Sunday, 30 July 2017

Review Coming Clean

A brittle comedy drama revealing the cracks in a seemingly stable relationship provides a funny and wistful evening for Peter Barker.

Coming Clean
by Kevin Elyot

The Love Knot

Long-standing gay couple Tony and Greg are celebrating their fifth anniversary in a Kentish Town flat.

Greg is a worldly, acerbic academic, while would-be writer Tony and unattached serial cruiser friend William enjoy partying.

Tony and Greg have an open relationship, tolerant of each other's one-night stands, but the two men still remain serious about and committed to each other 

That's until the arrival into their domestic milieu of buff young "resting" actor Robert whom they hire to clean their flat. Finally Tony begins to realise that he might want something more out of his relationship with Greg.

Coming Clean was first put on in 1982 at the Bush Theatre, the debut play of the late playwright and actor Kevin Elyot .

This was 12 years before the playwright's most successful play My Night With Reg brought him to playwriting prominence..

The earlier play asks, in the era before AIDS but after 1967 decriminalisation of private homosexual acts,  when does an open relationship cross the line into infidelity?

Now this thought-provoking and touching play has been revived at Islington's King's Head.

Jason Nwoga is the college lecturer, Greg, Lee Knight is his partner Tony who finds their relationship severely tested, Tony Lambert the domestic help of the love triangle and Elliot Hadley is comically engaging as William.

The plot, issues and humour of Coming Clean have worn well and it remains a witty and insightful look into the nature of relationships, love, loss and betrayal with believable characters.

Adam Spreadbury-Maher has assembled an excellent cast on the detailed set designed by Amanda Mascarenhas.- a Kentish Town flat of the early 1980s complete with sofa, hi-fi, kitchenette, Lady Di tea caddy and Mozart records.

Elyot, who came from Birmingham and was a former choir boy,  originally called the play Cosy after the Viennese composer's Cosi Fan Tutte.

Spreadbury-Maher's direction is assured and sympathetic. Even though the drama includes darker issues, bitterness and recrimination, the play and performances remain funny, warm and natural and part of a green light production.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Review Just To Get Married

Just To Get Married
by Cicely Hamilton

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Georgiana?

Poor Georgie has a lot on her plate. If only it were a china service plate of the kind normally given as a present to brides to set them up in their new home.

Instead, with the hopes of her aunt's snobbish but shabby genteel family fixed upon her, she's still hoping, at the ripe old age of 29, that a man will make a bid for her in the marriage marketplace.

Playwright Cicely Hamilton was an actress in the early 20th century and also an active feminist concerned with freeing up the social and economic position of women.

Just to Get Married, first performed in 1911, has at its centre Georgiana Vicary, well-educated but financially and socially dependent on her Aunt Catherine and Uncle Theodore.

Her one fervent wish in life, she believes, is to take herself off the shelf and get married, despite her own misgivings.

Everybody is full of expectations when she seems to attract the attention of Adam Lankaster in possession of a fortune and recently returned from Canada, then still part of the British Empire.

What is to be done? It's a case of will he or won't he, as everyone holds their breath, as to whether the retiring, tongue-tied Mr Lankaster will pop the question bringing credit and social status to Georgie and her aunt's Grayle family.

For despite their patronage of Georgie, the Grayles also have a military son in India running up debts, another Tod, whom they can barely afford to send to Cambridge University,  and a daughter, Bertha, of 16 going on 17, approaching the age - and expense - of coming out as a debutante.

Hamilton herself was single,  the daughter of a colonial officer whose mother disappeared early from her life, possibly committed by her husband to a lunatic asylum.

A single woman's fears about her social and financial status in society, despite the introduction of old age pensions three years earlier, were of course well-founded. However, while these anxieties take centre stage in the play, we found a subtext allying the spinster's fate with the already ailing British Empire just as interesting.

There are literary influences - or are they satiric send ups? - of  Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde  and Bernard Shaw but also a sophisticated structure which, seems to us, to point towards much later playwrights like Emlyn Williams and Terence Rattigan among others.  

Melissa Dunne directs a lucid production, although the play itself has an enormous amount of initial exposition, rather going against modern tastes, until the characterful plot really kicks in.

Philippa Quinn as the tomboyish conflicted Georgie cuts a distinctively tall figure in the Grayle's drawing room.

As the blushing, decent but unintentionally male chauvinist Lankaster, Jonny McPherson manages the deliberate pauses and near-stutters beautifully and gives us a glimpse of the efficient colonial businessman beneath the gauche exterior.

The Grayle family, Nicola Blackman as the ambitious aunt, Lauren Fitzpatrick as her young cousin, a barometer of the clashing interests, Joshua Riley as her self-interested elder brother and Simon Rhodes as the mitigating, seemingly benign, Uncle also evoke the pecuniary and mercenary atmosphere.

Although we must also admit we were unduly distracted by the excessively high, but maybe sartorially accurate, collars of the menfolk from costume designer Lottie Smith!

Stuart Nunn's small role as the footman is also effective. His appearances added to the domination of male action over enforced female passivity in the household.

Designer Katherine Davies Herbst makes excellent use of the space in a well-angled elegantly simple set with neatly positioned mirror over the mantelpiece reflecting the action.

Yet the play only fully comes together for TLT and her own motorised consort when it's set against an imperial and political context.

Hamill came from an insecure background where her mother was perhaps incarcerated against her will and the play's third act (it's a two hour play with one interval) is especially ambiguous pitting possible destitution and its consequences against marriage and colonial wealth.

There's also an uneasiness about Britain's place in the world comparable to Georgie's insecurity as a woman in a world where allies are hard to find in both cases.

This was a time when imperial adventures in the Antarctic had gone sour and the monarchy and the state seemed more dependent on their dominions than vice versa.

While the leadership of the increasingly economic and politically dominant English-speaking America was still prepared to mitigate, the family of countries, the Royal Families of Europe and Russia and the family of Georgie all  seem increasingly unstable.

This makes somewhat more sense and also leaves a prescient question mark over what would otherwise be an expedient and unbelievable status quo ending. It's not a perfect play by any means.

However, it strikes us as a strange but farsighted pre First World War and Russian Revolution piece in a perilous age for women campaigning for their rights and for the state of the world . An amber/green light.    

Review Beast

Peter Barker enjoys an ambitious and energetic production where the workplace becomes a battlefield.

by Mariko Primarolo

Work Is A Drug

Banners Corporation is marketing a new product, an emotion-manipulating drug  treating soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress, especially after service in wars overseas.

Yet, according to the marketing, it has wider applications, for the liquid appears to calm and to concentrate the mind wonderfully

Invevitably though, there are other less desirable side effects.

This is the intriguing premise of Southwark Playhouse Young Company's latest offering at the South London venue.

Playwright Mariko Primarolo combines this plot with another analysing the competitive nature of modern-day internships.

Banners recruits four interns but only promises to give one of them a permanent job. For many in the Millenials' generation now, this is certainly not an exaggeration but reality.

Beast is performed energetically, directed by Chelsea Walker in a vibrant but unfocussed production.

At its best, it is a wry, sharply-observed and trenchant look at corporate culture and marketing where there is often an inextricable link between the office and bullshit.

In truth, while the problem has become magnified for graduates and others in today's economy, there is an honourable tradition of plays in previous generations making the same kind of points as Primarolo about young people's employment.

For example John Biyrne's examination of apprentices, The Slab Boys, written in the 1970s but hearking back, even if it was an era of full employment, two decades before that.

Despite Beast's initial good, clear idea, the play and production need more crafting as the switching back and forth between individual story lines feels awkward and are hard to follow.

The writer's promise to "enable everyone in the company to showcase their talents", while an admirable intention, leads to a muddled overall dramatic arc. Director Walker could have done with pacing the play in a more nuanced way.

There's plenty of talent on show, particularly Olive Supple-Still as intern Max, and the cast as a whole works well together. There are highlights - notably when the disgruntled workforce mutinies against the management

while the production does sometimes lose its way, there's certainly value in seeing it before the last performance on July 29 and enough in it to make an amber light.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Review Your Ever Loving

A new drama using the letters of a wrongly-convicted man sheds fresh light for Francis Beckett on a disturbing miscarriage of justice.

