Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Theatre review: The Twentieth Century Way

I’m doing that thing again where I review a show that’s closed. Sorry. But stick with me, there’s good stuff in here.

The Twentieth Century Way is a rather glorious euphemism for gay men in the early twentieth century using the advent of zip flies to access anonymous sex in public places. I love this as a phrase.

It’s also a play, by Tom Jacobson, that tells the story of a couple of actors on the make, Warren and Brown, who offer their services to various local police forces posing as gay men themselves to entrap real gay men in these situations, marking their bits with indelible ink and calling police backup to arrest them.

I say that, but it becomes increasingly obvious in the eighty minute run time that this isn’t what the play is about. Or at least not everything it’s about. And this is where the fun lies.

The play switches between the multiple stories of the characters Warren and Brown are playing and the real gay men they are fooling. But it also incorporates the story of Warren and Brown themselves and, getting more meta, the real life actors playing them. You very quickly start to question what is really happening here. Are the (fictional) actors actually taking part in these entrapment schemes? Is it all just, as the very beginning of the play sets it up, an improvisation game between two bored (fictional) actors in an audition waiting room? And what have the real life actors got to do with all of this? Where does their reality fit into the multiple stories they’re telling and the multiple levels of truth, or otherwise, they reveal?

If that all sounds a bit pretentious and complicated then, in truth, that’s because it is. But it’s also really entertaining, engaging and an interesting way to portray the age old debates about the nature of truth and acting that are explored in so many plays in more conventional ways. And of course Warren and Brown’s scheme is based on a true story so the play is also a fascinating piece of social history as well.

Adding to the confusion and excitement of this piece is the fact that it is entirely played by two actors, James Sindall and Fraser Wall, on stage the whole time, making only the most minor changes in their accents, mannerisms and costumes to demark the myriad different characters they both play. Again it’s a piece of theatrical trickery but, again, it works. It is very, very occasionally overdone - with both of the actors being given ‘party piece’ sequences to show off as many characters as quickly as possible in a slightly irritating way - but the two are both really impressive. The subtleties of the physical changes they make whilst still managing to portray recognisably different characters is incredible, as is the sheer range of emotion and characterisation they’re able to create. It feels wrong to single one person out in a two man show, but Wall in particular is fantastic. Both are names to watch out for in the future I suspect.

Admittedly this show, which was playing at the teeny tiny (and utterly adorable) Jermyn Street Theatre, has now closed. But I’d be amazed if it doesn’t reappear in London in some guise again and I do hope it’s this one so more people get a chance to see it. In any guise, it’s certainly worth seeing; in this one, it’s fantastic.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Theatre Review: This House

If there were some kind of master list of things I love in this world, theatre and slightly obscure political geekery would definitely both be on it.

It may not surprise you to learn, then, that a play that tells the story of the internal machinations of the Labour and Conservative whips offices in the 1970s is 100% up my street. At least 100%. More if that were mathematically possible.

Of course the play in question is This House, because even if you’ve somehow stumbled this far without reading the title of the post what other play could that last paragraph possibly be describing? A speedy, but timely, revival of James Graham's 2012 National Theatre production, involving many of the original creative team, This House tells the story of the hot mess that was British politics in the mid to late 70s through the eyes of the men and woman (not a typo) whose job it was to try and keep their respective parties' shows on the road.

For a political saddo like me, there was no way I wasn't going to find this play fascinating. And I did, but I also absolutely loved it which I don't think was as guaranteed (though admittedly fairly likely). What's arguably more interesting is why I loved it: yes the political stuff is super interesting and done really well, but more than that this play is so innovative, so funny and - most surprisingly - so humane that I fell for it utterly.

Let's deal with the political stuff first because, at least from the experience of the non-political friend I went with, this seems to be the thing that's making some people nervous about seeing this play. Based on my highly scientific survey of one person, there seems to be a fear that if you don't understand the ins and outs of Parliamentary procedure - who the fuck does? - or the key political events of the 1970s (and let's be honest there are a lot of those) you won't understand or worse won't enjoy This House. That's not at all the case. The play explains the events you need to know about well. It works subtle explanations of the key bits of Parliamentary ridiculousness into the dialogue. It almost never uses the names of any of the real politicians who feature, referring to them instead by their constituency thus making it much easier to keep track of who's doing what for non-geeks in the audience (whilst providing the geeks with a fun game of spot the MP). It makes a play about arguably one of the least accessible democratic institutions in the world into something completely accessible to anyone, and it does it so subtly. That in itself is worthy of love and praise.

It's more than that though, so much more. As interested as This House is in political history, it's also interested in ideas of identity, loyalty, honour, how far you should go to defend your deepest held beliefs and what happens when all of these things interact and conflict. James Graham's writing across all of these 'big ideas' and the political stuff is superb - funny, touching, straightforward and razor sharp. It connects with the audience in a genuinely exciting way that shows off live theatre at its very best; I lost count of the number of audible gasps from the audience I heard on the night I saw it. He is backed up by fantastic design that turns the stage into a miniature House of Commons, variously accommodating the two whips teams' offices and the House of Commons (and indeed real life auditorium) bar on the floor in the middle of the two sets of benches.

