The shock of the new

New writing in the traditionally conservative West End

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There are dozens of shows on in London at any one time yet it is rare for many of these to belong to a broad category of new writing. West End producers, given the sky high level of theatre rents and other costs associated with mounting a production, tend to play safe circulating and recirculating tried and trusted formulae (cf. the juke box musical), putting on revivals of classics (Shakespeare, et al) or populating their production with television “names” (just about any panto you care to point at). There seems to be little room for productions without an immediately obvious pedigree and it has become harder for anything new to get a foothold. If new writing is scarcer than the proverbial hen’s teeth then new writing by a new writer is even less likely to be discovered – at least in the commercial sector of the capital’s theatre. Thus the addition of Natasha Gordon to the roster of new writers is a welcome addition. Her first play Nine Night has just opened in London; here’s my review.

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Following its successful run at The National Theatre last spring, Natasha Gordon’s play Nine Night about the Jamaican way of death comes to the Trafalgar Studios in a well-deserved transfer. Lauded as the first West End play by a living, black female writer it is, no doubt of it, a highly accomplished piece of work that asks important questions about the legacy afforded to the Windrush generation – the scandal that broke earlier this year ran concurrently with the play’s premiere.

Gloria, the family matriarch, arrived in Britain as part of that generation leaving behind her life in Jamaica as well as her young daughter Trudy. Since that momentous decision she has built a new life, acquired two more children (Lorraine and Robert) and a house in North London; as the play begins she lies dying upstairs. Her demise is followed by the traditional Caribbean nine night wake. Neither Gloria nor the wake are ever seen but the influence of both is keenly felt as the family and various visitors gather, drink, reminisce consider their futures, dance, argue and eventually fight in the wonderfully detailed kitchen with fully working appliances – hats off to designer Rajha Shakiry.

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Central to the action is Gloria’s second daughter Lorraine who has housed and cared for her dying mother, brought up her own daughter Anita and who is now a grandmother to nine month old Rosa – unseen. Lorraine has basically sacrificed her own life to care for and support others. She is heartbroken by her loss but stoically plods on, hosting the wake, organising the funeral arrangements and dealing with the family angst. That this family is a matriarchy is left in little doubt. This is emphasised by the arrival of Aunt Maggie a woman with an opinion on anything and everything (and who undoubtedly has all the best stinging one liners) and a later appearance by abandoned daughter Trudy who flies in with a suitcase full of Jamaican goodies and a heart full of resentment which eventually boils over into overt rage. The men, by contrast, are somewhat less forthright in the persons of feckless brother Robert and kindly laid back Uncle Vince.

The cast does not have a weak link and integrate so well that they are fully believable as a family unit. Author Natasha Gordon herself plays Lorraine (a change from the NT production) and as such she does so with an outstanding sense of empathy for her character’s various predicaments. A growing sense of anger and resentment towards the other family members culminates in a strong final scene where Lorraine grabs a kitchen knife and looks set to do some permanent damage. Sister in law Sophie tries to calm her with yoga at one point but it is clearly not working. Hattie Ladbury’s performance as Sophie, the only white member of the cast and the family’s outsider (a neat reversal of stereotypes), was very engaging. Sophie is eager to immerse herself in a culture of which she can never truly be a part but clearly has her own demons – especially when she announces that she is pregnant at the age of 45. The plum role, however, belongs to Aunt Maggie and Cecilia Noble has received rave reviews for her portrayal of the domineering old lady; at the performance I saw the part was taken by understudy Jade Hackett. She acquitted herself extremely well, moving around with a sense of increasing age and weariness and delivering her lines with an acute sense of timing; several of her opinionated remarks brought the house down. I notice that Hackett is also understudying both Lorraine and Trudy so she truly has her work cut out. Michelle Greenidge as Trudy was a real “force of nature” performance. Her first sudden appearance momentarily has the audience believing that she is the ghost of the departed Gloria but she is clearly entirely her own woman. The character’s arrival forces the crisis at the climax of the play and the consequent possession of Aunt Maggie by Gloria’s departed spirit.

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At this point the play becomes a slice of magic realism and this is suitably aided by moody lighting designed by Paule Constable and an insistent thrumming soundtrack from sound designer George Dennis. As with all the other elements in the play (costumes, props, etc.), these serve to highlight the outstanding nature of the piece all brought together under the excellent direction of Roy Alexander Weise – a still young director on whom it would be sensible to keep an eye. Sensibly played through without an interval the play is by turns truthful, well plotted, hilarious, demanding and draining. Natasha Gordon’s debut is going to be a hard act for her to follow but already it is keenly anticipated.*

I would add to the above that the audience for the play was noticeably different in composition from that at the average West End performance. Encouraging new writers and opening out the dramatic experience to a wider range of people can only benefit all theatre goers encouraging diversity and experimentation and helping to keep ticket prices affordable. It makes good business sense and with West End gross box office revenue in 2017 reaching  £705,000,000 (source: The Stage) there is a big prize to strive for. Let’s hope that this trend continues into 2019.

*This review first appeared on the website of Sardines Magazine.

Mind the (gender) gap!

A look at the latest theatrical trend towards gender blind casting

One of the perceived bigger shifts in the world of drama recently has been the move towards (so-called) gender blind casting. This generalised term seems to have somewhat different definitions depending on the particular production but may be categorised as:

  1. men and/or women cast in roles that do not match their own gender, but play      them as written, or
  2. casting women in male roles that are then played as women or vice versa.

A couple of years ago I saw two Shakespeares in close proximity in which both definitions were employed – see Every Inch A King?.

