Loot (Park Theatre)

Posted: August 24, 2017 in Theatre

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

When Joe Orton’s life was cut short so cruelly in 1967, he left behind only a small body of works. Loot was his second stage hit, following quickly on the heels of Entertaining Mr Sloane and, 52 years after its first appearance, its ability to shock audiences has, inevitably, diminished. However, expectations that its black comedy would have dated are thwarted emphatically here in a revival that is consistently hilarious and reveals the play to be surprisingly relevant to the modern world.

Social conventions and the pillars of British life are Orton’s targets as he ridicules hypocrisy and pomposity, showing little mercy. Marriage, death, the church (particularly Catholicism) and the law all fall victim to the writer’s subversive pen. The plot of Loot could have been inspired by one of the 1950s Ealing comedies, but the play is stripped of all traces of their gentleness and gentility, and wider influences, ranging from the absurdity of Ionesco to the lunacy of The Goon Showbecome detectable.

Orton wrote for radio before finding success in theatre and his style betrays those origins, with almost every line of dialogue leading to a verbal gag. However, the success of this play also relies heavily on visual flourishes, which are plentiful in this production. Most notably, a running joke concerning a corpse brings repeated howls of laughter, allowing Anah Ruddin to steal the show without speaking a word or moving a muscle.

The problem with this type of anarchic comedy is that it can often be difficult to sustain at a high level for long, but Orton keeps it on the boil throughout two acts and Michael Fentiman’s effervescent production rarely flags. Gabriella Slade’s set design, a sombre chapel with dark wooden panelling, is a little out of place when all the play’s action occurs in the home of the McLeavy family, but it works in giving an ironic air of reverence to a play that is entirely irreverent from beginning to end.

Sinéad Matthews is a morbid joy as the seven-time black widow Fay, who always finds justification for her misdemeanours in her Roman Catholic faith. Having nursed the stricken Mrs McLeavy towards her death, perhaps helping her on her way, she turns to her bereaved husband (Ian Redford) and persuades him to propose to her by telling him that two weeks would be a suitable period of mourning. Ne’er-do-well son Hal McLeavy (Sam Frenchum), hampered by an inability to tell lies, has worthy ambitions to establish a brothel and has just joined forces with undertakers’ assistant Dennis (Calvin Demba) to rob a bank. Where else to hide their loot but in Hal’s mother’s coffin?

Dennis, a father of five illegitimate children, casually exchanges kisses with Hal while proposing marriage to Fay, giving the play the sexual ambiguity in which Orton revelled. The police, with whom the playwright himself had brushes, are represented by the dim-witted, corrupt Inspector Truscott, made a coarse bully by Christopher Fulford’s performance.

The word “Ortonesque” has now entered the English language and this fine revival of Loot shows us exactly why. The writer’s distinctive blend of various comedy styles feels uniquely British, even though it is British life that it lampoons so savagely. The play easily stands the test of time and it leaves us regretting that there are so few others like it.

Performance date: 23 August 2017

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

Sometimes it feels as if the only thing that can be said in favour of democracy is that it is infinitely preferable to any conceivable alternative. Rob Drummond’s new 90-minute one man show sets out to expose the fallibilities, anomalies and contradictions of majority verdicts by asking the audience to make decisions and then to reflect on the consequences.

There is a buzz in the air on entering the Dorfman Theatre, which is configured in the round. Above the circular stage, projections show the activity inside a beehive and Jemima Robinson’s set design is awash with honeycomb shapes.

The sound of the swarm lingers in the ears long after Drummond has begun to tell his story, a train of events triggered by his decision not to vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum. He takes a journey to beyond the northernmost railway station in the (still) United Kingdom in pursuit of a slightly nutty left wing beekeeper who is waging war on Scotland’s answer to the Ku Klux Klan.

The audience is given electronic keypads and, at several points, Drummond asks for votes, which he claims can alter the course of the show. To get things moving, he asks very basic questions and, at this performance, he ascertained that the majorities in his audience were white, female and liberal; only 8% supported Brexit. More surprisingly, a majority supported the admission of latecomers to the auditorium, giving Drummond the opportunity to embarrass them on stage. The audience opposed having an interval, thereby casting aside the needs of the incontinent.

The most serious question being asked by Drummond and illustrated in his story, is to what extent can a liberal person tolerate opposing views when such views are (in that person’s opinion) clearly and incontrovertibly wrong. On most evenings, it is likely that audiences will claim to be liberal and also claim to oppose the use of violence as a means to achieving any end. Are these two positions always compatible? News coming from Charlottesville, Virginia on the day of this show’s opening underlines the urgency of the writer’s concerns.

Directed by David Overend, Drummond prowls around the stage, drawing in the audience. Sometimes he looks genuinely hurt and perplexed when verdicts do not concur with what are, perhaps, his own views. At other times, he shrugs and accepts the inevitable. At intervals, he stops and the stage darkens, leaving a single spotlight on him, and he sets a series of moral conundrums which gets us to ask ourselves why, faced with slightly different situations, we might take life and death decisions that could be seen as inconsistent with each other.

