Yes So I Said Yes (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: November 27, 2021 in Theatre
Photo: Lidia Crispafulli

Writer: David Ireland

Director: Max Elton

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Judged from his most recent works, perhaps the one word that can best describe the style of Belfast-born playwright, David Ireland is “confrontational”. In both Cyprus Avenue, which enjoyed two successful runs at London’s Royal Court Theatre, and Ulster American, a big hit at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, characters challenge each other and audiences ferociously and follow through with shocking acts of violence. If the title of this, his latest play which is here receiving its premiere on this side of the Irish Sea, suggests a milder approach, it is misleading. There is no mellowing of tone and, in fact, the writer could be said to have progressed from risking offending many to being near certain of offending all.

Ireland’s writing bears an acute awareness of the divisions, both political and social, on the island of his birth. He writes from the perspective of belonging to a province that seeks an identity and a relevance in the modern world, perpetually viewing itself as either British or Irish or neither or both. Now (the play is set in 2011), following on from the peace process, even traditional sectarian killing is out of fashion. The writer’s themes are as before, but he now presents them in the form of an absurdist satire that is even starker in a horror tale about mental torment, rape, bestiality and Eamonn Holmes.

The central figure, Alan “Snuffy” Black, a Protestant Unionist, is played with a doleful look of bewilderment by Daragh O’Malley; he is diagnosed by his jocular doctor (Kevin Trainor) as suffering from depression after he complains that the barking dog owned by his neighbour, McCorrick (Owen O’Neill) is preventing him from sleeping every night. The dog (symbolic of irrational prejudices?) may or may not exist. Snuffy gets help from an unconventional therapist (Laura Dos Santos) who orders an outrageous remedy for his ills.

Director Max Elton’s production has pace and anger, magnifying the play’s darkest humour. The right note is hit with the arrival of two Unionist paramilitaries, a hilarious double act comprising the relentlessly aggressive Craig (Kevin Murphy) and his over-eager sidekick, Carson (Declan Rodgers). Sadly, their appearance is too brief and, without them, Elton struggles to keep the excesses of Ireland’s black comic writing in check.

in the course of the production’s 80-minutes (straight through) running time, jokes work sporadically, but they tend to be dragged out for too long and, while all the ingredients for a successful black comedy are here, they feel wrongly balanced. Resulting from this, the play eventually strays so far beyond the boundaries of good taste that it ends up being neither funny nor meaningful.

Performance date: 25 November 2021

Little Women The Musical (Park Theatre)

Posted: November 18, 2021 in Theatre
Photo: Pamela Raith

Book: Allan Knee

Music: Jason Howland

Lyrics: Mindi Dickstein

Director: Bronagh Lagan

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Interest in Louisa May Alcott’s 1868/9 two volume semi-autobiographical novels, Little Women, was revived by a highly acclaimed 2019 film adaptation. Its mix of comedy, tragedy, romance and nostalgia clearly remains potent today and it would seem that these could be the perfect ingredients for it to follow the paths of other 19th Century literary works to become a successful musical. 

Set in New England at a time when the American Civil War is raging far to the south, Alcott’s books tell the coming of age stories of the four March sisters who live with their impoverished mother while their father is away serving in the Union army.There is a lot for writer Allan Knee to condense into 260 minutes (including interval), but he does a fine job in jettisoning subsidiary characters and scenes, while retaining the full flavour of the original.

The most striking feature of director Bronagh Lagan’s heartwarming production is the impeccable casting. Anyone familiar with the novels is likely to recognise all of the characters as soon as they appear on stage, dressed in splendid period costumes, designed by Nik Corrall. Lydia White gives a thrilling star performance as second oldest sister Jo, a strong-willed aspiring writer, assumed to be based on Alcott herself. Jo resolves never to marry and rejects the advances of the awkward, over-eager neighbour Laurie (Sev Keoshgerian showing deft comic touches), while her older sister, Meg (Hana Ichijo), sets herself on a course towards marital bliss with Laurie’s tutor, John (Lejaun Sheppard).

