Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Amélie The Musical

Haymarket Theatre, Leicester
9th July, 2019

‘When a finger is pointing up to the sky,
 only a fool looks at the finger’

When Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie premiered in 2001 it catapulted European cinema back into the mainstream and made a worldwide star of lead actor Audrey Tautou. The tale of a quirky, kind, yet socially withdrawn young woman (and a side cast of equally kooky characters) captured the hearts of many filmgoers thanks to Jeunet’s unique sense of humour and his ingenious employment of magic realism. As one of my all-time favourite films I was parts excited, intrigued and nervous about a musical adaptation. Some film-to-stage adaptations work wonders (Legally Blonde, Kinky Boots, Billy Elliot, Hairspray), while others leave something to be desired (Strictly Ballroom was a big disappointment), and following a less-than-stellar performance on Broadway, I approached Michael Fentiman’s new UK production of Amélie with antsy trepidation. Long story short, I needn’t have worried. Fentiman conjures all the phantasmagorical splendour of the original, while Daniel Messé and Nathan Tysen’s honeyed score elevates the story in its melancholy highs.

Craig Lucas’ book perhaps skimps on plot in favour of Messé and Tysen’s character-driven songs that are rich in imagery and near modernist-like lyricism. Beloved characters from the film are cut or condensed, and less time is spent on the mechanics of Amélie’s mission to spread joy amongst strangers and friends. One of my favourite subplots regarding a long-dead husbands ‘missing’ letter to his jilted wife is relegated to only a few lines here, and I missed the whimsical recital of proverbs during Gina and Nino’s heart-to-heart. However, these omissions do little to detract from the charms of Craig, Messé and Tyson’s work. In several cases the adaptation even enriches the source material: Amélie’s childhood and relationship with her parents is fleshed out (with some gorgeous puppetry, might I add); the introduction of Zeno’s Paradox is a beautiful metaphor for Alie (and Nino’s) anxious hesitation and socio-philosophical bond; and Jeunet’s brief ventures into surrealism are expanded here into full-on hallucinogenic trips - Collignon’s comeuppance features a hysteria of dancing figs, and Amélie is given the Princess Di treatment with her very own Elton John musical tribute.

Messé’s music doesn’t quite eclipse the iconic bright minimalism of Yann Tiersen’s film score, but it’s nevertheless beautifully lilting, evoking the atmosphere of Montmartre while lending an intense depth of feeling to the show’s most emotional moments. The Bretodeau story is something of a simple plot device in the film, yet Lucas and co. place more emphasis on the restorative power and feeling of Amélie’s actions. Messé and Tysen's Bretodeau ‘open the box’ leitmotif synonymises the lost and found narrative themes and amplifies all the melancholy ecstasy of memory, epiphany and the transitory illusions of time. While I hesitate to mention any particular stand-out numbers, I felt that the music’s role in the production is to wash over you, inviting you into this strange yet recognisable world, and nourish the soul. Though rarely propelling the plot in the traditional sense of musical theatre, as a mood piece, the score is intrinsic and provides a window into Amélie’s psyche.

Matching the evocative melodies is Madeleine Girling’s Parisian Jungle-type set. Within a bohemian framework of ornate railway scaffolding, pianos transform into tobacco counters, grocery stalls and sex shops, and concealed behind the great clock of Gare du Nord lies Amélie’s apartment, a cosy cubbyhole hidden away from the constraints of time. The entire creative company have laid their talents bare, yet none of it would matter if we can’t get behind the protagonist herself. Audrey Brisson was born for the role. Her Amélie is cheeky, endearing, and just sharp enough to avoid any accusations of kitschiness. Wildly expressive, yet still at the most vital of moments, Brisson has a dexterity that compels, and her voice rings crystalline as a bell above the bustle of the city streets.

Brisson receives amiable support from an excellent cast of actor-musicians, most notably Johnson Willis as Amélie’s fragile guardian angel and frustrated artist, Dufayel, and a scene-stealing turn from Caolan McCarthy as a pitch-perfect Elton John. Despite sharing little stage-time, Brisson forms a believable and sweet chemistry with Danny Mac, cast very much against type as Amelie’s introverted love-interest, Nino. The union of Amélie and Nino is probably my favourite ever screen kiss. It’s a masterclass in understatement and quiet, yet furious passion, and Brisson and Mac recreate the moment on stage with romantic tenderness and a palpable electricity that pulsates throughout the pin-drop quiet auditorium. This swoonworthy finale more than lived up to my expectations.

Charming, eccentric, whimsical, but not without bite, Amélie has made a successful film-to-stage transition. Fentiman and co. have produced a piece that indulges the senses and excites the imagination, retaining the special qualities of Jeunet’s film while incorporating a flavour of their own in which this singular world unfolds. A must-see treat that deserves all the longevity of its predecessor.

Amélie plays at the Haymarket theatre until 13th July.
For full tour dates please visit:
Audrey Brisson and Danny Mac in Amelie The Musical.
Credit: Pamela Raith

Saturday, 6 July 2019

the end of history...

Royal Court, London
3rd July, 2019

Ethically, politically, pragmatically or personally?

When someone next asks me “What do you do with a Drama degree?”, I will respond with the above question.

