Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The Albatross 3rd & Main review or 'Can you flap your wings a little harder?'

The Albatross 3rd & Main, Simon David Eden
Park Theatre, 13th January 2017
Written for Time Out

Welcome to Gene Lacy’s General Store. It’s a world of muted brown, with faded plank walls, scruffy memorabilia and pickled beets. Lots of pickled beets. It’s not even Gene Lacy’s store anymore, since he became riddled with debt and had to sell the place to Lullaby. This is the store that time and America forgot. The only thing missing is the tumbleweed.
Unfortunately, that feeling of stagnation never leaves Simon David Eden’s latest play ‘The Albatross 3rd & Main’. This comedy about a trio of down-on-their-luck Americans – who invest their hopes in a dead but priceless golden eagle – is seriously laboured. Eden has his characters explain the play’s central premise not once, but twice. The golden eagle, we are told, is a coveted bird. It is a crucial part of most tribal ceremonies. The only catch is that it’s a federal offence to own one – so the eagle, that great American symbol, is denied to those that need it most.
Do you geddit? If you don’t, I can explain it again. It’s all a bit convoluted and, yet, other than the over-stuffed eagle, there’s little going on here. Spider (Charlie Allen, decked in leather) walks into Gene’s shop with said eagle, which needs stashing. Gene (Hamish Clark, drawn and cynical) wrings his hands a little and Lullaby (Andrew St Clair James), an ex-fighter now soft in the head, mumbles in the corner. When things get particularly ‘tense’, Lullaby recites from 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'. It’s a particularly affected touch from Eden, whose writing is smart but occasionally showy.
David Mamet’s ‘American Buffalo’ – also set in a run-down store and involving three hopeless schemers – is an obvious comparison. But this buffalo lacks bite. Playwright Eden also directs and designs and, though the set is evocative, the direction is sloppy. The dialogue sags and the actors never feel settled. There are some good quips and nice physical gags – but few feathers are ruffled.  

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

'Three Sisters' review or 'I don't quite see the family resemblance.'

Three Sisters, Chehkov/Tracy Letts 
Union Theatre, 5th January 2016
Written for Time Out 

Tracy Letts is not a huge fan of Chekhov. This adaptation of 'Three Sisters' - receiving its UK premiere - is Letts’s attempt to right a few ‘wrongs’. He has gotten rid of the fussier contextual stuff and, supposedly, stripped the play down to an excoriating family drama (think a Russian ‘August: Osage County’). But where there should be passion, fire, and sheer bloody will of character, there is only a tame flicker of emotion. This is a disappointing adaptation, which nods at Chekhov’s three sisters – but doesn’t really seem to know them.
The context has been kept ‘fluid’, which really means it hasn’t changed much at all. Phil Wilmott’s production is still firmly located in 20th century Russia – only Olga, Masha, Irina and their entourage wear contemporary costumes and play with the occasional anachronistic prop. The set is sparse and timeless (no designer is listed) and the swirling activity revolves around a gloomily lit piano and little else. It doesn’t feel like Russia, it doesn’t really feel like anywhere.
None of this would matter a jot if the relationships clanged and clashed – but they don’t. Ivy Corbin’s gothic Masha is suitably sullen, Celine Abrahams’ Olga is weary and steady and Molly Crookes’ sparkly-eyed Irina talks breathlessly of Moscow, as if it’s a lover she longs to return to. They’re fine individual studies but the family portrait doesn’t stick.
Ashley Russell’s Vershinin never quite seduces nor appals; we don’t fall for him and neither does Masha. Steven Rodgers’ Kulygin is perfectly pleasant but that final scene, when Kulygin kills Masha with kindness, is painless. The only relationship that rattles is that between Natasha (Francesca Burgoyne) – who sweeps through the house like a bitter wind - and the sisters’ hapless brother Andrey (Benjamin Chandler). They are the future writ large – and it is a sad and frightening prospect.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Mary Stuart review or 'Is this coin loaded?'

