Archive for May, 2016

Cuttin’ It**** (Young Vic)

Posted: May 28, 2016 in Theatre

Cuttin_326This review was originally written for The Rviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Migration across continents, whether forced or voluntary, may bring together very different cultures, but sometimes the contrasts are so stark that we have to question whether we can just stand by and accept customs that we see as alien. “Who are we to judge other countries, other faiths, other traditions?” we may ask ourselves, but Charlene James’ powerful 70 minute one act play on the subject of female genital mutilation (FGM), compels us to make judgements. As augured by the directness of its title, the play is unflinchingly honest. Talking straight to the audience, two 15-year-old schoolgirls, both of Somali origin, describe the trauma of their experiences as children, the physical and psychological damage inflicted on them and their lasting health problems. We hear of their pain, incurred without anaesthetic or trained medical supervision and, most movingly, the girls express their feelings of being betrayed by the people that they loved and trusted most. Muna (Adelayo Adedayo) has lived in London with her parents since infancy and she is determined that her little sister, approaching her seventh birthday, will not suffer the same ordeal as her. Outwardly, she is a typical British youngster, cheeky, full of vigour and hero- worshipping Rihanna, but, when her i-pod blares out “…beautiful, like diamonds in the sky”, we can see the irony that much of the sparkle has been stolen from her life, Iqra (Tsion Habte) is orphaned as a result of conflicts in her home country and newly arrived to live with an aunt in a run down tower block on a social housing estate. Her confused thoughts associate teachers in her new school with horrific acts of war that she has witnessed and she reaches out to Muna, who becomes her only friend. She is curious about British culture, but she wears traditional Muslim dress and defends FGM. In spite of her own experiences, she believes it to be part of her heritage and identity. The play is presented as two overlapping monologues, the girls telling their stories and, usually, speaking of each other in the third person; even when together, they rarely interact directly. This gives the production a documentary feel, overly factual, that results in a delay before it takes hold. However, two tremendous, heartfelt performances eventually turn it into a real drama of considerable force. Gbolahan Obisesan’s lucid, uncluttered production has a gloomy look, performed on grey- carpeted steps in Joanna Scotcher’s dominating design. Approaching the climax, a gripping plot develops and the tone changes, allowing writer and director to ratchet up the tension to the level of a suspense thriller. It is estimated that half a million girls and women who have undergone FGM now live in Europe and James turns this savage indictment of the practice into a loud cry for help. The writer’s descriptions are graphic, her language is harrowing and her play has a chilling authenticity.

Performance date: 27 May 3016

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Elegy*** (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted: May 25, 2016 in Theatre

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In his hit play Constellations, Nick Payne pummelled us with incomprehensible cosmic science and then exploited our weakness by firing an emotional thunderbolt. Here, he tries something similar, packing in the same ingredients of science (this time medical), love and mortality. The play’s conceit is that a degenerative brain “illness” (not named, but let’s call it Alzheimer’s) can be cured by replacing damaged cells with prosthetic ones. The cost, in the case of the patient, Lorna, is the loss of all memories from the last 25 years of her life and a sense of emptiness that is captured hauntingly by the blank expression on Zoë Wanamaker’s face. Her partner, Carrie (Barbara Flynn) reaches out to her to rekindle their love but finds nothing in response. Payne is asking who we become when stripped of our memories and exploring whether the brain is just a muscle, as described by Lorna’s icily efficient doctor (Nina Sosanya), or a home for metaphysical entities such as love, yearning, grief and the soul. Tom Stoppard dipped into the same waters when considering the nature of consciousness in The Hard Problem last year and answers are equally hard to find for Payne. However, any assessment of the merits of his play becomes blurred by the luminous presence of Flynn and Wanamaker, both of whom could bring magic to a recital of the telephone directory. Scenes run in reverse order, showing clearly the choices that have to be made and the extent of the losses to be suffered. The concluding scene, more an epilogue, is enigmatic because of the way in which it is played rather than the writing. Josie Rourke’s solid production is set in what appears to be a modern chapel (designer Tom Scutt), emphasising occasional allusions to faith. There is plenty here to occupy and entertain a healthy brain, but, running at little over an hour, it is rather like a tasty hors d’oeuvre that would be better if  followed by a meatier main course.

