Passion amongst the parachutes: Girlfriends at the Union Theatre

Saturday 1st November 2014, matinée

We are grateful to the Union Theatre for putting on a Howard Goodall ‘season’, a selection of three of his musicals, beginning with ‘Love Story’, followed by The Dreaming, and finally ‘Girlfriends’.  We eagerly anticipated this early work, Goodall’s second musical, written in collaboration with John Retallack and Richard Curtis.

Having focussed on men in ‘The Hired Man’, Goodall wanted to do something which would say more about women’s experience of war, and, inspired by Mary Lee Settle’s memoires of her time in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, he researched the subject and, along with Retallack and Curtis, created a musical set on an RAF base in Norfolk, exploring the emotional entanglements of the women and the men they supported.  The setting evokes the hothouse atmosphere of a community living in close quarters, where trivial events become magnified, and the horror of war is suppressed behind a facade of politeness.  The piece also explores the moral ambiguities of a ‘just’ war and the difficulties ordinary people faced in becoming part of the momentous operations of war.  The title is itself ironic, since it celebrates the vital role of women in the war, yet acknowledges the underlying feeling that they are still dependent on and subordinate to men, their contribution undervalued.

The story is told in vignettes, and we are introduced to a large cast of characters and situations – we hear about the women and their reasons for joining up, their triumphs and disappointments with the work they are doing, and their rivalries as they vie for the affections of the airmen, knowing they risk having their hearts broken.  The problem with this approach is that ultimately there is not much build up of dramatic tension, and although the storylines feel authentic and are sometimes refreshingly downbeat, it makes it hard to engage with the characters when they have little opportunity to grow and develop.

In this production, the pace of the story was also hampered by the direction, which allowed too much ‘dead time’ between the short scenes.  The choreography was at times obtrusive too, veering between being too literal and too expansive for the space, or becoming rather ‘interpretive’, which didn’t seem to fit with the style of the story either. The scenes seemed to work best when the action was continuous and then the focus was changed from character to character, as in the party scene where much of the drama came to a head, and the production might have benefited more from this style of flexible approach in such as small space.

As we never tire of saying of Goodall, the music makes it all worthwhile: full of rich melodies and harmonies, we would happily buy the cast album and listen to it all again, if such as thing was available (quite a surprise considering the original production contained rising stars such as Maria Friedman and Jenna Russell).  Again, we are reduced to a few clips on youtube and song samples courtesy of Faber.  The music is particularly strong on upbeat melodies, such as the cheerful ‘We Dance On’, which describes the experience of putting a brave face on everything while the war continues; the romantic moments are well served, with some delightful duets between the lovers, and there is some darker humour in songs such as ‘In the Messes and Clubs’, which cleverly describes the attempts of the pilots to deal with the extreme emotions they experience on every mission.  Overall, though, in terms of musical theatre there seems to be less of the emotional depth, range and sophistication of Goodall’s later works.

The excellent cast certainly had their moments, although here we must pause for a quick comment on the Union, and the lack of information on their website.  We are not routine programme-buyers – sometimes it’s nice to have a souvenir and more information, but we work on the assumption that we will always be able to find out about the cast online. In this case, we were glad that we scribbled down a few names from the pictures on the wall, as we were astonished to find no trace of the actors anywhere on the Union’s website.  What’s the big secret? We can only apologise to any of the cast we failed to note, but we particularly enjoyed Michael Rees as Gareth, the airman who thinks he’s a bit of a charmer with a corny joke for every occasion.  Tom Sterling, with a pleasant and pure voice, nicely portrayed the glamour and charm of airman Guy, whilst revealing his youth and inexperience as the mask slips.  Perry Lambert and Corrine Priest as friends and rivals in love Louise and Amy have strong voices and brought out the inner strength of the women struggling not to have their hearts broken, while Catherine Mort delivered the touching ‘The Chances Are’ with powerful dignity.

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Sunday in the Dark with Stephen: Sondheim’s Into the Woods at Ye Olde Rose and Crown

Sunday 26th October 2014, matinée

We can see why All Star Productions were tempted by Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’ at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre – it’s a piece that is challenging both musically, dramatically, and practically, and anyone who has been to this remarkable pub theatre will know they don’t have a lot of space to play with.  With this company’s track record, we didn’t hesitate to book for their latest show, eager to add to our collection of Sondheim classics.

