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Posts Tagged ‘national theatre’

This is a 1955 work by African American playwright Alice Childress, written and first produced at the beginning of the civil rights movement (Rosa Parks challenged segregation the same year) which was staged off-Broadway but never got its planned Broadway run because of the playwright’s refusal to water down its satire on racism in the American theatre. Until 2021, that is, when it finally made it to the ironically named ‘Great White Way’ (actually named after the white lights on billboards and marquees).

The whole play is a rehearsal for a ‘coloured show’, where black actors play stereotypes like servants and ‘mammies’. It sends them up with exaggerated acting and mannerisms. Leading character Wiletta has a song and dance background but is desperate to become a proper actor, something reserved for white people at the time. Though relationships develop and individual character stories emerge, it’s essentially a one issue play. One reviewer of this production suggested each of the three acts are set in historically different periods, moving forward in time, but I have to confess I didn’t see that.

Though it’s important in highlighting unacceptable practices, I felt it was somewhat laboured, often lacked pace and despite the exceptional performances, 2.5 hours felt like a long time to make its point, perhaps less effectively because of the length. I’m not sure it has stood the test of time. Designer Rajha Shakiry has created a very realistic period backstage environment. Tanya Moodie leads an excellent cast that includes the great Cyril Nri, on fine form, a superb performance from Rory Keenan as the director of the play-within-a-play, a delightful cameo from Gary Lilburn as Henry the stage doorman and an outstanding professional debut from Daniel Adeosun as John Nevins, a newbie actor from the same town as Wiletta.

Though the black lives matter movement has made us realise this issue still exists, I’m not sure this play brings them to the fore in a way that would add to the debate and promote reform. I felt it was an interesting period piece rather than a contribution to the current discussion.

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Rufus Norris & Katrina Lindsay have created a new musical adaptation of Sleeping Beauty which is visually stunning, often funny, gradually getting darker, with a terrific central performance by Rosalie Craig as Fairy. With all the Covid malarky, there’s only two weeks left, so they’ve already announced it’s return next Christmas / New Year, delaying the press night until then.

The King & Queen, Rex and Regina, can’t get their daughter Rose to sleep, so they send their steward Smith into the woods to find a fairy who can put a sleep spell on her. Fairy returns with him but is reluctant because it will require something strong that she doesn’t really do, a hex. She does, however, eventually comply, but loses her powers in the process.

Rose sleeps until she is sixteen, when a kiss from a prince will break the spell. Of the ten contenders, Fairy has brought Ben, the son of reformed ogre Queenie, and he successfully wakes her and takes her away to wedlock and children. A few years later, Fairy decides its time he reconnected with his mother so that she can meet his wife and her grandchildren, but she has reverted to type and it all turns dark, very dark.

It could do with a bit of trimming in the first half. Tanya Ronder’s book doesn’t really live up to Rufus Norris’ lyrics, which are left to carry the weight of the narrative more than the dialogue. Jim Fortune’s score is patchy, at it’s best in the opening and closing song Make It All Good and the two songs for the loser princes’ – One Of These Days and Mine Is The Kiss. It’s lowest point is Sixteen, which is like an X-factor contestant over-singing something from Wicked.

In addition to Rosalie Craig, there are excellent performances from Tamsin Carroll as Queenie and Michael Elcock as Ben and Kat Rooney’s turn as baby Rose was spookily brilliant. It’s full of invention, with the palace and a whole load of wheels and broomsticks hanging above the stage, with superb projections onto these and the characters by Ash J Woodward. Lindsay’s costumes are outstanding, with generic styles and colours for both the loser princes and the thorns. I loved the fact the Olivier revolve has its own manual operator!

There’s much to enjoy and they now have time to deal with its faults. Our first date was cancelled, but I’m glad I rearranged it. Above all, a visual treat.

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It was only a week ago that I reappropriated the term ‘kitchen sink drama’ to describe a play which threw in the kitchen sink in terms of subjects and issues, and here we are again with Moira Buffini’s sprawling satire, staged by her sister Fiona. Climate change, the decline of the aristocracy, white supremacy, racism, the NHS……oh, and there’s a comic fat guy. Obviously.

We’re in a rambling run-down manor house by the sea, the family home of Diana, where she lives with her daughter Isis and partner Pete, a one time rock star, one hit wonder even, who has become some sort of caricature of his former self. There is a raging storm, which brings severe floods, and people take shelter at the manor – the local vicar, married but now gay, Ripley & Dora, a mother who works in A&E and her student daughter from South West London, away from home to study, three members of fascist group Albion – Ted, blind Ruth and Anton – and the funny fat guy Perry.

