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Posts Tagged ‘Royal Court Theatre’

Northern Ireland playwright David Ireland has delivered two of the most surreal and controversial new plays of the last five years – Cyprus Avenue at the Royal Court, where a unionist was obsessed by his baby granddaughter’s likeness to Gerry Adams, and Ulster American at the Traverse in Edinburgh, where an Ulster Protestant playwright is outraged by Hollywood’s rewriting of Irish history. This 2011 play, now getting its British premiere, pre-dates them both, but is just as surreal and an even more controversial black comedy, a metaphor for the unionist view of Northern Ireland after the peace process.

Alan is bothered by his neighbour’s barking dog so he visits the doctor who diagnoses depression. Not satisfied, he goes the the BBC to seek mediation from Eamonn Holmes. He confronts his neighbour who claims he has no dog. Is it all in his head? What follows is a bestial attack on the dog, a visit from the paramilitary to exact punishment for it and ‘eye for an eye’ revenge for the attack. Ireland’s coruscating humour is aimed at the solution to ‘the troubles’ through the peace process, from a unionist perspective.

It’s superbly acted, with Daragh O’Malley commanding the stage as Alan, and Kevin Trainor doubling up brilliantly as doctor and dog! There’s excellent support in two roles each by Laura Dos Santos and Kevin Murphy and by Owen O’Neill and Declan Rodgers in individual roles. Director Max Elton and designer Ceci Calf use the tiny Finborough space brilliantly. Ireland really is a one off, a very distinctive playwright and a lone voice in reflecting on the unionist perspective of recent history and the political situation today.

The Finborough proving indispensable again.

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Sometimes when the consensus of reviews is negative, it demotivates you from going to / booking for a play. I tend not to be deterred from going to something already booked, though I am disinclined to book something I haven’t yet. Which makes me happy I had booked for this because I thought it was a lot better than the reviews led me to believe. It has its flaws, but I was very glad I went.

The term ‘kitchen sink drama’ was coined for those quintessentially British gritty working class plays like Look Back in Anger (at this very theatre). I will reappropriate it for this, in the sense that Al Smith throws in everything including the kitchen sink. Geo-political issues, climate change green washing & the environment, colonialism & neo-colonialism, corruption, corporate governance and ethics – business, medical, research, political, educational. Even the NHS and Brexit are here. In truth it is somewhat overloaded with issues.

The play revolves around a battle for rare mineral resources between an American tycoon (a thinly veiled Elon Musk character) and a British medical researcher in the salt flats of Bolivia. They both want lithium and this is apparently the world’s biggest source, seemingly controlled by one indigenous man. When the politicians get to hear of the battle, they become the fourth party, their interest moving from protecting their country and their people to getting elected. As the story unfolds, they all prove to be masters of manipulation, even the solitary indigenous man. No-one comes out of this well, which is part of its point.

It’s full of implausibility, exaggeration, inaccuracies and some dubious science, and at just over three hours it is too long, but it’s a vehicle for an interesting debate about ethics in many different situations and it engaged and stimulated me such that I didn’t feel its length. There are some very clever lines and touches, like a female politician’s hairstyle changing to the plaits favoured by indigenous women as she embarks on her campaign for election, and some very funny moments, mostly involving tycoon Henry Finn, many from the mistranslation of English into Spanish and vice versa.

There’s no weak link in the excellent cast of nine, four of whom double up to give us thirteen well drawn characters. Director Hamish Pirie needed to reign in things a bit, but I enjoyed the evening nonetheless. Don’t be a sheep, 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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Take a Greek tragedy, sprinkle it with some Martin McDonough and Quentin Tarantino, set it all in the South and West of the USA and you have this neo-gothic revenge tale, a black comedy with a horror comic book feel. Aleshea Harris’ play is derivative, but the concoction is also original. The production seems to revel in its lack of realism, every aspect exaggerated or amplified to add a level of absurdism / surrealism.

Young adult twins Racine and Anaia get a letter from the mother they thought was dead. They visit her to hear the story of how their father attempted to burn them all to death; her final wish is revenge, as a result of which they embark on a journey west where they mete out justice to their father’s new family, his wife and twin boys. When their father arrives things really get out of hand.

Everything about it – the performances, make-up, the sets, the violence – are pushed beyond the limit of realism, but there are still moments which make you squirm or turn your head. In a fine set of performances, Tamara Lawrence and Adelayo Adedayo as the twins, on stage virtually throughout, impress. It held my attention but it didn’t really satisfy me. I wasn’t sure if she was trying to make a point and if so what it was. I left feeling the play wasn’t good enough to be on the Royal Court main stage.

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Like the Kiln Theatre the night before, the Royal Court have chosen to revive something for their re-opening, on this occasion their 2019 Theatre Upstairs hit. I knew I wasn’t anywhere near the target demographic, and it often felt like watching a foreign language production, but that didn’t stop me admiring it, and realising its importance for a new generation of theatre-goers.

Cleo and Kara have known each other since school. One is straight and one is gay, both are black, though Cleo sometimes disparagingly refers to Kara as being ‘lighter’. Cleo’s boyfriend has dumped her and she sits in her room venting her frustration on Twitter. When she discovers that Kylie Jenner has become the youngest ‘self-made’ female billionaire, her frustration turns to rage as she tweets the seven methods, which go viral.

After each tweet we are treated to an extraordinary scene to illustrate their impact. In between, Cleo and Kara discuss their lives, loves and feelings, Watching this from a distant age (!) does feel like observing another world, and I missed dialogue and references which did impact my engagement with both the story and the characters of Jasmine Lee-Jones piece. I did however admire its originality and freshness, the theatre-craft of its staging by Milli Bhatia and her design team, and above all two outstanding performances by Leanne Henlon and Tia Bannon.

Well done Royal Court for championing these new voices which, judging by the reaction last night, have an audience ready and waiting.

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This is the fourth Caryl Churchill play I’ve seen in the last twelve months – three revivals (two of which I’d seen before) and one new play(s). I first saw this seventeen years ago at the Royal Court with Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig. Cloning was a hot topic at the time. Eight years later there was a certain frisson seeing a real father and son – Timothy & Sam West – playing it at the Menier, something that was tried again at the Young Vic in 2015 with John & Rex Shrapnel. So this is my third exposure and I’m still confused. That’s Caryl Churchill for you.

It’s set in the home of Salter, where he is visited by someone who turns out to be a clone of his son, who was sent to some sort of home by his father when he was struggling after the suicide of his wife. Salter realises the doctors have created more than one clone and is preoccupied with suing them. His actual son then visits, furious with his father about the cloning. Salter now says he was just trying to have a second chance to bring up a son properly. The first clone returns, knowing the truth, now hating Salter. After another visit from his real son, now very troubled, Salter invites another of the clones, Michael, who proves to be very normal and unfazed by it all.

Polly Findlay’s excellent staging plays out in five scenes over sixty minutes, superbly performed by Colin Morgan as all of the boys and Roger Allam as Salter. In Lizzie Clachan’s clever set we’re in the same room, but from a different perspective in each scene, miraculously transforming in the darkness between them. It’s a much more realistic setting than previous productions, and Morgan is much better at creating different personalities than his predecessors. The nature versus nurture debate is interesting, but I was left wanting to understand more about Salter and the doctor’s motivations, and the extent of and reasons for the cloning.

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One of the most positive things about 2019 was that more new plays and new musicals made my shortlist than revivals of either; new work appears to be thriving, theatre is alive.

BEST NEW PLAY

I struggled to chose one, so I’ve chosen four!

Laura Wade’s pirandellian The Watsons* at the Menier, clever and hilarious, The Doctor* at the Almeida, a tense and thrilling debate about medical ethics, How Not to Drown at the Traverse in Edinburgh, the deeply moving personal experience of one refugee and Jellyfish at the NT Dorfman, a funny and heart-warming love story, against all odds

There were another fifteen I could have chosen, including Downstate, Faith Hope & Charity and Secret River at the NT, The End of History and A Kind of People* at the Royal Court, The Son and Snowflake* at the Kiln, The Hunt at the Almeida, A German Life at the Bridge, After Edward at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Appropriate at the Donmar, A Very Peculiar Poison at the Old Vic and Shook at Southwark Playhouse. Our Lady of Kibeho at Stratford East was a candidate, though I saw it in Northampton. My other out of town contender was The Patient Gloria at the Traverse in Edinburgh. I started the year seeing Sweat at the Donmar, but I sneaked that into the 2018 list!

BEST REVIVAL

Death of a Salesman* at the Young Vic.

This was a decisive win, though my shortlist also included All My Sons and Present Laughter at the Old Vic, Master Harold & the Boys and Rutherford & Son at the NT Lyttleton, the promenade A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge, Noises Off* at the Lyric Hammersmith and Little Baby Jesus at the Orange Tree.

BEST NEW MUSICAL

Shared between Come From Away* in the West End and Amelie* at the Watermill in Newbury, now at The Other Palace, with Dear Evan Hansen*, This Is My Family at the Minerva in Chichester and one-woman show Honest Amy* at the Pleasance in Edinburgh very close indeed.

Honourable mentions to & Juliet* in the West End, Ghost Quartet* at the new Boulevard, The Bridges of Madison County at the Menier, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Fiver at Southwark Playhouse, Operation Mincemeat* at The New Diorama and The Season in Northampton.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

Another that has to be shared, between the Menier’s The Boy Friend* and The Mill at Sonning’s Singin’ in the Rain*

I also enjoyed Sweet Charity* at the Donmar, Blues in the Night at the Kiln, Falsettos at the Other Palace and The Hired Man at the Queens Hornchurch, and out-of-town visits to Assassins and Kiss Me Kate at the Watermill Newbury and Oklahoma in Chichester.

A vintage year, I’d say. It’s worth recording that 60% of my shortlist originated in subsidised theatres, underlining the importance of public funding of quality theatre. 20% took me out of London to places like Chichester, Newbury and Northampton, a vital part of the UK’s theatrical scene. Only two of these 48 shows originated in the West End, and they both came from Broadway. The regions, the fringe and arts funding are all crucial to making and maintaining the UK as the global leader it is.

The starred shows are either still running or transferring, so they can still be seen, though some close this week.

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This is an impressive new play by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, multi-layered, covering lots of relevant contemporary issues. It illustrates how seemingly happy lives can unravel very quickly, triggered by just one event. Though ultimately very sad, I found it enthralling; I particularly liked it’s objectivity and authenticity. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen at the Royal Court in recent years.

Gary & Nicky are struggling financially but are happily married, both working, with three kids. Gary’s friend Mark and sister Karen are often around, and Mo and Anjum, friends through their children, are regular visitors too, all currently preoccupied with preparations for their kids’ school fair and their respective son’s next schools. On Mark’s birthday, Gary & Mark’s boss Victoria comes back from the pub with them. She seems lonely and rather envious of this close community. She drinks a bit too much and makes some racist comments that sends this close-knit group along a path that leads to the destruction of relationships in just two weeks.

In Michael Buffong’s production, the play grabs you quickly and maintains its pace and engagement for the whole 100 minutes without interval. Anna Fleischle’s clever design moves us speedily from Gary & Nicky’s council flat to Gary & Mark’s workplace, and back. It’s a great set of performances, particularly given the emotional journey’s they all have to make, from seven fine actors. At first all of their characters are sympathetic, but by the end it’s really only one, as each does or displays something that loses our empathy with them.

There’s a thread running between this and two other new plays I’ve seen this month – Fairview and Snowflake – but this is in many ways the best. A definite recommendation from me.

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I think I would best describe this intriguing play by Ed Thomas as Samuel Beckett meets Dylan Thomas. It’s dialogue is poetic and it’s story is obscure, something I often turn against, but here I found it rather captivating.

John Daniel and his wife Noni are the last inhabitants of Bear Ridge. They’ve had to close their butchers shop. The post office has stopped delivering mail and their phone line has been cut. Their shop assistant & slaughter-man Ifan William has stayed with them. We don’t exactly know why Bear Ridge is being deserted, though it appears to be the result of a war of some sorts. Fighter planes occasionally fly overhead and an army man, The Captain, pays a visit.

Their conversation ranges from their plight to reminiscences about a happier past and reflections on tragedy, when we learn that John Daniel & Noni’s son, and Ifan William’s best friend, went to university to study philosophy but was killed because he spoke ‘the old language’. The Captain, a clearly tortured soul, has his own tragic story to tell. I’m still trying to piece it all together, with an intriguing note in the play-script suggesting it is ‘semi-autobiographical’.

Rhys Ifans and Rakie Ayola are both terrific as the couple at the centre of the story, with fine support from Sion Daniel Young as Ifan William and Jason Hughes as The Captain. Cai Dyfan’s design is hugely atmospheric, the exit of the walls representing the decline, as is the music and sound design. The Royal Court’s AD Vicky Featherstone co-directs with the playwright.

National Theatre Wales has gone through a difficult time of late, but it’s good to see them back, and in London, with this Royal Court co-production. I suspect I will be processing it for some time yet.

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When this evening was announced, it was three new short plays by Caryl Churchill. Now a fourth has been added, longer than the other three added together, which makes it the longest evening of new Churchill work in ages. I’ve tired of her descent into minimalism of late, also finding earlier works haven’t stood the test of time when revived, but this is a real return to form, a veritable theatrical feast.

The first half consists of three short works, with the inspired idea of front of curtain entertainment between them. The first is an intriguing piece about a glass girl. The characters perform on an elevated white shelf, which at one point is clearly a mantelpiece with ornaments that come alive, but at other times not. The second play features a god on a cloud and a boy playing on the ground, the god giving us a manic telling of Greek myths. In the third, a serial wife killer’s friends discuss him and his crimes and how they should react.

In the longest play, we’re in the home of Dot and Jimmy, cousins who live together, neither of whom work. In most of the short scenes, they are visited by Niamh, a distant cousin from Ireland who has recently moved near them, and Rob, a homeless man Jimmy has befriended during his runs in the park, mostly separately, but sometimes at the same time. Dot has a past and an intriguing object, both of which are revealed.

Death and killing run through all four plays, though they are often very funny. They appear to be modern spins on old tales – Greek myths, Bluebeard and a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson – though I can’t identify the fourth. James Macdonald’s staging is clever, Miriam Buether’s design is stunning and the acting is brilliant, with Tom Mothersdale giving a virtuoso performance as the god and Deborah Findlay and Toby Jones acting masterclasses in the final play.

It’s been a long wait, so all the more welcome.

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