Tag Archives: Headlong

Labour in Vain


The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 17th April, 2018


This hit production from the National Theatre/Chichester Festival Theatre/Headlong comes to this town and reminds this reviewer of its brilliance.  James Graham’s script, dealing with the behind-the-scenes, Machiavellian machinations of the Chief Whips of both main parties, mines a rich seam of humour.  It is the 1970s and Labour has a minority government.  All the stops have to be pulled out to win over the ‘odds and sods’ to vote on the government’s side.

It’s a macho – or rather, blokeish world of hard drinking, hard swearing immaturity, where tradition is held in awe but nothing more so than the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’.  The opposing sides wind each other up, one-upmanship is king and fair play hardly gets a look-in.  It’s a chess game on a massive scale, with the Chief Whips sniping at each other like rival head prefects.

Martin Marquez is excellent as tough-talking Labour whip, Bob Mellish, with William Chubb’s Humphrey Atkins as the perfect sneering foil over on the Tory side.  Graham characterises both sides in broad terms: the Labour lot are beer-swilling, down-to-earth working class men with ‘real jobs’ in their backgrounds; the Tories are privileged, entitled snobs.  Tony Turner’s Michael Cox remains decent in his desperation, while on the other side, Harry Kershaw’s member for Chelmsford makes a prissy and hilarious impression.  There is a running joke about apologising for swearing in front of that rare creature, a female MP – Natalie Grady’s Ann Taylor soon proves she can give as good as she gets, and there is a delicious turn from Louise Ludgate as the member for Coventry South West, silently doling out the cash to pay a fine.

Labour’s Walter Harrison (James Gaddas) and his oppo Jack Weatherill (Matthew Pidgeon) share a mutual if grudging respect for each other and each other’s methods in a relationship that encapsulates the cut-and-thrust of party politics at that time.  Meanwhile, off-stage, rises the spectre of evil that will poison politics for decades, like Voldemort gradually taking physical form, as the member for Finchley, unseen, climbs the ranks to Tory party leader, ultimately becoming prime minister.  As the lights fade, an extract from Thatcher’s inaugural speech brings the fun and games to a chilling end…

Director Jeremy Herrin maintains a cracking pace, keeping the barbed remarks and the fur flying, eliciting energetic performances from his ensemble.  A live band keeps the energy levels up, with short and long bursts to cover transitions or to underscore the more stylised sequences depicting the arcane rituals of the House.

It’s a hilarious piece, a satirical cartoon of a show recounting a remarkable time in British politics, but be aware: the current mob who occupy This House for real are not playing for laughs.


Best of frenemies: James Gaddas and Matthew Pidgeon (Photo: Johan Persson)

Dim and Dimmer


Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 10th November, 2015


Headlong’s production of Tennessee Williams’s 1940s play curiously sheds light by keeping us in the dark. It’s very dimly lit – we are warned it will be by Tom (Tom Mothersdale) in his prologue. He tells us we are about to see a ‘memory play’ as if that’s a genre, and he narrates – Williams’s language has a languid poetry to it that shines through the gloom. At first I find the darkness problematic; it’s as though Tom’s memory involves deterioration of vision. The cast is almost lost in Fly Davis’s black box of a set. It’s like they’re in a basement during a blackout. And yet powerful performances emerge. Greta Scacchi dominates as overbearing mother, Amanda, with her flights of nostalgia and old-fashioned manners. Amanda enlists Tom to bring home a gentleman caller for his sister – her only hope is to marry her off. Scacchi is the engine that drives the performance, keeping us hooked in while the design and production choices keep us at a remove. Distortions of sound by Gareth Fry along with bursts of popular music of the time link the scenes with mood as much as Tom’s narration.

There are striking moments when the director’s choices work brilliantly and brutally: the blocking is stylised in contrast with the naturalistic delivery of the dialogue, providing visual metaphors (when you can see them!) and colouring Tom’s recollections of these events. It was obviously a dark time for him! The moment when they say grace before dinner is an example where this expressionistic staging illuminates the inner life of the characters.