The Royal Shakespeare Company and the Globe (among others) have done much to flatten out the notion of gendered appearances in the Bard’s works; indeed the former have just announced plans for a completely gender reversed production of The Taming Of The Shrew next year. Gradually the trend for increased gender flexibility has worked its way into the mainstream to the point where it is almost becoming de rigueur. What is increasingly noticeable, though, is that these once radical casting decisions have become less about stunt casting and more about true integration. Indeed in this last quarter of 2018 I have hardly seen a production in which some gender blind casting aspects have not been conspicuous by their presence.

henry0Perhaps the most truly noticeable equitable casting ratio was demonstrated back in September in Tower Theatre’s Henry V. Traditionally this has been a play with very few opportunities for actresses – just brief appearances for Mistress Quickly and a couple of scenes for Princess Katherine and her handmaid, Alice. In the main though it is known as one of Shakepeare’s most male dominated plays. However, in this production the cast of 14 was split exactly between male and female performers and in truth after a minute or two of the performance it wasn’t something that even caused the slightest misgivings. For the company too it was an excellent way to demonstrate a commitment to equality in its inaugural production in its new home. For a fuller review click here.

downloadThough not quite as full on, the current season of Pinter “shorts” has also taken the opportunity to mix things up a little. In Pinter One the brief sketch Precisely featured Maggie Steed and Kate O’Flynn as a couple of well- heeled businessmen and this was balanced by Pinter Three’s equally brief That’s All featuring Lee Evans, Keith Allen and Tom Edden as a gossiping trio of ladies. I think there was a degree of gender political comment in these choices (especially the former) though the pieces were so swiftly gone that any deeper meanings were essentially lost in translation. More thoughts on the Pinter shorts can be found here.

downloadIn late November I took in the live broadcast of Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III being performed in Nottingham. I fully expected this to be cast along traditional lines which would have meant few female contributions. However, the decision had been taken to cast most of the king’s doctors as female (playing men) and this served to show them as a united tribe scrabbling for supremacy with their various crackpot theories. However, it was noticeable that the main medical role (and, ultimately the king’s saviour) still went to a male performer, though I guess if a regional theatre has the ever dependable Adrian Scarborough on board then it is going to ensure it uses his talents fully. So, in all, an interesting idea that perhaps didn’t go quite far enough. As an aside the central role, as performed by Mark Gatiss was superbly done.

images (1)Perhaps the most radical reshaping of a piece I’ve seen recently has been the much lauded production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company – another directorial triumph for Marianne Elliot (following, among others, War Horse and The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime). In this reworking the central character, male Bobby, has become female Bobbie, his various girlfriends have become her various boyfriends and neurotic, just-about-to-be-wed Amy has become neurotic just-about-to-be-wed Jamie. I’d previously seen this show done “traditionally” in a production by Sam Mendes and had thought it would be impossible for it to be bettered. However, this latest incarnation knocked that earlier one into the proverbial cocked hat and in truth I now can’t imagine it being done any other way. The central gender change makes perfect sense and, indeed, the pressure on the main character to marry and reproduce becomes far more telling. The only slight misgiving I felt was that it removes one of the showstopper numbers “Not Getting Married” from a female performer but this was a small price to pay to achieve the greater aim of reworking this classic musical for the 21st century.

RSC_Merry_Wives_500x500My most recent dramatic foray was to the Barbican for the RSC’s latest version for the Merry Wives of Windsor. The RSC has clear policies about expanding the number of roles for women (“increasing representation in acting companies and creative teams, without imposing hard and fast restrictions, and taking action on gender pay gaps in any given team”) so it came as no surprise that some changes had taken place. Of course (and unusually for Shakespeare) as two of the central roles are already female there was less action to be taken. As the titular wives Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingly rightly dominated, running rings round a massive David Troughton as Falstaff. In the supporting team the once male Host of the Garter has become a leopard-print clad female hostess. Although the gender change would have been one I would happily have instituted myself and made perfect sense I have to admit I found Katy Brittain’s performance somewhat aggravating. Making less sense was the transposition of the quite obviously male character of Bardolph into a female barmaid (Charlotte Josephine). However, the character has rather minimal appearances so it did not make all that much difference.

So, do I approve of this development? Well, in some ways it’s not that new an idea. The Elizabethan tendency to disapprove of actresses meant that young men regularly played female roles and Shakespeare, for one, made much plot use of boys playing girls pretending to be boys (As You Like It, Twelfth Night). And of course we’ve had pantomime dames and principal boys for ages! Having been heavily involved in the generally gender blind casting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation in 2016 I think I can speak with some authority. The most universally admired performance came from the wonderful Lucy Ellinson as the traditionally male Puck. In our own mechanical’s team our Peter Quince was the redoubtable Maria and in two of the other teams the role of Bottom went to Lisa and Becky both of whom brought many different nuances to their performance. So yes, I do heartily approve. That said, as with so much else, it depends on the production and the points being made and themes highlighted. It can undoubtedly be awful – one of the first examples I can recall seeing some time ago was Vanessa Redgrave playing Prospero in a production of The Tempest at the Globe. This was truly dreadful and, in my opinion, set the cause back some years. However, as in the case of Company, it can be truly edifying and enlightening bringing a fresh perspective to tried and trusted formulae and providing increased opportunities to performers. I’d always thought that my chance to appear in The Importance of Being Earnest had long since evaporated. But if David Suchet can give us his Lady Bracknell perhaps there’s hope for me yet.

