On balance…..

A review of the clever new musical show Fiver currently at Southwark Playhouse #FinancialEducation

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For a number of years now (actually 14 – yikes!) I have worked either full time/part time as employed/freelance in the world of personal finance education. A popular task to set young people involves asking them to imagine the life story of a £5 note, the sort of hands it might pass through and the various purposes to which it might be put. It was, therefore, with a degree of professional interest that I noted the arrival on the scene of a new(ish) British musical called simply Fiver and based on this exact premise. On what was one of the hottest evenings of the year I visited Southwark Playhouse to catch up with the opening night. Here’s my review:

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Fiver is an intriguing British musical by Alex James Ellison and Tom Lees, constructed as a series of musical vignettes as the titular bank note passes through the hands of a whole host of people. A busker played by Alex James Ellison inveigles a fiver from an audience member and sets the wheels in motion. He then becomes a narrator/chorus figure commenting on the action and bridging scenes. Incredibly, all the other roles are played by just four multi talented performers including at one point all the guests arriving for a baby shower. With just a change of accent and/or a slightly different body stance the performers conjure up a whole gallery of characters which keep the story moving along; Dan Buckley is particularly strong in this regard. Sometimes we lingered with the note’s recipients and found out more about their lives, at other points the note changed hands rapidly and we got just the merest glimpse of the temporary owners of the money. Thus a busker’s reward became a homeless person’s lifeline used to purchase a scratch card and then given in change by the shopkeeper to a customer who tucked it into a birthday card as a present…. and so on (and that’s just in the first quarter of an hour). The note is used for buying, gambling, donating, borrowing, present giving and as payment; it is lost, found, washed out to sea, used for snorting coke and narrowly avoids destruction in a washing machine. It maybe that the writers are using the premise as a huge metaphor for the vagaries and resilience of life itself but there is no doubting that the structure works well on either level.

fiver2So what’s not to like? Well unfortunately quite a bit; although I really wanted to root for this show there were a number of minor faults which manifested themselves and detracted from the overall experience. I hasten to add that there isn’t anything that isn’t fixable with a bit more consideration and tweaking but I can only judge on what I actually saw. Judging by the rapturous reaction of most of my fellow audience members I may well be in a minority but in the interests of trying to help a good show become a great show I thought I should raise the relevant issues. It seems appropriate to present my findings on this monetary odyssey as a balance sheet (albeit the reverse way round)

The music was engaging with some lovely melodies very well played and delivered BUT I can’t help thinking it wasn’t quite varied enough. There was a tendency (particularly in the first half) towards “angsty” ballads
The lyrics were witty, full of little surprises and, at times, delightful BUT I couldn’t hear them all either because of the sound balance or because of some gabbling by the performers
The book used an ingeniously simple device to introduce a large assortment of well portrayed characters BUT This wasn’t fully followed through sufficiently in the second half. At times it was almost abandoned in order to make use of other ideas which perhaps didn’t belong in this particular musical, good though they may be
The production used the space limitations well with an enforced minimal setting BUT some of the action played on the auditorium floor (as opposed to the rostra) was invisible from where I was sitting
The performers were very good, engaging, energetic and multi-talented BUT there was some poor diction particularly in the faster songs and a slight tendency towards mugging which should have been curbed by the director

fiver1Research revealed that the show had been a great deal shorter in its first incarnation (apparently forty minutes has been added in) and I think it should have been left at its original length rather than stretching the premise to a full two hours which was too long to support the central conceit. I would strongly suggest the unnecessary subplot, which involved a teacher being stalked by a letter writer, should be removed. It added nothing and was only very tenuously linked to the main arc of the story; it might well form the spine of another musical piece but had no place here. That said it did include one of the strongest musical numbers “Gotta Keep My Head Down” so I can quite understand why it was included on that level. Another number that regrettably needs to be sacrificed in order to preserve the overall integrity of the piece is “Press Hashtag To Record”. A standout number in terms of composition (shades of the master, Sondheim) and performance (hilarious delivery by Aofie Clesham) it simply had no place in this show. Indeed the whole of the second half needs careful rethinking. The “explanation” about timescales at the beginning was especially confusing. Beyond that there is probably room for a little reordering of material – the three piece song “A Fiver’s Destiny” could usefully be repositioned (and added to?) more evenly through the show for instance. There also needs to be tighter grip placed on the direction and staging – perhaps writer/MD Tom Lees needs to allow an independent eye to be cast over proceedings!

