Opal Fruits- Weston Studio ☆☆☆

The autobiographical monologue is potentially the knottiest of theatrical art forms to get right. If we see theatres function to in effect blend the two p’s together, the political and the personal, a form that has the potential to get lost in the personal at the expense of the political is loaded with issues that can trip up any artist.

Holly Beasley-Garrigan, writer and performer of Opal Fruits, playing at Weston Studio after an Edinburgh run at the Pleasance, appears aware of the complexities this work poses. After all her ACE funding is in place because she is making a show about the working classes, and she touches on the complex relationship modern theatre has with their fetishization of council estate stories. A queer, working-class female Beasley-Garrigan talks in her program bio about reclaiming spaces for stories from artists like her. Yet arguably there is a bigger challenge, these stories are now seen in studio theatres across the country. It’s the main stage where these stories still struggle to be seen. If at one point she rails at the idea of independent theatres’ inability to feed a family, it struggles to ascertain how this work could break into the mainstream. During a sold-out performance, the space crackles with a love that allowed the piece to take flight but also difficult not to feel like its playing to the converted, the audience at The Lion King, a musical that this show touches upon, brings in a diversity that this or indeed almost all independent theatre can’t begin to touch.

Maybe it’s unfair to expect a show shaped for Edinburgh, 70-minute run time and all, to be able to find answers but here it edges towards asking the questions and then shying away from them. It remains messy and unresolved politically.

Personally, though the piece comes to life, telling a beautiful inter-generational familial story of generations of women all being brought up in the same estate. With the Opal fruit flavours standing in for Grandmothers, sisters, and nieces, and recordings of the voices filling in the blanks, we get a sense of the dynamic that turned Beasley-Garrigan into the artist she is today. Thrust into the world of drama school where her classmates wear sports gear ironically, she finds even the poor can perform Shakespeare and ballet, even if this doesn’t cut the mustard with classmates who are working security at Tesco.

With stories of ‘Keef’ and ‘Mick, the Crim’ sawn-off shotguns and caravan dismemberment it could all threaten to get a bit, Guy Ritchie. Yet it’s family that continues to be the connecting through line of the piece. Through squabbles and misunderstandings, bafflement, and acceptance, what comes out is the complexity of being a working-class artist, feeling both pride and tackling the sense of not belonging in a world where privilege rises to the top.

Stripped literally in white underwear and metaphorically in revealing vulnerability Beasley-Garrigan is an incendiary charismatic presence throughout. Under Maisie Newman’s carefully considered production, it never drops into longueurs and lands several cracking set pieces that entwine with its intellectual rigorousness. Its climax when The Lion King and Singing In The Rain merge with Garage beats is particularly thrilling.

It may not be able to answer some of the questions its set-up suggests it’s going to, but there is no doubt that Opal Fruits, four years on from its first showing at Vaults Festival is worth every penny that ACE originally granted it. Now time to get the main house. 


The Theatre Week: A Midsummer Nights Dream; BHP Edinburgh Double Bill

If anyone needed reminding of how tough creating theatre still is as we slowly climb out of this pandemic Insane Roots A Midsummer Night’s Dream (**) is a reminder that creating good art is a precarious business. Its press night was originally washed out, at the rescheduled performance I saw three actors were down with COVID and the following days’ performances were cancelled. So it’s hard to make a full judgement, especially with a company that I know has the potential to strike theatrical gold. Indeed what had felt exciting in the rain, as performers and audience alike pushing through and battling down the hatches as torrential rain fell, felt slightly stolid on one of those summer evenings that stretched out in golden hues and slowly descending violet nightlight. 

Eastville Park Victorian abandoned swimming pool, wrapped in long-grown foliage and with echoes of memories past and present in its graffiti-laden walls had worked perfectly for the swaggering, tragical world of Verona in their Romeo and Juliet, night falling as the lovers breathed their last, but strangely lacks the same sense of identity here. The cutting between worlds, from the palace to forest, from mortals to fairies lacks specificity and wonder, its family sepia tone ensuring the darker complexities of the piece lay underexplored but its jokes do not land enough to compensate. It’s Pyramus and Thisbe scene, so often an anarchic delight to wrap up the evening here feels a little dull. When tackling a classic there needs to be some sense of urgency to it, why this piece, why now? In Hannah Drake’s production, this doesn’t come through.

