Wednesday 27 February 2019

American Idiot

Haymarket Theatre, Leicester
26th February, 2019

“On a steady diet of soda pop and Ritalin,
no one ever died for my sins in hell”

Having seen the ways that people can come together in a crisis in the uplifting Come From Away last week, this week brought a more anarchic and nihilistic view of post-9/11 America from American Idiot, the rock opera based on the Green Day concept album of the same name. Celebrating its 10th Anniversary, the musical feels at once relevant while also capturing a very specific period of history as experienced by a generation of disenfranchised youths. Director Racky Plews takes a surreal and scattergun approach to Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer’s creation which I found critically and personally confounding.

Against a backdrop of political turmoil, media propaganda and suburban, Americana-tinted ennui, three friends find themselves in the midst of a philosophical identity crisis. Getting drunk, getting high and watching tv are the sole activities available to them in their small hometown. Escape manifests in the form of a ‘Holiday’ to the big city, but duty, addiction and love push the trio to the limits of sanity. Tunny is coerced by the televised image of the stereotypical ‘Favorite Son’ and enlists in the army. Johnny (Tom Milner) is torn between a burgeoning relationship and an addiction flamed by a nefarious manifestation of his psyche, the erratic and uncompromising drug dealer, St Jimmy (Luke Friend). Meanwhile, their friend Will (Samuel Pope) suffers from extreme FOMO as his pregnant girlfriend becomes increasingly sick of his immaturity.

Mix in some classic punk hits and you’ve got the recipe for a riotous dissection of post-terror Western zeitgeist, right?

It seems contradictory to suggest that Plews’ production could do with more polish, but occasionally the piece seems to fall on the wrong side of erratic. In fact, this may be more the fault of the book (by Armstrong and Mayer), which attempts to cram an awful lot into a short space of time (in this production, 2 hours including an interval); for example, one short scene takes us through a relationship breakdown, a metaphorical suicide, the procurement of and resignation from a nine to five clerical job, and a reunion with hometown faces. The absurdity in this lies with the fact that the musical is fundamentally about stasis; about a demonised generation of millennial wasters created by a socio-political system of capitalism, bigotry and propaganda. Whether satirically intentional or not, most of the characters are traced lightly, as befits the consumerist taste for simple, mindless entertainment – personal complexities buried in favour of an unhinged inspection of national identity. The nihilistic inevitability of the show and our trio of chums ending up exactly where they were at the beginning is slyly audacious in its realism.

And this is why I am utterly beguiled by American Idiot – it features a plot where everything and nothing happens, the audience are fed bit-sized morsels of angsty, yet melodic, rhapsodising which ultimately don’t amount to anything – we’re back where we started, with Johnny reliving his failed relationship with Whatshername, a girl he can barely remember (Sam Lavery) – everything is fundamentally expendable whether we like it or not. Yet, perhaps we feel the frustration of the characters a little more keenly than before. In a feat of paradoxical genius (for what else can I call it?), Armstrong and Mayer have created a mood piece which reflects our own dissatisfaction back at us.
Perhaps I’m overanalysing.

The music, as you’d expect, is full of thumping crowd-pleasing tunes, sung with gusto by a cast that get stuck into grunge life. Highlights include the titular opening number (an anthem of our time, surely, Mr President?), the antithetical love-ballad ‘Give Me Novacaine’, and the yearning triptych arrangement of ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’. Sara Perk’s set places us in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic 21st Century America, which playfully complements the use of screen graphics of rictus-grinned broadcasters.

On a personal note, American Idiot indulged a nostalgia I didn’t even know I craved. There was a time when I wouldn’t have felt dissimilar to Johnny and co. during my disillusioned, misspent youth (underspent, overspent – however you want to put it), yet it also brought back fond memories of my younger brother buying the original album and making everyone listen to it on repeat. I vividly recall how he used to dress up as Billie Joe Armstrong and get me to apply his eyeliner for him (he doesn’t read this blog, so no embarrassment caused!). Oh to be young and carefree!

American Idiot is more than ‘just’ a jukebox musical (a derogatory term which is unwarranted by most, in my opinion). It captures the mood of those early days of the 21st century, when the world portrayed to us by the media seemed to be a playground of progressive, exciting action, yet fell short for so many.