It also helps the play that Graham's lead characters, whilst based on real people, are not household names. He focuses his action particularly around the Labour and Tory Deputy Chief Whips, sensibly as they are the ones who are supposed to do the deals with other parties and with their own backbenchers. It's certainly not a hindrance to my love of This House that this production has the excellent Steffan Rhodri and Nathaniel Parker, two of my absolute faves, in these key roles. Rhodri in particular is excellent as Walter Harrison, the hard arse with a heart Labour Deputy whilst Parker is a perfectly patrician foil as Jack Weatherill, his Tory counterpart. The climactic scene where Jack offers to defy his own whip on a vote to bring down the Labour Government to cancel out the vote of a dying Labour MP who Walter is refusing to call down to London to vote for fear the effort would kill him, only for Walter to refuse the offer in the knowledge that Labour will lose the vote, is a beautifully understated study in notions of honour, friendship and humanity. It was the recipient of at least one hugely audible audience gasp, and rightly so. A hardworking ensemble cast plays all the rest of the many characters exceptionally well too. I am jealous of the guy who got to play Norman St John-Stevas, Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine!

Honestly, I cannot recommend this production enough. Political or otherwise there's so much here to love. A genuine must see in a year when perhaps we all do need a lesson in how to laugh at politics again and a timely reminder that politicians are actually human beings (most of them).

This House plays at the Garrick Theatre until February 25th.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Theatre Review: Hedda Gabler

As ways of starting 2017 go, an egotistical sociopath standing over a woman in a nightgown spitting tomato juice in her face seems strangely appropriate.

I don’t know about you, but I woke up on New Year’s Day still finding the world as scary and disorienting a place as I did in 2016. The escapism of theatre is more necessary for me at the moment than I can ever remember it being. Even when said theatre is some bleak ass Ibsen.

Hedda Gabler, currently playing at the NT (whose building feels like a safe haven for the Liberal Metropolitan Elite such as myself), is classic Ibsen. Newly married Hedda hates her life, her husband and all of the inconsequential or downright nasty men and women around her. But she’s trapped, her only potential escape being the two pistols that belonged to her father. If ever a play was a metaphor for the times then this is it.

One of the main draws of this production for many people is the fact that it’s directed by Ivo van Hove, Belgian avant garde director du jour, making his NT debut. I loved van Hove’s A View from the Bridge a couple of years ago A LOT (his basically non-existent staging and design removed all distractions from the bleak and brilliant text and superb cast, making the production all the more powerful) but, from a directorial point of view, his Hedda Gabler feels visually overcooked, almost like someone doing a van Hove impression. Scenes of Hedda throwing flowers around and then stapling them to the walls are incredibly heavy handed and the aforementioned addition of Brack spitting tomato juice over Hedda in various ways during their final confrontation serves only to take drama and malice out of that key scene (Rafe Spall’s performance as Brack is far too strong to need any help here).

That said there is a lot about van Hove’s contribution to the production that I do love: for example his use of music, particularly the heartbeat-style incidental music that plays as background in key scenes, is great, as is the lighting and the clever set with no doors (actors enter and exit through the auditorium doors). It’s also a fantastically well paced production that absolutely whizzed by in two and a half hours. The second act in particular is super quick, rushing towards its increasingly inevitable denouement without ever feeling either rushed or inevitable.

For me, the best thing about this production though is Patrick Marber’s version of the text. Whilst admittedly this isn’t a play I know anywhere near well enough to judge this version against any others, on its own merits Marber gives us a funny, sparky, dark and extremely entertaining take on Ibsen. It’s not at all what I expected, mostly because I laughed so much.  That’s not to say he makes light of the story of the characters, he just handles them in such a way as to draw out the absurdity and black humour of them and their situation that is already in the text.

The excellent cast also helps to draw this out really effectively. Ruth Wilson is the headline booking in the title role and she is an enjoyably sardonic, relatively sympathetic, Hedda who really excels in the black comedy of Marber’s script. If you like her work in The Affair, you’ll like her work in this. The standout star for me though is Rafe Spall as an exceptionally unpleasant and exceptionally charismatic Judge Brack. This oily, clever, laddish Brack is evidently a nasty piece of work from the first moment he bounds into the auditorium but is so fucking cool (and hot) that you’re willing not to care about that for most of the play. It’s a scene stealing joy of a performance.

Hedda Gabler was a great production to start my 2017 theatregoing with and one I’d definitely recommend, especially if you’re more of an Ivo van Hove devotee than I am. And plenty of people seem to agree with me - tickets are incredibly scarce so your best bet of catching this one is its NT Live outing on 9th March.

Hedda Gabler is in the Lyttelton at the National Theatre until 21st March.