Archive for November, 2017

This interview was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

When audiences are flocking to see Barnum at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory this Christmas, they may spot that, next door in the subterranean Bunker Theatre, there is something far removed from the fun of the circus. FCUK’D offers an alternative festive experience, focussing on the emotive topic of runaway children, and its writer/director Niall Ransome took time off from treading the boards in the West End show The Comedy About a Bank Robbery to talk about it with The Reviews Hub’s Stephen Bates. 

Making no attempt to conceal neither his native Hull accent nor his infectious enthusiasm for theatre, Ransome makes a persuasive case for his alternative to the traditional Christmas fare. “We go to see these fantastic pantomimes and musicals and West End shows at Christmas, but I also think that theatre like this is important all year round and we shouldn’t stop putting on theatre that says something about the times we live in,” he argues.

As a young actor straight out of drama school, Ransome was involved at the start of the hugely successful The Play that Goes Wrong and, learning from that experience, he says “I’m very used to the idea of audiences shouting and becoming involved and, in FCUK’D, Boy (the central character) often turns to the audience to ask what he should do.” He feels that we all ignore strangers in our busy lives and make judgements about them; “I would like to see someone come to the play, see Boy and make a judgement about him; then it becomes the job of the play to break that down.”

Boy is a 17-year-old living in a flat on a Hull council estate with his alcoholic mother and Matty, a brother 10 years his junior. When Social Services move to take Matty into care, the two boys run away from home and head north. “The boys only have each other,” explains Ransome, “it’s a story of family unity, of being together.” The writer researched the route they take carefully, even going to a cliff edge where a key scene takes place; “I took my Mum,” he says smiling.

The play is presented in monologue form and Ransome has performed it himself in test runs. However, at the Bunker, it will be performed by Will Mytum. “Me and Will have been friends for years,” says Ransome. “We went to drama school together and were in the next rooms. I trust him implicitly.”

The writer also set himself the additional challenge of writing the play in rhyming verse, explaining: ”Rhymes just trip off the tongue and, once you get the flow and rhythm of it, it almost dictates the way in which the story goes.” He feels that he is following in a great tradition: “Hull is rich with poetry; we have Philip Larkin, we have Stevie Smith,” he boasts.

“I am very very proud to be from Hull, a city that, over the years, has got a lot of stick,” he declares. “I went to quite a naff school in Hull, it wasn’t a nice school, but I always think that the best teachers teach in the worst schools; they can get someone from an underprivileged background to be enthusiastic about drama, art, history, maths and that is a triumph”. He continues: “FCUK’D focusses on a group of people who I feel aren’t always given voices in theatre and, around Christmas, their issues never have a holiday; setting it around Christmas, heightens all the issues.”

Ransome holds passionate views about the direction which British theatre should be taking. “Abroad, we are often seen as being about the Queen’s English, the cups of tea,” he claims. So how does he feel about the current prominence of Public School educated actors? “I admire the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne, I think they do incredible work; but we live in a time when we talk about ethnic diversity and gender equality, which are so important, yet I do think at times that the working class voice is getting a bit behind again; the theatre should be a community of all voices, all colours, all sexualities, all ethnicities and it should be a welcoming place.”

The play’s title is very in-your-face, but did he deliberately choose it to be provocative? “Absolutely!” he retorts. “That’s quite a northern attitude for me, a wonderful northern straight to the camera sort of thing, straight, snappy, bold, just what the play itself is.” He hopes to draw in audiences of all ages, but particularly the young. “It feels like 2017 is a year in which young people have really got on board,” he says, adding the caveat “I never wrote (the play) as a political piece, I wrote it as a story”. Hoping that sensible Fringe ticket prices will be a further draw for the young, he says: “The West End is money, but London has such a fantastic theatre scene.”

Plans to take FCUK’D on the road are being drawn up and a second play is already in the pipeline. As an actor, Ransome continues in his West End role until February and then it’s back to the auditioning circuit. “I believe we live in a time when, as writers, actors, directors, we can’t wait for the phone to ring” he concludes. A busy Niall Ransome sounds like very good news for theatre.

FCUK’D is at the Bunker London from 11 to 30 December 2017

Photo: Andrea Lambis

The Secondary Victim (Park Theatre)

Posted: November 26, 2017 in Theatre


This review was originally written for The Reviews

With two decades as a therapist under his belt and ten produced plays to his credit, no-one could accuse Matthew Campling of not knowing his subject for this new play or of not knowing how to write about it. The mystery is why what appears on stage here feels so unconvincing.

The thoroughly professional demeanour of Susannah Doyle’s Ali belies her inner turmoil. She charges £40 an hour to listen to her clients’ problems and perhaps point them in the direction of a solution, but she is floored when one of them, teenage boy Hugo (Michael Hanratty), accuses her of sexual misconduct – suggestiveness, touching his cheek and running her hand over the lower part of his back. At a time when we all need to be careful about ill-chosen words and gestures, the writer shows us that concerns are magnified many times over when a code of professional ethics is added to the equation.

