Mad Forest- BOVTS at Wickham Theatre ☆☆☆☆

There’s no one quite like Caryl Churchill working in British Theatre today. Take Mad Forest, commissioned in the months following the Romanian Revolution by the Central School Of Speech and Drama and premiered at the small Embassy Theatre in London, when many would have been expecting her to be following up on her Broadway smash hit Serious Money with something a little larger. It was a smart move though. Work created for drama schools can lead a writer the opportunity to branch out, experiment away from the commercial pressures that even the subsidised monoliths are prone too. And Mad Forest is definitely experimental. What it also provides, is another one of her like-clockwork masterpieces, work rich in fantastical imagery and thrilling verbatim speech. Given a rich staging by director Max Key, working with the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School International MA students, it’s a night of theatre that enriches intellectually and viscerally.

Its structure takes a three act form: the first following two families in the months leading up to revolution as one family is blacklisted due to the daughter wanting to depart her motherland to marry her American lover and one family flourishing teaching the briefings of Communist Party General Secretary Nicolae Ceausescu, the second merges eye witness accounts of the violent uprising in Bucharest over Christmas 1989 as the citizens riot and the dictatorship falls, and the final third act sees the two families come together to celebrate a wedding and the scars and schisms between the two suggest that a revolution doesn’t necessarily beget a bright new day.

It’s a sharp piece of writing encompassing three very distinct styles. The first act focuses on episodes within a regime, very much Brechtian in approach, as we see citizens lining up to buy meat, broken conversations at bus stops, lessons within a school and conversations around the dinner table. Parts of narrative are shown without being fully explained, little life moments that blend together to make a whole. It’s lit and dressed in drab colours, a world of grey shrouded in constant suspicion and one in which any contact with the outside world will lead to punishment.

The second act follows thirteen voices over the first initial days as violence flared and the Ceasecu’s were tried and executed for crimes of genocide and corruption. Verbatim work was already being seen by 1991 but it wasn’t to the fore the way it is now, and arguable no one was weaving art into everyday conversations the way Churchill managed here. Whereas the nightly news and print broadsheets were telling the stories from those at the epicentre of power, Churchill builds the narrative from the students and artists, workers and helicopter pilots that were at the centre as the Ceausecu’s finally faced their reckoning.

It’s in the final extended act that the piece works its most pertinent magic though. From its glorious intro as a vampire sweeps in to taste the blood on the streets and gets into a conversation with a stray dog, to the terrors of the hospitals in the immediate aftermath it all builds up to a big family celebration where events come to a head. Like the argument between sisters in Top Girls, extended to an eleven-way brawl at a wedding, the scene thrums with joy and guilt, changing fortunes and blunt appraisals. In the years after Brexit the split between the younger and older generation about the future of the country feels especially pertinent.

Key is especially confident marshalling his ensemble in these big moments, and this final act is thrillingly realised. It’s real ensemble work for these 13 MA students, all giving detailed and well considered characterisations and there is especially telling work from Sasha Dominy as the girl who finds America isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, Kaiya Jones as a student shot on the streets and Thomas Williamson III as the son rebelling against his state serving parents. But really you could name each and every one. It’s a work that allows every student to grab their role with both hands (not surprising when the work has been created originally for drama students).

It’s strange, Mad Forest is one of those plays that had completely passed me by and on watching it you wonder why it isn’t better known and constantly revived. It confirms once again the derring-do of one of our greatest writer’s period, and it is all excitingly realised in a crack production. What’s not to like?

