Friday, 22 February 2019

Theatre Review: The First Modern Man

Going to a pub theatre immediately opposite Highbury and Islington tube station on an evening when Arsenal are playing at home can definitely be included on a list of Things I Would Not Recommend and a list of Ways That I Suffer For My Art So Respect My Random Musings Please. Like that time I fell arse over tits up the stairs at The Bush and had mega bruises for over a week. But I digress.

Starting this post with a series of personal digressions, though, is entirely appropriate; in keeping as it is with both the text and the subject of the play I will at some point get round to actually starting to review here. The First Modern Man, by Michael Barry, tells the story of Michel de Montaigne: thinker, essayist, cat person and lover of a good digression. Based on the volumes of biography-philosophy hybrids that Montaigne wrote, the play is a one man affair which mingles a quick trot through his life with some of his more relevant and, for want of a better word, interesting Big Ideas.

There's no doubt that Montaigne, as presented here, is a fascinating figure with a fascinating story and some fascinating ideas. More than that, he seems just really bloody nice. The sort of person you would definitely want to end up talking to at a party. And that's sort of what this play feels like: meeting someone really cool at a party and listening to them talk. In the cosy surrounds of the Hen and Chickens Theatre (a great example of the pub theatre genre, with actual proper seating and an impressive - if small - performance space) it's an incredibly engaging evening. Barry's script has chosen well from Montaigne's back catalogue (I read some at University and believe me it's not all this interesting) and pulled out some of the ideas with the most contemporary resonance well, without ever trying to over egg the 'look how contemporary this idea is' pudding. It's zippy and brisk and strongly structured, even if for my money it could have stood to be a few minutes shorter - an hour is a long time for a monologue like this, the friendly cosiness loses some of its charm by the end. But only some.

In some ways I wonder if a more disciplined focus on one or two of Montaigne's biggest ideas might have sustained things better, but I suspect that would also have resulted in a very different play from what Barry is aiming at here. I don't think he had any intention of writing an ideas play, rather a biography of someone whose existence was ideas. Judged against that, the play is certainly an entertaining success.

The production on evidence is extremely accomplished too. Director Helen Niland has done a great job to create a little world around Montaigne that feels real. Piran Jeffcock's set combines with Venus Raven's clever lighting and Julian Starr's affecting sound to impressively create the world inside Montaigne's library (where the play is set), the occasional intrusion of the outside world (sad we never got to meet the always just off stage cat though) and the world conjured by his memory and imagination. A charismatic, engaging and subtle performance from Jonathan Hansler as Montaigne anchors everything. This show in this space with a weaker actor would be an absolute disaster.

I was both impressed and entertained by The First Modern Man. Is it the most exciting or innovative thing I've ever seen? No. But it is an hour of solidly good writing, performed with honesty and commitment, really well staged. Like sitting down to a dinner party to find you've been put next to the most interesting guest, it's an evening very well spent. Even if you have to fight your way through the football crowd to get there.

The First Modern Man is at The Hen and Chickens Theatre until 2nd March.

My ticket for this was kindly provided by the production. An unreserved seat would normally cost £12.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Theatre Review: The American Clock

Much like, I rather suspect, many other theatre fans I am seeing a lot of Arthur Miller this year. More than I have ever seen in the rest of my life combined. He seems to be everywhere. Or at least everywhere that has ‘Vic’ in its name.

My first dose is the pleasingly unknown (to me) and rarely performed The American Clock, the first in a Miller double header at The Old Vic. Full title, The American Clock: A Vaudeville, the play tells the story of the Wall Street Crash and Great Depression as experienced by one rich New York family, the Baum family, interspersed with a series of scenes set elsewhere - from NYC boardrooms to the Mississippi River (and give the play, I assume, its Vaudeville subtitle since they play out as standalone sketches that occasionally incur on the main narrative).

Is it Miller’s best play? Probably not. The story-to-sketch-and-back-again structure gives everything a very stop-start feeling that strips the main narrative of some of its power and there’s no question that the Baums are nowhere near as strong as protagonists as those in other, more linearly structured, Miller plays. This is no Death of a Salesman (probably for the best, since that’s on at The Young Vic later in the year). But it’s still a really fascinating piece of historical storytelling - though I absolutely disagree with the critics who said it was too exposition heavy - with a lot to say about the Crash and what came later. I also quite enjoy that it wears its politics so proudly on its sleeve: capitalism, especially Big Corporate Capitalism, is very bad and should be stopped immediately. By any other measure this is a great play. It’s just perhaps not a great Arthur Miller play.

It is, though, a great production by absolutely any measure. Rachel Chavkin,  of Hadestown fame, is in the director’s chair and her decisions are whip sharp, technically effective and visually stunning. I suspected this already, but this production more than proves that she is worthy of the ‘visionary’ tag that’s so often attached to her in press releases. The integration of music, both period and Justin Ellington’s contemporary original, and Ann Yee’s similarly diverse choreography is incredible; enhancing and advancing the action as well as fulfilling the ...A Vaudeville subtitle. Chloe Lamford’s set is huge and amazing, the use of an Olivier-esque revolve is really effective and I loved the moment where water falls down over the chalked up stock market numbers and slowly washes them away as the Crash happens. 

