W For Banker

Originally Written for Whats On Stage

W For Banker should be one episode in a half-hour BBC sitcom. Living up to its tag line as a ‘gentle jab’ at society’s obsession with status and money, it focuses entirely on ‘banker with no balls’ Johnny Nicholas and his unfortunate situation, trapped between a clever Sloaney wife and a mistress who’s hiding more than just a sharp mathematical brain up her delicate sleeves.

It’s certainly not a serious commentary on the banking crisis, comedic or otherwise. But whilst it never pegs itself as such it also never succeeds in breaking free from its TV studio roots to embrace a probing theatrical medium. The question has to be begged, why do this as a play at all?

Still, it is hard not to raise a begrudging smile at Ray Kilby and John Steinberg’s polished style and safe comedy. And although the plot seems both predictable and ridiculous – at one point Johnny and his lover, Lenka, are shown making millions in under a minute on three laptops in his bedroom – it reveals situations that don’t seem so far from the trading floor truths to which we have become accustomed.

The cast do a solid job with a script that doesn’t allow for much natural emotional progression, broken up as it is with ‘laughs’. Ben Nathan and Pandora Clifford’s comic assuredness is certainly fun to watch. But only Charlotte Pyke brings a darker dimension to the table as a mistress who is as much delightful Audrey Hepburn as she is flighty Holly Golightly.

Cutting in at a neat one hour 30 minutes (why they decided to include an interval in such a short evening isn’t quite clear), W For Banker certainly doesn’t bore. But it doesn’t dazzle either and whilst it will raise a giggle, in an entertainment world saturated with digs at bankers it ultimately comes across as a little outdated and unnecessary.

Runs until 18 April 2010.

Musical Pride and Prejudice

Originally written for The Public Reviews

 Last week I went to see the ENO doing Katya Kabanova at the Coliseum, a meaty piece of classical brilliance.  The next day I went to see Hairspray, a bubble gum piece of theatrical whimsy.   Katya was awe inspiring at points, and infinitely thought provoking, but for sheer balls out joy, nothing could beat Hairspray.

Whilst one is seen as a bastion of high art and the other, a guilty theatrical pleasure, opera and musicals have more in common than one may originally think.  Both art forms (and yes a great musical can be ‘art’) use music to transport the viewer into a heightened emotional state of ecstasy.   Deeply emotive, both do exactly what Aristotle championed, promoting a very healthy sense of catharsis.

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Manor oh Manor

Written for The Public Reviews

Martin Murphy is clearly a man obsessed with the shady goings on of East End gangsters.  But whilst there are some flashes of lyricism in this piece, Manor is for the most part an aggressively male dominated play that bludgeons the audience around the head with its often incomprehensible monologues and glorification of ‘geezer culture’.   Unless you’re as enamoured with the Krays as Murphy is, you’re going to be in for a very long evening.

Characters reminiscent of Guy Ritchie’s creations, only not quite as knowingly funny, circle each other within their ‘Manor’ or ‘gaff’. We have Stud, a petrifying yet stylish psychopath who runs a mini empire of doormen, Man, the overweight balding comic relief and owner of one such ‘gaff’ and Joe, whose boyish wide-eyed innocence hides a much darker destiny than he could have imagined.  Sadly it’s one that the audience can see coming a mile off.  When he and girlfriend Kel get caught by Stud doing coke and the apple of his eye is brutally mistreated (eyes being the operative word, Kel seems to captivate everyone through nothing but her steely glare) it is obvious what is going to happen.

Perhaps in an attempt to mix up this predictability Murphy’s structure jumps to and from the present to the past, imitating the fast paced rhythm of the aforementioned Ritchie.  Sadly this isn’t a film, and the space at The Tristan Bates Theatre is too small for this overblown production, the lights are too slow for the intentioned snaps to black, and the actors can’t get to their starting points due to slightly bemused audience members sat on each side of the stage.  Whilst one can clearly see what director James Kermack was trying to do there just simply isn’t enough room, meaning movement goes from slick to stumble.

