Monday, 27 August 2018

Theatre Review: The Jungle

When literally everyone I know, both in real life and in internet life, is raving about a piece of theatre (or anything else for that matter) I am instantly suspicious. I’m contrarian like that. Yes it is annoying.

The latest thing to swish onto my radar with eighteen billion five star reviews is The Jungle, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s Young Vic/NT/Good Chance Theatre co-production about the infamous Calais refugee camp. When it was on at the Young Vic, theatre Twitter went nuts for it. Now it’s transferred to the West End, to The Playhouse, everyone else in the world is joining the party. I exaggerate, but only slightly.

And do you know what’s annoying? I 100% agree with them. In fact I’d go as far to say that The Jungle is probably the best piece of theatre I’ve ever seen. Ever. It’s certainly the most important. I honestly can’t praise or recommend this show enough. Buy tickets immediately, and preferably buy an extra one for me so I can see it again.

If you’re still reading this rather than proceeding immediately to TodayTix (not an ad), then I’ll assume you want to know why I love it so much. I could go on about this for a long, LONG, time because there are so many reasons. Here are some of the most important.

The Jungle is first and foremost an extraordinary piece of writing. Joes Murphy and Robertson have created something really special: it’s so joyful, so powerful, so sad, so absolutely fucking enraging, so vital and, most of all, so humane. It weaves together the stories of the different refugees with the politics of the refugee crisis so skilfully that it manages to be an issue play with an unapologetic political message that’s not preachy or hand wringing. I’m honestly not sure I’ve seen a Capital P Political play that manages this, ever. Part of this, I think, is to do with the structure of the play. We have a narrator type character, Safi (he speaks a lot of laungages so his role in the story as de facto translator makes his role in the play completely work), to guide us through both the intertwining plots and the politics, focusing our attention on the personal but making us aware of the political too. 

It helps as well that, within its overall message, The Jungle is not a simplistic piece. It tackles some really big, complex issues within its overarching big, complex issue. So, yes, it is mostly interested in making us feel proper human feelings for refugees and be angry at those in positions of power who don’t. But it’s also interested in making us think about the role and motivations of British volunteers, the influence of British foreign policy, what identity means and how immigration affects that, the importance of family, terrorism and its causes and, possibly my favourite, when does a place become a place. There are no easy answers to any of this and the Joes aren’t interested in giving you answers anyway, they want you to think for yourself. I think this is how it avoids being preachy or glib. Yes it has a message, and yes it is very clearly and proudly an issue play, but there’s always more going on beneath the surface.

More than anything, though, it’s a compelling piece of writing because it is a masterclass in storytelling. This is literally true, in that so much of it is concerned with the characters telling their stories. It’s true in its structure, with our narrator character. It’s most true in the incredible drawing of the characters who are so rich and vivid that you could easily imagine them strolling out of the theatre with you at the end of the show. The backstories the characters have are expertly constructed, the way they therefore interact with each other is never less than entirely thought through, the actual script is superb (no mean feat given the number of languages bits of it are written in). You can tell that the Joes really care about their characters and the respect with which they treat them and their stories is huge. There is therefore a safety in built in their writing. They would never let their characters just become narrative devices to advance a message. 

The Jungle is an incredible play, then. It’s also, thanks to an incredible production helmed by the mighty Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, a completely unique experience. As soon as you walk into the theatre, Miriam Buether’s astonishing design folds you into a completely different world. The Playhouse has been transformed into the Afghan Cafe at the heart of the camp (and story). The stalls of the theatre simply don’t exist. If you’re sat in one of the areas where they would normally be (and I urge you to, if you do get tickets) then you are sat at restaurant tables or on the floor around them. You may be served sweet tea, rice and beans, flatbreads. The cast wanders around with the audience before the show and during the interval (a highlight of my trip was watching Sudanese refugee leader Mohammed helping an elderly audience member turn off her iPad pre-show). It is utterly immersive in the absolute best way; it’s entirely possible to forget you’re in a theatre at all, let alone that you’re in central London. 

Most of the time this is lovely, when the French bulldozers arrive in the camp and the story it becomes terrifying. Lighting designer Jon Clark is not afraid of using prolonged periods of darkness and blinding light to utterly confuse the audience, Paul Arditti’s sound is by turn deafening and silent. At some points the whole theatre shakes. Part of the ceiling moves. Walls are knocked in. I can’t fully describe the genius (and it is that) of this production, and actually I don’t want to say more for fear of giving too much away. You really do just need to go and experience it for yourself. It’s an extraordinary thing.

Finally, there is an ensemble cast of genuine diversity and slightly obscene talent. They’re all amazing and work incredibly hard - the immersive nature of the show means many of them get little by way of off stage time, even less than the audience in some cases, and on top of that they’re expected to take part in hugely high energy sequences (and musical numbers!) to boot. There are some real standout performances amongst them too, in particular the three sort of leads: Jonathan Nyati, iPad sorter extraordinaire, as practical and realistic Mohammad, Ben Turner as proud and brave Salar (if they ever do a stage version of The Walking Dead, which they should, Turner with current facial hair is surely a shoe in for Negan) and, especially, Ammar Haj Ahmad as Safi, the show’s complicated and tragic heart. I don’t think I’ve ever rooted for a character in any play more than I rooted for Safi.

Now look. I know I say ‘you should see this’ about quite a lot of shows. But honestly, you need to see The Jungle. You just need to. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry and it will make you so angry you want to scream. Most importantly it will make you want to change the world. And theatre can’t do more than that.

The Jungle is at The Playhouse until 3rd November. The production is supporting the charity Help Rufugees  If you’ve got a couple of quid spare, why not chuck it their way? They have excellent t shirts. 

This will mean nothing if you’ve not seen the show, but my seat for this one was in Syria, S13. It cost £15 and I would happily pay ten times as much for this show. 

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Theatre Review: Me and My Girl

Every year when Chichester Festival Theatre announces its season, the name of their musical is pretty much the only thing I want to know. I’ve seen - and hopefully will see - some great plays at Chichester, but it’s their annual blockbuster musical that I will not miss. Regardless of what it actually is.

Case in point: this year’s, Me and My Girl. Before Chichester announced it, I had no desire to see this show. From what I knew and the music I’d heard from it, it just never appealed. But it’s the 2018 Chichester musical so I bought my (£10) ticket more or less immediately.

In terms of the show itself, my scepticism was confirmed. I like my musicals with at least a bit of depth, plot and character development - things which are notably absent in Me and My Girl. This is one of those musicals where the plot, such as it is, exists only as a vehicle for the songs and the characters are just a necessary construction to sing them. If you spend any time thinking about the ‘working class couple made good by the promise of money and the efforts of their upper class relatives’ plot, it’s actually fairly snobby and unpleasant.

But really who is thinking about the plot, or lack thereof, in any detail when the songs are so fun? The book too, famously revised by Stephen Fry. There are some great jokes, the skit about My Fair Lady in the second half was my favourite, and generally everything bounces along with such a smile that it’s hard for even professional cynics like me to be too grouchy. Me and My Girl as a show is pure fluff, no substance, but actually that’s sort of fine because the fluff is so fun.

Unusually for me, I don’t want to spend huge amounts of time talking about the cast. For my money, the main appeal of this production lays elsewhere but briefly: I wouldn’t have cast Matt Lucas in the lead role (he’s good comic value but there’s too much of him just being Matt Lucas, it’s really difficult to ever lose yourself to the idea that he is his part), Clive Rowe is reliably great as ever, though criminally underused, Caroline Quentin is joyfully ferocious and Jennie Dale more or less steals the whole show with her mad tap skills. In terms of performances, the real star is actually the ensemble (a trait not uncommon to Chichester musicals and one of the reasons why I adore them so much). Their sheer collective energy carries so much of the show and the production numbers are a faultless joy. I could watch them boss The Lambeth Walk until I die.