Still, there are some striking performances to catch the eye. Elizabeth Crarer is thrillingly effervescent as the frequently trampled Helena, her verse speaking carrying the evening with total clarity and power. Lily Donovan appeared like she would have been an excellent foil as Hermia in the 40 minutes I saw of her. Alan Devally stepped in for the indisposed Byron Mondahl as Bottom and is delightful, mixing the languor of Dylan Moran in Black Books with the strut of Bill Bailey nailing a passé doble in Strictly. Ellie Showering’s Accapella music provides a sense of the otherworldly but this is a Dream that fades from view as soon as you wake.

There is more urgency in Black Hound Production’s one-man monologue Alright? (***) In Thomas Price’s powerful performance, we see Noah struggle with the pressures of growing up, flitting between school where the school councillor sees him as just another number wandering through during the lunch hour, and home where his single Dad struggles to connect, and Gran builds relationships through the odd hip flask of whisky. Price is a likable presence who keeps us engaged even as his character becomes more and more lost. Writer Patrick Withey balances humour and despair and produces a rather touching and realistic conclusion while director Cordelia Tarbrooke keeps the action flowing. The scenes of partying and flirting in the long summers between exams feel particularly powerful and pulse with a young voice that you sense the company is sometimes wary of exploring, which can be seen in Seeds of Memories (**)which will be following Alright? in moving on up to Edinburgh. Seeds is a less engaging piece of work, also by Withey, about grief and memory set in the garden where grandson and grandfather bond over their love of growing things and whose purpose can be spelled out within 2 minutes. Though there is some engaging puppetry work, its metaphors are a trite thudding, and it rolls along with a drowsy Sunday evening energy, with a spell it out for you coda. Still in their infancy, expect BHP to create something truly thrilling when they find their urgency.

A Midsummer Nights Dream plays at Eastville Park swimming pool until the 20th August

Alright and Seeds of Memory play at The Space, Edinburgh from the 22nd-27th August

Bugsy Malone: Theatre Royal Bath ☆☆☆☆

Originally published on WhatsOnStage

Mia Lakha and Gabriel Payne in Bugsy Malone
Mia Lakha and Gabriel Payne in Bugsy Malone
© Johan Persson

Seven years after reopening the Lyric Hammersmith and some 30-plus years since Alan Parker’s film was released, Bugsy Malone begins its UK tour in Bath before a rumoured West End residency. If the electric buzz on press night is any indication, Sean Holmes’ finely realised production, aided by Drew McOnie’s sparkling choreography, will prove a summer hit.

Parker was famously against giving professional stage rights to his iconic 1976 film. Yet, as many have experienced from schooldays on and offstage, there is something inherently charming about a show that turns gangland warfare into playground games and bloody massacres into splurge gun gunk. If Holmes’ production doesn’t shy away from the darkness, always lingering an extra second on bodies splayed on the floor, it’s not long before the performers are back up on their feet, dusting themselves off, throwing themselves into the next set-piece.

The plot could be dashed off on the back of a postcard. Rival hoodlums Fat Sam and Dandy Dan are engaged in turf wars, while driver Bugsy falls in love with aspiring actress Blousey. When Bugsy is offered cash from Sam that will help him take her to Hollywood, the stage is set for these two plot strands to inter-merge. Even at a shade under two hours, the plot is stretched but it comes alive in Paul Williams’ knockout score and McOnie’s propulsive dance numbers that turn “So You Wanna Be A Boxer” and “Down And Out” in particular into showstoppers.

Holmes’ best idea is to multi-cast the leading roles with young performers and add an adult ensemble to provide ballast to the group numbers. It really works and gives the production both ragged charm and polished sheen. Generally, the singing from the young cast is stronger than the acting but Mia Lakha is a serious one to watch as Blousey, utilising her soulful voice to turn “I’m Feeling Fine” and “Ordinary Fool” into torch songs. Gabriel Payne is all huge charisma in a little frame as Bugsy while Jasmine Sakyiama’s Tallulah is wisely less vamping than Jodie Foster’s filmed take, but still shows us a showgirl actively yearning for a different life. Albie Snelson is vaudevillian fun as Fat Sam, seeing his empire falling apart one hit at a time, while Aidan Oti dances with insouciant grace as the janitor hoping for his big break.

Jon Bausor’s stripped-back set shows us the theatres’ walls, suggesting both backstage dramas and the kind of place where Al Capone took out his rivals in his pomp while providing plenty of space for tumbles, acrobats, and vaulting in the athletic choreography.

