Archive for January, 2020

Cops (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: January 19, 2020 in Theatre

Writer: Tony Tortora      Director: Andy Jordan

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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

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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

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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