“Limehouse Nights” by the Kandinsky Theatre Company

Limehouse once had a thriving Chinese population and, along with this, a lively reputation as an exotic den of vice. From Dickens to Conan Doyle, the area’s opium dens were a gift to writers seeking to create racist stereotypes of immigrants. The Kandinsky Theatre has taken over the sadly decrepit Limehouse Town Hall to allow us our own intoxicatingly intelligent journey back in time.

Make no mistake that we are tourists. Director and writer James Yeatman opens the play, based on a real-life story, with a group much like ourselves – turn-of-the-century Londoners on a tour and looking for escapism. Limehouse has had lots of gentrification since the time of the play – desirable terraces and modern flats surround Hawksmoor’s St Anne’s – but the Town Hall itself has seen better days. Despite clever efforts by designer Amy Cook, it isn’t well suited as an auditorium. The idea of staging the play there is neat, but the production is a success despite, rather than because of, its location.

Following the death by drug overdose of a musical-hall actress, police inspector Thomas Burke heads for the East End to investigate the source of her supply. There follows an entertaining detective story that includes plenty of wry observation about cultural encounters. The whodunit is presented well, with a series of interviews and statements that allow Alex Marx and Sarah Sweeney to show off their talents as various characters.

The politics is less successful. Tom Ferguson does well to show the Inspector’s excited exchange with his new Chinese friends and even better to show a creepy side when his interest in the exotic turns erotic. However, his supervisor MacReady, is understandably confused about his modern approach to community policing. Ed Hancock plays the role too much for laughs. He gets them but it doesn’t sit well with the rest of the play’s more subtle approach.

The pressure to find a solution to the case becomes about providing a story for the sensation-loving press. As interludes of musical theatre mimed by the cast reinforce, this story doesn’t have to be real so much as entertaining –with prejudices never questioned just confirmed.

Lee Chee Kong and his Irish wife Mita are the couple forced to take the blame. They are utterly believable as a devoted pair and the scenes of their romance and intimacy are the play’s highlights. Their exploitation to fit a bigoted narrative is made tragic by wonderful performances from William Mychael Lee and Kerry-Jayne Wilson. These actors alone make it a Limehouse Night to remember.

www.kandinsky-online.com

Until 11 June 2010

Photo by Dan Patrick

Written 1 June 2010 for The London Magazine

“Canary” at Hampstead Theatre

Jonathan Harvey’s Canary is an epic story of gay rights that stretches over 50 years, from imprisonment and aversion ‘therapy’, through political activism and the fear of AIDS, up to the age of celebrity ‘outings’. Harvey knows his subject matter possibly a little too well – analysis is sometimes less than subtle, with action and issues too condensed. Fortunately, he is an entertaining writer who gives us more than a history lesson. He creates an engaging, ambitious story packed with as much drama and humour as it is with politics.

Harvey adopts the sensible device of recounting the history through the life of one man. We begin as Tom, a senior policeman, is about to be exposed as gay by the press and then travel back through his life to see how his decision to remain in the closet affects those close to him. From his betrayal of the men he loves, his marriage and his rejection of his own gay son, we see the long-term repercussions of his lies.

There is a touch of soap opera here and that isn’t meant to sound derogatory. The characters are skilfully crafted so that their part in the story comes to be about them as individuals – no small feat when political issues are involved. They aren’t just symbols but complicated people living through dramatic events. It is often gripping stuff driven by passion and conviction that this politics still matters.

The play is also superbly acted. The younger members of the cast do well to represent what their older selves would have been like years ago. Appropriately, though, in a play that celebrates the achievements of previous activists, it is the older members of the cast who shine. Philip Voss is breathtaking in the variety of roles he has to play. Moving from a wicked impersonation of Mary Whitehouse to standing by his estranged son’s deathbed in a matter of moments. Paula Wilcox is also fantastic playing his wife Ellie. Driven to distraction by her own guilt as well as her husband’s she retreats into fantasy, travelling through time and space and, in between, putting in a splendid Margaret Thatcher impersonation.

