Tag Archives: Trafalgar Studios

Seeing Stars

DARK SUBLIME

Trafalgar Studios, London, Thursday 1st August, 2019

 

Marianne is an actor who appeared in a space opera telly series decades ago.   The show has since developed a cult following, but to her it was just a job.  She is contacted by super-fan Oli who wants to interview her for his podcast, and a kind of friendship is established between the two.  Meanwhile, Marianne’s drink-fuelled jealousy flares up when her BFF Kate announces she has found a new girlfriend, Suzanne.

Michael Dennis’s sparkling new play sheds light on a range of matters of the heart: fandom – the adulation of those we admire (perhaps disproportionately to their merits!); what is fleeting in life, and what lasts longer; but chiefly it deals with the one-sided nature of relationships, the unrequited love that can taint and even jeopardise a friendship.   Along the way, we have a lot of fun with scenes from the cod-science fiction show, reminiscent of Blake’s 7 and other British fantasy television.

Star Trek The Next Generation’s Marina Sirtis stars as Marianne the faded actress, brimming with anecdotes and camp one-liners.  Her portrayal keeps to the right side of satire; Sirtis also gives us the vulnerability beneath the barbs and the heavy drinking, while displaying a skill for comic timing that is perfectly hilarious.

As Oli, Kwaku Mills practically vibrates with nervous excitement, burbling on in the presence of his idol.  He’s sweet and touching, a lonely gay boy who seeks solace in a defunct TV show, which offers a haven from the harshness of his reality.  Jacqueline King also shows a nice line in embittered barbs, as Marianne’s more down-to-earth best friend, Kate, a strong woman at home in her skin.  Sophie Ward is spot on as Kate’s English rose girlfriend Suzanne, while Simon Thorp hams it up delightfully as Vykar, a heroic figure from the TV show, and later as Bob, the lecherous actor who plays him.  I detect more than a hint of the late, great Paul Darrow in his intonations and it’s marvellous.

Completing the ensemble is the voice of Mark Gatiss as Kosley the computer.  There are ray guns and convention-goers in alien cosplay, and the dense, impenetrable dialogue of the genre, declaimed with straight faces.  The nostalgia factor is strong but it’s very much a play of the now, of how subsequent generations experience the world differently, and it’s about loneliness and love.

Director Andrew Keates makes a virtue of the close confines of Studio 2 so we get the intimacy of Marianne’s flat and we get to be part of the action in the sci-fi scenes.  Tim McQuillen-Wright’s design gives Marianne’s flat a retro look, while serving up Servalan bacofoil glamour in the TV show.

For me, the real star is Michael Dennis’s remarkable script, which is relentlessly funny as it navigates the human heart.  Brought to life by a stellar cast, the play speaks to me directly in a number of ways and I emerge feeling seen, satirised and celebrated.

Out of this world!

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Never drink with your heroes: Marina Sirtis and Kwaku Mills

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Strangers’ Things

A GUIDE FOR THE HOMESICK

Trafalgar Studios, London, Thursday 1st November, 2018

 

Ken Urban’s two-hander is set in an Amsterdam hotel a couple of years pre-Trump (happy days!) and tells the story of Teddy (a very strong Clifford Samuel) who invites a young man he has met in the bar up to his room so they can continue drinking after closing time.  It appears that Teddy has misread signals somewhere along the line and the nerdish, slightly effeminate Jeremy (the excellent Douglas Booth) isn’t gay after all… Or is he?  Jeremy can hardly bring himself to say the word.

As the two men talk and drink, their stories emerge.  It’s true, sometimes, that it’s easier to tell things to a stranger than to one’s closest acquaintances.  Teddy is in Amsterdam with a friend, prior to the friend’s wedding back home in New York, but there is some mystery about the friend’s absence… Jeremy is newly returned from relief work in Kampala – and there is some mystery about his departure from the clinic…

The men winkle, sometimes bully, the truth from each other, piece by piece.  After a lengthy establishing scene, Urban flicks the action between the hotel room now, the hospital in Uganda, and the hotel room when Teddy’s friend was present, with Samuel playing gay Ugandan Nicholas who befriends Jeremy, and Booth becoming Teddy’s unstable chum – who is obsessed with a story of a lonely whale whose song is of a frequency no other whales can hear… The story is a symbol for these two strangers, obviously, and is repeated perhaps one too many times.  We get it.

