Tag Archives: Bush Theatre

“Guards At The Taj” at the Bush Theatre

Reopening after a year of refurbishment and looking very smart indeed, artistic director Madani Younis’ reinvigorated west London venue is off to a brilliant new start. An award-winning play from American writer Rajiv Joseph combines with two big UK names: director Jamie Lloyd and designer Soutra Gilmour.

Joseph’s play is a marvel of economy – 80 minutes packed with ideas, emotion, comedy and tragedy. Two guards on the Taj Mahal construction site are forbidden from seeing the mausoleum before its completion, by decree from Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. The tension between despotic whims and these average guys escalates into horrific acts that are the stuff of myths (the play has its share of gore) and raise profound questions about aesthetics and the individual in society. Yet Joseph deals with his themes lightly – no matter how dark and dangerous the drama gets.

Lloyd embraces the play’s contemporary feel, following instruction in the script that dialects are not to be used and highlighting every possible moment of relief in shocking circumstances. The performers – Danny Ashok and Darren Kuppan – both deserve the highest praise. Kuppan makes it impossible not to love his character Babur’s “fancies and prophecies and inventions”. The more pragmatic Humayun more slowly grows on us (through our appreciation of his family life) a feat Ashok manoeuvres to give full force to both men’s tragedy.

Gilmour’s industrial aesthetic, recalling for me the work of Richard Serra or Richard Wilson’s 20:50 installation, looks fantastic. Working alongside lighting designer Richard Howell, this set is a real stunner. And Beauty, with a capital B, is important here. There are moments of wonder at architecture, also nature. And a beautiful friendship: touching scenes between the two men do more than lead to the final trauma. Babur and Hamayan’s dream of a different life produces that ingredient of hope that provides a “wow” to the play as a whole.

Until 20 May 2017

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“The Angry Brigade” at the Bush Theatre

Playwright James Graham continues his hugely successful engagement with politics by looking at the history of 1970s anarchist bombers, The Angry Brigade. The first act opens on a grim basement room in which four young coppers are secretly tasked with investigating the new phenomenon of homegrown terrorism. Parallels with current concerns aren’t forced, and the authorities’ efforts are often comic, as the police loosen their ties and discover pot in an attempt to understand this new breed of criminal. Harry Melling and Lizzy Watts excel with a variety of roles: police, victims and suspects. But the act belongs to Mark Arends as the impassioned young detective Smith, whose performance is perfectly attuned to the writing’s clever drollery.

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Harry Melling and Pearl Chanda

After the humorous highs of the first act, the second act may slightly disappoint. Now with the Brigade, played by the same cast of four, the laughs are more guarded and there’s less period detail to poke fun at. Whatever you think of the politics, the ideas are presented (rather frighteningly) well. And the performances are full-bodied and intense, in particular those of Melling, again, and Pearl Chanda (as Anna Mendleson), whose fraught relationship provides a necessary emotional core to the section.

The temptation may be to see the play as split into two sides of the same story, both bravely sympathetic and boldly different. But The Angry Brigade is so meticulously written that parallels between the police and the protesters are developed with estimable precision. The crafted complexity of the script is highlighted by James Grieve’s direction and Lucy Osbornes’ design, which add a visceral, shock element to the dialogue – cast members slam filing cabinets to the ground to signify each bomb that goes off. No surprise, then, that this play feels like an explosive hit.

Until 13 June 2015

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Visitors” at the Bush Theatre

After an acclaimed run at the Arcola earlier this year, Barney Norris’ Visitors is now playing at the Bush Theatre. Impeccably directed by Alice Hamilton, the story of elderly couple Arthur and Edie, she sliding into dementia, is finely written and superbly acted. It’s hard to believe this is Norris’ first full-length play, it’s so accomplished: a moving family drama full of excellent observation and real heart. The subject matter is difficult, but the play so infused with gentle humour and poetic wisdom that it’s a delight to watch and an inspiring experience.

Two younger characters, the couple’s son, Stephen, and Kate, a recent graduate employed as a carer, serve as entry points for all ages in the audience. It’s clear that Norris aims to examine not just the afflictions of old age, but also how memory links to identity, and the importance of the choices we make throughout life. Stephen’s poor jokes show how spot on the humour in the show really is and, while his mid-life crisis might be a touch predictable, Simon Muller does well in the role. Eleanor Wild is superb as the young Kate, ostensibly the visitor of the title, an intriguing and carefully drawn figure.

The elderly couple is an often uncomfortable memento mori for the younger characters. With little action in Visitors, the play reminded me, somewhat fancifully, of a Dutch still life painting; something demanding careful attention and worth treasuring. Arthur and Edie are in no way clichéd and never patronised. Robin Soanes is utterly believable as the elderly farmer Arthur and Linda Bassett’s performance one of the best I’ve seen this year. Bassett makes good lines great with assured comic touches. As Edie’s observations on life, though obscured by her illness, become increasingly poignant, each line she delivers becomes all the more memorable.

Until 10 January 2015

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Mark Douet

“Perseverance Drive” at the Bush Theatre

Last night saw the world premiere of Perseverance Drive by Robin Soans at the Bush Theatre. This is the story of the dysfunctional Gillards, starting with the funeral of the mother in Barbados and ending with the death of the father in Leytonstone. The treatment is detailed and the story interesting, but broader themes are often overshadowed by a dysfunctional family drama.

Our theme is religion. The Gillards set up their own church, but the three sons have “back-slid”: one obsessed with the form rather than function of religion, another setting up his own roving ministry, and the third by being homosexual. Interestingly, the latter two contend for position as most disappointing son. There’s a wealth of detail about the church that, perhaps through my own ignorance, I found slightly distracting. The humour is welcome, but grave situations need more emphasis – could smoking a cigarette really be so outrageous? Apparently so.

Some characters are too sketchy to satisfy – Akiya Henry actually does well to get laughs out of the reborn but vicious sister-in-law Joylene, where even a dramatic backstory provides little flesh to the character. In the major role of Josh, Clint Dyer seems handicapped by some clunky lines but pulls through at powerful moments. The best performance comes from the patriarch, a picture of stern power diminished by illness, movingly depicted by Leo Wringer.

There’s a vague whiff of melodrama around Perseverance Drive. Not from Madani Younis’ efficient direction, but rather the explosive arguments that sometimes baffle and resolutions that come close to being sentimental. But the family arguments, including an excruciating scene in church, will have you gripped and Soans’ ambition to write a play about religion, marked by a lot of common sense, is nonetheless admirable.

Until 16 August 2014

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Richard Davenport

Written 11 July 2014 for The London Magazine

“Incognito” at the Bush Theatre

This is it. Nick Payne’s play Incognito, which opened in London last night at the Bush Theatre, is the kind of exciting new play you wait a long time for. Theatrically bold, startlingly intelligent, full of insight and wit, there’s a palpable sense that this is an important piece.

The play interweaves three compelling stories: a man without long-term memory is observed over time by researchers; a scientist steals Einstein’s brain for research in 1955; and a neuropsychologist has a life-changing love affair in the present day. Incognito is an exploration into the science of the mind and the philosophy of the self: the ‘stuff’ that makes us who we are. Intellectually curious and full of big themes, it is also lively and entertaining.

There’s common ground with Payne’s previous award-winning play, Constellations. The different paths lives take sounds a continuous bass note. But Incognito explores fertile philosophical questions more explicitly and engages with science more forcefully. Father figures are used in a thought-provoking manner to examine the contribution heritage and history make to our identity. And, wait, there are great laughs too. As with David Hume, whom I suspect Payne admires, there’s an earthiness that develops into a rich humour. This serious play is also very funny.

