Saturday, 16 February 2019

The Unreturning

Curve, Leicester
12th February, 2019

I want to return to my home

1918. 2013. 2026. Scarborough.

Anna Jordan’s play about three different men returning from (or amidst) war is a startling delve into the pull and promise of home, and the larger issues of (national) identity which spawn from that. What happens when the perceptions of home (what it is, where it is, who it is) are different to the reality of home? Frantic Assembly’s production probes these questions with astonishing physicality, showing that the same issues transcend generations no matter what the conflict.

The Unreturning is a triptych of stories continually interweaving. In 1918, George returns home to Scarborough from the frontline of the trenches to a wife he doesn’t recognise and who doesn’t recognise him. She tells him to push the terrors of war out of his mind and takes pride in the gore and death that her husband brought to the enemy. He is in the throes of what we now know to be PTSD, the lonely depths of which Neil Bettles doesn’t shy away from staging. Similarly, in 2013, Frankie returns home to Scarborough from Afghanistan. Far from the hero’s welcome of sausage rolls he was perhaps expecting, he finds his mum, his town and even his country turned away from him. His mum can barely look at him, an angry mob is on his doorstep, and journalists are queuing up to throw him to the bears. We hear that in Afghanistan, he physically attacked and racially abused a civilian. The attack, and the support this gains from his friends in the pub, raises questions about the often-blurred line between patriotism and bigotry, and how easily people forget about the human loss in war. But it also raises questions about blame: has Frankie been scapegoated for the wider attitudes of an us/them mentality? And in 2026, Nat embarks on a long journey back home in an imagined future England in the midst of a rebel war. All three have to come to terms with a home which is now unrecognisable.

It’s in Jordan’s text that home is the most strongly and nostalgically conjured – that is, through what characters (mis)remember or desire about home. Her poetry here is honest and lyrical. It may remind some people of Carol Anne Duffy’s text for My Country but it’s far better. Whereas Duffy’s text crowbarred a generic list of national and local stereotypes, Jordan’s words feel personal, stemming from what the characters miss most. But I also think that Jordan’s text is smarter than that. The waxed lyrical ‘hedgerows, fish and chips shops and neat rows of terraced houses’ are edged with a knowingness that these images and questions pervade all three men’s lives spanning over 100 years just as they’ve pervaded British drama for however long. But for each of the men, as in drama, they are unanswered and unrequited. We don’t see Blighty; only ever hear about it or imagine it. It’s a romantic vision of home seen through the mind of someone horrifically torn away from it. The text is also great at conjuring a contemporary setting – or should that be recent history. Jordan evocatively captures a young man in 2013: looking forward to opening his front door and seeing his mum but also going ‘out’ out, downing jaeger bombs, singing in the streets and shagging bins.

Gender is also interestingly used in The Unreturning. The women in the play are either rudimentary puppets of actors holding up a dress and a hat, or are played by the male actors doubling up. At one time, the result is Joe Layton’s muscular and masculine Frankie quickly switching to an overtly feminine and soft depiction of George’s wife. This could easily be called (that lazy word) problematic but I think that what Bettles cleverly does is make us confront gender and the roles men and women play – or at least typically have played or have had to play – in wars. Most of the audience at this performance was made up of school groups. I think they’ve got a material of riches to think/write about, and thank goodness school trips to the theatre still take place and to productions this inspiring.

Andrzej Goulding​’s set and video design is staggeringly good. As we enter, a shipping container sits on a beach. Over the course of the play, this spins round, opens up and appears to expand and shrink, becomes pubs and lorries, bunkers and cliff edges, war zones overseas and Scarborough living rooms. We see it as a place of conflict, transit, displacement, alienation but rarely ever home. In fact, the scenes set at home are when a sense of home is least present. With a pang of light and sound George is taken from his home and is back in the darkness of war; the scene between Frankie and his mum I seem to remember as the coldest and saddest in the play; and when Nat does go back home, he feels threatened and confused. It’s a multipurpose set at its most fulfilled, impressively used but in a way which is always anchored in the needs of the story.

Frantic Assembly’s production is confrontational yet sensitive, and extremely physical yet with a close focus. I’m not overly familiar with Frantic’s work but surely this is the epitome of contemporary theatre, where a creative team comes together in equal force: a smart text packed with heart, movement which ceaselessly takes the story forward, a set design which complements the movement and highlights the stark contrast between war and home, lighting and sound which immerse us in the world of the play, and four actors fully committed to telling this story. A great bit of theatre!

The Unreturning plays at Curve, Leicester until 16th February and then continues its tour until 1st March, 2019.

The company of The Unreturning. Credit: Tristram Kenton

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Home, I'm Darling

Duke of York’s, London
9th February, 2019, matinee

“I get to choose now. This is what I’ve chosen”

How far would you go to achieve domestic perfection? What even is domestic perfection? Is our happiness shaped by or confounded by traditional gender roles? These are the questions Laura Wade posits in her feminist satire, Home, I’m Darling.

Judy (Katherine Parkinson) and Johnny (Richard Harrington) seem to be the epitome of marital bliss – she the doting housewife, while he works to sustain their quaint lifestyle in their immaculate post-war house. Dressed to the nines in an array of gorgeous tea dresses, Judy is always ready with Johnny’s slippers and a cocktail for him at the end of the day, and she lives by the word of ‘How to Run Your Home Without Help’ – a 1940’s guide to ideal domesticity.

