Way Out West: Outlying Islands at the King’s Head

Sunday 20th January 2018, matinée

Having seen two plays by David Grieg, the chilling Letter of Last Resort put on as part of an excellent season of plays about nuclear weapons, and The Kid, a disturbing exploration of drone warfare, we were keen to see more.  A revival of ‘Outlying Islands’ at the King’s Head, brought to us by the producers of the fantastic East at the same venue, promised some intriguing subject matter.

The story is a simple one – two young men, fresh out of University, are chosen by the ‘ministry’ to spend what might be their last Summer of freedom on a remote Scottish Island studying rare seabirds.  It is 1939 and what seems at first to be a dream posting takes a very dark turn indeed.  The play explores the culture clash between the escapism of the young men, who want to immerse themselves in what they see as the simplicity and power of raw nature, and the escapism of the locals, in particular the island’s owner, Mr Kirk, who is desperate to find a buyer so that he can sell up and escape to ‘civilisation’.
Enforced isolation brings out the complexities of all their relationships. Grieg’s writing is skilled, rich in subtext and full of dark power.  His characters are complex and well-drawn, relatable but not stereotypical, and the pace is carefully controlled.   We feel the boredom and routine, and a vague sense of doom.  There is a political context too, with the young men soon discovering that they are not on a nature trip at all, but a grim ‘inventory of life’, in preparation for a weapons-testing programme that they only hear about by accident. The personal and political blend perfectly, as the naive young men come to terms with the realities of war while the tough old landowner calculates the compensation he will receive with every sheep and bird that goes ‘out of commission’.

The four-strong cast do a fantastic job of carrying us away to this distant and evocative land. Tom Machell as Robert and Jack McMillan as Johnny have a convincing sense of cameraderie, bringing a youthful intensity to their relationship which sometimes feels like that of an old married couple.  The arguments which we sense have taken place too many times to mention, and the multilayered bond of shared passions, ambition, and unrequited love.  Johnny is febrile and neurotic, an unlikely adventurer, and Robert, dashing and edgy, fulfills the role of the reckless lone wolf only at great personal cost.  Together they are by turns over-earnest and hilarious.

Ken Drury as Mr Kirk exudes toughness, common sense and humour in equal measures, with a terrifying turn in religious zeal, targeted mainly at his niece.  Rose Wardlaw is Ellen, Mr Kirk’s niece, who has been ‘contaminated’ by exposure to ‘the movies’ and is full to bursting with earthly desires, whether for humour, stories or sex.  Wardlaw creates a complex character who, though often silent, always has an inner life.  Watching and waiting, she is the catalyst and life-force who changes everything.  Her impatience is infectious and compelling.

We couldn’t finish without mentioning the set, another triumph for this venue, which always seems to manage to create an immersive atmosphere in a very small space which enhances the production.  Here we have a minimal but convincing evocation of the semi-underground ‘hut’, and the added bonus of an almost indescribable ‘smell’ which certainly lives up to the numerous exclamations by the characters of ‘it stinks in here’!  Definitely a multi-sensory experience……..

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Three of the Best: The Cane at the Royal Court

Saturday 12th January 2019, matinée

It’s been a long time since we went to the Royal Court, nearly 8 years, but we were lured back there by the prospect of seeing Nicola Walker in a play with an intriguing subject – the cane.

The play is set in the home of a deputy headteacher who is about to retire, but whose preparations for his retirement ‘do’ are increasingly overshadowed by a growing mob of pupils who are gathering outside his house, throwing a brick through the window.  Is it because they have found out that years ago he was the teacher responsible for caning children?  Add to that an unfavourable inspection from Ofsted which must be challenged, and this is far from a peaceful Sunday afternoon.

At 100 minutes, the play whizzes by, with writing that is both witty and slick.  The interplay between the deputy headteacher (Alun Armstrong) and his estranged daughter Anna (Nicola Walker) is a pleasure to watch.  She has followed him into the field of education, but in his mind has joined the ‘enemy’, the Academy movement, of which she is an almost fanatical advocate, and he can’t work out if she has come back to help him regain control of ‘his’ school or to gloat as it is swallowed up in the ignominy of being a failing school.  Maggie Steed meanwhile takes maternal cruelty to new lengths until we discover that she may have been more or a victim than a bully.

Our main issue with the play is that we couldn’t decide whether it was an ‘issue play’ or a family drama, an indication that something hasn’t quite gelled, as it should be possible to do both seamlessly.  There were also certain distractions which made it hard to engage with the drama.  The set is a deliberately semi-naturalistic affair with minimal furniture and half-finished stairs, making the house look a little like a bomb site. Yet there is no real reason for it and there is something intensely irritating about watching three people hover around one dining chair and a low coffee table.  Yes, this is a dysfunctional family, but there is no reason to believe they don’t have normal furniture.  If you are going to go minimal, just do it, but a halfway house tends to reinforce the impression that the play itself is half-baked.  There is also a very elaborate attic which appears halfway through, but despite many descriptions of it being chock-full of stuff, it appears empty.

