The York Realist (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted: February 17, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Peter Gill      Director: Robert Hastie

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Josie Rourke has recently announced an intention to leave her position as Artistic Director at the Donmar Warehouse and, when the time comes to assess the high points of her tenure, Peter Gill could feature strongly. His play Versailles, which premiered here in 2014, may have shown the strains of over-ambition, but its searing final act lingers on in the memory. Now this revival of  The York Realist, first seen at the Royal Court in 2002, proves to be the perfect marriage of play and venue.  The Donmar, better than any other theatre in London, can accentuate subtlety and give power to the understated in intimate human dramas and Robert Hastie’s exquisite production takes full advantage.

Gill writes about irreconcilables – town and country lifestyles. middle class and working class values. The time is the mid-1960s and John (Jonathan Bailey) is up in Yorkshire from London to work as Assistant Director on York’s Mystery Plays. He comments that the countryside is everything that he expected and still nothing at all like what he had expected, probably meaning that most unexpected is George (Ben Batt), a farmer who shows promise as an amateur actor (in the days when actors from working class backgrounds were welcomed into theatre). George is plain-speaking and plain-thinking, finding no time to question or show reticence about his homosexuality, contrasting sharply with townie John’s coy nervousness when being seduced. Interestingly, George has been mirrored recently by the central character in Francis Lee’s wonderful film God’s Own Country, which has a similar setting. Perhaps there is something in the Yorkshire air.

Batt is simply superb. When he realises that what he yearns for most in life is the thing least attainable to him, he turns to the audience, failing to hold back tears and we are all heartbroken. Bailey too shows true passion as the uncomprehending John. Lesley Nicol is touchingly real as George’s dutiful but ailing mother and Katie West gives poignancy to the role of neighbour Doreen, who is prepared to carry out household duties for George, quietly biding her time until the time is right for her. In Peter MacIntosh’s warm farm cottage set the back door is always unlocked for family and friends to wander in, a custom somehow abandoned in cities and there is a sense throughout that everyone knows and accepts the truth about George, but never speaks about it. Beautifully written and impeccably observed, Rourke’s successor in the Donmar hot seat will do well to keep up the standards achieved by this production.

Performance date: 16 February 2018

Hamilton (Victoria Palace)

Posted: February 17, 2018 in Theatre

Book, music and lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda      Director: Thomas Kail

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Hype raises expectations and high expectations frequently result in disappointment. For example, I saw Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman with no expectations on press night at the Royal Court, recommended it to everyone I spoke to when it transferred to the West End and have invariably received the reaction “it wasn’t THAT good”. Hamilton is the most hyped show of the modern era, garlanded with accolades and awards, and, having failed to get tickets on two visits to New York, I am finally crossing paths with it a couple of months into a London run that was greeted with almost unanimous five star reviews. So, can it possibly be THAT good?

I try hard not to be one of those irritating people who knocks anything successful just for the sake of being different, so let me start by emphasising that this is a rock solid five star show, brilliant in concept and execution, informative and hilariously funny. By thinking outside the box, creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has taken the art of musical theatre to another level and there was not a second of it’s 165 minutes that I was not enthralled by his show. It was only when leaving the theatre, as a friend said to me “that is a musical for today”, that I began asking questions. Yes, being a musical for today is a big positive, but will it be a musical for tomorrow? Could suggestions that the Victoria Palace (spectacularly renovated at a cost of around £60million) may never have to look for another show be a little premature?

Alexander Hamilton (c1755-1804) was born out of wedlock on the Caribbean island of Nevis, emigrated to the United States as a young man, became a senior officer fighting for American Independence, was appointed Treasury Secretary in George Washington’s first administration and played a key role in establishing the US Constitution and financial systems. The show’s running theme is that it is throwing light on a prominent figure that history tends to overlook and the pleas by his wife Eliza (Rachelle Ann Go) to put right that wrong are stirring. However, when elements in the show remind us of  Les Miserables, they also expose the fact that Hamilton, a flawed, fallible politician and bureaucrat, is not an iconic hero as was Jean Valjean. Thus, the show’s emotional hook is much weaker and, as a result, I am left wondering how quickly it will fade from the memory.

There are many reasons why I wish that I had seen Miranda’s own performance as Hamilton, among them now being that it would have helped me to make up my mind about the performance of the much younger Jamael Westman in the role. There is no doubt that he is technically excellent, but does he have the maturity and charisma to be fully convincing as the character ages? I have niggling doubts, particularly in scenes when he is onstage alongside Giles Terera, brilliant as Hamilton’s some time rival, some time ally, Aaron Burr. Obioma Ugoala is a commanding Washington, Jason Pennycooke a childlike Thomas Jefferson and, singing the tune that I cannot get out of my head, Michael Jibson’s King George III is bonkers (as indeed was the case).