Ultimately, Bugsy Malone is a good, not a great, musical, but there is something intangible about it that means it’s almost failproof. Yet given a terrific production, as it is here, it compels an audience to rise to its feet, with or without its deliberate mega mix finale that gives its young performers one last chance to shine and leaves its audience beaming at the sheer talent that will stock the West End for generations to come.

The Tempest: Ustinov Studio ☆☆☆☆

Originally published on WhatsOnStage

Nicholas Woodeson and Dickie Beau in The Tempest
Nicholas Woodeson and Dickie Beau in The Tempest
© Hugo Glendenning

It seems a fitting tribute that in the week we lost the mighty Peter Brook, a different theatrical explorer began her reign in Bath. Under previous artistic director Laurence Boswell, the Ustinov Studio played host to a string of shows that hit big nationally and internationally. For a few hot years in the mid-2010s, it was arguably the most exciting theatre in the country. The new boss in charge, Deborah Warner, is changing up the programme. We are promised classical plays, adaptions from novels, fully-staged song recitals, dance, and at least one full opera a year. It explores what theatre can be – something you’d expect the maestro sitting in his pantheon to nod sagely at.

The Tempest is a strong opening statement. It’s theatre loaded with imagination, alive and messy, and alone that places the actor at the heart. What Warner does very quickly here is to show us what to expect of her reign. Years of creative exploration find a home in this studio theatre in cozy Bath.

Not that she manages to get to grips with all of the challenges Shakespeare’s late valediction play possesses. The opening lengthy exposition scene that lays out all the key players and their place in Prospero’s story still stretches time intermittently and the final release of Ariel feels oddly muted. What she does manage is to bring all the disparate strands together into one cohesive vision and most excitingly bring a real sense of magic to the play while also stripping it back to feel elementally theatrical.

The core creative team of designer Christof Hetzer, lighting designer Jean Kalman, sound designer and composer Mel Mercier, and video designer Torge Møller bring a European aesthetic to its look. A white sterile set that floods with golden light, which is desecrated with mud and liquid, and whose projections at one point provide a jump scare worthy of Blumhouse, it is minimalist in design and maximalist in execution. If you want to see world-class theatremakers engage in fringe theatre methods, this is the show.

Nicholas Woodeson is a mishmash of a Prospero, terrifying as the revenging sorcerer, twisting and turning his puppets, but muted in his forgiveness. He, alongside the rest of the cast, speaks the text beautifully, the metre and iambic observed and riffed, but he is not the dominant figure. Instead, it’s Dickie Beau’s Ariel and Edward Hogg’s Caliban that become the heart of Warner’s vision. Lip syncing performance artist Beau is particularly magical as Ariel, his eyes dead but calibrating his mouth and face so the sprite takes a multitude of voices though his persona remains trapped in the firm grip of his master. We first encounter Hogg’s Caliban flinging faeces at his captors, and it’s a fully committed performance capturing both the wildness of the original native and the voice of the romantic when he feels he may, at last, have some freedom. The sympathies in this production are for those who find their homes invaded and overrun by outsiders.

Tanvi Virmani makes a promising debut as Miranda, her wide-eyed joy at seeing other human life being sweetly matched by Pierro Niel-Mee as a slightly bumbling but endearing Ferdinand. Warner has assembled a veritable smorgasbord of character actors to play the various courtiers and clowns of Milan who find themselves washed ashore. In particular, Finbar Lynch’s inscrutable Antonio and Stephen Kennedy and Gary Sefton’s clownish double act are fascinating mirrors in the minimalist/maximalism framework this show possesses.

It ends with Shakespeare’s goodbye speech extolling the virtues of creating and entertaining an audience. It works almost as well as a statement of intent of what its audience can expect moving forward. The Ustinov, under Warner, may be about to land on another golden period.

The Theatre Week: Jumpers for Goalposts/How My Light Is Spent/Bull/Girl In The Machine

It’s the joy that wins out in the second week of the Directors Festival. It’s to be found in Hull and Newport, five-a-side football teams, and doughnut shops. It’s love and acceptance that shines strongest, delivered with fizzing lines and a filthy cackle.