The cast battle valiantly within their roles, and no one could say that they’re not trying to make this work.  But whilst Stephen Pucci creates some nice details to his central anti-hero and James Kermack succeeds in raising a smile or two throughout this long dark process, it really is a struggle for them to create any kind of live interaction either with each other or the audience.  Elspeth Rae as Kel has the embarrassing role of literally being nothing but the eye candy, with each attitude filled pose more clichéd than the last and no lines within the text at all; there is no room for women in this world it would seem, unless they are gangster’s molls.

But it’s not only the upsetting (probably unintentional but undeniably present) misogyny that bothers in Manor.  The question at the heart of this piece is why tell this story at all? Presupposing that you will inherently be interested in this fairytale world of gangster tussles is a dangerous game and one that seriously backfires here.  So whilst it’s not all bad, with funny moments and poetic sentences peppering the harshness, they become buried under a dated obsession which is Manor’s downfall. As the minutes tick by and the tirade of angry monologues just increases, it sadly feels like this is a show which is little but a big dollop of cockney sound and fury.

Runs until 3rd April

Return of the prodigal son/daughter?

Yes, yes I’ve been away *eek* but I thought I’d come back with a bit of controversy, I’ve got a blog coming up on the admirable Public Reviews website – link to follow – and will be posting another to do with none other than the review above. Enjoy and please, if you feel the need to comment don’t do it to my face, that’s what the internet is for. Mwah!

 

Knives In Hens – another hit for the Arcola

Written for What’s On Stage

The title of David Harrower’s 1995 debut Knives in Hens is an acutely powerful one prompting a reaction in people that cuts through understanding to a basic human shudder. It is a response that is in keeping with this play, where the written word is made sacred and the divine in nature is poetically evoked through the seemingly pedestrian act of naming.

Language is under the microscope here as sentences that have no space for florid ‘artistic’ themes transcend their mundane purpose to become detailed descriptions of greatness. A ploughman’s wife talks us through God’s omnipotent signature on nature with glistening eyes as she is tempted away from her husband ‘Pony’ William, his nickname darkly hinting at a stranger more primal connection than just owner and animal. Her temptation comes in the form of the local Miller, hated by the village for his lazy appropriation of their hard earned corn.

Darkly hinting could be Harrower’s tag line. As with Blackbird, his massive Edinburgh hit, Knives in Hens defies a standard explanation. He is bold enough to leave massive spaces around his lines, so that what hits one most tangibly, especially within this piece, is an incoherent and ephemeral feeling of the unknowable, of the omniscient presence of the ‘other’ that surrounds our seemingly normal characters. Maria Rijo’s warm cello playing and vocal work hauntingly underlines this presence throughout the piece.

Serdar Bilis’ shadowy but dynamic production lives up to its forceful, enigmatic title; the impressive creative team and cast once again proving that Studio 2 at The Arcola is surpassing its black box restrictions to become a 50 seat powerhouse.

Hannah Clark’s design crunches under foot with a thin green line representing a bare horizon that could mean either freedom or the wall of a cage.  It is a blisteringly potent cast that is trapped within it. As ‘Pony’ William Nathaniel Martello-White’s every amorous word is dripped in contempt and Phil Cheadle Gilbert brings a bewildered softness to the tempting devil of a Miller who sets the young woman free. In this role Jodie McNee is enthralling, being at once earthy mother and impish fawn and each twitchy nerve ending in our own bodies tingles with her experience.

 By marrying poetic abstraction with a visceral tale of betrayal and awakening, Harrower has created a compelling and driven piece of psychological study made of sturdy stuff.  In this production at The Arcola, it has been given a rendition well worth its mettle by an outstanding creative team.

Running until the 27th February 2010. For tickets click here

Cinderella On Ice

Written for The Public Reviews

Peppered around the London Underground a sweeping poster of a man and a woman elegantly advertises The Imperial Ice Stars new show Cinderella. It is a glamorous image and so it seems fitting that I am meeting with the stars and director in the fabulously stylish Brown’s in Covent Garden, and, that I should find them sipping cocktails after a long day of interviews. 

