The cast of Shipwreck © Marc Brenner

Shipwreck by Annie Washburn – Almeida Theatre, London

Annie Washburn’s new play is intended as a reckoning with Trump. The show pitches itself as a invitation to dinner with the 45th President, but unfortunately would be better described as an evening of meandering chat with a cast of confused New York liberals. The set-up is a snowed upstate weekend attended by three couples: two ultra-wealthy lawyers, two aging hippies and a pair who have just bought a farmhouse, and have only leftover hot dogs  in the freezer. The talk turns immediately to Trump, Jim and Teresa having arrived from helping their daughter give birth, for which she requested a “Trump-free 24 hours|. The setting is 2017, during the revelations that followed Trump’s dismissal of FBI Director James Comey. Stranded around a fire, the couples run through their disbelief, frustration and rage at the state of the country, and secrets begin to emerge. As a parallel plot strand, Mark discusses his adoption as a Kenyan baby by a white NY family, including scenes with his parents, and describes the process of understanding what slavery meant to black people in the US, and what it means to him. Finally, we get dinner with the President, as the talk is interspersed with grand guignol scenes presided over by a demonic, semi-clad Trump.

On the surface, this sounds like a compelling set of ideas, and the basis for an engaging drama, but it does not work out this way. The play is long – 3 hours – which is fine as long as the time taken seems necessary and inherent to the drama. Here it seems indulgent and, while there is plenty of sharp dialogue scattered throughout the evening, it could easily have been half the length without losing anything important. The tension simmers, very gently, below the surface of the campfire conversations, and some scenes are simply boring, especially a dialogue in which Mark reflects on a conversation with his parents about whether he is allowed MTV. It is an earnest attempt to explain the origins of the Trump mindset, but it is not clear why a stage is the place for it. The Almeida’s new, temporary revolve spins the play round on the spot, never reaching a destination.

The second half of the play breaks down into a series of monologues. Marks’s role is almost entirely speeches to the audience and, although well-written and pack an emotional punch, they seem disengaged from the rest of the play. This is not helped by an explanatory, rug-pulling twist which comes in the penultimate line of the evening, which far too late to be reorientating the audience’s perceptions of everything they have heard. The Trump scenes are also dull, which is unforgivable for carnivalesque satire. Shipwreck has a half-American, half-British cast who are uniformly excellent, including Raquel Cassidy as Jools, whose mildness finally lurches into fury, Khalid Abdalla as Yusuf, the lawyer who plays with the dark side, Justine Mitchell as Allie, whose activism is all talk, and Fisayo Akinade as Mark. However, the play is need of a serious edit, and it is frustrating that a well-intentioned attempt to skewer both the politics of populism, and the comfortable liberal assumptions that enabled it, cannot find the focus it needs.

Berberian Sound Studio


Tom Brooke in Berberian Sound Studio

Berberian Sound Studio by Joel Horwood – Donmar Warehouse, London

Berberian Sound Studio is a stage version of the 2012 film, about a repressed English sound engineer whose documentaries about rutting deer on Box Hill and the South Downs get him a gig in Rome, working on torture scenes in a Italian giallo horror production. Peter Strickland’s film was curious and strange, heavy on atmosphere, light on events and hard to forget. It is easy to see why a film set mainly in a recording studio is so  suited to the stage, and Tom Scutt has created a beautifully balanced and unusual piece of theatre.

The production values are a delight. Tom Scutt, also a designer, has created with Anna Yates a loving tribute to 1970s analogue technology, with a full-sized sound booth dominating the stage, all dark wood, tape reels and chrome switches. The sound team are dubbing a film directed by the legendary director Santini, and they gaze over the heads of the audience towards a supposed projection on the back wall. We never seen any film, but we hear everything and the sound design is a world in itself. Ben and Max Ringham create a pin-sharp soundscape in which the texture of a scream, analysed over and over, becomes compelling and thoroughly disturbing.

The casting of Tom Brooke, whose excellent stage work has often been in supporting roles, as the main character Gilderoy is a fine choice. His inability to cross the gulf between his life in Surrey with his mother and tape machines and the Gothic world of giallo is delivered with excruciating awkwardness. The play switches between moods in a disconcerting fashion from frustration and menace to choreographed comedy. Some of the best moments come when the two foley artists, Massimo and Massimo, perform increasingly elaborate sequences to accompany the film we cannot see – walking in high heels, splashing in buckets, wielding axes and chopping cabbages, all without a word.

