Tag Archives: Royal Court

“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

“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

“Hang” at the Royal Court

I am confident all would agree that Debbie Tucker Green’s new play for the Royal Court is a powerful one. The play’s force comes from the performances and its poetry. The acting and dialogue are of such a high standard you can see those reviewers’ stars mounting up before your eyes. But what feels very much an intellectual exercise doesn’t quite deliver: pointless is too strong a word to use about such a quality piece, but don’t expect anything persuasive behind this focused examination of a dilemma.

The scenario is simple yet tense: the victim of a crime gets to decide the method of executing the perpetrator. But there are no arguments about the death penalty, rather, a bureaucratic meeting with officials who obsessively follow procedures to enact the execution. Claire Rushbrook and Shane Zaza are well studied in these roles, dealing with the economy of the writing and creating a comedy of compromises. It’s a pity that these well-meaning characters are a little too ineffectual and ill prepared, with the “transparency” they aim for becoming one of many heavy ironies.

The struggle to vocalise trauma is painfully acknowledged; nobody has “the words, the stomach, the imagination” to empathise with the carefully undisclosed crime discussed. Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s performance as the articulate victim given a potent voice is stunning, creating a depiction of pain shocking in its distance from platitudes. Tucker Green’s direction is taut as a bow but the explorations of revenge, justice and the systems we rely on to deliver the law don’t satisfy. It’s a puzzle to have no real target aimed at with such skill.

Until 18 July 2015

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Stephen Cummiskey

“Mojo” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Jez Butterworth’s play, Mojo, was a huge hit in 1995 for the Royal Court and its revival at the Harold Pinter Theatre is a welcome event. The première work from a playwright destined for huge success, it’s set in gangland Soho in the late 1950s, with the owner of a nightclub and would-be music promoter murdered. Menace is continually offset by ineffectual gangsters, and then reinjected by mental instability and manic tension. It’s a playwright’s script, full of inspiration from modern masters, with the language poetically reflecting the new craze for rock and roll. A fine plot, superb characters and serious comedy secure wide appeal. There’s high drama, breathtaking suspense and laughs out loud from a sense of humour that is darkly, madly, deeply funny.

Daniel Mays (Potts) and Rupert Grint (Sweets) in Mojo. Photo credit Simon Annand
Daniel Mays and Rupert Grint

For this revival, the focus is sure to be on a stellar cast. And they don’t disappoint. Brendan Coyle takes time off Downtown Abbey to play the man ready to step into his assassinated boss’s shoes, claiming possession of the club while trying, and failing, to control his staff. He has to deal with Sweets and Potts, a pill-popping double act played by Rupert Grint, of Harry Potter fame, who makes a fine West End debut and can’t be blamed for being upstaged by the excellent Daniel Mays, who has the audience in the palm of his hand. It’s just as hard to ignore rising star Colin Morgan who gives a superb performance as another employee. In common with his colleagues, Morgan shows the thin skin underneath the machismo and how these men see the club, with all its power politics, as a home and family as well as career.

But it is Ben Whishaw who is the real star of the night. In the role of Baby, abused son to the murdered owner, and a damaged character who bursts into song and runs around with a sword, he manages to make both activities just as frightening. It’s his finest performance since Hamlet back in 2004 and makes you ponder about connections between the two plays. Avoiding plot spoilers, it’s fair to say something is rotten with the state of the nightclub and, if this insane heir-apparent isn’t indecisive, the court politics and innocent victims ring bells. It’s a resonance that indicates how rich Butterworth’s play is – concerning men, their place in the world and with one another, that run deep. This Mojo is box-office magic that lives up to expectations and really is as good as it sounds.

Until 8 February 2014

Photos by Simon Annand

Written 16 November 2013 for The London Magazine

“The Pride” at the Trafalgar Studios

Nearly six years after its premiere at the Royal Court’s upstairs theatre, Jamie Lloyd once more directs Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play, The Pride, this time at the Trafalgar Studios. A story of gay life, set in 1958 and 50 years later, it deserves to be seen again, and by more than those who could squeeze into the Royal Court’s smaller space. Examining changing attitudes and personal politics, the play insures a broad appeal – just – by virtue of its heartfelt emotions.

The Pride is occasionally verbose. Kaye Campbell doesn’t wear his learning lightly, but there is no doubt the writing is accomplished. Lloyd’s direction is the key to its success: he brings out the drama and speed in a script that could lag and his bold staging, with a mirror used to create a spooky confluence between the ages, injects theatricality.

L-R Mathew Horne & Al Weaver - The Pride - Trafalgar Studios - Photo Marc Brenner
Mathew Horne and Al Weaver

A time-travelling structure, flying between the 1950s and the present with exciting speed, allows the actors to shine. Harry Hadden-Jones and Al Weaver play the lovers Philip and Oliver, wracked with guilt and fear in the Fifties and just as confused with their contemporary freedoms. Three cameo roles performed commendably by Matthew Horne provide the majority of the play’s humour. But the star is Hayley Atwell as Sylvia, Philip’s wife in the past and Oliver’s friend in the present – the most interesting roles in the play performed with great skill.

The historical scenes pack the most punch, as there seems to be so much more at stake. The contemporary version of Oliver’s character, battling with fidelity and a sex addiction, seems trivial in comparison. But Kaye Campbell has a powerful idea – highlighting hard-won freedoms as a call to action among the gay community for continued political involvement. At a time when legislation in Russia focuses attention on gay rights globally, the play seems topical and important: the cast’s appearance at the curtain call with protest placards, dedicating their performance ‘To Russia with love’, deserves applause.

Until 9 November 2013

Photos by Marc Brenner

Written 21 August 2013 for The London Magazine

“Our Country’s Good” at the St James Theatre

Since its première at the Royal Court in 1988 Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play, Our Country’s Good, has been widely recognised as a modern classic. This production, coming from the show’s original director, Max Stafford-Clark, has a fine pedigree that makes it a revival not to miss.

The story of Australian convicts and their keepers who put on a play is a rich text that works on many levels. It’s easy to see why it has been adopted on to many a school syllabus. To the fore for Stafford-Clark is the theme that theatre has transcendent qualities that can transform its participants.

The hard-labouring cast take on a variety of roles playing prisoners, soldiers and the actors they become when putting on the play. As the lines they perform and different roles they take on become multi-layered, the cast maintains clarity and, under Stafford-Clark’s skilful hand, builds humour and tension.

Special note must go to Ian Redford who seems barely off the stage and makes each of his roles shine. If the play has a lead, it’s Matthew Needham playing Captain Collins, who becomes the director of a company of convicts, learning lessons about himself along the way. Needham brings a directness to the role that ensures its appeal.

Much of the humour in the play comes from theatrical in-jokes, but the play is strongest when it deals with bigger themes such as the plight of the female convicts, scarred by their transportation and forced into prostitution to survive. Wertenbaker’s writing has real bite here, and the performances, especially from Kathryn O’Reilly who plays the formidable Liz Morden, and Lisa Kerr as Duckling Smith, are superb.

At a time when his own excellent company, Out of Joint, is victim to savage cuts in funding, Stafford-Clark has drawn parallels with the current government and the philistinism of the Thatcher-era. Indeed, the transformative power of theatre seems especially important at a time when arts funding is under such pressure, despite the industry’s undoubted success. Our Country’s Good itself could easily serve as an example of how great British theatre can be: a superbly written play with brilliant performances and masterful direction.

Until 23 March 2012

www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

Photo by Robert Workman

Written 5 February 2013 for The London Magazine