Archive for March, 2022

Photo: Brittain Photography

Writer: John Lahr

Director: Nico Rao Pimparé

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Primarily noted for a meagre three hits, playwright Joe Orton was a leading figure in 1960’s “Swinging” London, rebelling against the establishment with wit and vigour, until, suddenly in August 1967, it all came to a stop. John Lahr’s play uses Orton’s personal diaries, quoting some extracts verbatim, to paint a picture of the final years of the writer’s life,

 When the play’s main action starts,  Entertaining Mr Sloane and Loot are already successes, having caused outrage among more traditional theatregoers, but their writer remains resident in a small Islington flat shared with his long-term partner Kenneth Halliwell, who is seven years older. Toby Osmond’s Halliwell, dressed in a business suit and with an ill-fitting wig to hide his baldness, is brittle and humourless, resentful that his one-time prodigy has now eclipsed him. The deterioration of Halliwell’s mental health, leading to his brutal murder of Orton and suicide, is extremely well played.

in covering ground gone over in many dramatisations and documentaries, director Nico Rao Pimparé’s production challenges George Kemp, playing Orton, not only to match up to previous performances (most notably by Gary Oldman), but also to fit in with appearances by Orton himself in several surviving television interviews. Kemp is certainly convincing as the cocky East Midlands upstart gatecrashing the London scene, but he does not quite find the rough edges and air of danger of a still rebellious celebrity in his 30s. Four actors share supporting roles, which include Kenneth Williams and Paul McCartney.

The problems with all diaries are that they give just a single perspective on their subjects and they tend to focus on intimate personal details. Here, Orton’s obsession with casual homosexual encounters is so prominent that we feel entitled to ask: “how did he ever find time to write plays?” Whether at home in London or on holidays in North Africa, it is all much the same and explicit details, having lost their power to shock decades ago, do nothing to arouse interest. As a result of repetition, the play feels far too long.

One of the greatest ironies surrounding Orton is that two of the pillars of the establishment against which he rebelled began to be dismantled within a year of his death. In 1968, homosexuality was partially decriminalised in England and Wales and the role of the Lord Chamberlain’s office in censoring theatre was abolished. Whether or not Orton played any part in forcing these changes is not considered in Lahr’s play, which begs for more context than can be drawn from a personal diary.

By the time that What the Butler Saw opened in London’s West End in 1969, with a distinguished cast led by Sir Ralph Richardson, Joe Orton had become part of the establishment that he had so despised and the adjective “Ortonesque” had entered the English language. Without a doubt, the playwright was a somebody, but Lahr’s play seems prompted by the title of that final hit by taking a prurient peep at Orton’s personal life, while offering little to explain the nature of his genius.

Performance date: 30 March 2022

Photo: Ali Wright

Writer and director: Edward Einhorn
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The celebrated writer Gertrude Stein and her lover/wife Alice B Toklas were Americans in Paris long before Gene Kelly went there to dance. According to US writer Edward Einhorn’s play, receiving its European premiere, they were part of an artsy set that populated the French capital in the early part of the 20th Century, flouting society’s conventions and getting away with it the name of “genius”.

As the title states, the story centres entirely around the wedding of the two women. This is the sort of play, packed with intellectual pretentiousness, that frequently wows New York audiences a long way off Broadway and it seems to have found an equivalent London home in a basement near to Piccadilly Circus. The characters mill around and discuss art and death, love and sex, just as we imagine artistic folk always do, but none of the conversations go anywhere.

Rarely can a play have made such a big deal out of actors doubling up on roles, presenting it in the text as a joke in the opening scene and then repeating the joke over and over again until it becomes exceedingly tiresome. Everyone on stage, at some point, is a character “pretending” to be another character.

On the rare occasions when the real people are allowed to come through, Natasha Byrne (Gertrude) and Alyssa Simon (Alice) are a touching, mildly eccentric couple. They whet the appetite for the story to be retold in a more cohesive, less gimmicky form. Mark Huckett is a boorish, hard drinking Ernest Hemingway and Kelly Burke is a flamboyant Pablo Picasso. The four actors share the wedding guests, who include TS Eliot, James Joyce and Thornton Wilder.

Machiko Weston’s set design, an array of empty white picture frames, unintentionally reflects a play that is showy, but short on real substance.  Einhorn’s production of his own work is billed as a comedy, but most of the laughs come in the form of embarrassed sniggers when actors are being particularly silly. A prevailing air of flippancy makes the evening palatable, but it persistently undermines efforts to get scenes taken seriously.

Running for just 90 minutes, this bizarre play has two acts but no proper interval, just a short break in which the whole audience is served “Champagne” to toast the happy couple. The show finds a way to bring some welcome cheer after all.

