Archive for January, 2018

The Claim (Shoreditch Town Hall)

Posted: January 18, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Tim Cowbury      Director: Mark Maughan

⭐️⭐️

When you are sitting in a room at the end of an unwelcoming corridor in a building with ties to officialdom, such as a town hall, it hardly comes as a surprise when someone wanders in looking lost. Tim Cowbury’s comedy begins with the appearance of Serge, an arrival from Democratic Republic of Congo, via Uganda and Streatham. It emerges that he has outstayed his tourist visa.

Serge (Ncuti Gatwa) asks us if we want to hear his story and, in what ensues, Cowbury asks us (representing the British public) to examine our attitudes and prejudices towards immigration. Two advocates represent us, playing roughly bad cop/good cop – an interrogator (Yusra Warsama) and a translator (Nick Blakeley). Over 75 minutes, we merely watch the processes without being fed enough information to make a judgement on the merits of Serge’s case to remain in the United Kingdom. We assume that Serge wants to stay in Streatham; “who would come here on holiday?” he protests, “so much rain”.

The translator says that he likes Serge, the interrogator indicates the opposite. Prejudice kicks in early. The pair are preoccupied over their personal lives, going on incessantly about holidays in Greece; they talk over each other and over Serge and no one listens properly to anyone else. Trivial discussions about elephants in Congo and Willy Wonka become more important than Serge’s fate and “claims” are taken to be shellfish as misunderstandings and mistranslations abound.

In balancing the serious and the comic, the play falls short, There develops a sense that Cowbury is trying too hard to be light-hearted and, in the process becoming heavy-handed, dwelling on and repeating things that should be obvious. The inconsequential chit-chat eventually becomes tiresome, wrapping itself around the life-changing issues at the heart of the play and effectively strangling them.

Directed by Mark Maughan, this all amounts to a mildly amusing diversion, but it needs to be so much more. We long for the play to emerge from its cloud of vagueness and get to the point, but, as the writer’s main point seems to be that no one ever gets to the point, this is not going to happen and we are left feeling just as frustrated as poor Serge.

Performance date: 17 January 2017

Photo: Paul Samuel White

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

Writer: Anna Deveare Smith      Director: Ola Ince

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

In 1992, two white officers in the Los Angeles Police Department were acquitted on charges relating to the brutal beating of Rodney King, an Afro-American, leading to riots, looting and bloodshed. “LaLa Land” was revealed to all the world as a city of scars.

Anna Deavere Smith has devised this 90-minute piece of verbatim theatre from the testimonies of witnesses and of those involved directly in the mayhem and what ensued. The overall picture that she paints is a bleak one of a city torn apart along racial lines and of communities – whites, blacks, Koreans, Mexicans – embarking on close to tribal warfare, all accusing and blaming the others. Divisions brought into focus by the current American Presidency give these accounts added topical relevance and memories of London in August 2011 bring them close to home.

Jacob Hughes’ design, with chairs scattered all around the studio space resembles a village hall and, once the audience has gathered, the atmosphere becomes that of a community meeting in protest at, say, a proposed by-pass. There is even a 10-minute tea break to calm things down, perhaps necessary because the mood is often very angry indeed as we learn of injustices, helplessness and hopelessness. The room becomes filled with the fury of those who throw the dice against those who load it.

The problems with verbatim theatre usually come with making prosaic testimonies interesting and piecing them together to form a cohesive whole. Director Ola Ince offers her solution in the shape of a force of nature named Nina Bowers, a lady who demands not to be ignored. Her style could be likened to punching us on the nose with an iron fist that is inside a padded glove. She establishes her amiability by chatting casually with the audience before the performance and handing round biscuits during the tea break, before pummelling us mercilessly with one anguished story after another.

