Clybourne Park- BOVTS at Weston Studio ☆☆☆

clybourne park

Originally published in the Bristol Post on the 14th November

Eight years after Clybourne Park hit our shores in a meticulous Royal Court production that rode to West End success, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School revives Bruce Norris’ scathing play about racial disharmony. Although it inevitably can’t compete with the memories of Dominic Cooke’s splendid premiere production, it still shows that Norris’ work has the ability to thrash liberal hypocrisy and provide uneasy laughs.

A companion of sorts to Lorraine Hansbury’s A Raisin’ In The Sun, we begin in 1959 in a suburban Chicago suburb where Bev (Holly Carpenter) and Russ (Jason Imlach) have sold their house for a knockdown fee to a Black couple (the Younger family from Hansbury’s classic) much to the disquiet from neighbour Carl (a smarmy Finnbar Haymar) who comes round and publicly berates them in front of the neighbourhood for damaging the price of property.

In 2009 a young white couple wants to build an extension on the same plot of land, but face resistance from the all-black neighbourhood committee who feel this will erase the cultural significance of the block. Smartly cross cast to show how times may change but attitudes do not, it gradually builds up until a cascade of jokes that leave its audience gaping and unsure whether to laugh or cry. If you’ve ever wanted to know why a white woman is like a tampon, or what happens when a prison cell is shut on a black man and a white man, this show will give you some cringe-worthy answers.

Though it won both an Olivier and Tony for Best Play the work has created some controversy. Kwame Kwei-Armah has discussed how furious the work made him after watching it; as the white neighbours in ’59 state ‘’If you let them in, the neighbourhood will be destroyed’’, and fifty years later we are told about the difficult history of the street as violence and drugs ran rampant. Norris, perhaps unwittingly Armah asserts penned a piece where ‘’whites flight and blacks blight. That whites build and blacks destroy.’’ Reading the piece through this prism, it is difficult to overlook the implicit bias within the piece and the laughter sticks in the throat as a result.

The graduating students of BOVTS, perhaps deliberately, don’t tear into the grotesquery as much as required. The laughs are restrained early, and because of this, when we get to the riskier material, the audience isn’t fully onside to go with it.

 On a first viewing of the class of 2019 grads, Carpenter stands out as a neurotic housewife and a lawyer who can’t see past her own privilege and Mofetoluwa Akande is superb as a maid who is dragged into a conversation she does not want to be a part of and as a spiky neighbour who may be no worse in her bigotry than Carl.

It may now appear more problematic than it first appeared, but Clybourne Park is still a piece with plenty to say and a spike in its tale.

Clybourne Park plays at the Weston Studio until 17 November



All You Need Is LSD- Wardrobe Theatre ☆☆☆

Originally written for the Bristol Post on 02/11/18


For 25 years Told by an Idiot have been the purveyors of the theatrically unexpected. All You Need Is LSD, currently playing at Tobacco Factory Theatres, may be their most unexpected piece yet, one-part Open University television lecture, mixed with a sprinkle of Alice Through the Looking Glass and a big dollop of a Doctor Who multidimensional adventure story. It’s a theatrical collage that explores the history of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide- LSD for short- not through conventional biopic but one big hallucinogenic trip. It’s both heavily overindulgent and smartly done.
Playwright Leo Butler has deviated away from his ‘‘customary narrative style’’ to bring an experience that takes its audience on a trip akin to partaking in a tab. The playwright Leonora Butler (names have been changed to protect the identity of the real person George Pott’s bearded Doctor drily tells us) signs up for a clinical LSD experiment and soon is flying down a rabbit hole of the romantic poets and Aldous Huxley, the serious psychiatric experiments of Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who discovered the drug and the more colourful psychedelia of American psychologist Timothy Leary.
The piece never stops moving, veering from scene to scene with heady abandonment that leaves its audience constantly unsteady. The four-strong cast plays it broad, taking great delight in switching between characters as diverse as The Fab Four John, Paul, Ringo and George and an ‘‘I won a Bafta, don’t-ya-know’’ Dame Helen Mirren, to the playwright’s family and the clinician’s who put LSD on the map. Sophie Clist’s futuristic all-white set is used as an adventure playground to clamber over and disappear within.
Like many trips though, its high doesn’t last. The jokes aren’t as funny when they’re overegged for the third and fourth time and it is played so broadly that when they try to get serious, with an overlong deathbed scene, it strains the patience more than dampens the eye.
It also isn’t fully clear what it’s trying to say; a demand to bring back a drug that is medically proven to be safer for its user than alcohol, or a celebration of a counter-culture whose imagination was sparked by enhanced means? Maybe it’s just a paean to the imagination, a final scene where LSD enhanced playwright connects with their child through their heightened imagination shows that it’s only the onset of adulthood that affects our abilities to dream. It’s not a problem for the creative minds of Told by an Idiot, who, after a quarter of a century, still take their theatre in the most unexpected of directions.

