Monday, 28 November 2016

Review Sheppey

by Somerset Maugham

Jesus Wept

It seems Charlie Chaplin's barber in 1940 movie The Great Dictator was at least third, possibly fourth in line, in introducing a barber with a revolutionary streak. His own brother Sydney before that had created a barber who takes on an oppressive regime. And Charlie Chaplin himself settled out of court with a writer who claimed plagiarism.

But in 1933 Somerset Maugham wrote his last play bringing to the stage Sheppey (John Ramm in this production, while originally, some would say, miscast with Ralph Richardson directed by John Gielgud).  Sheppey's a Camberwell barber in this deceptively gentle piece with a razor sharp subtext.

Sheppey's only vice, apart from the more than occasional drink in a neighbouring pub, is buying a ticket produced by printers for the Free Irish State-government-sanctioned Irish Sweepstakes.

Although not spelt out in the play, this was ostensibly raising money for Irish hospitals but was eventually exposed as often lining private pockets.The sweepstake was illegal in Britain and the United States but the authorities turned a blind eye, even so far as allowing the results to  appear in newspapers.

Well, Sheppey has one more barber shop vice, although some would call it a commercial virtue,  persuading customers to buy a German hair restorer, sold at the Jermyn Street premises of his boss (Geff Francis) where he dreams of one day becoming a partner. Promising a medical miracle, he's got a neat line in salesman patter to persuade gullible hair-challenged clients to part with their cash. 

His other modest ambition is to lodge his family in a cottage on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. A happy-go-lucky long-term employee, he nevertheless finds himself troubled when asked to be a witness in a Police Court case where he suddenly develops a social conscience, believing the assortment of criminals he sees in the dock being victims of circumstance during an economic slump rather than villains.

When his Irish Sweepstakes' ticket comes up with the princely sum of over £8,000, he, perhaps unwisely for an illicit operation, allows himself to receive publicity in the press but also determines not to keep the winnings for personal profit but to follow the example of Jesus, who as he points out was only a carpenter, just as he is a hairdresser, and distribute them to the needy in his local parish.

He gives a home to petty thief Cooper (Tom Peters) who inspired his channelling of money for relief of the poor. Prostitute Bessie LeGros (Dickie Beau  giving an added frisson to the female role), his drinking partner, also enters the household - is her name a sly dig at Hollywood actress Joan Crawford, originally Lucille LeSueur?

Yet Sheppey's plan goes horribly wrong when his prospective son-in-law, county council teacher and aspiring politician, Ernie (Josh Dylan), with a very different view of community, and daughter Florrie (Katie Moore), who has quit her job in the City to be married, dragging along Sheppey's wife Ada (Sarah Ball), conspire with family doctor (Brendan Hooper), presumably a pre-NHS panel doctor, who makes it clear his motive is commercial, profit rather than welfare.    

Sheppey has the construction of an old fashioned play - it may move a little slowly for some tastes now  - but with very modern concerns and a twist in the tale late on worthy of the much later musical Cabaret in Paul Miller's production.

John Ramm makes a convincing Sheppey, almost coming across as a more benevolent Alf Garnett in his rhythms and justifications.  Katie Moore as the upwardly mobile typist daughter Florrie nicely combines lurking vulnerability with  steely determination that nothing will get in her way. Sarah Ball's Ada manages the tricky balance between loving, long suffering wife who still gives way to the plot against her husband without losing our sympathies. .

Director Paul Miller retains the three-act structure in a careful production, aided by Max Pappenheim's sparingly and effectively used soundscape.Simon Daw's design neatly conveys the tiled barber shop with advertisement billboards above the in-the round stage area, while a subtle use of phrenology gives added resonance in the second and third act set.

There's a touch of the supernatural reminiscent of HG Wells's short stories combined with the sharp satire of Saki, while other literary references are explicit.

Certainly the audience doesn''t need to know the history of Irish Sweepstakes to be drawn into a secular fable of gambling, greed and then altruism brought down. Even so,  it becomes far more double-edged and reflective with an understanding of the subtext of 1930s' world politics, economics and possibly the abuse of parish-based mental asylums when national public scandals rise to the surface.

This is a well-cast seemingly simple piece of a certain pre-World War Two genre,  but also accompanied by a more complex undertow. It's an amber/green light for a precise production with a sting in its tale.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Review The Tempest

The Tempest
by William Shakespeare

Braces, Soil And Tears

For its first foray into Shakespeare, The Print Room, itself a magical, eccentric theatre capped by a cupola, has chosen one of the most magical of the bard's plays, The Tempest.

This production of The Tempest, directed by Simon Usher, certainly has its eccentricities and, on rare occasions, brings magic to the Notting Hill venue. Yet at other times, it remains as solidly earth-bound as the soil covering the ragged stage.

The story is archetypal - a Duke, usurped by his brother but saved by a courtier, is washed ashore on an island where he brings up his daughter, unware of her noble lineage, while exercising his power over two supernatural creatures. For this Duke has long made a study of a (never appearing) book of spells and possesses a magical cloak and staff with which he can control his island domain.

