Monthly Archives: June 2017

BARBER SHOP CHRONICLES – another view

WE DON’T OFTEN REVIEW TWICE, BUT THE SHORTAGE OF YOUNGER AND DIVERSE VOICES MATTERS…SO (ON HER OWN TICKET)  JENNIFER-JANE BENJAMIN,  A YOUNG LONDONER WHOSE OWN HERITAGE IS NIGERIAN,  SPEAKS NOW OF THIS MARVELLOUS STUDY OF AFRICAN MANHOOD…

 

 

The thing that was, to me, most striking about Barber Shop Chronicles, was the familiarity of it all. From that specifically african sound made in the back of one’s throat (usually to express disapproval), right the way to Prince Nico Mbarga’s Sweet Mother softly playing in the background, via the playful rivalry between the Black Carribbean community and the Black African community. Yes, it all felt very familiar.

 

And indeed the play is about family. About the surrogate families we form and come to rely on when our biological ones are – for whatever reason – unable to give us what we need. All families need a home and the home here is the humble barber shop. The set is truthfully designed by Rae Smith; the intricacies of her work create yet more familiarity. The rickety mis-matched waiting chairs – some covered in kente cloth, the hand-painted shop front signs, even the hair products on the grooming stations – blue Dax! – much reminded me of a childhood well spent hanging around on Walworth Road, in south London. For those of us who have spent long summers in tiny African villages the imposing generator in the corner was instantly recognisable.

 

The action takes place across London, Lagos, Accra, Kampala, Joburg and Harare – and is based on often hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking real life conversations witnessed by Ellams on his visit to each.This is a novelty for me. It’s a novelty for me because I am a black and, like the writer of this play, Inua Ellams, of Nigerian heritage. The stories from our community are seldom given such prominence on the theatre stage.

 

Themes abound throughout the 105 minute show, but the most prominent is that of masculinity; and black masculinity, to be specific. It explores the difficulty faced by boys and young men of finding relatable and accessible role models in their local communities and how trying to compare themselves to ‘legends, titans, country sized men’ like Mandela, Martin, Malcolm and Marcus, can be overwhelming. It asks the big questions: am I still a man if I pluck my eyebrows? Will the mandem still accept me if I want to talk about my feelings? Can I claim to be a man if I don’t like pushing weights at the gym? Now, full disclosure: I am a woman. But it is because of this that I am all too aware of the damage that toxic masculinity can cause.

 

There are philosophically burdensome elements of this play and it sure does get emotional – Kwami Odoom’s final scene as Ethan, made my heart feel heavy; I recognised that boy in many I have known in real life – but these moments are well balanced by the razor sharp comedic performances of the cast. The thirty characters were split between twelve actors and I loved them all. Cyril Nri – whom I’ll always remember as Supt. Adam Okaro from The Bill – was the perfectly imperfect father figure Emmanuel, whose Dad Humour was a highlight. I cackled at Patrice Naiambana and his accidental flashing as Old Tokunbo, was charmed by Simon Manyonda as Tanaka The HipsterGeek and I fell in love with Winston, played by Anthony Welsh (I am sure that wink-of-the-eye was aimed in my direction). But the stand out performance for me was given by Hammed Animashaun who took on four characters but his Muhammed, a 30-something, diamante-wearing, woman-Loving, London-living Nigerian man, was particularly special. Just like in the 2Pac song, all eyez were on him as he stole the show.

 

It is in experiencing the highs, the lows, the tensions followed by release into the heady heights of uncontrollable snort-laughter that one comes to truly appreciate the supreme union of Ellams’ writing and Bijan Sheibani’s direction.

 

Of course you could not have a celebration of Mother Africa and all her ways without the inclusion of song. It is in this area kudos is due to the music director Michael Henry whose barber shop quartet style voice arrangements that swept us from city to city inspired delight. Meanwhile, the soundtrack has proved so popular with audiences there is now a Spotify playlist featuring D’Banj, Fuse ODG and Skales as well as Shakka, Giggs, Ghetts and Jme. Song is nothing without dance and movement director Aline David’s paso-doble-esque choreography was a real treat. The urge to get out of my seat and join them was almost to much to contain. Almost.

 

The play offers a masterclass in the myriad of ways there is to be a 21st century man. It’s an Ode to the Barber Shop, a place for talking, where many of these men are made.

 

 

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INK Almeida N1

GUEST REVIEWER LUKE JONES GLORIES IN JAMES GRAHAM’S SUN BACKSTORY 

It’s a solid stunner of a play which has you punching the air for Rupert Murdoch by the interval. Bertie Carvel’s Murdoch asks in the opening scene, lit only by a sharp smokey beam of light, “What’s a story?”.