The actual star of this production is the production itself which is so accomplished, glitzy and happy that it’s impossible not to be utterly captivated. Chichester Artistic Director Daniel Evans helms this one and he knows exactly what his production is: pure entertainment and spectacle. It never wavers from this idea and, measured in this way, it’s so hard to fault it. My individual stars of the production are Gareth Valentine, for his clever and playful reimagining, and indeed leading the performance, of the music (the Latin flavoured The Sun Has Got His Hat On and all the little musical jokes and references - Zadok the Priest, I hear you - are my particular favourites) and Alistair David for his sublime choreography which is frankly eye-popping at times. I’ve mentioned The Lambeth Walk already but fuck me that sequence is pure gold, utterly nuts and probably my favourite segment in any Chichester production ever, which is really saying something. There are also tap dancing suits of armour, because of course there are. Lez Brotherstone’s clever design is fab too. I love his fun, comic book-y English country house set a lot. 

Me and My Girl isn’t my favourite Chichester musical, purely because I’m not really a fan of the actual musical, but it’s really very hard to fault the energetic and supremely accomplished production. Come for the spectacle, come prepared to smile a lot, and you’re guaranteed a superb night out. 

Me and My Girl is in the Festival Theatre at Chichester until 25th August. There are still a few tickets available, but skates on.

I paid for my ticket for this one, which was an absolute steal at £10 for front row stalls (A10). Admittedly off to one side, and swamped by dry ice at one point, it’s nonetheless one of my theatrical bargains of the year. 

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Theatre Review: Imperium

I’ve learned quite a lot about Ancient Rome this year. Most importantly, there are a lot more goats on the Via Appia than BBC history documentaries would have you believe. But also Roman politics makes for some fucking great, and depressingly relevant, theatre.

After the stonking success of Nicholas Hytner’s superlative defying Julius Ceasar at The Bridge at the top of the year (still the best theatre of 2018 for my money) comes the RSC’s Imperium two parter: Conspirator and Dictator (I’m going to refer to them as one play throughout, because laziness). Adapted by Mike Poulton from Robert Harris’ trilogy of books, which have just rocketed up my To Read List, Imperium tells the story of Cicero - Rome’s greatest orator - as he lives through the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and the slide into dictatorship. As such all of the events of Julius Caesar are retold here, covered in Dictator, but they’re not the sole focus of the play. Crucially, Imperium tells the Caesar story from the point of view of someone who was allied with neither Caesar nor any of the conspirators. In other words, it takes a story we all know, sets it in considerable political and historical context, explaining where Caesar came from and what happened after the Ides of March, and tells it in a completely different way.

And I loved the completely different way Poulton’s chosen to tell it. Structurally, first of all, it’s super clever - helpful given the total run time of the play is just shy of six hours. First of all, we’re given a narrator to help us navigate the epic sweep of the play in the form of Tiro, Cicero’s slave/biographer. In a play of this length and of this level of complexity (and with so many characters with very similar names) this really helps. It helps doubly that Tiro is also a character in the action. He’s not a Chorus in the Greek tradition, which are inevitably quite tedious, he gets stuck in too. A lovely, fun upshot of this is that his narration regularly gets interrupted by Cicero critiquing him - an early ‘this is a getting a bit expositionary, Tiro’ put me in mind of the great Basil Exposition running joke in Austin Powers and so made me giggle like an idiot. It helps the play flow that Tiro can switch seamlessly between reminding us who the character who’s just walked on is and responding to them. The second great structural idea is the fact that each play is explicitly broken into three hour long episodes, named in the programme based on who the main antagonist is. This is unashamed box set theatre and it totally works, both in making it manageable (and comfortable) for the audience but also in making sure that the action never slows. 

