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Manor

It was only a week ago that I reappropriated the term ‘kitchen sink drama’ to describe a play which threw in the kitchen sink in terms of subjects and issues, and here we are again with Moira Buffini’s sprawling satire, staged by her sister Fiona. Climate change, the decline of the aristocracy, white supremacy, racism, the NHS……oh, and there’s a comic fat guy. Obviously.

We’re in a rambling run-down manor house by the sea, the family home of Diana, where she lives with her daughter Isis and partner Pete, a one time rock star, one hit wonder even, who has become some sort of caricature of his former self. There is a raging storm, which brings severe floods, and people take shelter at the manor – the local vicar, married but now gay, Ripley & Dora, a mother who works in A&E and her student daughter from South West London, away from home to study, three members of fascist group Albion – Ted, blind Ruth and Anton – and the funny fat guy Perry.

Diana thinks she’s accidentally killed Pete after a tussle on the stairs. Albion’s leader Ted is trying to bed Diana and recruit fay guy Perry. Isis takes a fancy to Dora, and vice versa. I think it’s meant to be an allegory, though this loses focus as it moves from satire to farce. That said, it’s often very funny, the tongue-in-cheek, sometimes camp performances of a fine ensemble led by Nancy Carroll are pleasing, Lez Brotherston’s comic gothic set is brilliant and the storm effects created by Nina Dunn’s projections and Jon Clark’s lighting, are terrific.

Perhaps I’ve become easy to please since lockdown, as I seem to be at odds with the negative critical consensus of both this and Rare Earth Metal at the Royal Court. It’s like the critics lost some of the contents of their stars box and have been dishing out ones and two’s where three’s seem more appropriate. This may be flawed, and a touch long, but it was enjoyable enough to warrant a visit. Whether it should be on such a high profile stage as the Lyttelton is another matter. The rest of the audience seemed even more positive than me. Decide for yourself.

Straight White Men

Before it even starts, and in the introduction, we meet two characters who are about as far from straight white men as you can get. They are called ‘persons in charge’ and their role appears to be to subvert our perceptions of what this play is about.

In no time at all, we’re in the home of widower Ed, who lives there with his eldest son Matt. It’s Christmas and Ed’s other two sons arrive, successful banker Jake, divorced with children, full of bravado, and teacher / writer Drew, a gentler, more cerebral being. Much of the play is given over to Christmas traditions, including matching pyjamas, and sibling joshing and banter, until Matt’s unhappiness surfaces.

He’s left his human rights career behind and is now in a temporary job. He seems to have lost his way in the world. His dad wants to set him free by paying off his student loans, Jake wants to help him get his confidence back and Drew thinks therapy is the answer. This is where the underlying themes come to the fore. The difficulty of achieving fulfilment, living with privilege, the growing desire to opt out of the rat race, or even abandon work altogether, resisting the pressure of having a career at all.

It’s a great tribute to the four actors – Simon Rouse as dad Ed, Charlie Condou as troubled Matt, Alex Mugnaioni as Jake and Simon Haines as Drew – that you believe in them as a family; only siblings could interact like this with each other and with their father. The Christmas rituals, though American and specific to this family, somehow seem familiar. I’m not sure the presence of the ‘persons in charge’ really works, but it adds a quirkiness I suppose.

A personal story with universal themes; a well written new play by Young Jean Lee, staged by Steven Kunis, designed by Suzu Sakai, with movement from Christina Fulcher, all of whom bring the realism that is the key to its success. Well worth a visit.

The original TV version of this 70’s sitcom – all four series in only a few years – was something I returned to in lockdown and rather enjoyed, for both the characters than the storylines of contrasting lifestyles. It also proved to have something to say about self sufficiency which still resonates. The stage adaptation is written and directed by the excellent Jeremy Sams, so that clinched the deal on seeing it.

It starts, as does the first episode of the first series, on Tom Good’s 40th birthday when both he and his wife have a mid-life crisis, simultaneously and seemingly co-incidentally, and they pack in their respective occupations and begin a new eco-friendly lifestyle – in Surbiton! – whilst their neighbours Jerry & Margot continue, one on the corporate treadmill, the other social climbing.

Beyond here we get familiar but still funny stories of the adventure and the contrasting lifestyles, until a second act almost entirely devoted to the pregnancy and dramatic delivery of Pinkie the pig’s litter, where the milk-woman, policeman, doctor and his assistant all get roped in. We even get a live(ish) appearance from Geraldine the goat.

