Monday, 16 March 2020

Coriolanus


Crucible Theatre
14th March, 2020 matinee

“Would you have me
False to my nature? Rather say I play
The man I am”

Do actions speak louder than words? In order for people to have faith in them, do leaders need the skill of language, and the ability to connect? These questions are the crux of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Its title character is a skilled and successful fighter, but when attempting to become Consul, he doesn’t convince the people of Rome and is banished, which in turn leads him to turn to his old enemy Aufidius, for the two of them to then turn on Rome together. This is my first encounter with Coriolanus. I imagine some productions could take a more intimate approach, focusing on the psychology of the characters and the inner machinations of power grabs. Here, Robert Hastie’s production, confidently led by Tom Bateman, uses the Crucible’s large forum stage to great effect, placing the city and its people, including the audience, at its centre.

Ben Stones’ set borrows much from his design for Julius Caesar in 2017. Sunken desks with microphones and leather chairs, rows of strip lights, and wooden panels complete with a Roman insignia stretch out into the auditorium so we too are part of the senate. The citizens play many of their scenes amongst us, and Hastie peoples his production with dedicated members from the Sheffield People’s Theatre. From this plush setting comes barbed wire fences to show us the world in which Coriolanus is more at home: the battlefield. Bateman has a strong physical prowess as demonstrated in Renny Krupinksy’s inventive and long fight scenes, including a rather gory death. So when Coriolanus attempts to make Consul, his wounds are not enough to prove him. Standing on a soapbox in the marketplace in rags (‘the gown of humility’), he proves he cannot appeal to the common man: ‘Must I with base tongue give my noble heart’. What’s fascinating is that so many of Shakespeare’s plays are about the act of seeming, something which often brings about characters’ downfalls. Yet here is a man whose downfall comes from his inability to play the part.

In this production, Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia (Hermon Berhane) is hearing impaired, leading to the clever incorporation of British Sign Language and captioning. The creative integration of BSL and audio-visual technologies in British theatre has mainly been pioneered by Graeae, so kudos to the Crucible for championing this on their main stage. It also has added effects. For a play so much about the art of rhetoric, these scenes see the characters communicate differently, making us think about how we interact with language as a tool. It also adds intimacy to the few scenes between Coriolanus and Virgilia, particularly in the scene where she and Volumnia persuade him to not give up on Rome. When we see these exchanges, I think it allows us to sympathise more with him as we see that he can communicate, thoughtfully and skilfully, something which he lacks the power to do with the plebeians in the marketplace.

There’s fine support, particularly from Stella Gonet as his mother, Volumnia. She worships her son as a hero, proudly counting his scars and boasting that ‘[blood] more becomes a man/ Than gilt his trophy’. But she’s also a gifted and charismatic orator and has the ability to show empathy. Elsewhere, Malcom Sinclair has the weariness of the professional politician, and Kate Rutter leads the citizens very convincingly. When the people of Rome discover that Coriolanus has turned against them, she walks across the stage saying ‘When I said, banish him, I said 'twas pity’, a reminder that the people don’t always know best even if they do have the collective voice of power. Like Hastie’s first production as AD, this is sharp storytelling, confidently acted, which uses the space to embrace the people in a way that theatre does best.

Coriolanus plays at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield until 28th March, 2020
Tom Bateman and Stella Gonet in Coriolanus.
Credit: Johan Persson


Wednesday, 11 March 2020

The Mousetrap


Leicester Haymarket
10th March, 2020

See how they run

The last (and first) time I saw Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap was performance number 25,114 at St Martin’s Theatre. I was looking for a Tuesday matinee before seeing a preview of Peter Morgan’s The Audience starring Helen Mirren in the evening. Now in its 68th year in the West End, the play is also touring and shows no signs of slowing down. And whilst the play is more than a bit of a warhorse, it has become a staple of British theatre. In the excellent programme which charts the play’s history, including a list of every London cast, there’s an accompaniment of major news headlines from each year. Through royal scandals, political crises and indeed pandemics, this who-dunnit is still standing. But whether you view it as a museum piece or bona fide murder mystery with a capacity to thrill, Christie’s good old-fashioned stage craft ensures that The Mousetrap is still satiating audiences in 2020.

