Tag Archives: Royal Court Theatre

“B” at the Royal Court

In Guillermo Calderón’s new play, three terrorists debate their plans to use a bomb. To make the show theatrically explosive, the depressingly topical subject matter is delivered with risqué comedy. B needs handling with caution; the piece gives extra meaning to the term trigger warning.

The plotters are pretty hopeless, which provides plenty of twists. Danusia Samal plays Alejandra, who hopes her bombs don’t hurt and views her protest as a kind of art work. Samal achieves the near impossible in making such a character credible. Aimée-Ffion Edwards plays Marcela, whose slowly revealed death wish provides much needed pathos. Their bomb is obtained from an older agitator, a role Peter Kaye is refreshingly restrained in. The different views and generational divide amongst the trio provide the play’s weightier moments.

Trouble is, there doesn’t feel like a lot of insight here: terrorists are troubled people. Well, yes… The play’s Chilean origin could have provided new information for a UK audience but isn’t investigated explicitly. We are left with slim, rehearsed arguments for the indefensible – and these are neither stimulating nor challenging.

Managing to make this topic funny is so bold that dismissing the play altogether is impossible. There are some good giggles around using code words for the bomb and anarchist communities. And, translated by William Gregory, poetic streams of consciousness  and clever word association compensate for the play’s failings. Director Sam Pritchard is sympathetic to this strength and the cast deliver their lines well. Deserving special praise is Sarah Niles as a mysterious neighbour. This is the one character who gets more interesting as the play goes on. Niles’ off-beat delivery shows a committed appreciation of the text’s entertaining potential.

Calderón is keen on absurdities, his style of writing is exciting and this chance to see his work in London is welcome, but this subject matter deserves more substance than he delivers.

Until 21 October 2017

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Helen Murray

“The Ferryman” at the Garrick Theatre

Superstar playwright Jez Butterworth’s latest drama was a hit before it even opened: the West End transfer was announced simultaneous to its sell-out opening at the Royal Court and a new cast will soon take the show into 2018. This long harvest day’s journey into tragedy is the story of the Carney family, farmers in Northern Ireland whose connections with the IRA haunt them. This is a big family drama – and not just due to the size of the household, but because of Butterworth’s exquisite writing.

There’s a luxurious feel to the show – although this is a working-class world – created by Rob Howell’s design and director Sam Mendes, who resists the temptation to rush a single moment. Three hours is a long running time for a new play, but every minute holds you. Above all, a huge company, including some extraordinary younger performers, are awe-inspiring. It really shouldn’t be possible to have so many characters so clearly delineated by their own compelling stories.

There’s a lot of laughter in the family, a real sense of warmth, and not a few Irish stereotypes. This has been commented on by Sean O’Hagan, better qualified than myself. To be sure, there’s a lot of whisky drinking and some gags around children swearing seem cheap, if effective. But the stories told, swirling around the discovery of a murdered family member’s body, broaden the play’s themes beyond the Troubles.

Myth and history populate the play. The past preoccupies Aunt Maggie Far Away, “visiting” from her dementia, and obsesses Aunt Pat, whose brother died in the Easter Rising: two brilliant roles engendering stunning performances from Bríd Brennan and Dearbhla Molloy respectively. Meanwhile Uncle Pat has plenty of anecdotes while, with another strong performance from Des McAleer (pictured top), enforcing the play’s theme of death, which escalates with such foreboding.

Tom Glynn-Carney
Tom Glynn-Carney

There’s a point to all the marvellously crafted yarns – The Uses of Story Telling, if you’re looking for a dissertation title. The tales form a link to violence inherited by the young. A terrific scene with four youths, led with febrile energy by Tom Glynn-Carney, shows them captivated by accounts of IRA leader Mr Muldoon (Stuart Graham) and the 1981 hunger strikers. In the shadows (there’s plenty of eavesdropping in this play – stories morph into rumour and hearsay, after all) is an even younger “wean”, skilfully depicted by Rob Malone, who is driven to desperate measures.

