Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Ink

Almeida, London
8th July, 2017, matinee

James Graham’s play charts media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s poaching of Larry Lamb to be editor of his newspaper, and then Lamb’s stopping at nothing to beat The Mirror sales figures in a hugely enjoyable, raucously funny, visually gratifying production from Rupert Goold. Whether it offers pithy entertainment for the masses or is a huge political mouthpiece, The Sun has had a seismic cultural impact on Britain (and arguably still has even if that has diminished in recent years). Graham explores this as well as a cultural class shift and the birth of an era of selfish individualism.

I grew up in a household that probably bought The Sun newspaper nearly every day. I wasn’t that old when I realised I didn’t share my family’s fondness for it. There’s a bit in Ink when we are told the paper’s manifesto: how it is to shine light into the dark corners of the government, the establishment, and – if necessary and what the people want to read about – the public. Their maxim is to satiate the public by punching up, never down. But Graham points up the hypocrisy that the voice-of-the-people tone is a newspaper version of David Cameron saying ‘Call me Dave’. Though the newspaper may be mere fish and chip paper a few days after publication, Ink shows the pressure on journalists to deliver, the commotion of the newsroom, and the sheer physical labour that goes into the printing presses. But as one character says, in feeding the public more of what they want, they’re going to want more. I saw the third official performance of Richard Bean’s Great Britain when there was still a lot of hype around it. As entertaining as it was and as broad in scope and humour as this play, it was clearly didactic and felt painted in big brush strokes as so to facilitate an immediate staging. Ink, however, feels timeless and yet still nods to contemporary issues regarding tabloids’ questionable methods to get a scoop. This is thrillingly staged in the second act’s focus on the real-life kidnapping of a journalist’s wife. We see the original testing of an editorial team’s ethics, asking themselves how far is it right to push the story for the sake of sales figures.

As with This House and The Vote, and no less so with Ink, Graham is clever at dramatising the technicalities and intricate workings of business, politics and industry. We see the thought process behind the changes The Sun made to go from stuffy broadsheet to what it’s more like now: the layout of its front page, the font used, and its eye-catching flashiness. There are some hilarious lines which I don’t want to spoil here about the reluctance for some of this cultural shift. There’s also an entertaining segue (one of many which still make the play feel robust as it does expansive) about the manual labour and sacred ritual of the printing presses.

Bunny Christie’s set and Neil Austin’s lighting design captures the play in sepia tone, creating the murky world of Fleet Street, from the editorial hub to the basement printing presses. Towers and archways of desks, gliding ladders and projections of front pages merge with a pub to leave the impression of a seedy, male-dominated industry, where the atmosphere is more that of a knees-up than a workplace. It is an aesthetic which makes the point that the newspaper industry is as British as the coal and steel industries, and pubs. It seems ungenerous to say that it often feels like a riff on This House, but the styles of the two do overlap. This is not to undermine what Goold achieves. His production, with thanks to Adam Cork’s sound and Lynne Page’s choreography, is never stagnant. The buzzing movement and (seedy) glamour of the 60s’ newsroom is stylishly evoked: we go from restaurants to saunas, and lines from sales charts come to life that map their war with The Mirror.

Bertie Carvel plays Rupert Murdoch with a surprising dose of humanity. His clipped Australian accent suggests class issues; his theatrical hand gestures and tendency to talk in binaries suggests a fondness for the sensational; his slightly twisted arm, hunched shoulders and occasional twitch in his left hand’s fingers suggest a brooding Shakespearean despot. Richard Coyle also leads the cast and controls the arc of the play masterfully as editor Larry Lamb. Other than them, Graham peoples Ink with bold characters coming together from different newspapers to work on the rebirthed The Sun, and a memorable cast of walk-on parts. Jack Holden (saw earlier this year in What the Butler Saw) stands out as Beverley, the hapless mortician photographer turned first Page 3 snapper. He also does an impressive turn as actor Christopher Timothy, the original fast paced, whacky TV advert voiceover. I’m glad Goold has cast Sophie Stanton again, playing the bolshie Joyce Hopkirk, who knows what women want to read, shocking the office by revealing that women masturbate and losing herself in a monologue about how much she loves TV.

For the most part, I want to rave about both play and production but it comes with a hesitation. I haven’t read the playtext but I’m inferring from the projection ‘Page 3’ in the play’s second half that this end part of the play focusing on the first page 3 girl is Ink’s short third act. Although an important part of the play and The Sun’s history I’m in two minds about it. The model (Pearl Chanda) delivers a speech to Lamb asking him if he would want his daughter reading or modelling for Page 3. On one hand, in a play filled with brazen, testosterone-fuelled language, it seems apt to have her speech so to the point. On the other, it feels tacked on and a rushed compromise for the lack of female voices in the play’s most part.

Ink plays at the Almeida Theatre until 5th August. It then transfers to the Duke of York’s Theatre from September.

Of a lively audience, a moment that stood out: At one point, Lamb riffs on how he likes Ray Charles, noise and popular culture. A joyous ‘Yeah!’ came from a middle aged man behind me, as if he was punching the air.

The cast of Ink at the Almeida. Photo: Marc Brenner



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 https://www.miss-saigon.com/uk-ireland-tour/tour-dates

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