Tag Archives: The REP

Chilling

FROZEN

The REP Studio, Birmingham, Monday 10th February, 2014

 

We are accustomed to seeing sign language interpreters at the side of the stage, translating plays for deaf audience members.  New theatre company fingersmiths give us much more than that in a way that enhances the performance for those of us fortunate to be able to hear.

Each of the three characters in Bryony Lavery’s 1998 play is portrayed by a pair of actors, one speaking, the other signing.  The result is more than translation.  Often the signer reveals the inner life of the speaker.  Sometimes the signs anticipate the words – it’s an intriguing psychological approach to a play that deals with the human mind, its workings and malfunctions.

And so we get parallel performances occupying the same space, but the actors are also linked, like shadows, like reflections, like twins.  It is absolutely captivating.

The play deals with the disappearance of a young girl and the subsequent arrest of a man charged with her abduction and murder.  As the girl’s mother, Hazel Maycock is superb, delivering monologues in an offhand, matter-of-fact fashion that Alan Bennett would kill for.  This serves to intensify the anguish of later, heart-rending speeches.  Equally powerful is Maycock’s signing counterpart, Jean St Clair.  By definition, the signers give a more expressive performance, as counterpoints to the naturalism of the speaking players.  It’s hypnotic.

Marvellous Mike Hugo is stunningly good as serial killer Ralph, convincing in his psychosis and outbursts of rage.  He and his signer Neil Fox-Roberts, have a sort of relationship, breaking the convention, interacting with each other, like a mind fractured in two, or like each other’s evil twin.

Sophie Stone and Deepa Shastri play brain expert Agnetha, whose professional swagger barely conceals anxiety and vulnerability.  Both convey the contrasts very well.

It’s a play about damaged lives and what damages them.  Lavery (and Hugo and Fox-Roberts) don’t give us a one-dimensional monster in the form of Ralph.  Neither is the mother just a mouthpiece for moral indignation.  Director Jeni Draper keeps us focussed throughout  what is largely a succession of monologues interspersed with a few scenes in which the characters interact.  Jo Paul’s set is minimalistic but versatile: one ingenious item of scenery serves as a table, a settee, a coffin and so on, allowing the action to move seamlessly from scene to scene.

An exploration of the darker side of human experience, Frozen is a gripping and absorbing piece of theatre, distressingly still relevant.  I look forward to seeing fingersmiths tackle their next piece – something comedic perhaps.  Please.

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Kitchen Sink Drama

THE DISHWASHERS

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 4th February, 2014

 

David Essex used to be a dish.  Now he’s washing them in the REP’s new production of Morris Panych’s hit play, set in the washing-up room deep in the bowels of a swish restaurant.

Into Essex’s domain comes new boy Emmett (Nik Makaram, late of Emmerdale) who used to enjoy the posh nosh and the good life himself.  Emmett is scornful of his new boss’s meditations and resents and rejects his reduced circumstances as a lowly dishwasher.  Dressler (Essex) is having none of it.  For him dishwashing is duty, job satisfaction and purpose.  He is prone to flights of philosophical musing – The play is not a slice-of-life but a means through which we reflect on our own lives, places in society and the nature of the human condition.   The naturalism of the dialogue is distorted by lyrical passages.  Dressler refers to glasses as ‘translucent chalices’ at one point – just one example of when the writing gets a bit pretentious.

Also working in the kitchen is ‘lifer’ Moss (Andrew Jarvis) a decrepit old man marked for death and the chop.  He clings to life as long as he still has his job and is prone to random and demented outbursts as he loses yet another marble.  It reminds me of the Beckett play except these guys aren’t so much as Waiting for Godot as washing-up for him.

David Essex is commanding as washer-upper-in-chief Dressler, a character I find ultimately to be repugnant with his grandiloquence and small ambition.  Nik Makarem is strong as the new boy whose learning curve turns out to be a full circle but for me the most compelling performance comes from Andrew Jarvis as raddled old Moss.

