Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Seeker after truth... Ken, The Bunker Theatre

The bunker was laid out like a post-trippy nightclub, with Persian carpets, tables and chairs all mildly shrouded by the smell of joss sticks as Donna Summer and Spaced played us in: this was the mid-seventies between counter-culture and punk. At around that time as a 14-year old I was buying LPs in Liverpool’s Probe Records and used to be fascinated by ads for The Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool and a mysterious play called Illuminatus! I still have the flyers in a box complete with programmes for the Playhouse and Everyman, my Eric’s membership cards, old NMEs, Zigzags (a punk fanzine) and a collection of the mind-expanding Brainstorm Comix!

Forty years on and finally I get to find out more about the man behind this arcane theatre, Ken Campbell, a radical presence who influenced not just a generation of off-beat actors such as Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent and Sylvester McCoy but also the Liverpool scene in general including Bill Drummond – member of the seminal Big in Japan (a scouse super-group – look ‘em up, la!), manager of the Teardrops and Bunnymen and from there to the KLF. Campbell was an instinctive iconoclast with an energy that brought out the best from some and drove many others away.

For playwright Terry Johnson he was “…my friend, champion and occasional nemesis…” and the man who placed his finger directly on his sternum and told him that he needed to turn his “switch” on! It was a moment of intense personal connection and one that Johnson still cherishes; it helped drive him on to success as a director and innovative writer himself – I’d seen a revival of his Insignificance only a few months back and its star, his daughter, was in attendance tonight.

Terry Johnson
Johnson wrote and acts in this play and it is as disarmingly personal portrait of Ken that shows the good and bad of their relationship. Lisa Spirling directs with real style and has Ken (played by another former collaborator, Jeremy Stockwell) positioned in the audience ready to spring up when we least expected and from there on to break the fourth wall into so many pieces.

It’s a bold production that makes the most of the intimate energy this direction generates. Johnson’s words flow so beautifully well on occasion but they’re also from the heart and it is hard to imagine that they are all of them so easily said. But, his switch is “on” and he is infused with the spirit of his friend, emboldened into telling us all of Campbell’s call to just do it!

The play starts when Terry met Ken and ended up being cast in one of his plays, this time the sprawling 24-hour The Warp based on the life of Neil Oram. After Campbell had decided Oram’s original play was rubbish, he told him he wanted to “write him” and, together (maybe) they produced a script 14 inches deep that was to be performed in just six days in Edinburgh at the run-down Regal Theatre which the crew also needed to renovate. The result still holds the record for the longest play ever performed and being such a marathon, once required moving cast and audience to a tennis court to keep everyone awake.

Campbell was famous for the greeting “good evening seekers!” and was always on a journey to find new experience and to challenge those daydreaming through life. He was surrounded by a gang of talented eccentrics, John Joyce, a woman called Mia who Johnson considered the most beautiful he has ever seen (even as he doubts her existence as a single entity…), Daisy (his daughter with actress Prunella Gee, who is now also a playwright), not to mention Hoskins, Conti, Lord James Broadbent and Chris Langham.

Terry Johnson and Jeremy Stockwell
Ken was full on and sometimes would look straight in you challenging any wayward complacency or phony thoughts. He was also a one for grand-scale pranks and once re-titled the RSC the Royal Dickens Company on the grounds that they did more 19th than 16th Century work. He contacted the actors and issued press releases succeeding in convincing enough people that Trevor Nunn had to come out and deny that it was happening.

It’s an intensely personal exercise for Johnson and a brave one as well he’s acting himself through some of the most important moments of his life and the barrier between performance Terry and actual Terry must be wafer thin. But you know that Ken, if he is anywhere else, and who knows, maybe the Illuminati spirited him away…, would nod in approval before launching off on yet another scheme.

Jeremy Stockwell is so energetically convincing as Ken that the great man might as well be in the room. It’s good that the role is in the hands of another friend and he does his old pal full justice with outrageous eyebrows, eyes on full twinkle and a cackle that is straight from deepest, darkest Campbell.

All photographs courtesy of Robert Day
Ken is life-affirming, and because it plays around us, the message also infuses us as watchers… watchers can only do one thing and, you just know, we have to start being seekers!