Mary Stuart, Schiller/Icke
Almeida Theatre, 15th December 2016
Written for Exeunt

Here’s a selection of my notes, written whilst watching Robert Icke’s new adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s heady (oh yes, I said it) play Mary Stuart: ‘Gosh, there’s a lot of history’; ‘It’s just one great procrastination!’ and my personal favourite: ‘Why won’t anyone stop talking?’
Listen, there’s no doubt this is an ‘impressive’ production of an ‘important’ play (written in 1800); words like ‘timely’, ‘incisive’ and ‘provocative’ spring to mind. I can’t and won’t deny that Schiller’s study of two Queens and cousins – Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart – locked in a see-sawing game of power tells us a lot about the sheer amount of luck involved in politics, and the way that cowardice runs through history like a toxic river gathering speed and volume. Schiller was hugely indebted to Shakespeare and his script is brilliantly crafted and designed: each beat is measured with exquisite precision and the dialogue carved out with exacting purpose. But. But.
Robert Icke has made some interesting tweaks, too. His canny embellishments add dramatic frisson and contemporary catching points. The key innovation happens at the beginning of the production when the lead actors – Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams – slowly sashay onto Hildegard’s Bechlter’s raised podium stage and watch a coin toss. Lia Williams is asked to make a call – heads (ha!) – and the roles are allocated accordingly (on press night Williams drew Mary Stuart and Juliet Stevenson, Elizabeth). And so history is set in motion with a mere toss of a coin and the fickleness of history, the exquisite delicacy of legacy, flares up around the framework of every scene that follows. But. But.

It’s all a bit ‘showy’, this toss of the coin and I’m not convinced it’s necessary – at least not quite to this extent. Stevenson and Williams had to learn two monumental roles and the press night was consequently – and understandably – postponed. The actors were clearly struggling with such a task. One could still sense the strain of that task on opening night: the occasional stuttered line, the slightly awkward shimmer that encased both performances. On one level, the fragility of both performances spoke of the thin line that separated Elizabeth and Mary Stuart’s destinies; the tiny turns of fate that determined Elizabeth’s successful rein and Mary’s death. One can appreciate those implications on an intellectual level. But. But.
I mourned the greater performances I might’ve seen, the more nuanced and convincing characters I might have known. Director and adaptor Icke has created a defiantly sparse production. Until a rather beautiful closing scene – during which Elizabeth is dressed up in period costume and Mary Stuart is stripped and prepared for her beheading – both Mary and Elizabeth, along with their attendants, are dressed in contemporary clothes. Mary and Elizabeth wear identical costumes: black trousers and a white shirt. So, whilst the play is still of the 1560s, the costumes nod to the modern day. Again, it’s not difficult to understand the canny implications of this shift – and the way these contemporary connotations might help us to reflect on our own precarious structures of power. But. But.
There’s so little sense of ceremony about this production and so few visual indicators of power. Crucially, I found it very hard to believe that Elizabeth was a Queen, or Mary a now-exiled and imprisoned Scottish Queen. I also craved a little visual relief. Bechtler’s stage is persistently gloomy and bare. Occasionally, the stage rotates – and the wheel of fortune turns – but that’s about it for visual pizazz. Laura Marling’s oozing music runs like oil beneath the scenes and adds some much-needed texture to the production. Screens are suspended around the stage but they‘re used very little, other than to mark out the scene changes. It is all very dark and very pared back. Alongside all of this there is endless – carefully measured – talking, as Elizabeth agonises over what to do with an imprisoned Mary. At its heart, this play is essentially a waiting game – a holding off of the inevitable that we all know too well – and that waiting game does get a little bloody trying.
There’s a snag about the principal characters too. Put simply, neither Queen is particularly impressive. That is no reflection on the performances. Stevenson’s Elizabeth radiates with an ice hot dignity that only Stevenson can create, and Williams’ Mary has a sort of earthy strength that blazes from every pore. But Elizabeth and Mary are easily manipulated and hopelessly in thrall to their hearts, and both are undone by their love for the slimy and second-rate Leicester (John Light – suitably slimy and second-rate). As the critical point draws closer and a decision about Mary must be made, Elizabeth drops to the floor in agony. She cries out, ‘I am weak’ and writhes about at the feet of a male attendant. Of course, one might say that such a scene exposes the fragile humanity that lingers beneath such powerful figures in history. And – yet – I struggle to imagine a play about two male leaders playing out in such a way. On a basic level, it is galling that a play about two extraordinarily powerful women is principally a play about weakness and delay.
And so the toss of a coin, and Schiller’s dramatic choices, gradually chip away at the Queens’ power and performers’ impact. It is only when the words dry up in the penultimate scene that Stevenson and Williams begin to exert real influence. Williams stands still as she is stripped down and readied for her execution, and there is a lightness and calm about her that feels incredibly brave and strong. Stevenson stands frozen to the spot, as her face is covered in white powder and her body enshrouded in heavy costume. By the end of this ceremony, Stevenson’s Queen Elizabeth cannot move. Only her eyes – a tiny dot amid that suffocating white – remain exposed. They dart about and sparkle, instinctively searching for an escape from the gilded cage of power.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

'All The Angels' review or 'Gorgeous harmonies but does that scene feel a little flat?'

