Tuesday, 17 October 2017


16th October, 2017

My love for Hairspray knows no bounds. I love it in all its incarnations – anyone who has not seen the original John Waters’ film should do so immediately, if only for the iconic sight of Debbie Harry concealing a make-shift bomb in her beehive! So as I’m kind of biased towards the musical to begin with, it would be pretty hard for me not to enjoy it. Yet the touring version of Paul Kerryson’s 2014 Curve production is a hit and miss affair; Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman’s score shines and there are some lovely performances, but the production values are somewhat lacking.

If Curve’s most recent touring musical, Sunset Boulevard, can be described as lavish and sumptuous, a production which wouldn’t look out of place in the West End, their current tour of Hairspray looks tired by comparison. Whether a victim of budget cuts, I don’t know, but after the original run boasted a colourful design and nicely populated stage, the years seem to have taken their toll and it has been scaled down so much that it seems a mere shell of the production it once was. Ill-fitting costumes and wigs, a sparse set which, rather than being stylishly minimalist, looks unfinished (a fold out partition denoting both Penny’s house and Motormouth Maybelle’s record shop is painted a blinding shade of orange with no other identifiable features – a minimal effort which smacks of laziness), and projections which, following the stunning use of video mapping in Sunset Boulevard, are basic and, while attempting to fill the crevasse left by the lack of set, seem soulless and devoid of atmosphere. Overall, the show has a hand-me-down air, cobbled together from previous tours.

On occasion the book scenes feel a bit rushed, as if the actors are racing to get to the next crowd-pleasing musical number, and because of this, some of the jokes come across as either so flippant and casual that they barely register, or laboured to the point of tedium. I’ve seen the fake corpsing during ‘You’re Timeless To Me’ done much better, although, I admit that when you know what’s coming the moment inevitably loses some of its charm. On a more positive note, newcomer, Rebecca Mendoza, got the tone just right as Tracy; endearingly confident and with comic timing perfected to a tee.

If I have seemed overly harsh so far, it is only because I feel this musical deserves better. I adore Waters’ celebration of strong, uncompromising women; I love that Tracy and Motormouth Maybelle are proud of who they are and how they look and never let others tell them otherwise; I love that Tracy gets the guy while maintaining her morals, realising that there are bigger things worth fighting for and having greater personal ambitions; and I love the depiction of a solid, caring marriage in which Edna and Wilbur acknowledge their own and their spouse’s faults while retaining the utmost respect and devotion for one another. The plot is the definition of feel-good, and yes, it does oversimplify the issues surrounding race relations (I won’t go into the problematic ‘white saviour’ trope), but that can be forgiven when the message it promotes is so positive and relevant while also acknowledging its status as a prime piece of fluff.

Shaiman and Whittman have created the catchiest, most sing-along-able musical score of the 21st Century. Every song is a belter and ready-made classic, so with music like this it’s impossible not to be swept away by the sheer joy of it, and Hairspray is now a bona fide, guaranteed hit with the crowds. This tour is no exception. The score shines, and the musical numbers offer high point after high point. If I had to choose stand outs I’d nominate Mendoza’s hilarious ‘I Can Hear The Bells’, Layton Williams’ effortlessly cool ‘Run And Tell That’ and the heartfelt showstopper ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’, powerfully performed by Brenda Edwards. Also commendable, Drew McOnie’s choreography remains impressive and proffers a high-octane boost of vitality.

On balance, I would see this production of Hairspray again, namely for the fine performances by Mendoza, Edwards and Williams, McOnie’s class choreography, and because I could listen to those songs forever, but this production doesn’t show off the musical to its best. The set requires a much-needed facelift and the book scenes could do with tightening, but for those seeking a night of bedazzled escapism, Hairspray is just the high-camp tonic you’re after.

Hairspray plays at Curve, Leicester until 21st October. For further tour venues please visit http://www.hairsprayuktour.com/tour-dates/ 
Cast of Hairspray. Photo credit: Darren Bell

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Labour of Love

Noel Coward, London
7th October, 2017, matinee

‘There is no here anymore.’

This play is set in the East Midlands in a Nottingham constituency office. I’m also from and live in the East Midlands. Northern accents and references to ‘being mardy’ and ‘eh up, me duck’ a few minutes into the first scene of James Graham’s new play made me come out in a cold sweat and whisper in horror: ‘Am I northern?!’ I jest – of course. Really, Labour of Love purports to show the everyday life of constituency politics in an ordinary town set away from the glamour of Westminster that was so brilliantly conjured in This House, seen at the Garrick earlier this year. But there is often a worry with the representation of somewhere north of London on the capital’s stage – whether that be the North, the Midlands or Luton – that it comes with a wedge full of stereotypes that are hard to get around. Either that or jokes about stereotypes, or jokes about jokes about stereotypes. Down to earth can often be conflated with dowdiness, and both northern and southern characters can all too easily become sit-com types. I’m not implying that Graham is insensitive in this way as he’s far too talented a playwright for that. But he is interested in the north-south divide and its associations of class and culture, most recently in Ink (now playing next door at the Duke of York’s) and more prominently in This House.

