This orchard bears fruit: The Cherry Orchard at the Arcola Theatre

Saturday 18th February 2017, matinée

We are always keen to see another Chekhov to add to our collection, and the Arcola is the perfect venue, small and with an excellent track record.  Add in a version by Trevor Griffiths, and a cast which includes Jack Klaff, last seen by us playing Michael Mansfield in ‘Stockwell’ at the Tricycle and we couldn’t resist.

The Arcola are putting on The Cherry Orchard as part of their ‘revolution’ season, marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution, and this historical framing is perfect for the play, which now seems prescient.  Chekhov wrote it not long before he died, and only 14 years before the Russian revolution.  It has a very clear historical context, but it is also rooted in Chekhov’s genius for understanding people which seems to make his work timeless.  We could almost feel him spinning in his grave at the inequalities and complacency of the modern world.

The action revolves around a poignant family re-union as matriarch Madame Ranevsky returns after years away in Paris to the estate that will soon have to be sold to pay off her debts.  Rejoining her brother Gayev and daughters Anya and Varya, she seems at a loss to help herself.  Meanwhile Lopakhin, the son of serf made good and friend of the family, tries in vain to help them with a business proposition which will enable them to keep their estate.  But only at the expense of their precious Cherry Orchard.

Trevor Griffiths’ version of the play is from a 1981 television version, and this is the first time it has been staged in the UK.   It works extremely well in this intimate theatre, with language that is not exactly updated, but clear and direct. Griffiths said in an interview afterwards that he chose the Cherry Orchard because

“I felt that its meanings had been seriously betrayed, almost consciously betrayed, over forty or fifty years of theatre practice in this country.”

Not that we have anything to compare it with, but this makes perfect sense – it is not a whimsical play where nothing changes, but a plea to humanity.  Mehmet Ergen’s production also brings this out with a very simple approach – the modern dress is more immediate but still shows clearly the class differences, and the key element of Iona McLeish’s design, with a single bookcase intertwined with a beautiful white skeleton of a tree, provides a visual metaphor which complements the action well.

All the characters are important in the play, which seems almost deliberately to represent the broadest possible range of views.  With a very strong cast, the subtle power of the drama wins out over any kind of crude polemic.  At the centre is Jude Akuwudike’s Lopakhin, a pre-revolutionary Alan Sugar, except that he doesn’t want to fire anyone – he is desperate for the aristocratic family to go into business with him in a mutually beneficial deal.  He may have devoted his life to making money and had to deal with some unsavory characters along the way, but Akuwudike’s portrayal is full of warmth and humour, and he has more in common with the idealistic student Trofimov than the old aristocrats whom he now beats in the wealth stakes.

Sian Thomas as Madame Ranevsky delivers a deceptively complex performance.  She is full of lively charm, bestowing cheer and warm-hearted welcomes on everyone on her arrival at her long lost home, but slowly she reveals the distance and detachment in her character which keeps us guessing about her true motives.  Thomas holds us fascinated as if by a slow motion car crash.  As Gayev, her feckless brother, Jack Klaff is equally watchable, reminiscing volubly about the past without appearing to ever have left it.  He unerringly homes in on the most trivial aspect of any situation and then waxes lyrical about it, and what starts out as a simple case of verbosity is soon revealed as a kind of desperation, where words protect him from the truth.  In the final moments Klaff allows us a glimpse of the pain as Gayev is literally out of time, interrupted in his final tribute to the estate by the need to catch his train.  The little boy looks out of the face of a white-haired man.

As Varya, the adopted daughter and the only person who appears to do any work, keeping the estate going in her mother’s absence, Jade Williams delivers a masterclass in passive aggression, with the emphasis mainly on passivity.  Self-righteousness is never an attractive quality, but Williams gives her just enough vulnerability and a little air of mystery to draw us in.  Abhin Galeya gives us a Trofimov with integrity and solidity and delivers his vision of the future with absolute conviction.  At 27, not married and still a student, he might seem an easy target to the other characters but he shrugs off criticism with an air of certainty in himself which is attractive and refreshing.

