Archive for September, 2016

plastic_181049This review was originally written for Yje Reviews Hub : http://www.thereviewshub.com

Following a lengthy tour beginning in 2015, Manchester based theatre company Box of Tricks is bringing back its production of Ella Carmen Greenhill’s 75-minute play Plastic Figurines for a four week London run. The production’s success seems to confirm a recent trend which has seen the “difficult” subject of autism become box office and the reasons for this play’s popular appeal are very clear to see.

The National Theatre’s huge hit The Curious Incident…, centring around a teenage boy with autism, is essentially plot-driven, but this play, with a very similar teenager at its centre, is entirely character-driven, putting a much stronger focus on the writing and the performances. Rose has returned from Edinburgh to her family home in Manchester to take care of her autistic younger brother Michael when their mother becomes terminally ill. Written in non-linear form, the play takes place around the time of the mother’s funeral and Michael’s 18th birthday.

Vanessa Schofield juggles dedication, frustration and tolerance in a beautifully judged portrayal of Rose. She knows that her affection for her brother cannot be reciprocated outwardly and, touchingly, she expresses hurt that, when Michael smiles, it is meaningless, being just something that he has been tutored to do. Nature has determined that she and her brother will look at life from very different perspectives, but we always sense that her actions in caring for him are driven by love more than duty. Her approach to living relies on common sense, but, for Michael, everything has to be orderly and rational. The writer is very astute in picking out the trivial issues over which clashes arise, such as Michael’s inability to blow out the four candles on his birthday cake because the correct number is 18. The clashes are sometimes humorous, often sad.

Michael;s insistence that he is different but not stupid is realised perfectly in Jamie Samuels’ carefully nuanced performance. He needs face cards to explain the meaning of people’s expressions, but he has learned to moderate his behaviour, even conceding an argument to his sister when he is certain that he is right. Samuels gives the character dignity, but the actor’s biggest triumph is in suggesting that, although the natural ability to express emotions is missing from Michael, the emotions themselves are still there inside him. This strengthens the feeling that sibling bonds can transcend the handicaps of autism, bringing themes into the play that are reminiscent of the film Rain Man, and Samuels may well settle for being compared with Dustin Hoffman at this early stage in his career.

Katie Scott’s austere hospital waiting room set reflects the simplicity of Adam Quayle’s production, which for the most part, keeps the drama restrained. The effect is to heighten the impact of flash points when Michael becomes hysterical or Rose’s exasperation erupts. Simplicity is the keyword, because Michael is not presented as a savant and both characters are shown to be ordinary people leading everyday lives, doing their best to meet the challenges laid down before them. It is this that lies at the heart of the play’s considerable appeal.

Performance date: 28 September 2016

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Labyrinth**** (Hampstead Theatre)

Posted: September 28, 2016 in Theatre

labyrinthOn the weekend that the UK Labour Party has re-elected a leader committed to borrowing hundreds of billions of pounds, Beth Steel’s new play sends shivers down the spine. Mr Corbyn, Swiss Cottage is only a short distance from Islington North and you should even be able to find a seat on the tube, because you need to get over here right away! Steel applies the same even-handed analytical approach that she used to bisect the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike in her play Wonderland, seen here a couple of years ago, as she investigates the world of international banking, The specific subject is the excessive lending by American banks in the late 1970s/early 1980s, culminating in the Mexico default crisis of 1982, but she leaves us in no doubt that she always has one eye on the banking collapse of 2008 and the ongoing saga of Greek debt.

Anna Ledwich’s production is slick and finely-tuned. Using traverse staging, she does not quite stretch Hampstead’s capabilities to the extent of the last production here, but multiple entrances and exits and labyrinthine patterns on all sides of Andrew D Edwards’ set still impress. Sean Delaney is completely convincing as John, the young rookie sucked into the wheeler-dealing and becoming intoxicated by the power games and the trappings of success. Yes, this is an over-familiar storyline, which makes it the play’s biggest disappointment. The only times when Steel brings in human drama are in scenes involving John’s father, who had served time for petty confidence tricks, but even this is to make a strong point about the inconsistency of law enforcement in dealing with different kinds of financial misdeeds.

It is not easy to engage with Steel’s writing on an emotional level, but her presentation of factual data is enthrallingly lucid and her conclusion is chilling. She tells us that, whenever collusion between international banks and governments gets out of hand, the bankers (well most of them) and the politicians will survive, but it will be ordinary folk at the bottom of the social ladder who will have to pay the price.

Performance date: 22 September 2016

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If this show, a weird concoction of drama, comedy, music and dance, is anything to go by, what they drink in the Congo is a heady cocktail that fizzes when each bottle is opened and goes flat quite quickly.

