Friday 26 January 2018

The Grinning Man

Trafalgar Studios, London
20th January 2018

‘Never have I seen pork so lodged!’

The above quote refers to a surreal incident involving a dead King and a pig’s trotter. My boyfriend insisted I use this as the opening to this review, and, to be fair to him, it sums up the irreverent tone that permeates the musical pretty well. Adapted from Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, Carl Grose, Tim Phillips, Marc Teitler and director, Tom Morris’ The Grinning Man is a deliciously dark and wickedly entertaining cocktail of debauchery, Gothicism and carnival. We are treated to an enticing blend of the gruesomeness of Brother’s Grimm (if you haven’t read it, look up The Girl Without Hands as a good example), the aesthetics of a Tim Burton film, and Hugo’s upstanding social consciousness, all delivered with the tongue-in-cheek silliness of Monty Python’s Spamalot.

Horrifically maimed as a boy, Grinpayne (Louis Maskell) is on a mission to seek out his attacker and get his revenge. Armed with only the vaguest information about his childhood (a shipwreck, a singing corpse, and a baby lost in the snow) he is determined to discover the truth from his adopted father, Ursus (Sean Kingsley), with the help of his friend Dea (Saane den Besten). However, when the foppish prince Dirry Moir (Mark Anderson) takes a special interest in his disfigurement, Grinpayne is thrust into the limelight, becoming both a scapegoat and martyr for the humours, desires and anguishes of the realm’s ravenous hoards.

Before the show even begins we are plunged into the uncanny world of Lonnn’donn. Jon Bausor sets the action within a giant proscenium mouth, complete with rope stitching holding together the sliced cheeks, and we are surrounded by fairground bunting and fading posters advertising the menagerie of wonders to be seen at the local freak show. This sets a precedent for the production as a whole, as the action regularly bleeds out into the realms of immersion, audience interaction, and meta-theatre.

What follows is a classic romp involving secret identities, goodies vs baddies, and the power of love. Yet Grose and co. have given these well-worn tropes a sly twist of licentiousness. For example, Dirry Moir’s incestuous relationship with his nymphomaniac sister, Josiana (Amanda Wilkin), is threatened by her paraphilic lust for Grinpayne. Julian Bleach’s clown-cum-emcee, Barkilphedro, is conniving and covetous, yet strangely likable in his dastardly ways. Much of the musicals’ promo material impels us to be ‘seduced by the Grinning Man’, and, admittedly there is a peculiar eroticism to the freak show shenanigans. The morbid curiosity surrounding Grinpayne is shared by the audience – I wanted desperately to see beneath his mask, and the reveal (‘I Am The Freak Show’) is an electrifying crescendo, and very satisfying indeed. So - and this did come as somewhat of a surprise to me - this is a very adult fairytale. And, choc full of one liners (‘it’s like watching a cockroach having a wank’ – my favourite) and flamboyant characters, a very funny one, too.

Julian Bleach is clearly having a blast as Barkilphedro. He has an effortless rapport with the audience and frequently has us cracking up with his self-referential asides – his extended vibrato during the opening number, ‘Laughter Is The Best Medicine’, is a neat introduction to the show’s discomfiting humour. Bleach may be typecast in these sort of roles – devious villains with a penchant for chewing the scenery (most recently seen in the National’s Saint George and the Dragon) – but it’s because he’s damn good at it. A nuanced counterpoint to the showier, more caricatured characters, Louis Maskell strikes an imposing figure as the tortured Grinpayne. Earnest, brave, loyal and loving, Maskell makes a bold impression without needing any of the slapstick or crudities divvied out elsewhere (they’re incredibly amusing, I’m just stressing the successful balance of tone). His lower face masked for the majority of the show, Maskell utilises all the subtleties of his physical and vocal performance to convey the character’s thoughts and feelings. Swerving, twisting, convulsing and leaping with uninhibited precision (I know that seems like an oxymoron, but I can’t think of a better way of describing it), Maskell’s physical presence suggests bodily possession from external forces - as if he is an extension of the puppet Grinpayne (also operated and voiced by Maskell) seen earlier in the show. Pained and piercing vocals ensure we feel all of Grinpayne’s wretchedness, while elsewhere Maskell’s voice reaches euphoric beauty that makes his numbers a joy to listen to. While the entire cast are superb, I would feel cheated if both Bleach and Maskell missed out on recognition this awards season.

