Shipwreck at the Almeida Theatre

Picture Credit: Marc Brenner

There is no question as to the scope and ambition of this play.  Anne Washburn has decided to take on the United States today and she doesn’t leave any controversial stone unturned in this three hour no-holds-barred trip through the American psyche.  This is a complex play and it takes a great director to steer it through treacherous waters. Rupert Goold is that man.

The story begins ‘Big Chill’ style: Moneyed liberals, Lawrence (Risteard Cooper) and Jools (Raquel Cassidy) are waiting to welcome their friends in their newly acquired upstate farm turned country house.  Their enthusiasm is curbed by their continuing upset with the Trump presidency. Soon the friends, Jim (Elliot Cowan) and Yusuf (Khalid Abdalla) and Andrew (Adam James), Allie (Justine Mitchell) and Teresa (Tara Fitzgerald) join into an all too familiar conversation about current affairs starting with Ivanka Trump, James Comey and of course the president himself.  The group ends up stuck inside the house by a snow storm and we begin to see different layers of truth and conflict emerge as supplies dwindle and hours go by. At one point, the hostess admits to being fed up with ‘taste’, in both senses of the word. It is a good stab at the convenient superficiality of the bien pensant ‘bougie’ way of life but the dialogue remains predictable, even when Yusuf admits that he voted for Trump.

In a completely different scene, we see two monologues, by a white father (Risteard Cooper doubles as Richard) and then by his adopted black son Mark played thoughtfully by Fisayo Akinade.  In the first one, Richard explains that he thought his farm was a good place for a kid to grow up and that he and his wife decided to adopt a child from Kenya because they saw a TV show about orphans there and thought that coming from Africa would make the child’s blackness more acceptable in America.  The second monologue turns the father’s assumptions on its head. Mark can’t help walking around the farm imagining what it would have been like to be a slave. He imagines in detail what it would have been like to be owned. To be whipped. To be hungry.

The scenes seem to be disconnected at first, a collage of moments in today’s America.  Washburn imagines a farcical encounter between George W. and businessman Trump. She has Fisayo Akinade double as President Bush and Elliot Cowan does a Trump to compete with Alec Baldwin’s.  He then morphs into Caligula Trump, complete with a gold wrestler’s belt and minions straight out of Dante’s inferno with vulture heads and dark capes. They are closing in on Khalid Abdalla as ex-FBI director James Comey, isolated on a hard chair in the middle of the stage.  It is completely fantastical yet is a brilliant way of showing the difference between the civil servant who sacrifices his ego and selfish needs to become ‘an institution’ and the dictator who transcends nothing. Miriam Buether’s set is like a giant Lazy Susan rotating plate.  It shows us the different ‘tastes’ of the national crisis, from the intimate dialogue focused dinner party to the extravagance of Caligula Trump now as a mythical native American chief in awe to himself standing in front of a fast and furious slideshow of recent events.

We go back to the father.  Then to the son. Race, hypocrisy, democracy.  The questions ‘Shipwreck’ raises are pertinent and real but they are not new. Are they more urgent today than they were before 2016?  Or is it that the carpet of ‘taste’ that they used to be brushed under is now gone? I left the theatre awed but also a bit confused.

Shipwreck continues at the Almeida Theatre till 30th March, 2019

The Son at the Kiln Theatre

Picture Credits: Marc Brenner

I was once told on a playwriting course that all Western writers today only have decadent topics to work with.  One would need to go to places where questions of life and death still rule the everyday, places like Syria or the Congo to find the type of stakes that create great drama.  Florian Zeller has proven that teacher wrong. Set in the world of middle-class Parisians, ‘The Son’ goes to the core of the human experience. It is the last play in Florian Zeller’s trilogy.  Perhaps this is why he gave each of the plays such basic names: ‘The Father’ winner of the 2014 Moliere award was performed in the UK at the Ustinov in Bath that same year. ‘The Mother’ a story of an empty-nester, was also performed at the Ustinov in 2015.

‘The Son’ begins with the mother, Anne (Amanda Abbington) meeting with the father Pierre (John Light) to talk about their teenage son Nicolas (Laurie Kynaston) who’s just been kicked out of school.  Not far in the background, listening to their conversation while burping her baby is Pierre’s new partner Sofia (Amaka Okafor). Pierre has left Anne for a new, younger woman and they now have a baby together.  It’s yawningly cliché and John Light is fantastic as Pierre, a man nicely satisfied with himself. Of course he’ll take Nicolas in. “It’s all going to be fine.” Pierre reassures both Anne and Sofia. Amanda Abbington brings the hesitancy of the defeated to the role of Anne as an abandoned wife and then mother.  It’s subtle and it’s wonderful because otherwise she dresses and behaves like the educated professional that she is. Amaka Okafor steps into her role down to her feline movements and bare feet: A predator.

The suspense begins the moment Nicolas moves into Pierre and Sofia’s space.  Director Michael Longhurst maintains an uneasy atmosphere. Pierre imposes his reality not only onto his son but to us in the audience as well.  We’d like to be invited for dinner at designer Lizzie Clachan’s recreation of a grand Parisian apartment. We are seduced by the beautiful Sofia who keeps telling Pierre that ‘nothing is his fault’ and reminds him of their new shiny life ahead.  The thorn in the side of Pierre’s version is Nicolas. John Light is superb as a man who loves his son and wants to get through to him but only on his terms. He is the winner of life after all. Laurie Kynaston makes a brave and intelligent Nicolas, a young man trying to be understood but ready to fight for his truth with the means at his disposal.  As he is powerless, his weapons are nihilism and manipulation. In response to his father’s self-satisfaction, he self-harms. At one point, Nicolas is alone with Sofia who is cleaning up after him. She appears maternal and caring and they seem in peace. In the middle of their conversation, Nicolas asks her if she knew his father was married when she met him.  Sofia falls silent. Brilliant.

What is more normal in urban societies today than divorce? ‘The Son’ begs to differ. Common is not the same as normal and it is terrifying to think how easily families are destroyed today, often by nothing more than a man’s perceived ‘right to his own life’.  Nicolas is not well. We have no way of knowing if he would not have been ill given different circumstances. Zeller is not a preacher and this is not a moral fable. Instead he slowly allows each of the adult characters to fall onto their swords, some made of weakness, others made of selfishness.  Madness ensues, and not just for the powerless.

The Son continues at the Kiln till 6th April

Jesus Hopped the A Train at the Young Vic

Picture Credit: Johan Persson

Emergency, spirituality and coming of age are at the heart of this tale.   A serial killer claims he is redeemed. One jailor believes him, the next one punishes him.  A young man prays for a miracle to save him from a life sentence but can’t understand if he is guilty of a crime or not.  His lawyer is equally confused. What is right shifts according to each character’s take on life until eventually a truth emerges.  It is this journey that Pulitzer prize winning playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis takes us on in ‘Jesus Hopped the A train’. In its first run in 2001 with the New York based LAByrinth Theatre Company, the play won numerous awards including the Edinburgh Fringe First and was directed by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.   

This revival at the Young Vic directed by Kate Hewitt plunges us in the hell of violence and despair that is a modern day prison.  Bright lights flood the stage, sudden clanging of metal doors give the tempo to this fast-paced play. The story begins with Angel Cruz, played by ‘Humans’ Ukweli Roach trying to remember the words to a prayer, like a child in Catholic school.  Cruz is grown-up however and therein lies his problem. Roach is compelling as this man who still believes in a romantic, boyish code of behaviour. He’s shot a corrupt reverend, a ‘false prophet’ in the ‘ass’ in an effort to save his best friend from his sect, and finds himself lost in prison.  He starts talking to a fellow inmate, brilliant psychopath Lucius Jenkins, a character so complex and memorable that most actors who took on his role since he came to life in 2001 became stars. Oberon K.A. Adjepong is no exception. Here is a man who emanates goodness, who seeks the sun and open air, who is able to provide comfort and care, to his first jailer Charlie (Matthew Douglas) and then to Angel Cruz and yet cannot deny his murderous past, he goes so far as to describe unapologetically his torture and killing of a child.  Adly Guirgis has created in Lucius a modern living incarnation of the apostle Paul writing to Timothy. A man convincingly redeemed by the grace of God.