All The Angels, Nick Drake
Sam Wanamaker Theatre - Globe, 11th December 2016
Written for Time Out

Picture this. A beautiful theatre bathed in the golden light of endless flickering candles. A stunning singer dressed in a sparkling dress. The yearning strains of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ are rising up around you. There are some moments in ‘All the Angels’ that are so beautiful, they’re almost spiritual. Nick Drake’s ‘making of’ drama about tHandel’s masterpiece, which returns to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse following a successful run last year, isn’t particularly elegant or insightful. It isn’t even that dramatic. But there is beauty in this show and some transporting scenes, when the music glows anew and all the brighter. 
We begin in Chester in 1742. Poor winds meant that Handel could not travel and had to hold his first rehearsals above a pub. Yes, a pub! The action then moves to Dublin, where Handel had just a few weeks to teach Susannah Cibber – a disgraced actress and budding alto – how to sing. This is no musical ditty, after all. This is the bloomin’ ‘Messiah’.
Preparations play out on Mike Britton’s glowing stage, carpeted and decked with manuscripts. The action is narrated by body snatcher Crazy Crow (a twinkling Sean Campion) who, on hearing Handel’s music, begins to have a spiritual crisis. It’s all a bit too tidy, though Jonathan Munby directs with real grace and the scenes in which the music comes to life – and the singers haunt the stage as a band plays on the balcony above – are excellent. But some of the more plot-driven scenes are so stiff you could snap them clean in two. 
The singing lessons between a delightfully grumpy Handel (David Horovitch) and the sensitive Susannah (Kelly Price) feel a tad predictable. Yet just as the shackles are rising, Price begins to sing. Her voice is rich and deep and, under her command, Handel’s music feels sad and mournful – but hopeful too. There is an innocence about the music – a belief in something better – that flows right through us and makes us glow.

Friday, 9 December 2016

'Benighted' review or 'Shell shock, shadows, and broken soldiers.'

Benighted, J B Priestley/Duncan Gates
Old Red Lion, 8th December 2016
Written for Time Out 

Benighted. It’s not a special honour bestowed by the Queen. It actually means to be in a state of abject ignorance and/or enshrouded in darkness. It’s also the title of one of JB Priestley’s earliest novels, here adapted into a spooky and surprisingly thoughtful play by Duncan Gates. A house of horrors thriller set in 1920s Britain, this is the story of a post-war country in a state of shock – struggling to find its way, frightened of the dark and – most of all – terrified of the demons within.
It’s nearly Christmas and Margaret Waverton (Harrie Hayes), her architect husband Philip (Tom Machell) and good friend Roger (Matt Malby) are on their way home for the holidays. But when a violent storm hits, the gang are forced to seek refuge in a ramshackle house. No ordinary house, mind. The walls are charred black (Gregor Donnelly’s skewed set screams with foreboding), the residents are bonkers (Michael Sadler’s goggle-eyed butler is the battiest of the lot), there’s a soldier shut away in the attic and no-one has been outside in a very, very long time. 
As the night wears on, horrors rise up from the house and its inhabitants. Adaptor Gates and director Stephen Whitson strike a fine balance between easy thrills and smarter psychological chills. There are bumps in the night, great claps of thunder and flashes of lightning and even a slow motion strobe-light fight sequence. But there are also quieter and infinitely more haunting moments, during which these shell-shocked (quite literally in some cases) strangers reveal their doubts and fears.
A game of ‘truth’ exposes a mother anxious to create a world in which her children might be happy, a husband struggling to see the point of it all and a dancer (a vibrant Jessica Bay) shrouding her poor past in sequins. In one unforgettable scene, a soldier stands alone, breathing raggedly through a gas mask. He looks like a monster – but it is ‘monsters’ like these who won the war. And so the impossible sorrow and soul-searching of post-war Britain tumbles down on us all. 