Performance date: 24 May 2016

A Subject of Scandal and Concern 2016This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

In 1842, George Holyoake, a lowly teacher and a committed Socialist, became the last person to stand trial in England for Blasphemy. His suggestion, in a speech made in Cheltenham, that God should be treated “as the Government treated subalterns by placing Him upon half pay” offended society of the day and led to demands for retribution. John Osborne wrote this short play after he had sealed his reputation for giving voice to antiestablishment views and its subject suits him well. It was first performed on television in 1960, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Richard Burton and Rachel Roberts. This is the first time that it has been seen on a London stage. Prosecutions for Blasphemy may have stopped by 1960, but Osborne clearly saw the relevance of the Holyoake case to his own era, when society still demanded conformity. He could not have foreseen the continuing relevance 56 years on. The challenge to keep a reasonable balance between protection of deeply held faith from mockery or derision and maintenance of the right to freedom of speech is ongoing. Director Jimmy Walters’ revival is given added weight by reflections on this conundrum in a modern context, but Osborne’s secondary message may have been that Holyoake’s real offence was not Blasphemy at all, but being a Socialist. This is essentially a static, old-fashioned piece, but Walters’ imaginative direction makes it theatrical and up-to-date. Swirling movement around Holyoake shows us a little man caught up alone in a Kafkaesque nightmare and traverse staging makes the audience feel like jurors in the court room scenes. Philip Lindley’s clever designs of moveable sections that adapt readily to become a residence, a meeting hall, a court and a prison, ensure that scene changes do not interfere with the flow of the production. Jamie Muscato is superb as Holyoake, stooping and vulnerable, yet showing steely defiance. He is afflicted by a speech impediment, but, when mounting his impassioned defence, he stands upright to become articulate and fluent. Caroline Moroney is a sorrowful figure as Holyoake’s suffering, unforgiving wife and four actors – Ralph Birtwell, Doron Davidson, Edmund Digby-Jones and Richard Shanks – also impress, sharing 17 minor roles. Perhaps constrained by a television time slot, Osborne stays focussed narrowly on the social and ethical issues, making few attempts to flesh out the characters or to expand the drama. Although this means that he gives us a play that is somewhat dry and not completely satisfying, we still get a gripping hour that provides a great deal of food for thought.

Performance date: 23 May 2016

Image: Samuel Taylor

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_C9A3446This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