Opening on election night in 2017, and then going back to circa 2010, 2001, mid-late nineties and then 1990, Graham invites us into the lives of constituent MP David Lyons (Martin Freeman), his mostly distant (ex-)wife Elizabeth (Rachael Stirling), and David’s agent Jean with whom he has a love-hate relationship and who basically runs the office (Tamsin Greig). The play charts the changing relationship of those main characters and the fortunes of the Labour Party. In the first act we work our way back from David losing Labour’s approximate 87 year seat all the way to seeing David taking over from the previous MP (also Jean’s husband at the time). In the second act, we move forward through the same five time settings. It’s a neat structure that allows us to map the change from red flag to the more centrist movement of New Labour, to the coalition of chaos, to the party of today when Corbyn’s Labour won more votes than expected (except in this setting). And in a captivating way, the structure almost allows a thriller element as we see David, Jean and Elizabeth at different points in their lives.

Lee Newby’s cunning set design revels in the changing period of the setting. The party emblem, the clock and the portrait of the current Labour leader on the wall change, as do the bulkiness of the TVs, the fashions and the kitchen units. The detail that has gone into this design is pleasing: I don’t think I’ve seen a fax machine working before and at one point it felt like Teletext was going to get a round of applause! The furniture mostly stays the same as does the décor: let’s call it Midland tedium. A foreign businessman remarks how unimpressive it looks. ‘It’s supposed to’, is the gist of the reply, as so to fit in with the rest of the high street. We see said high street on the video screen before the play. It’s lifeless; there are perhaps businesses which are closed down and premises which are empty. Here is a town blighted by a mine closure (which we see in one of the earlier settings) and that has not quite struggled back from 1980s’ politics. It’s not until the last scene when we see how these quick changes in the set are achieved. There are effectively two replica sets on a revolve. I can’t imagine how that might change the dynamic for the cast acting on two sets, but I think it is one idea of many in both the play and the production that made me reflect on the idea of change and stability. Lee Newby’s superb design also allows you to see the work that the Michael Grandage Company’s Futures scheme is doing.

Curious intricacies are not just to be found in the set design. There’s a moment in the 2017 setting when Jean tries to muster up ‘her Carol Vordermann’ whilst doing some Maths – despite Vorderman not having done the numbers for quite some time we still get that it’s a reference to Countdown. Interestingly, in an earlier temporal setting, we see a clip of Vorderman and Richard Whitely in a 90s episode of Countdown on the TV in the background. We also see a bit of John Thaw as Morse – perhaps a nod to Thaw’s Labour leader character in David Hare’s The Absence of War? Maybe not, but parallelisms between Hare’s and Graham’s work certainly exist. And what with Hare’s new play being about the Labour Party on at the NT next year, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a drastic re-write going on somewhere in leafy Hampstead.

Freeman and Greig give masterclass performances in comedy and character development. Over the years, David’s northern accent has returned, Jean has perhaps taken on more of David’s professional ways. As in many plays, the comedy comes from clashes in their personalities and connections arise in their ideological viewpoints, but it’s all so well written and performed that it rarely feels artificial. However, unusual for Graham, there are a few laboursome (I thank you!) jokes and arcs, including an excuse (although not unwelcome) to crack out Freeman’s dance skills.

As in The Vote, there are some very adept, very funny bits of farce that sit comfortably alongside fresh contemporary political gags and hilarious, smart one-liners (such as comparing the Labour party’s up and downs to Ken Clark’s cholesterol). Jeremy Herrin’s production ticks all the boxes and is excellently stage-managed. But it doesn’t quite feel like it has the Headlong stamp on it of going the extra mile. Then again, I feel that suits the play. In This House, politics was all about a fast-paced lifestyle of vote counting, chauffeurs and drinking, whereas in Labour of Love, politics is about dog shit. In saying that Herrin’s production reflects that, I’m not calling it dog shit – you have to go to the Vaudeville for that! (Again, I jest) – it’s more about the production deliberately wanting to show a different side of the political lifestyle.

