Posts tagged ‘the guardian’

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:

12 September, 2010

Punk Rock (2010)

Edward Franklin and Katie West in Punk Rock

Edward Franklin and Katie West in Punk Rock. Image courtesy of Amy Belson (Press Manager, Lyric Hammersmith)

Lyric Hammersmith, 6 – 18 September (then touring)

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

If you missed Simon Stephens’s Punk Rock this time last year, now’s your chance to make good. Despite only three of the original cast having survived to join this touring production, in most important respects it’s a facsimile of the premiere.

This is not an unequivocally good thing. While ultimately rewarding, Punk Rock is a slow starter. Until the interval, little happens besides a bunch of Stockport sixth-formers chatting in the library. What’s said is often insightful, sometimes suprising, and undaunted by big themes, but offers few clues about where the play might be headed. This is intentional, but potentially makes for a meandering, purposeless first half. The original production didn’t surmount this issue, and this one, being a near-perfect recreation, doesn’t either.

By the interval, enough tension has accumulated to tauten the sails and drive the play to its heart-thumping conclusion. A large portion of that tension is attributable to Bennett Francis, the bully whose faux-congenial humiliation games seem calculated to incubate retaliatory action.

Bennett’s is the only noticeably altered portrayal. In 2009, Henry Lloyd-Hughes lent the character a genuine affability that suggested he believed his own bullshit, that to him his victimisation of poor awkward genius Chadwick Meade really was just horseplay. With a sneering Edward Franklin in the blazer instead, Bennett is intentionally spiteful rather than monstrously insensitive; his villainy is a little more clear-cut, which peels an onionskin-thin layer of nuance away from the deliberately unfathomable climax.

Written by Simon Stephens

Crew includes Sarah Frankcom (director), Paul Wills (designer), Philip Gladwell (lighting designer), Pete Rice (sound designer) and Kate Waters (fight director)

Cast includes Nicholas Banks (Nicholas Chatman), Edward Franklin (Bennett Francis), Ruth Milne (Cissy Franks), Mike Noble (Chadwick Meade), Laura Pyper (Lily Cahill), Rupert Simonian (William Carlisle), Katie West (Tanya Gleason), Simon Wolfe (Dr Richard Harvey), Juliet York (Lucy Francis)

Need a second opinion?

27 August, 2010

101 ***

C soco, 15 – 30 August 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

I can’t tell you exactly what to expect from 101. You’ll experience one of four scenarios; the order rotates daily, so there’s no use in shooting for a particular one. Generally speaking, you can expect to have your boundaries tested – in the case of my scenario, specifically in relation to physical intimacy across the gender divide.

Patrons and performers alike are given a white sash. Wearing it signifies willingness to participate; removing it signifies a desire to sit out whatever’s going on at that point; and it can be removed and reapplied as many times as necessary. It’s an interesting visual indicator – almost a show of hands – of the tipping points of individuals and the audience as a whole, a bit like a seismograph showing how hard Oneohone are shaking our boundaries.

If the audience at my performance are anything to go by, the company actually don’t shake all that hard. Our scenario is an elaborate and tentative courtship ritual, reminiscent at once of school discos, with boys and girls lined up on opposite sides of the room, and of courtly wooing, with plenty of bowing, curtseying and hand-kissing. With the exception of one attendee, everyone keeps their sashes on throughout.

This could be because the company start us off on small, inoffensive interactions, like bowing to one another across the room, and proceed in tiny increments, asking permission at every stage. This approach coupled with our natural reticence makes for a sedate pace; there’s time enough to pluck up courage for everything that’s asked of us.

If the intention of 101 is to push us to define our own boundaries, it doesn’t really push hard enough; everything’s well within the tolerance of a typical Fringe audience. But it seems more likely the intention is to give people the power to opt out, then show them that they don’t need to use it, even when doing things that might be a little way outside their normal theatre comfort zone. In that, it succeeds; and really, the company could have contented themselves with that achievement, rather than tacking on a classical narrative in the final ten minutes.

Need a second opinion?

27 August, 2010

Sub Rosa ****

Hill Street Theatre, 5 – 30 August 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

There’s an interesting push-me-pull-you effect going on between Sub Rosa and the Masonic lodge in which it’s staged. The building’s warren-like layout and Masonic décor naturally occasion a kind of superstitious reverence over and above what the play alone can evoke. Meanwhile, the production imposes its own, slightly broader brand of eerie, haunted-house ambience on the place.

The production – initially framed as an educational guided tour – takes place after dark, and the building is dimly lit. The geometric carvings of the Masons are picked out in sinister reds and lilacs, as is the backstage apparatus of the theatre: reminding us we’re backstage, after hours, seeing things normally kept out of the public eye.

Tours leave every ten minutes, so each group is never more than one room away from the next, but the layout of the building is such that with precise stage management, the groups can be completely concealed from each other. Creaking footsteps and hushed voices, just out of earshot, feel like an intentional part of the production.

