Saturday, 23 March 2019

Theatre Review: Emilia

I am not a prolific buyer of play texts. In fact I can’t remember the last time I bought one where it wasn’t also serving as a programme. As with many people who studied Shakespeare at school, I learned at an early age that plays are meant to be seen and not read. So when I tell you I bought the text of a play *in the interval* you should know that this is worthy of note. It is an indication of something major. The play, you should know, is A Big Deal.

The play in question is Emilia, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Globe-premiered, West End-transferred show about the life of Emilia Bassano; probably the ‘dark lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets and, even if not, an astonishing, inspiring and utter BAMF of a woman and published poet in a time where women might occasionally be poets but were certainly not published. Now look, if you’ve been anywhere near theatre Twitter in the course of this play’s life you know everything I’m about to say. You know that this piece is AN ACTUAL RIOT that demands to be seen by every woman, girl, man and boy in the fucking world. You know it should be on the National Curriculum and prescribed on the NHS. And if you’re not a #LDNTheatreBlogger well I’ve just let you in on the secret too. Really, I don’t want you to spend any more time reading this review. I just want you to go and buy tickets to Emilia now. Immediately. Stop reading and do it.

That said, I have a lot of feelings which I need to expel so I’m going to write the review anyway. The genius of Emilia, I think, is at its heart something so simple and so never seen on the London stage: it’s a play about a woman, commissioned by a woman, produced by women, written by a woman, directed by a 
 oman, with an all female cast and an all female creative team. At a stroke, it’s unique. It sounds different to anything else around at the moment; it looks different; it unashamedly speaks to a different audience. It’s a period piece that is also depressingly and joyously relevant. The whole production is vital and full of life in a way that nothing else I’ve seen in a very long time can even tilt at.

Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s script is spectacularly good: funny, poignant, angry and inspiring. There’s a rhythm to it which is so unique, feeling at once completely modern and completely period appropriate. It made me laugh in both a ‘yes is this amusing’ and ‘yes this is not amusing but it’s something I recognise as being completely true and laughing is the only response other than punching the nearest man in the back of the head’ way. It made me cry happy tears, ‘holy fuck I’m so inspired’ tears, angry tears and viscerally sad tears (for those that have seen it, I lost it completely at *that* Eve scene). It made me so very angry. It also made me immediately follow Angela Merkel on Instagram and frantically Google Jacinda Ardern, which is a very me response. I’m not communicating this very well I suspect, but it’s the best piece of writing I’ve seen in a very long time. Possibly ever? Very close to ever, certainly.

Director Nicole Charles’ production is pitch perfect. And I’m not using ‘perfect’ here as a lazy way of saying ‘very good’ (as I will happily admit that I all too often do). I mean actually perfect. Like, there is no way this production - or this play - could be better. None. Absolutely none. Joanna Scotcher’s design is a beaut, making amazing use of the whole auditorium, and is also perfect. Louise Gerstein’s music is such a clever blend of the contemporary and the modern (and perfect). Zoe Spurr’s lighting is evocative and perfect. Emma Laxton’s sound is ominous and perfect. Have I made my point? I think so.

And guess what? The cast is perfect too. The production features three Emilias at three stages of her life (neat structural trick, ever neater way of giving lie to the idea that a show has to have just one star, even when it’s about one main character) and all three of the actresses who play her are absolutely excellent: Saffron Coomber does the journey from naivety to worldliness beautifully as the youngest version, Adelle Leonge quietly rages as she nurtures the fire in Emilia’s belly as the middle version and Clare Perkins brings the fucking roof down as the oldest, her final monologue being both the most gorgeously angry piece of writing and the most viscerally beautiful performance in a few minutes of theatre I’ve seen in god knows how long. The rest of the ensemble of fantastic women, all of whom play multiple parts, are equally excellent (the mighty Jackie Clune and Charity Wakefield deserving of particular mention) and really it’s the scenes where all or many of them are on the stage at the same time that are the most exciting in the whole piece. Especially when many of them are playing men, which they do with a mocking glee that is entirely unique to this piece and this ensemble. They’re clearly having a blast. They’re all so cool. I want to be in their gang.

Emilia is really quite something. It’s an amazing piece of theatre, yes, but it’s also something more than that. It feels like a movement, almost. Like just by being in the audience you’re saying ‘no, that’s fucking enough’ to all the stuff that women have to face to which that is the appropriate response. It’s one of only three plays I’ve ever seen that have genuinely changed the way I think about stuff (Cathy and The Jungle being the other two) and the only one ever that’s changed the way I see myself. It’s A Big Deal. See it immediately.