An Indian Abroad- Wardrobe Theatre ☆☆☆☆


That Pariah Khan is a smart man. His satirical one-man play, An Indian Abroad, takes aim at all those mega-hit spiritual enlightenment journeys, think Julia Roberts carb loading in Eat, Pray, Love or Diane Lane banging an Italian in Under the Tuscan Sun and flips the sun for sweaty Tubes and grey overcast Autumnal days. When one Indian decides to spend his gap year seeking enlightenment in Blighty, away from forced marriages and a life already plotted out, his journey will take him on cider fuzzy nights out, Christmas dinner with the Queen’s speech and the purgatory of an A&E waiting room.

It’s a jaunty hour, full of well-timed gags that show the development process for this work included time to practice routines on the stand-up circuit. Yet beneath the joviality, there lies an acerbic touch.  British culture is laid- with a soft touch- bare, and, especially regarding issues around race, mostly found wanting. His girlfriend drops casual racism, everyone assumes he’s Muslim, his encounter with an EDL rally leads to a bizarre discussion about exactly what the racist sprouting bigot is trying to say in his ill-informed platitudes.

The work is just as sharp with the foibles of everyday life in the UK. He may start the show in a one size too small football shirt, excited about his visit to his personal mecca Old Trafford but ferried out to the cultures of Bradford and Birmingham, he looks out front and blankly asks ‘where are all the white people’. The jokes land as well as they do because they are so in touch with the knowing in-jokes that make up a culture. Changing tops for a New Year’s party, he starts to sing the first few lines of Auld Lang Syne, before sheepishly humming, a flashback to every New Year event where the dawning realisation hits everyone that not one person there knows the words.

Eduardo Guano’s production is attuned to the detail, concocting a world with nothing more than four chairs, a calendar that marks the ever-shifting seasons and clothes rack at the back of the stage. That focus also applies to Khan, whose performance style can be marketed as intense and precise. It’s a style that you feel Brecht may have applauded, as though performer has taken a step outside of the character and is silently commenting on what he, and we, are watching. It keeps an audience on the edge, not fully sure if a switch is about to be flicked. There is nothing cosy here, all sharp movements, long lines of limbs and no wasted movement He never connects emotionally to the crowd, always addressing over a head or with an intense stare. It keeps things lively but sometimes seems to bat against the text, which is full of warmth where his performance is full of query. It’s a useful tool to have in his arsenal, a style that feels so different from most other performers, but perversely I needed more empathy.

Still, that may be my problem more than his and there is no doubt Khan is a talent with a voice that should be heard. Its climax may still be in search of a conclusion, but a packed to the rafters Wardrobe Theatre applauded heartily at the end of night one of his two night sold out run. It’s the welcome of Khan to a scene that badly needs voices like his.

The Duke- Spielman Theatre ☆☆☆☆

Originally written for The Bristol Post on the 31/10/18.

