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.

Wonder Boy: Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆☆☆

Originally published on WhatsOnStage

Raphel Famotibe in Wonder Boy
Raphel Famotibe in Wonder Boy
© Steve Tanner

Few things in theatre can match the electricity of a first-night crowd that believes what they’ve just seen will join the canon. Not since Pink Mist blew the roof off with its poetic energy and blissful physicality has Bristol Old Vic had a night like it. A collective standing ovation and an audience roaring with laughter and love from the first minute. Wonder Boy, by rights, should be on the school curriculum tomorrow.

What makes this an even bigger celebration is it has been brought to the stage by two fertile imaginations made in Bristol. Ross Willis studied in Filton while Sally Cookson found her directing boots as the Youth Director at Bristol Old Vic. Between them, they have found a synergy that suggests the start of a beautiful friendship. Willis talks about his love of putting an impossible stage direction in every scene, which is also Cookson’s MO. Her theatrical language is so secure that we barely notice the impossible anymore.

12-year-old schoolboy Sonny (recent RADA graduate Raphel Famotibe making an excellent stage debut) struggling to come to terms with his stammer, creates a superhero, Captain Chatter, to help him deal with his impediment. But when the new headmistress decides to cast him as a guard in the school’s production of Hamlet, this comic book hero goes from friend to foe, after all, what good is a hero who stops you from speaking when you need to deliver the first line of the most iconic play in the English language.

Willis’ writing has all the roguish energy of a Year 8 inner-city classroom (‘’Miss, did you fight in the Second World War”) and is filled with f-bomb expletives from students and staff alike. Willis has a terrific theatrical imagination – the mash-up of Shakespeare fighting students with his quill is great fun – and his dialogue also sizzles with a precis of Hamlet being a worthy set piece, though his narrative doesn’t surprise as much as you might expect. Like Richard Curtis, you can see where the arc is going from minute one and the characters are sketched in comic book sans (the mouthy best friend, the sardonic but kindly teacher, the Dolores Uxbridge headteacher doling out punishment with a smile), but it doesn’t matter as it’s all delivered with such brio and a climax that audiences have been clamouring for.

In a show all about the struggle of communication, it is wonderful to see captioning become an integral part of the show in Tom Newell’s eye-popping designs, ka-pows emojis, and textspeak ruffling up against the poetry of the iambic pentameter. Katie Sykes’s lurid lime and orange designs take us from family home to comic book fantasy to school and back, while Laila Diallo’s movement work bleeds into every moment. With so much going on it’s a wonder that the performances have a chance to breathe and yet all five cast members make a telling contribution. Juliet Agnes is in hilarious form as the gobby friend who takes Sonny under her wing, Jenny Fitzpatrick pulls a strong double as the ghastly head and as a more sympathetic Mum, while Ramesh Meyyappan has the physical and facial dexterity of the best silent movie stars as the comic book hero wanting to save Sonny from speaking out loud. Yet, it’s the wonderful Amanda Lawrence as the assistant head wanting to help the children, but at sea in the new legislation that takes the honours, her weary, seen-it-all-before cynicism mixed with dreams of her charges’ futures yet created can be seen in staffrooms up and down the land.

At 90-minutes straight through it rockets along, played in full primary colour, it may not always be subtle but it’s a work designed to celebrate and find joy in overcoming adversity. You can’t help but be washed along with it.

The Theatre Week: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot- BOVTS ☆☆☆☆

Photo: Craig Fuller

It is rare in contemporary theatre to see plays that tackle the complexities of modern-day theology and it is almost as rare to see a court play in this day and age (though the long-running success of A Witness for the Prosecution suggest that there is a flicker of appetite for the push and pull of prosecution and defense.) Add in an attention-sapping three-hour running time and you feel that Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot could be dealing with its audience a busted flush.

