taken at midnight

There are times during Mark Hayhurst’s play when impassioned pleas in defence of human rights and freedom of speech seem so obvious that they almost insult us. But surely that is the point of the play – to shake our complacency and remind us that vicious oppression does not just exist in distant states or at the hands of foreign terrorist groups, but, potentially on our own doorsteps. The play revolves around the true story of Hans Litten (Martin Hutson), a free-thinking and talented young lawyer in Berlin who, in 1931, called to the witness stand and there humiliated Adolf Hitler. In 1933, at midnight on the day of the revolution which brings the Nazis to power, he is arrested “for his own protection” and sent to a concentration camp, held at the whim of a fledgling regime that is sensitive to all criticism; when a fellow inmate refers to the subversive power of satirical cartoons, the play gains added topicality from when it was first performed at Chichester last year. Litten’s mother, Irmgard, takes up his cause, battling against intransigent authorities to secure his release. It is a big ask of Penelope Wilton to convey both Irmgard’s steely will and intelligence, using reason, sarcasm and irony in sharp exchanges, and her maternal warmth; only in the play’s final scenes does the icy exterior melt. It is a central performance which contributes to making this production easier to engage with intellectually than emotionally. There is coldness too in Robert Jones’ sets and Tim Mitchell’s lighting – a grey prison area lies at the back of the stage, the outside world at the front, and beams of light break through large and small windows to cast long shadows. Most chilling of all are the words spoken by collaborators and appeasers – a Gestapo chief (John Light) and a British diplomat (David Yelland) – offering logical explanations as to why Hitler’s Nazis were able to sustain their grip on power. Jonathan Church’s precise, unfussy direction and impeccable acting provide the perfect showcase for a play which is beautifully written and always absorbing.

Performance date: 28 January 2015

the ruling class

Maybe we have a government dominated by ex-Public School boys, but director Jamie Lloyd’s claim (see my article: http://www.thepublicreviews.com/preview-all-change-for-trafalgar-transformed/ ) that Peter Barnes’ 1968 play is filled with modern relevance seems just a little tenuous. Nonetheless, this revival does not need to be justified on any grounds other than that it is still a thoroughly enjoyable black comedy in the best self-mocking British tradition – a sort of Kind Hearts and Coronets on acid. The opening scene – the 13th Earl of Gurney, a judge, dies, wearing a tutu, in an S&M ritual that goes wrong – sets the tone for what is to follow, one of of total irreverence. The 14th Earl is to be Jack (James McAvoy), a paranoid schizophrenic who believes himself to be God, forcing his uncle  (Ron Cook) to plot to get him sectioned, but only after marrying him off to his own mistress, Grace Shelley (Kathryn Drysdale), so as to produce an heir. Barnes’ play hits its targets head on, not going in for subtlety, and it suits Lloyd’s established style. He gives us a high energy production and McAvoy again proves to be his perfect leading man. In reviewing Macbeth, the first play in Lloyd’s Trafalgar Transformed seasons, I likened McAvoy’s performance to a “hyperactive brat”, adding that he was very strong when insanity begins to set in. Exactly the same comments apply here, except that he is playing for comedy and (supposedly) Jack grows saner as the play progresses. Leaping onto a cross to take a nap, unicycling around the bedroom on his wedding night, this is an all-action performance which drives the production and an English-accented McAvoy meeting Jack’s nemesis in the form of a Scottish rival God provides a particularly neat joke. In fact, McAvoy seems to be having a whale of a time with the physical comedy throughout and he is well-supported by Cook, Drysdale, Joshua McGuire as Jack’s dim-witted cousin (an aspiring Tory MP of course) and Serena Evans as his lusty, promiscuous aunt. However, Anthony O’Donnell, riotously funny as Tucker, the contemptuous, drunken manservant and Russian spy, comes close to stealing the show. Inevitably with this type of surreal comedy, there are times when the humour dries up and Lloyd’s production is, generally, less sure-footed in the darker second half. However, for the most part, laughter abounds and we are left with several memorable images, such as a fusty, cobweb-covered House of Lords front bench, screeching for the return of flogging and hanging.  At a time when some West End producers seem to find it hard to see beyond repeated revivals of Hay FeverThe Importance of Being Earnest and the like, Lloyd has to be congratulated for unearthing a neglected play that is very different and has real bite. The passage of time has certainly blunted the satire in The Ruling Class, but its comedy is as sharp as ever.

