Sunday 26 August 2018

Exit the King

National Theatre, Olivier
4th August, 2018, matinee

What was the point of being born if only to die?

I had low expectations of Patrick Marber’s new version of Ionesco’s absurdist play Exit the King (1962). I thought that Sean Foley’s version of Ionesco’s Amédée didn’t push the political resonances of chaos taking over reason and logic far enough. I also enjoyed (perhaps too much) Matt Trueman’s rather damning review of this production and second-guessed what to expect. Like Amédée, I thought that the comedy mostly fell flat. And the non-specific ‘house of cards’ setting seemed too conceited and a reminder of an old Children’s educational TV show, Megamaths. However, Exit the King’s interest in the crumbling of a kingdom is relevant, and I found its musings on death – and Anthony Ward’s visual representation of this – emotionally affecting.

It takes an NT stalwart of Marber’s calibre to have the nerve to get the audience to stand on King Bérénger’s entrance through the Olivier stalls on a regal red carpet which leads onto the stage. It was furthermore intriguing that not only did most stand but remained standing until invited to be seated by Ifans. I’m unsure whether this was due to the power of Ifans’ stage presence or a particularly royalist audience. I remained seated. Most of the characters – the doctor (Adrian Scarborough), the older queen (Indira Varma), the guard (Derek Griffiths) – are two dimensional puppets and so the actors can’t do much internalising and instead have fun with playing types, buffoons and veneers. Ifans does something similar, lurching around the stage like Shameless’ Frank Gallagher, a sense of dangerous unpredictability about his performance. The funniest moment, I found, was when he’s rolling about on the floor in denial of his pending death, reverting to his childhood and says in a toddler-like way ‘I want a biscuit’.

But occasionally Ifans’ performance is something more than just posturing, reaching something at least close to profundity as he begins to realise the inevitability of his situation. This 400 year old king, like all of us, must shuffle off his mortal coil. If he carries on, the country will only suffer. People are drowning, universities are falling into the abyss, and havoc is reaped across the land. Only death, and its opportunity for rebirth, will save it. As his two queens and court hands count down the minutes until the king’s death ‘at the end of the play’, the fascination with death’s finite and levelling nature take hold. What is afterwards? Anything? Nothing? Why do we tend not to prepare for death? What will we leave behind?

But overall, writing this a few weeks after seeing it, Marber’s version isn’t good enough. It is set in its own definite world and yet that world is too equivocal, with nothing and no one to really care about. Thus, it’s merely a literary exercise. Thankfully, there is Ward’s design: the throne room of a castle, the walls of which are complete with growing chasms, and hidden with nooks and crannies for the cast to play in. As the king and the kingdom continue to disintegrate, walls fly out and sink into the Olivier’s drum revolve, leaving only Bérénger’s throne. Finally persuaded to follow his destiny, Ifans slowly but surely follows the throne back on the red carpet into the distance. Eventually they fade away until, in the end, there is nothing, nothing… nothing… until 6th October.

Rhys Ifans and Adrian Scarborough in Exit the King. Credit: Simon Annand

Wednesday 22 August 2018


Bridge, London
15th August, 2018

Caring is about shit

If it weren’t for Alan Bennett this blog would not be what it is today. Flashback five years to an unseasonably warm September afternoon. The tour of People is playing at Curve and we, the two youngest people in the audience, meet for the first time. It’s safe to say, then, that Alan Bennett holds a special, sentimental significance for us, and last week we approached his latest offering with a not undue sense of nostalgia. While Allelujah! is by no means vintage Bennett (or Hytner, for that matter), he maintains a hard edge to his outwardly gentle comedy, and shows he still has the ability to surprise.