The curtain rises on a radio bulletin announcing that a woman has been murdered in Paddington. Miles away, in the Berkshire countryside, is the play’s setting of Monkswell Manor, a guesthouse ran by a young married couple. We see a string of guests arrive, many of whom fit the description of the murderer, shortly before Sergeant Trotter who claims that the London murder could well be connected to the guests, all of whom are in danger. There are several twists and interesting backstories, characters not being as they first appear, and even a second murder before the curtain closes on the first act. The second act cuts to the chase a lot quicker, and there’s a clever Hamlet link when characters start to re-enact the murder. Anthony Holland’s design plays the part of charming, rural guesthouse very well: wood-panelling, cosy armchairs, and plenty of exits which hide a rabbit warren of corridors to link up the rest of the house – a nice quirk which also provides a modus operandi. Snow can be seen falling from outside the window, and several nursery rhyme motifs contribute to the production’s playful tone. The cast all do splendid work – I can only imagine how the actors feel having to wear the shoes of dozens of actors before them; mere cogs in a bigger machine. In particular, Susan Penhaligon stands out as the brassy Mrs Boyle, Steven Elliott has a lot of fun chewing the scenery as Mr Paravicini, and Martin Allanson gives a confidently assured performance as Sergeant Trotter.

Christie’s works have had a bit of a renaissance in recent years: from the “sexed-up”, first-rate BBC adaptations to the chocolate box Kenneth Branagh films, even on stage with Lucy Bailey’s production of Witness for the Prosecution at London County Hall. But amongst them all, The Mousetrap is still her calling card. Its enduring popularity remains a bit of a mystery to me, but an enjoyable one at that. There are other curiosities to the play: why the drawn-out exposition? What is in Paravicini’s little bag? And for fans of Mischief Theatre, there’s plenty of fun to be had out of spotting echoes of Murder at Haversham Manor.

The Mousetrap plays at the Leicester Haymarket Theatre until 14th March and continues to tour the UK. For full tour dates, please see https://www.mousetrapontour.com/
The cast of The Mousetrap. Credit: https://www.mousetrapontour.com/gallery/


Thursday, 5 March 2020

The Phantom of the Opera


Curve, Leicester
Wednesday 4th March, 2020

‘Hide your face so the world will never find you’

And now for something completely different… Following the intimate storytelling of Rob Ward’s one man play, The MP, Aunty Mandy and Me the previous night, we returned to Curve for a show that is much grander in scale; the new touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. The stark contrast between these two equally enjoyable shows reminds me just why I love the theatre so much – the infinite variety, the imaginative scope, the escapism, the immersiveness, the grandeur, the visual and thematic audacity. And it all happens live, right before your eyes. Magic is real, ladies and gentlemen, and it occurs on stages up and down the country every night. There is nothing on Earth quite like it.  

It seems very apt then that, as I exult in the glories of the theatre, the piece that has sparked this adulation is itself a love-letter to the arts. Say what you want about Lloyd Webber’s hokeyness, his habit of recycling old melodies, or his financial dominance in musical-land – he knows how to put on a damn fine show! And with Phantom being perhaps the most personal of his oeuvre, his passion for music and the arts comes across in the sheer ambition of the piece, and the hard work and talent of everyone involved.

The story of a social outcast murderously infatuated with a young, talented ingénue is well documented, so I needn’t go into the specifics of the plot. As a fan of Gothic literature I’m willing to brush aside the problematic aspects of the story - aka ‘Stockholm Syndrome: The Musical’ - as it’s a pretty perfect example of the genre and all of its underlying social, sexual and psychologically meaty themes. And because of this generic complexity, combined with Lloyd Webber’s sensuous music (‘Music of the Night’ and ‘The Point of No Return’ are sexy songs!) and magnetic performances from the leads, the audience readily accepts the Phantom, a cold blooded serial killer, as a romantic/Romantic figure. Lloyd Webber and lyricists Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe struck gold with their ability to call upon our innate desires and repulsions, and our fascination with the grotesque, the beautiful and the wielding of power in all shapes and forms. Upon this foundation a musical sensation was built, sustained and continues to tower over its peers.

