Archive for September, 2019

Valued Friends (Rose Theatre, Kingston)

Posted: September 29, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Stephen Jeffreys      Director: Michael Fentiman


We hear a great deal today about the difficulties that young people face in getting a foothold on the property ladder, which makes it easy to forget that, only 30 years ago, during the era of the Margaret Thatcher Government, home ownership was almost mandatory and the property ladder could often turn out to be a fast-moving escalator. Stephen Jeffreys’ comedy/drama, first seen at Hampstead Theatre in 1989, centres on four friends just gaining that now elusive foothold,

By June 1984, 30-somethings Sherry, Howard, Marion and Paul have completed a decade sharing a rented basement flat in a run-down converted mansion in London’s Earl’s Court. When a property developer wants to take over their building, they face a range of choices which could take them on a road to riches at a time when “greed is good” was an oft used mantra, but at what cost to their friendships?

Natalie Casey’s chaotic Sherry is the play’s fun character. She is a wannabe comedienne with no regular income and no instinct for dealing with money. The rest of the quartet are rather a dull bunch in Michael Fentiman’s production. Howard (Michael Marcus) is a geeky lecturer and writer with strong Socialist leanings; Marion (Catrin Stewart) works in computers and likes to be the one who pulls all the strings, taking to capitalist wheeler-dealing like a duck to water; Paul (Sam Frenchum), is a freelance music radio presenter and Marion’s on-off boyfriend, who develops a passion for DIY home renovations, perhaps making him one of the original gentrifiers.

Their lives are changed by the arrival of the ruthless developer Scott (Ralph Davis) who starts making offers that can’t be refused. The play has a keen grasp on what happens when a living space turns into a valuable asset – the strains on friendships, romantic relationships and political principles – but it tends to become a little dry, particularly in the second act and Jeffreys seems to recognise this by introducing the comic figure of the philosophising labourer Stewart, played exuberantly by Nicolas Tennant.

Michael Taylor’s set designs for a revolving stage suggest that this production could have been better if seen in the round. Fentiman throws in flashing lights and loud music of the era (and earlier) between scenes, but such effects are not really consistent with the body of the play. However, the biggest problem with his revival is that several of the characters do not come across strongly enough to make us care about them.

As a reflection on the way we were, Valued Friends is interesting more than involving. In a sense, the piece is introspective, representing a decade looking critically at itself. Seen in 2019, it cries out for stronger links that would connect it to modern dilemmas and lifestyles; without them, it feels as if time has devalued the play’s relevance.

Performance date: 26 September 2019

Photo: Pamela Raith

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Amsterdam (Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond)

Posted: September 12, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Maya Arad Yasur      Translator: Eran Edry      Director: Matthew Xia


Amsterdam today remains a city of distinctive architecture and criss-crossing canals, but, in the past, it was also a city of Nazi occupation, collaborators, resistance fighters and Anne Frank. Maya Arad Yasur’s one-act 80-minute play, seen here in a translation by Eran Edry,  seeks to reconcile present with past, probing the origins of modern identity and questioning lingering heritage.

A group assembles as if a team of scriptwriters, bouncing ideas off each other to create characters and develop storylines. Their starting point is an old man living at the top of a modern day Amsterdam building, a nine months pregnant Jewish violinist and the mystery of a 75-year-old unpaid gas bill for 1,700 Euros. As they piece together assorted information and dig into their imaginations, a story emerges that tells of wartime struggles and suggests parallels between 1940s antisemitism and 21st Century racist attitudes.

The play puts itself at risk of being undone by its unorthodox structure, which often proves just as challenging as its disturbing themes. The writer has a tendency to draw us into the story that is being constructed, only to shoot off sharply in a different direction. However, she keeps attention alive with moments of playfulness in her script and director Matthew Xia’s highly animated in-the-round staging brings more of the same. This is Xia’s first production in his role as Artistic Director of the Actors Touring Company.

The play gives the director the freedom to decide upon the number of actors (minimum three) and the lines which they speak. Xia opts for four actors – Daniel Abelson, Fiston Barek, Michal Horowicz and Hara Yannas – all of whom attack their roles with vigour and conviction. The story developed by the “writers” is rounded off with poignancy and irony, but the niggling feeling remains that a conventional dramatisation could have given it much greater power.

Performance date: 11 September 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Hansard (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Posted: September 6, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Simon Woods      Director: Simon Godwin


Most of us may feel that we have had enough of politics in our lives right now, but actor turned playwright Simon Woods seems to think otherwise. His play is a forensic examination of the murky territory where the public and private lives of a politician and his wife intersect. It is quite something for a debut play to be premiered at this hallowed venue, taken on by in-form director Simon Godwin and blessed with the dream casting of Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings, but this is quite some play.

Robin Hesketh (Jennings) is a minister in the Margaret Thatcher Government of 1988. Every weekend, he negotiates the Hanger Lane gyratory and the Oxford by-pass to reach his constituency home in the Cotswolds and be greeted by his bored, heavy drinking wife Diana (Duncan). Hildegard Bechtler’s design for the Hesketh living space is expansive, stretching to the entire width of the Lyttelton stage, and elegant, but it is entirely soulless, not personalised in any way, and we know before a word is spoken that there is emptiness in the lives of the occupants.

Acted out over just under 90 minutes in real time, the play begins as a battle of wills in which both combatants denounce each other with excoriating wit, sharpened over many years of marriage. Left-leaning Diana despises the old school tie brigade represented by her husband, while Robin scoffs at Diana’s favoured artsy set, citing theatregoers and readers of Ian “McKellen” novels in particular.. Woods’ style has the feel of Oscar Wilde, who delved into similar political territory in The Ideal Husband. Under Godwin’s unobtrusive direction, the fun flows freely, but we are always aware of more serious themes lying beneath the surface.

The pompous, upstanding, possibly promiscuous Tory politician and his obedient wife could easily have been seen as stereotypes, but Woods resists temptations for caricature, giving Duncan and Jennings every opportunity (which both seize with relish) to make the characters three-dimensional. We sense from the beginning that something more than duty binds the pair together and the gradual discovery of what that factor is becomes one of the play’s great pleasures.

Woods is even-handed in political debates, allowing both sides of each argument to be heard. A recurring theme is spurred by Diana’s objections to Robin’s advocacy of the infamous Section 28, which prohibited the teaching of LGBT+ lifestyles in schools. He claims to be fearful that white heterosexual men could become extinct within 20 years, but we see him as conforming to the role for which he was born by upholding the traditional values of his times and not as a monster. That said, the play is not just a history lesson, making us aware that the Section 28 arguments have re-emerged in 2019 and that elitist politicians have never gone away.

There are times when Hansard feels like an enjoyable ride without a clear destination, but, when we arrive at the play’s dénouement, it hits with the force of a sledgehammer. Showing consummate skill, Duncan and Jennings move from splitting sides to breaking hearts at the blink of an eyelid. Woods has set the bar high for his second play.

Performance date: 3 September 2019

Photo: Catherine Ashmore

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: