Archive for January, 2019

Writer: David Greig      Director: Jessica Lazar

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The great appeal of David Greig’s Outlying Islands stems from its unpredictability. Audiences are left always uncertain as to whether they are watching a slapstick comedy, a brittle romance or a suspense thriller as the writer skirts around dramatic conventions with canny skill.

The play received its London premiere at the Royal Court Theatre in 2002 and this revival by the Atticist theatre company is the first time that it has been seen in the capital since then. Atticist’s last venture, Steven Berkoff’s East, also at the King’s Head, would seem more obviously suited to outlying Islington, but Greig’s refreshingly different play, set on an island 40 miles off the Scottish mainland, is no less welcome. The writer pits the forces of nature against those of civilisation and, along an undulating path, he wrestles with sub-themes that range from conservation to sexual awakening, biological warfare to Laurel and Hardy.

In the Summer of 1939, two young ornithologists are despatched by “the ministry” in faraway London in to count and study the island’s bird population. Robert (Tom Machell), from Cambridge, is confident and assumes the role of leader. He also boasts of his prowess as a ladies’ man. John (Jack McMillan), from Edinburgh, is uncertain and priggish, bound by the rules of polite society even in this untamed environment. For much of the early part of the play, the pair resemble Stan and Ollie, emulating their comedy routines, but, as the play gets progressively darker, they begin to look more like Leopold and Loeb.

Director Jessica Lazar’s engrossing, strongly atmospheric production manages the play’s rapidly shifting moods seemingly effortlessly. The audience envelops Anna Lewis’s craggy set and, enhanced by David Doyle’s lighting design, a disused chapel with a dodgy door becomes a place of mystery, where the natural world and the supernatural one feel equally unnerving.

As Robert and John tuck into their meal of puffin stew, Greig asks big questions. The time is specific and the play acknowledges that the start of World War II is imminent, but modern day battles to save our planet from manmade destruction are brought to mind and the validity of the unnatural constrictions forced on us by society are challenged. The writing is punchy, humorous and, at times, lyrical. 

The island’s owner is the cantankerous Kirk (Ken Drury), whose sole interest lies in what money he can make from the government as a result of the ornithologists’ visit. His niece Ellen has seen Way Out West 37 times and the similarity between that film’s stars and the island’s new arrivals may make them more endearing to her. Rose Wardlaw completes a quartet of powerful performances, expressing suppressed emotions and leading us to suspect that Ellen’s outward naivety could be a mask for a much more worldly young woman. 

Predictably, a love triangle involving Ellen and the ornithologists emerges, but like most other things in this play, it is unconventional and underpinned by deeper significance. This is a long overdue revival, given a production that never loosens its grip.

Performance date: 15 January 2019

Photo: Clive Barda

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

 

Anomaly (Old Red Lion Theatre)

Posted: January 14, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Liv Warden      Director: Adam Small

⭐️⭐️⭐️

“Post-Weinstein. Post-Spacey. Pre-Preston” reads the publicity for Liv Warden’s debut play, Anomaly, Philip Preston being the pivotal, albeit unseen, figure. However, in an hour-long drama that is sharp, sensitive and powered by topicality, the writer concerns herself less with Preston’s misdemeanours than with the impact on his three daughters. 

The oldest daughter, Piper (Natasha Cowley) lives in Los Angeles, running her father’s film production company. She has been seduced by Preston’s power and a desire to replicate it. Next oldest, Penny (Katherine Samuelson) is a new mother, living in London and an aspiring actor, enticed by the industry’s glitz and glamour and getting a helping hand by using her father’s name. The youngest is a freer spirit, Polly (a particularly engaging performance from newcomer Alice Handoll) who has countered abuse within her family by turning to abuse of substances and is now in rehab.

The women are seen together on the same stage for almost the entirety of the play, talking directly to the audience or responding remotely to their sisters or to pre-recorded voices. However they are never in the same room, the closest to communication between them coming with telephone calls and a three-way interview on a radio programme. 

