Posts tagged ‘michael coveney’

2 November, 2010

Reviled. Respected. Revived.

I didn’t enjoy the Lyric Hammersmith’s revival of Blasted – but you’d think I was sick if I said I had, right?

Sarah Kane’s first play features rape (both explicit and implied), bigotry, despair, physical and psychological torture, the sucking-out of a man’s eyes and the cannibalism of a dead baby. What respite there is comes from the darkest possible humour. And Sean Holmes’s production both lingers on the atrocities, and punctuates them with eked-out moments of anticipation-laden near-inaction: held breaths of suffocating duration.

It’s not a play you enjoy; it’s one you endure.

When I arrive home from the theatre, the first thing my housemates ask is “Did you enjoy it?”. Taking in a show is a leisure pursuit, so it isn’t surprising that people judge the experience on how pleasurable it is. So can giving your audience a thoroughly miserable time ever be considered a valid artistic objective?

To mix my media momentarily and paraphrase Sally Sparrow from the Doctor Who episode Blink, sad is happy for deep people. Enjoyment isn’t necessarily every theatregoer’s goal or expectation; or at least, enjoyment can be reached by more than one route – for instance, via discomfort.

Stick with me.

In Blasted, the Soldier (Aidan Kelly) accuses journalist Ian (Danny Webb) of closing his eyes to the lives and hardships of the people he meets. To watch / endure Blasted, and not to turn away when (for instance) the Soldier goes to work on Ian, is to prove oneself better than Ian and the people he represents (you and I). The enjoyment to be had from the play is a kind of solemn, supercilious smugness. “I watched. I didn’t pretend it wasn’t happening. I faced it without flinching.”

But who left the auditorium resolved to pay more attention to foreign wars, or to the people sleeping in shop doorways on your way to work? Not I. I was just relieved it was over. That’s just the thing: it ends. You know it’ll end even if it seems interminable (and those dramaturgical held breaths of Holmes’s play havoc with your perception of time; it’s masterful). You’re allowed to stop facing it down – it lets you win the staring contest in a way real life never will. The victory is fiction, and the smugness is founded on fiction.

Written by Sarah Kane

Crew includes Sean Holmes (director), Stef O’Driscoll (assistant director), Paul Wills (designer), Paule Constable (lighting designer) and Christopher Smutt (sound designer)

Cast includes Aidan Kelly (Soldier), Danny Webb (Ian), Lydia Wilson (Cate)

Need a second opinion? (Or for someone to actually tell you whether the production / performances were any good?)

29 September, 2010

“Get dressed. The big fellah’s on his way.”

Everyone and mother has reviewed The Big Fellah already, but here’s the stuff nobody mentioned.

The Shadow of Sean O’Casey

Matt Wolf compares Richard Bean to Martin McDonagh and (tangentially) Harold Pinter in his review for The Arts Desk. Matt Trueman similarly calls the setting “Pinteresque” and references McDonagh’s In Bruges. Writing for What’s On Stage, Michael Coveney compares The Big Fellah to Bill Morrison’s Flying Blind.

Worthy comparisons all, but I’m surprised no one cast back beyond Morrison and McDonagh to Sean O’Casey, the master of Troubles tragicomedy. It could be because I studied it exhaustively at A Level, but O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman sprang to my mind as a comparison almost immediately.

Gunman is a lot more claustrophobic in terms of scale and timeframe, but the similarities are there nonetheless. There’s the setting: a safe house in a deprived area (O’Casey’s in a Dublin slum, Bean’s in a Bronx brownstone). There’s the man seduced by the patriotic allure of the IRA (O’Casey’s Donal Davoren, who likes the glamour, and Bean’s Michael Doyle, who joins up out of a sense of duty to the victims of Bloody Sunday, fuelled by imagined ancestral pride). There’s the IRA assassin, laying low (though, okay, Davoren’s only pretending while Bean’s Ruairi O’Drisceoil is the genuine article).

The other thing Bean’s play has that O’Casey’s doesn’t is redemption, which may stem from the fact that O’Casey was reporting live, right from the heart of the Troubles, whereas Bean is charting their history (or, if we’re really lucky, writing their obituary).

