Posts tagged ‘lyric’

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:

27 September, 2010

Bloggers deserve comp tickets too, at least at the Lyric

The Lyric Hammersmith is trying out a new policy of comping in “regular theatre bloggers” to all its main house shows, which is a smart PR move and might also be another baby step towards a new post-print journalism.

I know Andrew Eglinton, founder and editor of the London Theatre Blog (right now, sadly on another of its extended hiatus periods – keep it bookmarked, it’ll be back) has gently pestered Ian Shuttleworth on a couple of occasions about including blogs in the Theatre Record. Mr Shuttleworth was justifiably loathe to open those floodgates, because Theatre Record is still near enough a one-man operation, and:

  1. keeping tabs on all the critical outlets currently operative in the blogosphere is a much, much bigger task than the already never-ending task of keeping tabs on every newspaper theatre section;
  2. deciding which blogs are and aren’t worthy of inclusion in a permanent record of critical discourse is too much power for one man to wield.

In the absence of such a unilateral journalistic edict, the Lyric has (presumably) hand-picked a selection of bloggers whose opinions it (presumably) considers to carry some weight – and (presumably) who have reacted favourably to its programming in the past. Perhaps if other theatre industry players – other venues, artists, producers, PR firms, journalists, academics – started weighing in with their own top tens, we’d start to see some overlap and the beginnings of consensus.

I’m very interested to know which other bloggers the Lyric is courting. If you’re one of them, I’d love to hear from you either directly via any of the options on the contact page, or in the comments on this post. Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest we form a support group. I’m just interested to see what it is we have in common.

This was supposed to be the introduction to a blog on the Lyric’s latest main house production, The Big Fellah, which I saw earlier this evening, but I think that can wait until tomorrow night. All the reviews are out already – you’ve plenty to read while you wait for my two cents (I’ve even bookmarked them all for you – click here for the list).

In the meantime, let’s start the quest for consensus right here: which “regular theatre bloggers” would you invite to a production you were involved in?

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?

14 January, 2010

No excuses: theatre is affordable

Written for The Collective Review, 14 January 2010

Hey, did you see Avatar?  Did you see it in 3D?  What about IMAX 3D?  What did you pay?  I paid £12.50, plus online booking fee, to see it in IMAX 3D (at the Odeon in Wimbledon, if anyone’s asking), and I was just one of millions:  millions of people who have proven themselves willing to spend £12.50 or thereabouts on an evening’s entertainment.

If you’re one of those millions, you can easily afford a night out at the theatre.  Not nearly enough people realise this.  The expense is probably the most common excuse for not attending the theatre, but if you can afford a cinema ticket – especially in London, where a peak ticket can cost up to £11 even without IMAX or 3D or other trimmings – you can afford a theatre ticket.

No one’s disputing that the West End is expensive, but there’s more to theatre than Theatreland.  And cheaper tickets don’t necessarily equate to a poorer quality product:  thanks to a sponsorship deal with Travelex, you can see certain productions at the South Bank’s National Theatre, arguably the UK’s most influential venue, for just £10.  Production values at the National rival the commercial West End, and there are no bad seats in the theatre’s vast Olivier space; the £10 view is as good as the £40 view.

A short walk from the National, in an atmospheric vault under London Bridge, you’ll find Southwark Playhouse, whose ‘airline-style’ pricing means you can get tickets for as little as £8 if you book early enough.  A little further afield, but still in Zone One, is the Royal Court, which specialises in brand new work by up-and-coming writers; on Mondays, every seat in the house costs just £10.  A lot of the Royal Court’s productions end up transferring to the West End, where top price tickets can cost five times that sum – so see them while they’re cheap!

If you want somewhere to spend the money you’ve saved on your ticket, try the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill.  It’s a tiny but very flexible space located above the Prince Albert Pub.  They specialise in new translations of foreign plays, and tickets for the first three performances of every production are just £8.

If 100-seater spaces under bridges or over pubs aren’t your idea of theatre, you could do worse than the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith; their main performance space is an impressively ornate Victorian proscenium arch, complete with stalls, circle and boxes, and they offer £10 tickets for certain performances of every production.  Or for a less baroque experience try the Almeida Theatre in Islington – cheapest tickets £8.

As if all those affordable venues weren’t enough, if you’re under 26 you can get into some of the best performances around without paying a penny, thanks to the Arts Council’s A Night Less Ordinary scheme.  Just go to, type in your postcode and you’ll find a list of theatres, including most of the ones I’ve listed above, that you’re entitled to patronise free of charge.

Understand, too, that this is just a sampler of the venues and deals on offer.  Even the West End can be affordable (ish) if you don’t mind visiting the TKTS booth in Leicester Square in person, and I’ve barely begun to cover London’s thriving and criminally overlooked pub theatre scene.  So no more excuses:  if you can afford a cinema ticket, or three pints in a London pub, you can afford a night out at the theatre.

21 September, 2009

Punk Rock

Lyric Hammersmith, 3 – 26 September 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

Each scene of Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock is abruptly curtailed by an uncomfortably loud belch of feedback and a mangled excerpt from a rock song. By the second hour, each of these sonic interjections sends ripples of uneasy laughter through the stalls. The whole audience is on edge, braced for a shock. Stephens’ clutch of Stockport sixth formers, seen between lessons in Paul Wills’ towering, forbidding onstage library, seem incapable of reining in the impulse to probe and prod and push one another’s boundaries; everyone in the auditorium can tell someone’s going to snap.

By the time the anticipated act of violence occurs, Stephens has laid out a whole smorgasbord of potential contributing factors: unrequited teenage love; body image issues; the spectre of trouble at home; alcohol; an environment in which parents and teachers allow sixth formers to believe a C grade in an English mock means they’ll “never get out of Stockport”; plus Bennet Francis (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), a bully whose aloof disregard for those he hurts is worse by far than actual malice, and whose effect on the group debunks with ease that maxim about sticks and stones so beloved of adult authority figures.

Yet Stephens’ real achievement is that despite all the factors presented to us, when our minds reach, as they tend to do, for a simple, catch-all way to explain the tragedy, there isn’t one. It doesn’t even feel satisfactory to conclude, “it was probably a combination of all those things”.

As an examination of the overly simplistic adult tendency to classify teenage behaviour as the direct result of easily identifiable causes like alcohol, pornography and violent media, Punk Rock delivers; though no alternative theory is forthcoming, unless you count, “some people are just broken”.

Stephens’ love of language carries him away into the odd overwrought line, and Director Sarah Frankcom’s love of Stephens’ language leads to characters delivering extended passages straight out front, while the characters they’re supposedly addressing slouch behind them in a symmetrical chorus-line chevron. The script is excellent – funny in a terrifying and guilt-ridden kind of way – and it deserves to be placed centre stage, but such unnatural blocking actually distracts from the words. Or is that too simple, too immediate an explanation…?

Written by Simon Stephens

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

Cast includes Nicholas Banks (Nicholas Chatman), Ghazaleh Golpira (Lucy Francis), Henry Lloyd-Hughes (Bennet Francis), Harry McEntire (Chadwick Meade), Jessica Raine (Lilly Cahill), Tom Sturridge (William Carlisle), Katie West (Tanya Gleason), Simon Wolfe (Dr Richard Harvey) and Sophie Wu (Cissy Franks)

Need a second opinion?

19 April, 2009

Hang On

Lyric Hammersmith, 15 – 25 April 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Family show Hang On, a collaboration between visual theatre company Theatre-Rites and aerial theatre company Ockham’s Razor, thumbs its nose at health and safety officials everywhere.

The stack of risk assessment paperwork necessary to cover the aerial construction of a giant trapeze-cum-mobile high above the Lyric stage, by performers dangling from the half-built pieces without harnesses or safety nets, must be a serious fire hazard in itself.

