Archive for July, 2016

stuff-happens-e1467872667289This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

It has taken Sir John Chilcot seven years to finalise his report on the second Iraq war and its surrounding circumstances. Playwright David Hare delivered his verdict on events leading up to that war on the stage of the National’s Olivier Theatre little more than a year after the initial US/UK-led invasion took place in March 2003.

The title derives from a casual reaction by US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld after looting broke out in Baghdad and the play is revived here under Hare’s own direction in the form of a rehearsed reading by a group of 21 eminent actors. When he wrote the play, Hare is unlikely to have known that, in July 2002, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair had pledged to US President George W Bush “I will be with you whatever”, as has now been revealed by Chilcot. However, he gets remarkably close to what is now known to be the truth and he presents the play using much the same script that was performed originally, with only minor modifications to reflect subsequent events.

The play is a docudrama that very rarely strays into satire, with the familiar, avuncular Bill Nighy here standing at a lectern throughout, acting as narrator. The timeline runs roughly from the terrorist atrocities of 11 September 2001 through to the 42-day war of 2003, examining the processes that led the US to invade Iraq and the UK to join in the operation. There are times when the bombardment of facts threatens to weigh down the play, but Hare varies the tone astutely with impassioned, eloquent speeches and dashes of humour.

Bush (Alex Jennings) comes across as a simple man, not a simpleton, an indecisive president who is disinterested in detail and easy to manipulate. More concerned with sticking to his regular 10.00pm bedtime than with continuing vital discussions into the night, he is surrounded by raging hawks, Vice President Dick Cheney (Corey Johnson) and Rumsfeld (Nicholas Woodeson), his conciliatory Secretary of State, Colin Powell (Danny Sapani) and his assertive personal adviser, Condoleeza Rice (Adjoa Andoh). Hare’s vision of the White House at this time borders on the surreal, leaving us half expecting Dr Strangelove to emerge from the cellar below.

Blair (Julian Sands) is portrayed as deluded rather than devious. Buoyed by two landslide election victories, his dominance in UK politics is shown to have fostered the belief that he can punch above his weight on the world stage. Obsequious as a real life Uriah Heep in his encounters with Bush, dithering and panic-stricken on the home front, he is the only figure exaggerated to near caricature and this version of him does not ring quite true. Even so, Hare, a prominent supporter of the Labour Party, seems to find more sympathy for Blair’s self-made dilemma than Chilcot has done.

Hare does not dwell on the enigma of why a leader from the centre left of British politics could ally himself so closely to an American administration leaning towards the far right. His only comment relevant to this is that Blair and Bush have one thing in common – each is driven by his own brand of religious fervour. Ironically, non-existent weapons of mass destruction have ultimately destroyed the reputations of both men

This bold and incisive play is a striking illustration of why theatre has a place at the very heart of political debate. In the years following the Iraq War and its own devastation, a region has been destabilised leading to chaos and further carnage, new international terror groups have emerged, millions in Iraq and neighbouring Syria have been displaced from their homes and forced to seek refuge in other countries, Bush has retired to the luxury of his Texas ranch and Blair has amassed a personal fortune, having presented himself to the world as “Middle East Peace Envoy”. Yes, stuff happens, but Hare’s purpose in offering up this play to us again is to ask how we can stop stuff like this from ever happening in the future.

Performance date: 6 July 2016

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Savage*** (Arts Theatre)

Posted: July 2, 2016 in Theatre

Alexander Huetson and Nic Kyle in Savage at the Arts Theatre (c) Roy Tan (2)What a great title for a Paul O’Grady bio-drama! The idea seems to be endorsed by an early performance by a drag act, but the real subject matter of this production is one that merits being treated with a great deal more gravitas and the question that hovers throughout is whether such gravitas is ever given.

The true facts behind the play are: Dr Carl Værnet was born in Denmark in 1893, became a general practitioner in Copenhagen where he worked on developing hormonal treatments to “cure” homosexuality, worked there for the Nazis during German occupation, experimented further on inmates at Buchenwald concentration camp near Prague and died at a ripe old age exiled in Argentina. That chilling synopsis would seem to be the cue for a harrowing two hours of misery and suffering, something like Martin Sherman’s Bent. The reality is very different.

The writer/director is Claudio Macor, whose previous work seen in London includes The Tailor-Made Man and In the Dead of Night, both tales of forbidden love with a 1930s/40s setting. His obvious devotion to classic cinema makes it no surprise that he follows the path of another account of Nazi persecution – Casablanca – by taking a bitter, nasty pill and coating it thickly with romance and intrigue.

Almost every scene sits on the edge of a precipice, at the bottom of which lies risible camp farce and it is little short of miraculous that Macor stops the whole production from toppling. Perhaps the key lies in everyone playing it straight (meaning serious). There is some irony, but barely a hint of humour in the script and the entire company performs it with the passion and intensity that they might give to, say, Sherman. This really is a curious piece of cinema-influenced retro theatre.

Starting in 1940, the main plot relates to Nikolai (Alexander Huetson), a Danish art gallery worker who is in a relationship with US Embassy attaché Zach (Nic Kyle). Nikolai is hauled off for treatment by Værnet (Gary Fannin) and Zach is recalled back home as America prepares to enter the War. A less credible sub-plot has club entertainer Georg (Lee Knight) forced into a master/slave relationship with the German Obergruppenführer (Bradley Clarkson). Emily Lynne as Værnet’s nurse brings calm and compassion to the goings on.

