Thursday, 27 July 2017

Theatre Review: Girl from the North Country

I don’t like Bob Dylan and I make no apologies for this fact.

So there.

What I do like however is musicals. I like them a lot. And I also like theatres that sell off seats they want to fill for their press night for £5.

The confluence of these two things led to me seeing ‘Bob Dylan musical’ Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic. Note that use of inverted commas, it’s important. Girl tells the story of a shitty guesthouse in 1930s America, inhabited by owner Nick Laine, his eclectic family (wife with dementia, alcoholic son, adopted black daughter) and a motley assortment of misfits and down and outs who count as his guests. The story weaves a book by writer-director Conor McPherson with Dylan’s extensive back catalogue but this is definitely and defiantly not a traditional musical nor, heaven forbid, a jukebox musical. I enjoyed it far, far more than I was ever expecting mainly as a result of this.

I bloody love this programme design. 

I suppose what Girl can most accurately described as is a play with songs. But actually it’s more complex than that. The use of music is really interesting. Occasionally it is integrated into the action and used to move on the plot, as in a traditional musical, but by and large it’s something entirely separate that essentially presses pause on the action and uses the song to comment on it. This is achieved by having actors sing, at standing microphones, directly to the audience rather than to each other. It takes a little getting used to but it does work and the idea of using music as a commentary on the spoken dialogue and plot development is something genuinely new (to me anyway). That it’s done with such utter confidence and deliberateness, and by a cast in superb voice, totally sells it.

I also love that it messes around with genre and style; apparently soul and gospel Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan I can get behind. The selection of music is a surprise too, big songs that I did not expect to hear get an airing alongside songs that I have literally never heard of (which admittedly is not difficult given my Dylan knowledge). The entire back catalogue has been mined by the sounds of thing and it’s much to the show’s advantage.

Music is used to do some really effective things with characterisation. The best example of this is with the lead character of Nick whose acute loneliness and sadness is portrayed through the fact that he doesn’t sing a single note at any point. At all. In a show to which music is so integral, to have a lead character who is completely excluded from it is such an interesting idea and works so well. I felt that I learned as much about Nick from the way he’s used, or not, as a dramatic instrument as I did from his dialogue.

The plotting and writing is arguably where this play does fall down a bit. There are too many characters for one thing and some of their stories are frustratingly untold. Sometimes the plot itself feels a bit of a let down, the cop out ending in particular. And I couldn’t get on board with the use of a narrator character, even in the form of the great Ron Cook, just describing some of the key moments. I wanted to actually see them. However, the speed at which the plot and the characters unravel is slow and beautiful, it allows the drama and the music to breathe, with the occasional dramatic sucker punch to make sure everyone is still awake. In a production whose design is so evocative of its time and place, the themes around uncertainty and inequality raised by the Depression era setting are dealt with well and subtly.

Speaking of the design, it’s strong, working very hard to be authentically of its time and place without looking too folksy or like it was lifted from a theme park. It evokes ‘Dylan-ness’ too in a way I can’t fully explain except to say that the setting the production creates feels like somewhere the man and his music could live. (I can’t go into too much detail on the design as I couldn’t see all of it - a timely reminder that the cheap seats in the Old Vic have genuinely terrible sightlines.) The onstage band are fantastic and create a huge sound despite being only a handful of people. Their musicianship is worth the price of a ticket alone, frankly.

It’s been a good year so far for ensemble acting and Girl continues this with aplomb. In fact it makes more use of ensemble work than I’ve seen for a long time, particularly in the singing, which given how well it’s done is great to watch. Ciaran Hinds stars as Nick and is exactly the strong, surly and sad lead that the play needs. I’ve always wanted to see him on stage and he didn’t disappoint here one iota. Also worth noting is the superb Debbie Kurup as Nick’s wannabe mistress who has a kickass voice and a lonely desperation that is so affecting. Sheila Atim and Arinze Kene are great as Nick’s daughter and her partner, both giving performances of real heart and mystery. The whole cast is fantastic throughout and compensate for any weaknesses of plot and writing with excellent performances and top drawer singing.

