The Ferryman


Image by Johan Persson

The Ferryman – Jez Butterworth, Gielgud Theatre, London

Ten years ago, Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem was the play of the moment, the break-out new writing everyone had to see. Remarkably, Butterworth has done it again with The Ferryman, winning a fistful of Olivier Awards and breaking Royal Court box office records. Now The Ferryman is installed at the Gielgud Theatre with a new cast, as the beacon of new British writing. This is the play that will define 2010s theatre for the many people who only see straight drama once in a while. The problem is that the play is not nearly as good as everyone would like to believe.

From the very start, the scenario seems very familiar – an multi-generational Irish family drama set in a farm house, mildly disfunctional yet loveable characters, charming dialogue spiced with swearing, and a visitor from outside who will unlock the dark secret that naturally, lurks below the surface. And beyond the apparent safety of the kitchen walls, politics threatens and impossible choices must be made . Irish drama is defined by plays in which family and national politics collide, from Sean O’Casey through Brian Friel to Enda Walsh. It is a rich and characteristic vein of writing, a national theme that matches political disaster with the storytelling that reworks and fuels the myths in a perpetual cycle. The Ferryman is set in 1980s Derry (although there’s a confusing suggestion at one point that the setting is Armagh) during the hunger strikes, but it could be set anywhere in Ireland, any several other points of the 20th century.  Butterworth mines the farmhouse kitchen stereotypes for all they are worth, introducing a comically large number of characters, but fails to deliver fresh insight into Ireland or the dilemmas of love and war, or anything beyond the familiar.

Butterworth is happy to play knowing theatrical games, with the central Carney family featuring seven children, a baby who appears on stage, a live goose and number of rabbits. However, this insight does not extend to the wider drama. The cast shows a tendency to burst into spontaneous folk song, to dance and to recite poetry. Some characters provide folksy Irish scenery, such as Uncle Patrick with his tendency to read Virgil out loud over a nip of Bushmills, and Aunt Maggie Far Away who sits in a wheelchair, capable of occasional lucidity which she fills with picturesque tale-telling. Aunt Patricia is another, equally familiar type, a ferociously unpleasant old lady who has never recovered from the Easter 1916 Rising. But the least excusable character is surely Tom Kettle, a stray Englishman who is soft in the head and does not know the strength of his own hands. You can almost hear an angry John Steinbeck yelling, ‘Hey!’

This complete lack of realism is the setting for a story examining recent, grim history:  the terrible burden carried by the relatives of the disappeared, those executed as informers by the IRA, which would then engineers false sightings for years afterwards, to conceal the crime. The plot is intertwined with a further theme about conflicted love, Quinn Carney in love with his sister-in-law while his wife languishes upstairs, feigning illness to escape the grim reality (and having several babies, despite the years of distance between them).

The country dancing, literature-loving, dram-sinking extended family  has to confront both internal and external troubles, but while dramatic events play out, by the end of the play nothing unexpected has happened. The uncomfortable Irish stereotypes are not deconstructed, and the characters behind the dark family dynamics have plenty to say, but remain opaque. There are many people in this play – and the cast is excellent – but, for all its production fuss, the play seems to have very little to say. It neither challenges our assumptions nor adds to our understanding. Butterworth has written a highly conventional drama, certainly compared to the current, experimental work of contemporary Enda Walsh, which does not press the audience beyond their comfort zone, and even features a song or two. That may be why The Ferryman has proved so popular, but it feels like a play from a different time rather than the future of British, or Irish, theatre.




Anneika Rose as Jenny and Tom Mothersdale as Elias. Image by Stephen Cummiskey

John – Annie Baker, National Theatre (Dorfman)

The National Theatre created a minor sensation when it took Annie Baker’s The Flick into the Dorfman last year, with half the audience raving about real time theatre and the other complaining they couldn’t see. Fortunately, Baker’s follow-up John is just as captivating, with fewer sightline problems. Lasting 3 hours 20 mintues, it keeps the audience gripped with apparent lack of effort and leaves them feeling they have seen something special, from a playwright who is changing expectations of theatre.

