Sunday, 2 April 2017

'Someday' is for Suckers... The Life (2017), Southwark Playhouse

The old Times Square was still live and kicking when I first went to New York City in the mid-eighties, edgy and unsettling it made our Soho look tame. I remember seeing a timid-looking guy in a suit being hustled off down a west-side street "c'mon buddy you know it's what you want..." - what happened I'll never know. It was a fascinating, frightening place: anarchy in the USA... a world in which the only law is desire. A visit to this neighbourhood aroused conflicting response but if you had to live in it... well, that's something else.

Cy Coleman's musical is less well known than Sweet Charity and City of Angels (brilliantly revived at the Donmar Warehouse last year) but it packs a truer punch than either. His music and Ira Gasman's words pay tribute more to the actuality of this desperate place and even though time may have made The Life as much of a period piece as the noir Angels, there is no doubt that The Life continues to be lived and it's hard.

Use What You Got
Coleman and Gasman wrote the final version with David Newman and the production was further refined by director Michael Blakemore, who, as Newman said, "steered the show along a tightrope, careful not to fall into the seediness below, toward a common humanity to which audiences can relate."

Twenty years after its Broadway debut the show has been revived with Mr Blakemore once again directing and it is among the most thrilling and immersive theatre I've seen. The Southwark's space is so intelligently used and as the cast enter and exit via stairways through the audience left and right, you feel completely wrapped up in this world.

The fifteen strong cast are, literally, in your face throughout and their voices, all powerfully stage strong connect like a heavyweight right hook... above and below the belt!

Sharon D. Clarke in full flow
Sharon D. Clarke is the diva-in-chief as Sonja the old pro who has - almost - grown to old for her night job... her voice is so rich in texture she hardly needs the words to express her feelings. She has such stunning presence!

Cornell S. John is Memphis, the baddest of the pimps, who rules with an iron fist in a leather glove, so effortlessly cool and dominating the stage space with charismatic, soulful vocals. His performance is all the more powerful with the full weight of his character's darkness only hinted at before being ruthlessly deployed as Memphis comes looking for payment in full after a favour "sold", not lent.

T’Shan Williams is Queen, our heroine and a one who dreams of escape for her and lover Fleetwood (David Albury). Williams' vocals are sweet and strong with a sad tenderness skillfully expressing fragile hope under threat. She acts with an old soul beneath her youth and beauty: someone to watch out for.

Queen turns tricks for Fleetwood, a Vietnam veteran now wanna be pimp... She's saved her money and wants to escape but her man has wasted it on getting wasted. She's his only girl though and encouraged by hustler-come-MC Jojo (John Addison) he goes in search of another to add to his roster. They find Mary (Joanna Woodward) newly arrived at the bus terminal and aim to suck her into their world of co-dependent vice.

Charlotte Reavey and Cornell S. John,
Yet, whilst she has just literally got off the bus, Mary is not quite the naive country hick they expected and soon she's moving from waiting tables to wowing punters at an adult bar. The only way is up and Fleetwood aims to follow. Queen sees little option but to deal with the Devil, in this case Memphis, which allows her to show up her old man at the Hookers' Ball. But everything comes at a price and Memphis is adept at balancing his books.

The prelude sets a fatalistic tone as the dancers explode on stage in distressed and distracting street-walker chic - this is the uniform of sexual defiance as much as availability: there's is a hard way and there's no glamour just weary, defiant display.

The girls
The ensemble gyrate with whiplash grace -  Jalisa Andrews (Chi Chi) beaming, Lucinda Shaw (Tracy) knowing, Charlotte Reavey (April) throwing near-infinite legs and  Aisha Jawando (Carmen) moving almost faster than the eye can follow. They are followed by the boys, Omari Douglas as Slick and also leggy as one less-than-sweet transvestite... Thomas-Lee Kidd (Bobby), Lawrence Carmichael (Snickers and fight director), Matthew Caputo (Oddjob), Jo Servi as bar owner Lacy and Jonathan Tweedie as porn baron Theodore.

This Life moves at pace and is relatively light on dialogue with the songs expressing so much of the characters' stories, from the defiance of JoJo's Use What You Got to the proud fatalism of Sandra's The Oldest Profession and Memphis's sadly all-too-true My Way or the Highway

There are some fantastic voices on show with the audience applauding each song with increasing intensity. This felt like a gig and yet the engagement on the faces around was as much with the story as the singers and the songs. We were all living The Life form start to finish.

