Saturday, 22 December 2018

Hurting me more than you… The Cane, Royal Court

We’ve been together, me and him - 47 years – because we respect each other: little secrets, little lies. He has his. Fine. I have mine…

I won’t say that this play bought back happy memories of my junior school caning but it certainly made me think of Head Teacher Mr Pickup and the duty he had to perform on myself and Michael Caffery after we had been caught fighting. I was about ten and, as we had been pulled out from gym, the Head went lightly on us as we were in shorts… I remember humiliation and tears but, immediately we left his office, laughter as me and Mike both thought on how silly the school was. This was a badge of honour and it fed our nascent anti-establishment cool.

As a parent myself I’d have been very angry if my son had been hit and I’m sure I got off lightly in 1971. Corporal punishment seems so Victorian and so very “now” in the age of amygdala politics when the UK has decided to give itself a good caning.

But, of course, The Cane is not just about the abuse of pupils – punishment begins at home and whilst hundreds of school children are seemingly outside laying siege to the house of retiring deputy head Edward (Alun Armstrong) it’s the return of his long-estranged daughter Anna (Nicola Walker) that represents the real reckoning.

Where the heart is? 
There’s an element of sixties theatre about Mark Ravenhill’s play, plenty of Becketesque stichomythia and a sparse design for a very smart set. Alan Armstrong – who simply never ages – would have cut his theatrical teeth at around that time as would Maggie Steed who plays his long-supporting/long-suffering wife Maureen. It’s a real privilege to see them both perform and alongside the amazing Ms Walker whose small-screen brilliance is rooted in incredible expressive nuance and technically-flawless diction: she could read the phone book and I’d still be enthralled by the time we got to the “z’s”.

The play is a puzzle with many humorous distractions along with narrative misdirection as the family tensions are triangulated around Edward’s record of corporal punishment as he prepares to end 45 years at “his school”. All three are teachers and Anna works in the business-focused academy sector which is anathema to her parents with its buzz-speak, pupil-focus and “eyes-front policy” that makes pupils look only at their teacher – a seeming panacea for underfunded and failing state education.

Anna is a public-private partnership storm-trooper sent to torment her parents as her father fights desperately to respond to his school being designated as failing. In reality, there’s little he can do, the status is all but inescapable and, in these brave austere times, only an academy re-boot could be sanctioned to “save” it. Edward can’t even use the right language in response to the sentence and it is here that his daughter offers to help.

But, why now? The scenery reflects the secrets of the family, the scars they still carry and which must be revealed for them to move on. The marks left on the wall by Anna when she attacked her father with an axe are still there, accepted and denied all at the same time and – as life passed by no attempt was made to cover them up, they were just accepted.

Why did Anna attack her father and why has she become so estranged that her mother emptied her room and burned all of her belongings? Maureen also wants to burn the ledger of school canings that Edward took, along with the cane itself which he removed not wanting to complicate matters as personnel and policy changed.

Anna is shocked at this breach of best practice, she speaks, as her mother has it, in the modern style but there’s more here than a change of culture and a clash of generations. The real relations between the three are revealed and the truth edges forward in unsettling waves from the stage.

Anna has a card from her two children at first her father cannot think of a place to put it, but, as the real connections are revealed, her mother places it over one of the axe marks on the wall. There acceptance and the beginning of healing but also the potential for redemption for a woman trapped for too long as the, literal, supporter of her over-bearing husband.

The interplay between the three is engrossing and heart-breaking and you’re kept wondering throughout a script that treats modern sensibilities with enough respect to make the audience “look forward” throughout.  Outstanding direction from Vicky Featherstone and Chloe Lamford's stage design is a charcacter in its own right.

A classic Royal Court play which runs only until 26th January and there’s already limited availability so book now via their site.

IThankYou Theatre rating: **** Three unique performers channel Ravenhall’s crafted narratives with naturalistic focus… just like if Rollerball was tennis and you had three players.

Friday, 14 December 2018

It's Chrismas!!! Head-Rot Holiday, Hope Theatre

“Christmas is a right frightening bastard. If you can survive it in here then there’s hope.”