On the blurb of the text for the end of history…, and in the publicity leading up to the production, much emphasis has been given to the 1997 setting and to Sal and David’s ‘leftist ideals’. This immediately gives us an impression of what to expect: New Labour, Labour of Love, possibly set in the lead up to or immediate aftermath of the election. But, like with Thorne’s more overtly titled 2nd May 1997 (2009), to second guess what the play is going to be would be to falsely label it as more obvious than it is. In fact, the play has three time settings: 1997, 2007 and 2017. The earliest setting is actually in November and sees Sal turn off the radio in worry when Blair’s name is mentioned.

This first act is definitely the funniest. Sal and David have got their three kids back home for dinner. The actual dinner isn’t the main event, and going by what we see and hear of Sal’s cooking it could be a write-off. Their youngest son is in detention, something they’ve encouraged to help him grow out of his experimentation with drugs. Their daughter Polly is back from Cambridge, still holding a grudge at why dad left her so quickly after dropping her off and beginning to feel inferior among the Cambridge elite. Their eldest son Carl is also coming home from uni, bringing his girlfriend Harriet to meet Sal and David for the first time. Harriet’s from a well-off family, much to the fascination of Sal: ‘How does someone own service stations… But do you own the – the petrol station… I don’t know, Little Chef?’ In fact, I would say it bemuses, even annoys Sal and David that Carl’s brought someone into the house who doesn’t have much of an interest in what her family does.

David and I have always made the kids take an interest’. Sal, page 17, the end of history…

In this scene, with all its humour and Thorne’s brio at creating and showing us (in such a short space of time) a fully believable and detailed family with a sense of their history and problems and where they are in the world and in their individual lives, I think this above line is crucial. David and Sal have brought up their kids to encourage them to be the best they can be; being inquisitive and keen to learn is a vital part of that. Books, among them Seamus Heaney poetry, are stacked around the room. There’s a phrenology head. The text also specifies that there are ‘artefacts from Sierra Leone, Hong Kong and Indonesia’ and the ‘odd interesting ripped-out article from a newspaper’ around the room. Two of their children, hopefully the third soon, are at university. This isn’t Reece Witherspoon in Big Little Lies yelling at her daughter that she must go to college, an education for the sake of credit and enabling a better position in the jobs market. Sal and David believe in education, and the good that it can do. They have debates around the table, quiz their children on famous quotes, make intellectual jokes. It’s entrenched in them that they believe in their children, their values, and that they will make good. Not just good for themselves, but for the world.

‘The challenge is how. The answer is people. The future is people, the liberation of human potential, not just as workers but as citizens’. Tony Blair, 1999.

They’ve lived through these values their whole lives and still live by them in each of the three settings. How these values conflict with their children, who by 2007 are largely leading their own lives and possibly harbouring different political views, is what creates drama, something greatly realised by John Tiffany and the cast. Polly is at the start of a potentially lucrative career, Carl is trying to climb the ladder of Harriet’s (they’re just about together) family business, and Tom is jobless and still living at home. The occasion this time is another family meal. Sal and David have news they want to share, Polly has phoned for a Chinese whilst mum and dad are at a petition, but Harriet ends up having cheese on toast because of her MSG allergy (it’s a mountain of cheese that we see – it doesn’t actually get cooked – Harriet’s the only one who eats some of the Chinese). The news is that Sal and David are not leaving them any of their money in their will, choosing to instead donate it in small parts to charities and the Labour Party. Their argument is strong: they don’t believe in inherited wealth, it only makes the rich richer and the poor no better off, plus the fact they don’t want to leave any of their problems behind. But it doesn’t go down well, especially because of Harriet’s presence in the room. But it’s Laurie Davidson’s reaction as Tom that’s the most interesting. Before bolting himself in the downstairs loo and attempting suicide, he’s at the back of the group most distant to Sal and David, staring into space. You can see his thought process of what this will mean for him. We’ve already seen that he’s not academic, struggling, not a part of the same jokes and references that the others share. For him, this conversely might make him feel like he now has to compete to be conventionally (financially) successful, something which his parents have never pushed onto them. But their reasoning is believable and noble. They do believe in their children, and I think that in performance there was something quite profound and moving about that.

"Fail to develop the talents of any one person, we fail Britain. Talent is 21st century wealth". Tony Blair, 1999

If anything bugged me about this, it’s that I couldn’t believe it. Maybe because I didn’t recognise my own upbringing or family in the play, maybe because I’m not as politically active as Sal and David, maybe because it can be hard to take something so noble and selfless (although whether it is selfless or not I suppose is another argument) seriously. But in the third act, the decision did make sense. In 2017, the family are preparing for Sal’s funeral. Most of the scene is made up of David’s eulogy for his wife. We hear her whole life, about her upbringing and career and politics and even time spent in prison. She’d lived her life by her politics and however futile one person’s efforts makes to the bigger political game, it suddenly all made sense.

