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Cruise

I’m known for my aversion to monologues, but when I relent I rarely regret it, as is the case with this, though in all fairness it feels nothing like a monologue as it’s so animated and energetic, with an onstage musician / DJ.

Jack Holden’s play sees him as performer Jack manning an LGBTQ helpline. He’s new there and he introduces us to his colleagues and the Soho community, and tells us about his background, how he got there. On a shift alone, he gets a call from Michael and the balance of the play, except for a few brief returns to the switchboard, takes us into Michael’s life in the 80’s, when he and his partner are diagnosed with HIV and told their life expectancy is a maximum of four years.

Michael’s story becomes a microcosm of Soho during Aids as he propels himself around every conceivable location, introducing us to the area’s characters as well as telling us about his life. His partner dies, but he survives. It’s done with extraordinary pace and energy, as Holden climbs over Nik Corrall’s impressionistic set, with onstage musician / DJ John Patrick Elliott providing a soundtrack and soundscape, with Jack singing occasionally, evocative of the location and era. It’s spellbinding and mesmerising and holds you in its grip for 100 unbroken minutes.

Holden’s performance is a real tour de force, worth a visit for that alone, but the whole experience immerses you in the story, like the entire series of It’s A Sin played by one man, packing just as much of an emotional punch, looking back at the period and events from the time of another pandemic thirty-five years on.

A captivating show, brilliantly staged by Bronagh Lagan, which had me re-evaluating my prejudice against one person shows, again! Gold stars in abundance to Aria Entertainment for bringing this into the West End, twice.

I really missed Edinburgh this year, regretting my decision not to go, and this was one of the main festival shows I would have seen had it been on whilst I was there (together with Ivo van Hove’s adaptation of A Little Life). The latter went straight home to The Netherlands, but this stopped over in Birmingham en route back to Australia, so I made an impulsive day trip from London, which proved to be another great idea. It seemed particularly appropriate that it was part of the arts accompanying the Commonwealth Games.

S. Shakthidharan’s play, an extraordinary debut, is an epic tale of a Sri Lankan family and the events which led to some of them emigrating to Australia. A family story interwoven with the political turmoil of their home country in the 1970’s and 80’s. We first meet Radha and her nineteen-year-old son Siddhartha in Sydney in 2004. He’s away at University, with an indigenous Australian girlfriend, and she’s empty nesting across the city. Radha’s mother, the first of the family to emigrate there, has died and they conduct a ritual to accompany her ashes into Sydney harbour.

From here we flash back to Radha’s birth in Sri Lanka in the 1950’s, and forward to her late teens when she marries and becomes pregnant with Sid. Her father is a senior Tamil politician at a time when changes, notably moving from three official languages (Sinhala, Tamil & English) to one, just Sinhala, threaten the security situation. It leads to a division in the country, provoked by the new government it seems, resulting in a Tamil community enclave in the north centred on Jaffna. This is 1983, Radha’s husband disappears, presumed dead, and she obtains a rare and precious visa and emigrates to Australia. I visited Sri Lanka shortly after this, when tourism returned to the island, and remember vividly the aftermath.

It’s playing time of over three hours feels a lot less as it moves swiftly from scene to scene, with inventive staging and onstage musicians propelling the story and defining the time and locations, marked by signposts above and behind the playing area. Multiple languages are used without surtitles, with other actors translating or explaining when necessary. Eamon Flack’s staging – he is also associate writer, with the playwright also associate director – flows beautifully, draws you in quickly and never lets you go. There are over twenty performers from six countries, led by Nadie Kammallawera as older Radha, Shiv Palekar as Sid and Vaishnavi Suryaprakash as younger Radha; the performances are uniformly excellent.

I’ve seen other work by Belvoir theatre company, one of Australia’s finest, including at their home base in Sydney seven years ago. I’m really glad I made this journey to see them again. Plays like this are few and far between.

Mad House

I’m not sure why I initially decided not to see this. Much of the hype revolved around Stranger Things actor David Harbour, and I’ve never seen that show. Bill Pullman had impressed me in All My Sons at the Old Vic, but that didn’t clinch it, neither did the positive reviews. Then I had a change of heart in its penultimate week with free evenings to fill, and I’m lucky I did. Late to the party, but I got there before it ended.

