Archive for April, 2013

Ruth Ellis, seems to have lost none of her fascination for dramatists almost 60 years after she became the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Many others, men and women, suffered the same fate, some of them even innocent, but few have stuck so firmly in public consciousness. After a slow and uncertain start, Amanda Whittington’s new play builds to a dramatic crescendo and is unequivocal in advocating that Ellis, although not technically innocent, was very much a victim. Beginning work as a hostess in a seedy Soho night club, Ellis appears as a bubbly if fragile young woman; we then see her gradually transform into a quivering neurotic, totally besotted with her secretly gay boyfriend, her body wrecked through beatings, miscarriages, abortions, drugs and alcohol. The murder she eventually commits is made to look more like an obligation than a crime, although, as the man she kills never appears in the play, we are not given the chance to understand the reason for her infatuation with him. This version of events becomes believable mainly because of a magnificent performance by Faye Castelow as Ellis. However, the play’s main weaknesses are its lack of balance and its failure to paint a wider picture of Britain at a time when rigid post-War morality codes were beginning to clash with the liberal era that was to follow. Without an understanding of the times in which the events took place, modern audiences may be bewildered as to how such a draconian sentence could have been imposed for an offence which, in the circumstances presented here, could result in little more than a reprimand in 2013.

photo-85Oscar winning film, now Tony winning musical, this small scale Irish love story punches well above its weight. The single set is a Dublin bar, with a mirror at the back which reflects the audience and it even serves as a real bar with the audience being allowed on stage for interval drinks. The two main characters are an Irish guy (Declan Bennett), a singer/songwriter who is down on his luck and a Czech girl (Zrinka Cvitesic) who helps him to regain his confidence; both performers are excellent as is the supporting cast, playing characters more fleshed out than in the film. The Irish folk/rock songs are tremendous and beautifully performed. This show scores by being different, deftly sidestepping all the familiar cliches of musical theatre and of romantic drama. It is a little slow to get going and, occasionally it becomes so laid back that it almost grinds to a halt, but it has real warmth and charm throughout and it thoroughly deserves the plaudits it has received.

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

With the audience seated around the performance area, this is a collection of monologues which effectively become intimate one-way conversations. Three experienced and accomplished actors play very different unnamed characters linked only by the fact they they are residents of California. Firstly Los Feliz, which opens with the character, a travelling salesman who claims to know every road in the State, sitting in a roadside diner finishing his burger and beer. He reflects that this makes a change from pizza and cola in his solitary apartment. He is 34 and he describes a life dominated by a routine but demanding job in which the only prospect for improvement is early retirement. He goes on to tell of a failed marriage, alienation from his daughter and his obsession for a woman who he knows to be out of his league. Playing him, Robin Holden is completely convincing, making him outwardly brash and macho but also giving us glimpses of his low self-esteem and his resignation to being one of life’s losers. Bennie and Joe’s is a reflection on life in a gay bar of that name where the character is a regular amongst the afternoon clientele. He is in late middle age, overweight and the others at the bar are either similar or younger men who aspire to Hollywood stardom; together they drink, gossip and flirt with the handsome barman before going home to “a lover, a pet or a memory”. He is describing a type of family wrapped up in its own concerns and looking on newcomers and passers-through with great suspicion. He talks only of events affecting the others and his own life outside the bar remains a mystery. John Vernon plays him as laid back and cynical, relishing his catty observations and lapsing into a slight stutter at points of tension in the story. Finally, Sunset sees an elderly lady chatting to her absent husband as sunset approaches in the day and perhaps in her life. She remarks on how sad it is that sunsets must always come to an end and remembers her youthful exuberance when first meeting him, the only real love of her life. However, she believes that it was because he later began seeing her as “his homemaker and sour-faced mother of his children” that he entered into a series of infidelities. She responded with a brief affair of her own, but eventually the couple were drawn back together to spend eight blissful years of retirement in the Californian Hills. Carolyn Lyster gives the most touching of the performances, animated and excited when describing the early days, but becoming wistful and melancholy as the story progresses. These monologues are about small lives and, with no dramatic high points, they are low-key and understated. However, each being of the perfect length, fine descriptive writing and skilled acting ensure that our attention never wanders.