But even once it’s taken full advantage of everything the site has to offer, the production still has to make impositions in order to evoke its desired Gothic atmosphere. Hidden speakers pipe in creepy rumblings and the crackle of flames. Once space is flooded with fog. A stuffed fox leers, spotlit, from a baluster, apropos of absolutely nothing. To achieve its goals, the production engages and cooperates with this specific site up to a certain point, then, perhaps faced with a shortfall of spookiness, turns to more generic techniques that could create the same effect in any building.

Probably not coincidentally, deliberately appearing to be something you’re not is a major theme of the play. Six ghosts stationed around the building recount the tale of the Winter Palace music hall and the power struggle between its manager, Mr Hunter (a Mason) and the newest chorus girl, Flora – and it isn’t a tale for the easily-made-queasy. Nothing is reenacted, only narrated, but David Leddy’s writing and the six actors’ intense performances are graphic and distressing enough to leave more sensitive patrons bent double deep-breathing on the stairs between scenes.

It is, however, neither exploitative nor gratuitous in its brutality. The script is poetic, and every word and image – even or perhaps especially the gruesome ones – is included in the service of the story, not to cause cheap shocks.

Written by David Leddy

Crew includes David Leddy (director), Nich Smith (lighting design) and Graham Sutherland (sound design)

Cast includes Angela Darcy (Millie Merkeley), Claire Dargo (Ida McCracken), Isabella Jarrett (Miss Thorn), Isabelle Joss (Dillie Merkeley), Adam McNamara (Svaty Václav) and Benny Young (Angus MacNeil)

Need a second opinion?

23 August, 2010

Reykjavík ***

Jonathan Young in Reykjavik

Jonathan Young in Reykjavik. Image courtesy of the EdFringe Media Office

The Bongo Club, 12 – 29 August 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Looking like a cross between polar explorers and scene of crime officers in our gauzy white coveralls, we help Jonathan disinter and analyse his past. Though he feels far enough removed from his past self to refer to him as a distinct character – Yonatan (the Icelandic pronounciation of his name), or simply Y – this is still an intensely, almost painfully personal show.

Reykjavík minutely examines every possible long-term and short-term cause of a single, life-changing outcome: the breakup of Yonatan’s relationship with S, an Icelandic woman he met in Paris, and by extension his life as an expat in Reykjavík. Could immutable destiny be the reason? The inevitable fate of the child to relive the life of the parent? Or one of the countless binary decisions every one of us makes every day?

Though the show is as introspective and self-interrogatory as it sounds, with a resultant tendency towards potentially alienating solipsism, it’s also full of delightful technical innovations. Foggy goggles and coloured lights represent a near miss in a car in near-zero visibility. Several wheeled full-length mirrors create seemingly infinite corridors crowded with possibilities. The whole experience is like studying a fascinating fossil through a microscope. The level of obsession doesn’t seem healthy, and you have to work to understand its relevance to you, but every new angle reveals something else of interest.

Written by Jonathan Young

Crew includes Carolina Valdés and Lucinka Eisler (co-directors), Paul Burgess (set and video design), Katharine Williams (lighting design) and Adrienne Quartly (sound design)

Cast includes Mark Huhnen, Sinikka Kyllönen and Jonathan Young

Need a second opinion?

16 August, 2010

The Vanishing Horizon ****

The Zoo, 8 – 27 August 2010

Review for The List (issue 664)

Did someone accuse Idle Motion of being one-hit wonders? Because as if in response to such an accusation, the company has recreated the success of its 2009 smash Borges and I with near-scientific precision. Recreated, that is, as opposed to surpassed.

Make no mistake, The Vanishing Horizon is still one of the most compelling shows you’re likely to see at this year’s Fringe: an exquisite weaving-together of music, text, movement and design in which each element supports and bolsters every other. But the pattern of the weave remains exactly the same as for Borges and I: suitcases replace books, pioneering aviatrixes replace Jorge Luis Borges and the heartache of an absent parent replaces that of impending sight loss, but the proportions remain comfortably unchanged.

Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with sticking to a winning formula, and winning this formula certainly is: the luggage-based set pieces alone are so delightfully innovative that some spark spontaneous applause when deployed. Surely, though, innovation of this calibre could be put to better use than reliving past successes.

Need a second opinion?

11 August, 2010

Poland 3 Iran 2 ***

Promo image for Poland 3 Iran 2

Promo image for Poland 3 Iran 2, courtesy of the EdFringe Media Office

Pleasance @ Thistle Street Bar, 4 – 28 August 2010

Reviewed for The List (issue 664)

Iran’s narrow defeat at the hands of Poland in the 1978 World Cup serves more as punctuation than as the main text of this lecture-cum-barroom shaggy dog story. Lecture because its main visual element is a slideshow; barroom tale because it’s told in a tiny pub, as the bartender wipes glasses.

For Mehrdad Seyf (representing Iran), football is intertwined with politics. For his counterpart Chris (representing Poland; he’s Essex-born but his dad’s Polish), it’s something to obsess over. For both, the relationship between Iran and Poland has affected their family history.

