Archive for September, 2022

The P Word (Bush Theatre)

Posted: September 21, 2022 in Theatre

Photo: Craig Fuller

Writer: Waleed Akhtar

Director: Anthony Simpson-Pike

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

They say that we should not judge a book by its cover, but nor, perhaps, should we judge a play by its title. Waleed Akhtar’s new drama, The P Word, bears a title with such negative connotations that it is hard to believe that it could possibly be the cover for a tender and intimate bromance which frequently brings tears to the eyes.

The play, an 80-minute two hander, tells the stories of two gay men, both of Pakistani descent. Bilal, who prefers to be known as Billy, is 31-years-old, second generation British and out to his parents, but largely estranged from them. He has a career, but suspects that racism could be holding him back. Played with a likeable swagger by the writer himself, Billy is comfortable with his sexuality, cruising the gay scene and using dating apps for casual hook-ups, but he senses a need for more meaningful connections, having little idea of how to change his lifestyle.

Zafar is slightly older and has been seeking asylum in the United Kingdom on the grounds of homophobic persecution in Pakistan. He has bean beaten and his male lover has been killed at the behest of his own father. He lives in Hounslow, which the play suggests is a no man’s land between Heathrow Airport and the real world. Esh Allandi’s Zafar is withdrawn and confused, but releases of his true, bubbling personality give this production some of its most joyful moments.

Director Anthony Simpson-Pike’s in-the-round staging has energy, warmth and, in a thrilling climax, urgency. Max Johns’ design, a revolving circular stage, draws the audience into the drama. 

When Zafar goes to a Gay Pride event in order to take photos to help prove to the Home Office that he is really gay, he is a fish out of water, but he meets a very drunk Billy and an unlikely friendship begins to form. They share a love for the work of fashion designer Alexander McQueen and for old Pakistani movies, but, in other respects, the things that they have in common – their national identity, their sexual orientation – are the things that threaten to keep them apart. Zafar has moved from a land where he was persecuted to another where homophobia, Islamophobia and racism still prevail, albeit in much diluted forms.

The progress of the two men confronting the challenges thrown up by modern Britain shapes a gripping narrative. They are set adrift, wholly or partly, from family, faith and cultural heritage, but they draw strength from each other. Social and political issues abound throughout the play, but Akhtar’s great skill as a writer lies in keeping them secondary to the unfolding human drama. The dialogue, as spoken in two marvellous performances, feels entirely natural, filled with wry observations and subtle humour. 

Do the two men drop the letter “b” from their bromance and do they triumph over adversity? No spoilers, but there can be little doubt that the play itself is an outright triumph.

Performance date: 20 September 2022

Handbagged (Kiln Theatre)

Posted: September 16, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Tristram Kenton

Writer: Moira Buffini

Director: Indhu Rubasingham

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A few months after the death of Margaret Thatcher in 2013, Moira Buffini’s Handbagged, a satire on the relationship between the former Prime Minister and her Monarch, premiered at the Kiln Theatre (then named the Tricycle) and became an instant hit, later transferring to the West End. Sadly and purely by coincidence, director Indhu Rubasingham’s revival of her own production arrives immediately after the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Respectful satire, perhaps an oxymoron, is difficult to pull off in normal circumstances, but, at this time more than ever, the emphasis has to be on respect, thereby leaving Rubasingham with the trickiest of balancing acts. Given little time to come to terms with the new reality, the production achieves its goals without being noticeably restrained and it is unlikely to cause offence to anyone, except, perhaps, surviving hard core Thatcherites. 

The play’s premiere followed hot on the heels of Peter Morgan’s The Audience, which also examined HM/PM relationships, but veering further towards historical accuracy than is made possible by Buffini’s mocking style. Her play chronicles Mrs Thatcher’s period in office from May 1979 to November 1990; in those years, the Queen is played by Abigail Cruttenden and the Prime Minister by Naomi Frederick.

Buffini widens the play’s perspective with the very effective device of having an older Queen and ex-PM providing a commentary and distinguishing their versions of the truth from myths. Marion Bailey reprises her role as the older Queen, having played the Queen Mother in the Netflix series The Crown in the intervening years.  Kate Fahy is the older PM. The impersonations and characterisations are spot-on, matching popular perceptions of the two ladies perfectly. Her Majesty sits calmly at the top of the social ladder, striving to understand what is going on below and Mrs T is the arrogant and stubborn social climber who declares: “…I don’t notice I’m a woman”.