What is the condition of this redemption? The sadistic jailer Valdez (Joplin Sibtain with a wonderful New York working man’s accent) believes that when we ‘discard’ precious things, they are ‘lost forever’.  Cruz’s lawyer (Dervla Kirwan) can’t help sympathising with Cruz’s irrational but so justifiable crime. Lucius knows. And when Lucius finally gets young Cruz to understand the meaning of agency and personal responsibility, we know we are heading for trouble.  Yet ‘Jesus Hopped the A Train’ ends on a good note. Cruz is praying again. This time with the depth and serenity of a grown man.

Jesus Hopped the A Train continues at the Young Vic till 30th March

Superhoe at Royal Court Theatre

SUPERHOE Written and performed by Nicole Lecky; Picture
Credit: Helen Murray

This is an incredible performance, easily the best one (wo)man show I have ever seen.  Superhoe is the self-narrated life and times of aspiring singer-slash-rapper and rebel Sasha Clayton. There’s no easy way through for a young penniless black woman with no daddy and no degree.  Now make that a woman with a mind and dream of her own and we know Sasha is headed for some rough times, starting with her domineering, morally superior white step-dad Kevin.

Nicole Lecky is a phenomenon.  An English-Jamaican writer, actress and singer from the East End, she came out of the Soho Theatre’s Writers lab and has just won a bursary from the Creative Skillset and Dancing Ledge Productions to write for television.  ‘Superhoe’ is her Royal Court debut. She kept the entire audience on the edge of their seat, laughing, cringing, cheering, all on her own for an uninterrupted eighty plus minutes ride. Lecky impersonates all the characters in the story, from her sweet powerless mum to her Yorkshire accented pimp/roommate Carly, with some great songs along the way, including a rap song called “Premium Pussy” that ends with a shower of Monopoly money on us.  

We follow Sasha’s Odyssey from her life in the home where she no longer has a place, down through various levels of hell until finally she finds a safe shore and a second chance. Unlike Ulysses however, the Calypso of Sasha’s story is invented by herself, on her Instagram account. She creates a parallel Sasha, one that her previously disdainful younger sister now admires, a wealthy model who tags the pictures of her high-life with words such as “blessed” while flesh and bone Sasha is brutalized by a ‘client’.   It’s a cautionary tale for our age. Lecky manages to create a character unreliable and obviously flawed and yet we root for her because she hangs on to her mind and her dream. When she hits rock bottom, after her last hope collapses, we have some of the play’s best lines: “The room starts to spin and my head gets hot. I’m going home. I don’t even know what that means but I’m going home.” She has nowhere to go. Yet Sasha doesn’t let herself die, inside or out. She tries again. She follows her heart. And this time, finally, it works out.  Not in the way Sasha would ever have expected but then again, Sasha is an unreliable narrator. The play ends with Sasha safe in a warm bed and able for the first time to tell what really happened to her. The last song Lecky sings is about being a superhero. Because that’s what it takes for people to survive their traumas. A superhero within.

Superhoe continues at the Royal Court Theatre till 16th February

My Dad’s Gap Year at Park Theatre

Picture Credits: Pamela Raith

My Dad’s Gap Year begins with empty beer cans and ends with a bottle of red wine and in between we are invited on the journey of a father and son, as they travel to Thailand to escape the claustrophobia of their ‘nuclear’ British family life. ‘My Dad’s Gap Year’ at its heart is about how love survives disappointment, failure and broken taboos but Tom Wright has wrapped it up in a fast-moving comedy and the result is a thoroughly enjoyable seventy minutes.  

Adam Lannon makes a captivating and likeable Dave, the unemployed alcoholic father who’s living a role reversal with his conscientious, gay eighteen-year old son William. Alex Britt does a classic turn in portraying the inner turmoil and shyness of a young English educated man at the start of his sexual life. Dave’s estranged wife Cath (Michelle Collins) grounds these characters firmly in the twenty-first century with her eager friendship with William and her acceptance of Dave’s new lover.

Tom Wright is the Artist Development Manager at the Old Vic.  Together with the director Rikki Beadle-Blair, winner of the Sony award for Best Documentary Feature for ‘The Roots of Homophobia’, they developed ‘My Dad’s Gap Year’ for Beadle-Blair’s company Team Angelica and it was first showcased at the Bush Theatre.  With a very simple set consisting of a bare arena style stage with a pit in the middle and clever lighting, we are convincingly taken from a living room in “middle England”, to a corporate office, to Heathrow, to a beach, a gay bar, a flat in Thailand. Beadle-Blair and the cast keep the energy high and flowing and this allows us to live the hard, banal truths in this story without it getting bogged down.  It’s too bad the lovers Dave and William meet in Thailand, Mae the “ladyboy” (Victoria Gigante) and fabulously sophisticated Matias (Max Percy), are not given a chance to become full characters in their own right and remain predictable. Still ‘My Dad’s Gap Year’ doesn’t take the easy way out. This “post-nuclear family” tries to come to terms with who they are and how much can really change within one generation.  A sad revelation explains Dave’s addiction but doesn’t solve it. At the end love holds them all together and they go off to eat. It’s a happy ending to a family comedy we can believe in.

My Dad’s Gap Year at Park Theatre continues till 23rd February. Get tickets here.

The Convert at the Young Vic

In 1895, in current day Zimbabwe, there was a doomed uprising by the local population against the British occupiers who were grabbing land and forcing the natives to work in mines to pay taxes. The British had military superiority and would go on pillaging and oppressing the Zimbabweans for years to come. What does any of this have to do with Christianity? This is where the word colonialism comes in.

‘The Convert’ is written mainly in English, using a European dramatic structure and logic – The writer talks about George Bernard Shaw’s influence on her – It even begins like a Victorian play, an empty drawing room, a maid complete with bonnet and apron dusting a desk, but as more characters appear, the scene goes from cliché to farcical and we realize that nobody on stage knows what this life they’re supposed to be living is about. All the characters are African, they haven’t moved an inch from the place they and their ancestors call home but their country is no longer their own.

Danai Gurira was born in Iowa but moved to Zimbabwe with her parents when she was five. An actress and playwright, she wrote and starred with Nikkole Salter in ‘In the Continuum’ a prize winning play about two black women, at two ends of the world who are diagnosed with HIV and whose fate turn out to be strikingly similar. As an actress Gurira is best known for her role as Michonne on the series ‘Walking Dead’ and more recently as the general Okoye in the Marvel blockbusters ‘Black Panther’ and the ‘Avengers: Infinity War’. She is brave to immerse a Western audience into an uncompromising African perspective in this historical drama. She owns it though as someone who grew up in Zimbabwe would. This is why ‘The Convert’ flows so naturally. It is a story that’s been in the community, in the country for over a hundred years and its truth can be seen in the local Christian churches around Harare and beyond.

Chilford (Paapa Essiedu) decided long ago to leave his “savage” family and traditions behind and become a Catholic priest. As a native black man he of course is not fully ordained but he has authority from the British and so when his failed convert and housekeeper Mai Tamba (Pamela Nomvete) begs him to help her orphaned niece escape an arranged marriage, he agrees on condition that she becomes a Christian.

