Monthly Archives: August 2017

AGAINST Almeida, N1

GUEST CRITIC LUKE JONES HUNGERS BUT DOESN’T GET A BYTE

 

I’ll give them this; it’s timely. After the violence in Charlottesville, we’ve all been asking what on earth is happening with American society. Christopher Shinn’s Against has a silicon valley billionaire asking the same question, and has the cash and the sense of entitlement to march round the country trying to find out.

 

 

 

The Almeida – almost certainly the best stage in Zones 1 or 2 – has given way to the shiny wooden floor and fashionably dusty brick wall of an Apple Store in 2009.  Ben Whishaw is Luke; a nondescript standard tech billionaire preoccupied with what we’d expect. Artificial Intelligence, , transport, medicine, whatever.  He talks in platitudes, but I think the playwright doesn’t recognise them as such. He has that strange evangelical streak we increasingly see in tech leaders, but this is more than a bubbling sense of social justice or philanthropy. Strangely for this godless valley, Luke has been talking to the Man Upstairs.  “Go to violence”, God tells him, so Luke starts a “project”, a website (the details of which are always glossed over).

 

 

 

He sets out on a tour of the USA to hear from people, chronicle their experiences of violence and generally stare at them like a puppy. The issue? There are too many issues. A play is never going to drill down to recognisable truth if it takes wild shots at the conscience of the tech industry, gun violence at schools, sex, sex work, addiction, prisons, workers’ rights, wealth, and family. Each is given a glib going over, and that’s the only meat on offer. The first (a school shooting) starts well. It even had the early tinglings of a thriller. But we are quickly moved on, and it’s not mentioned again.

 

 

 

The thread which supposedly weaves all this together, Luke ’s curious relationship with a colleague, is frustratingly flat. None of this is lifted by Ian Rickson’s direction. A final shootout flits between huddles and stories we’ve followed, and is quite snappy. But the rest is stodgy. As if they’ve had a jolly good time tossing all 15,000 ideas around in the rehearsal room, but come up with little. There are flashes of humanity: the play quite refreshingly wears it’s sexual impulses on its sleeve and some of the incidental characters (Elliot Barnes-Worrell as a manual worker fan of Luke’s, Kevin Harvey as the most outrageously camp lefty University tutor and Naomi Wirthner as the tormented mother of a student shooter), but these glimpses don’t exactly make 2hrs 50 fly by.

 

 

Whishaw himself suits the mellow manners of a humble billionaire; uncomfortable away from a computer, stumbling through life. But where’s the range? There’s as much character in his crisp polo and bright white trainers as in his face. His charisma supposedly draws the masses of smalltown America (a touch of Jesus) and makes them divulge their lives to him. But none of that allure reaches the stalls.

 
This is clearly one of the most fruitful subject areas of our time. There’s been some incredible writing on the social responsibility of the tech world (not least from Jamie Bartlett) and how it’s possibly waking up to it. The motives of people like Mark Zuckerberg, who actually has toured the country to listen to people, are ripe for artistic investigation.
This play talks a lot about the difference between knowing and feeling, and journalism, when these people are so cagey, can take us only so far. A play could burrow further. Annoyingly, after this one neither knows nor feels.

 

Box Office 020 7359 4404 Until 30th September
rating two   2 meece rating

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THE STEPMOTHER Minerva, Chichester

A DELICATE TREASURE

 

 

Rarely seen, half-forgotten, Githa Sowerby’s 1924 play is sharp, entertaining, truthful and elegant: Richard Eyre’s direction respects it with delicate precision. It’s altogether a treat, and makes you wail with sadness that – though her better-known Rutherford And Son was a big success – Sowerby never wrote enough to stand known amid acknowledged classics. She is socially as hard-hitting as Priestley, more sharply economical than Shaw, with as good an ear for suppressed emotion as Rattigan. And at moments can be both as agonizing and as humorous as Chekhov.

 

 

 

The story is fuelled by a righteous, exasperated and perceptive anger about the position of women in England either side of WW1. Remarkably, it offers broad human sympathy even to the most appalling character: Eustace Gaydon. He is a marvellous case-study, rendered with (among other qualities) great physical brilliance by Will Keen. Every hunch, every swagger, every snakelike wriggle, reveals almost as much stupidity and deviousness in the man as the script.

