Wednesday 30 October 2019

One Under

Curve, Leicester

29th October, 2019

It’s not all brutality here. There’s some tenderness

Winsome Pinnock’s 2005 play has been revived in a co-production by Graeae and Theatre Royal, Plymouth, now touring the UK. When a young man jumps in front of a tube train, the impact is far-reaching, bringing people together to search for meaning. There is a dual time strand in One Under, showing the days leading up to Sonny’s death as well as the weeks following, leaving us with different perspectives and the gaps in between to fill.

Pinnock’s play is subtle, even if at times it feels slight. It starts with a suicide at an Underground station, something which puts a halt to the everyday rush and routine of London life and starts the introspecting of what brings someone to that point. What could have been done differently? How could you have helped? Were there any signs? A few days before, we see this man walk into a laundrette and ask the woman behind the counter on a date. This whirlwind connection remains fascinatingly opaque, especially as to the reason why how he showers her with money and luxuries. At the same time, we hear glimpses of a supposed gang he’s running from, but again, whether that’s true or not and what the exact details are elude us.

These scenes interweave with scenes after his death. Cyrus (Stanley J Browne), the driver of the train that hit him, has befriended Sonny’s adopted mum, Nella (Shenagh Govan). It is a genuine and interesting friendship which sees him doing her garden and her make him soup, but there’s also ulterior motives at play. Cyrus is convinced he’s Sonny’s birth father and so sets out to solve the riddle of why he jumped. Did he fall? Was he pushed? Is there a note? Likewise, she knows Cyrus is the train driver but seeks comfort from his connection.

Amit Sharma’s revival feels fresh and is performed with conviction by a cast committed to the story. They sit round the stage when not in a scene, an awareness that they are all playing a part in a bigger story. Reece Pantry conveys Sonny with all the breeziness of a young man enjoying life, hiding the struggles underneath. Govan is very compelling as Nell, the loving mum still coming to terms with Sonny’s death. This is the first Graeae production I’ve seen, a company which commits to the creative integration of sign language, captioning and audio description in its productions. Before the play, train station platform screens warn that a train is approaching, but they seamlessly transition to show Pinnock’s text as captions when the play begins.

But two things really stand out in Pinnock’s play. Firstly (and most optimistically), despite London being repeatedly referred to as a harsh city, kindness is mostly what’s on display. And more disquietingly, that a person’s mental health issues can hide deep under the surface.

One Under plays at Curve until 30th October as part of a UK tour. It plays at the Arcola Theatre from 10th-21st December. For more information visit
Stanley J Browne and Shenagh Govan in One Under. Credit: Patrick Baldwin


Priscilla: Queen of the Desert

Curve, Leicester
28th October, 2019

“That’s just what this country needs:
a cock in a frock on a rock”

My theatre-going so far this year can be aptly described as ‘My Favourite Films: The Musical’. Some of these adaptations/productions have been excellent (Amelie), and others ponderously unnecessary (Little Miss Sunshine). The latest screen-to-stage example, a new touring production of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, falls comfortably in the middle of this spangled spectrum as an enjoyable (if unoriginal) crowd-pleaser.

Ever since the camp-tastic Australian indie movie burst onto screens in the early 1990’s (launching the careers of Hugo Weaving and a young Guy Pearce) Priscilla has been a firm favourite in both the time-trodden ‘road movie’ genre, and LGBT+ cinema. The story follows drag artist, Tick (Joe McFadden), as he travels across the Australian outback in a clapped out bus to visit his young son and revive his flagging stage career. Joined by fellow performers, Adam (Nick Hayes) and Bernadette (Miles Western), the trio encounter a variety of oddballs and bigots, as well as forming some unexpected and personal bonds. A cult classic, writers Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott haven’t strayed far from the source material, simply coupling key scenes from the film with head-bopping disco standards (‘I Will Survive’, ‘Hot Stuff’ eg.) and cheeky dance numbers. While the adaptation doesn’t produce anything new, it’s a proven jukebox formula that works, and judging by the audiences’ reaction, results in a raucous, fun-filled evening of fluff.

