Pah-La (Royal Court Theatre)

Posted: April 9, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Abhishek Majumdar      Director: Debbie Hannan

⭐️⭐️💫

It is not often that a drama set in Tibet arrives in Sloane Square, which makes Indian-based writer Abhishek Majumdar’s new play an intriguing rarity. The Tibetan conflict, where Buddhist followers of the exiled Dalai Lama continue to oppose repressive Chinese rule, forms the backdrop to a play that begins in the style of a stirring action adventure, but tails off to become a muddled morality tale.

In a remote Buddhist monastery, novice nun Deshar is a rebel, at odds with both elderly monk Rinpoche (Kwong Loke) and her father Tsering (Richard Rees). Millicent Wong makes Deshar a spirited, strong willed heroine, even if the character’s motivation comes across as vague, and her chief adversary, Chinese Commander Deng is, as played by Daniel York Loh, a forceful, if stereotypical, villain. Deng’s mission is to re-educate Tibetans to accept Chinese ways and, effectively obliterate their own culture and traditions.

Performed on a traverse stage, the first half of director Debbie Hannan’s production taps into the mystery of the Orient. Strong lighting effects (designed by Jessica Hung Han Yun) throbbing music (composed by Tom Gibbons) and choreographed movement (directed by  Quang Kien Van) mark all of the many scene changes and inject excitement into the drama. The climax is a spectacular effect which must have given headaches to Health and Safety officers, but which certainly heats up the action.

Pyrotechnics are followed by a second act that is disappointingly flat and strains credibility to its limits. The action now switches to Lhasa, where Deng is faced with quelling unrest that springs from Deshar’s attempt at martyrdom. His loyalties are torn between family and state as his wife Jia (Tuyen Do) prepares to offer sexual favours in return for information relating to the whereabout of their daughter, feared missing at the hands of Tibetan rebels. In Act I, Hannan’s flourishes go a long way towards concealing poor character development, but here in Act II, the play’s shortcomings become exposed as over-acted melodrama is allowed to take over.

Majumdar expounds a key theme through Ling (Gabby Wong), one of Deng’s officers. She argues that the cause of all conflicts is not tribalism nor faith nor territorial ambition, but fathers, blaming everything on paternalism. This is not the first time that it has been suggested that women would do a better job of running the world than men, but, curiously, the writer does not make the case with very much conviction and Ling’s outburst feels like little more than a diversion.

The bitterness and frustration of a community threatened with extinction under an authoritarian regime are brought out well in the strongest parts of Majumdar’s play, but his storytelling wanders off course and becomes confused. Perhaps he is trying to say too much and, in so doing, says very little that is new at all.

Performance date: 8 April 2019

Photo: Helen Murray

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

Intra Muros (Park Theatre)

Posted: April 8, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Alexis Michalik.     Director: Ché Walker

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

French playwright Alexis Michalik’s Intra Muros (rough translation: “within walls”) puts a prison in a theatre and a theatre in a prison. Working around the premise of an acting class for novices, the play could, at first, look more suited to a RADA lecture theatre than to a commercial stage, but, somehow, it defies the odds and wins us over.

The play, translated by Pamela Hargreaves, is getting its UK premiere here in a powerful, fully-committed and fast-paced production. Vertical bars are projected to the full height of the back wall and only a few chairs litter the stage, aside from musician Rio Kai. The writer suggests that theatre is a microcosm of all life, as inescapable as from a prison, and goes on to prove his theories with 90 minutes of comedy, tragedy, heartbreak and redemption.

Actor/director Ché Walker plays actor/director Richard, who is arrogant, self-obsessed and pining over a broken marriage. After losing his job as artistic director of a regional theatre, he returns to London, because that is where his contacts are, and finds that he has no contacts. With little else on offer, he takes a job teaching drama in a prison and Michalik’s play begins with him delivering a lecture on the meaning of theatre to just two inmates – Kevin (Declan Perring), convicted for armed robbery, and Angel (Victor Gardener) in for crimes of passion.

As part of the class exercises, Kevin, Angel and prison worker Alice (Summer Strallen) are asked to open up about their past lives, playing themselves and others. The actors take multiple roles, but, disappointingly, the writer fleshes out the women characters (all played by Strallen and Emma Pallant) less fully than Richard, Kevin and Angel. Michalik is demonstrating the power of theatre for weaving fictions and for revealing truths, but he teases us and we are never quite sure which of these the play is doing at any one point.