The quartet is completed by musically talented Beth (Anastasia Martin) and the precocious, spiteful Amy (a deliciously nasty Mary Moore). Savannah Stevenson, with the sweetest soprano voice in the company, is the girls’ loving “Marmee” and, in memorable cameo roles, Bernadine Pritchett is the domineering Aunt March, Brian Protheroe is the kindly rich neighbour, Mr Lawrence and Ryan Bennett is the timid New York Professor who could have a chance of winning Jo’s hand.

Sadly, the songs with music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, are a big disappointment, most of them distinguished only by their consistent mediocrity. It feels as if all the work in developing the characters and propelling the story is done by the book writer and the performers, with the songs contributing very little. There is some improvement in the later stages and the final duet between Jo and the Professor, Small Umbrella in the Rain, is actually rather charming, but still there is nothing likely to linger in the head even for as long as it takes to reach the theatre’s exit door.

The production succeeds well as a dramatisation of Alcott’s novels and the transformation into a musical takes little away from that success; however, neither does it add very much. If the producers aim to take the show beyond this 200-seat venue and expand it, they will need to find some songs that are capable of making a stronger impact.

Performance date: 17 November 2021

Photo: Robert Day

Writer: Rebecca Watson

Adaptor: Miriam Battye

Director: Katie Mitchell

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On the face of it, Rebecca Watson’s extraordinary modern novel little scratch would seem impossible to dramatise. Written in short sentences, often random, often disconnected, it expresses the thoughts of a troubled young woman as she ploughs through a single, unremarkable working day. She commutes to her office, executes her mundane tasks, masks her internal pain and itches while remaining determined never to scratch.

Perhaps the novel could have been made to work as a monologue, but adaptor Miriam Battye and director Katie Mitchell do not look for easy options. Their play is performed by four superb actors, not bringing to life other characters in the unnamed woman’s story, but illustrating the conflicts and confusions inside her mind. This bold and original technique works to stunning effect.

Mitchell preempts the criticism that this is nothing more than a radio play by making it seem as if we are watching the recording of a radio play. Three women (Morónké Akinolá, Eleanor Henderson and Eve Ponsonby) and one man (Ragevan Vasan) appear statuesque behind standing microphones on a semi-lit stage throughout the production’s 95 minutes. They improvise sound effects and take turns to articulate the woman’s thoughts. Curiously, they become a non-singing choral quartet, the varying timbres of their voices, the precise rhythms and timing of their speech collectively representing a mind in turmoil.

The play dwells on the minutiae of daily life – waking up, eating breakfast, performing bodily functions, facing social media and so on – before finding the epicentre of the woman’s trauma. She is a rape victim. She sets herself the challenge of carrying on as if nothing had happened, working in the office where the assault had taken place, continuing her happy relationship with her boyfriend, but she is unable to bring herself to tell anyone what had happened. Crucially, the adaptor and director never allow the play to feel as if it is a cathartic outpouring; everything remains internalised as the woman searches for her own ways to come to terms with events and to begin the healing process.

Unflinching in its approach, sometimes unavoidably shocking and sickeningly topical, Watson’s book has been transformed into a uniquely disturbing theatre experience.

Performance date: 12 November 2021

Old Bridge (Bush Theatre)

Posted: October 28, 2021 in Uncategorized

Writer: Igor Memic

Director: Selma Dimitrijevic

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It is possible to think of wartime atrocities either as part of distant history or, in a modern context, as taking place on far away continents. However, we must not forget how recent and how close to our own doorstep were the conflicts that followed the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. British writer Igor Memic’s 2020 Papatango Prize-winning drama serves as a chilling jolt to the memory.

The story begins in 1988, when the city of Mostar, located in modern day Bosnia and Herzegovina, is still part of Yugoslavia. The historic landmark Old Bridge spans the river which divides the city, vaguely on ethnic lines. It brings communities together, never more so than on one day each Summer when it becomes the scene of a diving competition. Mili (Dino Kelly), a young man from another city, joins the competition and jumps from the bridge, catching the eye of local girl, Mina (Saffron Coomber). She is watching with her friends Leila (Rosie Gray) and Sasha (Emilio Iannucci), the joker in the pack until the jokes turn sour.