Of course, much of the success lies in the hands of the cast. Christine must be more than a simpering waif, the Phantom must compel our sympathy, and the two must have a convincing chemistry to get us fully on board with the melodramatics of the plot. Gladly, the show is in safe hands with Holly-Anne Hull and Killian Donnelly at the helm. In a demanding role, Hull confidently holds the piece together, making Lloyd Webber’s notoriously difficult soprano solos seem effortless and rich. Donnelly continues to cement his reputation as the leading man in musical theatre with a performance that traverses the full spectrum of human emotion, while also bringing a physicality and tactile edge to the role that I haven’t noticed previously. Adam Linstead, Matt Harrop and Saori Oda provide comic relief as the flustered Opera House owners, Andre and Firman, and the stroppy prima donna, Carlotta. Importantly, the exceptional company bring to life all the hectic bustle of 19th Century backstage society. As a theatre nerd I love peeking beyond the wings into the not-so-glamourous side of showbusiness.

I saw the London production as a teen around a decade ago, and while the music and mood have always stayed with me, I’d quite forgotten how visually impressive Phantom is. Cameron Mackintosh and The Really Useful Group have pulled out all the stops for this tour, from the multitudes of lavish scenery – exquisitely reproduced by Matt Kinley from Maria Bjornson’s original designs - the lustrous costumes and all the whizz-bang tricks we expect of a supernatural thriller-cum-Mega Musical. No one can complain that you don’t get your money’s worth!

From the moment the orchestra struck up those famous chords in the overture (on a personal note, can I say how much I love all those 80’s power chords, haha!)  I was spellbound and I’m so pleased that the show still lives up to its spine-tingling renown. The production is brimming with enchanting set-pieces, such as the iconic chandelier crash, the eerily beautiful candle-lit boat ride to the Phantom’s cavernous lair, and the epic carnival of ‘Masquerade’. My fiancé (and co-blogger) hadn’t seen Phantom before (nope, not even the flaccid 2004 film adaptation), and as a self-confessed sceptic, it’s safe to say he was completely won over by the show in every aspect. 

The production is spectacular in the truest sense, and even the most curmudgeonly of spectators will find something to enthuse over. If I could, I would buy a ticket and see the show again this evening (and the next, and the one after that, and… you get the picture!), and that is the surest sign of a great production. While in some spheres it may be unfashionable to like Lloyd Webber, and many will agree that his recent work has produced more misses than hits, it’s fair to say that the ALW classics still hold the power to beguile audiences worldwide, and his reputation as one of the great composers is fully deserved. Bravo!

The Phantom of the Opera plays at Curve, Leicester until 21st March and continues on tour.
For details of further venues please visit: https://uktour.thephantomoftheopera.com/


Wednesday, 4 March 2020

The MP, Aunty Mandy and Me


Curve, Leicester
3rd March, 2020

We don’t get anything in Brinton

Following the success of his play Gypsy Queen, Emmerson & Ward Productions and Curve present Rob Ward’s new one-man play as part of the DMU Pride Festival. In what was its first public performance, The MP, Aunty Mandy and Me is a tightly written, confidently performed play about power, identity and communities. Ward skilfully takes us through 70 minutes of a multitude of well-drawn characters, tangible places, with provocative humour and some potent dramatic moments.

Ward’s central character is Dominic: a young gay man from a working-class background in the small town of Brinton. His dad ‘fucked off years ago’, and so now it’s just him and his mum, who has a fondness for Mick Hucknall and MDMA (the ‘Aunt Mandy’ of the title). But his desire to escape the provincial yonderland for something bigger is quashed by frequent panic attacks and limited career prospects, leaving him to turn to the virtual world of social media influencing, specifically, the competitive circle of the “InstaGays”. This contrast of worlds is effectively achieved in the opening scene where we see Dom’s love of steam trains, and the local railway station. It helps to establish a literal sense of place – small, quite rural, forgotten – set against the physically stylised realm of a photoshoot backdrop and camera lights, a nod to the controlled glamour of social media. This conflicting sense of identity, a young man still discovering himself, is a strong, relatable foundation on which the rest of the play is built.