Enter Letitia Wright as the niece Jekesai. Wright has a nakedness to her that draws you in, from the moment we see her in traditional dress speaking “vernacular” to her transformation into a Christian renamed Ester, beautiful again in Victorian dress. Wright brings a sincerity to Jekesai that makes us feel her conflicting passion for a still European Christ and her family and culture. Other characters try to find their place in this new society. Uncle (Jude Akuwudike) and Jekesai’s beloved cousin Tamba (Rudolphe Mdlongwa) choose to reject the whites together with their Jesus and keep their integrity.  Chilford, his best friend Chancellor (Ivanno Jeremiah) and his fiancé Prudence, (Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo) try the path of integration and self-denial, even self-rejection. Ola Ince’s direction is brisk even when the dialogue is lengthy, there is a light touch, and her timing is good. The play never loses steam during the nearly three hours and there are no dead corners on the Young Vic’s arena stage. There is a poignant scene in which Prudence, defeated in spite of all her efforts, shouts in despair (and in the Queen’s English) that there is no place for the ‘educated African woman’ in 1895 and the line feels anachronistic but perhaps that is because it’s still said today. The set by Naomi Dawson with its sofa, wooden desk, crucifix and bench and cold cement floor is the only European presence in the play.  A poor Henry Higgins’ drawing room. It is fitting for this reversal of Pygmalion. After a tragic turn, Ester re-becomes Jekesai, this time not by an accident of fate but by an act of self-determination. A Christian Jekesai. The play ends with the stage transformed into a mural of black apostles. Christianity free of colonialism.

The Convert continues till 26th January,2019. Tickets start from £10

A Christmas Carol at the Print Room

The Print Room at the Coronet in Notting Hill is an ideal venue for Clive Francis’s ‘A Christmas Carol’.  Between the sloping floor and bazar feel of the lounge to the two hundred seat theatre with fading walls, it is a warm, intimate place for a one-man show.  Richard Irvine’s set and Alex Ramsden’s play on lights reflect the ambiance of the theatre on the stage: An old Persian rug, an armchair, a desk and a hanging portrait of Dickens.  There is great joy in being told a good story, especially on a dark winter’s night and Francis’ rich voice transports us to the cold offices of Scrooge and Marley. Francis first played the part of the Ebenezer Scrooge in an RSC production over twenty years ago and clearly fell in love. He’s now made his own adaptation of the classic and it is great fun, with sound effects and light plays, to see Francis bring the characters – even the Ghosts – to life, while steering the tale forward the whole time as the narrator, in other words, Dickens himself.

One of the more poignant memories Scrooge revisits with the first spirit is the end of his marriage.  Francis takes Scrooge from sadness to pain to rage when he sees the woman he lost to “another Idol” in a happy if humble new family.  Follows a great scene in which Francis as Scrooge attacks the Ghost and tries to stuff an imaginary bonnet down an invisible spirit’s head. This is classic storytelling that requires us to listen and to imagine because everything is created here from words and movement alone.  In this age of screens and memes, it is a precious experience for children and grown-ups alike.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol adapted and performed by Clive Francis continues till 14th December at the Coronet. Price £25 Concessions £20 (in the main auditorium)

Lands at The Bush Theatre

Picture Credit : Helen Murray

Martin Buber famously said he could not discuss God, only relationships to God.  “All real living is meeting.” Lands begins with one woman, Leah (Leah Brotherhead) happily absorbed in a thousand piece puzzle.  Next to her is her friend Sophie (Sophie Steer) who is bouncing on a small trampoline. From this bizarre premise, Antler delivers a big play. Jaz Woodcock-Stewart has a strong sense of rhythm and movement and she directs this two-hander loosely, leaving space for the audience to feel involved in the dilemma facing Leah and Sophie.  How to live together when we each feel the need to impose our needs, our priorities on the other?

Antler defines itself as a company, “telling stories through theatre and film”.  They won the IdeasTap Underbelly Award and the Pulse Festival Suitcase Prize and were nominated for the Stage Best Ensemble Award.  Woodcock-Stewart is the co-artistic director of Antler and Lands was conceived in collaboration with the Bush Theatre and the actresses Leah Brotherhead and Sophie Steer.  

The story begins in a very English way. Leah expects Sophie to respect the rules of engagement central to British society.  In this example, Leah expects Sophie to clean up her rubbish. That is the base line. If Sophie obeys, civilised life goes on.  But Sophie transgresses. She doesn’t clean up her mess because she’s jumping on a trampoline. This small incident is enough to strip the veneer of tolerance between the two women and I bit my lip more than once as I watched Leah alternate between hurt and a compulsive urge to ‘fix’ Sophie.  Does Leah (and we) need the rules of engagement in order to have a relationship with another human being? Sophie is wonderful at being vulnerable and stubborn and she isolates herself on the one-person island that is her trampoline. One of the best scenes was the short moment when Sophie after a long suspense finally gathers the courage to step off the trampoline and engage with Leah.  The connection is lost in a way that would happen anywhere, in any culture. Sophie even sings the American classic folk tune “This Land is Your Land” in a sorrowful call for tolerance.

Antler goes deeper.  Lands ends with a literal ray of light.  Beyond tolerance and rules of behaviour, what we need to live happily together is to yield.  Just when we think nothing can change, that an hour and a half later, the two women are exactly back where they started, something happens.  Leah and Sophie show us what love (and weariness) can do.

Lands continues at the Bush Theatre till 1st December

Ear for Eye at Royal Court Theatre

debbie tucker green
Writer/ Director.
Pic Credits: Stephen Cummiskey

There is something Godot-like about the people on the stage.  Just like Vladimir and Estragon, they’re all waiting. Except that these people know what they’re waiting for. They’ve been waiting for so long, nobody knows their names, they have to sit down.  And then some stand up, chairs are moved and we are plunged into the intimacy of a conversation between a mother (Sarah Quist) and her son (Hayden McLean). The words are few, it’s about his moves, his body, about how the son holds himself, his hands, his gaze when – The mother knows it’s a when and not an if – He is stopped by the police. How can the mother make her young, black and still innocent son understand without breaking his heart?  So, it’s about his hands, how he holds up his palms when they stop him. This scene is not about politics. It’s about love.

debbie tucker green doesn’t use capitals to write her name.  Her latest play, ‘Ear for Eye’ is brave. The mosaic of scenes that make up the first two parts of the play take place on a set designed to offer no distraction, no way out.  The language is raw with pain and confusion. Tosin Cole is powerful as a young man who turns on his own old man (Nicholas Pinnock) telling him his efforts, his struggle, are a “failure”.  And the older man is forced to admit their mutual impotence, “they don’t wanna change they don’t wanna be changed.  So let’s start from there.” Black lives still shaped, dominated by oppression.  tucker, who also directs this play, is not interested in just communicating this fact.  She insists in showing us how a young, black person in America or Britain today is intimidated, is not allowed “to be me”. How he or she must learn to tip toe endlessly around white sensitivities because whatever tolerance there is today is thin. Erik Kofi Abrefa delivers a memorable performance as the young Black man who’s experienced prison for no reason.  He tries to argue, he doesn’t want to strip. He doesn’t want to be broken. Eventually his voice trails off.

The second part of ‘Ear for Eye’ is dedicated to a professional encounter between a white male professorial figure (Demetri Goristas) and a younger African American woman (Lashana Lynch).  The topic is a mass shooting at a high school. The dialogue begins with the man assuming the woman has come to listen and learn from him. He starts off by being patronizing but benevolent.  And then he begins to understand that the woman although polite, wants to be heard too. She wants an exchange. tucker builds this scene with excruciating detail. It is fascinating and chilling to watch the man systematically refuse to contend with the woman as an equal.  


The third part is a video about the sources of oppression. tucker contrasts Jim Crow laws with British slave codes. At first I thought why go so far back?  And then I realized that tucker is telling us a story of mental attitudes, of deep seated prejudice, not of a legal system.


The struggle and the waiting continues.