“Britain’s most provocative playwright”

Aleks Sierz boldly labels Richard Bean thusly in his review for The Stage, though in the comfort of his personal blog he qualifies the assertion with a “perhaps”. I work for Aleks at theatreVOICE (full disclosure!), so I hope he won’t mind me saying I don’t agree with his judgement on this one.

For a start, I hope that Richard Bean isn’t Britain’s most provocative playwright, because if all it takes to earn that epithet is to point out on the Olivier stage that Britain is historically hostile to immigrants (in England People Very Nice), British drama is in trouble. (Having said that, I’m not sure I can think who does deserve the title. Tim Crouch, maybe? Nominations in the comments, please.)

For a follow-up, I think that while England People Very Nice was a deliberately provocative play, The Big Fellah isn’t, and I don’t see the value in bringing up the playwright’s reputation for being provocative in relation to a non-provocative play, unless it’s to say “he’s usually provocative, but this isn’t”.

I suppose my issue is with the journalistic tendency to slap labels on people, as shorthand for readers (“Oh yeah, that guy”), and to apply those labels regardless of context – and not with Aleks (my editor) after all (phew!).

“Get dressed. The big fellah’s on his way.”

What none of the critical community fail to mention is Finbar Lynch’s captivating turn as David Costello, the eponymous Big Fellah. There’s also plenty of well-deserved praise for Rory Keenan as Ruairi (the main character, to my mind, and the most interesting, beating the big fellah by a hair’s breadth), though not nearly enough for Claire Rafferty as the vibrant Elizabeth Ryan.

Unfortunately reviewers’ word counts are such that, when you only appear in one scene of a two-hour production, and the quality of your performance is matched by certain of your fellow cast members, all of whom have more stage time, you get sidelined. Well, Rafferty’s performance is lively and earnest; she makes light work of some clanging mouthpiece-of-the-playwright lines; and for a few short minutes she matches the charismatic big fellah blow for verbal blow.

Now, did I miss anything?

Written by Richard Bean

Crew includes Max Stafford-Clark (director), Tim Shortall (designer), Jason Taylor (lighting) and Nick Manning (sound)

Cast includes Rory Keenan (Ruairi O’Drisceoil), Youssef Kerkour (Tom Billy Coyle), Finbar Lynch (David Costello), Claire Rafferty (Elizabeth Ryan), David Ricardo-Pearce (Michael Doyle), Fred Ridgeway (Frank McArdle) and Stephanie Street (Karelma)

Those reviews in full:

11 July, 2010

The Comedy of Errors

Sophie  Roberts and Daniel Weyman in The Comedy of Errors

Sophie Roberts and Daniel Weyman in The Comedy of Errors. Image courtesy of The Corner Shop

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, 24 June – 31 July 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

The first and final scenes of this open-air Comedy of Errors feel dashed off, as if director Philip Franks couldn’t be bothered to do much with them. This isn’t as big a problem as it might be in a different play: The Comedy of Errors is mostly middle.

Franks appears to have judged, by no means incorrectly, that the sob story Egeon (Christopher Ravenscroft) feeds the Duke (Alister Cameron) in scene one isn’t nearly as important to the audience as it is to Egeon (who is, after all, telling it in order to secure himself a stay of execution). Adoptions and shipwrecks don’t concern us. All we need to know is that two sets of estranged identical twins are about to be set loose in Ephesus and hilarity, as they say, will ensue.

So yes, the opening scene is interminable, there’s little evidence of “grief unspeakable” in Ravenscroft’s performance and as such his climactic reunion with his wife and sons is emotionally flat. But as soon as Egeon yields the stage to the twin Antipholi and Dromios, Franks and the audience alike sit up and start paying attention.

The production has a fantastic sense of fun, embracing the absurdity of the play’s premise and embellishing it with brand new absurdities, like unexpected song and dance numbers and Scooby-Doo-style pursuits with mobs racing past people hidden in convenient wicker baskets.