Whilst working in catering, Dom meets local Labour MP (a ‘Blair-ite bastard’), Peter. He describes himself as a ‘perfect gay MP’: a Guardian reading, married, middle-class, ‘jam making knight of the theatre’, a public persona well-wrought and rehearsed to meet the pressures of the job and the scrutiny of the public. Peter hires Dom as his PR intern, taking the naïve youngster under his wing, introducing him to the exciting LGBT+ scene in the ‘big city’. However, the arrival of a new intern, Joey, unearths some uncomfortable truths and causes Dom to have doubts about his relationship with Peter.

The play, and perhaps more pointedly Clive Judd’s glib direction, excels in portraying the lurid, queasy, mind-bending highs (and lows) of Dom’s MDMA trips. On his knees in a club with a leather BDSM dog mask on, Dom feels liberated to be the confident man he wants to be. His new-found bravado even spurs him into approaching ‘InstaGay’ idol, Ryan, and a pro-tip that will surely spell success for his career as an influencer. Yet as the night moves on and Peter takes him back to his hot tub, the effects of the drugs warp the scene as the MP moves in on a powerless Dom; the leather mask loses its comedy/shock/sexy factor as we see the confusion and fear in his eyes, Ward’s voice gains a hollow tone, and a sense of disquiet permeates the room. The binary themes of power/powerlessness and immobility/mobility is played with again later in the play, when Dom and his mother have a brilliantly uncanny ‘Aunty Mandy’ face-off. Painfully pregnant pauses, bright lights, and the distorted tones of Mick Hucknall bleeding into the scene from some ether mingle to create an overwhelmingly surreal and mesmerising effect. Judd and Ward have produced one of the more sensationally primitive and evocative depictions of substance abuse; wildly different in technique, but equal in its lasting impression to Jeremy Herrin's production of MacMillan's People, Places and Things.

It’s remarkable how many themes Ward and Judd open up in such a short space of time: an unflinching exploration of multiple and interweaved cultures and societies, the quest for identity in a world where image is everything, political corruption, sexual exploitation, and the abuse of power…

Ward has a clear distinctive voice, with echoes of Jonathan Harvey in his blend of the banal and the fantastic, and in his sympathetic and honest portrayal of gay men. He gets under the skin of each of his distinct characters – from a bluff Tory politician, to a posh and reserved GP, to Dom’s cackling, grotesque mother – his performance always on point, empathetic and inviting. This is a very watchable play, with succinct themes that genuinely inspire unease. There has been much focus on #MeToo of late, and while it’s about time that such sexist and abusive behaviour towards women is exposed, The MP, Aunty Mandy and Me does a stellar job of highlighting the similar, but perhaps less well-publicised, sufferings within the LGBT+ community.

The MP, Aunty Mandy and Me plays at Curve, Leicester until 4th March.


Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Dear Evan Hansen


Noel Coward Theatre
8th February, 2020, matinee

'All that it takes is a little reinvention'

Firstly, apologies for the radio silence of late, we have been busy moving house and planning our upcoming wedding, so theatre and blogging has had to take a temporary back-seat(!!!!)

Now, onto my first show of the new decade.

On the surface I should be the bullseye of the target audience for Dear Evan Hansen – a production which stormed Broadway in 2016 and beat out tough competition (Come From Away, Groundhog Day, Great Comet) to triumph at that season’s Tony Awards. As documented previously on this blog, I’ve experienced mental illness from the age of 11, and over the last 17 years I’ve suffered from anxiety, depression and the crippling loneliness of social isolation throughout my teens. I should identify and profoundly relate to the central character of the musical. But, somehow, for a show that is all about connecting with other people, I didn’t. I will try to unpick the possible reasons for my disconnect in the following paragraphs, but ultimately, I feel that Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics) and Steven Levenson (book) have produced a slightly disappointing and naïve take on the subjects of 21st century adolescence, the liberation vs. encumberment of social media, and the mental health pandemic sweeping the globe.