Tiffany’s production transitions between scenes by the cast ripping off calendar dates between small vignettes of them living their lives in that time, all accompanied by an instrumental version of Imogen Heap’s The Quiet (great choice, it is quietly cinematic and suggests movement). Kate O’Flynn transforms from awkward, nasally young adult who absorbs and share’s her parents’ intellect and political leanings to working her way through life and experiencing her own compromises. But it’s Lesley Sharp who has gone the furthest to take her character off the page and into a rhythm where it’s simply like she’s just being the character: her nervous energy and oversharing, her small winces when she realises she’s overdone it, her belief in people to bring about change, however seemingly small. What’s so great about Thorne’s play (as well as his consistently interesting use of stage directions) is that it has made me pause to think but is all wrapped up in this absorbing family comedy.

the end of history… plays at the Royal Court until 10th August, 2019

David Morrissey and Lesley Sharp in the end of history... Credit: Johan Persson

Thursday, 4 July 2019

The Color Purple

Curve, Leicester
3rd July, 2019

‘Yes, I’m beautiful and I’m here’

I first read Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning The Color Purple two years ago after my mum recommended it for what seemed the hundredth time. I remember being stunned by Walker’s singular use of dialect, the striking, deceptive simplicity of her prose and the sensory envelopment it induced, as well as the importance of its themes within both BAME and LGBT+ literary culture. However, I’m embarrassed to admit, I didn’t absorb all the details of the plot – I remember a hazy sort-of synopsis, a brief, and thus unflattering, outline of a story one might tell after a pint or two – I remembered the hardships and cruelties Walker describes, yet the specifics eluded me. So at the close of Tinuke Craig’s production of Marsha Norman (book), Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray’s (music and lyrics) adaptation, I was struck by how uplifting the musical is. I came to realise that Walker’s narrative is one of hope – an obvious observation, yet one I somehow hadn’t previously connected with. This revival, a collaboration between Curve and Birmingham Hippodrome, is not without fault, but is irresistibly moving and thought-provoking.

We are introduced to a 14-year-old Celie (T’Shan Williams) and her younger sister, Nettie (Danielle Fiamanya) playing children’s games on a scorching Sunday morning. As the town congregates at the local church whispers circulate about identity of  the father ofCelie’s unborn baby. Celie’s baby is torn from her arms by her preying, incestuous Pa, the first of many injustices Celie is dealt in this odyssey of heartbreak, suffering, forgiveness and, finally, happiness. The story unfolds beneath the social evolutions and set-backs of the Deep South in the early 20th Century which sees Celie sold into a marriage of servitude and abuse. Over time, she gradually learns her own worth and gains the power to fight back against her oppressors with the help of the strong women she loves.

While Walker constructs a coming-of-age narrative weaved throughout a lifetime of experience, Norman and co. don’t quite capture the decades-long extent of Celie’s struggle. The episodic structure of the piece has a jumpy effect; morsels of music are interspersed with lengthy scenes that occasionally come across as stilted. Conversely, Alex Lowde’s set focuses on the paradoxical stasis of Celie’s life in opposition to the headlong trajectory of the plot. The cavernous depths of the Curve stage are blocked out by an imposing wooden-clad wall, a physical barrier to Celie’s freedom and happiness. Lowde’s is a thoughtful design, yet I feel an opportunity was missed in not opening out the space more during the second act stages of Celie’s liberation.

Russell, Willis and Bray’s music draws upon jazz, ragtime and gospel, and it brims with woozy emotion, if a little structurally uneven at times. Although the orchestrated skittishness sometimes fits well with the action (eg. overlaps and musical rounds perfectly capture the insidious humour of the gossiping Greek Chorus, and the erratic motifs in Mister’s Song/Celie’s Curse soliloquises a thrilling combination of grief and self-flagellation), I often found myself wishing individual numbers were developed further (I’d have loved Shug’s ‘Too Beautiful For Words’ to have lasted longer, it was such a touching moment). The production comes alive through song, but the necessity to keep the narrative moving leaves us with truncated music that only fleetingly reaches its fullest potential. 

But, boy, when the score hits those highs the show soars. Shug’s charismatic talents are showcased in ‘Push Da Button’, a bluesy barnstorming anthem of female empowerment, while her duet with Celie, ‘What About Love?’, is a captivating and tender song about sexual and emotional development that deserves to become a standard of the musical theatre canon.

Joanna Francis excels as the worldly and enticing Shug Avery, capturing the muddle of maternal generosity and flighty flirtatiousness that provokes a sexual frisson with almost everyone she encounters. Elsewhere, Simon-Anthony Rhoden and Karen Mavundukure are a blast as the feisty on/off couple, Harpo and Sofia, and Ako Mitchell’s Mister is a toxic concoction of rage and self-pity hidden beneath a crisp veneer of false propriety. Craig’s characterful ensemble enliven proceedings and effectively ratchet up the easy, carefree atmosphere of the Juke Joint, bringing an infectious vibrancy to the stage. T’Shan Williams excels in the central role, portraying Celie’s transformation from meek victim to independent woman with a sweetness and fire that immediately endears one to her character. The power of her vocals is matched by her nuanced acting; Celie’s journey from despair to belief, love and hope is, in Williams’ hands, a believable and rewarding experience.

As an atheist it would be easy to approach the message of The Color Purple with cynicism. Yet, Norman, Russell, Willis, Bray and Craig attend to the source material with earnestness, allowing the story’s philosophy to ring true with simplicity and compassion, and without ever edging into ‘preachiness’. When Celie’s exultant belief reverberates around the auditorium with her final ‘Amen’, I defy anyone not to feel some sense of higher power exemplified in the natural wonders of our world and the resilience of the human spirit.

The Color Purple plays at Curve until 13th July and at Birmingham Hippodrome 16th – 20th July 2019.
T'Shan Williams and Danielle Fiamanya in The Color Purple.
Credit: Manuel Harlan.

