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Posts Tagged ‘Ned Bennett’

Peter Shaffer’s play was 27 years old when I first saw it; for once I’d seen the film first. I enjoyed my second look in 2007 even more, when it featured a brave Daniel Ratcliffe with his screen uncle, the late Richard Griffiths. Here we are another twelve years on, when mental health is thankfully more talked about, with the premiere of a more radical ETT / Stratford East touring co-production which makes you realise how groundbreaking it must have been in 1973.

Seventeen year old Alan Strang is brought to child psychiatrist Martin Dysart by his magistrate friend when he appears before her for blinding six horses. His sessions with Dysart are interwoven with discussions with his parents (religious mother, atheist father), and flashbacks to events with them, his employer at the stables and Jill, the girl he’s taken a shine to. Dysart finds Strang elusive and challenging, playing games with him, but he eventually reciprocates and begins to reap rewards in his understanding of the case. The crucial moments of his interaction with the horses are played out in hugely dramatic scenes where other actors play the horses, culminating in the shocking event which led to his hospitalisation and treatment by Dysart.

It’s a gripping psychological thriller which needs a kind of electrical charge between the two main protagonists, and it certainly gets that here. I’ve been following Zubin Varla’s career since GSMD and this is one of the best things he’s done (even if he is looking and sounding more lie David Suchet these days!) and Ethan Kai is outstanding as Alan, highly strung, edgy, vulnerable, dangerous. There’s a fine supporting cast, with Ira Mandela Siobhan a particularly impressive horse. Though I liked the incidental chamber music there was maybe a little too much of it, occasionally too loud, competing with the dialogue. Otherwise Ned Bennett’s simple staging with white curtains on three sides, is effective in telling this complex story, and comes thrillingly alive in the memory scenes.

Great to see it again, and particularly good that a new generation can get to see it in these hopefully more enlightened times.

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This is one of the most audacious flights of theatrical imagination I’ve ever seen. Young American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins arrives on these shores with a big bang. I can’t wait for his next play, which fortunately won’t be long as its coming up at Hampstead Theatre before this one even ends.

An Octoroon is someone who is one-eighth black, in this case Zoe, daughter of the plantation owner’s uncle and a slave, who lives on the Terrebonne plantation in Louisiana. Irish-American playwright Dion Boucicault wrote the original play in the mid nineteenth century and Jacobs-Jenkins has given it an extraordinary contemporary spin, which starts with a prologue from an actor playing Jacobs-Jenkins, who is then joined by one playing Boucicault. It’s some twenty minutes before we start the play itself, a cocktail of contemporary and period drama which almost defies description, faithful to the original but critiquing its treatment of race.

The Terrebonne plantation is bankrupt and both the property and the slaves have to be put up for sale. Southern Belle Dora has designs on George, the heir of the plantation, but he’s smitten with Zoe. Marrying Dora would save the plantation, marrying Zoe would be illegal. Neighbour M’Closky is our baddie; he’s killed slave Paul to intercept a letter which would also save the plantation and ensures Zoe is up for sale as a slave so that he can buy her. Br’er Rabbit makes a few appearances, but I’m not sure why. Both Boucicault and Jacobs-Jenkins’ plays have a tragic ending, but when Boucicault transferred his to London it was apparently changed to a happy one.

Ken Nwosu is terrific as Jacobs-Jenkins and as both George and M’Closky in white-face. Kevin Trainor is excellent too as Boucicault and as Indian Wahnotee in red-face, auctioneer Lafouche and the voice of ship-owner Ratts, who is played by a dressmaker’s dummy! Alistair Toovey in black-face also shines in very athletic performances as two slaves.  The five ladies – Vivian Oparah, Emmanuella Cole, Cassie Clare, Celeste Dodwell and Iola Evans – are all superb. Ned Bennett’s production is like theatrical fireworks, energetic, surprising, and highly inventive.

A highly original piece that anyone interested in contemporary drama should catch.

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The evening after a dull, pointless play by an established playwright, upstairs we have a brilliant, relevant drama by a new one. It’s a funny old time at the Royal Court. Anna Jordan’s play provides an insight into what can happen when parenting fails and it’s a raw, visceral 100 minutes which I found riveting and insightful.

Hench, 16, and Bobbie, 13, live alone in their mother’s flat whilst she’s off with her new boyfriend and often off her head too. They watch porn and play video games. They don’t have any clean clothes because they took them round to their nan’s for washing just before she ran away with an asylum seeker. They don’t have any food because they have no money to buy it (though they steal a few things). Their dog Taliban(!) stays in the flat making a mess because he’s likely to attack someone if they walk him. We meet their mum Maggie when she collapses outside drunk. Her and Bobbie adore one another, but her relationship with Hench is broken. Her only contribution to their lives is renting the flat. 16-year old new neighbour Jenny comes into their lives through her concern about the treatment of Taliban and an emotional rollercoaster unfolds.

The play shows us the inextricable link between a lack of proper parenting and the behavioural and emotional development of children, and ultimately the possible consequences of this. Played out in a traverse staging with just two rows on each of the long sides, Ned Bennett’s production has an extraordinary intensity and engagement with the characters. Alex Austin and Jake Davies play the teenagers with the wreckless physicality you expect, but Alex adds a brooding introspection appropriate to a 16-year-old and Jake a naivety and dependence more appropriate for a 13-year-old. Both performances are stunning. Sian Brecklin conveys the relationship differences and the sober / drunk behavioural differences brilliantly – you can see her love of her boys but you can’t help blaming her for their plight. Annes Elwy beautifully captures the girl from the sticks who gets caught up in their lives.

For the second time this month, a Bruntwood Prize winning play becomes a candidate for 2016’s Best New Play. A combination of fine writing, excellent staging and compelling performances. Somewhat ironic with a candidate for Turkey of the Year downstairs. Try and get yourself a return; you won’t regret it.

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You have to catch a Tracy Letts play when it comes along as they don’t come along that often. In fact, he’s only written five in twenty years (yes, Tracy’s a he), probably because he has another career as an actor, but three of the five have been made into films, which is an extraordinary hit rate. My introduction to him was Killer Joe at the Bush in 1995. We had to wait another thirteen years for August: Osage County at the NT and another six years for this, even though it was written a year after it.

It’s a more warm-hearted piece that either of the others. Polish American Arthur runs a seedy donut shop in a neighbourhood of Chicago. He’s an ageing hippie draft dodger with long grey hair and ponytail who’s lost his mojo since his wife left him, taking his daughter with her. He reluctantly employs a young black kid full of ideas for the business, they strike up an unlikely friendship and Franco becomes a sort of surrogate son, so much so that Arthur bales him out big-time when he gets into debt with some unsavoury characters, though not before they’ve done some serious damage.

Add to the cocktail neighbouring businessman Max the Russian, who wants to buy Arthur out, bag-lady Lady who often takes refuge (and a free donut and coffee) and local cops James and Randy, who is attracted to Arthur (yes, this Randy is a she) leading to a rather charming sub-plot which led to some ‘ah’s’ from the audience, and you have an authentic slice of life in a Chicago melting pot neighbourhood. The first half is a bit slow, it doesn’t quite sustain it’s 2h45m length, I’m not sure Arthur’s soliloquies’ (where he fills in the personal background) really work, but the second half is a cracker and the performances are all superb.

Mitchell Mullen positively inhabits the character of Arthur and has great chemistry with Jonathan Livingstone’s Franco, full of contrasting youthful enthusiasm. Sarah Ball and Alexander James Simon are very good indeed as the cops and Nick Cavaliere contributes a totally believable new immigrant in Max. Arthur’s fight with baddie Luther (David Partridge; another fine performance) is a touch implausible but well staged. The company is completed by excellent support from Amanda Walker as Lady, Tom Shepherd as Luther’s sidekick Kevin and TJ Nelson as Max’s almost mute nephew. It’s rare to see such faultless casting and director Ned Bennett is to be congratulated.

Catch it while you can!

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