The quick changes between locations are achieved via Nic Farman’s lighting; the application of a colour wash transports us to sultry Africa at the touch of a button.  Also, Samuel’s African accent both convinces and helps us distinguish the whos, wheres, and whens.

The writing is sharp and funny; the playing of both actors is intense yet nuanced.  Director Jonathan O’Boyle keeps them moving around the intimate space, like caged animals, almost to the extent that I wish they’d keep still and just talk for pity’s sake.

The action covers, via Nicholas, the sickening rise of homophobic murders in Uganda, and how, even now, someone from a privileged background in the States can find it impossible to come out and be at peace with his sexuality.  Clifford’s Teddy is the more forceful presence, while Booth’s Jeremy is more subtly conflicted.  Sparks fly when tempers – and other things – are roused, and issues are thrashed out on a personal level.  With the way the world is going perhaps all we can do is cling to each other.

A thoroughly gripping, amusing yet provocative eighty minutes I strongly advise you to experience.

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Setting things straight: Douglas Booth and Clifford Samuel (Photo: Helen Maybanks)


Figures of Speech

SPEECH & DEBATE

Trafalgar Studios, London, Saturday 11th March, 2017

 

Stephen Karam’s snappy script is brought to life in this new production by a trio of energised performers.  Set in an American high school, it covers the experiences of three loners who come together to form a debate club when it emerges that they each have a reason to bring about the downfall of the drama teacher…

Solomon is a neurotic mass, an uptight reporter for the school newspaper.  He wants to write an expose to bring the hypocrisy of the mayor (and the drama teacher) into the spotlight.  Dinata is a lonely girl, a wannabe actor who uses theatrics to get by, podcasting and blogging away, always with her eye out for the chance to perform.  Howie is the new kid at school – it is his online chat with the drama teacher that opens the show and gets the ball rolling.

Douglas Booth is in excellent form as Howie, portraying the boy’s fragility rather than his campness.  His barbed lines are exquisitely timed, and there is an appealing vulnerability to his presence.  Patsy Ferran has never been better as Dinata, the driving force behind the debate club, the funniest of the three.  Wise-cracking and sardonic, she is not as hep and cool as she pretends.  Her songs are sweetly funny – and the musical numbers are definite highlights, allowing Ferran to shine.  Booth also proves himself as a physical comedian, while Tony Revolori’s understated moves have their own hilariousness.  Revolori is superb as the tightly wound, crusading Solomon, who has to come to terms with his own contradictions.

The trio is strongly supported by Charlotte Lucas who appears in grown-up roles as a teacher and a reporter, but for the most part it is the dynamics between the three loners that holds our attention.  Director Tom Attenborough keeps the action sharp and the dialogue going off like firecrackers.  Economic use of projections show us the online chats that, along with references to Mike Pence, make the script bang up-to-date.  The play is not finally about the issues up for debate; it’s the time-honoured theme of teenage awkwardness, of being uncomfortable in one’s own skin.  And it’s an absolute delight.  A well-observed, snappily presented comedy that reminds us how modern technology can serve to keep us isolated or get us into trouble.

P.S.  If Douglas Booth feels like sending me pics, I would not mind one bit.

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Was Honest Abe gay? One of the topics up for debate! Douglas Booth as Howie (Photo: Simon Annand)

 


Rich Pickings

THE SPOILS

Trafalgar Studios, London, Thursday 9th June, 2016

 

Jesse Eisenberg’s play comes to London in this lively revival, now including a couple of British actors along with three of the original cast, including Eisenberg himself, starring as prickly Ben, an abrasive, privileged individual whose sense of humour is both a weapon and a shield.  Cue an almost ceaseless stream of witty retorts and barbed comments, delivered in a quick-fire barrage.

Sharing Ben’s New York apartment is BFF Kalyan (Kunal Nayyar off of The Big Bang Theory).  Nayyar looks quite at home on Derek McLane’s sitcom set but here gets to flex his acting chops, when Ben at last pushes Kalyan too far.  Before things come to a devastating head, Ben and Kalyan’s friendship is a mutually supportive banter-fest.  Their closeness is apparent – and so we see that something special is under threat.

