Thursday, 25 February 2016

Theatre Review: The Rolling Stone

This review has posed me a dilemma: is it worth reviewing a show that’s already closed?

Admittedly this isn't the first time I've done this (see also: Hapgood) but that time it was accidental - I didn't realise the show had closed when I sat down to write the review. This time I know the show has closed. So it this post worth my time or yours?

Well, as for your time you’ll have to decide yourself. I'm not your mother. For my time, yes it is worth it. Because I loved the show and want to share that fact, even if it can influence no one to go and see it. I’ll try and keep it brief though.

Image source.

The show in question is The Rolling Stone by Chris Urch at the tiny and adorable Orange Tree Theatre (this was my first trip, it won’t be my last). The play tells the story of Dembe, a gay man in Uganda, and the effect of the country’s horrific anti-gay laws on him and his family, sister Wunnie and brother Joe. Joe has just been made pastor of their church, which is rather a complicating factor.

Even from those few lines you can probably predict roughly where the plot is going; there are no huge surprises or shocking twists here. But that doesn't matter. This play is so well written, with such authenticity that I was slightly surprised that it’s not verbatim, the characters so well rounded and everything so well acted that it’s a joy to watch regardless of the fact there’s a tragic inevitability to almost everything that unfolds.

Playwright Urch, who rightly won the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting for this piece, is also exceptionally careful not to pass judgement on any of the characters involved either which makes the whole thing much more compelling. This play could so easily have been a dramatised thesis on why the Ugandan laws are awful (which they undoubtedly are), what it actually is is so much more interesting. He also wraps his plot up in some big themes each of which is drawn out and explored really well: identity (race, gender, religion, you name it), loyalty and how far we are prepared to go for our families.

In a cast of six, it’s difficult to find fault. Fiston Barek is just fantastic as Dembe, torn between his love for boyfriend Sam and loyalty to his family. Sule Rimi as Joe is magnetic; blisteringly good, slightly terrifying and probably my pick of the bunch. Faith Omole is a caring, angry Wunnie and a touching heart for her stricken family. Jo Martin as ambitious Mama, the sort-of-but-not-really villain of the piece, is perfectly imposing and Faith Alabi gives a moving, almost mute performance as her tragic daughter. Julian Moore-Cook is an enjoyable cocky Sam, who reveals his vulnerability slowly and touchingly. It’s a hard working group too as the cast are very rarely allowed to leave the performance space, spending their ‘off’ scenes sat amongst the audience, which doesn't feel as stagey or distracting as it probably should.

The staging is necessarily very simple - given there is no stage and no scenery - but nonetheless effective, particularly the use of sound, music and lighting to change the setting and mood. The wind effect used in the play's climactic final scene is also really well done and make for a more dramatic sequence than you would think possible in such a tiny space.

If it were possible, I’d be urging you to see this show because I really loved it. Having already transferred to the Orange Tree from Manchester’s Royal Exchange it would be fantastic to see The Rolling Stone get a ‘proper’ London transfer - it would fit well in the Young Vic or the NT’s Dorfman set up in the round - so that more people can see it. It deserves that much at least.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Theatre Review: The Master Builder

Things I know about the plays of Henrik Ibsen: they are very depressing. That’s all.

Though it may be one of his more rarely performed pieces, The Master Builder, the fourth play in Matthew Warchus’ début season at The Old Vic, definitely reinforces my belief in that one fact. And my belief that a two hour play does not need two intervals, but more of that later.

Image source.

Dress it up however you like, but The Master Builder is essentially the story of a man having a midlife crisis. Harvard Solness is said master builder (not architect, because he learned on the job) and the catalyst of said crisis is the sudden and improbably return to his life of the enigmatic Hilda, a young woman he last saw a decade ago but on whom he apparently made quite the impression.

Solness is a deeply unpleasant character; callous, manipulative and self-centred to the point of madness. He is almost impossible to sympathise with and one of the many admirable qualities of the Old Vic’s production is that it never really invites you to try. Hilda is, in perhaps slightly different ways, just as bad and their relationship, for what it is, consists solely of toxic and ultimately tragic enabling of each other’s delusions of grandeur. It’s hard to invest that much in either of them especially, this being an Ibsen play, when you know that at least one of them is going to die horribly.

