Monday, 13 November 2017

Network

National Theatre, Lyttelton
11th November, 2017, matinee
*Please note that this was a preview performance.

I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’

There’s a convincing article by Michael Harris in the programme for Network on the sensationalist media equivalent of fast food. Twitter, he uses as an example, is a culture where we melt sentiments into slogans, aim for Retweets and Favourites, and ‘consume “anger” as entertainment and each instance of “outrage” as an effective eye-grab’. We look out for our favourite commentators, or those we love to loathe, either agreeing or abhorring and sometimes not entirely sure why. We retweet the liberal elite as a badge of moral capital or, at most, to campaign and promote but to an audience probably already converted in a vacuum of anger. You see how easy it is to be cynical.

Network brings together artists from three very different areas of the arts: Lee Hall (writer of the screenplay for Billy Elliot and the plays The Pitmen Painters and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour) constantly shows in his work that theatre ‘should not be the exclusive property of a privileged elite’ (Hytner 2017, p.96); Ivo Van Hove is the one of the leading names of European theatre in his aesthetics and practices; and Bryan Cranston is from the world of Hollywood and, perhaps more notably, multi-award winning TV drama Breaking Bad. Together, in this adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film, they bring together different and new audiences to see one of the most theatrical and technical coups of this year. To summarise the plot quickly, when UBS news anchor-man Howard Beale loses his job because of poor ratings he goes on air and promises that he’ll blow his brains out on live TV. After briefly dragging him off air, the network decide that Beale madly ranting about what grinds his gears will boost ratings, crucial now that the news branch has merged with the rest of the network and must make a profit. But when he starts calling bullshit over matters which could jeopardise the network and its ratings, the TV executives lock horns over whether to keep him on the air.

Jan Versweyveld’s design makes the Lyttelton’s stage look as vast as did for Angels in America. As the audience take their seats, to the right of the stage we see the onstage diners, the waiting staff and the kitchen pass. The centre of the stage is taken up with the studio floor and a screen with live feeds from roaming camera operators. On the left is a dressing area space and a glass box which contains the gallery. There’s a ubiquity of bright lights, shiny floors and screens, apart from in the Foodwork restaurant which is all about dimly lit tables and cosy benches.

Van Hove creates the well-ordered chaos and buzz of a TV newsroom moments before going live to the nation. Producers, cameramen, secretaries, voice over artists, directors and Beale can be seen wandering about, preparing for the broadcast which is being marked by a countdown at the top of the set. As the final minute to live counts down, the buzz of the newsroom is like mission control, and Bryan Cranston’s Howard Beale is like the astronaut about to take off in the shuttle, or a calm in the centre of the storm. He coolly sits down at his desk, a whirlwind of makeup artists, soundmen and crew members surrounding him, adjusts his papers and looks up at the camera. This is testament to Van Hove’s control over all aspects of his production. I found myself occasionally watching Cranston a few meters away do his pieces to camera before looking at the screen. I looked back and Cranston wasn’t on the stage anymore. There are couple of bits of simple stage trickery like this which are effectively used, particularly at the play’s bloody end. Elsewhere, the live video editing is timed to a tee. From Howard to the gallery and back again, the opening scenes are perfectly orchestrated.

Cranston is genius casting. He’s an actor who is more than comfortable and experienced in front of the camera but who can also act to the back of the Lyttelton without feeling like his performance is being compromising. To camera, he carries a deadpan expression, a serious voice, the occasional twitch or frown, and utter professionalism (to begin with). Later, he turns into a showman, confidently playing to and amongst the audience to share the prophecies with which he is apparently imbued. We feel it too. A warm up man encourages us to join in with the mantra ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ and applaud rapturously. Although the rant seems like easy, naïve, bubble-gum politics, I couldn’t deny the sheer feeling of excitement when Beale and the station crew were chanting the slogan. Elsewhere, Michelle Dockery gets the best lines as young TV exec Diana Christensen. Her rhetoric is mostly made up of soundbite-like gobbets and alliteration: she eventually comes to berate Beale’s spew of ‘dehumanisation and dying democracy’. She matches the sharp witted sassiness and ruthlessness of Faye Dunaway in the film and Rene Russo in Nightcrawler (2014) but she never overplays her role and you can fully see why Max Schumaker would find her so beguiling despite her seeming unfeeling.

