Monday, 17 July 2017

Barber Shop Chronicles

West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
15th July, 2017, matinee

‘Even in darkness, the barbershop is a lighthouse’.

Barber Shop Chronicles, now playing in Leeds after a successful run in the Dorfman, has one of the best preshows of a play I’ve seen. The in the round seats look onto an array of different barbershop furniture, a sound system and a generator. Surrounding us are shop signs for hairdressers from London to Lagos. Actors meander on to mingle with the widely diverse audience, shaking their hands and one by one waving hello and to the baby(!) in the audience. They dance, invite people on stage for haircuts, laugh at how one of them has picked a bald man for a trim, and sing Happy Birthday to a young boy. This vibe makes it hard not to warm to the characters.

Inua Ellams’ new play takes us inside barbershops in London and five African cities: Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra. During the peaceful, almost ceremonious, ritual of a haircut, we become privy to the sharing of jokes and football banter to big thoughts about politics and identity – including divisive opinions on Mandela, the history of the N word, and the apparent corruption of Pidgin by young people learning an Americanised/Anglicised English. Just as significant is the attraction of the barbershop for men to just sit round and listen, joining in when they want. But if this makes the play sound, sporadic and unfocused, simply a play where men sit around talking, this does the play an injustice. Ellams’ play is intricately and solidly structured, and absorbingly told. Settings are interconnected, time and place are played with. Characters might be continents apart and yet jokes, sport and hardships connect them. The London-based Three Kings barbershop is a major setting which we go to back and forth from the different African shops. A football game (Chelsea V Barcelona) also links each setting. We see the barbershops are places of male bonding, confessions and soul searching. There are some fascinating and funny bits about African names, especially about how the name of the former Nigerian president sounds like a sarcastic retort: So you want to save Africa joke? Good luck Jonathan!’

I think Barber Shop Chronicles is as important a play as Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Elmina’s Kitchen, debbie tucker green’s random, or Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads. It’s perhaps not as immediately current as some of those plays regarding themes of gang culture or what it’s like to live on an estate. How Ellams writes about identity is complex and wide-ranging, but still focused. Representation is a key interest in the play. Here, Ellams forges a wide cast of characters that are deep, contradictory, from those uncertain about their identity to those who are bold and charismatic. There’s a big nod in the final scene to the lack of racially diverse casting. A male black actor wanting a haircut confides that he’s having doubts about whether he can be cast as a strong, black man. It’s a scene which underlines how Barber Shop Chronicles is a play about people trying to find themselves and connect. This is also epitomised in a major plot strand, that of the growing rift between Cyril Nri’s Emmanuel and Fisayo Akinade’s Samuel, the latter thinking that Emmanuel has betrayed Samuel’s father. In a play full of quasi-paternal bonds, Nri’s sacrifice in order to protect a father-son relationship is shattering.

The play is realised by Bijan Sheibani’s vivacious production. Aline David’s sharp movement and Michael Henry’s music deftly takes us from barber shop to barber shop, London to Africa, with a gusto typical of the play’s energy and the characters’ zest for life. The cast are all excellent so I’ll name check them all. Abdul Salis, Anthony Welsh, Cyril Nri, David Webber, Fisayo Akinade, Hammed Animashaun, Kwami Odoom, Maynard Eziashi, Patrice Naiambana (soon to be playing Davies in The Caretaker in Northampton), Peter Bankolé, Simon Manyonda and Sule Rimi play multiple roles with precision and vigour.

To go off on a tangent, but also to (mis)quote probably Leeds most famous writer, Alan Bennett wrote that theatre is best when it’s like school. I want to add that school was always best when it never seemed like school. Through Ellams play (complete with some cracking one-liners and bits of poetry), Sheibani and the whole cast create something both joyous and which opens up worlds of new perspectives.

Barber Shop Chronicles plays at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 29th July. It returns to the National Theatre from 29th November.

Cyril Nri as Emmanuel in Barber Shop Chronicles. Credit: Marc Brenner.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Miss Saigon

Curve, Leicester
12th July 2017

Star-crossed love story, or cautionary tale of exploitation and the disenfranchisement of war? Miss Saigon is both these things. Boublil and Schönberg’s musical is complex, sumptuous and doesn’t give its problematic subject matter an easy ride. Now embarking on a nationwide tour, Cameron Mackintosh and director Laurence Connor’s revival is everything I expected and more – a feast for the eyes, mind and heart.

As a big fan of Les Miserables, I couldn’t help but compare the two musicals, and they’ve much in common. Not only the exploration of the indestructible bond between parent and child, the harrows of war and the unflinchingly honest admission that, despite the efforts and trials of mankind, sometimes we fail. But in Schönberg’s rich score, tender wind sections rouse into piercing string orchestrations during the soaring ballads that typify his compositions, while Boublil’s lyrics are admirable in their combination of simplicity and poetic imagery.

