Albion

albion-review

Victoria Hamilton as Audrey. Image by Marc Brenner

Albion by Mike Bartlett – Almeida Theatre, London

For Mike Bartlett’s new play Albion, the Almeida is almost in the round, the stage stretched into a long oval. Miriam Buether’s impressive set is a garden, with a lawn, a border and a full size mature tree looming at the back. Both title and set make it clear: England is a garden, and this particular garden is England. Bartlett’s three-hour state of the nation play draws out the defining preoccupations and dilemmas of our time through the domineering Audrey, a wealthy businesswoman abandoning London for the country and a garden restoration project after the death of her soldier son. There are parallels with The Seagull and Irina Arkadina, with a social order failing to locate its place in a changed world. Rupert Goold’s production throws everything at the play, with a fine cast and staging, but ultimately Bartlett’s play is too flawed to match these ambitions.

Albion has strong writing, intriguing characters and one barn-storming lead role. However, it is also flabby, predictable and clichéd so, despite its various strengths, it amounts to a frustrating evening. The star of the show is Victoria Hamilton, returning to the stage after several years away, who is worth the price of a ticket on her own, She holds the play together with a funny, powerful performance as Audrey Walters, a Conran-style entrepreneur who controls and dominates those around her. She is a fine comic creation, entitled, dictatorial and impossible, but just about able to get away with it. The play revolves around her, and when her chalk-and-cheese author friend Katherine complains that she is a supporting character in Audrey’s life she speaks for everyone. However, this becomes a major weakness for the play as the large supporting cast lack space to become more than background.

Other actors put in excellent performances. Luke Thallon is endearingly awkward as local boy Gabriel, whose opportunities are constrained by money and class: “I’ll make coffee. Then I’ll manage people making coffee. That’s probably it.” Helen Schlesinger is subtle and compelling as Katherine, is the nearest thing to a counterweight, as the liberal, culturally free-wheeling alter ego to Audrey self-made, traditionalist. Margot Leicester’s aging, resentful local cleaner Cheryl is a minor triumph of class resentment.

However, despite its good points Albion has too much going on, and much of does not come as a surprise when it eventually arrives. Nothing is left implied, and everything is spelled out to the audience. The second half sags as a series of hot 2010s issues are ticked off: dementia, the housing crisis, millennial rootlessness, Brexit, country v city. Bartlett tries to pack in far too much, with key plot loops playing out around the increasingly uncertain figure of Audrey, sometimes off-stage. Meanwhile the staging veers from neat coups – the cast plant an entire garden as a scene change – to the leaping off the deep end, as Audrey’s son’s grief-stricken girlfriend dances in a rainstorm shoving earth up her dress. There’s a worthwhile play in there somewhere, and Bartlett writes original, compelling characters. However, as with other recent new plays such as Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitoes or Ella Hickman’s Oil at the Almeida, Albion tries and fails to deliver all encompassing, era-defining, realist drama. Simpler, subtler drama would come as a relief.

Young Marx

Picture1

Rory Kinnear, Oliver Chris and Nancy Carroll. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Young Marx by Richard Bean – The Bridge Theatre, London SE1

Any review of Richard Bean’s new play, Young Marx, can’t help getting distracted by the shiny new theatre it opens. The Bridge Theatre is a serious statement of intent: a new build, 900-seat venue at Tower Bridge, run by Nicholas Hytner fresh from his stint as everyone’s favourite National Theatre director. It seems to be the first new London theatre on this scale since before the Second World War. Venture capital funded, and part of the developer-owned, security patrolled Potter’s Fields development, the Bridge Theatre is as representative of London in the 2010s as the publicly funded and owned National was of its 1970s version.

Nevertheless, it is an exciting addition to the London theatre scene. Hytner and Nick Starr  have dealt beautifully with details that frequently confound theatre management. Food and drink is provided by St John, who have instantly created the best theatre bar in town and a mini-sensation with their half-time madeleines. Programmes are satisfying inspired by the National Theatre’s classic early format. Architects Haworth Tompkins, presumably having learned from their Young Vic refurbishment, have baffled the foyer acoustics so everyone can hear themselves talk. And the auditorium goes some, but not all of the way, down the thrust stage route creating generous sightlines, with only marginal annoyance from the lighting rig cutting across the top of the set from the very back row.

