Writer: Harley Granville Barker      Director: Trevor Nunn

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Harley Granville Barker was one of the leading lights of British theatre in the Edwardian era and works of his, such as The Voysey Inheritance and Waste, still appear regularly today. Therefore, it would seem highly unlikely that a play written by him in 1900 would have to wait until now to receive its World Premiere, but such is the case here.

Agnes Colander: An Attempt at Life languished in the British Library for more than a century until Richard Nelson’s revised version was brought to the stage by director Trevor Nunn at the Theatre Royal Bath and this is a slightly modified version of that production. Naomi Frederick plays the title character as a wavering free spirit. Three years after leaving her adulterous husband, Agnes still questions whether she values independence over security and she finds neither sympathy nor encouragement in the society of her age.

Agnes works as a painter, befriending Otto (Matthew Flynn), a fiery fellow artist. “I know only three male artists better than you” he tells Agnes, expecting her to take his misogynist condescension as a compliment. In a moment of self-doubt, Agnes sees herself as “an extra rib, dressed”. The play was written some two decades after Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, so themes of female liberation were not new to theatre in 1900, but Granville Barker seems to be continually reassuring himself, through his hesitant characters, that he is not being too bold.

A second suitor emerges in the form of naive young banker, Alex, who follows Agnes to the retreat which she has found with Otto in Normandy. Harry Lister Smith plays Alex as if he is a simpering boy, making it obvious that he would be the more malleable of the two rivals and giving Agnes a clear choice. Does she want to control Alex, or to be controlled by Otto? Perhaps Granville Barker is showing prescience in discussing gender role reversal, but he puts it into a contemporary context by bringing in Emmeline (Sally Scott), a prim and proper widow with a mischievous streak.

Running at around 90 minutes, plus an interval, the play gives an interesting insight into the formation of modern feminist ideas. After a tepid first act during which any form of dramatic tension proves elusive, Nunn’s production livens up after the interval and, towards the end, rather surprisingly, the director finds some comedy (hopefully intentional). Leaving aside its curiosity value, Agnes Colander… is no lost masterpiece; more it is a tentative work by a writer who was as uncertain about what the new century would bring as are his characters.

Performance date: 15 February 2019

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

Can-Can! (Union Theatre)

Posted: February 15, 2019 in Theatre

Adaptor and lyricist: Phil Willmott      Composers: Jacques Offenbach and his contemporaries      Director: Phil Setren

⭐️⭐️

After Mythic and Hadestown London may have had enough of the Orpheus myth for now, so it is welcome news that this new musical entertainment borrows the overture, but not the plot, from Jacques Offenbach’s operetta Orpheus in the Underworld. It is the music most famously associated with the Can-Can, the dance that scandalised late 19th Century French society and, here,  it heralds the arrival of a touch of Parisian gaiety to the world under the railway tracks near Waterloo Station.

Colourful costumes, high kicks and frilly knickers feature strongly in the show, Adam Haigh’s choreography proving to be its highlight. There are also strong segments of classical ballet and ballroom, but, dancing aside, the rest is a mix of chuckles and cringes, not necessarily in equal measures. Creator Phil Willmott bases his plot very loosely on Arthur Wing Pinero’s Trelawny of the Wells, an affectionate comedy set in the world of theatre.

Christian (Damjan Mrackovich) is a toff, son of joyless banker Monsieur Bontoux (Willmott), who strongly disapproves of his dalliance with showgirl Jane (Kathy Peacock). Jane is part of the troupe at the Orpheus Theatre in Paris, along with the likes of La Goulue, a drag act (PK Taylor) and Pujol, a “fartiste” (Mark Garfield). Also hanging around are musician Offenbach, aka “Offy” (Sam Woods) and, clutching his sketchpad, an unusually tall Toulouse Lautrec (Jordan Nesbitt).

When Bontoux buys up the Orpheus and gets the troupe kicked out (“I was a tour-de-force and now I’m forced to tour” moans one of them), Christian becomes an actor on the London stage, parted from his love. A great aunt in the Bontoux family (Corinna Marlowe, who could have stepped straight out of an Oscar Wilde play) arrives to help, but it seems that only “Offy” can bring the pair back together, casting both in his new operetta (guess which one). 

The show has fair helpings of music by “Offy”, a bit of Lehar, but, mostly, the songs are standards from Victorian Music Hall. These are simple and familiar tunes, yet some seem to provide too big a challenge for a few singers in this company. The music is arranged by Richard Baker, with musical director Rosa Lennox on piano, accordion and clarinet and Marlowe on cello. 