I grew up in north Merseyside where one of the biggest local employers was Park Lane, later Ashworth, secure mental hospital. I knew a lot of people whose parents worked there and we were constantly reminded of the place by the sound of the Monday morning alarm test, such a haunting sound which always sounded alien and unsettling.

Ashworth became notorious after it emerged that an atmosphere of sexualised bullying and intimidation was rife and it was one of the institutions that inspired Pru Stevenson to co-found WISH, a voice for women’s mental health in the criminal justice system. Pru worked at HMP Holloway when she became aware of the high numbers of women nearing the end of their prison sentence who were referred to special hospitals like Ashworth. Women were transferred for a variety of reasons and they endured years of additional incarceration beyond their original sentence… once you were in the system it was very difficult to get released.

Treated more harshly than the men, highly medicalised and brutalised, these women were victims of scarcely acknowledged injustice. Sarah Daniels contacted WISH when she was writing this play in 1992 and worked with Pru to create this uncompromising and deeply affecting work.

Emily Tucker, Amy McAllister and Evlyne Oyedokun
This production, directed so ably by Will Maynard, gives us nine characters played by three outstanding actresses, who show how malleable the fourth wall can be when, completely in character they move around the fullness of the Hope’s performance area playing straight to the audience and interacting – always a danger – with the audience. I had a brief conversation with Dee (Amy McAllister) about Dublin as she sat on the side-lines of the hospital’s Christmas disco, out of her depth and genuinely frightened by the evening ahead.

This is what I love about the Hope, you’re really involved in the play and you can see the performance in the visceral and – yes – immersive way. Human instinct over-rides imagination and, like me, you react to Dee and not Amy which says so much about the actor’s skill and commitment in this enthralling, beautiful and brutal play.

Beauty might be an odd word to associate with a play about social injustice, chemical as well as physical imprisonment and physical abuse but there’s dark humour and much satisfaction to be had in the genuine connection with a message communicated with such sincerity.

The daily grind in Penwell: teddy bears, no picnic...
Dee is one of three women in Penwell Special Hospital, a secure mental institution who have previously been transferred from prison for various offenses. She’s not neuro or socially typical and has paid the price for being poor, abused and disadvantaged. She has hopes for parole but can she hold it together in an environment almost designed to undermine mind and body.

Fellow long-termer, Claudia (Evlyne Oyedokun) has spent seven years inside based purely on her inability to surrender after being originally incarcerated for a relatively minor offence and then sectioned for attacking the social worker who had come to tell her that her children would have to remain in care a while longer. Now she has had to give them up for adoption as she lives on alone.

The there is Ruth (Emily Tucker) the most disturbed of the three and the one with the fullest backstory; a victim of horrendous abuse who was jailed for attacking her step-mother. She is constantly at the mercy of her medication and is clearly in intelligent as well as highly-damaged individual in need of some real treatment…

Emily Tucker,
Keeping order are Nurse Jackie (Amy too), a well-meaning northern lass who has yet to be fully corrupted by the system and Sister Barbara (Emily), highly competent and in control yet also the victim of her husband’s physical anger: does abuse cause the conditions and inform the nature of its containment? There’s also a new nurse, Sharon (Evlyne) who is learning the ropes and gives the audience someone to identify with as we’re as horrified as she is with each new discovery.

Things unravel around the hospital’s Christmas disco as Dee – aiming for parole - attempts to “prove” her hetero-normative “sanity” by dressing up and chatting to the male patients and having to listen to a man relishing his talks of rape. Dee also talks to her guardian angel (Evlyne) as she is punished with an increase in medication and it is genuinely distressing to see her character literally unable to think straight, lolled in a wheel chair, all vitality knocked out of her by the bluntest of chemical coshes.

Evlyne Oyedokun
Claudia, as is the norm, is wrongfully sent to solitary and later discovers her case notes; a series of exaggerated reports, motivated by her race more than mental health, that show Sharon for the compromised character she is. Then Ruth also receives a shocking visit from her mother-in-law Helen (Emily) as her truth and potential salvation or doom is gradually revealed.