As Les Mis tackles themes of redemption, moral duties and social revolution, Miss Saigon does not shy away from political matters and issues of ethical representation. With little prior knowledge of the story, having now seen the show I cannot fathom how producers thought that casting Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer in the original production was a good idea. Not only is the character of French-Vietnamese heritage, but his whole motivation and characterisation is built upon feelings of cultural displacement – he relishes the ideals of Western capitalism and has a voracious affinity with the hunger and entitlement that is promoted by his sordid interpretation of the ‘American Dream’.

In an astounding and thought-provoking act of internalised racism the Engineer, in his role as chief pimp, facilitates the Western exoticisation and fetishisation of the East that is central to the story. To have a white actor in this role would just seem wrong and inappropriate, both in regards to political correctness, and in terms of the plot. Thankfully, in the 28 years since the original production attitudes towards representation have progressed. (Caveat: I realise that as a white British woman I am not best situated to comment on the state of race relations and representation within Western culture, and I don’t wish to come across as overly preachy – I’m sure there are many better researched and better written arguments than mine).

The crux of the tragedy rests upon ignorance and the too-true situation wherein one dominant culture takes precedence over another. Kim believes that her marriage is a binding and unbreakable avowal of love, whereas to Chris the ceremony is a beautiful and quaint show of local custom – the trivialisation of tourism rearing its head – a brief respite from the drudgery and strife of war and an antidote to the false, Westernised representation of Vietnamese women in the Engineer’s ‘Dreamland’. Yet he fails to recognise the real meaning of this ‘show’. To coin a phrase, ‘what happens in Saigon stays in Saigon’. Perhaps it is for this reason that my own interpretation of the central romance is not one of true ‘love’, but a heady mixture of lust, Chris’s manifestation of the ‘white saviour complex’, and the paradoxical combination of jadedness and the ‘carpe diem’ sentiment that accompanies war, as well as Kim’s desperation, poverty and naivety in believing that he can provide her with a better life.

Therefore, within a score chock-a-block with pretty love songs, the greatest and most touching of them all is ‘I’d Give My Life For You’, a searingly honest and deeply moving depiction of the ferocious love a mother feels for her son. All of the political, moral and thematic issues and character motivations provide food for thought, which for me is what elevates Miss Saigon above the (unfairly derogatory, imo) label of ‘80’s mega-musical’.

That said, the production is spectacular. One of the slickest musicals I’ve seen, it oozes quality. I have slight reservations about supposed cut-backs for tours, and was concerned that some aspects may be skimped on, but boy was I wrong! The infamous helicopter scene has to be seen to be believed. We were there, fully immersed in the chaotic hysteria, the clawing of the Vietnamese people desperate to escape, the imposing chopper blades beating down on us as well as them. The stage is vastly populated and, with Totie Driver’s set design, creates a scale that feels at once crowded yet intimate and places us directly within the thoroughly believable world of Saigon.

The production is topped off with a huge and unreservedly outstanding cast. Red Concepcion’s Engineer steals every scene with his maniacal performance – all darting eyes, frisky fingers and an energy that drips sleaze. Sooha Kim’s Kim is deceptively sweet as her trillingly dainty voice gives way to a rawness of emotion that seems to tear from her very soul. Also notable, Ryan O’Gorman as John once again displays the unique mixture of soulfulness and humility that made him stand out in the recent RENT tour. His rendition of ‘Bui Doi’ is a rousing opener of Act 2.

Miss Saigon is a must see for theatre lovers. Mackintosh sure knows how to put on a show, and many of the remarkable images have imprinted themselves in my mind. But beneath the spectacle, Boublil and Schönberg have created a mature musical which, while, realistically, not able to provide answers to the world’s problems, illuminates them and allows us to see things from a different perspective. And all this is wrapped up in a luscious package of blissful melodies and exciting set pieces.

Miss Saigon is currently touring the UK and Ireland. For full dates and details visit

Ashley Gilmour as Chris and Sooha Kim as Kim - Photo Credit Johan Persson 

Thursday, 29 June 2017


Hampstead Theatre
28th June, 2017, matinee

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ – whose Octoroon is selling out the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond – 2014 Pulitzer finalist Gloria is making its UK debut at Hampstead Theatre. It’s a gloriously rich play with an unexpected subject matter. This review is only of most of Act One in order to try to avoid plot spoilers.

On entering Hampstead’s auditorium for the first time, the stage management team were doing final checks on Lizzie Clachan’s meticulous design of makeshift cubicles in a makeshift chipboard office, complete with bulk bought furniture and departmental signs written with electrical tape on the walls. There is a print-out poster saying ‘I believe in the person I want to become’ and Thank You cards in one person’s cubicle; postcards of The Smiths and Beetlejuice in another; and a picture of a dog in another. I can’t help but feel the SM team and the chipboard design was all a ruse that contributed to the feeling that I started off thinking the play was going to be one thing before realising that it’s in fact a whole lot more. I thought, aided by the little I had read about the play, this was going to be an ‘office play’. Whatever that is! And it is – but it’s much more than that as well. There’s a sketchiness to the set that could be read as either a meta-theatrical device (I was reminded a bit of Gatz at first) or as a very well-wrought realistic representation of the design of modern offices.