 

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Butterfly jars: Madame Butterfly at the Kings Head Theatre

Saturday 11th February 2017

We’ve become regular punters at the King’s Head, home of the intimate opera, with recent highlights being a game-show version of Cosi Fan Tutte, and a cleverly updated La Boheme.  We were keen to see their latest interpretation of ‘Madame Butterfly’, an opera we first saw there six years ago, in a strikingly bold version.

We knew we would be in for a treat singing-wise, with an excellent cast including Becca Marriott and Matthew Kimble, who shone in La Boheme as the doomed lovers.

In this case, however, the updating seems to create more questions than answers, rather than making the story more accessible.  Instead of being set at the turn of the previous century, the action is brought right up to date.  ‘Butterfly’, an innocent 15 year old girl, works in a ‘Maid cafe’, a modern phenomenon where the waitresses dress up as French maids, amongst other things, and flirt with the guests.  Pinkerton remains a US naval officer, although he appears in fatigues rather than in the traditional officer’s dress uniform.  By setting the action in a modern day first-world country, the stakes are much lower, and Butterfly’s motivation becomes much harder to understand.  She is obsessed with being married, but this seems strange when she must surely have other options.  The other possible motivation, that she simply falls head over heels in love with Pinkerton, the glamorous naval officer, is also removed, as no attempt is made to give him any redeeming features.  He shows himself to be an immature and selfish slob at every opportunity, downing half a bottle of whiskey just before the wedding ceremony.  His motivations, too, are exposed as rather dubious.  In modern times the need for a sham wedding isn’t there, so what is he really looking for?  It makes uncomfortable viewing (particularly the prolonged and unnecessary undressing scene), whilst falling short of the tragedy of the original.

The ‘Maid cafe’ setting also creates another problem.  Instead of a Japanese woman dressing up as a Western character, we have a caucasian singer playing what appears to be a stereotype of a Japanese Geisha.  It is not clear if this is a performance, but we can’t avoid the realities here – the reversal of roles exposes a gulf of cultural insensitivity.  They might just have got away with it if there had been a clear demarcation between her behaviour in the cafe, and her behaviour back at home, but whilst Butterfly behaves more like a typical modern teenager at home, her companion Suzuki is still wandering around in a kimono with exaggerated Japanese mannerisms and a dark wig (and if we had the space we’d have to announce another entry to the competition for worst stage wig ever, but that’s for another post).  It didn’t help that Amanda Holden’s libretto, whilst well-written in itself, was clearly not written for an updated production, leading to quite a lot of confusion.  The Director and cast seem blissfully unaware that there might be a problem with this portrayal.  We might have some sympathy for a small company unable to find authentically East Asian singers for the roles, although we can’t say how hard they tried, but there is no excuse for the tokenistic cultural references.

Madam Butterfly is a much-loved and performed opera, but seeing this production really opened our eyes to how far we still have to go – the idea that caucasian singers can just ‘yellow up’ for the role is still pretty entrenched, not to mention the cultural stereotypes it embodies.  What a shame that this company, who have made so many innovations in the world of opera, missed the opportunity to bring in authentic performers and create a more sophisticated version of the story.

We wouldn’t want all this to take away from the genuinely moving performances, which if anything showed that a more traditional production might have done just as well.  Becca Marriott, so moving as Mimi in La Boehme, here gives a singing performance brimming with emotional content.  Not many singers or actresses could carry off a segue which involves sitting up all night waiting for their lover, but she does it beautifully.  Matthew Kimble certainly has range, transforming himself from lovable misfit Rodolfo in La Boehme to a particularly arrogant and cowardly version of Pinkerton.  As the consul who has to watch the tragedy unfold, Sam Pantcheff brings some gravitas, and his rich singing voice sets the emotional tone.

Maybe it’s time to use this company’s talents in more imaginative ways.

