Friday 28 April 2017

My Country

Curve, Leicester
27th April, 2017

The National’s verbatim Brexit response piece has rolled into Leicester as part of its wide UK tour following a run in the Dorfman.

How can the National Theatre be truly national and how can this Brexit piece truly speak for the whole nation? The ‘National’ part of the National Theatre is regularly, as it should be, scrutinised regarding its programming; audience outreach; diversity (of writers, actors, directors, management, creatives, audiences); and responsibility for work to reach beyond the metropolitan, hipster South Bank including debates over NT Live versus its commitment to touring and much more.

6 actors representing different parts of the United Kingdom – namely Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the South West, the North East and the East Midlands – meet Britannia, a sort of mythical authority figure to discuss the forthcoming Brexit vote. In what plays out as a sort of model UN meeting, Rufus Norris’ production brings together verbatim soundbites of members of the public’s views on Brexit, immigration, sovereignty, jobs, politicians, etc. from an array of political viewpoints.

Leicester(shire): Red Leicester. Melton Mowbray pork pies. Premier League champions of 2016. Richard III found under a car park. National Space Centre. Narborough Road, thought to be the country’s most multicultural road. Bradgate Park. Curve. Melton Road. The Attenborough brothers. Gary Lineker. Adrian Mole. The list goes on. The Asian actor (Seema Bowri) who represents the East Midlands in My Country, and in particular the people of Leicester, calls the city ‘the centre of England’. She affects a Leicester accent to evoke a person quietly complaining that ‘you don’t see many faces like mine as you used to and that ‘the city doesn’t feel as safe as it did’ (I’m paraphrasing). In a different accent, she becomes a person praising Leicester’s diversity saying that it is equally represented by ‘Feast India’ (an Indian buffet in the Melton Road area) and ‘Mrs Bridges’ Tea Rooms’ (an old quaint café in the city near the cathedral).

The joy with a list like mine above is that it gives a basic introductory, tourist’s guide to Leicester. But that is also its problem: it’s only a list. It doesn’t give a detailed insight into what it’s like to live in Leicester (as my girlfriend does), what it’s like to live in Leicestershire (as I do), what does it mean (if anything) to be from Leicester, nor does it give an idea to what is not so great about being from Leicester. It’s a list of hackneyed labels, like the patriotic clichés in Hugh Grant’s press conference speech in Love, Actually and not dissimilar to Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry given to Britannia in My Country: ‘I am your memory, your dialects, your cathedrals,/ your mosques and markets,… motorways and railway lines, your hospitals, your cenotaphs with paper poppies fading in the rain’. Duffy’s input may be loaded with symbolism and patriotism but – like it sometimes seemed clumsy in Duffy and Norris’ Everyman – it occasionally jars with the verbatim or feels like an attempt to crowbar in mawkishness. The character of Britannia feels like an under-baked idea to highlight how high the stakes were/are over the EU Referendum and what a seismic event in Britain’s history it will be.

I feel there’s a push and pull issue with the play in that it wants to voice specific and individual ideas as well as aiming to be all-encompassing and representative (impossible) of the whole nation. Because My Country presents multiple opinions from a few politicians to the electorate (and a child), people might think it pretends to verisimilitude, in that it is fully representative of the UK. However, the verbatim opinions are reduced to soundbites performed by an accent or a caricature, albeit ones extremely well realised by the cast. In a way, it becomes almost as cardboard cut-out as Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice when I think it aspires to be deeper than that (not that I don’t like that play). Incidentally, if you want plays which explore key issues offered up by the Leave side in the campaign such as fishing and pig farming then I recommend Bean’s Under the Whaleback and Harvest.

Despite all these reservations about the inevitably problematic process and text of My Country, it works as a vital and enjoyable piece of theatre, incredibly well performed by an ensemble cast. Special mention, however, has to go to Penny Layden as Britannia, who morphs from the stiff-lipped diplomacy of David Cameron to the gurning, slouching Boris Johnson (whose speeches about lobsters and cornflakes are unbelievably real!) to the cocky, broad-shouldered confidence of Nigel Farage. Just as the Referendum was divisive it seems that My Country is as well, perhaps a genius way of the play’s form being reflective of its subject matter.

