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The Last Five Years

This 15-year-old two-hander by Jason Robert Brown, a somg cycle rather than a musical, was first seen here at the Menier ten years ago with Damian Humbley & Lara Pulver. I recall being more enthusiatic about it then than I am now.

It tells the story of Jamie and Cathy’s five-year relationship in a series of solo songs, Jamie chronologically and Cathy reverse chronologically, with one duet when their stories intersect at their wedding. They are well-crafted songs, if a touch bland, and they are beautifully sung by Jonathan Bailey and Samantha Barks, though Bailey is more animated and connects more with the audience. The music is played beautifully by the six-piece string-heavy band.

My problem with the show is that I found it impossible to engage with it emotionally and didn’t really care much about the characters or their relationship. Because it is merely songs, there’s little room for the development of characters and this is where it fails. A song cycle has its limits and this is a song cycle. I admired the craftsmanship but it felt cold and clinical. I left the theatre disappointed, I’m afraid.

The Duke

I’m very fond of the work of Shon Dale-Jones, affable eccentric storyteller AKA Hugh Hughes, formerly known as an ’emerging Welsh artist’. This new work, the fourth of his shows I’ve seen, is a delightful 60-minute solo piece which links together the accidental breakage of a family heirloom, the refugee crisis and a film script he’s writing (based on the first show of his I saw, Floating).

He greets each audience member as they arrive, and bids them farewell as they leave. He sits at a desk throughout, operating lights and sound himself. His tale is interspersed with snatches of music. It moves between Anglesey and Cambridge and features his mother, wife, Tony from the bargain car rental centre, film-maker Gavin / Kate, a porcelain-collecting senior policeman, four Royal Worcester porcelain figures (one of which is The Duke) and an Audi TT! It’s difficult to describe this very personal, charming, captivating story, at times funny and at times moving, which the audience engaged with throughout.

Tickets are free, allocated rather than sold, with donations to Save the Children encouraged. It was a bit sad that though all tickets were allocated on the night I went, there were many spaces – shame on you, no-shows!

Delightful.

Dead Funny

The 20(ish)-year revival rule applies again for this Terry Johnson play, which I first saw at Hampstead Theatre in 1994. Natural justice was served that night when David Haig was indisposed and the playwright had to step in to play a role he wrote for a middle-aged man with a paunch who has to get his kit off!

The play follows members of a society which celebrates the classic British comedy of the 1960’s to 1980’s. They meet to reminisce, recollect and relive classic characters and shows, in this case the recently departed Benny Hill and, as news of his death arrives during the play, Frankie Howard. Couple Nick & Lisa, singleton Brian and host Richard are all committed members, but Richard’s wife Ellie isn’t. During the play we learn that Richard & Ellie are having problems having sex (and a baby) and Nick hasn’t really taken to his new-born, for reasons that emerge.

It does start slowly, with few laughs at first, and this time around I felt there was an imbalance between the light comedy of the first act and the significantly darker and much better second half. It’s natural audience is British people of a certain age and there were a number in the audience (young or foreign!), who missed many of the references, including my Icelandic companion, even though he was of a certain age and brought up in a country and at a time when British TV was plentiful. This is a homage to the comedy families used to stay in and watch together on a Saturday night and that narrows its demographic significantly.

You can’t fault the performances or the staging by the playwright or the design of a 90’s suburban living room by Richard Kent. Katherine Parkinson is particularly good as Ellie, having to play against the flow, a role played by Zoe Wanamaker in the original production. I don’t really know the work of Rufus Jones, but he too was impressive as Richard, having to be believable as a surgeon who likes Benny Hill! Steve Pemberton handles the impressions best as Brian, perhaps because he started in TV comedy, as well as his touching revelation towards the end.

I was glad I revisited it, but it wasn’t the classic I thought it might be. I suspect this is partly due to the passage of time, partly due to its suitability for my companion (though he loved the second half) and partly due to the fact that James Graham’s recent Monster Raving Loony (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/monster-raving-loony) is a better and more comprehensive homage to the same British comedy, even though it’s actually a biography of a politician, albeit a comic one.

 

The Children

Lucy Kirkwood’s brilliant Chimerica was always going to be hard to follow, so it’s great to report that her new play is very different but just as rewarding, a very mature piece from a young playwright.

Hazel and Robin are retired nuclear scientists / engineers with a small farm and four grown up children with four grandchildren. They live near the plant, on the coast, where they worked. A recent incident has meant a move to temporary accommodation and a significant disruption of their lifestyle. Former colleague Rose turns up after almost 40 years. She’s lived most her very different life in the US. They started their careers together building the plant and the conversation revolves around shared memories and catching up with the events in each others’ and other colleagues’ lives, until Rose says why she’s come.

It’s a very personal story of these three people, but so much more, exploring the diverse ways we fulfil our lives, growing old, relationships, generational legacy and debt, energy policy and the environment. I was captivated by these deeply drawn characters and their extraordinarily unique situation in whay is a play of many layers.