Thursday, 8 December 2016

'Babe' review or 'Baaaaaaa, ram, ewe!'

'Babe, the Sheep-Pig' - David Wood/Dick King-Smith
Written for Guardian Stage 

Why do those sheep look like people?” asks my six-year-old god-daughter, Blue. “And why do they have mouldy legs?” It takes a while for David Wood’s stage version of Babe to capture its young audience. The Oscar-winning film (based on Dick King-Smith’s book) is a tough act to follow; anyone who has seen this film weeps instantly at the phrase “That’ll do, pig”. It’s also tricky to fit a farmyard of animals on to the stage and into a relatively short script. There’s a lot to live up to and this family show about Babe – the pig who dreams of herding sheep – feels a little unsteady on its trotters.
Designer Madeleine Girling’s set is bold and practical. The front of the stage is grassy and open, and the animals (mostly played by fur-lined humans) have lots of space in which to roam. Behind the yard is a rickety wooden barn, which also doubles up as Farmer Hogget’s home. It’s a lively and homely set, but it does have some limitations. Most of the moving moments - particularly Babe’s scenes with Farmer Hoggett (Ben Ingles) – happen at a distance. 
There is, however, plenty of room for shepherding, as well as singing, dancing and general merriment. Barnaby Race’s original music has a lovely, folksy thrust to it and an infectious beat. The animals dance and whirl about, and even play the violin. Director Michael Fentiman herds his cast with real skill, and Blue bounces so enthusiastically to the music she nearly falls off her seat.
There are some cracking action sequences too – and the children shiver in sync when a wolf sweeps on to the stage. Girling’s “baddy” costumes are particularly brilliant. The sheep and dogs are funny and fluffy but the wolf – played by a leather-clad actor, Thomas Gilbey, with wires for a tail and a skeletal robot fame – is amazingly strange, and Blue talks breathlessly of the “robo dog” during the interval.
A few of the animals – including Babe himself – are represented by puppets rather than played by heavily costumed actors. Puppetmakers Max Humphries and Dik Downey have created a flock of ducks that wheel about the stage, a sly cat and a huge mother ewe, with a fluffy wheelbarrow body. They’re witty creations, but there’s something a little confusing about some animals being puppets and others being portrayed by actors; the sense of artifice never fully disappears.
Babe (controlled and voiced by Oliver Grant) is nimble and cute but he doesn’t quite become “our” Babe. He’s a pretty pink puppet right through to the end. When Blue leaves the theatre she raves about the singing, the sheep and the wolf – but Babe doesn’t get a mention. That won’t quite do, pig. That won’t quite do.

Friday, 2 December 2016

'The Children' review or 'Don't let the sun go down on me...'

The Children – Lucy Kirkwood [Spoilers contained in this review…]
Royal Court Theatre, 30th November 2016

We’re in a charming and slightly worn down cottage by the coast. We’re somewhere in England, sometime around now. It’s late afternoon and Hazel (Deborah Findlay – outstanding) is preparing dinner for her husband Robin (Ron Cook). It’ll be a light dinner – just a cold salad - since Hazel and Robin are in their sixties and Hazel is damned if she’s going to just let death happen. You can choose not to run to towards death and Hazel chooses running on the spot, eating healthily, practising yoga.

Outside, the light is fading. The walls of the cottage glimmer and glow with the steady, off-stage descent of the sun. First the walls turn a gentle shade of pink. It is the start of something, gentle and unassuming. The pink deepens to a red, which darkens and thickens and seems to take a hold of things. Finally there is a cooling off – a white light followed by a flattening out and then a soft dip into darkness. It is like watching the very slowest of explosions. It is an explosion that has happened somewhere at a distance, somewhere we cannot see – but just look at the way this unseen explosion plays and fuses with the kitchen and the people inside it.  

Watching Lucy Kirkwood’s brilliant new play ‘The Children’ (served tremendously by inspired directing from James Macdonald), you might miss the beautiful light show (Peter Mumford, genius) that dances about the walls. You might, instead, be distracted by Kirkwood’s pin-sharp dialogue, as witty as it is wise, as big and bold as it is domestic, authentic and familiar. You might have been distracted by three brilliant performances, with Deborah Findlay a frightened thumping heart at the centre of things. That would a shame. It’s a thing of beauty that light show; it is life continuing to do its thing, no matter what. It is the start and the end of things. But it is very hard to spot the big stuff, isn’t it, when you’re distracted by the main event, the very process of just getting on and living?