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Live A Little! Death Takes a Holiday at the Charing Cross Theatre

Saturday 21st January, 2017, matinée

Going to see ‘Death Takes A Holiday’ at the Charing Cross Theatre was an easy decision – we couldn’t miss the chance to add another Maury Yeston musical to our collection.  Yeston is known for his liking of difficult subjects – he tackled Phantom of the Opera before Lloyd Webber, had a spectacular flop on Broadway with ‘Titanic’, only for the piece to be rediscovered and re-polished as a sparkling gem of musical theatre, and here he takes on ‘Death Takes a Holiday’, a light-hearted(!) romance about death falling in love with one of his ‘victims’, Grazia.  She is thrown from a speeding car, but he cannot bear to carry off her soul.  Instead he allows her to live, follows her home to her family villa and stays for the weekend in human form, the ‘holiday’ of the title.  Needless to say, it gets complicated.

Despite the boldly philosophical premise, the action unfolds in naturalistic rather than melodramatic fashion and it soon emerges that this is an exploration of what it means to be human and how mortality shapes us.  Although Death has supernatural powers, we are constantly reminded that it is human beings who are responsible for vast swathes of human misery, whether the horrors of war (the action is set in the 1920s), suicide or a car crash caused by a reckless driver.  Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan’s book keeps the action intimate and real within the surreal setting, and never loses the humanity of the story.

This is the perfect vehicle for Maury Yeston’s music, which takes us away from intellectual enquiry and on to an emotional journey.  The beauty and unashamed romance of the music carries us through and mitigates the darkness and potential horror of the story.  The score and lyrics are uplifting, sweeping and majestic, but also intimate and even comedic when they need to be.  If the definition of musical theatre is drama where the characters are so emotionally overwhelmed that they can only sing their feelings, this is the perfect example.  ‘Centuries’ sets the scene with Death being awakened from his grim torpor by the beauty of a young woman; ‘Alive’ portrays the excitement and wonder of taking human form for the first time, and ‘I Thought That I Could Live’ reveals the painful emotional education he has received.   Interwoven with these are two stunning love duets, ‘Alone Here with You’ and ‘More and More’, and the painful stories of Grazia’s family are also told through some touching and dramatic solos about her brother (‘Roberto’s Eyes’ and ‘Losing Roberto’), and the haunting ‘December Time’.

Thom Southerland has kept the direction very simple, and made sure the music always comes first.  Morgan Large’s beautiful sets evokes a fairytale atmosphere and transforms effortlessly from interior to exterior to keep the action moving.

Southerland has put together an excellent cast and in particular his leading man, Chris Peluso, delivers on all fronts.  He is full of cocky charm and conveys a child-like innocence but never loses the dark intensity that underpins his motives.  He has the vocal power to match, essential for those solos where he reveals the depths of his pain and longing, and his voice blends beautifully in the love duets.  At this point we should note that Peluso will only be in the cast until the 11th February.  It’s literally a case of catch him while you can – he must surely be a rising star and is a joy to watch.  We saw Zoe Doano in ‘The Grand Tour‘ and at the time commented that she exuded charm and more than fulfilled the brief in that role ‘to be unfeasibly beautiful and lovable’ – a brief she fulfills here too.  However, whilst we thought she was rather under-used in that piece, here she has something more substantial to work with, and it is doubly pleasing to see her get her teeth into the deeply troubled and mysterious character of Grazia, the woman who finally stops death in his tracks.  Hers is a sophisticated and totally believable portrayal, and ultimately a heartbreaking one.

There are some great supporting characters, particularly James Gant’s nervous valet who has to keep the secret of the real identity of their ‘guest’.  Samuel Thomas is impressive as the friend of the family who is haunted by the knowledge that he has seen this handsome young man somewhere before, a question he finally answers in the moving song ‘Roberto’s Eyes’.  Grazia’s mother, played by Kathryn Akin, also has a touching solo about losing her son in the war ‘Losing Roberto’.  And finally Gay Soper and Anthony Cable have some wonderful moments together as the elderly Doctor and the woman he has always secretly loved, if only she could remember who he was.  In a poignant duet, ‘December Time’, they briefly feel death receding away and dare to dream of a future together, until order is restored all too quickly as Death goes back to work.