Ear for Eye continues at the Royal Court Theatre till 24th November, 2018

Florian Zeller’s- The Height of the Storm

The play begins with a grown daughter, Anne, a resigned and dutiful Amanda Drew asking questions to her old man. About breakfast, about the storm that raged the night before. He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t even look at her. He is absorbed by the window, by something outside the window. Jonathan Pryce barely moves for the first couple of minutes but his face is caught in the sunlight coming through the window and his eyes sparkle. We know we are in for a treat. It all happens in the kitchen of a French country house. Anthony Ward’s set is so real you believe the shadows cast by the slanting day light through the windows. A box of Le Chat detergent is on the table. The walls are faded, the ceilings high, the stereo boxed in between books is from a different era. The kind of house that is a thrill to arrive in but gradually becomes claustrophobic in a dusty kind of way. Time doesn’t move here the way it does elsewhere. Fifty years of marriage populates this space and Ward has managed to create a set to reflect that old song of Jacques Brel, “La Chanson des Vieux Amants.” In this case, the ‘Vieux Amants’ are Jonathan Pryce as Andre, a writer who is losing his capacities and Eileen Atkins as his wry and devoted wife Madeleine.

Florian Zeller is probably the most popular living French playwright today. In the UK, he won an Olivier award for his play The Father, translated, just like Height of the Storm, by Christopher Hampton. Zeller didn’t set out to be a playwright. He was enjoying a great success as a novelist when Francoise Sagan suggested he replace her to write a libretto for an opera. Zeller accepted because he thought it would bring him closer to the world of music. Instead, he fell in love with theatre.

“The Height of the Storm” is a brave and unapologetically intelligent play about what it means to be in a couple for fifty years and what happens when one half dies and leaves the other half behind. Perhaps it is an obsolete question for today’s society. Zeller contrasts the lives of Andre and Madeleine with that of their daughters: Anne is getting separated and Elise (Anna Madeley) changes partners so often her father confuses her current real estate agent boyfriend with her former car wash owning one. Pryce infuses an old man who is redundant by any measure, who is likely headed to a nursing home, with a life force that keeps us riveted. Eileen Atkins has the difficult role of mixing everyday chores, she is always active when on stage, peeling mushrooms, rinsing dishes…while remaining profoundly still, frozen like in a snap shot from the past. Atkins indeed makes Madeleine behave like a memory, steady, strong, predictable…until she isn’t. There is plenty of mystery in “The Height of the Storm” as reality bends to the storm raging in this family’s heart.

At Wyndham’s theatre, London, until 1 December.

The Outsider at the Print Room

A scene from The Outsider (L’Etranger) by Albert Camus. Adapted by Ben Okri ©Tristram Kenton

“He had run out of things to say to her.” Ben Okri has adapted Albert Camus’s classic novel “The Outsider” (“L’Etranger) not only for the stage but also for the English language. Directed by Abbey Wright, Meursault’s solitary monologue is transformed into an ensemble act as Okri takes Marie, Raymond or Salamano out of the shade of Meursault’s narrative and brings them to life. Raymond (Sam Alexander) feels no need to exercise any form of self-control and indulges his vulgar, violent self down to the wife beater he wears throughout the play. Alex Blake is a self-content Masson who doesn’t mind repeating himself, even in court. Marie (Vera Chok) tries hard, very hard, to be happy, to love and hardest of all to be loved by Meursault, the outsider at the heart of this play. Sam Frenchum is a cool and handsome Meursault, reminiscent of Alain Delon in his heyday. He is seductive like a movie star, perfect yet bland enough to allow the other characters, even us in the audience, to project emotions, fantasies, assumptions onto him. Richard Hudson’s set is bleak and plain, a generic concrete space in a hot colonial city.

To see this 1940s’ story about a white European who shoots five times a nameless Arab in the French colony of Algeria through the eyes of a Nigerian man born one year before his country gained independence from British colonial rule makes for a timely, poignant and enlightening experience. Okri at first wanted to make the Arab speak. The estate of Albert Camus said no and he came to agree with their decision. It is precisely by showing the reality of how the local French population thought and behaved that we get a full measure of the absurdity inherent in a colonial racist society. Okri does this subtly: Raymond speaks shamelessly of his desire to dominate and punish his girlfriend and we wonder at his naivete in being so open about his depravity until Meursault casually discovers that she is ‘Moorish’. How Meursault’s prosecution really gets traction with the colonial jury when the accusation shifts from murder of an Arab to Meursault’s perfectly legal action of putting his elderly mother in a nursing home and his apparent indifference at her funeral. Everyone in this play is desperately hanging on to a pretense of humanity which is why so many characters – Uri Roodner’s colorful Salamano comes to mind – look and behave like caricatures of themselves. The colonialists are fighting the suspicion that the society they have created turns not just the Arabs into sub-humans but themselves as well.

The only way back to feeling human is through equality. Meursault is condemned to death. It’s the end of his privilege and the beginning of his consciousness. The last scene is beautiful. Emotion finally shakes Frenchum’s hair, his face, his body. He comes to life on the eve of his death and that is a happy ending.

The Outsider continues until 20th October, 2018 at The Print Room at the Coronet. Tickets are from £15-£25.

The Humans

Tolstoy famously said,  “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Stephen Karam has added a twenty-first century American twist to this old quote with “The Humans”.  How happy can a family be in a society that is dismantling all the conditions for humans such as the Blakes to be safe, solvent, even healthy? The first thing we feel as we watch the six members of the family meet for Thanksgiving at daughter/sister Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Richard’s (Arian Moayed) twilight zone of an apartment in lower Manhattan is a longing for our own family.  That moment early in the party when parents and siblings are arriving, gifts are given, and we are full of hope because this time we are ready to love and be loved.

To accomplish this in the first five minutes of a play is a feat.

“The Humans” is Stephen Karam’s second commission with the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York, after “Sons of the Prophet”.  It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and won the Tony Award for Best Play for 2016. Now after a phenomenal run in New York and a season in Los Angeles, the original Broadway cast, including the director Joe Mantello are here in London at the Hampstead Theatre.

“Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?” Reed Birney’s Eric Blake is a warm, loving and troubled patriarch.  His tall aging silver haired presence fills the stage as befits his position as the senior and only male in his family.  Yet something is undermining him. Is it the fact that he is a guest at his daughter’s home and must contend with a younger, and he soon discovers, richer man?  It is painful to watch a man be demolished on the inside while his body is still strong. It affects his posture, his speech, it makes him try to shrink. Karam confronts much more here than the economic decline of the ninety-nine percent.  Through the story of a family that can still love, communicate and laugh with each other, Karam brings into focus the question of agency and personal choice. Is Eric losing his status as a father through the fault of Wall Street and the stars or through his own actions?  Is Brigid not making it as a musician because of the cut throat competition or because of her lack of confidence? How about elder sister Aimee (Cassie Beck) who’s losing her job and makes dry jokes about her heartbreak and her ulcerative colitis? How much control do any of us have over our lives? Eric has driven in with his demented mother ‘Momo’ (Lauren Klein) who bursts into unintelligible babble or tantrums and whose wheelchair is almost a character itself in a play set in a two-floor ‘duplex’ linked by a spiral staircase.  Yet, “Momo” wrote an eloquent love letter to her granddaughters a few years back when she felt herself slipping away. “The Humans” is about just that, humans in America and elsewhere as we try to hang on to love and dignity in the face of powerlessness and chaos. Meet Deirdre, the generous, caring and disillusioned wife and mother played with genius by Jayne Houdyshell. There is a scene when dessert is served and Deirdre, whose pleasures in life are few, wants to savor this moment and takes her time in choosing a pastry. Brigid is getting impatient and Eric decides for his wife, “the one with all the frosting” and Houdyshell’s Deidre seizes up.  And we are struck with the truth of the hurt even though it flashes through her face.

