Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Cabaret


Curve, Leicester

15th October, 2019

“What good is sitting alone in your room?”

Liza Minnelli on stage in a slinky black playsuit, bowler hat and stockings, sporting a staccato bohemian hairdo, slouched posture and splayed limbs. It’s an image synonymous with the music of Kander and Ebb, the sensual minimalism of Fosse and the genre of musical performance itself. It’s no wonder then that all subsequent productions of Cabaret live in the shadow of the iconic 1972 film. On tour once again, Rufus Norris’ 2006 production, which itself has had several renderings, attempts to blend the seediness of the film and hyper-sexuality of the following Mendes/Marshall productions in the 90’s with the original Brechtian Epic format. While this makes for some dynamic individual moments, for me the show doesn’t quite hang together as a whole, nor does it fully accomplish the gut-punch impact that Norris and co. seem desperate to instil.

John Partridge’s excitable Emcee welcomes the audience into the underbelly of early 1930’s Berlin, alongside young American writer-cum-teacher Cliff (Charles Hagerty). The Kit Kat Klub presents a revue of satirical musical skits, striptease and broad humour, while backstage is a breeding ground for social debauchery and political unrest amid the rise to power of the Nazi party. After striking up a relationship with Cliff, down-and-out headline act, Sally Bowles (Kara Lily Hayworth), a naïve yet ruthless doll, does anything she can to survive in a changing world.

The premise of juxtaposing the socio-historical realism of Joe Masteroff’s book scenes (boarding house ennui, struggling debts, illicit trysts) with the ultra-staged synthesis of the Klub scenes is a theatre lover’s dream. We can indulge our empathetic senses in getting to know a host of characters that are flawed but likable, while also engaging our intellect via the Brechtian prism of dramatic irony and epic satire. Norris creates some memorable numbers which fulfil the Brechtian dogma – ‘If You Could See Her’ hits the right notes of uncomfortable self-consciousness, and ‘Two Ladies’ and ‘The Money Song’ are well staged so to arouse equal levels of kitsch burlesque titillation and ironic nausea induced by the intransigent doctrines at play.

Yet, the more traditional musical theatre style songs that feature in the ‘real’ (aka. Non-Kit Kat Klub) world muddy the waters and blunt the edges of a piece that has the potential to be razor-sharp. Forgettable ballads, such as the unnecessary and oddly twee duet between Sally and Cliff, ‘Perfectly Marvellous’, do little to progress the story or offer thematic insight. And although the subplot featuring landlady, Fraulein Schneider (Anita Harris) and her relationship with a Jewish Shopkeeper is a sweet antidote to the cynicism displayed elsewhere, it feels like an offcut from an entirely different play. The adjacent worlds occupied on stage refuse to cohere, and where the contrasts should enhance one another’s meaning they merely detract from the hard-hitting topics so intelligently addressed in numbers such as the titular ‘Cabaret’. It is plain to see why Fosse insisted on cutting so much for the film.

I also found some of the direction a little overstated. Cabaret will never be a show lauded for its subtlety, but, for instance, the puppet master staging of ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ seems a lazy consequence of moralising hindsight with its knowing mockery and obvious punchline. In comparison with Fosse’s unforgettable version of the number that is bone-chilling in its earnestness, Norris’ interpretation seems somewhat of a cheap shot. Furthermore, while my partner thought the ending was effective -

*spoiler alert*

The Emcee, alongside his troupe of cabaret performers, strips fully naked and the curtain comes down on the ensemble being prepared for execution in a Nazi Concentration Camp.

*end of spoiler*

- I was unsure about the way it humanised the Emcee, removing some of the emblematic gloss from a nefariously ambivalent character. It also smacks of a director that lacks confidence in his audience. Give us a little credit, we are able to use our imaginative faculties without needing the dots joined up for us.

Of the performances, John Partridge is quite visibly having a blast, and while I found his Emcee a little too aggressive at times, he avoids the potential trappings of being a simple Joel Grey or Alan Cumming impersonation. Kara Lily Hayworth lacks some of the charm that Minnelli brought to Sally, but she can belt out the songs with great musicality. Hagerty is a likeable Cliff, and Anita Harris and James Paterson shine as doomed couple, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz bringing an element of sympathetic fragility to proceedings. It’s just a shame that their subplot seems so removed from the rest of the show.

I’m glad to have finally seen Cabaret on stage, but for me Norris’ production is less than the sum of its parts. Funnily enough, as a revue its successful – it entertains, and individual numbers make you think and hit pertinent themes of morality – but strung together as a dramatic narrative it simply failed to click with me, which is a shame as I adore the film. Bold, but not quite gutsy enough to be truly shocking. Theatrical, but too dramatically imbalanced to be Epic. The songs, however, remain a treat.