What we love about Maury Yeston is the scale of his work – the space might be small, but the music is grand.

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The Yellowface is Bad Enough, now we have the whitewash

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE PRINT ROOM

Dear Print Room

We have admired you for a long time for bringing high quality and interesting work to the London fringe.  Perhaps that is why we held off for too long in calling you out for the way you handled both the casting and marketing of your latest production ‘In the Depths of Dead Love’ by Howard Barker.  We should have spoken out earlier. But it was your response to the criticism which finally tested our patience to its limit.

This is what your original publicity says about the play:

“Set in ancient China, In the Depths of Dead Love tells of a poet exiled from the Imperial Court & the favour of the Emperor, who scrapes a living by renting his peculiar property – a bottomless well – to aspiring suicides”

You then list a cast of white actors, and you have been quite rightly and widely criticised for this, which is essentially the practice of yellowface.  If you need an explanation, see these pieces by Daniel York, Lucy Sheen and Amanda Rogers.

Then we see this headline in The Stage: ‘Social Media Attack will not force a change in our Artistic Policy’.  Is this just The Stage stirring things up?  Well, in a letter to supporters, we have this comment from you: “We are not willing, however, to change our artistic policy in response to a social media attack conducted, without consulting us, by people who appear not to have read the work and are therefore unable to consider the play in its artistic context,”

Oh dear. You seem to think this is a debate about art, and that we can only participate in it if we have actually read the play.  As though the greatness of the work will make up for any political incorrectness in putting it on.  Funnily enough, we witnessed some appalling yellowface recently in a production of ‘Anything Goes’ which is not mitigated in any way by the greatness of Cole Porter’s writing.  Howard Barker doesn’t deserve special treatment either.

Others have explained this better than us, but let’s just summarise:

You say: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese. These are literary allusions in Howard Barker’s fable and never intended to be taken literally. The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place’.

Remember this is meant to be an apology.  Instead, you seem to be suggesting that it is OK because the ‘Chinese’-ness is not real.  It is just a theatrical device.  Yes, this is a common technique, but it is essentially racist.  It is the use of other races and cultures to signify the ‘other’, to conjure up an exoticism of the unknown.  It is cultural appropriation and stereotyping.  Our advice? When you are in a hole, stop digging.  This is the 21st century.

You say: “The Print Room understands that some will find such an interplay between cultural reference and artistic imagination troubling. We regret that our initial public announcements about this play were not sensitive to this fact.”

Sounds apologetic until the patronising tone starts to come through. You have neatly projected the problem back onto the individual.  Your announcement was not offensive – people took offence, and by implication, these are people of limited imagination who just cannot see the greatness of Barker’s artistry.

You have also implied that because the play is ‘English’ you can only employ white actors, which in itself speaks volumes, and then used the ‘we employed the best actors for the job’ excuse, as if to imply that you couldn’t find any East Asian Actors that were good enough. We can’t actually decide which of these apparently contradictory excuses is more offensive.

But what really offends us as theatre bloggers is that the people you are referring to, the people who ‘appear not to have read the work’, are the same people who have written extensively and articulately on the subject of yellowface for a long time, who have lived with its consequences, who have campaigned on it to try to achieve real change.  Maybe, just maybe, they can tell you something you don’t know.  Yet it clearly has not occurred to you that they have more to teach you about this issue.

You have not apologised at all, and how can you?  You appear not to have understood the issue.  We hope you will enter into discussions with Equity as you promise, and that you will genuinely try to educate yourself on this topic.  You will have the perfect opportunity tomorrow on opening night.

Update 24.1.17:  Anna Chen has a compendium of updates and links for further exploration at her blog Madam Miaow Says.

