Home

Image by Helen Maybanks

Home by David Storey – Chichester Festival Theatre

Although David Storey is a somewhat forgotten writer, wildly successful from the late ’60s to the late ’70s as both a playwright and novelist, but then just as suddenly out of fashion, Home is the play that is consistently revived. Not only does it offer four excellent roles, but it has managed to slip free of the time in which it was written (it premiered in 1970) and continues to speak to subsequent generations. It famously begins with two men talking, persistently, about nothing. As their conversation progresses their inability to finish sentences, reach points or say anything other than commonplaces and banalities becomes first funny, then disturbing. Their conversation takes place in a garden, which in Josh Roche’s Chichester production is a hyper-real set by Sophie Thomas, past its best and collecting litter around the edges. The world beyond the garden is unclear and, although we begin to understand the kind of place these people inhabit, we gather little to tie us to a place and time beyond references to cousins employed in the colonies.

The two men are then joined by two women, who undermine their apparent self-assurance by poking fun and making crude jokes. They seem to be enjoying themselves rather more, but soon we see just how vulnerable each character really is. Storey was ahead of his time in writing sympathetically about mental illness and people who, in his era, were usually hidden where no-one could see them. All four are likeable but brittle, holding together with each other’s support, most of the time at least. The performances are excellent. John Mackay is a willowy, Scottish Jack, a gentleman striving to put on a cheerful and assured front. Daniel Cerquiera’s Harry is sadder, more solid, inclined to tune out of the conversation. Both are fine actors, more often seen in secondary roles, and it is a treat to see them in the leads where they deliver moving and absorbing performances – putting to be memories of Gielgud and Richardson in these roles. Hayley Carmichael’s Kathleen is an East End housewife whose obsessions with inneundo tips into childlike mania, an unnerving piece of acting. Doña Croll’s Marjorie is confrontational with others, a tactic to conceal how she really feels.

Home is a sad and elegaic play, which seems to have gained significance in the decades since it was first performed. Storey absorbs us into the self-contained world of characters who are trapped within themselves, making poignant efforts to connect and to keep the darkness at bay, in a garden that is both and interior and an exterior world. It is not clear that the audience has any right to stand outside in judgement, or whether we belong with them, enclosed within the same walls.

Hamlet

Image by Helen Murray

Hamlet by William Shakespeare – Young Vic Theatre, London

Cush Jumbo’s Hamlet has been a long time in the making. In fact, what with the pandemic and the Young Vic’s long lead times for shows (which allow for some serious forward planning) I booked my tickets around three years ago. Sitting in the front row, it feels as though her performance has been seething and macerating inside her for all that time. She is, from her first appearance on the stage, a wired, angry, upset Hamlet, with more energy than anyone else at Elsinore. Her reaction seems a reasonable response to a court that carries on as though everything is normal when from the outside it appears a grotesque parody of civilised order. Adrian Dunbar’s Claudius and Tara Fitzgerald’s Gertrude are disturbingly urbane, a pair of high achievers who wear tasteful, expensive outfits and power as their natural state. The gilt columns of Anna Fleische’s set resemble a corporate lobby, with more than a hint of Trump’s lift. This Denmark has been slowly and insidiously corrupted until the very fabric of its court is a by-word for greed and hubris.

Hersov, however, chooses not develop the political implications, and his production strips the text down to a family affair. There are as many ways to cut Hamlet as they are productions, but it can be argued that entirely removing Fortinbras and the wider existential threat makes it harder to understand what drives Claudius. Dunbar is respectable and easy until things stop going his way, when he has no problem ordering murder, but the cuts do constrain his part. Fitzgerald is also a little short of opportunities, although that is more Shakespeare’s fault than Hersov’s. However, these are minor issues in the context of Jumbo’s performance, which is electric. She is clearly experiencing a creeping breakdown, driven by grief and anger, and is in a dangerous state. By the time she stabs Polonius she has already come close to knifing several people, and violence is only a matter of time. The big speeches seem forced out of her by the turmoil in her head, and her disintegration during the second half is truly upsetting. This production brings out the insanity of the climactic fight with Laertes, where everyone seems to have lost their reason and descended into the maelstrom together.

It’s hard to take your eyes off Jumbo, but the cast features a number of notable and enjoyable performances. Joseph Marcell’s Polonius is both funny and exceptionally annoying. Norah Lopez Holden delivers a fine Ophelia, whose sibling teasing of Jonathan Ajayi’s Laertes is very convincing, making her destruction by the men around her all the more grim when it comes. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are well played by Taz Borlar and Joana Borja as vodka-toting student millennials, chillingly cynical presences looking for opportunities to grab. Jonathan Livingstone’s Horatio is an everyman, watching as the world falls apart around him. Hersov’s production is a particular but compelling account of the play, but Cush Jumbo claims this role both for female actors and for herself with a Hamlet that sets the tone for the 2020s, struggling to cope in a world gone badly wrong.

The Normal Heart

Image by Helen Maybury

The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer – National Theatre: Olivier

Larry Kramer’s 1987 play, The Normal Heart, is astonishing campaigning theatre. First staged in 1985, just before the AIDS epidemic had fully entered public consciousness, it rails against the refusal of US authorities to acknowledge anything was wrong. Over the previous four years a mysterious, fatal condition had escalated around the US and then the world, killing young gay men. Kramer, as a very early activist, had campaigned vociferously for official recognition and funding to tackle this disaster. In New York, faced with the (probably closeted) Mayor Ed Koch, Kramer and his friends hit a brick wall of homophobia and fear of public reaction, that allowed deaths to soar while years passed. The Normal Heart dramatises this period of campaigning, and the disagreements among those who found themselves becoming the voice of AIDS activism. It’s a historical play, but although its meaning changes with time it continues to be a current, and relevant drama. What was originally a cry of anger is now a document of past intolerance, and a warning.

Kramer’s drama is a highly autobiographical account in which the central character, Ned Weeks – a barely disguised version of himself – founds a movement, while constantly threatening to alienate his friends. Ben Daniels bestrides the stage as Weeks, intemperate and confrontational (happy to call the Mayor a cocksucker, in City Hall) but also a charming and honest figure, who suffers for being right. His message, that casual sex is killing men, is not what those recently liberated from repression want to hear. The political conflict within the movement is set against a wider disregard and deep social unease in a city that is deeply uneasy about gay men. Kramer balances the driving anger behind the play with characters who draw us in, from closeted banker Bruce Niles (Luke Norris), always fearful of what people will think, to Mickey Marcus (Daniel Monks), threatened with dismissal by the city authorities, and Tommy Boatwright, played by Danny Lee Wynter with humour, compassion and energy. There are few allies outside the gay world apart from Liz Carr’s doctor, Emma Brookner, who bravely stands up for the people she treats in increasing numbers. There is heartbreak, as the disease claims loved ones, but also a sense of people standing up to be counted and setting the foundations for change.

The Normal Heart is being revived at a time when it feels possible to forget the struggles of a previous generation, and to imagine it could never go back to that. Of course, in many parts of the world being gay is more dangerous than ever, and the play is a strong reminder that freedoms should not be taken for granted. It also reminds us that AIDS has not gone away – far from it – with an estimated 680,000 worldwide deaths in 2020. Nor is this a drama that only matters in the US. I have never attended a play that roused audience members to shout accusations – in this case directed against the Thatcher government’s response during the same period – at the curtain call. This is raw history, not yet ready to be consigned to the past. It is also compelling drama, simply but very effectively staged by Dominic Cooke on the Olivier’s in-the-round stage, and exactly the kind of work the National Theatre exists to stage.