Ultimately, I don’t know if Girl from the North Country is a great Bob Dylan show. And I don’t care. What it is is a fantastic, interesting, weird and enchanting show - musical, play, play with songs, whatever you want to call it. Highly recommended, Dylan fan or no.

Girl from the North Country plays at the Old Vic until October 7th.


Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Theatre Review: Common

It all started to go wrong with a salad.

Specifically, the ‘seasonal salad with halloumi’ at the National Theatre’s Kitchen restaurant which, essentially, was a big bowl of cold asparagus, courgette and broccoli with the most pathetic amount of halloumi plonked on top. And a shit tonne of coriander for some reason. This alleged salad made me angry, as an inadequate amount of halloumi in my meal is wont to do. It was bland, it was boring and the lack of halloumi made it impossible for me to understand.

Which made it the perfect accompaniment to the play I was at the NT to see: the bland, boring and utterly incomprehensible Common. It was, in fact, Common in salad form.


Common, which has already been universally panned but I’m a fan of kicking productions that deserve it whether they’re down or not, purports to tell some kind of story about the Acts of Enclosure and the effect of this on a small rural community and its motley assortment inhabitants, human and corvine. However, how anyone can tell what story it’s telling is beyond me. Common is perhaps the worst written play I have ever seen. It is certainly the most bizarrely impenetrable. I don’t really know how to describe how inexplicable the syntax and structure of the script is. It almost feels like someone has taken the script of a perfectly adequate if rather boring play, cut it up so that each word is on a separate piece of paper and then stuck it all back together whilst wearing a blindfold. Either that or it was written by someone with the grasp of the English language of Yoda from Star Wars, if Yoda’s first language was Esperanto.

You think I’m exaggerating, but I’m really not. This play is nigh on impossible to follow at a level any deeper than the basic plot. I have no idea of the motivations of any of the characters. I have only the sketchiest understanding of their histories or who they are. I can just about explain to you what happens in the play but I can’t tell you why. I’d love to know the thought process behind this writing, because it feels to me like the sort of pretentiousness for pretentiousness’ sake that makes me even angrier than a salad with inadequate halloumi. The impact of this is terminal: no matter how good the production around this play is, it will always be a disaster. If you can’t write a play that your audience has a hope of understanding then what’s the point?

What I was able to glean of the plot and the characters didn’t do much to improve my opinion of Common. If you think a play about the Acts of Enclosure sounds dull that’s because, guess what, it is. The attempts to enliven it with alleged cliffhangers of the sort that end Act One fail because said cliffhanger is so cheap and dishonest that it is allowed to hang for all of a second before being resolved in the most unimaginative way. The characters all seem terribly unpleasant, or annoying, and I cared about what happened to literally none of them except when occasionally some of them died and I was happy because it meant that the play must surely be slightly nearer the end. Not even the animatronic crow elicited my sympathy, mostly because it was embarrassingly unrealistic.

That any production of this play is by definition irredeemable is a fact, but that’s not to say that this production doesn’t have a good go at disproving it. It has a great cast, god knows how, who do their best with the material at their disposal: Anne-Marie Duff is a charismatic lead, Tim McMullan (always great) an enjoyable foil for her whilst Cush Jumbo and John Dagleish bring some much needed warmth and heart. But it’s irrelevant given the script they have to work with.

The production values are high too. The design is fantastically atmospheric; the music is great, the use of unusual instruments and sounds making for an engaging live soundtrack and my favourite thing about the whole production, the lighting and use of shadow is ballsy and striking and the projection, especially when used to show weather, is really strong. It’s  too long (despite having had over half an hour shaved off it since it opened, I can’t even imagine the tedium of sitting through the original) but there’s otherwise not much to technically fault here. Except the stinker of a play.

It’s baffling to me that anyone at the NT thought that staging this play was a good idea. Staging it in the huge and cavernous Olivier seems particularly stupid (especially when the blockbuster Angels in America has sold out its entire run in the smaller Lyttelton at the same time). When I went, on a Friday evening, the Olivier was emptier than I’ve ever seen it with less than half of the seats filled. The money the NT must be losing here is, frankly, deserved. Perhaps that’s why they clearly can’t afford enough halloumi for their salads.

Common plays in the Olivier at the NT until August 5th. There are plenty of tickets available.



Monday, 24 July 2017

Theatre Review: Albert's Boy

If I were to compile a list of theatrical phrases that are likely to get me excited, ‘rarely performed, early James Graham play with £7.50 tickets’ would feature somewhere near the top.

Enter stage left The Orange Tree Theatre and their Directors’ Festival, a fab idea which allows student directors (from the OTT and St Mary’s University MA in Theatre Directing) the opportunity to direct a short play from an established writer using a professional cast, in a professional theatre with all tickets at £7.50. Quite apart from the selection of plays, I love this. When the selection of plays includes an early James Graham, I love this a lot.


The play in question is Albert’s Boy, a play Graham wrote aged 22 that hasn’t been seen in London since its 2005 premiere, which imagines a meeting between Albert Einstein and family friend, Peter Bucky, recently returned to the US after being released from a POW camp during the Korean War. It’s not as polished as his more recent work (of which I am an obsessive devotee, if you’ve somehow not realised that by now), and at 80 minutes long lacks the space to explore its ideas in as much detail, but it is very much in the same mould: a funny, nuanced, fair minded meditation on a Big Issue. Unsurprisingly, I was a fan.

The Big Issue in question this time is around the existence, or otherwise, of good and evil and the difference between intention and results. Einstein’s role in the creation of the atomic bomb provides the ‘in’ to this huge theme, which is a really interesting angle to take anyway given how overlooked this aspect of his work is. Einstein, the rational minded scientist, is portrayed as suffering from acute, maddening guilt at the dropping of bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the ensuing loss of life. Peter, with his direct experience of war and its horrors, takes the opposing view: that the loss of life was acceptable because it ended the war early and so saved even more lives and, besides, the non-war consequences of Einstein’s atomic research (for example in medicine) are amazing. This is hardly an unheard debate, but the fact of the identities of the two characters makes it far more interesting and resonant than it might otherwise be. The clash between Einstein’s ‘theoretical’ guilt and Peter’s real life experience is an idea returned to several times really effectively as well and adds something to the nuclear debate which is, in my view, almost as interesting in and of itself; Einstein has never been to war so how can he possibly understand it but on the other hand Peter has never been the man behind a weapon that can kill hundreds of thousands of people so how can he possibly understand that?

The play also has a lot to say that has a hugely depressing contemporary resonance. This is not just the obvious point about nuclear proliferation but something more interesting about the nature and use of terror as a weapon in war. The word ‘terrorism’ is never used, but the implication is clear and well drawn out.

On a lighter note, the play is very funny and, joyously, much of the humour is deeply geeky. There is a lot of playing with the popular idea of Einstein the mad scientist and the associated pop culture tropes which works really well, the characterisation of Einstein is really interesting and unexpected  throughout, but the physics jokes are even better. A favourite is this exchange: “[Peter] your unified field theory it’s, eh..? [Einstein] Coming together.” If you don’t find this funny then you’re a defective human being.

For all my proselytising about the play, the whole point of this production is of course the direction. Kate Campbell takes the reins here and does so with fantastic poise and assurance. The pacing of this production is almost perfect (I could have lived with some shorter scene changes towards the end of the piece, if that were practically possible) and the creative decisions are all fab. In a theatre as small as the Orange Tree and a play which is literally a two hander there is nowhere to hide for a director and, in Campbell’s case, no need to either. If you didn’t know, I would defy you to spot that there isn’t a more seasoned director at the helm.

The production looks and sounds amazing too. The sound and lighting design is strong, if uncomplicated, throughout but explodes - pun intended - in the final scene when it’s called on to portray an atomic bomb going off. Given the resources and the space available, the end results are pretty spectacular. Simple, but spectacular. I also had mad love for the occasional cheeky inclusion of Atomic by Blondie as incidental music.