Cabaret plays at Curve, Leicester until 19th October 2019.
For further tour details please visit: https://www.kenwright.com/portfolio/cabaret/
The cast of Cabaret.
Credit: The Other Richard



Tuesday, 8 October 2019

#ReadaPlayaWeek - September


The Big Meal (2011), by Dan LeFranc

‘You think this is dysfunctional?
God, you’re spoiled, you know that?’

Remember that BBC Licence Fee advert from a few years ago? The one where a man and woman zip through an entire relationship in the space of 30 seconds over a fancy restaurant meal? Well, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that advert when reading LeFranc’s The Big Meal. The premise is pretty similar: four generations of family history is played out in the microcosm of various gatherings at diners and restaurants in the American Midwest – all separate yet occupying the same space. We begin with Nicky and Sam’s first meeting and then chart their entire relationship, as well as those of various parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren. LeFranc encapsulates the mundane aspects of suburban family life with touching empathy: bickering siblings, young love, extra-marital affairs, and everyday tragedies.

The text is presented as a tapestry of dialogue, with overlaps mapped out on the page and scenes often featuring secondary, and even tertiary, conversations in tandem with the presiding action. 8 actors of varying ages play all the characters over the decades-long timeline. This creates a great sense of the uncanny, as parents eventually play their children and brothers and sisters play lovers. LeFranc eschews scene breaks and the play is performed as a linear episode wherein any initial confusion is soon dispersed as the ‘everyman’ quality of the family drama takes centre stage. The themes are universal, and the shifting ownership of the characters allows them to embody all of society (albeit a western, middle class society) in a manner both generalised but specific enough to create a strong emotional impact during the denouements of certain plot points. Thematically and structurally The Big Meal draws many parallels with Stephen Karam’s The Humans, and it’s a play that I’d love to see in performance.

Published by Methuen

Jitney (1982), by August Wilson

I look around and all I see is boarded up buildings. Some of them been boarded-up for more than ten years

In 2016, Jitney became the last play in Wilson’s American Century Cycle (or Pittsburgh Cycle) to be performed on Broadway, putting in place the last jewel in the crown. Each one explores the black American experience in a different decade of the twentieth century, and two of them, Fences and The Piano Lesson, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This one is set in a Pittsburgh ‘jitney’ (taxi) office on the brink of being boarded up and torn down to make way for new developments. To this extent, it appears to be set in the same world as Two Trains Running (currently playing on tour) which sees the closure of Memphis’ diner putting a community at threat. In Jitney, someone even says ‘that’s how they put Memphis Lee out of business’. The effect is to highlight the pervading issue, based on reality, of the local authorities’ misgivings on a diverse part of the city for a number of years. The issues represented in one play are not isolated, they impact other characters in other decades in other plays.

The characters in Jitney may not be as richly captured as in Two Trains Running, but it does have the fascination of a work play. We see a range of characters not necessarily together by choice negotiating the dramas of their lives. We meet Youngblood, a young Vietnam veteran working long hours to try to get his young family a steady home even though his girlfriend Rena thinks he’s out all night with her sister; there’s Turnbo, a slightly unhinged mainstay of the office who’s in everybody’s business thinking he has the moral high ground; and Fielding, an alcoholic driver nostalgic for his ex-wife and a life that could’ve been. At the centre of this, there’s the boss of the office, Becker: a well-regarded man whose son is released from prison. Their relationship, although it’s rendered mostly through a couple of conversations, goes to the core of what Booster did to end up in prison and how that impacted on their relationship. But through those feelings of betrayal and an 11th-hour plot twist comes something which might galvanise the group to save their community.

Jitney feels quite an episodic play but each scene crackles with personality. And for all of the trials the vivid characters face in Jitney, like in Two Trains Running, Wilson is keen to build to a climax which is verging on the hopeful.

Published by Overlook

Tom and Clem (1997), by Stephen Churchett

I suppose it boils down to bread for all before cake for some’

A sticker has been placed over the page which lists the performance history of this Olivier-nominated play. Holding it up to the light to see what’s been replaced, the only difference I can see is the addition that Michael Codron produced it. All those stickers printed for presumably multiple copies for a non-event of a play.

The play is set in 1945 Germany. The war may be over but world leaders (Attlee, Truman and Stalin) have met in Potsdam to negotiate peace. Clement Attlee (Alec McCowen), the newly elected Prime Minister, and journalist and new Labour MP Tom Driberg (Michael Gambon) both feature in the play. But where you might expect a great meeting of minds, a sparring political and personal relationship, or even a friendship, we don’t really get any of that; the two don’t even have much stage time together. What we do get, or so it seems, is a good third of the play wasted on fellatio jokes!

There are some interesting bits, not least to think of the political backdrop onto which this was staged in 1997. What comparisons were drawn to Blair when audiences were confronted with an uncharismatic leader who looks like a dentist and is cautious of leading a social revolution? And any themes of political and personal compromise don’t have much time to flourish, with more of the meatier conversations squeezed into the play’s last moments.