The transformation of the stuffy broadsheet into a popular tabloid with knicker week, Page 3 models, free giveaways and chunky font is one. It’s a sprawling real-life tale of competing egos, competing morals and competing ideas of Britain and of the press.

And sprawling real-life tales in need of snappy and dramatic condensation is James Graham’s speciality. If he had business cards (I doubt it, who does?) that would be on them. His translation of the potentially dry backroom machinations of the House of Commons under the 74-79 Labour government (This House) got theatrical juices flowing everywhere.

And here they flow freely again. The first year of the rejuvenated Sun could have run for hours and hours on stage. But Graham’s play is pacy and witty. Key moments are in there (the murder of Muriel McKay, the origin of Page 3) but it never feels like just a skip through a timeline. The full arc of the play is neat and laser-focused, and the cast are fat with good lines and fulsome, colourful, sweary and undeniably entertainingly British character.

Director Rupert Goold ensures nothing is extraneous. The scenes whip through like a snappy TV drama, although of course TV would never be this good. He’s also unafraid of a slightly musical vibe. Bunny Christie’s set is a mount of desks the cast clamber all over, the lighting is colourful and active, and the transitions are regularly helped along by bursts of music and ‘almost-dancing’. Anywhere else this could feel a bit forced. But in the office of the new fun Sun, which gives knickers away to readers in a can, it seems bang on.

At the helm, Bertie Carvel brilliantly dishes all the dirty ambition of the Dirty Digger. But nicely mixed with the underdog fighting spirit we all like to get behind. The line between charming trailblazer and ruthless exploiter is nailed perfectly with a sly Aussie accent and a slightly twitchy mannerism. Likewise Richard Coyle (as editor Larry Lamb) embodies so smoothly the transition required by the play; go-getting outsiders turned liable players.

The entire cast (many flitting between numerous parts) have perfected the tricky line many of Graham’s characters tread. They’re warm, slightly boozy, bawdily-British triers. But they make mistakes, they misjudge, they veer off the straight and narrow. But the play doesn’t come down on them like a tonne of bricks. There’s no handwringing finale, no “CENTRAL MESSAGE” slapped around the audience’s faces. Graham simply uses the weight of research he’s compiled to confidently open a dramatic window on this world. But always, unlike so many new plays, with an eye firmly on what’s the story.

~ LUKE JONES

Rating: 5 Mice

 5 Meece Rating

Until 5th August

Box Office: 020 7359 4404

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HIR Bush, W12

MILLENIAL  LUKE JONES TIRES OF THIS GENDER AGENDA

 

 

There aren’t many issues in life that haven’t been solved, rationalised or  helpfully knocked about by plays. ‘What to do when you lose your identical twin and feel the urge to cross-dress and a random lady falls in love with you’ being one of the trickier knots: Will managed it. But the modern gender revolution, with its own thesaurus and code of conduct, has yet to trouble the mainstream London stage in an effective way.

 

 

So I understand the effort here. But Taylor Mac’s play HIR doesn’t get us any closer to an intelligent, insightful or useful theatrical outing (pun intended). The Bush’s traverse stage is a filthy American house. The aircon is blasting, dirty clothes outnumber visible floor-tiles and Arthur Darvil’s Isaac has returned from war to find his father in a dress (massive stroke), his sister with a beard (transitioning) and his previously beaten-down mum alive with the excitement of gender debate.
Nothing is how he left it. I rubbed my hands ready for a ride through identity, home, belonging, family. I got sitcom. Loud conversation, with little to say.

 

 

Characters have ‘a thing’ and they stick to that. Anything we slowly learn about them (the Dad was horrible, the Mum now humiliates him in his infirmity), just slides off, leaving little impression. And because the characters don’t move, neither does the dialogue. Every conversation fits the formula ‘indignant person explains being transgender to shocked person’. There are occasional laughs (Noah and the Ark being transphobic) but the debate isn’t up to the fight, and the performances are far from fit enough to save it. Arthur Darvil just shouts every line in surprise, Ashley McGuire as the mum delivers speeches as the primary-school explanations they are, and Griffyn Gilligan (Max, Darvill’s transgender sibling) fails to make anything convincing of what should be the most emotionally engaging part.

 

 

It’s clear the playwright is excited by the topic. Rightly so, it’s fertile ground. But for us to care as well, there needs to be some soul, some humanity beneath the debate .

