Review: Pomona, by Alistair McDowall at the Orange Tree Theatre

Sam Swann and Charlie and Sean Rigby as Moe. Photo Manuel Harlan

Sam Swann and Charlie and Sean Rigby as Moe. Photo Manuel Harlan

Think of your life as a conveyor belt. The metaphor works perfectly in all ways, not least the physical: you only do a circle of a journey most days, and it’s difficult to get off when you want to.

This is how I think of Alistair McDowall’s Pomona: it’s the play that pushes you out of the conveyor belt. If that’s true for all good theatre, it’s more true for Pomona. Or rather Pomona throws you out in unfamiliar places: not quite scary or threatening, but places where you see things at the corner of your eye, and your heart starts racing before you have time to know why. If it’s a game, it’s thrilling, if it’s not a game, we are in serious trouble. With Pomona it’s both, all the time. Continue reading

Forget the Evening Standard. It’s the credible theatre awards I could do without

Last night we had the Evening Standard theatre awards. I would have forgotten if it wasn’t for people on twitter, and even then I was happy to ignore them. The case against them is easy, other people have said it best, and it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

So why am I blogging about them? To my defense, I have no intention of talking about these specific awards. But every year we moan / rejoice / obsess at the mere mention of nominations and ceremonies. (Is there a verb that combines all three? It would save so much time when talking about fandoms). The question is always the same: why aren’t awards better at identifying the best?

What if they were? What if someone had the superpower to know what’s best and told us? Continue reading

Review: Assassins by Stephen Sondheim (with book by John Weidman), at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Andy Nyman as Charles Guiteau, Catherine Tate as Sarah Jane Moore. Photo Nobby Clark

Andy Nyman as Charles Guiteau, Catherine Tate as Sarah Jane Moore. Photo Nobby Clark

Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory surprised me. It surprised me in ways and areas I didn’t think it would, and that makes for a fairly big surprise. As it’s Sondheim, the scent of the unexpected is part of the deal: let’s take the people who assassinated – or attempted to assassinate – presidents of the United States, and make a musical about them, and it will have an episodic structure, and the stories will jump forward and backward and blend and come apart, and it will make perfect sense and it will be amazing. So far, so good and so true.

The thing that surprised me the most in the production directed by Jamie Lloyd is how political it was. Did it play like that 12 years ago at the Donmar? (correction: it’s 22 years as the Donmar production was 1992! where does time go?). The story is about misfits, people left behind and isolated, people who try to find their way back and instead find a back alley to hell. If, twelve years ago, this was empathy for people we probably never meet, today it feels closer to home. The betrayals are personal and the context social. Towards the end, Stewart Clarke’s Giuseppe speaks italian, and David Roberts’ Czolgosz is obviously and primarily a poor polish worker looking for a better life. It’s hard not to think of immigration dreams – american or otherwise – imploding.

The structure of the piece works as if time has collapsed and the stories start to link again by free association. But the links are strong and get stronger, and they function like a noose, smaller and tighter. Continue reading

Review: Theatre Uncut 2014 at the Soho theatre (and then Brighton, Bristol, Liverpool)

Ruairi Conaghan and Conor MacNeill in Ira Provitt and The Man. Photo  Jeremy Abrahams

Ruairi Conaghan and Conor MacNeill in Ira Provitt and The Man. Photo Jeremy Abrahams

There is a danger in talking about Theatre Uncut. Set in 2010 as a response to the public spending cuts announced by the coalition government, it challenges playwrights to write fast, raw and immediate about the world around them. 2010 is a lifetime ago, and back then we might have felt we would ride any difficulties the way we always did, persevering with our daily lives, semi-committed, occasionally thinking about the political but more often not. Four years later, things only got bleaker and more urgent, so hats off to Hannah Price and Emma Callander (co-artistic directors) because they knew back then what we all know now: thinking about political solutions is not something we can leave for later or to others.

But here is the danger: Theatre Uncut isn’t just worthy and important. It is theatre (the clue is in the title) and works perfectly fine as a theatrical event. The five plays performed are rough, fast, full of questions and storytelling ideas. Continue reading

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