Rufus Hound as Tom & Sally Tatum as Barbara and Dominic Rowan as Jerry & Preeya Kalidas as Margot soon make these iconic TV characters their own, probably the toughest thing to pull off. Nigel Betts and Tessa Churchard do a great job with the seven other roles, particularly in the second act when some nifty quick changes prove necessary.

Other than the 70’s set and costumes, and social norms of the period, it didn’t feel at all dated. It’s safe and predictable, but that brings with it nostalgia and charm which I found impossible to resist. Sams has somehow created an adaptation which doesn’t feel like an adaptation at all, and his staging squeezes every bit of humour out of the situations. Michael Taylor’s design never lets us forget where and when we are, with deft quick changes from the Good to Leadbetter homes.

A warm and cosy evening by the fire, but live in a theatre.

Rare Earth Metal

Sometimes when the consensus of reviews is negative, it demotivates you from going to / booking for a play. I tend not to be deterred from going to something already booked, though I am disinclined to book something I haven’t yet. Which makes me happy I had booked for this because I thought it was a lot better than the reviews led me to believe. It has its flaws, but I was very glad I went.

The term ‘kitchen sink drama’ was coined for those quintessentially British gritty working class plays like Look Back in Anger (at this very theatre). I will reappropriate it for this, in the sense that Al Smith throws in everything including the kitchen sink. Geo-political issues, climate change green washing & the environment, colonialism & neo-colonialism, corruption, corporate governance and ethics – business, medical, research, political, educational. Even the NHS and Brexit are here. In truth it is somewhat overloaded with issues.

The play revolves around a battle for rare mineral resources between an American tycoon (a thinly veiled Elon Musk character) and a British medical researcher in the salt flats of Bolivia. They both want lithium and this is apparently the world’s biggest source, seemingly controlled by one indigenous man. When the politicians get to hear of the battle, they become the fourth party, their interest moving from protecting their country and their people to getting elected. As the story unfolds, they all prove to be masters of manipulation, even the solitary indigenous man. No-one comes out of this well, which is part of its point.

It’s full of implausibility, exaggeration, inaccuracies and some dubious science, and at just over three hours it is too long, but it’s a vehicle for an interesting debate about ethics in many different situations and it engaged and stimulated me such that I didn’t feel its length. There are some very clever lines and touches, like a female politician’s hairstyle changing to the plaits favoured by indigenous women as she embarks on her campaign for election, and some very funny moments, mostly involving tycoon Henry Finn, many from the mistranslation of English into Spanish and vice versa.

There’s no weak link in the excellent cast of nine, four of whom double up to give us thirteen well drawn characters. Director Hamish Pirie needed to reign in things a bit, but I enjoyed the evening nonetheless. Don’t be a sheep, decide for yourself.

Little Women The Musical

This musical theatre adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel by Jason Howard, Allan Knee & Mindi Dickstein is sixteen years old now, though it didn’t get to the UK until four years ago, at that new musical theatre powerhouse The Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester. That same production now gets its London premiere. I never read the novel, and have only seen one of the handful of stage, opera, TV & film adaptations in my lifetime, but it was only three years ago so I didn’t come to this completely cold.

The little women are sisters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, living in New England with their mother while their dad is serving as an army chaplain in the American Civil War. Wannabe writer Jo has gone to the big apple to try and get published and each act starts at her lodgings there before the main story back home in flashback. Their neighbour Mr Lawrence and his son and the March’s maiden aunt are important parts of the extended family. Jo hopes to travel with her aunt, but she switches her favours to younger sister Amy and takes her to Europe. Both Meg and Amy get married and Beth becomes seriously ill. It looks like Jo may be left ‘on the shelf’.

The book of the musical seems faithful to the novel, though I thought the two scenes enacting Jo’s latest stories before the flashbacks were a bit ambitious for a small stage. The second half is way more successful than the first, which really needs some cuts and an increase in pace. Like the story, the score took time to gain momentum and both were a bit twee and sentimental for my taste, but it won me over with some lovely tunes, excellent string orchestrations beautifully played by Leo Munby’s band, and Bronagh Lagan’s staging.

It’s a very strong ensemble, showcasing a number of new graduates, with the four sisters – Hana Ichijo, Lydia White, Anastasia Martin & Mary Moore – developing their very different characters extremely well. Savannah Stevenson provides an emotional anchor as Marmee, with particularly fine vocals. The supporting cast are all very good, with Bernadine Pritchett having great fun with Aunt March and Ryan Bennett coming into his own as Professor Bhaer as the role develops.

It needs a bit of work on the first half and it could do with losing 15 minutes or so, but its still well worth seeing in its present form nonetheless, provided you can stomach a bit of quintessentially American sentimentality.

