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Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

Mechanical Thought’s immersive piece seeks to tell the story of the secret work at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. We arrive at the venue, posing as a radio factory, sign the official secrets act and are taken in three groups to one of the ‘huts’ to begin our work.

Britain was struggling because the German forces were communicating using cyphers, changed daily, making timely intelligence difficult. The Bletchley team, made up of brilliant people, recruited largely from universities, most mathematicians, built upon the Polish work in breaking this enigma code (something new to me). In Hut 6, under the guidance of Keith Batey, we learn how to break the code before we do so on a real message. Visits from and to the other two huts give us a glimpse of their activity, but we’re mostly in our own. Other aspects of the story are told mostly by the characters in our hut, all of whom were actually there at the time.

We learn that because they can’t talk about their work, some are mistaken, and intimidated, for being cowards. Relationships are not allowed, to avoid any infiltration and collusion, but the intensity of the time they spend together makes them more likely, and so it proves. The visit of a man from Whitehall brings distrust, and the knowledge that they have little encouragement from civil servants, having to fight for resources even though those higher up know full well the contribution they’re making. We all end up in one cramped room to hear the result of Whitehall’s investigation and the future of our characters, including Alan Turing of course.

It’s surprising how much you learn in two hours, in an environment which, based on my visit to Bletchley Park, seems authentic. A touch too much humour and flippancy risked that for me, but the biggest issue was the one you always get with immersive theatre – participants who are disengaged or even disruptive – and I’m afraid my group had some of those, but in fairness to the company, they were not encouraged and were difficult to handle.

This was my second visit to the Colab Factory in Borough, and I would certainly recommend this; hopefully you’ll get a better group than I did.

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This 1950 adaptation of Ibsen by Arthur Miller came midway between All My Sons & Death Of A Salesman and The Crucible & A View From A Bridge, an extraordinarily productive and successful eight years for Miller, fired up by the McCarthy trials. It’s rarely produced these days, so Phil Willmott’s revival at the Union Theatre is very welcome, and as it turns out very timely.

Miller didn’t change much, just gave it contemporary relevance 68 years later and Willmott has done the same another 68 years on. The small town of Kirsten Springs is in the process of building a spa resort. Town doctor Thomas Stockmann has been following up patterns of illness by having the water tested and he’s ready to go public, with the local newspaper on his side. It will delay and increase the cost of the project and when his sister the Mayor gets wind of it she points out how much damage it will do to the town and how much extra tax the people will have to cough up. The newspaper withdraws its support so Stockmann calls a public meeting, which is hijacked by the mayor and newspaper in cahoots. He becomes an enemy of the people, with consequences to his family’s safety, job loss, eviction and blackmail from the mayor, the newspaper and even his father-in-law, but not everyone can be bought.

It proves to be absolutely timeless, resonating in our current political climate where finding anyone with principles is like finding a needle in a haystack and where fake news rules. The production has great pace and passion. They even manage to make the public meeting rousing with just nine actors and some recorded crowd noise. It’s an excellent ensemble led by terrific performances from David Mildon as Stockman and Mary Stewart as his sister The Mayor. Willmott has breathed new life into it as he did to The Incident at Vichy two years ago. An absolute must for Miller fans and strongly recommended for anyone who likes gripping drama.

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This play is the second in a planned trilogy by Ishy Din about the male immigrant experience. For some reason I missed the well-received first part, Snookered, about Asian men born here, when it visited the Bush Theatre in 2012. This is about Asian men who came here, and I’m very glad I caught this one.

It’s set in Teeside in the days between Margaret Thatcher’s death and her state funeral in 2013. Raf and Mansha used to work in a factory making steel bridges. After it closed, Raf bought a minicab firm and Mansha runs it for him. Mansha’s son-in-law Sully is a driver, Raf’s son Shazad is working there during his University holidays and Raf has recruited Sameena, their first female driver, a feisty ex-con who Sully knows and likes but Mansha doesn’t trust.

Raf decides to sell up, but Mansa doesn’t like the sound of his new boss, so he puts together an offer by remortgaging, bringing in Sully with his recently deceased dad’s industrial disease compensation, but it isn’t enough – until Sameena becomes an unlikely third partner using her own inheritance. Raf demands cash and no paperwork, to avoid the taxman, and leaves them with the business books. Their enthusiasm wanes when the books are examined and they find out the truth about what they’ve bought. It goes from bad to worse when they discover who’s backing Sameena, and why. Friends and relatives are betrayed, generations clash and hands are forced.

The first half set-up was a bit slow, but the second half is terrific as it becomes a multi-layered, cleverly plotted piece that takes its hold on you, helped by six excellent performances and a realistic minicab office setting by Rosa Maggiora. A definite recommendation from me.

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I’ve had mixed experiences with playwright Che Walker’s earlier work, but I was positive about The Frontline and Klook’s Last Stand and this features Sheila Atim, also in Klook, who has wowed me thrice more and who has provided original music, so I booked as soon as it was announced. Though there are things to enjoy, I left the theatre somewhat befuddled.

It moves between 2016 and 2019, before and after Blaz’s period in prison. We meet his girlfriend Havana, his friend Karl, who may have betrayed him, and Seamus, the cop who caught him, a serial womaniser who has betrayed him in a very different way. Then there’s Havana’s friend Rosa and Serena the sex worker. There’s a nod to Othello, and the main theme is revenge, but there are a lot of unanswered questions, which leaves the story with a whole load of holes. Some of the dialogue is in Spanish and the setting is meant to be the Latino barrio of LA, but I couldn’t see the connection with the programme page on the Latin American gender-neutral term Latinx.