The Majority is an amusing diversion that succeeds in its objective to be thought-provoking, even if many of the thoughts that it provokes may prove to be no more than fleeting. Skillfully, Drummond keeps the show buzzing and all that it needs is just a little more sting.

Performance date: 14 August 2017

Photo: Ellie Kurttz

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

When relationships go wrong, the result can be amicable (or unamicable) separation; in celebrity circles it can be “conscious uncoupling”, but, in her 50-minute play, Milly Thomas asks us to consider another option – that of brutal cessation.

An unnamed couple face each other inside an unfurnished white square; they are barefoot and wearing loose-fitting clothes. It seems that a bout of Judo is about to commence. At first, She (Lydia Larson) teases playfully, testing Him (Alan Mahon) to prove his devotion to her. He succumbs and reciprocates. Progressively, the teasing gets more sinister and She reveals that her fantasy is to smash in her partner’s skull, leading to a lobotomy and mummification. When he takes his fists and a hammer to reduce a watermelon to pulp, we really get the picture.

The play applies a sharp razor to slice into a mutually dependent relationship and expose the latent tensions lurking inside. Performed in short scenes, Bethany Pitts’ brisk and efficient production has a cold, surreal feel that befits the clinical text. It is clear that this couple is driven apart by conflict and we have to assume that only conflict holds them together.

Thomas tells us virtually nothing about these people’s lives outside their combat area, so how can we care about them? That said, it is likely that getting us to care is not the writer’s purpose. By making her play so heartless and emotionally empty, she is leading us to focus on ourselves and the potential for violence in our own relationships and, to that end, she succeeds.

Performance date: 11 August 2017

Photo: The Other Richard

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

A policewoman’s lot is not a happy one. Performing her own hour-long monologue in the aptly-named Bunker One at the Pleasance Courtyard, Nicola Wren requires herself to drop to a seated position on the hard concrete floor repeatedly, perhaps showing us that an actor’s lot is not always so happy either.

Wren’s character is a constable up for promotion to sergeant. Advising her on how to tackle the interview, a senior officer gives her a list of criteria which includes “be yourself”, commenting astutely that it is the one thing that she needs to work on. The advice is given over a meal of dodgy prawns, ensuring that the following day does not begin too well.

The play demonstrates that a smart uniform, a breezy persona and an air of calm authority cannot mask inner emptiness. Our heroine is able to handle all the ugliness and aggravation that her job throws at her, but she is defeated by lingering grief for her lost older brother, Jamie. Finding an old cassette player she inserts a recording made by Jamie for her 10th birthday and replays it over and over, listening particularly to the track Sit Down by the group James. Every time that the title words are sung, she obeys the instruction, just as she used to do with her brother.

Wren engages with the audience as if trying to restore calm after an incident. Her police constable is the sort of person that we feel comforted to know is protecting us – upright, straightforward and optimistic. However, she is caught out by basic emotions that are common to us all and it is a fair cop.

Performance date: 11 August 2017

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

Coming of age stories are fairly common, but they usually feature characters at least a decade younger than the pair in this hour-long duologue from Australia. Fag/Stag, written and performed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler and Chris Isaacs, is a touching bromance, recounting the misadventures of two lads still struggling to come to terms with adulthood at a time when glances in the mirror prompt the words “I’m starting to look old”.

Corgan (Isaacs) gets an invitation to the wedding of his ex, Tamara, to a guy with a limp handshake and he wonders if it should have been him. His best mate, Jimmy (Fowler), also invited, had a week-long fling with Tamara in his teens, but has now just walked out on his long-term boyfriend and wonders if he has done the right thing. They meet to play Donkey Kong, stuck on one level; they pick up casual sex partners in bars, fool around on Tinder and Grindr, get drunk a lot and dabble in drugs. All the time, neither can shake off the niggling feeling that something is missing in his life.

Corgan and Jimmy speak in turns directly to the audience, often giving subtly different versions of the same events. Isaacs’ Corgan has the outer confidence of a guys’ guy who has had it easy in life and with the ladies, but his self-deprecating manner points to inner doubts. Fowler’s Jimmy is slightly flamboyant and more cynical, hardened by the added challenges of being gay. Both are damaged by the choices that they have made.

The performers move the play along at a cracking pace and develop an effortless rapport. The writing is humorous and perceptive, mocking social conventions gently and skating lightly over darker themes. As the big day arrives, Corgan and Jimmy witness the union of a “penguin” and a “meringue” and we, like them, ask whether it is about time for them to grow up, or would they be better off staying the little boys that they are?

Performance date: 10 August 2017

Photo: Jamie Breen

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

Sometimes known as “glossolalia”, the term “speaking in tongues” relates to the use of words that have no meaning to the speaker. In Andrew Bovell’s two new plays, such words could form lies or they could be part of mindless ritual behaviour, but the proposition is made that ill-considered verbal communications can undermine trust and damage lives.