The fantastic elements and shifts in time make Harvey’s play highly theatrical. Director Hettie MacDonald deals well with this – actors fly through the air and demonstrate from the audience seats. There is a lot of fun here only slightly let down by a minimal staging that feels as if it consists solely of sofas. The upholstery (and costumes) set the time of the action as well as they can, but some further help might be useful. If the whole thing takes some following, these shifts in time and reality serve well to emphasise the repercussions of events. Scenes when characters look at, or talk to, their younger selves are amongst the most poignant moments in a play bold and powerful enough to have no shortage of them.

Until 12 June 2010

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Helen Warner

 

Written 23 May 2010 for The London Magazine

“Ditch” at the Old Vic Tunnels

As The London Magazine’s resident theatre mole, your intrepid reviewer went subterranean to visit The Old Vic Tunnels for Beth Steel’s apocalyptic new play Ditch.

Located beneath Waterloo station and approached along a depressing back street, the venue is actually a happy compromise away from the more adventurous site-specific locations that can be something of an ordeal. It still gets cold and it smells a bit but, with comfy seats donated by Banksy and a bar that boasts no fewer than four designers, it is achingly cool and London’s most exciting new theatrical space.

More importantly, the creative team behind Ditch have used the venue well. Installations surround the auditorium. Plant-covered mill wheels are atmospherically lit and a dismembered tree hovers, upside down, over a bright red circle of cloth. It’s great scene setting and appropriate for the dystopian scenario that unfolds.

Although Ditch is set in the countryside and much of the action takes place out of doors, the survivor’s predicament is perfectly reflected by the large design team headed by Takis. Superb lighting and sound by Matt Prentice and Christopher Shutt add to constructing this frightening world. Here, while ‘security’ forces live in isolation with their housekeepers and search out ‘illegals’, there are some captivating moments – the sighting of a stag in the mist or the creation of a sunset that subtly suggests an atomic cloud.

There’s some superb acting as well. Sam Hazeldine plays the foul-mouthed Turner, dedicated to his soldier’s life with edgy brutality. Danny Webb is his commander, Burns, and convinces as a thoughtful, broken man who can remember what civilisation used to be like. Fighting off memories of the past as a strategy to survive is Dearbhla Molloy’s formidable Mrs Peel. This is a wonderful performance, as she looks after the men and herself with humorous, steely determination. Her other charge is the young Megan (Matti Houghton) who gives a touching portrayal full of small rebellions and a quest for love with spirited new recruit James (Gethin Anthony).

But what of the play itself? Steel has set out a standard science-fiction scenario with the odd little tactic of leaving out all the details. We are never told what has happened to the world and given next to no back-story for the characters. Avoiding specifics deprives us of questioning events or degenerating into adolescent paranoia. I suspect the idea is to focus instead on the characters’ reactions and some abstract ideas about the environment. This isn’t a trade off worth paying. Perversely, Steel ignores her own lesson that people can live in the moment and snatch joy in the worst of times to persist in a vision of the future both bleak and vague.

Until 26 June 2010

www.theoldvictheatre.com

Photo by William Knight

Written 21 May 2010 for The London Magazine

“That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” at the Barons Court Theatre

”Fame, fame, fatal fame.” Morrissey’s desire for celebrity, which he sang about in 1985, is one now widely embraced. The Smiths singer imagined embellishing his autobiography in order to boost his creative credentials. Is this a step many of us would make in order to acquire fame? And if we did this, what would the toll be on our loved ones and ourselves?

Michael Ross’s new play, That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore, poses this question of how we narrate our life stories with intelligence and wit. Mark Elias plays Leon Shepherd, a stand-up comedian driven to the edge of sanity while waiting for his big break. Elias conveys his desperation and then astonishment as a series of figures begin to appear from his wardrobe to perform their own stand-up routines.

These ghosts from his past are presented to him by Pete Picton, a delightfully Faustian figure who poses as an experienced comedian and clearly thinks little of Leon’s efforts, despite his own jokes coming from another age. He introduces Leon’s mother (Sacha Walker) and drama teacher (Isabel Carr), whose performances as radical feminist and visionary pedagogue are well-observed caricatures.

