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Obsession

This is the fourth Visconti film director Ivo van Hove has adapted for the stage, but the first we’ve seen in the UK. It was his first film, considered to be the beginning of neo-realism, based on the short American novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (though why on earth it was called that is beyond me), as was a French film adaptation three years before Visconti’s. This was the title of the English language film adaptations 6 years and 39 years later. There was an opera in 1982 and Hungarian and German-Turkish film adaptations more recently. I can’t help but ask the question Why? Visconti crossed over to theatre and opera and it’s one of those coincidences I’m so fond of that his first stage adaptation, Les Infantes Terribles, was also the play (in a much later adaptation at the National) in which I first saw the star of this, Jude Law.

It’s a tale of self-destructive passion. Gino is a drifter who wanders into the restaurant / bar of Joseph and his much younger wife Hannah and instantly falls for her. After initial hostility from Joseph, he repairs his car and water pump in exchange for his food and then moves on. He meets another drifter, Johnny, an odd scene which is a touch homoerotic, and the even younger Anita, but Joseph finds him and brings him back with an offer of lodging in exchange for jobs; I found this rather implausible – why would you put such tempation in front of your young wife? The relationship between Gino and Hannah gets ever more passionate and obsessive before they kill Joseph and begin the journey on the road to self-destruction.

This is my seventh van Hove production and I’m beginning to think he may be a master of recycling rather than reinvention. There are a lot of trick’s he’s played before, including sparseness in staging, video projections and a brooding soundtrack. It’s now clear he has a ‘house style’; it would be nice to see more diverse approaches. The pace was rather slow, though it did come alive in the steamy scenes, where projections are used to great effect, during struggles and when violent acts are committed. Different parts of the stage are used for different locations and you occasionally have to quickly work out where you are at that moment. The Barbican stage is vast and it does make you feel detached from it. I felt more like a voyeur, somewhat uninvolved in it.

It’s also the seventh time I’ve seen Jude Law on stage and he continues to impress, and there was great chemistry with his excellent co-star Halina Reijn. She and the other two Dutch actors shame us all with their fluent virtually accent-free English.

I’m glad I went, but it didn’t really live up to my expectations – good rather than great.

I’m not being perverse by reviewing the last night; as I was travelling for most of the run, it was the first chance I had to see it, and I’m glad I did.

Ryan Craig’s family drama takes us through fifteen years, from the late 60’s to the early 80’s. Widow Yetta Solomon is the matriarch of an East London Jewish family whose business is in ‘rubber goods’. Both her sons, Nat and Leo, are in the business, but they are forever fighting. Leo is intent on escape, but Yetta always has a trick up her sleeve to stop him. Leo’s son Micky doesn’t want to join the business, but Yetta draws him in and eventually he, and other grandson Gerard, are involved, fighting just like their dads. There are references to real events of the period, which was indeed a fascinating one.

Yetta is full of contradictions. She is benevolent to workers like Monty and Rosa, until they cross her. Everything she does is to keep the family together and the business alive, but we eventually learn just how manipulative she is and just how dirty her tricks have been. It’s a commanding performance by Sara Kestelman, owning the stage as she does her family and her staff. Louis Hillyer and Dorian Lough are very good as the bickering brothers, as are Callum Woodhouse, Jack Bannon and Callie Cooke as the next generation. Ashley Martin-Davies’ two-story set is full of period detail and you can almost smell the rubber. 

I really took against Craig’s 2009 play Our Class and wasn’t at all keen on his 2011 play The Holy Rosenbergs – https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/05/27/the-holy-rosenbergs and this one becomes a bit too melodramatic at times, with some of the twists and turns a touch contrived, but it’s a big improvement on his previous work.

A meaty play with a superb late career performance by Sara Kestleman at it’s core.

Junkyard

A musical about an adventure playground in a suburb of Bristol in the 70’s doesn’t sound that promising, but its written by master playwright Jack Thorne, the man behind the Harry Potter plays, and directed by a directorial master, Jeremy Herrin. Stephen Warbeck’s score is so unconventional, I’d prefer to call it a musical play – think London Road, but not sung dialogue – and it’s anarchic and playful, with a great big heart. I loved it.