So far, so archaic. But an early twist in Wade’s play reveals Judy and Johnny to be somewhat of a socio-historic anomaly, living in a 1950’s style microcosm slap bang in the middle of the 21st Century. They have an apple macbook stashed away, yet their authentic 50’s fridge doesn’t work; Judy tries to make up for their shortfall in funds since she quit her job by selling her vintage outfits on Ebay. Workplace politics, the necessity for technology and independence, and mounting pressure from a society that’s embraced more liberal views on sex and gender mean that the couple must face the inevitable question of whether the life they have made for themselves is at all sustainable.

Anna Fleischle’s impressive set recreates an idealised 1950’s suburbia, each immaculate room lit by Lucy Carter so as to emphasise the physical and mental compartmentalisation of the couple’s lives. Yet, aesthetically pleasing as it is, I felt that director Tamara Harvey didn’t utilise the space to its best advantage. The majority of the action takes place in the kitchen and lounge, with incidental scenes 'upstairs’ as mere tag ons to accompany the excellent playlist of retro classics (Little Richard, Chuck Berry). I am also unsure what thought Harvey/ Fiery Angel Productions/ the NT have given to transferring the play to this theatre as the sightlines are not great, meaning the pivotal twist in the first scene is lost by a good proportion of the upper circle. In fact, from where we were sat, the majority of the kitchen was obscured.

Production quibbles aside, Wade manages to evoke a sense of romantic nostalgia (not least in the play’s form) while also homing in on the inequalities and less-savoury aspects of the past. Judy takes pride in her housework, and the detailed minutiae of her day demonstrates the workmanship that every house-wife/husband/person undertakes. I think there’s definitely some tract in her assertion that feminism has allowed her to ‘choose’ this lifestyle, but her dedication to the past restricts her relationship with her husband to the point where it becomes obvious that they are merely ‘playing house’. And it’s this pretence that creates a brilliant stroke of discomfort. As Judy’s mother, Sylvia (at this performance played by Jane MacFarlane), says, romanticising a past which in reality was brutal, unfair and impoverished for all but a select few (white, straight, middle-class) is bordering on the offensive – especially when trying to claim supremacy over a still-flawed yet altogether more tolerant modern society.

This discomfort is brought to the fore with Judy’s incomprehensible attitude towards relationships. Her insistence that affairs are fine as long as the other partner never finds out, or her blind defence of her friend Marcus (Hywel Morgan) when he’s accused of sexual harassment, demonstrate a willing naivety which feels almost exploitative to watch. Semi-justification is provided through Judy’s backstory of an unconventional upbringing in a communal collective. But the posited explanation that Judy’s way of thinking is purely down to a teenage-esque rebellion against her righteous mother is a little too pat. I also found the eleventh hour revelation about her father’s misdemeanours lacked punch. But, for the most part, although it initially feels like Wade deliberately uses her characters as toys in a dollhouse, I found myself later coming round to them, understanding their flaws and their reasoning.

In all, Home, I’m Darling raises some important complexities regarding modern attitudes to love, sex, gender, work and leisure, yet Wade doesn’t quite get under the skin of these issues due to the abiding formal aesthetics of the piece.

Home, I’m Darling plays at the Duke of York’s until 13th April, 2019
Richard Harrington and Katherine Parkinson in Home, I'm Darling.
Credit: Manuel Harlan

