Posts Tagged ‘Ashley Martin-Davies’

I’m not being perverse by reviewing the last night; as I was travelling for most of the run, it was the first chance I had to see it, and I’m glad I did.

Ryan Craig’s family drama takes us through fifteen years, from the late 60’s to the early 80’s. Widow Yetta Solomon is the matriarch of an East London Jewish family whose business is in ‘rubber goods’. Both her sons, Nat and Leo, are in the business, but they are forever fighting. Leo is intent on escape, but Yetta always has a trick up her sleeve to stop him. Leo’s son Micky doesn’t want to join the business, but Yetta draws him in and eventually he, and other grandson Gerard, are involved, fighting just like their dads. There are references to real events of the period, which was indeed a fascinating one.

Yetta is full of contradictions. She is benevolent to workers like Monty and Rosa, until they cross her. Everything she does is to keep the family together and the business alive, but we eventually learn just how manipulative she is and just how dirty her tricks have been. It’s a commanding performance by Sara Kestelman, owning the stage as she does her family and her staff. Louis Hillyer and Dorian Lough are very good as the bickering brothers, as are Callum Woodhouse, Jack Bannon and Callie Cooke as the next generation. Ashley Martin-Davies’ two-story set is full of period detail and you can almost smell the rubber. 

I really took against Craig’s 2009 play Our Class and wasn’t at all keen on his 2011 play The Holy Rosenbergs – https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/05/27/the-holy-rosenbergs and this one becomes a bit too melodramatic at times, with some of the twists and turns a touch contrived, but it’s a big improvement on his previous work.

A meaty play with a superb late career performance by Sara Kestleman at it’s core.

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This David Lindsay-Abaire play pre-dates Good People, his 2014 hit here in the UK, which also started in Hampstead before transferring to the West End. Though it has some similarities, it’s a fundamentally different play, more gentle and sensitive. I liked it.

Howie and Becca are trying to come to terms with their personal tragedy, the loss of a four-year-old son, each in very different ways. Howie joins a support group whilst Becca copes alone. He likes reminders but she wants them removed. Lindsay-Abaire introduces his class theme again, with Becca’s sister Izzy and mom Nat coming from a very different part of suburban New York. The family has suffered unexpected loss before, though Nat and Becca see that very differently too. Izzy announces her pregnancy, adding another car to the emotional roller-coaster.

The play explores the differing responses to grief, starting after eight months, moving forward a few more. It’s a very delicate play, not without humour, but much gentler humour than the acerbic kind in Good People. With the audience wrapped around an unelevated stage, Hampstead Theatre seems more intimate, very much in keeping with the piece. Ashley Martin-Davies set manages to contain four rooms without seeming in any way cramped, with plenty of space in the main playing area. Edward Hall’s staging is empathetic, as sensitive as the material and indeed the performances. 

Tom Goodman-Hill and Clare Skinner beautifully convey the strain events place on their relationship. Georgina Rich brings Izzy a down-to-earth plain-speaking warmth and Penny Downie gives a nuanced performance as mother Nat, who has complex relationships with her daughters as well as the ghost of her dead son. Sean Delaney has an impact much bigger than the role of Jason, the young man involved in son Danny’s death, himself trying to come to terms with it all.

The play wasn’t at all what I was expecting after Good People, which is good as it proves Lindsay-Abaire has both breadth and depth. This one is very much its own play, well structured and well written and, like the other, every moment matters. A very thoughtful and thought-provoking evening.

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The miners strike was the most divisive period in my lifetime. Some saw it as a breakthrough in Britain’s economic recovery. Others saw it as a cruel destruction of communities and lives in pursuit of a business ideology which replaced British coal with coal subsidised by foreign governments, eliminating British jobs but saving jobs in other countries. I’m from a mining village in South Wales and my father was a miner, so you can guess where I stand.

Beth Steel’s play starts in a mine, immediately before the strike . This ensures we can see these dreadful jobs, the appalling conditions they suffer and the risks they take on a daily basis, but also the team spirit and camaraderie. This is interspersed with scenes where the politicians and their hired hands plot the downfall of an entire industry. Edward Hall’s staging is extraordinary, with Ashley Martin-Davies’ design a huge metal structure, with vast pit, elevated walkways and a working mine cage. There are so many fine performances that it would be invidious to single any out; I was a bit shocked to discover that only twelve actors (and six ‘extras’ ) played all of the roles. A true ensemble indeed.

