Tag Archives: Laurence Boswell

“Trouble in Mind” at the Print Room

The advice is always to write about what you know. So it would have made sense in 1955 for African-American actress Alice Childress to set her play around the staging of a play – and to make both of them about race relations. Turns out that Childress knew plenty: creating a well-crafted text that ensures this exceptional production from Bath feels fresh, with a role for a leading lady that’s a dream.

The rehearsal scenario, expertly handled, is a great device, from which director Laurence Boswell generates tension and humour. It makes the play accessible and feel startlingly modern. As the black cast members debate the depiction of sharecroppers in the South, racism, art and the connections between the two are brought into focus. The pivot for all is character actress Wiletta and a star performance from Tanya Moodie.

Wiletta acts all the time. As she explains to a young colleague (great work from Ncuti Gatwa), you have to perform for the white crew and cast members even behind the scenes. This divide with the WASPs who run things creates fine performances from Daisy Boulton, as an idealist ingénue, and Jonathan Slinger, who tackles the fraught role of a tyrannical self-righteous director with characteristic gusto.

Then there’s Wiletta’s real acting. First, that engendered from the poorly written roles she suffers from – providing the clichés that the (white) audience wants. After this come glimpses of how she would really articulate the role. And, of course, the struggle between the two. With fascinating but perilously difficult layer upon layer, Moodie never gets lost and takes the audience with her. It bears repeating that she is stunning.

The racism in the piece is painful to watch. It leads to a remarkable monologue for Ewart James Walters as the eldest member of the cast recalling a real-life lynching. Yet it’s Childress’s use of humour that impresses most – adding an uncomfortable edge through the theatrical buzzwords of “relating to” and “justifying” a character’s motivation. The dissonance created between the real issues and their depiction on stage allows Moodie to show a “fighting mad” spirit, making the play burst out of its theatrical world to engage with real issues in a “militant” fashion.

Until 14 October 2017

www.the-print-room.org

Photo by Hugo Glendinning

“The Mentor” at the Vaudeville Theatre

Best selling German author Daniel Kehlmann’s play, translated by Christopher Hampton, is urbane, witty and stylish. It works around the contrived scenario of an elderly playwright, paid by a philanthropic foundation, advising a younger writer, and is an effective conversation piece.

There are plenty of laughs around the arrogance and insecurity of the new wunderkind, Martin. You know he’s in trouble since a critic has called him the ‘‘voice of his generation’’. Daniel Weyman puts a lot of energy into the role, desperately so at times, but his mania is in keeping with the efficient direction from Laurence Boswell who employs a brisk pace that serves the comedy in the piece well.

When The Mentor takes a more serious tone, it is a hostage to fortune; as it’s observed about Martin’s play, Kehlmann’s also ends up containing neither delight nor despair. Battles about realism in the theatre are fun when smirking about shows with cement mixers in them – we’ve all been there – but when Kehlmann adds his own poetic touches they fall flat. Ideas about Art are barely established, let alone explored.

A subplot about the seduction of Martin’s wife, and the presence of the foundations administrator, are both too thin. The performances, from Naomi Frederick and Jonathan Cullen, are good. But the female character here is there only as a foil for the men; watch out for lines thrown in to bolster character. While the administrator’s decision to jack it all in and become a painter is left hanging, after initially treating his aspirations as a joke.

The evening really only works as a vehicle for Homeland and Amadeus star F Murray Abraham. As the eponymous tutor Benjamin Rubin, he gives a magnetic performance that carries the show. It’s not much of show, so maybe that’s not too hard, but it’s noticeable the energy lifts when he’s on stage. Kehlmann has written a great part here – it’s a shame the idea of Rubin’s senility isn’t explored further. But this old goat, arrogant as they come, makes good company. Although haunted by early success, Rubin has grown into taking art less seriously; a mature observation that’s the perfect lesson about this diverting, if slim, play.