Fate - or is  it magic? - intervenes and the play starts with the conspirators, those also who acquiesced to the coup, albeit an innocent prince among them, and the faithful courier shipwrecked on the island 12 years after the enforced exile of the rightful Duke of Milan.

Yet we feel the abstract representation of the shipwreck, with a rope laid on the floor and heads ducked in buckets of the water, may have totally befuddled those who are newcomers to The Tempest.  The concept behind this version of the play remained elusive for us, although we noted how the director references Italian and Swedish translations and performances of Shakespeare in the programme.

It's the younger generation who emerge in the sharpest focus in the lens of The Print Room's production, even if this attractive interpretation is rather thrown away by the play's end. 

Bearded Kevin McMonagle, clad at first in muted gray high waisted tweed trousers, braces and shirt before he dons his enchanted seaweed cloak, is a strangely subdued. softly spoken Scottish Prospero. He's almost bureaucratic in his influence on the course of events, rather than enchantingly transformative.

Indeed further on in the play, we did wonder whether we were inhabiting the psychic space of Prospero, an old man imagining his island realm. Certainly there is a mash up in the costumes spanning the centuries and, we think, in acting styles.

Charlotte Brimble, her tones strictly received pronounciation with maybe the slightest trace of her father's burr, is at first a sturdy, Robinson Crusoe-like Miranda in grubby shorn denim trousers and top, a child of the earth. She's unused to the male gaze until the arrival of scarlet-jacketed Ferdinand (Hugh John who brings a much-needed clarity and vitality), the guileless King of Naples' son.

Unless that is, we include the unwanted attentions of Caliban (Billy Seymour), himself the monstrous "mooncalf" child of a witch and dubious paternity.

Prospero's treatment of Caliban, who comes over as a vulnerable, almost Frankenstein-like innocent, also seems wholly dubious in this version with the previous kindly treatment of Caliban betrayed by his  attempted sexual assault of Miranda downplayed.

The other supernatural creature on the isle is the enslaved Ariel pleading for her liberty - Kristin Winters in pure white tunic as if stepped out of 1920s' abstract art. As the tale unwinds, she seems more and more drawn into an early silent movie, all of which comes into its own at the beginning of the second act in a stunning visual effect.

Indeed with consistently beautiful lighting from Ben Omerod and a backdrop of waves and sky, easily becoming an embedded stage within a stage, from set designer Lee Newby, there are some gorgeous moments, particularly the masque sequences.

However the moments of beauty sometimes suffer then from over-playing and too often strike one as parachuted in. Some of the relationships also are not clear. For example, while Antonio (Callum Dixon who doubles as washed-up butler Stephano) is obviously the man who deposed Prospero, for someone who doesn't know the story, it's less than easy to understand that they are brothers.

Still, while some of the verse speaking seems to take too literally Ariel's promise to carry out Prospero's demands "- to - the - syllable", there are some pleasures.

John as Ferdinand sparks the play into more supple patterns of speech. Stephen Beard's white-haired professorial Gonzalo, Prospero's saviour years before, also has a naturalness in his delivery, overcoming the somewhat cryptic staging around him.

Paul Hamilton (who doubles as Alonso, King of Naples) also makes the cut as gangly beanie-wearing jester Trinculo. Community actor dreadlocked Herman Stephens has a distinctive, lucid debut on the professional stage as the mariner finally bringing good news.

But themes embracing, for example, the complexity of freedom and oppression, which should be distilled in a famous short episode where Ferdinand and Miranda suddenly appear playing chess, often feel truncated.

So it's an amber light for a curious curate's egg, rather muffled production redeemed by a few interesting design and staging choices and several engaging performances.  


Friday, 25 November 2016

Review After October

After October
by Rodney Ackland

The Wolves of Hampstead

At the end of the "The Wolf of Wall Street", an ex-rogue trader holds up a pen and invites the multicultural participants in his global touring seminar to invent a good story to sell the product. (32 seconds into the video link).This scene popped into our thoughts as we watched Rodney Ackland's 1936 play, After October.

Of course, the recent movie is about financial wheeler dealing and only one off-stage character in Ackland's screwball comedy is a convicted thief, although there is some 1930s' product placement.

Still, this two-act semi-autobiographical piece is filled with stories and plots brought to the impecunious Hampstead household by the widowed, still attractive Rhoda Monkhams (a nicely judged performance of grace under pressure by Sasha Waddell), a former Gaiety Girl, and her children including playwright son Clive (boyishly intense Adam Buchanan).

The play follows the trials and tribulations of the debt-ridden family. This includes Clive's sisters Joan (Allegra Marland), a would-be artist currently the lover and secretary of hard-drinking married text book publisher Alec Mant (Jonathan Oliver);  and Lou (Peta Cornish), whose musical theatre ambitions have melted into the reality of being a taxi dancer while her charming but lightweight husband Armand (Andrew Cazanave Pin), cast adrift by his family, serves in a wine shop.

All their hopes are pinned on Clive, a Grub Street hack  and aspiring playwright, whose anti-war play is about to be put on. Even if, in a play set in 1935, during the Spanish Civil War, when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia and Winston Churchill warned about Nazi Germany, it's perhaps not the most auspicious time.

