past dramas…

For many dull and generally uninteresting reasons I’ve not been writing about the theatre productions that I’ve enjoyed for a while.  Inevitably that means that I can’t actually remember everything I’ve seen!  That was one of the main aims of writing these posts, as well as a well established tendency to pick over, analyse and otherwise over think anything I enjoy…

Time to restart methinks, particularly as I’ve just seen an excellent production which I do want to try to sort through my thoughts about. (Watch this space!)

Thinking back over the various productions I’ve seen in the lengthy writing free gap there are a few that stand out.  It’s a little too daunting to think about writing at length about them all but as an aide memoir to my aging memory bank a few thoughts on the ones that made an impression.

Hamlet at Manchester’s Royal Exchange

e548149a-3df5-11e4-_769682cHamlet will never be one of my top choice Shakespeare, but Maxine Peake is one of my top choice actors – and so this was a must see.

It wasn’t perfect.  It was a little uneven and I did have some concerns about the Primark stocked graveyard – and more about the piles of clothes left for the rest of the scenes.  The gender changes worked well and became largely irrelevant once the play began – although I couldn’t help wondering if a male Ophelia could make such a terminally unlikable character any better!  It didn’t seem in the slightest bit important that a woman played Hamlet, it is the character we’re watching after all and this Hamlet was wary and watchful, cutting and direct and gained in power the longer we watched.  It was a mesmerising performance.  The staging was sparse but the lighting design was fabulous and the forest of flickering lamps that descended to show the approach of the ghost was a beautiful image that still lingers.

The Crucible at the Old Vic

Crucible-old-vic

The Crucible was originally about McCarthy’s paranoia about communism but it seems to me it’s shifted to warn against the extremes of belief in its tale of a mostly good man damned by the god-fearing.  (Yes, I know that’s an oversimplification.)  The staging was deceptively simple, the lighting and sound designs both impeccable and in an ensemble cast no one put a foot wrong.  Sitting in the round, and we were very close to the performance area, you feel as if you are sitting in judgement and it adds to the intensity. The tension is ratcheted up and up, reaching a peak in three and a half hours.  It just didn’t let up.

And neither did Richard Armitage – and let’s be honest, a fair proportion of the audience did buy their tickets to see him!  He gave us a John Proctor of essential decency overlain with guilt pushed into growing and righteous anger and it was a performance of incredible intensity.  I have no idea how he managed to do this day in day out, never mind twice a day!

The Elephant Man at the Haymarket, London

THE ELEPHANT MAN - ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST PRODUCTION IMAGES. PHOTO CREDIT JOAN MARCUS. .. handout ... Elephant Man, The Booth Theatre Cast List: Bradley Cooper Patricia Clarkson Alessandro Nivola Anthony Heald Scott Lowell Kathryn Meisle Henry Stram Chris Bannow Peter Bradbury Lucas Calhoun Eric Clem Amanda Lea Mason Marguerite Stimpson Emma Thorne Production Credits: Scott Ellis (Direction) Timothy R. Mackabee (Scenic and Projection Design) Clint Ramos (Costume Design) Philip S. Rosenberg (Lighting Design) John Gromada (Original Music and Sound Design) Other Credits: Written by: Bernard PomeranceThe Elephant Man is really quite a slight play which relies heavily on good performances.  Luckily this one came up trumps on that.  Bradley Cooper delivered a reminder – often necessary – that some of those labelled with stunt casting of ‘Top TV Totty’ to lead shows (and ticket sales) can actually act.