Finally, a mention for Miranda’s use of rap, a word that I had previously thought needed to be preceded by the letter “c”. Miranda integrated hip-hop into his Tony award winning show In The Heights, which I loved and which was a long running hit on the London fringe, so its reappearance here was not entirely unexpected. However, in the event, it proves to be a revelation. Using rapping as a tool for storytelling, the awkward transitions between spoken word and song that blight many musicals are gone and the pace, rhythm and energy of Thomas Kail’s production never falter. An added bonus is that the cheekiness that comes naturally to rap gives licence for the show to be both respectful to American history and completely irreverent at one and the same time. Hamilton is one helluva ride, but will we still love it tomorrow? Only time can tell.

Performance date: 14 February 2018

Photo:Matthew Murphy

Cyril’s Success (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: February 6, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Henry J Byron      Director: Hannah Boland Moore

⭐⭐⭐

Marking the 150th Anniversary of the building which is now home to the Finborough Theatre, there is a nice feeling of symmetry to this revival of a play also originating from 1868, placing a Victorian drawing room comedy in what could once have been a Victorian drawing room.

Henry J Byron’s Cyril’s Success has not been performed in London since 1890 and such time lapses usually have good reasons. In this instance, one such reason could be that 1890 was around about the time that Oscar Wilde began delivering a similar brand of social comedy, but with considerably larger helpings of wit.

Cyril Cuthbert (Tim Gibson) is a successful playwright who takes for granted and neglects his devoted wife (Isabella Marshall). On their wedding anniversary, he opts for a night out with the boys and asks the cad Major Treherne (Will Kelly) to escort Mrs C to the opera. Encouraged by her man-hating former school teacher, Miss Grannet (a deliciously sour Susan Tracy), Mrs C begins to suspect her husband of infidelity with a divorcee, Mrs Bliss (Allegra Marland). She walks out and, without her support, Cyril’s success rapidly turns to failure.

The plot is as featherlight as that of a comic opera, much of the dialogue is stilted and, for long spells, the play is short on any form of humour. The wonder is that director Hannah Boland Moore polishes it up so well in her handsome production, designed by Daisy Blower. Drawing first rate performances that are only slightly tongue-in-cheek, she does what she can to bring out the gender issues, contrasting the strutting Victorian-era males with the so-called “soft sex”.

As is often the case with Wilde, much of the fun comes from subsidiary characters. Cyril’s friend, the over-eager, lovelorn (and curiously named) Titeboy is played with relish by Lewis Hart and, as his other friend, hardened misogynist Mr Pincher, Stephen Rashbrook has a delightful glint of mischief in his eyes; he is a literary critic who promises Titeboy: “I shall not only review (your book) favourably, I shall read it”. As we know that Pincher and Miss Grannet are polar opposites, we wonder if they can be anything other than a match made in Heaven. In this sort of play, of course not.

When the going gets tedious, consolation comes from knowing that the play will only last for 90 minutes (extended by an unnecessary interval) before we can call for our carriages home. For sure, Cyril’s Success is a dusty old museum piece, but credit is due to Boland Moore and her company for presenting it to us as a rather jolly one.

Performance date: 5 February 2018

Photo: Scott Rylander

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Ken (The Bunker)

Posted: January 30, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Terry Johnson      Director: Lisa Spirling

⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Bunker has become a warm place of refuge during these cold Winter evenings. Warmth radiates from Terry Johnson’s affectionate remembrance of the rogue East London theatre maker and performer Ken Campbell, who died aged 66 in 2006; warmth also comes from the transformed theatre itself, freshly carpeted throughout, decorated by a multitude of glowing lampshades and by cushions scattered everywhere for the audience’s comfort. Tim Shortall’s design makes us part of a Bohemian artistic community in the 1970s.

Lisa Spirling’s production was first seen at Hampstead Theatre in 2016. Johnson who has written about several eccentric figures in British comedy in his successful plays, had his first encounter with Ken in 1978. Then a struggling 23-year-old writer and actor, Johnson spoke to Ken on the telephone by chance, displayed his mastery of accents and was told “Jim Broadbent has f***ed off, so you’ve got the part”. What follows is a string of longish anecdotes detailing what, to most of us, would be the nightmare of being anywhere near Ken.

As did Alan Bennett’s in his play about a larger-than-life character from his own past, The Lady in the Van, Johnson puts himself at the centre and plays himself too. He stands behind a lectern, looking and sounding every bit as dull and suburban as he is described in his text. This makes him the perfect straight man to Jeremy Stockwell’s outrageous, tyrannical clown, Ken, first seen wearing a pen-filled sleeveless jacket over a Dennis the Menace jumper.