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Back to Hoxton to continue on from last Saturday. The organisation of this event has been shambolic, with nothing having been known about part 2 when part 1 ended and only a couple of days notice having been given for us to return for our trial. Therefore, no apologies are offered for the derision poured on last Saturday’s proceedings, even though completion allows the whole of the event to be seen in a different light. On this occasion, we believe we are to face trial for an unspecified offence, but arrive to be told that we have already been found guilty of future crimes by “The Machine” (a favourite Kafka-ism obviously) and face cleansing (ie execution). The Machine in this case is an advanced computer, able to predict future events with total accuracy and, as an add-on, it also carries out the cleansing. On a purpose built set, we are led individually through inter-connecting rooms to meet interrogators and confessors before arriving to watch through a two way mirror as The Machine carries out its work. The interactive meetings are inevitably tongue-in-cheek, but the cleansing is quite stark and harrowing. Part 2 turns out to be an altogether more satisfying experience than part 1.

This is the third theatrical interpretation of Franz Kafka seen in just a few weeks. It involved a foray into Docklands on a sunny afternoon, crossing the Thames via cable car to reach disused warehouses directly opposite the O2 Arena. It is a slightly eerie setting that serves as the Project Colony, somewhere South of the Equator. We are there to join a visitor looking around a community that purports to be Utopian. We begin in something like a village school hall, with smiley happy people singing, dancing and playing party games until the celebrations are ended abruptly with a double door opening to let in a glare of light from which white-shirted guards emerge. We are then escorted to an underground prison where we see the true nature of the authoritarian regime that underpins this society. We witness dehumanising processes and a demonstration of “The Machine”, a horrific new device for correcting anyone who steps out of line. Returning to the “school hall”, we see the reality of life in this community and the true effects of the brutality that lies beneath its surface. The production is all about contrasting light and dark, so maybe it worked particularly well at this performance because of assistance from the glorious weather outside. With around 30 young actors involved, it is possible that numerous restaurants will be short staffed for a while.

Terence Rattigan’s most famous play, dealing with a family’s fight for justice whatever the personal cost, still comes across as beautifully crafted and rich with human emotion. However, at just under three hours, with four acts and numerous sub-plots, it also looks rather old-fashioned. Henry Goodman gives a towering performance as Winslow senior, but Peter Sullivan is rather disappointing as the Barrister, lacking a natural aura of authority; beyond that the acting is excellent, whilst the sumptuous set and costumes reflect the era, exactly a century ago. However, when a great play is staged by a major theatre, expectations are rightly high and this production meets those expectations but never exceeds them. Essentially, this is a routine, straightforward revival which makes no attempts to modernise or to inject topicality and much needed pace. It is a production that could easily have played at the Old Vic 50 years ago.

The beautiful Great Hall at Battersea Arts Centre is transformed into a Parisian music hall of the 1930’s; audience members are seated at tables around the performance area, acres of plush red velvet curtains dominate the room and even the huge built-in organ is brought into use. Ostensibly, we have come to see a mimed enactment of the story from Greek mythology in which Orpheus descends into the Underworld in pursuit of his lost love Eurydice. Of course, the mime show is completely ridiculous even though the sight of over-sized performers prancing around and exaggerating their facial expressions in the style of Valentino and Pickford is intermittently funny. But this is not the point. The mime show is there just to give the setting and ambience for the music, played by a wonderful eight piece orchestra, all of whom also perform in the mime. The music is basically anything and everything French, ranging from Debussy to Piaf, but most prominently it is jazz. The production makes the inspired assumption that the legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt would have been performing at this venue on this evening. Playing Reinhardt, Orpheus and guitar, Dominic Conway is magnificent. He is equalled by Eugenie Pastor, MC, chanteuse, flautist and Eurydice. These two performances are unforgettable tours de force. If this is what the Underworld is like, those of us who are probably destined to go there need not feel so bad about it.