The lasting memory of this show though was “Bleedin’ ‘ell, it’s high up here!”   Front row, upper circle and yes, the view was excellent – especially of the ceiling.  The steep walk down to the seat was rather less than excellent and I could have done with roping myself to an usher!  That seemed a little forward so I’ll just put the momentary vertigo down to age and pack crampons for m y next visit…

Farinelli and the King at the Duke of Yorks

melody-grove-mark-rylance-and-edward-peel-in-farinelli-and-the-king-photo-credit-marc-brennerThis was one of the most gorgeous looking productions I’ve seen in a long time – and made me wish I;d managed to see it at the Wanamaker Theatre lit entirely by candles.  Mark Rylance seems incapable of being less than excellent and he duly delivered here in a show that was rather funnier than I’d expected.  Starting with the King fishing in a goldfish bowl on the end of his bed and providing the memorable image of a castrato singer flying across the stage sprinkling glitter on the cheap seats.  It also included a lot of thought-provoking issues about sanity, loneliness, the healing power of music – and the less than healing effects of other people.

The Skriker at Manchester’s Royal Exchange

JS67380131Top of the list for impact, enjoyment and sheer audacity was The Skriker with Maxine Peake.  One of my favourite performers I’d watch her in anything but this freewheeling avalanche of sound and fury and pathos was amazing.  The Skriker – a shape-shifting malevolent spirit – is in the centre of everything, constantly drawn to humans but why?  To torment, to own, to punish?  Nothing is clear.  The language is dense, pun filled and as fast moving as the way Maxine Peake shifts the Skriker from ageless faerie to bag woman to child to glossy corporate.  The mix of the language and the stunning visuals – especially the Skiriker’s underworld banquet – were almost overwhelming and the experience teetered on the edge of overtaking the ultimately bleak message.

Truly immersive theatre, the stage level of the Royal Exchange was filled with long tables, benches and chairs where the watchers were seated to see the drama played out around and about and above them.  At one point there was an unexpected shower of water when a fountain sprayed up from the table, at others you worried an actor would end up on your lap.

An incredible performance from Maxine Peake – making the alliterative avalanche of words as accessible as it could be and bringing a physicality to a role that veered across the emotional range but never for a moment let you forget that the Skriker is evil; ancient, formidable evil.  Utterly marvelous.

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Oh, and for those who say that I’ve missed Doctor Faustus, I can only say that I rather wish I had…

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“Birdland”

by Simon Stephens at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs at the Royal Court, 3 April – 31 May 2014

“Everything can be quantified. All worth can be quantified. Artistic worth. Human worth. Material worth. Everything. Some food is simply better than other food. Isn’t it? Some clothes are better than other clothes. Aren’t they?”

birdland7You give a man everything he ever has – or ever could – dream of, then follow it up with enough money to buy anything and anyone he chooses…  That’s going to fuck him up a bit.  Right?

The tale of the rock star as spoilt brat is a well trodden path and while Birdland doesn’t stray too far from familiar territory it leaves one thought uppermost.  Does true nature always out in the end?  Was it fame and money that corrupted Paul or was he always a nasty, twisted little toe-rag?

In the beginning Paul behaves badly, is demanding and demeaning just because he can.  He has no fear of payback.  These people adore him, they’ll do anything he wants and most of all, they need him.  Or so he thinks.  As the play progresses actions begin to have consequences.  The tipping point is his wilful destruction of Johnny’s relationship.  His best friend, the one who has been with him all along, the Guy to his Robbie, the one who knows him and the only one who challenges him.  There’s a wonderful chemistry between Andrew Scott and Alex Price and compared to the stylised choreography of the rest of the play the initial scenes between Paul, Johnny and the best peach in Moscow are incredibly natural.  There are hints that Johnny is coming to realise that his friend may not have his interests at heart.  But he lets it go.  It’s Paul.  That’s just what he’s like.

andrew-scott-paul-and-alex-price-johnny-87718

But what is Paul like?  Is he jealous of Johnny’s happiness, of the stability of his relationship with Marnie (Yolanda Kettle) and the trust and love he says he has for her.  Or does he want Johnny to be focussed on him and only on him?  The ‘double date’ with Annalisa (Charlotte Randle) and Johnny and Marnie makes it obvious that not being the centre of attention makes Paul acts even more of a cock than usual.  And he knows it.  He just doesn’t care – why should he?  When Marnie and Annalisa are having a perfectly normal conversation that doesn’t include him he derails it by offering Annalisa £100,000 to kiss Johnny for their amusement.  She walks out.  Not the first and definitely not the last to do that.

