Window on the World

SKYLIGHT

Crescent Theatre, Saturday 30th September, 2017

 

David Hare’s 1995 play gets a well-deserved revival in this robust production in the Crescent’s Ron Barber studio.  Set in the dowdy North London flat of Maths teacher Kyra Hollis (Alice Kennedy) it reveals the story of her past affair with restaurateur and self-made millionaire, Tom (Graeme Braidwood) through reminiscence and recollection as the protagonists are reunited after a separation of three years – during which time Tom’s wife has died.  Guilty feelings abound.  As a friend of the family, Kyra is also missed by Tom’s son Edward (Jacob Williams) who regards her as a big sister.  Edward turns up out of the blue because his dad has become ‘unbearable’, and so begins an eventful night for Kyra…

As the youthful, mercurial Edward, Jacob Williams is a delight, veering between sweet and gauche with ease in a lively performance.   Williams, whose appearances dovetail the main action, makes a lasting impression.

Alice Kennedy’s Kyra is mature (compared with Edward!) but also vulnerable.  We glimpse her classroom manner from time to time and in plain sight is her passion for her vocation, her desire to give the help so desperately needed by society’s most downtrodden.  There is strength here and also nuance.

Much the same can be said for Graeme Braidwood’s Tom.  Opinionated and objectionable, he is also a character of passion.  Yes, we may find his views abhorrent, the way he treats people as objects, but he comes across as a credible figure, thanks to Braidwood’s performance and of course to David Hare’s excellent writing.

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Graeme Braidwood as Tom and Alice Kennedy as Kyra (Photo: Hannah Kelly)

As much a personal ding-dong as a political slanging match, the play emphasises the humanity of its arguments. The characters are rounded, contradictory  and fleshed out beings not mere ciphers to illustrate a point.

Director Mark Payne maintains a level of energy throughout in this emotionally charged drama that is richly laced with humour.  Braidwood’s delivery of Tom’s embittered barbs is impeccable and Williams’s Edward is amusingly observed and endearingly depicted – at least he is able to kick-start his relationship with Kyra again.

As ever, production values at the Crescent are high. Keith Harris’s detailed set with its old furniture and working hob (the smell of onions cooking in real time gets me salivating!) and the props (courtesy of Andrew Lowrie, Ben Pountney and Georgina Evans) show nothing has been overlooked, down to the graffiti on the covers of the exercise books waiting to be marked.

Beautifully played and well paced, this is an engaging, grown-up portrait of relationships as well as a heartfelt discourse on the state of our divided nation.  Surely the divide is wider now, 22 years later – what a depressing thought! – pushing the relevance levels of Skylight through the roof  (I couldn’t resist!).

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Jacob Williams as Edward (Photo: Hannah Kelly)

 

 

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One Man Woman

MAN TO MAN

The Studio, Birmingham REP, Wednesday 27th September, 2017

 

This production from the Wales Millennium Centre is a new translation of Manfred Karge’s 1982 piece – although it could have been written much earlier in the last century.  There are dark shades of Kafka here in the dehumanisation of man in the service of industrialisation, echoes of Brecht and especially Beckett in the execution.  I am also reminded of Berkoff’s reworking of Metamorphosis, when our protagonist literally goes up the wall…

At the root of the fractured narrative is the story of a widow who adopts her dead husband’s identity so she can take over his job as a crane driver.  This means she has to change her behaviour to fit in and become part of the blokey circle of his workmates.  Because a woman shouldn’t be doing man’s work, of course.  I’d like to think the world – especially the world of work has moved on a little since 1982.  But cross-dressing is a classic trope in drama and always has been, giving rise to all sorts of complications and talking points.  Here, it’s Nazi Germany where many had to pretend to be other than they were in order to survive. The stakes are high for our lady in trousers.

Maggie Bain is the sole performer, taking us through a blend of story, anecdote and memory, playing all the parts in a highly physicalised manner.  She is a compelling presence and is supported by some excellent tech work: projections illustrate the fantasy moments; atmospheric lighting slashes across the scene through wooden slats; distortions and echoes in the sound augment the mood; and above all, in my view, the original music by Matthew Scott adds a nursery rhyme/creepy feel to proceedings.

Directors Bruce Guthrie and Scott Graham pull out all the stops to bring life and colour to the grey, monochromatic world.  Surreal surprises abound: for example, Bain climbs into a suitcase and then comes in through the door.  Richard Kent’s sharply angled, expressionistic set complements the early 20th century vibe.  Dark circles ring Bain’s eyes, like a Buster Keaton figure or, given the expressionistic flavour, Claude Rains.

