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Posts Tagged ‘Arinze Kene’

I didn’t bother with a ‘Best of’ last year as my theatre-going, apart from a handful of open air shows, came to a standstill after just over two months. 2021 started as badly as 2020 had ended, but I managed to see something like 65 shows in the last half of the year, so it seems worth restoring the tradition.

There were nine new plays worthy of consideration as Best New Play. These include Indecent at the Menier, Deciphering at the New Diorama, Camp Siegfried at the Old Vic and Best of Enemies at the Young Vic. Something that wasn’t strictly speaking a play but was a combination of taste, smell and music, and very theatrical, was Balsam at the Greenwich & Docklands International Festival. Out of town, in the Reading Abbey ruins, The Last Abbot impressed. Three major contenders emerged. The first was Grenfell: Value Engineering at the Tabernacle, continuing the tradition of staging inquiries, verbatim but edited, very powerfully. The remaining two had puppetry and imaginative theatricality in common. Both Life of Pi, transferring to Wyndham’s from Sheffield Theatres, and The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage at The Bridge were adaptations of books, but were thrilling on stage, and both had star performances from Hiran Abeysekera and newcomer Samuel Creasey respectively – I couldn’t choose between them.

The leanest category was New Musical, where there were only a few to choose from. I liked Moulin Rouge for the spectacle, but it was really just spectacle, and I enjoyed Back to the Future too, but it was the sense of tongue-in-cheek fun of What’s New Pussycat? at Birmingham Rep and the sheer energy of Get Up Stand Up at the Lyric Theatre, with a towering performance by Arinze Kene as Bob Marley, that elevated these jukebox musicals above the other two.

More to pick from with play revivals, including excellent productions of Under Milk Wood and East is East at the NT, The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Lyric Hammersmith and two Beckett miniatures – Footfalls & Rockaby – at the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre. GDIF’s Belgian visitors staged Blue Remembered Hills brilliantly on wasteland in Thamesmead, and Emma Rice’s Brief Encounter had a great new production at the Watermill near Newbury, but it was Yeal Farber’s Macbeth at the Almeida, as exciting as Shakespeare gets, that shone brightest, along with Hampstead’s revival of Alan Plater’s Peggy For You, with a stunning performance from Tamsin Greig, which ended my theatre-going year.

The musical revivals category was strong too, probably because we needed a dose of fun more than anything else (well, except vaccines!). I revisited productions of Come from Away and Singin’ in the Rain, though they don’t really count as revivals, likewise Hairspray which was a replica of the original, but I enjoyed all three immensely. Regents Park Open Air Theatre brought Carousel to Britain, in more ways than one, and the Mill at Sonning continued its musical roll with an excellent Top Hat. It was South Pacific at Chichester and Anything Goes at the Barbican that wowed most, though, the former bringing a more modern sensibility to an old story and the latter giving us Brits an opportunity to see what Broadway has been getting that we’ve been missing in Sutton Foster. If only we could detain her permanently.

In other theatrical and musical forms…..there were dance gems from New Adventures with Midnight Bell at Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Ballet’s Dante Project at Covent Garden, and a beautiful concert performance of Howard Goodall musical of Love Story at Cadogan Hall. There were lots of classical music highlights, but it was the world premiere of Mark Anthony Turnage’s Up for Grabs at the Barbican, accompanying footage of his beloved Arsenal, that packed the hall with football fans and proved to be a refreshing and surreal experience I wouldn’t have missed for the world (and I’m not a football fan, let alone an Arsenal one!). Somewhat ironically, most of my opera-going revolved around Grimeborn and Glyndebourne and it was a scaled down but thrilling Die Walkure at Hackney Empire as part of the former that proved to be the highlight.

Let’s hope its a full year of culture in 2022.

