Velvet (Above the Stag Theatre)

Posted: October 6, 2019 in Theatre

Writer and performer: Tom Ratcliffe      Director: Andrew Twyman

⭐️⭐️⭐️

“Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington” Noël Coward advised famously, but he could well have added “not your son either”. Tom Ratcliffe’s hour-long monologue, first seen at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, maps out some of the pitfalls awaiting young actors who are trying to make it in their chosen profession.

Directed by Andrew Twyman, Ratcliffe himself plays Tom, a sharp-tongued drama school graduate who is scrambling around auditions and playing bit parts for less than the minimum wage in fringe theatres. He relies on his partner of three years, Matthew, a strait-laced investment banker to help him along. He dreams of his big break, but believes naively that he can take the virtuous route towards achieving it. When a casting director invites him for drinks at his flat, Tom nervously declines and then fails to follow up on a suggestion of going for a coffee, even though he knows that, if he does not do what is necessary to get a part, some other actor will.

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, alleged abuses of power in show business and other professions have been well publicised, but knowledge of the infamous casting couch goes back to well before that. Appropriately, a chaise longues is the only piece of furniture on stage with Ratcliffe throughout the show, as Tom details how he gets dragged into what he thinks of as “borderline prostitution”. His own mother encourages him to do what is necessary to achieve his goals, urging him only to stay safe.

The big decisions come when Tom makes contact on Whatsapp with an American called Daniel, who offers him big film roles in exchange for sexual compliance. We hear Daniel’s sinister voice over the telephone, with text messages and exchanged images projected on a screen. In comparison with some of the harrowing real life allegations which have been reported, Tom’s experiences seem fairly innocuous, but they still highlight further the urgent need to expose all sexual predators who hold positions of power.

With the emphasis on gentle comedy, Velvet is lightweight fare, but the hour passes quickly and the likeable Ratcliffe finds an ironic twist to round it all off, bringing wry smiles over the state of the world in which we now live.

Performance date: 5 October 2019

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

The Niceties (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: October 6, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Eleanor Burgess      Director: Matthew Iliffe

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Dramatists are often accused of re-writing and falsifying history, but here, in a twist, we have a playwright who is accusing historians of getting it all wrong. Eleanor Burgess’ play, receiving its European premiere after a successful run Off-Broadway, challenges perceived truths about America’s past, going right back to the Revolution.

The setting is an elite university in the northeast United States. Zoe (Moronke Akinola) is a black 20-year-old student and political activist who has submitted a thesis on the American Revolution to history professor Janine (Janie Dee). Janine is in her 60s, white, liberal and a lesbian. It is early in 2016 and, in unity, the pair sigh sorrowfully that it is Barrack Obama’s last year in office, not having an inkling of what was to follow.

When Janine asserts that America had been lucky to have figures such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson around, Zoe retorts that this ignores the fact that both owned slaves and she goes on to argue that the version of history that Janine is teaching is “white” history, editing out the half a million black Americans who were also involved. As the daughter of Polish immigrants fleeing persecution, Janine points out that racist atrocities have impacted on her own family’s past, but the student still dismisses the professor’s supposedly liberal credentials as representing being “more afraid of looking like a racist than of being a racist”.

Akinola and Dee are both excellent. If they had been less so, Matthew Iliffe’s production would have been even heavier going than parts of it still are. The play makes us flies on the wall overlooking an academic debate, but this alone is not enough to create a drama. With the roles of teacher and pupil effectively reversed, too often it feels as if Burgess is preaching at us through Zoe. It is only when there is friction between the two protagonists that the drama gains momentum and the writer’s belated attempts to generate a narrative feel contrived.

Zoe’s advocacy of the need for history to be re-examined and re-taught from the black perspective becomes increasingly angry and she becomes increasingly vindictive. In the face of this, Janine’s defence of the conventional “white” history that she has devoted her life to teaching is feeble and Dee makes her responses seem patronising, even cowardly. Perhaps Burgess found it impossible to counter the passionate and eloquent arguments that she has written for Zoe to speak, which is understandable, but, by not finding such counters, she robs key parts of her play of dramatic tension.