Intra Muros comes close to drowning in its own intricacies, but the play always redeems itself, often in the most surprising ways. As layers are peeled away and the stories become unexpectedly linked, the drama turns richer, more involving emotionally, clearer and yet, at the same time, more enigmatic. Perring in particular is adept at riding the waves which take scenes from light comedy to gut-wrenching drama, but all the acting is superb, providing ample proof of Richard’s point that actors become two people – themselves and the characters that they inhabit.

If charged with being introspective, self-indulgent and over-smart, Michalik could easily be found guilty on all counts, yet still, perhaps mysteriously, his play manages to be highly entertaining. This can be put forward to support a final proposition that, ultimately, whatever academic analysis is undertaken, the magic of theatre remains indefinable. QED.

Performance date: 5 April 2019

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

The Noises (Old Red Lion Theatre)

Posted: April 5, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Jacqueline Saphra.     Director: Tamar Saphra

⭐️⭐️⭐️

It’s a dog’s life in Jaqueline Saphra’s new one-act play, a creepy canine thriller, directed by her own daughter. Family pet Luna has been a naughty girl, stealing chicken from the dinner table and then…well, best not to tell more. Her punishment is to be shut in a small box room, from which she can hear muffled voices and lots of things that go bump in the night.

The play is a single-hander, performed by Amy McAllister as Luna, who is cut off from the rest of her “pack” with only a bean bag, a blanket and a rubber ball for some comfort. And a few odd shoes are hidden beneath the floor boards. Also in the house are the rest of Luna’s pack – Ma, Pa and their daughter, the dog’s beloved “Ellie girl”, but we only hear them. Their conversations are incomprehensible to Luna, but, instinctively, she understands that something is wrong and she becomes desperate to fulfil what she sees as her duty to protect Ellie.

Luna has a sorry back story, having been abandoned by her first owner to become a stray and then falling victim to an imposing Labradoodle. None of her puppies survived. Now, in relative comfort, she cherishes cuddling up to Ellie and a sense of belonging, even if obeying all the house rules is proving a little difficult for her.

Occasionally, the writer loses the scent and goes off track by concentrating in too much detail on doggy things. Her play, is, in fact, a thinly-disguised parable about the nightmare of helplessness, the fear common to humans and canines of being aware that a loved one is in danger, but being unable to go to their assistance. By tapping into human paranoia, Saphra asks whether a dog’s primal instincts and reactions are very much different from our own.

McAllister’s movement and facial expressions are consistently engaging, but, overall, visual elements are of only marginal benefit to Tamar Saphra’s production. Essentially, this is a radio play, all about words and noises, and maybe it would be better if experienced at home, alone, at night and with all the lights switched off.

Performance date: 4 April 2019

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

Writer and director: Rocky Rodriguez Jr

⭐️⭐️⭐️

In May 1969, newly weds John Lennon and Yoko Ono began their seven-day bed-in for peace in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, Montreal, a private protest intruded on only by the world’s media. At the time, the Vietnam War was raging, political assassinations had rocked America and Cvil Rights and student protests were in full flow. Perhaps a little light relief was sorely needed.

Recreating the event here in northwest London, a mile or so from the Abbey Road studios, Rocky Rodriguez Jr’s new play puts the demonstration into the context of its day, maybe casting a few sideways glances towards modern entertainers who use their celebrity status to dabble in politics. The Spoonerism in the title suggests a mocking satire, but, sadly, there is hardly any other dash of humour in the play’s entirety.

Craig Edgley’s John is volatile and egotistical, revealing the instability of a man who had been catapulted from Liverpool working class obscurity to international fame and fortune in less than a decade. Jung Sun Den Hollander makes Yoko a calmer force, but still strongly opinionated and an eccentric to Western eyes. Together, they are playful and affectionate, the performances conforming closely to popular perceptions of the couple.