John Addison, Joanna Woodward and Johnathan Tweedie
The direction is as assuredly perfect as you'd expect from the OBE, AO and American Theatre Hall of Fame awarded Michael Blakemore and Tom Jackson Greaves' choreography uses every available inch leaving the audience in the front row stirred but not shaken.

Tamara Saringer directs a superb group of musicians or as we should call them a really tight band!

Not a drop of energy is left unspent in an endeavour infused with pure joy. See it you must as it's been away from stage for far too long and it deserves not only to move out of the shadows of Cy's classics but also into the West End.

This Life runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 29 April 2017 - don't miss it because 'Someday' is for Suckers! Tickets are available here but I think you'll need to be quick for this is surely the hottest show in London!

Ithankyou Theatre rating: ***** (of course)
T’Shan Williams

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Something better change... Kicked in the Sh*tter (2017), Hope Theatre

Author Leon Fleming and director Scott le Crass worked on last year’s Sid which showed how the anger and anxiety of forty years’ ago was still relevant to today’s alienated youth. Kicked in the Sh*tter – surely the title of the year, especially when the call went out for the start of the performance! – picks up with a more specific examination of the causes of our disaffection in this care-less age: the War on Welfare and the return of concepts of a "deserving" poor.

But the play doesn’t follow any easy lines and Fleming challenges your perceptions throughout, as James Clay’s character says, he may be playing a tune but he’s not on the fiddle. The system is rigged so that you have to sing the song and that’s just another of the ways in which self-respect is eroded.

The story concerns two nowhere-near-just-about-coping siblings in inner city Birmingham and jumps back and forth between their teenage dreams – chatting over a large bottle of illicit Lambrini about their problems, their parents and the future. She is played by Helen Budge and he is played by James Clay.

Helen Budge
From the start elder sister sets the agenda and younger brother kind of follows in his own messed up way. He has mental health issues and has self-medicated from teenage onwards using and abusing drink, drugs – both prescription and under the counter. Depression makes him believe he cannot work and he lives in the terrible shadow of the dark impenetrability of his condition – he can’t live with it and he can’t live without it – mutually-assured destruction is the only cure he can believe in although he’s absolutely well enough to not wish that on himself… he may have “tried” it once but as he says, if he really tried he’d be dead.

By contrast, big sister is a carer for their mother as well as her two young children from a long-departed father. She really wants to work but can’t make the time as there’s no one to look after the children or her mother; she is in a cycle of poverty that leaves her in one heart-rending scene pleading with the “social” after spending her last tenner on electricity… she has no money left for food but has been docked her income support for refusing to take a job. These sanctions rob her of money and respect but she has no one to back her up, least of all her brother who is trapped in his own pre-medicated loop of no confidence: the drugs may work but they don’t make him work. Maybe all addiction is a Möbius strip that reduces willpower along with the anxieties the medication is designed to suppress.

James Clay
As the pair go through their own income support assessments Fleming illustrates dispassionately how the process fails almost all-comers. She can – possibly – obtain income support if she declares herself a carer but this won’t be any more than the Job Seeker’s Allowance that is suspended and besides, she wants to work. It’s a vicious cycle that fails to address the real issues.

In the end something has to give and it is she rather than he who comes close to oblivion. As she recovers from her suicide attempt suddenly her brother steps up as much as he can but maybe more than he thought… looking after the children and supporting her as best he can.

This is no fairy tale ending but there is hope as he talks honestly to his sister, perhaps emboldened by surprise at his own usefulness.

In a very powerful moment we see her talking to a psychiatrist about her brother’s weakness and self obsession: her illness has seen him address her situation through a prism of his own psychosis… but she recognises he’s grown up a bit too.

Believably real and so effortlessly genuine, Kicked in the Sh*tter is as full of hope as despair and is quite brilliantly acted by the two leads.

Not hiding away...
You can hide away in the Garrick or the National but in the Hope every inflection can be caught and any false thoughts can betray performers. Budge and Clay are more than up to the task and thoroughly convince throughout in this vital, provoking play for today.

You’re drawn inevitably to Budge, her character caring and single-handedly keeping her family afloat and she gives a fierce, desperately honest performance of grit and vulnerability. Clay is also mightily impressive as the man with younger-brother syndrome (I know!) who is self-deluded and self-medicated in equal measure until the time comes to finally start lifting himself up.

There’s hope but we all need help. As a band* that frequently played in the Hope’s basement used to sing; Something Better Change.

Tip of the hat to Justin Williams’s inventive design and the direction which made Helen do most of the lifting - so typical! Teresa Nagel also did sterling work with the lighting and effects… you can see how everything works so well at the Hope!