Published by Faber and Faber
 
Pullman, WA (2005), by Young Jean Lee

‘As I walked to my waiting rainbow-coach, squashing a mermaid baby-head with each step,
I realized how fortunate I truly am’

The setup is a black box theatre, void, but for a sin bin zone, otherwise known as ‘the giving up area’. Three characters/actors use this platform to present a twisted self-help seminar, directing their words, for the most part, directly at the audience.

‘Pete’, ‘Tom’ and ‘Tory’ take turns to advise us on ‘how to live’. Lee’s text is stagnant mush of intentionally banal and cheesy self-improvement jargon – eat healthy, don’t do drugs etc. – childish fantasy, quasi-biblical sermonising and nonsense mantras. This is all interspersed with flashes of brutal imagery (one character likes to repeatedly imagine paper slicing into human eyeballs – that made me wince!) alongside frequent, violent tirades of abuse. The actors, eyeballing various audience members systematically berate them for their faults: ‘You’re a loser because you were born that way’; ‘You are incompetent’; ‘Why don’t you go home, you fucking hypocrite!’.

As a highly experimental piece of theatre, perhaps the play is more effective in performance, but I found reading Lee’s work – while never dull – a bit of a headache. I’m unsure of her intent, but Pullman, WA to me seems to be a post-meta take on the theatrical experience itself (and that doesn’t just include attending ‘traditional’ plays, or stepping foot inside a ‘theatre’ at all). Much of the dialogue is formed of quaint in form (while not necessarily quaint in nature) soundbites. As such, any grains of truth are buried beneath the overarching refrain of clichéd, synthetic hokum. This is reinforced by the various digressions into the imaginary land of ‘rainbows’ and ‘unicorns’. The overall effect is jarring. I confess I did not like Lee’s play while reading it, but having ruminated on its themes I’m warming to it slightly. Pullman, WA is a curiosity, but certainly not one for the faint-hearted.

Published by Methuen  
 

Friday, 27 September 2019

My Beautiful Laundrette


Curve, Leicester
26th September, 2019

“Make yourself indispensable”

Over thirty years on, Hanif Kureishi’s tale of cultural and religious conflict, gender constraints and sexual liberty resonates with today’s society in a painfully prescient way – despite the 80’s shoulder pads and neon nylon on display. In a co-production with Belgrade Theatre CoventryEveryman Theatre Cheltenham and Leeds Playhouse, Nikolai Foster and the Curve company’s adaptation of My Beautiful laundrette has shone a spotlight on the wrongs of yesteryear at a time when, more than ever before in my lifetime, the country seems to be in a state of sinfully wilful regression.

Forgive me for a brief synopsis – I haven’t seen the film, although a classic, so it’s all new to me! Omar (Omar Malik), a down-and-out no-hoper with an alcoholic socialist father of Pakistani heritage, is given a chance to better himself in Thatcher’s world of ruthless Capitalism when his Uncle offers him a job in his decrepit laundrette. Amid a divided society terrorised by nationalist skinheads, Omar strikes up an ‘odd-couple’ friendship with his old school bully, Johnny (Jonny Fines). As they’re relationship blossoms, together they reinvent the laundrette despite opposition from their family and friends.

Kureishi’s text is often brutal, both physically and verbally, but is also peppered with a distinctly British sense of humour that captures the essence of the working-classes in 1980’s London while avoiding the temptation to stray into the maudlin. Kureishi is a deft hand when it comes to innuendo, and the frequent smirks and barely restrained giggles of the cast are infectious. While some characters feel a little broadly drawn – namely Omar’s Uncle Nasser (Kammy Darweish) and Yuppie drug-dealer Salim (Hareet Deol), Laundrette feels unpretentious in its portrayal of modern British multiculturalism.

Thematically, there’s no escaping the comparisons with today’s Brexit and Trump fuelled prejudice. As the far-right encroach ever more into the centre of the national and international political sphere, some of the language evidenced in Laundrette is horrifically familiar, as national pride rhetoric becomes a outlet for overt racism. ‘British jobs for British workers’ – thus reads a slogan on placard at a National Front march. The oft quoted argument of Brexiteers similarly fuses seemingly innocuous economic manifestos with an insidious fear of migrants, people of diverse ethnicity and anyone deemed to be ‘other’.

So too resonates the disparate identities of the characters, the sense of wanting to ‘belong’ to a community without feeling wholly connected. Much is made of Omar’s ‘half’ status, he sees himself as British but is demonised by the white supremacist skinheads. Likewise, he feels alienated from the traditions of his Muslim Pakistani family. He’s a person adrift in a society that is unable to accept social evolution. Elsewhere, Johnny struggles to resolve his feelings of loyalty to his friends, and the twisted sense of ‘purpose’ in the casual violence they revel in, with his growing attachment to the Pakistani community - not only to Omar, but Omar’s Papa (Gordon Warnecke), who has always offered Johnny sage advice, even in the knowledge that he is hated by him for his racial identity. Rounding off Kureishi’s youth-in-limbo is Omar’s cousin and would-be wife, Tania (Nicole Jebeli), a free spirited artist at loggerheads with her conservative, sexist, hypocritical father and her down-trodden mother, whom she loves and admires, but also pities and is repulsed by her culturally-imposed subservience.

While the play is by no means perfect – I felt that several scenes were rather hectic and confusing, some scene changes a slightly clunky, and the ending a little too rosy to be accurate – Foster’s production, once in its stride, is engaging, warm and thought-provoking. Incidental music provided by 80’s icons the Pet Shop Boys helps set the scene and I enjoyed the brief bursts of classic hits such as ‘West End Girls’ and ‘Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)’. Grace Smart’s design is suitably garish in its mix of day-glo plushness and concrete jungle realism. Bar a few mishaps with a pesky candelabra, the set is probably the most ambitious I’ve seen in Curve’s intimate studio space.

Completing Laundrette’s assets is a core of fine performances. Fines is showing himself to be quite the chameleon following several stints at Curve – from a greased Burger Palace boy, to heartthrob mariner – he puts in a thoughtful performance as sensitive skinhead Johnny, revelling in the multifaceted aspects of the character. Malik is a revelation as Omar, at first quiet, shy and rather mundane, it’s joyous to behold the character coming out of his shell, rebelling and discovering his sense of self over the course of the play. Finally, Jebeli encompasses all the fiery rage of the feminist prototype while maintaining a sense of pride in certain aspects of her heritage. Jebeli’s eleventh hour outburst is a moment of fist-pumping justice that made my heart sing.

Foster’s production, while rather rough-and-ready at times, is an example of pertinent programming and is executed with passion. Unlike the film, My Beautiful Laundrette may not become a classic, but it certainly speaks to the current climate of displacement and opposing views on national identity.

My Beautiful Laundrette plays at Curve, Leicester until 5th October, before playing Belgrade Theatre CoventryEveryman Theatre Cheltenham, Leeds Playhouse and the Birmingham Rep.

Jonny Fines and Omar Malik in My Beautiful Laundrette.
Credit: Ellie Kurttz.


Thursday, 19 September 2019

War Horse

Curve, Leicester 

18th September, 2019


"Horse in French is shove-oh.
'Ju shursh Joey' means 'I look for Joey'"


I first saw War Horse about six years ago, before I began writing for this blog. Now on it's second national tour, I am so glad I've been given the opportunity to see and review the play again. The National Theatre production of Michael Morpurgo's novel is both the most visceral depiction of war I've seen on stage, and a masterpiece in theatrical storytelling. 

Nick Stafford's adaptation tells of the special bond between young Albert Narracott (Scott Miller) and his spirited horse, Joey. When Joey is sold to the army at the onset of the First World War, so begins an odyssey through the trenches as Albert vows to be reunited with his best friend. As Joey's trajectory takes him from hunter and cart horse, to the cavalry front line, to a French farmhouse and hauling guns for the German army, we see the horrors of WWI through unequivocally innocent eyes. 

The naivety and unique psychology of the animal protagonist (sentient, empathetic, anthropomophised to an extent, but unable to understand or consent to the action he's subject to) enables Morpurgo, Stafford, and directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris to portray all the atrocities of war in a stark and shocking production that balances sentiment with a ruthless edge that truly stuns. Beloved characters are unapologetically dispatched in a manner that would rival Game of Thrones in both number and rapidity. Yet, the brutality displayed here carries with it an historic truth, lifetimes of remembrance and regret, that affords the narrative a resonance far greater and far more dumbfounding than any fantasy can conjure. This was undoubtedly aided by the tie-in exhibition on display in the Curve foyer. The First Fifty presents fifty soldier cut outs, each decorated by a local organisation and each representing a named soldier among the first group of WWI volunteers.  These men's fates are starkly illustrated in black and white - those with a white back survived against the odds, those painted black never returned home. These concurrent artistic interpretations of the war are incredibly moving. 

Of course, War Horse is as much a technical feat as it is a narrative marvel. The now iconic puppets created by the Handspring Puppet Company are a perfect example of the infinite imagination and creative wizardry of the theatrical arts. Joey, Topthorn and co. are never anything other than living,  breathing beings with personalities and individual quirks that endear as much as they enthral. Toby Sedgwick, Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler have choreographed every movement down to the tiniest detail. Naturalistic anatomically precise movements, such as the rhythms of pace and elongation of the neck are enhanced by the subtle ways the puppeteers enact the emotions of the horses; a flick of the ears, a swish of the tale, a barely noticeable tremor in the right hind leg - the attention to the minutiae demonstrates an awe inspiring holistic approach to characterisation that rivals any human 'actor'. After nearly three hours in the company of such magnificent beasts, the almost inconceivable notion that the horses are, in fact, inanimate pieces of metal and fabric is, quite frankly, devastating.