Director Nikolai Foster handles the play’s rich vein of dark humour well (there’s lots to make you laugh or smile wryly) but in the end it’s a dispiriting experience.  “All there is: work, death; the rest is a detour,” opines Dressler.  Trying to effect change in this unjust society is futile.

Excellently performed and presented though it may be (Matthew Wright’s detailed set is stunning) The Dishwashers parades lots of ideas but lacks the scale and scope of another play it reminded me of, Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen.  It feels at times like there’s too much on its plate.

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Hassle at the Castle

DUNSINANE

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 24th September, 2013

 

David Grieg’s “sequel” to Macbeth begins with the English army pretending to be trees.  It’s an almost drama lesson kind of a moment and establishes the tone very rapidly.  These are soldiers abroad, bluff English lads with earthy humour and a job to do.

That job is to overthrow a tyrant and bring peace to the warring nation of Scotland.  There is contention about Malcolm’s claim to the throne.  It turns out that the tyrant’s wife’s death was misreported.  She appears, very much alive with news of a son and heir – from her first husband… This boy is in hiding and the people are getting behind him.

Grieg dispenses with iambic pentameter and gives us contemporary dialogue albeit in historical costume and an emblematic setting.  Parallels with the 21st century are obvious.  We think of Iraq and Afghanistan and now (since I first saw this production at the RSC) Syria, and the question of military intervention there.  Taking out the tyrant is all well and good but what next?

This is the problem facing Jonny Phillips as Siward, portrayed as a decent man trying to manage a difficult situation.  Phillips is every inch the commander, a Game of Thrones hero.  His adversary is Gruach, Macbeth’s widow – an excellent Siobhan Redmond, who seduces and beguiles, hinting at the dangerous woman she always was.

A strong ensemble includes Tom Gill as the boy soldier who serves as our narrator in his letters home to Mum, Joshua Jenkins as Eric the archer who seeks the more fleshly spoils of war, and Sandy Grierson as a less than ideal Malcolm, self-serving and arrogant.  I particularly liked Alex Mann’s Egham, who provides a lot of the humour as he tries to make an inventory for Scotland’s treasury.

Roxana Silbert, now artistic director of the REP, revives her production from the RSC, as a means of setting out her stall.  With this production she shows she can sustain our interest with some complex comings-and-goings, and create provocative dramatic action.  The play is very much from the soldiers’ point of view and we get the sense that Silbert understands these rather masculine attitudes – I was reminded of Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker.

That Lady Macbeth’s singing attendants are more than a little Middle Eastern in their dress over-emphasises the point.  We get the point and would get the point if they were in kilts or army blankets.

Beautifully designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, this is a good-looking production that brings to the fore some knotty moral questions without necessarily offering answers.

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Photo: Simon Murphy


Singing with Conviction

HOPELESSLY DEVOTED

The Door, The REP, Birmingham, Monday 23rd September, 2013

 

Kate Tempest’s new play is set in a women’s prison; the performance space is clearly defined by a square of white tape on the floor, a constant reminder of the limitations placed on the characters.  Forever pacing this square is Chess (Amanda Wilkin); she sings, to the annoyance of her neighbours – in fact, every other line is a cue for a song.  The singing binds her to her cellmate Serena (Gbemisola Ikumelo) who is up for parole and due to leave.  Chess embarks on a twelve-week course with visiting music producer Silver (Martha Laird) who seeks to uncap Chess’s potential, while reconnecting with her own life.

Laird brings a touch of glamour in her black dress and the Mallen streak in her hair.  She is a taste of the outside world, whose patience with the reluctant, nervous Chess, pays off.  Ikumelo’s Serena is funny – it is through her we see the plight of inmates returned to society, and the difficulties they face trying to rebuild relationships with their children and to cope with the busyness of the outside world.

But it is Wilkin, who never leaves the square, who dominates the piece.  A mass of nervous energy, quick-witted and not as strong as she pretends, Chess draws us in.  We admire her for her sense of humour and, of course, her singing.  She goes from pacing the set like a caged animal, to singing like a caged bird.  Her scenes with Ikumelo are both amusing and touching as she tries to conceal her vulnerability.  Her scenes with Laird, a student-and-teacher set-up, bring us into the realms of the musical as Chess gains confidence and blossoms under Silver’s tutelage.  But this is not about winning a contest or making it big.  The stakes are higher – with Serena’s interference there is a chance Chess’s music will connect with the daughter she hasn’t seen since her incarceration.