By the end you’re rooting for all the characters and even the staff who are almost as much the victims. It’s a stunning play with so much intelligent writing all brought to life by these 3x3 performances.

A tip of the hat to Keri Chaser whose sound design set the tone and sucker punched me with judicious use of Kate Bush… there may have been something in my eye.

There are no longer women at Ashworth or Broadmoor… and one hopes that things have improved elsewhere but, somehow, I doubt it.

Further details of WISH as well as the charity, Women in Prison, which provides support for women affected by the justice system can be found on their websites. To, broadly paraphrase Foucault, we get the prisons we deserve as a society but not the prisons we need as individuals… maybe one day a change will come.

Until that time, plays like this are so vital for telling those on the outside what “life” can really mean…

Head-Rot Holiday plays at the Hope until 22nd December so get your act together and book tickets now from the website or thevenue.

IthankyouTheatre rating: ***** Mesmerising and deeply affecting.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

With hope in your heart… The Greater Game, Waterloo East Theatre

The Waterloo Easterners: "The Invincibles" 2018
After injury in the trenches my Great Uncle lived the rest of his life with shrapnel in his head, whilst my Grandfather almost died twice in postings in Mesopotamia and India: his outlook was changed forever by the Great War, his faith challenged not just in terms of religion but also his country and the way it was run.

Grandad was not one for football, he preferred rugby league and the game of 13 as played by Widnes RFC. He appreciated the team game and loyalty and he was with me tonight as I watched Michael Head’s passionate play based on Stephen Jenkins’ book, They Took The Lead.

In 1914 41 Orient FC players and staff – they were called Clapham Orient at the time before changing to Leyton Orient – signed up to fight in the Great War. It would all be over by Christmas and they hoped to be back to complete the season but in the spirit of the times they felt they had to do their bit. The participation of footballers in the conflict was inevitable once the war had begun to generate losses among the fans and families and no other team sent as many professionals as The O’s to what became known as The Footballer’s Battalion; the 17th Battalion Middlesex Regiment.

Club Captain Fred “Spider” Parker was the first to sign up at a special meeting at Fulham Town Hall in December 1914 and he was quickly followed by ‘keeper Jimmy Hugall and lead striker Richard McFadden: working class men of conscience and courage who wanted to do their bit.

Richard McFadden and William Jonas before the war
Head’s play takes eight of the O’s leading lights and cleverly shows their relationships evolve from before the war to their fateful experiences in France.

The club manager Billy Holmes is played with authority, period moustached and Mancunian accent by Michael Greco who plays with authority, linking so well with his team as befits the character who moulded one of the great O’s sides. Holmes had scouted and then signed Scotsman Richard McFadden (here payed by James Phelps who I almost didn't recognise without the red hair...), Mac was a naturalised Geordie having moved to Blyth as a boy and played for Wallsend Park Villa before Holmes came calling. Phelps plays the role of natural leader and on and off-the-pitch hero well and is the moral core of the team.

Stephen Bush plays Mac’s best mate, William Jonas – the ladies’ favourite and much banter pays tribute to his team mates’ jealousy in this regard. Head, as he has proved before with the excellent Worth a Flutter, writes social interplay naturalistically and, crucially, makes it funny – you join in and you feel part of the dressing room as the guys match wits.

James Phelps and Stephen Bush play Mac and Bill Jonas
Jonas’ girl is Mary Jane is played by Victoria Gibson who gives a cracking performance as the lass out of her environment and who has courage of her own, refusing to tell her husband that she is expecting just when he announces his departure: MJ is a very believable character at a time when fear makes men rowdy and distracted, she looks to a bleak future. Mac’s wife is played by Helena Doughty who is also good, wanting more of her hero at a time when his qualities were needed in double dose by the team. 

Jack Harding leads from the front in playing Captain Fred “Spider” Parker who inspires his men through the mud of pitch and trench – writing and then casting a play like this must be so difficult; you need the right characters for the mix to work, and the spirit amongst players and the, erm, players is spot on, a mix of Head’s writing as well as Adam Mooney’s direction.