While the puppets are absolutely the stars of the show, the production is very much a triumph of teamwork and creative endeavor.  Rae Smith's simple, yet beautiful set evokes the various locations in the story with deceptive ease. Her rough pencil sketch projections display dashes of rustic charm in the early scenes before darkening into the impressionistic hell of the battlefield. Smith reflects a sense of brutality and bravura mixed with the depressing ephemerality of the lives of the young men and their steeds. 

The large cast give committed performances that invariably have touches of much needed humour while also tugging hard at the heartstrings. I'm not ashamed to say I sobbed until my eyes were raw. I mean full on snot-snivelling, shoulder-shaking fits of crying. If you see War Horse and fail to even get the slightest hint of a tear in your eye or lump in your throat then I declare you clinically dead inside. Just kidding. But really, it would take a heart of stone not to be moved by both the story and the transfixing, soul-enriching way it has been brought to life onstage. THIS is why I love the theatre. Anything is possible. 

Over one hundred years since the end of 'the war to end all wars' I maintain that, due to the talents of Elliott, Morris, Stafford, Handstring and co. War Horse is the best and possibly most hard-hitting depiction of the First World War in the English canon. The futility, the loss, the daily toil, as seen through the eyes of an innocent places the audience within the action in a truly visceral way. This is a cliched term perhaps, but I can think of none other comparably to the deeply physical reation I had to the play. War Horse should be at the top of every 'must see' list. 

War Horse plays at Curve, Leicester until 12th October. 
For full tour details please visit: http://www.warhorseonstage.com 


The cast of War Horse.
Credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.




Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Two Trains Running


Royal & Derngate, Northampton
7th September, 2019, matinee

“But I’m going back one of these days…”

Opening Northampton’s Autumn/Winter season is a solid production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running from the recipient of the RTST Sir Peter Hall Director Award, Nancy Medina. Medina takes Wilson’s dense, wordy text and introduces an electric physicality to proceedings in a slow burner of a play that mellows into its weighty social commentary.

A small diner, run by the stubborn but ultimately genial Memphis (Andrew French), is under threat of demolition in a neighbourhood divided by racial inequality. Across the road rival West (Geoff Aymer) runs an undertakers business that stakes its success on his pandering to the white middle-classes. The imminent burial of the local preacher and figurehead, Prophet Samuel, is causing a stir, with people coming from near and far to view the body and pat the dead man’s head for luck. Despite this sudden increase in population, Memphis relies on a daily rag-tag bunch of customers to make ends meet – from the sage but superstitious Holloway (Leon Herbert); the eager, motor-mouthed ex-con, Sterling (Michael Salami); and Hambone (Derek Ezenagu), a local handyman with learning difficulties - while loyal waitress, Risa (Anita-Joy Uwajeh), provides healthy doses of scepticism, heart and fragility.

Wilson’s text interweaves strands of prosaic gossip and macho banter with political diatribe (there are numerous references to an upcoming Malcolm X rally), theological potency and urban myth. It’s a stunning piece of work, and as my first Wilson play it’s more than given me a taste for more of his Pittsburgh cycle. The overriding skewering of the American Dream in direct contrast with the civil rights movement packs a punch as it becomes evident that those aspirations may only be attainable in certain cultural circles. In his success, West is very much seen as a traitor to his community, yet by playing the part and placating his socio-cultural ‘betters’ he has been able to invest in real estate, while Memphis’ fight against the powers that be seems futile as his demands for a fair price are repeatedly ignored.

Meanwhile, the other characters place their futures in the hands of fate – alternately ‘playing numbers’ in the hope of striking it lucky, or visiting the local seer, the 322 year old Aunt Esther, who promises to grant their wishes in exchange for their trust. Wilson and Medina succeed brilliantly in portraying the desperation in which these characters live day to day, hand to mouth in an economically and socially unjust society. Hambone is named thus due to his decade-long dispute over his lack of payment for an odd-job he completed for a neighbouring butcher. His refrain of ‘I want my ham’ is by turns humorous, pitiful and ultimately haunting, as it comes to symbolise the ongoing fight for civil rights.

Frankie Bradshaw’s impressive design provides an atmospherically rich backdrop to the play. A huge demolition ball hangs above Memphis’ diner; a constant reminder of the risks faced by the community. Beyond the half crumbled walls looms a billboard championing low-cost housing (a replica of a real Pittsburgh billboard photographed in the programme), a faded, jaded poster demonstrating years of struggles that have been ignored.