I do hope that, wearing my dual hats of theatre critic and financial education consultant, we hear more of this show in the coming years. That it is highly original, cleverly constructed and bursting with possibilities is in no doubt. There is just now a need to regroup and invest time in developing a first rate product – one with immediate interest and long term rewards. On balance, I think there is the makings of a very good show here – it is now time to speculate in order to accumulate!

Production images: Danny with a Camera

Wholely Moley!

Adrian Mole hits the West End at the Ambassadors Theatre in an exuberant return to the 1980s and it’s a hit

By my reckoning 2019 marks Adrian Mole’s 50th birthday so it’s entirely appropriate that a musical based on his teenage years should have just reached the Ambassador’s Theatre. I have followed Mr Mole through his various incarnations since the early 80s – I think I initially came across him on the radio. I recall devouring the first book more or less at a sitting and then there was the TV series with theme tune by Ian Dury and Mrs Mole played by Julie Walters (who inexplicably morphed into Lulu in Series 2!) Later variations showed him as an increasingly despondent adult (and Alison Steadman was mum) but it is at the pubescent stage that we recall him most fondly. It is to this incarnation (and indeed the original era) that the stage show returns. Here is my review:

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The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 133/4 is not actually that new a piece having started life in Adrian’s (and original author Sue Townsend’s) home city of Leicester at the Curve Theatre. Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary’s adaptation of the first book in the Mole saga is pretty faithful to the original in terms of content and of tone and together with director Luke Sheppard they have been developing and refining the show since the first production in 2015. Their care, attention to detail and, yes, love for what they have been doing, clearly shows in the end result.

Adrian is still the same bemused and beleaguered “intellectual” whose parents are in the middle of splitting up but is probably more interested in writing poetry to send to the BBC, mooning after Pandora (“I adore ya” – quick nod to Ian Dury?) Braithwaite and avoiding the attentions of school bully Barry Kent…oh yes, and measuring a certain part of his anatomy. Other regular characters from the book also appear – best friend and potential love rival Nigel, Adrian’s opinionated Gran, the next door neighbour Mr “Creep” Lucas, disgusting beetroot-sandwich eating OAP Bert Baxter and so on. Even the dog gets in on the act in the guise of a nifty puppet created out of the ink-splattered pages of the protagonist’s diary. Thus if you’ve read the book(s) you’ll be well satisfied.

Even if you haven’t it is a simple enough tale to follow and some ingenious production ideas keep the whole thing rolling along nicely. Various hidden compartments allow the set to be swiftly changed to diverse internal and external locations and costumes, setting and props are a pure nostalgia fest for those of us who lived through the early 80s. There is also some particular fun to be had from the adults in the cast doubling as Adrian’s classmates complete with aged wrinkles, moustaches and hairy legs.

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There was a tendency towards the ramshackle which was entirely in keeping with the mood of the production and which actually added to the fun. In fact I’m actually pretty convinced that this was all carefully orchestrated and therefore all the more impressive to keep it looking fresh. The pace was frenetic – quite rightly so – for most of the show but, particularly in the second half, some moments of quiet reflection and tense dramatic situations took the show out of the realms of it being just another comic musical. Adrian’s growing dismay with his parents’ antics with new unsuitable partners was actually quite touching.

The youngster playing Adrian was absolutely spot on – on the night I saw it Rufus Kampa did the honours. It is no mean feat to hold together a West End musical and yet this is what he did. If the other three lads (playing the part in rotation) are of the same calibre then it’s hats off to the casting director. I was equally impressed by Rebecca Nardin’s turn as Pandora; once again she leapt straight out of the pages of the book and was exactly as I had always imagined her. The other two children were Jeremiah Waysome as a cheeky Nigel and Jack Gale as menacing Barry (the latter also took care of puppeteering duties with the dog).

Most impressive of the adult cast was John Hopkins as a (surely psychotic) headmaster and the oily next door neighbour who steals Mrs Mole (Amy Ellen Richardson) away by tangoing her around her kitchen  – this scene was a particular highlight. However the cast were universally very good and even the older adults threw themselves into proceedings with boundless energy.

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I didn’t find the songs particularly memorable but neither were they intrusive or dull. Many were pastiches of other styles – there was a touch of Les Mis to the staging of “Take A Stand” when Adrian and his classmates defy school convention by (shock horror) wearing red socks. And the lyrics were a riot of surprising rhymes of which W.S. Gilbert might have been proud (I don’t suppose anyone ever again will think to rhyme “BO” with “menstrual flow” – it worked at the time!)

