Sunday, 21 May 2017

The Great Dictator/Modern Times… The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Donmar Warehouse

It’s not often you get greeted by one of the cast when you reach the theatre, rarer still when they’re in character and warn you to take care inside – dangerous times are afoot. At least the cauliflowers adorning the Donmar’s foyer weren’t armed, or at least when I asked Dock Doris (Lucy Eaton, whose patience with daft questions was more than matched by her talent), she didn’t think they were going to go off soon…

Once inside the performance space we had to walk on stage to buy programmes and drinks, mingling with the other actors in a theatre re-cast as a Chicago dance hall, Mack the Knife played in the background as the Threepenny Opera mixed with The Cotton Club and the audience, seated all around the stage were given instructions by the players. I won’t give anything away but this was the first play I’ve watched were members of the audience were put on trial, forced to give support to a criminal political class and – those who didn’t… well…

Lucy Eaton and Lenny Henry
Whatever comes around… but there’s no inevitability about demagogues and dictators and yet, given their continued rule in parts of the world and the recent successes of a man seemingly intent on working substantial sections of the absolutists’ rule book, Bertolt Brecht’s play is as relevant as ever, especially in a new adaptation by multi-award winning Bruce Norris (Pulitzer, Olivier and Tony Awards!) which can’t help but pull in contemporary references.

So many demagogues start out as comedy and accelerate to tragedy. Mussolini modelled his body language on the Italian silent film star, Bartolemeo Pagano the star of the Maciste strongman films most of which were light-hearted affairs and yet his primitive presence suited the needs of a “strongman leader” who need to communicate a simple message. So in Brecht’s play does Uri seek help from an actor in presenting himself: the walk, the posture, the use of the arms and hands… a chest-raised rigid fold of the arms after an extension of the left arm at approximately an angle of 70 degrees.

Tom Edden is hilarious as the drink-sodden actor hired to correct Arturo’s wayward body language and Lenny Henry is surprisingly eloquent in this regard, a lithe touch for a big man progressing from a relaxed jazz-age hooligan to power politician of firm stance: strong and stable…

Tom Edden's actor schools Ui
Dictators: so bloody obvious, so crass… yet always underestimated in the rise. They are “resistible” and yet how often do they succeed?

This production reminded me of the Donmar verve of Cabaret (from 1994…) and the almost complete dissolve of the fourth wall by actors zipping around us, in the stalls and up in the gods, changing characters and singing snatches of songs new and old for the first bars of Human sung by Gloria Obianyo, to some Johnny Cash from Philip Cumbus: a cast of very fine voices accompanied by the multi-talented Ms Eaton on impeccable piano (she also sings, natch).

The play is of course all about groceries. Even in a Chicago of many distractions, a man’s gotta eat and who ever controls the supply of vegetables has his hand on the food-chain the underpins everything else.

Gloria Obianyo on song
Where there’s root vegetables there’s politics and the leaders of the trade association debate ways of neutering the influence of mayor Dogsborough (the excellent Michael Pennington) by appealing to his vanity in order to secure the loan they need for expansion in the docks.

Dogsborough is Weimar President Hindenburg who actually was gifted a country estate in exchange for favours in the East Aid Scandal. The programme notes include a list of overt references to the German political events of the thirties and it makes for painful reading.

Into this picture comes the gangster Ui (Henry) and his right hand man Ernesto Roma (Giles Terera) who keeps him, just about, on a straight course and out of any trouble he can’t handle. Ui’s squeeze is Dockdoris and he has a couple of psychotic lieutenants, the florist Guiseppe Givola (Guy Rhys) who’s not exactly smelling of roses and Emanuele Giri (Lucy Ellinson) who has the charming habit of wearing the hat of every man she kills.

Arturo out of control
The trade association tries to use Ui’s physical threat to control the situation but he and his troop are too smart for them at every turn, accepting every opportunity to move themselves onwards at whatever human cost: they are just more aggressive.

