Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Polar opposites… Shackleton’s Carpenter, Jermyn Street Theatre

"Everyone working well except the carpenter. I shall never forget him in this time of strain and stress…" Sir Ernest Shackleton’s diary, 1915

The story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s epic attempt to cross the Antarctic is enshrined in our culture helped by the amazing film recorded by Frank Hurley, later released as South in 1919. The crew faced almost impossible odds when their ship became lodged in ice and Shackleton’s leadership in rescuing all of his crew after an epic land crossing and harrowing open-boat journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia is the stuff of legend.

Great British pluck and the best of us overcoming the odds it may have been but without the alterations made to the lifeboats by Shackleton’s carpenter, Harry McNish, they would not have succeeded. Of the 24 Polar Medals awarded to the crew of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, none was given to poor Harry and as the officers and scientists enjoyed a heroes’ cruise home, the chippy along with other rank and file had to pay his own way. Hands and therefore his livelihood ruined by his exertions in the great white silence, McNish ended up in Wellington, New Zealand, down and out and living in the harbour, sleeping under tarpaulin.

Gail Louw’s bitter-sweet play has our hero trying to make sense of it all near the end of his life as he drinks himself into a reverie imagining visits from his old crew mates, The Boss himself and friends and enemies.

Malcolm Rennie. All photograhs from Anna Urik
Malcolm Rennie is exceptional and gives his all as the embittered yet stubbornly passionate harry and pulls the audience deep into this ice-cold world of polar traumatic stress. It’s a very physical performance and Rennie leaves absolutely nothing on the stage as he forces Harry to confront his demons in the face of his own fears. Sometimes it feels like he is tearing the words out of his mouth as his spits disdain at The Boss or his enemies like Captain Lees and Worsley.

McNish respected Shackleton but also disagreed with him on too many occasions. He was right about the boats but maybe held too much of a grudge when The Boss shot his famous cat Mrs Chippy, who would have had no chance of survival after the Endurance was crushed by ice. Shackleton, as the note above suggests, found him difficult but did concede he had "grit and spirit".

You’re left marvelling at these men’s accomplishment and wondering why the Empire didn’t take such good of the men after the heroic deeds inspired a nation at war and much in need of heroes. Perhaps also the character that stubbornly refuses to curl up and die also meant that these men were to fight – without each other they were surely doomed and any petty concerns should have been cast aside… but the line of command had been crossed and that was that.

Colonel Macklin, the physician on Shackleton’s expedition later said “...of all the men in the party no-one more deserved recognition than the old carpenter.... I would regard the withholding of the Polar Medal from McNeish as a grave injustice.”

But Harry was with us tonight in the force of Malcolm Rennie’s performance and I would urge everyone to go and watch this master craftsman at work! Tony Milner's direction is intrepid too, pushing his performer to the limits and taking many chances with so many "invisible" characters who, in Rennie's hands spring so substantially to life.

Shackleton’s Carpenter plays at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 16th August and goes on a tour of the UK and Ireland tour in the Autumn – details on their website.

I also wrote about Frank Hurley's film, South (1919) which features such incredible footage of the expedition.

IThankYou Theatre rating: ***** A blistering one-man show that drags us through the grit and grind of polar enmities that haunt this brave man till the very end: you will leave the theatre reeling.

Frank Hurley's shot of the other 27 members of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Hull on Earth… Starved, The Hope Theatre

“You stop having dreams don’t you, when real life keeps on slapping you in the face, down and down…”

There’s a surreal moment near the end of this play when the lighting flicks on an off and the actors move around the central space like two people filmed in stop motion on a CCTV or, more accurately, two rats in a laboratory. The Hope’s promethean stage has a “room” delineated by string, rope and ribbons in which Michael Black (The Lad) and Alana Connaughton (The Lass) spend almost all of their time: they’re right in front of us and yet that thin barrier holds throughout their mesmeric double-header. At one point The Lass looked out of the “window” at the folk next door and I strained to see what she was seeing…

Starved tells of two youngsters on the run from a crime that only gradually becomes apparent. They’re exiled from friends and family, trying to avoid the law in a miserable bedsit on one of Hull’s most unforgiving estates – you can imagine this scenario all over the country and the human dynamics take you away from any knee-jerk political reading. Universal credit gets a mention but only in the context of just one more thing dragging people down; another slap in the face for people who can’t see straight for blinking.

All that matters is the relationship before us, the bigger picture is a luxury they simply cannot afford as they live from hand to mouth on the brink of disaster. The Lass stays in as her fella goes out scavenging bringing them back Cup-a-Soups and, if they’re lucky Rich Tea biscuits although the class divide between even these two is highlighted by her preference for Custard Creams or even Hobnobs.
Alana Connaughton and Michael Black. All shots credit lhphotoshots
She’ll get what she’s given and the two drink to excess every day in the absence of anything better to do and to deaden the ever-present fear that drives them under and further away from facing the consequences of what they have done.

“You push and you push and you push… you make me like this!”

The relationship is skilfully balanced with the couple sniping constantly and making up as they go, there’s affection, jealousy and there’s blame; are they getting to know each other or just doomed? It’s to Michael Black’s credit that the play leaves almost everything open: this is a cycle of dangerous possibilities and yet there’s a distant hope for the young people.

It’s in our consideration of just how the two might move on that the play is “political” as what it presents feels almost like a documentary than a drama. “Everything and everyone is pointless…” and “it’s just getting worse…” how are we to contribute to a solution?

