Tuesday, 20 February 2018

The York Realist

One of the greatest things about London theatre is how gloriously varied it is. For example, last week on three consecutive nights I saw a scorchingly intense monologue, a (second viewing of a) ferociously exciting and immersive Shakespeare and a gentle, sad, lyrical play where very little actually happens. And all three of them were just really great.

The Donmar Warehouse’s new production of Peter Gill’s The York Realist is the aforementioned gentle, sad play that completed my theatregoing week. It tells the story of farmhand George and theatre director John, chronicling their unlikely romance and its ultimate demise. Avoiding the obvious ‘homophobia destroys them’ plot that a play about a same sex romance in 1960s rural Yorkshire could have opted for, it’s the conflict between the various things that comprise our sense of self - family, class, geography - that does for George and John, and makes for a far more interesting and insightful play along the way.

Peter Gill’s writing is the star of this production: it’s so well observed, so beautifully put together and slotted into a plot that is so well structured, one of those where the ending is almost inevitable but you will it not to be with every fibre of your being. His characters are perfectly formed and completely human, their relationships entirely believable and humane. His use of Yorkshire dialect, slang and speech patterns are so well judged; authentic, lovely on the ear and never coming close to caricature. There’s no judgement for any of his characters or their decisions either. All of their stories are told with and designed to generate equal sympathy.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the thing I loved most about the writing though is what it didn’t say. This play is so clearly and so cleverly about what its characters aren’t saying, either because they’re saying something else or because they’re not saying anything at all. The fact that none of the characters in George’s family ever make any direct reference to his sexuality is one of the most interesting examples of this. It’s implied that they all know, but it’s just not deemed worthy of comment. You could write an essay on that but I’ll just note that it’s incredibly refreshing and does add an extra dimension to the whole story.

This is also a play - and a production - that is very, very comfortable with silence in a way that is very, very brave. Silence in the theatre can sometimes be excruciatingly uncomfortable but it’s not here, it feels entirely natural, and it really does tell a big part of the story. It’s actually quite beautiful (I know I’m using that word a lot) too.

The writing is backed up by an extremely assured production. Robert Hastie’s direction in particular is superb, his apparently hands off approaching allowing the drama to unfold seemingly of its own volition. From what I’ve seen of his work (which admittedly isn’t much), he seems to be a director who completely gets how to present relationships and I so love that. Peter McKintosh’s design is similarly laissez faire but evocative, the projection of the Yorkshire landscape that shifts to show the passage of time is particularly gorgeous.

Acting-wise, a small ensemble are all on great form with strong accents that only wander very, very occasionally into Emmerdale Farm. As George, Ben Batt is exceptional, embodying all of his contradictions perfectly - a man who is completely at ease with himself but only within the confines of his village and the house he lives in, who is surrounded by people but also completely, acutely alone. His performance is so detailed and sympathetic and, well, real. Although paramour John is a weaker character for my money, Jonathan Bailey is also great. The pacing of his dialogue and the subtlety of his facial expressions are particularly good. Gill’s female characters are great fun and Lesley Nicol as George’s mum and Lucy Black as his sister get a lot of mileage out of them.

The York Realist is a really lovely thing. It’s gorgeously written, the staging is great and the acting incredibly heartfelt. More than anything else though, it’s a beautiful reminder that small, family drama without a huge amount of action can be every bit as compelling as something massive, action packed and/or state of the nation. It deserves a huge amount of success.

The York Realist is at The Donmar Warehouse until 24th March and then at the Sheffield Crucible (a cracking venue) 27th March - 7th April.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Theatre Review: The B*easts

This review is an unusually difficult thing to write.

Not because I didn’t like the Bush Theatre’s latest piece, The B*easts, you understand. Nor because I don’t have a reaction to it. Quite the contrary. My problem is, it’s such an effective piece and it’s disturbed me so much that I sort of don’t want to think about it. Like, ever again. 

You know that feeling you had after watching, maybe, 12 Years A Slave or United 93 or [insert your own example here]? That feeling of ‘fuck, that was amazing but I am emotionally unable to deal with it again’. That feeling of ‘I’m going to encourage all of my friends to watch that but I just can’t sit through it again’. Well, that’s how I feel about The B*easts. You should all definitely see it, it was stunningly effective, but I will 100% not be coming with you.

The B*easts is a one woman meditation on the sexualisation of girls, as told by the therapist of a woman whose pre-pubescent daughter convinced her to buy her breast implants. At age eight. It’s not, as far as I know, based on a true story but the thing that this production really drives home is not only that it could be but it’s surely only a matter of time until it is. I think the point at which this production pretty much broke me is the point where the sheer plausibility of its central - and initially seemingly quite outlandish - premise hit me like a fucking train. 

Because actually in the society we currently live in, why should little girls reach any other conclusion than that their worth is reliant entirely on their appearance? That message is everywhere and it feels a bit overwhelming. How on earth does it stop? Have we, this production’s most depressing idea, reached the point where it’s just a ‘universal truth’? Why should an eight year old girl read her mum’s magazines and conclude anything other than that having her boobs done is the way to be happy, be noticed and get where she wants to be in the world? AND ISN’T THAT THE MOST AWFUL SENTENCE?