The Bristol theatre scene has had a necessary shot of adrenaline with two studio theatres reopening within the space of a week of each other. Sponsored named theatres aside (it’s the curse of the modern age) the Weston studio at Bristol Old Vic and the Spielman Theatre at the Tobacco Factory promises to bring the kind of work back to Bristol that would have been swallowed up by the main house spaces.

Case in point, Shôn Dale-Jone’s The Duke, which weaves three disparate story strands together, to form a warm embrace of polished storytelling theatre. In 1974, Dale-Jone’s father brought a porcelain figure of the Duke Of Wellington for a sum worth in today’s currency, roughly £8,100. When his widowed, lonely Mother breaks the figure while cleaning; it sends him on an adventure to replace it, in the same week that he is due to implement 15 pages of notes to his film script that could lead to a big payday. Meanwhile, on the radio, the tragedy of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean keeps entering his consciousness.
Filmmaker Luis Buñuel stated that ‘’fact and fiction are equally personal and equally felt’’, and the mix here of the real and created blend together perfectly, so we are unsure of where one ends and the other begins. What starts as the grind of everyday living becomes a Wild West adventure of crooked antique dealers and corrupt cops. At its heart though, The Duke celebrates humanities capacity for kindness. It’s in the way a son goes on an odyssey to replace a priceless memento, or how his wife quietly supports him even as he blindly spends money they don’t have. The refugee crisis only pops up three times during the piece but blending it into a small everyday story of the family brings it closer to home. Something that can feel abstract on television becomes deeply personal when brought into such a personal story.

This Fringe first award-winning piece has recently been broadcast on Radio 4, but stories work best when experienced in a communal space. Dale-Jones is a welcoming host, a handshake on the way in and a chocolate celebration on the way out. It’s a lo-fi piece, just performer, Mac, a small microphone and a lilting Welsh tone but as in all the best stories Dale-Jones takes us on an epic journey. The programme states that the show has received 18 four-star reviews since starting its UK tour. Well, make that 19. More importantly, though, he is now only a few hundred pounds away from raising £50,000 for child refugees that have been raised with after-show collections. He hopes to hit that target while in Bristol. So, you have until Saturday to get along and dig deep. Human kindness goes a long way.


La Cenerentola- WNO at Bristol Hippdrome ☆☆☆

Private passions are the overarching theme of the Welsh National Opera Autumn 2018 season, and these passions are at the fore of Joan Font’s frothy 2007 production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola, given a revival here by the piece’s original choreographer Xevi Dorca. After the bombast of War and Peace and the aching masterpiece of La Traviata, this Cinderella is lighter fare, the kind of work that passes over its audience in a flurry of garish costumes and perky musical motifs. For some it may all prove too much, a flurry of pantomime a few months before Brian Conley and Gok Wan hit the Hippodrome stage, but beyond its high camp production, musicianship is high, led by WNO musical director Tomáŝ Hanus, the spending WNO orchestra and committed all-male chorus and a number of distinguished principals.

Rossini originally discarded the supernatural from Basini’s original folktale for the works 1817 premiere, but its back in Font’s Commedia dell-arte inspired work; the Prince’s tutor Alidoro is here garbed in the Disney Fantasia cloak and the six mice that accompany Angelina from house chores to ball and back have a similar Walt aesthetic in their overlarge heads and perky movement work. If Angelina travels to the ball, not by horse and carriage but a mouse drawn bathtub there is still the touch of illusion, highlighted by Joan Guillén’s design, the 19th century with an art-deco twist, a bubblegum sweetshop with a dark exterior hidden beneath. It constantly shifts between an aesthetic of poor theatre and blazing colour, as though taking its audience into a leisurely afternoon nap when dream and reality constantly knock up against each other. If the characters constantly crow about how it all feels a dream, then its final coda is a brutal slamming shut of the dream haze and back into a depressing reality.

