Wednesday 26 September 2018

The Wipers Times

Curve, Leicester

24th September, 2018

From the dread of crying, we laugh instead

With the centenary of the armistice imminent it seems of particular pertinence to reflect on the lost generation of service men that fought and died in World War One. Over the past four years of commemoration we’ve seen Northern Broadsides’ staging of Deborah McAndrew's new play An August Bank Holiday Lark, films such as Dunkirk and a screen adaptation of Journey’s End, and November will see the anticipated return of War Horse to the National Theatre. Yet, Ian Hislop and Nick Newman have chosen a lesser known aspect of the period to home in on. The Wipers Times (named after the British Tommys’ mispronunciation of ‘Ypres’) recounts the strange but true story of a group of soldiers endeavour to publish a trench-grown satirical newspaper to the forces – ‘like Punch, but funny’.

If Hislop and Newman have a point to make – and I feel they do– it’s that satire has an important, moralising place in society. It boosts the morale of those on the frontline whilst calling out the ironies, double standards and faults of anything with authority. That right and enjoyment is timeless, but the two crowbar pertinent dialogue into a number of scenes to hammer the point home. Another weakness of the show, surprising considering the both of their contribution to satire on Have I Got News for You and in Private Eye, is that it’s (dare I say it?) not that funny. It definitely has its moments, best of all being the sketches taken from the magazine, acted in an over the top manner in an area (over the top?) of the trench, framed in fairy-lit barbed wire. ‘Are you suffering from optimism?’ delivers a cheesy advertisement voice in one sketch whilst a man lies in bed with a naïve smile beaming from his face. Another sketch lampoons the supposed roaming war reporters of the time, putting their lives at risk as they sip from champagne flutes miles back from the trenches. There are also some timeless digs at the Daily Mail. But other than that, in terms of light entertainment about life in the trenches, it pales in comparison to Blackadder Goes Forth.

The piece plays out upon Dora Schweitzer’s playground fort of a set. It may depict trench warfare as cosy, but it also by turns evokes a music hall theatricality. I can’t decide whether this lack of jeopardy presented in the play is welcome or even intentional. For all the background booms and downfalls of dust as the bombs shake the ramparts, our protagonists never seem to be in any genuine danger. And this lack of danger is perhaps what makes the gallows humour less effective than it should be.

The Wipers Times is well-acted by a tight-knit company, reminiscent of The History Boys, with one of Hislop and Newman’s triumphs being in the recreation of the comradery between the men on the front line. These genuine friendships are heart-warmingly portrayed by the cast. In a brief moment of reflection, Amar Aggoun’s Barnes reads from a poignant and shatteringly simple poem he wrote following his friend Henderson’s (Kevin Brewer) death at the Somme. For all Roberts and Pearson complain about being sent ‘too much poetry’ for the paper, the play conveys the ways in which the soldiers express themselves through veiled and artistic means, however crude the form. Sam Ducane plays the snivelling Lieutenant Howfield with an air of pantomime villainy, while James Dutton’s Captain-cum-editor, Roberts is a likeable lead, if a little idealised, and Dan Mersh plays the General with an air of affable complacency. Yet the play is an ensemble piece, and some of the most memorable moments are when this ‘togetherness’ shines through, whether that be in the music hall song and dance numbers, or quietly huddled, shivering in a trench waiting for the signal to go over the top.

The play is directed with unrelenting pace by Caroline Leslie, who excels in ensuring that every second of stage time is utilised in the evocation of the era. Scene changes feature pithy trench songs which are orchestrated and choreographed with sardonic ease – ‘Ten Fat Germans’, a play on ‘Ten Green Bottles’, was my favourite. Despite a lack of connection, The Wipers Times celebrates a great, previously untold story, about war, journalism, tenacity, and the need for humour in difficult times.

The Wipers Times is playing at Curve, Leicester until 29th September and then tours until 13th October. It then transfers to the Arts Theatre, London from 16th October to 1st December.
To coincide with the commemoration of the end of WW1 there will be a special gala performance of The Wipers Times on Remembrance Sunday 11 November at 6pm at the Arts Theatre, London in support of The Royal British Legion’s Thank You campaign.
The cast of The Wipers Times.
Credit: Kirsten McTernan.

