Monday, 30 January 2017

Review Years of Sunlight (Preview)

Years of Sunlight
by Michael McLean

The Likely Lads

One of TLT's relatives once  worked in Port Sunlight, a factory and a model village providing comfortable housing for its workers in Cheshire, near to Liverpool, built late in the 19th century. This parallelled similar Victorian projects such as Cadbury's Bournville and the much earlier New Lanark in Scotland.

In a sense, this part of the TLT clan was going backward in time. For before Port Sunlight, he and his new wife  had first moved into a maisonette near London in one of the many New Towns, part of a post Second World War attempt for a planned welfare state, set up not by a company but by national and local government.

So it was with her curiosity piqued, TLT parked her thespian jalopy at the Theatre503 for a preview performance of Years of Sunlight. This is set not in Port Sunlight,  but a post World War II overspill Lancashire new town for Liverpool workers, namely Skelmersdale.

The play charts the lives of friends over 30 years until 2010: Paul (Mark Rice-Oxley), the child of an Irish  single mother Hazel (Miranda Foster) conceived in Ireland, and artistically talented Emlyn (Bryan Dick).

Emlyn lives in a children's home before being fostered on the same estate where Hazel, who watches out for him, and Paul live. Both Paul and Emlyn are children, we learn eventually, of the New Town and both have a chance of upward mobility, skewed in various ways.

The play itself works its way backwards in time and, despite this structure, feels much like a soap opera. However  writer Michael McLean intelligently works in a more explicit entertainment and pre-Murdoch newspaper industry theme.

Paul's golf-playing printer stepfather Bob (memorable John Biggins), ultimately hobbled in a fate reflecting his earlier charitable activities, could equally have stepped out of as a boss in a 1950s' 'angry young man' novel or a Dickens' tale..

In addition, threaded alongside this, as far as we could tell, there is a subtle subtext drawing in the impact of arts'  funding  on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Seared Productions in association with the Theatre503 presents Years of Sunlight. The drama is directed skilfully by Amelia Sears with great clarity, aided by Polly Sullivan's deft, clever design. A granite pillar, a raised platform at an angle on the stage has cloud-like painterly daubs on either side. Video news projections reflect the changes over years, real-life and artistic fracturing.

This is a modest, rewarding play, a little schematic at times, but with plenty of potential - we did feel it might have another life on screen. The 75-minute, one-act drama has an outstanding performance by Bryan Dick as Emlyn with strong performances also from Mark Rice-Oxley and Miranda Foster.

At the same time, without wanting to give anything away, the new town theme did not always feel organically knitted in. So it lacked the final  lump-in-the-throat poignancy and feel of lost promise for which it was clearly striving in the preview we saw.

At its best Years of Sunlight reflects in its story the sly ambivalence found in contemporary narration of genuine 1960s' Skelmersdale Development Corporation film footage, shown in the play, promoting the brave new world. It's an  amber/green light for a tale of good intentions and sad outcomes.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Review Escaped Alone

Escaped Alone
by Caryl Churchill

Apocalypse Some Time

"Good fences," the American poet Robert Frost once famously said, "Make good neighbours.". In Escaped Alone, which returns to the Royal Court after a successful run in the beginning of 2016, a jaunty Mrs Jarrett (Linda Bassett) pops through an apparently random open door in a fence where, she tells the audience, "inside there are three women I've seen before".

In this way we are introduced into designer Miriam Buether's bucolic walled garden, an almost medieval oasis for three seated 70 something ladies with a chair for Mrs Jarrett as they trade gossip over tea on the state of things in their neighbouring lives.

It may not be the Bretton Woods Conference or even a Parliament of Housewives, but it is a mental and, apparently, physical space apart from the hustle and bustle of life in the street outside and their own everyday existence.

The host is retired medic Sally (Deborah Findlay) whose phobia about cats makes them sound more like an arm of state surveillance akin to computer chips than familiar felines. Gentle Lena (Kika Markham) seems to suffer from agraphobia, even if she grasps the mechanics of soap opera when others descend into emotion - "... but you're meant to think that ...". Meanwhile hairdresser Vi (June Watson) turns out to possess not only a sharp tongue but to have handled something sharper with fatal consequences.

Their superficially meandering chit chat ranges over a pot-pourri of subjects: Their famlies; carpentry; new technology; marriages - happy and unhappy -, old shillings and pence, the changing face of the High Street, the latest series (soaps and dramas rather than cricket), a snippet of an old 1960s' song that became an advert jingle earworm.  At the same time they also cover waves, particles and microbes.

A generation caught in the transition 'twixt book and screen, the women's chat is divided into sections by the outsider, Mrs Jarrett, stepping again outside the garden into a blackened space framed by red glowing skeins, possibly screen edges.

Here, outside of the blue sky women's world, Mrs Jarrett conjures up destructive visions of biblical proportions, almost like an alternative comedy standup taking fragments from our lives, recent history and turning them inside out into ironic prophesies of doom laced with wit.  

The title Escaped Alone comes from the epilogue of the apocalyptic whale-hunting classic nineteenth century American novel Moby-Dick with its ur-source in the biblical Book Of Jonah. Like the narrator of Moby-Dick, Mrs Bassett forms an immediate relationship with the audience while stepping into the walled garden and digressing into poetic monologues.

At a short, sharp 55 minutes, directed by James MacDonald, this is no Moby-Dick of a play and feels like a fragment.  But it's a sharp, satisfying fenced off little play with an inner rhythm keeping up the momentum, each of the actors as the neighbours in the walled garden having their moment in the sun. We enjoyed it and it's a green light for a Carly Churchill's secular addendum to the bible, the Book Of Mrs Jarrett.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Review Raising Martha

Raising Martha
by David Spicer

Shallow Grave

Traffic Light Theatregoer here - your detective inspector of plays. And here's a clue that's been mildly puzzling for your theatrical bobby and her thespian vehicle.