 

 

Box Office: 020 8743 5050 to 22 July
rating: one  Costume design mouse resized

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GLORIA Hampstead, NW3

WHEN SHOCK BECOMES A SALES PITCH

 

 

There are three acts: the first long, expressing an enervatingly pointless world and ending in a sharp shock. The second is competitively cynical and rises to another kind of shock, the sort with disgust in it. The last is shorter still, offering a nicely vicious resolution. Some characters in the first act return as new but related people; others as their psychologically damaged selves, which adds to the unsettling atmosphere . This play won Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins a Pulitzer last year: it is clever and angry, though its rage is overlaid with a detachment reminiscent of Neil Simon: a sense of the author standing back with “Lord, what fools these mortals be” rather than suffering alongside them.

 

 

It is also, in its theme, horribly topical when Britain has just suffered four murderous shocks and must accept that we may see parallels to the devil’s-dance of aftermath that this play demonstrates. For Jacobs-Jenkins’ theme is “the commodification of the witness or victim: the marketability of the survivor-story. We do not initially know this: the first scenes, set in the junior assistants’ cubicles of a glossy magazine office , are intermittently funny, dense with embittered office banter by a group of millennials. They seem to be focusing on quite other things. Perhaps generational rivalry – Kae Alexander is appositely recognizable as the fashion-blogging, brittle Kendra ranting against bed-blocking babyboomers; so is Colin Morgan as Dean, who yearns to get the hell out and pen a memoir of his so far uneventful life. Bayo Gbadamosi as the still younger intern looks on, and is darkly suspected of wanting to get their jobs. Fury rises further in the young at the news that an invisible older writer is getting the gig of doing a profile of a dead pop star of their era. Meanwhile a comparative veteran fact-checker has a sort of existential breakdown, and the unpopular office geek dashes through, glaring.
The point, nicely made, is that in this ‘glamorous’ job, all the interesting power stuff is always happening in another room. We all remember the feeling.

 
Then comes the disaster. Never mind what. The succeeding acts move us by stages from New York to LA, from real fear and facts to the stage where it matters more who gets their account in print most lucratively, and whether there’s a mini-series in it. And, indeed, how much the publishing industry cares who was actually in the room, once “great angles” , “personal catharsis” and “beautifully written” accounts are weighed up.

 

 

 

This distortion happens. There is no point hoping that right now, out in our own city, there are not publishers and film-makers sniffing with careful, hopeful tact and chequebooks around the survivors of Grenfell Tower and the London and Manchester attacks.

 

 

Michael Longhurst’s production is not quite perfect, or not yet. Kendra’s brittle lines in the first act sometimes defy full comprehensibity to the untuned ear, though Kae Alexander gets the hair-flicking horror of her character absolutely pat. Some scenes could be trimmed down. But it is fascinating and timely, and sometimes horribly funny (the IT guy in the final scene is pure joy). And of the performances, Bo Poraj’s and and Morgan’s in particular stand out as fully-inhabited and memorably troubling. Not every survivor has a story he wants to tell in public, or should be encouraged to.

 

 

box office 020 7722 9301 to 22 July
rating three  3 Meece Rating

 

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BAT OUT OF HELL           London Coliseum WC1

WHERE ROCK ‘ N ROLL DREAMS COME TRUE

 

“On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?”
Or in this case, a red carpet  lined with Hells Angels and three generations of fans. Would you? Swelteringly, yes!. On this hot summer night, the howling, raw-rocking, Fender-bashing wolf can have us, throats and all.

 

 

Jim Steinman’s astonishing rock ballads, brought to our hearts (and my car stereo, pretty well daily)  by Meat Loaf, were originally meant for the stage, rather than just that immortal album. So this isn’t some limp jukebox musical, with a thin storyline by some dreary Ben-Eltonish  hack. They were already storytelling songs, all soul and muscle and poetry and the innocent violence of  teenage yearning: “the flesh and the fantasy, the mystery and the muscle of love”.

 

 

So of course they should be onstage: and now they gloriously are, with exploding bikes and flames and a car, and guns and multicoloured smoke and somersaults and projections.    And, at their heart not just  burning jealousies but the sudden  jokes which bubble up in the deadliest of times if you are young, as they have done ever since Mercutio punned on his deathbed.

 

 

 

Jay Scheib’s production is a technical spectacular, Jon Bausor leading the design, and wild exuberant choreography by Emma Portner – the ensemble are unbelievable, both in song (Michael Reed is musical director) and in the street-wild movement. But  its chief glory is narrative and emotional. It is set in a scifi  urban dystopia where a  tribe of the  “Lost”‘ ,permanently mutated to be forever eighteen, live in tunnels under the rule of Falc, the rich property landlord. Nicely topical for London: he  rules  in his tower with his discontented wife Sloane . But Falco’s daughter Raven is loved by the gang leader Strat, who comes to her  bedroom as if in a dream (shades of Keats’ Eve of St Agnes, and rather more of Peter Pan and Wendy, since Strat can’t grow older and has a jealous best friend called, er, Tink, who hates Raven).