Head himself plays Herbert “Jumbo” Reason, generously casting himself as the player most likely to cheat on cross-country runs; as someone who regularly used to head off to the chippy with all the other asthmatics I empathise! Jumbo’s verbal sparring with Nolan “Peggy” Evans, the club clown are a delight and Paul Marlon brings so much energy to this role. The team is completed by Mackem George Scott (Scott Kyle) a natural-born fighter and goalie Jimmy Hugall (Tom Stocks) who is another butt of changing room banter but nevertheless is determined to work his way through a dictionary to improve his language.

James Phelps and Michael Greco
Head takes this ensemble on a journey from their North East beginnings through pre-war league success, romance and friendship and, when War finally comes, the impact is all the more devastating on these characters we’ve identified and bonded with for the first hour. It’s a skill to set up that balance and to establish character so convincingly well.

Throughout the photographs of the original O’s are present on the wall of the changing room set and, as one-by-one, they are added to with a portrait marking their death, the loss is painfully felt as it connects with our own relationship with this war and beyond. It is 100 years but I’m old enough to have seen the impacts on the generation above my parents and still, this carries on: my cousin is a Royal Marine and his best mate was killed in Afghanistan weeks before he could be best man at his wedding.

If we don’t keep on remembering, we’re not only failing those in our families who fought we’re failing future generations who will always be called upon when jaw-jaw fails and only war is left. Knowledge of the consequences is vital if we are not to make cheap decisions… We must never forget.

Clapton Orient in 1914
Which is also why Michael stood at the front selling poppies and The Greater Game is part of the Football Remembers 1918-2018 initiative supported by the EPL, EFL, PFA and the FA.

Leyton Orient Supporters Club are also involved along with former player Peter Kitchen who co-produced. The O’s have arranged a number of trips over to the battlefields where their players fought and died and it is humbling to see this community club being so mindful of it history and the people who combined together make then great.

Where I come from we say, You’ll Never Walk Alone, and from what I’ve seen, this lot never will either.

The Greater Game plays at the Waterloo East Theatre until 25th November and tickets are available from the box office or online.

IThankYou Rating: **** A great story of real-life heroes told exceptionally well; I urge you to support this play and these players!

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Flying high in the unfriendly sky... Billy Bishop Goes To War, Jermyn Street Theatre

“Nobody shoots no one in Canada…”

What begins as a lightly humorous, jaunty tale about going to fight a war “that hardly feels like a war at all…” culminates in some mesmeric monologues about the intensity of war, the fascination of the kill and the bravery of men like Albert Ball who, though barely out of his teens, took down 44 German planes before succumbing to the brutal odds of war.

Billy Bishop outscored Ball (probably), he survived and to do that must have learned more tricks than almost anyone else in the matter of aerial conflict; even the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, got shot down from time to time. Bishop recalls his 46th kill when he strafed the underside of a two-seater reconnaissance plane and saw both pilot and gunner fall, unharmed, alive, fully conscious to their death many thousands of feet below: “almost as if they could feel him watching…” It is only after a while that you realise that you are holding your breath.

Set design is ace too Daisy Blower! All images courtesy of Robert Workman
Bishops “score” is open to debate but the fact remains that he was a highly successful combatant who saw more of death than most even during The Great War… and, even more importantly, he remains a Canadian hero and a marker on the country’s route to independence.

Charles Aitken makes for a dashing and believable Billy and so does Oliver Beamish as his older self. Aitken looks every inch the swashbuckling pilot and is so convincing as the Canadian misfit who makes the journey from military school drop out to unlikely officer and subsequently fighter pilot. Beamish plays piano and harmonises with his younger self, they toast at the same time and it’s fascinating to watch his memories flashing across the face as the younger man lives them – very “meta” but very engaging in the JST’s intimate space. The play was originally written for one actor and a pianist but this is a stroke of genius: the pianist is the character "looking back"...

