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Another play we were due to see two years ago, and one I was particularly looking forward to having enjoyed Beth Steel’s first three plays and even more of Anne Marie Duff’s performances, and boy was it worth the wait. An epic covering more than 50 years and 4 generations of the Webster family, together with much of the social history of the country since the mid-sixties.

We start in 1965 on the death of Constance’s father, when her mother comes to live with them. She and her husband Alistair have teenage twins Jack & Agnes and a younger daughter Laura. Alistair is a factory worker and shop steward. Constance is clearly unfulfilled, often in her own world of Bette Davies films and cabaret songs. Jack and Agnes look like following in their parents footsteps, both in terms of occupations and politics. Agnes is as feisty as her mum and Jack as passionate about politics as his dad. Laura seems to have learning difficulties, and its her fate which will hang over them all for decades to come.

We navigate the return of Labour in the 60’s, the winter of discontent, Thatcherism and the miners strike, New Labour and more recent times and events. Only Jack breaks out, with an extraordinary journey from communism to capitalism. As family members die, their neighbour comes to wash and lay them out, until that is no longer the custom; she’s like a narrator / chorus, commenting on changing times. Though it’s a linear story, characters return in ghostly flashbacks and it’s not until the end of the play that the pieces come together like the completion of a jigsaw. Blanche McIntyre’s direction is masterly.

The ensemble is outstanding, led by a superb performance from Anne-Marie Duff as Constance. She was in Sweet Charity at the Donmar before lockdown, so we knew she could hold a tune, and here she contributes a handful of songs in her dream life, but its the story of her family life which captivates. Some of the cast double up very effectively, notably Stuart McQuarrie as Alistair and the older Jack and Carol Macready as Constance’s mother Edith and the older Constance. There’s a lovely cameo from Beatie Edney as the neighbour.

I’ve lived through the whole of this period, a real life contemporary of Jack, and there is an authenticity about the play, with the exception of bad language in the home which you would never hear in the working class homes in my village at that time. It’s sometimes harrowing (there were tears behind us), but it’s a real theatrical feast and I left the theatre feeling deeply satisfied by a great drama superbly staged and performed. Unmissable.

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I don’t think there’s been a stage adaptation of this George Orwell novella in London for thirty-eight years, when Peter Hall put it on in the NT’s Cottesloe Theatre. That was in 1984 – spooky! Orwell’s novel 1984 was last adapted for the stage, very successfully, just eight years ago by Robert Icke at the Almeida and on tour. He’s also responsible for this equally successful page to stage transfer. In the annals of theatre, there is pre-War Horse and post-War Horse. We’re well into the latter epoch, so the key to this one’s success is Toby Olie’s extraordinary puppetry.

Orwell’s allegorical fable is said to be inspired by the Russian revolution, where the push for equality ultimately results in dictatorship, still the case there more than a century later. At Manor Farm the animals, led by one of the pigs, Napoleon, successfully usurp Farmer Jones in their quest for freedom, happiness and equality, with seven commandments outlining their objectives and governing principles. Power of course corrupts and the pigs break them one by one, until Napoleon reinvents himself as a clone of Jones. More animals die in the post-revolutionary days than ever did during it.

The entire ‘cast’ of horses, cows, pigs, goats, chickens, ducks and geese, together with dogs, cats and birds, populate the virtually bare stage, expertly handled by fourteen puppeteers, a few of which also take acting roles. It’s performed at great pace, aided by corrugated iron screens which move from side to side. Electronic displays signpost the scenes, notably the weekly meetings which go from democratic debate and voting to autocratic declarations, tell us how much time has passed and somewhat macabrely announce each loss of life.

Given the number of children and young adults in the audience, it must be a set school text (given the contemporary parallels, surely the present government will stop this soon?!). The speed of the storytelling holds the attention of those in the video & social media age. It drives home Orwell’s satirical points brilliantly, without any heavy-handedness, with occasional black humour, veering to chilling at times.

This is a high quality, accessible work that is likely to provide a positive introduction to live theatre for young people, as well as reminding us all of the fine line between democracy and dictatorship. The visit to Richmond is over, but it can still be seen in Wolverhampton and Bromley.

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Just six days before seeing this I was at a ‘mash-up’ of Greek tragedies with the Trojan War as their backdrop (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2022/05/07/age-of-rage). It was spectacular, with a cohesive narrative, even though it was in Dutch! If you’d read nothing about this latest Punchdrunk immersive show before you entered, you probably wouldn’t know it too was based on the Trojan Wars. It is also spectacular, but has no cohesive narrative, which proves to be its big, almost fatal, flaw.

