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Posts Tagged ‘Simon Stephens’

You never know what you’re going to get at a Simon Stephens play, in this case a collaboration with two others. A play about fathers, sons and fatherhood seems like a good idea. Using interviews as your source material seems like a good idea too. Having yourselves as characters and including members of your family and your friends as interviewees is probably a bad idea which, as one interviewee / character suggests, might be somewhat self-indulgent – and including that character’s comments doesn’t prove its sincerity.

Playwright Simon Stephens, director / choreographer Scott Graham and musician Karl Hyde are the three creators, played by actors. The interviews take place in their three home towns and the characters they meet and the quotes they use weave in and out of the story of its creation. The performances are fine. There’s sometimes great stylised ‘movement’ and excellent music. There’s a striking design by Jon Bausor and a chorus of extras adds impact.

The trouble is it doesn’t really tell you enough about fathers, sons and fatherhood. It’s a great production in search of something to say, a coherent narrative. Whatever the quality of the staging, there’s a vacuum at its heart. More a festival commission looking for an idea than a good idea getting a festival commission?

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Yes, it’s a play not a scientific theory. You can always rely on Simon Stephens for something different – he must have the most diverse body of work of any playwright. Here, he uses the concepts of uncertainty and unpredictability to tell the story of the most unlikely relationship between a 42-year-old woman and a 75-year-old man. It’s a very intuitive piece that I wasn’t sure about at first, but it drew me in and I left the theatre with a warm glow!

It’s beautifully set and lit by Bunny Christie and Paule Constable within a box of light, like a James Turrell installation, that changes size, shape and colour from scene to scene. There’s a lovely soundscape too, with music by Nils Fram. In the first scene, London Butcher Alex Priest meets American school receptionist Georgie Burns at a train station. From here, their extraordinary relationship unfolds from a chance encounter, unravelling of the truth, a mutual fascination with some brittleness to a romantic liaison and a full-blown relationship. At first it seems implausible, but somehow becomes believable. I put this down to superb chemistry between two fine actors.

In Marianne Elliott’s delicate, sensitive staging, Kenneth Cranham and Anne-Marie Duff give the sort of uninhibited performances that deliver the believability of the relationship. Every time it turns a corner, implausibility returns but is then dispelled. Even though it runs less than ninety minutes, it does leave you satisfied.

I would have preferred to see it in a space more suitable, like the Dorfman, Royal Court, Donmar or Almeida, and more accessibly priced for a one-act two-hander, but in other ways it’s good that the West End can support work like this.

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Simon Stephens must be the most prolific playwright in the UK, or anywhere come to that. He’s had thirty-two plays produced, including five adaptations / translations, in just twenty years and I’ve seen about two-thirds of them. I haven’t always liked them, but I admire the ambition, diversity and creativity of his work, so I always come back for more. Given the stand-off in the North China Sea, the title suggests timeliness, though what the content has to do with the title is less clear.

It’s a collaboration with director Imogen Knight, better known as a choreographer / movement director. We sit on an assortment of chairs in two rows surrounding the actors, who themselves sit on a beige carpet (recycled from Cyprus Avenue, I suspect!). There are a few props – cupboards etc. – which get moved into and out of the space. The five actors have no character names. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of ‘movement’, but there’s also a lot of recorded dialogue and an atmospheric soundscape by Peter Rice. It appears to be a nightmare day for one woman, excellently played by Maureen Beattie, at home, on public transport, in a coffee shop etc., but beyond that I don’t really have a clue what’s it about or it’s connection to the title!

It has apparently been ‘created with a highly visual and physical language’ ‘with the intention that the words be interpreted and re-imagined through a highly theatrical and choreographic lens’. Well, I guess it does, and it kept my attention for it’s rather short 45-min running time It was intriguing and well executed, but it was only a fragment, I’m afraid, and an obtuse one at that.

 

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I’m not sure how Brecht & Weill even knew about John Gay’s 18th century original, The Beggar’s Opera, but it’s easy to see the attraction of 21st century theatre folk to this piece, which resonated more on Monday night than it ever has with me before – and not just because of Macheath’s comments about returning after the interval, choosing to remain and being united, and the extensive use of the flag of St. George as England was being humiliated elsewhere! This is a radical adaptation by Simon Stephens, edgier and ruder, which I rather liked.

It’s relocated in the East End of London, amongst the underclass and criminal lowlife. Peachum runs a professional begging gang made up of the homeless, veterans, lunatics, alcoholics and druggies. The corrupt police chief Brown was in the army in Afghanistan with Macheath, the rogue the ladies can’t resist, including the police chief’s own daughter Lucy, Peachum’s wife and daughter Polly and prostitute Jenny. A coronation parade is going to visit their ‘manor’ and Macheath has something on the king, whilst Peachum has something on the police chief and Mrs Peachum controls Jenny through drugs. The closing scene of Act I, where relationships and connections are revealed, is superbly staged, including a keystone cops parody, and the final scene of Act II brings out the Valkyrie helmets and the vocals turn more operatic to brilliantly underline the satire of John Gay’s and Brecht & Weill’s originals. It retains the sensibilities of 30’s Berlin through the music, which somehow fits perfectly with the new setting; it has an anarchic, manic quality and it’s superbly played and sung in this production under MD David Shrubsole.