It may not have the vigour of previous Graham plays but I’m glad it’s on a major stage (although I would also like to see it in a regional theatre). Labour of Love is a delicious new play, enjoyable and interesting and with two very rounded central characters. But I’m not sure what it offers in terms of Labour’s future. Other than perhaps that Tamsin Greig should become an MP.

Labour of Love plays at the Noel Coward Theatre until 2nd December.
Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig in Labour of Love. Credit: Johan Persson

Friday, 6 October 2017

Pink Sari Revolution

5th October, 2017

We need plays like Pink Sari Revolution. Telling hard truths, Purva Naresh’s stage adaptation of Amana Fontanella-Khan’s best-selling book scratches the wounds of generations of women, and the result is an outpouring of pain and the fire-fuelled voices of those long-repressed crying out for justice and equality. It is a play that unflinchingly deals with the raw and grotesque realities of domestic and sexual abuse and the shocking flippancy with which it is greeted by the authorities imposing it and, often, the women who suffer from it. Following years of research, director Suba Das’ labour of love blazes triumphantly on Curve’s stage.

The play follows the real-life fight for women’s rights in Uttar Pradesh, India, by a vigilante group of women, the Gulabi Gang. Outfitted in the titular neon pink saris, the army of female warriors is led by the inimitable Sampat Pal. Sampat was married at twelve, before, she says, ‘she had even started her periods’, forbidden to attend school, she was illiterate and bullied a boy into teaching her to write her name (a mere taste of her formidable powers of persuasion!) – her life has been rough and dictated by the laws of patriarchy and the caste system. But Sampat turns her pain into a fury which empowers her and her followers to fight for change.

We are introduced to the world of the Gulabi Gang when Sampat Pal takes it upon herself to fight the case of seventeen year old Sheelu who has been imprisoned, accused of stealing a rifle and some jewellery from a powerful politician. Yet Sheelu, a Dalit, is the innocent victim of the caste system and patriarchal authority which strips her of her independence and free will, where men of a higher caste are given free rein to use and abuse women. Sheelu has been raped. A female police warden dispassionately pours bucketfuls of blood down the drain, doctors lie about her condition out of social custom and fear and cause her even more suffering with the bluntly-named ‘finger test’, a brutal way of proving (or misconstruing) the sexual conduct of women and thus claiming that a ‘loose woman’ cannot be raped. This is a shocking set up, and Naresh is mercifully uncompromising in her language and descriptions of abuse.

If all this sounds a little ‘right on’, don’t fear, Naresh doesn’t shy away from human complexities and conflicts. Sampat is fierce and funny, yet cantankerous and negligent of her own family, including her daughter who watches and admires from afar but is forbidden from joining the Gulabi Gang herself. We are also privy to the reactions of the family at the centre of the rape claim, the women realise that they rely on the men to keep them, and the dangers of ripping apart the familial fabric of society. The women are brought up to be submissive; a local tradition dictates that girls carefully and lovingly sew cloth dolls which are then handed to their brothers to beat and tear apart – and in one hard-hitting piece of dialogue, a mother chastises her uncooperative daughter-in-law, spitting that ‘it is women like you that turn men to rape’.

Furthermore, while Sampat’s endeavour is admirable, we see the strain it takes on her personal life, and the challenges she faces not only from those who oppose her, but those she tries to help. Sheelu is ultimately released, not due to Sampat’s exposition of the corruption at the heart of the caste system, but through a traditional custom in which petty criminals are pardoned each year. Sheelu is not acquitted or absolved, her rape remains uninvestigated, but she refuses to take Sampat’s advice to refuse the pardon and plead innocence because she sees no other way of obtaining freedom. A bittersweet ending sees Sampat continue with her work despite her failings, and while hardened by realism, the final message is one of hope.

Das’ direction is punchy, with moments of light and shade that sharpen the more harrowing elements of the story while revelling in episodes of human warmth – an early scene with Sampat urging her women to ‘embrace their silly’ in order to abandon the shame (an integral tool for patriarchal oppression) and fight back is a lovely exercise in communal spirit and the power of humour to bring people together. Muriel Rukeyser is quoted in the programme notes, ‘What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open’ – and this concept is brilliantly realised in Isla Shaw’s set. A large branched tree bursts through its concrete surroundings – an imposition of new life, a new movement silhouetted against the striking coloured sky – and with great theatricality we see the ground begin to shake and crack, blazing with light with each step the Gulabi Gang take. As they repeatedly say, ‘Pink is not just the colour of a sari, but the colour of the sky before the breaking storm’.