Having seen the original West End production of Priscilla several years ago, director Ian Talbot’s downscaled touring version inevitably pales in comparison due to necessary budgetary and logistical constraints. I missed the iconic Stiletto Opera scene; choreographer Tom Jackson Greaves’ tame dream ballet sequence lacks the drama and striking imagery of the original. I also felt the sets and costumes lacked the finesse seen previously. However, if I put my analytical hat on, I could argue that the slightly ill-fitting outfits - comprised of bolts of bargain basement sequins and Styrofoam wigs - is in keeping with the makeshift pluck of the characters and their journey.

Joe McFadden is solid as everyman Tick, getting the balance of earnestness, warmth and flamboyancy just right. Yet, it comes as no surprise that Western and Hayes steal the show. As pithy old-timer, Bernadette, Western gets the best lines (‘now listen here, you mullet. Why don’t you just light your tampon and blow your box up, as that’s the only bang you’re ever gonna get sweetheart!’), while Hayes is in his element when performing the production’s most memorable numbers – his energetic yet sultry entrance to ‘Venus’ is quite something! Daniel Fletcher’s mechanic, Bob, is every bit as cuddly as you’d want, and the blossoming relationship between him and Bernadette is very sweet.

Talbot’s is not an earth-shattering production, but it was never meant to be. LGBT+ representation has progressed since the original film release in the 90’s, so while the stage adaptation can’t bring anything new to the table, Priscilla, in all its glorious manifestations remains a bastion of queer culture that is fabulously unapologetic in its sheer ostentatiousness. Director and co. have created a fun and uplifting evening of kitsch entertainment, catchy tunes and a heart-warming story. It’s just what we need as we enter the drab winter months.

Priscilla: Queen of the Desert plays at Curve, Leicester until 2nd November.
For full tour details please visit:
Miles Western, Joe McFadden and Nick Hayes in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert.
Credit: Darren Bell.

Thursday 24 October 2019

Two Ladies

Bridge Theatre, London
12th October, 2019, matinee

We’re just the wives, with the little handbags and the big husbands

Almost two years after opening, I can’t help but feel that The Bridge Theatre still hasn’t quite come into its own. It’s seen a mix of some well-received Shakespeare, and big acting names counter-balanced with often under-developed and slightly odd material. Nancy Harris’ new play Two Ladies, focusing on the First Ladies of the US and French Presidents, is consistent with this. However, whilst the play occasionally borders on the ludicrous, it’s always engaging and boasts two fine central performances.

Anna Fleischle has designed a corporate conference room on the Cote-d’Azur: clean and empty, with a potted plant, stacks of chairs, and glass walls. Downstairs, Presidents, Prime Ministers and Chancellors gather for an emergency meeting. Five coordinated terrorist attacks have targeted cities across the US. America’s knee-jerk reaction is to launch an air strike to retaliate, now calling upon other world powers to show their support. But this is a side room to the main event. Here we meet two first ladies, along with their PAs, yes-men and spin doctors, in what is a blisteringly theatrical opening scene. Sirens fill the air as Sophia (Zrinka Cvitešić) is rushed in by her entourage covered in blood, her arms and designer dress caked in thick red. 

It’s established that Sophia has had animal blood thrown over her by protestors of her husband. However, after reading the programme notes about Lyndon B Johnson being sworn in as President as Jackie Kennedy stood nearby still covered in her husband’s blood, the sight is all the more shocking. They disrupt Helen (Zoe Wanamaker) who was alone, her mind occupied by her own political and personal machinations, but the two are now in lockdown together, forced to make small talk.

This play is fiction, but as we learn more about the characters, there are a number of similarities between them and their real-life counterparts. Helen is the English, older wife of France’s premier, about to play the victim in a scandal over her husband’s infidelity. Sophia is the Eastern European glamourous wife of her older husband, the US President. The result is a curious amalgamation of real-life personae, making it semi-satirical but also too far removed from reality to have much of an effect. This becomes apparent when the situation turns towards the absurd. Sophia takes out a bottle of Chanel No5, telling Helen its filled with deadly poison. That’s right, it’s Chekhov’s poison perfume bottle! As the play progresses, there is an overt mixing of the personal and political which sees the women conspire to kill their husbands for the wider good. Their initial plan of committing suicide to protest their other halves reaping havoc is changed when a well-placed maid may provide the opportunity to make a bigger protest. We don’t know if their plan succeeds, but beneath the melodrama, there’s a belief in the two women that they want to change the world for the better, something to which their power-driven, war-mongering husbands are not committed.

