Saturday, 25 November 2017

Review Bad Roads

Tim Gopsill is moved and informed by a harrowing and insightful drama on civil war in the Ukraine.

Bad Roads
by Natal'ya Vorozhbit
Translated by Sasha Dugdale

Sex And Savagery In The Ukraine

Ordinary people are still killing each other in the Ukraine, mysteriously unreported in Britain after three years of civil war. Where media are failing, theatre is stepping in, with accounts of the traumas of war more horrifying than anything you would see on the news.

The Royal Court has a programme of co-operation with Ukrainian playwrights, supported by the British Council, and is presenting Bad Roads by Natal'ya Vorozhbit, where the conflict is seen through the eyes of women.

Bad Roads is a psychodrama with six scenes in which a number of women confront men at war as individuals; men they encounter, or want to be with, or by whom they are held captive. Some violence is involved in two of them.

The brutalisation the men have suffered is complicated and spasmodic. Loving one minute, aggressive the next. But made even more problematic when those men are  put in murderous danger.

So the encounters are not simply between belligerent men and innocent women. There is a recognition of something more complex, even a frisson of attraction towards a dirty, hungry, desperate fighting man somewhere inside the desperate women.

Likewise the men are not all-conquering. They are victims of war as well. In some of the sex scenes, enacted or recalled, their own sexual vulnerability is displayed.

This is not to downgrade  the most horrific, degrading scene which takes place in total darkness; the sounds are harrowing enough. Ria Zmitrowicz convinces as Yulia in her combination of vulnerability and knowingness, weakness and strength; as does Tadgh Murphy as Stas, the soldier, with his internal conflicts and erratic behaviour.

The settings are all dark in any case. Camilla Clarke’s set consists entirely of stripped bare tree trunks, through which the actors rush or creep in dim light like fighters in a forest, and has just a couple of upended chairs, an iron bath and a chest freezer cabinet, whose grisly contents most of the time have to be imagined.

Director Vicky Featherstone handles this touchy, knife-edge material carefully with varied pacing.  The first and longest scene, for instance, has a woman journalist (Kate Dickie) recounting a week-long visit to the front line, which establishes at the start the ambiguities of the male and female liaisons within the play.

Interestingly all the seven-strong cast, who double up for the 14 roles, have strong regional British Isles accents, which emphasise the varied cultures within a state at civil war. They are different peoples but what they have in common, in place of a national identity, is their suffering.

Bad Roads is brilliantly written and bravely acted. It has to be said that it is challenging, not to say painful, to watch and listen to at times and thoroughly deserves an amber/green light.

Review The Secondary Victim

 A play dealing with the emotional and professional life of a beleaguered therapist ultimately disappoints Peter Barker.  

The Secondary Victim
by Matthew Campling

Confidentially Speaking

The vulnerability of a professional therapist whose work with clients takes place behind closed doors takes centre stage in Matthew Campling's drama The Secondary Victim.

A woman psychotherapist with family problems of her own is accused by a client of inappropriate sexual behaviour towards him.

There is a lot of potential for an intriguing and credible story when both denial and charges of abuse depend on on one person's word against another.

With his own experience of disproven professional misconduct accusations, Campling could have written a fascinating insight into a normally hidden world.

The playwright's own varied career has also included a psychotherapy practice, work as a magazine agony uncle and a spell as an expert on chat shows.

Nevertheless, while the first half of this play lasting over two and a half hours, has absorbing moments, overall The Secondary Victim  is marred by a dramatically unsatisfying and implausible structure.

Despite this, director Matthew Gould has gathered together an impressive cast including Susannah Doye who gives a careful and precise performance as psychotherapist Ali.

After the complaints of the troubled patient, Hugo, played by Michael Hanratty, she is accused of  misconduct and brought before her professional association's disciplinary tribunal. 

However many of the situations forced upon the actors feel far-fetched and contrived, with the writer trying to shoehorn several of different plots into one.

Gary Webster as husband Victor makes valiant efforts as her husband  with a passionate portrayal of a loving spouse unhappy at sharing his wife with her professional duties as a therapist.

However the root of failed businessman Victor's jealousy and its exposition by Campling lacks credibility.

There are another couple of plots involving a patient Teddy - Christopher Laishley - facing criminal charges and the personal relationship of Ali's own therapist with another therapist. 

The latter has some comedy but the script feels unreal. The play becomes muddled and overlong  with  longeurs and often a lack of substance and depth. Doyle as Ali is allowed to give the best performance but director Matthew Gould seems to struggle with the clunky writing.

The subject matter has potential but the work feels very much like a play in development rather than a finished piece and The Secondary Victim garners a red light.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Review Miss Julie

A perfectly pitched production of a 19th century playwright's pioneering drama thrills Peter Barker.

Miss Julie
by August Strindberg
Adapted by Howard Brenton
From a literal translation by Agnes Broomé

Danse Macabre

The daughter of a Swedish aristocratic gatescrashes the servants' midsummer eve's party on her father's country estate.

So begins a passionate and emotionally intense version of August Strindberg's one-act naturalist tragedy from 1888 in an adaptation by Howard Brenton.

The production starts with minute attention to detail. Valet Jean played by James Sheldon and Izabella Urbanowicz's cook, also his lover, carrying out their menial duties in a working kitchen.

Director Tom Littler carefully paces the show from this slow start to establish an atmosphere of tension and suppressed sexuality.

After the appearance of the young mistress, there is a skilful change of tone and quickening of pace as the deadly emotional dance between servant Jean and Miss Julie gathers momentum.

This is played out in the intimate surroundings of the Jermyn Street Theatre as the audience follows every move in Howard Brenton's three-hander adaptation of Strindberg's play.

Brenton keeps his adaptation in the 1880s, powerfully reflecting Strindberg's teasing out of class and gender within a tempestuous, short-lived relationship across the class divide with all its power shifts.

Charlotte Hamblin is the capricious coquette, almost a young predator until in a convincing switch we glimpse the vulnerability beneath.

As the employee, James Sheldon is a charismatic, handsome presence,  the couple swinging between antagonism and love. 

As the mistress of the kitchen and Jean's betrothed, Izabella Urbanowicz completes a trio of fine performances.

All of which is complemented, in a 90 minute drama in one location, by Louie Whitemore’s exquisite costumes and detailed set, suitably domestic and workaday in constrast to the emotionally violent scenes. Sound from Max Pappenheim adds to the powerful crescendo.

Miss Julie is an oft-performed play but the playwright, with director Littler and a cast extracting every nuance, refresh this Strindberg classic into a thrilling experience and it's a well-deserved green light.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Review Deathtrap

An American comedy thriller famous for its witty play-within-a-play twists and turns fails to impress reviewer Peter Barker.

by Ira Levin

Give Us A Cluedo

Sidney Bruhl is a playwright past his prime. "Nothing," he tells his wife Myra, "recedes like success." In spite of this pithy epigram, he hasn't had a hit in his field of crime thrillers for far too long.

Then Clifford, a talented student from Sidney's summer writing school, pens and obligingly posts him the only copy (Deathtrap was written in 1978) of a whodunnit drama for his tutor's opinion - which Sidney realises immediately is a surefire hit.

Paul Bradley and Jessie Wallace, best known as Nigel Bates and Kat Slater in Eastenders, take the roles of the Connecticut literary couple. Sam Phillips is the creative writing student and the potential victim of Sidney's desperate ploys to regain his spot as a doyen of crime plays.  

Unfortunately this production of a previous Broadway and West End success is so clunky, it's hard to discern the postmodern twists and turns which made this play such a surefire hit at its première and later incarnations including a movie starring Michael Caine.

Certainly this touring version of the play, directed by Adam Penfold, makes the sharp comedy thriller seem more like a gentle spoof than a caustic look at the genre and witty jibe at the lengths to which ambitious writers will go for ideas and success.

Penfold underestimates the audience's knowledge with heavy-handed use of videos clips showing Dial M For Murder, Witness For The Prosecution, Gaslight and Sleuth.