Ulrika Krishnamurti is impressive in a range of roles, from Sampat’s diligent daughter, Champa, to the tortured Sheelu. Her portrayal of the hollowness of despair is profound and heartbreaking. Elsewhere, Sharan Phull (so charistmatic in Curve’s The Importance of Being Earnest last year) goes from strength to strength as Sampat’s loyal follower, Geeta, who becomes conflicted between the life of a revolutionary and that of her family. However, the play really belongs to Sampat, and Syreeta Kumar is a force to be reckoned with. Giving an all-encompassing performance, she imbues the character with all the vibrancy, petulance, determination and grit of a true radical. This is one of the best written and performed female roles in theatre I’ve seen of late, as Sampat is so intensely human, in all her strengths and all her flaws.

As I said at the top of this review, Pink Sari Revolution is just the type of new writing the world needs right now. Human rights issues and campaigns are a potent matter of interest, not just in India, but internationally, as seen in the global ‘Women’s March’ in January, and Naresh’s play is incendiary in its impact. I came out of the theatre feeling empowered, angry, but hopeful that one day the world will change.

Pink Sari Revolution plays at Curve until 7th October, before touring the UK.
The cast of Pink Sari Revolution.
Credit: Pamela Raith

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Desire Under the Elms

Sheffield Crucible
30th September, 2017, matinee

I know little of Eugene O’Neill’s work. I know, I know, I’m letting the side down yet again, what kind of theatre critic am I? While I admit to having scant knowledge of playwrights and theatre history (my co-blogger is the play buff around here), I do know when I like something, and Desire Under The Elms certainly piqued my interest. Part Greek tragedy, part Freudian psychological drama, I can see now how O’Neill was ideally positioned as a predecessor to the likes of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams in the way he scrutinises the American Dream and the way he places family relationships at the core. Sam Yates’ production brings a potent earthiness to a play which is occasionally a difficult watch, but is shot through with urgency, melancholy and tension.

Set in New England at the end of the nineteenth-century, old farmer, Ephraim Cabot, returns home after a long trip with his new wife, Abbie, in tow, much to the chagrin of his youngest son, Eben, who is fixated on the death of his own mother and is scheming to take over the family farm. Matters become complicated when Abbie attempts to seduce Eben – betrayal and tragedy ensue.

Now, I feel the need to air a personal gripe I have regarding the way women are generally written by men, primarily concerning the ‘predatory’ or ‘sinful’ woman trope. From the biblical belief that the fall of man is a direct result of Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden, to the classic Greek tragedy plot regarding the drastic actions of the heroine resulting in death and devastation for all, there is a sense that men are forever blaming women for their own transgressions, an ethos that I’m definitely not on board with. So while Abbie is a sympathetic character – there is the feeling that she does what she does out of genuine emotion (be it love or lust) and a canny opportunism which is necessary under the desperate circumstances in which she finds herself – there remains a niggling air of misogyny to O’Neill’s writing. Even the personal flaws of the male characters are boiled down to what is seen as unhealthy femininity, for example, Ephraim constantly berates Eben for being dumb, foolish and ‘soft’, traits which he claims Eben inherited from his ‘soft’ mother.

However, this is a side issue, the main crux of O’Neill’s tragedy stems from problems surrounding identity, place and the economic and industrial transformation of the USA in the late nineteenth-century. Gone are the traditional means of accumulating income, hard won by years of work, in favour of the promise of instant wealth that accompanied the Californian gold rush. The American Dream has metamorphosed into a blend of entitlement and opportunism, and the old-time labourers and businessmen are pushed out of joint. Therefore, while Eben’s half-brothers sell their shares of the farm in order to chase the golden dream in California, both Ephraim and Eben are tragically clutching to the past; Ephraim is reluctant in the face of change, claiming that when everyone else is dead and gone he’ll be a hundred years old and still working, while Eben’s crisis of identity stems from an unhealthy attachment to his dead mother and an conscious desire to not follow in his father’s footsteps while subconsciously mirroring Ephraim’s actions (not least by sleeping with the same women, local prostitute, Min, and Abbie). Add to this the Freudian quasi-incestuous relationship at the centre of the play – Abbie finally succeeds in seducing Eben by kissing him ‘like a mother kisses a son’ while the candlelit shadow of Eben’s real mother lingers in the background – and O’Neill has painted a pretty grim portrait of end-of-the-century rural life, in stark contrast to the optimism displayed by those heading west to seek their fortune.

In the excellent programme articles, O’Niell is quoted as saying the American Dream’s ‘main idea is that everlasting game of trying to possess your own soul by the possession of something outside of it’. This is particularly pertinent in the regards to the tussle for ownership of the farm, of Abbie, and Abbie’s own attempts to ‘possess’ Eben at whatever cost. As O’Neill says, this inevitably leads to ‘losing your own soul and the thing outside of it, too’, thus being an ideal grounds for tragedy, the American Dream is forever doomed to fail due to the incessant nature of change and the ‘everlasting game’ to keep up with it.

