Tuesday 31 July 2018

The Lehman Trilogy

National Theatre, Lyttelton
28th July, 2018, matinee

He left with only an idea of America in his mind.
He arrived with it there in front of him

Italian playwright Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy (2013) has made it to the National Theatre, in a translation by Deputy Artistic Director Ben Power and in a starry production, after previously being well received in different productions in Paris and Milan. It’s a history – his-story – play, chronicling Lehman Brothers, from an Alabama fabric store ran by three German immigrant brothers, to the globally renowned (and now vilified) stock brokers.

But although this is directed by Hollywood heavyweight Sam Mendes, The Lehman Trilogy doesn’t have much cinematic quality. It doesn’t arouse the boardroom sharks of J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call (2011), nor does it glorify the lives of bankers as in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). It doesn’t really reach the heights of Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money (1987) at portraying the thrill of the trading floor. And considering the whole play is basically mansplaining, it falls short of the audacious bravura of Adam McKay and Charles Randolph’s The Big Short (2015). It’s more a play about immigrants’ tenacity to make something of their lives, the family’s continued effort to make more money, and how the ceiling of ambition rises with each new generation.

Es Devlin’s set and Luke Halls’ video design keep the production moving. The skyscraper office with floor to ceiling windows spins to match the play’s pace; the minimalist offices become stores and houses from state to state; grey cardboard storage boxes become shop counters and stairs. But this playfulness is conservative, leaving me now wondering what James Graham or Headlong would’ve done with the idea. Mendes firmly keeps his eye on the story, and it is a fascinating story, it’s more that Massini’s script occasionally feels rushed and lacking its own definite sense of identity.

I am also unconvinced by the play’s structure. It’s neatly satisfying that the Trilogy of the title refers to the three founding Lehman brothers as well as its three parts. But these three parts – Three Brothers, Fathers and Sons, The Immortal – don’t feel distinguishable enough to be considered as making up a triptych. Ben Power has provided a sturdy translation but I’m still a bit cynical. For example, the play is excellently underscored by Candida Caldicot on the piano (music by Nick Powell). Just as Powell’s musical phrases are made up occasional repetition, concordant notes and leitmotifs, Powell continuously returns to lines in his script. Here is a smattering of those which stand out:

The brain         the arm           the potato
The ticking clock was deafening
The yellow and black sign and the slightly stiff door handle
Henry is always right

I think it’s harsh but not disingenuous of me to say that I think these merely give it the illusion of structural strength, something to stop it completely being a rambling yarn of 160 years.

Although I don’t feel it was a massively rewarding *shivers* piece of theatre, it is enjoyable while it lasts, mainly because of the assured direction and performances. Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley have fun showboating their top acting skills. All three of them, as well as playing the original Lehman brothers and their descendants, take on the roles of supporting characters: crying children and would-be wives, southern plantation owners and New York tycoons. Best of all is Godley; his rubbery face and dynamic performance leaves a memorable impression, as he goes from the more tentative mediator ‘potato’ brother Mayer to the more forward-thinking, disco-loving, elderly final Lehman to be involved in the business. Elsewhere, I can’t imagine what it’s like to be one of the supernumeraries who don’t appear until the play’s dying moments, probably thinking of how quickly they can get to Waterloo as much as they are about life after the 2008 financial crisis.

In the bigger picture, this may be a play about family and the seed of the American Dream. When we visited Liberty and Ellis Islands earlier this year, it was hard not to be impressed by the clustered verticality of Manhattan. Like America promises so much to Henry Lehman when he stands on the dock side, this play promised so much as well. *Insert neat phrase in the semantic field of stocks and shares here*.

