Archive for August, 2013

Early in Nick Payne’s new play a character begins to tell a tantalising joke and gets interrupted so that we never hear the end; this really sums up the whole play – full of promise but lacking that crucial punchline. Centring on a fairly shady law firm, specialising in no win no fee personal injury claims, the story contains nothing that will surprise anyone who has become accustomed to exorbitant motor insurance premiums. There are plenty of laughs but they come mostly from a very condescending view of the Precariat class which is depicted stereotypically as foul-mouthed, uncouth and avaricious. This presents an easy target, but, in the much more difficult task of delving into and satirising modern compensation culture, the play lacks bite and its cutting edge is diminished further by a superfluous romantic sub plot. The actors, led by Daniel Mays, are all good and the production is never less than entertaining, but, as it should have delivered a lot more, it has to be regarded as a disappointment.

With the audience seated on (very uncomfortable) makeshift benches inside a cramped bunker supposedly on the front line during World War I,  these two plays by Jamie Wilkes interweave stories from Arthurian legend and Greek tragedy with accounts of soldiers fighting in the War. “Morgana” is a rites of passage tale featuring three officers and a young woman who taunts them; it starts with absurdist comic banter, feeling rather like “Blackadder Goes Forth”, then becomes lyrical and finally tragic. “Agamemnon” is bleaker in tone throughout and, intercutting with domestic scenes from home, it tells of a mortally wounded soldier from the lower ranks who faces up to his failings as a husband. The realistic setting and close proximity of the actors contribute to making this an engrossing experience, but the production’s  key attributes are solid writing and excellent performances from Sam Donnelly, Serena Manteghi, James Marlowe and Dan Wood.

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

On 7 July 2005, the day after London’s triumph in being chosen to host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, the City was rocked by a devastating terrorist attack instigated by Islamic extremists. This one act play sets out to show how the aftermath of that attack continues to haunt our society long after the Games have become history. The opening scene sees an ambitious politician (Cameron Harris) arguing with his Muslim partner (Avita Jay) over his reluctance to associate himself with her brother (Omar Ibrahim) who is to stand trial for killing an intruder into his home; the intruder had already murdered his wife for reasons believed to be connected with the 7/7 atrocity. The point of this scene appears to be to demonstrate that politicians are weasels, too eager to turn their backs on moral obligations if their actions could cost them votes. Unfortunately, none of this convinces because the actors are struggling to cope with banal and stilted dialogue throughout. We then move back in time and to Warde Street in Manchester, the scene of the two killings, and the play gathers some momentum. The intruder, Eddie, a drunken Irishman and old friend of the Muslim couple, had lost his pregnant partner at Kings Cross on 7/7 and, whether through drunkenness or warped logic, attributes blame not just to the extremist bombers but to the Muslim community as a whole; this notwithstanding that he had first arrived in Manchester shortly after the IRA bombings there and had himself been the victim of similar irrational prejudice. Playing Eddie, Shane Noone gives the production’s only really commendable performance. He transcends the colourless writing and makes us feel the acute pain of a man whose entire life had been torn from him in a split second of random madness. Warde Street sets out to tackle important issues, but does not dig deep enough below the surface and offers no new insights. The play’s structure confuses its themes and its messages become muddled by over-elaborate plotting. If it works in parts as a human drama, this is thanks largely to one outstanding performance, but, in providing a serious commentary on fractures in our society, it falls well short.

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A rape trial, no witnesses, just the testimonies of the alleged victim and the accused; this is the scenario for a piece of interactive theatre in which members of the audience form the jury and ultimately deliver their verdict.  Remembering back to Jury Service at the Old Bailey, the setting and the atmosphere are just about right and the proceedings have a realistic feel to them, up to the point when the jury is allowed to question the pair; however, this adds to the sense of involvement. In the absence of independent evidence, it is simply a case of which version of events the jury believes; in Scottish law, a verdict of “not proven” would surely have been forthcoming in a case like this, but it is not allowed here. The verdict at this particular performance was followed by a delicious twist and it would be interesting to know what would have happened had the opposite verdict been given. Good Fun.