The acting is strong as well with Campbell’s and her two actors’ understanding of their characters really interesting and rounded. Robert Gill’s Einstein portrays the heavy emotionality demanded by the text incredibly well and excels in the lighter moments. Andrew Langtree’s Peter is marginally my highlight, conveying the anger and pain of his wartime experiences under a cover of conviviality in a painfully plausible way.

I’ve yet to meet a production of a James Graham play that I don’t get on with and Albert’s Boy is certainly no exception. It’s a really interesting piece, nuanced and cheeky, in a cracking little production from a director who is surely a name to keep an eye out for in the future. It’s also a fantastic opportunity to see the best British playwright around at the moment for £7.50, aka the price of a small glass of warm white wine in most theatres. Plus the Orange Tree’s Directors’ Festival is the sort of initiative that theatre fans should just get behind. I’ll certainly be looking out for it next year.

The Orange Tree Theatre’s Directors’ Festival runs until the 29th July, with Albert’s Boy playing on the 27th and 28th.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Theatre Review: Twilight Song

It’s always a risk seeing a second play by a playwright who has written one piece that you’ve seen and absolutely love. Sometimes that risk pays off (Tony Kushner’s iHo, James Graham’s Ink), sometimes it doesn’t.

Twilight Song is the final thing that Kevin Elyot, whose other work includes the sublime My Night With Reg, wrote before his death a few years ago, being staged for the first time at the Park Theatre. It tells the story of one family’s life at three separate points in time, the present day and the early and late sixties, and how the intrusion of one stranger completely upsets their timeline. It’s an entertaining enough piece but, and I think you can guess where this is going, it’s not My Night With Reg. And whilst it may be unfair to compare the two, it’s extremely difficult not to. Twilight Song does not come out of this comparison well.

I love how weird this chalk board drawing of the programme cover is!

What Twilight Song does share with Reg is Elyot’s warm, funny, heartfelt writing. The initial present day scene in particular is very funny, though when the play’s plotting uncurls and you realise who the two characters actually are it becomes something very different (this realisation is by far the best bit of the play’s messing about with chronology because it is left unsaid). It also contains some very wry and depressingly relevant political lines, about the need for competence and solid economics, which the production does well not to overplay.

However, the actual story and characterisation is disappointing. The plot becomes far too predictable far too quickly, something not helped by the fact that this production presents it so unsubtly. Whilst trying to remain spoiler free, there is a blink and you’ll miss it line in the first 1960s scene which unlocks the whole play by revealing the relationship between the characters in the ‘flashbacks’ and the present day. This is enough explanation on its own. That the script then calls for this to be made clearer and clearer and clearer in every subsequent scene is unnecessary. It robs the piece, and this production in particular, of the dramatic impact it could have had if it were more subtle and trusted the audience more to reach the conclusions on its own. They are not that difficult to reach after all, even if you base them solely on the fact that two of the actors play multiple parts across the timeline. That’s a fairly huge clue as to what’s going on by itself. That the big reveal is confirmed, repeatedly, so early in the piece is also problematic. It’s difficult to fully invest in the action or the characters when you find out so early exactly what is going on. I feel like ambiguity in the script and in the staging would have been the key to making this play work. This is something that is notably absent.

The characterisation is also surprisingly slight (and not just in comparison with Reg, in comparison with any effective modern writing). There’s very little that helps us understand why the characters are acting as they are or what their backstories really are. I couldn’t help notice that this was particularly true for the play’s one female character, about whom we learn very little other than that she had a father whose views on women’s education and career choices were unenlightened. I’m not sure that this explains in any way satisfactorily why she ends up acting as she does.

All of this presents the small cast with a bit of an issue before they even step onto the stage. However, most of them do their best with what they are given. Adam Garcia is an interesting piece of casting for his two parts, Skinner and the gardener, and is very strong in the former at least. He has great stage presence and captures the nasty charisma of Skinner perfectly, really effectively foreshadowing what we’re about to learn. He doesn’t have a huge amount to do as the gardener and what he does do is completely overshadowed by his attempt at a cockney accent about which I will say nothing out of kindness. Paul Higgins is the other actor on double duty, as Barry and Basil, and is also notably more effective as one than the other. Barry is too laboured for my tastes but Basil is much stronger and conveys his quiet misery really well. Bryony Hannah’s Isabella is the weakest of the three leads for me, but this is a difficult part which gets little help from the writing so it feels unfair to criticise her too much. There is much stronger stuff from Philip Bretherton and Hugh Ross in the two smaller roles, Harry and Charles, who end up carrying the drama and convey the agony of the situation their characters face perfectly. They were the characters I really connected with and would have liked to have seen much more of, frankly.