The Lehman Trilogy plays at the National Theatre until 20th October.
Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley in The Lehman Trilogy. Credit: Marc Douet

Wednesday 18 July 2018

Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em

Curve, Leicester

17th July, 2018

Wherever there’s trouble, I can guarantee you I’ll be there

Apparently this stage adaptation of Raymond Allen’s 1970s’ classic sitcom was conceived when writer/director Guy Unsworth was directing Joe Pasquale in Monty Python’s Spamalot in London. It was a hot summer’s day, the story goes, and Pasquale's unsuccessful attempts to fix a fan gave Unsworth a lightbulb moment of casting Pasquale as hapless Frank Spencer and making him fall down a set of stairs seven shows a week. If only Unsworth missed a train that day and couldn’t make it to that sweltering matinee of Spamalot. If only the dressing rooms weren’t in the basement at the Playhouse and not so stuffy. If only the Playhouse's management invested in a better fan to cool the company down. If only Unsworth was directing Stewart Lee in a play and he ended up playing the role immortalised by Michael Crawford. Any number of slight changes to that day and this production of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em might not have graced the stage and where oh where would British theatre be then? It seems churlish to be this po-faced about the production even if I am cynical in the endeavour of adapting old sitcoms rather than creating new comedies that appeal to family audiences. Although it’s certainly not without criticism, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em has a relentless giddy charm. Born in 1992, I had an avid interest in comedy from a young age, including watching repeats of Some Mothers, and going to see Joe Pasquale perform live. Although my tastes might have since altered, this is an odd nostalgia trip to see the mash-up of the two.

Unsworth has taken Allen’s scripts and amalgamated some memorable moments from throughout the series as well as focusing on the episode(s) where Betty tries to tell Frank he’s going to be a dad and the one where the BBC films his DIY achievements for a new TV show. Add to that Betty’s mother (played very well by Susie Blake) who has become alcoholic and desperate for a man, a vicar and a rather implausible through-line of a missing ring and some stolen money, and you have the ingredients of a classic farce. Add to this Simon Higlett’s comedic playground of a set complete with 70s wallpaper and a loaded staircase and you would think it’s enough to give Mischief Theatre a run for their money.

Pasquale has an affable quality that makes him easy to warm to, but he doesn’t quite match Crawford’s performance. Pasquale does great service to the part by capturing Frank’s innocence, his optimism, performing the malapropisms believably, and getting through verbally dexterous tautological speeches. It’s to be applauded that he doesn’t do a carbon copy of Crawford – hearing Pasquale say ‘I’m a man’ in his trademark squeaky voice has its own joys – but there are also flaws in the performance. Pasquale sets off at such a pace there’s no wonder the whole thing comes in at under two hours. The problem with this is that it occasionally feels like he is regurgitating the script and it means that the humour found in Crawford’s pauses, as you saw him working thoughts through, is lost. Having said that, Pasquale sure knows how to slide down some bannister railings. Aside from the slapstick, he boasts a strong quality for farce, trying to keep the whole thing together whilst it’s simultaneously falling apart. The whole company is strong, especially Sarah Earnshaw is as Frank’s long-suffering and devout wife, Betty. Praise also has to be given to the stage management team led by Nik Ryal; I can imagine them running around the back of Higlett’s set throwing chicken feathers, squirting water, exploding kitchens, and knocking things off walls.

In sitcom, there are often no consequences, as explored to great effect in Terry Johnson’s play Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick. But by the end of this two hours, Unsworth throws in a surreal dance routine made of several Frank Spencers as well as a contrived tidying up of the plot – as if the plot was anything we were ever bothered about! In the last couple of months, I’ve seen a gamut of what small-mid scale touring theatre has to offer from the superb Fleabag to the wasted Sherlock Holmes. Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, thanks to clever casting, a popular TV show of yesteryear, and amplified microphones so no one can complain of audibility issues, is sure to pack in and satisfy audiences for the remainder of its tour.

Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em is playing at Curve, Leicester until 21st July and touring the UK.