John is set in a Gettysburg B&B run by Mertis, who welcomes a young, backpacking couple, Elias and Jenny, from Brooklyn, visiting the battlefield sights. The action plays out at a spectacularly leisurely pace, the like of which few writers would have the confidence to contemplate staging. The awkwardness of B&B arrival chit-chat gives way to a scene which takes place entirely off-stage, fragments of dialogue drifting down the stairs as Mertis shows the couple their room. At this early point, the set by Chloe Lamford is enough to keep the audience’s transfixed, a hyper-real recreation of a Pennsylvania interior, with soft furnishings, doll collection and a Paris-themed breakfast room section. However, it soon becomes apparent that the pacing is absolutely crucial to a play in which people are gradually revealed to not be what they seem, and the boundaries of reality itself are tested.

Baker’s genius is to introduce subjects and situations that are challenging, topical, and disturbing through a setting that, on the surface, seems the essence of unremarkable. On first appearance, the elderly B&B owner Mertis seems a type – conventional, eccentric, convinced of her own opinions. However, the audience, as well as Elias and Jenny are led to feel abashed at making such assumptions based on appearance. The complexity of her character is teased out over the time it really takes to have a conversation with Jenny, confined to the B&B with period pain while her boyfriend tours Civil War sites in her absence.

Another remarkable aspect of John is the way Baker writes about topics and and characters rarely seen on stage. Period pain is one such subject, not so much taboo as never considered, but the play is also remarkable in being led by two women in their 70s – Mertis and her friend Genevieve, who is also blind. This quietly revolutionary combination is presented with complete lack of fanfare. Instead, Baker demonstrates why different voices are essential in theatre by telling stories we hadn’t even noticed were missing. If the pacing of the play is crucial to its success, it can only be communicated through completely committed performances which it receives, from Anneika Rose as Jenny, Tom Mothersdale as Elias, Marylouise Burke, wonderfully subtle as Mertis, and June Watson who plays Genevieve like an visitor from another dimension.

The pacing and setting, expertly delivered by director James Macdonald, give heightened credibility to every aspect of the story, from the banal (sneaking a look at a loved one’s phone) to the supernatural. It is a measure of the places Baker is able to go that, at one point, the play seems poised to end with a demon-summoning reading from HP Lovecraft. Not only is the ambition and scope of John enormous but its success is complete. From the collective names for groups of birds to the sinister other-life of dolls, from the racial boundaries between a Jewish-Indian couple to the cultural impact of history, John has it covered. And the title, the epitome of the ordinary, turns out to be quite the opposite. Baker’s play is essential to understanding the excitement new writing can generate.



Arnika – image by Tom Crooke/Bobbin Productions

Arnika by Théâtre Volière at the Bridewell Theatre

The subject matter of Théâtre Volière’ Arnika is obscure but fascinating. Natasha Wood’s play is set in the Vosges during the early 1950s, the heart of Alsace. The region has a famous history of borderland uncertainty, see-sawing between France and Germany throughout the 20th century and, indeed, for centuries before. Doubt over its true identity led to suspicions over the allegiances of the Alsace people, with tragic consequences. When the Nazis annexed Alsace, its young men were forcibly enlisted in the Wehrmacht. Some, captured by the Russians, lingered in POW camps on the eastern front for years after the war had ended, the French government unenthusiastic about bringing home Nazi soldiers.

Arnika is a murder story set among the resentment and conflict of this messy situation. It is part of the Marchland season, an impressively ambitious month of European work themed around the blurred edges of identity. It brings thoughtful political theatre to the Bridewell, a great space in search of a programme, in a time when voices from Europe could not be more important. However, while the ambition of Borderland is admirable, in the case of Arnika it is also the play’s undoing.

The story is to some extent a conventional police investigation, pitting a haughty Parisian detective against a close-knit group of locals. A young man went missing during the war, escaping the Nazis while his two captured friends are also lost, somewhere out east, and unlikely to return. The tension is not so much about who killed him but why, and whether it was a crime at all. X both writes and directs, and her staging is spare and imaginative. Staged in a black box, the only decor is supplied by a set of grotesque folk masks, based on those used in Vosges villages at festival time. When not performing, the cast step to the sides and cover their faces, transformed into leering demons, neatly representing pervasive doubt over motives and identities. The staging is also physically inventive, with key characters held, tossed and carried by the masked cast in response to emotional states.

