Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by David Hare (after the book by Katherine Boo) – National Theatre, Olivier stage

Behind_The_Beautiful_Forevers_posterBehind the Beautiful Forevers, David Hare’s new play adapted from Katherine Boo’s book of the same title and directed by Rufus Norris, is set in the slumps of Mumbai, in the shadow of big hotels and the international airport. As with all stories with a strong sense of place, it opens up to universal understanding. I immediately saw its relevance, even though I can’t speak of its authenticity. (Shamefully my experience of Mumbai and its slumps is limited to watching Slumdog Millionaire. Which is no experience at all). On  the other hand, the feel of the play authenticates against itself: it’s a real world. And not a happy one.

It’s easy to say the play is grim, more difficult to explain why. Grim is the wrong word. It creates tension between the energy of the place (high-octane, outspoken, confident) and perceptions (or preconceptions) of the situation: the darkness isn’t due to poverty (that would be patronising) nor the awful things happening throughout the story. Poverty is ever present but lack of resources doesn’t equal lack of resilience, not always, and these people are nothing if not resilient. But, and this is the astonishingly grim fact, poor and rich have learned the same wrong lesson. Learned it in different ways (the rich with a silver spoon in their mouth, the poor with a kick in the teeth) but the same lesson nevertheless: the road to happiness involves screwing other people. This dark thought pollinates small sins and tragedy multiplies. Continue reading

Review: Cans by Stuart Slade, at Theatre 503

Graham O'Mara as Len, Jennifer Clement as Jen. Photo Tani Van Amse

Graham O’Mara as Len, Jennifer Clement as Jen. Photo Tani Van Amse

Stuart Slade’s Cans, currently playing at Theatre 503, is both intriguing in its theme and tender in its approach. It focuses on a subject matter that, in its details relates to recent collective preoccupations (I won’t say more for fear of spoilers), but in its core is old and universal and inexhaustible: Do we ever know the people we love? And how do you renegotiate love in the context of grief and the absence of the other person?

It’s also framed in the lovely and rich relationship between uncle and niece, and we don’t have enough of those in theatre (Uncle Vanya alone can’t carry it and Claudius will never win Uncle of the Month). Uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces is special fertile ground, free, unpredictable and a little bit naughty, full of trust but devoid of unnecessary tension.

Stuart Slade and director Dan Pick take these ingredients, and work up something robust and tender: they delicately construct revelations throughout the play, at the same time as they keep it true and real, which in this case means messy and a bit dark and inappropriately funny. Continue reading

(Not a) review: Chris Thompson’s A Film About Someone You Love, at Finborough theatre, part of Vibrant 2014 festival

Vibrant Festival Finborough 2014It hardly comes as a surprise that Chris Tompson’s play A Film About Someone You Love is, well, about love. But there is a catch. Not cuddly love, or even destructive one, but rather distortive. Love as a distorting mirror and a puzzle and an unreliable narrator. Which is bad news if your sense of self depends on love offered, accepted, received. Which it does. For everyone. Why is it so much easier to rely on cruel lies than on muddled truths?

The play is fairly single-minded in pursuing its subject and turning the focus on different kinds of love: friends, siblings, lovers, couples, mothers and daughters. It’s a testament to both play and staging that two hours of people talking and stumbling around the most tender (if absurd) corners of their lives never got boring. The tone is finely judged and recklessly engaging: everyone’s truths are both ridiculous and dangerous around the edges. So are their lies. There isn’t a dividing line between comedy and tragedy, in fact comedy is a tragedy that is having a nervous breakdown. The staging was equally confident, led by rich silences and tense pauses.

Doon Machichan’s Sophie Batten, mother of two daughters, has the brittle determination of the survivor, when everything is very funny until it’s not. Joanna Horton’s Ellie Batten had a difficult opaque quality, the more direct her approach the less transparent her heart. Shannon Tarbet as Lea Batten was formidably unpleasant and fragile in the same breath. Ashley Zhangazha’s Monday was profoundly and hilariously bewildered by his reaction to his own life.

