Saturday, 29 September 2018

Bad education… The Lesson, The Hope Theatre

Every language is facts, it's only a matter of speaking it…

I prepared for The Lesson by learning nothing about Eugene Ionesco, I knew this play was going to be different and how important it is to the Hope’s Artistic Director Matthew Parker, but I didn’t want to cheat, I wanted to experience it all freshly cut. I wasn’t disappointed – even in my ignorance, my preconception was that this would be another piece of dynamic, jarring, theatre – and it surpassed my lazy assumptions by slicing through the fourth wall and imbedding itself in my mind even after a long working afternoon spent discussing data…

The play’s classroom turns out to be more like a torture chamber than anything else and it wrongfooted the audience who didn’t know whether to laugh or gasp; the main thing they had in common was an open mouth. Some were obviously familiar with the play and the style, but others were reacting with fresh-faced glee and/or horror.

I’ve never seen a funnier play about indoctrination, miss-communication and fascism but that’s damning The Lesson with faint praise. It’s a furiously-complex piece that operates on many levels all at the same time - all of them in your face.

Now I’ve read up on Ionesco and I understand that he wrote this in Post-War France for a first production 1951 and it has been in continuous performance ever since… it really is a play for today that shows just how quickly discourse turns sour and fatal decisions made based on ideas that suit rather than anything else.

Sheetal Kapoor
It begins with a Maid (Joan Potter) cleaning up the classroom of a Professor (Roger Alborough). The doorbell rings and a new Pupil arrives for her lesson (Sheetal Kapoor) with the Professor. The atmosphere is strange and yet here we have a perfectly ordinary scenario; a classroom, an exchange of knowledge what could be safer? What could be more normal?

In this World mademoiselle, one can never be sure of anything…

The Professor comes into the room and starts to assess his eager new pupil who seems as bright as a button! It’s absurdist with her answers to simple questions pleasing him no end as we sit thinking of course 1 + 1 equals 2… but we’re being set up and so skilfully as well. What we think we see is only a pretext for a deeper discourse on the nature of mutual understanding.

So, when the Pupil suddenly wrong-foots expectations by not being able to subtract 3 from 4 we have to readjust expectations and try to work out new rules for this game.

We struggle to see the logic – how can she not subtract? The Pupil seems only capable of learning through wrote; she has memorised the answers to billions of calculations without being able to work them out for herself… that’s brilliant but it’s also disturbing: what kind of society doesn’t allow for the imagination to deviate through creative processing?

The Pupil starts to get tooth ache – a manifestation of the shadow discourse twisting violently in the room. The Maid returns warning the Professor to avoid other subjects, appalled when he suggests philology: “the worst of all!”.

Toothache no barrier to learning...
Knowledge is a danger in itself but it’s the spaces between understanding that is most dangerous of all and the secret meanings you can only second guess unless you “fit”.

Pronunciation is itself, worth an entire dialect!

The tension between Pupil and Professor mounts along with the violence of his language and we look on in dread – what started off as highly formalised politeness has descended into something far more serious and theatrically wonderful!

This is another stunner from The Hope and I swear its playroom morphs like a Tardis in certain productions: I always remember the space differently based on the play. That’s down to ace direction from Artistic Director Matthew Parker along with sound design, lighting and set layout – take a bow Simon Arrowsmith, Chris McDonnell and Rachael Ryan who has the walls covered in chalked calculations; as if we’re the blackboard!

The performers grew larger than life in front of us as audience reality was distorted by the sheer intensity of Roger Alborough’s Professor as his madness proved malleable and self-normalising: we’ve seen so much of that recently haven’t we?

Sheetal Kapoor was the perfect pupil, polite and vulnerable in her conviction that learning would be the all she needed to do. Joan Potter’s cleaner was also relatable as she enabled, acquiesced and kept calm and carried on…

Joan Potter

IThankYou Rating: *****
2+3 equals 5 as does 7-2 and 19+33. This small space above busy Highbury is transformed into a darkly magically-real else-world… The Man in the Upper Street Hope and Anchor.