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Game of Bones: Raising Martha at the Park Theatre

Saturday 14th January 2017

Raising Martha had instant appeal for us.  It is on at the Park Theatre, a venue which has consistently put on interesting and engaging work.  It is a dark comedy, always a plus for us.  And it was advertised with a high quality cast that included Joel Fry, Jeff Rawle and Jasper Britton (more of him later).

Ostensibly, this is a comedy about animal rights activists terrorising a frog farmer who has literally developed a siege mentality, holed up in one room with his own brand of booby-trap security.  The latest escapade is to steal the bones of his late mother, egged on by his niece, bringing about a macabre and unwelcome family reunion.  As the play goes on we find that everyone has their own motives, including the policeman who is supposedly investigating the crime.

David Spicer has certainly dug up some interesting themes to play with – the politics of protest and human rights (a twist on the age-old theme of people loving animals more than humans); there is the dark undercurrent of sibling rivalry and parental manipulation, and the ultimate question of what gives humans the right to mistreat animals.  Ultimately, though, it feels as though there is too much material, and a lot of exposition.  The main problem is that the absurdist comedy is not fast-paced enough to get away with the, well, absurdities.  The plot needs to be more focused, even if it is unfeasible.  And at times, there are so many holes that it becomes hard to hold on to anything.  Even the most far-fetched story needs a grain of truth, and here it doesn’t quite convince.  For example, we learn that the frog farmer has switched to a new crop – cannabis laced with hallucinogenic toad venom.  So far so clever, except that as we know from watching ‘Breaking Bad’, it’s all about distribution, and we can’t see how a virtual recluse would be making any money from his wares.  There is a lot of action which doesn’t move the plot forward, which becomes frustrating in the end.

The staging also doesn’t seem to serve the play very well.  This may sound rather churlish in such a small space, but it feels a little over-elaborate.  A lot of effort has been spent creating the atmosphere of the run down farm overgrown with cannabis plants, making it hard to mentally switch locations when we move to the animal activists flat.  A brilliant opening, where the animal terrorists are seen on a raised platform at the back literally shoveling earth down onto the scene below, becomes confusing when the same area has to double as the various burial sites of poor old Martha.

Having said all this, we have to give credit for some highly enjoyable moments – Spicer clearly has an ear for witty dialogue and has created some amusing characters.  Jeff Rawle’s passive-aggressive policeman, longing for a Midsomer style rural murder case, is an absolute joy to watch.  Joel Fry and Tom Bennett make an excellent double-act as Jago and Marc, a classic ‘dumb and dumber’ relationship which works very well thanks to the high energy wit and timing they bring to their scenes.  Julian Bleach morphs from respectable garden centre entrepreneur to psychotic, erm, psychopath in a captivating speech about slowly boiling frogs, ending with the spine-chilling line ‘well, I’m jumping out of my pan!’ as he sharpens up a sickle he has found under the sofa.  It is bizarre moments such as these that give the play a shot in the arm of dark humour and energy, even if it is not sustained.

Which leads us to the final mystery surrounding this production: whatever happened to Jasper Britton?  There were some other cast changes which were announced, but in a rather farcical series of re-photoshopped posters for the play, he was literally airbrushed out of history.  That original one must be collectible, a bit like the posters for ‘The Producers’ featuring Richard Dreyfus who never starred in the show (not that we are drawing any conclusions otherwise).  We don’t expect a blow-by-blow account of what happened, but looking at the twitter line, it seems Britton’s departure happened early enough for some kind of advance announcement to be made.

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Not So Easy to Love: Anything Goes Upstairs at the Gatehouse

31st December 2016, matinée

It wasn’t a difficult decision for us to go and see ‘Anything Goes’ at Upstairs at the Gatehouse.  This is a musical we hadn’t seen before, and after their fantastic version of Singin’ in the Rain which we saw two years ago, we were eager to see another musical classic get the UATG treatment.