No one delivers that fuzzy feeling quite like Tom Wells. From Stuff to The Kitchen Sink to his assortment of Lyric Panto’s he knows exactly how to tackle sensitive subjects with an entertainer’s eye. In Jumpers for Goalposts (*****) we follow the five aside team of Barely Athletic across their season in a local gay league. As heavy defeats turn to 1 and then 3 points, we see the quintet come to terms with grief, finding one-twos through a spark, learning to accept each other as teammates, as family. It may be deliberately sentimental with an ending too neat, but like a Richard Curtis flick, though you can see what it’s doing you can’t help but fall for its charms anyway. In Robbie McDonnell’s convincing changing room set, director Becks Granger ekes out every line of comedy, every nuance dug out and sent scuttling into the world. If young, hungry graduates can’t always convey the disappointments and burdens that life can drop on you, they are great companions for an hour. Evie Hargreaves is all brash bluster as team coach Viv kicked out of the lesbian team for her abrasive style and trying to support her brother-in-law through their collective bereavement. As the token ‘straight’ Peter Burley brings dim-witted kindness, Josh Penrose and Ajani Cabey have a touching romance. Yet it’s Max Guest’s Geoff, prone to sleeping with the opposition but always with a smile etched on his face, who lights up the stage with guitar in hand. Whether pinging out the Smiths, Go West, or the Kop anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone, the songs match with joyful form and leave its audience rising to its feet.

Jumpers for Goalposts ©Craig Fuller Peter Burley, Josh Penrose, Max Guest, Ajani Cabey, Evie Hargreaves

How My Light is Spent (****) Alan Harris’ Bruntwood prize commended play is clearly a popular choice as a graduating work, it’s the second time I’ve seen it run as part of the director’s festival. That’s not surprising, Harris’ play for a duo but made up of a multitude of voices, has the collage tone of a contemporary Under Milk Wood with a strange, ethereal beauty tucked below its laughs and its struggles. This is a community at sea metaphorically, of young(ish) people lost in towns that time forgot. 34-year-old Jimmy is disappearing, his zero-hour contract at the doughnut shop terminated, his footprint on the world barely sketched in. His only connection holding him to the world is his nine-minute minimum calls with phone-sex worker Kitty, hoping to earn enough money to fund a degree, falling into a relationship with her landlord over snooker. Harris’s play is both a love story and social deconstruction, Anna Sophia-Tutton and Bill Caple astounding as the two lost souls gradually come together, while Tobias Millard’s production hurdles on laughter for the second deserved standing ovation of the day.

How My Light Is Spent ©Craig Fuller Anna-Sophia Tutton & Bill Caple

Mike Bartlett is laying claim to be the most prolific playwright in Britain. His work surprises and surpasses. His form constantly mirrors and challenges the masters. This is why Bull (***) is so surprising in that it doesn’t contain any twist, any third act reversal. Instead in a three-way battle where only two jobs will remain, a ganging up by two to exclude the third just builds and builds until complete annihilation is the only endpoint. Ben Nash’s production kicks off in too high a gear, the early micro-aggressions already containing too much venom, too much sting. Some of the gas is let out long before its climax. Yet Joséphine-Fransilja Brookman and Tom Mordell are viperish as the two antagonists, using privilege and politics to secure their place. In the face of constant sniping; over his suit, over a mark on his face, on his comprehensive education, Tom Atkinson folds. Yet, Bartlett purports, is there something in our culture that demands this blood sport. Patrick McAndrew’s boss is all Alan Sugar wide boy patter, ‘You’re Fired’ reverberating around us, all in the name of entertainment.

Bull ©Craig Fuller Tom Atkinson & Tom Mordell

It can be difficult to fully combine the big idea with an emotional cleft. Stef Smith’s Girl In The Machine (***) is interesting in its exploration of the role of technology in all our lives, but less effective in making us connect with the relationship drama of its central protagonists. Its conclusion is bloody but not teary. Yet who can say they’re comfortable watching a character struggle to switch off from technology, who isn’t worried about how much of us is linked to the online world. Smith’s play is both intimate in form and large in scope. The relationship strains as the wider world burns. It is doing too much in its short, condensed form. Chiara Lari and Joe Edgar are believable as the solicitor and the nurse who begin to view the world from different lenses. Yet in Ellie Jay Stevens’s production, given a sleek futuristic twist by Hugo Dodsworth’s design, it’s Alex Crook’s sinewy, intoxicating voice that turns sci-fi into horror. We’re a long way from Go West here.

