Archive for January, 2020

Uncle Vanya (Harold Pinter Theatre)

Posted: January 31, 2020 in Theatre

Writer: Anton Chekhov      Adaptor: Conor McPherson      Director: Ian Rickson


How can it be that Uncle Vanya, a play about the privileged classes living in Russia towards the end of the 19th Century, gets major revivals in the United Kingdom almost perennially? Perhaps it indicates that the air of decadence, described so vividly in Anton Chekhov’s 1898 bitter-sweet comedy, is felt no less strongly today. Perhaps the sense of living on borrowed time, seen in characters facing the calamity that would arrive with the 1917 Revolution, is felt even more acutely in this, the age of global warming.

In the play, ecology is a preoccupation of the visiting Doctor Astrov, giving Conor McPherson’s new adaptation one of its many modern touches. It seems odd that a work that deals with hopelessness, ennui, unrequited love and growing old should be classified as a comedy, but McPherson’s triumph, along with director Ian Rickson, is to ensure that the melancholy is never allowed to drown out the humour. Unlike many others, this production of the play is genuinely funny.

Vanya, in his late 40s, is managing a country estate with the help of his niece Sonya. Also living there are his stern mother, Mariya (Dearbhla Molloy), a destitute neighbouring landowner, “Waffles” (Peter Wight) and the comforting Nana (Anna Calder-Marshall). Vanya’s sister and Sonya’s mother is dead and the play begins shortly after the arrival from the city of her father, Serebryakov, an academic whose essays are, Vanya claims, read by nobody and his new wife, Yelena, who is 40 years younger than him.

Toby Jones is a superb Vanya, bored, dishevelled, cantankerous and haunted by wasted opportunities to build a more fruitful life. When he responds to small talk about conditions outdoors with: “perfect weather for slitting your wrists”, the actor’s mastery of sarcastic one-liners seems total. Richard Armitage also excels as the heavy-drinking Astrov, richly talented, but suspecting that his life is already on the slide and acutely aware that he will leave no legacy other than the trees which he nurtures proudly. Vanya and Astrov carouse over vodkas and brandies, but they are both besotted with Yelena and become rivals for her affections.

Ciarán Hinds gives authority to Serebryakov’s sometimes dithering attempts to persuade the family of the need to sell the estate in order to manage finances. Rosalind Eleazar makes Yelena a sensible and proper figure in fending off her suitors, but a kindly one in building bridges with her stepdaughter. In so doing, she tells her: “you are not ugly, you have lovely hair” giving scant consolation for her rejection by Astrov, with whom she is madly in love. Aimee Lou Wood’s beautifully observed Sonya takes the knocks stoically, picks herself up and gets on with things. 

Rae Smith’s set design has the grandeur of a room in a Tsar’s palace, with ornate decorations and a magnificent chandelier hanging from the high ceiling. The lighting, designed by Bruno Poet, diminishes gradually as the clouds gather over the characters’ fortunes. Their days of opulence are coming to an end and, while they know that their existences are without purpose, they cling on, because there is nothing else for them to do.

Other Vanyas will come our way, probably in the not too distant future, but this near perfect interpretation will live long in the memory

Performance date: 30 January 2020

Photo: Johan Persson

Writer: Chris Bush      Director: Caroline Byrne


The German myth of Faust, a man who sells his soul to the Devil in return for worldly power and riches, has been dramatised many times and in many forms, including plays by Christopher Marlow and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Chris Bush’s new version, premiering here in a co-production with Headlong, has the twist of making the central character a woman and why not? Women can be as devilish as men can’t they?

Done well, gender switches can energise classics by bringing in fresh ideas and perspectives. Certainly Bush is not short of ideas, but she proves to be less assured in knowing where to take them. We find Johanna Faustus (Jodie McNee), daughter of an apothecary, in London in the 1660s. Her mother has been hanged for witchcraft and she vows to gain revenge. Up pop Lucifer (Barnaby Power) and his sidekick, Mephistopheles (Danny Lee Winter), both looking as if they could have been left behind after last month’s pantomime here, and Johanna’s wishes are granted for the eventual price of eternal damnation.

Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s imposing set design has the took of a large grey tunnel and we have to assume that it is leading to the Underworld. Its scale fits director Carolyn Byrne’s staging, which is never knowingly underacted and never intentionally humorous. The general air is one of hysteria, which is right for a first act that conforms generally with the original myth, but jars when Bush takes the plot in wholly different directions,

Johanna sets off, chaperoned by Mephistopheles, and slaughters a few nasties for vengeance, but it all starts to go wrong for her when she unwittingly ignites the Great Fire of London. In remorse, she decides to use her newly-acquired powers for the benefit of humanity and becomes less like the original Faust than the current Doctor Who, travelling through time at will. 