Your Ever Loving
By Martin Mcnamara

After They Threw Away The Key

The voice of  Paul Hill, one of the Guildford Four wrongly convicted of pub bombings carried out by the IRA on 5 October 1974,  speaks loud and clear across the years in this two-hander play based on his letters from prison.

With a confession beaten out of him by the police, he served 15 years in jail for a crime he did not commit.

Journalist-turned-playwright Martin Mcnamara discovered the letters in an archive and has turned them into a thoughtful, compelling piece of theatre.

Your Ever Loving is unmistakeably a radical journalist’s play. It uses, as far as possible, Hill’s own words to condemn the injustice done to him, and to provide an intensely theatrical cry of rage at a society that behaves in that way.

The casual cruelty of underpaid and under-regarded prison officers is a part of Hill’s story and there are too many other former prisoners attesting to it for us to doubt it.

“You’ve got a grandmother called Cushnahan?  She’s dead.”

The former MP Denis MacShane similarly describes the same brutality, insensitivity and just sheer incompetence during his recent and relatively short prison sentence for fiddling his expenses in his book Prison Diaries.

Your Ever Loving is, in short, an hour-long cry of outrage, held together as a piece of theatre by the interesting and sympathetic character of  Hill.

That it works theatrically is a tribute to the strength and economy of Mcnamara’s writing and to Stefan McCusker’s strong, thoughtful, low-key performance as Paul Hill.

Between them, playwright and actor have turned Hill from a mere victim into a human being the audience cares about.

Hill’s daughter was not born when he went to prison. She was 15 when he came out.  “I need to find softness and gentleness. I have a daughter” he says as he is brutalised by the prison system.

The only other actor, James Elmes, copes magnificently with more parts than I could count – prison officers and policemen, former Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, and even, on a couple of occasions, the author.

Director Sarah Chapleo skilfully paces the piece, also adding well-chosen music. The minimalist set has a bare wooden table as its centrepiece and feels a little like a prison waiting room.

Much political theatre, in its frenzy about the politics, forgets to be theatrical and starts to lecture the audience. Your Ever Loving does not make this mistake.

It holds the attention throughout, even though you know the ending.  A green light to rush off and see this fine polemical play, either in London until July 29 at the London Irish Centre or in Edinburgh  at the Underbelly from August 3..

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Review The Marriage Of Kim K

The attractive concept of a reality TV musical and Mozart opera mash-up is marred by technical sound issues, finds Peter Barker.

The Marriage Of Kim K
Music: Stephen Hyde
Words: Leo Mercer

Spouses Settling The Score 

The timeless themes of love and relationships underpin this musical riff on reality television's "famous for being famous" Kim Kardashian's brief marriage to a basketball star.

The Marriage of Kim K is a clever attempt to fuse old and new - Kardashian's nuptials with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's and Lorenzo da Ponte's The Marriage of Figaro.

It's a marvellous idea with new compositions from composer Stephen Hyde, who also directs and stars, and lyrics and book from Leo Mercer. A flippant tale of celebrity culture plays alongside the Count and Countess Almaviva in the eighteenth century opera.

We follow the lives of three couples in three different, yet linked, domestic situations characterised by three different musical styles. The couple on a sofa in New York, the celebrity couple in Los Angeles and the Count and Countess in Spain.

The design by Anthony Newton divides the stage into three - the metropolitan apartment of the New York couple, the Kardashian and Humphries media blitz in Los Angeles and the Seville of the original Mozart opera.  

This set enables the action to go to and fro and run in parallel, kicked off by the different priorities of couple lawyer Amelia and composer Stephen - she is hooked by Kim's appearances on TV, he's untouched by celebrity culture and wants to listen to Mozart.

Meanwhile Kim Kardashian (Yasemin Gulumser) and sportsman Kris Humphries (James Edge)  have a tempestuous time in their private lives, publicly expressed on social media. Back in Spain, Count and Countess Almaviva  are similarly having a bit of a barney.

However the major problem of the evening (and it is a very big and unavoidable problem) was an extremely dodgy sound system, the microphoning making unintelligible much of the story and the satire of The Marriage of Kim K.

This was very frustrating, especially as iy appears to be a show full of invention directed by Stephen Hyde who, also merging life and reality, takes the part of composer Stephen with his real-life partner as his wife Amelia who also happens to be called Amelia Gabriel.

The real Stephen also has composed the music, a mixture of classical, pop and electronic,  played by a band of cello, violin, viola, percussion and keyboards.

The Marriage of Kim K is part of the Grimeborn opera season at the Arcola Theatre but the majority of the cast are from musical theatre who don't emerge well from the sound problems.

Emily Burnett as the Countess stands out among the singers. However it is noticeable she and Nathan Bellis as the Count are the strongest performers -  and the only trained  opera singers amongst the cast.

In true opera buffa style, the audience thrills at the wild swings of emotions and a satisfyingly neat and emotionally fulfilling conclusion. There was enough energy to intrigue me at times, but the overwhelming sense was of unfulfilled potential.

Even though it's a good idea and the second act was an improvement on the first, the technical blunders make it a red/amber light. 

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Review The End Of Hope/Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against A Brick Wall

Peter Barker relishes two very different one-act plays about romantic relationships, both stylishly directed and performed.    

The End Of Hope
by David Ireland
Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against A Brick Wall
by Brad Birch


An evening at the Orange Tree Theatre sees the revival of a pair of intense two-handers - a comedy by established Belfast playwright and actor David Ireland and a poetic drama from young writer Brad Birch. 

The End Of Hope charts a night of casual sex between Dermot (Rufus Wright), apparently "Ireland's greatest living poet",  and Janet (Elinor Lawless), a supermarket worker with low self-esteem about her looks.

This is set against a Northern Irish backdrop and, yes, there is a Catholic and Protestant element but the focus is on an unlikely romance between a man and a woman with a dark, comedic twist.

Janet hides herself behind a mouse mask, even if she proves eventually to be a ballsy personality  and disclosures about a past relationship reveal a bizarre secret.

Ireland’s script is witty, outrageous, surreal and inventive, providing an entertaining and sometimes shocking hour of theatre on an effective simple set, a bed in the middle of the space, from designer Max Dorey.

Wright and Lawless have terrific chemistry, commanding the audience's attention as an odd couple -  atheist, Protestant, former Catholic, mouse impersonator, married man.

Ireland's play can be tricksy, as well as entertaining, and director Max Elton confidently handles the pacing, laughs and tricky changes of tone from jokiness to threat and back again.  All in all, a play and production meriting a green light.

Brad Birch's play, first seen at the Soho Theatre in 2013, is a far more serious drama, but not without moments of wit.

Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against a Brick Wall has a serious intent, examining the emptiness of modern life. However the playwright's bold ambitions are undermined by a hackneyed scenario.  

We are drawn into the mundane lives and thoughts, through soliloquies, of Him and Her, a young city worker couple (Orlando James and Georgina Campbell) utterly disillusioned with their stale, flat and unprofitable worlds.

This is a play from a young writer about 20-somethings, ruled by the clock, technology, bills and everything else that makes up modern life.

However, for those who remember it, there is a feel of Reginald Perrin territory, admittedly with more swearing and less middle-aged, in the rebellion against their repetitive, corporate-driven life: "This isn't reality, this is the f****ing office".

We are given their diurnal round -- waking, eating, travelling, working, drinking, sleeping played out on another strikingly effective and ingenious Max Dorey set.

Two benches are the only furniture serving as desk, bed, barricade, office. The two rebels grasp the eye-catching splash-of-colour orange props waiting for them on hooks hanging from the ceiling.

Under director Hannah De Ville’s focussed, rhythmic direction , there's enough momentum to allow us to accept the artificiality of the the characters breaking the fourth wall relaying their innermost thoughts. 

However this piece's structure, rather than the direction,  after establishing with energy its questions about modern life, lets the play down. The ending feels downbeat and unsatisfying after the previous pace and exuberance and it's an amber light.

These two plays, with lighting by Stuart Burgess and sound by Richard Bell, form part of a Directors' Festival  showcasing directors on  the Orange Tree Theatre and St Mary's University Theatre Directing MA.