I can’t say it was the best musical I have ever seen but it was certainly one of the most exuberant and it’s great to see a truly British creation brought so vividly to life. If you’re an original fan of the books I think you’ll truly appreciate this adaptation. Highly recommended.*

So, a great show but I do wonder what some of the youngsters in the audience made of it. I’m sure the it has reached the West End partly because of the success of Matilda which would appeal (technically anyway) to the same demographic. However, whereas Roald Dahl’s story was palpably aimed at children I never thought Adrian Mole was (even though I recall it being a popular read among the adolescent age group). Now with the distance of getting on for forty years I’m afraid a lot of the references that I found hilarious might have passed them by.AM1

My advice, therefore, would be that if you are taking along youngsters as a summer holiday treat it might be wisest to get them clued in. Play them some of the music that was in vogue and introduce them to some of the TV and films of the era. Above all help them recognise the 1980s as a time when mobile phones and modern technology was in its infancy, when social media was an unheard of entity and when pubescent teenagers wrote in diaries rather than kept blogs or Snapchatted about their lives. That said, although It was absolutely a different world there are some things which have remained eternal – not least the idea that the rest of the world just doesn’t get us. As Adrian himself muses “Perhaps when I am famous and my diary is discovered, people will understand the torment of being a 13 3/4 year old undiscovered intellectual”.

*This review (in shortened form) first appeared on the LTR website
Production photos by Pamela Raith

FOOTNOTE

After leaving the show I walked past the Palace Theatre where Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is playing. It suddenly struck me that these literary phenomena bore comparison. Both Townsend and Rowling begin their series with a young male protagonist of similar age and followed them through to a somewhat disillusioned adulthood. Harry and Adrian have similar owlish, spectacle wearing demeanours and, crucially, parental issues. Their best friends are (Ron and Nigel) who are cast in similar moulds and the key female characters (Pandora and Hermione) are intelligent, independent and clearly upper middle class young women. Perhaps both writers were tapping into some sort of common experience which is maybe why both have been incredibly successful. And what about those ageing purveyors of sage advice Professor Dumbledore and Bert Baxter – or is that pushing the comparison too far?

Wise old heads on young shoulders

Young people’s theatre has come on a lot since the days of the Nativity play. The National Theatre’s New Views competition gives an important platform to some original voices

It’s always good to get in on the ground floor of something new and over the last couple of days I’ve been looking into the New Views scheme run by the National Theatre. In this, 14-19 year olds enter a play writing competition with the winner getting a production of their play at the NT. Slightly reminiscent of a theatrical competition I was part of a few years back! Anyway, participating students learn about play writing from some of the finest writers in the industry and write their own short plays. They take part part in in-school workshops with professional writers, as well as following an online course by playwright Jemma Kennedy. Their teachers receive professional development and partner with a professional playwright to mentor the students in a school. All very exciting and engaging and so I donned my critic’s hat to appraise the winning play. Here’s my review:

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The winning play in the National Theatre’s New Views play writing competition for 14-19 year olds is If Not Now, When? by Isabel Hughes from Wakefield. It was given three performances in the Dorfman auditorium and I was lucky enough to be present at one of them. I say “lucky” because it is clear that the writer has huge potential and I’ll be glad to say in future years that I saw her professional debut.

IJQQV15AThe first thing that struck me was just how mature the dialogue and the structure of the piece were. The writer is still only 16 but already she has a canny ear for the rhythms and inflexions that her characters use. And this equally applies to the adults portrayed as well as her teenage protagonists. At the centre of the play are siblings Liam and Chelsey who are dealing with the realities of life at a far younger age then they should be. Liam has succumbed to the temptations of vodka often leaving his slightly younger sister to pick up the pieces. She becomes pregnant and is unceremoniously deserted by the father. An absent father and a dying mother complete the family picture. If it all sounds a bit issue led …well it is but the telling of this particular tale is vibrant, often darkly humorous and strangely life affirming.

ebEX_yhwLiam is a bit of, what would be called in Liverpool, a “scally”. Clearly intelligent although at the same time having avoided formal education, he thinks he’s a good catch (he nicknames himself the Barnsley Chop) and is fiercely protective of Chelsey. She in turn looks up to him and tries to persuade him that he’d be better off without the drink. As played by Josh Barrow and Emily Stott these were two well realised, engaging and totally believable characters. They were, of course, well served by their writer but even so here are two more young people with a bright future in the world of theatre.

HHgKsS0QThe rest of the cast provided strong support; I particularly enjoyed Jack Bandeira as the feckless Connor. Staging was kept relatively simple with good use of lighting to delineate locations (Paul Knott) and the director (Elayce Ismail) kept the action flowing across the many short scenes. I have no idea how long a rehearsal period the play was given but it all seemed pretty seamless to me; I’m sure the National would have pulled out all the stops to ensure a production of top quality. If there were still some rough edges that would have been smoothed out with previews, etc. it was entirely in keeping with the world of the play that this should be the case.

All that said, it was, in the end, the writer’s triumph. Over 300 scripts were received so to find that not only have you won out over fierce competition but that your first piece is to be given a professional production – and at the National too – must have been like a dream come true. From what I could see it was thoroughly well deserved. Congratulations to all involved and especially Isabel. I, for one, will be following your future work with a keen eye. And more power to the New Views programme – you are doing some very important work.

Talking of which…..

Applications for the NT’s annual playwriting competition New Views 2019/20 are now open! To find out more and to apply, click here.

As a prelude to the main event I also went and saw a rehearsed reading of one of the shortlisted scripts, a piece called Last Lap by Alice Bennett. Again this was very well written though some of the gaming references rather passed me by. I’d actually gone to try and offer support to a piece by a local writer Emilia Hitching – indeed her school, Bancrofts,  is a short walk from my house – but a mix up over times meant I missed it. However, nothing daunted and thanks to Eleanor Middleton, Head of Drama, I was able to attend a student performance of the piece the following day at the school. I think I actually came off better as seeing the play performed was a far more rewarding experience than simply hearing it. The play, called To Charlie, was an engaging piece exhibiting a maturity beyond the writer’s years. It concerned a mother on the cusp of going into labour and examined her relationship with her own mother, her ex-partner, her new baby and crucially with herself. Emilia Hitching can be proud of her intelligent, economical and thought provoking script – she is clearly another writer with a very bright future. Emilia not only wrote and directed the school performance but took on the role of the midwife too. Her three fellow students Georgia Moncur, Malini Sachdeva-Masson and Alex O’Brien gave her excellent support and were completely credible even though playing roles way beyond their years and experience. The focus of the four was first rate and they commanded the packed audience of students’ complete attention.

When I see writing and performances of this calibre, particularly from young people just getting started in life, I am heartened to see the arts alive and thriving and in such capable hands. The various threats from the politicians to reduce Drama, Art, Music and so on to “also ran” status is unnecessarily upsetting. We should be building on our strengths and the voices emerging from schemes such as New Views need to be listened to.

         *This review first appeared on Sardines website
Production photographs by Emma Hare

Culture Bound – June

Another run of “Merry Wives” – this time in Paris – meant limited time for other outings. Still plenty happening though

Theatre

Les Joyeuse Commeres de Windsor by William Shakespeare (Theatre de Verdure, Paris). As last month modesty forbids comment

Cuttings by Ollie George Clark (Hope Theatre, Islington) A deft incisive piece which takes the lid off the world of PR and spin as an agency fights to save the reputation of a client who has insulted his fellow professionals, sworn repeatedly at an awards ceremony and made matters worse by unrepentantly posting his latest thoughts on social media. It was fast paced (courtesy of director Rob Ellis) and full of cracking dialogue. The three actresses (Natasha Patel, Joan Potter and Maisie Preston) were exceptionally good at capturing the nuances of their various characters and delivered their dialogue with commitment and a high level of energy ****

Brexit by Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky (King’s Head, Islington) An onstage farce about a real life farce. Full review here ****

Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw (Tower Theatre) An interesting take on a perennial classic. Full review here ****

Napoli, Brooklyn by Meghan Kennedy (Park Theatre) Chekov’s Three Sisters transferred to the USA in the 1950s? A hit in New York but I can’t see why. The main fault lay with the script which was full of clichés and owed a huge debt to Arthur Miller (View From A Bridge, particularly). Much of the direction seemed laboured with sightlines in some scenes being particularly difficult. Accents were inconsistent and for a play about the female voice I felt it sadly missed its opportunities. There was one stunning coup de théâtre but this was insufficient to justify the other two hours **

The Censor by Anthony Neilson (Hope Theatre) I really didn’t care for this play or the production. It was obviously written with the express desire to make an audience feel uncomfortable; it absolutely succeeded but not for the right reasons. The content was designed to shock and raise questions, but it was so busy doing the former that the latter got lost. Characters were ciphers – though there was some mileage to be had out of the predatory female character being the pornographer/artist. Production values were minimal almost to the point of non-existence. The debate over censorship will continue but this play/production has nothing to add to the argument *

Books

A Fraction Of The Whole by Steve Stoltz Sometimes ponderous, sometimes hilarious but mostly positive. Full review here ***

The Napoleon Of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton Not at all what I was expecting and all the more delightful for it. Full review here ***

Art Galleries

BEST OF THE BUNCH

Musee d’Orsay (Paris) The building is simply stunning, the internal layout masterly and as for the actual paintings… As so often the case there was simply too much to take in, but I gave it a jolly good try. It’s unbelievable just how many Impressionist masterpieces they have under one roof and, for my money, a better museum than the Louvre. Highlights were Monet’s Haystacks and the Renoirs *****

Versailles (Paris) Not strictly an art gallery but so chock full of paintings it might as well have counted as one. The design and opulence are everything that anyone has ever claimed about it. As above simply too much to take in on one visit and the grounds, particularly, could have done with more extensive exploration. Highlights were the Hall of Mirrors (of course) and Le Petit Trianon – Marie Antoinette’s “cottage” in the grounds. Some of the rest was simply too overcrowded for full appreciation ****

It’s a classic for a reason

A new production of Pygmalion sparks some thoughts on classic plays and how they become defined as such

I’ve been thinking a bit about how a classic play (or indeed any other literary art form) comes to be defined as a classic and it’s a quite knotty question. Clearly it’s got something to do with artistic quality and a universality of appeal. It can be applied to a work that had meaning when it was constructed but continues to have relevance to a later age and across generations. It also has influence on other later writers and their themes. Does this apply to a play such as Pygmalion – the latest offering from Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington? Here’s my review:

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There are certain plays, aren’t there, that people “know” even when they have never seen them? Often this is because they are highly quotable and frequently quoted to the point where they exist almost in a specialised vacuum. Hamlet and The Importance Of Being Earnest are probably the front contenders for this specialised status but, running them a close third I would suggest is Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Lines like “I’m a good girl, I am”, “I can make a duchess of this draggle tailed guttersnipe” and “If you can’t appreciate what you’ve got, you’d better get what you can appreciate” have become all too familiar if only through the prism of the musical version My Fair Lady. Ask many of the same people why Pygmalion is called Pygmalion and they haven’t a clue….And in case you think I’m now about to explain, I’m not. What do you think the internet is for?

Whether you know the ancient Greek roots of the storyline or not the premise of a common (usually) girl being hoisted up the social ladder by a more educated (usually) male teacher has become a common place; think Pretty Woman, think Educating Rita. There is even, apparently an American sitcom called Selfie in which social media fanatic Eliza Dooley is coached by one Henry Higgs, a marketing image guru (see, I got that off the internet!)
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So, since I’ve already established that the story arc is well known enough not to have to be précised and repeated let’s get straight down to the business of this particular production. It was shocking! And I mean that in the most positive way. Emilia Teglia’s intriguing production strongly foregrounded the manipulation and sheer callousness of the male participants – sweet Freddie aside. Both the beastly, boorish, bullying Higgins and the usually affable but awestruck Pickering play with their experiment with little thought for Eliza’s feelings or what is to become of her. Her success or otherwise is made the subject of a wager and thus money becomes a dominant theme. Her father literally tries to sell Eliza off for a fiver before succumbing to the influence of wealth and even the ghastly interpreter Neppomuck is out to make money from exposing her as a fraud. The voices of reason and sensitivity in the play are established as female – Mrs Pearce and Mrs Higgins both realise what the male manipulation is likely to bring about and subtly help Eliza to adjust to her new position in life rather than concerning themselves with the niceties of class distinctions and the sound of the young girl’s vowels and consonants. This concentration on the battle of the sexes (if I can use so trite a phrase) elevated a story that is usually predominantly about class into a more rarefied sphere and gave the production greater depth and strength than can often be the case.
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The play, of course, stands or falls by the casting and performance of Eliza and Higgins and fortunately this production was blessed with what might be called a double whammy. Tower newcomer Celia Learmonth was a delight as the downtrodden girl turned independent woman and the subtle developments in her performance showed a real flair for character nuance. Her comic timing in what I shall call the tea party scene (even if there was no tea in evidence) was spot on and it is a testament to her engagement with the audience that “Not bloody likely!” still drew a small gasp in times when we are used to infinitely worse language. Dickon Farmar was terrific as Higgins with a high degree of restlessness in his character and expert delivery of zingingly withering put downs long before they became the fashionable norm they can be today. Another gasp came when, in the last scene, Higgins grabbed Eliza by the throat; how apposite that the Mark Field incident had hit the headlines just 24 hours earlier. Once again the fact that this was a real play for and about today came rushing to the fore.