The story – a teenager with social anxiety unintentionally goes viral when he claims to have been friends with a local boy that committed suicide – has the bones of a great drama. However, Levenson’s book fails to flesh out the plot and many of the central characters. The sensitive subject of teen suicide could be handled in several ways: an honest, deep and sympathetic portrayal of Connor Murphy, illuminating the true hardships of mental illness, raising awareness of the need for better social and medical care (a preachy but worthy approach); an intimate chamber piece looking at the aftermath and lasting effects on the family of the victim; or alternatively, we could be presented with a pitch black social satire on the pitfalls of social media (echo chambers, #fakenews, popularity contests, morbid humble-bragging and self-publicising, and the hypocrisy of trolls that are only ready to display empathy when they have already condemned the victim to the worst possible eventuality). Pasek, Paul and Levenson try to portray all three of these scenarios. It’s too much to cram into a two hour show and the resulting lack of focus leads to a tepid and underdeveloped approach to a subject that is close to my (and thousands of others’) hearts.

Evan Hansen is a solid leading character, and in the capable hands of newcomer Marcus Harman, he’s engaging and likeable in his relatable angsty ways. Yet, of and for the other characters I felt very little. For a relatively small cast (8 actors), the other roles are lacklustre. There are several wasted opportunities for character development  – I’d have been fascinated to see more of the psychological reasoning behind the Murphys behaviour towards Evan following Connor’s death (especially Zoe’s internal conflict over her antagonistic feelings for her brother), and Levenson and co. missed a chance to draw more from the peculiar relationship between Evan and fellow loner Alana. The eleventh hour revelations about Alana’s motives, and her attempts to connect with others, could have been a really moving and illuminating moment in the show, yet it’s skimmed over in a weirdly throwaway manner. Similarly, the denouement is problematically glossed over; one minute Evan’s secret is out, his world comes crashing down, and the next we see him months later, a slightly more confident young man, and the intervening seasons are wavered with the odd flippant remark. We see too little of the aftermath of this momentous revelation. It feels a cop out to present a show that addresses such serious topics and then drop the curtain just as it starts to get difficult – it even seems a little cowardly. Oh well, I gather a novelisation was released following the Broadway premier – maybe that ties up the loose ends.

I feel this muddled quality is partly down to the tonally jarring and trite restrictiveness of Pasek and Paul’s songs. Their soaring melodies with sugary lyrics seem more fitting for the melodramatic fanfare of TV talent shows than a sympathetic analysis of the complexities of the teenage social sphere. That’s not to say the songs aren’t commendable in their own right – they’re often catchy (‘Waving through a Window’), uplifting (‘You Will Be Found’), occasionally amusing (‘Sincerely Me’) and beautifully sung by the cast – I just feel that, rather than adding layers of artistic or thematic meaning to the show, they detract from the dramatic clout the piece promises. Compared with the punchy music of Sater and Sheik’s Spring Awakening - which handles similar themes of teenage angst, relationships, social disquiet, and suicide with lyrical piquancy that imbues the piece with a sort of post-naivety that is unique to the adolescent psyche – Dear Evan Hansen feels pedestrian, a polished but distant façade, not unlike Peter Nigrini’s numerous smartphone and laptop screen projections that populate David Korins’ sparse set.

Director Michael Greif, along with choreographer Danny Mefford, creates some nicely staged moments, notably in the comic mimicry of ‘Sincerely Me’, and the simple but effective way of portraying the isolation vs. connectivity of social media interactions – the compartmentalising of characters (in boxes, on screens) is a neat use of Nigrini’s projections and videography. The role of Evan is a fantastic showcase for up and coming young actors and it’s nice to see newcomers being given the opportunity to shine. The supporting cast do a fine job with the material they’re given, but for all intents and purposes Dear Evan Hansen is a one man show.

On another positive note, it was a pleasure to see an audience predominantly populated by young people. The teenagers around us were evidently big fans of the show and were gripped throughout. The fact that these youngsters (yep, I said ‘youngsters’ - wow, I feel old!) are so engaged and moved by a piece of theatre is heart-warming, and suggests that maybe I’m not the real target audience for Dear Evan Hansen after all. While not quite to my taste, Pasek and Paul are encouraging more audiences to embrace the arts, and that is commendable in and of itself. I only wish such a promising premise had a little more ‘oomph’ in its execution.

