Plays With Music: Vernon God Little at The Space

Callum McGowan plays the title role in Burn Bright Theatre's production of Vernon God Little.
Callum McGowan plays the title role in Burn Bright Theatre’s production of Vernon God Little.

“If music be the food of love, play on,” entreats Duke Orsino at the start of Shakespeare’s beloved comedy Twelfth Night. The playwright here touches on the emotional impact music hopes to have on listeners – the idea that it can feed or exacerbate affection suggests song shares this important aim with prose, and in particular drama. Through the years, a whole host of other playwrights have chosen to mingle music – whether instrumental or vocal – into their dramatic works: to elevate atmosphere, cement character or simply to tug at our heartstrings. The majority of performances wouldn’t be complete without soundscapes and musical accompaniment lending a helping hand behind the scenes, even if it’s just to disguise complicated set changes.

But alongside the more obvious partnership between song and stage we are presented with in musicals, in recent years we have also seen something of a resurgence for “plays with music”, in which songs are woven into the action but generally are not used to move stories along but rather to comment from a distance on the main narrative or as shorthand for themes or moments of pathos. In a similar manner to Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children, “plays with music” can allow us to take a step back or a breather and reflect on what we have just seen, or use song to introduce characters or a change in mood or place. Some key examples of this form of theatre have been offered up by prolific adaptor (Liolá, Dara) and playwright in her own right Tanya Ronder.

Debuting in 2007 at the Young Vic, and now ambitiously revived by fledgling company Burn Bright Theatre at The Space in the Docklands, Ronder’s best known “play with music” is perhaps her adaptation of DBC Pierre’s novel Vernon God Little. To this frenzied, politically charged tale of a teenager accused of massacring a shocking number of his neighbours and classmates, Ronder adds a healthy dose of country and western music (a reflection of the Texas setting chosen by Pierre), and it’s an element that Burn Bright Theatre really run with and build upon in their version of the play. Director Katherine Timms states that she and musical director Odinn Orn Hilmarsson wanted “to make the most of the country music featured in the script” and that they enjoyed “adding in original songs to support Vernon’s story and enhance the characters’ emotional journeys”. In this respect the cast certainly succeed, all of them displaying impressive vocal talent and even playing a variety of instruments from banjos to ukuleles as they take us on a rollicking ride through the Great American Songbook. Although it could be argued that at times the song-and-dance interludes detract from the story and don’t always add much to what we are told by the dialogue, there are also clear moments when the music heightens emotion and aids the audience in understanding characters, a particularly poignant highlight being Ella’s (Elinor Machen-Fortune) plaintive rendition of classic “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”

The members of Burn Bright Theatre have definitely set themselves a challenge with the multifaceted Vernon God Little, and their energy levels and skill with switching between multiple roles and places over the course of the piece are highly admirable. For the most part the cast find a good balance between dialogue and song. The frequent moments when the show abruptly becomes a full-on hoedown are ably supported by Bart Edwards (slimily charismatic Lally), Laura Hyde, Milli Proust and Charlie Haskins in particular, though the entire cast display impressive commitment to both musical and non-musical segments. Somewhat less successful is the more overtly shocking second half, in which events come to a head and we are confronted with some unsettling death row scenes. At times the decibel count reached eardrum-threatening heights, and we were reminded of the limited room to belt out the blues afforded by The Space. The acoustics weren’t always entirely helpful, rendering some moments nearly inaudible, and fewer scenes involving lots of characters all shouting at once would perhaps have been appreciated. Happily though there were sufficient introspective, quieter moments to keep the audience on side, and many young performers on stage who truly deserve to go far – especially the consistently convincing Callum McGowan as protagonist Vernon, who really holds the show together and helps to paper over some of the flawed aspects of the production.

In 2013, Ronder paid another visit to the world of “plays with music” in original piece Table, first performed in the National Theatre’s Shed space (currently the Temporary Theatre). This family epic, centred on the titular piece of furniture, was both sprawling and intimate, covering even more physical ground than her Vernon God Little but finding more time for raw emotion and thoughtful exploration of characters’ behaviour. Here again a multi-talented group of actors – including Paul Hilton, Rosalie Craig (the wonderful star of musical The Light Princess) and Penny Layden, who happens to have also played police officer Vaine in the original Young Vic production of Ronder’s Vernon God Little – assembled to tell a richly emotional and regularly hilarious tale in which music had a crucial role. The script calls for the actors to perform a mixture of Christian hymns, traditional English songs and even a Swahili rhyme, leading to many of the most stirring or humorous moments and strengthening the play’s themes of heritage and intercultural relations. In the second half, traditional folk song “Lay Me Low”, often linked to the World Wars, accompanies a moment of great pathos within the play’s action and proves to be the perfect way to demonstrate how the characters are feeling. Among many beautiful elements, the music in Table is what truly lifts the play and makes it one of the best pieces of drama I have experienced. It’s a piece that would also match the undoubted talents of Burn Bright Theatre company, and if I had to suggest a direction to go in for this energetic company I definitely think they could do worse than look to another “play with music” by Tanya Ronder.

Vernon God Little continues at The Space until April 11th.


Literary Parenthood: Radiant Vermin at the Soho Theatre

Sean Michael Verey and Gemma Whelan in Philip Ridley's Radiant Vermin at the Soho Theatre.
Sean Michael Verey and Gemma Whelan in Philip Ridley’s Radiant Vermin at the Soho Theatre.

Who’d be a parent? Perhaps the age-old question should be “Who’d be a literary parent?” Certainly, a trawl through the annals of literature throws up any number of characters the world might have been better off without – many of them with a complicated relationship to their mothers and fathers. From Oedipus and Electra to contemporary plays like Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County and Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living (which recently opened in the National’s Dorfman Theatre), writers have long mined the fraught arena of familial relations for drama, and often at the centre we’ll find a mother and father trying to understand and support their offspring.

Another playwright who keeps returning to the concept of parents and children is Philip Ridley, whose scintillating and regularly challenging plays are often built on the foundation of family. He has moved from the vanished parents serving as a backdrop and possible explanation for the action in The Pitchfork Disney, through the brothers returning to their dead mother’s house in Piranha Heights, and has now come to rest on a play that revolves around a young mum and dad and their desire to create a better life for themselves and “for Baby”: the darkly hilarious Radiant Vermin, currently on at the Soho Theatre.

Choosing an alternative route to that of many children’s authors (of which Ridley can be counted too), rather than rendering parents deceased or absent, Ridley this time presents us with a female protagonist who is pregnant throughout the majority of the action and couples her with an anxious yet devoted father-to-be. As the consistently likeable (which should perhaps be more of a stretch considering some of their behaviour during the play!) central couple Ollie and Jill, Gemma Whelan and Sean Michael Verey paint a strong picture of two young people whose bond has been cemented by the imminent arrival of their offspring. While Radiant Vermin operates very successfully as a damning commentary on the housing market and the economy in general, the focus on family and the lengths we will go to in order to secure a safe and happy future for our relatives is far from secondary. We are never allowed to forget that Ollie and Jill have convinced themselves that they are acting selflessly and in the best interests of Baby, whether it’s Jill shying away from some of the more violent acts described by her husband as she is worried about the effect it will have on her child, or both characters pondering how they will manage to keep up the necessary “renovations” when they have an extra mouth to feed. It’s impossible to discuss the play without ruining a key plot point so please look away now if you’re spoiler-squeamish. Early on in Radiant Vermin, Ollie and Jill enter into a Faustian pact in the form of a housing contract with Miss Dee, played with lip-smacking glee and sly glances to the audience by Amanda Daniels. They will be given a dream home without the need for a mortgage or administration fees, but they will have to decorate it themselves. As it transpires, the most effective way to do so is to murder an exponentially increasing number of the homeless, without their neighbours noticing.

This deliciously nasty premise allows Ridley to point a critical finger at mortgage brokers and a society that leaves those most in need of housing without it. Our sympathy is entirely with this young family, and we are even asked at one point if we agree with the path Ollie and Jill have embarked upon. By depicting two people who are very easy to side with – much of the humour of the piece arises from their navigation of everyday married life and their respective approaches to looking after their home – Ridley perhaps sets himself, and the audience, less of a challenge than he has been known to do in the past. My mind went back to his earlier drama The Fastest Clock in the Universe: while we do come to feel a great deal of sympathy for Sherbet Gravel (like Jill, visibly pregnant) and Foxtrot Darling, the young parents at the heart of this wickedly tragic play, at first they seem hopelessly naïve (Foxtrot) and annoyingly abrasive and oblivious (Sherbet). It’s only once we have learned more about the life they want for themselves and their baby (ringing any bells?) that we truly feel the horrible impact of what happens at the conclusion of the piece. Personally I’ve seen few things more chilling on stage than Sherbet Gravel’s joyous boasts about “the future one” turning into a plaintive whimper as her dreams collapse around her.

Ridley shows us, as many playwrights have before him, that the trials of parenthood are guaranteed to put us through the emotional wringer. While the National Theatre’s production of Medea last year may have been a little uneven in quality, I doubt many would deny the power of Helen McCrory’s titular performance, very clearly going through psychological hell as a murderous mother. Arthur Miller, whose realist plays about the family are a cornerstone of American literature, returned time and again to parents and children: Willy and Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman are arguably the best-known and most affecting example, but the Kellers in All My Sons and the Carbones in A View from the Bridge can have just as shattering and profound an impact on audiences in the right hands, as the Young Vic revival of the latter play starring the immensely talented Mark Strong and Nicola Walker has proven. The riveting tale of Martha and George in Edward Albee’s brilliant Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? also hinges on a child – their son, who may be dead or alive or just about anything in between. Their arguments and cruel games are given weight by the often-unspoken emotional burden of having been, or perhaps being, parents.

It sometimes seems as if becoming a parent is an inevitable road to misery, if literature is anything to go by. Thankfully there’s a not-insignificant list of happy parents to contradict that notion – Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird (regularly adapted for the stage), Caractacus Potts in the beloved musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and even non-human characters like Mufasa in The Lion King spring to mind. And although Ollie and Jill have to go through some unpleasant events to get there, it seems at the end of Radiant Vermin that they are pleased to have had their baby. It’s a surprisingly upbeat conclusion for the notoriously hard-hitting Ridley, and combined with the incredible performances from the Soho Theatre cast (particularly in the penultimate segment, in which Whelan and Verey take on the mammoth task of switching between characters at their son’s birthday party at a hurtling rate) it makes for Ridley’s most purely entertaining and funny show to date. But it’s anyone’s guess what peculiar offspring he’ll conjure up next.

