Friday, 2 December 2016

'The Children' review or 'Don't let the sun go down on me...'

The Children – Lucy Kirkwood [Spoilers contained in this review…]
Royal Court Theatre, 30th November 2016

We’re in a charming and slightly worn down cottage by the coast. We’re somewhere in England, sometime around now. It’s late afternoon and Hazel (Deborah Findlay – outstanding) is preparing dinner for her husband Robin (Ron Cook). It’ll be a light dinner – just a cold salad - since Hazel and Robin are in their sixties and Hazel is damned if she’s going to just let death happen. You can choose not to run to towards death and Hazel chooses running on the spot, eating healthily, practising yoga.

Outside, the light is fading. The walls of the cottage glimmer and glow with the steady, off-stage descent of the sun. First the walls turn a gentle shade of pink. It is the start of something, gentle and unassuming. The pink deepens to a red, which darkens and thickens and seems to take a hold of things. Finally there is a cooling off – a white light followed by a flattening out and then a soft dip into darkness. It is like watching the very slowest of explosions. It is an explosion that has happened somewhere at a distance, somewhere we cannot see – but just look at the way this unseen explosion plays and fuses with the kitchen and the people inside it.  

Watching Lucy Kirkwood’s brilliant new play ‘The Children’ (served tremendously by inspired directing from James Macdonald), you might miss the beautiful light show (Peter Mumford, genius) that dances about the walls. You might, instead, be distracted by Kirkwood’s pin-sharp dialogue, as witty as it is wise, as big and bold as it is domestic, authentic and familiar. You might have been distracted by three brilliant performances, with Deborah Findlay a frightened thumping heart at the centre of things. That would a shame. It’s a thing of beauty that light show; it is life continuing to do its thing, no matter what. It is the start and the end of things. But it is very hard to spot the big stuff, isn’t it, when you’re distracted by the main event, the very process of just getting on and living?

‘The Children’ is set in the aftermath of a power plant explosion. Hazel and Robin – both retired nuclear scientists - have moved into a cousin’s cottage in order to avoid contamination. Their old house, their farm and the cows are now locked off inside the danger zone. That world, those memories, feelings and things, are no longer an option for Hazel and Robin. There’s no going back – not unless they want to cause themselves some serious harm. Not unless they care so much about the past that they’re willing to destroy their bodies and fuck up their future.

Only there’s always a way to back, isn’t there? When old friend and colleague Rose (Francesca Annis) arrives – after a hefty 37 years away – the past comes rumbling back into Hazel and Robin’s lives. It takes a little while to catch up with them. At first, Hazel and Rose’s shared history merely lingers, strange and threatening, underneath the distracting patter of everyday chat. Hazel talks about Rose being an ‘old, old friend’ and there’s a funny sort of spitefulness to the phrase. As the two feel each other out, circling one another with empty phrases, the dialogue begins to thicken. The light ripples and pulses and that – too – seems to speak of the life these two once shared, when they worked together at the power plant.  And when Rose helps herself to a glass of water – walks straight to Hazel’s cupboard and plucks out a glass – well, that glass of water becomes a weapon.

Hazel’s husband Robin (Ron Cook) arrives home and the present is again – more strongly this time - contaminated by the past. Rose’s words grow heavier and her flat and calm demeanor begins to feel like a soot that smothers everything. She has a weird neutrality about her – a sort of refusal to become animated. Perhaps that’s because Rose has got something to hide. Perhaps it is because she feels defensive, or because she never had children. For whatever reason, Rose doesn’t seem to be completely inside this scene, inside her life. She hover somewhere just outside of things. And when Rose goes to smoke, she stands beside the half-open kitchen door, half in and half outside of this early evening gathering.

The light outside cools and the dialogue cools with it, becoming colder, thinner, harder. The words start to feel flinty – weapons with which these characters can harm each other. And then, finally, the dam breaks. The past comes flooding into this kitchen (quite literally at one point, when the toilet bursts and water spills through Miriam Buether’s exquisitely restrained set) and everything changes. It tells you something about the depth of this play that a burst toilet pipe can say so much, without that poignancy feeling in any way pretentious or hard-working. That burst toilet is the end of our planet. It is icebergs melting and islands drowning. It is the tipping point. It is a shitstorm (ha) raining down on all of us. It is ugly past indiscretions finally catching up on us. It is Rose and Robin’s affair, hidden for so long, finally sweeping through Hazel’s kitchen and destroying her perfectly preserved but perfectly dishonest present.

