Not Now (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: November 4, 2022 in Theatre

Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

Writer: David Ireland

Director: Max Elton

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Perhaps a David Ireland play would not be a David Ireland play if it failed to question Northern Irish identity. Irish or British? Both or neither? Not Now, receiving its English premier here, continues that tradition, but expands its themes to explore false identities assumed by ordinary individuals in everyday life.

In plays such as Cyprus Avenue, Ireland’s other most notable trademark has been black, sometimes savage, comedy. That style is hardly evident in this miniature gem, being replaced by a much gentler, even warm-hearted, strain of humour. A breakfast table, set for four with a cafetière as its centrepiece, dominate Ceci Calf’s neat design, but only two characters appear: Matthew (Matthew Blaney), an aspiring actor about to depart for London to audition for RADA, and his uncle Ray (Stephen Kennedy) who remains rooted in Belfast, believing, as he approaches his 50th birthday, that life’s opportunities have passed him by.

It is the morning after the funeral of Matthew’s father, Ray’s brother, who, it seems, could have been living a lie. The play’s comedy emerges from the contrasts between the cultured, ambitious Matthew and his less enlightened uncle, who has trouble distinguishing George Michael from George Clooney. Ray is baffled by the world that Matthew is entering, one in which David Hare is a “Sir” and the supposed greatest, William Shakespeare is not. Fair point, but his own nomination for greatest writer of all time is Stephen King.

In brisk and very funny exchanges, superbly acted, the characters’ outer layers are stripped away and their true selves are revealed.Matthew’s audition piece is to be the opening speech from Shakespeare’s Richard III, hammed up hilariously by Blaney. Later, when Matthew accepts Ray’s challenge to deliver the speech in his own Belfast accent, all the artifice falls away naturally, making a stinging point about theatre technique which could have been noted by director Max Elton, whose quietly effective production never feels over-cooked.

Bringing to mind the playwright’s previous work, it comes as a surprise that this latest play includes no acts of violence. There is a clear sense that Ireland has great affection for the two characters and the actors bring this out beautifully. Playing for a mere 50 minutes, Not Now is a human comedy, pared down to its bare essentials. Not a syllable is wasted and it is not a second too long.

Performance date: 3 November 2022

Elephant (Bush Theatre)

Posted: October 26, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Henri T

Writer: Anoushka Lucas

Director: Jess Edwards

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Elephant is a very small show, named after a very large animal. Its writer and performer, Anoushka Lucas, has worked on grander projects, having played a leading role in the Young Vic’s revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma earlier this year. Here, however, when she sings and plays piano, the Bush’s studio space assumes the ambience of a sophisticated cocktail lounge, with only the drinks service missing.

In her monologue, directed by Jess Edwards, Lucas plays Lylah, a mixed race woman of Cameroon/Indian descent. The story jumps between 1996, when Lylah is a seven-year-old girl being moulded by her family, and around 20 years later when she is a talented musician whose career is being shaped by her record label. She meets and falls in love with Leo, a drummer, but comes into conflict with his upper class parents.

The other love of Lylah’s life is her upright piano, which needed to be lowered into her parents’ council flat through a window space. The piano makes beautiful sounds, but Lylah becomes increasingly aware of alarming facts: its frame is made from mahogany, an endangered wood; its keys are ivory, which has come from an elephant, brutally slaughtered; and, in past times, the elephant tusks would have been transported to Europe part using slave labour.

There is a lot going on in what is, on the face of it, a light comedy. Conservation, black history, personal identity, race and class are all touched upon humorously in passing, but the script does not settle on any of them and it becomes difficult to grasp what is the point of it all. For nearly an hour, the show ambles along, relying mainly on the performer’s charm, of which there is ample, to keep it going. 

Finally, almost miraculously, Lucas brings all her seemingly disparate ideas together and finds a sting in the pachyderm’s tail with a ten minute denouement, brilliantly thought through, which makes profound sense. All now becomes clear: big animal, small show, huge themes.

Performance date: 25 October 2022

Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Writer: Jack Thorne

Director: Indiana Lown-Collins

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Phil hates the word “perfect”, largely because he knows that it could never be applied to him. It is Phil’s relationship with Alice, a deaf girl, that lies at the heart of The Solid Life of Sugar Water, Jack Thorne’s one-act play which illustrates amply that those of us who could never aspire to becoming contestants on Love Island can have lives as full as anyone else.