Mad Forest plays at the Wickham Theatre until the 21st July

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Welcome To Thebes- Tobacco Factory Theatres ☆☆☆

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The Ancient Greek myths are relocated to a modern day civil-war torn state in Moira Buffini’s highly literate and increasingly impressive Welcome To Thebes. Played in the National Theatre’s Olivier in 2010 Richard Eyre’s original production suggested Thebes was an African state decimated in its bloodshed. This setting of Thebes is a little vaguer: less specific, more in keeping with the mythical. Thebes is a country where the women have now been forced to take power. Led by Eurydice (a strong, three dimensional moral centre from Emma Prendegrast), widow of Creon and newly elected democratic leader and her cabinet of female ministers, a country whose bodies are still burning is forced to look to its future. To rebuild her country will require support though, support that has to come from the wealth and power of Athens and its blazingly hip all high-wattage smiles leader Theseus (Alexander Mushore who combines the dashing charm of Obama with the sheer vanity of Trump) and his ingratiating pile of hangers on. The see-saw of power changes frequently between the two as the future of Thebes hangs in the balance. In the background, opposition leader Tydeus (Marco Young- nervously spitting out venom), spurred on by his Lady M like mistress Pargeia (Lucia Young) plots to take control. Meanwhile Antigone (Bonnie Baddoo) vows to bury her brother, decreed a traitor to the state while trapped in a form of love triangle between her sister Ismene (Anna Munden) and blinded Haemon (James Bradwell).

It’s almost as though Buffini had predicted the Netflix box set form before it truly became popular. LikeDickensianGotham or Marvel’s The Defenders, much of the fun comes from encountering characters from across the myths interact in a new landscape. For Greek myth geeks, the play is a delightful collection of Easter eggs.  Theseus calls home, worried about his younger wife Phaedra and ordering his son Hippolytus to look after her. The final phone call home should not be a surprise to anyone with a passing reference point to Euripides or Ovid.

Yet if the convoluted explanation of the plot here has left you needing a chance to check your references, the play suffers from some of the same issues. The first Act lacks rhythm, narratively heavy and hampered by awkward staging from director Lucy Pitman-Wallace  and a lighting design from Joe Stathers that over lights the space and resolutely refuses to provide focus on the key players. If the original production could rely on all the wizardry of the Olivier to jump-cut locations and provide a sense of the epic, the Tobacco Factory Theatre, presenting the work in the round, feels just too squeezed to comfortably host the 18 actors on its stage. Angles are ever important when staging in the round and its just clumsy that at one point there were 4 actors in a diagonal all blocking the speaker from this audience member‘s sight lines.

Eventually though the plot machinations take hold and the plot becomes truly gripping, as power plays are made and justice for past misdeeds is served. If the first act clunks, the second half rushes to its thrilling conclusion. For this graduating class of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School it is a final chance to work together before the profession beckons. Bradwell delivers another finely tuned performance in a year full of them, as does James Schofield with another slightly unhinged turn, and George Readshaw as the prophetic Tiresius, while the expressive features of Badoo suggests a bright future for her. Look out too for Felix Garcia Guyer whose Miletus displayed a poetic core that contrasts sharply with his rugged shell.

Thebes is an epic undertaking that starts slowly but eventually finds its drive. Thousands of years later the Greeks have lost none of their capacity to thrill and surprise.

Welcome To Thebes plays at Tobacco Factory Theatres until 30 June 2018.

Three Sisters- Tobacco Factory Theatres ☆☆☆☆

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In a discussion with a director on how to progress their career, RashDash were told ‘to engage with the classics.’ Well, they’ve certainly done this here and much more besides, engaged, provoked and smashed through the strictures of Chekhov’s play to make their own statement about who gets to decide what the classics are. It’s raucous, sexy, angry, funny, messy, baggy and a whole heap of fun. Its statement theatre that doesn’t forget the showbiz, play as much as gig, lecture as much as burlesque. Smartly however, they haven’t committed cultural vandalism with the 1901 piece, for anyone remotely familiar with the tale of theSergeyevich sisters the pieces overall aesthetic quality is caught well and there are echoes of the plot dotted throughout frivolity.

So the director’s advice has been followed to a point. It is clear the play has been studied, discussed and given a vision. A very RashDash one where the girls sing rock, strip out off and back into a number of limited and limiting outfits, try to de-pants each other and pose in perfect reproductions of the original Moscow Art Theatre tableaux’s. In the corner there is a bust of Chekhov’s head facing them, whether you read this as reproaching or encouraging is surely based on how much you think a radical of his time would take to a full on raiding of his work and ideals. Even he may have arched his eyebrow at being breast fed though.