Sunday 16 September 2018

The Lovely Bones

Royal & Derngate, Northampton
15th September 2018, matinee

"These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence"

Later this month, Cyndi Lauper’s, Harvey Fierstein’s and Jerry Mitchell’s musical Kinky Boots plays in the Derngate to kick off its UK tour. Although American-made, it’s returning to its spiritual home. However, across the labyrinthine foyer is the quaint toy box Royal theatre, home to the latest ‘Made in Northampton’ production, Bryony Lavery’s new stage adaptation of Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel The Lovely Bones. It’s about the utterly harrowing story of 14 year old Susie Salmon, who watches down on the world she’s left behind after being murdered. However, Melly Still’s production is vibrantly theatrical and Lavery’s deft text balances the cold details of the story while bringing out the catharsis and hope in life after loss.

Susie is in limbo where she meets Franny, a heavenly caretaker and sort of spiritual guide to the place in which she finds herself and the rules of her new existence. From here she narrates her story; the retelling of her murder is shocking and brutal, but is interspersed with Susie’s memories such as her first kiss – a small but by no means trivial event that emphasises the fact that Susie is a typical young girl, full of vitality and teenage foibles who’s life has been crudely torn from her.

Unprepared and abandoned, Susie tries to understand her circumstances. Intent on justice, she leads her desperate father to foil her murderer; gets angry at her mum for sleeping with the detective; shares her sister’s experiences of discovering love; and comes to terms with watching her friends and siblings grow up without her. Brief moments of whimsy, such as Susie’s ecstatic lounging to the sounds of Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, or her calling on all the dogs in heaven for an angelic game of fetch, offer a reprieve from the terrestrial grief, while reminding us that it’s the small things in life that enrich us. Memories of splashing through icy water and capturing her mother in a rare moment of vulnerability are the things Susie values, and this epitomises Lavery’s (and Sebold’s) talent for homing in on the strangely melancholic nature of happiness.

Stuck in a place in between the living and the dead, Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s design cleverly toggles these two worlds, playing with notions of what we can see and believe, what is tangible and what isn’t. An angled mirror stands at the back reflecting the stage. Some parts appear odd in the mirror such as a chair seemingly attached to the back wall. Other things only make sense in the mirror such as the cornstalks which appear the right way up only in the mirror. Jabares-Pita further distorts things with her use of two-way mirrors, affording us glimpses into a space beyond. This gives Still a space to create the effect of staging the ghostly. But, perhaps conversely, it is also a space to show the concrete and the intimate, such as sister Lindsay’s first time having sex. And again, it’s also a space for the internalised. Overall, we find ourselves occasionally watching things on stage, occasionally watching the reflections, occasionally through the glass, and often all three. It’s a complex, mesmeric design made all the more stunning by Matt Haskins’ lighting and Still’s stage images: a blur of telephone wires, the gentle falling of snow, subtle and simple puppetry, and Mike Ashcroft’s effective use of movement.

The cast live up to the task set for them, very swiftly doubling up from dogs to boyfriends, or from little brothers to worldly classmates. Keith Dunphy brings a cold presence as the murderer Mr Harvey. Susan Bovell adds some much-needed humour as the cop with a southern-drawl and dry wit and as Susie’s nan. But, if anyone’s, this is Charlotte Beaumont’s show, playing Susie with all the breezy confidence, naivety and tempestuousness of teenage-dom. She and Ayoola Smart as Lindsay have a palpable connection despite Lindsay not being able to see or hear Susie. Smart’s performance is subtly effective, and it is in Lindsay that we see the fullness of the grieving process; she is confused, enraged, and ultimately happy again. She matures before our eyes while Susie remains forever young, and this disparity between Susie’s stasis and Lindsay’s faltering progress is deeply moving.