Rory Kinnear has real menace and swagger as Macheath and a surprisingly good voice for someone without much experience in musical theatre. Nick Holder is more seeped in musical theatre and this is one of his best performances, combining just as much menace with a penchant for cross-dressing, in heels and red-streaked wig. Rosalie Craig excels too as a nerdy Polly with a ruthless streak. I loved Peter de Jersey’s very physical dictator-like police chief and Haydn Gwynne’s oily Mrs Peachum. It’s great to see the wonderful Debbie Kurup at the NT in a terrific turn as Lucy. It’s an excellent supporting cast with a stand-out performance from George Ikediashi as the Balladeer. I wasn’t sure about Vicki Mortimer’s rather ramshackle home made look design, though it did provide some great moments, and the costumes were excellent. Rufus Norris staging was outstanding.

Another evening at the NT which exceeded expectations; long may that continue.

 

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Another day, another monologue? Well not really, as this one-person play by Simon Stephens is much more than a monologue. In the hands of director Ivo van Hove and actor Eelco Smits, it’s a deeply personal story of love and loss where you seem to enter into someone’s thoughts and feelings rather than merely hearing or observing them.

Our protagonist returns from New York to his Amsterdam home for the funeral of his brother, though not initially to his home as he stays in a hotel. Over eighty minutes, he tells us his story as a series of letters to his dead brother. His relationship with his dad is clearly strained, his relationship with his brother was complicated, his mother dotes on him and his sister is preoccupied with her simple life and her children. He tries but fails to hook up with his former lover, but instead has a one-night stand with someone he picks up in a bar. It has surprising narrative and character depth for such a short play. He’s bearing his soul and opening his heart and the effect of this is heightened by the fact he does so completely naked for much of the play.

It’s a very simple unadorned box set, but Jan Versweyveld’s lighting is extraordinary and Mark Eitzel’s music haunting and beautiful – and beautifully sung by Eelco Smits, who’s naturalistic acting is compelling throughout. For me it never lagged; I was enthralled by the story and captivated by the visual imagery. I think the key is its simplicity and beauty. It’s hard to describe what it is, and even more so how if engages with you emotionally, so I’ll just say that it surprised me and left me thoughtful but content.

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The inside of playwright Simon Stephens brain must be one hell of a place. I blow hot and cold with his work, but it’s always interesting and  challenging. This one’s more luke warm, largely because I don’t really get it.

Carmen is a rent boy, Don Jose a female taxi driver, Escamillo a hot-shot trader and Micaela a girl from the sticks. Then there’s the character of an opera singer, and an actual opera singer as ‘chorus’. Two of the characters aren’t particularly well drawn (Micaela & the taxi driver) and their stories not well developed. It’s mostly a series of monologues (if you know me, you can see where I’m going here…..) with seemingly little interconnectedness.

You enter the stalls through the dressing room / wings and over the stage, where a dead bull dominates. We seem to be in a disused theatre, complete with chandelier and red balcony fascia with lamps. Lizzie Clachan’s design and Jack Knowles lighting create striking, compelling images. Simon Slater’s original music, played on two cellos, adds to and references actual Bizet and is very atmospheric. The performances are all terrific. It’s all very ‘European’.

But what exactly is the point of taking characters from an opera and giving them different lives and stories and then telling them individually on the same stage without really linking them together into a cohesive narrative? Answers on a postcard, please.

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There are lots of parallels between contemporary playwrights Simon Stephens, who wrote this, and Mike Bartlett. Both are prolific, both have given us adaptations as well as original work and both are eclectic. Stephens has been more hit-or-miss for me, but this one is a hit.

Rock star Paul is filling stadiums worldwide and the play starts in Moscow and moves to Berlin, Paris and finally London. We see him become a premiere league monster, exploiting people close to him as well as new ones he meets on tour. He thinks he can buy anything and tries to do so. In Moscow, he makes a play for a married journalist and adds a member of the hotel staff to his entourage. His treatment of band-mate Johnny is particularly heinous, something which results in sweet revenge. He reaches an all time low when he visits Johnny’s deceased girlfriend’s parents. It’s a portrait of a rock star’s descent and the impressionistic staging represents this by black water rising as the decline progresses.

Andrew Scott is mesmerising as Paul. He does mad and manic ever so well, he turns emotion on and off at lightning speed and he really can move. He has fantastic support from Alex Price as Johnny and, in multiple roles, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Charlotte Randle, Yolanda Kettle and a brilliant Daniel Cerqueira who is totally believable as Paul’s dad and his exploitative manager. Designer Ian MacNeil gives us another of his inventive spaces – a platform with a moving arch structure on top, surrounded by what slowly becomes a pool of water. Carrie Cracknell’s expert staging squeezes every ounce of tension, surprise and shock out of the material.

In truth, I think the staging and performances are better than the writing, but it’s a must-see if only for Andrew Scott on blistering form.

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