Saturday 31 March 2018

Kiss of the Spider Woman

Menier Chocolate Factory
25th March, 2018

‘And since a woman’s the best there is…
I want to be one’

My relationship with Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman is a complex one. I’ve read the novel three times now and studied it for my degree. The thick web of thematic, generic and psychological intrigue (a Freudian analysis of ‘anal retention’, anyone?), not to mention the translation aspect – along with other contributing factors, namely depression, anxiety and the strain of being a perfectionist – caused me to have a nervous break-down towards the end of my 21st Century Lit module. Yet, despite being entwined with a difficult period of my life, I remain adamant that Spider Woman is one of my favourite pieces of literature ever. So it’s safe to say that I had pretty high expectations for José Rivera & Allan Baker’s new stage adaptation, and while there are moments of beauty, nothing in Laurie Sansom’s production quite reaches the heights of Puig’s original narrative.

Cell mates Molina (Samuel Barnett) and Valentin (Declan Bennett) while away the hours of darkness by retelling old Hollywood B Movies, reminiscing about their former lovers and cooking delicacies on their tiny camp hob. Valentin is a political prisoner, fighting for social revolution in Argentina. The openly gay Molina has been incarcerated for gross indecency. Repressed in different ways the two prisoners initially have little in common, but over the course of the play they bond through small acts of kindness and a compelling need for escapism.

It’s a simple but effective set up, focused on storytelling and interpretive influence. Puig’s writing lends itself well to the stage; the novel is written almost completely in dialogue, so an adapter could easily just lift much of the script from there. However, the magic of this generic literary style is in being required to read between the lines, of being complicit in your own understanding of the story, and unfortunately Rivera and Baker’s literal fleshing out of the story has robbed it of that necessary quality.

Puig’s famous footnotes, sparked by seemingly inconsequential phrases, transport the surface plot into a theoretical world of psychological, political and spiritual meatiness. Unable to fully realise the footnotes in a satisfactorily theatrical manner means that Rivera and Baker instead have a tendency to overstate the obvious and remove any thematic subtlety. As Barnett makes his final entrance elegantly draped in a silken webbed dress, I couldn’t help but feel that Molina’s appearance as the titular Spider Woman is better implied than realised in such a literal fashion. Moments like this appear to oversimplify Puig’s intense and rambling examination of gender identity and politics.

Despite this pickiness on my part, Rivera, Baker and Sansom succeed most during the epilogue. Valentin’s drug-fuelled stream of consciousness during what are possibly his dying thoughts comes across beautifully on stage. Finally escaping from his island of incarceration, he lives out his final moments on a picturesque island of tranquillity, accompanied by a woman he maybe knows and maybe loves. They walk, hand in hand, through an unearthly waterfall, silhouetted against movie-star spotlights, and the final lines of the play echo those of Puig’s novel, which remains amongst the most exquisite endings in the literary canon; ‘this dream is short, but this dream is happy’. It is a moment of cinematic bliss of which Molina would be proud. Sob.

Elsewhere, Sansom’s direction is equivocal in its theatrical intent. There’s an air of desperation in the projections which illustrate Molina’s movies. For an artform which is built on the tradition of oral narratives, there’s a distinct lack of trust in the power of oration alone – not to mention Barnett’s superlative performance - as well as a patronising underestimation of the audiences’ imaginative capacities. Yet, where the story provides an authentic scope for dramatic splendour, Sansom holds back. Molina’s love of romantic, sentimental ballads and arias would be the perfect opportunity for a dramatic and entertaining frisson, and there’s no doubt that both Barnett and Bennett can sing their socks off! – yet we get nothing from that teasing titbit.

Nevertheless, we are often told to judge plays, and all forms of art, on what they are, not what we want them to be. In this case, then, I have nothing but praise for the central performances. Barnett is charming and suitably theatrical as Molina, but also displays a steeliness and capriciousness which gives the character depth and avoids turning him into a stereotype. His bruised revelations about the falseness of his outside relationships is a raw and truthful, albeit brief, contrast with the character’s silver-screen fantasies. Bennett is a quiet, brooding presence, yet when Valentin opens up he affords the character with sincerity and sensitivity. Sadly, Grace Cookey-Gam is wasted in the superfluous role of the Prison Warden, and, while Barnett and Bennett’s performances are definite pluses for this production, there remains an unease surrounding the blatant whitewashing of what is a fundamentally South American story.

Jon Bausor’s design is a triumph in understated realism. The camp beds look suitably uncomfortable, and the tiled walls are awash with grime. Small touches, such as the faded posters which adorn the concrete pillars of the Menier auditorium and the real-time preparation of food, ensure that the cell feels like a lived in, domesticated space, highlighting the prisoners’ growing ease and attachment to each other and the importance of small, frivolous comforts. As mentioned previously, Bausor and lighting designer Paul Anderson come into their own during the epilogue, and create a strong lasting impression.

Kiss of the Spider Woman may have suffered from directly succeeding The Inheritance in my theatre-going diary. Undoubtedly, Lopez’s play is the superior dramaturgical exploration of sexuality, politics and storytelling, yet I admire the attempt to translate a ‘difficult’ novel to the stage. And while Puig’s masterpiece doesn’t quite work when fleshed into a physical entity, I am reminded of the unique and all-conquering power of the human imagination, and I am forever thankful that stories such as this are produced and continue to make people think, feel and dream.

Kiss of the Spider Woman plays at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 5th May.