Monday, 4 February 2019

#ReadaPlayaWeek 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, long-established and establishment writers were a regular feature. Later, we (now a co-authored blog) decided to challenge ourselves to read more and 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. Indeed, playwrights so well known that their first names aren’t necessary were still featured but there were also plays by Stephen Karam, Annie Baker, Tanika Gupta, Winsome Pinnock, Roy Williams, and Rachel De-lahay. Finding plays to write about wasn’t always easy. Outside of London and Amazon, bookshops and libraries are heaving with Shakespeare, Bennett and Churchill (not a complaint), but it’s rare to see something new or not on the syllabus.
After a two year hiatus, it’s back with a monthly blog post (or at least that’s the aim). Last year, in the midst of a new house and job and perhaps in 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, as reflected in the sweeping five star reviews in its recent London transfer. But I read a scene, forgot it and then re-read until I was stuck in a cycle of American rustbelt procrastination. I’ll try to re-read it and include it later in the year.
So here we go:
In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings (1999) by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Whaddya want? A yacht? ‘Cuz I’ll buy you a yacht. You know why? ‘Cuz I love you
From Our Lady of 121st Street to The Motherfucker with the Hat and Between Riverside and Crazy, Adly Guirgis is interested in how people sink or swim in a changing New York City. Here, in the Hell’s Kitchen of the nineties, a neighbourhood bar is at the centre of reformed criminals, junkies and prostitutes. Is there a list of 100 best opening scenes? If not, then there’s a strong argument that this play should rank highly. A recently released Lenny is attempting to hold his own in his old roosting ground. But for all of his bluster and aggression, it’s all futile. He argues with his girlfriend who later walks out on him, and squaring up to another man results in a pathetic attempt of power at a jukebox. The most power he has is to make the younger man sit outside. And when some old friends walk in, he is left to find that most of his old acquaintances are dead and his old haunts have been gentrified, before being completely demoralised by a 17 year old girl. He can’t even get a drink.
The dialogue always zips forward with vim; and any issues or themes are driven by story and characters, who are always well-rounded with a sense of decency, or at least humanity, whatever their flaws. It’s a cracking play and makes me even more excited to see Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train next month.
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The Guys (2001) by Anne Nelson
We have no idea what wonders lie hidden in the people around us
I hadn’t heard much about this play. Staged 12 weeks to the day after 9/11 at the Flea Theatre, just a couple of blocks away from the site of the World Trade Centre, Anne Nelson’s play is a fascinating blend of theatre and journalism which put theatre’s claim of immediacy to the test. We hear that “After September eleventh, all over the city, people were jumping tracks”. A writer living in New York, sharing in the city’s sense of uselessness, was asked to help a fire chief to write a number of eulogies for the men he’d lost. In this fascinating two hander, originally staged as a workshop with Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray, we hear the details from the day and its aftermath and the machinations of a NYC firehouse. And most memorably, we hear about the lives of those men lost: as firefighters, as friends and as family members. This play is – at least mostly – autobiographical. Like Nelson, Oklahoma-born Joan has made New York her home. Like Joan, Nelson witnessed 9/11 via the TV and through a phone call from her husband who saw it from his office. Like Nelson, Joan went out to vote later that same day. It brings to mind that this is one person’s perspective, only one experience of how their life was touched and changed by such horrors. It’s a difficult play but opens a window to the idea that behind the shadow of every person lives a wealth of talent, friendship, love and opportunity.
Published by Random House.
The Nest by Franz Xaver Kroetz (new version by Conor McPherson)
Look around at everything you’ve made possible…
Billed as a modern morality tale, McPherson’s take on Kroetz’s play is a scant two-hander about the anxieties of parenthood and consumerism. Soon-to-be-parents, Kurt and Martha, live on the breadline in an unnamed European city where material wealth represents happiness and well-being. Kurt earns a living driving trucks for up to fifty hours a week. He feels the pressure to provide for his wife and provide the best that money can buy for their unborn child. Yet, this consumerist philosophy has devastating consequences when Martha finds out just how far Kurt will go to earn and extra an Euro or two.
Xaver and McPherson target debates concerning what makes a ‘good’ parent and the immorality of capitalism. In Kurt’s striving to be a good parent he is increasingly a physical absence from his son’s life. The insistence that Martha stays home to look after the baby highlights the enduring imbalance of the sexes when it comes to the work/life balance. In an age where the typical nuclear family is fast becoming a defunct notion, the outdated man/woman and father/mother binaries are here brought into sharp focus. Thematically, these issues are portrayed strongly by McPherson, whereas other socio-political subjects seem tagged on as a means of pandering to the zeitgeist. An eleventh hour eco-message is somewhat lost amidst the human drama, and Kurt’s casual racism, although topical, seems too flippant to create any lasting impact.
The Nest is a brief but thoughtful insight into modern parenthood and ethical responsibility.
Published by Nick Hern Books.

born bad (2003) by debbie tucker green
the bits don’t make the bulk and the bulk don’t mek the whole and the all a your bits together don’t make your versions true
debbie tucker green’s first two plays were staged within months of each other. At such an early stage of her career, born bad (originally directed by Kathy Burke at the Hampstead) has the distinct linguistic style characteristic of her later work. In an early scene, we see Dawta call Mum a bitch. More than just a throwaway remark, Dawta is resolute and purposefully harsh in her tirade: ‘if yu actin like a bitch/ I’m a call yu it’. As the play unfolds in a series of conversations between Dawta, Mum, Brothers and Sisters 1 and 2, we start to piece together the jigsaw of a family in the immediate aftermath of the revelation of abuse.
Characters may be named after their familial roles (more specifically their roles in relation to Dawta), but they are fleshed out. It does draw attention to their roles they play and how they cope when this can of worms opens. This trauma upturns their world: the play delves into a plexus of fraught relationships as they examine everything they’ve believed to be true. One of the sisters and Mum swing from refusing to believe Dawta to blaming her, covering a huge amount of self-doubt. And as in tucker green’s random, language (spoken and unspoken) holds power. What may be mistaken as stylistic tautology, characters repeat, pick others’ phrasing apart, hold others to account, and ensure that words are not put into the mouths of others. But the play also relishes silence particularly that of Dad. But, in an ending which perhaps speaks of how the family will move forward, Dad still gets the last word.
Published by Nick Hern Books.
The Strange Death of John Doe (2018) by Fiona Doyle
Falling through space. And time. Into space and time. Falling
A body falls out of the wheel well of a British Airways plane about to land at Heathrow. Where did he come from? What’s his story? What put him in this position? As a team of morticians try to piece together the anatomical material of what’s happened, DC Kavura becomes obsessed with trying to get to the centre of Ximo’s life and find the soul behind the body. Doyle’s incredible play is an unnerving exploration into someone’s inner universe, searching for meaning of what a life is composed of beyond the physical and interrogating the boundaries between body and soul. I was fascinated by the way the text pushed to use space in ever more fluid and innovative ways: rib cracking shears in London become hedge clippers in Africa, continents merge and bodies become omnipresent. Doyle’s sense of drilling down to the reasoning behind an all too common tragedy leads her to tapping into an intriguing and topical subject.
 Published by Nick Hern Books.

