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Posts Tagged ‘Ultz’

I’ve had very mixed experiences with the work of American playwright Christopher Shinn, nurtured here by the Royal Court. I loved Then & Now, his last-but-one here at the Court (mind you, it did have a stunning performance by Eddie Redmayne), but felt his last one, Teddy Ferrara, at the Donmar, sank somewhere in mid-Atlantic. Here, there’s a great idea bursting to get out, but it can’t find its way through the snails pace narrative, with a central character who’s a complete arse.

Luke is a young silicone valley billionaire who gets a message from god telling him to follow the violence, so he begins a messianic tour of schools where there have been shootings, campuses where there have been rapes, troubled workplaces and people’s homes. Unsurprisingly, there as many disciples as there are detractors; he’s loved and loathed in equal measure, though the media attention certainly makes an impact. The celebrity circus all becomes too much for him, though, so he returns to his family home until the media gets bored and disappears in search of the next circus. He reconnects with old school flame Kate and eventually gets it together with his assistant Sheila before a rescheduled visit to the Equator Fulfilment Centre, a thinly disguised Amazon, to tell the world his plans for the future.

The first half is achingly slow, though the pace does pick up in the second, but it doesn’t sustain its 2h50m length. Like Teddy Ferrara, its quintessentially American, awash with political correctness, causes of all sorts and celebrity obsession. Although it does come to a conclusion, it doesn’t really go anywhere, and Luke is such an unsympathetic character you just want to shake him and tell him to get a life and do something more productive with his billions.

Ian Rickson’s staging is uncharacteristically dull, as is Ultz non-existent design, and though he does his best with the material, there are a lot of better uses of Ben Wishaw’s extraordinary talent. There’s a fine supporting cast, so its not the Ben Wishaw Show, not that you’d notice from the fan presence. I spent most of the interval deciding if I could be bothered to return. I’m glad I did, as it picked up, though that might have something to do with the large glass of wine I took in with me.

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I first saw Vicky Jones’ work as a director – Jack Thorne’s Mydidae, then Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag (which became a bit of a phenomenon, stage to TV series, already re-commissioned). Then her first play, a 60-minute gem called The One. Now as both writer and director with a 90-minute play about a 30-something Welsh girl moving to London that’s just as frank, funny and fresh as the others.

Dee has taken a temporary job, maternity leave cover, and got herself a tiny flat, where untidiness rules, with every surface covered with stuff. A series of five visitors represent relationships and sexual adventures present and past. There’s ever-so-conservative, ever-so-dull Eddie, wanting a proper relationship, as long as he can be in charge. Vera’s her gym friend who becomes a gay dalliance. Older man Miles came via the internet to satisfy a fetish. Paddy’s a fun-loving toy boy from work. Sam’s the ex from Swansea, a bit old school, who clearly wants to take her back home. 

There are a lot of scenes and the pace is fast as we navigate the journey of Dee’s complex web of relationships and ambivalent sex life. Though it’s very funny, it seemed to me a realistic slice of life for 33-year-old singleton (a sort of racy Bridget Jones) which has a lot to say about contemporary attitudes to relationships and the characteristic conflict between independence and settling down at this age. Amy Morgan carries the play, on stage throughout, changing her behaviour in response to her five visitors. In the supporting cast, I particularly liked Edward Bluemel’s Paddy, a very different role to his recent one in Love in Idleness, and Matthew Aubrey’s archetypal Welsh lad.

Ultz has designed a brilliantly claustrophobic space which revolves to facilitate a 360 degree view of Dee’s world. Jones’ own staging is unsurprisingly sensitive to the material, with a great sense of life changing and moving forward. I liked it.

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This August Wilson play, based on a real-life character – the so-called mother of blues – was his first big success in 1984, getting its first London production five years later in the Cottesloe Theatre. It became the first of his 10-play cycle covering the black American experience (each in a different decade of the 20th century) to be staged, though two are set before it. This very welcome revival is in the much bigger Lyttelton next door.

The whole play takes place in a Chicago recording studio in the 1920’s. Ma Rainey’s a bit of a diva who turns up an hour late for the recording session insisting that her stuttering nephew sings the intro to the title song using a different arrangement, that songs are changed, that her car (damaged en route) is repaired and returned to the studio and that coca cola is fetched from the deli before she starts. The band attempt to rehearse while they are waiting, but horn player Levee’s heart isn’t in it; he’s more concerned with his ambition and his new shoes.

The rest of the play moves between the band room and the studio, with Ma’s manager and the record producer regularly leaving the elevated control room, usually to argue with or placate Ma. Her daughter, the delightfully named Dussie Mae, flirts with Levee – well, more than flirts! The band banter and fight, and occasionally relate a real experience of horrific racist abuse and violence which is particularly chilling contained within the lighter tone. You’d expect the play to revolve around its title character, but in fact it’s heart is in the band room scenes, with their stories and relationships, which take a dramatic turn at the end.