Declan Bennett and Samuel Barnett in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Credit: Nobby Clark

Wednesday 28 March 2018

The Inheritance

Young Vic, London
24th March, 2018 (two play day)*
*Please note that these were preview performances

I can understand what it was but I cannot feel what it was”.

How did the first audience members of Angels in America feel at the Mark Taper Forum in California? Did they know it would become a modern classic? Such thoughts and comparisons are natural, inevitable perhaps, considering the closeness in both subject and form that The Inheritance shares with Tony Kushner's 'Gay Fantasia'. Yet Matthew Lopez’s epic two-part play and Stephen Daldry’s sure-footed production feel like an accomplished piece of theatre which is very much interested in the act and art of storytelling. So, to my mind, it doesn't seem at all hyperbolic to suggest that, aside from the connection to Howards End, Lopez's play is a worthy successor to those fin de siècle plays of the previous century such as Angels, crafting a kaleidoscopic and philosophical treatise on what it means to live, love and work in the twenty-first century.

We start with a group of aspiring young writers in modern day New York, discussing their creative struggles with their mentor, Morgan (E.M. Forster). This deliciously meta, quasi-real narrative frames the play within, which is the shaping and reshaping of one of these writers’ novels, itself a contemporary reworking of Forster’s Howards End. Forster's presence is a gutsy and rewarding move on Lopez's part, as 'Morgan' frequently butts into the action to question characters' motives, or to ask them revealing questions. It's a narrative technique that could seem laboured or cloyingly smug, but Lopez interweaves the multiple dialogues and plotlines with such ease that the result is utterly luminescent and evocative of the psychological and aesthetic realism seen in literary modernism.

The play within opens up a world of utterly engrossing characters. Over an all-too-fleeting seven hours we follow the triumphs and tribulations of Toby, an ambitious if foppish playwright, his modest and kind fiancée Eric, their older friends Walter and Henry who lived through the AIDS epidemic, Adam a wealthy aspiring actor and his unwitting doppelganger, Leo, a prostitute. I was perplexed when I heard that Lopez was basing his play on Forster's novel. 'How can there possibly be a comparative line drawn between an Edwardian reflection on class, manners and posh houses and the legacy of the AIDS epidemic?'. But this most bizarre concept works. Simple as. I enjoyed playing snap with Lopez and Forsters' characters, watching their dual plotlines unfold and the miniscule joys of spotting easter egg references to the original. But if you think you know how the story ends, think again. Lopez twists the tale; characters are spliced, fates are unexpected. The main uniting factor is Lopez's evident affection and admiration for Forster; both pieces are united in the exploration of truth, morality, beauty and the self.

There’s so much going on in terms of plot, characters, narrative frames and scale that it would be easy to assume that the writing is merely good in the face of the play’s sheer ambition. But, as well as being a damn clever meditation on the creative process, the writing is also emotionally searing, nuanced and consistent, never glib or rushed. There are numerous standout scenes, monologues and instances of dazzling visual imagery so I want to home in on some specifics to at least try to convey Lopez’s skill. At the end of the first act, Walter has a long monologue about the pain of seeing his friends ravaged by AIDS. When talking about their upstate house which he - against Henry's will - used as a refuge for the dying, Walter contrasts images of the city burning around him with the burning reds and oranges of the cherry blossom tree in the garden. One is a picture of death and desolation, the other of growth and birth. Much later, when Toby disappears, he realises that ‘I can’t rewind my story. I can only go forward’, and we are prompted to think of that imagery again when Toby weighs up his options: ‘Heal or burn?’

Real estate plays a key but peripheral role in The Inheritance. Henry is a real estate billionaire, owning an apartment in Manhattan, a place in the Hamptons and a house upstate which we learn he gave to Walter in the late eighties/early nineties. Meanwhile, Eric, at the start of the play at least, lives in the rent-controlled apartment that his grandmother lived and died in. It was there that she watched Kennedy’s assassination, Nixon’s resignation and Obama’s election victory. Essentially it was in that apartment that she became an American. Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy (2015) is similarly set in rent-controlled ‘prime Manhattan real estate’ that would easily fetch ten times its current rate if deregulated. We’re reminded in The Inheritance that partners of the ill were also affected by often losing their homes. Both Lopez and Adly Guirgis, then, paint New York as a city to which people flee and offers the opportunity to form safe communities, only to be threatened, whether by disease, City Hall, or rises in prejudice.

The link between real estate and AIDS is interesting. In 2016, Alexandra Schwartz wrote for The New Yorker that the epidemic occurred simultaneously with the real estate market ‘turn[ing] relentlessly bullish’, with the boroughs that had the highest rate of infection also having the fastest rate of gentrification in the following years. Later she reflects that ‘Whether consciously or not, we build our homes on the graves of others.’ The line seems to have added pertinence in light of this play. Henry gains his billions from the development and exploitation of legacy and its effects on the next generation. Conversely, regarding the duties of community, Walter’s altruism in opening up the doors of his house is a rallying cry for a more socialist approach. In a moving and startling end to part one, the ghosts of a generation of men who died there reconvene to welcome Eric; a reminder of the community lost and what a community can aspire to be.

Daldry must have recognised the play’s potential early on and, along with dramaturg Elizabeth Williamson, has helped shape its current contemporaneity. There are scenes set in the ensuing months after Trump’s inauguration when Eric’s boss, Jasper, campaigns to get him impeached; references to the Public’s controversial production of Julius Caesar; and jokes about Adam battling it out with the likes of Timothée Chalamet and Ben Platt for the lead role in Toby's play. But whereas in a lesser play contemporary and meta-references such as revering Vanessa Redgrave and bemoaning the length of a play might make you cringe, here it fits in with the play’s consistent, and often wickedly funny, humour.