On the whole, I have to say I enjoyed the form of this piece rather than the content, due in no small part to Maggie Bain’s magnetic and skilful performance, using her voice and body to such a plastic extent, you expect the other characters to join her on stage at any given moment.  In the end, it’s a play of moments rather than moment.  It’s dark stuff: David Lynch meets Samuel Beckett.  Spellbinding rather than enlightening, it works on the imagination rather than the intellect.

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Going up in the world, Maggie Bain (Photo: Polly Thomas)


Bowing Out

DUET FOR ONE

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 26th September, 2017

 

Tom Kempinski’s famous play for two actors comes to Birmingham in this new production featuring reliable old hands, Oliver Cotton and Belinda Lang.  Lang is Stephanie, a classical violinist whose career has been brought to an abrupt end by her encroaching multiple sclerosis.  Cotton is Doctor Feldmann, the psychotherapist she visits even though she insists she doesn’t need to.   Through a series of scenes showing her sessions with the doctor, we find out more about her as the truth is teased out – mainly through reading into her vehement denials.  There is a sameness to the scenes: he sits and listens, she rants sarcastically, berating him and using her wheelchair for dramatic turns.

Yes, it’s rather funny as the spiked barbs fly and Feldmann punctures her fury with well-timed questions delivered deadpan, but as it goes on, I find that I don’t particularly care for this woman’s tragedy – the loss of her violin is more than being put out of a job, of course it is – but I haven’t warmed to her particularly, and as for him, well, apart from one unprofessional outburst in which it’s his turn to have a rant about his lot, Feldmann is a closed book.

So what can we take from it?  Can we relate to a classical superstar whose parents ran an artisanal chocolate shop?  “The meaning of life is life itself” – there is that.  Life is more than merely occupying your time.  True.

Lang and Cotton are in good form.  After a couple more shows, maybe even in great form, as the dialogue becomes less slippery and performances tighten up.  Lang is better when she’s mouthing off than during the more tearful moments and Cotton, with his enviable head of hair, listens like a hawk – if such a thing is possible.

Director Robin Lefevre works hard to keep things from becoming too static, getting Stephanie out of her wheelchair as much as possible and Feldmann too gets opportunities to stretch his legs.  The play makes amateur analysts of us all; as we listen, we deduce what’s been going on, why she is the way she is, and perhaps we question what we would do if we were faced with this terrible disease or were similarly robbed of our way of life.

Inevitably, it’s a wordy piece, a radio drama with bookshelves and furniture.  As the professional relationship between therapist and patient/customer develops and looks likely to unravel, we suspect Feldmann has been playing her like a fiddle all along.

Solidly performed and presented, more amusing than touching, Duet For One is worth a look, or rather, a listen.

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That’s about the size of it – Oliver Cotton (Photo: Robert Day)


Awesome Foursome

QUARTET

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 22nd September, 2017

 

Ronald Harwood’s play is set firmly in Waiting For God territory, here a retirement home for opera singers and classical musicians.  Among the esoteric inmates we meet eccentric Cicely, rambunctious Wilfred – who seems more at home in a Carry On film than the Royal Opera House – and prissy Reggie who makes pronouncements about Art – when he’s not hurling abuse at the staff who deny him his marmalade fix.  The trio appear to have accepted their fate and are looking forward to performing in a gala to celebrate Verdi’s birthday.  Their peace is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of former diva and Reggie’s ex-wife, Jean.

Will three become four in order to perform a quartet?  Will they be able to recapture at least a glimmer of their former glory?

These are questions posed by the plot but really it’s a play about things we can all recognise: the ageing process, our own mortality, what will be our legacy…

The four singers are presented as flawed individuals but above all as relatable, likeable human beings.  The unseen villains of the piece are the spectres of death and dementia which make their presence known from time to time.  The characters approach old age and infirmity humorously and philosophically but every now and then we glimpse the sting of their predicament.  Kevin Hand brings a lot of fun as the coarse and lecherous Wilfred while Graham Tyrell’s effete and brittle Reggie is a perfect foil.  Juliet Grundy is endearing as the dramatic and lively Cecily, gradually losing her marbles before our very eyes.  Margot McCleary’s haughty, haunted diva has an air of faded royalty.  We like them all immensely and enjoy their company.

Director Estelle Hand balances comedy with poignancy – Harwood never allows us to dwell in mawkishness, touching on themes such as the sexual appetites and histories of the elderly, the necessity of living in the present rather than the past, of making the most of whatever time we might have left.  Hand gets nuanced and well-observed performances from her cast.  Yes, there are a few first-night stumbling over lines, but the tone is spot on.