If you’re wondering how Leicester voted:
Remain: 70,808 (51.1%)
Leave: 67,992 (48.9%)
My borough, in south Leicestershire:
Remain: 14,292 (45.4%)
Leave: 17,173 (54.6%)

My Country plays at Curve, Leicester until 29th April and then tours. For more information visit

The company of My Country. Credit: Sarah Lee.

Friday 7 April 2017

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Harold Pinter Theatre
1st April, 2017, matinee

In the last month I’ve seen for the first time three major plays from the 1960s: What the Butler Saw, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and now Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? After reading so much about any ‘modern classic’ actually seeing the play means you have huge expectations. What’s staggering is how it was Albee’s first full length three act play: its language and wit alone is dazzling.

Having read Albee’s one act The American Dream, “Virginia Woolf” seems to be an extension of its ideas and characters (although I think the later A Delicate Balance is a more overt one). The American Dream has been called an anti-play, it has absurdist roots and even its mise en scène is similar to Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano. Partly a satire on marriage, the dialogue is rhythmic and cyclical and it seems that Mommy and Daddy’s marriage is kept together by their squabbling. The language is perhaps not as vitriolic as some of the jibes in “Virginia Woolf” but Daddy is still demeaned and emasculated, sometimes agreeing with Mommy for argument’s sake. He is literally emasculated as well, having had his ‘tubes’ replaces with artificial ‘tracts’. Their names are defined by their status as parents yet that becomes problematic when we discover that they couldn’t get the son that they want.

The idea of the North as a haven is explored in The Death of Bessie Smith (and partly in The Zoo Story). Here, we’re in the north of the US, more specifically in a small New England college town – which may or may not be called New Carthage – a, one would think, forward thinking, liberal place, full of the young blonde-haired optimism we can see in Honey and Nick when they first enter. Instead, we get the claustrophobic, drink-fuelled lives of George and Martha. George is a struggling associate history professor unable to have lived up to his father in law’s (and head of the college) expectations, something that Martha doesn’t let him forget. As the play progresses the reality of this academic and liberal life becomes increasingly precarious. As Nick and Honey are toyed with, becoming embroiled in George and Martha's cruel 'games', we are similarly drawn into their trickery and backbiting, the rug repeatedly being pulled from under our feet. The twists are clever because they correspond so well with Albee's cyclical dialogue, after each revelation you think, hang on, I've heard this before...

The play starts with an impending sense of catastrophe with Adam Cork’s music evoking a quaking campus bell tower. Tom Pye’s heightened realist design creates Martha and George’s campus house with fascinating detail. The lodge style house, similar to Bunny Christie’s Connecticut farmhouse in Hare’s The Red Barn, is stylish and modern as are the costumes: I’m sure there was a gasp when Martha re-entered early on having changed into a shirt and trousers. The tiled hall extends to become the edge of the living room which leads down to a sunken main living area: sofa, arm chair and a coffee table strewn with papers all on a very tick shag carpet. It is a shrewd decision to have this extremely comfy-looking carpet be in a square boxing ring/ bear pit area, a suggestion of where Martha and George are most comfortable. The set is filled with curious details and I was left wondering about the actual layout of the house and why, for instance, George goes off in the opposite direction to the kitchen to get more ice?

