Thursday, 16 November 2017

Theatre Review: The Complete Greek Tragedies (in one hour)

I’m doing that thing where I review a show you can longer see again. Soz.

For the second Wednesday night in a row, I found myself in a pub theatre. This time it was the rather excellent Rosemary Branch in Hackney - or Islington, or possibly both, I’m not sure - to check out Catharsis Theatre Company’s The Complete Greek Tragedies (in one hour). The title is literal: 31 big, complex stories in (just over) an hour.

Pub theatres are dead glamorous

It’s not difficult to predict the general approach that a production like this will take. There are enough ‘xxx in an hour’ type shows around now to know with some certainty that you’re going to see a madcap comedy of some description. And this is what is presented here. But Catharsis are cleverer than that. They set their production up as almost a play within a play - the setup (and it’s set up well, down to some joyously silly fake programmes) being that you’re going to a 31 hour production of all the tragedies but that one actor, despairing at having been in this same awful production for five years, appeals to the gods for help and is answered by Dionysus, god of drama etc, who duly obliges in forcing them to condense it down to an hour. Thus the idea is that the actors are all improvising and chucking stupid ideas into the mix with no preparation and no alternative but to give them a go. It allows the real life actors more freedom and allows the production to go in more and more ridiculous directions. And of course it’s just very funny.

The production is fantastically unafraid to mock the many and varied pretensions associated with theatre. (It was, for me, the perfect thing to watch after Network. Perhaps Ivo van Hove and team should try and catch Catharsis when they’re next in town.) It tackles this from all angles; traditional theatricality, the idea of ‘accessibility’ and drama school nonsense (“I can’t die, I’ve got an MA in physical theatre”) all have their bubbles thoroughly burst. It uses a lot of parody sequences all of which are fun and some of which are glorious: Medea in Chelsea is perfect but for the nagging suspicion that somewhere an TV executive is lining it up to sit in a double bill with Bromans on ITV2, and there are great takes on The Handmaid’s Tale and The Cellblock Tango off of Chicago. The clever writing is backed up with a clever design. The lighting and sound are really effective and the use of (very) minimal props and costumes fits perfectly with the setup of the production as the most amateur of amateur.

A brave and ballsy cast of three carry the whole thing off really well. Sophie Taylor is the perfect amount of earnest as classicist Cassie, managing to be both unbearable yet still somehow sympathetic (and very funny). Christina Holmbeck as the naive and totally inexperienced Marianna gives the show a bit of humanity and is a stonking Medea (and is also very funny). Iain Gibbons’ Jake is the most broadly comic character and he is, guess what, very funny. His increasingly desperate and ridiculous attempts at ‘accessibility’ are depressingly plausible. And he too is somehow still sympathetic. All together they make for a really effective trio.

The Complete Greek Tragedies (in one hour) is a cracking little show: so fun, so entertaining and so refreshing to see theatre being treated with the irreverence it deserves by some people who clearly completely fucking love it. You can’t see this show anywhere at the moment, but watch out for the next time it’s in town. It’s worth your time.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Theatre Review: Network

When I was doing my mock GCSEs about a billion years ago, I got 96% in the chemistry paper (stick with me, I promise this is going somewhere). Seeing my smug smile, my teacher, the fabulously named Mr Mann, decided to burst my bubble with a pithy “no one likes a smart arse, Williams”.

(Mr Mann was actually a great teacher by the way. He was a serving Territorial Army officer of German descent, with the most incredibly mangled accent, whose teaching methods regularly included armwrestling, wandering around the room picking up stuff off students’ desks with tongs and setting things on fire without warning whenever the mood took him. We had a long running argument about whether manatees were just fat dolphins. But I digress.)

I recall this anecdote now because ‘no one likes a smart arse’ seems a perfect summation of my feelings about Network, the NT’s new Ivo van Hove directed adaptation of the film of the same name. It is such a smart arse of a production; clever, yes, but so fucking self satisfied about it.

Let’s tackle this one head on. I’ve decided I’m done with Ivo van Hove. After his blisteringly good View from the Bridge a few years ago, each subsequent production of his I’ve seen I’ve liked less and I know exactly why. See, van Hove is a director who treads a very fine line between stylish substance and style over substance. View from the Bridge worked because it was firmly the former: it was visually striking and extremely stylized but stripped back in a way that allowed the acting and the text to shine through. Network is firmly the latter: there is so much going on and so little of it for any non-aesthetic reason. It adds nothing to the onstage action, often actively taking away from it. It makes for a deeply frustrating evening. At worst, it’s just pretentious.

My major bugbear is the constant use and boring over reliance on video in the production. This is a play based on a film starring one of the most famous screen actors of his generation. If I wanted to watch it or him on a screen I would have stayed at home. I can’t work out what the video is supposed to add when it's used with the regularity it is here. Some of the visual effects it generates are undoubtedly stunning and it is occasionally used to zoom in on the face of a character not in the main action which allows for an interesting reaction shot but beyond that? If it was used sparingly it would probably be quite effective but it's not. It's used all the time. You almost forget you're actually watching a play at times.

There are other things that irritate me because they're unnecessary too. The onstage restaurant adds literally nothing to the action other than providing some free extras in the restaurant and bar-set scenes (and presumably a bit of extra cash for the NT coffers). The tiny bit of thrust stage is used so literally it's like being punched in the face. The presence of a live band is at best no more effective than a recording and at worst actively distracting. The attempts at audience engagement are so wooden they become painful.

With so much of this stuff you get the feeling that it's included for one reason: because Ivo van Hove thought it was clever. And that's not enough for me. Fairly or not, I left the theatre actually quite angry at having spent two hours (which is too long) indulging him.

I also felt quite angry on behalf of other elements of the production. Because there are some really good things happening here if you can look past all the fluff. The 'I'm mad as hell' scene is actually really well done and gave me goosebumps. The scenes that are fluffless, such as the subplot about two of the TV execs having an affair, are good too. The writing is punchy, topical and quick, if a bit preachy, though the same issues are covered infinitely better by James Graham in both Ink and Quiz. There is no denying that the production looks stunning, especially the polished copper reflective floor which allows for some amazing visuals and fascinating perspectives on the action.  And ultimately, for all my moaning, there is also no denying that the technical virtuosity involved in making this production work in even the most basic sense is phenomenal. If you're interested in how theatre is physically made, it's a fascinating production to watch.

There is some great acting going on amidst the screens too. Bryan Cranston in particular is fantastic; a piece of completely perfect casting if ever there was one. He is totally compelling as Howard, mixing the required blend of cynicism, anger, emotional depth and straight forward charisma to make this character both utterly credible and utterly sympathetic. I wish I’d been allowed to spend more time watching him just on a stage though rather than on a screen. There’s strong support across a necessarily huge cast. I particularly rated Douglas Henshall as Howard's mess of a friend Max. He brings some much needed heart and pathos to proceedings and is fantastic in the production’s rare quiet moments. Tunji Kassim is a revelation (to me) as the Machiavellian network boss Frank Hackett, exploding with rage and machismo. I couldn’t stop watching him whenever he was on the stage and his interplay with both Cranston and Henshall was really exciting to watch.

I am genuinely interested to see what audiences (not professional critics, who I’m 99% sure will obsess over this one) make of Network. I think it will be a pretty Marmite production that will generate strong feelings on all sides. For me, it’s just frustrating. There’s so much good going on here. I just wish it wasn’t dressed up in so much Ivo van Hove-ness. My fleeting affair with Dutch avant garde is, I fear, over.

Network is in the Lyttelton theatre at the NT until 24th March. The entire run is sold out but day tickets, returns and Friday Rush tickets are available.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Theatre Review: Quiz

If you're of a certain age, as I am, the phrase 'is that your final answer?' is one that will immediately transport you backwards in time as quickly as Doc Brown's Delorean: Saturday night, ITV (back in the day where there was only one ITV), Chris Tarrant, Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

We were pretty regular watchers of Millionaire in my family, so it's odd that I don't remember the incident which arguably made it most famous: the appearance of Charles Ingram, the so-called Coughing Major who was alleged to have cheated his way to the top prize. I'm not going to explain the story - that's what Wikipedia is for - except to say that Ingram and his accomplices (his wife and another quiz enthusiast) were all convicted of defrauding the show, a conviction that was subsequently upheld on appeal. But this is not an uncontroversial case and many believe that the convictions are wrong, or at least questionable.

