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Posts Tagged ‘James Grieve’

I’m still not sure how playwright Sam Steiner’s play about troubled souls in a bleak world turned out to be so hopeful, but it was warm hearted and funny, despite the backdrop of a crumbling planet.

It’s set in the office of Brightline, a helpline manned by four volunteers; think The Samaritans. We know the world in which they live is bleak because they arrive with breathing masks, and we can see and hear dramatic climatic events going on outside. They listen to those who call in, and have to deal with those who abuse them. We hear their personal stories too. Heavily pregnant team leader Frances, soon to bring a newcomer into this hostile world, Jon in a troubled relationship, work experience student Joey trying to make his way in this world, and lonely Ange on an emotional roller-coaster.

There’s much humour, but it doesn’t swamp or trivialise either the personal stories or the world events. There are a lot of scenes, which do make it feel a bit staccato at times, but the character development is very good, and the interweaving of the big picture backdrop with the helpline setting and the personal lives works well. It really draws you in, as you find yourself interested in, and empathising with, these people.

Amy Cook’s excellent design manages to feel both huge and intimate, with perfect sight-lines everywhere, and the invasion of the outside into the inside is really well done. Jenni Maitland is superb as the eternally positive, very motherly Frances. Andy Rush plays Jon very well, a more complex character, cynical, suspicious, a touch brittle. Lydia Larson is lovely as chatterbox Ange, a bit neurotic and fragile. Andrew Finnigan, so so good in one-man musical Drip at the Bush, gives another charming performance as 17-year-old Joey, initially seeming naive but proving to be wise beyond his years.

Director James Grieve brings this all together to create a surprisingly feel-good cocktail of big issues and personal tales, which got a rare spontaneous standing ovation on the night I went. Paines Plough on fine form again.

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Playwright James Graham wrote a brilliant play about the flip-flopping between Labour & the Tories in the 70s even though he was born after the events in the play and here he is in the same period reminding us of the seemingly long forgotten Angry Brigade – home-grown middle class anarchist terrorists. I’m not sure why he’s obsessed with this period, but I’m enjoying the products of it.

It’s actually a play in two very different parts which he says in the script can be played either way around or even simultaneously or, as he ends his notes in an appropriately anarchic tone, ‘perhaps just do what you like’. In this production The Branch is the first more comedic half set in Scotland Yard where a new unit has been set up within Special Branch for a unified approach to clearly connected terrorist acts. The police are a bit clumsy, but they get there in the end. In the second more anarchic half, The Brigade, we’re in the terrorists’ house learning about their pasts, their motivations and their intentions whilst the crimes are being committed. The style of each half reflects the world in which it is set. At the end of the first half you do wonder where its going, but it leaves you satisfied in the end. James Grieve’s staging keeps you on your toes with its unpredictability.

Felix Scott plays the less comic cop Smith and turns up unrecognisable as terrorist John in the second half; both great performances. I’m thoroughly enjoying following Harry Melling’s grow into a fine young actor and here he’s got two large and four small roles to get his teeth into. Again, the contrast between the hapless Commander and the earnest Jim is great. Patsy Ferran and Scarlett Alice Johnson do well in what are effectively supporting roles in the first half and come into their own as equals in the second.

I was at college when these real life events were played out and I’m struggling to understand my lack of memory, but I’m grateful to James Graham for filling in the gaps with a play that resonates strikingly in our current troubled times.

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Mike Bartlett plays are enough of a draw to send me to Watford on a Wednesday afternoon during a tube strike! This one’s completely different from last week’s at the Almeida, though – a two-hander about friendship.

We first meet them when they’ve known each other for three years. She sees them as ‘best friends’; he’s not so sure. She berates him for failing to turn up at an anti-war demo; he doesn’t see the point. Over three more scenes, we watch the relationship develop (or not) through his marriage and fatherhood until, in the fifth and final scene, he gets a bit of a shock when he calls to seek support and refuge. It’s a very true representation of friendship, particularly the differing views of its strength and the impact of other relationships.

Played in front of the curtain, a bit like Morecambe & Wise (as Bartlett requests in his stage directions), or on a black box stage, it all hangs on the performances and Rachael Stirling & John Hollingworth are excellent individually, with great chemistry when together; they seem like real friends. James Grieve’s production has to move from playful banter to confession to tragedy and it does so with great delicacy.

Intimate Bartlett (like Cock) rather than epic Bartlett (like King Charles III); satisfying theatre nonetheless.

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Tom Wells’ The Kitchen Sink at the Bush Theatre was one of my best new plays of 2011 and I will be surprised if this doesn’t end up as one of the best of 2013. He seems to have cornered the market in feel-good, charming, heart-warming, uplifting plays. It’s appropriate that it’s co-produced by Hull Truck as it’s very much in the spirit of their 1980’s work (and indeed in the spirit of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing, about to get a West End revival).

We’re back in Hull, in a changing room after each of six football matches. It’s a Sunday 5-a-side league comprising just four gay teams and our team, Barely Athletic, are up against The Lesbian Rovers, Man City and Tranny United! Coach / player Viv has been thrown out by the lesbians and is determined to win something, anything; deputy coach / player Danny is using this experience as part of his coaching studies and Viv’s bereaved brother-in-law Joe is the token straight. Busker Beardy can’t decide what to play at his Hull Pride audition and new boy, library assistant Luke, has been recruited by Danny for more than footballing interest.

It’s a bit of a slow start, but once you get to know the characters its captivating. Danny & Luke’s relationship develops, Joe’s grief is exposed, Viv’s competitiveness becomes obsessive and Beardy’s promiscuousness risks team success. Even though you’re only with these people for 90 minutes, you feel like you’ve known them for a whole lot longer; great characterisation. Add to this some very funny lines and deeply human stories to tell, and they play has you under its spell. Watford Palace is a big theatre for such an intimate piece, but Lucy Osborne’s design draws you into the changing room to compensate.

All five actors are excellent. Vivienne Gibbs conveys Viv’s drive, energy and competitiveness, you really feel for Matt Sutton’s Joe and Andy Rush (also superb in The Kitchen Sink) makes Geoff hapless but completely loveable. Jamie Samuel invests real emotional power in Danny and Philip Duguid-McQuillan is simply extraordinary as naive, lonely, socially inept 19-year-old virgin Luke. There is a moment when he reads from his diary when I was laughing out loud and crying at the same time.

Don’t wait until the promised autumn tour – get to Watford to see it in its final week and you’ll probably want to see it again in the autumn. Another triumph for the indispensable Paines Plough.

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May 2012

The review below is from the tour of this play one year ago. It’s now at the Royal Court with a new design and a new cast, but the same director, James Grieve. The experience of a Court Friday night crowd was very different from a Northampton midweek matinée!

Despite knowing how it would unfold, I loved the play as much as I did last time. The new design by Lucy Osborne is very good (hats off to the technical team which makes two transformations in such a short time), though no better than the Paines Plough one, so one does wonder why the Court didn’t save a few quid and buy it from them! The new cast though is terrific.

Ben  Miles was so convincing as a 19-year-old in the first act that I googled him in the first interval and was shocked to find he was 44 / 45! This time they’ve cast at the second act, so each has to play both younger and older. Claire Foy is excellent as the daughter, but it was Victoria Hamilton who impressed most – a simply terrific performance(s!).

This is a great play and it occurred to me this time that people probably come out of it having seen a subtly different one, a bit like Oleanna, depending on your attitude to Mike Bartlett’s premise. I’d be surprised if this doesn’t follow Posh and Jumpy into the West End. Another cracking night at the Royal Court.

May 2011

Back in at the lovely Royal Theatre in Northampton for the second time in as many months to catch the Paines Plough tour of this Mike Bartlett three-act play.

We start in 1967 on the night the world first watched TV together and The Beatles premiered All You Need is Love (from which the play takes its title). Oxford student Kenneth is staying with his older brother and proceeds to steal his girlfriend Sandra. Jump forward 23 years and Kenneth & Sandra are now married with careers, two teenagers and a house in Reading, but they’re about to split up. Jump forward another 21 years and we’re in retired Kenneth’s home with his son as the ex-wife and daughter / sister are about to visit.

This is a slow burn because it’s not until the third act we understand what Bartlett is getting at – it’s all the baby boomers fault! Though I think this is a valid and much ignored premise, I don’t agree that the response of the baby boomers is to focus on spending their ‘wealth’ and ignoring the woes of their children in our new inaccessible property / low pay society. Though I don’t have children, most of my friends who do are making significant sacrifices (including re-mortgaging their homes) to help their children. However, it is right to hold them (US!) to account.

It’s an original, captivating and well structured piece. The jumps forward between acts do mean long intervals (with, in our case, an over-run of 20 minutes) that slow down the dramatic flow. It also means actors have to age between 21 and 44 years – a bit of a tall order – and it’s to their credit that they just about pull it off. Ben Addis does particularly well moving from irresponsible student to responsible husband & father and on to irresponsible oldie. James Barrett (so good in the Bush’s 2nd May 1997) is outstanding as both a carefree 14-year old and a troubled 35-year old. Rosie Wyatt’s performed with great passion as an angry 16-year old and an even angrier 37 year-old.

A fascinating and deeply satisfying play from a playwright who is leading the way in modern state-of-the-nation drama that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Well worth the trip to Northampton. Only one more stop on the tour in Oxford – be there!

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