Medina has assembled a charismatic cast, all matching one another in likability and talent. Over three hours we get to know the characters intimately, and due to the efforts of the ensemble it’s impossible not to become attached to them, celebrating their successes, and mourning their losses. I am currently reading Wilson’s Jitney (1982) – look out for it in an upcoming Read a Play a Week blog post! – a play that similarly throws a spotlight on a diverse community at threat. While I don’t yet know how Jitney will conclude, the finale of Two Trains Running is surprisingly upbeat. 

Yet, while the wrecking ball continues to weigh heavy over the stage, the bittersweet and somewhat hopeful ending remains consistent with the many half-fulfilled promises and wishes in the play: Will Memphis return South to reclaim the land taken from him by the white men? Will he attain his $25,000 asking price for the diner? Will Hambone ever get his ham? Wilson and Medina create a perfect balance of harsh realism, magic fabulism and human warmth. It’s a masterful production and, come the curtain call, it was touching to see the casts’ overwhelmed surprise at the genuinely ecstatic reaction from the small but enraptured audience.

Two Trains Running is co-produced by Royal & Derngate and English Touring Theatre. It plays at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton until 14th September, and then tours to NST City, Southampton; The Playhouse, Oxford; Cast, Doncaster; New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich; Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford; and Derby Theatre, Derby.
The cast of Two Trains Running
Credit: Manual Harlan


Thursday, 5 September 2019

Grease


Curve, Leicester
4th September, 2019

“What will they say Monday at school?”

Nikolai Foster’s 2016 production of Grease returns to Curve as part of a major tour, and, while it doesn’t quite have the pizzazz of three years ago, the show remains a solid, thoughtful and energetic version of a much loved classic. Foster brings a freshness to the piece, highlighting the tension between the languid suburban setting and the restlessness of a changing society. Eschewing the glamour and nostalgia of most productions (and, indeed, the 1979 film), Foster and co. present an altogether grittier picture of a youth in limbo between the juvenile antics of the schoolyard – supposedly the best days of their lives – and an adulthood which promises little in terms of social progression. The somewhat dingy tone to proceedings certainly made me sit up and take notice, and ensures an evening boasting substance alongside the usual sing-along tunes and jive-tastic choreography.

Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s book is scant on plot – that’s undeniable – but in Foster’s hands this becomes a blessing, rather than a curse, as the show feels much more ‘a year in the life’ of the average 50’s teenager. There’s no whizz-bang pyrotechnics, souped-up magic flying cars (in fact, the famed Greased Lightning remains a pile of scrap metal throughout), or twee fun fair frolics. These kids live in a town where the hottest joint is the local burger dive, and the most excitement you can hope for is a ride in the back seat of the aforementioned hunk of rusty metal. The 1950’s style songs – croonful harmonies, rock’n’roll swagger – make for a wistful contrast with the humdrum darkness of the characters’ lives; a sort of romantic, pop-culture inspired fantasy, solidified by the narrative device of the Vince Fontaine radio show.

Due to this distinction between radio glamour, the mundanity of school, and the threat of an adulthood characterised by suburban ennui, the less savoury aspects that have always existed in Grease are less jarring. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still uncomfortable to watch at times (my mum, who was my date at this performance, was unsettled by the amount of male-on-female groping on display), and the feminist in me still weeps at the thought of Sandy caving into peer pressure, but here these occurrences at least makes sense ‘in-world’. At the end of it all, it’s about kids being kids, and generational disapproval is nothing new. All of this points to Foster and co. presenting an intelligent take on Jacobs and Casey’s show, a novelty for a musical known inside out by many.

Colin Richmond’s set remains a neat mix of the scholastic (the Rydell High gymnasium) and the garish (the seedy neon lights), with the radio booth looming large over the stage. Other positive hangovers from the 2016 production include the reinstating of the ‘old’ songs cut from the original Broadway production (eg. ‘Tattoo Song’, ‘How Big I’m Gonna Be’) which help flesh out the characters. I was, however, pleased to see that ‘In My Day’, an Eleven O’Clock number for Ms Lynch of all people, has been cut. It didn’t work previously, and now the finale runs a lot more smoothly. The only puzzler for me is the inexplicable change in choreography. Nick Winston’s routines were a highlight in 2016, and it appears that Arlene Phillips hasn’t contributed much other than name recognition. That isn’t to say the routines are dull, but I didn’t have the same excitement watching them as I did with Winston’s work.

The young cast are admirable in their commitment to character – I enjoyed watching the ensemble interact in the background, it enhanced the symbiotic feelings of animosity and comradery associated with high school friendships – and the sheer energy with which they approach the musical numbers. Stand outs include Martha Kirby’s down-to-earth Sandy, whose pragmatism and honesty is refreshingly mature, and Rhianne-Louise McCaulsky who plays Rizzo with a touching sensitivity behind the bitchiness. Ryan Anderson gives a stellar vocal performance during ‘Mooning’, and Curve bastion, Darren Bennett, relishes his dual roles as the pervy Fontaine and kitsch Teen Angel.