The directing style is risk-taking and memorable but the script, in contrast, is conventional and over-long. A 3 hour, 20 minute fringe production is unusual and, while length is not a problem in principle, it is requires a clear rationale. Here it feels unneccessary, the product of a script with a tendency to spell everything out. The audience is left with the feeling that the story could be more memorably told in half the time, with more of the characters’ feelings let to the imagination. The duration of the show also asks a great deal of a cast tasked with the stage time of a Lear or a Hamlet. Despite the time allocated to playing out the story the audience is, crucially left in some doubt not over what happened, but whether it mattered. The moral dilemma that haunts the characters seems only of limited significance.

These aspects are frustrating because Arnika is full of ideas and, in many ways, is the type of show so successfully promoted by the Summerhall venue during the Edinburgh Festival – a cultural bridge to the perspectives and performing styles of a European theatre we are in danger of forgetting, along with much else. Théâtre Volière need to strip it back and give their physical theatre skills room to breathe.


The Birthday Party


Zoe Wanamaker and Toby Jones – image by Johan Persson

The Birthday Party – Harold Pinter, Harold Pinter Theatre, London

The Birthday Party is 50 years old. It opened to catastrophic reviews, which their authors have never entirely lived down. Now a thoroughly established classic, revived at the theatre named after its author, it is play about an increasingly distant time and lost, post-war ways of living. However, its exploration of oppression and invisible, all powerful structures remains disturbing current. It is also, like much of Pinter’s work, very funny.

Ian Rickson, who directs, has built up a powerful Pinter CV with productions of Old Times and Betrayal at the Harold Pinter Theatre, and The Hothouse at the National. He lines up a dream cast for the Birthday Party, and the audience is rewarded with a succession of delicious performances. Zoe Wanamaker, an actor who has been at the top of her profession for 35 years while, perhaps mercifully, escaping full-blow fame, is the emotional heart of the play as landlady Meg Boles. She is probably damaged, possibly not a landlady at all, silly and deluded, yet also vulnerable and touching. Equally vulnerable, but for different reasons is her lodger Stanley, played with complete commitment by the endlessly watchable Tony Jones. His history and status are uncertain, shifting throughout the play, until we possess no more information about him than we did at the start, but he is defined by his sexually tense relationships with both Meg and next-door neighbour Lulu (a breezy Pearl Mackie), never defined, but illicit and, towards, Lulu, violent. These scenes of unspoken, escalating tension play out in a meticulously detailed late 1950s seaside front room, in just the right state of slight disrepair, designed by the Quay Brothers.

The Birthday Party is best known for the mysterious duo, Goldberg and McCann, who insinuate themselves as boarding house guests with a mission, for reasons never explained, to torture and kidnap Stanley. Stephen Mangan’s Goldberg, full of false bonhomie and ever-changing stories about his Jewish family background, is an overbearing tour de force. Meanwhile the Irish McCann (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) seems to be undergoing his own quiet breakdown. He is not the only one. Stanley is left physically unable to speak, after a night in the pair’s company, before they bundle him away. Meg is in complete denial of reality. It is left to her husband Petey (Peter Wight, in a piece perfect casting) to smooth over the night of hidden, grim violence that has apparently taken place by carefully pretending nothing has happened, and going back to reading the paper.

The play is a famous exercise in unspoken menace, but it is much more than that. While intimidation of those who do not fit in, without ever knowing why, seems an unfortunately current theme, Pinter cannot resist playing with language, launching into surreal interrogation scenes (“What about the Albigensian heresy?”), playing out precise, hilarious scenes of spousal miscommunication, and dancing around the nature of the relationship between Meg and Stanley, as the two play games over breakfast without apparently knowing why. Pinter plays games with the audience too, leaving them in increasingly doubt over the boundaries between fantasy and reality in world where facts refuse to stay still. The sheer quality writing makes this play still gripping and audacious, 50 years on.  Rickson’s excellent production demonstrates, without a shadow of a doubt, why The Birthday Party deserves its classic status.


