Naked Ambition: Napoleon Disrobed at the Arcola Theatre

Saturday 17th February 2018, matinée

We’ve been keeping an eye out for some time for the next production from ‘Told By An Idiot’, having enjoyed previous productions so much, and judging by their website, we haven’t done a very good job.  This is an incredibly prolific and creative company, and refreshingly not particularly London-centric.  However, we did manage to find out about ‘Napoleon Disrobed’ at the Arcola Theatre and, on the basis of the title alone, booked immediately.

There’s nothing quite like an alternative history story, and this production is unlike any alternative history we’ve ever seen.  Perhaps the all-pervasive sense that nothing is quite real adds to a feeling that anything could have happened, couldn’t it?  In this case, Napoleon switched places with a sailor and escaped his exile on St Helena, only to have his imposter die shortly afterwards, making it impossible to reclaim his power and implement his plan.

It is hard to pinpoint ‘Told By An Idiot’s’ style as such – it more an intangible sense of drama that they create, usually by focusing attention on the details that most dramatists ignore in favour of more lofty affairs.  And there is always an underlying sense of absurd humour – ‘You look exactly like me!’ proclaims the stout middle-aged red-head Paul Hunter to his partner in crime Ayesha Antoine, a slim young black woman.  And so the adventure begins, with the whole stage transformed into a ship, literally rolling and pitching as Napoleon makes his journey to freedom.

Trying to find a group of supporters who have sworn to stay loyal and return him to power, he finds himself unrecognised, and making the best of it, creates a bizarre life with ‘Ostrich’ a young woman whose melon business is failing.  He revives the business and they settle into a domestic routine.  But the pull of his now ‘alternative’ reality as Napoleon remains, as he sneaks out and puts on his costume, and exhorts the audience to indulge in a series of small rebellions which he hopes will kickstart the revolution.  Inevitably, he is led away to an asylum where he discovers that there many, many people who think they are Napoleon.

But it is not really the plot that is important (it is based on ‘The Death of Napoleon’ by Simon Leys, which sounds like an intriguing read) – it is the sense of life taking over, both the joys which distract us (symbolised here by an insane game of ping-pong with inflatable melons – you had to be there), and the routine which wears us down and blunts ambition. We get the sense that this humdrum existence is no less appropriate for the world’s most power-hungry man than a more conventional tale of heroics and political ambition. Disrobed both literally and metaphorically, what gives him the right to claim anything greater?

Told By An Idiot excel at finding a tangent on everything they do, and here they give us a tantalising sense of what might have been. Our only complaint would be that at just an hour and a quarter, they really do leave us wanting more in this case.

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Tapping into Hollywood: Top Hat Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Friday 26th January 2018

Not content with bringing the most famous Gene Kelly movie to the tiny Upstairs at the Gatehouse stage three years ago with Singin’ in the Rain, the team have decided to give Fred Astaire the same treatment, by bringing ‘Top Hat’ to the Highgate pub theatre stage.
The plot gets no awards for originality, and apparently even when the film came out in the 1930s, people were complaining that it was copied from a previous Fred Astaire film, ‘The Gay Divorcee’.  The story hinges on a highly improbably case of mistaken identity which, in this production, is delivered with complete conviction by the whole cast.  It’s not exactly a comedy drama masterpiece, but the combination of gorgeous songs by Irving Berlin, zinging one-liners and over the top cameo roles kept us surprisingly well-entertained.
Dance superstar Jerry Travers (no prizes for guessing who played this part in the film), comes to London to make his West End debut, and falls in love with model and socialite Dale Tremont, who unfortunately has mistaken him for his agent Horace Hardwick, who happens to be married to her friend.

Subtlety is not required from the supporting cast, and on that note Matthew James Willis delivers a full throttle performance as the vain and preening Alberto Beddini, the Italian fashion designer who is devoted to dressing Dale Tremont in the hope that one day she might let him undress her.  Samuel Haughton also has some fine comic moments as Bates, Hardwick’s valet, especially once he is given a special undercover assignment to ‘spy’ on Dale by Hardwick, who is convinced that she is out to ‘entrap’ Jerry.  More Clouseau than Poirot, he is delightfully dedicated to the task as he gets more and more out of his depth, before miraculously rescuing the situation at the end.

Darren Benedict does a very good job of portraying Hardwick, a man so put-upon that even his valet bullies him.  He spends most of the time in a state of bewilderment as his well-meant schemes go wrong and he finds himself the scapegoat for everybody else’s shenanigans.  In a well-paced performance, his frenetic anxiety gradually calms to quiet despair before he finally reaches a negotiated truce with his wife and finds a form of contentment.

