Friday, 1 November 2019

Justice through knowledge - Different from the Others, White Bear Theatre

“Love for one of the same sex is no less pure or noble than for one of the opposite… Those that say otherwise come only from ignorance and bigotry.” Dr Magnus Hirschfield

I’ve just spent the most entertaining evening with Connie Veidt, Anita Berber and Reinhold Shunzel… it was a riot as you’d expect from these Weimar legends – Connie was divine, Anita so intense and Reinhold? Well, you know Reinhold… It was quite the party and yet there was a quiet but determined doctor in the room who really caught my attention.

In 1919 Richard Oswald directed Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others), the first film explicitly about homosexuality, funded by “sexologist” Dr Magnus Hirschfield, leader of the German Homosexual Emancipation Movement and head of Institut für Sexualwissenschaft.

After the Great War, Weimar Germany abandoned censorship allowing unprecedented freedom for artistic expression at a time when a new openness sprang across parts of Europe with, as playwright Claudio Macor says in his notes, love between men briefly being openly acceptable in Moscow and St Petersburg. Yet, even as the cabaret began in Berlin, Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code still made homosexuality illegal and contributed to the loss and wreckage of so many innocent lives. Shockingly it wasn't repealed until 1994 (after decades of amendments) which shows, if nothing else, how incredibly advanced the film was and also how brave.

 Jeremy Booth. All photos by Andreas Lambis
This is a remarkable film and one that survives only in partial form: that it exist at all given what was to come is all the more extraordinary… which is precisely where Mr Macor comes in with this passionate and smartly constructed play about the making of and sentiment behind Anders als die Andern.

The play is dedicated to Dr Magnus Hirschfield and pays due respect to this extraordinary figure who is so well played by Jeremy Booth who presents him as both wise and driven. Hirschfield was particularly affected by the suicide of a young soldier he was treating in 1896, here represented by a figure called Klaus (Simon Stallard), who cannot reconcile his desires with the pressure from society, carrying a shame of "that which nearly strangled my heart". Klaus and the Doctor are almost lovers and the death drives the Doctor to fund a film to help prevent further needless selbstmord.

There’s so much detail in the play and yet Macor’s script – and Jenny Eastop’s pacey and precise direction - moves the narrative forward with rounded characters all reflecting the legends of the remarkable film makers. Richard Oswald (Christopher Sherwood) is determined to make an entertainment as well as education – as a confrontation with Hirschfield makes clear - and there’s so much respect in the play for his achievement.

Christopher Sherwood
The play also delights in introducing the stars who silent film watchers will feel they know well yet these were formative times for the three future stars of film and they were only just starting the transition from the stage.

The notorious Anita Berber (Beth Eyre), who perfected the cross-dressed style while Marlene was still at school and wrote a book, Dances of Vice, Horror, & Ecstasy, is addicted to cocaine and Conrad Veidt (Jordan Alexander). Unfortunately for her, Connie is married and can no longer play away… Jordan has the toughest gig in playing Veidt – he has the looks but is surely way too healthy! He does very well in replicating Veidt’s crucial scene in the film, which I won’t detail… you must see it! Benjamin Garrison’s Reinhold Shunzel is suitably outrageous, dragged up and drugged up, tempting Anita with a cocktail of chloroform and ether mixed in a bowl with rose petals… do not try this at home kids! These are all people you would love to party with and I doubt they’re lilies gilded in even the slightest way!

Beth Eyre *is* Anita Berber
Kurt Giese (Simon Stallard) is a version of original star Kurt Sivers who played the young violinist who takes up lessons with Veidt’s character before the two fall in love. In the play Kurt falls for the Doctor and is an extension of his true passion that ultimately has to be denied: does he love the character played by Kurt of the actor himself and does the actor love the writer or the man?

Dr Hirschfield is able to place his responsibilities to educate above his own happiness subjugating his desires in service to the greater good and whilst the play diverges from the actuality as it progresses, it does so in the cause of illuminating the central themes. The Doctor is almost possessed with modern sensibilities but that’s all the better to counterpoint the sexual crisis of the time and, for much of recent history.

Benjamin Garrison
Hirschfeld played himself in the film as he tried to explain sexuality as natural and no reason for approbation: “… he is not to blame for his orientation. It is not wrong, nor should it be a crime…” Unfortunately, after a year of screenings Europe-wide, censorship was re-introduced and things were only to get harder as Germany drifted towards tragedy; first the books and films were burned and people were to follow.

