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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Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre lights up Metropolis

Sunday 15th October 2017

Metropolis is one of those musicals that is often referred to as a ‘flop’.  Having seen it ourselves, we are not sure that is really fair, considering it had a six months run and boasted a fantastic leading performance from Judy Kuhn, but we suspect the show might have been a victim of excessive production values which weren’t recouped.

And what better way to test that hypothesis that to put it on at Ye Olde Rose and Crown, a venue so tiny that the whole of it is smaller than just the set of the West End show.  Our expectations were high – this is the home of All Star Productions whose ambitions are limitless, and the director of this show, Tim McArthur, is a kind of Dr Frankenstein of the theatrical flop.  If he couldn’t breathe new life into it, we surmised, nobody can.

The plot doesn’t stand a lot of scrutiny, but the setting of the dystopian city is an enduring metaphor for injustice and slavery, as the workers at the bottom of the pile toil away at ‘machines’ to provide power for the elites above.  John Freeman, the founder and ruler of the only city left on Earth, is determined to keep his son and heir, Steven, ignorant about the terrible conditions of the workers.  Unfortunately for him, Steven falls in love with worker Maria when she comes up to upper levels of the city, strictly forbidden, and he follows her down below.  Now that his eyes are open, it is the beginning of the end for the tyrannical rule of his father.

It is the music which lifts the story by providing an emotional landscape.  Joe Brooks’ score is full of memorable tunes and motifs and beautiful ensemble pieces, interweaving the power and energy of the worker’s chorus with the soaring melodies of Maria and Steven.

The production stands or falls by the ability of the cast to transport us to another world, something they do resoundingly from the first notes to the final chorus.  Musical Director Aaron Clingham has had multiple ‘Offie’ nominations for his fantastic work with All Star Productions, and it would be a travesty if his work is not recognised this year.  The ensemble cast, all of whom take on multiple roles, blend together perfectly and generate a level of energy that probably could power a city, with stand-out solos from Tom Blackmore, Mark Mackinnon and Kitty Whitelaw.

Producer Andrew Yon has also found some exceptional lead performers.  The character of Maria is an intriguing one.  Although literally objectified and turned into a robot, she is the protagonist that drives the story forward.  Only afterwards did we discover that Thea Von Harbou, who subsequently became Fritz Lang’s wife, wrote the original story.  This may explain why Maria occupies the space usually taken by a man.  Maria requires an actress who can portray strength of character combined with an almost childlike innocence, something with Miiya Alexandra brings to the role in spades.  She has a radiant quality and a purity of voice which soars above the mayhem of the city, combined with a commanding stillness.  As Steven, Rob Herron provides the emotional centre of the story, taking us on a journey of love and the slow realisation that his life is going to be very different from what was planned out for him.  He delivers the role to perfection with a nuanced and powerful voice.  Gareth James has the unenviable task of stepping into the shoes of Brian Blessed as John Freeman. And how do you follow Brian Blessed? You follow another path.  James brings a quiet menace to the role which is highly effective.

All star productions and Tim McArthur have surpassed themselves with this production. We booked our tickets for a return visit as soon as we got home.

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Don’t shoot the messenger! Against at the Almeida Theatre

Saturday 19th August, evening

Against, a new play by Christopher Shinn being given its World premier at the Almeida Theatre, poses that age-old question for playwrights: how do you write a play about a fictional engineering genius if you are not a genius.  This play certainly gets 10 out of 10 for ambition all-round – firstly it is about a billionaire rocket inventor, secondly, he believes God is speaking to him, and thirdly, he is trying to change the world so radically that he hopes to change everybody from within.

If the play has a virtue, it is that there are no easy answers on offer (but then if there were, we guess Shinn would be out there spreading the word himself), and the focus is on the journey which Luke, the inventor and main protagonist, takes.  He questions everything and finds plenty of questions in return, and it can feel at times as if we are being reduced to a state of ‘aporia’, the term coined by Socrates for the feeling of being at a loss, not knowing anything, and, conversely, finally being ready to learn.  Luke does not have an agenda except to start a conversation which makes him vulnerable to those who shout the loudest, and there is a danger that the play loses its way along with him.  In an interview about writing ‘Against’, Shinn talks about a fine balance between giving the audience too much, and allowing them to do some work.  Well, he certainly can’t be accused of spoon-feeding, and quite frankly we would like a gold star for puzzling our way through the play, even if we still don’t know if we got the answers right.