Monday, 1 July 2019

#ReadaPlayaWeek - June

Stunning by David Adjmi (2009)

 ‘Don’t let these people decide your life for you, don’t be a victim!’

Adjmi’s modern American tragedy focuses on the life of 16-year-old Lily, a naïve Syrian-American Jew living in Brooklyn, newly married to a man three times her age. Raised in a community of ‘business’ men, young housewives and luxurious lifestyles, Lily is brought up to believe her main purpose is to look ‘stunning’ and make babies. That is until she hires Blanche, a middle-aged African-American PhD graduate turned maid, who introduces her to the liberating world of books, semiotics, classical music and wine-tasting. As Blanche and Lily embark on an illicit affair the tension mounts as Lily’s husband Ike’s shady business venture takes a turn for the worse, and secrets from Blanche’s past return to haunt the family.

It begins as a satirical exploration of consumerist philosophy – Lily, Ike and co. are initially portrayed as vapid fashionistas who think that speaking in Pig Latin is the height of sophistication. Adjmi nevertheless gets to the heart of a community which is not unsympathetic, peppering the text with cultural idioms and flashes of affection, emphasising the importance (and inextricable nature) of family and security for these Brooklynites. So when a stranger (Blanche) intrudes on this world, the frisson of danger and excitement is thrilling. There are shades of Miller’s A View From The Bridge in Adjmi’s treatment of community, family and betrayal, alongside his emphasis on physical strength and presence in the Ike/Blanche stand-off, which is wonderfully offset by the omnipresence of a Ghost that initially only Lily can see. Stunning addresses issues such as race, gender, sexuality, class, wealth and abuse with fluidity and assurance, while also posing questions on the status of ‘belonging’ in a multicultural, yet hierarchical society. All this affords the play a sense of timeless gravitas on a par with the great American Tragedies of the 20th Century.

Published by Methuen Drama

Goats (2017), by Liwaa Yazji, translated by Katharine Halls

“Poor man. He thought he had the truth, but all he had was some other fantasy”

Goats was a product of the Royal Court/British Council New Writing for Theatre Project in Syria and Lebanon. Not only does such a project help to internationalise the Royal Court’s work, opening up opportunities for writers and other creatives from overseas and thus enriching our theatre ecology, but it also lets the audience into stories rarely seen on the British stage. Goats is set in a Syrian village surrounded by war and death in 2016. The boys who have died fighting are celebrated as martyrs, national heroes, who have done their families proud. The leader of the Local Party, Abu Al-Tayyib, puts much work into such nationalist propaganda, ensuring that the lasting image around their deaths is one of honour in order to encourage other boys to enter the war and die for their country. However, one Villager, Abu Firas (meaning father of Firas), takes it upon himself to question his son’s disappearance and death. Why did his son, who had always seemed so anti-war, disappear? Why did he phone his father asking what he should do? And why are the parents not allowed to see inside the coffins? But when the propaganda machine is so efficiently run and far reaching, Abu Firas looks like a lone crazy conspiracy theorist shouting in front of the cameras and ruining the boys’ funerals. But he’s done enough to sow the seed of doubt into the villagers’ minds about what is really happening to their sons. What Yazji achieves so well is to explore the boundary between public thoughts and televised lies, and private truths and silent doubts. And in a play – and indeed a culture – where the older characters are defined by their relationship to the children (Abu for ‘father of’, and Imm meaning ‘mother of’), the importance of family and the awareness of passing the responsibility of one’s country to your children is heightened.

As the truth unfolds, the realities of war and how a community reacts to and experiences them on a daily basis is fascinating. How can the villagers go on sending their children to their deaths, or have their lies gone so far that the truth has become a blurred and unreachable concept for them? It is a fascinating play which, like the best drama, opens our eyes to new worlds and perspectives. I also have to praise Halls for controlling what is a long and at times unwieldy play (apparently the original is longer). In fact, it relies heavily on text. This doesn’t seem to restrict its theatricality or its ambition, but it does make me curious about the creative process and how it was developed. Finally, in a text and original production which includes real goats, I think we have a new contender for best stage direction: ‘The goat butts its head against the wall, and the house shakes’.

Published by Nick Hern Books

Close of Play (1979), by Simon Gray

…so you see, what is the point, the point of caring for each other and love each other when the end is always and always the same…

I’ve been reading Daniel Rosenthal’s excellent selection of letters from the National Theatre archives: Dramatic Exchanges. I’m currently on the boys’ club of the Peter Hall years (1973-1988) and it seems that his approach to new writing, at least in the early years of his tenure, was ‘let’s get anyone and anything in that fills the space’. One of the juiciest bits of correspondence is from Gray about Harold Pinter’s production of Close of Play in the Lyttelton. Gray’s play – which sees a Sunday family get-together lay bare their long-held rivalries, tensions and secrets – played in rep with the premiere of Pinter’s Betrayal, both of which featured Michael Gambon. In his letter, Gray blames the NT for the play’s ‘lousy start, with no possibility of advanced bookings, and precious little publicity’. The production was beleaguered by strikes with the opening pushed back several times. However, I believe it was the same for Betrayal but they didn’t hamper that play’s success or legacy.

