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Road

I thought Jim Cartwright’s 80’s slice of working class life might have become a period piece, but despite it’s foundations in Thatcher’s Britain and the period clothes, props and references, it’s themes are not in the slightest bit dated, and it’s time may have well come again, along with the food banks! John Tiffany’s fresh look proves that it was, and is, ground-breaking theatre.

It struck me last night how poetic it is, so how appropriate that our narrator is poet Lemn Sissay, who glues it all together brilliantly. He presides over a series of scenes which take place over one night in the houses of and on the unnamed road, in the unnamed northern town. We meet fourteen of the residents, going about their business, domestic chores, reflections and escapes. It has an extraordinary ability to switch from uproarious comedy to bleakness and sadness. A number of scenes take place in a glass box which rises from below the stage and these prove particularly voyeuristic. The piece really gets under your skin.

When I saw it 31 years ago, it was a promenade staging and though it was more immersive, the performances were less subtle and nuanced than they are here by a superb ensemble of eight actors playing the fourteen roles, with some of the best drunken scenes I’ve seen anywhere! Michelle Fairley creates three extraordinary larger-than-life characters. I’m not sure I’d have known Mike Noble played both the Skin-Lad and Eddie if I hadn’t seen it in the programme, outstanding characterisations of roles that are poles apart. Mark Hadfield has two very different roles as well, both superbly handled. Liz White was a revelation in roles unlike any I’ve seen her in before. June Watson gives another pair of acting masterclasses; such a fine actress. Faye Marsay makes an auspicious stage debut in her two roles and Shane Zaza and Dan Parr excel in their solo turns.

John Tiffany has an ability to animate a play and tease terrific performances from his cast, and so it is here. Sometimes hilarious, somewhat bleak, but brilliant, timeless theatre.

The Hired Man

This show is in my top ten musicals, probably the best British musical, certainly the best British musical score, so I take every opportunity to see it and this was my ninth. It didn’t let me down and indeed moved me more than most productions.

Melvyn Bragg’s story is a great sweep of late 19th / early 20th century Cumbrian life as we follow two generations of the Tallentire family from the land to the pits to the First World War and back to the land, through marriage, births, deaths and infidelity. What makes Brendan Matthew’s production stand out is that its more animated than I’ve ever seen it before, with terrific choreography / movement, from dance to hand gestures, by Charlotte Tooth.

Howard Goodall’s score is very much in the British choral tradition and it’s packed full of gorgeous melodies, and it’s the quality of the choruses that makes or breaks the show, and this is another aspect this production nails – very rousing, as they should be. The solo work is more variable as they fight both the band and the aircon, which is so inefficient they’d just as well turn it off, though in all fairness the vocals shone through more as the show progressed. The ending was like an emotional wave I’ve rarely experienced with this show.

I liked Justin Williams & Jonny Rust’s wooden backdrop, which brought intimacy to the home scenes but also facilitated the effective creation of pubs, mines, trenches and of course the hiring ring. In a hugely talented young ensemble I much admired Sam Peggs’ very athletic Isaac and Jack McNeill’s believably young Harry. Ifan Gwilym-Jones and Rebecca Gilliland, both outstanding in Matthew’s recent premiere of My Lands Shore in Walthamstow, rose to the challenge of the meaty roles of John and Emily Tallentire.

I love this show so much, and I loved this production. If you haven’t seen Howard Goodall’s masterpiece, go, and if you have, go again!

Yank!

This musical is set in the Second World War, amongst American conscripts in training in Texas and then at the front in the Pacific. Yank! is the title of the military newspaper, part of the effort to keep up morale. The twist in Joseph & David Zellnik’s show is that it’s a gay love story.

Young and naive Stu is at first the butt of jokes in his Company, but is eventually accepted, partly thanks to his protector Mitch. There is an attraction between him and Mitch, and a brief dalliance, but the latter won’t accept his sexuality. Stu is befriended by Yank! gay photographer Artie who gets him a job as his accompanying reporter and introduces him to a thriving but clandestine gay world in the military, but he’s obsessed with Mitch and hatches a plan to visit and report on his old Company. The relationship is briefly rekindled, though Mitch is still uncomfortable. They are seen embracing by a colleague, which risks exposure and seemingly impossible choices.

The score is excellent, but somewhat old-fashioned, and the first half seemed a bit like a gay South Pacific. Then I realised that the style suits the period, and changes as the story gets much deeper in the second half, when it really drew me in and engaged me emotionally. Given that it was inspired by Allan Berube’s book Coming Out Under Fire, I liked the framing of a narrator finding Stu’a journal in a junk shop. James Baker’s staging is hugely impressive, with excellent choreography by Chris Cuming. The musical standards under MD James Cleeve are very high indeed. Scott Hunter and Andy Coxon are both excellent as Stu and Mitch respectively and Sarah-Louise Young is terrific in all the female roles, so many I lost count. What I liked most about the fine ensemble was their complete believability as a company of soldiers of all shapes, sizes and looks.

A lovely show which fits Charing Cross Theatre perfectly. You should go.

Nina

I found this a somewhat strange evening, not what I was expecting, very much a show in two halves, one uncomfortable and one captivating.

It’s subtitled ‘a story about me and Nina Simone’ and in the first half Josette Bushell-Mingo is holding a conversation with the deceased Nina Simone along the lines of ‘nothing’s changed’ when it comes to civil rights, for which Nina was a very vocal champion; in contemporary terminology, black lives matter. It gets very angry and though it’s justifiable anger, I found it very unsettling, particularly when she is imagining which members of the audience would be killed if she were a gunman like those who have perpetrated such crimes against black people. 

There are a few songs in this half, but it’s mostly a rant. I couldn’t decide if it was rehearsed or improvised, the slickness suggesting the former, but the faces of the band members and the deadly silence of the audience suggesting the latter. Very edgy, but very uncomfortable. If I’d been on the end of a row at the back I might just have slipped out. Was this the right place, time and audience? 

Then the band strike up, she returns, looking stunning without the afro wig of the first part, a vision in black and gold, for an uplifting and thrilling mini-concert where she interprets Nina’s songs brilliantly, accompanied by the terrific trio of musicians. Wow!

A strange concoction indeed.

Touch

I first saw Vicky Jones’ work as a director – Jack Thorne’s Mydidae, then Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag (which became a bit of a phenomenon, stage to TV series, already re-commissioned). Then her first play, a 60-minute gem called The One. Now as both writer and director with a 90-minute play about a 30-something Welsh girl moving to London that’s just as frank, funny and fresh as the others.

Dee has taken a temporary job, maternity leave cover, and got herself a tiny flat, where untidiness rules, with every surface covered with stuff. A series of five visitors represent relationships and sexual adventures present and past. There’s ever-so-conservative, ever-so-dull Eddie, wanting a proper relationship, as long as he can be in charge. Vera’s her gym friend who becomes a gay dalliance. Older man Miles came via the internet to satisfy a fetish. Paddy’s a fun-loving toy boy from work. Sam’s the ex from Swansea, a bit old school, who clearly wants to take her back home. 

There are a lot of scenes and the pace is fast as we navigate the journey of Dee’s complex web of relationships and ambivalent sex life. Though it’s very funny, it seemed to me a realistic slice of life for 33-year-old singleton (a sort of racy Bridget Jones) which has a lot to say about contemporary attitudes to relationships and the characteristic conflict between independence and settling down at this age. Amy Morgan carries the play, on stage throughout, changing her behaviour in response to her five visitors. In the supporting cast, I particularly liked Edward Bluemel’s Paddy, a very different role to his recent one in Love in Idleness, and Matthew Aubrey’s archetypal Welsh lad.

Ultz has designed a brilliantly claustrophobic space which revolves to facilitate a 360 degree view of Dee’s world. Jones’ own staging is unsurprisingly sensitive to the material, with a great sense of life changing and moving forward. I liked it.

Twilight Song

The late Kevin Elyot wasn’t a prolific playwright, partly because he didn’t write his first until he was forty (he started out as an actor) and partly because he played away writing for TV and film too. He produced just five original plays and three adaptations over a thirty year period, but he did write a late 20th century classic, My Night With Reg, recently revived at the Donmar, transferring to the West End. This play was written just before he died in 2014 and is now getting it’s premiere posthumously at the Park Theatre.

We start in the present day. Barry has invited an Estate Agent to value his mother’s north London home while she’s out for the day. The scene ends with the Estate Agent providing another professional service altogether. Back in the sixties we meet Isabella and soon realise she is Barry’s mother and is indeed pregnant with Barry, though she harbours a secret from her husband Basil (who’s dead by the present day). They’re going out for dinner with Uncle Charles and his ‘friend’ Harry, who share another secret. In one of our other sixties scenes, six years apart, the same four are going out to dinner again. Here we meet the gardener, who appears to have been providing services to both Harry and Isabelle.

All this unfolds in 75 minutes, very slowly, often quirky, with some moments seeming Ordtonsesque and some with a touch of Alan Bennett. It really is rather odd, especially with a false ending followed by a puzzling one. The cast do their best with the material, but it isn’t really worthy of their combined talents. Given the quality of his other plays, this seemed unfinished to me and I wondered if he would have approved of its staging as it is. I’m afraid I felt it might have been better left unproduced lest it tarnish his reputation and memory.

Ink

Rupert Murdoch is my greatest bête noire. From interference in elections to invasions of privacy via oceans of tackiness & sexism and the creation of exploitive monopolies, he offends me at every turn. So I was expecting to have my prejudices pandered to in liberal Islington. They weren’t, though largely because this play about his early English adventures, in particular the rise of The Sun, takes place before he hired the evil unholy trinity of McKenzie, Morgan and Brooks, plunging his organs into even deeper moral depths. Covering little more than a year, but covering it in depth, Ink is as fascinating as it is enthralling and entertaining.

When the play starts he already owns The News of the World, but he wants a daily. He buys the ailing Sun from the Mirror Group, hires one of their own, Larry Lamb, as editor, and sets the seemingly impossible target of matching their circulation, the highest in the world at the time, within twelve months. I’d forgotten that it all started as irreverent, anti-establishment and, well, fun. Populism personified, until some tragic events close to home (which I’d forgotten) nearly killed it, only to be rescued by…..well, it’s the tits wot done it.

The relationship between Murdoch and Lamb is the beating heart of the play, and Bertie Carvel and Richard Coyle are simply terrific. I struggle to understand how playwright James Graham is so successful presenting people and events that happened before he was even born – perhaps its because he has the objectivity rather than the baggage that those of us who lived through them have. Like Our House, The Angry Brigade and the underrated Monster Raving Loony, he captures the sixties and seventies with pinpoint accuracy.

Rupert Goold’s staging owes something to his own Enron, including audacious use of music and movement to add life, and Bunny Christie’s superb set of ramshackle offices piled high, with projections behind, adds even more life. Amongst the superb supporting cast, Sophie Stanton gives another of her priceless turns as Geordie Women’s Editor Joyce, and Tim Steed is particularly good as a posh fish-out-of-water Deputy Editor.

Good to see something provide competition for The Ferryman as Best New Play! A real treat.