Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

The P Word (Bush Theatre)

Posted: September 21, 2022 in Theatre

Photo: Craig Fuller

Writer: Waleed Akhtar

Director: Anthony Simpson-Pike

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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 Esh Allandi’s Zafar is withdrawn and confused, but releases of his true, bubbling personality give this production some of its most joyful moments.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

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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

The Trials (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted: August 19, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Helen Murray

Writer: Dawn King

Director: Natalie Abrahami

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The air conditioning inside the Donmar Warehouse is working perfectly, guzzling energy seemingly without conscience. Momentarily in this hottest of Augusts, it feels good to be part of a generation that is kicking the can down the road. However, by applying the standards set in Dawn King’s sobering play The Trials, first seen in Germany last year, all of us could eventually be held to account for compliance in such misdemeanours and face possible execution.

King imagines a dystopian near future in which the ravages of climate change have taken hold. In an authoritarian system that is almost as frightening as the impact of global warming itself, 12 young people are summoned to serve on a jury for proceedings which they liken to the Nuremberg trials in the wake of World War II. They meet in a room where the windows are sealed to keep out air that is too polluted to breathe.

The jury hears three cases from older generations and then deliberates: all are accused of contributing to the destruction of the environment in which later generations would have to live, despite being aware of the potential consequences of their actions or inactions. A successful businessman (Nigel Lindsay) pleads that he tried to limit his carbon footprint while carrying out his globetrotting job and travelled by train for holidays. A writer (Lucy Cohu) argues that she could do little to influence change. An oil company executive (Sharon Small) accepts guilt for promoting supposedly environmentally friendly products that were actually no more than “greenwashing”.

The play’s subject matter is depressing, but inspired casting of the jurors makes director Natalie Abrahami’s production of it a joy. Drawn from the Donmar’s programme for nurturing young local talent, the 12 actors are all new or relatively new to the stage. It is remarkable that such a range of clearly identifiable characters can emerge in a play that is only 90 minutes in duration. They are hawks, doves and don’t knows and it is their conflicts and alliances that give the drama its backbone.

Outstanding are: Francis Dourado as Mohammed, who reminds of Henry Fonda’s character in 12 Angry Men, swimming against the tide to argue for compassion and justice rather than revenge; and Joe Locke as the hawkish Noah, who sets the bar of innocence so high that even Greta Thunberg would have difficulty in clearing it. That said, enough singling out of individual, the director harnesses the energy of her youthful company to devise a production that is both exhilarating and engrossing.

The trap awaiting any playwright tackling an issue of topical urgency is preaching to the audience. King walks into the trap open-eyed and the delivery of her message is occasionally heavy-handed. Yet, somehow, this matters little, thanks to the performances of the young actors. This deliberating dozen should each have a bright future in the acting profession, assuming of course that there is any future to be had.

Performance date: 18 August

Writer and director: Jack Robertson

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Describing itself in publicity as “a most lamentable comedy” and “an unofficial and unwarranted sequel” to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jack Robertson’s 60-minute comedy, Demetrius Wakes, has set itself targets to live down to. While it would be difficult to make a sequel official more than four centuries after William Shakespeare’s demise, the jury is out over whether or not anything could warrant this flimsy extension to his classic and just how lamentable (or not) it is.

Brought to the stage by MediumRare Productions, the play explores how the dreams of two modern day married couples, drawn loosely from the Bard’s originals, turn into nightmares. It touches on the not uncommon dilemma of dealing with what happens when a joyful burst of romance is taken over by the gradual onset of familiarity and boredom.

Zander (or Lysander) is given a laddish swagger by Jacob Lovesick; he is married to Mia (Hernia), played by Megan Jarvie with a hint of sluttiness. They invite to their home for a wine and cheese party Demetrius, once Mia’s admirer, and his wife Helena. Both couples are celebrating 15 years of marriage.

It occurs to Demetrius (a continuously glum Jack J Fairley) that he fell asleep 15 years earlier and his marriage to Georgia Andrews’ dull Helena must have been a terrible dream. Freeze the action and in steps a highly camp Puck (Sam Harlaut, wearing the Devil’s horns and tight-fitting hot pants) to wreak havoc all round.

What follows resembles a swingers’ gathering without the car keys. Trial pairings of Demetrius with Mia, Zander with Helena, Demetrius with Zander and Mia with Helena come and go. Poor old Puck is left out of all the fun as the four release their pent-up frustrations and spit out venom at each other.

The performances in Robertson’s production of his own play are lively, but not sufficiently so to make the quartet that he has created interesting. The writer’s core idea could have had potential, but a sense of where to take it and develop it fully is not evident and the dialogue contains too little original wit to sustain the comedy even for just an hour.