There is one important advantage to starting out big, however – all the scenes, however domestic or apparently trivial, have a real edge to them, as though there is some hidden mystery.  A lesser writer might have stalled, but the quality and curiosity of the writing is engaging and draws us in as we try to assemble a jigsaw that seems to have half the pieces missing.  There are some brilliant scenes, such as the creative writing tutorials where we see the tutor going beyond the call of duty in trying to nurture his protegé both in her writing and her life; there is Luke’s chance meeting with a drug addict who suggests that he should get inside the rocket he has just successfully tested and start again on another planet with a hand-picked group of humans; there is the mayhem which Luke’s project causes the Sociology department of a University when he fails to project a positive enough image of sex work, and the brief moment when Luke reveals that he is secretly in love with his friend and co-worker by describing a dream about her in an interview, completely unaware that she might not appreciate the very public and apparently accidental declaration of love.

The problem is that there is no real dramatic payoff – the questions are raised, but sink back again into banality, which, although probably very truthful, is dissatisfying as a piece of theatre.

Ian Rickson, last seen by us as a Director creating an extraordinary Hamlet with Michael Sheen, does a great job of allowing the play to shine with very simple and unfussy direction.  He has also gathered and inspired an excellent cast, all of whom are very engaging.  Fehinti Balogun transforms himself beautifully from an elite athlete with peer group issues, to the befuddled addict struggling to find hope for the human race.  Emma D’Arcy as creative writing student Anna has a lightness to her which captures the ambiguity of character who still forming, who may be a brilliant writer – or not.  Kevin Harvey is a joy to watch in both of his incarnations, from the flamboyant writing tutor to the hopelessly shallow business rival of Luke, whose idea of changing the world is to get people to share shopping ideas on social media.  Amanda Hale as Luke’s friend and lover manages to sustain a state of perpetual puzzlement and frustration throughout the play, with some light relief when she doubles as the frothy childhood friend who tries to bring him back to Earth.

In many ways Ben Wishaw has the least rewarding character to play.  Luke remains a cipher despite efforts to bring us in to his personal life.  However, he rises above the text and creates a space around it, radiating a genuine innocence combined with the understated arrogance which tends to come with any mission to ‘save’ the world.

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No Sex Please we’re Shakespearean: Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Hackney Empire

Saturday 1st July 2017

As always, the Royal Academy of Music Musical Theatre department are on trend with their latest end of term production of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’, the musical.  Shakespeare has long provided rich pickings for those looking for a story to adapt from ‘Kiss Me Kate’ through ‘West Side Story’ to the doubly morphed ‘Return of the Forbidden Planet’.  We are not sure that this particular adaptation will reach the classic heights of those examples, but Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers have captured a twenty-something sensibility which is an excellent fit for students of musical theatre, indeed students anywhere.

The plot remains largely the same – the ‘King’ decides to take a vow of abstinence and persuades his three friends to join him in seclusion and philosophical study.  Meanwhile the Princess from a neighbouring ‘kingdom’ and her sidekicks is on her way over to do some ‘business’.  Needless to say, the vow doesn’t last long.

We have to be honest – this is pretty lightweight material, and a brave undertaking to replace Shakespeare’s poetry with music.  However, we can’t imagine this piece getting a better showcase.  Director Bruce Guthrie and his team have squeezed every last opportunity out of the material.  Set designer Loren Elstein gives us a fantastic design concept of a hotel lobby with lifts, multiple levels and doors, and the obligatory bar.  It is perfect for the farcical situations which will follow.  The direction is tight, maintaining a high level of energy and lots of little interludes which keep the action flowing.  There are plenty of moments for everyone.

The excellent cast are extremely versatile, and we are not sure if this is a compliment or not, but they left us wanting to see more of them.  We couldn’t help wishing for slightly more sophisticated material which might stretch them a bit more.

