Hymn

Hymn by Lolita Chakrabati – Almeida Theatre online

In an empty Almeida, two heavyweight actors – Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani – bring serious male energy to Lolital Chakrabati’s new play about black friendship. Sapani’s Benny arrives in the lives of Gil (Lester) and his three, dominant, off-stage sisters in an unexpected and not entirely welcome manner. Gil is aloof and confident, while Benny is socially out of his depth. But, in a series of jump-cut scenes, the two hit it off in a way that could be the making of them, or their downfall.

Chakrabati, Lester’s wife, has written a play with a lot to recommend it, even if it finally lacks the level of credibility. The two characters seems a little like types rather than individuals at times, although in the hands of the two performers they are both fascinating to watch. Sapani, in particular, is excellent as a many who has rarely trusted others, but could be persuaded to trust this newcomer who is the brother he never had. The same seems to go for Gil, whose relationship with his sisters, more confident and more successful than him, combines with his father’s ambiguous legacy to leave him adrift. Benny, at first, looks like the man he’s been waiting for.

The play deals every effectively with the experience of being black and male, rather than just male, in 1980s and 90s Britain. Scenes are punctuated by black music of the era, which the two perform in various ways, including home-made karoaoke and with Sapani’s powerful voice, and delightedly reminisce over. It’s not the musical heritage we see on Top of the Pops revival show. And there are passing references, such as Benny’s memory of his boxing gym mentor, as “A bit of a racist, but he meant well.” This rings very true, and Chakrabati tells the story from a perspective that still makes only occasional appearances in the mainstream.

If Hymn is not a perfect play, it is certainly very good. The atmosphere conjured up by Lester and Sapani, two of the country’s top performers, is powerful and they bring drive, emotion and focus to the drama. The writing is nuanced and structured, and the full circle ending very affecting. And, of course, every credit must go to the production team for transferring a play scheduled when we thought theatres would be open again, on to the small screen with complete confidence. I cannot wait to be back in the Almeida, peering around a pillar, enjoying actors of the calibre of these two.

Faith Healer

Faith Healer by Brian Friel – streamed from the Old Vic

Matthew Warchus’ streamed production of Faith Healer comes at us like emanations from a ghost world. Brian Friel’s themes – the supernatural inextricably tangled with brutal reality – are eerily appropriate for the cavernous Old Vic auditorium where actors deliver exceptional, crafted performances to an empty theatre. In search of an audience, the three cast members turn their backs to the theatre’s usually creaking seats and deliver their monologues into the backstage void (a space large enough for the Royal Court to have installed a makeshift auditorium in the late 1990s when its refurbishment over-ran). Faith Healer was first streamed in the autumn, when theatres had tentatively reopened. Viewed during Lockdown 3, the heightened uncertainty about live performance lends the production an extra layer of otherwordliness as we watch a dormant profession playing out the past as though haunting the stage they once inhabited.

Faith Healer is a perfect choice for socially distanced performance. Three characters deliver four monologues. Each changes our perception of the same events, Rashomon-style, as they each give their account. Michael Sheen’s titular healer, Francis Hardy, personifies both charm and overwhelming self-doubt. He looks us in the eyes as he unpacks his mountebank life as a travelling healer, mostly a charlatan but with occasional glimpses of something special. He is an alcoholic who treats his wife, Grace, and long-suffering manager Teddy as badly as he pleases, but despite this he claims our attention because he is aware, or so it appears to us, of his own failings.

Subsequent monologues, from Indira Varma as Grace and David Threlfall as Teddy, throw a different light on Sheen’s story. Varma is broken by years of hard physical and emotional labour, touring the forgotten edges of Wales and Scotland, and her testimony is devastating as it reveals exactly what Frank left out. Her performance as a woman hanging onto the last vestiges of self delusion is heart-breakingly real. Threlfall plays a different type of character altogether, but he engaged in self delusion to an equal extent. Teddy is a threadbare entertainer, with worn-out stories of the shabby acts he managed in his supposed heyday. His tone grates at first and it takes use time to understand who he really is but Friel delivers unexpected emotional weight as Teddy is forced to drop his performance (“Dear hearts, dear hearts!”) and tell us what he really feels.

Faith Healer is a play of exceptional quality, one of three Friel wrote in the late 1970s alongside Aristocrats and Translations that cemented his reputation. Its geography is notably dark and captivating, from the litanies of Celtic place names to an emotional catastrophe that takes place at the geographical limits and, finally, a doomed, symbolic return to Ireland. Few are so successful at translating the specificity of social history into the most widely applicable of human themes, and with such apparent ease. Warchus does the play proud in very odd circumstances, making the lack of stage setting a strength as the theatre itself provides the best possible staging. It is an experience that helps to carry us through the dark times, a production born of out pandemic constraints that speaks to us right now.