Girl In The Machine ©Craig Fuller Alex Crook & Chiara Lari

The Theatre Week: Hamlet/Picnic At Hanging Rock/Stockholm/The City

The Directors Festival from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, presented at The Wardrobe Theatre has grown ever bigger this year. Presented in two double bills a week over a fortnight, it’s a chance to gorge the future of the theatre industry, seeing works and ideas in direct discussion, mirrors and differences splayed out side by side. A caveat, in ensuring that the pieces run for about an hour, each piece has been condensed and chopped down, the importance of space and room for writing to breathe has been taken away, and consequently, there is a sped-up intensity about them. This works both for and against the pieces. It leaves the audience both dazzled and bombarded.

Stockholm ©Craig Fuller Joshua Hurley and Phoebe Cook

The strongest this week is Bryony Lavery’s Stockholm (****), given a production both sensual and terrifying in Sofia Gallucci’s excellently choreographed, lovingly conceived production. Kali (Phoebe Cook) and Todd (Joshua Hurley) appear to be the perfect couple filled with Bergman movie matinees, delicious dinners, and in-sync sexual compatibility. Yet Kali’s retro-jealousy and Todd’s distancing perfectionism hint that beneath the sheen lies a dark heart. Georgina Vasey’s clever design boxes them in with sleek Ikea fixtures, a lighting fixture above made up of wine glasses a clever tough. Cook and Hurley have believable chemistry as the couple; playful, intimate, and wounded, and generate a believable spark as their balletic sexual congruences turn violent and the characters hurtle towards doom. Both likable, both detestable, the audible gasps that rocked the auditorium told its own story of an audience trapped as an observer in a relationship that can only end in tragedy. Stockholm, a city that can be both bathed in permanent sunshine or permanent darkness depending on the season is a powerful metaphor for a couple who contain both but can’t escape the pull of each other.

The City ©Craig Fuller: Rhea Norwood, Alex Crook, Camilla Aiko

If Stockholm catches you right in the gut, there is more distance added in Martin Crimp’s elliptical but intriguing The City (***). Like a modern-day surrealist, Crimp’s play follows its own trajectory, spinning itself into different variations, one that is open to multiple readings. It’s a play about urban angst, about the claustrophobia of living on top of each other, of living a genteel life while anarchy bubbles just under the surface. With the war in the West at its most confronting since the 40s elements of this play feel more pertinent now, but it stubbornly doesn’t allow its spectators to get a handle on it. It’s a work loaded with great lines and a real writer’s sureness but it’s got a touch of the late Pinter about it, a sense of playing it smart rather than releasing the fury. Aaron Finnegan’s production has a sense of play, especially in the hands of the brilliant Alex Crook, whose every utterance finds a new and surprising colour and whose control as the character slips into ennui over the course of a monologue is a masterclass in physical comedy. This is evidence of the production’s best element, excellent actors giving detailed and thorough performances, Camilla Aiko whose poise and command suggest a star in the making rubs up against Rhea Norwood’s saucer-eyed and excitable Nurse, whose recent turn in Netflix’s new hit-show Heartstopper suggests she already is one. Meanwhile, Monsikelah Ward is all goofy smiling endearment as the girl whose very existence, like the rest of the characters is called into question in the play’s final moments. Four actors in search of a play?

Picnic at Hanging Rock ©Craig Fuller Louise O’Dowd, Eve Pereira, Tanvi Virmani, Carlie Diamond

Night one was all about tackling the classics as two of the great works from Great Britain and Australia came under the microscope. Lowri Mathias’ production of Picnic At Hanging Rock (***) may have been shaky in its use of Australian accents but on much more steady ground in its build-up of stifling atmosphere. Joan Lindsay’s quintessential 60’s novel became an iconic 70’s film and then a successful 2016 theatre production as adapted by Tom White for the Australian company Malthouse. It places in opposition the genteel colonialism of Britain against the wild rugged landscapes of Australia. Young women brought up to be prim discovering their sexual identities against a rising bubble of hysteria. Has the world changed as much as we might think? The original novel caught the attention by making people think that the fiction was not. There is almost a documentary feel to White’s adaption, similar in structure to The Laramie Project, actors blending from teacher into student, from one girl to another, from female to man, monologues bleeding into duologues, into group incantations. Matthew Cassar ’s design sees school desks becoming ragged hills, Hannah Bracegirdle’s sound design ominously builds up the tension and it even contains a jump scare or two, the hardest effect to pull off in the theatre. Yet its speed of light delivery sometimes works against its clarity though particularly powerful performances from Tanvi Virmani and Rebecca Hyde ground it in quality.