Both women seem to have left a scar but, as the plot thickens, we learn that Leon may have a darker secret. The next guest is his old partner Jimmy. Julian Farrance plays the role as a foil to Leon. He possesses the confidence Leon lacks and, while his comedy routine plays around with the truth, he has a sincerity that makes us question his old partner’s story. It’s a suspicion confirmed as Tony Rowden’s Inspector of Police arrives to cap off the wonderfully surreal proceedings – let’s just say a glove puppet is involved.

This is a well-constructed and thought provoking play. At only an hour long, it leaves you wanting more with a resolution that seems too short. There is great ambition here – it takes courage to write and perform consciously bad jokes that will unsettle an audience. Ross’s knowing remarks about the construction of comedy and performance show us we are in safe hands though. There is a sensitive, somewhat maudlin touch here that leaves a lasting impression.

Until 23 May 2010

Photo by Radjan Wahera

Written 19 May 2010 for The London Magazine

“Love the Sinner” at the National Theatre

Playwright Drew Pautz has set himself a challenging task in writing Love the Sinner. His new play, premiering at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe auditorium, takes as its subject matter internal politics within the Anglican Communion. This is not, for many of us, the hottest of topics.

Thankfully, the play opens up rather beautifully. The debate, taking place in Africa, questions the role of religion in the modern world. The African delegates stand in contrast to their European counterparts. For them, religion is a powerful force, and they have a faith that might be commended by Kierkegaard. The church should take a stand – preservation not progress is needed. Discussions are ostensibly about the rights of homosexuals in the church and, when a volunteer at the conference has a sexual encounter with one of the hotel’s porters, Pautz begins to explore how abstract arguments impact on personal conscience.

Jonathan Cullen plays Michael, the volunteer who finds himself in a distinctly awkward post-coital conversation with a hotel staff member. Joseph, touchingly insistent on his name being remembered, is desperate and dangerous. Described subsequently as a Furie, Joseph is played by Fiston Barek with a febrile energy. Cullen, by contrast, risks being too meek to be believable.

Anxiety follows Michael back to England where, to the detriment of all, religion becomes an increasingly important part of his life. Charlotte Randle is a highlight as his wife Shelly. So obsessed with having a child that having a husband seems an annoyance, she is exasperated by the man she now lives with who, seems to just ‘sweat and pray’. As the distance between them grows, Randle crafts a moving portrayal. At work, a skilful mix of embarrassed glances and confrontations make for an amusing farce whose comedy is tempered by melancholy. And Michael’s problems have really only just begun.

Joseph finds his way to England and Michael providing a skilfully written, tense final act. Here, Scott Handy is superb as the church’s PR man who sees realism, not God, in a situation, while Ian Redford does well as the play’s liberal bishop.

What the Bishop and Michael both want is reconciliation. An agreement, at least, to disagree. Throughout the play, such a step seems impossible and, if God can’t provide it, then it is unreasonable to expect that Drew Pautz can, no matter how satisfying it would be for an audience. The effort made by Joseph to progress past the shame he is supposed to feel ultimately fails to convince. It seems inevitable that this thought-provoking play leaves us feeling unreconciled and unresolved.

Until 10 July 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Keith Pattison

Written 13 May 2010 for The London Magazine

“Holding The Man” at the Trafalgar Studios

On paper, Holding The Man is a potentially grim prospect – a gay coming-of-age story at the start of the AIDS era. The play might also risk seeming dated, as the confusion and fear surrounding the deadly disease has changed. The Australian Griffin Theatre Company’s triumphant arrival in London blows such qualms away in a startlingly effective production. Holding The Man is, quite simply, a beautiful love story.

Romance with a capital R exudes from playwright Tommy Murphy’s adaptation of the late Timothy Conigrave’s celebrated memoirs. Guy Edmonds, who plays Conigrave, and Matt Zeremes, his lover John Caleo, are utterly convincing as the two men in love. They show passion, tenderness, anxiety and pain in their rich performances

The lovers have their faults, but Conigrave’s is also his virtue – his honesty. Blunt to a fault, his writings reveal how hurtful he could be. Often painfully crude and cruel, his desire to be open about his sexuality and then to have an open relationship comes before others’ feelings. He isn’t always an attractive character, but his truth wins our admiration.