In a run-down area of a New Jersey city, a Roman Catholic mission that serves as a refuge for women in distress is under threat from property developers. It may seem strange that American writer Brian Mullin’s play centring on the mission is getting its World Premiere so far from its spiritual home, but he is a member of the 503Five Writer-in- Residence scheme and Battersea also knows a thing or two about urban regeneration. The mission is run by the cantankerous battle-axe Bernie (Sister Bernadette). Aged 70 and needing regular dialysis, she forgoes conventional habits in favour of a bright red Che Guevara t-shirt, peppers her conversations with expletives and hides illegal substances inside books of poetry. Mullin portrays her as a modern day martyr, but others might argue that she is a relic from the past. Either way, she is a class sister act and Maggie McCarthy’s performance does her full justice. All the action takes place in the attic above the mission, Bernie’s shabby kitchen/sitting room being realised nicely in Katharine Heath’s set design. Mostly we see Bernie sparring with the three other characters: Felicia, a gutsy abused teenager whom she tutors, is played with appealing energy by Anita-Joy Uwajeh; Deirdra Morris always looks duplicitous as Joanne, a newly widowed former nun returning to the mission after a long absence, her divided loyalties making her a Judas figure; and Father Grady (James Tucker), the mission’s landlord, a parish priest cast by the writer as the villain of the piece. Mullin paints a picture of a church that is now detached from its own institutions. Both sides have become pragmatic to adapt to the modern world, but they interpret the faith that underpins them very differently. Bernie’s mission connects with life on the streets and criminal gangs, Grady’s church cosies up to big business; his plan includes converting the sleeping quarters for the mission’s “clients” into a coffee bar, so as to generate revenue. Thematically, there are echoes of Shaw’s Major Barbara, but Shavian style wit surfaces only occasionally. Mullin creates strong characters, but the narrative drive of his play falters, its direction is inconsistent and, most crucially, the drama takes far too long to gain any sort of momentum. Director Lisa Cagnacci’s pedestrian production finds little to liven things up, as opportunities that exist to inject dramatic tension are bi-passed. Key characters (the property developer, the gang leader) are only talked about and a pivotal scene in which Bernie confronts a planning committee takes place off stage. Midway through the second act, there comes a moment of irreverent humour to treasure. Bernie and Joanne, both children of the 60s, sit smoking pot and howling with laughter as they recall their escapades together as novice nuns. This short scene is joyful, but, for most of the time, we just wait in hope for the spark that will ignite a plodding drama and we wait in vain.

Performance date: 20 May 2016

Image: Martin Sharpe

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Production Image - This is Living - Michael Socha and Tamla Kari (courtesy Alex Harvey-Brown) (6)This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

This is living. Or is it? Liam Borrett’s play, first seen at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last August, moves between reality and illusion, tragedy and comedy to explore the relationship between the living and the dead. The play begins with Alice lying face down on watery ground. Her sudden resurrection shocks her bereaved partner Michael and she proceeds as if nothing had changed after a brief absence, enquiring about the wellbeing of their three-year-old daughter. Neither Borrett’s writing nor this production which he directs himself, dwells on any supernatural elements, his point being that Alice lives on in Michael’s consciousness, supporting and guiding him. She is someone that he can talk to, just as he still talks to his late mother when he asks her to welcome Alice on her arrival after the funeral. Alice and Michael, both in their twenties, are marked by their simplicity and their uncomplicated values. The focus of the play is on life’s basics – coupling, parenthood and death. Scenes from the present are intercut with flashbacks – a nervous first encounter on the Piccadilly Line, courtship, a traumatic miscarriage – and movements in time are signalled, without costume changes, by lighting. The present is dark, the past is bright. Sarah Beaton’s set, an oblong platform with puddles lying on its surface, adds to a bleak sense of limbo, a transitional place that does not quite belong to everyday life. However, Alice and Michael are very much everyday people, ordinary in every sense, but brought to vivid life by natural, physical performances from Tamla Kari and Michael Socha. The chemistry generated between them propels and lifts this production and, while their characters’ separation is harrowing, they find humour in unexpected places. Kari’s Alice is “bossy” and outwardly confident, matching Michael’s awkwardness as the couple fumble through the early stages of their relationship. She predicts that she will no more than “muddle through” as a mother, but shows the fortitude to conquer adversity. It is plain to see why she gives Michael strength and why he cannot adjust quickly to her life being extinguished abruptly. He will continue leaning on her until he is ready to let her go. Borrett gives us very little specific information about the two characters. All we know about Michael is that he is a decent bloke whose sole aim in life is to be a dad. Socha pulls off quite a feat in making him interesting and in giving a touching account of the grieving process. Michael’s manner is clumsy, but his devotion to Alice is unswerving and at times comic, not least when he asks her “what do you want to wear?”, as he makes the preparations for her funeral. At this performance, the audience sensed (correctly) that the play had reached its natural conclusion and began to applaud, only to find that there is an overlong break in darkness during which the production’s only furniture is brought on. The final scene that then follows feels superfluous. A little snipping could also make earlier flashback scenes much sharper and the inclusion of an interval that interrupts the flow and lowers the tension should be reconsidered. However, none of that needs to detract too much from the qualities of a production that could have been mawkish, but is in fact poignant, truthful and often funny.

