Monthly Archives: August 2017

LOOT Park Theatre, N4

 

THE BAD BOY WE NEEDED ONCE , AND STILL DO

 

 

The corpse is the talking point and to some extent the star. Certainly Anah Ruddin, hopping out of the coffin spry as a fox for the curtain call, is rightly given centre stage: well deserved for her preternatural ability to keep still and flop with horrid corpsy helplessness, even when being s propped upside down in a cupboard. Or stripped butt-naked of her WRVS uniform while half-straddled by Sinead Matthews,,  parcelled in sheeting and old tights, and generally manoeuvred mercilessly by Sam Frenchum as her panicking son and Calvin Demba as his bisexual boyfriend and fellow-robber Dennis.

 

Yes, it’s Joe Orton’s LOOT back for the 50th anniversary of his violent and premature end. And Michael Fentiman’s production not only reverses the Lord Chamberlain’s ban on using a real and visible actress as the dead body, but reinserts certain banned lines , apropos Jesus Christ being framed. Which, of course, He was, if you come to think about it. It’s in the gospels. But as Inspector Truscott piously says, “the Authorities no doubt had good reason for framing him”.

 

 

I sometimes feel a wobble in seeing Orton again, with his rhetorical flights and superbly absurd one-liners . In this caper about a bank robbery’s takings being stashed in a coffin, there are plenty of both -“But what will you do when you’re old?” “I shall die”. But early in the first act, the banter between the robbers did for a moment feel stilted, out of time: it was wise of Fentiman to play a bit of Mary Whitehouse sententiousness in voiceover at the start, to put us in period.

 

 

But the play picks up fast. Sinead Matthews as the murderous nurse is fabulous, never missing as she fires off Orton’s drop-dead lines with pinpoint timing and a nice air of disdainful confidence. Christopher Fulford’s Truscott shouts a lot, but that is what he is there for .   Ian Redford as the grieving husband , a simpleton finally rising to indignation just as the rest of the rogues finally shaft him, is memorable, providing the moments of real pathos which make us indignant.

 

 

And that’s the point. Orton doesn’t want us shocked at what the censor called his “repellent atmosphere”, but at institutions and hypocrisies: the overbearing, incomprehensible, patriarchal domineering, unquestionable and nit-picking authority represented by Truscott. “If I ever hear you accusing the police of brutality, I’ll take you down the station and beat the eyes out of you”. And “How dare you involve me in a situation for which no memo has been issued?” .

 

 

 

This is real indignation, from the Orton who with Kenneth Halliwell was imprisoned for longer than mere defacing of library books could ever merit (see how one catches the intricate pomposities he loved to write). The play is a kick, a howl, a demand for things to be different, less restrictive and hypocritical. Even if that means a lot of wreckage and extreme taboo-breaking. One critic felt the play had dated, but some things are worth saying – shouting, jeering – in every generation. Thus, daft as it is, it endures a lot better than the far less enjoyable iconoclasm of Look Back In Anger.

 

 

box office 0207 870 6876 to 24 Sept
then Watermill, Newbury from 28th Sept
rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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LATE COMPANY Trafalgar Studios SW1

SUICIDE, SADNESS, SNIPING  AND SUPPER

 

It often puzzles me why sharp little stage gems like this don’t get pounced on by TV, – notably the BBC – instead of commissioners wasting our eyesight on gloopy dramas custom-built to challenge nobodyYT6YT.  Here it is, a neat 75 minutes, bang-on topical and sharply written by Jordan Tannahill, then only 23. There’s a frugal cast of five and one set, a dinner table.  OK, it is Canadian, but the host of the painfully awkward supper is a soft-right politician and the wife an artist, their guests Michael and Tamara a salesman and a homemaker. All easy to relate to and translate. And the visitors’ son, at the centre of the dark situation, is anybody’s 16 year old. It would be riveting telly.
 

 

But never mind. On stage, transferred from the tiny Finborough to the slightly less tiny Traf 2, the intimacy and force of Michael Yale’s production is riveting anyway.  Deb (Lucy Robinson) and the politician Michael (Todd Boyce) have lost their son to suicide after he was taunted online and had his locker defaced for being gay. We only gradually learn that he was theatrical about his differentness, what with the eyeliner and vlogs. “He was just weird. He tried to be.…we did it to be funny” says the visitors’ son, his chief tormentor Curtis.

 

 

So months after the disaster and attendant publicity Michael and Deb have invited the boy and his parents, Bill (Alex Lowe) and Tamara (Lisa Stevenson, round. The plan is for some home-made ‘restorative justice’ with formal letters from each side and that modern ideal – “ closure.” Actually, neither of the fathers really believe in that. Michael couldn’t bring himself to write an “open your hearts’ letter like Deb’s, and Bill says in a moment of exasperation that grief can’t be shared around, “it’s yours ,and you carry it all your life”. The party develops into small explosions and rumbles of danger, the two sets of parents rubbing against one another’s small class differences as well as the immense central issue ( one remembers Yasmina Reza’s less dark but equally furious God of Carnage). In the middle, speaking little but always devastatingly to the point, is the boy Curtis: glowering, embarrassed, but with a deep sullen honesty which exposes the adults’ flaws and the inadequacy of the peacemaking mantras to which Deb clings. Until she snaps.