As a British dominion, Canada’s foreign policy decisions were in the hands of the British government when war was declared in 1914, the country could, however, decide on its level of commitment to the conflict and duly sent an expeditionary force of 620,000 of whom 67,000 lost their lives and 250,000 were wounded. That’s some contribution and evidence of how “this country” maintained its position in the world a century ago.

Charles Aitken sings and Oliver Beamish plays
Billy somehow misses the first waves of troops but finally gets his passage on The Good Ship Caledonia which survives rough seas and an attack on the convoy to deliver him up for service in 1915. At first, he joins the cavalry but is eventually persuaded that the flying corps gives him the best chance of a good war, as he said himself: "it's clean up there! I'll bet you don't get any mud or horse shit on you up there. If you die, at least it would be a clean death."

Billy’s reckless style had him hanging by a thread when he met socialite Lady St. Helier when recuperating in London, she helped him complete his training and seems to have looked after his growing fame at home, ensuring he met everyone. Aitken plays her ladyship – and is convincing even in military uniform and both he and Beamish get through some 18 characters during the course of the play: I especially enjoyed a French nightclub scene which saw winks to the audience from the piano player and Aitken in an imagined boa, vamping up the audience.

I was reminded of William Wellman’s silent film classic Wings, the director had been a fighter pilot in the First World War as had one of his stars, Richard Arlen, who flew his own stunts in the film as did his co-star Charles Buddy Rogers, who had to learn to fly just for the film: the Right Stuff was more common in those days. The dog fights in this film must have been very much like the slow-motion game of cat and mouse Billy experienced, even on the day he evaded the Red Baron.

Gradually the tone gets more serious and the critique of the powers that were becomes more pointed. Written and composed by John Gray with Eric Peterson, the play was first performed 40 years ago and has developed over that time to include the older version of Billy as they too began the life-long process of re-evaluating their earlier deeds as an older man.

Thus, Billy Bishop Goes to War becomes a broader-themed discourse on age and memory and not just the high-speed life and death of the flyers who whilst they may well have been As Calm as The Ocean – an essential part of their slim hopes of survival – existed on a knife-edge of increasingly unlikely chance and possibilities.

Friends Ain't S'posed To Die, but sometimes, and often, they do… and the survivors spend the remainder of their lives haunted by guilt and, as in Billy’s case, trying to help younger men cope with yet more war.

Billy Bishop Goes to War is being presented by Proud Haddock in commemoration of the centenary of the Great War’s ending and as part of their War Season and Jermyn Street Theatre’s Rebels Season. 

Director Jimmy Walters described it as an inspiring story that is a privilege to revive and he stages it so well with two powerful performers who soon get you lost in the narrative, hanging on their words and imagining those incredibly fragile and brave young men, giving their all in service to country and Commonwealth… times have changed but not that much.

Billy plays until Saturday 24th November 2018 Monday – Saturday, 7.30pm Saturday matinees, 3.30pm  - tickets are available from the Box Office or Jermyn Street website.

IThankYou Rating: **** Hold your breath and hang on as your mind takes flight into dangerous skies. Not to be missed.

Poster featuring the actual Billy Bishop

Friday, 2 November 2018

Thee too… Measure for Measure, Donmar Warehouse

“…Dear Isabella,
I have a motion much imports your good;
Whereto if you'll a willing ear incline,
What's mine is yours and what is yours is mine.
So, bring us to our palace; where we'll show
What's yet behind, that's meet you all should know.”

To which Hayley Atwell’s Isabel turns to Duke Vincentio, and screams!

This was no ordinary Shakespeare and in taking such liberties with the text, was almost certainly not to the taste of many. Having no familiarity with the play, I was surprised – once again – about how the subject matter was so very now… almost as if, in the hands of a talented cast, the words find their true mark even in our contemporary minds, removed from their meaning by time and texting.

Measure for Measure is about justice and the casual ways in which access to the law can be traded for sexual favours: it’s a comedy but not really, this was a late-period play under a new monarch that opened the lid on the ways of the world be it legal, be it theatrical. Even Will may have had to turn a trick or two…

But, does this timeless tale of sexual give and take need much updating? The first half played things out in traditional period style with Hayley as Isabella fighting to save the life of her brother Claudio (Sule Rimi) who has been harshly sentenced to death for infidelity by Justice Frederick (Ben Allen) who has been placed in charge of legal judgement by Duke Vincentio (Nicholas Burns), who, for reasons of his owns, has opted to drop out of sight as a poor priest.