American Idiot plays at the Haymarket Theatre, Leicester until 2nd March and continues on a UK tour. For further details visit:
Tom Milner, Sam Lavery and Luke Friend in
American Idiot.

Tuesday 26 February 2019

Come From Away

Phoenix Theatre, London
Wednesday 20th February, 2019, matinee

“Because we come from everywhere, we all come from away”

Nearly a year ago to the day we visited Ground Zero and the 9/11 memorial in New York. Never had I felt the magnitude of emotion I felt that day. From the physicality of land and space around the memorial, to the simple but deeply touching gesture of placing a single white rose upon the names of victims on their birthdays, it is a place of tranquillity, reflection and awful sorrow. The museum I found to be painfully profound and I’m ashamed to admit that the gut-wrenching details of some of the exhibits defeated me and I had to excuse myself. The events of September 11th 2001 are etched in the minds of a nation – a world – and while it may be the most horrific atrocity to occur in the West in my living memory, it also brought out the best in humanity – something which Irene Sankoff and David Hein home in on in their life-affirming musical, Come From Away.

Following the attacks, 7,000 passengers had their planes diverted to a small Newfoundland airport, nearly doubling the island’s population in the space of a morning. The musical follows the townspeople as they do all they can to accommodate the panic-stricken ‘come from aways’, while also focusing on the personal losses of those aboard the diverted planes and the life-long friendships formed over those fateful five days north of the border. 

Suspicions, cultural differences, and even language barriers are eventually put to one side as the islanders and the plane people unite in a time of hardship and uncertainty. I got goosebumps during a scene where a Newfoundland bus driver finally reassures an African family using passages from the bible and the universal numbering system of verses to communicate. Likewise, the bond between local teacher, Beulah, and Hannah, whose son is an NYC firefighter and currently missing, is forged via a shared fondness for terrible jokes. Humour. Faith. Love. These universal human traits are shown to abide within the darkest moments.

One of the musical’s most charming through-lines is that of awkward British businessman, Nick, and Diane, a single mother from Texas whose instant connection aboard their stranded plane blossoms into a tender and hesitant relationship. It’s a romance between two very ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, and one can’t help but feel touched by Diane’s survivors-guilt when admitting she feels a kind of remorse that something so special, that had brought her so much happiness, could transpire out of something so awful. Moreover, Sankoff and Hein don’t shy away from the extreme fear and paranoia that dogged communities in the aftermath of the attacks. A Muslim passenger is viewed with unwarranted suspicion by his fellow travellers and is forced to undergo a humiliating strip-search before being allowed to re-board his plane.

However, on the whole, Come From Away is a story of togetherness, highlighted in the local bar ‘Screech In’, in which several of the plane people are bestowed with full Islander status – after downing shots and kissing a freshly caught fish in a booze-fuelled initiation ritual. This rustic traditionalism is captured in Sankoff and Hein’s folky music; quaint yet never twee, it effuses a sense of wilderness entwined with the serene harmonies brought about by collective familiarity. Stand out numbers include the lilting paean to momentary happiness, ‘Stop The World’, Hannah’s desperation to protect her child in ‘I Am Here’, and pilot, Beverley’s triumphant love-letter to flight, ‘Me and the Sky’.

Beowulf Boritt’s set invites us into the rural haven of Gander. Wood panelling and a landscape of lofty trees provide the backdrop to director Christopher Ashley’s deceptively simple staging. The minute the plane people land we are plunged into a world of swirling perpetual motion wherein those still, quiet moments of reflection are illuminated. Ashley directs a faultless cast in an array of roles in which actors switch from playing Newfoundlanders to plane people at the drop of a hat. In a case of art imitating life, the piece zips along in breathless fashion, meaning our time in Gander is short but sweet.

Ultimately, Come From Away is so much more than the sum of its parts. The reaction of the audience when we saw it was overwhelmingly positive and the auditorium was aflood with emotion. At a time where cynicism, bigotry and selfishness seem to reign supreme, Sankoff, Hein, Ashley and, most importantly, those Newfoundland islanders that agreed to share their stories have restored my faith in humanity.