The actors suffer likewise. Bradley does devious and sometimes angry as Sidney, while Wallace has too little to do as his wife, but makes as much as she can of the frustrated spouse. However their accents drift and again the direction feels distinctly underpowered. Phillips as the student fares a little better.

Beverley Klein as Swedish clairvoyant Helga ten Dorp either steals the scenes or hams it up, according to your point of view. Either way the precision needed for this comedy drama with its deliberate contrivances never emerges.

There are just about enough laughs, plot twists and surprises to keep an audience entertained for the running time of two and a half hours.

However, altogether this feels like a production where the director seems to have too little confidence in Ira Levin's script to do the business and even resorts to unsubtle sound effects designed to make the audience jump in their seats at key moments.

Designer Morgan Large has some fun with the stock whodunnit setting of a large room in a home complete with French windows and a staircase, dressing it with props such as a suit of armour and various weapons from Bruhl’s hit stage plays.

As a newcomer to Deathtrap, the staging and acting in this play felt ponderous to me.

Whatever good points the play may also have are drowned out by poor directing choices from director Penfold. It's a red/amber light.  

Review Glengarry Glen Ross

Francis Beckett is sold a gem of a production as a searing 1980s' David Mamet play shows its true value

 Glengarry Glen Ross 
by David Mamet 

The Real Estate Of The Nation

Just over 30 years separate David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and Arthur Miller’s masterpiece Death of a Salesman but they are special for the same reason.

Their sad, broken-down salesmen – Miller’s Willy Loman from 1949, Mamet’s Shelly Levene from 1983 – may be pretty worthless people, plying a parasitic trade, but Miller and Mamet care about them, and they make us care about them too.

The genius of Miller and Mamet is that they put on stage people from whom, in real life, one would recoil – and yet, when those characters get their well-deserved comeuppance, it moves us almost to tears.

Loman and Levene may be symbols of everything that is worst about capitalism. But they are its victims, just as much as the people they gull are victims.

Glengarry Glen Ross is as near a perfect piece of dramatic writing as you’ll find. We get to spend an evening and the following morning with an American real estate company.

We spend the time in the company of four men who earn their commission by gulling people into buying  property they neither want nor need, two men who run the office and batten on their salesmens’ skill, and one man who falls for the salesmens’ wiles. And we are on the edge of our seat all the time.

The salesmen see themselves as the American dream personified: pioneers out on a dusty trail, with only their wits and their courage between them and oblivion.

When Americans talk about rugged individualism, they really mean poor saps like Loman and Levene.

They dress in their habitual uniforms, shabby grey suits, sell grey products designed by someone else, see themselves as cowboys, even as they do the bidding of even greyer men than themselves.

These salesmen also think of themselves as Men, with an upper case M. They dismiss wives and women, their own, if they have them, and those of their customers.

“A man’s his job” growls Shelley, and, when he finally makes a sale: “I’ve got my balls back.”  He tells what he calls his war stories, how cleverly he cajoled the customer, how he held the pen just so.

He thinks his skills, his charm, his beautiful voice, are all you need to succeed in the world. He is wrong.

Miller and Mamet understand that the skill these men have is a wonderful one; and that the exercise of the skill is what gives them self-worth. They think they do it to enrich themselves, but they could get richer sitting behind desks.

What drives them is the adrenaline rush of selling.  They are salesmen. They must sell, just as some people have to write.

I knew a man like that. He sold advertising space, and he was very good at it.  Yet the magazines for which he sold the space despaired of him. He had no interest at all in making sure bills were sent out, or even compiling the information that would enable someone else to send them out.

And it didn’t matter how often he was told to sell no more space to those companies that failed to pay up; he persisted in selling to them. Like Shelly Levene, he closed the deal.  That is what he did.

Levene is played in this production by Stanley Townsend – a startling, brilliant, mesmerising performance. He does not take the easy route of allowing Levene to sound as sad and pathetic as he is.

No, the bluff and bluster never lets up. It pours from his strong, fruity voice, telling the world he is in charge even as he is being pushed contemptuously off the edge.

Christian Slater and Kris Marshall are excellent as Ricky Roma, the younger salesman, and John Williamson, the deskbound agent of Levene's demise with Don Warrington giving solid support, but for me they were little more than foils for Townsend’s towering tour de force.

The night I saw it, Robert Glenister was ill – he had collapsed on stage on Friday and hopes to be back in a few days.  Understudy Mark Carlisle coped with the difficult part of salesman Dave Moss, but I felt for him: he had not had enough time to prepare, or to inhabit the part.

Chiara Stephenson gives us two magnificent and entirely convincing sets, a restaurant and an office, one for each act. Sam Yates directs with the proper respect for Mamet’s fully rounded characters and razor sharp dialogue.

A green light for this set of salesmen who deliver the goods at the Playhouse Theatre.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Review Jamaica Inn

Peter Barker is spirited away to 19th century Cornwall  in an enjoyable if flawed adaptation of a classic romantic thriller.

Jamaica Inn
by Daphne du Maurier
Adapted for the stage by Lisa Evans

The Beasts Of Bodmin

A young woman comes to live at an isolated inn in the midst of the Cornish moors with her uncle and aunt, her only surviving family.

But mystery swirls around Jamaica Inn like the howling winds on the moor -  just how does the hostelry, which seems to do little business, make money?

This drama is adapted from Daphne du Maurier's edgy gothic thriller, written in the 1930s but set in the first half of the 19th century.

Jamaica Inn was famously made into an Alfred Hitchcock movie. This adaptation by playwright Lisa Evans comes across as a rollicking tale, a kind of Poldark without the pectorals, played very broadly by a cast of eight directed by Anastasia Revi.

It soon becomes clear the inn is the haunt of murderous smugglers and shipwreckers who lure vessels to their doom onto the rocky shoreline.

At the beginning of the production, the dialogue teeters perilously on the edge of parody. However it settles down into an enjoyable 90 minutes, even if some of the action and script occasionally is not as clear as it could be.

Kimberley Jarvis is a spirited, red haired Mary facing villainy on all sides. As her bruiser of an uncle, Toby Wynn Davies makes a suitably menacing adversary, brandishing pistols and ale with equal relish.

No bodice ripper would of course be complete without some devil-may-care love interest. Here it takes the shape of Jem, her uncle's younger brother nicely played by Samuel Lawrence, who may or may not be on the dark side with his brother.

The design by Maira Vazeou, with Ben Jacobs's lighting, is extremely effective. Using dry ice, horse tackle, ropes and sacks hanging from the ceiling,  they conjure up  the inn and stables, the Cornish shoreline and the moor and the characters sashay around in some splendid costumes.

Several songs are scattered throughout the play and  drive forward the plot. However this can also be at times a weakness as the actors are clearly not trained singers.

There are also moments when both the script and accents of the actors err on the side of caricature. But it's played with such pace that you can just about ignore that and the creaking plot clichés.

For an entertaining hour and a half performed by the cast at a steady gallop under Revi’s direction. it's a solid amber light.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Review The Tailor-Made Man

The story of a once-famous star relegated to obscurity by the Hollywood studios fascinates Tim Gopsill. 

The Tailor-Made Man 
by Claudio Macor

Down And Out And Proud In Hollywood

Showbiz sleaze is much in the spotlight at the moment but puritanical Hollywood is seen from a less well-known angle in this production of Claudio Macor’s play The Tailor-Made Man.

It’s the true, surprisingly little-heard of, story of William “Billy” Haines, a silent screen idol who successfully bridged both the silents and the talkies in his career.

However,  he would not stay silent about his love life. He was openly gay, rejected the option of a "lavender marriage" and his sexuality led to his movie career downfall.

Yet Billy, played by Mitchell Hunt, with real verve, is hardly portrayed as a victim, but an engaging and appealing individualist who, in spite of his blacklisting, careered his joyful way through life.

He made a new life for himself with his lifelong partner Jimmie Shields. Theirs was a true love story, for despite Billy's habit of picking up sailors  – the supposed cause of his blacklisting -- the couple remained devoted to the end.