Ken, The Bunker - Jeremy Stockwell and Terry Johnson (courtesy of Robert Day)

Jeremy Stockwell and Terry Johnson. Image courtesy Robert Day.

Ken by Terry Johnson, The Bunker, London

Ten years after his unexpected death, the influence of maverick theatre-maker Ken Campbell seems stronger than ever. His anarchic creativity and alternative approach to performance is continued by his daughter Daisy, whose Cosmic Trigger was a 2017 highlight. Now Terry Johnson, famed for such plays as Hitchcock Blonde and Insignificance, has taken his tribute play, KEN, to The Bunker after a run at the Hampstead Theatre. It is a hilarious and touchingly personal two-hander that leaves the audience in no doubt about the important of Campbell.

Johnson first encountered Ken when he picked up the phone at his shared house in 1978. Ken was calling to speak to someone else, but Johnson ended up with a job (“Jim Broadbent’s fucked off, so you can have his parts”). These turned out to be in The Warp, a legendary 24-hour play about the life of a man called Neil Oram, the most insane and inspiring of Campbell’s many such ventures. Having appeared in The Warp, Johnson then played half of Zaphod Beeblebrox in Campbell’s disastrous stage version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This closed early, along with Johnson’s acting career. Now, 35 years later, he appears once more on stage, mostly from behind a lectern, to deliver his memories of Ken and to show us something of his impact.

Johnson’s wry delivery makes him an ideal straight man for Jeremy Stockwell, who also worked with Campbell. Stockwell plays not only Ken, complete with one of Ken’s pork pie hats, but also everyone else. His impersonation is uncanny, a nasal Thames Estuary accent and piercing gaze conjuring up Ken on the spot. Assisted by Tim Shortall’s set which transforms the Bunker into a carpeted hippy hangout draped in ethnic throws, the pair build a double act which is very funny indeed. This is down both to Johnson’s sharp writing, but also to Ken himself, an impossible visionary, equally prone to unhinged antics and piercing insight. His declaration that there is no finer act that “one of utter folly” guided his approach and led him, for instance, to liven up The Warp several hours in by leading the audience to a nearby tennis court where the cast were required to perform their scene while playing an impromptu tennis match. Stockwell has enormous fun with not only Ken, but the characters who passed through his orbit – from a husky voiced numerologist to Trevor Nunn, irked at being comprehensively pranked by Ken.

As Johnson observes, ‘ken’ is a noun meaning knowledge, experience and understanding. The knowledge of himself that Ken unlocked in Johnson shaped, he feels, his subsequent life and career. One night Ken jabbed him in the sternum in a Liverpool pub, telling him “You have a switch in here, and it’s off.” Everything he achieved was based on learning how to turn that switch on. The power of Campbell’s influence, whether in heroic success or heroic failure, is made very clear in Johnson’s powerful tribute. What makes KEN really work is the feeling that we been granted a genuine glimpse of the real Ken Campbell, a rare insight into why he mattered. Johnson’s play does not just tell us that he was special, he convinces us.

Becoming Shades

Becoming Shades at VAULT Festival 2018 (courtesy Maximilian Webster) 2

Image by Maximilian Webster

Becoming Shades – Chivaree Circus, VAULT Festival, London

Deep under Waterloo Station in the darkest recesses of the Vaults is the Forge, a damp, echoing,  cave-like space. Reached by weaving through the crowds and the enchanted spaces of the VAULT Festival to the very back, it is the ideal space for Chivaree Circus’s recreation of Persephone’s journey into the Underworld, a story told through contortions, acrobatics, rope-work and spinning silks, fire and neon.

The story of Persephone, forced by Hades to spend half the year in Underworld while the Earth toils through winter, is the core myth for deep January. Becoming Shades is a promenade performance, and the cast marshal the audience from scene to scene around the barrel-like station undercroft. Charon (Moly Beth Morosa), an HR Geiger creature with neon hands and eyes, acts as our guide while live music is performed by the duo of Sam West and Becks Johnstone, whose voice is deliciously smoky. The look is a dark, late 1980s club: sides are shaved high, basques are worn and costumes would not look out of place in Cybergoth. The audience are supplied with black surgical masks, and games of chance take place is side during the interval, with strong hints of Punchdrunk’s Masque of the Red Death.