We won’t spend too much time on the plot of James Lapine’s book, although if you are interested wikipedia boasts a plot summary which runs over 1500 words, and that’s just for act one.  Suffice to say, this is a mash-up of fairytale characters such as Little Red Ridinghood, Jack (of beanstalk fame) and Rapunzel, all of whom end up in the woods on various missions, and who start to interact in ever more complex and witty ways.  The theme purports to be ‘be careful what you wish for’, as the ‘happy ever after’ of the typical fairytale is deconstructed mercilessly, and the characters revealed not just as shallow and two-dimensional, but selfish and unfeeling too.  Give people what they say they want, the message seems to be, and they will only find a way to mess it up.  Modern psychology has found plenty of evidence to back up this view, but as a musical drama, the success of this approach is variable.  Everything feels just a little bit over-complicated, and Lapine and Sondheim seem to have sacrificed emotional content on the altar of cleverness.  For once, we fear, Forbidden Broadway was not exaggerating.  After an action-packed first half full of comedy with moments of sharp satire, the second half seems to get tied up in its own loose ends, and there is a bit too much sermonising.

Despite our doubts about the format, we feel that this production brings out the strengths of the piece with a strong cast, tight and pacy direction and a set which perfectly suits the action and mood of the story.  The updating works well and fits the characters without being obtrusive.  Hence we have Sloane rangers for Princes, with their Chelsea drawl and unfeasibly elaborate greeting rituals; Jack’s mum might be straight off ‘Benefits Street’, her acquisition of riches signalled mainly by an upgrade of her visible thong and jogging pants combination and the addition of some serious bling (Jack gets new underpants too). Cinderella’s step-sisters, meanwhile, would slot quite happily into ‘The only way is Essex’, although probably preferring to think of themselves as Kardashians.

As Jack, Hugh O’Donnell has strong vocals, and a great line in well-meaning but hopeless stupidity, redeemed only by his great affection for the milky white cow he is forced to sell.  Sarah Waddell as Jack’s Mum is hilariously shameless in her exasperation with her useless offspring, and her final stand in the woods where she tells the giantess where to go is a tour de force of rage and sheer bloody-mindedness.  Emma Ralston is delightfully dark as the ‘too good to be true’ Little Red Ridinghood whose encounter with the wolf has some uncomfortable overtones, as illustrated in the song ‘I know things now’ which she imbues with youthful intensity and knowing humour.  Josh Pugh is by equal turns hilarious and disturbing as the wolf whose love of flesh appears to be more than just gastronomic, and he scrubs up nicely as Cinderella’s vacuous prince, teaming up with fellow Prince Tim Phelps for one of the stand-out songs of the show, ‘Agony’. Paul Hutton as the Baker is the perfect underdog, and brings a nice sense of bemused willingness as he pursues his bizarre quest in the forest, wanting to do it on his own but reluctantly having to concede that ‘It takes two’ when his wife insists on helping.  As the Baker’s wife Jo Wickham is the power behind her husband, doggedly ambitious, and she has a powerful and calming stage presence which helps to hold the action together – after all it is her desire for a child which sets everything into motion.

Overall this was a high quality and energetic production, full of enjoyable moments. We had the ‘luxury’ of a five-piece band under Aaron Clingham’s direction playing a variety of instruments and bringing out the nuance and subtlety of the music, a simple yet atmospheric set designed by Gregor Donnelly, and Tim McArthur’s direction pulled all the elements together skilfully.  If the afternoon ultimately dragged, it was because of a lack of pay-off – too much complexity and not enough depth.  And one other cautionary note for a show which lasts nearly three hours – the chairs.  We thought perhaps we had been singled out for special fairy-sized chairs until we saw that they were all the same – not only very small, but tightly packed, bringing their own form of ‘Agony’.