Although far from lamentable, Demetrius Wakes hitches a ride from Shakespeare and its labours to become less tedious than its main characters are eventually lost.

Performance date: 5 August 2022

Hand of God (Hope Theatre)

Posted: July 22, 2022 in Theatre

Writer: Sam Butters

Directors: Charlie Derrar and Joseph Siddle

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The legendary manager Bill Shankly famously said: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you it’s much more serious than that”. The quote springs to mind while hearing Kieron, the central figure of Same Butters’ 65-minute play Hand of God, describe how the game reaches into every corner of his daily existence.

The play, set in the heart of the Black Country, is transplanted by Tectum Theatre to this pub theatre, which is little more than a long goal kick from Arsenal’s stadium. Kieron (played by Butters himself) supports West Bromwich Albion in the professional game and plays irregularly for Blackheath Town in a local five-a-side league. In frustration, he forms a breakaway team, Dyslexia Untied, recruiting drug dealers to fill the remaining four places.

This show is no Hamilton, but it borrows from the hit musical’s trick of using hip-hop to develop a narrative. Music, described as “garage” in style is composed by Charlie O’Connor, who performs frantically as the DJ and also comes on as substitute for the first team. Co-directors Charlie Derrar and Joseph Siddle keep the production close to boiling point and also provide lyrics.

The play makes only passing references to Diego Maradonna, to whom its title alludes, but draws on the natural humour that is ingrained in football and its followers. However, Butters is at his strongest, both as writer and actor, when focussing on the serious issues of drug abuse and the strained relationship between Kieron and his father. For long periods, the pathos is suppressed, making it all the more powerful when it is finally unleashed.

Hand of God shows a genuine understanding of the role played by football in shaping otherwise ordinary lives and in strengthening cross-generational bonds. So, the critical question is whether Butters’ modest offering is sufficiently on the ball to lure audiences away from the women’s game on their television screens on sweltering July evenings. The short answer must be that it just about is.

Performance date: 21 July 2022

Photo: Johan Persson

Writers: Ed Curtis

Director: Jonathan Church

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With Beverley Knight having gone off to a nunnery (she’s now starring in   Sister Act), The Drifters Girl sails on with new crew at the helm. Stepping in is Grammy-nominated Broadway star Felicia Boswell, who brings with her enough pizazz to make sure that West End audiences will stand by the show for quite a while longer.

Unapologetically, this is a juke box musical, packing the hits (a couple of dozen at a rough count) of The Drifters, a four-man American vocal group of the 1950s and 60s, into 140 minutes of low brow, high energy entertainment. Audiences are likely to enter the theatre already humming the show’s tunes and to leave it singing them loudly. If expectations are set no higher than that, then, from the dazzlingly-staged opening medley through to the heartwarming finale, nothing will disappoint.

Normally, shows like this tell the rags-to-riches story of a musical act catapulted to fame, but the over-familiar format is thwarted here by the fact that The Drifters is more a brand name than a fixed group of individual singers. Working from an idea by Tina Treadwell, Ed Curtis’ book turns the spotlight on the group’s ambitious and single-minded manager, Faye Treadwell and her struggles to steer the group to international success. She combats law suits, frequent changes in the group’s composition and loss, while racial and gender prejudice add some real meat to the story. Interestingly, problems encountered on a tour of the United Kingdom are seen as comparable to those in America’s Deep South.

Boswell’s gutsy performance holds it all together and she throws in a show stopping belter in each half. Child actors in rotation play Tina, to whom Faye narrates the story, but the company consists of just four others; it seems like a lot more. Adam J Bernard, Tarinn Callender, Matt Henry and Tosh Wanogho-Maud are always The Drifters, fitting in neatly with the concept that, regardless of changes in personnel, the group remains essentially the same. The four sing and dance to Karen Bruce’s choreography superbly and they also take on all the other roles (including, to much amusement, Bruce Forsyth).

Anthony Ward’s set designs make much use of fluorescent lighting, combining with Fay Fullerton’s glam costumes to give the show a glitzy feel fitting for its era, while a nine-strong orchestra, under the direction of Will Stuart, backs up with a full sound. Director Jonathan Church’s slick, fast-paced production had already become a well-oiled machine in waiting for its new star to step in and light up the West End. The Drifters Girl remains undemanding and often predictable, but it is still irresistible.