If anyone is expecting a full on frontal assault of a past master, they will come away surprised. The work is more subtle than that. At one point they even provide cheerleaders for the Russian, running on stage in perfect unison to give an ode to Chekhov’s genius. Instead, what they query is who has the right to present and indeed evaluate the classics. In one terrific episode, we are presented in song, newspaper reviews from a man, about a man presenting a man’s work. The Three Sister’s performances are swept to the side, the women at the forefront mansplained away by the usual cultural gatekeepers. In order to tackle this they argue, surely women need to plow on the front foot, writing the classics for the future which provide a different gaze.

I’m not sure all its points hit home. Early on, they sit in vast skirts, in casual ennui and despair and despair about how Chekhov couldn’t write women; yet the proof is in the pudding; there are many terrific roles for women in all of his great plays, admittedly vastly different to the behaviours of the modern feminist, but placed in the context of the political and social situations probably no less relatable than the roles of the men from the same writer.  The women they throw up here, variations on the original sisters, Sloane types yearning for the country, bemoaning homelessness, and heartbreak and creating feel no more relatable to many than the original characters.

It is also a little on the long side at 90 minutes, the company perhaps falling into the trap of becoming specialist 60 minute fringe creators and struggling to expand their material up by another half an hour. Yet ultimately it doesn’t stop the night from feeling vital and alive. Abbi Greenland, Helen Goalen and Becky Wilkie, the core trio of RashDash put 21st century women, their agency and confusion, their desire and fragilities to the fore and demand an audience. Chekhov and his ilk, the work seems to suggest, are important but so are they: right here, right now. RashDash are the present and women will be creating the classics of the future. Look out Chekhov.

Three Sisters plays at Tobacco Factory Theatres until the 16 June

A Monster Calls- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆☆☆

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A few years ago, on first encountering Sally Cookson’s two-part Jane Eyre, I wrote that it was inches away from being her masterpiece. Now, with a Monster Calls, we have that show. A total-theatre instant classic, Cookson’s production thrills the senses and breaks open the hearts of everyone lucky enough to be in its orbit. It is a work still in development, with another week of rehearsal pencilled in before its opening at the Old Vic though it hardly needs it, this is a show already ready to conquer London and a West End transfer will surely beckon for a show that leaves its audience, like the best type of cocktail, shaken and stirred.

Patrick Ness’ novel slips perfectly into Cookson’s fertile theatrical imagination. Its split-focused tale of cancer wards and midnight hour fairy tales suit Cookson’s gifts, for genuine human emotion and beautifully intricate theatrical imagery. Supported by her usual team; set designer Michael Vale, costume designer Katie Sykes, composer Benji Bower and writer in room Adam Peck, she turns a tale, already a hit in the mediums of novel and film, into something inherently theatrical. Each chord strummed, each rope climbed, every chair sat on and dispatched violently to the floor has been explored and developed for maximum theatrical expression. It’s a work thriving with invention, but all at the service of telling its narrative cleanly and letting the works heightened emotion soar out. It’s alchemy that comes off in theatre a lot less than those of us who attend regularly would like. So often invention falls bravely flat and too much is played safe in the hope of not getting found out. Not here. Its emotions are earned, its trust built up. I’m trying to think of any night I’ve spent at a theatre where its final 20 minutes have been accompanied by a powerful symphony of sobbing emanating from all corners of the auditorium as it does here.