Phillips and Teitler’s score is pleasant, melodic and moves the story along nicely. For me, stand out songs include the aforementioned ‘Laughter Is The Best Medicine’ and ‘I Am The Freak Show’, as well as Grinpayne and Josiana’s subversive ‘love/lust’ song, ‘Brand New World Of Feeling’, and the charming ‘Stars In The Sky’ which becomes a lovely leitmotif for hope and friendship. However, this is a musical that is greater than the sum of its parts. It needs to be appreciated as a whole, in all its carnivalesque theatricality.

A neat revolving caravan transports us from Josiana’s bedroom to Ursus, Grinpayne and Dea’s home-cum-stage, and brilliantly provides scope for the dumbshow-esque story of the maimed boy. Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie’s puppets, and their tender operation by the cast, are breathtaking. Not since War Horse have I felt this much empathy for what is essentially an inanimate object. There is no illusion, young Grinpayne and Dea live and breathe as any real child does, Mojo the wolf prowls the stage with an authentic animalistic gait, and there is even a moment where the puppets themselves operate other miniature puppets – a level of metatheatre brand new to me! These endearingly old fashioned storytelling techniques, and the reliance on manual effects - such as the creation of sweeping waves by members of the company wafting curved swathes of blue across the stage - add greatly to the intimate matchbox aesthetic; this feels like a heartfelt collaboration between a group of people truly in love with their craft.

This unashamed theatricality, combined with the transposing and satirising of Hugo’s sentimental social commentary, puts me in mind of the type of rollicking drama seen in Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, where hummable songs and broad humour provide a slick veneer atop pointed barbs of political commentary. Collaborative in every best sense, The Grinning Man offers a gleeful night of raucous revelry, wherein the audience become complicit in the storytelling madness.

The Grinning Man plays at the Trafalgar Studios, Lonnn’donn until 14th April.

The company of The Grinning Man. Credit:: Helen Maybanks

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Girl from the North Country

Noel Coward Theatre, London
20th January 2018, matinee

‘May you have a strong foundation
 when the winds of changes shift’

Just as the awarding of the 2016 Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan (‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’) pushed the boundaries of genre and got many a critic questioning ‘what is literature?’, Conor McPherson’s latest creation similarly defies all conventional classification. Is Girl from the North Country a play with music, a (whisper it…) jukebox musical, a revue, a Bob Dylan tribute show? The truth is, McPherson’s show is a genre all in itself. A moody tableau of the hardships of a specific time and place, while also offering prospective and retrospective truths regarding what was and always will be, this play juxtaposes the soul of folk music and its cross-generational timelessness with a searing sense of both epiphany and elusiveness.

Set in a Minnesota boarding house during the depression we are shown both arching and intimate insights into the lives of its residents. Nick Laine (Ciarán Hinds), the boarding house proprietor struggles with mounting debts and looking after his wife, Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson), who suffers from dementia. Their son, Gene (Sam Reid), is an aspiring writer who has succumbed to alcoholism while their adopted daughter, Marianne (Sheila Atim), is pregnant and the father is (literally) nowhere to be seen. House regulars include the Burkes who may or may not be on the run from a tragic past and Nick’s lover and confidant, Mrs Neilsen (Debbie Kurup). When two strangers appear in the dead of night the residents of this small community face monumental decisions regarding love, life, death and fortune.

The play is not particularly plot-led, McPherson has instead collated a series of interlinking vignettes, united by the boarding house/communal setting and the themes of transience, regret and hope, all interspersed with Dylan’s elucidating music. Due to this unusual structure the piece could seem sketchy; the multitude of characters meaning that we are denied any one person’s full story – and I admit that initially I wasn’t sure how it would all hold together as a cohesive whole - but after a while McPherson’s vision gets under the skin, and we realise that it is sometimes what is left unsaid, the stories that are untold, that are so evocative of the human experience. Marianne’s lyrical description of her unborn baby’s conception is mythical and elemental; when she speaks of the unseen ‘man’ coming to her and smelling of stone/water/earth, the imagery is so potent that I could sense the recollection along with her. Meanwhile, the heartstopping intimacy and stillness of Gene’s duet, ‘I Want You’, with his would-be flame, Katherine (Claudia Jolly), captures all the tragedy and yearning mournfulness of the deadbeat’s inertia.