A Christmas Carol

Image © Manuel Harlan

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – Bridge Theatre, London SE1

At the moment we all need the reassurance provided by signs of the familiar and the normal. Fortunately, Nicholas Hytner and the Bridge Theatre know exactly what’s required. Their production of A Christmas Carol, playing live on stage in front of an auditorium scattered, rather than packed, with delighted members of the public, is a classy treat. It is no comfort blanket though. Hytner’s show is a deceptively simple retelling that sticks close to Dickens’ text but makes well-judged use of theatrical craft and of its A-list cast to deliver something original memorable.

The start turn is, of course, the great Simon Russell Beale as Scrooge. However, this is an ensemble piece, and its success relies on the interaction between all three actors, with Patsy Ferran and Eben Figueiredo alongside. The cast slip in and out of their parts, supplying the narration that propels the story, with power and clarity. The events and characters are taken seriously, but enlivened with well-judged moments of 21st century distance that enhance rather than overwhelm. It is enough to say that anyone who has yet to see Mr Russell Beale showing his disco moves or his country dancing capabilities is in for a treat. The production conjures moments of theatrical delight, transforming Patsy Ferran into The Ghost of Christmas Past with a box that bathes her face in an unearthly light, shooting smoke jets from the stage and back-projecting scene changes on a set made of stacked trunks. It also makes the story seem new, which is not easy to achieve at the best of times and particularly this year, when this is not even the only Christmas Carol featuring Russell Beale. The production feels fresh, and returning to the original work highlights elements that do not always feature in the popular memory, not least Scrooge’s apprentice days and failure in love.

Russell Beale’s Scrooge is trapped beneath layers of concealed despair, and then delightfully frolicsome when released. Ferran is a lively presence as Bob Crachit among others, and Figueiredo is fearsome as Marley and funny as The Ghost of Christmas Present. They seem to be having fun together, and there is a powerful sense of what can happen when people come together in the same space to create. A Christmas Carol draws us all the way in, wiping much of its familiarity away and reaffirming the power of a story. It’s a great way to forget what we’re missing.

The Poltergeist

Photo: Martin Photography

The Poltergeist by Philip Ridley – Southwark Playhouse, London – online

Philip Ridley has become the master of the Gothic monologue, a play taking place in the head of a single character spewing forth a turmoil of emotion. Shining a dark light on the ordinary, Ridley creates some fantastic, demanding parts for performers. It’s a winning combination, and his long-term partnership with Southwark Playhouse, where much of his new work is premiered, is one of the delights of our time.

The Poltergeist does not disappoint, despite being forced online by Lockdown 2. In fact, it thrives in a intimate, live screening, the empty seats adding to the atmosphere of psychological collapse. Joseph Potter delivers an apparently effortless tour de force as Sasha, a young man on a trip with his boyfriend from his East London home to visit his family in the suburbs. We don’t understand at first why he hates them so much – his brother, sister-in-law, nieces – but the picture comes gradually together over the course of a co-codamol powered children’s party. Potter is excellent at creating the interactions among a room full of people for the audience, and at communicating the rising tension as Sasha’s increasingly destructive behaviour becomes impossible to ignore. Ridley’s take on family banality is funny and dark in equal measure, with enough undeniable reality to make the story just about believable as it heads into the territory of the weird.

Everyone involved deserves praise for delivering such a visceral theatrical experience remotely. Director Wiebke Green has given Potter free reign to let his considerable talent loose, while Ridley knows how to probe at the insecurities of our age like no-one else. Our remarkable possibilities come with a proportionate self-doubt and dislocation. The Poltergeist is part of a body of work that tells a rich and strange story. When reviewers look back at early 21st theatre to understand the time and its neuroses, Ridley’s work will supply them with most of the answers.

N A K E D

Image: Alberto Romano Photography

N A K E D by NAKEDpresents – Cockpit Theatre, London – online

N A K E D is a powerful, funny and thoroughly engaging piece of physical theatre. It is the first show from performers Luke Vincent and Paige-Marie Baker-Carroll of the NAKEDpresents queer collective, but they have been developing it since drama school. Wordless, N A K E D blends techniques often usually associated with European theatre with pure contemporary dance, to explore the nature of close relationships, in a way that feels particularly relevant to a year that many couples have spent together, for better or for worse.

