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Death of England

No other art form could tell this story so well. It would have nowhere near the same impact on screen, big or small, or on the page. Clint Dyer & Roy Williams’ one-man monologue takes you hostage at close quarters, and Rafe Spall inhabits his character Michael in a towering performance of energy, passion and playfulness.

Michael is a lovable Londoner. He loves his mum, but worships his dad, who has a flower stall in the market. He’s a bit contemptuous of his sister. His best friend Delroy is black. Football is his game and the family team are Leyton Orient – and England, obviously. These are open, warm-hearted people, salt of the earth. We see the best of them. Then they are confronted by a political choice and a resurgent England head for the World Cup and for some patriotism becomes nationalism and racism and we see the worst of them.

Rafe Spall prowls the cross-shaped platforms, with almost every member of the audience in touching distance, making eye contact with virtually all of them. There’s no set as such, but the design team cleverly integrate the enclosed space with lighting and sound, with objects left all over the auditorium that Michael uses to illustrate his story. His character engages with us, banters, cheekily. It’s funny and charming, until Michael has a meltdown at a funeral when it becomes angry and passionate and incredibly powerful. These people have been used by other more powerful people, which has made some of them ugly.

I’ve long admired Roy Williams’ writing and here, with co-writer Clint Dyer, his ear for natural dialogue shines once more. Dyer directs too, and his visceral staging, and Spall’s extraordinary performance, create this testosterone-fuelled world, bringing alive the unseen characters and propelling the personal story and its socio-political parallels. I was enthralled and captivated for 100 minutes.

It was a co-incidence that I had returned to see Mike Bartlett’s Albion the night before and I was struck by how much they seemed like companion pieces. Michael and Albion’s Audrey couldn’t be more different, but they are affected and infected by the same thing. Two state of the nation plays, poles apart but resonating in the same world. Theatre doing what it does best, putting up a mirror to help us see and understand the world in which we live.

Absolutely unmissable.

Far Away

Playwrights often produce minimalist work later in their career – Beckett & Pinter, to name but two – and I sometimes wonder whether its because they’ve learnt to make their point more succinctly, or if it’s a drying up posing as profundity. This Caryl Churchill miniature was first staged nineteen years ago Upstairs at the Royal Court. She’s still writing; last year she gave us four short plays Downstairs at the Royal Court, a satisfying though not exactly profound evening.

There’s no denying the dramatic impact of this 40-minute piece, superbly designed by Lizzie Clachan and deftly directed by Lyndsey Turner. In a series of short scenes we move between a country home and a hat-making business. We know they are some fifteen years apart because Joan is a child in one and an adult in the other. As a child she witnesses strange nighttime goings on outside the home where she is staying with her aunt and uncle. He appears to be involved in torture and death. Adult Joan is a novice milliner, making elaborate hats for parades. In one short, chilling scene we witness a grotesque ‘parade’ of people wearing these hats. Finally, adult Joan is back at the farm reporting on even stranger events happening in this dystopian world. Fear is the word.

It’s brilliantly staged and the performances are excellent, particularly from the actress playing young Joan, but for me the play is too obtuse for it’s own good, and at £1 a minute I left the theatre feeling cheated, both theatrically and financially. I’m afraid the cynic in me favoured the drying up theory tonight. They should have paired it with another Churchill miniature – there are enough of them to choose from – or reduced their usual seat prices to reflect the significantly lower value – as it is, it represents about the same VFM as Londons most expensive shows. Think Hamilton.

It looks like the Bridge Theatre will be pulling the same stunt on me next week when another minimalist Churchill play gets a revival. I’d better wear my ‘I’m A Mug’ t-shirt.

The Welkin

After contemporary works about China – US relations, a nuclear incident and a sibling relationship as experimental physics, playwright Lucy Kirkwood has turned her hand to something set 260 years ago, women’s place in society at that time, in particular the legal and political worlds. I thought it was a fascinating play, with a superb ensemble of fine actors and a stunning design by Bunny Christie.

We start by briefly watching these women carrying out their daily chores, underlining their limited roles in the world. After a crime is committed and a young girl, Sally Poppy, arrested and tried, a ‘jury of matrons’ is formed to establish if she is pregnant, as she says she is. If she is, her execution will be postponed or she may be transported instead. The jury of matrons for this specific purpose provides the only role women can have in legal affairs at the time; they cannot be jurors who convict.

The final person to join this group of twelve women is midwife Elizabeth Luke, who is sympathetic to Sally. She proves Sally is pregnant, but not all of the others will accept this. As their deliberations progress, conflicts of interest and prejudices emerge. They are offered a (male) doctor to examine Sally and they accept this, but even this doesn’t break the impasse. It twists and turns in ways that surprise you and when they do reach a conclusion, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be implemented.

