Tag Archives: Headlong

“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

“Common” at the National Theatre

With big subjects, a huge cast, and the Olivier stage to play with, DC Moore’s new play aims at being epic – and, up to its interval, it feels as if it might be. The twisting plot, following the story of Mary, brilliantly portrayed by Anne-Marie Duff, is an interesting mix of melodrama and the supernatural. The language, combining old and new vocabulary, odd syntax and lots of swearing, makes the text original, satisfyingly dense and a great deal of fun.

Set in the early 18th century, the play’s first topic is the enclosure of common land and one community’s struggle to prevent this devastating policy. The dramatic potential and importance are clear – a description of enclosure as “a dry word with a sharp end” is great – but the play seems embarrassed by its subject matter. Painful metatheatricality is thrown in with an overt disavowal of “dry historical accuracy”. But facts are fine, really – a bit of history won’t hurt a play.

Common is more interested in the superstition that filled agricultural communities. Director Jeremy Herrin goes to town with some Wicker Man horror that makes one gory scene especially good. The costumes and lighting, by Richard Hudson and Paule Constable, fit well. But there’s little sense of anything else – despite a subplot about incest that… well, I guess must have some point to it. As the action boils over, interest cools: the plot is abbreviated and the sign off comes across as trite. There’s too little concern for anyone apart from Mary, who overpowers the play. Cush Jumbo as a former lover and Tim McMullan as the local landowner have a go, but Duff is left to propel all.

However uneven, Mary is a brilliant creation that Duff makes a joy to watch. A romantic rogue (her self-description is a good deal more colourful) returning to the country after a debauched life in London, Mary’s psychic abilities and supernatural invincibility batter credulity – even before a crow starts talking to her. But like all devils Mary gets great lines – Moore’s expletive-ridden insults are quite something. It’s a shame the “jigsaw” of Mary’s story isn’t solved satisfactorily. Too quickly moving from the people’s saviour into a “blight” ruining their lives, the role is overburdened – and since Mary is the only thing rooted in the play, the overall harvest is poor.

Until 5 August 2017

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

“People, Places & Things” at the National Theatre

This play should come with a health warning: following the journey of a drink and drug addict is never going to be easy viewing. Headlong’s new co-production at the Dorfman Theatre is hard work, but it is testament to Duncan Macmillan’s script and an astonishing performance by Denise Gough that the play can be described as unmissable. Gough should clear the mantelpiece for awards – standing ovations are rare at the National Theatre and I can’t remember joining one at a matinee performance.

Jpeg 16Playing Emma is a punishing lead role and Gough delivers a raw performance that engenders anger, frustration and occasionally repulses. To add to the trauma, Emma is an actress and Macmillan uses performance, indeed the process of staging a play, as a parallel to her counselling sessions. As Emma joins a group, sitting in a circle, introductions are made, just like at the start of rehearsals, and then role-play undertaken. It feels dangerously close to the bone.

Particulars of the addicts’ stories are brief – Emma’s is obfuscated by compulsive lying – so we don’t get to the bottom of why they are in such trouble. It’s not misery that’s dissected here but recovery, with tension and a healthy amount of scepticism. No one has more reservations about her 12-step treatment than our articulate protagonist. But burning through an agenda of denial, which serves to intelligently explore AA, comes the simple desire to survive.

Carefully directed by Jeremy Herrin, the staging is particularly effective when it comes to Emma’s hallucinations, which are downright spooky. Overall, Bunny Christie’s set feels too flashy and polished – the play simply doesn’t need it. And though there are jokes and nervous laughter from the audience, I confess my sense of humour deserted me, as what was going on was overwhelmingly bleak and serious.

Macmillan doesn’t hold back; the selfishness of the addict is emphatically depicted. A final scene with Emma’s parents is particularly painful (Barbara Marten gets to play her third role of the show and is excellent in each) after observing what Emma has been through. Here’s the second side to that health warning: I don’t know if Macmillan had a didactic motivation, but I feel I learned a lot about what an addict must go through, and feel humbled as a result.