Nicholas Burns and Hayley Atwell
The Duke wants to see how things work without his wisdom and, sure enough soon finds Frederick being compromised by power as he suggests to the chaste Isabelle that the only way to save her brother is to sacrifice her honour to his lust. Now, hearing of this, the Duke/Priest hatches a plan to substitute the Justice’s former betrothed, Mariana (Helena Wilson), who willingly gives herself to the evil Fred in Isabella’s place, and the lecherous lawyer doesn’t even notice…

Now all of this will come to a head once the Duke reveals himself and there are neat Shakespearean ends all tied up as measure is swapped for measure but… are they? The ending of the play is left open and we never know if Isabella accepts the “reward” of the Duke’s love or, as here, throws it back in his face.

Now, this is where it gets troublesome as not only does Josie Rourke’s energetic production shift events forward to now, she re-runs the narrative only this time with a power-dressed Atwell as Justice Isabelle and Frederick as a meeker-than-Isabelle brother of Claudio. It works in part as Atwell is simply outstanding in both halves but, overall, it’s game over in that high-pressing opening hour with the cast overall far more convincing in their original setting.

Modern role reversal: Ben Allen and Hayley Atwell
You spend your time comparing before and after and whilst Sule Rimi is equally impressive and Matt Barock’s Lucio equally outrageous, the Duke and Frederick are a little lost in time. Isabelle is now the one with the power and I have to say that Atwell is most convincing in either role.

But, even before the trickery, the point is well made and that primal scream was powerful enough to have settled any play.

Overall a very enjoyable production but it was hard to reconcile the duality, however well-intentioned: I don’t feel that the view of the modern half added anything fundamentally dramatic to the story we had already watched.

IThankYouTheatre Rating: ***1/2 Ms Atwell is a player with huge charisma and stage power and I would, literally watch her in anything: she is magnetic.

Oh brother. Sule Rimi

Friday, 26 October 2018

Metamorphosis… Medusa, Jasmin Vardimon Company, Sadler's Wells

"A lot of people remember Medusa as a monster killed by Persius, but actually they don’t remember what made her become that monster…” Jasmin Vardimon

This is a highly-conceptual work full of remarkably innovative movement and narrative; it’s a Avant modern dance gig at Sadlers Wells and as such, a bit of an “away game” for me but I do at least have familiarity with the music which includes not only Sonny Bono, Handel and Grieg but also Ben Frost, Aphex Twin, Pharmakon, Mogwai and the mighty Silver Mount Zion who I've seen live many times.

This impressively eclectic range is used to accompany a retelling of the story of  Medusa, the jellyfish as well as the creature from Greek legend in a “story” that touches on the relationship not only between men and women but people and power.

More than that, there are so many themes interwoven in the narrative that it is impossible to not relate – pollution, male violence, women’s role in society, and the politics of now. There also so much deft and unusual choreography that you are immersed through concern for the performers’ safety as much as in wonder at the powerful precision with which they work.

One dancer waves a green lasso over her head and as it approaches each member of the company they have to fall away and push themselves across the stage as it compelled by a mystical blast. Then they must find they feet ready to repeat this move over and over again, with split seconds to spare… it is – appropriately enough – transfixing and one of the most impressive moments of human movement I’ve seen on stage.

The story opens as a lone dancer arises from huge folds of transparent plastic on the Sadlers Wells’ stage, she (Olga Clavel Gimeno – a sinuous presence throughout with a background in gymnastics before dance) clears paths through the plastic – the sea, the folds of jellyfish flesh, something more ectoplasmic? Then shapes shoot out from the central platform – is this a birthing? Then Olga is suddenly lifted up on the platform by a single male dancer – a stunning moment of strength and stage craft – my money’s on hunky Kieran Shannon as the lift in this instance.