Karam wanted no interval and made sure all the action is in real-time, even the moments spent in the bathroom or in the elevator outside the duplex.  And for all this realism, the atmosphere in the play shifts slowly towards the uncanny. There is talk of dreams, Richard recalls falling through “an ice cream cone made of grass” and Eric sees a woman whose skin is pulled over her eyes, her ears, her mouth.  Pipes whistle, neighbors pounce on the floor, fuses blow, nothing out of the ordinary for a basement in Chinatown. Yet the building conspires to terrorize Eric, left alone with himself. It’s a brilliant scene and we get caught up in the suspense until Karam and Mantello lead him – and us – back into the light.  The moral is simple: As long we have each other, us humans can go on. Imperfectly.

The Humans continues at the Hampstead Theatre until 13th October, 2018. Tickets are from £10 – £40. 


At the Fringe III: Alien visitations and misogynoir

In our final Fringe round-up, Isabelle Dupuy singles out three very different productions that stood out for her in Edinburgh – all of which are transferring to London theatres over the next two months.

The Fishermen

It was pouring rain and we were waiting in the atrium of a university lecture hall. I felt weary as I took my seat.  A flashback to a time when one hour took a hundred years and I struggled to stay awake in rooms such as these.  A man is on the stage floor, his back turned to us, behind tall metal bars. Another man walks on to the stage and calls out to him.  And the next thing I knew, the hour was over and I was back out in the rain.

The Fishermen, adapted from Chigozie Obioma’s prize winning novel of the same name, is the most absorbing play I have seen in Edinburgh this year.  Gbolohan Obesan has managed to bring to us the beating heart of a family saga with only two actors on a small stage with metal rods for props.  Two brothers meet after many years apart.  One had gone away and the other stayed home.  They are still young.

The story of the undoing of a once happy family unfolds because of the common tradition of raising children in fear, superstition and ignorance.  The story is set in a village in Nigeria, but it could have been anywhere in the developing world or in parts of Europe and America where old colonial habits of teaching through violence and fear still hold.  Michael Ajao mainly plays the younger brother Ben and Valentine Olukoga the third born, but through their impressions we get to meet their mother, their father, their older brothers, even local madman Abulu.

Ajao and Olukoga have partnered before in the Royal Court’s Liberian Girl, and their interaction is so complimentary and seamless it is like a dance – farcical in parts, electric in others.  Ajao in particular brings a physical dimension to the tale.  A scene where he plays a fish dying of asphyxiation and another where he impersonates Abulu are breathtaking.  The story is dense at times and we miss some parts of the novel, but this adaptation had to fit within an hour.  Hopefully this Fringe performance will graduate to a full length show.  Just like Obioma’s novel, the theatrical Fishermen will be one to watch out for.

The Fishermen will play at the Arcola Theatre from 17 to 22 September.


Queens of Sheba

Photo: Guy J Sanders

At first glance, Queens seems like a celebration of the music and spirit of Aretha Franklin.  And then the four black women on stage take ownership of the story and the music and the play soars.  There is beautiful poetry throughout and one of the best lines, an answer to the annoying “Where are you from-from?” that one hears in this country when one is not white British is: “I am a mix.  Of both racism and sexism.  They lay equally on my skin.  Passed down unknowingly by my next of kin.”

Jessica Hagan has bravely put on paper what so many black women have been thinking quietly and there is an almost audible sigh of relief and recognition among the members of the audience who relate to the lives of the four black actresses who play themselves as they go through a day in this world.  The idea of the play grew out of a dissertation Hagan has written on misogynoir. The term was coined about eight years ago by Dr Moya Bailey, a black professor at Northeastern University in the US, to address the specific mix of racism and sexism that black women have been contending with for generations.

Ryan Calais Cameron has adapted Hagan’s academic work for the stage and together with the cast – Jacoba Williams, Kokoma Kwaku, Rachel Clarke and Veronica Beatrice Lewis – they have managed to make Queens much more than a tale of misogynoir. It is an hour long celebration of black women – their spirit, their courage, their humanity. There is a scene, inspired by a real event, where the four young women want to enter a nightclub.  The women with a darker skin tone are told they cannot come in by a black male bouncer.  The song that followed was heartbreaking: “If I cry twice a day – will my skin eventually fade?”

This is an important work that needs to be seen.  It is a glaring shame that black women hoping and trying for heterosexual love are still banging against the twin walls of white fetishists and black hatred. Veronica Beatrice Lewis told me after the show that she feels her heart expand and mend after each performance.  Even if, like Maya Angelou’s poem, black women incredibly “still” find a way to “rise”, it is time to stop turning the shade of a woman’s skin into her burden.

Queens of Sheba will play at the New Diorama Theatre from 4 to 8 September.


Lights over Tesco Car Park

Photo courtesy of Poltergeist Theatre

A group of Oxford University drama students approaching graduation realize how little interaction they’ve had with the residents of the town they’ve been studying and living in for the past few years.  Guided by Bowie’s alter ego Ziggy Stardust, they go on a quest to make contact. Jack Bradfield founds theatre company Poltergeist (no, not after the film), actors Alice Boyd, Rosa Garland, Julia Pilkington and Will Spence get on board.  They find an empty stage, a rubber alien mask, and a box of flying saucer sweets. Will remembers seeing an alien ship when he was six, and Lights Over Tesco Car Park is born.

It is a quirky, heart-warming play that takes a gamble on the audience.  The whole theatre must take the “Are you an alien?” quiz. Random spectators are invited to come on stage and show surprise, sadness, serenity.  Others draw an alien. It’s interactive improvisation at its best, framed by the actors who play ‘themselves’ and manage to bring out their own space cadet side.

Are there strange red lights multiplying across the night sky above a Tesco car park?  Was the lion’s hallucination in the film Madagascar actually the magic of the island?  Bradfield explains that the play “emerges from a radical lack of context,” but the touch remains light and there is no requirement on our part to take any of it seriously.  It makes for a sense of wonder without bafflement and somehow by the end we do all feel connected to each other, holding up dozens of red lights with Life on Mars to swing them to.

Lights over Tesco Car Park will play at Pleasance Theatre, London from 13 to 14 October.

At the Fringe I: Hip-hop circus and anti-Brexit monologues

Death-defying acrobatics. Creepy immersive horror theatre. An anti-Brexit one-woman show. Where else could this be other than the Edinburgh Fringe? Isabelle Dupuy brings us the first of three roundups, carefully selecting a handful of must-see shows from the 966 on offer at the Fringe this year.

Margo: Half Woman, Half Beast

Photo courtesy of Cheyne Productions

Cabaret show Margo: Half Woman, Half Beast is a wonderful tribute to Weimar Berlin, written and performed by opera singer Melinda Hughes.  It’s a morning after, sometime in 1932, and actress and diva Margo Lion is chasing her hangover with a leftover cocktail on her boudoir table while the Nazis are moving in.

Inspired by true events, Hughes wants to promote a different kind of cabaret show in the UK. Margo is different through its subtlety, intelligence and focus on good (not funny) music.  With Michael Roulston on the piano and Alana Dawes on the double bass, Hughes takes us step by step through the dismantling of Turkish bisexual immigrant Margo’s world.

Alongside classic Weimar pieces such as ‘I Am a Vamp’ by Mischa Spoliansky, Hughes sings her own compositions, written with pianist Jeremy Limb, and the flow between the period and contemporary pieces is seamless.  Hughes and Limb’s ‘I Can’t Love’, about Margo’s tortured relationship with her Jewish lyricist husband Marcellus, rang so piercingly true it stayed with me long after the shocking end of the show.

There are no more performances of Margo: Half Woman, Half Beast at the Fringe.


Fear Itself

Photo courtesy of Danse Macabre Productions

On the other side of the Fringe, an interesting experiment in horror theatre is taking place.  Danse Macabre’s Fear Itself begins as a recorded presentation for a new self-help book about conquering fear.  The author, the recently divorced Dr Amanda Greenwood, is confident, free, reckless even, as she gives the finger and rolls her eyes at her ex who’s watching helplessly from his vantage point behind the camera.