Chivaree is an all-female circus troupe set by Edward Gosling and Laurane Marchive, who directs. The narrative frame is really an excuse to show off the jaw-dropping skills of the performers. While the comic relief scenes filling the space between set piece performances are of limited interest, the main attractions are worth every penny. As soon as a performer casually bends into a slow motion back flip, as though out for an afternoon stroll, it is clear we are in for something special. What follows is a display of skills beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals, most definitely otherworldly. Rosie Bartley, Isobel Midnight and Jessica Pearce juggle many-branched spinning torches, taking the occasional gulp of flame. Anna McDonnell displays awesome strength and agility on the pole. Rebecca Rennison and Alfa Marks slide, split and fly on ropes and aerial silks, and a finale which involves spinning on a wheel of fire supported only by the neck (see above) has the audience gasping.

After last year’s No Show which highlighted the frustrations of female circus artists, the presence of such skilled performers in a show devised for them feels like the future of circus. Becoming Shades is strong on atmosphere, but has its limitations as an integrated piece of theatre. However, the abilities of the performers, twisting and tumbling high above the crowd, have to be seen to be believed.


(c) Alex Brenner, no use without credit, Atticist - East @ King's Head (_DSC4959)_preview

James Craze, Jack Condon and Russell Barnett in East. Image by Alex Brenner

East by Steven Berkoff – King’s Head Theatre, London

Jessica Lazar’s production of East is imaginatively directed, satisfyingly choreographed and acted with commitment by a talented cast within the tight boundaries of the King’s Head Theatre’s postage stamp stage. It is hard to imagine a better fringe staging. However, there is a problem and it lies not with the cast or the creative team, but with the play. Steven Berkoff’s East has become a minor stage classic, and remains influential, a very clear influence on last year’s Flesh and Bone. Forty years after its premiere, it status seems increasingly questionable.

Berkoff’s verse drama about two generations of working class East Enders, made a splash in 1975 with its use of formal, fanciful, heroic language to portray deeply unheroic lives, and with a sexual frankness barely seen before on stage. The latter no longer raises much of an eyebrow and the language, highly reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange, which preceded it, fails to mask an absence of characters with a resemblance to real people, and the gleeful presentation of racist and sexual violence.

Berkoff’s describes the play, sardonically, as “an elegy for the East End”. The men in the play – embittered, women-hating, racist Dad (Russell Barnett), and violent, rapist, racist son Mike (James Craze) and his equally thuggish mate Les (Jack Condon) – are some of the nastiest characters you could wish to meet. They fight, stab and bludgeon, they threaten or attack anyone who is not white, they boast of racist murders, they harass women, force sex on girlfriends, and use underage girls for sex before kicking them out on the street. These scenes take place around family trips to Southend and nights in front of the telly, part of a supposed everyday East End existence which consists of a sickening combination of violence and sentimentality. Because they are such unmitigated thugs, it is impossible to have any sympathy with them, to understand their behaviour, or to believe in them. The play is dominated by stereotypes and, unlike A Clockwork Orange, East uses ultra violence as a substitute for insight rather than a tool for dismembering hypocrisy.

The strongest characters are the two women, Mum (Debra Penny) and Sylv (Boadicea Ricketts), fought over by Mike and Les, and their key scenes represent the sum total of character depth in the play. Mum has a monologue which reveals her to have been destroyed at the hands of her vile husband, while Sylv has the stand-out scene in which she expresses her sexuality, full of youth and energy, and demands the same freedoms as the men. However, the behaviour of men towards women in East is so crude and despicable, and the sexual dynamics so rotten, that it is simply not possible to the scenarios in East can form the basis for any equality thesis.

Tellingly, the most effective scenes in Lazar’s production are those without dialogue: particularly a silent tv-watching sofa scene and a scene change in which the cast remain in character as they bicker while clearing up an overturned breakfast table. Musical director Carol Arnopp plays the piano on stage throughout, soundtracking the action with Cockney classics. The creative energy behind the production is impressive, but the play no longer seems worthy of this level of attention. Berkoff has a long-term connection with the King’s Head but, on the evidence of East, it is time to move on.

I saw East with complimentary review tickets.