The truth has a power to make us laugh. Holding The Man reminds us that laughter goes on even when we are so ill that it hurts us to do so. From the touching naivety of the boys as they fall in love, through Conigrave’s time at college and even in sickness, there is fun to be had. Along the way we get a fantastic soundtrack and costumes so spot on that they deserve a stand up comedy show of their own.

However, director David Berthold and designer Brian Thomson have created more than a supremely funny period piece full of guilty pleasures for those who remember the 80s. Thomson’s beautifully poetic set of lights and mirrors reflects the magic of romance and theatre. Equally, Berthold creates a highly inventive production with a tight ensemble cast using the most of basic props and techniques powerfully.

The play has hundreds of characters. Amazingly, just four actors play all of the other roles with dazzling transformations of gender and age. Jane Turner is given star billing. She succeeds in differentiating her performance as both boys’ mothers from her famous role in cult TV show Kath & Kim. Along with great lines and an easy ability to make people laugh (every gesture gets a giggle), she can also be deeply moving. There is a danger she might steal the show.

Turner is disciplined enough to prevent this and she has some stiff competition anyway. Simon Burke is excellent in the diverse roles he has to perform and outstanding when it comes to portraying Caleo’s father. The British performers joining the cast are Oliver Farnworth and Anna Skellern. Their roles include Farnworth playing a school friend’s mother and Skellern a sexually charged teenage boy in a candid group masturbation scene.

For some this might sound a little unpalatable, but it is fitting that Conigrave’s frankness provokes. For others it will sound like a great deal of fun. Holding The Man is terrific and there is more joy than shame here. The sense of loss as its characters die tragically young turns into a celebration of their lives. The pain felt is embraced, as it must be, in any true romance.

Until 3 July 2010

Written 5 May 2010 for The London Magazine

“Women Beware Women” at the National Theatre

Harriet Walter is a woman to be scared of, at least, she is in the National Theatre’s current production of Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women. She plays Livia, gifted and cursed with a demonic persuasive power. Through deceit she organises an incestuous affair between her brother and her niece and engineers the rape of a newly married neighbour. Yet she does it all with a great deal of charm. She’ll manage to persuade you that she isn’t all that bad.

Her victims are Bianca (Lauren O’Neil) and Isabella (Vanessa Kirby). They transform from young, innocent women in love into killers bent on revenge. It’s a delicious change, and one the actresses clearly relish. Taking their lead from Walter, they adopt a cool, clever and cynical approach to marriage while passion boils inside them as they plot murder. As their metamorphosis occurs, Livia falls in love herself – she decides to take Bianca’s husband as a toy boy. Unfortunately for her, the transformation allows emotions to begin clouding her judgement.

And what of the men? They should have plenty of reason to beware these women, but their own arrogance and hypocrisy make them oblivious as to how they are manipulated. Richard Lintern is suitably villainous as the Duke who abducts Bianca, and Raymond Courtauld genuinely creepy as the uncle who loves Isabella. If Samuel Barnett seems slightly miscast as the man who manages to get Bianca to elope, he makes a good show of playing the doting husband and gets his fair share of laughs.

Focusing on the melodrama as a strategy for getting humour out of a revenge tragedy might seem like a risk. Making characters less rounded than they are written only works if you have a strong cast. Fortunately, director Marianne Elliott is working with fine actors and the payoff is a great deal of fun. Elliott has great skill as a storyteller and can cut through complicated plots to provide refreshing clarity. She is also visionary when it comes to staging and here the production takes off.

Designer Lez Brotherston’s set is magnificent. A decadent mixture of art deco glamour and baroque drama, it manages to reflect the grand and intimate, rich and poor, while evoking the games and perils of seduction. And it works in more than one way. Making the most of the Olivier’s revolving stage, the final scene of murderous mayhem is perfectly choreographed and truly thrilling.