The direction from Matt Strachan enables the two performers to unleash so much emotion within this constrained space – smaller even than usual – and both are amazing to watch, Alana crying real tears of frustration, fear and rage as the man she loves or could love, blows up in her face. Michael Black has a brooding presence and portrays a softness that gives The Lass and us hope.
Caught in a web... Credit lhphotoshots
There’s no doubt they are both sorry for what has happened as well as what they did and they want to change but how can they in the face of consequences which may damn them to this existence for good.

Mention should be made of Ruth Phillips’ movement direction – a lot to choreograph in that imagined room, as well as the design from Esteniah Williams, Lighting from Aiden Bromley and Sound from Nicola Chang.

Ithankyou Theatre rating: **** Another transformative experience at the Hope and a couple I will not soon forget. Their personal becomes our political in subtle and challenging ways, a smartly sculpted story.

Friday, 5 July 2019

Days of future past… Dark Sublime, Trafalgar Studios

“Nowadays you’re lucky if you get a rehearsal… which is very unlike life, if you think about it, which is all fucking rehearsal and no fucking performance…”

At various points in my life I have indeed felt the pull of old “fantasy television” and ended up buying not just box sets of old TV comforts but also annuals and toys. Now these are not just for me you understand, they’re for my son who I long ago infected with Star Wars and Doctor Who… and now he too is at the age when the originals were best

Yet, far from being nostalgia pick-me-ups, the best science fiction has always presented a mirror to our current lives, highlighting the dangers, just around the corner. Thus, in watching a near future world conquered by Cybermen or Daleks we realise how much of our current moral strength (largely) prevents this happening. Science fiction and science fantasy are concerned about the future and that concern is also very much for now and not later.

But, is TV science fiction the “answer” is it a way to lead your life either as a performer or watcher? Michael Dennis’ new play examines the role of fandom in revealing and obscuring eternal truths. It’s a massive subject and even with the play’s running length not one to be exhausted in a single evening but the characters are warm and the interjections of sections from the “actual” show with Simon Thorp channelling equal parts Tom Baker and Paul Darrow as Vykar and Mark Gatiss in his (recorded) dream role as Orac’s cheekier cousin Kosley the Computer, make sure that Dark Sublime carries the atmospherics of its inspiration.
Marina Sirtis (credit Scott Rylander)
On top of this of course we have your actual sci-fi royalty in Marina Sirtis – Star Trek, The Next Generation's Deanna Troi - as Marianne and she does not disappoint especially in giving us a rounded character who is more than just the sum of her previous parts… As her character says: “It paid the mortgage – helped pay the mortgage – but it’s not the one bright book of my life! I’ve played parts over the whole of my career… Portia, Rosalind!”

Marianne is not Marina whose career was, literally (ha-ha) beyond stratospheric in the hugely successful TNG but she is very relatable as the jobbing actor who has made her career with runs in Emmerdale, supplemented by workshops. She’s a battle-hardened pro ever ready with a quip and a put down for friend and foe alike especially her best friend Kate (a radiant Jacqueline King – who has done a stint in Doctor Who herself as Donna’s Mum).

Marina gets some real zingers to deliver and doesn’t miss a beat, it’s a play that clearly resonates but whilst the situation is, we assume, a familiar one, the story digs a lot deeper into our relationships with each other and, specifically the ones we love.
Kwaku Mills (credit Scott Rylander)
Kate has a new girlfriend, Suzanne (Sophie Ward, subtle and sophisticated as you'd expect) a younger woman and one of unhindered emotional intelligence and with a forthright wisdom that seems to allude the quicksilver Marianne. The latter doesn’t approve but won’t really be specific about why; jealousy or loneliness or just everything.

Marianne breaks the golden rule and agrees to meet a young fan, Oli (excellent newcomer, Kwaku Mills, energetic and instantly likeable) a twenty one year old man who has found a great deal of solace in the show she made 35 years ago; Dark Sublime, a cross between the shows made above and so many that could have been. He sees universal themes that still resonate whilst Marianne sees only one job out of dozens.

Oli runs a website on the otherwise neglected show and persuades Marianne to attend a convention for 500 fans in Walsall… nominally in aid of cystic fibrosis but also a chance for people of lack minds to pay tribute. It provides a catalyst for a re-boot of the honesty in Kate and Marianne’s relationship as well as being a turning point for Oli, unlucky in love with his friend Theo but with the realisation that he is not alone in a World full of wonders.

The narratives of the fictional TV show and the here and now collide in a genuinely thrilling and moving closing segment: well written and heartfelt.

Love is all you need.
Andrew Keates directs this top-notch cast so well, there's a genuine warmth and team spirit that both underpins the tribute the futures past but also makes the human drama all the more convincing. As Suzanne says: “I think – love is… rare enough, that it needs… cherishing, wherever it flowers.” So, whether it be about an old TV show or old friends/new friends who love what you love, Dark Sublime is one of the most optimistic and funny plays of the year!

IThankYou Rating: **** Boldly going where no play has gone before, it’s actually very light and definitely sublime!

Tickets available from the Box Office - better be quick!

Big Finish need to release these scripts on audio! Simon Thorp in action!

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Revealing to conceal... Pictures of Dorian Gray, Jermyn Street Theatre

I once faked the results of a supposedly un-fakeable psychometric test which frustrated my good friend the HR Director as the facilitator of our workshop suggested that I’d either worked it all out (unlikely) or that I was so deeply subsumed in my work persona I was masking my actual personality. Clearly, it’s not just actors who use the method at work but what if we all hide too much; what becomes of those feelings – our instinctive and moral response to events - if we were able to separate action and emotional response would that take away responsibility as well?

This is just one of the lines pursued in Lucy Shaw’s sparkling adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s only novel, which is given a further twist by Director, Tom Littler having the four cast members rotate their roles.