The stories are “not entirely true” warns Johnson, adding that the least believable are likely to be the truest. The writer’s great skill for shaping jokes serves him better than his gift for delivering them, while Stockwell (who was once directed by the real Ken at the National Theatre), bounces around among the audience like a leprechaun on acid. A fair amount of ad-libbing helps the fun to keep rolling along.

The centrepiece story revolves around a 24-hour-long production in a derelict Odeon cinema for the Edinburgh Festival. Johnson’s play runs for a much more reasonable 90 minutes straight through (Ken “can’t be doing with” intervals). Ken is also seen to be a very mischievous prankster, his attempt to change the name of the Royal Shakespeare Company to the Royal Dickens Company forcing a televised denial from Trevor Nunn. His disrespect for tired traditions and conventions of British theatre and, indeed, British life, continued to the end and his practical joking extended to his own funeral.

As memories of Ken Campbell fade, the question burns as to whether he made any lasting impact on British theatre. Johnson’s play suggests the answer with a neat metaphor, pointing out that you only need to move a tiller by a small fraction for the boat to eventually end up on a different continent. Perhaps the true worth of the unique Ken is still to be evaluated.

Performance date: 29 January 2018

Photo: Robert Day

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

 

 

Writer and co-director: Javaad Alipoor      Co-director: Kirsty Housley

⭐⭐⭐⭐

“Keep your mobile ‘phones ON and keep them on LOUD” we are instructed, thereby making this different from any normal visit to the theatre before even leaving the foyer. But Javaad Alipoor’s hour-long show/presentation/lecture is anything but a normal visit to the theatre.

Alipoor’s topic is radicalisation. Heard and seen over a sea of loud pings and lit-up screens, he acknowledges that extremism attaches itself to many causes, political or religious, but, himself a Moslem, he makes clear from the outset that he is talking specifically about Islamic extremism. He is also clear that he is talking about Moslem men, explaining how he had found it impossible to gather evidence of the views of women.

The starting point is 2003, when, Alipoor tells us, Western forces attacked Sunni Moslems in Iraq, thereby further alienating Moslems world-wide who had felt oppressed and marginalised over the course of many centuries. This coincided with the explosion in global communications. From the stories of individuals and images projected onto a screen, we come to see how the virtual violence of video games merges into the violence of real warfare and terrorist acts. The internet had changed everything.

Societies in all countries have always produced outsiders, those with extreme views, or psychopaths, but now, we are shown, the means to galvanise and inspire them had arrived. We learn of extremist views that “cucks” (derived from cuckolds and referring to weak, usually liberal-minded men) have surrendered to “false” concepts such as the gender pay gap. The extent of the divergence of Western society and conservative Islam, with regard to the roles of women, now becomes chilling.

We are all asked to join a WhatsApp group so that messages and images can pass back and forth between the presenter and members of the audience. The ‘phone pings and we respond, instinctively, automatically and the message or image is logged in our brains. The insidious power of instant messaging becomes clear, but the point is made early and the constant sound of still more pings, possibly mixed in with those generated by friends and loved ones, begins to distract us from what Alipoor is trying to tell us.

We are offered no solutions to radicalisation. Alipoor does not seek to admonish his multi-faith or no faith audience and certainly not to radicalise us. His mission is to enlighten us and, hopefully, to generate greater understanding, a commodity that, it seems, has been in short supply so far in the 21st Century.

Performance date: 26 January 2018

Photo: The Other Richard

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

 

 

There or Here (Park Theatre)

Posted: January 26, 2018 in Theatre
  1. G

Writer: Jennifer Maisel      Director: Vik Sivalingham

⭐⭐⭐

Maybe Donald Trump’s America frowns upon outsourcing of work to developing countries, but, back in 2006, the practice was widespread. Expanding on this theme, Los Angeles based writer Jennifer Maisel’s play comes up with the idea that it could have been easier and cheaper for would-be parents to find surrogate mothers in India rather than in the USA.

Robyn (Lucy Fenton) works as an illustrator of children’s books; she is an insomniac chatterbox who has cancer. Her partner Ajay (Chris Nayak) is a business consultant who was born in India, but is now an all-American fast food junkie. They are childless and want to take steps to establish a future family before Robyn’s treatment begins. Together they embark on an economy class flight to India, Robyn clutching a flask containing her frozen eggs for the entire journey.

On arrival, the couple meet a doctor (Ursula Mohan) who acts as conduit between them and an Indian couple, cocky taxi driver Rajit (Manish Gandhi) and his wife (Rakhee Thakrar) whose womb he is renting out to finance a new cab. Back home, Robyn’s worrying mother (Mohan) seeks initiation into the world of global communications and after being coaxed into buying an expensive laptop, she takes the young salesman (Gandhi) as her toy boy.