Ken runs at The Bunker Theatre until 24th February and if you don’t go you’ll simply never know how to turn yourself on!

IThankYouTheatre Rating: ***** It has to be for Johnson’s bravery and for Ken the Seeker.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Clouds over Luton… Bunny, Tristan Bates Theatre

“I don’t like thinking, I don’t like thinking…but I do it all the time.”

Catherine Lamb hits us with everything she’s got for a well over an hour, giving us a whirlwind of powerful, teenage narrative including fighting, a car chase, school disco and sexual power play. She brings Jack Thorne's meticulous prose to life: 70 minutes of dialogue, one woman, three clouds and a battered chair… it is an amazing performance you are consumed by her energy and emotive force and you are left reeling by a cliff-hanger ending I won’t reveal.

Bunny tells the story of Katie, 18-year old school girl, bright enough to get A’s in her GCSEs and in her AS “ass-levels” and the first in her family to get a place in university. Her parents read The Guardian and she is almost at Grade Five on the clarinet. She’s what we used to call working class but her future awaits even though she’s by no means sure of it.

Katie doesn’t quite fit in with the fast set at school, all of the girls who came to her 18th decided to leave on cue at 10.30 as some kind of statement… she’s too off-beat to really hold down a position in their ranks and had only one real friend and overweight girl she was ashamed of but who liked and understood her.

Katie’s boyfriend – she’s ambivalent on his status – is a 24-yeard old black guy called Abe who even now was a shock to her parents and no doubt many others. He works in a factory and seems distinctly un-invested in Katie’s opinions and personality. The couple meet after her day at school and Abe gets into a fight with an Asian boy who tries to nick his ice cream.

Catherine Lamb, photograph Michael Lindall
Katie doesn’t like fights and whilst she’s undoubtedly thrilled by the frisson of male combat, she’s not giving them high marks for style. The boy gets a choke-hold on Abe and the fight fizzles out as he heads off on his bike.

Two of Abe’s workmates have seen the scuffle, a man called Jake and the commanding figure of Asif, a man they all defer to and who seems to take an interest in Katie from the start. Asif is a compelling character as drawn by Catherine/Katie: he drives a fast car, takes command and plays subtle games with all of those around him.

He decides that they must pursue the boy – who spat at Abe to start the quarrel – and to meet out justice. They set off in his car playing tag with the boy as he cycles down passageways but can’t get far enough away. He gets cornered and manages to give the gang a slip as a young boy distracts them… Asif then puts pressure on the boy to let them know his name and where he lives… it’s uncomfortable even in the re-telling and we’re lost in Catherine Lamb’s story telling feeling the fear and threat.

The pack head off to Luton’s Bury Park and after Asif finds out where the boy lives they sit outside in his car eating a kebab. Asif plays all those around him including Katie who, childlike, responds to his attentions as she would anyone who gave her the compliment of simply being interested. We’re appalled that she is in this situation, “I know what I’m doing…” but she really does not.

The tension mounts as they go inside the boy’s house to sit and wait with his unsuspecting mother… Katie must decide who’s side she is on, Asif’s or her own: it’s a difficult choice to make and, given that she is telling the story, one we presume she has already made?

A clouded future? Catherine Lamb, photograph Michael Lindall
Throughout the play there are cut-aways to the more introspective world before Katie cuts back to her story. It’s a very well-constructed narrative that never loses momentum even in these moments and Lucy Curtis is to be congratulated on her direction. I also loved the minimalist set with three clouds changing colour with Katie's mood.

Catherine Lamb is so cohesive and committed to the performance that you believe her every word. In the end we’re left hanging on to each sentence… hoping for the best and recognising the terrible ease with which young lives can turn.

“I think life can be basically divided into two things: suspense and surprise. I prefer surprise to suspense. But that’s basically because I feel suspense all the time.”

Bunny is a production of Fabricate Theatre Company and runs at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 27th January – so yourself a favour  and grab a ticket whilst you can!

IThankYouTheatre Rating: ***** Breathless.

Lost in translation… The Claim, Shoreditch Town Hall

Ncuti Gatwa wanders front of stage and looks out to the audience gazing smilingly into our eyes with the room still lit: he has a performance to give and we’re not sure if he’s talking with us or to us… It’s not the first nor last time that Tim Cowbury’s play will toy with meaning, misunderstanding and the lines between story, telling and interpreting.

