Archive for July, 2014

p.txtMartyn Hesford’s writing credits include a television bio-pic of Kenneth Williams and, although no-one actually talks in Polari in this new comedy, he extends a line of gay humour which stretches from Julian and Sandy in the 1960s through Larry Grayson to Julian Clary. In other words, Hesford extracts most of his laughs from mocking exaggerated stereotypes, but, sadly, the comedy is shallow and lacking in the kind of insight found in, for example, Kevin Elyot’s soon to be revived My Night With Reg, which features similar characters and situations. Marcus (Michael Begley) is boring, fussy about stains on his John Lewis carpet and touchy about his expanding paunch; understandably, his partner of 20 years, Colin (Owen Sharpe) has turned to drugs. They have moved recently to a cottage in Hampshire and their solitude is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of a gruff businessman, Steven (Michael Feast) with his promiscuous and very camp 18 year old toy boy, Jamie (Alex Lawther). The two couples had met on a cruise a year earlier and enjoyed each other’s company in every sense. The visitors also bring in tow Steven’s slutty and coarse ex-wife, Wendy, played with relish by Michelle Collins, who looks as if she could well build a fruitful post-soap career in theatre. Hesford offers a flimsy explanation for Wendy’s presence, but, in effect, she is little more than a catalytic device for getting the comedy moving. It would be dishonest to deny that a lot of what follows is very funny, particularly when Collins is in full drunken flow during the raucous second act, but the absence of any real depth leads to a guilty feeling whilst laughing, like when watching an old episode ‘Allo, ‘Allo. Intermittently entertaining this play is for sure, but, if there were to be any suggestion that these irksome characters represent 21st Century gay lifestyles accurately, it could be enough to nudge even the most liberal minded of Hampstead audiences in the direction of homophobia.

Performance date: 8 July 2014

Attachment-1-3Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons first appeared in 1862, preceding Chekhov’s greatest plays by more than 30 years, yet Brian Friel’s adaptation is marked by the same feelings of wistfulness and melancholy as those plays. The setting is rural Russia on the estates of aristocratic landowners, but, whereas Chekhov used similar settings to depict a social order in terminal decline and on the cusp of being overturned, Turgenev sees the emergence of revolutionary forces which will make waves, but ultimately leave the status quo intact. There is much talk of disturbing “the natural order of things”, but not displacing it and, taking a longer view of history from a modern day perspective, perhaps Turgenev got it right and even the 1917 Revolution was no more than a temporary blip. Arkady and Bazarov are close friends who return together from university in St Petersburgh to their family homes, both claiming to be nihilists, without agreeing with each other on the word’s definition. Arkady cannot entirely detach himself from his heritage and bonds of affection, but Bazarov, a brilliant student and radical thinker, is dispassionate towards his family and lovers, until he meets the lovely widow Anna and finds it impossible to rein in his emotions. There are flaws in the narrative which emanate from the novel itself and from condensing it, but Friel’s script is rich with insight and wit. There can be no complaints about Lindsey Turner’s production – she strikes the perfect balance between pathos and humour, paying great attention to detail and her casting choices are impeccable. Tim McMullan shines as Arkady’s Uncle Pavel, debonair, droll, waspish and the staunchest defender of the established order. Seth Numrich, the American actor who was so good in Sweet Bird of Youth at the Old Vic last year, impresses again with his commanding stage presence as Bazarov, showing us the inner turmoil beneath the character’s outward fervour. Joshua James is a naive and impressionable Arkady, devoted and loyal, but rueful that he lacks both the intellect and dynamism of his friend. As the two fathers, Anthony Calf and Karl Johnson are loveable eccentrics, both touching us as they face their families’ ordeals. The set, built almost entirely from planks of wood, is magnificent, rounding off what is a highly accomplished work of theatre.

Performance date: 4 July 2014

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

In a world where shoals of cod can sing in a 17,000 point harmony and whales can communicate with each other across thousands of undersea miles, the human race struggles to make itself heard, blocked by censorship and inarticulacy. Fine Chisel has devised this musical entertainment, building upon these themes in a loosely linked story which moves between a marine biology station off the Alaskan coast to a pirate radio ship in the North Sea. Set very vaguely in the early 1960s, the story concerns Ted (Robin McLoughlin), an academic who is researching marine mammal bioacoustics, living a solitary life and obsessed with tracking singing whales across the Bering Sea. He is able to distinguish between the accents of individual whales, but, impaired by a brain tumour, he has difficulty in finding words to pass on his knowledge to his student, Fiona (Holly Beasley).  Fiona is more obsessed with human communication and, springing from an aversion to the BBC’s Light Programme (something like the modern Radio 2), she establishes an illegal radio station to broadcast whatever she chooses. However, when she airs provocative views and reads extracts from the then banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ted tries to persuade her that she would be more suited to a sedate job in Belgium. This bizarre narrative provides a framework and ambience to showcase some lively music, which is themed on the life aquatic, ranging from emulating whale noises to rocking a pirate boat. George Williams plays guitar and provides vocals, Tom Spencer plays banjo and percussion and Carolyn Goodwin also vocalises and plays woodwind, contributing some outstanding jazz saxophone segments. Beasley adds a couple of dances to add to the entertainment, showing little regard for the lecture room setting, surrounded by blackboards and charts. Dumbstruck is, in essence, about connectivity, yet, itself, it does not quite connect to make a coherent whole. Nonetheless, if not taken too seriously, it provides an unusual and pleasantly entertaining evening.

