“Shadows” at Teatro Technis

Birmingham-based Carguil Lloyd George Webley’s play has too short a stay in London. This prison drama is a solid, old-fashioned piece with problems but great potential. It’s an ‘issues’ play – all about black men – with palpable conviction. The raising of questions is not subtle, but the arguments are honest, interesting and presented coherently. And Shadows doesn’t preach, even if too many lines sound like essay questions.

Perhaps the characters are mouthpieces a little too obviously. Yet Edmund, an elderly recidivist, talks of “the struggle” in a satisfyingly realistic way. In the role, David Monteith excels in suggesting, then exposing, the violence and frustration that has shaped his life. There are possibilities for more humour in the character (and the play as a whole) but Monteith makes the part work.

Edmund’s cellmate and debating partner is a less successful creation. It’s too tempting to explain his woeful fate simply because he identifies himself as British over and above being black. It might help if the character was less naïve and priggish. A painful backstory and his relationship to religion are tacked on. None of this helps Pharaon El-Nur, who takes the part, but he gives a committed performance although (easily remedied) he needs to speak up.

What also might be made clearer is the two older men’s battle for the future of a third – the young Chase, ably performed by David Ogechukwu Isiguzo. Chase’s youth and potential to turn his life around give Shadows a political urgency in human terms. Here we have a character we can root for, and we could do with seeing more of him.

In the second act the play becomes plot bound, which affords Troy Richards a fine moment centre stage as a prison guard. But the twists are predictable and too condensed. Meanwhile the lighting is erratic and distracting. More importantly, Kevin Michael Read’s direction feels rushed – even with a collection of monologues that (nice touch) are addressed to a camera. Some of the play’s flaws could be palliated with more time given to the action. What’s missing is the monotony of prison life. This could have been a source of tension if tackled with confidence. The play is strong enough to be taken at a slower pace – it deserves that – as well as a return visit.

Until 7 December 2017

www.theatrotechnis.com

“Privates on Parade” at the Union Theatre

It’s the aim of the singing and dancing soldiers in Peter Nichols’ play to entertain the troops with light-hearted fun. The piece is structured around their musical numbers, written by Denis King, which break up backstage drama and the story of Malayan independence. But it is themes of the isolation of Brits abroad – and an empire in decline – that are emphasised by director Kirk James in his thoughtful, provocative, revival.

You don’t need to be a snowflake Millennial to find the colonial attitudes parodied here tough at times – that’s Nichols’ point and James doesn’t shy away from it. The racism is pervasive and wince-worthy. The sexism has an uncomfortable topicality, since the play’s only woman is in show business. It makes the role of the mixed-race Sylvia particularly weighted and Martha Pothen is vital in managing to make the issues part of her character’s lived experience. Pothen’s isn’t the only impressive stage debut: Mikey Howe plays the sole indigene, standing out while remaining speechless throughout, and Matt Hayden as the indomitable Eric should also be proud of his performance.

Back to all that grim prejudice. The homophobia in army life shows Kirk’s strategy. As the entertainment corps is a refuge for the gay men who work there, it’s something to celebrate. The performers are held together capably by Simon Green as Terri, “an Officer and a Lady”, in charge of his fellow ‘theatricals’. His defiance is delicious and the direct addresses to the audience show what an experienced professional Green is. But this tolerance is rare and highlighting it as exceptional creates considerable tension, aided by Matt Beveridge’s criminal and bullying Drummond.

You might miss the sense of contrast that King’s songs provide Privates On Parade. There is little relief here and most of the jokes are allowed to leave a bitter taste. It’s with a sense of resignation that the dangerously clueless commander, a role capably tackled by Callum Coates, gets his moment to shine with a pointless military escapade. As for the fate of the show’s young hero figure, who acts as the narrator, his corruption is similarly predictable – although Samuel Curry’s performance makes it nonetheless a sad affair. James has created a melancholy show that many might feel suitable to our downbeat times – it aids the poignancy of Nichols’ script and contains a smouldering anger that makes it memorable.

Until 17 December 2017

www.uniontheatre.biz

Photos by Toby Lee

“Goats” at the Royal Court Theatre

There are real goats on stage for Liwaa Yazji’s new play. Set in a Syrian village at war, the animals are given as compensation to families whose sons are said to have been martyred fighting. It’s a brilliantly repulsive idea. But bringing the animals on to the stage is misguided – they prove too distracting, creating a lack of focus indicative of a play overwhelmed by its subject matter.