There is much of office life to see in Gloria: the occasional pettiness, the realisation that however awkward you think you are there are others in the workplace who can match it, the optimistic thought that this job is only a rung on a hopefully bigger career ladder. Or perhaps the depressing one that actually, no, this is your career. One of the many achievements of Jacobs-Jenkins’ play and Michael Longhurst’s production is that it paints hugely recognisable characters with spot-on detail. Ellie Kendrick conveys Ani very compellingly, from conveying her job satisfaction down to small nuances such as her habit of kicking the bin under her desk. Colin Morgan is brilliant as Dean, switching from the guy who turns up late, hungover and bitching to the ambitious guy barely clinging on to his twenties wanting to impress his boss in order to work his way up the food chain. And I think we can all relate to Bayo Gbadamosi’s intern Miles, willing to be the dog’s body and sitting around awkwardly with nothing to do whilst desperately wanting to impress and add to his CV. Bo Poraj is also quietly impressive as the pernickety worker from the office next door, meticulously delivering a speech about feeling condemned to be a fact checker all his life and complaining that even his $60 sound cancelling headphones haven’t drowned out the rabble from this office. Kae Alexander as Kendra stands out, evoking the character’s self-centredness and ambition, and Sian Clifford (the steely sister in Fleabag) is also excellent in her roles. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say the actors mostly double up to play other roles and not only does this show off the standard of the acting skills but also highlights similarities and differences between characters.

I got about half way through the first act and thought: OK, this is brilliantly written and performed but it’s also quite conventional so far in how it nicely rolls along. The writing is skilful and satisfying. Characters’ entrances and exits are well-orchestrated; it has the fascination of a work play; and it perfectly captures different feelings on the ‘ambitious youth vs. pressure to succeed and be happy in a career’ scale. I really can’t underestimate how astutely well observed Gloria is. AND THIS IS JUST HALF OF THE PLAY! Because then ‘Gloria’ happens. I might write another review of the rest of it after the run has finished but I don’t want to spoil what is a huge ‘upset’ in the structure of the play. Jacobs-Jenkins’ writing comes at times with a theatrically sly and wry sense of humour and handles a topic that I’ve not seen dealt with elsewhere in theatre. (There might be some comparisons made with Crimp’s The Treatment but I didn’t see the Almeida production). Clachan’s set is clever, inventive and (again) well-observed. Put all too simply, Gloria does a fantastic job of pointing up that no two people’s experience of the same event is equal and not unprofitable. With Octoroon and now Gloria, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has shot onto the London theatre scene.

Gloria plays at the Hampstead Theatre until 29th July.

Kae Alexander as Kendra and Ellie Kendrick as Ani in Gloria. Credit: Marc Brenner.

Monday, 26 June 2017


National Theatre (Olivier)
24th June, 2017, matinee

This is the age of the clickbait blogger as Richard Jordan wrote in The Stage last week. As a blog with a (comparatively) small readership people might think it was inevitable that I was going to like Common simply to be different from most of the other reviews! But genuinely, despite and perhaps because of its faults and disarray, DC Moore has written a unique and strange play, and (putting aside the platitudinous of this cliché) the National should be applauded rather than condemned for putting it on the Olivier stage.

I wrote a piece about Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities today about typical tropes in that play. I partly wrote it because it made me think how Common doesn’t adhere to all of these techniques which made for a very different theatregoing experience; not necessarily better but certainly more distinctive. And if the play is purposefully elusive it gives an excuse for this review being wishy washy. The play is set in the early 19th century, when an upsurge in parliamentary acts saw common land move from collective to individual ownership. You’d be forgiven for thinking that a play which basically looks at the foundations of our economic system and which carries plenty of current undertones to public commodities being sold off would be more political than it is. However, Moore instead takes the play down a more haunting route. Brought back to life, soothsayer Mary (Anne-Marie Duff, in striking red) returns to her village where enclosure of the land is taking place.

Duff lends Mary the presence and quality of voice that is often afforded to a classical role. Where else in contemporary drama (I’m inviting a list) is there a female protagonist quite as bold as this? Top Girls? Mary is at times as audacious, infamous and seemingly invincible as Johnny Rooster Byron. She delivers meta-asides to the audience, including “If my language some offends, fist-fuck you all.” We also see her lesbian relationship with her sister Laura (Cush Jumbo) and how she yearns to take her to Boston (Massachusetts, not Lincoln). But Laura says that she doesn’t want to move because she was 'born, lived and made here'. It is clear that the land in Common has potency in Moore’s play; people are born and die by it, and are defined by it, in terms of class, wealth and spirit.

