Tag Archives: Royal Court Theatre

“The Children” at the Royal Court

The critical consensus seems to be that Lucy Kirkwood’s new play is slow. True, it’s three talking heads: retired physicists coming to terms with a disaster at the nuclear power plant that they built and tackling personal meltdowns along the way. But Kirkwood’s wit – there are some very good jokes here – and some fantastic characterisation make her play so entertaining it grips from start to finish.

Against the dramatic backdrop of exclusion zones and power cuts, director James Macdonald allows the dynamics between three old friends (and lovers) to develop, doing justice to Kirkwood’s observations and dialogue. The carefully crafted performances are strong. Ron Cook plays Robin, who feels “eroded”, with a grumpy old man act that proves more complex than the first gags suggest. Francesca Annis performs as his one-time mistress, Rose, making the most of her character’s humour and mystery; reappearing after many years to pose the play’s dilemma – her plan to return to the toxic plant to replace younger workers who have more of their lives ahead of them.

In a year that’s seen several strong roles for mature women (there are interesting parallels here with Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone, which makes a welcome return early next year), Rose is joined by Ron’s wife Hazel, a brilliant part that allows Deborah Findlay to make the play her own. The atmosphere surrounding this “cautious” character crackles with tension, and the relationship with her husband is full of credible touches. Findlay even lights candles in character: carefully using only one match to suggest, ironically, eco-friendly convictions.

Hazel is appalled by Rose’s self-sacrificing suggestion – she doesn’t see her life as anywhere near over. Behind the homely touches there’s a steeliness that present the counter argument. Kirkwood isn’t simply baby-boomer-bashing, but it’s pretty clear where she thinks the moral obligation lies. Children is a less showy affair than the playwright’s biggest hit, Chimerica, or her previous work at the Royal Court, NSFW. The theme tackled, the responsibility of one generation to another, is thought provoking – this problem feels real world and ripe for exploration. But the presentation and symbolism are too blunt. Utilitarianism is a hard taskmaster and doesn’t leave a dramatist much room for manoeuvre.

Until 14 January 2016

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

 

“Father Comes Home From The Wars” at the Royal Court

This American Civil War story, much lauded in the US, comes in three parts, following the adventures of its main character, a slave called Hero. Opening with a debate over his ‘choice’ to accompany his master to war, the second act sees a similar dilemma – an encounter with a Yankee soldier that presents him with an opportunity to escape. Finally, Hero returns home a traumatised man. All three vignettes are strong and cumulatively powerful.

Are you waiting for a twist? There is one, of course – playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’ inspiration is Homer. Character names are enough of a clue (a dog called Odyssey has a talking role in the final scene) but also note that, in true Greek style, songs play an important part and there’s a distinct lack of action on stage. So there’s highfalutin analysis to be done here, for sure. Above that is Parks’ skill at story telling. Simple. This is an emotive tale of twisted interdependence. Politics aside, the psychology is fascinating, the writing clever but never tricksy. The concept might sound contrived but it’s a back-to-basics approach that works.

The show is also superbly acted. Steve Toussaint as Hero deserves to be singled out. Having to shoulder so many dilemmas, it’s an achievement to hold the audience so confidently. Working with him is an excellent ensemble – a chorus of fellow slaves who return in the finale as runaways, comprising Sibusiso Mamba, Jason Pennycooke and Sarah Niles. Special mention also to Nadine Marshall as Hero’s love, Penny, whose accent is superb and who ensures the emotions in Parks’ riff on the theme of loyalty.

The play’s questions of identity need little further stress – restraint is the key and with this director Jo Bonney’s job is well done. Moments of direct address or the use of modern costume feel like guiding hands rather than gimmicks, so deftly are they handled. Parks is a shrewd observer of history, an original thinker and technically accomplished. But she also has a sincere eye – with a watch on contemporary resonances and why these lives matter – that confronts the audience and sends a chill down the spine.

Until 22 October 2016

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Tristram Kenton

“Torn” at the Royal Court

The upstairs auditorium at Sloane Square has been stripped back (I didn’t even know the space had windows) by designer Ultz, for Nathaniel Martello-White’s new play. The gathering of an extended family to discuss their painful past is part community meeting part trial, with memories explored and dissected.

Their shared secret is a painful one – the childhood abuse of Angel, who has convened this conference. The play is full of discomforting observations on race and aspiration, offering insight into the impact of abuse on a whole family. Traces of neglect that go back a generation, and anger and confusion carried forward, are painfully rendered and cumulatively overpowering.

Credit to director Richard Twyman, aided by a superb cast, for marshalling a show that, even at 90 minutes long, feels mammoth. Seated in a circle for a lot of the play, we can look anywhere at any time for a committed performance. Franc Ashman, Lorna Brown, Kirsty Bushell and Indra Ové are equally praiseworthy as the four sisters but, if there is a lead credit, Adelle Leonce as Angel fully deserves it. The men in the cast are strong too, with James Hillier grabbing attention as Angel’s stepfather.