The resistance is led by attorney O’Casey (super turn from an adenoidal Justine Mitchell who’d I’d last seen in the Donmar’s superlative Kind Lear) but even the law is subverted through intimidation and thuggery and I’m afraid that an audience member was found guilty of burning down the Reichstag – sorry a warehouse… whilst another was killed in a clear implication of his guilt: you’d have hoped for better from a London audience but there you go… trust no one.

It was a performance of pure theatrical verve which the cast clearly enjoyed as much as the slightly startled audience. Props to director Simon Evans for the audacious staging and to his designer Peter McKintosh for one of the most pure-enjoyable and thought-provoking shows at this venue for some time.

Lucy Ellinson looks out on the audience
Lenny Henry showed that he has completed his transition to the stage and after so much Shakespeare is ready to tackle anything; you completely forget that he’s Lenny apart from one moment of near corpsing when the audience member was made up bruised and battered!

The rest of the cast were uniformly excellent with Lucy Ellinson almost Joker-esque in her joyful psychotics and Guy Rhys, the fearsome florist, particularly good alongside Lucy Eaton’s snarky Doris.

Before the second half began we were joined again by Doris/Lucy again who asked us if we thought she’d survive the play: “don’t shoot the piano player” if offered… but there are no guarantees in this brutal World in which one man’s word is only as good as his ability to back it up with force…

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui plays for another month – until 17th June. Tickets are available on the Donmar site but are very limited. Catch it if you can, a play for today and all those tomorrows we – collectively – let slide…


Ithankyou rating: *****

Saturday, 13 May 2017

The things we do for love… Paper Hearts, Upstairs at The Gatehouse, Highgate

“I’m not as brave as the words I write… somewhere there are words waiting for me…”

And sometimes these words are wrapped up in glorious tunes, sang and played by a cast in intoxicating union, staring the audience straight in the eye with the sheer joy of connection and performance: a remarkable sight and one that made you wish for a strap so you could carry a cello round like Eleanor Toms, who also acts and sings as she plays.

Make no mistake this is amongst the most fiercely multi-tasking plays in history as almost everyone does at least three things, plays at least two roles and blows your socks off. It’s all you can do to smile back but some cried, others danced and many more just wished they knew the words…

Words are important to us; they are how we define the world and understand it and ourselves. “To write a story is to give away your heart… the bravest thing you can do…” says the lead character of Liam O'Rafferty’s appropriately honest and (paper) heart-felt debut musical about second chances.

O'Rafferty had never written a musical before and it shows: his performers do things they’re not supposed to, breaking the fourth wall, changing characters in waves as the narrative interweaves in fascinating ways and moving as they play: even drummer Ben Boskovic gets to move as the ensemble make like a band in thrilling fashion.

By making new rules Paper Hearts won vast acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe and has now transferred to London before a stint in Hamburg: if there’s any justice we’ll be seeing a lot more of it and this fearlessly youthful cast.

In the audience was Graham Gouldman, one of the greatest songwriters in British pop history – penning hits for The Hollies, Yardbirds and many more when he was still a teenager and 10CC were almost a decade away – and I’m sure he recognised this spirit: no one told him how to write Bus Stop or Evil Hearted You either.

The minute you entered Anna Driftmier’s impressively designed set you just knew that a corner of high-class Highgate had been taken over by an alternate reality in which bookshops are managed by soft-hearted scouse managers (Matthew Atkins) and populated by frustrated writers called Atticus (Adam Small, who is actually, quite tall…) who bang away for years on a typewriter in search of their truth.

Atticus is entangled in a relationship/hostage situation with brassy Alex (Sinead Wall, who has some pipes on her!) who long ago lost interest in both him and the novel he is attempting to write about tragic lovers in 1940s Stalinist Russia. Yanna (also Sinead) and Isaak (also Matthew… there’ll be alot of this) are two star-crossed lovers – the book is called Angel Star after the Pole Star which triangulates with their love no matter where they are in a country torn apart by Stalin and the war.