If The Inheritance was Part One alone it would still be epic in its form. Part Two has more plot to get through but it’s a perfectly measured production by Daldry. This is partly due to Bob Crowley’s bare design which allows the production to remain uncluttered (an aesthetic similar to Ian Rickson’s production of Christopher Shinn’s Against). That’s not to say it’s without unexpected coups, for example when the white clapboard house and cherry tree are perfectly realised, or when the top tier of the pyramidal stage sinks in a symbolic depiction of Trump’s election victory. However, Jon Clark’s lighting also plays a large part in the production’s success. I was rarely aware of it changing and yet I acknowledged its significance in evoking place, whether that’s the blinding lights of Toby’s imagined fame or his actual loneliness when he runs away.

An exceptional company bring a multitude of characters to life, and the use of doubling is cleverly done from a dramaturgical perspective. Samuel H. Levine plays Adam with great subtlety, charting his journey from obsequious and naïve actor to realising the power of his acting skills. His retelling of a time he went to a Prague bathhouse is another heart-in-mouth moment. It’s as if the moment is recreated as a memory: the lights are dingy; we share his nervousness before going into the sauna, his abandon to the momentary euphoria, and his fall back to earth with the dreadful feeling of being contaminated by the bodily fluids that cover him. The sight of the blood and the intensity of the writing is enough to make you feel faint with empathy. But, Levine suggests, perhaps Adam’s acting skills transcend the stage, demonstrative of Lopez's constant ability to upend his audience and keep us guessing. Levine also sensitively charts Leo's arc; from reticent homeless escort to falling in love with Toby and losing himself in literature. There's a scene in which Levine flits at lightning speed between playing Adam and Leo and it is a testament to his performance that I actually forgot I was watching a single actor delivering what is essentially a monologue and became engrossed in the interplay and reaction between the two characters. 

Equally as believable is Andrew Burnap as Toby. From shallow playboy intent on fame to burnt out addict in denial, Toby's story is by turns hilarious, galling and tragic, and Burnap has us in the palm of his hand for the entirety of the wild ride. Although not one of the flashier roles, Kyle Soller as Eric effectively and assuredly carries the play. Soller conveys Eric’s humble wisdom no more so than when he challenges the audience directly about the responsibility of community: ‘If we don’t have conversations with our past, how can we know what our future will be?’

It seems rash to mention awards so soon, but each of Levine, Burnap and Soller could arguably win Best Actor gongs for their roles. Providing stellar support, Paul Hilton morphs between Morgan and Walter with ease, brilliantly carving out their differences but also hinting at a shared lugubrious quality. John Benjamin Hickey is prosaic and unnervingly likable as Henry, positing his contra views with sense, sympathy and, I must admit, logical cohesion. But I’ll allow other reviews to go into more detail into the cast’s work otherwise the task will become to find a variation on a superlative. *ahem*

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the play. There’s much more to explore including the reliability of memory and idealism vs reality, honesty and, as Toby puts it, ‘the inheritance of wisdom, community and self’. Although some plays about writing may seem self-indulgent, Lopez has written an expansive play that grasps the revelation that often it’s only through writing that we can be true to ourselves.

The Inheritance plays at the Young Vic until 19th May, 2018.

Kyle Soller, Samuel H. Levine and Andrew Burnap in The Inheritance. Photo credit: Simon Annand

Monday 19 March 2018

Young Frankenstein

Garrick, London
17th March, 2018, matinee

She’s assisting his brains out”.

Although it has taken over 10 years for Young Frankenstein (2007; based on the 1974 movie) to get to London, this production directed by Susan Stroman seems to have garnered mostly positive reviews. I’ve no doubt that Mel Brooks’ movies, with their winning formulae and old school Hollywood élan, may well be enduringly appealing. And the hit 2001 stage production of The Producers (starring Nathan Lane and Lee Evans in London in 2004) remains one of those productions that I’d love to go back in time to see. But based on this production alone, my first full encounter with Mel Brooks’ work, I have to say that if Brooks is a comedy genius then I’m Michael Billington. And sorry for the clickbait!

We start in New York with the acclaimed Professor Frankenstein (pronounced Fronk-en-steen in an effort to distance himself from the lobotomising legacy of his famous grandfather) delivering an all singing, all dancing paean to the brain. It’s not the most sophisticated of opening scenes, but it nicely does the job of setting up Frankenstein as a likeable, respected, and charismatic, yet serious, man. This is immediately followed by the arrival of a strained expositional letter that summons him to Transylvania to take care of his deceased grandfather’s affairs. But he doesn’t leave before singing a pointless duet with his fiancée on the dockside called ‘Please Don’t Touch Me’. Whether this is to establish his lifestyle in New York as stuck in some sort of puritanical ice age as opposed to the sexual awakening that welcomes him in Transylvania, or simply to give Dianne Pilkington something to do in act one, it sits oddly in the show.

