Review: Desolate Heaven

Written for The Stage

Desolate Heaven is a potent coming of age story. Two girls burdened with caring for their parents run away together. On their travels they meet three strange women – played with rather discombobulating relish by Tony Award-winner Brid Brennan – who help them.

Opaque references to the early 20th century poet WB Yeats are everywhere, from the story that each woman tells the girls – The Lazy Beauty and Her Aunts, which appeared in a collection he edited – to the poem the play ends on – The Stolen Child. But the meaning behind these references is unclear and they cloud the affecting story of love and betrayal between Orlaith and Sive.

Carla Langley as the frank Orlaith is as brittle as glass but breaks just as easily, while as the gentler Sive Evelyn Lockley infuses the stage with a warm but fragile tenderness. Their relationship is utterly compelling and these two actresses have a great understanding of each other’s roles.

Paul Robinson’s imaginative direction and Steve Kirkham’s movement work make this a dynamic production. But for all their effort Desolate Heaven is eventually weighed down by its own Yeatsian mystique.

Runs until 2nd March 2013. For more information go here

The Consultant @ Theatre 503

Written for http://exeuntmagazine.com

cording to Hydrocracker, in Labour’s last full year in power, the party laid out a cool £1.8 billion of tax payers cash on consultants. Whilst we’re all used to hearing terrible tales of NHS consultancy gone wrong, this is still a staggering truth. In his new play The Consultant, Neil Fleming aims to put this expensive profession under the microscope; just exactly what do these jargon-makers and “Self Help” movers-and-shakers give you for your pound?

At the end of The Consultant we are, somewhat ironically, no nearer to a clear answer. In being unable to avoid cliché, and confounding issues instead of clarifying them, it seems Fleming has fallen into the very trap of the people he is supposed to be exposing.

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Review: Coalition at Theatre 503 (The Blue Group)

Coalition (Blue Group)

Written for www.whatsonstage.com

As the competitively named Rivals opens in the West End, Theatre503 is pushing an altogether friendlier agenda with its Coalition season. Encompassing five short works in each group, the Yellow and Blue programmes will be performed in rep with yesterday the Blue group taking to the podium (tonight is Yellow and so on and so forth).

In a spirited, if slightly patchy, evening and with stringent colour loyalty (am I reading too much into this?) the focus is squarely on the lily livered Lib Dems, betrayers of left wing artists and students everywhere.

Westminster Side Story starts us off with a joyously smart, kitsch extravaganza. True satire that really makes us think, the marriage of poet Richard Marsh and Rogue Nouveau (cover name for singer/songwriter Natalia Sheppard) is a collaboration that this voter would like to see a lot more of. Full of dexterous verbal wit, it is an irreverent look at Clegg’s agonised pre-coalition quagmire with some cracking songs thrown in and a cavalcade of hilarious dance numbers. But even as it lampoons these buffoonish anti-heroes, the sucker punch ending takes us all painfully to account; as in life there are no easy options here.

A witty film of David Cameron and Nick Clegg peddling their BS around the streets of Brixton, like a suited and booted tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum, leads us in to a much weaker Altogether Now that just feels plain awkward. To round off act one, an inside look into the life of the notoriously private wife of the Lib Dem leader titled Miriam. Gonzalez. Durantez. which boasts a nice central performance but is never quite as interesting as it promises to be.

A subtle second act sees Gordon Brown’s speech writer Kirsty McNeill and playwright Daniel Kanaber take the idea of getting Nick Clegg into bed literally with the sexually fuelled Dexterity, a smooth if slight piece. To round off the proceedings The Prophets And The Puppets sees the most stylistically interesting collaboration between writer Nimer Rashed and legendary puppeteer Ronnie Le Drew. Although it’s a little lacking in power, it speaks about coalition in a beautifully lyrical fashion and is probably the only surprise response to this subject matter.

With two downright successes, three competent efforts and only one disaster Theatre503’s Coalition is so far one which should make this Government jealous. But with the majority of collaborations between writers of some sort or another, it is a little safe perhaps (so safe an ex-Prime Minister was in attendance on press night). Let’s see if the Yellow group can be a little bit more adventurous.

In rep until 05 December 2010

Reviews (well more like historical pieces of description) The Charming Man & Reasons To Be Cheerful

Hmmmm so my timing for this poor blog is shoddy and these producitons are now over. Good work Honour.