All this talk of possession and souls puts me in mind of two other great romantic anti-heroes of the nineteenth-century, Cathy and Heathcliff, and the Wuthering Heights comparison doesn’t end with incestuous undertones and the destructive obsessions of the characters. Chiara Stephenson’s set is a wild and barren dustbowl of a landscape, distant wheat fields being the only marker of the farm’s prosperity, while Luke Halls’ projections of ever-changing clouded skies and Jon Clark’s lighting create a brooding and oppressive atmosphere. Furthermore, as all good gothic tragedies exemplify, the breaking of tensions is paired with the breaking of the storm – thunder rages as the characters’ lives fall apart.

Matthew Kelly casts an appropriately imposing figure as Ephraim, his slow-limping gait betraying his aging frailty while his lofty stature and strength demonstrate his powerful legacy and capacity for intimidation. Meanwhile, Aoife Duffin’s Abbie is brash, loud and slyly manipulative, yet on her knees amidst the dirt she appears small, fragile and desperate, her trajectory is ultimately heart-breaking. As Eben, Michael Shea gives a terrifically assured performance, conveying all the anger, despair, lust, naivety and fear of the young man. During the interval we overheard a couple of complaints from fellow audience members about the accents being unintelligible. However, I understood every word and what’s more I feel the accents contribute a fascinating element of simultaneous authenticity and alienation which heightens the gothic atmosphere; the accents are identifiably American, yet unfamiliar to us because these rural dialects are culturally underrepresented and, thus, socially forgotten and seemingly as obsolete as the farming industry was during the height of the gold rush. So, while perhaps the most controversial aspect of Yates’ production, the uncompromising commitment to the dialect gets a thumbs up from me.

Yates has accomplished an intense and haunting production of an intriguing and thematically rich play. Ghosts, earth, sex, gold, light, dark, storms and death – O’Neill’s play is both elemental and ethereal, tragic and prosaic, and if this, my first taste, is a mere snapshot of his work then I’m dying to see what else this most unsettled writer accomplished throughout his illustrious career.

Desire Under The Elms plays at the Sheffield Crucible until 14th October.

Aoife Duffin as Abbie Putnam and Matthew Kelly as Ephraim Cabot in Desire Under the Elms. Photo: Marc Brenner

Friday, 29 September 2017

Sunset Boulevard

Curve, Leicester
28th September, 2017

Following the publicity surrounding Glenn Close’s absence during the run of Sunset Boulevard at the ENO last year, Ria Jones proved exactly why audiences should never grumble about seeing an understudy/standby. Now Jones is centre stage once more, leading Nikolai Foster’s new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Christopher Hampton, and Don Black’s musical melodrama, based upon Billy Wilder’s 1950 film. Having never seen the film nor the musical before, I had few preconceptions other than knowing a couple of songs and famous quotes, but I can now safely say that Sunset Boulevard may be not only Lloyd Webber’s most sophisticated work, but also the strongest musical production I have seen at Curve during Foster’s reign.

I defy anyone not to be utterly swept away by Lloyd Webber’s music, the moment the overture began I was transported to a world of glamour, melodrama, and that distinct romantic melancholy that one associates with the decadence of ‘Old Hollywood’. The anguished strings and soaring brass segments are wonderfully evocative and superbly played by Adrian Kirk’s orchestra. For all the stick ALW gets for recycling his (and possibly other composer’s) scores, the familiarity here, for once, succeeds in contributing to the atmosphere of nostalgia and the slightly sinister repetition echoes Norma Desmond’s desperate attempts to resurrect the past.

In Norma Desmond Lloyd Webber has found his female Phantom, or his Mama Rose, and as a star vehicle the musical is a triumph of dramatic intensity which truly allows its leading lady to shine. And boy does Ria Jones get her teeth stuck into the role! She epitomises a certain quality which transcends the constraints of musical theatre – Stephen Sondheim has said he favours actors that sing over singers that act, a preference which ensures emotional impact – Jones shows us why this is such a vital directorial choice. Jones can act and sing, but what’s more, she acts through her singing. She has one of those voices that in her wavering vocals, fragile diction and sublime crescendos resonates pure emotion; ‘With One Look’ and ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’ are the definition of ‘showstopper’. Jones’ Norma is variously youthful and decrepit, belting and frail, sonorous, desperate and, ultimately, unhinged. A true tour de force of a performance and a real coup for Foster’s production.