Come From Away is currently booking at the Phoenix Theatre until 14th September, 2019.
The cast of Come From Away.
Credit: Matthew Murphy.

Saturday 16 February 2019

The Unreturning

Curve, Leicester
12th February, 2019

I want to return to my home

1918. 2013. 2026. Scarborough.

Anna Jordan’s play about three different men returning from (or amidst) war is a startling delve into the pull and promise of home, and the larger issues of (national) identity which spawn from that. What happens when the perceptions of home (what it is, where it is, who it is) are different to the reality of home? Frantic Assembly’s production probes these questions with astonishing physicality, showing that the same issues transcend generations no matter what the conflict.

The Unreturning is a triptych of stories continually interweaving. In 1918, George returns home to Scarborough from the frontline of the trenches to a wife he doesn’t recognise and who doesn’t recognise him. She tells him to push the terrors of war out of his mind and takes pride in the gore and death that her husband brought to the enemy. He is in the throes of what we now know to be PTSD, the lonely depths of which Neil Bettles doesn’t shy away from staging. Similarly, in 2013, Frankie returns home to Scarborough from Afghanistan. Far from the hero’s welcome of sausage rolls he was perhaps expecting, he finds his mum, his town and even his country turned away from him. His mum can barely look at him, an angry mob is on his doorstep, and journalists are queuing up to throw him to the bears. We hear that in Afghanistan, he physically attacked and racially abused a civilian. The attack, and the support this gains from his friends in the pub, raises questions about the often-blurred line between patriotism and bigotry, and how easily people forget about the human loss in war. But it also raises questions about blame: has Frankie been scapegoated for the wider attitudes of an us/them mentality? And in 2026, Nat embarks on a long journey back home in an imagined future England in the midst of a rebel war. All three have to come to terms with a home which is now unrecognisable.

It’s in Jordan’s text that home is the most strongly and nostalgically conjured – that is, through what characters (mis)remember or desire about home. Her poetry here is honest and lyrical. It may remind some people of Carol Anne Duffy’s text for My Country but it’s far better. Whereas Duffy’s text crowbarred a generic list of national and local stereotypes, Jordan’s words feel personal, stemming from what the characters miss most. But I also think that Jordan’s text is smarter than that. The waxed lyrical ‘hedgerows, fish and chips shops and neat rows of terraced houses’ are edged with a knowingness that these images and questions pervade all three men’s lives spanning over 100 years just as they’ve pervaded British drama for however long. But for each of the men, as in drama, they are unanswered and unrequited. We don’t see Blighty; only ever hear about it or imagine it. It’s a romantic vision of home seen through the mind of someone horrifically torn away from it. The text is also great at conjuring a contemporary setting – or should that be recent history. Jordan evocatively captures a young man in 2013: looking forward to opening his front door and seeing his mum but also going ‘out’ out, downing jaeger bombs, singing in the streets and shagging bins.

Gender is also interestingly used in The Unreturning. The women in the play are either rudimentary puppets of actors holding up a dress and a hat, or are played by the male actors doubling up. At one time, the result is Joe Layton’s muscular and masculine Frankie quickly switching to an overtly feminine and soft depiction of George’s wife. This could easily be called (that lazy word) problematic but I think that what Bettles cleverly does is make us confront gender and the roles men and women play – or at least typically have played or have had to play – in wars. Most of the audience at this performance was made up of school groups. I think they’ve got a material of riches to think/write about, and thank goodness school trips to the theatre still take place and to productions this inspiring.

Andrzej Goulding​’s set and video design is staggeringly good. As we enter, a shipping container sits on a beach. Over the course of the play, this spins round, opens up and appears to expand and shrink, becomes pubs and lorries, bunkers and cliff edges, war zones overseas and Scarborough living rooms. We see it as a place of conflict, transit, displacement, alienation but rarely ever home. In fact, the scenes set at home are when a sense of home is least present. With a pang of light and sound George is taken from his home and is back in the darkness of war; the scene between Frankie and his mum I seem to remember as the coldest and saddest in the play; and when Nat does go back home, he feels threatened and confused. It’s a multipurpose set at its most fulfilled, impressively used but in a way which is always anchored in the needs of the story.