Monday, 21 January 2019

Our Lady of Kibeho

Royal & Derngate
19th January, 2019, matinee

“The roar in the valley has become rather loud”

 It’s 1981 in the small mountain town of Kibeho, Rwanda, and three Catholic schoolgirls claim to receive frequent visitations from the Virgin Mary, sparking consequences on a local and global scale. Inspired upon hearing an account of this true-life story during a trip to Rwanda, Katori Hall teams up once again with director James Dacre to present the extraordinary Our Lady of Kibeho, a study on belief that is at once universal and deeply personal, while also scrutinising the communal seeds of warfare.

Dacre’s production opens up the world of Kibeho with great detail; it’s a world which is new to us on two levels. Firstly, we see a modest school building: its white a blue walls flaking, a playground thick with red clay, their water source a single hand-pump, electricity only evident in flickering ceiling lights. Radio Rwanda seems to be the only connection with the outside world. Secondly, Hall and Dacre show us a world devout with belief which to a 21st century, young, British audience may seem odd or anachronous. But the nature, extent and purpose of this belief is contested throughout. As the girls’ prophecies draw crowds of locals, media coverage and, eventually, interest from the Vatican, what at first seemed a blessing evolves into a portent of chilling historical magnitude.

Belief relies on inner strength; something doesn’t have to be seen to be believed. But in today’s society of stats and (mis)information, we insist on explanation and rationalisation. Even in The Simpsons, modern day miracles are put down to publicity stunts or coincidences. It takes some effort for us to actually suspend everything else we think we know to believe in something new. Therefore, the accusations of trickery and witchcraft aimed at the girls are vocalised with a conviction that is unsympathetic. This, alongside the pack-mentality displayed by the young women and the meditations on community is more than a little reminiscent of Miller’s The Crucible. However, the linear structure of Hall’s play exercises our empathetic capabilities as we experience the same doubts and discoveries as the characters, keeping the story grounded and thus allowing us to believe in the unbelievable.

Hall’s engrossing text grounds the unearthly events within the recognisable ‘tit-for-tat’ gamut of the classroom, encouraging a relatability with the characters that aids the suspension of our disbelief. The kind-hearted but naïve Headmaster, Father Tuyishime (Ery Nzaramba), clashes with the devoutly cynical Sister Evangelique (Michelle Asante), while the girls squabble and name-call with hormonal fervour. Yet these adolescent quarrels are symbolic of a more sinister social divide that becomes embroiled in the spiritual debate. Alphonsine (Gabrielle Brooks) is somewhat of a loner, shunned by her classmates for her Tutsi heritage, yet when her visions of Our Lady spread to others it seems to pacify the Rwandan social rift through spiritual unity.

As with her depiction of Martin Luther King in the Olivier Award-winning The Mountaintop, Hall’s play is layered and ambivalent; her characters are drawn as flawed human beings and what is deemed sacred becomes weighted by consequence. Far from idyllic prophets, Alphonsine cannot recite scripture, Anathalie (Yasmin Mwanza) is a downtrodden pawn, and Marie-Clare (Pepter Lunkuse) is bullish and proud. Sister Evangelique’s cynicism is revealed to stem from jealousy mingled with deep-rooted classism, while Bishop Gahamanyi (Leo Wringer) craves confirmation of the visitations by the Vatican for more self-serving reasons, and is even prepared to cheat in order to gain holy approval. In portraying faith in varying shades of grey and positing it as a subjective force Hall asks us to question our own beliefs, whether they be religious, political, social, conscious or unconscious.

Jonathan Fensom’s naturalistic set further grounds us in a believable reality – the red clay of the schoolyard is littered with discarded egg shells peeled by the bored schoolgirls; plants and flashes of azure sky can be glimpsed from the classroom windows – while during outdoor scenes Duncan McLean’s video captures the quasi-ethereal nature of the Kibeho sky. We hear that Rwanda is where God goes on holiday. Here the seven hills of Kibeho cast a momentous black silhouette against the colourful utopian skies. So effective is this use of the heavens that McLean’s subsequent video design during the prophetic denouement is a stark, nightmarish reminder of the brutalities that await the country.

Peppered amongst the stellar cast, Dacre makes excellent use of a local community company to portray the townspeople of Kibeho. The town feels populated by real friends and families and is an ideal advocate for local involvement in regional theatre. Our Lady of Kibeho is a transfixing meditation on the nature of belief and the power it can hold over a community.

Our Lady of Kibeho plays at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton until 2nd February 2019.
Pepter Lunkuse and Michelle Asante in Our Lady of Kibeho. Credit: Manuel Harlan

Friday, 4 January 2019


National Theatre

22nd December, 2018, matinee

‘The wall keeps out the enemy,
And we build the wall to keep us free’

As a child my dad would often read to me from an illustrated book of Greek Myths (retold and illustrated by Marcia Williams). I can still picture the often gruesome (to a six year old) illustrations of writhing snakes and gored bodies, yet these stories were amongst the most enchanting I encountered – my favourites were the stories of Icarus, Perseus and Medusa, and Theseus and the Minotaur. Tales of warring Gods, fantastical creatures, brave mortals and the contrasts of poverty and sumptuousness make for rich imaginings, but it’s the allegorical nature of these age-old myths that endure the tellings and retellings.

This theme resonates throughout Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown, a modern take on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. From the original concept album, to concerts, to this theatrical version, Mitchell’s piece is an excellent example of folk oral traditions, exemplifying the evolution of abiding stories and the reshaping of them to fit the times in which we live. I came to director Rachel Chavkin’s production of Hadestown with fresh eyes, but audience members around us were evidently fans of Mitchell’s work and ardently discussed the changes brought in this version during the interval. As with McPherson and Dylan’s Girl From The North Country, Mitchell and Chavkin celebrate the universality of folk music, which seems a natural fit with the enduring and adaptable character of the Greek Myths.