If Clive succeeds (strange as it may seem now, a West End hit at that time could turn a struggling writer into a millionaire) it could also trigger a chain reaction in other directions.

The career of his working class fellow writer,  dark and brooding poet Oliver (lugubrious Patrick Osborne), could also twist around if Clive follows through on his promise to be his financial guarantor. As it is, he's reduced to selling bristle brushes door to door and has a penchant for entering the Monkhams's home through the bay window like a spy or a burglar.

Their housekeeper Mrs Batley (Josie Kidd in a finely tuned understated performance) appreciates her treatment by Rhoda for whom she keeps unpaid tradesmen sweet. But she has her troubles, retreating to the cinema to avoid her bullying Mussolini-loving son-in-law, and could find a new role if Clive succeeds.

It's only eccentric Marigold Ivens (Beverly Klein), seemingly the woman least likely, who appears to be coyly laying little claim on Clive. He enjoys her company, even if she harbours her own, apparently vague, thespian ambitions.

Now we admit to having a soft spot for Clive, especially as he's left-handed like your very own reviewer and his chaotic paperwork with orange Allen Lane Penguin paperbacks scattered round his writing space reminded us of something closer to home.

Clive himself would like to join the moneyed rentier class, with his name up in lights over a hit play. He would also be able to marry the lodger, the  manicurist Frances (Jasmine Blackborow), whose rent helps supplement the family's meagre income, grabbing her away from stick-in-the-mud retired colonial civil servant Brian (Stephen Rashbrook). 

The snug Finborough space is transformed cleverly by designer Rosanna Vize into a light and airy Hampstead living room complete of course with bay window. After October is fluently directed by Oscar Toeman with only a few lapses of pace, perhaps owing to the almost cinematic nature  of the piece.

There's a feel of Noel Coward's Hay Fever and, transatlantically, George Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family while retaining its own feather-light individuality.

For, despite the the superficial frothiness of the plot, there are clever meaningful literary pastiches and a subtle gender mash up. One character when told Clive has written a drama even innocently asks if it's a musical comedy or a detective story. Plus ça change ...

This proves to be far from a playwriting equivalent of a quota quickie, even if Ackland himself seemed to have suffered the burdens of and enjoyed little of the success of his illustrious playwriting circle. With its acute grasp of the entertainment industry's line of dependency and sly, sharp but humane sense of the ridiculous, After October sold itself to us and it's a TLT green light.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Review DNA

by Dennis Kelly

Into The Woods

Once upon a time - even before TLT's jalopy rolled off the conveyor belt - TLT studied Bernard Shaw's St Joan and Will Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream for the - ahem - predecessor of GCSEs.

Now we're reliably informed Dennis ("Matilda") Kelly's 2008 Pinteresque one-act play DNA is on the syllabus. It's a dark piece, a cross between Lord Of The Flies and Animal Farm for the television age with a bit of Shakespearean cruelty thrown in for good measure.

A gang of kids, led by Jo Tate (a convincingly menancing yet complacent Natasha Heliotis), escape regularly into the woods away from school while enigmatic Phil (Joe Pierson) stays aloof sedately munching on a series of branded snacks and drinks.

This time, though, it's a different kind of rendezvous and bonding for the teenagers. The group has lured a vulnerable schoolboy regarded as a tag-along weakling into a dangerous dare and, albeit accidentally, a nasty outcome.

An actor-musician strumming the guitar with vocals, Felix Mackenzie-Barrow as Matt, introduces this  tale with ensemble cast directed by Sean Hollands. The design by Ivan Alexander Todorov veers towards the minimilist with versatile blocks and neon tubes eveloped by smoke and flashlights slicing through the night (lighting Gareth Weaver).

Originally part of the National Theatre's youth theatre scheme, Connections, in 2007, this was the first time we had seen this subtle and supple play about power politics.

Now a set book, there were still gasps from the mainly young audience seeing the play off the page in performance. The production ratchets up the twists, turns and the logic of the ruthlessness and the cornered.

Nevertheless, it struck us, sitting in the stalls, the script's pace might work better in the round than on The Ambassadors' extremely lofty proscenium arch stage. This consideration certainly influences this review, as it made the play feel a little sluggish at times, even if outweighed by some outstanding individual performances. 

Like DNA, the piece's building blocks are split into a double strand - the gang's crime and cover up and, linked across to it, the cool, calculating Phil - Pierson with something of the young Malcolm McDowell about him.

A young man of few words, Phil is the theorist who, at arms length, comes up with the cover-up plan where, nobody else, in theory, should get hurt. 

His existence is also defined by the voluble Leah (Catrin Walker-Booth). She's equally infatuated and frustrated by him, like an eager acolyte student trying in vain to impress a seemingly indifferent tutor with her knowledge.

Charlotte Law's conscience-stricken Becky, led into lying, finds a natural way with melodrama, as does Shiv Jalota as the unexpected returnee to the pack. Daisy Fairclough also fulfills the promise shown in earlier NYT productions this season as the out-of-control underling Cathy who throws the best-laid plans disastrously off course.