Hamlet ©Craig Fuller Yazmin Kayadi, Shivan Pallana

Tackling Hamlet (***) in an hour as your thesis project is a particularly brave move but expect plenty of bold moves from director Yuxuan Liu moving forward. If anything, this Dane should have been even braver. There is something in Liu’s visual language that thrills, his pre-set as Hamlet sits on the floor, a cat’s cradle in red pulling him tighter into the corruption of the court, his play within a play being given as drawings on a projector, the interesting doubles that allow Yazmin Kayani’s gravedigger to vanish from their cloak into the body of Ophelia revealed to a broken Hamlet. His take on the play allows us to feel the world through its visual language. It’s so strong a lifeforce that you want to see him worry less about the play’s narrative linear and find something more collage-like. The piece ends with Ophelia taking ownership of ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ but what other delights could lie there? Its power lies in its visual poetry, not its textual, its playing style more caricature than flesh and blood. Shivam Pallana gives us a melancholic Prince but the flatness never erupts into passion or humour. Yet there is enough potential here to suggest something special could be about to arise from Liu. I look forward to seeing what comes next.

The Theatre Week: If This Is Normal

If This Is Normal: Wardrobe Theatre ☆☆☆☆

Chatback Theatre’s If This Normal spins together a coming-of-age drama and the question of sexual consent and creates a great fringe hit. Alex, and brother, and sister Madani and Maryam have been a trio since primary school. But as Alex and Madani begin a romantic entanglement, their bonds and loyalties are tested and questioned as one fateful first night between the pair goes badly wrong.

 Lucy Danser’s play is a profound and ultimately moving piece, made stronger by her insistence on painting her palettes grey rather than black and white. By making her characters address the audience directly, by letting us see their perspective; all bright young things discovering their place in the world; we come to care for them and their futures. By the end, as the three try to piece together the next stage, move on and recover from an event that went very wrong, you will them to find a sense of closure for the next stage. Like the ultimate chronicler of the human experience, Chekhov, Danser’s characters root into our souls and make us care Like Konstantin, Ranevskaya, and Masha, Alex, Madani, and Maryam begin to feel like an ever-complicated family.

Ultimately the target it feels like Danser is taking shots at is the sexual education of young teens through the prism of Pornhub. In a world where violent porn is seen as the norm, what chance do youngsters have of finding healthy and consensual sexual relationships? Rather than getting teens to watch a video about the making of a cup of tea, this is the ideal piece to make people think about the potential ramifications of their actions. Fundamentally, in a world where people get their education through a few clicks of a mouse, decent people can make errors and destroy lives.

Helena Jackson’s production is lively and perfectly captures two key points in the development of young people; the forming of deep friendships as children, when differences are accepted, and bonds are formed, then the long summer stretch after A-Levels are completed before childhood turns into adulthood. She gives the piece pulsing energy where dreams and futures are not yet decided, where a kiss can leave you floating on air and the idea of sex can delight and terrify you in equal measure. Her direction is precise and focused, tightening perspectives when required and opening them up at others. At the beginning of a UK tour, the production occasionally overshoots its space, it occasionally shouts when it could whisper, but this can be forgiven when each space offers vastly different playing challenges.

Jackson draws out some winning performances from the three. As Alex, Aoife Smythe is endearingly gorky as the working-class girl growing into her skin and heartbreakingly vulnerable as she begins to question what happened to her and the feelings this elicits inside of her. Isambard Rawbone is all bottled energy as Madani, able to find understanding in boxing but unable to talk about his feelings and confusion while Zarima McDermott is a firebrand feminist who suddenly finds things more challenging when her views clash with protecting her family.

Danser condenses a lot into 80-minutes but it’s to the work’s credit that the ideas seem to have time to breathe and settle. It’s a challenging but sympathetic look at coming of age and the confusion and wrong steps this can create. Yet it ends on a note of hope, of childhood being left behind and adulthood faced with lessons learned from the past. A must-watch.