We are very familiar with Cole Porter’s Music, or at least the 2002 National Theatre cast recording; by extension we were vaguely familiar with the characters, but with no idea at all what the plot was.  It turns out that really doesn’t matter – it is not so much a plot as a song delivery system – and what songs!  Most musicals have a couple of showstoppers and some nice tunes, but here we were reminded of the prolific talent of Porter, penning both music and lyrics for a cornucopia of hits including the title song, ‘You’re the Top’, ‘I Get Kick out of you’, ‘De-Lovely’, ‘Friendship’ and ‘Let’s Misbehave’.  OK, so one of those was recycled, but you can hardly begrudge him that!

The plot revolves around two old friends, nightclub singer and part time evangelist Reno Sweeney and wall-street broker and chancer Billy Crocker, as they get into various hilarious scrapes and romantic entanglements on a voyage from New York to London.
So did they manage to pull off a second theatrical coup?  Sadly, not this time.  There seemed to be some key elements which were missing.  The main plot involves Billy Crocker’s love of Hope Harcourt, a woman he has only met once before when he shared a taxi with her.  He stows away on the ship in order to convince her to marry him and ditch her English fiance.  It’s a common enough plot device, but there is little chemistry between them, and without that he comes across more as a stalker than a lover whose feelings are reciprocated, and the superficiality of the premise is cruelly exposed.

Then there is the traverse staging layout.  We noted with Singin’ in the Rain, which had a similar layout, that they just about got away with it ‘by keeping the staging very simple and making the ends of the stage the main focus’.  But in this case, perhaps because the action is more comedic and revolves around farce, and the dance numbers more ambitious in scale (it’s all relative), all the disadvantages of a traverse layout came to the fore.  The most notable being that with the seats arranged on either side of a thin strip of stage area, even in a venue this small, one cannot even see all the action without getting ‘tennis neck’.  And as we noted in our review of Victor/Victoria at the old Southwark Playhouse, traverse staging is not a good way to do farce, where the action needs to be clearly signposted and easy to follow.  Although some of the dance duets worked very well, any more than three on stage suddenly felt like a very large crowd, and with choreography that was more suited to a large stage, the effect was magnified.  Perhaps more scaled down choreography would have been more effective, but then, why start out with a stage layout that offers so many problems in the first place?

There were some positives, but before we go on to them there is one more element of the show which in our opinion was an unforgiveable ‘sin’.  There does of course need to be some kind of silly pretext for resolving the situation so that the right couples can marry each other, that’s traditional.  And perhaps in the 1930s it was also a tradition to laugh at racial stereotypes.  But we couldn’t quite believe our eyes when Billy Crocker came on in a Chinese outfit and proceeded to impersonate a Chinese character with a cod Chinese accent in order to break up the marriage ceremony before revealing his true identity.  Would this have been OK if he had blacked up and adopted a Jamaican or African accent?  We think not.  Yet for some reason there are still Directors out there who think this kind of ‘yellowface’ is OK.

But it was not all gloom and doom – there were some stand-out performances to savour. Taryn Erickson was brimming with confidence as Reno Sweeney from the moment she made her entrance, and walked a nice line throughout between world-weariness and unabashed optimism.  She had a captivating stage presence and gave a strong vocal performance too, ably supported by her ‘angels’ Lucie Horsfall and Chloe Porter.  As Evelyn Oakleigh, Jack Keane gave an assured performance which belied his very recent graduation from Drama School.  Extracting every possible opportunity for humour, particularly physical comedy, he had an impressive command of the stage, and pulled off the unexpected feat of making the ‘stuffy’ Englishman a rather attractive proposition through his relentless eccentricity.  David Pendlebury nicely captured the humour of Moonface Martin’s situation as a gangster well out of his comfort zone.  We loved Samantha Dorsey’s pure singing voice which was used to good effect in the soaring ‘De-Lovely’ and ‘All Through the Night’, although we would question whether she was the right character to sing ‘I Get A Kick out of you’, which is normally given to Reno Sweeney. Finally the band, under Musical Director and Orchestrator Dan Glover, deserve a big shout-out for recreating the richness and glamour of Porter’s music in a small space with only six musicians.

