Category Archives: Theatre Review

Train of Events

ONE UNDER

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 20th November, 2019

 

Winsome Pinnock’s 2005 play gets a reworking in this touring production from Graeae Theatre Company and the Theatre Royal Plymouth.  Nella’s friend Cyrus, who does odd jobs around her house, was the driver of the train that killed her adopted son, Sonny, when he jumped from the platform.  Cyrus is seeking atonement and also answers.  He tries to piece together Sonny’s final days, looking for clues.  Sonny’s sister Zoe recognises him from the inquest and warns him off…

Pinnock reveals the action on a fractured timeline, which adds to the intrigue.  This is not so much a who- as a WHYdunit.  The more we discover, the more we realise we can never truly know what’s going on in someone’s mind.  We meet Sonny in flashbacks: are the fantasies he uses to entertain Christine from the launderette merely banter, or do they stem from paranoid delusion?  Ultimately, we are left with questions and an absence of resolution – but to me, this is harder hitting and more thought-provoking.

Amit Sharma directs a taut quintet with an assured hand.  Pinnock’s naturalistic dialogue is given room to elucidate and obfuscate, even though the setting (a neat, abstract multi-purpose space, designed by Amelia Jane Hankin) is stylised and undefined.  What comes across is the humanity of all involved – and there are some very powerful moments indeed.

Stanley J Browne gains our empathy at once as the traumatised train driver, trying to get a handle on things.  Shenagh Govan shines as den-mother Nella, as does Clare-Louise English as Christine, the woman upon whom Sonny lavishes attention and a load of money.  Evlyne Oyedokun is utterly credible as the daughter looking out for her mum’s interests, and Reece Pantry’s Sonny almost has me in tears – until I’m made to question whether his mental episode is just a joke, as Sonny claims…

In a play where nothing is fully explained only implied or hinted at, the audience is called upon to use their intelligence – we all love a mystery.  But this piece points out, quite starkly, that life isn’t like a whodunit.  Sometimes, you never find an answer, and sometimes love isn’t enough.

Intriguing, bewildering, moving and tragic, this is a piece that will stay with you long after the cast take their well-earned bows.

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Reece Pantry and Stanley J Browne (Photo: Patrick Baldwin)


Julie, Madly, Deeply

AFTER MISS JULIE

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 19th November, 2019

 

Aspect Theatre’s follow-up to the excellent Duet for One is this play by Patrick Marber from 2003, which is based on Strindberg’s 1888 drama.  The action is transposed to an English country house in 1945, when post-war Britain is heady from the landslide victory of the Labour Party (aka ‘the good old days’!)  Rather than join her father in London, Miss Julie stays at home to party with the servants.  She has designs in particular on John, her father’s chauffeur, who is loosely engaged to Christine, the cook.  The scene is set for a triangular battle of wills.

Katherine Parker-Jones is excellent as the eponymous Julie, giving a complex characterisation.  Here is Julie’s fragility and haughtiness, her vulnerability and pain, her self-loathing and her imperiousness – all at the mercy of her baser desires.  She is both predator and prey.

As the object of Julie’s attentions, John Lines makes chauffeur John a man torn between duty and desire, between propriety and possibility.   He is tantalised by the prospect of a new life in New York, liberated from the rigidity of the class system, all the while despising what Julie represents and yet desiring her as a woman.  This pair are messed up, I’m telling you!

By contrast, Lizzie Crow as Christine the plain-speaking cook, knows her mind and her place and has a more pragmatic approach.  Crow’s silences speak volumes – it’s a compelling performance – and when she lets rip, it is to take the moral high ground (albeit somewhat hypocritically).

Director Marc Dugmore establishes and maintains an intimately naturalistic feel – a good fit for the snug space at the Attic, and Patrick Marber’s writing touches on the symbolism that is indicative of the material’s Scandinavian origins.  The fate of a pet bird, for example, represents the deflowering of Miss Julie.

The long table that dominates Katherine Parker-Jones’s set design represents the class system: it is used properly by the servants, but Julie breaks conventions and sits on it, even serves herself up on it at one point.  There is a lot to unpack here, raising the stakes beyond that of a three-handed domestic spat.

It’s a gripping 75 minutes of top-quality drama that asks us to examine that which we perhaps cannot escape or avoid: our place in the class system and our own animalistic nature.

A splendid production that manages to be both classy and sordid at the same time!