Macor’s play works, much as the film, by informing and entertaining; as with his earlier biography of William Haines he is adept at bringing characters to life and very strong on the romance and steadfast friendships which enable truth to survive in the face of oppressive ignorance. As Hirschfeld said: “You have to keep living; live to change the prejudices... …restore the honour of this man… and all those who came before him, and all those to come after him. Justice through knowledge!”

Different from the Others plays at the White Bear until 16th November and I would heartily recommend it to all, you don't need to know the film to understand the eternal truths on show: get those tickets while they’re hot.

IThankYou Theatre rating: **** An astonishing story told with fierce sincerity and economy with a super cast who succeed in convincing as film stars and as elements of the most human of stories.. Go see it and wonder how brave this film was in 1919 and, indeed, why its story remains so vital a century later.

All photos by Andreas Lambis

Saturday, 19 October 2019

The killing cure... Fast, Park Theatre

“What a doctor really wants is a cynical patient, someone who will question their pedigree…”

Theatre can transport you and it can educate and unsettle you and even in a Thursday afternoon matinee the story of ‘Dr’ Linda Hazzard and her kill or cure quackery was deeply disturbing thanks to four superb performances and the simple truth of it all.

This is a horror story and all the more so for it being based on actuality. Also, at a time when people can believe there’s no such thing as climate change or that Donald Trump is a proper president and that Brexit is the cure to all ills – starving ourselves of favourable business terms to set our country “free”… it’s instructive to watch an ignorant ideologue at work. Perhaps the disgraced Dr Andrew Wakefield is the best modern comparison for his incredibly damaging assertion that vaccinations cause autism; his work has been completely de-bunked and yet he’s still out there preaching and has single-handedly led to the re-emergence of measles.

Hazzard was an unqualified “doctor” noted for her extreme and unscientific fasting treatments at her "sanatorium", Wilderness Heights, in Olalla, Washington. Under her “care” some forty patients died and in 1912 she was finally convicted for the murder of a wealthy British woman, Claire Williamson, whose sister, Dora, narrowly escaped the same fate being just 60 pounds when she was rescued by a relative.
Jordon Stevens and Natasha Crowley (photo Manuel Harlan)
It’s an extraordinary story and Kate Barton’s play does it justice by focusing on the two sisters as well as the mindset of their “doctor”; what made Hazzard believe she was acting in anyone’s best interest? Did she simply want the cache of medical practice, was this Munchausen syndrome by proxy or was she just a psychopath and criminal – she was found to have forged Williamson's will and stolen most of her valuables; a common criminal.

Caroline Lawrie is superb as Hazzard, portraying her as a narcissist determined to prove everyone wrong and to inflict her ideas on the unsuspecting. She has the unbending passion of a cult leader and the force of personality to dominate victims seemingly for their own good or her gratification for, as the quote at the top reveals she relished a challenge and the chance to show her superior mind.

Into her orbit comes two wealthy English travellers, the Williamson sisters Dora (Natasha Cowley who I’d last seen in the excellent Anomaly at the Old Red Lion Theatre) and Claire (Jordon Stevens) who read Hazzard’s book of nonsense, Fasting for the Cure of Disease (1908). There’s good interaction between the two; bickering familiarities and sisterly sideswipes… they’re good fun, Dora the more worldly-wise and witty, with Claire the sweetly-earnest hypochondriac with her “tipped back uterus”.
Caroline Lawrie, Jordon Stevens and Natasha Crowley (photo Manuel Harlan)
They are soon under Hazzard’s spell though as she attacks their faith in medical Doctors: “how very typical of a man to recommend that kind of nonsense to a woman…” Her use of this proto-feminist line is not so much in support of the “free spirited”, corset free sister but just building herself up against the “fake news” of the established male, medical elite.

Soon she has the sisters drugged and separated, Dora subjected to repeated enemas and both starved of protean as they grow too weak to think, move and defend themselves. Luckily Hazzard has not gone unnoticed and a journalist, Horace Cayton Jnr (Daniel Norford) is on her case… but can he break through in time to save the women?

Spoilers ahead…

Dora lived to testify against Hazzard and the bad “Doctor” was jailed for her sisters and other deaths in 1912. She was released on parole in December 1915 and the following year Governor Ernest Lister incredibly gave her a full pardon. It is suggested in the play that her friendship with his wife had played a part and she was able to start again in New Zealand. Poetic justice finally caught up with Hazzard in 1938 when she died during a fast to cure herself… finally doomed by her idiotic ideas.
Daniel Norford (photo Manuel Harlan)
Kate Valentine’s direction brings out the full flavours of Barton’s script and she maximises the narrative tension as we go from quackery to murder. Cowley and Stevens are heart-wrenchingly convincing as the sisters incapacitated and slowly losing their minds as their life of forced out of them: it’s quite uncomfortable to watch their shift from vibrant youth and very impressive physical work from both.