The contrasting relationships of the Antipholi (Daniels Weyman and Llewelyn-Williams) to their respective Dromios (Joseph Kloska and Josh Cohen) are convincingly fleshed out: Ephesian Dromio (Cohen) is beaten and put-upon by his wealthy master (Llewelyn-Williams) but they always make up in the end, while the less affluent Syracusan pair are on a more equal footing.

This means that when the Antipholi unwittingly swap Dromios or vice versa, as they inevitably must, there’s an extra level of humour to enjoy. One Dromio leaves in search of bail money for Antipholus and another returns with a bit of rope – that’s worth a giggle. But when Ephesian Antipholus, used to getting his own way, is faced with a Dromio who isn’t used to taking orders, hilarity ensues.

Perhaps if Franks had paid as much attention to Egeon’s characterisation as to the twins’, the production could have gained yet another layer, this time of poignancy. But this production gets belly laughs from a capacity crowd using Elizabethan dialogue, so I say, who needs depth when hilarity is ensuing?

Written by William Shakespeare

Crew includes Philip Franks (director), Gideon Davey (designer), Quinny Sacks (movement director), Paul Frankish (musical director)

Cast includes Alister Cameron (Duke), Josh Cohen (Dromio of Ephesus), Joseph Kloska (Dromio of Syracuse), Daniel Llewelyn-Williams (Antipholus of Ephesus), Christopher Ravenscroft (Egeon), Daniel Weyman (Antipholus of Syracuse)

Need a second opinion?

17 November, 2009

Public Property

Trafalgar Studios, 16 November – 5 December 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

At first glance, Public Property is a boilerplate Trafalgar Studio 2 production. Recognisable faces: check (Robert Daws, Nigel Harman and even Stephen Fry, phoning it in via vid-cameo). Humour that doesn’t tax the brain: check (sight gags and comic situational escalation best enjoyed after a glass of wine in the bar). Skilled but slightly overly wordy scriptwriting: check (courtesy of Sam Peter Jackson).

On closer inspection, however, this is something of a rare find: a play about three gay men in which the characters’ sexuality is almost incidental, an extra thematic layer rather than the piece’s raison d’être.

Daws is celebrated newsreader Geoffrey Hammond, who throws himself on the mercy of his ruthless publicist, Larry De Vries (Harman) after being caught by paparrazzi in flagrante delicto with 16-year-old Jamie (Steven Webb). Geoff does protest once or twice that the press wouldn’t be interested if Jamie had been a girl, but the play is more concerned with celebrity, PR and fickle public goodwill than “LGBTQ issues”. Geoff knows, despite his protestations of innocence, that this incident matters more to his reputation than any number of broadcasting gongs, and even Larry is branded repeatedly by his lowest point: the media only remembers him for being booted off the judging panel of a failed reality show.

It’s often difficult to feel any sympathy towards Geoff, who really has only his own indiscretion to blame for his downfall, but Daws does an excellent job of showing the desperation behind the bluster, and his raw vulnerability when talking to or about his offstage lover Paul provides the production’s tenderest moments. Harman is believable whether smooth-talking and in control or plain incredulous at his client’s behaviour, though he flips a little too easily between the two modes, and reacts so little to mentions of Larry’s debts and vices that they seem more a throwaway subplot than an integral part of the character’s backstory.

Jackson’s script, too, is generally sound, though a bit baggy towards the end of Act One, and overly reliant on the repeat-repeat louder-shout-shout-pause formula for writing arguments. Like most Studio 2 shows, Public Property has its flaws, but is still a satisfying enough night out; and it boasts the additional merit of sidestepping the damaging and judgmental “gay play” label which, given its premise, it could easily have been slapped with.

Written by Sam Peter Jackson

Crew includes Hanna Berrigan (director) and Helen Goddard (designer)

Cast includes Robert Daws (Geoffrey Hammond), Nigel Harman (Larry De Vries) and Steven Webb (Jamie Sullivan)

Need a second opinion?

24 September, 2009

Mother Courage and Her Children

National Theatre, 16 September – 8 December 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

The prospect of staging Brecht’s work on the Olivier Stage is similar to the prospect of flying an aeroplane backwards. Though in theory the vehicle is a tool designed to go where you tell it to, in practice there are certain manoeuvres it’s structurally unsuited to perform.

