Archive for September, 2015

FullSizeRender-83This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Warm, cosy and old-fashioned, David Stevens’ 1990 comedy plays like a cross between an early episode of Neighbours and an American family sitcom from the same era. The great surprise is that it is only now getting its UK premiere. After a long run off-Broadway, the play was turned into an award-winning 1994 Australian film starring the then little known Russell Crowe. These successes could have owed much to the factors that worked for Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing in the UK – a depiction of gay characters in a wholly positive light at a time when, influenced by the AIDS crisis, negativity in theatre and cinema was the norm. The play’s novelty value has now gone, but it is replaced by a dash of nostalgia that adds to this new production’s appeal. Harry has been a widower for more than a decade and he shares his house, somewhere in Southern Australia, with 24-year-old Jeff, whom he calls “as much a friend as a son”. Jeff is openly gay, but Harry stresses that he plays football and has never favoured pink. Essentially, the story is a father/son version of a bromance. Stephen Connery-Brown’s Harry is a cheery, mischievous rogue with a gift for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. When Jeff brings home his new boyfriend, Greg (Rory Hawkins), Harry walks in at an unfortunate moment to introduce himself and then, as Jeff gets out of earshot, he grabs the opportunity to give Greg fatherly advice on safe sex. He does not understand the gay world but accepts it and takes consolation from the knowledge that his own mother found happiness in a 40-year lesbian relationship. All he wants for Jeff is that he finds similar happiness. Australian actor Tim McFarland has a natural, relaxed manner that is perfect for Jeff. The character, perky but self-deprecating and lacking in confidence, describes himself as “dull”. He longs for a stable relationship, but procrastinates over making the first move and always loses out. The key ingredient in making this production so enjoyable is the chemistry that has developed between Connery-Brown and McFarland. They play off each other with perfect timing and lead us to believe that a genuine unbreakable bond exists between father and son. Several times during the play, the action freezes and either Harry or Jeff turns to the audience to share a confidence or relate an anecdote. Handled beautifully, this device gives depth to the characters and adds texture to the play. Stevens does not turn a blind eye to disapproval outside the partnership, as seen in the hostile reaction of Harry’s date, Joyce (Annabel Pemberton) upon receiving the news of Jeff’s sexuality. However, Gene David Kirk’s direction gives the play a lightness that enables it to skate safely over sensitive issues. Designer David Shields gives us a living room set, with comfortable furniture that looks right for the early 1990s and then converts it into a park for a poignant final scene in which the play goes in a new and unexpected direction. Stevens’ funny and heartwarming comedy here gets a top class production, making it worth the long wait to see it.

Performance date: 11 September 2015

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Only Forever** (Hope Theatre)

Posted: September 11, 2015 in Theatre

only foreverThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

A play that questions how far a father would go to protect his family from the ravages of warfare ought to be packed with topical resonances. Would he lead them across dangerous seas and continents to seek refuge? Or would it be preferable for him to inter them in a deep bunker and wait for the bombs and the gunfire to go away? The latter option is chosen by George, the father in this debut play by Spanish-born writer Abrahan Arsis. The time and the conflict that is taking place are non-specific. The action begins several years after George, his wife and three children have entered the bunker and, by now, they are running out of food and water. Confinement together is taking its toll on the family members too, with tensions between them running high. Edward Pinner’s George is a tyrant with a tenuous grip on power. His wife Margaret (Christine Rose) is increasingly defiant, challenging his orders with the feminist cry: “the men do as they please and the women live to serve them”. His 16-year old daughter Victoria (Jennie Eggleton) despises him and his younger son Charles (Lewys Taylor) tows the line, albeit grudgingly. An older son, Robert is unseen, having apparently escaped to the world above at the beginning of the play. The Hope’s small space allows the audience, on three sides, to merge with the set and to share in the feeling of claustrophobia that engulfs the characters. However Poppy Rowley’s production generates little tension and no sense of impending peril. Power for the bunker is generated by Charles pedalling an exercise bike to charge a battery and this explains the harsh fluorescent lighting, but its brightness affects the ambience and counters any hints of something sinister taking place. Arsis’s writing is humourless and prone to repetition, making the play, even at only 75 minutes, feel too long. At the beginning, there seems potential for a serious reflection on the effects of war on innocent families, but the play turns quickly into an unbelievable and occasionally tawdry melodrama, centred only on petty bickering and dark family secrets. The chief redeeming feature of Rowley’s production is the valiant efforts of the four actors to make it all credible. Otherwise, this is a play that could end up being buried even deeper than the characters in it.