Shaw’s gallery of supporting characters (no slur intended) was also brought vividly to life. Simon Taylor’s gentleman-like and gentle man-like Colonel Pickering was a very good foil to Higgins’ bluster. Kevin Furness made the most of his two telling scenes as the rascally yet wily Doolittle senior; I was forcibly struck in this production by the actor’s choices that the dustman was definitely not the chirpy Cockney vaudevillian of the musical but actually quite a nasty, slippery customer. The much more morally correct Mrs Pearce was nicely delineated by Sarah Wenban though I’d forgotten quite how little the character actually appears in the play. Rosanna Preston was suitably regal in her demeanour as the calm eye of Hurricane Higgins (sorry, couldn’t resist); the interplay between her and Farmar left me in little doubt as to whose approval the phonetics professor really sought. The Eynsford-Hills and their genteel poverty were very nicely done by Christopher O’Dea, Heather Dalton and Joanna Coulton. The latter, particularly had a real command of her character and made maximum impact with minimal dialogue. Completing the cast was Peter Novis as a variety of supporting characters as only he can play them.
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If the production had a fault it was perhaps in this latter aspect as there was, for my taste, too few people to swell the scenes successfully in Covent Garden and at the Embassy ball. I guess it’s not easy to persuade sufficient company members to give up so many evenings to take on roles as extras but that’s Mr Shaw for you. Another dramatic challenge which Shaw invariably presents is the sheer number of locations he delineates. Set designer Max Batty’s straightforward but effective solution was to keep things relatively simple – windows which could be anywhere inside, blocks that could be used for seats or sideboards and the whole in neutral colours which helped the audience to accept that they could be in a variety of locations – luckily there is no need, in this original version, to recreate Edwardian Ascot. Offset against this neutrality was the colourful costuming of Irena Pancer which really helped to bring the action to life. I particularly enjoyed the little nods to “steampunk” couture in Higgins’ clothing and Clara’s “new woman” braces. Further life was breathed into the whole by Rob Hebblethwaite’s lighting design and the background music/soundscape compositions of Vera Bremerton; I believe the latter sampled the actor’s voices which was highly appropriate.

Establishing a fresh take on a classic is a risky business. To stay safely within prescribed barriers will bore some and to stray outside them will infuriate others. Hopefully the audience will have appreciated this carefully thought out compromise and gone away thinking more about the messages Shaw was trying to get across and the present day parallels rather than coming out humming the tunes. Mind you I couldn’t help but overhear one departing audience member say to a companion “But they missed out the bit where she goes back to him!” As Eliza would have said, “Garnnn!”*

So does Pygmalion qualify as a classic? I’d say that it does. Writer, critic and commentator Italo Calvino identified 14 criteria which delineate a classic piece of writing (there’s a handy summary here if you’re interested) and looking at these – and adjusting slightly to take into account the live performance and shared experience elements of the dramatic piece – I can place a confident tick against most of them. Not for nothing is Pygmalion Shaw’s most remembered and loved play even if, for many people, it is not actually the original they remember.

*This review first appeared on the Tower Theatre website
Production photographs by Steve Gregson

Brexit: The new sitcom?

A revival of the play Brexit at the Kings Head Theatre, Islington is very much of the moment and stirs some classic sitcom memories Congratulations to cast, @tomsalinsky & @RobertKhan1 for making the unthinkable so palatable

I’ve been to see a couple of new plays this week both, coincidentally, in Islington at small venue theatres and both marked by rapid fire dialogue issuing from the mouths of characters who find themselves with their backs against the proverbial wall. On Tuesday it was Cuttings at the Hope Theatre which put me in mind of a mix between Absolutely Fabulous and The Thick Of It. The latter was also a clear template for last night’s outing to Brexit at the King’s Head (this time served with a soupçon of W1A/2012). One of the key tropes of classic sitcoms is the feeling of entrapment and frustration experienced by the characters (think Harold Steptoe or Fletch in Porridge) and it is also a powerful tool in the hands of stage dramatists – as evidenced by both of these contemporary satires. There’s a brief review of Cuttings in my last blog and here, in rather longer vein, is my review of Brexit:

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I bet when the timely play Brexit was first performed last year that the producers little thought that they would be able to revive it again quite so soon. After all, the UK should have shaken the dust of the EU from its shoes by now and Brexit should have started to become a distant memory. Ah well, our loss (if your politics tend that way) is very much the King’s Head’s gain as this splendidly sharp and biting satire finds a home in Islington once again.