Frantic Assembly’s production is confrontational yet sensitive, and extremely physical yet with a close focus. I’m not overly familiar with Frantic’s work but surely this is the epitome of contemporary theatre, where a creative team comes together in equal force: a smart text packed with heart, movement which ceaselessly takes the story forward, a set design which complements the movement and highlights the stark contrast between war and home, lighting and sound which immerse us in the world of the play, and four actors fully committed to telling this story. A great bit of theatre!

The Unreturning plays at Curve, Leicester until 16th February and then continues its tour until 1st March, 2019.

The company of The Unreturning. Credit: Tristram Kenton

Wednesday 13 February 2019

Home, I'm Darling

Duke of York’s, London
9th February, 2019, matinee

“I get to choose now. This is what I’ve chosen”

How far would you go to achieve domestic perfection? What even is domestic perfection? Is our happiness shaped by or confounded by traditional gender roles? These are the questions Laura Wade posits in her feminist satire, Home, I’m Darling.

Judy (Katherine Parkinson) and Johnny (Richard Harrington) seem to be the epitome of marital bliss – she the doting housewife, while he works to sustain their quaint lifestyle in their immaculate post-war house. Dressed to the nines in an array of gorgeous tea dresses, Judy is always ready with Johnny’s slippers and a cocktail for him at the end of the day, and she lives by the word of ‘How to Run Your Home Without Help’ – a 1940’s guide to ideal domesticity.

So far, so archaic. But an early twist in Wade’s play reveals Judy and Johnny to be somewhat of a socio-historic anomaly, living in a 1950’s style microcosm slap bang in the middle of the 21st Century. They have an apple macbook stashed away, yet their authentic 50’s fridge doesn’t work; Judy tries to make up for their shortfall in funds since she quit her job by selling her vintage outfits on Ebay. Workplace politics, the necessity for technology and independence, and mounting pressure from a society that’s embraced more liberal views on sex and gender mean that the couple must face the inevitable question of whether the life they have made for themselves is at all sustainable.

Anna Fleischle’s impressive set recreates an idealised 1950’s suburbia, each immaculate room lit by Lucy Carter so as to emphasise the physical and mental compartmentalisation of the couple’s lives. Yet, aesthetically pleasing as it is, I felt that director Tamara Harvey didn’t utilise the space to its best advantage. The majority of the action takes place in the kitchen and lounge, with incidental scenes 'upstairs’ as mere tag ons to accompany the excellent playlist of retro classics (Little Richard, Chuck Berry). I am also unsure what thought Harvey/ Fiery Angel Productions/ the NT have given to transferring the play to this theatre as the sightlines are not great, meaning the pivotal twist in the first scene is lost by a good proportion of the upper circle. In fact, from where we were sat, the majority of the kitchen was obscured.

Production quibbles aside, Wade manages to evoke a sense of romantic nostalgia (not least in the play’s form) while also homing in on the inequalities and less-savoury aspects of the past. Judy takes pride in her housework, and the detailed minutiae of her day demonstrates the workmanship that every house-wife/husband/person undertakes. I think there’s definitely some tract in her assertion that feminism has allowed her to ‘choose’ this lifestyle, but her dedication to the past restricts her relationship with her husband to the point where it becomes obvious that they are merely ‘playing house’. And it’s this pretence that creates a brilliant stroke of discomfort. As Judy’s mother, Sylvia (at this performance played by Jane MacFarlane), says, romanticising a past which in reality was brutal, unfair and impoverished for all but a select few (white, straight, middle-class) is bordering on the offensive – especially when trying to claim supremacy over a still-flawed yet altogether more tolerant modern society.

This discomfort is brought to the fore with Judy’s incomprehensible attitude towards relationships. Her insistence that affairs are fine as long as the other partner never finds out, or her blind defence of her friend Marcus (Hywel Morgan) when he’s accused of sexual harassment, demonstrate a willing naivety which feels almost exploitative to watch. Semi-justification is provided through Judy’s backstory of an unconventional upbringing in a communal collective. But the posited explanation that Judy’s way of thinking is purely down to a teenage-esque rebellion against her righteous mother is a little too pat. I also found the eleventh hour revelation about her father’s misdemeanours lacked punch. But, for the most part, although it initially feels like Wade deliberately uses her characters as toys in a dollhouse, I found myself later coming round to them, understanding their flaws and their reasoning.

