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Well, we’ve already had biographical juke-box musicals about The Four Seasons, Carole King and The Kinks (all good, and all still running in the West End), so here is Wales’ contribution. The story of the early years of the septuagenarian from The Valleys with a 50+ year career and a voice that still sounds great at 75. He comes from a town over the hill in the next valley to me and I saw him perform in a local community centre in my early teens, so how could I resist this?

Actually, it’s not a juke-box musical as it only includes a few of his hits, as the closing number and the mini-concert encore. Though there is a fair bit of music, it feels more like a play with music than a musical, as it tells the story from his mid-teens, fatherhood and marriage at sixteen, through to his appearance on Top of the Pops when It’s Not Unusual (originally written for Sandie Shaw, it seems!) makes No.1.

We move from home at wife Linda’s mums in Trefforest to a variety of venues in the valleys, signing to Gordon Mills (a not so big shot from Tonypandy, it seems) and on to London for a six month struggle that he almost gave up on. Along the way he picks up a band called The Senators who become The Squires before Mills drops them for a different, brassier sound for the first big hit. 

The music is played live by the four actors playing The Senators / Squires – Daniel Lloyd, Tom Connor, John McLarnon and Kieran Bailey – who make a great sound. During the final scene and encore, Phylyip Harries who has been our excellent narrator Jack Lister adds sax, Elin Phillips (lovely as Tom’s wife) adds piano and Nicola Bryan (Tom’s mother) proves a dab hand at the trumpet!  I thought Kit Orton was outstanding as Tom, terrific voice and great at all those trademark moves. Just eleven actor-musicians tell the story and provide the music!

Mike James’ writing is lucid, economical and good humoured storytelling and Geinor Styles stages it very effectively on a simple set, where projections are used to great effect to take you from the Welsh valley locations to London locations. The show exceeded my expectations and proved to be a charming, and for me, nostalgic story.

It’s on a different scale (and budget, no doubt) to those other bio-musicals, but Theatr Na Nog are to be congratulated on producing something that oozes quality in every department and honours a Welsh legend great flair.

Blue / Orange

It’s sixteen years since this Joe Penhall play, probably his most successful (if we don’t count the Kinks musical Sunny Afternoon), premiered at the National Theatre and went on to win awards and transfer to the West End. It starred Bill Nighy, Andrew Lincoln and a young Chiwetel Ejiofor. I must have enjoyed it as I went twice.

We begin at a meeting between trainee psychiatrist Bruce and his patient, afro-caribbean Christopher, the day before his scheduled discharge from hospital. Bruce clearly believes Chris isn’t ready, but Chris is desperate to go home. They are joined by senior consultant Robert, Bruce’s boss, who is very much for discharge, though maybe for reasons of expediency (to free up a bed). 

Bruce and Robert disagree on the diagnosis, somewhere between borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia, and argue, sometimes in front of their patient. We learn Bruce has been sucking up to Robert socially and of Robert’s research into connections between mental health and ethnicity. In the second act, Robert meets Chris without Bruce and this results in an investigation which threatens Bruce’s career. In the third act, the senior and junior doctor play out their disagreements in front of Chris. In all of this, the patient’s interests are somewhat buried.

The play explores the motivations of the three characters as well as issues of medical ethics and racism, but I’m afraid I found it somewhat implausible this time around. Though I am prepared to believe health policies, the need for authority, research and career interests may all affect people’s behaviour, I just couldn’t believe that these two professionals would behave like they do in front of their patient. The acting of David Haig as Robert is unrestrained and over-the-top, as is that of Luke Norris as Bruce in the final act. Somewhat ironically, Daniel Kaluuya’s outstanding performance as Chris is more restrained, subtle and intelligent and his sudden switches from funny to manic are deftly handled.

Jeremy Herbert’s design echoes his one for Hamlet here four years ago, as he requires you to walk through a replica of the stage set consulting room underneath it, on a mystery tour to find your seats in one of the four banks of seating looking down on an island stage. 

I’m afraid I thought Matthew Xia’s production didn’t serve the play well, but it’s worth seeing for another fine performance by Daniel Kakuuya. 

 

It’s twenty years since Stephen Daldry’s NT revival of An Inspector Calls renewed the theatre world’s interest in this oddest of British playwrights, who seemed very much out of his time in the last part of the first half of the 20th century. This very well cast 1937 rarity came halfway through his playwriting career, eight years before An Inspector Calls, and it again shows his preoccupation with time.

We’re at an inn on the Yorkshire moors on Whitsun weekend. Oliver, a young school headmaster, is recuperating from stress when he is joined by the Ormunds, a couple away for the weekend. There are connections between them and the landlord Sam and his widowed daughter Sally. Mr Ormund, a wealthy businessman, is a donor to, and governor of, Oliver’s school, which Sally’s son attends as a boarder, and Sam and Sally are shareholders in Mr Ormund’s business. Then an exiled German professor turns up; he seems somewhat mysterious, even psychic.

From here it’s a complex web of premonitions, alternative time tracks and deja vu, leading to a dramatic if inconclusive conclusion. Neatly staged on a curved platform with audience on both sides and three pieces of furniture that change position for each act, Anthony Biggs production has a mysterious quality to match the material. It’s not a great Priestly play, but it’s well worth catching if, like me, you’re interested in the playwright.

This is a hugely impressive playwriting debut by May Sumbwanyambe, set in late nineties Zimbabwe when the government introduced its policy of buying up white owned farms. It proves to be both a balanced debate and a gripping drama.

