Posts Tagged ‘Royal Court Theatre Upstairs’

This co-production with Johannesburg’s Market Theatre covers new ground in examining post-apartheid South Africa. I found Mongiwekhaya’s play both original and fascinating.

Ben and Skinn are stopped by the police on suspicion of drink driving. Ben is a young black university student. He doesn’t speak an African language. He wasn’t even born when apartheid ended. Skinn is a young white South African girl, much more streetwise and edgy. Officer Buthelezi, a former freedom fighter, who has stopped them, has both personal issues and a resentment of aspects of the new South Africa.

Back in the police station, Ben seeks to assert his rights whilst Buthelezi makes it clear what he thinks of young black people behaving like whites, rather violently, whilst his colleagues collude or turn a blind eye. We learn more about his personal issues as the power games unfold inside the police station and Skinn begins a search for Ben outside it, after an initial false trail set by Buthelezi.

We don’t hear much about post-apartheid social impact in the black community, which makes the piece particularly welcome. To its credit, it seeks to explain rather than take sides, though Buthelezi is an unsympathetic character and Ben a sympathetic one, both played passionately by Desmond Dube and Bayo Gbadamosi respectively. I also very much admired  Jordan Baker’s performance as the brittle Skinn. This is actress Noma Dumezweni’s directorial debut and her staging draws you in, in this intimate space.

Good to see an international collaboration like this at the Royal Court. Recommended.

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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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Best New Play – Violence & Son / Iphigenia in Splott

What a bumper year for new plays. I saw more than 80 and almost half of these made it onto the long list. The final cut saw a very diverse bunch competing. At the NT, a brilliant adaptation of Jane Eyre and a stunning ‘mash-up’ of three D H Lawrence plays as Husbands and Sons, a very radical adaptation of Everyman, the somewhat harrowing People Place & Things, the highly original Rules for Living and the expletive-loaded Mother*****r With the Hat. Two ‘minimalist’ Mike Bartlett contributions – Bull at the Young Vic and Game at the Almeida, both original and hugely impressive. The Young Vic also staged Ivo van Hove’s stunning Songs From Far Away. The Royal Court gave us Martin McDonough’s black comedy Hangman, Debbie Tucker Green’s distressing hang and a play about the NHS, Who Cares?, which took place all over the theatre. At The Donmar, Temple was a more conservative but beautifully written piece about the impact of Occupy outside St. Pauls on those inside. The Bush surprised with The Royale, a play about boxing, my least favourite sport, and The Arcola hosted one about rugby, the deeply moving NTW / Out of Joint verbatim collaboration, Crouch Touch Pause Engage as well as the lovely Eventide and Clarion. Jessica Swale graced the Globe with another superb historical play, Nell Gwynn, with the lovely Farinelli & the King next door in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I was much more positive than most about Future Conditional, a topical analysis of our broken education system, which kicked off the new regime at the Old Vic. Elsewhere in the West End only Photograph 51, Taken at Midnight (from Chichester), Oppenheimer (from Stratford) and Bad Jews made the cut. The Park continued to make itself indispensable with The Gathered Leaves and Theatre 503 punched above its weight with Rotterdam, a sensitive and very funny exploration of transgender issues. Southwark Playhouse found one of the best Tennessee Williams’s rarities, One Arm. Earlier in the year, Hampstead gave us the very underrated Luna Gale and topped this with Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg, and even the late Arthur Miller was a candidate with the belated world premiere of his first play No Villain, but it was Gary Owen’s contributions that pipped everyone else at the post – Violence & Son, a striking modern family drama at the Royal Court Upstairs, and Iphigene in Splott, a Greek adaptation (but radical enough to be considered a new play) which packed more punch than most in a year abundant with Greek adaptations, which started in Cardiff and toured via the Edinburgh fringe ending up at the NT’s temporary space.

Best Revival – Les Liasons Dangereuses

I saw half as many revivals as new plays, and only a quarter of them made the long list. The best Shakespeare’s were both at the Young Vic – a shockingly modern Measure for Measure and a dance-drama Macbeth. The best of the Greeks were the Almeida’s Orestia and Stratford East’s Antigone, which out-shone the high profile Barbican-Van Hove-Binoche one. The Donmar pitched in with Patrick Marber’s Closer, embarrassingly better than his NT contributions this year, though the NT did shine with both Our Country’s Good The Beaux Stratagem, with particularly good use of music. The Globe gave us a very quick revival of Heresy of Love and the Open Air Theatre’s adaptation of Peter Pan was a triumph, but it was the long-overdue revival of Christopher Hampton’s masterpiece that ended the year with a theatrical feast.

