime luxury.

This freezing and spartan existence is interrupted by the arrival of a stetson-wearing American (Sam Swann). He demonstrates to them  the smelly convenience of kerosene lamps and introduces the concept of land acquisition, stubbornly refused by the family despite May's attraction to this brave new world of money, commerce and light.  It is at this point pregnant May seems to start on a journey leaping through electrical synapses of time

The play (or more accurately five shorter linked plays with the recurring characters of May and also her daughter Amy played by Yolanda Kettle), is sandwiched between two songs  an English folk song, There Were Three Ravens, and ends with Justin Bieber's Love Yourself.

There are five time shifts flagged up, three in the past: The 1880s, Britain's imperial sphere of influence in the Persian oil fields in 1908  and the formica kitchen of a (female) oil executive's Hampstead home in the 1970s, then forward to 2021 in the Iraqi desert with a British woman MP determined to bring her daughter home by hook or by crook.

Thirty years after that, it's finally back to the future at the Singer farm where oil is rationed - mother and daughter left to fend for themselves in one room barely able to afford commercially rationed oil and the cycle starting again with a new world power and salesperson with a proposed solution to all our energy problems. 

We'll make no bones about it. This is a strange one, perhaps with something in common with the Royal Court's space fantasy X. And with references, lots of references, relevant but barely integrated, the scenes sometimes feeling sketch-like.

The farming family is called Singer, maybe a gesture towards the mechanisation of women's manual labour into commerce, on machines which still needed drops of oil.  A British officer in Iran has the surname Samuel, the same as one ofthe founders of the Shell oil company.

There is also a reference to menstruation as May hired as waitress gets "blood on the napkins". And so it goes, often managing to stitch in references a few snippets of history but without knowing that history, the effect is random, in fact frustrating, for an audience member.

Even the publicity photo shows Anne-Marie Duff looking for all the world like Bernard Shaw's Eliza Doolittle seated in a modern - er - kitchen. Presumably with all the electrical goods and the materials used to build the kitchen products, in one way or other, of oil.

It is this mash up which makes this feel like a rather clumsy attempt to tie together and mirror many magpie elements in a confused woman's mind. It seems strange for example, that in 1908 a Persian waiting woman would be paid monthly, even when paid in cash, as if she were on a modern salary paid in retrospect into a bank account.

Or that a 15-year old schoolgirl in 1970 when Libya effectively started to nationalize its oil fields talks about leaving school at 16. The school leaving age was only raised from 15 to 16 in 1972. In the last section the Singer farm of the future, when oil is scarce, is suddenly not in Devon but in Cornwall.

Maybe there is also an attempt to chart a history of literature - for example, Virginia Woolf time-travelling,  a countryside idyll imagined by Amy's 1970s' boyfriend Nate sounds like something out of Arnold Wesker's 1959 play "I'm Talking About Jerusalem"

There are a lot of "maybes" because while there are the occasional witty elements, there appears to be no heart to Oil and, although there are constant references to and attempts to foreground oil, it does not seem the main concern of the writer Ella Hickson (or dramaturge Jenny Worton).

The cast give their all and there's fluent direction by Carrie Cracknell, using video projections (Luke Halls) as well as lighting and sound to link the plays. However if confusion is one of the themes, it unfortunately is reflected in the structure of the piece.

The disparate themes feel shoehorned in rather than an artistic choice growing naturally out of the content. It did made us wonder whether it was originally conceived for the screen rather than on stage.

These are certainly women who do not stay chained to the kitchen sink, but despite a strong cast and direction, our own wells do not gush over for Oil and we give it an amber light. And TLT and her own little gas guzzler may well take up the popcorn and watch again the, albeit male-dominated, movie and Oscar-winning performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood based on Upton Sinclair's Oil!

Review Mountains Of Madness

Carolin Kopplin explores the strange world of cult science fiction writer HP Lovecraft and finds thrills in a dramatisation of a classic horror story.