Everything gets terribly confused. Characters with distinctly English traits are supposedly French and there is no consistency of style anywhere. Sometimes we see an operetta, then a string of Music Hall turns and, with a dastardly villain (Bontoux) and a flamboyant dame equivalent (La Goulue), the show becomes a pantomime.

Phil Setren’s production stutters when the dancing stops, often embarrassing when it sets out to be amusing and risible when it takes itself seriously. In summary, this is a poorly conceived patchwork of mismatching ideas. Many talented people are involved, but all of them can can and should should do better.

Performance date: 13 February 2019

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

The Price (Wyndham’s Theatre)

Posted: February 12, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Arthur Miller      Director: Jonathan Church

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Superficially, all of Arthur Miller’s great plays are deeply rooted in American culture and history, but their enduring appeal on this side of the Atlantic reflects the universality and timelessness of the writer’s human themes. Transferring from the Theatre Royal Bath, Jonathan Church’s production of the 1968 play The Price is the first of two major Miller revivals opening in London this week and two more will follow in the coming months. Any living playwright would surely be envious.

Having been born in 1915, America’s Great Depression impacted significantly on Miller’s early life, as it has done on the lives of brothers Victor and Walter Franz, the play’s chief protagonists. Their father had been broken by the Depression and Victor had felt compelled to take care of him, giving up a promising career in science. The price that he has paid is 30 years as a uniformed police officer, a job that he hates. Walter had turned in the opposite direction, building a successful and lucrative career in medicine, but paying a price in terms of personal fulfilment. The estranged brothers are reunited at their father’s home, 16 years after his death, to sell off his possessions and raise cash that 50-year-old Victor needs for his impending retirement.

The tone is set perfectly by Simon Higlett’s design for the attic of the Franz family home. A harp that is never played sits in a corner, a Queen Anne-style chair and matching chaise longue take centre stage, surrounded by assorted clutter. We recognise this as a place from which the present has departed and the past lives on, the only thing missing seeming to be Miss Haversham. Miller is telling us that the past always hovers over us and that every decision taken in life bears a cost. He argues that laying the blame on others for our own actions is futile.

Brendan Coyle is superb as Victor, outwardly solid and upright, but always questioning the foundations for a code of honour that puts duty and self-sacrifice ahead of personal gain. There is bitterness in Sara Stewart’s Esther, Victor’s wife, as she pushes for a better life than a police officer can give her, perhaps needing to fund her drinking habit. Adrian Lukis’ Walter has an arrogant air, but we see the cracks in his veneer as the truth behind versions of past incidents is challenged. Walter would seem to be the obvious villain of the piece, but Miller never fully endorses this view, showing that life is always much more complex than first impressions show.

Much of the strength of Church’s vivid revival is drawn from the play’s masterful construction, Miller using a richly comic character to hold together his stern examination of family division, guilt and regret. Gregory Solomon is an 89-year-old Jewish furniture dealer who can put a price on anything. Apart from giving light relief exactly when it is needed, the character adds an ironic perspective to the emotionally-charged drama that is unfolding all around. David Suchet plays him to the hilt in a performance that, on its own, makes the ticket price good value.

Performance date: 11 February 2019

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

Writer and performer: Apphia Campbell      Directors: Arran Hawkins and Nate Jacobs

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

Born on 21 February 1933 in Tyron, North Carolina, Eunice Kathleen Waymon, sixth child of a preacher man, was to become Nina Simone, internationally renowned soul singer and American Civil Rights activist. Her story is told here in Black is the Color of My Voice, a 70-minute monologue, written and performed by New Yorker Apphia Campbell. The play is followed at some performances by Soul Sessions, a 50-minute celebration of Simone’s music, which is ticketed separately. 

The small stage is furnished with just a single bed, a wooden table and chairs and a screen when Campbell emerges, looking waifish and vulnerable as Simone. The play is structured as a conversation with the singer’s late father, with whom she seeks a posthumous reconciliation. We hear of a child who trains to become a gifted concert pianist, incurring the wrath of her mother when, as a young adult, she turns to “the devil’s music”.

We feel that this is a woman in search of her own identity, whose life is driven by a deep-rooted love of music in all its forms. A telling moment comes when the young Eunice refuses to continue with a piano recital because racial segregation in the audience discriminates against her parents and a lifelong campaign for equality and justice begins. 