Joe Pasquale as Frank Spencer. Credit: Scott Rylander

Tuesday 10 July 2018

Fun Home

Young Vic
7th July, 2018, matinee

"Perfect balance"

Even those who aren’t aware of Alison Bechdel will no doubt be familiar with some aspects of her work. The Bechdel Test (a quantifiable scale of female representation in the media) has been one of the major influences in 21st Century pop culture, causing the powers that be and audiences alike to stop and think about the ways in which women are depicted. I don’t know about you, but I now almost subconsciously calculate whether a film, tv show or play I watch could pass Bechdel’s test. Now Bechdel’s own equally important and fascinating story has been brought to the public eye, in Lisa Kron (Book) and Jeanine Tesori’s (Music) adaptation of her ‘tragicomic’ autobiographical graphic novel, Fun Home.

Kron navigates the unusual source material by dramatizing grown-up Alison’s (Kaisa Hammarlund) process of reminiscence and illustration. Poised behind her artist’s bench, she ‘captions’ the scenes as she sees them, images that flit in non-chronological order, so that we, like Alison herself, must piece together a meaningful narrative from the pivotal events in her life. The story can be split into three blocks, each strand building to its individual epiphany. Small Alison struggles with living up to her father, Bruce’s, expectations – she wants to watch cartoons, wear jeans and run around with her brothers, while he insists on her ‘fitting in’ by wearing dresses, tying back her long hair and drawing precise, traditional pictures as opposed to Alison’s preference for figurative collage. We see Medium Alison coming to terms with her sexuality and coming out to her family. All the while, Big Alison endeavours to unravel the tragedy of her father’s suicide, his openly secret homosexuality, and the role he played in shaping her childhood.

 Like most memory plays, we are aware that Alison’s version of events is patchy, unfinished and coloured by hindsight and personal feeling. This is beautifully conveyed in Kron’s book as Alison frequently stumbles over her choice of words, tries out and discards new expressions, and generally thinks out loud. As a basic insight into the approach artists take towards creation, it feels, at once, organic and intimate, a technique embraced by David Zinn’s set. From jumbled heaps of furniture, to semi-populated spaces, to the white expanse that echoes a blank canvass, to the fully realised ornate house on Maple Avenue, Zinn’s design mimics the collage of images our memories create while also evoking Bechdel’s original illustrative work.

One of the aspects I found most moving was Kron and Tesori’s faith in silence. As a graphic novel tells a story through images, words and, perhaps most importantly, the spaces in between, Fun Home’s creators similarly embrace multimodal techniques to enhance the joy and tragedy of the piece. Rarely have I seen a ‘loss for words’ so appropriately and satisfyingly portrayed. It may be somewhat incongruous to say, but within ‘Ring of Keys’, the musical’s breakthrough number, the most eloquent expressions of self-discovery are found in Small Alison’s moments of halting inarticulation, there are no words to express the joy and recognition she feels. Alternately, if ‘Ring of Keys’ is a blazing and triumphant epiphany, then ‘Telephone Wire’ is it’s melancholic, transient cousin. Alison’s final car ride with Bruce is brimming with thoughts unspoken and missed milestones, the fact that Big Alison chooses to relive this memory, physically transposing her younger self, is revelatory enough.

The tragedy resides in not only the miscommunication between father and daughter, but in the uncannily similar but ultimately divergent journeys of Alison and Bruce. In some ways Bruce is the anti-Alison, seemingly all-knowing, yet strangely void of truthful discovery. While, despite the retrospective structure, Alison remains on a progressive trajectory, Bruce seems to stagnate. Alison can fit her father’s whole life in a small circle drawn on a map of Pennsylvania – where he was born, where he worked, where he died – and the ‘museum’-like home Bruce painstakingly creates turns out not to be a gift, but a burden on his family who work tirelessly to maintain its façade. Bruce refuses to adapt, living desperately in a life he has precision-crafted for himself, even in his darkest hours believing he ‘might still break a heart or two’. Yet there are moments of tender acknowledgment; for example, is Bruce’s gift of a Colette novel to an adolescent Alison a hint that he understands even what she is yet to understand herself?