Poulton’s script is also great: quick, funny and rich. Another result, I think, of the box set structure is that it gives him more scope to make the script quite demanding for an audience to follow: he can pack in loads because we all know we’re getting a break to process it soon. As the man behind the RSC’s mighty Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies adaptations, I already considered Poulton the King of Literary and this very much comets him there. His/Robert Harris’ characterisation is fantastic too. Everyone is vividly drawn and distinct and credible. The main characters, Cicero in particular, are joyfully rich. And I just adored seeing a new spin on the famous Julius Caesar cast which fully backs up my theory that Brutus is a fucking idiot and Cassius deserved better. It also makes Caesar a seriously nasty character in a way that he never gets to be in Shakespeare’s telling and brings some women into the narrative (hurrah!) It is, in short, a great piece of writing. That there is six hours of it is a gift. 

Directed by the RSC’s Artistic Director, Gregory Doran, this is also a great production. His direction is blistering, with a constantly shifting yet clear eyed focus delivered with a conspiratorial wink. The use of significant direct address to the audience - forming the additional character of ‘the rest of the Roman Senate’ - is really well done (even if it rather pales in comparison with the equivalent in The Bridge’s promenade Caesar, a comparison I’m trying hard not to make but in this aspect it’s almost impossible not to). Though it definitely overplays its hand in terms of contemporary relevance, I could 100% have done without a character in a Donald Trump wig, Doran is crystal clear about what this production wants to say. Anthony Ward’s design is, with one notable exception which I’ll come to, so atmospheric and so effective. Mark Henderson’s lighting is superb, and knocking on for a week later I’m still thinking of the final image of Conspirator where a bright white square of light picks out youthful antagonist Clodius - it’s so joyfully playful! Paul Englishby’s regal music and Anna Morrissey’s sprightly choreography keep this huge production on its toes. Everything feels as epic as the play is long. My one criticism is of the globe which hangs over the stage the whole time. I’m not sure what it’s supposed to do but what it actually does is restrict the view of the top of the stepped stage for quite a lot of the auditorium. It’s an irritant and adds nothing. It doesn’t actually look that nice either. Sight lines are also a slight issue when characters walk right to the front of the stage, which is also stepped down into the auditorium, and though I understand the purpose of this bit I’m not sure the same effect isn’t achieved when characters just stand on the actual stage where everyone can see them.

An epic production of an epic play requires an epic, and massive, cast, many of whom do double duty with a different character in each play. Richard McCabe has surely the best gig in the West End at the moment as Cicero. It’s a huge part and he is superb in it. Cicero is not always a likeable character, but in McCabe’s hands he is always sympathetic, credible and enormous fun. There’s such energy in his work and such detail too. The way he ages himself (makeup etc aside) is barely perceptible until it resolutely isn’t and you’re left wondering when it happened. Top, top stuff. As our lovable guide Tiro, Joseph Kloska, has as much work to do and does it with the same amount of energy and fun. There is a risk, I think, that Tiro could become purely a plot device who occasionally tells a joke in the wrong hands but there’s no risk of that with Kloska. Our erstwhile heroes are ranged against some cracking antagonists: Joe Dixon’s Catiline and Mark Antony are tremendous fun and dripping with malice, Peter de Jersey’s Caesar is a properly dangerous end of level baddie, Nicholas Armfield’s Clodius and Oliver Johnstone’s Octavian add some youthful opposition, villainy and hijinx to Conspirator and Dictator respectively. Nicholas Boulton’s Celer/Cassius also deserves a mention, especially his powerful Cassius who is exactly as exasperated with Brutus as I always am.  

Minor sight line quibbles aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Imperium. Great writing, clever production, brilliantly acted. Overall, a great day out in Ancient Rome. 

Imperium is at the Gielgud until September 8th.

I sat in E11 in the Grand Circle and paid £29.50 per show. 

Oh, and in case you were wondering about the goats...

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Theatre Review: Pressure

As topics for plays go, the ins and outs of weather forecasting is not one that, on paper, sounds particularly thrilling. Even for a nation as obsessed with the weather as Britain is, it seems a bit much.