The Meaning of Zong- Bristol Old Vic  ☆ ☆ ☆

Originally published on WhatsOnStage

Michael Elcock and Giles Terera in The Meaning of Zong
Michael Elcock and Giles Terera in The Meaning of Zong
© Curtis Richard

There is a lot to admire in Giles Terera’s debut play The Meaning of Zong. The play throbs with passion and urgency, it has been provided a beautiful production, it has one of the most joyful and heart-racing sound scores I’ve heard in theatre in yonks, performed by the astonishing Sidiki Dembele, and it is graced with some strong, carefully etched performances.

Yet it’s hard to escape the fact that the play ultimately, while important, is doing too much. It’s like Terera has thrown everything contained on his post-it notes to see what lands on the page. The prologue is an indication of this, starting with the cast milling and singing on stage, before transitioning into a modern-day Foyles, before then moving back in time to 1781. By itself, the bookends would work, both together and it’s a little overloaded. Indeed there is so much going on, so many characters getting a moment in the spotlight, so much intercutting between scenes, so much, well, everything, that its focus can become blunted.

In the program notes co-directors Tom Morris and Terera discuss the African tradition of the writer, storyteller, and performer being the same person and it is interesting to see Terera step up into actor-auteur that normally only Sir Kenneth Branagh gets to occupy. He is a charismatic stage presence, the eye is consistently drawn to his wattage in the way only stars generate. As Olaudah Equiano, he finds dignity in a campaigner who brought to light the atrocities of the ship Zong when more than 130 enslaved Africans were massacred, taking the news to anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp and began the events that arguably led to the abolition of slavery in this country. Though there are undoubtedly shades of his Hamilton performance when he is downstage centre in 18th-century garb, he finds the humanity in the goodness that allows the character to remain fascinating.

The scenes inside the courts make for a chilling hearing, as numbers are read out and appeals are made against the original decision for the insurers to pay out for each slave murdered onboard the ship by the crew. There is something about the pageantry of trials that flies in the theatre and these scenes are the glue that holds the piece together. However, the more poetic scenes stay resolutely grounded. The language refuses to take flight. For the second time this year, after Dr Semelweis, Morris’ co-vision has produced a production that makes more impact than the text. It’s visually and aurally powerful in Dave Price’s sound design and Zeynep Kepekli’s painterly lighting states and contains some stonking performances.

Chief among these is Michael Elcock as political activist Ottobah Cugoano who brings a powerful zeal and heart-racing beatboxing to the role. Paul Higgins brings fascinating shades of grey to Sharp, who may have his narcissistic traits, while it was nice to see recent Bristol Old Vic Theatre School graduates Kiera Lester and Eliza Smith receive their professional stage debuts in the city that trained them.

Bristol feels like the ideal city to be hosting this premiere now, still coming to terms with the realities of a city propped up on its slave trader routes. This has been a project carefully guided through a six-year process between the team but there is something that still feels not quite complete about it.

I wonder ultimately if it feels like a test drive for a four-part Sunday night BBC adaptation. Is it a great night of theatre? Perhaps not. But it is an important one and one worth catching at this point in the journey if you can.

The Homecoming: Theatre Royal Bath  ☆ ☆ ☆

Originally published on WhatsOnStage

Keith Allen (Max), Mathew Horne (Lenny) & Geoffery Lumb (Joey)
Keith Allen (Max), Mathew Horne (Lenny) & Geoffery Lumb (Joey)
© Manuel Harlan

Almost 60 years after Pinter wrote The Homecoming, it is still as mysterious and impenetrable as ever. The New Yorker‘s John Lahr described it as both “a family romance and a turf war” but it goes deeper than that. It’s biblical, rat-a-tat funny, possibly misogynistic, arguably feminist. Its layers of meaning, ripe for each production to pluck, discard and find through a fresh lens is why the production is so often revived. Like the masterpieces of Shakespeare’s great tragedies Hamlet, Lear or Othello there is no definitive production to be had. Each production simply shows us another element of arguably Pinter’s greatest work.

It remains in form a domestic piece that sees the nightly squabbles of a north London family interrupted when one of the sons returns from his academic life in America with his wife Ruth. A battle for the head of the house ramps up, each player carrying aces but each unable or unwilling to put down the royal flush. The dynamics shift as sex and power collide and Ruth ends up whore and Madonna.