Judging by these productions, it's well worth grabbing one of the £7.50 tickets and seeing any of the plays before the festival ends on Saturday, July 29.

Alongside the pieces I saw, the run includes Albert's Boy by James Graham directed by Kate Campbell, Misterman by Enda Walsh directed by Grace Vaughan and Wasted by Kate Tempest directed by Jamie Woods.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Review I Loved Lucy

A play about a television icon makes Francis Beckett ponder on the cult of celebrity nostalgia infecting current playwriting.  

I Loved Lucy
By Lee Tannen

After The Ball Is Over

Younger theatregoers start here. I Love Lucy was a 1950s' American sitcom which was also shown here starring Lucille Ball and her first husband Desi Arnaz.

The series was fast and funny and established Ball as one of the earliest great female comics.  Children used to badger their parents to be allowed to stay up and watch it.  (I speak on this with authority.)

In the late seventies, when Lucille was in her late sixties, she met a young man in his twenties called Lee Tannen, distantly related to her second husband, who had grown up hero-worshipping her.

He was her friend for most of the last ten years of her life, and he has now written this two-hander play about that friendship.

The best thing about the evening is a wonderful performance by Sandra Dickinson who spits out her lines in just the way I imagine Lucille in old age would have done.

Lee is played with great assurance by Matthew Scott, but he is hampered by having very little to work with.

We learn early on that he is a gay, neurotic Jewish New Yorker and an unsuccessful writer. For the rest, his devotion to Lucille has to substitute for character and, directed by Anthony Biggs, Mr Scott does well to make that even remotely convincing, obliged as he is to tell us frequently, in slightly different ways, how wonderful she is.

The story goes like this. Lee meets Lucy, is overawed, but manages to forge a strong friendship with her. She takes him to parties and first nights, but mostly they play backgammon, and talk, and occasionally what they say is quite funny.

At the end of Act One they fall out, and at the start of Act Two they make it up again. And at the end of Act Two (normally reviewers do not reveal the denouement, but in this case I don’t think I will spoil anyone’s enjoyment) she dies.

That’s it, really, except that after she dies the author seems to remember a few things he wanted to say about what a great genius she was that he hasn’t squeezed in earlier, and detains us for another ten minutes or so while he says them.

There seems to be a growing view in London theatre that if your central character is a famous actor, you need only recount what happened and you can call it theatre.

I’ve seen a couple of shows recently that appear to have been written on that premise, and I don’t buy it.

I need a plot to hold my attention or, at least, an overarching theme or some clever and unexpected insights; and if none are present, then I need a lot of very funny lines.

Mr Tannen doesn't offer any of these things. There are a few good lines, but not enough of them, and  they are not good enough.

“What did the doctor say to the midget? I’m afraid you’re going to have to be a little patient” is about as good as it gets, unless you prefer “Lucy loved Oprah when Oprah still had a last name.”

I’ll stretch to an amber light on the basis that it’s always a pleasure to watch top class actors at work.

Review The Hired Man

The Hired Man
Book By Melvyn Bragg
Music And Lyrics By Howard Goodall

Market Forces

Many folks in Britain researching their family tree will come across the abbreviation "ag lab" - that is, agricultural labourer, once one of the most common occupations in the country. 

So it is for Melvyn Bragg who based his 1969 novel, turned into a 1984 musical with the then young composer and lyricist Howard Goodall, on the life of his Cumbrian agricultural labourer grandfather.

The upheavals of the industrial revolution made the position of the agricultural labourer far more precarious than ever before. By the turn of the century, they were truly subjugated to the law of supply and demand. Landless male farm workers and female servants would swarm to hiring fairs and try to sell their services to farmers who found it a buyers' market.

Chronicling rural life and the struggles of John Tallentire (Ifan Gwilym-Jones), the farm worker turned coal miner, his wife Emily  (Rebecca Gililland) and their family against a backdrop of industrial and global upheaval,  The Hired Man is steeped in the British folksong and choral tradition.

Yet Goodall also cites German-born composer Kurt Weill, most famous for this collaboration with left-wing writer Bertolt Brecht, as an influence and we thought we detected the impact of  Blood Brothers and, in some of the themes, Fiddler On The Roof combined interestingly with the feel of radical William Blake's very English vision of Jerusalem.

One of the strengths of The Union Theatre has always been an opportunity for an audiences to see and hear unmiked performances.  However on a summer's evening, this plus point does become a minus as the soloists compete against the air conditioning  and an over loud orchestra (alhtough we're not sure if it is entirely the fault of the three-strong orchestra or the staging making poor use of the performing space's acoustics).

The ensemble choral ballads and the duets therefore fare best, such as the stirring Song Of The Hired Men and Day Follows Day. The most moving moments come in director Brendan Matthew's and choreographer Charlotte Tooth's searingly effective staging of the First World War scenes.    

Maybe we wished the effect of the landscape could have been evoked more in this production. However, the toughness and tragedy still comes through in a piece which wears its influences lightly. 

In the central role of John Tallentire, Gwilym-Jones makes the most of a thinly-drawn but tenacious role.

As his spouse Emily, Rebecca Gillenhall is sometimes a little stiff but possesses a beautiful, tender soprano.

Luke Kelly as the ne'er-do-well farmer's son, Sam Peggs as John's brother Isaac with the instinct of a speculator and Jonathan Carlton as the union organiser brother Seth also make an impact.
Inevitably some of the scenes turn to melodrama. However there is a spare, unsentimental quality to The Hired Man which prevents this seeming shoehorned in. Despite the acoustic problems,  this musical and production feels robust and resilient.

Some of the story, stretching over 20 years, may be a little too hastily covered in Braggs's book for the musical, but this is also a tale which keeps a hook in a truthful family past.

We sensed, for example, that the disease blighting one of the female characters could just as much have been industrial disease from exposure to coal dust brought home from the mines on the men folks' clothing as tuberculosis. 

Yet it also has a resonance now in the age of zero hours' contracts and the "gig" economy. It seems that recent news stories want us to buy into the illusion that we are all equally hired men and women. 

While the comparison may seem almost laughable, some of the vocabulary of the market place used nowadays by the highest paid employees, especially in the public sector, to justify their pay and the way they are employed becomes a distortion of the notion of hired men and women at a "fair" rate.

The Hired Man's thread of dignity and honesty in its treatment of past generations tied to the land and the coalface can encompass such meanings. All of which are reflected in an integrated range of musical styles and some outstanding moments here in performance. So it's an amber/green light.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Review The Blues Brothers - Summer Special

The Blues Brothers - Summer Special
Based on the characters and film written by Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi

Live, Thrive And Survive

"It is what it is ...", that was the verdict in the ladies' toilet after the show as we strangers stood by the  sinks discussing the show.

Less a musical or a cabaret and more a tribute show, it trades of course on the NBC's Saturday Night Live musical sketch-turned-hit 1980 movie with Dan Ackroyd and the late John Belushi, along with the iconic black suits, pork pie hats and those sunglasses. .

So you know what you're getting -  a string of well-known songs, loud and raucous which won't tax many brain cells as band and singers blast out the songs. And of course it's clean-living, enjoyable stuff without the substance abuse which accompanied the making of the movie.

And, if as director John Landis said, it was the first movie to gross more in the overseas, than the American domestic, market it's understandable that it's also spawned numerous "official" and "unofficial" shows.

But in the words of the production team, this show has "the blessing of the team behind the original Blues Brothers and ...also includes material created under the guidance of Judith Belushi [co-creator's John Belushi's widow]."

Joshua Mumby, who also directs, is Elwood Blues, the tall harmonica-playing thin one, and roly-poly tumbling David Kristopher-Brown is Jake Blues. A slick pair of sassy backing singers the Stax Sisters also have solo turns,  blonde Hannah Kee and brunette Helen Hart. While Arnold Mabhena channels his Cab Calloway, Ray Charles and James Brown complete the singing line up.

Above are three signs of The Blues Brothers' haunts - Bob's Country Bunker, Palace Hotel and Soul Food Cafe. But these are all static acknowledgments of the movie and there's no repartee we heard regarding The Hippodrome which may have made us feel that The Blue Brothers had landed in the UK and at a musically historic venue.  

The songs come thick and fast starting with Steve Winwood's Gimme Some Loving, then Hey Bartender before whipping it up with Rollin' Rollin' Rollin' from the 1950s cowboy series Rawhide, Hart's rendition of Aretha Franklin's and Ted White's  Think (Freedom).and then back to the Brothers for Taj Mahal's and James Rachell's She Caught The Katy and so it goes on .

The voices are obviously powerful, the dancing (choreographer Lily Howkins) and band energetic but it does become one damn song after another (with an interval). The format itself feels rather dated and just a little bit tired. Yes, there are more buzzy interludes when we're treated to giant bumble bee costumes in Slim Harpo's I'm A King Bee, but we sense this is the umpteenth performance with the same gag.

The band led by James Robert Ball on piano boasts electric guitars, drums, trombone, trumpet, saxophone keep up the pace and the volume and join gamely in the summer time theme when its time to don the Hawaiian shirts and garlands with a touch of Mexican to boot. So it's all pretty polished holiday camp jollity.   

If you're a fan of The Blues Brothers, you might very well, do the Twist, the Swim, the Monkey, the Mashed Potato and the Tailfeather to get tickets. Otherwise it's an amber light perfectly serviceable show which could do with a bit of a refresher. But hey, to paraphrase a song, everybody needs somebody or something to love ...  It is what it is ...

Friday, 21 July 2017

Review Three

by Sophie Ellerby

What Will Survive Of Us Is Love

The future seems brighter than ever before for one family.

A call centre promotion is in sight for eldest Rochelle (Alice Vilanculo) who is going steady with policeman Dan (Emanuel Vuso).

Carefree schoolgirl Tia (Ikra Ali) is on the cusp of womanhood and her 16th birthday. Maybe the middle sister Jaz (Courtney Spencer) is drifting and a bit wild, but they're all looking forward to Tia's birthday party and, even better, their Dad, released from prison, is going to be able to join them.

But that same night their lives are torn apart by a terrible event, family relationships shattered and the three young women are tainted by association, although entirely innocent.

Director Anna Niland orchestrates the 19-strong cast in a play which, while covering a range of issues, manages retain the emotional core between the three sisters at its centre.

Three is a full-length play lasting just over two hours  with actors about to graduate from the National Youth Theatre's Playing Up scheme.

There's an impressive debut by Vilanculo as the rock of the family who finds everything she thought of as solid crumbling away. There is also a delicate performance from Ali as the youngest who has to grow up quickly, while Spencer convinces as troubled third sister Jaz

But the other actors in supporting roles are also equal to a thought-provoking, ambitious piece. Jordan Bangura and Dionne Brown as an expectant young couple, Abby Russell as the publicity hungry call centre boss and Aston McAuley as a grieving son impressively mix humour and seriousness.
It's a tribute to the writing, directing and acting that it was only late in the play that TLT realised the drama draws loosely on the structure and characters in Chekhov's The Three Sisters. Playwright Ellerby manages to make the story her own, looping in issues but keeping the situations real with all the question marks hanging over them.

Niland carefully paces a play, veering towards screenplay with its quick-cut scene changes, drawing it back into a theatrical experience alongside movement director Kane Husbands.   A police raid and the increasing media spotlight are ingeniously and economically evoked. 

The set designed by Kate Lane makes full use of the Arcola Space. The main stage is flanked by two spaces, stage left and right, in the midst of the audience - a bedroom on one side and a bench on a patch of grass on the other.

On an upper tier composer Roly Botha like a club DJ controls  the inventive and affecting soundscape, put together with John Castle who also does lighting,

We saw it on the first night of a three-night run until July 22 and the flaws were minor - the occasional dropped voice, perhaps understandable as well with the televisual nature of Ellerby's sophisticated script.

This is an intriguing and substantial set of emerging talent, both in the acting and the script in a play which uses rather than is controlled by cliché to become truly poignant and searching. It's a green light.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Review Much Ado About Nothing (Preview)

Much Ado About Nothing
by William Shakespeare

Once Upon A Time In Mexico

It's Mucho Ado About Nothing with sombreros, ponchos and cigarillos at Shakespeare's Globe set in the midst of the Mexican Revolution in the early years of the 20th century.

The steam clears revealing wooden slatted railway wagons spanning the stage, a  means of moving people and supplies from and to the home encampment.  

The grubby rebels, the leader Don Pedro (Steve John Shepherd),  lanky, moustachioed Benedick (Matthew Needham) and young puppy rebel Claudio (Marcello Cruz) arrive on horses, cleverly evoked by riders on stilts and wire horses' heads.

Here the women stride around with rifles and belts of bullets criss crossing their female apparel. 

In the chauvinist rebel camp environment, there is also Don Pedro's sister, the saturnine Juana (Jo Dockery). It's a gender swap from the original Shakespeare text and the male machismo surrounding her gives some motivation for her bitterness and jealousy.

Directed by Matthew Dunster, it all works surprisingly well. Don Pedro is a slightly insecure Pancho Villa figure at a time when several factions were fighting for dominance in Mexico. The tough Leonato (Martin Marquez in a fine performance), complete with  black eye patch, is still slightly vulnerable when it comes to family honour.

Beatrice (Beatriz Romilly) is his slightly older niece, a slightly more careworn woman than her hardy but still more than slightly fragile cousin Hero (Anya Chalotra).

The music from composer James Maloney and the three-strong band led by Zands Duggan with Matt Bacon on guitar and Miguel Gorodi on trumpet, conjures up a hot, dusty and vibrant Mexico. But it also works dramatically, signalling the mood of the oncoming action and enabling fluid, clear scene changes for the audience.

Anna Fleischle's design keeps it simple: The train wagons from the National Railways of Mexico  provide the backdrop. On one side stands a blue and white tiled pillar with an altar and a Madonna shrine. On the other side, a pillar has a wooden bench curving round as a seat and a perch for the beer bottles.

Away from the main stage is another island platform in the midde of the groundlings, serving as a second stage. 

The tricks played on Beatrice and Benedict make sense in the boredom of the anti-climactic periods between fighting.  The easily-swayed males and their vulnerability, alongside machismo, makes sense of the savage rejection of Hero, not only by Claudio but also Don Pedro and her own father Leonato. 

The place names are changed to suit Mexico. The currency of course is the peso and the masked ball with Fleischle's flamboyant brightly colouried Mexican costumes  becomes a lusty but formalised celebration of the bull and virility. 

In this version, Dogberry becomes Dog Berry (Ewan Wardrop), an American movie director who mangles words in translation. 

His box camera footage helps uncover the villain of the piece and if the storyline feels a little strained, that's more the nature of Shakespearean comedy than this production. 

For a Hollywood newsreel and movie director really did accompany Sancho Panza in real life and there was even a contract, if a little less spectacular and prescriptive than some implied.

It's an earthy, bright and gaudy Much Ado with the music effortlessly flagging up the comic and serious moments.  

Very much an ensemble piece from Beatrice and Benedick, through Don Pedro, Juana, Hero, Claudio and Hero, to the sweetly-singing child soldier (Lucy Brandon), it's a green light for a mucho enjoyable Much Ado About Nothing.  

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Review Dessert

by Oliver Cotton

The Last Supper

There's a real hunger for plays with a new take on financial inequality and the state we're in. But there has to be a fresh insight and Oliver Cotton's new play, Dessert, directed by Sir Trevor Nunn, seems curiously dated and unrigorous in its analysis.

Financier Sir Hugh Fennell (Michael Simkins) and his wife Gill (Alexandra Gilbreath) are domiciled in the UK in a palatial spread surrounded by a collection of paintings.

They are entertaining an equally affluent Connecticut business associate Wesley Barnes (Stuart Milligan) and his blonde, dippy wife Meredith (Teresa Banham).

And they've just reached dessert.

Loyal factotum Roger (Graham Turner) is about to serve the cheese, after they've gorged on something delicious in a tarragon sauce, when their smug bonhomie is suddenly plunged literally into darkness.

Afghanistan veteran Eddie (Stephen Hagan), terribly maimed during active service, invades their dining room with a gun, having disabled  the mansion's electricity and security system.