Natalie Dawson has us convinced as she proceeds to shed layer after layer of Amanda’s sanity, until we are confused about what is real and what is inside Amanda’s mind.  Dawson’s Dr Greenwood keeps her scientific voice booming with authority as she takes us through increasingly bizarre and gruesome childhood terrors.  Or is it her research into real-life monstrous crimes?

They say the one fear we cannot conquer is the fear of what we have done.  Fear Itself hints at this conclusion, as we leave Dr Greenwood screaming on the floor. Has she really murdered her ex? We will never know, because at that point we are escorted out of the theatre.

Short form horror shows like Black Mirror and its predecessor The Twilight Zone rely on their ability to trick the audience into believing one story while something completely different is going on. The end is important because that is when the two strands come together and the truth is revealed. Fear Itself has great potential, but to create and maintain the surprise and shock inherent in a good horror show with only one performer was always going to be difficult. As it is, the show ends too abruptly.

There are no more performances of Fear Itself at the Fringe.


Universoul Circus: Hip Hop Under the Big Top

Photo: Boon Vong

Founded by African American Cedric Walker, Universoul is a circus with an emphasis on Afro-Caribbean talent and culture. The show is guaranteed to bring the heat of the Caribbean into the tent – no matter what the Edinburgh weather decides to do outside.

Since its first performance in an Atlanta parking lot in 1994, Universoul Circus has performed over 14,000 times to an audience of over 25 million people.  The founder’s ethos – “everyone belongs” – is all over the show, from the range of talents, to the breath of music and dance on show and the range of audience interaction.  We are given a hip hop dance lesson, we throw giant balloons, we lip-sync and, most of all, we gasp at the amazing acts.

Universoul Circus: Hip Hop under the Big Top will play until 25 August at Underbelly’s Circus Hub on the Meadows.


Diary of an Expat

Photo courstesy of The Other Richard

Up in a dark tower in Cowgate, a young Italian is going from being an EU expat to a more uncertain future as an immigrant in post-Brexit Britain.  Cecilia Gragnani, a graduate of the Drama Centre whose inspiration is 1950s’ Italian comedian Franca Valeri has written her own comedy chronicling the adventures of Chichilia in London. We follow her from her decision to pursue the “European Dream” to her arrival in the capital and her first job in the service industry. She makes friends with Ahmed, who wants to live with her to get papers, and finally decodes what the English mean by “lovely”.

London speaks to Chichilia through a voice over by Steve Wickenden, who by turns rebukes and reassures her.  In a moment of serious doubt, he reminds her that the city doesn’t “turn anyone away” – and tells her where to find a good sausage roll.

After a few years of adapting in London, Cecilia goes back to Italy and finds that she is different.  Her family and friends see the change too.  On the plane back, an Italian woman thinks she is British and compliments her on her good Italian.  It is a brilliant scene that illustrates the nightmare of every immigrant.  The moment when one is in limbo, neither fully integrated in the new country nor at home in their native land.

As Diary of an Expat bravely charges on, Chichilia doesn’t let the identity question stop her.  She meets a good Englishman, they move in together.  Her Italian family wring their hands at her fate, but Chichilia recognizes that it was her choice to leave Italy.  She wanted to make something of herself. London’s the place in Europe for that.

Writer and actress Cecilia Gragnani is a staunch European and wants future generations to enjoy the privileges that growing up in the EU gave her.  She credits the Erasmus pan-EU student exchange program more than any Italian school with broadening her horizons and her ambitions.  She is determined to fight for the European project, not just in the UK but in Italy as well.

The Brexit vote cuts deep into Chichilia.  It feels personal.  She doesn’t understand.  She has worked jobs British people do not want to do. She has paid taxes.  She has worked hard and she’s earned her place in Britain – and she won’t give it up easily. The last scene of Diary of an Expat is of Chichilia pledging allegiance after jumping through all the hoops and paying through the nose for a British passport.

She’s a British citizen now.  The voice-over compliments her and starts booming ‘God Save the Queen’. Chichilia puts a hand to her heart.  Not before placing a European flag on it first though.

Diary of an Expat will play until 26 August at Underbelly, Cowgate.

The Price of Polygamy: The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives at the Arcola Theatre

The ensemble of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives at the Arcola Theatre. Photo courtesy of Idil Sukan.

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives begins and ends with a young woman alone with her suitcases. “I have rejoined my life’s path,” she declares. Who can say that but someone who’s seen the future? In this case, the young woman, Bolanle (Marcy Dolapo Oni) has seen and left the past. A traditional, prosperous and provincial Nigerian family is set on a path of destruction when the patriarch Baba Segi, personified by Patrice Naiambana, decides to take a fourth wife. It’s a classic story: a family looks good from the outside but there is something rotten at its base; meanwhile, a careful web of power structures – between the husband and the wives and secrets among the wives themselves – holds it together. The catalyst arrives in the form of beautiful Bolanle with her university degree, faith in science, and a different kind of integrity.

Rotimi Babatunde’s adaptation of Lola Shoneyin’s prize-winning novel is alive with desire: visceral, physical, blinding desire. Femi Elufowoju’s assured direction affords enough nimble sidesteps that the action is never heavy. A local fortune teller called “The Teacher”, one of several roles played with aplomb by Ayan de First, tries to be solemn from the balcony while an abandoned woman steals the show from the other side of the room with her own brand of wisdom: “If not that women needed men’s seed for children, it would be better to sit on a finger of green plantain.”

Naiambana’s Baba Segi is a polygamous buffoon who knows that he is of a dying breed: the successful peasant businessman whose natural ecosystem is shrinking every day. “You want to marry that overfed orangutan?” Mama Bolanle (Ayo-Dele Edwards) despairs of her educated daughter’s choice. For some women it is no longer enough for the man to have an income. Bolanle, however, has her reasons. Soon she is in Baba Segi’s house with Iya Segi (Jumoke Fashola), the first wife who dreamt of making love to another woman on her wedding night; Iya Femi (Christina Oshunniyi), the second wife who believes in the devil; and e, the supposedly simple-minded Iya Tope who was given away to settle her father’s debts. It is a pleasure to see how distinctly each character is drawn although all four women are defined by their lack of power. The first three illiterate wives solve their problems in this unfair order through lies and mystifications. The fourth wife’s loss of power is incidental. She decides to address their problems differently. The eldest wife recognizes Bolanle for the threat that she is and decides together with Iya Femi and Iya Tope to eliminate her.

Rotimi Babatunde, recipient of the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2012, is ambitious. His show Feast, a collaborative work between five playwrights from as many countries, was no less than an epic through which Yoruba history was told spanning three hundred years and the entire planet. In The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, Babatunde, together with Femi Elufowoju, have put together a grand spectacle that captures the sun of West Africa and the warm energy that permeates everything there. From the drumming to Shola Ajayi’s costumes to the dancing that together, in effect, create the set, we are transported to Ibadan where, like everywhere, men and women think a lot about sex. And it is through sex that the changes brought on by the outside world are felt most deeply. Baba Segi must produce a sample of his sperm for lab analysis in a glass container. The scene around this event for a man who obviously prides himself on not needing to masturbate as he has four wives is nothing short of breathtaking.

When Iya Segi’s master plan goes horribly wrong, we feel her despair. Not because of her tears or her laments but because of her humility: her willingness to go on living, even though the worst thing that could happen to her just has. Baba Segi tells his sons what he’s learned: “Take one wife and one wife alone. And when she causes you pain, as all women do, remember it is better that your pain comes from one source.”

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives takes us to the sweet spot when a society is on the brink of profound change, before technology and the culture of efficiency take complete hold and there are still people who believe in the old ways and can interpret the new with the kind of wisdom that comes from living slowly and somewhat hopelessly.

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives continues at the Arcola Theatre until July 21st.

Love and Justice: Consent at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Left to right: Zara (Clare Foster), Edward (Stephen Campbell Moore) and Tim (Lee Ingleby) in Nina Raine’s Consent at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Photo courtesy of Johann Persson.