The play is pretty entertaining too, but not the comic masterpiece that would have really topped things off for Hytner. Richard Bean has adapted Karl Marx’s rackety, poverty-stricken years living in Soho and writing Das Kapital into a genial farce. Centre stage throughout, Rory Kinnear’s performance as Marx is a reminder of how indispensable he has become to the British stage. With a tendency to sound more and more like Simon Russell Beale, Kinnear balances rooftop escapes from the law with the funeral of his young son, connecting divergent moods through powerful ability to seem entirely credible in any role.

Overall, however, Bean’s play is curiously old-fashioned. It is not clear what makes a comedy about Marx the most important work to stage right now, but it’s certainly a handy vehicle for sex jokes and a lot of hiding in cupboards. Some ideas are very funny, including running jokes about the literal translation of French phrases and about the police (“Why didn’t you hit me?” “I’ve been on a course.”) Nancy Carroll, as Marx’s aristocratic German wife, Jenny, Laura Elphinstone as family friend Nym and Oliver Chris as Friedrich Engels, Karl’s partner in crime, are all highly watchable. Mark Thompson’s inside/outside rotating tenement set is well detailed. However, it is hard to escape the feeling that Young Marx, while undeniably a well-cast, well-produced piece, is no more than the sum of its parts. The Bridge Theatre’s programming policy is not yet clear, but we can surely look forward to evenings here with more to offer than harmless entertainment.

Medea

Medea2whitenogradientwhitebar-1-e1504707286551

Medea adapted by Wendy Haines – The Gallery on the Corner, Tooting Bec

The final show in By Jove Theatre’s Violent Women trilogy is the most violent of them all, Euripides’ Medea. The story is an archetype of female anger and revenge, but By Jove are anything but predictable. Their exceptional staging presents the story in new, imaginative ways. Using little more than a double bed as a setting, SJ Brady, Sinead Costelloe and Rosa Whicker perform the Medea myth in a Tooting shop unit, renewing the impact of its hard-burning, visceral horror and showing the mental disintegration of a woman who has been cheated and humiliated. Wendy Haines’ new version is a monologue for a modern Medea, brought from her own, unnamed country by her husband, Jason, who abandons her for the younger Glauce. The new couple expect her civilised acquiesence. Meanwhile, passing men crow “Cheer up love, it might never happen.”

By Jove’s production, directed by David Bullen, cleverly splits Medea’s psyche between the three performers. Sometimes Medea is one, sometimes three, and when the terrifying finale arrives her two sons are, as she murders them, both separate and a part of her. Haines’ writing is bold and beautiful, using contemporary language but wringing poetry out of despair. The production’s promenade staging is inventive and highly effective. It opens with black-lipped figures miming eerily to ‘I Will Survive’, crackling out of a tiny speaker. The action revolves around a Tracy Emin-esque unmade bed, Medea’s bedside table equipped with gin, unopened bills and the Little Book of Calm. The audience stands throughout the show which, although only 45 mins long, contains depth and quality worthy of much larger venues and far more experienced companies. Visual effects are meticulously chosen to disrupt and disconcert. The small space is strewn with Rainbow Loops, as Medea’s young son plays up – she picks them all up, every single one. Later, Glauce becomes a white dress suspended over the stairwell to the basement as she meets her end, strangled with gold. As Medea dips her knife in her bedside coffee mug before slicing her children’s throats, it emerges not red but gold, and the final tableau of destruction is splashed with gold paint.

The three performers who deliver an interwoven narrative of mental breakdown combining stylised dance moves with naturalistic acting, all in a space the size of your living room. They are all captivating and SJ Brady, whose performance earlier this year in By Jove’s version of The Bacchae again shows she is a performer to watch. Both Here She Comes and now Medea have been top quality fringe productions. By Jove pull off one of hardest tricks in theatre by presenting old stories in new ways, and making it seem natural. By Jove’s talents deserve bigger spaces and audiences and more attention, and we will surely be seeing a lot more of them.

 

What Shadows

D7DAD9CD-D9BE-F240-A0FF6A503838CCCA

Ian McDiarmid as Enoch Powell. Image by Mihaela Bodlovic

What Shadows by Chris Hannan – Park Theatre, London

Like Enoch Powell himself, Chris Hannan’s new play about the man and his notorious speech comes to us from Birmingham – the Rep in the case of ‘What Shadows’, directed by Roxana Silbert. Tackling a historical pariah is a potentially fascinating assignment, but a difficult one to pull off. Can a close focus on Powell help us to understand his ignorant, unpleasant views? Despite his lasting reputation as a racist, Powell was a highly educated and respected man who drew tributes from the Prime Minister downwards when he died. So how did he become a rabble-rouser, remembered only for stepping outside the boundaries of civilised political discourse?

What Shadows has weakness, but also some very strong points. The action centres around Powell, his wife and two close friends, as he builds up to his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, delivered Birmingham in 1968. This is counterpointed with a story involving two fictional female academics, one black and the other white, who meet again after falling out over race in the 1990s. One has retreated to a remote Scottish farm, while the other has apparent success but a drink problem, and only a meeting with the by-now aging Powell can deal with questions left unanswered. Unfortunately, no aspect of this storyline seems at all convincing and the two seem to be devices for interrogating the impact of Powell’s rhetoric 25 years on. There are several other narrative elements, including an Indian man, Sultan (Ameet Chana) now living in Wolverhampton, who fought with Powell in the war, and his touching connection with a white war widow. There is a great deal going on, and much of remains fragmentary and therefore instrumental.

However, the play’s strength is the main narrative and Ian McDiarmid’s performance as Powell. His performance is subtle and fascinating, of the highest quality. He eerily reproduced the Black Country tones of a man who, despite appearing an insider, never seems to have felt he belonged. His relationship with close Quaker friend Clem and his wife, torn apart by the speech, is loving rendered with fine work from Nicholas Le Prevost as Clem and Paula Wilcox as Marjorie, with Joanne Pearce as Pamela Powell. At the centre of the play, the delivery of the notorious speech is compelling and illuminating. Hannan suggests that Powell’s projected his sense of personal rejection into a national crisis, and the full text of the speech supports this theory. Powell reports his constituents’ fury about declining services, but placing the blame for this on immigrants, never mind people of a different colour, seems to be his own interpretation. His own discontent seems to have combined with his ego to produce a disastrous political explosion. While ‘What Shadows’ is flawed, the chance to see McDiarmid becoming Powell, but in middle-age, and in old age suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, is one not to be missed.

Dollywould

event_dw1

Dollywould by Sh!t Theatre – Camden People’s Theatre

Since their 2017 Edinburgh hit, ‘Letters to Windsor House’, Rebecca Biscuit and Louise Mothersole have been hot fringe property. Under the cover of an amusingly self-deprecating company name, Sh!t Theatre, they created their own form of agit-prop theatre using cardboard boxes and unlikely make-up, personal, political and funny in equal measure. Their much anticipated Dolly Parton-themed follow-up, ‘Dollywould’, sold out in Edinburgh and, on the face of it, could not be more different. In fact, Sh!t Theatre lure us to Tennessee and Dolly’s theme park under false pretenses, offering a comedy fan-girl trip only to head down some disturbing alleys.

‘Letters to Windsor House’ revolved around the pair’s flat share, ending as they fell out and went their separate ways. Apparently this was for real, so they took a friendship-mending holiday to Tennessee (with lighting tech, Jen) to share their love for Dolly. The trip is presented in their signature home-made style, much more sophisticated than they would have you believe. There is verbatim-style re-enactment of a 1977 TV interview with Dolly, just before she made it big; videos of their trip, including toilet visits; karaoke sung by the light of a photocopier; tattoos; and breasts. Adept at discomforting the audience, Biscuit and Mothersole spend much of the show with nipples showing through holes snipped in their tops, before eventually covering up with giant model breasts. This is their way of presenting the physical barrier between Dolly Parton and the rest of the world.

However, ‘Dollywould’ is concerned with much more than Dolly’s public image. The two are fascinated and sometimes appalled by with her self-made status and her focus on making money, evidenced by the relentless merchandising at Dollywood. They also trace her long-term lesbian relationship, well-known but never publicly acknowledged. And they provide inimitable context by visiting the nearby Tennessee Body Farm, where corposes are left to decay for forensic purposes and souvenirs are also available. They also dress up as sheep from time to time, slipping between Dolly Parton and Dolly the sheep. An apparently light-hearted piece becomes increasingly unsettling, as Dolly Parton’s identity becomes blurred and questions swirl as to who we really are. These intriguing themes delivered with skill, charm and sophistication. Sh!t Theatre remain essential fringe performers.