Bunny Christie has created a brilliant design whose jury room fills the Lyttleton stage, beautifully lit by Lee Curran, with Carolyn Downing’s sound design letting us know there’s an angry lynch mob just outside. The costumes establish the period and the accents the location as East Anglia. The ensemble, led by Maxine Peake in the best role I’ve seen her in, contains fine actors like Cecilia Noble, June Watson, Jenny Galloway and Haydn Gwynne. Ria Zmitrowicz is superb as feisty Poppy. James Macdonald’s staging is masterly.

Good to see another Lucy Kirkwood play, a bit of a departure, of a fascinating subject I’m not sure anyone has tackled before.

 

Leopoldstadt

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a big cast in a West End theatre – thirty-one actors playing thirty-five characters over fifty-six years – which, added to the fact its a new Tom Stoppard play, a partly autobiographical one too, makes this a highly anticipated major theatrical event.

We start in 1899 Vienna, Christmas with three generations of the Jewish Merz and Jakobovicz families. This city at the turn of the century is an intellectual and artistic powerhouse and names we know are dropped with abandon – Freud, Mahler and Klimt to name but three. Though it is clearly important to what follows to introduce the characters and set the scene, by the interval it seemed to me to be a bit of an inconsequential family saga, albeit beautifully staged and performed.

When we return after the interval 24 years have passed, another generation have been born, and it becomes somewhat farcical, mostly revolving around the circumcision of one of the newcomers – Carry on Foreskin! We soon jump forward another 12 years, the doorbell rings and we realise we’ve been lulled into a false sense of security as it becomes positively chilling. It’s 1938 and the Nazi’s have come to call. The play ends in 1955 at a reunion of what’s left of the family, now in three countries on two continents, and we learn the fate of the rest in a deeply moving ending.

Though I see the necessity of the scene-setting and the point of the changes in tone, it is a bit imbalanced, with that whole hour in 1899 in particular. I think it would have been a better play if they shortened this and placed the interval between 1924 and 1938. That said, there’s much to enjoy in Patrick Marber’s staging, with a fine ensemble, too many to mention, and much to help understand the profound impact the events of this period had on just one family. I feel it will probably resonate even more, and differently, with people of shared heritage. A major theatrical event nonetheless.

MT Fest UK 2020

The programme for this caught my imagination this year, so I booked for six of the eight showcases of new musicals at the Turbine Theatre. The first was cancelled, so I ended up seeing five. Each was around an hour long, with no set but some costumes and props.

I started with Jet Set Go!, not exactly new, a reworking of an eleven year old Edinburgh fringe show by Pippa Cleary & Jake Brunger, who went on to give us a superb adaptation of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole which I saw in Leicester, the Menier & the West End. It’s a very funny piece set on a transatlantic flight (and during their stopover in NYC) exploring the lives of the crew. Great fun, with a brilliant cast, in which Lizzy Connolly and Samantha Thomas shone with show-stopping comedy numbers.

The Assassination of Katie Hopkins wasn’t new either, having had a full production at Theatre Clwyd in 2018. I’m not sure this unstaged one hour version did it full justice, but the originality of the score and the suitability of the subject matter to the form left me wanting to see a full production. MD Mark Dickman did a fine job playing Mark Winkworth’s score on solo piano and the cast of six delivered Chris Bush’s lyrics with relish.

The festival hit a high note with veteran musical theatre partnership Stiles & Drew’s new musical adaptation of the film Soapdish, whose writer, Robert Harding, also responsible for the show’s book, made the transatlantic journey to be part of it. The premiere league cast included Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford, who squeezed every ounce of comedy from this hilarious piece about a soap star and her nemesis. It was great to see Alice Croft and Nic Myers, Arts Ed students who wowed me there in Freaky Friday last month, in this exceptional cast. I can’t wait to see a full production.

Another established writer, Jason Carr, better known as an orchestrator, arranger and accompanist, was responsible, with Poppy Burton-Morgan, for the fourth offering, Coldfront. This is a very different, original two-hander set on a park bench where an unlikely relationship unfolds. The songs were nice, but there was a little too much sung dialogue and the performances weren’t well matched, though it was good to see Anna Francolini again.

The final showcase wasn’t new either, the third iteration over 12 years of Craig Christie’s Eurobeat, a satire / homage to that contest. They weren’t able to camp it up as much as it needed, with no set and few costumes, though Daniel Jacob was excellent as the glittery drag host Marlene Cabana. The four entries – Spain, Ukraine, Norway and Vatican City (!) – were very good, but there were only four, plus one for the compere.