Performance date: 3 July 2014

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photo-132This show begins very badly, with its writer/presenter, Danny Braverman, handing round  cold fish balls to the audience and, with the unpleasant taste still lingering in the mouth, he embarks on a rather unpromising anecdote about a bowel operation. His style is relaxed and amiable but not witty and he seems to be rambling, which makes it all the more surprising when I realised, after about 15 minutes, that I had become totally enthralled. The true story concerns his great aunt, Celie and her husband Ab Solomons, an employed Jewish shoemaker living in London’s East End. They married in 1926 and, from that time for over half a century, Ab received his weekly pay in a small, brown, dated envelope and, on the reverse side, he drew sketches depicting the couple’s life together. Having found these envelopes in shoeboxes, Braverman projects them onto a screen and relates the couple’s story, in some cases illuminating the sketches with supposition, in others leaving them to explain themselves. As Ab grows in confidence, the sketches become bolder and more explicit; they tell of young lovers, proud parents, wartime hardship, heartache and illness. Ab and Celie’s younger son was afflicted by severe autism and epilepsy and, as was normal in those times, he was incarcerated in a “loony bin”. Ab was a “schlump”, but Celie had style and aspirations, always wanting to move from the squalid East End to the middle class Golders Green. Overwhelmingly, this is a story of undying love, constantly tugging at the heartstrings, but never resorting to excessive sentimentality. It is also a story of fortitude, endurance and of overcoming life’s trials and it is told by Braverman with great affection and family pride, as shown when he finds himself as a child amongst the figures in the sketches. The story also has symmetry and irony – Ab and Celie’s older son was (and still is) an art dealer who owned a Rothko and lunched with the likes of Francis Bacon, yet he never realised the value of the treasures lying in shoe boxes beneath his own bed. In all, this is the most beautiful and moving piece of story telling that I can remember experiencing.

Performance date: 3 July 2014

Attachment-1-4It could be argued that the Miners’ Strike of 1984/85 was the closest thing to a civil war seen in these islands since 1651 and, fittingly, Beth Steel’s compassionate new play views the Strike as a conflict in which, as in all wars, the greatest losers were the fighters and their families. The chief protagonists, Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill are never seen, although some insight into the political background is given in discussions between the “wet” Energy Secretary Peter Walker (Andrew Havill), Transport Secretary Nicholas Ridley (Paul Cawley) and the Chairman of the National Coal Board Ian MacGregor (Michael Cochrane), who is seen as a man with a genuine mission to rebuild the mining industry, not to destroy it. It is refreshing that Steel does not promote the simplistic view favoured by delusional socialists that the Strike was only about the evil witch Thatcher crushing the noble workers; she is clear that Britain at that time was on the brink of economic ruin as a result of two decades of Trade Union domination and that mining and most other industries were in need of urgent and drastic reform to make them viable; she sees the miners as being led blindly by politically motivated Union leaders who called the illegal Strike at a time when conditions were least favourable to them and then prolonged the agony of their members by remaining intransigent well after the point when defeat had become a certainty. However, the play’s political content is only there to provide background, because Steel’s chief focus is always on the miners who were caught in the middle, bound by tradition and by their loyalty to each other. The first half is a vivid and detailed account of working in a coal mine, arduous, hazardous and unhealthy; the staging is starkly realistic, with metal cages descending from above the stage to well below it and, under Edward Hall’s superb direction, the miners moving around constantly as they perform their daily labours. Songs (composed by Simon Slater who also plays the Pit Manager), help to illustrate life in this hellish underworld. In the second half, the stage is cleared and we are taken through key points in the Strike itself, with pitched battles, extreme hardship and indignity, family members set against each other and, inevitably, the bitter pill of defeat. We see dirty tricks played by both sides, most notably those involving David Hart (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart), a wealthy eccentric residing in Claridge’s, who is sent to infiltrate Nottinghamshire miners. The acting in the roles of the miners is exceptionally strong, but, strangely, all Steel’s characters are male and we see no signs of the women who suffered alongside their men. This production is theatre on an epic scale, thrilling, enthralling and often deeply moving.

Performance date: 2 July 2014