Pint-sized Pinter

Reflections on the first half of the Harold Pinter season in the West End

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Harold Pinter (like Beckett and Stoppard) is one of those giants of the modern stage that is often spoken of in hushed reverential tones, analysed to near extinction and has become a guiding light to many contemporary actors. Gielgud, Richardson, Ashcroft and Olivier all appeared in his works during his lifetime and so it was no surprise to see the roster of star names lined up to pay homage to him in the season of his shorter works playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre (formerly The Comedy Theatre) in London’s West End. Here was a very rare chance to see a body of seldom performed work by some of the most skilled exponents of the dramatic art in a coherent season. The added bonus was that even if you found a particular piece was not working for you then there would soon be another one along which might.

A few weeks ago I went to see Pinter One and Pinter Two and enjoyed the talents of, among others, Antony Sher, Papa Essiedu, David Suchet, Russell Tovey and Maggie Steed. Part One was a collection of nine of Pinter’s most political works which might best be described as harrowing. Featuring torture, interrogation, cruelty and manipulation, it was, I thought, a surprising set of choices with which to open the six month season. They did, however, immediately re-establish Pinter’s heavyweight credentials. The stand out piece was One For The Road (definitely not to be confused with Willy Russell’s play of the same name) featuring Sher as an interrogator (and probably torturer) who is perhaps more troubled than his victim. Most baffling, and taking up the whole of the second half, was the Lia Williams directed Ashes To Ashes. This was a duologue performed by Essiedu and Kate O’Flynn about a couple agonising on the state of their relationship and the cruelty of the outside world. Very downbeat and very bleak.

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Part Two by contrast was much more fun – hard for it not to have been really. Both featured one act plays which came from the early 60s and dealt with the theme of relationships and infidelity. The Lover presented a couple (Hayley Squires and John Macmillan) playing marital games…or where they? Undermining the social conventions which would have been typical of the time, the piece now seems somewhat dated but was still good fun. Russell Tovey turned up very briefly as a cheery milkman. All three performers then returned in the second half in The Collection along with a supremely camp David Suchet who stole the show with some hilarious one liners especially in his dealings with an equally impressive Tovey.

This weekend I was treated to Parts Three and Four and here is my (rather fuller) review of these plays.

The Pinter at the Pinter season from the ambitious Jamie Lloyd Company has reached parts 3 and 4 and continues to provide a comprehensive overview of the late writer’s shorter pieces. It has attracted an extraordinarily high calibre of performers and the latest additions to the rosta are no exception. Lee Evans, Tamsin Grieg, Meera Syal, Keith Allen and Tom Edden…..and that’s just Pinter 3! As might be expected from such a talented team there are many powerful moments but, unfortunately, there are also some longeurs.

3381_1541967697If there’s an overarching theme evident in the eleven pieces that make up section 3, it is that of communication problems. Lee Evans addresses an empty chair (substituting for a friend/rival) in the poignant Monologue, he and Meera Syal are all misunderstandings and confusion on the telephone in Apart From That, Tom Edden agonises over the contents of a cryptic note in Girls. Pinter examines the idea that words are used to both explain and conceal, that they cloak us in double meanings and cause misconceptions: “One way of looking at speech is to say it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness”.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the two pieces that bookend the performance and which both feature Tamsin Grieg and Keith Allen on fine form. In Landscape a couple sit largely motionless in a kitchen. She never looks at him and delivers a fractured monologue into a microphone in a soft Irish brogue reminiscing about a long gone encounter on a beach. He does look at her but talks about mundanities and inanities in a coarse Cockney voice and to which she never responds. They are in the same room but miles apart spiritually and emotionally. It is a powerful piece but the lack of plot and its near motionlessness has a soporific effect which perhaps should have been avoided in an opening piece. Rightly placed to close the performance is A Kind Of Alaska, in which a young girl who has been in a narcoleptic state for 29 years wakes to find herself a grown woman (Greig) cared for by her brother in law doctor (Allen) and a devoted sister (Syal). Grieg is magnificent in this piece cleverly capturing the child like qualities of the young Deborah in her current middle aged body and her difficulties with coming to terms with a family history which has passed her by.

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For the rest Pinter 3 is an odd lightweight confection – many of the plays are little more than revue sketches and hail from 1959 when Pinter was still honing his craft. Lee Evans (purportedly retired) is good value here though I did feel he was imposing some of his “schtick” onto thin material in order to make it worthwhile. While these pieces are amusing enough they lack the depth and substance of the two main plays. Many of them are short monologues (appropriate given the general theme of non –communication which pervades) which simply leave one craving for more.

Pinter 4 is somewhat more robust in that (as with Pinter 2) there are just two one act plays to contend with. The first of these is Moonlight which some critics have argued probably comes closest to summing up what is meant by Pinteresque. By turns bleak and dark, comically savage, whimsical, elegiac and (what else?) enigmatic it concerns the deathbed reminiscences of Andy – a ferocious Robert Glenister – and his relationships (or lack of them) with other members of his family and his friends. His wife is long suffering, his two sons are estranged and his daughter is (possibly) a ghost. I was reminded of the characters in Death Of A Salesman though without the depth and development which Miller brought to bear. In the end I found the play rather exasperating though beautifully directed by Lindsey Turner. In particular I thought it wasted the considerable talents of Janie Dee who appeared all too briefly as Maria, Andy’s mistress and his wife’s best friend.

Dryy721WkAEH7-LFortunately she had far more to do in the second half’s Night School where she and an equally impressive Brid Brennan play Milly and Annie, sisters, landladies and a comic double act in the vein of Meg (from Pinter’s own The Birthday Party). Forever feeding everyone cake and hilariously bickering about who should eavesdrop on their tenants they welcome back into the fold Al Weaver playing their nephew Walter (see Stanley – again from The Birthday Party) a petty criminal who has been inside. While away they have let his room to Sally (Jessica Barden) ice cool and detached and who may be a teacher or a cocktail hostess or possibly both. She is clearly a woman with a past – and indeed a present – and becomes the object of Walter’s infatuation while she herself remains distant and emotionally disconnected. The night school she attends “three nights a week” turns out to be a seedy nightclub and when her secret is about to be exposed by Solto (Glenister – ferocious again) she absconds.

