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Posts Tagged ‘Frankie Bradshaw’

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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Despite writing lots of songs that have become standards, only two Cole Porter stage musicals have continued to be revived with any regularity – this and Anything Goes – and there have only been four West End productions of Kiss Me Kate since the UK premiere nearly seventy years ago. This is a hugely ambitious actor-musician production with a cast of just twelve, but it’s in the theatre that developed this form, with Chioma Uma, a graduate of the drama school actor-musician course it spawned, making an auspicious professional debut as Hattie no less.

The play-within-a-play idea was inspired. A theatre company touring Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew with the relationship of the leading actors Lilli and Fred mirroring that of Kate & Petruchio. It provided lots of opportunities for Porter and his book writers Sam & Bella Spewack to include references to, and puns on, Shakespeare’s plays, notably the showstopper Brush Up Your Shakespeare, without making them in any way highbrow or inaccessible to the average musical theatre goer. It’s a very witty concoction with a lot of now instantly recognisable songs and it has two of the greatest act openers with Another Op’nin, Another Show and Two Darn Hot.

Though it’s a ‘big’ show, and all four productions I’ve seen have had more resources and bigger spaces, I’ve always wondered how it would work scaled down. As it turns out it adds to the touring production aesthetic, as does the actor-musician form. You don’t have to do much to the Watermill to provide stage locations, so designer Frankie Bradshaw does so with a backstage wall, a few fly-ins and a stage curtain, concentrating more on good period costumes. Oti Manuse’s choreography has limited space but comes into its own during Too Darn Hot, which was sizzling. Brush Up Your Shakespeare is tough to pull and make your own, but Sheldon Greenland & Robert Jackson made a great job of it, donning different hats for the two reprises. I don’t remember seeing the references to segregated audiences before, but it adds a wholly relevant period detail and a welcome serious note.

Rebecca Trehearn captures the feistiness of Lilli / Kate perfectly, with great vocals. I’m less familiar with the work of David Ricardo-Pearce, but he turned in a fine performance as Fred / Petruchio, working the audience brilliantly in Where Is The Life That Late I Led? Kimmy Edwards was a bundle of joy as Lois and there was a great cameo from Tom Sowinski as rich and powerful Harrison, out to bag Lilli. Paul Hart marshals his limited resources but plenty of talent to great effect.

Our visits to Watermill’s summer musicals have long been a tradition and a treat, but this year we had the lovely Amelie preceding this, and the hotly anticipated Assassins to come. Our cups runneth over.

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This is a fine example of that rare species, the blue-collar play. Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning work does more to help you understand recent events in the US than any number of newspaper articles or TV documentaries, and it does so by focusing on the lives of just eight people in the industrial town of Reading PA.

Most of the scenes are set in Mike’s Bar in 2000 when America is going through things not unlike 80’s Britain. The NAFTA deal is seeing production move to Mexico, union power is waning, leading to much less generous contracts, which if declined result in cheaper temps, mostly hispanic, being hired. People are losing jobs and homes and addiction levels rise.

Three friends who work together on the shop floor of a local factory meet in the bar after work and on each other’s birthdays. Stan the barman used to work with them until he was injured. His Puerto Rican assistant Oscar aspires to a job there. African American Cynthia’s estranged husband Brucie has been on strike at another plant for a long time. She aspires to promotion and her son Chris, also in the plant, to escape through education. Widow Tracey and her son Jason and singleton Jessie are her friends and colleagues. Cynthia gets her promotion which gives her insight into the company’s plans. When all of their worlds begin to crumble, they turn on one another as well as the perpetrators of their plight, racism rears its ugly head, relationships disintegrate and tragedy ensues. Three scenes take us forward eight years to see how things work out. The ending packs a real emotional punch.

It’s a superbly written play, really well structured. The bar is towered over by an impressionistic factory in Frankie Bradshaw’s excellent design. The performances are as authentic as the writing, an absolutely stunning ensemble, with Martha Plimpton making a very welcome visit to these shores. It’s great to see Lynette Linton, a director the Donmar (and other theatres) have nurtured, get such a high profile gig, and she really rises to the occasion with a faultless staging, a great omen for her forthcoming role as Bush Theatre AD.

If you’re puzzled why people voted Trump or Brexit, this thoroughly researched, objective play will help you understand without lecturing, hectoring or preaching. It’s one of my three best new plays of 2018 (though I cheated a bit because it was my first of 2019). Go!

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It’s takes a brave theatre, a brave director and a brave leading actor to revive this 2009 Jez Butterworth play, which had two West End runs and one Broadway run in the two years following it’s Royal Court premiere. Less than two week’s ago, The Guardian’s Michael Billington listed the ’25 best plays since Jerusalem’, which he referred to as ‘the hit that transformed British theatre’. One of those was Butterworth’s The Ferryman which is Broadway-bound, having just completed almost a year in the West End following it’s Royal Court premiere in 2017. It’s a big show for the Watermill, but they pull it off with great aplomb.

I still stand by my earlier thoughts (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/02/11/jerusalem) though my reaction has evolved through the passage of time and changes in the country, which seems to be clinging to a Jerusalem of its own. Rooster Byron is the ultimate rebel, the lovable rogue that some see as the personification of evil – contributing nothing to society, leading their children astray, polluting their backyard with noise and junk, but he’s also a defender of rural encroachment, gentrification, the rights of outsiders and independence.

I thought the other characters came to the fore this time – Ginger refusing to grow up, Davey not seeing the point of leaving Wiltshire, Lee naively thinking he can see the world with a one-way ticket to Australia and $200, but still reluctant to go, emasculated publican Wesley and The Professor, clearly unfulfilled with nowhere to go. Rooster’s past also seems more significant, with the arrival of his ex and son more poignant.

Designer Frankie Bradshaw has brilliantly created the same wild glade with caravan in the woods, much more intimate in the Watermill, and referenced the Flintock Fair in dressing the auditorium. Jasper Britton makes Rooster Byron his own, in a towering performance, with outstanding support from a cast who are so good they banish from the memory those that came before, particularly Peter Caulfield as Ginger, Santino Smith as Davey and Sam Swann as Lee.

This is a fine early revival, by Lisa Blair, of a ground-breaking state-of-the-nation play, perhaps even more timely today. Another great reason to head west to this lovely, ambitious theatre which consistently delivers.

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As soon as this show started, you could sense the shock of the audience at the discordant music. To my ears, this was modern opera not musical theatre (and I’ve seen a lot of both). It took a long while to turn itself into something resembling a musical as we know it, perhaps too long, though the discordant start eventually seemed to make sense. It’s based on the 1923 play by Elmer Rice, a rather prolific American writer of some forty plays whose only work I knew was Street Scene, which Brecht and Weill turned into a musical / opera. This 2007 adaptation has music by Joshua Schmidt and a book by Schmidt and Jason Loewith. It’s original, rather audacious and full of surprises!

Mr Zero has worked as a number-cruncher for many years and is in a fairly loveless marriage with Mrs Zero. His boss announces that he is going to be replaced by an adding machine. This sends him off the rails and he murders his employer, resulting in arrest, trial, imprisonment and execution. This is where it turns, as he arrives in heaven (people sunbathing, reading and drinking at a swimming pool – in the Finborough!). He’s followed there by work colleague Daisy; they have been attracted to one another but it never came to anything, but she’s now committed suicide in the hope it will. From this point onwards it’s more of a musical, though far from an orthodox one.

I ended up admiring it, though never really forgave it for the challenge of the first part – even for someone seeped in modern opera. It’s a hugely impressive production by Josh Seymour with the audience on two sides of a raised platform in a clever design by Frankie Bradshaw, and a fine ensemble that includes Joseph Alessi as Mr Zero and Joanna Kirkland as Daisy. I’m glad I saw it, though I’m not sure I’d be queuing to see it again.

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