Vincent and Baker-Carrol perform throughout almost naked, emerging at the start from a plastic wrap cocoon that binds them together, creating an image that is both beautiful and alarming, as they struggle to free themselves. They perform in various styles, including mime, acrobatics and dance. A stand-out scene involves Baker-Carrol bearing Vincent’s full weight as he stands on her back while she rises from lying to standing, transferring him to her shoulders. It is both nicely symbolic and properly thrilling. The soundtrack is eclectic and enjoyable, from Jacques Brel to Radiohead via the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At one point recorded interviews discuss what is feels like to share a bed with someone else.

The performance is very intimate, as both using their bodies to express the tides, nuances, conflicts and dependencies of being close to another human being. The pure expressiveness of their work is exceptional on the British stage, and it is no surprise that they have both studied and performed in Europe. They are so cool that I assumed at first they were Belgian or Polish. In fact, they are very much themselves. N A K E D have produced exactly the sort of show you would be delighted to find at the Edinburgh Festival, probably at Summerhall. Their work is original, charming and distinctive, and they two engaging, remarkable performers just starting out on what should be fascinating journey.

Crave

Photo: Marc Brenner

Crave by Sarah Kane

Chichester Festival Theatre livestream

Crave is a tough play to watch at the best of times. Four characters, connected by different forms of despair, stand in a row and speak, but never to one another. They express deep frustration with themselves and with other people. They declare themselves to have done appalling things, or to have suffered from such things at the hands of other people. The characters have no names or genders in Kane’s script: they are A, B, C and M (the latter perhaps a Book of Common Prayer reference, “What is your name? N or M?” – Crave also quotes from the Bible and Shakespeare), and there are no stage directions.

The themes of physical as well as emotional separation make it an ideal play for socially distanced performance. There aren’t many four-handers with no contact whatsoever between cast members. Tinuke Craig’s production at Chichester played live in the main theatre each night, but was forced online by Lockdown 2. From the depths of a dark auditorium, Crave beams over the wifi into living rooms, bringing with it a powerful sense of discomfort and a strong reminder of theatre\s ability to envelop us, even from a distance.

Craig’s designer, Alex Lownde, has located the play on four treadmills, which put the four actors in motion on individual paths, which will always return them to where they began. The cast is excellent. It’s always a pleasure to see Jonathan Slinger on stage, and he makes a self-declared paedophile a character who, although we don’t understand him, we are willing to listen to. Erin Doherty is equally prominent, as a tortured abuse victim. Wendy Kweh and Alfred Enoch weave in their own dark, disconnected stories. In Crave, Kane substitutes psychological horror for the physical violence of her earlier work, and it is clear she is a poet. The quality of her writing is what makes this dark litany watchable, and leaves it lurking in our minds for days and weeks afterwards, deep into a dark November, without having sought permission.

Uncle Vanya

Photographs: Johan Persson

Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov – Harold Pinter Theatre (filmed)

Cut off in its prime in March, Ian Rickson’s Uncle Vanya returns to us from an empty theatre, filmed for cinema release. It begins with very brief shots of the cast arriving in street clothes and masks and putting on their costumes, ending as they drop out of character, hug one another and put out the candles. These subtle inserts are very moving in their ordinariness, but in between we are transported somewhere far from Covid. Rae Smith’s cavernous, dilapidated interior sucks us into the world of Chekhov’s dysfunctional, worn out family and their terrible inability to be happy.

As Vanya, Toby Jones is the heart of the play. It’s a part that could have been written for him, and he is absolutely superb. He moves from frustrated ennui to complete desperation over four acts, as he sees more and more clearly how he has wasted his life. Yet he shows flashes of the with and playfulness that, until recently, made him the pillar of the household, with both his niece Sonya and sister-in-law Yelena. And his is also ridiculous, with an inflated idea of his lost potential (“I could have been another Schopenhauer!”). Teetering along an incredibly thin line between tragedy and farce, Jones captures the part completely.

Uncle Vanya has slightly more comedy than later Chekhov. When Vanya tries to shoot the infuriatingly condescending Professor (Roger Allam, pompous but not ridiculous in a fine performance), he despairs that everyone now thinks him mad. “They just think you’re an idiot”, Astrov tells him. However, this makes the sadness all the more real. A cast of unfulfilled characters drift around the superannuated Professor Serebryakov, looking at him to give their lives meaning and being inevitably disappointed. Rosalind Eleazar makes Yelena, the stranded young wife, very moving behind a reserved front that only breaks down at the very end. Anna Calder-Marshall and Peter Wight are impeccable as the two ageing retainers, completely dependent on their chaotic employers. Dearbhla Molloy uses her low key presence, as Vanya’s mother, to deliver a miniature study of a woman marginalised by her gender. Richard Armitage captures both Astrov’s enthusiasm for abstract ideas, and his inability to relate to real people, which makes him the most destructive character of all.