In the longer second half, the spectacular gives way to the human stories. Communities and families pitted against one another, miners struggling to feed their families, gloating police flaunting their obscene overtime earnings and the dirty tricks played to secure a ‘victory’ for Thatcherism. David Hart, an odious character in Thatcher’s circle who was new to me, but apparently very real, sinks to unbelievable depths without the slightest hint of humanity.

This is a very impressive second play from Steel; well researched, well written and respectful without being overly sentimental. I thought the second half, without the distraction of the spectacle, was better, but it was telling the story of an extraordinarily eventful twelve months. Yes, you know where she stands too (with me) but it still has enough objectivity to come over as real social history. Some aspects of the strike were conveyed well in the musical of Billy Elliott – dividing families, the attitude of the police brought up from the south – but this is a more rounded dramatic presentation of a key point in recent years – staged exactly thirty years on.

A triumph for Hampstead Theatre.


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I had two reservations about this. Can you really make an interesting play about the arrest of a Chinese dissident, however important the issues are? Is Hampstead, with its somewhat conservative audience, the right theatre?

Well, the answer to the first question is a definite yes. What Howard Brenton has produced, at Ai Weiwei’s request, based on his account in Barnaby Martin’s book, is a multi-layered piece about freedom of expression, the absurd responses of tyrannies to dissidence, the cruelty & indignity of imprisonment & interrogation and a bit of a debate about art. Silence is used to create tension and illustrate boredom and both humour and humanity pop up in the most unlikely places.

We start with Ai Weiwei’s arrest at the airport, about to board a plane for Hong Kong. In the first segment, we see his initial detention and interrogation by the Beijing police with two young guards suffocating him the rest of the time, occasionally playing with their smartphones, dozing and playing games with one another to relieve their boredom. In the second, we have more interrogation but now in military detention with two soldiers now suffocating in a more formal way including watching him pee. In between, we glimpse some debates between politicians divided in how to deal with it all.

The detention, of course, has the effect of increasing the attention and negative publicity they seek to bury. Even the guards, soldiers & interrogators eventually hint at their personal sympathy. The pointlessness, dullness, cruelty and indignity of it all are clearly and cleverly presented in James Macdonald’s production. If an intelligent Chinese politician saw it, they would surely realise how misguided their policy is. He was of course released, so maybe they did.

Much of the success of the play is down to Benedict Wong’s outstanding central performance. He conveys defiance and determination but also frustration and hopelessness. It’s a nice touch to have the same two actors – Andrew Koji & Christopher Goh – play the young police guards and the well-drilled uniformed soldiers. In Ashley Martin Davies’ excellent design, the ‘cells’ cleverly open up from crates manoeuvred by ‘extras’ and giant painted scrolls and ornamental trees appear for the brief exchanges between politicians.

Despite its relatively short running time, and fewer words than most plays, it covers a lot of ground effectively and in depth. With regard to the second question, though, I do think its in the wrong theatre playing to the wrong audience. This is a Tricycle play on the Hampstead stage, but still, it’s on a stage and should be seen. I now have to reconcile my view of it all with two impending visits to China!

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The story of the English Civil War, and in particular Charles I’s trail and execution, seemed like an excellent subject for playwright Howard Brenton who has had such success with both recent history (Macmillan in ‘Never So Good’) and history of the same period (‘Anne Boleyn’) but I’m afraid this play doesn’t really stand up to either.

The action is concentrated into a small period leading up to, during and after the trial and into a limited number of locations so it doesn’t have the epic scale the events perhaps deserve. It also doesn’t have the depth of both story and characterisation that the subject deserves; it felt like he had a great idea but got a bit bored with it before he was through.

The first half is particularly slow, though things do pick up in the trial scenes in Act II. There is, however, something uneven about the evening and it could do with a lot more pace. This is unusual for director Howard Davies who’s always seemed to me to be the master of pace.

I’m not sure it gained much from the traverse staging (and those in the first couple of rows on both sides would probably say it lost a lot for them in the trail scenes as they appeared to be looking at the backs of the parliamentarians) or indeed Ashley Martin-Davies’ design. The idea to dress everyone in modern dress except Charles is a bit puzzling and everyone and everything in black and grey made for a somewhat drab experience.

Mark Gatiss is perfectly good as Charles (though I understand he’s about a foot too tall if you want to be historically accurate!) and Douglas Henshall is fine as Cromwell. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with the performances, though none excited me.

Perhaps I was expecting too much, but I left the theatre feeling very indifferent about the play and the production, I’m afraid.

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