Conleth Hill’s George is initially passive, seen crumpling in his chair, but he’s Martha’s perfect match. His dry wit is perfectly delivered, portraying his wife as an alcoholic Medusa, his razor sharpness something which she feeds off. Indeed, these games keep their marriage together, these slinging matches don’t stop them from embracing and passionately kissing. Later in the play, he becomes cold and brittle, a truth teller to Martha, snapping her out of the existence she’s been living. Imelda Staunton is captivating as Martha, monstrous, sleazy, shrill, yet still capable of evoking pity; there's a moment in act 3 when a shattered Martha lets rip an almighty wail (not dissimilar in performance, and reason for, to Zoe Wanamaker’s groan in All My Sons when realising her son is dead), Staunton was utterly raw and animalistic. The two leads are artfully supported by a nicely understated Luke Treadaway as Nick – all false modesty and quiet assurance – and Imogen Poots as his naïve country wife, Honey, who relishes in the comic cluelessness of the character, while being incredibly sympathetic at the same time.

There’s something about major London revivals of American 20th century classics which brings out the best in British theatre. The late Howard Davies’ production of Miller’s All My Sons with David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker remains one of the best things I’ve seen in a theatre and enthused my frequent theatregoing; Ivo Van Hove’s A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic made us tense up at what was going to happen next; Benedict Andrew’s brilliantly lit and contemporary A Streetcar Named Desire, although it had its incongruities, stripped away any romanticism and nostalgia from the play; Yael Farber’s The Crucible was atmospheric (also in a literal sense from the haze) and kept the play’s allegorical power at its fore. James Macdonald’s faithful production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? elicits faultless performances and conveys well the desolation under the characters’ illusions in Albee’s masterpiece.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, until 27th May.

The company of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Photo: Johan Persson

Thursday 6 April 2017

Fantastic Mr Fox

Curve, Leicester
5th April 2017

Continuing their popular run of Roald Dahl classics, Curve have teamed up with Nuffield Southampton and the Lyric Hammersmith to produce Sam Holcroft’s shiny new adaptation of Fantastic Mr Fox, and it might just be one of the best Dahl adaptations I’ve seen. Sweet music composed by Arthur Darvill and bouncy and boundless direction from Maria Aberg complement the story’s moral while never straying into tweeness, and, appealing to children and adults alike, retains that vital element of candy coated macabre which has long been the key to Dahl’s success.

Mr Fox (Greg Barnett) is a fantastic raider; swift, smart and sly, for years he has taken it upon himself to provide for his family and subterranean community by taking a Robin Hood ‘steal-from-the-rich-give-to-the-poor’ approach to the neighbouring farmers’ produce. However, he soon faces a crisis of confidence when his tail is shot off by the cruel farmer Bean (Richard Atwill), who has had enough of Mr Fox’s pilfering ways. Spurred on by his ramshackle team of furry friends, Mr Fox vows to reclaim his ‘Fantastic’ moniker by undertaking a raid to end all raids.

Holcroft and Aberg create strong characterisations, and while being (understandably) rather one-dimensional, each individual has their own unique and identifiable personality. A big hit with the children in the audience, Sandy Foster’s Rabbit is wildly goofy but endearingly enthusiastic, Jade Croot is feisty yet vulnerable as Mr Fox’s daughter and raiding apprentice, Kit, while Greg Barnett brings a level of charm to the egotistic Mr Fox. His hero complex is brought to the fore, as he tries and fails to complete his mission alone, leading to a satisfying message about embracing our own and others’ differences - Mr Fox’s lack of a tail, Mouse’s (Kelly Jackson) lack of height, Rabbit’s uncontainable energy – and uniting to get the job done, the phrase ‘stronger together’ has never been so relevant (making no allusions to certain political current events…).

Darvill’s songs (with lyrics by Holcroft, Darren Clark and Al Muriel) do a great job of enhancing, rather than overshadowing, the plot, and encompass a varied range of musical variety. From the rocky and earthy human songs, to the contrastingly airy and melodic tunes sung by the animal characters, there’s a real ‘Us vs Them’ thematic vibe which ebbs and flows as the show progresses. I especially enjoyed the opening number; a barbershop quartet of bluebirds begin their morning chorus only to be viciously shot down by the murderous farmers – an element of black humour I wouldn’t usually expect to find in children’s entertainment. This leads into a stomping musical introduction to the story’s villains; gluttonous layabout, Farmer Boggis (Raphael Bushay), the eccentric Farmer Bunce (Gruffudd Glyn), and ringleader, Farmer Bean, the meanest of them all. Richard Atwill particularly impresses, creating a fine balance between Bean’s steely corporate greed and maniacal rage, which contrasts nicely with his later appearance as the alcoholic, territorial Rat who traps Mr Fox when he fears having to share his abundance of cider.

