Saturday, 30 June 2018

Theatre Review: Jellyfish

Here’s a phrase I have never typed before tonight: I’m on the train home from the theatre and I have sand in my shoes. Not, like, some wanky metaphorical sand. Real, actual, IRL, sand.

Honestly it’s quite annoying but, since it was placed there by the absolute babes at the Bush Theatre, I’m going to let it slide. 

Regular readers will know about, and likely be bored of, my love for The Bush. Their programming is so bold and so consistently well executed that it’s hard not to love them. I’ve never seen a bad show there. Until this production, ‘there’ has only meant their main house. But I can now add their dinky (60 seat, by my count) and adorable Studio to my list as well. Dinky, adorable AND AIR CONDITIONED I should say, given the UK is currently melting.

Studio theatres are exciting and also dangerous spaces in my experience. Put a bad show in one and you have an absolutely excruciatingly awful night for all concerned. Put a mediocre show in one and the effect is not much better. But a good show, or a great show, with a cast and creative team who are fully committed to their studio is more or less the best thing. Jellyfish, The Bush’s current offering, is very much in the latter category.

Written by Ben Weatherill, Jellyfish tells the story of Kelly and Neil, who meet and fall in love amidst the glamour of Skegness. Kelly’s mum, Agnes, does not approve of Neil. What makes Jellyfish more than just your average love story/family drama is that Kelly happens to have Down’s Syndrome, thus opening up a whole other level of complicated emotional and ethical meat for the characters and the plot to chew on. Honestly, I loved this play. On quality of writing alone, it may actually be my favourite Bush production so far. It’s funny. It’s charming (not a word I would have much associated with the Bush before). It has so much heart and humanity. It’s complicated. It’s uplifting. It has characters who are lovable and flawed. It has awkward dancing to Tom Jones. 

It’s also incredibly ambitious, which I think I love most of all. The issues it deals with are difficult and complicated, especially its discussion of the rights and expectations of people with disabilities (as well as Kelly, there is also Dominic who has Asperger’s). The relationship between Kelly and Agnes is key to this: Agnes terrified for her (grown up) daughter and the sort of life she’ll have, Kelly longing for independence and the ability to make her own choices and mistakes. The inevitable discussions around whether Agnes wishes she’d have known that Kelly had Down’s Syndrome before she was born, and what Agnes would have done if she did. Choices, the lack of them and the importance of the right to have them. In the wrong hands, this could have been a disastrous area for a playwright to probe but Weatherill does so with such sensitivity - which is different, by the way, to saying he doesn’t have anything important or uncomfortable to say - that it totally won me over. In its portrayal of the mother/daughter relationship, it’s a really interesting piece to see so soon after My Name Is Lucy Barton too. 

The production supporting Weatherill’s play is superb. First of all, sand notwithstanding, I am fully obsessed with Amy Jane Cook’s clever, bold and vivid design. Not only is it an evocative and pleasingly literal homage to the Great British Seaside, it’s also extremely clever. Bits of the stage pop up and pop out to become benches and baths. An apparently discarded old arcade sign turns out to actually be a table. It’s just so cool. Even the tonnes of sand that carpet the theatre are cool when they’re not mostly in my fucking shoes. Tim Hoare is fantastically assured in the director’s chair and his production is brave and ballsy but also touchingly naturalistic (it didn’t hugely surprise me when I read that he had worked on The Ferryman too). Jamie Platt’s lighting is gorgeously effective. I loved the use of neon signs and an accompanying colour pallet. 

The show is cast wonderfully. Sarah Gordy, as Kelly, is endlessly charming and watchable. It’s little surprise to read in accompanying press for the show that the part was pretty much written for her. Frankly you don’t have to read that, it’s fairly obvious from her performance and general swagger. Nicky Priest is a fantastically funny Dominic. He gets the majority of the best lines and delivers them with utter relish. Penny Layden has arguably the most difficult part as Agnes and is superb, an absolute class act. Touching, infuriating, never not sympathetic. My favourite performance though came from Ian Bonar as shy, geeky and lovable Neil. I just couldn’t take my eyes off him when he was on stage and he gives a performance of such detail (the joys of a studio) and humanity that I fell in love with him a little bit. It’s a great foursome, a particular joy to watch in such a small space.

I think I’ve said before that I’m getting a bit bored of writing nice things about shows at The Bush and yet here we are. Again. Jellyfish is such a lovely, complex, inspiring thing. If you’re feeling a bit blue about the world - and if you’re not then you’re not paying attention - then this is the play for you.

Jellyfish is in the Studio at The Bush until 21st July.

My seat for Jellyfish was kindly provided by The Bush and I attended press night. There’s no numbered seating (it’s unreserved but no sight line issues to worry about) and my seat immediately in front of the tech would normally cost £20.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Theatre Review: Fun Home

A phrase I don’t often utter when leaving the theatre of an evening is ‘I just wish it had been longer’. Because if there’s one thing I love more than the theatre, it’s getting home at a reasonable hour and having a cup of tea.

And yet, here’s Fun Home. The Young Vic’s transfer of the unlikely Broadway smash clocks in at a sprightly one hour and forty minutes straight through (ie sans interval). I would happily have sat through twice that length. I longed for a second act.

Fun Home tells the autobiographical story of cartoonist Alison Bechdel growing up in a family who’s stock in trade was a funeral (fun) home and coming to terms with her sexuality whilst her father simultaneously fails to do exactly the same. It is adapted, quite brilliantly, from a comic. Not the natural source for a musical perhaps, but this clever, clever show is not deterred. It 100% resists the temptation to simplify Bechdel’s story and its uniquely comic-y structure. Just as in the comic (or any comic) there is no completely straightforward, chronological narrative. Rather, there are several. Three ages of Alison appear in the show: present day (Alison), college student (Medium Alison) and child (Small Alison). Present day Alison is on stage at almost all times and acts as a narrator, guiding us through the vignettes from her life that form the show. It totally works as both a narrative structure and as a way of staying true to the feel of the source material. 

It also provides the emotional heart of an extraordinarily emotionally complex show. There’s something about Alison watching Medium and Small Alison try and navigate what she knows, but of course they don’t, is coming that makes all the happy bits happier and the sad bits so much sadder. Lisa Kron’s book and lyrics provide the meat on these structural bones - and what gorgeous meat it is. This show is so full of warmth and heart, and properly laugh out loud humour, but never shies away from its portrayal and exploration of profound and difficult topics. It is peopled by characters who refuse to be boxed in and are human in all aspects, good and bad. The honesty of Bechdel’s source material and Kron’s adaptation is incredible. Jeanine Tesori provides the music, and it’s gorgeous, unique (so many styles!) and memorable in a sort of quiet way. This is altogether a deep and moving show, its themes of sexuality, repression, identity, regret and loss are huge, and it really shows how powerful a musical can be in the right hands. 

It’s amply shown off in a fantastic production - which is surely and quickly headed for the West End - which has transported the majority, if not all, of the original Broadway creative team to the Young Vic. Sam Gold’s direction is so sensitive and surefooted. His confidence in the piece and his vision of it shine through, especially in the pacing. For all that it’s short, this is not a production which is afraid of taking a breath, often quite a long one. David Zinn’s design is so clever and makes amazing use of the space, expanding and contracting it as the plot and the atmosphere demand. I loved the way the Bechdel family home folds out like Barbie’s Dream House and the use of the revolve to keep the action ticking along is masterful. Ben Stanton’s lighting is gorgeous, especially during (Alison’s father) Bruce’s final solo. That scene - no spoilers - contains some of the best and most evocative, of both mood and physical object, lighting I’ve seen in London for ages. 

A small but perfectly formed ensemble rounds out this beaut of a show. They’re all superb (let’s take a minute to gape in amazement at the talent and self assurance of the three child actors in the cast for a fucking start) but I particularly enjoyed Kaisa Hammarlund’s gift of an Alison. Despite being on stage more or less all night, she often doesn’t have much to say but can convey so much whilst just standing silently and watching the action that it really doesn’t matter. When she does get something to say or sing she’s even better. I just adored her. As dad Bruce, Zubin Varla is heartbreaking. It’s a difficult part, but Varla’s Bruce is both completely sympathetic and an utter shit; honest and, ultimately, a deeply tragic character. Newbie Eleanor Kane is a knockout Medium Alison, all nerves and angles and potential. The ever excellent Jenna Russel is superb as Alison’s touchingly stoic mum Helen. I would have loved to hear much, much more from her. 

