Amsterdam (Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond)

Posted: September 12, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Maya Arad Yasur      Translator: Eran Edry      Director: Matthew Xia

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Amsterdam today remains a city of distinctive architecture and criss-crossing canals, but, in the past, it was also a city of Nazi occupation, collaborators, resistance fighters and Anne Frank. Maya Arad Yasur’s one-act 80-minute play, seen here in a translation by Eran Edry,  seeks to reconcile present with past, probing the origins of modern identity and questioning lingering heritage.

A group assembles as if a team of scriptwriters, bouncing ideas off each other to create characters and develop storylines. Their starting point is an old man living at the top of a modern day Amsterdam building, a nine months pregnant Jewish violinist and the mystery of a 75-year-old unpaid gas bill for 1,700 Euros. As they piece together assorted information and dig into their imaginations, a story emerges that tells of wartime struggles and suggests parallels between 1940s antisemitism and 21st Century racist attitudes.

The play puts itself at risk of being undone by its unorthodox structure, which often proves just as challenging as its disturbing themes. The writer has a tendency to draw us into the story that is being constructed, only to shoot off sharply in a different direction. However, she keeps attention alive with moments of playfulness in her script and director Matthew Xia’s highly animated in-the-round staging brings more of the same. This is Xia’s first production in his role as Artistic Director of the Actors Touring Company.

The play gives the director the freedom to decide upon the number of actors (minimum three) and the lines which they speak. Xia opts for four actors – Daniel Abelson, Fiston Barek, Michal Horowicz and Hara Yannas – all of whom attack their roles with vigour and conviction. The story developed by the “writers” is rounded off with poignancy and irony, but the niggling feeling remains that a conventional dramatisation could have given it much greater power.

Performance date: 11 September 2019

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

Hansard (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Posted: September 6, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Simon Woods      Director: Simon Godwin

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Most of us may feel that we have had enough of politics in our lives right now, but actor turned playwright Simon Woods seems to think otherwise. His play is a forensic examination of the murky territory where the public and private lives of a politician and his wife intersect. It is quite something for a debut play to be premiered at this hallowed venue, taken on by in-form director Simon Godwin and blessed with the dream casting of Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings, but this is quite some play.

Robin Hesketh (Jennings) is a minister in the Margaret Thatcher Government of 1988. Every weekend, he negotiates the Hanger Lane gyratory and the Oxford by-pass to reach his constituency home in the Cotswolds and be greeted by his bored, heavy drinking wife Diana (Duncan). Hildegard Bechtler’s design for the Hesketh living space is expansive, stretching to the entire width of the Lyttelton stage, and elegant, but it is entirely soulless, not personalised in any way, and we know before a word is spoken that there is emptiness in the lives of the occupants.

Acted out over just under 90 minutes in real time, the play begins as a battle of wills in which both combatants denounce each other with excoriating wit, sharpened over many years of marriage. Left-leaning Diana despises the old school tie brigade represented by her husband, while Robin scoffs at Diana’s favoured artsy set, citing theatregoers and readers of Ian “McKellen” novels in particular.. Woods’ style has the feel of Oscar Wilde, who delved into similar political territory in The Ideal Husband. Under Godwin’s unobtrusive direction, the fun flows freely, but we are always aware of more serious themes lying beneath the surface.

The pompous, upstanding, possibly promiscuous Tory politician and his obedient wife could easily have been seen as stereotypes, but Woods resists temptations for caricature, giving Duncan and Jennings every opportunity (which both seize with relish) to make the characters three-dimensional. We sense from the beginning that something more than duty binds the pair together and the gradual discovery of what that factor is becomes one of the play’s great pleasures.

Woods is even-handed in political debates, allowing both sides of each argument to be heard. A recurring theme is spurred by Diana’s objections to Robin’s advocacy of the infamous Section 28, which prohibited the teaching of LGBT+ lifestyles in schools. He claims to be fearful that white heterosexual men could become extinct within 20 years, but we see him as conforming to the role for which he was born by upholding the traditional values of his times and not as a monster. That said, the play is not just a history lesson, making us aware that the Section 28 arguments have re-emerged in 2019 and that elitist politicians have never gone away.