It’s a very dark comedy about madness and death. 70-year-old Daniel has emphysema. His son Michael has been looking after him since his own discharge from an ‘asylum’ after his mother had died of cancer. Struggling to cope, hospice nurse Lillian is appointed. She has to put up with cantankerous Daniel and needy Michael, but does so with skill and empathy. Then successful brother Nedward arrives to try and sort out Daniel’s financial affairs, closely followed by obnoxious sister Pam, determined to get more than her fair share, even if it means shafting Michael. Neither sibling have been near until now, so Michael is very much the put upon brother.

Lots of family history is revealed, and plenty of skeletons come out of cupboards. Michael’s ongoing mental health is questioned. He learns some of what happened whilst he was in hospital. Litigious Pam turns against Lillian as well as Michael. Nedward tries to keep the peace. Daniel stirs things up, for his own entertainment it seems. When Daniel dies, Michael leaves, at last, liberated, leaving what’s left of his dysfunctional family behind.

Theresa Rebeck’s piece is well written and well structured, new facts continuously emerging to illuminate the family history, with excellent characterisation. Bill Pullman is sensationally good as Daniel, with a wicked glint in his eye virtually the whole time. Michael is a real emotional roller-coaster of a role and David Harbour is passionate bringing this larger-than-life character alive. Lillian is the only truly likeable character and Akiya Henry conveys her caring nature, investing her with bucketloads of empathy. Pam is a monster who you hate from the moment she arrives, a tribute to Sinead Matthews. It’s a while since I saw Stephen Wight on stage and it’s good to be reminded of his talent for understated charm. Here, he develops warmth as his sympathy with his brother grows.

The Ambassadors Theatre is a small enough venue to give the play the intimacy it requires. Frankie Bradshaw’s uber-realistic set surprises us by moving outside as the story unfolds. Director Moritz Von Stuelpnagel’s staging brings this all together to deliver the drama and humour in equal measure.

The Trials

When I booked to see this months ago, I didn’t know I would spend the preceding few days raging against the pollution of water companies facilitated by 265 MP’s voting to allow raw sewage into our rivers and sea. Dawn King’s play was preaching to the converted.

The trials in question take place in the future, after pollution has got even more out of control and become unsustainable. Having tried governments and corporations, the younger generation now form juries to try individuals who have exceeded their personal carbon limit. We hear the testimonies of three of them, and the jurors deliberations and decisions. The testimonies are impassioned, desperate, the deliberations more emotional than objective, reflecting the immaturity of the jurors or the determination for revenge in some cases.

In focusing on personal responsibility, mentioning the culpability of governments and corporation only in passing, it lets them off the hook, as it does younger generations, which are hardly blameless given their rampant consumerism, said the ‘dinosaur’! Nevertheless, it presents crucial issues and Natalie Abrahami’s production grips throughout. The three on trial are played by Nigel Lindsay, Lucy Cohu & Sharon Small, all excellent. The twelve young actors who the Donmar call ‘the next generation of talent’ are all outstanding.

Well deserving of its place on the Donmar stage, worthy of a longer run.

I have a great affection for Lee Hall & Elton John’s show, based on Hall and Stephen Daldry’s 2000 film. I come from a mining village in South Wales and the show perfectly portrays the sense of community of such places at that time, Thatcher & Scargill’s war at their expense and the hope that Billy represents. I’ve lost track of the number of times I saw it during its 11 year run in the West End, but I was still greatly anticipating this first revival just six years after it left London.

It’s set in the North-East coalfields, in Easington, County Durham. The backdrop, of course, is the 1984-85 miner’s strike and Billy’s widowed dad and elder brother are in the thick of it. Billy ends up in a dance class by mistake, heading home after his boxing class, where Mrs Wilkinson sees promise and persuades him to return. When the family find out, they are horrified he’s taken up ‘something for girls’, and the Royal Ballet audition in Newcastle Mrs Wilkinson has set up has to be aborted. They eventually realise how much it means to Billy and a whip round funds a last chance trip to London. He’s accepted, but as he leaves the strike collapses and Billy becomes a glimmer of hope set against the inevitable mine closures and demise of the community. A brilliant meeting of social history and personal story.