Yet few writers make the complex sing like the Pulitzer winner Giurgis. In (deep) downtown Purgatory, where everyone speaks with an American inflection that suggests 71st street by way of New Jersey, a female Irish/Romanian counsel (Evie Hargreaves) and part bashful, part rottweiler Egyptian defender of the heavenly realm (Alexander Uzoka) interrogate whether the betrayer of Christ deserves an eternity of damnation. If God is all-forgiving, why is one of the apostles deemed to be unworthy of this mercy? Was Judas doing it for ego or because it was part of the master plan?

Giurgis balances the levity with a string of entertaining cameos to the stand; from Sigmund Freud to Caiaphas, a Mother Theresa who flirts outrageously to a who’s who of Jesus’ tribe.

It allows the graduating actors of Bristol Old Vic to have a ball, with colourful and heightened work. Hargreaves is all reason and fury and Uzoka fluttery charm as the prosecution and defense. Ajani Cabey (a striking Paris in Romeo and Juliet) brings innocence and then a dead-eyed insolence to, well, the ultimate Judas, Joshua Hurley a Goodfella’s toothpick chewing Simon The Zealot and Chiara Lari a thrilling gender-reversed Pontius Pilot.

Yet the Devil always has the best tunes and Alex Crook steals the show as Satan. Sinuous and sensual, incandescent and dangerous, the court plays to his symphony whether willing participants or not.

Nik Partridge’s traverse staging pulses with the energy of the text, throwing in throbbing dance ensemble pieces and then quieting things down in some late scenes that play up the tender. If the occasional moving of set gets a bit repetitive, played out time after time after time, it does at least allow its audience to see the play from differing perspectives in a piece that could easily lock into a static debate.

Like the best theatre, it’s an ideas-heavy work given confident theatrical language. Sprawling but potent, it shows that it’s on the stages of America that ambition and magic really take flight.

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is playing at the Station until the 12th March.

Dr Semmelweis- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆

Originally published on WhatsOnStage

Alan Williams (Johann Klein) and Mark Rylance (Dr Semmelweis).
Alan Williams (Johann Klein) and Mark Rylance (Dr Semmelweis).
© Geraint Lewis

It is no surprise that early on in his career Mark Rylance portrayed Peter Pan for the RSC. When thinking of his great roles over the past fifteen years or so, the sense of the ultimate lost boy isn’t far from the surface. When you think of Robert in Boeing Boeing, a deer in the headlights, or Rooster in Jerusalem, calling for the Gods, even Cromwell from Wolf Hall, a man whose background is far from the world he commands, Rylance is a master of the outsider who is not quite of the world he finds himself in.

He adds another outsider now in the form of Ignaz Semmelweis, a pioneering Hungarian physician who in the discovery of the importance of washing your hands, not only seems a pioneer of the COVID age but also took childbirth from a horrific 9 per cent mortality rate down to under 1 per cent during his experimentation. Ignored by a profession who did not want to countenance the fact that it might be their own working practices that were putting their patients at risk, Semmelweis died without his findings being fully put into place. It is said that revolutionary ideas take 40 years to become readily accepted. There was no celebration of his ideas in his lifetime, instead, a breakdown and a stay in an institution brought his time to a shortened end.

This leaves Stephen Brown’s slightly overlong play, in collaboration with Rylance, with plenty of action to show, though with a slightly challenging protagonist at his centre. For it was said the man struggled to communicate and Rylance takes this creed to the max. He stumbles across almost every line, as though words can’t quite communicate the depths of what he is getting at. His eyes appeal for understanding, even if his communication blocks rather than enlightens. It’s a highly skilled piece of work, though one that unfortunately provides resonances of actors not being quite on top of his lines. It’s a fascinating paradigm and part of the high-flying balancing act that makes any encounter with Rylance one to saviour. But I’m not sure it fully flies in quite the same way his best work does.

Deciding to make it a time play (most of its action happens in the past) allows its creative team to create a dreamscape of a production. Violinists and dancers patrol the stage and the auditorium, stretching time in the way dreams often can- at 160 minutes it could do with a trim- and lit by Richard Howell with ethereal magic. It often looks beautiful, Antonia Franceschi’s choreography, underscored by Adrian Sutton’s score for live violins, bleeds into Ti Green’s imposing mid-19th-century set, an oculus above appearing to be an ever-present voyeur into the dangers women in childbirth faced.

