Theatre

Bravo Figaro

14/05/20

Go Faster Stripe and Traverse Theatre

Mark Thomas is always a delight to watch: standup, storyteller, activist – all of these terms can be applied to him and all seem to fit perfectly. We missed Bravo Figaro at last year’s festival, so this seems like a welcome addition to our lockdown entertainment options, streaming live on YouTube for just £5, with a percentage of ticket purchases going to the Traverse theatre.

Business is pretty much as usual here, as Thomas ambles onto a sparsely furnished stage and begins to unfold the story of his father, Colin, a hardworking family man, a builder by trade who, unusually for a working class chap, developed a fervent passion for opera. Thomas pulls no punches in his depiction of a man who was never slow in using his own fists when angered and who clearly ruled his wife and chidren with a rod of iron. But, when he was stricken by a rare form of degenerative illness, Colin became a shadow of the man he used to be – and his son had to look for ways in which he might remind his father of the things that used to motivate him.

This clever and moving story, draws a compelling narrative, interspersed with occasional recorded pieces featuring the voices of his parents in conversation.

It’s testament to Thomas’s considerable skill as a raconteur that he manages to flit effortlessly in and out of the various scenes, between genuinely funny observations and heartwrenching moments of realisation. Not everything here quite hits home as surely as it might, for example, a brief passage where he explains to the younger people in the audience what vinyl is seems like a misstep – they are the hipster generation, after all.

But that’s a minor quibble. This is a charming and perceptive piece, that provides an excellent way to fill an hour of lockdown. I look forward to seeing him again, preferrably in a packed theatre, with the laughter of others ringing around me.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Twelfth Night

23/04/20

National Theatre Live

I’m never sure about Twelfth Night. Yes, it’s a perfectly constructed play, with a rich cast of characters and some of Shakespeare’s most profound and memorable lines. But I’m always pulled up short by the identity swap stuff, because it’s so silly. And, dare I say it, over-used in the bard’s comedies. Yes, I know he’s a genius. But come on. It defies credulity.

Still, major plot quibbles aside, this latest offering from the NT Live’s lockdown programme is nothing short of glorious. Director Simon Godwin really revels in the play’s theme of gender fluidity, and it makes perfect sense in this context to have a female Malvolia (the marvellous Tamsin Greig), Feste (Doon Mackichan) and Fabia (Imogen Doel).

For those who need a memory jog or who are new to the play, this is the story of twins Viola (Tamara Lawrance) and Sebastian (Daniel Ezra), washed up on the shores of Illyria following a shipwreck. Each believes the other dead, and sets out alone to seek shelter.

To Viola, disguising herself as a boy seems the safest bet, so she changes her clothes and calls herself Cesario. So-disguised, she finds work as a messenger for Duke Orsino (Oliver Chris), and is soon engaged in the peculiar business of attempting to woo the Countess Olivia (Phoebe Fox) for him. Unfortunately, Olivia falls for Cesario instead – and, to complicate matters further, Viola herself is smitten with the Duke. Add Olivia’s unruly uncle Toby (Tim McMullen) and his drunken entourage into the mix, and it’s easy enough to see why the prissy, order-loving Malvolia becomes so peevish and out of sorts.

The standout here is clearly Greig’s Malvolia; this is a star turn. Her obsessive, precise nature is beautifully detailed, and the frenzied abandon that follows when she falls for the revellers’ trick – instructing her to dress in yellow stockings to win Olivia’s favour – allows us a glimpse beneath Malvolia’s repressed exterior, as her secret desires are cruelly exposed. Her abject humiliation is genuinely heartbreaking.

But there’s plenty to admire besides Greig: McMullen’s interpretation of Toby (all louche and dissipated, like an ageing rock star) is original and works well with the script, while Daniel Rigby’s man-bunned Andrew Aguecheek makes a perfect comic foil.

The set, by Soutra Gilmour, is inspired: dominated by a huge rotating staircase, that turns to reveal a vast range of locations, all cleverly depicted with a few deft strokes.

This is a lovely, light production, with both exquisite foolery and emotional depth. I reckon I’ll even let the false identity stuff go. Against the odds, they make it work.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Liberty Equality Fraternity

21/04/20

Digital Theatre

The worldwide pandemic is leading us into some unexpected waters. My previous knowledge of Australian Theatre would best have been described as ‘very minimal’. But after recently watching and enjoying Emerald City on Digital Theatre, we’ve been prompted to seek out another production by the National Theatre of Australia.

Liberty Equality Fraternity is a tight little three-hander that plays rather like a witty update of Kafka’s The Trial, demonstrating how, in the age of social media, it’s impossible for anyone to have secrets. Whatever we do, whatever we say, it seems that somebody is always watching us.

