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Posts Tagged ‘English Touring Theatre’

I’m not sure we’ve seen this 7th play in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle in the UK before; if so, it certainly passed me by. Each play represents the African American experience in one decade of the 20th Century, this one the sixties. They are all set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, from where Wilson himself hails, this play in Lee’s Restaurant, owned by a character called Memphis.

It’s 1969, a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The civil rights movement is very active, there are regular clashes as the police target the black community and Pittsburgh’s urban renewal is displacing black families. All this is happening outside Memphis’ establishment, which is itself threatened by compulsory purchase for development. Apart from Memphis and his assistant Risa, we meet two black businessmen, the very successful local undertaker and property owner West, and Holloway, whose business interests are less clear. Homeless man Hambone, hardy able to communicate, drifts in and out, as does Wolf, who runs an illegal betting business using the diner’s phone. Wheeler-dealer Sterling, recently out of prison, makes a play for Risa, befriends Hambone, does deals with Memphis and bets with Wolf. In many ways, he’s the heart if the play.

There’s less plot and character development than Wilson’s other plays. It’s more of a social history, though of a fascinating period close enough to resonate. It’s like seven lives converging inside the restaurant, with events outside a backdrop, and there’s a tragic but very satisfying and defiant conclusion. I struggled to engage with the first half’s overlong eighty minute scene setting, but the second half was much better, though I don’t think it’s amongst the best of the cycle, despite the ripeness of the period. I also struggled catching all of the dialogue, as the emphasis was on authenticity more than clarity. Frankie Bradshaw’s design is terrific, a realistic diner with an impressionistic city backdrop and a symbolic wrecking ball, and director Nancy Medina has repaid the trust of the judges of the RTST Sir Peter Hall Director Award with a fine production. It would be invidious to single out any individual in this very fine cast; the seven performances are uniformly excellent.

I’m getting fond of these afternoon trips to Northampton,where so much quality drama now originates. Co-produced by ETT, this one also gets to be seen in six other towns and cities. Get to one of them!

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Peter Shaffer’s play was 27 years old when I first saw it; for once I’d seen the film first. I enjoyed my second look in 2007 even more, when it featured a brave Daniel Ratcliffe with his screen uncle, the late Richard Griffiths. Here we are another twelve years on, when mental health is thankfully more talked about, with the premiere of a more radical ETT / Stratford East touring co-production which makes you realise how groundbreaking it must have been in 1973.

Seventeen year old Alan Strang is brought to child psychiatrist Martin Dysart by his magistrate friend when he appears before her for blinding six horses. His sessions with Dysart are interwoven with discussions with his parents (religious mother, atheist father), and flashbacks to events with them, his employer at the stables and Jill, the girl he’s taken a shine to. Dysart finds Strang elusive and challenging, playing games with him, but he eventually reciprocates and begins to reap rewards in his understanding of the case. The crucial moments of his interaction with the horses are played out in hugely dramatic scenes where other actors play the horses, culminating in the shocking event which led to his hospitalisation and treatment by Dysart.

It’s a gripping psychological thriller which needs a kind of electrical charge between the two main protagonists, and it certainly gets that here. I’ve been following Zubin Varla’s career since GSMD and this is one of the best things he’s done (even if he is looking and sounding more lie David Suchet these days!) and Ethan Kai is outstanding as Alan, highly strung, edgy, vulnerable, dangerous. There’s a fine supporting cast, with Ira Mandela Siobhan a particularly impressive horse. Though I liked the incidental chamber music there was maybe a little too much of it, occasionally too loud, competing with the dialogue. Otherwise Ned Bennett’s simple staging with white curtains on three sides, is effective in telling this complex story, and comes thrillingly alive in the memory scenes.

Great to see it again, and particularly good that a new generation can get to see it in these hopefully more enlightened times.

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I’m fascinated by the work of J B Priestly, but we rarely get a chance to see more than a few of his plays. Stephen Daldry’s iconic NT production of  An Inspector Calls seems to be on tour permanently and When We Are Married gets wheeled out fairly often, but that’s about it. The NT gave us Time & The Conways a couple of years ago and Southwark Playhouse put on the very rare They Came to a City earlier this year. So here was a chance to catch this one on tour to Richmond.

It’s more conventional and less moralistic, political, radical and experimental than I’ve got used to from Priestly. They say it’s his most Chekovian, a comment likely to put me off I’m afraid. We’re in the Kirby household, where widower Dr. Kirby is looked after by daughter Lilian whilst son Wilfred is working in Nigeria and theatrical daughter Stella has been on tour now for eight years. Wilfred is home on leave when Stella springs a surprise visit and the family dynamics unfold. Lilian resents Stella leaving her as homemaker and being the subject of local boy Geoffrey’s infatuation whilst she has designs on him herself. Stella’s confession that she married a fellow actor secretly on tour enables Lilian to get her own back.

Laurie Sansom’s production is virtually faultless. He has a fine attention to detail and evokes Edwardian society brilliantly. I wasn’t convinced  by the backdrop of Sara Parks design, but her drawing-room was appropriately claustrophobic and spot on for the period (not that I personally remember 1912!). There isn’t a fault in the casting, with Charlotte Emmerson and Daisy Douglas particularly good as Stella and Lilian and an auspicious professional debut by Nick Hendrix as son Wilfred. Daniel Betts really came into his own in the terrific drunk scene in Act III.

This will never be my favourite Priestly – too Checkovian! – but I’m glad I saw it in a production it would be hard to better.

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