Set in ‘The Beth’, a small hospital that treats locals ‘from birth to death’, and focal point of the community, the action takes place in the geriatric ward, which is the bane of NHS staff and officials nationwide. Elderly patients get sick. They get better. But they have nowhere to go so can’t be discharged. Thus, Bennett homes in on the ‘bed-blocking’ crisis seen in many a hospital and, rather typically, he finds the nub of the matter: an under-resourced NHS reduced to a numbers game of ‘patient turnover’. Patients pile up in the hallways as manic doctors compete in a race for the next bed every time a death occurs in geriatrics, buttering up the matriarchal Sister Gilchrist (Deborah Findlay) so they can get a head start on their rivals. With The Beth under threat of closure from the government, manager Salter (Peter Forbes) has hired in a film crew to record the patients’ views on the hospital, the hard-working NHS staff, and the joy that the geriatric choir gives them.

Bennett and Hytner produce touching episodes, from tentative dance routines, to pitilessly selfish families – latest arrival, the Pudsey Nightingale’s daughter and son-in-law want assurance that she’ll be kept alive only until they can fully inherit her property – to dementia-stricken Joe’s (Jeff Rawle) inability to recognise his son. There’s a touch of gallows humour to these proceedings – eg. the Pudsey Nightingale has lost all conversational ability, except for her frequent expulsions of ‘IT’S MY HOUSE!’ at (in)opportune moments – but much of Bennett’s comedy takes the form of affectionate ribs on aging, small-town Britain, and generation gaps. Injecting a dose of quaint fantasy, and staying on just the right side of twee, the patients partake in musical numbers ranging from ‘A, You’re Adorable’ to ‘Good Golly, Miss Molly’, forming pill-popping chorus lines and fantasy lindy hops. So, we’re all set for an evening of mildly political whimsy that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

But Bennett throws an unexpected curveball. A shock twist at the end of the first act alters the tone of the piece, and while rather gratuitous, fits the bill from a plot perspective. The second half whizzes by, perhaps a little too fast and certain plotlines seem tacked on – Sacha Dhawan’s friendly doctor facing deportation for failing an English proficiency test feels like an afterthought (or a plot for another play). An 11th-hour speech of his featuring what should be a pertinent line – ‘Open your arms England, before it’s too late’ – feels tagged on. This is a pity considering most of Bennett’s plays ( from Forty Years On and People to Enjoy and The History Boys) all feature perceptive and original readings of England. Dhawan’s speech in Allelujah! is underwhelming by comparison. Furthermore, the aforementioned twist invokes yet another political jab (I’m trying to keep this review spoiler free!) and there’s a sense that Bennett is taking wild aim at anything and everything he can – race, sexuality, ageism, unemployment, institutionalised abuse, economic cutbacks, the ‘PC brigade’, euthanasia (to name but a few) – and the result seems unfocused and underfed. While Bennett’s other plays feature moments of lucid rhetoric that are not only insightful, but entertaining, Allelujah! fails to reach such intellectual or emotional heights. Of course I felt sympathy with the characters, but most remain two-dimensional mouth pieces.

Bennett’s most successful creations here are the proud, cantankerous, yet endearing Joe, and the no nonsense, iron-willed Sister Gilchrist. Having more to work with, Rawle and Findlay are inevitably the stand-outs among the cast. They sink their teeth into the characters and play off each other splendidly. Elsewhere, a lycra-clad Samuel Barnett has a pretty thankless role as Joe’s cold, (non)civil servant son that reluctantly returns to his hometown. Nicola Hughes makes a warm impression as the enthusiastically naïve Nurse Pinkney, while work experience teen, Andy (David Moorst) is sullen, contradictory and (it turns out) pretty nasty. The fact that this character is written and played for laughs perhaps sums up the sometimes queasy nature of Bennett’s play. I love a bit of black humour, but Allelujah! isn’t quite funny enough to pull it off. Compared with McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore – another pitch dark comedy – which we saw earlier that day, it lacks the belly laughs required to boost the drama and relieve the tension. This may sound like I’m criticising Bennett for being too Bennett (too much whimsy and too many pithy retorts masquerading as character development), but I think his style would have been better suited had he pared down the plot slightly and gotten more under the skin of his characters.