For all the jokes, Incognito is a demanding work, but there’s a deserved sense of confidence from the terrific writing. Payne’s ability to form connections between the many characters so quickly is unerring. The switch from pathos to a great gag is like lightning, and having the characters and themes “come together and move away” is as exciting as a thriller. Director Joe Murphy builds a breathtaking rhythm, carrying (and crediting) the audience as the scenes become less naturalistic in casting and speedier in transition. Incognito is wonderfully crafted and hugely exciting.

This is a challenging play for performers and the cast’s achievement will amaze. Four performers share 21 characters, differentiating mostly with accents as the stories move geographically and through the decades. Paul Hickey transforms himself remarkably, Alison O’Donnell and Sargon Yelda show tremendous comic skills and Amelia Lowdel is spectacular in every scene. This is riveting stuff that deals well with powerful emotions and piercing questions. One for the heart and the head, it’ll have your synapses snapping, and will hang around your hippocampus long after you leave the theatre. Five stars. See it.

Until 21 June 2014

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Bill Knight

Written 16 May 2014 for The London Magazine

“Disgraced” at the Bush Theatre

It’s easy to see why Ayad Akhtar’s play, Disgraced, which receives its UK premiere at the Bush Theatre, has been such a critical hit. Directed by Nadia Fall, it’s a classically constructed, painfully topical story about how religion and terrorism touch the lives of four successful New Yorkers.

Amir is an apostate, forcefully rejecting his Muslim background, a faith that is embraced by his young nephew Abe, and of interest to his Caucasian wife Emily, an artist in awe of the “formal language” of Islamic tiles. Their friends are a Jewish curator, Isaac, admiring of attempts to make art “sacred”, and his wife, Jory, an African-American lawyer, who is Amir’s rival at work.

The main quartet don’t travel that well. They seem a contrived set and it’s difficult to gage how humorous their chitchat is supposed to be. Amir’s objections to Islam and removal from his heritage are intended to be an “issue”, but British audiences know a touch of self-loathing is perfectly normal and might find the absence of deprecation a little suspicious.

That said, the talented cast make the most of the roles and breathe a great deal of life into them. Nigel Whitmey has the hardest job as the curator, Sara Powell makes her smaller role as his wife stand out and Danny Ashok gives a credible performance as a young man slipping toward radicalism. In the lead roles Hari Dhillon and Kirsty Bushell are spectacular, both showing the development of their characters and their intense emotions marvellously.

It’s when the veneer of civilisation breaks down that the play takes off. Much like Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, when the booze flows and the gloves come off, things get very dirty indeed. And, with its focus on religion, Akhtar’s play comes close to the bone, especially in light of recent tragic events here in London. Many of the views expressed seem incendiary and the violence in the play is truly shocking.

If you like your drawing room drama intense, this one is for you. Akhtar’s attempts to open the swish Upper East side to some big issues is admirable, but whether or not he succeeds, or really just shows we can all use history, politics and religion ignobly, is debatable. Where disgrace lies is the open question concluding the play, but one thing is sure, Akhtar and this talented team in London, have nothing to be ashamed of.

Until 29 June 2013

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Simon Kane

Written 24 May 2013 for The London Magazine

“Eigengrau” at the Bush Theatre

Penelope Skinner’s new play, Eigengrau, is set in a London with no sense of community. It’s a city we hope we don’t experience but we all know exists. A group of twenty year olds are all alone and searching for love and friendship. It could be depressing stuff but in this play it is very, very funny.

Feminist activist Cassie has a flat share that isn’t going well. She had to advertise on Gumtree and found Rose, a ditzy blonde who has never heard of sexual liberation. Rose’s ‘boyfriend’ Mark works in marketing and is instantly offensive to Cassie. His flatmate Tim has problems too – he is recently bereaved, overweight and works in a friend’s chicken store. (Writing for The London Magazine, I have to point out that what these people need is a reputable lettings agent.)