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Richard Bean hacks off the tabloids in ‘Great Britain’ at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

Saturday 13th September 2014, matinée

Richard Bean’s new play ‘Great Britain’, recently transferred to the Theatre Royal Haymarket from the National Theatre, is part of a long tradition of satire poking fun at the media, from ‘Drop the Dead Donkey’ to ‘The Thick of It’.  Nearly thirty years ago Brenton and Hare’s iconic play ‘Pravda’, which portrayed a monstrous character bearing similarities to Rupert Murdoch, was premiered at the National, and it seems only fitting that the National should host this play which charts another Murdoch-like character’s downfall.  Bean’s play brings us right up to date with his satirical and sharp analysis of the way that phone-hacking gave an amoral boost to the dubious privacy-invading tactics of the tabloid press before blowing up in its face.  Bean doesn’t have to stretch the truth very far to make his point, and he has created a completely convincing world that seems shockingly familiar and plausible, reflecting a society which has become disturbingly de-sensitised.  Throughout the play, mock headlines are displayed for the fictional paper ‘The Free Press’, and there is a glimmer of recognition that makes it impossible to say whether they have been made up or are based on real headlines.

The play centres around Paige Britain, an unashamedly ambitious news editor who discovers the ‘superpower’ of phone hacking and uses it mercilessly to seek more and more sensational stories in order to get ahead.  She narrates the story of her own rise to power, and the play reveals the corruption that lies behind the claims that papers are only ‘giving the public what they want’ and upholding the ‘British way of life’.  The ‘public interest’ defence gets a severe battering as we see how corrupt journalists even use criminal evidence as a bargaining chip with police in order to secure either silence or publicity, depending on the agenda of the day.  Bean is a master at using humour to sugar the pill of this play’s bitter message.  The morning meetings led by ‘old-school’ editor Wilson Tikkel run through all the clichés of the tabloid press – it’s all about ‘scum’, he says, but if you can get a ‘double-scum’ headline that’s even better – ‘How about an IRA cyclist?’ somebody suggests.  Ferociously rejecting any stories in danger of being serious or complex, he runs his own special ‘c**t of the month’ scheme for disgraced employees, and there is no certificate – the accolade is written across the forehead of the unfortunate recipient.  We have all the stock characters, such as ‘Jimmy the bins’, who touts treasure from the rubbish bags of the famous in a supermarket trolley, and there’s the journalist who specialises in ‘sting’ operations using various disguises, all of which his work-mates see through immediately.  The character of the Police commissioner Sully Kassam, is a comic gem.  His media gaffes become fodder for youtube mischief as his apology of police killings of ethnic minorities comes out sounding like a promise to shoot more white people; finally he is set up to have himself tasered just as news of a fatal taser incident is announced.

In a recent interview Lucy Punch produced an eye-catching headline of her own – If the character is smug, trashy, or has dubious morals, call me!   In that case this is the part she was born to play, and as Paige Britain, her performance is absolutely fearless, with not a trace of vanity.  Her character is utterly convinced she is right and pursues her mission without a backward glance, creating and dismissing the human misery around her.  She is completely enthralling, and had us transfixed like a slow-motion car crash.

She is supported by a very large cast, who manage to evoke the hustle-bustle of the news room with great skill and energy, slipping in and out of minor characters to give the play the broad canvas it needs.  As Tikkel, Robert Glenister is wonderfully bullish, never more so than when he is promoted ‘out of the way’ to a PR job, resulting in a hilariously disastrous press conference.  Dermot Crowley as newspaper owner Paschal O’Leary is a charmer, brilliantly channelling the bastard love-child of Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary and Rupert Murdoch.  Aaron Neil ramps up the comedy as Sully Kassam with a fantastic deadpan sincerity, which makes the pain of his media disasters all the more hilarious.

We were amused to see the Theatre Royal Haymarket making a virtue of necessity by proudly announcing ‘150 seats at £15 for every performance’.  Perhaps a more honest headline would have ‘Roll up roll up for the worst seats in the house’.  To give them credit, our severely restricted view £15 seats have previously been on sale for a lot more in other productions at the theatre, so at least we paid a more reasonable price, and having even a large part of the stage obscured did not affect our enjoyment too much.  However, one of the features of the production was made almost impossible to see, and we can’t believe it was deliberate – three very large screens displaying various video clips and headlines somehow managed to traverse the stage in such a way that we missed most of them, hearing only the laughs of the audience.  The sight lines are very different from the Olivier theatre – did nobody think about this?

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‘The Dreaming’ casts its spell at the Union Theatre

Saturday 6th September 2014, matinée

When we heard that Howard Goodall and Charles Hart’s musical ‘The Dreaming’ was going to be put on at the Union Theatre we jumped at the chance to add to our growing collection of Goodall musicals, and to revisit a tiny venue with big ideas.  The plot is based on Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, but Charles Hart’s book brings the action to Edwardian times, specifically 1913, which makes a good fit both musically, and adds weight to the story by evoking the sense of a golden summer lost forever on the eve of the First World War.  The key characters never change it seems, with the aristocrats who need to learn a lesson from those who live more closely with nature being a timeless theme.

Designer Kingsley Hall has transformed the space very simply with the suggestion of a forest, making the floor the main feature of the space and allowing the twenty-strong cast plenty of flexibility, while director Paul Clarkson creatives an immersive experience, making maximum use of the off-stage spaces (characters often call to each other unseen, creating a real sense of remoteness), and the clever trick of getting the chorus to run behind the seats literally sends shivers up the spine, in a low tech but very effective form of 4D.  Helen Rymer’s choreography completes the creative triangle with an ingenious use of the space, whether in high energy acrobatics, comedy from the amateur dramatics troupe, or in her inventive ways of creating a magical atmosphere, for example, the beautiful sequence where Sylvia, the Queen of the woodlanders, is lulled to sleep by her handmaidens using just a large square of floating material, and her ‘romance’ with an unlikely bedfellow is played out as a mysterious dream sequence.

Howard Goodall’s music has a warmth and humanity to it which makes it a constant pleasure to listen to, as well as an emotionally engaging experience.  He focuses on harmony and hope, and even the saddest events are tinged with a sense of the greater picture and a sense that things can be better in the future.  The music is well served by musical director David Griffiths, heading a band of just four, who create a myriad of tones and sounds, combining modern technology and acoustic instruments to great effect.  Here Goodall is teamed with Charles Hart, with whom he wrote the wonderful Kissing Dance, and again they have created an engaging and witty piece.  It is hard to pick out highlights because everything flows together so well, but we would have to mention the ‘Cuckoo song’, a great introduction for the villagers, ‘Jennifer’, an incredibly catchy and joyous outpouring of drug-induced love, ‘Night and Silence’, the dreamlike and yet slightly menacing lullaby for Sylvia, ‘Catch me if you can’, which plays quite literally with the extremes of ‘love me’ and ‘kill me’ in the mayhem of confused lovers and mischievous woodland creatures.  Finally ‘The Dreaming’ sums up the action and brings a fantastic sense of resolution as each character first recounts their own experiences, and then concludes that it must all have been a dream. The conflicts are resolved and all is forgiven.

The massive cast deliver an ensemble performance which is impressive on all fronts – dancing, singing and acting, and really creates a world of fantasy and dreamlike action in the mysterious forest setting.  We particularly enjoyed David Breeds as the unremittingly energetic and over-eager youngster Walter, willing even to play the rear end of a dragon to further his acting career.  We had only very recently seen Richard Brindley in the Royal Academy of Music end of year shows, and here he shows off his singing voice and lightness of touch as the pleasant and enthusiastic Lord of the manor Julian.  Michael Burgen has a nice sense of wonder as the star player of the villagers acting troupe about to experience a very different transformation, slightly bemused but quietly enjoying the experience.  As Angel and Sylvia, the King and Queen of the woodlanders, Christopher Hancock and Daisy Tonge provide a strong focus for the whole piece, both with powerful vocals and movement.  It’s never easy pretending to be a bad actor, but Alex Green does a great job, perfectly capturing that ‘rabbit in the headlights’ look of terror, and managing the business of dodgy props and timing to maximum comic effect.  As Alexander, the runaway lover who is induced to fall in love with the ‘wrong’ person, Alistair Hill pulls out all the stops, and his rendition of the love song ‘Jennifer’ is a joy to watch, as he combines outlandishly pure vocals with a gloriously uninhibited interpretive dance.  There is a delicious moment of anticipation as his rival David, played by Joshua Tonks, instantly falls in love with the same girl, and joins him in his hypnotic refrain.  Their rivalry is beautifully played out and is one of the highlights of the afternoon.