The production is cheekily self-aware in this regard: the impetus for much of the acrobatic clambering about is a collective quest to cure boilersuited health and safety obsessive Eric MacLennan of a fear of heights and an accompanying aversion to fun. Eric, in turn, encourages quiet juggler Stephano Di Renzo’s cautious wooing of daredevil Tina Koch.

At its heart, Hang On is all about the spectacle: the precarious swings and drops, every movement affecting the mobile’s balance and thus the position of the other performers, all accompanied by Nao Masuda on chimes, drums and musical saws.

But the little dabs of plot and characterisation add an extra layer of enjoyment. It’s undeniably more entertaining to watch a man climb higher and higher to needle an uptight friend, or juggle five balls to impress a girl, than to see the same feats performed as a technical exercise, or to show off.

The company’s pie-in-the-sky first idea was for the audience to lie underneath the mobile looking up, like a baby in a cot. Naturally the health and safety bogeyman vetoed that plan – perhaps informing MacLennan’s heavily caricatured persona – and the production certainly feels limited by the Lyric’s proscenium arch. The three-dimensional spectacle of the mobile really deserves an audience on all sides.

But there aren’t any sufficiently large theatres in-the-round in London – and the whole point of City Circ, a multi-venue season curated by Crying Out Loud, for which Hang On is the launch event, is to get circus performance out of the big top and in front of a wider audience.

Something is definitely lost in that process, but Hang On remains entrancing for adults and children alike, so perhaps 270 degrees of sightline is a small price to pay for a whole new audience base. And this is only the beginning of City Circ – perhaps if it proves popular enough we’ll see some spaces appearing that can show off the full potential of companies like these.

Crew includes Sue Buckmaster (director) and Alex Broadie (choreographer)

Cast includes Stefano Di Renzo, Alex Harvey, Tina Koch, Eric MacLennan, Nao Masuda and Charlotte Mooney

Need a second opinion?

24 March, 2009

The Overcoat

Lyric Hammersmith, 23 March – 11 April 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Your rational mind may blow a fuse trying to decode a plot from Gecko’s reimagining of Gogol’s short story, The Overcoat. So disengage rationality altogether and appreciate the play’s highly developed aesthetic and broad, emotional storytelling instead.

Gecko actively discourage intellectual engagement with the plot. Each of the seven ensemble performers speaks a different language for the duration of the performance, forcing the focus onto action rather than dialogue (unless you’re prodigiously multilingual).

The company’s onstage world is a gloomy one. Dimly downlit in stark whites and greys through copious stage fog, government clerk Akakki (Amit Lahav) and his colleagues work hunched over tiny desks in isolated pools of light. The furniture is hard iron, the walls are streaked with grime and the ensemble’s faces are shaded in stylised black and white.

The only colour in Akakki’s monochrome world is the rich brown of his dream overcoat, hanging out of reach as a target to strive for. Akakki believes replacing his battered old overcoat with this fantasy version will open the door to success in his career and love life. This is about the only plot point the company communicates with any clarity.

The majority of the company’s effort goes into communicating emotions. Gecko’s development and rehearsal process – one which is becoming increasingly popular with new companies – involves every aspect of the production throughout, creating a whole product, rather than a collection of interlocking pieces to be constructed later.

The onstage result is that Akakki’s feelings infuse everything, from the lighting to composer Dave Price’s Romany-flavoured musical accompaniment to the physicality of the ensemble, simultaneously. However obscure the plot may have become, this kind of emotional holism ensures that it’s clear throughout what we’re meant to be feeling, and makes it difficult not to be swept along with Akakki’s exaggerated highs and lows.

It’s unfortunate, when the emotional trajectory is the only part of the production that comes across with any clarity, that it zigzags back and forth so much without ever really progressing.

Akakki fantasises as a way to escape his dreary workaday life. His fantasies are lit more warmly, but just as dimly, so it’s sometimes difficult to follow what is real and what make-believe.