Brecht dictated that his plays be staged with no frills. But any director given the run of the Olivier can be forgiven for wanting to actually use the facilities on offer. It isn’t yielding to temptation, it’s making the most of a rare opportunity.

Like a glass-panelled clock, Deborah Warner’s Mother Courage and Her Children doesn’t just choose not to conceal its inner workings, it displays them, inviting the audience to marvel at the way the pieces fit together. During one musical number Courage (Fiona Shaw) drags an ASM, already quite visible at the edge of one wing, fully onto the stage, where she dances briefly with the announcer (who also dances little jigs in the scene changes), and during the interval the second act’s placards fly in and out, in and out, as if the winches are being tested.

Not trusting the audience to be satisfied with the real backstage goings-on of a National Theatre production, Warner treats us to a self-conscious, theatricalised version of them. What we see is more bustling and disorganised than backstage in any theatre I’ve worked in; a theatre workers’ self-portrait that magnifies every insignificant pimple.

Revealing the production’s nuts and bolts works as Brecht intended, removing the emotional smokescreen that prevents critical engagement with the play; but theatricalising and calling attention to the backstage business just replaces the smokescreen with blinkers, creating a parallel drama that competes with the more important one centre stage.

Written by Beltolt Brecht (translated by Tony Kushner)

Crew includes Deborah Warner (director), Duke Special (songs) and Mel Mercier (musicscape)

Cast includes Stephen Kennedy (The Chaplain) Martin Marquez (The Cook), Harry Melling (Swiss Cheese), Charlotte Randle (Yvette), Clifford Samuel (Eilif), Fiona Shaw (Mother Courage) and Sophie Stone (Kattrin)

Need a second opinion?

8 May, 2009

The Contingency Plan

Bush Theatre, 22 April – 6 June 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

If anthropogenic climate change is the greatest challenge currently facing mankind, then right now Steve Waters’ The Contingency Plan at the Bush Theatre is the most important artwork in the country.

Either individually or combined, On the Beach and Resilience – the independent but complementary constituent plays of Waters’ double bill – trumpet an uncompromising challenge to conventional, optimistic projections regarding the results of our effect on the climate.

In On the Beach, glaciologist Will Paxton (Geoffrey Streatfeild) returns home to Norfolk after an extended stint in Antarctica, to present his new girlfriend Sarika (Stephanie Street) to his parents, and to confront his reclusive father Robin (Robin Soans), who gave up glaciology two decades ago to observe sea birds on the salt marshes.

In Resilience, Sarika likewise presents Will to the Ministry for Climate Change, where he faces off against Colin (also Robin Soans), the colleague that discredited his father, in an attempt to convince the new Conservative government to legislate according to his own radically pessimistic predictions of coastal flooding in Britain.

If you can see both (highly recommended), see On the Beach first. If you can’t, see Resilience: though its focus is squarely on the policy makers and not those affected first hand by the crisis, it contains not only the best laughs (mostly courtesy of David Bark-Jones’ dangerously clueless Minister), but also the most important science.

Will’s solution is that there is no solution; there’s nothing left to do but retreat inland and abandon the coast to the North Sea. Before Resilience’s interval he reels off a list of draconian-sounding measures, including compulsory purchase and demolition of non-carbon neutral homes. Waters and his agent are adamant that the science used in the play is sound and rigorously up to date.

Downers don’t come much bigger, but neither play ever ceases to entertain, even when Soans’ characters show their similarities by breaking out the visual aids. Hard science and the accompanying pessimism are counterbalanced by dramatic flair in both the text and the performances. While the big issue naturally and rightly dominates, Will’s relationship with his father gets nearly as much exposure; and Street, along with Susan Brown as both Will’s mother and Tessa, Minister for Resilience, fly the flag for women finding footholds in predominantly male arenas. Soans’ portrayal of two similar but distinct obsessives, one comical, one eventually somewhat sinister, particularly stands out.