 

 

 

Andrew Polec, a rising US star, is a powerful intense Strat in both snarling and sentimental rock mode. Christina is Bennington an enchanting Raven:  a Juliet sometimes hesitant, sometimes headlong.  Both have great rock voices, but equalling them , often cripplingly funny and occasionally touching, are Rob Fowler’s Falco and Sharon Sexton as his wife Sloane. The joy of Steinman’s construction is that the beloved songs are parcelled out to different characters, often  with a chorus and other subplots joining in. So Fowler and Sexton’s rendering of Paradise by the Dashboard Light, (“we were barely seventeen, we were barely dressed”) may, in its wicked hilarity get me back there. Danielle Steers’ bluesy Zahara gets the heartbreak of “One outa three aint bad”, , and – when imprisoned and beaten by Falco –  the gang members in Guantanamo orange jumpsuits get to break your heart with memories of those objects in the rear view mirror: (“So many threats and fears, so many wasted years, before my life became my own..life is just a highway and the soul is just a car..”
 

 

I keep quoting, and call on Keats and Shakespeare,  for good reason. For Steinman is a real poet: an emotionally intense balladeer of thrilled new love, when electricity runs through a beloveds  very hair, and bodies seem to rhyme:  of doubt and desire and daring and regret and absurdity, and longing for sex to be more than the moment. As an expression of eroticism it is the antithesis of porn; as a bard of biker bravura and rebellion Steinman is refreshingly uncynical.
 

 

And the music! Real rock, melodious and violent, ragingly operatic. Generations gather round it like a fire: I went with my daughter; one fan group had been over twenty times, and not all were anywhere near young. Actually, the middle aged even have a new song in which to laugh at ourselves and be laughed: Falco and Sloane’s  furious number “Who needs the young? when all WE have is traces – of the faces we once were..”

 

In short, it’s three kinds of bliss. Only those now locked impenetrably into their middle age will resist it.

 

box office   020 7845 9300        to 5 August     Off to Toronto in autumn.
Rating. Five.  5 Meece Rating

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BARBER SHOP CHRONICLES Dorfman, SE1

FOLLICLES, FOLLY, FATHERHOOD

 

It’s fun down in the Dorfman pit. Under exuberant African barbershop posters from Lagos, Harare, Accra – and London – a cast of barbers and customers-to be josh and wander, dance a few steps and accost the front row. Their territory is a mongrel assembly of garden chairs, sofas, much-used equipment, lanterns and one ancient generator. Overhead a wire globe rotates among chaotic drooping wires and lights. We will live for a hundred and five minutes in this raggedy low-rent masculine world, amid the men of the African diaspora. Seamlessly, at showtime a television on the far side summons them all to an Oh! and a “no!” and a final cheer for the football. And we’re off.

 

 

Hopes and fears and preoccupations are filtered through one long day in the barber-shops, which can be as one wise South African clipper says near the end, “beacons”: the heart of communities . Places where troubled male hearts find a truce, and ask themselves and one another about what is it to be a black man? A strong black man with pride and purpose, groping in a world where national father-figures – and real fathers – so often let you down?

 

 

Inua Ellams, Nigerian poet and playwright, was last in this space with his BLACK T SHIRT COLLECTION, and sparked sharp mischievous delight with his show AN EVENING WITH AN IMMIGRANT. This is a fuller and more satisfying play, though there are times when you wonder if it will complete itself and become a play indeed, or remain a run of sketches linked only by the rattling-castored, dancing swirl of movement from one country, one group of men to the next. There are sly linking themes – a joke about three men in a bar which appears to be universal, or the young men noting the proverb that “the older a man gets, the faster he ran as a boy”. Often it comes back to that theme of fatherhood. There are wonderful one-liners: a few probably lost in patois on some of us, but many direct hits.. There is a furious political debate about whether pidgin is a language which must be preserved, and a knockabout over whether Mugabe is a national hero or a thug.

 

 

. But as Bijan Sheibani’s fast-moving direction steers it towards resolution , a wider theme grows: solidified in a superb rant by an old, desperate south African drunk expressing something which – as a former appalled schoolgirl in apartheid south Africa – I have long expected to hear. That is an expression of the stark anger which must rise in poor black South Africans now: rage even at Mandela himself for his benignity and rainbow words, because the white masters were not driven out, not annihilated and exiled, not belittled and humiliated in return. They still hold most of the wealth and power. The calm old barber beside the angry old man talks of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the need to move on. And then through a rapid swirl and rattle of castors, we are back in the London barbershop where a more personal truth and reconciliation has to take place.