Laura Donnelly and Genevieve O’Reilly
Laura Donnelly and Genevieve O’Reilly

At the heart of the play is a love triangle that leads to star performances. A repressed affair between the play’s patriarch Quinn, performed with charming assurance by Paddy Considine, and his bereaved sister-in-law Caitlin, a role Laura Donnelly articulates marvellously, leads to some of the best dialogue. Although appearing relatively late, Quinn’s wife Mary is given her due through Genevieve O’Reilly’s quiet performance. The unrequited emotions of all three create an unusual love story that thrums with excitement. As Quinn’s IRA past rears its head with a tension that would please any thriller writer, Mendes’ strengths shine. The fear of what might come next hangs over the final hour of the show. Butterworth manages to juggle all this with enviable dexterity, producing a work of complexity and popular appeal.

Until 6 January 2018

www.TheFerrymanPlay.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Road” at the Royal Court

Just before the interval during Jim Cartwright’s play, two young
unemployed characters, who have taken to their bed depressed, rage about their lives and imagine “the last job in the world”. It’s a startlingly contemporary moment, given speculation about the perilous future of employment, in a production too-happily rooted in the mid 80s of the play’s origin. The soundtrack, dialect, and accurate costumes in Chloe Lamford’s design, all serve to examine The North in Thatcher’s Britain, and they do so authentically. But, when combined with John Tiffany’s precise direction, a painful history is presented with a coldly anthropological air.

Mark Hadfield
Mark Hadfield

Life on an average road is presented in a series of short scenes, visiting different characters. There are frustrations with this snapshot treatment, but the standard of each scene is high and the anger from Cartwright and his characters stands in contrast to the clinical approach that prevails in this revival. Several monologues are highlights, in particular those with a nostalgic air performed superbly by June Watson and Mark Hadfield. The challenges of the text are meat and drink to the talented cast, who Tiffany has clearly worked closely with, nearly all of whom perform more than one role and differentiate characters superbly – none more so than Michelle Farley whose transformations astonish.

Michelle Farley with Mike Noble
Michelle Farley with Mike Noble

Our visit is guided by a narrator, played by Lemn Sissay. His
character’s focus is a good night out and jokes about the escapism of sex and alcohol threaten to take over, driven by Tiffany’s high energy approach. It’s left to Jonathan Watkins’ direction of movement to add gravitas and appreciate Cartwright’s poetry. That the show plays a little uncomfortably amongst the wealth of Sloane Square is testament to its confrontational approach. Cartwright appreciates the sharp wit of his protagonists – there are some very funny retorts here – but the laughs around the poor and uneducated come with a warning. Moods change within seconds,  on the whim of a fraught nerve, and darkness prevails despite the production’s over-enthusiastic moments.

Until 9 September 2017

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“Nuclear War” at the Royal Court

A combination of dance, song and poetry, Simon Stephens’ new creation will make heads spin and hearts ache.

While the writer might dislike the word, ‘experimental’ is an accurate description. This is a piece that pushed boundaries well before an audience even got near it, by privileging the always collaborative nature of theatre-making. Stephens affords remarkable liberty to those he works with: his script is a “series of suggestions” left deliberately open – just a dozen pages of text with no characters. Both his role as a playwright and the job of director/choreographer Imogen Knight are reappraised and opened up.

So what’s the result? The text’s main theme rings out: Nuclear War is a meditation on grief, movingly depicted. Maureen Beattie takes the lead, recounting a day like a contemporary Mrs Dalloway, but stricken by loss. Recollections of moments in hospital are the clearest and most effective. This is a woman out of her mind with mourning and loneliness.

The character Beattie so meticulously depicts is accompanied by performers Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Gerrome Miller, Beatrice Scirocchi and Andrew Sheridan. All four give committed performances but with the actions of the group they form, the evening becomes confusing. You could call this quartet a chorus, why not: revealing internal thoughts and adding a running commentary…of sorts. Mortality is linked to time, with snatches of Arthur Eddington’s ideas injected. And then come some puzzling props. Lasting only 45 minutes, Knight hasn’t allowed long enough to explore the depth of Stephens’ text.

If you’re grumpy, a sense this was all more fun to work on than to watch creeps in. However, aided by lighting guru Lee Curran, there’s some incredible imagery here. The chorus become dogs, and bizarre fetishists, before transforming into ghosts to say a goodbye to their grieving companion. It’s a peremptory departure, despite the resolution it offers, and I wished for more of these unforgettable moments from such an intrepid trial.