One of the things I liked most about this production is its contemporaneity. Holcroft brilliantly infuses modern touches, such as iPods, with the classic fable quality of the source material. This is heightened by Tom Scutt’s sporty design, the set looks a gymnast’s paradise, all abstract foam boulders and multilevel revolves. The tracksuits and leotards worn by Mr Fox and Co. are also an effective way of suggesting the animal characters’ agility while anthropomorphising them without being too cutesy.

Issues including the importance of sharing, teamwork, individuality, and being eco-friendly form a strong moral crux to the show, but there are many moments of delightful surrealism – I doubt I’ll forget the image of a wrestling, leotard-clad Rooster being held in a headlock by a Badger, surrounded by strung-up rubber chickens any time soon! – and jokes appealing to all ages to balance the preachiness. While youngsters are kept amused by poo and wee jokes (who doesn’t love a bit of toilet humour?) and Rabbit and Mole’s slapstick routines, adults can enjoy sly gags and double-entendres that daringly crossed into risqué terrain. Thankfully these whizzed right over the kids’ heads, hilarious as they were!

It’s rare to find a ‘family’ show that truly lives up to its promise of cross-generational fun, but Fantastic Mr Fox is a triumph in its mass appeal as there’s something to enjoy for kids of all ages. Holcroft does a great job of crafting her own style while keeping Dahl’s original tone to the fore, and Aberg creates a colourful and action packed spectacle that doesn’t scrimp on character. This production is a great addition to the growing canon of Dahl stage adaptations, and is ideal for a pre-Easter theatrical treat. Fantastic by name, fantastic by nature.

Fantastic Mr Fox plays at Curve, Leicester until 9th April. For further UK tour dates please visit

The company of Fantastic Mr Fox. Credit: Manuel Harlan

Monday 3 April 2017

The Grapes of Wrath

Nottingham Playhouse
31st March, 2017, matinee

I’m on a bit of a mission to see or read all of the Tony nominees for Best Play so I was pleased to see that Nottingham Playhouse have teamed up with Nuffield Southampton, Northampton’s Royal & Derngate and the West Yorkshire Playhouse to stage Frank Galati’s 1988 adaptation (Tony Award 1990) of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Nottingham has good form for novel adaptations having previously co-produced Robert Icke’s production of 1984 and the recent West End transfer of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Although I don’t know Steinbeck’s 1939 novel I was watching the play with an intense awareness that it was a novel adaptation with all of the difficulties and decisions that come with that. Inevitably the detail of the novel is reduced, bits have to be cut, others condensed. Looking at recent examples, it’s interesting to consider different methods: Simon Stephens has discussed listing the events in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time followed by copying the novel’s dialogue to form an initial rough draft of a play. Sally Cookson has similarly described lifting the dialogue from Jane Eyre but then allowing the actors to put it into their own words. Nick Dear has also talked about the difficulty of finding a language for Frankenstein, making Shelley’s language more accessible for actors but making it seem like the words could have been said in Shelley’s original setting. The playwright’s job, then, seems to be to stay true to the author’s impulse but to find a modern vernacular through which to express the work dramatically.

