Saturday, 12 November 2016

Theatre Review: iHo

Or, to give it it's full name, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, or iHo. Yikes. I would love to have been a fly on the wall in the Hampstead Theatre's design and marketing office when that title was revealed. 

A play with a name this nuts is going to be one of two things: fatally pretentious or really, really smart. Thankfully iHo is the latter. But then it's written by Tony Kushner so really what do you expect? 

In some sense a more prosaic story than Kushner's most famous pieces, Angels in America (and, incidentally, putting this in your season a few months before the NT's star studded Angels opens is surely one of the smarter bits of theatrical marketing this year), iHo tells the story of the Marcantonio family reuniting as their father announces that he's going to kill himself. Emotional turmoil ensues.

What I liked best about iHo was unquestionably the writing. Kushner's Marcantonios are one of the most true to life families I've seen on stage, despite the extremity of both the situation of the play and the characters in it. He writes them messy, which sounds like a stupid thing to say but think about how you talk - and especially how you row - with your family and tell me it's neat. There are several scenes in the play when there are at least two different simultaneous conversations going on which, although occasionally difficult to follow, really gives the impression that this family are real and you've just somehow stumbled into their Brooklyn brownstone. 

The play also benefits from Kushner's usual ability to mix humour and pain perfectly, often in the same line never mind the same scene. There's plenty of anger thrown into the mix too, all different types of it. And, this being a Kushner, a healthy dollop of politics. Topically for the lefty idyll that is Hampstead, it takes as its political theme the trade off between principles and real life success and the potentially heartbreaking results whichever wins. Insert your own Labour Party joke here. 

Hampstead productions are always immaculately staged and this one is no exception. A single, relatively simple, three story brownstone set placed on a revolve so we see both inside and outside at various points and a judicious use of props allow the writing and the acting to shine. It's far less showy than the elaborate, moving sets I've seen at Hampstead before but no less effective for that. 

And it's completely right that the acting is given the chance to shine because it's ace. Technical term that. In a stellar but small ensemble it's difficult to pick favourites, but David Calder is great as suicidal patriarch Gus; completely plausible, emotionally rich and with a spot on New York accent that I loved listening to. Tamsin Greig is probably the standout for me though as Gus' favourite child (as she thinks) and the one who bares the brunt of his politically puritanical expectations. The final confrontation between father and daughter is the highlight of the play for me, beautifully emotional, raw, angry and completely believable. 

There's very little not to love in iHo. I rate it utterly and it's by far one of the most interesting things I've seen this year. I highly, highly recommend it. And, though it's completely unfair to think of it as an appetiser for something else as its own merits are so strong, if you are desperately waiting for the NT to finally release its Angels in America tickets this is definitely the thing to help you through. 

iHo plays at the Hampstead Theatre until 26th November. Tickets are understandably limited. Skates: on. 

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