Tag Archives: Matthew Dunster

Oh Brother


Vaudeville Theatre, London, Thursday 6th December, 2018


I can’t be the first to not the similarities between the work of American playwright Sam Shepard and our own Harold Pinter.  This revival of Shepard’s 1980 piece is a case in point.  There is a sense of menace coursing through the comedy, the huge chunks of characters’ lives that are unexplained, the sudden outbreaks of violence…

Matthew Dunster’s production comes with stellar casting, with King of the North Kit Harington as screenwriter Austin, and Johnny Flynn as his lowlife brother Lee.  Austin is bookish and settled into a conventional lifestyle (wife, kids…) but his work has brought him to the seclusion of his mother’s house.  His writing is interrupted by the appearance of his brother, unseen for five years and fresh (if that’s the word) from a three-month stint in the desert.  Lee is a burglar, a wastrel with anger management issues – Flynn is powerful in the frequent outbursts, and also swaggering and overbearing in this domineering role.  But Harington is not overshadowed and when, through reasons of plot, the roles are reversed, his Austin comes out of his neurotic shell, rolls around drunk, and acquires an impressive collection of toasters from homes around the neighbourhood.

Donald Sage Mackay appears as Saul, Austin’s producer, an equable counterpoint to the volatility of the brothers’ relationship, while Madeleine Potter’s absentee mother makes a brief but telling appearance in the final scene.  She seems spaced-out, an ineffectual presence – the fate of women in the American mythos.  There is a sense of disconnect here, with what is unsaid looming large – Pinter again!

Jon Bausor’s set with its exaggerated perspective shows a world askew, the angles adding to the claustrophobia.  Director Matthew Dunster brings out the humour of Shepard’s script, balanced with the savagery of the brothers.  They are koi carp trapped in the same tank.  It is with a growing sense of irony that we realise what they do not: they are the idiots chasing each other around in Lee’s terrible idea for a screenplay.  Like Tom and Jerry (the domestic violence has a cartoonish feel) they can’t leave each other alone.

That they are screenwriters is hugely pertinent.  They are both seeking to perpetuate the myths that permeate American culture: Austin’s love story, Lee’s action-packed dumb chase movie.  But when it comes down to it, we find the prescribed modes of masculine behaviour make it impossible for the brothers to function in the real world.

The show is a hot property with hot actors and heated dialogue, with searingly hilarious moments, but when it’s all said and done, and the crickets have finally shut the hell up, the lack of resolution leaves us hanging.  And this is exactly why the star of the show is Sam Shepard’s script, reminding us that life, unlike stories, is unresolved and unexplained.  Meaning is not always apparent.  Perhaps we are all in the desert, chasing each other around.


The truth ain’t out there, bro. Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn (Photo: Marc Brenner)




Passion Play


The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 27th April, 2015


There’s often a reason why a play isn’t performed for centuries: it’s not very good or its day has come and gone and there is nothing of relevance to it. With this in mind, I settle into my seat at the RSC’s Swan and try to keep an open mind.

John Ford (you know, him – he wrote Tis Pity She’s A Whore) gives us a tragedy, the likes of which opera has been thriving on for yonks. Two best friends, one woman, loved by both but married by one… It can only end badly.

Matthew Needham is excellent as The Duke, whose emotions are never far from the surface. He is an exuberant hedonist, when things are going his way, but there is the suggestion he could become unhinged at any moment – we see flashes of his violent temper. His bride Bianca (Catrin Stewart) is perky and lively, and obeys her husband’s instructions to treat his bff Fernando (Jamie Thomas King) like a second husband, in all ways except one, of course! Bianca and Fernando get the hots for each other but never consummate their passion, despite a few stolen moments – enough to get the villain of the piece plotting and scheming. Stewart and King go through the anguishes of love without the pleasure, matching Needham’s emotional outpourings in intensity. As the villain D’Avolos, Jonathan McGuinness is a snide and unctuous presence, Iago with an admin job – and it almost looks like he will get away with it.