 

Robinson brings a real sense of danger to the bereaved mother, brittle and over-poised. At one point – just as I was expecting a redemptive moment, she becomes a vengeful Greek Fury. Tamara’s wittering – “Art must be a source of comfort to you” is met by a chilly “I find it devastating” from this determinedly unhealed mother. The two men are hating the whole event.

 
And I must say that the degrees of delusion in the two women in particular are treated by the young author with a clear and hard, though not wholly pitiless, eye. It emerges in moments of comedy (when Tamara gushes that her own mother was an artist, Bill snaps “sleeping with Leonard Cohen doesn’t make her an artist”). But is seen far more grievously in Deb’s intense focus on her own unchallengeable right to grief and vengeance, at the expense of any real understanding of her lost son, or of the complication and mess of any teenage life.

 

Of Leopold, fresh out of drama school, I can’t speak too highly: as Curtis he must carry a part which moves him from surly embarrassed irritablity (my God, how teenagers do see through our psychobabble) to a devastatingly open and perfectly delivered expression of nightmare guilt. Tannahill thus confronts us with a spectrum of sensibilities: airbrushed female make-it-all-nice-again sweetness, real pain clutched and corroding into self-pity, inarticulate honest grief, and an impatient “shit-happens-kids-are-cruel” resignation. But it is in Curtis, the boy, that we see a raw, proper, painful clarity and responsibility. He stands ironically closer, if the disaster had not happened, to the wayward and troubled Joel himself. That’s the pity. In the last minute we glimpse it.

 

box office 0844 871 7615 to 16 Sept
rating five  5 Meece Rating

 

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KNIVES IN HENS Donmar, WC1

A PRIMITIVE AWAKENING 

 

 

It is dark. An earth floor, plank stable door ,  murky pond. Sometimes a candle is lit, but Soutra Gilmour’s set remains tenebrous , primitive. A woman sits plucking a chicken, legs apart, with sullen concentration . A man comes and throws her to the ground for sex so urgent you wonder if it is rape. But no, they talk amicably, if in short rather contemptuous basic sentences. “I”m not a field” she says. He demurs, says she is LIKE a field, a fertile one he likes, flat and wet. She says she is not because after all, “the moon is like cheese, but it’s not IT”.

 

 

We are in some indeterminate, pre-industrial rural village society. Both are groping for more expressive language, words for things. “The wind blows. The sun shines. The crops grow. The bird flies. The rabbit runs” she says, then looking upward “the clouds..er.. run?” The matter of God – indeterminate, universal – comes up soon. And alongside the primal , slowly awakening urge for words and knowledge in the woman, so do still more basic conflicts and dark deeds.

 

 

 

The fierce Yael Farber gave us a profound, five-star, smoky dark and physically intense Crucible at the Old Vic. It is not surprising that this director’s vision should now be drawn to David Harrower’s uncompromising, superstitious primitive portrait. But Miller’s language is poetic and his Salem setting precise. This is harder work to appreciate: gruelling, indeed even at 90 minutes and even with a blazingly effective, courageous and committed performance by Judith Roddy as the woman. She is, we gradually see, married to the ploughman Pony William (Christian Cooke) and envious of his love of his horses, notably his pregnant mare. He sends her to drag their sacks of grain to the mill, where the widowed Miller (Matt Ryan) is feared and disliked for his “magic” tendency to read and his ownership of an actual pen (“Them’s an evil stick!” cries the woman).

 

 

 

She fears, defies him, says she “lives under a different sky” and defends her village world: all in short, harsh, limited sentences. But the fascination grows, and back with William her dreams (hauntingly staged) fill with visions of his sprinkling the fine flour onto her heaving body. There is an obvious metaphor, I think: crude basic grain is refined by the miller’s hard stone into something finer, just as her thoughts refine. In one of the play’s few rhetorical moments she begins to write: “This is me. I live now. Others have, more will. God put me here..each day I want to know more”. But the new knowledge, as in Eden, leads to a dramatic sin. Again, compellingly staged.It’s a very large millstone.

 

 

 

But I would be lying if I said that it made the time fly by. The indeterminate setting hampers it: when, where are these people? How evolved is their religion, with all this talk of God? William has horses, not oxen, which puts them into the 18th century at least, but the ceremony of rolling a new millstone seems importantly primitive. They appear to have a glass milk bottle, the Miller has books on shelves, and the woman rather startlingly beneath her coarse homespun robe has a neat modern bra and pants. The unclear setting kept bothering me, making the simple speech seem mannered. Once the words “Cold Comfort Farm” ran through my mind.

 

 

But its meaning and message about the birth of language and awakening of choice may move some deeply, and it was hailed as a classic in its original Traverse production. The cast are very fine , and Farber and Gilmour can certainly build an atmosphere: that it was one I was glad to get out of may reflect more on me than them.

 

 

Box Office 0844 871 7624 to 7 October
rating  three   3 Meece Rating
Principal Sponsor: Barclays

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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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