The play, a two-hander, premiered at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, before the writer’s Olivier and Tony Award-winning triumph with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. This beautifully judged revival has important thing to say in support of social inclusivity and it says them without shying away from harsher truths, while never forgetting that its primary purpose is to entertain.  

Phil, a skinny young man who is losing weight, is given a cocky manner to mask his low self-esteem by disabled actor Adam Fenton; Alice has down-two-earth warmth, as played by Katie Erich, who is herself deaf. Together they make a terrific team, switching effortlessly between comedy and tragedy, hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measures.

The couple’s story is told in non-linear form, jumping backwards and forwards in time, scenes of high comedy intercutting with those of high drama. The dialogue fizzes and it pulls no punches, especially when discussing, with unusual frankness, the explicit anatomical details of the pair’s physical relationship. This provokes many laughs as the play warms up, but Thorne pays just as much attention to the emotional connection as the two young lovers clear the obstacles of everyday living and face up to sterner challenges.

Director Indiana Lown-Collins’ in-the-round production is meticulous in ensuring that it is performed evenly to all sides and all corners of the theatre. The rapid movement of the actors around the stage which this necessitates injects added energy into the entire staging. Designer Ica Niemz places a king-sized bed, draped in white linen in a central position and all of the action takes place on or around it. The play’s script is projected onto the theatre’s upper level, as the lines are delivered, a device with is particularly useful when a short scene is performed using only sign language.

The production grows in confidence as the play takes a tighter hold, reaching a climax when scenes of ecstasy and agony are performed simultaneously, as if two sides of the same coin. Thorne’s play is small and, if not exactly perfectly formed, then pretty close to it.

Performance date: 19 October 2022

Photo: Steve Gregson

Writer: Peter Gill

Directors: Peter Gill and Alice Hamilton

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“…the revolution’s here” proclaims Thunderclap Newman’s 1969 hit song, Something in the Air, which shares its title with Peter Gill’s short play, receiving its world premiere here. An octogenarian, Gill has been a leading light in British theatre for more than half a century and he finds himself well placed to assess a mostly peaceful social revolution in this elegy for people, places and ideals now half forgotten.

Colin (Ian Gelder) and Alex (Christopher Godwin), both in their late 70s,  sit side-by-side in large orange armchairs in what is, unmistakably, a nursing home. Occasionally, they hold hands and each takes a turn to reminisce while the other falls gently to sleep. They talk of walks along the riverside at Hammersmith and through the narrow streets of Soho, of living through the age of CND marches, rock ’n’ roll and liberation for  LGBTQ+ communities. We gather that they were once lovers and may be again now.

The old men are joined, unseen to them, by Gareth (Sam Thorpe-Spinks) and Nicholas (James Schofield), both in their early 20s, who seem to represent younger versions of themselves, partaking in on/off flirtations. They stand or sit on opposite sides of the stage, as if an invisible barrier has been erected in the middle, where Colin and Alex sit. Conversations overlap, creating an air of confusion and contradiction, indicating symptoms of dementia.

Alex’s son, Andrew (Andrew Woodall) and Colin’s niece, Clare (Claire Price) visit and sit, mainly motionless, facing their relatives. Indeed, the production, co-directed by Alice Hamilton and Gill himself, is, as a whole, largely static, leaving the writing and the vocal performances to do most of the work in selling the play to the audience.

Gelder and Godwin are both marvellous, finding the lyricism in Gill’s words with ease. However, the four subsidiary characters are underused by the writer and it becomes difficult to understand fully what purpose they serve. It feels as if Gill had planned a longer, more profound study of ageing and change in which these characters would have formed part of the narrative, but decided to settle for just a 65-minute taster.

Something in the Air is a poignant twilight play, touching on themes and covering territory which can be taken to be deeply personal to this significant writer. As such, the play cannot be dismissed lightly, even though it leaves behind a feeling of slight disappointment.

Performance date: 18 October 2022

Photo: Charles Flint

Original story: Oscar Wilde

Writers and directors: Olivia Jacobs and Toby Mitchell

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Christmas has arrived early at Southwark Playhouse, where Oscar Wilde’s short story, The Canterville Ghost, has been turned into a coat hanger for a set of Music Hall turns, featuring the kinds of trickery and all-round merriment that are normally held back for the pantomime season.

