The Incident Room

The incident Room Production photos.

The incident Room Production photos.

The Incident Room by Olivia Hirst and David Byrne – New Diorama Theatre, London

The grinding, five-year Yorkshire Ripper investigation was an essentially a filing problem. At the very end of the pre-computer age, even the largest inquiry team ever assembled could not find the answer, hidden all along in the mountains of data. Instead, West Yorkshire Police went through a  collective breakdown that laid the bare the failings of the 1970s social order, particularly the treatment of women, as brilliantly documented in Gordon Burn’s book ‘Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son’. The Incident Room, acclaimed at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe, takes us into the claustrophobic Millgarth Incident Room at the heart of the case, where the horrifying, and bizarre real life drama played out.

The play, devised by the whole cast, focuses on Megan Winterburn, an investigating officers and one of the first women on the West Yorkshire force. Hers is a story based on real life, just like the rest of the drama, and we eventually discover she went on to hold senior rank. In 1975, though, she is an overlooked for promotion in favour of inferior male colleagues, her contributions are overlooked and she is asked to do the typing. Her position in the force reflects the situation outside, where the police only start to take Peter Sutcliffe’s brutal murders seriously when he beings attacking ‘innocent women’ rather than prostitutes. As the killings continue and public panic grows, Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield loses his perspective and makes disastrous decisions, driven by personal obsession. Women take the brunt and are subjected to a police curfew to keep them safe rather than, as is pointed out, the men who might attack them. The exponential growth of information that packs out the set, made principally of a floor-to-ceiling filing stack, represents the staggering proportion of men in the north using prostitutes.

Simply recounting the events of the time is fascinating. It is a time that seems stranger and further away by the moment. However, in Beth Flintoff and David Byrne’s production, The Incident Room does much more than that. A strong ensemble cast drives the show forward. Charlotte Melia, as Meg Winterburn, is on stage throughout – a strong, sympathetic pivot for the evening. Colin R. Campbell is excellent as the beleaguered Oldfield whose arrogant tips him over the edge. Kay Brittan puts in a pair of show stealing performances as an investigator and a victim – Maureen Long, the only person to survive an attack – who is tiny, fierce and heartbreakingly lost.  The writing is sophisticated, explicitly avoiding simplistic judgements and leaving the audience space to see the layers. Meg is dogged by a female journalist – played by Natasha Magigi – who constantly questions her decision to work within a failing, male-led system. The play frames events as a retelling, many years later, allowing Meg to ask why she didn’t question the way she was treated at the time, as the Hollywood version would have it.

The Incident Room is not only dramatic and engrossing – recreating the fevered claustrophobia of the time – but also multi-layered and satisfying drama, a proper assessment of a story that gripped, terrified and obsessed the nation. This excellent production confronts our dark past head on.

 

I, Cinna

img_1085Photo by Helen Murray

I, Cinna (The Poet) Write a Revolution by Tim Crouch – Unicorn Theatre, London

Tim Crouch has developed a line in one-man shows based on characters from Shakespeare show do not get their dues. I, Cinna is his fifth and is based on the character who, perhaps, has the toughest time of all. Cinna (the poet), has a single scene in Julius Caesar in which he is mistaken for Cinna (the conspirator) and murdered by a blood-thirsty mob. He is, as Crouch puts it, in brackets. This unpromising material quickly becomes a multi-layered exploration of the power of words and writing, the influence of rumour and social media, and the question of whether the poet has a duty to be politically engaged.

Crouch’s performance as the anxious poet, who wears a ‘This is what a poet looks like’ t-shirt, is subtle and highly persuasive. He draws the audience into his attempts to write an explanation of the charged political events outside his front door as Caesar offered the crown of a republic. The small things (“Mark Antony – with no ‘h’. What’s that about?”) combine with the unstoppable flow of events that we know will lead to his death, even if he does not. As footage of street violence is projected onto a huge sheet of crumpled paper, Cinna fills a wastepaper bin with discarded drafts as he fails to find his subject.

The familiar events from Shakespeare unfold on his laptop and phone, in a manner that is both dramatic and  entirely credible without straining for relevance. Cinna enjoys the Soothsayer’s online column, which warns about the Ides of March. He is amused by the reports of chaos the night before (“The graves opened up, thrusting up  their dead? No way!”). Then the ‘Breaking News’ alerts start to ping, as he sees live footage of Caesar’s assassins steeping their hands in blood, and Mark Antony winning over the crowd. Cinna is a republican, and his dismay when Antony’s propaganda works propels him outside to his scripted doom.