Emilia is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 15th June.

I sat in B14 in the stalls for this one, which was an absolute steal at £25 for one of the best seats I’ve ever sat in.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Theatre Review: Admissions

Plays about race and diversity are a refreshingly common occurrence in London theatre these days. No, let me try that again. There used to be literally no plays in London theatre about race and diversity and now there are some. Progress, of a sort.

The latest offering in this particular canon is Admissions. Written by Joshua Harmon, Admissions tells the story of Sherri Rosen-Mason the head of admissions for an elite New Hampshire boarding school. Sherri’s mission in work and, apparently, life is to increase the proportion of non-white students at the school. She is a big believer in diversity and so are her husband and son. Or are they? When said son is passed over for his choice of elite University, but his mixed race best friend is not, everything this annoyingly woke family believes is called into question. 

This ‘what happens when your principles meet the people you care about most in the world and it doesn’t end well’ idea is sort of interesting. Discussions around white privilege, white guilt and - more broadly - what a meaningful commitment to diversity actually means are interesting. Having them discussed by an entirely white cast in a way where a liberal, right on, whiteness is presented as a distinct identity, almost a character in its own right, is interesting too. But for me Admissions as an overall piece of writing ends up not being that interesting.

I think there are a few reasons for this. Primarily, I felt like the play never really developed the ideas that it presents initially. It’s structure, of three distinct chronological sections, could have really allowed for a development of any one of its themes. Instead it just felt to me as if the same arguments were rehashed three times, albeit with different characters taking up different sides. There is absolutely a discussion to be had about how far a supposed meritocracy will ever allow minorities to succeed, but do we really have to have it three times with the same lines of argument? And yes, there is also a discussion to be had about the role of money, the role of your parents, the role of their histories, in how you get on in life but, again, really three times? Related, I also found the play too long. If it was a strict ninety minutes - or even an hour - that really honed in on one or two of its key themes (and I think if it had focused way more laser-like on the intersectional interplay between different types of privilege - racial, economic, class, insider status - it would have been far more interesting) I probably would have enjoyed it more. I struggled too to really care about Sherri and her son, Charlie, both of whom are frankly just quite annoying. Kind of problematic for a play that centres on them.

All of which is not to say that I think Admissions is a bad play because it’s quite evidently not. It does raise worthy and thought provoking points, absolutely, and it does so in a very entertaining way. Harmon’s writing is pleasingly dark, punchy and at times very funny. He manages frequent switches between comedy and drama really well. His perspective, as mentioned, of writing a self consciously white ‘race play’ is clever. I enjoyed the play, I just don’t think it’s as challenging or provocative as it’s set out to be. Or indeed as it could be.

The production, in the main space at the Trafalgar Studios (never my favourite venue, and one which needs better air con - it was like bikram theatre at the back of the stalls - and a more proactive ushering policy re dickheads on phones and latecomers) is probably about as good as it could be. Director Daniel Aukin moves things along with a bounce and presents a cohesive vision of the play in a fairly stripped back staging. There’s just the one set, by Paul Wills, which effectively doubles as both home and office. Oliver Fenwick’s lighting is pleasingly domestic. I wonder if there’s an argument to say that this production should have been set in a British institution, given all but one of the cast are British and some of their American accents are, charitably, not the best, but that’s the only thing I can criticise really.

Accents aside, the cast is great though. It’s headlined by Alex Kingston, who to be honest I’ve seen do better but is still endlessly watchable and thoroughly credible as Sherri. Sarah Hadland is something of a minor revelation to me as Sherri’s friend Ginnie (the mother of Charlie’s mixed race BFF), delivering a lot of the play’s most genuine emotion with real guts and commitment as well as the sort of knock about humour that people (ie me) that have only seen her in Miranda might expect. Both Hadland and her character are underused I think. Andrew Woodall does nice work as Sherri’s no nonsense husband Bill, getting many of the best lines and generally being by far the least annoying of the central family. Margot Leicester is engagingly baffled as Sherri’s long suffering admissions brochure designer, struggling to understand what exactly Sherri means by diversity. Ben Edelman, as Charlie, is believably a stroppy teenager but altogether too shouty for my money - though in fairness his character does go on the biggest ‘journey’ during the play which he manages really well.