Which sort of brings me back to my original point. Fun Home is a great show: touching, unique and deeply humane in a way that feels so needed at the moment. I just wish it had been longer.

Fun Home is at the Young Vic until 1st September (if it doesn’t get a West End run after that I’ll eat everyone’s hats). Ticket availability is not huge, deservedly.

My seat for this one was M57 upstairs, which has a slightly restricted view. Probably explains why it only cost £10 though which, yes, I paid. I saw the show in preview.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Theatre Review: Macbeth

As Lady Macbeth said to her marriage counsellor (possibly), my relationship with Macbeth is difficult.

I read it at school, where obviously I hated it, but subsequently it’s become one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. In performance it’s been responsible for my absolute best theatrical experience ever, in Ken Branagh’s perfect Manchester International Festival production which was completely magical and which, I’m rapidly concluding, should have been the one and only time I saw the play staged. On the other hand, the awful interpretative dance version the Young Vic decided to stage a couple of years ago (forever known as MC Banquo and The Unitard Witches in my circle of friends) remains one of the worst things I’ve ever seen on stage. 

Enter, pursued by a shit ton of bin bags, Rufus Norris’ new production at the National Theatre. On paper, this production should have been a dream: directed by Norris and starring the formidable pairing of Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff. On stage, though, it’s more of a drug addled nightmare. It is, hands down, the ugliest production of any play I’ve seen, ever. It looks ugly, it sounds ugly. It is overwhelmingly, distractingly, bafflingly ugly. Possibly even fugly, I’m not sure where the line is drawn. 

Plot-wise, Macbeth is always going to be fun and certainly not boring. But the version of the text used in this production is just - bear with me whilst I consult my thesaurus for synonyms of ugly - deeply unattractive. So much of the more poetic verse, and there’s some beautiful stuff in Macbeth, is cut. So much is chopped and changed and fucked around with for no fathomable reason. Even some of the iconic stuff (there is no ‘eye of newt’ to be found here, unless that’s what they’ve used to glue the hideous set together) is gone - in the end a small mercy given what’s been done to the Weird Sisters here but an odd decision nonetheless. And not one that helps the production.

Not that there is much that could help this production, frankly. I’m not honestly sure what Rufus Norris was aiming for with his ‘today, post-civil war’ (between Scotland and Norway?) setting but whatever it was he hasn’t hit it. I can’t find anything about the direction he’s taken his production in that I like. It looks hideous, the design - from set to props to costumes - is visually unappealing and makes no sense. It sounds terrible, in its treatment of the text and the horrid music and pointless ‘new instruments’. The treatment of many of the characters is downright odd, especially the Witches who, stripped of most of their dialogue, are reduced to a pointless sideshow, their scenes almost unwatchable. Even the pacing of the show is wrong. Why does the action have to stop in ridiculous freeze frame every time Macbeth delivers a soliloquy? How has this ended up being the longest Macbeth I’ve seen despite all the vicious cuts to the text? Bluntly, it just doesn’t work. It smacks of directorial arrogance too. 

I really feel for the cast, trying to salvage something from the flaming wreckage of this show. And they are trying too. They are trying so hard. You can feel them fighting for it and, to the extent it’s possible, they do save the day. They make this horror show watchable. Occaionally one of them makes it good. You can’t help but respect them for their effort. For me they actually succeed, insofar as they make this only the second worst Macbeth I’ve seen (sorry, Young Vic).

Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff have the toughest job here, as they are the most hamstrung by the production. Kinnear suffers from this in particular; his 100% unsympathetic and brutal Macbeth is far from his best performance, but what else could he do within the confines of Norris’ vision? When he does occasionally let fly a bit, he’s strong as ever. His ‘is this a dagger...’ in particular is really well done. Duff fares better, giving something more nuanced and deep, but Lady Macbeth is weirdly underused in this production. The best work, for me, is to be found elsewhere: Kevin Harvey’s charismtic Banquo, Patrick O’Kane’s earthy and tragic Macduff and Parth Thakerar’s earnest and confused Malcolm (the best scenes in the whole show are between the latter two for my money).