The play is structured around a series of flashbacks with Tom Berkeley as Jimmie telling the intriguing tale of their life together to a movie camera, as if being interviewed. 

Each of these flashbacks is preceded by the clapperboard call of “action!” and ends with “cut!” bellowed through a megaphone before the final “it’s a wrap!”,

At first a novelty, these quickly become gratuitous, increasingly irritating punctuations as the two-act play goes on, as if we hadn’t noticed it was about the movie business.

The story is strong and the play could be consistently very enjoyable. Hunt's portrayal of the film star Haines is compelling.
Rachel Knowles also turns in two believable performances, doubling up as enchanting but shrewd Hollywood stars, Pola Negri and Carole Lombard, with a keen sense of the absurd, sending up the whole situation.

The characters each may totter around like ditzy celebrities in gold lamé, martinis in hand, but they offer real support and friendship to the boys when they are in trouble.

At the outset Billy is accused being “lip-lazy", not being animated enough as he mimes speech during his performance for silent film.

However, there is a sharp poignancy when another famous actress Marion Davies, played by Yvonne Lawlor, during the filming of a movie scene talks affectionately to Haines about his real life rather than following the lines.

Indeed,  the play covers the golden age of silent movies and Brian Hodgson’s direction picks up superficially the flickers' style but overdoes it with extravagant gesturing and face-pulling.

In addition the male support roles don't weave the same magic as the female actors and Hunt as Haines.

Berkeley's slightly gauche Jimmie  doesn't convince. Dean Harris also lacks gravitas and menace as the great movie mogul Louis B Mayer, who hires and fires Billy, with no punch in the famous one-liners.

Edwin Flay as his PR and fixer Howard Strickling is dull and flat, giving little impression of how he could have possibly got newspaper editors to bend to Mayer’s will.

Nevertheless, this is a fascinating, well-written play, not about injustice but the triumph of love in overcoming it.

There are hints about well-known gay stars who never came out and endured years of misery, forced to feign a bogus heterosexuality. This story is the antidote. It’s heartening and fun, but the production needs considerable tightening up and it's an amber light.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Review Coriolanus

by William Shakespeare

The Hero Lies In You

In ancient times, before her trusty steed joined her in theatre adventures, TLT was a mighty literary warrior, in  hand to page combat with the classics including Coriolanus.

Yep, in other words, she took Coriolanus for English 'A' Level, a play written by the Bard during the reign of James 1 of England and VI of Scotland round about the time of food shortages and corn riots in the early 17th century.

She also saw the late, lamented Alan Howard in the role from the vertiginous "Gods" at the Aldwych Theatre, then the London outpost of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Now, roll on the years, it's Coriolanus and the Royal Shakespeare Company in a version which curiously manages to combine excitement and blandness all in one production.

Coriolanus is a hero while he is away at war defending the Roman city state, a fighting machine who overcomes allcomers including the attacking armies of Rome's arch enemy, Tullus Aufidius and the Volscian military.

Coriolanus only knows how to speak the language of war and has only ever focussed on channelling resources towards war.

He is urged on by a mother who, in this production, is more politically astute than simply wanting a military hero in the family.

Her son, though, has never had to think outside his own military and domestic sphere, let alone negotiate the politics of central and local government and the distribution of civilian resources.   

Angus Jackson directs Shakespeare's tragedy and civic rumination on a geometric stage with a set of classical simplicity by Robert Innes Hopkins using its depth to good effect. 

The martial and male political forums are placed at a layered distance from a  white marble statue of a magnificent horse laid low by an imperial lion.

The interior female domestic sphere is symbolized by a Venus De Milo, another marble white statue but of a beauteous woman with her arms broken off.

It is a geometric play with Coriolanus at first a part of the geometry of Rome (ok, ok, TLT knows geometry is a Greek invention, but you known what she means!).

But then he becomes a destructive force as he leaves it, in banishment and then revenge, to join the Volscians, laying waste the ritualistic balance of power between the two armies.  

In Shakespeare, especially in a play such as Coriolanus, it is always interesting to see how the writing with its use of formal rhetorical devices still chimes with a modern view of "character".

Sope Dirisu's Coriolanus stands like a tree trunk, which ultimately breaks rather than bends. This visual image remains in the mind but is not matched by his rather unsupple verbal, if clear, delivery.

He and the people around him seem to be in a nebulous, hierarchical, corporate space.

The refined violin and cello strings and short bursts of a live operatic voice create a  feel of the City's elite in tuxedos and bow ties ruling the roost like corporate sponsors refusing to countenance the plebeian pleas for grain.

In this it almost treads on the ground of the National Theatre's 2012 Timon Of Athens but does not go all the way, remaining a kind of no-man's land on clean brown wood floors.

This lack of specificity, despite some design striking touches, combined with the modern dress does not work in the end in its favour. It gives it, especially with the aural strings and trills, a certain blandness.

Hayden Gwynne is a strong Volumnia, the mother of the warrior, who in her interpretation is not so much obsessed with making her son a martial hero as making sure he builds a secure domestic and political family for himself.

After the popular politicians have taken Coriolanus, a vital cog, out of the Roman machine, the scene where  mother, wife and young son plead to save the city is heartrending.

Otherwise, James Corrigan's Aufidius makes an impact, particularly in the ultimate scenes where the final, messy scramble ends in tragedy.

Paul Jesson's Menenius, the wily, good-living patrician, has a clarity and manages to hold the audience with his manoeuvring and arguments.

The Tribunes, the formal political representatives of the people, are nicely characterised by Jackie Morrison and Martina Laird.

However the arguments they put for the fickle populace and the responses of the arrogant elite come through less successfully on the large Barbican stage. 

Charles Aitken is engaging as Cominius, Coriolanus's political colleague and Hannah Morrish is a fetching contrast to Coriolanus's mother as the more delicate wife Virginia. The fighting is well-staged by movement director Lucy Cullingford.

The production is exciting at times and a little plodding at others, especially in the first act.  It's a pleasure to see Coriolanus again but, although there are moments of power, it did feel occasionally rather diluted. It's an upper range amber light.  

Review The Retreat

An acclaimed TV comedy writer's first play has plenty of gags but is kept afloat by a fine cast and director, says Peter Barker.

The Retreat
by Sam Bain

What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love And Understanding?

Luke is burnt out by his life in London as an investment broker. There’s too much cocaine and too many hookers.

So after meeting Tara, a Buddhist, he grasps the opportunity to go to a spiritual retreat in the wilds of Scotland. 

But the arrival of his ne'er-do-well brother Tony destroys any chance of peace, calm and enlightenment.

The Retreat is Sam Bain’s first play, but he is already well-known as a TV writer - as co-creator of Peep Show, the movie The Four Lions and the recent sitcom Fresh Meat.

In this stage debut, his skill as a comedy writer is evident with a muscular use of language to produce laugh-out-loud moments. 

Bain may deliver laughs from an original and quirky viewpoint, but the play's plot and story nevertheless lacks any real point, punch or character development.

About the only serious points it makes are that cults are bollocks, the slings and arrows of life are unavoidable, and family is important. These are not original thoughts, but at least Bain makes them funny.

A former actor in Dr Who Samuel Anderson, as the Buddhist monk wannabe Luke, gives an assured straightman performance, while Adam Deacon proves himself to be be a definite comic talent as streetwise but inept brother Tony.

Yasmine Akram as Tara has a tougher challenge with an even more thinly written part  and it is to her credit that she makes something substantial out of the slightest of the three roles.

The set by Paul Wills depicts a stone hut in the present day Scottish Highlands and is an impressive facsimile of the real thing.

Kathy Burke, as you might expect from an experienced director and comedy actor, directs a slick production that delivers the gag-to-gag laughs and makes the 90-minute running time seem a great deal shorter, earning the play an  amber light.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Review Picasso

by Terry d'Alfonso

Genius Artist (NSOH*) Seeks Muse And Sex

An attractive new venue is always something to celebrate and two have come along at nearly the same time.