There seems little relationship between the book and the bookshop-romance but all will become clear in time and I like the way O'Rafferty controls his narrative with the aid of Tania Azevedo’s superb, innovative direction.

In the nicest possible way, the audience is confronted from the start by its troubadour cast as Joel Benedict strolls, strums and sings his way towards the front row followed by Amy Gardyne, electric blue eyes twinkling as she plays the violin and sings and Alec White pounds his bass – all always, remarkably, thrillingly, in character! It is a band but a band that acts through an emotive soundscape expertly anchored by musical director Daniel Jarvis on keyboards.

Likeable (and Alex...) as the bookshop team is, it’s clear they’re stuck in an emotional holding pattern but their uncomfortable stasis is soon to be rocked as Norman reveals the shop is being taken over by acquisitive digital retailers, Literally Books who will be sending someone to assess the viability of the old-school shop.

The night before, Atticus drowning his various sorrows in a bar, enjoys a marvellous flirtation with a very pretty girl (Gabriella Margulies, so dynamic and another with astonishing vocal strength) who seems to share his interests in quirky old films and art of importance. They quote lines from Brief Encounter and, all too soon it appears that their meeting will similarly be short and bitter sweet…

The next day the girl walks into the shop and it turns out that she is Lilly Sprocket (love these character names!) sent by Big Bad Books to assess and asset-strip the shop.

Meanwhile, back in the Russia of his book and indeed his dreams, Atticus withdraws more and more into his characters; the only people who understand him as he understands them…

The band on the move
But, and there’s always a but in such tales… Norman has A Plan: B*st*rd Books are running a competition for best young novelist and will award £50,000 to the winner! All is saved!! All that has to happen now if for Atticus to complete his work and perform it with sufficient conviction to win the prize and save the day. Only trouble is, the CEO of Lizardly Books is none other than his estranged father Roger (Alasdair Baker - the only cast member anywhere near my age with a lovely barritone).

So far so musical but the form is played with and teased out of all recognition and there’s a very satisfying coherence underpinning the narrative that ensures a conclusion worthy of the starling set up.

As the cast sang their final song and faced off against the front rows, the audience beamed back their smiles recognising that we too had taken part on the play: heart-warming and involving theatre that plucks the heart strings as easily as the band hits the high notes.

Recommended without reservation: great venue, good food and drink but most of all, as it’s a mood-altering injection of pure joy which comes entirely cynicism free!

Go see it and be prepared to smile uncontrollably for days afterwards!

Gabriella Margulies and Adam Small
BUT there's only a week to go - BOOK NOW!

2nd – 20th May 2017 Tuesday – Saturdays 7.30pm, Sundays at 4pm, Saturday Matinee at 3pm. No Monday performances. You can book tickets here and there's more details on the Paper Hearts website - including a song sample. Twitter: @paperheartsmus Facebook: /paperheartsmusical

Ithankyou rating: ****

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Devil's in the details... Brimstone and Treacle, Hope Theatre

This is a difficult, challenging play even forty years after it was first produced; it makes you uncomfortable from the get-go and yet before long you laugh, the whole audience laughs. Is there any such thing as pure evil and is there really any purely "good”? After years of debilitating psoriatic arthropathy, Dennis Potter had more than just a few questions for the deity under whose watch he had suffered… physically and mentally he was laid low. Brimstone and Treacle was his way of examining the rhyme and the reason: and in the endless alternations between the good and the bad, can pure wrong make a right.

This play has been a real passion project for director Matthew Parker who conveys the full power of Potter’s angry vision: there are no compromises and he has helped summon four extraordinary performances from his high-powered cast. You can fully understand why the BBC didn’t feel able to screen the Play for Today in 1976 – it took them ten years – which is why the performance at the Sheffield Crucible in 1977 was its debut.