Daniel Norford presents the heroic figure we need amongst this darkness and Caroline Lawrie not only makes us believe in her “Doctor” but also makes us doubt ourselves from time to time; surely the true mark of a sociopathic narcissist. Takes a real pro to go to the heart of darkness and still present a rounded human being who can, fleetingly, gain our sympathy…

Caroline Lawrie
IThankYou Rating **** Macabre and harrowing, Fast never lets its subjects down and is compelling theatre which leaves you wondering how many others have suffered in the name of people who just believe they know best.

Fast is a production of Digital Drama and has already enjoyed sell-out shows at the Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe as well as being shortlisted for Best New Play Award 2018 by New Writing South. One to catch!

Thursday, 17 October 2019

The Jokers… The House of Yes, Hope Theatre

“A person gets their heart set on a certain thing…”

Funny, sexy, violent, frightening and unsettling, Matthew Parker’s last in-house production as Artistic Director for The Hope, had everything I love about his work. You grab a drink downstairs in the bar of this famous venue and walk upstairs into a performance area that even smells different from the world below. 85 minutes later you crack a twisted wistful smile as you walk out trying to process the many layers just unpeeled in front of your very eyes…

There’s a dark magic here and a team of performers who are utterly within their roles – there’s no room to hide as audience or performer with the players standing amongst us as once again, Mr Parker makes use of every inch of the Hope.

This being a last hurrah it was fitting that three stars from three of my favourite Parker performances feature strongly; Colette Eaton from Her Aching Heart, Fergus Leathem from Brimstone & Treacle and Bart Lambert from Thrill Me: the Leopold and Loeb Story.
Colette Eaton and Bart Lambert  - photos from lhphotoshots
Colette Eaton prowled the stage tonight with malicious confidence as Jackie-O, the twisted twin sister of Marty (Leathem) with a history of psychiatric disorders, medicated almost to the point of normal behaviour but still obsessed with the death of JFK. She makes me think of a certain character currently on screens played by Joaquin Phoenix, only her Jackie has more menace and less make-up. She owns the role with a smile and a laugh that Clown Prince of Crime would envy and has such assurance and control that her primal screams of rage all the more astonishing.

In the intimacy of the Hope you are tempted to reach out and comfort an actor in seeming distress, that’s how completely you are part of their world and I felt for the twin’s younger brother, Anthony, played by Bart Lambert as a sympathetic sociopath all of his own. This is indeed one strange family and Bart has such intense expressiveness and quivering febrility imbuing his character with fear and cunning: at once worn down by and revelling in the family house rules of "do as thy wilt shall be the whole of the law".

It’s Thanksgiving eve and there’s a hurricane blowing outside; the least pathetic fallacy ever – no one’s getting out of this House unchanged.
Mother knows best... Gill King - lhphotoshots
Mother knows best of course, and murderous matriarch Mother Pascal (Gill King, classy, imperious, Cruella DC...) is the wicked witch of Washington who dominates and enables the free-roaming morality of her children. Marty is the one trying to build an existence outside of her centrifugal cruelty and brings home his fiancée, Lesly (Kaya Bucholc, so energetically commited as the play's most identifiable character; experiencing The House through our eyes), a “civilian”, a working class girl from Pennsylvania who has no name just a lot of character especially when faced with the family’s desperate need to pull Marty back in. It's a change of pace for Fergus Leathem after Brimstone, and he plays the almost-straight man to his family's sick jokes with subtle confidence.

"Ive never even met anyone whos been to Pennsylvania, much less been from Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania is just this state that gets in your way when you have to go someplace else."

Like antibodies the Pascals work on Lesly’s alien force; Mother through aggression, Anthony by hitting on her and Jackie-O who uses the most powerful lure of all for her twin…

Wendy Macleod’s play resonates on so many levels right now as, thirty odd years after it was written, we have another family running the Whitehouse and who, like the Pascal’s want all of the Kennedy trappings without the political conscience. Jackie-O dresses up as Jackie Kennedy complete with fake blood and JFK brains on her dress; no more horrific than the way reality is turning out. Take notes Ivanka…
Kaya Bucholc - lhphotoshots
The entitled psychopathy is very 2019 as, from all around the world, might is increasingly right and Lesly, despite her spirit, is just another intelligent and reasonable person who is damaged by the Pascal fruits. But, hey, they may be a little “crazy”, but they’re the ones with the power.

