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.

 

 

 

 

Downstate

AR-181009532.jpg&updated=201810041039&imageversion=Facebook&exactH=630&exactW=1200&exactfit=crop&noborderFrancis Guinan, K. Todd Freeman and Tim Hopper. Image by Michael Brosilow

Downstate by Bruce Norris – National Theatre: Dorfman

In a co-production with Chicago’s Steppenwolf and the National Theatre, Downstate is a quietly, utterly, absorbing play about child abuse. Bruce Norris, previously best known for race drama Clybourne Park takes on social taboo issues without a pause. The premise – a victim visits his abuser in a group house for men who have served prison sentences for child abuse – sounds unwatchably grim, but the reality is entirely different. Norris handles material and character with a confidence that is a delight to watch, even when the subject matter is ostensibly horrific. This is his point: the demonisation of child abusers as indescribably evil has created draconian laws, at least in the US, that control people for the rest of their lives but protect no-one. Understanding that convicted abusers are individuals provides much more insight into what they have done, why and whether they will do it again. This perspective is balanced but hardly popular , but Norris convinced with a set of characters who are feel entirely real and, for the most part, deeply banal.

The supposed face of evil is aging abuser Fred, played with exceptional subtlety by Francis Guinan. Andy (Tim Hopper) was abused by Fred as a boy, and arrives to seek some sort of closure. He has a script, but reality doesn’t follow scripts and his attempts to have his say keep tipping into farce. The group house – a fine set by Todd Rosenthal recreating institutional decor in minute detail – is shared with men who have committed different types of crime: Dee (the remarkable K. Todd Freeman) with one of the Lost Boys in a touring Peter Pan, Felix ( Eddie Torres) with his daughter, and the intolerable, self-righteous Gio (Glenn Davis) with an underage girl. The various levels of defiance and repentance play out, but accept these people as real because Norris’ dialogue is masterful – subtle, unshowy and completely confident. His presentation of real life through unstylised dialogue is similar to the work of Annie Baker.

The company, with both US and British actors, is flawless. Cecilia Noble as harassed probation officer Ivy, left to manage an unmanageable situation, nearly steals the show and deserves a separate play about her character. Aimee Lee Wood delivers a very funny cameo as manic Staples employee Effie, and Matilda Ziegler provides a remarkable exhibition of middle class entitlement as Andy’s wife Em. Innocence and victimhood is another concern for Norris, who probes  arguments around the unquestionable status of the victim. Andy’s self-righteousness is important to the play’s structure, leading us into sympathy with the convicted villains, but it doesn’t change what happened to him. Norris is an expert at confronting the audience with thoughts it would prefer to avoid, and Downstate makes us question our easy assumptions about people we see as ‘other. Pam MacKinnon’s production delivers an evening of the highest quality, a play that asks the most difficult questions.

 

Cyprus Avenue

Cyprus_avenue_royal_court_stephen_rea_chris_corrigan-113Chris Corrigan and Stephen ReaImage by Pete Jones.

Cyprus Avenue by David Ireland – Royal Court Theatre, London

David Ireland’s 2018 Edinburgh hit Ulster American took up where his previous success, Cyprus Avenue, left off, exploring post-Good Friday Agreement Irishness through the medium of heroically offensive comedy. It was the best new play for a long time, probably since Cyprus Avenue first played at the Royal Court in 2016. Now the latter is back, giving audiences another chance to see exactly what caused such as stir. Judging by the exclamations of horror as the full blackness of Ireland’s comedy unfolded, plenty of people won’t be forgetting this in a hurry.

The premise is ludicrous: as ludicrous, in fact, as the Troubles. Eric (Stephen Rea) is convinced that his baby granddaughter looks like “dirty aul’ Fenian fucker” Gerry Adams. He puts tiny glasses on her and draws a marker pen beard to test his theory. Eric is not best pleased with the supposed resemblance because he is from East Belfast and, although he may claim not to hate Catholics, he definitely hates Fenians – none more so than Gerry Adams. Meanwhile, his wife and daughter think he is insane and his therapist questions his fundamental identity. Then things go really, really wrong.

Ireland’s play is a wicked satire on the ideas held sacred by both sides during the conflict. He strips the contradictions of Northern Ireland Protestant identity bare – Eric is definitely not Irish… he’s British… but he starts to lose it when he wonders whether he might not be Irish after all. Meanwhile, in London, the centre of the Empire, everyone pretends to be Irish and spends their time drinking the dark stuff in O’Neill’s. Ireland spares no-one, British or Irish, Catholic or Protestant. Eric is an absurd figure but also a terrifying one, a a casualty of a brutal war that is over but has spread trauma in its wake. Stephen Rea’s performance is a masterclass, and the play belongs to him. He brings a slightly shambling physicality Eric, showing him to be broken without knowing through small things like the way he holds his shoulders. Despite his absurd behaviour, he is entirely believable.

Vicky Featherstone stages the play expertly on the beige carpet of the therapist’s office, designed by Lizzie Clachan, which becomes irrevocably stained as the truth comes out. Ireland’s writing pays tribute to theatrical history – a key moment recalls a notorious Edward Bond play performed on the same stage more than fifty years ago – and Cyprus Avenue is also reminiscent of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Ireland writes the same savage comedy, and has the same ability to make audiences laugh in horror, but has time has moved on. Eric cannnot, and the world has left him a long way behind. Cyprus Avenue uses shock tactics to show us the horror within, but it is a comedy with depth, perceptiveness and a touch of genius.