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It’s takes a brave theatre, a brave director and a brave leading actor to revive this 2009 Jez Butterworth play, which had two West End runs and one Broadway run in the two years following it’s Royal Court premiere. Less than two week’s ago, The Guardian’s Michael Billington listed the ’25 best plays since Jerusalem’, which he referred to as ‘the hit that transformed British theatre’. One of those was Butterworth’s The Ferryman which is Broadway-bound, having just completed almost a year in the West End following it’s Royal Court premiere in 2017. It’s a big show for the Watermill, but they pull it off with great aplomb.

I still stand by my earlier thoughts (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/02/11/jerusalem) though my reaction has evolved through the passage of time and changes in the country, which seems to be clinging to a Jerusalem of its own. Rooster Byron is the ultimate rebel, the lovable rogue that some see as the personification of evil – contributing nothing to society, leading their children astray, polluting their backyard with noise and junk, but he’s also a defender of rural encroachment, gentrification, the rights of outsiders and independence.

I thought the other characters came to the fore this time – Ginger refusing to grow up, Davey not seeing the point of leaving Wiltshire, Lee naively thinking he can see the world with a one-way ticket to Australia and $200, but still reluctant to go, emasculated publican Wesley and The Professor, clearly unfulfilled with nowhere to go. Rooster’s past also seems more significant, with the arrival of his ex and son more poignant.

Designer Frankie Bradshaw has brilliantly created the same wild glade with caravan in the woods, much more intimate in the Watermill, and referenced the Flintock Fair in dressing the auditorium. Jasper Britton makes Rooster Byron his own, in a towering performance, with outstanding support from a cast who are so good they banish from the memory those that came before, particularly Peter Caulfield as Ginger, Santino Smith as Davey and Sam Swann as Lee.

This is a fine early revival, by Lisa Blair, of a ground-breaking state-of-the-nation play, perhaps even more timely today. Another great reason to head west to this lovely, ambitious theatre which consistently delivers.

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Fun Home

Last Monday, I visited the Museum of Musical Theatre, seeing the lavish but dated The King & I at the London Palladium. As if the musical theatre gods were intent on contrast, on Friday I visited this fresh, original new musical at the appropriately named Young Vic, and it swept me away.

Alison Bechel writes graphic novels (illustrated rather than graphic in the explicit sense!). Fun Home, though, was a memoir about her life growing up in Pennsylvania with her parents and two brothers, going to college and coming out and the tragic loss of her dad, who unlike her had lived a lie (with his wife’s full knowledge). She acts as a narrator, with her young self and her college self on stage. We see her childhood, tomboyish, playing with her two brothers, both in fear of and in awe of her dad Bruce, who teaches and runs the family business, a Fun(eral) Home. She spends more time with her dad as her mom Helen is an actress. Her arrival in college, realisation that she’s gay and coming out are interwoven.

It’s a deeply moving portrait of a life, expertly adapted by Lisa Kron with lovely music by Jane Tesori. It’s extraordinary how much you can immerse yourself in someone’s life story in just 100 minutes. It took me a short while to get into the rhythm of the piece, but I soon became captivated. It was funny and moving and ever so real, with stylistic and set changes altering its feel and tone. It’s beautifully staged by Sam Gold, with choreography by Danny Mefford which is particularly good at conveying the young kids playfulness. David Zinn’s design constantly surprises you as it morphs, not just to change location, but also to reflect changes in the story.

An unrecognisable Kaisa Hammerland plays Alison looking back, newcomer Eleanor Kane college Alison and, on the night I went, Harriett Turnbull young Alison and all three were terrific; you could really believe they were the same person at different stages of their life. In my head, Zubin Varla is still the RSC’s Romeo – where did all those years go! – but here he’s a middle-aged dad, a very complex character which he plays brilliantly. Helen the mother is by contrast a relatively underwritten part, as the real Helen seems to have been in Alison’s life, but she’s played by Jenna Russell, who can make something wonderful from just about anything.

David Lan’s final four years at the Young Vic have been extraordinary, with A Streetcar Named Desire, A View From the Bridge, Yerma, The Jungle, The Inheritance and surely this going on to continue their lives elsewhere, to be seen by more people. Another thrilling evening in The Cut.

