Fred-MadgewebsiteThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Consistent with a mission statement in which it commits “exclusively to new writing”, the Hope Theatre is staging the first ever professional production of this debut play. However, calling it “new” may be stretching a point, as it was actually written 55 years ago. This belated production by Rough Haired Pointer is given added poignancy by the fact that the theatre is situated just a few minutes walk from the Islington bed-sit where the play’s writer, Joe Orton, lived and died with his partner, Kenneth Halliwell. Orton is best known for just three hit plays, the first of which appeared in London five years after this one was written, but his style of black comedy is so distinctive and enduring that the adjective “Ortonesque” has now entered the Oxford English Dictionary. Raised on a Leicester council estate, the writer flourished in the London of the 1950’s and 60s, but was still constrained by the conventions of the drab post-War era and by the persecution of gay men. Fred and Madge are thought to be based upon Orton’s own parents, which would explain why it feels as if this play tells us more about the writer himself than any of his other works. The titular characters, played in effective deadpan style by Jake Curran and Jodyanne Richardson, work respectively pushing a large boulder up a hill repeatedly and sieving water. The play’s theme, the tedium of everyday life, is one that is never easy to depict without sending an audience to sleep and this places an added burden on the dialogue to keep us amused. Fred and Madge ponder on things such as whether they should get bats or locusts as pets, illustrating how Orton’s feel for the banality of ordinary conversation and for absurdism combine. This was an era when comedy was the common antidote to austerity and the anarchic humour of The Goon Show shines through as a clear influence. The structure of a play within a play emerges early on, but then fades away, leaving the piece shapeless and lacking narrative drive. This is a work that is a long way from being fully developed and it seems possible that Orton gave little thought to it being staged, perhaps writing it to vent his own frustrations and to rail against his family. In the later stages, as the characters prepare to leave for India, Orton seems to be telling them to broaden their horizons and face up to a changing world, whilst still realising that working class folk of that era would be ill equipped to do so. For all its failings, and there are many, Fred and Madge reveals to us a writer who saw the theatre as a means for self-expression, a place where he could cast off the straightjacket that normal life forced him to wear. Although there is little of the sexual innuendo which characterised the later plays, liberal amounts of cross dressing give this production a distinctive Ortonesque feel. Christopher Hone’s village hall set and Mary Franklin’s direction, which feigns bumbling amateurism, ensure that the production does not give the play undue respect. In a variety of roles, Andy Brock, Loz Keystone, Geordie Wright and Jordan Mallory-Skinner are all excellent, the latter giving passable impersonations of Roy Orbison and other 1950s crooners in pleasant musical interludes. Fred and Madge is notable more for its interest value than its merit and this production certainly shows us why it has taken more than half a century to bring the play to the professional stage. However, there is more here than just fodder for theatre academics; this talented company has also managed to wring out a fair amount of entertainment, which is quite an achievement.

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Damn-Yankees2Damn good news from the Landor! Their revival of the 1950s Broadway smash, Damn Yankees has got into full swing with the announcement that Jonathan D Ellis (Les Miserables, Blood Brothers) will be taking up first base. He will be joined by Poppy Tierney and Alex Lodge for this tale of Baseball with a Faustian twist, which features such classic songs as Whatever Lola Wants and You’ve Gotta Have Heart. The show will run from 1 October until 8 November. My review will appear first on The Public Reviews from 8 October and then on this site from 11 October.

photo: Roy Tan

annachancellorOpening during the week after the Last Night of the Proms, Rory Mullarkey’s new black comedy projects a wholly different vision of middle England. Elgar and Holst still provide the backing soundtrack, but, here, demure old ladies who sip tea with bishops have Semtex on their shopping lists and plot with others to bite the hand that feeds them in a violent revolution which will overthrow the established order, Parliament, the press and even the theatre (sob!). At their head is Lady Catherine, a dotty but determined aristocrat (Anna Chancellor is ideal casting) who picks up a young drifter, Leo, in a railways station and designates him as ruler-to-be in a new regime of benign despotism. Together, the unlikely pair embark on a murderous rampage, reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde. As Leo, Calvin Demba finds the perfect blend of innocence and thuggery; the character claims not to need to sleep nor eat and, yet, in one of the play’s best running gags, he eats prodigious amounts of typically English food on stage. Demba must find matinee days particularly uncomfortable. Mullarkey’s writing is often uneven, some scenes falling completely flat and dragging on for much too long. When there is a shortage of wit, he tends to use shock tactics to hold the audience, including unorthodox staging, suggestions of horrific violence and completely gratuitous nudity. Most of this is fine, because, if the purpose of a play like this is not to unsettle an audience, then it has no purpose at all. However, he oversteps the mark when a pivotal scene centres on a decapitation – horribly unfortunate timing and, at this performance, it drew the groans that it deserves. In all, the play resembles a modern day version of a vintage Ealing comedy – mildly subversive and spiked with real nastiness, yet still ever so cosy and quaint. As a result, it ends up as an affectionate endorsement of everything that it purports to challenge.