There are times when Hansard feels like an enjoyable ride without a clear destination, but, when we arrive at the play’s dénouement, it hits with the force of a sledgehammer. Showing consummate skill, Duncan and Jennings move from splitting sides to breaking hearts at the blink of an eyelid. Woods has set the bar high for his second play.

Performance date: 3 September 2019

Photo: Catherine Ashmore

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

World’s End (King’s Head Theatre)

Posted: August 30, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: James Corley.     Director: Harry Mackrill

⭐️⭐️⭐️

It hardly seems like two decades since the war in Kosovo was raging and video games were in their infancy. James Corley takes us back to this era in his debut play, which skilfully blends comedy and tragedy into a teenage gay love story.

World’s End is an estate on the least fashionable part of Chelsea’s King’s Road. Divorcée Viv and her son Ben move into flat 13 in a block, next door to Kosovan refugee Ylli, a widower, and his son Besnik. The two boys strike up a friendship over games of Super Mario and Zelda and the friendship grows. Anyone who remembers the premise of Jonathan Harvey’s groundbreaking comedy Beautiful Thing will know where this is going, but predictability is offset by quirky character details, which keep the play afloat and Corley is eventually bold enough to overturn some of the Harvey feel good factor.

Patricia Potter’s Viv shows the frustration of a woman who is often between jobs and between men, but who retains a hankering for life’s finer things. Tom Milligan’s Ben is a stammering, housebound nervous wreck who can find no place for himself in the world. He contrasts with Mirlind Bega’s confident Besnik, who is more like his late mother than his father, a struggling artist, played fierily by Nikolaos Brahimllari. Ylli is a patriot who yearns to fight for his home country, but the play brings a stark reminder that sickening violence can also occur less distantly.

Director Harry Mackrill’s well-balanced production is at its best when scenes of domestic conflict are played over each other. The characters take turns to have bouts of hysteria and over-playing works well when it is generating comedy. However, it works less well when it nudges more serious scenes in the direction of melodrama. Disappointingly, Mackrill and designer Rachel Stone add little to give the production a period feel; for example, we hear no contemporary pop tracks. Also, a pedantic note to the writer for including a mention of The Sixth Sense in the dialogue: the film was first released several months after the very specific time when the play is set.

The play runs for 90 minutes without an interval and it says much for Corley’s writing that it ends with a feeling that there is plenty of scope for developing the characters further and expanding their storylines. World’s End is no world beater, but it is quietly touching.

Performance date: 29 August 2019

Photo: Bettina Adela

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

The Weatherman (Park Theatre)

Posted: August 23, 2019 in Uncategorized

Writer: Eugene O’Hare      Director: Alice Hamilton

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

In the first of his two plays receiving their world premieres at the Park Theatre this year, Eugene O’Hare turns to a retro style of black comedy in order to explore deeply disturbing modern themes.

At first glance, The Weatherman appears to be an undisguised homage to Harold Pinter’s 1960 play, The Caretaker. Two middle-aged, down-and-out East London men share a dilapidated one-bedroomed flat, owned by a ruthless gangster. The early dialogue is infused with Pinteresque absurdism – “it creeps up on you when you least expect it you see – Christmas; the bastard” – and brings reminders of ‘60s television sitcoms centring on bickering, dysfunctional London families, such as Steptoe and Son. 

Director Alice Hamilton seems happy for the opening scenes to be played for comedy, while ensuring that, also in the style of Pinter, a sense of hidden menace is ever present. This is a flat where every arrival (bar one) is preceded by loud thumping on the stairs. Designer James Perkins’ set is a cheaply-furnished kitchen diner, with only murk discernible beyond its windows.

O’Rourke (Alec Newman) is the dominant flatmate, but a man of few words. We know that he is angry, but, for a long time, we have no idea why. Beezer (Mark Hadfield) is a shambolic drunkard who claims that he could have been a meteorologist if he had put his mind to it. He still forecasts the weather every day. Their landlord is Dollar, played by David Schaal with a veneer of benevolence masking deep-rooted evil. Dollar is an East End villain who exploits his victims without mercy, but also possesses a warped vision of family and loyalty. “She was a crook and a womaniser, but she was still my mother” he boasts, tearfully.