McPherson peppers the play with the kind of snapshots and achingly insightful gems one traditionally associates with short stories (surely it’s no coincidence that Gene is emphatically a short story writer). The play is a series of minute but life-altering epiphanies, the mundanities of the everyday are pushed and pulled and the result is a type of contact which Nadine Gordimer famously termed ‘the flash of fireflies’. Short stories emphasise the ephemeral spark, they can be creeping and subtle, yet each of McPherson’s characters has their own ‘flash’ moment, whether it be Elizabeth’s moments of lucidity in which she offers nuggets of wisdom amid the banalities, or the varying realisations that they cannot carry on living the way they do. For better or worse, by the end every character has been touched by change.

This is the perfect balance to the abiding essence of folk music. Timeless and universal, Dylan’s music strikes a chord with so many because we all feel he speaks to us, for us, encapsulating what is so often thought of as inexpressible with a simplicity that is able to articulate the vagaries of life in a strikingly obvious manner. The struggles of the boarding house residents may be played out upon the backdrop of the great depression, yet the sentiment is eternal. Hence, the play’s brilliance lies in the way it inhabits an elusive and inconstant space, beautifully realised by designer Rae Smith’s use of projections and translucent gauze flats. An air of magic realism pervades in the way characters step out of their surroundings to serenade the audience, in some instances from beyond the grave. Poised between transience and permanence, the personal and the universal, time and space, Girl from the North Country epitomises the unique adversity of the human soul; while we may wish to stay ‘Forever Young’ the real tragedy is that this can never be so. This paradox is humourously and touchingly proposed when Marianne’s decrepit wannabe suitor, Mr Perry (Karl Johnson), confesses that ‘no one means to get old’.

Shirley Henderson embodies Elizabeth completely. Childlike, sagacious, frail and frenetic, she delivers her lines with humour, guts and tenderness. Ciarán Hinds brings a gravelly tenacity to Nick, we can sense a fragility behind his gruffness. Arinzé Kene is a soulful livewire as boxer and absconder, Joe, while Sheila Atim is utterly bewitching as Marianne. Not only blessed with a crystalline voice which ensures her songs are amongst some of the highlights, Atim’s mature, understated performance is mightily impressive.

Finally, I must praise Simon Hale for his haunting orchestrations of Dylan’s classics. The songs blend together seamlessly, while arrangements and incorporation of harmonies highlight not only what a masterful poet Dylan is, but how melodic and instinctive his music is.

I had a tear in my eye on more than one occasion and the sheer gorgeousness of the songs has me craving the cast recording already. A beguiling and truly indefinable piece of theatre, Girl from the North Country is a haunting elegy to the pains, injustices, losses and un/fulfilled hopes of the human spirit.

Girl from the North Country plays at the Noel Coward theatre until 24th March.
Sheila Atim and Shirley Henderson. Credit: Manuel Harlan

Thursday 18 January 2018

The Birthday Party

Harold Pinter Theatre, London
13th January, 2018, matinee
*Please note that this was a preview performance.

Stan, don't let them tell you what to do’.

Having seen only a handful of productions, I still feel new to Pinter but ever more fascinated with his work. From the ‘high concept’ productions such as Jamie Lloyd’s The Homecoming or Nick Bagnall’s Betrayal, to Sean Mathias’ No Man’s Land which felt like a big homage to the original production, to Ian Rickson’s deep textual exploration of Old Times and now Pinter’s first major play, The Birthday Party. He and Pinter are a winning combination in my opinion. Whereas Rickson and his stellar cast may not reinvent the play for its 60th anniversary, they do ratify its status as an oblique classic which has kept me thinking about the play since.

Writing out a synopsis for the play could easily give a misleading impression of this comedy of menace. A seaside boarding house; one elusive and shabby guest, Stanley (Toby Jones); two further mysterious men that arrive looking for him. But The Birthday Party is far from concrete. The play seems to be working on another, subconscious, level. It seems to be a play partly about the push and pull between resisting the temptation of conformity, the individual’s fight for autonomy, and the longing nostalgia for childhood dependence.

The two guests, Goldberg (Nat? Simey? Benny?) and McCann, are brought to life by Stephen Mangan and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor. Having written about Jez Butterworth pretty extensively elsewhere, I’m mainly coming at Pinter’s play through the optic of Butterworth’s echoes back to his mentor. In The Winterling, two hitmen (Wally and Patsy) pay a visit to their former colleague West which made me wonder if the same was true of Goldberg and McCann. The casting of Mangan, I imagine, gives Goldberg a more comic edge, but this does not undermine his menace either. Indeed, the half-rhyme in ‘You’re the leper, Webber’ seems to typify the character’s humour offset by an unsettling tone. He and Vaughan-Lawlor’s relentless barrage of tautological twists and turns and tormenting stichomythia make for a smooth but cruel double act. We get no definitive answers as to who they are, why they’re there and where they are taking Stanley. Pinter leaves the door open on a multitude of questions: Why do Goldberg and McCann make their first entrance through the back door? Is Petey complicit in their task? Meg has such delusions of grandeur about herself and her seemingly unappealing boarding house. So who exactly is she? Why do Stanley and Goldberg speak in idioms so much (does this connect them, after all Meg misinterprets a lot of Stanley’s idioms)? Why do Stanley and McCann whistle the same tune – is it a code? Why have they added Goldberg’s (very funny) line ‘What a lovely staircase’ at the end of act one?