Having said all that there was some notable talent on display and plenty of high points.  As the King, Benjamin Froehlich perfectly conveyed the privilege of his position coupled with the uncertainty of youth and a hint of pomposity, and his vocal performance was impressive.  As Berowne, Jack Reitman looks like the odds-on favourite to break the vow first, but is ultimately beaten to it by his more pious friends.  He uses his charm and comedic talent to good effect in a series of mock-philosophical musical monologues.  Conor McFarlane as Dumaine and Charlotte Christensen as Maria make a delightful couple, especially in their fantasy sequence in which she appears as a wood nymph summoned by his musical prowess.  Laura Fuller’s Rosaline is worthy match for Berowne, dignified but vulnerable.  Sherelle Kelleher as barmaid Jaquenetta has a feisty presence and a nice line in perpetual confusion, and shows her soft side with a beautifully delivered soliloquy ‘Love’s a Gun’.  Johan Munir has a gift of a role with Don Armado, a figure of fun who completely wins us over with his over-the-top attempts to woo Jaquenetta.  Munir pulls out all the stops in his signature song ‘Jacquenetta’, and his comic scenes with Moth (Niall Docherty) are priceless, with Docherty trying to teach him some ‘moves’ to a jazzy sountrack.  Docherty does get a moment in the spotlight to sing about his love of cats, which he does with remarkable sincerity.  These two light up the stage every time they come on.

There are some great ensemble numbers, Don Armado’s show-stopping ‘Jaquenetta’ being one of them.  The hotel staff nicely undermine the shallow love-games of the main characters with their number ‘rich people’, and the Brabant song wittily dissects the characters’ attempts at flirtation.  But we have to nominate the East German post-modern dance sequence as the hilarious high point of the show when the four suitors try to express themselves with a dance that appears to be the bastard love-child of Kraftwerk and Marcel Marceau. Literally, indescribable.

We can’t help yearning a little for more challenging material for the RAM students – remember, this the institution that has previously given us Follies and Sweeney Todd, but it’s great to see a fresh crop of graduates with such an array of talent on show.

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Scarce half made up: Richard III at the Arcola Theatre

Saturday 13th May 2017, matinée

We didn’t have to think much about booking to see Greg Hicks playing Richard III at the Arcola.  He is a master of all that is dark and brooding, as his stunning solo performance in the Kreutzer Sonata revealed recently, and this is a play we hadn’t yet seen on stage.  We were hoping for a fresh take on an undoubted classic.

We have to wonder if Richard III would even get an airing if it wasn’t Shakespeare given its dubious sensibilities, and superstitious belief that physical deformities are a sign of the devil’s work.  Having said that Mat Fraser, who is currently playing the part in Hull, has said how liberating it is as a disabled actor to play a character who is pure evil – there is certainly a refreshing lack of political correctness here.

Then we wonder if, given the recent discovery of Richard III’s skeleton, which confirms his scoliosis but also suggests that it would have been easy to disguise, might inspire some different interpretations, and in particular the question, what if his physical deformity was not externalised at all, but had its effects felt through Richard’s psychology and the way that others viewed him?  And why are we wondering this? Well, the actor and director have to decide how to present Richard’s rather vaguely described physicality, and the avoidance of cliché must be a consideration.  Hicks and Ergen get ten out of ten for boldness, but unfortunately they have chosen such as bizarre setup that it becomes distracting in an unhelpful way.  Hicks has one arm completely immobilised and a chain attached to his foot which he occasionally uses to manoeuvre his leg around.  If the intention is to leave us in no doubt that Richard doesn’t quite fit in, it is achieved, but there are problems with an arrangement which looks physically unfeasible.  It feels as if the choice was made entirely to create a grotesque image.  The other important factor is whether we can believe in Richard as a warrior (which history tells us he most certainly was).  Modern versions can always solve this by making him a commander rather than a soldier, but in this version, although it is clearly updated, we still have a medieval pitched battle at the end and a knife fight which is incongruous to say the least.  It seems particularly ironic that in the play, Shakespeare goes out of his way to weaken Richard psychologically before the battle with lack of sleep and the relentless hauntings of those he has killed, and he never tries to suggest that Richard cannot handle himself in a fight. ‘Deformity’ is not the same as ‘disability’.  We think an actor of Hicks’ calibre, so famed for the physicality of his acting, could have done something more convincing without compromising the text, and really let us in to the psychological exploration of Richard.

The play itself, whilst understandably popular with actors, and the source of an iconic dramatic creation and some of the most famous lines of Shakespeare, doesn’t feel like one of his best dramatic works.  But in this production it could have been improved by a bit more pace, energy and imagination.  The play telescopes around 12 years of history into just under 3 hours, and sometimes it feels like it.  We also found some of the updating inconsistent and patchy, and not really serving the action.