Hall has remained faithful to the screenplay. In fact if he has made additions to the script, all the memorable lines come from Chayefsky’s film. I suppose what he has done is streamlined the screenplay into a text which efficiently keeps all the best bits of the film’s dialogue. By giving some of Max Schumaker’s (Howard’s best friend and director) lines to Howard, Hall has made Howard more the protagonist, rather than the oddball plaything of the TV executives’ conflict. The meta bits work best: a secretary going through some script pitches that all have the same stock characters in different job titles (the bolshie, intelligent, beautiful young woman versus the maverick older mentor figure, etcetera) still probably rings true for a lot of TV dramas today. Douglas Henshall’s Schumaker, who has a fling with Christensen, is also very good. I thought that his and his wife’s (Caroline Faber) frankness over his mid-life crisis was quite affecting:

Here we are going through the obligatory middle-of-Act-Two scorned wife throws peccant husband out scene. But, no fear, I'll come back home in the end.  All [Christensen’s] plot outlines have me leaving her and returning to you because the audience won't buy a rejection of the happy American family.

They recognise that, to Christensen, there is an overarching obsession with plot arcs, happy endings and audience ratings that extend into real life.

Technically it’s an amazingly smooth production, thanks to the unswerving company and Tal Yarden’s video design. A particular coup is where Dockery and Henshall start a scene live on the South Bank, the camera following them walking from the river, into the National and onto the Lyttelton stage. Some of the production, perhaps including this bit, feels excessive. The onstage restaurant might add to the idea that we feed on such tabloid TV. Spatially it also adds an interesting dynamic during the restaurant scenes because the diners become background artists as well as simply spectators (although they’re always more than simply audience members as our gaze occasionally falls on what they’re being served or what the kitchen staff are doing). Yet the main thought I had regarding Foodwork was that it’s a nice little side earner. The post-encore video compilation of the swearing-in from US Presidents’ inaugurations from the 1970s onwards also feels tagged on, although it’s worth it for the audience reactions to Obama and Trump.

Through this 1970s’ American stage world which channels a lot of contemporary anger, we can draw parallels to a culture of binary politics and holier-than-thou, eye-grabbing, satiating headlines in digestible 140 (nay, 280) characters. And at its heart Network features a superbly pitched performance with the weight of a Shakespearean tragic hero from Bryan Cranston, delivering one of the most watchable performances of the year.


Network plays at the National Theatre until 24th March, 2018

A scene from Network. Bryan Cranston (centre) and company. Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Young Marx

Bridge Theatre, London
5th November, 2017, matinee

'Take a seat'

I’m reading Nicholas Hynter’s Balancing Acts at the moment. It is immensely readable, not only as an account of his time as Artistic Director of the National Theatre but also his time as Associate Director of the National, working on Shakespeare, his ebullience for new plays and why he wanted to be AD in the first place. He believes in the importance of theatre and that is conveyed persuasively in this book. This new venture with Nick Starr (with whom he worked alongside at the National) is a commercial one, yet it’s hard to stop comparing the Bridge with their old stomping ground. First impressions of the new Bridge Theatre? It’s in a lovely area which we haven’t really wandered around before: Dickensian streets meet modern architecture. The foyer is welcoming (as are the front of house staff) and light but the end of Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art comes to mind: it needs to be ‘purged of culture’ and all the pretension beaten out of it. The artisan bakery looked nice and was very tempting but it was amusing seeing most of the audience walking around with plastic cups full of little cakes with a name I’m not sure I’ve heard of before. The pretty lights, free water and sea kelp soap are all marvellous, but is it the sort of place where we can get our sandwiches out without being told off? The auditorium is fantastic and I’m not sure enough noise has been made over it. Perhaps it’s because London is spoilt for choice for theatres but imagine another city getting a new theatre like this. It has the intimacy of the Dorfman or Royal Shakespeare Theatre but the stage has the vastness of the Olivier and impressive technical facilities to boot. From the back row of the top tier, sight lines and acoustics were both good and I’m intrigued to see how it’ll look when the configuration isn’t end-on.

So what of Richard Bean’s and Clive Coleman’s new play? While his previous comedies have had substantial satirical bite, Young Marx plays out much like an extended sitcom episode involving stolen silverware, a botched duel, and love triangles aplenty. There’s a great scene in the second act where Marx tries to convince his wife that Engels and their maid, Nym, are having an affair which is pure farce and an absolute hoot.