The sixty years from 1880 to 1940 were the golden age of design, when artists and architects got together to produce integrated work. Movements like Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and the Vienna Secession and individuals like Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Antonio Gaudi and Frank Lloyd Wright were all within this period. The Bauhaus was too, but it only survived fourteen years, in three locations, with three directors – pursued, persecuted and finally shut down by the Nazi’s. Given that, its influence is extraordinary.

Here are some photos: https://photos.app.goo.gl/4Zf9QD5n5P2W6oqD7

Our pilgrimage started where Bauhaus started, in Weimar, a city of just 65,000 people which has historically punched above its weight, with Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche & Liszt amongst its residents, and where the first German democratic constitution, the Weimar Republic, was declared exactly 100 years ago. It’s a charming city, with an eclectic cocktail of buildings, and we started our tour by walking to the place where the movement began, now Bauhaus University, for an excellent guided tour of its two main buildings (by Bauhaus founder and first director Walter Gropius and Henry Van der Velde), by one of its architecture students. Weimar’s other highlight was the Nietzsche Archive – not for the contents, but because it was in a Van der Velde adapted building. Side trips from here took us to the ceramic museum in Burgel, the home of Bauhaus textile weaver Margaretha Reichardt, the cities of Erfurt and Jena and the highlight, Haus Auerbach, a suburban home by Gropius, where we were warmly welcomed by its current owner who has lovingly restored it.

En route to our second base, Chemnitz, two more highlights in Gera – Van der Velde’s beautifully restored Haus Schulenburg and the Museum for Angewandte Kunst, a terrific applied arts collection, most notable for its ceramics and textiles. Our first stop in Chemnitz was the expressionist art at Gunzenhauser Museum, though it turned out to be a 300-work retrospective of one artist, but it was Otto Dix, so the disappointment was somewhat allayed. By the time we got to the vast Chemnitz Public Baths by Fred Otto, we were exhausted, but it took our breathe away. You knew you were in the former East in Chemnitz, which was bigger (250,000 people) and retained a giant statue of the man after whom it was once named, Karl Marx. After saying Hi to Karl and viewing Erich Mendelsohn’s highly original former department store, we headed to the Bauhaus’ second home, Dessau.

Another small city (77,000 people), but more industrial than Weimar, it was the suburbs we headed for, where the Bauhaus impact was huge. From the moment I set eyes on the main building, with it’s iconic vertical name, I was captivated by this mature period in Bauhaus work. In addition to the two school buildings, we visited some ‘masters’ houses’ built for Gropius and his colleagues, his riverside Kornhaus restaurant and the suburban Torten Housing Estate where we could enter three different homes. This was a feast of a day where the the spirit of Bauhaus seemed to join us.

En route to Berlin airport for the flight home, we took in three final buildings – a Gropius Employment Exchange in Dessau with separate doors for each skill / craft (!), his Gaudiesque Einstein Tower on an astrophysics campus high up on a hill overlooking Potsdam and Villa Lemke, a lovely, simple Berlin suburban home by final Bauhaus director Mies van der Rohe, who went on to populate Chicago with much bigger but less pleasing buildings.

They achieved a lot in fourteen years; the Nazi’s put an end to the creativity, but the influence of Bauhaus continues to this day, with people like me immersing myself in their work. My art, design & architecture cup runneth over.

Martin McDonagh has cornered the market in dark comedies; his next play is actually called A Very Very Very Dark Matter. We don’t know how dark that will be but, at least until then, this is the darkest of the seven I’ve seen. It’s the second in an unfinished trilogy, and I don’t think it’s been in London since its premiere 17 years ago, though we did see the first in the trilogy, The Cripple of Inishmaan, by the same company five years ago. That’s long enough for me to have forgotten much of it’s twists and turns, to be shocked, horrified and thrilled by it all over again.

Irish republican terrorist Padraic is too violent for the IRA and fast becoming unacceptable to the INLA too, but he’s very fond of his cat Wee Thomas, so much so that he aborts a torturing to return home when he hears the cat is poorly. Back home his dad Donny and neighbour Davey concoct an elaborate but clumsy plot to cover up Wee Thomas’ death, whilst his true killers, an INLA splinter group led by Christy, plan to put an end to Padraic. Davey’s sister Mairead has her heart set on both a terrorist career and Padraic’s affections.