Milk & Gall

Sometimes an avid theatre-goer like me traipses into or across London to see something underwhelming, often overpriced, when there’s quality, fun and value on your doorstep, and so it was with this quirky piece at Theatre 503.

Mathilde Dratwa’s play takes place on US election day 2016. While Clinton and Trump are fighting it out, Vera is in hospital giving birth to her first child. The hospital staff, and her husband, have as much of an eye on the election as they do the birth. Everyone conspires to hide the emerging result from Vera to avoid even more anxiety than the childbirth is creating. When she is discharged, we witness the twin traumas of new motherhood and the new president.

It’s a clever idea turned into a well written and funny piece, with some very surreal moments (possibly writing, possibly staging, probably both) that combined to produce something intelligent about both the trials of motherhood and the birth of a new political order, but above all it’s entertaining theatre. MyAnna Burling is terrific as understandably neurotic Vera and there’s a fine supporting cast. It’s particularly good to see Jenny Galloway again, brilliant as both mother and mother-in-law, plus others. Director Lisa Spirling and designer Mona Camille make great use of the pocket-size stage.

Dratwa seems like an original new playwriting voice to me, and I’d very much like to see more of her work. Great fun.

The Wife of Willesden

Three years ago a stage adaptation of Zadie Smith’s debut novel White Teeth was part of the Kiln Theatre’s (re)opening season, now she’s written a new play for the same theatre based on Chaucer’s 600-year-old tale of the Wife of Bath. If this is as faithful to Chaucer as they suggest, he must be one of the most feminist and sexually explicit writers ever. Just a little bit of research supports the former, but suggests the latter is a contemporary interpretation.

When I walked into the Kiln auditorium I gasped. Robert Jones’ transformation from theatre to pub is one of the most extraordinary I’ve ever seen. A giant three-part bar the width of the auditorium and tables & chairs surrounded by benches replacing most of the stalls. Chaucer’s tale is being told in The Sir Colin Campbell today rather than the Tabard Inn 600 years ago. It’s written in verse with the author also a character, sometimes with her Mac at a bar table, introducing and concluding her piece. The barmaid is something of a Bett Lynch character, big hair and leopard print.

The Wife of Willesden, Alvina, is larger than life and loud, as fond of Baileys as she is of sex, five husbands and still counting. Her tale covers them all, as they come forward to play their part with all the other characters and a few symbolic ones, like St Peter and Jesus Christ. Her explicit description of sexual acts, comparing and contrasting husbands, might challenge the broadest of minds. She occasionally engages members of the audience, and bursts into song and dance randomly.

It starts like a ball of energy, and I was convinced I was in for a fun evening, but I’m afraid it wore off way before it concluded. It felt laboured and heavy-handed and certainly didn’t sustain its 100 unbroken minute length; I was bored rather than offended. Substance was replaced by crudity as it became a sex romp, an adult panto. Clare Perkins works very hard bringing Alvina to life, and the nine other actors playing 21 parts between them maintain energy and momentum way beyond the point at which I’d lost mine.

For me it showcased a lot of outstanding creative and performing talent, but on material that wasn’t really worthy of it.

Though he’s written more than twenty shows, we haven’t seen many of American playwright Christopher Durang’s plays in London, maybe two? This is my first exposure to his work. It’s his most successful play, winning both the Tony and Drama Desk awards for Best Play in 2013. As you can surmise from the title, it references Chekov. This transfer from Bath is delayed because of Covid

Vanya, Sonia & Masha are siblings, named by their amateur thespian parents after characters in Chekov plays. Vanya & Sonia, who was adopted, stayed in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (I’ve been there!) to look after their parents, whilst Masha became a successful actress, though maybe not a particularly good one. She’s been providing a home for the other two, though, for many years. She returns for a society fancy dress party with her toy boy Spike in tow, and some dramatic news about her future plans for the family home and therefore the lives of her brother and sister.

There are many references to Chekov plays and characters over and above the sibling names. Some might find this excludes them, but you don’t need to recognise the references, though it probably helps you admire the writing. Though it covers themes such as climate change and generational disconnection, it’s basically a light comedy that occasionally veres towards farce. There’s also a prophetic cleaning lady who seems to have stepped in from a Greek tragedy – well, she is called Cassandra – and a somewhat underwritten character called Nina who is a fan of Masha, a diversion for Spike and a muse for Vanya.