Ellen Verenieks is sparkling as Madge, Harwick’s wife.  When we hear him talk about his wife, we feel sorry for her.  When we meet her in the second half, we feel sorry for him. Verenieks has some fantastic one-liners which she delivers with vicious sang-froid, but underneath the detached humour is a warmth which comes through at the end when she realises that she has more to lose than she thought.

Joshua Lay has boyish charm and the kind of boundless energy perfectly suited to a self-proclaimed sufferer of ‘tapititis’, the condition which apparently excuses him from tap-dancing all night on a wooden floor in his hotel room.  He brings plenty of pace to the dancing, although we thought he could have occasionally afforded to slow down a bit and savour the moves.  We expected Joanne Clifton to be a good dancer, having heard of her connection to ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, but she really showed how an experienced and accomplished dancer could lift the mood, with a gracefulness that pervaded the smallest of movements.  We were pleasantly surprised to find that she had a lovely singing voice too, and a wonderfully warm and engaging stage presence which raised her above the typical ‘love interest’ of the day.

And now we come to our customary comments about the traverse staging (where the playing space is a narrow strip in the middle, with the audience lined up on either side), which again severely limited the ability of the 12 strong cast to really let rip with the dance numbers.  With so much talent available, it was frustrating to find that the choreography had to conform to a very small and bizarrely shaped space.  We were even starting to recognise certain moves designed to get over the limitations of the space, and although there was a raised platform at one end, this tended to be wasted.  We know the space is flexible, so we live in hope that one year Ovation productions will give the good old ‘pros arch’ layout a try.

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Far From Eden: East at the King’s Head Theatre

Sunday 14th January 2018, matinée

We were astonished to find that it’s been over 20 years since we last saw a Steven Berkoff play.    We hope it’s not another 20, but just in case we did jump at the chance to extend our knowledge of the Berkoff canon, by seeing his early play ‘East’ at its original London home, no less, the King’s Head theatre.

We weren’t surprised to read in the ‘Author’s note’ that East is described by Berkoff as ‘a scream or a shout of pain’.  Few playwrights are able to produce something so full of pure rage peppered with such humour and sophistication.  There is no plot as such but rather a series of set pieces, which form an exploration of the angry young man (and woman) which makes John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter look like a pussycat.  It is hard to find a message in the play (which we suspect is part of the point), but it is full of original thoughts, fleeting moments of insight, and a searing honesty, which, as one critic put it, ‘is filthy beyond the call of duty’.

Director Jessica Lazar has given the play a production full of raw physical energy and creativity, which is thrilling to experience up close (although we were slightly relieved to be in the second row).  At the same time the action is beautifully choreographed and the actors highly disciplined, giving an experience of uncontrolled rage, joy, and passion in a tiny space without injuring the audience.

Debra Penny and Russell Barnett as ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ provide a solid, grim, foundation for a family of hopelessness and lost dreams, slightly leavened by some outrageously bawdy humour.  Barnett captures the right mix of thuggishness and unwarranted cheerfulness in his speech about the ‘good old days’ of marching through the East End with the Blackshirts (or trying to) illustrated by rearranging the family dinner – it is as painful as it is funny to watch.  Penny portrays a dowdy and downtrodden woman who is determined not to be ignored, and her hilarious account of married life (most of which is unrepeatable) is delivered with a perfect mix of deadpan humour and genuine sadness.

As Slyv, Boadicea Ricketts is full of energy, carrying the forward momentum of the play with her desire to be a man and have a man’s carefree life as she sees it.  She reveals an unpredictable character, simultaneously knowing about the effect she has on men and using it to good effect, but also sadly naive. Of all the characters she seems to have the best chance of turning her discontent into something better and she portrays an inner spirit which gives us some optimism amidst the confusion and longing.

James Craze as Mike has a lust for life that is infectious.  He exudes confidence beyond his abilities and captures the edgy impulsiveness of youth with a cheerful dumbness that refuses to reflect too much on life.  We found it hard to believe that this is Jack Condon’s professional debut.  As Les, his sophisticated exploration of youthful angst is a joy to watch – highly dubious morals are tempered with self-deprecating humour and somehow Condon makes this character endearing even though in real life we would probably be crossing the road to avoid him.

‘East’ is not for the faint-hearted.  The density of language, thought and action is overwhelming at times, but Jessica Lazar has delivered a fantastic production, and reminded us how ground-breaking Steven Berkoff has been – many modern writers owe him a great debt for sweeping away the conventional norms of performance and showing that poetry can be found in the strangest places.