Yep, that is an interactive voting pad.

'Many' including playwright James Graham who takes this episode as the subject for his newest play, Quiz. Regular, or even occasional, readers will know that I love James Graham, like, a lot and a new play of his (of which there are so many at the moment - when do you sleep James?!) is always a cause for celebration and immediate ticket purchasing. And, after the mild disappointment of Labour of Love, it was an utter delight to find that Quiz is classic Graham. I love this play almost as much as Ink and This House, my gold standard.

Graham's writing is, as ever, superb. Although perhaps not as successfully funny as some of his other work, it is endlessly clever and thought provoking. The themes help here. Quiz is, at heart, a consideration of the interplay between entertainment, truth and justice - and honestly could that be more relevant as the world 'celebrates' a year of President Trump? This discussion is taken, expertly, in all sorts of directions, from those you would probably expect to see in a play about this story (what impact did the media attention the case got have on the trial and by extension on justice more widely?) to some that are perhaps more unexpected and bigger (how just is life? why does it matter if you're breaking the rules of the game when the game is rigged against you anyway?) This latter idea is particularly cleverly done through the character of Ingram himself: his perceived poshness allows him to avoid jail but it also means that the public at large, egged on by the media, are anxious to see him fall. Even the Millionaire question setters want him, and people like him, to fail. What impact does this have on the jury in his trial?

One key way in which Quiz feels different to other Graham plays for me is that he has a definite point of view on Ingram's case in a way he doesn't, at least not as overtly, in his other work. Whilst there are still no outright heroes and villains here, it seems fairly obvious where Graham's personal sympathies lie. The structure of the play - act one is, essentially, the case for the prosecution, act two the case for the defence with the audience being asked to vote on Ingram's guilt at the end of each act - reinforces this. If it feels manipulative to present the story in this way that's because it is, but I think deliberately so. It emphasises again the way that different facts can be selected, presented and influenced by context and how they are inevitably misrepresented in the eye of a media storm; in other words it neatly uses structure to reinforce the play's key themes. Ultimately, you can agree with Graham's point of view or not (I don't, as it happens) but that doesn't affect the impact or relevance of the themes of the play.

This production, part of the Chichester Festival and staged in the bijou Minerva theatre, is first rate. Robert Jones’ design in particular is outstanding, using two concentric circles of revolve to house an amazingly well lit generic quiz show set which is suitably flexible to double as a minimal house/courtroom/pub/office etc as the plot demands. It is a perfect use of the space in the Minerva and - should this play transfer to London, which it thoroughly deserves to - will be difficult to replicate as effectively anywhere else. Daniel Evans, Chichester’s Artistic Director, directs brilliantly too. This is a fast paced, knockabout production which makes great, sensitive use of audience participation and is technically extremely complex without ever seeming so. Evans has had an outstanding first season at Chichester. Long may he reign there.

The cast, too, is superb. Quiz, like This House, is a proper ensemble piece with all but the two lead actors (playing the Ingrams) cast in multiple parts. Many multiple parts in most cases - some of the quick changes and logistics involved are staggering! The ensemble are fantastic as a group and as individuals but a few do stand out. As Ingram himself, Gavin Spokes is quietly - and at times devastatingly - brilliant. It’s an onion of part; almost a straightforward, and rather stupid, villain in the first act who reveals real depth, humanity and tragedy in the second. Spokes is particularly good at the latter, you really do just want to give him a huge hug by the end of the evening. Keir Charles, on the other hand, is loudly and exuberantly brilliant as all of the many quiz show hosts who are included in the play. Chris Tarrant is his main role, but he also gets Des O'Connor, Jim Bowen, Leslie Crowther (these three in a single scene, including multiple on stage quick changes which is fantastically entertaining and impressive) and Bruce Forsyth. Although he is a great mimic, that’s not all he is; and he can’t afford to be since he is the one who manages the vast majority of the interaction with the audience which must be a terrifyingly unpredictable prospect for an actor! Sarah Woodward is great too as, amongst other things, the defence QC (the play being presented in part as the Ingrams’ literal trial) who manages to manifest the traditional British view of fairness and justice whilst still being enjoyably sassy and never mawkish.

