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See Me Now

Verbatim theatre – real stories, usually obtained through interviews – has taken many forms; actors repeating the words they hear through earphones, the interviews turned into scripts, even sung dialogue. Here we have people on stage speaking for themselves, in this case eleven sex workers.

There are six women, three men and two trans. They include a male escort and a dominatrix. They’re from all sorts of backgrounds with all sorts of tales to tell; stories of addiction, trafficking, abuse, dysfunctional relationships and loving relationships. The stories are interwoven such that each person’s story unfolds over the whole ninety minutes rather than in sequence. There’s movement, changes of clothes and other stage business to avoid it being just talking heads.

It’s often explicit, sometimes moving and sometimes very funny. Some of the stories have more substance than others. One former singer tells of her crack addiction, her child and her mother, then towards the end proves conclusively that she’s still got it, singing beautifully about her experiences, accompanied brilliantly by another on a grand piano. We hear about their motivation and their golden rules (no real names, always use protection etc.). The trans stories are particularly insightful.

Because they were willingly telling their own stories, it didn’t seem voyeuristic; in fact it seemed therapeutic. I found it informative and fascinating and it’s clearly ground-breaking. They’ve had some help structuring what they want to say as Molly Taylor is credited with ‘Text’, and it’s directed by Mimi Poskitt, but it’s real lives on stage and it makes a strong case for decriminalisation. Well done Look Left Look Right, High Tide & the Young Vic.

 

My Land’s Shore

If any further proof were needed that Ye Olde Rose & Crown Theatre in Walthamstow is fast becoming the most ambitious fringe musical theatre venue, with the highest musical standards, here it is. The confidence that Christopher J Orton & Robert Gould, the writers of this superb new musical, sixteen years in the making, already nicknamed the Welsh Les Mis, have placed in the Walthamstow team for its world premiere is richly rewarded with passionate performances and glorious singing.  

Set in the South Wales valleys in 1831, in Merthyr Tydfil to be precise (20 miles from my childhood home in a another valley, though many years later, but that doesn’t make me biased!) it tells the story of the Merthyr Rising and its martyr Dic Penderyn. It was the culmination of years of unrest created by unemployment, wage reductions and price rises. Men can barely feed their families with their wages from the mines and ironworks and things come to a head when they try to organise to present their grievances, adding demands for representation and universal suffrage. At its heart is the personal story of Richard Lewis (Dic Penderyn) who takes on single mother Angharad and her eight-year-old son Jonathan. The political and and the personal stories eventually converge and we learn of the events leading up to Angharad’s pregnancy. The authorities, encouraged by the mine and ironworks owners, violently put down what they call a revolt. Troops kill innocent protestors and their leader Lewis Lewis and Dic are sentenced to hang.

It’s both an epic story and a very human one and the score is simply superb, full of beautiful melodies and rousing choruses. Aaron Clingham’s orchestrations are beautiful too, with strings and woodwind creating an evocative musical landscape. The singing does full justice to the score. There are too many fine performances to single any out – casting director Benjamin Newsome has found some extraordinary talent again, with a welcome proportion of actual Welsh talent! Director Brendan Matthew, a regular in this venue now, marshals his cast of eighteen very effectively given the space limitations. It’s hard to conjure up mountainsides, churches, mines and family homes in any space, let alone a room above a pub, but designer Joana Dias does very well with limited resources and help from the lighting designer Sky Bembury and costume designer Celestine Healy, though it’s crying out for a bigger space.

It left me as excited as when I first saw Howard Goodall’s The Hired Man over thirty years ago. A truly British musical and a very fine one indeed. I don’t believe for one minute we won’t see more of it and I suspect sometime in the future I will be reminiscing about seeing the world premiere. You have just two weeks to get yourselves to Walthamstow.

School Play

This is an impressive playwriting debut by Alex Mackeith. I don’t know much about education, but it oozed authenticity and seemed to me to present a well researched understanding of some of the issues facing a primary school Head. 

The school in question is trying hard to improve, with an immediate target of a pupil premium award which would open extra-curricular doors that these South London working class kids could never otherwise open. The governors have forced the Head to take an unqualified but bright agency temp to help get the SATS up, but he’s preoccupied with what he enjoys. The Head’s administrator is her retired predecessor’s daughter who’s desperate to qualify as a teacher but has been set back by having to look after her dad. 

The picture it paints is the Head’s struggle to reconcile the need to teach an imposed curriculum, having to follow instructions from the governors that she doesn’t necessarily agree with. the obsession with testing over learning and the expectations of parents (illustrated by a father who expects the school to shoulder all of the responsibility for his sick daughter whilst he shoulders none), all in a world where social media means nothing is secret, not even the her personal problems, going through a divorce. It took a while to take off, but when it did it was riveting.

