Posts Tagged ‘Royal Court Theatre’

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.


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.


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.


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.


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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This is a very original idea, installation meets theatre, in a superb new space down the alley at the side of the Royal Court Theatre. If only it were more coherent.

You start, map in hand, by walking through an outdoor Christmas tree sale, into a five room installation, peering into two more, and on to an open air space out the back with a delightful peep-hole en route. Three actors populate two of the spaces. The themes are Christmas and crime scene. You even get a very welcome glass of mulled wine. Twenty minutes later, you’re on a bench in the performance space.

Julia Jarcho’s play is in three parts, played by three actors who each play three roles (well, one plays four, just to spoil the symmetry). Sometimes scenes are outside in the Christmas tree sale or in other installation rooms or out the back, relayed onto five TV screens placed randomly in the space, which is itself like an installation, so the actors come and go, as do items and props, and change clothes frequently. The stage manager is a fourth performer.

One part concerns two tree salesmen, at times sounding English, at times foreign, and a female customer. A second concerns a crime scene and investigation. The third appears to be three furry animals. The first two are interwoven, characters morphing from one to the other and it ends with the third. It left me wanting an explanation, but that could be my inadequacy as an audience member.

It’s a great space, in which Chloe Lamford has created an extraordinary design, it’s original in form, its intriguing and its well performed, but too obtuse for me. I’d have liked to have seen the point, if there is one. A brave experiment that didn’t fully work for me, but I don’t regret going.

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When I saw King Lear With Sheep (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2015/08/17/king-lear-with-sheep), they peed and pooed just after it started. At the Royal Court, the goats took almost 2.5 hours, just before the end, and even then it was only No. 2’s.

The play is set in a Syrian village. The sons of most of the families are in the Syrian army. Some, like the local party official, believe they are willing conscripts fighting for the honour of their country. Others, like the school teacher, believe they are modern day cannon fodder and bait for the terrorists, who have been enlisted against their will. This divides families, the village, and probably the country.

We start at the martyrs ceremony, where the families of the dead soldiers are each given a goat as a tribute. Revelations unfold and feed the divisions, the most dramatic of which is the knowledge that when soldiers are captured, they are forced to call their parents, telling them they themselves have captured a terrorist and asking them what they should do to them. Whatever the parent’s response is, that’s what happens to the soldier, making the parents complicit in their plight.

It’s still in preview and a bit messy and rambling in both design and staging, though in some ways that suits the chaos that is Syria, but it drives home its points, that the government and the terrorists are as evil as one another, and the divisions they create destroy communities and families, perhaps irreparably.

Not everyone will stomach the realities of such a tragic war, particularly as a satire, but I thought it was an effective way of helping us understand the situation in Syria, and it’s the sort of play only the Royal Court or Young Vic can do.

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Playwright Tom Wells earned his ‘must see’ place on my list with two of the most heart-warming and funny plays of recent years – The Kitchen Sink and Jumpers for Goalposts (oh, and a lovely monologue as part of Unusual Unions backstage at the Royal Court) – so I pounced at the chance to see this one-hour one-person musical, with songs by Matthew Robins, in the Bush Theatre’s Reading Room on a brief visit from Hull, and what a delight it is.

The audience is standing in for the school assembly and 15-year-old Liam is making a project prize presentation, a musical about his friend Caz’s planned synchronised swimming project. She’s an offstage character who we get to know almost as well, a trademark of Wells’ work, as is her dad, his mum & her new man Barry and the lifeguard at the pool. Liam talks and sings us through his year from arriving in Hull through meeting Caz, her previous projects and the development of this one. Most of the time he’s standing with his guitar, but he relocates a couple of times and the audience participate in a prop-handling sort of way before eventually becoming the chorus.

Wells has a real ear for teenage dialogue and both the writing and Andrew Finnigan’s charming performance ooze authenticity, including the not always perfect guitar playing and singing, and every single facial expression and posture. It’s brilliant storytelling, which feels like you’re reading Liam’s diary of a year of growing up, friendship and fledgling love. Jane Fallowfield’s homespun staging is completely in tune with the material, which the venue seemed to complement too.

Just as heart-warming and funny as his other plays, surly we’ll see more than this handful of performances?

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Theatre has always told true stories. In recent years, it’s often taken the form of ‘verbatim’ theatre, ‘tribunal’ plays, verbatim musicals and, with Committee recently at the Donmar, a hybrid of all three. This piece breaks new ground again by placing six soldiers from both sides of the Falklands war on stage to tell their stories from before the conflict to the present day. I found Lola Arias production very powerful.

There are three Argentinians, two English and a Gurka. They tell us about how they came to be in their respective army / navy roles, their training and deployment, their experience of war and post-war life. Sometimes it’s direct to the audience in their own language, with surtitles in the other, sometimes it’s scenes re-enacted. There are projections and sounds and they even become a rock band. Over one-hundred minutes we hear their views, and those of their countrymen, of the war, glimpse the traumatic events they experienced and begin to understand the long-term affects.

Some have done very positive things since, but they haven’t entirely shaken off the negative impact. The process of rehearsing and making the play was clearly therapeutic. The most moving aspect is the fact that these pawns in someone else’s game have built positive relationships with people they once called the enemy and bonded during the development of the piece.

It’s often uncomfortable viewing, but it struck me as frank and honest, an objective attempt to show war from the perspective of the combatants rather than the countries, governments and leaders, and ultimately hopeful. Ground-breaking theatre indeed.

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I’ve been banging on about the extraordinary ambition of the All Star Productions team in Walthamstow for a while now, but I really thought they’d lost the plot when I heard they were mounting this infamous West End flop. Wrong again; they’ve turned into a cult fringe hit.

In 1989 it went straight into the cavernous Piccadilly Theatre. I liked it. It was an unusual pairing of American composer Joe Brooks (music) and British playwright Dusty Hughes (book & lyrics). Before becoming a playwright, Hughes had been Time Out’s theatre editor and the Bush Theatre’s joint AD. His plays had been put on at the NT, RSC & Royal Court, but he had no musicals pedigree. Brooks had written America’s biggest selling song in the 70’s, an Academy & Grammy award winner, but hadn’t written a musical. They chose to adapt Fritz Lang’s iconic 1927 film.

It occupies that sparsely populated SciFi musical sub-genre. Set in a dystopian future, the overground world of the Elitists of Metropolis is powered by the Workers underground, in a city founded by John Freemen. The workers have a new-found charismatic leader in Maria, who has fallen in love with Freeman’s son Steven. Freeman has her abducted. He’s also hired an inventor to find a robotic alternative to the troublesome and increasingly scarce workers. These two actions come together.

The big surprise for me was how good the score is, with some great tunes and rousing choruses, freshly orchestrated and arranged by MD Aaron Clingham. The vocal quality is sky high, with particularly strong vocals from Rob Herron as Steven. My namesake Gareth James makes a fine baddie (Brian Blessed in the West End!) and there’s a hugely impressive professional debut by Miiya Alexandra as Maria. The excellent ensemble deliver the choruses with passion, expertly choreographed by Ian Pyle. The design team of Justin Williams, Jonny Rust & Joana Dias work wonders with limited resources, creating an inventive set and costumes. The show seems to be a favourite of director Tim McArthur, and it shows.

So by now you know you have three weeks to head to the northern end of the Victoria Line, where the centre of gravity of fringe musicals now clearly resides.


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