In attempting to condense the troubles of of a complex country into a single drama, writer Adam Brace is taking on much too much. The country’s people remain embittered by a history of European colonialism, impoverished by deeply-rooted corruption and ravaged by wars, internal and in neighbouring countries. It is obvious from the beginning that there are far too many cracks here to be papered over by a cultural festival promoting the country, the organisation of which provides the play with its flimsy centrepiece.

Michael Longhurst’s in-the-round production is colourful and often chaotic, the ingredients not always mixing well, with inconsistent levels of energy. Notwithstanding all that, strong ensemble performances carry it trough most of the patches when it is still more than sparkling.

Performance date: 20 September 20016

Sid*** (Above the Arts Theatre)

Posted: September 23, 2016 in Theatre

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

Craig has got a vicious streak. His girlfriend has gone off to university and the void in his life becomes filled with the music of the Sex Pistols and, more specifically, with images of their bass guitarist, the late Sid Vicious. Leon Fleming;s one-act play studies how cultural icons can become pervasive influences on the lives of our young.

To Craig, Sid Vicious is the eternal flame of the blazing Punk Rock era that all took place well before he was born. Others may have sold their souls to television game shows and Golf, but Vicious bowed out at the grand young age of 22 and his anti-establishment image lives on untarnished. We see Craig in his bedroom at his mother’s home, about to leave for a disastrous visit to see his girlfriend. Just a single bed, a chair and a rail of t-shirts furnish the room and he plays punk rock loud, very loud.

Dario Coates plays Craig, under the direction of Scott Le Crass, with high energy, bouncing around the stage, confronting the audience aggressively one on one and shouting at the top of his voice. Craig personifies the theory that rebellion is an antidote to inadequacy and it is when showing us the character’s low self-esteem that Coates is strongest. He is not good enough to make uni himself, so he rants against students, he vilifies those who have betrayed the punk legacy, beats at his own chest violently when things start to go wrong and throws the furniture around his room.

At times, Craig seems a little more self-aware than might be natural, particularly when tracing back the roots of his Punk Rock obsession, only to find that the links are tenuous. The play’s early bark is louder than its ultimate bite, which is not quite vicious enough to leave a lasting mark. 50 minutes of Craig is about enough in this monologue format, but Fleming has created an intriguing character who could be developed further in an expanded drama.

Performance date: 19 September 2016

Photo: Roy Tan

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jess-and-joe-forever_1600x915Oh no! Not another teenage romance. Zoe Cooper’s new 65-minute play sets expectations at their very lowest and then defies every one of them. There is usually something very irritating when young adults pretend to be children (in this case from ages 8 to 15), but not here as wonderful writing sweeps all such reservations aside. And this is consistent with the play’s overriding theme – how it can be possible to ignore all the irrelevant distractions, side shows and excess baggage that life throws in our way and simply get on with living.

Jess (Nicola Coughlan) is a city girl whose affluent parents own two holiday homes, one near the Italian lakes and the other in rural Norfolk where the play is set. Joe (Rhys Isaac-Jones) is a Norfolk farm boy. The pair tell their stories in flashback from their first meeting and the play takes us on a powerfully uplifting journey that is full of surprises, sprung gradually by Cooper. Jess’s world disintegrates as her father gambles away the family’s wealth, her mother takes to the bottle and she combats an eating disorder. With the onset of adolescence, Joe becomes increasingly estranged from other boys for reasons that are described subtly and imaginatively. Yet, through all their trials and tribulations and almost without realising it, they come to depend on each other.

Derek Bond’s simple but zingy production matches the purity of the love story that unfolds. Both Coughlan’s chirpy, slightly pushy Jess and Isaac-Jones’ awkward, uncertain Joe are enchanting and a story that defies convention builds to a climax that may be obvious, but simply takes the breath away.

Performance date: 16 September 2016

lovely-sunday-square-newThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

For 20 years from the mid-1940s,Tennessee Williams could do little wrong, writing a string of critical and commercial successes. However, this revival is of a play written in 1979 and it shows us a writer who had passed his peak, looking back to his roots in America’s South of the 1930s to find fresh inspiration.

On a hot and humid evening, Notting Hill can pass for St Louis and the shabby art-deco Coronet Cinema, current home for the Print Room, evokes the era of the play’s setting perfectly. Fotini Dimou’s well thought out set adds to the illusion, dividing the stage into kitchen, living room and bedroom, with a large rotating fan hanging from above.