Mostar’s people identify as Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Albanian and so on; they may be Catholic, or Moslem, or Jewish. Their lives are inter-connected but shifting in ways that Mili likens to a Rubik’s Cube. Mina and Mili fall in love, but the play does not turn into an updating of Romeo and Juliet; the couple’s dreams are shattered not by their own family or ethnic divisions, but by the horrors of the warfare that begins to rage all around them. 

Memic does not concern himself with politics and he teaches us few specific details of the wars taking place in the Balkans region at that time. His focus is solely on the play’s characters, assessing the impact of epic events on their lives. Director Selma Dimitrijevic’s production, on a wide stage, unadorned by formal sets and with few props, conveys a sense of small people caught up in a vast tide of uncontrollable events, but this sometimes comes at the expense of projecting the intimacy of close friendships.

The writer gives the play a historical perspective through the eyes of Emina, who serves as a form of narrator, looking back from around 30 years later. Occasionally, it feels as if this character is being over used; we want the four young people to speak more for themselves and the actors playing them to expand the characters and perform all of their stories. However, much of Memic’s most lyrical and graphic writing falls to Emina and Susan Lawson-Reynolds is a commanding presence, speaking it with great clarity and emotional intensity.

Throughout the play, Old Bridge is seen as a symbol of division and unification, destruction and renewal. Memic gives us a powerful and moving reminder of the fragility of the peace that we take too easily for granted,

Performance date: 27 October 2021

Photo: Steve Gregson

Writer: Ben Brown

Directors: Alan Strachan and Alastair Whatley

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In 1987, Kim Philby, member of the infamous Cambridge Five spy ring, was living in exile in Moscow, nearing the end of his life. His Communist dream, embodied in the Soviet Union, was crumbling and the Capitalist era of Reagan and Thatcher was on the ascendancy. Against this backdrop, Ben Brown’s play imagines the conversation in a meeting in that year between Philby and the great British novelist, Graham Greene, who had once been his junior in MI6.

The unmistakeable zither music from The Third Man opens the play and provides an immediate link between the two men. Greene scripted the film and, after Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, Philby is often referred to as “the third man” to be uncovered as a Soviet agent working inside British intelligence. Philby confesses his suspicions that Greene had based the film’s villain, Harry Lime, on him and the hero, Holly Martins, is  the writer himself, then realising that lime is in fact a shade of green. In their world, nothing is what it seems and Brown exploits the many ironies in the stories playfully throughout the play.

The meeting takes place in the living room of Philby’s Moscow apartment, cosy and comfortable in Michael Pavelka’s design. The fourth Mrs Philby, Rufa (Karen Ascoe), a Russian woman, appears from time to time, but mostly the two old friends who had not met for 25 years are left to reminisce, catch up and probe. They are alone, except for a KGB “minder” probably listening in the next room. Teasingly, his name is Vladimir.

Stephen Boxer’s Philby is an urbane womaniser who shows no outward signs of remorse, even when confronted with the lives lost due to his treachery. Oliver Ford Davies’ Greene has a sardonic air, but his anti British establishment views are much milder. He matches his friend’s duplicity by spinning different sorts of fiction and killing off his creations readily. The vodka flows and, in the play’s first act, the two men tell their stories and rake over widely known facts, but the drama becomes much more intriguing in the second act, when Brown explores the personal cost of actions taken in the past.

To some extent, Brown is touching on the same themes as Alan Bennett in An Englishman Abroad, a play which finds Burgess in Moscow exile and questions the nature of loyalty, betrayal and being forever English. However, these themes are given a fresh perspective and, in a production directed by Alan Strachan and Alastair Whatley, they are presented with style and wit.