Warden’s account of a show business world of instant fame and media prurience resonates, but it is her depictions of power and complicity that chill most. All three women had known for many years that their father was a serial adulterer and a violent abuser within their family, but they had remained silent. The play searches for their motives.

The non-appearance of the villain leaves a hole in the play, but his inclusion could have blurred its focus and it is doubtful if any actor could have made him more odious than his description. Possibly more damaging is the lack of the direct confrontations which could have provided much needed dramatic force. Adam Small’s production builds up tension effectively but the climax lacks impact and, intriguing though the play’s ideas are, it ends leaving us feeling slightly underfed.

Performance date: 10 January 2019

Photo: Headshot Toby

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

Writer: Harold Pinter      Director: Jamie Lloyd

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

Harold Pinter’s career as a writer encompassed an era of unprecedented social mobility in Britain. Sparked by the end of post-War austerity, new opportunities opened up for the once disadvantaged, London’s East End and West End began to merge and members of the working classes moved up society’s ladder. The sixth in Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season brings together two perceptive social satires which, perhaps, reflect on aspects of the playwright’s own life journey.

Party Time, first performed in 1991, is interpreted by director Lloyd in the form of a funeral. The characters, all dressed entirely in black, sit in a row facing the audience as solemn music plays and, seemingly, the arrival of a coffin is imminent. So this is a party? Well, yes and, as the eight revellers rise in groups to sip cocktails, nibble canapés and chatter inanely, we quickly realise what an absurd gathering this is.

Hosted by Gavin (Phil Davis), the partygoers are made up of male social climbers and power brokers, accompanied by sedentary women. Terry (John Simm) boasts of membership of an exclusive club and orders his wife never to ask “what’s happened to Jimmy?” Melissa (Celia Imrie) bemoans the fact that good swimming and tennis clubs are all gone. Society’s ascenders and descenders meet in a sort of bourgeois cocoon, oblivious to a world outside in which, we are told, there is significant disorder. We wonder who Jimmy could be and, when Lloyd presents the answer as a near-apocalyptic event, the very foundations of the wealth which funds parties like this are challenged.

Celebration (1999), Pinter’s final play is about upstarts and interjectors. Lambert (Ron Cook) and Julie (Tracy-Ann Oberman) are celebrating their wedding anniversary at London’s most expensive restaurant, along with Lambert’s brother Matt (Davis) and his wife Prue (Imrie) who is also Julie’s sister. At another table (although seen at extreme ends of the same table as the celebrators in this production) are Russell (Simm) and his tarty wife Suki (Katherine Kingsley). They are hoping to get a leg-up in business from the brothers whose occupations, we suspect, may not be entirely legitimate.

All six diners come from lowly origins and Pinter finds comedy in clashes between their coarseness and the expected refinement of a high class establishment. The writer sees a new social order in which money and good taste no longer match up, with the restaurant owners, Richard (Gary Kemp) and Sonia (Eleanor Matsuura) striving to bridge the gap. Abraham Poppoola’s waiter, repeatedly interjecting with preposterous stories about his grandfather, steals many of the laughs. In the hands of a company of comedy actors as accomplished as this, Lloyd’s production could never have been less than highly entertaining.

The passage of time has softened the satire in Celebration. The nouveau riche have now become the established rich and the codes of good manners with which they once clashed have faded into the more distant past. Furthermore, the misogyny in both these plays should not figure in modern attitudes and, to some extent, their revivals feel a little like watching old Carry On films and laughing at how things once were. That said, with six laps of his Pinter marathon now successfully completed, the time is approaching when, deservedly, it will be Lloyd’s turn to celebrate.

Performance date: 5 January 2019

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

Writer: Harold Pinter      Director: Patrick Marber

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

We may expect works by Harold Pinter to be dark, comedic and enigmatic and this collection of short plays, the fifth in Jamie Lloyd’s ambitious Pinter at the Pinter season, delivers to varying degrees in all those respects. However, there is a more specific unifying theme here, that of human disconnection and loneliness.