The refurbishment of The Playground Theatre, now run by Anthony Biggs and Peter Tate in West London follows the opening of the Bridge Theatre on the River Thames.

In its own way, it is as good a space and, some would say, far more of a blank canvas, accommodating up to 200 people and with good sightlines from flexible seating.

It also has a smart but welcoming cafe/bar and aims to programme a diverse mix of international and home-grown work with classical concerts, dance and film, as well as theatre.

The first production, Picasso, combines many of the disciplines the space aims to serve.

Written by woman writer, the late Terry D'Alfonso, it started as a fantasy piece with Picasso in the dock with a lawyer defending him against the accusations of the women in his life.

However. somewhere from then to now, it lost its way and become a piece where the artist’s wives and lovers, three women on stage and three on video become mere props worshipping an artistic genius.

Even before the current situation where the borderline and beyond of celebrity, ambition and sexual abuse have come under the microscope as never before, this feels like an opportunity missed to direct the play, even if it were not possible to change the words, in a way that examines these same issues through the cult of Picasso.

The production has a curiously dated attitude towards the artist, with Picasso,, played by Peter Tate, as the centre of female veneration, Only one of the trio of women on stage, Adele Oni's Geneviève LaPorte's older self,  is allowed a very fleeting facial expression of disgust.

And maybe there is a hint of, frankly understandable power play, by his last wife, Jacqueline - Alejandra Costa - as his body weakens but otherwise these seem like tamed, put-upon women who don't ever understand Picasso's lusty, bull-like appetites for sex and procreation .

Perhaps this is somewhat reflected in the programme note of director Michael Hunt who applies the words "jealous" and "jealousy" to two of the women with whom Picasso set up home, had children and then abandoned as he moved on to the next lover.

It's also a problem that  the three female actors,  including Claire Bowman as Marie-Thérèse Walther another of his younger model lovers and mother of his second child, are also given the role of perfunctory narrators and tend to speak with the same voice.

However, it is a good-looking production with a distinctive, clear cut representation of a bullring and vibrant costume colours from designer Klara Zieglerova and a soundtrack including Steve Reich's  flamenco-inspired Clapping Theme.

The actors playing three of Picasso's partners in the black and white video are Milena Vukotic, Margot Sikabonyi as another version of Marie-Thérèse Walther nnd Sandra Collodel as Dora Maar.

A more down- to-earth-moment did emerge about just how beholden his various partners and children were to him with the cheques his bank allowed him to issue them from time to time. Was it profane that TLT wondered if the artist, whose business was art, put it on expenses?

Nobody would suggest that any portrayal of Picasso should include him donning an apron and washing the family socks.

However this would have worked better as an art installation, with the paintings built up in Matthew Ferguson’s video ,and keeping Picasso’s pronouncements to a minimum, relying on the visuals. The Picasso story could be an insightful good story for our times, but this isn’t it - a lower range amber light. 

Nevertheless TLT and her own motorised sidekick, with such good production values, are looking forward to the next show, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince.

*NSOH - Mock small ad speak for No Sense Of Humour

Review I.E.D.

A new drama about a female officer bringing the worst possible news to military families benefits from a well-written central character and an excellent performance, says Peter Barker. 

by Martin McNamara

When Death Comes Knocking

A woman army officer has the duty to inform nearest relatives when a serviceman, their loved one, from her unit has been killed.

I.E.D, Martin McNamara's clever and pithy new drama, is set nine years ago during the height, for the British, of the conflict in Afghanistan and is matched by some excellent performances.

The acronym IED stands for "Improvised Explosive Device",  the bombs which are often the weapon of choice for the Taliban waging jihad in Afghanistan.

Captain Agnes Bennett is stationed in London. She's  tough and a seemingly dispassionate female army officer whose duties include the "death knock", breaking the news to military families.

She has carried out 10 such death knocks, with another now in prospect, as she dresses herself after a night of emotionally distant sex with a man met on a singles' website.

McNamara’s script delivers some wit and tellingly effective lines.

He has also created an intriguing and rounded character in Agnes Bennett, played with convincingly curt military focus by Safron Beck, despite, we learn, the emotional toll beneath.

McNamara’s other lead character is Private Iain Maginnis, allocated to assist Agnes as someone who knew the deceased. Jordan Fyffe lends him charm and emotional intelligence, revealing, eventually, another side to the dead man.

Rebecca Lyon, a recent directing graduate from the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama, shows a little inexperience in allowing the physical focus to drift away from the centre of the stage.

The sparse furnishings and some glaringly inauthentic military garb also betray a production obviously done on a shoestring.

Playwright McNamara does include at least one clumsy stereotype in the shape of Sarah Jane Charlton's prostitute. However Dickon Farmer fares better as a more convincing one-night stand.

Nevertheless, McNamara has created a memorable character in Agnes Bennett, qualities which Lyon maximises in her direction of Safron Beck's remarkable performance.

For this reason the production, which runs until Saturday, November 11, is worth an amber/green light.

Theatre N16, a hub for new writers and performers which adheres to the Equity Fringe Agreement, is currently looking for a new home. Read more about it here 

Review Poison

Tim Gopsill admires a drama where a divorced couple comes together over the grave of a child, but he finally cannot warm to the play.

by Lot Vekemans
Translated by Rena Vergano

Love And Other Toxins

A middle-aged couple, a woman and man, meet up after nearly a decade of separation which started shortly after their son died. 

The man is known only as "He", the woman as "She".

“We are a man and a woman who lost a son, and then each other,” he says to her. “Who lost a son and then themselves and then each other,” she corrects.

He assents, which is the only thing they can agree on as they take their faltering steps to rebuild their love.

Poison is an 80-minute two-hander, examing the fall out of a marriage break up, acted with precision by Claire Price, a blonde sarky ex-wife and Zubin Varla as the  husband who previously walked out on her.

The couple find themselves in a reception room of the cemetery where their young son is buried. The discovery of toxic chemicals in the ground are now disturbing his supposedly final resting place.

The young boy's remains, along with those of others, have to be exhumed and reinterred and his parents have arrived to discuss the situation with cemetery officials.

This is, literally, the poison in the title – but the residue of suffering that killed their love is the real poison in the play itself

Written by Dutch writer Lot Vekemans with English translation by Rena Vergano, Poison has been an international success, playing in many languages all over the world, including New York, Berlin and, of course, The Netherlands.

It's concise and focussed, consisting solely of the conversation  between the former spouses,

Simon Daw's set is minimal: two upholstered benches, a coffee machine and a water cooler with mostly full-on lighting from Mark Doubleday.
The drama is driven solely by the two former partners' painful conversation, although there is a possible deception involved.

The only movement comes from the couple’s desperate gestures, but Paul Miller’s direction maintains the tension – relieved now and then by the odd nervous laugh.

There's probably a lot of truth in the reactions. The ending, when it comes, has an inevitability, yet beforehand hadn't seemed certain. 

This would make be a wonderful radio play with listeners forming their own picture of the couple in anguish.

However, despite the fine, detailed acting, it is also repetitive, with, deliberately,  the same verbal and physical expressions repeated, and it does become tedious and distancing.

As a chronicle of unrelieved grief,  it could have torn the heart, but in the end it gets an amber light.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Review Mother Courage And Her Children

Mother Courage And Her Children
By Bertolt Brecht
Translated by Tony Kushner
Music By Duke Special

Peace In Our Time?

Thirty years is a long time in politics and showbusiness, but it's much, much longer and far more cutthroat and arbitrary for citizens and subjects having to cope with the on-off Thirty Years War (1618-1648).

Hannah Chissick now directs Tony Kushner's translation of Bertolt Brecht's play Mother Courage And Her Children with music by Duke Special, first seen in the National Theatre's production eight years ago.

The play spans the war that ravaged the European continent with Josie Lawrence in the main role in a traverse staging in transformed warehouse, Southwark Playhouse.

The audience enters the battlefield through a trench-like tunnel with grimy, grey-white plastic tarpaulin hanging from metal poles. 