Orlagh (Caroline Brazier) sits alone in a tiny room in front of a blank screen. She’s been at work on what seems like a normal day, when she finds herself unceremoniously bundled into isolation, with no real explanation of what’s happening to her. Has she broken some obscure law? Is she about to be accused of something? Then in comes ‘Arkie’ (Andrew Ryan). It’s not his real name, he explains, but refers to an extinct bird that he’s rather fond of. Arkie, it turns out, knows a lot about Orlagh. He has intimate details of every aspect of her life, including incriminating photographs which soon start to appear on the screen behind her – and, it transpires, he’s trying to establish connections between her and other people, some of whom she knows, and some she has never heard of.

As the interrogation continues, Orlagh’s fears start to mount and they are not exactly assuaged with the appearance of Walter (Helmut Bakaitis), whose suave and effortless dismissal of all that has gone before seems, if anything, even more sinister.

This is a dark and often caustically funny piece, written by Geoffrey Atherden and featuring sterling performances from the cast. Ryan is particularly good as the boorish Arkie, frantically trying to maintain control but subject to to his own fears and inadequacies, as Orlagh gradually begins to get the measure of him and turns his techniques back on him. It soon transpires that Arkie too has secrets he’d rather not share with the world.

The play asks some pertinent questions about the perils of contemporary living. Why are we so ready to share every detail of our lives on social media? Do we honestly believe that such platforms are harmless… that they might not one day be used against us?

Liberty Equality Fraternity may not provide any answers but it certainly asks some highly relevant questions.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Five From Inside

21/04/20

Traverse Theatre YouTube

We were looking forward to Donny’s Brain at the Traverse, but then along came a global pandemic to scupper our plans. Enter writer Rona Munro, director Caitlin Skinner and the rest of the cast and crew with a plan to fill the gap: a series of five short monologues, free to view on the theatre’s YouTube channel.

Thematically, we’re in all too familiar territory: one way or another, the characters are all trapped, either physically incarcerated or marooned within their own introspection. It’s a ghastly reminder of the zeitgeist.

First up, there’s Jacob (Bhav Joshi), who’s literally locked up: he’s in prison, desperately seeking help from his brother. The off-kilter camera angles create a sense of panic and disorientation; his fear is palpable. Next comes twitchy Fern (Lauren Grace), who’s also being kept against her will, apparently in some kind of clinic. She’s struggling to ‘colour her mood’ correctly with her crayons. ‘I’m normal,’ she keeps insisting, frantically trying to banish her demons.

Mr Bubbles (Michael Dylan) is a children’s entertainer whose career is on the line after an embarrassing live TV bust-up with his partner; he’s trapped in his character, wiping at his make-up, trying to reveal the self below. And Siobhan (Roanna Davidson) is locked in a cycle of resentment against an employer who ostracises her, and refuses to recognise her contribution to the firm’s success.

My favourite of the five is the last one, Clemmy, performed by Suzanne Magowan (last seen by Bouquets & Brickbats in the thought-provoking Fibres), which takes the form of a filmed confession from a mother to her young daughter. She’s caught in a web of her own lies, and her anguish is heartbreaking. The back story is tantalising; this clearly has the potential to be developed into a longer piece.

But there’s no weak link here, and an astonishing tonal mix, considering the self-limiting nature of the project. Although each one is a stand-alone, they work best when viewed together, a series of lives connected by a sense of isolation.

Available until 9pm on 2nd May, these vignettes are well worth fifty minutes of your time.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Treasure Island

16/04/20

National Theatre Live

Treasure Island is one of those stories I know without knowing. Despite being an ardent bookworm as a child, I never read past the first couple of chapters of Robert Louis Stevenson’s seminal text. I’ve never watched a film version all the way through either. I’m not sure why; maybe I just didn’t think that seafaring adventures were for me. And yet, of course, I know the characters, the plot, the tropes – because every pirate cliché emanates from this book.

So now’s the time for me to see it through, via the National Theatre’s free YouTube screening, available until next week. I settle on the sofa next to my husband, who hands me a glass of wine. So I’m relatively happy, although I can’t refrain from grumbling, ‘It’s not the same as actually being out.‘ It’s not, obviously. But, for now, it’s what we have.

This is a sprightly production, and a lot of fun to watch. Bryony Lavery’s script is fleet of foot, and Polly Findlay’s direction lively and light, although there’s more than a hint of darkness here.

Patsy Ferran is a female Jim – a Jemima – whose encounter with Bill Bones (Aidan Kelly) at her grandma’s inn leads her into piratic escapades. Before long, she’s left granny far behind, and is employed as a cabin-girl on the Hispaniola, learning to read the stars while befriending the dark-hearted Long John Silver (Arthur Darvill), as they sail forth in search of Captain Flint’s buried treasure. Betrayal and misadventure follow, of course, as do enlightenment and redemption. It’s never less than an exciting ride.