The process she and her company work in, which entails devising the production in the rehearsal room from scratch, means the ensemble complete own the material. From Cookson regulars such as Stuart Goodwin and Felix Hayes to Matthew Tennyson’s school boy Connor, breaking apart as his Mum slips away from him, the acting is uniformly good, occasionally excellent. Tennyson looks painfully young and vulnerable in his school uniform, teenage hormones and grief combining to create a boy who is angry, bull-headed and sympathetic all in one. To make us care for Connor, who spends a lot of the work railing against the world and turning his back on everyone who cares for him, is a tough task, and one which Tennyson skips over with ease. Also tasked with a tricky role, Goodwin uses his lean muscularity to make Monster both imposing and neutering as all the best father figures are. His Monster starts towering above the stage on ropes, moves on to stilts and ends up at stage level, as his terrifying night visits, in which he tells three tales of witches and Princes, apothecary’s and invisible men, all begin to come into focus. Meanwhile Marianne Oldham brings courage and inner strength to the Mum whose prognosis gradually worsens, Felix Hayes brings a loucheness bumbling uselessness to a Dad with a new life in the States while John Leader is snakily vile as the school bully making Connor’s life a misery.

There are perhaps one or two moments that could still be sharpened before it finds its final form. The one song in the piece, although delivered beautifully by Nandi Bhebne seems a little out of step with the overall aesthetic of the piece, there is a moment of acting in a breakdown that didn’t ring true and the Monster’s final speech may be a little on the nose, although true to the book, if any of the audience had been fully paying attention to it through the tears. But these are minor areas of note, easy to sort out and unable to put a dent on what is a staggering achievement.

Cookson’s ascent has been steadily building. Her Cinderella, the best Christmas show I’ve seen, got the attention, her Peter Pan and Jane Eyre cemented it and sent her to the National. A couple of years have been spent working on commercial pieces that didn’t fully come off but by all accounts her Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, was a game changer at West Yorkshire Playhouse and this is another. All hail Sally Cookson. A director changing the game of what British theatre can and should do. Essential.

A Monster Calls runs at Bristol Old Vic until 16 June and then at the Old Vic, London from 7 July- 25 August

The Damned United- TF Theatres ☆☆☆☆

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Drama is built from the rise and fall of its protagonists. From Macbeth to Brutus, Medea to Hedda theatre has always immersed itself in its leading players rising high and then falling low. So it makes sense that Brian Clough’s own rise and fall translates easily to the stage in Red Ladders adaptation of David Pearce’s The Damned United. In 44 days as manager of the biggest club in the country, Leeds United, Clough, so successful in his prior reigns at Hartlepool and Derby, saw his reputation crash, hubris taking him down as he came to manage the club he viewed his biggest enemy.

It’s a piece that works its magic best the more you know its subject. After all, this adaptation from playwright Anders Lustgarden, tries to cram into 65 minutes what Pearce took 327 pages and the 2009 film 97 minutes. We sometimes flick dizzyingly between Clough’s present, as the job with Leeds quickly sours and the flashbacks as his career begins taking ever increasing heights to League Championships and European Cup semi-finals. For those who are fans of either the man or football in general, its biographical pot shots is a fascinating trawl, the sound effects of the fans and occasional video projection capturing something of the muddy excitement and surge of the terraces that football in the 70’s used to be, before the lure of cash and major TV deals turned it into something vastly different.

Yet this work, as many have already discovered is much more than just a hagiography of one of the finest football managers England have ever produced. It is also a study in obsession, of a man with a singular focus; to succeed in style and to hell with everything else. Salary negotiations, transfers, his conduct on the touchline, all are played with maximum velocity and with an eye on the final result going his way. Like many football managers Clough made as many enemies as he did friends. Behaviour is excused when you are a success but comes back to bite you as soon as results turn against you. What looked like a winning strategy as he is coming up looks little more than a heavyweight bully flailing wildly when the results turn against him. Football doesn’t change. Mourhino finds himself in the same boat today.

In every successful marriage there is always a supportive partner steadying the ship behind the scenes. Anders Lustgarden’s adaptation puts Clough’s relationship with his number two Peter Taylor to the fore. The relationship between them is mostly adversary, Clough using Taylor as a punch bag, Taylor railing against Clough’s selfishness. Yet what becomes clear is that Clough needed Taylor to springboard him to success. Clough collapses into Taylor when learning that his mother has died. When Taylor decides not to follow to Leeds you can already see the disaster that was almost inevitably about to occur.