Tara Erraught’s Angelina is rather restrained as the Cinder’s who does go to the ball. Her mezzo is smoky and colourful, but she rarely let’s rip, only in her final rondo ‘Non piú mesta’ does she get to unleash her coloratura to scene-stealing effect. Her performance is as the everywoman, restrained and grounded, but in a production loaded with excess this grounding can get lost occasionally. In much more show-stealing mood were Aoife Miskelly and Heather Lowe as the bullying stepsisters scrabbling and clawing for their man and Fabio Capitanucci whose Don Magnifico portrayed all the pumped-up pomposity of a social climber aiming for the stars.

Matteo Macchini’s Prince, Don Ramiro, also sounded timid, only in his top register did his vocals threaten to match the orchestral hue so it is left to Giorgio Caoduro’s Dandini to really shine. With a twinkle in his eye and a skip in his step he ably portrays the servant who discovers himself when stepping into his master’s shoes. As the two sisters launch themselves at him, believing him to be the Prince, you can see his Italian blood rise at the possibilities this may give him.

Hanus propels the ever splendid WNO orchestra at quite a clip, so Giacopo Ferretti’s original tongue twisting libretto sometimes blends into the musical whole. It is a reading of the score, that much like the production, keeps it light and keeps it moving. Its three-hour runtime passes by at a pleasurable pace, nothing revelatory here but providing a sugar rush nevertheless.

Twelfth Night- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆

There was a frisson of energy emanating from the auditorium come the climax on Press Night for the Bristol Old Vic and Royal Lyceum Edinburgh’s co-production of Twelfth Night. Yet as others stood and screamed, I sat rather bemusedly in my seat. This production promises to be real marmite, for some, its inventive comedy and irreverent tone provides a perfect tonic to the rather dry tome they remember from their schooldays. For those English teachers struggling to get their class invested in this wintery comedy, this production may prove just the tonic. Yet delve beneath the fun and it’s lacking fundamental insight, the melancholia that exists within this work has been excised completely from the production.

It’s a work that doesn’t feel fully interrogated like director Wils Wilson and company haven’t been brave enough to kill their babies even if it gets in the way of thoroughly investigating the text. It starts from the top; a 60’s hallucinogenic house party that sees the post come down party guests grab the script and begin to read. It gives context to designer Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s dilapidated country manor setting and by and large provides a solid enough introduction, even if it then blows the first few lines of one of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies ‘If Music Be The Food Of Love, Play On’ in a weirdly phrased take. Yet as the world of the play bleeds into the anachronistic setting, it forgets its premise that so by the end we’re in fair Illyria completely and not remotely in the world of Country Living. It’s a conversation you can imagine felt like the opening with decisions made and money spent, one that could not be thrown away, hence a half-hearted middle ground with no closure cum the end.

Directors have every right to explore the classics how they wish but it should be part of any job description that they try to extract the mood and texture of the page onto the stage. Here the comedy is played to the hilt, a rash of well-timed slapstick and gestural knockabout. Yet it’s as if the underlying sadness did not interest Wilson, and so she has gutted it completely. Gone is the painful cruelty inflicted upon Malvolio post galling, gone is any of the romantic tension between Orsino and Viola in her disguise as Cesario. Loss is as big a part of the play as love but it’s been stripped away here. It only feels half a play as a result.

Yet the half that exists is as good as can be. Invention is constantly to the fore, and it possesses in Dawn Sievewright’s gender-flipped Toby and Guy Hughes’ platformed heeled Aguecheek two of the finest interpretations of the roles you are likely to see, Sievewright, in particular, turning the usually old lush Uncle into a honking yet oddly troubling take on a woman who doesn’t know when to call it a night. Lisa Dwyer Hogg and Jade Ogugua also provide some light and shade as the grief-stricken Olivia and shipwrecked Viola, both speak the verse fluently and confidently and add what depth they can

The star turn though is performance artist Christopher Green’s Malvolio and it’s his own strengths and weaknesses that also come to define the works. If his early stiff-necked take on the pompous man servant feels a little too much like John Cleese’s ministry of silly walks, his yellow garter scene is a showstopper; as he appears in glistening gold glam rock and gets an anthemic song that rocks the building. It may not be exactly Shakespeare but it’s highly effective.