Onto the musical itself. In brief, Hadestown presents the story of the unearthly talented musician, Orpheus (Reeve Carney), who falls in love with the poverty-stricken Eurydice (Eva Noblezada). Meanwhile, Gods and lovers of the underworld, Hades (Patrick Page) and Persephone (Amber Grey), are having the mother of all fights, Hades resentful of Persephone’s summertime jaunts in the world of the living. A cold and harsh wintertime ensues. Feeling neglected due to Orpheus’ obsessive search for the perfect song to bring springtime back, Eurydice is lured into the subterranean industrial sweat-shop of Hadestown by the devilish God’s promise of ‘freedom’ and wellbeing. On hearing that his love has unwittingly sold her soul for a life of endless labour, Orpheus descends into the netherworld on a rescue mission.

Set between a New Orleans-style jazz club and the fiery pits of Hadestown, Mitchell has (to forge another theatrical comparison) done for the Greek Myths what Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice did for the Bible with their rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar; combining modernity and lore to make that stuffy literature once studied at school seem relevant and cool again. Mitchell treats us to lyrical odes (‘Anyway the Wind Blows’, ‘Epic’), anthemic torch songs (Wait For Me) and bombastic jazz funk (‘Way Down Hadestown’, ‘Road To Hell’, ‘Our Lady of the Underground’); musical indulgences that are a pleasure to listen to both in and out of the theatre. But nowhere is theme and format so pertinently unified than in Hades’ work anthem ‘Why We Build The Wall’. Utilising the question/answer refrain of many a folk song, Mitchell shines a light on dubious philosophical and moral diktats. The repetition and simple melody in the song creates a familiarity synonymous with folk while echoing the beating political heart of singers such as Bob Dylan (there are definite tones of ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ and ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ to name a couple). Comparisons with the isolated ‘freedom’ won by denying ‘outsiders’, an ethos championed by Donald Trump in the US and Brexiteers here, is undeniable. The fact that Mitchell’s folk song feels ingrained within our memories even when hearing it for the first time is a powerful statement that resonates with the moral socio-political allegories found in fables, myths and fairytales. Yes, it’s ambitious and Mitchell packs a lot into what is essentially a tale of star-crossed lovers, but each element is thrilling in its own right and together they create a lavish feast of a show in Chavkin’s hands.

Reflecting the laid-back jazz-club tone of the piece, Rachel Hauck’s set is an atmospheric concoction of spindly spiral staircases and balconies, reminiscent of the streets of New Orleans. The visible band become part of a living and breathing set, each adding character to the scant backdrop. Upon this stage we are greeted with suave showmanship by André De Shields’ narrator (and messenger to the Gods), Hermes. He introduces us to the musicians in a concert-like call out, a nice touch which adds flare to the already stylish proceedings. The phlegmatic feel of the first act gives way to the mechanical furnace of Hadestown in the second act. Hauck’s set rotates and sinks, illuminated by Bradley King’s bruising lighting, emitting a sense of the cavernous, sweaty pit into which Eurydice descends. Details such as these prevent Chavkin’s production from feeling like a semi-staged concert – we are engulfed by Hades’ world and the cast’s impassioned performances ensure we are deeply invested in the fates of the heroes. Despite knowing how the original myth ends, I was on tenterhooks, hoping for an alternate conclusion.

Mitchell has instigated something special, and I hope, and expect, Hadestown to evolve further throughout the years, as each new version creates its own musical and mythological traditions. ‘If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song’ – The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis expressed the sentiment perfectly, and this quote sprang to mind when, post-curtain call, Persephone implores the audience to raise a cup and ‘spill a drop for Orpheus’. The song lives on, carried by those that hear it.

Hadestown plays at the National Theatre until 26th January, 2019. The production transfers to the Walter Kerr theatre, New York, from 17th April 2019.

The company of Hadestown.
Credit: Helen Maybanks

Monday, 24 December 2018

Top 10 Theatre of 2018

The inheritance of wisdom, community and self
 Matthew Lopez

Each year, around March, I think of a brilliant way to start the Best of the Year list. Each year, around December, I forget it. In the year when football nearly came home and the UK has been stuck on a political pause, theatre has been the lodestar. Ian Rickson opened up a world of subconscious and unease in Pinter’s The Birthday Party in the West End, Kate Hewitt communicated the contemporaneity of Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon in Sheffield, and Polly Stenham rewrote August Strindberg’s Miss Julie (retitled Julie) for the Fleabag generation at the National. Sam Mendes brought us three hours of mansplaining in a disappointing The Lehman Trilogy at the National, Aidan Turner made his West End debut in Martin McDonagh’s hilarious The Lieutenant of Inishmore in the West End, and Leicester’s Curve delivered a brilliant production of Fiddler on the Roof which put community at the fore.

Other honourable mentions: the genre-defying The Girl from the North Country celebrated the lyrical intimacy of Bob Dylan's music; the irreverent and wickedly debauched The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios; and Adam Penford's production of Beth Steel's Wonderland at Nottingham Playhouse brought the play home.