Anna Reid’s uber-realistic, finely detailed design contributes greatly to the authenticity. There’s a terrific performance from Ann Ogbomo as Head Jo, who has to switch from distress to full emotional control in an instant. Fala Evan-Akingbola conveys her character Lara’s vocational passion and conscientiousness really well and Oliver Dench does well as posh boy Tom who’s rather let them down. Though it’s a small part, Kevin Howarth’s performance as dad David was pivotal in underlining one of the issues. It’s really well staged by Charlie Parham.

Fine new writing at Southwark Playhouse.

Anyone Can Whistle

This was only the second show for which Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics, and it was his first flop, running for only 21 performances (12 of which were previews!), though in my view it’s lack of success is more to do with Arthur Laurents’ story / book. It’s a satire about corruption in local government which we last saw here at Jermyn Street Theatre in 2010 during Sondheim’s 80th celebrations.

The nameless US town is bankrupt and Mayor Cora Hoover Hooper (the musical theatre debut of Angela Lansbury in the original Broadway production!) and her treasurer, judge and head of police invent a miracle spring to put the town on the map and restore its fortunes, and line their pockets at the same time. They have to stop the lunatics (here called cookies) from the sanatorium (here called the cookie jar – this is 1964!) from visiting, lest the lack of a cure becomes too obvious.

What follows is a romp involving cookies, townspeople and the corrupt gang of four, until they are usurped by another miracle in a nearby town. Nurse Apple, with the help of new doctor Hapgood (who isn’t, as we later find out) try to destroy patient records and set them free, but fail. It’s daft, but not daft enough to be good daft and the score is just OK, though here the choruses shone bright, better than most of the solos and ensembles. Sondheim was learning his craft; it’s the work of a novice, but interesting to see where genius starts.

Phil Willmott has more space at the Union than they did in Jermyn Street and he uses it, most notably during a chase on foot when the numbers appear to swell significantly through clever (and exhausting) staging. Holly Hughes’ choreography is energetic, sometimes frenetic, with tap and ballet thrown in for good measure. I felt the production was a touch ragged and might also have benefited from a little more restraint. There clearly wasn’t much of a design budget!

The stand-out performances for me were Rachel Delooze as the nurse and Oliver Stanley as Hapgood, though in all fairness their roles do allow them to breathe rather more than the others. The rest of the mostly young cast sing and dance their socks off.

Just for Sondheim ‘collectors’, I’d say.

The Glass Menagerie

This much lauded revival of Tennessee Williams’ autobiographical first hit has travelled from Harvard to Broadway & the Edinburgh Festival en route to the West End, with two of its original cast staying with it. The Director and Designer are our own John Tiffany and Bob Crowley. It’s my fourth production in just over twenty years and that may be why I’m less euphoric than most.

The Wingfield family have fallen on hard times since Mr Wingfield deserted them. They live in an apartment in St Louis. Mother Amanda is a southern belle, a former debutante, who forever reminisces about her past. Her children are both her whole life and a disappointment to her. Son Tom works in a warehouse and escapes regularly from the confines of his stifling home life to ‘the movies’. His sister Laura has a small disability, though she’s referred to as ‘a cripple’, and seems to be somewhat unstable. She dropped out of high school and college and now sits at home tending and playing with her collection of glass animals. Amanda is obsessed with marrying off Laura and is thrilled when Tom brings hime a ‘a gentleman caller’, his more successful colleague Jim. At first Laura is too shy and withdrawn to engage with them and join in the dinner, but Jim turns out to be an obsession from her past and things begin to go a lot better – until Jim drops a bombshell and upsets both Laura and Amanda and provokes Tom’s planned departure for pastures new.

Bob Crowley’s beautiful impressionistic set, gorgeously lit by Natasha Katz,  has a fire escape rising to the heavens with stairs down beneath the stage emphasising the location, though from the front stalls I didn’t fully appreciate his design coup until I walked to the front of the stage at the end. John Tiffany’s staging, with ‘movement’ from regular collaborator Steven Hoggett, has a light touch with the pivotal second half scene between Laura and Jim masterly, but I didn’t engage with it emotionally. Cherry Jones as Amanda and Brian J Smith as Jim are hugely impressive, perhaps because they are the two stayers. Though we only see him in the second half, I thought Smith lifted the production. Michael Esper, fresh from his star turn in Lazarus, didn’t quite do it for me and Kate O’Flynn’s Laura was sometimes too squeaky and overly fey.

It’s a better production than the misguided one at the Young Vic six or seven years ago and as good as the last West End outing directed by Rupert Goold’s and starring Jessica Lange a few years before that, but it doesn’t live up to Sam Mendes Donmar production (will anything ever?) just over twenty years ago and it looks like that’s my curse; it stops me joining in the euphoria, even though I much admired it. Still, I’m glad I caught it and would certainly recommend it.

This is a quirky sixteen-year-old Off-Broadway musical by Kirsten Childs, with quite a mouthful of a title, getting its European premiere at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. It tells the story of Viveca aka Bubbly as she navigates life from her 60’s childhood in Southern California to 90’s maturity in New York City, weaving in significant black history events along the way.