For all its faults, Grease has remained popular for a reason, and while all the karaoke-esque fun of the score is present and attacked with enthusiasm, it is Foster’s attention to detail and his determination to return to the roots of the musical that assures Curve’s production stands out. Seedy, listless, but retaining an essence of carefree teenage revolt, I hope this tour sets that standard for future productions. Oh, and for the Grease purists, don’t worry, there’s still a megamix!

Grease plays at Curve, Leicester until 14th September.
For full tour details please visit: https://greasethemusicalontour.com/tour-tickets/

The cast of Grease
Credit: Manuel Harlan


Monday, 2 September 2019

#ReadaPlayaWeek - August


Luther (1961), by John Osborne


I am a man struggling for certainty… an animal trapped to the bone with doubt


As a new production of Osborne’s The Entertainer opens, I thought I’d visit one of his other hits. Luther depicts the life of theologian, monk and heretic Martin Luther, a role originated by Albert Finney at the Royal Court before being performed in the West End, on Broadway and across Europe. It won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1964. Spanning 25 years in early-1500s Germany, it doesn’t sound like standard commercial fare, but it perhaps capitalises on a desire for historical dramas at that time (Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons stormed New York a few years earlier). It’s also fascinating story full of sinewy, rich language and large characters straight from a renaissance painting.


It’s a far stretch from the English lower-class settings of some of his other plays (characters are called things like Staupitz and Tetzel), and the form is grander and more expansive. The bulk of the play focuses on Luther’s fight against the Catholic church’s debauchery, especially when it comes to relics and so-called indulgences (bits of paper that people can buy in return for eternal redemption). But we also see his rise from his early days as a monk, sick with nerves, to an outspoken controversial figure in the church. It’s a personal and detailed exploration of an individual’s doubt and sticking to one’s faith.


But the most curious thing about Luther is the title character’s relationship with one of his mentors Staupitz, an easily deducible parallel of Osborne’s relationship with his friend and mentor George Devine. Devine played Staupitz in the original production and in the foreword, Osborne writes ‘[Devine] must have known that the part… was a tentative tribute to a possibly romanticized account of our relationship’. In doing so, Osborne has pitched himself as Luther which offers an interesting reading if you extend this to the rest of the play. Are we to infer that Osborne is someone who saw himself as some great arbiter of the theatre wanting to expel those who make a mockery of it? Consider Staupitz’s reassurance to Luther: ‘It’s a house you’ve been able to unlock for a great many of us. I never dreamed when I first came here that the University’s reputation would ever become what it has… and it’s mostly due to you’. If this is to be read in the context of Osborne and Devine’s relationship, how masturbatory is that?!

Published by Faber


Dying City (2006), by Christopher Shinn


‘Yeah, but whose truth is being conveyed?’


Shinn’s Pulitzer nominated play is a taut yet claustrophobic affair, delving into psyche of post-9/11 America. Widowed Kelly is in the middle of clearing out her New York apartment when her husband’s twin brother unexpectedly calls in, dragging up the past and posing awkward questions about the present and future.


The play alternates between the present reunion between Kelly and Peter, and their final evening with husband/brother, Craig, a year earlier. Posted to Iraq, Craig never returns and over the course of the play we realise that his death has had a seismic effect on those left behind. Shinn’s interest in the personal vs the societal vs the political vs the philosophical, as employed perhaps less effectively in his 2017 play Against, provides a myriad of conundrums and topical clout – impressive for a play so slight in length. Peter and Kelly’s personality clashes (eg. differences in politics and humour) heightens the tension between their disparate approaches to grief. Kelly is desperate to move on while Peter wants to reminisce. Peter’s nervous energy contrasts well with Kelly’s reticence, creating an intriguing tension to proceedings as Shinn holds his cards close until the final few pages.


While the big reveal is somewhat predictable, Shinn pulls it off by making the play very much a character study. Sibling rivalry and the unique relationship that twins have – best friend and idol, yet also the harshest critic and one another’s biggest competition in Life – is explored with touching honesty. Peter reveals that he became an actor after spending years impersonating Craig, trying to be more popular, and while the brothers are two very distinct characters, by alternating their scenes and having a single actor play both brothers, Shinn holds up a mirror which reflects both their uncanny similarities as well as presenting them as binaries; Craig is a married heterosexual soldier, while Peter is a gay Hollywood film star who struggles to hold down a relationship; both suffer from an identity crisis, both have massive commitment issues – perhaps stemming from a shared upbringing by loveless parents. Kelly’s career as a psychologist also weighs heavy over events. A running joke about one of her clients, in hindsight, becomes an omen for her own grievances.