Until July 4 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Simon Annand

Written 29 April 2010 for The London Magazine

“Ruined” at the Almeida Theatre

Ruined began with a trip author Lynn Nottage took to East Africa in 2004. Wanting to write about war through the eyes of the women involved, she interviewed refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The stories she heard form the core of her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, now given its European premiere at The Almeida Theatre.

The testimony Nottage took down is often so painful and extreme that you are powerfully shaken by its veracity – nobody could make this up. The victims of war she spoke to suffered many kinds of trauma, but Ruined focuses on the shocking practice of rape as a weapon of war.

The play takes place in Mama Nadi’s brothel. She employs those who cannot go home after their abduction and rape, since it is said they would bring shame upon their families. The women serve the various armies who battle over the country and the miners who are there to exploit the Congo’s rich natural resources. The prostitutes are not the worst off. Other women are left physically mutilated by their experience, in constant pain and unable to bear children. They are the ones who are said to be ruined.

Sophie (Pippa Bennett-Warner) is one such woman. Her uncle brings her to Mama Nadi and begs for her to be given a home. She comes with Salima (Michelle Asante) and meets Josephine (Kehinde Fadipe). These are three magnificent performances. Each woman carries a heavy emotional burden and as their stories unfold, we learn not only of their pain but also of their dreams. The fear they share is mixed with anger and also hope. These are performances crafted with great skill to give the characters the dignity they deserve.

Jenny Jules is just as wonderful as Mama Nadi. It really is one of those performances of a lifetime. Mama seems to care only for money, everyone is simply a customer, regardless of their politics, and her only concern is to put food on the table. Like Scarlett O’Hara or Mother Courage, she is called a ‘devilish optimist’ for making money out of the turmoil around her.

By feeding these women, she is also looking after them and the fine moral line she treads between fighting for them and bullying them in turn only becomes more complicated as we learn her story. It is a wonderfully nuanced role and performance. Her formidable approach does not just win respect – it gets laughs as well. The budding romance between her and Sophie’s uncle, played with charm by Lucian Msamati, moves from touching to heartbreaking as Mama Nadi’s secret is revealed and her hopes exposed.

Against the constantly threatening backdrop of war, violence pervades Ruined. The soldiers who patronise Mama Nadi’s are a convincingly frightening presence. It is not just gunfire and explosions that these women have to be afraid of but each client they prostitute themselves to. It makes for great tension and drama. But the noise isn’t all artillery – there is music as well – life goes on at Mama Nadi’s because these victims of war are also survivors. The story of this survival is one of those rare pieces of theatre that needs to be seen by as many people as possible.

Until 5 June 2010

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 27 April 2010 for The London Magazine

“The Real Thing” at the Old Vic

The Real Thing is a relatively simple play for Tom Stoppard. There’s no time travel or astronauts and you don’t need to know about minor characters in other plays. It is the playwright’s meditation on love, a story about the ups and downs of relationships, the questioning of whether an emotion felt is genuine and what repercussions this may have.

Of course, there is more to it than that. The main character is Henry, a successful playwright, celebrated for his keen intellect. Ring any bells? As we follow his married life we are treated to amusing insights into the theatre that mirror the characters’ actions.

Still, this is Stoppard with slightly less philosophy. Henry ruminates on how our perspective alters a situation, but this is to investigate emotion rather than metaphysics. It’s a question of aesthetics. The search is for a subjective truth – the qualitative difference between Bach and Henry’s preferred Procol Harum are down to him, as are the judgements of his love life.

All this is highly entertaining – it is bound to be with Stoppard’s witty script and Toby Stephens’ excellent delivery. He is convincingly aloof and skilled at slowly revealing the complexities of his character. Generally unlikeable for his smug condescension, when he does show emotion you realise how involved you have become. It is a masterfully seductive performance.

Despite his ability, Stephens doesn’t steal the show. It seems the only people more amusingly self-obsessed than writers are actresses. Henry enters into relationships with two. The always-excellent Fenella Woolgar delivers lines in deadpan fashion. She plays Henry’s first wife Charlotte who is replaced by Annie (Hattie Morahan). The latter provides dramatic edge when we encounter the new couple breaking up their marriages, passion during their ‘honeymoon’ period and real emotion when their relationship becomes troubled.