Until 26 August 2017

www.nimaxtheatres.com

Photo by Simon Annand

“Intimate Apparel” at the Park Theatre

Arriving from the Ustinov Studio, part of Theatre Royal Bath, Intimate Apparel opened in London at Park Theatre last night. Written by Lynn Nottage, famed for the unforgettable Ruined, it is a stirring tale about Esther, a seamstress in New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. Inspired by the author’s own ancestors, Esther’s is the kind of life that is often forgotten and unrecorded. Through Nottage’s skillful writing, it becomes a magically powerful imagined history.

Esther, a bravura performance from Tanya Moodie, makes lingerie, the intimate apparel of the title, and is a successful independent woman. She mixes in different worlds: her clients – a frustrated Fifth Avenue wife and a prostitute, both well acted by Sara Topham and Rochelle Neil respectively – and her supplier, the Orthodox Jew Mr Marks (Ilan Goodman), with whom she shares a passion for fine materials.

The play’s construction is sturdy. Director Laurence Boswell does it justice and the ingenious design by Mark Bailey is commendable, revealing different locations like a doll’s house and appropriately relying on fabric to bolt the piece together. This is a great story, well told, with fulsome characters.

It’s the romance that really shows Nottage’s ability. While Esther’s heart belongs to Mr Marks, she embarks on an epistolary romance with George Armstrong, a worker on the Panama Canal. Esther’s customers act like Cyrano de Bergerac: because she is illiterate, they write for her, and her heart is easily won by George. Another fine performance here, from Chu Omambala, who speaks with a carefully reconstructed Caribbean accent.

Esther wins your heart with her decency and modesty. She describes herself as “plain as flour” and combines a gushing innocence with underlying sensuality. It seems a touch cruel of Nottage to develop Intimate Apparel in a way that will disappoint romantics. But the story here is powerful – there were gasps at the twists last night – and Esther’s character provides a thread strong enough to hold the piece together exquisitely.

Until 27 July 2014

www.parktheatre.co.uk

Photo by Simon Annand

Written 10 July 2014 for The London Magazine

“In the next room, or the vibrator play” at the St James Theatre

Sarah Ruhl‘s In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play received its London premiere at the St. James theatre last night. A clever take on the drawing room comedy, it doubles as an intelligent peek at love and sex, medicine and gender. Set in the late 19th century, its saucy starting point is the historic practice of using electrical, ahem, instruments ‘down there’ to induce what were termed ‘paroxysms’. It’s guaranteed to generate giggles, but showing how medical discourse generated its own clientele (the procedure was to resolve the complaint of hysteria), a deeper discussion about relationships between the sexes comes to the fore.

This is another production to arrive at St James from the Ustinov Theatre in Bath. It confirms both venues as exciting locations. Directed with care by Laurence Boswell, the design from Simon Kenny focuses attention on that glorious new discovery – electricity – which revolutionised work and home. For the Givings, the couple at the centre of the play, the two are combined: the Doctor’s surgery is ‘the next room’ in his house, in which patients are satisfied in a manner denied to his wife.

In the lead roles, Natalie Casey and Jason Hughes give fine performances as a man of science and his wife, driven to desperation mostly, it would seem, through sexual frustration. The doctor’s patient, Mrs Daldry, has a similar complaint, depicted with great fun by Flora Montgomery. And lest we should suspect Ruhl is simply recasting a Victorian malady, suggesting sex is a cure-all, there are the deep pains and joys of childhood to consider. The better-off woman’s fears and anxieties are brought into sharp relief by the employment of a wet nurse whose own child has just died. Madeline Appiah does wonders with this small role.

This is a chance for London audiences to see the work of a new, much feted American writer. Well constructed, with a light touch underlined by some deep thinking, it has possibly too many twists; including what happens when there is a power cut and the arrival of a male patient (now that’s got you thinking). Some predictable touches commenting on a battle of the sexes fail to satisfy. The play is impressive for its commercial potential as much as a sense of integrity. Ruhl may try to tackle a little too much but the laughs are uproarious and the romantic ending a delight.

Until 4 January 2014

www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

Photo by Johan-Persson

Written 22 November 2013