Performance date: 19 May 2016

Image: Alex Harvey-Brown

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Six days ago, I saw an unknown perform a selection of Broadway songs at the Brighton Fringe Festival in a tiny room with recorded backing tracks. And now for something completely different! Another selection of musical theatre songs, but this time performed by an artist who has sold millions of albums, in the grandest of all venues with a live full orchestra and backing singers. Some difference, but, ironically, I probably enjoyed both shows equally. Groban’s voice falls somewhere between bar crooner and operatic baritone, a place that makes him perfect for traditional musical theatre. This show is near the end of a 15 month world tour and it seems pertinent to ask why he prefers performing concerts to  getting his hands dirty with a real musical. For example, he is the perfect age for Sondheim’s Company and his Being Alive would certainly be something to savour. He tells us that he has plans for a new musical in New York “this Fall”, so it will be interesting to see how he cuts it. He is at his best with the soaring ballads, his What I Did For Love (A Chorus Line) and Anthem (Chess) are just awesome however many times you hear them and worth the ticket price alone (although not necessarily with the addition of £15 for a programme). To his great credit, the guy likes Sondheim, including three of his songs in this set, the rarely heard Finishing the Hat (Sunday in the Park with George) being a real treat. For the UK leg of the tour, the superb Louise Dearman joins him to duet on All I Ask of You (Phantom of the Opera) and If I Loved You (Carousel) and perform two solo numbers. Everything is incredibly polished, perhaps too much so, not exactly robotic but getting there. Groban’s relaxed, amiable persona, the LA kid who got lucky, has become over-familiar, but it helps the show to flow and he readily adapts to time and location. His banter about the State Opening of Parliament and the TV show Bargain Hunt raised smiles, but his dedication of You’ll Never Walk Alone (Carousel) to the Hillsborough families sounded naff and perhaps he had not heard that, at the same time, Liverpool were being soundly beaten in the Europa League Final. In all, an evening with no surprises but nonetheless entertaining.

Performance date: 18 May 2016

WordsWordsWords2This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Shakespeares’ words can be called upon to relate to any occasion or situation: life, love, happiness, sorrow and so on. Lowri Amies, an actor, here refers to the Seven Ages of Man speech from As You Like It, her favourite play, as a prelude to her one-hour monologue exploring her emotional crises following the losses of loved ones. “All the world’s a stage…” recites 26-year-old Amies telling of the exits of her grandfather, mother and grandmother in a short space of time. Shakespeare teaches us that the ageing and dying processes are natural, and she finds solace in his words as she deals with emotions of grief, helplessness and guilt (“the most painful companion to death”). She feels like an actor cast in the wrong play, but, if words are now cathartic, they had once formed a wall between her and her mother, an alternative that could be turned to when there seemed a need to suppress true feelings. Amies’ factual accounts of her losses are literate and engaging, merging seamlessly with appropriate extracts from Shakespeare. There are brief bursts of passion when she becomes a Shakespearean character, but, otherwise, her delivery is precise and measured, lacking in a natural style that would generate an emotional connection between her and the audience. As there are few visual elements in director Anna Marsland’s production, we can close our eyes and the experience becomes similar to listening to a well-written, well-recited audio book. Occasionally, Amies opens one of several small boxes scattered around the stage, revealing mementos from the past, symbols of her family’s Welsh heritage, treasured gifts, reminders of a shared fondness for Colin Firth. However, it is words that matter most and Amies confesses that she has used the words of others to avoid finding her own. Therein lies a paradox that undermines her work. It is only the writer/performer’s own words that can fully express her inner feelings and, when relying on Shakespeare, she cuts herself off emotionally from the audience. Sometimes she seems like a remote figure even in this very small room and, as a result, this is a performance that is accomplished, but strangely unmoving.

Performance date: 16 May 2016

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