He's demanding justice for his stroke-ridden newsagent father who had put all his and his wife's life savings into a Fennell company which subsequently collapsed and from which Sir Hugh had walked away.

We were wondering about the dramatist's choice of the newsagent trade for Eddie's Dad - itself under siege from supermarkets for its core products - print newspapers (which have their own problems), cigarettes and lottery tickets.

However this never developed into anything, although there was, late on, peculiarly a variation on the six Ws, taught to all trainee journalists, which also appears in Ink this season.

We guess it was deliberate that at the start a meal was made, in all senses of the word, of a variety of culinary herbs and that Sir Hugh's surname is Fennell, but we don't for the life of us know why. It's that kind of show.

If it had then become a full-blown satire, with or without herbs, it might have gripped us. But even the trigger event for Eddie seems wildly implausible in a jarring way.

Newsagents have a professional association which also gives some financial pointers. Presumably Eddy's parents were not the only alleged victims of Sir Hugh and his (unmentioned) lawyers and accountants.

Surely, in the age of the internet, those who had lost their money would organise themselves into a pressure group and even, heaven forbid, contact the press? 

But it seems that Eddie's Mum and Dad instead flailed from solicitor to (self) regulatory bodies which were mentioned.

This is a bit of a clunky criticism on our part, picking on what some might see as a small part of the play. Nevertheless, we do feel it's indicative of the comedy drama's force-fed scenarios which simply do not hang together.

In the midst of being held hostage, each of the diners, the hostage taker and the Man Friday launch into speeches filled with a set of under developed, under researched passing references to issues.

Not even a moment when a tap on a glass chimes like the New York Stock Exchange bell can save this play. We get the soundbites but no fresh insights.

On the plus side, a fine cast do what they can with the woefully underdeveloped material and thinly-drawn characters they've been handed. There's also a handsome set from Rachel Stone evoking the mansion and its picture gallery.

Yes, there's been Enron, Bernie Madoff, the Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and the Pension Protection Fund affair and now, tragically, the trail of bank-backed companies involved with the Grenfell Tower fire, amongst many others.

However Dessert feels like simplistic political agit-prop rather than an attempt to grapple wittily and dramatically with the landscape of global finance, wars in the name of defence and public goods falling into private pockets. So it's a famine rather than feast red/amber light.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Review Twilight Song

Twilight Song
by Kevin Elyot

Ah! Sweet Mystery Of Life

Twilight Song, written by the late Kevin Elyot in 2014 just before his death, is an odd little playwriting confection about some odd fellows and a woman. 

Analyse it closely and it turns out to be a tawdry tale of impregnation, loans, property, possible professional fraud, furtive sexual encounters, time slippages and blackmail, all wrapped  in colourful tissue paper and tied with a great big ribbon bow.

We can't begin to add up all the self-consciously theatrical and cinematic styles it seems to go through - there's a touch of Rattigan, definitely some Noel Coward and Alfred Hitchcock, even a snippet of Christopher Isherwood, Charles Dickens and DH Lawrence (or is it EM Foster ...?) and, hey, is that Monty Python parody?

This is the première of Elyot's last play and, despite some sluggish moments, director Anthony Banks gives us a stylish production set on James Cotterill's wooden round stage living room with a settee, curved French windows, mahogany gramophone and a silver drinks' trolley to create a Scotch haze. 

It's a slickly, but rather mechanically, put together play and it rather feels as if the playwright put together the themes going around  rather than a deeply-felt piece. 

Maybe it was intended to go a bit deeper into the gay influence on literature, film and television and what this meant before and after 1967 legislation, yet this never really develops, even in metaphor.  

Still, after a slow and rather stilted beginning, the story does take hold. Barry (Paul Higgins) is a middle-aged gay retired pharmacist who lives with his mother in a North London Victorian villa. While she takes her regular weekly trip to Kent, he invites an estate agent (Adam Garcia) to give a valuation and other services. 

Centred on the house, this modern day encounter slips back to the 1960s and delicate girlish bride Isabella (Bryony Hannah) welcoming two old codgers into her marital home. 

Charles (Hugh Ross), an elderly doctor and seemingly someone's uncle. Harry (Philip Bretherton), a dodgy married solicitor, like Charles, seems well lodged in his current comfortable middle-class existence even if it seems the two men have a past. 

Slipping back and forth in time, by the end we can piece together the story and obtain a sense of an ending but, while it may have been meant as a satire or parody, it comes across as a rather lacklustre playwriting effort.

References to Conservative but pro Welfare State prime minister MacMillan and 1960s emigration to Australia are flagged up as well as a wife's thwarted career.

However, in the end it feels as if we've been lured to spy through the keyhole at a rather insubstantial and too self-satisfied mystery story and it's an amber light. 

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Review Bodies

Peter Barker is intrigued by a play tracing a global transaction which a London couple hopes will bring them the child of their dreams.

by Vivienne Franzmann

Great Expectations

Clem and Josh are desperately trying for a baby. However the well-off middle-class, middle-aged media couple are paying for the creation of a baby who would not otherwise exist.

The egg donor comes from Russia, while across the world an impoverished woman in India is the surrogate mother carrying the egg fertilized by Josh's sperm.

Bodies is a new play from Vivienne Franzmann examining the purchase of parenthood and the bringing to life of another human being with a genetic connection as a paid-for hybrid commodity.

Unable to conceive their own child, Clem and Josh allow their longing for a family dictate their actions without regard for the welfare of and consequences for others around them. 

These others include surrogate mother Lakshmi in India, Salma Hoque skilfully managing wide-ranging shifts of emotions, and Philip Goldacre's touching portrayal of Clem's cantankerous, stroke-stricken, trade unionist father who nevertheless sticks to his socialist values.

Many would regard the situation of the London couple (Justine Mitchell and Jonathan McGuinness) as a first world problem, motivated by dubiously selfish concerns. Unlike the Sex Pistols' song of the same title, the problem and solution is not forced on Clem.

Scientific advance is now a gateway to unprecedented arrangements and Franzmann's play examines where respect for our own and other people's bodies begins and ends.

It also poses the question about what personal fulfilment in our advanced technological age should mean.

The play provides a skilful framework for these questions and issues with a poignant fantasy as a dramatic device. Clem meets and speaks with the unborn child, a young woman of 16 years in a sure-footed, striking performance by Hannah Rae.

This daughter can cross psychic and physical boundaries, moving from Clem's English house to the dormitory of the surrogate Indian mother. The child becomes like an inverse ghost of Hamlet's father, also a victim of other people's actions, but looking to the family's future instead of the past.

Within such an emotionally overwrought situation,  there is nevertheless state intervention,  counterbalancing the illusion that our deepest desires, consumerism and the market are the only factors in a seemingly endless case of supply and demand.

Director Jude Christian, designer Gabriella Slade with Joshua Pharo on lighting  convincingly stage digital connectivity enabling clear changes of scene and context in a fast-moving plot.

Slade's beige softwood set with sliding doors makes for an effective contemporary backdrop with a round window smoothly transforming into a screen with videos created by Meghna Gupta.

However the play at 90 minutes, despite cuts to the published text,  does seem overlong. There is also some clunky dialogue and the final pay off felt confusing, but Franzmann does have the ability to spring surprises and drive the story forward.

The affluence of Clem and Joshua's life, the exploitation of the less advantaged at home and abroad, fertility, loss, and motherhood are all deftly handled. It's an amber/green light for a compelling tale which impressively mines the social and emotional implications of surrogacy.  

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Review Queen Anne

Francis Beckett delights in a play on Britain's last Stuart monarch which is both perceptive about its two real-life heroines and a tremendous theatrical success. 

Queen Anne
by Helen Edmundson

A Right Royal Drama

Queen Anne was in many ways a tragic figure.  She had seventeen pregnancies, but gave birth to only three live children, none of whom lived beyond the age of eleven. Her biographer Anne Somerset writes in the theatre programme that she was “poorly educated, chronically shy and disabled by agonising arthritic attacks.”

She did her best nonetheless to fulfil the duties imposed on her by the iron laws of heredity, and to cope with the vigorous and vitriolic political atmosphere of the time.