The highly effective design by Michael Taylor (set) and Ben Cracknell (lighting) consists of some wire mesh screens and lighting rigs which move speedily and dramatically with the action, with just a few props to create Billy’s home, the boxing and dance class rooms and the pit-head. Simple but brilliant. Director Nikolai Foster has made a few changes and cuts, but if anything the show has more emotional impact. I cried more than I did in any of my London visits. George Dyer’s band give it more of a rock concert aesthetic.

Joe Caffrey reprises his role as Billy’s dad from the original production, though he grew up with it, starting as brother Tony, played here by Luke Baker. They are very lucky to have Sally Ann Triplett as Mrs Wilkinson, a wonderful performance, and Rachel Izen as Grandma and Jessica Daley as Billy’s (dead) mum both melt your heart. There are four kids alternating the three child leads. We had Leo Hollingsworth as Billy and Bobby Donald as Michael, both absolutely terrific, both in their stage debuts.

Though the social backdrop and Billy’s personal story are sad, the show is an uplifting joy. It’s a great tribute to the quality of our regional theatres and to local talent in the East Midlands. Now in its last week. Get to Leicester if you can.

Patriots

This is only Peter Morgan’s third play, but like the other two it’s brilliant. He’s best known for The Crown, films like The Queen and TV features like The Deal. He’s a master of true life dramas based on facts with varying degrees of speculation. This examination of Russia from 1991 to 2013 is new ground, but still masterly.

The protagonist is Boris Berezovsky, once a brilliant mathematician, a child prodigy, who moved into business and politics as the USSR broke up and Yeltsin became President of Russia. He was one of the oligarchs who cleaned up as Yeltsin proceeded to sell / give away his country’s assets, but more importantly he was the krysha (advocate, godfather) of two men who went on to very much bigger things – Abramovitch and Putin. He’s a business mentor to the former, with a verbal agreement that would give him a significant slice of the profits as his businesses grew. To Putin he’s a kingmaker, as he moved from relative obscurity as Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg to become head of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, before Berezovsky persuaded him to become Yeltsin’s Prime Minister, and in no time he succeeds Yeltsin as President.

He was a very clever man who had studied decision-making theory and put it into action. He bought the state TV channel as well as becoming krysha to these two men. His power and success of course relied on their loyalty, but both eventually deserted him, Abramovitch after he’d outlived his usefulness and Putin as part of his plan to clean up corruption, put the oligarchs in their place and cement his position of absolute power, and as we now know get his own slice of the action. The final straw for Putin may have been his humiliation on Berezovsky’s TV channel over the Kursk submarine fiasco.

Berezovsky becomes an exile in the UK, with his security man Litvinenko, getting political asylum from the Blair government. There’s a brilliant theatrical moment when events collide with those in Lucy Prebble’s play A Very Expensive Poison, as Litvinenko goes to meet someone over tea and gets poisoned in the process. Homesick after ten years in the UK, he seeks to return to a quiet life in Russia, but Putin is having none of it. He dies, allegedly committing suicide.

Rupert Goold has a great talent for staging epic stories with great clarity and pace, as he did with Enron, and as he does here. Miriam Buether’s design is like a lap dancing club (not that I’ve been to one, of course) with people sitting at the cross shaped bar / stage and scenes played out upon it. Tom Hollander’s terrific performance as Berezovsky, determined manipulative and strong willed, is a career highlight, but there are excellent performances too from Will Keen as an emotionless Putin and Luke Thallon as a cool, calculating Abramovitch, plus a fine supporting cast of eight, most playing multiple roles. It’s good to see Jamael Westman, who originated the role of Alexander Hamilton in London, playing another Alexander, Litvinenko, here.

This is a fine drama, very timely given Putin is on our screens almost daily, informative, thought provoking and entertaining. I feel another West End transfer coming on.

All Of Us

In my view it’s one of theatre’s roles to put up a mirror to our society. Another is to entertain. This play examines the impact of recent welfare changes on the disabled. It managers to do both successfully, and perhaps surprisingly, though less so given it’s written by a stand-up comedian with cerebral palsy who refers to her condition as wobbly.