Everything in The Niceties is worthy, formulating an articulate case that demands to be heard. It is only in moulding her arguments into a compelling work of theatre that Burgess disappoints.

Performance date: 3 October 2019

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

Writer: Athol Fugard      Director: Roy Alexander Weise

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

By 1950, the year in which Athol Fugard’s play is set, the political system of Apartheid was in its infancy, but the social attitudes around which it was founded had much deeper roots. Initially banned in the writer’s native South Africa, ‘Master Harold’…and the boys premiered in the United States in 1982.

Like so many of Fugard’s works, this play transcends the specific context for which it was written and still speaks loudly to modern audiences. The setting is a tea room in Port Elizabeth, realised in gleaming detail by Rajha Shakiry’s set design. It is a rainy afternoon, the customers have gone, leaving the white-coated black waiters, Sam and Willie, to practice the fox trot for a ballroom dancing competition two weeks ahead. They are joined by Hally (aka Harold), the teenage son of the tea room’s white owners. He is making his way home from school, where he is doing badly, but he consoles himself with the thought that so did Churchill and Tolstoy.

The dignity of Lucian Msamati’s Sam dominates Roy Alexander Weise’s masterful revival. Clearly educated and able to discuss history, literature and philosophy, he is forced to withstand Hally’s rebuke: “don’t try to be too clever, it doesn’t suit you”. Proud but compliant, 45-year-old Sam talks of equality as a Napoleonic principle arising from the French Revolution, but he is in no doubt that equality in his own society is well hidden behind a thick veil of injustice.

Willie (Hammed Animashaun) is Sam’s not too bright junior, pre-occupied with learning steps and finding a partner for the dance competition. At first, Fugard writes the exchanges between “the boys” and Hally as comedy, much of it sharp and very funny when played with the precision that it gets here. However, increasingly, discordant words and phrases puncture the humour until, eventually, the play develops into a drama of blistering intensity.

Anson Boon’s Hally is petulant and precocious, even bossing around his own mother in telephone calls. Having an unhappy family life, the tea room is his second home, Sam and  Willie are his friends and the three share happy memories going back many years. Boon brings out the conflict that lies at the heart of the play – that between Hally’s friendships and his ingrained sense of supremacy, both as an employer over employees and, more sinisterly, as a white person over black people.

Fugard’s writing becomes rich with metaphors, such as a the ballroom, where dancers never bump into each other being seen as a blissful haven from a world where people are always colliding. Performed in the Lyttelton Theatre over 100 minutes without an interval, Reise’s production is consistently entertaining and deeply moving. As Sam and Willie fox trot gracefully to the sweet voice of Sarah Vaughan, they leave us with thoughts of unrealised hopes and unfulfilled potential, but also of a human spirit that is defiant and irrepressible.

Performance date: 1 October 2019

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

Valued Friends (Rose Theatre, Kingston)

Posted: September 29, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Stephen Jeffreys      Director: Michael Fentiman

⭐️⭐️⭐️

We hear a great deal today about the difficulties that young people face in getting a foothold on the property ladder, which makes it easy to forget that, only 30 years ago, during the era of the Margaret Thatcher Government, home ownership was almost mandatory and the property ladder could often turn out to be a fast-moving escalator. Stephen Jeffreys’ comedy/drama, first seen at Hampstead Theatre in 1989, centres on four friends just gaining that now elusive foothold,

By June 1984, 30-somethings Sherry, Howard, Marion and Paul have completed a decade sharing a rented basement flat in a run-down converted mansion in London’s Earl’s Court. When a property developer wants to take over their building, they face a range of choices which could take them on a road to riches at a time when “greed is good” was an oft used mantra, but at what cost to their friendships?