The play moves into even darker territory when Dollar brings to the flat Mara (Niamh James), a 12-year-old Romanian girl. The offer that O’Rourke and Beezer can’t refuse is six months free of rent and some extra cash. The terms are that they look after the girl and only allow her out of the flat when Dollar’s heavy, Turkey (Cyril Nri) accompanies her for a “job”. Fortunately, both writer and director realise that there is nothing remotely funny about child trafficking for prostitution and the delicate balance between comedy and drama is carefully maintained.

The most memorable and moving scene comes at the beginning of the second act when O’Rourke sits with Mara, folding old clothes for despatch to a charity shop and he sets about offloading all his problems, knowing fully that the girl has no understanding of English. Newman finds all the pathos in his character and in the desperate situation. O’Hare is writing about the terrors of exploitation and he offers the bleak prognosis that the dice will always be loaded against the exploited. Mara, lying on a camp bed at the front of the stage while the nastiness unfolds behind her, creates a profoundly unsettling image.

For all its humour, The Weatherman has a gloomy outlook on human nature. However, bold, if derivative, writing and outstanding acting make the production genuinely suspenseful and absorbing.

Performance date: 21 August 2019

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

Book and lyrics: Lynn Ahrens      Music: Stephen Flaherty      Director and choreographer: Lee Proud

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Continuing The British Theatre Academy’s 2019 Summer Season, Once On This Island is a revival of a short musical which was seen on Broadway in 1990 and in the West End in 1994, the latter production winning the Olivier Award for Best New Musical.

The show is based on My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl, a 1985 novel by Rosa Guy, telling a mystical tale that has strong echoes of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. The story is infused with the flavour of its Caribbean island setting, with local superstitions and folklore intervening along the way.

A little girl, Ti Moune (Kassidy Taylor at this performance), is orphaned in a storm and adopted by the peasants Euralie (Marie-Anna Caufour) and Tonton (Andre Beswick).

Having grown up, Ti Moune is played by Chrissie Bhima, who gives a terrific star performance. It is now her turn to become a rescuer and, when she finds the young upper class Frenchman, Daniel (Sam Tutty), injured in a car crash, she nurses him back to health. After his family has reclaimed Daniel, Ti Moune pursues him across mountains to the far side of the island only to find man-made barriers standing in her way. The social divisions in the story are about class and director Lee Proud takes care to make sure that they are not seen to be about race.

Proud, a vastly experienced choreographer, packs the traverse stage with movement and colour, sometimes using the entire company of 19. Atmospheric lighting, designed by Andrew Exeter, and Simon Wells’ flamboyant costumes help to transport us to a tropical paradise and the overflowing exuberance of the performers does the rest. The show is virtually sung through, Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics telling the story concisely and clearly. Stephen Flaherty’s easy listening, melodic score combines calypso influenced numbers with power ballads, all sung and played beautifully under the musical direction of Chris Ma.

Running at around 85 minutes without an interval, the show is just short enough to ensure that it runs out of neither story not musical variety, not to mention energy. It brings a brief splash of tropical sunshine into our lives.

Performance date: 14 August 2019

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

River in the Sky (Hope Theatre)

Posted: August 12, 2019 in Theatre

Writer and director: Peter Taylor

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Peter Taylor’s riveting 70-minute one-act play, River in the Sky, was seen briefly at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre in London just a few months ago. Its quick return for a longer run here is richly deserved.

Taylor explores how a couple, both devastated by the loss of their child, find ways to come to terms with their grief by creating worlds of wild fantasy. We first meet Ellie (Lindsey Cross) and Jack (Howard Horner) when they are planning the size of their family, settling on the number one. We then learn that, after an earlier miscarriage, their one child has died in infancy. Immediately after the funeral, Ellie disappears to a dilapidated caravan on a rugged coast, seeing no one, apart from visits by Jack to bring her supplies of Earl Grey tea and custard creams.