The only ray of hope in Waters’ predicted stormfront is that both plays are set a few years in the future. If the science is as solid as he claims, we can only hope the policy makers don’t greet him as Chris greets Will – at first jovially, then later bitterly, as “Nostradamus”.

Written by Steve Waters

Crew includes Tamara Harvey (director, Resilience), Michael Longhurst (director, On the Beach), Tom Scutt (designer), Oliver Fenwick (lighting designer) and Emma Laxton (sound designer)

Cast includes David Bark-Jones (Chris), Susan Brown (Jenny in On the Beach/Tessa in Resilience), Robin Soans (Robin in On the Beach/Colin in Resilience), Geoffrey Streatfeild (Will) and Stephanie Street (Sarika)

Need a second opinion?

20 March, 2009

The Murder Game

King’s Head Theatre Pub, 18 March – 19 April 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

James Farwell is, first and foremost, an attorney and political consultant. The Murder Game is his first foray into playwriting and he’s sticking to what he knows: the legal community of his native New Orleans.

The plot is pure farce. There’s a criminal on the loose with a murderous vendetta against Katherine Kelly (Josefina Gabrielle), the judge that put him away. Her unfaithful husband Randall (Michael Praed) orders a hit on her too, for a variety of apparently justifiable reasons, so she orders one back in self-defence.

At the same time Katherine’s on the rebound with Brazilian ex-footballer turned crime writer Pito Pinto (Ben Jones), and her prosecutor friend Melvin (Patrick Clancy) is running up gambling debts on her office phone.

It’s a promising set-up for a farce. The stakes are certainly high. Lives are on the line, and both Katherine and Randall are public figures – he’s running for District Attorney – with a lot to lose should their questionably legal behaviour come to light.

The problem is that Farwell hasn’t written a farce, despite having a great scenario for one. All the onstage characters are in on it, so instead of hiding their sordid affairs from one another, they’re all united in concealing them from the impersonal, unseen (and therefore unthreatening) threat of The Media.

Perhaps Farwell didn’t set out to write a farce. Fair enough. But as the pressure mounts, his characters act with the escalating idiocy of farce characters, without the frantic pace the genre uses to excuse it. Farwell’s characters have time to consider, and they still act stupidly.

Chalk that one up to inexperience with the venerable old modes of theatre, perhaps. But the play has other, less easily excusable flaws, not least of which is a tendency to tell, not show – breaking one of the cardinal rules of playwriting.

Rather than demonstrate their flaws, vices and virtues through action, characters are exhaustively described by one another. Randall reels off Katherine’s character crib sheet as an explanation for his infidelity. Melvin describes Pito’s every facet to Randall and proceeds to explain precisely his influence on Katherine’s behaviour. It makes for unexciting, static staging.

Jones, Clancy and Matt Healy as hitman Clyde all have a grasp on the kind of play The Murder Game is trying to be, and play accordingly for laughs. Melvin is high (though thankfully not screaming) camp, and Pito is the stereotypical Latin loverboy. The two leads are scripted a little more in earnest, though their behaviour is no less outrageous, so Gabrielle and Praed have a harder time reconciling their performances with the play’s muddled tone.

In fact, Praed is a little too convincing. With a charming, trustworthy smile and uninflected delivery, he sounds like a politician reading his lines off an autocue.

Frequent video interludes – showcasing parodied but worryingly still realistic campaign ads – can’t keep the play from feeling dated. The second act dinner party in particular is a long-abandoned theatrical tradition.

You can’t fault Farwell’s legal knowledge, which is used but not overused; but a little more knowledge of theatre history could have helped frame The Murder Game in a format better befitting its content.

Written by James Farwell

Crew includes John Tillinger (director) and Nigel Hook (set/costume design)

Cast includes Patrick Clancy (Melvin Kline), Josefina Gabrielle (Katherine Kelly), Matt Healy (Clyde), Ben Jones (Pito) and Michael Praed (Randall Kelly)

Need a second opinion?