As singular as Common feels, there are comparisons that can be made to other plays. There’s a gruesome disembowelling of an Irish man in the second act much like the powerful ending of David Rudkin’s Afore Night Come. In Common, such a ritualistic lynching of an outsider highlights the point that borders separating bits of land also divides people. Yet, whereas Rudkin’s play builds up to the murder in a moment which is shocking, mythical and sacrificial, in Common it is part of a list of otherness including pagan rituals and incest. (I realise this is sounding a bit ‘Billington’: “For better Irish murders see Rudkin’s 1960 Afore Night Come!”). Elsewhere, the language and plot – in my opinion at least – seemed as impenetrably beguiling as that in Howard Barker’s Victory: the one that opens with ‘In your own time, of course, at your very own cunt leisure’. Moore’s play isn’t always clear – its dialects, language and therefore its plot are sometimes difficult to grasp – but this is quite refreshing. I’ve seen the play and I don’t fully know what was going on in it, yet I can’t sneer at that but admire it for being completely left-field. Finally, probably unintentionally, there are a number of striking similarities to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Mary has come back to life after being killed, something which she repeats at the beginning of act two. In a striking moment, clouds swirling overhead, we see a hand come up through the mud followed by the rest of Duff, after which she stands next to her own grave and starts conversing with a talking crow. Plot-wise, this is all echoing American Gods. Moore’s play and Herrin’s production don’t quite reach the magic realist style of the TV drama but this ambition is nonetheless enjoyable.

The villagers may think the land is ‘unshifting’ but Richard Hudson’s mud covered stage uses the Olivier’s drum revolve effectively. It is at once ever changing, producing beds and graves coming from underground, and yet doesn’t look very fertile. Meanwhile, Paule Constable’s lighting casts large shadows on the back wall. However, it is peculiar that this design is interjected by a white cut-out of a stately home in the play’s dying moments. Aesthetically, it’s as if the play becomes Arcadia. I suppose there’s a point in there about the land being enclosed off for capital means and being in the hands of rich landowners but it’s not as effectively jarring as it perhaps should be.

I feel that Moore and Herrin were trying to more deeply mine the mythic quality of the pastoral that has been explored before, from the plays of Jez Butterworth to Crimp’s The Country. Muddy and mysterious but by no means a mess.

Common runs at the National Theatre, Olivier, until 5th August.

Anne-Marie Duff as Mary in Common. Photo: Johan Persson

Other Desert Cities

When I started reading Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities I thought I’d enjoy it more than I ended up doing. I also thought I’d read it quicker than it recently took me to read a 500 page novel but that wasn’t the case either. The play is a s(t)olid contemporary American family drama. It’s not on the same grand scale as Letts’ August: Osage County and it doesn’t reach the same detail or depth of Karam’s The Humans. It’s Christmas Eve, 2004, in the Wyeth family in Palm Springs. Lyman is an old-school movie actor from the heydays of the Hollywood studio system. He and his wife Polly (a former screenwriter with her addict of a sister Silda) were once-respected Republican figures and friends of the Reagans. Their children Brooke and Trip are home for the holidays. It is the first time in a while that Brooke has visited from New York and she has returned with a yet unpublished memoir about the mysterious suicide of her brother Henry, once involved in a radical left wing group that bombed an army recruiting centre. Her book lambasts Lyman’s and Polly’s rejection of Henry, suggesting that they put their politics and friends before their son.

There are several good things about this play, but I simply felt that they amounted to nothing more than… good. I completely realise that this may be because I read it over a period of a few weeks whereas in the theatre it would boil down to (one would hope) a few hours. I thought I’d try to break down what is notable but also quite standard about Other Desert Cities, mainly because I thought it’s a good idea for a blog post but also because yesterday – at time of writing – I saw a play, Common, which doesn’t adhere to all of these typical tropes which made for a very different theatregoing experience; not necessarily better but certainly more unique.

A Place
There’s potency in the play’s Californian desert setting. It is a hiding place for the Wyeths away from the spotlight. It’s a dry place full of Republicans and old-garde MGM actors in retirement villages, a cultural world away from the liberal New York where Brooke has made her life. The desert surrounding Palm Springs can also be associated with Baghdad and other war zones near other desert cities. Place, then, is heavily linked to social/political commentary.
Whilst reading it I visualised the play in-the-round because I know that’s how the Old Vic production was staged.

B Plot twist
If parts of the first act spoon feed you exposition, you forgive it thinking there will be a good payoff later in the play. And, indeed, there is a good plot twist at the end. Early talk of suicide notes and memoirs makes you think the plot twist will rely on a letter like Miller’s All My Sons: a bit heavy handed a device but one which dramatically and emotionally does the job. In the end, the plot twist is perhaps predictable but it actually doesn’t matter as it’s the fallout of the family of which Baitz is more interested. Then again, a short last scene set six years later neither offers nor teases that much in terms of those relationships.

