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

Review: Tuning Out With Radio Z

Written for What’s On StageTuning Out with Radio Z

In a the middle of a hamstrung nation the calming voices of Craig and Amanda sooth us through three hours of bleak twilight before dawn breaks on a brave new world. Tuning Out With Radio Z is a prolonged and diaphanous experience which eerily looks at loss; a diluted journey where occasional items of improvised and crafted brilliance spring out of the dullness of waiting. Intrigued in this monotony Stan’s Cafe include no interval in their marathon instead providing wristbands enabling you to take breaks, wittily stemming modern panic.

Our presenters fluctuate between super smooth harbingers of radio cliches to squabbling siblings, their comic rivalry masking an inherent connection and vulnerability; ‘Don’t leave us’ whisper the voices in our ear, ‘It’s scary here in the dark’. Talk radio bleeds into loosely enacted episodes where victims in this post apocalyptic world shimmer movingly into life.

A varied combination of rehearsed and improvised material alongside live audience contributions offered up through text message or email, it is remarkably easy to say tuned in to Radio Z. Our contributions could be utilised more fully, currently feeling slightly under-baked and there are periods of unfocused superfluity but Craig and Amanda always pull us back; you care about them and will leave with palpable stains of their plight etched in your mind. As ever with Stan’s Cafe, you might not know what to think, but you will be thinking something.

National Tour – dates below:

Warwick Arts Centre – Coventry
14 October 2010 to 16 October 2010

The Tobacco Factory – Bristol
04 November 2010 to 06 November 2010

The ShowRoom – Chichester
18 November 2010 to 18 November 2010

Review: The Country

Written for What’s On Stage

The CountryThe Country is a taut psychological domestic horror here performed with cutting elegance in Amelia Nicholson’s intelligent production. New country doctor Richard has brought an unconscious woman home, ostensibly under honourable pretences. His wife Corinne remains unconvinced and when the predator like Rebecca awakens dark truths are revealed. All the while Richard’s Lynchian colleague Maurie’s disembodied presence turns this threesome into a four way balancing act of power and control.

Martin Crimp’s hyper naturalistic dialogue could, in a lesser company’s hands, seem portentous but here each repetition and arch silence is delicately delivered with an integrity that makes these pronouncements compelling. Simon Thorp as Richard, the black hole each woman orbits, smoulders nicely doing as much as he can with a purely reactionary character.

But it is the women who are the stars here. Amanda Root whose flashing eyes and occasionally clipped hysteria alone reveal Corinne’s all encompassing desperation and Naomi Wattis as the volatile Rebecca, a rolling hipped wounded animal of a girl, whose lashing out does nothing to hide her vulnerability, give truly commanding performances.

Anna Bliss Scully’s sparse design makes us feel like we are peering in through glass windows at this implosion of safe family values and one gets the distinct impression that we are surgical students being shown how to perform a dissection. We are in a place of acute voyeuristic pain but there seems to also be a sense of instruction in the spaces around each cut. But there are no clean lessons to be learnt at the end of these demonstrations, only the experience of the potent moment to moment conquests and losses that make up our existence.

Runs from 28 September 2010 to 23 October 2010

Review: Faust

Written for Whats On StageFaust (Young Vic)

Vesturport’s Faust is a continuous display of theatrical bangs and whistles. With Andy Warhol as the devil, a synchronised wheelchair number and acrobats that explode onto the stage from all sides (including the ceiling), this explosive production is certainly in keeping with this dynamic company’s bombastic visual flair.

Johann is a famous actor glumly disillusioned with both his past achievements and his pretty nurses’ confidence in a heaven and hell. Into this stagnant old peoples home climbs Mefisto, a jerky re-animated corpse of a demon, who uses pretty Greta to tempt Johann into signing on the dotted line and becoming Faust. It is a blood pact entailing the promise of one lasting moment of happiness for Faust’s soul and is perhaps one of the most famous deals in literary history.

But for a story that is so well known, this production is as slippery as the promises of its devils. Vesturport’s grip on theatrical spectacle is undoubtable but more questionable is their ability to tell a story clearly. Thus in the middle of all the glamour and grotesque winking and nudging it is hard to follow the journey of our anti-hero. Although Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ sophisticated and emotive soundtrack succeeds in some ways in filling these narrative cracks.

Director Gisli Orn Gardarsson has thrown all he can at Goethe’s original text in a production which revels in the visceral theatricality of this morality tale. It’s impressive, and boasts some compelling performances, but ultimately it’s also muddled and confusingly busy. The moment of stillness at the end hits just the right note as the stakes of what have been lost are finally felt, but as with Faust’s own self realisation, it feels as though this moment of unfettered communication has come just a little too late.

Runs from 25 September 2010 to 30 October 2010

Review: Estate Walls

Written for What’s On StageBrief Encounter With ... Estate Walls' Arinze Kene

Battling brothers, a soaring love scene and a fool worthy of King Lear, Arinze Kene’s Estate Walls skips majestically between the epic and urban in a story that would feel as comfortable set against a Grecian palace as it does the grimy city wall of its title.

Three boyish men bat language around like marauding lion cubs, catching and throwing rhythms and rhymes with an undulating skill and energy that sweeps you away. They are old friends finally reunited by the return of the lean Cain, a hard edged youth back from jail. Making up this street triumvirate is motor mouth Myles, played with comic joie de vivre by Ricci McLeod, who swaggers around bigging up his beauty.  All the while third member Obi scribbles quietly away in his notebook, occasionally showing his claws and credentials by shooting damning zingers in Myles’ direction.

Into this clique bombs the frenetic Reggie (a brilliantly precise Huss Garbiya), a crack addict who trips delicately around the boys tight knit world and the eloquent Chelsea, the girl in the heart of more than one of these players. Both cause cataclysmic results.

Kene’s eclectic dialogue is a pleasure to listen to jumping from poetic to pithy and back again with remarkable ease and whipping its audience up into a vocal reaction to each barbed line or ego filled whistle. Che Walker’s direction forges a palpable bond between this rich language and the lithe, attitude filled postures of this powerful cast.

This is a strong debut for Inner City Theatre but although at points Estate Walls flies above the expected into the sublime it eventually lands, somewhat predictably, in the bosom of a conventional morality tale. For form alone however, it is well worth the ride.