Miriam Buether’s cottage kitchen set is closed in by walls, floor and ceiling so that you feel you are peering into the room and their lives; it has the intimacy of a much smaller theatre. Deborah Findlay, Francesca Annis and Ron Cook are all superb and their somewhat complex relationships and current dilemma completely believable. James Macdonald directs this beautifully written play with great delicacy.

It’s a while since we saw such a fine play on the Royal Court’s main stage. I found it thought-provoking and enthralling, a deeply satisfying evening in the theatre.

One Night in Miami

My knowledge of the US civil rights movement in the 60’s was weak, but is stronger for seeing this excellent play by American Kemp Powers; I love it when I learn something at the theatre.

The night in question is the one when Cassius Clay, as he was then called, beat Sonny Liston to win his world title in 1964. He’s in a hotel room with friends Malcolm X, soul singer Sam Cooke and footballer Jim Brown. Outside the room there are two security guards placed there by The Nation of Islam to protect their spokesman.

It’s a pivotal point for all four. Clay is about to convert to Islam and change his name to Mohammed Ali. Cooke has written his civil rights anthem, A Change Is Gonna Come, but will soon meet his untimely death. Brown has commenced his second career, acting in his first film. Malcolm X is about to quit The Nation of Islam.

They debate the issues of civil rights and their differing attitudes and perspectives. Malcolm X may not be as hard line as they thought and the guards may be as much to control as protect. Is Sam Cooke selling his soul as he sings it? Clay’s conversion may be a touch reluctant. Is Brown ignoring what’s going on around him and just concentrating on having a good time? It’s a fascinating debate, without being preachy or earnest, and packs a lot into a well written, entertaining 90 minutes.

Six fine performances too. Arinze Kene brings Cooke to life, singing superbly. Sope Dirisu’s characterisation of Clay is playful and spot on. Francois Battiste captures Malcolm X at a turning point, still defiant but inwardly doubting. David Akala’s Brown is the good-time guy and there’s fine support from Dwane Walcott and Josh Williams as the two contrasting guards. I’d wondered why we’d not seen or heard from director Kwame Kwei-Armah for so long. It appears he’s been directing and running theatre companies in the US. It’s good to have him back, though I’m not sure how long that’s for.

Another fine evening at the Donmar.

 

Travesties

I blow hot and cold with Tom Stoppard. I wasn’t in London for the first outing of this piece, but I was for the first revival, with Anthony Sher in the lead role, and I recollect being dazzled by it. Time is a funny thing, though, and on this occasion I found it hard to engage with it. It had an air of superiority about it and made me feel like I was being patronised.

It links real people who were in Zurich during the First World War – Lenin, James Joyce, Dada founder Tzara and The British Honorary Consul Henry Carr – and weaves in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Carr was apparently in a production of that play at that time and Joyce was involved. The rest is an exploration of revolution and art. This time I found it glib, clever for the sake of it, and I didn’t think it had much to say. Pointless intellectual fireworks.

It has moments of delicious absurdity and humour, particularly when it unexpectedly bursts into surreal scenes of song and dance, but they were few and far between, especially in the longer first half. Patrick Marber’s direction is very assured and Tim Hatley has designed an excellent set. The whole ensemble, led by Tom Hollander as Carr, give virtuoso performances.

I’m clearly at odds with most of the audience and critics, so I’m prepared to accept it’s a matter of taste. Not for me, I’m afraid.

Kiss Me

Playwright Richard Bean was late to his eventual career, of which he is now pre-eminent, starting at 40. He’s made up for it since, writing 23 plays including two adaptations and one musical in twenty years. One of the features of his output is the diversity of subject and style. Another feature is its quality. No. 23 is unlike any of the others, a finely polished little gem.

It’s set soon after the First World War. A man arrives at the lodgings of a war widow. He’s been sent by a doctor because she wants a baby. It’s something he does for women like her, plus the wives of the war wounded. He wasn’t in the war. They exchange pleasantries, but they aren’t allowed to know their real names, or anything about each other, under the parameters established by the doctor. In the end she can’t go through with it. They part but something is left behind which enables her to find him, and another sort of relationship starts. 

It’s easy to see why, despite his drawing power, it’s in Hampstead Theatre Downstairs; it needs its intimacy. With the audience facing each other on two sides, it takes place on and around a solitary bed in a small space. It’s beautifully written, with a depth of characterisation that’s astonishing given its 70 minute length. It often surprises you and there’s a gentle, warm humour in keeping with the subject matter. He says some nice things about the Welsh too, but that didn’t influence me!

Anna Ledwich’s direction is very sensitive to the material, and to the audience too, given the traverse staging. Both Claire Lams and Ben Lloyd-Hughes are a delight, managing to convey the repression of the period but the intimacy of their relationship.

A much shorter theatrical feast than iHo upstairs, but a feast nonetheless.