Radiant Vermin continues at the Soho Theatre until April 12.

This Is Wonderland: The Carrollian Lure of the Circus

Airealism's Down the Rabbit Hole recently played at the Vault Festival.
Airealism’s Down the Rabbit Hole recently played at the Vault Festival.

Popular culture has a long-held fascination with the world of the circus – the heady cocktail of lights, sounds and motion – and it doesn’t seem likely to loosen its grip on our imaginations any time soon. When buccaneering erstwhile cabinet maker Philip Astley conceived the modern circus in the 1740s, he could not have foreseen just how far its colourful aesthetic would permeate modern entertainment as a whole: literature, music, film, television.

In recent years, US viewers have explored the sinister side of the circus in Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Freak Show, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus has leapt off bookshop shelves and a production of Barnum (the musical life story of PT Barnum, “America’s Greatest Showman” and the creator of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus) has proven such a success that it is currently touring the UK’s theatres. That’s not to mention 2005’s dark fantasy MirrorMask (an enchanting co-creation from Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean), nor the continued popularity of the renowned Cirque du Soleil.

So it’s perhaps no wonder that creative types have begun to consider the possibilities of transposing this fantastical circus atmosphere onto already-established works of art. Enter Airealism, a company made up of circus performers, with their production Down the Rabbit Hole at our favourite underground arts venue The Vaults. As you might have guessed, Lewis Carroll’s much-loved children’s books are the inspiration behind this display of acrobatic magic, in which the characters we know from Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass become merged with a circus setting, navigating the trapeze and silk ropes with consummate ease.

The more I thought about it, the more Alice in Circusland seems an obvious transition – both the books and this performance style share a surreal aesthetic and trade off exaggerated physicality and characterisation. We can probably all reel off a list of circus acts we’d expect to see when visiting the Big Top, and equally such figures as the Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter and Queen of Hearts are instantly recognisable.

Tim Burton’s flawed but visually dazzling big-budget reimagining of the same story, which hit cinemas in 2010, also seems suffused with the circus. The film works from a bright colour palette that we might more readily associate with the world of clowns and acrobats – a frightening authority figure in red (the Queen of Hearts is certainly the ringmaster of the piece!), a madman in a striking orange clown’s fright-wig and the stripes-and-dungarees combo worn by goofy twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to picture these latter characters tumbling out of an undersized car, and Burton also uses CGI to render his actors’ bodies more rounded and bulbous, underlining their weirdness. It’s a production design we can expect to see repeated in Burton’s upcoming sequel, and acts as a contemporary updating of the 1951 Disney version (which also had a strong circus-like colour scheme and psychedelic feel to match Carroll’s writing).

Burton and Disney aren’t the only ones who’ve played on the links between Alice and the circus: Angela Carter’s fantastical Nights at the Circus shares many of the same themes and recreates the atmosphere of Carroll’s novels, with characters even quoting from them at times; the aforementioned MirrorMask centres on an Alice-like protagonist in an alternate reality (though in this case she goes from circus to fantasy world); and Jan Švankmajer’s 1988 Alice contains giant dolls, creepy animals and contains a “glorious proliferation of magical transformations [which] works like a charm on anyone who values the imagination.”

The circus and Wonderland are united by the idea of escape – to a world at once very different and oddly familiar. The notion is reinforced by Airealism’s decision to take us on an aeroplane ride in order to reach Wonderland at the start of Down the Rabbit Hole: we journey to a strange place but know that, like Alice, we will be allowed to return to real life in the end. Alice’s trip to the circus of Wonderland is both a challenge to the senses and a comforting reassurance that she has a place even in a world that seems baffling and strange, and this feeling encapsulates the effect that the circus experience has had on audiences worldwide since its conception.

VAULT Festival 2015: Love to Love to Love You

The cast of Love To Love To Love You, written, directed by and starring Florence Keith-Roach.
The cast of Love To Love To Love You, written, directed by and starring Florence Keith-Roach.

Bringing a modern flavour to a classic piece of writing (whether a novel, poem or play) is no mean feat, but sometimes those well-worn pages need a bit of dusting off and ridding of cobwebs. Luckily, the Vault Festival grants a variety of companies the chance to put their own spin on the old and overly familiar. That’s just what young playwright and performer Florence Keith-Roach has chosen to attempt with her disco-infused updating of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde. Love to Love to Love You’s slightly unwieldy title makes perfect sense as soon as a certain dancefloor staple comes booming through the speakers, and it’s a clever notion to match the physicality of dance with La Ronde’s exploration of a whole different sort of body movement.

There’s no getting round it – this is a show about sex: sometimes sensual, often messy and complicated, and capturing all the awkward, electric energy of first encounters between people of varying ages and experience levels. A listless mimed rendition of the titular song introduces us to The Gigolo, played by Ed Digby-Jones as a louche, casually scornful demi-god, and his backing dancers – recurring archetypes Destiny (Kurtis Okasi) and Chastity (Luke Thompson). From there we shimmy our way through a succession of liaisons between the interconnected cast of six. The piece has a suitably strong, steady rhythm to it and its own satisfyingly circular structure, though at times this does lead to a vague sense of déjà-vu, with the script lacking any major tonal shifts.

It’s perhaps a result of a performance time (6.30 pm) that doesn’t exactly lend itself to daring displays of flesh and passion, but Love to Love to Love You never manages to be all that risqué or challenging, in its fairly conventional view of heterosexual relationships. It is nonetheless an entertaining production, thanks to the majority of its performers (most notably Harriet Green as the wide-eyed yet sly Student and Keith-Roach herself as the bolshy, ultimately out of her depth, Teen) bringing an infectious sense of fun to their roles, and relishing the generously scattered moments of humour. On the side of the men, Tom Ross-Williams comes across as most comfortable with his caricature of a role (The Personal Trainer) and gets some good laughs from the audience for his pent-up sexual frustration in the face of the more wily women.

Keith-Roach is clearly interested by the power play between men and women, and turns a keen eye on social expectations and double standards at various points over the course of the hour. Overall, the script feels a little constricted by its classification as a comedy – a few darker moments might have been welcome. The only true hints of something below the surface come from the Teen’s final encounter with the Gigolo, when she finds herself faced with the frighteningly real consequences of a one-night stand: pregnancy and STDs.

In general, the actors are at their best in the play’s most physical moments, whether abruptly grinding to a halt in the throes of passion during the scene between The Teen and The Artist, or the Student’s purportedly innocent demonstration of her gymnastic ability with the Personal Trainer. They are most confident and flamboyant of all in the dance breaks between scenes, which made me wonder if the show could do with more dancing and less dialogue, but once they’ve settled into their roles a little more I expect them to bring more of this lively energy to their acting too. Considering I saw what amounted to a dress rehearsal, there was admirably little line-fluffing, and the technical aspects of the show were handled seamlessly by stage manager Maud Dromgoole. The costumes (designed by Lily Ashley) were a particularly amusing highlight – the actors all wear white, with holes cut out of multiple sections of their clothing: a cheeky reflection of the characters’ casual attitude towards sex.

Love to Love to Love You is a solid examination of flirtation and flings, and an enticing glimpse of what Keith-Roach is capable of as both writer and actor. Supported by a cast who will undoubtedly have improved throughout the run as they loosen up and embrace the ridiculous side of the show more, she is certainly one to watch: as is this show.

VAULT Festival 2015: There’s a Monster in the Lake

There's A Monster In The Lake
There’s a Monster in the Lake opens this year’s VAULT Festival.

Spoken Mirror’s There’s a Monster in the Lake marked my third visit to the underground Vaults below Waterloo station, and turned out to be further proof – if proof were needed – of the versatility of this unconventional performance space. This time the audience venture upstairs to The Crescent, an attic-like room accessed via a corridor playing home to some sinister disembodied mannequins’ legs and a scattering of assorted scenery from past productions.

In The Crescent itself, the stage is set for a show that moves from whimsical to surreal and back again, pleasantly pulling us along with it. To tell the tale of Kazek – an elderly man in a stern and stark care facility – and his daughters Mari and Esme (one beleaguered yet fiercely devoted to her father, the other more open to his flights of fancy), the ragtag company escort us through an eerie, enchanted woodland filled with eccentric characters and out the other side. We meet a wolf (fixated on his health and safety guidebook) who used to guide young girls to their grannies’ houses but stopped on being told it was sexist, and dance with the Devil, while Kazek applies for the competitive – and possibly imaginary – position of King of the Woods.

The whole thing is part fairy-story, part folk-tale, with a distinct taste of Anthony Neilson’s celebrated The Wonderful World of Dissocia. Like its Fringe hit predecessor, it somewhat surprisingly plumbs emotional depths as we learn more about its protagonists: in this case Kazek and his offspring. It transpires that ‘There’s a Monster in the Lake’ is also the title of a story told to Mari and Esme by their dad when they were children, lending an air of wistful reminiscence to proceedings and giving the writer and performers space to examine the different ways people grow up and move beyond the escapist realm of fantasy – or fail to, as the case may be.

Wizened yet flighty Kazek is a Peter Pan-like figure, clinging to dreams of ruling at the side of the woods’ seductive queen while still entranced by his daughter’s balletic dancing. Young playwright Tallulah Brown’s sparky, winning script leaves room for some beautiful singing from a quartet stationed behind the seating bank, crooning lullabies and mesmerising layered harmonies to bookend scenes and conjure an intimate yet otherworldly atmosphere. We can never be sure whether what we are presented with on stage is really happening, or is just a figment of Kazek and Esme’s imaginations, though a potential clue comes when Mari claims to hear strains of song from deep within the woods.