For some reason, I was expecting brand new shows as work-in-progress from people new to musical theatre, so with only two out of four shows not produced before and those from established writers, one which had been workshopped twice before, it didn’t really fulfil my expectations, though I didn’t dislike any of them, the performances were excellent and I had a lot of fun.

Nora: A Doll’s House

This is billed as ‘a radical new version of Henrik Ibsen’s play’, so radical that it has three settings 150 years apart and three of each of five characters (children are offstage and the former nanny, maid and porter are dispensed with). I sometimes don’t like versions that steer a long way from the original, but this is very clever and I liked it a lot. Somewhat ironically, my female companion didn’t agree.

It’s played out in three parallel periods – 1918, at the end of the war as women vote for the first time; 1968, when contraception and abortion bring huge societal change, and 2018, when #metoo brings a new wave of feminism to the world. There’s a Nora in each period, the actress doubling up as her friend Christine in another period. The other three characters are husband Thomas (Torvald), Christine’s old flame and Nora’s nemesis Nathan (Nils) and Thomas’ friend Daniel (Rank), three of each. Despite this, I thought it was surprisingly faithful to the original.

The play interweaves the periods, with the story moving forward within them rather than repeating, and it’s deftly done. The deception that Nora has made in order to protect her family comes back to haunt her, Nathan using it to protect himself and his job. Christine’s history with Nathan and Daniel’s illness are both introduced, and every character’s behaviour and attitudes reflect the period, though nothing really changes, which is playwright Stef Smith’s point. I’m not sure she needed the Noras’ summary direct to the audience at the end to underline it, though.

It must be very hard to switch character and period as you turn your body and / or put on a scarf, but Anna Russell-Martin, Natalie Klamar and Amaka Okafor do it seamlessly. The men just have to change period (!), but this too is well handled by Luke Norris as Thomas, Mark Arends as Nathan and Zephryn Taitte as Daniel. Clothes, chairs and doorways are the only signposts of a change in period in Tom Piper’s pleasing impressionistic design, with Lee Curran’s lighting and Michael John McCarthy’s soundscape adding much atmosphere. Elizabeth Freestone’s staging makes the complex structure perfectly lucid.

I admired it for it’s cleverness and skilled execution and felt it was true to the spirit of Ibsen’s original. I’ll be fascinated to see whether others will be with me or my companion!

I’m fond of a bit of Beckett, something to fire your imagination and stretch your brain. I enjoy my regular trips to the Old Vic Theatre, one of London’s truly great theatre spaces. Director Richard Jones has long been a favourite, though he’s done more opera of late. I’ve much admired how Daniel Radcliffe has managed his post-Potter stage career and liked the three performances I’d seen before this – Equus, The Cripple of Inishmaan and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Yet I left the Old Vic disappointed.

The double-bill opens with Rough For Theatre II, a rarely performed and arguably unfinished 25-minute piece where two suited men are at desks in a room where a man is standing on the window ledge poised to commit suicide. B (Alan Cumming) reads about his life from files, as if they are justifying or judging whether the act should proceed. A (Radcliffe) comments, smirks, appears to be in charge. They have come from other suicides and will continue to more. It’s intriguing, if slight, but my biggest problem with it was the contrast between A and B, or Radcliffe and Cumming, I’m not sure which. The difference between them didn’t really make sense to me.

The main event, Endgame, isn’t a long play, but it is three times the length of the curtain-raiser, and at 75 minutes outstayed its welcome; I hadn’t felt that on the two previous occasions I’d seen it. Hamm (Cumming) is confined to a chair, waited on by his servant Clov (Radcliffe). They have a seemingly endless repetitive ritual that involves Clov climbing ladders to look out of the high windows and commenting on the world outside and fetching and carrying for Hamm. Their relationship is brittle, Hamm waiting to die, Clov waiting to be free. Hamm’s parents occasionally make an appearance, popping up from their place in adjacent dustbins. Radcliffe brings an expert physicality to his role, but his youth seemed at odds with the character.

Despite both being end-of-life plays, to me they didn’t belong together, and the theatre was too big for both. I liked Cumming’s two characterisations and the casting of Karl Johnson and Jane Horrocks was luxurious indeed. On the three previous occasions, I felt Radcliffe had chosen roles that suited him, but here they don’t, which does slightly derail his otherwise impressive short stage career.

This was my second Beckett this year and I’m afraid the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre, home of the first, upstaged the Old Vic.