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

In a move to encourage up and coming writers, the producers of Andrew Maddock’s excellent pair of monologues The Me Plays invited a group of them to see the show and write short plays in response. The seven plays staged here, after a week’s rehearsal, are the result. The plays, none more than 15 minutes long, some in rhyming verse, draw from Maddock’s insights into the pains, frustrations and humour of young adult life. The first, Burying a Stranger by Thomas Jones and Nikolai Ribnikov is a monologue by a young girl (Emily Aitchenson) recounting the chaotic funeral of her beloved granddad, coping with appalling weather and a drunken mother. This is the only play closely linked to Maddock’s Hi Life, I Win, the others drawing more from Junkie and taking up themes of dating, love, addiction and, above all, the internet. Tom Hartwell’s Privacy sees Facebook made human, lying in bed between a couple and wrecking their relationship. In Shaun Kitchener’s Offer, a young man and woman meet partly to go on a first date and partly to discuss the woman appearing in a porn film. Harriet Madeley’s Match introduces us to a couple who are habitual internet daters, unable to ignore their apps and texts even when in a hospital waiting room visiting an accident victim. In Henry Ashe-Jepson’s Cum & Go, Murray (a splendidly anxious Haydn Whiteside) has secured his first conquest for later in the evening and is bombarded with inappropriate “good luck” texts, including one from his granddad. The Ballad of Tab and Sal by Frankie Meredith, expands on the female characters referred to in Junkie and recounts the same events from their perspective, using similarly clever rhymes. This play in enlivened by two sparkling comic performances from Natalie Lester and Helen Booth. Six of the seven plays are highly amusing and inventive comedies, all proving the maxim that brevity is the soul of wit. However, mixed in amongst them is Saint, a tender and suspenseful love poem, beautifully written by Natalie Collie and performed with complete sincerity by an almost motionless Alice Frankham. All in all, these plays make up a tasty plateful of hors d’oeuvres, sadly on offer for one evening only. As previously noted, Andrew Maddock is a talent to watch and it is good to discover that others are following in his wake.

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little revolutionThe London riots of August 2011 did not overflow into the territory of gentrified middle class Islington, but they were close enough to cause disquiet and the Almeida always knew that it would be touching a raw nerve by staging this 70 minute account of them. The theatre is to be applauded for putting on a show that is topical (relatively) and relevant, but, sadly, what it seems to have forgotten is that the first requirement for any dramatic production is a play and this under-developed, scrappy piece can hardly be described as such. Alecky Blythe’s verbatim theatre technique (recording interviews with people affected by an event and then using actors to replicate their responses as exactly as possible) achieved great success at the National with London Road, but there her musical collaboration gave the show shape and form, both of which are lacking here. This is a docu-drama which works as neither a documentary nor a drama; the former might have had a commentary to link it together and the latter a narrative thread. The closest we get to either is Blythe herself introducing the show and wandering around with a recorder in her hand. On the positive side, the appearance of seasoned professionals such as Ronni Ancona, Imogen Stubbs and Rufus Wright alongside a “Community Chorus” of around 30 locals works well. Director Joe Hill-Gibbons choreographs them all, using almost non-stop motion by the actors to accentuate a sense of chaos throughout an auditorium which is re-configured to in-the-round.  There are some outstanding vignettes and performances, but they last for about three minutes maximum and there is too little either to hold them together or to make a clear unifying point. As a result, they are likely to prove quickly forgettable, as is this entire production.

