The celebrated American playwright Christopher Chen uses the work and death of scholar Iris Chang to create a complex philosophical play. Structured around a book tour for Chang’s best-seller The Rape of Nanking, billed as detailing the forgotten holocaust of World War II, the play follows the tragic journey towards the author’s suicide. The piece is powerful and demanding.
Elizabeth Chan gives a superb performance in the lead role, reflecting Chang’s articulacy and fragility. Presented as a series of lectures, interviews, and then visits to her therapist, as an insight into mental health Chen’s writing is disturbing and poignant. The roles of the host, husband and doctor are all played by Timothy Knightly – a remarkable performance – and the drama escalates skilfully, evoking Chang’s increasing pain, paranoia and grasp on reality.
Both the story of Nanking and the effect studying such trauma had on Chang are embodied in a series of mystical encounters: with a Japanese soldier, an anonymous victim, and real-life heroine, Minnie Vautrin. The massacre’s moral importance, dramatically essential as Chang becomes “trapped” by her work, is depicted with respectful conviction by all. And the direction from Georgie Staight is impeccable throughout (aided by Matt Cater’s lighting). But these scenes from “another dimension” are less successful. A trio of performers struggles with such token appearances and some ponderous moments. While our attachment to Chang deepens, these forays into philosophical speculation pale.
The text is full of complicated concepts, some of which are surely dead ends, and it would be helpful to point those out more clearly: a representative for modern Japan proves a particular stumbling block. But Chen’s ambition is bracing and the considerations of monism, evil and time are all fascinating. There’s nothing patronising, and I confess some of the ideas were over my head even before having them expressed through the prism of mental illness. If occasionally laboured, Into The Numbers is impressively intellectual, layered and invigorating. Just make sure you’ve blown away any Christmas cobwebs from your brain before trying to tackle this one.
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.
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.
The European premiere of James Anthony Tyler’s play presents a slice of working life in contemporary America, based in a printing and stationery shop in Harlem. Graduating from the Finborough’s 2016 Vibrant Festival, the care and attention invested result in a successful pay-off for director Lydia Parker.
When Xiomara takes her chance for promotion to management, the lives of her staff, both old friends and new starters, suffer – to the company’s benefit. This isn’t much of a dramatic revelation. The plot holds no surprises and the play little subtlety. Thankfully some strong performances are on hand and Tyler’s observational comedy is well served.
Tyler’s characterisation is efficient. Rachel Handshaw makes the struggling new leader complex and engaging, Ammar Duffus is appealing as a recent graduate desperate for cash, and Hermeilio Miquel Aquino does well as the store’s cleaner. The evening relies on Shyko Ammos and her role of recalcitrant veteran employee – and she is super. A natural comic, Ammos makes many lines shine with a character that’s larger than life yet believable. And, when her character’s troubles come into focus, Ammos delivers a controlled yet emotional performance.
The issue of race pervades the play, interwoven with the world of employment. Startlingly, to say the least, Tyler parallels the idea of a wage slave with chain gangs. Arguments around prejudice lead to funny, provocative dialogue. The conclusion is a crusading note, presented by a magisterial Miquel Brown who plays a regular customer and long-standing local resident. There’s a call to arms, with a no-nonsense tone and direct address to the audience that feels – refreshingly – old-fashioned. Tyler’s text has an appealing sense of sincerity appropriate to his serious concerns that Parker appreciates and skilfully conveys.
There is a dichotomy within Arthur Miller’s 1964 play, in which we meet ten men captured for questioning by German forces in Occupied France. A cool examination of evil combines with the emotional impact of events. Allying both aspects shows director Phil Willmott’s experience and skill.
Miller observed Nazi war crimes as a journalist and, like Hannah Arendt, adopted an intellectual rigour to understand the complexity of events. The text overflows with ideas, to its detriment – issues of class, race and alterity arrive too thick and too fast. Designer Georgia de Grey’s cold white box of a set makes the perfect environment for this clinical questioning. Two members of the strong cast convey the arguments, which lie heavily on the page, superbly: Brendan O’Rourke as a politicised working man and Gethin Alderman as a psychiatrist hailing from Vienna. Bright lights are appropriate for such an interrogation but also show the growing tension as stories are revealed and beads of sweat on foreheads start to show.
Miller presents his characters as “symbols”, several don’t have names and one, the “Old Jew”, doesn’t speak – great credit to Jeremy Gagan for making this role so effective. Rebuking the Nazi idea that there are “no individuals”, the men’s stories suffuse the work. There’s sterling acting here, including PK Taylor’s hip flask swigging thespian – a deluded pragmatist who dismisses theories and fears. And a collection of impressive breakdowns as the waiting continues. Both Lawrence Boothman and Michael Skellern, as an artist and a waiter, build their performances well. Edward Killingback, as a Vienese nobleman, comes into his own under Alderman’s scrutiny and Henry Wyrley-Birch makes a great contribution as a somewhat token “decent” German.