School dissection of frogs - that had disappeared from TLT's curriculum by the time she got to Biology GCE.  So the mention of 'O' Levels rather than GCSEs certainly felt strange in David Spicer's intermittently funny farce at the Park Theatre set in a contemporary farm for breeding frogs  so that school kids can cut them up.

Hands up all schools which still dissect frogs?

We're not sure they still exist, so it's not surprising that Gerry Duffy (Stephen Boxer), a tune in, drop out left over beatnik from the '60s and '70s, has decided to diversify after jointly inheriting the farm from his deceased mother, the eponymous Martha.

It's the grave of Martha, the frog farming matriarch, which has also been targeted by clod digging and hopping eternal student-type animal activists. That's Jago (Joel Fry), so aggressive we wondered he might be an agent provocateur (we're not giving anything away), and his passively sweet accomplice Marc (Tom Bennett). They're out to close down the farm using Martha's remains as a ransom bargaining chip dug up on the upper tier of designer Rebecca Brower's two-tier set.   

Then back to Gerry who, as we have said, has seen the market for dissection and vivisection vanish  Ah, maybe he's gone into farming culinary veterbrates, you may think. But no. Be prepared to suspend disbelief again. Using the  dwindling market for educational frogs as a front (?!!!),  he's gone straight across to breeding psychoactive toads alongside growing pot, producing a particularly hallucinogenic form of wacky baccy.

We have to admit, even in the fantastic world of farce, we were a little bemused by this leap (leap, geddit, ribbit?) in logic, but we were willing to suspend disbelief. Even if the never-mentioned leap in electricity and water usage and the bills might have been a clue for the blundering but politically savvy Ortonesque Detective Inspective Clout (Drop The Dead Donkey's Jeff Rawle).  After all, it could be a Gerry hallucination in his drug-addled existence.

Besides all this, there's Gerry's brother, co-beneficiary and snobbish would-be entrepreneur Roger (Julian) who has a hate-hate relationship with his brother, and Roger's daughter Caro (Gwyneth Keyworth) who has her own agenda in this amphibian environment.  

Director Michael Fentiman, along with the cast, have obviously put in a lot of very hard work to keep the momentum of this farce going. But there's no disguising a script where often the gags and set-ups have come first, shoehorned in rather than placed for coherent reasons, even in this caricatured environment.

There are also more cryptic serious elements introduced regarding policing and even an askance look at the Cold War. But these do not feel especially organically thought through in the plot. And some parts of the plot, such as the six-foot amphibians, feel more suited to sketch comedy, radio or cartoon than a stage play

It may have worked for us if it had been shorter and tighter. But as a two-act comedy, it is a play held together by the fragile algae of an energetic cast and diligent direction. So it's an amber light for a froggy piece that doesn't manage to reach princely status, but remains a bit of a tadpole.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Review Death Takes A Holiday

Death Takes A Holiday
Book by Thomas Meehan and Peter Stone
Music & Lyrics by Maury Yeston

The Lost Weekend

With a sweeping melodic score, Death Takes A Holiday is a Tarot card fantasy where the Grim Reaper out of a scientific curiosity, he claims, abandons his scythe for three days to experience life.

He settles on the aristocratic Lamberti family who, along with many others, have known their share of tragedy during the Great War with the loss of their pilot son Roberto, leaving them with a sole child, their daughter Grazia. And of course with Death on vacation, there are no obituaries in the newspapers because there are - no deaths ...  

Death Takes A Holiday the musical, first produced in 2011 but in the pipeline for far longer, is something of a curiosity in itself. For it feels very much like an experiment to find a musical for a bellicose twenty first century which ended up with some beautiful silken songs, maturing from May to December of life, hanging from its skeleton.

Set in 1922 on Lake Garda, it veers in tone between melodrama, pantomine in the comedia dell arte sense, light operetta alongside a shimmy of the 1920s' jazz age, even with a touch of Mozart and a definite nod towards the lush romanticism of Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Bookwise, there's a hint of The Great Gatsby, a smidgeon of The Rules Of The Game. Maybe even a flash of The Magic Mountain and Women In Love.

Death here embodied by dark and square-jawed  Chris Peluso is a war-weary foot soldier, with a trace of a more selfish instinct, who feels he deserves leave from his trade to explore why human beings cling to life so tenaciously

Zoë Doano is a reckless, Scott Fitzgerald type of heroine out for thrills as Grazia.The solo songs, despite the strong voices, mostly nevertheless feel interchangeable. Even if they are an object lesson in how to push forward the story with shades of Beauty and The Beast and the ticking clock of Cinderella.

It's the duets and other songs for the whole company which begin to inject the energy. Starting with the stately Death Is In The House sung by Duke Vittorio Lamberti (Mark Inscoe) and his zany servant Fidele (James Gaunt) with the stirring and finally ironic Life's A Joy, a turning point in mood.

While Alice (a vivacious Helen Turner), formerly engaged to the dead pilot, teaches Death aka  Russian prince Sirki the latest jazz-age dance from Paris streets filled with former American GIs, the aviator's former colleague Eric sings of Roberto's last flight (a superb Samuel Thomas), the very moment of death.

A personal favourite was the change of pace in the operatic opening of the second act Something's Happened. The trio of Grazi, Daisy (Scarlett Courtney) and Alice in the intricate Finally To Know continue the more complex momentus.

The ambiguous but soaring vocals of More and More, a duet for Sirki and Grazia give equal depth and a lift to the story.

Meanwhile the waltzing musical box December Time is a heartfelt multi-faceted reflection from Grazia's ailing grandmother (Gay Soper) and her loyal admirer Dario (Anthony Cable) proving ripeness is all: "All good poetry takes time/You don't hear the final rhyme/Until you reach December time".

With a haunting ivy clad gray stone villa set designed by Morgan Large, delicately and precisely lit by Matt Daw, Tom Southerland directs a fluid production, costumed with panache by Jonathan Lipman.