In all, Home, I’m Darling raises some important complexities regarding modern attitudes to love, sex, gender, work and leisure, yet Wade doesn’t quite get under the skin of these issues due to the abiding formal aesthetics of the piece.

Home, I’m Darling plays at the Duke of York’s until 13th April, 2019
Richard Harrington and Katherine Parkinson in Home, I'm Darling.
Credit: Manuel Harlan

Monday 4 February 2019

#ReadaPlayaWeek 2019 January

For three years, #ReadaPlayaWeek was a, well, weekly feature of our blog. Starting out as a way to familiarise myself more with the canon, long-established and establishment writers were a regular feature. Later, we (now a co-authored blog) decided to challenge ourselves to read more and more widely, and to give equal focus between male and female writers. By the time we decided to pause it at the end of 2016, it was by no means an all-male, white, British, showcase. Indeed, playwrights so well known that their first names aren’t necessary were still featured but there were also plays by Stephen Karam, Annie Baker, Tanika Gupta, Winsome Pinnock, Roy Williams, and Rachel De-lahay. Finding plays to write about wasn’t always easy. Outside of London and Amazon, bookshops and libraries are heaving with Shakespeare, Bennett and Churchill (not a complaint), but it’s rare to see something new or not on the syllabus.
After a two year hiatus, it’s back with a monthly blog post (or at least that’s the aim). Last year, in the midst of a new house and job and perhaps in a Fluoxetine-fuelled inertia, it took me 6 months to read one play! The play wasn’t particularly long or dense and was actually very good, as reflected in the sweeping five star reviews in its recent London transfer. But I read a scene, forgot it and then re-read until I was stuck in a cycle of American rustbelt procrastination. I’ll try to re-read it and include it later in the year.
So here we go:
In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings (1999) by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Whaddya want? A yacht? ‘Cuz I’ll buy you a yacht. You know why? ‘Cuz I love you
From Our Lady of 121st Street to The Motherfucker with the Hat and Between Riverside and Crazy, Adly Guirgis is interested in how people sink or swim in a changing New York City. Here, in the Hell’s Kitchen of the nineties, a neighbourhood bar is at the centre of reformed criminals, junkies and prostitutes. Is there a list of 100 best opening scenes? If not, then there’s a strong argument that this play should rank highly. A recently released Lenny is attempting to hold his own in his old roosting ground. But for all of his bluster and aggression, it’s all futile. He argues with his girlfriend who later walks out on him, and squaring up to another man results in a pathetic attempt of power at a jukebox. The most power he has is to make the younger man sit outside. And when some old friends walk in, he is left to find that most of his old acquaintances are dead and his old haunts have been gentrified, before being completely demoralised by a 17 year old girl. He can’t even get a drink.
The dialogue always zips forward with vim; and any issues or themes are driven by story and characters, who are always well-rounded with a sense of decency, or at least humanity, whatever their flaws. It’s a cracking play and makes me even more excited to see Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train next month.
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The Guys (2001) by Anne Nelson
We have no idea what wonders lie hidden in the people around us
I hadn’t heard much about this play. Staged 12 weeks to the day after 9/11 at the Flea Theatre, just a couple of blocks away from the site of the World Trade Centre, Anne Nelson’s play is a fascinating blend of theatre and journalism which put theatre’s claim of immediacy to the test. We hear that “After September eleventh, all over the city, people were jumping tracks”. A writer living in New York, sharing in the city’s sense of uselessness, was asked to help a fire chief to write a number of eulogies for the men he’d lost. In this fascinating two hander, originally staged as a workshop with Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray, we hear the details from the day and its aftermath and the machinations of a NYC firehouse. And most memorably, we hear about the lives of those men lost: as firefighters, as friends and as family members. This play is – at least mostly – autobiographical. Like Nelson, Oklahoma-born Joan has made New York her home. Like Joan, Nelson witnessed 9/11 via the TV and through a phone call from her husband who saw it from his office. Like Nelson, Joan went out to vote later that same day. It brings to mind that this is one person’s perspective, only one experience of how their life was touched and changed by such horrors. It’s a difficult play but opens a window to the idea that behind the shadow of every person lives a wealth of talent, friendship, love and opportunity.
Published by Random House.
The Nest by Franz Xaver Kroetz (new version by Conor McPherson)
Look around at everything you’ve made possible…
Billed as a modern morality tale, McPherson’s take on Kroetz’s play is a scant two-hander about the anxieties of parenthood and consumerism. Soon-to-be-parents, Kurt and Martha, live on the breadline in an unnamed European city where material wealth represents happiness and well-being. Kurt earns a living driving trucks for up to fifty hours a week. He feels the pressure to provide for his wife and provide the best that money can buy for their unborn child. Yet, this consumerist philosophy has devastating consequences when Martha finds out just how far Kurt will go to earn and extra an Euro or two.
Xaver and McPherson target debates concerning what makes a ‘good’ parent and the immorality of capitalism. In Kurt’s striving to be a good parent he is increasingly a physical absence from his son’s life. The insistence that Martha stays home to look after the baby highlights the enduring imbalance of the sexes when it comes to the work/life balance. In an age where the typical nuclear family is fast becoming a defunct notion, the outdated man/woman and father/mother binaries are here brought into sharp focus. Thematically, these issues are portrayed strongly by McPherson, whereas other socio-political subjects seem tagged on as a means of pandering to the zeitgeist. An eleventh hour eco-message is somewhat lost amidst the human drama, and Kurt’s casual racism, although topical, seems too flippant to create any lasting impact.
The Nest is a brief but thoughtful insight into modern parenthood and ethical responsibility.
Published by Nick Hern Books.