It’s these glimpses of lives, most about to end, that highlight Willmott and his casts’ talents. A collection of strong performances, finely controlled, that preserve the life and death tension in a piece that occasionally sounds like a textbook, making it work as drama.
The performing arts can make a good subject for a play. With nods to The Seagull and theatrical dynasties, this piece has a firm base. As we’re helpfully informed, it’s a family drama (this kitchen sink is in Manhattan) featuring a successful writer and his aspiring actress daughter. Twists in the mood, humour to make you blush and uncomfortable moments show playwright Halley Feiffer to be an entertaining, intriguing voice.
Adrian Lukis takes the part of Oscar-nominated David. Foul mouthed and too aware of his own biography, he’s a good companion for theatre trips, but not so good to be related to. Lukis creates tension superbly out of instability and a dangerous temper. His doting child is Ella, portrayed with emotion by Jill Winternitz. Her gushing dependency isn’t endearing – all the more credit that the performer, and careful moves from director Jake Smith, keep her interesting.
Ninety minutes with these two characters is trying, though – perhaps Smith could have placed more emphasis on the play’s humour. Questions arise about the father and daughter’s queasy closeness, with shared drug use and mutual blackhead popping (take your pick which is weirder). Add histrionics and it’s guaranteed there will be times when credulity is stretched. Deliberately so, but it’s questionable how much we can be bothered about these snowflake-sensitive egos.
As predicted, Ella goes on to create and star in her own play. And, of course, it’s autobiographical. The shock that her father didn’t beat her to writing it is explained movingly, leading to a powerful moment of drama. Both performers deal with jump in time deftly. But pinning the play’s two acts on waiting for a first-night review deflates the whole endeavour, creating a barrier against bigger questions. It’s incredible to think artists take critics quite so seriously. Even New Yorkers! So praise for all, but no rave review here. And I hope that isn’t taken too much to heart.
Amy Ng’s new play takes us to China, tackling relationships with Tibet and the West through the well-applied prism of tourism. Our heroine is Bunny, skilfully portrayed by Julia Sandiford, a local who becomes a tour guide and photographer and whose breaking of taboos neatly establishes the play’s dramatic dilemmas.
Bunny’s employer is a company that aims for authentic and sustainable travel. Sounds nice. The naïve boss (Kevin Shen) wants “relationships not transactions”, and yet Ng’s strong script falters with the former, unaided by director Charlotte Westenra’s speedy pacing. This remarkably assured first full-length play deserves a more nurturing delivery.
Bunny’s dedication to her employers for isn’t quite convincing, while her animosity to her fellow guide (a standout performance from Andrew Koji) also stumbles. Credit is deserved for showing restraint when it comes to jokes about their rich-bitch client. Rosie Thomson, who takes the role, tries hard to add some depth, also impressing in flashbacks as a photojournalist who bribes and inspires Bunny. It’s a shame these first encounters with a camera – Bunny’s biggest passion – are the poorest scenes, being written too literally and delivered too quickly.
When it comes to those “transactions”, though, Ng is pin sharp and develops her play perfectly. The exposition of history and culture impresses and informs without condescension, while the economic arguments and impact of tourism are explored with nuance, and deeper repercussions ripple out nicely. Putting forth so much discussion so comprehensively is often what playwright’s struggle with most. Shangri-La leaves you wanting to see where Ng will visit next.
Pursuing this excellent venue’s tactic of rediscovering plays, director Benjamin Whitrow offers a fine revival of a well-written and intriguing text from 1957, which is enjoying its first London production since its premiere. Writer Robert Bolt, of A Man For All Seasons fame, is the author of this quietly profound domestic drama of dreams and divorce.
Jim Cherry wants an orchard like the one he grew up on, and drives his family mad with dreams of it. It’s an obsession fuelled by a love of scrumpy cider that’s so bad as to be called a “hallucination” at one point. Liam McKenna does well to show us his character’s instability in this difficult lead role. But will his dream be the death of this salesman?
Our sympathies swing against the charismatic Jim as his delusions and drunkenness increase. Still, his children’s disdain, well evoked by James Musgrave and Hannah Morrish, is disconcerting. Bolt is precise in his depiction of intergenerational conflict, even if plummy accents raise a smile. More problematic is the kids’ flirtatious friend Carol, with whom everyone falls in love. Phoebe Sparrow portrays this ambiguous cool cat who toys with any mice tempted to play with her.