Performance date: 20 January 2015

Hello/Goodbye**** (Hampstead Theatre)

Posted: January 27, 2015 in Theatre

hello-goodbye

Memo to self: never again consider leaving a play at the interval! It is hard to remember an occasion when a first act so irritating has been followed by a second so utterly captivating. Peter Souter’s romantic comedy first appeared in the studio theatre downstairs here in March 2013 and it takes quite some time for the reason why it has been deemed worthy of elevation to the main house to become clear. Alex (Shaun Evans) and Juliet (Miranda Raison) first meet when an estate agent’s blunder results in them both moving into the same flat at the same time; he is a nerdy collector of anything collectible, a loner, agoraphobic and possibly autistic; she is outgoing, selfish and spoilt. The dialogue in the opening exchanges is all creaky one-line comedy, nothing like true-to-life conversation. Evans endeavours to make Alex’s diffidence appealing, but all that Raison can do with Juliet is to stomp around in a childish strop and she quickly becomes the sort of insufferable woman that some might like to catapult from the stage into the centre of Hampstead Heath. Act I ends, predictably, with the warring pair in a clinch, born out of carnal lust rather than deeper emotion. Act II takes place in the same flat, with the the same couple, still at odds, meeting again to divide up property at the end of a ten year marriage. So what happened during the interval? Surely there must have been some displays of tenderness and mutual affection, some reason why a pairing of opposites would last for a decade. We get no clues at first, but, slowly, through subtle, perceptive writing and two wonderful performances, filled with insight, it is all there and no further explanations are needed. Now we can see two real human beings, the introvert and the extrovert, struggling to work out what has existed between them and secretly yearning to find a way in which they can stay together. Out of very little, Tamara Harvey’s production conjures up real magic, which may leave the audience trying to figure out how what begins as one of the worst comedies seen around for quite a while could ultimately turn out to be one of the very best.

Performance date: 26 January 2015

 

IMG_4175If you have ever wondered what life could have been like before the invention of television, this show may provide the answer. Calling on friends, going to church, holding a seance, painting the bath red, paying a visit to the King’s Head Theatre and many other joyful pursuits are seen to entertain the Pooter family in 1888/89 in this adaptation of a novel by George and Weedon Grossmith, which had previously appeared as weekly episodes in Punch. Adaptor/Director Mary Franklin’s production for Rough Haired Pointer is made to resemble a cartoon from that publication, the sets and costumes all being creamy white with details sketched on them. The point that these are ordinary people who blend into the background is well made, but this look, combined with generous measures of comic over-acting and cross dressing, gives the show the feel of theatre of the absurd. Charles Pooter (Jake Curran), a clerk, lives with his wife Carrie (Jordan Mallory-Skinner), their black sheep son Lupin (George Fouracres) and maid (Geordie Wright) in the middle class London suburb of Holloway. Charles reasons that the fact that he does not happen to be a “Somebody” should not prevent him from publishing his diary and he begins to put down on paper all the details of his family’s daily life. The joke lies in mundane everyday incidents being blown up to seem important, but the tone is too affectionate to be considered satire. The same four actors take on all the roles of characters who come into the Pooters’ lives – Mr Cummings and Mr Gowing come and go, Miss Daisy Mutlar is beneath them and an unsuitable fiancee for Lupin, Mr Murray Posh is a rung or two above them, and so on. The hierarchic structure of Victorian society is exposed for laughs, but the production also has modern touches which pose the question: what is so different in 2015? Played with the verve and enthusiasm of a varsity revue, the humour flags only occasionally during the show’s 100 minutes (shorter could perhaps have meant sharper), poking gentle fun at our ancestors and, most probably, ourselves

Performance date: 23 January 2015

Runs until: 14 February 2015

Memphis**** (Shaftesbury Theatre)

Posted: January 23, 2015 in Theatre

memphis

A brief synopsis of this show’s plot is not very encouraging; set in the 1950s against the backdrop of racial tension in America’s still segregated Deep South, the story charts the emergence of Rock’n’Roll from black R&B/gospel music and the rags-to-riches rise of Felicia, a soul diva who may or may not bear a passing resemblance to Aretha Franklyn. Yes, it is the same formula that has given us a dozen or more shows in recent years, but with one very big difference – original songs (Hallelujah!) – which immediately sets it apart from all the lazy “juke box” musicals that simply recycle familiar old hits. As if that was not enough, the icing on the cake is that those original songs (music and lyrics David Bryan and Joe Dipietro) are just terrific. Dipietro’s fictional book does not shake off all the well-worn cliches and never throws up anything too challenging, seeming to realise that the best musicals are often the simplest ones. Similarly, Beverley Knight does not have to stretch herself to play Felicia – she is the real deal, almost literally raising the old Shaftesbury’s roof on several occasions. Killian Donnelly, so brilliant in The Commitments last year, is even better here, playing Huey, a pioneering young disc jockey who discovers the music and brings it to the ears of the white population, whilst becoming romantically attached to Felicia and enraging both black and white communities. Donnelly raises the euphoric first half to a higher level and, if he, like the entire production, is slightly less at ease in the more downbeat second, the continuing excellence of the songs carries the show through. Great performances too from Rolan Bell, Claire Machin and Jason Pennycooke amongst many in Christopher Ashley’s sparkling, vibrant production and Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is eye-popping. This type of show has limitations, but, within them, Memphis is about as good as it gets.