This is part of the play’s barmy appeal – is anything real? does anyone know what’s happening? – but since Akakki fantasises mostly about how deliriously happy the overcoat will make him, the majority of this short production turns into a rinse-and-repeat cycle of magnified (and therefore simplified) joy and despair that never seems to lead anywhere.

The play is full of the imagery of advancement. The office boss resides on a high platform, and when one of Akakki’s colleagues is promoted, his desk is literally cranked up higher to meet him. Akakki climbs the walls to reach his goal, and is pushed off to dangle unglamorously by his crotch when he’s found wanting.

People who enjoy theatre principally for the stories will find Gecko’s Overcoat frustrating. But its rejection of traditional plot structures in favour of visual metaphor and emotional bombast is what makes it consummately theatrical: in any other medium it would gutter and die, but on the stage it shines.

Adapted from a work by Nikolai Gogol

Crew includes Amit Lahav (director), Ti Green (designer), James Farncombe (lighting designer), Dave Price (composer) and Dan Steele (sound designer)

Cast includes Natalie Ayton, Amit Lahav, Robert Luckay, Dave Price, François Testory, Sirena Tocco and Tom Wu

Need a second opinion?

28 January, 2009

Why I Don’t Hate White People

Lyric Hammersmith, 22 January – 14 February 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Lemn Sissay’s Why I Don’t Hate White People, at the Lyric Hammersmith, should be compulsory viewing for white Britons that don’t think they’re racist.

For anyone that considers colourblindness a positive attitude towards race, or claims that they “don’t even see” skin colour, this show could be an uncomfortable but necessary wake-up call. Colourblindness, as Sissay points out, is an illness.

Sissay – creator, writer, sole performer and subject matter of this autobiographical show – has a unique perspective on white British attitudes to race. Raised in Lancashire by the care system, he didn’t meet another black person until he was 18 years old.

This experience – of being raised as “one of them” – allows him to pick feverishly at the truth underlying Britain’s vaunted multicultural society, and unravel the mystery behind why, when life keeps handing him excuses, he still doesn’t hate white people.

For a career performance poet and veteran of his previous autobiographical one-man show Something Dark, which toured the world for three years, Sissay is an unusually nervous performer.

The show’s format is choppy, requiring him to hop from narration to anecdote to persona as instantaneously as the abrupt lighting and sound cues. The pace seems to leave him physically breathless, and causes him more than once to trip over his words.

Director John E McGrath seems to think the text lacks theatricality, and has provided Sissay with a mime for nearly every phrase. One minute he’s rowing upstream towards the truth; the next he’s teetering on the edge of childhood, ready to dive into adolescence.

To be fair, Sissay’s writing is liberally laced with poetic metaphor, but physically enacting each one encourages overly literal surface readings. Besides, Sissay seems the most relaxed and confident when narrating as himself in his own voice. The show is only fifty minutes long; his presence and his words are engaging enough to hold our attention at least that long.

In fact, at the risk of doing Sissay down, his message comes across most strongly when he’s reduced to the role of projection screen.

His focus is on well-meaning, “invisible” racism: when people make a point of sitting by him on the bus to prove they aren’t racist, or claim to be colourblind only when confronted by colour, or tell him he isn’t a black man – he’s a human being.

To this end he’s filmed a selection of white Britons responding to his query, “What does ‘white’ mean to you?” Primed by the aforementioned anecdotes, we don’t have to strain very hard to hear the interviewees’ subconscious minds screaming, “Don’t mention race! Say anything but race!” The result is a series of varyingly eloquent but uniformly evasive meditations on blizzards, laundry, Snow White, weddings, cleanliness and everything other connotation of ‘white’ bar race.

It’s only thanks to Sissay sharing his personal experiences that we’re able to identify the ingrained prejudice these responses reveal. However benevolent he may feel about white people, you may well leave the auditorium with your own opinion altered.

Written by Lemn Sissay

Crew includes John E McGrath (director), Rachana Jadhav (designer), Nigel Edwards (lighting designer), Simon McCorry (sound designer) and Clive Hunte (videomaker)

Cast includes Lemn Sissay

Need a second opinion?