By turns cynical, touching and with a rogue twinkle in its eye, Allelujah! doesn’t set the stage alight, and as both a black comedy and state-of-the-nation play it feels underpowered, but Bennett remains a bastion of not just British playwriting, but Britain as a whole and this peculiar production will remain a curio in his oeuvre. And as in The Lady in the Van (from which the line at the top of this review particularly comes to mind), he provides much prosaic insight. What’s more, Bennett and Hytner manage to pull off that most sought-after of coups, a truly bitter-sweet ending, and rather lovely it is at that.

Allelujah! plays at the Bridge Theatre until 29th September , 2018.
Deborah Findlay and Jeff Rawle in Allelujah! Credit: Manuel Harlan

Monday 20 August 2018


Shakespeare’s Globe
16th August, 2018, matinee

'And what's he then that says I play the villain?'

More often than not I have found myself guilty of greeting any new Shakespeare production with thoughts of lofty concept. ‘What’s the take?’ I ask, for these plays are so reputed and productions so abundant that in order to distinguish oneself from the pack directors take to conceptualising The Bard, often running the risk of falling foul to gimmick. Othello is no stranger to this. Take the RSC’s recent production featuring Lucian Msamati as Iago, or Jude Kelly’s decision to cast Patrick Stewart as Othello in a race-reversed production in Washington DC, or the National Theatre’s uprooting of the action to Iraq – no doubt these successful productions brought fresh ideas to the plate, and are memorable to even those not attuned to goings-on in theatre-land (I saw none of these productions, yet their reputation endures). Thus, Claire van Kampen’s decision to eschew gimmick/concept is a bold statement in a production that generously places the focus firmly on plot and character, and pays dividends for it.

A typically understated Mark Rylance breezes through proceedings with deceptive ease, playing Iago as amiable, modest and informal. Van Kampen’s heavy cuts to Iago’s soliloquys ensure the play zips along at the pace of a mad-cap thriller, yet by keeping the audience in the dark regarding Iago’s schemes we are somewhat robbed of insight into the character and his shady motives – our culpability is instead invoked through Rylance’s banter with audience members (impishly pointing out the ‘crooked knaves’ among us and enthusiastically shaking hands with two very excited ladies beside us). So affable, and with such an infectious grin, and the fact that Rylance utters the line ‘I hate the moor’ with such banal flippancy, you’d be forgiven for completely missing Iago’s true motives.

Hence, come the final act when Rylance finally lets rip the sheer power within him comes as a shock to all. Previously anonymous and impotent in his boyish toy-soldier uniform, it feels like a personal affront when Rylance’s Iago, figuratively and literally, reveals his hidden strength as he effortlessly breaks Rodrigo’s (a fabulously coiffured Steffan Donnelly, decked in resplendent New Romantic style baroque) neck before hauling the dead body over his shoulder and carrying him off stage. Gasps echo around the auditorium – where did this come from? Who knew he had it in him? – Rylance plays the long game and we are all his pawns. The character is all the more chilling for this; Iago is not an evil and cartoonish megalomaniac, but a seemingly innocuous little man – a joker feigning blithe naivety, but he conceals a deadly indifference, weaponised with soldierly dexterity.

Perhaps due to this subtle portrayal of Iago, André Holland’s Othello, also, is touched by humility. Far more prosaic than we’ve come to expect of the character, Holland lacks what is often referred to as the ‘Othello music’, the pomp, eloquence and hyperbolic rhetoric that epitomises both his unique status and hubristic fall from grace. But this is not to say his portrayal is ineffective. Holland affords our hero with solemn dignity and an attractive sexuality. He and Jessica Warbeck as Desdemona have a believable relationship, romantic and carnal, the sexual chemistry and ensuing jealousy simmers throughout.