Cleverly, Brown plants doubts over the veracity of the two men’s words almost as soon as they are spoken. The truth that prevails is that two hours spent in the company of two of our finest senior actors, seen sparring with each other cagily, is pure joy.

Performance date: 16 October 2021

Shepherd (London Film Festival 2021)

Posted: October 15, 2021 in Cinema

Writer and director: Russell Owen

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If the universal experience of grieving could be translated into a cinema genre, would it be a horror story? Writer and director Russell Owen’s film explores this possibility as it follows a man traumatised by the death in a car accident of his pregnant wife, who he knows had been unfaithful to him. Feelings of loss, betrayal and guilt blend together in a toxic brew that gradually becomes increasingly horrific.

Eric Black, played with a steely glare by Tom Hughes, is the strong silent type, not given to outward displays of emotion. The word most frequently passing his lips is “Baxter”, the name of his faithful dog. After an aborted suicide attempt and rejection by his censorious, Bible-bashing mother (a fearsome Greta Scacchi), he takes a job on a remote Scottish island, seemingly uninhabited, apart from by the sheep which become his charges.

Apart from an unreliable telephone, Eric’s only contact with the outside world is Fisher, a darkly mysterious ferry woman, played by Kate Dickie as a cross between a prison warder and the Grim Reaper. Haunted by menacing visions of her, his mother and his dead wife (Gaia Weiss), he surveys the island, finding a dilapidated  cottage for shelter, a shipwreck, a disused lighthouse and an unforgiving exterior landscape which offers no prospect of redemption.

Cinematographer Richard Stoddard captures the bleak terrain to chilling effect. Roaring winds, crashing tides and atmospheric music are heard incessantly on the soundtrack, gnawing at the brain and giving no respite from the hostility all around. Creaking floorboards and things that go bang in the night are the stock in trade of horror films and the lighthouse sequence borrows heavily from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but the originality of the film’s locations tends to outweigh the most obvious clichés. 

Hughes brings out the vulnerability of Eric, a man gripped by the twin terrors of grief and isolation, and gives the film depth as it moves between psychological dram and supernatural horror. The film’s skill in walking the thin line that separates paranoia from the paranormal makes it unnerving and helps to hold the audience enthralled. A short epilogue back on the mainland feels slightly misjudged and possibly unnecessary, but it still leaves enough intriguing questions unanswered for the film to linger in our thoughts long after the closing credits have rolled.

Photo: Helen Maybanks

Writer: Martin McDonagh

Director: Rachel O’Riordan

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Surveying the hugely successful career in theatre and cinema of London-born writer/director Martin McDonagh, two features stand out: his fascination with his Irish family heritage and his gift for black comedy. The Beauty Queen of Leenane, dating from 1996, was his first major success and it is also the first in a trilogy of plays set on Ireland’s west coast. In this seemingly tranquil, remote setting, there are dark undercurrents which eventually burst through to the surface, foretelling the style that was to become McDonagh’s trademark.

This revival, directed by the Lyric Theatre’s Artistic Director, Rachel O’Riordan, is co-produced with Chichester Festival Theatre, where it first appeared. Maureen is a 40-year-old virgin, played by Orla Fitzgerald as a rebellious but over-cautious woman, frustrated by the knowledge that many of life’s best opportunities may have already passed her by. She has a tentative suitor in Pato (Adam Best), who has set his sights on a new life for hem both in London and then the United States.

Maureen’s biggest problem is escaping the clutches of her selfish, scheming mother, Mag, played by Ingrid Craigie as a sharp-tongued and spiteful harridan. She is more preoccupied with moaning about her urinary infection and finding lumps in her Complan than with caring about her daughter’s happiness. The jocular village postman, 

Ray (Kwaku Fortune), pops in daily and hears her barbs.

McDonagh sets up a female version of Steptoe and Son. The dynamics of the mother/daughter relationship are the same; both are repulsed by the ways of the other, but both are aware that they could be tied together inseparably. As the writer explores the boundaries of human tolerance, it becomes increasingly clear that each character, while acting to further her own ends, is equally motivated by spiting the other. The women attack with savage wit, but there comes a point in O’Riordan’s production when they can no longer be seen as comic characters. More sinister forces come into play.