After leading us to believe that the differences in a broken city are irreconcilable, Deavere Smith saves the most revelatory testimony until last. A juror at the officers’ second trial tells, with humour and perception, how deliberations became a kind of cathartic process which swept away deeply embedded prejudices and led to the correct outcome. Out of all this gloom, a ray of light finally shines through.

Performance date: 15 January 2018

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

Tiny Dynamite (Old Red Lion Theatre)

Posted: January 13, 2018 in Theatre

Tiny Dynamite Production Photos
Time Productions
The Old Red Lion Theatre
Photo Credit: The Other Richard

Writer: Abi Morgan      Director: David Loumgair

⭐️⭐️⭐️

How are we supposed to deal with the randomness of fate in a world where one person can survive being struck by lightning and another can be killed by a flying sandwich? Abi Morgan’s Tiny Dynamite asks this question through two troubled characters. She wrote the play in 2001 and she has since progressed to greater things.

Six-year-old “Runt Boy” is the victim of the lightning strike. He grows up to become Anthony (Niall Bishop), a sufferer from an unspecified mental illness who is taken on holiday annually by career woman Luce (Eva-Jane Willis), a risk assessor. The nature of their attachment takes time to become clear, but they share secrets. They arrive at their remote residence in the United States and are later joined by Madeleine (Tanya Fear), a sandwich delivery lady who could be physically attracted to Anthony or possibly to Luce.

There can be no questioning the quality of Morgan’s writing which, alone, makes the play worth seeing. However, the problem comes with the slow reveal structure which does not allow us to engage fully with the characters until their secrets become known. In the early stages, the play compensates with suspense, but it tries too hard to be mysterious, introducing, for example, a plague of insects and (literally) things that go bump in the night to suggest the supernatural.

Morgan seems so determined that the play should be enigmatic that she leaves herself little room to flesh out the characters. Bishop’s Anthony is nervy and volatile, contrasting with Willis’ steady and controlled Luce, but, beyond that, the writer leaves it until very late to give us any insights into their emotional lives. If we do not know who these two people are, it is very difficult to care for them and a play that should be partly about suppressed passion is left feeling very cold.

There is still much to admire, including Anna Reid’s set design, which makes ingenious use of the confined space. Her raised stage, surrounded by a moat, incorporates a water-filled pool and underfloor compartments to store props. Zoe Spurr’s murky lighting design gives a sinister air, while sudden flashes and creepy sound effects add to tension.

David Loumgair’s tight production generally flows smoothly, accepting that there may be little that he can do to prevent the play stalling on three separate occasions when the characters need to undress for swimming. However, presumably, he has to shoulder the responsibility for the biggest blow to his production’s momentum – the insertion of a seemingly unnecessary interval that extends the running time to around two hours.

This revival of Tiny Dynamite is intriguing, but never completely satisfying. The play’s title promises explosive drama, but, frustratingly, no one remembers to light the touch paper.

Performance date: 12 January 2016

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

East (King’s Head Theatre)

Posted: January 12, 2018 in Theatre

(c) Alex Brenner (info@alexbrenner.co.uk)

Writer: Steven Berkoff      Director: Jessica Lazar

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Returning to the King’s Head where it made its debut in 1975, East, Steven Berkoff’s angry and unsentimental homage to London’s East End, has lost none of its potency. Now, as then, there is a sense that the theatre’s location, in North London bordering on the East, provides the writer with a metaphor for where he wants to place his audience – as outsiders looking closely in.

The passing of more than four decades gives the play an ironic addendum. A working class community that has adjusted to several waves of immigration, lived with organised crime and survived de-industrialisation finally faces extinction at the hands of creeping gentrification. Maybe the writer would lament many aspects of this, but nothing in his play suggests that he would not be happy to see outdated traditions wiped out.

By the 1970s, the local Palais had already been turned into a bowling alley and then into a supermarket, but Berkoff rarely touches upon Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be nostalgia. Instead, his savage and ferociously funny play sets out to expose and ridicule ugly features that he sees as endemic to the East End – violence, petty criminality, misogyny and racism.