Jessica-Barden-in-Pinter-Four280It strikes me that, if anything, Night School is perhaps the more typically “Pinteresque” of the two pieces.  The sense of domestic claustrophobia, the air of unstated menace, the enigmatic female, the inability to communicate are all tropes which appear in other early(ish) Pinter plays. That said it is played on a stage where the wings are fully displayed and the lighting design of Jon Clark is used to very good effect; both emphasize the inherent theatricality of the piece. That the play is akin to a sustained jazz riff is highlighted by having the action underscored with live drumming from Abbie Finn. Directed by the up and coming Ed Stambollouian it ultimately satisfies rather more than Moonlight or many of the pieces which make up Pinter 3. It will be intriguing to see where the final three sections of the season will take us.*

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Apparently Penelope Wilton is joining Pinter 3 later in the month to perform a monologue called Tess which Pinter wrote specifically for her so my advice, if you are going to attend, is to wait for one of those performances. It seems odd to be adding in an extra treat at a later stage but I can only assume Wilton was not available for the full run.; I’m sorry to have missed her. Anyway, next up are Jane Horrocks and Rupert Graves in pieces directed by Patrick Marber….it’s the gift which keeps on giving.

*This review first appeared on the website of Sardines Magazine.

Adapt or die

A blog piece that considers the place of an adapted work on the modern stage #pretentiousorwhat

It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change – Charles Darwin

mbird6I’ve just spent two weeks playing the prosecuting counsel in a stage version of To Kill A Mockingbird so I’m no stranger to an adaptation. Harper Lee’s novel (one of the most famous novels ever written) spawned an equally famous film starring Gregory Peck. Further proposed adaptations are carefully scrutinised by the Harper Lee estate and only those deemed to be adhering closely to the original are allowed to proceed – fortunately Tower Theatre’s version was one of them. 70% of the performances sold out so it would seem that there is a healthy appetite for crossover material. Novels are serialised on TV (most things by Andrew Davies), musicals are formed from unlikely literary works (Les Mis anyone?), opera has regularly raided the classics for inspiration, films are incestuously recycled from previous versions (just how many versions of A Star Is Born are there?). It certainly used to be the norm that any big stage production eventually made it to the silver screen (Sound of Music, My Fair Lady etc.) but of late there have been many examples of doing things the other way round. Reproducing hit films on stage has become a growth industry typified by the version of the late 80’s biggie Rain Man which I saw last night. Here’s my review:

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The Classic Stage to Screen Theatre Company (part of Bill Kenwright’s empire) has the avowed intention of transposing cinematic works to the stage. Rain Man is its inaugural production and has been touring the country since August. This week it reached Richmond Theatre where it generally provided a slick and rewarding evening’s entertainment.

The storyline is probably famous enough not to need summarising here but suffice to say it is a narrative focusing on two brothers initially unknown to each other. They embark on a physical and emotional journey from Cincinnati to Los Angeles getting to know each other and, in the younger brother’s case, himself a little better .

Older brother Raymond is an autistic savant with a plethora of verbal and physical tics who has been shut away in an institution for most of his life, placed there by a father who was ashamed of his son’s disability. Played sensitively yet with a fine sense of comedy by Matthew Horne it would be easy to make Raymond a figure of fun but the production resists this and encourages sympathy for and empathy with this naturally shy though fiercely intelligent man. Horne’s constant rocking yet almost deadpan delivery demonstrated the inner turmoil of the character and it is to his absolute credit that thoughts of Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal in the film were quickly erased.

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Charlie, the younger brother, has his own internal struggles. He is an acquisitive go- getter of the late 1980s with issues about proving himself to his hard hearted father and who suddenly finds himself caring for a relative he never knew he had. Charlie, in fact, goes on a much deeper and personal journey than Raymond. Initially he only wants to connect with Raymond to get his share from the fortune that the recently deceased father has left the older sibling. Gradually though the “rain man” (the younger Charlie’s mishearing of “Raymond”) begins to work his unintentional magic on his estranged brother. This provided a good level of challenge for Ed Speleers moving from being a selfish money grabber to a truly concerned relative. Speleers successfully channelled some of the easy charm of film predecessor Tom Cruise but like Horne found many ways to make the part his own. The opening scene in Charlie’s car dealership where he and his two employees wheel and deal on telephones demonstrates just how closed in by his own manias Charlie is – in this sense the two brothers are not quite so far apart as one might at first suppose.

At the heart of the film is the road trip the two brothers take across America with many of their exchanges taking place inside a car. There was, thankfully, no ham fisted attempt to reproduce this aspect on stage with relevant moments being transposed into motel rooms en route. That said the play’s excision of the travelling metaphor meant that a crucial dimension was lost. There was also some loss of pace in the first half as the various locations were brought on and off stage. I felt the second half with fewer scene changes was much stronger as the play concentrated more and more on the interaction and blossoming relationship between the two main characters.

DrUynO2W4AETY6WIn many ways the play is an extended duologue between these two central figures. There is some interaction with other characters but most of these are, I’m afraid to say, largely forgettable. Although there was absolutely nothing wrong with the way other parts were played, indeed they were executed with an eye for detail, there was little that remained in the memory at the end of the evening. The late 1980s macho provenance meant there was particularly little for Elizabeth Carter and Mairi Barclay to work with – the girlfriend, the waitress, the secretary, the hooker. This clearly betrayed the origins of the piece as being stuck in a particular time and perhaps a few more liberties could have been taken with the original. The costumes and props (loved Charlie’s mobile phone brick) were bang on and there was some fun to be had with some “I remember those” moments. However, I’m not so sure that younger members of the audience might have fully understood some of the American culture references from thirty years ago.