Harris’ play and Nicholas Hytner’s steady production are always entertaining and enjoyable, even if they do perhaps overbalance into the realms of the preposterous. I also thought Hytner’s reliance on the underscoring synth chords (music by Grant Olding) to build up the tension gave it a bit of a Murder, She Wrote vibe. The lead performances help the play from teetering over the edge. Wanamaker goes from being funny to serious with conviction. Cvitešić is stylish, collected, dignified and sharp as the US first lady, an articulate character who’s never been portrayed as she really is. Two Ladies seems to be political satire, melodrama, and women putting the world to rights all rolled into one play.

Two Ladies plays at The Bridge Theatre until 26th October.

Zoe Wanamaker in Two Ladies.
Credit: Helen Maybanks

A Taste of Honey

Curve, Leicester
22nd October, 2019

And what part do you play in this little Victorian melodrama?

I didn’t really get the significance of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958) when I initially read it at university. Seeing it for the first time and hearing the rhythm in the language and Delaney’s evocation of place and character, I’m beginning to understand how this was such a ground-breaking play in 1958. What’s more is that Bijan Sheibani’s production (first seen at the National Theatre in 2014) breathes new life into it with an on-set band.

Despite being set in 1958, Sheibani’s production has a modernity carrying through it, mainly thanks to Benjamin Kwasi Burrell’s music. A pianist-bassist-drummer Jazz trio are positioned disparately across the stage, accompanying the dialogue. Although it sounds like this could be jarring or distracting, it complements the action extremely well, reminding me a bit of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014). If a character is singing joyfully or reciting a nursery rhyme, the music is jingly and playful, whereas it hints more at a sense of danger when the text delves into darker territory. Reimaginings of songs such as ‘Mad about the boy’ and ‘Nature Boy’ contribute to depth of character, and the musical transitions between scenes create a sense of fluidity.

Hildegard Bechtler’s Salford sink estate design also contributes to the overarching sense of working-class ennui. Moving concrete blocks become the walls of the flat and graffitied playgrounds. Steel girders emphasise the rusty bleakness of Industrial Manchester. The programme notes feature a letter from Delaney to Joan Littlewood, detailing a hastily written first draft of the play. What is evident, having the playwright’s words in mind, is that Delaney has taken the truth of her life and social surroundings and placed it on stage. While she isn’t the first to have shined the spotlight on working class communities, the female perspective she brings to the genre is refreshing, even to a 21st Century audience. Delaney’s characters, particularly mother and daughter, Helen (Jodie Prenger) and Jo (Gemma Dobson), partake in trail-blazingly frank exchanges, revealing both the liberties and constraints faced by women in the 1950’s and tackling universal topics such as wealth, independence, relationships, careers and motherhood. The dialogue is wonderfully witty yet poignant, and Delaney forges a unique rhythm in her prosaic and earthy poetry that is a delight to listen to.

The performances are stellar all-round. Stuart Thompson is a warm and utterly endearing presence as Jo’s best friend Geoff, while Tom Varey excels at portraying the occasionally surreal menace of Helen’s husband, Peter. But the show belongs to Prenger and Dobson; as a double act their chemistry is electric and their timing impeccable. Dobson’s Jo is sullen and temperamental, genuinely hilarious, and displays flashes of childlike glee and dryly incongruous wisdom (‘we don’t ask for life, we have it thrust upon us!’). Having mainly known Prenger for her stints as brassy leading ladies in musical theatre, her performance here was a knockout revelation. Prenger brings all the weight and weariness of Helen’s trespasses, while dosing her droll and often scathing remarks about her daughter with a pathos that hangs in the atmosphere. She’s not a likeable character, but played by Prenger, Helen is a fully rounded character that is not without sympathy.