Still

Photo by Lara Cappelli

Still by Frances Poet – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Still, by Fringe star Frances Poet whose previous work includes Adam, has a tough job at this year’s festival. It has to deliver the new writing excitement the Traverse always supplies – but pretty much on its own, in a skeleton-thin programme. It leaves a socially distanced audience feeling they have seen something special and that the Traverse is alive and kicking despite everything. Poet channels the spirit of the city in a way that feels right for a year that has left Edinburgh unrecognisable to the summer visitor.

The play covers three overlapping stories, dealing with birth, illness and death. Each shifts between states, the curtain seperating worlds being desperately thin. Gaynor (Molly Innes) is trapped at home by chronic pain, which cuts her off from her son and daughter-in-law, Dougie (Martin Donaghy) and Ciara (Mercy Ojelade), expecting a baby. Ciara is a vet, treating a dog belonging to Gilly (Naomi Stirrat), which is dying at the same time as her father. And Mick (Gerry Mulgrew) doesn’t know where he is, late for a wedding he doesn’t remember after a hard night on Rose Street.

Still slides from reality to unreality and back again, mirroring states between life and death. It makes this seem entirely natural and theatrical, with Gerry Mulgrew as a sort of Edinburgh personification making the mundane mythic. Poet writes bravely and directly about extreme grief, but also moves from hospital bed to bar room singalong as though that’s the kind of thing plays do all the time. They definitely do not, and the ease with which she combines forms makes this an exceptional piece. It is has a lot in common with previous Traverse hits such as The Patient Gloria, which have developed an alternative, perhaps specifically Celtic, approach to theatre in which the form in which a story is told constantly surprises the audience. It is powerful, new, and it conjures the spirit of the festival all by itself.

Tunnels

Tunnels by Oliver Yellop – Army at the Fringe, Edinburgh

Army at the Fringe, for several years an unlikely addition to Edinburgh many seasonal venues, deserves serious credit for running a programme of in-person shows in a year when, understandably, very few have taken the risk. The East Claremont Street Army Reserve base makes for a very welcome temporary venue, run by highly organised territorials.

Tunnels is a response to the 60th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall, which appeared almost overnight without warning, imprisoning residents of the GDR in their own half of the city, and residents of West Berlin in theirs. Writer Oliver Yellop also stars, with Lewis Bruniges, in a two-hander set in a tunnel under the wall. The two men are digging their way towards the west and freedom. It’s a clever setting for personal and political tensions to play out, although a lot of time is taken with the constraints of digging in a confined space. It is a timely drama, both because it highlights history that is fast fading from the collective memory, at least outside Germany, and because we need live drama very much this summer. Many thanks are due to everyone who has made this happen.

Bach and Sons

Image: Manuel Harlan

Bach & Sons by Nina Raine – Bridge Theatre, London

The Bridge Theatre has secured the services of Simon Russell-Beale during the pandemic, first in A Christmas Carol and now Nina Raine’s new play about the Bach family. He is probably the most reassuring actor on the British stage at the moment, absolutely guaranteed to deliver nuanced, absorbing performances in whatever he turns his hand to. Things are still the same, at least to some extent, when S R-B is in action. Raine’s play is watchable too and an interesting attempt to create family drama and wider meaning from the peculiar dynamics of this composing dynasty. However, it does suffer from the weight of history it carries. Historical plays are tough to write, with the need to inform the audience about sequences of unfamiliar events always threatening to unbalance the action. Although Raine is always stripping her dialogue back to essential, Bach & Sons does sometimes feel like a history lesson first and foremost.

Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy in the performances of a strong ensemble. Russell Beale is charming and funny but also stubborn and curmudgeonly, in a thoroughly believable turn as the paterfamilias Johann Sebastian Bach. His family are a bunch of contrasting characters, defined the different ways in which they fail to deal with the pressure of his genius. Oldest son Wilhelm Friedmann (Douggie McKeekin) is clumsy and affectionate, but an emotional disaster zone. His brother, Carl Philipp Emanuel is a politician, but equally desperate for the approval his father will never give. Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, is beautifully played by Pandora Colin as the only person who can hold everyone together. Her successor, Anna Magdalena (Rachael Ofori) starts as a young upstart and ends up worn down by domestic pressures.

The play has some very moving scenes, including those that deal with the horrifying infant mortality that affected the family, as it did most 18th century families. The toll taken by the death of young children is delicately explored. A stand-out moment comes when Bach plays a simple melody, and the dead Maria appears to dance to it with him. The use of music in the play has to be good, and it is. The inability of the harpsichord to express emotion, unlike the new-fangled pianoforte, becomes the defining characteristic for Bach as well as his music. It is impossible to tell when Russell-Beale is and is not playing live, but he certainly gives a very good account of himself at the keyboard. A mention must also go to Pravessh Rana’s unnerving performance as Frederick the Great, a convincing portrayal of a man who inhabits an entirely different world to everyone else on stage.

Anything Goes

Image by Tristram Kenton

Anything Goes by Cole Porter – Barbican Theatre, London

Cole Porter’s Anything Goes is ridiculous – and ridiculously enjoyable show – which boasts the finest score in musicals. As soon as the title number’s patter chorus kicks in, there’s a smile on every face. If there’s anything we need now, after months sequestered from live entertainment, it’s Anything Goes. The production now playing at the Barbican comes with a heavy dose of Broadway glitter, courtesy of veteran director Kathleen Marshall and star Sutton Foster. The latter was a late replacement for Megan Mullally, who was forced to pull out, but she is so good that at times she threatens to run away with the show. This is despite an impressive supporting cast of British heavyweights. Gary Wilmot, as big businessman Elisha J. Whitney, has a limited part but uses his stage time expertly with an enjoyable over-the-top performance. Ahead of him, already over the top and racing across no man’s land is Robert Lindsay, whose middle-ranking gangster, Moonface Martin, is sublimely ridiculous. And Felicity Kendal’s dotty Evangeline Harcourt wields a small dog with aplomb.

However, it’s Sutton Foster who drives the show. She won a Tony in this part in 2011, and knows exactly what she’s doing. The high points – the rendition of the title song which turns into a no-holds-barred tap extravaganza at the end of the first half, and the second half opener ‘Blow, Gabriel, Blow’ – centre around her. She leads these full production numbers through a breathtaking sequence of company dance moves which flow across the various levels of the ocean liner set. It’s not that her fellow leads aren’t good. Samuel Edwards as Billy Crocker is charming, Carly Mercedes Dyer gets a lot of laughs as the sex-obsessed Erma, and Nicole-Lily Baisden’s stage debut as Hope reveals a lovely voice and plenty of stage presence. But Foster is something else, and a reason on her own to see this show. There are many more reasons, not least the costumes, which are lavish, the choreography, which is all-conquering, and the songs, which are unmatched. The plot is extremely silly, but it’s satire of a celebrity-obsessed culture is surprisingly current, even if the lyrics reference people long forgotten. This doesn’t matter in the slightest when the numbers include ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’, ‘You’re The Top’ and ‘It’s De-Lovely’. This is the night out we’ve all been waiting for.

Changing Destiny

Image by Marc Brenner

Changing Destiny by Ben Okri – Young Vic, London

The Young Vic is configured in the round for Changing Destiny, Ben Okri’s adaptation of a 4,000 year old Egyptian myth. This constantly shifting auditorium seems to have gathered itself around the two performers as they renact The Story of Sinuhe, from the Middle Kingdom days of the Pharoahs, one of the oldest tales of all and often seen as the ancestor of storytelling itself. The picaresque events follow royal guard Sinuhe, who feels Egypt following the assassination of Ahmenemhet I and becomes a king in the Middle East, before an eventual return to his homeland. It deals with resentment of outsiders, prowess in battle and the pain of being separated from the place where you belong, and from your spirit. Sinuhe’s spirit cannot cross the border from Egypt so, because he takes upon himself the guilt of failing to prevent the Pharoah’s murder, he chooses exile, internal and external.