Shaw has pulled very modern resonance from the story and created a meditation on the poet’s view of art, love and spirit. I read the book a long time ago and my impression remains of a richly worded gothic morality tale in which Gray’s need for sheer experience leaves him exhausted whereas my partner just thought it too arrogant: author failing in one of his chief instructions there: 'To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim.”

Augustina Seymour, Stanton Wright and Richard Keightley Credit - S R Taylor Photography
In this play, Dorian succeeds in concealing him/herself so much that he loses touch with responsibility for his actions; the picture takes the hit, measuring the impact of his actions on his soul even though it is hidden away from view. This is spookily done with the players in perpetual motion calling out Wildean motifs as they circle the immediate action – not so much a Greek (Street) Chorus as a Piccadilly one.

Tonight, Helen Reuben was Dorian Gray and she positively glowed with the thrill of a person having set a course for nothing but their own gratification. At first Dorian is happy enough to fall in love with Sybil Vane (Augustina Seymour), a young actress in a tavern theatre who has imagination enough to play all the Shakespearean emotions without having felt them. She and Dorian share a symbiosis and once she becomes aware of her “Prince Charming’s” affection she cannot act anymore as she’s realised how powerful true emotion is.

She’s the inverse of Gray who, once she has revealed this, becomes instantly bored with her: he preferred the fake to reality. Sybil takes her own life in misery at the rejection – imagine how deep that love and that pain? – but Gray quickly dismisses it even as he notes the impact it has made on his soul painting. He’s in it now and the only way forward is obsession and experimentation.

The two Dorians: Stanton Wright and Helen Reuben reversing their roles Credit - S R Taylor Photography
Gray has two great friends, Basil Hallward (Stanton Wright), the earnest artist who paints his incredible picture and the rather louche Henry Wootton (Richard Keightley) who gets most of the best Oscar lines. Henry wants to lead his pal astray whereas Basil is so in love he wants to capture his essence. He is so successful in this, of course, that Gray’s takes the fatal step of declaring he’d give his soul to be able to look as he does in the picture for ever.

The play works on so many levels but is far more mystical than the book, with Augustina Seymour, floating elegantly in a satin evening dress like a spirit on her way to a supernatural cocktail party, catching Gray’s promise in her hand. Littler and Shaw have restored the poetry to Wilde’s prose and made the play broader than the book with less specific meaning. This is where the rotation of genders and actors will make for a fascinating change of emphasis on different viewings – I really must see another combination and watch these superb players change persona again.

Pictures of Dorian Gray plays at Jermyn Street until 6th July - details on their site plus spooky trailer!

Ithankyou Rating: **** It’s a Wilde ride that sparks so many hot takes as you work out new connections between Wilde’s words and his meanings – I used to think Dorian was him but now I’m not so sure; he’s more a part of all of us.


Sunday, 9 June 2019

A matter of life and death… Handel’s Messiah, The Little Orchestra, Porchester Hall

The Little Orchestra promised a different take on Handel’s masterpiece and they didn’t disappoint, with conductor/compere Nicholas Little not only deconstructing the many working parts of this mighty, mystical engine but also explaining the story behind the piece itself.

The Messiah has a special significance as it was one of my mother’s favourites and she’d watch it every year played by her brother’s old band, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Needless to say I didn’t make it past the second bar of the overture without welling up – this is powerful, resonant music with huge dynamics and emotional intelligence: almost unimaginable creative time travel from a composer way ahead of his century.

For all of Charles Jennens’ words, it’s the music that really moves you and Handel is so fluent in expressing the emotional narrative with a directness that belies the uncanny craft he deploys. It’s music that is positively cinematic, conjuring a response through power and subtlety.

Nicholas Little, Past Production Image, The Little Orchestra (by Annabelle Staff)
Mr Little’s orchestra is far from small, there were 17 singers, two actors for the spoken parts and two dozen players all bringing the noise to this 200-year old epic. The Porchester Hall had been decked out with a twisting cloud-like installation that divided the room between the performance area and a cocktail bar. The mixologist who served us had over 500 cocktails in his head whilst opera singers kept the music flowing after the main event had finished; this was a well thought out and richly rewarding cultural experience.

The LO had previously played part one at the Hall last Christmas and so it was the power of the choir that did for me as they sang Behold the Lamb of God at the beginning of part two. The choir was arranged chromatically from sopranos to bass, almost like a human pianoforte and with four excellent soloists performing the composers’ mix of leading line and chorus to perfection.

In between each segment of “songs” Nicholas would explain the background to the meaning and how contemporary audiences would have responded. He also gave context to the work, explaining that it was basically propaganda for English Protestantism with Jennens quoting liberally from the King James bible at a time when Catholicism had been firmly dislodged among the ruling elites. Not unlike our current debate on Europe, the split in Christianity had preoccupied the  country for a long time and now the battle had been won, it needed to establish its own legend.

This was also the time of The Grand Tour when noblemen would travel Europe in their early years to experience the culture and gain enlightenment – imagine that! Whilst many spent far too much time behaving badly, enough found their way to Italy to be impressed with the emerging forms of opera. The German-born Handel had travelled extensively himself and knew how to compose in this style, he also developed “English oratorio…” a form all of his own making involving a mix of spoken word, grandiose orchestrations and thematic collections of “songs”.

Jennens’s libretto may have been influenced by the suicide of his brother who lost his faith studying at Oxford and took his own life. As with many in a time of fragile mortality, the writer looked to the life beyond for comfort.