Sheibani’s production is entertaining without being flashy, showcasing Delaney’s text in all its humour, honesty and melancholia. Outstanding performances and an evocative design placed my thoughts and emotions directly with the characters on stage. I was invested in their lives, and it was with a heavy heart that I had to leave them behind, so engrossing was the play. A keystone in feminist theatre, having now seen A Taste of Honey I can see just why Delaney is so lauded for her work.

A Taste of Honey plays at Curve, Leicester until 26th October as part of a UK tour. It transfers to the Trafalgar Studios in December.
Gemma Dobson, Tom Varey and Jodie Prenger in A Taste of Honey.
Credit: Marc Brenner.

Wednesday 16 October 2019


Curve, Leicester

15th October, 2019

“What good is sitting alone in your room?”

Liza Minnelli on stage in a slinky black playsuit, bowler hat and stockings, sporting a staccato bohemian hairdo, slouched posture and splayed limbs. It’s an image synonymous with the music of Kander and Ebb, the sensual minimalism of Fosse and the genre of musical performance itself. It’s no wonder then that all subsequent productions of Cabaret live in the shadow of the iconic 1972 film. On tour once again, Rufus Norris’ 2006 production, which itself has had several renderings, attempts to blend the seediness of the film and hyper-sexuality of the following Mendes/Marshall productions in the 90’s with the original Brechtian Epic format. While this makes for some dynamic individual moments, for me the show doesn’t quite hang together as a whole, nor does it fully accomplish the gut-punch impact that Norris and co. seem desperate to instil.

John Partridge’s excitable Emcee welcomes the audience into the underbelly of early 1930’s Berlin, alongside young American writer-cum-teacher Cliff (Charles Hagerty). The Kit Kat Klub presents a revue of satirical musical skits, striptease and broad humour, while backstage is a breeding ground for social debauchery and political unrest amid the rise to power of the Nazi party. After striking up a relationship with Cliff, down-and-out headline act, Sally Bowles (Kara Lily Hayworth), a naïve yet ruthless doll, does anything she can to survive in a changing world.

The premise of juxtaposing the socio-historical realism of Joe Masteroff’s book scenes (boarding house ennui, struggling debts, illicit trysts) with the ultra-staged synthesis of the Klub scenes is a theatre lover’s dream. We can indulge our empathetic senses in getting to know a host of characters that are flawed but likable, while also engaging our intellect via the Brechtian prism of dramatic irony and epic satire. Norris creates some memorable numbers which fulfil the Brechtian dogma – ‘If You Could See Her’ hits the right notes of uncomfortable self-consciousness, and ‘Two Ladies’ and ‘The Money Song’ are well staged so to arouse equal levels of kitsch burlesque titillation and ironic nausea induced by the intransigent doctrines at play.

Yet, the more traditional musical theatre style songs that feature in the ‘real’ (aka. Non-Kit Kat Klub) world muddy the waters and blunt the edges of a piece that has the potential to be razor-sharp. Forgettable ballads, such as the unnecessary and oddly twee duet between Sally and Cliff, ‘Perfectly Marvellous’, do little to progress the story or offer thematic insight. And although the subplot featuring landlady, Fraulein Schneider (Anita Harris) and her relationship with a Jewish Shopkeeper is a sweet antidote to the cynicism displayed elsewhere, it feels like an offcut from an entirely different play. The adjacent worlds occupied on stage refuse to cohere, and where the contrasts should enhance one another’s meaning they merely detract from the hard-hitting topics so intelligently addressed in numbers such as the titular ‘Cabaret’. It is plain to see why Fosse insisted on cutting so much for the film.

I also found some of the direction a little overstated. Cabaret will never be a show lauded for its subtlety, but, for instance, the puppet master staging of ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ seems a lazy consequence of moralising hindsight with its knowing mockery and obvious punchline. In comparison with Fosse’s unforgettable version of the number that is bone-chilling in its earnestness, Norris’ interpretation seems somewhat of a cheap shot. Furthermore, while my partner thought the ending was effective -

*spoiler alert*

The Emcee, alongside his troupe of cabaret performers, strips fully naked and the curtain comes down on the ensemble being prepared for execution in a Nazi Concentration Camp.