Inevitably, much of the buzz around this show has been due to the presence of Cressida Bonas in the cast – she displays a fun light touch as the Cockney Wolf, skilfully navigating the lion’s share of the comedic lines and seamlessly integrating into the company, but the three leads (Zoe Stevens, Zena Carswell and Florence Keith-Roach) certainly make us empathise more and have greater scope to delve into the behaviour of their characters. An award for stand-out performer would have to go to Carswell, who as Mari (the more harangued yet practical of the two siblings) paints an always-believable picture of a worried but realistic daughter and hits some great heights of pathos in her interactions with Kazek’s nurse (Tara Postma, doubling as the Queen) and her sister Esme (the effervescent and earnest Keith-Roach) in particular. The cast is rounded out by Hugo Nicholson as a seemingly hypochondriac Devil retaining his wily charm despite near-constant headaches, and everyone on stage showcases skilful physicality and confidence in creating such wacky characters, helped along by director Lily Ashley. The decision to cast a young actress (Zoe Stevens) as the central old man does make you wonder if it would have been more emotionally impactful to have a male actor play the part, but she manages to capture Kazek’s vivacity mixed with frailty very well and is best of all in the care home scenes that bring the old man’s relationship with his daughters to the fore.

A rarity in the often-bloated world of theatre, There’s a Monster in the Lake feels like a piece that could easily be expanded and lengthened – as it is, the show is a touching theatrical tidbit: an hour in the company of an aging adventurer whose fiery imagination illuminates the Waterloo Vaults and provides a stirring opening to this year’s Vault Festival.

There’s a Monster in the Lake returns to the Vaults Feb 11-15. Tickets are £13.50.

Unhappy In Their Own Way: 3 Winters at the National Theatre

3 Winters at the National Theatre. Photo © Ellie Kurttz.
3 Winters at the National Theatre. Photo © Ellie Kurttz.

Expanding on Tolstoy’s concept that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, 3 Winters is a sprawling yet intimate portrait of familial conflict across three generations in the home they build following the devastation of the Second World War. As the action switches between 1945, 1990 and 2011, playwright Tena Štivičić and a strong ensemble cast delve into the lives of the Kos family – with a particular focus on its fiery females.

The play’s believably colourful cast of characters runs the gauntlet from Jo Herbert’s pregnant Rose King – fighting against post-war strictures and hoping for a new start in a home chosen almost at random in a government office – through hard-working matriarch Masha Kos to her two daughters Alisa and Lucia. In a beautiful piece of staging design from Tim Hatley and acclaimed director Howard Davies, each scene change is heralded by projected film footage that helps to locate the action in time and place. These projections extend across the entire stage, dappling the actors’ faces as well as the house itself. The design acts as very effective shorthand to suggest that both the family and their home are a microcosm of Croat society, one of the key themes of Štivičić’s writing. Indeed, most of the conversations and arguments (especially in the first act) involve discussion of politics and societal change, and how this will affect the Kos family and the country as a whole. If anything, there is a little too much information thrown at the audience and we are required to pay close attention or risk getting hopelessly lost. It is an ambitious tactic to progress from this declamatory style to the more emotional scenes of the second act, but it is certainly worth sticking with 3 Winters past the interval as many of the inner depths and feelings hinted at in act one come bubbling up to the surface and support a satisfying conclusion.

The actors certainly do their best to keep us engaged and mostly stop the play becoming bogged down in discussion. Particular highlights are Lucy Black’s Dunya – a potentially one-note character elevated by Black’s warm and naturalistic portrayal, showing her skill with this kind of drama just as Children of the Sun did at the same venue last year – and Jodie McNee’s progressive and stubborn but ultimately loving Alisa, one of the two daughters at the heart of the story. There’s also striking work in a more minor role from Hermione Gulliford and Susan Engel as Karolina at two stages of this intriguing character’s life. Karolina, who has been shunted from one psychiatric institute to another, has a connection with the Kos family that impacts on each successive generation as the play goes on, and both Gulliford and Engel imbue her with a haughty grandeur coupled with regret and a strong desire to make amends for past actions. Among the men, James Laurenson and Gerald Kyd stand out with a pair of moving and well-delivered monologues, and though Adrian Rawlins as Vlado (husband of Masha) starts out shouting a little too much, by the end of the play we come to see his caring nature behind the bluster and understand him a lot better. This is mainly due to a gentle scene between Vlado and Masha in the second act, in which they worry over the family’s fortunes and express a few sentiments that have clearly been bottled up for a while. Siobhan Finneran (best known to a contemporary audience for her role in Downton Abbey) captures particularly well the internal conflict Masha experiences as her daughter Lucia prepares to get married.

It’s a play that examines the best way to survive – as a family and as an individual – in the face of seismic changes, both personal and more general. Events from the past that may have initially seemed to be mistakes are refigured as fortunate accidental solutions, and in Sophie Rundle’s seemingly flighty Lucia the Kos family is presented with an unexpected way to ensure their family continues. For better or worse, Štivičić tells us, you can’t control how your family will mould and shape your life – time sweeps you along with it and we must adapt to survive.

Mimetic Festival 2014: First Draft and How A Man Crumbled at The Vaults, Waterloo

How A Man Crumbled at The Vaults, Waterloo, a high-energy take on the Soviet absurdist Daniil Kharms.
How A Man Crumbled at The Vaults, Waterloo, a high-energy take on the Soviet absurdist Daniil Kharms.

Down in the vaults below Waterloo station, where the darkness is punctuated by the roar of trains passing overhead, something is stirring. Happily for theatre fans, I’m not talking about the birth of some subterranean Frankenstein’s monster: instead it’s the triumphant takeover of this most unusual performance space by the Mimetic Festival. Over the course of a fortnight, The Vaults have played host to a dazzling array of physical theatre, puppets and cabaret singers from all over the world. I was lucky enough to catch two of the shows on offer (First Draft and How A Man Crumbled) and there’s plenty more to suit all tastes, from mime to pop-up drag acts and everything in between. Mime tends to have a bit of a bad reputation, as an art form that almost invites ridicule through its reliance on exaggeration and hyper-expressive physicality, but put aside your prejudices and you’ll be rewarded with some startlingly thoughtful and effective theatre.

There’s certainly room for big ideas at the Mimetic Festival: a quick glance at the event calendar throws up tales of imaginary friends and childhood loneliness (Nothing to See Here), a story of a distanced father’s inner turmoil (I Am Beast) and even a History of Everything from We Made This Productions.

My first experience of the festival was courtesy of the Canadian company Open Heart Surgery Theatre, in the form of Charlotte Baseley and Louise Callaghan. Splitting an hour’s worth of characters between the two of them, Baseley and Callaghan played out a yearning yarn built on post-apocalyptic anxiety. Made up of philosophical musings interspersed with brilliantly choreographed dance and physical theatre, First Draft was inspired by E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops and cleverly used the enclosed space to stand in for a “protection unit far away from the Earth’s surface”, where the remnants of mankind sheltered from some sort of terrible disaster and collected memories of life as it used to be. The piece began strongly with some intriguing dance work set to Sufjan Stevens’ “Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”, the perfect choice of song for a play that revelled in the off-kilter and eerie. In fact, the two performers seemed most comfortable with the parts of the piece that relied on physical theatre, despite some confident adoption of various accents throughout, and consequently I found myself engaging more in sections with minimal dialogue. Having said that, there were some poetic descriptions of stars and sky thrown in, and amusing snippets of recognisable contemporary existence – particularly a note-perfect imitation of a Starbucks barista.

It was just a shame that the near-constant accompaniment of trains above the theatre didn’t blend well with a piece that depended on still, silent moments of contemplation – unlike the more raucous atmosphere of Clout Theatre’s How A Man Crumbled. It helped that Clout Theatre had wisely incorporated an act (or “chapter”) of their play which took place in a noisy train carriage, and that the actors seemed more accustomed to performing in such an unconventional place. For the majority of its run-time, How A Man Crumbled – a wacky journey into the world of “the Russian poet, iconoclast and false moustache wearer Daniil Kharms” – was so frenetically paced that I barely even noticed those pesky trains. This piece, too, included a great deal of character-swapping on the part of its three energetic actors, whose glorious gurning and leaping about was enough to leave any audience member reeling. An ever-escalating series of crazy events loosely tied together by the narrative of Kharms’ The Old Woman (recently performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe at the Manchester International Festival) but resisting anything approaching ordinary storytelling every step of the way, this was a hilarious, utterly absurd spectacle. I was particularly impressed by the conjuring of a humanoid creature from crumpled pieces of paper, and the use of projected subtitles was reminiscent of 1927’s work, especially their recent The Animals and Children Took to the Streets. The actors’ skill and commitment in clowning around helped How A Man Crumbled feel more cohesive and well-oiled than First Draft, but both companies are to be applauded for demonstrating the boundless possibilities afforded by physical theatre, from a touchingly melancholy quest for freedom to a world of comedic murder and dancing old ladies.

“I Bet You Think This Play Is About You”: The Me Plays at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Andrew Maddock performs The Me Plays at the Old Red Lion Theatre. Photography by Hannah Ellis.
Andrew Maddock performs The Me Plays at the Old Red Lion Theatre. Photography by Hannah Ellis.

Monologues are a tricky balancing act for any performer. You need to keep an audience’s interest on you throughout, when any number of factors might distract them or cause them to switch off. They might just dislike you on sight, meaning everything else is a battle you’ve already lost, or the speech might not reach the levels of drama or humour the writer intended. Andrew Maddock’s The Me Plays see him take on an even greater challenge than delivering someone else’s monologues – in this show, he’s the only person on stage for the entire one and a half hours, and he’s performing two plays’ worth of his own “semi-autobiographical” writing. So is he able to keep us on side?

The good news is that Maddock is instantly likable – a slightly larger-than-average London lad who’s not afraid to speak directly to his audience and who puts himself in the vulnerable position of playing himself in the two pieces – “Junkie” and “Hi Life, I Win”. It means we’re not only judging him as a writer but in fact we’re given a glimpse into his real life experiences and point of view. The whole thing comes across more as a stand-up comedy gig than a theatrical performance – nothing wrong with that, but this genre too comes with pitfalls, and Maddock never quite manages to avoid them.

Writers like Alan Bennett have shown there’s a rich seam of pathos and comedy to be mined from describing ordinary people living normal lives, but The Me Plays never really earn more laughter than a brief chuckle of recognition – and equally are not eventful enough to truly be classed as drama. Perhaps what’s missing is the insight and quirky perspective required to lift observational, quasi-confessional writing into a realm where it can make us see ourselves and others in a different light.