All the action takes place in the women’s colourful but very basic living space, designed by Good Teeth Theatre. An air of foreboding hangs over a generally low-key production, which explodes into fiery life at key moments. This is a competent revival at every level, but it does not really stamp a mark of its own on the play. The chief interest comes from tracing back how one of the most distinctive dramatists of the modern era got started.

Performance date: 13 October 2021

Photo: Mark Senior

Music and lyrics: John Robinson

Book: Phil Willmott

Director: Sasha Regan

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Judged alongside DH Lawrence’s greatest novels, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is commonly seen as more notorious than notable.  Emerging victorious from a famous 1960 obscenity trial, the title became synonymous with sexually explicit material, but the passing of more than 60 years has inevitably diminished the novel’s power to titillate and left behind a rather thin love story that highlights class divides in England at the beginning of the 20th Century.

This musical adaptation of Lawrence’s 1928 work was staged originally at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre in 2020 and that production has now been filmed for streaming. Recordings of stage shows, hybrids that are neither live theatre nor proper films, became more familiar during the pandemic, but there can be an awkwardness about them which is not entirely overcome here. This recording needs to be viewed as of a show in transition, its eventual destination being possibly a return to theatre or re-emergence as a fully-developed film.

Writer Phil Willmott takes considerable licence in adapting the novel’s story of Constance, the newlywed Lady Chatterley, whose husband Sir Clifford becomes crippled while serving as an officer in World War I; his subordinate, Oliver Mellors, now works as the gamekeeper on his estate and Contance, frustrated by Clifford’s incapacity, begins a passionate affair with him. Willmott jettisons most of the eroticism which characterises the novel to the extent that few could argue with this being described as “a family show”. 

Willmott’s approach results in the sacrifice of Lawrence’s key themes contrasting  physical and emotional love, but it allows a stronger focus on social injustices. Eloquent diatribes against the English class system and the plight of mining communities would have warmed the novelist’s heart. John Robinson’s lyrics rarely rise above the functional, but his soaring melodies orchestrated by Bjorn Dobbelaere and sung powerfully, by the entire company, give the show memorable highlights.

The two central performances are superb. Georgia Lennon brings out Constance’s joy at discovering that there is hope beyond the confinement that her social standing and unhappy marriage has placed her in. Michael Pickering’s Mellors is proud and determined to succeed on his own terms, but overwhelmed by his growing affection for Her Ladyship. Sam Kipling’s bitter and frustrated Clifford contrasts sharply with Jake Halsey-Jones’ Tommy, his flamboyant gay friend who comes closest to providing the touches of light comedy that most successful dramatic musicals need. Emma Lindars is a formidable presence as Clifford’s nurse and Zoe Rogers gives dignity to the character of Hilda, a lowly serving girl.

Andrew Exeter’s two-level set is used cleverly by director Sasha Regan to emphasise class divisions in a production that is generally slick and engaging. Going forward, the show needs more variations in tone, particularly with regard to the music, but, seen as a sneak preview of a work in progress, this recording points towards a possible future hit.

Blithe Spirit (Harold Pinter Theatre)

Posted: September 22, 2021 in Theatre
Photo: Nobby Clark

Writer: Noël Coward

Director: Richard Eyre

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Noël Coward is said to have written Blithe Spirit in 1941 during a short holiday in Wales, retreating from the London Blitz. Little could he have imagined that his slight, ghostly comedy would still be getting regular revivals 80 years later, but perhaps its enduring popularity has less to do with the quality of the writing than with the appeal of one character, Madame Arcati. The role has become a magnet for high profile comic actresses from Margaret Rutherford through to, most recently in the West End, Angela Lansbury, who picked up a Best Supporting Actress Olivier Award for it. Now, in a production which originated pre-pandemic at the Theatre Royal Bath, it is the turn of Jennifer Saunders.