As a whole, this is a solid production which could do at times with a slightly sharper focus. Even so, it's an amber light for a strong cast in a chilling, powerful play.


Saturday, 19 November 2016

Not A Review - Women Centre Stage Power Play Festival

Leading Ladies

A host of female talent will be taking over Hampstead Theatre this Sunday (November 20) as part of  the second year of the Women Centre Stage Festival organised by Sphinx Theatre Company.

A star-studded array of actors includes Dame Janet Suzman, Josette Simon OBE and Maggie Steed who will be performing plays from Winsome Pinnock, Tanika Gupta and Sabrina Mahfouz and the GRAEAE Theatre Company amongst many others. 

"The festival encourages writers to think women into the centre of their stories," says writer April De Angelis also bringing new work to the pioneering Festival. 

Eastenders' actor Ann Mitchell, who will be on stage on Sunday, adds, "The Women Centre Stage Festival will present innovative and exciting leading protagonists to a diverse audience that are ready to listen."

Other events include a panel with playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker,  Suzanne Bell, Royal Exchange Manchester literary associate and Elizabeth Newman from Bolton's Octagon Theatre to discuss practical measures of how to bring gender equality to a theatre and arts landscape where women remain underrepresented. 

The day will end with performances of short pieces inspired by stories ripped from the headlines written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Howard Brenton, Alfred Fagon and George Devine award winner Charlene James and BBC writer Vinay Patel, all rehearsed by established and upcoming performers and directors in just 24 hours.

For more information and tickets, go to

Friday, 18 November 2016

Review The Sewing Group

The Sewing Group
By EV Crowe

The Eye Of The Needle

Sewing, it occurred to us during this initially intriguing play by EV Crowe, has always been an essential craft for theatre and film from the earliest days. In the end, The Sewing Group is hoisted by its own petard of a premise in being rather stitched together with visible thread but still managed at first to hook us in.

We did wonder whether we had ventured into an American farming Amish or Mennonite community when a group of women soberly dressed in dark 17th century garb sat in a candle lit room lined with planks of Scandinavian-style pale wood floor to ceiling, sewing cross stitch samplers, once beloved by the daughters of gentlefolk to demonstrate their skill at the womanly arts.

But no, the accents were mostly British throughout, although maybe there was one item of purposefully inauthentic apparel worn from the start by the trio and it was all a little too clean. Through a series of short scenes flashing by, with what sounded like a harpsichord in between, we peek into an enclosed world as lace and sampler stitching develops into a very personal form of quilting from, in the words of someone outside the realm of women's needlework, "within".

One woman (most of the characters remain unnamed, described as A,B, C, D, E,F in the script) appears to assume a modicum of control even if she is a newbie. Another, apparently, is her aunt. Amother newcomer turns out to be a widow. The sole man (and a non needle worker) appears to be a village elder and preacher in a Christian parish.

Yet despite an attempt to control communal vocabulary, anachronistic notes intrude and this little Eden of embroidery begins to entertain other plots and styles. An element of whodunnit and commercial exploitation  enters the picture, as well as a more Oriental soundtrack.

If this all sounds somewhat ideas-led, that's because it's how it comes across, despite director Stewart Laing's sharp direction injecting some neat variations of pace. Nor is this any reflection on the hard-working cast who are on one level deliberately - without wanting to give too much away - participating in a yoked together clumsy mash up fiction.

Fiona Glascott as the rookie protagonist in blonde braids brings a degree of misguided authoritarianism mixed with sincerity extracting humour from the mismatch. While Jane Hazlegrove, Sarah Niles, Alison O'Donnell, Nancy Crane and John MacKay surround her, conveying plausibly the efficiency of their human quilt.

But once the vocabulary is in place and the premise exposed, there seems little intellectual or dramatic development. There's an indication that 21st century work for an ambitious woman has been so neutered that there's a nostalgia for some aspects of a female division of labour. Yet notwithstanding a more ominous final scene where male concerns take over, the whole seems a self contained verbal bubble and therefore benign, without any jeopardy.

There's certainly a Renaissance sense of anachronism. However it veers finally from cryptic to expository and then again to the cryptic, so that we had to read the script to understand some of the gender exchange going on. And, dare one say it, it seemed rather too engrossed in an incestuously mechanical patchwork of literary, film and TV references.

Of course, the aim may be to show how human imagination, which should be flexible, can be confined to a rigid grid. Nevertheless it then struggles to find a dramatically viable form to make the issues needle the audience sufficiently. It's an amber light for a sampler of work which promises more than it finally delivers.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Review King Lear

King Lear
by William Shakespeare

The Generation Gap

Your Mum's dead. Your difficult, out-of-touch Dad offers to transfer all his property into your name, relieving you and your loved ones of all financial problems - as long as you keep him in the manner to which he has become accustomed.

How many in Shakespeare's world could identify with these material concerns is a moot point, although even the poorest elderly peasant who nevertheless had a roof over his head could fear the younger generation ousting him (or her). But Gregory Doran's handsome production of King Lear launches us into a world where an autocratic leader has also, unbeknown even to himself, suppressed unruly divisions in his kingdom.

