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Posts Tagged ‘Clarence Smith’

Peter Nichols, who sadly died last month, before this revival of his first major play opened, was for me one of the most underrated playwrights of the late 20th Century. His plays covered diverse subjects, his experiments with structure were highly original and he often added music to great effect. His relationships with producers were however problematic, though he did have three plays produced by the RSC and two by the NT, and this seems to have affected the fortunes of later plays and limited the number of revivals of earlier plays. This is only the second West End production of this play since its London premiere 52 years ago.

Nichols drew on his own experience of bringing up a disabled child. Bri and Sheila’s 15-year-old is severely handicapped, both physically and mentally. Bri uses humour to distract from and cope with his plight. Sheila is more matter-of-fact about it. On this particular day, shortly before Christmas, their ability to cope is pushed to, even beyond, the limit. When Bri returns from his day as a teacher, he is faced with caring for Josephine alone so that Sheila can have her break at the local AmDram, something Bri has encouraged. When Sheila returns she brings Freddie and Pam, fellow amateur thespians, who have yet to meet Joe. Bri’s mother also turns up, so we see three other reactions and perspectives on the situation.

In addition to performing in character, they all address the audience directly, and Bri and Sheila act out past visits to doctors. The play starts with the audience as Bri’s pupils, assembled at the end of the school day. It’s often uncomfortable, with black humour acting as a release for the audience, as it does for Bri as a character. It explores the complex web of emotions these parents have lived with for so long and discusses alternatives to their choice of a combination of Joe living at home with outside day care. These issues are covered objectively and non-judgementally, a vey rounded debate.

Toby Stephens and Claire Skinner are both outstanding as Bri and Sheila, with Storme Toolis, an actress of disability, bringing a deeply moving authenticity to the situation. There is fine support from Clarence Smith and Lucy Eaton as Freddie and Pam and a delightful cameo from Patricia Hodge as Bri’s mum. Peter Mcintosh’s house sits on the floor of Trafalgar Studio One, with flashback scenes and direct to audience dialogue in front, revolving to take us into the family living room. Director Simon Evans’ direction is sympathetic to the material, bringing out the timeless quality in it.

We’ve seen Privates on Parade, Passion Play and Lingua Franca relatively recently, but there are other Nichols’ plays desperately waiting for revival, with my top four being Poppy, The National Health, Forget-me-not Lane and Chez Nous. Lets hope this revival of his first spurs others on.

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If you take out the two operas, the three foreign language productions, the deconstruction and the filleted three-hander, I think this is my 12th Hamlet. Simon Godwin’s bold and brilliant staging, with a mesmerising performance by Paapa Essiedu, may well be the best of them. I regretted not going to Stratford to see it, but now I don’t, because it’s particularly thrilling to see it at the Hackney Empire amongst an enraptured young and diverse audience.

It’s an African Denmark, colourful and throbbing with music and life, which works brilliantly. It serves the play well, adding some magic, but no gimmicks. So many scenes are superbly staged it’s hard to know where to begin. It gets off to a great start at Hamlet’s graduation ceremony, emphasising his youth and the likely effect of this on his grief at losing his dad and anger at his mother’s swift re-marriage. His confrontations with a cool Claudius are particularly spikey and the resentment of his mother palpable. As the play progresses, we get a superb play-within-the-play, Polonius’ death deftly handled, Ophelia’s grief heartbreaking, a wonderful grave digging scene and a thrilling fight between Hamlet and Laertes using double sticks. Godwin hardly puts a foot wrong and I felt I was hearing the verse afresh with new emphasis and intonation.

Paapa Essiedu really is extraordinary. His verse speaking is enthralling, he totally engages with the audience and every one of those many soliloquies, where he’s alone on that vast stage, are captivating. The rest of the cast is excellent too. I thought Clarence Smith was a particularly fine Claudius and Buom Tihngang made Laertes his own. Mimi Ndiweni is very moving as Ophelia and Lorna Brown navigates Gertrude’s emotional journey very well. Joseph Mydell is luxury casting indeed as Polonius. Paul Wills set, in red-rust colours, and colourful costumes evoke an African kingdom, with Sola Akingbola’s music adding that final touch.

It’s somewhat ironic that within 48 hours our two big national companies have given me one of the worst and one of the best Shakespeare productions I’ve ever seen. I can’t emphasise enough how much seeing it in Hackney Empire, surrounded by young people spellbound by the Bard, added to my experience.

DON’T MISS THIS

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I’m very fond of the work of playwright Roy Williams. He’s one of the very few writing about contemporary urban life, black lives in particular. This is my eleventh play of his and he hasn’t let me down yet, and he doesn’t here.

The Firm were a gang of late-forties / early-fifties small time crooks in South East London. They’re reuniting to celebrate Shaun’s release from prison at Gus’ new bar on the eve of its grand opening. Selwyn brings young lad Fraser with him, allegedly a relative, a member of one of a new generation of very different gangs. Leslie and Trent have encountered Fraser before – he’s been preparing the way, and now he’s there with a proposition, but it gets lost in a deluge of skeletons and ghosts as truths are revealed, myths debunked and regrets surface.

Williams writes such authentic, ripe dialogue and after a slow start, the story unfolds and unravels with great pace. I liked the way it exposed the very different personalities and their motivations, how they’ve gone their different ways and how it contrasts the two generations. Though history is likely to repeat itself, it will be a very different one.

It’s superbly performed by a crack cast – Clinton Blake, Jay Simpson, Delroy Atkinson & Clarence Smith as the members of the old Firm and Simon Coombs as young Fraser. The Finborough’s resident designer Alex Marker has got his hands on a bigger budget and delivered an excellent realistic new bar. Denis Lawson’s staging is very visceral, not afraid to let its hair down as it exposes shocking truths.

This made me wonder why I don’t go to Hampstead Downstairs, a low profile, intimate space, more often. Definitely worth a visit.

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