At the end of the day, we wouldn’t have wanted to miss the opportunity of seeing Greg Hicks play one of the great villains, and he oozes evil and bitterness out of every pore. Peter Guinness excels at portraying another kind of evil, the opportunist who thinks he can control and use Richard for gain until he makes the mistake of showing a glimpse of humanity.  Paul Kemp doubles up nicely, first as the hapless and trusting George, Richard’s first victim, and secondly as his nemesis Lord Stanley, whose mask of cheerful dependability works very well for him.  Jane Bertish makes the most of her role as Queen Margaret, a character who technically wouldn’t have been at court at that time, but is placed there by Shakespeare to pour scorn over Richard and bring down curses on all those who have wronged her.  Of all the characters, she seems to have found peace in accepting the inevitable, making her an authoritative voice of doom.

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Found in Translation: Chinglish at the Park Theatre

Saturday 25th March 2017, matinée

It’s hard to believe it was nearly four years ago that the Park Theatre first introduced us to the talents of David Henry Hwang, when they premiered his challenging and outrageously funny play Yellowface.  Since then we have enjoyed the fascinating Golden Child at the New Diorama, but it’s been a long wait for the UK premier of ‘Chinglish’, which Andrew Keates is now directing at the Park.

Chinglish tells the story of an American businessman trying to break into China, and his journey, by turns painful and hilarious, as he learns who to trust and how to win over the locals. The story of his success is not what you would expect, and has a refreshing message for all of us.

Hwang has an uncanny ability to entertain and inform in equal measures without ever losing his integrity.  He has chosen a subject everyone can relate to and starts with everyone’s favourite activity – laughing at badly translated English signs – although he does turn the tables later on with a true story of a German academic journal getting some Chinese poetry very wrong indeed.  It is as if he has invented a new and highly entertaining form of farce, where much of the play is in Chinese, variously interpreted by incompetent interns, ‘consultants’ with their own agenda, and surtitles that give the ‘neutral’ translation.  He effortlessly combines lighthearted wordplay with a much more sophisticated underlying theme which leads us to question the whole nature of diplomacy and business, and the stories we all tell about ourselves, especially when we are out of our comfort zone, as it becomes clear that our hero will need to reinvent himself several times before he can get anywhere.

He also has a gift for identifying the prevalent clichés of the time, and subverting them. Thus we start out with the pushy American, the English ex pat ‘cultural expert’ with fluent Chinese, the corrupt and backward local mayor, and his hatchet-faced female deputy.  The play is perfectly constructed and paced to allow each of these characters to open up, and with multiple points of view, none of them remain stereotypes.  The American turns out to be a desperate fugitive, a participant in the Enron scandal, hoping he can escape if he puts enough miles between him and his past; the ex pat turns out to be a hopelessly out of touch colonial, mourning the time when a Chinese-speaking Englishman was a rarity and he could be waited on hand and foot.  And the hatchet faced local official turns out to be playing everyone to help her husband, with a little bit of romance on the side.

Director Andrew Keates has assembled a fantastic cast.  Candy Ma shines out in the role of the deputy mayor, with an exciting unpredictability which has us guessing throughout.  She combines this with suberb comic talent and imbues the character with unlikely charisma.  Gyuri Sarossy perfectly captures the thinly veiled desperation of the businessman, and conveys the charming and childlike bewilderment of the only character on stage who barely ever understands what it is going on, but ploughs on with enthusiasm regardless.  Duncan Harte is Peter, the English teacher who has lived in China long enough to think he knows the game.  He brings a languid sense of entitlement and somehow combines self-deprecating modesty with hidden arrogance in a neat passive-aggressive package.  Lobo Chan is the Mayor, a beleaguered man who knows his corruption will soon catch up with him.  He begrudgingly tries to enjoy his power while he has it but his failure to keep up with the times is betrayed by his old-fashioned Nokia phone.  His look of bemusement when his new phone starts ‘ringing’ tells a story in itself.

The main characters have excellent support from Siu-See Hung and Windson Liong as the hopeless assistants and Minhee Yeo, whose unashamed hero-worship when she finds out that her new prospective business partner rubbed shoulders with the guys from Enron, is a joy to watch.

David Henry Hwang has pulled off a great trick here, insulting everybody on an equal opportunities basis with great charm and humour, and giving us all something to think about – never has outrageous opportunism and corruption been this much fun.

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