Yet, as the set opens and closes to reveal the courtyard and then the inside of the villa, it does feel cramped on the Charing Cross Theatre stage and the supernatural, cinematic feel to this tale seems to demand a larger space.   

Death Takes A Holiday was originally a 1924 theatre-of-the-grotesque play by Alberto Casella, two years after Benito Mussolini's ascent to power, the murderous demolition of the opposition socialist party, the dwindling power of the Italian monarchy and its aristocracy. After a slow-burning success on Broadway in an American adaptation, it was first a successful 1934 vehicle for actor Frederick March and much later a three-hour (!!!) movie, Meet Joe Black, with Brad Pitt.

While he was long dead by 1924, this secular parable reminded us of British satirist Saki but played mostly for romance and broad comedy with only a ghost of his mordant, macabre wit.  Part of the problem structurally, it seemed to us, is that the musical's USP (unique selling point) is revealed early on, draining the tension out of what follows.

Sure, Death really is Death, the Grim Reaper. But he could equally be one of the bitter, forgotten men of the post World War One generation, a hypnotising con man (logically taken. the ending actually confirms Death himself is a bluffer) or even a spy with matinee idol looks. He takes on the dead body of a suicide, a white Russian playboy gambler,  Prince Sirki of Belarus. But in 1922 - a Prince of Belarus ...?!! With a more explicit double edge, Death and the Prince might take on a more layered resonance. 

Still  by 2011, we'd had our fill of conflicts again and, with women now front line troops alongside the men, there could be an added poignancy chiming with the rather sudden ending of this rumination on the destruction of the First World War and the breaking of bonds. While it's an uneven musical, there's still a potency in the red rose that does not wilt with the suspension of death, a transient moment of hope and it's an amber/green light from TLT. 

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Review Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice
by Roland Schimmelpfennig
Translated by David Tushingham

A Suitable Case For Treatment

May you live, so the Chinese saying goes, in interesting times.  Brexit, Donald Trump, a pensions' crisis, an oil and gas conundrum, a network of global and individual loans and debts, currency speculation, a housing crisis, an exploding population, an ever-expanding media bubble, constant conflict.

Except it's all a load of tripe. Not the pensions, the conflicts, the currency, the loans. As far as we know, they exist. No, there is no such Chinese saying. Somebody made it up and decided to put an ancient mythic spin on it and attributed it to the Chinese. And now, with the economy as it is, it has taken on a political life of its own.  And you probably thought it really was a Chinese saying. TLT did, until she did the research.

An unexpected Christmas visitor also brings in an apparently seductive pseudo-mythic script of his own in  Roland Schimmelpfennig's Winter Solstice. Written in 2013 and first produced two years later, it is now a new Orange Tree Theatre and Actors Touring Company co-production in a translation by David Tushingham.

It's a snowy Christmas Eve and the household of a German middle-class, liberal couple Albert (Dominic Rowan) and Bettina (Laura Rogers) is in minor disarray as they argue over her mother's arrival -  she wants to cut her off, he feels caught in the middle.

Still, she's the only grandmother of their one child - little Marie - and Corinna (Kate Fahy) is now in the house with the "old-fashioned, wealthy, middle-class doorbell" asking for soap and putting on her new. expensive dress of dubious origins.

With a set by Lizzie Clachan, it's doesn't seem so much a household as an office with the remnants of a party or a rehearsal room for a table read of a script.

Long meeting tables with melamine tops and office chairs serve as the skeleton of scenery. And we get not only the dialogue but narration in the form of  film script action and character description.

Albert is a pill-popping publisher, sociologist and author who has graduated from writing books  on the Holocaust to short story fiction. Bettina is a lithe, ambitious film maker. Inevitably it is Albert who loses out during the play for we learn Bettina has become a bit of a know-all who no longer reads his books - "she knows what's in them or she thinks she knows".

Corinna's apparent previous chance encounter on a broken-down, unheated train ushers in Rudolph (Nicholas Le Prevost), a distinguished elderly doctor who, uh-oh, comes from Paraguay.

He plays Chopin and Bach beautifully and speaks with sweeping gravitas of unity and community to the rapt Corinna, Bettina and their artist friend Konrad (Milo Twomey).  The latter, it turns out, is dependent on and in debt to Albert whose voice becomes diminished over time.

Directed by Ramin Grey, the juxtaposition of narration and dialogue with the movement swinging diagonally like clockhands makes for a mostly perky script, sparking off humour. The performances are taut and precise but at nearly two hours played straight through, there are nevertheless moments in the latter stages when there is a fall-off and its just words whizzing by.

For our English ears, there was a touch of the JB Priestley about the situation - the parable of the stranger entering the household, the eventual fracturing of time and all save for bookish Albert (except someone has sat on his reading glasses!) developing rhinoceros hides as Rudolph's not-so-subtle fascist agenda emerges.

Except how does one differentiate what's in Albert's mind - after all, Rudolph seems to have a Baron Munchausen youthfulness - bristling with hostility and pharmaceuticals and what's a threat? What's improvisation and what are on-the-hoof changes and what is deliberately thought out? And could it all lead to the same dangerous outcome? As Bettina tensely remarks at the beginning, there's always someone who is out to change the script.

We could have done with it being shorter and some of the allusions being, well, a bit less cryptic and secretive. A divided Germany, post World War Two and during the Cold War, developed a unique psychological take on its past, some of it imposed by occupying countries. This play, we think, tries to bring the story up to date as a fresh screen-led generation is more and more distant from those world-shattering traumas.  An amber/green light for a play which serves to show us we live, of course, in interesting times. 

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Review Promises, Promises

Promises, Promises
Book by Neil Simon
Based on the Screenplay by Billy Wilder and IAL Diamond
Music by Burt Bacharach and Hal David

How To Succeed In Business

It may be a sacrilege but TLT and her own little musical automobile wondered how many in the audience watching Promises, Promises, based on s classic 1960 movie,  were working it out ... "If I had an apartment in New York or even central London for $86.50 a month ..."