Otherwise the storytelling is sketchy and the monologue, interrupted too infrequently by extracts from songs, occasionally feels over-contrived. This is a life lived against the backdrop of huge social turmoil, but, with the exception of one account of an abusive relationship, it is not, as told here, a life of high personal drama and Campbell struggles to make the story gripping.

Soul Sessions is presented in simple cabaret style. Campbell, accompanied by Tim Shaw on keyboards, performs a selection of Simone’s best known songs, linking them with relaxed, good-humoured banter. Sinner Man, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, Feeling Good, I Got Life and To Love Somebody all feature and her rendition of George Gershwin’s I Love You Porgy is outstanding.

Seen together, the two shows are less revelatory about Simone than we may have hoped, but they work much better as a showcase for the considerable talents of Campbell. When she opens her arms wide as if to embrace the whole audience, singing I Put a Spell on You, she really means it.

Performance date: 7 February 2019

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

Writer: Harold Pinter      Director: Jamie Lloyd

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

If Jamie Lloyd had written a memo-to-self before embarking on this, the seventh of his anthologies of Harold Pinter’s short plays, it could well have read “less is more”. The two plays are from the late 1950s and Lloyd strips back the first to near its original form (which was for radio); in the second, he allows precise typecasting to do much of his work and both decisions prove to be masterstrokes.

A Slight Ache (1958) reflects the changing nation of its time. Edward and Flora are a quarrelsome upper middle class couple who, on Midsummer day, have little else to do but sit around their country home and talk about the shrubs. Edward wakes with a slight ache in his eye and becomes troubled firstly by a wasp in the marmalade jar and then by a mysterious match seller who has taken to standing in a lane at the bottom of his garden. He commands Flora to invite the stranger inside, which she duly does, offering him a glass of sherry and naming him “Barnaby”.

Soutra Gilmour’s set is a radio studio and the actors speak directly into microphones throughout, barely reacting to each other in a visual sense. Lloyd puts the focus on the words and the voices, just as it would have been in the original production, and, crucially, as the match seller has no lines, there is no need for him to be in the studio. As a result, he becomes an invisible menace that hovers over the play for almost its duration.

John Heffernan’s Edward is a man who knows that he has become an irrelevance, like a member of the officer classes now redundant in post-Imperial Britain. Gemma Whelan gives the obedient and sexually repressed Flora an air of resentment, her Home Counties accent falling somewhere between the earnestness of Celia Johnson and the mockery of June Whitfield. She urges “Barnaby” to “come into my garden” squeezing every drop of innuendo out of Pinter’s loaded dialogue.

Hidden menace links this play with The Dumb Waiter (1957), which follows it. Gilmour’s set is now a spartan basement room, resembling a prison cell with a single bed against each wall. Its occupants, attired in business suits, are Ben and Gus, two hit men awaiting instructions for their next job. Instead, all they get is a dumb waiter descending repeatedly with orders for meals which they cannot possibly provide. The play highlights two prominent features of ‘50s drama – realism and, paradoxically, absurdism. Written a few years after Waiting for Godot, there are obvious echoes of Beckett, but, more significantly, the writing captures the essence of early Pinter and brings out themes that were to recur throughout the writer’s career.

Ben is the “senior partner”, gaining authority from his junior’s nervousness and using leadership as a mask for his own uncertainty. Danny Dyer has built a career out of playing loveable, if slightly roguish, Cockney geezers and his appearance as Ben makes the character instantly recognisable. Similarly, we think of Martin Freeman as playing life’s seconds-in-command, bemused ordinary blokes who question all the extraordinary happenings around them. Thus, he is exactly right for Gus. However, the fact that both actors are so firmly within their comfort zones should not detract from their command of the rhythm and tone of Pinter.

Two intriguing plays, four tremendous performances and impeccable staging. These little gems are as close to perfection as it is reasonable to hope for.

Performance date: 7 February 2019

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

My Dad’s Gap Year (Park Theatre)

Posted: February 4, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Tom Wright      Director: Rikki Beadle-Blair

⭐️⭐️⭐️

For all its modern touches, My Dad’s Gap Year draws its humour from a well-tried and tested source – the age-old clash between the reserve of the British and the liberated attitudes of the rest of the world. Tom Wright’s 90-minute play begins as a warm-hearted, if unsubtle comedy which tells us to shed our inhibitions and run free, but then, confusingly, it turns into a sombre drama warning us to keep one foot on the brake pedal.