Van Kampen has crafted what in other worlds could easily pass as a bedroom farce. Othello fancies Desdemona who may fancy Cassio (Aaron Pierre) who beds Bianca (Catherine Bailey) while Iago suspects Othello of shagging Emilia (Sheila Atim) while suggesting that he also harbours feelings for Desdemona… and so on. This comedic and somewhat superficial set up ensures the final scene maintains its shock factor – the mix-ups and double dealings are no longer funny when a string of bodies adorn the stage.

Following her acclaimed performance in Girl from the North Country, once again, Sheila Atim steals every scene. Without uttering a word, her mere presence demands all eyes upon her, and from a purely shallow perspective I could have watched a whole 2 hours of Atim strutting her stuff in those varying jumpsuits of gold. She speaks with what I can only describe as a clarity of soul, making Emilia’s words echo with a banality that is poignant in its honesty. Her ‘wives do fall’ speech that closes Act 4 is a highlight, as is her reaction to Desdemona’s death – in fact, I’d go as far to say that it is Atim’s performance in the finale that creates the emotional electricity one craves from tragedy.

 As van Kampen clearly allows the language and performances speak for themselves, her stamp on the production is evident in the lively and colourful movement and musicality of the piece. As one might expect, van Kampen’s music is a high point, from the revelries held in Cyprus lead by a mandolin playing Iago, to the simple harmonies of the mournful Willow song. The concluding dance duet is a lovely play on the masque and dumbshow traditions.

While van Kampen doesn’t bring anything new to the play, hers is a solid and entertaining production that will be rightly remembered for its performances as opposed to any theatrical gimmick or zeitgeist-y politicism. Rylance and Atim in particular give remarkable performances that will linger in the mind due to their subtlety and conviction, while van Kampen excels in hearty musical interludes and juxtaposing the everyday joie de vivre with terrifying sobriety.

 Othello plays at Shakespeare’s Globe until 13th October.
Mark Rylance and André Holland in Othello. Credit: Simon Annand

Wednesday 15 August 2018

Fiddler on the Roof

Curve, Leicester
14th August, 2018

'To life! L'chaim!'

Tradition. A theme at the heart of Bock, Harmick and Stein's Fiddler on the Roof. A theme which also captures the annual community productions held at Curve every summer, a custom that has quite rightly become an institution in itself. From Bernstein to Shakespeare via Sondheim, Bart and Larson, Curve’s choice of production has always been impeccable; big shows for a big stage and even bigger companies, and there’s nothing that makes my heart sing more than seeing my local theatre populated with local people doing what they love. And with Fiddler Curve have excelled themselves yet again. Featuring their largest company on record, director Sarah Ingram’s production sees over 100 people from the community coming together to present what is arguably the greatest ‘community’ musical in the canon.

To say this production is epic would be an understatement. Populous, bustling, humming with life; Ingram has constructed an enclave of highly detailed, immersive communal existence. Anatevka is realised in Al Parkinson's ramshackle of houses, erected so tightly that the families literally live on top of each other. It's a smart and understated design (I know this may seem anomalous considering the enormity of the production as a whole) that allows the ensemble to become a living, breathing set piece. Throughout the action the everyday is omnipresent: wives and daughters sweep floors, a beggar steals bagels from the local baker, children play, locals kiss the Mezuzah on entering the home - these are just a few of the cultural minutiae that Ingram celebrates, details that may go unnoticed, but altogether enrich the piece.

I have always enjoyed the sheer scale of Curve's community productions. Choruses are full-bodied and hearty, crowds are raucous, and the eye is drawn to a multitude of entertaining titbits. Nevermore has this been evident than here in the spectacular wedding scene at the end of act 1. So joyous, so giddy, so sweeping, I could have lept up an danced along! Melanie Knott triumphs in reproducing Jerome Robbins' original choreography, drawing the best from a diverse cast. Movement and blocking for a cast that big must have been a logistical headache! Knott's sympathetic rendering of Robbins' classic routines is touching and organic, by turns pulsing with machismo and liltingly whimsical.