In the interaction between these characters Skinner deals with pretty much every taboo of polite conversation and gets great laughs out of them all. Never talk about religion? Rose is a believer and happy to proselytize. She has proof fairies exist, oh, and dwarves as well. Sex and death? The cynicism and romance of casual encounters and falling in love cross over hilariously. Meanwhile Tim mourning his grandmother becomes grotesquely hilarious as her ashes are used to great comic effect. There is politics as well: Mark is surprised to learn people still ‘do’ feminism, and of course there is talk of property, that very London obsession.

With this comic potential the show has plenty of laugh out loud moments but as you might predict with humour this dark, it sometimes crosses a line. Where this lies is personal and, partly, the point of such black comedy. A loose grip on reality is often endearing but as this becomes dangerous it is disturbing. The women in the play debasing and mutilating themselves are dealt with ironically, but also horrifically. A long scene of oral sex, where the lights are cleverly raised, makes watching fellow audience members frankly more entertaining than what is happening on stage.

Yet all the cast show great skill in treading the fine line between humour and bad taste. It is impossible to say who gets the most laughs – there are so many of them. Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Mark is revolting – as smooth as they come and too clever for his own good. It takes real talent to turn an audience off a character that quickly! John Cummins’ Tim is utterly charming. He is a sensitive soul who is lost but still sees further than most. The women have slightly meatier roles, allowing Sinead Matthews and Alison O’Donnell to shine – their disappointments in love are moving as well as hilarious. The cast are clearly confident in the hands of director Polly Findlay. This is all heady, heavy stuff and the bold traverse design from Hannah Clark makes for an intimate, yet potentially intimidating space.

The journey our intrepid Londoners take is one worth making with them. Eigengrau is the colour seen by the eye in perfect darkness, a kind of grey that the optic nerve generates. There is plenty of blindness in the play. As the characters grope around, it becomes clear they aren’t going to find happiness through money or causes but need to search within themselves. Politics or success won’t help them but maybe, through fantasy at least, they will be able to laugh along the way.

Until 10 April 2010

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 16 March 2010 for The London Magazine

“If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet” at the Bush Theatre

Under the directorship of Josie Rourke, The Bush Theatre continues its tradition of strong new writing with Nick Payne’s play, If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet.

A young girl, neglected by her well-meaning, busy parents, is befriended by her prodigal uncle. In a carefully crafted arc, her adolescence is charted from being bullied at school, through the first pains of love, to her shocking desperation and finally some kind of hope for the future.

The teenager in question is played with spirit by Ailish O’Connor, who perfectly captures these troubled years, switching from frustration to confusion. Even more impressive is her ability to reflect the wild mood swings anyone who knows teenagers will recognise.

For O’Connor’s character has some serious problems. Overweight and bullied at school, she and her parents fail to connect. Finding solace in her uncle proves a mistake, given the baggage he carries himself, and the inevitable meltdown is powerful. While our own perspectives may make some problems seem trivial – the teenage date or over-protective parent, for example – so empathetic is the writing that we accept the intensity of the characters’ feelings.

Which is to ignore, so far, the strongest aspect of Payne’s writing. Not only is it intelligent and humane, it is very, very funny. There are some great one liners, but more amusing still are those toe-curling scenes, such as when father and daughter eat together in their local curry house and it is hard to work out which one is hating it more.

The rest of the cast also revel in the strong script. Pandora Colin plays a mother trying to do her best for her daughter and at the end of her patience with her husband. Michael Begley plays the latter, so consumed by his studies into environmental disaster that he ignores what is going on on his doorstep. Perhaps Begley’s performance is tainted too much by caricature, which gets plenty of laughs but does less justice to the underlying humour Payne excels in. Rafe Spall is the erstwhile uncle, offensive and tactless, but not unintelligent.

Payne benefits from tight direction by Rourke and an ambitious set from Lucy Osborne but it is the maturity of the writing that is most memorable. Here we have an intelligent and entertaining platform for exploring the serious issues of how we live now.

Until 21 November 2009

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Written 26 October 2009 for The London Magazine