The smell of burning incense fills the air and lighted candles adorn Abigail Screen’s set design for this in-the-round production. Love and peace mantras of the ‘60s, rarely heard since the last revival of Hair, come mainly from the play’s Narrator (Helen Foster), who appears in psychedelic turquoise. However, things that may have seemed profound and sincere in their day now come across as naive and pretentious, exemplifying one of the play’s chief problems – its struggle to build a bridge between past and present.

The World’s media is represented by Thomas Ababio, Lyna Dubarry, Joshua McGregor and Amelia Parillon, who also act as advocates in debates on the burning issues of half a century ago. They are the real world and the writer is pointing out the gulf between them and celebrities who are cocooned in a five-star hotel. In these overlong, rambling scenes, the central characters become mere onlookers and the play loses its focus. That said, there are segments of real passion in the writing and performances, most notably in a fiery and eloquent rant against racism, acted by Parillon.

The show is stretched out to two hours by an interval that benefits only the theatre bar, but, at least the tone lightens considerably in later scenes, culminating in a rousing singalong to Give Peace a Chance. If Rodriguez Jr wants to give his play a stronger chance, he needs to cut and re-shape it. There is enough quality in both writing and performances for it to become a great deal better than it is right now.

Performance date: 3 April 2019

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

Writer: Athol Fugard      Director: Matthew Xia

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

London is seeing a resurgence of interest in Athol Fugard. A week after a revival of the South African writer’s politically-charged play A Lesson from Aloes opened at the Finborough Theatre, here comes Blood Knot, a play originally performed in 1961, seen in a 1987 revised version. Apartheid forms the backdrop to both plays, but politics are secondary in Blood Knot, as Fugard undertakes a forensic examination of the human cost of racism and goes directly to its sordid heart.

Morrie (Nathan McMullen) and Zach (Kalungi Ssebandeke) are half brothers. They have the same black mother, but Morrie’s father is white and Zach’s father is black. They live together in a cramped shack with basic amenities, Morrie dreaming of saving for them to buy a farm together, Zach yearning for a woman. To satisfy Zach’s needs, Morrie finds him a female penpal, Ethel, from a newspaper, but she is white and, eventually, she wants to meet her suitor.

There are elements of the Cyrano de Bergerac story, firstly with Morrie writing Zach’s letters and then, in reverse, with Morrie planning to stand in for Zach at the meeting with Ethel, because he is able to pass as white. However, Fugal eschews romance and takes the play into dark and disturbing territory when he explores how adopting the guise of a white man changes Morrie fundamentally.

The scenes have symmetry, each beginning with Zach trudging home after a hard day’s work, while Morrie is preparing a simple meal. Fugol’s writing style, contrasting sweet lyricism and harsh realities, gives each scene poignancy and beauty. It is not made clear why Morrie does not work and the writer gives the character only a sketchy back story, suggesting that he has returned home to his brother after a period away during which he had been unable to find a sense of belonging in any section of South Africa’s racist society. 

It is hard to imagine a venue more suited to this play than the Orange Tree. Director Matthew Xia’s production is taut, claustrophobic and highly atmospheric. Two single mattresses lie in opposite corners in Basia Bińkowska’s set design, with the audience making up the the four walls of the brothers’ shack. Ciarán Cunningham’s lighting casts a warm glow, with birdsong and music composed by Xana adding to the perfectly-judged ambience.

The two actors are simply superb, making the brotherly bond utterly believable. McMullen generates a sense of unease, stemming from Morrie doubting his place in the world, the only certainty being that his part-whiteness gives him a responsibility to take care of Zach.  Ssebaneke’s Zach shows acceptance of his place at the bottom of the social pile, tackling hardships with good spirits. After over two hours in the company of these brothers, we begin to care about them and wonder how they might have fared in the new post-Apartheid South Africa.

Performance date: 13 March 2019

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

Music and lyrics: George and Ira Gershwin       Book: George S Kaufman      Director: Mark Giesser

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

George S Kaufman’s satirical book for the musical Strike Up the Band takes us into the realms of utter fantasy. The writer’s proposition is that America in 1927, a country of political corruption, tax fraud, protectionist tariffs and deindustrialisation, is led into war against barely-armed opponents (Switzerland) by a blustering business tycoon. How preposterous this all seems in 2019.