And here’s the Top Ten with a snippet of each review:

10 – The Lovely Bones (Royal & Derngate, Northampton)

Stuck in a place in between the living and the dead, Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s design cleverly toggles these two worlds, playing with notions of what we can see and believe, what is tangible and what isn’t. An angled mirror stands at the back reflecting the stage. Some parts appear odd in the mirror such as a chair seemingly attached to the back wall. Other things only make sense in the mirror such as the cornstalks which appear the right way up only in the mirror. Jabares-Pita further distorts things with her use of two-way mirrors, affording us glimpses into a space beyond. This gives Still a space to create the effect of staging the ghostly. But, perhaps conversely, it is also a space to show the concrete and the intimate, such as sister Lindsay’s first time having sex. And again, it’s also a space for the internalised. Overall, we find ourselves occasionally watching things on stage, occasionally watching the reflections, occasionally through the glass, and often all three. It’s a complex, mesmeric design made all the more stunning by Matt Haskins’ lighting and Still’s stage images: a blur of telephone wires, the gentle falling of snow, subtle and simple puppetry, and Mike Ashcroft’s effective use of movement.

9 – Hello, Dolly! (Shubert, New York)

In the week that Bernadette Peters turned 70, we saw her storm the stage as Dolly Levi on Broadway. If Hamilton has been the musical that made Broadway cool again, appealing to a more diverse and younger audience, Hello, Dolly! is the musical which defines classic Broadway. This was certainly the case in Jerry Zaks’ production which embraced and indulged in all of the trappings of a bonafide, classic Broadway hit. From the marketing and the Shubert’s marquee to the casting and production values, Zaks pulled out the stops. Santo Loquasto’s set and costume designs were likewise elaborately sumptuous: the dresses and hats were fabulous; a whole train crossed the stage; dancers pirouetted under the weight of wobbling, proscenium-high stacks of plates; Horace’s shop filled the stage. The whole show, led by Peters, was a frothy, farcical delight.

8 – The Band’s Visit (Ethel Barrymore, New York)

Played straight through with no interval, The Band’s Visit is a fleeting but searing musical which encompasses the cravings, losses, hopes, mistakes, hits and misses of the human experience. Yazbek and Moses have beautifully and succinctly crafted a piece which never outstays its welcome and manages to say in a mere one and a half hours what many try to achieve in years of musings and toil. While it may be overlooked in favour of the flashier shows currently playing in New York, this small, intimate and unassuming musical outshines even the brightest lights on Broadway. Thankfully, it won 10 Tony Awards this summer, including Best New Musical.

7 – Hamilton (Victoria Palace)

Words have power. And just as Hamilton himself did, Miranda has used all the power in his lexicon to move the world – yes, a musical isn’t going to create the same political upheaval as the forming of a constitutional government - but I guarantee that following this, the social and cultural orbits that unite within the arts will shift slightly from their once too predictable axes. So many of Miranda’s songs have already become standards (‘Burn’, ‘The Room Where It Happens’, ‘Wait For It’, ‘Helpless’, ‘Satisfied’, ‘My Shot’, ‘Dear Theodosia’, ‘You’ll Be Back’, to name but a few) that it’s difficult to think of a contemporary composer that has had as great an impact at such a young age. Rich in theme, aesthetic, language, and context I hope and expect Hamilton to find its way onto many an English Literature syllabus where it can take its place amongst the classics of old. In fact, to further the Shakespeare comparison, while we Brits can claim Richard III and Henry V etc. then in Hamilton America has found its History Play and ushers in a new era of creative political commentary. This is a production that merits watching again and again and is sure to reveal new delights with each viewing.

6 – An Octoroon (Dorfman, National Theatre)

‘In clumpy folds, the paint oozed over the left half of his face and down the length of that side of the body, until one eye, one nostril, one shirtsleeve, one pant leg, and one Patek Philippe watch were washed completely white’ (259-260). This is from Paul Beatty’s wickedly funny and wildly subversive 2015 novel The Sellout, a satire about a black Los Angelino who reintroduces racial segregation and takes on a voluntary slave in order to put the town of Dickens back on the map. It’s hard not to see the publicity image for this production of Jacobs-Jenkins’ play and not think of that part, one vivid bit of imagery of many, from Beatty’s novel. But as well as both making such brutal points about racism in America it also makes you think about how such things are discussed. Rereading bits of The Sellout as preparation for this review (these things aren’t just thrown together, surprisingly!) I came across another line: ‘“Problematic,” someone muttered, invoking the code word black thinkers use to characterise anything or anybody that makes them feel uncomfortable… and painfully aware that they don’t have the answers to questions and assholes like me’ (98). ‘Problematic’ is too often an easy get-out word to avoid the heart of something. An Octoroon is problematic but this only strengthens it, provoking us to continuously question its characters’ representations.

But it’s worth probing what is problematic and why that matters. There is a definite uneasiness about seeing minstrelsy, something enhanced by Bennett’s decision to use thick greasepaint or shoe polish to create block colours (black, red and white). This is much more startling when comparing it to production photos from some American productions. And the blackface would be troubling enough if it was simply there as part of a post-modern critique of racial representation but it is compounded with melodrama and stage spectacles such as fire, straight out of Boucicault’s theatre, soAn Octoroon can’t simply be written off as as an easy criticism of the original when at times it feels like a celebration of Boucicault’s theatre as much as a blistering play in its own right. There’s also the interest in stereotypes, from the character of old Pete (an echo of the slave Hominy in Beatty’s work) and the relentless modern stereotypes in the dialogue of Minnie and Dido. But Beatty and Jacobs-Jenkins share an irreverence that is refreshing and shows that serious ideas can be explored as effectively – perhaps more so – through subversion and humour.