His script for Messiah therefore focused on the divine resurrection and the ultimate defeat of death… precisely what people wanted to hear, not just from a human point of view but also from the perspective of their religion; Protestants were the new “chosen people” and the English were on the right side of immortality as well as history.

The bands-eye view
Ithankyou Rating: ***** An evening rich in discovery and emotion, Little managing skilfully to inform and explain without deadening the impact of the music.

Catch The Little Orchestra if you can – details are on their website.

There was an intriguing display in the bar area... all connected to the scriptures?

Saturday, 6 April 2019

All killer, no filler... Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story, Hope Theatre

The upstairs room of The Hope and Anchor is always the extra character in every play I’ve seen, it’s like a sentient being in an Alan Moore fantasy, one that is haunted by the intentions of stage and lightning designers and the stories they tell. Tonight, the room was working overtime as artistic director Matthew Parker’s flair for movement and space brought out new and genuinely shocking dimensions as it always does.

Leopold and Loeb, the two “thrill-killers” suddenly feel the Police closing in and the nervy Leopold swings a torch around revealing a wall plastered with photographs and cuttings from the original murder in 1924. These are all linked together by red cord which criss-crosses the walls and the space above our heads; we’re in an incident room and a young boy has just been horribly murdered by two hyper-intelligent sociopaths.

The two men were saw themselves as Nietzschean supermen, whose superior intellects should allow them to rise above the laws of common men, they began to indulge in criminal exercises just for the hell of it and again, there’s a particularly visceral sequence in which they torch a warehouse and Loeb’s face is lit bright red as he revels in the transgressive destruction and sings, Nothing Like a Fire. There is also a powerful sexual connection between the men and their deeds with Loeb, always the master, making sex conditional on their escapades and passions run alarmingly high after each crime.

Jack Reitman. All photos credit lhphotoshots
Parker doesn’t hold back and before you know it the audience is complicit in the relationship and the tragic attractions of this deadly pursuit, I’ve seen a lot of excellent shows at this venue and Thrill Me is surely one of the most intimately engaging: we’re dared to look into the hearts of men who committed the most appalling of acts, killers who Leopold later said were only human. This is a musical but of the most challenging and ultimately rewarding kind.

For all this to work, you need exceptional leading men and in Bart Lambert and Jack Reitman, Parker has found actors who not only look the part but have West-End power to their vocals as well as nuanced emotional control. As the dominant Richard Loeb, Reitman’s film-star looks are backed up by subtle reading of his character; yes, Loeb is the most overtly sociopathic and daring of the couple but he is also allowed chinks of vulnerability that show he needs his lover as much, perhaps, as he is needed.

Bart Lambert imbues Nathan Leopold with a febrile uncertainty, driven by an obsessive love for Richard and the constant cruelty pushed his way – Loeb calls him “Babe” but only sparingly as he knows he likes it… he undermines at every turn but perhaps he needs the lift?

Bart Lambert. Photo lhphotoshots
Together they drive each other on as the two law students think of ever more thrilling ways to break the rules they have studied - both still aspiring to be lawyers "after".

Stephen Dolginoff’s musical was originally staged in 2003 and tells the story in flashback from Leopold’s parole hearing in 1958 with the narrative switching back and forth to key moments in the men’s relationship. The songs are strong and allow both voices to shine as they sing about subjects that by all rights should be too complex, Richard’s singing about luring their murder victim to his car in Roadster is quite the most disturbing song I’ve heard all year and yet it’s pitched just right; you feel terrible and yet there’s a glimpse of the motivation behind this horrific act.

Tim Shaw sits behind the keyboards, accompanying in fine style, at first noticeable and then fading into the background - in the best possible way - as the story takes hold.

Chris McDonnell lighting design is exceptional as is Rachel Ryan's design and you get a sense of the team ethic of Mr Parker’s Hope which drives the theatre onwards with every new show. Thrill Me is a remarkable show and I if you’re looking for an adventure into the genuinely unexpected, take a walk on the wild side and book with confidence… you’ll still be feeling the show in the days that follow.

IthankyouTheatre rating: ***** For those who don’t believe that musical theatre can tackle complicated real-life stories this is unmissable; it’s an adventure into the lives and love of two killers that fearlessly asks “why?”

Friday, 5 April 2019

Declan and Libby aren’t dead… Mouthpiece, Soho Theatre

“Cause it’s all very well wanting to be a voice for the voiceless, eh. Until you find oot the voiceless have a fucking voice and mibbe they might want tay use it.” 

My father was a novelist and had 23 novels published from the seventies to the eighties; he always told me to write about what I knew and for him, after work as a policeman from Wavertree in Liverpool, he had plenty to draw on. But at what point does a writer become like an actor, performing a role as much as any of their characters and, are these characters “self-determining” based on the conscious or unconscious sympathies of the person creating their narrative?

Playwright Kieran Hurley’s Mouthpiece literally features a playwright within a play and the stage design has a proscenium arch set diagonally across the playing area to make sure we’re all of us urging on the same compromises his made-up creator is facing. It’s a tricky one; how do you write about poverty without having experienced it? And, do you really have a duty to only write about what you can fully understand: are there any half-measure of compassion?

Neve McIntosh, credit Neve McIntosh
Hurley’s writer is Libby who is superbly played by Neve McIntosh, an actor I’ve followed since her quite remarkable turn as Fuchsia in BBC’s Gormenghast (2001). She has an unique presence and intensity and does not disappoint as the worn-out writer who ran out of things to say in her twenties and now, returned from London to live with her mother, drifts deeper into alcoholic self-pity, shorn of any real purpose.