The Lesson plays until 13th October and tickets can be obtained from the Hope Box Office on and online.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Keep talking… Dust, Trafalgar Studios

"Suddenly it’s a lump of plastic and metal and not my best friend…”

After the play finished there was life still as the magnificent Milly Thomas stopped her ovation to point out that the play had been produced with the support of the Samaritans, a charity close to her heart and a vital resource for those for whom a conversation can make all the difference.  I was very glad that Milly spoke… relieved she broke the spell of her mesmerising performance and stepped through the forcefield of the fourth wall to connect with us. Really glad she was alright.

We’ve all varying experience of mental illness, there’s not a single family unaffected and we all recognise the symptoms based on our own lives or those we know. For some the thought of self-destruction is unimaginable but others have lived it, brothers, fathers, mothers or sisters absenting themselves because they could see no other way forward.

Milly’s play starts off with her character Alice coolly observing her dead body on the mortuary slab; she carries on almost as if alive, the same speech patterns and sense of humour you’d expect from any twenty-something Londoner.

For Milly the mortuary is just another part of experience and she reacts as anyone would to the look of the female mortician as she “judges” her for wearing a bra to her deathbed and the male for putting his hands where he shouldn’t.

Milly Thomas - all pictures courtesy of Richard Southgate
Her parents arrive, and she views them with well-worn diffidence, as both react exactly as she expects as it she’s just broken any of the dozens of petty rules governing the daily loving drudgery of family life.

But it’s early days and our dead girl will find that everything changes when you can no longer use your mobile or reach out to your friends. Also, once you’re passed away you find out who your friends really are… and your relatives too.

Alice’s afterlife is full of revelations as her parents act up – “this is better than the time Mum reversed up the motorway after missing the turn-off to Chessington World of Adventures…” and brother Rob self-medicates with coke as he “bottles” it all up. Posh Aunty Isobel arrives to take charge and relieve her little sister after Alice’s “selfishness” and relishes the role of “funeral planner”.

All parts are performed by Milly and her transitions are incredible not just across character but also emotion: it’s genuinely startling to see an actor running through walls at this incredible pace, a smile fully formed as tears still role down her face: this is exceptional expression.

“I can’t believe I stayed with you so long because I was frightened of being alone…”

There’s humour too and some wonderfully off-hand and graphic descriptions of her own and other sexual activities. Best friend Ellie – a successful barrister – is seen making love with her new man as she’s also pregnant; life has carried on without Alice even for the one she loved the most. Her ex-boyfriend Ben has moved on and not in an impressive way but, as Milly mimes Alice planning her suicide as Ben enters her from an awkward angle… you know they were never for the long term in any respect.

Alice is disconnected in death as much as she was in life only gradually breaking down when thinking of the last time her father picked her up – a moment she ruined after she dropped and broke her phone. The symptoms of her depression are revealed subtly and with poignance: her father picked her up again as she lay dead… in death she tastes emotion long denied even as physical experience is nulled (she cannot taste a Bakewell tart).

Milly makes us really care for Alice and we’re devastated all over again as she relives the moments of her suicide: it has to be this way, no blinking aloud.

Sara Joyce directs with clear intent and invention and uses three mirrors to enhance her actor's presence and to add to the dislocation. Lighting occassioanlly reveals the audience - all rapt and caught between a rythmn of laughter and concern.

Living or dying it's a very personal choice and Milly Thomas, I salute your bravery and skill in producing such intense revealing work. We left in near silence and the play stays with you as you walk to the tube and travel home; I doubt I’ll ever forget it and nor should I. It leaves your heart heavy just as your spirit is moved by the performer’s dexterity and it makes you want to make sure you do what you can while you can.

Dust plays at the Trafalgar Studios until 13th October and tickets can be snagged off the website or Box Office.

IThankYou Theatre rating: ***** Deeply affecting, essential autumnal viewing. Please go and see it.

Dust is produced by award-winning production company Deus Ex Machina Productions and
partners with Samaritans to raise awareness of help available to those in need.

The Samaritans can be contacted toll-free on 116 123, email: or via their website.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

A dream of horses…. About Leo, Jermyn Street Theatre

Max Ernst desperately wanted to capture the essence of his lover Leonora Carrington but, all too often, she just wanted a cup of tea.

