Review: Children’s Children

Written for Exeunt

At one point in Matthew Dunster’s new play an earnest young man launches into a ten minute diatribe against the oil companies who are raping the natural world. He leaps from one desperate injustice to another, becoming increasingly depressed at the impossibility of a quest which is as epic as it is important. There’s just too much to care about, leaving him exhausted and frustrated.

The same could be said of this play. Dunster’s writing is laced with a kind of brutal humour which engages for a while. But he tries to cover so much ground that you begin to feel as if you’re being beaten into a submission. Statements are thrown about that dare us to care, generalisations are made about people’s selfishness and inability to see into the future, attacks are made against big business and perceived capitalist ideals. In an increasingly hysterical manner, Dunster begs his audience to see the bigger picture, to not simply think of themselves and their children but to think (you’ve guessed it) of our children’s children.

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Interview: Richard Bean

Written for IdeasTap

Richard Bean: Playwright

Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors is the National Theatre’s most successful export since War Horse and is currently running on both the West End and Broadway. Other plays include The Big Fellah and England People Very Nice. He talks to Honour Bayes about speaking the truth, writing what you know and not being cocky…

You became a playwright later in your career – what made you realise this is what you wanted to do and how did you go about doing it?

I never wanted to be a playwright. I morphed into one, having become a stand-up comedian with good material but a B-team performance, and then a comedy sketch writer for BBC. I wrote a play, Of Rats and Men, which went on the fringe and then the BBC picked it up as a 90-minute radio play.

I then started thinking that I might be able to write plays, and get them on, something I’d never believed. I wrote Toast which was a co-production between the National and the Royal Court and then all the doors opened.

Of Rats and Men and Toast drew from your past working as a psychologist and in a bread factory. Should writers draw from their own life experience?

I guess. People are very sniffy about the usual advice “write about what you know” but in truth everyone does that. The great writers mine their own experience and understanding of life and can only really write about the culture they know and understand. So it’s pretty good advice still.

As a retired stand-up, do you think it’s helpful for playwrights to also perform?

All experience is useful. For me, it has helped in understanding what is funny, and why something’s funny, and how it can be funnier.

England People Very Nice caused quite a bit of controversy, as have some of your award acceptance speeches! Do you think it is part of a writer’s role to provoke the establishment and audience?

It’s certainly part of a writer’s task to speak the truth. And that’s all I’ve ever done. I wasn’t aware that my acceptance speeches had upset anyone. It’s my chance to do a bit of stand-up, which I enjoy. Paul Taylor [theatre critic for the Independent] said after one acceptance speech that he didn’t like me, that I was too cocky, but he was wrong. I’ve never been cocky in my life. He just doesn’t like me.

Do you think it’s important for theatre to be political?

I think overtly political theatre can be a bit tedious. The best theatre is very human, with the politics there just because the business of humanity, trying to live with each other, is inherently political.

You have had huge success with One Man, Two Guvnors, an adaptation of the Commedia del Arte comedy, Servant of Two Masters. What’s the secret to a successful adaptation?

Usually truncate it, cut it, take out the verbosity, use full stops a lot.

This very British production has recently opened in Broadway. How much should a playwright let an audience’s cultural understanding affect their writing?

In an ideal world, one would be able to present a play to another culture in exactly the same way it was originally presented, but with a play like One Man, which only exists to make the audience laugh, it’s permissible to change the script. You can’t ask an actor to stand on an American stage night after night delivering a punch line which consists of “…. Swiss roll!” if the Americans don’t know what a Swiss roll is. It would be cruel to both actor and audience.

With a tragedy, one might change esoteric stuff just to get the meaning across. I had a version of Toast done in Geordie once, so that’s a wholesale change. It worked.

Review: The Irish Giant

Written for The Stage

Do you own a donor card? Even in our secular society the question of donating one’s organs after death, of carving up the body, causes some people moral angst. Imagine then how the idea would have struck the God-fearing folk of the 18th century.

‘Is there a material basis for the soul?’ is the question behind theatre company Cartoon de Salvo’s new show The Irish Giant. With a ragtag charm, Alex Murdoch, Brian Logan and Neil Haigh tell the story of Scottish anatomist John Hunter’s quest to obtain the body of Charles Byrne, an eight-foot tall Irish ‘giant’ (played with affecting tenderness by Haigh).

Murdoch, Logan and Haigh are immediately likeable performers and from the moment they dive into the dissected body of Hunter himself they have us in the palms of their hands. Byrne’s sad story is told with imaginative flare, involving witty musical interludes, Rebecca Hurst’s gorgeous animations and even a couple of bits of stage magic thrown in.

For all this The Irish Giant feels incomplete. Perhaps it’s a script that isn’t tight enough, or that the questioning isn’t sharp enough, but like the illusive soul for which they search, something is missing from this otherwise sweet show.

Runs until 9 June. For more information go here.