My issues with the way it presents the plot notwithstanding, this production is technically very solid. The design is simple and the subtle changes made to the one set to show what time we’re in for each scene are very effective (the passage of time is less effectively portrayed elsewhere). The lighting is really well done; considered and careful without a single unnecessary bulb. The pacing of the production is about right too, though I could have done without some of the longer and more indulgent scene changes.

Ultimately, it was always going to be difficult for Twilight Song to compare to the love I have for My Night With Reg and it doesn’t. There’s too much unsubtlety in the writing, which is emphasised by the production, and not enough depth to the characters. However, that’s not to say it’s bad. Ultimately, it’s an entertaining piece of theatre and a solid production. If you go with those expectations then you’ll likely be significantly less disappointed than I was.

And, as an aside, the adorable Park Theatre is definitely worth trekking out to Finsbury Park to visit. It’s a cracking little venue.

Twilight Song plays at the Park Theatre until 12th August.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Theatre Review: Ink

Sometimes the heavens align in theatreland and you find yourself watching a production written by your favourite playwright, starring your favourite actor, directed by one of your favourite directors and staged in one of your favourite venues, and it makes everything right with the world.


Ink is a play about the birth of The Sun newspaper under the considerable personalities of its founding editor, Larry Lamb, and its owner and proprietor, Rupert Murdoch (perhaps you’ve heard of him). A juicy enough prospect in itself. When you throw the fact that it’s written by James Graham, stars Bertie Carvel as Murdoch, is directed by Rupert Goold and staged at the Almeida into the mix it becomes positively orgasmic. Pass me a cigarette because I’m done.

There shall be no beating about the bush here. I fucking loved this play and this production of it is about as good as it gets.

Ink is the second of five James Graham plays I will see this year, following on from This House which regular readers will recall I had some Strong Feelings about, and it’s increased my enthusiasm for his work no end. It is whip smart, very funny and pleasingly non-judgemental. There’s a real enthusiasm for the topic and a level of humanity in Graham’s writing and characterisation that is so refreshing - especially given the people and the institution involved here, about which it’s difficult not to have an opinion.

The whole approach to Ink is so fresh and exciting. It presumes no prior knowledge, it offers no moral judgement, it is in no way an issue play. It simply tells the story brilliantly and asks some vital questions about the role of the press in a modern society; it is for the audience to provide their own answers. The parallels here with the mode of storytelling that Lamb and Murdoch set out in the play’s opening scene are presumably not accidental. It is also a relief that contemporary references are not overdone, as must have been the temptation, so that when they are used they are much more impactful.

It is, in short and like This House, an absolutely fantastic play. It would be worth seeing even in a crap production. That the Almeida’s production is anything but crap is an added joy.

‘Anything but crap’ is a bit of an understatement too. This is a production every bit as good as its play. Rupert Goold’s direction is pacey, fluent and honest (though if I do have a criticism of this production overall it’s that it could stand to be ten minutes shorter). Bunny Chrstie’s set, a muddle multi-storey mess of a newspaper office, is evocative and functionally brilliant, bringing a sense of anarchy and excitement to proceedings. The lighting is great, especially the use of my old favourite, the bright white spot, as a highlight at key points. The choreography and music, sparingly used, is incredibly effective and is becoming one of my favourite features of James Graham shows.

The characterisation is one of the areas where Ink is most different from This House. Whilst the latter was a big ensemble thing, Ink is pretty much a two man show. The ensemble in Ink is certainly less crucial than their Westminster equivalents though they are excellent, the women in particular - Sophie Stanton as Joyce Hopkirk brings real heart to the table whilst Pearl Chanda is spunky and strong as Stephanie Rahn. (That Graham writes fantastic parts for women is yet another reason to love him.)

