Tag Archives: Penny Layden

Voices and Choices


Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Thursday 25th May, 2017


This touring show from the National Theatre is described as a work in progress – largely because, I suspect, Brexit has yet to happen and the debate still rages on – this absorbing piece of verbatim theatre, using the words of ordinary people from across the nation (as well as the drivel of politicians) to chart the country’s mood, before, during and after the referendum that split the UK in two.

In a clever framing device,  writer Carol Ann Duffy has Britannia herself (Penny Layden) welcome representative from the regions to a meeting, a chance to listen.  The regional reps are clearly distinguishable by their accents and attitudes. For example, Cymru (the marvellous Christian Patterson) enters voice first, as befits a Welshman; Laura Elphinstone’s North East rep is a hoot, deadpan and down-to-earth, plain-speaking and unpretentious.  Cavan Clarke’s Northern Ireland breaks out into a spot of Riverdance in one of the show’s livelier moments, while Stuart McQuarrie’s Caledonia proudly recites Robert Burns, supplying the whisky and the pragmatism.

Britannia oversees as, in the voices of their ‘constituents’, the reps air the views of the people, complete with hesitations, repetitions and deviations, for spot-on authenticity.  The opinions are often humorous, telling, and eye-opening.  It’s like an extended episode of Creature Comforts with flesh-and-blood actors standing in for the plasticene animals.

For what is essentially a piece in which seven actors sit behind desks, it comes across as anything but static.  Director Rufus Norris breaks up the recitations with action and humour – although most of the best lines come from the vox pops.  The reps may be stereotypes but the many and varied statements we hear mark us as a nation of individuals, albeit with some shared characteristics.  It’s almost as if the UK is a microcosm of the EU.  Fancy that!

Britannia chips in statements from MPs.  Her Boris Johnson is almost as vile as the real thing, as he tries to make bizarre and ludicrous analogies instead of facing issues head on.  Layden positively drips evil as Nigel Farage, spewing his ‘voice of reason’ bile.  Yuck.  Although it’s not quite a year since the vote, the show brings it all flooding back, including the frustration and disbelief I felt at the mismanagement of the entire campaign by both sides.

More than that, the show is a celebration of British identity in all its manifestations, reminding us we have always been a diverse agglomeration of regional differences.

The show ends with Britannia saying she still loves us all and what we need more than ever is leadership.

Let’s hope we get it, eh, Brit?

My Country

Making a song and dance about Brexit, the cast of My Country.

Everybody needs good neighbours


Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Thursday 13th March, 2014

Bryony Lavery’s new play, created in collaboration with Frantic Assembly is the stuff of horror films.  When their house falls victim to flooding, Joff and Marianne, along with their daughter, are invited to spend the night in the home of neighbours Ollie and Maud, who also have a daughter.  The two girls play together, off-stage and unseen, while the adults get to know each other over a bottle of white rioja and Ollie’s special peanut sauce.  A comedy of manners ensues as Joff and Marianne react to their hosts’ religious convictions in a beautifully played and very funny scene around the dinner table.

The evening takes a turn for the weird long before a terrible life-changing event that stems from Ollie and Maud’s well-meaning plan to ‘cleanse’ their guests’ wayward daughter.

For the most part naturalistically performed, the piece is given a peculiar feel by its pared-down set.  Empty frames form doorways and corners, suggesting different rooms and locations.  Odd angles add an expressionistic element – the actors move the set around in a graceful, choreographed manner and it’s surprising how evocative these sparse lines are, pushing the emotions of the characters to the fore, leaving the audience to imagine things like décor, furniture and objects.

Andy Purves’s lighting design gives a Caravaggio-like appearance to some of the scenes.  With the addition of Carolyn Downing’s design for sound, the lighting gives us a few ghost-train scares.  It’s extremely effective.

Director Scott Graham keeps the action accessible and the people relatable although inhabiting a highly stylised space.  Their gravity-defying suspension on ropes changes our perspective and keeps a sense of ‘otherness’ running through the performance.  Events have thrown these lives off-kilter; the characters are adrift in familiar settings that have become unworldly to them.

Eileen Walsh (Marianne) and Christopher Colquhoun (Joff) are excellent as the ordinary couple overwhelmed by a nightmare, while Richard Mylan (Ollie) and Penny Layden (Maud) keep the weirdo neighbours credible.  Bryony Lavery’s writing is as sharp as ever – there is a kind of poetry to her naturalistic dialogue that is mirrored by the eerie beauty of the production style.

Stark, gripping, funny, inventive and scary, The Believers holds belief up to question in a way that reminded me a little of Dennis Potter’s Brimstone & Treacle, and provides a thought-provoking, entertaining trip to the theatre.


Little Girl Power

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 2nd February, 2012

This is an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. The original was shocking in its day – a domestic melodrama with a surprise ending – so I was interested to see what a more up-to-date version would bring.

In short: bafflement and disengagement.

The set is the dour living-room of Nora’s flat. With sparse, minimalist furniture, the only colour in it comes from the Christmas tree and decorations that she has brought in – and from Nora herself. There is a large fish tank with two goldfish, eating, swimming and shitting for all to see. The dimensions of the set mirror the shape of the aquarium. The inference is we are observers of two people with their privacy made public. Watching the tank we project human characteristics onto the fish. Watching the stage, we see human characteristics thrown back at us. It is a metaphor, of course, for the restrictive confines of Nora’s marriage.

She begins the play dressed like a little girl and her manner supports the view that she is more than a little emotionally immature. Her husband, the boorish and patronising Torvald (David Michaels) infantilises her. In Ibsen’s day, the domineering husband would not be unusual but times have changed.

When we watch a period drama, or a play written long ago, our values and social mores are highlighted by how much they differ from those represented on the stage. And so we are not shocked or disgusted by Ibsen’s Nora when she packs her bags and leaves. We cheer her on. In this contemporary setting, Torvald’s outdated Chauvinism marks him out as the weirdo. The play is no longer a comment on society but a view of a particular marriage: the boor and the woman-child. The mores are outdated and clash with the furniture. Characters pussyfoot around supposedly unmentionable topics in a manner that does not ring true. Then at one point Nora jumps up onto a seat and yells, “Kiss my arse!” in a moment of childish rebellion. It jars but not for the right reasons.

As the plot takes hold and Nora finds herself further entrenched in blackmail, the oddities of the staging also come to the fore. It seems people can just walk in to the flat without so much as knocking the door. Perhaps the absence of any barrier to people wandering in is why Torvald has a lockable letterbox on the living room wall. A bizarre decision – any mail that arrives for him would have travelled through the house before it reached his strongbox. It makes no sense. Ibsen has Torvald’s letterbox sensibly off-stage where the implied front door is. Because these characters are restricted by their fish tank world, they (and we) have to live with design ideas that do not work.

With exposure and ruin averted, Torvald strips naked to make love to his girl-woman wife. He has wagged his finger at her and told her off and now he’s going to assert himself over her in another way. And this is where Nora sees him as he really is. It is an epiphany that leads to a complete turnaround in her outlook and behaviour. She grows up overnight, rejects him and the life and children they have had together and walks out, leaving him naked, exposed and vulnerable.

She steps through the proscenium-like structure, from the fish tank and into the real world. I don’t fancy her chances; we know what happens when fish jump from aquaria. (Perhaps I’m talking the metaphor too far.)
As Nora, Penny Layden annoys and infuriates – during the opening scenes, at any rate. This throws her transformation into an independence-seeking woman into starker contrast. The final scene is electrifying and powerfully performed. Her Nora leaves the oppressive weirdo and we applaud her.

Ibsen’s Nora rejects an entire society, a forerunner of feminism, calling out for social change. The updating loses this aspect. It is about a particular marriage and not an indictment of marriage in general. I don’t think it is as relevant as it would like to be.