The story is more thematic in the early stages, and characters start to emerge from the rest of the company notably Joshua Smith who, surprisingly, addresses the audience twice, the second time to try and explain – or should that be man-splain – Jean Paul Sartre’s text Being and Nothingness. This contends that it is the gaze of others upon ourselves that makes us realise that we exist as objects for others… the gaze of the Gorgon/Medusa.

There is also a quite remarkable sequence in which a man – Joshua - walks with his female shadow (I’m not sure who the dancer was – Silke Muys perhaps, apologies if I got the wrong one!), who, incredible is able to keep pace with his movement whilst rolling and pushing herself on the floor. She tries to get up at one point: to be on his level, but he eventually succeeds in knocking her down.

There’s also violence as the muscular Mr Shannon – whose long hair makes him look a little Norse – out-matches poor Joshua Smith. These physical struggles are so well worked and, as you can see from the picture of this interaction, require inch perfect rehearsal and athleticism.

Medusa is raped by Poseidon in the Temple of Athena who then, rather unreasonably, punishes the woman. Similarly mistreated are the invertebrate Medusas – the jellyfish – who after 650 million years are now been suffocated by plastic and man-made pollution… It’s not hard to spot who the real villain is here but there’s hope as even at the end, the forces of good – Athena (Patricia Hastewell Puig) resist.

In the cerebral melange of messages Vardimon has mixed together there is the philosophical question of “what to do” in a world of commodified everything… we need to transform ourselves and not get submerged and strangled in the everyday battles of ego and commerce. We need to work together as well as the Vardimon company and to clear the decks of the philosophical pollution as well as the all choking expansion of plastic.

The Guardian thought there was too much for one show but I have to say that it worked exceptionally well for me; after all isn’t there already “too much”? Away from the madness outside and in the comfortable seats, this was a chance to be slapped around the head and like it!  Which, broadly speaking, is the purpose of art is it not.

I must mention the rest of the line up as they were all outstanding:  Jasmine Orr, Andre Rebelo and the flame-haired Lucija Bozievic. Dance of this nature must be built up from the ground with fewer conventional steps; the mix of tumbling and even gymnastics must also take a long time to perfect: it was incredibly disciplined! Still Jasmin Vardimon has been doing thsi for twenty years and 

The run has now finished in the UK but I’m sure the show will be repeated just like the company’s Pinocchio which is returning to Sadlers Wells later in the year: not one to be missed!

Ithankyou Theatre Rating: **** Viscera, vital and violent, Medusa works on the heart as well as the head to leave you questioning and reeling.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Oh bondage? Up yours! People Like Us, Union Theatre

Brexit…it’s the first thing in ages that’s actually made me FEEL something. So BIG - yet so personal. Visceral, even… 

There were times when Julie Burchill and Jane Robins’ new play felt so dated, not just in June 2016 when most of the arguments seemed stuck but also an earlier time… The music played before the start and during the interval was Nouvelle Vague’s soppy Gallic-pop tribute to British post punk – those Europeans just can’t do it like The Clash man, and then we had a snatch of The Jam’s All Around the World.

One of the characters says that Brexit was the first time in years that she felt out of her comfort zone: yes, Brexit was punk… Hey kids lets put the show on right here even if Syd can’t play bass and Joe can’t really sing. Yeah, with a band made up of Dave, Mike, Bo and IDS we can get gigs and make a real go of it. Julie always loved a wind-up and the more outraged the reaction the better yet, whilst we live in the age of the incurably irritated, there's a real opportunity to explain how people on both sides think: this could be hilarious and it could be healing.

Paul Giddings, Sarah Toogood, Kamaal Hussain, Marine Andre and Gemma-Germaine (photo: Paul Nicholas Dyke)
The action takes place in an Islington book group because those people are just evil and ugly. Three old Oxford chums are the core of the group: Ralph (Kamaal Hussain) is a successful man with a second house and a second wife, Clemence (Marine Andre) who is much younger than him and very much French.  His old friend Stacey (Gemma Germaine) is the second core member of the group often outspoken and the sharpest tongued by far, she lives with the working-class Frances (Sarah Toogood) an out-spoken and passionate women – a clear believer in the truth. The final piece in the collegiate triumvirate is Will (Paul Giddings) a writer perpetually mid-book who is so far on the fence it’s a wonder he is able to reach down to his herbal tea and copy of The Guardian in the morning.