“Sit down.  Don’t go.  You’re embarrassing yourself and you’re embarrassing me.  Sit down now.  Everybody is looking at you.”  “No.  Everybody is looking at you.”  “Everybody always looks at me.  There’s absolutely nothing different about that.”

charlotte-randle-nikki-amuka-bird-and-yolanda-87717Did that abortive plan to see Johnny kiss a stranger in front of the girl he loves give him the idea to have sex with Marnie – although to be fair she doesn’t seem reluctant.  His pillow talk leaves something to be desired as it’s a cold, rational explanation of how he will have to tell Johnny all about it.  Inevitably it ends badly and she kills herself, jumping off the hotel roof.  Suddenly there’s a deeper force here than ‘because he can’.

“He told me he loved you. He told me he trusted you completely.  I told him he was being ridiculous.”

Paul’s manager David (Daniel Cerqueira) is happy to enable his excesses, whether that’s buying him a helicopter or administering cocaine via eye drops.  What he’s less prepared to do is make sure his client knows the level of debt he’s in – or at least not until the golden goose shows signs of getting out of the egg business.  I’m quite sure that David’s 10% is safely tucked away, why should he care if Paul has £9 million to make back?

birdland5At times Birdland is darkly and uncomfortably funny.  The conversation between Paul and two self-confessed adoring (but in reality slightly underwhelmed) fans in a Paris hospitality area made my toes curl.  The inanities and obsessional behaviour foisted upon the famous are not shown to excuse Paul’s behaviour although he could choose to use that to dodge the blame.  If he has any concept that there is blame to be laid, which I doubt.  Instead the conversation takes a darker turn and talk of surprising Martin and Claudie’s 14-year-old daughter foreshadows what is to come.  Paul’s treatment of adoring fan Louis is cruel, drawing him in and then kicking him.  It’s like a cat playing with a mouse and Paul has that same dangerous feline grace.

The scene where he takes Jenny (Nikki Amuka-Bird) to meet the late Marnie’s parents is a tough one.  What did he think he was doing?  He introduces Jenny, the room service waitress he acquired in Moscow as his wife and that – what a coincidence! – her name is Marnie too.

“Thank you.  Please, could I have a larger glass?”  “A larger?”  “More brandy.”

andrew-scott-paul-87715Compared to the preceding scene when Paul avoids every question with a variation on “It’s great, yeah” with Marnie’s parents he’s like a child, no editing, just saying whatever is in his head, however hurtful.  He knows Johnny won’t be visiting – he never met them, it would be odd – so he lays the blame, carefully painting Johnny as shallow and later telling him of Marc and Sophies’s (non-existent) anger.  If the world isn’t arranged as he would like he’s become accustomed to remaking it to suit.

But the remaking no longer sticks.  He’s still calling Jenny Marnie and she won’t take any more.  She leaves.

“Just because you sing a few songs and you can hold a bit of a tune is no reason to treat anybody the way you treated them or me or Johnny or anybody and if you can’t see that then, Paul, you really need to sort your fucking head out.”

Birdland4So does he?  Sort his fucking head out that is.  To be honest I think the jury’s out.  The painful meeting with his Dad, the very definition of a normal bloke, throws Paul’s posturing and pretence into sharp relief.  He can’t believe the level of worry over what to him is a tiny debt.  Pocket money.  Barely worth bothering with.  Little does he know.