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Walking a casting tightrope: Barnum at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Friday 22nd December 2017

We’ve been wondering for a while why nobody has thought of mounting a small-scale production of ‘Barnum’, and now the Menier Chocolate Factory has finally got round to doing it as their Christmas show this year.  They already have the perfect venue with a building that feels (and smells!) instantly nostalgic, and the space is perfect for an intimate, in-the-round production.  But have they reached the heights of their previous musical theatre triumphs with this one?  Well, as PT Barnum himself once said – “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.”  So, here goes.

At nearly forty years old, ‘Barnum’ is beginning to look like a museum piece itself.  With music and lyrics by Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart, and book by Mark Bramble, the structure is unfussy – the key aim is to experience the highs and lows of PT Barnum’s career, sympathise with his long-suffering wife, and to understand how it was all worth it in the end, and what better medium for that than musical theatre.  The two big production numbers have kept their charm in many ways – ‘There’s a sucker born ev’ry minute’ is an irredeemably silly way to start off proceedings, and ‘Come Follow the Band’ is still a catchy and hummable tune – who can resist that comedic tuba riff?  The comic numbers featuring Barnum’s ‘attractions’ also offer plenty of opportunity for witty choreography and fun.  Ultimately though, this is not a musical stuffed full of classic numbers, and the Menier have set themselves a real challenge lifting it out of the ordinary.

Director Gordon Greenberg has done a fantastic job of recreating a circus atmosphere, and Scott Maidment has skilfully incorporated circus acts in a less-than-ideal space, making a little go a long way.  It is genuinely thrilling to wince as the acrobats lift up their partners so they are nearly touching the ceiling before tossing them to each other, not to mention the fire-juggling which was a little too close for comfort and some fearless tumbling.  The staging works very well, with a mini-revolve in the middle for the main action and side-show vignettes, and multiple entrances which ensure there is always something going on at the edges of the stage.

We are always delighted to see Laura Pitt-Pulford, one of the main attractions here playing Charity Barnum, but we would love to see her get the husband she deserves one of these days, having had to singlehandedly reform a bunch of boorish young men in ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ a couple of summers ago, not to mention having to put up with tyrannical film director Mack Sennett in Mack and Mabel in a fantastic production at the Southwark Playhouse.  She just radiates such optimism and love as Charity that nobody can resist, and she has the voice to match.

The cast is excellent and the ensemble acting, dancing and circus tricks are performed to perfection with an energy that is infectious.  It would be difficult to pick anyone out, except perhaps Harry Francis as Tom Thumb, whose balletic number ‘Bigger Isn’t Better’ is enchanting, and Celinde Schoenmaker as Jenny Lind, who is charmingly exotic.

Which brings us to the casting of Marcus Brigstocke in the lead.  We’ve spent plenty of time expounding our views on celebrity and stunt casting and they don’t need to be rehearsed here, but what we cannot understand is, if the Director was determined to have a non-singer in the role, why not at least choose someone with a persona that might fit the part?  They might just have got away with it.  The problem with the character of Barnum is that he is at heart selfish and self-absorbed, and whoever plays him needs to draw us in and show us the big-hearted kid underneath (or find one), otherwise we will lose interest in his story.  We have to be rooting for him.  Brigstocke has built a highly successful comedic career in his own right.  But his comic persona is clever, distant, and often wickedly satirical.  Whilst he must get ten out of ten for venturing out of his comfort zone (literally, in the tightrope walking scene), he just doesn’t have that innocent, childlike quality and boundless energy that would make us want to forgive Barnum for his dalliances.  There is a self-conscious echo in his acting that keeps pulling us back.  And let us remember this is a musical, and he also has to deliver some slow, reflective songs (such as ‘The Colours of My Life’).  It takes a special level of singing talent to really pull this off, and we suspect that if he had that, we would probably have found out about it by now.

This production is a great reminder of what the Menier does best, but we wish they had trusted the Menier brand to sell the show and given the opportunity of the lead to someone less well-known with the right skills and qualities for the job.

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It’s got bite: White Fang at the Park Theatre

Saturday 16th December 2017, matinée

Fans of Jack London’s book ‘White Fang’ might be wondering how on earth the Producers of this play have managed to stage it at the Park Theatre, being a the story of a Wolf told in the first person.  They needn’t worry, though.  Jethro Compton’s version is ‘inspired by’ the story, and takes the action in a very different, more human direction, although the wolf is still an important character.