The last high-profile production saw Jamie Lloyd throw his trademark theatrical pizazz over it, turning the work into a stylised but revealing take that burrowed deep into the text. Jamie Glover’s production for Theatre Royal Bath is more traditional in tone, in lots of ways it could be smothered in aspic from the ’60s, aside from the transitions in which Johanna Town’s throbbing lighting and Max Pappenheim’s ominous sound score double down on the productions oppressive atmosphere, and designer Liz Ashcroft’s walls of the living room set stretch into the flies, distorting the perspective in front of us.

Glover, best known for his acting work (he was Harry Potter in The Cursed Child) has the knack of getting his actors to sing more than the production. Keith Allen is in fine form as the brash Max, his familiarity with the play (this is the third role he has portrayed over the years) and his faculty for Pinter’s language making him dominate the stage in a performance loaded with menace and pettiness. As his brother Sam, Ian Bartholomew seems to be playing his own power play through inscrutability, his calm façade masking the dropping of knockout blows as when he talks about afternoons spent with his brother’s late wife.

Mathew Horne as Lenny tempers his usual geniality into something more unsettling, his wide-boy Pimp has a dead-eyed stare and empty smile that suggests a psychopath in the mix. Geoffrey Lumb and Sam Alexander are the brawn and brains as the other two brothers mired in the family power dynamics. As Ruth Shanaya Rafaat is clipped and poised, an innocent corrupted or a serpent chucked into the hornets’ nest?

It’s a question that never feels like it begins to be answered. Perhaps Glover is playing a straight bat to Pinter’s text, not letting its audience get a glove on its overall meaning. But inevitably, this leaves its audience wanting answers; why this play right now? Without this urgency, it can’t fulfill the knockout blow it once had. It drifts along, an entertaining evening elevated by strong performances but one that ultimately can’t begin to reveal Pinter’s secrets.

Sorry You’re Not A Winner- Weston Studio ☆☆☆

Originally published on WhatsOnStage

Kyle Rowe and Eddie-Joe Robinson in Sorry, You're Not a Winner
Kyle Rowe and Eddie-Joe Robinson in Sorry, You’re Not a Winner
© Steve Tanner

The difficult second album/novel/film or play has haunted artists since the beginning. How do you follow up a first work that has entered the public consciousness, firming up the promise and electricity that the genuinely exciting debut elicits?

Samuel Bailey’s Sorry, You’re Not a Winner is a solid follow-up to his Papatango award-winning Shook; demonstrating an authentic tone when exploring working-class masculinity and opportunities offered and denied. If its plot beats feel a bit unsurprising – you can see where the narrative is going from the first moment – maybe the argument is that there is nowhere else these characters can go.

From GCSE exam result days onwards, paths are set which are impossible to escape from. We are introduced to Liam and Fletch on the night before everything changes. Best mates since primary school, Fletch has been in and out of school consistently excluded, with nowhere to go and plans as empty as the days are long, while Liam is one night removed from escaping the grey concrete jungle of home, for the spires and gilded libraries of Oxford. The initial scene has all the things left unsaid between two teenage boys, big on feelings and emotions but with no way of expressing them. Bonding is exchanged through beer and banter, years of nightly time-wasting talking about girls and football suddenly condensed into one final evening with the clock ticking.

It’s in Lucy Sierra’s monolithic set and Jesse Jones’ confident production that the metaphor of their futures hits home. As Liam walks through one of the doors at the end of this scene, Fletch sees the door slam in his face. Later, as university moves on to post-graduate life, Liam finds his door slamming. Is it easy, Bailey posits, to escape your social class, even when you break through the glass ceiling of aspirations?

Eddie Joe-Robinson and Kyle Rowe are compelling as the two friends destined to drift apart but find a bond that can never fully break. Joe-Robinson is charmingly above it early on as academically gifted Liam, a natural ease and affinity that is strangulated when he is thrown into the world of black tie and canapes. Rowe’s Fletcher has all the coiled energy of a young man who can’t quite see a future mapped out but will do anything for his best mate since the age of six. It’s rare to watch friendships between young men be portrayed so realistically on stage, and it’s the craft of Bailey’s writing that the things left unsaid sing with as much energy as the chat about Spurs and getting with ‘fit Shannon’.

As the two girls who could potentially offer stability, Katja Quist and Alice Stokoe make something of parts that feel underdeveloped and underwritten. This is a symptom of a play that could afford another 20 minutes to breathe and add colour. Sometimes Bailey’s writing feels like we’re dropping in rather than being afforded the space to get to know them. It’s a credit to him that his writing makes you want to spend more time in the character’s world.