First the good points - Josie Lawrence is magnificent, a force of nature with a tremulous gleam in her eye, determined to survive, run a business and hold together her children, no matter what.

Her singing and acting experience also gives her the voice, along with some of the other theatre veterans in the cast, to negotiate an acoustically difficult space.

In this production, it is a play of two halves with the decision to adopt regional accents in the first act making some of the actors with lighter voices almost unintelligible in a space where there needs to be perfect pitch to be heard.

The uneven nature of the first act  may lose a few camp followers in the audience which would be a shame because post-interval the accents are suddenly discarded and the ensemble comes together in a far more heartfelt and stinging second act. The problematic acoustics do not quite go away but they become far less of a problem.

Besides Lawrence's Mother, the most consistent performances of the night come from Julian Moore-Clark as her terminally honest and loyal son, Swiss  Cheese,  David Shelley as the chaplain and Ben Fox as the Dutch cook.

For those who have not grown up with the German history school syllabus of 1939 and the religious and political battles, Mother Courage And Her Children needs to hit the correct increasingly frantic notes along the route of Anna's picaresque travels with her increasingly disintegrating family.

This only comes about in the second half  when the seemingly heroic but self-destructive act of Phoebe Vigor's Kattrin is truly powerful and the lighting of Robbie Butler comes into its own. The decision to ally the play with imagery and sounds from the First and Second World Wars is also a wise one.

After all, Brecht and other citizens had experienced an on-off battle to survive economically in Germany from the First World War onwards which became something else after 1933 and the seizure of Germany by the National Socialists.

Barney George's design keeps it simple, tarpaulin and metal poles with the cart dragged by Mother Courage able to move across the space.

However the decision to have an upper balcony on one side may have seemed logical, putting the (temporary) victors and actor musicians on high. But it means in addition to acoustic irritations, one half of the audience might feel discriminated against, having to continually turn around to see the action.

So this is a production which eventually finds its balance in an unhinged world. Josie Lawrence and a few others are tremendous but it needed far tighter direction to keep other members of the cast on course in the first act. It's an upper range amber light.   

Monday, 6 November 2017

Review The Red Lion

The Red Lion
by Patrick Marber

When Saturday Comes

TLT's family once dabbled in the beautiful game, before the advent of big money footie, when a teenage schoolboy relative and friends once blithely decided to form a junior league football team.

This momentous moment in soccer's history didn't take place in a pub and, as far as TLT knows, noone involved was a freemason.

However, little did these newcomers know the already fraught atmosphere they were entering: football scouts circling, a notorious opposing team manager taking a swing at the naive father who had taken on the role of manager. After all, who did they think they were? Schoolboy amateurs?!!

This revival of Patrick Marber's 2015 The Red Lion sets the dressing room drama three-hander in the North East where a struggling semi professional team is looking for a saviour.

The manager Kidd (Stephen Tompkinson), harassed by money worries after a failed marriage and without a roof over his head, desperately needs success whether on the field or in financial wheelings and dealings beyond the white lines.

In the dressing room, old guard kit man Yates (John Bowler) is not in such a rush, ironing carefully and methodically shirts for the next game, placing them on hangers lined up on the players' hooks, ready for the next game.

In their own ways, they are both waiting for a player who will save the club and bring at least a sprinkling of past glories - if they ever existed.

The Red Lion tries to encapsulate three generations of footballing and British social change seen through the prism of the dressing room.

It harks back to organized football's amateur origins with its Victorian founding fathers through local councils and small-town business involvement when footballers were paid a meagre wage and had no pension to the current global professional marketplace. 

TLT remembers thinking during the previous incarnation of the play in 2015 that there was very much a conflation of football and the parliamentary expenses scandal in the play.

Certainly this is a drama which quietly positions itself as a state-of-the-nation, as well as a state-of-the-game play.

Yet Marber never quite finds the right balance between the male sentimentality about the game,  delusions of influence with the sport increasingly a by-product of financial transactions and a genuine, potent spiritual love for the game.

This production, originating in at Newcastle Upon Tyne's Live Theatre, doesn't manage quite to overcome what still feels like rather a schematic piece with the themes announced as patently as a linesman's flag going up.

Nevertheless Dean Bone brinngs the right mix of confusion, over optimistic naivety yet guile to the role of rising star Jordan.

Stephen Tompkinson's performance feels slightly over-egged, although TLT can perfectly believe such characters with sneering personality swings do exist.

However in the intimate surroundings of the smaller Trafalgar Studios space, director Max Roberts could have pulled him back a little to allow the later moments of hurt to emerge more fully.

Yates who has gone through the whole gamut as fan, player, manager and what seems at first to be a sinecure as kit man, is probably the best written of the three roles.

John Bowler's grizzled features and deliberate movements, carrying out traditionally female tasks elevated in male eyes by association with the beautiful game, make for a compelling performance.

There's also a nicely-observed grubby white brick set from Patrick Connellan and terrific sound design from Dave Flynn, providing atmosphere and pace between scenes. 

It's a flawed play which has its moments and still, of course, has a relevance and resonance as further British scandals emerge.

TLT does wonder whether an expanded version might work on TV but in the meantime it's an amber/green light.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Review Minefield

Campo Minado
by Lola Arias
Translated by Daniel Tunnard

War, Huh, Yeah, What Is It Good For?

Before the outbreak of hostilities in 1982 TLT vaguely knew about the fight over Gibraltar between Britain and Spain. But the Falklands Islands and Argentina?

A "war" between a member of the European Economic Community and a South American country seemed scarcely believable to TLT in the late 20th century, knowing nothing of the islands' history.

The flag-waving, bellicose spirit that swept through public events and the media scared her. The deaths of men on both sides and the eventual uneasy conclusion puzzled her rather than made matters clearer. But life goes on.

Mounting a bilingual, verbatim play, with veterans from both sides, about what is known in the UK as The Falklands War, aka The Falklands Conflict, could have been, well, a minefield.

Indeed, Minefield, put together by Argentinian theatre-maker Lola Arias who also directs, allows the men, none of whom speak the language of the erstwhile opposing side, a voice.

They become actors, in all senses of the word, telling stories about their Falklands/Las Islas Malvinas experiences.

The cast is composed of two former Royal Marines,  a Gurkha, part of a regiment traditionally part of the British military, and an Argentinian trio: A factory worker and former conscript who rejoined voluntarily at the beginning of the conflict and two conscripts, a lawyer and a drummer in a Beatles' tribute band.

That is Lou Armour, David Jackson, Sukrim Rai and Marcelo Vallejo, Gabriel Sagastume and Rubén Otero who now look back to their younger selves.

The six relate the history of the war, as they see, saw and experienced it, on Mariana Tirantte's set that includes an enormous white screen for projections of videos, photos and magazine pages from the time and also their visit to the islands many years later.

Long-haired women's blonde and brunette wigs and feather boas hang on the mirror of a dressing table. Various other props, including a drumset, guitars and chairs, are on either side.

Surtitles translate English to Argentinian Spanish and vice versa.

So far, so matter of fact. And, in many ways, it remains so. There is necessarily a choice of what to exclude and include and, as far as is possible, Arias says she allowed the former soldiers editorial control over a now published script.

The words of each side never quite come together, but they have learned to accommodate each other as the discipline of theatre also make the six share a space.

This, of course, includes the Ghurka, part of the British Empire's legacy, whose right to British citizenship has only recently been acknowledged in an increasingly corporate world.  

There is humour, tragedy and an outlet for the grief, memories and anomalies which plague the conflict which, despite plenty of media coverage, still has an uncertain place in both nations' history.

The play also covers a generation where British pop music had been a common language in a United Nations, NATO and Cold War world.

The politicians, Margaret Thatcher and General Galtieri, are portrayed by full carnivalesque head masks with recordings of their voices from media footage.

Arias has a created a very flexible framework - however much or little an audience member may know or not know about the circumstances, he or she listens and notes the more theatrical set pieces and absorbs the words.