Goats is sparse on specifics. Perhaps, as a Syrian documentary maker and poet, Yazji takes too much knowledge for granted from a UK audience. And, while the depiction of paranoia and the dissemination of propaganda are both effective, if the intention is for the play to serve as a parable, it is clumsy and too long.

Hamish Pirie’s direction encourages a poetic reading. There are many inventive touches and some strong imagery. But there are also too many technical shortcomings, with performances that are halting and stilted, a clumsy tackling of satire in the script and a lack of marshalling both of the text and the players that hinders comprehension.

There are some strong moments. Amir El-Masry plays returning soldier Adnan in compelling fashion. A confrontation with his family is riveting and brings out a strong performance from Souad Faress as his mother. A subsequent encounter with a grieving father, the local school teacher, Abu Firas, takes us to the kernel of a powerful plot point. These scenes are pinpointed, intimate and tense. But when the view is widened, the play falters.

Questioning the complicity of the wider society in the war needs far more exploration. Pinning so much on the character of Abu Firas makes sense, but the role isn’t fleshed out and the burden proves too much for Carlos Chahine, who struggles with the part. Similarly, the war’s effect on four youths is too cursory – it could be a play of its own. Too many nonsensical moments and untied ends result, making Goats too messy to be moving or enlightening.

Until 30 December 2017

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

 

“The Secret Theatre” at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Running in repertory with the excellent Romantics Anonymous, this new play by Anders Lustgarten is a similarly accessible affair, with an emphasis on entertainment. Everyone loves a bit of Tudor history and this story of spymaster Francis Walsingham, impeccably performed by Aidan McArdle, delivers plenty of it. While the famed intelligencer comes to find himself trapped by “too many stories” – from the Babington plot, to the Spanish Armada – Lustgarten condenses the happenings expertly, and the exciting intrigue is perfectly marshalled by director Matthew Dunster.

We get a monarch – Good Queen Bess, of course – none other than Tara Fitzgerald rising to the task with the aid of costumes by Jon Bausor. She appears gloriously like a painting at first, in a dress that itself deserves an award. But this is a far cry from the Virgin Queen. Bringing Elizabeth I to the stage must count as the biggest challenge for both writer and performer – and it becomes their biggest achievement. It’s a new take on the queen we can recognise and enjoy: this bullying and foul-mouthed “mad dog” (Lustgarten does swearing on stage very well) is used for dramatic purposes to great effect.

Tara Fitzgerald and Aiden McArdle
Tara Fitzgerald and Aiden McArdle

Lustgarten has a reputation as a provocative and political writer. His version of Elizabeth might possibly shock if you take his contrary streak too seriously. But the politics, in the form of parallels with our own increasingly surveyed state, are neat and often funny. It’s never subtle, but if you have good point then why not shout about it? Small gripes are the piece’s lack of peril (much of the tension comes from Dunster’s brilliant use of the candlelit venue and composer Alexander Balanescu’s contribution), and that emotion is generally in short supply – although McArdle does his best. But as a spy story the history works as well as you would expect and there are strong turns from espiocrats Burleigh, Pooley and Phelippes played by Ian Redford, Edmund Kingsley and Colin Ryan.

The Secret History is historical fiction that uses the past to tell a new story about our own times. Having done his research, Lustgarten is entitled to play around – and don’t forget that there have been plenty of outlandish theories about Elizabeth. Some of the speculation here is far-fetched, and not all of it is sure-footed: Lady Frances and Sir Philip Sydney have some distinctly modern sensibilities, while a nice try at depicting a working-class perspective isn’t given time to develop. The play escalates into conspiracy theory quickly – but spies are ripe for that and it all works well theatrically. With a nice twist to solidify its thought- provoking ambitions, we are sent home happy and, just maybe, a little wiser about the theatrics behind power.