Once there, along with the help of his grandfather’s assistants Igor and Frau Blücher, he discovers a way to put proof to the myth of bringing the dead back to life. This is much to the nearby villagers’ dismay who are still scared from the last time a monster stormed the village. The plot is an enjoyable romp, and some audience members seemed to be in hysterics, but something seemed to be amiss. I’m not being priggish about the musical’s sexual politics. If you don’t think too much about why Transylvania is sex mad and instead go with the flow, it is easy to lose yourself in Brooks’ nympho world. This includes Frankenstein and Inga getting aroused from riding a wagon of hay, and Lesley Joseph fondly reminiscing how the Frankenstein Sr. used to ‘plough her until the cows came home’! But can tit jokes really get more than a titter? In asking how this show fares in the time of the #MeToo campaign, I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for this style of humour or this type of irreverent show, simply that in Young Frankenstein the humour could be funnier and the show could be better. At times, it felt like I was filling in the gaps with my own jokes.

The show isn’t without its moments. Patrick Clancy’s solo ‘Someone’ is very funny, where he endures spending a couple of minutes with the monster (Nic Greenshields) after so longing for a companion. Dianne Pilkington plays Frederick’s shrill fiancée to great effect, and her song ‘Deep Love’ is one of the few that succeeds because it mixes a po-faced musical theatre ballad with lyrics filled with innuendo. And the highlight has to be the monster’s and Frederick’s duet of ‘Putting on the Ritz’ followed by a magically designed silhouetted dance routine.

At this performance, Josh Wilmott led the show superbly as Frederick Frankenstein. He brought a youthful naivety and ambition to Frankenstein, and occasionally evoked Gene Wilder as well as making the role his own. Lesley Joseph brings the house down as Frau, and I think she has earned her Olivier nod for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in a Musical. Cory English (no stranger to Mel Brooks’ musicals) does a fine job as Igor. It’s a role written for a comedian and I can’t help but imagine what Ross Noble would’ve done with his improvisations. At this performance, Gemma Scholes was on as Inga (although I spent the entire performance thinking it was Summer Strallen). The role is essentially collateral, but Scholes fully brought out her humour and was a memorable presence.

Veteran American director Susan Stroman packs the production with old school Broadway pizazz, including her own impressive choreography and Beowulf Boritt’s set of painted backdrops and pyrotechnic sparks. However, Brooks’ songs are rarely memorable apart from when he borrows from old Broadway and Hollywood musical standards. It’s a strong concept to merge the worlds of golden age Broadway with Hammer Horror B-Movies and there are promising bits, but this doesn’t quite come alive.

Young Frankenstein is currently booking at the Garrick Theatre until 29th September, 2018.

The company of Young Frankenstein. Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Friday 16 March 2018

Matilda the Musical

Curve, Leicester
15th March, 2018

‘Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty’

What is it about Roald Dahl’s stories that have so captured the minds of theatre makers?
To my mind it is his ability to present moral fables without sugar-coating the truth, often served up with great dollops of gruesome humour and characters that fizz with personality, while never underestimating the reader’s intelligence and imagination. Dahl’s enduring popularity with both children and adults make him the perfect source for family-friendly stage work.

The lyrics to ‘Naughty’ succinctly capture of the ethos of Dahl’s work – the underdog overcoming adversity; Robin Hood-ing your way out of a problem; childhood revelry; razor-sharp wit – and in Matilda Tim Minchin (music and lyrics), Dennis Kelly (book) and Matthew Warchus (director) have created the greatest Dahl adaptation to date.
Neglected by shallow parents who’d rather preen and watch endless amounts of TV than spend time with their daughter, five year old Matilda Wormwood escapes into a world of books and make-believe. Her precocious intelligence and determination to do what’s right endear her to her peers and caring-but-timid teacher, Miss Honey (Carly Thoms). Alongside these new found friends she uses her ‘miraculous’ gifts to serve her ignorant parents and bullying headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (Craige Els), their long-awaited comeuppance.

Minchin peppers the show with catchy tunes and his trademark lyrical wit; the ‘School Song’ is a particular highlight as the nervous newcomers get a lesson in both the alphabet and the perils of the education system. Minchin’s use of homophones is nothing short of genius. Elsewhere, puns a plenty (‘Revolting Children’) and a darn good raiding of the thesaurus - without, may I add, feeling at all exploitative – (‘The Smell of Rebellion’ has a definitive list of every olfactory related synonym in the English language!) exemplify the same skilful wordsmithery which so enchanted me in Minchin’s Groundhog Day (another collaboration with Warchus). 

Kelly’ book is just as absorbing as the musical numbers, allowing each character their moment to shine in a series of anecdotal episodes – Bruce Bogtrotter and the chocolate cake, Lavender and the newt, Amanda Thripp and her pigtails, etc. The subplot in which Matilda narrates the story of the Acrobat and the Escapologist is a beautiful insight into her imagination as well as sweetly revealing her yearning for a loving family. Storytelling imbues much of the aesthetic of Warchus’ production, from the cartoonish stylisation of the Wormwoods and employment of music hall type interaction seen in ‘Telly’, to Rob Howell’s building block-cum-scrabble tile design.

Peter Darling’s choreography is punchy with echoes of the original Spring Awakening movement. The kids hurl themselves in and out of angular positions with rebellious verve, while desks, swings and even parts of the walls become platforms upon which to express the constraints and freedoms of the young. Warchus ensures the fun extends to the very final seconds of the show, with a wonderfully directed curtain call involving scooters whizzing across the stage and an in-character Craige Els delivering an arch ‘maggots’ to the audience. I doubt there was a person in the room that didn’t wish they were up on the stage joining in with the uninhibited playfulness of the finale.