Shinn’s intricately woven familial web of secrets, lies, lust, heartbreak and confusion is a masterclass in chamber theatre. Two actors, three voices, one space all merging together under Shinn’s sleight of hand. Thus, come the denouement, it feels as though Kelly has been doubly betrayed, by Craig and Peter, a living echo of her dead husband. Shinn’s work is exciting despite its imperfections, and while Against perhaps misfired in its rendering, his ideas and the way he brings them to life on the page are thrilling. Dying City is lean, keen and very enjoyable.

Published by Methuen


This is Not an Exit (2014), by Abi Zakarian


‘Everyone so sensitive…nearly broke me it did; all that banter’


The next three plays are from the Midsummer Mischief Festival held by the RSC in 2014. The four commissioned writers were given a quote from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich – ‘Well-behaved women seldom make history’ – to provoke and inspire their writing.


In Zakarian’s play, we meet Nora, a successful journalist. Although what is success? To her mother Blanche (note the names of famous theatrical heroines), Nora has settled by writing for a glossy magazine. She writes features with the sort of click-bait headlines like ‘879 Jeans that make you look slimmer’ and ‘Why it’s time to listen to your inner lioness…’. They are meant to be powerful articles that celebrate and promote strong womanhood but Zakarian is interested in the sometimes-toxic world behind these articles. My main memory from the play is Nora crouching by the radiator with a pillowcase over her head, whilst her mother tries to give her life advice. She’s figuratively attached to her laptop, that being her channel for her power and creativity. Meanwhile, there is an air of disappointment about her to Blanche, who wanted more for her daughter. There is an unmistakeable echo here of the mother-daughter relationship here in Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling. Although this is a short play (and it could be the diving off point for a bigger piece of work), Zakarian’s dialogue is sharp and funny, and she creates some effective stage images.

Published by Oberon


I Can Hear You (2014), by E.V. Crowe


We’re excited by the possibilities. Of what could be. Without any limitations. That maybe everything is possible


What I liked about this play is that it’s quietly radical. Not that there’s anything wrong with a loudly radical play. But for a play to be framed as part of a selection of ‘radical’ plays (possibly also commissioned as that also), then it’s probably more radical to not be radical at all. Or for it to at least seem so. I Can Hear You takes place in a family’s living room somewhere outside of Birmingham. I think it’s set in the present day although I initially thought slightly earlier, mainly because there’s a lot of lamenting the loss of Woolworths, but, then again, I think a lot of people still use it as a focal point of the dying high street. Dying, or more generally loss and change, are key themes in the play. David and his daughter Ruth are preparing for the funeral of her brother Tommy, who’s died young and suddenly in an accident. Their mum has also gone and it’s hinted that Ruth’s marriage is breaking down. There’s a palpable feel of a need for hope but some find it more easily than others.


Searching for this, and left re-evaluating her life, Tommy’s partner invites a medium to the funeral and gives him a lock of his hair. In a later scene, Tommy, in tangible form, walks in, plonks himself down on the sofa and puts on the football as if nothing’s changed. The multitude of questions that spring from this are teasingly unexplored, but it leaves the family wanting to try something similar with their mum. But they can’t. Perhaps because she doesn’t want to come back. The play (quite short over four scenes) ends with Tommy sat in the living room once again watching the TV. The play straddles between a need to cling on and want further answers, and the push to move forward and let go. At the end of Crowe’s play, I feel the characters are left in a frustrating limbo of not having fully reached their catharsis.

Published by Oberon


Revolt. She said. Revolt again. (2014), by Alice Birch


Not or. Not really Or, there isn’t really an Or


I found this to be the most remarkable play in the series – as a play and as a text. There is nothing superfluous on the page; every space between lines, every punctuation mark, every capital letter serves a specific purpose and carries meaning. It’s not the first time a play text has been used where everything which appears on the page is a suggestion for performance (I wonder what was?) but it’s striking how it’s used here. As an example, a dash on a new line indicates a new speaker. This creates a certain amount of clarity but, like with Adam Barnard’s Buckets, it may not always be specified how many people are in a scene and who says the first line. An interpretation, a performance choice, still has to be made. Likewise, a full stop on a line of its own indicates a pause, but it’s up to someone else to determine how long that should be. And the use of capitals in ‘we’ll have More chocolate’ or ‘I’m Contracted to smile’ can indicate weight and evoke meaning which serves as a tool to the actor. It’s a fascinating text: always shifting, evolving and surprising.


In the play, Birch explores the language of sexism, the roles handed out to women, and the prescribed behaviours entrenched in society. It’s a play which scrutinises, in the most fun and unruliest ways possible, the forces which shape women’s lives. There’s no wonder why it’s been a hit in fringe and student theatre in recent years, and more time and attention should be given to it before writing about it in more detail. But, for the sake of summarising, it’s a bold and fearless play, written in the spirit of the festival.

Published by Oberon