Fast-forward 200 years and Johanna meets Britain’s only female doctor (Emmanuella Cole), qualifies as a doctor herself and chats on equal terms about medicine with Marie Curie (Alicia Charles). Moving on, McNee seems a great deal more comfortable in the role of a modern professional woman than as a 17th Century victim and she lectures about “digital immortality”, aiming for a world without death. Has the writer really thought that one through?

Revenge, along with greed and power, is a credible Faustian motive, but, when Johanna’s ambitions become altruistic, the logic is dubious, leading to a second act that is packed with diffuse ideas. The writer seems to be saying that the Devil, as commonly perceived, is a force for good and even recurring pleas for justice for women are undermined. If 17th Century witch hunts represented male oppressors persecuting innocent women, Johanna’s pact with the Devil only suggests that male suspicions were justified. Inconsistencies and contradictions such as this result in relevant feminist messages feeling out of place.

A first half of Gothic melodrama and a second half of Doctor Who-style fantasy do not knit together well in Byrne’s uneven production and the play fails to offer a drama that is sufficiently compelling to engage the audience fully in Bush’s ideas. If the Devil turns up here, he (or she) will have trouble in finding a soul to make a bid for.

Performance date: 29 January 2020

Writer: Lucy Prebble      Director: Oscar Toeman


Most plays tend to lose relevance with the passing of time, but exactly the opposite is the case with Lucy Prebble’s early success, first seen at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2003. The Sugar Syndrome looks at random dating from the perspective of a time when internet connections were dial-up, social media was still to emerge and the term “grooming” was most commonly associated with horses, but the writer foresees the dangers that lie ahead with remarkable prescience.

Prebble was just 22-years old when the play premiered. Its central character, Dani, is 17, suffering from an eating disorder and regularly skipping sixth form college. Jessica Rhodes is utterly convincing in the role, capturing the playfulness of a teenager getting her first glimpses of the sinister side of the adult world. She puts on the air of a girl who knows a lot more than she should and matches it with the anxiety of a girl who knows very little at all.

Dani’s first encounter in an internet chatroom is with Lewis (Ali Barouti), a cocky 22-year-old who she meets and treats as if he is a sex toy. Pushing a little further, she then pretends to be an 11-year-old boy and makes contact with an older man, Tim, a paedophile who has served time in prison for a violent act of self-defence. John Hollingworth gives Tim a haunted look which suggests the inner emptiness of a man who can never do more than suppress his base instincts and never find acceptance for his true self.

The dynamics of this odd friendship become Prebble’s primary interest. Dani’s mother, Jan (Alexandra Gilbreath) is in denial about her failed marriage and too preoccupied with learning Pilates for a receptionist job at the local gym to give her daughter the attention which she craves. So Dani turns to Tim and both take on the role of counsellor to the other, providing reassurance and coaching to resist their different temptations.

Prebble’s writing is stark and provocative, but the dark humour which was to characterise her later works, such as Enron and A Very Expensive Poison, is evident throughout. Director Oscar Toeman balances the play’s tenderness and cynicism assuredly, maintaining tension, while confining the action to a tight square, which designer Rebecca Brower surrounds with strips of blue lighting. This is a play which recognises boundaries and pushes hard against them.

Well chosen music tracks also make their mark. Poignantly, Bob Dylan sings Simple Twist of Fate while Dani and Tim dance together in a close embrace, both seeking personal validation, both anticipating rejection. Toeman’s revival never loosens its powerful grip and, quite deliberately, leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Performance date: 28 January 2020

Writer: Valeria Luiselli      Translator: Christina MacSweeney      Director and adaptor: Ellen McDougall


Shots of Tequila offered at the ticket desk give a strong clue as to where the show inside is going to take us. Faces in the Crowd is an adaptation by the Gate Theatre’s Artistic Director, Ellen McDougall, of the 2011 novel Los Ingrávidos by Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli. Its primary setting is Mexico City.

The central character, known simply as “the woman”, is a writer, played with an air of fateful resignation by Jimena Larraguivel. Her home is infested with mosquitos and cockroaches. She lives there with her husband (Neil D’Souza), an architect who is working on plans for a house in Philadelphia and possibly on a life with another woman, her playful young son (Santiago Huertas Ruiz at this performance) and a newborn baby daughter. She develops her stories, relating them to us, but is distracted repeatedly by the pestering boy, the crying baby and power blackouts.