Performance date: 21 January 2015

Upper Cut** (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: January 17, 2015 in Theatre

upper cutThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

“I have to be a politician, who ‘happens’ to be black. Not a black man who ‘happens’ to be a politician” explains Michael, one of the key protagonists in Juliet Gilkes Romero’s new play. He is deputy leader of the Labour party and speaking to his long-time lover, Karen in November 2012. Karen is a firebrand, marginalised by the party for fighting on issues affecting only the black community and advocating the selection of black and Asian Parliamentary candidates into winnable seats. Their debates from opposite perspectives form the backbone of the play. Upper Cut is structured in ten scenes, played in reverse chronological order going back to September 1986, thereby attempting to show us where things stand now and how this point was reached. Karen is frustrated that the political establishment blocks the advancement of minority interests, whilst Michael believes that the only way to make a difference is to be in power, which requires compromise and movement to the middle ground. These are weighty issues, argued passionately, making it a great pity that Gilkes Romero so often gets them muddled. References in the play are a confusing mix of real life and fiction. By presenting Michael as deputy leader, Gilkes Romero seems to be saying that it is his pragmatic approach which achieves results. However, it is a simple fact that no black UK politician has, in reality, yet reached such a level, so should she not be making the point that the Michael way and the Karen way are equally flawed? Both Michael and Karen are urged to rein in their radical instincts by a third character, Barry, a party strategist who is always likely to get what he wants by promising a meeting with the leader. He is also Karen’s other lover, but the personal relationships are never fully explored and the three characters are hardly developed beyond being mouthpieces for the writers’s political arguments. By telling us of this love triangle, but not weaving it fully into the fabric of her play, Gilkes Romero is effectively saying nothing more interesting than that these politicians are promiscuous. Karen is described in a right-wing newspaper headline as a “Black Hard-Left Marxist Leninist Feminist”, and, as played by Emma Dennis-Edwards, she comes across as belligerent, self-righteous, resentful and more likely to win the Lottery than friends or an election. Akemnji Ndifornyen”s Michael has the air of a prominent MP in the early stages, but becomes progressively less convincing as he gets younger, whilst Andrew Scarborough strikes the right balance between charm and ruthlessness as the sleazy fixer Barry. Performed on a white traverse stage with props improvised using cardboard boxes, the play progresses through its ten scenes with more or less the same debate taking place in each, except for a twist in the final two which is not properly explained. The issues raised by Gilkes Romero are of vital importance and she is to be commended for airing them, but she really needed to do so more coherently.

Performance date: 16 January 2015

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hel marThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

A disused factory in the shadows of City of London tower blocks is an ironic setting for this descent into Hell. All machinery is gone and we are greeted by just chairs spread around the edges of the floor space and, behind them, bare white-tiled walls. Craft Theatre’s mission is to build a bridge between the 14th and 21st Centuries by delving into Dante Alighieri’s epic poem Divine Comedy and relating it to modern life. The opening of this production had to be put back by a week due to the sad loss of Kan Bonfils during rehearsals. He had been a member of the devising/performing team, along with Helen Foster, Maria Swisher, Tomas Thoroe and Lucas John Mahoney. Ryan Prescott has now stepped in to represent his work. Before the show starts, the five performers, all dressed in work-out kit, are seen limbering up and then huddling in a circle as if preparing for a competitive team sport, thereby suggesting that what follows will be predominantly a work of physical theatre. In fact, although physical movement is a key element of the performance, the essence of the work lies in a modern prose interpretation of the original poem with Russell Brand, John Cage and director Rocky Rodriguez Jr adding text. Dante is now seen as a 30-ish professional man, juggling what starts out as a happy marriage with a demanding job as a lobbyist, advocating causes which seem to be detrimental to the environment. He gets sucked into the rat race, is pressured by a bullying supervisor and then persuaded to have an affair with the boss’s daughter as a means for career advancement. On the edge of a breakdown, he lands up in jail for assaulting a street beggar and then passes into the Underworld from where he is able to take an objective view of his life and realise that the road to Paradise begins in Hell. Stripped back to the essentials, this is an edgy production which is always fascinating to watch due to its raw energy and improvised feel. The stillness of bedroom scenes is contrasted with the tension of office life and the chaos of a busy city street, both represented by jerky, repetitive movements and constant, mostly indecipherable chatter. Hell becomes a mass of writhing bodies, clinging to each other in desperation. Alighieri could not have envisaged the complexities that the passing of seven centuries have added to human existence, but his philosophising about individuals accepting personal responsibility for their lives and determining their own destinies still resonates. The remedies prescribed to cure the ills of the modern Dante are anti-capitalist and pro- green. Although this end point is disappointingly simplistic and obvious, the 80-minute journey to reach it proves to be a stimulating and very different ride.

Performance date: 15 January 2015

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