It seems churlish to complain, but we would have to say that there were some issues with diction which meant that some of the words were lost, a shame given our admiration for Charles Hart’s lyrics!  But overall this is an impressive production of a musical which deserves a much wider audience (glad as we were to experience it on such an intimate scale), and this is a worthy (and long overdue) professional premier.

PS – Howard, if you’re reading this, please can we have a cast recording!

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Lest we forget: The Return of the Soldier at Jermyn Street Theatre

Tuesday 2nd September, 2014 (first preview)

Even in her twenties, Rebecca West had plenty of material to draw on for her first novel ‘The Return of the Soldier’, having lived through the first world war herself and experienced the anguish of a turbulent love affair with married man HG Wells.  However, she adds an ingenious element to the plot by making her returning soldier, Christopher Baldry, a shell-shocked amnesiac.  Unable to remember his wife Kitty, he writes instead to a woman (Margaret Grey) he was in love with years before, now married herself, informing her that he is coming back to her with the intention of proposing.  The painful predicament is a unique way of exploring love and loss for all the characters, and the ‘return’ has a double meaning, in the sense of both his physical return to safety, and his psychological return to fitness and self-identification as a soldier.

This is a powerful drama, and in this musical version by Charles Miller and Tim Sanders at the Jermyn Street Theatre, we are not sure that the music quite manages to penetrate it.  It feels more like a play with songs, but there are plenty of high points, such as Margaret’s anguished ‘I know how this ends’, Baldry’s impassioned memories of the war he can’t leave behind ‘Leave me for dead’, and the lighter ‘Little Things I Need’, which portrays Margaret’s husband’s devotion and dependency on his wife, tinged with the awareness that he may lose her.  We also enjoyed ‘Headmaster’, a vaudeville-style satire on the newly burgeoning psycho-analytical business, although it didn’t really fit neatly into the tone of the rest of the piece.

Laura Pitt-Pulford has often excelled at playing exuberant, warm and emotional characters, notably for us as Mabel Normand in Mack and Mabel.  Her finest moments here are when she recaptures her youth through her renewed romance with Baldry, literally shedding the years before our eyes.  The warmth and humour in her relationship with her husband is also touchingly portrayed, although we were not quite so convinced by her as a dowdy middle-aged woman worn down by drudgery(!)  Michael Matus provided some much-needed humour and showed off his impressive versatility in the dual roles of Mr Grey, Margaret’s self-effacing but loyal husband, unable to enlist for the fighting but a dab hand at pickling vegetables, and Dr Anderson, an unorthodox psycho-analyst who has his own self-doubts about the way his skills are used to patch soldiers up and send them back to war.  His talent for characterisation, humour, and beautifully nuanced singing voice was well-used.  Stewart Clarke brings intensity and a powerful voice to the stage as the tormented Christopher Baldry.  Passionate in everything and desperate to escape the traumatic memories of war, his inner turmoil is always present, making the relived love affair as poignant as it is joyful.  As forgotten wife Kitty, Zoe Rainey perfectly conveys the brittleness of a privileged woman grappling with loss of status as well as the emotional pain of having her husband’s love and their history together apparently wiped away forever.  Her pain is evident through the mask of conformity and her cruelty to Margaret, and we feel her terrible dilemma – live with a stranger, or try to cure him and risk losing him again.  As Jenny, Christopher’s cousin and childhood playmate who still adores him from a distance, Charlie Langham is sweet-voiced and innocent, a calmer presence whose desire has already been thwarted and must remain well-hidden.

We do have another gripe – it’s a bugbear of ours that some composers haven’t harnessed the power of the internet to promote their music.  Perhaps there are contractual complications in doing this, but even a couple of song samples would have helped us to recall the music and remind ourselves how the various songs went.  At the end of the day, only truly exceptional music is readily memorable after a single hearing.