Antony Sher as Lear is borne by underlings on stage in a magnificent gold and glass casket - a  Titoesque dictator in his combining of three kingdoms, grotesquely assuming he is loved, clad in furs like some pagan Santa Claus.

His demand that his three daughters, including the soon-to-be given-away in marriage and truthful Cordelia (Natalie Simpson), tell him how great he is has the complacency of a Victorian actor-manager hearing the rehearsed plaudits of his favoured actresses. 

There's a minimal feel to the staging designed by Niki Turner  - tightly packed red brickwork and later an illuminated blank white screen with shadow projections as backdrops, single gilded tree branches, giant bronze discs, great swathes of undulating polythene sheets on the floor and falling from above.

Lear's two eldest daughters, Goneril (Nia Gwynne) and Regan (Kelly Williams) in gorgeous gold brocade on dark luscious velvet robes of another era take part in the ceremony of Lear's vainglorious and unforced, wilful splitting of his kingdom.  Indeed when Lear's company of knights later riot and assault serving maids, there seems to be some justification for Goneril's complaints, especially when Lear's bear hug turns into an exercise in power and blight.

There's certainly a clarity and emphasis to the verse speaking and those Shakespearean words come back to bite over the centuries with the twenty first century's own take on value and finance.

Regan's words, "Sir, I am made of that self mettle as my sister,/And prize me at her worth. In my true heart,/I find she names my very deed of love—/Only she comes too short".Then  the later lament of the Duke of Gloucester (David Troughton), "the bond crack'd/'twixt son and father.", the forthright speech of the Duke of Kent (Antony Byrne) "I can keep honest counsel ... and the best of me is diligence." The Fool (Graham Turner) "No, faith, lords and great men will not let me; if I had a monopoly out, they would have part on't..."

At the same time, Cordelia is "unfriended" and the vagrants, the crowd of shadowy figures who lurk and criss cross throughout the play, band together to shake literally the ground beneath Lear and those who stay loyal to him. And two football players have a fidelity to the text but almost immediately place Edgar (Oliver Johnstone) as part of the younger, so far carefree, generation.

Indeed the content of this Lear seems to stretch, especially visually, across from the nineteenth century through that of twentieth century Samuel Beckett to our age. Lear himself transforms into male Ophelia in white asylum longjohns and a garland on his head  - a delicate echo of the Pre-Raphelites which avoids parody. His slow, measured tones, with curses acompanied by melodramatic drum rolls, which gradually break down, have undoubted power, although their pace could do with a tad more variation.

The painterly visual and the verbally poignant come together most effectively in the quieter scene where blinded Gloucester and denuded Lear at their nadir sit together on the ground and the full import of their fates come home.

Meanwhile there is a lucid charismatic performance from smooth-cheeked Paapa Essiedu as Gloucester's illegitimate son Edmund,  innocent looking and wide-eyed enough to be a plausible deceiver and inviting lover for the Lear's truly thankless daughters.

Oliver Johnstone's Edgar convincingly manages the transformation from gullible half-brother through experience to feeling statesman. Graham Turner's Fool is literally a strutting avian white cock beneath his coxcomb, albeit with the ability to play a music hall ukelele.   

Overall, the storytelling is also lucid, but it sometimes feels as if the characters, although acting on each other, are themselves separated in glass caskets. The natural ebb, flow and waves of this towering play are sometimes a little frozen. However it is an amber/green light for a tragedy otherwise well-served by every level of the cast with plenty of wry humour emerging alongside the calamity and horror.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Review Drones, Baby, Drones

Drones, Baby, Drones
This Tuesday
by Ron Hutchinson and Christina Lamb
The Kid
by David Greig

In The Drones Club

 "If you could register the Predator for president, both parties would be trying to endorse it." So spake US senator Bill Bilbray back in 2011 to the LA Times - Predator being a make of unmanned drone missile.

Well, on the eve of the Tuesday American presidential election, TLT and her automotive weapon of constructive criticism made their way to the Arcola Theatre for a double bill under the collective title of Drones, Baby, Drones.  

This Tuesday by Ron Hutchinson and Sunday Times journalist Christina Lamb tackles remote control warfare in a political thriller format running in real time. A female government adviser (Anne Adams) suppresses her maternal instincts when faced with staying by her druggie daughter's hospital bedside or getting the face-to-face go-ahead from the President for a drone strike to take out a terrorist attending a wedding in Pakistan. It's deliberately hard to differentiate whether she's insanely high on the adrenalin of the chase, even at the cost of being with her child, or if she has a unadulterated wish to defend the nation.

Meawhile, married Doug (Tom McKay), about to attend the meeting promoting the strike,  extracts himself from his habitual tryst in the Watergate Complex with his student intern lover Meredith (Rose Reynolds) who challenges him over his deception of his wife and the killing of many innocents along with individual guilty terrorists - but without changing anything for her or anyone else.

Across town, two men compete and lay out opposing arguments during an early morning basketball workout for and against using unmanned missiles rather than Special Forces' "boots on the ground" to take out the terrorist.