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Drama is served: Katherine Parker-Jones and John Lines

 


Stella Performance

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 10th November, 2019

 

When she has nowhere else to go, fading Southern belle Blanche Du Bois rocks up at her sister’s seedy place in the ironically named Elysian Fields – her sojourn turns out to be more like a visit to Hades.  From the get-go, playwright Tennessee Williams indicates that all is not how it seems, making us privy to the lies Blanche tells others about how little she drinks.  It then becomes a matter of time for her sordid secrets to come to light, and in true Williams tradition, for the spectre of homosexuality to rear its degenerate head (although it is only ever implied).

As Blanche, Annie Swift captures the airs and graces of the role, keeping the mannerisms and declarations on the right side of camp, lest the character become a laughingstock.  As the fantasies with which Blanche shields herself are stripped away, she becomes increasingly unable to cope with grim reality, resulting in mental decline.  Doing the bulk of the stripping is brutish brother-in-law Stanley (Ollie Jones) a domineering primate, bully and domestic abuser.  Jones is fine in the role; his Stanley has a sharpness rather than a brooding quality.  Beth Gilbert is excellent as the put-upon but feisty Stella, the bridge between her sister and her husband, between Blanche’s former life and this new, unwelcome and unsettling one.

There is strong support from Nicole Poole as Eunice and James Browning as Steve, a couple of neighbours.  Even the most minor roles make an impression:  for example, Destiny Sond as a neighbour, and Patrick Shannon as a young man making charity collections.  Joe Palmer is altogether splendid as Harold Mitchell, the antithesis of Stanley, all politeness and good manners – until he can’t have what he wants.

The production is enhanced considerably by sultry lighting (designed by Patrick McCool and Chris Briggs) casting horizontal shadows across the scene, while vibrant sunsets paint the window.  Andrew Cowie and Ray Duddin’s sound design, so effective at creating atmosphere of the street (we can hear the eponymous transport!), really comes into its own during moments when Blanche is becoming unhinged and we hear what’s going on in her increasingly deluded state.

James David Knapp’s direction creates some lovely moments of tension around the table, and the outbursts of violence are neatly handled.  Everything comes together for a blistering final act, and we are left to consider who has it worse: Blanche being taken away or Stella left behind with a man who doesn’t stop short of sexual violence.  Blanche’s troubles stem from the realisation that her husband was ‘a degenerate’ – everything she has done since his suicide has been leading her to this slippery slope, captivatingly portrayed here by Annie Swift and a powerful ensemble.

 

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Act of Remembrance

POPPYFIELDS The Musical

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 9th November, 2019

 

This new show from Dreamworks Productions arrives in Birmingham in good time for Remembrance Sunday.  After four years of centenary commemorations, when the First World War was at the forefront of our minds, it is important to keep the ball rolling 101 years since the Armistice, and 102 and 103… you get what I’m saying.  The trick is, with a glut of material out there, to present ideas in a new way while at the same time respecting the reality and meeting audience expectations.  It’s a big ask.

John Howard’s script focusses on a love story between mild-mannered man of principle from the working class with the daughter of the local gentry, a star-cross’d lovers deal with the class divide like a trench between them.  He, our protagonist, glories in the unlikely name of Tommy Gunn, and no matter how many times he is beaten to a pulp by warmongering peers, he is adamant he will not harm his fellow man.  She, our leading lady, Elizabeth, is involved in the movement for women’s suffrage and is not shy to speak out against her snooty, authoritarian father (David Wright, who later doubles as a German captive).  There’s a subplot about Tommy’s best mate Freddie getting his lady-friend Maisie up the duff, leading to a hasty wedding, before, wouldn’t you know it, the lads are conscripted and sent off “on ‘oliday to Flanders”.

There is everything you expect: white feathers, lovers parting, underage conscripts, write-every-day, and over-by-Christmas, delivered with conviction by the mainly young cast.  As Tommy, Tom Scott shows us the courage of a man going against the tide to stick to his morals, contrasting with his nervousness of chatting to a girl for the first time.  Daniella Williams’s Elizabeth has fire in her belly, a modern woman ahead of her time.  Jack Henderson brings humour and immense appeal as Freddie, while Jodie Welch’s Maisie is endearing – there is a duet at their wedding which is especially effective.

