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Thirty years on from its London premiere at the National (the first play by a black woman there, in 1988!) this comes over as a vital play for our time, exploring the immigrant experience of the generation that came here and the one that followed, born here.

Enid is part of the Windrush generation, her daughters Del, the elder rebellious one, and Viv, a good girl, both born here. Enid’s a single mum, having left her abusive husband. She holds down two jobs in order to keep her family, her attitudes are ‘old school’, thankful and respectful. ‘Uncle’ Brod, who isn’t, pops in regularly. They visit an ‘obeah’ woman Mai, a Caribbean healer who reads palms & cards and gives baths & potions. Enid is convinced, Del a disbeliever and Viv interested but uncommitted. When Enid’s mum dies, she’s full of guilt and yearns to go home. Del gets pregnant and leaves home, lodging with Mai, who passes on her knowledge and skills to her. Viv want to take a gap year to discover her roots in the Caribbean. Brod just wants another bottle of rum.

The older generation are torn between their adopted home and their homeland, deeply hurt by the racism they’ve encountered, hanging on to their heritage and culture. The next generation feel differently, Del seeing no connection with her heritage and Viv wanting to explore it. The play also examines the relationships between Enid and her daughters and between the sisters. Some things are unexplained – why Del goes to Mai’s, how Viv gets to Uni after walking out of her first exam and what exactly is Brod’s relationship with Enid. The older characters are heavily accented and you do have to work at taking it all in. That said, I found it an enthralling play, often very funny and often deeply moving.

Sarah Niles is wonderful as a very dignified Enid, who’s learnt how to cope alone. Seraphina Beh brings an unpredictability and brittleness to angry, passionate Del and Nichole Cherrie a caring loyalty to her younger sister Viv. Adjoa Andoh has great presence as Mai, who’s got her own story as well as a place in theirs. Wil Johnson is more than a comic character, but he does excel at the very physical comedy of larger-than-life Brod.

Nine Night, recently at the Dorfman, also written by a black woman, covered similar ground, and I suspect owes a debt to this earlier play. At both productions, there were many of shared heritage to whom it seemed to mean more than it did to me, but Madani Younis’ production is still as fine an evening of drama as you could wish for. Not to be missed.

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It’s taken thirteen years for Arthur Miller’s last play to cross the Atlantic, and on this showing you can’t help wondering why. As if the Finborough Theatre didn’t have enough feathers in its cap, here’s another one for this European premiere of a fascinating play.

Though Miller insisted it was a work of fiction, he is clearly revisiting a period in his life he first did with After the Fall forty years before. His five-year marriage to Marilyn Monroe was disintegrating during the filming of The Misfits in 1960, for which Miller wrote the screenplay, and it’s hard not to see this play as based that real-life experience.

We’re on a troubled film set where the leading lady’s behaviour is raising a lot of eyebrows. Famous director Derek Clemson is desperate to complete his film, cinematographer Terry Case anxious she looks right in his shots and Philip Oschner, the producer sent by the company’s new owners, just wants to finish it before his boss closes it down. Actress Kitty’s assistant Edna and coach Flora try and keep her together; they even fly in Flora’s husband Jerome, another coach. Our other character is screenwriter and Kitty’s husband Paul, their marriage breaking down before our eyes.

There are a couple of striking things about the play. The first is that it revolves around a character we never see, and the second is that the third act is made up almost entirely of a series of monologues by all of the characters talking to Kitty through a gap in the doorway of her hotel room. Most of the characters are probably archetypes or ‘composites’, as Miller said, but there are too many parallels between Kitty and Monroe and Phil and himself to make this anything other than an exorcism of a troubled period sixty-five years before, through guilt perhaps.

I much admired Phil Willmott’s staging and the work of design team Isabella Van Braeckel (set), Penn O’Gara (costumes), Rachel Sampley (lighting) and Nicola Chang (sound). Oliver Le Sueur creates a totally believable period perfect rookie producer in Philip. Jeremy Drakes, with the help of some specs perhaps, actually looks like Miller and I very much liked his restrained performance. Rachel Handshaw makes much of her role as assistant Edna, embarking on a relationship with producer Philip. Patrick Bailey looks and sounds every bit the down-to-earth cinematographer Terry. Stephen Billington, Nicky Goldie and Tony Wredden complete the picture with fine characterisations.

For a Miller fan like me, this is a huge treat, but it’s a decent play regardless, and a lot better than the other two of the final trio – Mr Peter’s Connections and Resurrection Blues – which I’d recommend to anyone.

Actor Paterson Joseph was brought up believing that British (and London) black history began in the 20th century, but when he realised this wasn’t true he set about writing about a historical black British figure, and Charles Ignatius Sancho is the one he chose. He tells his story as a monologue, but also appears as himself, to tell us why and how.