Kron and Tesori (and Bechdel herself, I imagine) don’t provide any easy answers. Truths are uncomfortable and explanations remain unearthed; Alison’s hypothesising that her own (successful) coming to terms with her sexuality and identity was in fact a trigger for Bruce’s breakdown, or the fact that she will never totally know the torrent of undercurrents belying his life and motives, are stinging questions that hang over the piece. There is a moment where Big Alison posits her father’s activities one night on a trip to New York – did he go out to buy a newspaper? Did he go ‘cruising’? – but, in the end, she knows this is only conjecture, that she’ll never really know. Despite the pervading theme of elusiveness, a taster of the satisfaction we crave is quenched in the final emphasis on Alison’s treasured memory of ‘perfect balance’, soaring above Bruce playing ‘airplanes’, relishing the infrequent but highly prized physical contact with her father. Sentimental, most certainly, but a tableau that perfectly captures the bittersweet flavour of the show.

Tesori’s score is mature, but never po-faced, with superbly timed pastiches (‘Come To the Fun Home’, ‘Raincoat of Love’), Sondheim-esque melodic motifs (‘Maps’), and rousing counterpoints (‘Welcome to our House on Maple Avenue’, ‘Flying Away’). Gold elicits brilliance from his young cast, with Harriet Turnbull being perhaps the most expressive and empathetic child actor I’ve seen. For a person so young, she absolutely nails the comedy, quirks and nuances of the character while never coming across as overly precocious. Eleanor Kane’s Medium Alison is just as endearing, her ‘Changing My Major’ is a masterful display of awkwardness, naivety, and youthful resolve all rolled up into a big bouncing ball of giddy delight. Jenna Russell once again proves herself the darling of the theatre world with a subtle performance that reveals mother, Helen’s, internal anguish, most notably in the elegiac ‘Days and Days’. If someone doesn’t release the UK rights to Next To Normal soon I may combust with frustration – that show was made for Russell. Someone.Do.It.Now.Please.

Amidst all of the truly impeccable performances, Zubin Varla perhaps leaves the greatest impression as the enigmatic Bruce. Prosaic yet fanciful, affectionate but stern, intelligent yet irrational; he is at once a solid presence, a centre of gravity around which the other characters’ lives orbit, yet Varla emits a sense that with the merest change in wind Bruce could disappear off the face of the earth. His admission that ‘beginnings are harder when you’re older’ and that he’d ‘squeezed out every bit of life he could’ is crushingly stark. As it stands Varla is my top pick for best actor in a musical come awards season. Watch this space.

Fun Home exceeds all expectations. It’s one of those productions where everything – book, music, performance, design – comes together in perfect harmony and by the final notes you know you’ve witnessed something sublime. If I could see it again tomorrow I would jump at the chance, and I hope beyond hope that Bechdel, Tesori, Kron and Gold’s creation will have further life in the UK.

Fun Home plays at the Young Vic until 1st September.

Kaisa Hammarlund as Alison in Fun Home. Photo: Marc Brenner

Tuesday 3 July 2018

Sherlock Holmes: The Final Curtain

Curve, Leicester
2nd July, 2018

Give oxygen to the myth”

From the now annual BBC festive Christie adaptations to Lucy Bailey’s triumphant production of Witness for the Prosecution, the recent popularity of classic ‘whodunnits’ has proven that the armchair thriller is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance. Following his dramaturgy for Bailey’s Christie stage adaptations, Simon Reade has taken on that other stalwart of British crime literature, Arthur Conan Doyle, with his unofficial sequel, Sherlock Holmes: The Final Curtain.

For those accustomed to Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ high-octane, hallucinogenic sleuthing team for the fanzine generation, The Final Curtain is a much more sedate affair. Now OAPs, suffering from angina and rheumatism, Sherlock Smith (nee Holmes) (Robert Powell) and Dr John Watson (Timothy Kightley) have not been in contact for 30 years – Holmes enjoying the pleasures of bee keeping at his secluded coastal home, while Watson has taken up Psychoanalysis, renting rooms in their old haunt, 221B Baker Street. But when Watson’s wife, Mary (Liza Goddard), visits Sherlock with news of spectral sightings of her years-dead son, the duo are reunited in order to solve the most personal of mysteries.