The sense comes from the non-sense and the relevance and irrelevance to the men's lives of the islands. An individual's reaction remains individual - both that of the actors, the ex-military, on the stage and the audience member.

For TLT, it still remains a conundrum how a generation linked by post-Second World War social insurance and a common commercial pop music culture could be coerced into killing each other.

There is a comradeship now between the men who have broken down the barriers they themselves put up against what must be called "the enemy". They are trying to come to terms with what has happened together, not isolated in separate TV interviews.

A wall has come down in parallel with the Berlin Wall and European and American occupying forces (which also played a part in the rise of The Beatles and other iconic pop groups).

Minefield also gives us a feel of a pre-Google, pre-digital camera and mobile phone which, nevertheless, is a precursor of the current global landscape. 

If there are gaps, they still satisfy as a human reaction to the violence of the fight and an incomprehensible space which can never be filled. It's a green light.

Review The Diary Of A Nobody

The Diary Of A Nobody
Based On The Novel
By George Grossmith and Weedon Grossmith
Adapted For The Stage By Mary Franklin

Keeping Up Appearances

There's a queer old cove and his family who've moved into The Laurels in Holloway. We know we're in the second half of the nineteenth century and we daresay he's good-natured enough.

But he's decidedly middle-class, of the lower grade, rather than a blueblood or an easy-going Bohemian.

And to top it all, he's decided to keep a diary, first in Punch magazine and then published as a book, as if he were a toff of a politician or an imperial adventurer or some such thing!

Of course he may be some kind of relation to "J" of Three Men In A Boat fame. His descendants possibly also include Adrian Mole, Bridget Jones, and a late twentieth century factional column about a beleaguered father, Hunter Davies, Father's Day, in Punch again and also turned into a book.

Lor', he may even be a distant cousin of Mrs Hyacinth Bucket from a distinctly low form of entertainment, the situation comedy. And, although noone could ever accuse us of being patronizing, he-may-even-have-voted-for-----Brexit! Thank goodness his wife doesn't have the vote!

Yes, it's The Diary of A Nobody in an all-male production at the King's Head with Jake Curran as the upwardly mobile head clerk Charles Pooter. He who takes the train everyday to the City and then back to the brick suburb specially built to be rented to employees such as him.

He also has Jordan Mallory-Skinner as his charming if somewhat repressed wife Carrie, who laughs (mostly) at his terrible schoolboy Victorian Christmas cracker jokes and whose family is possibly of a tad better stock than the Pooters,

Hence Mr Pooter finds himself a little disconcerted with his exhausting, ne'er-do-well, scapegoat but strangely resilient son. The latter announces that he's been "chucked out" of a banking job and is henceforth adopting his mother's family name of Lupin rather than keeping the name William, the name of a paternal relative.

Lupin, otherwise known as thespian Loz Keystone, also has a propensity to propose marriage to rather unsuitable young(ish) ladies with - speak softly lest the neighbours hear! - theatrical connections.

Indeed, maybe a theatrical parent has been just a little too generous with his or her favours, for, along with live-in maid Sarah and several uppity tradesmen, the ladies all bear a distinct resemblance to actor Geordie Wright.

It's a fun evening, with a surprisingly contemporary resonance in our uncertain times, which maybe goes on slightly too long.

Mind you, that tallies with the original episodic structure of the original text by Gilbert & Sullivan actor George Grossmith with his brother Weedon sticking to atmospheric illustrations.

The Diary first appeared as a serialization in Punch which tickled the late Victorian reader while reflecting comically the anxieties of a newly educated generation with a mixture of almost-cruelty and affection.

Adapted by director Mary Franklin, the show is held together by Curran's Pooter, with blond-red hair and beard,  whom it is easy to take for granted.

He's an almost delicate presence, even during his clumsy faux pas, and the most disciplined actor in the cast. It is he who keeps the show on track as a comical play when it threatens to turn into an alternative comedy sketch show.

Designer Christopher Hone adapts the book's original pen-and-ink illustrations, keeping a balance between the realms of the imagination and comic flesh-and-blood stage reality.   Meanwhile parlour music on piano and guitar completes the ambience.

There's also a goodly amount about entertainment in The Diary Of A Nobody and maybe there is a subtext about the theatrical life in the pretensions of the Pooters and their reliance, while trying to retain their dignity, on tradesmen.

But ultimately this was a mocking column, dashed off each week for a magazine as a light-hearted divertissement.

It happens that a wish-fufilment bricks-and-mortar happy ending is just as pertinent, if not more so, in current times. Anyway, for  a spirited production with just the occasional dip in energy, it's an amber/green light.  

Review The Black Eye Club

A thoughtful drama about domestic abuse engages Peter Barker with its wit in dealing with a serious subject. 

The Black Eye Club
by Phil Charles

I Will Survive

A man and a woman have a chance encounter in London. Zoe, a diamond South London gal, is a trolley dolly on the railways. Dave, by contrast, is a middle-class accountant who happens to be gay.

The Black Eye Club is nothing to do, as did cross my mind before the show, with the music of the Black Eyed Peas. But the night turned out to be a good night at the theatre, with a play which refers, more seriously, to a club nobody wants to be a part of - the victims of domestic abuse.

Dave and Zoe meet outside a woman-only refuge where Zoe is staying. Dave, with visible injuries, has fled from his abusive male partner, seeking safety. But there is no place here for a male victim until Zoe, wanting to help Dave, offers to smuggle him into her room.

Both of them face challenges, a journey into darkness but illuminated, a couple of shocks notwithstanding, by a Gloria Gaynor karaoke favourite and a witty script.

Cardiff-born writer Phil Charles is the winner of a Bread & Roses Theatre playwriting competition celebrating its third year. He's been both a homeless support worker and a writer across advertising and television, contributing scripts to daytime soap Doctors and comedy drama Shameless.

The skills gained from screenwriting are evident in this drama with its almost continual focus on Dave and Zoe seeming very televisual.. 

The story, which could be relentless and didactic, unravels in an entertainingly earthy and realistic way. The characters are not mere issue-driven cyphers, but  grounded in the real world.

Director Tessa Hart maintains the tension and the comedy, keeping it both tight and light.

Rebecca Pryle convinces as Zoe with her tart tongue and an honest heart. As the more subdued and educated Dave, Christopher Sherwood is given perhaps a more rounded character by the playwright.

Yet he's also the strop against which the playwright sharpens Zoe's genuinely funny lines. This all serves to make the resolution both real and joyful.

Cathryn Sherman is in the supporting role of  the hostel concierge and Sally Hardcastle's set is a believable small and barely furnished hostel bedroom with the lighting and sound provided by Eren Celikdemir.

The efforts of writer, director, cast and crew make this a fun evening on a dark subject and it's an amber/green light. 

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Review The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man
by Clem Garritty
adapted from the novella by HG Wells

The Vanishing Point

This loose new adaptation of an HG Wells' novella starts off as a promising attempt to fuse themes from a number of different horror tales into an adventurous tale of scientific hubris,  but ultimately falls at the final hurdle.

Jack Griffin (Matthew Spencer), the son of a college Dean, is a young Victorian scientist who believes his experiments will lead to recognition, fame and fortune.

Gradually, though, lack of understanding from family and friends and the axing of his funding, turns his laboratory research into a bitter vendetta and obsession.

He alienates those around him including a suffragette colleague (Eleanor Wyld) on whom he pins his romantic hopes. However he is truly developing a miraculous formula - with the potential for good and evil, as well as unintended consequences.

Directed by Ryan McBryde, there are many enjoyable elements in The Invisible Man, especially in the first act.

The integration of modern themes works pretty well and, despite some clunkily literal lyrics, the inclusion of actor musicians does add  to the atmosphere and also help the scene transitions on the large Queen's Theatre stage.

Purists may object to the inclusion of a female love interest. However it has long been the custom in earlier screen adaptations and  the invention of suffragette Lucy has a resonance with other works by  science fiction pioneer HG Wells.