The House of Yes is mad good fun with a hundred zingers in the text all delivered with deathly deadpan by Parker’s posse of perfect performers. It’s a fitting farewell for the remarkable Mr Parker – almost a “greatest hits” collection of the funny, peculiar and thought-provoking themes that run though his work like a bitter-sweet Blackpool through a stick of rock. Here’s to the next one but meanwhile DO NOT miss this black swansong.

A tip of the hat too Stage Manager, Laurel Marks who made the lighting and sound design work so well on the night - the sixth performer on stage so no pressure! As usual the Hope was transformed this time by Rachael Ryan's design along with Lucia Sanchez-Roldan's lighting design and Simon Arrowsmith's sound. An in-house team that obviously likes to say yes.
Colette Eaton and Fergus Leathem  - photos from lhphotoshots
IThankYou rating: ***** “A Play for Today with some stunning swerves and quite simply one of the finest displays of acting and direction I’ve seen all year.”

The House of Yes runs until 26th October, full details on the Hope website.

“Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to baste the turkey and hide the kitchen knives…”
Premier league lurking from Ms Eaton.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

The way we were... Cherie – My Struggle, Hen & Chickens Theatre

“People ask me if the play is a hatchet-job. And it is, but with Cherie wielding the hatchet.  A QC who specialises in libel law came to see a preview of the show just in case anything in it might upset Cherie. He said the only thing that would upset her is that she wasn’t invited.” Lloyd Evans

I met Cherie Blair on two occasions at the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year Awards in the mid-2000s when she and Tony were on the final stretch of their amazing decade of power. She was charming, charismatic and much respected by the legal audience despite their questions about Guantanamo Bay… here was a top-class professional who just happened to be married to a Prime Minister and one who had taken his country to war on the most dubious of pretexts.

As Cherie – expertly played by Mary Ryder – explains, the war was supported by both main parties and in the ensuing Labour landslide of 2005, the party got 400 seats and over 19 million people voted for parties that had supported the Iraq War. In the demographic wilderness of post-Referendum Britain that’s a huge mandate… 19 million, well, that’s a lot more than 17.4 million isn’t it.

Were things simpler in 2003? They were certainly different and Lloyd Evans play does an excellent job of giving us the authentic voice of a woman right at the centre of the New Labour project; possibly the most “targeted” spouse in British political history?

Mary Ryder is superb as Cherie and sensibly avoids impersonating her subject whilst providing us with a realistic reading of her life in power and, indeed before. Cherie is the daughter of Liverpudlian actor Tony Booth and in the play her relationship is described as distant as he leaves her and her sister with their mother whilst off in London working, looking for work or, as she discovers, “crumpeting”. Booth was a serial crumpeteer and was married four times with his Liverpool family only finding out about his new child – their half-sister – via an announcement he put in the Crosby Gazette.

Mary Ryder is Cherie Blair  (Photos courtesy of Conrad Blakemore)
Cherie was a high-achiever from an early age and wonders if this was down to her desire to impress her father or, more likely, her own will to win. Gaining a law degree from the LSE she quickly progressed to Barrister and was a QC in her thirties. She met Tony Blair in her early days in Chambers and they resolved to pursue a legal and political career – both standing for Labour in the early 80s with Tony eventually getting elected leaving Cherie to continue her rise in the law.

The play raises the question of whether we got the right one as MP and then PM… who knows but Cherie was certainly the better barrister but, as she says: “victory turns you into the person the voters want you to be” and has there ever been a better channeller of public mood than Tony Blair?

There’s lots of fact and corrections in the play – of course Cherie curtseyed to the Queen she was a Queen’s Counsel after all! - and many funny digs at the likes of Alistair Campbell and Diane Abbott – “who was the first black woman MP, she may have mentioned it to you…” Jeremy Corbyn is also there – good to see in his constituency – with Cherie pointing out that he was right about the banks… and leaving gaps for us to fill in the rest of her likely opinion.

Cherie was “gut Labour”, brought up into the faith in ultimately humble circumstances, her Dad of galivanting and her Mum working nights at the chippy to make ends meet, but Tony chose Labour from a middle-class background. Neil Kinnock was also gut Labour and we know where Jeremy came from…

Gordon Brown missed his chance to line himself up as leader in waiting by refusing to stand after Kinnock resigned and the tragedy of John’s Smith’s early death left Blair no option but to go for the top spot himself: he could no longer trust Brown to lead.

It’s a fascinating perspective on a time that feels longer ago than it should be, an era when the tabloid press was more powerful than even now, pointing their cameras at the new “first lady” only to pick holes in her appearance and her choices… We get the press we deserve and the politicians we vote for; Cameron channelled much as Blair did and now… now we’re in a frenzy of self-loathing.

