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You Stupid Darkness!

I’m still not sure how playwright Sam Steiner’s play about troubled souls in a bleak world turned out to be so hopeful, but it was warm hearted and funny, despite the backdrop of a crumbling planet.

It’s set in the office of Brightline, a helpline manned by four volunteers; think The Samaritans. We know the world in which they live is bleak because they arrive with breathing masks, and we can see and hear dramatic climatic events going on outside. They listen to those who call in, and have to deal with those who abuse them. We hear their personal stories too. Heavily pregnant team leader Frances, soon to bring a newcomer into this hostile world, Jon in a troubled relationship, work experience student Joey trying to make his way in this world, and lonely Ange on an emotional roller-coaster.

There’s much humour, but it doesn’t swamp or trivialise either the personal stories or the world events. There are a lot of scenes, which do make it feel a bit staccato at times, but the character development is very good, and the interweaving of the big picture backdrop with the helpline setting and the personal lives works well. It really draws you in, as you find yourself interested in, and empathising with, these people.

Amy Cook’s excellent design manages to feel both huge and intimate, with perfect sight-lines everywhere, and the invasion of the outside into the inside is really well done. Jenni Maitland is superb as the eternally positive, very motherly Frances. Andy Rush plays Jon very well, a more complex character, cynical, suspicious, a touch brittle. Lydia Larson is lovely as chatterbox Ange, a bit neurotic and fragile. Andrew Finnigan, so so good in one-man musical Drip at the Bush, gives another charming performance as 17-year-old Joey, initially seeming naive but proving to be wise beyond his years.

Director James Grieve brings this all together to create a surprisingly feel-good cocktail of big issues and personal tales, which got a rare spontaneous standing ovation on the night I went. Paines Plough on fine form again.

The Rest of January

Opera

Though I find the music to Wozzeck somewhat inaccessible, I was drawn to the Met Live relay by the fact it was being staged by William Kentridge. It was an extraordinary production, and I even found the music more accessible this time around.

Classical Music

The LSO gave us Beethoven’s oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives at the Barbican, which is hardly ever performed, as a result of which I was baffled as to why. It was glorious, with the LS Chorus on particularly fine form.

Comedy

Radio 4’s 40-year-old I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue is a wireless cult favourite, and even more fun on stage at the New Wimbledon Theatre with a full house, a real comic treat chaired by Jack Dee with Tim Brooke-Taylor (who has been on it since the pilot), Tony Hawkes, Miles Jupp and Richard Osman, with Colin Sell at the piano. Sadly Samantha was otherwise engaged!

Film

I wasn’t sure about Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker at first – I hadn’t really been keen on the last two – but I did like the way it concluded the series, going full circle to where it started.

I was sold JoJo Rabbit by the trailer, but on reflection I think it was somewhat mis-sold. Despite some stunning performances by the kids and some genuinely funny moments, I found some of it rather uncomfortable.

Cats wasn’t as bad as the reviews, but it was still a bit weird and surreal. I think it proves that live theatre can do things film just can’t.

1917 isn’t an easy ride, but it’s an extraordinary piece of film-making by Sam Mendes, with stunning cinematography by the great Roger Deakins, and a performance by George MacKay which is going to propel him to stardom.

I put off seeing Joker until its last week, when the awards buzz finally made me give in. I’m not keen on glorified, stylised violence, but I found this psychological thriller clever, with a surprising amount of depth, and Joachim Phoenix was simply superb.

I thought Bombshell was a very good expose of the Fox News sexual harassment scandal, presumably true as no-one has sued! Charlize Theron is superb.

Purists probably won’t like The Personal History of David Copperfield, but I thought it was original and clever, often very funny, sometimes moving, with a British cast to die for.

Art

Two Last Nights: Show Business in Georgian Britain at The Foundling Museum was a great show for a theatre buff like me. A detailed examination of theatre practices and theatre-going in the 1700’s and early 1800’s including images, objects, posters and tickets. It was good to renew my acquaintance with this lovely museum too.

I’ve always been fascinated by Anselm Kiefer’s work, though it’s usually bleak and somewhat depressing, as is his Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knot exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey, but these seventeen monumental textured and three-dimensional pieces were astonishing and I was so glad I saw them.

I made another visit to Pitzhanger Manor, this time to see Es Devlin’s Memory Palace, a topography, 360°because of mirrors, of places associated with her 74 most significant moments in world history, from cave paintings through the pyramids, Indian temples and Machu Picchu to the internet. Fascinating.

Troy; Myth & Reality was an excellent exhibition at the British Museum which told the story of Troy in paintings, statuary, archaeology and other objects. Very comprehensive and beautifully curated.

I’ve lived in London for 38 years but have never been to the Wallace Collection. What attracted me after all this time was a special exhibition, Forgotten Masters: Indian paining for the East India Company, an exquisite collection of paintings of people, buildings, flora & fauna and animals. I took a quick look at the permanent collection while I was there, but it’s enormous, very dense, too ornate, mostly sixteenth and seventeenth century with lots of armour, so not really to my taste.