Kwame Kwei-Amah stages this piece on a striking set designed by architect Sir David Adjaye. A pyramid, centre stage, is dwarfed by its inverted twin, suspended above it. Projections swirl over its surface, of shimmering deserts, starry skies and, sometimes, accusatory faces spreading rumours. It is an impressively conceptual and ambitious set, although with the occasional hint of an Imax demonstration film. The sharp pyramid’s point helps to focus the action which is necessary, because the events of Sinuhe can be a little difficult to follow. This is not the fault of the cast, Joan Iyiola and Ashley Zhangazha who, at the start, play rock/scissors/stone to determined who plays Sinuhe, and who plays his spirit and all the other characters. They are full of energy, charming performers who fill the stage heroically as they struggle across the parched desert, muck out the stables of a Syrian monarch, fight the strongest man in the kingdom in single combat, marry the princess (Sinuhe is played by Iyiola and the princess by Zhangazha at this point, which throws a whole extra level of gender confusion in the story). They deliver an entertaining evening, appreciated by an audience who are only too happy to be able to close their eyes, as invited by Iyiola, and imagine themselves beside a campfire in the desert in 2000BC.

However, it is never entirely clear why this story has been chosen for the stage, and why now. Okri is convinced it has significant contemporary resonances, but these remain somewhat general. The title he has chosen for his version emphasises the theme of existential choice and the ability of people to determine their own destiny, which Sinuhe wrestles with. The treatment of outsiders in a foreign land is also pointed up. But Sinuhe’s motivations and the wider significance of the dream-like events that form his story are opaque. We feel far away from the Ancient Egyptian world view and, as a result, the play lacks urgency. At a time of social crisis, audiences are returning to the theatre more alive than ever to its power and significance. The tale may foreshadow many themes of later literature, but this production does not make a strong enough case for us to turn our attention to this story at this time.

Lava

Photographer: Helen Murray

Lava by Benedict Lombe – Bush Theatre, London

The lava in the title of Benedict Lombe’s new, fierce, autobiographical play is anger. It flows over the stage, filling the crevasses of the set, and through Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo’s smouldering performance, which soon bursts into flame. The anger is kindled, initially, by bureaucracy – an annoying passport anomaly – but something apparently insignificant unravels a history of flight, from Congo to South Africa to Ireland to, eventually, the UK. The experience of Lombe’s family, is of being persecuted, whether by the dictator Mobutu, in the aftermath of Belgian genocide in the Congo, or by everyday racism in the streets of Britain and Ireland.

Anger at persistent, systemic racism and the crimes of colonialism has been unavoidable over the last two years. A movement has arisen, showing many people that a world they thought they understood is not what they imagined, and that under the surface of settled, western countries lie deep strata of prejudice and exploitation. The monologue has also become a very familiar format, for unavoidable reasons. However, Lombe’s work does not feel familiar, nor does it seem forced into this form. It feels deeply personal and unresolved, it feels important and urgent, and it feels new. Adékoluẹjo’s performance is exceptionally powerful and engaging. She draws the audience into her story in something of a tour de force, holding the stage with a natural ease for 80 minutes. Director Anthony Simpson-Pike fills the stage with his one performer, creating a production that feels like a show, not a monologue.

However, Lombe’s play becomes something greater than the sum of its parts when, near the end, Adékoluẹjo steps back and we hear directly from the author. Lombe herself appears on film, questioning the medium she is using to tell her story, the status of experiences as entertainment and, memorably, taking an unnamed Times reviewer to task for their description of an earlier piece as ‘more lecture than theatre’. How, asks Lombe, are black people supposed to tell their stories? Where is the space, neither theatre nor lecture hall, where they can expect to be heard? It is a powerful question and a theatrical coup, in which Lombe successfully undermines the expectations of her audience, and leaves them questioning their assumptions. Lava is a powerful play, from an author we need to hear, and a theatre that knows what needs to be staged.