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All the best ‘juke-box musicals’ are biographical – Jersey Boys, Sunny Afternoon, Beautiful, Tina – and you can add this to the list, but it’s edgier than the others, and has a political dimension too. It also has a towering performance from Arinze Kene as Bob Marley. Though I lived through his active years in London, and liked his music, I wouldn’t call myself a fan. After hearing the songs again after so long, though, my appreciation of them, particularly lyrically, has grown significantly.

It tells his story from a troubled childhood, effectively abandoned by both his parents until he was 6, through his first recording in Jamaica, the formation of The Wailers, marriage to Rita, adoption of the Rastafarian religion, his first period in London from 1972-76, attempted assassination back in Jamaica as he becomes involved in politics and his second period in London up to his untimely death in the US at 36. Lee Hall’s excellent book makes this into a very lucid story and makes no attempt to bury the flaws, notably his treatment of the women in his life.

Clint Dyer’s impeccable direction has bucketloads of energy, with the music propelling Marley’s story forward, providing the anchor and emotional drive. Chloe Lamford’s wall-of-speakers design, enabling performances on three levels, a supersized version of the one in Sunny Afternoon, is matched by a wall of sound, with the bass vibrating my stalls seat. It’s a great ensemble, with Gabrielle Brooks shining as Rita, and Arinze Kene mesmerising as Marley, with vocal and dance skills matching his superb acting. I’ve loved every one of the four previous performances of his I’ve seen – One Night in Miami, Girl from the North Country, Misty and Death of a Salesman – but this is very special indeed.

The term juke-box musical is often used as a derogatory one, and the genre is sometimes derided, so I’ll call this by a much more accurate term – a musical biography – and it’s an extraordinary example of this genre. Final call-out for the programme, just about the only one in the West End worth the money!

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Arinze Kene’s play Misty was one of my favourite evenings last year, which made me keen to see this revival of an earlier play, in the unlikely venue of the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. I will try and control my superlativeitis!

It consists of three interwoven monologues by black teenage school-kids on the brink of adulthood, but what makes it so much more is that their individual stories are animated by movement, audience contact and the other actors characterising people in the stories as they prowl around the small round platform. You sometimes have to work to understand all of the uber-realistic street dialogue, but it is very poetic as it crackles and sparkles.

The unpredictable very physical movement by DK Fashola is so integral to the piece, which is brilliantly staged by JMK Award Winner Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu. The depth of characterisation is extraordinary; you get to know, understand and empathise with these three souls, even if they are poles apart from your own life experiences. The three actors, of course, contribute much to this; Ayebe Godwin, Rachel Nwokoro and Khai Shaw are all absolutely superb.

It’s rare that writing, staging and performances all come together to creat something so special. Though it probably doesn’t belong at the Orange Tree, their rousing reception made it all the more of a joy. Two more weeks. Be there.

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It’s seventy years since this iconic American play first appeared on Broadway, the second of Arthur Miller’s four big hits between 1947 and 1955, and it’s forty years since I first saw it in Michael Rudman’s production for the NT, with Warren Mitchel’s revelatory award-winning performance as Willy Loman. For some reason, I’ve only seen it a few times since, less than the other tree. It’s a timeless piece, and now Marianne Elliott & Miranda Cromwell have breathed new life into it, in an extraordinary revival at the Young Vic.

Most productions focus so much on Willy Loman and his late career meltdown that they ignore the greater sweep of family tragedy and its many layers. Willy is indeed burnt out by a relentless life on the road. When he tries to get his employer to let him return to base, he gets fired. His loyalty and service mean nothing to the son of the man who hired him, and his mental health declines, but added to his woes are the fact that his sons have been disappointments, Biff a failed sportsman who ended up as a farm labourer, Happy a womaniser with a low level job. His wife Linda struggles to manage the tensions and keep the peace. Their neighbour Charley, whose son, a contemporary of Biff, is a successful lawyer, loans them money to keep them afloat. Flashbacks to times past include Willy’s visits to his mistress, once witnessed by Biff, and there are imaginary conversations with his dead Uncle Ben, both interspersed with the family saga’s inevitable progress to its tragic conclusion.