And I think that’s my main criticism of this production really; it never succeeds in building the tension necessary to sustain it as a real, compelling tragedy. It starts off very well, with the first of its three (yes, three) acts played as a very black comedy in a not dissimilar vein to Shaw’s Man and Superman which I loved so much at the National last year. After the first interval the change in tone to something much blacker and more serious is stark and slightly jarring, the humour is all but gone and the production starts to stall. It is also in this second act that it becomes very apparent who is going to die and how, so it’s therefore very frustrating when the lights go up for a second interval. The third act is incredibly short and feels like it’s just rushing towards the inevitable conclusion; no tension is built up because there’s no time and everyone knows what’s going to happen anyway. This is not a long play - take the intervals out and it’s just over two hours - and it doesn’t need two intervals. The position of the first one makes the change in tone feel incredibly severe and the unnecessary second one saps the momentum from the ‘serious’ part of the play. It’s a frustrating and artistically indulgent structural weakness that, though it doesn't ruin the production, is certainly a major distraction.

Which is a shame as there’s a lot of good stuff going on elsewhere, including a couple of standout performances that are certainly worth a few hours of anyone’s time. It more or less goes without saying that Ralph Fiennes is an excellent Harvard Solness because Ralph Fiennes is an excellent everything. Picking up where his Jack Tanner (which is still a better performance for my money) left off, he deals with the play’s early humour with an easy, nasty charm which builds across the three acts into something altogether less easy and far more nasty. Solness isn't one for losing his temper, but the occasional flashes of out and out rage are genuinely frightening and a perfect outlet to show off Fiennes’ ridiculously velvety vocal projection. Whilst for me Sarah Snook’s Hilda is a weak link (there’s not enough about her to make Hilda the plausible, sexual character she needs to be), Fiennes is given a considerable run for his money by Linda Edmond as Solness’ long, LONG suffering wife Aline who delivers a stoic, touching, nuanced performance that ensures this production isn't a one trick pony. With far less stage time and far less backstory, Aline is just as interesting a character as her husband and Edmond’s performance is just as good as Fiennes’.

Technically, there’s much to admire too. Though I could've done without the flashes of ‘pay attention: something important is being said’ music - because I have both ears and a brain and can work that out for myself thankyouverymuch - the stripped back design of the play works well, particularly when fire effects are called for. And, despite my complaining about the structure, David Hare’s adaptation and Matthew Warchus’ direction combine to deliver a pacey and clear rendering of the story.

Though The Master Builder didn't quite do it for me, I still think it’s worth seeing. There are some great performances nestling away in this production that justify the price of a (cheaper) ticket by themselves and there’s enough going on in the play to keep it from being boring even if it never quite manages to be truly exciting either.

The Master Builder is at The Old Vic until March 19th.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Theatre Review: Red Velvet

I'm at the midpoint of my passionate love affair with the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company season and that thought makes me deeply anxious.

With three plays seen and just three to see there has yet to be any announcement of a second season and COME ON GUYS THERE NEEDS TO BE ONE.

Sorry. As I said, anxious. My point stands though, however shouty it may be.

Anyway, one of the key themes of this first season is turning the lens (or the audience, I suppose) inward and looking at the theatre itself - see also Harlequinade and The Entertainer which bookend the season. Sitting plum in the middle is play number three, Red Velvet.

Image source. I will never tire of seeing this frontage.

Written by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Indhu Rubasingham - girls certainly run this world - Red Velvet tells part of the extraordinary story of Ira Aldridge one of the first black actors to make his name playing Shakespearean roles (he’s still the only black actor to have a memorial plaque at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre). The play picks up in 1833, when Aldridge was drafted into the company of the Covent Garden Theatre to cover the title role in Othello after current star Edmund Kean collapsed during a performance. The reaction of the company (some of) and the British press (all of) is sadly not difficult to predict.

A timely piece in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite and associated ridiculousness, Red Velvet is a hugely powerful and exciting work. Previously seen at the Tricycle Theatre and off-Broadway, it is nonetheless richly deserving of its place in the KBTC season (despite the notable lack of any KB, though I like to imagine he’s backstage making the tea or something).

The writing is simple but excellent - angry, wry, unflowery - and some of the seemingly casual observations Chakrabarti draws the audience to make are very clever; the apparently ardent abolitionist unquestioningly chucking his coat in the general direction of a black servant is my particular favourite. The characters are vividly realised and three dimensional - Aldridge is not presented as a total saint just as other members of the company are not presented as total sinners. As the play within a play, parallels with Othello aren't hammered home as heavily as a lesser work may have done. The fact that the company’s racist in chief Charles (a suitably smug and impotent-rage-filled Mark Edel-Hunt) is due to be playing Iago opposite Aldridge is a pleasing little joke. The self consciously theatrical staging is clever too, with the entire cast onstage at more or less all times, those not needed sitting in tiny dressing rooms along the wings. The use of the real reviews that Aldridge’s performance got makes for a deeply uncomfortable and sickening ten minutes of excellent verbatim theatre.