Please therefore see these as pieces of interest instead of recommendations, or not, as the case may be.

Written for www.fourthwallmagazine.co.uk (of which I am now Theatre Editor BTW!)

The Charming Man

Theatre 503’s The Charming Man boasts some snappy dialogue, wise cracking humour and a very charming central performance, but in terms of political satire it feels about as serious as Boris Johnson.

Set five years into the future, a political void has arisen from a resounding loss of trust in the two big parties (it is unclear which of them is currently in power now, if anyone at all) and the smaller ones are jostling for power. Enter the party with an unshakeable moral core, the Green Party, to save the day in a world of headless chicken politics. But as Party High Command groom Darren, an unknown black, gay youth worker, for the role of Prime Minister, it seems rather predictably they are not as squeaky clean as the world takes them for.

Claiming to be an irreverent look at the machinations of government, Gabriel Bisset-Smith’s script is certainly full of pithy comedy but it feels under researched, with the lampooning consequently unfocused and the machinery of politics untouched.  To take a scalpel to something one must really know the subject and neither Bisset-Smith nor director Paul Robinson appear to have the insiders’ grasp that makes for cutting satire. Only the beginning of a scene depicting a live TV debate feels true enough to relish in Western politics’ inherent absurdity.

Libby Watson’s strangely confusing design equally lacks rigour. But in the midst of the headless chickens there are some intelligent performances from Syrus Lowe as the charismatic Darren and Kate Sissons, whose impassioned activist Olivia, brings fire and integrity into this political world full of caricatures and clowns.

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Reasons To Be Cheerful

Defiant teenagers pogo around the stage, exploding into impassioned impressions each time an Ian Dury song is even referenced, let alone played in full. But for all this wilful wildness, Reasons To Be Cheerful feels slightly too polished, a little too planned; there’s revelry here but is there real rebellion?

This is partly to do with a story that purely acts as scaffolding to as many Dury songs as possible. Dury fans Vinnie, Colin and Janine are determined to see him live, but when a road trip goes wrong, they end up experiencing something incredibly different, although just as important. In a pub play within a play, they are here to share the events of that day and honour someone very dear to them.

It’s a slight premise for a two hour show and a rather sentimental one. It’s hard not to imagine writer Paul Sirret saying ‘To hell with character development, we need to get Wake Up And Make Love With Me in here by hook or by crook so Janine better start feeling sleepy’. This laziness is annoying as it comes mingled with sporadic moments of beautiful dialogue and flashes of poignancy that enrich this likeable gang and leave one feeling that this could have been much better.

But the cast and band are amiable in the extreme and their eagerness goes a long way in winning one over. Even if the knowingness of their bon ami becomes a little grating, they are brilliant, performing each moment to the hilt. Graeae have once more produced a fully integrated and accessible show, that bypasses discussions of disability to focus squarely on the talent on stage. And a talented bunch they are, sweeping us up in a sophisticated production which goes a long way to belaying the simplicity of the script. If a little contrived, Graeae still prove there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful in this boisterous night out.

Interview: Gabriel Bisset-Smith and Paul Robinson on The Charming Man

Written for Whats On Stage

Christopher Brandon & Syrus Lowe in The Charming ManIt’s a common misconception that life isn’t funny even when it’s tragic, even when you’re in terrible situations funny stuff still happens and it makes it more moving.” Gabriel Bisset-Smith grins earnestly and I can’t help but grin back because it rings so true. As a Nation in the thralls of a Comprehensive Spending Review so drastic that to call it a terrible situation seems like an understatement, it feels the only thing one can do is laugh. But as the West End seeks solace in a nostalgic representation of political ridicule with Yes, Prime Minister, Theatre503 is heading up a season of playful contemporary satire, beginning with Bisset-Smith’s The Charming Man.

Inspired in part by the change brought by Barack Obama but set in the future, it documents the rise to power of a black youth worker whose integrity becomes polluted by a messy political world; is change possible within this immoral quagmire? “The most important thing The Charming Man is asking us is what kind of leader we most respond to’ director Paul Robinson explains: “the central question is do we want someone of integrity or do we want someone who is popular and can we tell the difference between the two.”