Eschewing a mojito in favour of a diet coke with great difficulty, Honour Bayes sat down with the lovely Olga Sharuntenko and her Prince Charming Andrei Penkine for a chat, all under the benign eye of director Tony Mercer.

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The Forecast – looking brighter than expected.

Written for Whats On Stage 23/01/10.

WEATHER FORECAST

The Forecast is a darling little ditty of a show that, whilst it may not live up to Marvin and The Cats’ lofty aspirations of dealing with climate change, certainly reaches fabulous heights of charming clowning and daring physical prowess.

Set against a swirling background of Turner-esque green, three moving mannequins take us through the delights of life aboard the cruise ship ‘The Power of The Seas’ in a massive rush of consumerist ecstasy. But amongst the cheesy grins and mind boggling luxuries a darker reality rears its ugly head as these characters are plunged literally out of their depth: a wild storm wrecks their moving pleasure dome and leaves them adrift on a much ‘cosier’ wooden raft, otherwise known as about eight planks of wood.

It is an intense hour that follows as an impressive sense of mental disintegration radiates through these fluid performers and turns their desperation into a tangible nightmare for those watching. At points they seem so wretched that one feels almost voyeuristic as they backtrack their way from sophisticated human beings to primates with cannibalistic intentions. But it’s not all darkness; the whole thing is played out with enjoyable comic élan from this Jacques Lecoq trained company, making it a strangely jolly experience.

Thom Monckton, Tamsin Clarke and Jay Miller (See News, 6 Aug 2009) are grotesque, sweet, sexual, frenzied, frenetic and manic. They deftly deliver complexly cartoonish performances that overflow with a childish exuberance contained within obvious heightened physical control. Moreover, as individualistic as each of these charming turns is, they are brilliantly attuned throughout. Whether it is the entwining of creepy hands and bodies, intricate balancing sequences or moments of synchronisation that echo the shifts and turns of shoals of fish, Sasha Milavic Davies has choreographed their plight with a heart warming humanity mingled with an impressive level of mimetic skill.

The Forecast is not a show on climate change and I think all the better for it; instead it is a piece that focuses with artistry and empathy on three normal human beings. In begging the question of what would happen to us if everything was stripped away, it takes its audience to dark places that somehow resonate for long after the end of this heartfelt performance. Overarching political message or not, The Forecast is definitely a must see.

The Forecast runs until 7th February 2010.

Decade – Theatre503

Decade, Theatre503,  Until 23rd January 2010                                       

Event picture

When we think back over the noughties what is it that we will remember? Ten writers at Theatre 503 are here to help with a short 10 minute piece for each year which act as a series of coat hangers for us to drape our memories on.

Of course there are moments that we will never forget; the twin towers (here shown with breathtaking artistry as a piece of graffiti on the back wall) and the consequent war in Iraq for example. These things changed the world permanently and have made an indelible imprint on a nation’s psyche. But there are also some more gentle nudges that tease out further defining moments of this first decade of the 21st century; a subverted look at The Special Relationship, the still horror of a face being rebuilt whilst dogs growl off stage, a young woman being interrogated for loving her captor, the tragedy of a Tsunami and perhaps a more worldwide pandemic – Facebook.  It is these subtler pieces which really bring the whole ramshackle experience of this past decade together, connecting previously isolated incidences into a coherent line of history.

Unifying both the 503Five, five unproduced playwrights working with Theatre503 this year, and five leading writers the standard is for the most part impressively high.  You soon forget if this is a fledgling or established talent on show.  All ten shorts speak with a unique voice and whilst some are stronger than others, this variety creates a patchwork realisation of our lives over the last ten years, fully embodying the diversity of a nation.  Perhaps more than a single writer, 10 can give a true sense to the multi-cultural, multi-sexual, multi-racial, multi-religious state of our great nation in all its messy beautiful and sometimes dark complexity.  Following on from such works as This Much Is True, which love it or loath it certainly prompted serious political debate, Decade shows that Theatre503 is beginning 2010 in the same full throttle style that it ended 2009.