Sancho came to Britain as an orphan child and a slave, working at first for three maiden sisters in Greenwich before being taken in by the Duke of Montagu. He was treated as their bit of ‘exotica’ and encouraged to read, moving on to both write and compose. His portrait was painted by Thomas Gainsborough and he eventually became a free man, grocer, father and, as a property owner, the first black man to vote.

Joseph starts as himself before becoming Sancho, as he sits for Gainsborough. He breaks the fourth wall on other occasions and by doing so creates an extraordinary engagement with his audience, and empathy both for his subject and himself. His performance and personality are animated, with a beaming smile and much eye contact with us. Not only is it a fascinating story, but it’s a completely engaging experience which fits Wilton’s period setting like a glove.

Great storytelling and an afternoon of great warmth in a diverse audience who rose to their feet in tribute to both the storyteller and his subject.

Lady Eats Apple

It seems to me that festivals like LIFT exist to give us different, often unique, experiences and Australian theatre company Back to Back, comprising performers with ‘perceived intellectual disabilities’, certainly deliver that. I’ve left it until the short run is over to talk about it, so as not to spoil it, though as it happens I’m still processing it sixty hours later.

Your ticket says Barbican Theatre Unreserved Seating, but you’re led backstage, well onstage, where there’s a bank of seating and individual headphones. Looking out at the auditorium, you can’t see its normal seating. You soon realise you are in a black cloth structure that covers both the stage and the auditorium. The binaural sound through the headphones is extraordinary, particularly in the third part, when distant people and whispering in your ears.

Part One, called Out With The Old And In With The New, involves actors on a platform, much of the time identifying things on cards held up by another. As it ends, one is left for dead. For the second part, the black skin of the giant cover peels back to reveal a white one and its a rather hypnotic audio-visual experience called A Near-Death Experience. For Act Three, All We Have Is The Human Bond, the white skin peels back to reveal the theatre, Circle One being cleaned by the actors as they talk to each other. It ends back on the platform as they attempt to revive the actor left for dead.

I still don’t know what it’s all about, though death is clearly a theme, but it was an interesting, intriguing and original ride.

Starting in Verona, our base for three nights at http://www.duetorrihotels.com and ending on the island of Mozzorbo in the Venice Lagoon, this trip took in the towns of Vicenza, Basano del Grappa and Treviso, with the lovely hill town of Asolo our second base for four nights. Thirteen meals, from simple plates of pasta or asparagus to three at Michelin starred restaurants, were supplemented by visits to prosecco, wine and grappa producers and rice, olive oil and cheese makers. I feel stuffed and pickled.

Photos: https://photos.app.goo.gl/MRU5fJhtBCnaNCfH9

Verona was the only point of the trip where I was retracing my steps, though only for a morning, as we headed out of town to the lovely winery of http://www.seregoalighieri.it in Valpolicella, the estate of Dante’s family, rice grower http://www.risoferron.com at Isola della Scalla where the 17th century mill was still in use and olive oil producer http://www.oliosalvagno.com At Riso Ferron, chef Stephano showed us how to cook risotto in a rather unique way (that’ll come in handy!) and served up three for us to eat, with a starter including leftover risotto and a dessert which substituted rice flour. Dinners in Verona were at http://www.12apostoli.com, built upon Roman and Mediaeval ruins still visible from the cellar where we had our aperitif, and the rather quirky Michelin starred http://www.ristorantelafontanina.com

Our journey to Asolo was broken in Vicenza, a terrific city with a fine main square, famous for Palladio buildings, including a spectacular 16th century theatre with life-size streets on stage providing ready-made sets – one of the greatest theatres of the many I’ve visited – and our one-and-only art gallery. Here we tried four different baccala (salt cod) dishes for lunch. On to our second base in the lovely hill town of Asolo  – http://www.albergoalsoleasolo.com – whose only downside was that our vehicle couldn’t get within a half-mile of our accommodation – but we discovered the shuttle for our very steep uphill returns.

Sunday saw us worshiping the god of prosecco at http://www.villasandi.it, another Palladian building, a long walk through the cellars and an alfresco tasting in the Cartizze vineyards of Valdobbiadene, where the very best prosecco grapes are grown, followed by an alfresco lunch washed down with local wines. The following day, we climbed 3000 ft (no, not on foot!) to an alpine plateau to visit a small Asiago cheese maker, whose cheeses changed with the seasons and in particular his cows’ food. Back down on the plain, Bassano del Grappa proved to be another lovely town with a Palladio wooden bridge, a lunch of white asparagus (which I didn’t know until then was grown underground) & eggs mashed with olive oil and a grappa tasting, obviously, at http://www.nardini.it A visit to Treviso was a bit of a damp squib. Cities never look good in the rain, but I’m not convinced it would have matched the other visits in the sun. We lunched at http://www.ristorantetonidelspin.com

We ended with two Michelin starred restaurants, http://www.fevaristorante.it in Castelfranco, which I thought was good rather than great, and http://www.venissa.it on the island of Mazzorbo in the Venice Lagoon, a short journey by water taxi from Venice airport from which we were flying home, which lived up to expectations, and more. Here the winery ceased production after the infamous 60’s high tide, but they have begun again, just one hectare producing a few thousand bottles of a very distinctive wine from grapes grown in saline soil giving it a unique mineralogy.