“Art is meaningless unless it makes you feel,” observes Wilfred in a rare moment of insight.  This entertaining and touching production certainly makes us do that.

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For

AGAINST

Almeida Theatre, London, Saturday 16th September, 2017

 

Luke is a billionaire whose companies are at the forefront of technological development: IT, space travel, you name it.  When he receives a ‘message from God’ he decides to change his ways and become more pro-active in changing the world for the better.  There are shades of Bill Gates’s philanthropy here, along with touches of Elon Musk and, not forgetting cult of Steve Jobs, as Luke visits sites of school shootings among other places, talking to people and trying to help them connect in ways that don’t necessarily involve a screen.

Ben Whishaw, always magnetic, imbues Luke with a quiet but compelling presence, complete with nerdish tics.  He is a messianic figure without the bombast and declamations.  And he is fallible.  His encounters are a learning process for him at least as much as those he meets.  Strong yet vulnerable, outgoing but reserved and isolated, Whishaw is utterly compelling.

Played out in a stylish but sparse setting of polished floorboards, Christopher Shinn’s new play proves thought-provoking and engaging; director Ian Rickson keeps his cast naturalistic on a mostly empty stage, with only scene captions and the odd piece of furniture to say where we are.  The performances are top notch across the board and Shinn’s ideas are for the most part clearly presented for us to consider.  Technological development is in bed with capitalism; things only change because of money, and those changes are not always beneficial: we visit an internet retail giant called ‘Equator’ and it doesn’t take three guesses to work out which notorious company is being satirised here.  One aggrieved truck driver (an intense Gavin Spokes) provides the tense denouement of what is otherwise an interesting outlay of ideas, bringing a dramatic and devastating conclusion.

Among the excellent ensemble supporting Whishaw is Amanda Hale, doubling as Sheila, Luke’s PA, and Kate, his middle-school crush.  Philippe Spall is likeable drug-dealer (!) Chris, while Naomi Wirthner brings dignity in her role as the mother of a school shooter.  Kevin Harvey’s sex-worker-cum-professor is sarkily humorous: poor Luke can’t do right for doing wrong as his every move and statement are pounced on by political correctness.  The play gives us some idea of how Christ himself might be received in this day and age.

Funny, provocative, and intelligent, Against is very much a play for today.  Shinn has captured something of the zeitgeist and the Almeida serves it up in a classy and engaging production that respects the intelligence of the audience.

Ben Whishaw Against

He’s not the Messiah; he’s a very pretty boy. Ben Whishaw as Luke (Photo: Johan Persson)

 

 


For the Record

SON OF A PREACHER MAN

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 13th September, 2017

 

The words ‘jukebox musical’ are enough to send a shiver down this reviewer’s spine.  Stephen King should write one.  Perhaps Pet Sematary using the music of The Animals.   Mr King, however, would endow his show with a plot worth following.  Here, sadly, writer Warner Brown does not.

Paul (Michael Howe) yearns to reignite his crush on a boy from his youth spent in a Soho record shop; Alison (Debra Stephenson), newly widowed but reeling from an attraction to one of her students, has a hankering to visit the Soho record shop her mum was always banging on about; Kat (Diana Vickers), following the death of the grandmother who brought her up, finds her way to the Soho record shop in which her gran had so many happy times…  Three strangers with the same record shop in common – sort of – meet at the corner of Old Compton Street only to find that record shop is now a coffee franchise, called Double Shot (although the cup motif on the sign could represent a different vowel).  Here’s where the shoehorn comes in: the record shop’s name was Preacher Man.  The proprietor was some kind of community guru, also called the Preacher Man.  They are both long gone, but living above the coffee shop and working there as manager is Simon (Ian Reddington) who, all together now, is the Son of – well, you can see where it is going.  Simon embarks on a quest to solve the problems of the three strangers but, frankly, I couldn’t care less.

I think it’s the overall tone that stops me from engaging.  The story is tosh but they carry on as if it’s somehow mystical and significant.  A bit of tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink to say, Look, we know it’s tosh, but come along with us, would have made the show more fun.  This means the songs, each one a belter of a track from Dusty Springfield’s oeuvre, are made ridiculous: at a bereavement group, the members sing mournfully ‘I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’, dancing with empty plastic chairs.

The performers range from competent to excellent, many of them playing instruments with flair and panache.  Of the lot, Diana Vickers has by far the best voice and it’s a treat to hear her – but, of course, no one can match Ms Springfield.  Mercifully, they don’t try to.   A stand-out number for me is ‘Spooky’ performed by Sandra (Ellie-Jane Goddard) accompanied by Michael Howe.