Let’s be real here, this production is a mess and Rufus Norris has to shoulder the blame for it. It is just unfathomably ugly. I really can’t stress that, or the impact it has, enough. And that’s ultimately his fault. The cast fight to make it work, as far as that’s possible, and they deserve credit and respect for that. This isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen at the NT, because of them, but that’s hardly a reason to go and see it.

Macbeth is in the Olivier at the NT, in rep, until 23rd June after which, remarkably, it will tour.

My seat, which regrettably I paid for, was C56 in the stalls. It was £15. 

Monday, 18 June 2018

Theatre Review: My Name Is Lucy Barton

Guys, I think I’ve found The One. No, not that The One. A more important The One: the play that was written specifically for me.

My Name Is Lucy Barton, currently playing at The Bridge, is an adaptation by Rona Munro (who I adore) of Elizabth Strout’s book of the same name. It tells part of the story of Lucy Barton, an American country girl who escapes a poor and traumatic childhood to make it as a successsful writer in New York. Lucy has chosen which part of her story to tell us, and it is that of a reunion with her almost estranged mother whilst Lucy recovers from a serious illness. Except it’s more than that, obviously. It’s really the story of what it means to be a child - as in, what it means to have parents - and the complicated mess of feelings inherent in that relationship. Whether we want to recognise them or not.

I loved this play. I cannot adequately tell you how beautiful I thought it was, how humane, how vividly drawn. I haven’t read the book (yet - I went out immediately after the show and bought it*) so I don’t know whether it’s Strout, Munro or, as I suspect, both to thank for this but my god they deserve fulsome thanks. There’s such technical deftness to it too, especially in the way it frequently flips between being laugh out loud funny and cry out loud sad within the space of a single line. It’s just an extraordinary thing. More so when you consider that it’s been adapted as a one woman play which contains at least three distinct character voices. 

Thematically, I found it astonishingly powerful. The depth with which it explores the parent-child relationship is incredible, moving and I rather suspect the sort of thing that many therapists earn a lot of money to discuss with their clients over months of sessions. It’s a profoundly moving piece, for me no more so than when it considers the many more or less inherent ways a child - particularly a child who’s moved away from their parents - has to deal with the guilt of separation. As a child who’s moved away, and an only child to boot, let me tell you: fucking hell it’s on the money. Frankly a bit too on the money. Leaving the theatre, I had to put my headphones in and turn my music up LOUD to shut out my interior monologue. Mild PTSD aside, this piece spoke to me, and made me feel much more deeply, in a way that no show has before. And I can’t shake it. Which is amazing. This is what great theatre is supposed to do. 

To the surprise of literally no one at this point, The Bridge’s production is pure class. Richard Eyre directs and is on the sort of form you expect from someone of his pedigree with his warm, generous and gorgeous production. He casts an eye of huge experience over procedings, steps back and allows the writing and the performance space to breathe. He adds nothing unecessary. There are no frills here, because no frills are required. That said, everything still looks and sounds stunning. Bob Crowley’s stripped back design - a bare thrust stage, just a chair, a hospital bed and a video screen for backdrop - is exactly the right amount of non-existent. Luke Hall’s beautiful video design fills said screen with simple, scene-setting imagery which is all the show needs. And when it doesn’t need them anymore, they are simply turned off. This is supremely confident work from a team who clearly recognise the talent of their writers and performer.

Speaking of whom, I can probably just end this post now by reminding you that the performer in question is Laura Linney. I mean, do you really need me to tell you she was good? She’s not just good, of course. She’s pretty much perfect. She thoroughly embodies all of the various characters that we meet - Lucy Barton, Lucy’s version of her mum, Lucy’s version of her doctor - but especially Lucy herself. It’s a performance of such warmth and heart and depth that I’d argue it’s impossible not to fall in love with it, and with Linney, unless there’s something broken in your soul. It’s a gift of a performance. An utter joy.

As is this whole production. It is, as I’ve already noted, a genuinely great piece of theatre and a genuinely great feat of theatre making. And I just really, really loved it. 

