dissidents__gallery_imageMy review can currently be seen at: http://www.thepublicreviews.com/the-dissidents-tricycle-theatre-london/ and will appear here from 30th March.

Performance date: 26th March 2015

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Andrew Sherdian & Matthew Tennyson Feb 2015This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Penrose and Francis gather in their Highgate home to prepare for the funeral of the man that they both call “Daddy”, bickering with each other nervously. Yet they are not brothers. Francis was taken in by the family as a gardener when he was 16 and Penrose only two and, now, 19 years later, the fraternal bonds between the pair are seemingly unbreakable. Robert Holman’s new play takes these *brothers” on a journey of mutual discovery as they tease, test and question each other to uncover past secrets that are uncomfortable for both. The play has a keen sense of how the impact of childhood incidents, major and minor, can linger throughout lives and it shows both men to be damaged – Penrose, with a privileged background, suffering from parental neglect and Francis, with lowly roots in Northumberland, being haunted by abuse and tragedy. This production gets added value from bespoke casting. Matthew Tennyson at first seems far too innocent and immature for Penrose’s 21 years and Andrew Sheridan too bruised and world weary to be only 35. However, as Holman created the two characters for these specific actors, we know that the roles are being played exactly as the writer intended and both the performances are deeply moving. The play explores the nature of love in its purest, platonic form; it shows the importance of giving and accepting care; and it delves into the value of family, conventional or otherwise. Moving from Highgate and Parliament Hill, with its panoramic urban views, to the villages and fields of rural Northumberland, Holman’s descriptive writing has a vivid feel for the locations which form part of key incidents in his characters’ lives. Robert Hastie’s production never forces the pace of the play, with soft lighting on an uncluttered wooden stage creating a reflective atmosphere to underpin the themes of loss and recovery. Music also plays a part, with classical piano pieces being played offstage (supposedly by Penrose) and both actors performing (extremely well) traditional songs. Undeniably Holman’s play is slow to unfold, wordy and a little overlong, but the work possesses rare insight and intensity which make it tug consistently at the heartstrings throughout.

Performance date: 20 March 2015

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Closer*** (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted: March 20, 2015 in Theatre

Closer_Donmar_1300X400The opening scene of Patrick Marber’s play, first staged at the National Theatre in 1997, takes place in a hospital waiting room and its clinical feel sets the tone for everything that follows. The story, a menage a quatre, sees the play’s characters, three of them middle class professionals nearing middle age, navigate a minefield of relationships, driven by carnal desires whilst seeking emotional fulfilment. Marber’s vision is that one rarely, or never, leads to the other. The journey of a first viewing of Closer involves growing to dislike its characters progressively. Seeing it again relatively soon afterwards (with a Hollywood film appearing in the intervening years), the dislike is cemented in place before entering the theatre and a barrier to emotional involvement is pre-built. The famous chat room scene, fresh and startling in 1997, is now old hat, but, otherwise, the play never feels dated and this revival, directed by David Leveaux, is cold and efficient, as befits its themes. However, there is nothing here that presents the play in a new light or makes it more likeable. The characters, motivated by base instincts such as lust, jealousy and revenge, are marked by their selfishness and mendacity. In a neat touch of irony by Marber, the only one of the four to elicit any audience sympathy is the younger Alice, who works in the sex trade and lies about her past, but is shown to have the purest motives; Rachel Redford’s performance brings out all her simplicity and vulnerability. Daniel is an obituary writer and, as played by Oliver Chris, he is needy, using his boyish charm to seduce firstly Alice and then Anna, oblivious to any collateral damage. Anna (Nancy Carroll), a photographer, switches partners at a whim and Lenny (Rufus Sewell), a dermatologist, joins in the game of musical chairs, initially with bemusement, but eventually turning spiteful and manipulative. Irrational behaviour by the characters often leads to scenes becoming tedious because of their implausibility, but, to balance that, other scenes sparkle with rapier-like exchanges and cynical wisecracks. It is a curious mix, often intriguing, but never fully satisfying. Marber’s next play is to be set in the world of football; perhaps he will find more warmth there.