Then  he’s arrested – even the police are fans – for sex with an under-age girl.  A 14-year-old who was looking for Johnny but finds Paul instead.  Or was that all there was too it?  David thinks he might not go to jail, or not for long at least.  He’s far from the unctuous servant now he’s telling a few home truths.  He knows what Paul did to Johnny and he knows Johnny was “really annoyed about that“.  He tells Paul how much debt he’s in, he can’t give it up, walk away and be something else, something normal.  And anyway – he’s not normal, not now the world’s about to find out he’s been fucking little girls.

So Paul is stuck in the world he’s created.  Justice?  Maybe.  But Johnny is there too, tied together by the millstone of debt – of advances and fees and the “flowers and miscellaneous” bill.

Did Johnny set him up as revenge for Marnie?  In the play as performed it’s less clear but in a cut scene Johnny says he sent her although he claims to have no idea she’d press charges.  He didn’t do it for revenge though, but to make him stop, rein him in.  That made me realise that maybe Johnny isn’t entirely the good cop in all this, he’s been with Paul too long and some of the excesses have rubbed off.  Paul’s twisted world is more normal to Johnny than he’d ever admit.  Just how does planting an under-age girl between Paul and his bed make him behave better?   All it really does is cement the despair and the dread they both feel at a lifetime of tolerating each other to pay off the record company.

Birdland1Birdland looks fantastic – a shifting fake proscenium making a roof, a room, whatever was needed and an amazing lighting design.  No set and few props – five turquoise chairs the only constant feature.  I particularly liked the bubbles (I think they were bubbles!) that were flown in, giving an almost whimsical edge to some scenes.  Water rose around the final scenes – symptomatic of rising madness or of unstoppable forces perhaps.   I’d rather like to see it again just to watch the shifting colours and patterns on the stage.

Andrew Scott plays Paul to perfection – a showy part but equally one that needed to be carefully contained.  He combines stillness with cat-like grace and menace and offered glimpses of the rock star, the adoration of whom was at the root of it all.

It was far from a one man show and he had more than able support from a great ensemble cast; Daniel Cerqueira in particular placed a range of diverse characters with real distinction between them.  Alex Price’s Johnny took all the sympathy and for a while my heart broke with his until I started to suspect he didn’t entirely deserve it – any more than Paul did.

Where did Paul end up?  Ostensibly alone but tied to the people he’d tormented.  Was he mad or bad?  Perhaps a little of both although to my mind a short step away from psychopathy.  He was certainly deluded – and maybe haunted.

I don’t think I am going to die soon

I think I’m going to live for years and years and years.

When you can do the things that I can do.

When you can see the thing that I’ve seen and go to the places I’ve been to.  When you can do all that you don’t die.

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“Pests”

by Vivienne Franzmann, Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court, 27 March – 3 May 2014.

“Pink loves Rolly.  Rolly loves Pink. And Pink loves getting bombed off her face.”

87653Pregnant Rolly has been released from prison, her few belongings in a transparent plastic bag and she’s knocking at the door of her sister Pink’s shabby ruin of a flat.  Pink is a volatile mass of energy, attitude and twitches; still on the needle and still on the game.  In contrast Rolly is clean or at least on methadone, has support and the prospect of a job and a future.  An escape.  But can Pink let her go?  She loves her – that much is clear – but resentment and jealousy grows; she knows Rolly won’t need her any more.  Just as she left Pink behind in the children’s home when she was fostered, now she’s going to leave her again.  Pink needs to keep her close, keep her in the world she knows, pull her back under.  Does she do it from malice or spite or does she truly believe it’s for the best?  And for whom?  I really don’t know.  Love comes in many guises and who am I to say that this isn’t one of them.

Pink sabotages Rolly’s chances, makes sure the job and the flat fall through leaving her with no choices and nowhere to go.  She makes sure she knows just how much she suffered while Rolly got all the breaks – dance lessons, fostered, looked after away from the home where the men lined up with Mars bars and teddy bears and pound coins.

