Archive for May, 2022

The Breach (Hampstead Theatre)

Posted: May 13, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Johan Persson

Writer: Naomi Wallace

Director: Sarah Frankcom

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How easily the careless follies of exuberant youth can turn into regret and disappointment in later life. American born writer Naomi Wallace expands on this theme in her play, receiving its UK premiere here, and also examines the bonds of friendship and family, testing the strength of one against the other.

Set in Kentucky, the play begins in 1977. Teenager Acton (Stanley Morgan) and two of his friends, Frayne (Charlie Beck) and Hoke (Alfie Jones), form a club, meeting in the basement of his family home in the poorer part of town. Acton’s father is dead, following a fall from a high rise building, leaving his mother as the struggling breadwinner and his big sister, 17-year-old Jude, becomes de facto family head.

In alternating scenes, the play leaps forward to 1991, when the characters reunite, apart from Acton, who is missing. Shannon Tarbet as the young Jude is vibrant and controlling, extracting power from her position as the outsider. 14 years later, Jasmine Blackborow’s Jude is bitter and resentful, haunted by breaches of trust and loss, as she confronts Frayne (Douggie McMeekin) and Hoke (Tom Lewis) in a quest to uncover the truth of past events.

The storytelling is clear and compelling, but perhaps Wallace allows the focus to drift too much in the direction of Jude, leaving the male characters less well rounded and, crucially, only sketching in the details of Acton’s fate. The boys require each other to make significant personal sacrifices as demonstrations of commitment to their club and it is these actions which are to have lingering consequences, but, with the characters thinly drawn, the sacrifices made strain credibility.

Director Sarah Frankcom stages the play without sets, sharing the writer’s focus on Jude. The male bonding is, possibly, judged too much from a female perspective, but there is no questioning the depth of sibling devotion as Jude and Acton roll down the sloping stage, imagining the thoughts of their father when he was flying through the air to his death. Tarbet and Morgan make an endearing pair, grasping at the last straws of youthful innocence before adulthood encroaches on their lives.

The story is almost complete by the interval, leaving a gloomy second act of reflection and recrimination. This is not exactly a breach of promise, but it brings a disappointing climax to what is, for the most part, an unusual and gripping drama.

Performance date: 12 May 2022

Oklahoma! (Young Vic)

Posted: May 9, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Marc Brenner

Music: Richard Rodgers

Book and lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II

Directors: Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein

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In 1943, during the darkest days of World War II, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! premiered on Broadway, promising beautiful mornings, fresh beginnings and brighter tomorrows. The show captivated audiences and transformed musical theatre, but can it still work its magic almost 80 years later?

The Young Vic’s auditorium is re-designed to look like a school hall and there is no room for wide open prairies in this transfer of Daniel Fish’s stripped back Tony Award winning 2019 revival, now co-directed with Jordan Fein. When Arthur Darvill steps out to perform the show’s famous opening song, Oh What a Beautiful Morning, the contrast with Hugh Jackman roaming the vast Olivier stage, in Trevor Nunn’s 1998 National Theatre production, could not be starker. Oscar Hammerstein II bases his book on the 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs, which follows the lives of a pioneering community in the American West as their territory progresses towards full Statehood.

With a guitar hanging from his shoulders, Darvill looks more like a travelling minstrel than a cowboy and he gives the character of Curly McLain a sinister look which significantly alters the hero/villain balance between him and his rival for the affections of the fair Laurey (Anoushka Lucas). A parallel, more comical love triangle sees the dim witted Will Parker (James Davis) vying with the wily Ali Hakim (Stavros Demetraki) to win, or perhaps lose, the hand of the formidable Ado Annie. Marisha Wallace’s Annie is, emphatically, a girl who can’t say no, giving a powerhouse rendition of her key song to prove it. Liza Sadovy is a stabilising presence as Aunt Eller, the wise head in the community who bravely brokers peace between the farmers and the cowmen.