She’s up in the crags outside Edinburgh and is trying, perhaps, to goad herself into jumping off the edge, self-slaughter one of her diminishing heroic options. Function is smothered in surmise just long enough for a young man in as shell-suit to pull her back from the brink. He is Declan – a frankly astonishing Lorn Macdonald – who has come to his favourite spot for some solitude and self-help, drawing away his many demons and escaping the hell of his home life.

There’s a cautious connection between the two as Libby admires one of his drawings, seeing things in it that Declan perhaps hadn’t intended… But this isn’t A Star is Born, this is real life or at least as far as “just fantasy” will allow.

Lorn Macdonald - credit Roberto Ricciuti
Libby gets Declan to sign his picture and finds out about his sister, his mother and the monster of a man she clings onto, even at the expense of her family’s happiness. Measured against this is a writer’s block, a fall from the grace of the Groucho Club, and a mother who let’s her daughter stay under sufferance, the odd huff and puff, no actual violence.

Libby takes Declan to the modern art gallery and blows his mind and she introduces him to the post-grunge of Hole whose lead singer, Courtney Love, declared that when she felt at a loss as a front-woman, she imagined herself as REM's Michael Stipe. None of this means much to the youngster but he gets the drift and dances along in wildly different style to Libby who, like us all, is aghast at anyone not knowing who Stipe or Love are.

It's half time, and Libby breaks her (imaginary) fourth wall to remark, if characters are getting on well it tends to indicate a story arc that will end up with the opposite results. But who knows?

Soon, after Declan asks to be taken to the theatre, Libby starts to write again, she’s so inspired by her young friend’s story she wants to capture it or should that be capture him? She starts to quote verbatim and the lines are illuminated on the back wall to reinforce how much she is taking from Declan. After things take a turn for the worse at home when the 17-year old stands up to his step-father, Libby steps over the mark and has to write her subject out of her life. She is happy to resent his story but unwilling to really help him… is writing about a problem enough to absolve yourself of the need to help?

Hurley doesn’t fall into any obvious ruts in an edgy narrative that strikes true and is also very, very funny. There’s a great comic as well as dramatic relationship between the two leads, and they riff off each other as well as the script to deliver a genuinely funny take on the most serious of topics: that’s writing about what you know; human warmth and connection despite of background class and education. And this is what keeps your heart in your mouth when our friends begin to fall out and “success” puts a real strain on steadfast trust.

Director Orla O’Loughlin uses every inch of the sparse setting and pulls the performers out from that stage-on-the-stage literally into our faces: as Declan rages beside and as part of the audience, we feel the need to examine our own conscience and our own honesty of expression.

Libby and Declan dance to Hole's Malibu
It's powerful, visceral indeed, and yet, even during the explosive finale, there is still humour, people lost and trying to control their fears…  I won’t give further details, just go and see it!

IthankYouTheatre Rating: ***** A standing ovation: this is a fast-paced, innovative play that isn’t afraid of making you laugh just as it challenges your perceptions. It also features two tremendous performances and the play’s incendiary anger stays with you long after you leave the theatre.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

We are family… Mary’s Babies, Jermyn Street Theatre

“When the facts that you think you know turn out to be lies it’s a little like an earthquake…. These buildings need to be rebuilt from the foundations. Proper facts… Solid enough to build a Life on.”

Maud Dromgoole’s startling new play is inspired by the story of Mary Barton and her husband, Bertold Wiesner who used the latter’s sperm to artificially inseminate up to a thousand women before destroying the evidence.

Now you can only guess at what made the Wiesners want to do such a thing but you imagine the dilution this would have of the concept of son, sibling or indeed father? Dromgoole uses this to hold a mirror to the nature of all kinds of relationships with just two actors, Emma Fielding and Katy Stephens, playing all of the parts. They’re both outstanding as men, women, lovers, sisters, man and wife, ventriloquist, registrar and candlestick maker (probably) and in a bewildering switch from character to character the names are illuminated on the wall behind to help us work out our Greta from our Gertie and our Sarah from our Susan. In all there are 41 parts and it’s a tribute to Emma and Katy that you begin to recognise them one by one, like streetlights, illuminating the narrative.

It’s quite a feat and whilst I’ve seen many a one person show with multiple characters, playing 18 vs 23 takes so much skill and trust; like the two mimes at the end of Antonioni’s Blow Up who play tennis; they both have to keep their eye on the ball. Gradually you become involved in the key relationships as the nature of paternity, “relationship” and being a “sib” of this “father” is uncovered. 

Katy Stephens (Photo Robert Workman)
Normal rules fall away, even our urge to follow the path of parenting is revealed as a choice when the most important thing in all of this is love; the love that never entitled the sneaky sperm donor to claim parenthood for any save his only children with Barton, Ruth and Jonathan.

It’s hard not to feel resentful about a man who placed his own genetic inheritance so highly in other’s lives and who never acted as the third party is presented himself to be. The Wiesner’s practice was based in London and from the late thirties until the sixties they provided artificial insemination services for childless couples and it was only in 2007 when DNA analysis of a sample provided by Jonathan enabled the first people to identify him as their genetic father.

This “Barton Brood” forms the basis of the play as they uncover their relationships years after the “Daddy” destroyed the evidence. Set in 2007 it has characters aged between forty and eighty, a remarkable legacy of deceived humanity gradually discovering the truth and their enduring qualities.

It starts with Kieran, adopted son of Karen who has just died of breast cancer. He now knows that his “cornerstone”, the relationship between his birth mother, Beatrice, and his father, was laid in a west London clinic and not in the bounds of normal intimacy. Beatrice’s husband, Samuel, could not bear the fact of his origins and he was abandoned and brought up by Karen; more his real parent than any of those involved in the biological process.