Pearce’s novel, followed here by Lustgarden’s take, structured the real-life events into a satisfying artistic narrative. As life is collapsing around him at Leeds, as his star players are banned and the team slip towards the bottom of the table, we also see his Derby team rise to become Champions of England and vanquish ‘dirty Leeds’. The highs and lows are mirror images of each other, the mood constantly shifting between the two. Rod Dixon’s production keeps everything in a high state of energy, like football itself propulsive highs are very quickly followed by crushing lows.

The productions glue is Luke Dickson’s turn as the man himself. He has mighty big shoes to fill, not only Clough’s but Michael Sheen’s chameleon type turn in the filmed version. Physically he is hardly a spitting image, but he gets the cadences of speech fairly well, turning his foul mouthed rants into a form of poetry. It’s not a performance of characterture though, Dickson goes beyond the man seen in the media to find the heart beat beneath. He is a man who has constructed an empire through attack but now is unsure how to show weakness. He knocks back the scotch almost as quickly as he rants, so that a bottle is almost emptied in the hour of its stage time. This is a man hooked on alcohol, needing the fire at the back of his throat to keep moving courageously forward. The best compliment I can give for Dickson’s intelligent work is that it extinguishes all memories of Michael Sheen’s filmic performance.

As Taylor, David Chafer shows us a decent man perhaps resigned to always hanging onto Clough’s coattails. He is a lieutenant, not a Captain, prepared to put in the hard graft but destined never to receive the glory. Jamie Smelt completes the trio of performers portraying a couple of shady chairman, the old school football men who have been replaced by Russian oligarchs and oil billionaires in the boardrooms today.

The Damned United works terrifically well: as an entertaining biography of Clough’s rise and fall (before his eventual rise again carrying Nottingham Forest all the way to the European Cup;) of a football history that has long past; and as a character piece about what it costs to make a legend. With apologies to Clough for glibly using his quote, but, I wouldn’t say this was the best play about football I’ve seen. But it’s in the top one.

The Damned United plays at the Tobacco Factory until the 6 June and then continues to tour.

Mayfest 2018- A Festival Round Uo

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After a year away Mayfest 2018 brought a new batch of creative and critical discourse; dance, theatre, performance art and everything else in between; to Bristol with its latest festival, the 15th incarnation since its launch in 2003. It was a quieter festival for myself personally, only 6 shows seen in a little over 10 days of activity, so inevitably it felt like I missed some of the most buzz worthy shows of this festival. In particular Caroline William’s video installation cum performance piece Now Is The Time To Say Nothing at the Arnolfini drew breathless praise from seemingly everyone who saw it, Verity Standen’s new choral piece Undersong enchanted people in the three distinct venues of Bristol Cathedral, St Georges and the Barton Hill Settlement, while The Killers saw Richard Allen place a binaural sound piece into the heart of a café in Weston Super Mare. All these pieces created some of the biggest conversations of the festival and I was sad to miss them.

If this now bi-annual festival may have been missing some of the independent scenes marquee names that it has hosted in recent years, the likes of Dead Centre, Tim Crouch and Bryony Kimming’s, it did manage to bring Ridiculusmus to Bristol to present all three parts of its mental health trilogy. Complicated Grief, the third and newest part, still feels a little undernourished, its good ideas and intentions being blurred with a performance style that takes slow to its extremes. It may be making a point about the final slow waltz to the reaper, but for every funny moment; an accidental fart being released, the taking of the wrong days pills, speakers being employed to try to shake someone out of their grief; it takes an age to articulate its points. In an age of oversaturation, however much I tried to concentrate, boredom took hold long before the end of this 75-minute work.