Domestic tensions give the play its structure, climaxing with a lot of props getting smashed, but it is the themes explored in the woman’s stories that provide its heart. We are taken backwards and forwards in time and location, real life intertwines with fiction and the living interact with the dead. As everything becomes a blur in her head, the woman questions whether she or anyone else is more than merely an anonymous face in the crowd. She implores the audience to answer when she asks whether anyone can really see her.

Designer Bethany Wells fills the oblong space with a long table which is extended during the performance, eventually becoming an elevated stage. This helps to give McDougall’s carefully paced production a surreal feel. A musician (Anoushka Lucas) plays small roles in the stories, while she strums her guitar and sings Tom Waits’ Downtown Train, adding to the mystical, dreamlike quality. To a degree, we become mesmerised by the language and the images, without ever becoming involved properly in the drama.

McDougall’s vision of this novel forming the basis for a work for theatre is admirably ambitious, but it is not easy for an audience to grapple with it. The family drama does not have sufficient substance or clarity to really engage us and prepare us to be taken along with the woman’s flights of imagination. In part due to this, the stories become blurred to us long before they are blurred in the head of their writer. 

At 80 minutes without an interval, the play is not overlong, but it is overcrowded with vague ideas, which may project themselves more clearly from the pages of a novel than from the stage of a theatre. Perhaps a few more Tequilas could help.

Performance date: 21 January 2020

Cops (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: January 19, 2020 in Theatre

Writer: Tony Tortora      Director: Andy Jordan


American cop dramas have been part of our staple cultural diet ever since the advent of cinema and television, but rarely, if ever, has the genre translated to the stage. British-based, US-born writer Tony Tortora sets out to change that with this new play set mainly in a room shared by four officers at Chicago’s police headquarters in 1957.

Tortora’s writing shows keen attention to detail which is matched by Anthony Lamble’s set design. Four wooden desks, one in miniature for the rookie officer, all with black manual typewriters and two-piece telephones, are spread around the room along with filing cabinets, a notice board and a fridge in the corner. If there had been some way in which Lamble could have made it all appear in black and white, the evocation of period would have been complete.

The room’s occupants talk a lot and rile each other persistently, but it is not clear that they are doing very much to improve crime statistics in the State of Illinois. Their only active duty comes with overnight stake-outs inside a deserted building, which appears behind the main set. This is a time in which racism and sexism are institutionalised and barely challenged within the police department and corruption on all levels is a norm. Tortora captures the tensions between the four officers and brings them to boiling point in the play’s first act, following it with a second act that is softer and more conciliatory.

67-year-old Stan (Roger Alborough) is senior in age, but not rank. He is weather-beaten, quick-tempered and resistant to change. He has been a cop for more than half a century, having lied about his age to join the force, has seen it all, including the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, and now hangs on because there is nothing else in life for him to do. As a mark of respect to him, the senior officer, Eulee, brings him coffee and doughnuts every morning. Eulie, as played by James Sobol Kelly, is a desolate figure, broken by family tragedy and now regarded in the department as a “soft touch)”.

The rookie, who models himself on Elvis Presley, is 22-year old Foxy, played with a confident swagger by Jack Flamminger and the fourth main character is Rosey, who is black. It is not the fault of Daniel Francis, who plays him, that we know as little about Rosey at the end of the play as at the beginning. He is the only one of the four characters that the writer does not explore properly, which is particularly disappointing when the spectre of racism hangs over this era and his perspective could have added much to the drama.

A fifth cop, Hurley (Ben Keaton) makes fleeting appearances at the stake-outs, begging for sips of warm coffee in breaks from rooftop watch on freezing Winter nights in the Windy City. He is there mainly for comic effect and director Andy Jordan’s production strikes an assured balance between the tension and the humour in this macho environment.

So how does Chicago 1957 connect with London 2020? It is Tortora’s failure to find a satisfactory answer to this question which highlights the play’s chief problem – its lack of clear purpose. The problem is compounded further by the weakness of the narrative which runs through to provide a framework and then climaxes with a cop out ending. Sharp dialogue and solid acting make the dramatic exchanges arresting enough, but, for too long, the play meanders aimlessly.

Performance date: 17 January 2020

RAGS The Musical (Park Theatre)

Posted: January 15, 2020 in Theatre

Original book: Joseph Stein      Revised book: David Thompson      Music: Charles Strouse      Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz      Director: Bronagh Lagan


The original 1986 Broadway production of RAGS never made it to riches, closing after just 22 performances, including previews. But, bearing in mind the pedigrees of the show’s creators, it couldn’t be all that bad, could it? Sure enough, this scaled down version, with a book revised by David Thompson, was developed in the 1990s and it eventually makes its London debut with Bronagh Lagan’s production, transferring from Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre.