But maybe that's the point. The movie on which 1968 musical Promises, Promises is based is Billy Wilder's and IA Diamond's The Apartment. It's the lodging in the title of the film, not the emotion. Promises, Promises felt to us an unusual thing, an angry black comedy, a play, yearning and aching not to be a musical.

Accounts' man in Consolidated Life,  CC Baxter, aka Chuck, rents a snug little apartment in New York but has found his own prudential way, he hopes, to consolidate his own promotion up the slippery corporate ladder.

He lends his key on a rota to various middle aged executives for their extra-marital affairs. Even if this means roaming the streets or taking corporate hospitality tickets for sports' games while he's excluded from what should be his own private domain.

It's only when he falls, hook, line and sinker, for gamine Fran, a waitress in the executive dining room, discovers her entanglement with the boss who monopolizes his pad and the threat to her life that the blinkers of corporate advancement fall off.    

This revival follows a 2010 New York production riding on the Mad Men wave and transfering the action back to 1962. It also added two of Burt Bacharach's and Hal David's best known pop music hits, Say A Little Prayer and A House Is Not A Home, although the former, probably wisely, is cut from director Bronagh Lagan's production.

Billy Wilder, according to that tome on everyone's virtual bookshelf Wikipedia, was apparently partly inspired by Brit movie Brief Encounter where the adulterous couple, a doctor and a housewife, use an apartment belonging to a friend of the medic. But we think Wilder also looked at the way Coward changed the story from his original play Still Life where the romantic male lead in the film on stage is, to be coy ;), a prize louse.

Maybe Wilder and Diamond had an even more savage first draft of The Apartment. Or maybe book writer of the musical Neil Simon was trying to get under the skin of the movie, adding his own political and sexual subtext.

However, especially in the first act, there's a lot of talking for a musical including CC Baxter (the men are great initials' men) speaking directly to the audience making for an uneven tone. It's less moral wavering than a boastful kind of co-conspiracy, even though he's the underdog. 

So problematically, the light touch in the movie becomes heavy handed and, especially in our times, dated on stage. The bevy of attractive oven-ready (it's Christmas and there's a Turkey Lurkey Time song wih all the sexy trimmings) young women secretaries and hostesses parade before overweight, cigar chomping executives with apparently no irony. Unlike, say, Frank Loesser's earlier corporate ladder musical.

Still, Gabriel Vick as Chuck Baxter and Daisy Maywood as Fran Kubelik wisely embrace the shades of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine with a precise delicacy in looks, word and song despite a book which feels as if it should have been thinned down.

The songs are clever enough but don't feel particularly memorable or dynamic apart from A House Is Not A Home and I'll Never Fall In Love Again, which was in the original 1968 production. However, these two songs, with their pop production values, also stand out awkwardly from the rest  of the piece.

Alex Young brings welcome relief from the dice loaded in favour of men as a feisty, funny widow picking up Chuck in a bar with A Fact Can Be A Beautiful Thing. John Guerrasio as the cooperative doctor and neighbour also brings a worldly-wise (almost TV sitcom-style) expediency into the show.

Cressida Carré's choreography and the dancing are slick and we were quite taken by Simon Wells's almost Dr Caligari-like simple but effective set with Ben M Rogers' projections. At the same time, it's an amber light for a show with a book which, strangely, feels as if it's being scuppered by being a musical.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Review The Lower Depths

The Lower Depths
by Maxim Gorky
Translated by Jeremy Brooks and Kitty Hunter-Blair

Memoirs of A Super-Tramp

Maxim Gorky had of course more claim to fame than being the lover of politician Nick Clegg's great great aunt. Before several nominations for the Nobel Prize for Literature, he tramped across the Russian Empire, using the experience to fuel his later crusading politics, journalism, books and plays.

The Lower Depths, written at the beginning of the twentieth century, is an ensemble piece charting a few tumultuous days in a doss house, literally the lowest of the low.  According to that worthy tome, Wikipedia, it was subtitled Scenes From Russian Life and it has the vigour of a Hogarthian progress  as the types and their individual fates crisscross the stage.

Director Helena Kaut-Howson  takes on the ambitious task of mounting a production in the fringe Arcola space with an eighteen strong cast clad in a mash-up of modern costumes and accents. The action revolves in part around the arrival of elderly super tramp, Luka (Jim Bywater) who, with a touch of a Capraesque guardian angel, scatters a little humanity on the suffering and brutalized inhabitants.

But he has a tough job. The dank netherworld with its echoing dripping pipes is the property of grasping and religiose landlord Kostyliov (Ian Barritt) and his snarling wife Vassilissa (Ruth Everett). She is cuckolding her elderly spouse with one of the lodgers, virile thief Vasska (Doug Rao) but his eye has wandered over to her younger sister red-haired Natasha (Katie Hart).

It's a lengthy evening where the translation of Jeremy Brooks and Kitty Hunter-Blair brings to the fore, we thought, a strange sprinkling of the Russian literary masters combined with the self conscious style of the Moscow Arts Theatre combined with Gorky's gritty, if sometimes schematic, social realism.

OK, we'll come clean (cleaner than the folks who live in this grimy cellar at least). We're not experts on Russian literature, or anything Russian, but we've  read Dostoevsky's tale of murder and spiritual redemption Crime And Punishment, seen Gorky's other plays Philistines and Summerfolk. in translation again, and have an inkling of what Tolstoy is about.

Bywater's Luka as Gorky's secular pilgrim manages to  avoid pure sentimentality. Everett's Vassilissa slouches convincingly as the venal wife. Simon Scardifield's actor is poisoned by alcohol and losing not just his mind, but his lines. James Simmons's Baron, born into a titled family and a former government official, battles with low life Nastya (Jade Williams), aching for the love she finds in cheap novelettes. The louche Satin - Jack Klaff - and Rao's muscular crook and lover Vasska are all distinctive characters. 