Cinna finds his subject, but so do we. Crouch uses audience participation in a sparing but effective way, giving us all a notebook and pencil and instructing us to write. It would give away too much to say what he asks, but the audience is asked to look into its soul in a way that is surprising, and revealing. The production, directed by Naomi Wirthner, is a small masterpiece of unshowy writing and performance that is some of the best small-scale theatre of its time, equally satisfying to audiences of young people and adults. Crouch makes theatre that punches way above its weight, and I, Cinna cuts to the heart of what it is to have a voice, and to decide how to use it.

Far Away

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Simon Manyonda and Jessica Hynes

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Aisling Loftus and Simon Manyonda

Far Away by Caryl Churchill – Donmar Warehouse, London

Caryl Churchill wrote Far Away in 2000 and, 20 years on, it feels more current by the moment. This is truth both of its setting – an unnamed dystopian location outside an identifiable time – and to its themes of oppressive, authoritarian governments who place people in opposition to one another, and to the natural world. At only 45 minutes and six scenes, Churchill does not waste a moment, making every word tell.  The precision of her writing burns each scene into the mind and, by saying only what is necessary, she leaves wide open spaces beyond the stage to be filled by the imagination.

Lyndsey Turner’s direction and Lizzie Clachan’s design deliver moments of low key but devastating emotional impact. The entire play emerges from under a menacing steel box which lifts, lowers and lifts again to reveal new sets beneath. Apart from being technically very impressive, this containment reflects what seems to be going on beyond what we can see on stage. The play covers three time periods. A woman called Harper (Jessie Hynes) tries to shield her young niece Joan who has questions about the terrible things she has seen her uncle doing, involving children, cages and blood. Two milliners – Todd (Simon Manyonda) and the now grown-up Joan – are new colleagues. There is sexual tension and discussion of working condition before we see, in a devastating reveal, the context for their work. And finally, Harper, Todd and Joan are together and Joan is on the run, from a baffling realignment of nature in which nature has turned on people and formed alliances. Rivers may not or may not be on ‘our’ side, crocodiles are in alliance with the Latvians and dentists cannot be trusted. It is, in equal measure, funny and horrible.

The Donmar’s production is pitch perfect, with an intensity of focus that spotlights the universal elements in this dark story. While the scenarios play out ‘far away’, it is terrifyingly clear how this could be a portrait of our own future. The issues of our time, from the imprisonment of children to the collapse of our relationship with the natural world, are all in this darkly prescient work. Churchill writes her characters with a complete naturalism, enhanced by the performances which are uniformly excellent. This makes the strange context in which they find themselves all the more believable. Churchill’s writing is only now coming into its own as new creatives discover what she has left for them to find. This production is a mesmerising account of a play with a disturbing amount to tell us.

People Show 137

SB-People137Show-142 ©SheilaBurnettMark Long, Emil Wolk, George Khan, Bill Palmer. Photo: Sheila Burnett

People Show 137: God Knows How Many by People Show – Southwark Theatre, London

Longevity is the key to People Show. The numbering system tracking their performance history back to People Show 1 (1966) makes it the headline. The experimental theatre tradition that feeds their creativity involves physicality music and inventive stagings scraped together from very little. Their survival is, in itself, remarkable but the rationale for this most veteran of companies is live performance. The old shows are not forgotten, but they are gone, and the only thing that matters has to be what you are watching right now. It’s a curious tension and, despite their attempts to embrace age and change, God Knows How Many has the feeling of a show from a different time.

The two main performers are Mark Long, who has been involved with People Show from the very beginning, and two very long-term collaborators in Emil Wolk and George Khan. The show is delivered in sketch-like conversations and scenes with a pleasantly off-kilter atmosphere. An impressive animatronic doll opens with a chanson, Wolk as a customer in a French cafe has a prickly conversation with its proprietor (Long in a waitress costume), George Khan plays saxophone at a cabaret with the others on brass. And it is in French, or at least Franglais. People Show, it becomes clear, are performing at the behest of their big tobacco sponsors who make irrational demands and fine them for transgressions. Meanwhile, they are wrestling with the depredations of age, and can no longer perform their definitive gymnastic set-piece, the ‘Umsty Bumsty’, while a sinister tennis ball keeps dropping above bringing forebodings of death.