Emma Fielding (Photo Robert Workman)
Then there’s Bret and Caroline whose halting intercourse is interrupted when she spots that he’s got an extra digit on his right hand… genetics? Gracie and Ethel are a more committed couple but Gracie’s search for her true parentage threatens to undermine their balance… reaching out for more family, Gracie wants considers having her own with Ethel but is she merely compensating; putting some right to her wrong and morphing her relationship into something more normative as a result?
For everyone, the discovery of their empty father unsettles and leads them on to analyse their definition of love.

Kieran meets Rota his half-sister, test-tube removed… while we discover Gracie’s backstory as her father lies seriously ill in hospital with Huntington’s were Caroline (yes, that one… the characters cross over with bewildering ease) works. There’s Bret, who thought he was the son of another one of the Barton’s circle – a surgeon – who has grown up anti-Semitic: he may good genes but that doesn’t guarantee personality and judgment. Sadly for Bret it turns out he’s actually one of Wiesner’s: a Jew.

So it goes, as Dromgoole toys with preconceptions and deftly shifts her narrative through characters without losing pace or tone. With one of life’s greatest certainties – our “Cornerstone” – in doubt we’re left to find new meanings and a new basis for love. The play doesn’t let us down and delivers the satisfying emotional crescendo we need and it’s also very funny throughout.

Credit to Tatty Hennesy’s direction which fully embraces the challenges of the writing, and to the energy of the two leads: they never let up and richly deserved the rapturous applause at the close.

Mary's Babies continues at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 13th April, details on their website.

Ithankyou Rating: **** This is an outstanding play that makes light work of its heart-rending subject matter, it puts so much faith in the audience and we are rewarded with love and light.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Tainted love… Medea Electronica, Pleasance Theatre

"I grieve for the woman I once was, naïve, open-hearted…”

Part gig, part theatre, the electro-musical Greek tragedy we’ve all been waiting for even though we never expected it… Mella Faye blew our socks off and set them alight as we watched in stunned silence. Like so much of London’s “fringe” theatre the Pleasance specialises in surprise and invention unfettered by the same commercial concerns of the West End – not that they don’t need a plentiful paying audience! But it’s the spectacularly unusual shows such as Pecho Mama's Medea Electronica that will ensure that the theatrically-curious will find their way to this superb complex nestled between Camden and Islington.

The play combined the buzz of both – a knowing and expertly-constructed musical populated by the kind of rare grooves you could have heard in the Electric Ballroom or Dingwalls, coupled with the theatrical verve of Upper Street.  Mella Faye’s voice carries a deliciously folky catch in the throat and is like a rougher-edged Liz Fraser, especially with ethereal double-tracking as she emotes over Alex Stanford synths and Sam Cox’s electric percussion. The three are indeed a band, called Pecho Mama, and to prove it they were even selling t-shirts and CDs afterwards.

Their music is so precisely of a period that I’d guess at 1982-85 even though I’d been expecting something a little more 1989, this was a deep groove to explore from an era when synth pop re-invented the torch song with vocalists such as Marc Almond, Alison Moyet and Phil Oakey… full disclosure; I saw Heaven 17 a few weeks ago and they’re still mighty.
Alex Stanford, Mella Faye and Sam Cox - photo Katrina Quinn
This period synth pop reflects the placing of Euripides' 431BC play in Thatcher’s Britain and the greed-is-good mentality of Medea’s husband, Jason East, who seems to have gone off the rails following the death of his father. He spends an increasing amount of time away from home, working long hours and supposedly dealing with his grief.

The family had moved from London to Bedfordshire and Medea has her hands full with their two young children Michael and Peter, especially the former who struggles to adapt to his new school. There’s a lot of love on show and the sound design from Simon Booth is superb as Mella Faye acts to disembodied pre-recorded voices with seamless conviction.

Jason’s true reasons for his absence are soon painfully evident as is his plan to disengage his wife from his life and family… but, this is a play based on a Greek tragedy and his wife, as she warns, will make him wish he’d never met her.
Mella Faye, photo Katrina Quinn
It’s a simple but powerful story that is told boldly and with so much invention, working as an electro-pop-opera with fascinating music as well as drama - a splendid platform for Mella Faye’s singing, acting and mime. It’s a primeval storyline with no modern compromise but, as Faye says, it invites the audience to be on Medea’s side and, despite the things she does, we do indeed want “to will her on, and to want her to succeed.” Is that just the music talking or are we still emotionally “Greek” in response to base betrayal?

Medea Electronica runs at the Pleasance until Sunday 23rd February 2019 before continuing elsewhere in the UK and abroad - full details are on the band/theatre company’s website.

IThankYou Theatre rating: ***** You won’t see anything quite like this all year: dramatically different and you will want to buy the album too!

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Distant voices, still lives… Agnes Colander - An Attempt at Life, Jermyn Street Theatre

This is only the second time Harley Granville Barker’s play has been performed with his intention of addressing gender politics, relationships and "The Sex Question", possibly persuading the 20-year old, that it was too frank to go public. Agnes Colander is woman seeking artistic independence but also a “marriage” that will allow her to realise that ambition.  That she keeps on defining these ambitions in the context of a relationship with a man says more about the era in which this play was written than anything else: Agnes cannot operate in society without a man to fund her and, more importantly to give her social standing.

Trevor Nunn will have addressed the question of sex frequently in the 37 Shakespeare plays he has overseen (that's the full set) and here his direction ensures that the play moves purposefully and with convincing performances. But it cannot escape the limits of its original construction, confounding our modern expectations with social compromises that are archaic now. That said, Barker is pushing the boundaries and some scenes are positively shocking for a play written in 1900 and there is a sensibility that would find fuller expression with The Voysey Inheritance (1905), about financial immorality, and Waste (1907). Seemingly he abandoned the play over fears of censorship and audience disapproval and when he re-read it in 1929, he made a note on the manuscript that it was “very poor”.