“Junkie” takes place in the present day and explores online dating, as “Me” prepares to meet a girl he encountered on Tinder for the first time and Maddock discusses how he feels about his own appearance and how his social expectations have been modified by what he sees as an addiction to internet pornography. Along the way, we are treated to some amusing anecdotes about shopping in Topman, and some impersonations of “youths” which are stereotypical but give Maddock the opportunity to display his skills with dialogue: both on page and stage. While there are some moments of introspection – signalled by subtle lighting changes from Charlie Marie Austin and Christopher Nairne’s design, which mostly uses fluorescent tape to form the outline of a house and occasionally a Tube train or bus – it is hard to see what Maddock wanted us to take away from the piece. It doesn’t help that the central metaphor – the city of London is a sea, with plenty more fish in it – is stretched to breaking point over the course of the 45 minutes’ running time. Or that for some reason he chose to write both pieces in verse. It’s difficult not to find yourself guessing the next rhyme rather than absorbing the story, and control over poetic meter is sufficiently lacking in places to disrupt the rhythm of the pieces and make them rather jerky and disjointed. Some obvious rhymes (“worry” and “hurry” is overused, for example) and repetition of phrases such as “this digital age” hurt the monologue too.

“Hi Life, I Win” takes a more nostalgic standpoint as Maddock looks back on his life as a teenager – and we come to see the origins of the everyman we met in pre-interval “Junkie”. This piece touches on faith (a result of attending a Roman Catholic school) and family, and is more profound and touching than the first monologue, but still not telling us anything particularly new. On a side note, it’s pleasing to see an extended section given over to the music of Loudon Wainwright III – aptly reflecting the paternal troubles being examined, but not really adding much.

All in all, there’s nothing all that wrong with either monologue (aside from the misguided decision to write them in verse) and the evening passes by divertingly enough. Director Ryan Bradley skilfully keeps the performer relatable and likeable as he moves around the small space provided by the Old Red Lion pub, and the two pieces keep our attention, but when it comes down to it a “journey into everyday averageness” is perhaps always going to leave an audience craving more insight and reason to be interested.

The Me Plays continues at the Old Red Lion Theatre until September 20.

Here In My Car: Autobahn at the King’s Head Theatre

Autobahn at the King's Head Theatre
Sharon Maughan and Henry Everett stars in the King’s Head’s production of Neil LaBute’s Autobahn. Photo (c) Scott Rylander

If you were asked to name a place you felt safe, I doubt “inside a car” would be the first answer to pop into your head. After all, not many people would consider themselves invulnerable in such an enclosed, claustrophia-inducing space, or while travelling on dangerous roads. Yet the peculiar brand of safety being in a car – with one other person by your side in the passenger seat – conjures up is the subject acclaimed playwright Neil LaBute chooses to explore in his series of short pieces, Autobahn. Last week, the show was granted its UK premiere at the King’s Head Theatre on Upper Street, Islington, and while it springs from the highly American concept of the road trip, the production was a great example of the universality afforded by simple ideas executed with panache.

The King’s Head – the first pub theatre to be established (by Dan Crawford in 1970, as the programme informs us) since Shakespeare’s time – proves the ideal venue for these seven thematically linked vignettes, which rely heavily on the intimate atmosphere such a space imbues. With only a car’s chassis to act in, and when many of the sketches could more accurately be described as monologues, the four performers – who are members of the Savio(u)r company – have to work extremely hard to maintain our interest in the goings-on on stage, and they perform this task for the most part with aplomb. Static though Autobahn may be, it is also riveting – and that’s thanks not only to a very talented cast but also LaBute’s great naturalistic dialogue. Each piece sees a couple from varying walks of life and of varying ages engage in a discussion of some fairly heavy issues, and focuses on the interplay between those who speak a great deal and their respective listeners. In some cases, as with the four quasi-monologues scattered throughout the evening (“Funny”, “All Apologies”, “Long Division” and title piece “Autobahn”), the listener is almost silent while the speaker tries to convince them to come round to their point of view, or riles them up to get a reaction as in the opening piece “Funny”. We are invited to consider who has more power – the speaker or the listener? And – it transpires – it’s often not the party you might expect.

Although the four performers – two men and two women – are all given their chance to shine via the allocation of the pieces, top marks for versatility have to go to Zoe Swenson-Graham, who dominates each of the four sketches she appears in and whose exceptional physical acting and character work make her a force to be reckoned with. Whether portraying a testy teenager who turns out to be a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, or a troublingly innocent young girl caught up in a sinister situation beyond her control, Swenson-Graham convinces utterly. Her fellow actress, Sharon Maughan, may not be given the same chance to display her range but also impresses – particularly in the final sketch “Autobahn”, helping to bring all seven pieces together in a touching closing speech – and amuses in equal measure. Her subtle facial acting is a joy to behold when she takes the role of listener, and her comic timing in the most humourous of the Act One pieces, “Merge”, ensures the show never feels too overwhelmingly dark or ominous.

That’s not to say there aren’t tense moments – my favourite of the post-interval sketches, “Road Trip”, is perhaps the most successful of all of LaBute’s short plays, and centres on Swenson-Graham’s naive character and the audience’s slow realisation that the older man she has embarked on the titular journey across America with may not be all he first appears. Both players in “Road Trip” – the older man played by Henry Everett – manage the twists and turns of the narrative exceptionally well, and the result is a gripping thriller to keep the audience on our toes and on the edge of our seats. On the lighter side of things is “Bench Seat”, navigating the turmoil of adolescent courtship and with strong performances from Swenson-Graham and Tom Slatter – the latter acting as the perfect foil for his partner’s tightly wound, borderline psychotic energy. Only two out of the seven sketches – an impressive hit rate – didn’t quite work for me: “All Apologies”, in which Everett is called upon to unleash a slightly over-the-top tirade directed at his wife (though his frenetic performance saves the piece from being a complete failure) and “Long Division”, in which one man convinces another to take revenge on his ex-girlfriend. All in all, I felt the two-handers were more effective than the monologues, giving full rein to LaBute’s enviable skills with lifelike, awkward dialogue. However, as an exploration of bathos and the idea of facing the truth and the minutiae of relationships with nowhere to run or hide, Autobahn is both extremely successful and intriguing: a short-play cycle I hope can reach as wide an audience as possible. Who’d have thought so much humanity could be contained in a car?

“That’s Not How It Happened”: Idomeneus at the Gate Theatre

Oni Uhiara and Alex Austin in Idomeneus at Gate Theatre. Photo by Bill Knight.
Ony Uhiara and Alex Austin in Idomeneus at Gate Theatre. Photo by Bill Knight.

How many forms can Ancient Greek theatre take? In recent years we’ve been treated to an Odyssey made out of animated paper cut-outs courtesy of Paper People Theatre, a searing modernised version of Antigone starring Christopher Eccleston and Jodie Whittaker at the National Theatre, and more Medeas than you can shake a stick at – with one more set to join their number when Helen McCrory takes on the role this summer.

And now a courageous team have set out to show there’s life in these old tales yet with a production of German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Idomeneus (in an at times extremely beautiful translation by David Tushingham) at the small black box Gate Theatre in West London. Inspired by one of the many strands of The Iliad, we are taken on an hour-and-a-bit long journey through blood ties, sacrifice and shipwrecks by five engaging actor-narrators. They take it in turns to act out segments of the story, and also to serve the role of comedic foil when things become too serious. In fact, the whole show is balanced precariously between tragedy and comedy, which in many ways is a blessing (and indeed the choppy script lends itself to this Reduced Shakespeare Company style playfulness) but also has the unfortunate effect of diminishing those moments which do strive to achieve poignancy and meaning.

Our guides (Alex Austin, Jon Foster, Mark Monero, Susie Trayling and Ony Uhiara) certainly seem to have a whale of a time, and do an admirable job of keeping things on track. It’s no easy task when the show is as messy (literally) as the stories it’s made up of, and the script requires them to continuously retrace their steps and re-evaluate the way the tale is told. At any moment, one of their fellow performers might pipe up to remind them that “That’s not how it happened” or “That’s not how the conversation started”, and the more fanciful or idealised aspects of the narrative are scrubbed out as that part of the story is started anew. If that all sounds bewildering, the show repays the effort it asks its audience to make, and is helped along by the likeability and warmth each performer brings: particularly the two women on stage. In her director’s note, Ellen McDougall states that her intention is to reflect the “democratic” nature of the play and this is clear from the emphasis on a quintet who are winningly diverse in terms of which parts of the story they most relish and how they choose to describe the narrative’s events.

The playwright originally envisaged a cast of between ten and fourteen people. However, in this production, the cast has been drastically reduced – a positive move both to ensure a better fit with the small stage offered at the Gate Theatre and to enable us to witness the great skill with which the quintet move between narration and physical re-enactment of Idomeneus’ story. While for the most part the women portray female characters and the men share out the male parts between them, some of the most interesting segments are those in which Uhiara temporarily depicts a man, changing her body language subtly to match this shift in gender. It would perhaps have been effective to include more gender-blind casting, and the actors do tend to be stuck with a certain “type” of character, for better or worse. Monero makes a convincingly stern Idomeneus, Trayling a sultry Queen Medea and Foster a humorous Nauplius (king of Nauplia), but couldn’t McDougall have jumbled these parts up a little more?

I was impressed, though, by the cast’s handling of both slapstick comedy and the darker moments within the script – all five of them working to control the chaos which seems to be always about to erupt on stage, leaping from monsters made out of balloons to jugs of water to bottles of what looks like ink but I hope is just coloured water (as it goes frighteningly close to actors’ mouths on a number of occasions). With Idomeneus, we are given 65 minutes which entertains but never quite enlightens – a self-consciously post-modern spectacle that touches on the slippery nature of storytelling: slippery in more ways than one, as any audience member can attest.


Reflections on Gezi Park: Adini Söyle (Say Your Name) at the Arcola Theatre

Rehearsals for Adini Söyle (Say Your Name) at the Arcola Theatre
Rehearsals for Adini Söyle (Say Your Name) at the Arcola Theatre. Photo courtesy of

Part of the Arcola Creative Engagement Winter Festival 2014, Adini Söyle (Say Your Name) rides the crest of a wave of contemporary plays dealing with protest against the state of the nation: from the aptly named Rhys Ifans monologue Protest Song to the searing treatise on Chinese capitalism, The World of Extreme Happiness, both recently seen at the National Theatre’s experimental venue, the Shed. In the case of Say Your Name, the nation in question is Turkey, and the play is fittingly performed in Turkish with English subtitles projected onto a wall at the back of the stage.