Mountains of Madness
by H.P. Lovecraft, adapted by TL Wiswell

Land That Time Forgot

The London Horror Festival has found its new home at the Old Red Lion Theatre. The UK's original and largest festival of horror in the performing arts has scared audiences since 2011, celebrating suspense, originality, and the macabre.

T. L. Wiswell's adaptation of cult science fiction writer HP Lovecraft's 1931 novella brings to the stage the nightmarish fate of  a geological expedition to the Antarctic from which few of the researchers returned.

Six years later, Dr. Willa Dyer (Sasha Wilson), the leader of the expedition,  shares the disturbing secret of what happened in those regions in the hope of deterring another team of explorers who aim to go to the same "cryptic world of frozen death".

Playwright TL Wiswell's reimagining of the classic story transforms the explorers into female scientists and moves the action back to the 1920s in a 50-minute piece which is clearly a labour of love for director Lorenzo Peter Mason. 

The apparently rational structure of  a college science lecture draws the audience into disquieting events as Dyer relates how, beyond a hitherto unknown mountain range higher than The Himalayas, her expedition members discover not only ancient ruins but also a dangerous secret.

Their discoveries take them beyond the boundaries of known science with life forms unidentifiable as plants or animals but, far more devastatingly, they also find both researchers and dogs left at their camp slaughtered..

Dr. Dyer's suspenseful recollection of the events during the ill-fated journey is aided by Peabodie (Natalie Morgan) and Danforth (Libby Grant), two members of the research team. 

Chilling sound effects from Keri Danielle Chesser, as well as slide projections and inventively ghoulish makeup prove effective in transporting the audience from the lecture room to an icy hell.  

Director Lorenzo Peter Mason's production is beautifully designed by Anna Sances and clearly influenced by silent film. An amber/green light and a must for any Lovecraft fan.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Review The Dresser

The Dresser
by Ronald Harwood

On The Chessboard

The King is in his counting house in Ronald Harewood's 1980 play The Dresser,  but his health is failing and mental faculties faltering. Yet he remains literally a man of many roles, running a Shakespearean repertory company during World War II bombing and taking on Shakespeare's King Lear, Richard III and, yes, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice in alternate performances.

Played here by Ken Stott, "Sir" the actor/manager inherits the legacy of actors like Edmund Kean in more ways than one.  He maintains a precarious hierarchy, in a manner part galley slave gangmaster, part headmaster, touring the British Isles.

All the while, he's kept on his feet, chivvied, bolstered by and nannied on to the boards by his dresser for 16 years, superstitious yet expedient Norman (Reece Shearsmith).

A comedy, a tragedy and - in the case of Norman - a touch of music hall variety, The Dresser hearks back to a repertory system age when theatre became part of, and was in part bailed out, by the national war effort.   But here the countdown to the production of King Lear, instead of an ordered chessboard,  is as out of sync as the Lear mad scene, mired, we are subtly reminded, in the dangerous politics of the time.

At its centre Stott captivates and repels with his fruity tones and timing as the collapsing, mercurial, selfish Sir.

Sir who is dependent on the lure of the footlights to impress and bring fresh meat to the company yet still determined, however haphazardly, to keep what he sees as "the faith".  

The only male actors available are those not called up - too old or invalided out. Like bespectacled Geoffrey (Simon Rouse), with the air of a civil servant rather than a thespian, unexpectedly elevated to the role of Fool. Or a saturnine Oxenby (Adam Jackson-Smith) who could possibly be a communist or maybe something else, at any rate out for "a new world order", especially if it involves  a play he has written.  

While "Sir" is "sir" to his company, it is his apparent consort who is truly "Her Ladyship" (a Wagneresque Harriet Thorpe), the daughter of a Baronet, although perhaps first brought in like another minor artistocrat's daughter who is mentioned and whose mother invested money in the company.

Also part of the aging thespian's retinue is the efficient stage manager spinster, Madge (Selina Cadell), whom we learn was dazzled at the start of her career by the footlights and "Sir" but has now having given up all hope of that first passion for  him being reciprocated,

Directed by Sean Foley, The Dresser takes place on a handsome, detailed set designed by Michael Taylor. A crossways' dressing room with corridor at the side occupies the first act and a revolving set revealing backstage, the wings and finally full frontal performance in the second, with neat musical transitions by Ben and Max Ringham and lighting from James Farncombe.