The main appeal of this production, though, is Adrian Lester’s towering central performance as Aldridge - 100% worth the price of your ticket alone. His Aldridge is, initially, such a cool character (with such a convincing accent that you do occasionally have to remind yourself that this is a British actor you’re watching) and so instantly easy to sympathise with that his inevitable fall is all the more terrible. His confrontation with one time friend, ally and manager of the Covent Garden, Pierre (Emun Elliott - solid, authoritative and well accented) is heartbreaking and Lester manages the vacillation between rage, sadness and desperation in this, relatively short, scene expertly. Whilst the flashforward scenes that bookend the action are less effective - and arguably unnecessary - Lester is still fantastic as the older, broken Aldridge. And, mild spoiler alert, the ‘whiteing up’ in the play’s final scene is incredible effective and deeply disturbing, visually and ethically.

By far the best sequence of the whole play, though, is the play within a play bit where we get to see Lester’s Aldridge do his stuff. It is, simply, thrilling. I’ve seen Adrian Lester play Othello in real life (non-spoiler: he was excellent) but this sequence is something else. Even though the acting style looks old fashioned to a modern audience, there’s no question that it’s also phenomenally powerful, frightening and vocally and physically commanding. I would happily watch this Othello in its entirety.

Overall, then, this gets a big ol thumbs up from me. Everyone should see Adrian Lester’s performance, if nothing else. And there is a lot of ‘else’ you should see also. Get tickets now or it regret it later.

Red Velvet is part of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s Plays at the Garrick season and plays until February 27th.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Theatre review: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Here’s a staggering fact for you: between 1959 and 1984 there wasn't a single African American play on Broadway that was considered a success.

The bookends? Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. And whilst I think most people will have heard of the former (trans: I have heard of it) I'm not sure that the latter is so well known (trans: I hadn't heard of it). Which is a shame really because, as the new production just opened at the NT proves, it’s a seriously good, seriously intelligent piece.

Image source. (This programme is excellent btw, even by the NT's high standards.)

The play tells the story of the real life Ma Rainey, Mother of the Blues, and her fight to record her eponymous song (see the play’s title for more information) in her way despite pressure from the onset of the jazz age, personified by her band’s bravura trumpet player Levee, and the racist society she inhabits, aka her white agent and record company boss.

Ma Rainey herself is brilliantly brought to life by the always awesome (even in Holby City) Sharon D Clarke at her imperious, feisty, honey-voiced best. I wish the play made more use of its title character, she is so interesting. A powerful (to the extent society allowed), bisexual, black woman kicking ass in the jazz age is not an oft-used character type and both Ma Rainey the real person and Sharon D Clarke’s interpretation of her merit more exploration and stage time. As it is, she enters mid way through the first act and exits well before the end of the second. It’s a shame as she really does light up the stage in the limited time she’s on it. And of course her singing is reliably spectacular.

This is not a criticism of the rest of the cast, mind. Instead of focussing on Ma Rainey, the play actually spends most of its time with her band who, although you don’t learn that much about them, are all fantastically realised by their respective actors. Kudos especially to O-T Fagbenle as a firecracker Levee, all personal ambition, restless energy and impotent rage, who excels in the three most violently emotive scenes in the piece (no spoilers). He is expertly balanced by Lucian Msamati - increasingly one of my favourite actors - as the still, stubborn, slightly ranty pianist Toledo who is more concerned with communal action to advance the cause of racial equality. They offset and balance each other brilliantly and their interplay is one of the best features of this production.

Also excelling is designer Ultz with a fantastically innovative set that reinforces the play’s exploration of black/white power. A sort of metallic portakabin, suspended above the set on chains, is the recording studio booth where the white characters live - there’s even a no entry sign across the bottom of the spiral staircase that connects the booth to the studio, where the black characters are of course actually making the music, just to reinforce the point. Meanwhile, the band are relegated to the underground band room - a portion of the set that rises from the stage when it is required, with the booth on its chains being raised to make sure it stays above them - only permitted into the studio when Ma Rainey is there. It’s possibly slightly heavy handed, but it works and, technically, it’s very cleverly done.

There are two things that this production needed, aside from more Ma Rainey, to make me love it unequivocally. The first is more music - this is a play set in the world of jazz and blues and, although there is some music, for my money there could've been way more. The second is a hefty cut to act one which feels slow and repetitive at times; glorious though the writing and the use of language is, a lot of words are expended for no movement of the plot or, really, the characters before the interval. I would've loved to learn a bit more about the band members personal histories (Levee excepted) alongside the collective black history that the play presents. Act two feels much better paced though and is definitely not short on action.

Overall, I really enjoyed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Quibbles aside, it’s wonderfully acted, beautifully staged and has an air of authenticity that not many pieces of this period ever manage to muster. Definitely worth a look.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is playing in the Lyttelton at the NT until 18th May.