Richard Coyle takes the biggest role in terms of stage time, though I would argue not the lead role, as Larry Lamb and uses every minute extremely well. His Lamb is complicated, conflicted, slimey and ultimately sympathetic. He is particularly good at portraying the pressure that Lamb is under from all quarters, especially as the action ramps up towards the end of act two. And he leaves enough shades of grey in his performance to allow the audience to ask interesting questions of his motivations, chiefly why is he really so obsessed with beating The Mirror’s circulation figures? It’s a brilliant, nuanced piece of acting which does a lot to shake up the perception of a man who, one suspects, an Almeida audience is not predisposed to like.

Speaking of which, playing Rupert Murdoch to an Islington audience - or any audience for that matter - and presenting them with someone they don’t hate is surely deserving of some kind of special award. Certainly it takes a special performance from a special actor. From my previously expressed sentiments, it should come as no surprise that I rank Bertie Carvel squarely within that category. His Murdoch is a genuinely fantastic performance: physically unrecognisable, perfectly accented and utterly surprising in its characterisation of the man as socially awkward and kind of shy but utterly and completely driven. He’s not physically on stage that often (to my chagrin) but he is on stage at all times. That takes some doing. As ever, there’s a joyously old fashioned physicality to what he does which is as fascinating to watch as it is effective. He doesn’t so much walk the stage as stalk it, slightly hunched over, suggesting a barely suppressed rage that is allowed to burst through only once and so feels even more dangerous the rest of the time as a result. He achieves something completely remarkable, ultimately: not only do you forget that you’re watching him as an actor, you also forget that you know who Rupert Murdoch is as a person. It’s fantastic and a thrill to watch. Why he isn’t everyone’s favourite actor is a fact that continues to baffle me.

Ink is a fantastic production of a fantastic play. It’s relevant, timely, achingly well written, without an iota of judgement or preachiness. It is superbly staged and home to some of the best, most fascinating acting you will see. And, perhaps most importantly, it is further proof that my Bertie Carvel obsession is justified (and also growing).

Ink is at the Almeida until 5th August (day tickets and returns only at this point, deservedly). Rumours of a West End transfer for the autumn abound.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Theatre Review: Committee

As premises for a musical go, recreating a Parliamentary select committee hearing into charity governance using the verbatim transcripts as a book must be up there with singing trains on roller skates in the weirdness stakes.

It’s also a premise for which I am the perfect audience member: I love musical theatre and I am contractually obliged to be passionately interested in both charity governance and select committees by virtue of my job. I’ve written so many submissions for select committees and prepared so many briefings for staff who are going to appear as witnesses in oral evidence sessions that I feel like, for once, I actually know what I’m talking about in this review.

I suppose I should also put on the record at this stage that I actually think select committees are great. They’re where the best work, or at least most of the best work, that Parliament does is done and where the Government is most effectively held to account. They’re really, genuinely important in British Parliamentary democracy and, whilst of course there are exceptions, are populated by MPs who really care about the topics they discuss. Their Chairs can be egomaniacs and behave like overgrown schoolchildren but they are also some of the most forensic and persistent questioners of the Government that Parliament has. Yes, they enjoy being on the Today programme but most of them are far more interested in actually changing Government policy.


I’m very aware that this view colours my opinion of Committee, the third play in the Donmar Warehouse’s Power season and the verbatim select committee musical in question. Committee takes as its subject one of the more dramatic committee sessions of late, the oral evidence session where Kids Company bosses Alan Yentob and Camilla Batmanghelidjh gave evidence on the staggering amount of money their recently collapsed charity had been given by successive governments despite the equally staggering incompetence with which it was being run.