The Room is Pinter’s first play, written in 1957, and the writer’s depiction of London working class life at that time is indeed grim. The setting is a bed sitting room in an old house that is freezing cold in the basement and progressively gets more damp as it rises. Outside on the deserted streets it is a bleak Winter afternoon. The room, realised starkly in Soutra Gilmour’s design and Richard Howell’s lighting, is occupied by a married couple,  Rose and Bert.

Jane Horrocks is quietly affecting as Rose. Her appearance, in dull housecoat and turban, could be modelled on Hilda Ogden and her Lancashire accent tells us that she does not really belong here. She chatters incessantly while Bert says nothing, but Rupert Graves’ performance suggests that his silence could be a controlling mechanism. Writing in an era when psychological domestic abuse would have been barely acknowledged, Pinter shows remarkable insight.

The characters have no back stories and they are given no lives outside a room where we sense hidden menace in all corners. The writer’s skill lies in not pinpointing any exact threat until the very end. Could the threat come from Nicholas Woodeson’s sinister landlord, or from a young couple (Luke Thallon and Emma Naomi) looking for a room (perhaps this same room) to rent? Maybe a blind stranger (Colin McFarlane) is bringing something worse than just a message for Rose. The denouement is shocking.

Victoria Station could have been written when Pinter was stuck in traffic, sitting in the back of a minicab and listening to anonymous disembodied voices floating across the airwaves. The 10-minute play is little more than a comedy sketch, first performed on radio in 1982, but the visual image here of two men, both in small boxes, separated by the width of the stage, reinforces a sense of their isolation. McFarlane is the conscientious controller frustrated in his attempts to have a sensible conversation with Graves’ gormless driver. A lucrative fare awaits at Victoria Station, but, before the arrival of Sat Nav, the driver has no idea where the station is. Pinter’s take on distant communications in the days of radio is wryly amusing and leaves us wondering what he might have made of social media.

Family Voices (1981), also written for radio, explores the paradox of family members being inextricably bound together and irresistibly torn apart. Thallon plays a young man who is alone and talking into thin air to the parents from whom he is estranged. He shares the inconsequential trivia of his daily life with them, and the actor, moving from calm confidence to frenzied anguish shows us the desperation of someone who is crying out for help and hearing no response. Horrocks plays the now widowed mother, also alone and talking to her absent son The vacant expression on her face shows reciprocated pain and abandonment. Graves appears briefly as the dead father/husband, but, essentially, this is a profoundly moving two-hander. When mother and son come within touching distance of each other on stage, the chasm between them is at its most apparent and it is heartbreaking.

Director Patrick Marber’s production is meticulously detailed, carefully paced and faultlessly performed. Seen together, these three studies in urban solitude complement each other and leave a lasting impression that is deeply unsettling.

Performance date: 5 January 2019

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

“This is such a great social space..,it has such character to it, it’s the perfect place” enthuses Liv Warden as she surveys the bar of The Old Red Lion pub, in Islington, little more than a mile from London’s West End. There to meet her is The Reviews Hub’s Stephen Bates to chat about the new play, her first to be produced professionally which will be premiering in the small fringe theatre upstairs early in 2019.

The play is called Anomaly and its highly topical theme is the scandals that have engulfed show business following allegations made against film producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017. However, Liv’s play is less concerned with abuse of power and the victims who have spurred the #MeToo movement, than with the impact on the family of an accused man. So what is the significance of the play’s title? “The idea that it’s a one-off is brought up in the play” Live explains, “the past experiences of the protagonist, the youngest daughter Polly…had with her father was referred to in her school report as like an anomaly, a one-off, when clearly as it transpires in the story, it’s not a one-off, it’s a pattern of behaviour that is played down rapidly by the people around the family.