Janine Dee is great as Masha the actress, who sweeps in and dominates all around her. Rebecca Lacey relishes her sarcy, spikey lines and they hit their target consistently. Michael Moloney is very good at playing the gentle diplomat against his more fiery sisters and comes into his own in a second act monologue. Cassandra has a few scene stealing moments which Sara Powell delivers superbly. There’s little to fault in the staging, design and performance of the piece.

It’s a pleasant evening, but I was struggling to see why it has transferred after mediocre reviews in Bath to the highly competitive theatrical world of London, and even more puzzled that it was once the best play on Broadway. Perhaps the casting there of Durang’s college friend Sigourney Weaver and TV star David Hyde Pierce swayed it. For me it felt more like a night at a regional rep than a London showcase.

Footfalls & Rockaby

Jermyn Street Theatre regularly punches above its 70-seat weight. Even in lockdown, it’s productivity and performance (during its own crisis following flooding!) has been exemplary, leading to The Stage’s Fringe Theatre of the Year Award. Amongst its achievements in the last ten years have been three of the best Beckett evenings I’ve had in 40 years of theatre-going in London – this is the third – involving two Dames and a Knight, two directed by the former AD of both the RSC & RNT.

I saw the now infamous production of Footfalls with Fiona Shaw at the Garrick Theatre in 1995, infamous because it only ran 6 days after the Beckett estate took exception to Deborah Warner’s departure from Becket’s sequence of words and stage directions. The independent theatre critic described this as declaring a fatwa on the production! In this short piece, May’s 90-year-old mother is dying. She paces back and forth, 9 steps visually and audibly in each direction outside her room, visibly upset, whilst the ghostly recorded voice of her mother speaks to her, initially responding to questions from May, then direct to the audience, then in the third person about her. Between each a bell rings.

I was lucky enough to see the UK premiere of Rockaby, at the then Cottesloe Theatre in 1982, with Becket’s muse Billie Whitelaw. I think it was only the second Becket play I’d seen, the first ‘miniature’, and it was mesmerising. In this short piece, a woman sits in her rocking chair listening to her own recorded voice, ghostly. It rocks but she doesn’t appear to be creating the movement. When the voice stops, she says ‘more’ and it resumes, until she appears to die.

The whole evening is little more than 40 minutes, but the combination of poetry, atmospheric staging & design and delicate, beautiful performances by Charlotte Emerson and Sian Philips is captivating. It’s been wonderful seeing Sian Phillips’ late career gems – her extraordinary collaboration with physical theatre masters Frantic Assembly in Lovesong, her hypnotic presence in Les Blancs at the NT and a ‘return home’ with Under Milk Wood, also at the NT.

As always with Beckett, lighting and sound are as important as set and costumes and Ben Ormerod and Adrienne Quartly’s inputs combine with Simon Kenny’s monochrome set and costumes to serve both pieces very well. Richard Beecham’s staging of both plays is flawless.

All the best ‘juke-box musicals’ are biographical – Jersey Boys, Sunny Afternoon, Beautiful, Tina – and you can add this to the list, but it’s edgier than the others, and has a political dimension too. It also has a towering performance from Arinze Kene as Bob Marley. Though I lived through his active years in London, and liked his music, I wouldn’t call myself a fan. After hearing the songs again after so long, though, my appreciation of them, particularly lyrically, has grown significantly.

It tells his story from a troubled childhood, effectively abandoned by both his parents until he was 6, through his first recording in Jamaica, the formation of The Wailers, marriage to Rita, adoption of the Rastafarian religion, his first period in London from 1972-76, attempted assassination back in Jamaica as he becomes involved in politics and his second period in London up to his untimely death in the US at 36. Lee Hall’s excellent book makes this into a very lucid story and makes no attempt to bury the flaws, notably his treatment of the women in his life.

Clint Dyer’s impeccable direction has bucketloads of energy, with the music propelling Marley’s story forward, providing the anchor and emotional drive. Chloe Lamford’s wall-of-speakers design, enabling performances on three levels, a supersized version of the one in Sunny Afternoon, is matched by a wall of sound, with the bass vibrating my stalls seat. It’s a great ensemble, with Gabrielle Brooks shining as Rita, and Arinze Kene mesmerising as Marley, with vocal and dance skills matching his superb acting. I’ve loved every one of the four previous performances of his I’ve seen – One Night in Miami, Girl from the North Country, Misty and Death of a Salesman – but this is very special indeed.

The term juke-box musical is often used as a derogatory one, and the genre is sometimes derided, so I’ll call this by a much more accurate term – a musical biography – and it’s an extraordinary example of this genre. Final call-out for the programme, just about the only one in the West End worth the money!