Wells's own brand of  feminism is found in novels such as Ann Veronica, although it also should be said, it ran side by side with an extremely active adulterous sex life and the fathering of at least one illegitimate child

The Invisible Man's first act does have hints of a certain unwieldy wordiness, perhaps trying to keep rather too much of the writer's novelistic scientific explanation 

Even so, despite these few stutters,  the story manages to gallop along along at a lick with a double narrative time scale, nicely combining a televisual feel with a fully fledged stage drama.

It's in the second act that this version of the classic Wells tale comes a cropper, losing its momentum at what should be some of its most exciting moments.

The thought did then occur that adaptor Clem Garritty's - and songwriter Rebecca Applin's - The Invisible Man is really a musical manqué, with uncertainty of tone and lengthy, laboured explanations suddenly filling the vacuum instead of songs.

It's a shame that the narrative energy drifted off after such an engrossing start.

Lily Arnold's set of browns and grays combines pub doors and  research filing cabinets with sliding sets for a tiled laboratory and a rented mahogany village room. Along with Nic Farnham's lighting and Applin's sound design, pace is maintained in a muscular first act.

Maybe it could have done with a bit more spectactular illusion (magic consultant - that's a title not an adjective! - John Bulleid) and been a bit tighter, but this isn't initially a major flaw in a ripping yarn.

Additionally one could feel the collective audience mind ticking as plausible intellectual and mercenary motivations for the actions of the characters were laid before them. 

It's ironically in some of the visually cleverest,  most stylized moments that this production comes apart.

Jack Griffin, increasingly demented both when visible and invisible, a kind of English Rashkolnikov who believes he can get away with murder, develops the visceral look of a silent film villain.

There are glimpses of Jack The Ripper, Sweeney Todd and Frankenstein in the drama's styles, but it all goes increasingly awry. What should be a desperate rooftop encounter drags, as words rain heavily down rather than the action being pushed forward.

The different narrative time scales also start to tell against the play, with the audience left confused for just a tad too long before the pay-off explanation comes.

While, after the first act, TLT and her own mad scientist automotive sidekick thought The Invisible Man might be an exciting family show, by the end it feels far too long and runs out of steam.

Perhaps the bandages were taken off too soon and it's a show put on before it was ready or, as previously indicated, the bare bones of a darkish musical.

However our own visible critical twosome are loathe to entirely write it off - with further development and tightening up, this dramatic experiment might work far better. Mainly for the first act, it's an amber/green light.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Review Quaint Honour

Peter Barker enjoys a fine revival of a little known play pleading for the acceptance of gay relationships a decade before the decriminalization of homosexuality.

Quaint Honour
by Roger Gellert

Against All The Rules

Quaint Honour, in the first revival more than half a century after its first performance,  is a chance to see a play that championed an argument for gay equality at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain. 

Set in an English boys’ boarding school in the 1950s,  Tully is a house prefect, a liberal-minded atheist who secretly sleeps  with willing fellow pupils, among them the younger Turner. 

Turner challenges Tully to seduce another boy, the studious and naive Hamilton. Yet the relationship,  beginning during an audition for a part in a Shakespeare play where the seduction by the duplicitous Richard III of Lady Anne Neville is the audition piece, turns to genuine love.

At the moment, Quaint Honour, written in 1958, is given, superficially, a topicality by the recent swirl of sexual scandals. 

It  deals with gay relationships in a school where fagging by junior boys, younger schoolboys acting as personal servants for senior pupils, was still part of the school hierarchy. However, this is definitely not a play about the abuse of power. Nor does it advocate lowering the age of consent. 

It is instead a passionate plea for the common sense of equality.

In the wake of the Wolfenden Report recommending the decriminalisation of "homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private", the theatre censor, the Lord Chamberlain had relaxed the rules on stage portrayals of homosexuals in 1958. 

However Quaint Honour, staged the same year,with its overt sympathy for gay men and homosexual sexual relations, was still deemed too explicit, whilst still remaining a play where homosexuality was a problem. 

It could only be  presented at a subscription club theatre, the Arts Theatre Private Club, as a private performance, therefore avoiding the need for a Lord Chamberlain's licence.

The moniker Roger Gellert was itself the pen name of BBC radio announcer John Holstrom, later a script reader for legendary literary agent Peggy Ramsay. He was also a Royal Shakespeare Company dramaturg and translator of Bertolt Brecht and Jean Giradoux, as well as New Statesman theatre critic. 

Quaint Honour was his only original play and groundbreaking in many ways. Notwithstanding, Gellert's characters remain cyphers, even if used to argue passionately for sex and love with a consenting partner to be the prerogative of the individual conscience

Nevertheless director Christian Durham has assembled a strong cast.

Harley Viveash gives Tully both charisma and maturity, all of which makes the character’s eloquent argument for the right to a homosexual relationship a passionate and inspiring moment.

Simon Butteriss as the hopelessly out-of-touch housemaster Hallowes is a perfect fit for a tweed suit and master’s gown.

Equally, Oliver Gully's heterosexual head boy of house to Tully's deputy looks like a man who will one day be on  a cigarette card as the England opening bat, his intense gaze conveying both firmness and narrowness of mind.

In the roles of the younger boys, Jack Archer as  Hamilton and Jacques Miche as Turner give able support.

Designer Tim McQuillen-Wright cleverly reuses the set of the play running alongside it this season, an ecclesiastical office setting turned into a public school complete with battered bookcases  and paint-chipped radiator.

Quaint Honour was both hugely daring and attracted establishment critical acclaim from The Observer and The Times drama critics. It is  a period piece, but also attempts to normalise the reciprocal homosexual relationship. It's an amber/green light for a fascinating landmark drama. 

The Exorcist

The Exorcist
A Play By John Pielmeier
Adapted From The Novel By William Peter Blatty

Satanic Schlock

Arrrrrrrgh! It may be past the witching hour of Halloween (it's November 1st!) but the demons still are guiding TLT's hand as she pens a review of The Exorcist. Lucky it's all on the internet because - hide your eyes if you don't want to know - the pen, instead of ink, is spurting blood ... 😱😵💀😈😈!!!!

Yes, it's The Exorcist adapted by John Pielmeier from the novel by the late William Peter Batty (no, no, it's ok, it's ok, he died at a ripe old age in a hospital earlier this year!).

The 1973 movie adaptation, with Linda Blair as the devil's victim, remains the best-known spawn of this devilish concoction, a cinematic scarefest that helped launch a thousand other diabolic cinematic franchises ... The Omen, Carrie, The Shining ...

There’s a mildly enjoyable night of schlock horror to be had in this production originating at Birmingham Rep, seemingly trundled out every Halloween.

It won't have you calling the demonic lawyers in for a breach of the Trades Descriptions' Act - as long as you're prepared, tongue-in-cheek-style, to buy into the corny horror tropes.

The special effects are nothing to scream home about and it's the occasional moments of pure physical acting, especially from Claire Louise Connolly as the possessed daughter of Jenny Seagrove's actress divorcée, which elicit the most genuine gasps from the audience and stop the giggles.

Anna Fleischle's set design has the feel of a haunted crooked tower with the action on several levels.

But for TLT, who has seen the movie, and her witch's cat-cum-car sidekick, who hasn’t, the Tutankhamen-curse-like side of the story was very unclear, felt irrelevant and the jumping from scene to scene broke up any previously built-up tension.

This is a play with the parts written so thinly, they seem anorexic. Many in the audience may be left puzzling as to why certain minor characters ever appear and disappear - walking out of the door rather than supernaturally.

The writer John Pielmeier and the director Sean Mathias obviously are relying on  the sensational, communal effect on an audience. But, in the end, the creaky fairground effects are not so-grand-guignol.

There’s a good, solid cast of actors and Peter Bowles has the stature (that's to say height) to bring off an iconic moment when he first appears, ready to perform the exorcism.

But the supporting characters are only there to watch helplessly a sweet little girl’s initiation into the diabolic and the profane, using the recognizable tones of a well known actor as the devil.

