Monday, 16 July 2018

Love and loathing in Soho… The One, Soho Theatre

“’Rich irony’ ... you’re such a ponce.”

It was cracking the flags outside on Greek Street, but even with the Soho Theatre’s very effective aircon, this play was one to make the audience sweat. In the after-show Q&A the actors explained how the same moments that generate gasps from their audience sometimes produce laughter…  the narrative sits on an exhausting knife-edge of uncertainty.

The One is an exceptionally well written play in which the two main characters swap lines like Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn in a very modern way – Kate never asking her man to “rape” her for a start. It’s a dom-rom-com with the dominance shifting from he to her and back again.

Harry and Jo are in a long-term relationship and we’re never clear who wants out and who is just clinging on; at various points it’s both or neither. John Hopkins is superb as the thirty-nine year old English Literature academic often at a loss for words in endless competition with Jo, pitch-perfect Tuppence Middleton, a former pupil of wicked tongue and fearless phrasing, ten years his junior. Both on the verge…

Jo’s sister is about to give birth and it’s going to be a long night. Jo checks her phone in a deadpan way warily enthused about her sister’s entry into the next stages of adulthood – pressure on or pressure off, she’s at the stage in life where she has to stick of twist. She appears detached from her partner as she watches TV and flicks Wotsits into her mouth to create some interest as he works away behind her making love on the couch.

Tuppence Middleton and John Hopkins (Photo Jonny Birch)
I’m no expert but Wotsits are not the food of love and in the first of many dizzying about turns, they reveal a couple using humour, sex, violence and anything they can lay their hands on, to mask their biggest question: should they carry on.

As Jo’s sister waits for Baby Godot, her friend Kerry (Julia Sandiford) is also having the biggest of nights as she splits up with her partner, Bradley, and comes looking for help from Jo and Harry – also a close work colleague. There’s a lot unsaid between Kerry and Harry and Jo mocks her for suggesting that Bradley forced her into sex, when he knew she didn’t consent; even though as Jo says, Kerry made no mention and relied on the indications of body language.

Vicky Jones, co-creator of Fleabag, writes these moments so well and, naturally enough, some are based on personal experience and the fine lines between yes, no and grudging obligations. 

Kerry’s febrile sensitivity makes Harry and Jo seem coolly mature and having pushed her back out into the night, they seem surer of themselves, but without the emotional triangulation provided by their distressed friend, they soon fall in on themselves.

The night passes on, the cast members moving the hands on a large clock and pouring litres of red wine off the side of the stage… This is a long-night of the soul and we are at no point certain of the outcome.

Julia Sandiford and John Hopkins (Photo Jonny Birch)
Jo tries to goad Harry into sexual violence and you feel he undoubtedly has the capacity – when he checks this is what she really wants you feel he means it… he can’t beat her for words, but he knows he can physically. This leaves the audience uncomfortable and adds an element of risk to Jo’s ceaseless challenges.

Kerry returns and really ups the ante… her honesty and vulnerability so at odds with the multi-layered bonded conflict between her friends yet she’s a catalyst for a deepening of their game of truth or dare.

Theirs is a universal struggle both to communicate and the evaluate. There are so many levels on which they are perfectly attuned yet so many more where they are not. Do you love the one you’re with or step outside for the one you can’t be sure even exists? It’s fear versus hope and the ticking time-bomb of the next big birthday… last chance or no chance?

Tuppence Middleton and John Hopkins truly convince with astonishing, fearless performances: we were glad of the Q&A to talk through our own issues … It was like watching two athletes warming down knowing they have to go again for the next round (this was the matinee); the measured intensity of people who work out most of the day and every day.

I should also mention that Mr Hopkins has a fine baritone as revealed in the karaoke as he sings The Music of the Night from Phantom… will the mask slip? Go see it and find out, if you dare!

Ithankyou Theatre Rating: **** This is a very intelligent, visceral play that reaches out to the audience. It will leave you questioning not only the ending but yourself… we’ve all been in relationships like this and some of us may very well still be…

The One runs at the Sogo Theatre until 25th August, tickets are available from the Box Office and online.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Happy family... The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, Arcola Theatre

“Men are like yam, you cut them how you like.”

There are moments that transcend expectation and your understanding of theatre and as we clapped along to the musicians at feverish pace, standing with broad smiles all around the sold-out Arcola, this was undoubtedly one of them. The audience was so warm for this amazing and talented cast and there were in-jokes that sometimes flew around my head but that only reinforced the joyous connections between the watchers and the watched.

Who would have thought that a play about the most shocking of turns in a polygamist marriage could entertain so thoroughly and, most importantly, strike some important dramatic points concerning family, honesty and intimacy beyond the Nigerian location.

My (only) wife, was born in Nigeria but she left too early to experience much of the culture. This play features a mostly West-African cast who do justice to the accent, the style and the humour in a play that features Yoruba music, song and dance woven through the narrative with subtlety and purpose.