My Name Is Lucy Barton is at The Bridge until Saturday 23rd June, ie this Saturday. Tickets are now unsurprisingly sold out expect for returns and day seats. Get in that queue immediately.

My seat for this one was L54 in Gallery 1 which cost me £35. Worth noting that day seats are just £15. 

*If you wish to do the same, and purchase it from a theatre bookshop, The Bridge has sold out but the NT Bookshop hasn’t.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Theatre Review: An Octoroon

Occasionally, a show comes along that is so brilliantly mad and/or unclassifiable that you know that the resulting blogpost is going to be something of an ordeal, in the nicest possible way, to write.

Like, how do you communicate that you love a show - and crucially why you love it - when you struggle to explain it even in your head? If long form blogging is supposed to be, and I believe it is, the way you would describe a show if you were talking about it down the pub then how do you write the equivalent of tipsily shouting at your friends ‘I love it and I will fight you if you disagree’? Let’s find out together shall we...

An Octoroon, recently produced by Richmond’s lovely Orange Tree Theatre and now thankfully brought into town for a run in the NT’s Dorfman, is a big, brave, boisterous piece by American playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins that explores issues around race and drama. It’s also a weird, occasionally (intentionally?) baffling, never-seen-anything-like-this-before thing that I’m still processing days later. It’s achingly clever, and fabulously bizarre. I loved it, even the bits I don’t really know that I understood.

What BJJ - as he’s known in the character list, because things get meta from the very start - does so cleverly is create a show that speaks so eloquently of the historical challenges (to understate spectacularly) that black Americans faced, links them to those that they still face and - specifically - those faced by a black playwright. I enjoyed immensely the way he takes a well aimed sledgehammer to the idea that some (white) critics and (white) audiences have of ‘the black playwright’, ‘the black play’, ‘the black actor’ and ‘the black character’. The structure of the piece is so clever, the best use of the ‘play within a play’ setup that I’ve ever seen. Essentially, the idea is that we’re watching a modern black playwright’s update of a white playwright’s slavery-era race play, but, he informs us, said modern playwright can’t find white actors willing to be in it (because who wants to play a slaver?) and so he’s decided to play the white parts himself, in whiteface makeup. We then meet the original white playwright - Dion Boucicault, real life author of the original An Octoroon - who fills us in on how he can’t find enough black actors to play the black parts so his (Native American) assistant will be blacking up to play one whilst Boucicault himself will be painting himself red to play a Native American Chief. 

It’s a bold and challenging idea which could be so, so tacky were it not for the skill of BJJ’s writing. There is not a single word in his script that is throwaway or unnecessary. Everything is planned, weighted and reasoned to the extent that it seems 100% not to be. An Octoroon is very funny - it is, at its heart, a satire - but it is also very serious and neither of these things are ever lost sight of. When it gets a bit meta, where things could get very pretentious indeed, it keeps its feet firmly on the ground through the play within a play structure and the use of the characters of BJJ and Boucicault as narrators who puncture any notions of luvviness and OTT theatricality immediately. A great example is in the final scenes of the play where they explain the nature of the ‘sensation scene’ and why all the big effects and melodrama are kind of nonsense that deserve to be dismantled even as the play with a play indulges in them. It’s a great sequence in a great play, much better than my shitty explanation suggests, and I totally fell for it.

It is matched by an equally strong production. Director Ned Bennett delivers something so sure footed, confident and innovative; by far the most innovative thing I’ve seen at the NT I think. Georgia Lowe’s design is sparse but incredibly effective and employs some great theatrical tricks for our authors to play with and explain. Elliot Griggs’ lighting is incredible, especially his counterintuitive and liberal use of darkness (usually complete darkness, even sans emergency exit signs) which is so disorientating and sometimes quite threatening. Strobe and bright red lights are used to similar effect elsewhere. It’s a perfect companion for a play which is equally disorientating at times. Theo Vidgen’s music is great and evocative, especially the choice to use a single live cellist on stage in the production (Kwesu Edman does a great job as said cellist). In a complicated and fast moving, literally, production Ivan Blackstock’s movement direction is also worthy of mention. All of this combines to give the production, much like the play, an atmosphere all of its own. And, amazingly, despite the fact I was sat in an allegedly restricted view seat in the almost always restricted view heavy Dorfman there are no sight line issues!