We are slightly in the future and new PM Adam Masters is wrangling with his colleagues, his party, the country but not (it seems) his conscience in getting Brexit to happen…or not. Masters is caught in a position of “zugswang” a term from the game chess where it is a player’s turn to move but when any possible move they do make will worsen their position. And so Masters’ masterplan is basically to sit on his hands and do nothing and just hope the whole thing goes away. Then he can cling onto power which, of course, is what really matters! His chief adviser and master of spin, Paul Connell thinks that his boss should take decisive action and so the stage is set for a juicy personal power struggle much in the vein of the classic Yes Minister and with just as many laughs.

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The central role of the (apparently) vacillating PM is taken by David Benson who plays the ironically named Masters as a Cameron/May composite. By turns apparently incompetent and then devious, Benson captures the desperation of a politician who is thinking about his own self-preservation and his place in posterity – he is determined to outlast Andrew Bonar Law the shortest serving Prime Minister ever. After what I thought was a slightly hesitant start, Benson grew in strength and wrung every ounce of comedy out of the part. I’ve seen him on stage several times in the past (most notably as an acerbic Kenneth Williams) and here is another well realised and, unfortunately, truthful characterisation. As his supposed friend but actual adversary, Adam Astill gave a controlled and very assured performance as the arch manipulator exuding a world weary demeanour as he pulled the strings of the political marionettes. Interestingly it transpires that he is as much in thrall to power as anyone else – it’s just that he manages to disguise the naked ambition rather more successfully.

MPs Diana Purdy and Simon Cavendish (Jessica Forteskew and Thom Tuck) made for a hilarious scheming double act of political rivals – even if they were meant to be part of the same party. She was all controlled vitriol and gritted teeth as she espoused the Remain cause; he was all oleagionously assured wit and camp remarks as the leader of the hard line Brexiters. Any similarity to real politicians was, I am sure, purely coincidental! Completing the line-up was Margaret Cabourn-Smith as EU chief negotiator Helena Brandt. Unlike all the other characters, Brandt seemed to know exactly what she wanted to achieve and how to achieve it and Cabourn-Smith was every inch the assured Euro politician.

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The script by Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky (the latter also directed) was insightful but never dull. Peppered with acerbic one liners and situations which, though theoretically ridiculous, are probably (and slightly scarily) quite close to the truth, the play had real pace and energy – the 75 minutes fairly sped by. There were a couple of minor niggles – the lighting configuration occasionally left actors’ faces in shadow and would a nattily dressed politician like Cavendish really wear a suit where the trousers were too short? These however did not detract from the overall effectiveness of the piece.

Did I learn any more about Brexit? Not really and perhaps I’m rather glad about that as this ubiquitous subject is becoming increasingly difficult to contemplate without despondency setting in. However, I did come away feeling I understood a lot more about the so called movers and shakers trying to preserve their own skins in the corridor of power and I’d had a thoroughly good laugh into the bargain. I do take my hat off to the entire team for getting me to respond positively to a situation which has got beyond satire/parody and which has certainly gone far beyond the proverbial joke.

Brexit plays at the King’s Head in Islington until 6th July. Who knows, the way things are going, it may be ripe for yet another revival in a further six months’ time.*

Sitcom central characters often find themselves trying to escape the situation they find themselves in but are eternally unable to break free. Basil Fawlty, Del Boy, Hancock, Victor Meldrew, Frank Spencer – all of them are perpetually condemned to go round in Ever Decreasing Circles (see what I did there?). Adam Masters is very much in the same vein though (no spoilers here) he does come out at the other end of the play smelling of roses. Meanwhile back in the real world we’ve just had the first round of the Tory vote for their new leader and, by extension the next PM. Maybe we’re going to end up with an even more farcical situation than the one that currently pertains or like that predicted in Brexit. Unfortunately, as Shakespeare had it “Jesters do oft prove prophets”; let’s hope, for once, that the Bard gets it wrong.

*This review first appeared in a slightly edited version on the LTR website
Production photos by Steve Ullathorne

 

To be (onstage) or not to be (onstage)

You too can be in two places at once by following the examples in this blog

Last night I found myself both onstage and in the audience at the same time – neat trick if you can do it and I have done… on more than one occasion.

