Saturday, 14 January 2017

Night fever... The Wild Party, Hope Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a crowd of shadows hovered, waiting…

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Art for heart’s sake… HE(ART), Theatre N16

Shane Noone and Flora Dawson. Photo: Jesse Night
You know, you can keep your West End and all that cramped comfort and over-priced ice-cream, if you want to be really moved by theatre make your way to places like Theatre N16 in Balham’s iconic Bedford Arms where you can find yourself genuinely affected – heart-warmed and shaken, not just stirred – by committed performers in close quarters. 

This is a funny play about passionately-imperfect relationships that ultimately leaves you holding your breath and hoping, really hoping, for that “one moment” that can change a character’s life. We all know those moments and we won’t begrudge the opportunity to somebody else.

Director Niall Phillips was drawn to Andrew Maddock’s play by its inclusion of a character, Sam, with Emotional Behaviour Difficulties and in addition to wanting to broaden awareness of the condition, the run includes “relaxed” performances so that young adults with EBD and other anxiety-related conditions can experience the story.

Which just goes to show how many ways there are of telling a story and whilst it would be very interesting to compare that version with tonight’s more explosive dénouement, there’s a warmth at the heart (see what I did…) of this play that moves in gentle and persuasive ways.

Rhys and Alice consider their wall hanging options. Photo: Jesse Night
There are two relationships, art dealer Alice (Alex Reynolds) and her window-cleaning boyfriend Rhys (Jack Gogarty) who must eventually collide with troubled siblings Kev (Shane Noone) and his sister Sam (a hugely-impressive Flora Dawson) who has EBD.

The first thing to note is that the play is exceptionally well presented with the N16’s walls adorned with art and the ceiling over the stage filled with items hanging from string: a Burger King take-away, an iPod, some disinfectant, two guns… all will play their part as the scenes unfold.

As we took our seats the actors were already in character, with Alice and Kev considering the items as if in an art gallery. As the strains of the Isley Brothers’ This Old Heart of Mine trail off we find the couple at opposite ends of art appreciation: Kev not knowing about art or even what he likes and Alice, five years of a Masters in Art behind her, perfectly articulating the finer points.

Alex Reynolds Photo: Jesse Night
It’s like an Antonioni film with male and female incapable of communicating on the same level except through humour – jokes about Roy Lichtenstein and Banksy (“not an artist” for Alice!) – before Kev tries to move into his partner’s court by offering to buy the painting she likes but he really doesn’t get.

Alice is smart and knows her man and suggests leaving the decision for a week to make sure they’re sure… In spite of their class difference these two are a believable couple: well written and well performed. Alice is concerned not just for her lover’s art but also his heart as he has a weak ticker after heart disease as a child and is liable to contract bacterial endocarditis if he is not careful.

Johnny Cash’s Rose of My Heart introduces Sam and Rhys an altogether edgier pairing with an agenda that is only gradually revealed… Rhys is the elder brother who has a robbery planned and has sent Sam to get them some guns. Rhys knows how to play his sister, lauding her as a Wembley Warrior as a way of misdirecting her anxiety at screwing up the deal for the guns. There’s some history with their parents, a lot unsaid and for all Sam’s emotional charge, Kev is the looser cannon.

Flora Dawson and Shane Noone. Photo: Jesse Night
But we learn more about both couples in tightly scripted episodes. Rhys asks Alice for her earliest memory – watching Dumbo (and sure enough there’s a VHS copy hanging from the ceiling!) – whilst is his waiting for a doctor’s appointment. He’s lived his life with his ailment and just wants to get on with things whilst Alice, like his mother before her, is new to this care…

Sam and Kev talk about taking their mother to Colorado but there have been some dark dealings in the past that make it impossible for Kevin to consider meeting her. So many things left unsaid and so much anger: no wonder Kev like Johnny Cash a man forever in search of atonement and that “one moment” of redemption.

Alex Reynolds and Jack Gogarty Photo: Jesse Night
All becomes clear as the couples converge for an epic final scene that I couldn’t possible detail: the whole room held its breath as events hung on a knife edge…

This was transformative theatre – I left Balham far more energised than when I arrived – wellness programmes need to include this art: one of our most ancient.

Alex Reynolds was suitably immaculate as Alice whilst Jack Gogarty’s Rhys matched her so well they just felt like a couple – especially the running gags about porn (you had to be there for the tale of Lolly Badcock) and their willingness to always compromise.

Shane Noone’s Kev was that most difficult of characters a wrong ‘un who you understand as things progress and Flora Dawson’s Sam was a mighty creation: troubled but clever, loyal and loving.

HE(ART) runs at Theatre N16 from the 10th – 29th January. Each performance on a Tuesday will be a relaxed performance. I couldn’t recommend it more highly but don’t be surprised if you end up arguing the pros and cons of street art on your way home…

For more detail on EBD please visit the Social, emotional & behavioural difficulties association site. SEBDA is a charitable organisation and exists to promote the well being of children and young people who are experiencing social, emotional and mental health difficulties (SEMH).

IThankYou Theatre Rating: ****

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Truth Politics… Saint Joan, Donmar Warehouse

Joan of Arc was found guilty in 1431, pardoned 25 years later and canonised in 1920 – the only saint killed by the Catholic Church – prompting George Bernard Shaw to finally write a play he’d been toying with since before the war.

I only know Joan through Carl Dreyer’s silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which draws extensively on the remarkable primary source of the verbatim text of her trial although I have been to both Orleans – seen of her triumph - and Rouen where she was executed. They struck her down but she became more powerful than they could ever imagine (to coin a phrase).

Renée Jeanne Falconetti gave her all in the silent version, a theatre actor making her only film and here we have an actress known mainly for film but now maturing as a stage performer of tremendous power and sophistication. I’d previously seen Gemma Arteton in The Master Builder (Almeida) and The Duchess of Malfi (Sam Wannamaker, Globe) but here she gave a performance surpassing even the latter (reviewed on Catherine Joyce's A Play What I Watched blog) and one to savour from the close quarters of the stalls’ second row.

 Her Joan is full of teenage passion – Joan was only 18 when executed – and native wit working through her inspirational “voices” to establish her own cause and conscience: very much a creature of post-suffragette Britain and a transgressive vision of a woman freed of the need to dress and behave as a woman.

In the epilogue this new woman wonders if her time has finally come: “…shall I rise from the dead, and come back to you a living woman? …What! Must I burn again? Are none of you ready to receive me?”
"Must a Christ perish in every age to save those that have no imagination?
This confrontational element is underlined by Director Josie Rourke setting events in a modern world of perpetual motion governing stocks, shares and news. GBS would have been disappointed to see capitalism still reigning supreme but hey, George, have patience a change is going to come…

It would undoubtedly come that much sooner if we had more like Joan who sits through cabinet meetings and court arguments with the same simple agenda – a popularism based on the call of God and Nature to stride forwards through the constraints of self-interest to a firmer future based on belief and not convenience.

She strides through a team of men who can respect but not truly understand her and if she was a sexual anomaly in 1431 and 1923 she remains one now blasting through ceilings of stone, concrete and now glass to present a visionary leader society has to restrain through the combined complexities of religious procedure and political expedience.

The men are like a malevolent Greek chorus mixed with a Pall Mall club who throughout underestimate this young woman, from their first encounter when she tells the French she must lead to fight to recapture Orleans and then crown the fey Dauphin (a marvellous turn from Fisayo Akinade), to her plan to re-take Paris. The new King decides he can’t finance her, the Archbishop (Niall Buggy) cannot support her theological drive and even her ally, Dunois (Hadley Fraser) cannot see how the expedition can work… she will be captured and he will not be in a position to use his forces to save her…

So, betrayed by such frail male hearts, Joan heads to her final battle in court… What is so impressive about Arteton’s performance is the way she paces her expression and the second half of this play is a masterclass in controlled explosions as Joan is swept up by hope and dashed by circumstance.

We believe in Joan’s rapture and her free-flowing tears and we share her impotent recognition as the fatal pieces fall into place: Arteton has emotional intelligence to burn and in the Donmar’s intimacy the sense of an audience holding their breath is palpable.

Some reviews have noted a drop in intensity when Gemma/Joan is not on stage and whilst some moments attempting to fit the text into modern corporate scenarios –  back-projected financial TV reporting on egg production and the battle-winning wind for Orleans – don’t entirely work, overall I really enjoyed the boys in support.

And, as Ms Rourke has realised, GBS’ Joan is still very much a story for all times: we must learn to differentiate those who act selflessly and not look visionary gift horses in the mouth. Now more than last January we face the task of democratically sorting the wheat from the chancers.

There is excellent support from Matt Bardock as in the dual roles of a cockney-spiv Baudricourt and northern hang-wringer D’Estivet, Richard Cant as the narrow-minded Poulengey and finally enlightened De Stogumber and Jo Stone-Fewings as the unacceptable face of proto-English colonialism, Warwick.

A tip of the many hats also to Hadley Fraser, Simon Holland Roberts, Arthur Hughes, Rory Keenan, Syrus Lowe and Guy Rhys. Elliot Levey is also good as the conflicted Cauchon who is ultimately devastated by the religious processes he hopes can bring salvation.

Joan runs until 18th February and – if you can find any tickets – beg, steal or borrow to see this!

Ithankyou Theatre Rating: **** and for Ms Arteton *****