My favourite character was Adam, as played by Felix Scott. Continue reading

Review: Belvoir Sydney’s The Wild Duck, by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan after Henrik Ibsen, at the Barbican

Anita Hegh as Gina. Photo Heidrun Löhr

Anita Hegh as Gina. Photo Heidrun Löhr

Anything I perceive to threaten intimacy between actors and audience is bound to make me suspicious, if not outright hostile. Stage to ceiling glass on three sides separating actors and audience is not the way to win my heart, but that’s the first thing you see at the beginning of The Wild Duck, in a version by the Belvoir Sydney theatre company. This and an actual live duck looking at you behind the glass. I felt ambivalent to say the least. As ambivalent one can feel looking at a duck preening its feathers.

How wrong was I? Yes, the actors perform behind a glass screen in what looks like a square box, they wear mikes and the sound is explicitly designed for their voices to be heard through speakers, yet all these – and several other elements – build into something unbearably intimate, like skin on skin or the blood rushing in your ears. And if my first thought was around a contradiction (what kind of connection can be achieved with so many elements designed to separate?), it turns out the whole production is designed around contradictions: Bare open stage and mirroring distortions, very few props but a live duck, baroque music but unsentimental performances. I can’t pretend to understand how these contradictions work but it felt like this: a multifaceted onslaught – elegant yet relentless – that corrodes the defences. Continue reading

Review: Jonah and Otto, by Robert Holman, at the Park theatre

Alex Waldmann as Jonah, Peter Egan as Otto. Photo Jack Sain

Alex Waldmann as Jonah, Peter Egan as Otto. Photo Jack Sain

“All my life I wished courage on me”

With the exception of well known classics, it’s not unusual for me to walk into a play without knowing anything about it. The fact this was the case for Robert Holman’s Jonah and Otto at the Park Theatre didn’t make me think twice but as the play started, what I thought it would happen wasn’t happening. Most plays and productions give you a reliable context within minutes of the performance starting. It might be poetic, abstract, absurd or fiercely naturalistic, but it’s solid, something to depend on.

Not so much with Jonah and Otto. Two men meet. That much is unquestionable. They talk a lot. They talk specifically. They talk plainly and with facts. But they don’t justify anything and they don’t hide anything. There is no context to hold them together, therefore every word uttered, exchanged and understood is an act of rebellion. They talk as if several layers of skin are missing, and suddenly this feels as courageous as stepping in front of a tank. Because no one ever does it. It’s weird and wonderful and upsetting and affecting. It’s judgement day as if judgement day was ultimately tender and illuminating and the birth of something, not the end of the world.

Continue reading

Review: Grand Guignol by Carl Grose, at the Southwark Playhouse

Paul Chequer, Robert Portal, Emily Raymond. Photo Steve Tanner

Paul Chequer, Robert Portal, Emily Raymond. Photo Steve Tanner

Saying Carl Grose’s Grand Guignol, currently playing at the Southwark Playhouse, is perfect for Halloween is a huge understatement, as well as a disservice. Bloody, gory, funny and twisted, it has you snort-laughing through your nose and then checking if any blood came out. It has the innocent unpretentious naffness of 19th century travelling shows, yet it starts getting to you, because “actors, playwrights, lunatics” are all “imminently fascinating”, especially when there is no line between them, blurred or otherwise.

For all its upfront silliness, it’s knowingly – but not annoyingly – smart, and surprisingly incisive. More importantly, it’s about creativity and the theatre, which means I was bound to love it with a love that knows no bounds. Give me a play within a play, a wink behind the scenes, a seedy part of town with a company of actors -  and I am happy as pig in shit. Which is the point: it’s unselfconsciously colourful, yet playfully tender. Continue reading

Review: Tis Pity She’s a Whore, at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe

Fiona Button as Annabella, Max Bennett as Giovanni. Photo Simon Kane

Fiona Button as Annabella, Max Bennett as Giovanni. Photo Simon Kane

Something happens twenty minutes into John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore, as performed at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse. Up until that point, I knew I was watching a hugely engaging production of a very fine play. Fluid, clear, intelligent. But at the beginning of the second act, in the scene where Giovanni and Annabella are in bed together, having made love for the first time, things are revealed for what they are. It’s not that the production changes gear, it is the audience catching up. The intense intimacy of falling in love ripples from stage to audience, tender, delicate, exposed to light – like camera film. Should we be here? Who is watching whom? And who is guilty of forbidden acts?