I read this letter before reading (or even hearing of?) the play. I’m glad it didn’t put me off because I quite enjoyed it. It’s true that it’s standard commercial, middle class and middle of the road fare. But Gray has acutely drawn an interesting family, each with their neuroses and complexes, secrets and problems, desires and shame. On the surface, things might look normal, all muffins and French windows, but the façade is quickly unveiled. Henry (Gambon) is an overworked and successful GP having an affair with one of his patients. Both he and his alcoholic brother are shadowed by their more successful dead brother. Their step mum Daisy (Dame Peggy Ashcroft) can go half a page of speech without ever really saying anything other than tautological fussing over the children. She’s married to their dad Jasper (Sir Michael Redgrave), who mutely has to listen to and therefore become complicit in everyone else’s secrets. He has a couple of outbursts later on but not much acting chops required… The sons’ wives have their own issues, including Margaret who has become a successful author and now realises she wants out of her marriage. I wouldn’t look into the play as a study of real human relationships and mental heath conditions, but as material for drama, it makes for a highly flammable crucible. Gray makes intriguing drama from letting us watch his characters unravel, leading to a weird and theatrical denouement. And like in Gray’s Quartermaine’s Terms, there is an inner life to the play in a fascinating series of offstage characters.

There was something I also enjoyed about the experience of reading this book. It’s a thin book (the play text is not much more than 50 pages) and its design is merely made up of the title and writer. I got it out of a library, but the inside stamp is from a campus on an institution which no longer exists. And it was first taken out of said library before the play had its premiere, and seemingly not stamped in the 40 years since.

Published by Methuen

2nd May 1997 (2009), by Jack Thorne

It’s brilliant. It’s like everything’s new. I’m so excited.

Ahead of a new New Labour play from Thorne opening at the Royal Court this week, I thought it would be good to read this earlier play of his. A triptych, each section is set in a different bedroom the morning of and night before Labour’s landslide victory in the 1997 General Election. In the first, a veteran Tory MP is expected to lose his seat. In the second, Sarah has followed the wrong guy home from a party. In the third, two 18-year-old Politics students wake up in the same bed together after a night of watching the votes come in.

Most of the enjoyment came from imagining original cast members Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Hugh Skinner play the awkward negotiation of exchanges in the one-night stand scene. But what’s great about Thorne’s writing is his careful exploration of character and always interesting use of stage directions. We (and possibly him) are surprised by what characters might do next. Each scene contains different levels of hope, possibility and disappointment, no more so than in the last scene. The snapshot we see of Will and Jake shows a brief but complete portrayal of coming-of-age. They contemplate their future, both at university and career, their friendship, and their sexuality. It palpably captures a moment of excitement, as naïve or short-lived as that might be, shared around the country by many that morning. Each scene may be microcosmic, but it’s the level of finely-observed detail in each which is really exciting to discover.

Published by Nick Hern Books


Monday, 3 June 2019

#ReadaPlayaWeek - May

The Brothers Size (2007), by Tarell Alvin McCraney

“I need to be out there looking for the me’s”

Drawing upon Yoruba mythology (characters are named after and embody deities – the worker; the astute warrior; the trickster), McCraney tells the story of a search for identity and brotherly love in the American South. Ogun and Oshoosi Size are everything to each other; their mother died when they were young and they were raised by an unsympathetic aunt. As the eldest, Ogun feels the weight of responsibility upon his shoulders as he spends his life trying to set his younger brother on the right path. Now, Oshoosi has returned from a stint in prison with his ne’re do well cellmate and substitute brother, Elegba, in tow, and is determined to make something of himself.

McCraney’s play is small but large in scope. The mythological allusions lend an ancient timelessness to the piece which elevates it above simple ‘family drama’. Memories are weaved into narratives, dreams melt into songs, and an uncanny sense of déjà vu pervades many a scene; McCraney builds a world in which we are not quite sure what is illusion and reality, a trick strengthened by the unusual aspect of having the characters speak the stage directions (including their feelings and expressions) as they perform. Thus a sense of artifice is fused with a guise of deep personal insight. The relationship between Oshoosi and Elegba remains enigmatic and causes friction with the solid, loyal, but weary Ogun. Moving, with flashes of warmth and humour, McCraney draws his characters with great empathy and keeps the reader on their toes until the bittersweet end.

Published by Faber & Faber


Antigone (2014), in a contemporary version by Roy Williams, inspired by Sophocles

Wisdom lies in what we know what it means to be right. Creon left it too late

Often, when I choose to read older plays or plays originally written in a different language for the first time, I find myself tending to avoid contemporary versions of them. What that means is that I’ve foolishly had the preconception that translations written by scholars from the 1950s, let’s say, are bound to be more faithful than more recent offerings. That idea, of course, is a fallacy. Comparing a Cherry Orchard, for example, translated in 1949 to one from 2019 will proffer different experiences, but even if the former may be closer to or contains more of the literal translation, this doesn’t mean to say it doesn’t conform to theatre practices at the time. Whether the story is given a contemporary version, reimagined or retold, the essence of the ‘original’ inspiration is still the core of the play even if the aesthetics, language, names and setting are all different. That’s certainly the case in Williams’ Antigone which is given a modern urban setting; in a city ruled by gangs, the title character’s (Tig) wish to bury her brother is at odds with Creo’s (the ruler of Thebes) demands. By wanting to carry out a natural act of respect and closure for a family member, she challenges his authority, throwing his power into doubt. What’s fascinating about this version (and it is Creo’s story as much as it is Tig’s) is seeing his far-reaching influence turn into lonely madness, denying the advice of his followers, family and elders.