As the play progresses both sisters unravel further and the scenes get shorter and more aggressive.  We don’t know exactly what abuses brought them to this point but we can see the effects.  Some scenes are powerful – Pink forcibly taping the “red rouge shimmy ‘no place like home’ shoes” to Rolly’s feet – while others seem underplayed.  The removal of Rolly’s baby is almost thrown away – deliberately? – and the impact is muted.  Maybe that’s how it was for her – to think about the baby is too much, too painful, too inevitable; best to carry on as if it never happened.  That’s what Pink did after all.

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Joanna Scotcher’s set design is more rat’s nest than home – abandoned mattresses, grubby duvets, places to burrow and hide.  Lit by a flickering strip light, surrounded by bars and littered with the detritus of poverty it feels more of a jail than any cell.  I was less convinced by the creeping video images, representative of Pink’s increasing mental disintegration.  Sinead Matthews’ performance didn’t need any help from trickery.  The physicality she brought to the role, constantly moving, all twitches and tics, said it without the effects.  When the scars of self harm are revealed at the end you see the broken woman she keeps hidden under the bravado and you see that Rolly is sometimes the strong one.

34971Ellie Kendrick showed us the vulnerability of Rolly, the softness.  Compared to manic Pink she was still, deliberate and slow but there were hints of a hardness underneath from the beginning.  She seems to have had the better life but the four years she had with Mike and Jayne didn’t keep her out of jail.  She has a containment, a protective shell,  that contrasts perfectly with Pink’s open energy.  What was she thinking?  Was she thinking?  Pink had always done the thinking for her, for both of them and while May took on that role for a while Pink wouldn’t – couldn’t – allow that to continue.  Rolly is hers.  And she is the one who can always break open whatever cocoon Rolly gathers around herself.

Despite the clever set and the energy Kendrick and especially Matthews bring to their performances it isn’t a perfect play.  The plot is overly signposted and it could have lost at least ten minutes.  At times it’s savagely funny, at times heartbreakingly hopeless – it’s the wrong word to say I enjoyed it but I’m very glad to have seen it, despite its imperfections.

If I wanted to be uncharitable it’s a stylised version of drug addiction for the theatre going middle classes, sanitised just enough to allow us to care about Pink and Rolly.  It’s not that simple though – it can’t be – and as it is the result of Franzmann working with Clean Break it must be given more validity.  Clean Break work with women who have been in prison or who are in danger of being imprisoned.  Wisely the dialect of Pink and Rolly is part invented, although it has the layered flavours of the real thing – a hint of patois and pigin and a nod to the outsiders of A Clockwork Orange.  And it’s very cleverly written; I did wonder for the first few minutes if I’d follow the words at all but it soon dropped into place.  The addition of a more complex vocabulary for Pink gave depth and hinted at an education, a women more widely read than it’d be too easy to assume.  References to Gulliver’s Travels and Ernest Hemingway slipped seamlessly into her often unstoppable flow of words.

Ultimately Pests gives no answers, suggests no solutions and shows little hope.  Neither sister can escape their environment and seem destined to repeat the circle of abuse and addiction, loyalty and revenge until one – or both – of them die.  In fact I did expect the final scene to be a death but that would have been too neat and tidy.  It would have been an end, a resolution of sorts.

For Pink and Rolly there is no end.

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“if you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep”

imagesCAUIK3Z3by Anders Lustgarten, the Royal Court Theatre from 15 February 2013

I was expecting to be challenged by the subject matter of “If you don’t let us dream…”  and the bare stage added to the impression of a soapbox performance.  The trouble is that I wasn’t challenged as much as I would have liked.