Any tragedy is swiftly brushed aside and come the final curtain we’re left with a feeling that all ends well (whether history agrees or not). While this is enjoyable and non-taxing entertainment, the occasions where Bean does attempt more serious drama, such as the death of Marx’s young son, the tonal shift doesn’t come naturally and leaves the play feeling a little uneven. One minute we’re laughing at some scrape Marx has got himself into, the next we’re meant to be weeping at the untimely demise of a child. Such combinations of tragedy and comedy can often be the most acclaimed of both genres, the final episode of Blackadder Goes Fourth being a prime example. Perhaps it doesn’t quite work here because there hasn’t previously been any sense of true threat or jeopardy, and the ending is a little rushed with too many revelations occurring in quick succession, meaning we don’t have time to properly process Marx’s grief.

One of the more successful ‘serious’ aspects lies in the political underpinning of Marx and Engels; the script is peppered with jibes against Capitalism and frustrations over the reluctant and immobile proletariat (with the irony that we’re in a new commercial theatre which sits opposite the river from The City). Perhaps the most resonant of these political arguments comes when Engels chastises Marx for claiming he is ‘brutalised’ by poverty, Prussian spies, and a dogmatic and newly-founded local police force. Engels puts him in his place, reminding him what it really means to be ‘brutalised’ as part of a social class which is battered, broken and worked to the bone. But this seriousness doesn’t last too long, soon enough we’re back to toilet humour and innuendoes galore.

So far, you’d be forgiven for thinking Bean’s play is all ‘Carry On Marx’ but if I were forced to make a comparison I’d say it bears more resemblance, tonally and thematically, to the recent BBC comedy Quacks (coincidentally also starring Rory Kinnear), which similarly follows a group of pioneers and their attempts to revolutionise a stuck-in-their-ways society. Both comedies successfully juxtapose ‘true’ history with deliciously silly humour and a cast of likably caddish characters. Even Grant Olding’s anachronistically rocky soundtrack strikes a chord with the music featured in James Woods’ sitcom.

So, Bean has produced a genuinely funny and interesting romp. Hytner has shown off his shiny new theatre to a classy standard in his production. There’s nothing ground-breaking, but it’s all very watchable nonetheless, and a near guaranteed crowd pleaser. But I’m still left with the niggling question ‘what is it all for?’ It’s pretty clear that the play doesn’t offer anything new to say politically, socially or in any way that overtly resonates with today’s audiences. People might think that’s often the case with Bean but I’ve long been fascinated in his provocative humour and interest in national identity and northern working class settings. However, Young Marx isn’t the type of play I could see upon the National’s Olivier stage, despite the production being on a similar scale, because of the apparent lack of ‘motive’. But then I remember, this isn’t the National Theatre, and I am quite rightly reprimanded for any expectations that with the Bridge Hytner would be trying to emulate his tenure as AD at the NT. A lesson to be learned here in taking things upon their own merit.

So, if there is no political or social ‘stance’ (which seems pretty ironic given the source material), what does Young Marx do? For me it humanises a figure that has become abstracted to the point of obscurity through his philosophical legacy. Banish from your mind the perennial image of Karl Marx as an old, bearded man, here, as played by a breeched and bewigged Rory Kinnear, he is a young bohemian rogue; he boozes, he swears, he womanises, he fights, and by all accounts he is a bit of a layabout. The Yin to his Yang, Friedrich Engels, acts as his minder, paying his way, bailing him out on numerous occasions, and, aware that Marx is the genius of the partnership, his main duty is to chivvy him into knuckling down with his work. Bean has lifted the lid on the man (men) behind the theory, and by putting a face to it, an empathetic and entertaining one at that, it demystifies what, for some, is a rather stuffy and complicated political model. And that can’t be a bad thing!

Kinnear is by turns charming, grouchy, sly and infuriating, demonstrating that his clout as a comedic actor is just as mighty as his more dramatic side. He’s a true all-rounder, he even plays the piano! Matching him in wits, Oliver Chris is a scream as Engels. The two bounce off each other with easy camaraderie and much of the play’s warmth and humour stems from this partnership in which a great deal of mutual respect lies behind the blokey banter. In fact, I’d argue that the play would be better off titled ‘Young Marx and Engels’, so much is the play devoted to their friendship. Nancy Carroll as Marx’s wife, Jenny, and Laura Elphinstone’s Nym are solid, but as they are typically situated as the straight men to Kinnear and Chris’s double act they feel a tad underused.