C Characters
The Conservative parents versus the liberal daughter; the son somewhere in the middle; the inebriated, hypocritical aunt who’s reliant on Polly but who supports Brooke; parents who apparently rejected their son but temporarily moved to New York to care for Brooke after she had a breakdown; Brooke feeling torn between familial loyalty and her need to write in order to redress what she doesn’t understand about her close brother’s death and for the sake of her own mental health. Clashes and rivalries occur and it makes for some crackling dialogue and fiery arguments, much in the tradition of 20th century American classics. There are also a fair few nods to O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night what with Lyman being a once-famous actor, addiction affecting the characters, and parent-child disagreements. And all of the characters hold up pretences and facades in some way.

I was imagining Martha Plimpton from the Old Vic production as Brooke but, for some reason, John Lithgow as the dad, Lyman, and a minor character from Frasier as the mum, Polly.

So do A+B+C make a play? Maybe but, as entertaining as Other Desert Cities is, not a hugely innovative one. What the play is, though, is a modern dysfunctional family drama in the vein of a Miller, Williams or O’Neill play, etc. It is subtly about politics and culture in different parts of America, as well as the benefits and problems that arise in giving voice to marginalised voices in the form of a memoir.

Some favourite lines:
Polly: I think living on the East Coast has given you the impression that sarcasm is alluring and charming. It is not. Sarcasm is the purview of teenagers and homosexuals. (P.9)

Brooke: … I forget how hallucinatory it can be here on the West Coast. (P.26)

School of Rock

New London Theatre
23rd June, 2017

I would describe seeing School of Rock as a nostalgia trip – except it feels like only yesterday that I saw and fell in love with the 2003 (!!!) film. Andrew Lloyd Webber, Glenn Slater and Julian Fellowes’ musical adaptation is an affectionate and faithful take on the original, which rightly places its child cast centre stage. Before it even started The Dark Lord’s (ALW’s) voice boomed from on high, emphatically informing us that the kids play their instruments live every night. It’s as if Matilda and Rock Of Ages have been chucked in a blender and the result is a fun packed show with a rock concert energy, full of charm and cheek.

The main plot expansion in the musical is the addition of a deeper insight into the kids’ home lives. The touching ‘If Only You Would Listen’ highlights the gulf between parental expectations and a child’s wish to express their individuality, aspirations and problems. Likewise, we get a better sense of the liberation that music practice with Dewey gives them, and the way he embodies everything they wish their parents (and other teachers) did – fun, non-patronising, inclusive, providing a listening ear, and most of all, he recognises their capabilities and praises their diverse talents. However, Fellowes’ book borrows heavily from the film – the majority of the jokes are pretty much verbatim. It may be a case of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’, but it does beg the question as to why such a well-known writer was hired in the first place.

After several duds including the misguided Love Never Dies (which was admittedly, more the fault of the preposterously overblown book) and (by all accounts) the dull and bemusing Stephen Ward, Lloyd Webber is back on form here, perhaps due to returning to the rock music foundations with which he established his name. While School Of Rock doesn’t quite display the ambition of the high concept Jesus Christ Superstar, the tunes are loud, catchy and tell the story just as well with original music as the film did with its soundtrack of 60’s and 70’s rock classics. Stand out songs include ‘You’re In The Band’ and ‘Stick It To The Man’, which stylistically is a pounding mix of Matilda’s ‘Revolting Children’ and Spring Awakening’s ‘Totally Fucked’. Lloyd Webber and Slater also do a fine line in parody, as seen in the opening song ‘I’m Too Hot For You’, sung by rival band No Vacancy, which perfectly captures the ego-tastic essence of hair rock: all style, and no substance.

Holding the show together, Stephen Leask is an absolute pro. He displays pitch perfect falsetto, an unexpected flair for acrobatics (I imagine it takes some skill to perform a simultaneous backflip and bellyflop! And without a crashmat. Ouch!), great comic timing, and a natural chemistry with the kids. Most importantly, Leask is not doing a Jack Black impression – he’s his own Dewey, but maintains all the enthusiasm, goofiness, and sarcastic wit of the iconic character. Yet, without the child cast, to put it simply, this show would not work. These kids are insanely talented. They sing, act, dance and play instruments live during every performance and they do all this while standing shoulder to shoulder with their adult counterparts, and more often than not, stealing the show from them completely.

Catchy tunes, jokes that fall just on the right side of ‘PG’, and an atmosphere that buzzes with the vitality that only live music can conjure; for a feel-good family show that doesn’t overdo the cutesiness or sentimentality, School of Rock is a must see, and can stand proudly within ALW’s oeuvre.

School Of Rock is currently booking until January 2018.

Original London production artwork

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Palace, London
18th June, 2017, two show day

*An attempt has been made to keep this spoiler free in terms of plot, however it’s not totally spoiler free.