As a sequential plot, Berberian Sound Studio doesn’t really go anywhere in particular, and this seems entirely natural, and an attempt in the dying moments to provide explanation and closure seems unneccessary.  The enclosed world of the sound stage filters the outside world, allowing Gilderoy to edit and balance reality to fit the fiction. Hints creep in of what is happening back in Surrey through his mother’s taped messages, in which the fate of a chiff chaff nest implies horror off screen, while the studio becomes a torture chamber of its own. In the end though, the sound of Gilderoy snapping celery seems more terrifying than the breaking bones it seems to represent. Scutt’s production draws the audience into its world, and keeps them there, listening.

Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train


Oberon K. A. Adjepong and Ukweli Roach in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train at the Young Vic. Photo by Johan Persson

Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train by Stephen Adly Guirgis – Young Vic, London

The hexagonal Young Vic auditorium has been split down the middle, and the stage resembles a cat walk, long and narrow, with the audience on either side. The actors are trapped in the middle, exits blocked by glass security doors that slide up and down on rollers, controlled by unseen hands. Magda Willi’s sparse set leaves no hope of escape, and no hope of avoiding judgement.

Continue reading at The Quietus…




The Lady From the Sea

Lady-From-The-Sea-Print-Room-631Pia Tjelta & Adrian Rawlins

The Lady From the Sea by Henrik Ibsen – Print Room at the Coronet, London

The Norwegian Ibsen Company has struck up a relationship with the Print Room, presenting their second show following last year’s Little Eyolf at the gorgeous Coronet Theatre in Notting Hill. The company sounds long-established but, in fact, was set up recently to fill a Royal Shakespeare Company-shaped gap in Norwegian culture. There is no arguing with more Ibsen on our stages: his plays combine dark folklore and poetry with a questioning of basic social assumptions that remains nagglingly current a century later. The Lady from the Sea, rarely performed in the UK,  is a fascinating and alluring play, but this production provides an uneven account.

We are used to European companies with distinctive styles, but The Lady From the Sea lacks a defining directorial grip. The main characteristic of Marit Moum Aune’s bi-lingual production, which features an Anglo-Norwegian version of the central family, is awkwardness. Wangel doesn’t know why his wife won’t sleep with him; Arnholm thinks his old pupil carries a torch; Bolette finds her old teacher’s attentions excruciating; Lyngstrand won’t admit he’s dying; and Hilde thinks her step-mother doesn’t love her. Meanwhile, Ellida is on pills and haunted by the call of the sea, and a darkly mythic secret. It’s a masterful picture of thwarted ambition tied up by unequal relationships, but the production – set on a beach overlooking the fjord where tourist ships come and go , leaving the inhabitants stranded – has an uneven cast, who lack the strong ensemble dynamic essential to the flow of the play.

The best performances come from Pia Tjelta as Ellida, Adrian Rawlins as Wangel, her struggling husband, and company founder Kåre Conradi (looking, coincidentally, very like his RSC counterpart, Greg Doran) as the increasingly manipulative figure of Arnholm.  Tjelta’s performance is alive and real rather than otherwordly, so her inability to resist the baleful influence of a mysterious seaman is a real shock. When she slips into subtitled Norwegian, which she does when talking of the sea, the production really catches light as an energy courses through her.  Rawlins plays Wangel, her long-suffering but controlling husband, as dishevelled, good hearted, and wrestling with himself, his demons and her impossible longing to return to the unattainable sea, other world of a life with The Stranger. Conradi is benign and white-suited, a middle aged man who gradually realises he has the power he needs over Bolette to get what he wants, and force her into marriage.

The Lady From the Sea confronts the need for liberation and mutual respect within marriage, the only way to achieve true freedom. Wangel makes a supreme effort to let Ellida go, and finds he has won her back by doing so. It is therefore ironic that his young daughter Bolette should meanwhile be compromising her own freedom, believing she can is escaping the constraints of her life while imprisoning herself in a union she does not want. The production suggests that, pulling away from Arnholm at the end, she may realise her mistake, but it is very like Ibsen to avoid a clear-cut resolution. We may free ourselves when men can accept the equal agency of women, but desire for the impossible will always be there, the belief that a different and better version of our lives calling to us from somewhere out to sea.