Nevertheless this can't disguise this is a play, with its actorly alternte turns, that could do with some trimming, It may naturally have been revolutionary back in 1902 with its stew  of literature, corruption and death laced with black humour. But despite some inventive use of accents to give it modern currency,  a more radical translation might bring something more to the surface. Still, it's an amber light for a classic play we're glad to have seen.  

Monday, 16 January 2017

Review Wish List

Wish List
by Katherine Soper

Stand And Deliver

Are we all now living in a pipe dream Wish List economy since state terminology changed us from citizens to customers?

From the health service, through education,  the workplace and benefits' system, dominated by  computerization and the internet,  Katherine Soper's Bruntwood prize-winning play Wish List strikes a timely Kafkaesque note

Agency worker Tamsn (Erin Doherty) is setting off for her first day at a fulfilment centre. No, it's not a place where all her dreams will be fulfilled but the storage and packing warehouse of an internet mail order company.

She's taken a zero-hours' contract job while her mentally ill younger brother Dean (Joseph Quinn) has had his benefits suspended and possibly taken away altogether.

Allocated a role packaging goods from the conveyor belt,  she finds the heat is on - both literally and figuratively in the oppressively hot working conditions.

She dons the hi-vis vest and uncomfortable plastic boots provided but it's a job where she's just as much a consumer as a worker, paying for a locker and accruing points, although these are not for loyalty but penalties working like warnings which can lead to dismissal.

And rather than simply being computer programmed, the productivity targets seem deliberately set up for failure and to keep the worker psychologically cowed.

Even though they are in competition, she forms a bond with fellow worker Luke (Shaquille Ali-Yebuah). He can afford to be more of more ducker and diver, indulging in apparently undetected petty theft from the firm and covering for Tamsin's relatively inept efforts. For he is off to join another, but less bottom-of-the-pile, conveyor belt, to college and a job in the ambulance service.

Directed by Matthew Xia, Erin Doherty gives a finely tuned performance as Tamsin, a teen dealing with problems which would break many a seasoned adult. Ali-Yebuah has a boyish charm as co-worker and her brother's former schoolmate Luke.

This is in some ways a perfunctory play with plenty of facts written to a template with a seemingly realistic structure giving way to something more fantastical after a bout of drinking, a dream and with the now almost-obligatory-in-new-writing rendition of a song from recent pop culture, in this case Meatloaf's Bat Out Of Hell.

There are also elements which beg basic practical questions. Wouldn't Tamsin have gone to the Citizens Advice Bureau rather than trying to cope alone? Where is Dean's GP? How can Dean afford an internet connection and to keep a bank account as well as the copious amounts of hair gel he orders for his obsessive compulsive disorder? It does sometimes radiate an actorly concentration on character at the expense of some of the practicalities.

Nevertheless, it's the arrangement of ideas behind this play that does herald an original voice, even if the execution of the script feels a little clumsy and the play overlong. There is a clever merging of school, the health service, benefits' system and the warehouse work - in short, much of life - in a bingo game of chance and cheating.

It also reminded TLT that in the 1950s a flurry of time-and-motion style baby "experts" advised, impossibly, that babies should only be fed and picked up at set times and other mechanical tips.  Ready, some critics of this type of parenting said, for working in factories.

It seems that the times have come full circle in this twenty first century play without the increasing affluence that accompanied the post Second World War economy. It's an upper range amber light for a promising debut play from a writer who brings an understanding of how this working environment is now  moulding lives outside the warehouses in a work-unfair state.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Review The Albatross 3rd & Main

The Albatross 3rd & Main
by Simon David Eden

Let Us Prey

Somewhere beneath the morass of literary, TV and movie references blanketing The Albatross 3rd & Main, there could be a useful little comedy, probably one for the movies.

Unfortunately that tale gets lost in all the self-regarding references which halt the action and make the cast, playing otherwise clearly delineated characters, lose their bearings.

Directed and designed by writer Simon David Eden, it's perfectly well-staged in a detailed and evocative set, a convincing American roadside general store. But it may have been a wiser decision to bring in another director to look at the play's structure and make the verbals sing and zing for the stage.

Instead of three men and a baby, it's three men and a golden eagle. A dead golden eagle which can command big sums on the black market.

For the Golden Eagle (which we note is the national bird of Mexico), along with the bald headed eagle, the national emblem of the United States, are protected species. Even aiding and abetting the possession of or harming a feather on the back of these birds means law enforcement agents of the Fish & Wildlife Agency will be on your back.

Not a good situation when you are storekeeper Gene (Hamish Clark) who has already in desperation transferred his shop into the name of another man (Andrew St Clair-James) to lessen his responsibility for the thousands of dollars of debts accrued by his feckless wife from whom he is separated.

So when local mobster Ricky aka Spider (Charlie Allen) walks in with a dead golden eagle in a blood spattered box, the avian equivalent of the corpse-in-the-boot in gangster movie Good Fellas, it's enough to drive a guy nuts - and paranoid.

TLT immediately felt there was more than a nod towards Tracy Letts' Bug, recently seen in Charing Cross Road. And this, with constant allusions to Coleridge's poem Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, shades of detective serial Columbo and numerous other book and broadcast references, felt glaringly shoehorned in.

Yet the basic premise of three guys roped together into covering up their possession of an illegal eagle (yes, the roadkill tale turns out to be a tall tale)  has plenty of potential. But the plot seems to disintegrate with only three or four artificially forced pivotal pieces of action.

Still, when the supposed zingers slow down (the diction sometimes leaves something to be desired) in a few moments within the second act, there's some space for the script and acting to breathe. But otherwise this is a far too self-conscious a play which also tries to pile in  economic and political metaphors galore instead of concentrating on what could be a strong story.