The ensemble all photographs from Idil Sukan
The play is adapted from Lola Shoneyin’s bestselling novel, by Caine Award-winning playwright Rotimi Babatunde. Femi Elufowoju, jr directs his company so very well making such good use of the Arcola’s main stage with performers everywhere, speaking, singing and occasionally breaking the fourth wall… tonight that wall had well and truly gone: we were all immersed in this hi-energy, rich-textured world…

Patrice Naiambana (fresh from a highly-successful run at the National Theatre in The Barbershop Chronicles) is simply spell-binding as Baba Segi a man with fixed ideas of squad rotation for his four wives. Naiambana has an immediate rapport with the audience and gets many of the laughs as the man some of the men might think has a good deal. At one point he announces – in character – that he’s about to play a completely different character and then knocks us dead with a sophisticated English accent as a dastardly yet debonair seducer… He can also play his own 4-year old son.

He is ably supported by four “wives” who are all fulsome characters. Jumoké Fashola plays Iya Segi, his wife of 16 years whose union was arranged by their parents as the young woman was far too fascinated by money and, seemingly not interested in men… unknown to them, she was rather more interested in a beautiful tomato seller who she had seen in the market. Baba was at a loss as a business man and given Iya Segi’s acumen, it seemed a logical solution to pair them off.

Tania Nwachukwu, layo-Christina Akinlude, Marcy Dolapo Oni and Christina Oshunniyi (Credit Idil Sukan)

Second wife, Iya Tope (Christina Oshunniyi)“… a peace offering from a desperate farmer…”  and third wife, Iya Femi (layo-Christina Akinlude) married to escape her grandma’s tyrrany, impressing her future husband with her humility, as he saw it.

The line-up is completed by the latest, Bolanie (Marcy Dolapo Oni) a university graduate far more sophisticated than the rest and who, even in the crowded household, expects a different relationship with her husband – more accepting than the younger men of her own age, who pursue her: “he is content when I say nothing…” And, for long periods she had nothing to say having been brutally raped aged 15… the way of things but for all his posturing and faults, Baba has principles.

Bolanie disturbs the equilibrium in the Segis household like none before and soon Iya Segi and Tope are trying to turn their husband against her. Two years on she’s still around and in desperation they try to poison her only for things to work out in the worst possible ways.

Jumoké Fashola and Tania Nwachukwu (Credit Idil Sukan)
Meanwhile, Bolanie has yet to produce any further children for Baba and, being a modern girl, decides to seek medical assistance and to take her husband with her.

There’s intrigue and shocks aplenty but there’s also honesty, love and songs… it’s light but with a serious side and is so well balanced in terms of its messaging – a splendid adaptation that allows each character to breath so that we care about them all in the end.

Marcy Dolapo Oni has great presence and lights up the room with her smile; everyone has their tale to tell but she is the one we follow the most. Patrice Naiambana is a force of nature with charisma to burn and pin-point timing. The wives are universally excellent, and Tania Nwachukwu is outstanding as Baba’s eldest daughter, another woman emerging into this complex way of living but still a child at heart.

The whole cast is energised with everyone playing their part(s) with multiple roles, daughter, doctor, singer, dancer… The singing and dance is thrilling with the percussion playing of Ayan de First and Usifu Jalloh mind-bogglingly ferocious… there is so much physical energy in this play and choreographer Kemi Durosinmi and Uche Onah should take a bow and a heel turn each.

Ayan de First and Usifu Jalloh (Credit Idil Sukan)
It is a joyous collaboration and a play that will live long in the memory especially whenever I dance…and I should dance alot more!

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is presented by The Elufowoju jr Ensemble and runs at the Arcola Theatre until the 21st July. Tickets are going to be like baked Yams so you better get in quick! Details on the Arcola website and fromtheir Box Office.

Ithankyou Theatre Rating: ***** This is going to be one of the plays of the summer – hot, hot, hot!!!  

Friday, 25 May 2018

Workin’ in flickers… The Biograph Girl, Finborough Theatre

For the finale I was in close proximite to Sophie Linder-Lee and, blasting out a triumphal Workin’ in Flickers, she looked straight at me, completely in character and totally in the moment with a look of pure joy in celebrating performance and the legend of The Biograph Girl herself, Miss Mary Pickford. It’s dangerous being in the audience at the Finborough, you just might leap up and join in and, whatever else happens, you won’t fail to be uplifted!

Lillian Gish was in the audience at the Phoenix Theatre when Victor Spinetti’s original production opened in 1980. Silent film fascinates because whilst it is now almost out of human range it is so visibly still with us; giving us a chance to really see how our grand and great-grandparents lived. Cinema was not only a new medium it was also a new artform and from the very beginnings in the 1890s to the birth of bigger business in the 1900s, it struggled for legitimacy against traditional theatre and publishing. There’s been nothing like it since… at least until the world-wide web.