It’s more of a ‘slice of life’ than a linear plotted play, but it achieves its purpose of taking us to a 20’s black American world. It’s a touch slow and low-energy in the slightly longer first half, but its still in preview so it may tighten. The Lyttelton is a much less intimate space than the Cottesloe, but Dominic Cooke’s production and Ultz design work well, with the long narrow band room rising stage front and the control room like an elevated container, both linked by a metal spiral staircase. 

At first I thought the band’s actors – an unrecognisable Clint Dyer on trombone, Giles Terera on bass, horn player O-T Fagbenle and Lucian Msamati on piano – were playing live, but I came to the conclusion the music was recorded, which is a great compliment to both their miming and Paul Arditti’s sound design. It’s a great cast, led by the incomparable Sharon D Clarke, who commands the stage and everyone on it when she is. Fagbenle is a very edgy and passionate Levee and Msamati is superb as Toledo, a role unlike any I’ve seen him play before.

I have to confess my memories of the 1989 production are feint, but its great to see it again and the audience reception was very positive indeed.

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I’m not sure I’ve ever been so out-of-synch with an audience. This drama is set in Jamaica amongst violent gangs and corrupt coppers. The dialogue is local patois with surtitles on two TV screens in the boxes (which were necessary and helpful but still so fast you didn’t catch everything). There were a lot of laughs, but to me nowhere near as many as much of the largely Afro-Caribbean audience found. When it was tragic, sad, cruel, moving, poignant……they laughed. Surreal.

Roy Williams play centres on gang leader Joker, arrested for a murder being investigated by a British policeman of Jamaican origin sent out to help. The local police operates very differently to what he’s used to ‘at home’ with more overt corruption. Joker gets his men to abduct two policemen to trade for his release. The British cop is amazed and horrified when it is clear the local police plan to co-operate to free their men. Further revelations reveal everyone from the most junior officer to the Superintendent is in some way corrupt.

Williams plays have breadth and depth, so in addition to a gripping thriller, we get a cop with a gay son, a culture clash between the Jamaicans and the Brit of Jamaican origin and reflections on colonialism and events post-independence. If you can penetrate the dense patois (and it’s often a real struggle) it’s rich in narrative and characterisation. There’s a lot more going on here than most plays and it’s hard to take it all in.

Ultz has designed an authentic police station with Joker present in his second-tier cell throughout proceedings in the station itself. Clint Dyer’s staging is fast-paced and very physical with a real sense of danger in the air. The performances are uniformly excellent. For a singer, Goldie makes a great actor. Charles Venn and Ashley Chin are terrific as the younger cops obsessed with the movies and on the make. Trevor Laird (who also doubles up as a petty criminal) and Brian Bovell are excellent as the older, wiser policemen. Against all of this, Derek Elroy has to play fish-out-of-water James and he does so very well.

It took a while for me to get into this, and I felt like a bit of a fish out of water myself, like my namesake character James, but it drew me in and provided gripping drama, something original and something you’d probably only ever see at TRSE. Gone now, but certainly not forgotten.

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The 18 year revival rule applies again as Jez Butterworth’s first play gets a high profile West End outing. I’d decided not to go, given it cost more than five times the inflation-adjusted 1995 price, but I’m dreadfully weak-willed and I finally succumbed to the temptation of seeing a new generation of actors tackle these roles. So my review is of a performance ten weeks into the run.

Set in 50’s Soho amongst small-time gangsters, Mojo features club manager Mickey, his staff Skinny, Potts & Sweets, the owner’s son Baby and rock & roll prodigy Silver Johnny. There’s murder offstage which impacts them all, but we’re viewing their reactions and relationships in the back-room and an empty club.

The strength of the piece is not in the story, but in the world Butterworth creates, his characterisations and the rich expletive-strewn dialogue which is like verbal gunfire. It’s got great energy, edginess and dark humour, though it owes a lot to early Pinter (the menacing late 50’s Birthday Party & Caretaker period). Somewhat appropriately, it’s playing in the Harold Pinter theatre.

The chief reason for seeing it is that it provides a showcase for five leading male actors and these five relish every moment. Potts & Sweets are really a double-act and Daniel Mays and Rupert Grint have great chemistry, with slick and speedy delivery of the lines. There’s a sense of Grint apprenticed to Mays in both the characters and the actors. The role is perfect for Mays’ style and Grint’s professional debut is hugely impressive. In 1995, these roles were played by Andy Serkis and Matt Bardock respectively.

Ben Wishaw continues to impress and here effectively extends his range as Baby (Tom Hollander in 1995). Colin Morgan does more acting as Skinny, maybe a touch too much, but I still liked his highly strung take on Skinny (Aiden Gillen in 1995). Given he’s now a bit too well known as Downton’s Bates, Brendan Coyle still manages to convince as Mickey (David Westhead in 1995). Tom Rhys Harries is cool and charismatic in the smaller role of Silver Johnny. It’s the same director / design team (Ian Rickson & Ultz) and it’s staged with great tension and period style.