Dear Evan Hansen is currently booking at the Noel Coward Theatre until 30th May 2020.
The cast of Dear Evan Hansen.
Credit: Matthew Murphy.


Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Curve Season Preview


Curve, Leicester

13th January 2020

As the rain bucketed down outside, Curve’s main auditorium was packed with some of its regulars last night, eager to hear more about what’s coming up over the next few months. Hosted by Geeta Pendse, the evening took the form of a preview with Curve’s Artistic Director, Nikolai Foster, and Chief Executive, Chris Stafford. They were joined by guests and fellow practitioners, and accompanied by some cracking musical numbers. I also really appreciated seeing Michael Taylor’s design for West Side Story once more, dominated by its concrete and iron tower. And from a different seat, there are new things to notice, including a bank of lights on Stage Right, each one shining like a star on the US flag. Properly impressive!


There were three new #MadeatCurve announcements. First up, there is the musical adaptation of the 1953 film Roman Holiday. First presented at St Louis’ The Muny in 2001 (from the team who also brought White Christmas to the stage), the musical has music and lyrics by Cole Porter, and a book by Kirsten Guenther and Paul Blake. Foster directs the European premiere at Curve from 15th July. Speaking about the show, he highlighted the story’s humour, romance but also painful ending, and how the story marries so well with Porter’s songs from the Great American Songbook. It’s sure to bring a slice of Italy to Curve this summer, and certainly is a prescient choice given current royal drama.


We were then introduced to this year’s winner of the Royal Theatrical Support Trust’s Sir Peter Hall Director Award, Anthony Almeida. He will be directing Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof from 11th September. He spoke affectionately of the play, saying that he put his assumptions about it aside when reading it afresh. For him, the play’s emotional setting really appeals, adding that it pulses with humour and humanity of what it’s like to live now. I’d heard about the vigorous process of the RTST award from last year’s winner Nancy Medina ahead of her production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. A shortlist of directors work on a scene of their choosing with six actors whilst the judging panel observes. Deputy Chairman Mark Hawes confirmed how emotionally draining it can be, but worth it to champion early career directors to work on a larger scale. Curve has also commissioned a new dance piece, Samsara, by the Aakash Odedra Company in October.


Foster and Stafford also spoke about the importance of collaboration in theatre, and there are several exciting co-productions on the horizon. Frantic Assembly and Theatre Royal Plymouth have teamed up with directors Kathy Burke and Scott Graham to work on Sally Abbott’s I Think We Are Alone, from 24th March – their The Unreturning featured in our Top 10 last year. This year’s DMU co-production will be Evan Placey’s version of Jekyll & Hyde with a female protagonist at its centre, from 21st May. And Frances Poet’s new play Maggie May will be presented from 28th April in a co-production with Leeds Playhouse and Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch. What’s crucial about this play is that every performance will be dementia friendly, something which Leeds Playhouse (then West Yorkshire Playhouse), Nicky Taylor and Foster first championed in 2014.


Stafford emphasised the importance of nurturing new talent and providing the arts when they are so often being squeezed out of schools. Curve will also play host to many festivals: The CYC Season are to present 1984, DNA, Rogues and Rebels, and Cry Baby; the DMU Pride Festival returns in February to celebrate LGBT History Month; and there’s the Leicester Comedy Festival, which plays across the city from 5th February.


Other things in Leicester to keep on your radar:

The Little Theatre continues to present a range of plays including Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings in March and Nick Payne’s Constellations in June. To commemorate the centenary of Ronald Light’s trial for murder which took place in Leicester Castle, they are also presenting The Green Bicycle Case. Following a run at the Edinburgh Fringe, Cat Hepburn presents her debut show #Girlhood at Upstairs at the Western in May. And finally, hot from a Christmas stint in the West End, Kander & Ebb’s musical comedy Curtains, starring Jason Manford, tours to the Leicester Haymarket in March.