About a minute in to this performance, the stage manager stopped the performance due to technical difficulties. After clearing the auditorium and about a 40 minute wait, they were able to restart the show. I’m so glad that the performance went ahead (props to Beaumont and the company for doing those opening moments again) as The Lovely Bones is one of the best plays I’ve seen this year. In fact, Melly Still’s vital production is the best page to stage adaptation I’ve seen since Curious Incident.

The Lovely Bones plays at the Royal & Derngate until 22nd September before touring to the Everyman Liverpool, Northern Stage, Birmingham Rep, and New Wolsey Theatre.

Charlotte Beaumont in The Lovely Bones. Credit: Sheila Burnett

Monday 10 September 2018

Sweet Charity

Nottingham Playhouse

8th September 2018, matinee

‘There ain’t no use flappin’ your wings,‘cause we’re stuck in the fly-paper of life!’

It’s now familiar territory – the ‘tart with a heart of gold’ longs to escape the grimy confines misogyny and objectification, and find ‘true love’. It’s a dated concept, one that has come under scrutiny with the furore over the lack of progression/moral in the recent Pretty Woman Broadway musical. Let’s be honest, the notion that a woman needs a man in order to be happy is pretty tragic. With this in mind, how does Cy Coleman and Neil Simon’s Sweet Charity fare today? Well, if Pretty Woman is a twisted ‘fairytale’ then Sweet Charity is an altogether more realistic affair, while never compromising on entertainment value.

In Bill Buckhurst’s production we benefit from the delicate balance between the seediness of the New York backstreets with the technicolour of Charity’s blithe daydreams. From grubby dressing rooms, to the lo-fi gaudiness of the Fandango Ballroom, and luxurious apartments, Takis’ design is fluid and evocative. His boxed-in rooms within rooms draws us into a world that feels practically subterranean; an effective accompaniment to the themes of claustrophobia and (im)mobility that Simon weaves throughout the narrative.

Into this nether, taxi dancer Charity Hope Valentine bursts with effervescent glee. Rebecca Trehearn (in the starring role she’s long-deserved) radiates charisma, charm and talent in a triple threat performance that emphasises Charity’s eternal optimism to the point of fragility. Her rendition of ‘If My Friends Could See Me Now’ is giddily uplifting, while the goofiness she affords Charity makes an already endearing character all the more loveable.

The music is, naturally, exquisite. The minute those big brassy horns strike up the first notes of ‘Big Spender’ I was sold. I’m a sucker for ‘Fosse’ and choreographer, Alistair David, recreates the magic of those staccato flicks, louche, slouchy shoulders, and sultry hips to perfection. The chorus of taxi dancers strike the antithetical poses of seductive ennui with cold, blistering precision. Likewise, the ‘swinging sixties’ are wonderfully caricatured in ‘The Rhythm of Life’; a surreal interlude that seems devilishly knowing.

The real surprise for me though (my first time seeing the show) is the quality of the book. Neil Simon crafts deft comedy scenes and takes the plot on relatively unexpected routes. Simon has often been stylistically compared to Woody Allen, and this is no more apparent than in the hilariously neurotic elevator scene at the end of act one. The odd-couple pairing of Trehearn’s plucky go-getter and Marc Elliott’s perpetually pessimistic Oscar Lindquist presents a quirky chemistry which sets the musical aside from its contemporaries. Fast paced dialogue, heaps of cynicism and razor-sharp wit, while being able to pull off flights of whimsy without ever becoming sentimental, Simon’s contribution to Sweet Charity highlights the importance of the book to a musical’s success like few others.

Trehearn and Elliott are assured and likeable leads that bounce off each other with intelligent jocularity. After the enormous fun of his scenery-chewing role in the Donmar’s City of Angels, Elliott once again exemplifies his natural talent for comedy. The timing and physicality he brings to the painfully fretful Oscar more than makes up for his underpowered, though pleasant, singing voice. Amy Ellen Richardson and Carly Mercedes Dyer offer splendid support as Charity’s friends and co-dancers Nickie and Helene. Their world-weariness is a gravelly, liquor-and-cigarette-fuelled counterpoint to Charity’s ‘sweetness’, and their numbers ‘There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This’ and ‘Baby, Dream Your Dream’ are highlights in an altogether unforgettable score.