Harry Potter had a profound influence on my formative years – as it did for many children of this generation (and likely will continue to be for generations to come). Rarely does a piece of pop culture capture the hearts and minds of a nation(s) so completely, and, even amidst the squealing hype of its heyday, stay benevolently wholesome. Harry Potter brings people together, it brings out the childlike wonderment in all of us, and despite having grown up to appreciate a diverse and challenging world of literature (my love for which I must also pay a debt to J.K. Rowling! – get reading kids, it will change your life!) the Harry Potter series will always hold a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf. And so it came, by good fortune and fast fingers (my boyfriend won the fabled Friday Forty – it does work!), that on the eve of my 26th birthday I was transported once again to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry – a sort of final hurrah to childhood (no one likes growing up, surely?).

Regardless of the above sentimental gushiness, I had big reservations when it was announced that a Harry Potter play was in the works. The big-budget, big-bombers Lord Of The Rings (the musical) and Spider-man: Turn Off The Dark (the musical) were an unpalatable promise of what could be to come. However, The Cursed Child is not a musical (though for those that enjoy HP, silly humour, and a catchy tune I highly recommend StarKid’s affectionate parody, A Very Potter Musical and its sequels), and has a good measure of substance to offset the stylish spectacle. Jack Thorne, with help from Rowling, has crafted a play that stands up to the original series, as well as being a thoroughly stage-based fantasy family drama.

Harry Potter (Jamie Glover) is a middle-aged father of three, juggling his roles as family man, the Ministry’s chief of defence, and being the most famous wizard in the world. But Harry does not live with these burdens alone – his father’s fame and growing distance weigh heavy on young Albus’s (Theo Ancient) shoulders as he struggles to simultaneously alienate himself from the pressures of his heritage while also craving the love and admiration of his dad. Misunderstandings, foolhardy escapades, friendships and conflicts ensue, including all the twists and turns of a classic Potter story … and if I say any more I’ll be devoured by the spoiler hounds!

It is a testament to the writing that the play’s new characters are just as believable and endearing as the old favourites. In my opinion, The Cursed Child belongs to Albus and his fellow Hogwarts classmate, Scorpius (Samuel Blenkin), and, thanks to Blenkin and Ancient’s enthusiastic and touching performances, I defy anyone not to root for them. Glover is a solid Harry, his anxieties and sorrows are (recognisably) thinly veiled by a veneer of stoicism, while his maturity manifests in his lack of bravado and trepidation concerning familial and political matters (this isn’t the same Harry that threw himself into dangerous situations at the drop of a hat!). One of the charms of the play is that it is both familiar and new, the natural progression of the title character being finely drawn, and therefore making his new challenges of adulthood just as gripping as those which kept us up all night reading as teenagers.

But, of course, you can’t have a play about magic without a little stage trickery, and boy do director, John Tiffany, and illusionist, Jamie Harrison, deliver on that front! Levitation, invisibility, characters disappearing in a split second – all the spells and incantations that Rowling made famous are present and stunningly realised. The ingenious creation of the Polyjuice potion was thrilling, both in the magical effects and in the warm and fuzzy nostalgic feeling it gave me. Another (unnameable) moment was utterly overwhelming and goosebump inducing – I was in awe.

The skill that has gone into this production is breathtaking. Even from our seats on the front row of the stalls the illusions were impeccable, convincing and astonishingly beautiful. This owes a great debt to Neil Austin’s lighting – illuminating, yet concealing – and Steven Hoggett’s choreography. Actors flip, tumble, fly and freeze in time, and even the simplest scene changes are accompanied by a lyrical swish of a cloak and swirl of a staircase. The overall aesthetic of the production is its greatest asset, we are undoubtedly in the world of Harry Potter and Co. – heightened by the Palace’s transformation featuring Hogwarts wallpaper, dragon sconces and gothic architecture, as well as several instances where the magic overflowed into the auditorium. A final mention to Imogen Heap’s haunting and original score, which enhances but refuses to overwhelm the drama, and conjures a world of magic without needing to borrow from John Williams’ back catalogue.

Seeing this just a couple of weeks after seeing the National’s Angels in America is a reminder of what astounding work contemporary theatre can do. The legacy of Marianne Elliott’s productions of War Horse and The Curious incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is clear to see in the workings of Tiffany’s production, and it feels like we’ve entered a new golden age of theatrical vision and fantastical physicality. But what’s more, seeing these two productions in close succession has reminded me of the intense humanity and sociality of theatre – family, friendship, love – these are the things I will take away from The Cursed Child, however cheesy it may seem. The magic of spectacle in Tiffany’s production is a foundation to promote the magic of the human spirit and our unwavering ability to connect and bond, whatever the circumstances. As J.K. Rowling said, ‘Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home’, and the team behind The Cursed Child have created a new home for Harry Potter fans, young and old.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is currently booking until July 2018.