Three treats at Tate Modern starting with the latest Turbine Hall installation, Fons Americanus by Kara Walker, an enormous sculpture modelled on the one of Victoria outside Buckingham Palace, but as a comment on colonialism. One of the best of these Turbine Hall commissions. I wasn’t convinced I was going to like Korean video artist Nam June Paik‘s retrospective, but I found it playful and fun, though a lot to take in. The highlight though was Dora Maar – photos and paintings by her and of her, most of the latter by Picasso. Her photography, the biggest part of the show, ranged from fashion through documentary to portraits and abstracts. A very rewarding showcase of a fascinating and talented woman.

The Sugar Syndrome

Playwright Lucy Prebble has given us some excellent plays, most notably ENRON, her second, but isn’t very prolific – she’s only written three plays in the 16 years since this debut, but then again she’s also successful in TV, notably with HBO’s current hit Succession. Her fourth play, A Very Expensive Poison, premiered just four months ago and her third, The Effect, will be revived at the Boulevard Theatre in March, so we’re having a bit of a Prebble Fest. I missed this one first time round, so I was delighted the Orange Tree have revived it.

The play revolves around 17-year-old Dani who lives with her somewhat neurotic mother. Dani’s father works away and plays away too, something they are both fully aware of. She suffers with an eating disorder and has recently returned from a residential clinic which she resents being forced to go to. She frequents internet chat rooms, where she meets two very different people – lonely 22-year-old Lewis, seeking a relationship, and thirty-something paedophile Tim, looking for boys. She meets up with Lewis, and they strike up some sort of relationship. By posing as an 11-year-old boy, she also meets up with Tim and they strike up an even odder relationship, where she becomes a friend and confidante. The two worlds collide when Lewis visits Tim and then her home, and her relationship with her mother is exorcised.

These very sensitive issues are handled really well, in the writing, staging and performances. All of the characters are treated sympathetically, even Tim, delicately played by John Hollingworth. Ali Barouti navigates Lewis’ journey from desperation to obsession beautifully. Alexandra Gilbreath handles the complexity of mother Jan with great skill. Jessica Rhodes’ performance as the very mercurial Dani, onstage virtually throughout, is superb, even more impressive when you realise it’s her professional debut.

Oscar Toeman’s excellent revival benefits from the intimacy of this theatre, but the sunken playing area brings sightline issues, as it did with Pamona at the same venue. This was my only gripe with what was otherwise a thoroughly satisfying evening of theatre.

The Sunset Limited

Throughout this play I was wondering why it felt different from any other one-act two-character piece I’d seen before. Reading the writer Cormac McCarthy’s biography in the programme on the way home, I saw it described as ‘a novel in dramatic form’ and then it made complete sense. Though there’s an apartment setting and the two characters interact, it did feel more like reading a novel, and the writer is indeed a novelist.

The characters are called White and Black, though their race didn’t seem particularly significant to me. We’re in Black’s NYC apartment. He’s brought White home after rescuing him from a suicide attempt. He believes god sent him to do this. White doesn’t remember seeing him there before his aborted jump. We learn more about Black than we do about White – his murky past, being born again and his faith. All we really learn about White is that he’s a professor, he’s alone and he’s deeply pessimistic about the world in which we live. Black is trying to keep White there because he fears another attempt, and believes it’s his calling to prevent this.

I was a bit puzzled by the fact that the play seems to be named after a long-distance Amtrak train (I’ve been on it!) but it goes nowhere near NYC and the suicide attempt appears to have been on the subway anyway. It’s a very wordy piece that’s relatively undramatic, though the performances of Gary Beadle and Jasper Britton are superb. Not being someone of faith and being a generally positive person, I’m afraid I found both Black’s blind faith and White’s nihilism difficult to stomach. Worth a visit for the performances alone, though, and good to see this new venue is as suitable for intimate theatre as it was for a chamber musical.

Souvenir

I haven’t seen so much immersive / site-specific theatre of late. So much of it seems to have become overblown in scale or presented as novelty parties, with more serious fare suffering from inappropriate audience engagement. This one revolves around a party, but its just twenty or so guests in an apartment, with three actors, and an attentive audience engaged with the story as it unfolds.

It didn’t get off to a good start for me as I hadn’t received my email instructions of where to go and was sending desperate messages 100 minutes before, given it was with a 70 minute journey across London to that part of town. I was beginning to think this was part of the experience; a game of dare, perhaps. They responded, I headed off, with enough time to pick up some booze as instructed, and of course I was the first to arrive for Anna’s secret 30th birthday party!

Guests were introduced and people began chatting before we had to be silent for the surprise. Anna hugged us all in turn, knowing our names, and on we went to cake and presents. Then it took a darker turn, followed by an even more surprising, intriguing, somewhat surreal one. After an hour, we headed home.