Quiz is an absolute joy of an evening. It’s a great play but, more than that, it’s great entertainment. And I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s what I love about James Graham: he is a playwright who is not afraid to be entertaining, however serious his ultimate topic. He writes for an audience, not for himself, in a way that few other playwrights do. Long may his profligacy continue.

Quiz is in the Minerva at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 9th December. Tickets are limited so get your skates on.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Theatre Review: The Black Eye Club

As unusual theatre propositions go, a black comedy of manners, set in a domestic violence refuge and staged above a somewhat out of the way pub in Clapham is up there for me. Still since all of the good TV seemed to finish last week I needed something to fill my Wednesday night, and so here we are.

The somewhat out of the way pub in Clapham in question is the Bread and Roses whose upstairs theatre is celebrating its third year with The Black Eye Club, a new play by Phil Charles which recently won the theatre’s playwright award. It tells the story of Dave (gay, shy, repressed, alcoholic accountant with a degree and a savings account) and Zoe (straight, loud, working class with a council house) and their meeting at a refuge whilst fleeing their abusive partners. It’s a great premise and this cracking little play delivers on it with panache.

This is a play that is not afraid to wear its politics on its sleeve and shows the damage that austerity is doing to local government budgets really effectively - an area that for all the political plays around at the moment doesn’t seem to be glamourous enough for most playwrights to explore, despite its very real and sometimes devastating effects on so many aspects of life for so many people. It’s not surprising to read in Charles’ biography that he has direct experience of working with local government and the play is immaculately researched with shocking, though depressingly unsurprising, detail (domestic violence refuges are being outsourced to private security firms like G4S because of course they are).

Both the plot and the characters generally feel very real and very rounded though there are moments, especially with Zoe, that feel a tiny bit lazy and stereotyped; an occasional line of dialogue for her which feels a bit like it was rejected from Eastenders. The plot and the characters’ experiences though ring depressingly true and the points about opportunity and education that Charles uses the contrast between Dave and Zoe to make are done really well. Charles works hard to wring humour from the situation too, and largely succeeds in a wry and knowing sort of way. The biggest feather in the cap of the writing though is the twisty turny last fifteen minutes which are shocking, unpredictable and uplifting and go off in a variety of directions that I really didn’t expect. It’s so rare for a play to have a twist that’s genuinely unforeseen and this one has several. It’s really clever.

Given the constraints of the space and the facilities, the production is strong too. The lighting and incidental music are well used, the set works really well and makes intelligent use of its lack of solid walls and the use of the actual performance space as a whole is effective, using a thrust stage and making sensible use of the main entrance door as an extra bit of set. Tessa Hart’s direction is quick and uncontrived and the choreography is fab, vital to make this story work on a very small stage.

The cast of three are also much to the production’s credit. Christopher Sherwood is my pick of the bunch as the damaged, repressed but ultimately inspiring Dave. His quiet diffidence makes for a very believable and tragic performance. Rebecca Pryle is a hugely sympathetic, likeable and credible Zoe who, when final allowed to do some of the dramatic heavy lifting rather than the knockabout comedy towards the end of the play, really pulls it off. Cathryn Sherman takes what could be a bit of a nothing part, as security guard Sharon, and brings some humanity and edge to it (and I really like Charles’ writing for her and the way he uses her to show that even the people in positions of relative privilege and power in the current local government funding mess are still trapped by it).

Overall, The Black Eye Club is a great little thing; thought provoking, enraging, sad, happy and funny all at the same time. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me to see this piece having a future life in bigger - and more purpose built! - venues. I would certainly be interested to see it in one if it did.

The Black Eye Club is at the Bread and Roses Theatre until 18th November.