We know that Ellie is a writer, but, otherwise, Taylor gives us only scant back stories for the couple, leaving it to his capable actors to flesh out the characters. There is little to distract from the assured writing and the acting in Taylor’s in-the-round staging and deliberately understated performances from Cross and Horner convey the depth of individual and joint suffering. Ellie and Jack find their own way of coping, embarking on flights of Game of Thrones style fantasy to divert their minds from reality and give themselves time to heal. 

Ferocious monsters, flying cars, roaring winds and turbulent seas feature in the stories which Ellie and Jack relate to themselves, each other and their dead child. They become the heroes, saving their limbs from the jaws of hungry carnivores and slaying dragons, as they act out their brave deeds. The tales feel less like metaphors for the cruelty of real life than examples of the wild fantasy worlds in which we all may seek refuge when life becomes too hard to bear.

The play has progression, taking the couple on a journey from deep depression, alienation and attribution of blame to a common understanding which shines a beacon of hope. The journey is marked out by subtle changes in writing style and performances which suggest the potency of fantasy as a cathartic force. The couple’s method of dealing with grief may not necessarily find approval from psychologists, but we feel that it gives them the strength to move on.

Performance date: 8 August 2019

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

Writer: JM Barrie      Director: Sally Cookson

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Say it quietly but London theatre seems to be booming. 2019 has seen a string of brand new venues announced, which include two Troubadours – this one at White City houses separate 1,200-seat and 800-seat spaces, while a sister theatre at Wembley Park is a single 2,000-seater. These are ambitious projects, but, to launch them, tried and tested family shows that bear the brand of the National Theatre (War Horse will be at Wembley Park) look like solid choices.

Sally Cookson’s revival of Peter Pan, a co-production with Bristol Old Vic, was seen at the National’s Olivier Theatre over the 2016/17 Christmas season. The larger space here is purely functional, with none of the ornate decor associated with the West End, but the awfully big adventures of the boy who refuses to grow up bring all the glitter that is needed.

It is often forgotten that, before the pantos, the ice shows, the films and the book, Peter Pan was a play, written by JM Barrie in 1904 for the theatre. Cookson takes extravagant  licence with the original and in twisting common interpretations. Until quite recently, the eponymous hero would have been played by an actor who is female and petite, but John Pfumojena’s hyperactive Peter is neither. Similarly, Captain Hook would have been male and bewhiskered, but, clearly, Kelly Price, attired in a frilly purple skirt, is also neither. And then there is Shiv Rabheru’s craggy, crabby Tinkerbell, an anti-fairy if ever one existed. 

It takes time for the show to take flight. The opening scene is made even duller than usual, played out in front of a dark curtain. Mr and Mrs Darling head off for a night on the town and, dismissing worries about what might fly in (or out of) the bedroom window, they tuck in their offspring. Would the pre-teen children of an affluent Edwardian household really have slept three in a double bed? Daisy Maywood is a delightful tomboyish Wendy who leads her younger brothers (Ammar Duffus and Alistair Toovey) through the window and on to Neverland in pursuit of Peter.

Once the curtain drops to reveal Michael Vale’s bright, open design, the new theatre also shows its colours, facilitating Peter’s flight to the very back of the expansive auditorium. Neverland appears like a cross between a ‘60s hippy commune and a scene from The Rocky Horror Show. Amid all the frolics, Cookson makes no attempt to suppress the darker themes that swim beneath the surface of Barrie’s writing like the huge crocodile that is realised here by Toby Olié’s puppetry. Price makes Hook a truly tormented soul and she doubles as the warm matriarch of the Darling family, adding a fresh layer to the Freudian subtexts.

One drawback with Cookson’s non-stop avalanche of inventiveness is that it tends to create diversions that obscure the main thrust of the narrative. Most adults know the story inside out, but some children at the press performance seemed to have problems figuring out what was going on. However, thrilling action, swashbuckling fights and breathtaking flights prove irresistible and Benji Bower’s excellent score, played by a rock band, turns the second half into a near-musical.

The ageless appeal of Peter Pan relies not only on fantasy and spectacle, which this production delivers in abundance, but also on the manner in which the story connects with common experience. Cookson’s eccentric revival never loses sight of Barrie’s affirmation that real life, even though it includes growing old, must be better than Neverland.

Performance date: 27 July 2019

Photo: Steve Tanner

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