In this fast-moving ensemble piece of just 75 minutes all the actors acquitted themselves well.  The heart of the play is Susan Brown’s Joan, one of the two actors who play the same character throughout.  Joan – hard up pensioner, long serving nurse, vociferous opponent of the new debt taxes – gets our sympathy straight away although it cleverly turns when she viciously abuses an immigrant who gets the hospital treatment denied to her.  The racism from her was far more shocking than from Damien Molony’s Jason as it was so unexpected.  It was pretty obvious what Jason was, although a credible start at a cockney accent slipped into something akin to South African which was a little imagesironic.   I assumed that his rather ineffectual mate Ryan (Daniel Kendrick) took the fall for him – again – and by the end I still wasn’t sure if his guilt was for what he did to McDonald himself or what was done in his company.

That was much of my problem with the play – I wanted to know more than we were permitted to see.  The targets were largely easy and obvious ones, the radical solutions to austerity and debt  have been widely written about.  Yes I see the horror in incentivising crime and poverty, making it target driven but it didn’t take it anywhere.  The flash of an abandoned child, a pensioner in poverty… let’s be honest we’re getting hardened to these stories.  It wasn’t enough to make me angry.  The sole opposer of the bonds – and yes, what are bonds? – was a slightly ditsy entrepreneur who stood the team chocolate rather than stand by her principles.

Where the play came to life was when the politics and humour combined.  Politics IS farce after all and it glides the message home in a way that didacticism doesn’t.  When the lines are sharp and funny there are moments when the show takes off and flies.  It made me realise what it might have been and I was sorry that it wasn’t.

“It takes a true revolutionary to make it through an affinity group”

“I’d rather gargle with Michael Gove’s urine”

“I cannot believe, as a revolutionary automatist movement, that we have to abide by Health and Safety legislation”

Interesting that these three quotes which came straight to mind are all from Part Two, where the characters and the words had a chance to stretch out and develop a little more.

The short sharp scenes gave little chance to connect emotionally – especially not knowing if you’d see that character again.  I read the playscript on the way home and found some scenes incredibly moving on the page which I hadn’t on stage.  McDonald’s (Lucien Msamati) Shona monologue about his family for example.

Moments stood out; Joan’s racist ranimagest, the battery acid, the extension of bonds to reproduction and rape – they were powerful and engaging but generally the targets are predictable and the characters too shallowly written to impact consistently.  One image that stayed was a simple one – the debt collection box – incessantly beeping, light flashing.  Pay up or go mad.

The actors changed their clothes, shoes, hair and hats between roles – and I wonder if they needed to?  I’ve seen multi roles played without it and the acting was more than enough to differentiate.  Maybe it’s deliberate that everyone ended up looking so similar in every role, we’re all in it together after all – but maybe not.  If not, then the suits should be sharper – and the shoes sharper still – and the radicals less clichéd.  And that despite some of the worse items of knitwear I’ve seen in a very long time.  Since an 80s sit-in at any rate – which says it all.

I’m not a great fan of the Pickfords School of Acting – it can break the flow to have the actors lifting and shifting, especially when they play a number of characters.  I find it jolts me out of the text into wondering which person they are when they bring on a table. It’s a feature of this stripped down style that everything happens within the bounds of the stage but sometimes it is just too distracting.  The movement of the actors changing costume catches the eye and I found in one case it pulled me out of a particularly intense moment.  That was a shame and given that the actors are behind the clothes rails surely it wouldn’t have been such a compromise for them to have been totally out of sight?

index1The final scenes of the preparation for the trial could have come from a  totally different production.  Wordier, longer, much more of a story than a series of snapshots and it was crying out for a second act.  Where were the new solutions, the fresh ideas and the new leaders?  Not here and it left the questions unanswered.

I was expecting a polemic, a rant, a feel of agit-prop and by hell that’s what I got.  What I didn’t get was a well-rounded and complete piece of theatre.  It was a good way down the road but while I left feeling thoughtful I wasn’t angry or outraged, there was a lingering sense that there should have been something more, of potential unrealised.  I can’t argue with the sentiments – I agree with pretty much all of it but I wanted more than validation.  I wanted to be pushed towards new thought, new ideas – and most of all I wanted to be entertained.  It is theatre after all.

Or maybe that was the whole point.