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Posts Tagged ‘Roy Williams’

No other art form could tell this story so well. It would have nowhere near the same impact on screen, big or small, or on the page. Clint Dyer & Roy Williams’ one-man monologue takes you hostage at close quarters, and Rafe Spall inhabits his character Michael in a towering performance of energy, passion and playfulness.

Michael is a lovable Londoner. He loves his mum, but worships his dad, who has a flower stall in the market. He’s a bit contemptuous of his sister. His best friend Delroy is black. Football is his game and the family team are Leyton Orient – and England, obviously. These are open, warm-hearted people, salt of the earth. We see the best of them. Then they are confronted by a political choice and a resurgent England head for the World Cup and for some patriotism becomes nationalism and racism and we see the worst of them.

Rafe Spall prowls the cross-shaped platforms, with almost every member of the audience in touching distance, making eye contact with virtually all of them. There’s no set as such, but the design team cleverly integrate the enclosed space with lighting and sound, with objects left all over the auditorium that Michael uses to illustrate his story. His character engages with us, banters, cheekily. It’s funny and charming, until Michael has a meltdown at a funeral when it becomes angry and passionate and incredibly powerful. These people have been used by other more powerful people, which has made some of them ugly.

I’ve long admired Roy Williams’ writing and here, with co-writer Clint Dyer, his ear for natural dialogue shines once more. Dyer directs too, and his visceral staging, and Spall’s extraordinary performance, create this testosterone-fuelled world, bringing alive the unseen characters and propelling the personal story and its socio-political parallels. I was enthralled and captivated for 100 minutes.

It was a co-incidence that I had returned to see Mike Bartlett’s Albion the night before and I was struck by how much they seemed like companion pieces. Michael and Albion’s Audrey couldn’t be more different, but they are affected and infected by the same thing. Two state of the nation plays, poles apart but resonating in the same world. Theatre doing what it does best, putting up a mirror to help us see and understand the world in which we live.

Absolutely unmissable.

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I’m very fond of the work of playwright Roy Williams. He’s one of the very few writing about contemporary urban life, black lives in particular. This is my eleventh play of his and he hasn’t let me down yet, and he doesn’t here.

The Firm were a gang of late-forties / early-fifties small time crooks in South East London. They’re reuniting to celebrate Shaun’s release from prison at Gus’ new bar on the eve of its grand opening. Selwyn brings young lad Fraser with him, allegedly a relative, a member of one of a new generation of very different gangs. Leslie and Trent have encountered Fraser before – he’s been preparing the way, and now he’s there with a proposition, but it gets lost in a deluge of skeletons and ghosts as truths are revealed, myths debunked and regrets surface.

Williams writes such authentic, ripe dialogue and after a slow start, the story unfolds and unravels with great pace. I liked the way it exposed the very different personalities and their motivations, how they’ve gone their different ways and how it contrasts the two generations. Though history is likely to repeat itself, it will be a very different one.

It’s superbly performed by a crack cast – Clinton Blake, Jay Simpson, Delroy Atkinson & Clarence Smith as the members of the old Firm and Simon Coombs as young Fraser. The Finborough’s resident designer Alex Marker has got his hands on a bigger budget and delivered an excellent realistic new bar. Denis Lawson’s staging is very visceral, not afraid to let its hair down as it exposes shocking truths.

This made me wonder why I don’t go to Hampstead Downstairs, a low profile, intimate space, more often. Definitely worth a visit.

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The first of two Antigone’s in 12 days, and less than three years since the last one. Greek tragedy’s were made to last. I don’t know what Ivo van Hove and Juliette Binoche have in store, but this 2500-year-old play really suits playwright Roy Williams’ contemporary gangland setting. Gangs have military precision, familial loyalty, an obsessive aversion to disrespect and a commitment to revenge. With a little bit more tinkering, you could make it feel like a completely contemporary play.

Creo is the boss, the king of gangland Thebes. At the end of the war he instructs his soldiers to bury one of Tig’s brothers with honour and the leave the other unburied.  Tig is the girlfriend of Creo’s son Eamon. She defies him by covering her brother’s body and his revenge is to command that she be buried alive, but in a Romeo & Juliet twist Tig and Eamon take matters into their own hands. Veteran tramp Tyrese brings messages and warnings from god, but it might be too late for Creo.