“The family knows” she continues “but it’s always been brushed under the carpet and kind of healed and healed and healed until it comes to a blow”. The accused man is a film producer, “he is my version of not only Weinstein but also (others)”. This sounds like a typical casting couch scenario, which Liv confirms: “ Well yes, Philip Preston, who’s the main character, he’s not in the play, but he’s the father and he’s a version of all these (true life) men who have been accused of things, he’s accused in the play, but it’s not about him. It’s a female three-hander, it’s the three daughters and the impact on them”.

Obviously real events have influenced the play, but that is not where it began: “well originally it was about a woman who had a complex relationship with her family, notably her father…it was never about Hollywood or fame or anything like that” Liv explains, “and I didn’t know what to do with it and then the Harvey Weinstein case came out and I thought that this could really be quite interesting if we looked at how fame and sensationalism in the media could play a huge part in family dynamics, and how it completely blows everything to a different level”.

The sisters are aged 28, 26 and 24. “the oldest is one of the board members of (her father’s) company, she’s his protégé I guess; the middle one is more of a socialite and she’s taken on the famous role I guess of the three sisters and she has, arguably, used her name…she is pushed into doing interviews in the aftermath of this, she’s pushed into saying things that maybe she regrets saying about the situation, but she’s definitely the most vulnerable of the three” Completing the characters, Liv describes the youngest sister: “she’s been in an out of rehabilitation and therapy, but she’s definitely the most switched-on, she’s very, I find her very charismatic, she tells the truth and the others don’t necessarily do that; she is essentially not a narrator, but she pushes the story forward, addresses the audience directly and she kind of tells the truth about what it is being a Preston”.

Often Liv has begun with a one-woman show that she has written herself to perform herself , but things have taken a different route this time. “When Adam (Small), he’s the director, read it, he said these three woman are  so well-rounded and have their own story to tell that it would be a shame not to explore them fully and I totally agree now” she says with a smile of satisfaction; “I would say that these three women are different versions of myself…formidable…vulnerable…softer…the three never actually meet fully, all three are in separate places and they only ever talk to each other by phone or in a television interview and then, at the end, they come together in a theatrical way”.

So how did the play arrive at the Old Red Lion? “Through Adam” Liv replies, “he had a list of theatres that he would like to approach and the Old Red Lion was on top of the list; I met him through his girlfriend, I worked with (her) and she said…let’s give (the play) to him and he said that he was too busy to read it, but when he did he said that he would not let anyone else do this play; at the first meeting I had with him, he knew the play inside out…like he knew everything; being a newbie, I know that I’ll be in extremely good hands with him”. And at this venue? “Yes…what will be brilliant about the Old Red Lion is that it’s so intimate and a lot of this storyline is about tv – there are a lot of tv interviews and, on the tv, you see really like visceral reactions to things and, in a huge theatre, that would get lost”. 

Liv started out training as an actor before turning to writing. She comments “it was almost like a therapy for me…getting down with a piece of paper, I didn’t expect it to be anything and then I sent something off to the Soho Writers’ Lab in 2015 and it was accepted immediately and I thought that maybe there’s something to this and maybe I should try a bit harder”. She did and “from there it kind of snowballed, I did a few more courses I went to the National who helped me to write this one, I went to the Arcola as well and I really enjoyed writing it in theatres, it was more like a collaborative experience”.

Accepting that this play has only female character, Liv does not see herself as exclusively a writer about feminine issues; “looking back now, I wrote about men and men’s stories…maybe because I was a bit scared that I couldn’t write an actual well-rounded female character, because I’m a woman and I should be able to do that; this for me has completely put that to bed…I really am fond of each of these three characters, I feel so connected to them and, yesterday, when we were casting it, I really watched it come alive and I thought wow!”.

In the future, Liv plans more plays “that’s definitely what I have a passion for… I’ve written short films before and I have really enjoyed it but I want to get to know London fringe theatres better…I find that these places are completely different from the West End, they have a sense of community that the West End doesn’t really have…It’s lovely that you can buy a ticket for around £17 and you can come and see a piece of theatre”. It is looking as if Liv is set to become a siginificant addition to the growing number of strong female voices in theatre.

Photo of Liv Warden and Adam Small by Toby Lee (c)

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