DeadClub

DeadClub™-(Photo-by-Manuel-Vason)-web

DeadClub by Requart and Rosenberg – The Place Theatre, London

Like spectators at a boxing match, the audience stands around a raised platform painted in Bridget Riley black and white stripes, for a show that pits dance, theatre and music at each other, emerging with a mix that surprises and entertains. Dancers emerge from the space beneath via trap doors, and disappear back through them, sometimes head first, sometimes rear first with head and feet the last to vanish. The Alice in Wonderland proportions of big people – and a couple of the dancers are seriously tall – in small spaces is enhanced by child-like bright green shorts, white ankle socks and Bo-peep dresses, and by scenes involving tiny pop model people who engage in cryptic discussions. Four men and one woman stalk the stage in ritualistic fashion, as dead crows rain from above, and perform torch song numbers. There is also a random selection system, as spotlight picks audience members for personal attention which, for one lucky woman, involves a personalised funeral oration.

Deadclub is disconcerting and entirely unpredictable. The style of the choreography on show is angular and odd, and performance conventions seem to have been comprehensively realigned. The theme of death flickers in and out of focus to the accompaniment of melancholy songs. It is the antithesis of Follies, the Stephen Sondheim extravaganza I happened to have seen earlier in the day, offering no defined narrative and certainly no explanation of anything. On that basis, it provocative and irresistible, a strange and fascinating evening.

 

Follies

00285-FOLLIES-at-the-National-Theatre-c-Johan-Persson

Follies by Stephen Sondheim – National Theatre

Musicals are not really my area of expertise, so a trip to see Dominic Cooke’s production of Follies was a chance to get up to speed. Also, I have never seen any Sondheim, and the chance does not seem to come round very often. As soon as the lights goes down in the Oliver it becomes clear why this is the first London production of Follies in thirty years: it is an absolute extravaganza. Vicki Mortimer’s revolving sets are vast – the façade and rear of the soon-to-be demolished Weismann Theatre, a New York fire escape cascading down its back wall, and a battered auditorium strewn with broken up seating. And the cast is even bigger, with almost every character played twice. As the aging former Weismann’s girls gather for a final reunion, thirty years after the show closed, their younger selves appear simultaneously on stage, in breath-taking chorus girl costumes meticulously designed to match the era, from 1918 to 1941. No expense is spared, and really there is no room to make savings on a show like this which demands to be done properly.

Of course Follies is much more than a spectacle. It is simultaneously a nostalgic tribute to the showgirl era and, a show written to consign it to history. Like all reunions, the demolition party forces characters to face up to the lives they have made. Sondheim’s writing is sharp and without sentiment. The beauty and glamour of the onstage world is fully acknowledged, but quickly stripped of any pretension to reality. The central characters – Imelda Staunton and Peter Forbes, Janie Dee and Philip Quast play the quartet who met at the Follies and have each committed their own folly as they chose the wrong partners, or think they did. There are no happy endings, but an entirely believable, compromised denouement. A number of remarkable songs track the emotional unravelling, in particular Dee’s angry, bitter ‘Could I Leave You?’, and Staunton’s upsetting ‘Losing My Mind’, together the antithesis of comfort theatre.

However, the strength of Follies is the breadth of Sondheim’s world. Some of the most memorable numbers belong to characters outside these four. In particular, Di Botcher’s ‘Broadway Baby’, recalling her ingénue days, is a fine song stunningly performed. Even more so, Tracie Bennett’s defiant ‘I’m Still Here’, a ‘Je Ne Regret Rien’ for the American musical, seems to break free altogether from the context of the show. Follies is sophisticated, complex and rewarding as theatre, not least when the parallel timelines slip and characters mingle and dance with their younger selves. It is hard to imagine this show being done better. It did make me think about how rarely I see shows where high production values are crucial to the result. I enjoyed the polish, but regretted the lack of ambiguity that came with it. The entertainment is presented to the audience as something complete, to sit back and enjoy. There seemed to be limited space for the imaginative engagement I realise I am used to experiencing, as part of more stripped-back theatre. However, there’s no doubt this is a big hit for the National – big enough, with any luck, to recoup the serious cost of staging it.