Els evidently has a lot of fun with Miss Trunchbull, relishing in her down right nastiness while revealing a sprightly, and surprising, vigour such as when blithely flipping over a gym horse. Likewise, Rebecca Thornhill and Sebastien Torkia have a blast as the despicable Wormwoods, and, though a lad of few words, Matthew Caputo had me cracking up with his portrayal of Matilda’s dim-witted brother, Michael. Yet, quite rightly, and as ever when it comes to Dahl, the children run away with the whole show. By turns impish, sweet, and laugh-out-loud funny, the child cast are impeccable and more than match their adult counterparts. At this performance Matilda was played by Nicola Turner, and she was tremendous. One of my favourite moments was her Act 2 number, ‘Quiet’, which Minchin packs full of twisting lyrics and complex concepts involving physics and philosophy. Turner expresses these perplexing notions with great poise, building up the web of thoughts and noise that both feed and confound Matilda’s brain. We can feel her frustration and the peace that ensues is ethereally tranquil as a consequence. Turner’s performance is one of subtlety and maturity which is truly joyful to behold.

Kelly and Minchin have bottled Dahl’s dual senses of whimsy and justice and Warchus’ spectacular production never relies on gimmicks. The kids in the audience were rapt with attention, the adults tickled and charmed in equal measure - Matilda is THE family musical of this generation and a must-see for musical theatre aficionados for Minchin’s score alone. The fun and mischief is infectious and I can’t remember the last time I smiled this much at the theatre.

Matilda the Musical is currently touring the UK. For all dates and further information please visit
The company of Matilda the Musical. Credit: Manuel Harlan 

Saturday 10 March 2018

How to make (artsy) friends and influence people when your social anxiety is crippling

‘So, what are you up to this weekend?’

That oft asked question from well-intentioned colleagues used to plague my waking hours during my previous job. My hands would become clammy, my face redden and my throat swell up so all I could manage to squeak out was ‘nothing’. Or, after weeks of ‘nothings’ I’d cave and say ‘just seeing a friend’ (I wasn’t. To be honest I don’t have any friends. How sad). I’m not one to lie, but the pressures of being seen to be sociable were, and still are, the toughest aspect of any job for me.

‘But what has this to do with theatre?’ you ask.

Well, not so long ago I had a job interview at a well-established arts organisation. I was qualified, prepared myself well for the interview, and, I hope, presented myself in a friendly but professional manner.

I didn’t get the job.

And that’s ok. The jobs market is a tough one right now and I know the odds are slim, especially when hoping to start a career in something you’re passionate about. Yet a few things continue to niggle me about the interview itself. Following the introductions, the conversation opened with the rather forthrightly put statement, ‘you’re an external candidate’ (yes, I’m well aware of that, thank you) ‘so we don’t expect you to know much about our procedures’. This may seem merely a case of awkwardly overstating the obvious, yet, to me and my admittedly anxious and paranoid mind, it seemed to be a passive-aggressive way of telling me not to bother because they were guaranteed to appoint an ‘internal candidate’ who already fits in well with the company. A pessimistic overreaction? 


I carried on with the interview, took a pretty straight-forward test to asses my service, observation and evaluation skills (after 3 years in a heavily customer service based retail job, I was pretty assured on this), and answered all questions in a succinct yet detailed way. Most questions were standard (‘give us an example of when you went out of your way to help someone’ etc.), but one question stumped me: ‘How well did you get on with your colleagues and what did you get up to together outside of work?’ (bear in mind this was a rather menial job – and I mean no disrespect here, I’ve only ever had menial jobs – and the majority of the time I would be working alone during very unsociable hours). To my mind as long as I have a professional and amicable working relationship with colleagues that’s as far as it needs to go, who cares whether I go out for a drink with them after work? (I did at my old job, occasionally, and under duress. I would spend the whole evening wishing for it to end and dreading the next question directed toward me – we were a small team). All of this suggested to me that no matter how well I fit the job criteria the priority was for me to be ‘one of the guys’. And that’s something that no matter how hard I try I can’t bring myself to be.

In the arts, much more than in any other sector, I’ve found, success depends not on what you know, but who you know. My sister is a techie and while she’s had a couple of opportunities through college placements, it is her class-mates’ inside connections that have got them theatre work over her (be it casual or something more permanent), often with no need for an interview. For her, the main draw of university is not to gain practical expertise in her trade, but to make those incredibly necessary ‘contacts’. At £9,000+ a year. Even in the world of blogging, it seems that you are required to be the life and soul of the party in an endless competition of who can gain the most twitter followers, who has the most connections (and therefore, scoops!), who can get that all important invite to the theatrical social event of the month…

We (two of us run this theatre blog) are beyond grateful for the theatres that have welcomed us warmly and graciously into their auditoriums and inboxes, often going out of their way to arrange alternative tickets for us (as a regional blog, and confined to public transport, we are rarely able to attend press nights), and, truly, they have made this blog what it is today. We are able to see around twice as much as we used to. Yet we struggle when it comes to gaining publicity for our blog. Last year we applied to join a well-known blogging platform. To qualify we needed three theatre contacts to give us references. That’s ok, we thought, we’ll ask ____, ____, and ____. Sadly one of the theatres refused to give us a reference. Do we not schmooze enough at performances? Do we not sycophantically gush about the theatre’s latest season to the director, producer or head of staff? Admittedly, we don’t do any of these things. We watch the show, discuss it quietly with our plus-one, mull it over on the train home, then write what we hope are entertaining and thoughtful reviews.