As they change from sports wear to formal dress, the lover of ancient Greek classics with the strange rhetorical phrasing turns out to be a general (Sam Dale) while the younger man (Raj Ghatak) falls into line as the hispanic adjutant captain handing him the file for the meeting

Despite clear and effective direction from Nicolas Kent to lift a dramatically static script, this portion of the evening feels under-achieved, even if there is an interesting, couched attempt to cover  what drones have meant in the past. However there's no doubting the power of the final image when those about to lead the President into a decision to strike line up outside, presumably, the Oval Office.

The more successful and interrogative play is David Grieg's The Kid (a title with both movie and sacrificial connotations), directed by Mehmet Ergen. A pair of military drone operators (Anne Adams and Tom McKay) and their respective partners (Joseph Baldramma and Rose Reynolds) have come together on comfy sofas over popcorn and wine.

Shawna and Pete are relaxing, having just completed a seemingly surgically successful mission and are eagerly grilled by Ramon, thilled to be six degrees of separation away from the "boom".

Pete and Alice have their own happy event to announce. However Alice, who at first seems the voice of common sense Alice-in-Wonderland logic and a moral compass, comes to realise the implications. Her attempt, as those around her sit passively, to reconcile her life with drone warfare spins the compass into unreason.  

Using his trademark verbatim theatre, Kent introduces the real-life figure of civil rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith (Sam Dale) at the start and before the second play to bring to our attention  the waiving of all regulations over the CIA, as opposed to the Pentagon, drone programme and also the criteria for British involvement, just in case we think that it's all the Americans. 

The title Drones, Baby, Drone comes from a 2011 quote  at a Washington DC event, with hefty corporate sponsorship, raising money to distribute to families of CIA officers killed in action.  Robert Gates, the then Republican Secretary of State for Defense, ended his speech on a high, using hippy language to tell the assembled diners: "“So from now on, the watchword is: drones, baby, drones! 

However, The Arcola has previously covered the same subject in Anders Lustgarten's visceral Shrapnel, over at the Gate Theatre, there has been George Brant's Grounded and going further back there's even been Joe Penhall's Landscape With Weapon at the National Theatre.

Nevertheless, the unknown quantity of  an impending new White House incumbent  may have created now an added urgency. There's a strong cast for Drones, Baby, Drones  - over both plays Joseph Balderrama stood out for us as a convincing legal counsel and drone pilot's excitable partner.

The production uses drone-style black and white camerawork videos (lighting and video design by Richard Williamson)  to ram home that in the end everyone could be vulnerable, but the first half of the evening especially needed a more original, less schematic premise.

The sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle insertion of literary references overall made us wonder at times whether the plays together would push also towards George Steiner's suggestion that, far from acting as a civilising influence, immersion in literature and, by extension, intellectual pursuit in any field can have a dehumanizing effect. Yet this never quite comes to fruition.

At the same time, as the use of remote control drone technology, passing over into the private sector, is ratcheted up in every aspect of our lives and with the ushering in of a new Presidential era, this may still prove a timely piece.  It's an amber light from your own peacenik, if unelected, duo.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Review Deny, Deny, Deny

A new play, which imagines a future where drugs' cheating on the athletics track mutates into genetic manipulation, eventually wins over Francis Beckett. 

Deny Deny Deny 
by Jonathan Maitland 

Frankenstein Off The Starting Blocks 

The pressure for an athlete to give his or her body something to enhance its speed or strength is, quite simply, that the others are doing it; and if you don’t do it too, they will beat you.

That’s the clinching argument, put by runner Eve’s coach in this strong new play set in the near future, and Eve reluctantly succumbs to it.

She agrees to treatment which will interfere with her genes – treatment she is assured will not show up in blood tests, for the doping police are condemned always to be playing catch-up.

“What’s the Russian word for sportsmanlike?” a character asks.  “I don’t know.”  “That’s because there isn’t one.” But of course it’s not just the Russians. It’s everyone.

Eve’s slow and reluctant descent into cheating is well-drawn, especially in one powerful scene between her and her coach, and the tension you feel watching it is no less because you know what the outcome will be.

The effect on her – the ruin of everything good in her life except for her victories – is laid out starkly on the stage.

Eve is played magnificently by Juma Sharkah, who manages by an inflection here, a movement there, to show the two great changes that overtake her.

First, when she moves from being a clean athlete to being a cheat and then after the end of her career.  It is a performance of great sensitivity and assurance.

Rona, her coach, is far harder for an actor, and for that I blame the author.  He writes in the programme that she was based on three people, Peter Mandelson, Rasputin and his mother, and perhaps that is the problem.

She is required to be clever, manipulative, persuasive and charismatic, and at the same time  self-destructive, hysterical and unable to prevent herself from saying the uncontrolled things which will only damage her cause.

Zoe Waites chooses to act the former persona, dealing as best she can with the lines demanding the latter.  It’s a fine effort from a very good actor. Nevertheless, no actor can make the character entirely convincing until the author takes another look at the script.

There is not a weak link in the cast with Daniel Fraser as Eve’s journalist boyfriend, Shvorne Marks as a fellow athlete, and Sarah Finigan as everyone else – most notably a sports official – all putting in convincing performances.