Natalie Casey’s chaotic Sherry is the play’s fun character. She is a wannabe comedienne with no regular income and no instinct for dealing with money. The rest of the quartet are rather a dull bunch in Michael Fentiman’s production. Howard (Michael Marcus) is a geeky lecturer and writer with strong Socialist leanings; Marion (Catrin Stewart) works in computers and likes to be the one who pulls all the strings, taking to capitalist wheeler-dealing like a duck to water; Paul (Sam Frenchum), is a freelance music radio presenter and Marion’s on-off boyfriend, who develops a passion for DIY home renovations, perhaps making him one of the original gentrifiers.

Their lives are changed by the arrival of the ruthless developer Scott (Ralph Davis) who starts making offers that can’t be refused. The play has a keen grasp on what happens when a living space turns into a valuable asset – the strains on friendships, romantic relationships and political principles – but it tends to become a little dry, particularly in the second act and Jeffreys seems to recognise this by introducing the comic figure of the philosophising labourer Stewart, played exuberantly by Nicolas Tennant.

Michael Taylor’s set designs for a revolving stage suggest that this production could have been better if seen in the round. Fentiman throws in flashing lights and loud music of the era (and earlier) between scenes, but such effects are not really consistent with the body of the play. However, the biggest problem with his revival is that several of the characters do not come across strongly enough to make us care about them.

As a reflection on the way we were, Valued Friends is interesting more than involving. In a sense, the piece is introspective, representing a decade looking critically at itself. Seen in 2019, it cries out for stronger links that would connect it to modern dilemmas and lifestyles; without them, it feels as if time has devalued the play’s relevance.

Performance date: 26 September 2019

Photo: Pamela Raith

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

Amsterdam (Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond)

Posted: September 12, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Maya Arad Yasur      Translator: Eran Edry      Director: Matthew Xia

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Amsterdam today remains a city of distinctive architecture and criss-crossing canals, but, in the past, it was also a city of Nazi occupation, collaborators, resistance fighters and Anne Frank. Maya Arad Yasur’s one-act 80-minute play, seen here in a translation by Eran Edry,  seeks to reconcile present with past, probing the origins of modern identity and questioning lingering heritage.

A group assembles as if a team of scriptwriters, bouncing ideas off each other to create characters and develop storylines. Their starting point is an old man living at the top of a modern day Amsterdam building, a nine months pregnant Jewish violinist and the mystery of a 75-year-old unpaid gas bill for 1,700 Euros. As they piece together assorted information and dig into their imaginations, a story emerges that tells of wartime struggles and suggests parallels between 1940s antisemitism and 21st Century racist attitudes.

The play puts itself at risk of being undone by its unorthodox structure, which often proves just as challenging as its disturbing themes. The writer has a tendency to draw us into the story that is being constructed, only to shoot off sharply in a different direction. However, she keeps attention alive with moments of playfulness in her script and director Matthew Xia’s highly animated in-the-round staging brings more of the same. This is Xia’s first production in his role as Artistic Director of the Actors Touring Company.

The play gives the director the freedom to decide upon the number of actors (minimum three) and the lines which they speak. Xia opts for four actors – Daniel Abelson, Fiston Barek, Michal Horowicz and Hara Yannas – all of whom attack their roles with vigour and conviction. The story developed by the “writers” is rounded off with poignancy and irony, but the niggling feeling remains that a conventional dramatisation could have given it much greater power.

Performance date: 11 September 2019

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

Hansard (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Posted: September 6, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Simon Woods      Director: Simon Godwin

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Most of us may feel that we have had enough of politics in our lives right now, but actor turned playwright Simon Woods seems to think otherwise. His play is a forensic examination of the murky territory where the public and private lives of a politician and his wife intersect. It is quite something for a debut play to be premiered at this hallowed venue, taken on by in-form director Simon Godwin and blessed with the dream casting of Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings, but this is quite some play.

Robin Hesketh (Jennings) is a minister in the Margaret Thatcher Government of 1988. Every weekend, he negotiates the Hanger Lane gyratory and the Oxford by-pass to reach his constituency home in the Cotswolds and be greeted by his bored, heavy drinking wife Diana (Duncan). Hildegard Bechtler’s design for the Hesketh living space is expansive, stretching to the entire width of the Lyttelton stage, and elegant, but it is entirely soulless, not personalised in any way, and we know before a word is spoken that there is emptiness in the lives of the occupants.