Performance date: 10 September 2015

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ATCTN DressThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Joint winner of the inaugural Theatre 503 playwriting award, Bea Roberts’ 75-minute one- act play here gets the professional production that formed part of its prize. The play is a two-hander that takes snapshots from the lives of its protagonists over a 12 year period and charts their maturing friendship. It is also an elegy to ways of rural life that are changing rapidly or disappearing. Designer Max Dorey’s set, the interior of a wood and stone barn, is impressively realistic and fog blowing in adds to the cold, wintery feel. The starting point is the 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Michael (David Fielder) is an ageing Devon cattle farmer who dotes on his stock and names his cows after female royalty. Jeff (Nigel Hastings) is a townie around 20 years younger, the farm vet who becomes torn between his responsibilities to Michael and to the Whitehall mandarins who are ordering the cattle to be slaughtered. Opening scenes are filled with anger as Jeff struggles to keep Michael in check, but then, countering expectations for the drama to build, Roberts winds it down to become a gentle and melancholic “odd couple” comedy. Her writing is marked by an awareness of the patterns of everyday conversation and to the small details in life that bind two people together. When Jeff goes through a marital breakdown and hits the bottle, it is the turn of Michael, a widower, to become the steadying influence, emphasising the two men’s growing mutual dependence. The bonding of the characters is made believable by two superb performances in which subtle gestures and glances illuminate the tenderness in the writing. Paul Robinson’s production is vivid and sensitive to the play’s changes in tone. Both the men seen here are hardened by life’s knocks and accepting of the natural order. Both cling to companionship as their consolation and both are prepared to hear the call of a nocturnal bird that, according to local superstition, augurs death – the nightjar.

Performance date: 9 September 2015

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Song From Far Away*** (Young Vic)

Posted: September 8, 2015 in Theatre

SongFromFarAway_326x326Monologues are normally all about writing and performance; rarely can one have been so marked out as this by its visual impact. But then director Ivo van Hove and his set/lighting designer Jan Versweyveld do not seem to do “normal”. Returning to the scene of their triumph last year with Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, the Belgian pair tackle Simon Stephen’ 80-minute reflection on grieving and solitude. The set is a New York apartment, split into a small entrance hall and a main living space, with two square rugs spread on the floor. Save for a single chair, a standing lamp and a noisy air-conditioning unit, the apartment is bare; long shadows cast by the lamp and by light coming through a door frame create striking images, set against two large windows through which falling snow can be seen on a freezing January night. It is to this vision of isolation that Willem returns after attending the funeral of his younger brother Pauli in Amsterdam. Willem, a Wall Street trader, having no-one with whom to share his grief, has written a series of letters to Pauli which he reads out to him, pretending that he is sitting on the hallway chair. The extent of Willem’s loss, being expressed verbally for the first time, and also his aching loneliness are brought out beautifully in Stephens’ descriptive prose. Having gone back to his home city to be met by a disapproving family and a former lover who has moved on, Willem now returns to this desolate place to let his true emotions outpour. As Willem, Dutch actor Eelco Smits contrasts long spells of monotone delivery with outbursts of anger and tears. He performs more than half the play completely naked, conveying his openness and vulnerability and also plays on guitar and sings mournful songs composed by Mark Eitzel. In all, the production is impressive, but, in making it so cold and distant, van Hove puts up a barrier to audience involvement that robs the piece of some of its emotional impact.