Until 4 November 2015

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

“The Nether” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

A welcome transfer from the Royal Court, Jennifer Haley’s play The Nether is a taut sci-fi thriller that dissects the power of the internet in the (near) future. In a parallel world of virtual reality ‘realms’, so intoxicating are the dark fantasies acted out that punters threaten to become ‘shadows’ – volunteering to give up their lives to live online instead.

One online realm, catering to paedophiles, is envisioned by Es Devlin’s remarkable design, supported by Luke Halls’ video work. Those tasked with policing the line between the sick fantasy world and reality become caught up in an uncomfortably exciting journey.

Skillfully directed by Jeremy Herrin, The Nether is well performed, with Amanda Hale as Detective Morris, joined by David Calder, Ivanno Jeremiah and Stanley Townsend as troubled participants of the online investigation.

The Nether is a play of big ideas and important questions. What effect do online personas have? And how can fantasies online, between consenting adults, become illegal? Suspicions about technology are defined forcefully by Morris. Yet alternative arguments are presented with a conviction that makes you queasy. There’s the fascinating potential for corporate corruption, as the programming that creates the super sensory realm could prove lucrative for those that host these worlds – is our detective interested in the crime or the code?

Haley takes sci-fi seriously and, as a result, so do we. The Nether is a convincing world with minimal jargon that serves as the perfect base for difficult themes. Even better, the play is a gripping drama: a strong detective story, structured around exciting interrogations, with twists and tensions that leave you unsettled.

Until 25 April 2015

www.royalcourttheatre.com

 

“1984” at the Playhouse Theatre

After a successful tour and sell-out run at the Almeida, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 has arrived in the West End, opening last night at the Playhouse Theatre. It’s a slick affair, all 101 uninterrupted minutes of it, right down to the marketing – rave reviews outside are censored and tickets are on sale for £19.84.

This truly superb adaptation of a classic text is faithful to the original, full of insight and presents a clear interpretation for us to consider. Icke and Macmillan prioritise the appendix to the novel, The Principles of Newspeak, to highlight the text’s status as an historic document read by people in the future.

The show starts with a kind of book club. Anachronistically, our hero (I use the term unreservedly), the ‘author’ Winston Smith, is present and Big Brother looms large. Those discussing the book segue into characters from the story. Orwell has so many ideas, important ones but often abstract, so to extract the drama needed to create a gripping play is an accomplishment. Atmosphere rather than plot is the key and this high-tech production delivers. The set full of surprises, live video work, superb sound and lighting design make this a visceral experience. You’ll want to calm down in a quiet room afterwards.

Not Room 101 of course. The location where the tyrannical regime tortures dissenters is our final destination. From the moment Winston becomes a ‘thought criminal’ to his capture, the play is appropriately, uncomfortably, powerful and not for the squeamish. The way Big Brother manipulates Winston’s fears is both moving and as powerful as Orwell intended it to be. It’s also wonderfully theatrical – cleverly engaging the audience.

The performances are smooth. Sam Crane plays Smith as confused and petrified from the start (well before any mention of rats) and escalates his performance into something remarkable. His love interest is played by Hara Yannas, who perfectly embodies a distinct kind of rebelliousness. And the rest of the ensemble, including a spookily commanding villain in Tim Dutton’s O’Brien, is well drilled. Icke and Macmillan, who shared the direction, evidently make a superb team.

Until 23 August 2014

www.atgticket.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 9 May 2014 for The London Magazine

“Earthquakes in London” at the National Theatre

Of the several excellent productions this summer from the Headlong Theatre Company, none has created quite the buzz of Earthquakes in London at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe auditorium.

Headlong’s star director Rupert Goold takes charge. While Broadway gave his production of Enron a drubbing, London loves Goold – and rightly so. A director of great style, his bag of theatrical tricks belies a precise hand adept at delivering unforgettable shows. Goold brings all his invention and courage to Earthquakes in London. He has to – Mike Bartlett’s play could easily have seemed unstageable.