‘The Children’ is set in the aftermath of a power plant explosion. Hazel and Robin – both retired nuclear scientists - have moved into a cousin’s cottage in order to avoid contamination. Their old house, their farm and the cows are now locked off inside the danger zone. That world, those memories, feelings and things, are no longer an option for Hazel and Robin. There’s no going back – not unless they want to cause themselves some serious harm. Not unless they care so much about the past that they’re willing to destroy their bodies and fuck up their future.

Only there’s always a way to back, isn’t there? When old friend and colleague Rose (Francesca Annis) arrives – after a hefty 37 years away – the past comes rumbling back into Hazel and Robin’s lives. It takes a little while to catch up with them. At first, Hazel and Rose’s shared history merely lingers, strange and threatening, underneath the distracting patter of everyday chat. Hazel talks about Rose being an ‘old, old friend’ and there’s a funny sort of spitefulness to the phrase. As the two feel each other out, circling one another with empty phrases, the dialogue begins to thicken. The light ripples and pulses and that – too – seems to speak of the life these two once shared, when they worked together at the power plant.  And when Rose helps herself to a glass of water – walks straight to Hazel’s cupboard and plucks out a glass – well, that glass of water becomes a weapon.

Hazel’s husband Robin (Ron Cook) arrives home and the present is again – more strongly this time - contaminated by the past. Rose’s words grow heavier and her flat and calm demeanor begins to feel like a soot that smothers everything. She has a weird neutrality about her – a sort of refusal to become animated. Perhaps that’s because Rose has got something to hide. Perhaps it is because she feels defensive, or because she never had children. For whatever reason, Rose doesn’t seem to be completely inside this scene, inside her life. She hover somewhere just outside of things. And when Rose goes to smoke, she stands beside the half-open kitchen door, half in and half outside of this early evening gathering.

The light outside cools and the dialogue cools with it, becoming colder, thinner, harder. The words start to feel flinty – weapons with which these characters can harm each other. And then, finally, the dam breaks. The past comes flooding into this kitchen (quite literally at one point, when the toilet bursts and water spills through Miriam Buether’s exquisitely restrained set) and everything changes. It tells you something about the depth of this play that a burst toilet pipe can say so much, without that poignancy feeling in any way pretentious or hard-working. That burst toilet is the end of our planet. It is icebergs melting and islands drowning. It is the tipping point. It is a shitstorm (ha) raining down on all of us. It is ugly past indiscretions finally catching up on us. It is Rose and Robin’s affair, hidden for so long, finally sweeping through Hazel’s kitchen and destroying her perfectly preserved but perfectly dishonest present.

The dam has opened. Rose finally reveals the reason she is here. She has a request. Rose wants Robin and Hazel to come and help clean up the mess at the power plant. It is dangerous work – but it is their mess to sort out. The real master-piece of Kirkwood’s play is that this is not necessarily an altruistic act from Rose. Is this the behaviour of a good person, or of someone with nothing to lose? What is more important, anyway? To protect the people and the small world around us, or to make bigger sacrifices in order to save more people and, well, more planet? What are we really living for: these scenes in our kitchen or that bigger light show gently playing out beyond our window?

Rose has a cigarette and – again – that tension between the big and small battles, the local and wider issues, is encapsulated in the simple acting of puffing on a cigarette. Smoking gives Rose pleasure, so why shouldn’t she do it? It will probably kill her in the end, but the end is a very, very hard concept for the human head to wrap around.

Rose finishes her cigarette and Hazel, livid and frightened and a little bit excited too (even if she can’t admit it yet), sprays the smoke-filled air that Rose has created. Hazel picks the present. Hazel picks what is in front of her. She chooses looking after her children, no matter how disappointing or difficult they might be. She chooses cleaning up the mess that she can actually see.

As these three grapple with this huge decision that they face, they put on the radio and play an old song. It is a song that the three once danced to together – they even made up a routine. At first Rose and Robin struggle to remember the steps, but then Hazel joins in and guides them through. It isn’t long before they’re all in synch, wiggling and shimmying to the music. All three suddenly look really young and really happy again. But it’s just a fleeting moment. The dancing soon breaks down and the music stops. It felt good to dance though, didn’t it? It felt really good – right up until the music stopped and everything fell silent.