Ali turns to her colleague Marilyn (Natasha Bain), paying over £40, and Hugo moves on to Jonny (Matt Holt) as his new counsellor, allowing the audience to hear both versions of events. “Good looks can breach our usual defences” Marilyn advises as she prepares for a possible confession of guilt from Ali, underlining the writer’s point that the line between the private individual and the professional one can be very thin.

If Campling intended to create a suspense thriller in which the audience is left guessing which of the two protagonists is telling the truth, he scores an own goal by making Hugo so obnoxious. Vengeful, scheming and possibly schizophrenic, he boasts of having an American book deal lined up if his accusations against Ali are upheld. It beggars belief that even an American publisher would be drawn to such a slight story, but both Campling and Hanratty leave us in no doubt that Hugo is a nasty (if troubled) piece of work and shaping him as so clear a villain so early does not serve the play well.

The play dwells on sub-plots – Ali’s oafish client Teddy (Christopher Laishley) having problems with under-age girls and a Donald Duck tattoo near his private parts; her rocky marriage to Victor (Gary Webster) who is recovering from a heart attack and bankruptcy; and Marilyn’s one night stand with Jonny – none of which gels properly with the main plot. What the play needs is to be more narrowly focussed, sharper and a lot shorter.

In examining the minefield of professional conduct and the boundaries that cannot be crossed, Campling makes his case persuasively that, if recipients of therapy are victims, their therapists are secondary victims. However, in a play weighed down by colourless dialogue and over-plotting, this does not always make gripping drama and Matthew Gould’s in-the-round production often lacks the energy to sell it. Whether in the flat-footed first act or in the rambling and melodramatic closing scenes, the play is consistently earnest but too contrived to be believed.

Performance date: 15 November 2017

The Tailor-Made Man (White Bear Theatre)

Posted: November 10, 2017 in Theatre


This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

With current stories of improprieties in the film industry seeming to be as plentiful as gold stars on Hollywood Boulevard, this revival of Claudio Macor’s The Tailor-Made Man could hardly be more timely. The play is based on the true story of William “Billy” Haines, a star of silent movies and 11 talkies, whose career collapsed like a house of cards when studio bosses took a stand against his homosexual lifestyle.

The play was adapted into a musical, generally well received when it ran at London’s Arts Theatre in 2013, but this 25th Anniversary production reverts to the original non-singing version. If the name William Haines prompts the question “William who?” this could be because all his films were consigned to locked vaults for a generation by MGM and even still photographs of him were destroyed.

Arriving in Hollywood in 1922, wise-cracking extrovert Billy quickly becomes a tailor-made man, moulded by his studio in the image of the all-American male. However, Billy’s private life threatens to tarnish the image and, on hearing of the latest Haines indiscretion, Louis B Mayer (a fearsome Dean Harris) growls: “How can I take my daughter to the pictures when I know that William Haines is a fagelah?”

Parts of the story are told talking into a camera by the love of Billy’s life, Jimmie Shields (touchingly played by Tom Berkeley) who is content to hide in the shadows while his partner steals the limelight and to overlook his persistent promiscuity. Fresh-faced and exuberant, Mitchell Hunt’s Billy looks too innocent to be a convincing predator but Bryan Hodgson’s revival leaves no room for doubt as to what is going on. Billy’s actions in exploiting his star power to proposition, grope and seduce young men cause some discomfort when looked at through the prism of modern sensitivities.

For all this, Macor’s aim is never to demonise Billy. Rather he seeks to condemn the hypocritical studio system and, ultimately, to tell an uplifting story of enduring love conquering adversity. When Hollywood eventually expels Billy, he is able to call upon a latent talent for interior design and, along with Jimmie, forge a new career in which he was to achieve considerable success. Hodgson’s slick, well-paced production moves smoothly between satirical comedy and tender romance.

On occasions, Hodgson allows over-acting that may go beyond the need to emulate the style of the silent era, but, more often, strong cameo performances lift the production, particularly in the play’s more leaden scenes. Henry Felix shows resilience as the young screenwriter Victor Darro, who fends off Billy’s unwanted advances and becomes the couple’s loyal friend; Edwin Flay is strikingly sleazy as Howard Strickling, MGM’s PR man who will resort to anything, even setting up marriages of convenience, to promote the right image for the studio’s stars; and Yvonne Lawlor goes deliciously over the top playing leading lady Marion Davies, as does Rachel Knowles in the dual roles of Carole Lombard and Pola Negri.

Mayer makes the prediction that every gay actor in the future will hear the words “remember William Haines” before thinking about coming out of the closet. It is a chilling moment that underscores the modern relevance of a play that sheds further light on the continuing ills of Hollywood.

Performance date: 9 November 2017

Photo: Andreas Lambi