We are presented with a series of short sketches and speeches, ranging from the touchingly personal to a treatment of the bizarre realm of public decision-making, and incorporating representatives from all sections of society – although the focus remains for the most part on the middle class natives of Istanbul. The 13-strong cast switch characters at a rate of knots, with scenes bookended by traffic noise and lighting changes. So while this is a good way for the audience to get an overview of the contemporary state of affairs in Turkey, we never really get to know any of the people addressing us, and I would perhaps have preferred a stronger sense of narrative to be woven through the action. As it is, Say Your Name often comes across as less than the sum of its parts. Which is not to say there aren’t moments of eye-opening revelation, just that the team make us wade through a few superfluous scenes to get there.

I found the structure a little uneven – my highlights were clustered towards the end of the piece, and I felt that the actors overplayed the opening segment, in which a group of city planners outlined their increasingly ridiculous vision for Istanbul’s future. This included an innovative staging mechanism – a table with slots in the top, into which could be placed bits of cardboard and plastic representing the skyscrapers and bridges that the planners enthused about constructing, and out of which all traces of greenery were carelessly thrown. This section, while containing a strong message in its conclusion, was overly long and a rather alienating introduction to the show, consisting primarily of statistics and people talking extremely quickly. When the pace slowed, and our attention shifted to those affected by the industrialisation and capitalisation of Istanbul, the play had more room to breathe and to better explore its ideas.

It also represented a movement into the comfort zone of the performers, who displayed effective physicality as they told their characters’ stories. Although a number of the scenes reiterated the same points about the loss of individual identity and connection to the natural world, some of these presented an intriguing perspective on everyday life under a government seen to be operating in an oppressive, self-interested manner. But the show tended to discuss rather than depict the issues at hand, and the actors’ evident talent for physical theatre was rarely utilised to its full potential. A rather clumsily choreographed sequence in which two protesters were menaced by approaching police officers was one of few on-stage representations of the atmosphere in Istanbul, and while one character briefly mentioned that the police were people too it might have been worthwhile to examine this statement further, with a monologue from one of the police officers. More effective was a musical interlude half way through the play which was abruptly brought to a halt by violence: this, too, seemed a little fleeting and half-hearted, however.

I found I wanted to be told less and shown more, and was glad when the cast were finally given the opportunity to physically depict the relationship between the authorities and the general public – in a sequence which involved seated people speaking up about how they felt and the issues that mattered to them, but being silenced by a swift hand across their mouths by the sinister figures standing behind them. These officials then proceeded to change the subject, waxing lyrical about subjects ranging from dating to the best way to cook a chicken, until the members of the public piped up again and had to be silenced once more. This was a perfect mixture of showing and telling, and got the point across far more effectively than many of the earlier scenes.

It was also pleasing to see that things weren’t entirely hopeless, with a rousing song and dance number rounding off the play – and managing to fit in some encouraging lyrics about women’s rights and the struggle for freedom. And the show obviously struck a chord with the Turkish portion of the audience, who gave the actors a standing ovation. All in all, this was an admirable undertaking, let down somewhat by the execution and by the Arcola’s Studio 2 space – only the central part of the audience could really see the projected English translation, and the wooden bench was one of the least comfortable seats I’ve ever experienced at the theatre.  A bit of script rewriting, and a change of venue, would work wonders for this important and occasionally powerful play.
Adini Söyle (Say Your Name) continues at the Arcola Theatre until Saturday January 11. See the theatre website for more information.

Welcome to the Abattoir: The Fastest Clock in the Universe at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Dylan Llewellyn, Nancy Sullivan and Joshua Blake in Philip Ridley’s The Fastest Clock in the Universe at the Old Red Lion Theatre. Photo © Darren Bell, 2013.

For proof of theatre’s power to shock and appal, you don’t need to look much further than Philip Ridley’s seminal (and multi-award winning) play The Fastest Clock in the Universe. Set in one dingy, claustrophobia-inducing room above an old fur factory and with the entirety of the action restricted to one tense day in the life of its characters, the prospect is enough to make your skin crawl – but also to make you sit forward in your seat and pay attention. And that’s before we’ve encountered the man at the centre of it all: Cougar Glass, a Dorian Gray for our times with an unhealthy obsession with his appearance and a brutal disregard for the feelings of others. But Cougar is a more intricately depicted personality than you might think, and anyway – it’s his birthday, so you’d better be nice.

The Fastest Clock in the Universe may not be a pleasant experience, particularly as it draws nearer to its inevitably explosive conclusion and the unravelling of Cougar’s precariously poised existence gathers pace. But Ridley skilfully draws us into Cougar’s world through the inclusion of Captain Tock, as dishevelled as the flat he has filled with faded portraits of birds and antiques from the shop he presumably used to run and perhaps still does (it’s never made entirely clear). He’s the older, balding man who enables Cougar to survive despite his lifestyle being utterly unsuited to his surroundings – and whose love of winged beasts is matched by the torch he carries desperately for his flatmate. In a dramatic sense, Captain Tock provides balance and reason in the face of Cougar’s decadence and self-absorption: while Cougar loves only himself, Tock is filled with doubt and self-loathing, poignantly revealed during the second act when he finally meets someone who sees through the superficial veil of Cougar Glass.

There’s a strong sense that the first three characters we meet – Cougar, Tock and their elderly landlady Cheetah Bee – are all trapped by their respective self-worth. Cheetah is the one Tock turns to when Cougar has one of his seemingly regular fits of panic and anger at the prospect of being reminded of his true age, and it’s her job to calm him by reminding him that his life is the opposite of hers: “I am at the end, and you are at the beginning,” she emphasises. Actress Ania Marson evokes a contemporary Miss Haversham, in the fur coat that is a hangover from her days as the wife of the factory’s owner. And she has her own grisly tale to tell about the very real cost of beauty. In fact, Ridley’s play is saturated by cultural references to classical tales – it’s there in the names, with Cougar serving as a grotesque twist on Peter Pan and luring in the naive schoolboy Foxtrot Darling (a surname that will surely sound familiar to any J.M. Barrie fans), under the watchful and wary eye of Captain Tock – or should that be Hook? Couple that with the animalistic connotations of Cougar, Cheetah and Fox(trot) and you have a truly savage take on the brutality and cruelty of modern man.

Where Peter Pan taught us that it is possible to stay eternally youthful, Ridley is determined to have Cougar’s plan to be perpetually nineteen crumble around his ears. It doesn’t take much for Cougar’s plot to win over vulnerable, recently bereaved Foxtrot to be ruined. What it takes is Sherbet Gravel. From the moment an effervescent Nancy Sullivan appears (just before the interval), you can tell she spells trouble for our selfish antihero. With a voice as grating and sickly as her name, Sherbet stomps all over Cougar’s lifestyle, and ultimately proves herself to be the ultimate moral voice of truth in Cougar’s world of deceit and decay. Relentlessly forward-thinking, and with a Mary Poppins-esque handbag full of surprises, Sherbet brings life and unstoppable energy into a flat full of dead birds and stifling routine. Sullivan gleefully storms around the stage, clearly relishing a role that has the audience in gales of laughter. Everyone else raises their game accordingly, and the second act is an exhilarating, gut-wrenching experience as a result. Sullivan is definitely one to watch – but, in a cast with no weak links in sight, she’s not the only one. Joshua Blake convinces utterly as the predatory Cougar, giving an intensely menacing performance buoyed by a muscular vigour and intelligence. Ian Houghton subtly gains our sympathy as the most likeable character of the piece, the tragic and forlorn Captain Tock. And Dylan Llewellyn perfectly skewers the mix of bravado and innocence that make up Foxtrot Darling, who discovers too late that his “new friend” is anything but.

All in all, The Fastest Clock in the Universe makes for a surprisingly enjoyable two hours of theatre. This kind of play is not usually my province – but Ridley, and the hard-working cast and crew of this production at the Old Red Lion in Islington, skilfully keep things interesting and certainly shake you up in the process. “Welcome to the abattoir,” says Captain Tock – but this is one show that finds a great deal of life in some horribly grim material.

The Fastest Clock in the Universe runs at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 30th November. See the theatre website for more information, which includes details of post-show events – including Q&As and poetry readings by Philip Ridley himself and a night of five new short monologues on Saturday November 23.  

New Writing: Where The Shot Rabbits Lay at the White Bear Theatre

Where The Shot Rabbits Lay at the White Bear Theatre
Man (Peter Warnock) and Boy (Richard Linnell) in Brad Birch’s Where The Shot Rabbits Lay at the White Bear Theatre. Photo courtesy of Marek Borysiewicz.

If we take the view that exciting drama springs from conflict, Brad Birch’s two-hander Where The Shot Rabbits Lay has dramatic potential by the bucketful. Played out in the intimate back room of Kennington’s White Bear pub, the publicity promises us a tense tale of intergenerational conflict as – following a “messy divorce” – an estranged father takes his son on a camping trip, with the hope of teaching his moody offspring about the great outdoors.

The stage is set for fiery confrontations, mixed, perhaps, with a growing understanding of each character by the other, and we are happily given both these things over the course of the show’s hour of running time. Peter Warnock and Richard Linnell (credited only as Man and Boy in the programme and never called upon to use actual names during the show) give credible performances and command the stage and the audience’s attention, despite a sparely written script and some rather unwieldy props to contend with. Although they may not ever truly reach the emotional heights that the writer seems to be hoping for, this is less their fault than Birch’s. The characters are not developed much beyond the archetypes of a difficult, moping thirteen-year old-and a man retreating from society and civilisation and returning to the natural world he enjoyed as a child. A different playwright could maybe make more of this scenario and these people, but although Birch has a slightly irritating tendency to use repetition as a means of increasing realism, Where The Shot Rabbits Lay is a solid sophomore effort that hints at greater things on the horizon.