Weaving dark themes into even the fluffiest storylines would become one of Hammerstein’s trademarks and, in Oklahoma!, the darkness is channeled through the character of Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill, attired in black, looking sullen and despondent), a loser in life and in his love rivalry with Curly. Many productions have seen Jud as a simple baddie, a stock character brought in to create dramatic conflict and then readily disposed of. Here he represents an acknowledgement that, whenever mankind moves forward, someone gets left behind and he is viewed altogether more sympathetically. It becomes crystal clear that Hammerstein is reminding us that American society may be built on good Christian principles, but violence and injustice are also embedded firmly in its foundations.

In this product, dark means very, very dark, as in the pivotal confrontation between Curly and Jud, projected with menacing close-ups onto a large wall. In the second act, the darkness very briefly drains the show of its momentum and it makes transitions back to a celebratory mood feel awkward, but, overall, the directors’ bold emphasis pays rich dividends.

A company of 12 is unusually small for this show, but, when the house lights are up, the audience blends into the action. John Heginbotham’s choreography (from Agnes de Mille’s original) is somewhat cramped by the first act staging, but the second act overture features a solo ballet, danced with enchanting freedom by Marie-Astrid Mence and, then, a rousing The Farmer and the Cowman brings the show to exuberant life.

Arguably the most radical innovations come with the total reimagining of the songs in orchestrations and arrangements by Daniel Kluger. A small band of seven sits inside the performance area, playing instruments including a banjo and electric guitars and embracing styles from Country and Western to Soul, Heavy Metal to Gospel, with many more in between. The surprises seem endless and, if composer Richard Rodgers is turning in his grave, it can only be to join in a toast to the durability and versatility of his marvellous score.

Yes, there are times when the corn is definitely “as high as an elephant’s eye” and, yes, parts of this revival are less uplifting than some may expect, but Oklahoma!’s depiction of honest values in simpler times proves once more that it has enduring appeal.

Performance date: 7 May 2022

Photo: Mark Douet

Writer: Ben Brown

Director: Alan Strachan

World War II has thrown up many unlikely stories and they continue to emerge, but few could be so strange as a meeting to discuss peace between a Jewish leader and Adolf Hitler’s deputy. We are told that such a meeting actually happened in the early hours of an April morning in 1945 and Ben Brown’s new one-act play imagines how events transpired.

Dr Felix Kersten (Michael Lumsden) is an eminent Finnish physiotherapist based in Sweden, who has as a client Heinrich Himmler. He sees himself able to act as a go-between, bringing together Himmler and the Swedish Jew, Norbert Masur, representing the World Jewish Congress. The objective is to secure the release to the international Red Cross of Jews held in concentration camps, thereby preventing a much worse fate for them before the War comes to its now inevitable end.

The meeting takes place in Kersten’s Berlin home, occupied by his housekeeper, Elizabeth (Audrey Palmer). Allied bombers are flying overhead and the Russians are advancing from the East as we listen to the voice of Goebbels over the radio, paying an annual birthday tribute to Hitler, who is holed up in his bunker, unaware of Himmler’s mission.

Richard Clothier’s Himmler has the arrogant air of an old Etonian and, thankfully, no affected German accent. It is clear from the outset that Ben Caplan’s mild manner Masur would be no match for him. The key mystery is why Himmler, one of the chief architects of the Holocaust, would want to justify himself to the Jewish community and seek atonement; the play solves it in a manner that is persuasive when spoken, but leaves lingering doubts. This Himmler is a man who has come to believe in his own propaganda, yet he is also a realist who sees a remote chance that he can lead post-War Germany in an alliance with former enemies against the rising threat of the Russian Bolsheviks.

The playwright’s lucid style is largely humourless, but he brings to the fore all the bitter ironies in the conversations, without overplaying them, while focussing firmly on the detailed facts of the history that he is relating. Director Alan Strachan’s unspectacular staging matches the text perfectly, never seeking dramatic flashpoints, but bringing out solid performances to carry the weight. A testimony from a concentration camp survivor (Olivia Bernstone) ends the play movingly, making it clear that there are no Oscar Schindlers in this story, just pragmatists working to achieve their own different goals.

Brown exposes the dirty business of ending a dirty war. While watching this chilling play, it becomes impossible to stop the mind wandering to current events in Eastern Europe, which will also, at some point, have to be resolved. The night over which this drama unfolds comes to an end, but, seemingly the nightmare is endless.

Performance date: 3 May 2022