A Slight Ache & The Dumb Waiter


A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter – Pinter Theatre, London

The culmination of Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season, which has been a triumph, is two short plays from very early in Harold Pinter’s career both of which he directs. Not has only the production of all Pinter’s short plays provide that there is a large, enthusiastic audience for apparently difficult and oblique drama; it has also made the case that Pinter’s short drama, comparatively overlooked, should be judged on a level with his full-length plays. They include some of his best writing.

The final pairing brings together The Dumb Waiter, his third play, and his fourth, A Slight Ache, written for radio. The combination is clever, as the former is an acknowledged classic while the latter, despite a 2008 National Theatre production, is less well known. It opens the bill, in a production which ingeniously builds on its radio origins. A cut-glass couple, Edward (John Heffernan) and Flora (Gemma Whelan) are increasingly troubled by a figure standing in the lane outside their perfect, suburban house, apparently selling matches to no-one. The Matchseller, like an Ibsen character – the Button-Moulder in Peer Gynt or the Rat Wife in Little Eyolf – can only be a harbinger of death, but in Pinter’s hands the tension builds beautifully through the language of status. Edward attempts to cow the silent Matchseller with increasingly florid attempts at rank pulling and one-upmanship, including a delightful stream of elaborate drink options, delivered with an aggressively entirely out of keeping with the subject matter. Meanwhile, Flora is keen to diffuse her husband’s fixation on the grim-smelling figure, while sexually attracted to him, incorporating him into a fantasy in which he is kept as a pet. The play is deliciously dark and beautifully played. Whelan’s froideur falls apart deliciously as her life is disrupted and undermined, while Heffernan’s sense of mild disbelief at his own words channels Simon Russell Beale in the same part. Lloyd sets the play in a radio studio, with the actors recording their parts, but the increasing psychological temperature invades the recording booth, all the more effectively since we cannot see The Matchseller they are addressing, and he seems to exist only in their minds.

The Dumb Waiter is a simpler play, but devastatingly effective. It has a star cast pairing Martin Freeman and Danny Dyer as the two hitmen, waiting for instructions in the basement of a Birmingham restaurant. The casting is by no means for effect: both are absolutely right for their roles. Freeman plays Gus, the junior, nervier partner who asks a lot of questions. Dyer plays Ben, in charge but not necessarily in control. The play is a masterclass in the banality of evil, the carefully honed talk of ‘The Villa’ and ‘The Spurs’ mixing with moments of utter horror (“What a mess! They don’t hold together so well do they, women.”) Dyer plays the wannabe gangster to great effect. He has the aggression, all the poses, the neck-twitching muscularity, and his every move reveals that he is not convincing himself. Freeman is full of friendly chatter, rising panic and reasonable concerns, the kind you should definitely not be raising if you are a hitman. There are moments of genuine comedy, as the dumb waiter spits out increasingly impractical food order, and the cast tread a delicate line between tension, absurdity and the ordinary as everyone, on stage and off, gropes their way forward in the dark.


When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other

1_4Photo by Stephen Cummiskey

When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other by Martin Crimp – National Theatre (Dorfman), London

The publicity for Martin Crimp’s new play, gleefully stoked by the National Theatre, has been all about Cate Blanchett and ‘bondage’ scenes. With the chance to even book available only to winners of a ballot, it is not clear why the theatre felt it needed to brief the press about fainting audience members. This approach, and the surrounding tumescent excitement, reminiscent of the male critic-drive fuss around Nicole Kidman’s appearance in Blue Room in the 1990s, sells the performers short. It also builds expectations to unsustainable levels for what is an intriguing, but strangely disconnected and piece.