Performance date: 7 September 2015

HenryMossWebCircleThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

“You’re breathing and you’re yelling” the soon to be late Henry Moss is told to assure him that he is really still alive and, once his two sons have arrived to deal with his corpse, the yelling continues unabated. Sam Shepard’s searing examination of the psyche of the American male was first seen in 2000 and has been performed in London only once before. Set in New Mexico, in a small town many miles from Albuquerque, the unforgiving terrain has produced men to match it. Cecilia Carter’s compact set has a claustrophobic feel that heightens the intensity of the drama. It is the interior of Henry’s run-down house, walls painted in terracotta, in which living conditions are basic, a dining table, a kitchen and a bath all sharing the same space. The brothers, estranged from their father and each other, are Earl (Jack Sandle) and Ray (Joseph Arkley). They are at loggerheads from first sight, Ray suspecting that Earl’s account of the circumstances of their father’s death does not add up. They embark on a fierce battle to gain the upper hand, aggression matching aggression, but hints are dropped in that these men have been damaged irreparably by some incident in the past and two carefully nuanced performances indicate to us their vulnerabilities. Appearing in flashback, the hard-drinking Henry (Harry Ditson) is washed-up and cantankerous, displaying all the characteristics that his sons have inherited from him. He lets nobody get in his way, but finds a match in his lover, the wild and tempestuous Conchalia (Carolina Valdés). He too is haunted by a past that has left him wondering whether he had died years before, even though he still breathes and yells defiantly. All three men seek out weaknesses in others to exploit, bullying mercilessly a helpful Hispanic neighbour (Chris Jared) and a hapless taxi driver (Joe Evans), both of whom get caught up in the family feud unwittingly. The savagery of Shepard’s testosterone packed dialogue is often discomforting, but there are always rippling undercurrents to suggest deeper emotions. This is a complex work with many variations in tone. Uncertainly as to what to expect next gives it a natural tension that is harnessed beautifully in director Mel Hillyard’s powerful production. Predominantly, the play is a raw drama, but there are distinct touches of black, even absurdist, comedy and Hillyard remains tightly focussed. navigating through it with seeming ease. In the closing scenes, when the yelling has stopped, Shepard finally reveals what he has been leading us towards – the soft centre hidden by the hard macho exterior. It is here that the play packs its heaviest punch and, once again, Hillyard’s production delivers it with precision.

Performance date: 4 September 2015

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The Win Bin** (Old Red Lion Theatre)

Posted: September 4, 2015 in Theatre

win binThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews::

How far will youngsters go to get a job in the arts these days, one that isn’t even paid? Kate Kennedy and Sara Joyce set about answering just that question in this 70-minute entertainment, made up of a succession of quick-fire sketches. Bethany Wells’ set looks like an installation intended for Tate Modern – blue and pink polka dots on a white background, perhaps meant to resemble a sweet shop without sweets. Three women and three men are shortlisted for the job – an artist, a poet, a photographer, a choreographer, a taxidermist and a crafter – all strutting their stuff and competing with each other in front of an unseen panel in a series increasingly ridiculous “tasks”. It is a sort of Big Brother format. Kennedy plays all three female characters, with Wilf Scolding playing all the males. Arrogance, pretentiousness and backbiting within the arts fraternity are the targets of much of Kennedy’s satirical humour, giving rise to a suspicion that many of the show’s jokes will resonate more strongly with insiders than among a general audience. Her script describes six potentially rich characters, but the rapid changes make it almost impossible to distinguish one of the three females and males from another, which is where this production shoots itself in the foot. Kennedy and Scolding both have strong personalities and they attack their roles with enthusiasm, but it is asking too much of any actor to switch characters instantly and repeatedly without any assistance from costumes and props. As a result, six candidates are, in effect, reduced to two and sketches that needed to be driven by both jokes and characters are left with just the jokes. This show is amusing only intermittently and, sadly, it all adds up to very little.