My first attempt to smuggle myself into the onstage action came in the early 90s in a production of Alan Ayckbourn’s futuristic play Henceforward… which I was directing. At the time the use of video in a play (now seemingly ubiquitous) was then in its infancy and seemed highly revolutionary. I played the character of the pessimistic Lupus, the protagonist Jerome’s best friend, who regularly called him up (think an early forerunner of Skype) to bemoan his lot in life. At one stage he gets punched in a nightclub and then finds himself in hospital. All of this was, of course, location filmed and then cut into the live action at appropriate points. I recall it being a great deal of fun to do – particularly being wheeled around on a bed through the corridors of a local private hospital which had given permission for us to film. I had the luxury of several takes to get things right – never an option live onstage – and it was quite a satisfactory feeling being able to sit in the auditorium and see the puzzled look on the faces of audience members as they tried to work out how I could apparently be in two places at once – as I said this was still early days for the use of video onstage.

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A couple of year later I was directing a production of Shirley Valentine by Willy Russell. Now you’d think inveigling myself into a one person monologue would be pretty impossible. Think again! At the start of the play I had Shirley dashing into her kitchen from the rain, switching on the radio only to be confronted by inane DJ chatter – courtesy of myself. My biggest coup in this area however was another Ayckbourn play called Improbable Fiction in which I “appeared” as myself or at least a version of me. Let me clarify.

The time – November 2004; the place – Waterstone’s flagship store in Piccadilly; the event – a literary auction for the Free Tibet campaign. Rather than bidding for signed books and so on the audience were given the opportunity to bid to be a “character” in a fictional work by a number of prominent writers. My wife and I had attended out of general interest but auctions somehow just suck you in, don’t they? Suddenly she was engaged in a bidding war and before I knew where I was I was presented with an early Christmas present of a certificate showing I had “the right to name a character in a forthcoming work” by Alan Ayckbourn.

Early in 2005 I received a message saying I was to “appear” in a new play called Improbable Fiction at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. The premise of the play is that a writer’s group gather together to discuss the progress of their latest pieces and read out some extracts. In a twist that would take too long to explain here the various pieces (a Victorian bodice ripper, a 1930’s murder mystery, a sci-fi saga et al) come to life and are enacted by the central characters. Most oddly Brevis Winterton, a teacher at the local school is writing a musical adaptation of The Pilgrim’s Progress (!!) but his writing partner (who goes by the name of John Chapman) has gone AWOL and therefore the writing has stalled.

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Poster of the original Scarborough production

Of course we went up to Scarborough to see the play and I was presented with a copy of the manuscript from which the cast were working. I have to say it is an extremely odd feeling sitting in a darkened theatre hearing actors discussing you, even if the you is a fictional version of you. Even more bizarrely I found myself in a production of the play in late 2007. I was playing the aforementioned Brevis Winterton bemoaning the unprofessional nature of his partner’s commitment to the writing process and thereby portraying a man who was making disparaging remarks about “myself”!

“I don’t know where the man’s got to. I’ve tried ringing him, leaving messages. I mean, I presume John Chapman’s still teaching at the school, he just never seems to be there. Vanished away. Probably found himself a new paramour…”

And so to last night. Cuttings is a deft and incisive piece by Ollie George Clark, which takes the lid off the world of PR and spin as an agency fights to save the reputation of a client who has insulted his fellow professionals, sworn repeatedly at an awards ceremony and made matters worse by unrepentantly posting his latest thoughts on social media. In style, think The Thick Of It meets Ab Fab. It was fast paced (courtesy of director Rob Ellis in whose production of Merry Wives of Windsor I have just finished playing Falstaff) and full of cracking dialogue from the pen of new writer Clark – of whom I think we are going to see a lot more in the future. The three actresses (Natasha Patel, Joan Potter and Maisie Preston) were exceptionally good at keeping us riveted as to how they were going to handle the situation. They captured the nuances of their various characters and delivered their dialogue with commitment and a high level of energy. I also learned a great deal about modern spin techniques where deflection of blame is perceived as not only morally acceptable but almost de rigeur. So highly recommended.Cuttings-Hope-Theatre-768x432And what of me? Well, it was set in a PR agency and a PR agency needs clients and “I” apparently was one of them. So there were various posters on display of me as James, a clearly distinguished actorrr, who had appeared in Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (never have), a sci-fi epic (never have) and a children’s puppet show about dolphins (certainly never have). Although come to think of it that last one does have a certain attraction to it. Any producers thinking of developing a kid’s puppet marine life based TV programme is welcome to contact me as I might just be your man.