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Posts Tagged ‘Meera Syal’

I’ve seen just about every major musical, but not this one. It’s been filed in my too-twee-for-me compartment. January offers tempted me to give it a go, and I was completely surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It’s a touring production brought in to the West End but the production values and performances are no second best.

Orphan Annie is obsessed about finding the parents who abandoned her eleven years before. She escapes from Miss Hannigan’s cruel institution, but gets caught after a brief spell hanging out with the depression era homeless. Billionaire Warbucks decides to host an orphan for Christmas and his PA Grace chooses Annie, against Miss Hannigan’s wishes. Warbucks and his entire staff fall for her and he decides to adopt her, but when he presents her with a new locket she says she’d rather find the parents who gave her the old one, so he launches a search with the help of the FBI and the President (he’s well connected, this man). The only couple who come forward are fakes, so the adoption goes ahead and everyone is happy, except Miss Hannigan and her brother and his girlfriend, who get arrested.

It’s all simple stuff and it’s very sentimental, but it surprised me by how much the Great Depression setting featured. There was also a touch of A Christmas Carol about it. Nikolai Foster’s production is slick and snappy, with excellent designs by Colin Richmond (the set has a touch of Matilda about it) and nifty choreography by Nick Winston. There wasn’t a weak link in the casting. Meera Syal made a great baddie and her strong voice was a revelation. Alex Bourne has great presence as Warbucks and great chemistry with Annie. On the night I went, Isobel Khan played Annie terrifically and you can’t help falling in love with her six fellow orphans, Team Madison that night. It seemed a particularly happy company, and their enthusiasm and joy was so infectious I melted and removed it from the too-twee-for-me compartment.

A delightful surprise.

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debbie tucker green has a very distinctive playwriting style. realistic, overlapping dialogue, sometimes with a non-linear narrative. characters called man, woman, x or y. moments of intensity alternating with moments of humour. puzzles for you to solve for yourself. oh, and a clear dislike of capital letters.

This latest piece is staged on three sides of the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs with the audience on fixed but swivelling stools in regimented rows within. It’s uncomfortable and the sight lines are poor. The ‘stage’ is like a green corridor open on one side. The five characters move around and make lines and shapes on the walls using chalk. In the first half of the 80 minutes a young couple seem to live their whole life, love, have children, argue, split. In the next quarter, an older couple bicker and snipe. In the last quarter, the older man is with a younger woman, who may be the young couple’s now adult daughter, talking about the issue of age difference.

Lashana Lynch and Gershwyn Eustache Jnr are terrific as the young couple (A & B) and Gary Beadle is great as the (older) Man. We get a lot less of Meera Syal as Woman and Shvorne Marks as Young Woman, but their contributions are excellent nevertheless. It’s a very original staging by tucker green herself, with a clever design by Merle Hensel. I’m not sure what it’s point is, and the discomfort did mar my concentration, but it’s an intriguing piece nonetheless.

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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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I wonder when they’re staging the second half? If you didn’t know the length of this play or if they hadn’t closed the auditorium doors when you thought it was the interval, that’s exactly what you’d be asking. The ending feels just like the end of a first half.

Anders Lustgarten’s play is what we used to call ‘agit prop’ in the 70’s – Time Out even had an ‘Agit Prop’ section summarising the week’s radical political activities! Here, many of society’s evils are put on the Royal Court stage – attitudes in the financial sector, hospital queues, racism…..He uses the creation of Unity Bonds, where investors’ return is linked to reduction in anti-social behaviour targets, as a way of illustrating and linking these (though the link with racism, staged with a realism and ferocity I found hard to stomach, is a bit dubious).

A series of well written short scenes start as a retired nurse has a debt meter fitted (she has to feed it until her debt is cleared) and move from here to business meetings to a casualty department to prison and finally to a type of ‘Occupy’ encampment. They are often biting and sometimes darkly comic. They are well staged by Simon Godwin and well performed by a fine cast including Lucian Msmati, Meera Syal and Being Human’s Damien Molony. I don’t even have a problem with it being ‘without decor’. It just isn’t finished.

I’m puzzled as to why such work-in-progress is occupying precious Royal Court main stage space. I wonder when they’re staging the second half?

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I don’t think there’s ever been a major London revival of this, or Educating Rita which is running in rep with it, which is a puzzle to me(as is the fact that an excellent writer like Willy Russell hasn’t written much for almost 20 years!). Though the furniture and clothes have dated, the story is timeless and the humour has lasted well. How can a man write so well for a woman?

Shirley’s tale of an unfulfilled life is told brilliantly by Meera Syal. How do you command a stage and hold an audience for 100 minutes and make egg and chips whilst you’re doing it? (they looked good too; I bet the stage managers fight over who gets to scoff them during the second scene!). Well she does it so well and really does make the part her own.

Yet again, the Menier leads the way, breathing new life into a long overdue revival. Now I’m very much looking forward to Educating Rita next week…..

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