Designer Joanna Scotcher has created an urban space under the highway with unfinished concrete pillars and wire gates and Sandy Nuttgens adds a brooding soundscape. Mark Monero has great presence and charisma as Creo (hard to believe he’s now old enough to play the father of an adult, but he is!) and Doreene Blackstock is great as his determined and ultimately defiant wife Eunice. Savannah Gordon-Liburd and Gamba Cole are both excellent as the star-crossed lovers. I didn’t realise Oliver Wilson, playing a soldier, was also Tyrese until I read the programme – a master of disguise indeed!

This is an excellent updating of an age old tale by one of our best playwrights which Stratford’s loyal local audience lapped up, as I did. Comparisons to follow in 12 days time…..

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Roy Williams is one of our best writers and one of the few whose plays cover urban working class issues. This one may well be his most hard hitting, and surprisingly it puts the police centre stage.

Gail, a uniformed constable, transfers from Horsham to the Met full of enthusiasm and idealism. She tries hard to persuade a victim of domestic abuse to come forward. She disapproves of her colleagues off piste violence and payment of gang members for information. When she and her colleague Spence are stabbed and he dies, she goes off the rails drinking, upping the doses of prescription drugs and abusing her husband and daughter. At work she tries to buy information about Spence’s killer with leaks and suggests a dramatic new strategy for her domestic violence client which lands her in hospital and her kids in foster care. By now, another idealistic rookie copper, Vince, has arrived and the cycle begins again.

The stage is stripped back to create a cavernous space big enough to stage a riot, with multi-level rough metal performing areas that provide a violent soundtrack themselves. It also brings with it audibility problems and I was straining to catch all of the dialogue. Director Maria Aberg stages the violence very realistically. Sadly it’s in the wrong theatre and the typical Hampstead audience were visibly (and occasionally audibly) hating it, with very mute applause at the end. It should be somewhere like Stratford East where people have more of a stomach for edgy urban fare.

Lorraine Stanley is outstanding as Gail, making her transition very believable. She’s surrounded by a uniformly good cast, with Ricky Champ giving a particularly passionate performance as Spence. It’s good to see a piece about the police on stage and I found Williams treatment of the subject objective and empathetic, if a little too melodramatic. My problem with the play is its hopelessness. It’s presenting a reality that frustrates most of us and I left the theatre deeply depressed.

 

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I’m not sure I’ve ever been so out-of-synch with an audience. This drama is set in Jamaica amongst violent gangs and corrupt coppers. The dialogue is local patois with surtitles on two TV screens in the boxes (which were necessary and helpful but still so fast you didn’t catch everything). There were a lot of laughs, but to me nowhere near as many as much of the largely Afro-Caribbean audience found. When it was tragic, sad, cruel, moving, poignant……they laughed. Surreal.

Roy Williams play centres on gang leader Joker, arrested for a murder being investigated by a British policeman of Jamaican origin sent out to help. The local police operates very differently to what he’s used to ‘at home’ with more overt corruption. Joker gets his men to abduct two policemen to trade for his release. The British cop is amazed and horrified when it is clear the local police plan to co-operate to free their men. Further revelations reveal everyone from the most junior officer to the Superintendent is in some way corrupt.

Williams plays have breadth and depth, so in addition to a gripping thriller, we get a cop with a gay son, a culture clash between the Jamaicans and the Brit of Jamaican origin and reflections on colonialism and events post-independence. If you can penetrate the dense patois (and it’s often a real struggle) it’s rich in narrative and characterisation. There’s a lot more going on here than most plays and it’s hard to take it all in.

Ultz has designed an authentic police station with Joker present in his second-tier cell throughout proceedings in the station itself. Clint Dyer’s staging is fast-paced and very physical with a real sense of danger in the air. The performances are uniformly excellent. For a singer, Goldie makes a great actor. Charles Venn and Ashley Chin are terrific as the younger cops obsessed with the movies and on the make. Trevor Laird (who also doubles up as a petty criminal) and Brian Bovell are excellent as the older, wiser policemen. Against all of this, Derek Elroy has to play fish-out-of-water James and he does so very well.

It took a while for me to get into this, and I felt like a bit of a fish out of water myself, like my namesake character James, but it drew me in and provided gripping drama, something original and something you’d probably only ever see at TRSE. Gone now, but certainly not forgotten.

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Until last month, I hadn’t seen an Edward Bond play. Given that I’ve been an avid playgoer for more than 30 years, this tells you something about how often his plays are put on in the UK. This is a British dramatist who has written 50 plays. He appeared at joint number 12 in the list of  ‘most selected playwrights’ in the NT’s poll of 20th Century drama (somewhat ironically with Caryl Churchill, whose A Number I also saw last month – revived after just 8 years!) and his play Saved was ‘the most selected play’ of 1965. You’d be forgiven then for thinking that this season is at the NT or the Royal Court, but no it takes a tiny but enterprising unfunded pub theatre in Kilburn to mount an ambitious season of six of his plays, including a brand new play Bond has written for them, another he’s especially re-written and Bond himself directing one of the plays, with a season ticket that enables you to see them for c.£8 each with free programmes and a photocopy of the new play!

The Pope’s Wedding

This was the second to be mounted, but the first I saw (somewhat appropriately, as it was Bond’s first play back in 1962). At first I thought it might have influenced Pinter, then I realised The Caretaker and The Birthday Party pre-dated it, so it might be the reverse influence.

It is a sort of rural Pinter, featuring a bunch of young men growing up angry in a rural backwater. Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of scenes and scene changes which destroy the narrative flow and pace of the piece and it takes a long time to turn from a picture of rural life to the menace that ensues. Having said this, some of the staging by Conrad Blakemore was outstanding – particularly a cricket match brought to life on a pocket-handkerchief stage.

The real reason for seeing it though is a wonderful ensemble of young actors who quite took my breath away. Amongst them, Tim O’Hara was magnificent as Scopey and well matched by Rebecca Tanwen’s Pat and veteran John Atterbury as Allen. For the second time in a week – the other being Love on the Dole the previous week at the Finborough – British acting talent shone brightly.

Olly’s Prison

This 1990’s screenplay gets it’s UK stage premiere and it’s a much better play than The Pope’s Wedding. The psychologically complex story starts with a man murdering his daughter after a 30-minute monologue during which she just stares silently. We move to the prison where he is now incarcerated and to the death of a cellmate in which he is implicated. He is confronted by the cellmate’s mother, who has taken in her son’s victim, and goes on to develop a relationship with her. His dead daughter’s boyfriend, now a policeman, colludes with the cellmate’s victim to frame the man we first meet ranting at his scary daughter! Still with me? In the end we’re left to question who really are the victims.

Well, actually, I found it a fascinating piece and it was extremely well staged by Gareth Corke. The performances were again outstanding. Ewan Bailey was excellent as murdering Mike with Melissa Suffield (until recently Lucy Beale in East Enders) pulled off the tough task of spooking us with her stare for half-an-hour as his daughter. Robin Berry was great as older Frank the boyfriend (as the younger Frank, he was rather hampered by a dreadful wig!), as was James Kenward as cellmate Smiler and Frankie McGinty as his victim Olly. Elicia Daly’s and Charlotte Fields delivered fine characterisations of the women in all their lives.

The Under Room

This third play takes place in the pub’s cellar. We had to go up one flight of stairs, through the theatre during rehearsals for the next play (with the playwright in attendance) and back down two flights of stairs! It’s a hugely atmospheric space with a real soundscape of cellar machinery in action.

This fairly recent play is set 67 years in the future. A stranger breaks into a woman’s house and she comes embroiled in his world. He owes money to a man who has assisted in his illegal entry into the country; this man may be a corrupt policeman or member of the army in what is clearly a police state. It’s all a bit difficult to get into, particularly as the stranger is played by a dummy with an actor in view speaking the lines from behind and occasionally coming forward to dress / undress the dummy.

I enjoyed the atmosphere and it’s well played by the cast of three, but I can’t say I found the play particularly accessible or illuminating.

The Fool

This is actually a biographical play about 19th century poet John Clare. In the first act, we see the events that influenced and preceded his writing. In an earlier recession, the poor rise up and rob the gentry in order to buy food to live. Some are imprisoned and hung, but Clare remains free. In the second act, we see him in London under the patronage of the rich and feted for his poetry. Back in East Anglia he goes insane and ends his days in an asylum.

Like The Pope’s Wedding, it’s the performances that make the evening; they’ve again assembled a terrific company of 17 to play the 37 parts and amongst them I was hugely impressed by Ben Crispin as Clare, James Kenward (also excellent in Olly’s Prison) as Darkie / Jackson and Rosina Miles as Patty. There is some excellent staging, particularly a bare-fisted boxing match (fight movement Lawrence Carmichael) which had you on the edge of your seat. I was gripped for the whole 2 hours 45 mins, despite the intensely uncomfortable benches!

There Will Be More

Before this play could start we had to wait for the pub’s Sunday lunchtime one-man band to finish his set. There was something surreal about standing and waiting whilst he played Irish songs to a bunch of heavy drinkers, some of which were indulging in a sort of swaying / dancing – one woman banging her stick loudly on the pub table. Maybe this was intentional?! 

This is the world premiere of Bond’s new play. In the first 20-minute act we get a double infanticide and a rape. After the interval and eighteen years have passed, things quieten down for a while before another rape, a murder and a spot of incest!

I think Bond is making a point about the eternal cycle of war, but for me he obscures this so much, which seems rather pointless if you’re trying to make a point!  Again, the staging and performances are excellent, with Stephen Billington, Helen Bang and Timothy O’Hara (who also played Scopey in The Pope’s Wedding) pulling off the difficult task of making this all seem believable. 

Red Black & Ignorant

This 1980’s play is again spoilt by the obfuscation of its meaning. It appears to tell us the story of one man’s journey from life to death, trying to make an anti-war point but this time losing me by making me feel like I’m being preached at and patronised. It consists of  nine short scenes with occasional dialogue spoken direct to the audience.

It’s again effectively staged and well acted. Andrew Lewis as ‘Monster’, whose life we appear to be following, is excellent (with terrific make-up by Jess Harling), Melanie Ramsay is suitably spooky as Mother / Wife and Alex Farrow’s transition from Boy to Son is impressive (the character’s titles illustrate my earlier point, I think). Like There Will Be More, I’m afraid I think they are let down by the material.

So there you have it. I think I’ve given Bond a fair chance, but I’m not at all convinced by either the plays or the playwright. Like Pinter and Churchill, as he develops he loses me. This could be because I’m as thick as shit, of course, but it could be that he was becoming less creative and clouded this with obscurity and obfuscation (yes, that word again!) or it could be a sign of intellectual arrogance. Whatever it is, give me the American 20th century greats – Miller, Tennessee Williams and O’Neill – or British contemporaries like Jez Butterworth and Roy Williams any day of the week.  I gave him the benefit of the doubt at the outset, but based on six plays and his programme notes / essays, I think I can understand why he has been ‘neglected’ and considered ‘difficult’. He’ll certainly go into MY difficult playwrights list with Pinter, Churchill, Chekhov and Shaw.

That notwithstanding, a standing ovation for the Cock Tavern and its artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Jones for their ambition, the accessibility (£50 for six plays and programmes!), the opportunity to review a playwright’s work in this way and for some terrific staging and wonderful performances. A fascinating Autum project.

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The Royal Court main house has been turned into a boxing club, complete with ring, which later becomes a  boxing venue. Designer Miriam Buether is no stranger to such transformations (Relocated, My Child & Cock also here at the Royal Court) and this is just as impressive. It completely transports you to this (for me at least) alien world and in this case, back in time 20 – 25 years.

Roy Williams is just about the best playwright working in the UK today because he writes unpretentious plays which tell personal stories that illuminate and help us understand complex aspects of our society. This particular play shows us what it’s like to grow up black in 80’s Britain through the story of two boys whose lives diverge and later re-connect. Setting it in Thatcher’s Britain allows us to revisit a period of war (the Falklands), industrial strife and racism and wonder if anything has really changed. We’re still fighting wars, we seem to be heading for a new period of  strife and the spectre of racism has hardly gone away, just buried.

It was a captivating 90 minutes sitting front row ringside with more testosterone in the room than all the other London theatres added together. Sacha Wares’ staging, including amazingly real fight sequences, makes it all so totally believable that you wince at the racist comments and jump when a punch lands.

There isn’t a fault in the casting. Nigel Lindsay brings out all of the contradictions that inhabit trainer Charlie. Trevor Laird as Leon’s dad and Gary Beadle as Troy’s American give great cameos. Sarah Ridgeway really makes us feel for Becky, caught between her dad and Leon. Above all it’s the three boxing boys – Jason Maza, Anthony Welsh and Daniel Kaluuya – who bring the play alive with extraordinary presence and energy; they are mesmerizing.

Yet another triumph for Roy Williams and the Royal Court.

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