With a touch too much backstory for some characters and at least one superfluous subplot, the play’s construction feels overworked. But its formal qualities are adventurous and memorable. Scenes are not presented chronologically. Action and dialogue overlap. Who is remembering what is seldom pinned down. As if all that weren’t demanding enough, there’s some odd language, including clunky flights of fancy, with group discussions interspersed with internal dialogues, one-to-one fights and characters moving back in time to younger stages of life.  Various cast members also adopt the role of the grandmother (confusing if you didn’t sneak a peek at the programme before hand).

I was reminded of a video installation, which is one of the character’s jobs, such as Ragnar Kjartansson’s multi-screen show at the Barbican: the audience decides which character to follow. Or a party game played in the piece, where characters making animal noises have to ‘zone in’ on their designated partner. There’s a fine line between all this being engaging and being just a turn off. At times, Torn appears simply obtuse. It’s the author’s prerogative to decide how much aid he gives an audience. I confess I could have done with a little more help here.

Until 15 October 2016

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Helen Maybanks

 

“Human Animals” at the Royal Court

Stef Smith’s new play looks at control and civilisation, depicting a particularly English apocalypse under the veneer of an environmental disaster. The dystopia created when pigeons and foxes go mad (my, how playwrights love these disasters) leads to quarantine and mass destruction. It’s predictably grim but nonetheless affecting.

The production is innervated by direction from Hamish Pirie, while Camilla Clarke’s colourful murals, video projections and windows splattered with blood create an impressive set. Efforts are made to inject tension, but the trajectory of the story and political responses of the characters frustrate this.

Human Animals

The cast is top notch. Stella Gonet plays a grieving widow wonderfully (it’s the best part), joined by Natalie Dew as her spirited daughter. Their respective approaches to the crisis – resignation and revolt – are the central dynamic for Smith and could have made a play of its own.

Human AnimalsA young couple, admirably performed by Lisa McGrillis and Ashley Zhangazha, share the dilemma of what to do as the state takes charge. One saves animals secretly and the other works for the company profiting from slaughtering all the wildlife. Their relationship is depicted carefully but the argument is blunt.

Human Animals

For a final pairing, oddity is the theme. Two unlikely drinking partners, with bizarre twists to their conversations, are apathy and action personified. Even performers as magnetic as Ian Gelder and Sargon Yelda can’t save the roles from being a puzzle. Showing their bestial sides, as society breaks down, isn’t enough of a pay off.

With the majority of characters too briefly sketched, and the scenario less than compelling, it’s fortunate Smith writes with a powerful, poetic turn. Vivid imagery and bold scenes, where the cast combines to choral effect, are the highlights that ensure this sketchy play becomes impressively pushy.

Until 18 June 2016

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photos by Helen Maybanks

“X” at the Royal Court

Don’t look at the script beforehand – the pages of Xs and blank spaces in ‘A_ct Two’ (sic) give the impression that Alistair McDowall’s new play is pretentious. Fear not, this latest head scratcher at the Royal Court is a spooky sci-fi that’s hugely entertaining.

Set in a research base on Pluto, after environmental collapse on Earth, the abandoned crew is going mad. The characters aren’t entirely successful: cynical captain (Darrell D’Silva works hard at this) and autistic scientist (Rudi Dharmalingam) are a little flat. Better written are younger, amusingly annoying crewmates, played by Ria Zmitrowicz and James Harkness. The most demanding role is for Jessica Raine. Alongside Harkness, she deals with the most challenging scene (those Xs again) admirably, and her vulnerability is an asset to the play.

It’s what happens to these astronauts that counts and, as with any good thriller, tension comes from simple events: the clock controlled from Earth goes wrong, there’s a nightingale flying around and a terrifying figure outside the window! Along with a goosebumps-generating soundtrack from Nick Powell, and a good sense of humour, this show is fun.

How time connects to memory, thus identity and even reality are the serious themes. With no sense of passing days, the crew collapses into paranoia and they, like the audience, can trust nothing. Director Vicky Featherstone pulls out all the stops, and adds a necessary ruthlessness to that printed script. As the crazy delusions mount, you come to dread each blackout and what might appear next. X has plenty of cinematic references and a filmic feel that make it easy to watch. McDowall messes around with everyone’s heads with terrific skill.

Until 7 May 2016

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Escaped Alone” at the Royal Court

Sometimes the theatre seems obsessed with youth: plays about teenagers, hot new stars and valiant efforts to attract ‘new’, i.e. younger, audiences. But here’s a play that takes old age and experience seriously, while highlighting another important debate – about women in the theatre. The 77-year-old Caryl Churchill’s new play is for four older women, a brilliant piece confirming that being radical isn’t about age but about sheer skill and vision.

