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 story is told constantly surprises the audience. It is powerful, new, and a festival in 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.

Under Milk Wood

Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas adapted by Siân Owen – National Theatre: Olivier

The National Theatre’s staging of Under Milk Wood is far from the first time Dylan Thomas’ poem has been adapted for the stage. It’s easy to see the temptation to perform a work so packed with characters, drifting through a strange, semi-mythical setting encountering one another. Siân Owen’s adaptation puts a framing narrative around Thomas’ work, setting the performance in a care home and positioning the poem as the memories of the elderly residents brought to life by Michael Sheen’s Owain Jenkins, visiting his father. This is a partial success. The fraught relationship between father and son seems a distraction from the poem itself, which is what everyone has come to see. However, when the care home residents transform into the curious residents of Llareggub there is a definite thrill.

Michael Sheen is in his element as the narrator, making Thomas’ much-loved words his own and banishing memories of Richard Burton with a performance that brings the world around him to life. He appears to conjure the characters up, summoning them like a Welsh Prospero and becoming sucked into their lives and the place they inhabit. Under Milk Wood is almost a Welsh national text, part-incantation, part-social history, part-tall tale. If you stop to think too hard about Thomas’ writing, the piece seems increasingly odd. The tone veers wildly from lyric to intensely dark – a character who dies drinking disinfectant, for example – and includes a number of women whose portrayals seem distinctly odd. It’s also hard to follow, at times, the sequence of characters and events, and the evening tends to blur away into a general atmosphere. But that is what Thomas was so good at creating, and his descriptive sense cannot be challenged.

Sheen leads a fine cast, alongside the great Siân Phillips, always a pleasure to see on stage, Anthony O’Donnell as the blind Captain Cat, Karl Johnson as Sheen’s father, and many others. Lyndsey Turner’s staging is varied and inventive, playing neat tricks with clever moments, including quick-change cloths whisked from tables, leaving plates and cups untouched. Towards the end, Alan David and Michael Elwyn as Mr Pritchard and Mr Ogmore emerge, eyes glowing like werewolves, to be ordered about by their widow, Mrs Ogmore Pritchard. The Olivier has been reconfigured in the round, which works remarkably well. It seem as though the theatre has been trying to take on this shape since it opened in the late 70s. The shift may be mostly due to Covid, and the need to spread the audience out, but the end result is a newly democratic feel. Under Milk Wood is in most respects a treat to watch, and the return of the National Theatre flagship space is an important phase in the slow crawl towards normality, people gathering in front of stage to watch some of the country’s best actors speaking immortal lines.

Happy Days

Photo: Helen Maybanks

Happy Days by Samuel Beckett – Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, London

Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days is, as Lisa Dwan observes, often described as ‘the female Hamlet’. Dwan has played every other female Beckett lead but even she was intimidated by a role previously inhabited by Peggy Ashcroft, Brenda Bruce, Fiona Shaw, Juliet Stevenson among others. It is understandable. Happy Days, first performed in 1961, is a mighty play, and 60 years later still unlike anything you’ve seen. Famously buried up to her waist and then neck in the earth, Winnie determinedly makes the best of a situation that could hardly, conceivably, be any worse. Her husband, Willie, lives in a hole just out of her and our sight and is responsible, at least indirectly, for Winnie being trapped in the earth. The play, therefore, has almost no conventional movement and barely any dialogue, as Willie hardly speaks. All we have is Winnie, her bag of necessities, and her words.

Happy Days is perfect piece of theatre because it defies all conventions about what is staged and why, panders to nobody, and is one of the most absorbing and significant plays every written. Beckett seamlessly merges satire, comedy and profound drama, often in the same sentence. Winnie relentlessly keeps up appearances, holding the wilderness at bay with her endless talk: “There is so little one can say, one says it all. All one can. And no truth in it anywhere.” Her struggle is absurd, but also deeply admirable. Along the way she delivers a history of Western thought with partially remembered quotes from philosophers, notes the passersby who commented that someone should dig her out, tries to keep the bitterness out of her feelings about Willie, becomes more and more drawn to the loaded gun in her bag and, eventually, goes down singing.

Lisa Dwan may have a lot to contend of history to contend with, but her experience with Beckett means she is more than ready for the role. No-one wants to take their eyes off her, as her brittle cheeriness and absorption in the domestic trivialities of the wilderness in the play’s first half becomes something even more terrifying. Dwan focuses her performance into hallucinatory scenes of childhood terror, where her howls seems to come straight from the abyss. She is utterly convincing, not easy when you spend the entire play in a logically impossible position. Yet we believe that she really is capable of ignoring her situation, and concentrating on what matters, at least to her. Trevor Nunn’s production allows her the freedom to make the role her own and she does, triumphantly.

The Riverside Studios in Hammersmith have a strong connection with Beckett, who directed there himself. It is a post-lockdown pleasure to finally visit their new space, which is finally complete after a long period of closure for a complete rebuild. Inevitably, it is now topped with riverside flats, but the theatre and cinema spaces seem well-designed and in the spirit of the old place. The theatre is a black box, absolutely right for the Riverside, but a big, modern one. It promises a new era of experimental theatre. If Happy Days is any indication of what’s to be staged here, this will be the place to come once again.

Tarantula

Tarantula by Philip Ridley – Southwark Playhouse, online

Philip Ridley, king of the monologue, has maintained his remarkable productivity for Southwark Playhouse during lockdown. Tarantula is his second new play of the past year, after The Poltergeist which premiered in a streamed version last November. Tarantula, which is also streamed, is characterised by the same queasy, urban normality, which is always, in Ridley’s work, built on sand. Anything and everything can collapse without warning, with a stomach-dropping lurch and the closer you feel to a character, the more it’s going to hurt. Georgie Henley plays Toni, a typical East London teenager, short on confidence but meeting her first boyfriend, having a first kiss. Revealing what transforms her from this into a teeth-grindingly manic wall of positive mantras, motivational statements and “being the best you can” would be a spoiler, but it is not pleasant.

Ridley delights in the thinness of our veneers, so vulnerable to deep marks left by casual encounters, which will never be covered over. This breaking through the surface and revealing of something much less civilised is the key to the great parts he writes. Henley, performing for over 100 minutes without an interval, pulls off the kind of technical tour de force that, in a different generation, was remarkable. Ridley has written so many of these parts that we take them a little for granted, but Henley does an excellent job lulling us with a very convincing picture of a teenage girl, and her family, and a disturbing version of a gym instructor, perma-grin plastered across her face, patronising to a staggering degree, and able only to exist in a fantasy bubble. She is highly watchable, and we must hope she gets onto the Southwark’s physical stage very soon, but on camera she projects a great deal of energy

Tarantula is perhaps simpler than some of Ridley’s other work and, therefore, lacking an element of uncertainty. It’s always clear what’s going on, because we can see right through Toni’s delusion. However, it is full of images that stick, and uncompromising in the way it makes us focus on the things we really do not want to consider. It is clear-eyed, charming and nasty: unmistakably a Philip Ridley play, and a show that keeps the bar high for essential new writing at Southwark Playhouse.