It’s all very film noir, somewhat Chandleresque, but with contemporary sensibilities, including a sexual frankness that occasionally made even me blush. Sheila Atim’s music is more of a soundscape, and a bit of a disappointment. It has a cinematic quality, helped by a screen the width of the theatre space on which stills and seemingly live video are projected. It has an atmospheric, sensual quality to it, but it didn’t deliver on the narrative front.

The performances are outstanding. Sheila Atim is as mesmerising as ever as Rosa, as is Gabriel Akuwudike as Blaz, and there are fine performances from Benjamin Cawley, Cary Crankson, Sasha Frost, and Jessica Ledon, visiting from LA, where the show was first staged. There were too many loose ends for me, though, in a show which was obtuse for its own good.

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Well, its the fag-end of the panto season, so a play about a panto dame seems perfectly timely, much more so than its first outing at the Edinburgh fringe. Katie Duncan has written this monologue for her father Peter and it’s the perfect vehicle for his talents and experiences.

Panto dame Roy returns to his dressing room after the performance, in a theatre somewhere in the north. He’s undressing and removing make-up, talking directly to the audience most of the time. As he does, he looks back at both his own life and that of his profession, talking about his heroes. the clown Grimaldi, Dan Leno and Charlie Chaplin. His mum died when he was a child and he was brought up and put on stage by his bullying dad. We hear tales of seaside entertainments as well as panto.

Duncan is probably best known for Blue Peter, but he started at the National, has a significant body of stage work and this is a virtuoso performance, expertly staged by Ian Talbot. It moves between funny, nostalgic and poignant, occasionally uncomfortable or embarrassing. It’s more of a fictional memoir than a play, but I admired the artistry, it kept my attention and it didn’t outstay its welcome at just 60 minutes.

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Cervantes was a contemporary of Shakespeare, starting as a playwright (without much success), making his name as a novelist with this, perhaps the first novel as such, certainly the first blockbuster. It’s been adapted many times as play, musical, opera, ballet and film and this is the 2016 stage adaptation for the RSC by James Fenton which has finally transferred to London with the same two leads.

It starts with Rufus Hound’s warm-up act talking directly to the audience, something he does very well, helped on the night I went by jokes at the expense of a sexual health worker in the front row and a woman who had recently been to Antwerp and The Hague! It takes a while before we meet the pompous, idealistic fantasist of the title, but it’s an enjoyably playful start which sets the tone of the evening.

From here it’s a succession of stops on the journey of Don Quixote as he seeks to return to the days of chivalry, of the Knights Errand, with his companion Sancho Panza, each a little story in itself. The novel is episodic, so its no surprise that its stage adaptation is just the same, which makes it more of an entertainment than a play, though quality entertainment as this the RSC after all. There’s much music, with nice songs by Fenton and Grant Olding, and the stage is designed to look just like The Swan.

I was as impressed by Rufus Hound in the musicals Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Wind in the Willows as I am here. He’s an expert at the comedy and is very likeable and engaging. David Threlfall makes an earnest Quixote and looks terrific. There’s an other-worldly quality to his interpretation and when the character is humiliated by some he meets, notably a Duke & Duchess, there’s a pathos which genuinely moves the audience. They make a superb double-act and are supported by a fine ensemble of sixteen.

I recently called the RSC’s Merry Wives TOWIE does panto, and this is a bit panto too, but Cervantes’ stories lend themselves more to the form than Shakespeare’s play does. Go expecting fun seasonal entertainment rather than a classic on stage and you’ll probably go home satisfied.

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This is a fine example of that rare species, the blue-collar play. Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning work does more to help you understand recent events in the US than any number of newspaper articles or TV documentaries, and it does so by focusing on the lives of just eight people in the industrial town of Reading PA.

Most of the scenes are set in Mike’s Bar in 2000 when America is going through things not unlike 80’s Britain. The NAFTA deal is seeing production move to Mexico, union power is waning, leading to much less generous contracts, which if declined result in cheaper temps, mostly hispanic, being hired. People are losing jobs and homes and addiction levels rise.

Three friends who work together on the shop floor of a local factory meet in the bar after work and on each other’s birthdays. Stan the barman used to work with them until he was injured. His Puerto Rican assistant Oscar aspires to a job there. African American Cynthia’s estranged husband Brucie has been on strike at another plant for a long time. She aspires to promotion and her son Chris, also in the plant, to escape through education. Widow Tracey and her son Jason and singleton Jessie are her friends and colleagues. Cynthia gets her promotion which gives her insight into the company’s plans. When all of their worlds begin to crumble, they turn on one another as well as the perpetrators of their plight, racism rears its ugly head, relationships disintegrate and tragedy ensues. Three scenes take us forward eight years to see how things work out. The ending packs a real emotional punch.

It’s a superbly written play, really well structured. The bar is towered over by an impressionistic factory in Frankie Bradshaw’s excellent design. The performances are as authentic as the writing, an absolutely stunning ensemble, with Martha Plimpton making a very welcome visit to these shores. It’s great to see Lynette Linton, a director the Donmar (and other theatres) have nurtured, get such a high profile gig, and she really rises to the occasion with a faultless staging, a great omen for her forthcoming role as Bush Theatre AD.

If you’re puzzled why people voted Trump or Brexit, this thoroughly researched, objective play will help you understand without lecturing, hectoring or preaching. It’s one of my three best new plays of 2018 (though I cheated a bit because it was my first of 2019). Go!

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