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The writer is credited as Dan Gordon, though perhaps he might better have been credited as editor as the script seemed to be a filleted but almost word for word reproduction of the screenplay. Indeed on a quick fast forward viewing of the DVD, I was surprised just how much had been culled directly from the film version. Not only were large chunks of dialogue lifted wholesale but the costumes all seemed very familiar and even the introductory music at the top of the play was a carbon copy. The last scene of the film was omitted from the stage version; this, I think, was a smart move, as this allowed the play to finish on a tender note of togetherness as the two brothers physically came together. This suggests that further departures from the original might have been beneficial. The evening raises all sorts of questions about the desirability of transferring quite so directly from screen to stage – perhaps one that the production company will consider in more detail after this initial and largely successful outing.*

So as hinted at above is there a place for stage versions of films? On balance I’d say it depends very much on the production. It does seem, as was the case here, a little fruitless to simply reproduce en bloc something which was always going to be more successful in another medium. To truly engage and enthral, a live version has to do something else or the audience might just as well sit in comfort  at home and watch the original. Even when there is a rigid “script” to adhere to it is about interpretation; for instance with a familiar orchestral score or a Shakespeare play it is all about the conductor/director and musicians/actors approach and delivery. So if staging films is going to be a trend let’s aim to add to the experience rather than simply reproducing it.

*This review first appeared on the website of Sardines Magazine.

 

Bloody hell

A cause celebre revisited as @guildhallschool students tackle difficult play

There have always been plays that challenge and divide opinion and the debate about censorship continues. Even in ancient Greece, where free speech saw its birth, the philosopher Plato regularly called for curbs on what was shown to the masses. British theatrical censorship ended in 1968 (and Hair! began performances the next day) but there have been regular calls for its return as dramas such as Edward Bond’s Saved, Howard Brenton’s The Romans In Britain and Sarah Kane’s Blasted have been subjected to varying degrees of moral opprobrium. Another playwright regularly in the firing line as “going too far” has been Phillip Ridley so I was intrigued to see how one of his “shockers” from 2005 had held up. Here’s my review of Mercury Fur.

Well, that was exhausting! I suppose I knew that watching a Philip Ridley play was never going to be a light hearted romp but Mercury Fur performed by final year students at The Guildhall School of Speech and Drama was about as intense as it gets. An unrelenting (two hours straight through) blitzkrieg of dystopian gloom and despair summed up neatly by the warning sign in the foyer: “This play contains violence, strobe, strong language and scenes of a disturbing nature. There will be smoking on stage, the use of haze, loud noises and cashew nuts”.

Definitely – though I’m pleased to report that the use of nuts was kept to a minimum – and much more besides! Social breakdown, predatory gangs, drug dealing, intense cruelty, casual violence, child trafficking, the gratification of extreme amoral urges and litres of blood also featured prominently and made for uncomfortable viewing. Back in 2005 when the play premiered it became a cause celebre in the vein of Bond’s Saved and Kane’s Blasted. It divided critical opinion (The Daily Telegraph called it “poisonous”), caused regular audience walkouts and the play’s publishers even refused to print the script.

DptgQRZXgAAAiCwSuitably braced I sat back to await the sensory onslaught. The play starts in relatively jovial mode. Two brothers, Elliott (Harvey Cole) and Darren (Joseph Potter), break into a sordid, rubbish strewn abandoned apartment which they plan to use as the venue for an organised party. Naz (Mirren Mack) from “next door” pops in and helps the siblings to tidy. They all banter with each other in a vein redolent of scenes and language in Trainspotting – this is reinforced by the copious references to drugs sold by Elliott from an old ice cream van. In Ridley’s world the drugs are live butterflies which cause hallucinations and/or amnesia. However, things take a more sinister turn in Naz’s heart rending yet strangely casual speech about her mother’s decapitation at the hands of a feral gang. It soon becomes apparent that the “party” is being held to satisfy the base instincts of the Party Goer (Oli Higginson) whose fantasy is to dress up as a Vietnam GI and then brutally torture the Party Piece (Ellis Howard) – a drugged child dressed as Elvis. Completing the picture are Lola (Brandon Howard), a transgender dresser (and Kinks’ tribute?) preparing the victim, vicious gang leader Spinx (Dominic Gilday) and his consort the blind and perpetually muddled Duchess (Isabella Brownson).

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The cast are to be congratulated on making such difficult material remotely palatable and engaging. Some of the early interplay between the two brothers was very skilfully carried out and helped the audience to empathise with the not altogether voluntary predicament in which they found themselves. I was particularly drawn to the scene between Darren and Naz which showed two youngsters almost cheerfully playing among the physical wreckage as they explored the emotional wreckage of their lives. Harvey Cole’s Elliott too inspired attention and he commanded the early parts of the play with a confidence that bodes well for his future acting career (apparently Ben Wishaw originated the role and now he’s the voice of Paddington Bear!)

Unfortunately I found it hard to empathise with any of the other characters though Ashford’s Lola and Brownson’s Duchess had some touching moments. This was solely down to the writing and the situation of characters within the action of the play rather than any lack of skill on the part of the performers. Frankly if they can repeatedly mentally put themselves through the situations played out in this piece of drama then they will be able to take on any part with alacrity.

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The direction of the piece (John Haidar) was taut and driven though I would question the use of shadow play for the torture scene. I’m sure if Ridley had meant us to actually see such horrors then he would not have put the action offstage and left it to the audience’s imagination to conjure up a picture of what was happening – far more effective anyway.