When there are only two people on stage, it becomes noticeable just how much the actors rely on each other to push for reactions and keep the play moving along. There is certainly a rapport of sorts between Warnock and Linnell, presumably developed during rehearsals, although despite the strength of their individual performances they never quite convince as father and son. They are helped along by the sterling work of stage manager Lucy Blairs, who unobtrusively manages to handle the myriad scene changes: seemingly one every two or three minutes, which verges on excessive. These are accompanied by a short musical refrain that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to get out of my head. While there are perhaps a few too many of these interruptions written into the script, it is admirable that all three visible participants maintained a sense of motion and progression on such a small stage, particularly when a chunk of the stage is taken up by a two-person tent, assembled and dismantled dexterously by the actors during the show.

They are, however, battling against a script that at times feels rather static: a great deal of gap-filling is required on the part of the audience, and we are left expecting more to happen. For a play selling itself on a “messy divorce”, there isn’t much explanation given as to what made it messy and difficult. We learn a little about the father’s youth and the source of his practical expertise, but he remains something of a blank canvas – and this is even truer of Boy. They start out as, and continue to be, archetypes, but Birch is sensitive to the distinctions between his characters’ voices, and renders them relatable if somewhat sketchy approximations of real people. The overall effect is rather cosier than you might anticipate from the title and synopsis, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with a gentler style and it’s the moments of mutual warmth between Man and Boy that stick in the mind after the play’s end rather than the somewhat underwhelming bursts of anger. In a way, it’s heartening to see a show that doesn’t aim to shock its audience but instead allows us to take what we want away with us. Where the shot rabbits lay, it turns out, is a home from home and a calming sense of hope.

Where The Shot Rabbits Lay continues at the White Bear Theatre until Sep 29. See the theatre website for more information.

Theatre Review: Staving off Shivers With The Weir at the Donmar Warehouse

The male members of The Weir cast: Brian Cox, Peter McDonald, Ardal O'Hanlon and Risteárd Cooper.
The male members of The Weir cast: Brian Cox, Peter McDonald, Ardal O’Hanlon and Risteárd Cooper.

How do you get an audience shivering in their seats when it’s this light outside? It’s a challenge that the Donmar Warehouse’s Josie Rourke and a superb cast of five have taken on in their version of Conor McPherson’s masterful The Weir, first performed over 15 years ago. Constricted to an archetypal Irish country pub and running shorter than most plays at just an hour and three quarters (in this case with no interval), this production may not seem up to much. However, this is a show that quietly builds to a punchy conclusion, which is served up to us perfectly here by a quintet at the top of their game.

Along the way, we’re treated to some chuckle-inducing humour from this set of lonely, aging men. In fact, it’s a play of two distinct halves, and if the first 45 minutes or so seem a little slow, this allows you to get to know the characters, to make yourself at home before the welcome mat is pulled out from under your feet. With the arrival of Dervla Kirwan’s Valerie, reluctantly accompanying local ladies’ man Finbar (Risteárd Cooper), the cosy companionship enjoyed by Jack, Jim and barman Brendan is disrupted as the four men attempt to impress the newcomer with a series of supernatural stories.

The narrative here moves from gentle comedy to chilling but equally low-key horror, and then takes a jerking sidestep towards heart-wrenching emotion when Valerie recounts her own personal experiences with the ghosts that will never stop haunting her. For the cast to effortlessly handle these transitions, and then to encompass a further, beautiful story from Brian Cox’s Jack, is little short of miraculous. But to top this performance off, there lies a metanarrative, reflecting the lingering power of stories that dredge up secret fears, which we thought we’d buried deep.

In an impressive cast, Brian Cox’s brusque yet troubled portrayal of Jack is noteworthy for being both exuberant and introspective. He charges across the stage, moving more than any of the other actors, but his moments of stillness are a perfect lesson in captivating an audience. Though he has perhaps the most to do of all the cast, he never lets the standard drop and creates a believably damaged yet lovable man from a curmudgeonly old codger with a hidden heart. Just as stunning is Kirwan’s subtle performance as the sole lady of the group, an outsider who has moved to the country for reasons that only become clear towards the very end of the play but which can be guessed at almost from her first appearance. This is testament to Kirwan’s expressive, honest acting; when her moment comes to deliver a lengthy, heavy-going monologue, she does so with aplomb and a fantastic depth of feeling.

We are drawn, too, to Ardal O’Hanlon (best known for popular sitcom Father Ted), who brings a delightful warmth to the naïve, bewildered Jim, and to Peter McDonald as dependable yet slightly awkward Brendan, the pub’s proprietor and provider of the fuel for these tales of terror. Poor Risteárd Cooper does his best, saddled with the least likeable of the characters, and it would be unfair to label him as the weak link when in fact his blustering self-confidence presents a neat counterpoint to the regrets and doubts of those around him.

Dervla Kirwan gives a wonderfully subtle, moving performance as Valerie.
Dervla Kirwan gives a wonderfully subtle, moving performance as Valerie.

It is admirable that, despite what must have been a sore temptation to go the route of the classic ghost story, both McPherson and director Josie Rourke allow profound emotion to override fear. The stories are all the more chilling for this, and it’s difficult to stave off a shiver or two when the sensation of a dark winter’s night in the Irish countryside is conjured up so effectively. McPherson’s simplistic yet evocative writing is aided here by a set for which designer Tom Scutt should be applauded; the stage looks so much like an Irish pub that it’s easy to forget where you are and fully immerse yourself in the world of The Weir.

Congratulations to all involved, then, for a show that really whets the appetite for the Donmar’s next dose of Conor McPherson. We don’t have too long to wait, thankfully, as his new play The Night Alive receives its debut at the Warehouse from the 13th of June. Neither should be missed.

The Weir is at the Donmar Warehouse until 8th June.

Come into my world: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Apollo Theatre

Luke Treadaway as Christopher Boone. Photo by Brinkhoff/Moegenburg.
Luke Treadaway as Christopher Boone. Photo by Brinkhoff/Moegenburg.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time hurtles towards you at a rate of knots, rather like the tube train that marks protagonist Christopher’s first lone adventure in the terrifying big-wide world. This is a production that lays everything out bare on a stark stage, serving as the perfect cross between classroom and playground. The characters themselves become part of the set, appearing through unexpected doors in the walls of a massive, blackboard-like canvas (designed by the ever-imaginative Bunny Christie). We may regularly catch a glimpse of the supporting actors sitting patiently around the sides of the stage, but they’re never permitted to stay still for long. There’s a whole world to create here – the world within protagonist Christopher’s head – and director Marianne Elliott, with help from the aptly named Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, does all she can to give that world a frenetic, often bewildering rhythm.

The play is adapted from Mark Haddon’s brilliant novel of the same name, which takes a deeply personal look at a precocious young man with Asperger Syndrome, observing the problems he faces when dealing with everyone and everything around him. Haddon provides an unflinching account of Christopher’s thought processes, especially powerful and affecting for the use of a first-person narrative. How do you translate that for the stage? Adapter Simon Stephens (a respected playwright, though one whose own writing I don’t have time for in general) and Elliott have a number of solutions, and a varied success rate in realising them. Firstly there’s teacher Siobhan, played by Niamh Cusack, who here takes on not only the role of guiding hand for Christopher but also that of narrator. Poor Cusack has the thankless task of making her already rather shrill voice heard above a barrage of mechanical noise and extremely impressive special effects, reciting extracts lifted from Haddon’s novel. As with much of Stephens’ work (the current production of Port at the National Theatre a glaring example), he bombards us with expositional details and tells us a great deal of things that could be shown more effectively with greater subtlety. Why can’t we find out about Christopher’s anxieties and quirks for ourselves, rather than having them spelt out so bluntly to us?

Niamh Cusack as Siobhan, Luke Treadaway as Christopher Boone
Niamh Cusack as Siobhan, Luke Treadaway as Christopher Boone. Photo by Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

It’s safe to say that this show hits its peaks when the script itself takes a back seat. Fortunately the play is blessed with a committed, incredibly brave performance from Luke Treadaway (understandably doubled up with Johnny Gibbon) as Christopher. The young actor is required to convincingly depict an enormous range of emotions and behaviour, while also tackling some challenging choreography and battling against the aforementioned technical wizardry all around him. He does himself enormous credit by keeping the audience engaged, and on side, for the entire evening – as evidenced by the rapturous applause and standing ovation he receives during the curtain call. Despite the obliqueness of some of his character’s actions, Treadaway confidently navigates all of the coping strategies employed by a young man with big dreams and a fierce intelligence, who refuses to let his condition stand in his way.

As someone with mild Asperger Syndrome myself, Christopher’s story was always going to speak to me. But in this stage version, I found my strongest emotional connection was with the character of Christopher’s mother Judy. In a spirited performance from Holly Aird, the tale of a parent tragically unready to care for a disabled child unfolds initially as a series of letters. It’s a part that necessitates long, sprawling monologues, and is expertly judged by Aird so as to capture our attention and hold it. Throughout the performance we are in turns critical of and sympathetic towards her. The same can be said of Seán Gleeson, who invests Christopher’s father Ed with a caring warmth that is otherwise missing from the character in the book. Crucially, these are real people, with all their foibles and failings, painted with somewhat broad strokes by Stephens but nevertheless believable and well-acted.

It would be unfair not to mention the consistently entertaining and dedicated ensemble who provide sturdy support for the family unit at the centre of the narrative. They do a lot of work to keep the pace slick and fluid, and really seem to relish the potential for comedic reactions in such bit-parts as “Man with Socks” and “Lady in the Street”. Sophie Duval’s wickedly funny headmistress Mrs Gascoyne in particular often threatens to steal the show. Most importantly, these performances keep things exciting when the play’s energy starts to flag. The overall high standard  of this production speaks volumes about the cast and crew’s passion for what must have seemed a daunting project: the translation of a work heavily reliant on introspection into a powerful piece of visually striking drama.

 A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is performing at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue until the 31st August 2013.

Searching for Watt: Barry McGovern in Watt at the Barbican

Barry McGovern in Watt at the Barbican
Barry McGovern in Watt at the Barbican. Image copyright Jeff Clark.