Personally, the thought of having to socialise – even with people that I have things in common with – fills me with dread. But it hasn’t always been like this. As a child I was confident, well-liked and precocious (read: annoying). When I was twelve years old I became very ill and while I like to think this hasn’t changed my personality, it has profoundly influenced my way of life. It’s impossible for all those years of hospital treatment, being shunted around CAMHS like a hot-potato, and having little contact with the outside world not to fundamentally impact my behaviour and thought-patterns. Fourteen years later, I’m pleased to say I have made much progress (fluoxetine is my saviour!), but I still struggle. In May I am due to partake in a Social Phobia course as part of my on-going CBT treatment – honestly, I’m bricking it, but I know it’s for the best in the long run. Therefore, what I hope to achieve with this blog post is to highlight the underrepresented marginalisation of people with mental health difficulties in the arts. When, in order to get ahead, whether professionally or as an invested hobby, the greatest importance is placed on knowing the right people and being able to endear yourself to those in power, I think it’s fair to say that those who suffer with anxiety, or depression, or any measure of specific problems, are left at a distinct disadvantage (one which is exacerbated by those suffering with mental health issues often being unemployed and therefore without the financial means to frequently participate in the arts).

I’m aware this is small beans compared with the current issues surrounding inclusivity (racial, gender, LGBT, class, for example) and I by no means intend to trivialise those. I just wanted to highlight that the arts world has become incredibly cliquey, and the reasons behind individuals perhaps not being part of that clique may be more complex than they initially seem. I’m a friendly person when you get to know me (or so I’ve been told), I just take a little longer than most to let my guard down. I adore theatre, and hope to continue enjoying it, and enjoying writing about it, for a long time to come.

So, in the words of Amos, Mr Cellophane himself, ‘I hope I haven’t taken too much of your time…’

Thursday 8 March 2018

The Band's Visit

Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York
1st March, 2018

Once, not so long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt.
You probably didn’t hear about it.
It wasn’t very important.

…so go the opening and closing lines of Itamar Moses (book) and David Yazbek’s (music and lyrics) The Band’s Visit. These uncomplicated words, so forthright in their delivery, bookend the musical while, in their understated sentiment, they perfectly encapsulate the tone of director David Cromer’s production. Modest, gently comedic, with a melancholic tang of inertia, The Band’s Visit describes the seemingly inconsequential events and non-events that shape who we are.

As the above quote suggests, the musical (based on the 2007 film of the same name) recounts an Egyptian police band’s accidental visit to the miniscule Israeli town of Bet Hatikva following a mix-up at the country’s border and takes place all in the space of one night.

That’s it.
On the surface, at least.

Yet, as the evening unfolds Moses and Yazbek weave a tapestry of compassion and tenderness as the threads of the diverse characters’ lives unravel and entwine with one another. For the residents of Bet Hatikva, who have spent a lifetime on the outskirts of society, forever ‘Waiting’ as the opening cyclical number demonstrates, the band’s arrival is the most notable thing to ever happen in the village. As a place in a stasis of inadvertent torpor, so too are the characters reduced to their inability to act – from young Papi’s (Etai Benson) frozen terror at the thought of making a move on his would-be girlfriend, to the local youth that stands night and day at the only public payphone, waiting for his true love to call. And this lethargy is not restricted solely to the Israelis, perhaps the most potent (and beautiful, melodically speaking) example is clarinettist Simon’s (Alok Tewari) inability to complete the overture to his musical composition. So the arrival of the Egyptian strangers causes ripples in the still waters of Bet Hatikva, wherein the simplest of human gestures, such as the lulling of a baby to sleep so its wearied parents can finally talk, going out for a meal, or giving much-needed relationship advice, mean the world.

Most enticing of these small vignettes is the budding relationship between local café owner, Dina (Katrina Lensk), and band conductor, Tewfiq (Dariush Kashani). Dina is brash and defensive while Tewfiq is stoic and aloof, yet the two bond over their mutual fondness of the music of Uum Kulthum and Egyptian movies which Dina used to watch as a girl. Dina’s growing fondness for Tewfiq culminates in a stunning scene of intimacy in which she asks him to describe what conducting an orchestra feels like. What follows is as unique and sensuous a duet (‘Something Different’) as I can think of, the synchronisation of heartbeats is the closest comparison I can make. Truly stunning.

Without wanting to be accused of giving away too many spoilers, I think it’s safe to say that I was strongly reminded of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s Once while watching The Band’s Visit, not only in the lush use of actor/musicians, but in the muted and yearning themes of the piece and the great (artistic) satisfaction found in dissatisfaction and ‘almost, but not quites’, also.

Yazbek’s score allows the band itself to shine, comprised of a blend of actors and musicians that gel together in rhythmic fashion. On top of the highly-deserved standing ovation during the curtain call I was delighted that the band got its own separate moment in the limelight as each musician showed their musical flare in barn-storming style! Stand out songs include the aforementioned ‘Waiting’ and ‘Something Different’ along with ‘Omar Sharif’ a lovely ode to the unifying nature of the arts, and ‘Answer Me’ in which the entire ensemble of characters come together to express their hopes and expectations.