It is good to see these fine (mostly) young actors take on the sort of meaty ‘contemporary’ roles that don’t come around that often, so I will reluctantly accept that it was good to relent – and my admiration for producer Sonia Friedman continues to increase; it can’t be that easy to put such a bankable cast together for five months.

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The Royal Court has taken a lot of risks with its decisions surrounding this play, including the risk that they generate so much hype they are setting the audience up for a disappointment (more risk evaluation later!). After giving us Jerusalem, in my view one of the greatest plays in decades, playwright Jez Butterworth is a hot property. Though at least four good plays preceded Jerusalem, this was inevitably going to be the theatrical equivalent of ‘the difficult second album’.

Whether he set out to produce the antidote or not I don’t know, but he has. Where Jerusalem was epic, this is intimate. Where Jerusalem was in your face, brash and loud; this is subtle, gentle and almost trance-like. The reason for staging it in a space so small that only just over 3000 people will see it was apparently ‘artistic reasons’. Though it does clearly benefit from the intimacy, I’m not convinced it benefits so much as to deprive another 10,000 from seeing it (the number it would have played to with the same length of run in the main house).

Designer Ultz has delivered one of his extraordinarily immersive sets which put you right there in the situation at the moment; this time a cabin by a river. Our nameless main character, obsessed with fishing, is there at his favourite time – the one night of the year with no moon. There is a woman with him and as the play unfolds we have more than one woman. He appears to be giving different women the same experience at different times. Or is he? If the script hadn’t specified ‘The Other Woman’ I might have thought it was the same woman at different times or different outcomes with the same woman or….. It’s a bit obtuse.

Director Ian Rickson has taken this material and created something highly atmospheric and mysterious. It’s hypnotic and compelling, I don’t really understand it, but I enjoyed the ride. Amongst many such moments, The Man preparing a fish for dinner was mesmerizing. Moments later, you could smell it as it came out of the oven and onto the dinner table. There are outstanding performances from Dominic West, Miranda Raison and Laura Donnelly and Charles Balfour’s lighting and Ian Dickinson’s sound contribute much to casting the spell.

The risk of over-hype may have paid off, but I don’t think the risk of day-seats-only has. The Royal Court is a publicly funded theatre and you can’t expect the taxpayers that fund it to block out a month in their diaries just in case they win the lottery that getting a ticket was. You either queued outside (if you’re nearby and don’t have work to do to pay the tax that funds the theatre) or participated in an online game of who-clicks-first at precisely 9am. This is no way to distribute tickets to a publicly funded show. It’s unfair on people who work and who don’t live nearby and it has brought the touts to Sloane Square. It has pissed off loyal ‘Friends’ like me and if it transfers to the West End with tickets at 2.5 times the price and fat royalty cheques to the writer and director, don’t go anywhere near the fan! Dominic Cooke has hardly put a foot wrong in his all-too-short tenure as AD of the Court, but this is one big mistake.

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Do schools like this really exist in the US? Somehow, it’s difficult to identify with the Charles R Drew school – an American all-black public school. If you replaced Pharus, Bobby, Junior, Anthony & David with  Tarquin, Justin, Oliver, Henry & Julian, you could be at a British public school (though I confess I do not have personal experience). It all feels a bit otherworldly and incongruous.

We only have five boys in Ultz’ extraordinary wood-paneled school, so we have to use our imagination (helped by a configuration which involves the audience, with the boys seated amongst us on occasion). In the attic space of the Royal Court Upstairs, he’s also fitted in a bedroom and changing room and the play really does happen all around you.

School life involves sport, a famous choir, some bullying, politics…..just like any old school really. Pharus leads the choir; he’s effeminate and gay and his relationships with his fellow pupils are complicated, particularly with the headmaster’s nephew with whom he has a power struggle. An old master is brought back to teach creative thinking, though what this contributes I’m not sure. In fact, I’m not really sure what playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney is trying to say at all. It’s a slice-of-life play that doesn’t really go anywhere and takes a long time not to do so.

Having said that, Dominic Cooke’s production is terrific, largely due to five superb performances from the boys – Dominic Smith, Eric Kofi Abrefa, Kwayedza Kureya, Khali Best & Aron Julius – two of them 2012 drama school graduates (one making his professional debut) and one still studying A-levels! The two adults, Gary McDonald & David Burke, don’t get a look in. In addition to acting, they sing as well as any young choristers I’ve ever heard. The use of music is indeed one of the play’s strengths.

Despite the fact that it didn’t seem to go anywhere, I was engaged for the duration, impressed by the creativity and staging and in awe of the talent.

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