Until 16 December 2017

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Jamaica Inn” at the Tabard Theatre

Bringing Daphne du Maurier’s novel to the stage is a good idea. A popular classic with a great story, it’s perfect for the winter. This adaptation by Lisa Evans is credible, dutifully following the adventures of the young Mary Yellan, who comes to live amongst criminals in Cornwall. But while imagination is not in short supply, director Anastasia Revi fails to bring her vision to life. Unfortunately, the gap between her ambition and what’s achieved is occasionally embarrassing.

Both novel and adaptation are strong on showing and questioning the status of women during the period. Kimberley Jarvis, who takes the lead role as our heroine, works well with this, showing both frustration and spirit. It’s a shame that Mary’s aunt, the other major female character, has nothing in common with her, giving Helen Bang, who takes the role, so little to work with. And Mary’s romance with a local horse thief strikes an unconvincing note: Samuel Lawrence looks the part but it’s hard to belief Mary would fall for his easy charm. But worse by far are the villains at Jamaica Inn, with the murderous landlord (Toby Wynn-Davies) deploying a pirate accent, and the mastermind of their plots – whose identity is supposed to shock us – acting like madman right from the get go. Such wooden characterisation destroys any tension to the point of making the story seem silly.

Too many directorial flourishes are poorly executed. The idea for Mary to have an accompanying voice-over isn’t a bad one – the internal dialogue in a novel is often missed on stage – but the delivery is weak. Revi’s direction of movement, with the exception of a fight scene that Jarvis excels in, is timid and inconsistent. Jonathan Bratoëff’s compositions make a competent soundtrack… until dire songs are introduced. Issue even has to be taken over their (mercifully) short length. It’s a guess that Jamaica Inn: The Musical wasn’t Revi’s intention, so why dissipate tension and puzzle the audience with random songs? By the time the show limps to its conclusion, and one poor cast member comes on dressed vaguely as a bloodhound, it’s no surprise that Jamaica Inn lacks guests.

Until 2 December 2018

www.tabardtheatre.co.uk

Photo by panayispictures

“Glengarry Glen Ross” at the Playhouse Theatre

The American playwright David Mamet has plenty of fans. This Pulitzer Prize-winning work from 1984, filmed in 1992, has lines so famous this revival’s smart advertising campaign quotes them. Until now, I’ve never been a huge admirer, finding Mamet’s themes blunt and his language, while powerful, too brutal. But here, Sam Yates’ direction exposes the author’s subtlety, making his production a terrific show for all.

Three intense duologues open the play, introducing us to Chicago real estate agents and their cut-throat world. The scenes are close studies on the part of Yates and his superb cast. Kris Marshall plays the office manager, who has power over the lists of leads he distributes, and he does well in distancing his character from the other workers. Due to the unfortunate indisposition of Robert Glenister, Mark Carlisle takes up the role of a particularly desperate salesman, and proves impressively up to speed, working well in his scene with Don Warrington. The plots hatched and bargains struck are funny in their transparency but there’s no doubt the stakes are high. It’s the brevity that impresses with this trio of sketches – so much atmosphere and characterisation so very quickly.

The star of the production is the fictional company’s top salesman, Ricky Roma, played by Christian Slater, who convinces as someone who could sell the proverbial brick to a drowning man. Slater’s charisma makes for perfect casting, and his mischievous, arch delivery brings out the play’s wicked humour. But there’s more: the real focus of the play is veteran salesman Shelley Levene, nicknamed “the machine”, and next to his old mentor Slater shows an impressive restraint.

Stanley Townsend gives a superb performance as Levene. Technically brilliant, his understanding of Mamet’s rhythm is marvellous, he gets great laughs but also makes the play moving. The brief mentions of his daughter, like all the women in the play never actually named, creates a powerful emotional undertow. This is “a world of men”, but look how troubled it is. Yates draws out the desperation and pressure underlying these workers’ lives, with a nod to the tradition of Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill. It’s intelligent insight, convincingly delivered, that makes this a revelatory production.

Until 3 February 2018

www.atgtickets.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

“The Busy World Is Hushed” at the Finborough Theatre

Neil McPherson’s programming consistently brings exciting plays to London, and his venue has another European premiere to boast about. Keith Bunin’s piece has the surprisingly contemporary scenario of a Church minister encouraging a gay relationship for her son. From this starting point, there is a sensitive and intelligent examination of relationships and religion that makes it easy to see why the play was acclaimed off-Broadway.

