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Posts Tagged ‘Dorfman Theatre’

So the Queen of ‘slow theatre’ has speeded up a bit, but for me she’s still going nowhere. My fifth Annie Baker play is a story about storytelling itself. It may be my last.

We’re sitting around a boardroom table where eight people are beginning a writing project, presumably for film or TV, probably a fantasy. Brian takes the notes. secretary Sarah pops in to check if they need anything and take lunch orders from fancy takeaways. They all look up to the boss, Sandy. There’s a vast quantity of Perrier water stacked up in boxes (product placement?), rather at odds with the likely environmental credentials of such folk. The ice-breakers include candid stories from their personal lives.

Danny M2 departs, unexplained but presumed fired. Sandy leaves to deal with family issues. They stay overnight, Sandy using a pending storm as an excuse to get them to stay. They brainstorm, but struggle to come up with ideas, until Adam downloads a big idea that Brian forgets to record, though it may be too late by now, as we learn when Sandy returns. They are all extremely pretentious and irritating and though it is intermittently funny, it’s often dull.

I think the point is that we may have run out of stories, but I didn’t really care. A fine set by co-director Chloe Lamford (with the playwright, interesting) and some good performances can’t really paint over the cracks in the material, and I’m afraid it all seemed rather pointless to me.

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Writer / director Alexander Zeldin’s last play LOVE, about homelessness, also in the Dorfman Theatre at the National, had a huge impact on me. Although I knew what was happening to our welfare system, it confronted me with the consequences very vividly in an emotional rollercoaster that made me sad, angry and ashamed. This is a companion piece, very much in the same style.

Hazel is a volunteer running a drop-in centre providing a hot meal to anyone who needs one, but it becomes much more than that. There’s a choir, with it’s temporary choirmaster Mason, who also helps with the lunches, and advice, counselling, companionship, and belonging provided by Hazel, a woman brimming with compassion and a heart of gold. Just about everything the state no longer provides, in fact.

One of the main threads in the play involves Beth, whose daughter has been taken into care, and her sixteen-year-old son, who’s been forced to become the responsible one in this single parent family. Young Anthony and old Bernard live in an unwelcoming hostel which they escape from for a few hours. Karl fills at least one gap of the many his carer can no longer fill. Tharwa and her daughter Tala come for food, but get so much more. A slice of life in uncaring Britain.

Zeldin’s theatrical style is heightened realism and natural pacing. Natasha Jenkins’ extraordinary design places the audience as onlookers in an authentic community centre in natural indoor light, with characters sometimes occupying seats amongst us. The cast, including three from the previous play, inhabit these characters fully, with the wonderful Cecilia Noble as Hazel, the heart of the piece in every sense, Nick Holder excellent as the very complex Mason, and an empathetic performance from Alan Williams as Bernard.

In some ways it’s LOVE Part Two, but I didn’t find it as bleak and harrowing, perhaps because Hazel represents the kindness real people offer to compensate for what the system no longer does, and there are flashes of humour which provides some release. It still had much impact, though; important, urgent theatre that has to be seen.

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I missed this at the Bush Theatre last year, so I was pleased the NT picked it up. By the time it finished, pleased became delighted. It’s a play which tackles serious issues with great warmth, delicacy and humour. I loved it.

Kelly is a feisty, funny twenty-something with Down syndrome living with her mum Agnes in Skegness and working for a charity. She has a high degree of independence, but Agnes is very protective. They are very close, but the relationship is tested when Kelly strikes up a friendship with Neil, who works in an amusement arcade. This friendship becomes a relationship which Agnes tries hard to break up, including finding Dominic from Scunthorpe on the internet, a boy with asperger’s, to date Kelly, which makes Kelly even more entrenched.

Agnes finds it hard to believe that Neil is genuinely in love, fearing exploitation. The relationship continues, though the course becomes rockier, for reasons it would be a spoiler to disclose, and they separate at one point. Neil and Kelly are subjected to disbelief, discrimination and abuse by some they meet. Dominic becomes a wise confidante of both Agnes and Kelly. 

It sensitively covers issues around disability, particularly reconciling the genuine wish and need to protect with the appropriate degree of independence and freedom, but it does so with such humour it is at the same time truly entertaining, without losing any of its impact. It’s beautifully written by Ben Weatherill, who has a real talent for sharp and witty dialogue that often surprises.

Sarah Gordy is captivating as Kelly, clearly relishing and identifying with her gutsy, sharp-tongued character. In an appropriately restrained performance, Sion Daniel Young brings an authenticity to this loving relationship, investing his character with gentleness, sensitivity and empathy. Penny Layden captures both the love and protectiveness of Agnes, bringing a seriousness that balances the humour of other characters. Nicky Priest is delightful as Dominic, delivering some of the funniest lines to perfection with deadpan delivery, the whole audience falling for his charm.

It’s a tonic to see such a heart-warming, hopeful show, informing and entertaining in equal measure. A real treat.

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This is the second show in three days which I experienced through headphones – you should definitely try the other one! https://danteordie.com/user-not-found – but they couldn’t be further apart. This one is a cold war thriller created by playwright Ella Hickson and sound magicians Ben & Max Ringham, and the form is they key to its success.

We look through glass into Hans & Anna’s East German apartment. They are hosting a party to celebrate Hans’ promotion, which his co-workers are all attending. Through our headphones we hear Anna (a fine performance from Phoebe Fox) and anything in close proximity – someone else speaking, water running, a cigarette lighting. Everything else is seen but not necessarily heard. The story that unfolds in just 65 minutes has many twists and turns and no-one is who they seem.

The effect of the glass and headphones is to add a layer of intrigue and increase the intensity of concentration; I wasn’t distracted at all throughout it, and I’m very easily distracted! It’s impossible to say more without spoiling it. Vicki Mortimer’s design, with an extraordinary attention to detail, is evocative of the place and the period, with Jon Clark’s lighting playing an important part and Ben & Max Ringham’s sound design absolutely crucial to the piece.

It’s a short evening, but its an original and very clever one, well staged by Natalie Abrahami.

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American playwright Bruce Norris is no stranger to controversy. His Olivier, Tony & Pulitzer winning Clybourne Park was a brilliant and funny look at race and class in his home country. Here he puts sex offenders under the microscope and produces his best play since Clybourne, a remarkably objective 360 degree look at attitudes of and to sex offenders, and society’s reaction and response, something has has been a major preoccupation in this country for some time now.

Four men are effectively under house arrest, tagged and supervised in a group home in downstate Illinois. There are geographic limits for their movement, within which they can work, if they can get it, drive, bus, walk, shop. Their crimes and their address are published, so the fear of attack is never far away. They have no access to the internet or smart phones.

When we first meet them, wheelchair-bound Fred, now an old man, is visited and confronted by Andy, a man he assaulted as a boy, still seeking closure. Andy returns later without his wife for a more angry confrontation. In the second pivotal scene, the police officer in charge of their cases holds court. Her most important task is to present Felix with evidence of his rule breaches.

There are so many issues and angles, all deftly and sensitively handled. Remorse and forgiveness, and lack of, and revenge. The need for punishment but the value of it on its own. Though you’re an an emotional roller-coaster throughout, moving from anger to disgust to sympathy to hopelessness, it’s never played for these emotions and reactions, so objectivity is preserved.

It’s great to welcome Steppenwolf, America’s pre-eminent repertory company, to these shores again and the five fine actors who have made these characters so real – Glenn Davies, Francis Guinan, K Todd Freeman, Eddie Torres and Tim Hopper as Fred’s victim. Our own Cecilia Noble is on blistering form again as Ivy the cop.

If you like your theatre challenging, unsettling and illuminating, head to the NT’s Dorfman post haste.

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Nina Raine’s new play concerns a woman’s attempts to have a child before its too late. Her younger husband Tom leaves her in her late thirties, not wanting the child she does, and she begins to navigate the world of sperm donation. Though it covers a lot of serious issues, it’s an entertaining ride.

Anna approaches many of the men she knows and some she doesn’t, straight and gay, old and young, mostly single, but to no avail. They either decline or agree then subsequently change their minds. She even looks at buying sperm from an online catalogue featuring donor photos and key information like intelligence scores. She discusses options with her family and friends. As time goes on, desperation sets in. We learn a lot about the different options, and issues like ongoing involvement of the donors and the child’s rights.

At first I thought she might be taking the subject lightly, but serious issues are covered well, most notably in a very moving scene where she visits an adult with an anonymous donor father to see things from the child’s perspective. The psychological and emotional strain on women of late child-bearing age wanting children has bern covered before, most recently in the Young Vic’s harrowing contemporary take on Yerma, but this is more specifically about sperm donation, and much lighter in tone, yet just as serious in its own way.

Claudie Blakley is excellent as Anna, on stage virtually the whole time. The rest of the adult cast play two or three roles, with Sam Troughton giving a virtuoso performance as husband Tom and no less than five potential donors, changing character with the turn of the head or a hand brushed through the hair. It’s a simple traverse staging, with characters and props coming from the other two sides and it’s very well paced, the playwright directing.

This is the fourth Raine play tackling important contemporary issues very effectively whilst at the same time providing entertaining, satisfying drama. Well worth a visit.

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This is one of those occasions where writing, design, performances and staging all come together to create something special. Laura Wade’s play may prove to be the year’s best new play. Whilst I find the superlatives thesaurus, you may wish to stop here if you haven’t read any other reviews and you’ve booked to see it; what follows won’t spoil it, but might just take the edge off it.

Judy and Johnny are obsessed with the 50’s, their friends Fran and Marcus share their interest, but less obsessively. All we know about Johnny is that he’s an estate agent who didn’t go to university. Judy was brought up by her feminist mother in a Sussex commune, went to university and became an accountant. Voluntary redundancy gives her the opportunity to give up work and plunge them fully into a 50’s lifestyle, becoming a housewife, aspiring domestic goddess.

Their reserves are disappearing as Johnny’s commission is declining. One less income, and all that retro furniture and clothes which don’t come cheap. Still, they seem completely wrapped up in their fantasy, until Johnny’s failure to get a promotion triggers a series of events involving his new very driven boss Alex, who’s bemused by their lifestyle, and Judy’s mum Sylvia, who disapproves of the patriarchal accoutrements it brings with it. There’s a clever sub-plot involving problems Marcus is having at work.

What I like about Wade’s play is the many layers she achieves, exploring attitudes and behaviour then and now, as Judy and Johnny change as their fantasy progresses, and how that is seen by those left in the here and now. Things are not always what they appear to be, so it often surprises you. We’ve travelled a long way from the 50’s but in many ways not far enough, as juxtaposing the two periods, even one as a fantasy, proves. It’s like a conversation between then and now. Director Tamara Harvey’s production draws you in; even the activity of the scene changes prove captivating.

Anna Fleischle’s extraordinarily detailed design is stunning, as obsessive as the obsession that drives Judy & Johnny. The period music makes for a superb soundtrack. Katherine Parkinson is terrific as Judy, never leaving the home, so on stage the whole time. Richard Harrington gives a nuanced portrayal as Johnny, revealing insecurities and doubts as well as his devotion to Judy. Kathryn Drysdale and Barnaby Kay are excellent as Fran and Marcus, sometimes contributing nifty period dance routines between scenes. Sian Thomas shines as the mum whose values Judy seems to be rebelling against, as does Sara Gregory as Johnny’s boss, oblivious to his attraction to her.

An unmissable night in the theatre that reminds you why you go.

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