Overall, however, this is an engaging and intelligent drama, well-acted, sung and directed in a tiny space which gives it an intensity that can be overwhelming at times. This is a welcome interpretation of a deservedly classic story.

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The life of staff: Toast at the Park Theatre

Saturday 30th August 2014, matinée

Toast is, unsurprisingly enough, set in a bread factory in the seventies.  Well, the time is indeterminate, but we assume it’s the seventies based on the clothes and lack of health and safety compliance.  A group of workers are struggling on in a run-down factory in Hull, knowing the company that owns it has just bought a newer place in Bradford, and as they say, you don’t keep your old car just because it’s still running.  They know they are living on borrowed time, and when the ovens break down in the middle of a Sunday night shift, with a massive order due, we find out just how far they will go to keep the factory running and save their jobs.

The set is lovingly crafted by James Turner to bring to life the most gloriously unhygienic canteen you might ever wish to avoid.  A bucket next to the sink seems to be overflowing with indeterminate brown rubbish until the first character expertly flings his old teabag on top of the pile and we realise this is an oft-repeated ritual, with some of the team more successful in their aim than others.  The ubiquitous sign urging them to ‘keep the canteen clean’ is ignored with a vengeance.  Behind the visible set, sound designer Max Pappenheim has created a convincing soundscape which suggests the throb of the factory and the insatiable ovens it contains.

You couldn’t find a better qualified person to write this play – Richard Bean worked in a bread plant for a year and half, and later trained as an occupational psychologist.  We don’t know where he learned his craft as a playwright, but the result is a beautifully observed portrait of men at work, or rather the moments between work, as all the action takes place with various combinations of characters nipping in and out for their breaks.  The writing is full of the minutiae of everyday life, making the characters real and bringing out each man’s individual eccentricities.  Whether it’s Peter, mourning the loss of his Chicken Kiev when the ovens break down, being reunited with the burnt remains of it later in the play to everyone’s delight, or veteran bread mixer Nellie, contemplating his cheese sandwiches with growing distaste, eventually throwing away the bread and keeping the filling.  And as for former deckhand Dezzie’s explanation of why you should never eat fish paste, that’s better left to the imagination (clue – it’s to do with lonely fishermen).

Director Eleanor Rhode has assembled a fine cast of seven actors and keeps the action well-paced.  Matthew Kelly is riveting as Nellie, who has worked in the factory for over forty years and picks potatoes on his holidays.  The fruits of his labours are clearly visible on his clothes and you can almost feel the dermatitis eating away at him.  He takes monosyllabicism to a whole new level, and Kelly proves once and for all that it’s not the number of lines that matter, but what you do with them.  Matt Sutton as Peter puts forward a good case for the opposite view.  He bursts on to the stage talking, and never stops, and his efforts to engage Nellie in conversation are hilarious, ending up as an extremely animated conversation with himself, but beneath the vitality is a short fuse waiting to ignite.  As Cecil, Simon Greenall brings relentless cheerfulness as a character who comes to work for a break from his inattentive wife.  Even fishing is a pretence.  Delighting in the small pleasures of life (such as his nut-grabbing competition with Peter), he is nevertheless scared of losing his job, and Greenall brings this out touchingly as the real prospect of life permanently at home starts to sink in.  Steve Nicolson as Blakey and Will Barton as Colin are the ambitious duo of the company, who discover half way through that they are both vying for the same job in the Bradford factory.  Nicolson brings a reassuring solidity to Blakey, unflappable and straight-talking, popular with the men because they know where they are.  Will Barton is nicely supercilious as fifth-columnist shop steward Colin, who fancies himself as a bit of a Machiavelli.  Nobody likes him even when he’s giving out strike pay and the moment when he realises he has been ‘hoist by his own petard’ is a joy to watch. Finlay Robertson as likeable dimwit Dezzie capitalises on some of the funniest lines of the play, while John Wark is suitability menacing as mysterious ‘student’ Lance.

This is an extraordinary writing debut for Bean, and we are grateful to Snapdragon productions and the Park Theatre for reviving it.  The play is well-crafted and very funny, but there is a dark undercurrent to it all, and a weightiness as we glimpse the fear behind the banter, and the stakes are raised bit by bit.  This could be the story of Chernobyl, the apparently universal human weakness for hoping you can fix everything before management find out.