It’s difficult to be neutral on the Kids Company saga, and I’m not going to tell you my own view explicitly though I think you might be able to figure it out, but the one thing that it’s difficult to disagree with is the fact that so many kids were dependent on a charity not the state for some pretty fundamental help is extraordinary. From the point of view of those kids, the collapse of the charity was clearly a tragedy. This is the big issue that any theatrical work on Kids Company should engage with, where something new could be added to the debate. Committee, in choosing to focus specifically on this one evidence session, doesn’t engage with this. Or any of the other big issues that a broader look at the Kids Company story would have allowed it to play with. It’s difficult to know, really, what the point of it is. By constraining itself so rigidly to its form it robs itself of the opportunity to say anything profound or new and also to be particularly entertaining or dramatic. I mean, I love select committees but not even I would claim they’re top entertainment!

The idea of drawing out the theatricality of Parliament is also not new and has been done far, far better elsewhere already; it’s very difficult to imagine a piece of theatre about due process that is better, more entertaining or more insightful than This House for a start. The introduction of music, in a recitative style, is an interesting addition but it doesn’t really add that much. There’s nothing wrong with the music, the lush score is great (especially as it’s played only by a chamber group) and the lyrics, all drawn either from the session’s transcripts or associated website material, are cleverly done, but neither is it memorable or integral. I also had a technical niggle with the sound mixing, in that the instrumental sometimes completely drowned out the vocal, but that’s by the by.

Equally, there’s nothing wrong with the writing of the spoken scenes either, at least in the sense that the bits of transcript they choose to use are the best bits. However, I do take considerable issue with the characterisation in the writing which seems to suggest, straight out of a contemporary Guardian opinion piece, that the collapse of Kids Company is everyone’s fault but the saintly Batmanghelidjh’s. Which is, to be blunt, wrong. In particular, I found the portrayal of the MPs and the committee itself incredibly, infuriatingly cynical. The way they are portrayed merely as self serving, shallow, ideologically driven and only really interested in conducting a show trial is grossly unfair. To suggest that Bernard Jenkin (the committee’s chair and not someone with whom I have a natural affinity, to put it mildly) only embarked on this particular inquiry to bag himself the coveted 8:10 slot on Today is just nonsense. It’s testament to the amount that this irritated me that I actually walked out of Committee with more respect - and even sympathy - for Jenkin. I’m not sure that this is what the creative team was intending. It certainly made me feel weird.

The redeeming feature of Committee is its cast, who are excellent to a person. The MP characters are perfectly observed (you wonder how many hours were spent watching videos of their ‘characters’ speaking and how boring this must have been) down to the minutest physical tic and vocal inflection, yet still avoid becoming flat imitations. Alexander Hanson’s Bernard Jenkin is, for someone who’s sat in a committee he’s chairing watching someone you’ve briefed as the witness, almost unnervingly accurate. Sandra Marvin and Omar Ebrahim are in great voice and equally well observed as Batmanghelidjh and Yentob respectively; the former gets all the meatiest solos and nails them as well as having the most extraordinarily expressive eyes, the latter is probably my pick of the voices and joyously skewers the mixture of earnestness, obliviousness and name dropping that characterised Yentob’s conduct throughout this sorry episode to a tee. Yentob is perhaps the most effective bit of writing in the entire piece actually and the only one through whom a serious issue - what is the link between Government, charity and ‘celebrity’ and what should it be? - is an anyway interestingly addressed.

Committee is such an odd piece, strangely irrelevant and without insight or dramatic depth, that you’d think I’d want to disparage the Donmar for staging it. I don’t. I actually think it was a brave commission and a laudable attempt to do something different. It’s exactly the sort of thing, in short, that a theatre like the Donmar should be doing. It’s just a shame that on this occasion the bravery hasn’t paid off. A disappointing end to an otherwise first rate season.

Committee is at the Donmar Warehouse until 12th August.




Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Theatre Review: The Ferryman

The Gielgud is one of those Theatres of a Certain Age.

You know the type I mean. Pretty, but functionally questionable. Minimal ladies loos. Extortionate ice cream. Seats with economy class flight-level comfort, unless you're in Band A. Certainly not optimal for watching something three hours plus.

It's not the sort of theatre I would necessarily have chosen to see The Ferryman in, in other words. A play that seems to have entered modern theatrical legend on account of two things, its length and - thankfully - its quality. Or to paraphrase The Guardian Guide, bum numbing but worth it.