If much of this is truly dreadful, then why is it also so enjoyable? The answer could arise from Macor’s gift for taking glaring flaws – clunky dialogue, over-plotting, cliché characters like the German General and the mad doctor – and mixing them with other ingredients to make a cocktail that is irresistible and intoxicating. It becomes a guilty pleasure, like blubbing through a black-and-white Joan Crawford weepy or a Douglas Sirk melodrama (the comparisons are cinematic as surely Macor would want). You know that you ought to be hating it all, but somehow you cannot resist being swept away by it.

Macor slips in well-worn gay pride mantras that amount to preaching to the long- converted, but his play does not wield enough power to speak to countries in the World that may still adhere to Værnet’s warped beliefs. Its most likely impact will be to give a big boost to sales of Kleenex in nearby Old Compton Street.

Performance date: 1 July 2016

Images: Roy Tan

Screwed**** (Theatre 503)

Posted: July 1, 2016 in Theatre

Screwed

This review also appears on The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

If your daytimes consisted of nothing more than screwing one piece of metal into another piece of metal on a factory production line, would you not resort to almost anything to relieve the tedium? Finding themselves in just this position, Charlene and Luce escape nightly to a world of vodka cocktails, cheap plonk, poppers, quickies in the car park and trouble. They really need to get out less.

Packed with raw energy and frighteningly believable, Kathryn O’Reilly’s debut play is a cautionary tale of two women, both having left their 30th birthdays behind them, who are trapped in a self-perpetuating downward spiral with no way out. In this environment they are past their sell-by dates, but they have no sense of purpose in their lives that could lead them in another direction. Charlene has the opportunity to start a relationship with factory foreman Paulo, but lacks the self-belief to go through with it and Luce deludes herself that she can gain promotions by offering sexual favours to bosses.

Director Sarah Meadows’ astute production shows an instinctive feel for when the characters need to be seen as comical or tragic or both and she draws out two perfect performances. Samantha Robinson’s Charlene has a touch of normality when she is sober, but she shows signs of alcoholism and transforms completely when drunk. She plays second fiddle to the extrovert Luce, a “looker” who Eloise Joseph makes an irresistible magnetic force. The club scenes are rowdy and raucous, projecting senses of futility and oncoming danger.

O’Reilly’s explicit dialogue pulls no punches, but early fears that the play may be content to revel in its own sauciness prove unfounded and she finds strands of compassion for the two women and for other characters. Stephen Myott-Meadows’ Paulo is a hard worker, dreaming of a new life in Russia, but exasperated by Charlene’s wayward behaviour. Derek Elroy brings touching dignity to the role of Doris, Luce’s transgender father who reaches out to both women in vain attempts to help them.

O’Reilly.s play is both funny and disturbing, showing lives that lie behind the statistics that tell us of increasing alcohol problems among women. The play needs tightening in several places, but, still, it is a piece of new writing rich with promise.

Performance date: 30 June 2016

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Boys-Will-Be-Boys-Bush-Headlong-dir-Amy-Hodge-©HelenMurray-1466-2000x1333-e1467263265735This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

“Life is a cabaret, old chum” sang Sally Bowles in 1930s Berlin, but, 80 years or so on, both life and cabaret look very different for the women in Melissa Bubnic’s satire of neo feminism. The Bush Theatre, housed temporally in Bush Hall and looking somewhat grander than usual, is configured to become a night club, with tables surrounding the stage and twinkling lights overhead,

A co-production by Headlong and the Bush Theatre, the show is performed by an all- female cast and it follows the fortunes of high flying City Broker Astrid (Kirsty Bushell) and her newly-recruited protégé, 23-year-old Priya (Ellora Torchia), of Bangladeshi descent. Astrid is hardened and confident, Priya is naive, but ambitious, certain of just one thing – that she aims to win.

The girls join the Hooray Henrys guzzling bubbly and snorting coke in the City’s Champagne bars, equally prepared as their male counterparts to entertain clients in lap dancing clubs. But Astrid teaches Priya that mere equality is a target of the past in an age when it is all about winning and that the girls have assets that can put them ahead of the boys.

Bubnic does not make the competition for the girls too impressive. Their boss, Arthur (Helen Schlesinger) resembles a worm wriggling ineptly through the minefield of political correctness. Their fellow dealer, Harrison (Emily Barber), with an influential daddy, seems a pathetic creature, bullied by workmates, until his chilling retaliation exposes the continuing vulnerability of women in the workplace.

For all her success, Astrid’s life is empty until she makes a tentative emotional connection with Isabelle (Chipo Chung), a £400-per-hour hooker whom she picks up in a bar. By bringing together a practitioner of the oldest profession for women with that of one of the newest, Bubnic emphasises the closeness of the two, later reiterating emphatically that Astrid and Priya are, in effect, themselves whores.

The first part of the show is fragmented and muddled, Amy Hodge’s production often feeling uneven. However, Bubnic’s barbed dialogue always commands attention and the show eventually pulls itself together for superb climactic scenes in which worrying modern dilemmas are brought into sharp focus.

In the cabaret, musical numbers include reminders of times when Doris Day and the Beverley Sisters were role models for women. Some of these numbers lack the oomph needed to set a spark to the show, but not so Bushell’s sizzling rendition of Nina Simone’s Do I Move You?, which sees her writhing across a grand piano (on which Jennifer Whyte provides accompaniment throughout), demonstrating exactly what it means to be a modern woman.

Bubnic offers little prospect of cross gender harmony in a snapshot of shifting roles that is cold and cynical, yet still entertaining. She shows us that girls really can be boys, but, once the game has become solely about winning, she questions the worth of the prize.

Performance date: 29 June 2016

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