15 years ago the talk of the Tabs was Carol Caplin, Cherie’s personal fitness trainer and style guru… a simpler time but one in which the bitterness began and after the financial crash on Brown’s watch, never stopped.

IThankYou Rating: **** A wow at Edinburgh, Cherie now comes “home” to Islington, the perfect time for reminders and regrets and a superbly energised performance from Mary Ryder. Cherie… we thought we knew you; we understand you that little bit better now!

Cherie  plays at the Hen and Chickens Theatre until Saturday 14th September 2019 – please grab a ticketwhile you can and Mr Corbyn, you can walk there from your allotment!

There's also a website for Cherie - My Struggle with more details; Alistair's probably scouring it as we speak...

Friday, 6 September 2019

Alternative Britain… Jade City, The Bunker

As a child in Liverpool I once witnessed an Orange march, not as big as these things go across the water, but still my first exposure to the religious divide in England’s biggest catholic city. We had different schools and, in my time, hardly mixed as boys.  That’s pretty much all I’ve got by way of understanding day-to-day life in Ulster with any catholic relatives I have living in Dublin, a city that, from my brief experience, has something of the same spirit as my hometown.

Alice Malseed’s play is therefore a challenge to my English view of Belfast, ingrained assumptions about the life there and the lazy thoughts that are currently being exposed about any ideas of a level playing field… Like the central characters Sas (Brendan Quinn) and Monty (Barry Calvert) I grew up slowly, happily clinging on to the childish fantasy worlds of DC and Marvel comics with my mate Phil until we both realised the game was literally up and we evolved into men in suits. There’s no such prospect for Sas and Monty and they’re morally and mentally arrested by their environment; potential smothered by circumstance.

The play begins with much humour as the two lads crack in-jokes, bantering in accents so broad that subtitles are projected on the wall behind – whether or not this was their intended function, I could make out most of what was being said, it had the effect of making the lads seem more constrained by the larger environment. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the Sas and Monty are destined to play out their lives like so much predictive text and this realisation is as horrific to the audience as the characters themselves.

We were kings when we were young says Sas at one point, reflecting on the invulnerability of childhood when they’d race around on bikes, or, in later youth, scam drinks from the local working men’s’ club. They sit in their local bar calling out all the characters around them, the reasons why they’re in their drinking, the damage that has been done… but it’s familiar, re-assuring.

Barry Calvert and Brendan Quinn (photographs by  Ali Wright)
The action is set in a boxing ring, not just because the boys both used to box but because they still play The Game, imagining themselves in shared fantasies whether they’re in Cuba fighting the revolution, involved in daring raids or even flying over their home as seagulls. Yet cracks are starting to show and Sas is finding it harder to leave reality pointing out that seagulls can’t fly so high, Monty’s face dropping in child-like disappointment.

They also role-play past events including an evening involving a local girl called Katie… there’s something here that disturbs both with Sas saddened and Monty in denial; he looks the tougher of the two and yet there’s something he’s not able to face. Here in their imaginary boxing ring they are finally, painfully going to confront each other and their issues.

Since the Good Friday Agreement, more lives have been lost to suicide in Northern Ireland than during the Troubles and around a third of people live on or below the bread line. Jade City highlights exactly how alone these men are with little chance of finding the support they need or a decent job. Working in shops, bars and supermarkets is difficult for them both to hold down and the Job Seekers Allowance is there to reward those with rich imaginations and patience who are willing to delude themselves that this is all there could be: and who can blame them.

One of them can begin the process of breaking free but it’s almost too cruel on the one that can’t as they are all each other has. Jade City is one of their local take-aways and much like the Emerald City, it can’t save you unless you save yourself, if, that is, you are able. Social services, mental health, and well-intentioned governments… much like the Wizard, are almost entirely fictional.

I loved the dialect and the text projection: Sas and Monty aren’t dead, at least not yet. Props too director Katherine Nesbitt for creating a very visceral play that pulls no punches literally or figuratively; so well written by Alice Malseed, we don’t see what’s coming, lost in the boys’ game until the very last.

IThankYou Theatre rating: **** A terrific two-hander that creates a rich world in which many of us would be crushed; a play that will stay in my thoughts for some time.

Jade City plays at The Bunker until Saturday 21st September – tickets available at the box office and online here.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Polar opposites… Shackleton’s Carpenter, Jermyn Street Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Hull on Earth… Starved, The Hope Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 5 July 2019

Days of future past… Dark Sublime, Trafalgar Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tickets available from the Box Office - better be quick!

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

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, 9 June 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 6 April 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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