I consider myself a Punchdrunk veteran, having seen seven of their previous shows in the last seventeen years, so I’ve got used to what to expect. With the exception of two small scale productions, their ‘trademarks’ are an extraordinary attention to detail in the ‘installations’, short scenes with dance & movement, and an atmospheric soundscape. You’re free to navigate them as you wish, almost all being non-linear. This new show used this template, using a ‘museum’ as a jumping off point. By the time I got through this I was feeling herded and irritated; not the right disposition to enter the mind-blowing art installation that contains the performance spaces.

On this occasion, I struggled to pick up the sort of detail that fascinates me, like intriguing book titles and written pages, as the lighting seemed lower and the masks, on top of face coverings, more prohibitive. The short scenes that pop up all over the place were always compelling, sometimes enthralling, with those in the huge two-level space spectacular. The trouble is it makes no sense, so it’s like a moving painting without a story to tell. Again, I find myself full of admiration for the creativity, workmanship, logistics and performance, but after three hours I left famished by the lack of narrative drive.

Preventing photos and videos was a great move forward; if only they could deal with the audience members who feel compelled to run between locations, presumably in case they miss a key moment, who damage the carefully curated atmosphere. Punchdrunk do need to change or develop the concept or content though if they are to continue to successfully evolve, otherwise they will lose the core audience they’ve done so much to nurture and end up just playing to spectacle junkies, the runners. There was a whiff of big business about it all, not just in the ticket prices, but in the whole thing, but I’m glad I went nonetheless.

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Welsh actor-writer Emlyn Williams wrote fifteen plays (including one adaptation) over a twenty year period between the mid 1930’s and 1950’s, many adapted into films. For some reason they are rarely revived; this is only the fourth produced in London during my forty or so theatre-going years here. I suspect this one could seem a bit stodgy more than eighty years on, but Dominic Cooke’s inventive production is very fresh, despite still being set in the same period.

Firstly, he brings the the playwright onto the stage from his 1930’s party, providing stage instructions, narrating and at one point changing the plot. Secondly, he adds a chorus of miners, a small group dressed like they’ve just completed their shift, who add a deeply emotional layer (well, for a Welshman at least) and tell you everything you need to know about the community in which the story is set. At first, without a set and just a few props, it’s a piece of storytelling, but it eventually transforms into a realistic room as if a painting was nearing completion, or indeed the production of a play evolving.

Miss Moffat is an English woman of means who chooses this community for her project to bring education to the working classes. There is resistance from the local squire, who scuppers her plans to turn a neighbouring barn into a school, but she recruits two locals to help her and sets up anyway on a smaller scale in a room in her rented home. Her pupils are young miners, one of whom stands out and he becomes a very specific and personal project, with the objective of getting him a scholarship to Oxford. By now, the squire has melted and the boy, Morgan Evans, becomes a beacon for advancement by the local community, who are now rooting for their boy. He makes it, but his plans are endangered by a ghost from his past. By now, though, Miss Moffat and her colleagues will do anything to ensure he makes the journey.

It’s clearly semi-autobiographical, a tribute to Williams’ own teacher and mentor Miss Cooke, which is partly why the inclusion of the writer, though initially uneasy, works well. The production draws you in to the point where you are rooting for Morgan too, virtually part of this community. I found it deeply moving at times, but that might be because I’m a miner’s son from the South Wales valleys, though if nothing else, the music will move anyone with a heart.

Nicola Walker is perfect as the emotionally controlled, even repressed, teacher, a contrast to the passion of Richard Lynch’s fellow teacher John Goronwy Jones, a lovely performance. Iwan Davies makes a superb professional stage debut as Morgan, capturing everyone’s heart. Gareth David-Lloyd (unrecognisable from his turn as Ianto in Torchwood – one of the few dead TV characters with a shrine, in Cardiff Bay!) is excellent as the 30’s society figure which Williams by then had become. There were a number of cast changes at the performance we saw, with two covers carrying their script, but this had no negative impact; if anything, given the production style, it seemed oddly appropriate. Will Stuart’s uplifting music makes more of a contribution than in any other production I can remember.

I’m probably biased, with shared heritage, albeit a few decades apart, but I loved both the play’s themes and this creative interpretation. The NT on great form.

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I’m fond of a bit of Greek tragedy, though at 3h45m this is more than a bit. It’s Ivo van Hove’s third mash-up, though the first two were Shakespeare – The Romans, which I missed, and English kings, which I saw. This combines seven plays, six by Euripides and one by Aeschylus, that take us from the sacrifice of Iphegene by her father Agamemnon to Elektra & Orestes’ revenge on their mother and her new lover for the murder of Agamemnon, their father. The decline of the House of Atreus, with the Trojan War as its backdrop.