The Claim deals with a single asylum case and if it’s extended miss-communications feel occasionally contrived it’s worth pointing out that the play is based on two years research with time spent at immigration courts, as well as working closely with asylum seekers, refugees and representatives from migrant organisations.  

So, yes indeed, what we see could actually happen. In another context, it could be you and it could be me.

Gatwa is a charismatic central focus playing the eloquent and intelligent Serge, also known as Sese who is from the CDR region of Congo but is living in Streatham via Uganda. He has a story to tell but he speaks French and only a little English. He has been called for interview by the Home Office and faces a sympathetic but distracted male (Nick Blakeley) who speaks French quite well but not fluently. At first we’re not aware of the language, just that Serge and the man are talking at odds with the latter making the occasional mistake: “incontinent” travellers rather than “inter-continental” and elephant trumpets rather than trumps… it’s only as things progress that you see the damage done by these innocent imperfections.

Ncuti Gatwa  (photograph courtesy of Paul Samuel White)
Serge talks of Willy Wonka and the man jumps to Willy Fog and the animated adventures of Around the World in 80 Days… another example of two cultural references not meeting. If only the man was less self-absorbed and distractedly fantasising about his “partner”/co-worker and his planned holiday to the Greek island of Ios.

The woman (Yusra Warsama) duly arrives and now we realise that, when talking to her, Serge has an African accent and that he knows very little English; cleverly done but still we expect that these three, reasonable people will, between them, work things out properly.

But it’s not so simple. In the second segment of the play, the woman gets the impression that Serge has been involved with the Congolese militia, the M23, and it is painful to see the two failing to connect with the actuality. But… this is as nothing to the final third when French to Franglais to English equals double-dutch… as Serge’s last chance is frittered away by the man who can’t listen or understand what he’s really trying to say. He means well but… his French isn’t up to it, his attention span isn’t robust and his pursuit of his co-worker as a partner means he almost doesn’t want to let her miss-conceptions down.

It is excruciating… you want to slap him… but compared to the actuality?

Yusra Warsama, Nick Blakeley and Ncuti Gatwa (photograph Paul Samuel White)
The Home Office mantra of “coherence, consistency and credibility…” is fatally undermined by incoherence, inconsistency and incredulity. This may not happen in many cases but it surely does in others. And that, my friends, makes us *all* complicit. Gatwa’s disappointed disgust at the close says it all; he’s been let down just like too many before him.

Mark Maughan directs boldly and with the resolute purpose of challenging the audience of wrong-footing us and making us think about why the play is at times annoying, frustrating and ultimately bitterly poignant. Tim Cowbury’s constructions are clever but also credible, he is aware of the dangers of discussing story in a story and weaves his way through with logic and precision.

The three players all do well, especially Gatwa who effectively has three roles to play: Sese himself, Serge the friendly French speaker and Sese/Serge whose English ties him up in knots.  Yusra Warsama is so smoothly proficient as the professional interrogator, worn down by process and anxious to get the right result but quickly, whilst Nick Blakeley, who’s wistful, distracted and infuriating co-interviewer inadvertently does so much damage, still manages to convey compassion and a likeability (whether he escaped from the Town Hall without being slapped I can’t say…)

All three interact so well with the complexities of the script and the staging which left the lights on the audience throughout. A job well done.

Yusra Warsama  (photograph Paul Samuel White)
The PR says that The Claim is “the only contemporary work to both satirise and humanise everyone around the Home Office interview table…” and you can well believe it but there are also a number of what are termed “wraparound” activities with organisations such as UNESCO. These include: a specially commissioned series of testimonies written by refugees in collaboration with Freedom From Torture, one-off legal surgeries for those soon to face the Home Office interview, post-show discussions, Q&As and more.

The Claim isn’t just telling a story, it’s taking action too and we should take note for injustice is all too easy to imagine as a foreign problem… 

The Claim continues until 26th January at Shoreditch Town Hall, London – tickets available from the box office. It then plays to single dates on 29th January at Gulbenkian, Kent and 31st January at the Platform Theatre, Glasgow.      

