Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Tainted love… Medea Electronica, Pleasance Theatre

"I grieve for the woman I once was, na├»ve, 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!!