There is some excellent character work from Derek Willis, first as bleating army officer Carruthers, and later as good-humoured Welshman Taffy in the trenches.  Alex Tompkinson makes an impression as Harry, a fourteen-year-old who lies his way into the war; likewise Ellie Pugh as Tommy’s sister Tilly attempting to enlist disguised as a boy; and I also enjoy Molly Jane Cheesman as Tommy’s mum – especially in her spat with Emily Walker as Lady Victoria.  The strong cast bring the material to life beyond the scope of its clichés.

The score, however, is a weakness of the production.  If you’re going to use contemporary arrangements and pop-style singing, you have to be consistent.  The modern sound will link the period story to the present, showing that people then are just like people now, so we can identify with their losses.  Here though, new songs in a modern idiom are uneasy bedfellows with more traditional-sounding numbers, including standard tunes like Men Of Harlech (a rousing rendition by the Suffragettes) and the almost obligatory Pack Up Your Troubles.  It is the older-sounding songs that come over best and give authenticity to the piece.  There is no defining ‘voice’ to the music, probably due to the long list of songwriters credited in the programme.

Also, there are scenes crying out for songs.  The Gunn family get one, to establish their cheery working-class deprivation; the Fitzgeralds in the big house don’t.  The scene where the lads enlist could be set to music… This is a musical that needs more music, and music that has a consistent sound.  And it’s a shame because the dramatic side of proceedings delivers some hugely powerful moments.  We are given the humanity of the characters – they are more than mindboggling statistics – and the rousing finale goes beyond the fictional community singing about their boys, to all of us in the real world and the debt we all owe.

As it stands, the show has potential.  To realise it, it needs to pick a musical style and run with it.  Personally, I prefer the period-style numbers; the others are, dare I say it, too ‘poppy’.

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Coming Out in the Wash

MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 7th November, 2019

 

The ground-breaking film from 1985 comes to the stage in this adaptation of his own screenplay by Hanif Kureishi.  It’s a story of personal identity versus culture, of being yourself at the expense of fitting in, or surrendering to tradition and expectation at the expense of happiness and fulfilment.

It’s a stylish production, all silver and glitterballs.  Even the fascist graffiti is in striking dayglo colours.  Snatches of Pet Shop Boys tunes, some new, some classics, help with the 80s feel, but we never hear enough of them, sometimes only a few bars to cover transitions.

Omar Malik is Omar, a mild-mannered Muslim who works his way up through his uncle Nasser’s businesses until he becomes manager of his own launderette.  He’s a likeable chap with a nice line in sarcasm – unlike Hareet Deol’s Salim, an aggressive wide-boy drug dealer in an oversized pink suit.  Omar encounters old school crony Johnny (Jonny Fines) and offers him a job.  The banter between the two barely veils the homoerotic attraction between them.  Fines does a good job of portraying Johnny’s break from his skinhead background.  He wants to better himself and, as uncle Nasser would say, improvement comes from business.  Omar’s dad, by contrast, thinks self-improvement comes from education.  But this is Thatcher’s Britain, and Nasser, a Pakistani businessman, can flourish in this environment.

As Nasser, Kammy Darweish is particularly strong.  At first, we see him as a comic figure, avuncular in fact, but we soon see the hypocrisy of the man: he keeps a mistress on the side while expecting his daughter to submit to traditional values.  The mistress, by the way, is played by the mighty Cathy Tyson, with hair as big as the 80s.  Tyson is unrecognisable when she doubles as Cherry, Salim’s bespectacled wife.

In something of a casting coup, Gordon Warnecke, who played Omar in the film, is back as Omar’s ailing Dad, who represents the weakened nature of socialism in this country – then as it is now.  Warnecke combines vulnerability with a certain sprightliness.

Kureishi’s writing combines profanity with lyricism and there are some great lines, but while I enjoy the social commentary and the innuendos, I don’t engage emotionally with the characters, although I do cheer on Nicole Jebeli as Tania, the daughter of Nasser, striking out for her independence.  Paddy Daly’s bovver boy Genghis is a shouty lampoon, banging on about Saint George and white pride, using the same kind of empty-headed slogans we hear from Brexiteers today.

There is chemistry between the two male leads.  Fines is certainly not without cocky charm – but it’s more about titillation than passion, and I’m dismayed to hear gasps from the audience when the two of them kiss.  Each other.  On the lips.  But that’s what the play points out: society hasn’t changed that much since the 1980s.  The evils presented here are still with us, like extra-stubborn stains.  What progress we have made seems to be slipping away.

While I appreciate the talent of everyone involved and the adeptness of the adaptation, I find I’m a little underwhelmed by the whole.  I want to be more invested in the love story but  I’m afraid it’s a bit wishy-washy.