Performance date: 22 March 2022

Tom Fool (Orange Tree Theatre)

Posted: March 20, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: The Other Richard

Writer: Franz Xaver Kroetz

Director: Diyan Zora

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By 1978, when Mensch Meir (Tom Fool) premiered, Franz Xaver Koetz had become Germany’s most performed living playwright. The play suggests that, in chronicling family dysfunction, he could be the German equivalent to his United Kingdom contemporary, Alan Ayckbourn, but his characters are perhaps one step further down the social ladder and his themes are more overtly laden with left wing sentiments.

Director Diyan  Zora’s revival of the play, performed from a translation by Estella Schmid and Anthony Vivis, remains rooted very firmly in 1970’s Germany. As such, it struggles to find contexts in time or place.  that could connect it strongly to modern Britain, its social attitudes and politics looking conspicuously dated and, of course, foreign. However, it still fascinates as a curiosity akin to a museum exhibit and the comic drama which edges towards tragedy still grips.

41-year-old Otto (Michael Shaeffer) describes himself as “a human screwdriver” in his mind-numbing low skilled job at a car factory. His wife Martha (Anna Francolini) does not question her role as home maker, spending her 850 DM per week housekeeping allowance frugally. Their teenage son Ludwig (Jonah Rzeskiewicz) sleeps on a sofa bed in the living room of the family’s small flat; he has finished school and has no job, so he does nothing, rejecting parental pleas to take up the law or dentistry by stating a preference for starting a bricklaying apprenticeship. It seems that the entrapment of the oppressed working classes in lives without hope is to be passed down from one generation to the next.

There are touches of Willy Loman from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in Otto as he crumbles in the face of his own failures. He is a slave at work who attempts to be a slave master at home, obsessing over trivia. Shaeffer’s deadpan style finds comedy in the character’s absurd pedantry without losing sight of the tragedy in his plight; his escape to a fantasy world as the pilot of a model glider is strangely touching. Francolini suggests that Martha could be made of sterner stuff, but she is just as downtrodden as Otto when she performs her household and conjugal duties, without questioning; her fawning over a Swedish royal wedding on television allows Kroetz to illustrate the power of the social hierarchy which underpins capitalism.

Zora’s production navigates the play’s many awkward turns confidently, its boldest sequence coming towards the end of the first act. Otto’s pent up frustration explodes in a fit of rage which sees him smashing everything in the flat across the floor; then, slowly and methodically, he and Martha clear up the mess. The anger simmering beneath their calmness and total silence is almost deafening.

The short second act feels anticlimactic and adds little to a drama that had already run its course. In 2022, the human screwdriver would have been replaced by a machine, Martha would be a joint breadwinner and the bored Ludwig would be preoccupied with computer games and social media. Beyond such details, Tom Fool prompts the question as to whether working class lives have much changed.

Performance date: 16 March 2022

Bacon (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: March 5, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Ali Wright

Writer: Sophie Swithinbank

Director: Matthew Iliffe

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Stories of sickening violence among adolescent boys attending inner city schools frequently fill local news reports, but we get few insights into the details of their lives and the causes of their behaviour. Sophie Swithinbank’s new 75-minute one-act play interrogates teenage macho culture with the vision of an outsider looking in and uncovers its soft centre.

Mark and Darren are 15-year-olds, both from single parent families, but seemingly polar opposites. Mark is geeky, smartly dressed, conformist and proud of the waistcoat that he made for his dog. Darren is an unruly, aggressive bully, lying as conspicuously about his sexual exploits as about a three-day holiday to Barbados; his idea of defying convention is walking through a drive-through McDonald’s, but his love for his three pet mice (Mac, Cheese and Salad) points to some redeeming features. For entirely different reasons, both boys are friendless. The story of their odd relationship is told by Mark, after an unexpected reunion four years later.

The see-saw which spans the width of the traverse stage in Natalie Johnson’s simple set design could be a metaphor for the progression of the play, as laddish comedy and visceral drama vie for supremacy. Bacon begins as a bitter-sweet bromance, but becomes a riveting emotional journey as both Mark and Darren struggle to come to terms with their sexuality. The constant throughout the play is Swithinbank’s razor-sharp writing.

Corey Montague-Sholay reveals the inner turmoil beneath Mark’s calm and orderly exterior. There is genuine astonishment on his face when it occurs to him that Darren had simply acknowledged his existence. Mark realises that he is gay, but cannot make sense of his feelings towards Darren and, in his confusion, resorts to self harming.

The vulnerability masked by Darren’s swagger is brought out beautifully by William Robinson, who demonstrates clearly that all the character’s rule breaking is motivated by his need to get noticed by a neglectful father. Working together, the two actors generate an explosive force, sparked by physical energy and precision timing.

Using the tight performance space to maximum advantage, director Matthew Iliffe’s sizzling production moves at breakneck speed, slowing down only for the tenderest of exchanges. Like a gourmet fry-up, this Bacon is to be savoured. 

Performance date: 4 March 2022