And then you get it. This production of Tis Pity She’s a Whore is going to be thrillingly hot. Not only in a high-minded way, or even in a carnal way – although both these are true – but forbidden, dangerous. The candlelight is fire and danger as much as it is shadows and trembling beauty. This is the achievement of Michael Longhurst’s production: without rewriting the play, he welds together themes of forbidden love with this cradle of a space, the breathing-fire quality of the text with feverish, sharp action. The result brims with exquisite life (and therefore death).

After that, everything falls into place and gains huge momentum. Max Bennett and Fiona Button, Giovanni and Annabella, brother and sister and lovers, fit perfectly and tenderly together, hands blindly seeking, breaths synching. It’s physics as much as anything else, bodies orbiting each other. Nature versus nature, sibling relationship versus cosmic powers. Continue reading

Review: Spine by Clara Brennan, at the Soho theatre

Spine photo Richard Davenport

Rosie Wyatt as Amy. Photo Richard Davenport

Plays talk to each other, I know they do. One evening I saw James Graham’s The Angry Brigade, and the next I saw Clara Brennan’s Spine at the Soho theatre. Spine is, in essence, the angry brigade, if angry is furiously tender and livid and paralysed by answers and galvanised by questions and innocent, oh so innocent you can clearly see till the end of the world.

Spine is a little like Harold and Maude but without the sex. Was there any sex in Harold and Maude? Probably not. OK I might be wrong about Harold and Maude but I am not wrong about this: Spine is brilliant. It punches through. It’s about saying you want a revolution and actually meaning it. It’s like coming up to a closed door, knocking and screaming and kicking it down, and when it opens, it takes your breath away. It’s about people crawling out of books. It’s about the NHS (trust me, it is). It’s about a book thief at the house at the end of the road. It’s about saying “I own my vagina” more loudly and clearly than Vagina Monologues ever did. It’s  about having the courage to be the mischievous warrior angel others see in you. It’s about having courage, full stop. Continue reading

Review: The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov – in a new version by Simon Stephens, at the Young Vic Theatre

Kate Duchene as Lyubov Ranevskaya, Dominic Rowan as Alexander. Photo Stephen Cummiskey

Kate Duchene as Lyubov Ranevskaya, Dominic Rowan as Alexander. Photo Stephen Cummiskey

You wait ages for one Chekhov and two arrive in less than a week. I was disappointed by Uncle Vanya at St James Theatre, which made the anticipation of The Cherry Orchard a tense affair: I don’t like not liking Chekhov. It’s almost hurtful. It doesn’t make sense. The meaning of life comes into question. Fortunately, the Young Vic Cherry Orchard – spiky, unsentimental, insolent, respectful only of a ridiculous tender heart – comes to restore the world as it should be.

The production, directed by Katie Mitchell in a new version by Simon Stephens, crackles with elegant and thrilling contradictions: outwardly it looks traditional, with its straight-laced proscenium arch and naturalistic approach. Yet it creates a feeling of uneasiness, a punky wave of a new world. The modern setting (invoked mostly due to costumes) is established with huge confidence: suits and ties don’t demand the presence of smartphones and Ipads, letters are still sent and news (good news, bad news, terrible news) is still being delivered by messenger. The characters break out into behaviours Chekhov would have never dreamed of which only highlights their inability to break free: their behaviour is often unhinged but that gives them no insight or self-awareness. It’s an act of decompression, like a balloon losing air and spinning out of control, only to end up on the floor, shriveled and defeated.

Continue reading

Review: Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, in a new version by Anya Reiss, at the St James theatre

Uncle Vanya St James theatre posterAnton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is a pretty ordinary tragedy. Wasted lives by default and undue care, squandered opportunities, realisations coming too late. It’s as ordinary as it is immense. Could anything have changed? Can it still? Does it matter? Is it best to lack the willingness or the intellect? These characters are self-aware, but have no energy to do anything about it.

In the new version by Anya Reiss, directed by Russell Bolam, the story is set in modern times and, sad to say, lacks bite. If I included these statements in the same sentence, it’s not because they are intrinsically linked. The modern setting could have worked well, in fact I can see the play reflected all around me. (We ‘d like to think the world is our oyster and we are savvy in making choices and having portfolio lives but truth is, from one rushed day to the next, moments are often lived thoughtlessly).

The production taps into the ridiculousness of the characters but doesn’t allow enough space for their tenderness. Continue reading