The writing too seems slightly unrealistic and lacking in nuance.  Some of the events are hard to believe, for example the deputy headteacher’s wife, herself a former teacher, allowing pupils from the school to run riot in the attic; the idea that a mob of children would be allowed to assemble for days in suburbia without the police being called is also somewhat far-fetched.  There is plenty of interesting and entertaining exposition, but the voice of the mother is strangely absent, and the debate, which seems to settle on a teaching ‘dinosaur’ and caner of children against a devotee of the academisation of schools couldn’t be more polarised.  It almost feels like a pair of straw people tearing shreds out of each other, which perhaps reflects what goes on in dysfunctional families, but if the intention was to provide some insight into the modern education system, that aim was not fulfilled.

The Cane remains an entertaining watch, full of satisfying dialogue, some surprising moments, and overall a piece of drama raised up by an excellent cast.

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Highly Strung: A Pupil at The Park Theatre

Saturday 24th November 2018, matinée

To be fair, the publicity for this play does not offer a barrel of laughs. We are told that the story starts with a ‘disgraced former violinist’, Ye, preparing to take her life when she is interrupted by the prospect of a new pupil.  We’d like to say that hilarity ensues, but it seems that this glimpse of hope is just the precursor to further despair.

We do not learn much about Ye, but her pupil, Simona, is a self-taught violinist, an apparent prodigy who cannot read music, but has learnt by imitating musicians on youtube.  More importantly she happens to be the daughter of a Russian multi-millionaire – he wants her to get into a top music conservatoire, she only wants to be taught by Ye. With her landlady threatening to evict and no other means of support, Ye reluctantly takes on the challenge.

We do sometimes think it would be nice to see a portrayal of a music teacher who wasn’t a complete sadist.  Not here, unfortunately.  Lucy Sheen does a fantastic job of portraying the teacher from hell who rules with a rod of iron but expects 100% commitment, heart and soul.  She is more than a match for the spoilt rich kid, who annoyingly turns out to be genuinely talented.

Overall the play is dramatically well constructed and engaging.  The ever-shifting power relationships are well portrayed and this is an interesting theme – how do we measure talent?  What does it mean to teach and to learn? Unfortunately this is not fully explored in the play.  Although the characters are intriguing and in the case of Melanie Marshall’s landlady, entertaining, they are mostly underwritten, particularly Ye, and without wanting to second-guess the ending, there is ultimately no real pay-off.

Flora Spencer-Longhurst delivers a virtuoso performance, with a musical delivery which is enough to convince these lay audience members that she might be a child prodigy, but just as impressive is her acting performance, portraying the mercurial intensity of the adolescent who doesn’t yet know what to do with her gift.

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Writing wrongs: Honour at the Park Theatre

Saturday 27th October 2018, matinée (preview)

We are always on the lookout for a new play at the Park Theatre, and when we spotted Henry Goodman as one of the cast members of ‘Honour’ we knew we would be in for an entertaining afternoon, especially when we noted that he would be joined by Imogen Stubbs and Katie Brayben, whose star has deservedly risen since we last saw her in Company at the Southwark Playhouse back in 2011.

‘Honour’ is one of those plays whose plot won’t tell you if it’s any good – it’s the story of the breakup of a marriage, a husband going off with a younger woman, and the resulting fallout. It has been compared to Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’, but significantly here the author is a woman, Joanna Murray-Smith. The plot could almost have been chosen for maximum banality, but the story, staged here without any set and barely any props, remains riveting, thanks to a sophisticated exploration of the characters and relationships. The writing is incisive and compelling, and completely unpretentious, and being a revival of a production originally staged in 1995, it has aged very well.

There are just four characters, a husband and wife, a daughter, and the ‘other woman’. The key to the play’s success is that none of them are particularly charismatic or heroic. All have been successful in their own ways, and all have the best of intentions, even as they watch their worlds fall apart. More importantly they are intelligent and articulate, though not particularly self-aware, a powerful combination. Murray-Smith is not really interested in wallowing in emotion or high drama or plot twists, but she weaves a subtle and thoughtful thread of dialogue through situations we might think we already know about, and it is very refreshing and ultimately uplifting.

Henry Goodman gives a well-rounded performance as George, a successful writer who mixes complacency and mild dissatisfaction in equal measure. He starts off the play delivering a hilarious monologue, which seems as first to be some kind of eulogy of a colleague and then turns out to be his attempt to summarise his life for the eager young writer who has come to do a profile on him. He perfectly captures the pompous, vain author anxious not to appear too arrogant, and takes us on a touching journey through his naive attempts to intellectualise his decision to leave his wife, before watching his dreams of a new carefree life crumble as quickly as they had blossomed.

Imogen Stubbs, in the title role, also gives a refreshing take on the ‘wronged wife’. More than a match intellectually for her husband, she finds that he has done her a favour by nurturing a revival of her writing career, giving her both time, space and some new material. In a strong but reserved performance she gives little away, just giving us glimpses of an inner steel which helps her to rise above the stereotype of the woman scorned. Never was there a better embodiment of the motto ‘the best revenge is to live well’.

Katie Brayben gives a quietly terrifying portrait of young ambition as Claudia, the young writer who comes briefly into George’s life and quickly turns it upside down. In a highly skilful performance, she never appears to be manipulative or scheming – she is open and honest about her motives right from the start and manages to cause chaos nonetheless. Determined to love without loss, she realises too late that being loved but unable to love is the ultimate curse. She brings a plausibility and brilliance to the role that makes us think again about love, loyalty and morality.

Natalie Simpson brings refreshing energy which cuts through the abstraction just when we need it – with the judgemental clarity of youth her outbursts are satisfyingly visceral, while her central speech about feeling inarticulate in a family of intellectuals is beautifully and falteringly delivered.

Paul Robinson’s direction is clear and tight and he confidently manages the ‘in-the-round’ format, moving the actors around seamlessly so that everyone gets their fair share of the action. In a set that could feel alienating and cold, he builds a space where emotions run deep and lives are authentically complicated.

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Fine Art: Sancho – An Act of Remembrance at Wilton’s Music Hall

Saturday 16th June 2018, matinée

We have never been to Wilton’s Music Hall before but a fleeting visit from Paterson Joseph with his one-man show ‘Sancho – An Act of Remembrance’ briefly made this a must-visit venue for us.  According to the website, It is the oldest grand music hall in the world.  Not so sure about the grand bit, but it we would certainly agree that is it a little gem and the management clearly have very good taste.

We have always enjoyed Paterson Joseph’s performances and his all too rare appearances on stage.  Here he is disarmingly honest, beginning the show as ‘himself’, and confessing that as a black actor he had always watched with envy as his fellow drama school graduates would snap up the choice roles in costume drama, whilst his opportunities seemed severely limited.  This doesn’t prevent him from treating us to a few lines as Sir Peter Teazle from ‘School for Scandal’ and making us wonder what might have been (or might be!)  He explains that he had always been told that costume drama would be a limited option for him because there were no black people in England before the 20th century. And then he saw a portrait by Gainsborough which changed everything.  Yes, he would have to write the play himself of course, but here at last was a historical character he could get his teeth into.

This is the story of Ignatius Sancho, writer, composer and actor, and the first black man to vote in British Parliamentary elections.  If the title of the play sounds like it might be a little bit worthy, it isn’t.  The play has gravitas, but this is an immersion into the life of the man which gives us everything – silliness, pomposity, humour, intelligence, tragedy and loyalty.  Joseph’s writing is full of literary flourishes and flights of fancy, and his performance had us convinced that this was a figure from history you would definitely want to spend more time with.  We get a sense of joy and exuberance which must have poured out of a man who grew desperate for an education, and when he got it, sucked every last drop of flavour out of it.   Joseph has magnetic charm, intense wit and dark humour always bubbling under the surface and he uses it to great effect here.  This was the London premier of a show that he as been touring extensively, and we hope this is not the last we’ll see of Sancho.  He certainly gets our vote.

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Such stuff as Fun is made of: Return to the Forbidden Planet Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Saturday 12th May 2018 (preview)

Ovation Productions at Upstairs at the Gatehouse are never short of ambition.  Not content with carving out a reputation for taking on the major musical theatre classics, they now bring us ‘Return to the Forbidden Planet’, a cult musical theatre classic based on a cult movie whose source is Shakespeare’s Tempest.  It completely conforms to our definition of a cult success – it shouldn’t work but it does.  And on our second viewing since Bob Carlton’s creation was first put on in 1990, we can vouch for that.  Stuffed full of classic pop songs from the fifties and sixties and cleverly parodied Shakespearean dialogue, this is a heady cocktail.

This is also another brave choice – the cast have to cover well-known songs made famous but some great singers, and in this production everyone has to turn their hand to a whole variety of instruments and performance skills (zero gravity included), all the time treading a fine line between cod and kitsch.

Overall, Director John Plews has made good use of the limited space with Amy Yardley’s pleasingly garish set, including instrument panels doubling as keyboards.  We have always liked the ‘actor-musician’ style and wished it would get more use, especially since seeing Craig Revel-Horwood’s chamber production of ‘Sunset Boulevard’, and in this case it works very well, getting maximum value out of a relatively small cast and bringing high energy to the set pieces.