IthankyouTheatre Rating: **** Just imagine the roles reversed…

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Way out… East, King’s Head Theatre

First performed in 1975, Stephen Berkoff’s East is described by its author as "a revolt against the sloth of my youth…” and “…a desire to turn a welter of undirected passion… into a positive form.” It is a fierce construction that even now knocks the audience onto the back foot not just with the force of its words but with the response required from the performers.

“The acting has to be loose and smacking of danger… it must be smart and whip out like a fairy’s wicked lash…” and tonight the exceptional cast, two making their theatrical debuts, let rip in style – in our faces, catching the unwary off guard in the close-quarters of the King’s Heads performance area. Nowhere to hide.

It might be too much for some, but if you can’t handle confrontation, don’t come to the theatre expecting to switch off and, yes, I mean you, the woman in the woolly hat who was outraged by something or other; I’m sure Mr Berkoff would be smiling over his 9d pint of ale over your ruffled sensibilities. She was a lone voice and the audience sat rapt and immersed in this brutal, blood-pumped performance letting rip with cathartic bursts of laughter and adrenalized cheers at the end.

James Craze, Debra Penny, Boadicea Ricketts, Russell Barnett and Jack Condon Photo (c) Alex Brenner 
Berkoff is describing a working-class culture that can still be found, one that rails against immigration and, as it grows older, mourns the passing of youth. Dad (Russell Barnett) regales his family with tales of marching with Oswald Mosely’s black shirts, and smashes the beans on toast around the table as he describes their ambush at Cable Street. We’re left to make our own judgement but there’s always a why that comes first.

Dad’s a busted flush, rotting in bitter middle-age, despising  his wife (Debra Penny) who takes solace in Z-Cars, Hawaii 5-0 and the pools… what else has she left with son fully grown and her future now far behind her.

Her son Mike (James Craze) is the next generation, he still has all to play for and yet he doesn’t really know what to do with the power of his youth. He is full of boundless energies and yet the very possibilities seem to overwhelm him.

Mr Condon and Mr Craze Photo (c) Alex Brenner
His friend Les, (Jack Condon) is an edgier, less focused presence violently agitated at most times and uncertain of himself. He sees a girl on the bus and is so overcome with her beauty he can do nothing… he just doesn’t consider himself worthy enough to even try to engage. He follows her as far as he can but simply lets her go as she alights at Mount Pleasance, ogled by all the postal workers as she heads off out of his possibilities.

Mike is the more successful with women and his bird in the hand, Sylv (Boadicea Ricketts – quite astonishing in her professional debut), is smarter than her partner and those around her; ready to commit while Mike still wants to reassurance of “the pull” … it’s no comment on her, just the only validation he can think of on a Friday night.

The play is directed by Jessica Lazar who uses every inch of the limited stage area to push her players through exhaustive choreography as they fight, mime silent movies, turn into motorbikes (you have to see how Condon and Craze combine for that sequence!) and dance (and you also must see the Boadicea Boogie!). It is so visually and emotionally inventive and you get the feeling that the cast have contributed so much content allied to their performance commitment.

Jack Condon Photo (c) Alex Brenner
Everyone is excellent, but the two youngsters are so impressive you wouldn’t believe this was their debut and I would expect we’ll see a whole lot more from Jack and Boadicea. Jack Condon gives an adrenalized, eyes popped performance worthy of Berkoff himself; a convulsive febrile presence in fear of his environment and struggling to think beneath the urge to fight or submission. Dad calls him a fag and he tries to joke “I don’t know what you mean…” only to be met with the aggressive blank face of the dominant male.

Boadicea Ricketts is smoothly in complete command of her brief and is a high-sparking emotion-engine as the woman trying to accommodate these passionately-conflicted males. There’s a deceptive ease to her transitions and she is utterly transfixing in key moments and those were indeed real tears we saw as the play reached its conclusion. And yes, her smile can stun you from ten paces.

All the cast are superb but these two, these two… watch out for them. As the play has it: “now you know our names…”

Boadicea Ricketts Photo (c) Alex Brenner
East plays at the King’s Head until Saturday 3rd February and whilst it’s only a slight diversion from Stepney, the heart of the East End beats ferociously inside.

Box Office Tickets are available from kingsheadtheatre.com

IThankYou Theatre Rating: ***** Socks blown off.