A small cast of eight, almost all of whom do at least double duty and, I think, all of whom are direct imports from the Orange Tree production, round out an exceptional piece of work. There are many highlights - Vivian Oparah’s thoroughly modern slave Minnie, Kevin Trainor bringing exactly the right amount of ham to his wacky collection of parts (including Boucicault), Cassie Clare’s tap dancing rabbit skills (no, really) - but the show belongs to Ken Nwosu who stars as BJJ and the two white leads of his play. Nwosu is extraordinary, barely offstage and, for much of the second act, playing as one of his characters against the other. It’s a feat of memory, energy and physicality which is pretty much unique. He is so confident, so sympathetic, so charismatic and so flat out talented. It’s one of the performances of my theatrical year, no question. 

Overall, An Octoroon is a joy. An occasionally baffling, always surprising, completely unique joy. Though I now regret even more not experiencing it in the tiny Orange Tree, I’m so glad the NT has given it an extended lifespan because my god does it deserve one. And I will fight you if you disagree.

An Octoroon is in the Dorfman at the NT until 18th July. Tickets are mostly, but not completely, sold out - grab one now if you can.

I sat in seat P62 in the circle for this one and paid £18 for the privilege. This seat claims to be restricted view, but it’s absolutely not. I saw the show whilst it was in previews. 


Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Theatre Review: Translations

It cannot be a coincidence that, as Brexit lurches on from disaster to disaster, there are so many plays around at the moment that tackle issues of identity in general and British identity in particular.

I’ve spoken at some length of my love for Leave Taking which tackles identity through the prism of immigration; there’ll be a post soon about An Octoroon (admittedly not British identity in this one), which tackles it through race and drama; this point deals with Brian Friel’s Translations, which tackles it through language. (I saw all three of these plays in one weekend by the way. It was intense.)

Translations, that classic of the A Level set text, tells a partly fictionalised history of the inhabitants of a small Irish town and their encounters with the English army cartographers who have come over to produce a detailed map of Ireland. Part of this process is the standardisation - Anglicisation - of the existing Gaelic place names. With one of the locals on the English payroll and one of the English soldiers desperately wanting to be a local chaos and complication inevitably ensues. 

So far, so set text. But Friel’s play is much deeper than that. At its considerable heart, it is a complicated and funny love letter to the beauty, importance and downright strangeness of language - and I am here for that. There are some really beautiful scenes and moments, too many to list, but a favourite has to be the beautiful love scene between two characters who don’t speak each other’s languages but can, of course, still communicate their feelings. Language, after all, does not have to be spoken. But the most touching part of this scene is the role that the original Gaelic placenames play. They’re the one thing that both of the characters - a local woman and the aforementioned wannabe-local English soldier, who has been leading the efforts to change the placenames with rapidly decreasing enthusiam - understand the literal meaning of and so they acquire an emotional, romantic meaning all of their own just for this scene. It’s so lovely, and so well written. Though this is predominantly a ‘serious’ play there’s also a sense of mischief about it, especially in the shouting-and-pointing interactions between the decidedly more conservative English officer and the locals, which is a lot of fun and of course sets off the serious moments beautifully. 

Friel also manages to do some clever things with his own authorial language, in that he apparently effortlessly manages to portray when characters are speaking English and when they’re speaking Gaelic, despite the fact they’re all speaking English all the time (apart from the occasional foray into Latin and Greek, naturally). It’s so subtle it hardly seems worth commenting on, until you take a step back and marvel at it from a distance. Less subtle but equally effective are the characters and setting he has created; all of which are so real and vivid you feel like you could reach out and touch them, foibles and mud and drizzle and all. I would’ve liked a fractionally more conclusive ending, but otherwise this is a little beauty of a play. 