Amidst the cast of local theatre-lovers, stand outs include Debbie Longley's Golde, the prosaic anchor to her hypothesising husband, Longley has a stellar voice and warmth of character; the trio of love-struck daughters are played with poise and youthful nobility by Lauren Russell (Tzeitel), Hannah Willars (Hodel) and Rose Caldwell (Chava); while Peter Larkin (no stranger to community theatre thanks to his experience at The Little Theatre) balances religious reverance with wanton eccentricity as the Priest. Fresh from playing Elizabeth Proctor in Curve's The Crucible, Eleanor Page's Fiddler has not a single line of dialogue, yet her impeccable playing and omnipresence is brimming with characterful expression, grounding her strange, moving and believable unspoken connection with Tevye. 

However, it is Bill Hinds' Tevye that provides a centre of gravity in the production. Hinds  displays a dry wit and oratory melifluousness, matched by his physicality in the role. Using his hands as philosophical instruments, Hinds reaches out to the heavens, wishing to pluck answers from the ether. His soliloquys grappling with the frictions of tradition, change and progression are engrossing and rather haunting.

For Curve's tenth anniversary, they have taken a musical with enduring appeal and great themes of the unifying powers of love and community in times of major social upheaval, and paired it with a production that embodies a hymn to these issues. The community of Anatevka is imbued with colour and depth thanks to Ingram and Knott's passionate storytelling. As always, the professionalism and commitment from all must be applauded, as does Curve for embracing such a diverse company and the logistical challenges that come with a large cast. Long may the 'tradition' continue!

Fiddler on the Roof plays at Curve until 19th August.

The company of Fiddler on the Roof. Photograph: Pamela Raith.

Friday 10 August 2018

The Dead Leicester Chronicles

Leicester Guildhall

10th August, 2018

'Ay up, me duck!'

The most multicultural city in Europe. Burial chamber of Kings. Fairytale setting for the unlikeliest sporting victory in British history… It’s no secret by now that I am immensely proud of Leicester. My hometown and the beating heart of all (any, to be honest) patriotic tendencies. So if, like me, the prospect of spending an evening indulging in all things Leicestershire is as heavenly as scoffing a Red Leicester and Walkers crisp sandwich while watching Harry Maguire head in another impossible goal, The Dead Leicester Chronicles won’t disappoint.

The evening begins as we’re welcomed into the courtyard of the atmospheric Leicester Guildhall, a deliciously wonky 14th Century timber-beamed building that perfectly sets the tone for the irreverent historic jaunt. In the assured hands of intrepid duo Craig and Ryan Byrne we are whisked away on a whistle-stop tour of over two-thousand years of local heritage – from the mating rituals of the first men, to preparations for the Civil War, to Thomas Cook’s first ever package holiday – a trip to that far away land of Loughborough!

Our guides are tireless and having a blast as they rush around in an energetic parade of hats and hosiery, their affection for the city evident in the torrent of in-jokes and gentle ribbing of Midlands foibles and eccentricities. We’re treated to jokes about Gary Lineker, Showaddywaddy, local dialect, and a fabulous round of provincial puns – the ‘Soar Valley’ one was a particular favourite (I’ll say no more, your imagination can do the hard work)!

Entering the great hall the duo take aim at Shakespeare’s Richard III with comedic verve – you’ll never see the Princes in the Tower the same again. The smart structure of the piece produces ever escalating absurdities – Daniel Lambert as a stand-up-cum-balladeer, anyone? – culminating in the ingenious ‘Hosiery: the Musical’, possibly the most joyously surreal scene I’ve ever seen. As the show concludes in a shower of socks and space-age disco it’s best to stop trying to work out what’s going on and just embrace the silliness – my aching, grinning face said it all!

With a mixture of comedy, live music and interesting info, Dead Leicester is a triumphant love letter to the city. Fun for all the family (I was reminded of the cross-generational appeal of the Horrible Histories series), chock-full of jokes and facts, this is a history lesson you’ll never forget!

For information on upcoming shows please visit

Craig Byrne and Ryan Byrne in The Dead Leicester Chronicles