All four are on stage for almost the entire production, with Romayne Andrews and Richard Cant sharing all the male roles (plus that of a bearded Nancy Reagan) between them. They make a formidable comedy double act in their own right. Richard Kent’s set design has simple grandeur, with piled-high geometric shapes towering behind a white thrust stage..

The play has a serious core as the characters debate inner city riots, the Falklands War, the Miners’ Strike, Section 28, Apartheid, the Poll Tax and so on. In one corner, Mrs T defends her pursuit of strict dogma and, in the opposite corner, the Monarch pleads for compassion. We sense that Buffini is on the side of her Queen. When politics threatens to consume the play, as in the later stages of the first act, a liberal sprinkling of good jokes comes to the rescue and, by the end, we are left with the impression that a certain amount of strained affection came to exist between the two protagonists.

When it is funny the play resembles a decades old episode of Spitting Image. When it is serious, it revisits the issues of what is probably already the most talked over and dramatised decade in our country’s peacetime history. In consequence, dated humour and themes, along with over-familiarity were already working against this revival even before it was struck by the misfortune of bad timing, but it still raises a fair number of chuckles anyway.

Performance date: 15 September 2022

Who Killed My Father (Young Vic Theatre)

Posted: September 9, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Writer and director: Ivo van Hove

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The absence of a question mark in the title gives a hint that Who Killed My Father is far removed from being a thriller in the Agatha Christie mould. The name of Ivo van Hove on the billing gives another. Returning to the venue of his first London triumph, the 2014 revival of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, the innovative Belgian-born director  brings his own adaptation and translation into English of a celebrated autobiographical book by French writer Édouard Louis. The production is staged by the Young Vic in association with Internationaal Theater, Amsterdam.

The play, a 90-minute monologue, at first takes the form of a one-way conversation between a man and his unseen, disabled father. The son is returning from his home in Paris to the industrial town in Northern France where he grew up. He begins to confront the son/father relationship by recalling incidents from his childhood and teenage years and connecting them to his father’s own upbringing.

Dutch actor Hans Kesting is a mesmerising presence as the son; immersed in 1990s pop culture, he craves for his father’s attention by dancing to Barbie Girl, while a glitter ball spits out light around a darkened room and he sobs through the film Titanic over and over again. The son is a homosexual, evident from an early age, and this brings about conflict with the father’s ingrained macho outlook; he believes that a man’s masculinity can be judged by the masculinity of his son.

The central relationship is complex and intense, a tangled web of love and loathing. This is not easy to put across to an audience, but van Hove’s total mastery of theatre craft and Kesting’s visceral performance illuminate even the darkest corners. As set and lighting designer, the director’s regular collaborator, Jan Versweyveld, creates an austere room with bare grey walls, into the darkness of which piercing shafts of bright light trespass. The atmosphere is grim as the son’s quest for resolution turns suddenly to outright rage.

In what comes close to being an astonishing coup de théâtre, van Hove switches tracks and turns a play that had been intimate and inward-looking into a forceful political diatribe against the suppression of the French working class. The darkness is lifted and Kesting’s demeanour changes as an introspective souls searcher becomes a public orator. The writer/director’s skill in pulling off this transformation inspires awe.

The play says “J’accuse” eloquently in words that should resonate as strongly on this side of the Channel as in France. Clearly, Who Killed My Father is not a whodunnit. It is ultimately a searing indictment of the known culprits of a crime. This is a sombre play for sombre times.

performance date: 8 September 2022

Silence (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted: September 7, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Manuel Harlan

Author: Kavita Puri

Writers: Sonali Bhattacharyya, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Ishy Din, and Alexandra Wood

Director: Abdul Shayek

⭐️⭐️

It is now 75 years since the partitioning of the Indian sub-continent as part of the process of gaining independence from the British Empire. A seemingly arbitrary line was drawn on a map to divide predominantly Hindu India in the south and predominantly Muslim West Pakistan and East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) in the north. 

Silence, premiering at the Donmar Warehouse prior to transferring to London’s Tara Theatre, is a 100-minute play based on Kavita Puri’s archive of interviews with some of those who experienced the transition and are still living in the United Kingdom. Working with four writers (Sonali Bhattacharyya, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Ishy Din and Alexandra Wood), Puri has dramatised transcripts of those interviews for the stage, putting history into the context of modern British life.

The play is given a dramatic structure through the character of Mina (Nimmi Harasgama), who we take to be based upon Puri herself. Her father is ailing and she urges him to break his silence about the events of 1947. When he refuses, Mina’s determination to hear the testimonies of other survivors grows. Her aim is to provide a record from a generation that has remained largely silent, but is now dying out, so that succeeding generations of British South Asians can gain a clearer understanding of the traumas suffered by their forebears. Perhaps a secondary aim could be to prick the collective conscience of the former Imperial power. 

