Posts tagged ‘the times’

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)

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18 July, 2009

The Ultimate Critics’ Pick of the Fringe 2009 – part 2

Written for The Collective Review, 17 July 2009

Previously on The Ultimate Critics’ Pick of the Fringe 2009:

The 13 most anticipated shows of this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, as collectively selected by five major newspapers and magazines, are: Barflies, Beachy Head, A British Subject, The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church, Morecambe, Palace of the End, Sea Wall, Suckerville and The World’s Wife, with two votes each; Blondes, Orphans and Theatre for Breakfast, with three votes each; and the most hyped show in the lead-up to August, with four out of five possible votes, is The Girls of Slender Means.

What it all means

The Scotsman’s Andrew Eaton has it right when he says, “these are all pretty safe bets”.  The shortlist is awash with big names, including Fringe First Award winner Daniel Kitson (The Interminable Suicide…), Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy (The World’s Wife), Olivier Award winning playwright Simon Stephens (Sea Wall), famed Scottish novelist Muriel Spark (The Girls…) and celebrity Denise van Outen (Blondes), all of whom are guaranteed to put bums on seats.

It would be easy to construe this as evidence of conservative taste in the mainstream media – especially as the articles claim to list the best shows in the festival, not the ones that will probably do well at the box office.

In actual fact, the shortlist only shows up one paper as unadventurous.  Most of the individual articles list some surefire hits alongside some more radical choices – an attempt to show experimental Fringe spirit while still correctly predicting this year’s biggest shows, deflecting accusations of fuddidudditude on the one hand and poor knowledge of the industry on the other.  A radical choice wouldn’t be radical if another paper tipped it too, so none of the radical choices made it to the shortlist.

The Evening Standard’s Fiona Mountford, however, didn’t make any radical choices.  Not only that, but she’s the only list-maker not to have tipped The Girls of Slender Means.  Her list manages to be composed entirely of safe bets while failing to include the safest bet of them all.

The figures suggest Andrew Eaton occupies the opposite end of the conservative–radical spectrum:  72% of his picks fall outside the shortlist.  Eaton’s achieved this apparent breadth of taste by playing the law of averages.  By recommending a whopping 46 shows, he guarantees that he and his paper will appear both foresighted (all 13 shows on the shortlist appear on Eaton’s list, practically assuring that he’s backed at least a couple of winners) and appreciative of a wide range of styles (his list can’t fail to contain shows no other paper has included on their own, much shorter, lists).

In fact, by hedging his bets this way, all Eaton has ensured is that this year’s other list-makers appear to have more confidence in their own judgement than he does.

To be continued…

In my next post, I’ll explain why pre-Festival list-making is a fruitless exercise in journalistic masturbation (conveniently excusing myself from having not written one).

13 July, 2009

The Ultimate Critics’ Pick of the Fringe 2009 – part 1

Written for The Collective Review, 13 July 2009

The 2009 Edinburgh Festival Fringe Official Programme has been available for about a month now.  All the influential voices in theatre criticism have had plenty of time to comb through it and produce lists of recommendations.  By analysing all these lists together, I’ve discovered this year’s Ultimate Critics’ Pick of the Fringe.

The Times, the Guardian, the London Evening Standard, the Scotsman and The List (the Scottish equivalent of Time Out) have all published lists of varying lengths.  I couldn’t find lists from the Independent, the Telegraph, the Financial Times or the Mail; if you know of any that are available online, please post a link in the comments!

The Numbers Game

If you strip down the lists to only include shows that belong in the Theatre section of the programme, then the Times nominates 11 shows, the Guardian five, the Evening Standard five, the Scotsman 46 and The List six.  If you cross-reference the stripped-down lists and look only at shows nominated by more than one publication, you get a shortlist of the 13 most hyped shows in the run-up to 2009’s Fringe.

Nine of the 13 get two nominations.  Three get three.  Just one production in the entire Theatre section of this year’s programme gets the nod from four out of five lists.  Not one comes recommended by all five.

Six of the Times’s 11 picks make it into the shortlist, along with three of the Guardian’s five, 13 of the Scotsman’s 46 and four of The List’s six.  All five of the Evening Standard’s recommendations are in the shortlist, which means the Standard’s Fiona Mountford hasn’t picked a single show not also nominated by at least one other paper.

The Shortlist

Shows nominated twice
Barflies
Beachy Head
A British Subject
The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church
Morecambe
Palace of the End
Sea Wall
Suckerville
The World’s Wife

Shows nominated thrice
Blondes
Orphans
The World is Too Much: Theatre for Breakfast

And with four nominations, the Ultimate Critics’ Pick of the Fringe – the number one most hyped show of 2009 – is:
The Girls of Slender Means

To be continued…

In my next post, I’ll reveal what these figures say about this year’s Fringe, and about the list-makers themselves.

20 June, 2009

Derren Brown: Enigma

Adelphi Theatre, 18 June – 18 July 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Only at a Derren Brown show could I have ended up standing on stage in a curtained cabinet with a bag on my head. Only at a Derren Brown show could someone in that position have been the envy of nearly the entire Adelphi Theatre audience.

Brown is enough of a household name that I probably don’t have to explain what it is he does (just as well, since I’m sworn to secrecy on the specifics). Suffice to say a good deal of what happens on stage during Enigma is baffling to the point of being unsettling.

Yet when he flings frisbees into the audience – a random method for picking volunteers – a Mexican wave of hands shoots up in its wake. Everyone’s eager to be unsettled personally by Brown. That isn’t to say he’s lost his spooky edge, just that the more famous he becomes, the more people are excited rather than disturbed by his act.

The mere mention of placing the audience in a trance state is still enough to scare a few people away in the interval. Those that remain react mostly with laughter as he toys with his entranced volunteers, but certain stunts – the ones that place the sleepwalking participants in physical danger, or appear to – are greeted with concerned silence.