There is no question that, at three hours ten (including an interval and a weird and superfluous five minute 'pause'), this is a long piece. But, hey, some of us have seen all seven and a half hours of Angels in America in one day. Three hours ten is fuck all.

The Ferryman shares something else with Angels too: it's complete brilliance. There is no question that every single star in The Ferryman's epic haul of five star reviews is justified. More than justified. Inadequate to do this stunner of a show anything like justice.

The Ferryman has excellent pedigree. Written by Jez Butterworth and directed by Sam Mendes, it's a transfer from The Royal Court that tells the story, ostensibly, of the Carney family in Troubles-era Northern Ireland. Part pitch black kitchen sink comedy, complete with racist elderly aunt, part Othello-esque heartbreaking tragedy, the writing is - and I hesitate to use the word but I think it's merited here - genius.

Because what Butterworth has conjured up here is incredible. Not only is the writing incredibly rich, creating a world of characters, places, histories and situations that make you feel you know the Carneys and, indeed, that you've known them for a long time (clever use of historical touchpoints certainly helps here), it is bitterly funny. The rounded cast of characters and humour mask something much darker though. There is a danger fizzing through this play that is elusive at first - you know shit is going to go down but you don't really know how. And you don't find out how until the final scene which, though I won't spoil it, is utterly extraordinary for pulling off the bizarre duality of being both completely inevitable and completely, devastatingly unexpected at the same time.

This is the real genius of The Ferryman. You never know really what you're watching and every time you think you've cracked it - BAM - the plot changes tack. Even basic plot points, such as who's who in the family, aren't as they first seem. To pull this off whilst maintaining a coherent, plausible and well paced story is just exquisite plotting.

Thematically too this is a great piece. Butterworth deals with a lot of big themes, each of which alone could create something interesting, and somehow melds them all together into something truly wonderful. Loyalty and family is an obvious starting point. Who or what should you be loyal to? Who or what is your family? Assuming you know that how do you protect them? And what do you protect; their past, present or future? Loss also gets attention. What does loss mean? Can someone who's still there be lost? Can someone who's not there not be lost? Can you lose something that was never yours in the first place? And running through all of this is the past. Can you move on from it? Escape it? How? Is your past somehow genetic, bound to repeat down the generations? The Ferryman plays with all of these ideas but refreshingly never offers judgement on any of them. It would be a gift of a play to study; think of the essays you could write!

If the writing is the star of this show, then the cast runs it a close second. The Ferryman is a real ensemble piece and perhaps the biggest joy of the acting here is seeing a genuinely great, unselfish, perfectly balanced ensemble working as one. That said, it would be remiss not to make a few observations about the individuals involved, principally how in the sweet fuck is this Paddy Considine's stage debut?! I mean this in two, equally complimentary, ways: 1) how on earth has an actor of his calibre never been tempted onto the stage before, and 2) how on earth can an actor on debut deliver a performance as nuanced, controlled and quietly dangerous as the one he delivers, as family patriarch Quinn Carney, here? He is amazing, electrifying to watch and commands the stage totally. I hope theatrical casting agents elsewhere are taking notes!

Other performances that merit a quick mention are Laura Donnelly, a study in sadness and heart as Caitlin Carney; John Hodgkinson who works I suspect much harder than appearances would suggest to make Tom Kettle, the least effective character for my money, into someone believable and touching (the proposal scene guys!); and Rob Malone and Tom Glyn-Carney, as Oisin and Shane respectively, who bring the real spark and danger to proceedings. Everyone is well served by Sam Mendes' light touch, natural direction and a stunningly detailed and atmospheric set (though were the real animals really necessary guys? No, that's right, they weren't).

It is, at this point in time, deeply boring to say that The Ferryman is extraordinary theatre but it really truly is. Sublime acting, pitch perfect direction, great set and some of the best writing you will ever see. Believe the hype and shell out for a ticket immediately. Even the queue for the ladies' is worth it.

The Ferryman is at the Gielgud Theatre until 7th October.