If anything captures the spirit of the story it might be this quotation from Mark Twain – “The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog”.  Or in this case, Wolf.  He certainly seems to be one of the most attractive characters in the story.  Whilst the original book explores issues of identity and belonging through the character of a wolf-dog hybrid who never quite fits in to the pack, Compton tells a parallel story of Elizabeth Scott, a First Nations girl in the Yukon who is rescued as a baby by a White Hunter when her family is killed.  Brought up away from the traditions of her people, the gift of an orphaned wolf cub becomes the catalyst for her to discover the ways of her ancestors, and through her affinity with the animal, she learns about a different way of life and starts to question the plans that her adoptive ‘grandfather’ has made for her.

The central metaphor works well and the spirit of the wolf infuses the action.  We begin with hunters Weedon Scott and Tom Vincent huddled in a tent out in the wilderness, besieged by a wolf pack and running out of ammunition, saved by another hunter, Beauty Smith.  The sense of isolation and threat remains as the action widens out into a log cabin. Gradually it emerges that Weedon’s sense of obligation to Beauty may be a fatal weakness. Trying to do the best for his ‘grand-daughter’ Elizabeth, he wants to make her happy, but can’t protect her from the prejudice of his world.  He wants to sell some land to make money and give her a better life, but she sees this as a betrayal, and as more and more people want to grab a piece of the mineral wealth in the hostile territory, her connection with the land feels more and more like an unaffordable luxury.

As Elizabeth, Mariska Ariya is highly engaging.  She captures a childlike stubbornness in the character, which gradually transforms into a tenacity that is a central part of who she is, as she starts to discover her true history and identity, and realises that she will have to make a different and stark choice. Ariya draws us in to Elizabeth’s passions and obsessions, but is also pleasingly abrasive at times, ensuring that we earn our right to know her.  As ‘Grandad’ Weedon, Robert G Slade perfectly embodies the grizzled frontiersman, while Paul Albertson as Beauty Smith keeps us guessing about his motives right until the end.

The production is not just about the acting though – the whole company create an immersive experience, whether through Jonny Sims’ original music, with songs by Gavin Whitworth and Jethro Compton, beautifully delivered by the company, and with lovely vocals from Bebe Sanders, who also plays Elizabeth’s friend Curly, in particular.  Puppetry Director James Silson has also trained up the cast to bring White Fang himself to life, making him a vibrant presence in the story.

The whole company have pulled off quite a feat, transforming the intimate studio theatre at the Park into a lonely homestead on the edge of a vast snowy wilderness.  A perfect Christmas treat.

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Pain is certain, suffering is optional: The Retreat at Park Theatre

Saturday 4th November 2017, matinée

The problem with running away from your problems is that you can never escape from yourself.  In ‘The Retreat’, author Sam Bain has recognised a perfect opportunity for comedy and drama by writing a play whose central character, Luke, is on a Buddhist retreat in the wilds of Scotland.  His first problem?  He hasn’t yet realised that Buddhism is not a competitive sport.  His second?   This arrives in the form of his brother Tony, two months into the retreat, who arrives on the pretext of having some ‘big news’ and then proceeds to recreate the life Luke has been trying to get away from.  The big question of the play is cleverly posed and never fully answered – is Tony just dragging down his younger, brighter brother as usual, or is he saving him from the worst decision of his life (to become a Buddhist monk and give all his money to the cause) by testing his faith, just like the Buddhist masters used to do with their acolytes.

At ninety minutes the play is tightly structured and nothing is wasted – what the play lacks in running time it makes up for in drama and comedy-packed action.  At the centre is the struggle between the two brothers.  Bain’s dialogue is down-to-earth and provides a fascinating portrait of sibling rivalry.  He is not afraid to explore some dark and deep issues, but there is also plenty of hilarity.  The play is also physically very grounded.  The set is realistic, and the play begins with a good few minutes of Buddhist ceremony which leaves us in no doubt about Luke’s sincerity.  The comedy is organic, coming out of the conflict and humanity of the characters – there are no ‘gags’ as such or cheap laughs, and this discipline pays off.  We are laughing with the characters, not at them.

Samuel Anderson has a fantastic line in self-absorbed misery.  The moment he steps through the door and begins his ritual, we can see that this is not a mind at peace.  He exudes confidence and self-control, but pulls off that great feat of allowing us to glimpse the emptiness inside.  This could be an unlikeable character in less subtle hands, but Anderson allows us to feel his pain and be forgiving of his mistakes.

Adam Deacon is perfectly cast as the disruptive brother Tony.  He overflows with energy, and delivers an incredible motormouth performance, but there is a rhythm to his dialogue which always finds the right comic timing.  He does have some of the funniest lines in the play (mostly debunking his brother), but he never wastes an opportunity for a laugh. Although billed as the ‘obnoxious’ brother, he conveys a genuine sense of compassion for his younger brother, painfully aware that he has ‘failed’ in life by most conventional measures, yet still manages to be more content than his perfectionist sibling.

