Aleshea Harris’ Is God Is arrives from the US with a high reputation, and talks a good game. A hip hop, Afropunk, spaghetti Western sounds irresistible and the set up – two sisters who cross the country to avenge their mother – promises much. However, it doesn’t really live up to expectations. It starts dramatically, with a sheet of fire crossing the stage, scarring sisters Racine (Dame-Jasmine Hughes) and Anaia (Alfie Fuller) and supposedly killing their mother. Not long after she turns up, years having passed, hideously scarred, dying, and demanding her daughters avenge her by finding and killing their father and his family.
Nehassaiu deGannes’s performance as the mother (She) is a highlight. She is very funny under her enveloping bandages, making ludicrous demands of the children she’s not seen for years. However, the play only really works as a comedy, and it becomes increasingly hard to locate the laughs. As the journey progress, the characters become less amusing. The two half brothers, one arrogant the other nerdy, are less than hilarious, and a scene with a corrupt, pill-popping lawyer misfires. Meanwhile, the defining characteristic of the action becomes the scenes of ultra violence that aspire to Tarantino, but lack the comic inevitability that makes his films so watchable. There’s more to Tarantino than lots of killing, and the play feels unmoored from any social setting or reality, existing in an unreality that strips its events of any significance. There’s an Afropunk odyssey out there to be written for sure, but unfortunately this isn’t it.
A new twenty-minute play by Caryl Churchill is perhaps the most Royal Court thing, ever. It can be paired with Is God Is, running alongside it, but really twenty minutes of Churchill is all you need from an evening. Featuring two consummate actors, John Heffernan and the wonderful Linda Bassett, it is a study in focus, clarity and meaning. The main character, Someone, played by Hefferan sits at a table and talks. It emerges, from a discussion about art, reality and apples, that his partner is dead. She has been dead for some time, having taken her own life. Bassett then appears as personification of the Future, like a modern version of a Dickens ghost, harder and with no easy answers to offer. Bassett’s performance, a stream of dialogue that seems programmed into her, is a technical masterclass. She also manages to seem both appealing and disturbing unhuman at the same time. Perhaps even more alarming is Child Future (Samir Simon-Keegan) on the night I saw it, who has not happened but is bursting to get going. Churchill’s writing is honed to the bone, every word hitting home. She conjures the everyday eeriness of the supernatural, as she did in Imp, and in the process has invented a new sort of confounding horror that shakes your sense of reality to its foundations. Churchill is a genius, and our best living playwright, but you knew that already.
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 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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.