Creating a time-travelling story of environmental apocalypse, Bartlett flirts with the past and future, but his play is really about the present – a condemning vision of our apathy and arrogance. Unashamedly political, if occasionally obtuse, the passion displayed is admirable. Akin to the National’s production of Rattigan’s After the Dance, the question that frustrates and angers is how society can carry on the party in the face of catastrophe.

Bartlett’s uncanny gift for characterisation shows his skill as a writer. While the wry observations on modern life are sometimes predictable, they can seldom be argued with and if the scope of his ambition doesn’t always pay off, his emotional insight creates a recognisable world of believable people.

Lia Williams is brilliant as Sarah, a newly appointed Lib Dem minister struggling with the conflict between her ideals and power. Lia has brought up her sisters: Jasmine (Jessica Raine) has ended up as a “natural disaster”, angry as only a post baby boomer can be, while heavily pregnant Freya (Anna Madeley) is given a haunting depiction that matches this harrowing role.

A massive cast live their lives around these women. Even their husbands, both men in crisis and played wonderfully by Tom Goodman-Hill and Geoffrey Streatfield fail to connect with them. Their father Robert (Bill Patterson) is a prophet whose vision of the future removes him from his family and provides this bleak play’s most exigent moments. Always surprising, Earthquakes in London is an epic with the most unusual hero as Bryony Hannah excels in two roles that show her enviable versatility.

But the stars of the show are designer Miriam Buether and the technical team at the National Theatre. Transforming the Cottesloe to an unprecedented extent makes the night exciting from the start. Performing amongst the crowd and in two pillbox stages at either end allows the breakneck speed required. It provides memorable tableaux and builds up connections that add further to an already rich work. The evening is often overwhelming, but it is never confusing. This is compulsive viewing that will run amok in the mind for a long time to come.

Until 22 September 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 5 August 2010 for The London Magazine

“Salome” at the Hampstead Theatre

The press night for Headlong Theatre’s production of Salome was cleverly planned to coincide with the Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist. It served to remind us that Oscar Wilde’s seldom performed play is a religious one. Primarily interesting in that the play shows us a very different side to a writer we all think we know, its director Jamie Lloyd embraces Wilde’s darker side and gives us a sinister, fascinating take on the biblical story.

It is uncomfortable viewing. John’s guards are animalistic in the extreme, with movement directed by Ann Yee, they prowl around the stage, quickly establishing an atmosphere of danger and distrust. They have reason to watch their backs. Not just because they fear the wild prophet, played by Seun Shote with an appropriate physicality, but because the court they work at is simply mad. Dripping with decadence, Con O’Neill’s Herod stumbles and spits his way around the stage, revoltingly pouring wine down his throat and over himself. He grabs any and every available piece of flesh – except for Salome.

Zawe Ashton’s Salome is a fascinating creature. Aware of her power, she toys with all the men on stage and revels in the danger. Occasional ineptness reminds us of her age. Jaye Griffiths is in fine form as her maligned mother Herodias. Appearing like a painted doll, her paranoia is at a constant fever pitch. Lloyd has clearly directed all the cast to mark Wilde’s constant warning to “look upon” others. The gaze communicates and increases desire – it has an uncanny power. Not a glance among the ensemble is wasted. The drama is unbearably tense and somewhat exhausting.

Sacrifices have been made to achieve a breakneck pace. Much of Wilde’s poetry seems lost. His text is flushed with colour yet Soutra Gilmour’s set is a dystopian playground and her costumes army fatigues. The symbolism in the play seems neglected – here everything is brutally direct. But Lloyd isn’t running a Sunday School. If events like these really ever happened they probably did so in an environment this crazed, with people this unbalanced. This production casts new light on the Bible story. That was probably Wilde’s aim in the first place.

Until 17 July 2010

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Helen Warner

Written 23 June 2010 for The London Magazine