Human life is aimed at truth, even if the humans in question are lawyers.  Nina Raine’s Consent begins with an invitation into the privileged life of new mum Kitty (Claudie Blakley) and her alpha male super-barrister husband Edward (Stephen Campbell Moore) as they drink champagne in their new home with their university mates, fellow lawyers Rachel (Sian Clifford) and Jake (Adam James), who already have children.  The atmosphere is warm and real and we find ourselves sighing with satisfaction and a touch of envy at these winners of our meritocratic society who are surrounded by love, friendship, babies.  Of course, this confident prosperity must rest on something.

The play’s title refers to the “consent” in sexual relations.  A woman named Gayle (Heather Craney), on the day of her sister’s funeral, is raped. She turns to the law. It becomes a brutal, humiliating process for her but it’s just another day in the life for Edward who’s getting fed up listening to “bollocks in court”. Campbell Moore makes a compelling Edward, hubristic yet logical: “We’re not them. That’s why we’re paid to argue for them. Because they can’t string two fucking words together.” Can the ability to communicate convincingly shield him from the human condition?

Nina Raine began her career as a trainee director at the Royal Court and since has won numerous awards as both director and writer, including the Olivier Award for Best New Play with Tribes and the TMA Best Director Award for Unprotected. Consent, after a successful run at the National Theatre, has just transferred to the West End under the direction of Roger Michell.

Raine invites us to explore what psychotherapist Darian Leader calls the “possibility that human life is aimed at both success and failure and never simply at wealth, power and happiness,” especially in highly educated, intelligent people. Her 2011 play Tiger Country was about surgeons in a busy NHS hospital. In the operating room just as in court, egos rule. “I don’t think I’m God,” Edward protests with such innocuous candour that the audience burst out laughing.

Soon, the play’s title acquires a more ambiguous meaning. What does it mean to “consent” to marry, to have children, to tie up our future with someone who understands the rules but has no empathy? Can we “consent” to a purely transactional partnership? Adam James’s likeable rogue Jake cannot regret being unfaithful but expects Rachel to accept it because she too is a lawyer and they both know that staying together is the most logical outcome for the family. A very enjoyable bout of verbal “boxing” between Edward and awkward prosecutor Tim (Lee Ingleby) spirals out of control, and the object of this joust, actress Zara (Clare Foster), flirts back with the winner, regardless of the fact he is the married one. Claudie Blakley’s dishevelled and disillusioned Kitty seems to be the only one aware of the “corruption” that comes with being paid to cross-examine victims of rape and other abuses and yet even she is unable to escape the pull of destruction.

“Why do people do it?” asks Tim, who dreams of a family as he sits alone in his haunted flat.  The set by Hildegard Bechtler is dark and efficient.  A sofa and a sheet under Michell’s direction are a chance for an estranged couple to try humility, a softening of the heart, a surrender. Without saying a single word, the gods have disintegrated. Human life can begin. For a play about people who talk for a living, it is a genuine feat.

Consent continues at the Harold Pinter Theatre until August 11th 2018. 

Healing and Listening: The Listening Project at Tara Theatre

Tara Theatre in Earlsfield.

“The family of Britain is torn apart – Brexit has made that very apparent.”  Tara Theatre’s creative director Jatinder Verma wants to be part of the healing of our society. One way he does this is by staging the too-often hidden stories of women and minorities. Under the banner “I’ll Say It Again”, the Tara Theatre has planned a month of performances to celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK.

The first event is a special edition of the BBC’s The Listening Project. Hosted by Fi Glover, it is an intimate and impactful experience that fits well with Tara’s size and ethos. Verma’s inspiration is the great epic story of India, the Mahabharata, which can be translated into “The Story of the World” and yet is the story of one family. Glover begins by explaining the purpose of The Listening Project: “Other programmes can detail the political imperative but we speak in lives.  Tiny moments, moats of experience… all of which combine to tell our important shared story.”

We are given Radio 4-branded blindfolds. The hour-long event was a mix of pure listening experience  – with our eyes closed – of recorded conversations, and of a live discussion on stage between Glover and four women artists who each will be performing in their own production at Tara later this month. The stories ranged from panellist Dina Mousawi’s tale of a Syrian wife braving bombs and explosions to retrieve a chicken she had left behind in her refrigerator when she evacuated to an intimate conversation between a mother in Northern Ireland and her grown daughter about the word feminism.

Glover guides us with impeccable timing and direction between the blind listening and the naked-eye live panel: the experience felt like being a guest at a family party. Statements on equal pay and glass ceilings were intertwined with reminiscing about a long-dead grandmother. We listened to a daughter explain how she is affected by her mother’s experience of escaping Nazi Germany while the mother is still just happy to be alive. Actress and panellist Medhavi Patel plays out with great verve (and Indian accent) the famous line that Jayaben Desai told her sexist, racist factory manager – a line that started a whole civil rights movement. Ninety-two year-old veteran actress Eileen Page answers “absolutely not!” when Glover asks her if she’d rather be a young woman today and she exhorts women to “not lose their womanness”. We listen to a recording of a black mother and daughter talk about how Brexit unleashed racism in Britain in ways they did not imagine and the challenges of raising a black or mixed-race child in this society. And we see panellist Jules Haworth talk about the post-referendum surge in interest in Natasha Marshall’s Half-Breed, a play about race and identity.

The end of the programme was like a family celebration, with some of the women on tape present in the audience.  There were hugs and clapping and food and the bar at the theatre quickly filled up. I walked back to the station with a spring in my step. Talk about healing. This is what it’s like to feel, if only temporarily, that you belong.

I’ll Say It Again! continues at Tara Theatre until June 2nd.

The Price of Her Desire: The Writer at the Almeida Theatre

Romola Garai in Ella Hickson’s The Writer at the Almeida Theatre. Photo courtesy of Manuel Harlan.

Why would men not try to understand what women want? That is the question Ella Hickson sets out to answer in her latest play The Writer. The story begins with an impromptu conversation between a theatre director (Samuel West) standing alone on his stage after the show is over and a twenty-four-year-old student (Lara Rossi) who runs back into the empty room to retrieve her forgotten backpack. First, he admonishes her: “You’re not supposed to be here.” Then he asks what she thought of his play.

There follows a brilliant exchange between the condescending but impressed (or is it aroused?) West and the angry and articulate, not to mention powerless, Rossi. Yes, she says things like “dismantle capitalism and overturn the patriarchy; however, she also admits to coming back to this theatre, alone, week after week because she needs to “heal” and she is hoping to see something “real”, something that supports her desire for “the world to change shape”.

Rossi is poignant in her faith in art. She makes a fresh plea for what theatre could be and The Writer is worth seeing if only for the opening scene. West, like us, is seduced. He offers her to write a play for “his” theatre.  She reminds him they’ve been there before. It turns out they’ve met a few years back. She was even younger and he made her believe in her talent and in his integrity and then tried to kiss her.

That’s it. The scene is cut. We move then to a discussion about that “reading”. #MeToo is another obstacle on the path. The play is about desire. Romola Garai is the Writer. That’s what she desires: to feel, to create, to be heard. We meet her at the beginning of her career, almost stuttering with insecurity as she tries to defend her work before the Director (Michael Gould), who flippantly tells her what he wants her to do if she wants her play produced. She is nobody. Why would he try to understand what she is trying to say?

Ella Hickson is just thirty-three years old but is already considered a major playwright. Her first play, Eight, produced while she was still a student at the University of Edinburgh, won a Fringe First Award, the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award and the National Student Drama Festival Emerging Artists Award in 2008. The Writer is her second play to premiere at the Almeida after Oil in 2016.

This two-hour show is structured as a mosaic of scenes that transform before our eyes, with Anna Fleischle’s multiple sets being built and dismantled as part of the action. Blanche McIntyre’s tight and focused direction keeps our eyes on the prize: the making of a writer. Every scene marks a gain in confidence that Garai acquires with great pain: it is on her face, in her body, the price of her desire.