The location is apparently Massachussets but the trio struggle with sometimes very uncertain American accents and diction.

Hoodlum Spider -- - think  a Damon Runyon character crossed with James Cagney. Punch drunk ex-boxer Louis aka Lullaby (St Clair-James) approaches Of Mice And Men's gentle giant Lenny. Hamish Clark finds his rhythm and eventually manages to nail storekeeper Gene, in spite of the playwright's verbose script and lack of investment in story and plotting.

For, with a firmer plot and less clunky clever-clever allusion, this might have been quirky, thoughtful and exciting, but, as it is, it's the lower range of an  amber light for what feels like an opportunity missed.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Review The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner
Adapted by Matthew Spangler
Based On The Novel by Khaled Hosseini

A Library Of Suffering

For refugees from countries riven by conflict the decision to exit, to flee, is hardly a choice - and the world is hardly an open book. The Kite Runner started as a novel by Afghani-born Khaled Hosseini whose family left everything to seek asylum in the United States after the Cold-War Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The play is a clear if stolid rendition of a fictional modern refugee tale with almost biblical resonance. Amir and Hassan are constant childhood companions in 1970s' Kabul, an invincible team when it comes to the kite flying battles on the streets of Kabul. But their closeness is complex - not solely a friendship of choice but a master-servant relationship controlled by Amir's father, part of a caste system, and eventually wrenched apart by a rape and a wretched lie.

An intimate family story of betrayal and redemption stretching across the globe set against epic, seismic world shifts, it caught readers' imagination and become a best-selling novel. It's now a stage adaptation which feels as if it knows what it wants to do in theory but in the end is far too constrained by its origins on the page to make for a visceral theatrical experience.

What aims to be an intertwining of messy human experience with an exploration of storytelling and lying turns out to be a clunky framework. Novelist Amir (played as child and adult by Ben Turner) narrates the story, obviously from his point of view, until other voices are allowed their say. Yet the fact that his wronged friend and servant Sohrab (a touching Andrei Costin) never has control of the narrative is drowned out in the linear rush of events.

Still, it's efficiently directed by Giles Croft and has an intriguing design by Barney George which hints at what could have been.

Two kites open and close like the leafs of an illuminated Afghan manuscripts. Spindly brown uneven planks transform from the compound fences of Afghanistan and the notched credit-recording Afghani tally sticks to American skyscrapers. Yet at all times they could be fragile book spines.

This is probably a version which would work much better on a smaller stage in the round rather than an unforgiving proscenium arch stage. While Matthew Spangler's adaptation gestures towards the literary craft, it's never developed enough. The oasis of exhilaration and comradeship of the kite flying alongside the violence and treachery are never the tender mysteries in the midst of suffering and thwarted lives they could have been.

The strengths, and maybe the flaws, of the source material push through the peaks and troughs of this big, baggy play. Many will come out knowing a great deal more about Afghanistan and the refugee experience in West Coast America.

And while some of the problems are specific to their situation, others are more universal with just as much a feel of "There but for the grace of God ..." It's an amber light for a play which, while it remains stubbornly earth-bound, does at least aim to fly high.

Review Veterans Day

Veterans Day
by Donald Freed

The Wrong Berlin

When one talks about the military-industrial complex (surely you have constant chats about it 😉 ?), the entertainment industry perhaps does not immediately spring to mind. Yet entertaining the troops and maintaining civilian morale is indeed a show business staple. And in the USA during at least one World War and ensuing conflicts, there was always hope.

Comedian and movie star Bob Hope, that is.

Donald Freed's 1989 three-hander Veterans Day takes place in a military hospital, part of an armed forces' benefits' system, run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, separate from the Department of  Health. A trio of veterans are waiting for the arrival of the president and the awarding of medals.

Bob Hope has a minor hearsay role in this 95 minute off-kilter piece of military and commercial misdirection and misguided missiles. Yet it also reminded TLT of hit songwriter Harry Warren's bitter  quip about his relative obscurity compared to a more celebrated practitioner of the craft, Irving Berlin. "They bombed the wrong Berlin".

Only slight facial flickers and an outstretched sock-clad foot indicate signs of life in wheelchair-bound shell-shocked First War War private Leslie Holloway (Roger Braban). He  provides a mostly-mute audience for the psychodrama played out in front of him.

Younger man, John McCormack Butts (Craig Pinder) never saw active service in World War II but  was part of the World War II entertainment corps, acting, we learn gradually, as the military equivalent of a Hollywood publicist covering up armed forces' scandals.

Pinder settles down into the role of  Butts, intent on successfully stage managing the presidential visit. Butts juggles alongside knowledge of a less-than-salubrious past add concern about his family and business in the face of rival Japanese manufacturers, at first almost absent-mindedly trying to accommodate increasingly strange utterances of the third man in the room.

Colonel Walter Kercelik is a decorated Vietnam war hero (Charlie De Bromhead), a well-known media face seemingly with access to secret service dossiers on the other two who has, apparently, under the trauma of hiding wartime atrocities, gone rogue. 

Kercelik, who has in turn been an audience for Butts' rendition of war songs from Ivor Novello's Keep The Home Fires Burning to, yes, Irving Berlin's anthem, "God Bless America" keeps the persona of a detached celebrity before his plan, using Holloway as a prop and accessory, becomes apparent.

Originally started as United States' Armistice Day, Veterans Day passed into law as a November 11th legal holiday.

It was "dedicated to world peace" in 1936, a year after the introduction of United States' social insurance, bringing it in line with similar measures introduced before World War I in Europe. After World War II a campaign to  create a national veterans' day, honouring all  military veterans, was put in place.

The play Veterans Day manages to encompass the American Civil War, the First World War and the special relationship with Britain, up to the Vietnam conflict. But there's no doubt this is, intentionally, a seriously weird piece

On the one hand, it's a straightforward presidential assassination plot. On the other, it twists together government, history and state welfare, the psychological and the  medical, the military and the commercial of an America on the cusp of a post-Cold War new world order.

