Wife

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Wife by Samuel Adamson – Kiln Theatre, London

Wife begins with the famous final moments of Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ – Nora leaving her husband, children and marriage, to the astonishment and outrage of audiences since its 1879 opening. As Dan Rebellato’s fascinating programme essay explains, the play is part of a long tradition of ‘Doll’s House’ rewrites and sequels which began with Ibsen’s own changes to his ending, softening the social blow. His genius was to leave the outcome ambiguous: does Nora relent and return to her family, develop a new understanding with her husband, or strike out for a life on her own? Writers have queued to fill in the gaps and the latest, Samuel Adamson, pushes off from Ibsen into a survey of changing attitudes to relationships from 1959, via 1989, to 2019. It is an ambitious play, sometimes overly so, which delivers fascinating moments but has a tendency to fall short.

Indu Rubasingham, who has fun beginning each segment with the final moments of ‘A Doll’s House’ performed in the style of the era, directs charged performances that sometimes tend towards caricature, not least in the first segment. Sirin Saba’s bohemian actress has just come off stage from playing Nora when a dressing room visit from Karen Fishwick’s tense 1950s housewife, Daisy, and her disdainful husband (Joshua James). The women are having an affair, so horrifying to husband and society that the only solution is to pretend it never happened. It is hard to believe in these clipped ’50s stereotypes, but the 1989 segment seems more real. Daisy’s son, Ivar, played by James with a hint of Rik Mayall, sees her as the enemy. He is gay, a campaigner for equal rights, acutely aware of the constraints around his relationship with Calam Lynch’s uncomfortable Eric. He is fired up by the ‘Doll’s House’ they have just seen, but how much of their problems are caused by the homophobic attitudes that are all around and how much to his self-absorption?

By 2019 and the final section, gay marriage is legal, relationships are apparently open, but Adamson asks whether we’ve gained as much as we supposed. The argument is bold, but delivers limited insight. Eric’s daughter confronts an older Ivar (Richard Cant this time), by now married to an egotistical younger actor called Cas. The generational overlaps are contrived by this point, and the suggestions that 2010s people are self-obsessed and not as free as they imagine seem to provide a starting point for further questioning.

Adamson’s play does not fully live up to its clever concept. Much of the dialogue is over-explicit, and lacking in space. On two occasions a scene that seemed finished returns, in a kind of coda, as characters continue to explain things that the audience had already surmised. The lack of ambiguity, and the apparent need to state arguments in full throughout, undermines the plays effectiveness in pursuing its fascinating themes of personal freedom versus social constraint. There is no doubt these play out through the concept of marriage just as they did in 1879, a time not as long ago as we might imagine. Adamson’s plea to listen to previous generations is the strongest, possibly wisest, conclusion.

 

 

Freeman

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Freeman by Camilla Whitehill and Strictly Arts – Streatham Space Project, London

Freeman is a startling and exceptional piece of theatre, and its run in Streatham is a coup for the still relatively new Streatham Space Project theatre is a coup. Winner of a Spirit of the Fringe award at Edinburgh last summer, the four-hander packs a devastating critique of racism and mental health provision in Britain and the US into a whirlwind hour. We soon realise that the four characters addressing us through their pain are dead, one only two years ago and another as far back as 1846. Their stories, gradually unwound, are not as different as we might imagine. In fact, they are grimly similar. Three are black and the fourth white, but deep discrimination runs through their mistreatment. The play aims at the failure to care for those suffering from mental health problems in prison, based around two pioneering cases in which the accused pled not guilty through reason of insanity. In doing so, it lays open the raw wound of racism across western society.

One of the cases is William Freeman, brain damaged from beatings in prison where he was sent by authorities who neither knew nor cared whether he was guilty. After release, he murdered an entire family. The play deals with some of the darkest material that could be imagined on a stage, and all of it is true. The stories laid before us shame the system, which continues to deal out appalling mistreatment. The play also deals with the heartbreaking harassment to death of a blameless black motorist in 2017. However, despite the harsh material the company delivers performances the audience cannot turn away from. Operating on a compact stage, the actors make movement an integral part of the show including some extraordinary physical feats. The acting from all four is also subtle and moving as they switch confidently across characters, accents and centuries.