It’s based on Thorne’s dad’s real life experience in the Bristol adventure play movement. Rick, who we’d today call a teaching assistant, tries to recruit young teens to build an adventure playground in a troubled part of town. He works in the local secondary school, he visits parents and he tries to engage the kids. It takes a long while, but he makes it and six kids work with him creating something wild and fun. Even the head teacher approves (it’s on school land formerly earmarked for a maths block). It gets burnt down by vandals, so they rebuild it and take turns guarding it, until one of them is attacked and their world comes tumbling down.

The score is made up of short songs and snatches, played by just three musicians, but they do help tell the story. The set is, well, an adventure playground. The characterisations are terrific, with theee adults playing adults, including Calum Callaghan as gentle, empathetic Rick and six adults playing the kids, with feisty, cheeky Fiz at the centre, played superbly by Erin Doherty (who also impressed in a very different role in Wish List at the Royal Court recently). Fiz’s sister Debbie isn’t involved with the playground; she’s been following in her mother’s footsteps sleeping around, and is now pregnant by one of them, with two of the playground boys candidates! Seyi Omooba follows her auspicious professional debut in Ragtime with another very different but equally impressive performance as tomboy Tilly. Josef Davies is great as the skinhead who isn’t as hard as he looks, as is Enyi Okoronkwo as timid Talc with a crush on Fiz.

Sometimes the accents and kidspeak means words are missed, and there’s a lot of bad language, but that adds to the realism and authenticity. I thought it was original, edgy and captivating. Only one more week to catch it in Kingston.

 

Whisper House

This show is written by Duncan Sheik, the man who gave us the ground-breaking musical Spring Awakening, a critical and commercial hit on Broadway, a critical hit but commercial flop in the West End (I should know, I lost a wardrobe full of shirts on it). This comes between that and his excellent musical adaptation of American Psycho at the Almeida Theatre. I therefore had high hopes for this.

Set on the East coast of the USA during the second world war, Lily continues the family tradition of running the lighthouse, a more significant role now that German U-boats are off the coast. Lily’s young nephew Christopher is sent to stay with her, something neither of them are happy with. Christopher is even less happy with the fact his aunt has a Japanese helper, Yasuhiro, as his dad was shot down by a Japanese plane, so he’s pleased when the local sheriff apprehends him in line with US government’s policy regarding nationals of Germany, Italy & Japan. The other two characters are ghosts, apparently of people who died through the negligence of Lily’s ancestors.

It’s a vey slight piece, with undistinguished music, that falls flat and goes nowhere. The best song comes after the curtain call, sung by the ghosts. I liked the way designer Andrew Riley has reconfigured the space and the staging, performances and onstage band were fine. It runs for just 80 minutes, plus a totally unnecessary interval, no doubt for the usual commercial reasons. I just didn’t engage with it at all, and I’m a bit puzzled as to why they’ve bothered to put it on. Oh, and there’s another of those programme notes about it resonating more post-Trump. Yawn…..

 

Nuclear War

Simon Stephens must be the most prolific playwright in the UK, or anywhere come to that. He’s had thirty-two plays produced, including five adaptations / translations, in just twenty years and I’ve seen about two-thirds of them. I haven’t always liked them, but I admire the ambition, diversity and creativity of his work, so I always come back for more. Given the stand-off in the North China Sea, the title suggests timeliness, though what the content has to do with the title is less clear.

It’s a collaboration with director Imogen Knight, better known as a choreographer / movement director. We sit on an assortment of chairs in two rows surrounding the actors, who themselves sit on a beige carpet (recycled from Cyprus Avenue, I suspect!). There are a few props – cupboards etc. – which get moved into and out of the space. The five actors have no character names. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of ‘movement’, but there’s also a lot of recorded dialogue and an atmospheric soundscape by Peter Rice. It appears to be a nightmare day for one woman, excellently played by Maureen Beattie, at home, on public transport, in a coffee shop etc., but beyond that I don’t really have a clue what’s it about or it’s connection to the title!

It has apparently been ‘created with a highly visual and physical language’ ‘with the intention that the words be interpreted and re-imagined through a highly theatrical and choreographic lens’. Well, I guess it does, and it kept my attention for it’s rather short 45-min running time It was intriguing and well executed, but it was only a fragment, I’m afraid, and an obtuse one at that.