The Finborough revival takes place as, many would say, fact has outpaced fiction. Donald Trump, arguably or indisputedly according to your point of view, made by TV, prepares to enter the White House. At the time of the play's premiere, movie-made Ronald Reagan, albeit a more experienced politician, had just left the White House, leaving the subsequent fall of the Berlin Wall as his legacy.

In 1989 it was classed as a "black comedy".  Now the revelations and twisting and turning tales of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and  the internet bubble conspire to make it something else. There's even been a Secretary of Veterans Affairs with Japanese ancestry.

The acting in this production is solid and director Hannah Boland Moore manages her own juggling trick in nicely pacing a fantastical dialogue-heavy play, aided by the drifting in parade ground noises of Matt Downing's atmospheric soundscape. It also feels a good decision to exploit the play's cinematic qualities by having it run through without an interval as the protagonists strike more and more the poses of Hollywood melodrama.

This play feels like both a critique and a part of Americana, a patchwork which still has resonance. Yet a play with so many purely American references also feels for a British audience more as if it could be the inspiration for new drama to grapple with our strange times. It's an upper range amber light for a play which almost persuades us that two wrongs can make a right.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Review Three Sisters

Three Sisters 
by Anton Chekhov
In A New Version by Tracy Letts

Home And Away

The world in this spare adaptation of Chekhov's penultimate play, kept by playwright Tracy Letts in an early twentieth century milieu, turns in jerks and starts like the beat in The Clash's Should I Stay Or Should I Go which marks the final note of this production.

The three sisters, brought up in Moscow, come from an army family, their late father a general sent to a provincial garrison town.

Schoolteacher Olga (Celine Abrahams) and Masha (Ivy Corbin), who married young but has grown to despise her husband (Steven Rodgers), chafe against their rural life. The youngest, romantic Irina (Molly Crookes) works at the telegraph office. Her nostalgia for Moscow is the most intense, like her sisters feeling herself a cut above her local neighbours, longing to and believing she will return to the bright lights of the populous city.

The military stationed in their town, with a round of social events, provides the sisters' chief distraction, albeit, as happeed once to their own family, they can be moved on at any time. However, the sisters also pin their hopes on the sole son of the family, their violin-playing brother Andrey (Benjamin Chandler), whom they believe has the wherewithal to become a professor.

Masha has become romantically attached to commanding officer Vershinin (Ashley Russell), trapped in an unhappy marriage. Officers, gentle piano-playing Tusenbach (Ian Malmed) and aggressive Solyony (Hugo Nicholson), pursue flighty Irina.

They barely register at first how their brother has rooted himself in the town, becoming entangled with local girl, the ill-educated but ambitious Natasha (Francesca Burgoyne).

 With the title shortened to the more casual, less portentous Three Sisters (originally The Three Sisters), this play aims to cross the time divide by shorning the piece of most of its specifically Russian social and literary references.

This has both positives and negatives. The production at the Union Theatre, directed by Phil Willmott, has a cinematic quality - voices drift from rooms off the in-the-round stage, actions halt in meaningful glances and pauses.

Small but effective moments, verbal and non verbal, are scattered across the play like sharp visceral pin pricks. Irina's superior grimace, for example, when exiting the room containing the socially awkward Natasha, little knowing the relationsip with Andrey.

Nevertheless, there are drawbacks. There is an unevenness in tone in the denuded script with its many pauses. Its spareness feels at the expense of the relationship between the three sisters, along with the plot and a flattening of the drama's natural ebb and flow.

Natasha's role with the most strident lines as she gains in power becomes magnified, the self-reproach of the elderly doctor Chebutykin (despite a relaxed and engaging performance by JP Turner) is diminished, the turning point fire loses dramatic urgency the relationship between characters viewed from the outside rather than felt from the inside.

At the same time, there's no doubting the visual and verbal appeal of the strong cast, along with lucid design - costumes by Penn O'Gara and a soundscape by Sebastian Atterbury. The production slips purposefully from the brightly lit family drawing room to a simple bench in twilight gloom with hints of a railway station caught in time.

Letts is probably best known otherwise for his tale of family torment, Pulitzer Prize-winning play and then film, August: Osage County. Moments of zest and delicacy have impact in Three Sisters, but finally this adaptation of the play seems just too subtle and filmic and it's an amber light for an interesting if somewhat impaired version of the Chekhov classic.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Review The Tempest

Shakespeare's enchanted isle weaves its rich and strange spell on Carolin Kopplin in an enticingly musical, cross-gender production.

The Tempest
by William Shakespeare

Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered

This pared-down version of William Shakespeare's final play provides a rather superficial but still engaging production with some outstanding performances.

Actor musicians greet the audience as they seat themselve on three sides of stage, providing an exotic and welcoming atmosphere. Then the drumming ceases abruptly as Prospero (Sarah Malin) makes her entrance for her first monologue.

The sorcereress, Prospero, ruler of this strange island, is the rightful Duchess of Milan, overthrown by her treacherous brother Antonio (Gemma Lawrence) and his accomplice King Alonso of Naples (Stanton Plummer-Cambridge).

When Prospero learns that her enemies are sailing past the island she conjures up a storm to shipwreck them with the help Ariel (Peter Caulfield), one of the spirits on the island who was imprisoned by the witch Sycorax before Prospero freed him to use his services for her own needs.

Directed by Amy Draper, this production proffers a fresh approach combining Shakespeare's language with beguiling dance and music, creating a magical world solely with percussion (excellently performed by Andrew Meredith) and sound effects (music Candida Caldicot) on an otherwise bare stage. Yet this version's short running time leaves very little room for character development which works against the performers.