There are universal themes at play such as honour, loyalty, and power but Williams also captures a sense of contemporaneity and theatricality in his vision. Cameras, social media and screens become the omniscient gods. And in a neat cyclicality, the text is framed by Creo having lost the trappings of a ruler and being a mere drunk on the street. In a play where the soldiers become more independently-thinking as the play goes on, this Antigone is a warning against herd mentality.

Published by Methuen Drama

Find Me (1977), by Olwen Wymark

“Dear whoever you are, find me and have me as your beloved”

The above quote was found among the scribblings in an exercise book given to Wymark by the parents of Verity, the protagonist of Find Me, and became the starting point for this nosedive into the depressingly tragic state of mental wellbeing and healthcare for vulnerable children. The play tracks young Verity’s life from being a disruptive child, through her stints in various health institutes and half-way homes, to the jail cell she’s confined to for setting a chair on fire. Wymark also places a strong focus on the impact of these events on Verity’s family – her older brother feels ashamed and embarrassed by his sister’s behaviour, her parents’ relationship becomes strained to breaking point – and we see how individual mental illness has repercussions on wider social communities in scenes such as a neighbourhood bonfire party, and a family holiday to France.

Wymark creates a sense of the erraticism with which Verity’s life unfolds by mixing up the cast and characters – a different person plays Verity, her parents etc. in each scene, while key moments are highlighted by all five ‘Verities’ speaking in unison. The whirlwind of scenes, jumps through time, and multitude of characters make for a pretty breath taking piece, and I applaud Wymark – and the real Verity’s parents who were consulted in depth – for showing the strains of mental illness in all their ugliness and pain. The sense of futility during a scene in which dad, Edward, pleads with multiple agencies, councils, institutes and homes for help – any help at all – only to be cut off mid-sentence is gutting. The character of Verity herself remains an enigma, and any criticism I have would be that, as a result of such inscrutability, she feels a little 2-dimensional. Although this may be the point, we are seeing her through the eyes of others and brief glimpses into her mind, such as my opening quote, which are merely tantalising titbits that mimic the frustration felt by the adults enlisted to care for her. A brave play.

Published by Methuen Drama

Chewing Gum Dreams (2012), by Michaela Coel

You’re failing you probably don’t do anything in your life… and you never will…

Fleabag is the obvious comparison to make with Coel’s play, later adapted into the E4 series Chewing Gum. Written and performed by Coel, Chewing Gum Dreams is a monologue giving insight to the life of 14-year-old Tracey: an underperforming, non-aspirational, recalcitrant, easily forgotten about teenager in the margins of society. It’s full of screwball characters, fresh humour, no crowbarred exposition, and roguishly funny and in-the-moment dialogue.

The way Coel has written it, as she might have performed it, is fascinating. Spaces on the page indicate where a new character might speak – or at least where she’s recalling someone else speaking – and punctuation is used not so much to be grammatically correct but to indicate emphasis, pauses and new thoughts. Although Chewing Gum Dreams is probably most memorably a comedy, it’s also an astutely written play addressing the realities (for many) of growing up in modern Britain.

Published by Oberon Books

This is Our Youth (1996), by Kenneth Lonergan

I wrote about This is Our Youth as part of a blog post on three of Kenneth Lonergan’s works.

Like right now you’re all like this rich little pot-smoking burnout rebel, but ten years from now you’re gonna be like a plastic surgeon reminiscing about how wild you used to be

Published by Dramatists Play Service Inc.


Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Avenue Q

Haymarket Theatre, Leicester
21st May, 2019

‘What do you do with a BA in English?’

Never have I identified so much with a song lyric. Seriously, what do you do with a BA in English? The answer for me seems to be ‘become a PA for more successful academics working in a marketable scientific field…’. With theatre blogging as my (not-for-profit) side hustle. Honestly, it’s fine, I like my job and the people I work with, and I feel privileged to follow my interests in my spare time – but not once would I have thought that this would be my ‘purpose’ in life. Beneath the crudities, fuzz and non-PC wisecracks, Avenue Q expounds many home-truths for the down and out, ennui saturated Millennial. It’s bloody funny too.

Though this was my first time seeing Avenue Q, I was aware of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s score, here sung with giddy delight by a splendid cast (both human and ‘monster’). Cressida Carré’s production zips along with hit after toe-tapping hit as what is initially a bizarre concept soon draws the audience into the zany, sometimes seedy, but often loveable world of the residents of backstreet New York. Mimicking the likes of Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, and Elmo, we are taught adult life lessons in the stylings of Sesame Street, complete with on-screen graphics, spelling classes (S.C.H.A.D.E.N.F.R.E.U.D.E), and human/puppet heart-to-hearts. From being proud to be who you are – even if you’re a Republican investment banker (‘If You Were Gay’), to accepting our differences (‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist’), and the personal benefits of helping others (‘The Money Song’); beneath the hysterical lyrics, political satire and razor sharp lacerations of social stereotypes, Lopez and Marx conceal a heart as big as Lucy the Slut’s bouncing chest and as fluffy as Kate Monster’s fur.