Staged by Doughnut Productions in the Green, an inflatable igloo on the outer reaches of the Pleasance Courtyard, the production seats the audience on swivel chairs within the circular space, the actors performing all around the circumference and through the middle. The Lies and The Truths are separate (two tickets required), but run consecutively on the same evening, with a 15 minute break between them.

Leon (Phil Aizlewood) is married to Sonja (Kate Austen). Peter (Ben Elder) is married to Jane (Georgina Periam). When Leon meets Jane in a bar and Pete meets Sonja in another bar, their banal conversations are all but identical, spoken over each other to emphasise the point. It is as if both pairs are caught up in unstoppable mating rituals, speaking in universally recognisable clichés, but not pausing to consider what they are saying. It makes little difference that one pair consummates the flirtation and the other does not, because the seeds of doubt have been sown and the corrosion to their marriages has begun.

Bovell’s writing and Kathleen Douglas’ direction are crisp and precise, matched by well-judged performances. The writer dwells on the theme of people drawing in lovers only to reject them instinctively, a trait shown by both women in The Lies and, later, in stories that develop therefrom, by Sara (Periam) who is counselled by Valerie (Austen), herself a borderline sociopath. The Truths centres on Valerie’s mysterious disappearance and police officer Leon’s interrogation of her less then candid husband (Elder). Now the blurring of lines between deceit and honesty takes on darker significance as lack of trust becomes still more pervasive.

More naturally, this work could become a single two-act play. The Lies, running for one hour, just about stands alone, but it contains elements that set up the second play and, therefore, leaves loose ends. Less focussed and 15 minutes shorter, The Truths feels incomplete, tailing off before arriving at the right destination. Overall, the dramas are elevated by the unconventional staging. Confronting each other from the extremes of this confined space, the characters spin a web of unbreakable mistrust that entangles the audience as it tightens around them.

Performance date: 7 August 2017

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Scientists may like to think that they can find a solution to every problem, but making sense of human behaviour is something that always seems to prove beyond them. Lucy Kirkwood’s new comedy/drama takes a scattergun approach to a wide range of scientific studies – finding the Higgs Boson particle, preventing diseases. safeguarding the internet and so on – concluding that, whatever course is set, it can all still be fouled up by man (or woman). Her play sees one family’s dysfunction as an example for proving the Chaos theory and, even though she falls some way short of achieving such a lofty objective, she gives us as good an evening of theatre as any around right now.

Kirkwood uses the same trick as did Nick Payne in Constellations. She blinds us with unfathomable science and leaves us wide open to taking emotional sucker punches. In Geneva, 42-year-old Alice is a leading physicist developing the Large Hadron Collider and she is as close as she can get to being certain that her work will not lead to a black hole in Switzerland. Back in Luton, her “stupid” 38-year-old sister Jenny dithers over allowing her baby to have the MMR jab, with tragic consequences. Their mother Karen, who had been forced to abandon an outstanding academic career to take up her domestic duties as a wife, faces the onset of dementia and incontinence, without seeking medical advice because it would provide scientific certainty of her conditions. Alice’s confused 17-year-old son, Luke, deeply unhappy at school and ignored by his workaholic single mother at home, dabbles with the internet and cyber hacking , falling victim to social media bullying and revenge porn.

The characters collide as Rufus Norris’s slick in-the-round production flashes, bangs and sizzles on Katrina Lindsay’s futuristic set design. White-coated scientists mill around and The Boson himself (Paul Hilton) lectures us on the five (or is it six?) routes to Armageddon. Many things concern and confuse us, not least of them how British television drama can possibly survive for several months without the services of the wonderful Olivia Colman, whose understated magnetism transfers intact from screen to stage. Her chain smoking, bewildered Jenny is locked into a love-hate relationship with her smart older sister, Olivia Williams’ fraught and anxious Alice.

Drama and comedy are balanced with precision in Kirkwood’s witty, insightful writing. A running gag sees the beleaguered Luke gifted a giant Toblerone by everyone who passes through an airport and his sexual initiation becomes an hilarious disaster, Joseph Quinn bringing out the character’s adolescent awkwardness to touching effect.  Amanda Boxer’s Karen is much more than a cantankerous old crone; she is embittered and frustrated, but still determined to show off her scientific prowess as a last throw of the dice. Perennial dilemmas of the young and the old are thrown into Kirkwood’s heady mix, along with a dash of feminism.

Packing in perhaps too many complex ideas and themes, Mosquitoes may be a mess, but it is a brilliant one that addles the brain and punctures the heart. The characters bicker, row and get on each other’s nerves and still the family bonds are always abundantly clear. As Kirkwood’s boffins declare that love is only the 12th most powerful force in the Universe, the stage here becomes awash with it.

Performance date: 28 July 2017