Indeed, Helen Edmundson’s play opens with a guilty pleasure, an appallingly hurtful but hilarious satirical song about her inability to have children. This has her trying to deliver a child, but delivering only something unnamed which apparently rhymes with art.

The drama focusses on her relationship with Sarah, wife of John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, from whom Sir Winston Churchill was descended. Sarah was the opposite of Anne: clever, beautiful, confident, ambitious. The two were the closest of friends, then the bitterest of enemies.

This tense, tightly written and tautly plotted play charts their relationship. Its respect for the known facts would surely win the approval of Hilary Mantel, but it also weaves them into a gripping yet often very funny play.

From the start we are on the side of the needy and manipulative Anne, yet never cease to care about what happens to the brave and manipulative Sarah, whose sophisticated political antennae seem to abandon her after the death of her son.

The script has not a single unnecessary word in it – nothing is spelled out if it can be left to the audience to work it out – and Natalie Abrahami’s direction in this RSC production reflects that economy. Hannah Clark’s set is splendid yet discreet. It knows its place. It is there to supplement the dialogue, not substitute for it.

Yet it is the two central performances on which the evening stands or falls - Emma Cunniffe’s Anne and Romola Garai’s Sarah -  and they are both wonderful.

Cunniffe and Garai capture both the humanity and the political power struggle in a way that easily stands comparison with Mark Rylance’s Cromwell in Mantel's Wolf Hall.

This is one of the best and most gripping evenings in the theatre I can remember for a long time. That's not just because I know a little of the history. For I took with me a South African cousin who knew nothing of Queen Anne, and she was as gripped by the human and political drama as I was. A green light to rush to the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Review Yank!

Peter Barker finds charm, wistfulness and humour in an American show evoking the golden age of musicals with a World War II story of two men deeply in love. 

Music by Joseph Zellnik
Book and Lyrics by David Zellnik

Goodnight Sweetheart

Yank! is a lush musical, set mostly in the Pacific during the Second World War, steeped in the tradition of Rogers and Hammerstein who of course also used a similar wartime setting in South Pacific.

It chronicles a pair of lovers in a forbidden relationship, as did Rogers and Hammerstein in 1949, but this time the tender romance is between two gay soldiers.

The score also uses the format and stereotypes of 1940' shows and films. These include patriotic "it takes one of every kind" platoon movies featuring military men of diverse ethnicities in a squad overcoming wartime challenges and coming to appreciate and respect each other.

The creation of two brothers, composer Joseph Zellnik and lyricist and librettist David Zellnik, this musical, originally workshopped in 2005, became an off Broadway hit five years later, before the American army's repeal of the don't ask, don't tell policy.

Now Yank! arrives in London, via a successful run and its European première at Manchester's Hope Mill Theatre. 

At the centre of Yank! is the poignant affair of teenage military recruit Stu (Scott Hunter), who is eventually assigned a role on military magazine Yank!, and charismatic, handsome all-American boy Mitch (Andy Coxon).

Stu, an innocent whose love for Mitch is a sexual awakening, works with gay photographer Artie (Chris Kiely) through whom he discovers more about the secret life of gay men in the military.

The musical uses true life experiences from the book "Coming Out Under Fire" by Allan Bérubé and other stories gathered by the musical's creators from gay World War II military veterans.

The smooth, precise direction by James Baker, James Cleeve's excellent seven-piece band and Chris Cuming's dynamic choreography all add up to a stylish and vibrant production.

The strong story, which also includes plenty of laughs, has beautifully sung performances from Hunter and Coxon leading a polished 12-strong cast. The sole woman on stage is the versatile Sarah-Louise Young showing her mettle playing a variety of female characters.

While there's no tune in the score which made me come out humming, there's still plenty to enjoy. An old fashioned format is given an unusual twist, a likeable hero meets the challenges of life and war and there is an uplifting, though unexpected, ending.

Yank! is a relatively recent musical which pastiches the shows of the past, but still retains a heartfelt and genuine core during its two and half hours and I give it an amber/green light.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Review iAm 4.0

iAm 4.0
Co-Created by Mel Cook and Helena Thompson
with iAm casts

Experimentally Yours

What seems now centuries ago - in reality back in 2000 - your reviewer wanted to educate herself about technology and websites. So of course she purchased that cutting edge product - a book with real paper pages 😉 with the title "Don't Make Me Think!".

Now, 17 years later, iAm 4.0 aims to reverse the trend of unthinking clicking and their simple but intriguing show could just as well be entitled "Make Me Think!".

It would be churlish to give too much away - after all it will stop the corporation and boffins behind iAm perfecting their valuable product and patent. 😉 ;)

Nevertheless we arrive at the Playground Theatre in Hammersmith's Latimer Road. The head of the research team (Mel Cook who also directs) calls us in, a few at a time.

Then two scientists cum psychologists (Oliver Brassell and Seda Yidliz) with the obligatory official clip boards (ah, with such small matters is authority established!) ask some simple questions.

They may not want us to stop thinking as much as to start thinking according to their parameters.

Our answers to the multiple choice laid before us determine the teams to which we are then allocated. None of us in the focus groups know each othe but we team members bond courtesy of that cutting edge technology -  sticky name labels stuck on our tops.😄

It's then we encounter the real cutting edge technology (set and props design Emily Megson and Olivia Venables) with each team and product pitted against each other.

The experience begins deceptively gently, led by the three boffins who all, rather humorously, have a distinct sense of humour deficit.

They set various tasks for us to interact with our product and across the teams albeit with a spirited sense of competition between the groups and a growing bond within the team.

It's obviously carefully structured both visually and verbally. It's certainly suitable for anyone old enough to handle a mobile phone (which as with any other theatre performance have to be switched off!).

It's also very enjoyable! Let's describe it a bit like that old bonding game Twister but with a modern technology and social twist.

And of course the best product in the room (spot the clue!) is ours ... because she is all ours ...;) !!!

We should add that actors Roseanna Frascona,  Sydnee Howard and Liz Mergerson have a lot to do with adding immeasurable value to our consumer experience.  

There was just one minor flaw at the performance in which TLT participated where her team scored - a moral victory!  (No, that wasn't the flaw!).

The method of operating the iAm 4.0 product meant one team member had his or her back to the rest of the team, so we weren't always able to hear or see what was going on at that moment.

This didn't affect any of the tasks our team was set to execute with our product but proved a few seconds of irritation.

However, isn't that the whole point? We're sure it will be taken on board for those taking part in the iAm 4.5 or iAm 5.0 focus groups.

The theatre company SPID was formed to produce immersive, audience-participation drama with the aim of bringing people together. TLT went to a fundraising Grenfell Tower event, Grenfell Matters, where the whole evening raised more than £1,700.

So we are also happy to give a technologically advanced green light for our time with a delightful team and, yes, thought-provoking immersive drama done with a lightness of touch.

It's an experience  the relevance of which can also linger on afterwards - in our case, switching on the television to hear about workforce exploitation using bogus self-employed status where a lawyer described the situation as an archaic servant and master relationship.

SPID continues its current tour with a ticketed interactive performance on Saturday, July 15 at Kensal House in Ladbroke Grove and future events at venues including Bush Theatre, Southwark Playhouse and the Park Theatre.

Review The Tempest

The Tempest
by William Shakespeare

Fantasy Island

A harassed magician and ousted ruler Prospero (Simon Russell Beale), with an impatient Miranda (Jenny Rainsford) straining at the leash, a far more patient but troubled bondservant in the spirit Ariel (Mark Quartley) and a beastly Caliban (Joe Dixon) all uneasily share an island in The Tempest.

And now they're joined by a digital world created by Intel and The Imaginarium Studio and projected on to the large Barbican stage.

Directed by Gregory Doran, towering undulating images dwarf the actors. Otherwise the design by Stephen Brimson Lewis has on each side of the stage half of a ship's two tier skeletal hull, two splays of ribs with an expanse between.

The Tempest would seem like the ideal Shakespeare play for digital special effects. Yet we found several problems with them. They interrupted the rhythm of the play which made some of the real life performances unfairly, we think, seem over-emphatic. Sight gags which would have gone with the flow if there were no gizmos then also feel inserted rather than organic to the play.