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Don’t mention the crusades: Holy Warriors at Shakespeare’s Globe

Sunday 10th August, 2014

You’d be hard pressed to find a more ambitious building project than Shakespeare’s Globe – lovingly researched and rebuilt using traditional craftspeople (with just a few concessions to modern fire regulations), this space is inviting and impressive.  We can’t believe we’ve waited so long to go, but when we heard about a new play, ‘Holy Warriors’, with an equally ambitious subject matter, this seemed an ideal opportunity.  It’s an epic journey through the crusades which promises to throw light on the modern Middle East – what could possibly go wrong?

The thrust of David Eldridge’s play is that if we fail to remember the past we are condemned to repeat it.  Thus we are urged to learn from history, although in this case the premise of the play seems to be that Richard I should accept a fair portion of the blame.  In a clever conceit, following his death and failure to capture Jerusalem, Richard is found in purgatory with his mother, and they while away the time by speculating on what might have been if he had taken some different decisions.  It seems there’s no escape from a mother’s ‘friendly’ guidance, even in death, but given she is the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine (known by us chiefly from her appearance in James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter), what else can you expect?  There follows a re-run of events which ends again in stalemate, and Richard refuses to accept an offer to enter Jerusalem as a pilgrim rather than a conqueror.  Men are just too proud, Eleanor proclaims.

It is not for us to judge ‘Holy Warriors’ as a historical treatise, although to our untutored eyes it seems a little simplistic, but can we judge it as a drama?  The main problem is that there is very little drama to judge – the piece feels like a historical essay with ideas rather than dialogue put into the mouths of historical figures – too much talk and comparatively little action.  The plot was hard to follow with indigestible chunks of exposition and without visual cues and much existing knowledge of the subject we were struggling to stay engaged.  However, we wonder whether somebody with a thorough enough knowledge of the subject would gain much insight from the play.

However, we did find some of the choices clichéd, and spotted a few ‘sins’ which contravened our list of theatrical holy commandments:

*  Perhaps this will seem peevish given the title, but there was an over-emphasis on religion and Eldridge seems too keen to take the religious motivations of his characters at face value.  There was an awful lot of incense (quite a feat in an open-air theatre), and chanting on both sides, and we felt as though we were being presented with the trappings of religion and an ‘atmosphere’ of reverence without digging beneath the surface.

*  Use of modern dress out of context.  There was no need to dress King Richard and Saladin like modern desert warriors given the second part of the play is a fantasy sequence, and the visual impact does not add anything.  It promises insights it does not deliver, quite apart from being a well-worn cliché in productions of Shakespeare’s own history plays.

*  Cameo appearances by historical figures.  It would have been nice if Eldridge had resisted the temptation to neatly tie up the loose ends with speeches from both George Bushes and Tony Blair, even if George Bush Junior brought it on himself by referring a ‘crusade’ against terrorism following 9/11.  Moreover, including TE Lawrence and Golda Meyer as bit players in this play just goes to emphasis what an impossible task it would be to give a fair account of the last millenium of Middle Eastern Politics in a couple of hours.

The company does brilliantly well in bringing so many different groups of people and individual characters to life, and as Richard the I, John Hopkins really captures the easy arrogance of a King and makes a convincing miliary leader.  He is a man of action, not a thinker, and Hopkins draws us in to make this flawed character strangely likeable.  Alexander Siddig was an impressive Prince Feisal opposite Ralph Fiennes’ TE Lawrence in the TV film ‘A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia’, so it seems particularly fitting that he should take on Saladin at the Globe.  He brings a more ethereal presence to the stage, clearly a man of principle and a philosopher, although violence is never far from the surface.

‘Holy Warriors’ is billed as sweeping and kaleidoscopic, and we certainly can’t argue with that – but is a kaleidoscope the best instrument – unfocused and ever-shifting flashes of colour and light create spectacle, but not insight, and at times we felt as though we were witnessing a bizarre stage version of ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’.  It is not enough simply to put these historical figures on the stage – they have to earn their place.

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