Concentration was also at the heart of Contact Gonzo vs Bristol for audience and performer alike. A three-part symphony of balance, slaps, tumbles and trust at St Jacob’s Swimming Baths, its first symphony takes on the You Tube challenge of ‘the floor is lava’, as the seven strong cast made their way from fire escape to the centre of the room, ensuring their bodies and then musical instruments never hit the floor. Its stately beginnings soon made way to physical force. Two bodies hit into each other, neither refuses to budge, they collide again with greater force. Soon a water bottle is used in battle, flung to the heavens and crashing down hard, almost as hard as the slaps that are administered liberally from performer to performer. From chaos to meditative, its final third saw its audience co-opted into our own act of concentration, as chests and foreheads, elbows and knees were used to balance pieces of twigs until the space resembled a small forest. Team building turned into performance, it’s a work that defies easy analysis but a week later its energy and its conflict have stuck with me.

I’ve very rarely felt more genuine conflict in a theatre than in Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas brilliantly gruelling Palmyra. A hammer has been entrusted to an audience member and both performers are pleading with her to give them the hammer. Violence is potentially only a decision away; any decision feels like it can only lead to bleakness. As the minutes tick down the pressure cooker heats up. We, the audience, feel complicit. This is a worthwhile sequel to the equally brilliant EuroHouse, its title referencing the city that has changed sides a number of times over the course of the war, here the audience like the inhabitants of the city find their allegiances turn over and over again from tall, handsome, softly spoken Bertrand to Nasi’s smaller, bearded, more beaten down frame. Crockery is smashed, blows rained down on each man, playground squabbling turns nasty. It’s a piece about how relationships can turn sour, friendships turning to violence in little more than a song by Ella Fitzgerald. By the end debris is scattered everywhere, the Arnolfini a warzone. Yet it ends on hope. As Voutsas begins sweeping up the stage, two audience members (plants?) offer to help him clear it away. The three work in tandem to clear the space. It’s an image that offers hope. It’s a work that lasts but an hour but will be thought about, dissected and analysed for many more.

Annie Siddon’s latest autobiographical piece How (Not) To Live In Suburbia tackles the loneliness of suburban life. Trapped in Twickenham, ‘home of English rugby,’ her zone 5 location to New Cross where her musician lover ups and leaves, seems as impossible to navigate as the Sergeyevna’s sisters determination to hit Moscow. An agent demanding a follow up to her first hit, the prohibitive cost of childcare, the falling apart of a marriage, it all leads to her feeling trapped and being visited by the walrus of loneliness who we get to see in Richard DeDomenici’s witty video work. In truth it may offer too much film to stage time, mainly because Siddon’s is such an expert story teller that every time she is off the stage she is missed. The work has similarities to another fringe hit, Fleabag so it’s not surprising to hear the work has been gobbled up by hungry tv executive and will be adapted in the coming months. Will Siddon’s follow the same path as Phoebe Waller Bridge and be appearing in a Marvel tentpole before we know it?

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My favourite two shows of Mayfest 2018 had music at their heart. Off Broadway hit Old Stock A Refugee Love Story took up residence at Bristol Old Vic and its enchanting hybrid of folk -kletzmer – music theatre left me enchanted. It’s song cycle tells the story of two refugees who meet off the boat in Halifax Nova Scotia and their subsequent journey through marriage, family and their assimilation into Canandian life. The MC Ben Caplan is frankly extraordinary, coiffured up and with a voice that reminds one concurrently of Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, his sardonic delivery always leaves it in the balance how this story will end. It balances the toughness of the lives these two encountered with something honestly romantic. There are no Disney love stories here but something equally as enriching emerges. Tender and tough, lyrical and cruel, it’s a beautiful thing that left me stirred.

Mayfest is great at allowing us to discover hybrid’s and nothing achieved that balance than the pure crowd pleasing, raucous We Are Lightning! A celebration and a defence of live music venues the Trinity Centre brought together music from across the spectrum of Bristol, a teenage band making their first steps, a 30 strong community choir, a brass band, heavy metal guitarists, all combine to make the most joyful hour I saw at this festival. Music matters in all its forms and has the potential to change lives, from the delicate male tenor taking a solo line in the choir to the guitar riffing leather jacketed student, poised and cool as her bands frontwomen. Joseph O’Farrell’s and Sam Halmarack’s piece raises the roof off the Trinity as come its climax as all the musicians join together for one last defiant howl. It’s what Mayfest does best, bringing forms and artists together to interrogate and discover and find new ways of making art. I already am counting down the days until 2020.