*end of spoiler*

- I was unsure about the way it humanised the Emcee, removing some of the emblematic gloss from a nefariously ambivalent character. It also smacks of a director that lacks confidence in his audience. Give us a little credit, we are able to use our imaginative faculties without needing the dots joined up for us.

Of the performances, John Partridge is quite visibly having a blast, and while I found his Emcee a little too aggressive at times, he avoids the potential trappings of being a simple Joel Grey or Alan Cumming impersonation. Kara Lily Hayworth lacks some of the charm that Minnelli brought to Sally, but she can belt out the songs with great musicality. Hagerty is a likeable Cliff, and Anita Harris and James Paterson shine as doomed couple, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz bringing an element of sympathetic fragility to proceedings. It’s just a shame that their subplot seems so removed from the rest of the show.

I’m glad to have finally seen Cabaret on stage, but for me Norris’ production is less than the sum of its parts. Funnily enough, as a revue its successful – it entertains, and individual numbers make you think and hit pertinent themes of morality – but strung together as a dramatic narrative it simply failed to click with me, which is a shame as I adore the film. Bold, but not quite gutsy enough to be truly shocking. Theatrical, but too dramatically imbalanced to be Epic. The songs, however, remain a treat.

Cabaret plays at Curve, Leicester until 19th October 2019.
For further tour details please visit:
The cast of Cabaret.
Credit: The Other Richard

Tuesday 8 October 2019

#ReadaPlayaWeek - September

The Big Meal (2011), by Dan LeFranc

‘You think this is dysfunctional?
God, you’re spoiled, you know that?’

Remember that BBC Licence Fee advert from a few years ago? The one where a man and woman zip through an entire relationship in the space of 30 seconds over a fancy restaurant meal? Well, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that advert when reading LeFranc’s The Big Meal. The premise is pretty similar: four generations of family history is played out in the microcosm of various gatherings at diners and restaurants in the American Midwest – all separate yet occupying the same space. We begin with Nicky and Sam’s first meeting and then chart their entire relationship, as well as those of various parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren. LeFranc encapsulates the mundane aspects of suburban family life with touching empathy: bickering siblings, young love, extra-marital affairs, and everyday tragedies.

The text is presented as a tapestry of dialogue, with overlaps mapped out on the page and scenes often featuring secondary, and even tertiary, conversations in tandem with the presiding action. 8 actors of varying ages play all the characters over the decades-long timeline. This creates a great sense of the uncanny, as parents eventually play their children and brothers and sisters play lovers. LeFranc eschews scene breaks and the play is performed as a linear episode wherein any initial confusion is soon dispersed as the ‘everyman’ quality of the family drama takes centre stage. The themes are universal, and the shifting ownership of the characters allows them to embody all of society (albeit a western, middle class society) in a manner both generalised but specific enough to create a strong emotional impact during the denouements of certain plot points. Thematically and structurally The Big Meal draws many parallels with Stephen Karam’s The Humans, and it’s a play that I’d love to see in performance.

Published by Methuen

Jitney (1982), by August Wilson

I look around and all I see is boarded up buildings. Some of them been boarded-up for more than ten years

In 2016, Jitney became the last play in Wilson’s American Century Cycle (or Pittsburgh Cycle) to be performed on Broadway, putting in place the last jewel in the crown. Each one explores the black American experience in a different decade of the twentieth century, and two of them, Fences and The Piano Lesson, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This one is set in a Pittsburgh ‘jitney’ (taxi) office on the brink of being boarded up and torn down to make way for new developments. To this extent, it appears to be set in the same world as Two Trains Running (currently playing on tour) which sees the closure of Memphis’ diner putting a community at threat. In Jitney, someone even says ‘that’s how they put Memphis Lee out of business’. The effect is to highlight the pervading issue, based on reality, of the local authorities’ misgivings on a diverse part of the city for a number of years. The issues represented in one play are not isolated, they impact other characters in other decades in other plays.