A tip top cast bring to life the characters in all their horny, corny, gross-out and kindness filled glory. Tom Steedon storms the stage with his shaggy haired, porn addicted Trekkie Monster, milking every second of his brief appearances. Nicholas McLean gets some zingers as the late faded child star turned superintendent, Gary Coleman, and Saori Oda is a powerhouse of surreal feistiness as struggling therapist, Christmas Eve. Doubling up as the guileless college grad, Princeton, and the anal and closeted whinger, Rod, Lawrence Smith excels in his characterisation. Standing out amid this quality company is Cecily Redman’s charming performance as loveable girl-next-door, Kate Monster. Her rendition of ‘It’s a Fine, Fine Line’ is a treat, infused with genuine emotion and pristine vocals. Yet Redman is equally at home playing Kate’s nemesis and local seductress, Lucy The Slut – all southern drawl, hair flicks and swaying hips. Several scenes feature Redman playing both characters bouncing off each other, a feat wherein the skill involved - and the effortlessness with which Redman performs it – only sinks in as an afterthought.

I feel I can’t praise the human cast without also mentioning the wonderful puppets that are quite literally the ‘face’ of the show. Cartoonish, but with just the right amount of human quirk and expression, I felt like a kid again, totally believing in these characters in all their felt-skinned, limbless splendour – that is, if you discount that fact they’re alternately demonstrating an array of positions from the Kamasutra, simulating masturbation, and telling racist jokes! The sight of bright yellow golf-ball sized, erect puppet nipples is an image that I won’t forget in a hurry!

Despite my assertion that Avenue Q is a sugar cube of ‘awww’ at it’s core, Lopez, Marx and Jeff Whitty (book) pull-off the unthinkable – a musical finale that is happy without being mawkish of cheesy, while also acknowledging the everyday reality that happy endings aren’t sustainable due to the ephemeral nature of life (and theatre). The affirmation no one really has a defined ‘purpose’, and that everything – all the good things, all the bad things – is ‘only for now’ is a refreshing philosophy that sums up the irreverent-yet-heartfelt tone of the show. This production is a true joy to watch.

Avenue Q plays at the Haymarket Theatre, Leicester until 25th May.
For full UK tour details please visit:

The company of Avenue Q.
Credit: Matt Martin

Sunday, 19 May 2019

'I never tried to do anything before': Three Works by Kenneth Lonergan

Kenneth Lonergan’s 2009 play The Starry Messenger is about to open at the Wyndham’s starring Matthew Broderick and Elizabeth McGovern. Longergan’s work has enjoyed a series of Tony nominated revivals in New York over recent years: his 1996 play This is Our Youth ran on Broadway in 2014, followed by Lobby Hero (2001) and The Waverly Gallery (2000) in 2018, all three of which featured Michael Cera and the latter the then 86 year old Elaine May. But productions of his plays remain sparse in London. It’s a pity, as he is adept at creating subtle, character-driven dramas about moral dilemmas and everyday crises. Here, I write about three of his works, This is Our Youth, Lobby Hero and his 2016 film Manchester by the Sea.

In This is Our Youth – *Klaxon* one of this month’s #ReadaPlayaWeek choices – Lonergan is interested in three fucked-up young people in Reagan-era New York City. The detail and complexity of the characters is shown in the stage directions. Dennis, for instance, is described as ‘a very quick, dynamic, fanatical and bullying kind of person; amazingly good-natured and magnetic’ along with about 6 more lines that gives any actor plenty to get their teeth stuck into. When the buzzer goes in his Manhattan bedsit at the start of the play Dennis is too cool to answer it straight away. When he does, it’s his friend Warren, having had stolen $2000 from his dad, a lingerie mogul-cum-gangster. Neither seemingly have jobs, degrees or many prospects, and they spend most of the play either doing or talking about getting drugs. Dennis is more resourceful in this way, putting together a plan that would help Warren pay his dad back, and leave enough left over as profit. Mostly a two-hander, the play is largely a character study into the lives of these two dumb-ass kids negotiating their friendship and this supposedly intermediate time in their lives where all they’re seemingly expected to be is dumb-ass kids.

Dennis’ bullish confidence is balanced by a lofty sense of entitlement. He’s fine with tossing a football round his own apartment but when Warren does it and breaks his girlfriend’s sculpture he kicks off. Likewise, he’s happy to play the more superior one but resists and bemoans any sense of responsibility over Warren. Warren, although more likeable with his ‘aw-shucks’ personality, is frustrating because of his apathy and stupid decisions. And any attempts to fix those are either short-lived or result in more foolishness. The two play off of each other resulting in an Odd Couple-esque comedy. Stuck in this apartment, the two would be trapped in a destructive cycle of youthful naivety and privilege.