Luckily, the only indication that Brown might be going mad with power is his patter, which gets a little snarkier with every live show. If he were a stand-up comedian, some of the lines he throws out would get him labelled lowbrow or puerile, but who’s going to challenge a master mentalist if he claims the five random words you provide are evidence of deviant sexual appetites?

Brown’s live performance is still utterly, awe-inspiringly mystifying, and that accolade is magnified when you consider the fairly limited repertoire of the traditional mentalist. As well as refreshing old faithful techniques with new vehicles – in this case, a version of children’s game Guess Who – he’s recharged his palette with new material gleaned from international sources, forcing himself not to rely solely on his tried-and-tested talent for reading body language.

Even with a privileged close-up view, a critic’s eye, a background in technical theatre and a glimpse of something I’m not sure I was supposed to see, I can’t come up with one cohesive, rational and plausible explanation for what I experienced on stage during Enigma.

But since Brown is, as always, adamant that the psychics and mediums that performed the tricks before him were all a bunch of frauds, the answer can’t be that the spirits did it. The answer is that Derren Brown did it. If anything, that’s more impressive – and more unsettling.

Written by Derren Brown and Andy Nyman

Crew includes Andy Nyman (director)

Cast includes Derren Brown

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17 June, 2009

The Mountaintop

Theatre 503, 9 June – 4 July 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

In this imagining of Martin Luther King Jr’s last night alive, award-winning young American playwright Katori Hall boldly combines hard historical fact and in-depth character study with a comparatively barmy supernatural twist. It’s a volatile concoction that could corrode the credibility of a lesser play, but which instead provides an already dynamic production with a surging second-stage boost.

The man in the King’s shoes is David Harewood, who seems to be aiming for a career playing inspirational black leaders (he’ll soon appear on TV as Nelson Mandela). Harewood convincingly recreates the booms, swoops and tremulous vibrato of King’s legendary oratory, maintaining the vocal cadence of a preacher even alone in the privacy of his motel room. He evokes a man consumed continually by a struggle he ironically believes he alone can carry to conclusion.

He’s matched and challenged by Lorraine Burroughs as motel maid Camae, who surprises King with her views – rooted in the same beliefs as his own, but a step removed in their conclusions – and by proving no mean orator herself. Her presence brings out King’s roving eye and patriarchal views to contrast his civil rights work, which makes for much more interesting theatre than a blindly reverent onstage beatification.

Camae is also the crux of that sudden supernatural gear-change, which, far from derailing the play, not only provides some unexpectedly surreal and comic moments (mostly involving one-sided telephone conversations) but also allows us to experience anew through King’s eyes events he didn’t live to see. Thus The Mountaintop is upgraded from period character study to a history with an immediate bearing on the modern world, drawing causal links between the life and death of King and the appointment of Barack Obama to the White House.

Written by Katori Hall

Crew includes James Dacre (director), Libby Watson (designer), Emma Chapman (lighting designer), Richard Hammarton (sound designer) and Dick Straker of Mesmer (video designer)

Cast includes Lorraine Burroughs (Camae) and David Harewood (King)

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31 May, 2009

All’s Well That End Well

National Theatre, 28 May – 30 September 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

All’s Well That Ends Well is supposedly one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, though you wouldn’t guess that from Marianne Elliott’s production at the National (the third of this year’s Travelex £10 ticket plays).

Apparently, the play’s usual flaw is Bertram, the male romantic lead. When the King of France forcibly weds him to Helena, in return for her curing him of a fistula, Bertram’s reaction is one of extreme distaste. He proceeds to abhor his wife for the rest of the play, joining the army to avoid her and promising to consummate his vows only if she fulfils certain nigh-impossible conditions. Then, when she duly fulfils those conditions, he turns on a sixpence in the interests of a happy ending.

Here, Bertram (George Rainsford) is a snooty child of privilege whose rejection of Helena is a reactionary response to their class difference, and his sudden turnaround is the logical result of his confidant Parolles’ exposure as a coward and fraudster, which shows Bertram that his judgement of character isn’t as sound as he thinks it is. It’s then perfectly natural for him, upon his reunion with the wife he thought dead of heartbreak, to be grateful for a second chance with a woman whose praises are sung by every other character, but whom he foolishly dismissed without a second look.

More importantly, Bertram’s change of heart is a victory for Helena, who takes the traditionally male role of dogged suitor and stubbornly refuses to take “no” for an answer. Michelle Terry, who deftly handled multiple roles in season opener England People Very Nice, here deftly embodies Helena’s strongest aspects – her determination and her good-humoured mischievous streak. Perhaps fittingly, her performance is weakest when showing Helena’s weakness; the monologues mourning her unrequited love are drastically overplayed.

The only ‘problem’ aspect remaining is what Terry’s independent Helena sees in Rainsford’s spoiled Bertram in the first place.

None of which is to say that this is a flawless production. The stylised silent vignettes Elliott uses to cover scene changes seem pasted in, at odds with the dark gravity of Rae Smith’s imposing, tumbledown set; and Helena’s ‘resurrection’ is greeted with saccharine streams of golden light and a rain of sparkly rose petals. All that’s missing is a choir of angels.

Perhaps under other circumstances having ’solved’ All’s Well would be enough of an achievement, but this is the National we’re talking about; it’s perfectly justifiable to demand more.

Written by William Shakespeare

Crew includes Marianne Elliott (director) and Rae Smith (designer)

Cast includes Oliver Ford Davies (King of France), Clare Higgins (The Countess of Rossillion), Conleth Hill (Parolles), George Rainsford (Bertram) and Michelle Terry (Helena)

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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

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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)

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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)

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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?