Providing fine support, Danny Mac’s narrator-cum-writer-cum-toyboy, Joe Gillis is more than just a pretty face and he holds the show together with easy confidence. As a down-on-his-luck writer he is a likeable charmer, yet as Norma tightens her grip on him, Mac brings a darker complexity to his performance. Joe is sympathetic, caring, but cruel at times too. His disenfranchisement is brilliantly conveyed in the Act 2 opening number, ‘Sunset Boulevard’, a black and jaded tribute to the fickle fads and falsehoods of Hollywood. Special mention also to Adam Pearce, having seen him before only in ensemble roles I had no idea he had such a powerful voice. His Max is an ever-present shadow, his rare snippets of insight into Norma’s past intrigue and his voice is hypnotic and clear. Pearce exudes a gravitas and stillness with great poise.

Foster’s stylised production perfectly evokes Hollywood with all its cardboard facades, glitzy shallows and eternal optimism. Colin Richmond’s set locates the action in the cavernous studio 18 of Paramount Pictures, the wheeling on of set pieces such as an elaborate staircase and 50’s diner within this space places the musical as a kind of story-within-a-story, complete with rolling film cameras to the sides of the stage. Within this most filmic of structures Douglas O’Connell’s video projections is highly evocative in capturing the dreamlike flashbacks to Norma’s stardom. Combined with Ben Cracknell’s lighting, an effective use of colour-palettes ranging from the blues of LA swimming pools to lusty and murderous reds, this gauzy aesthetic creates a truly haunting atmosphere which underpins the tragedy.

The only downside to Foster’s film set-esque take is the decision to use model cars – shells, really – on trucks wheeled about by skivvies. I understands where this fits in the direction he takes the production, but it left the cars chase scenes feeling a little underpowered.

That aside, Foster’s high quality production is an absolute joy. I was sucked in and swept away by the whirlwind that is Norma Desmond and the fantasy of La La Land. Jones is a star and thoroughly deserves all the acclaim she will undoubtedly receive for her performance. Curve really is going from strength to strength at the moment.

Sunset Boulevard plays at Curve until 30th September before embarking on a national tour. 
For further venue details please visit https://uktour.sunsetboulevardthemusical.com

Ria Jones in Sunset Boulevard
Credit: Manuel Harlan

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Our Town

Royal Exchange, Manchester
23rd September, 2017

The Royal Exchange foyer is a vast hall, a light and spacious public space with welcoming seating and bars, a shop, exhibitions, free WiFi, and imposing and impressive marble columns, glass dome and original trading board which points to its former existence as a cotton exchange. In the centre of the Great Central Hall is the in the round auditorium, a glass and steel chamber both intimate and immense, like Shakespeare’s Globe. Visiting it for the first time this Saturday, I feel it’s what the designers of Leicester’s Curve might have had in mind: a sort of inside-out theatre where audience members and actors are in the same flow, sharing the front of house space, being able to easily walk past the dressing rooms and offices, and peer into the auditorium through the doors or on a little black and white monitor, eavesdropping on the company’s vocal warm up. And really strikingly, an exhibition on the mezzanine features artwork depicting audience’s views of what theatre should be, including shunning theatre’s sense of self-importance. The Royal Exchange pitches itself as diplomatic, a place for everyone to enjoy and participate in theatre without its reverence.

I mention this as Sarah Frankcom’s production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938), and the play itself which seems to lend itself more easily to this type of production, beautifully encompasses the feel and ethos of the Royal Exchange, giving the middle finger to Gay McAuley’s taxonomy and resulting in one of my favourite uses of theatrical space I’ve seen. The different areas of stage space, audience space, front of house, and backstage are still there but the boundaries between them are blurred – in theatre and production alike. At first, you’d be forgiven for thinking Fly Davis hasn’t done much with the design. The sort of tables and chairs you’d see in a school or town hall are spread about the otherwise bare stage where actors and onstage audience members sit and chat together, whilst some other actors blend into the audience responding to the Stage Managers’ request for questions. Frankcom’s production exemplifies theatre as a collective act of community. She peoples her stage with a sense of community, from spectators and performers (many of whom are regulars at the Royal Exchange), to a choir, youth theatre members and the theatre’s own company of elders. At times, we see actors running out of the space into the café dispersing in between the tables as if fleeing through the town. Large lighting banks around the auditorium shine the warm light of the New Hampshire morning sun into the auditorium and casts shadows of actors circling the space onto the frosted walls.