Kazia Pelka plays Hannah, a scholar and woman of the cloth, who is working on a book about a newly discovered gospel with the help of her assistant, Brandt. The potential for a new perspective on religion enthuses Hannah but is delivered by the play itself rather than any fictional manuscript. Bunin’s key achievement is to make the theological discussion fresh and interesting. The text is aided by Pelka’s calm delivery and the patience of director Paul Higgins – there’s a lot to think about here and we are given time to follow the arguments. It’s interesting and never heavy handed.

Michael James and Mateo Oxley
Michael James and Mateo Oxley

The illness of Brandt’s father provides an emotional backdrop for a practical discussion of faith that is impressively clear sighted, while allowing Mateo Oxley to shine with a heart-breaking performance. At the same time, his burgeoning relationship with Hannah’s son, Thomas, is depicted with an understated affection. Here, both Oxley and Michael James create a great sense of chemistry and inculcate our sincere hope that their romance will work out.

Bunin stumbles slightly with this final character of Thomas, whose mental instability proves a distraction. James’s considerable charisma keeps us watching this unappealing twentysomething, but such callow eccentricity is trying. The weaker characterisation is, arguably, a price worth paying for a twist here. It’s this doubting Thomas who turns out to be the intolerant one. Hannah isn’t a saint – their relationship, “twisted in knots”, is depicted with such meticulous detail it becomes painful to watch. But the inflexibility comes from the demands of youth, leading to a fraught denouement that makes the play one of those rare pieces that subtly challenges an audience to change its mind.

Until 25 November 2017

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

Photos by Scott Rylander

“Labour of Love” at Wyndham’s Theatre

Thirty years of a political party’s history doesn’t sound like a West End hit. But, as this new play by James Graham joins the transfer of his Ink just down the road, you can’t question the young playwright’s commercial acumen. I am sure someone has worked out the last time a living writer had two new plays performing at the same time – it doesn’t happen often and is to be celebrated. Graham’s talent is obvious – the strength of his writing lies in his humour, and Labour of Love is funny from start to finish.

There’s a conventional love story here, which develops a little too late, between the MP whose career we follow and his constituency secretary, Jean. Their fumbling romance is sweet and gets laughs. There’s love of a place, too: a concerted effort to depict the constituency as a character, detailing the destruction of a community. It’s a shame that the Nottingham location is depicted as The North – it isn’t, it’s The Midlands. Pushing accents geographically up the country must have been a conscious decision, but seems odd given how thorough Graham’s research is. But it’s really the love of the Labour Party that is interesting. The history is entertaining, the observations acute, the use of hindsight effective and all of it is, yes, funny. Graham has written a lot about politics and his satire is distinctive. He seldom doubts the good intentions of our rulers and portrays them as human. While many would succumb to cynicism, Graham resists, which makes his work level headed and quietly inspirational.

Taking the leads are Martin Freeman as the amiable MP and Tamsin Greig as Jean. The comic timing of both is immaculate. Freeman is given more to work with when developing his character, and he suggests the passage of time in the play effectively. However, the play belongs to Jean. A card-carrying member of the party since she was 12 (she lied about her age), with a sincerity and passion that is palpable, her plain speaking and fruity swearing make her irresistible.

Jeremy Herrin’s direction is clear and thorough – the competency of the cast and strength of the script mean fancy touches aren’t necessary. Going backwards then forwards in time means it helps to know the history a little, as the archive footage offered isn’t quite enough. I feared for an American contingent of Freeman fanatics, but they seemed to enjoy themselves enormously. Graham isn’t shy of a bad pun or lame joke – he provides both with remarkable rapidity. Freeman and Greig tackle the speed of the gags with ease, making each and every one a winner.

Until 2 December 2017

www.labouroflovetheplay.co.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

Romantics Anonymous at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

With her last show in charge at Shakespeare’s Globe, Emma Rice is going out in style with a musical romantic comedy that showcases her talents. This adaptation of the French film Les Émotifs Anonymes, is hilarious and heart-warming with a sense of wonder – at stories and making theatre – that is Rice’s trademark appeal.