The show’s atmosphere flicks from graveyard menace to a Lagos party scene to an intimidating encounter with a police officer as though as the touch of a switch, helped by strong sound a simple but clever set with a floor that reflect the action, ghost-like, on to a back sheet. Freeman’s verdict is that a failure to treat everyone with the same respect has infected our society. Mental healthcare failings, often overshadowed by more obvious acts of violence, cannot be ignored.

Freeman has now closed at Streatham Space, but is touring until the end of June and is highly recommended.

Three Sisters

Three Sisters. CENTRE - Ria Zmitrowicz. Photo credit Marc Brenner (8)-2.jpgRia Zmitrowicz and Patsy Ferran. Photo: Marc Brenner

Three Sisters by Anton Chekov – Almeida Theatre, London

Rebecca Frecknall’s production of Three Sisters for the Almeida is pared back and relatively traditional. The new adaptation by Cordelia Lynn sounds natural and modern without forcing it, and the setting is a mostly bare stage, supplying the space for the actors to fill. They do this very well, with a succession of distinctive, individual performances. It is character that makes Chekhov so special. He had an instinct for writing people who feel unfamiliar and just like themselves, without a hint of types. This is partly because he never gives anyone a free pass. All the characters in Three Sisters, without exception, are a combination of loveable and hateful, in different proportions throughout the play. This even applies to the villain of the piece, new wife Natasha who takes the beloved brother Alexander and destroys him. It is impossible to imagine how anyone could marry happily into such a self-obsessed, clique of a family, although Lois Chimimba delivers a particularly spiky performance.

Yet the sisters, despite their chronic inability to escape themselves and each other are also captivating, usually when they are together as a group. The party scenes, and the scenes where they are just lying around playing cards, seem like brief moments of perfection. Of course, none of the characters realises this and each is ultimately only capable, just, of carrying on – just like the rest of us. Patsy Ferran as the responsible, motherly teacher Olga is the most powerless to influence her own destiny, drifting helplessly to her destiny as headmistress. Pearl Chanda as Masha seems the most free-spirited, but is the most tied down, through her ill-advised marriage to older teacher and bore Fyodor, played with terrifying familiarity by Elliot Levey. Ria Zmitrowicz, as the youngest sister , gives the stand-out performance in a strong ensemble, her unmistakable voice making Irina sound like a being from another world.

Hildegarde Bechtler’s design tears the floor up halfway through to reveal the soil beneath in a neat coup de theatre, reminiscent of Benedict Andrew’s more revisionist 2012 production at the Young Vic, with its earth floor. Less successfully, Alexander occupies a sort of shelf above the action for much of the play. The design colour codes the sisters, in blue, black and white, as the centrepieces of the decor, surrounded by drifts if men in brown and army khaki. The most colourful thing in the play is the spinning top that famously mesmerises Irina’s birthday party guess, its fascination contained in the knowledge that however much it moves, it is going nowhere. Frecknall’s rich production takes place in a bubble of unreality, both alluring  and doomed to burst.

Human Jam

Human-Jam-CPT-700x455Brian Logan and Shamira Turner in Human Jam. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Human Jam by CPT/Euston community – Camden People’s Theatre, London

Getting to Camden People’s Theatre is becoming more complicated. The direct route from Euston is blocked by HS2 barriers, and soon lorries will start rumbling up and down Drummond Street, one of London’s most likeable street. The behemoth railway project will reshape this part of town, perhaps for better but undoubtedly for worse if, as the local residents do, you will have to endure the destruction of local amenities and many years of building works, with no compensation – unlike those who live in the Chilterns.

Camden People’s Theatre tackles HS2 head on with an ingenious, chaotic and highly enjoyable lecture-cum-performance-cum-community-theatre show. Artistic director Brian Logan takes the stage to deliver what appears to be a rather untheatrical HS2 primer, explaining how the show takes its title from Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Levelled Churchyard’, written as he supervised excavation of bodies from Old St. Pancras Churchyard, around the corner, for an 1860s railway. HS2 includes the removal of St. James’s Gardens, the graveyard of a former church next to Euston Station. It is said to be the largest exhumation in European history – 63,000 bodies.

