Tag Archives: Colin Ryan

“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

“I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky” at the Theatre Royal Stratford East

This musical, fortunately abbreviated to Ceiling/Sky, follows seven twentysomethings living in LA and how they change in the aftermath of an earthquake. The spectrum of characters’ interests and ethnic backgrounds allows John Adams plenty of scope for musical experimentation. Known as a modern classical composer and feted in the UK for his work at the ENO, Adams is a ferociously intelligent musician. This work flaunts his knowledge of great American musicals as well as creating a contemporary urban soundscape. It is dauntingly ambitious in its reach.

Directors Kerry Michael and Matthew Xia see the strengths of this fascinating piece and seek to address some of its more intimidating tendencies by emphasising its theatricality and casting a group of strong, young actors. The cast bravely tackle a demanding score and excel in revealing the humanity of their characters.

Natasha J Barnes plays an offensive TV reporter whose frosty demeanour convincingly breaks down in the face of crisis. She is pursued by a young lawyer (Colin Ryan), who gives a determined, passionate performance, but she prefers a policeman she is writing about. Stewart Charlesworth is wonderful in this role – full of angst and diffidence. In an extremely awkward arrest scene he apprehends Leon Lopez, a petty criminal in love with an illegal immigrant (Anna Mateo). Both bring out the lyricism in some great songs. The final couple are a lecherous preacher played with amusing grace by Jason Denton and his long-suffering girlfriend performed by Cynthia Erivo, whose stunning voice gives her character an aggressive complexity.

But for all Adams’ skill and the cast’s flair, the star of this show is lyricist June Jordan. I confess my ignorance of this poet and essayist but will be scouring The London Library as soon as I have posted this review. The plot is never explained in Ceiling/Sky – you just go straight into the songs. Remarkably, the writing is so clear that this is never a problem. The text is raw, blithe and affirming. It has an earthy quality that is instantly appealing and it is to the production’s credit that every line is clearly heard. While the composition may be of greatest interest to aficionados of musical theatre, the words speak loudly to all of us. I strongly suggest that you go and hear them.

Until 17 July 2010

www.stratfordeast.com

Photo by Robert Day

Written 8 July 2010 for The London Magazine