The other undoubted star of the show is Mark Thompson’s ingenious and gleeful set. A London skyline is dominated by a huge revolving cube, which twirls, slides and magically configures itself into, by turns, a pawnbroker’s, a pub, the Marx residence, Hampstead Heath, a Churchyard and the British Library. Thompson has created an actor’s playground (although I imagine it’s a techie’s nightmare!), and Kinnear climbs, runs and jumps all over it, finding every nook and cranny to hide in and exploit for its comic potential.

While Young Marx isn’t going to set the world alight, it’s an assured and pleasing work to debut in the new theatre, ensuring that audiences’ first impressions of the space are, on the whole, very positive. It’s too early to say whether The Bridge will be a place for Hytner to produce hits as big as The History Boys and One Man, Two Guvnors, but let Young Marx be the first of many ‘Plays plump, plays radiant, plays preposterous, plays purgatorial, plays radiant, plays rotten – plays persistent’… and apparently the occasional musical!

Young Marx runs at The Bridge Theatre until 31st December and is broadcast as part of NT Live on 7th December.
Rory Kinnear (Karl Marx), Oliver Chris (Friedrich Engels), Harriet & Rupert Turnbull (Marx Children) & Nancy Carroll (Jenny von Westphalen), photo by Manuel Harlan



Thursday, 26 October 2017

Saint George and the Dragon

National Theatre
21st October, 2017, matinee

‘Where do we begin?’

Building and rebuilding society, righting the wrongs of the past, moving ever forward to that utopian idyll. But how do we, as individuals, as a community, ‘begin’ to change and reform? This question (I may not have recalled the exact wording) is oft asked by the residents of ‘a country a lot like our own’ after slaying the almighty Dragon (be it literal or metaphorical) in Rory Mullarkey’s Saint George and the Dragon. The Olivier stage has had what some would call a ‘difficult year’, with Rufus Norris’ programme of new works receiving a decidedly underwhelming response. So is Saint George destined to be used as further damning proof by the NT’s and Norris’ critics that the theatre is cursed, or, more prosaically, losing its touch? My answer is no, not quite. There is much to admire and enjoy in Mullarkey’s play – it’s a big, bold slice of English folklore, suitably epic in scale and it boasts some very nice performances, not least by John Heffernan (and his lovely, lustrous wig) as the titular warrior.

The play is episodic, split into three acts, but with a continuity brought by returning characters and themes. We begin in a sort of medieval, fantasy world in which the local community is enslaved by a three-headed dragon – which in his human form is embodied by a deliciously showy Julian Bleach. Into the fray steps George, a failed dragon-slayer in search of heroic deeds in which to redeem his name. 

While populated by traditional fairytale tropes – the damsel in distress, the orphan lost in the woods, etc. – this first act feels original and is the best, or certainly the most entertaining of the three settings. Yes the characters are rough-hewn and stereotypical and the jokes have all the subtlety of a studio sitcom, but it’s funny – I particularly enjoyed the visual joke about the origins of the St George flag and the satirical sentiment behind the Dragon’s claim that losing two of his three heads will, in fact, help him win the fight – and very, very theatrical. As with Common, Saint George also revels in an imaginative use of language, Mullarkey has great fun creating a Shakespearean-verse-cum-ye-olde-England pastiche patter. The theatricality and thrills get ramped up in Lyndsey Turner’s fun and exciting direction of the fight between George and the Dragon. Explosions abound and what I imagine is a deceptively simple sword trick really light up the stage in what is probably the highlight of the play.

Unfortunately, acts two and three, respectively set during the Industrial Revolution and a contemporary urban neighbourhood, lack drama and wit in comparison. The Dragon is no longer a physical entity that must be vanquished, but an altogether more tricky menace, residing in unjust social systems, the selfishness of individuals and a lack of community spirit. While this is an obvious, but truthful analogy, it doesn’t necessarily make for exciting theatre. Bleach gets little to do in acts two and three, despite his scenery chewing antics being a rollicking highlight of earlier scenes.