It has been proven that Coward’s plays can be reinterpreted successfully for the modern era, but director Richard Eyre is having none of that, opting instead for a cosy, traditional production with an extravagant look. This world of English upper middle class opulence between the wars is now only familiar from very old films, but it feels comforting just as it must have felt to wartime audiences. Designer Anthony Ward creates a mountain of filled book shelves to tower over the stage and a collection of elegant (or, in the case of Madame Arcati, not so elegant) period costumes.

The plot concerns successful writer Charles (Geoffrey Streatfeild) who lives in rural Kent with his second wife Ruth (Lisa Dillon), tended by their hapless maid, Edith (Rose Wardlaw). When hosting a dinner party for the local doctor and his wife (Simon Coates and Lucy Robinson), they decide that it would be rather fun to invite along the self-proclaimed psychic, Madam Arcati, to preside over a seance. Inevitably, things go catastrophically wrong and the ghost of Charles’ seductive and mischievous first wife, Elvira (Madeleine Mantock) materialises to cause havoc.

Saunders’ wildly eccentric and mildly shabby Madame Arcati presents a whirlwind image of Edina Monsoon serving as a display stand for an array of Persian rugs. She not so much steals all her scenes as has them gifted to her by Coward, leaving the other members of a top notch cast to take it on the chin.

This is Coward’s darkest comedy in which death is treated as a mere inconvenience. The interactions between Charles and his wives are written without an ounce of romance or marital affection to interfere with the flow of sarcastic barbs. In highlighting the perils of re-marriage, the writer falls short of matching the sparkling wit and sharp insights of his Private Lives and, although diversions into the supernatural are fun, they do not quite compensate.

Eyre’s nimble production generally keeps the laughs coming, but Coward has left two problems which it struggles to overcome. Firstly, Madame Arcati is offstage for long spells in the middle, leading to an inevitable lull; and, secondly, at three full acts, the play is far too long and its primary joke becomes stretched to near snapping point.

Blithe Spirit is a fluffy piece of nonsense that was originally staged to provide an escape from the gloom and doom of the world outside the theatre; in that respect, not much has changed. Saunders is terrific and the play remains, in the nicest possible way, absolutely fatuous.

Performance date: 21 September 2021

Boys Cry (Riverside Studios)

Posted: September 17, 2021 in Theatre
Photo: Matt Carnazza

Writer: Christian Graham

Director: Ebenezer Bamgboye

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In the modern world, we hear much about concerns for the mental health of teenagers and this lends a sense of urgency to Christian Graham’s Boys Cry. The play, a 50-minute monologue performed here by the writer himself, gives subtle insights into the mind of a 17-year-old disturbed by a traumatic event.

Mark, a student living in South London, is mugged in the street. He is not harmed physically and he loses no possessions of great value, but he sees the attack as a challenge to his masculinity, defined largely through gender stereotyping. He retreats into the fantasy worlds of video games while struggling to regain his foothold in normal college life, all the time confronted by peer pressure and his own perceived failure.

The writer suggests that telling his story to an anonymous audience is a cathartic experience for Mark, who feels compelled to stifle his true feelings, even to his intuitively sympathetic mother. His father is a role model who is unable to open out and thereby confirms the definitions of masculinity found in society as a whole.

Graham’s imposing, muscular build emphasises the play’s point that external appearance can disguise internal turmoil. However, the actor’s physique and his apparent age do not help him to convey the vulnerability and naivety of the Mark of whom he is speaking in the first person. Graham’s Mark would seem likely to be very low on any list of potential mugging victims. These strains on credibility collectively lessen the play’s emotional impact.

Director Ebenezer Bamgboye’s energised production sees Graham pacing around the stage like a caged lion. Lighting, designed by Matthew Carnazza, is particularly effective in stressing Mark’s isolation by picking him out starkly against the backdrop of a darkened stage. 

Boys cry, of course they do, but this play would live longer in the memory if the audience could be more moved to tears too.

Performance date: 16 September 2021