Archive for February, 2016

Rabbit Hole*** (Hampstead Theatre)

Posted: February 10, 2016 in Theatre

rabbit hole

David Lindsay-Abaire’s feel for the pain of ordinary American families facing adversity was evident in Good People, a big hit for Hampstead Theatre a couple of years back. Then the adversity was unemployment; in this play, a Pulitzer Prize winner written earlier, it is bereavement. Although the ladies have a tendency to release their frustration by socking it to anyone who annoys them, none of them is quite the force of nature of the character depicted in Imelda Staunton’s barnstorming performance in Good People. Perhaps things would have been different had Allison Steadman taken the role of Nat (now played by Penny Downie), as originally planned, but, if so, it would not have fitted into Edward Hall’s measured, low-key production that leaves Hampstead audiences not getting quite what they may have expected. Becca (Claire Skinner) and Howie (Tom Goodman-Hill) have lost their 4-year-old son in an accident several months before, long enough ago for the wailing laments to have stopped, but well into the period when getting on with “normal” life is underway. Early light exchanges between Becca and her pregnant sister Izzy (Georgina Rich) hint that there is an elephant in the room, but the writer’s slow reveal technique keeps us waiting to find out what it is and to get to the point of the play. Becca wants to hide all reminders of her child, Howie wants to surround himself with memories; their different ways of grieving is becoming a wedge that is prising them apart. The sisters’ mother, Nat, has herself lost a son and had her own way of coping. Ashley Martin-Davis’ set of the couple’s house has distinct rooms into which Becca and Howie take refuge away from each other and the living room on the thrust part of the stage is enveloped by an audience that is allowed to eavesdrop on their private mourning. The production is at its best when understated, as in the deeply touching scene in which the college boy Jason (Sean Delaney), who had been involved in the accident,  confesses his (probably unfounded) feelings of guilt to Becca. So, no fireworks here. This is a truthful, gentle play telling us that there are no right or wrong ways to handle grief, only different ways.

Performance date: 9 February 2016

Weald***+ (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: February 5, 2016 in Theatre
David Crellin (Sam), Dan Parr (Jim). Snuffbox Theatre Company presents Weald by Daniel Foxsmith at the Finborough Theatre. Director: Bryony Shanahan. Lighting: Seth Rook Williams. Photo (c) Alex Brenner, credit mandatory.

Photo (c) Alex Brenner

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

The role of men in a world in which the gender balance has shifted and pressures of life have increased is the underlying theme of Daniel Foxsmith’s new one-act play, taking the perspectives of two generations. The play’s rural setting represents a simpler lifestyle that allows basic priorities to be brought into clearer focus. Jim returns from London to the remote livery yard that he left as a teenager six years earlier. He needs a job from its owner Samuel, but, much more than that, he needs to re- establish the bond that existed between them, as he combats depression and searches for a sense of purpose in his life. He needs to find his “home”. The first third of this two-hander is taken up with cross-generational taunting that sounds tired and over familiar. At this stage, director Bryony Shanahan needs to harness Dan Parr’s high energy as Jim, a very youthful 25-year-old, to give some zest to her production. But first Jim opens out and then Samuel to give the play a fresh momentum and two superb performances carry it along from there, movingly and with ease. Jim is buckling under the challenges of adulthood, seeking refuge in his past life. He feels the strong pulls of continuity and legacy and agonises over whether he should yield to them or resist, seeing Samuel as a substitute father who is, seemingly, a pillar of stability and wisdom. However, David Crellin’s world-weary Samuel is facing his own crises. He has a keen interest in military history, a penchant for quoting Shakespeare, Marlowe and Oliver Cromwell and he reflects on the simple lives of the horses in his care, where the burdens of responsibilities, choices and regrets play no part. On a thrust stage, Christopher Hone’s wooden set gives pride of place to a darts board, a prized symbol of masculinity. The production is lit beautifully by Seth Rook Williams, giving a melancholic feel to moments of tenderness and sharpness to simulated activity with the horses and to dramatic clashes. Gentle and low-key for the most part, the play gains harshness and fire as it reaches its climax, Foxsmith’s writing having become increasingly thoughtful and perceptive. Jim looks to Samuel for guidance, but we are left with a sense that it is just as much he young, moving forwards and making discoveries, who are leading the old.