I didn’t love Admissions, and I can definitely see why a lot of the American reviewers thought it was insufferably smug. That said, it is a play that I’m glad I’ve seen - even if I wouldn’t rush to see it again - and I’m glad I’ve seen this production. I’m genuinely not sure it could be done much better than it’s done here. If you come expecting an entertaining comedy that will make you occasionally go ‘oh actually that’s a good point’ you won’t leave disappointed.

Admissions is in Studio One at the Trafalgar Studios until 25th May.

I sat in Q10 for this one and paid £30 for a preview performance. It’s a great seat for that venue, even if it is ludicrously hot.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Theatre Review: Alys,Always

When I first heard that The Bridge Theatre was doing an adaptation of Harriet Lane's novel Alys, Always I immediately went out and bought the book. I read it in a couple of sittings (it's not exactly War and Peace) and was very confused as to why, out of all the books in the world, this one was getting a stage treatment.

Don't get me wrong, I didn't dislike the book. It's a decent little paperback, really well written and entertaining but - at the risk of sounding like an horrific snob - it's the sort of thing that I would read on a sunlounger, y'know? The sort of thing you buy for a longhaul flight and leave on the plane. It's fine, it's not exactly earth shattering. So why go to the effort of adapting it?

And cards on the table, The Bridge's super stylish production never really answered that question for me. I still don't fully understand why this show exists. That said, I'm glad that it does because I found it so much better than the book and, somewhat to my surprise, actually really enjoyed it.

Lucinda Coxon is responsible for the stage treatment that deserves much of the credit for making me think again. For me, what she's done is to take a book that desperately wants, but never quite manages, to be a psychological thriller and turn it instead into a dark satire on both the 'how the other half live' obsession of modern society and the decline of the print newspaper. Cast in this light, the motivations of central character Frances (the newspaper sub editor who steals, literally and figuratively her way into fashionable London literary society with an ever increasing ruthlessness) become more understandable. Her newspaper is facing budget cuts. She works on the arts desk. So of course being seen by her boss at fashionable literary parties/funerals/stumbling out of The Ivy with fashionable literary people helps her career and is thus something to be encouraged - and built upon. She also becomes a more sympathetic character, and the whole plot therefore more engaging, because which of us, honestly, wouldn't love to be accidentally sucked into a more glamorous life? Even if most people would - I hope! - not go to the length Frances does to achieve it, Coxon's version of her is a far more empathetic and credible character than the one in the book.

The stage version is also much funnier than the book, something that is particularly realised in the very deliberate split between the scenes set in the newspaper office (funny) and those split elsewhere (more serious, generally). Punctuating the action with comedy this way really works, both as comedy in and of itself but also drawing attention to the (real or imagined) threat that the demise of the paper poses to Frances and her colleagues. It's the interplay between the two sets of scenes and the two sets of circumstances that make the drama compelling and believable.

Director Nicholas Hytner's production is as slick as I've come to expect from The Bridge. Bob Crowley's clever, minimalist design is both functionally impressive and aesthetically cool. Centred around a semi-transparent screen that divides up the action (I loved its use as the wall of the editor's office in the newspaper scenes - the shadowy presence lurking behind it ominous even after he turns out to be a fairly avuncular Irishman), it is particularly effective when used as a canvass for Luke Hall's clever video design. The show opens with a car crash, the chaos of which is really nicely captured this way. Grant Olding's music, often played live by cellist Maddie Cutter, is haunting yet modern. Jon Clark's lighting is gorgeous and austere. It's not the most imaginative thing The Bridge has ever done - its immersive Julius Caesar has set that particular bar very high (I'm so psyched for A Midsummer Night's Dream this year) - but it is, rather like its lead character, ruthlessly effective and beautiful.

Finally, the show is brilliantly acted. As lead character Frances, Joanne Froggatt is - I think literally - never off stage. Impressive energy levels and stamina notwithstanding, her Frances is perfect and sold with utter conviction. If Lucinda Coxon's writing did much to help me believe in Frances, Froggatt's performance is indispensable in sealing the deal. I was sceptical about this casting. And boy was I wrong to be. As love interest/prime target Laurence, Robert Glenister (The Best Glenister, even if brother Philip now hosts a gloriously trashy true crime show on my favourite, extremely high numbered, Sky channel) is as watchable and compelling as ever. I've never seen him give a bad performance and this is no exception. In the supporting roles, the mighty Sylvestra Le Touzel shines as Frances' imperious arts desk editor boss, Simon Manyonda is a daft joy as her work rival, arrogant writer Oliver, whilst Danny Ashok provides some much needed heart and honesty as the one seemingly quite normal character in the whole piece, Sid.