Composer David Heneker was born in 1906 and was old enough to remember the Great War years and the flourishing of the studio system that let to the increasingly commercialisation of film but the truth is that even in the noughties film was big business; it just hadn’t been tamed yet. Heneker is best known for writing Half A Sixpence and he also wrote Expresso Bongo (which I love).  The libretto has been revised for this production by its original co-writer Warner Brown and includes songs cut from the West End premiere production – so, this is a restored edition in silent film terminology…

Back row - Lauren Chinery. Nova Skipp. Emily Langham. Joshua C Jackson. Front row - Matthew Cavendish. Charlie Ryall. Jason Morell. credit Lidia Crisafulli
In some ways Griffith is the tragic hero of The Biograph Girl, with both Mary and Lillian owing him a debt. Gish was certainly always very loyal but even she moved on, always acting on stage and in memorable films such as Night of the Hunter, The Unforgiven (1960) and her last screen appearance in 1987's Whales of August (at 94!), but DW was a Victorian soul bewildered by the post-war World let alone talkies. He did innovate and was certainly responsible for the consolidation of new technique in his ambitious films of which Intolerance more than the undoubtedly-tainted BoaN can be regarded as the definitive statement.

Based on a true story, with more than a few pragmatic liberties for the silent nerd to spot… The Biograph Girl sings us through the heart-warming story of how these mighty talents helped create the motion-picture world we still inhabit from every wall-mounted flat screen to the mini-cinema in our pockets. It’s quite literally A Star is Born as, in the early days, the performers weren’t named and even Gladys Smith/Mary Pickford was initially only known only as The Biograph Girl.

It’s 1912 and we join the Gish family, Momma (Nova Skipp), Dorothy (Lauren Chinery) and Lillian (Emily Langham who has something of Lil's febrility) an itinerant theatrical family who are in New York and intent on seeing their old stage pal Gladys who’s making flickers. They meet a tall stern man, Mr Griffith (Jonathan Leinmuller) who talks in visionary terms of this new art form and tries to convince Lillian that it can be juts as effective in conveying "thought” as the theatre.

Lillian Gish dances with Mack Sennett even though they never met (it doesn't matter, it works!!)
Their friend bounces into the room and it is Gladys no longer but the newly-named Mary who is earning $300 a week churning out one and two reelers for the Biograph Company run by Griffith. His assistant Rose is well played by Charlie Ryall and his money man Epping by Joshua C. Jackson and, for the silent film buff, it’s lovely to see one of the greatest cinematographers of all time, Billy Bitzer (Jason Morell) as part of the story he played a major part in making… who else kept cranking whilst descending over that massive set of Babylon?!

Griffith convinces the Gish’s that there’s worth in films and has a vision to make art features that take on serious subjects including his adaptation of The Clansman which, for him as a Southern Man, was historical fact (at least in this version). He is sincere and, like many a visionary, is driven by his own ways, leaving others to the highway. Rose, Epping and Bitzer keep him on course but he’s possessed.

Lillian becomes his perfect heroine – delicate, pretty but tough as anything; Gish was almost method in her submersion into character and it’s harder to think of any more challenging subject for an actress but Emily Langham does superbly well with a mix of the resolute vulnerability, unbreakable conviction and total honesty that made her subject so precious. Her voice is clear and true especially on Every Lady, Gish’s love song to Griffith’s leadership spirit… if Lilian sang, she would sound like this.

Emily Langham, Charlie Ryall, Jason Morell and Jonathan Leinmuller. credit Lidia Crisafulli
And, if we had historical record of Mary Pickford negotiating contracts with Adolph Zukor (Jason Morell too) then it would probably be very much like Sophie Linder-Lee. She’s the girl with the curls, 19 going on 12 but with a business head the equal of the head of Famous Players Laskey/Paramount and any other man in Hollywood. Pickford it was who drove the creation of United Artists – with Doug, Charlie and DW – and who continued to produce well into the 50’s… 

Linde-Lee catches her spirit and especially her charm; street smart but caring too. It’s a nuanced characterisation of a complex woman and, again, if we could hear Mary sing… she would have Linde-Lee’s ass-kicking exuberance!  I Like to be the Way I am in My Own Front Parlour: of course she does!

The pace is fast and content so high – from Matthew Cavendish excellent Sennett skit – slapstick, and the full-Buster right in front of us! – to the delicious harmonies of Put it in the Tissue Paper, sung with elegant poignance by Cavendish, Linder-Lee and Emily Langham - my favourite song of the night. Jonathan Leinmuller is well cast as the visionary Griffith, a man who cannot update himself and gets left behind by the change and the people he helped make…

Linde-Lee takes centre stage.
I can understand why Lillian Gish cried seeing that debut performance, Mary had died the year before and she was always loyal to “Mr Griffith”  in spite of the pounding he got for Birth and his slow dissolve out of fashion. But… there’s that shot in Intolerance, as Billy Bitzer’s camera descends from on high over a cast of thousands… that’s genius and that’s the movies!

The Biograph Girl plays on at the Finborough until Saturday 9th June and I would get in quick if you want to pick uptickets!! 

IthankyouTheatre Rating: **** Some of the most important figures in cinema brought to life with much vibrancy, some great tunes and enough energy to light that big sign on the hill.