Performance date: 4 February 2016

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Religious zealots are on the loose in Uganda again, but all similarities with The Book of Mormon end there. Chris Urch’s second play (I reviewed his first, Land of Our Fathers, here in September 2013) is an account of a community turning in on itself in pursuit of an unstoppable witch hunt and, as such, it invites comparisons with Arthur Miller’s masterpiece The Crucible. It is far from shamed by such comparisons, revealing itself to be a work of astonishing assurance, a blistering indictment of bigotry and hypocrisy. Urch concerns himself less with the doomed romance between the young Ugandan man Dembe (Fiston Barek) and the visiting Irish doctor Sam (Julian Moore-Cook) than with explaining a society in which prejudice becomes rooted and with showing how fascist movements grow in the fertile soil of distorted interpretations of a religion. Dembe’s older brother Joe (Sule Rimi) is a new Pastor, made to preach fiery homophobic rhetoric to reinforce his own tenuous position; his torn loyalties and those of his sister Naome (Faith Alabi) are heartbreaking. The touch paper is lit by their self-righteous neighbour (Jo Martin), a linchpin of the church whose own daughter (Faith Omoli) has already been struck dumb following a trauma caused by her zealotry. Urch’s writing is angry and occasionally brutal, as in Joe’s sermon, but also tender and compassionate, most notably when Dembe gives his interpretation of love to his sister. The flirtation between Dembe and Sam is playful, funny and moving – the innocent African who underestimates the power of reprisals that he faces meeting the more worldly European who overlooks the fact that Western liberal attitudes now stand for nothing. Ellen McDougall’s production, which comes from the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, turns the Orange Tree’s in-the-round stage into a caldron – a square platform lies at the centre and copies of The Rolling Stone “newspaper”, emblazoned with the banner headline “Hang ’em High”, lie scattered around to emphasise the extent of the forces conspiring to persecute Dembe and others who do not fit into Uganda’s “God-fearing” society. The acting is exemplary, but Barek, holding centre stage almost throughout, is truly outstanding, love-struck and terror-stuck with equal conviction. This is a production to savour and remember.

Performance date: 3 February 2016

4000 Days** (Park Theatre)

Posted: February 3, 2016 in Theatre

4000 days

The common desire to cut out mistakes in our past lives and go back to do things again only better, lies at the heart of Peter Quilter’s new light drama. Michael (Alistair McGowan) is presented with the opportunity to do exactly that when an accident sends him into a coma and, when he awakens, he finds that the last 11 years of his life have been erased from his memory, including the entire duration of his decade-long relationship with Paul (Daniel Weyman). Should the couple reconstruct their relationship? Or should they acknowledge the imperfections of a partnership in which each of them had changed the other and not for the better? There are interesting ideas to explore here and it is possible to see the potential for a very amusing romantic comedy, although a great deal more humour would be needed than is here now. One of the play’s chief problems is the character of Carol, Michael’s chain smoking mother; although played splendidly by Maggie Ollerenshaw, she is the familiar mother-in-law figure and her repeated battles with Paul for Michael’s affections are tiresomely stereotypical. This sub-plot takes up far too much time that could have been used to go deeper into the relationship between the two men and to find amusement from the social changes that have taken place over the last 11 years. As it is, Quilter gives us a soufflé of a play, skimming over the surface of its themes and opting for contrived and unconvincing sentimentality over insight. McGowan has his moments as the frustrated and increasingly camp amnesiac, but Weyman is more endearing as the rejected Paul, constantly apologising for his own dullness. Director Matt Aston’s production is competent if occasionally pedestrian and Rebecca Brower’s hospital room set is austere, but ideally suited to the Park’s thrust stage. In all, this is a warm and mildly entertaining show for a Winter evening, but it is one that may be best enjoyed with the brain in stand-by mode.

Performance date: 2 February 2016

Pink Mist**** (Bush Theatre)

Posted: February 3, 2016 in Theatre

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A feeling of helplessness comes from reading or hearing a modern war poem. It is a feeling that nothing at all has changed in the century since Wilfred Owen. Substitute the arid terrain of Asia for the trenches of Northern Europe and we still have young working class men (women too, but not included here) being lured away from drab lives by the bait of adventure and then maimed or slaughtered at the behest of politicians and generals. Told through narration and movement, this transfer from the Bristol Old Vic follows three soldiers (Phil Dunster, Peter Edwards and Alex Stedman) from enlistment through the era of the Blair wars and on to seemingly inevitable conclusions. Their women (Rebecca Hamilton, Rebecca Killick and Zara Ramm) suffer at home. Writer Owen Sheers’ work has an epic sweep, as if attempting to condense a decade of horrific news stories into under two hours, and there are times when this production buckles under the strain. The volume of material and the structure of the piece work against full development of storylines or characters, but, collectively, these snapshots of doomed lives are projected with overwhelming visceral force. The performances are magnificent and the production on a square open platform, directed with flair and imagination by John Retallack and George Mann, provides the flowing movement to strengthen the power of Sheers’ words. At the end, the audience feels pummelled, drained of emotion and very, very angry at the shocking waste of war.

Performance date: 29 January 2016

Photo: Mark Douet