Novel adaptations bring out the best methods of working in contemporary theatre: collaboration and pushing the boundaries of what theatre can achieve. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Frankenstein and Jane Eyre – admittedly all NT productions with the resources and budgets afforded to a national theatre – have all become hallmarks of 21st century theatre. They embrace the new by reinventing old texts and finding new ways of making theatre. However, I can’t help but feel that Abbey Wright’s production is strangely restricted by Galati’s adaptation and/or original production (which he also directed with his company at Chicago’s Steppenwolf). Reading Frank Rich’s review of the New York opening, there are similarities between then and now: an opening tableau of a lone spotlight on someone playing the handsaw to create the pastoral sound that is similarly evoked by the flute at the start of Miller’s Death of a Salesman; both productions aim for a stripped back, muscular yet elegant aesthetic (here in Laura Hopkins’ multi-purpose steel framed design) rather than gaudy, sentimental patriotism; camp fires scatter the stage in both.

Novel adaptations also offer the challenge of how the stage production can do justice to the novelist’s imagination and ambition of scope. Not all have to have the technical razzmatazz of Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein. Simple lighting, puppets, choreography and movement can bring the novel to life. The Grapes of Wrath offers a great opportunity for an inventive production. It follows the Joad family’s journey from the Oklahoma dust bowl in the Depression, where the land and opportunities are dry, to California where work (like the grapes) is plentiful. Yet at times, Wright’s production is disappointingly static. People have lost their spirit, even the preacher, in Oklahoma and they’ve fallen in love with the idea of green land and fruit trees and little white houses. Like with Shepard’s True West it’s easy to recognise the rose tinted California Steinbeck portrays and how it offers hope for the disheartened. On the way, the family and extended community meet natural disasters, people out to make a quick buck, violence and heartache. Galati also poetically points up that the mountains and rocky land look like ‘the bones of a country’, lacking in colour.

The production is impressively underscored by Matt Regan’s affecting and evocative music. He and his band achieve a sound which is distinctly American: it’s a touch folksy but it also has inspirations of rock and maybe the Blues. It is played over bits of narration (presumably parts of Steinbeck’s prose) which also help to place us in the planes of Route 66. Wright has also assembled a strong, diverse cast. André Squire conveys Tom Joad’s supressed anger, his determination to turn his life around, and his strong family ties. Branden Charleson nicely suggests the preacher’s tired sense of belief. Julia Swift stands out as Ma: with a few American 20th century classics under her belt, she excellently conveys the matriarch’s undying hope that California will offer more for her family. She and the company nicely articulate what Rich described as ‘the existence of an indigenous American spirit that resides in inarticulate ordinary people’.

What livens up the production is the inclusion of a community cast at each theatre. It’s a decision that reminds us of the currency that this play holds in promoting the importance of (comm)unity. Both Grampa and Granma die on the way to the West coast, the former as soon as he leaves the Dust Bowl, with another character remarking that the old man and the old land were one. Another member of the family also parts from the Joads, preferring to stay in Colorado(?). However, there remains a sense of unfailing hope even if act 2 shows California not offering all of its promises (there’s still violence, floods, a shortage of work and heartache). Galati tries to show a wide snapshot of Steinbeck’s different characters, but this makes for a slightly uneven play despite Wright’s balanced production. Indeed it seems odd how we start the play with one protagonist (Tom) and end with another, Rose of Sharon, who is seen in grief over her lost baby trying to breastfeed a man. Molly Logan’s portrayal is tender but it doesn’t make up for the character being reduced to merely a growing bump in act 1 (although this is more of the adaptation’s fault and not Logan’s).

There are a few striking lines in the script, making it a ripe time for reviving the play. Brexit has split the country in what is a politically divisive time. Galati’s script and Steinbeck’s novel presents us with a population of people who appear to be moving en masse for a better life. The resonance is galvanised when the Joads meet someone who is moving back the other way, unimpressed with what California had to offer. Although I haven’t been fully won over by this adaptation/production, The Grapes of Wrath offers a powerful reminder of how we can see timely resonances in a story that is so dislocated from our time and place.

The Grapes of Wrath plays at the Nottingham Playhouse until 8th April and then tours.
The Company of The Grapes of Wrath. Credit: Marc Brennar