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Johnny Fines and Omar Malik (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

 


Kin Dread

THE SON

Duke of York’s, London, Saturday 2nd November, 2019

 

French playwright Florian Zeller’s searing family drama – helpfully and brilliantly translated into English by Christopher Hampton – deals with the effects on young lad Nicolas when his dad leaves his mum and sets up a new family with a new wife and a new baby.  It’s not an uncommon situation but Nicolas takes it very badly, spiralling into mental illness and out of control.

Laurie Kynaston is magnetically good as the volatile Nicolas, going beyond teenage tantrums in his portrayal of the boy’s disturbance.  It’s heart-breaking to watch and we feel as helpless as his baffled parents.  Mum (Amanda Abbington) is forthright in her condemnation of her ex-husband’s inactivity.  Dad (John Light) struggles to access his emotions but when he does, it’s explosive.  New wife Sofia (Amaka Okafor) tries to make the best of things – such is Zeller’s writing, we appreciate everyone’s point of view.

Mostly, this is about the dynamics between father and son in the light of mental illness, as they try to negotiate a peace and a way forward.  The play highlights how unprepared we are to deal with loved ones afflicted in this manner.  “Love is never enough” says Martin Turner’s Doctor, rather starkly, as events culminate in devastating scenes.

Lizzie Clachlan’s set with its white walls and unfolding panels, showing rooms behind rooms, enables director Michael Longhurst to stage simultaneous scenes: while characters interact, we see someone else elsewhere in the house, and so on.  The mess created by Nicolas is represented physically and symbolically.

Longhurst elicits powerful and compelling performances from everyone, compounding the sense of impending doom with Isobel Waller-Bridge’s unsettling sound design.  It’s not all dread though; there’s a glorious scene of Dad-dancing (John Light has all the moves!) and the occasional glimmer of hope – making the darker moments all the more distressing.

Utterly compelling and almost unbearably moving, this is one of the most powerful pieces I have ever seen.  I only wish I’d seen it before the final day of its run so I could go back and see it again!

Give it every award going!

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John Light and Laurie Kynaston (Photo: Marc Brenner)

 


Nursing a Grudge

SNAKE IN THE GRASS

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 1st November, 2019

 

Two estranged sisters are reunited in the neglected garden of their family home, following the death of their abusive father.  The elder, Annabel, hasn’t been back for decades, but stands to inherit the lot.  It fell to the younger sister, Miriam, to care for the old bastard, with the help of a hired nurse, whom Miriam has recently sacked.  The nurse, Alice, confronts Annabel, claiming to have evidence that Miriam had a direct hand in the death of her father.  Blackmail rears its ugly head and Annabel finds herself in a situation where she is forced to protect her sister…  So begins Alan Ayckbourn’s taut little thriller, a tale of coercion, bitterness, resentment, and murder.  More celebrated for his comedies, Ayckbourn shows here a different string to his bow.  The premise, the intrigue, and the subsequent twists and turns are Hitchcock-worthy.  A deceptively simple three-hander, the play offers plum parts for older women to get their teeth into. moustache of epic proportions.

Rachel Alcock plays hard-faced Annabel, who barely lightens up at all and remains rather severe throughout.  It is the character’s defence mechanism, I suppose, given the tribulations of her life, but I would like to see her reveal a more vulnerable and sympathetic side – especially during her lengthy speech about her failed marriage.

Alex Kapila turns in a compelling performance as the disturbed Miriam, displaying emotional immaturity one minute and inner fire the next.  As the power shifts around the trio, we’re forever changing our minds about who exactly is the victim here.

Completing the trio is Barbara Treen, pitch perfect as the sinister blackmailer.  Ayckbourn’s superlative writing is in good hands with these three, and director Lynda Lewis navigates the highs and lows, the lights and shades of the dialogue to great effect.  The physical action needs to be tighter; the actors need more confidence in their moves, and I think the climactic scene in the middle of the night can afford to be darker, so that almost all of the lighting comes from the two handheld lanterns.  This would augment the eeriness and the unsettling nature of proceedings.

There are more scares to be had if the director pushed the envelope just a little farther.  Still, this is a solid and entertaining production of a dark and clever play, and it’s well worth an evening of your time.

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The upper hand: Alice (Barbara Treen) comes between sisters Miriam (Alex Kapila) and Annabel (Rachel Alcock)