Yasmine Akram as Tara does a great job in keeping us guessing about the motives of her character.  As the manager of the centre, and probably the sanest person in the play, she has a lot of fun with the stereotype of the spiritual hippy, airy and eccentric, but ultimately all too human when it comes to financial good sense (or lack of it).  Is she ruthlessly manipulating Luke for his money, or just an opportunist?  Either way, Akram has a warmth and genuineness about her that gives the play a generous dose of hope and humanity.

This is Sam Bain’s first play and we hope it won’t be his last – his style perfectly matches the intimacy of the Park Theatre, and its ethos of bringing us bold and unusual drama.  He couldn’t have hoped for a better venue for his debut, with an excellent rendition by Designer Paul Wills and Director Kathy Burke.

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Many Rivers to Cross: What Shadows at Park Theatre

Saturday 28th October 2017, matinée

It is a brave author who makes Enoch Powell that central character in a drama.  Is this going to be an attempt to justify the famous ‘rivers of blood speech’ that ended Powell’s political career whilst also preserving his name for posterity as a byword for divisive racism?  What Shadows? is a serious attempt to answer the question of whether his actions could be defended and why he did what he did, as well as giving us some food for thought fifty years on, when this debate still seems so fraught with difficulty.

Chris Hannan’s play is interested in Powell less as an end point to the drama, but more as a catalyst to those around him.  Despite his immediate sacking from the shadow cabinet, Powell did not resign as an MP, and some of his supporters at the time claimed that his views reflected the majority of his constituents and of public opinion generally.  He received many letters of support, and a remarkable array of modern politicians, whilst holding back from expressing agreement with his views, praised his ‘foresight’ in predicting future events.  Alongside this personal story, Hannan weaves a (we assume fictional) tale of a female academic who was sacked for her perceived defence of the speech and her young black former protegé, as they try to work together to find a way of ‘talking to people you hate’ to find some resolution. Their arguments and retelling/ misremembering of their own stories form a wider perspective.

The portrait of the man himself is masterful in allowing us space to ponder what his motives might have been.  He had a highly successful career in the military, yet he formed a lifelong friendship with a Quaker, Clem Jones, who had been a conscientious objector in the Second World War.  And it is Clem’s wife Marjorie who clings to the friendship as a source of intellectual nourishment and encourages her journalist husband to help their friend get more coverage in the press.  It would be an understatement to say she had no idea of the monster she was creating.  We will never quite know what he intended, but there are tantalising ideas presented to us – was it political ambition?  The mistaken belief that if he could just get people’s attention, it wouldn’t matter what he actually said?  Or did he really feel obligated to slavishly put forward the views of his constituents, however repugnant?  Or was it just a blind-spot which led him to self-destruct in his own bitterness at seeing the British Empire coming to an end?

In the final act of the play, Hannan gives us a fictitious showdown between Powell and the feisty, young, black academic, who, quickly realising that trying to win the argument with facts is getting her nowhere, tricks him into an esoteric exploration of the ideas, surgically unpicking the roots of his racism and discovering with horror how deep they go, like a tumour that cannot be removed without killing the patient.  Here we see a portrait of Enoch Powell at his best and worst, brilliantly deconstructing his own position whilst clinging to it for dear life.

The play is held together by a mesmerising performance from Ian McDiarmid as Enoch Powell.  This is about a close as he is likely to get to a sympathetic and rounded portrayal but it is unflinching in its unsentimentality.  As Clem Jones, Nicholas Le Prevost is the perfect foil.  Stoical and thoughtful, he has watched his friend with unease for some time and his disappointment at being proved right is palpable.  Joanne Pierce delivers a perfect pair of doubled-up roles, firstly as Pamela, Powell’s wife, staunchly supportive throughout and yet somehow overlooked.  As Sofia Nicol the academic, she captures a passionate and articulate character whose fearless search for the truth is deeply rooted in her past.  Paula Wilcox’s Marjorie Jones is one of the most complex characters, attracted to Powell’s intellect and desperate for the excitement of academic debate, but blind to the damage she is doing by associating herself with him.  In a witty and often comedic performance, she brilliantly portrays the downfall of a highly intelligent woman who fails to appreciate the human cost of her actions until it’s too late.

This play is full of ideas and challenges to the stereotypical view of politics and race – sometimes it feels overloaded with ideas and avenues that there is not enough time to explore.  But if food for thought is the aim, Hannan more than succeeds in revitalising the debate about British identity, an impressive feat indeed in the current political climate.

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