There is a trio of backing singers, the Capuccino Sisters, who like the girls in Little Shop of Horrors add harmony and humour to proceedings.  Vocally, Michelle Long, Kate Hardisty and Cassiopeia Berekely-Agyepong are great but in this po-faced world, their sassiness comes across as cynical and mean-spirited.  Or perhaps I’m just projecting my responses onto them!  There is Madge, the cleaner, a ‘comic’ role (played by Jon Bonner) which is a throwback to the era of the fictitious record shop of the time.  One word: cringe.

Director Craig Revel Horwood needs to loosen things up and not try to sell this lightweight fare as something we should take seriously.  Horwood also choreographs and, while the dancing is tight, sometimes balletic even, the moves are often inappropriate, needlessly suggestive – as though he has remembered this is a show adults will go and see and perhaps will swallow the juvenile plot if he spices things up a bit.  The Capuccino Sisters virtually humping the tables they’re serving is at odds with the heartfelt/bubblegum stylings of Springfield’s exemplary pop.

Banal twaddle though this may be, it is performed well by a talented cast who work their socks off, making me wish they would dispense with the story and just give us a concert instead.

Ah well.  I’m off to write a show about a woman who loses a scratchcard at the seaside, using the back catalogue of, I don’t know, Alma Cogan or somebody.

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Diana Vickers putting Mike (Liam Vincent-Kilbride) in his place


Train of Thought

THE RAILWAY CHILDREN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Monday 11th September, 2017

 

With delicious irony, the fates delay the curtain up on this play centring around trains.  Ha, ha, universe!

But when this production from Exeter Northcott Theatre does get under way, it’s full steam ahead for a lovely piece of theatre.

When their father leaves them under mysterious circumstances, siblings Roberta, Phyllis and Peter move from London with their mother to a quaint but humble country cottage near to a railway.  As a distraction from their newfound poverty, the children take to waving at passengers on the trains, notably an ‘Old Gentleman’ who proves to be crucial to later plot developments.  They also strike up friendship with stationmaster Perks and his eldest son, John.

On the surface, the show drips with Brexiteer nostalgia for an England that never existed.  A closer look reveals this to be a place where people are nasty and suspicious when a foreigner in need enters their midst – but not E. Nesbit’s heroic children, whose only impulse is to help the poor man.  It’s a place where people worry about the expense of seeing the doctor – he runs some kind of private health insurance club the locals chip in to.

Against the backdrop of this society, the three kids learn that sharing is best, that people have pride and there is a difference between gifts and handouts.  I am gobsmacked; I had no idea the story was so political.  Dave Simpson’s adaptation of the classic novel does not shy away from the author’s socialist leanings.

As Roberta, the eldest, Millie Turner captures the essence of a girl between youth and maturity, while as her siblings Peter and Phyllis, Vinay Lad and Katherine Carlton are spirited in their immaturity.  The kids squabble but never lose their sense of decency and fair play.

The immensely likeable Stewart Wright narrates as the avuncular Perks; Callum Goulden does a nice comic turn as his tearaway offspring.  Will Richards makes a striking Russian, expressive before he even utters a word in any language, while Andrew Joshi’s increasingly knackered doctor provides much of the broader humour.  Joy Brook shines as the authoritative, firm but fair mother, all stiff upper lip and sacrifice for the sake of her children while espousing their Russian houseguest’s revolutionary ideals.

Timothy Bird’s set, costume and video designs not only evoke the Edwardian setting but add layers of artificiality, blending practical effects (a cut-out carriage is a hoot!) with projected animations, reminding us that this seemingly cosy place is not real.  Director Paul Jepson ensures the energy of his performers is not overshadowed by the impressive technical features of the production, and adds effective bits of business to keep the actors to the fore: a slow-motion moment during Perks’s birthday party, for example – there is some lovely character playing by Andrea Davy as Perks’s wife.

The iconic moments are all here.  Averting a rail disaster by ripping up Roberta’s red petticoat and waving it like mad.  The touching reunion… Misty-eyed?  Me?  Must just be a bit of steam in my eye.

All right, I admit it, I am touched right in the feels and the needle on my nostalgia dial is in the red, but most of all I am struck that this tale from a more innocent age over a century ago speaks so strongly to us today and has such currency.  There is a lot to be said for Englishness, for doing what is right, for supporting the underdog; just as there is a lot to be said against the nasty, narrow-minded, inward-looking, xenophobic attitudes of many English people today!  In 2017!  As if world events since the book first appeared mean nothing.

How much underwear do I have to tear up and wave around to stop this country going off the rails?

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Millie Turner, Vinay Lad and Katherine Carlton (Photo: Mark Dawson)