It is the quiet moments that work best - especially between Beale's tetchy Prospero and Quartly's thoughtful and elegant Ariel as the latter works towards his freedom while measuring his master's emotions and keeping within his boundaries.

Otherwise Jenny Rainsford makes for a feisty Miranda who has outgrown her father's admonishings and the island. Simon Trinder's white-face, tartan-trousered clown and James Hayes's mutiny-on-the-bounty Stephano's butler make a  comely enough comic duo.

Joseph Mydell's Gonzalo is also distinctive as, having been Prospero and Miranda's saviour, he is also a court politician looking to retain the status quo. We weren't so sure at first about Joe Dixon's Caliban, wrapped in a cockroach-type carapace, but ultimately the severance of his relationship with Prospero has a searing quality.

The special effects?  We didn't see the cinema screenings but it struck us on screen they may have worked better for us. Even though there was a difference made between the scenes of humans and spirits on the island, the masque interludes and the final moments where Prospero abjures his magic, it felt overloaded on stage. It is an experiment worth doing, and doubtless there's a learning curve which will bear fruit, but the play's the thing and we give an amber/green light.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Review Taha

Tim Gopsill applauds a solo show tracing the dislocated life and the tender, humane poetry of a contemporary Palestinian poet.  

by Amer Hlehel
Translated by Amir Nizar Nuabi  

Lost And Found In Translation 

Sometimes the shortest work can carry the most meaning. This one-man play Taha tells of a lifetime in just over an hour.

The life is that of Taha Mohammed Ali, the celebrated Palestinian poet who died in 2011.

Playwright and actor Amer Hlehel explores the lives of many Palestinian refugees through the story and character of Taha, using the facts of his biography, his poetry and reconstructing the poet's life with elements of magical realism.

Taha relates how he had forced himself on a world, which did not want him. His mother had given birth to three sons before, all called Taha, for whom thanks had been offered to God, but all had died. No thanks were offered for the fourth, which survived, and “that was me.”

Fittingly, a large part of Taha's story is also conveyed through his verse - the translation projected in surtitles on the the back wall. Sometimes the poetry is recited in English and sometimes in Arabic, all of which adds to the fabric of an affecting play.

A first-generation Palestinian torn from his roots, teenager Taha and his family were driven from the family home in Galilee in 1948.

Unable to bear life in the refugee camp in Lebanon the family smuggle themselves back over the border for a life of internal exile.

We meet Taha's parents, his sister and the cousin he loved through Hlehel's captivating performance and travel with Taha to Lebanon, then back to his changed land of his birth and on to Nazareth where he again built up his life.  

Hlehel's performance as Taha does not have the polemic and anger often associated with the Palestinian experience. While conveying the bitter loss, it is wry, self-deprecating and occasionally funny --- in line with Taha’s verse.

As the owner of a successful souvenir shop in Nazareth, Taha proclaims himself, "a Muslim selling Christian memorabilia to Jews".   

Far from raging over theft, Taha evokes a child puzzling over dispossession and then an adult living with injustice and sorrowing over what the land can come to mean. 

This land doesn't remember love…
This land denies,
cheats, and betrays us;
its dust can't bear us…

Director Amir Nizar Zuabi wisely keeps the simplicity and directness of the poet's voice in his minimal staging - a bench and a box of yellow light lit by Muaz Jubeh with music from Habib Shehadah Hanna.

Taha was launched in Washington DC earlier this year before performances in Luxembourg, Manchester and now The Young Vic until July 15.  It will then travel on to The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

For a deeply affecting performance exploring the Palestinian refugee experience with a universal resonance through one man  striving to live and understand, it's a green light. 

Review The Scar Test

The Scar Test
by Hannah Khalil

The Need To Know

Go on to the official Yarl's Wood website and you'll find many glossy photos of smiling women. The name Yarl's Wood and a logo of "Respect, Support, Commitment. That's our promise" are in large letters. While the words Immigration Removal Centre are in much smaller black letters.

Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire is one of 11 removal centres in the UK, outsourced by the Home Office to private security firms.  Here asylum seekers, migrants and the stateless are detained before release or deportation when their status is clarified..

The Scar Test, a new play by Hannah Khalil, is a reflection of life in a detention centre which has been touring since its premiere in Bedford earlier this year and now arrives at the Soho Theatre.

Based on verbatim interviews and research at Yarl's Wood by the playwright, The Scar Test seeks to initiate the audience into the often disturbing world of deportation centres, a nexus of conflicting interests in which the inmates find themselves caught up.

At the same time, The Scar Test also aims to bring home the normalness of the unnamed women who find themselves, through no fault of their own, under lock and key and constant surveillance.

This is one time when the ticking off  of issues within a drama seems thoroughly justified. Indeed a question mark hangs over the true circumstances when the battle over how to portray the situation of those within the centres is fought in newspapers such as the Daily Mail and The Guardian.

This is a stripped back touring production with minimal staging and the versatile cast of five female actors play many more characters, both male and female.

We progress through the female detainees and the male and female guards to the volunteer visitors who befriend the inmates, the distant doctor whose appointments are strictly rationed and the duty solicitor grappling with the restrictions of the unwieldy appeal process and language barriers.

There are strong performances by Janet Etuk, Nadia Nadif, Rebecca Omogbehin, Shazia Nichols and Lucy Sheen.

The best moments occur when we can follow backwards from the Centre the individual stories of the women. Zoe Spurr's lighting and Jo Walker's sound, with a mute anguished Omogbehin, for example, powerfully convey the details and trauma of an agonizing memory without words.    

But in many cases characters flash by and some of the contrasts seemed awkward rather than raw. It is also a production where the writer and director need to find and pin down the pivotal points between the abstract, and the naturalistic.

Sometimes the piece seemed compromised by the playful breaking into song and choreographed movement even if the aim was to emphasize the women's normalness and closeness to us.

It did occur to us, although the play tries to convey the disorientation of those in the detention centre twilight zone by avoiding specificities,  that projections of the buildings and rooms might bring something to the audience's experience. 

Nevertheless, even if it is dramatically erratic, The Scar Test does hand to those watching a lucid package of information within its 75 minutes and plants seeds for those who want to find out more.

We give an amber light for a drama throwing its own spotlight on human beings who have committed no crime, yet are, in some cases, indefinitely detained. 

Review Ink

by James Graham

It's The Sun Wot Won It

At this very moment one of the UK's main news agencies is developing robot reporters for local news coverage.

James Graham's Ink looks back to another age when reporters on local newspapers were hungry to reach Fleet Street, every newspaper had its own watering hole and the print unions in control of the hot metal ruled the roost. More ink and less inc.

And The Sun newspaper ousted The Mirror, grabbing its traditional working class reader base as Britain's bestselling newspaper after new proprietor, Aussie outsider Rupert Murdoch, took over in 1969.

Ink charts the transformation of The Sun from an ailing left wing broadsheet to a cheeky chappie, aspirational tabloid with its infamous topless Page 3 model, focussing on Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) and, above all, its first editor, the son of a Yorkshire colliery blacksmith, Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle).

We're in at the start of a legend, that of The Sun, and also just before Margaret Thatcher's ascension to Prime Minister and the move to Wapping where the play ends.

Ink mixes variety japes - it even begins with the old Max Bygraves' catchphrase "I wanna tell you a story" - with the towering personalities of owner and editor as The Sun became "The Soaraway Sun".

Yet Graham's and director Rupert Goold's approach feels scattergun. There's an introduction to reporting through the five W's of journalism - What, Who, Where, When and Why - for the unintiated.

Giant Ws then remain on Bunny Christie's deliberately and evocative ramshackle two storey offices. Murdoch and Lamb dine out on lobster (although documented as true, it's ironic as lobster has its own place in newspaper slang) in a Covent Garden restaurant where they map out the future of The Sun.

Murdoch of course gives Lamb, at last in a prized editor's chair, an impossible deadline which he fulfils in equally ramshackle fashion. Lamb gathers together a group of journalistic ne'er-do-wells and sidelined hacks, apparently after Fleet Street veterans with bulging contacts' books had rejected his offers.