DptgQQdW4AAwE_hIronically (intentionally so I’m sure) as the piece reached its climax it was at its most beautifully lit. The abandoned flat has no electricity and so the party organisers fall back on Naz’s stash of candles. As the horrors play out the stage is bathed in the sort of light found in the Wannamaker auditorium at the Globe. And that’s when it suddenly hit me. What I was watching was a modern day equivalent of a Jacobean revenge tragedy such as Webster’s Malfi. The amoral world, the hapless brothers, the entire cast covered in blood; there’s even a character called The Duchess!

In all it was an uncomfortable, unsettling couple of hours but I was full of admiration for the way the students brought it to life. However, I’m still torn as to whether the play itself is a piece of gratuitously violent pornography or a work of genius – I guess Ridley himself would not be troubled by this apparent contradiction. Finally, despite intensive Googling I remain totally uncertain about the meaning of the play’s title. So if anyone could enlighten me….?*

As I indicated at the start of the review this was an exhausting watch and a more than salutary glimpse into a hell on earth. But do I think that censorship should return based on a viewing of this play? Probably not, though one thing I found out after seeing the show might just have persuaded me otherwise. Apparently in the original the character Party Piece – the intended victim of the other characters – was a ten year old Pakistani boy and the actual eventual victim Naz was supposed to be fifteen. Maybe that was going too far. Any thoughts, please do let me know in the comments section.

*This review first appeared on the website of Sardines Magazine.

Open For Business

The new Tower Theatre venue in Stoke Newington opens with Shakespeare’s Henry V

409423So, in the last few days the new Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington has launched its very first production – Henry V of which more anon. The company has had a long wait to find a new permanent home but I think it has been worth it. In previous incarnations the building (formerly known as Sunstone House) has been a Methodist Chapel, a synagogue and a women’s only gym so there has been extensive work done to fit it out as a theatre space. The building has three levels with the air-conditioned auditorium itself situated on the top floor. There is also storage space for basic scenery/rostra, the lighting and sound box and a backstage area with dressing room facilities. On the ground floor can be found a large rehearsal space which will eventually double as a studio theatre, the box office, theatre office, a meeting room and an extensive social area/bar. Down in the depths (where an old swimming pool used to be) are two more rehearsal spaces, the costume department and storage areas for props and electrical equipment. If you’re interested in a fuller account of the transformation of the building please click on this link for details, pictures, videos and a blog account of the work carried out.

42543428_10156764183035850_5189673378201468928_nWhen I arrived on Wednesday evening it was with a sense of anticipation but, as a relatively new member (since 2012) it can have been as nothing to the excitement of those who had been with the company for a much longer time. I had arrived early to help with a vox pops video capturing the first night for posterity and I was surprised and delighted to discover that I had the “honour” of being the first customer to collect their ticket from the new box office. And then it was up the stairs and into the theatre for the main event. Here’s my review of the play.

The game’s afoot! The first night of the first production at the new venue in Stoke Newington and that of a play which Tower in its 85 year history had never attempted before – Shakespeare’s Henry V. While this review is not an attempt to evaluate the building itself I cannot help but begin by saying just how professional and welcoming the whole place looked. For long-standing Tower members particularly it must have seemed that our expectation hath this day an end as the venue finally went live. Understandably there was a buzz of excitement in the theatre bar as patrons, like greyhounds in the slips, awaited this momentous, nay historic, occasion to begin.

The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fifth with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France (the original and rather more unwieldy title of the play) is ripe with quotes which would serve in beginning any review – and the reader is hereby warned that a few of these may creep in from time to time! But the line that struck me as most apposite that evening is All things are ready, if our mind be so. Would this be production be able to bring off the challenge of one of the Bard’s densest history plays and use the new auditorium to advantage? Yes, certainly, and out of doubt and out of question too.

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It was clear from the moment of entering the playing space that this was to be a pared down and stripped back production. Members of the highly efficient stage management team led by Richard Davies were clearly on view sitting at the sides throughout and springing into appropriately well-drilled action whenever a scene change was called for. When the lights dimmed, one of this team stepped forward to address us with those so very well-known opening lines:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention….

henry4The Chorus of the play reminds us that we are watching a representation rather than a real event and returns repeatedly to guide us through the action. Penny Tuerk (deservedly taking the honours of uttering the first words in the new venue) made a splendid job of the linking speeches and her remarkably clear diction fully demonstrated the acoustic possibilities of the new space. If not quite the designated wooden O the octagonal shape had clearly provided some of the director John McSpadyen’s inspiration.

It was evident from the play’s opening alone that one of the key concerns of the production was to examine the inherent theatricality of the piece. Usually seen as a drama about power, politics, war and kingship Henry V is, also a play about putting on a play (“play” and variations of the same occur no less than 17 times in the text). In essence we were watching something akin to a late rehearsal of the piece with the stage manager/Chorus guiding proceedings and urging us to piece out our imperfections with your thoughts. Thus aspects such as props and costumes (Kathleen Morrison) were appropriately rudimentary and there was no set to speak of – this latter had the added advantage of showing the audience the full extent of the new space and helped us to concentrate our minds on the various characters.

henry24The production opted for a band of just fourteen players (We few, we happy few) and employed gender neutral casting to present a gamut of characters from royalty to low life and with many of the performers getting to play both English and French participants. Preeminent among these was the Henry of Dan Draper. The character, of course, has some of the most rousing speeches in the whole Shakespeare canon and Draper did them full justice. Most memorable was Once more unto the breach where we could really believe that his soldiers would follow him into any hazardous situation. We also got to see the lighter side of the character in the late scene where Henry woos the French princess Katherine – a delightful performance by Ailsa Dann.