OhtheHumanityNEWframe2This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

“We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone…” said Orson Welles and the same conclusion comes to mind after seeing Will Eno’s quirky exploration of the human condition. Ordinary people, each with their own foibles, strengths and inadequacies are depicted as if small vessels adrift on a vast ocean, looking desperately for a mooring. This 2007 work by the American writer, performed in 2012 at the Edinburgh Festival and then in London, is actually five short plays linked very loosely together. Eno has a skill for taking everyday conversational cliches and platitudes and twisting them slightly so that they are exposed as meaningless. A sports coach (Jonathan Kemp), speaking to the press at the end of a disastrous season, offers the excuse that “habit is the hardest habit to break”; an airline spokesperson (Claire Lichie) explains to grief-stricken relatives after a plane crash “gravity, we trust, was a factor”. The spotlight of public attention has fallen on these characters, but all they want is to retreat into their own worlds, he to write sonnets, she to mourn her own father who simply died in a chair. Two young singles (Esme Patey-Ford and Joseph Stevenson) become isolated in front of cameras, recording videos for a dating agency and rendered inarticulate when asked to talk about themselves. He boasts of being “good at food shopping” and lists amongst his interests “not travelling”. She claims to have been described as “the girl next door”, adding coyly and without irony “by the neighbours”. The first three scenes have the feel of comedy sketches, but there then follows a wistful piece examining lives caught on camera more than a century ago and, finally, in the play’s bleakest section, we see a married couple (Kaye Brown and Keith Hill) completely disengaged from each other. They sit in what one thinks is a car, the other two chairs; they agree that they are going to church, but she looks forward to a christening, whilst he is preparing for a funeral. The pair are bound together, yet their isolation is total. Paul Lichstenstern’s revival offers a lucid interpretation of a play that is often abstract in nature and the performances are uniformly excellent. The set, designed by Andy Edwards, is a cluttered photographic studio in which the actors stand or sit around the periphery, moving to a white centre stage for their own scenes. Haunting piano music which links the scenes gives the entire production a pervading air of melancholy. This is a highly unusual work of theatre, amusing, thought-provoking and rewarding.

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the me playsThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Short, rotund and 30-ish, Andrew Maddock has the look of a miniature James Cordon, which makes him perfect to perform these two monologues in the guises of laddish Londoners, known simply as “Me”. But then he would be perfect, because they are described as “semi-autobiographical” and he wrote them. The plays are humorous and poignant reflections on life at a time when childhood and teenage years are gone and the harsher realities of the adult world are coming into focus. Maddock has taken the risk of writing the plays in rhyming couplets, which could have made them feel over-stylised, but the gamble pays handsome dividends. Each time that he delivers a successful rhyme, Maddock the actor seems to exude a glow of satisfaction which underscores the essential cockiness of both characters. In Junkie, “Me” is a self-conscious loner, addicted to drugs and the internet. He has set up a date with Tabatha, with whom he only communicates by text and, acting on her insistence that must wear red, he visits Top Shop to find only a tight-fitting jumper which accentuates exactly what he most wants to hide.  The digital age is supposed to have made meeting girls easier, but, for “Me”, it has done the opposite. He posts the most favourable images and descriptions of himself on dating sites, assuming that others will do the same, but, knowing that the average first date lasts just 12 minutes, he is overcome by trepidation when the time comes to reveal the truth. Ultimately, the habit which this character finds hardest to break is loneliness. Hi Life, I Win sees “Me” hospitalised, undergoing tests and facing up to his own mortality. He looks back on growing up in the 1990s, fondly remembering Grandad Fred whose death was followed by a family break-up and his own drift into unruliness. To put him back on the straight and narrow, he was sent to a religious centre in London Colney and given guidance by “Arizona Dan”, an adherent of God and Loudon Wainwright III. This “Me” has a not particularly likeable past, but there is something deeply moving about seeing him fall to his knees sobbing, a teenage thug now humbled by fate. As he takes random fragments of his life – family, acquaintances, education, religion – and starts to piece them together, he seems to be realising that his existence could have some meaning, even if he cannot yet figure out what it is. The Me Plays are insightful and sobering, yet they always entertain, adding a touch of poetry to the regular monologue format. Andrew Maddock is a talent to be watched.

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