We should point out at this point that we attended the first preview of the show, so this review does not reflect whatever might happen on press night but there were some technical problems with the sound balance which resulted in some of the vocals being almost completely inaudible.  Dare we say that the traverse staging might have made this a challenge too far, with the added complexity of performers singing and playing instruments all over the playing area?  There were some occasions when things didn’t quite gel, visually or audibly, but the fantastic energy of the cast carried us through and we are happy to assume that these problems will be fixed and give the cast full reign to show off their talents once the show has bedded in.

Talking of talent, Simon Oskarsson is literally in a category of his own, playing ‘airy spirit’ turned robot, Ariel.  And if that sounds like an impossible task, you will understand how impressive this performance was.  Making his professional debut, he takes this unusual role to another level.  Not only is he multi-talented with a lovely singing voice, impressive body-popping, dance, physical theatre, roller skating and some neat trumpet playing, Oskarsson combines these abilities to create a fascinating character, whose curiosity and bewilderment at the ‘data overload’ of human emotions is portrayed with humour and subtlety.  When Miranda sings about having a ‘robot boyfriend’ he doesn’t seem such a bad catch.

Overall, this is a very strong cast, with Christopher Killik creating a charming and eccentric Prospero.  He dominates the stage physically and vocally as a nicely nuanced unintentional villain.  After a relatively quiet first act disguised as the Science Officer on board, Ellie Ann Lowe makes the mother of all entrances when she reveals herself to be Gloria, wife of Prospero, and a woman with unfinished business.  Her vocals are fantastic and she carries off stiletto-heeled thigh high boots fearlessly.  Edward Hole as Cookie brings his unrequited love of Miranda to the boil with a sizzling rendition of ‘She’s Not There’.  Guy Freeman and Lewys Taylor stood out in the supporting cast as crew-members, giving the music a lift at key moments on vocals and guitar – we would have liked to see more of them and we are sure we will.

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The Storm before the Calm: Pressure at the Park Theatre

Saturday 7th April 2018, matinée

The English are famous for the pleasure they take in talking about the weather, a pastime which is often seen as trivial and a form of small talk.  In David Haig’s play, we learn about a historical moment in time when weather was literally a matter of life and death.  He has said that as soon as he heard about the story, he wanted to write about it, and so Pressure was born.

This is the true story of James Stagg, the Scottish meteorologist hired by Eisenhower to forecast the weather for D-Day.  Stagg was hand-picked to work with American celebrity weatherman Irving P. Krick.  He was hired to provide certainty, but Stagg soon realises that the Texan in charge of the D-Day landings has an awful lot to learn about English weather, and the first step towards gaining his trust was to make him understand that the task was almost impossible.

David Haig is better known as an actor than writer, but with his third play his considerable experience and skill as a performer comes through in his assured use of the stage and cast to create the tension, pace, light and shade required to pull the audience in to this story. He is not afraid to give us long pauses in the action and fill the longueurs with lighter sections of dialogue; but when the tension mounts, he fills the stage with actors and keeps the pace at full tilt.  Perhaps one of our favourite moments comes when Stagg has finally persuaded Eisenhower to postpone the invasion in anticipation of a huge storm and comes back to his office alone, with perfect calm visible outside.  Pacing up and down with anticipation he looks obsessively out of the window. ‘Where are you?’ he declaims at the sky, and sure enough the storm that will cement his credibility arrives.  It’s a fantastic bit of stagecraft.

This is a compelling story, not least because its central figure has first to conquer his own doubts before he can convince those in the highest authority.  Even though we know the ‘ending’, this story has us on the edge of our seats.  Haig does not patronise the audience, and somehow makes the scientific information detailed enough to be convincing, while still being accessible, mainly through the use of a series of massive weather charts which appear every few hours, keeping us simultaneously painfully aware of how quickly and how slowly time is passing.  It’s not often that you can say you were on tenterhooks waiting to see which direction that front of low pressure weather has moved in.

It is hard to believe that David Haig originally wrote the play not intending to play the lead part, but we are very glad he changed his mind.  He perfectly captures the qualities that we can imagine made Eisenhower believe in the man.  There is a complete absence of ego and posturing, just irritation at the lack of organisation and equipment needed for the job. Haig radiates integrity, with a portrayal that is not afraid to show us an interior life with all its insecurities and suppressed emotions.

Haig is ably supported by a relatively large cast, but the stand out supporting characters are Eisenhower himself and Kay Summersby, his driver, assistant and, some have claimed, lover.  Laura Rogers delivers a spirited performance as a historical figure who embodies the dilemma of many women during the war – despite the horror she dreads the end of the war and what she sees as the end of her usefulness, having strayed too far from a traditional feminine role to ever go back.  Malcolm Sinclair makes a personable Eisenhower, humorous but with the kind of authority that means he doesn’t have to try too hard to assert himself.

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