History, food, wine and good company; what’s not to like……

This is the most famous of Muriel Spark’s twenty-two novels, her 6th, published in 1961, which was on stage within five years, on film within eight and a TV series ten years after that. Last seen on stage in London twenty years ago, at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre in a production by Phyllida Lloyd starring Fiona Shaw, this is a new version by Scottish playwright David Harrower. Though he’s done a lot of adaptations, he seemed an odd choice, but as it turns out he’s taken an interesting, fresh look.

Set in the thirties in a private girls school in Edinburgh, teacher Jean Brodie’s determination to teach her girls about life sets her on a collision course with Miss Mackay’s strict adherence to the curriculum. She treats them like friends, telling them about her relationships and her experiences, inviting them to her home. They are more like followers than pupils. At first it all seems mildly subversive and rather charming, until you realise how much control she exerts, her attempts to make choices for and mould her girls, not forgetting her fascist leanings. There is a dalliance with married art teacher Mr Lloyd and a long relationship with music teacher Mr Lowther, whose proposal she spurns. She is eventually betrayed and is forced to leave the school. It’s often very funny, but at times it’s sinister and dark too.

It’s told partly in flashback from post-war scenes where one of the girls, who went to Oxford and published a memoir, is interviewed by a journalist just before she enters a convent, and I’m not sure this worked that well or if was really necessary in telling the story. They’ve put in a middle aisle and swapped the front two rows of the stalls for wooden school chairs, which I’m also not sure is entirely necessary. They’ve gone to a lot of trouble to create a partly glazed back wall and ceiling, yet Lizzie Clachan’s design still seems to be missing something. I did love the use of bells, though, which emphasise both the school setting and the period.

If you need only one reason to see Polly Findlay’s revival it’s Lia Williams brilliant performance. She makes the role her own, delightful in her opinionated rebelliousness but ultimately transformed into a tragic figure. I’ve long admired her work, but this is a career high. In a fine supporting cast, Rona Morrison is terrific as Sandy, who sees the negatives in Brodie’s approach, and Sylvestra Le Touzel provides the contrasting sternness of Miss Mackay.

Good to see it on stage again, and warmly recommended.

Tina

I’m surprised that there’s been little or no mention that this is the second Tina Turner jukebox musical, the first just six years ago, transferring from Hackney Empire to the Savoy Theatre for a short summer run (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2012/09/21/soul-sister). The previous one had much to enjoy, but this is on another level altogether. Director Phyllida Lloyd, who virtually invented the modern day jukebox musical with Mamma Mia, seen in 40 countries, still running in London after 19 years, now almost next door to this, returns with what might be its pinnacle.

Like those other great jukebox musicals – Jersey Boys, Sunny Afternoon & Beautiful – it’s biographical. Tina’s story begins in her childhood church in Tennessee with a brilliant gospel version of Nutbush City Limits. She’s abandoned by her mum, then her dad, and lives with her grandma until her death, after which she goes to live with her mother and sister in St. Louis. Here she meets Ike and so begins the years of success, and abuse. When she finally plucks up the courage to leave him, he continues to exert control over her repertoire and she ends up lost and broke in Las Vegas. Her only hope is new material, and she finds that by following young Aussie Roger Davies to London. The rest, as they say, is history.

Katori Hall has made a great job of telling the story through her excellent book and the production oozes quality in every department, from Anthony van Laast’s choreography, recreating some of Tina’s somewhat quirky moves, Mark Thompson’s designs, Bruno Poet’s lighting and Nevin Steinberg’s sound to Tom Kelly’s terrific band. The show ends with the now customary mini-concert, allowing the audience to indulge in the singing and dancing they’ve been suppressing for 2.5 hours, during which there was a lovely moment when Tina duets with her childhood self.

Adrienne Warren is the embodiment of Tina in a sensational performance; she has the same extraordinary audience contact Tina had. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who I last saw as Laertes in Hamlet (!) is a revelation as Ike, though he did veer towards caricature occasionally. In a superb supporting cast, I really liked Ryan O’Donnell as Davies, Madeline Appiah as Tina’s mum and Lorna Gayle as grandma.

A show that lives up to the hype, and more.