You’d be forgiven for thinking we’ve perhaps seen all there is to see of the acclaimed Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. After all, there have been a myriad Vladimirs and Estragons left Waiting for Godot, and Krapp’s Last Tape must surely count as overplayed by now. Just when it seemed like there may be nothing new to discover in Beckett’s work, along comes the frighteningly talented Barry McGovern to breathe new dramatic life into some less likely source material. The narrative in the 1945 novel Watt follows a few years in the life of an unprepossessing manservant. As with much of Beckett’s writing, the novel is wilfully inscrutable at times, containing a huge amount of repetition and infuriating wordplay. It must have seemed a tall order to make any of this accessible for the theatre, even given the insatiable appetite for Beckett on the part of the theatre-going public. However it quickly became clear that we were in safe hands with McGovern, and the rest of the small creative team behind this adaptation at the Barbican.

McGovern shuffles onto the black box stage of the Barbican’s Pit Theatre, seemingly as unassuming as the character he is about to describe: a dull-coloured coat, wide eyes and short white hair. Could this man really hold our attention for the next 50 minutes? And on a stage sparsely furnished with a hat stand, a chair and nothing more? But McGovern is the kind of actor who subtly grabs you and makes you forget he’s the only person you’re watching. His warm, genial tones – a suitably soft Irish accent – make him the perfect guide to the rather meandering tale of Watt, a character study of someone who seems to drift through life. We are introduced to other people along the way, we learn about the eccentricities of Watt’s new employer Mr Knott and his brief dalliances with a local woman (in which the aforementioned chair is heavily involved), but this adaptation wisely sticks to Watt’s perspective for the most part. It is, however, hard to say whether we actually learn anything about Watt himself. What is the point of this narrative? Is Watt searching for something, and does he find it?

It seems that, in this case, it’s less about the journey and more about the presentation. Amid a flurry of words, there are incredibly beautiful moments here, described and staged with admirable simplicity. At one point, the recorded strains of a choir intrude on the action, and McGovern stands stock still, listening with a bemused interest as if he (or Watt) likes what he hears but struggles to fully comprehend it. The same could be said for his audience. We enjoy the show – particularly the frequent injection of surreal black comedy, which gives rise to torrents of appreciative laughter – but is that enough?

As the play moved towards its quiet conclusion, accompanied by a slow dimming of the spotlight which had been trained on McGovern throughout, I confess to feeling a little hazy about exactly what I’d just been watching. The lilting rhythms of the actor’s voice, accompanied by the pace of the prose, had an almost soporific effect: Watt’s world is not one that could possibly be hurried through, but equally it’s not one that can be simply shaken off afterwards. I left the theatre somewhat dazed, and it took a little while for me to feel like I’d stepped back from this keyhole glimpse into Watt’s life, granted to me by McGovern. All in all, this is a production that conjures up something astounding from the least promising of places, and which lingers at the fringes of your perception. There’s a little bit of Watt in us all . . . or is there?

Barry McGovern is performing Watt, by Samuel Beckett, at the Barbican until the 16 March. For tickets and more information, see the website.

All That Glitters: The Great Gatsby at Wilton’s Music Hall

The full cast of The Great Gatsby at Wilton's Music Hall
The full cast of The Great Gatsby at Wilton’s Music Hall

It seems impossible to discuss F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel The Great Gatsby without reference to the famous final line  – “So we beat on against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past.” It’s a beautiful image, with a slippery, elusive meaning. As such, it’s representative of Fitzgerald’s languorous, sensuous prose that takes time to delve into people and the situations in which they find themselves. Although the novel ostensibly deals with the shallow glamour of the Roaring Twenties in America, the author presents a set of well-rounded personalities, centred around the enigmatic, eponymous Jay Gatsby.

If there’s one thing that the creative team at Wilton’s Music Hall get right with their adaptation of this most slippery of novels, it’s in the way that they capture that sensation of being borne back into the past. This hidden gem of a venue, nestled into the backstreets of Aldgate, fits the era to a tee, with its series of connected rooms transformed beautifully into a 1920s club. It’s helped along by the cast and crew of ushers, all decked out in period costume and interacting (at times a little unconvincingly) with the audience before, during and after the show. When I found myself caught in the act of scribbling in my reviewer’s notebook by actor Connor Byrne in the guise of a 20s policeman, I rather dangerously claimed to be a Russian spy. One of the ushers approached a group of men nearby and hinted at the existence of a “secret speakeasy” upstairs serving “exquisite cocktails”, then exhorted them not to tell the cast for fear they’d be too drunk to perform. Atmosphere effectively created, we took our (uncomfortable) seats and prepared to be swept up by the heady glitz of the Roaring Twenties and Gatsby’s never-ending succession of parties.

As it turns out, the sideshow is more engaging than the main event. It’s hard to tell initially what the root of the problem is here. For the most part, the acting is of a more than acceptable standard, if never truly amazing. The script is serviceable but uninspiring, driven for the majority of its duration by a compulsion to spell out characters’ motivations and personality traits. Writer Peter Joucla (who also directed this production) doesn’t seem to place much trust in the audience’s ability to discover characters for ourselves, and very few of them come across as much more than flat, one-note caricatures. But the cast apply themselves with gusto, particularly in the frequent song-and-dance routines, which are performed in Buddy Holly-style spectacles to distinguish them from the main action. They also function as a means of covering up a large number of set changes and are a well-deployed device for showcasing the performers’ talents – perhaps better than the play itself. It made me wish they’d gone the whole hog and turned it into a full-blown musical.

Nick Chambers and Vicki Campbell. Image © tnttheatre.
Vicki Campbell and Nick Chambers. Image © tnttheatre

There is some acting of note in the mix. Vicki Campbell, doubling as Jordan and Lucille, provides some top-quality comic relief and, most importantly, seems to inhabit her characters well. Nick Chambers (as Nick)  also cuts a likeably earnest everyman figure. Despite a skewed gender balance (only three female actors to eight men), all three women give good performances, including most of the emotional highlights, despite a somewhat shaky start from Eleanor Howell as Daisy. Despite a seven-month break for refurbishment, and a few cast changes, the Wilton’s team have managed to reignite some of the magic of their “last big show”, so it was difficult to put my finger on what wasn’t working.Enter Gatsby (Kyle Redmond-Jones replacing original cast member Michael Malarkey) and suddenly it was clear. Maybe this the sinister yet charming character – the enigma at the heart of this story – is too much of a challenge to portray on stage. Maybe the actor was nervous, or hadn’t had long enough to get to grips with Gatsby in rehearsal. Maybe he was simply miscast. But if there’s one thing Jay Gatsby shouldn’t be, it’s dull. The character here was devoid of allure – the question “Why do you like him?” in the second act became a far more pertinent one than intended – and reduced to an unconvincingly delivered verbal tic; the addition of the words “old sport” to every piece of dialogue that passed Redmond-Jones’ lips sounded horribly unnatural. The lack of sparkle tainted the rest of the production, which was already having to contend with the upcoming Baz Luhrman film in the audience’s imaginations. A number of potentially interesting bits of choreography fell flat in the second half, and the “dramatic” finale was unfortunately anything but. To keep up the required level of tension would require a better script than we were given, and the overall effect was stiff when it could have been electric.

There was much to admire about this production, particularly the immersive elements and musical interludes. It was very heartening to see some of the braver members of the audience being taught the Charleston during the interval, although I don’t know where the cast found so much energy! I would definitely be interested in seeing the majority of the actors in another show, and will make an effort to revisit Wilton’s now that I’ve discovered its charms. It’s just a shame that The Great Gatsby was all surface style and distraction and never truly came to life: proof that all that glitters is not gold.

“Be yourself, everyone else is already taken”: The Judas Kiss at The Duke of York’s Theatre

Fox, Everett and Macaninch – the trio at the heart of the play. Photo Pete Jones.

Sometimes an actor inhabits a role so completely, so convincingly, that for the duration of a performance you really do believe you’re watching a different person. One such performance belongs to the rightly acclaimed Rupert Everett in his impersonation of Oscar Wilde in David Hare’s The Judas Kiss. Everett seems born to play Wilde, capturing all aspects of the celebrated dramatist and poet. His studied nonchalance, the profound emotion it concealed and, most touchingly, his fatal capacity for affection. It’s a daunting task for any actor to portray a real person, as opposed to a fictional character, and especially difficult when that figure is someone of whom there is such an established image in the public consciousness. On top of this, Stephen Fry (more obviously a physical match than Everett, who is subtly bulked out by the costume department for this production) gave what has long been considered the definitive version of the playwright in the 1997 film Wilde: what more could be offered here?

The answer is: a great deal. Hare’s sensitive script allows Everett to fully flesh out a Wilde in the latter years of his life, still king of witty, cutting remarks, but with his pensive streak very much in evidence. He is ably supported by Freddie Fox and Cal Macaninch as two of the main players in the story of Wilde’s life – Lord Alfred Douglas (aka Bosie) and Robbie Ross. While Fox gives a petulant, childishly arrogant performance as Bosie, careering across the stage like a tornado, Macaninch is equally impressive in a far more restrained role and they both work extremely well with Everett, creating riveting drama from an – at times – overly languorous text.

At one point, Wilde recounts an anecdote from his two-year spell in Reading Jail (subject of the famous ballad) – he was reminded to be patient by a warden, and retorted that there was a fine line between patience and apathy. Sadly, I found it difficult – particularly in the slow-paced first half – to maintain my patience with a script that feels as though it lingers far too long over the construction of characters. Once the niceties (and nudity) are out of the way though, Hare rightly focuses on his three leads and the complex relationship between them. In Oscar and Bosie’s case, this turns out to be a mutually self-destructive affair, fuelled by what Hare effectively sums up as their respective governing forces – love and power. In the end, something has to give, and before it does we are treated to an incredibly thoughtful and affecting exploration of romance: a look at who we fall in love with, why, and whether we can avoid inflicting collateral damage in the process.

Freddie Fox and Rupert Everet in The Judas Kiss at Hampstead theatre. Photo Manuel Harlan.
Freddie Fox and Rupert Everet in The Judas Kiss at Hampstead theatre. Photo Manuel Harlan.

Oscar’s wife Constance is necessarily overlooked for the most part. Unseen on stage, her presence is nonetheless felt throughout. Wilde deliberately puts himself at a distance from the scandal surrounding his relationship with Lord Douglas, preferring to concentrate as much as possible on the finer things in life: namely, food and “avoiding movement.” It lends a frustratingly static feel to the play as a whole and, despite Fox’s energetic performance, it makes Wilde’s claim that “we’re not hurting anyone” ring false. Of course, this enables Hare to make a strong point about Wilde’s propensity for denial and lack of self-awareness, but it seems a shame not to let Constance speak for herself, rather than having her feelings reported second-hand by Ross.