Kicked on the Sh*tter runs at The Hope Theatre, Islington, N1 1RL until 8th April – I would urge you not to miss it! Book tickets here.

Ithankyou Theatre rating: *****

*That'll be The Stranglers for all you youngsters... back in 1977.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Broken record… In Other Words (2017), Hope Theatre

A love that endures even through catastrophic mental disease. How many have to endure the loss of their life partner and what can be crueller than their lover gradually becoming absent – crumbling away in unexpected parts as memory and reason simply disintegrates next to them in bed, over the breakfast table or in the sitting room as you watch the TV shows you shared become strangers too.

Music as much as smell evokes memories although I guess it depends on your wiring; after all, some people can actually see sound whereas most of us just hear it. But even for the neuro-typical brain, music sneaks straight past reason to the subconscious and sparks the remoter corners of the cortex with the feelings of the forgotten.

But when your memory starts to fade, when you’re sick with Alzheimer's Disease, how is music felt then?

In Other Words is Matthew Seager’s first play and was produced during his final year at university after life-changing work experience in a care home for people with Alzheimer's Disease. It is some achievement both in technical terms as well as emotional.

Celeste Dodwell and Matthew Seager - Photo Alex Fine
The play tells the story of Arthur (Matthew Seager himself) and Jane (Celeste Dodwell) or rather they tell their own story, leaping backwards in and out of key moments of their relationship to address the audience directly. The story cleverly flashes backwards and then heads forwards as we see the latter stages of Arthur’s condition – head and body dropped, barely able to talk, incapable of recognising even his wife – then jump to the couple’s initial meeting: Sinatra, a chance accident – spilt red wine – and the humorous recollection of a long love affair’s youthful beginning.

Arthur is a Sinatra man and Fly Me to the Moon is his and subsequently Jane’s song – it is the song that played when they first danced and when they first kissed: the moment when they both knew. It is music he always summons when they have troubles as Frank and Nelson Riddle's orchestra smooth over any temporary disconnection and the couple hold each other close and dance. Singing is, however, not allowed on account of Arthur’s wayward approach to pitch and tone.

It’s these snippets of everyday marital discord that keep the play real and the chemistry between Seager and Dodwell make them all the more affecting: these are the faux conflicts of healthy marriage and are all the more bittersweet for what we know must come. 

Celeste Dodwell and Matthew Seager - Photo Alex Fine
When the first signs of Arthur’s impending issues begin to appear they are rationalised and ignored – even argued over. After all, how can anyone take half an hour to collect some milk and stamps when it’s only a few minutes walk to the shop.

“It’s not fair on you” says Arthur, “No it’s not. So what, so what!” responds his loving wife. Both so courageous and ready for the fight of their lives.

But, amidst the “sunny days” and “rainy days” Arthur wil gradually lose his ability to think and in the grin darkness of their hospital consultations, Jane confesses that it feels lilke her husband is slowly leaving her…

Jane becomes increasingly isolated by Arthur’s innocent forgetfulness and his panicked cruelty. Their life is only heading one way and yet, sparked by Frank’s powerful song Arthur can occasionally remember. For brief moments he is once again whole and Jane’s husband… it can’t last but for the instance, he has returned.

Jane’s reaction is difficult to watch and her's one of the purest expressions of despair I’ve ever seen in a theatre.

Celeste Dodwell and Matthew Seager - Photo Alex Fine
We all connect with Arthur and Jane: they are our parents, aunts and uncles, friends… maybe even us. What makes the play so powerful - so uncomfortably real - is the knowledge that all of us in the Hope’s intense close-quarters could find ourselves in the same boat…this is an everyday, everyone kind of disease.

We must hope we can bear the ending with good grace and find whatever comforts in the music we loved.

Paul Brotherston directs superbly and makes the most of the Hope’s intimacy. His two leads deliver powerfully well and if I say I was slightly more impressed with Celeste Dodwell’s range everything is evened out by the fact that Matthew Seager wrote it! Whilst the characters start out as emotional equals, over the course of fifty years, Dodwell’s Jane becomes the only one left to really express their collective agony; she does so remarkably well and you’d have to be made of stone not to feel it too.

In Other Words continues at the Hope until 18th March: I would strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to moved heart and head by their theatre.
Ithankyou Theatre rating: *****

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Night fever... The Wild Party, Hope Theatre

Queenie was a blonde and her age stood still,
She danced twice a day in vaudeville…

A jazz-age upgrade of Ms B Spears’ Toxic gets this party started in style and another special evening at the Hope starts to unfold.