Tom Mothersdale has a nice line in sarcasm – it’s never stated overtly but Tom’s secret life, what keeps him out until the wee small hours, is hinted at (a typical feature of Williams’s work). As club-footed Laura, Erin Doherty brings out the girl’s emotional immaturity – Laura is hampered by more than physical disability, she has social anxieties too; and as the gentleman caller Jim, Eric Kofi Abrefa is like a breath of fresh air in the claustrophobic setting. Odd though that Tom can recall in such detail scenes in which he doesn’t appear, but hey ho…

The second act packs the emotional punch. Director Ellen McDougall carries off the denouement with aplomb – her unconventional way of presenting Tennessee Williams pays off by the end. It may not be easy on the eye, peering into the murk, but there is a blinding flash of realisation and, literally, a shattering moment. Sometimes despite and sometimes because of the conceptual presentation, the emotional truth of the piece remains intact, even if the glass animals do not. Our hopes, dreams, aspirations, and egos are as fragile and brittle as Laura’s vitreous zoo.

Greta Scacchi shines as Amanda (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Greta Scacchi shines as Amanda (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Yes, Medea

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 13th November, 2012

Writer and director Mike Bartlett has brought Euripides’s millennia-old play bang up-to-date in this engaging and sometimes startling new version. The setting is a new-build suburb of detached houses in an unspecified British town. Friends and neighbours rally around divorcee Medea on the eve of her ex’s marriage to his dolly bird bride. An acute bout of sniping and low-level bitchery from friend (Amelia Lowdell) and neighbour (Lu Corfield) gives us quite a build-up before the eponymous protagonist herself descends the staircase of the doll’s house set.

Medea is unlike the other women. She is wild of hair and eye, and appears to be on the manic end of a bipolar scale. She exudes bitterness through the medium of sarcasm and we begin to appreciate how deeply the split from her husband has damaged her. That’s the set-up, at least. As the action unfolds, we learn there is more to Medea than a bad case of depression…

The landlord turns up – he’s the dolly bird’s father and he wants Medea out of the house pronto (Christopher Ettridge in a performance that would be at home in a Pinter play) and then the husband (Adam Levy) puts in an appearance, trying to be civil only to be greeted with recriminations (that lead to reminiscences and then to goodbye sex).

It seems that Medea is over the worst. There is a ray of hope with a potential new life in her male neighbour’s Spanish villa. She seems ready to make a clean break and start again…

Except Euripides and the ancient story aren’t going to let that happen. This is the calm before the storm. We may have dispensed with some of the classical theatrical conventions (the chorus, the masks) but Bartlett is wise to demonstrate that some of the old ways are still the most effective. The horror and violence happen off-stage and have to be recounted in dramatic monologues, allowing the audience to create the scenes in their imaginations. Suddenly this middle-class suburban backwater is home to shocking murder, born of vengeance and retribution. We see it in the headlines all too often: divorced parent kills the kids to spite the ex, but the play touches us deeper than this topical relevance. It is about our darkest desires to make those who wrong us pay. We are drawn to Medea because of her humour, her situation and her brittle strength (thanks to an electrifying performance by the marvellous Rachael Stirling). We side with her at first. But as her mind deteriorates we are shown this is not the way to go. The ending, on the rooftop, is cathartic for us as the audience – the tension has been released for us, but Medea is left with the agony of an existential prayer to a god who will not help her.

Ruari Murchison’s design brings to mind A Doll’s House in more ways than one, while remaining faithful to what we know of the way the Greeks presented things, with most of the action taking place in the street in front of the house. Mike Bartlett’s script is snappy and darkly funny. There are interludes of dumb show between scenes (replacing choral odes) underscored with music. We see Medea cooking dinner and plunging her hand into a pot of boiling water; in another, she puts her son to bed and has to return to his room to smash the game console he insists on playing through the night… It’s a stylish and effective way to keep the action flowing and reveal more about Medea’s mental state.

It’s a gripping, entertaining piece that, like Medea’s blade, cuts deep. Older than the hills, it feels entirely contemporary.