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Posts Tagged ‘Royal Court Theatre’

This was one of those punts where I didn’t really know what I was in for but had a suspicion it might not be for me, but hey I like a bit of theatrical adventure. Good to report it paid back.

You wouldn’t need a whole postage stamp to write down what I know about grime, but I took a twenty-something, so I had a short course before and after (there are so many musical genres and sub-genres these days, its very complicated). Debris Stevenson starts by telling us she studied classical poets but learnt more from grime artist Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 debut album Boy in da Corner and she was going to give us her take on it.

Once you work out it’s the true story of her early life, you settle into a fascinating tale told in rap, dance, dialogue and music with three others – Kirubel Belay, Cassie Clare & Jammz – playing people in her life like her mum, brother and school friends. It’s a clever and audacious combination of ingredients that come together to create something rather fresh and original, though some of the rap was so fast, with lots of impenetrable slang, and it did feel like Part One, ending as it does before she even goes to University. I very much liked Jacob Hughes’ black, yellow and white design.

When we were asked to get to our feet, I looked around to see an extraordinary combination of reactions from Court regulars and newbies and it all seemed rather surreal. Great to see something genuinely original and very different on this stage though and me, an unlikely recruit. I think my grime name is gonna be Gazza.

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Playwright Rory Mullarkey seems to be very skilled at persuading the artistic directors of some of our high profile theatres to stage his work. If only he was as good at turning his interesting ideas into good plays. The Wolf From The Door was put on Upstairs, his adaptation of The Orestia was staged at Shakespeare’s Globe and Saint George & the Dragon found its way onto the Olivier stage at the National; all of them, like this, half-baked. Where are the dramaturges, literary managers and artistic directors when you need them?

An unemployed man kills time in the market square of a provincial town where a department store employee, on her day off, is showing round her her visiting dad. They decide to marry. The town is hit by multiple bombs, gunfire and lightning. This escalates to war between the ‘red’ and the ‘blue’ sides and before you know it it’s gone global. Cue cannibalism, a plague and an earthquake. All in one day. Sadly, the members of the Fulham Brass Band, who had been entertaining us since before it started, had gone home by 8pm.

They’ve thrown a lot of kitchen sinks into the production, and Chloe Lamford’s ‘design’, Anna Watson’s lighting and a lot of music, dancing and special effects add up to something spectacular. Let’s just say you’re unlikely to dose off. It doesn’t stop boredom though, and doesn’t paper over the lack of a coherent narrative. It feels like a whole load of ideas have thrown up on the Royal Court stage to create an anarchic mess. I thought it was dull. The nine performers, technical team and stage management work really hard.

I couldn’t help thinking how many budding playwrights are being kept of our high profile stages by something that frankly doesn’t deserve to be on them. The title seems to encapsulate it. Yet another disappointing evening at the Royal Court.

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I rather liked Thomas Eccleshare’s quirky multi-layered SciFi satire, combining the use and abuse of technology, parent / child relationships and grief. An intriguing, highly original piece.

Harry likes to tinker and considers himself a king of the flatpack. He and his wife Max start with small projects, then graduate to building themselves a replacement son, Jan. From here the story of their lost son Nick is interwoven with the development of their new one, until malfunctions begin to cause chaos and ruin relationships with neighbours Paul, Laurie and their daughter Amy. Along the way we see how parents mould their children’s attitudes and values and how helpless they can be when they grow up.

There are something like fifty scenes in 100 minutes, which is at first irritating, until you get into the rhythm of the scene changes, where props arrive and leave on conveyors, members of the cast move robotically & jumpily and the small cinema-screen-like space enlarges and opens up. I was impressed by Cai Dyfan’s design. It’s a fine ensemble, but I have to single out Brian Vernal, who plays Jan and Nick with some deft switching between and within characters.

The play got me thinking a lot about where technology and AI in particular might be taking us, but also about how we mould real human beings too and how grief can lead to desperation. A thought-provoking, well executed piece expertly staged by Hamish Pirie.

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Playwright Dennis Kelly seems to switch from musicals to translations to original plays with great ease. His last show was the NT’s Pinocchio and directly before that a Georg Kaiser translation / adaptation, also at the NT. Now it’s a new play, a monologue, featuring the return of Carey Mulligan to the stage where she made her debut 14 years ago, and on which she last appeared 11 years ago.