Hare never permits his detailed investigation into the inner workings of Wilde to be marred by sensationalism or a histrionic treatment of homosexuality, which is undoubtedly admirable, and he reflects the playwright’s own verbosity in some beautifully worded observations on the intersection between society and individual behaviour. It left me feeling that perhaps the whole thing would work better as a novel, the form being more suited to such rich text that Hare gives us, but this would mean sacrificing a set of fantastic acting performances from a brave, dedicated cast. Would this be worth it?

It’s the same question I found myself asking about Oscar and Bosie’s relationship – a genius whose main fault is a crippling glut of affection giving everything he has to a self-obsessed fop. But Fox has the skill to render Lord Douglas not entirely without charm, and although Wilde is clearly the main focal point Hare places a pair of well-rounded characters at either side of him.
Most importantly, the depiction is entirely believable – when Everett is left alone on stage at the close of the play, we feel as though we have really lived through events alongside him. It’s the mark of a truly great portrayal of a figure we probably thought we already knew all about, on the part of a writer and actor both at the height of their powers.

The Judas Kiss is at the The Duke of York’s Theatre until 6th April 2013.

Pinter’s Pest Control: Old Times at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Lia WIllams (as Kate), Rufus Sewell & Kristin Scott Thomas (as Anna)
Lia WIllams (as Kate), Rufus Sewell & Kristin Scott Thomas (as Anna)

Harold Pinter once stated in an interview that his plays all deal with “the weasel under the liquor cabinet”, an intriguing metaphor that perhaps points towards his propensity for depicting people who have a great deal going on beneath the surface — though with Pinter, everything is conjecture. He informs us that by looking closer at any domestic scene, all manner of dirty secrets come crawling into the light.

Old Times, first performed in 1971, is a prime example of Pinter’s ability to create characters who are riveting, engaging an audience’s full attention despite not a great deal happening on stage. In this three-hander examining the relationship between a married couple and a mutual female “friend”, Pinter expertly forges an edge-of-your-seat narrative even though very little actually takes place. Deeley and Kate are visited for the weekend by Anna, who was the wife’s best friend when she was younger and – it is implied – has slept with the husband. And… that’s about it, plot-wise.

It’s testament not only to the brilliance of the script but also the performances that, for me at least, the play never tips over into tedium. Pinter certainly doesn’t make it easy for his actors, necessitating lengthy, loaded pauses, a large amount of pacing and frequent monologues. To really up the ante in the current production, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams have masochistically decided to take it in turns to play the parts of Kate and Anna. It’s a notion that terrifies the actor in me – what if you found yourself saying the wrong character’s lines? – but it does suggest some highly intriguing interpretations of a self-consciously obtuse script.

About a week before the performance I attended, an email was sent out announcing who would be playing which role: in this case, Scott Thomas was Kate while Williams portrayed Anna. It transpired that this was probably the most comfortable way round for a cast who fully inhabited the three roles on offer, and made it difficult to imagine the actors swapping. Scott Thomas appears perfectly at home in the icy, languorous skin of wife Kate, firing off crisp statements at odds with her feline body language. I found Williams the weakest of the three performers, possibly as a result of Anna’s characterisation as an eager-to-please but rather blank canvas, her behaviour often an attempt to match the actions of the couple whose life she “invades”. Unlike her fellow actors, Williams never gives us much of a glimpse beneath Anna’s surface, and I would argue that Pinter’s characters require a greater depth and sense of their turbulent internal life than she presents us with. In a different production, Williams’ subtle, assured performance would have been a highlight, and she only really suffered by comparison with the other two people on stage.

Rufus Sewell as Deely
Rufus Sewell as Deely

It was left to Rufus Sewell to steal the show (having previously impressed in TV films Cold Comfort Farm and the BBC’s acclaimed ShakespeaRe-Told version of The Taming of the Shrew in a standout performance as Petruchio opposite Shirley Henderson’s Katherine). Maybe because he was only expected to play the one part, Sewell was able to fully develop Deeley into a believable figure of brittle, jocular charm. A ball of nervous energy, he provided a neat counterpoint to Scott Thomas and Williams’ slower, more static performances, and gave a convincing depiction of a man struggling to maintain authority and masculine power.

All three were aided by clever staging: the play’s action is only spread over two rooms, but both were appropriately laid out in a triangular formation, with two sofas or beds and an armchair in the middle. In typically Pinteresque fashion, the script centres around a number of objects of power, with the furniture serving as the site for seemingly-civil face-offs. The characters lean over one another, stretch out across each other, jostling for position and chillingly declaring: “I remember you dead.” In spite of Deeley’s attempts at jokey humour and Anna trying to reawaken a sense of youthful frivolity in Kate, the play has a cold, hard heart that refuses to be warmed – and it’s all the more scintillating for that.

It all leaves us with a riot of questions: a great showcase for Pinter’s unrivalled capacity for provoking thought and discussion. It’s not the most celebrated of the playwright’s output, and not performed as frequently as his best-known work – with good reason. We are geared up to expect a shocking revelation that never really comes, and as usual Pinter’s men (or in this case, man) are more robust characters than his women: far more three-dimensional. However, there’s a sinister edge to the text, and the trio themselves, that makes it a solid study of “the weasel under the liquor cabinet”. In fact, in this house of secrets and guilty pasts, it’s not just the liquor cabinet that’s showing a need for pest control.

Old Times is performing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until April 2013.

Letting Slip the Dogs of War: Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse

Julius Caesar (Frances Barber) rallies the troops
Julius Caesar (Frances Barber) rallies the troops

The current production of Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse is a curious creature. In what could be seen as a move specifically designed to court controversy, director Phyllida Lloyd has assembled a formidable cast of women to portray testosterone-filled Ancient Romans in one of Shakespeare’s most male-heavy plays. This production was a talking point from its origins onwards, sparking heated debate about how sacrilegious it was to mess around with the Bard like this, and prompting rumbles of disbelief that the actors would be able to pull it off at all.

The funny thing is, it wasn’t the gender-swap casting that I took issue with. I found I quickly forgot that the women in front of me were “pretending” to be men, and got caught up in Shakespeare’s vivid, evocative use of language — expertly spoken by the likes of Harriet Walter and Jenny Jules, whose performances rapidly put paid to the very notion that Shakespeare’s men shouldn’t be played by women. Indeed, the actors’ confidence with the language was the main thing that really worked here. You’d expect nothing less from Walter (Brutus), whose distinguished stage career has included Viola in Twelfth Night and the female half of Antony and Cleopatra; and Frances Barber (Caesar himself) who has previously depicted Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, and by a strange coincidence, also Cleopatra. But their efforts are ably supported by an entire cast of energetic inmates. This production is set in a women’s prison, you see, and for me that’s the problem.

The Donmar Warehouse, as I’m sure most of its patrons would attest, lends itself very well to this kind of setting. Up in the front row of the circle, we leaned over iron railings that were all too reminiscent of prison bars, and below us the stalls consisted of plastic chairs in neatly regimented rows. Most chilling of all were the TV screens positioned to either side and above the centre of the stage, displaying grainy security footage of what was going on behind the scenes. All this effective creation of atmosphere led me to expect more to be made of the prison concept — perhaps the deployment of the TV screens as backdrops, or real violence erupting over who got which part — and in this respect, Lloyd’s production is a disappointment.

Some of the best Shakespearean acting I’ve ever seen was continually undermined by creative choices that should never have got past rehearsals. We were given red gloves in place of blood, toy guns, and the infamous and ominous warning to “beware the Ides of March” read from the horoscope pages of a woman’s weekly. The play was occasionally interrupted by the fleeting appearance of prison wardens, removing some cast members to “take their meds” and forcing a reallocation of parts, suggesting that the whole show was intended to be part of some kind of rehabilitation programme for the inmates. But this was never made clear enough to form a coherent narrative, and the setting became more of a hindrance as time went on. Shakespeare’s text requires a battle scene, and we were presented with one — unfortunately mounted on a wheeled platform complete with drum kit, a spectacle that made it hard to keep a straight face. I’m all for ideas and imaginative staging, but this saw emotional depth substituted for noise and clutter. By far the best parts were those where everything slowed down enough for the audience to take them in, where we were trusted to understand what was happening without unnecessary props and choreography.

A standout performance from Cush Jumbo as Marc Antony.
A standout performance from Cush Jumbo as Marc Antony

Despite this, the acting shines through. Walter and Barber give predictably commanding performances touched with vulnerability; Jenny Jules’ stern Cassius is both believable and riveting; and Clare Dunne is alternately strong and affecting as both Julius Caesar’s wife Portia and successor Octavius (although I would question doubling these major roles — give someone else more to do!) Meanwhile, Cush Jumbo (recently seen in She Stoops to Conquer at the National and the TV drama series Getting On) as Marc Antony quietly gains momentum throughout, building up to a roar with the play’s best-known speech: “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!” is a genuine cry of anguished rage, earning Jumbo a place in my list of young actors to watch in future. Her loyal, personable Antony displays a deep understanding of the character, and sits at the heart of a production that, although blood free, doesn’t stint on violence. I won’t give away how Caesar’s assassination is staged here, but suffice it to say that it left more than one of the nearby audience members shocked and stunned.

So overall, this Julius Caesar is nothing like the misguided disaster foreseen by the naysayers — or, at least, not in the way they had anticipated. Among other questionable choices, Lloyd has bravely and rightly sought to challenge the idea that Shakespeare’s men must be portrayed by actors of the same gender, and in this aspect, the show is a triumph. Just as Mark Rylance has gained plaudits for his Olivia in the Globe’s Twelfth Night, this cast deserves praise for their skilful tackling of overtly masculine roles. After all, who’s to say that Lady Macbeth can’t aim at becoming Queen of Scotland, goaded on by her manipulative husband, or that Othello can’t be a black woman struggling against the prejudices of a repressive society? The possibilities are endless…

Julius Caesar continues at the Donmar Warehouse, London, until 9 February. For more information and tickets, visit the website.