In this production, the Loman’s are a black Brooklyn family and this adds another layer but changes nothing. Wendell Pierce is outstanding as Willy, navigating this emotional roller-coaster of a role with great skill. Sharon D Clarke’s Linda loves her man and her boys but shares his disappointments and frustrations; as stunning a performance as we’ve become used to from this fine actress. Arinze Kene and Martins Imhangbe are simply terrific as Biff and Happy, trying but failing to please, carrying their own disappointments on their shoulders. They are supported by another eight performances in a fine ensemble, including superb cameos from Joseph Mydell as Uncle Ben and Matthew Seadon-Young as Willy’s young employer Howard. Femi Temowo’s music adds much, particularly with fine singers like Sharon D Clarke and Arinze Kene in the company. Anna Fleischle’s design serves the play well.

The unofficial Miller mini-fest reaches it’s pinnacle here with a revival that’s too good to see only once. I’ll be back!

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This Bush Theatre transfer is a real breath of fresh air for the West End. Arinze Kene’s play is an extraordinary concoction of drama, performance poetry, rap and music, staged brilliantly, with a virtuoso performance from the playwright himself. I found it thrilling.

Misty tracks black Londoner Lucas as he navigates the city, starting with an altercation on the night bus, struggling with the changes to, and gentrification of, his city. It also tells the story of the playwright, developing his work with advice and interference from the producer, his agent and friends. Both are interwoven in a series of inventive short scenes, many with music, with the two musicians, the stage manager and a young girl providing brief characterisations of others. It’s structure confounds you as its originality pleases you.

Rajha Shakiry’s simple stylised design relies on Daniel Denton’s terrific projections and shadows to create evocative stage images beautifully lit by Jackie Shemesh. Omar Elerian’s staging is masterly, creative and unpredictable. The music, played live by Shiloh Coke and Adrain McLeod, seems an organic part of the story, and Elena Penoa’s sound made it exciting but fully audible. Arizne Kane has bucketloads of charisma and presence and his performance is stunning. All of the components come together to produce a truly captivating evening, with the audience erupting at the end.

I knew of Kene’s talent as an actor from One Night in Miami and Girl from the North Country, but I had no idea that he had such an original writing voice too. Unmissable.

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My knowledge of the US civil rights movement in the 60’s was weak, but is stronger for seeing this excellent play by American Kemp Powers; I love it when I learn something at the theatre.

The night in question is the one when Cassius Clay, as he was then called, beat Sonny Liston to win his world title in 1964. He’s in a hotel room with friends Malcolm X, soul singer Sam Cooke and footballer Jim Brown. Outside the room there are two security guards placed there by The Nation of Islam to protect their spokesman.

It’s a pivotal point for all four. Clay is about to convert to Islam and change his name to Mohammed Ali. Cooke has written his civil rights anthem, A Change Is Gonna Come, but will soon meet his untimely death. Brown has commenced his second career, acting in his first film. Malcolm X is about to quit The Nation of Islam.

They debate the issues of civil rights and their differing attitudes and perspectives. Malcolm X may not be as hard line as they thought and the guards may be as much to control as protect. Is Sam Cooke selling his soul as he sings it? Clay’s conversion may be a touch reluctant. Is Brown ignoring what’s going on around him and just concentrating on having a good time? It’s a fascinating debate, without being preachy or earnest, and packs a lot into a well written, entertaining 90 minutes.

Six fine performances too. Arinze Kene brings Cooke to life, singing superbly. Sope Dirisu’s characterisation of Clay is playful and spot on. Francois Battiste captures Malcolm X at a turning point, still defiant but inwardly doubting. David Akala’s Brown is the good-time guy and there’s fine support from Dwane Walcott and Josh Williams as the two contrasting guards. I’d wondered why we’d not seen or heard from director Kwame Kwei-Armah for so long. It appears he’s been directing and running theatre companies in the US. It’s good to have him back, though I’m not sure how long that’s for.

Another fine evening at the Donmar.

 

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