Escaped Alone is short, under an hour, and director James MacDonald tightly controls the duration. It’s worth paying attention to Christopher Shutt’s audio work here, with sounds and silences in the piece as carefully constructed as the impeccable script.

Despite the brevity, Churchill manages more than most playwrights. This is a buy-one-get-two-free play, mixing genres to startling effect. First a group of friends, chatting in the garden – the conversation observed to perfection and their relationships conveyed with marvellous economy – is funny, wise and topical.

Monologues interrupt, revealing the women’s current fears. These are poems on anxiety, depression and regret, each one capable of moving you to tears. Circling around the theme of loneliness, the show is explicit about the “bitter rage” we all contain.

ESCAPED ALONE by Churchill,    , Writer - Caryl Churchill, Director - James Macdonald, Designer - Miriam Buether, Lighting Peter Mumford, The Royal Court Theatre, 2016, Credit: Johan Persson/
Linda Bassett

And then there are scenes of storytelling. Dystopian tales of earth, wind, fire and water that Churchill has wicked fun with. The outrageous scenarios bring laughs, but the abject isn’t far away. Absurd suggestions, worthy of any conspiracy fantasist, these apocalypses come close to our darkest imaginings.

Linda Bassett takes the lead in these stand-alone scenes, so she excels among an amazing cast. She’s joined by Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson, who each seem incapable of putting a foot wrong, and it’s hard to imagine another ensemble this strong.

The production marks a stellar beginning to the Royal Court’s anniversary year. The venue’s tagline, ‘sixty years young’, feels appropriate for Churchill’s fresh work. Settling into the home of previous career triumphs, Escaped Alone is just as experimental and challenging, bold both structurally and thematically. Forget those angry young men… it’s time for these wise old women.

Until 12 March 2016

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Yen” at the Royal Court

Anna Jordan’s play won the Bruntwood Prize in 2013 and has already had an acclaimed run at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. A bold look at the ever-topical issue of our problem youth, Jordan’s unflinching eye earns her work the distinction of being one of the most depressing plays you could go and see.

Hench and Bobbie, 16 and 13 respectively, have been left to fend for themselves. Jordan lists signs of poverty and depravity relentlessly: dirt, crisps, lager and pornography. Incapable of caring for themselves, let alone the large dog they have imprisoned in their bedroom, the boys can’t call for help as they have no credit on their phones. Remind yourself the situation is unusual – but it isn’t unbelievable.

Writing gritty is relatively easy. Writing something this grim is harder. To steer clear of a documentary feel there are embellishments. A portable heater stands in for the dog. And Bobbie becomes literally feral at one point (he barks when distressed) – a brilliant and powerfully unsettling moment. And there’s the PlayStation, their only source of solace (which they pass out while playing), superbly staged as a bank of lights.

Annes Elwy as Jenny

The performances and Ned Bennett’s direction are first class. Sian Breckin manages to evoke sympathy as the boy’s awful mother, indicating a tragic back story: throughout the play we are reminded that you can love someone (or a dog) yet treat them horribly. Annes Elwy makes a credible character out of Jenny, who tries to stop the animal cruelty and then starts an unlikely romance with Hench. It’s Jenny’s nickname that gives the play its title, but having another young character as such an obvious foil, painfully showing what it is boys yearn for, feels forced.

In the lead roles Alex Austin and Jake Davies’ performances are marked by an awesome physicality. A mix of hormones, menace and boredom, they inhabit their characters fully and it’s all about frustration. Each instance of physical contact, indeed the potential of touching, becomes intense. It makes the unspecified trauma that affects Hench and the violence Jennifer experiences all the more potent. Austin and Davies’ efforts bring out the very best in the text and do justice to a play that is both hard working and hard work.

Until 13 February 2016

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Richard Davenport

 

“You For Me For You” at the Royal Court

American playwright Mia Chung’s work, for the Royal Court’s wonderfully intimate upstairs auditorium, is the tale of two sisters, Minhee and Junhee, who try to defect from a North Korean regime so sinister it is rendered surreal.

Minhee fails, becoming trapped inside a well, beginning a bizarre journey inside her own consciousness and the national identity that has psychologically entrapped her. Wendy Kweh gives a convincing performance as a tortured soul.

Brilliantly visualised and staged by designer Jon Bausor and director Richard Twyman, a vault-like stage with mirrors and projections creates a visual kaleidoscope of action and paranoia. There’s even a bunny rabbit hanging around.

As a technique for understanding the despotic state, the magical realism employed fits well with Chung’s observations on time. You might feel the need for more raw data about North Korea (although that’s hardly the playwright’s job), but the bureaucratic nightmares experienced are depressingly predictable.