The story of two chocolate makers falling in love sounds sickly sweet but a big dose of humour prevents any cloying aftertaste. Angélique and Jean-René are pathologically shy – émotif as the French say – and that’s the obstacle they have to overcome to find love. It’s great material for a musical: when the tongue-tied characters can’t speak, they can sing. And the scenario allows the lead performers, Carly Bawden and Dominic Marsh, to win hearts, as we fear and hope alongside them.

You’d be cold indeed not to fall for this fumbling pair. But to cater for cynics, Rice’s book for the show has a cool edge. The therapies tried (including the film’s titular support group) are viciously funny. As is pointed out, the secret of chocolate is a touch of bitterness. So, alongside all the Gallic sensitivity, we have old-fashioned English wit. Even the self-help tape Jean-René listens to loses patience with him! Great jokes and a sense of playfulness mean laughs throughout.

While Bawden and Marsh are brilliant as our emotionally challenged couple, this is the kind of ensemble piece Rice excels with. The often Breton-topped troupe takes on a range of delightful roles. Take your pick: Joanna Riding as Angélique’s uncouth mother, or Gareth Snook as two chocolate shop owners, both male and female. When the cast assemble as the misfit support group, each and every characterisation gets a laugh.

Although the comedy numbers are superb from the start, Michael Kooman’s sophisticated score gets off to a slow start and the lyrics by Christopher Dimond seem serviceable rather than inspired. But, like another description of chocolate from Angélique and Jean-René, the music has a complexity and power that builds.

Despite its everyday story, and a score of satisfying references, Romantics Anonymous is an original. It’s the first new musical at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for a start. It glorifies in lo-fi touches, often Rice’s forte, that show each moment approached with fresh intelligence. It revels in the mechanics of theatre, creating complicity with the audience, with a novel self-deprecation. But the underlying, unabashed aim here is to create theatrical magic. And Rice succeeds so well, you feel gratitude for experiencing this great show.

Until 6 January 2018

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photo by Steve Tanner

“Young Marx” at the Bridge Theatre

There’s nothing more exciting than a new theatre. And, bearing in mind that Nicholas Hytner’s new venue is the biggest in London for a long time, its opening night is a major cultural event to really celebrate. In truth, it’s a bit of a box of place – in one of those luxury housing developments you wish you could afford but wouldn’t live in if you could – trying hard to be swish (expensive sarnies) and smelling a bit too new. But the play’s the thing and, to open his new home Hytner, has collaborated with regular favourites to deliver a real crowd pleaser.

The true history of Karl Marx’s early years living in London is fascinating, with a fact-stranger-than-fiction appeal – it seems that Marx was an expert in economics but couldn’t handle his own money. The lead role provides an enviable part for Rory Kinnear, who embraces this larger-than-life, Bohemian (yes, really) philosopher. With One Man Two Guvnors and Dead Ringers writers Richard Bean and Clive Coleman at work, the play is, as you would expect, good, old-fashioned funny.

With the excellent Oliver Chris as Friedrich Engels, the two revolutionaries make a comedy double act. They even have a piano, until the bailiffs call and, as invited, literally, take a chair. There’s more than a hint of the Marx Brothers here – there’s even a cigar or two. Add numerous emigrés with funny accents (Tony Jayawardena is a highlight as the impoverished family’s doctor) and you have more than enough comedy ingredients. Kinnear is even good for some slapstick. Hytner enjoys this stuff – as do audiences – and his direction is faultless.

Just to make sure all bases are covered, we get some light extrapolation of Marxist ideas to give us something to think about, and it’s pretty evenly handled, with nice touches of hindsight. And there’s pathos: the death of a Marx child is movingly portrayed. The treatment of Marx’s wife and mistress short-changes two excellent actors – Nancy Carroll and Laura Elphinstone – and it becomes hard to believe these women stuck around. And there is angst: that Marx fears unleashing the “virus of hope” with his writing is an interesting idea, but we need to see more of Marx’s power, rather than just being told about it. Maybe that would have made things too serious?

Young Marx tries hard to be a hit – and it deserves to be one. Even with the best reputation and address book in the business, starting a new commercial theatre is a brave move by Hytner and his producer Nick Starr. As new plays go, this is a pretty safe bet. But Hytner understandably has a cautious eye on commercial success. A big show to get people talking is exactly what is needed and my fingers are crossed for just that.

Until 31 December 2017

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan