Flesh and Bone

Sometimes you don’t quite know what you’re letting yourself in for.

I teach a month’s summer school course on theatre to overseas students under the auspices of Kingston University. I take them to a cross section of plays in the West End, the National, Globe and the fringe, and each year I choose one new play for what I call a close analysis, whereby they get to read the script beforehand and workshop the play and imagine how they would stage it, before seeing it.

This year I chose FLESH AND BONE on the strength of its reviews. A gritty, urban piece set on an East London estate, written in heightened, Shakespearean language and performed, said the critics, with gusto. Perfect, I thought, for my students to get a glimpse into a bit of true, gritty, East End London culture.

Flesh and Bone (unpolished theatre)

Unpolished Theatre

I booked the show and then bought the script at first opportunity, read it and thought – Whoops. I was expecting in-yer-face, and a good deal of profanity of course. What I wasn’t anticipating was the female character, Kelly (Olivia Brady), chatting up her granddad on a sex chat line (unknowingly I hasten to add), or the central male character Terrence (Elliot Warren) biting off the head of a rat.

So I presented the script to my young protégées (from the US and Australia and all female as it happens) with some trepidation. Would I stand accused of corrupting their delicate minds?

The first thing that astonished me was how much they loved the play on reading it, and even more so on seeing it performed – upstairs at the Soho Theatre, on a bare stage in front of black curtains, with no set and minimal props. The cast of five, including Olivia Brady and Elliot Warren, who created and directed it, deliver this piece of doubtful morality with such punch and commitment that not only is it screamingly funny, it is completely  – well mostly – inoffensive. Half-hearted it is not. On a steaming hot summer’s night in that confined space those five performers give the piece 150 percent, and the audience reacted accordingly.  It is a master class in how to deliver outrage and comedy with such conviction and seriousness as to disarm any kind of reservation one might have about its dubious content.

The performances were outstanding throughout, especially Alessandro Babalola as neighbour and drug dealer Jamal – huge and terrifying one moment, a puppy dog the next: another master class on how to hold an audience in the palm of your hand.

There were one or two quibbles: the actors could pay more attention to audience members seated in the side seats, rather than directing everything out front. And the rat massacre, the high spot of the whole play, was – especially following the beautifully choreographed fight – not as bold or as inventive as were hoping.

Those quibbles aside, this is an astounding evening. You even gets shots of Chopin and Strauss and Mozart. An altogether highly polished piece  of theatre from Unpolished Theatre.

Flesh & Bone runs until 21 July at the Soho Theatre

 

 

 

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Hamilton

I’d booked the tickets six months ago, just after the most hyped show of the decade, or the century (or indeed ever) opened in London to rave reviews. (Unlike other smash-hit musicals like Les Mis, which the critics hated – as did I.) In the meantime I followed received wisdom and bought the album and listened to it till I could almost recite the whole thing verbatim.

Hamilton programme.jpg

Hamilton programme

The most astonishing thing about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is that it’s driven as much if not more by its lyrics and its characterisation than by the music. As a one-time lyricist I had always tried to pare the words down to a minimum in the belief that it’s the music everyone wants to hear and nobody is listening much to the lyrics anyway. What’s mould-breaking about the show is not just that America’s founding fathers are all played by non-whites, but that you get the entire history of the American Revolution, and its aftermath, plus a biography of Hamilton’s love life and his relationships with fellow politicians, rapped, sung and very occasionally spoken, and all in the space of just under three hours.

The London show matches the Broadway cast album precisely, which is spooky in a way because it suggests the London cast, and musicians, are puppets of the original. But the cast seem utterly at home in their skins and there are spankingly brilliant performances across the board, especially from Giles Terera as Hamilton’s nemesis Aaron Burr, Obioma Ugoala as George Washington, Michael Jibson as King George III and Rachelle Ann Go and Rachel John as Hamilton’s wife and sister in law Alexandra and Eliza Schuyler. Jamael Westman’s Hamilton is an intriguing mix of great stage presence and self deprecation, and oddly for a young performer almost straight out of drama school, he comes truly into his own in the latter scenes, as a mature man and a remorseful husband and a grieving father.

Hats off too to the fantastic, unfortunately hidden orchestra (MD Richard Beadle) and the non-stop, gyrating ensemble, who like all clever performers make it look like there are more of them than there are.

Worth the hype? Oh boy. I laughed, I cried, I marvelled, and I learned.

Hamilton (4)

Fearsome sniffer dog at the Victoria Palace

Instructions delivered by Ticketmaster in the days leading up to the performance were draconian: no tickets issued until the day of the performance; arrive an hour early, nobody’s allowed in until all the party is together, and once in you’re not allowed to leave again till the end; bring photo ID, booking confirmation and credit card; be prepared for bag searches (nothing surprising there) and sniffer dogs. All to deter ticket touts. In the event the queue stretched around the block but moved quickly, and the staff were efficient and friendly and the whole thing went without a hitch. (Though it would be nice, since there’s all that time to kill, to have a bit more seating in the bar area.)

 

 

Epic Ayckbourn

Well who’d have thought it?

I know Alan Ayckbourn  has tackled sci-fi before but never like this, never on this scale. This is Ayckbourn without the jokes. Sentimental, even – finally – optimistic. And epic in every way.

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Erin Doherty (programme cover)

The Divide (Old Vic) runs at nearly four hours long. I’d read the reviews beforehand and was prepared, secretly, to duck out at the interval. The fact that I didn’t is more a credit to the production and the players than the play.

In Ayckbourn’s future-world men and women live separately on either side of the ‘Divide’, as women pass on a deadly plague to the men. Procreation is by artificial insemination and the typical family group is a MaMa, a MaPa and kids. For some reason the women wear long black dresses and caps, seemingly uncomplainingly. (The puritan look has become a right cliché in sci-fi – cf The Handmaid’s Tale.) Mirrors are banned. Boys are removed from the family home when they reach puberty and wear white.

To be honest, I quickly stopped asking myself questions about the premise behind the play because absolutely none of it made sense to me, and the central doomed romance is totally predictable. What I did love about it was the production itself: director Annabel Boulton, designer Laura Hopkins, lighting David Plater, music especially composed by Christopher Nightingale (wonderfully appropriate name) and a live chorus of 26. Not to mention the performances, most notably from Erin Doherty, who narrates the entire story to us and is barely off the stage, and her on-stage brother played by Jake Davies. The rest of the large and almost all-female cast are hard to distinguish since they are identically dressed, but pretty faultless throughout.

The final message is both trite and uncharacteristically optimistic from a man who made his name slicing through the facades of everyday relationships. Astonishing.

The production – which closes tonight, February 10th – has been running for just ten days. I may not have gone for the play itself but there is something marvellous about the fact that it is on at all. Whatever else he is doing Ayckbourn is not playing it safe in his older age.

© Patsy Trench
London February 2018

 

 

The sound of the naked voice

Call me old-fashioned, but I do like to hear a naked voice when I go to the theatre.

We lost them some years ago in musicals. And I guess if you don’t mind watching performers with appendages attached to their hairlines that’s just about acceptable. But more recently the straight theatre, so-called, seems to be adopting the head mike with equal enthusiasm.

The National Theatre’s Network uses them throughout. It’s a busy show, to put it mildly, with a large cast, some of them live in the studio in front of you, some tucked away in a control room on one side of the stage, some on a giant screen and some even sitting among the on-stage audience. And since head mikes are not directional, call me slow-witted, but by the time I’d managed to figure out which character the amplified voice was coming from I’d missed half of what they were saying.

Network: Bryan Cranston and Douglas Henshall (nationaltheatre.org.uk)

On top of which the central character, played with great aplomb and sensitivity by Bryan Cranston, is filmed live on stage, so we get two of him: one live and one on the giant screen, and slightly out of sync. To say this is disorientating is to put it mildly. I was a tad surprised the NT found this acceptable.

It happens too in the Royal Court’s puzzling Goats, where a Syrian spokesperson is shown delivering his speech live and simultaneously on a screen; and since the actor likes to gesture with his hands this means when the live hands are going up the screen hands are going down, which is close to being funny; in the circumstances inappropriate to say the least.

Live goats in Goats (royalcourttheatre.com)

And don’t get me started on background music in the theatre.

Enough ranting. Enjoy your day!

© Patsy Trench, November 2017

Peter Nichols at 90

Peter Nichols always was my favourite living playwright, and still is, even though his plays are rarely produced nowadays.  He writes about difficult topics – much of it from his own life  – yet manages to be both seeringly funny and heartbreaking at the same time.

Peter Nichols (standard.co.uk)

(standard.co.uk)

His best-known play is probably A Day in the Death of Joe Eggabout a severely disabled child, based on his own experience as a young dad. My favourite – and, I was interested to hear, his also – is Forget-me-not Lane, about his childhood growing up in Bristol with his travelling salesman father, nickname ‘Hitler’, and his long-suffering mother. What you might call the British Death of a Salesman. Here again he manages to write about dislikeable people (his father) with compassion and understanding and even a kind of empathy. However harsh the subject, however much he takes the micky out of his characters, his plays are overlaid with great humanity, and a strange affection for human vulnerability and weakness.