The sense of lushness that the text creates pierces the production too, most of all in Rae Smith’s design. The Olivier has scarcely looked more gorgeous than it does as home to Smith’s Irish landscape complete with rolling clouds of wispy smoke that combine with beautiful lighting and (I think) projection to create weather. It’s so atmospheric and evocative and I quite want to live there. There is a final moment, which I won’t spoil, that relies purely on the sudden stripping away of all this and which is done so well that the shock and discomfort it caused in the audience was audible. If I have a criticism of director Ian Rickson’s crisp and quick (not rushed) production it is this final moment though. I’m not it’s strictly necessary; it feels a mite forced. But this is proper nitpicking - you can’t argue with the impact it has nor the dexterity with which it’s done. And a shout out to a person I rarely mention too: Majella Hurley, the dialect coach, for helping build an assembly of pleasingly thick and faultlessly consistent Irish accents. All in all, this is a totally transporting production. 

A small-for-the-Olivier cast rounds out a great evening. This is an NT-classy bunch and there’s really no one to pick fault with. The strongest performances come, for me, from Ciarán Hinds, on magisterial form (when is he not?) as the touchingly complex Hugh, recognising the death of his way of life and the need to move on but clinging to it - and his Latin and Greek - nonetheless. His final speech, which closes the play, is gorgeous. A superbly written and perfectly delivered evocation of identity and memory and loss and betrayal and hope that is, more than anything else, just a joy to hear. Colin Morgan as his ambitious son Owen brings a bucketload of charisma, exuberance and, ultimately, anger which combines to be endlessly watchable. He was something of a revelation for me. He’s a much better actor than I’ve ever given him credit for. Adetomiwa Edun rounds out my top three as the romantic English soldier, George. He’s fun, earnest, gentle and steely and I really missed him after the interval when, gorgeously unusual love scene aside, he really has nothing to do. I would quite happily have watched much more George. Translations II: George’s Revenge?

Lads, brace yourselves for shocking news. Translations is a show I really enjoyed, that’s on in the Olivier! A good show, in the Olivier!! A show with a full house, deservedly so, in the Olivier!!!  It’s been so long I’d forgotten such a thing existed. But this is it. It’s pure class; a timely revival of a great and complex play in a solidly high calibre production that is exactly the sort of thing that I expect the National Theatre to be able to pull off better than anyone. Here they have, and it’s a joy.

Translations is in the Olivier at the NT (in rep) until 11th August. Tickets are scarce.

Speaking of tickets, yes I paid for mine: £36 for A62 in the circle. This is in the Travelex £15 season, but good luck finding a ticket left in that price bracket. 

Monday, 11 June 2018

Theatre Review: Leave Taking

Fans of political satire and/or - how to put this? - utter bollocks, will no doubt look back fondly on that joyous moment in the 2017 General Election campaign where Theresa May, fresh from doing a massive and complete u turn on her social care policy, blithely declared “nothing has changed, nothing has changed”. Glorious in its brazenness and cavalier in its disregard for, well, facts; it was a highlight/lowlight of a campaign full of them.

I was put in mind of that now infamous line whilst watching Leave Taking, Winsome Pinnock’s seminal play on immigration and the black British experience, at The Bush over the weekend. To explain, before I get justifiably angry letters for comparing Winsome Pinnock to Theresa May, it’s the phrase I’m interested in, not the context and not the speaker (well, a little bit the speaker, for reasons I’ll come back to). Nothing has changed, nothing has changed. It could almost be the subtitle of Leave Taking. It could almost be its call to arms.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s actually talk about the play first. It’s brilliant, in short. Not only brilliant, but necessary. It should be taught in schools, all schools, and I would suggest that one of the reasons it isn’t is that Pinnock has the temerity to not be a dead, white man (she is none of those things, for the avoidance of doubt). Leave Taking tells the story of Enid, a Jamaican immigrant to the UK, her daughters, Del and Viv, and her fellow immigrant friend, Brod, as they move through life as a Jamaican family in London. Pinnock has such a gorgeous and unique voice that speaks at once to the specific experiences of the black (Jamaican) British community and humanity in general. Leave Taking itself is many things: very funny, very sad, sometimes difficult, sometimes challenging, often raw and always utterly contemporary. This play was written thirty years ago; it could have been written literally yesterday. Partly that’s because nothing has changed, nothing has changed, but it’s also because the play has so much to say about feelings of outsider-ness and the complex mess of an emotional web that is identity that it becomes almost timeless. Any human being with an ounce of self awareness who sees Leave Taking will identify with it, even if some of the specific cultural references are not relevant to you. Everyone struggles with their identity at one time or another unless you’re some kind of fucking robot. And, when you do, Winsome Pinnock has something to say to you.