Alice Allemano’s first professional full-length play is remarkably composed and strikingly clear-headed. It juggles expectations about hero worship (for him and for her) and ends up being kind-hearted and inspiring in a universal way: one of the most holistic and wholly satisfying debuts you could expect to find.

About Leo was showing as part of the Jermyn Street Theatre’s Rebels season and is based on Alice’s own discovery of the free-spirited, ground-breaking and grounded artistic outsider following a visit to the Tate, Liverpool in 2015. Like Alice I had never heard of “Leo” before although I had heard of Max Ernst, her lover for three years and a major figure himself, so much so that Leo, if she was mentioned at all, was described his muse.

“I have never, in my life, for one moment, been anyone’s muse. I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.” 

Artistic balance? Nigel Whitmey and Phoebe Pryce
As with other artistic relationships, one thinks of Suzanne Valadon and Degas (not to mention Eric Satie) or Lizzie Siddal and Dante Rossetti, the inspiration flowed both ways and the balance of ability was not always male-dominated.

This is spectacularly the case for Leonora who became one of the most significant artists in Mexico and hugely successful in other ways too, finding her own way on her own terms; free not only of her father’s controlling instincts and her upper-middle class programming but also any need to be regarded as an artistic appendage to a man, even one as talented as Max Ernst.

With deft direction from Michael Oakley, Allemano’s play is superbly interpreted by a strong cast featuring Eleanor Wyld as young journalist Eliza Prentice who, perhaps, acts as the author’s voice. Eleanor is a woman in search of confidence and direction and arrives unannounced in Mexico to find out more about the now aged artist: almost unknown in Britain: her chance for a first feature… in a professional life constrained by expectation and the cost of living.

Susan Tracy plays this Leo whilst Phoebe Pryce plays the younger and both are well cast: Phoebe even looks like a younger Leo whilst Susan Tracy oozes life-experience and wisdom even if it is filtered through copious amounts of tequila. The two ages of Leo sometimes overlap as the story flicks from “now” (Carrington passed in 2011) to 1939 just as the War started and the young artist’s life with her lover is about to change for ever.

Eleanor Wyld and Susan Tracy
Nigel Whitmey is an intense Max Ernst, full of male single-minded drive and involved in an ongoing struggle to “capture” the perfect picture of the woman he loves so passionately. The interplay between the two is playful and yet so earnest (no demi-pun intended) – they’re not in competition but their methodologies and philosophy rubs the against the other sparking human passions as well as artistic frustrations.

Leo tells Eliza: “I knew that I had met the greatest risk of my life and I fell… he radiated life” and yet, she still held back “you have to own your soul. It’s a disaster to hand it over to any man…”

Leo is driven by animalistic response and has always "heard" the sound of wild horses - she calls herself a horse and Mexico the land of horses - a metaphor for her artistic impulse, the speed of life, the need to be simply natural...

This is a force to be reckoned with and channelled. She resists being pigeon-holed as Ernst’s fellow surrealist, Andre Breton’s “Enlightened Child”; a woman unaware of her artistic power and direction… a “femme innocent”. I’m not sure of the full content of Breton’s statements but it’s clear Leo was every bit as “deliberate” about her work as any man and refused to be reduced to the level of an almost unconscious creator…

She also never missed her home country with it’s “labels” and found freedom even after what Eliza had naturally assumed would have been the end of the perfect creative union once Ernst was taken away by the German authorities after the invasion of France.

The answers are not that simple and yet neither are they sad, as Eliza drinks more and more of her host’s tequila she discovers the full, happy truth of a great talent fulfilled…

The moves from 1939 to 2010 are handled so smoothly and the delight is in seeing Loe start to interview her interviewer; pushing Eliza to listen to her own creative impulses and not give in to compromise so soon in her life… Art and the Artist can still inspire at any age.

I went with my daughter and she loved it to: she’s still at university, a few years younger than Eliza… but still with much to decide. Tonight, she found some new role models.

A tip of the hat too for Amy Mae, who's lighting created some unexpected depth and mood for the JST's performance area... almost mystical, I'd have to say!!

About Leo runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until Saturday September 29. Tickets are available from the Box Office or online. Do not miss it!

IThankYouTheatre Rating: **** An amazingly balanced first play that will leave you questioned and questioning for days… Listen to your inner animus!

All photographs are from Bob Workman.