Framed by Watson’s narration of the adventure to the new wireless generation, the story is nestled in an era of upheaval – gone are the Victorian hansom cabs and gas lamps, and instead Holmes and Watson rely on ‘modern’ technology to snare their suspects. An exploration of old age, an analysis of fin de siècle solemnity versus the nouveaux urgency of the post-war years – there is opportunity here to present poignant and pertinent questions, filtered through the incongruous aging and (dare I say it) displacement of a beloved literary hero. Yet Reade wastes this opportunity.

Instead we get a sluggish ‘Holmes-by-numbers’ style plot, into which Reade crowbars as many references (clichés, if you will) from Conan Doyle’s original series. ‘Three pipe problems’, the Stradivarius (or lack thereof), and Holmes’ queasy cocaine addiction are all hammered home, showing a faithlessness in the characters’ strengths. Reade diminishes him to a series of quirks, as if, by presenting Sherlock as an older person we need convincing of his identity. The first act is leaden with exposition that ultimately seems irrelevant, while the second act decisively stretches the limits of plausibility. Furthermore, the blurb promised us ‘twists’ and, yes, twists we get, but rather than construct an original, watertight mystery, Reade’s plot twists rely on upending everything that Conan Doyle created. I personally didn’t have a problem with the plot of The Cursed Child, but, without giving too much away, The Final Curtain seems to be encroaching on familiar territory. Contradictory as it may sound, after the final reveal I was left feeling both underwhelmed and admitting that, finally (no matter what one thinks of the later series of BBC’s Sherlock), Holmes has well and truly jumped the proverbial shark.

That isn’t to say there aren’t nice moments of dialogue. The interactions between Holmes and Watson have a breadth of topic and vocabulary which kept me invested. Yet it perhaps say a lot that the most memorable line was a philosophical soundbite lifted from Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Jonathan Fensom’s design is solid enough, the 221B interior being the centrepiece, but director, David Grinley’s production suffers from a lack of action in Reade’s script. Listless conjuring tricks and clunky scene transitions leave the production feeling longer than its 1 hour 55 minutes running time. The cast try their best to lift the characters, and Powell in particular is certainly watchable, but there remains a sense that they deserve something meatier to sink their teeth into.

If I have been overly harsh, I apologise, and I’m sure many audience members found aspects to enjoy in The Final Curtain, however, if ‘cosy crime’ is your thing, I think you’d be better off sticking to ITV3 repeats.

Sherlock Holmes: The Final Curtain plays at Curve, Leicester until 7th July and continues on a UK tour.

Robert Powell in Sherlock Holmes: The Final Curtain. Credit: Nobby Clark

Sunday 1 July 2018

An Octoroon

National Theatre, Dorfman
16th June, 2018, matinee

O, gosh, if I could take a likeness ob dis

‘In 1859, white Irish playwright Dion Boucicault writes a hit play about America. Today, a black American playwright attempts to do the same.’ This reads the abstract on the National Theatre’s website for An Octoroon (2014). This line, whoever wrote it, establishes Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ interest in writing, writing back and taking ownership. There seems to be a discourse surrounding the play that makes it hard to write about: some have expressed their gratitude at not having to review it, others their wish to read reviews only from certain audience members. Indeed, An Octoroon is a tricky play, at times problematic and slippery. It’s a multi-layered, provocative exploration of racial representation and in Ned Bennett’s production, now transferred from the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, it is exhilarating and urgent. But is there an easy way in to talking about it?