Ferran’s is a beguiling performance; indeed, the whole production charms. Joshua James’ Benn Gunn is bewitching, his conversations with himself simultaneously enervating and captivating; it’s a clever portrayal.The swordplay sequences, choreographed by Bret Yount, are bold and athletic. And Lizzie Clachan’s design shows us the boat as a living, breathing organism, exposing the metaphor of the island’s tunnels as Jim’s inner self, her conscience and her soul.

Whether Treasure Island is an old favourite or unexplored territory, this is certainly a piece of theatre that everyone can enjoy.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Iphigenia in Splott

10/04/20

Digital Theatre

Cursed with one of the most outlandish titles in recent history, Iphigenia in Splott, a raucous monologue written by Gary Owen and performed by Sophie Melville, offers a loose reworking of the classic Greek myth of Iphigenia, relocated to the town of Splott (yes, it’s a real place!) just south of Cardiff. I can only take it on trust that the equally outlandish accent employed throughout is an accurate one. (As a native of Wales, I think I’m allowed to say that.)

Melville plays Effie, a local girl who lives her life with the volume turned all the way up to eleven. Too much booze, too much sex, too much vomiting – it’s her way of coping with boredom in a town where most of the stores and places of entertainment have been shut down or burned down, and where redemption can only be found at the bottom of an ice bucket full of vodka. Or is there more than that?

Effie experiences something suspiciously like a revelation when she encounters ex-soldier Lee at a local bar and plunges headlong into a no-holds barred one-night-stand with him. Effie is suddenly, hopelessly in love and, for the first time in years, she glimpses some genuine hope. Is she being wildly optimistic when she dares to dream of a bright new future? 

Melville puts in a stellar performance here, spitting out her vehement, invective-splattered worldview with dazzling aplomb. It’s the kind of performance you’d expect to see at the Edinburgh Fringe, an hour’s worth of explosive drama that holds you in its vice-like grip from start to finish. And, towards the end, it becomes more than just Effie’s caustic point of view. Owen cleverly opens it out into a searing condemnation of current political thinking. The result is a powerful call to arms, a plea for politicians to consider the struggling strata of society that has been increasingly marginalised over the years.

The original Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, was sacrificed to ensure the success of the men who governed her. Effie too, in her own way, becomes a sacrificial victim of those who have devastated both our health service and the everyday aspirations of the working class.

This is bleak but compelling, a piece that speaks its mind and takes no prisoners.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Habit of Art

07/04/20

Original Theatre Company

In the normal run of things we would have been seeing this at the King’s Theatre just a few days ago, and basing our review around that performance. But these are very far from normal times and, consequently, this revival of Alan Bennett’s 2009 production, directed by Philip Franks, can now be accessed directly from The Original Theatre Company’s website for just a few pounds.

Ostensibly a play about the odd friendship between WH Auden (Matthew Kelly) and Benjamin Britten (David Yelland), The Habit of Art is made more interesting by allowing the audience to be observers at a rehearsal for the play, taking place in a scruffy church hall. We are afforded an insider’s view complete with all the mistakes, digressions and conflicts that exist in such situations. In effect, each actor is portraying not just the character they embody in the biographical play, but also the actor who portrays that character – which probably makes this sound a lot more complicated than it actually is. Don’t worry, the metatheatre all falls into place.

Auden, in the latter years of his career, has been reduced to living in rooms at his college in Oxford, where he meets occasional friends and regularly entertains rent boys, who supply him with his daily bout of fellatio. He is unexpectedly visited by his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter (whom he briefly mistakes for that day’s supplier of sexual favours), and later by Britten, whom Benjamin hasn’t seen for thirty years and is keen to discuss his latest project, a planned adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. (Mann, incidentally, was Auden’s Father-in-law.)

Bennett has a lot of fun dealing with the subject of homosexuality, still illegal in the 1970s when this play is set, and the secret that drove these two great artists. Auden talks much about the titular habit – how creative minds are constantly disposed to creating work, long after any real need to do so has vanished from their lives, and the moment when he seizes upon the desperate hope that Britten is thinking of offering him a collaboration is the play’s pivotal scene. Both Kelly and Yelland offer assured performances, and they are well supported by Veronica Roberts as the ever capable stage manager, Kay, and by John Wark as Donald, who can’t quite rid himself of the notion that, in playing Humphrey Carpenter, he’s actually nothing but a ‘device.’

This witty and engaging performance, even when condensed onto our tiny screen at home, is worth seeking out, but it makes me long to have seen it in the theatre, where it really belongs. Still, interested parties will find it at www.originaltheatre.com

4 stars

Philip Caveney