I loved the diverse casting too, though the decision to have the actors playing Moe, Rose and Lee Baum change from a white Jewish to a South Asian to an African American family did, for me, lessen the impact of the already fragmented narrative. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a really clever way to show the changing face of the American family (and of course who does and doesn’t benefit from The American Dream) and all of the actors involved do a great job. I’m just not sure that the narrative, or maybe more accurately the structure of the narrative, is strong enough to support it. In a different play, I think it would have 100% worked.

Speaking of actors, the group assembled here are spectacularly good. I’m not sure where in London you can see a better cast at the moment to be honest. This is all the more impressive given that absolutely everyone plays multiple parts, in multiple narratives, and has to be able to sing and dance a bit too. 

The highlight is undoubtedly Clarke Peters (stars of The Wire doing Miller being a pleasing microtrend at the two Vics this year) who is magnetic as narrator Robertson, tragic Iowan farmer Taylor and Moe 3. It’s a performance of utter assurance, charisma, anger, sadness and charm and I could have watched it for days. The play is already three hours long but I would have happily sat for much longer if Peters was on the stage. Others worthy of mention (which to be honest is everyone but, y‘know, I’m lazy) are Ewan Wardrop’s scene stealing tap dancing capitalist refusenik - if you’re missing the dancing feet of 42nd Street now it’s closed in the West End then Wardrop’s here for you - Golda Rosheuvel’s heartbreaking Rose 3 and Taheen Modak and Abhin Galeya’s complex father son scenes as Lee 2 and Moe 2 respectively. This cast is squad goals, though. There’s not a weak link.

I really enjoyed and was really technically impressed with The American Clock. A decent play, in an amazing production by a truly visionary director, brought to life by a brilliant cast. My only complaint is that the programme that accompanies it is truly shit. Save your £4. 

The American Clock is at The Old Vic until 30th March.

I sat in seat A4 in the Lilian Baylis circle for this one which cost £21. It’s slightly restricted by a safety rail, but otherwise a really good seat for the price point - I tend to sit there or thereabouts for everything at the OV.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Theatre Review: Babylon Beyond Borders

In 2018, I'd say I spent a notable percentage of my blogging life on trains between Shepherds Bush and the particular bit of Commuterland I live in, iPad balanced precariously on my knee, penning rave reviews of shows at the Bush Theatre. Like, at least 10% if I had to quantify it. I'm therefore somewhat shocked that it's taken until February for this situation to occur in 2019.

For, yes, once again my Bush stan hat is firmly on. Their latest commission, co-commission technically, is Babylon Beyond Borders which, it's more than fair to say, is the most technically ambitious piece of theatre (it's definitively not a play, even show doesn't feel quite right) I've ever seen. Performed live in four separate theatres, in four separate cities (São Paulo, Johannesburg, New York and London), in four separate countries, on four separate continents, in four separate time zones, in more languages than I could count. Obviously, the London audience watches the London section live and the others on a video screen, live streamed via t'interwebz in real time. The potential for technical difficulties is overwhelming. This is not theatre for the faint hearted and it is precisely zero shock to me that it's the babes at the Bush who've decided to have a crack at it.

There's not a plot, though there are many stories. Thematically, the idea couldn't be more timely: the destruction of towers throughout history (from Babylon to Grenfell) as a catalyst and metaphor for the destruction of language and community and an excuse to generally shit all over anyone who is in any way 'other'. It's not subtle. Each segment tells personal stories, heavy on political outrage and pulling no punches as to who's to blame. They're funny too when that feels right. The 'Brexit as flight safety information' segment in the London bit is honestly the most I've laughed on that topic for a long old time. 

Let's talk about the London section, since that was the bit I saw live and in my clearly hugely biased opinion the best bit. Taking Grenfell as their tower story and then the awful disunity caused by Brexit as a wider theme, even as a standalone piece of work it's fantastic. Three professional actresses (Lydia Bakelmun, Carol Walton and Afia Abusham - all brilliant) are joined by a community company of local KICKASS women from all kinds of backgrounds who live locally in Shepherds Bush. I'm not normally someone who jumps for joy at the phrase 'community company' but my goodness it works so well here. All of these amazing, talented women sharing their stories and their dance moves is a joyful sort of chaos that I am so here for. I cried a bit each time they appeared. From an American lady complaining that the British make terrible iced tea (true) to the painful variety of stories of struggling with joint British and not British identities, I was left with a very real sense that this is what theatre should be. Fewer white men, more technicolour women. 