Katie Mitchell’s staging takes places in a garage, stunningly realised by Vicki Mortimer: not an elegant garage, but an entirely ordinary breeze-block and fibreboard carport, with an interior door leading to somewhere we never see. There’s an Audi parked up on stage, the setting for a number of scenes. The main performers are Blanchett and Stephen Dillane, performing twelve episodes in the coercive/consensual relationship between the unnamed pair. Nominally based on Samuel Richardson’s 18th century novel Pamela – in which a squire attempts to rape his teenage maid and eventually ‘rewards her virtue’ by marrying her – Crimp’s play seems intended to test the boundaries of what can and can’t be said and done between a man and a woman. It is all about roles, as the pair act out their relationship in front of an onstage audience – modern-day servants, who get involved in the action. They also frequently swap roles, with Blanchett playing the man and Dillane the woman. Meanwhile, the entire scenario is a performance of an unspecified kind – the garage setting is never referred to or explained.

Crimp writes in a manner rarely seen on the 21st century British stage, his formal, stylised scenes more reminiscent of Howard Barker or Edward Bond than the realism that dominates contemporary drama. While his style can often be refreshing and exciting, When We Have Sufficiently Tortured One Another falls short of his best work. Despite excellent performances from the two fine leads and the supporting cast, especially Jessica Gunning as the unexpectedly sexually confident housekeeper, it is hard to take the play seriously. The relationship between Blanchett and Dillane seems strangely old-fashioned, much more like a parody of 1970s gender roles than anything that relates to a recognisable present. A sub-strand, in which Blanchett gets what she wants from the handyman and bit-of-rough, plays like a Lady Chatterley spoof. It would  be a mistake to take the play entirely seriously in any case, and it is at its best when sliding into absurdist humour. The climactic (in both senses) scenes, involving a series of vigorous sex acts, including Cate Blanchett in an dildo from an Aubrey Beardsley drawing, are hilarious, taking on an around the Audi while the cast simultaneously delivers formal, explanatory speeches about their roles. But, although the comedy is beautifully delivered, Crimp’s testing of the boundaries, and exploration of what we would do if we were free from the constraints of gender-based expectation, has little to offer beyond the entertainment of seeing skilled performers at the top of their games.



Kompromat by David Thame – Vault Festival, London

David Thame’s two-man show, which premieres at the Vault Festival, presents a naggingly familiar scenario. A young, brilliant, naive mathematician lives alone in a London flat, looking for sex and company in gay clubs. But he has just moved from Cheltenham, an instant giveaway that he is a secret services cryptographer at GCHQ, transferred to MI6 and a target for anyone who wants to know about his work. When he takes a gorgeous young man – a ‘9’ – back to his flat, and tells him about his work in quantum computing he is already doomed.

Kompromat is a fictionalised version of the spy-in-a-bag story, the unexplained death of an M16 cryptographer found dead in a North Face bag in his Pimlico flat in 2010. The key feature of the case is that, despite the bizarre, highly publicised, circumstances no-one actually knows what happens, except presumably those who will never tell. Thame fills the huge gap at the heart of the story by telling it from the perspective of Zac (Max Rinehart), the club pick-up responsible for the death of Tom (Guy Warren-Thomas), the Williams character now lying dead on his sofa. With powerful economy, Thame spins a backstory of a shady network of Hungarian operatives, led by Zac’s ‘daddy’ Janos who keeps in a Budapest mansion, gives him presents for sex and keeps him on hand to deal with problems, such as Williams. The latter is up from the country, insecure, foolish and easy prey for smooth, ruthless operators linked, somewhat vaguely, to Russians and oligarchs.

The play is well-structured, with scenes recounting the evening leading to Tom’s death interspersed with reflection from Zac on his sinister situation and occupation. The story is engaging told, and characters are strong. However, the play is also problematic, a fiction that theorises  the tragic death of a young man whose family have never received a credible explanation. Without a detailed knowledge of the case, which is a web of misinformation, it is hard to know whether Kompromat sheds light on what happened, or simply redeploys elements of the story for dramatic effect. Certainly some aspects – the central role played by Hungarians, for example – beg more questions that they answer. The use of quantum computing – Tom’s speciality – as an human relationship metaphor – also lacks originality and seems tenuous. Thame has created a neat drama, but its explicit relationship to such a complex story, with real consequences for people who are very much alive, leaves a lingering sense that this speculative play allows the writer both to have his cake and to eat it.