I’d forgotten how violent and gory it gets, and the twists and turns that drive the black comedy forward. You find yourself turning your head from the violence whilst laughing uproariously at the absurdities. It’s a brave man who satirises terrorism, particularly in the early 90’s, but in the end, in McDonagh’s own words, it’s ‘a violent play that is wholeheartedly anti-violence’ and there’s no-one else who can combine satire with black comedy with ultraviolence, as Anthony Burgess named it.

It’s clear that much of the audience is there to see Aidan Turner, who is excellent, and if that fills a West End theatre for quality drama, that’s OK by me. Hopefully, it won’t detract from seven other fine performances, chief amongst them the auspicious professional stage debut of Chris Walley, who has already wowed me in both the TV series’ and film of The Young Offenders. With Denis Conway terrific as his partner-in-crime Donny, they make a great double-act. You struggle to accept Charlie Murphy’s Mairead as a sixteen-year-old (as you do Turner as twenty) but it’s a fine performance nonetheless. A largely Irish cast bring an authenticity to the piece.

I liked designer Christopher Oram’s cottage, but I wasn’t sure about the idea of scene’s in front of his frontispiece. The blood splattering effects in Michael Grandage’s production were superb. I’m not sure the insertion of an interval, no doubt to boost bar profits for DMT, helped, but it didn’t hinder as much as I thought it might. A fine revival which has whetted my appetite for his new play in October.

The King and I

Of all the big theatrical openings this year, this much garlanded Broadway revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1951 show wasn’t the one I was expecting to disappoint. Despite the sumptuousness of the designs and the vocal perfection of Kelli O’Hara, it left me unengaged and rather cold. We’ve become used to revivals breathing new life into classic musicals, but this one seems afraid to touch, and consequently comes out as overly conservative; the evening felt a bit like a visit to the Museum of Musical Theatre.

Like many of their other shows, it was tackling serious themes. Siam, now Thailand, was an island of independence in colonial Asia (the French take Cambodia during the show!). We see the unacceptable face of colonialism and arrogant superiority of the west to other cultures, but also the unacceptable face of local despots, with their own superiority, over women in particular (cue references to #metoo resonance). Add to the cocktail a feisty British woman and you have a classic R&H recipe. With its exotic setting and glorious score, how can it go wrong?

Well, they seem to have mined deeper into the themes of power, culture clash and feminism, but at the same time broadened the humour; an odd contrast which jarred with me. The pace was often very slow, particularly in the second act play-within-a-play, and it seemed a very long three hours. The lack of chemistry between the King and Anna was the final nail in the coffin. Great sets by Michael Yeargan, gorgeous costumes by Catherine Zuber, cute kids, sweet songs, but no heart.

Kelli O’Hara sang beautifully; Hello, Young Lovers in particular has never sounded better. I liked Jon Chew’s characterisation of the earnest, geeky Crown Prince. Na-Young Jeon and Dean John-Wilson made a fine pair of lovers in Tuptim and Lun Tha. Naoko Mori was excellent as chief wife Lady Thang. I’m afraid I thought Ken Watanabe’s King was a complete caricature, which proved fatal for me. It was good to see a stage full of East Asian actors, though.

I don’t regret going, but for me Bartlett Sher’s production is way too reverential and, as a result, lacked sparkle.

The Rest of June

Opera

Trojan Women by the National Changgeuk Company of Korea in the newly refurbished (but you’d hardly notice!) Queen Elizabeth Hall is a pop-opera adaptation of Greek tragedy. It looked good and I liked the choruses, but I struggled with some of the strangulated solo vocals and, at two unbroken hours, it was too long. I always think visiting companies should be warmly received regardless, given they’ve travelled half-way across the world, and thankfully so it was at the QEH.

Mamzer Bastard sees the Royal Opera on walkabout again, this time to Hackney Empire, but probably with the wrong opera, if part of the plan was to engage the local community. There were things to enjoy – beautiful Jewish cantor for the first time in opera, expertly sung, and a cinematic production which made great use of live video – but it’s cultural and musical specificity and inaccessibility robbed it of universal appeal, and the film noir monochrome monotony drained me of energy, I’m afraid.