It’s only on until tomorrow which is a real shame.  If you get the chance this 10 minute, 10 piece quilt is a piece of art that is definitely worth the laborious trip down to the somewhat isolated but increasingly important Theatre503.

Writers: Amy Rosenthal, Beth Steel, Nimer Rashed, David Eldridge, Lou Ramsden, Fraser Grace, April de Angelis, Richard Marsh, Phil Porter, Rex Obano.

Review – Doctor Faustus

Written for What’s On Stage – 19/1/10

Doctor Faustus at Stratford Circus until Saturday 6 February.

Men stand in artfully geometric lines swathed in 50s Macs and stylish trilbys. We could be down on the waterfront but instead we are plunged into a sexy, clubbing version of Christopher Marlowe’s hellish play, Doctor Faustus.

The tale of Faustus selling his soul to the devil, partying like a fiend for four and 20 years and then finally paying the price is one of the best known in the English speaking world. So it is baffling that a production that has such a consummate visual style could get the telling of this epic tale so amiss. And yet it does.

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Will the real ‘self’ please stand up?

Here’s a little something I made earlier.  Written initially in response to Stefan Golaszewski I’ve been sat on it for a while, but after seeing Kim Noble last week it got me thinking about it again and so it seemed a good time to dust it off and let it see the light of internet day…let me know what you think.

The old adage ‘write what you know’ has been prescribed haughtily to young writers for an eternity.  But in spite of its inherent restrictions it makes sense that experience breeds understanding.  For proof of this look no further than Stefan Golaszewski’s double bill at The Bush Theatre. Stefan Golaszewski Speaks About A Girl He Once Loved astutely voices a collective experience within the words of an individual.  The second memory infused Stefan Golaszewski Is A Widower lacks this symbiosis; Golaszewski has clearly been in love, but he hasn’t been old yet and it shows.

I’d been a fan of Golaszewski since 2008 when his first piece hit the Edinburgh Festival with an aura of the ‘genuine article’ about it; it had been pegged as revealing autobiography.  Write what you know had been gazumped by ‘write what you are’ and the excitement was palpable; as was the betrayal upon realizing that it had all been a big hum dinging lie. Golaszewski had made most of the detail up; it was a marketing ploy that we fell for hook line and sinker.

Why would they do this and why would I care so much upon realizing it wasn’t true? There is a frisson of excitement about truth in theatre because by its very nature it is a medium that demands a suspension of disbelief.  In 2009 critics are still bowled over by Golaszewski’s ‘emotional integrity’; it would appear even as we are told it is fiction we still long to believe it as fact.

I don’t believe that Tim Fountain’s hit 2004 show Sex Addict (where each night the audience pick a random man for him to sleep with and then hear about his previous night’s exploits) would have been such a success if it hadn’t been true.  If he had lied about his sexual adventures, we would have been less interested.

Since Spalding Gray dazzled audiences in 1980s New York with his minimalistic autobiographical monologues, our ‘selves’ have taken centre stage. But who exactly is the ‘self’? Artists such as Bobby Baker and Tim Miller use their own lives as the basis for their work; flickering between their ‘real’ and ‘performance’ selves with no overtly external indication.  It is sometimes impossible to know what is true and what isn’t: will the real Bobby Baker please stand up?

Frantic Assembly’s early work also begged this question of the audience.  Using their real names and speaking in such naturalistic dialogue that audiences thought their pieces were unscripted, it became increasingly hard to distinguish between performer and person, between character and actor.

In work such as this the most interesting moments come in the space between the truth and fiction, as the audience attempts to define what or rather who they are watching. But even as we accept the blurring of selves it cannot be denied that whilst writing what you know is good, the promise of exploring who you are is more titillating, and something that in theatre, we all fall for.