The ‘Stage Manager’ (played with warmth and unassuming superiority by Youssef Kerkour) walks onto the stage and addresses the audience, placing us at once in Manchester in 2017 and in a New Hampshire town at the start of the twentieth century. It’s an American play, we’re well aware, but he is the only American voice on stage, giving him an authenticity and proximity to the play as we know it and a distance from the multitude of local voices in this production. The wealth of British, often Mancunian accents is appropriately jarring, and the old colloquialisms sounded particularly alien in modern mouths – ‘I declare’ being a favourite, I can’t help but think of the words spoken in a seductive voice in the manner of one of Tennessee Williams’ Southern Belles! Yet such anachronisms make the play work by highlighting Wilder’s dialogue, making us sit up and listen to what the characters are saying, as opposed to letting the words wash over us in favour of wallowing in what could be the sepia-tinged nostalgia of the setting (a criticism levelled to many misunderstood productions of the play).

Over the three acts – each respectively focusing on birth, love and marriage, and death – we see big questions about the nature of life pondered amongst the minutiae of the daily routine; heady ideas about our place in the country, the universe and the bigger picture of everything that’s ever been and ever will be juxtaposed against the tawdry rhythms and humdrum setting of Small Town, USA (cue Tim Minchin lyrics!). After starting with a wide introductory ‘setting of the scene’, the lens is then focused on neighbours and high school friends Emily (Norah Lopez Holden) and George (Patrick Elue). Although we only see snapshots of the embryonic stage of their relationship, these scenes are written and performed with such care that we connect with them despite their brevity, from being privy to their windowsill conversations across the street to witnessing a private conversation in a diner. There’s a moment when Kerkour mimes an intricate preparation of two ice cream sodas in this latter scene that is so well-observed, from popping in the straws to licking a bit of cream off his thumb, that he paints the rest of the scene very vividly. It is a moment indicative of the spatial brilliance of Frankcom’s direction that we are at once in a theatre in Manchester in 2017 and in New Hampshire, early 1900s. And if that all sounds a bit Little House on the Prairie, the scenes leading up to the wedding include a surprising and brutal amount of honesty. Wilder’s sharp insight into human imperfections, fears and the admission of flaws I found strangely moving.

It is the third act, however, that feels most potent. The notion of death is sincerely performed by the actors walking barefoot through the space. We see Emily’s funeral, her reluctance to want to leave the mortal world and her attempt to relive her memories. With a bit of design seemingly inspired from Bunny Christie’s People, Places and Things design, along with the rose-tinted, beautiful lighting from Jack Knowles and moving sound by Ben & Max Ringham, a pretty birthday scene from Emily’s youth is evoked. We effectively see her realisation that we live ignorant of how precious life is. Seeing this surrounded by the fast moving, urban landscape of Manchester, makes this moral seem a bit obvious, or twee, and there is also a sense that the concept of Brechtian ‘epic theatre’ which Wilder exemplifies offers a queasy blend of superiority and inverted snobbery that comes with the sort of didactic motives behind the techniques. In a city that has recently had its (un)fair share of tragedy I’m sure none of its citizens need reminding of how precious life is. Perhaps because of this context, the play comes across as a little naïve in its moralising. It seems that it could have been written by someone when drunk. I don’t mean that in a bitchy way, more that it is reminiscent of those big, philosophising and sometimes maudlin conversations we have and concepts we think through after a drink. Or in moments of tragedy.

In the programme, several playwrights have written a bit on why it’s one of their favourite plays. Their short few paragraphs probably articulate what’s distinctive and powerful about the play more than my review can. I suppose it’s considered a masterpiece for its mix of scale and the mundane, its hope, and its evocation of the here and now (the universal) in its depiction of distinctly someplace else. For the playwrights in the programme, Our Town seems to be a piece to which they keep returning. Perhaps I too need to revisit the play to be more enamoured by it. And if not the play, the Royal Exchange is a space that I certainly will want to return to again and again.

Our Town plays at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 14th October, 2017.

Patrick Elue and Norah Lopez Holden in Our Town.
Credit: Stephen King

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Rules for Living

Royal and Derngate, Northampton
17th September 2017 – matinee

‘Should I read a play before I see it?’ is a question that I’m sure plagues many theatre-goers, and the answer is, of course, entirely subjective. As a rule, I prefer to read Shakespeare’s plays before seeing them, otherwise I would spend the entirety of the play trying to catch up with the language, rather than enjoying the specifications of the production. But when it comes to contemporary drama I err towards ignorance, and Simon Godwin’s regional premier of Sam Holcroft’s Rules For Living (which debuted at the National Theatre in 2015) is a good case point upon which to ponder my stance.