Jess has a successful career as a therapist. Her parents have been very supportive, as is her flatmate Lottie. She has a lovely Polish carer called Nadia who often goes way beyond her responsibilities. She introduced Jess to Poppy, a younger disabled woman with an extraordinary love of life and bags of energy, charm, cheek and an infectious naughtiness. They are both hit, in different ways, by the introduction of assessments. Jess loses her car and ultimately her job. Poppy becomes bed-bound for 12 hours a day.

Though both challenge their treatment, they react differently. Jess fights back using the appeal process, Poppy gets angry. There’s a pivotal scene at the beginning of the second half at a public meeting with their MP. His responses to theirs, and others, questions is patronising and dismissive. Some in the audience air their views of benefit scroungers and the failure of disabled people to just get on with it and stop whinging, though it soon transpires that some may be plants, so it’s unclear if their views are sincere or stage-managed. Jess makes an important connection with a referred client with alcohol addiction and after his initial dismissiveness of therapy she breaks through, they bond and the connection becomes significant.

Government policy targeted at benefit fraud has created much bigger issues for disabled people. The assessment process isn’t fit for purpose (best judged by the extraordinary number of successful appeals) and the squeeze on the caring services has created more vulnerability and dreadful treatment of the carers, whilst the contractors continue to profit. I’ve long been ashamed that I live in a country which has allowed this to happen, so I guess the play is preaching to the converted in my case, but it isn’t preaching, it’s presenting facts which anyone who approaches them objectively can process for themselves. Given playwright Francesca Martinez’ background, it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s littered with laughs which sit comfortably with its campaigning message and prevent it from becoming too earnest and mawkish.

The playwright plays Jess herself in a fine understated performance, with Francesca Mills brilliant as Poppy. They are supported by a fine ensemble of fifteen other actors.

Important and urgent theatre.

Joanna Scotcher’s extraordinary design starts as you walk through the doors of The George pub in South-West London, the space formerly known as the Minerva Theatre, Chichester. Roy Williams’ 2002 play is just as extraordinary, taking place in real time during the England v Germany world cup qualifying game in 2000. It’s lost none of its relevance or impact twenty years on.

The pub regulars, a mostly young crowd, have assembled to watch the game together, some coming straight from their team’s latest soccer match. Amongst them is local copper Lee and his wilder older brother Lawrie, accompanied by Phil, Becks and Jess and their black team-mate Barry, whose brother Mark has turned up unexpectedly after discharge from the army. Then there’s Alan, a very politicised nationalist prone to stirring things up and exploiting the more fiery younger men. There’s tension between Mark and Lee, who both have history with landlady Gina, who lives there with her dad Jimmy and teenage son Glen.

It starts with banter, but as the drink flows and the football disappoints, it degenerates into sniping, skirmishes, malevolence and insidious racism as skeletons emerging from cupboards. In an important sub-plot, Glen is trying to befriend two local black boys, Bad ‘T’ and Duane, but they taunt him and play with him. When the lads defend Glen, their mother comes to challenge them. It all ends tragically.

As always with Williams everyone has a voice and the character’s views get aired, even nationalist Alan, intelligent but misguided. Lawrie is a ball of visceral anger and people like Alan can light his fuse at any time and no-one can really calm him down, not even his protective brother. Young Glen is learning from these older men, who excuse their behaviour and comments as routine joshing between friends, at the same time exploiting Barry’s generosity. He in turn wraps himself in the English flag in an attempt to belong in the country where he was born, whilst more world weary Mark wants him to return to ‘his people’.

It’s brilliantly staged by Joanna Bowman, the tension building like a coiled spring. It would be difficult to find a better ensemble anywhere, most of them returning from its 2019 run in the tent outside. Richard Riddell as Lawrie and Makir Ahmed are particularly good at conveying their emotions, to the point where you’re genuinely afraid of what they might do.

It would be great to see this play return ‘home’ to London. An unmissable revival.

The arrival of the story musicals of Rogers & Hammerstein in the 1940’s-50’s seems to have pushed the lighter fare of the Gershwin’s out of the repertoire. Of their original 1920’s-30’s shows, I can only recall London having Lady Be Good at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the Open Air Theatre and Of Thee I Sing & Let Them Eat Cake from Opera North at Sadler’s Wells. In their place, we’ve had reworkings and mash-ups from My One and Only in 1983 to Nice Work If You Can Get It in 2012 and the screen-to-stage adaptation of An American in Paris in 2015, but the most successful of these is Crazy For You, based on Girl Crazy. This is my fourth production in nine years.

The East coast meets West coast culture clash is fully exploited for humour by writer / adapter Ken Ludwig; this is one of the funniest of musical comedies. Stagestruck Bobby is sent by his NYC banking family to Deadrock, Nevada (pop. 37) to repossess a theatre. He falls in love with feisty Polly, the theatre owner’s daughter, and sends for his theatre friends to put on a show in their beleaguered theatre. His imposing mother eventually makes it to Deadrock to approve his match and, surprisingly, make her own, so it all ends happily.

Susan Stroman choreographed her late husband Mike Ockrent’s original 1992 production. Her career has since developed as a director / choreographer and we’ve been lucky enough to see her dansical Contact, two Mel Brooks shows – The Producers & Young Frankenstein – and Kander & Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys in London. Her work here is masterly in every respect, with terrific designs by Beowulf Boritt and William Ivey Long, and a brilliant band led by MD Alan Williams.

I’ve wanted to see Charlie Stemp in a musical again since his big break in 2016’s Half a Sixpence, also at Chichester. He tops that with a truly star performance, adding a talent for physical comedy to his exceptional dancing, singing and acting skills. Carly Anderson is a great match as Polly, her vocals simply beautiful. In a fine supporting cast that’s too big to namecheck every one, I feel compelled to single out Tom Edden as Zangler, whose drunken scene with Stemp as fake Zangler is one of the funniest pieces of physical comedy I’ve ever seen (well, since Edden’s turn as the waiter in One Man, Two Guvnors anyway).

I’ve seen something like twenty of Chichester’s musicals, either at their home or in the West End – often both! – and this is amongst the best. Musical theatre heaven just 65 miles from home. I’m now waiting with bated breath for a West End transfer.

I was wondering, not for the first time, why Shakespeare chose this title for his play. It seemed to me dismissive of the piece. Then I found out ‘nothing’ was a play on words with ‘noting’ meaning gossip, rumour, overheard discourse in Shakespeare’s day, which is of course the crux of the play. I was also wondering why it’s so long since I saw it last, fifteen years I think, in the Olivier with Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker. I loved that production as I did this one in the Lyttelton by Simon Godwin.

They’ve chosen to set on the Italian Riviera in the Hotel Messina c.1920’s, which allows set designer Anna Fleischle and costume designer Evie Gurney to produce something visually sumptuous and gorgeous. I’d have been happy just looking at it. They’ve added music, with a live band playing in the style of the period from an upper balcony of the hotel. I don’t know the play well enough to know if it has been cut, but with the addition of music and dancing, coming in at 2.5 hours suggests it has.

Don Pedro and his soldiers have returned from the war, settling in at the hotel run by Leonato & Antonia. Claudio falls for their daughter Hero and the whirlwind romance leads to a wedding in next to no time, but enough time for Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother Don John to spread rumours about Hero’s purity, resulting in her being dumped at the alter. The hilarity and jollity increases the gravity of this story and the malevolence of Don John’s plotting. In another plot, Antonia’s niece Beatrice and returning soldier Benedict continue their sniping, whilst ideas are planted in their respective heads that the other really loves them. In this production, their sniping seems more inferred than expressed (cuts?). Of course, it all ends happily.

Katherine Parkinson makes a fine Beatrice whilst John Heffernan, an unsung stage hero, gives a superb comic performance that makes Benedict a perfect match for her. Here, the relationship comes over more loving than spiky from the outset. Ashley Zhangazha has great presence as Don Pedro and there are delightful comic turns from David Fynn as a brilliant Dogberry and Phoebe Horn as Margaret the maid (a professional stage debut no less). I have to confess I was baffled by the decision to play Claudio with some sort of urban street dialect.

It worked brilliantly as a comedy, yet it brought out the underlying impact of gossip and rumour, which can be tragic (Hero & Claudio) or positive (Beatrice & Benedict). Another summer treat at the NT.