The cast, save for Sarah Malin and Peter Caulfield, all play a variety of characters. Minor costume changes imply sudden switches into different characters which can, at times, be somewhat distracting but are usually well-executed.

Malin's Prospero rules with a quiet authority, using the graceful Ariel and the crude Caliban at her pleasure. Caulfield's Ariel is a delicate, vulnerable creature. Yet he remains detached and understated, with a sweetly ethereal singing voice, moving swiftly across the stage despite being wrapped in a strait jacket.

Meanwhile Plummer-Cambridge's Caliban is a damaged creature, dethroned like Prospero and therefore bitter and resentful, yet too ignorant to progress. Benjamin Cawley's Ferdinand is so full of life that Miranda, played by Gemma Lawrence, quite understandably falls head over heels in love with him.

The clown scenes involving Trincula (Lawrence again) and Stephano (Cawley) are well devised and the comedy works, particularly the image of the four-legged monster created by Caliban and Trincula.

Another highlight is the wedding dance performed by Prospero, Miranda and Ferdinand and accompanied by a myriad of invisible inhabitants of the island. Nevertheless, the most touching scenes belong to Ariel and Prospero, defining their unique relationship. So, even if this truncated version has its flaws, there is still enough humanity and enchantment to merit an amber/green light. 

Review The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus

The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus
by Tony Harrison

Mind The Gaps

In a world where the collection of data has become inextricably linked with cultural dominance, Tony Harrison's 1988 funny yet ambiguous The Trackers Of Oxyrhnchus has a welome revival at the Finborough Theatre in a cut-down production directed by Jimmy Walters.

To our untutored classical ear, this verse play, written shortly before the end of the Cold War by Tony Harrison, cannily mixes the archaic and the contemporary, the allure of Tutankhamun-like archeological digs with the then in-the-news music and recording industry's exploitation of young musicians.

All within the framework of the lewd and bawdy satyric play with the potential for tragedy, an almost-lost theatrical form which accompanied the ritual tragedies and comedies of ancient Greece.

This strange but compelling piece is itself  divided into three fragments. An imperial 1907 archeological expedition with two dons seeking to export in crates their papyrus finds to an Oxford University collection.  A 5th century BC mythological age of Greek gods and cloven-hoofed phallicly well-endowed, part goat, part horse, part human, satyrs. And then current-day London, via National Service, the South Bank's 1951 Festival of Britain and the 1970s' National Theatre.

The two obsessed dons, Bernard Grenfell (Tom Purbeck) and Arthur Hunt (Richard Glaves) are supervising a phalanx of Egyptian workers uncovering ancient scraps on a rubbish heap.

Disappointingly for the intense Grenfell, legal petitions from disenfranchised citizens outnumber slivers of literature including a long-lost satyr play of Sophocles - every legible word matched by an equal number of illegible phrases and huge gaps in the papyrii.

Grenfell's mental state proves to be the gateway to a past mythological world where Apollo possesses the don's mind demanding the mortal puts together the lost play without any gaps where the meglomaniac Greek god is both main character and superstar actor.

Apollo also demands total control over the arts maintaining an artistic class system which excludes satyrs from creating or playing.

Nevertheless the call to excavate the long-lost play also acccompanies Apollo depending on the satyrs, lured by a reward of gold and freedom, to find his lost herd of cattle. Indeed, the herd only proves to be another gateway to the production and reproduction of music unlicensed by Apollo.

Harrison is a Leeds Grammar schoolboy who read classics, not at Oxbridge, but at his local redbrick university. The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus takes a niche piece of historical and literary excavation, tracking its wider implications.

He takes as his starting point a reality - the expedition of Grenfell and Hunt using Grenfell's historically recorded real-life mental illness to lead us finally into a world where the past, the contemporary and the mythological uneasily co-exist together.

The leader of the satyrs (Richard Glaves transformed from Hunt) brings the audience through a Good Old Days Leeds Variety type singalong. Except the audience is instructed in a smattering of Greek to sing along to as a charm to raise the  boozy, lusty satyrs. They burst out from the confines of the crated papyrii on which Sophocles wrote his satyr to erupt into a spirited proletarian clog dance choreographed by Amy Lawrence.

It's certainly a very male play, a hold broken only by the fragile yet self sufficient nymph Kyllene (Peta Cornish) bringing a statuesque female dignity, a Victorian view of nymphs, contrasting with the rumbustious satyrs as they seek Apollo's lost animals.

Mixing classical stanzas, what snobby bloggers (!!!) might call popular culture, a kind of Dr Seuss frivolously serious didacticism, the dramatic conflicts over translation and artistic creation widen and darkens into the failure of idealism, increasing suppression and censorship.

Walters' energetic direction safeguards the lively pace and comedy but also clearly delineates a grevious uncertain, repressive status quo.

Designer Phil Lindley's tattered papyrii hangings, stone slabs and one dimensional pillars ingeniously evoke the Egyptian excavation and transform into a mythological backdrop before the archeological layers are completed by projections of modern London on the backcloths.

The costumes by Alexander William Connatty are equally unfussy and effective. Last, but not least, the lighting of Tara Marricdale takes on a central communal status and tellingly obscures as the ideal retreats into more violent consequences. 

And somehow Harrison's fidelity to multiple sources, the orginal history and texts, yoked together with a fluent train of thought rather than cut and paste as they emerge into the modern world,  insures a resonance in our current digital environment. Director Walters has only to make the lightest of updates - mobile phones, capable of filming violent acts, and isolating earphones instead of boomboxes - to keep the play pertinent.

For  we live in an age where artistic creation is now subsumed into and consumed as "content". The most popular, easy-to-reach websites often dominate with one sole interpretation of events and  control of such data, whether collected by companies or the state, raises the possibility of abusive monopoly commercial exploitation.

The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus still feels seriously relevant. Even the unwieldy title seems to anticipate our cookie-tracked digital age and it's a green light for this intriguing, humorous yet troubling play.