photo-119In the programme, the writers (Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns) attempt to answer the obvious question – why? Transferring any subject that is already an iconic film to the stage is inevitably risky, but the particular film in this case is rated the greatest of all time on IMDB and figures in the top ten of almost every poll of the film-going public. The writers state that they were not allowed to use anything from the film and sourced their play directly from the original Stephen King novella (yet note that they use the film’s title rather than the full title of the novella). However, the film casts a giant shadow and it would be futile to try to avoid comparisons with it. As the “fixer” Red, Omid Djalili could hardly be less like Morgan Freeman; on the other hand, as the wrongly-imprisoned Andy, the American actor Kyle Secor looks very much like Tim Robbins and plays the role similarly. Both actors are excellent.  It is difficult to argue against the view that this story of de-humanising prison brutality, friendship, determination and unbeatable optimism stands re-telling many times; the biggest assets of this production are the assured, imaginative direction (by Lucy Pitman-Wallace) and the striking set designs (by Gary McCann). The stage version is less successful than the film in conveying all the meticulous detail that is so crucial to appreciating the “redemption”, but, to its credit, it does not over-sweeten the ending. Judged on its own merits, this is gripping theatre that brings a huge lump to the throat. But is it or could it ever have been better than the film? No.

A two hour walk around Edinburgh city centre during which all four seasons gave of their best, this is an interactive theatre experience designed to test each participant’s reactions to unusual and diverse situations. I got lost once during a heavy downpour, but managed to get back on track without resorting to opening the emergency envelope and completed the course successfully. During the journey, I took part in a robbery, posed as a fashion model, went on a blind date and got arrested. The various characters I chatted with all had interesting stories; of course they were all actors and all the stories were fictitious, so complete suspension of disbelief was essential. A pleasant surprise awaited at the end of the trail and nothing about this journey was not good fun, apart from the weather.

Originating from the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Owen McCafferty’s 70 minute play covers what is now familiar territory – forgiveness and reconciliation after an atrocity. Two middle-aged men (Declan Conlon and Patrick O’Kane) meet in a Belfast bar; they are perpetrator of and bereaved from a bombing in the same bar almost 40 years before. A Polish barman (Robert Zawadzki) looks on. That is about it, all very predictable and saying nothing that is new. However, “Quietly” is quality, the writing and acting being so superb that it becomes impossible not to be drawn in and moved very deeply.

The venue, more a room than a theatre and badly ventilated, ideally suits this play which is set in the flat occupied by four young men ( three of the students) on their last night together we are promised a sort of “Train-spotting” for a new generation, drug and alcohol fuelled mayhem, and, for the first hour in the company of this fairly obnoxious bunch, that is more or less what we get. Written by Ella Hickson and convincingly performed, the play builds nicely towards a powerful climax. With civil unrest on the streets outside, old wounds are opened up and pent up anger is vented; these characters are probably tomorrow’s unemployed who already know that they will never be able to afford homes like the ones they grew up in, their frustration and rage are understandable. Unfortunately, the climax is followed by the most tortuously drawn out ending imaginable, taking almost a third of the play’s running time and only serving the purpose of demonstrating that these guys are not so bad after all. Yes, but that should not be the point. The play really needs the hard edge that it achieves and then throws away wantonly. A clue to the reason for this could lie in the gender of the writer who introduces two female characters and then seems to view events through their eyes, even giving us hints of romance. This play has so much to say, but ultimately it reeks of a cop out. Such a shame.

Rachel Roberts was a gifted stage and screen actress, recipient of many awards, who was swept up on the crest of the new wave of British cinema in the early 1960s and deposited in Hollywood. Married to a-lister Rex Harrison, who we are told “liked a bit of rough”, she could not escape her humble Welsh roots and, beset by insecurities, embarked on a downward spiral of drugs and booze, leading to four suicide attempts only three of which failed. Playing her in this monologue, Helen Griffin (co-writer with Dave Ainsworth) revels in displaying all the falling star’s increasingly outrageous behaviour, making us both cringe and howl with laughter at each ghastly faux pas. She also conveys the tragedy of a woman whose life is out of control.  A little too long at 70 minutes, but as small scale showbiz bios come, it is probably amongst the best.

Entering the theatre, we see a statuesque figure in a transparent cube, looking like a Damien Hurst exhibit at Tate Modern. As the cube lights up, the figure becomes animated and we see that it is a US Air Force fighter pilot, superbly played by Lucy Ellinson. George Brant’s play is a monologue recounting how the pilot is grounded when becoming pregnant and then assigned to the Nevada Desert to join the “chair force” and operate drones that are engaged in a war thousands of miles away in Afghanistan. As she spends her days looking at monochrome pictures, distant conflicts and real life become blurred. Presenting a story that is never predictable and a unique perspective on a terrible modern world, this is a totally riveting hour.