Sarah Beaton’s set design has the audience sitting on all four sides of a pool bar, conjuring up welcome dreams during a snowy London February. 18-year-old William (Alex Britt) is “a boring poof” (his Dad’s description), out of school and with a year to kill before starting university. Dad Dave (Adam Lannon) is an out-of-work alcoholic whose wife Cath (Michelle Collins) has left him out of exasperation. Insisting that his son is in desperate need of some chillaxing, Dave hops on a plane to Thailand with William in tow, while, staying at home, Cath uses her new-found freedom to dip her toes in the over-40s dating scene.

On arrival in the far east, Dave hooks up with Mae (Victoria Gigante), a transgender lady who runs a bar staffed by lady boys. William is slower to loosen up, still wearing a business shirt to the beach, but he eventually succumbs to the charms of Matias (Max Percy) a 30-year-old Spanish/Thai architect, who introduces him to the gay bars and saunas of Bangkok.

The scene in which the confident Matias chats up the diffident William is hilarious, as is William’s Face Time call with Cath in which he tells her excitedly the barely believable news that has a boyfriend. Mother and son then swap details of their sexual exploits, pausing only to query what is the correct plural for the word “penis”. All this is wittily written and skilfully acted and it seems that the play cannot possibly go wrong, but then it does.

The drink takes its inevitable toll on Dave’s health, William gets drawn deep into a dangerous world of hard drugs and wild sex and things start to fall apart for both of them. The problem is that, once the play is no longer funny, it is not very much at all.  The thinly-drawn characters are just what is needed to pull off the light comedy, but they have neither the depth nor the credibility to serve the heavier stuff that follows and Rikki Beadle-Blair’s production loses all its early bounce.

Although performed without an interval, this is a play of two halves, amiable enough, but, if Wright had been able to steer a consistent course, it could have been so much better.

Performance date: 2 February 2019

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

Beast on the Moon (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: February 1, 2019 in Theatre

Writer Richard Kalinoski      Director: Jelena Budimir

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Richard Kalinoski’s Beast on the Moon, which premiered in 1996, covers events beginning almost a century ago, but its relevance to the plight of refugees in the modern world is striking. The main characters, Aram and Seta are Christian Armenians, newly arrived in Milwaukee in 1921, having fled from persecution by the Turks in their homeland. “Where are all the Americans?” asks Aram as he meets only Poles, Italians and other immigrants, reminding us not only of the scale of human displacement, but of how much more welcoming America has been to immigrants throughout its history than perhaps it is in the Trump era.

Aram (a beautifully judged performance by George Jovanovic) is 23 and, like his late father, he is a photographer. His father’s overcoat hangs in the hallway of his home, but is never worn and he keeps a photograph of his family, with their heads cut out, on display in the living room. His grief simmers beneath the surface as he looks forward to his new life, preserving his cultural heritage and raising a family of his own to replace the one that he has lost.

The play begins with the arrival from Armenia of 15-year-old Seta to enter into an arranged marriage with Aram. She clutches a rag doll, which we learn reminds her of her late mother, and she cowers under a table in fear of her new husband, but Zarima McDermott’s remarkable portrayal transforms her from a quivering child to the confident and independent-minded woman that she has become 12 years later.

The story is narrated by an elderly man (Hayward B Morse) who we learn had been a 12-year-old orphan boy named Vincent, encountering the couple in 1933. Morse also plays Vincent, which is the one false step in Jelena Budimir’s otherwise unerring revival. Aram and Seta have remained childless and the emotional impact of Vincent on both of them could, perhaps, have been made clearer if the boy had been more believable,

The play focusses narrowly on the past and ongoing traumas suffered by its main characters and Budimir, rightly, keeps her production simple and similarly focussed, Sarah Jane Booth’s set and period costumes suiting perfectly. As tension builds, Aram and Seta are forced slowly to accept their losses and come to terms with their grief in scenes which are given passion and force by Jovanovic and McDermott. The overall impact is deeply moving. 

Beast on the Moon is returning to the Finborough theatre where it was performed first in 1996. Today we hear much of horrors in faraway lands and of the practical problems associated with the resettlement of surviving victims, but Kalinoski’s study of the psychology of refugees fleeing persecution adds an important dimension to urgent debates.

Performance date: 31 January 2019

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