I have read Rules For Living and now, having seen it, I can say that the cons of doing so far outweigh the pros. The pros: I read the play a year and a half ago when I thought there would be little chance of me viewing a staged production any time soon given that it had premiered only a year before. And I thoroughly enjoyed it! I thought it was clever, witty and fast paced enough to hold my attention during what was a rather difficult time for me. However, Godwin’s production has highlighted how my own expectations can hinder enjoyment of the present theatrical experience.

Naturally, the play is much more cohesive onstage. Briefly; brothers Matthew and Adam have returned to their family home for Christmas with their partners in tow. Old rivalries rear their ugly heads and merry chaos ensues. The (necessarily) vast amount of stage directions in the script are a little overwhelming, hence the complex ‘rules’ that bind each character (eg. ‘Matthew must sit and eat in order to tell a lie’) translate far better onstage and as a consequence are much funnier - imagine Ayckbourn crossed with Churchill's Blue Heart. When I read it I was acutely aware that this was no ordinary farce. Sure, Holcroft superbly skewers the foibles and shortcomings of the middle classes (as all good farces do); barbs are directed towards the daytime tv nourished fads of gluten/lactose/carbohydrate-free diets and the ridiculous amount of pressure we place on ‘family time’ during national holidays which inevitably sucks all the fun out of them. But her ingenuity lies in the way she does this via an interesting spin involving the conventions of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). I admit to having a personal interest in the subject as I’m currently over a year into CBT myself, so it was refreshing and reassuring in a way to see a play which tackles this issue in a humorous way. Yet, I’m now aware that I subjectively placed more focus than is perhaps warranted on this aspect of the play – I found that, onstage, the convention is handled in a more flippant manner, and it veers close to being merely a superficial shooting point from which to create havoc, which means that what is in reality a complex psychological concept here veers close to the edge of oversimplification.

This isn’t to say that play isn’t funny – it’s really, really funny – this is more a musing on the way our own biases prejudice our readings and interpretations. Holcroft has crafted an unerringly British psychological farce, in which the best way to respond to the absurdities of modern life is to have a damned good laugh at them! The play really succeeds in analysing the minutiae of competitive family hierarchies and the friction between wanting to please, wanting to win the metaphorical ‘game’ of life, while also wanting to be independent. Both Matthew and Adam have entered into the family profession – law – even though their hearts lie with acting and cricket, respectively, while the imposing figure of their father, Francis, clouds their lives on both a conscious and subconscious level.

Jolyon Coy and Ed Hughes do a stellar job with Matthew and Adam, especially Hughes who displays a tireless array of accents and whose incredulous reaction to his surroundings is a sheer joy. However, I couldn’t help but imagine how Miles Jupp and Stephen Mangan (Matthew and Adam in the original NT production) would have played these roles. Some of the lines, inflections and mannerisms of the characters seemed tailor made for them. I admit, this is yet another pitfall of being overfamiliar with the play to begin with. Elsewhere, Carlyss Peer is a marvel of energy and optimistic naivety as cringeworthily inappropriate actress, Carrie, and Jane Booker is pitch perfect in her portrayal of the classic ‘keep calm and carry on’ type matriarch, Edith.

Godwin admirably makes the play his own, his direction of the building tensions and increasingly ridiculous ‘rules’ the characters must adhere to pays off in gleefully theatrical fashion, culminating in what is possibly the messiest, and most entertaining food fight I’ve seen onstage. I don’t envy the crew tasked to clean up before the evening show! Lily Arnold’s design is ingenious. It’s satisfying on an aesthetic level, particularly in the unbelievably quaint auditorium of the Royal theatre, and, as opposed to Chloe Lamford’s abstract, and slightly obvious boardgame set up in the National Theatre production, Arnold situates the action in a firmly established ‘family farce’ territory. The set is brightly coloured, homely, and feature classic staples of farce (a staircase and doors for well-timed entrances) which work well as a cosily familiar counterpoint to the more modern aspects of Holcroft’s script.

Rather selfishly, I have used Holcroft’s play, and Godwin’s production, as a cipher for analysing my own foibles and presumptions, and so I urge everyone to take this as a parable on how you should value every production for its own merits, and not, as I have done, pre-empt a play based on its past. Rules For Living is a confident and unashamed farce in a theatrical landscape where farce is seen as rather old hat, or uncool, and for all of Holcroft’s unapologetic slapstick and populist jibes I admire her. Godwin’s production is a joy, and is guaranteed to make you cringe, empathise, and most of all, roar with laughter.

Rules for Living plays at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton until 30th September and then tours.

In the foreground – Ed Hughes as Adam and Jolyon Coy as Matthew (background - Laura Rogers as Nicole and Carlyss Peer as Carrie) Photography by Mark Douet.