There's certainly a feel of the mix of older oddballs and new generation hacks and photographers with the heady rush of ideas, plucked out of the air or the result of expediency,  at the first editorial and executive meetings. The musical hall/variety thread continues with pop ditties of the time and the cast, caught up in the euphoria of the moment, breaking out into song and dance.

But, despite darker true episodes with the abduction of the wife of a Sun executive, Ink never really digs deep and is more of a scrapbook than an integrated play.

As is sometimes perhaps inevitable with real people in the frame, the performances of Carvel and Coyle as Murdoch and Lamb at first do feel studied. However they do eventually come into their own as personalities on stage in their own right.

As we've indicated there's the trademark Rupert Goold song and dance with choreography by Lynn Paage, but this sometimes feels like wallpaper for a lack of strong story narrative. Many of the jokes are heavy-handed. It's broadbrush and often fun but never seems truly to bring together a substantial story.

It's the clever characterisations from the strong cast that hold it all together - besides Coyle and Carvel, there's David Schofield's Mirror old guard Hugh Cudlipp, Tim Steed's fastidious deputy editor Bernard Shrimsley while Sophie Stanton is a firmly feminist women's page editor in a man's world, Joyce Hopkirk and Pearl Chanda is the first Page 3 girl, Stephanie Rhan.

Ink is mostly bright and breezy and also gives due regard to a tragic episode, but it never really amplifies its tale, preferring often to make passing references than to be truly thought-provoking. So it may not make the colour scheme with any tabloid revamp but it's an amber/green light.  

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Review Instructions For American Servicemen in Britain

A World War II guide for newly-stationed US soldiers becomes a robust twenty first century parody diverting Peter Barker.

Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain
Created by Dan March, Jim Millard, Matt Sheahan
and John Walton

Know Your Ally

In 1942 the US War Department distributed a 5,000 word booklet as a guide for American servicemen about to arrive in Britain.

Taking the pamphlet's observations, astutely aimed at the US soldier, sailor and airman, as inspiration, comedy trio The Real MacGuffins, director John Walton and Fol Espoir have created this delightful and very funny production.

The Atlantic divide between the US and Britain has always been fertile territory -- think of The Beatles, regulatory arbitrage, Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death through the writings of Bill Bryson to Richard Curtis's Notting Hill and even  TV hit Downtown Abbey.  

Bill Bryson's books mine a sentimental and whimsical outsider's view of Britain from the point of view of an Anglophile, marking a nation's foibles without insulting the nation or its consumers whom he hopes will buy his books.

Meanwhile Instructions For American Servicemen in Britain, written by a writer who has remained anonymous, was given away free. It was more aimed at keeping the US forces and the British population as allies on the ground, but  it also remains an educated American's snapshot of the UK.

However the show of Instructions For American Serviceman in Britain, keeping the framework of the pamphlet, tends towards the genial and agreeable path of Bryson.

It's a laugh from the beginning to the end with the pamphlet transformed into the arrival of an American airbase filled with US airmen in the village of Nether Middleton and subsequent attempts, with audience participation, to educate them in the ways and etiquette of British life.

Among other laconic observations we hear “the British can’t make decent coffee, but then you can’t make decent tea”. "The British are tough, the English language didn’t spread across the oceans and over the mountains and jungles and swamps of the world because these people were panty-waists.”

Inversion is of course a great staple of comedy. Here it is the inversion of an American guide to the British way of life played back to a London audience in, 75 years later, a self-deprecating historical take on our still special relationship.

The Real MacGuffin’s trio of players Dan March, James Millard, and Matt Sheahan, play all the characters -- from US Army Air Force officers to old English ladies and English officers.

They take the audience through set pieces including an explanation of the monetary system, afternoon tea and a hybrid baseball/cricket match. The material feels as though it has been built up through improvisation and is continually open to even more.

A highlight for me was the use of puppets at the start of Act two tackling the British class system described in the pamphlet, in a hilarious MacGufffin framework.

One warning though; if you don’t like Morris Dancing, you will really hate the show’s climax ... 😉

I found the whole experience, skilfully relayed by the MacGuffins, relaxing and very, very funny. It may not be what the well-informed anonymous writer intended when he - we presume it was a he - wrote this snapshot of 1942 Britain as a benevolent piece of propaganda.

Yet his tolerant mapping out of the British Way Of Life, in this adaptation, proves a green light tonic for this reviewer.

Review Mr Potsunen's Peculiar Slice Of Life 2017

Mr Potsunen's Peculiar Slice Of Life 2017
by Kentaro Kobayashi

Playing Solitaire

Mr Postunen's Peculiar Slice Of Life is a neat little tale constructed as a series of theatrical sketches about the eponymous eccentric gentleman.

By sketches we mean literally sketches - the creator of Mr Potsunen, Kentaro Kobayashi, started off as an illustrator and moves fluidly and with immaculate timing between projections and live performance.

It's a clever and polished act performed by Kobayashi, who is also an actor and comedian and, without any words, straddles the boundary between adult and children's entertainment.
Far from being inscrutable, Mr Potsunen wears his heart on his dapper gray sleeve as he lives a solitary one and three-dimensional life where his daily rituals are interrupted by unexpected events.

From our European point of view, Kobayashi's character seems to hearken towards  the mime of Marcel Marceau and Jacques Tati.

But the landscape he inhabits is a surreal one reminiscent of The Beatles' Yellow Submarine animated by Robert Balser and Jack Stokes and Terry Gilliam's Monty Python. Alice In Wonderland vertigo is also present, as is the uncanny symbolism of freemasonry.

The sketches, which also of course draw on the Japanese Manga tradition, form together an elusive but gradually beguiling story of objects metamorphosizing into living creatures mixed with touches of modern life like parcel delivery.

They lead and accompany Mr Potsunen as he slips in and out of animations on to The Print Room's performance space, as fellow performer Daisuke Minami camouflaged in black, traces delicate patterns with rod puppetry.

It's altogether charming, interacting with Heath Robinson-style animated creations mixed with delicate, fluttering creatures.

Mr Potsunen takes the audience on a psychological journey with leaps of imagination reflecting the psychology of  the unconscious and dreaming and a child's simplicity.

The musical notes of flute and brass drift across the scenes, You could do worse than pass a whimsical hour or so in the company of Mr Potsunen And His Peculiar Slice Of Life in a show which runs until July 8. It's an amber/green light.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Review King Kong (A Comedy)

King Kong (A Comedy)
by Daniel Clarkson

The Ape Of Wrath

It's one of the iconic images of Hollywood horror, the giant ape clambering up New York's Empire State Building, tenderly clutching a damsel in much distress, creating a mild sexual frisson.

In a concept invented by former pilot Merian C Cooper,  King Kong combines a Jules Verne-like adventure tale with an age-old tale of man's overweening arrogance and nature striking back with  of course state-of-the art special effects for its time

Now a cast of five take on the tale in  a comic recreation blending the different incarnations of Kong since his first appearance in 1933.

Daniel Clarkson's previous success was the parody of the Harry Potter books, Potted Potter. This time he turns his pen to the much older franchise of King Kong. We say "franchise" but reading up on the history, it turns out that King Kong has a mass of copyright tangles as tightly knitted as the dense vegetation of a jungle

Anyway back to the version in The Vaults. The jokes come thick and fast, Airplane style and, thankfully, more hit than miss in an enjoyable, if unoriginal, parody. There's a touch of Treasure Island and many groan-out-loud jokes.

In addition, there's a bit of aping of Marx Brothers' style humour,  running jokes about the movie business and an extended bit of cannibalism - both literally and feeding off Hollywood cliché.

OK, it has its weaknesses - some of the gags go on too long and one particular running joke about a put-upon but indestructible character needs a final different twist. But it's all good, clean fun with a set design by Simon Scullion descending like an art deco toast rack giving a Punch and Judy feel to the show as the characters and props pop up and down and effective lighting by Tim Mascall .

There are times it's like a computer game - the jokes just go on and on and get repeated,. But hey, there is some pathos in the final scenes as the creature's fate is sealed.

Admiration of the cast's unflagging energy - Benjamin Chamberlain, Rob Crouch, Sam Donnelly, Alix Dunmore and Brendan Murphy - is built into the experience. We give an unpeeled banana amber light for frothy and fruity family entertainment.