Diana thinks she’s accidentally killed Pete after a tussle on the stairs. Albion’s leader Ted is trying to bed Diana and recruit fay guy Perry. Isis takes a fancy to Dora, and vice versa. I think it’s meant to be an allegory, though this loses focus as it moves from satire to farce. That said, it’s often very funny, the tongue-in-cheek, sometimes camp performances of a fine ensemble led by Nancy Carroll are pleasing, Lez Brotherston’s comic gothic set is brilliant and the storm effects created by Nina Dunn’s projections and Jon Clark’s lighting, are terrific.

Perhaps I’ve become easy to please since lockdown, as I seem to be at odds with the negative critical consensus of both this and Rare Earth Metal at the Royal Court. It’s like the critics lost some of the contents of their stars box and have been dishing out ones and two’s where three’s seem more appropriate. This may be flawed, and a touch long, but it was enjoyable enough to warrant a visit. Whether it should be on such a high profile stage as the Lyttelton is another matter. The rest of the audience seemed even more positive than me. Decide for yourself.

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It’s somewhat ironic that this revival of Larry Kramer’s partly autobiographical AIDS play was delayed by an epidemic / pandemic, though that probably makes it resonate more. The contrast between the response to AIDS it shows and the response to Covid-19 we’ve just experienced is also striking. The parallel between the current debate about differing types of protest, and in particular the use of civil disobedience by environmentalists, wasn’t lost on me either. So an up-to-date 36-year-old play, then.

By the time this was written / produced, US deaths from AIDS had exceeded 5000; the disease had been around for four years. Our protagonist Ned Weeks is a founding member of a HIV support group and much of the play is devoted to the contrast between his confrontational style of advocacy and the more reserved ways of his colleagues, some of whom hadn’t come out. Despite clear medical advice on safe sex, though, all were reluctant to promulgate such advice. It was all about resources to respond and support the stricken community and how best to lobby for these.

As the play develops, we learn more about the disease and are drawn in to personal stories, not least that of Ned’s partner Felix, a closeted journalist dying of it. Ned’s passion becomes anger. He is marginalised by his colleagues as he is losing his lover. The authorities’ response to AIDS is sadly lacking. It makes the reaction to Covid-19 seems so much better (vaccines in less than a year?!), because of the speed of spreading and mode of transmission, perhaps because of what we learnt from AIDS, perhaps because AIDS was seen as only affecting the gay community.

The first part seemed a bit too laboured, perhaps because it focuses too much on the political and not enough on the disease, but the second half punches you in the stomach as it becomes devastating, personal and deeply moving. This is helped by staging in the round, which provides more intimacy than the Olivier can usually muster. The setting, with just benches inside a circular metal structure and four entrances, facilitates a pace and urgency for the storytelling.

Ben Daniels plays Ned with such passion and commitment, on stage virtually the whole time; he inhabits the role fully. A towering, career defining performance. Liz Carr is superb as straight-talking Dr Emma Brookner, just about the only character who challenges Ned effectively. Daniel Monks stands out as Mickey in an older, very different role to his impressive UK debut in Teenage Dick at the Donmar. The rest of the 13 strong cast, all men, provide excellent support.

The original off-Broadway production never made it to Broadway, which seems to echo the response to the disease shown in the play, but the Royal Court’s UK production, initially with Martin Sheen as Ned, did get to the West End. It might be worth noting that the 1988 Cambridge University production was directed by Sam Mendes, with Nick Clegg as Ned!

Like Channel 4’s It’s A sin, this is very timely, though a completely different take. That TV series could only be written now, whilst this was written at the time. The Olivier audience was on it’s feet, and that doesn’t happen very often.

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The premiere of this Ayub Khan Din’s play was twenty-five years ago, and it’s set 25 years before that. It was his first play, at least partly based on his own life experiences. In a programme Q&A he suggests in might not have been put on today because of the sensitivities about ‘what we write about ourselves and what people write about us’. That would have been a tragedy, as in this new production by Iqbal Khan it proves to be a timeless reflection on, and illumination of, the British Asian experience. It’s also very funny.

George came to the UK from Pakistan in 1936. He married British native Ella and they have seven children. One is estranged after refusing an arranged marriage, but the other six are still at home, helping out in the family business, a fish & chip shop in Salford. He tries to impose his Muslim traditions but they rebel; they were born and brought up in the UK. One seems to be loyal, another respectful but questioning and three clear rebels. The youngest is lost in his own world, yet to form his views.

The primary issues are circumcision, somewhat late, for youngest Sajit and arranged marriages for Abdul & Tariq to Mr Shah’s daughters. George is determined to exercise what he sees as his rightful authority as their father, but the sons (egged on by their feisty sister Meenah) are resolute that they are British not Pakistani and that these traditions have no place here. A culture clash that perhaps many British Asians experience between the world in which they’ve been brought up and the traditions that their parents brought here with them. George does himself no favours by the way he treats his wife, and her knowledge that there is another wife back in Pakistan. Apart from the 70’s clothes and decor, it could be today.

One of the key’s to the success of this revival is the superb ensemble, banishing memories of the two productions I’ve seen before. Tony Jayawardena and Sophie Stanton are both superb at conveying the cultural tensions George & Ella have to live with, but also the love they have for one another and their children. The six siblings are all terrific at conveying the whole spectrum of loyalty / rebelliousness, and Rachel Lumberg is wonderful as family friend Auntie Annie – she gets some of the best lines, including the play’s best joke, commenting on the gifts Sajit gets after his circumcision.

A great production of what now seems to be a modern classic.

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I love plays which make connections between people, periods, places and events to present a bigger picture. Winsome Pinnock’s new play places Turner’s painting ‘Slaver’s Throwing Overboard the Dead & Dying – Typhoon Coming On’, more commonly known as ‘The Slave Ship’, at the centre, from which we move back and forth unravelling the connections.

We see black school-kids and their teacher studying the painting in a gallery and an actress researching and filming something inspired by the painting, to the period and events it depicts. Characters like a schoolboy and the actress are deeply affected by what they have viewed. The play’s key point, the impact of these historical events on descendants living today, is made explicitly clear at the end.

Pulling off such an audacious piece of theatre requires clarity in the staging, but I didn’t feel that was the case here. I’m afraid I thought Miranda Cromwell’s production was more confusing than clear, and difficult scenes like a historical ballroom dance and dancing at a contemporary party happening simultaneously don’t get the deft staging they need to work.

Most of the talented cast play two or more roles, which works perfectly well. On the night I went, Paul Bradley was indisposed and Lloyd Hutchinson (not an understudy) played the roles of Turner / Roy, script in hand, remarkably well. The staging in-the-round facilitated speedy changes of scene, with some remarkably speedy changes in costume!

I thought it was well written, making an interesting point that people like me may not have hitherto understood and may need to hear, but its impact was marred by the production, which may have benefitted from a more experienced director.

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Four years ago, also as part of the Greenwich & Docklands International Festival, Flemish theatre company de Roovers staged Arthur Miller’s A View From A Bridge in the open air on Greenwich Peninsula with the Docklands skyline as a backdrop, substituting for New York. It was brilliant. Now here they are on Thamesmead Waterfront with Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills.

I last saw this play at the NT 25 years ago. Then the cast of children played by adults included Steve Coogan & Robert Glenister and it was directed by Patrick Marber, midway between his hit NT plays Dealer’s Choice and Closer. It was the stage adaptation of a 1979 BBC Play for Today which itself starred Helen Mirren and Colin Welland. Quite a pedigree.

We had to take a special coach (included) from Abbey Wood station as it’s a secret, secure site, 1.5 miles of Thames waterfront, its history alone making the visit worthwhile. A wartime arsenal, abandoned hazardous land, forbidden playground, temporary adventure park and soon to be new development. A perfect location for a story about children playing and growing up. Two hills behind, one with a small derelict building on it, undergrowth all around and a playing area in front. Flights leaving Heathrow standing in for war planes.

The children play as children do, sometimes kind, sometimes cruel. Boys don’t really like girls, and vice versa, but they’re open to a bit of experimentation. They imagine, invent, lie and do deals. One gets bullied a lot. It ends tragically, playing with fire, but no-one accepts any blame, a bit like today’s adults, though they expect retribution. I wasn’t sure about some of the casting and clothing choices – no clean shaven faces and short trousers for the boys here – and the difficult Gloucester dialect when channelled through English spoken with a Flemish accent was sometimes a bit surreal, but they captured the essence of childhood and the Englishness of it all and it was a captivating ninety minutes.

GDIF are to be congratulated on the logistical feat of pulling off a show like this, and the many others in the festival. Transport, security, stewards, lighting, sound, seating…it’s quite something. Well done!

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Summer wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, though I missed it last year and contemplated missing it this year, as this is another show I wasn’t sure I wanted to see again (yet) after the Arcola Theatre’s stunning revival seven years ago. I hadn’t really enjoyed my last three trips to OAT (Jesus Christ Superstar, Little Shop of Horrors & Evita), but news of a radical but good production and a lovely evening resulted in an impulsive outing at a few hours notice. Some of the best things happen that way.

It’s relocated to a British mill town close to the sea. From the moment a small brass band walks through the audience and onto the stage and strikes up the Carousel Waltz I felt I was in safe hands. The key to the resetting is Tom Deering’s brilliant new orchestrations, and in particular the iconic brass band sound which hijacked You’ll Never Walk Alone as others in Britain already have. Everyone uses their natural accents, so it’s a northern Nettie and a Welsh Carrie. I thought it all worked brilliantly.

The show has fewer ‘standards’ than other Rogers & Hammerstein shows, but for some reason this time I appreciated the overall quality of the score more. The story, with its antiquated sexual politics, domestic violence and suicide seemed edgier too, and they even managed to make the incongruous afterlife scene work. You can’t possibly excuse Billy, but this production helps you understand him.

When I first saw the show, at the NT almost 30 years ago, Joanna Riding was Julie and here she is a lovely Nettie, with the responsibility of being in charge of ‘that song’. Carly Bawden is in fine voice and her Julie captures your heart. Christina Modestou makes much more of the role of Carrie than I’ve seen before, warm, loving, optimistic. Sam Mackay’s Jigger is the very bad influence he should be, John Pfumojena’s Enoch is beautifully matched with Carrie and Declan Bennett navigates the emotional carousel that Billy is on very well.

I wasn’t sure about Tom Scutt’s set at first – a steep wooden hill cut by a small revolving stage – until I realised it brought intimacy to scenes that needed it, but allowed the fairground, the clam bake and the afterlife to burst out. Drew McOnie’s choreography is terrific, with group scenes like the opener and the clam bake plus individual dances like Louise’s in the afterlife scene flowing organically. The band sounded great and you could hear every word in this big open air space. Director Timothy Sheader continues the reinvention he showed with Jesus Christ Superstar, but for me this remained a show, not turned into a rock concert.

This is my 5th Carousel and it holds its own, a very welcome reinvention. With the Shakespeare’s Globe and The Proms both visited, this is summer traditions completed, with OAT thankfully back on musical theatre form.

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I’m fond of a Greek tragedy and welcomed the opportunity to catch this rarely revived one. Kae Tempest has adapted Sophocles 2500-year-old play about warrior Philoctetes, stranded for ten years on an island after a dispute with fellow soldier Odysseus. Neoptolemus, son of Philoctetes’ friend Achilles, now dead, has been sent to bring him back to the war front. Tempest has been faithful to Sophocles in the first part, but makes a significant change to its conclusion, producing an interesting roundedness, if not a faithful retelling.

The Olivier is back in the round and the action takes place in a ‘bear pit’ with the playing area extended to replace the left side stalls and use the ‘shelf’ above the right side stalls. The chorus of nine women seem to be a refugee camp, onstage throughout. Sometimes a chorus seems incongruous in modern adaptations, but here they prove to be a key element of both the story and the staging. It’s a while before we meet our protagonist, out hunting as usual, but we are introduced to Neoptolemus soon after and the story of how Philoctetes got there, and Neoptolemus’ intentions, are revealed.

The arrival of Philoctetes’ nemesis Odysseus, at first hidden from Philoctetes, begins the twist in the tale, and what follows is both a battle over the moral high ground and over Philoctetes fate, with deceit and lies employed by Neoptolemus and Odysseus in an attempt to achieve their objectives. The chorus reveal where their sympathies lie and become involved rather than remain onlookers.

Ian Rickson’s taut, visceral production casts all three warriors as women playing men with Lesley Sharp, Gloria Obianyo and Anastasia Hille all investing their characters with deep passion and determination. All nine chorus members are terrific, both when reacting as one and when standing out individually. Rae Smith’s evocative design and Mark Henderson’s brilliant lighting create a compelling setting for this war of words.

A show which fits the Olivier perfectly, brilliantly staged and designed, with a fine set of performances. Proper drama.

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Great to be back in the NT’s Dorfman Theatre, one of my favourite spaces, configured as a large room in an institution where we go for a week when we die to choose the one memory we will take with us to the afterlife. Filing cabinets and shoes represent the people who have, will and are passing through. We watch a handful of arrivals on Monday and follow them through the week, each led by a guide, someone who came before but never passed through.

It may sound like a depressing premise, but it leads to a lighter, charming and thought-provoking play in the hands of favourite Jack Thorne (based on the Japanese film by Hirokazu Kore-eda), developed by him with designer Bunny Christie and director Jeremy Herrin. It does have the feeling of a collaboration about it, with every component – performances, staging, movement, design, lighting, music, sound – working in harmony. I’ve been rather preoccupied since trying to decide which memory I would choose!

The new arrivals at first struggle with the concept of making such a choice, then grapple with the process of choosing, but by Saturday they are fully absorbed by the memory; well, most of them. The guides take their roles with different levels of seriousness, but all become engaged with their subject’s former life in the process. It’s a necessary process, but a benevolent one; they are genuinely trying to help them move on. They are of all ages and backgrounds, but of all of them, its 90-year-old Beatrice, beautifully played by June Watson, who melts your heart.

The production has a lightness of touch that gives it an other-worldliness in keeping with the material. I found it captivating, moving without being sentimental, it lulled me into a very reflective state. Lovely.

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