Monday, 30 December 2019

#ReadaPlayaWeek December and 2019


For three years, #ReadaPlayaWeek was a, well, weekly feature of our blog. Starting out as a way to familiarise myself more with the canon, established writers were a regular feature. Later, we (now a co-authored blog) decided to challenge ourselves to read more widely, and to give equal focus between male and female writers. By the time we decided to pause it at the end of 2016, it was by no means an all-male, white, British showcase. In 2019, we have indeed read plays by Stoppard, Gray and Hare amongst others, but part of the fun has been to dig out a dusty play text or a new play and see what it has to offer. In the past, finding plays to write about wasn’t always easy. But this year, partly thanks to access to a well-stocked library, we’ve almost been spoilt for choice: from war-torn villages in present day Syria, to a 70s taxi office in Pittsburgh; from one playwright’s account of his journey to Israel, to another of their journey across the Slave Trade Triangle; from a fascinating blend of drama and journalism, to pure comedic escapism.

Last year, perhaps in the midst of a Fluoxetine-fuelled inertia, it took me 6 months to read one play! The play wasn’t particularly long or dense and was actually very good, but I read a scene, forgot it and then kept on re-reading it until I was stuck in a cycle of American rustbelt procrastination. I’ve re-read and included it in December’s choices (below). So, here’s what we’ve read in 2019 along with December’s reads at the bottom. Happy New Year!

In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings (1999), by Stephen Adly Guirgis
The Guys (2001), by Anne Nelson
The Nest by Franz Xaver Kroetz (1975), new version by Conor McPherson (2016)
born bad (2003), by debbie tucker green
The Strange Death of John Doe (2018), by Fiona Doyle

Breathing Corpses (2005), by Laura Wade
Adult Child/Dead Child (1987), by Claire Dowie
Thatcher’s Women (1987), by Kay Adshead
Superhoe (2019), by Nicôle Lecky

Stamping, Shouting and Singing Home (1986), by Lisa Evans
Night (L’Homme Gris) (1984), by Marie Laberge (translated by Rina Fraticelli)
Unicorns, Almost (2018), by Owen Sheers
buckets (2015), by Adam Barnard
Victory Condition (2017), by Chris Thorpe

Effie’s Burning (1987), by Valerie Windsor
Letters Home (1979), by Rose Leiman Goldemberg
Rites (1969), by Maureen Duffy
Trafford Tanzi (1980), by Claire Luckham

The Brothers Size (2007), by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Antigone (2014), in a contemporary version by Roy Williams, inspired by Sophocles
Find Me (1977), by Olwen Wymark
Chewing Gum Dreams (2012), by Michaela Coel
This is Our Youth (1996), by Kenneth Lonergan

Stunning (2009), by David Adjmi
Goats (2017), by Liwaa Yazji, translated by Katharine Halls
Close of Play (1979), by Simon Gray
2nd May 1997 (2009), by Jack Thorne

The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry (2013), by Marcus Gardley
Jumpers (1972), by Tom Stoppard
The Author (2009), by Tim Crouch
Via Dolorosa (1998), by David Hare
Dry Powder (2016), by Sarah Burgess

Luther (1961), by John Osborne
Dying City (2006), by Christopher Shinn
This is Not an Exit (2014), by Abi Zakarian
I Can Hear You (2014), by E.V. Crowe
Revolt. She said. Revolt again. (2014), by Alice Birch

The Big Meal (2011), by Dan LeFranc
Jitney (1982), by August Wilson
Tom and Clem (1997), by Stephen Churchett
Pullman, WA (2005), by Young Jean Lee

Family Voices (1981), by Harold Pinter
Fewer Emergencies (2005), by Martin Crimp
salt. (2017), by Selina Thompson
Wild East (2005), by April De Angelis

Comedians (1975), by Trevor Griffiths
The Skriker (1994), by Caryl Churchill
Hurt Village (2012), by Katori Hall
Rough for Theatre II (written in French in the late 1950s, English translation 1976), by Samuel Beckett

December

A Thousand Clowns (1962), by Herb Gardner
Sixty percent of audience; noticeably moved
They left the theatre?