If it matters, the story concerns Mr Hiram B Otis (Steve Watts),

who acquires Canterville Hall and moves in with his twin offsprings (Matt Joplin and Katie Tranter), only to find that the family is sharing its new home with the ghost of Sir Simon de Canterville (Callum Patrick Hughes), the alleged murderer of his wife back in the 16th Century. Rather than run away scared, as most previous occupants of the Hall had done, the family takes on the ghost and attempts to lay matters to rest.

This brief, thin storyline is broken into six sections, in between which the performers are given longish interludes to demonstrate their specialist skills. Hughes proves himself to be an accomplished illusionist with a string of fairly familiar magic tricks. Joplin turns his hand (the right one) to operating Eddie, a ventriloquists’ dummy, in a highly amusing comedy double act and Tranter lays claim to being a psychic, interacting with the audience in a less than successful stab at mind reading. Watts acts as master of ceremonies and pianist.

Directors Olivia Jacobs and Toby Mitchell, also the adapters of Willde’s story, seem to give the four performers the freedom of the stage, always sticking to the flavour of Victorian Music Hall. They are aided in achieving this by designer Barney George’s moveable sets, consisting primarily of red velvet theatre curtains. Original songs in fitting style, with music and lyrics by Jon Fiber and Andy Shaw, add to the entertainment.

A separate, slightly more chilling tale emerges near the end, but, largely,  this ghost story is pleasingly silly, inoffensive and almost everything else, apart from spooky.

Performance date: 13 October 2022

The Coral (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: October 7, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Marshall Stay

Writer: Georg Kaiser

Translater: BJ Kenworthy

Director: Emily Louizou

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With a new Prime Minister cutting taxes and calling for “growth, growth, growth” the debate which sets accumulating wealth against achieving social justice can seldom have been more topical in our country. So, can a German play which denounces the evils of capitalism, written during World War I, make a useful contribution to modern day arguments? The short answer is “no”.

Georg Kaiser’s The Coral, seen here in an uninspiring translation by BJ Kenworthy, centres around an unnamed millionaire factory owner (Stuart Laing) who exploits his work force and shows no regard for their welfare. His secretary (Adam Woolley) is also his doppelgänger distinguishable by a small piece of coral which, known only to a security guard, he always wears. Getting round obvious casting problems, the secretary wears a bright red face mask, matching the shirts, ties and socks worn by both he an his boss.

The millionaire has two daughters (Esme Scarborough and Joanne Marie Mason), both of whom loathe their father’s greed and callousness, lecturing him on the error of his ways repeatedly. A murder takes place and two bungling detectives arrive (we know that they are detectives because both wear Columbo-style raincoats). Characters threaten to outnumber the audience and much doubling-up of roles is essential, not helping the play to achieve clarity. The aforementioned actors, along with Arielle Zilkha, work hard, but they are fighting a losing battle against the text.

Director Emily Louizou’s bleak production seems unable to make up its mind as to whether it wants to be a surrealist nightmare or an absurdist comedy and it misfires on both counts. Designer Ioana Curelea offers little by way of sets, but an eye-catching collection of costumes (not necessarily relating to any specific period) are the stars of the show.

No doubt Marxism was very fashionable when the play was first performed in 1918, but its theories have become tarnished by several decades of being put into practice, resulting in the play’s sentiments feeling naive and not relevant to modern society. Kaiser is merciless in attacking the beleaguered millionaire and those of us who are consigned to lives of relative poverty are made to feel grateful for our good fortune.

The play’s first act is almost unfathomable and the second act, packed with inept comedy and turgid philosophising, is far worse, leaving the audience entitled to question whether the evening would have been more entertaining if the actors had simply recited extracts from Das Kapital. The Coral has not been performed professionally in London for close on 100 years and, if this revival serves any purpose at all, it is to explain the precise reasons for that omission.

Performance date: 6 October 2022

Photo: Jorge Lizard

Writers: Hamed and Hessam Amiri

Playwright: Phil Porter

Director: Amit Sharma

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History may well regard the near 20-year Western occupation of Afghanistan as a brief interlude in which the Taliban was given a rest. The Boy with Two Hearts, a play by Phil Porter which is adapted from a factual book by Hamed and Hassam Ariri, goes back to the year 2000 when, as now, the Taliban ruled without compassion and women were denied the most basic human rights. The play was performed originally at Wales Millennium Centre.