Our unamed character tells us the story of her relationship with a man she met in the queue to board a plane. He became her husband, and father of her two children. It alternates between a blank stage and a monochrome home with imaginary children; in both she’s talking direct to the audience. It starts very humorously and becomes a lovely romantic story. We learn about their respective careers, and in particular her success as a documentary producer. The challenges of bringing up young children are conveyed charmingly. Then her life takes a tragic turn.

It must be very exposed on stage alone for 90 minutes, having to remember a vast number of lines and stage business including mime, so I have nothing but admiration for Carey Mulligan, who inhabits her character and navigates her emotional roller-coaster journey. My companions thought the story was a touch predictable, but I didn’t. I knew it would turn dark, but didn’t know how. I admired the writing, but I admired Lyndsey Turner’s staging and Mulligan’s performance more.

Great to be reminded what a fine actress Carey Mulligan is.

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This play is the second part of a trilogy but was the first to be produced here ten years ago, with part one, In the Red & Brown Water, a year later. We’ve yet to see the third. Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has had a couple of other plays at the Royal Court, Wig Out! and Choir Boy, but is most famous for his 2016 Oscar winning film Moonlight. This is a very early revival by the same creative team, led by director Bijan Sheibani.

The Size brothers are reunited when younger brother Oshoosi leaves prison and stays with elder brother Ogun, working with him in his car repair business. A visit from Oshoosi’s fellow prisoner Elegba, a bad influence, threatens the bond between them and their up-and-down relationship is played out before us over 80 minutes. It’s staged without set or props within a chalk circle marked out at the beginning, with red chalk thrown on the floor within it. The actors often announce entrances and exits and other stage directions direct to the audience and there’s very stylised movement and an atmospheric soundtrack. It’s very compelling, even hypnotic and mesmerising, though the apparent Yoruba mythology went over my head and I struggled a bit with the Louisiana dialect.

The three performances are captivating. Anthony Welsh as Elegba is excellent; he was in the original production. Sope Dirisu, after his Cassius Clay in One Night in Miami and Coriolanus for the RSC, continues to impress as Ogun. Newcomer Jonathan Ajayi is hugely impressive as Oshoosi, transitioning from ex-con to childlike young brother as the story unfolds.

It’s good to see it again, ahead of its time now as it was then. It’s a very short run, so catch it while you can.

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Playwright Andrea Dunbar had a short but eventful life. The girl from a family of seven on a Bradford council estate wrote her first play in school aged 15 and saw it staged at the Royal Court three years later. Two years after that this second autobiographical play was staged at the Royal Court, adapted as a major film five years later. She died aged twenty-nine having given birth to three children as well as three plays. Little did she know how controversial a revival of her play would be twenty-seven years on.

I didn’t see the original production, but I did see a 2000 revival when it was paired with Robin Soans’ A State Affair, a verbatim piece researched on the same council estate showing its then contemporary problems. All three productions were instigated by Max Stafford-Clark, first as director of the Royal Court, then as director as Out of Joint. Claims of alleged sexual harassment by him, plus the subject matter of the play, led to the Royal Court cancelling its stop on the tour, but subsequent claims of censorship resulted in its reinstatement.

The controversy proves rather more fascinating than the play. It’s a period piece, like visiting a behavioural museum, a bit like those TV series Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. If you look at it through a 21st century lens, it’s very uncomfortable. Two fifteen-year-old girls are enticed into having sex with the man they babysit for and are both soon having affairs with him, unbeknown to one another. After a while, the tables are turned and they are very much in control, and in competition with one another. The attitudes of Bob’s wife (if its presented on a plate he wouldn’t be a man if he didn’t take it) and Sue’s mother (it’s all Rita’s fault) are no doubt historically authentic but depressing.

The performances are terrific, though the staging sometimes seemed a bit stilted. I veered from uncomfortable to intrigued to voyeuristic to enthralled to indignant to fascinated to disbelieving. I came to the conclusion the play just could’t carry the weight of all the controversy and resultant expectations. It was of its time and may be best seen as a period piece, ground-breaking in its day, but more of a curiosity today. Then again, with contemporary cases of grooming on a wholesale scale, Weinstein and #MeToo, and in particular people’s propensity to turn a blind eye, maybe the message is nothing’s changed, its just different.