Katrina Lenk is a revelation as Dina, portraying her abrasiveness and underlying fragility with gutsy swagger, while her husky voice exposes her aching for change. Counterbalancing Lenk wonderfully, Dariush Kashani lends Tewfiq a stillness that suggests inner depths yet to be explored. Kashani’s is an assured portrayal which is even more impressive considering this was his first performance in the show. Also impressive is Ari’el Satchel as the happy-go-lucky Haled, who, despite an arranged marriage awaiting him back in Egypt, never misses an opportunity to try out his favourite chat-up line, ‘So, do you like Chet Baker?’ on any passing woman. It’s perhaps the most overtly comedic role and it is to Satchel’s credit that what could have become a Joey Tribbiani-esque caricature is instead imbued with a warmth and naivety which endears him to both the locals and the audience. Finally, as the lugubrious Camal, cigarette permanently hanging, mournful, from his lip, George Abud steals virtually every scene he’s in with barely a line of dialogue. His stealth and moroseness is transformed the second he picks up the violin which he plays with virtuoso skill.

Played straight through with no interval, The Band’s Visit is a fleeting but searing musical which encompasses the cravings, losses, hopes, mistakes, hits and misses of the human experience. Yazbek and Moses have beautifully and succinctly crafted a piece which never outstays its welcome and manages to say in a mere one and a half hours what many try to achieve in years of musings and toil. While it may be overlooked in favour of the flashier shows currently playing in New York, this small, intimate and unassuming musical outshines even the brightest lights on Broadway.

The Band’s Visit is currently booking at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York, until 2nd September 2018.

The cast (Ari’el Stachel, David Garo Yellin, George Abud, Tony Shaloub, Harvey Valdes, Sam Sadigursky and Alok Tewari) of The Band's Visit. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.


Crucible, Sheffield
7th March, 2018, matinee

When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal”.

The original production of Frost/Nixon at the Donmar transferred to the West End and Broadway, as well as being adapted into an Oscar-nominated film. Now it’s having its first major UK revival in an edge of the seat production directed by Kate Hewitt. The play profiles the lead-up and recording sessions of David Frost’s interviews with recently-resigned and pardoned President Richard Nixon following the Watergate scandal. I didn’t see the original but it’s still a fascinating profile of two men and Peter Morgan implies that these interviews were the first time that politics and the world of TV came together in an influential way.

In the preshow, members of the Sheffield People’s Theatre populate the stage steaming the curtains, checking the height of the chair and setting up the camera for Nixon’s resignation speech. Here, and in the first scene, it’s one of the last times we see Nixon with much official authority and the first time we see the power that television holds in the play. Where Hewitt’s production really excels is in the use of Andrzej Goulding’s video design. I went from being lost in the close shot of the interview on the screen to jumping back when another character steps in to narrate on how they’re performing, a bit like coaches in the corners of a boxing ring. I wonder if it’s only now, in the era of Trump, that the play is also a sharp exploration of the benefits and cautions of the mixing of media and politics. How was no one before Frost able to get as deep into what Nixon knew? Ethically, should Nixon have been given a share of the profits? What if Frost had failed and Nixon were to have showboated his way back to Washington?

Jonathan Hyde’s Richard Nixon is way more than an impression of those famous loose jowls. Poised and measured, he can conjure Nixon playing the stately orator, looking up into the distance and waxing lyrically on every emotional encounter of his lifetime. But close-up on the live video, and in Charles Balfour’s exposed and exposing lighting, we see the shadows cast on his face from the heavy bags under his eyes caused by the pressures of public office. Hyde portrays him as a man weary of his exiled retirement in sunny California, as someone doing his most to retrospectively save his career, and all in a sympathetic light. Equally as good, Daniel Rigby captures the same toothy TV grin and a naïve optimism of David Frost that Michael Sheen did in the film (and original production at the Donmar). Whilst it still seems hard to believe Frost once led the life of a playboy, Rigby’s performance reaches the level where Frost can convincingly schmooze women, Nixon, audiences and broadcasters but still show enough journalistic grit and curiosity that he can trip up Nixon into admitting his deception.

Goulding does a brilliant job (as with People, Places and Things and Groundhog Day) with the video design. Live feed of the interviews lets us scrutinise their close-ups, whether that’s Nixon’s perspiration or Frost’s over-relaxed posture. It also allows us to see Nixon’s more private moments: instances in his study where we see uncertainty in his eyes or the crucial moment in his dressing room where he realises he’s lost the fight. George Dennis soundtracks the play with 70s numbers; we particularly liked the short burst of Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’ when Frost and the English television executive John Birt meet.
If Frost/Nixon was a new play today, it would be the play of the moment. That is Morgan and Hewitt’s skill in that they communicate the contemporaneity of this moment in history as well as showing it off as a political thriller.

Frost/Nixon plays at the Sheffield Crucible until 17th March, 2018.

Daniel Rigby and Jonathan Hyde in Frost/Nixon. Photo: Mark Douet.

Tuesday 6 March 2018

Jerry Springer the Opera

The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, New York
27th February, 2018

"This is my Jerry Springer moment"

The Linney Courtyard Theatre (at the Signature Center, home to The New Group) is roughly the size and configuration as the Donmar with the audience seated on three sides of the thrust stage. Playing elsewhere in the Signature Center that evening was David Rabe’s new play Good for Otto with a starry cast which includes Ed Harris and Rhea Pearlman, and a revival of Edward Albee’s double bill At Home at the Zoo. The spacious second floor foyer includes a book and merchandise shop. It’s difficult to immediately name a UK equivalent, but it’s clear that The New Group is committed to making contemporary theatre without the financial pressures of Broadway.

So, onto the show itself.