There is a couple of subplots, one of which ends horribly. Arrogant womaniser Ferentes (Andy Apollo making an impression) gets his comeuppance in a masque, when three of his conquests decide to have a stab at vengeance. Superannuated fop Mauriccio (an exquisite Matthew Kelly) has a happier ending – if banishment and marriage are anything to go by – and his relationship with Brummie servant Giacopo (Colin Ryan) is both funny and touching. Kelly and Ryan are a little and large double act with perfect comic timing – I find I am more moved by the resolution to their story than I am to the main plot.

Beth Cordingly is strong as strident widow Fiormonda, and Marcus Griffiths’s Roseilli, banished but comes back disguised as a simpleton, cuts a dash, but is too removed from the main action – This is a fault of the writer.

On the whole, it’s a watchable, rewarding piece with passions running as high as the production values and well worth sacrificing an evening to see. Anna Fleischle’s design conveys the period beautifully, but the projections on the back wall add little beyond mood lighting – I am too busy watching the actors to take much notice of these effects. There is, for my taste, a little too much of the discordant music. Director Matthew Dunster interrupts the action with interludes of dumb show – I could do without these. He also adds many humorous touches, heightening the comedy to match the intensity of the drama.

Many of the plot points can be traced to Shakespeare but I come away thinking about the great Spanish dramatist Lope de Vega, a playwright The Swan would do well to feature – in translation, of course!

Tonight Matthew, I'm going to be... (Colin Ryan and Matthew Kelly.  Photo: Helen Maybanks)

Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be…
(Colin Ryan and Matthew Kelly. Photo: Helen Maybanks)

PC World

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 21st February, 2012

This timely and topical play is set in an inner city comprehensive school. A black youth is prevented from marmalising a Turkish boy by a white teacher and so he levels a false accusation of racist abuse against her. The full weight of “procedure” is brought down upon her, impacting on her home life, her career, her relationships, everything. It is a nightmarish scenario. The youth is able to abuse the power afforded to him by political correctness; the situation escalates until he too is trapped. The youth’s version is backed up by his friends and cronies – some of them reluctant to support at first but then it’s peer pressure innit? They are no less trapped than the teacher.

Vivienne Franzmann’s script has authenticity written through it. The patois and lingo of the playground is captured to dramatic and also humorous effect. The group of kids is recognisable from schoolyards up and down the country – they are at turns likeable and bright but also bitter and disillusioned. The pack mentality depicted here gives the piece an almost wildlife documentary aspect! The lads strut, preen and posture, facing each other down. The girls are won over by a quick schmooze. It is orchestrated by Jason (Ryan Calais Cameron in a totally credible performance) the cock of the walk, bad boy. His home life is no bed of roses – the teacher allows him too much leeway because of what she knows of his background and he is therefore able to exploit the system to bring about her downfall.

As Amanda the teacher Jackie Clune portrays the idealistic do-gooding side of the profession, the eternal apologist and optimist. Her naivete is astonishing – perhaps her character missed the inset day on child protection procedures! As the net tightens around her, she eventually finds her idealism dented and ultimately destroyed. By the end she is no longer the woman she was at the start. Her cold shoulder when one of the kids (the excellent Savannah Gordon-Liburd) makes a plaintive apology demonstrates how much the experience has forced her to change.

The kids’ loss of their teacher is also the profession’s loss. The play shows how procedure and endless agencies that do little more than tick their own boxes, have ousted common sense from the process of child protection. Parents know their rights but take none of their responsibilities. The system is skewed against the teacher. Child protection is crucial, of course it is, but the play states in no uncertain terms that the way it is currently dealt with is of no help to anyone. Worse than that, it is damaging.

Tom Schutt’s set is a wire fence around a circular space. It is the playground but also a battleground, an arena in which the conflict is played out. Characters are caged animals, restricted by rules written and unwritten. Suicide or resigning from the whole process are shown to be the only ways out.

The cast is superb. I particularly enjoyed Tendayi Jembere as Chuggs and Hammad Animashaun as Jordon, providing comic relief. Ryan Calais Cameron is a simmering time bomb of pent-up aggression, frustration and also vulnerability. We are horrified by what his character sets in motion but he is no two-dimensional villain. We want the play to offer another way out for him.

Directed by Matthew Dunster, this is a lively, thought-provoking couple of hours and very much a play-for-today. I feel the issues presented will long outlive the street slang.