The characters are also a complete joy and manage, too, to be both utterly specific to their identity and experiences but utterly relatable to everyone at the same time. Through their voices, and Pinnock’s, what Leave Taking becomes is one of the most eloquent and complex studies of immigration and identity I’ve seen on the stage. And, maddeningly, it’s in its tackling of immigration - and the racism that met it - that I drew Theresa May’s ode to stability to mind. There are heart rending accounts of the racism, overt and subtle, in this play that give it some of its most contemporary moments. The direct parallel to the Windrush scandal - which, of course, is the other sense in which it made me think of our beloved leader - when the elder characters are discussing how they had to pay to get the documents that proved they were British when they’d felt proudly British ever since their immigration is the most obvious example (I actually checked the playtext to see if this scene was a new addition. It’s not. And that’s deeply depressing). But there are plenty more and, for me, the final scene in which matriarch Enid discusses how people just don’t see her, just don’t care, is the most touching and resonant. Because, really, is that untrue today? Has anything changed, anything changed?

Before I get any more rantypants, let’s move on. Because there’s nice, happy stuff to talk about in the brilliance of this production of Leave Taking. The Bush’s AD Madani Younis is in the director’s chair here and he’s on top form. He has such a clear vision of what this play and why it’s important (now) that just sings through every scene. You don’t see that so often these days. Visually, I think The Bush has done better (and I’m concerned for the physical integrity of their water effect) but Rajiv Pattani’s gorgeous lighting is very much an exception. He does some very clever - and effective - things to pull the audience’s focus where it needs to be at key points, something done with particular deftness and skill in the aforementioned final scene. The Bush’s concrete garage vibe (I love it, this is not a criticism) lends itself to innovative lighting so well and Pattani has nailed it here. 

There is also, like, a lot of happiness to be found in the frankly slightly annoyingly brilliant ensemble of actors. There are five characters in Leave Taking - Enid, Del, Viv, Brod and obeah woman Mai - and, with the play staged in the round, the already unforgiving Bush auditorium provides nowhere to hide. Which is fine for these guys, they don’t need it. Adjoa Andoh, as Mai, is my highlight. Having seen her in the grand total of two things (both in the past six months) I have concluded that Andoh is one of those actors I would watch in literally anything. I’m convinced she could read out a phone book and give it emotional depth and complexity. She’s on top, top form here as the wise and weary Mai; a character who only really unveils herself after the interval but you know as soon as Andoh stalks into the space at the top of the show that there will be depth to come. (Also, she spends a lot of the show crouched at the edge of the space in the sort of deep squat holds that the rest of us can only dream of. I want to work out with her.) Seraphina Beh as ‘tearaway’ Del is a complex joy. She gives a strongly nuanced performance of, in some senses, an archetypal British teenager who is so much more than that - and more than anyone but Mai gives her credit for. Providing some much needed light relief, Wil Johnson, is endlessly watchable as Brod. He’s a sort of comedy character but in Johnson’s hands you always laugh with him, not at him, which means when he does get serious or angry the audience 100% go with him. Sarah Niles’ Enid provides the play’s heart, and some soaring set piece speeches, and the way she quietly works the space and the audience make the realisation of how sad she is, and why, really crushing. Rounding out the quintet, Nichelle Terry’s Viv has perhaps less to do than the others but does it equally well. The big moments she does get - particularly her small Act 2 rebellion - are handled faultlessly. They’re a good group, all in all.

As you may have gathered, I was into Leave Taking in quite a major way. It’s such a great play and such a stonking production - and, surely, the most prescient revival ever in the history of theatre. Go and see it, laugh, think, cry and get angry at how surprised you are that this isn’t a new commission.  

Nothing has changed, nothing has changed.

Leave Taking is at The Bush until 30th June. Grab the last remaining tickets whilst they exist.

My seat for this one was D12 in block A and I paid for it. Thanks to The Bush’s super Count Me In scheme (where you pay for a non-specific seat and the box office allocate you into a gap on the day - perfect for solo theatregoers or those who don’t like their friends and family) I only paid £10. Outside of CMI, it would have cost £30.