There’s plenty of peachy banter in the first half as the old friends rub up against each other in that way you do; forever certain that any offence will be brushed aside.

The problem soon emerges though that the Remainer three are not just flawed characters, but they’re caricatures. Ralph has a “Ginsberg is God” cushion, says things like “absolutely charment” and isn’t, actually, “adoringly pompous” as Stacey describes him. He’s dressed head to foot in Paul Smith (is that still a thing?) and has aimed for young and pretty in his choice of a replacement for his now divorced wife, Sarah, mother of his two, relatively young children (I mean, what a git, right?).

Britannia resurgent! (photo: Paul Nicholas Dyke)
His wife does not like his old friends, or more specifically Stacey and why would she, there’ no warmth extended her way and, like so many Europeans – don’t you find – she is controlling, humourless and narrowminded. Proof? She can’t even see that Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley is a bad book, only worthy of being a graphic novel (they’re all bad too).

And Will? He’s a drip but at least he’s out campaigning for Remain, actually putting his time where his mouth is? Yes, but he hasn’t finished his book though has he? In fairness, Stacey has a great line about reading: “when I was a kid, reading was a way of signalling you wanted to be alone, now it’s a sign of how popular you are.” But that’s no reason to exit the Customs Union, surely?

Stacey wants to leave the EU as Brexit is the only thing that has made her “actually feel something” for a long time. For Frances, the issue is a “power-crazed attempt to create a European super state” and also fears of cultural dilution as she makes the suggestion of a book that covers Islam. This is not racism, just a problem with integration and moral alignment, as Stacey says: “what do we do when two virtues clash: female honesty and religious tolerance?”

Their next meeting will take place after the referendum and Ralph warns them that they will be glad their “boring friends” did the right thing by voting for the seemingly inevitable Remain win…

Celebration time: Sarah Toogood and Gemma-Germaine
Frances and Stacey are riding high on victory at the start of the second act as they relish a revolution of their own: “I haven’t voted in something I believed in for ages!”

It’s interesting now to see their celebrations but the play struggles with the counter arguments from the disappointed Remainers who trot out cliched riffs as they struggle on in denial and anger. I’m perfectly willing to say that some of their phrases may have come from my lips/keyboard but these three say them with hatred for the “deluded” leave voters and I honestly think a lot of people were and are genuinely concerned for their businesses and their standard of living.

Taking a punt on an unpredictable and exciting new spin of the wheel doesn’t sound that exciting when, two years of evidence and argument later, the business case for Brexit is quite clear: there isn’t one. And, if you’re poor, have special needs (like my son), old or unwell, Brexit will mean less support for a long, long time… there just won’t be the money. Brexit is austerity.

Losers plot revenge exclusion... Paul Giddings, Marine Andre, Kamaal Hussain (photo: Paul Nicholas Dyke)
So, hearing these old tropes about snobbishness, urban elites and the Working Class (who they?) protest votes sounds dated and doesn’t quite ring true.  Frances and Stacey are the only believable characters and you’re much more interested in what they have to say than the Remainer three, so it’s incredibly unbalanced as a debate. They are excluded from the book group - cast off as friends... and made to seem the victims of the democratic expression of their free will... but we don't get deep enough into the argument to really feel this.

There are, of course, many good lines and the cast all do a tremendous job with the material. I just don’t buy into enough of it: I’m not a member of a book group and I don’t live in the city anymore… and where I live voted strongly to Leave.

People Like Us plays at the Union Theatre until Saturday 20th October – the run is already sold out but contact the Box Office for returns and details of any newly-released tickets.

Ithankyou Rating: ** A missed opportunity to really dig into the national divide is missed in favour of shallow characterisation and cheap shots.

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.