But, to borrow a phrase from the footsport, plays aren’t staged on paper and sometimes the most unlikely sounding ideas turn out to be some of the best. 

Pressure, the new play by actor David Haig with his playwright hat on, is a case in point. It tells the story of the rival British and American weather forecasting teams employed by the Allied forces in the run up to D Day. Their different interpretations of the various, technical signs (including, of course, air pressure) in the days preceding the initial favoured date for the major assault on the French beaches leads them to entirely opposite conclusions about whether it should go ahead or not. History ensues, so to speak.

The ultimate triumph of Pressure is this: it takes a show about the jargon heavy technicalities of weather forecasting and a historical event that everyone knows the outcome of and somehow makes a funny, engaging and unexpectedly tense play. It’s small scale wizardry on Haig’s part I think. The fact he chooses to focus not on the war itself but on the personal and unknown story of the British lead forecaster, James Stagg, and his relationship with Commander of the Allied Forces, Ike Eisenhower, is exactly the right one to achieve it. It allows him to bring in some personal subplots relating to the two men too, which are lightly and touchingly handled (I particularly enjoyed the thread about Stagg’s pregnant wife’s high blood pressure - the reference to another type of pressure is clever and not at all overdone).  

His characters are really vivid, well drawn and complex. Stagg softens from initial rude academic to genuine, touching human. Eisenhower is not only the upright historical figure (his relationship with his female secretary, Kay Summersby, is really well written). Summersby herself is strong but nuanced, a refreshingly complex portrayal of a military woman in this period. The dialogue is quick and witty but also contains some much heavier passages when the war itself does encroach on the action - a section about Eisenhower’s personal grief at the death of his child contrasting with his ability to send tens of thousands of men into combat at huge and obvious risk to their lives is beautiful. Tension builds through short and snappy scenes, often with little dialogue beyond contrasting strings of numbers being barked into various phones (which works much better than it sounds). If I were to pick at it, I think a few judicious cuts could be made here and there to bring the length of the first act in particular down by ten minutes or so, but really this is enormously accomplished and enjoyable stuff. 

It looks cool too. Colin Richmond’s design, with huge weather charts dominating the otherwise pretty sparse set, is evocative and effective. The way the charts are changed on the fly so quickly is also super impressive! It’s beautifully lit by Tim Mitchell and the use of his lighting and Andrzej Goulding’s video design to show the change in weather (and the action of the war) in the just barely visible but somehow dominant window of the set is great. Otherwise, it’s pretty much a straight down the line production, with nothing fantastically innovative going on, but it is none the worse for that. Everything that is going on is absolutely rock solid.

For many people, self included, the major draw of this production is neither writing nor production but cast and, specifically, David Haig himself who pops his actor hat back on to play James Stagg. And he is, as ever, fantastic. His Stagg is awkward and quiet but tenacious and principled. He’s a fish out of water (‘not a military man’, as every other character observes) with hidden depth that unveils itself gradually and unexpectedly as the play progresses. There’s a subtle physicality about his performance too - a slight stoop, a nervous tilt of the head - which I absolutely loved. It’s his face on the poster for a reason, y’know. However, his light is almost stolen by Malcolm Sinclair’s Eisenhower who is not only supremely charismatic and likeable but surprisingly deep and sympathetic too. His performance really captures the complexities and contradictions of the position of the head of any army. Adding some much needed feminist sass, and in some ways dominating both Stagg and Eisenhower, is Laura Rogers’ Summersby who also brings a good deal of heart to the play. She plays both the archetype strong WW2 woman and the, like, actual real woman aspects of her part equally well and certainly makes an impact beyond her stage time.

However implausible its set up may be, I really enjoyed Pressure. It’s so much more engaging and fun and gripping than it has any right to be and is a case study in just really superb acting. Regardless of how interesting you think it sounds, the joy of watching David Haig and Malcolm Sinclair slug it out is 100% worth the price of a ticket.