Joseph Stein’s book for the hit musical Fiddler on the Roof was based around the persecution of Jews in Russia in the early years of the 20th Century. His work here has the feel of a sequel, telling the stories of Russian Jewish immigrants arriving in New York City circa 1910. After surviving the hazardous crossing, their lives become battles against abject poverty, exploitation, homelessness and anti-Semitism, countered only by dreams of the opportunities that their new country has to offer.

On the evidence seen here, it is hard to imagine how RAGS could ever have been expected to succeed in a large theatre. In this 200-seat venue, with the audience enveloping the stage and musicians mingling with actors, intimacy is key and the show’s often predictable, disjointed narrative becomes secondary to the development of characters. Prime among them is Rebecca, played with superb conviction by Carolyn Maitland, who is determined to use her talents as a seamstress to forge a better life for herself and her young son David.

Lagan can do little to make several lighter scenes work. Most notably, a group outing to the theatre to see Hamlet performed falls terribly flat, but, when the drama is serious, her production rarely falters and a rich array of characters emerges in and around the tenement building where most of the action takes place. Dave Willetts makes Avram, a pious widower, a tormented figure; he is over-protective of his bright-eyed daughter, Bella (Martha Kirby) who is being pursued by budding young songwriter, Ben (Oisin Nolan-Power).

It is in painting a picture of a downtrodden but resilient community that Lagan triumphs. Avram catches the eye of the widow Rachel (Rachel Izen), who makes a point of stressing that, despite advancing years, everything is still in working order. Jack (Jeremy Rose) and Anna (Debbie Chazen) are dressmakers who become exploited ruthlessly by the heartless Bronfman (Sam Attwater) and an Italian Catholic interloper, Sal (Alex Gibson-Giorgio) forms a friendship with Rebecca, trying to involve her in a workers’ strike that he is leading. Here, the story relates to real-life events in New York in 1911.

Charles Strouse’s melodic score is often infused, pleasingly, with echoes of Scott Joplin and Stephen Schwartz’s well crafted lyrics serve the characters and their stories effectively. However, it takes a long time for the show to find a distinctive song that could define it and help it to become more than just a routine American musical. Eventually, Three Sunny Rooms, duetted by Rachel with Avram at a corner of the stage and Bella with Ben at the opposite corner, matches struggle with aspiration and impacts strongly, while the anthemic Children of the Wind leaves behind it a tune to be hummed on the way home.

This musical is not exactly ragged. Rather it is a patchwork of the good and the ordinary, but Lagan’s vivid, emotionally charged and beautifully sung staging raises it to a higher level.

Performance date: 14 January 2020

Writer: Andy Dickinson      Director: Simone Coxall


Chronicling the exploits of a heroic yet reckless adventurer in treacherous, frozen conditions, Shackleton and his Stowaway has much in common with the recent regional and West End hit Touching the Void. Strikingly, both productions demonstrate how to conjure theatre magic out of hardly anything at all, but, here, there is a surprise extra ingredient – dashes of cheeky Welsh humour that would not feel out of place in Gavin and Stacey.

Andy Dickinson’s play, which first appeared at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is, as the title suggests, a two-hander. It is a part-fictionalised account of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17, led by Ernest Shackleton aboard the Endurance. Having set sail from Buenos Aires, a stowaway, an 18-year-old lad from Newport, South Wales, emerges from a storage cupboard to complain to the captain about his squalid travelling conditions.

Descriptive storytelling always remains Dickinson’s primary purpose, but the development of the relationship between the two protagonists could earn the play the alternative title of “The Odd Couple On Ice”. The lad hero worships Shackleton, but, as the voyage progresses, he begins to see more of his fallibilities and judges his actions as less heroic than foolhardy. The writer does not delve deeply into either character, nor does he explore their emotional connection, but strong performances mean that there is no real need for him to do so.

The comedy in Elliott Ross’s impudent upstart stowaway contrasts beautifully with Richard Ede’s arrogant and humourless Shackleton. Admittedly, neither character makes complete sense – we ask why Shackleton’s cavalier attitude had not led to him perishing many years earlier and we wonder how the presumably little educated stowaway could speak with such eloquence and knowledge – but lyrical writing and the many qualities of this production cast doubts aside.

Director Simone Coxall’s thrilling staging proves how much can be achieved with just boards, boxes, lengths of rope and, of course, an energetic couple of actors to move everything around. Set against plain, cold walls, onto which images of icy landscapes are projected, vivid movement and sound effects establish the chilled environment and help to tell the story of human courage and conquest of the forbidding elements.

Shackleton and his Stowaway may not seem the ideal escape from a cold January evening in North London, but it warms the heart and fires up the imagination.

Performance date: 10 January 2020