The characters in Jitney may not be as richly captured as in Two Trains Running, but it does have the fascination of a work play. We see a range of characters not necessarily together by choice negotiating the dramas of their lives. We meet Youngblood, a young Vietnam veteran working long hours to try to get his young family a steady home even though his girlfriend Rena thinks he’s out all night with her sister; there’s Turnbo, a slightly unhinged mainstay of the office who’s in everybody’s business thinking he has the moral high ground; and Fielding, an alcoholic driver nostalgic for his ex-wife and a life that could’ve been. At the centre of this, there’s the boss of the office, Becker: a well-regarded man whose son is released from prison. Their relationship, although it’s rendered mostly through a couple of conversations, goes to the core of what Booster did to end up in prison and how that impacted on their relationship. But through those feelings of betrayal and an 11th-hour plot twist comes something which might galvanise the group to save their community.

Jitney feels quite an episodic play but each scene crackles with personality. And for all of the trials the vivid characters face in Jitney, like in Two Trains Running, Wilson is keen to build to a climax which is verging on the hopeful.

Published by Overlook

Tom and Clem (1997), by Stephen Churchett

I suppose it boils down to bread for all before cake for some’

A sticker has been placed over the page which lists the performance history of this Olivier-nominated play. Holding it up to the light to see what’s been replaced, the only difference I can see is the addition that Michael Codron produced it. All those stickers printed for presumably multiple copies for a non-event of a play.

The play is set in 1945 Germany. The war may be over but world leaders (Attlee, Truman and Stalin) have met in Potsdam to negotiate peace. Clement Attlee (Alec McCowen), the newly elected Prime Minister, and journalist and new Labour MP Tom Driberg (Michael Gambon) both feature in the play. But where you might expect a great meeting of minds, a sparring political and personal relationship, or even a friendship, we don’t really get any of that; the two don’t even have much stage time together. What we do get, or so it seems, is a good third of the play wasted on fellatio jokes!

There are some interesting bits, not least to think of the political backdrop onto which this was staged in 1997. What comparisons were drawn to Blair when audiences were confronted with an uncharismatic leader who looks like a dentist and is cautious of leading a social revolution? And any themes of political and personal compromise don’t have much time to flourish, with more of the meatier conversations squeezed into the play’s last moments.

Published by Faber and Faber
Pullman, WA (2005), by Young Jean Lee

‘As I walked to my waiting rainbow-coach, squashing a mermaid baby-head with each step,
I realized how fortunate I truly am’

The setup is a black box theatre, void, but for a sin bin zone, otherwise known as ‘the giving up area’. Three characters/actors use this platform to present a twisted self-help seminar, directing their words, for the most part, directly at the audience.

‘Pete’, ‘Tom’ and ‘Tory’ take turns to advise us on ‘how to live’. Lee’s text is stagnant mush of intentionally banal and cheesy self-improvement jargon – eat healthy, don’t do drugs etc. – childish fantasy, quasi-biblical sermonising and nonsense mantras. This is all interspersed with flashes of brutal imagery (one character likes to repeatedly imagine paper slicing into human eyeballs – that made me wince!) alongside frequent, violent tirades of abuse. The actors, eyeballing various audience members systematically berate them for their faults: ‘You’re a loser because you were born that way’; ‘You are incompetent’; ‘Why don’t you go home, you fucking hypocrite!’.

As a highly experimental piece of theatre, perhaps the play is more effective in performance, but I found reading Lee’s work – while never dull – a bit of a headache. I’m unsure of her intent, but Pullman, WA to me seems to be a post-meta take on the theatrical experience itself (and that doesn’t just include attending ‘traditional’ plays, or stepping foot inside a ‘theatre’ at all). Much of the dialogue is formed of quaint in form (while not necessarily quaint in nature) soundbites. As such, any grains of truth are buried beneath the overarching refrain of clichéd, synthetic hokum. This is reinforced by the various digressions into the imaginary land of ‘rainbows’ and ‘unicorns’. The overall effect is jarring. I confess I did not like Lee’s play while reading it, but having ruminated on its themes I’m warming to it slightly. Pullman, WA is a curiosity, but certainly not one for the faint-hearted.

Published by Methuen