Review: The Hairy Ape

Written for Time Out

Emma King (as Mildred) and Bill Ward (as Yank) in The Hairy Ape, 2012

Eugene O’Neill’s expressionist monument to the oppressed industrial class is once more unleashed on London after 25 years. In Kate Budgen’s muscular revival the beast is given full rein, with a virile cast running full-tilt through O’Neill’s text. But though the walls of Southwark Playhouse shake, Budgen is never in danger of losing control in a production that is as stylish as it is visceral.

Yank works as a stoker on an ocean liner. Proud of his physical prowess and control over the engines, he is the king of his floating world. But when the daughter of a wealthy industrialist sees him and recoils in horror, her reaction pushes Yank up on to the streets of Manhattan to find out where he really belongs.

O’Neill’s play is an existentialist rollercoaster powered by a poetry which belies Yank’s brutish persona. This incongruity only adds to the nightmarish quality of the text; a subconscious world is vividly evoked by Tom Gibbons’s and Richard Howell’s superb sound and lighting design. Jean Chan’s set creates each personal circle of hell with economical imaginative flare.

O’Neill’s bullet-fire dialogue is sometimes muffled here, but his lyricism is given full flight by an impassioned and textured ensemble. As Yank, the human engine who powers this story, Bill Ward gives a tormented and towering performance.

Running until 9 June 2012. For more information go here.


Review: A Slow Air

Written for Time Out

David Harrower’s ‘A Slow Air’ takes its time but stick with it and this potent two-hander will reward your patience. 80 minutes of alternating monologues, Harrower’s newest play is a departure from the ‘less is more’ approach of previous work such as the Olivier-winning ‘Blackbird’. But his newly talkative style does nothing to dilute the power of a piece which is as strangely affecting as its title – and was critically acclaimed this year in New York and last summer at the Edinburgh Festival.

Athol lives in a bungalow in Glasgow while his estranged sister Morna is in Edinburgh, shagging a man she sardonically calls ‘Sir Galahad’ and acting like a wounded animal with everyone else. Their 14-year silence is about to be broken by Morna’s troubled teenage son, Joshua.

In the litany of betrayals that ensues, the poetry of Athol and Morna’s storytelling is so deceptively domestic that one moment you’re smiling about cleaning or golf and the next you’re swallowing back tears. I haven’t felt this moved by the complexity of normal people or their failure to connect since I read Jonathan Franzen’s ‘The Corrections’.

As director, Harrower tackles his play with quiet confidence, letting the words do most of the talking. In a compelling production, he leaves the emotional explosions that threaten to engulf each utterance bubbling beneath the words. Susan Vidler takes time to settle into Morna’s swagger but finds her stride magnificently by the end. And Lewis Howden breathes rich texture into Athol, a gentle man emotionally brought low by his own ordinariness.

Running until 2 June 2012. For more information go here.


Review: Unhappy Birthday

Written for Exeunt Magazine

I miss the days when birthday parties included goodie bags, paper hats and pass the parcel (those ironic Shoreditch ones don’t count). Fortunately Amy Lamé is throwing just such  a shindig at Camden People’s Theatre. Inspired by a Morrissey song from Lamé’s favourite album, Unhappy Birthday explores her complicated relationship with the iconic pop star.

As we walk into the CPT studio we’re given party poppers and red hats, rehydrated potato sticks and, on the night that I went, a piece of birthday cake. It’s fair to say that the excitement levels in the room are pretty high, but there’s also a sense of nervousness, a prickly tension in the air; Lamé is as nice as pie but there’s a mischievous twinkle in her eye that’s unnerving.

I take a seat next to a chair that has been saved for Morrissey, which in retrospect may not have been the best idea in a piece that increasingly feels like it’s going to involve audience participation. “Are you having fun?” Lamé asks, rather wildly; this is a party after all and she wants us all to feel included. A giant red parcel sits promisingly on a table in the middle of the room, the music starts and we’re off.

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Review: As You Like It

Written for The Stage

While the big boys are wowing us with the World Shakespeare Festival and Globe to Globe, it’s great to see smaller venues doing the Bard proud too. Rae McKen’s boisterous production of As You Like It takes a suitably light touch to one of Shakespeare’s frothiest comedies, drawing plenty of giggles from this jam-packed audience.

What this cast lack in age they more than make up for in youthful energy. If they are unable to fully convince as fathers, it is in the boyish scenes between banished lords or flushed moments of twirling sisterly affection that they excel.

Oliver Mott’s Orlando would make Justin Bieber fans swoon, while Rebecca Loudon marries a handsome girl and bonnie youth together beautifully as Rosalind, although perhaps she throws her arms out in joyous abandon a little too much. Wild At Heart’s Olivia Scott-Taylor makes a lovely Celia, a role where the devil really is in the detail and perfect for an actress straight from the telly.

But it is Fred Gray as the melancholy Jacques who most impresses, bringing some much-needed gravitas and delivering a truly compelling “All the world’s a stage” speech – definitely an actor to watch.