The author rightly identifies in the programme the biggest challenge facing any director of this play: “Conveying something of the reality of a major race at a huge global sporting event. Not easy when the play is in the round and there’s a limited budget.”

The solution from director Brendan O’Hea and designer Polly Sullivan is brilliant and devastatingly simple: a stage floor, underlit and divided into squares, capable of being everything, including a track for a running race.  It’s quite enough to suspend disbelief for two hours.

However, the character of Rona is not the only problem with the script. The scene in which a sports official investigates Eve is hampered by the fact that the author has not decided whether Eve is to say she did not do it, or that she did it, and so what?

I am also not quite sure I am happy about the fact that both athletes are black, and all the other characters are white (a script issue, not the result of colour-blind casting.)

But overall, this is a very fine new play with a harsh contemporary feel, directed with great flair and acted with conviction. A green light from me.

Review Cymbeline

by William Shakespeare

Swan's Way

Once upon a time TLT remembers watching a BBC children's serial The Changes where suddenly nearly everyone in the British Isles turns violently against technology and goes back to medieval village way of life. Meanwhile mainland Europe remains unchanged.

This emerged from the muddy depths of memory while watching the Royal Shakespeare Company's Cymbeline where the Britons live in a twilight post apocalyptic candle-lit world.

Meanwhile over on the continent ... Yes, the Romans host an electric international court with an  multilingual casino lifestyle where the courtiers swan around in luxury designer brands, confident that Latin remains the language of diplomacy.

The programme posits the Britons paying tribute to the Roman Empire as a Brexit fantasy (it was first performed in Stratford-upon-Avon before the referendum), although the parallels feel a little strained in Melly Still's whirlwind gender-swapping production. 

Innogen (Bethan Cullinane) is a tough but still emotionally vulnerable young princess, first seen with a ragged skirt of downy swan feathers, picking up on lines in the play, "Hath Britain all the sun that shines?Day? Night?/Are they not but in Britain? In th' world's volume/Our Britain seems as of it, but not in'it:/In a great pool a swan's nest"

She defies her statuesque Boadicea of a mother, Queen Cymbeline (Geraldine Bevan), to marry her childhood sweetheart Posthumus (Hiran Abeysekera) but their newly married life quickly goes awry when Posthumus is banished and then ends up in Rome.

With its unstable mix of genres and self conscious narrating-the-story style, there's no doubt Cymbeline is a challenge and there are plenty of strengths in individual performances in this production.

Cullinane makes a sturdily attractive Innogen, tenacious and resilient but still fragile enough to make us care in female garb and disguised as a boy. 

The slighter figure of Abeysekera, her lover, then husband who is easily persuaded in a wager that she is an unfaithful wife is more problematic.

He's a bit of a soft puppy dog at the beginning but his final brief scene with treacherous Iachimo does make for a natural and intuitive sense of an ending to that side of the story.

Changing the sex of Cymbeline and that of her consort who becomes "The Duke" (James Clyde) brings a new dynamic to relationships. Out goes the wicked stepmother trope and The Duke (James Clyde) is a rather too subtle, modern brown-suited villain with leather patches on his elbows.

More successful is Italian nobleman Iachimo (Oliver Johnstone) who as a villainous devil steals all the best tunes bringing lusty swagger and humour before his come-uppance.

A word too for the Posthumus's gender-swapped servant Pisania (Kelly Williams), acting as her master's secret agent at the British court who also brings clarity to the plot.

The trouble is chunks of the story get lost in the low-light opening scenes - it's hard for newcomers to the story to grasp, even with flashed up projections of newspapers, that two of the Queen's children were kidnapped as babies or even that the doltish would-be pop star Cloten (Marcus Griffiths) is The Duke's son from an earlier marriage.

Even so, the soundscape from composer Dave Price does bring visceral ripples as the plot unravels. Over in Wales, a nobleman banished unjustly many years earlier from the Queen's court, Belarius (Graham Turner in a solid performance) is living in the wilds with the Queen's children, in this version a girl and a boy rather than two boys, who know nothing of their Royal birth.

Turned into a pair of Peter Pan-like Lost Children, despite a famously gory outbreak of violence, the two (Natalie Simpson and James Cooney) make an engaging bow-and-arrow pair. Altogether, this is a curate's egg of a production which feels a tad long but it's an amber light for this awfully big adventure.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Review The Last Five Years

The Last Five Years
by Jason Robert Brown

A Final Chapter

The Last Five Years is a gauzy ribboned confection with a bitter pill underneath the wrapping. This two-hander charting the coupledom of novelist Jamie (Jonathan Bailey) and actress Cathy (Samantha Barks), an almost totally sung-through American musical, first performed in 2001, after an intial stumble has become a worldwide success.

It's a piece for a post-war generation - that is post Vietnam War and the many conflicts since then, all boiled down to the short-lived marriage of writer and aspiring actress in New York whose lives and careers are structurally opposed within the piece.

In some ways, this is a modern version of Romeo and Juliet, with the death of love rather than the lovers and an unintended career war between an agented published writer and a performer still on the audition roundabout. A portion of each of the couple's souls are sliced, diced and wither by the undoubted success of Jewish author Jamie and the relative career failure of Irish Catholic Cathy. 