Fariba Amiri (Houda Echouafni), a mother of three boys living in the city of Herat, has the courage to speak out publicly against the repression of women. Her husband, Mohammed (Dana Haqjoo), a sturdy patriarch, supports her, as do the boys, but word reaches the authorities and the family is left with no option but to flee the country, hidden in the boot of a car. They are not sure where they will end up, possibly America, but more likely the United Kingdom, where the youngest son could realise his dream of playing for Manchester United.

The journey is made more difficult, because the oldest son, Hussein (Ahmad Sakhi), suffers from a life-threatening heart condition. The younger sons, Hamed (Farshid Rokey) and Hessam (Shamail Ali), behave as if the hazardous journey is an adventure, as the family finds its way across Russia, on to Ukraine, through Germany and, despite repeated warnings to go nowhere near Calais, they find themselves in Calais.

The story plays out like a road trip movie, but it is real, made more so by five remarkably strong performances. The actors also step out of their main roles to play subsidiary characters and, rather than this becoming a distraction, it adds to the lightness and fluidity of director Amit Sharma’s engrossing production.

It could be that more recent horror stories of people smuggling, perilous Channel crossings and so on have numbed the senses, making this story less shocking than perhaps it should be. The writers tell us of the struggles and degradation endured by this family, but Sharma’s production falls short in making us feel their anguish and jeopardy, while it does not quite achieve the levels of suspense which the first act needs. However, the production more than compensates by allowing us to share the warmth of a family unit that is bonded together by love and humour.

The Dorfman’s stage is extended to its full width and height to accommodate Hayley Grindle’s split-level set design, which gives a darkened background to all the action and includes projections of smart graphics and surtitles. Sharma keeps the space busy throughout. Interspersed with the drama are songs in traditional Afghan style, composed and sung beautifully by Elaha Soroor.

The Boy with Two Hearts tells a story which resonates powerfully in a modern world in which people displacement only seems likely to increase. However, the play is primarily about the emotional journey of one family and its grip grows progressively stronger as the five characters become more finely drawn. The play is heartfelt and heartwarming, twice over.

Performance date: 5 October 2022

Photo: Robert Day

Writer: Georgina Burns

Director: Tessa Walker 

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The problems of the National Health Service are rarely out of the headlines, so perhaps a drama about them can only expand on what most of us already know. Georgina Burns’ new one act play, Ravenscourt, sets out to dig beneath the news stories and investigate the reality, specifically in relation to mental health services. The play achieves stretches of intense drama, but covers over-familiar themes and frequently gets bogged down in its own worthy intentions.

The setting is the out patients wing attached to Ravenscourt, a psychiatric hospital. Lydia (Lizzy Watts) has been recruited from the private sector to work as a therapist alongside the unit manager, Denise (Andrea Hall) and Arthur (Jon Foster), both seasoned professionals who have learned how to combine compassion with cynicism. Lydia is full of enthusiasm and eager to make a difference, but she quickly grows to understand the scale of the challenges facing her.

Denise and Arthur have all but given up on Daniel, a “revolving door” patent who keeps being referred back for further sessions of therapy, so they decide that Lydia should take him on. The 33-year-old patient suffers from acute depression with bursts of anger and he has mother issues. Josef Davies’ performance as a man overpowered by controlled and uncontrolled rage, is the spark which ignites director Tessa Walker’s sometimes pedestrian production. The tormented Daniel is a compelling case study, finely drawn by both writer and actor, and the play leaves us wanting to know more about him than is possible when the main focus is on the provision of services to help him.

Debbie Duru’s simple but effective design adapts cleverly for set changes. Burns touches on some big issues, questioning the boundaries of ethical conduct as well as highlighting the shortcomings of a system which we should all know is under-funded and under-staffed. Her writing has admirable clarity, but little flair. with the result that her drama informs more consistently than it entertains.

Overall, the play’s impact is patchy. Its 90-minute running time breaks into three roughly equal parts: an unremarkable opening sets the scene and establishes characters; an intense middle section, focussing on the troubled patient, contains real meat; and a final section, turning to the tolls which their jobs take on professionals, feels like an anticlimax after what had been seen immediately before and it simply goes on for too long.