Pressure is at the Ambassadors Theatre until 1st September.

I sat in R4 in the stalls for this one - slightly obstructed due to the overhang of the circle but otherwise perfectly fine - and paid a princely £15 for the privilege. Highly worth it. 

Friday, 10 August 2018

Theatre Review: Exit the King

“Which theatre’s it in?”
“The Olivier.”
“Oh god...”

So begins many a trip to the National Theatre at the moment. Because a trend does seem to have developed, particularly under Rufus Norris, for anything a bit ropey or worse to be in the poor old Olivier. With precious few exceptions - Translations, Follies, Amadeus - most of the Olivier’s recent output has not been good. Common. St George and the Dragon. Macbeth. It’s not a happy list. 

And that list now has another entry: Exit the King. Adapted from Eugene Ionescu’s French absurdist comedy by Patrick Marber (who also directs), Exit the King in a nutshell tells the story of the death of the titular King, who’s told he must die and then does, in real time. It’s no more interesting than I’ve made it sound though it is, sadly, considerably less concise. 

Exit the King is often billed as ‘anti-theatre theatre’ and if that makes you throw up in your mouth a bit then well done, that is the correct reaction. I’m not really sure what the phrase is meant to mean in theory, but what it means in practice here is 100 minutes (which have seldom felt longer) of self indulgent, sneeringly pretentious, look-how-clever-and-ironic-we-are nonsense. It’s eye wateringly tedious. The frequent, long and obscure meditations on death and love seem more like endurance events delivered by characters who are no more than archetypes used to force the plot forward. It’s also weirdly unfunny for something billed as a comedy. Why this play is being revived - especially in a theatre as huge as the Olivier - I have genuinely no idea. If it had had an interval, I would have left in it. 

That the play is so weak is a huge shame as the production itself is actually rather good. In particular, Anthony Ward’s design and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting are brilliant. The set starts as a sort of ‘Alice in Wonderland meets the USSR’ situation, all imposing black eagles, comic book colours and a massive crack down the middle of the stage to show that all is not well. The way it is subsequently pulled apart as the King dies and wanders off into the great beyond - dark and bright red; a bridge over the hole where the set used to be - is genuinely memorable, and actually a bit frightening. It’s a really visually effective and well as visually arresting piece. Perhaps the best way to see this play would be literally that - just see it, wearing noise cancelling headphones to drown out the script.

The production is also blessed by a cast (of six) that is superb. It would be a joy to watch them with some better material, as it is they at least break the tedium. The central triumvirate in particular are all great actors on excellent form. In the title role, Rhys Ifans is funny, moving and properly charismatic. He brings a supremely watchable faded rockstar glam to his part that totally works, especially with this set. Adrian Scarborough is, as ever, complete class as the King’s long suffering Doctor - wry, funny and just slightly unsettling. Indira Varma steals the show as the sassy and commanding Queen Marguerite. Her no nonsense wisdom delivered with trademark general awesomeness makes her scenes by far the most entertaining. 

The thing is, though, no amount of swagger in the production and brilliance in the cast can ever make up for the base material of a production, the actual play, not being very good. A bad play is a bad play, however you dress it up. The dressing up of Exit the King is great, but there’s no saving it. I suppose if, for some reason, you want to see this play then this production is undoubtedly the thing for you. But really, do you actually want to see this play? Honestly? (No, you don’t.)

Exit the King is in the Olivier at the NT on selected dates until 6th October.

I sat in F27 in the Circle for this one and paid £15 for the highly questionably privilege of doing so. There are no bad seats in the Olivier, so at least I had a good view.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Theatre Review: Empty Room

Music’s a weird thing, isn’t it? There’s nothing quite like it, except for maybe smell, for conjuring memories and feelings, whether you want it to or not. Certain songs will always take you straight back to certain, precise, moments in time and all of us, if pressed, could come up with a pretty coherent soundtrack to our lives.