‘Human Jam’ soon veers off its powerpoint course and, in Ghostwatch style, the graveyard takes over. Enter Shamira Turner, channelling a remarkable number of those buried at St. James’s from Protestant rabble rouser Lord George Gordon to auctioneer Henry Christie and Antipodean explorer Matthew Flinders. However, the character who dominates is forgotten 18th century radical Thomas Spence who advocated common ownership of land. Now robbed of the only land he owned, his burial plot, Spence confronts the right to develop and profit from the land that is part and parcel of HS2.

Turner is excellent, giving a skilled and spirited performance. The show then opens its doors to its neighbours, literally, as a group of local take the stage to make their feelings known and to sing a protest song by Richard Ryan, another occupant of St. James’s, powered by Turner’s gorgeous voice. ‘Human Jam’ is precisely the type of show Camden People’s Theatre should be producing: fully engaged with its community, angry but imaginative, chaotic and messy, and shining a strong, searching light on those in power.

Die! Die! Die! Old People Die!

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Die! Die! Die! Old People Die! by Ridiculusmus – Battersea Arts Centre, London

Ridiculusmus – Jon Haynes and David Woods – have been crafting increasingly perfect pieces of theatre, based on impressive and sometimes unlikely research, for many years. Their new piece is the final instalment of a trilogy that has tackled innovative treatments for schizophrenia (The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland), MDMA for post-traumatic stress disorder (Give Me Your Love) and now old age in the provocatively titled Die! Die! Die! Old People Die! The new show takes a different approach, concerned with ageing and grief rather than mental disorder. A show “in honour of our elders” might sound worthy but the pair deliver an astonishing show. They walk an inspired, unhinged tightrope between deep poignancy and riotous absurd comedy that leaves the audience at times incapacitated with laughter.

Haynes and Woods, having worked with various groups of elders to develop the show, have responded with pure physical comedy. The opening scene, with a ludicrously creaky old couple making their way inch by inch to the middle of the stage, is a piece of genius. During their journey, which take a very long time indeed, the viewer is at first convulsed with laughter, then struck by guilt at laughing over others’ physical limits, then visited by memories of older relatives ground to a halt by arthritis. It is both remarkably funny, and unexpectedly painful. This sets the tone for the show in which Haynes and Woods use their exceptional skills to recreate the constantly recognisable physical traits of the elderly, and to tip them into convulsive humour.

The pair reference classic comedy throughout, not least during a remarkable scene inspired by ‘Dinner for One’ with Woods bringing his wife (Haynes) a cup of coffee and attempting to lay a table cloth. The scene is performed in fast forward, and is both highly impressive and hopelessly funny. Woods even pulls off the ‘looking at a watch while holding a glass of water’ gag, using its perfect simplicity to round off a pill-taking routine which has the audience beside themselves. There are surely no better technical comedians working right now. Yet the value of ‘Die! Die! Die!…’ is the way it effortlessly harnesses the farce  constantly bubbling beneath ordinary life to a searching exploration of the meaning of age, and of love. Haynes plays a woman and a man, with equal brilliance, at the end of life-long relationships to Woods’s character and the power of these links is made entirely clear without a moment of sentimentality. Ridiculusmus are at the top of their game and ‘Die! Die! Die!…’ complete with fart jokes, is an absolute must-see for anyone who wants to be awed by what two men on a small stage can achieve.

 

The Long Walk Back

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Image: Lisa Hounsome

The Long Walk Back by Dougie Blaxland – Greenwich Theatre, London

Once Chris Lewis was known as an extravagantly talented all-rounder, star of the England test and one-day cricket team. Now he is  remembered as a man who spent 6 and a half years in prison after a failed attempt to smuggle cocaine into Britain in his suitcase. Dougie Blaxland’s taut, probing and beautifully structured play explores Lewis’s rise and fall, one that is unique in the world of cricket and without many other sporting parallels. How could a man with such talents come to do something so utterly disastrous? Set in a prison cell, Blaxland’s two-hander probes the issues forensically, from inside Lewis’ own head.

Martin Edwards is a very convincing Chris Lewis, working his way through the realities of prison life – the fear, horror, disconnection, depression and the emotional toll of coming to terms with what he has done. Man mountain Scott Bayliss plays his cell mate, a constant figure who conducts Lewis’ internal dialogue. The pair slip expertly into numerous characters, including the trial judge, Lewis’ brother and mother, Chairman of the England selectors Ray Illingworth, drug dealers, county cricketers and more besides. Blaxland’s writing is smart and highly skilled, making a complex story involving multiple time frames seem entirely natural.

Lewis’s story is fascinating. By his own admission he got up people’s noses, roaring around in flash cars and being generally irresponsible. But he also played in a time when cricketers were beholden to the game’s old school tie authorities, treated with carelessness and frozen out if they refused to fit in. And Lewis is a black man, racially stereotyped by both players and the press as talented but lazy. His career was ended by a bizarre episode in which he reported a match-fixing approach, and was apparently fitted up by the press and driven from the game as a result. An attempted comeback at the age of 40 was a disaster, leaving him without a career or income and both desperate and foolish enough to accept a £50,000 payment as a drug mule.

Remarkably, Chris Lewis himself appears after every performance of The Long Walk Back for a question and answer session. He is thoughtful, open and self-critical, insistent on his own responsibility for what happened to him. However, although the play is supported by the Professional Cricketers’ Association, he has clearly not made friends with the cricket establishment, who must also take some blame for their treatment of their players, and their lack of concern for those who have retired. The presence in the audience of Mike Atherton, Lewis’ former test captain and one of the few to keep in touch while he was inside, is therefore to his credit. The play is a remarkable exploration of the pitfalls for those who become famous at a very young age, before their time comes to an abrupt, permanent end. It is also a rare and honest examination of mistakes, from small to very large, all made in the public gaze.

 

Tartuffe

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Tartuffe by Molière, adapted by John Donnelly – National Theatre: Lyttleton

John Donnelly’s adaptation of Tartuffe locates the action in an obscenely large house, dripping with 2010s opulence in the form of outsized furnishing and a vast, golden statue of David. As a symbol of self-regarding excess, David Jones’ set could hardly be clearer and sets the tone for a production that updates Molière to show how the irresistible story of an imposter can strip our pretensions bare, as it has many others before.

A strong cast plays a collection of Molière’s types, characters updated to be familiar to us. Mariane is Orgon’s spoiled daughter, as charming as she is immature. Played by Kitty Archer she is very funny, as is her ‘street poet’ boyfriend who exists simply to be the butt of multiple jokes about his self-regard and terrible poetry. The caricatures hit home: they are too close for comfort to their real-life equivalents, coming soon to a London neighbourhood near you. However, Mariane is also capable, like all four women in the play, of changing and finds the self-awareness to pull herself out of her dependency on her father. Meanwhile Olivia Williams, as Orgon’s wife Elmire, combines deep reserves of frustration over her husband’s obsession with Tartuffe with a surprising, very entertaining talent for physical comedy. Susan Engel, as the mother Pernille steals both the start and the end of the show as the shameless matriarch, embarking on a stick-banging lecture at the drop of a hat. Kathy Kiera Clarke’s housekeeper Dorine is smart and in charge, but fated by her position as a servant to lose out

The play is ostensibly about the deluded Orgon and the deluder Tartuffe but, oddly, in this production their roles are the least convincing. This is partly due to the adaptation, which pitches Tartuffe as a complete charlatan – in this version a yoga teacher, naturally –  lacking even basic credibility. Only a complete fool could fall for his improvised pseudo-spiritualism, and that fool is Orgon. It is therefore hard to believe that Kevin Doyle’s Orgon, a manically upright Angus Deayton character, could ever have been a politically influential figure, which turns out to be crucial to the play. Doyle has a nice line in physical comedy too, but the person he was before he lost his senses is lacking. He is, however, neatly representative of our conspiracy theory driven times, becoming more desperate to believe in Tartuffe, the more his is confronted with proof he is a fraud. Denis O’Hare’s man-bunned Tartuffe gets the intense sincerity of the true charlatan spot on, but adopts an indefinable ‘foreign’ accent throughout which he never drops, which tends to make his character seem like nothing but performance.

In the end, the set weighs the production down. Most scenes involve two or three characters, who tend to disappear among the sofa cushions and parquet expanses, stripping away any intimacy. Although Blanche McIntyre works hard to populate the space, this is not a play full of spectacle. The final scene where Tartuffe becomes representative of the  dispossessed, street sleepers filling the stage as he threatens retribution on the self-regarding rich, is memorable but also conceptually dubious, given that we know nothing he says should be taken seriously. An intriguing and inventive cast makes this an evening that, if not a complete success, is worth watching for its best performances.