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Posts Tagged ‘Beth Steel’

Another play we were due to see two years ago, and one I was particularly looking forward to having enjoyed Beth Steel’s first three plays and even more of Anne Marie Duff’s performances, and boy was it worth the wait. An epic covering more than 50 years and 4 generations of the Webster family, together with much of the social history of the country since the mid-sixties.

We start in 1965 on the death of Constance’s father, when her mother comes to live with them. She and her husband Alistair have teenage twins Jack & Agnes and a younger daughter Laura. Alistair is a factory worker and shop steward. Constance is clearly unfulfilled, often in her own world of Bette Davies films and cabaret songs. Jack and Agnes look like following in their parents footsteps, both in terms of occupations and politics. Agnes is as feisty as her mum and Jack as passionate about politics as his dad. Laura seems to have learning difficulties, and its her fate which will hang over them all for decades to come.

We navigate the return of Labour in the 60’s, the winter of discontent, Thatcherism and the miners strike, New Labour and more recent times and events. Only Jack breaks out, with an extraordinary journey from communism to capitalism. As family members die, their neighbour comes to wash and lay them out, until that is no longer the custom; she’s like a narrator / chorus, commenting on changing times. Though it’s a linear story, characters return in ghostly flashbacks and it’s not until the end of the play that the pieces come together like the completion of a jigsaw. Blanche McIntyre’s direction is masterly.

The ensemble is outstanding, led by a superb performance from Anne-Marie Duff as Constance. She was in Sweet Charity at the Donmar before lockdown, so we knew she could hold a tune, and here she contributes a handful of songs in her dream life, but its the story of her family life which captivates. Some of the cast double up very effectively, notably Stuart McQuarrie as Alistair and the older Jack and Carol Macready as Constance’s mother Edith and the older Constance. There’s a lovely cameo from Beatie Edney as the neighbour.

I’ve lived through the whole of this period, a real life contemporary of Jack, and there is an authenticity about the play, with the exception of bad language in the home which you would never hear in the working class homes in my village at that time. It’s sometimes harrowing (there were tears behind us), but it’s a real theatrical feast and I left the theatre feeling deeply satisfied by a great drama superbly staged and performed. Unmissable.

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It’s easy to think that the economic crisis we’ve lived through in the last eight years is unique. As this play shows us, by explaining the Latin American Debt Crisis of the early 80’s, a prequel to the latest one, everything that has and is happening to Greece happened to Mexico, and other Latin American countries, more than thirty years before. History repeats itself and we just never learn.

In Beth Steel’s brilliant play we follow the career of John. He’s not your usual highly driven Ivy League Long Island banking type, but top banker Howard sees something in him and takes him on, to be groomed by high-flier Charlie in the macho world of international lending. As Charlie rises in the Latin American department, so does John. They loan money for projects that will never come to fruition, with money that won’t, because it can’t, be repaid. We learn of John’s troubled childhood, with his small-time fraudster father in prison while his mother loses everything. His dad comes back into his life and is a ghostly presence during the rest of the play, his dishonesty compared and contrasted with the monumentally bigger stunts being pulled by John and Charlie for their bank. John is a clever guy and by putting forward the idea that gets the banks off the hook, overtakes his mentor.

It’s an intelligent, well researched and superbly written play which manages to make the complex comprehensible. It builds, slowly at first, like all the best thrillers, except this isn’t fiction. It’s traverse staging has a clever, clinical, uncluttered design by Andrew D Edwards, with brilliant lighting and light effects by Richard Howell and a soundscape by Max Pappenheim. I haven’t seen any of director Anna Ledwich’s work before but I was really impressed by this. John is a big role and the character has an extraordinary journey and Sean Delaney, a 2015 RADA graduate, is stunning. Tom Weston Jones is outstanding as Charlie, as is Martin McDougall as Howard and Philip Bird as John’s dad Frank.

It owes something to Enron in terms of subject and style, but it’s its own thing, telling a different story brilliantly. I much admired Beth Steel’s previous play Wonderland, about the miners strike, but this couldn’t be more different, and it confirms her as an exciting new playwriting talent. A must see, and a candidate for Best New Play. What are you doing reading this when you should be booking tickets?!

 

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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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This is the third production in these tunnels under Waterloo Station, but the first under the auspices of the Old Vic. It explores similar territory as the second – a dystopian future world – but not as a promenade performance this time; there’s new (old) raked cinema seating in one of the arches. 

Beth Steel’s play takes us to the north of England in a future world where man-made catastrophes have led to the decline of society. An encampment of ‘security’ is hunting ‘illegals’. They receive regular but limited supplies and news of civil unrest which unnerves them, thinking they might too be attacked. Much more is revealed in the second act, which is the play’s downfall as it provides an imbalance and an irritating obtuseness to the first act which prevents you from fully engaging with the story and the characters. 

However, the staging by Richard Twyman and design by takis are stunning, and there are six fine performances from Gethin Anthony, Sam Hazeldine, Matti Houghton, Dearbhla Molloy, Paul Rattray and Danny Webb. The relentless rumble of trains overhead and the dark dampness of the venue seem part of the experience. 

It confirms this an exciting new venue (though I suspect better for promenade performances than a more conventional seating as here) . On this occasion, installations around the performance space create an appropriate atmosphere and there’s now a cool and quirky bar (though we still have the portaloos!). 

It’s much better than the reviews would have you believe and well worth checking out.

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