I’m not sure all of us would want to though, unless you’ve led a curiously uneventful life entirely untouched by anything sad or upsetting. And fewer still would want to turn that soundtrack into a one person show. It takes a particular kind of balls to do that.

Lady balls, it turns out. Because this is exactly what Empty Room, the debut solo show from musician and theatre maker Miriam Gould, does. Hers is a hell of a soundtrack and a hell of a story. But it’s not just her story - it’s her rebellious jazz singer mum’s and her heroin addict jazz saxophonist dad’s too. Gould plays both of them, herself at 14 and narrates the show as herself (now). As I said, lady balls.

I love the way this show is constructed so that it opens out from what you initially think it is to what it actually is very slowly. It starts off charming and witty, with 14 year old Miriam enthusing about Shostakovich and the power of his music to be both playful and express his deepest, most profound feelings. We then meet mum, Rachel, who talks about her youthful rebellion, her hopes for her daughter (making it clear what is going on, character-wise, for the first time) and her love for her addict husband. Then comes dad, Sal, physically affected by the drugs but enthusing about the power of music and the effect it has on him. A little back and forth between Rachel and Sal follows in which it becomes apparent what the show is really about: Miriam facing up to her dad’s death (in real life as in the play). Young Miriam then comes back and gives a very similar speech as her opening one about Shostakovich, except this time we know what’s going on. She’s talking about him to avoid talking about her dad’s death. As she says in part of her narration, doing the play is part of her coming to terms with his death in real life. The line she addresses to him, which I’m paraphrasing, ‘I like doing this because it feels like you’re talking to me’ is incredibly moving. It also reminded me a bit of Fun Home, which is certainly no bad thing. 

Thematically this is a Big Play with some Big Targets and it nails them. The power of music to heal and to help us escape, to cheer us up and to help us wallow in our sadness, as required is beautifully expressed through all of the characters. As is the idea that family is important, and complicated. The forming of identity is in there too, particularly interestingly in the discussion about rebellion. Rachel and Sal both push back against their parents in some way (parents whose identity is of course formed by their own experiences, as Holocaust survivors in both of Rachel’s parents’ cases) whereas Miriam is given more freedom as a child and develops into a much more rounded human being, as far as I can tell anyway! 

She’s also almost irritatingly talented. Not only does she narrate and play three characters, and of course write and devise the whole show, she also sings and plays the violin beautifully. I’m super jealous. She’s so charismatic, so energetic, so watchable. The characters, and I am conscious that that’s probably not the right word, she creates are vivid and completely unique from each other despite the fact she only changes one item of clothing for each one - and puts them all on at the same time at the end to emphasise the point that she is carrying her parents, and her younger self, with her. A subtle trick, but a clever one. It’s a really accomplished as well as a really touching performance. At only an hour long, I would happily watch it several times back to back too.

The whole production is accomplished and touching and I left the theatre smiling, a bit sad and completely captivated. It’s a great piece by a great artist. It deserves to be seen, and loved, by lots and lots of people. But you’ll need to be quick to catch it - there’s one more performance, on August 9th (TOMORROW). Hopefully another run will follow soon. Miriam Gould is certainly a name to watch out for.

Empty Room is at the Cockpit Theatre on 9th August as part of the Camden Fringe.

My ticket for this show was kindly provided by the production and I sat in the third row to the right of the seating block (which is unreserved bench style, hence me not being able to give you a seat number). 

Theatre Review: Allelujah!

A short list of things that People like but I don’t:
- Avocado
- Love Island
- Alan Bennett

In all three cases, I have tried ok? I’ve eaten a shit tonne of avocado and still think it tastes like mushy nothing. I’ve tried to watch every series of Love Island but still just find it inane. I’ve given Alan Bennett many chances to make me understand his appeal, but to no avail.