An over-eagerness to become a ‘state of the nation’ play makes for earnest moralising and a scramble to diagnose contemporary Britain’s problems, whether they be capitalist greed, the all-consuming rise of technology, people being too quick to take offence, or everyday violence. At the end of each act the characters, and the audience, are invited to ‘close your eyes’ and imagine a better future. This should be inspiring and moving, yet in its final utterance this motif seems tired and, frankly, a bit of a cop out. The question ‘where do we begin?’ seems more pertinent. If George is an emblem of traditional England, then what does his death signify (other than a neat rounding off of an earlier plot point)? If Mullarkey’s message is that we live in a constantly evolving world in which relics of the past don’t always belong, then sure, that seems pretty sensible, but there remains a muddled mix of nostalgia and a resistance to the past that don’t sit well together, and I’m confused as to where the play stands on such issues. The truth is that, while I enjoy plays about England and all the problems that they encompass, Mullarkey and Turner’s ideas – the transformation of a green and pleasant landscape into one of smoking rooftops and dark, satanic mills and then into the ‘broken’ Britain of microwave meals for one and bar room bust-ups – are nothing new. There is a façade of political and social relevance, but in reality, the play offers no answers and doesn’t really pose any questions.

While I’m unsure on the progression of the play, Mullarkey and Turner’s aesthetic vision is wonderfully realised in Rae Smith’s design. A sprawling English countryside stretches as far as the eye can see (literally – it spreads up the back wall and into the rafters) and is peppered with simple block houses with sketchy details. These storybook illustrations made 3D are both quaint and wry in design, echoing another of the NT’s nation plays, Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice, in the pantomime-esque use of flats and fluid stage space.

John Heffernan is a joy as George. A cross between genuine heroicness, with a sense of the almighty akin to Henry VII in Richard Goold’s Richard III at the Almeida last year, and a silly yet likeable ‘nice but dim’ character. As George becomes more alienated from the changing world we see this manifest in his increasing naivety and incongruous appearance and manner, emphasised in the last act where he gleefully attires himself in a mish-mash of charity bin clothes and orders ‘another glass of pint’ from the local pub. There’s a lovely communal feel to the ensemble cast, and Turner’s done an admirable job of staging a variety of English voices (I heard west country, North East, and Liverpudlian accents, to name but a few). Stand outs include Gawn Grainger’s sweet grandfatherly turn, Amaka Okafor as the not-so-subservient damsel in distress, and, in a rather touching side plot, Richard Goulding has a lovely redemption arc which sees the villainous Henry redeem himself over the years.

While Saint George and the Dragon is not a great play, it is enjoyable and feels very much like a National Theatre commission in a commendable, chancy way. It doesn’t appear to be selling well (the theatre was about two thirds full when we saw it), but I predict that it will become a staple of university libraries, alongside other Britain/England/Nation plays staged by the National such as much of Richard Bean’s oeuvre and Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads. Mullarkey’s play is messy, but ambitious, and is by no means the disaster that naysayers would have you believe.


Saint George and the Dragon plays at the National Theatre until 2nd December.

The company of Saint George and the Dragon.
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Hedda Gabler

Curve
23rd October, 2017


‘all I’ve ever learned from love
was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you’

As we near the climax of Ivo van Hove’s uber-contemporary production of Hedda Gabler the angelically anguished tones of Jeff Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah’ echo around the auditorium. While the above lyric is cut from this musical interlude I can’t help but think it sums up Ibsen’s play (in a new fresh and frank adaptation by Patrick Marber) and the titular character pretty well.

Disconnected and bored, Hedda longs for excitement, for purpose, for ‘control’ from within a society in which her main duty is to be a wife and mother, both roles which she actively denies – her maiden name gives the play its title and she burns with relish the manuscript, or ‘child’ of Lovborg and Thea. She is pushed and pulled by the men in her life, her academic husband, Tesman (who’s worst crime is being dull), the roguish Judge Brack, and fellow academic and recovered alcoholic, Eilert Lovborg. But Hedda pushes back. She regains a perverse power through her influence over these men, she is neither here nor there, her life neither real nor fantasy. Living vicariously through others, having ‘control’ through her cruel manipulation of Lovborg and the naïve Thea Elvsted is a means of creation, a means of being. To have ‘control’ is to have a purpose and a lasting proof of one’s existence. Yet, ultimately, inevitably, Hedda sees life as a mere farce and the greatest accomplishment one can achieve is to end it, to make that final conscious, autonomous decision.

… so Leonard Cohen’s haunting lyrics (piercingly conveyed by Buckley’s ethereal voice – the best version of the song, in my opinion) can here refer to Hedda’s craving for beauty, excitement and thrills, for sensuality and scandal, but also her disconnection from reality and her incredibly nihilistic response.

A few years ago Van Hove was very much flavour of the month (I say this as someone who adored his A View From The Bridge), yet with this success came the inevitable backlash. His work has been criticised for being overly stylised, more concerned with aesthetics than a dramaturgical response to a play, and while I wouldn’t refute those claims completely, I think Hedda is a case in which he gets the balance right. The set up – newlyweds, Hedda and Tesman, have recently moved into a grand, yet sparse house – lends itself well to van Hove’s style. White expanses of plasterboard walls are broken only by the most minimal furniture; a lamp, a blind, a (rather grubby) sofa. There is a sense of the opulence that could be, but is as yet unrealised – in my mind the house wouldn’t look out of place in one of those fashionable Scandi Noir political dramas. Hence we are treated to the spare, spiny visuals we associate with this director’s work without it feeling incongruous.

In fact, Jan Versweyveld’s set has a subtlety and ghostliness which creeps up on you. Something about the room feels off from the outset, but it wasn’t until the second half of the play when I figured out what it was. The industrial-chic stainless steel fireplace sits slightly off centre, and the twin glass cabinets (one containing two pistols, the other a fire extinguisher) either side of the fireplace are not level with each other. Within an interior design aesthetic that I associate heavily with neatness there is a distinct lack of symmetry. Everything is off kilter. These small details are a brilliant way of imbuing the production with a sense of the uncanny, we know something is not right, but we can’t quite put our finger on what or why.

I also liked that the stage contained no visible exits. The cast come and go through the auditorium, and consequently we are situated – trapped – with Hedda in that room. The boarding up of the single window and source of natural light towards the play’s closing moments is (pardon the pun) ‘the final nail in the coffin’.

Lizzy Watts naturally stands out as a desensitised Hedda, her monotone voice biting through the more emotional histrionics of characters such as Lovborg (Richard Pyros) and Thea (Annabel Bates). If Watts’ performance seems isolating and alienating, this only heightens Hedda’s increasing dissociation with the world around her. Also impressive is Adam Best’s Brack, while initially appearing caddish he grows into a threatening and imposing figure as the play progresses. If his blackmailing and thuggish manhandling of Hedda isn’t shocking enough, his disturbing promise to ‘occupy her fully’ is chilling.

I confess that at the interval I was unsure – about both Ibsen’s play and van Hove’s production. To be fair, the first half of the play is heavy on exposition and is mainly a set up for the more dramatic second half. Yet I found myself inwardly eye-rolling at a couple of overly pretentious bits of direction, namely the repetitive use of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ (I enjoyed it the first time, but by the third or fourth time I was longing for silence instead – conversely, Nina Simone’s rendition of ‘Wild Is The Wind’ makes a memorable finale) and Hedda’s manic decoration of the house by stapling discarded flowers to the walls. I get the impulsiveness, but it comes across as rather twee in its faux bohemian depiction of feminine ‘hysteria’. All the van Hove trademarks are present: the stripping back of excess, the long silences, the pulsing rhythms which underscore moments of tension – there’s even a taste of the red gunge (I don’t know what else to call it) which so searingly coloured his AVFTB – and to be fair, I’d have felt short-changed had they not been. By the second half I was thoroughly engrossed. The tension is ratchetted up ten-fold and the final scenes are truly thrilling despite the knowledge of what’s coming.

Despite any initial misgivings, van Hove and Watts had me gripped, and there remains plenty of food for thought regarding the play’s characters, themes, and the distinctly stylised manifestation of these in this production. I’d be interested to see a more traditional interpretation with which to compare - Would it be as tense? Would it be as simultaneously involving and alienating? Would it be as claustrophobic? Would the characters become more or less sympathetic? Etc. Hedda is an enigma, but one I’m more than willing to puzzle over for weeks, months, and even years to come.

Hedda Gabler plays at Curve until 28th October.


Lizzy Watts and Adam Best in Hedda Gabler.
Photo credit: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Beginning

National Theatre, Dorfman
17th October, 2017, matinee

‘I want a people carrier.’