12 March, 2009

Stovepipe

Bush Theatre Unit 18 (West 12 Shopping Centre), 3 March – 26 April 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

It’s all too easy to remain detached from the subject of Iraq. It’s thousands of miles away, it no longer makes daily headlines and the combined British and American military is gradually washing its hands of the place.

Stovepipe aims to pick us up off the sidelines and deposit us bodily into the midst of the relief effort. Based out of the Bush Theatre’s new bar venue, Unit 18, the production transforms the boiler rooms and dead spaces below the West 12 shopping complex into a promenade performance space.

Designer takis’s sets are nothing short of lavish – and little wonder, with Hightide, the Bush and the National Theatre all backing the play in some capacity. There’s a conference centre, a hotel room, a café bar, a war-torn city street and more, and every new environment is further evidence of high production values and attention to detail. With the audience free to roam, everything – from the posters promoting fictional investors in the rebuilding programme to the papers in the office in-tray – must stand up to close scrutiny, and it does.

The performances, too, are consistently convincing and engaging. Shaun Dooley doesn’t quite reconcile British mercenary Alan’s caring and violent sides into a unified character, but as our guide it’s important he remain sympathetic, and keeping the lid on the violence helps achieve that. Eleanor Matsuura, meanwhile, infuses every female character in the show with distinct but equally potent varieties of strength, independence and (occasionally) warmth, in the hands-down best performance of the night. As Sargon Yelda’s Arabic interpreter puts it, “the Americans have a phrase: ball-breaker.”

So why does Stovepipe still fail to suck the audience in?

Maybe it’s because the design is too slick. The bar and office furniture looks like it was bought yesterday, brand new. Maybe it’s because the one time we actually visit Iraq is the one time the staging is necessarily representative rather than realistic, and the rest of our time is spent in Amman, Jordan, a staging post for forays into Iraq; like Alan, we feel like we’re between places, waiting for the real action to begin.

Or maybe it’s because of the play’s scattergun chronology, which flashes backwards and forwards with nearly every scene and offers very few narrative signposts to help us find our place in Alan’s story. Trusting the audience’s intelligence rather than patronising them is always the right call, but in this case the complexity of the plot requires us to keep disengaging from the moment in order to look at the bigger picture and see where the latest piece slots in – and getting lost in the moment is what allows us to care.

Written by Adam Brace

Crew includes Michael Longhurst (director) and takis (designer)

Cast includes Christian Bradley (Andre/Grif), Shaun Dooley (Alan), Niall MacGregor (Eddy/Harry), Eleanor Matsuura (Carolyn/Masha/Sally) and Sargon Yelda (Saad/Marty/Rami)

Need a second opinion?

18 February, 2009

This Isn’t Romance

Soho Theatre, 12 February – 7 March 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

Korea-born, Essex-raised Miso Blake (Jennifer Lim) returns to Seoul to find Han (Mo Zainal), the brother she left behind 25 years ago – and the siblings fall immediately and uncontrollably in love.

This Isn’t Romance – the Soho Theatre’s new production by In-Sook Chappell, winner of the 2007 Verity Bargate Award – is about youth, innocence, cultural and sexual identity as well. But incest is a theme that can’t help but eclipse all others in its power to raise a reaction. This play is going to offend some people – and isn’t that the litmus test for vital art?

Convincingly justifying incestuous attraction is at once a delicate and Herculean task. The press pack for the show included a lengthy article on Genetic Sexual Attraction, a largely unacknowledged phenomenon affecting close relatives separated until adulthood. But for those disinclined to do preparatory reading for what should, after all, be an evening’s entertainment, several aspects of the production concertedly wrestle with overcoming the audience’s instinctive reactions – and an open mind is still essential.

Through the siblings’ vital first private encounter, Chappell walks us steadily through the complex cocktail of emotions involved: the shock of familiarity, guilt, anger, dependence, the urge to protect one another. Lim and Zainal flit from one to the next rather than attempt to externalise all at once the contradictory feelings bubbling within – flowing smoothly from the lustful embrace of lovers, through tense self-disgust into the innocent embrace of children seeking comfort.