It has the aesthetics of a rock concert, well heavy metal to be more precise, with an onstage band and the customary Greek chorus as dancers. At other times, there’s a percussive soundscape, again played live, with the cast sometimes joining in on makeshift instruments like buckets, and the scaffolding that covers the sides of the stage. The screen at the back presents us with family trees before we start and images, song lyrics and narrative during. Given the programme’s synopsis and character profiles, and the fact it’s in Dutch (with surtitles) I was expecting to be confused, but the linear narrative was very clear. The second half has a different feel, perhaps because it was first performed as Elektra/Oreste, but also because its performed in mud.

It’s both very physical and very visceral. The characters throw themselves around the stage in what seems like constant anger and rage. Revenge follows revenge in graphic scenes of torture and death. You don’t go to Greek tragedy for a fun night out! The attempts at finding contemporary parallels are subtle and valid. We do seem to be living in a new age of rage, challenging authority, the establishment and democracy itself. I was gripped by its theatricality throughout. It rarely lagged and I left the theatre as if I’d devoured a very satisfying feast.

I’ve seen many Greek tragedies in many locations and languages, from an entire weekend in a disused carpet factory in Bradford, in French, to intimate spaces where you can feel the actor’s breath in the air between you, though sadly never in Greece, and this is amongst the best. It was also my eleventh van Hove production, and I came to the conclusion that he’s at his best on such an epic scale.

Only two more performances at the Barbican Theatre. Unmissable.

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This transfer from the US has been hailed as a radical interpretation of Rogers & Hammerstein’s first show together, eighty years old next year. I saw the NT’s 1998 production and Chichester’s 2019 revival and even though these brought out the darkness, in comparison it is. It seems to me it was always a play with music rather than a musical as such and that’s certainly what we have here.

Chief amongst the reinventions is new orchestration and instrumentation featuring banjo, mandolin, pedal steel guitar, fiddle and accordion, creating a wholly appropriate Americana sound. It’s scaled down for an eight-piece band (plus actor-musician Arthur Darvill) in an onstage pit, and a cast of twelve. It’s more tense, such as in the wedding scene, funnier (just about any scene featuring lovable but dim Will), and above all sexier. When it’s rousing, notably the title number, it’s very rousing. The auditorium looks great, covered in light wood panelling with one wall a sort of sepia landscape mural and gun racks containing 72 guns on the other walls. The playing area is surrounded by party tables at which audience members sit opposite cast members. There are decorations, and later lights, above.

It has its problems, though. The first half lacks pace, two scenes in complete darkness – encounters between Curly & Jud and between Laurey & Jud – are baffling, Laurey’s dream sequence has been moved to open the second half and she’s replaced by a dancer doing freeform to the shows tunes in the style of Jimi Hendrix (this didn’t really work for me) and I found the new ending, at the wedding, before the trial, problematic. That said, the positive innovations outweigh the negatives.

One of the production’s big strengths is excellent casting. Darvill is a bit of a revelation as Curly, with good vocals and a cowboy swagger. Patrick Vaill is a charismatic, brooding presence as Jud. Anoushhka Lucas is terrific as Laurey, with a beautiful voice which does full justice to her songs. Lisa Sadovy has crossed the Thames from her Olivier Award winning performance in Cabaret to give us a fine Aunt Eller. There’s excellent support in the sub-plots, notably Marisha Wallace as Ado Annie, who first wowed me as an ‘alternate’ lead in Dreamgirls and went on to impress in Waitress & the Hairspray revival, James Davis as Will, Stavros Demetraki as Ali and Rebekah Hinds as Gertie, whose laugh is a solo performance in itself.

Despite my misgivings, I admire them for taking such a fresh look and I enjoyed enough of the reinvention to make the visit more than worthwhile. Musicals purists, like those next to us who left at the interval, might not agree, though. Make your own mind up.

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The Donmar’s last production, Henry V, a play about one sovereign nation invading another based on a dubious historical premise, opened as a sovereign nation invaded another based on a dubious historical premise. It’s current production is Jackie Sibblies Dury’s play, ostensibly about the 19th century Jamaican nurse famous for her nursing during the Crimean War, against the Russians. Timeliness indeed.

I say ostensibly as it’s not a biography of Seacole, but uses her as a symbolic representation of how black nurses, or rather black people in general, have been used for centuries. As the character of her mother says in the final part ‘they need us, but they don’t want us’. I think the reason for the plural Mary’s is that in addition to THE Mary Seacole, who we encounter in Jamaica as well as the US, England & Crimea, we also meet what appear to be contemporary carers, her ‘descendants’, and the attitudes of those they serve.

Based on this, and her play Fairview which we saw here in 2019 (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2019/12/06/fairview), I think she’s too fond of shock & surprise, and too focused on structure & form over content, to be a great storyteller. That said, this is a lot less heavy-handed than Fairview, thereby more successful in making it’s point, in my view. The six actors, most of which play multiple roles, serve the play well, including a fine leading performance from Kayla Meikle.