Best New Musical – Bend It Like Beckham

Of the 50 musicals I saw in London, only 40% qualify as New Musicals and only seven made the final cut. I very much enjoyed wallowing in the nostalgia of both Carole King’s biographical Beautiful and the brilliantly staged Bert Bacharach compilation What’s It All About? (renamed Close to You for the West End). Xanadu was a hoot at Southwark Playhouse, which also hosted the very original Teddy, and the ever reliable Union pitched in with Spitfire Grill and The White Feather, a winner in any other year I suspect. Kinky Boots was great fun, but it was Howard Goodall’s brilliant Bend It Like Beckham, the a feel-good triumph which I’m about to see for the third time, that brought a breath of fresh air and a new audience to the West End.

Best Musical Revival – Grand Hotel

A better hit rate for musical revivals, with half of the 30 I saw in contention. The year started with a stunning revival of City of Angels which benefitted from the intimacy of the Donmar and ended with a very rare revival of Funny Girl which didn’t benefit from the intimacy of the Menier (but was still a highlight, and which I expect to be better at the Savoy, which hosted Gypsy which is also on on the list). It took two attempts to see the Open Air’s thrilling Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but well worth the return on a dry evening. Ye Olde Rose & Crowne in Walthamstow gave us notable revivals of both Face the Music and Bye Bye Birdie and the Landor chipped in with Thoroughly Modern Millie. A rare treat at the Royal Academy was Michel Legrand’s Amour and a unique experience at Belmarsh Young Offenders Institute where Pimlico Opera staged Our House with the residents and Suggs himself. I missed the same show at the Union, but did make three other revivals there – Whistle Down the Wind, Loserville and most especially Spend Spend Spend, my runner up. However, Thom Sutherland’s production of Grand Hotel at Southwark Playhouse was as close to perfection as you can get and made me look again at a show I had hitherto been underwhelmed by, and that’s what makes it the winner.

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This play is about the abuse of a young girl in a nameless country at war. Married off, imprisoned and set to a life of child prostitution, Lela tells us her story with an occasional appearance from the men in her horrid life. An urgent and important story that I felt was debased by a gimmicky production.

Lela is played as a sweet little English girl in a pretty frock with a charming regional accent. The stage has a lurid red curtain backdrop, a black leather bench, a swinging cradle chair and her name in neon. The man wears a bright gold suit. They engage with the audience, at one point handing out candy-floss. This is clearly intended to heighten our horror, but it felt more disrespectful to me. There were also long periods of virtual darkness which seemed pointless. The combined effect was to reduce the emotional impact of the story, rather than amplify it as I think is intended. I’m afraid it left me cold.

There’s no denying Katie West’s achievement, on stage for ninety minutes, speaking for most of it. Cordelia Lynn’s writing is good too, but for me neither are served well by Jude Christian’s production. I did however appear to be a bit of a lone voice, so don’t take my word for it!

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What I loved most about this brilliant but harrowing play was its unpredictability. And the terrific performances. Oh, and the superb design. In fact I liked just about everything about it.

When his mum dies of cancer, seventeen year old Liam has to move from the north to the South Wales valleys to live with his biological father Rick who he never knew and who doesn’t really want him. They are like chalk and cheese. Liam is intelligent, sensitive and quick-witted. Rick’s nickname is Viol, for Violence, which tells you all you need to know about him. He rules by fear and he’d like his son to be as tough as he is. Liam wants to grieve, Rick wants him to toughen up and get laid. Liam is obsessed with Dr Who. Rick is obsessed with alcohol and sex.

The action takes place in an evening and the following morning in Rick’s living room. Liam has been to a Dr Who convention with his school friend Jen, who’s now finding it impossible to get home in the rain. Rick has been in bed with his lover Suze. The play explores this father and son relationship as it takes some extraordinary turns, with Jen and Suze well and truly caught up in it. It’s a brilliant piece of writing from Gary Owen. The room is circular, wall waist high, with two gated entrances. We’re sat in grubby white plastic seats or on the usual ‘upstairs’ benches on ‘concrete’ behind. Cai Dyfan’s clever design felt like a bullring, which came to seem ever so appropriate given the amount of testosterone on display.

It’s a bit disconcerting when it seems like yesterday you first encountered Jason Hughes as the 20-something gay lawyer on TV in This Life and now he’s old enough to play a 40-something dad – and he’s terrific, cast against type, scaring the life out of me. This appears to be David Moorst’s second stage outing as Liam and it’s a stunning, delicate performance that squeezes every ounce of wit and sarcasm from his lines. Jen’s transition from innocent to a little bit predatory to aggrieved is beautifully handled by Morfydd Clark. Siwan Morris has her own journey from compliant to apologetic to outraged, also navigated brilliantly. It’s a fine set of performances indeed.

The play reminded me a bit of David Mamet’s Oleanna, where people left the theatre with different takes on it. It’s inconclusive, which means it continues to play in your head for some time. Great theatre. Go!

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This pulls most of its punches before it has even started. The real coup d’theatre happens as you enter through the kids cloakroom into an uber-realistic primary school classroom (designer Chloe Lamford) where the kids are playing. It takes your breath away. Sadly, it’s all downhill from there.

We’re at a school where Sali Rayner’s learning system is being piloted. She’s the writer of the Badger Do Best children’s books and she is seeking to exploit their potential in collusion with the authorities. If it succeeds the school gets a capital injection, so head teacher Ms Evitt colludes. Class 4N’s teacher Ms Newsome conforms until the kids rebel and she goes off with stress. Teaching assistant Mrs Bradley is clearly against and covertly supports the rebellion led by young Louis. In 35 short scenes (average length less than 3 mins) we get progressively bored without really getting anywhere. This play by Molly Davies really is dull. It takes 100 minutes of heavy-handedness to drive home its point – central control of education patronises our children and stifles their individuality. In doing so, it patronised me.

The seven child actors are great. The adult roles are all a bit stereotypical, so not even seeing Julie Hesmondhalgh (Corrie’s now deceased Hayley) and Amanda Abbington (Mrs Martin Freeman) off the telly can lift your spirits. Vicky Featherstone’s production needs a firework up its arse to give it anything like the energy you’d get in a classroom of eight-year-olds.

Another disappointment at the Royal Court, I’m afraid. I’m beginning to sound like a broken record…..

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I’m struggling to understand why the Royal Court thought this was good enough to be staged there (mind you, it isn’t the first time I’ve thought that in recent years). Four very good actors in a very mediocre play.

Rory Mullarkey’s tale of armed insurrection in the UK starts with a meeting between a black boy and a posh woman on a deserted train platform. He appears to be some sort of Messiah and he’s not unexpected. Catherine, a Lady in the titled sense, invites him home. It isn’t for sex, as Leo at first thinks. She’s going to engineer his journey to power through uprisings of the most unlikeliest of groups like the Women’s Institute. It starts with a couple of murders and follows it’s absurdist trajectory from there to a new Britain.

Given the number of (short) scenes and locations, it is by necessity staged on a simple square platform with a projection screen behind and a couple of tents on either side, but Tom Pye’s design still seems a bit half-hearted, as did James Macdonald’s direction. Anna Chancellor is excellent, but why she took the role is beyond me. I was very impressed by Calvin Demba as Leo, who maintains his naive otherworldly expression throughout. Sophie Russell and Pearce Quigley provide excellent support in multiple roles, with some quick changes.

Maybe I’m missing something, but this all seemed a bit pointless. More like work-in-progress than a finished play. It was occasionally funny and often unpredictable but rather unengaging.

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I wish I’d had a blog 20 years ago so that I could compare what I thought about this then with what I think about it now. In the absence of a blog, I have my less reliable memory, which tells me that I thought it was a good, very funny play, though the post-AIDS promiscuity and unprotected sex was a bit shocking. It seemed to me to be a play of its time and I wasn’t sure it would have the same impact today. As it turns out, it passes the test of time and proves to be more great than good. Sadly, writer Kevin Elyot didn’t get to see this first major revival himself, dying days before rehearsals began.

We don’t meet Reg, though the play revolves around him. His partner Daniel is one of three thirty-something university friends who we join at the flat-warming of another, conservative home-maker Guy, virtually celibate with unrequited love for the third, rich boy John, who has been absent squandering his inheritance and sleeping around. They are joined by newer friends from the pub – Bernie & Benny. Decorative decorator young Eric, also from the pub, is just finishing painting the conservatory. As the play progresses, we attend two wakes and learn why everything revolves around Reg, as Eric joins this circle of friends.

American playwrights responded to AIDS with angry, political plays like The Normal Heart and Angels in America. This was British theatre’s first response – a comedy about friendship, love and sex with two deaths! It has some of the sharpest, funniest dialogue you’ll ever hear and it is truly funny – it won both the Olivier and Standard Best Comedy Awards (also a peculiarly British response) – but it has much more depth than that. The characterisations are superb and there isn’t a wasted moment or an unnecessary word; it really is brilliantly written. This was the third of only six original stage plays Elyot wrote (there were also three adaptations) over a period of 22 years. Later ones, like Mouth to Mouth in 2001 and Forty Winks in 2004 were also good plays, but this was his masterpiece.

The Donmar have done him proud with this fine revival. The space is bigger than the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs where it started, but it’s just as intimate. This is director Robert Hastie’s first ‘big’ high profile show and he more than rises to the challenge with impeccable staging. The casting is faultless. I haven’t seen much of Jonathan Broadbent’s work, but he steps into David Bamber’s shoes and makes Guy his own. Geoffrey Streathfield sweeps in and commands the stage as a charismatic Daniel. I think I’ve only seen Julian Ovenden in musicals and he’s a revelation here as complex John, a character who makes the biggest transition. Richard Cant and Matt Bardock are excellent as the unlikely couple Bernie & Benny. Lewis Reeves, in only his second West End role, is a very impressive Eric (originally played by Joe Duttine, now Sally’s boyfriend in Coronation Street!).

This exceeded my exceptions in so many ways and it was wonderful to see it revealed as a modern classic. A clear favourite for 2014’s Best Revival.

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I’ve not seen anything by playwright John Donnelly before and on this form he’s one to add to my catch-them-when-you-can list. I like my plays well structured and this has a roundedness that makes it very satisfying.

His play starts in a Bulgarian hotel room the night before a football match where Jason & Ade, two 17-year-old ‘academy’ players and good friends, will be assessed for the first team. They dart around the room playing practical jokes on one another, overdosing on banter, before a frisson of attraction changes their relationship forever. It is likely only one will make it to the first team and so it is.

Their lives diverge and in the second act we’re in another hotel room, this time in Spain seven years later, glimpsing some of the more unpleasant results of success with the chosen one and a table dancer. In the third act, the boys are reunited after twelve years in a UK hotel room. What follows is a wild scene where they are joined by a concierge, the same age as they were when they met, on an alcohol and pill-fuelled binge of dangerous games and hotel damage before the boy leaves and they revisit that first night.

In Laura Hopkins’ design, with traverse staging, the hotel rooms are created by reconfiguring beds and minibars. There’s a balcony at one end and a shower room at the other. The floor’s green covering resembles a football pitch, with floodlights high in each corner to complete the reference. John Tiffany’s superb staging is energetic, highly physical, edgy and sometimes unpredictable, with touches of the stylised ‘movement’ we saw in Black Watch and more recently Let The Right One In downstairs. The pace never lagged and the time flew by.

Russell Tovey has clearly worked hard to look the part and probably needed to given that he spends almost the entire evening in his pants. He has to age 12 years without physical change and from naive young lad to manipulative, materialistic and somewhat obnoxious celebrity footballer and he does so very well by subtle changes in behaviour, demeanour and manner. Gary Carr has to show more restraint and jump from twelve to twenty-nine between his two scenes; this is another fine performance. Lisa McGrillis & Nico Mirallegro (an auspicious professional stage debut)have smaller but pivotal roles which they play to perfection.

We’re used to shorter less substantial fare at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs. I felt this was a fully-formed play with a lot to say which it did so unpredictably and entertainingly. The first contender for this year’s best new play.

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It’s impossible to categorise this food themed event. From the moment you walk into the waiting room of the spaceship restaurant until the aftertaste of the ‘chocolate’ which constitutes a sensory experience and the last course of your gastronaut journey, it’s highly original. Part lecture, part Blumenthal-esque food experience, part meal, part show….

I’m not sure why we spent so long in the waiting room before the curtains opened and we took our seats; perhaps it was because we were too polite or shy to consume the colourful shots clearly laid out for us. Sat at tables of 6-8, with wine and water we were served soup and bread, a reverse three course snack, locusts & crickets ( yes!), cake and the most extraordinary ‘chocolate’. Whilst this was happening, we learnt things about food and our relationship with it. We were also entertained by the maitre d’ and four waiters with music and funny business.

I didn’t find it as preachy as some have. For me, there’s nothing wrong with using entertainment to make a point. Some of what we learnt will no doubt stay with us – I will certainly never look at a loaf of sliced bread the same way again. In addition to its originality, I also much admired Lizzie Clachan’s design, from the colourful shots to the star trek costumes to the overhead lighting. The cast of five engage with you individually as well as collectively in a charming fashion and it’s a communal experience, so you’re interacting with your fellow diners too.

I went on my own to a 1.30pm performance, and it was a rather enjoyable and fun late lunch with new friends.

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