Ultra-patriotic Horace J Fletcher (Richard Emerson) is the bullish boss of a cheese manufacturing giant, delighted when his government imposes 30% import tariffs on cheese and incensed when the Swiss raise objections, not even paying the full postage for their letter of complaint. It has to mean war. In true Swiftian style, Kaufman packs his script with plot and detail, putting a weighty burden on what could have been just a flimsy musical and the strain shows, particularly between songs.

This 1927 show represents American musical theatre in its infancy, a huge leap backwards from, say, Hamilton, and it is fascinating to assess how things have evolved. The show would need a much bigger makeover than director Mark Giesser is able to give it here to match it up to modern standards, but its appeal owes much to its dated feel. The art of blending book and musical sequences together seamlessly is not quite mastered, leading to awkward links and songs that do not seem to fit. However, when those songs are by George and Ira Gershwin, a lot can be overlooked.

The show has standard numbers, such as the title song, The Man I Love and I’ve Got a Crush on You, but it is a particular pleasure to have the opportunity to appreciate lesser-known Gershwin pieces and to hear them sung by fresh talent in the style of a bygone age, long before they started to put on full-blown musicals above pubs. A seven-piece band under musical director Bobby Goulder works well, tucked in behind screens, supporting a company of ten.

Heading for the conflict in Switzerland, there is a hissable baddie (David Francis), a mysterious interloper (Nicholas McBride) and a presidential aide (Robert Finlayson). “What a lovely place for a war” declares socialite Mrs Draper (Pippa Winslow) as she surveys the Alps. Romantic interest is provided by Fletcher’s daughter Joan (Beth Burrows) and rebellious reporter Jim (Paul Biggin), along with Mrs Draper’s daughter Anne (Charlotte Christensen) and cheese factory worker Timothy (Adam Scott Pringle). The mission seems an expensive folly, but Fletcher reassures his troops “I can make Switzerland pay for the cost of this war”, strangely echoing a similar, more recent promise.

It matters little that the show is, yes, cheesy or that Giesser’s production is a little rough around the edges. It all adds to the charm of this joyful nonsense in a revival that strikes all the right notes.

Performance date: 8 March 2019

Photo: Andreas Lambis

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

The Project (White Bear Theatre)

Posted: March 8, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Ian Buckley      Director: Anthony Shrubsall

⭐️💫

It is 1943 in German occupied Westerbork in The Netherlands. Jews are being forced to wear yellow stars and are held in a transit camp, pending the publication every Tuesday of the names of those who are to be moved east to a camp which we presume to be of a far worse kind. Ian Buckley’s new drama, with a little music and dance, takes place in this ominous setting and focusses on a troupe of entertainers who put on shows for their fellow inmates and their “hosts”.

Five of the play’s six characters wear the yellow star, the sixth being Mike Duran’s slimy Conrad Schaffer of the SS, who sports his swastika with pride. Schaffer proves that he is not all bad when he calls for medical assistance after he has shot a random detainee in the foot, but the fact that he does not give a Nazi salute is not enough to disqualify him from being labelled a stereotype. The character sets the tone for a play that packs in just about all the stale clichés seen in abundance in World War II dramas for more than 70 years.

Victor (Lloyd Morris) is the resident impresario at the camp, organising and hosting cabarets featuring dancer Anna (Faye Maughan), her boyfriend, singer/songwriter Peter (Nick Delvallé) and her ungainly sister Millie (Eloise Jones). Learning that the name of their hospitalised mother (Cate Morris) appears on next Tuesday’s list, Anna and Millie go into a spin and Anna accepts an invitation to give private dance lessons to Schaffer in the hope that he will reprieve her. In the event, the German proves to be an inept sexual predator, settling for just a waltz and a kiss.

Credit is due to the actors for ensuring that Anthony Shrubsall’s lifeless production does not fall into the “so bad it’s good” category, but it is often a struggle for them. When Victor’s rather quaint show is performed at the beginning of the second act, the thought occurs that Buckley could have intended his play to have become a musical along the lines of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, but, sadly, the performance ends having taken the drama nowhere.

Buckley ’s plotting fills up a powder keg, but then he forgets to ignite it. Time and again, promising scenes are set up and then driven into blind alleys and, for all its earnestness, this tepid wartime drama achieves about as much gravitas as an episode of ‘Allo ‘Allo!.

Performance date: 7 February 2019

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