I’m aware I’m getting a bit ranty, but this piece has really struck a nerve with me. A lot of my friends are raising little girls (not that that should increase my capacity to care, but it does) and this production just made me feel sick for them. There’s a line at the end where the therapist says that she doesn’t know how to help people function in this world as things stand and that, well, yeah. I get that. And that feeling is fucking horrible. 

Ok, let’s get back on some solid ground. Monica Dolan is both writer and performer here - which helpfully eliminates the need for me to write about those things in separate paragraphs - and she is just sublime with either hat on. As I think I have probably demonstrated ad nauseum, the writing is extraordinarily powerful. It’s also extremely well structured, the move from ‘well this story is preposterous’ to ‘shit it’s probably happening literally now’ is perfectly paced and the interlacing of the therapist’s own story (struggling with breast cancer and a potential mastectomy, because having boobs is complicated) is subtly and touchingly done. The acting is phenomenal: straightforward, conversational, detailed but entirely without window dressing. Dolan is a great, warm story teller too, which the production really uses well to break through the bleakness. I could listen to her all night (just not telling this particular story). 

Production values-wise, there’s almost literally nothing going on and the show is all the better for it. The set comprises a chair and a lamp, an iPhone, some books and sundry other props. The sound is restricted to an occasional telephone ring (though plus one for whoever selected High Flying Adored from Evita as one of the pre-show songs - it so works with the story), the lighting design and direction barely perceptible. Exactly how things should be to make a production of a piece like this work, in other words. Kudos to director John Hoggarth for having the balls to allow it to play out so perfectly stripped back.

The B*easts is a phenomenal piece of theatre anchored by a script and performance from Monica Dolan that are as fearless and powerful as you’ll find anywhere in London. Anyone with even the most cursory interest in, y’know, the future of the humaan race should see it. Just don’t ask me to go with you.

The B*easts is at the Bush Theatre until March 3rd.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Theatre Review: The Host

As a rule, I don’t like young people. With their optimism and their energy levels that aren’t based entirely on caffeine and their, well, youth. How dare they.

[Fifteen minutes of angry silence passes]

Where was I going with this? Oh yeah, the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain. I’m prepared to make an exception for them. Their optimism and energy and youth is something that I actively admire. And, more to the point, it’s something that always makes them a theatre company worth watching.

Their latest production is a revival of something they’ve done before, Nessah Muthy’s The Host. Roughly speaking, The Host is a play about the refugee crisis from the perspective of a Syrian refugee, Rabea, and the working class British woman, Yasmin, that hosts him whilst he’s trying to get his papers in order. Yasmin’s family life is a mess and her half sisters (who, unlike Yasmin, are white) have fallen through the cracks in the welfare state. If it’s not obvious from that description, this play is trying to tackle some big issues: not just the refugee crisis, not just race in modern Britain but the whole concept of otherness and belonging. The whole concept of family, I suppose. It’s not entirely successful in dissecting them all, but it definitely lands some big punches across the board. The scene between Yasmin and big sister Pearl where they discuss/row about the issue of their different races is really strong, as is the scene where Yasmin explains her complex family to Rabea and pines desperately for her dead mum. It rather runs out of steam at the end, but there’s some real moments of loveliness to be had here. 

The cast is of course always the primary joy of an NYT production and that’s certainly the case here. Rebekah Murrell is absolutely fantastic as Yasmin; a bundle of contradictions and emotional turmoil always at equal risk of exploding with rage or sadness or embarrassed kindness or all three. I don’t often mention this, but the way she uses her voice is exceptional too. Zakaria Douglas-Zerouali is a perfect foil for her as Rabea, fighting his own desperate sadness in an entirely different way. He brings some real depth of emotion to the table as well as a natural affinity for humour. These two are surely destined for success, write their names down somewhere. Phao May, Amy Parker and - particularly - Taylor Keegan do some nice work as Yasmin’s half sisters too, giving them a depth that I’m not entirely convinced is otherwise present in the text.

It’s a shame that the production itself doesn’t do justice to the company or the play. There is one overriding issue here: this revival is staged in a church (St James’s Piccadilly to be precise). The consequences of this are many and all negative - crap acoustics (some of the dialogue was completely indecipherable from where I was sat, despite the cast being miced up), extremely restricted sight lines for I guess at least 80% of the audience and an hour and a half sitting on the most uncomfortable form of seating ever invented, church pews. I get that the production is here to sit alongside an art installation, Suspended by Arabella Dorman (it’s made of clothing abandoned by refugees in Lesbos and it’s well worth a look if you’re in the area), and the couple of times the installation is lit so it becomes part of the production are very atmospheric. It’s not enough, though, to justify the detriment this venue does to the play and the cast, at least not for my money (and spine). I mention this not to be crotchety or because my back hurts from the pews but because I’m irritated on behalf of the excellent cast who are doing fantastic things on the stage that much of the audience can’t see - or even hear - properly. It’s not fair to anyone involved.

Still, there’s much to admire in The Host. And there’s no questioning the good intention or the boldness of the NYT in taking on this play in this venue at this moment. The young cast are a joy to watch, completely worth your time if you’re in any way interested in the future of British theatre. Maybe bring a cushion though.

You have two more chances to catch The Host at St James’s Piccadilly, it closes on Saturday 3rd February. Skates on.