Look, as a piece of drama Alys, Always isn't the best thing you'll ever see. It's unlikely to be troubling the Olivier nominations next year I wouldn't think. But, actually, I sort of don't care. It's really good fun; sheer entertainment with a little bit of something to mentally chew over after the show. It's also really well done, both from the cast and the creative team. Worth your time, and more so than the book by some margin for my money.

Alys, Always is at The Bridge until 30th March.

I saw this one in its penultimate preview and paid £35 for C39 in Gallery 3 - my favourite spot to sit in this theatre.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Theatre Review: Ashurbanipal, the Last Great King of Assyria

How did you spend your Saturday afternoon? Me? I spent it wandering around the freezing crypt of a church on the Euston Road with Ashurbanipal, the Last Great King of Assyria. For such is the glamorous and more than occasionally odd life of a theatre blogger. 

 Melissa Taydon and John Lutula in action

In case you’d not guessed, we’re talking site specific immersive theatre here. Specifically, Catharsis Theatre’s new take on the apparently very of the moment Assyrian King (I missed the British Museum exhibition on him, but I’m told it was good). Catharsis is a theatre company I’m officially prepared to declare myself a fan of. Long time readers will recall I really enjoyed their hour long Complete Greek Tragedies and I enjoyed my time with Ashurbanipal even more.

The issue I have, writing this at 10:29pm on Saturday 2nd March (on a train, iPad precariously balanced on a table consisting of my knees and backpack, as is my usual style), is that you have literally one (1) more opportunity to see this show before it closes. So let’s cut to the chase shall we?

I can imagine that it’s quite difficult to do immersive theatre on a budget, but that’s exactly what Catharsis have done so effectively here. There’s nothing flashy about this experience (I’m avoiding the word production deliberately, because that’s not what it is): few props, few costumes, a tiny cast, a tiny venue and a tiny crew. But everything there is totally works and creates something atmospheric and totally compelling. Everything is earning its keep to create some really gorgeous storytelling.

And let’s be honest, this is not a well known story (British Museum exhibitions aside). It is a story that an audience proactively needs to be told; which is to say there is a lot of exposition in L S Wisnom’s script but for once I actually don’t want to complain about that. It’s well written exposition, heavy on contemporary detail and light on British Museum exhibition captions. The fact that it’s structured with a modern day narrator to pop up and hold the audience’s collective hand at various key points also helps. Anyway, the show can take it. The exposition, the story, is a story told so well.

There’s a 50/50 split on where credit needs to go for that: 50% to the cast and 50% to the creatives. The cast are clearly so invested in this piece and chuck everything they have at it. All of them are excellent: Melissa Taydon as a comforting modern day narrator and the titular King’s kick ass scheming sister (her scenes were my favourite), Wayne Wilson as the earnest, wise and ignored scholar (my second favourite), Laurence Varda as a suitably threatening Ashurbanipal, Michal Banal doubling up as the wronged queen and treacherous vizier, and John Lutula noble and stubborn as Ashurbanipal’s brother and rival king (and also a sacrificial ram, in one of the more random credits I suspect he’ll ever get).

Director Justin Murray (on for one of the main characters, the Chief Eunuch, at the moment on top of, y‘know, directing an immersive theatrical experience in a fucking crypt - the stress!) and his team are no less invested and deserve no less credit. The use of the space is great and dynamic, the building almost becoming a character in its own right (even if I did fall into and/or over pot plants at least twice). Hakan Hafizoglu’s lighting and Davide Vox’s sound combine to supremely atmospheric effect. The sound in particular is so spooky. Production/stage managers Victoria Jones and Charlotte Potter do brilliant things moving everyone (themselves included) around safely and in total alignment with the story.

I am such a fan of this show and of this company. If you can get to Ashurbanipal, the Last Great King of Assyria tomorrow then please do. But either way, keep an eye out for whatever Catharsis do next.

Ashurbanipal is on at The Crypt Gallery until March 3rd. Tickets and more info is online at

My ticket for this one was kindly provided by Catharsis.