The Potters: l-r Harry Potter (Jamie Glover), Ginny Potter (Emma Lowndes), Albus Potter (Theo Ancient)
Photographer credit:  Charlie Gray

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Plays, plays, plays: Tonight's Tony Awards

The most pressing questions about this year’s Tony Awards:

Will Kevin Spacey sing? Will it be Ben Platt or Andy Karl (if either) who wins Best Actor in a Musical? Will Groundhog Day or Dear Evan Hansen win the title of Best Musical? Perhaps it will be Come From Away which won the Drama Desk Award. Will Oslo sweep the board before its London transfer this Autumn? Will Kevin Spacey sing? How many awards will Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (this year’s most nominated show with 12 nods) walk away with? Will Kevin Spacey sing? Here is a little whistle stop tour of this year’s Best Play and Best Revival of a Play Tony nominations.

Best Play

In times of political and national uncertainty, we still look to playwrights. Of all the eligible plays for this year’s award, these four are arguably the most expansive in theme and ambitious in their scope. Vogel's Indecent is probably the most daring in its form. Two women have been nominated for Best Play this year. That’s only previously happened twice before (unless I’m mistaken), in 1960 (Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Lillian Hellman’s Toys in the Attic) and 2002 (Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses and Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog). Staggeringly, or perhaps not so, this is the first time both Nottage and Vogel have had plays on Broadway and therefore been nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play. I thought they’ve both nominated before, Nottage for Ruined and Vogel for How I Learned to Drive, but that is not the case. Yasmina Reza remains the only woman to have been nominated more than once for this award for ‘Art’ which won in 1998 and God of Carnage which won in 2009.

Lynn Nottage’s Sweat
Paula Vogel’s Indecent (There are two fascinating New Yorker articles on this play and Sweat, which can be read here and here).
Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2
J.T. Rogers’ Oslo

Best Revival

Something curious about the Best Revival of a Play award for the last couple of years is the awards’ insistence on including the playwright’s name in with the title of the play with most of the American plays. The Tony Awards have specifically titled plays as 'John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation', 'Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes', and 'August Wilson’s Jitney'. The same honour(?) hasn’t been subscribed to Coward’s Present Laughter. Last year, the same went for revivals of 'Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge' (although I don’t think that the London production was titled like that and some might argue it was as much 'Ivo Van Hove’s A View from the Bridge' as it was Arthur Miller’s) and 'Arthur Miller’s The Crucible'. The same didn’t go, however, to David Harrower’s Blackbird, Frayn’s Noises Off or even O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. This new trend seems an attempt by the awards to highlight famous work from the American 20th century canon. I think it does put more weight on a play or production if the author’s name is listed in front of it as it has been here. For example, people might not know Jitney but they might have heard of August Wilson. Even so, it seems oddly and perhaps unnecessarily patriotic.

August Wilson’s Jitney (1977).
This production marks the last of Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle to be staged on Broadway, whereas all the others were nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play for their original Broadway productions.
Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (1939).
It was last nominated in 1981 starring Elizabeth Taylor. It was the only play nominated that year, as musical and play revivals were only split in 1994. Other nominees included the winning Pirates of Penzance, Brigadoon and Camelot.
Noel Coward’s Present Laughter (1942).
It was last nominated 20 years ago in 1997 for a production starring Frank Langella and Alison Janney (the latter was in this year’s revival of Six Degrees of Separation).
John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation (1990).
Guare’s play was nominated for Best Play in 1991 when Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers won, which had this year’s host Kevin Spacey playing Louie.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Angels in America

National Theatre (Lyttelton)
3rd June 2017, two play day

Where do I even begin? Tony Kushner’s monolith of a play is epic in length (we attended a two play day, so it clocked in at a mammoth 7 ½ hours, not including breaks!), scope, and theme. Covering an expanse of issues including history, migration, the planet, evolution, politics, sex, love, life and identity both personal and national, the mere programming of Angels In America at the National Theatre had prematurely ensured its status as the theatrical event of the year. With this predetermination, Marianne Elliott, no doubt, had the weight of fevered expectation resting heavy on her shoulders, and while it is difficult to separate my thoughts on her production from my thoughts and feelings regarding Kushner’s creation, I can unreservedly say that she did not disappoint!

Hugely funny, devastatingly profound, charmingly messy, and, for all the pain of its subject matter, Angels in America is ultimately a lesson in hope and the uniquely human capacity for resilience. We roam locations diverse as Central Park, Utah, Antarctica and heaven itself. We meet characters diverse as a Jewish Rabbi, conflicted Mormons, and the infamous corrupt lawyer, Roy Cohn. Elliott’s production captures this variety in all its bemusing, visceral and scorching tenderness. When I read the plays earlier this year the more fantastical and divine sections (particularly those in Perestroika) left me in awed bafflement – I appreciated Kushner’s vision, but I struggled to see how it could tangibly manifest onstage without seeming gauche and somewhat silly – but I blame this on my lack of creative imagination, as in Elliott’s hands these scenes became some of my favourite moments.