henry6Rather earthier wooing was to be found in the scenes between Mistress Quickly (Anna Dimdore) and Pistol, a wonderfully coarse Ian Hoare. His interaction with his partners in crime Bardolph and Nym (Sangita Modgil and Ed Malcolmson) provided much of the black humour of the early scenes which took a chilling turn just before the interval. I also enjoyed Malcolmson’s supercilious turn as the Constable of France and the even more supercilious Dauphin of Luke Owen. Simon Vaughan’s doubling of Fluellen (channelling Windsor Davies) and Alice (channelling…well, I’m not quite sure) was another highlight. Other doubled and carefully differentiated roles were taken by Katherine Kennet, Sara Nowe, John Morton, Rosanna Preston and Andrew Plaistowe. I was afraid that, with such furious doubling, at some stage one of the players might have to end up fighting with her/himself but as is the way in most of Shakespeare’s history plays the actual battles take place offstage. The Chorus even deliberately deflates the audience’s expectations by pointing out that they will have to make do with four or five most vile and ragged foils. A little harsh on the cast, I thought.

I particularly enjoyed the linking music which was mostly late 70s punk rock numbers used to ironically comment on and underscore the action. This also highlighted the anger and aggression upon which war is contingent and I admit to a wry smile when I saw the “God Save The Queen” T shirt worn by (Sex) Pistol … see what they did there?

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Under some taut direction this was a pacey, muscular reading of the text which will, with repeated playing, gain in confidence and clarity. The Chorus’s early exhortation gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play proved unnecessary on the opening night; the repeated calls for the cast to return to the stage for a further encore was testament to the audience’s full involvement and enjoyment and provided a fine start to the Tower’s latest incarnation. It is to be hoped that this inaugural production will set the tone for forthcoming productions and continue to draw good audiences in its own right. Otherwise gentlemen (and ladies) in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here! 

I’ve just started rehearsals for the second show in the new season which will be Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird. I’m playing Horace Gilmer, the prosecuting counsel in the trial scene which is so central to the story; more details here. I can’t wait to try out the new space from the performance angle and hope to see some of you in the auditorium…. by the by – I can say, from experience, that the seats are extremely comfortable!

Production photography by David Sprecher

Cornish Cream

A wonderful week at the Minack Theatre in Cornwall

Mention the term “theatrical greats” and the name Rowena Cade probably wouldn’t be the first one to spring to mind. However, Ms Cade can lay claim to creating one of the most unique outdoor theatre spaces in the world; for her brainchild was the Minack Theatre in Porthcurno, West Cornwall. This 750 seater, literally carved out of the Cornish cliffs, is just four miles from Land’s End and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year who go to see a production or simply to look round and marvel that a frail woman and her faithful gardener had the vision, determination and ability to build this world renowned attraction. It has become the summit of many an amateur dramatic company’s ambition to put on a performance there and so it was that I recently found myself reprising the role of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk in Tower Theatre’s production of Wolf Hall. It really is a once in a lifetime experience.

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Actually, for me, it’s twice in a lifetime as I had already had the good fortune to play Mr Micawber there in Dickens’ David Copperfield. This was part of my debut for the same company in 2012 and left me with many happy memories and at least one anecdote on which I regularly dine out. This concerns one of the many tourists who make the long pilgrimage to the tip of the country in order to catch a performance. In this instance a long distance traveller from Japan turned up wanting to know if the show was the same one that “he had played in Las Vegas”. Cue much hilarity among the cast … but I digress.

Memories of first time round

Of course returning to somewhere so iconic was never going to be as mind blowing the second time round but the Minack is a very special place and it soon worked its magic. It was probably only as I travelled back to London that I had time to fully reflect on the full gloriousness of the experience and resolved to write it up.

I had decided, this time, to travel by train. The 5.5 hour journey was a good deal shorter than some flights I had been on recently and for company (totally unplanned but in the next seat) I had fellow cast member David Miller. An uneventful trip got us to Penzance at about 9.30pm and we headed off for our respective accommodation. Unfortunately the following morning was grey and ominous. Ironically after something like two months of sunshine and unremtting heat (both at home and in Cornwall) the weather had finally turned; as I breakfasted the rain began and persisted.

Working at the Minack is carried out to a very tight time schedule – particularly on the first couple of days – so rain or no rain there was nothing for it but to catch the bus to my final destination. It should take 45 minutes to get to Porthcurno but as Saturday is predominantly change over day for holidaymakers in this part of the world the bus soon became ensnared in traffic– if you have been to west Cornwall you will appreciate how difficult it must be driving a huge bus down single track roads in lashing rain with masses of vehicles all heading out of the peninsula. However, I had left in plenty of time so still managed to make it to my B&B to drop luggage and then head up the hill to the theatre before the appointed meeting time at noon.

Wonder of wonders the rain stopped just in time for my arrival though, it has to be said, as the theatre has its own microclimate you can never really be sure what’s going to happen next. Gradually the rest of the cast arrived and at midday we officially took posession of the space and began the “get in”. This involved forming a chain gang and passing everything down through the auditorium on the cliff face. This is the only way to achieve getting everything backstage and has to be done regardless of the meterological circumstances. We were lucky that it was dry throughout and also (very sensibly) minimal furnishings and props had been decided upon. We were using no scenery (apart from a decorative and symbolic Tudor rose); the Minack backdrop is sufficiently breathtaking and requires little adornment. The costumes were the bulkiest items – as I can attest my own weighed a ton; multiply that by a cast of 24 (plus those who were doubling up) and it was pretty back breaking. It all took less than an hour, though, and we found ourselves smiling with quiet satisfaction that we hadn’t fallen prey (as some groups invariably do) to bringing the proverbial kitchen sink with us. After all at the end of the week the even harder task of getting it all back up the cliffside late at night beckoned.

