Archive for November, 2018

Lands (Bush Theatre)

Posted: November 10, 2018 in Theatre

Creator: Antler      Director: Jaz Woodcock-Stewart

⭐️⭐️⭐️

“The script is not sacred. It’s a blueprint” we are told in the preface to the printed text for Lands. A printed text normally signals that a work is a play, so anyone thinking of describing this piece as performance art or an extended comedy sketch needs to think again. Its Creator is Antler, a Bush Theatre Associate Artist company.

As a play, it falls into the absurdist genre, in the mould of Ionesco perhaps. More specifically, the sandy-coloured set brings to mind Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, accepting that the woman here is not half-buried, rather she is trapped, bouncing up and down constantly on a child’s trampoline. Sand, in a proverbial sense, is also what the play’s two characters have their heads buried in, paying only token regard to each other and total disregard to the wider world.

Leah (Leah Brotherhead) is obsessed with a puzzle, describing the picture pieces that she is placing in it in meticulous detail. On the opposite side of the stage, Sophie (Sophie Steer) is bouncing, oblivious to anything that Leah is doing, but paying lip service to having an interest. Leah becomes irritated and asks Sophie to stop bouncing. “I CAN’T get off” Sophie screams. Does Sophie’s bounce represent an obsession or an addiction?Or is it just some nonsense that represents nothing at all? Many have asked that last question about Beckett too.

Director Jaz Woodcock-Stewart’s production really needs more pace and the script (or that part of it that is used) feels short on verbal wit. That said, the physical comedy that results from the increasingly adversarial relationship between the too protagonists is often very funny. It feels as if the cheery Leah and the solemn Sophie have only their bizarre preoccupations standing between themselves and simultaneous nervous breakdown.

The play comes closest to revealing a serious subtext when Leah rants a long list of things that she doesn’t care about, beginning with “the boy on the beach…refugees on the boats…detention centres…”. She is in fact chastising the audience for allowing life’s trivia to blur a wider vision. Planned to run for 80 minutes (it actually exceeded that by 10 minutes at the press performance), the production is much too long, but it is put together neatly, it has likeable performances and, yes, it also has bounce.

Performance date: 8 November 2018

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

Romeo and Juliet (Barbican Theatre)

Posted: November 7, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: William Shakespeare      Director: Erica Whyman

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

In an age of polarised views and deep social divisions, most of us will have little problem in relating to the premise that underpins William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. However, the divide that director Erica Whyman most strives to bridge in this Royal Shakespeare Company production, first seen in Stratford upon Avon, is that between old Verona and new London.

At the start, the Montagues and the Capulets are seen as rival street gangs, with hordes of threatening youths filling the stage. The excitement is fuelled by music composed by Sophie Cotton and movement directed by Ayse Tashkiran, and there follows a vivid and vigorous production in which no one ever walks around the stage if it is possible for them to run. 

Whyman builds her bridge by blending the traditional harmoniously with the innovative and finding romance and modern relevance without over-stretching to achieve either. In so doing, her version of the play retains all the key elements of classic productions, but it also shines a light on the futility of 21st Century tribalism and lays out bare the senselessness of the teenage knife crime which now plagues London and other cities.

Bally Gill is a wonderful Romeo, playing the ill-fated lover as the dreamy-eyed joker in the Montague pack and drawing every ounce of humour from the Bard’s words. He is matched by Karen Fishwick’s utterly beguiling Juliet who becomes an innocent 14-year-old with a glint of mischief in her eyes, willingly swept off her feet by Romeo’s charm. The scene in which Capulet, Juliet’s father (a ferocious Michael Hodgson) uses brutal means to insist that she marries Paris (Afolabi Alli) is harrowing, but it hits another modern chord by turning the spotlight onto domestic abuse and forced marriage.

Tom Piper’s adaptable design leaves the stage as open as possible, deploying a large hollow box, which provides an elevated level for the famous balcony scene. Romeo and Juliet spend their final moments together at the same spot, now raised above the squabbling families below them. As the play gets darker towards its conclusion, so the stage darkens and Charles Balfour’s subtle lighting design picks out the key characters.

Other gems among the performances include Ishia Bennison’s devoted Nurse, who exudes natural warmth and good humour. Andrew French is an unusually forceful Friar Laurence, at times displaying the fervour of a Baptist preacher, and Charlotte Josephine stands out as a gender-changed Mercutio, hyper-active and perpetually shadow boxing. Whyman’s production runs through the play briskly in 165 minutes (including interval) without sacrificing any of the poetry in the text and without sagging.

Of course, most of us will know beforehand that this play does not allow blissful romance to triumph over squalid reality, but, on this occasion, when the confirmation comes, it still brings tears to the eyes.

Performance date: 6 November 2018

Photo: Topher McGrillis

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

A Pupil (Park Theatre)

Posted: November 6, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Jesse Briton            Director: Jessica Daniels

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

Can greatness be taught? A Pupil, Jesse Briton’s new 90-minute one-act play, an all-female four-hander, poses that question, asking also whether talent can thrive without discipline and whether discipline, in turn, will suffocate talent.

Ye is a gifted violinist of Chinese origin, who is disabled and confined to a wheelchair as a result of a car crash, but it becomes clear that her severe depression is more crippling than her physical injuries. She barely makes ends meet by tutoring and Simona, the teenage daughter of a Russian billionaire, who is alienated from all around her, is brought to Ye to be prepared for entry exams for the Royal Conservatoire.

Lucy Sheen’s Ye exudes gloom and defeat, fiercely refusing all help to bring her back to a full life. She can pass down her own philosophy and teach her pupil to express her inner self through her instrument, but she recognises that this may achieve only self-fulfilment and not tangible success. The shambolic Ye is contrasted by Carolyn Backhouse’s confident Phyllida, vastly inferior to her as a violinist when they were students together, but now a prominent figure at the Conservatoire.

As Simona, Flora Spencer-Longhurst, wearing school uniform and with a long pig tail, overdoes the petulant brat act just a little, but she shows great skills with the violin, playing classical pieces and original compositions by Colin Sell. Melanie Marshall,           playing Mary, Ye’s gospel-singing, persistently interfering landlady, is delightfully comic, bringing welcome relief to what could have been a wearying drama.

Jessica Daniels’ in-the-round production is as highly-strung as any of the dozen or so violins hanging above the stage in Jessica Staton’s simple design. Briton poses intriguing questions regarding the teaching of skills in music (or indeed any other field of the arts), but, when she puts the anti-convention arguments into the mouth of a character who is mentally ill, it is sometimes difficult to decide if the case being made has real validity or is just a dramatic catalyst.

At the beginning, A Pupil looks set to turn into a drama of mutual redemption and, as such, there feels to be a threat that it could be undone by its predictability. However, the more that the play veers away from that well-trodden path, the more engaging it becomes. Perhaps trying too hard to avoid the obvious, Briton reaches an uncertain conclusion, but still this is an accomplished, if not entirely convincing, work of theatre.

Performance date: 5 November 2018

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