In musical theatre land, female sexuality has often been drawn on a scale of two; the virgin versus harlot, the Sandys versus the Rizzos, and in the middle of this there’s always the man, the ‘hero’, that’s inevitably going to take control of that sexuality and either ‘save’ or ‘awaken’ her. While Sweet Charity has its issues (Oscar still, in effect, ‘saves’ Charity by snubbing her), we see in Charity a female character that makes her own decisions and remains unapologetic about being herself. For a musical that’s over fifty years old, Sweet Charity certainly resonates in today’s world of disposable culture, fake news, and reinvigorated sexual politics. Combined with stonking music, a corker of a book that holds its own against Coleman’s score, and a production that juxtaposes sceptical veracity with quirky reverie, Buckhurst has a sure-fire hit on his hands.

Sweet Charity plays at the Nottingham Playhouse until 22nd September 2018.

Rebecca Trehearn and Marc Elliott in Sweet Charity.
Photo: Darren Bell

Monday 3 September 2018

The Lieutenant of Inishmore

Noel Coward, London
15th August, 2018, matinee

All I ever wanted was an Ireland free

The Lieutenant of Inishmore should be encouraging to any unproduced playwright. Martin McDonagh wrote it in 1994 but it wasn’t staged until 2001. What’s more, in an age where representation is often (rightly) at the forefront of a playwright’s work and where difficult subjects should be treated as such, it is refreshing to see a play where the writer has gone completely where they want to go. In this tightly structured farce, Aidan Turner plays a loyalist, kicked out of the IRA for being too extremist, who puts the welfare of his beloved cat Wee Tommy over everyone else.

Set in the 1990s, there are certainly stylistic connections that can be made to Quentin Tarantino and the ‘In-Yer-Face’ wave of new writing, with one scene in particular echoing Jez Butterworth’s Mojo. And although in the UK it is often seen as a political drama about The Troubles, I’ve been interested to read (in Patrick Longeran’s Methuen Guide) about how different readings of the play have affected its presentation internationally: in Japan as a moral interrogation of how characters treat each other; in Italy as an out and out farce; in New York as a consideration of how people cope with tragedy. Grandage’s production brilliantly allows McDonagh’s genius for making an audience roar with laughter at a touchy subject to shine. But is it a delicate issue anymore? And if not, what is there left to care about or laugh at in McDonagh’s play? The play, now, prompts thoughts on contemporary examples of terrorism and debates of national identity in ways at which we can laugh. What’s more, as far as I could tell, Grandage doesn’t compromise on evoking a sense of place. A couple next to me were discussing in the interval whether the strong Irish accents were stylised or actually authentic. They concluded that they were probably very accurate but it seems a moot point when you consider other occurrences in the play.

Turner’s guns are not the only thing he has excellent control over. He makes Padraic convincingly unhinged, not batting an eyelid as he’s cutting somebody’s toenails off but then in tears at the mere suggestion of his Wee Thomas (who has many a human quality) of being in harm. Denis Conway and Chris Walley are hilarious as the surprising double act of Padriac’s dad and the local eejit who may or may not have run over Wee Thomas with a pink bicycle. Conway is the one tasked with looking after the cat and who seems strangely nonchalant about his son’s probable reaction, the straight man to Walley’s fool. Their relationship seems another feature of 90s new writing: joke-loaded stichomythia and pseudo father-son relationships.

It’s hard to believe that this play was originally turned down by the National and Royal Court. It’s now a sure fire commercial hit, that fares well in Grandage’s hands. But what most excited me here, on only the second of his plays I’ve seen (after Hangmen), is McDonagh’s capacity to entertain. Whatever criticisms people may have of McDonagh (although Lonergan points out the difference between authorial intent and audience interpretation), his neat plotting and big jokes are enough to entice people not usually interested in theatre. It may be Aidan Turner drawing the crowds in, but it’s Martin McDonagh keeping them satiated.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore plays at the Noel Coward Theatre until 8th September, 2018.

Chris Walley, Aidan Turner and Denis Conway in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Photo: Johan Persson