It’s a clever idea, well executed and performed, but for me it ended just as it got going. It seemed unfinished, or didn’t know where to go next. I felt it was too slight, lacking in depth. What could have been a great experience was just a good one, more work-in-progress than finished piece.

Beckett Triple Bill

There’s something wonderful about visiting a 70-seat underground theatre a stones throw from Piccadilly Circus, where you have to cross the stage to get to the loo, to see four world class actors, directed by the man who ran both the RSC and NT, in three Samuel Beckett plays – for a few pounds more than going to the cinema around the corner. I love this city.

Beckett wrote twenty-two stage plays, many of them one act, some as short as fifteen minutes. You don’t always (ever?) entirely understand them, but you can bask in the language and exercise your brain finding meaning. Always fascinating and intriguing, never dull, somewhat addictive. I’ve seen about two-thirds of them. Another two will come along in three weeks with four more great actors in a theatre with 997 more seats!

The first of this triple-bill is Krapps Last Tape, where a man sits at a table reading his diary of some thirty years before, digging out, listening to and occasionally commenting on the meticulously indexed reel-to-reel tapes which contain the audio record of his 40th year. Oh, and he eats bananas. I’ve been lucky enough to see John Hurt and Harold Pinter, and now James Hayes in this fascinating memory play.

In Eh Joe, a man sits on his bed in silence listening to a woman’s voice in his head, his face telling you everything you need to know about his feelings as he listens to her. You can’t take your eyes off Niall Buggy, so expressive, whilst the great Becket interpreter and scholar Lisa Dwan voices the woman. This was written for TV. I first saw it on stage with Michael Gambon in a theatre 10 times the size but watching Niall Buggy, a few feet away, his face projected live on the wall behind him, was mesmerising, a way more intimate experience. Another memory piece, looking back.

The best is saved until last. The Old Tune, a radio play adapted from a Robert Pinget stage play, where two men in their seventies meet one Sunday morning and sit on a bench reminiscing, as the noisy traffic passes by. They have clear recollections, though they often differ, a source of irritation and indignation for them and humour for the audience. Memory again, but lighter and funnier and performed to perfection by Niall Buggy as Gorman and David Threlfall as Cream, a thirty minute gem that fully justifies its move from radio to stage and will stay with me forever.

These three plays belong together as if they were written as companion pieces. Though each was originally in a different form, they were written only eight years apart in the late 50s / early 60s. Trevor Nunn stages them beautifully, with help from set and costume designer Louie Whitemore, sound designer Max Pappenheim and lighting designer David Howe.

I’ve had a soft spot for this late show by the writers of Cabaret & Chicago since I saw the UK professional premiere at the much missed Landor Theatre in 2012, five years after it first hit Broadway. I’d seen a drama school production at GSMD two years before, when I was somewhat underwhelmed, but at the Landor, in Robert McWhir’s production, it shone, as it does here in Paul Fosters’ touring production on a way bigger scale which has just finished its short unscheduled Christmas visit to the West End and is back on tour in Wimbledon.

The show within the show is a Boston try-out for a musical adaptation of Robin Hood set in Kansas. At the curtain call, the leading lady dies and when Lieutenant Frank Cioffi arrives at the theatre, they learn that it was murder. As he’s concluded the killer must be one of them, everyone involved in the show is confined to the theatre whilst the investigation takes place. They continue to change and rehearse the show ready for Broadway, with the stage struck Lieutenant as involved in this as he is in the murder investigation. Add in a love story, the reunion of an estranged couple, the relationship between a starlet and her mother, a lot about the business of putting on a show and more deaths and you have a musical whodunnit.

I loved the way it moved seamlessly from show to investigation, with John Kandor’s score even better than I remembered, and very sharp and funny lines in Rupert Holmes book and Fred Ebb’s lyrics. It sits well on the huge Wimbledon stage given its a touring production that has to fit theatres of all shapes and sizes – Wimbledon is twice the size of it’s West End home. Alistair David’s choreography and Sarah Travis’ musical arrangements for Alex Beetschen’s excellent nine-piece band play a big part in the success of this production.

It’s superbly cast, led by Jason Manford who really suits the role of the Lieutenant, with the charm to pull off the stagestruck and lovestruck elements, good vocals, and he moves well. Not bad for someone relatively new to musical theatre. I loved Rebecca Lock as theatre producer Carmen Bernstein, clearly relishing her sharp-tongued character, being cruel to be kind to her daughter on the stage, and Samuel Holmes as the British director Christopher Belling whose sarcasm is a match for Carmen’s vitriol; between them they get all the best lines.

Rupert Holmes also wrote the book for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the only other whodunnit musical I know. This one is much more successful and it’s great to see it 5 miles away from where I last saw it, in a theatre ten times the size. It’s now left London, but continues its tour for three more months. Catch it if you can.