Shamefully for a silent film buff my only familiarity with Joseph Moncure March’s classic is through the Merchant Ivory film which blew it out of all proportion including elements of poor Roscoe Arbuckle’s story for good measure (in real life this most talented of comedians was found innocent but lost his career). March worked in films and wrote the script with which Howard Hughes turned Hells Angels into a talkie but before that, he composed this thoroughly-modern morality play about the perils of too much jazzing!

Anna Clarke and Joey Akubeze (AFPhotography)
Rafaella Marcus’ whip-smart direction is full of fruity invention – literally, you won’t believe how many bananas, apples and peaches play key roles not to mention strawberry jam (although it could have been raspberry!?) – and rips along with breath-taking verve.

Books? Books? My God! You don’t understand.
They were far too busy living first-hand, for Books. Books!

The language is rich and punchy enough to have inspired William Burroughs and here it provides the perfect script for over a dozen characters played by just two actors.

Anna Clarke and Joey Akubeze quickly become submerged in a dizzying array of flappers, gangsters, boxers, molls and floozies with gender, sexual orientation and citrus predilections all played with consummate ease. Clarke is so convincing as Eddie the drink-addled boxer that you’d cross the street to avoid her whilst Akubeze’s performance of Lorde’s Royals whilst perched in a bath will live long in the memory.

A very versatile vamp! (AFPhotography)
Clarke in particular is the most protean performer you’ll find this side of Alec Guinness, variously playing Delores – a singer without a voice who still rides a Rolls Royce – the brassy Katie, Phil the fragrant pianist and Queenie – our exotic, dancer of a heroine: she really is the most versatile of vamps!

Not to be outdone – and this is very much a performance of equals – Akubeze acts with nobility and strength as Queenie’s potential saviour, Mr Black, whilst clinging fiercely on as the sad, angry clown she shares her life and apartment with, Mr Burr.

It is a joy to watch two such committed and talented performers rip through these verses and characters without missing a beat. Lines are hard at the best of times but you really have to be on your game with verse which is harder to act than you would credit. Crossing so many moods and characters whilst expertly dancing and singing is the theatrical equivalent of rubbing your tummy whilst patting your head.

We don't care, we're driving Cadillacs in our dreams... (AFPhotography)
And both actors do so with such sweet, jazzy verve as if Clara Bow and John Gilbert had rematerialized in Upper Street… and could anyone really be surprised: where better to return to Earth? These two certainly have It!

Long story short, Queenie and Burr have seen much better days and time is running out fast on their relationship. She works as a dancer and he as a clown always in ludicrous support of her more exotic stage. One angry Sunday morning there’s “tense, silence, foreboding sudden violence…” and the two fight like Charleston Cats as if it’s all they can think to do.

They decide to inject some life and plan a party for all their pals: time to cut a rug and play fast and lose!

Christ, what a crew! Take a look at Madelaine True…
Her mouth was cruel: a scar, in red, that had recently opened and bled.

The night arrives and so do their guests… The “ambisextrous” dancer Jackie, Eddie the boxer who when mixing gin and rum- a man to keep well away from and his girl, Mae “a passionate flirt, so dumb that it hurt…” Then Dolores, a singer without a voice, but she rode in a Rolls Royce”
The characters are portrayed so vividly in the prose and the cast do them full justice in the flesh.
Now comes the drama as Queenie’s friend Kate arrives with a charming new escort, Mr Black… 

Queenie has no doubt what she is about to do to Burr…

She had planned this party to put him on the rack;
And she’d do it by making a play for Black!

And so the dance begins – literally – as Queenie woos Black dancing close, “with just a sword between them” and the jealousy grows in Burr even as he finds comfort with Kate…

The tensions mounts and again the words work so well with the performance as a neighbour threatens to call the cops, a fight breaks out amongst the “brother” pianists and an underage girl is manhandled.

And a crowd of shadows hovered, waiting…

It’s all building up to the wildest of finishes!

This was my second visit to the Hope and as with the first – Her Aching Heart – I saw truly surprising and elegantly-committed show that left me smiling all the way home.

The Wild Party is a genuine sockdollager! – a consummately-produced joy, showcasing two exceptional talents and all their shadowy pals. Grab a ticket and knock yerself out: it’s later than you think!

 IThankYou Theatre Rating: ***** Use of fruit in a dramatic context: *****

If music be the fruit of love... (AFPhotography)
PS I can also recommend Art Spiegelman’s illustrated version which uses the original text as first composed in 1926 by a young man clearly imagining himself a good time...