 

 

And, in a quiet falling coda, an 18 year old comes in after hours for a trim because he is an actor due at an audition . It’s a neat trick, as the play began in Lagos with someone turning up at 6 a.m. desperate for an “aerodynamic” cut for a job interview. This lad, well-spoken and shy and a little camp, is going for a part as “a black man ..a strong black man” . But his own father left when he was six, and he plucks his eyebrows and is an actor doesn’t know what a strong black man is any more, because the Mandelas and Luther Kings are “continent sized’ and he is only a small island…

 

 

And so the play, the scruffy barbershop world, in its last phases becomes itself more of a continent than a quirky island. What makes a good man?

 

box office 020 7452 3000 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.ukto 8 July
rating four    4 Meece Rating

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TRISTAN & YSEULT Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1

WHAT BECOMES OF THE BROKEN-HEARTED?

 

 

This is a famously significant piece of theatre: created in 2003 in a Cornish field , it was one of the first successes of Emma Rice’s Kneehigh, precursor of wild successes like Brief Encounter, Rebecca and The Wild Bride. Her idiosyncratic, joyful style of course led her to her short-lived tenure in charge of the Globe. But this adaptation was the genesis of it all: its larky, irreverent, vaudevillian style at the time revolutionary. It ran at the NT Cottesloe, toured two hemispheres, and now returns re-cast , but with the same spirit and the most of the original Bill Mitchell design and rope-hauling aerialism. Here in the Globe – currently still in the Emma Rice it’s-a-gig mode, with amplification and fancy lights – the tempo is turned up more than Cottesloe audiences remember. To the extent, indeed, that sometimes the broad jokes, asides , urgings of the groundlings and bursts of pop singalong (“Up all night to get lucky”) could make a newcomer feel a bit as if he had wandered into Butlins.

 

 
Especially since the story, or the core of it, is the mythic medieval-Arthurian tragedy of Tristan – born in sorrow to a broken heart – and his love for King Mark of Cornwall’s bride Yseult. You do get a couple of bursts of Wagner’s Liebestod – one at the start, one at the finale – but in between there are comedy kick-fights and goolie-grabbing, and a musically unWagnerian diversity from Nick Cave to tango. As to the spoken text – by Anna Maria Murphy and Carl Grose – some of it is strikingly poetic, even profound; some is not. King Mark – Mike Shepherd, one of the few accorded some dark dignity – has loose iambics which often work; Kirsty Woodward, narrating from the point of view of Tristan’s eventual wife, delivers dry sharp storytelling in strict 1950’s ladieswear; only occasionally is there a line truly bathetic, like Kyle Lima as the Iago-ish betrayer Frocin lamenting “I’ve been nothing but your loyal servant, my King / Don’t say Ive ruined everything”… Luckily, Lima’s physical brilliance and bonkers fight-dancing carries him along for most of the evening.

 

 

But actually the whole shebang carries you along: as Yseult Hannah Vassallo is light, touching and lovely, and Dominic Marsh a goodly glamorous Tristan. THe play is short (two hours five including the interval), vigorous, and above all rather interestingly framed. For Rice’s perception is that while lovers are interesting, most of us have had periods, or indeed lives, in “The Club of the Unloved”, who can only look on. They are represented here by a chorus of anoraked, bespectacled, balaclava-wearing figures with birders’ binoculars (a bit unfair, surely some anoraks have lovers too?).

 

 

 

This chorus , often musicians as well, can test the patience slightly with their miming, larking and asides; sometimes, as can happen in a Rice production, there is an uneasy sense that every flash of sincere emotion must be sent up as fast as possible. Still, there are moments she does not undermine. Niall Ashdown as the maid Brangian is very funny indeed in his cross-dressed, anxious bridal moment, yet genuinely poignant in its aftermath. And as the sky darkens over London and the reality of love, betrayal, separation and death swells before us, the sad cry of Iseult White-hands, on behalf of all the unglamorous unloved, suddenly grows real power.

 

 

It is – the director says – possibly its last outing, and probably one of its noisiest. But because of its history and the theatrical style is pioneered and spread,  it is a show for anyone interested in theatre to see. And for the young hilarious groundlings and many singing and cheering from the galleries, clearly just pure pleasure.

 

 

box office 020 7902 1400 to 25 July
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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