It’s Jim’s wife Isobel who becomes the centre of the play, with credit due to Catherine Kanter’s skill in the role. A mercurial character, possibly a little too admirable or patient to be believed, more time might have be given her mood swings by Whitrow, but Kanter commands attention as the extent of her suffering dawns on the audience. Isobel’s “bones are tender” with the continual pressure of her husband’s “cardboard prospects” and she grows into a powerful figure who, it is hoped will be the one to blossom.
Kieran Knowles’ play, which started in the Finborough Theatre’s Sunday and Monday slot, before a national tour, and now returns for an extended run, is set in Sheffield’s steel industry during World War II. Learning about the workers’ lives in a somewhat earnest manner, with a heavy dose of nostalgia, the drama revolves around a near-death experience on the night of a vicious bombing raid. The writing is tight and the production superb, making this a strong fringe piece deserving many fans.
A sense of comradeship among four steel workers is well evoked by Knowles, who stars alongside Salvatore D’Aquilla, Paul Tinto and James Wallwork. Finishing one another’s sentences, and working fluidly together as they mime manufacturing, producing commendable performances. Only D’Aquilla’s character feels delineated satisfactorily, though, and as a result his performance slightly overpowers. Getting more laughs than played for, the inexplicable amusement a West London audience finds in the Yorkshire accent might have been taken into account: that’s my only criticism of director Bryony Shanahan, who consistently enforces the strong passages of writing excellently.
The lyricism surrounding factory work – a “magic” the men see in their manual labour – is the most inspiring aspect of the play, which is preoccupied with time and the idea that the factory is a home and shapes identities. Combining the strong physicality of the performances, simple staging (especially when the men are trapped after the bombing) and direct addresses to the audience, Knowles and Shanahan know how to win a crowd. I suspect this is a work that will be around again soon, and often.
Saturday’s matinee at the Finborough Theatre saw Chelsea fans in the bar downstairs mix with operetta buffs coming to see a new production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida. My fears that football cheers would drown out the music were unfounded – a strong cast of singers was more than a match for the Blues.
Director Phil Willmott scores his first goal with his revision of the piece; trimmed and tidied so well that only a real purist could take offence. Princess Ida is a less popular work from the G & S canon (I’d like to think because of its old fashioned sexism) and not as funny as their best, with the satire resting too firmly in its day, but Willmott makes the work light and snappy. We have more princes trying to marry Ida, yet fewer characters overall and are missing a King. The plot is simpler and sillier.
Focusing more on courtship than courtiers, alongside a beefed up role for Ida’s father, now a guardian, the roles are a delight when they could easily have been boorish. And while I think it’s a shame our heroine doesn’t stay in the women’s university she sets up, an audience in 1884 clearly wasn’t ready for an idea like that. Cheeky changes Willmott concludes with guarantee a smile. And of course the music and lyrics are kept, if reorganised, skillfully adapted for piano by Richard Baker and Nick Barstow – anything else would be a home goal.
Like many musicals on the fringe, miraculously, Princess Ida doesn’t feel small. With a cast of 14 on the tiny stage, Thomas Michael Voss’ choreography is a marvel. Willmott’s revisions make it feel like there are no small parts here, but Bridget Costello and Zac Wancke sound especially sweet in their ballads. For the hat-trick Simon Butteriss has to be singled out as his experience with patter really shows – his deliciously lecherous villain is worth every word. I don’t know the result of the football match, but this Princess Ida got my cheers.
Those hoping to find a formula for the success of a musical may be confused by the The Grand Tour’s poor reception on Broadway. The 1979 show by the legendary Jerry Herman is only now receiving its London premiere at the tiny Finborough Theatre, and I can’t for the life of me work out why. The book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble is more than serviceable, while the music and lyrics by Herman are superb. The show’s themes certainly live up to its ambitious title.
OK, so The Grand Tour is old fashioned. Maybe it’s not that original either. And the escapades of Jewish intellectual Jacobowsky and Polish Colonel Stjerbinksy as they flee from the Nazis are sometimes a little silly: there’s a circus, a wedding and even some nuns. But these flights of fancy fill a desperate journey with colour – even a scene on a crowded train is vivacious – and Herman’s score looks past dark events to embrace affirmation.
Alastair Brookshaw succeeds in making the unbelievably optimistic Jacobowsky heroic, while Nic Kyle gives Stjerbinsky more dimensionality than he’s written with. The finest moments come with a gentle love triangle around Marianne, the Colonel’s fiancée, played by the charming Zoë Doano. The excellent Thom Sutherland directs a powerful ensemble and Phil Lindley’s set is cleverly cartographic. Sutherland works flawlessly in small venues and The Grand Tour deserves big success.