There is no lack of inventiveness in the evening, and the company have an admirable ability to conjure moments that capture the audience’s attention, and to deliver about turns that keep the audience intrigued. However, there is little sense that this show is urgent or current. It is a very male-dominated enterprise with the exception of the animatronic chanteuse, complete with with jokes about sexy ladies and sex crimes, and a strange digression on Whitney Houston based around mispronouncing her name as ‘Wendy’. These skits feel tired, and the jazzy musical interlude has surely not been seen on a fringe stage for many a decade. While People Show 137 has dark 21st century corporate influence in its sights, it feels too unfocused and too caught up with in-jokes to hit its targets.

 

 

Richard III

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Richard III by William Shakespeare – Sam Wanamaker Theatre, London

Seeing Richard III the night after the Globe’s Henry VI is quite a contrast. While the valiant efforts of Sean Holmes and Ilinca Radulian to wrangle two parts of the Henry VI saga into one evening do not entirely succeed, their production of Richard III is irreverent and full of ensemble energy. The play is better than the Henrys – more coherent and focused, with a towering, magnetic figure in the legendarily evil king. Legend is indeed what this is – the portrayal of Richard a shameless Tudor propaganda exercise – and this production gleefully presents the play as grotesque caricature, Sophie Russell’s Richard bounding from one unbelievable act to the next, daring the audience to follow. Russell comes into her own with a thoroughly watchable yet nuanced performance exploring Richard’s many moods, from honeyed dissembler to brutal dictator.

The eclectic mix of costumes, colour-coded to indicate York or Lancaster, is continued from Henry VI but less as a device to keep track of events and more part of the deep black comedy that drives the show. When Clarence is murdered, with excruciating delay, his two killers strip to reveal shirts marked ‘Murderer 01’ and ‘Murderer 02’. Richard himself adorns his body with fashions – all-white outfits – which become increasingly outré as he appears at the scene of the many killings he orders, crooning Kris Kristofferson’s ‘For The Good Times’, as a cowboy and as Elvis (shades of Rupert Goold’s influential 2000s Vegas Merchant of Venice at Stratford). The deaths themselves are hilariously awful – Clarence is stabbed to death at great length with a pair of scissors, others suffocated with plastic bags or smothered in the thick earth blanketing the stage. Later, the only way to deal with the body count is to cover the entire stage and back wall in plastic sheeting.

Sophie Russell is excellent, but this by no means a one-woman show. Steffan Donnelly reprises his unnerving Queen Margaret from Henry VI, this time lurching around with a shopping bag full of body parts. Jonathan Broadbent’s Buckingham, a bureaucrat swept off his feet by Richard, is both amusing and dark, as he realises much too late what he has done. The horror of Colin Hurley’s Hastings is all apparent as he is comprehensively outmanoeuvred. Sarah Amankwah is both a fearful, petulant Edward IV and an all-seeing Duchess of Gloucester. Philip Arditti and Donnelly pull off a hilarious double act as the two numbered murderers. Murderer-in-chief, though, is John Lightbody whose Sir Richard Ratcliff, who lurks in the shadows, carrying his bag of tools and wearing an oddly sinister, too-tight velvet suit – both funny and very nasty, and an interesting contrast with his reflective Clarence. The cast cover multiple roles, which is cleverly used at the end when Lightbody and Matti Houghton transform from Richard’s henchmen back to their previous roles as his murdered brother and wife.

The Globe’s Shakespeare history cycle goes out with a bang, as the eclectic production style comes together to deliver a Richard III that succeeds in delivering maximum entertainment, a production full of ideas and clever touches and a set of performances that hold the audience rapt for two and half hours.

Henry VI

5090Steffan Donnelly and Jonathan Broadbent in Henry VI. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Henry VI by William Shakespeare – Sam Wanamaker Theatre, London

The three parts of Henry VI can be both compelling and frustrating, containing the best and worst of Shakespeare often in quick succession. Modern directors have often felt the need to apply heavy edits to render them suitable for audiences, beginning with the RSC’s early 1960s Wars of the Roses cycle which condensed the plays into two – Henry VI and Edward IV. For the Globe’s histories cycle, co-directors Sean Holmes and Ilinca Radulian has gone one further, giving us everything in a single evening. In fact, he achieves this by dropping Part One in its entirety, probably a wise decision as it is the weakest of the three parts. It is not missed, despite the absence of the rose plucking scene that kicks off the conflict. However, this radical surgery does not entirely succeed in making what remains any more effective or easier to follow.