Performance date: 14 July 2022

The Lesson (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: July 2, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Skin Yum

Writer: Eugène Ionesco

Director: Max Lewendel

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Romanian-born playwright Eugène Ionesco became a darling of the French avant-garde movement in the 1950s and some of his absurdist comedies, most notably Rhinoceros, were also celebrated on this side of the Channel. The Lesson is a short one-act play dating from 1953, but what, if anything, can we learn from it today?

The big challenge for director Max Lewendel is to give the kiss of life to a dated piece which many could regard as already moribund. Using a translation by Donald Watson, he starts promisingly with a trio of excellent performances. Jerome Ngonadi is the bombastic and increasingly tyrannical Professor, charged with tutoring his 40th student of the day. Hazel Caulfield is the bouncy, over-enthusiastic Pupil who aims to sit for her doctorate in three weeks’ time and begins by struggling to learn how to count from one to ten. 

Julie Stark, playing a cross between a housekeeper and a dominatrix, interrupts the lesson from time to time with pleas for the Professor to keep his actions under control. As the Professor fails to heed the warnings and the Pupil develops a raging toothache, the lesson moves from mathematics to languages and a tussle for power develops, edging ever closer to mortal combat. 

Set designer Christopher Hone comes up with a traditional study with fittings which open out to reveal an array of blackboards. Ben Glover is credited for video design and creative captioning, using the blackboards to display imaginative graphics at all stages of the production and also, for the benefit of the hearing impaired, the play’s text. There is no shortage of invention in Lewendel’s energetic revival, but all of it combined is not enough to cover up the fact that long stretches in the middle of the play are almost unbearably turgid.

Ways of interpreting Ionesco’s intent could include seeing the play as a satire on the rigidity of formal learning, or as a dire warning against the perils of fascism. However, it may be best not to look too deeply for hidden meanings and simply accept it as an absurd load of nonsense, possibly as the writer meant it to be. Neither particularly educational nor enough fun, sitting through The Lesson most resembles serving out 80 minutes as a punishment in after school detention.

Performance date: 1 July 2022

The Fellowship (Hampstead Theatre)

Posted: June 28, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Robert Day

Writer: Roy Williams

Director: Paulette Randall

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How long does it take for an immigrant community and its new home country to adjust fully to each other? This is the key question asked by Roy Williams in The Fellowship, his newest state of the nation play, receiving its world premiere here. Sisters Marcia and Dawn are descended from the Windrush generation and the play, set in present day London, tells how their lives have followed different courses, while the bond between them has remained strong.

Having stepped in at very short notice to take the pivotal role of Dawn, Cherrelle Skeete emerges in triumph, giving a remarkably assured, almost word perfect performance. Dawn and her partner Tony (Trevor Laird) have had two sons, one of which was murdered in a racially motivated attack. Marcia (Suzette Llewellyn) is a successful barrister who has become involved in a relationship with a high-flying politician and is heading for a fall.

Dawn and Tony’s surviving son, Jermaine (Ethan Hazzard), is now involved in a relationship with a white girl, Simone (Rosie Day). Adding to the family’s woes, the sisters’ mother is upstairs dying, it is revealed that Marcia and Tony were once lovers and both Marcia and Dawn have separate brushes with the law, represented by a black officer, PC Spencer (Yasmin Mwanza). Yes, Williams packs in enough plot, some of it trivial, to fill a whole week’s episodes of Eastenders and the soap-style melodrama frequently threatens to submerge the writer’s cutting and burningly relevant social observations. 

Inserting references to infamous real life event, Williams examines the roles of heritage, identity and family in modern life. He paints a picture of a community which remains ill at ease with its adopted homeland, still harbouring suspicion and mistrust many decades after planting roots there. Marcia is said to be accepted in the corridors of power only because “they” have allowed her to be there and Dawn violently opposes her son’s romance with Simone, because she is white. Williams sees prejudice between minority and majority communities as operating in both direction, but he also expresses hope that barriers are, very gradually, being broken down.

Libby Watson’s set design seems peculiar to say the least. A curved modern staircase embraces the entire stage and a giant overhead halo (representing a much used smart speaker) is mirrored on the floor. Overall, the set resembles the interior of a chic fashion store more than the intimate family living space that it is meant to be and it adds to the muddle of a play which often feels uncertain of its direction.

Director Paulette Randall’s production is at its best when it gives life to the humour in Williams’ writing and at its worst when it substitutes excessive shouting for genuine emotion. The comedy highlight comes with a long speech by Dawn, effectively apologising for becoming immersed in “white” culture. It is delivered by Skeete with total conviction before she dances joyfully to a track by Kylie Minogue.

Part drama and part comedy, part serious social commentary and part soap opera, The Fellowship is, in close to equal measures, entertaining, enlightening and exasperating.

Performance date: 27 June 2022