Working (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: June 8, 2017 in Theatre

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

In the eyes of America’s current President, the triple whammy of globalisation, de-industrialisation and illegal immigration has snuffed out working life in large parts of his country. Therefore, there can be nothing more timely than the reminder of the values of work that comes from Stud Terkel’s interviews with US workers, first published in 1974 and augmented by further interviews in 2007/08.

This is not the sort of material that we would expect to be adapted into a musical, but Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, with additional contributions by Gordon Greenberg, have done just that. Song contributors range from veteran James Taylor to the new golden boy of musical theatre, Lin-Manuel Miranda. The show was seen Off-Broadway in 2012 and now gets its European premiere here. Turning the Large space at Southwark Playhouse into a factory floor may not have presented too much of a challenge for designer Jean Chan.

Young and old, blue collar and white collar, management and managed, the show cuts across professions, each segment featuring one of six performers portraying an interviewee, many centring on a song. A fast food delivery boy and a builder’s labourer appear and then a teacher for 40 years (Gillian Bevan) laments Nobody Tells Me How in a song by Susan Birkenhead and Mary Rodgers. A trolley dolly (Siubhan Harrison) serves lukewarm coffee, knowing that her plane is two hours away from a crash landing and a truck driver (Dean Chisnall) hits the road singing Taylor’s Brother Trucker. The excellent songs are sung beautifully, Krysten Cummings, Peter Polycarpou and Liam Tamne being the remaining performers.

A frequent problem with verbatim pieces is that the production can easily mock the words of its subjects, but director Luke Sheppard makes sure that we laugh only with the characters whose simple, natural wit shines through. They are given respect and dignity in a production that is filled with heart and energy. The result is an uplifting celebration of the tiny cogs in a massive wheel and of the human spirit. Choreographed by Fabian Aloise, a singing and dancing chorus of six supports the featured performers and Isaac McCullough’s small band provides backing in the varying musical styles.

Without a linking narrative thread, the show risks seeming fragmented, but the adaptors provide cohesion in neat ways, as when a socialite raising money for charity appears alongside a hooker. Pride in work is a consistent theme, brought out most movingly in Craig Camelia’s The Mason and most amusingly when a waitress likens her work to performing on stage in Schwartz’s It’s An Art. The driving force of characters wanting better for their children also recurs many times. In Micki Grant’s Cleanin’ Women, a mother, the fourth generation of cleaners in her family, commits to a different life for her daughter and, in Schwartz’s Father and Sons, a father glows with pride at his son surpassing him.

In a nod to the modern day rust belt, Polycarpou brings tears to the eyes as he goes through his daily routine following redundancy in Miranda’s A Very Good Day, adding to the mix of pathos and humour that are balanced perfectly throughout the show’s 90 minutes. Working could seem so unlikely a musical that maybe it has no right to work, yet somehow it does beautifully.

Performance date: 7 June 2017

Punts (Theatre 503)

Posted: June 8, 2017 in Theatre

⭐️⭐️

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

The hardest part of parenting can be letting go, as Antonia and Alastair eventually come to realise in Sarah Page’s new one-act comedy. Their 25-year-old son Jack has learning difficulties, so perhaps they feel justified in keeping him on a short lead, but are they going too far when they decide to organise his sexual initiation?

Set in an affluent, leafy South-West London suburb, the play begins with refreshing candour as Antonia prepares Jack to receive his visitor, a prostitute selected by her with meticulous care from a long list of possibles. Christopher Adams captures Jack’s diffidence as he anticipates the event with the same enthusiasm as for a trip to the dentist. Antonia goes out and the prostitute, Kitty (real name Julia) arrives, instructing Alastair to turn up the volume on the television before she goes upstairs.

Florence Roberts’ Kitty is calmly assured and professional and Jack duly rises to the occasion. Accepting that the subject matter is delicate, Page still tiptoes around the initiation scene too much and the play’s humour, grounded in awkwardness and embarrassment, begins to lose the bite that it had promised. This sets a pattern and much of what follows feels like a routine, toothless domestic comedy which Jessica Edwards’ production fails to ignite..

Jack calls himself “spazzy”, but, although Adams plays him touchingly, Page gives him dialogue that is more savvy than seems right. With the play’s core theme dealt with in a few short scenes, the writer then embarks on exploring the consequences and does so in stages of decreasing plausibility. Having tasted the fruit once, Jack asks for a return visit, risking becoming too close to Kitty/Julia, but, with newly found confidence, he can now start a tentative relationship with a “spazzy” girl. We are left uncertain as to whether this is a good or bad thing.

Graham O’Mara’s too virtuous to be true Alastair is, predictably, tempted by the allure of the seductive Kitty and he sympathises with her plight when she is revealed as a vulnerable Julia. He has another Julia in mind when the prostitute inspires him to act out a scene from Pretty Woman with his wife and Clare Lawrence-Moody’s controlling Antonia has, by now, jumped from being the eager force behind her son’s treat to a possessive mother who is resentful of Julia. When Julia accuses Antonia, a stay-at-home housewife, of being a whore herself, she seems to hit her Achilles heel.

Page touches on some interesting themes, but they are under-developed and scattered, so that the later parts of the play lack focus. Punts is well-intentioned and it starts out looking edgy and irreverent, but its efforts to err on the side of good taste end up making it feel bland.

Performance date: 5 June 2017

Photo: Claudia Marinaro

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Octoroon is an 1859 melodrama by the Irish playwright Dion Boucicault, set on a Louisiana plantation. Here we have An Octoroon, a modern re-working by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, first seen in New York. The rarely used word in both titles means one-eighth black.

It is doubtful if Jacobs-Jenkins would claim that either the original or his own version is a great piece of literature, but what he has created is an extraordinary work of theatre and Ned Bennett’s ferocious production quite literally tears into the foundations of the Orange Tree. Jacobs-Jenkins himself (played by Ken Nwosu) appears in his underwear for a prelude, introducing  a playwright (Kevin Trainor) who is developing a production based on Boucicault. Nwosu (a black actor) then paints his face white to alternate as two slave masters and Trainor (a white actor) paints his face red to play a native American. Another white actor, Alistair Toovey, blacks up to play a crippled old slave. Colour blind casting has become a norm in modern theatre, but this is colour altered casting.

While increasing the tone of melodrama, the greasepaint has a startling effect, aimed at unsettling a modern audience and, in unexpected ways, using ironic humour to challenge us into confronting lingering prejudices surrounding the abominations of slavery, racism and sexism. Bennett augments the tension with alarming stage effects, using this small in-the-round theatre as probably never before. A second act scene change (a stage change to be precise) halts the play as repeated variations in pace unsettle us further and encourage us to expect the unexpected.

In contrast to the parade of grotesques formed by the men, the women are all played conventionally. Vivian Oparah, Emmanuella Cole and Cassie Clare are touching and sometimes funny as the slaves whose spirit survives their degradation, Celeste Dodwell is prissy as the wealthy young lady of the plantation and Iola Evans is sweetly romantic as the octoroon herself, white enough to fall for the heir to the plantation, but black enough to be denied her freedom. The company is completed by a cellist (James Douglas) and Clare appears at intervals as Br’er Rabbit to add a further dash of absurdism. Perhaps the play occasionally loses its way and feels too self-indulgent for its own good, but, for originality and dramatic effect, it scores top marks.

Performance date: 3 June 2017

⭐️⭐️⭐️

All that the Menier forgot to lay on here was the log fire, foot stools and carpet slippers. Otherwise, the cosiness is complete for a nostalgic wallow in theatre about as old-fashioned as it can get.  Robert Jones’ sumptuous sets establish the tone for the evening and a play that takes us into a world that no longer exists, if it ever did.

In the mid-80’s Peter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage appeared on Shaftesbury Avenue as a vehicle for Maggie Smith, with the late Margaret Tyzack as her sparring partner. Felicity Kendall and Maureen Lipman now step into their shoes and they fit comfortably. Shaffer’s central notion is that history is best appreciated when given added colour and not too weighed down by inconvenient facts. Well, the writer of Amadeus would argue that way, wouldn’t he? Lettice Douffet (Kendal) is a tour guide at a stately home, who, drawing on her theatrical background, revels in making up preposterous stories about the building for the enjoyment of her parties. Lotte Schoen (Lipman) is the stuffy administrator who fires her. The pair make up over several litres of Lettice’s “quaff” (a concoction of vodka, lovage and other things) and unite to re-enact famous executions from history. It has to be said that Lipman does sozzled particularly amusingly.

Shaffer’s secondary bugbear, the carbuncles that pass for modern architecture, is articulated by Schoen, who puts her head on the chopping block in the manner of Charles I, while sounding like his modern royal namesake. It is all very silly, but there is little to dislike about it, apart from the length – three (yes three!) acts – and there are times when the urge to shout at the stage “get on with it” becomes almost overpowering.  Trevor Nunn directs languidly, but, with these two formidable actors on stage, it seems possible that he would have had very little to do.

Performance date: 31 May 2017

Killology (Royal Court Theatre)

Posted: May 31, 2017 in Theatre

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Links between violence and masculinity (or perceptions thereof) are hard to define, but, in a production first seen at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff in March this year, playwright Gary Owen takes a microscope to the deeper zones of the male psyche and comes to conclusions that are enlightening and disturbing.

The play takes two parallel paths, linking them with stories of conflict, revenge and love. One path examines father/son relationships – the rivalries, the bonds, the conflicting urges to protect and defy. The second probes into modern forms of violence, showing how the real and the virtual draw from and feed each other. “There is an instinctive revulsion to taking a human life. And that revulsion can be conquered” the play tells us chillingly.

Alan is a Dad, with roots in the milder 1970s when, he believes, men would have held hands to face darkness together. Now he recoils in horror at what surrounds his son and his protective instincts drag him into a world of almost unimaginable savagery. Seán Gleeson gives him an air of decency as, with self-deprecating honesty, he hopes for his son to become 100 times the man that he is.

Davey is a precocious and defiant youngster, reaching out to an absent father and going from aged eight through his teens by applying simple logic to surmount daunting obstacles. School bullying is not a new problem, but, here, influences from computer games add a frightening dimension to it, Sion Daniel Young’s intelligent performance suggests innocence and wisdom, bravery and fear, defeat and optimism.

Paul is an arrogant 20-something who has already made a fortune from developing the computer game Killology, his success setting up a fractious relationship with a dismissive, wealthy father. Richard Mylan speaks in the flippant manner of stand-up comic, but reveals an emptiness inside Paul that is waiting to be filled. His brainchild comes from the core principle “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” and he remains oblivious to the consequences of this cut to the kill philosophy until he is actually confronted with them.

Director Rachel O’Riordan gives the production the edgy tension of a suspense thriller, setting up unexpected turns in Owen’s plotting to perfection, The writing is laced with ironic humour, but Owen’s accounts of violence are graphic and unsparing and Gary McCann’s grey/black set design creates an air of foreboding.  Only in a short second act does the emphasis turn towards human warmth and compassion.

Performances of remarkable visceral intensity add power and further insight to Owen’s writing. His play covers complex and challenging themes, but his storytelling has crystal clarity, grabbing us by the throat from the very outset and never loosening its grip.

Performance date: 30 May 2017

Photo: Mark Douet

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

A musical adaption of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace could be the stuff of nightmares, but, rest assured, this distillation lasts well under three hours. After we are informed repeatedly at the very beginning that “Andrey has gone to war”, the (Napoleonic) war plays little further part and what remains is a not too peaceful account of Natasha’s turbulent love life, Pierre’s seemingly inescapable depression and their finding redemption through each other as a comet appears in the sky to bless them.

Thank goodness for last year’s BBC adaptation, because, without it, I could have found the show’s narrative as unfathomable as the New Yorkers sitting around me who, to a man and woman, uttered “what is this all about?” at the interval. Even though the prologue is about as brilliant an of example character establishment as could be imagined, Dave Malloy’s book and lyrics never fully solve the problem of giving clarity to storylines extracted from a vast work, while, out of necessity, glossing over their context. The solution is not made easier to find when, except for a few words spoken by Pierre near the end, the show is entirely sung through.

Happily, my fault finding is now over. Malloy’s score, Russian and Broadway influenced, is varied and thrillingly modern. It demands to be heard again and again. And director Rachel Chavkin’s production, choreographed by Sam Pinkleton, is eye-popping, bringing about what is possibly the most radical transformation of a theatre for a musical since Starlight Express. Ah, let’s pause to give a nostalgic thought for the days when it was creators of British musical who could think outside the box and come up with shows as original and exciting as this. Lamps twinkle on tables placed between seats and what seems like a thousand more shine down like stars from all parts of the theatre. For spectacle, the show is literally an astronomical hit and it is performed not in front of the audience, but among us, the forlorn Pierre seated at a piano, half visible in a sunken position, a spectator to Natasha’s escapades.

Denée Benton’s delightful Natasha is carefree and foolish, falling for the no good Anatole in the absence of her betrothed, Andrey. Josh Groban’s bearded, bespectacled, corpulent Pierre is a sorrowful figure, ridiculed and tormented by an unfaithful wife, Hélène and lacking a sense of purpose; “Is this how I die” he asks himself in his key song Dust and Ashes and, as expected, Groban stops the show. This guy can sing a bit and act too. Lucas Steele’s Anatole and Amber Gray’s Hélène are over-the-top pantomime villains, making sure that, at least, we know who to hiss, but Brittain Ashford as Natasha’s faithful cousin Sonya brings tears to the eyes.

I would like to be proved wrong, but it is hard to imagine that …the Great Comet… has sufficient commercial appeal to be seen in London in this form and indeed it could struggle on Broadway after it loses its star casting. However, it is a bold and ambitious work that pushes the boundaries of musical theatre and I feel privileged to have seen it.

Performance date: 25 May 2017

⭐️⭐️⭐️

It is routine to be asked to switch off mobile phones before a show starts, but, when the request comes personally as an order from a threatening Lenny Henry hovering over your seat, you may be inclined to take particular notice. This is an immersive staging of Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 satire alluding to the rise of Adolph Hitler, adapted and given a modern twist by Bruce Norris. The actors mingle with the audience, audience members participate in the show and the Donmar’s regular seating has been replaced to create a 1930s Chicago night club.

Ostensibly, this is a gangster story, charting the rise of the ruthless eponymous anti-hero to rule over the cauliflower trade of Chicago and make a takeover bid for neighbouring Cicero.  However, the path of the story follows that of the arrival of the Third Reich in the Germany of 1933 and, subtlety not being a tool oft used by Brecht, it is glaringly obvious who Ui is meant to be.  Norris follows Brecht’s lead to make Ui an arrogant, shouting, arm-waving populist modern American politician. Who could that possibly be?

Henry is terrific as Ui, genuinely menacing and, in a sequence in which the mobster is taught deportment by a drunken actor (Tom Edden), he is hilarious. A lollop becomes a strut, the left arm shoots up to a Nazi salute and, then, slowly and deliberately both arms fold in the manner of someone in the news recently whose name still escapes me. Michael Pennington adds gravitas as Dogsborough, the upstanding citizen brought down by Ui and the company fill all the other roles enthusiastically. Director Simon Evans sets out to make Brecht fun and succeeds, finally sledgehammering the subtext home by unveiling a “Make America Great Again” banner. Ah, yes it’s come to me now.

Performance date: 16 May 2017