Knives in Hens

Christian-Cooke-Pony-William-and-Judith-Roddy-Young-Woman-in-Knives-in-Hens-at-the-Donmar-Warehouse-directed-by-Yael-Farber2-700x455

Christian Cooke as Pony William and Judith Roddy as Young Woman. Photo: Marc Brenner

Knives in Hens by David Harrowver – Young Vic, London

David Harrowver’s 1995 play is unlike other drama of the time. While new writers focused on the freedoms and horror of late 20th century urban life, Harrowver went right back to the start for his first piece, stripping everything away including characters, dialogue and context. What is left is dark, relentless and hard to forget. Twenty years on, Yaël Farber’s fascinating revival at the Donmar shows how well this play has lasted, growing in strangeness and significance since the shock of its first performance at the Traverse.

The highly symbolic set, by Soutra Gilmour, is almost entirely black, dominated by a vast sphere that turns out to be a mill wheel, its unstoppable grind at the heart of the play. Costumes are also black, and the only contrast comes from flashes of white – a drift of plucked feathers, a cloud of flour. There is also ink which, significantly, is the blackest thin of all. Three characters step through a grim dance – a Young Woman (Judith Roddy), her ploughman husband Pony William (Christian Cooke) and the Gilbert, the village miller (Matt Ryan). The play begins in a darkness of ignorance, as the Woman learns the most basic of words to describe objects and connects them to feelings. When she meets the miller she becomes able to write, and the unstoppable transition from a passive object of God’s creation to a distinct individual, able to record thoughts, begins. However, the arrival of individual expression brings both terror and hope.

Harrowver sets the play somewhere in medieval England, in an entirely unromantic rural setting where life is harsh, bestial and carries no possibilities. His language has the same characteristics: aggressive, simple and direct. He taps into rural prejudice, including a rich seam of forgotten hatred for millers. The action rolls forward as inevitably as Greek drama, just as the new millstone is rolled through the village, and the arrival of ideas from outside disrupts assumptions and sows discontent. We never seen beyond the three characters, but Harrowver achieves a remarkable sense of a society surrounding them. The cast are very strong, inhabiting these both familiar and alien types: Judith Roddy awakened and dangerous, Christian Cooke rough and tender and Matt Ryan trouble, but able gaze beyond the farthest field. Farber’s production is deeply striking, marrying sound and images, from the ripping of plucked chicken feathers to the roar of the turning mill wheel. Knives in Hens is a top quality production of a play that affirms its status as a modern classic.

And the Rest of Me Floats

04 Outbox- Elijah W Harris ©fgstudios

Elijah W Harris ©fgstudios

And the Rest of Me Floats by Outbox Theatre – Rose Lipman Theatre, Haggerston

In a Haggerston community centre, seven young performers share their individual experiences of sexuality. They are a diverse LBGTQ group, including gay, non-sexual, men, women and transgender and various labels you might care to use but their stories are, of course, as individual as anybody’s. And the Rest of Me Floats is a highly enjoyable devised performance exploring queer space outside traditional gender definitions. There are costumes and glitter balls, dancing and singing, confession and affirmation. There is a great version of ‘Teenage Dirtbag’. It is very much theatre as it is in 2017, mashing together forms with ease, and applying genre-busting logic to break down the borders of perceived, sexual identity.

Directed by Ben Buratta, Outbox Theatre has devised a mesh of interlocking stories, staged with energy and commitment, and cunning use of minimal props. A torch beam provides crucial lighting effects, and a sheet of clingfilm performs a key role, but the stars are the performers who reveal their experiences of failing to fit in, to communicate with friends and family, and of seeking a definition. The internet is at the centre, not only bringing people together who thought they were alone, but also allowing them to shed their physicality and find their identities. There are stories of hardship and abuse, but the performers have as much to say about acceptance. They challenge the audience to really see them – as individuals, not as people defined by gender issues. And the Rest of Me Floats is a highly enjoyable evening, questioning social assumptions and having a great time doing it.