Men try to derail her. They know if not what she wants, then definitely what she needs. Her Boyfriend (West, this time as an ordinary guy) hands her a beautiful live baby. Garai admires the child but keeps her head: “This baby belongs to the woman in the wings!” No metaphor here: a woman with a black T-shirt and headphones does indeed appear from the side to take back her baby. The stage is later covered in hundreds of white lines as Garai goes on a mystical trip and is finally able to connect with herself. It is lovely.

But this is not an ending, she is told by the Director. Not in the commercial sense.

“Money is safety,” Garai is told. “Courage is safety,” a now confident Garai responds.

Yet watching the last scene, it feels like the Director won. There is food and sex and luxury. Whereas the audience laughed and scoffed at the sounds of Garai and West having intercourse on the plastic-covered sofa he’d just bought, the theatre went quiet as Garai’s partner, Lara Rossi’s Student, goes down on her and she comes on the designer sofa. There is clearly a hierarchy in this couple although there are no men to be seen. It is not a question of gender. It is about what happens to human beings when they acquire power and Garai is no exception. It’s disappointing. If this is where the journey ends, we have the answer to the original question. Men do understand what women want. They just don’t like it.

The Writer continues at the Almeida Theatre until May 26 2018.

The Fears of Mothers: Spiked at the Pleasance Theatre

Photo courtesy of the Pleasance Theatre.

The premise is gripping and timely. Somewhere in London, an entire classroom of fifteen-year-olds is suddenly and mysteriously taken ill.  Two, then three mothers sit anxiously together in a hospital waiting room, speculating in the absence of any real information about what happened.  Could it be a chemical attack?  Anthrax?  Asbestos?  The police arrive.  The mothers are still not briefed. The tension rises.

Félicité Du Jeu, an actress and graduate of LAMDA, grew up in Paris in a multi-cultural household and has been living in England for the past twenty years. After witnessing segregation and tribalism at the school gates, she decided to write a play about “what mothers have in common rather than focus on their differences.”

Spiked throws three unlikely women together in a cramped waiting room.  Joanna (Charlotte Asprey) is an entitled wife blessed with a nice and uneventful enough life – a life sufficiently nice and uneventful that she can afford to be neurotic about her daughter’s asthma and self-centred and righteous about her fear, as if she felt more somehow than the other afflicted mothers. Karen (Daniella Dessa) is a working-class single mother who’s had it hard enough that she knows how to brace herself for bad news.  Rozhin (Katie Clark) is a Kurdish immigrant who bites her fingers with anxiety but keeps her pleasant manner with the hesitancy of the guest, not sure how to handle her hosts under the circumstances.

Joanna, Karen and Rozhin are well drawn characters and they all sound true.  The problems begin when they interact with each other. Instead of using their backgrounds as springboards to reach their inner selves – to shed light on who they are as humans beyond their circumstances – the dialogue remains trapped in stereotypes. Rozhin explains to Karen that she did not “move here to take anything from her but to have a better life” and she exhorts her son Hemin to be “proud” of his Kurdish heritage. It’s too generic. Rozhin only rises above being a mouthpiece for all immigrants everywhere at the end of the play when she discovers social media.

Meanwhile, the animosity between Joanna and Karen has no other apparent cause than their class differences.  When Joanna finally has a specific reason to criticise Karen, her arguments remain – to use the word again – generic.  So much so that it got me thinking that, as types go, their heated discussion was more reminiscent of a French altercation than a British one – where the tendency, especially in middle-class circles, is not to be confrontational.

Diversity in London schools is a big topic. According to the Guardian, in 2012 70% of primary school pupils in Tower Hamlets had a first language that was not English.  In Brent, the percentage of non-white pupils in secondary school was 94.5%. Du Jeu is right. The path to integration goes through the mothers and their finding a common ground no matter where they come from. The end of the play is beautiful, with a video of feathers fluttering in the background of Cecilie Gravesen’s otherwise sober set while we listened to a recording of the answers Du Jeu received when she asked dozens of mothers what they wanted for their children. The same words kept coming back: happiness, happiness, health and peace.

Spiked continues at the Pleasance Theatre until April 28th.

A Change Is Gonna Come: Caroline, or Change at the Hampstead Theatre

Caroline Thibodeaux (Sharon D. Clarke) and Rose Stopnick-Gellman (Lauren Word) in Caroline, or Change at the Hampstead Theatre. Photo courtesy of Alastair Muir.
“There are places inside us only song can reach.”  Tony Kushner is best known for Angels in America, his Pulitzer winning play from the early nineties that became an HBO miniseries. Caroline, or Change, first performed in 2003 as an Off-Broadway production, is his first musical. It’s a semi-autobiographical play about a white Jewish boy named Noah (Charlie Gallacher and Aaron Gelkoff) whose mum has died and who yearns for the love of the family’s African-American help Caroline (Sharon D. Clarke).  The year is 1963 in a small town in Louisiana and Noah is too young to understand why Caroline holds back even as he proudly speaks of her as “our maid.” In the year of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a few years before that of Martin Luther King, change is coming, however – even in Lake Charles.

The show begins with Fly Davis’s empty set. A dimly lit town square, a statue of a Confederate soldier in the middle, the past dead as stone. And then the present erupts. In the basement of the Gellman house where Caroline’s work companions, the washing machine and the tumble dryer come to life to serenade her, the radio becomes a trio out of Motown with matching wigs and antennas on their head, all portents of a new dawn – one that Caroline, in a soaring performance by Sharon D. Clarke, is too weary to believe.

Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori have written a fierce, rousing opera (the entire play is sung through) celebrating that turning point in American history that was the Civil Rights Movement.  At its core, though, Caroline, or Change is a love letter. The wounded white boy has grown up. He wants Caroline to know that she did not suffer in vain. That he appreciates and loves her as a human being.  And what better way to communicate this than through music.

Tesori said that Caroline, or Change changed the way she saw musical theatre. There is no sentimentality here. Racism strips everybody of their humanity, oppressor as well as oppressed.  Noah describes his melancholic father Stuart (Alastair Brookshaw) as “a clarinet.” The new wife from New York, Rose Stopnick (Lauren Ward), turns into a caricature of a mean Southern housewife. And Caroline, who is alone with four children to feed, tries so hard to be like the machines she operates because she “can’t afford” to feel – only for us to watch the full power of her heart, her memories, her love manifest in her voice.

Michael Longhurst’s direction in the small Hampstead Theatre is full of energy; the nearly twenty-strong cast move seamlessly. There is a rhythmic quality to the production that carries us through the first act but the magic is in the second when the Confederate statue disappears mysteriously one night and is found headless in “Choo Choo Bayou.” Caroline’s teenage daughter, Emmie (Abiona Omonua), is jubilant about the fate of that symbol of slavery and racism and so is Caroline’s forward-looking friend Dotty (Naana Agyei-Ampadu). Caroline herself, however, is disapproving: she still sees struggle as futile but the tension is building. Until something happens in the basement of the house and Caroline must make a choice.

There is a popular storyline these days about middle-aged women pushed to the brink of despair by loss.  They often end in murder or suicide and they’re usually about white middle-class women. Caroline, too, has lost the man she loves; she has trouble providing for her family; she, too, is alone. She swallows her humiliation and digs for the strength to go on and with every gulp, her face tightens.

Emmie sings: “Change come fast and change come slow, but everything changes and you got to go.”  

And this is where Kushner shines.  Change comes from within. Caroline does not need to turn “into salt” to ensure her and her children’s survival.  She can allow herself to feel. She can stop swallowing and pretending she’s not human. Caroline has changed.

And the world would follow.

Caroline, or Change continues at the Hampstead Theatre until April 21 2018. It will then transfer to the West End’s Playhouse Theatre from November 20 to February 9.