A show this technically nuts, frankly, was always going to have some issues and it's a shame that the tech let the show down a bit during the New York tower story (the towers in question being, of course, the World Trade Centre) when I saw it. I did miss this portion because I feel like the clearly astonishingly talented American singer-actress - of colour - who was telling it had something important to say. But otherwise I was amazed how smoothly director Ruthie Osterman's production came off almost as much as I was by the imagination and vision to conceive it in the first place. Live stream producer Heather Pasfield also surely deserves some kind of medal for pulling - and holding - it all together.  She must have the most stressful job in theatre!

Babylon Beyond Borders is an absolutely superb piece of theatre: completely relevant, so ambitious and pulled off so well. It's also, I would quickly observe, pulled off by a nearly 100% female cast and crew (lighting designer Rajiv Pattani being the token man in the credited team, though the uncredited camera operator keeps him company). On all counts, more of this please.

Babylon Beyond Borders in at the Bush Theatre until 16th February. Which is this Saturday. Sort yourselves out tickets immediately.

My ticket for this one was kindly provided by the Bush and I attended press night. It would otherwise cost you £15. Seating is unreserved - and on press night at least they were frantically bringing in extra chairs from the bar - so sharpen your elbows and get there early.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Theatre Review: Trial By Laughter

There's a line in Trial By Laughter, the new touring production of Ian Hislop and Nick Newman's play about freedom of the press, where one of the main characters says to the other 'But where are the jokes?' As neat summaries of a play in one line of dialogue go, it's one of the best I've seen. Because they're certainly nowhere to be seen in the script of this thumping disappointment of a show.

It gives me no pleasure to write this, by the way. In fact it seems pretty perverse to complain that something that's come from the minds and pens of two of the brains behind Private Eye (Hislop is, of course, editor, Newman his head cartoonist) isn't just unfunny but actively boring. And yet here we are. It's a thing I'm doing.

It's doubly odd because Trial By Laughter has such a promising premise. It tells the largely unknown (or forgotten) story of William Hone, the Regency era satirist who was put on trial for blasphemous libel three times in three days because the cartoons he and collaborator George Cruikshank were publishing offended the Government and Prince Regent. The trials were blatantly biased against him, but Hone was acquitted each time and became something of a public hero. It's a really important, fascinating and very seldom told story in the history of the free press in England. You'd think it would make a similarly compelling play. And yet.

The script that Hislop and Newman have produced to tell this story is definitely not compelling. It is so exposition heavy that I kept expecting Basil Exposition from the Austin Powers films to have a walk on cameo. The tone is very much history lesson rather than piece of entertainment; in fact the whole production reminded me of one of those educational touring companies that you would occasionally get in GCSE history lessons to 'make history come alive'. The result is that the audience, much like a GCSE history class full of teenagers, don't connect and the jokes - such as they are - fall completely flat. On the subject of the jokes, not only are they few and far between they're also just not very good. The Regency obsession with the word 'bum' doesn't play so well anymore I fear. A few mildly amusing lines about 'the French' aside, the funniest scene of the play is a bit of physical comedy to do with people walking into a hanging basket. To put it another way: there was a lot of coughing in the audience and a notable number of empty seats after the interval. Not a good recommendation.

On top of these problems with the play, the production isn't that strong either. Director Caroline Leslie delivers something that's paced reasonably well but that has a number of technical issues that annoyed me. The play contains a number of flashback scenes, which the design of the show fails to make clear (the projected clock neither being particularly obvious nor completely visible from all seats in the theatre in which I saw it - Chichester). The recorded backing track for the court scenes - supposed to be members of the public shouting and laughing from the gallery - doesn't work. It gives the effect of cheap canned laughter which becomes especially cringeworthy when the track laughs but no one in the audience does. Dora Schweitzer's set is clever enough in keeping things moving along, but is otherwise fairly forgettable. I vaguely recall there was music, but couldn't tell you anything about it. And though I understand why a touring production wouldn't use all of Chichester's huge thrust stage, the fact that the front portion wasn't even dressed into the set just looked lazy.

Every cloud has a silver lining, and in the case of Trial By Laughter it comes in the form of a couple of sparkling performances from the young actors in the central roles. Joseph Prowen's Hone is a suitably sympathetic and earnest figure and he manages the huge chunks of dialogue he's required to work through really well. It's a strong performance and an impressive feat of memory to boot. As his sidekick Cruikshank, Peter Losasso comes close to stealing the show with a cheeky and charismatic performance which generates most of the laughs. He is supremely watchable.

Overall, I found Trial By Laughter to be a huge disappointment. A play from two such funny and intelligent people about such an interesting, unknown and important story should just not be as boring and humourless as this - in some ways it's almost an achievement that it is. As a friend of mine summed it up: lots of trial, not so much laughter.

Trial By Laughter is on tour (to Glasgow, Richmond, Milton Keynes and Eastbourne) until 9th March.

I saw this one at Chichester Festival Theatre and sat in F57 in the stalls. It cost £27 and is great value for that (for a better show, anyway).