The play does offer a bleak sort of hope, and most of this is carried by Sonya, played by the disarmingly direct Aimee Lou Wood. Despite being the youngest character, and the worst treated, she projects a genuine love for the wider family and for Vanya in particular. The final scenes, in which she and Vanya make a pact to carry on despite their shared rejection and unhappiness, is very moving. The reward she pictures for both of them in heaven is both the most desperate fantasy of all, and the most necessary.

Living With the Lights On

Image © Simon Annand

Living with the Lights On by Mark Lockyer – Golden Goose Theatre, Camberwell, London

Mark Lockyer’s lead performance in the RSC’s 2016 production of the Alchemist was a tour de force, full of humour and suppressed violence. He had not appeared on a Stratford stage for 20 years, and this one man show is the story of what happened in between. Lockyer, playing Mercutio in Adrian Noble’s 1995 Romeo and Juliet, was both cocky and on the point of collapse. He saw the Devil (who asked to be called Beeze, short for Beelzebub) in a field by the River Avon. Everything spiralled entirely out of control and, after attempting suicide, dousing himself in petrol on York Racecourse and setting his girlfriend’s flat on fire, he ended up in Belmarsh.

Lockyer’s performance is brave and compelling. His stage presence is edgy, and he issues instructions on toilets, phones and so before he begins which, you suspect, it would be sensible to obey. His account of what happened to him before he eventually received treatment for undiagnosed bipolar disorder, is extraordinary personal and harrowing. He spares himself nothing, laying his appalling, destructive behaviour towards anyone who entered his orbit bare. However, what lodges longest in the mind is his account of what happens to those suffering from severe mental health problems in Britain. Understanding and kindness is everywhere, but so is arrogance and incomprehension and the system, at least in the ’90s, was brutal unless you’re lucky enough to meet the right people.

Lockyer’s show, which has played successfully around the country, is fascinating and chilling. It makes his performance in The Alchemist all the more remarkable – a real triumph. Huge praise is also due to the Golden Goose Theatre, a new Camberwell pub space which opened last week, at a the toughest time for theatre since the Civil War. Anyone who opens a theatre now is probably a little mad, but is definitely some kind of hero. Well done to the Goose, and to Mark Lockyer for getting in there first.

A Strange Romance / A Trivial Dispute

A Strange Romance & A Trivial Dispute by Ian Dixon Potter – White Bear Theatre, London

The White Bear Theatre in Kennington, despite its typical pub theatre size (tiny) is carrying on as though the 2020s had never happened, staging a deluge of new writing to a small, socially distanced audience. It’s both a treat and an eerie experience to enjoy such a complete experience of past normality, a harbinger we must hope of what will return.

Ian Dixon Potter’s Tales of the Golden Age is a cycle of apparently unrelated one-person shows, monologues which show an admiral inventiveness. These two plays, from a wider repertoire of monologues written in lockdown, address current concerns through single characters. A Strange Romance, performed by Tom Everatt, is a condensed version of Dixon Potter’s play ‘Boy Stroke Girl’. It looks at whether it’s possible to fall in love with someone without knowing their gender, or caring what it is. As an intellectual exercise this is fascinating, but it is undermined by characterisation. Peter, a mechanic who falls for someone called only ‘Blue’, gives the impression of being nice but very dim, which leaves us with the impression, apparently unintended, that he is being manipulated both by his doubting/bigoted mates and by Blue, whose every wish is law.

A Trivial Dispute performed by Neil Summerville, delivers a stronger, more convincing character in Trevor, Purley born and bred, a millionaire three times over, owner of the third largest tanning salon chain in East Surrey and lover of classic cars (British only). Trevor has a certain amount of Alan Partridge about him but, as we gradually discover, is a lot angrier. Dixon Potter has written a biting but never bitter parody of the conservative, flag-waving, Brexit supporter threatened by anything different to him – especially foreign cars, intellectuals, women and people who aren’t white. The Croydon borders setting is very convincing with and the action set in the fictional Blackleafe, a flipside version of real life Whyteleafe. Summerville is excellent, elicting a certain amount of sympathy for Trevor, whose complaints of being looked down upon ring true despite his beleaguered outlook. His confession careers comically and inevitably towards disaster, like a Midsummer Murders plot gone wrong, a cleverly, lightly written combination of tragedy and farce.