Acted out over just under 90 minutes in real time, the play begins as a battle of wills in which both combatants denounce each other with excoriating wit, sharpened over many years of marriage. Left-leaning Diana despises the old school tie brigade represented by her husband, while Robin scoffs at Diana’s favoured artsy set, citing theatregoers and readers of Ian “McKellen” novels in particular.. Woods’ style has the feel of Oscar Wilde, who delved into similar political territory in The Ideal Husband. Under Godwin’s unobtrusive direction, the fun flows freely, but we are always aware of more serious themes lying beneath the surface.

The pompous, upstanding, possibly promiscuous Tory politician and his obedient wife could easily have been seen as stereotypes, but Woods resists temptations for caricature, giving Duncan and Jennings every opportunity (which both seize with relish) to make the characters three-dimensional. We sense from the beginning that something more than duty binds the pair together and the gradual discovery of what that factor is becomes one of the play’s great pleasures.

Woods is even-handed in political debates, allowing both sides of each argument to be heard. A recurring theme is spurred by Diana’s objections to Robin’s advocacy of the infamous Section 28, which prohibited the teaching of LGBT+ lifestyles in schools. He claims to be fearful that white heterosexual men could become extinct within 20 years, but we see him as conforming to the role for which he was born by upholding the traditional values of his times and not as a monster. That said, the play is not just a history lesson, making us aware that the Section 28 arguments have re-emerged in 2019 and that elitist politicians have never gone away.

There are times when Hansard feels like an enjoyable ride without a clear destination, but, when we arrive at the play’s dénouement, it hits with the force of a sledgehammer. Showing consummate skill, Duncan and Jennings move from splitting sides to breaking hearts at the blink of an eyelid. Woods has set the bar high for his second play.

Performance date: 3 September 2019

Photo: Catherine Ashmore

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

World’s End (King’s Head Theatre)

Posted: August 30, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: James Corley.     Director: Harry Mackrill

⭐️⭐️⭐️

It hardly seems like two decades since the war in Kosovo was raging and video games were in their infancy. James Corley takes us back to this era in his debut play, which skilfully blends comedy and tragedy into a teenage gay love story.

World’s End is an estate on the least fashionable part of Chelsea’s King’s Road. Divorcée Viv and her son Ben move into flat 13 in a block, next door to Kosovan refugee Ylli, a widower, and his son Besnik. The two boys strike up a friendship over games of Super Mario and Zelda and the friendship grows. Anyone who remembers the premise of Jonathan Harvey’s groundbreaking comedy Beautiful Thing will know where this is going, but predictability is offset by quirky character details, which keep the play afloat and Corley is eventually bold enough to overturn some of the Harvey feel good factor.

Patricia Potter’s Viv shows the frustration of a woman who is often between jobs and between men, but who retains a hankering for life’s finer things. Tom Milligan’s Ben is a stammering, housebound nervous wreck who can find no place for himself in the world. He contrasts with Mirlind Bega’s confident Besnik, who is more like his late mother than his father, a struggling artist, played fierily by Nikolaos Brahimllari. Ylli is a patriot who yearns to fight for his home country, but the play brings a stark reminder that sickening violence can also occur less distantly.

Director Harry Mackrill’s well-balanced production is at its best when scenes of domestic conflict are played over each other. The characters take turns to have bouts of hysteria and over-playing works well when it is generating comedy. However, it works less well when it nudges more serious scenes in the direction of melodrama. Disappointingly, Mackrill and designer Rachel Stone add little to give the production a period feel; for example, we hear no contemporary pop tracks. Also, a pedantic note to the writer for including a mention of The Sixth Sense in the dialogue: the film was first released several months after the very specific time when the play is set.

The play runs for 90 minutes without an interval and it says much for Corley’s writing that it ends with a feeling that there is plenty of scope for developing the characters further and expanding their storylines. World’s End is no world beater, but it is quietly touching.

Performance date: 29 August 2019

Photo: Bettina Adela

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