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The Best Theatre of 2017

Time to reflect on, and celebrate, the shows I saw in 2017 – 200 of them, mostly in London, but also in Edinburgh, Leeds, Cardiff, Brighton, Chichester, Newbury and Reading.

BEST NEW PLAY – THE FERRYMAN

We appear to be in a golden age of new writing, with 21 of the 83 I saw contenders. Most of our finest living playwrights delivered outstanding work this year, topped by James Graham’s three treats – Ink, Labour of Love and Quiz. The Almeida, which gave us Ink, also gave us Mike Bartlett’s Albion. The National had its best year for some time, topped by David Eldridge’s West End bound Beginning, as well as Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network, Nina Raine’s Consent, Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitos and J T Rogers’ Oslo, already in the West End. The Young Vic continued to challenge and impress with David Greig’s updating of 2500-year-old Greek play The Suppliant Womenand the immersive, urgent and important Jungle by Joe’s Murphy & Robertson. Richard Bean’s Young Marxopened the new Bridge Theatre with a funny take on 19th century history. On a smaller scale, I very much enjoyed Wish List at the Royal Court Upstairs, Chinglish at the Park Theatre, Late Companyat the Finborough, Nassim at the Bush and Jess & Joe at the Traverse during the Edinburgh fringe. Though they weren’t new this year, I finally got to see Harry Potter & the Cursed Child I & II and they more than lived up to the hype. At the Brighton Festival, Richard Nelson’s Gabriels trilogycaptivated and in Stratford Imperium thrilled, but it was impossible to topple Jez Butterworth’s THE FERRYMAN from it’s rightful place as BEST NEW PLAY.

BEST REVIVAL – ANGELS IN AMERICA / WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF

Much fewer in this category, but then again I saw only 53 revivals. The National’s revival of Angels in America was everything I hoped it would be and shares BEST REVIVAL with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The Almeida’s Hamlet was the best Shakespearean revival, with Macbeth in Welsh in Caerphilly Castle, my home town, runner up. Though it’s not my genre, the marriage of play and venue made Witness for the Prosecution a highlight, with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Apologia the only other West End contributions in this category. On the fringe, the Finborough discovered another gem, Just to Get Married, and put on a fine revival of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy. In the end, though, the big hitters hit big and ANGELS IN AMERICA & WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF shone brightest.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS

Well, I’d better start by saying I’m not seeing Hamilton until the end of the month! I had thirty-two to choose from here. The West End had screen-to-stage shows Dreamgirlsand School of Rock, which I saw in 2017 even though they opened the year before, and both surprised me in how much I enjoyed them. Two more, Girls and Young Frankenstein, proved even more welcome, then at the end of the year Everybody’s Talking About Jamie joined them ‘up West’, then a superb late entry by The Grinning Man. The West End bound Strictly Ballroom wowed me in Leeds as it had in Melbourne in 2015 and Adrian Mole at the Menier improved on it’s Leicester outing, becoming a delightful treat. Tiger Bay took me to in Cardiff and, despite its flaws, thrilled me. The Royal Academy of Music produced an excellent musical adaptation of Loves Labours Lost at Hackney Empire, but it was the Walthamstow powerhouse Ye Olde Rose & Crown that blew me away with the Welsh Les Mis, My Lands Shore, until ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe stole my heart and the BEST NEW MUSICAL category.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC / FOLLIES

Thirty-two in this category too. The year started with a fine revival of Rent before Sharon D Clarke stole The Life at Southwark Playhouse and Caroline, or Change in Chichester (heading for Hampstead) in quick succession. Southwark shone again with Working, Walthamstow with Metropolis and the Union with Privates on Parade. At the Open Air, On the Town was a real treat, despite the cold and wet conditions, and Tommyat Stratford with a fully inclusive company was wonderful. NYMT’s Sunday in the Park With George and GSMD’s Crazy for You proved that the future is in safe hands. The year ended In style with a lovely My Fair Lady at the Mill in Sonning, but in the end it was two difficult Sondheim’s five days apart – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Watermill in Newbury and FOLLIES at the National – that made me truly appreciate these shows by my musical theatre hero and share BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

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