The only known copy of the play was by Colin Chambers in the British Library, and the American playwright Richard Nelson to revise before Nunn debuted it in Bath last year. It still feels a little uneven but there are some stunning passages that make the jaw drop – Agnes is not just a blue stocking she’s a seeker after truth and self-actualisation many decades before any of that became a woman’s right.

Naomi Frederick - all photographs from Robert Workman
At the start of the play, Agnes played by the magnetic Naomi Frederick, is found in her studio mulling over a work that she swiftly hides and replaces with a blander one when she hears a knock on her door – we don’t see the subject until the last moments of the play but it’s clear from the off that she is creatively frustrated. Her door is opened by the bear-like Danish painter Otto (Matthew Flynn) a curiously abrupt man who is purely dedicated to his art in a way Agnes can only dream of. He has the freedom to be himself – accepted by society even as his outspokenness veers towards cruelty and rudeness.

He has brought news of a telegram from Agnes’ estranged husband who wants her back. He is much older and their union was “arranged” but, stifled, she left to pursue her dream of being “more herself…”. But this dream has not worked, she is reduced to painting within the lines of expectation: producing the merely beautiful without saying anything… She is tempted to give it all up and return to the comforts of the rich man but, decides to follow her heart after Otto “proposes” – in his way, and the two move to France to love and to paint.

This is after a young man, Alexander Flint (Harry Lister Smith), who has been employed by her husband to keep a watch, also declares his love… he’s too young and too late, as Agnes is distracted by the thoughts of the splash of Otto’s paint and the firm line of his charcoal.

Naomi Frederick and Sally Scott- all photographs from Robert Workman
Over in France, the couple have the most artistic of arrangements – Otto does not want to marry and Agnes only wants to paint in the same animalistic way as he. But it’s not that simple and, once again, Agnes finds herself more muse than master. Is she being dominated by Otto and suppressed by his ferocity and simplicity in the same way as, over dinner, he pulls at the bread and mauls the chicken with his bare hands as she politely picks away…?

In the end Agnes must decide to break free on her own or to pin her hopes and talent onto the inconsistent attentions of Otto… cue a rather surprising denouement… ultimately it’s about The Sex Question and the play is rather coy on the answers as it had to be in 1900.

Frederick acts with fluidity and convinces as much as these lines will allow whilst Matthew Flynn gets a lot of the laughs as the freely-expressive Danish draughtsman. There’s good support too from Cindy-Jane Armbruster as Agnes’ long-suffering lady-servants, Lister-Smith as the wholesome Alexander and Sally Scott gives a buzzy cameo as expat Emmeline Majoribanks who is there to remind Agnes of social convention even when she enjoys breaking it by snogging Otto; perhaps “Emmeline” is there to contraindicate the importance of independent spirit?

A tip of the hat to Robert Jones’s stage design which has us right in the heart of things in both London and France; removed in space and time.

Agnes Colander runs at Jermyn Street until 16th March, tickets and further details all at the box office.

IThankYouTheatre Rating: *** A fascinating adaptation of an important, if unfinished, play that has much to say about “the sex question” from a 1900’s male point of view.

Friday, 1 February 2019

Up Against It… The Ruffian on the Stair (2019), Hope Theatre

“They think because you’re a criminal they can treat you like dirt…”

What is it about the Hope Theatre that guarantees an evening free from thoughts of the dreary daytime, tax returns and conveyancing fees? I think the place is haunted by the punks below and, increasingly by the ghosts of actors above, for I have never seen a bad play here.

Tonight, was yet another delight and Lucy Benjamin was outrageously outstanding as Joyce the reformed sex worker now dedicated to looking after her man. She radiates believability and a powerful emotional coherence throughout, handling Orton’s tricky, multi-levelled dialogue with naturalistic ease even in the midst of a scribbling cauldron of critics and, the potentially distracting presence of the genuinely great Kenneth Cranham.

Mr Cranham was only 18 when Orton cast him as the “ruffian” in the Radio 4 broadcast of the play and, he later also performed it at The Royal Court, he knew the playwright very well having starred in Loot for over 400 times so… a little more pressure on the cast tonight than having just your usual theatrical genius in the room!

To a man, well to a Lucy, Adam and Gary, they met the challenge and produced a perfectly choreographed dance of delusion and despair. Joyce (Lucy) lives with her man Mike (Gary Webster), an ex-boxer full of pride but also deeply troubled by the cards he has been dealt; he works as a hired hand, “fixing” things such as over-due financial transactions and third-party retributions.

Gary Webster amd Lucy Benjamin, photos all from Anthony Orme
He talks of meeting men in Kings Cross toilets and anyone who has read the Orton Diaries can only think of one reason but, as it legally had to be, Orton’s text is never specific, which makes it even funnier… for that brief and brilliant period in the mid-sixties, Joe ran rings around the powers that were, running his words off beneath their belts and over their heads. Orton was even asked to write a film for the Fab Four, Up Against It, which the lads would have loved had it not offered too difficult a sub-text for Brian and EMI.

One day while Mike is out working, a young man Wilson (Adam Buchanan) comes a knocking about a “room for rent” … Joyce is confused as there is no room for rent, but it soon becomes clear that the “ruffian” is a bereaved man who’s brother has recently been killed. Wilson’s appearance is entirely strange, this is An Inspector Calls on Valium washed down with rum and coke… and he asks whether Joyce’s man is the vengeful type and presses her into showing him his revolver.