Olivia Beardsley & Stephanie Beattie - Brimstone and Treacle (All photos lhphotoshots1)
Has Britain changed over forty years after the National Front were nearly as popular as UKIP? The play is unflinching in revealing the unresolvable desire to take our country back against a background of terrorism and widespread immigration. And, whilst this casual darkness lies at the heart of one character there are other black deeds at issue; action not words that require no Devil, simply people.

The play opens in truly shocking style; we enter the performance space to find a young woman sleeping peacefully in her bed but once the play begins we can see that she is severely disabled and in a near vegetative state. This is the suburban home of the Bates family and here lies the living remains of their daughter Pattie (Olivia Beardsley who gives a quite astonishing performance) who was very badly injured in a hit and run accident over two years ago.

Paul Clayton
Her mother Amy (Stephanie Beattie) looks after her almost day and night, feeding, cleaning and praying that she can still comprehend even though she can’t express. It’s heart-rending and it’s alarming to see a human figure so distressed: Pattie vocalises incoherently, she writhes with discomforting, dyspraxic, angularity, almost as if she’s being restrained but hasn’t the strength to respond.

Father Tom (Paul Clayton) is convinced she cannot understand anything happening around her and that he lost his daughter for good when the accident occurred. He can see no hope and tortures his wife with his fatalism. The two are broken down, as locked in their own physical and mental space as their daughter; a lifetime of curtailed, stifling routine.

Amy wonders, almost prays, that someone or something will come into their lives to save them, if only for a while. Shortly afterwards Tom has a bizarre encounter with a young man who claims to know him and to have been close to Pattie. Then, there’s a knock at the door and the man, the innocuously-named Martin Taylor (Fergus Leathem), arrives claiming to have found Tom’s missing wallet.

Fergus Leathem
Now the strangeness begins as the excruciatingly-polite, quicksilvered young man talks his way into the Bates’ house and lives. He says he wants to help, claims that he once proposed to Pattie – who declined but said she would consider – and, in spite of Tom’s hard-wired cynicism, impresses Amy by echoing her fluttering Christian hopes.

Yet Martin continually turns to the audience and the lights flicker with demonic force as he reveals either the hideous mind of a sociopath or a more purely evil persona: he’s conning the Bates and making us all complicit. The play is very funny and intentionally so; we laugh even knowing there’s evil at work, even confronted by a severely disabled character… that’s Potter’s challenge down the decades and it still works. Nobody is getting out of this unaffected, certainly not the audience as Martin’s viscous sexual assault on Pattie slaps us hard: and we found him funny?!

In the same way that Alfred Hitchcock brought out the voyeur in us all, Potter makes us complicit in Martin’s plans: we’re curious and he is a magnetic personality… how far will he - and we - go?

Fergus Leathem is outstanding, giving a high-energy performance that combines the unrelentingly unctuous with the irrepressibly malevolent in equal turns. His creepily-atonal version of You Are My Sunshine will be stuck on my head for weeks.

Before the night is out we will be taken to the dark heart of the Bates’ family, as Martin joyfully plays on Tom’s support for the National Front to extrapolate the most logical conclusions for the idea that outsiders should all be sent “home”… It is still very much a play for today. But there’s more… something else that happened before Allie’s accident and, can any good possibly come from Martin’s evil?

Some plays leave you smiling while others scratch your head... this one simply leaves you stunned, challenging us all to look not only at what we’ve just seen but what we’ve just felt. That is pure theatre and pure Potter!

The play runs until 20th May and deserves to be seen: there’s nothing bad about such great performances - Paul Clayton and Stephanie Beattie are both superbly heart-breaking - and in these febrile times, it’s better the Devil you know… isn't it?

Tickets are available with full details on the Hopewebsite. I'd be quick though, there'll be a lot fo full houses for this one.

Ithankyou rating: *****