Directed by the composer Jason Robert-Brown, the scenery is minimal. With musicians led by musical director Torquil Munroe on scaffolding above, loft apartment brickwork slide open to bring forward a desk, a door, at one instance a boat and nicely understated use of video footage (Jeff Sugg).

Samantha Barks brings heartrending and humorous soaring vocals to the role of Cathy. She's well-matched by Jonathan Bailey's Jamie whose initial infectious charm and over-confidence hardens into darker ambition and infidelity. 

Like Harold Pinter's Betrayal and Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along  (the song Moving Too Fast perhaps has an oblique reference to the latter), we're given a rewind, as well as a play forward, of the romance and rupture.

Cathy is the musical's catalyst. The first song is her realisation Jamie her husband has left her, Still Hurting, "Jamie decides it’s his right to decide/Jamie’s got secrets he doesn’t confide/ And I’m still hurting.” Her story runs backwards to the dawn of love when life seemed far more straightforward.

From the first, despite the beauty of the songs in a range of styles,  there's sour with the sweet. Principally it's Jamie, whose story runs in chronological order, who is allowed to inscribe his version to the outside world. Even if it is Cathy who catches the complexity of tone at the beginning, realising how lies and authorship interact and now characterise her life.

For throughout the relationship, it is male writer Jamie telling female actress Cathy who she is. From the simple  crassness where, nevertheless, his energy provides wit, of Shiksa Goddess  "I'd say, 'Hey! Hey! Shiksa goddess!/I've been waiting for someone like.../You, breaking the circle/You, taking the light/You, you are the story/I should write/I have to write!'.

Jamie even assumes the garb of secular rabbidom (there are sly glimpses of Fiddler On The Roof in the musical arrangements and staging) combined with a fairy storyteller in Tbe Schmeul Song.

There he spins a Danny Kaye/Sylvia Fine-type yarn (although the song sweetly stands on its two feet without knowing that) by the light of a fully decked-out Christmas tree, apparently instructing Cathy what she should do to succeed.

The couple only come together musically on stage in a marriage duet "The Next 10 minutes" on a Central Park boating lake where the moment after there's a touch of The Lady Of Shalott drifting off to Camelot as Cathy is sent off in the boat alone.

At the same time Jamie's "If I Didn't Believe" just misses crossing with Cathy's disappointment with her audition in "Climbing Uphill" and marks the point when his glib career-politicking and domestic life merge, as he distances himself from her and what he sees as failure.

The tale of the one left behind is not of course original: A Star Is Born being a prime example. But this piece juxtaposes and sets at odds two separate but not unrelated professions, author and performer.

Maybe the individual stories are not always a tight metaphorical fit but there is more than enough wit and romance in the one-act 90-minute score and book for performers to scoop up and make them their own without the audience having to worry about that.  It's a green light for a tender, bittersweet intimate tale of love and betrayal with a steely core at its centre. 

Review Fool For Love

Fool For Love
by Sam Shepherd

Looking For Mr Right

It's a final trip up the stairs to see a play at found 111i n the former Central St Martin's School School of Art. The theatre company is now bidding farewell to its grunge venue and seeking another site-specific space after its successful sojourn on Charing Cross Road.

In the meantime, it's back to familiar Sam Shepard territory, a motel room in California's Mojave Desert where May (Lydia Wilson) and Eddie (Adam Rothenberg) brawl and tear themselves apart.

Eddie has tracked down May, driving over a thousand miles, he says, to pluck her up and take her to a piece of land he has bought in Wyoming where he plans to raise horses, chickens and make a place for May.

But he finds May, who maintains she has now reinvented herself as a good citizen, gained a job and a beau, more than reluctant to drop everything and drive back with him in his horse truck.

All the while, a lanky, grizzled Marlboro Man spectre (Joe McGann) watches over the pair while into the secrets, lies and battles comes the unsuspecting gentle Martin (Luke Neal) who is wooing May. 

A two-level thrust stage designed by Ben Stones works on two levels, on low stilts at the back is the run-down motel room with its door smeared with grime.

Then in front a gravelly front yard reaches out to the audience in this initimate venue. Angular neon lights and fairy lights also flash and flicker within the physical and psychic space.

It's a curious self-conscious piece which mixes the hardscrabble life of near-trailer trash folks with the language of the movie business. As May, Wilson brings a taut, stubborn fragility, struggling to free herself from the emotional lassoo pulling her towards tequila-drinking Eddie, away from Martin.

These are characters, apart from Martin, who are all physically and mentally in their own self-contained space yet affecting each other's lives. This double perspective doesn't always catch fire in Simon Evans' production, even if the individual performances remain strong with a strain of dark humour.

A quick passing one-act drama, the laconic play shoots its arrow and lands in just over an hour. The clanging, slamming door soundscape (sound design by Edward Lewis) takes us inside the characters as much as their words and actions.

A final stunning image with lighting by Elliot Griggs merges the movies and the itinerant world of these abandoned souls. With its lingering thin, whip sharp quality, this Fool For Love ultimately finds an elemental power. It's an amber/green light from your own bareback theatre reviewing TLT and her trusty steed.