Performance date: 19 March 2015

Hiraeth**+ (Soho Theatre)

Posted: March 19, 2015 in Theatre

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

Tom Tones once sang of “the green green grass of home”, but, for Buddug James Jones (Bud), the grass looks greenest in the opposite direction – on the other side of the Severn Bridge in London to be exact. Being told that all people are either rocks or rivers, Bud concludes that she is a river and needs to run. Based on Bud’s account of her departure from her family home in a West Wales farming region, she performs the show along with Max Mackintosh, playing guitar and all the other characters in the story and a non-speaking David Grubb playing fiddle and drums. The three all wear patterned jumpers of a kind not likely to be seen around during London Fashion Week, but presumably they are made from the wool of Welsh sheep. Incorporating feigned amateurishness into their well practiced routines, Bud and Max tell us of a community where all objects and events are “lush” and all inhabitants (most of them named Jones) are “legend”. The pair’s performance consists of informal, humorous storytelling, mixed in with pleasant if unmemorable songs written by Mackintosh and Grubb The show’s title is a Welsh word which implies pride in ones roots and sadness for the loss of a way of life. However, the show fails to explore these themes, being more about mocking Bud’s home life and recounting her experiences in the big city. Apart from a brief bout of homesickness, Bud conveys no real sense of loss or disconnection from her heritage, which is rather a pity, because the show needs more poignancy and depth. In essence, this is a one joke show, poking gentle fun at the rural Welsh for the amusement of (possibly) sophisticated urban audiences. When the joke gets thin over the course of 65 minutes, all that is left is the cheerfulness and affability of the performers, which is not quite enough to carry the show through.

Performance date: 18 March 2015

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Antigone**** (Barbican Theatre)

Posted: March 18, 2015 in Theatre

antigoneSuch is the reputation of Belgian director Ivo van Hove, after last year’s phenomenal success at the Young Vic, that his name overshadows the play’s title on tickets for this production and the appearance of an Oscar winner in the title role is not even mentioned. There are similarities between this and A View from the Bridge – stylised, minimalist staging, solemn music playing in the background, very deliberate variations in the pace and power of the performances – but, when applied to a tragedy from ancient Greece, these techniques do not have quite the same shock effect as with relatively modern Brooklyn. Van Hove and his partner, set and lighting designer Jan Versweyweld, struggle a little in grappling with the Barbican’s unreasonably wide stage – a backing screen generally suggests a wilderness, dominated by a large central sun, and is used for silhouettes and projections (not always discernible) – but too often the actors are compressed, standing or sitting in a line on a thin, lowered strip front of stage which is furnished to suggest a modern office. It is a set-up which favours the epic more that the intimate and distances the audience rather than draws it into the drama. However, leaving aside these reservations, this modern dress production is always absorbing and often stunning. Sophokles’ play tells of the determination of Antigone (Juliette Binoche) to get a decent burial for a brother who died in combat, contrary to an edict issued by the Theban ruler Kreon (Patrick O’Kane). Waif-like and seemingly ageless, Binoche is a luminous presence and she portrays Antigone’s anguish with real passion; however the play, at least in this translation by Anne Carson, gives her very little to get her teeth into and the dominant performance is that of O’Kane. The easy option could have been to have made Kreon a vicious megalomaniac, but here we have a businessman in a designer suit who, having been thrust into a position of power, is walking the thin line between anarchy and tyranny, recognising his own mistakes but feeling unable to retract for fear of looking weak. By making Kreon a modern Everyman, the play’s relevance to 21st Century politics is brought into sharp focus. Yet, for all this production’s epic sweep, there are occasional moments of shattering intimacy – Kreon’s son Haimon (Samuel Edward-Cook), betrothed to the doomed Antigone, takes his own life, resting his head on his father’s shoulder and simply falling asleep. With strong support from Finbar Lynch, Kirsty Bushell and Kathryn Pogson, all in specific roles and as chorus, this is a pan-European effort which oozes quality. Ancient Greece still has much to say to the rest of us; it would be nice if someone could now sort out modern Greece.