Liberalisation of social attitudes and loosening of censorship, beginning in the 1960s, did Williams few favours. Much of the lyricism in his most famous works had come from suggesting the forbidden and alluding indirectly to taboos. Once the previously unmentionable had become part of everyday conversation, Williams’ writing lost some of its power. By 1979, the themes of female sexuality that occur in this play may have been mildly shocking, but only mildly and not at all so in the modern day. What this all-female piece shows us not to have diminished is Williams’ extraordinary gift for writing strong women characters.

Laura Rogers’ Dorothea (Dotty) is a dreamy-eyed optimist, a school teacher who is infatuated with her principal and convinced that he will reciprocate her feelings. Her rigorous exercise regime to keep her figure shapely is interrupted only to argue with her roommate, the frumpy Bodey (Debbie Chazen) and to take swigs from a bottle of sherry. Bodey has plans to marry Dotty off to her cigar-smoking, beer-swilling twin brother and is preparing a Sunday picnic for the three at the Creve Coeur amusement park by the side of a nearby lake, but Dotty is waiting for a telephone call from her beau that it seems will never come.

Sparks fly with the arrival of Dotty’s school teacher colleague, the snooty Helena (Hermione Gulliford) who has persuaded Dotty to move in with her at an apartment block in a smarter part of town. The scene is set for a battle royal between Bodey and Helena with Dotty as the prize, but Dotty sees things differently. Williams’ comic confrontational dialogue has a sharp edge and he throws in more comedy in the shape of neighbour Miss Gluck (Julia Watson), suffering a severe stomach upset and so depressed following the loss of her mother that she cannot even make herself a cup of coffee.

Director Michael Oakley’s production is acted delightfully, bringing out the humour and the pathos of four women all yearning for the unattainable and all blighted by near-desperate loneliness. Serious themes underpin the comedy, yet, for all the play’s insights, it somehow lacks the weight of the writer’s greatest works. It is Williams-lite, but entertaining nonetheless.

Performance date: 15 September 2016

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The American Wife* (Park Theatre)

Posted: September 10, 2016 in Theatre

julia-eringer-in-the-american-wife-park-theatre-photo-by-orlando-james-2-e1473501775453This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

It was reported recently that, on a 10-year average, the number of United States residents killed annually by Jihadists is nine, while those who die as a result of being shot by another American is over 11,000. Even so, in a country still traumatised by the events of 2001, paranoia over terrorism is rife, fuelled further by television series such as Homeland. This new play by Stephen Fife and Ralph Pezzullo, getting its World Premiere here, jumps on that bandwagon.

Eddie (Vidal Sancho), his wife Karen (Julia Eringer) and their two children seem to have an idyllic lifestyle and we first see them packing for a move from San Diego to Phoenix. He is a college Soccer coach, but, suddenly, he disappears. A knock comes on the door, Karen answers and the exchange goes: “It’s about your husband”; “Eddie?” but not only does this devoted wife remember her husband’s name, she vows to clear it of all the accusations that she learns are being made against him.

Poor Eddie had hurt his back while playing for Real Madrid and then, after a transfer to Valencia, it seems that terrorist incidents coincided with away matches and Eddie’s involvement could have merited far worse than a red card. Karen refuses to believe any of it and, aided by a journalist (George Taylor), she sets off to find Eddie in Afghanistan and then Egypt, countries where it appears as if the entire populations are made up of thugs. “Torture! Don’t say that word!” she demands, but, she can always fall back on words to the effect of “you can’t do this, I’m an American” and she often does.

So who does Karen believe and, among the duplicitous bunch that she encounters, is there anyone that she can trust? The actors throw a great deal into the thankless task of delivering their stilted dialogue, but they are given no chance to get under the skin of their characters. As a result, if the writers can just about make the absurdities of the story believable, they fall at the much higher hurdle of making us care.

The play is entirely plot-driven and the production, directed by James Kemp, moves at a fair pace on an almost bare stage, with just two screens and minimum props. However, Kemp is complicit in fostering a sense that this is a script that desperately wants to be a screenplay (hopefully an early draft of one). Just as in a film thriller, nerve-jangling music is played between scenes, always missing the essential point that theatre has to be made to work on its own terms and not by pretending that it is something else.

Cliché follows cliché and one character stereotype follows another. The play is void of any intentional humour, but it still comes as a surprise that it is not until mid-way through the second act that giggles start to ripple around the audience. Overall, it feels reasonable to conclude that the sole purpose of this play is to reinforce exaggerated fears and prejudices surrounding terrorism. Both as a suspense thriller and as a meaningful commentary on our troubled times, it simply fails to detonate.

Performance date: 9 September 2016

Photo: Orlando James

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