Tempest’s script has a rich vein of humour running through it (“The name’s Chess, but you can’t play me”) and scenes which could veer into sentimentality are kept restrained, leading to some very touching moments.  James Grieve’s direction makes the most of the simple staging, showing it to be more sophisticated than it first appears.  The production is a crowd-pleaser at every turn.  It touches on issues faced by women in prison, to be sure, but on a wider scale speaks of unlocking one’s potential, of releasing creativity from the constraints put upon it by life and by ourselves.

It’s an uplifting, moving piece, rendered exhilarating by the performances of the excellent cast.

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Open House

 

The REP reopens with the National Theatre touring production of Alan Bennett’s People, a hit comedy.  It concerns two sisters, one a former model, the other an archdeacon, squabbling over the fate of their ancestral seat, a crumbling pile with a leaky roof that the ex-model still calls her home.  In fur coat and pyjamas, she huddles under blankets in front of an electric fire, singing Petula Clark with her companion.  There are interested parties: the National Trust wants to open the house to the public; the representative of a shady yet powerful group, “The Concern” is keen to buy up house and contents and move it from South Yorkshire to Dorset; and a maker of adult (i.e. “mucky”) films is scouting for locations.

Sian Phillips is Dorothy the former glamour girl and socialite, now a virtual recluse, still catching up on current events in 30-year-old newspapers.  She is the beating heart of the house and also the play.  Phillips imbues Dorothy with the right amount of eccentricity, tempered with likeability, vulnerability and glimpses of her former beauty – in fact, when she dresses up in her mothballed haute couture, it is clear she is still a striking woman.   She is reluctant, to put it mildly, to allow people to traipse through her home.  This is the main bone of contention between her and sister June – Selina Cadell in a superb comic performance, as the stuffy clergywoman, flabbergasted and disgusted in turn.  She even brings on a comedy bishop (Robin Bowerman) for one of the funniest scenes.  The bifocaled bishop squints at the cast and crew of a porn film, taking them to be the W.I.  In scenes like this (and the shooting of the porn movie) Bennett gives us crowd-pleasing comedy, along traditional lines.

But the play has other riches to offer.  Despite Dorothy’s assertion, the house is a metaphor for England.  England repackaged and sold off as a version of itself it never was, a “serving suggestion” England.  On one level it’s throwing into question the practices of the National Trust, but on another, the wider view is that ‘everything has a price’ and ‘if it’s worthwhile, it has to be paid for’.   June is plotting to sell off Winchester Cathedral to the “Concern”.  She is David Cameron in a tweed skirt, peddling the NHS to the highest bidders.

Phillips and Cadell are both excellent.  So is the third of this play’s three leading ladies.  Brigit Forsyth is Iris, Dorothy’s lifelong companion, in hacking jacket and slippers and unwashed in living memory.  She is the antidote to Dorothy’s glamour, another aspect of the faded quality of the house.

Among a very strong ensemble, I particularly liked Alexander Warner’s porn star, Colin, struggling to ‘perform’; his Latvian co-star Brit (Ellie Burrow); and their director Theodore (Paul Moriarty) an old flame of Dorothy’s.

Bob Crowley’s set is absolutely magnificent, evoking the solidity and permanence of the stately home, and the clutter and decay accrued by just sitting there – it in turn is a metaphor for Dorothy and Iris, who are decaying just sitting there.  It is when they let people in that they are revived to some kind of life, even if it’s not the life they would have chosen.

A high quality play in a high quality production, People is particularly apt for the reopening of the Rep after two years dark.  As Artistic Director Roxana Silbert points out, quoting a line from the play, “The house has come home.” Unlike someone’s home, however stately, a theatre needs people traipsing in to have a look.

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Brigit Forsyth and Sian Phillips sing Downtown