Performance date: 17 March 2015

Stevie*** (Hampstead Theatre)

Posted: March 16, 2015 in Theatre

stevieMany of us have lingered for too long at the Palmers Green traffic lights on the North Circular, without ever taking much notice of the place. Hugh Whitemore’s 1977 play (the title role originally played by Hampstead’s current MP) is set entirely in that leafy North London suburb, in the home of writer/poet Stevie Smith (1902-1971). In Christopher Morahan’s handsome looking revival, Simon Higlett’s spacious set – an interior abounding with floral designs looking out through sash windows to mature trees – represents all the values of comfortable middle class living in the 1950s/60s, a haven for the eccentric spinster Smith (Zoe Wanamaker) and her beloved aunt (Lynda Baron). The living room conversation extends to nothing more profound than debating whether to have beans or carrots for dinner, but this cosy, mundane domestic setting gives Smith her secure base for observing the World. Wanamaker assumes a haunted, quizzical look, chain smoking and dogged by the slight frailty and fatigue of a woman weakened by childhood tuberculosis; occasionally quick-tempered, often under a cloud of depression, she exudes a sadness and an acceptance of mortality which indicate that her most famous line, “not waving but drowning”, relates to herself; yet still she is unable to hide her girlish glee when being feted as a celebrity or attending an audience with the Queen. This is a magnetic performance by Wanamaker. Baron too is a delight and Chris Larkin (son of another famous Smith) is equally effective as “Man”, a role combining narrator with various characters in Smith’s life. Whitemore has the luxury of being able to incorporate much of Smith’s own poetry and prose into his script, adding to its literary quality and throwing light on a complex women who worked as a secretary for a publishing firm by day and thanked them for allowing her the time to write. Surprisingly, it is claimed that every word that she wrote was published and Smith was anything but a recluse, which leads to one of the biggest problems with Whitemore’s play – that it tells only part of the story and leaves us wanting to understand Smith better by seeing how she connects with the wider World. Another related problem is that all the notable incidents in Smith’s life take place offstage and are then told to the audience, leaving the play with hardly any dramatic power. Wanamaker’s wonderful expressiveness is pure theatre, but, beyond that, this is little more than a pleasant storytelling recital – the perfect radio play.

Performance date 10 March 2015

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It seems amazing that this play has rested in a drawer for more than 40 years. Its writer, Michael Hastings died in 2011 after a distinguished career as a dramatist and Southwark Playhouse deserves congratulation for rescuing a work which, if nothing more, serves as an important document of London’s working class history. In fact, it is much more. Tricia Thorns’ steadily paced, impeccably acted production is set in the work room of a Savile Row tailor between 1953 and 1955. It reminds somewhat of Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen, revived at The National a while back, in that it shows us the work ethic and working conditions of a bygone era. Alex Marker’s set is so vivid and detailed that, sitting three rows back, I half expected to be taken to task for slacking. The play’s dramatic tension arises from the conflict of old school hand stitching craftsmanship, as represented by the ageing Spijak (Andy de la Tour), and modern, quick turnaround machine stitching as advocated by Eric (Paul Rider). Each has a “kipper” (tailoress) – Sydie (Alexis Caley) is Spijak’s daughter and Iris (Abigail Thaw) dotes on Eric, who is probably gay. De la Tour’s deeply moving performance is mesmerising; a Polish Jew, Spijak stands defiantly in the path of modernisation and what he sees as diminishing standards of workmanship; he can often be found on a ledge beneath a work bench, sleeping off a hangover and he sums up his philosophy with “(the) day you start looking for happiness (is the) day you start dying…”; left alone in the work place over Christmas, he delivers a soliloquy in the form of a conversation with his dead wife, which leaves the audience in stunned silence. Spijak’s new apprentice Maurice arrives at the beginning of the play to face merciless bullying as he learns the intricate details of his craft and a quietly impressive performance by James El-Sharawy reveals his resilience and determination to master all the old skills and blend them into the changing work environment. Maurice spends his lunch hours locked in the toilet, writing a play about his experiences; he is, of course, Hastings himself. The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this superb production is that Hastings’ commitment to the craft of playwriting was as steadfast as that of Spijak to tailoring.

Performance date: 13 March 2015