Nepalese Kalyan’s strong-willed Indian girlfriend Reshma (Annapurna Sriram) pulls him in another direction – giving rise to more scorn and verbal abuse from Ben.  A chance encounter with old school friend Tom (Alfie Allen off of Game of Thrones) revives Ben’s schoolboy crush on their mutual classmate Sarah (Katie Brayben).   The trouble is, Tom is currently engaged to Sarah.  Ben ups his game; his remarks become snider, his barbs more cutting – And yet we can’t help feeling for him.  We see the sweetness beneath the acerbic outer coating, and we are touched by Ben’s misguided efforts to win the girl.

Alfie Allen is good fun as Tom, a steaming great nit, albeit a decent enough cove.  Annapurna Sriram is striking as the assertive Reshma, and Katie Brayben charms as the object of Ben’s sometimes scatological affections.

While Eisenberg is a generous enough playwright not to hog all the best lines for himself, ultimately and perhaps inevitably, the show is chiefly a vehicle for his skills as a writer and his talent and charisma as a performer.  The pace is rapid and the timing is impeccable.  We get ferocity and vulnerability in the space of a breath.  And funny!  The packed matinee audience was roaring throughout.  Director Scott Elliott knows when to rein in Ben’s tirades and how to highlight moments of silence to make them as eloquent and as charged as any speech.

More of a latter-day, foul-mouthed Neil Simon than a kvetching Woody Allen, Eisenberg delivers a relentlessly entertaining comedy with clearly defined, layered characters and a core of emotional honesty and truth.

Exhilarating!

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Jesse Eisenberg and Kunal Nayyar (Photo: Monique Carboni)

 

 


Home Discomforts

THE HOMECOMING

Trafalgar Studios, London, Thursday 7th January, 2016

 

This production marks fifty years since Pinter’s play was first staged but the script seems fresh as a daisy. Soutra Gilmour’s design suggests an old-fashioned box set with a red frame delineating the limits of the room in which the action takes place, while the sparse furnishings clearly belong to the era in which it is set. We’re back in the 60s but it’s a highly stylised version. Director Jamie Lloyd intersperses Pinter’s more naturalistic aspects with scene transitions of heightened emotion, where Richard Howell’s expressionistic lighting shows us the characters’ internal lives – moments we can only intuit from Pinter’s dialogue. The lighting is accompanied by George Dennis’s loud and dissonant sound design. It’s unsettling, disturbing – almost an aural representation of Munch’s The Scream.   It works to emphasise the horror and agony of existence for these people, complementing the air of menace Pinter concocts through words and silence.

Max (the formidable Ron Cook) rules the roost as patriarch to three grown-up sons, two of whom still live at home, along with their Uncle Sam (not that one!). It’s a little world of men without women, angry domesticity and bitter recriminations. Into this dark place, eldest son Teddy (Gary Kemp) brings his elegant wife Ruth (Gemma Chan). What begins as an ‘into the lions’ den’ scenario, deftly develops into a ‘cat among the pigeons’ situation, as Ruth joins the ongoing power struggles and plays the men at their own game. Chan is perfectly cast; cool and aloof, reserved but readable. Kemp is good too, as weak-willed, middle-class prat Teddy, contrasting neatly with his brothers: John Macmillan is aspiring boxer Joey, his speech and thoughts slowed by too many blows to the head, and John Simm is charismatic as slimy Lenny, a dodgy geezer and no mistake. Simm is perhaps a little too likeable; his Lenny doesn’t seem quite dangerous or unpredictable enough. Strong as this lot are, for me it’s Keith Allen that shines the brightest as Uncle Sam, subtly effeminate and arguably the only ‘decent’ character in the piece.

Above all, Pinter’s script reigns supreme. Dark and funny and darkly funny, it utilises naturalistic speech patterns and idioms to hint at and tease out character and back story, leading us to clutch at meaning and significance. The sudden outburst of violence still surprises as much as the use of language delights. The play is well-served by this stylish production, although I would have liked Max’s collapse and capitulation to be more visceral and complete – Ruth usurps his throne, before our very eyes; we should be left with the idea that there is no going back. You can’t go home again.

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Gary Kemp, Ron Cook and Gemma Chan (Photo: Marc Brenner)