Until 6 May 2017

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Chloe Lamford

“a profoundly affectionate, passionate devotion to someone (-noun)”

AT THE ROYAL COURT

The subject matter for Debbie Tucker Green’s new play may be romantic love, but there’s very little in it. Five brilliant actors play three couples, and the audience becomes privy to (mostly) their arguments. It could be dull, but is transformed by an ability with language that’s phenomenal. More like a poem than a play, its remarkably recognisable everyday voices are combined with startling musicality.

Language isn’t the first thing that strikes us, though. Working with designer Merle Hensel, the seating consists of swivel stools in the centre of the space, with a raised stage on three sides. Performers draw on green floor-to-ceiling chalkboards. Any connection between their scrawls and communication isn’t elaborated. A more immediate connotation is a tennis match, as words start to fly and feelings that should be left unsaid are spoken out loud.

The majority of the play is spent with a young couple, called A and B, with back and forth scenes of tension in their disintegrating relationship, blissfully interspaced with glimpses of joy and sensuality. With such variety in emotions, actors Gershwyn Eustache Jnr and Lashana Lynch deserve the highest acclaim. Fights, trivial and important, as the post-mortem of their marriage is picked over, have a disturbing rawness. The inventive structure moves perspectives, continually searching the past and examining lost potential.

There are two further scenes, showing an older couple, Woman and Man, played by Meera Syal and Gary Beadle, then Man’s new relationship with Younger Woman, played by Shvorne Marks. The acting is again superb, but these stories feel truncated, the characters less fleshed out and parallels forced. Giving them so little time is one of the smaller puzzles here – so many questions are raised that the play will not satisfy all audience tastes.

The annoying lower-case title alludes to defining something. One way of doing that is to remove specifics, making the dialogues a questioning of Form (no escaping a capital letter here). Tucker Green certainly provides few particulars. But a warning – trying to work out ‘what’s going on’ is ingrained, and having so little to work with can be frustrating in a play. The trick instead might be to focus on the theme of communication. The characters are said to either talk too much or too little. And their ‘look’ – a fruitfully theatrical element brought to the fore with the author working as director, aided by such a strong cast – shows there is more to a conversation than words. Aiming for a definition on love inevitably falls short. But the attempt at elucidation here still has many pleasures.

Until 1 April 2017

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Stephen Cummiskey

“Wish List” at the Royal Court

Katherine Soper’s play tackles modish concerns about mental health and the world of work, as two siblings struggle against the benefits system and a menial job on a zero-hours contract. A joint production with Manchester’s Royal Exchange, the play is at home at the Royal Court; there isn’t just a kitchen sink, there’s a bathroom one as well. But suspicions should be suspended: Soper has written a play with real heart, a well deserving winner of the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting.

For all the monotony in the characters’ lives, Roper covers a gamut of emotions, while Matthew Xia’s direction, with strong sound design from Giles Thomas, nurtures her considerable skills.

The stress in Tamsin’s life, brilliantly portrayed by Erin Doherty, is well depicted and instantly recognisable. Reduced to tears more than once, Tamsin’s own wishes are balanced with responsibilities to her sick brother, combining care and understandable frustration.

With the siblings’ crippling obsessive behaviour, Soper brings insight into a condition increasingly depicted on stage and adds tension. Rendered with almost unbearable intensity by Joseph Quinn, this young man becomes a danger to himself and a fascinating figure with Christ-like connotations from his self-inflicted injuries.

Soper appreciates we can only stand so much doom and gloom and deftly introduces some sweet comedy. Doherty takes us touchingly close to her character’s hopes and gives us the giggles with a rendition of a Meat Loaf song, part of a budding romance with a younger colleague made all the more appealing by a performance from Shaquille Ali-Yebuah: any actor who can make a role this charming is sure to have a bright future.

There are lighter moments also from the mild satire against big business. In the packing factory, neither Tamsin nor her potential boyfriend falls for the inspirational slogans, despite their desperation for a job. But cleverly, the awful working conditions are depicted dispassionately, with an intelligent role for Aleksandar Mikic as their manager.

Digs against faceless organisations come alongside camaraderie. Small acts of kindness in the face of big problems are part of Wish List’s most effective passages – which focus on hope. A lit candle, shared cigarette or high five, take on the significance of communion that is simply beautiful. Soper wants this look at vulnerable lives to be dignified. Her play wins respect as a result.

Until 11 February 2017

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Jonathan Keenan

“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