This means we’re denied any potential virtuoso moments displaying the full extent of either sibling’s inner conflict, and understanding their motivations becomes a cerebral exercise – keeping track of the sequence of emotions we’re shown and applying the full spectrum to each subsequent line, action and expression. This is challenging enough for someone that wants to understand – so what about the sceptics?

This Isn’t Romance is a fearless exploration of some incredibly difficult subject matter, and like all such works its task will be largely thankless. The huge effort it makes towards humanising a widely demonised phenomenon will no doubt prove enlightening to the already well-informed or open-minded, but that’s like converting the choir – they were already partway there. Ironically, the people the play most wants to convince are those too paralysed by their (admittedly justifiable) prejudices to let it touch them.

Written by In-Sook Chappell

Crew includes Lisa Goldman (director), Jon Bausor (designer), Jenny Kagan (lighting designer), Matt McKenzie (sound designer), Doug O’Connell (AV designer) and William Conacher (dialect coach)

Cast includes Jennifer Lim (Miso Blake), Matthew Marsh (Jack Cash) and Mo Zainal (Han Som Kim)

Need a second opinion?

12 February, 2009

England People Very Nice

National Theatre, 4 February – 30 April 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

The National Theatre is billing England People Very Nice, the first show of 2009 to offer Travelex £10 tickets, as playwright Richard Bean’s state-of-the-nation play. Well, according to Bean, the state of the nation is the same as always: reactionary and xenophobic.

Covering four waves of immigration – French Huguenots, Irish, Jews and Bangladeshis – Bean points a flashing neon finger the size of the Olivier Theatre at our national tendency towards intolerance.

The play does a great job putting the problems of today’s multicultural London in perspective, as each generation of immigrants eventually integrates into British life and then takes its turn oppressing the next. It’s enough to make anyone wonder why we’re still considered a go-to nation for anyone fleeing persecution and adversity.

Yet Bean somehow houses this damning admonishment in an epic, centuries-spanning romantic comedy, throughout which the successive reincarnations of a pair of lovers try again and again to love one another despite cultural divides and running gags. And as if that plot weren’t enough, it is itself embedded in a fairly iffy piece of metatheatre.

The immigrants in the detention centre in 2009, you see, have devised the centuries-spanning romantic comedy while waiting on their applications for leave to remain. At its best, this framing device salts the open wound of British hypocrisy: citizenship exams, testing the loyalty of potential immigrants to the nation that banged them up as soon as they arrived? Such exquisite irony. So quintessentially British.

But the cynic in me can’t help seeing the play-within-a-play as a Get Out Of Jail Free card Bean dealt to himself under the table, allowing him to neatly sidestep criticism with the excuse, “that’s how the characters would have devised it.” And at its worst, the device is a megaphone through which Bean can announce (in case we’re a little slow on the uptake) that it doesn’t matter if a character lives through the Blitz and still looks twenty-five in 2009, because that’s the magic of theatre.

The comedy does work. It tempers the worthier observations and keeps the play from turning into art as social work for the nation. So does the star-cross’d romance. After all, the truest measure of a country’s receptiveness to new cultures is the rate of intermarriage. But I don’t need Olivia Colman’s immigration officer Philippa to face front and tell me so before I can appreciate the point.

Bean could do with worrying a little less about whether people will pick up on his meaning. It’s clear enough without all the highlighting, and in overclarifying himself, he runs the risk of closing down alternative interpretations, yanking the subtext into the foreground and robbing the play of depth.

Written by Richard Bean

Crew includes Nicholas Hytner (director), Mark Thompson (designer), Pete Bishop (director of animation), Neil Austin (lighting designer), Grant Olding (music) and Scarlett Mackmin (choreographer)

Cast includes Olivia Colman (Philippa/Anne O’Neill/Camilla), Sacha Dhawan (Norfolk Danny/Carlo/Aaron/Mushi), Trevor Laird (Yayah/Rennie), Aaron Neil (Iqbal/De Gascoigne/John O’Neill/Chief Rabbi/Attar/Imam), Sophie Stanton (Sanya/Ida) and Michelle Terry (Camille/Mary/Black Ruth/Deborah)

Need a second opinion?

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