 

The Braille Legacy

French writers Sebastien Lancrenon & Jean-Baptiste Saudray have decamped to more musicals friendly London to mount the world premiere of their first musical. They’ve got themselves a premiere league translator in Ranjit Bolt, the best off-West End director of musicals in Thom Southerland, and the support of the RNIB to tell the true story of the inventor of the Braille language. It has its flaws, somewhat ironically more to do with the production than the writing, but there’s a lot to like.

Louis Braille was a resident in an institution for blind youth where the benevolent director, Doctor Pignier, supported learning but the teacher didn’t (!). He started with a primitive embossed system, but then Captain Barbier de la Serre brought him the ‘night language’ which he developed for communication with his troops and Braille simplified it, initially against the wishes of the Captain, to create the language still used 170 years later. In addition to the opposition of the teacher, they had to deal with his collusion with a sinister eye research doctor and the National Assembly’s disapproval. Though both writers are experienced in music, it appears to be their first musical as such, which makes it an impressive achievement. I liked the score, book and lyrics, but it’s a chamber piece getting a big production, too big I thought. Director Thom Southerland doesn’t seem to have his usual team around him too (except choreographer Lee Proud) and I think this shows.

The stage is dominated by designer Tim Shorthall’s two-story minimalist metal structure which seemed incongruous for a show set in the 19th century. I wasn’t keen on Jonathan Lipman’s costuming either, the sighted all in black and the blind in white with black blindfolds. The look just didn’t feel right for the material. It’s over-orchestrated and over-amplified. It’s at its best when Jack Wolfe’s beautiful voice is allowed to shine with just piano or strings. It sometimes becomes shouty at moments when restraint would serve the material better. Towards the end, when the language is accepted and the doctor and teacher exposed, they switch to storytelling direct to the audience – I wasn’t sure about this at first, but warmed to the idea. It is a fascinating true story and it’s told well.

It’s a hugely impressive professional debut from Jack Wolfe as Braille, with excellent acting to match his terrific vocals.. The vocal standards are high elsewhere too and I liked Lottie Henshall as the Captain’s daughter Rose, Ceili O’Connor as the matron of the institute, Jason Broderick as Gabriel, who spars with Braille before he befriends him, and Ashley Stillburn as the teacher Dufau. The six children were all impressive.

I’d very much like to see it scaled down, but its well worth catching in its present form.

When I look back at my lifetime of theatre-going, one of the highlights will be seeing three great actresses, each ten years apart, play Martha – Diana Rigg, Kathleen Turner, and now Imelda Staunton. Edward Albee’s classic 1962 play is a mountain for any actor and its thrilling to watch them reach the summit. I left the theatre emotionally drained; I can’t even imagine what it takes out of them.

It’s 2am on a Sunday morning in September and George & Martha return to their New England home drunk from her ‘daddy’s’ faculty party. He’s the President of the college where George teaches history. A new teacher and his wife, Nick & Honey,  have been invited back and they follow on, arriving shortly after. The drinking continues in earnest as George and Martha fight, snipe, bicker and tear each other apart in front of their guests, playing the most extraordinary psychological games. Their guests get embroiled as the alcohol flows freely. Martha flirts with Peter, and more. Truth and illusion become blurred. Martha eventually breaks the rules, which brings on the endgame.

You’d be forgiven for thinking three hours of people fighting isn’t entertainment, but it’s a black comedy and a theatrical feast, so you’d be wrong. Though it’s impossible not to single out Imelda Staunton’s astonishing tour de force (is there anything this woman can’t do?) her three colleagues are all superb. Conleith Hill’s George makes a more restrained foil for her vitriolic outbursts. Luke Treadaway’s Nick goes from intensely uncomfortable to cool to predatory to angry. I didn’t know anything about Imogen Potts work (based on the programme bio, it may be her stage debut) but I was hugely impressed by her characterisation of Honey. Tom Pye has created a very realistic lived-in home and James Macdonald directs this roller-coaster brilliantly, with his usual forensic detail.

I still think it’s a 20th century classic, and this is a seminal production. You don’t see performances like this every day, every year come to that, and Imelda Staunton’s is a highlight in a lifetime of theatre-going. Unmissable.