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Posts Tagged ‘White Bear Theatre’

We don’t get enough political plays these days, particularly given we’re in our third year of Divided Britain, so this one is very welcome. There are similarities with David Hare’s recent I’m Not Running, but it’s more focused, sharper and funnier – and in a theatre with a fraction of the seats for a fraction of the price!

Joe Newman is a long serving Teeside Labour MP who is deselected by Momentum, but stands and wins decisively as an independent. Even he is surprised by the support he gets from fellow MP’s and the public and this momentum results in the creation of a new party, defections from other parties and an unstoppable electoral march through bi-elections towards the general election. Along the way, surprising policies emerge to feed the populist hunger.

At first I thought it was implausible, then I remembered how Macron emerged in France, albeit from a different direction, and of course Trump, who used an existing party; these disaffected times can bring such surprises. Listening to the news as I write this further buries my thoughts of implausibility. Playwright Michael McManus’ strength is his deep knowledge of British politics, which gives the play a great authenticity, but it also risks being a weakness, as it sometimes feels like you’re inside the Westminster village (with some of its inhabitants making the short journey to be audience members in Kennington!), with the introspection that brings. That said, it’s a gripping tale with sparkling dialogue which I found both entertaining and thought provoking.

Even for the fringe, the production values make it a bit rough at the edges, though there’s an impressive selection of video and audio contributions from real people like Kenneth Clarke, James Naughtie, a whole load of journalists and Sue Pollard! Six excellent performances make up for it, led by Timothy Hacker as Newman. Above all, though, it’s the writing that shines.

Surely destined for life beyond Kennington?

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There’s nothing like a bit of nostalgia to liven up a dull January. Co-incidentally, I’d recently been listening to some of the 147 episodes of this 1962-77 radio comedy on BBC 4 Extra and had been struck by how funny it still was 40-55 years on. It pre-dates Yes Minister, which didn’t appear until three years after it ended, and may well be the first satire on the civil service. It even led to Finnish, Swedish and South African versions (where it was also made into a film)!

The same team that so successfully brought us Round the Horne Revisited have now taken two classic scripts (neither if which I’d heard) of this other radio show from a similar period and recreated the studio recordings, script in hand, sound affects stage right, in the same fashion. The General Assistance Department helps out other ministries when they’re overloaded. In the first episode, Lennox-Brown (Number One) and Lamb (Number Two) end up orbiting the earth in a US spacecraft having been asked to help the Americans but instead stifling them with bureaucracy. It’s delightfully barmy. In the second they are helping the Ministry of Defence when a pile of old junk gets confused for a new weapon, is copied by the Russians and becomes the focus of a disarmament deal. Just as barmy, but also very funny.

Stephen Critchlow and Robin Sebastian are great as One and Two respectively, with Sydney Stevenson an absolute delight as their secretary Mildred. Looming over them all is their boss Sir Gregory Pitkin, a terrific turn from Jon Glover. Harold Wilson makes a couple of appearances, created by the excellent David Benson, who also plays a number of other roles, and brilliantly authentic announcer Charles Armstrong also provides a few cameos. There are some fluffs, asides and ad libs which add to the live recording feel. Brian Cooke has adapted the scripts he wrote with the series creator Edward Taylor and Jonnie Mortimer and Michael Kingsbury directs, as he did the earlier show. 

I suspect this too will be a success and transfer. It’s perfect for those of us of a certain age, but there were lots in the audience who can’t have been around to hear it on the radio first time round, and they appeared to be having as much of a ball as I was.

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We don’t see enough Clifford Odets plays in the UK, and when we do it’s the same two or three. Though not up there with the greatest 20th Century American dramatists – O’Neill, Tennessee Williams & Miller – his story and his work are interesting enough to warrant more.

This was his first play to be staged; he broke off writing Awake & Sing to produce it as a response to a taxi drivers strike. Odets was a communist and contemporary of Arthur Miller & Elia Kazan. In the US, it was staged by left-wing collective The Group and in UK by Unity Theatre, treading a similar path, whose legacy trust is supporting this rare revival – one of the trustees and former Equity president, actor Harry Landis, was at the White Bear Theatre last night to bring insight to a post-show Q&A.

It’s staged as a union meeting, with characters coming out of, and speaking from, the audience, broken up by vignettes where some of the characters tell their personal stories. In just 50 minutes, we see the tension between those who want to strike and those who don’t, together with the hardship that exists and would worsen should they do so, with swipes at the perceived oppressors and their apologists.

It’s production today is timely and the modern staging echoes this. I saw it in the same week as a fresh piece of agitprop, If You Won’t Let Us Dream…, at the Royal Court and, frankly, it’s better. Young director Christopher Emms has staged it ‘without decor’ and has drawn committed performances from his 11-person cast (large for the fringe). It’s particularly effective when the characters tell their personal stories direct to the audience, though the comments of other characters whilst they do jarred a bit with me.

It’s 30 years since this fascinating piece was last staged here, so lots of gold stars to the White Bear, the director and the company for giving us the opportunity and to the Unity Theatre Trust for supporting them.

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The White Bear in Kennington is punching above its weight again with this black comedy by Julian Sims. A New York Jewish family end up as refugees in Ukraine following a nuclear attack whilst they were airborne. Most of the world is wiped out, but where they are in Crimea and where they want to be in Israel are still inhabitable.

It’s a fairly formulaic fish-out-of-water scenario which is raised significantly my Michael Kingsbury’s production and a set of excellent performances which squeeze out a lot more laughs than written. It’s given an absurd / surreal edge which successfully papers over the implausibility and predictability of some of the plot. A cracking performance by Sue Kelvin as the NY Jewish mother obsessed with her material possessions, and in particular her shoes, is worth the ticket price alone.

It’s a fast paced 80 minutes, but I think they should dump the unnecessary interval as to some extent it builds expectations of a meatier second half which really just ties up the ends and delivers a denouement. However, this is quality fringe fare and well worth a visit.

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