born bad (2003) by debbie tucker green
the bits don’t make the bulk and the bulk don’t mek the whole and the all a your bits together don’t make your versions true
debbie tucker green’s first two plays were staged within months of each other. At such an early stage of her career, born bad (originally directed by Kathy Burke at the Hampstead) has the distinct linguistic style characteristic of her later work. In an early scene, we see Dawta call Mum a bitch. More than just a throwaway remark, Dawta is resolute and purposefully harsh in her tirade: ‘if yu actin like a bitch/ I’m a call yu it’. As the play unfolds in a series of conversations between Dawta, Mum, Brothers and Sisters 1 and 2, we start to piece together the jigsaw of a family in the immediate aftermath of the revelation of abuse.
Characters may be named after their familial roles (more specifically their roles in relation to Dawta), but they are fleshed out. It does draw attention to their roles they play and how they cope when this can of worms opens. This trauma upturns their world: the play delves into a plexus of fraught relationships as they examine everything they’ve believed to be true. One of the sisters and Mum swing from refusing to believe Dawta to blaming her, covering a huge amount of self-doubt. And as in tucker green’s random, language (spoken and unspoken) holds power. What may be mistaken as stylistic tautology, characters repeat, pick others’ phrasing apart, hold others to account, and ensure that words are not put into the mouths of others. But the play also relishes silence particularly that of Dad. But, in an ending which perhaps speaks of how the family will move forward, Dad still gets the last word.
Published by Nick Hern Books.
The Strange Death of John Doe (2018) by Fiona Doyle
Falling through space. And time. Into space and time. Falling
A body falls out of the wheel well of a British Airways plane about to land at Heathrow. Where did he come from? What’s his story? What put him in this position? As a team of morticians try to piece together the anatomical material of what’s happened, DC Kavura becomes obsessed with trying to get to the centre of Ximo’s life and find the soul behind the body. Doyle’s incredible play is an unnerving exploration into someone’s inner universe, searching for meaning of what a life is composed of beyond the physical and interrogating the boundaries between body and soul. I was fascinated by the way the text pushed to use space in ever more fluid and innovative ways: rib cracking shears in London become hedge clippers in Africa, continents merge and bodies become omnipresent. Doyle’s sense of drilling down to the reasoning behind an all too common tragedy leads her to tapping into an intriguing and topical subject.
 Published by Nick Hern Books.