American playwright Annie Baker has said that her favourite type of laughter to hear in the theatre is individual pockets of laughter at different times and in different amounts throughout the audience. It’s less so about the big laughs of jokes painstakingly toiled over and more about little idiosyncrasies and well observed behaviours for which she strives. There’s a similar achievement, I felt, in David Eldridge’s new two-hander. Set immediately after a flat-warming party in Crouch End, the host Laura and Danny, who has been invited as a mutual friend’s (himself effectively a party-crasher) plus one, are staring at each other, everyone else now gone home. We spend the next two hours in real time watching a sort of will-they won’t-they dance. It’s not as twee as that sounds. Both thirty-somethings, Danny never sees his daughter and is living back at home with his mum, and Laura is anxious that she’s getting too old to settle down and have kids with someone. Knowing that she is currently ovulating, she wants to hurry the dating process along. And it’s not as farcical as that implies. In fact, Beginning is incredibly well balanced.

Each audience member sits back getting tipsier throughout just like the characters do, watching snippets from their own lives and love stories played back to them. There are times in Beginning when it feels like Eldridge has closely observed me and my girlfriend: taking the piss out of Peter Andre on Strictly (the play is set in 2015), commenting on which professional dancers we fancy, winding each other up, and sharing a love of food and drink. Borders are drawn early on. He has a difficult relationship with his dad that’s a no-go area of conversation. She doesn’t like to be called ‘Laurr’ because her dad called her it, or ‘babe’ because he hardly knows her. There are awkward, potentially testing, moments like when Laura jokingly tells Danny to ‘man up’ and when Danny says ‘cunt’ which makes Laura wince. But it seems truthful and human(?!), away from the idealistic politics of social media. To clarify, Laura and Danny are two believable, individual and imperfect people that we see become a couple. It doesn’t feel written but instead simply observed. The characters are let be; the dialogue, design, performances and direction strive for naturalism. There’s a huge amount of care and faith that’s gone into it all (including by the NT for programming it). Fly Davis’ meticulous design shows a “Crouch End cosy” flat (including working kitchen) with the carpet and feature wall of previous residents, empties and party popper streamers strewn about, and paint samples on the wall. Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton embody Laura and Danny comfortably. Troughton doesn’t simply do an Essex stereotypical lad. He touchingly brings out Danny’s body insecurities, shyness and fussiness. Mitchell is equally as good, playing a woman clearly bright and popular and financially in an OK place, but feeling her body clock ticking and possibly still raw from a distant break-up. As she says, she gets by in a shell of busy activity, but deeper there’s something missing. There are a few lovely details as well, including Mitchell opening the fridge rather than the freezer and then the grill instead of the oven. Is this from her being drunk or still getting used to the new flat layout?

It would be easy to say that this is a play about privileged people (university educated, alright jobs, a social circle, dispensable income) for the privileged few that can get tickets to the Dorfman. The chosen line at the top of this review, which gets a big laugh and is part of a larger speech about 2.4 children and suburban yearnings, also points to the smack of first world problems that could easily make this play seem insignificant. But I fully warmed to Laura and Danny, empathised with their problems, and was drawn into their worlds as much as they are with each other’s lives. It feels a play that has been crafted so skilfully that there aren’t any seams to be seen. To try and drag a metaphor out of it, if plays such as Skylight are sort-of romantic slow cooker plays in which spaghetti bolognaise is made, this is its own 21st century equivalent: a frozen fish finger sandwich with copious amounts of mayonnaise and ketchup-play. Polly Findlay has faultlessly paced the production, especially in allowing the play to take its time during moments of silence and music, embracing the awkward and the aw-shucks, and letting Laura and Danny’s relationship evolve.

There are no easy or pat endings, either. Danny and Laura are aware that there’s a forlorn fear that this might be a drunken dream; that they’ll wake up and won’t like each other, leaving the life they planned out together a nice idea and leaving it at that. I don’t know how much (if at all) Eldridge’s play was compromised from what he first envisaged in the writing and production processes, but it seems to me like it has stayed the same play he wanted. Beginning may be about perfect. Funny, warm, pragmatic and seeking a way out of the loneliness of modern life. To top it off, it has a cracking preshow playlist so try to get there early.

Beginning plays at the National Theatre, Dorfman, until 14th November, 2017.

 
Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton in Beginning. Photo: Johan Persson.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Hairspray

Curve
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

Curve
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