The resulting I-go-you-go slideshow oscillates between the fascinating, the revealing, the confessional and the merely mildly interesting; and there are some lo-res clips of the match in question, as well. While both men are engaging speakers, and the venue encourages intimacy, the show’s demands on its audience are chiefly intellectual: to take in facts and trivia, and only to respond emotionally at infrequent moments (the tale of Mehrdad’s uncle, in particular). The highly emotive closing image therefore leaves us wondering whether we’ve missed something vital.

Need a second opinion?

7 August, 2010

Flesh and Blood and Fish and Fowl ***

Flesh and Blood and Fish and Fowl promo image

Flesh and Blood and Fish and Fowl promo image, courtesy of the EdFringe Media Office

Traverse @ St Stephen’s, 4 – 28 August 2010

Reviewed for The List (issue 663)

When the human race has all but died out, when the Earth has erased almost all evidence of our existence, the last redoubt of our once great civilisation will be … the back office of a microwave meal manufacturer.

As a premise, it sounds half-baked; but like Flesh and Blood and Fish and Fowl itself, the more you stew on it, the more sense it makes. Jerry (Geoff Sobelle) and Rhoda (Charlotte Ford) are the logical conclusion of the typical office environment, where a trip to the watercooler has more to do with marking time than with thirst: they cling to office etiquette even as creepers and critters encroach inexorably on their cubicles.

Sobelle’s considerable clowning skills get a thorough workout, parodying displacement activities from photocopying to fly-swatting. But it’s the bizarre work of the clearly unhinged Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko – puppeteering and remote-controlling stuffed woodland creatures that peek from drawers or erupt from boxes of printer paper – that eventually leaves the audience as hysterical as the characters, laughing uncontrollably with next to no idea why.

Written by Geoff Sobelle and Charlotte Ford

Crew includes Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko (set and puppet designers), James Clotfelter (lighting designer) and Nick Kourtides (sound designer)

Cast includes Charlotte Ford (Rhoda) and Geoff Sobelle (Jerry)

Need a second opinion?

15 July, 2010

Third Person Bonnie & Clyde Redux

Andrew  Westerside and Gillian Lees in Third Person Bonnie & Clyde Redux

Andrew Westerside and Gillian Lees in Third Person Bonnie & Clyde Redux. Image courtesy of Soho Theatre

Soho Theatre, 12 – 24 July 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Are you sitting comfortably? Serial bank robbery and the murder of eleven people wouldn’t exactly look at home behind the round window, but even though Proto-type’s account of Bonnie and Clyde’s lives of crime is unflinching about the facts, the entire production is suffused with the nostalgic tang of CBBC.

It has a lot to do with Andrew ‘Wes’ Westerside, who has that quiffed, pastel-shirted look and not-quite-but-nearly patronising delivery stereotypical of children’s television presenters (though he does offset that by saying “fuck” occasionally).

Then there’s the storytelling style, in which the two tellers remain out of character (or at least, not in character as our two outlaws) and represent events with Sharpie sketches on OHP transparencies, or tiny figurines, projected large on the wall for all the boys and girls to see.

In fact, even more than children’s television, what Redux calls to mind is a history lesson delivered by a pair of young, hip and progressive primary school teachers, determined not to patronise the class by editing out the sobering details.

Westerside and his compatriot Gillian Lees comment and interpret as they recount, discussing what Bonnie and Clyde might have thought or felt or said at important junctures – but their conclusions aren’t especially surprising or insightful (the pair were probably scared; maybe it was being poor that drove them to rob banks; getting shot must really hurt), so instead of revealing, the show becomes didactic.

Perhaps because that didactic storytelling style leaves the audience little to mull over, or perhaps because sitting in a theatre primes the mind to expect characters – as opposed to biographical details plus speculation – the most intriguing thing about the production is the chemistry between Lees and Westerside. “We are not lovers,” Lees proclaims right from the off; the two exchange a shy glance, knowingly performative, and the rest of the hour is spent finding excuses to touch, or to ask one another deeply personal questions that lead circuitously back to Bonnie and Clyde.

Its subtly and charmingly pulled off, for all that it is noticeably performative, but those little interactions should be one instrument in an ensemble; they shouldn’t need to carry the concert solo.

Alternate ending (which I wrote and then discarded as style over substance: I liked the simile but it didn’t represent my opinion of the show accurately enough)

Yes, that’s right, there’s always one boy at the back of the class who, even when the teachers are talking cops and robbers and stakeouts and gunfights and murder, passes notes saying “The teachers are totally doing it, pass it on.” But if Mr Westerside (sorry, Wes) and Ms Lees can’t hold that one boy’s attention even with talk of cops and robbers and so on, what does that say about their teaching?

Written by Gillian Lees and Andrew Westerside

Crew includes Peter S. Petralia (director), David McBride (lighting) and Duncan Speakerman (music)

Cast includes Gillian Lees and Andrew Westerside

Need a second opinion?

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