Admittedly, the majority of my knowledge of The Jerry Springer Show comes from The Simpsons, and beforehand the only song I knew from Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s musical was (the utterly fabulous and anthemic) ‘I Just Wanna Dance’. Despite this, I’ve wanted to see Jerry Springer: The Opera for years. I still remember watching news reports about the demonstrations outside the Cambridge Theatre in London when the original National Theatre production transferred to the West End. Since then I’ve always thought ‘what’s the fuss about?’. Well, now I’ve finally seen the show, courtesy of The New Group and director John Rando’s revival, I can say that, while certainly not one for the easily offended, Thomas and Lee’s creation is one of razor-sharp satire, lewd, crude and devilishly funny humour, and a surprising dose of cultural sublimity and heart.

Stepping into the auditorium we’re confronted with Derek McLane’s replica of the Jerry Springer studio (Grecian columns, those weird wall fan things, etc.) complete with tv screens showing autocue lines and some hilariously accurate commercial advertisements (Drugs and Religion seem to be the hot sellers in the US). Members of the cast are seated within the auditorium before springing into glorious and garish action for the overture. From the offset we are immersed in the larger-than-life Springer experience; we are roused by the maniacally exuberant warm-up guy (Will Swenson) into chanting for ‘Jerry! Jerry!’ to appear (which, as one normally adverse to audience participation, I rather enjoyed!), and thus, the subsequent cooing ‘ahhhs’ or jeers of ‘whore!’ from the chorus-cum-audience make us complicit in the nastiness and mockery – a masterly act of pure theatricality. Springer mildly mediates and stirs up his guests, who epitomise all the preposterous and somewhat unsavoury stories from those members of the public wishing to air their dirty laundry for all to see. We are treated to conflicts of the heart (Dwight has been cheating on three women), mind (Montel loves Andrea but wants her to fulfil his paraphilic infantile fetish – yes, I googled the term, basically he wants to be a man-baby), and stomach (ever wanted to see a tap-dancing Klu Klux Klan? Well, your wish is Thomas and Lee’s command). To anyone that’s ever had the misfortune of seeing The Jeremy Kyle Show (the UK’s mouthier, angrier and more bitter answer to Springer) these situations are not as far-fetched as they sound!

So far, so Springer. Yet when Jerry gets accidentally shot by a raging man in a nappy (or diaper, I suppose, as we’re in the US) events move into even more surreal territory and, faced with death, Jerry is made to question his career choices. Now in purgatory, Springer is confronted with the ultimate bad-guy, the Devil himself, and is forced to mediate a showdown between Satan and Jesus in order to avoid a personal hell of being ‘fucked up the ass with barbed wire’. We witness testimonies from the Virgin Mary, Adam and Eve, and even God himself, whose operatic declaration that ‘it ain’t easy being me’ is pretty universal in its subversive luminescence. This biblical war brilliantly lampoons the finger-pointing, gawp-fest that is junk television; we’re all there for a good fight regardless of the outcome, and we are all waiting with seething anticipation to be outraged as we’re fed controversy after controversy for controversy’s sake. The morality of this ethos is inspected, both for us audience members, and Springer as the provider of the perverse peep-show. This is no more apparent than when the dead souls of Springer’s guests appear before him in purgatory.

For a show that moves heaven and earth (quite literally), the real genius comes in Thomas and Lee’s juxtaposition of high and low culture. The songs are truly operatic – the opening ‘Overtly-Ture’ features a blissful myriad of melodies reminiscent of any choral devotion – and the thematic incongruity of the lyrics – ‘what the fuck? What the fuck? What the fucking fucking fuck?!’, ‘Momma give me smack on the asshole’ – provide a real meatiness to proceedings as ears and eyes fight it out alongside head, heart and soul in what is truly a cacophony of delights, from the luscious singing, to the eye-watering comedy, and philosophical moralising.

The cast are completely excellent and clearly relish all the naughtiness and crude antics they get to perform nightly. Tiffany Mann’s appearance as wannabe pole-dancer, Shawntel, is as elating as any other traditional ‘I Want’ musical theatre number, and she belts out ‘I Just Wanna Dance’ with unrestrained gusto (furthermore, her refrain of ‘talk to the ass’ is air-punchingly satisfying). Swenson’s energy is palpable as he gleefully chomps the scenery in his dual roles as Jonathan, the seedy warm-up guy, and the slick, goateed Devil. With his temperate manner and easy delivery Terrence Mann is unnervingly convincing as Jerry Springer while never losing that knowing twinkle in his eye (although why you’d cast Mann in a role where he never sings is beyond me!). Finally I must mention Luke Grooms as Dwight/God, whose lung-busting tenor register near blew my ears off in the intimate studio space!

While I’ve been waiting nearly fifteen years to see Springer, and much of the initial controversy has abated, it’s fair to say that the musical still resonates with a contemporary society. For example, a desperate-to-keep-his-job Jonathan urges Jerry to run for president only to be laughed aside by the man himself. A reality show star as President of the United States of America? Don’t be absurd!... More stinging is one of Jerry’s ‘final thoughts’ during his closing monologue. As he lies bleeding, dying on the studio floor, he quips ‘I’d like to add my name to the list of celebrities calling for tighter gun-control’. Whether ad-libbed by Mann or part of the original script (if someone could enlighten me, it would be much appreciated), this line is a poignant reminder of the endless debates, tragedies and controversies in America today. Thomas and Lee hold a mirror up to society, and if you’re offended by Jerry Springer then perhaps we need to take a good look at the way the media shapes our ethics, politics, opinions and tastes.

Jerry Springer: The Opera plays at The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Theatre until 1st April.

Terrence Mann and the cast of Jerry Springer: the Opera. Photo credit: Monique Carboni.