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Posts Tagged ‘Hiran Abeysekera’

I didn’t bother with a ‘Best of’ last year as my theatre-going, apart from a handful of open air shows, came to a standstill after just over two months. 2021 started as badly as 2020 had ended, but I managed to see something like 65 shows in the last half of the year, so it seems worth restoring the tradition.

There were nine new plays worthy of consideration as Best New Play. These include Indecent at the Menier, Deciphering at the New Diorama, Camp Siegfried at the Old Vic and Best of Enemies at the Young Vic. Something that wasn’t strictly speaking a play but was a combination of taste, smell and music, and very theatrical, was Balsam at the Greenwich & Docklands International Festival. Out of town, in the Reading Abbey ruins, The Last Abbot impressed. Three major contenders emerged. The first was Grenfell: Value Engineering at the Tabernacle, continuing the tradition of staging inquiries, verbatim but edited, very powerfully. The remaining two had puppetry and imaginative theatricality in common. Both Life of Pi, transferring to Wyndham’s from Sheffield Theatres, and The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage at The Bridge were adaptations of books, but were thrilling on stage, and both had star performances from Hiran Abeysekera and newcomer Samuel Creasey respectively – I couldn’t choose between them.

The leanest category was New Musical, where there were only a few to choose from. I liked Moulin Rouge for the spectacle, but it was really just spectacle, and I enjoyed Back to the Future too, but it was the sense of tongue-in-cheek fun of What’s New Pussycat? at Birmingham Rep and the sheer energy of Get Up Stand Up at the Lyric Theatre, with a towering performance by Arinze Kene as Bob Marley, that elevated these jukebox musicals above the other two.

More to pick from with play revivals, including excellent productions of Under Milk Wood and East is East at the NT, The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Lyric Hammersmith and two Beckett miniatures – Footfalls & Rockaby – at the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre. GDIF’s Belgian visitors staged Blue Remembered Hills brilliantly on wasteland in Thamesmead, and Emma Rice’s Brief Encounter had a great new production at the Watermill near Newbury, but it was Yeal Farber’s Macbeth at the Almeida, as exciting as Shakespeare gets, that shone brightest, along with Hampstead’s revival of Alan Plater’s Peggy For You, with a stunning performance from Tamsin Greig, which ended my theatre-going year.

The musical revivals category was strong too, probably because we needed a dose of fun more than anything else (well, except vaccines!). I revisited productions of Come from Away and Singin’ in the Rain, though they don’t really count as revivals, likewise Hairspray which was a replica of the original, but I enjoyed all three immensely. Regents Park Open Air Theatre brought Carousel to Britain, in more ways than one, and the Mill at Sonning continued its musical roll with an excellent Top Hat. It was South Pacific at Chichester and Anything Goes at the Barbican that wowed most, though, the former bringing a more modern sensibility to an old story and the latter giving us Brits an opportunity to see what Broadway has been getting that we’ve been missing in Sutton Foster. If only we could detain her permanently.

In other theatrical and musical forms…..there were dance gems from New Adventures with Midnight Bell at Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Ballet’s Dante Project at Covent Garden, and a beautiful concert performance of Howard Goodall musical of Love Story at Cadogan Hall. There were lots of classical music highlights, but it was the world premiere of Mark Anthony Turnage’s Up for Grabs at the Barbican, accompanying footage of his beloved Arsenal, that packed the hall with football fans and proved to be a refreshing and surreal experience I wouldn’t have missed for the world (and I’m not a football fan, let alone an Arsenal one!). Somewhat ironically, most of my opera-going revolved around Grimeborn and Glyndebourne and it was a scaled down but thrilling Die Walkure at Hackney Empire as part of the former that proved to be the highlight.

Let’s hope its a full year of culture in 2022.

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I’ve never read Yann Martel’s novel and I didn’t take to the film. After watching this stage adaptation by Lolita Chakrabarti, I’m beginning to wonder why. Whatever you make of the story, the telling of it, and the stagecraft with which it is presented are extraordinary. It’s great to see quality like this on a West End stage.

It starts in the Mexican hospital room where Pi was taken after his time lost at sea. From here, we flash back to his home in the zoo & botanical garden in Pondicherry, the market of that city where the family prepare for the voyage, the harbour and the ship as they load and set sail for Canada for a new life, with their animals, including a hyena, orangutang, zebra, and a Bengal tiger.

From here, Pi – the only survivor of the shipwreck – tells the Japanese accident investigator and Canadian consular official the story of his period of hundreds of days at sea in a lifeboat and on at attached makeshift raft. Reality and fantasy seem to blur, differentiating between truth and hallucination or dreams becomes difficult. All the time we move back and forth between telling his story in the hospital to his memories of this time at sea.

Much of it really is breathtaking, with eleven actors and six puppeteers swiftly moving us from place to place. Soon after it starts, we experience terrific transitions – from zoo to market to harbour to ship – and it continues at sea, on the lifeboat and raft. The entire cast excel, but the central performance by Hiran Abeysekera is simply astonishing, on stage throughout, continually moving from the present to the journey to the past. An award-winning performance if ever I saw one.

Director Max Webster has assembled a first class creative team, with Tim Hatley’s designs, Finn Caldwell & Nick Barnes puppetry, Andrezej Goulding’s video & Tim Lutkin’s lighting and the music & sound of Andrew T Mackay & Carolyn Downing fully integrated in the storytelling. Wyndhams is a fairly small theatre, and it seemed both intimate and epic.

Sheffield Theatres originated this show in 2019 and it’s taken a while to get here, with at least three scheduled openings, so it’s great to report a huge hit that might sit in the specially reconfigured theatre for some time. Don’t miss it.

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Nothing beats the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park on a lovely summer evening and when the show benefits from the combined imaginations of directors Timothy Sheader & Liam Steel and designer Jon Bausor magic can actually happen. This captivating re-imagining of Peter Pan fits perfectly in the OAT and magic it certainly is.

The story starts in a First World War army hospital. The Llewelyn boys, who inspired J M Barrie, may have been in one. A nurse finds a copy of the book under the pillow of a patient and begins to read it. She becomes Wendy and two of the patients John & Michael Darling and so the adventure begins, as Peter Pan whisks them away to Neverland.

The staging is extraordinary and the characterisations wonderful. Things like beds, bedding and floorboards transform into locations, props and creatures, characters emerge from nowhere and everywhere, Tinkerbell is a fabulous puppet creation and the flying is thrilling. A singer comes and goes with lovely renditions of WWI songs. Before you know it, we’re back in the hospital, packing up at the end if the war, but in between you are captivated by Peter’s adventures with the lost boys amongst the pirates, in a timeless lo-tech marvel.

Hiran Abeysekera is a charming and athletic Peter and Kae Alexander a loving nurse and a delightful Wendy. Beverly Rudd is a great old school hospital matron before she transforms into a hysterically funny Smee. All of the adult actors playing boys are terrific but I had a soft spot for Thomas Pickles’ Slightly. As an ensemble they are much more than the individual performances; a real team of boys and a group of hapless pirates.

I loved every moment of this show, which ended poignantly with much of the audience (well, me, anyway) in tears as the great war ends. It was greeted by a fully justified spontaneous standing ovation. I’ve had countless great evenings at the OAT but none have bettered this. Ends this week, but must surely return next year.

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Even though its four months before Rufus Norris takes the helm at the NT, this may well be a sign of things to come. Though playwright David Hare has had 17 plays at the NT, everything else about this production seems to be saying ‘new broom’. It’s also the best in-house production in the Olivier since Norris’ Amen Corner last year.

Hare has adapted the reportage of Katherine Boo, who spent three years regularly visiting the shanty town of Annawadi at Mumbai airport and published their story as non-fiction in the book of the same name. This mostly Muslim community is screened from visitors, business people and the Indian middle-class by barriers, on some of which posters advertise ‘Beautiful Forevers’, whatever that is / they are. The play centres on three strong women, who between them represent life in these slums. Zehrunisa Husain’s family have become relatively wealthy by collecting rubbish, thanks to son Abdul, the best sorter, and his friend Sunil, the best collector. Asha is the local fixer – the ‘go to’ woman who, for money, can make things happen. Fatima Shaikh, who has lost one leg, sells her body in the afternoons to keep her family. These are the people you don’t see if you visit India. The government tries hard to hide or remove them. The police and other officials exploit them. Upwardly mobile Indians, benefitting from globalisation, ignore them, a bi-product and consequence of this globalisation.

This community is a microcosm of a society with unwritten rules and norms. There is much conflict between them as they strive to better themselves and better their peers. The conflict between The Husain’s and Fatima reaches a new level when Fatima sets herself alight and blames them, but she has gone too far and, with health standards as they are, does not survive. Three Husain’s end up accused and we’re then propelled into the world of hospital cover-ups, police corruption and judicial incompetence. At the same time, Sunil crosses the line from collection to theft, a world occupied by another group of very violent men, yet another society within a society.

There’s a great epic sweep to the story and Norris’ staging, with design by Katrina Lindsay, makes great use of the Olivier stage and its resources. Occasionally, scene changes slow down a well-paced production, but the overall impact is captivating. It’s very inventively done, with the rubbish centre stage and brilliant recreation of the planes landing. Sunil’s climbs and walks over the metal gantry took my breath away more than once. When Time Out reviewed Norris’ Death & the King’s Horseman on the same stage five years back, they said ‘if you’re a black actor and you’re not in this, get a new agent’. One could say something similar about this, a fine ensemble of 23 British Asian actors. The three matriarchs – Meera Syal, Stephanie Street & Thusitha Jayasundera – are all excellent, but its Hiran Abeysekera as Sunil and Shane Zaza as Abdul who steal your heart with two natural and very moving characterisations.

The play makes you think a lot about the real consequences of escalating economic change, particularly in the so-called BRIC countries, but it does so by telling the true story of real people unwittingly caught up in it. This is great theatre and hopefully an example of what’s to come at the NT.

 

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