Bearing all that in mind it’s surprising to hear he was known as a bit of a curmudgeon, with a reputation for complaining about things in public – such as, for instance, a time when he was commissioned by the National Theatre to write a play and subsequently ignored, even snubbed. So it was an especial pleasure to attend what was described as a ‘panel discussion’  at the British Library celebrating ‘Peter Nichols at 90‘; to see he is still alive, well, lively, with an amazingly retentive memory and not in the least curmudgeonly. The ‘discussion’ – more like a celebration of him and his plays – was chaired by the director Michael Grandage and featured readings from Stephanie Cole, Roger Allam, Sarah Woodward and Sam Swainsbury in front of a packed audience of stars from stage and screen, and Michael Blakemore.

What a privilege. I am only sorry he has given up writing plays. There were a lot of young people in the audience, some of them directors apparently. As Michael Grandage suggested, some of them may be moved to give his plays a new and much-deserved airing.

© Patsy Trench
London

 

 

A hijacked plane is heading for a football stadium filled with 70,000 people. A fighter pilot goes against orders and shoots the plane down, sacrificing the lives of 164 people in order to save 70,000. He is put on trial for mass murder. Guilty or not guilty? The audience is jury.

Terror

On the face of it it looks like a no-brainer – 164 to save 70,000? – and I’m sure I am not the only one who had already made up her mind in advance how she was going to vote. The clever thing about this play however, which takes place entirely in a courtroom, is the issues it throws up that makes one question one’s foregone conclusions. Without giving away any spoilers this case is not quite as cut-and-dried as it first looks.

It is also unusual in that whereas in most murder trials the defendant is innocent until proved guilty and the onus is on the prosecution to prove guilt ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, the onus here is on the defendant and his counsel to prove that what he did was ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ wholly justified. In other words that it was the only thing he, or someone in his position, could or should possibly have done.

There is the law, and there is philosophy, and there is human gut reaction. A few dodgy premises emit from both sides. A lot of questions remained unanswered – or rather, unasked. How did the pilot know his shot plane would not fall on buildings, or people, on the ground? How could he be sure the plane would kill all 70,000 people in the stadium? And so on and so on.

The verdict last night was not guilty, as it seems to have been throughout the run. Me, I voted guilty, partly for the reasons above. I believe the prosecuting counsel could have put a better case.

Does it make for compelling theatre? Well yes and no. A court case is static, I did feel fidgety at times. And it might have been interesting to have given the prosecution a little more weight so the final verdict wasn’t so predictable. But it is intriguing to have one’s preconceptions challenged in such a way.  Thought-provoking, absolutely. And excellently performed all round.

Terror runs at the Lyric Hammersmith until 15 July.

 

Queen Anne – Sisters doing it for themselves

The second thing that occurred to me while watching this play was: why has no one written about Queen Anne before? Of all our monarchs she must be one of the least known. The only time her name crops up in conversation it’s to do with furniture.

Queen Anne

Romola Garai & Emma Cunniffe (RSC programme)

Anne was the Protestant – and estranged – daughter of the Catholic King James II and she reigned for 12 years at the beginning of the 18th century, between William III of Orange (her brother in law) and George I of Hanover. She was happily married to Prince George of Denmark and out of 17 pregnancies only three of her children survived, and none of them beyond childhood. She was more or less crippled throughout her life with arthritis and gout and, as a result, obesity, and she could barely walk. But despite all that she ruled – according to Helen Edmondson’s marvellous play – fairly and conscientiously. And she was responsible for the unification of England and Scotland.

Queen Anne the play focuses on the Queen’s relationship with her confidante and close friend Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, a friendship that begins to sour as Anne becomes Queen and the Duchess tries more and more to influence her politically.

The first thing that occurred to me while watching the play was that this is an almost all-female production. Written, directed (by Natalie Abrahami), designed (Hannah Clark) by women, with two stonking central performances for women. Of course most of the rest of the cast are men, excluding the Queen’s maid Abigail (Beth Park), whose influence grows as the duchess’s fades. Bearing in mind this was a time when parliament and political influence was entirely male. Behind the scenes of the royal bedchamber – into which people such as the Lord Chancellor Sydney Godolphin (Richard Hope) seem to wander at will – Anne is mercilessly lampooned by satirists such as Jonathan Swift and Arthur Maynwaring, a trick which the duchess exploits as the relationship deteriorates.

First class all round. Superb performances from Emma Cunniffe as the Queen and Romola Garai as the Duchess.

Queen Anne runs at the Haymarket Theatre until 30 September 2017

Patsy Trench, July 2017