Kiss Me- Bristol Old Vic Directors Cuts at Wardrobe Theatre ☆☆☆☆

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A woman lies on a single bed, reading; the lights fade; the sound of the trenches pound through the speakers; and the women slowly arches her back, sensuous and aching. It’s a bravura start to Richard Bean’s two-hander play Kiss Me, cleverly summing up the pieces main themes of loss and desire in an aural/visual shorthand. It rather sums up the strengths of Katharine Farmer’s production, whip smart and guided by a steady hand allowing its hold gradually tightens. It’s a small piece of work in many ways; keeping its focus tight on its two protagonists and its ideas confined to its small bedsit; but is given a supremely sure staging. If a director’s main job is to ensure the work on the page gets the best possible realisation on a stage than you couldn’t ask for better than Farmer provides.

The women who we see arched on the bed is ‘Stephanie’, a First World War widow nervously awaiting her first encounter with ‘Dennis’ a man who has come to her small room for a pre-arranged assignation. Stephanie, alone and already assigned to the shelf in her mid-twenties is ready for a child. Dennis is doing his bit to repopulate a nation decimated at the trenches of Ypres and the Somme. How many children has he created Stephanie queries early on? ‘202 through 711 meetings’ is the answer. These are women whose lives stopped the moment their own men fell on the Western Front. This man potentially their only chance of having a family that war has denied them.

Bean started off as a miniaturist before the mainstream delights of One Man Two Guvnors sent him stratospheric, and before his work as a playwright, he did the rounds on the comedy circuit. His past is at the forefront of this play. His humour keeps the play, whose premise sounds leavening, spritely and sprung. ‘Where’s the weirdest place you’ve had sex?’ ‘Stoke Newington’. It’s the little one liners, the moments of humour between the pair that keeps it motoring. Both have secrets, aliases, things locked up inside. Stephanie never even had time to discover if she loved her husband, two innocents with a two-week honeymoon in dank, damp Wales, a little unsatisfactory ‘wham bam thank you mam’ and then a lifetime of being a widow. Dennis, a quintessential English gent in bowler and cut-glass vowels, is ashamed that he never went to the Front, never fought, his family’s business keeping him wealthy and safe.

These two souls, both broken and lost, form an attachment, the business arrangement soon making way, the mechanical dissection of what must occur ‘no kissing’, soon makes way for passionate clinches and talks of the future. Bean keeps one final rug pull behind though, one that hits hard when it arrives. Farmer layers it up, keeping the action brisk (it runs at a very commendable 60 minutes) and allowing the two to escape their reserve and find something more. Its last moments, as backs stiffen and upper lips applied are painfully realised.

Stephanie Booth and George Readshaw chart the rise and fall of this relationship beautifully. Booth tumbles out words as if to stop and contemplate will kill her, a woman with plenty to say and no one to say it to. War has turned her modern, hardened and open in her desires. She drives a truck. She makes jokes about fucking. The demure Catholic schoolgirl pre-war has evolved into the kind of women we see today. Booth allows us to see both sides of this women, the blowsy exterior hiding the women lost beneath. Readshaw’s Dennis meanwhile uses class as his disguise. His accent and manners suggest breeding but his eyes give nothing away. His motives are never fully clear, is he genuinely in love with this woman or is it all an extended seduction technique. What motivates a man to bed 700 women, patriotism or sex addiction. Bean never answers. It should cause debate in the bar after.

The works restraint is quintessentially British, repressed emotions bubbling to the surface but never being released. Farmer and her cast help release its cumulative power. It ends up bruising. A fascinating play with Britain on a cusp of change is pitched beautifully. Recommended.

Kiss Me plays at Wardrobe Theatre until 19 May