What begins to help them out of that is the play’s third character Jessica. In the second act, Warren and Jessica see each other again having spent the night (and his dad’s money) together in a hotel penthouse. He, typically, has already relayed the evening to Dennis, whereas she is unsure how she feels. There’s an excellent sequence of about five pages leading up to her exit full of convoluted deflection, negotiations and contradiction where they talk around the subject of how they feel. It’s painful to see how far Warren goes with wearing his heart on his sleeve. Throughout the play, he has a suitcase full of old collectables from the fifties: old toys, a rare toaster(!) and a memorabilia baseball cap that his grandfather gave to him. It’s supposedly all worth a lot of money but, although Warren is passionate about it all, he is also seemingly indifferent about their disposal. Things like the toaster, and why he’s bothered to lug it across New York with him, have a comic effect, but the baseball cap carries more emotional weight. After he offers this as a token to Jessica, he says he’ll burn it if she doesn’t take it. It’s a signal of how he’s changed and yet stayed the same throughout the play; he’s wanting make a meaningful connection to Jessica but still knows the true value of nothing (financially or emotionally). The reason why he initially likes her is because she’s attractive and he’s desperate but there is more substance to their time together. In fact, one of the reasons he likes her is because she challenges him: ‘Like right now you’re all like this rich little pot-smoking burnout rebel, but ten years from now you’re gonna be like a plastic surgeon reminiscing about how wild you used to be’. It is her maturity that makes him want to grow up and do something productive with his life. The play has a socio-political interest outside of the single room setting – all seeping into the world of the play by osmosis through the characters. It’s 1982 and a different world to the one their parents grew up in, but whereas these ‘lost souls’ may have the ideas, they have no idea about how to put them to any use. It’s a quirky, funny, and gently heart-breaking play.

Lonergan has no more so mined the depths of a character than in his Oscar-winning Manchester by the Sea. Its protagonist Lee (Casey Affleck) is someone who has a huge load of new responsibility thrust upon him. Lee has already hit rock-bottom, punishing himself by living in self-imposed purgatory after losing his children in a house fire which was, at least partly, his fault. He’s now lost his brother and is tasked with the guardianship of his teenage nephew. At one point, Lee, yet again unable to cope, snatches a gun from a policeman’s holster and, with no thought, raises it to his mouth in an attempt to shoot himself. It’s interested in how someone can even begin to move forward when faced with life’s tragedies. After the fire, Lee has lived in isolation in a basement apartment working as the janitor. Now, talking to his nephew – whether that’s about his estranged mum or sex – is just one of the many processes he has to (re)learn in his acquired role. Others include him organising a funeral and having financial responsibility. Lee’s complicatedness and stubbornness is subtly wrought by Affleck as he finds himself learning the ropes of parenthood again.

Lonergan’s dialogue is interested in a failure of communication. Much of the scenes between Lee and his nephew are made up of silences, awkward questions, interruptions, and overlay. Lee is despondent and has an inability to make small talk. How does someone without the emotional capacity and articulacy, or even the strength, begin to climb a mountain of responsibility? And as in life, amongst the tragedy there are everyday hiccups. These moments become typical in a film where there are no easy answers or pat conclusions in the narrative. Such moments as not having a clicker for the garage door or not remembering where they parked the car provide offbeat comedy. Darkest of all, in a flashback to the fatal fire, the legs of a trolley don’t fold correctly when the paramedics load Lee’s wife (Michelle Williams) into an ambulance as he watches their house and life burn. Such quirks epitomise the realistic details with which Lonergan fills his work.

The setting, Manchester, Massachusetts, is arguably another character. The film’s title implies a seaside place and, as an early scene shows, is strongly linked to Lee spending time with his brother and nephew fishing on their boat. But now its winter and Manchester acquires a cruelty in the cold weather. Most brutally, the ground is too frozen to allow burial to take place. But, as in many other works of literature and popular culture, the sea has a mystic quality. (Funnily, the two examples that come to mind are an episode from the first series of Mike Barlett’s Doctor Foster and The Simspons’ episode ‘Kidney Trouble’). The sea, and the coast, is a place of lost souls; of both peaceful contemplation and haunting memories; a place that can cleanse and torment.

In Lobby Hero, moral dilemmas are at the core of four people in a New York apartment lobby. Michael Cera played Jeff, a character not dissimilar to the one he played (Warren) in This is Our Youth. Jeff is a lobby security guard, naïve and perhaps a shirker who has now turned a new leaf: ‘I just don’t want to be one of those pathetic guys in lobbies who are always telling you about their big plans to do some kind of shit you know… they’re never gonna do’. Determined to be better at his job, he finds himself roiled in a number of Catch-22 decisions, such as whether to assist his supervisor in giving his brother a false alibi.

We saw Lobby Hero at New York’s Helen Hayes Theatre last year. Trip Cullman’s production was sometimes dwarfed by the revolve that it was played on, but all four gave actors gave top performances. A moustached Chris Evans as a womanising cop and Bel Powley as his wide-eyed New-Yoiker rookie were especially good. Furthermore, it’s probably the first play I’ve seen where I’ve come close to understanding people’s comparison of drama to music. Like a quartet, there’s intrigue and enjoyment from seeing each of the four characters on their own, and then how each one interacts with one or two others. And when all four come together, it creates something which can set light.

Like those in This is Our Youth and to a lesser extent than what Lee has to face in Manchester by the Sea, Jeff is confronted with a call to action. Throughout these works, Lonergan shows everyday folk in positions where they could or need to commit to doing more. But what is it Jeff could do? In the closing moments, he confides in someone, ‘I was kind of hoping this whole experience would encourage me to rise to greater heights’. But is the whole thing a convenient anachronism? And would one answer have definitely been the morally correct one? What could make him that titular lobby hero? Would he have played the bigshot with the moral high ground and would it have given him a sense of satisfaction?

The Starry Messenger is playing at the Wyndham’s until 10th August. For more information, please visit