The objective of the policy was to return land to black Zimbabweans. It was positioned as voluntary purchase, but if the government’s price wasn’t accepted it was progressively reduced, and coincidentally the violence of the ‘war veterans’ on the white farmers escalated. We now know that it played a significant part in the decline of the Zimbabwean economy, turning a productive agriculture sector into an unproductive one.

We’re on the ironically named Independence Farm owned by Guy, his wife Kathleen and daughter Chipo. It’s one of the largest, productive and most beautiful properties in the region. Civil Servant Charles is visiting with the government’s latest offer, soon after their friends and neighbours were violently driven away. It’s a long way home, so Charles is persuaded to stay overnight. As the debate unfolds we learn that Kathleen is worn down, Guy is seriously ill and inclined to protect his daughter from future violent consequences by giving in, whilst she wants to continue the fight.

It’s an impossible situation. The farmer is being punished for the actions of the former colonial power and the civil servant is being asked to implement a policy of retribution by a corrupt government. This is the second play this year which takes on post-independence issues, where the behaviour of the newly independent risks mirroring that of their former oppressors (http://garethjames.wordpress.com/2016/03/03/i-see-you) and it provides a healthy, objective debate.

This excellent play is given a fine production by George Turvey on a simple but evocative set by Max Dorey, with four passionate performances from Peter Guiness, Stefan Adegbola, Beatriz Romilly and Sandra Duncan.

Definitely one to catch.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a performance where the silence at the end was so profound and so uncomfortable. This audacious and original piece packs an extraordinary punch into its 70 minutes.

It starts as a conversation between three people. One asks a trigger question, unknown to the other two. On the night I went it was what would you do about the internet if you had the freedom to decide? In what then appears to be semi-improvised discussion, we explore how we react in the modern world to what’s happening elsewhere, in particular the refugee crisis and terrorism. The three become more passionate as the wine flows. Their differing attitudes to the news footage we’re inundated with are revealed.

The conversation is videoed by two camera operators and projected onto a screen above the stage, so you can see close-up’s as well as the full conversation. Before the three discussion participants leave the stage the coup de theatre begins, and continues as we move to the video footage they have been discussing and further still……to the extraordinarily silence. It surprised me how much it drew you in, grabbed hold of you and ramped up the tension until you’re rather shell-shocked; hence the silence. Matthew Lenton’s production is unique.

I’ve only seen Vanishing Point’s work twice before – Tomorrow at the Edinburgh Fringe and The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler at the Brighton Festival last year, which couldn’t be more different, so my appetite is truly whetted for more.

 

Crooks

It was unfortunate that I booked for this immersive theatre experience just three days after Operation Black Antler in Brighton, as it turned out it also had an undercover theme, albeit a different one and an altogether lighter one – more of a game.

To start this one you had to stand on a street-corner in SE1 and at the appointed time gain entry to a party via a loading bay with a password. Again we were split into small teams. Our mission was to bring down underworld figure The Don, at his own birthday party. We were recruited to be undercover, but there were attempts to turn us, and we had to choose. Our invented personas were more jokey than the other piece. We interacted with The Don, his wife and henchmen and had tasks to perform in a number of locations around the building.

The characterisations were good, if stereotypical, and the actors performed with gusto. It took a while to warm up though, and some parts were more effective than others. A drug deal fell a bit flat but a robbery was suitably tense. It could have done with more than the eleven participants on the night I went to give it more atmosphere.

In the end I’m not sure it was my thing, and my timing wasn’t good, but I admire CoLab Theatre’s ambition and creativity and I wouldn’t put anyone off from giving it a go, particularly those younger and less immersed in the immersive than me! 

It’s an odd experience seeing a historical drama referencing places we’re now used to seeing regularly on the news. It’s a century since the Arab Revolt for which T E Lawrence (of Arabia) is famous and we appear to be witnessing the very real consequences of the West’s actions at its conclusion.

Howard Brenton’s play is set upon Lawrence’s return. He enlisted in the RAF under a false name in search of anonymity and when he was found out he did the same back in the army where he was once a Colonel. During this time he visited his friends G B and Charlotte Shaw who, with GB’s secretary, was editing his major tome on the Revolt. This is where most of the play is set, with three flashbacks to the Middle East at the inception of the Revolt and at its conclusion. 

He was being pursued by Lowell Thomas, the American journalist and photographer who had accompanied him for much of his time in the Middle East and was now cashing in with a lecture tour, and his former boss Field Marshall Allenby who wanted him back, but he was disillusioned with the politicians’ duplicitous actions (he’d turned down a knighthood, telling the King face to face), failing to deliver on his promise of Arab freedom to Prince Feisal.

It’s a quiet and surprisingly light staging by John Dove. Designer Michael Taylor’s drawing room slides gently and effectively into the wings for the other scenes. I was impressed by Jack Laskey’s enthusiasm and passion as Lawrence. It’s lovely to see Geraldine James again in the pivotal role of Charlotte. There are excellent performances in supporting roles from William Chubb as Allenby, Khalid Laith as Prince Feisal and Rosalind March as GB’s secretary Blanch. 

He was clearly a complex and enigmatic person, loved and admired by many, particularly by Charlotte it seems. I found it a fascinating insight into something and someone I knew little about (my O and A level History syllabus ended in 1914!). I am so enjoying Brenton’s late flowering – historical dramas on apostle Paul, Anne Boleyn, Charles I, the 1st World War, the partition of India, Macmillan and (more topical than historical) Ai WeiWei. Long may it continue.

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