Diverging from the main storyline, Maisel picks up on the fact that modern technology can bring people together and, at the same time, make them more remote. Both Robyn and Ajay, seemingly unable to get satisfaction for their emotional needs in each other, find the listening ears of strangers (all Thakrar) at the other end of telephone lines. Robyn talks incessantly to a technical support agent in India, who pretends to be in Oklahoma, having picked up her accent from the musical. Ajay unburdens himself on a hidden lady taking orders at a drive-thru restaurant and then on a novice sex worker via a premium rate chat line.

The first half of the play jumps backwards and forwards between years in the mid-noughties, thereby unsettling the narrative flow, and then, when Maisel eventually gets it onto a continuous track, she takes the plotting further than she needs to, as if struggling to find a satisfactory way to tie up the many loose ends. On occasions, the writer emulates Robyn by rambling on for too long, but she shows a keen sense of the ironies of modern living, which keeps this production afloat, buoyed by nimble direction from Vik Sivalingham and engaging performances.

So, what is this meant to be all about? Surrogacy? Parenthood? Multiculturalism? Ethnic identity? Globalisation? Technological advances? In fact, it is about all of these things, but not enough about any single one of them. Packing in too many potentially intriguing ideas, it is not surprising that the play buckles under the weight and gets confused. Its chief problem is summed up neatly in the title. It never seems to know where it is going.

Performance date 25 January 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

John (National Theatre, Dorfman)

Posted: January 25, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Annie Baker      Director: James Macdonald

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Annie Baker is a writer who does not like to hurry. Her Pulitzer Prize winning play The Flick, staged at the National’s Dorfman Theatre in the Spring of 2016, found time for long silences and spells when the stage was left empty, but, in over three inaction-packed hours, she created characters and images that, almost two years later, remain hard to forget.

John, Baker’s follow-up, first seen off-Broadway in 2015, has a similar running time (two intervals are included, but the second is unexpectedly interrupted) and its arrival at the Dorfman has been eagerly anticipated. The writer’s ponderous style, bravely defying many theatrical conventions, is here again and her characters are once more distinguished by their ordinariness and their preoccupations with the humdrum. We are forewarned at the outset of what pace to expect, when an elderly lady slowly opens, manually, the traditional red velvet theatre curtain, wanders silently around the set and disappears upstairs. Unhurriedly, she performs her ritual with the curtain at the beginning and end of all three acts.

The elderly lady is Mertis (Marylouise Burke), owner, with her unseen husband of 13 years, of a boarding house in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It is the week after Thanksgiving and her only guests are just arriving. They are a young couple, less than truthful Jenny (Anneika Rose) and neurotic Elias (Tom Mothersdale). They have their secrets and their relationship is clearly strained.

From here, the play has virtually no plot, but Baker uses her characters and the setting to probe into the power of hidden forces to infiltrate our lives, making only slight suggestions of the paranormal. The boarding house is close to the scene of a great battle in the American Civil War and personal ghosts rub shoulders with those of the fallen. The characters reveal their inner selves slowly, through conversations so banal that even a recitation of the collective nouns for birds becomes interesting, but the writer punctuates the dialogue with much sly humour and throws in many amusing surprises

Chloe Lamford’s lovingly detailed set integrates with every theme in the play. A central staircase climbs high to the unheated, possibly haunted guest rooms; a dining area pretends to be Parisian; a grandfather clock marks the passing of the hours; solemn music emerges from an illuminated speaker; an upright piano and a Christmas tree take on lives of their own; dozens of figurines and children’s plastic dolls watch over, inanimate objects overseeing near-unanimated characters.

“Everyone knows someone named John” declares Mertis’ blind friend Genevieve (June Watson), perhaps alluding to John Doe, symbol of the American everyman. Specifically, John is Genevieve’s dead husband who haunts her and was one of the seven reasons that she offers for her insanity. Baker extends this and John comes to represent the gremlins that occupy all our brains, spying on us and directing our actions. These gremlins are intruders, perhaps manifested also in the sinister dolls, Mertis’ vacant gaze, or Genevieve’s unseeing stare and even we, the prying audience, are made to feel that we are in collusion.

Director James Macdonald tunes into Baker’s unique style comfortably and draws perfectly judged performances from all four actors. As well over three hours literally crawl by, a hypnotic spell is cast and the play etches itself into our minds. Eccentric and at times bizarre, John could be a theatre experience like no other, except, of course, for The Flick.

Performance date: 24 January 2017

Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub