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Posts Tagged ‘Royal Court Theatre’

This play started when it was announced as the first play by Dave Davidson, who’d worked in the security industry for 38 years, with a bunch of testimonials by well-known playwrights connected with the Royal Court. It wasn’t long before Davidson’s cover was blown. Even if you hadn’t known that, you would have at curtain up when we’re told Lucy Kirkwood is about to tell us the true story of the Quilters, kept secret by the Home Office, and why she used a pseudonym.

We first meet Noah & Celeste on one of those Guardian blind dates, a very funny and playful scene. Their relationship progresses and they move in together. Celeste’s nursing career develops, but ex-army Noah struggles and ends up mired in an online world of blurry truth, resistance to technology and conspiracy theories. We’re soon joined by the playwright Lucy Kirkwood, well an actor playing her, who narrates their story like a documentary, more desperately as it progresses. Noah & Celeste, now with a child, go deeper and deeper until it concludes in a mysterious tragedy.

For much of the time it zips along like a thriller, though I thought it was a touch too long at 110 unbroken minutes. Their three-room house revolves, with stage hands in full view, which seemed a perfect match for the piece. Jake Davies and Siena Kelly are terrific as Noah and Celeste, with great chemistry, a totally believable relationship. Priyanga Burford as the playwright becomes more manic and breathless as the story progresses. We even get to meet the playwright, or do we?

It’s a cleverly structured piece that’s expertly staged and performed and I found myself thinking about the issues of surveillance privacy & democracy, secrets and lies, long after I’d left the theatre. Go see This Is Not Who I Am, or is it Rapture, for yourself.

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This is a well deserved transfer from the New Diorama Theatre, regularly punching above it’s weight theses days. Ryan Calais Cameron’s highly original and emotionally raw piece tells you so much in two hours about what it’s like to grow up as a black boy in Britain today. He also directs a crack cast of six very talented actors.

The stories of their experiences start aged six and continue through everything life throws at them, sometimes with different perspectives on the same things. Stop and search, absent or abusive fathers, racism, gangs…..but also the flaws of some in their community, notably a lack of respect for women. Their heritage is sometimes a sense of pride but at others a millstone around their neck. It’s extraordinarily visceral, at times tender and moving, at times frustrated and angry.

The staging combines a lot of movement, brilliantly directed by Theophilus O. Bailey-Godson, music and humour, which gives the more serious, moving parts more impact. The ultra bright design (Anna Reid) and lighting (Rory Beaton) use primary colours which change moods as it changes visually. The six actors – Mark Akintimehin, Emmanuel Akwafo, Nnabiko Ejimofor, Darragh Hand, Kaine Lawrence & Aruna Jalloh – all give virtuoso performances.

It’s rare you learn so much about the lives of others, riding an emotional roller-coaster with them. The young, diverse audience were mesmerised. Thrilling stuff.

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The UK premiere of this play, at the Royal Court Theatre in 2010, was the best new play that year. We’d seen one Bruce Norris play before and we’ve seen two since (one which chronologically preceded it), but none have lived up to this. Almost twelve years on I’m pleased to report it still packs an uproarious punch.

Both acts are set in the same house in a Chicago suburb, but 50 years apart. In 1959, a couple are moving out after a family tragedy. In 2009 the latest family to buy it are trying to have it demolished and a new house put in its place. In 1959, the neighbours are concerned that the family they sell to may herald a negative change in the neighbourhood. In 2009, the community are anxious to protect the now gentrified suburb.

These tribal issues spill over to affect relationships and heated exchanges ensue. The stakes seem higher in 2009, so the emotions rise. People say things they regret, though the feelings that propelled them to say them exist. Norris brings out a lot of humour from these situations, at the expense of just about everyone. It’s a very clever piece that makes you think while you laugh.

Oliver Kaderbhai’s production has a ghostly quality in the first act and a more animated one in the second. The positioning and movement of actors could have been more audience-friendly, though, as I appeared to be spending a lot of time looking at people’s backs. James Turner’s design is very effective; I particularly liked the way the set was populated by props brought on by the actors at the beginning of each half. All of the cast play two roles, one in each part, often very different characters, and they all carry this off well.

Great to see it again.

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The early 1950’s saw a revolution in theatre, well in Paris at least, with the arrival of Beckett and Ionesco (one Irish and one Romanian), challenging the realism that the art form was locked in. This play, and Becket’s Waiting for Godot, were first produced there in 1952. It reached the UK five years later where it ignited a debate amongst theatre folk, triggered by critic Kenneth Tynan and involving the playwright and theatrical luminaries like Orson Wells. Around the same time our own angry young men heralded a new age of realism with their kitchen sink dramas, led by John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.

This was an important part of the post-war history of theatre. Surprising then that this appears to be only the second major London revival. I saw the first, a 1997 co-production between the Royal Court and Complicite directed by Simon McBurney with the late Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan. This proved to be the most unlikely transfer to Broadway, garnering five Tony nominations. Twenty four years on….

The ‘old man’ and ‘old woman’ live on an island. They are preparing to welcome an (invisible) audience to hear the old man’s big speech, though it will be given by the speaker. We learn that London is no more, so we are in some sort of dystopian future. They assemble chairs for the visitors and when they arrive welcome them, making introductions between them. It’s all building up to the big moment, the speech.

Omar Elerian’s translation / adaptation / direction takes a lot of liberties, either with the permission of Ionesco’s estate (Beckett’s would never let him get away with it) or maybe the protected period has lapsed. There’s a backstage audio prologue, the speaker turns up regularly for bits of business and interaction and the speech is replaced by an elongated epilogue, which was the only variation I felt pushed it too far. Otherwise, an obtuse period piece was brought alive for a new audience.

It’s hard to imagine better interpreters than husband and wife team Marcello Magni & Kathryn Hunter whose extraordinary physical theatre and mime skills, as well as the chemistry between them, are used to great effect. Toby Sedgwick provides excellent support in the expanded role of the speaker. Even Cecile Tremolieres & Naomi Kuyok-Cohen’s clever design gets to perform.

It was great to see the play again after a quarter century of theatre-going. The production may travel a long way from Ionesco’s intentions, but it seemed to me to provide a fresh interpretation for an audience seventy years later. London’s longest running play is The Mousetrap, 70 years now. Paris’ longest runner is Ionesco’s earlier absurdist play The Bald Primadonna, 65 years. That somehow defines the differing theatre cultures of the two cities.

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I’m not that keen on Caryl Churchill’s cloning play, though this is the fourth production I’ve seen, of only five staged in London. ‘So why do you keep going?’ I hear you ask. Well, I keep getting drawn to it by the casting – Michael Gambon & Daniel Craig in 2002, father and son Timothy & Sam West in 2010 and Roger Allam & Colin Morgan just two years ago. Now it’s the turn of favourites Lennie James, who we haven’t seen on stage for too long, and brilliant new talent Paapa Essiedu.

Salter is a father whose son has either died, or been put into care following his wife’s suicide (there are conflicting scenarios). He agreed to cloning to give him a second chance at being a father, but he later learns the doctors created multiple clones without his consent. Over five short scenes we meet two clones and his original son (supporting the care rather than death scenario). When the clone he’s brought up finds out, he is angry. When the real son finds out, he resolves to kill the clone. When Salter realises there may be twenty, he sets out to meet them and we see the first encounter, a maths teacher married with three children who has little interest in how he was created and little interest in Salter.

I still struggle with this one-hour play, but it was the best of the four productions I’ve seen. It’s usually cold and clinical, but Lindsey Turner’s staging also has passion and humour. Paapa Essiedu differentiates between his three characters more (and can now add quick change artist to his impressive CV!), playing the first clone and real son more emotionally. Lennie James conveys the complexity of Salter’s feelings and reactions superbly. Two fine performances. Designer Es Devlin seems to have created an orange version of her 2018 blue monochrome design for Girls & Boys at the Royal Court.

I’m glad I gave it another go, though I hope I’m not drawn to a 5th outing by yet more enticing performers, though there’ll probably be a female version soon with two favourite actresses to tempt me!

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It’s hard to write about something you find more than a bit baffling, but I’ll try. Mind you, it isn’t the first mind-blowing Alistair McDowell play. First, there was Pamona, which opened Paul Miller’s tenure as AD of the Orange Tree in 2014 with a bang, then X here at the Royal Court in 2016. This latest one is a cocktail of sci-fi, folk myth and mystery that spans 501,998 years!

It starts in the mid 18th Century when a wealthy spiritualist adopts / abducts a young girl from what appears to be an asylum to be some sort of assistant, but she has powers of her own and she takes us back to the 15th Century where we encounter a mute knight at the court of King Henry VI, then forward to the second world war, 1979 and twice into the 1990’s. The journey back to 500,000 BC and forward to the future connect us to the fate of the planet, a familiar subject for McDowell.

Along the way, we experience horror, violence, intrigue and more surprisingly humour and you are rarely distracted, possibly because you’re trying to keep up. The performances are excellent, with Ria Zmitrowicz as our mysterious guide and Tadhg Murphy as the silently charismatic knight (who at times seems to have walked onto the stage from the set of Monty Python’s Holy Grail!). Rakie Ayola and Fisayo Akinade are great in multiple roles.

The set at first seems like some hidden corner of the Barbican complex, but takes on a life of it’s own with its continuous changes of configuration, with projections and lights, accompanied by an atmospheric soundtrack. It’s hard to fault the craftsmanship at play in staging it, but the narrative is another matter – obtuse and baffling. Still, it’s an improvement on Pamona and X.

Despite my confusion, unlike other plays in recent years it does deserve its place on the main stage. I consider myself to be very open to creativity and invention, but maybe I’m becoming more conservative, because when it comes to plays I often yearn for story, plot and characters that I can understand or relate to, something you don’t get here. On this occasion, I find myself ending up admiring the experiment and wishing it had succeeded.

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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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