5 – Company (Gielgud)

Believe the hype. Elliott’s production is defining a new era of musical theatre. Fantastic performances, lush music, hilarity tinged with poignancy, Company has it all. Above all, Elliott emphasises the ecstatic truths in Sondheim’s lyrics (the skill that, for me, is what sets him apart from his contemporaries – yes he’s incredibly witty, but the real beauty of his music is his unique way of clarifying what is thought to be inexpressible), and by the time Bobbie sings ‘Being Alive’ we have journeyed with her to that point of raw recognition. ‘Somebody make me come through, I’ll always be there as frightened as you, to help us survive being alive’ – we all want company, but, thanks to Elliott and Craig’s Bobbie, it is evident that company no longer has to be in the form of conventional marriage, or even conventional relationships. The longing for companionship may be universal, but there is no universal way of obtaining it. And the realisation of that is painful, life-affirming bliss.

4 – Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual (Curve, Leicester)

Throughout the play, Riaz asks ‘Who am I?’. It’s a question Leicester has had to ask itself over the years, with sometimes uneasy answers. Khan’s time in the Baby Squad precedes my birth and yet it still resonates with this changing and vibrant city. Thirty years on, Brucciani’s is still here and the clock tower remains a beacon of the city. But it’s also changed considerably in the last decade, with the monopolising of the king in the car park, the LCFC murals dotted about town, and indeed the opening of Curve itself. In its tenth year, Curve’s two biggest productions have been a new musical that has attracted audiences in their droves up and down the country, and this very local play about a very specific and pertinent part of Leicester’s lifeblood. These are the highlights of a richly diverse programme made for its city. And in Memoirs, they’ve made a pulsating bit of theatre which is simultaneously sensitively staged with stimulating ambivalence, while remaining jubilant about the making of a man and a city.

3 – Summer and Smoke (Duke of York’s)

This is a play and production of binaries which come together as one. There’s the supposed doppelgänger in Alma which John talks about. There is Forbes Masson as both the Preacher and the Doctor. There is the earthy stage on which the actors play barefoot and the ethereal music and staging all performed in one space. There is the 1948 text by Tennessee Williams and the contemporary direction by Rebecca Frecknall. And, indeed, there is summer and smoke, both suffocating and liberating in certain ways. All harmonise to make a stellar piece of theatre, exquisite not least because of the chemistry between Patsy Ferran (always interesting and thoughtful in her performances) and Matthew Needham. Above all, this production of Summer and Smoke is more than the sum of its parts. Text, direction, voice, movement, lighting come together to show that theatre is truly the most collaborative of art forms.

2 – Fun Home (Young Vic)

Like most memory plays, we are aware that Alison’s version of events is patchy, unfinished and coloured by hindsight and personal feeling. This is beautifully conveyed in Kron’s book as Alison frequently stumbles over her choice of words, tries out and discards new expressions, and generally thinks out loud. As a basic insight into the approach artists take towards creation, it feels, at once, organic and intimate, a technique embraced by David Zinn’s set. From jumbled heaps of furniture, to semi-populated spaces, to the white expanse that echoes a blank canvass, to the fully realised ornate house on Maple Avenue, Zinn’s design mimics the collage of images our memories create while also evoking Bechdel’s original illustrative work.

One of the aspects I found most moving was Kron and Tesori’s faith in silence. As a graphic novel tells a story through images, words and, perhaps most importantly, the spaces in between, Fun Home’s creators similarly embrace multimodal techniques to enhance the joy and tragedy of the piece. Rarely have I seen a ‘loss for words’ so appropriately and satisfyingly portrayed. It may be somewhat incongruous to say, but within ‘Ring of Keys’, the musical’s breakthrough number, the most eloquent expressions of self-discovery are found in Small Alison’s moments of halting inarticulation, there are no words to express the joy and recognition she feels. Alternately, if ‘Ring of Keys’ is a blazing and triumphant epiphany, then ‘Telephone Wire’ is it’s melancholic, transient cousin. Alison’s final car ride with Bruce is brimming with thoughts unspoken and missed milestones, the fact that Big Alison chooses to relive this memory, physically transposing her younger self, is revelatory enough.

1 – The Inheritance (Young Vic)

There’s so much going on in terms of plot, characters, narrative frames and scale that it would be easy to assume that the writing is merely good in the face of the play’s sheer ambition. But, as well as being a damn clever meditation on the creative process, the writing is also emotionally searing, nuanced and consistent, never glib or rushed. There are numerous standout scenes, monologues and instances of dazzling visual imagery so I want to home in on some specifics to at least try to convey Lopez’s skill. At the end of the first act, Walter has a long monologue about the pain of seeing his friends ravaged by AIDS. When talking about their upstate house which he - against Henry's will - used as a refuge for the dying, Walter contrasts images of the city burning around him with the burning reds and oranges of the cherry blossom tree in the garden. One is a picture of death and desolation, the other of growth and birth. Much later, when Toby disappears, he realises that ‘I can’t rewind my story. I can only go forward’, and we are prompted to think of that imagery again when Toby weighs up his options: ‘Heal or burn?’