Worthy as Puri’s intentions undoubtedly are, turning the testimonies into verbatim theatre presents challenges which proves difficult to overcome. Six actors, playing multiple roles, tell the stories. The actors are: Renu Brindle, Sujaya Dasgupta, Bhasker Patel, Jay Saighal, Rehan Sheikh and Martin Turner.

They tell us of neighbours who are friends in the morning trying to kill each other in the afternoon, as a toxic combination of politics and religion wreaks mayhem. We hear of Hindus fleeing south of the dividing line to avoid persecution and Muslims fleeing north for the same reason. We hear of genocide without a single perpetrator, rape, mutilation and human suffering on a scale that is almost impossible to  comprehend.

Director Abdul Shayek strives to add dramatic tension and texture to the stories, but is thwarted by the limitations of verbatim theatre. A group of excellent actors struggles to create three-dimensional characters when the format offers little more than narration to work with. 

What we hear is truly shocking, but key elements of human drama are missing and the accounts heard are never as moving as we feel they should be. As one horror story follows another, repetition begins to drain the drama of its power, resulting in the intended climax, when Mina’s father eventually opens out, becoming the biggest disappointment of all.

Performance date: 6 September 2022

Tomorrow Morning

Posted: September 6, 2022 in Cinema
Ramin Karimloo, Oliver Clayton and Samantha Barks

Writer and composer: Laurence Mark Wythe

Director: Nick Winston

⭐️⭐️⭐️

In recent times, film musicals have proved to be a precarious business. A few, such as The Greatest Showman, have become gigantic hits, while others…well let’s not dwell for too long on Cats. It seems that few have hit the middle ground, but maybe Tomorrow Morning will find it; a modest musical, it could be destined for modest success.

This bitter-sweet British film is adapted from a stage musical which appeared off-Broadway in 2011, having had a short London run in 2006. The setting is Wapping, by the side of the River Thames, which is made to look gorgeous and director Nick Winston never misses an opportunity to bring Tower Bridge and the Shard into shot. These are images of which the London Tourist Board will approve, but the opulence seen throughout the film could contrast starkly with real life in inflation-hit Britain during the coming Winter.

In essence, the film is Kramer vs. Kramer with songs. A 40-ish professional couple with a cute, precocious 10-year-old son split up and fight over custody of their luxury penthouse apartment. They are Will and Catherine (spelled with a “C” in case of confusion); he is a writer, frustrated to be working for an advertising agency and struggling to come up with a strap line for a campaign to promote diamonds; she is an artist who is achieving growing success with her paintings.

Intercutting with the divorce storyline, the film goes back a decade with scenes set around the time of the couple’s wedding. As we could all have guessed that Will and Catherine were once blissfully happy, it is difficult to see the point of these scenes, apart from letting us know what she looks like in a white dress and he without his beard.

Ramin Karimloo and Samantha Barks are accomplished musical theatre performers and they fill the leading roles with considerable charm. As their best mates, George Maguire and Fleur East make lively contributions, helping to add a feel good glow to proceedings.

When the parallel stories face being dragged under by their predictability, solid supporting performances come to the rescue and inject much needed touches of comedy. Anita Dobson is Will’s bossy boss,  Harriet Thorpe is Catherine’s fussing mother and Henry Goodman is her stern-faced solicitor. Tasty one-scene cameos from Omid  Djalili in a bathtub as Will’s father and a blonde Joan Collins as Catherine’s glamorous, man-eating, octogenarian granny add to the film’s buoyancy. At the other end of the age spectrum, Oliver Clayton inevitably steals scene after scene as Zach, the boy torn between his parents.

Musically and thematically, there are strong similarities to Jason Robert Brown’s chamber musical (also filmed) The Last Five Years, which shows far more insight and invention in tracking two people joining together and breaking apart. The key difference is that this film shows the beginning and (probable) end of the relationship, but skips over the intervening years and fails to investigate fully the key questions of how and why disenchantment set in.

Writer Laurence Mark Wythe shows a clear understanding of how a screenplay and songs need to work together in a film musical to drive narratives and flesh out characters. His lyrics are generally strong, his tunes are generally bland, but, however mediocre the songs may be, the film would have become a pretty dire affair without them.

We are not going to wake up tomorrow morning to find that musical cinema has a massive new hit, but this film deserves an audience and should provide a comforting escape from bleak times ahead.