It’s a show you really do need to see to form your own opinion. For every dissenting voice that fears it has gone too far from its origins, there will be another cheering that it brings Shakespeare alive. If nothing else Wilson has produced a rollicking evening of entertainment, even if it is only a surface level take on this most beguiling of masterpieces.

Twelfth Night plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 17 November.

Beautiful Thing- TF Theatres ☆☆☆☆



Sometimes all you need to do is look at the make-up of an audience to see just how important a piece of work has become. On the night after press, scores of people, from school groups to gay couples of a certain age flooded into a capacity packed Tobacco Factory Theatre. Twenty-five years after Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing premiered at the Bush Theatre, it’s clear that it’s writing still offers hope and enlightenment alongside a cracking yarn. Under the careful direction of TF artistic director Mike Tweddle, it also reveals itself to still be a beautifully realised coming of age and discovering of sexuality tale.

Society has changed a lot in the past twenty-five years but still- shamefully- Beautiful Thing feels very much alone in its depiction of its central gay love story. For all the great queer plays, from Angels In America, Bent and The Normal Heart, right up to The Inheritance, very few pieces chart the falling in love of two characters with the simplicity, the warmth and the eventual acceptance that Harvey’s piece charts. It’s a reminder that theatre doesn’t always have to depict the extraordinary, sometimes it is in the simplest of stories that end up feeling extraordinary even if it is just down to their scarcity upon the stage.

Tweddle’s production floods the stage with colour; gone are the usual grey depictions of council estates, and in are florals and a growing light of hope.  You can feel the love Harvey has for the oft-maligned society in which he writes, whereas many kitchen sink dramas enjoy wallowing in the milieu of a community being trapped by the circumstances around them, here Harvey provides the characters opportunity to chase their dreams. Sandra, may at first appear to be a stereotypical council estate single Mum, gabby and spreading for any available single man, but she has discovered her calling running pubs and is happy to call out bad behaviour and call time on what’s not working for her. Phoebe Thomas is terrific in the role, a fiery redhead bestriding the space, the de-facto Highness of the Thamesmead estate.

As Jamie and Ste, the two boys gradually discovering their love for each other, Ted Reilly and Tristan Waterston are terrific; mischievous twinkles in their eyes turning into fear, excitement and possibility as new sensations flood them. Reilly is a terrific protagonist, with an open and relatable energy, along with cherubic clean-cut looks that allows an audience to fall for him. Waterston, in his stage debut, tackles well, the popular, sporty boy, terrified of his violent bullying Dad finding out his secret. Meanwhile, in another stage debut, Amy-Leigh Hickman is a riot of teenage attitude and Cass Elliot recordings.

If the production’s colour sometimes drowns out the more intimate moments which need more specificity, it’s the Get Singing choir that provides the productions chief highlight. Drawn from the local community to sing a selection of pop songs from the 60’s and early 90’s, they provide a constant life source and sense of community to the piece, turning the intimate love story Harvey concocted, into something epic and provide beautifully rendered versions of songs from Nirvana and Ella Fitzgerald. Theatres are constantly debating how to get people through the door and there seems to be one solution staring them all in the face. Everyone singing their heart out for their local theatre cheered on by friends and loved ones. A close friend of mine was a part of this choir, so I’ve been following its progress from afar since its inception, and the way her eyes light up when discussing the work is the proof in the pudding that it’s a scheme that works and enriches the participants as much as it enriches the shows.  It’s a policy TF Theatres already had put in place with their community group of actors for A View For The Bridge and I suspect one that will remain in place moving forward.

Tweddle discusses in the programme note how this is a play that altered his life when he played Jamie in Birmingham as a teenager. That deep connection to the piece comes across in a work that is all at once celebratory and tinged with love, both the burgeoning kind and of its community. Twenty-five years on, this Beautiful Thing still blazes a trail.

Beautiful Thing plays at Tobacco Factory Theatres until the 27 October and then tours to New Vic Theatre and then The Dukes Lancaster.