Performance date: 3 September 2015

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hatchedThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Mantovani, Russ Conway and Lonnie Donegan playing on the gramophone (as well as Cliff Richard), floral paper on all the walls, ladies appearing in flared skirts and nylon stockings – we are back in 1959. This new play by Gemma Page and Michael Kirk is packed with period detail, but more than that, it adheres to a style of broad family comedy that was very popular in the era that it depicts, yet is rarely seen nowadays. The central character, Dorothy, is a bellowing battle-axe, a snob and a social climber who steamrollers over all in her domain using withering remarks and sheer brute force. It is a role that would have been tailor-made for Peggy Mount back in the day and Wendi Peters tackles it with obvious relish. The family is gathered at the Derbyshire home of Dorothy’s newly-widowed sister, Irene (Wendy Morgan), for a funeral wake combined with a party to celebrate the christening of Dorothy’s grandchild. First to arrive is Dorothy’s daughter (Vicky Binns) who, fearful that she could be “infutile” and may miss a vital opportunity, forces her accident-prone husband (Matthew Fraser-Holland) to exercise his conjugal rights on the living room carpet. The first Act is an often hilarious account of the interactions between the family members, some of whom are more caricatures than characters. A few of the gags probably go back a lot further than1959, but the writers can be forgiven for the generous lashings of double entendres on the grounds that the propriety of the 50s seems to have prevented anyone from speaking in direct terms about almost anything. When darker themes begin to emerge, it is the restricting nature of 50s family life that the writers put under scrutiny. Irene’s slutty but naive daughter (Diana Vickers) delivers the double whammy that she could be pregnant and the father could be black; Dorothy’s husband (Kevin McGowan) is revealed to be a long-time philanderer and the adored son that she has over-pampered (James Wrighton) has an habitual fondness for prostitutes and for abusing his wife (Danielle Flett). This family lives on top of a pressure cooker, filled with suppressed emotions and the play lifts the lid in a second Act that is steaming, without ever forgetting that its prime purpose as a comedy is to be funny. The biggest laugh is reserved for Dorothy getting her comeuppance, just as Peggy Mount’s characters usually did. Kirk’s in-the-round production blends comedy and drama perfectly and is brought to life by a splendid cast. Special mention goes to PJ McEvoy, whose set and costume designs complement all the meticulous period detail in the script. The Prime minister in 1959, Harold MacMillan, told Britain “you’ve never had it so good”. In many ways, the era does not appear so rosy when looked back upon now, but this play shows it to have been, at least, good for a laugh.

Performance date 2 September 2015

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The National’s third collaboration with Headlong is a gritty and probing play by Duncan Macmillan that looks at a rehab clinic a few rungs down the ladder from the likes of The Priory. Yes, the central character is from showbiz, but she is no star, just a jobbing mid-30s actor in pub theatres who we first see breaking down during a performance of The Seagull. Her name is Emma (or Sarah? or Lucy?), a self-absorbed, controlling wreck who plays roles in real life as much as on stage and tells her life story by relating the plot of Hedda Garbler. Playing her, Denise Gough makes her so distant and abrasive at the outset that we wish her journey to be as tortuous as possible, but the triumph of this performance is the manner in which Emma’s vulnerability. pain and sense of helplessness slowly emerge. On Bunny Christie’s traverse stage, sets appear from below and above, facilitating the fast flow of Jeremy Herrin’s production, one that is punctuated by hallucinatory scenes, drunken raves and support group meetings in which all of the group talk over each other; however, the most striking moments are those of quiet insight. Barbara Martens is highly impressive in the triple roles of Emma’s rational doctor, her sympathetic therapist and her icy cold mother and Nathaniel Martello-White exudes realism and warmth as the fellow patient who befriends her. Macmillan starts out as if intending to take us through the rehab process, but then moves the play in far more interesting directions by questioning the falsehoods in modern lives that are so often reinforced through substance abuse. Emma rehearses with the support group a future confrontation with her parents, preparing to go back to face the people, places and things in her daily life. When the confrontation takes place, with the same three actors, she speaks the same words as if reading her lines, still playing a part. Her body may be clean, but the malady that had driven her to drugs and alcohol remains. Emma is an actor, so she acts, unable to separate fantasy from reality, but Macmillan is giving us a mirror for us all to hold up to our own lives and ask searching questions. Powerful stuff.

Performance date: 31 August 2015