Toby Jones is an actor who makes bold and clear performance choices: the wild beating of the drum that intimidates Meg, anguished screams from Goldberg and McCann’s torments, his inarticulacy in the third act. He makes Stanley both pathetic and threatening. The character reminded me of the overweight, somewhat pitiable, cuckolded Ned who Jones played in Butterworth’s Parlour Song (also directed by Ian Rickson, at the Almeida). In fact, Stanley’s story of being a concert pianist isn’t a huge leap from Ned painting himself as the chivalrous knight in shining armour in his own fairy tale of finding a present for his wife in magical olde-worlde Gloucester. Zoë Wanamaker conveys Meg’s naivety and mollycoddling of Stanley with humour and poignancy, and Peter Wight as Petey nicely plays in contrast to that. He is more grounded, that is until the end when Goldberg and McCann perhaps fill him with fear. Wight and Wanamaker play out the banal, cyclic rhythms of married life wonderfully, prompting me to think that these scenes which bookend the play perhaps anticipate Edward Albee’s The American Dream.

Hugh Vanstone’s lighting lets shadows loom large in the dark corners of the Quay Brothers’ shabby boarding house design, paper peeling off the walls and dust covering the sideboard. Through a setting and concept that is perhaps theatrically familiar, The Birthday Party breaks into a world of subconscious and unease. But as I said I haven’t seen the play before. I look forward to reading reviews by people who are au fait with the play.

The Birthday Party runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 14th April.

Zoë Wanamaker as Meg and Toby Jones as Stanley in Pinter's The Birthday Party. Photo credit: Johan Persson

Monday 8 January 2018


Victoria Palace, London
6th January, 2018, matinee

History has its eyes on you’

Has there ever been a more hotly anticipated new musical? A rhapsodic biography of America’s ‘forgotten’ founding father, Hamilton has whipped up a hurricane (pardon the pun) of frenzy, speculation, and, nay-sayers would argue, hyperbole which has swept the world to become a truly global phenomenon. With the fervour of its fans, the universal critical acclaim, and the charismatic presence of composer/lyricist/original star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s fair to say I had pretty big expectations – heightened by having our tickets rescheduled thanks to the much publicised delay in the Victoria Palace’s refurbishment (CamMac has done a splendid job by the way, impeccable sightlines from the gods and swanky new bathroom facilities) – and I’m ecstatic to say that Hamilton has exceeded these expectations and more than lived up to the hype.

Hamilton is a watershed moment not only in musical or theatrical history, but in cultural and social history on an immeasurable scale. Miranda’s appropriation and recontextualisation of hip-hop and traditional musical theatre tropes enables him to tell multiple (hi)stories at once; the fight for a nation’s liberation and independence, while also holding up a mirror to contemporary America, highlighting the evolutions and similarities between then and now, such as the reality that the USA was founded upon immigration, something which remains a political hotbed, fuelled too often by racial discrimination, yet here represented by a celebration of migrant cultures as performed by a multiracial cast which represent the true face of America. For a story of revolution, it seems entirely appropriate for that story to be told through such a revolutionary form. Hamilton’s struggles – as an immigrant, as a penniless orphan – are embodied by a language which reacts to and fights against social and cultural oppressions – the like of which are still present in today’s society. Therefore, Miranda’s musical is political in its very being. The fabric of Hamilton – from the iconic squeaky door riff, the opening and closing of doors which invite in or push out our protagonists – to the sublime intersection between the more traditional and quaint melody of ‘Farmer Refuted’ with Hamilton’s snappy and lyrically robust retorts (‘don’t modulate the key then not debate with me. Why should a tiny island across the sea regulate the price of tea?’), we see the language of oppression being undermined by the language of the oppressed.