Real estate plays a key but peripheral role in The Inheritance. Henry is a real estate billionaire, owning an apartment in Manhattan, a place in the Hamptons and a house upstate which we learn he gave to Walter in the late eighties/early nineties. Meanwhile, Eric, at the start of the play at least, lives in the rent-controlled apartment that his grandmother lived and died in. It was there that she watched Kennedy’s assassination, Nixon’s resignation and Obama’s election victory. Essentially it was in that apartment that she became an American. Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy (2015) is similarly set in rent-controlled ‘prime Manhattan real estate’ that would easily fetch ten times its current rate if deregulated. We’re reminded in The Inheritance that partners of the ill were also affected by often losing their homes. Both Lopez and Adly Guirgis, then, paint New York as a city to which people flee and offers the opportunity to form safe communities, only to be threatened, whether by disease, City Hall, or rises in prejudice.

The link between real estate and AIDS is interesting. In 2016, Alexandra Schwartz wrote for The New Yorker that the epidemic occurred simultaneously with the real estate market ‘turn[ing] relentlessly bullish’, with the boroughs that had the highest rate of infection also having the fastest rate of gentrification in the following years. Later she reflects that ‘Whether consciously or not, we build our homes on the graves of others.’ The line seems to have added pertinence in light of this play. Henry gains his billions from the development and exploitation of legacy and its effects on the next generation. Conversely, regarding the duties of community, Walter’s altruism in opening up the doors of his house is a rallying cry for a more socialist approach. In a moving and startling end to part one, the ghosts of a generation of men who died there reconvene to welcome Eric; a reminder of the community lost and what a community can aspire to be.
Clockwise from Top Left: Kyle Soller, Paul Hilton and John Benjamin Hickey in The Inheritance (Credit: Simon Annand); Hareet Deol, Riaz Khan and Jay Varsani in Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual (Credit: Ellie Kurttz); Charlotte Beaumont in The Lovely Bones (Credit: Sheila Burnett); The cast of The Band's Visit (Credit: Ahron R. Foster).

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Treasure Island

Haymarket Theatre, Leicester

18th December, 2018

Is it pretend?

Yes, but the feeling’s real

Leicester’s Haymarket played a formative part in my early exposure to theatre. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, I came to the Haymarket with school and my family to see Pinocchio (in the studio), Peter Pan, The Witches, The Wizard of Oz and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The same with my girlfriend who also saw Singin’ in the Rain, Charlotte’s Web and The Borrowers. I was also acutely aware of the theatre’s history as a producing rep and pre-London tryout house from the seventies onwards: Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson in Me and My Girl, Anthony Hopkins in M Butterfly, and Peter Bowles in The Entertainer. And then in January 2007, it closed after a final Christmas show of The Wizard of Oz (which featured a jazz club singing lion from what I remember). Since then, we’ve been lucky to have Curve in Leicester, but the Haymarket has been going to waste sitting as an empty shell above a shopping centre.

This year, after a reported £3.6 million refurbishment, it has reopened. Sandi Toksvig’s new version of Treasure Island, directed by Matthew Forbes, is its first major production. Toksvig’s self-referential adaptation is superb: she has a pragmatic approach to adapting a challenging text for the stage, one which strips theatre of any reverence and makes it immediately accessible. She has a direct approach to cutting out the long-winded bits of the novel and is not afraid to question some of the more problematic parts:

“Is it OK that only the bad guys are disabled?”

“No, but it’s an old book.”

This playful and engaging approach is where the whole production excels. Forbes embraces the idea of a new theatre, building the foundations of what an ideal theatre should be: a place for stories, make-believe, and magic.

A girl walks on a bare stage whistling. A single light shines and an old Wizard of Oz front cloth flies in. Rather cleverly, Toksvig instantly makes us aware of the links between theatre and a ship, from the ropes and rigging to the whistling and terminology. Simultaneously, we are in a disused theatre with leftover props and an old Cowardly Lion costume (which nicely appears later on to save the day), and at the start of imagining Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel. Rebecca Brower’s resourceful design sees backstage scaffolding become part of the pirate ship and wooden crates create a tropical island. Theatricality is embraced even further through the addition of Dominic Rye’s excellent put-upon stage manager, a role which sees him running around the stage and live designing the sound.

Samuel Parker’s puppets are ingenious, both in terms of their design (especially the parrot) and how they’re brought to life by the cast and Forbes - his expertise on War Horse comes to the fore here. In particular, an islander in act two has a full song and dance routine, in which he is hilariously given his own personality by a team of three manipulating him. Elsewhere, Kat Engall plays Jim with a convincing balance of naivety and adventure; Joyce Greenaway leads the audience through the story and songs; and  Tanveer Devgun and Andrew Cullum get the most laughs, the former as the hapless Captain Smollett, first appearing wearing a ‘I went to RADA’ T-shirt, and the latter as a foppish ham of an actor.

As the treasure is returned, and Jim discovers his identity (involving a crisp projected cameo from Gary Linekar), after all of the dancing, a wedding and a happy ending, the stage manager clears everyone and we are back on the bare stage. The actress playing Jim looks disheartened that it’s all over. But the narrator reassures us that we can do it all again tomorrow - there will always be new tales of adventure to be told. Leicester has a blossoming theatre ecology this festive season. It was a pleasure to be back at the Haymarket to see this revelatory and ambitious production. We must make sure it doesn’t close its doors again.

Treasure Island plays at the Haymarket Theatre until 6th January.

Jules Brown in Treasure Island. Credit: Pamela Raith