Rhondda Rips It Up! is WNO’s tribute to Lady Rhondda, an extraordinary woman and suffragette in this centenary year, also visiting Hackney Empire. A mash-up of opera, operetta, music hall and cabaret and great fun, with singalongs and flags to wave. Madeleine Shaw was terrific as Lady R and I even liked Lesley Garrett as the MC!

Britten’s Turn of the Screw saw ENO at the Open Air Theatre, the first ever opera there, on a lovely evening. I thought it worked very well, particularly as the natural light lowered, creating a spooky atmosphere. It was by necessity amplified, but the lovely singing and playing, though not as natural as unamplified, still shone through. There were the usual audience behaviour challenges, this time amplified by the bonkers decision to dish out unnecessary librettos so they could be rustled in unison!

Dance

Xenos at Sadler’s Wells Theatre is a one-man dance piece by Akram Khan inspired by the 1.5 million forgotten Indian soldiers lost in the 1st World War. I struggled to understand all of it, but was mesmerised regardless. The design was stunning, the east-meets-west music hypnotic and the movement extraordinary. A privilege to be at Kahn’s last full evening piece as a performer.

Film

I much admired Rupert Everett’s The Happy Prince, about the last days of Oscar Wilde. It avoided lightening and beautifying what was a very dark period in his life and told it as it was.

Art

The Edward Bawden exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery featured an extraordinarily diverse range of works including paintings, posters, linocuts, menu cards, drawings and book illustrations & covers with subjects including animals, people, buildings, landscapes and fantasies. A really underrated 20th century illustrator and a huge treat.

The BP Portrait Award Exhibition at the NPG seemed smaller this year, but the quality remained astonishingly high. Next door at the NG, I loved British-American 19th Century artist Thomas Cole’s paintings, though they only made up 40% of the exhibition, padded out with studies & drawings and paintings by those who influenced him and those he influenced (from the NG permanent collection!), which is more than a bit cheeky.

During a short visit to Exeter I went to their superb Royal Albert Museum to catch Pop Art in Print, an excellent V&A touring exhibition which we don’t appear to be getting in London. A fascinating, diverse range of items, very well curated and presented, probably helped by being the only visitor at the time!

Monogamy

Playwright Torben Betts’ unique blend of black comedy & tragedy, veering towards melodrama, with a surreal twist, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it is mine.

Caroline is a famous TV chef & domestic goddess, a Christian, married to a rich banker, with three children and a lovely London home. They are rehearsing the final show to be filmed in her kitchen before they sell up & downsize and move filming to the studio. After the rehearsal, they plan to celebrate left-wing, vegan son Leo’s 1st from Cambridge. Graham the carpenter has just finished his four-months work on the property. This seems like an idyllic family…….

….but Caroline has a drink problem, and her temporary PA Amanda discovers that the Mail are about to use some old photos of her out on the razz. Husband / father Mike, a bit of a lech and a philanderer, returns from golf having got a hole in one but also witnessed a death. Leo is disappointed Caroline hasn’t delivered on her promise to tell Michael his secret, and it looks likely Caroline & Michael’s plans for him might clash with his values. A potential buyer for the house turns up at a most inconvenient time. There’s a storm outside, but it’s nowhere near as fierce as the one that breaks out inside, as most of their worlds come tumbling down, as the secrets and lies unfold. It’s very funny, but also very dark. Underneath the black comedy, there are a lot of truths about families and relationships.

I’ve never seen such an elaborate set at the Park Theatre, a terrific uber-realistic kitchen by James Perkins. It’s the sort of play that requires precision staging, and it gets that in Alastair Whatley’s production. Above all though, there’s a set of superb performances, all in tune with the material. We’re more used to seeing Janine Dee in musicals these days, so it’s great to be reminded what a fine ‘straight’ actress she is, with pitch perfect comic timing (and boy can she do drunk well). Patrick Rycart’s old buffer Michael is a tour de force; he took my breath away when he fell. Charlie Brooks has to play a tragic figure with all the comic chaos going on around her and Jack’s Archer and Sandle have to play things relatively straight too as Leo and Graeme respectively, which they all do very well. Genevieve Gaunt is a delight as PA Amanda, with some very funny turns of phrase and mannerisms.

I really enjoyed this strange concoction, entertaining but thought-provoking too.