Both poetic and abrasive, Berkoff’s writing is pitched at a point where Shakespearean English meets Cockney Rhyming Slang. Indeed some scenes here could well allude to Henry IV Pt1, itself set partly on the fringes of the East End. However, the character of “Dad” (Russell Barnett) is much more Alf Garnett than Falstaff. A television addict who evades paying his licence fee, he rants right wing mantras and recalls fondly the marches of Oswald Mosly’s Fascist Black Shirts. He is the only one of the play’s five characters that does not question the role in which life has cast him.

His wife (Debra Penny) slouches in a dressing gown, utterly defeated by a male dominated society. The couple’s only son, Mike (James Craze) mouths expletives as if by habit or expectation and resorts instinctively to violence when his girl is wooed by the upstart Les (James Condon); but, in a rare sign of atonement in the play, the lads ask “what’s the point?”, make up and become friends. “If you were the only girl in the world….” they sing to Sylv, played by Boadicea Ricketts as both slutty and vulnerable. She completes a quintet of outstanding performances.

Jessica Lazar’s raucous, animated production hardly gives itself time to breathe. Playing an upright “Joanna”, Carol Arnopp contributes a mix of music hall songs and contemporary tunes, serving as a backing track for most of a production in which music is integral. In mimed sequences, such as a hilarious family outing to Southend, the piano generates the feel of a silent movie; and, on a blissful escape to the M1 on a motorbike, Mike and Les begin as Hell’s Angels and morph into Flanagan and Allen singing Underneath the Arches, the modern and the traditional blending together seamlessly.

The content and the style of East could well have jolted audiences in 1975, perhaps not so much now. If Berkoff’s works still remain something of an acquired taste, this is a revival that should encourage many more to acquire it,

Performance date: 11 January 2018

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

Writer: George Bernard Shaw      Director: Paul Miller 

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Kicking off 2018 with a 109-year-old play, it is a great feeling to be one of the younger members of an audience again. During Paul Miller’s tenure here, the Orange Tree has embraced cutting edge theatre with considerable success, perhaps causing raised eyebrows among traditional supporters; however, the revival of a classic drawing room comedy such as this is sure to encourage a dusting off of Richmond’s zimmer frames and, as theatre must be for all, there’s nothing wrong with that!

The misalliance in question is between the hard-up aristocratic family headed by Lord Summerhays (Simon Shepherd) and the wealthy middle-class shop owners, the Tarletons, presided over by blustering patriarch (splendid Pip Donaghy) and fussing matriarch (delightful Gabrielle Lloyd, resembling a reincarnated Katie Johnson). Their traditionalist son Johnny (Tom Hanson) fiercely opposes the impending marriage of their independent minded daughter Hypatia (Marli Siu) to Summerhays’ son Bentley (played by Rhys Isaac-Jones as so camp that he would have been risking jail every day in the Edwardian era). For much of the first act, characters talk too much and complain about others talking too much, but this is George Bernard Shaw and too much talking is inevitable. When a two-seater plane crash lands on the Tarleton’s lawn, the play gains wings.

The pilot is penniless toff Joey (Luke Thallon) and his passenger is exotic Polish acrobat Lina Szczepanowska (Lara Rossi). They ruffle feathers, but another intruder, a gun-wielding Marxist (terrifically angry Jordan Mifsúd) makes them fly. What had been a witty but wordy piece now becomes weird and wacky. Shaw’s left wing social and political views all get a full airing, but they are never allowed to weigh down the comedy. Miller’s successful revival of Terence Rattigan’s French Without Tears, here in 2015, showed that the way to energise dated comedy is to cast promising young actors and give them free rein to let rip. He uses the same formula here, with seven of the cast of ten being relative newcomers and the result is sparkling screwball hilarity that should appeal to all ages, including those even younger than myself.

Performance date: 2 January 2018