The stage version of The Exorcist does also have (sorry, TLT couldn’t avoid mentioning this but she left it until near the end) a disturbing, presumably unintended, resonance with the re-emergence of specific Hollywood child abuse revelations and, perhaps more understandably for the time of the book's first appearance, Catholic church scandals. 

The show correctly has an Adults-Only (or in 1970s’ filmspeak X certificate) label. Finally, though, however much it is a book adaptation divorced from the movie, this feels like a decidedly old-school take on a satanic celluloid classic.

TLT can't help comparing how it is shorn of the cinematic political gestures, psychological and magnified big screen thrills. It should have been hot as hell, but finally attracts a lukewarm amber light. 😈💀

Monday, 30 October 2017

Imagine This

Maryam Philpott, a historian, regular blogger  and theatre reviewer. She now joins the TLT team and finds a musical charting one of the Second World War's darkest hours is hampered by a clumsy handling of its themes.

Imagine This
Book by Glenn Berenbeim
Music by Shuki Levy
Lyrics by David Goldsmith

Love Among The Ruins

One of the most terrible and doomed of wartime circumstances, The Warsaw Ghetto, provides the backdrop for the musical Imagine This.

War and theatre have of course a long history together through Julius Caesar to Journey's End and beyond.  Yet theatre has always also provided an outlet for raising the morale of those experiencing the conflict at first hand.

During the First World War, for instance, servicemen started concert parties, putting on a range of entertainments  including all-male revues and the Royal Navy even had dedicated theatre ships pulling alongside warships, allowing men to board and watch a show.

Book writer Glenn Berenbeim with composer Shuki Levy and lyricist David Goldsmith have taken the idea of theatre instilling hope for the civilians caught up in Nazi atrocities.

Daniel Warshowsky, the head of a family and a theatre company, is imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto alongside hundreds and thousands of other Jews driven inside its barbed wire by the Nazis.

In 1942 Daniel is spurred on by justified fears the Nazis have plans to crush them further. He encourages family and friends to put on a clearly allegorical play about the Jews persecuted by the mighty Roman Empire in the desert settlement of Masada.

Initially roused by the idea, the players start to hope for a better future. However their company is disrupted by the sudden arrival of resistance fighter on-the-run Adam.

They give him a starring role to shelter him, but he also forces them to confront stark realities and decide whether to continue with the play and its message of hope or to take another course of action.

Imagine This is a strange compression of two semi-independent stories as the audience watches the cast preparing for the show in the bleak surrounds of the ghetto and then putting on the Roman story as a musical within a musical.

Director Harry Blumenau manages the transitions fairly seamlessly, clearly emphasising the areas where art and life begin to overlap which adds moments of poignancy and purpose to the odd construction.

Yet the ancient story of the Jewish rebels somehow feels more believable and encourages greater audience investment.

Some of the songs here are well-staged including Masada in which the local community vows to defend themselves against the advancing professional army.

Kevan Allen’s choreography uses the rhythmic beating of sticks to suggest a powerful stomping force approaching, while the arrangement of the cast in the Union Theatre's small space gives the impression of greater crowds on both sides.

The rebel story also has a credible love story at its heart. Lauren James Ray is the young Jewish woman who, despite herself, falls in love with Shaun McCourt’s Roman General Silva, the two then togther attempting to prevent further bloodshed.

Their duets Far From Here, Far From Now and I Surrender have a sweet charm, lending genuine feeling to their romance. However, they are also the only characters the audience gets to know well, although Rob Hadden’s Rufus as the Roman Emperor's tribune does make an intriguing villain.

By contrast, the ghetto scenes have much less impact than the Masada musical-within-a-musical and feel much stagier.

As actor-manager Daniel, Nicky Wyschna has considerable presence and sings well. Nevertheless the non-musical acting between the songs is awkward, the scenes lack tension and any real sense of the danger they all face.

Jonny Muir’s Captain Blick skilfully manages to avoid Nazi stereotypes, suggesting a man who enjoys culture and has some feeling for Rebecca, but a collection of supporting characters barely make their mark.

While this is primarily a problem with the show itself (this is a revival following a shortlived première in 2008), it seems a shame the elements of a true story, filled with potential darkness and hopelessness, aren't used more meaningfully.

There are also times when the voices do get lost beneath the volume of the band under the direction of Alex Williams. Nevertheless there are some genuinely engaging moments, particularly when the company performs in unison with striking effect. 

The same harmony, though, eludes the structure and themes of the musical. Imagine This fails to exploit the constant battle between optimism and realism, embodied in the contrasting figures of the actor and the resistance fighter.

War and theatre may be closely linked, but Imagine This never manages to  reconcile its two plots satisfactorily, undermining the signficance of the musical's conclusion, and it's an amber light.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Review Young Marx

Young Marx
by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman

Kapital, My Dear Karl, Kapital!

Hey, it's Young Marx at the new Bridge Theatre, hot on the heels of Young Frankenstein over at The Garrick! The first season at London's latest theatre, a commercial venture but springboarded, some might say, from advantages gained at the publicly funded National Theatre.

This new play by former stand up and writer of One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean and BBC legal correspondent cum playwright Clive Coleman takes seriously Marx's dictum, "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce". Even if the shift in tone to tragedy is in reverse order and comes quite late in Young Marx.

Before that huge beard, Prussian-born "the Jew" Karl Heinrich Marx (Rory Kinnear) is living in London in 1850 with his aristocratic wife Jenny Von Westphalen (Nancy Carroll) and their two young children, frail Guido, known as Fawksy, (played on alternate nights by Logan Clark, Rupert Turnbull or Joseph Walker) and feisty piano-playing little Jenny (Dixie Egerickx, Matilda Shapland or Harriet Turnbull). Also with last, but certainly not least, a loyal maidservant (Laura Elphinstone).

Constantly on the breadline, Marx is also constantly one step ahead  - often by hiding in cupboards! - of a Prussian spy (Fode Simbo), London bobbies (Joseph Wilkins as Sergeant Savage), the family's landlord and the bailiffs, pawning his wife's family's silver.

Meawhile he and his friend,wealthy industrialist patron and fellow political philosopher Friedrich Engels (Oliver Chris) form a political and (almost) a musical hall double act.

Hm, TLT prides herself as a reviewer with both a bourgeois and proletarian sense of humour (Yes! All at the same time!). My, how she and her exploited but cooperative automotive sidekick laughed many years ago when they read a cartoon version of Marxist philosophy.

Young Marx tries awfully hard to be funny and there are also plenty of facts and pseudo-facts (as far as  nittypicky TLT is aware, the allegation of an illegitimate child's paternity is unproven and, while Marx is commonly regarded as Jewish, he was a baptized Lutheran).

Obviously the story does insert details which are specific to the Marx household and its economy but over two hours and 20 minutes, we did wonder if other famous people could be inserted and loose and fast "facts" changed with little difficulty.

Young Dickens, for example, dashing like Bill Sykes over the roofs of Mark Thompson's rather fetching three-dimensional revolving set, complete with swirls of smoke from the chimneys. A Tiny Tim in Karl and Jenny's little boy Fawksy and Dickens's lover Nelly Ternan as the bit on the side? Yes, it's a different story (Marx stayed with his wife) combining fact and fiction, but somehow, there is something template-ish about this piece.

Indeed Young Marx struck us as more of a series of sketches, a League of Marxist Gentlemen, very well-acted, given pace by Nicholas Hytner's direction and the music of Grant Olding. But nothing particularly hilarious and side-splitting or insightful.

There was only one point where we really thought there going to be a humorous lift off with satiric bite - the arrival of a whelk stall owner gving a telling dissection of how she is bound in a torturous (read: privatised) economic supply chain. However, like Oliver Twist, we waited for more which never came.         

Still, it's a spacious, airy, pleasant new building on the South Bank and there's an extensive future programme of new writing including the talented Barney Norris's Nightfall and, next, its first foray into the classics with a promenade version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. So plenty to look forward to but needs dictate we give our verdict on Young Marx and it's an amber light.