Holmes and Radulian’s production is gleefully bloodthirsty, but these moments are played more for comic effect than for the sheer horror than washes over the plays. Severed heads bounce around the stage, Queen Margaret staggers around covered in blood, and her son Prince Edward is choked to death with a lollipop. The war begins with a courtroom brawl full of tooled up posh boys, going at one another with baseball bats and snooker cues. Allegiances, constantly shifting, are signalled by football shirts in red or white, labelled ‘Henry 04’ and so on. This is a neat trick, and the design plays entertainingly with a crazy range of colour-coded costumes – Henry VI in rose embroidered hoodie and red trainers, York in a club crooner’s fancy white jacket, and Eleanor of Gloucester dressed like Dolly Parton. However, the compression of events leaves no space beyond the constant changes of side and fortune to place them in any context, or understand their impact beyond the throne room.

The casting, which is fully gender-mixed, is uneven. Sarah Amankwah stands out as both Eleanor and Edward IV, defiant as the former and enthusiastically sleazy as the latter, goaded by brother Richard in to keeping up the boys. John Lightbody, as the elder Gloucester, as Old Clifford and as Clarence lurches through the chaos with a strong physical presence that exudes awkward arrogance. And Steffan Donnelly as Margaret puts in a magnetically unhinged performance as the doom harbinger of a queen, and must be the first man to play one of Shakespeare’s best female roles for centuries. Jonathan Broadbent’s Henry VI, on the other hand, seems underpowered – his helplessness as he is manipulated and ignored comes across as absence, and he seems more inconvenienced than tortured by the disastrous sequence of events.

The Globe’s staging is ambitious, and there is no right answer with these unwieldly plays. However, the adaptation and the style of the production seem to have stripped away much of its mystery – the small moments that remind us in all Shakespeare’s histories that the chaos induced by rulers has its real impact on ordinary people. As a result, it is hard to stay engaged with the personal tragedies of nobles who have only themselves to blame.

Antigone

nh2hXvIgImage by Ali Wright

Antigone by Sophocles adapted by Lulu Raczka – New Diorama Theatre, London

Holy What’s version of Antigone is about the two teenage girls at the heart of the play, Antigone herself (Annabel Baldwin) and her sister Ismene (Rachel Hosker). In Lulu Raczka’s new version, the two play out a fantasy teen life – drinking, parties and sex – in what we come to realise is a prison – their uncle Creon’s home, where they are forced to remain while their brothers, Eteocles and Polynices fight a civil war over their city. When both are killed, Creon prohibits all from burying the body of the rebel Polynices, abandoned outside the city walls, on pain of death. Antigone does so anyway, and no-one can quite believe it when Creon insists on enforcing the penalty – starvation in a cave.

These events are seen through the eyes of the sisters, released by Raczka to tell their story. This refocusing of the classics through  female perspectives is a growing trend, both in books such as Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and in the work of other companies, in particular By Jove Theatre. It provides a thrilling new perspective on a story that is ancient, but always current. Antigone’s principled, suicidal refusal to apologise to her uncle is driven by a particularly teenage moral certainty. The question of whether it is more adult to stick to your principles regardless of consequences  – or to make sure, above all, that you are there for others – seems entirely modern.

Lulu Raczka’s free-as-the-wind adaptation expresses the action in utterly convincing millennial language, full of dead-pan qualifications, hesitancy and apparent lack of self-confidence. It is something of a revelation to hear actors on stage speaking in the way people of their age talk every day, presenting us with a way of talking so familiar we scarcely notice it. The simplicity of Rackza’s writing is masterful not least when Antigone,  contemplating the reality of death, rewrites “To be, or not to be” for the 21st century: “What if there’s, like, thinking about it, once it’s happened?”

Directed by Ali Pidsley and staged in a Greek theatre circle filled with cinders, the production is confident, absorbing and thoroughly impressive. The two performers, Baldwin and Hosker, hold the audience’s attention effortlessly. Baldwin is plays Antigone as much younger than she thinks she is, but heartbreakingly determined to overcome her fear of death. Hosker’s Ismene grows up very suddenly indeed, as the games the two played together at home become real and it becomes clear that her sister is no longer playing. The play’s ending, as Ismene stands alone on stage shedding her teen glitter and relating the rest of her married, adult life is a powerful moment and testament to the shadow Antigone has left that will never fade. Holy What’s production is excellent – filled with energy, imagination and originality – and it sets a high bar for the new decade.