‘In clumpy folds, the paint oozed over the left half of his face and down the length of that side of the body, until one eye, one nostril, one shirtsleeve, one pant leg, and one Patek Philippe watch were washed completely white’ (259-260). This is from Paul Beatty’s wickedly funny and wildly subversive 2015 novel The Sellout, a satire about a black Los Angelino who reintroduces racial segregation and takes on a voluntary slave in order to put the town of Dickens back on the map. It’s hard not to see the publicity image for this production of Jacobs-Jenkins’ play and not think of that part, one vivid bit of imagery of many, from Beatty’s novel. But as well as both making such brutal points about racism in America it also makes you think about how such things are discussed. Rereading bits of The Sellout as preparation for this review (these things aren’t just thrown together, surprisingly!) I came across another line: ‘“Problematic,” someone muttered, invoking the code word black thinkers use to characterise anything or anybody that makes them feel uncomfortable… and painfully aware that they don’t have the answers to questions and assholes like me’ (98). ‘Problematic’ is too often an easy get-out word to avoid the heart of something. An Octoroon is problematic but this only strengthens it, provoking us to continuously question its characters’ representations.

But it’s worth probing what is problematic and why that matters. There is a definite uneasiness about seeing minstrelsy, something enhanced by Bennett’s decision to use thick greasepaint or shoe polish to create block colours (black, red and white). This is much more startling when comparing it to production photos from some American productions. And the blackface would be troubling enough if it was simply there as part of a post-modern critique of racial representation but it is compounded with melodrama and stage spectacles such as fire, straight out of Boucicault’s theatre, so An Octoroon can’t simply be written off as as an easy criticism of the original when at times it feels like a celebration of Boucicault’s theatre as much as a blistering play in its own right. There’s also the interest in stereotypes, from the character of old Pete (an echo of the slave Hominy in Beatty’s work) and the relentless modern stereotypes in the dialogue of Minnie and Dido. But Beatty and Jacobs-Jenkins share an irreverence that is refreshing and shows that serious ideas can be explored as effectively – perhaps more so – through subversion and humour.

An Octoroon starts with a black playwright, BJJ, giving the audience some spiel about his therapist’s advice to help his low level depression being to adapt his favourite play, Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon (1859), for a modern audience. Within that frame, we see this restaging of the play preceded by Dion Boucicault himself preparing to play the Native American character. Jacobs-Jenkins borrows much from Boucicault: ‘There’s a gulf between us, as wide as your love’, ‘O, none for me; I never eat’. But Jacobs-Jenkins and Bennett play this up, mocking how Boucicault lays the exposition on thick, and having Dora scoff some pancakes after saying she never eats.

Bennett orchestrates these different levels masterfully. Sometimes long pauses can snap us out of the action to remind us of what’s at stake, at other times layer upon layer is added to create surreal moments, such as the semi-present nightmarish rabbit, or Dora playing one scene on roller skates. From the Dorfman’s strip house lights to overtly theatrical spots, Elliot Griggs’ lighting excellently contributes to the play’s many layers. At times, I wondered if we were still in ‘the world of the play’ or if the performance had stopped, whereas at others we were fully submerged in the world of melodrama – including black capes and twiddly moustaches! Likewise, Theo Vidgen’s music and George Dennis’ sound stresses the form: from a live cellist, to hearing the rousing pre-recorded strings that nods to melodrama being the foundations of Hollywood. Not only is the production’s spectacle and bravura on another level but the performances are as well, actors seamlessly doubling up and in tune with the overall style. Ken Nwosu as BJJ/ hero George/ villain M’Closky deserves any awards he’s nominated for. Kevin Trainor is hilarious as Boucicault, as is Celeste Dodwell as the red-haired southern belle who wants George to fall in love with her. Alistair Toovey lends an acrobatic agility to both old Pete and young Paul, and Iola Evans performs without artifice as Zoe.

In all of the hot air there’s been lately about the 25 greatest plays since Angels in America, I cannot argue against the decision to include An Octoroon high on the list.

An Octoroon plays at the National Theatre until 18th July.

Ken Nwosu and Kevin Trainor in An Octoroon. Credit: Helen Murray.