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Drones Baby Drones finds its target at the Arcola Theatre

Saturday 5th November 2016, matinée

Despite the lurid title, a quote from a former US defence secretary, Drones, Baby,Drones is a serious attempt to explore a form of warfare which needs to be brought out from the shadows.  Some of the names on the bill were already familiar to us from the marathon cycle of plays about nuclear weapons which Nicolas Kent put on at the Tricycle four years ago – The Bomb – A Partial History.  Here he directs while Ron Hutchinson and David Grieg write (or in Hutchinson’s case, co-write) a play each to make a compelling double-bill. At 110 minutes total running time, it’s a little shorter than the ten play spectacular they previously contributed to, but this creative team have lost none of their edge, and they have homed in on another timely and disturbing subject.

The first play refers to the regular Tuesday meetings at the White House where the targets for drone strikes were chosen.  The second explores the aftermath of a strike from the point of view of the ‘pilots’ who carry out strikes on the other side of the world.  Both plays are introduced by quotations from Clive Stafford Smith, Director of Reprieve, giving some unpalatable facts about the realities of drone warfare.

‘This Tuesday’, written by Ron Hutchinson and Christina Lamb, is skilfully put together and engaging, and hits the ground running with a serious car accident that becomes a pivotal event for one of the leading characters, as well as a metaphor for the strikes themselves.  The personal lives and political arguments are interwoven seamlessly, pressing home the message that however sophisticated the technology, there will always be a human, with all their limitations and failings, somewhere in the mix.  The various justifications, all claiming some kind of logic and objectivity, are paraded before us leaving a powerful sense that these meetings may not be as objective and rational as they claim. At well under an hour, though, this play does feel unfinished, and in such as short time, there is not much opportunity for the political arguments to get beyond the superficial.

David Grieg’s ‘The Kid’ explores what drone warfare does to the perpetrators, puncturing the myth of the ‘surgical strike’ and the idea that the such wars can be ‘casualty free’.  They may escape physical injury, but the mental toll is clear.  This drama is less fragmented, and with a cast of four (two drone operators and their partners), it has the feel of a cosy domestic drama ready to turn into something much darker.  The play starts with a celebration of the assassination of a long-pursued terrorist, except that one of the operators saw a small boy running towards the explosion, the other didn’t.  As the truth comes out along with the recriminations, the unnatural demands become clear.  The play ends with a spine-chilling and challenging proposition from the least likely character, the newly pregnant wife of one of the pilots.

The cast of these plays don’t waste any time establishing their characters, and they all rise to the challenge.  Anne Adams raises the emotional pitch right from the start with her performance as the mother, hysterical with grief and panic, who has just found out that her daughter may die from her injuries in a horrific car crash.  In the midst of the horror of her personal situation, she tries to ensure she can attend the Tuesday meeting to ensure the decision goes her way – she is desperate that her chosen ‘target’ is eliminated.  Not many actresses can be sympathetic and repellent at the same time, but she manages the feat. In her portrayal of the drone pilot in ‘The Kid’ she subtly suggests the gradual mental attrition of the work, which no amount of glorification can seem to alleviate.

Rose Reynolds effortlessly glides from the cocky intern, who takes great delight in taunting her married boyfriend about his Tuesday meetings, to the conflicted mother-to-be married to a drone operator and pleased to be able to enjoy the comforts of living in the suburbs on the other side of the world and have her husband home every night.  Tom McKay portrays a naive ambition in both of his characters, making a neat connection between the gung-ho security adviser who helps to choose the targets, and the drone pilot who carries out the orders.  The confident, childlike, facade is easily dented, revealing a deeper struggle with denial. Joseph Balderrama brings a grounded quality to the action, firstly as the jaded lawyer, and secondly as the partner who desperately wants to be supportive but lacks the imagination to do so.

This was a welcome taste of serious political drama, but it did leave us wanting more.  And just a few days later we were reading about new attempts to improve the performance of pilots and the difficulty of retaining them.

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