It seems to me that it falls between two stools, a biography of Mary Seacole and a statement on black lives matter, but neither has quite enough substance.

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This was my first visit to the late 19th century Coronet Theatre in Notting Hill since it was returned to its original use as a theatre, a brilliant restoration creating a very cool Off West End venue with foyer, bar and corridors filled with period furniture and objet d’art. For this production, the auditorium is made up of part of the stalls and the proscenium stage and the performing area is covered with carpets and traditional gamelan instruments.

The stage adaptation of the middle part of Samuel Beckett’s novel starts with the Irish Gamelan Orchestra, with the Indonesian percussion instruments supplemented by woodwind, violin and beautiful vocals. They leave the stage one by one, as they had arrived, and we encounter Pim, one of the two characters who in Part 1 had been buried in mud surrounded by cans and a can opener. His monologue is followed by one from the novel’s other character. At this point I was congratulating myself on my decision to come, and regretting missing Part 1 in 2018.

As with other Beckett works, it’s the poetry and music of the words more than their literal meaning, so it’s repetitive and obtuse but compelling. Unlike other Beckett works, this one goes on, and on, and on…..for 2h 30m with just three short contributions from the musicians making up 20% of that time. It outstayed its welcome by a long margin I’m afraid, and I was left wondering why you would stage a novel while there are a lot of plays, all more succinct and intended by Beckett for the stage.

Quite how Stephen Dillane and Connor Lovett remember it all is beyond me, though if they misremembered I’m not sure anyone would notice. Judy Hegarty Lovett directs and designs for Gare St. Lazare Ireland, using the space well. Mel Mercer’s music is one of the best things about it. Sadly, it was a case of more is less, and my initial enthusiasm waned and I left the theatre disappointed. If it lost a Beckett fan like me, it’s likely to deter a Beckett virgin or novice for life.

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It takes a lot of bravery to make your stage debut in a 105 minute one-person play on a West End stage, but Jodie Comer manages to exceed expectations. It’s a very good play and an excellent production too, so its not just a star vehicle.

Tessa is a young criminal law barrister who specialises in defence, in particular sexual harassment cases. In the first part she shows us her craft, developing strategies and arguments, grilling witnesses, doing her job. Important flashbacks to her law studies at Cambridge and visits home to Liverpool gives us her background; a bright Liverpudlian working class girl who’s excelling in a world of posh boys.

Then the tables turn and she’s a victim. We follow her experience from police investigation through an extraordinary wait for trial to the trial itself, where roles are reversed and she’s on the witness stand. Then playwright Suzie Miller takes a big risk and ends in campaigning mode, but by now we’re heavily invested in both the character and the inadequacies of the justice system, so it proves to be an impassioned ending.

Miriam Buether’s giant set, shelves full of legal tomes rising out of sight, doesn’t dwarf the actress, it gives her the space she needs to animate the story. Rebecca Lucy Taylor’s music, Ben & Max Ringham’s sound design and Natasha Chivers lighting invest the show with atmosphere, increasing the tension. I much admired how director Justin Martin combined these components to provide a truly riveting experience which held you throughout.

In more than forty years of theatre-going, i have never seen a more impressive stage debut. Jodie Comer’s fast delivery, piercing audience contact and physical prowess take your breathe away. Her transitions from predatory lawyer to injured victim to passionate campaigner are extraordinary. She is so mesmerising you can’t take your eyes off her.

A great night in the theatre.

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This is a well deserved transfer from the New Diorama Theatre, regularly punching above it’s weight theses days. Ryan Calais Cameron’s highly original and emotionally raw piece tells you so much in two hours about what it’s like to grow up as a black boy in Britain today. He also directs a crack cast of six very talented actors.

The stories of their experiences start aged six and continue through everything life throws at them, sometimes with different perspectives on the same things. Stop and search, absent or abusive fathers, racism, gangs…..but also the flaws of some in their community, notably a lack of respect for women. Their heritage is sometimes a sense of pride but at others a millstone around their neck. It’s extraordinarily visceral, at times tender and moving, at times frustrated and angry.

The staging combines a lot of movement, brilliantly directed by Theophilus O. Bailey-Godson, music and humour, which gives the more serious, moving parts more impact. The ultra bright design (Anna Reid) and lighting (Rory Beaton) use primary colours which change moods as it changes visually. The six actors – Mark Akintimehin, Emmanuel Akwafo, Nnabiko Ejimofor, Darragh Hand, Kaine Lawrence & Aruna Jalloh – all give virtuoso performances.

It’s rare you learn so much about the lives of others, riding an emotional roller-coaster with them. The young, diverse audience were mesmerised. Thrilling stuff.

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