I’ve been fascinated by the text for Herb Gardner’s ‘quintessential New York comedy’, picked up in a Brighton charity shop for 99p. It includes everything from property and working prop lists to costume and lighting plots, and set designs. The play itself focuses on an out of work comedy writer, Murray, in his eclectic Manhattan apartment. He’s an apathetic oddball, tired of the cheap gags and children’s comedy that’s ruled his life. This is until social services threaten to take his 12-year-old nephew out of his care, resulting in a dash to get a job and for one of the social workers-cum-one-night stand to reorganise his life. But does Murray want a conventional life?

Not dissimilar to a Neil Simon comedy, Gardner’s script is packed with gags and his protagonist is one half of several odd couple relationships. One of these is the double act between Murray and his precocious nephew Nick. He’s wise beyond his years, and even picks up on the cues of Murray’s flirting so to know when to vacate the apartment for the night. It’s an entertaining duo, and probably paved the way for later Hollywood concepts like Curly Sue and Big Daddy.
Published by Samuel French

People (2012), by Alan Bennett
“What’s the worst thing in the world?
Other people”

This is very much a sentimental choice of play for us. In September of 2013 the two of us first met at a matinee of Alan Bennett’s People, on tour at Curve, Leicester. Over 6 years later and we’re in the middle of compiling our annual Top 10 list of theatre while wrapping Christmas presents for our new born nephew, packing boxes ready to move house, and making plans for our wedding. Little did we know back in that bustling auditorium on an unseasonably warm autumn afternoon…

Theatre brings people together, so it’s rather ironic that the play that united us is based on the premise of keeping people out. Ex-model and aging aristocrat Dorothy Stacpoole lives in the squalor of her neglected family estate alongside her senile companion-cum-maid Iris. The two women are isolated from the outside world, reading stockpiled copies of newspapers from the 1980s and preparing for wars decades-long passed. With no heating and the house succumbing to decay, Dorothy and her sister June draw up opposing plans to fund their future. June wants to give the house to the National Trust, to create a museum curio of the estate and their lives. Dorothy wants nothing to do with the prying eyes of the public, instead preferring the option of relocating the house to Dorset to be ‘preserved’ by a private auction-house. With little chance of resolution between the warring siblings, a novel opportunity presents itself in the form of Dorothy’s old-flame, film director, Teddy.

People is classic Bennett. His trademark northern flippancy, pithy wit and endearingly cantankerous characters is a conduit for a tart inspection of class, nationalism, economics, politics and the enigmatic façade of ‘History’. The opening of the second act is a triumph of dramatic irony and farce, while the final dénouement is touching in its mixture of pragmatism and whimsy. In Dorothy, Iris and June, Bennett has created three fantastic roles for mature women, all of whom burst with ambiguous charm. A delicate distinction is drawn here between relationships with people, and relationships with People, as Bennett inspects the collision between the private and public spheres. It’s a lovely play, and one I was delighted to reacquaint myself with during such a momentous period in my own life.
Published by Faber

Sweat (2015), by Lynn Nottage
I watch these politicians talking bullshit and I get no sense that they even know what’s going on beyond the windshield of their cars

This time around it took me three nights to read Sweat. And what a great play it is. Set over a number of months in a bar at the heart of America’s rust belt in 2000, Nottage depicts the lives of a community as they are locked out from their livelihoods. We see people’s anger and desperation build on the backdrop of a widening income gap and the upcoming US election. From there to 2008, we see the beginnings of old wounds healing and the effects of the area’s industrial decline.

But what struck me was how characters cling on to hope. Whilst they are breaking their backs all day in the mills, they still have the escapism of alcohol in the evening, and something to set their sights on in the future. For Cynthia, it’s her cruise on the Panama Canal, but for others it’s more distant or illusory. For Jason, his plan is to work until he’s 50, then retire and open a Dunkin’ Donuts in South Carolina. And then there’s Jessie who only planned on working at the plant for a few months but ended up staying years. We hear how she planned to go out to Alaska and ‘live clean’ off the fatta the lan’, followed by the pipedream of India, Istanbul, Tehran, etc. It’s a fascinating part of the play, and in some ways very familiar in American literature. Everyone has their own mythical West.
Published by tcg