Katie Leung and Daisy Haggard
Katie Leung and Daisy Haggard

Junhee’s experience is only slightly less fantastical, and America becomes a subject for Chung’s play, as she ostensibly explores the ’other’. The electrifying stroke is to show the experience of learning English – encountering Daisy Haggard in a variety of roles –moving from speaking gibberish to gradually becoming comprehensible. The technique allies us with Katie Leung’s powerfully performed Junhee, while Haggard gives a literally breath-taking performance.

A fast-paced play, this sibling story doesn’t move as much emotionally as it might. Maybe the sisters’ devotion is taken too much for granted. Possibly Minhee’s tragic backstory is revealed just a little too slowly. But the production is superb and the play highlights the desperation of refugees, from anywhere in the world, with more than its fair serving of poetic moments.

Until 9 January 2016

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photos by Tristram Kenton

“Linda” at the Royal Court

Best wishes – also commiserations – to Kim Cattrall, originally cast in the title role of Penelope Skinner’s new play, who withdrew for health reasons at the last minute. Instead, Noma Dumezweni gets the chance at a brilliantly meaty part and wins huge admiration. Although performing with the script close by, Dumezweni’s is a towering rendition that gets to the nub of Skinner’s grand efforts with precision.

Linda is a woman who has it all: career, kids and “the same size ten dress suit” from 15 years ago. But she’s 55. Employed by the beauty industry, enjoying plenty of predictable irony, Linda isn’t safe, despite her success. It could all be a standard, if satisfying, drama with important issues and depressing topicality. But it’s far from that. Michael Longhurst’s direction is smooth and Es Devlin’s budget-busting set a two-tier rotating triumph, combining work and home, with a moat for extra symbolism. And, excitingly, Skinner takes risks with her script that stops the show being too polished.

For much of the first act, Linda is the only well-rounded presence. Other characters are oddly transparent – a brave move – making them cringe-worthy vehicles for Skinner’s toe-curling humour. The men come off especially badly: a new-age hipster intern (Jaz Deol), insulting boss (Ian Redford) and mid-life crisis husband (Dominic Mafham). Can men really be this crass? Don’t answer. But best of all is Linda’s new rival at work, a younger woman, naturally, who you’ll love to hate, with Amy Beth Hayes’s performance guaranteed to make your blood boil.

Karla Crome and Imogen Byron
Karla Crome and Imogen Byron

It’s when flesh is put on the bones of other roles that the play falters. Mother and daughter relationships are insightfully probed, with clever Shakespearean nods. And as Linda’s daughter’s, Karla Crome and Imogen Byron grow up impressively before our eyes. But by now we just want Linda. It’s her late realisation that she has “ta’en too little care” outside the office, rather than her daughter’s plights (these alone could make another play) that interest. Despite Longhurst’s valiant efforts, searching deeper issues slows the pace too severely. Thankfully, a final flourish of outrage shows Skinner as outlandish once more. She is surely not a writer to be messed with.

Until 9 January 2016

www.royalcourt.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“RoosevElvis” at the Royal Court

Brooklyn-based theatre ensemble the Team has collaborated on an exploration of American culture that presents a road trip like no other. Libby King and Kristen Seih play would-be lovers, Ann and Brenda, as well as the iconic Roosevelt and Elvis, who people Ann’s imagination. This is drag at its most radical, making gender politics provocative and fun.

What pieces of work Theodore and Presley are – role models of masculinity – brilliantly rendered by King and Seih. Lots of whacky fun is had at the expense of these male egos: the president playing ‘Whack-a-Mole’ with on-screen buffaloes is just one genius stroke, while Elvis/Ann/Sieth’s (it gets complicated) karate with pizza boxes is great. But these aren’t straw men. The biographical research has been done (I learned a lot) and both figures are presented intelligently.

Anchoring the show is the story of Ann – this is the bit the history is for – a meatpacking worker, unhappy with her sexuality, who dreams of visiting Graceland. An endearing character, her private conversation with Elvis makes you will her to escape and shows the dangers, alongside the delights, of a powerful imagination.

All theatre is collaborative, of course, but scripts with many authors (there are seven here) can be messy. And RoosevElvis is as crazy as you could wish for, with sets and screens moving around and a couple of rowing machines thrown in. Yet, with Rachel Chavkin directing, the show feels fluid rather than chaotic, and spontaneous despite a reliance on filmed material.

One of many inspirations for RoosevElvis is the movie Thelma and Louise, which leads to a brilliant finale for Teddy and Elvis. But don’t worry – Ann is in the real world and eventually has to face it. Her small step to independence is heart warming, Most importantly, this is a story with emotional impact: theatre where theory meets real people – this Team works.

Until 14 November 2015

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Sue Kessler