Performance date: 3 October 2022

Brown Boys Swim (Soho Theatre)

Posted: September 29, 2022 in Uncategorized
Photo: Geraint Lewis

Writer: Karim Khan

Director: John Hoggarth

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Floating lightly over the choppy waters of social integration, Brown Boys Swim, an award-winning hit at the 2022 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, arrives well trumpeted, seeking to make a splash on the fringe of London’s West End. Karim Khan’s 70-minute comedy/drams turns out to be funny, relevant and, ultimately, moving.

Mohan (Anish Roy) and Kash (Varun Raj) are school boys in their late teens. They are British South Asians living in Oxford and aspiring to study at the local university. The dynamics of their long time friendship centre around the assumptions that Kash is the smarter of the two and that the more hesitant Mohan will follow wherever he leads. When Kash decides that the pair must attend a pool party, hosted by a class mate, his plans seem thwarted by the fact that neither can swim. So they set out to learn, with hilarious results.

Mohan and Kash fall between two cultural stools. Pulled in one direction by their Muslim faith and another by the need which they feel to integrate with the white English middle class, they find that the perceived social ladder which they hope to climb is actually a greasy pole. They are confronted by lingering traces of racial prejudice and lured into previously alien pursuits, such as drinking alcohol.

Khan’s writing captures the cheekiness, mixed with trepidation, of youth on the cusp of adulthood. The two protagonists tease each other playfully as they grapple with the potential challenges of the real world.

The writer’s message to the likes of Mohan and Kash seems to ask why they should bother going in for synchronised swimming with the pack when they can prosper by just being themselves.

Director John Hoggarth’s pacy production only slows to a crawl when necessary costume changes pause its momentum. It is energised by Roy and Ray, who form an argumentative comedy double act with great chemistry. James Button’s set design uses a minimum of props to allow for a maximum of movement, simulated swimming included.

There is poignancy underpinning all the comedy and it comes sharply to the surface in an unexpected ending. Brown Boys Swim offers up plenty of food for thought while it entertains.

Performance date: 28 September 2022

SUS (Park Theatre)

Posted: September 23, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Charles Russel

Writer: Barrie Keeffe

Director: Paul Tomlinson

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We look to the past to help us in understanding the present. Barrie Keeffe’s short (75 minutes), sharp and shocking account of the methods used by Metropolitan Police officers was written in 1979 and it is set in May of that year, on the night of Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory. The key question relating to this revival must be whether or not it sheds light on more recent controversies involving the Met and other forces.

Director Paul Tomlinson’s production is performed in a small studio space on a traverse stage, giving the audience a sense of being flies on the wall of the interrogation room where the drama unfolds. The “sus” is Delroy (Stedroy Cabey), a black man who is well accustomed to being hauled in by the Police on suspicion of having committed a variety of offences. He has a confident air, because he has no doubt that, on this occasion as on all others, he will be released without charge.

The volatile interrogators are Detective Sergeant Karn (Alexander Neal) and Detective Constable Wilby (Fergal Coghlan), both delighted with way that the election results are going. They draw Delroy into sexist banter, debating which of the television newsreaders, Anna Ford and Angela Rippon, they would choose to bed; and then, after an hour, they inform him that his wife is dead and that he is suspected and presumed guilty of her murder.

In 1979, the phrase “institutional racism” had not come into common usage with regard to Police forces and it is difficult to assess how the racism, sexism and complete absence of compassion displayed by the officers, now so deeply offensive, would have been regarded by the play’s contemporary audiences. Would they have seen this neanderthal behaviour as normal and expected or would they have been as appalled as now? Time has changed much, but the abuse seen in the play, both verbal and physical, is made frighteningly realistic by superb acting.

Keeffe links the play closely to political developments, seeing the 1979 General Election as a watershed in United Kingdom history, which indeed it turned out to be. As expressed in the wishful thinking of Karn, the writer predicts a lurch in the direction of fascism. However, such politics are now less relevant than the questions which the play asks about policing. We are left wondering whether Keeffe exposed the roots of attitudes and practices which still prevail today.

Tomlinson’s unfussy production matches the tightness of the writing, but the language used and the period details seem likely to distance today’s audiences from the drama. This revival needs a modern day perspective in order to reinforce it as more than just a glimpse into our social history. Nonetheless, SUS remains a powerful indictment of those in whom we trust to protect us.

Performance date: 22 September 2022