 

 

               

The rest of the weekend was spent in sorting out the dressing rooms (which must have the most wonderful view of any dressing rooms anywhere in the world – basking sharks anyone?) and in rehearsing and getting everything up to speed. Gradually everything fell into place and even though there had been a two week lay off all seemed to run smoothly. There was one minor rain delay but we were all hoping the weather would hold good for the performances and that we would not have to revert to the see-through plastic ponchos which are broken out when conditions warrant; performances are seldom, if ever, cancelled outright and 2018 had been a very good year….so far.

Performances run Monday to Friday (matinees on Tuesday/Thursday) and I am happy to report that we were almost entirely rain free – the only damp moment was at the start of the second half of the last night when it rained for about one minute and even then so lightly that it was more of a relief from the heat than anything else. There was one windy evening and one where it rained up until ten minutes before we started and then bucketed down again fifteen minutes after we had finished but, that aside, conditions were warm(ish), calm and, as clouds departed, starlit. The Thursday matinee was the hottest and driest and led to some uncomfortable moments in the heavy costumes. I even took to wearing my hat backstage (as exposed to the elements as the rest) but as it was of Tudor design with a large feather at least it was in keeping.

The final bows of the final show

A full album of production photos can be found here

How was it? Well, if it was not quite as thrilling as the first time round (how could it be?) it was still very special indeed. The Minack requires a big level of performance – something to which I could not be accused of being a stranger – and my character was, fortunately, very conducive to being played up. I think the harder job was for those whose characters needed to be understated – well done to them for achieving this particularly difficult balancing act. We generally played the first half in fading light and it is then that seals could be seen in the waters below the backstage area. By Act 2 full darkness had descended; that’s when the venue works its real magic. An evening breeze blows in off the sea; the incoming tide crashes into the Cornish cliffs making cuelines difficult to hear but heightening the drama; lights from fishing boats can be seen bobbing and shimmering in the distance; the occasional bat flies by no doubt pursuing the moths attracted by the stage lights; the audience starts to disappear into coats and hats and huddle underneath blankets. There is a real sense of communion as players and audience share some very special moments. As we concluded our twentieth and last performance at about 10.45pm on Saturday evening I reflected that this was, indeed, a truly memorable way to round off my 150th production; huge thanks are due to all those onstage and off who helped to make it possible.

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A sight to gladden the heart

Audiences were very appreciative and very strong in number. We averaged 91% across the week (about 4.5k bums on seats) which for a straight play is extremely good and applause was loud and generous. I think most of us in the cast had at least one positive encounter with an enthusiastic audience member during the daytime. Certainly one couple staying in the same B&B as me came into the dining room and declared “Well we must be going up in the world; yesterday we had breakfast with Thomas Wyatt and Mark Smeaton – today it’s the Duke of Norfolk”. Indeed the B&B clientele seemed to consist almost entirely of audience members or Dutch costal path walkers … I’m still intrigued as to why one of the latter proceeded to top a bowl of fruit with HP sauce (perhaps they assumed it was chocolate).

Other than when doing the two matinees, we were free during the days and able to go off and visit the sights. A big group of us spent the day at Sennen Cove (ruined sandals clambering down to the beach) and at The Tate at St Ives (preferred the building to its contents) and on one day I took open top bus rides to tour Mousehole, Newlyn, St Michael’s Mount and Marizon. Post show entertainment and activities were also well to the fore, largely to allow time for the performance adrenaline to subside – the pub quiz (winning team!) and the Tower Taskmaster competition (winning team!) were particularly memorable. And of course there was plenty of time to consume pasties, hogs pudding, saffron buns, fairings, Newlyn crab, fish and chips, Rattler (cider), Korev (lager), Kelly’s ice cream and cream teas – absolutely jam first, then cream; it’s a wonder that by the end of the week some costumes weren’t straining.

Backstage walkway and steps up to stage

That they weren’t may possibly be put down to the amount of physical energy expended. Simply getting from the dressing rooms to far stage left takes about two minutes and involves climbing up and down flights of stairs and passing along a clifftop walkway behind the stage. Nor when you are onstage can you afford to relax. Everything is made of concrete (including the usually wooden and sprung stage floor which has a reverse rake) and therefore is very hard on the calves and knees. Any moves have to start earlier than normal in order to reach the desired spot – especially with the weight of the costumes to factor in and a good deal of dialogue has to be played straight out with a tilted neck in order to catch the eyeline of those who are (seemingly literally) in the gods. Positioning can also be tricky. The strong spots are labelled A, B and C in the diagram  (upstage section A is the absolute “sweet spot”) and if you don’t want to unsight large sections of the audience then avoid the hatched sections (D) at all costs.

 

Minack floorplan 1
Dressing rooms off stage right, stage management tent stage left and sheer cliffs behind

I was particularly grateful for the RSC training I had received during the Dream project in 2016. This had taught me all about playing to a large auditorium without resorting to shouting and wild gesticulation and about how to command an audience’s attention particularly when – as here – there were some spectacular scenic diversions to potentially cause distraction. So it was definitely with a sense of confidence  that I was able to deploy several techniques to good effect…. at least that’s what I thought.

After the Tuesday matinee I climbed the steep backstage steps from the stage door to the clifftop café. Halfway up there is a magnificent view of adjacent Porthcurno beach and I stopped to take a few pictures. I was joined by a couple also admiring the view who asked, “What’s down that way then?” I explained it was the route down to the backstage area and dressing rooms. “Oh,” came the reply. “We’ve just seen the show. It was extremely good. Were you in it?”

Any offers for ego reassembly will be gratefully received!