She’s a vivacious black middle-class kid who is first awakened to the real world by the Klu Klux Klan killing of four black girls just like her in a chapel in Birmingham, Alabama. Racism (and sexism) are an everyday occurrence. During her school years there’s both pressure and temptation to ‘go white’ to fit in; she even chooses her white doll Chitty Chatty over her black doll. In fact, that doesn’t change for a long time. Her relationship with childhood sweetheart Gregory never really goes anywhere, though he turns up again later.

Moving to NYC, after a period as an unsuccessful secretary she takes dance lessons and tries to break into musical theatre, with some success – enough for her to be able to break free and set up her own dance academy. The original score is serviceable rather than distinguished. I was expecting it to change with the period, perhaps from Motown to Disco to 80’s electro mush(!), but it didn’t – a missed opportunity, I thought. I also thought there was a bit too much time given over to childhood over adulthood.

Rosa Maggiora’s design is excellent, a stage full of boxes in which Tim Reid’s superb projections appear, and her period costumes are terrific. Josette Bushell-Mingo’s direction and Mykal Rand’s choreography are sprightly and chirpy and, well, bubbly. Sophia Mackay and Karis Jack were both great as older and young Viveca respectively. It seemed like more than ten on stage and there was a lot of doubling and tripling, one even quadrupling, with a stand-out comic performance from Ashley Joseph, who brought the house down in the second half as Lucas.

I didn’t engage with it as much as I thought I might. The quirkiness became a bit relentless for me, trying a bit too hard and sometimes seeming forced as a result. In the end, I felt the production and performances were better than the material and I’m not sure it resonates as much over here, in 2017, but I’m not the right person to judge that.

The Rest of January

Contemporary Music

I’d never heard of Joe Henry until his field recordings of railroad songs with Billy Bragg last year, and I only heard that record a few days before their lovely concert at Union Chapel, which took a side-trip to include some timely protest songs, and a surreal ending when they were joined on stage by Chas & Dave!

Opera & Dance

I wasn’t keen on the music of Lygeti’s Le Grand Macabre when I saw a staged production at ENO eight years ago, but with the superior LSO, on stage, under Simon Rattle, the LSC in the auditorium aisles (flouting fire regulations!) and a fine line-up of soloists and instrumentalists popping up all over the place in the audience it was rather thrilling. I got the humour which I missed last time, though I’m not sure I got Peter Sellers’ Chernobyl staging (which the composer took against when this version was first staged in Salzburg 19 years ago). I still don’t understand it, but now I’m not sure I’m supposed to!

Les Enfants Terrible, a ballet-opera by Philip Glass, was only partly successful for me. I liked the music, played by three pianos, and the design was good (apart from an unscheduled break when a screen refused to move!) but I’m not sure Javier de Frutos’ choreography with multiple dancers for the two principal roles really worked; it was a bit too fussy.

Film

January is always a busy month in the cinema as all the Oscar contenders are released, and so it was……

Passengers was a bit far-fetched, but quality SciFi nonetheless. Worth seeing for Michael Sheen as an android barman!

A Monster Calls is a highly original and deeply moving story of a young boy coping with his mother’s death from cancer. Young Lewis MacDougall was extraordinary.

Manchester by the Sea took me by surprise. It has a very un-Hollywood authenticity and emotionality; it feels very much like a European film. Sad but beautiful.

La La Land had so much hype it was never likely to live up to it and so it was. Though I enjoyed it, the score, singing and dancing all weren’t good enough to make it an Oscar winner, though it probably will as it’s Hollywood’s love affair with Hollywood.

I adored Lion, so heart-warming and beautifully acted. Based on the true story of a lost Indian boy adopted by a Tasmanian couple, it ended beautifully and movingly with film of the meeting of the real people on which it was based.

Jackie was a big disappointment, despite a fine performance by Natalie Portman. A film about a very interesting woman and a very interesting period turned out to be ever so dull.

I’m not sure it was a good idea to make T2 Trainspotting; I found it a bit disappointing. It was a film of its time and maybe it should have been left that way.

I greatly admired Denial, the very gripping story of the defamation case brought by holocaust denier David Irving against an American academic. It unfolded like a thriller and had a superb British cast.

Art

Dulwich Picture Gallery discovered another old master, this time 17th century Dutch landscape artist Adriaen van de Velde. His pictures might be landscapes, but they have lots of people and animals in them, and there are beaches, sea and boats too. Sadly, there were only 23 finished paintings, less than half the show.

William Kentridge‘s six installations at Whitechapel Gallery were fascinating and playful. I’d seen individual works by him before, but this combination of machines, video, music and tapestry really showed off his inventiveness.

Malian photographer Malick Sidibe‘s exhibition of B&W photographs at Somerset House was a revelation, such an evocative representation of Malian society since the 60’s, and the accompanying soundtrack of Malian music was the icing on the cake.