In fact, the Angel scenes are where Elliott most visibly makes her mark. Reminiscent of the use of movement in Curious Incident, The Light Princess and even the puppetry of War Horse, the Angel feels like a living, breathing creature, her fluid and ethereal movement making the stasis and inaction of the god-forsaken divine creatures all the more potent. I loved Amanda Lawrence’s skeletal, banshee-like Angel, draped in a tattered American flag, she seems less benevolent and more twisted and urgent. Similarly, heaven is akin to a nightmarish version of the Red Dwarf control room, populated by Angels that bear more than a passing resemblance to the Wicked Witch of the West’s flying monkeys. It is effectiveless chaos; these angels wield no power, but merely witness the harshness administered in a godless world. When faced with this heaven-hell it becomes apparent that humanity must be propelled into action and realise the cause and effect of historic, social, political and cultural progression, both good and bad. By rejecting the Angels’ proposition of apathetic immobility, Prior accepts all this on behalf of humanity, the essence of ‘more life’ itself.

Perhaps it is this admirable resilience and Kushner’s subversion of stereotypical AIDS narratives that makes me fonder of Perestroika. If Millennium Approaches dramatizes destruction – of the body, of relationships, of sexual, religious and national identities - then Perestroika dramatizes resurrection and is an unlikely ‘feel-good’ play. This disparity is echoed in Ian MacNeil’s set. Millennium Approaches’ design is both confining and confounding – revolving blocks of abstracted walls, doors and windows – I’m not sure we ever saw the same space configuration twice, yet as the blocks look uniformly familiar it creates a sense of the uncanny. Thus, when towards the end of the play, and for the whole of Perestroika, the stage opens up into a single vast space it feels like the production is able to breathe more, expanding in scope and generally feeling more fluid and coherent.

Of course this is vastly helped by the extended time we spend with the characters. As flawed people, they are 100% believable. Waspish, caring, pithy, tender, their identities are confused or concealed, but with an occasional pin precise illumination of heart and soul. Some are in equal measures sympathetic, attractive and infuriating (Louis, I’m looking at you!), and others are so fragile you want to bubble wrap them in warmth and protection (Harper and Prior, for me). Even in all his horrific, bile-spewn nastiness and homophobia, Roy Cohn induces some sympathy by proxy in his pitiful denial of his sexuality.

These characters are brought to life by a cast at the absolute top of their game. Susan Brown is a chameleon, you’d be hard pressed to recognise her playing the Rabbi, Prelapsarianov, Ethel Rosenberg and Hannah Pitt. Andrew Garfield’s Prior is both hilariously OTT and incredibly sensitive, vocally and physically giving his all, he looked absolutely exhausted by the final curtain call. Denise Gough takes all the turmoil she displayed in her outstanding performance in People, Places and Things, and expands upon it, showing a deeper breadth of emotion as the lonely, Valium addicted Harper Pitt. The scenes between Harper and Prior were wonderful (I especially liked Harper’s tiny, knowing gesture towards Prior following her exit from Joe). The casting of New York theatre legend Nathan Lane to play another, rather different, New York legend allows us to feel the character’s prominence. He physically changes as the plays go on, deteriorating in front of us, yet that famous voice of his still conveys the humour, vitriol and occasional humanity of Cohn. Amidst a starry cast with great clout, it speaks volumes that James McArdle, for me an unknown quantity, is utterly compelling as Louis. He is a character that, in his verbose hypocrisy, I swiftly lost patience with while reading the play – Louis’s actions cannot easily be forgiven, but in McArdle’s hands I at least felt I understood his motivations, frustrations, and masochistic need for catharsis.

After the play I overheard two audience members discussing Prior’s final speech. They wished to have seen the play when initially produced, as it would seem more ‘relevant’. However, is the play not just as relevant today? It may be contextually specific but remains thematically universal – we still live in a world of disease, cultural conflict and racial tension, frighteningly right-wing politics (Trump is the new Reagan, if not worse, no?). The sense that in recent years Western society has regressed in regards to extremist political views and prejudices (whether that be racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia etc.) suggests to me that the promotion of progressivity in Angels is as pertinent as ever. Kushner showcases life in its rich and various glories and horrors, and, as Prior says, we are ‘fabulous creatures’ for all our complexities. Therefore, the final revelation – the vast, space-age metallic structure that has loomed above the stage for 7 hours transforming into the cleansing waters of the Central Park Bethesda fountain – sums up the rippling positivity during the closing moments of the play. However cynical, oppressive, and downright painful life can be, we must make of it what we can – the ‘world only spins forward’ and change lies in our hands.

It’s a play which, when reading it, seems near-on impossible to stage. I don’t know where Elliott and her team (from automation to stage management) would have started when mounting it. I can’t pretend towards even beginning to fully comprehend Kushner’s play in its multitudinous range, but this play was an experience, perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as I can understand the trepidation with which producers/directors approach it. I apologise if this review has seemed overly gushy, but it is a play that restores my faith in humanity and that is, indeed, a blessing.

Angels in America plays at the National Theatre until 19th August.

James McArdle as Louis and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize in Angels in America at the NT. Photo by Helen Maybanks