In a production that you expect will be seen in London once Rylance has got Jerusalem out of the way, there is high-end support. Thalissa Teixeira is a sympathetic presence as Semmelweis’ wife trying to make sense of her husband’s past, though the play does not have much time for showing him as a loving family man which makes her devotion a bit wearying, while Jackie Clune is particularly powerful as a career Nurse who tragically proves the thesis around washing hands correct. As friends, allies, and enemies Sandy Grierson, Felix Hayes, Enyi Okoronkwo, Daniel York Loh, and Alan Williams provide plenty of variety.

It’s a classy production with plenty of artists working at the top of their game and the ideas seem even more resonant in a Covid world. Yet it lacks the frisson you feel when theatre really strikes a light. It drifts like those long nights of winter dreams and so lacks an urgency as a result.

Robin Hood: Legend of The Forgotten Forest- Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆☆

Originally published on WhatsOnStage

The cast of Robin Hood: Legend of the Forgotten Forest
The cast of Robin Hood: Legend of the Forgotten Forest
© Craig Fuller

When Tom Morris took over at the Bristol Old Vic in the dark days of 2009, while the theatre was shut and threatened with closure, he mentions how it was the youngsters of the theatre, those in the young company that kept the flame alive, popping up all over the city to make work and keep the brand alive. Among that number were members of The Wardrobe Ensemble and whisper it, they may have just saved Christmas as well.

Robin Hood: Legend of The Forest is a rip-roarer of a show; gently subversive, cheeky, full of heart, Bryan Adams and all in all a bow quivering delight. It is also their best work since 1972: The Future of Sex and shows that this is a company now fully equipped to be commissioned for our biggest stages. Ten years after being formed in ‘The Made In Bristol’ scheme, it seems a fitting anniversary present to themselves to show they are ready for the next step.

Lonely schoolboy JJ, given a big-hearted turn by Dorian Simpson, is transported to Sherwood Forest by the magic of a book given to him in a library, to meet Robin (Kerry Lovell) and her band of merry friends. Robin is not the heroine of yore here but a down on her luck con-artist ready to barter her way out to the Costa del Sol. But with the dastardly Sherriff of Nottingham (James Newton) raising taxes for the poor and silencing anyone who dares stand up to him, it’s time for her to refind her purpose. A quest to put the gang back together and then pull off a daring heist at Nottingham’s birthday shindig is at the heart of the show that never slows down on its invention over its 150-minute run time.

It’s no surprise that several of the members have been responsible for Bristol’s best festive treat over the years, Wardrobe’s own Christmas show, that splices together famous movie titles to make something unique. This is Robin Hood meets Oceans 11, with an iconic Mission Impossible moment to boot. It’s a heist show that delights in seeing the band come back together to pull off one last job, making self-discoveries along the way. Anna Orton’s set fluidly takes us from libraries to the forest to dungeons with a flourish or two along the way, atmospherically lit by Joshua Gatsby while Tom Crossley-Thorne’s compositions are toe-tapping delights.

After a decade together, the ensemble now operates like a well-oiled machine. Lovell brings dash and brio to the iconic Robin, and Newton’s Sherriff, prone to nightly affirmations, and with a glee for removing digits stands out as a dead-eyed psychopath who just wants everyone to celebrate his birthday. Jesse Meadows is a lush of a Tuck, and Katja Quist is a mixed martial artist Marian, but it’s the ever-affable Tom England who threatens to run away with the production with his dance turn and a Tom Cruise iconic moment.

I think ultimately what impressed me most was how the company has produced something that feels quite traditional in plenty of respects but lands it right in 2021. Three cheers for a queer kiss being clapped to the rafters by the groups of schoolchildren and a piece ending with an NHS working Mum being called a hero by her child. And let’s have one final cheer for a company that continue to dazzle with their vision and ambition.