Both women contrast with Henry. After years of marriage Charlotte is more than aware of his failings, and Annie’s political convictions provide a foil (albeit an ironic one) to his nonchalance. Henry learns that his deep commitment and Romantic notions are perceived as carelessness and is accused of being too intellectual. Barnaby Kay touchingly defends the wife who is about to leave him by saying that Henry’s life and work fail to deal with the ‘messy’ stuff that really counts. Stoppard has his eye on this – there are dirty handkerchiefs and mucky innuendo here but it doesn’t quite convince. Henry’s well-drawn teenage daughter Debbie (Louise Calf) makes a great debut pointing out that all this angst and debate is all just for the ‘architect’ classes.

Stoppard is too clever not to know that he is falling into this trap. While Debbie’s free love solution to the problem is swiftly and suitably dismissed, there is too much reliance on the fact that love is universal to avoid the problem she highlights. It is difficult to see who would identify with these characters or find them aspirational. Even with all the skill and intelligence on display here we aren’t involved enough and fail to connect. Stoppard’s ‘less is more’ approach doesn’t quite deliver.

Until 5 June 2010

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 23 April for The London Magazine

“Posh” at the Royal Court

There’s seldom a shortage of political plays in London and, in an election year, writers are keener than ever to deal with meaty issues. Laura Wade’s Posh promises a novel take on current affairs by allowing us an insight into one of those Oxford dining clubs beloved of Messrs Cameron and Johnson. It’s a good starting position, but what makes the play really clever is that it deals with so much more.

Fascination with power is always a great ingredient for good drama – what forms and drives those in charge? Wade sets out to inform us. In this case, the elite Riot Club diners are born to rule and very much aware of this fact.

Great humour comes from the plentiful clichés about such characters as their revolting snobbery is combined with the arrogance and ignorance of youth. It’s entertaining stuff, but these guys are easy targets. Again Wade provides more. Like all children of the baby boomers these toffs could be the first generation in history to be worse off than their parents. Angrily interpreting the current state of the nation, they see that if they don’t change things, they might have to stop being posh.

The large cast does a great job of making each character distinct despite belonging to a limited social world. In a variety of ways, each exposes their weaknesses and is played with by the others. They are vicious to each other as only schoolboys can be while their amateur manoeuvrings have a pathetic touch. Joshua McGuire, who is still in his final year at RADA, stands out as Guy. More than most he is utterly clueless and desperate to gain approval. Leo Bill plays Alistair, notable for the frightening anger he conveys and his palpable confusion in the face of what he regards as the injustices of the world.

The play is bookended by meetings with Guy’s godfather Jeremy. Performed with sinister aplomb by Simon Shepherd, he is an MP on the look out for future talent. Shepherd is perfectly cast as the man these boys will grow up to be. If this sounds a little too conspiratorial, bear in mind that the idea of such dining clubs containing undergraduates plotting to control the country is well avoided here. Wade sets out empty, rambling arguments full of powerful emotion but safely removed from political reality.

It might seem odd but, for my money, the star roles are the smallest ones. Fiona Button plays the toffs’ waitress and Charlotte Lucas a prostitute hired by the club. The women carry themselves with a sense of dignity and purpose that the club-members lack. Their articulacy renders the men speechless – until they leave the room.

Added to all these great performances come some surprises. Surreal touches are added that make director Lyndsey Turner’s production speed along. A capella interludes where the club sing inappropriate versions of R’n’B numbers require that musical director James Fortune earns a special mention. The songs are great fun and serve as a wonderful reminder of how anachronistic the club is. A guest appearance by the club’s founder, Earl Riot, who possesses Toby (Jolyon Coy) in his drunken stupor, also changes the tempo of the piece.

All this combines to create a great evening at the theatre. Undoubtedly some will claim that the observations about class and politics are too broad but the insight into youth and group dynamics are spot on. Behind this, a great ear for dialogue and skill at creating dramatic situations should compel our politicians to watch this for tips on how to engage an audience, if nothing else.

Until 22 May 2010

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 19 April 2010 for The London Magazine