 

 

 

Eustace is a middle-aged widower with two young daughters and a taste for vainglorious duff investments. He discovers that he is left nothing by his late sister (who wisely kept her fortune under her own control) . Moreover, she has left the lot to a 19-year-old protegée, the sweetly grieving and grateful Lois (Ophelia Lovibond), In a brief first scene in 1911, he begins a wooing which – as we find on the far side of an elegantly designed time-lapse – results in her marrying him. And devoting herself to his daughters. And finally funding his household by working very hard and setting up a fashion business.

 

 

 

The 1921 scenes are tremendous, as the eldest flapper daughter Monica (a spirited Eve Ponsonby) is in love with a boy back from the war whose father knows how financially flaky Eustace is, and demands a settlement; Lois lovingly promises it from her capital, but we can guess what has happened to that…

 

 

Let there be no spoilers, but the brilliance of the play, revelation after revelation and shock after shock, is served neatly and gorgeously by Lovibond as the now matured, businesslike Lois, by Keen as Awful Eustace and by David Bark-Jones as Peter, the man she should have been with. The audience gasps sometimes, moans sometimes. At one point three of us in our row clapped our hand over our mouths. That’s when Eustace arrives at the fashion shop, his ruined uncertainty buoyed by delusional vanity, and pronounces “I’m our husband, I look after your wealth” . It was all we could do not to shout “O No You DONT!” panto-style.

 

Yet the play’s heart is warm: sharply written lines from the blustering Eustace are balanced by a remarkable tolerance of sexual temptation and some gentle, very womanly wisdoms: not least Peter’s warning to the devoted stepmother not to strip herself of everything for the young. “Life has taken hold of Monica..she’ll have children. Children make everything else a memory”.

 

It is terrific. And I have hardly space to mention that Joanna David, playing far older than usual as Great-Aunt Charlotte, gives it another layer of warmth and a pivotal moment of real sadness, and of awareness of where female self-sacrifice can lead. . The final , expected lines from Eve Ponsonby as the suddenly matured Monica are superb. Eustace’s final firework of spite fizzles, as well it should. We leave happy.

 

 

http://www.cft.org.uk or 01243 781312 to 9 Sept
rating: blimey, it’s another five for the new regime’s first season!

5 Meece Rating

 

 

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SAMSON AND DELILAH Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI MARVELS AT MARIANNE VIDAL

Aylin Bozok’s productions of French opera for Grimeborn have all been marked by their elegance, restraint and psychological intensity. Bozok exchanges the orchestra for a piano accompaniment (played here with plangent, unmistakeable panache by Kelvin Lim), keeps the singing in French but projects a clear English translation above the stage, and places our focus squarely on her characters’ inner lives, their turmoils and crises. A Bozok production can feel unnervingly slow to start, but soon we realise that she takes simplicity as her tool, surgically removing any distracting elements and excavating the psychological dynamics of each work with thoughtful tenacity. As the evening unfolds, the poised stillness of Bozok’s stagecraft, which can initially seem static, foments a tension on stage which slowly becomes searing, direct and inescapable. Samson and Delilah, her third Grimeborn outing, refines the distinctive Bozok formula to a new level of minimalism: there is no scenery at all in this placeless, timeless setting, no props to speak of, and characters in simple costumes inhabit a flat stage dressed only with light and smoke. All the drama is in their heads – and in ours.

There is, therefore, nothing to shield us from a truly electrifying central performance from Marianne Vidal as a sultry, vengeful, yet perturbed Delilah, driven over the edge by her desire for Samson, wrung with unanswered questions as she tests Samson’s love while, we suspect, she searches vainly for a limit to her own passion. Vidal’s clear, lyrically expressive mezzo (and perfect native French) make her voice an ideal vehicle for Saint-Saëns’ score, while her seamless acting commands our attention, whether she writhes on the floor in dreaming ecstasy, demands male attention with confident eroticism, or cowers from a menacingly cruel High Priest (sung with flair, in fluid French, by baritone Thomas Humphreys). Vidal can sing even as she teases Samson with tempting kisses, her lines seeming to pour into his very mouth, yet still reaching the back of the theatre. This sophisticated portrayal of Delilah shows a woman devastated by a love which confuses her, bringing her both joy and pain, fulfilment and loneliness, and her need to discover Samson’s secret seems part of the development of their relationship, rather than the achievement of a plotted goal.

Bozok brings Samson’s psychological struggle right before our eyes, often pairing Leonel Pinheiro’s Samson on stage with Ozgur Boz, a silent actor who represents Samson’s vision of God. Movingly, this allows Samson to address many of his lines directly to God, as we see him first entreat for strength to resist Delilah, then finally reject God altogether in favour of his catastrophic love. Boz, sprayed mainly gold and streaked with white under a long coat, wears remarkable spiked goggles which are stolen by the High Priest when Samson, intensely provoked, allows Delilah to see his divine vision for herself (no haircuts here). Some initial tightness to Pinheiro’s tenor, and a few issues of vocal control, prevent him from being a true match for Vidal, but his muscular sincerity is movingly heroic and ultimately affecting. Bozok’s use of the Chorus, who double smaller roles while also illustrating “thoughts which attach themselves to different characters”, relies on disciplined, dynamic group choreography to project ideas of fear or threat; extremely challenging musically, but her cast’s concentration never flickers.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI 

Part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Box office: 020 7503 1646 until 26 August

Rating: four

4 Meece Rating 

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ARMIDE Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI GETS THE ROYAL TREATMENT AT GRIMEBORN

If you fancy being entertained like a French king, head to Grimeborn for Lully’s Armide. Lully’s artistic monopoly over French opera lasted well beyond his death (thanks to some dastardly patenting, as the excellent programme notes explain): he took full advantage of his pre-eminent position musically, as well as financially, creating opera for Louis XIV of rapturous, languorous beauty, and this is one of his finest works, though poignantly one the king refused to see after a scandal drove Lully from Versailles. An anguished, passionate story, it depicts the doomed love of the proud Muslim warrior princess Armide (a beautifully acted Rosemary Carlton-Willis) for the Christian knight Renaud (sweet-toned tenor and capable actor Guy Withers), who alone among men is impervious to her charms, his virtue and valour equally unassailable. Armide, who is also a sorceress, conjures demons from Hell to enslave Renaud to her will with false desire, but finds she cannot master her own infatuation, and worse, finds she has no genuine will to do so. When her enchantments are eventually broken, and Renaud escapes with his heart intact, Armide’s despair and fury cause her to destroy her own palace, in the vain hope that her unrequited passion will also be buried with it.

Directing both stage and music is talented Brazilian baritone Marcio da Silva, who also plays an erotically charged La Haine (the demon of hate, resplendent in a blood-red suit), gives luscious strength to choruses with his sumptuously smooth, tenderly expressive voice, and represents a scattering of other characters, some silent. This is a production whose cast all work hard, often doubling roles, which can become disorientating; even our conductor (Matthew Morgan) breaks into song in the final act, standing on the platform above the main Arcola stage with his small band of skilled musicians (harpsichord and baroque guitar adding credible period dimensions to the warm, highly wrought score, sung in French with English surtitles projected on three sides of the theatre).

The set is simple, with a red silken dais in the centre of the stage used alternately as the pedestal of a throne, a bed, or a meadow where knights wander to meet temptation. Long candelabra at the end of this dais hold the candles which come to represent Armide’s spells, ignited and snuffed out at key points in the action, and two chairs compose the rest of our scenery. Costumes are contemporary but timeless, with Armide and her handmaidens dressed in long, metallic evening gowns recalling classical drapery and an idea of burnished armour, while Hell is a cocktail party, judging from the female demons’ glittery dresses. Knights and prisoners appear variously in black, or white, shirts and trousers; I couldn’t quite trace the narrative logic of the colour changes here, nor understand the reasoning behind the widespread huge, dark and smudgy eye makeup, and this production doesn’t altogether live up to the high expectations it creates. Da Silva’s vision is ambitious, and ought to work brilliantly; his lean, minimalist concept is ideal for this space, and despite lifting the instrumentalists up high and facing the conductor away from the singers, timing only rarely gets hazy. The music is often beautiful, with magical unaccompanied choruses, a generally capable, passionate central performance from Carlton-Willis as Armide, and charismatic contributions from da Silva throughout; but poorer, less confident acting and singing in the smaller roles tend to puncture our conviction just when we need it most.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Box office: 020 7503 1646 until 12 August

Rating: three 3 Meece Rating

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APOLOGIA Trafalgar Studios SW1

GUEST CRITIC TOM HOLLOWAY WISHES FOR AN UPDATE..

 

 

 

Originally debuting eight years ago at the Bush Theatre, Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia is a story of intergenerational conflict. Matriarch Kristin (Stockard Channing) squares off against her sons’ partners over the course of an evening. After Brexit and a contentious general election, Jamie Lloyd’s revival lands at a time of intense relevancy, as millennials and baby boomers engage in their own game of political civil war.

 

 

But despite being slickly designed, Campbell’s script can’t hold the scope of this promising parallel. Set in the great theatrical tradition of the disastrous dinner party, It is a stimulating, but limp, insight into the choices three women have made in the face of social and economic adversity. His cast of characters is cleverly composed, forcing a proverbial battlefield where they can’t help but question each other’s political and personal ideologies.

 

 

Campbell chooses simultaneously to admonish and sympathise with their perspectives. bringing weight to his exploration of the complex web of political movements that inform identity. So it serves quite nicely as a companion piece to his breakout hit The Pride, which contrasted the closeted gay lives of the Fifties with the liberated but melancholic present.

 

 

However, much of the play seems a bit of a wasted opportunity. He never harnesses a strong enough perspective, making it feel somewhat inconsequential, and radically affecting the pace. It explodes in an electrifying, but unearned, denouement at the end of the first act, whilst the second act ponders slowly into an overlong conclusion. The characters never seem to learn anything, robbing the piece of much needed tension.

 

 

The actors give their all. The definitive highlight is Channing, one of the masters of her craft. She has a superb understanding of the caustic matriarch Kristin: the gaze of her powerful large eyes as acerbic as Campbell’s words, and also elicits great sympathy for the character’s questionable motivations. She is greatly supported by her two foils: soap star Claire (Freema Agyeman) and religious physiotherapist Trudi (Laura Carmichael). Agyeman has a magnetic presence, and is thoroughly convincing in communicating Claire’s artistic sacrifices for financial survival. Carmichael demonstrates fine comic timing, while seamlessly slipping more vulnerable moments. Desmond Barrit delivers a delectable performance, though his character is made somewhat redundant by being only there to administer campy one liners. Joseph Millson in his dual role as the two brothers distinguishes between lost soul Simon and banker Peter so effectively that my companion thought they were two different people.

 

 

Soutra Gilmour’s production design is spectacular, an oversized picture frame, vivid use of colour giving every scene a Hockney quality; Jon Clark’s lighting is similarly effective.

 

BOX OFFICE  0844 871 7632   to 18 nov

rating  three  .   LP seeing this week, might add reflections from Channing’s generation!3 Meece Rating

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PORGY AND BESS Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI GETS NUTTIN’ MUCH FROM GRIMEBORN’S REDUCTION OF GERSHWIN

My suspicions should have been aroused by the fact that there was no programme for Porgy and Bess. The website had listed just two singers: Talia Cohen and Masimba Ushe. ‘Surely,’ I thought to myself, ‘there’ll be more? Won’t they credit them?’ Porgy and Bess, after all, is a large cast opera: a big story, with big themes, and a big heart. Then, walking into the larger of the Arcola’s two spaces, I found the stage entirely occupied by what looked like a full orchestra, for the first time ever: it was, indeed, the Basement Orchestra, present, correct and resplendent in denim and hipster hair, entirely filling the stage floor. The third warning was the vision of just two singers sitting on the tiny balcony above the stage – with microphones in front of them. My heart sank.

Grimeborn prides itself on producing “Bold new versions of classic operas”, and that is what I’m always looking for here. I’ve seen some stunning edits of key works over the years: a haunting Pelléas et Mélisande, a shattering Werther, a bewitching Daphne, a terrifying Il Tabarro, and many more intense, insightful productions which successfully refresh operas we think we know. But while Debussy, Massenet, Strauss, Puccini and pals all got the rockstar reduction treatment (glorious young singers, cleverly minimalist staging, sensitively stripped-down instrumentation, sometimes even to shimmering piano accompaniment only), Gershwin seems to have been palmed off with a dog-ate-my-homework, ‘let’s just do the ones everyone knows because nobody really cares’ debacle. We launch straight into “Summertime”, sung with breathily pleasant jazz delivery, but without any dramatic presence, by Talia Cohen; there’s a nice sense of jazzy flourish from a slightly screamy brass section, but this orchestra is much too large for this space, and the noise (and heat) soon feels like being strapped to a storage heater.

The first song over, orchestra members rise in turn to read scraps of the synopsis, some with less charm and conviction than others; and, the story bounding ahead like a drug-addled rabbit, we are off into the next number, before we’ve barely had a chance to understand who is who (not helped by the fact that Cohen and Ushe sing random arias indiscriminately, not just those of Porgy and Bess). As Masimba Ushe sets off on “I got plenty of nuttin’”, his lovely rounded bass promises us the earth, but he’s soon beset by microphone delivery problems which affect the rest of his singing continuously, and his performance becomes a mixture of cheerily resonant success and near-silence, depending on the mic’s mood. Neither Cohen nor Ushe make any noticeable attempt to act, Cohen sipping water between numbers and smirking at the instrumentalists. Only their voices imply animation; characterisation, and narrative connection, are simply absent.

This half-hearted, patronising attempt at storytelling, quite apart from clearly putting some orchestra members well beyond their comfort zone, can’t possibly communicate a plot as rich, dark and psychologically complex as Porgy and Bess. The orchestra remains uncomfortably loud; it feels like a long, dull, awkward hour before we’re finally set free. Poor Gershwin: Grimeborn got this one totally the wrong way round. A sadly missed opportunity.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Box office: 020 7503 1646 until 6 August

Rating: one 1 Meece Rating

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DIARY OF ONE WHO DISAPPEARED Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI WISHES SOMETHING ELSE WOULD DISAPPEAR AT GRIMEBORN

The poems which inspired the mysterious song cycle Diary of One Who Disappeared first appeared anonymously published in a newspaper in May 1916. They immediately caught the eye of composer Leos Janáček, who completed this song cycle by 1920. The poems, eventually attributed to Ozef Kalda, tell the story of a young man who falls in love with a gipsy girl, and decides to abandon his family and village in order to follow her, and their child. Or, less romantically, it actually tells the story of a man who is consumed by a sexual passion for a gipsy girl, which she encourages him to gratify; when pregnancy inevitably results, he is horrified, and actively considers putting her aside before finally realising he has created a responsibility which he now needs to fulfil, and leaves the shelter of his family on the basis that he feels so socially blighted by his association with her that to marry her, and bring her into his community, would be unthinkable, so departure – or disappearance – is the only option.

The way he repeatedly castigates his supposed “love”, thanks to her race, makes it hard to believe there’s any true love in this sordid story: though the poetry (here sung in a very fine English translation by Seamus Heaney) is coated with sensuality, obsessing constantly about the girl’s physical beauty, and the extent of his desire for her, there’s no sense of any deeper or more profound personal connection. Janáček’s score is disorientatingly beautiful, and Shadwell Opera produce a gorgeous musical account, with a passionate piano accompaniment from Matthew Fletcher, and fine singing from our two principals (tenor Sam Furness and mezzo Angharad Lyddon) and chorus.

Director Jack Furness’ asylum-centre setting plays with our preconceptions from the start: although those girls seeking asylum from their former countries (all listed, with photos, on a large whiteboard) may be said to have already “disappeared” from their families and friends at home, it is Sam Furness’ character, an employee in the asylum centre, who is due to disappear. The gipsy Zefka (played with poise and charm by honey-voiced mezzo Angharad Lyddon) is one of his clients, creating a modern taboo against their subsequent love, but inadvertently throwing his patent hatred of gipsies into ever more confusing relief: we wonder how he ever got this job. Sam Furness, his strong tenor often feeling too large for this small space, sings with dewy-eyed intensity into a camera over his laptop screen, which projects his “video diary entries” onto the whiteboard behind; we wonder who else is watching, as his confessions steadily amount to professional suicide.

In fact, Jack Furness’s directoral concept, though visually arresting (diary projections are occasionally interspersed with shots of wild woods, or the gipsy girl’s eyes), creates more barriers than narrative aids for the audience: a sexist, racist story of objectification doesn’t survive well in a modern context (and for a modern audience) which, in real terms, wouldn’t tolerate any of those positions. The impressionistic majesty of the score makes this song cycle, indubitably, a piece worth hearing; but its unappetising core would be better hidden than highlighted, not least because it no longer makes human sense to us.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Box office: 020 7503 1646 until 5 August

Rating: three 3 Meece Rating

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