On that latter point, if I was in any doubt as to my feelings about Alan Bennett - and to be fair I was, to an extent - then his new play, the irritatingly spelled and punctuated Allelujah! at my beloved Bridge Theatre, has certainly convinced me. I don’t use the word ‘hate’ often in this blog, because let’s be real I never truly hate being in a theatre, but I came very close to hating Allelujah! I’ve not had such a viscerally angry reaction to a play for a very long time. 

I can explain precisely and succinctly why: as a piece of writing in particular but also - uniquely in The Bridge’s history so far - as a production, it’s lazy. The play tells the story of the  geriatric ward of a small, Yorkshire (obviously) community hospital threatened with closure by those nasty men in London. It’s not an original idea (a plot point about a murderess nurse, which is never fully committed to, somewhat aside) and it’s not well told. There are approximately a billion characters who, unsurprisingly, get zero development - especially the patients who, for a play so obsessed with how brilliant they are, is somewhat strange. The first act is turgid to the point of almost physical pain. The second act promises to be better but doesn’t manage to deliver. It’s not even particularly funny, deriving much of its humour from a vaguely patronising ‘oh aren’t old people funny’ vibe that I rather suspect would be pulled apart if written by a different playwright (as a Yorkshire exile of sorts, I did enjoy the jokes about Tadcaster though). 

But it’s the lazy and cliched thematic heart of the play that left me walking out of the theatre wanting to punch a wall. Because this play has nothing to say that it doesn’t say in a clunkingly unsubtle and infuriatingly lazy way. Aren’t old people great? Aren’t young people shit? Aren’t politicians evil? Isn’t the British immigration system heartless? Isn’t London different from Yorkshire? All of these things may or may not be true - and I have a good deal of sympathy with some of them - but when they’re simply presented as fact, as something that is just assumed, not explored or challenged in any meaningful way, with absolutely 0% nuance, they’re certainly not interesting. This is Alan Bennett by numbers. Without his name attached to it, I can’t believe that this play would be on the stage in its current form. And that, dear reader, is bullshit. Lazy bullshit. I have serious beef with it. 

I also have beef, perhaps more surprisingly, with The Bridge’s production. Without wishing to labour the point, it’s equally lazy. There’s barely anything even worth commenting on. There’s nothing new or daring or even visually interesting: Nicholas Hytner’s direction is ok so far as it goes though the play needed much more energy and pace (and, of course, as Artistic Director of the theatre it’s his fault it’s on the stage as it is in the first place), Bob Crowley’s design is largely unmemorable (and seems to have stolen its structure of sliding walls from pretty much any production at the Hampstead), the music and Arlene Philips’ choreography are more or less unnecessary (and there’s no way Arlene would have scored any of the dancing above a six in her Strictly days). It’s disappointing stuff from a theatre that, until now, I’ve always relied upon to present something technically excellent even when I’ve not rated the play. This time it’s all equally beige.

The weakness of the script and the presence of way too many characters also makes it difficult to say much, positive or negative, about the cast. So few of them have anything to work with and their characters are so one dimensional it’s difficult to know what they’re basing their performances on at all. Deborah Findlay is a rare ray of light in the production as Sister Gilchrist, delivering a classy, funny and as close to complex as the script will allow performance. Peter Forbes is enjoyable as the slimy local politician turned Chairman of the Board. Simon Williams is the comedy highlight as a joyously foul mouthed and churlish patient. It’s generally nice to see such a diverse cast, in all sorts of ways, on a major London stage. It’s a shame many of them are so ill used. 

I want to end by saying that maybe Allelujah! is for you if you’re an Alan Bennett devotee. But truthfully, I saw this play with two Alan Bennett devotees and even they agreed that it was lazy and flawed - though they definitely enjoyed it more than I did! There is better writing around on every single theme that it fails to discuss. And I would suggest that you seek out  any and all of it before seeing this.

Allelujah! is at The Bridge until 29th September.

Unfortunately, I paid for my ticket to this one. It was £15 for C40 in Gallery 3 (the very back row of the very top circle and one of my favourite places to sit in any theatre - the sightlines are great).