Miranda’s affection for the art form is palpable in acknowledgments to his cultural and literary heritage, including references to Macbeth, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Dr Dre. And with Hamilton, he has cemented his place alongside his predecessors as a spokesperson for our time and for all time. I have stated elsewhere how Hamilton’s death speech in ‘The World Was Wide Enough’ is akin to the greatest Shakespearean soliloquies in its philosophical scope, the pin-point precision with which it skewers the disquietings of the human subconscious, and the way it plumbs the depths of our emotional capacities, all while maintaining Alexander’s characteristically endearing/infuriating aptitude to talk ‘non-stop’ even down to his dying breath. Add to this Andy Blankenbuehler’s abstract, yet humane choreography and Howard Binkley’s atmospheric lighting and within two and three-quarter hours of bombastic, show-stopping moments, this climactic showdown, for me, bears all the hallmarks of the heart-stopping, jaw-dropping magic which exemplifies just why I love the theatre.

If I have made Hamilton seem like a one-man-miracle that is not my intention. From Thomas Kail’s knowing direction, to the intricacies of Paul Tazewell’s costume design (I love the small alterations to the outfits as the narrative progresses through history - although Jefferson remains resplendent in his steadfast purple velvet frockcoat), details such as these show the amount of care and attention the creative team have put into the production. Binkley’s lighting is bold, creating and reshaping the lens through which we view the narrative; spotlights within spotlights mean we can zoom in on the action and focus in on the nuances of character. Blankenbuehler’s choreography is more than just modern shaping, it is integral to the storytelling as the ensemble enact abstract notions of death, life, and progression while bridging the space between us.

Jamael Westman is instantly likable, cool, and has just enough youthful naivety to make Hamilton’s more zealous and verbose aspects come across as charming rather than pompous. A virtual unknown, Westman has been well and truly thrust into the limelight and, if his turn here is anything to go by, he can look forward to a bright and prosperous future. Sifiso Mazibuko’s Aaron Burr is slick, understated and cool headed, a nice counterpoint to the energetic effusions of Westman’s Hamilton. Rachelle Ann Go is a sweet Eliza who isn’t afraid to show a harder edge, while Rachel John brings a cerebral wit and poise to the conflicted Angelica. However, the show was stolen by Michael Jibson’s gloriously waspish King George and Jason Pennycooke’s Thomas Jefferson. Pennycooke is spry, louche and wickedly funny, proving the ideal adversary to Hamilton in the rap-off cum cabinet battles. Praise also to Pennycooke’s extraordinary ability to wrap his mouth around some of Miranda’s most challenging word-play; the actor received an awed reaction following his verse in ‘Washington On Your Side’, which is so fast and lexically dense that it recalls traditional tongue-twisters with an additional intellectual clout (go on, try it: ‘I’m in the cabinet, I am complicit in watching him grabbing at power and kiss it, if Washington isn’t going to listen to disciplined dissidents this is the difference: this kid is out!’ – and faster… and faster!).

For me, the sign of a good show is when, come the final bows, I immediately want to watch the whole thing again from the beginning. I didn’t want Hamilton to end, yet at the same time I wanted to go back and replay certain scenes to marvel once more at the multitude of joys that Miranda and co. have assembled. I’ve listened to the cast recording numerous times (I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the song ‘Alexander Hamilton’) but there are still thrilling lyrical twists that I’ve yet to discover. This is a production that merits watching again and again and is sure to reveal new delights with each viewing.

Words have power. And just as Hamilton himself did, Miranda has used all the power in his lexicon to move the world – yes, a musical isn’t going to create the same political upheaval as the forming of a constitutional government - but I guarantee that following this, the social and cultural orbits that unite within the arts will shift slightly from their once too predictable axes. So many of Miranda’s songs have already become standards (‘Burn’, ‘The Room Where It Happens’, ‘Wait For It’, ‘Helpless’, ‘Satisfied’, ‘My Shot’, ‘Dear Theodosia’, ‘You’ll Be Back’, to name but a few) that it’s difficult to think of a contemporary composer that has had as great an impact at such a young age. Rich in theme, aesthetic, language, and context I hope and expect Hamilton to find its way onto many an English Literature syllabus where it can take its place amongst the classics of old. In fact, to further the Shakespeare comparison, while we Brits can claim Richard III and Henry V etc. then in Hamilton America has found its History Play and ushers in a new era of creative political commentary.

Hamilton is currently booking until 28 July, 2018.
Cleve September, Jamael Westman, Jason Pennycooke and Tarinn Callender in Hamilton.
Photo: Matthew Murphy