Paul Clayton directs with an actor's instinct and intimate knowledge of this febrile venue. There’s always more than meets the eye and I love the playful way Orton juggles his narrative mystery knowing, with full confidence, that everything will not only fall into place but make absolute, devastating, sense in the end.

Lucy Benjamin and Adam Buchanan, photo by Anthony Orme
Soon Wilson calls when Mike is home and the real connections begin to be made clearer… In this brief but powerful play, love is stringer than hate and there’s an uncanny beauty in the central premise that is far from laughed away by the play’s hilarious final lines.

We cheered and we whooped, Ken looked happy and the three took prolonged applause.

In truth it’s not fair to single out Lucy alone for Gary Webster is also consummately at ease in this role with his every mannerism giving eloquent voice to his character, a man of pride but also with secret passions and a deep love for the “wife” he relies on so much he has to hide it through insults and everyday nit-picking: his ego is so fragile… what would he be without her?

And then young Adam is superb as the unsettling yet fragile ruffian intent on settling his score but in his own way. If this is a play of domestic invasion, it is also atypical for this lose “genre”: Wilson isn’t there to change their lives but to make sense of his own to pay a tribute beyond their ken… so many layers obscured by off-beat dialogue that moves parallel and at strange angles to the narrative… half a century later Ken’s mate Joe is still startlingly fresh and challenging.

Tickets from the Hope Box Office and you better be QUICK!!

IThankYouTheatre Rating: **** A reminder that the sixties weren’t all flower power but a time of huge social and artistic change; this play still cuts us to the raw and the acting is top notch. What a cast!!

Thursday, 24 January 2019

No safety net… No Show, Soho Theatre

Blackpool Tower Circus, aged five, and I was terrified… the magnificent men and women on the flying trapeze were swooping high over our heads and all I could think was that, without a safety net, they could die in front of us.

There’s always been a mortal fascination with circus performance, not just the risks they take but also the amount of their lives they have to devote to moving their art towards the limits of human possibility. I don’t say that lightly and when Kate McWilliam performs 54 cartwheels inside of a minute, she may be 11 off equalling the world record but it’s humbling all the same; how many hours, weeks, years have gone into that amazing minute?

This is circus but it also comes with a story both real and imagined… like a Morecambe and Wise sketch, or Miranda, there’s the artifice of the troop putting on a show but there’s also a deeper narrative, one based on the women’s own career and their treatment.

Kate tells us about her role in a TV show in which she and others trained celebrities to do circus tricks yet, in spite of the fact that she has a degree in the circus arts and is a specialist in some of the most physically challenging of the disciplines, she and other women were often reduced to more decorative displays while the men were allowed to tumble; she takes a glance at the audience and sets of on three perfectly executed tumbles, power and grace combined with acting: these movements carrying disappointment, frustration and an anger that cuts short any frills…

The men would be supportive always telling her she was good but, more often than that, saying that she was good “for a girl”.

Kate McWilliam, Michelle Ross and a flying Francesca Hyde (Photos courtesy of Chris Reynolds)
Such an idea, in close proximity to these immensely accomplished and brave, women, is risible. Camille Toyer is a master of the cyr wheel a heavy metal ring that is some two metres in diameter. Kate narrates as Camille shows what she can do and whilst there’s a joke about the dangers, as they are both “professionals”, the cyr is heavy and can do a lot of damage. Where Camille to lose concentration and allow the wheel to run over her toes they would all break, at the other end the wheel could knock her out or worse whilst, for more difficult motions, it could finish her career as well as taking out the front row of the Soho Theatre.

Yet Camille is literally breath-taking in the wheel, spinning perfect slow circles and then speeding up as she turns 360 degrees first vertically and then, incredibly, almost horizontally.

There’s a running joke about Alice Gilmartin who keeps on trying to introduce the show in the manner of one of Eric and Ernie’s guests, the other’s gently take the mickey but, of course, she has a supernatural flexibility and strength that eventually smacks our gobs.

Her chief tormentors are occasional accordion player, Francesca Hyde and Michelle Ross who’s comic timing and impish grin put me in mind of Alan Cummings (a good thing!). The two have an epic stand-off trying to outlast the other one leg on the ground and the other in the air before they tow produce their party tricks, Michelle taking her though her high-wire act and Francesca spinning furiously supported only by her hair from a rope above the stage.

All have different characters and when they sit down in a line and eat their donuts in silence staring out at the audience it’s hard not to feel intimidated… there’s few people tougher than a circus artist and what are we looking at anyway… pal!?

Kate McWilliam, Michelle Ross, Francesca Hyde Camille Toyer and Alice Gilmartin,
They’re testing us and sustaining a good-natured rapport with the watchers in much the same way as a great stand-up comic – yes, they act but the physical routines are personal statements and they demand our respect. Just as I rooted for those trapeze artists in Blackpool so I felt for the team tonight.

As Ellie Dubois who devised the show says, “we made this show before the #MeToo movement, but the world has been slow to catch up and it feels even more important and relevant than ever.” The moment of pure show-girls has passed and you can’t not look to your own attitudes in watching this “no show”. Whatever the politics, what emerges is a portrait of five hard working and consummately professional women.

No Show runs, jumps, spins and tumbles until Saturday 9th February 2019, there’s nothing like it in 
London right now and I urge you to spin your way as fast as you can to buy a ticket.

Ithankyou Theatre rating: **** A perfectly-poignant mix of performance art: philosophical circus that lifts you up and makes you think as you marvel at the potential of applied human dedication. Also, very, very funny too!