Whilst they are not trying to do a Have I Got News For You, constant re-writes throughout the rehearsal process mean it is as up-to-the-minute as you can get (“It’s really exciting to go home and watch the news and think oh maybe I can work in something about the Milibands”). But won’t something so linked to the ‘now’ age badly? It’s a concern that Bisset-Smith is remarkably candid about ‘When you write you wanna write stuff that you think they will be performed for years! You think…this is going to be my View From The Bridge and with this… they can’t do this play in 2015, it is just for now… that’s a bit scary because as a writer it’s quite a lot to invest.”

Far from being depressed by the idea that his play could be tomorrow’s fish and chip paper Bisset-Smith seems to find the whole thing exhilarating. Robinson agrees; “I think too often with theatre you do switch on a slightly more erudite or sort of aspirational side of your head that is a generalised part … I’m really excited about people walking in (and) being really engaged with something that’s current and saying “I’ve just come from out there and from reading the Metro and this is about that.”

Much like the political world it reflects, the process of commissioning, rehearsing and producing this play has been a whirlwind one, essentially taking place over just two months. Complete strangers initially, they appear fast friends now having worked closely throughout the rehearsal process (“It’s been a crash course in rehearsal politics!” Bisset-Smith confesses) and it is a collaboration that seems to come from a genuinely shared artistic understanding.

But for all their earnestness the smooth world of politics does seem to have rubbed off on them; “In some ways the play is our candidate for election and we’re going ‘Will they vote for it… does this hold up?’ I feel like we’ve been grooming a candidate and trying to get him to say the right thing and we are the spin doctors behind it.” Whilst Robinson chuckles, Bisset-Smith grins again like a charming candidate himself, beaming at me and I can’t help but grin back.

Runs until 13 November 2010

This much is true and I’m not pulling any punches.

This Much is True picture

Sally Stott has written an interesting and seemingly controversial blog asking the question already buzzing around my own head since seeing This Much Is True.  The Theatre 503 show is the newest play to deal with the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes.  Sally posits the idea that, in the light of the two productions already surrounding this topic, it’s time for leftwing playwrights to broaden their scope and tackle a new subject.  She has been quite strongly reprimanded for her comments but I feel that hers is a completely valid and pertinent assessment propose that she was actually a little too kind to the newest edition to this canon.

I had an incredibly strong reaction to the ‘in yer face’ nature of Peter Unwin and Sarah Beck’s play.  Dazzling as it may have been, with it’s over theatricalised stage dressing and genuinely impressive and versatile performances, overall it smacked of a desperate knowledge that they didn’t have enough new material to justify the creation this show. The term bandwagon springs lightly to mind.  Maybe it was this slightly vacuous feel to the work, or the high level of emotional manipulation that upset me but I really felt its stylish yet wide reaching and unfocused approach made the whole thing seem gratuitous and consequently in bad taste.  Style won over substance and when you’re dealing with life and death that just can’t be allowed to happen.

Unwin has responded to Sally’s piece and Lyn Gardner’s review vehemently, saying they did in fact have reams of new material.  It’s funny how it really didn’t feel that way.  True, we did hear more from the family but it is hard to know how this enlightens our understanding of the tragedy which unfolded here except to make us feel more emotionally connected with him as a person.  I for one felt this human connection to Jean Charles de Menezes strongly enough through watching his actual family on television speaking about him; how does copying it word for word, using an actor as a mouth piece and adding some gratuitous theatrical wizardry really help? 

This could be seen as a bigger issue with verbatim theatre as a whole.  It can clearly be a powerful tool as the seminal Black Watch, the amusing The Girlfriend Experience or the touching Caravan have proven.  But using people’s real words is so en vogue that people seem to be using it willy nilly now in order to simply sell a show.  It should be used to give voice to those whose issues can’t be heard any other way.  By repeating what has already been spoken in a truer, less jazzy sphere, Unwin and Beck’s seem to be doing nothing but treading old ground to try to glorify their own artistic ambition and very little else.

That’s incredibly tough of me, but for some reason I feel the need to be extreme in this situation.  I wish that Unwin and Beck had taken their considerable talent and turned it elsewhere to tell stories that aren’t really vocalised yet.  Then maybe I would have felt that their integrity matched their prowess and turned my concentration away from the spectacle to listen to them a bit more.