Inspired by Ronald Harwood's time as a dresser for Donald Wolfit, there's plenty of kingly pomp, as much as farcical missed entrances, in the play within the play. As well as visceral insight when the lives of the protagonists and the Shakespearean drama superimpose on each other.  Yet this is no sentimental trip down memory lane.

Despite the comedy, The Dresser is a sad, bitter play focussing on a theatrical world which subsists as a perpetually under-funded hierarchy of coercion and exploitation.

With its sporadic, if gentle, hints that performance also underpins violent debt-fuelled politics, it's a green light for this strange, double-edged dissection of a touring company at war.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Review Darkness, Darkness

Francis Beckett admires the historical accuracy and heart in a murder mystery linked to a highly-charged, divisive turning point of Britain's recent industrial past.

Darkness, Darkness
by John Harvey

Strikers and Lovers

Set in Nottinghamshire during the miners’ strike, Darkness, Darkness is at once a thoughtful play about the 1984-5 miners' strike and a whodunnit. 

Novelist John Harvey has adapted one adventure from his Charlie Resnick detective series about the investigation of a cold case – the murder of a miner’s wife during the strike and part of its theme is the bitter conflict between striking Yorkshire miners and working Nottinghamshire miners.  

Having written a history of the strike (Marching to the Fault Line by Francis Beckett and David Hencke, Constable), I was glad to see that John Harvey had done his research and has a deep understanding of the emotions the strike created.  

In fact, surprisingly given that he is a professional crime writer, the play is stronger when re-creating the strike than when dramatizing the investigation. 

Indeed Nottingham Playhouse's locally-inspired current season is brave and interesting. New work strongly connected to the city of Nottingham and the county of Nottinghamshire fills its studio space and main stage, directed with care and love. 

In the studio space, there's another subterranean tale, The Underground Man, a new play about William Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, the Fifth Duke of Portland, an eccentric Nottinghamshire aristocrat who created the now famous tunnels at Welbeck Abbey

While my single evening in Nottingham allowed for only one play, I did get to talk to playwright Nick Wood, and get a flavour of another interesting Nottinghamshire-inspired theatrical adventure in addition to the riveting crime and coal play that is Darkness Darkness. 

The murder victim, Jenny Hardwick (a wonderful, restless performance from Elizabeth Twells) is married to a staid working Nottinghamshire miner (Chris Donnelly) and having an affair with a striking Yorkshire miner (John Askew).

Decades later Charlie Resnick, impressively brought to brooding, contemplative life by David Fleeshman, carries out the investigation into the unsolved case, aided by a young, female, black high-flying colleague Catherine Njoroge (a convincing and combative Simone Saunders.)

The cast is excellent – there is not a weak link anywhere. Husband and lover naturally are the first suspects when it comes to investigating her murder. I shall not of course tell you whodunnit, but, while remaining engrossed, I have to report that I had it nailed well before the end of the first act.

The script moves rapidly from place to place, with a traditional realistic set clearly out of the question. John Harvey himself writes that he didn't want to be "tied down by over-realistic and detailed sets ... allow[ing] for a more impressionistic evocation of place and a fluid relationship with time.”

An ingenious set device from designer Ruth Sutcliffe permits scene to follow scene quite smoothly. The time shifts are well handled by writer and director Jack McNamara – the play moves frequently and seamlessly between 1984 and the twenty first century investigation.

There is a less sure touch when it comes to the sub plots concerning the personal lives of the two detectives – they probably work well in the novel, but seem a little contrived on the stage.

Darkness Darkness may not be as well-executed as Wonderland by coalminer's daughter, Beth Steel, recently performed at the Hampstead Theatre, but that is an impossibly high bar to jump.

The Nottingham Playhouse has a fine play inextricably linked to an event three decades ago that still rouses passions locally and had vast repercussions for the city. It’s a magnificent achievement by writer, director, cast, and a brave adventure by the theatre. A green light from me – get to it if you can.