The dam has opened. Rose finally reveals the reason she is here. She has a request. Rose wants Robin and Hazel to come and help clean up the mess at the power plant. It is dangerous work – but it is their mess to sort out. The real master-piece of Kirkwood’s play is that this is not necessarily an altruistic act from Rose. Is this the behaviour of a good person, or of someone with nothing to lose? What is more important, anyway? To protect the people and the small world around us, or to make bigger sacrifices in order to save more people and, well, more planet? What are we really living for: these scenes in our kitchen or that bigger light show gently playing out beyond our window?

Rose has a cigarette and – again – that tension between the big and small battles, the local and wider issues, is encapsulated in the simple acting of puffing on a cigarette. Smoking gives Rose pleasure, so why shouldn’t she do it? It will probably kill her in the end, but the end is a very, very hard concept for the human head to wrap around.

Rose finishes her cigarette and Hazel, livid and frightened and a little bit excited too (even if she can’t admit it yet), sprays the smoke-filled air that Rose has created. Hazel picks the present. Hazel picks what is in front of her. She chooses looking after her children, no matter how disappointing or difficult they might be. She chooses cleaning up the mess that she can actually see.

As these three grapple with this huge decision that they face, they put on the radio and play an old song. It is a song that the three once danced to together – they even made up a routine. At first Rose and Robin struggle to remember the steps, but then Hazel joins in and guides them through. It isn’t long before they’re all in synch, wiggling and shimmying to the music. All three suddenly look really young and really happy again. But it’s just a fleeting moment. The dancing soon breaks down and the music stops. It felt good to dance though, didn’t it? It felt really good – right up until the music stopped and everything fell silent. 

'Sheppey' review or 'Luck of the Nice'

Sheppey, Somerset Maugham
Orange Tree Theatre, 28th November 2016
Written for Exeunt 

Sheppey is Somerset Maugham’s last play. After it opened at Wyndham’s in 1933, Maugham announced he would never write for theatre again. There’s a twilight feel to the piece. Death creeps around the scene-edges. Ideas about legacy linger and big, heavy ‘end of life’ questions – what is it to be good and is it possible to live by one’s ideals – pull at the seams of the writing.
Yet, as is the case with so many last plays, Sheppey is not a brilliant piece of theatre. The structure is shaky. The tone slides all over the place (are we going for arch comedy or something more off-beat and sinister?) and many of the scenes are horribly flabby. The dramatic motor never gets going; it’s as if the play is revving up for a journey that the playwright repeatedly fails, or forgets, to take.
But there is something about Sheppey; lines or snatched moments that shimmer with all sorts of strange qualities and truths. These instances, rare as they are, could only have been formulated at the end of a brilliant career, after years of careful thought and smouldering concerns.

The play is set in London in the 1930s. The Great Depression feels like a weighty presence. Sheppey (John Ramm) is a hairdresser at a local salon and – for the most part – his is a world untouched by the depression. The customers lie back on their chairs and ‘thoughtfully’ sigh: ‘Everyone knows there’s a lot of poverty in this world, but it can’t be helped, like influenza or a run of bad luck at cards.’
But when Sheppey’s luck changes – and he wins big on the lottery – he resolves to do something about the poverty that swarms the streets around him. In short, Sheppey decides to live like Jesus. He throws his house open to the unwashed masses and it isn’t long before a ‘lady of the night’ (a brilliantly slippery Dickie Beau) and a common crook are sleeping cheek by jowl with Sheppey’s seriously miffed family.
It’s one heck of a sparky premise – but the play never sets alight. Director Paul Miller and his sensitive cast do a fine and nuanced job (it’s the play at fault and not this production). Simon Daw’s set, too, is pleasingly odd. Advertising boards enshroud the stage and – in the corner – sits a shelf packed full of glowing hair dye bottles. The stage space feels polished, cold and a little unreal; it’s an arena that glows with empty promises.
There are, however, some fundamental dramatic issues with this play that no amount of artful tweaking can overcome. Maugham never fully commits to his ideas, his characters, and the internal energy of his writing. He also never fixes on the type of emotional connection he’s aiming for with his audience. Sheppey’s customers and colleagues are laughably pompous. Their snooty comments, rinsed of compassion, edge Sheppey into the realms of satire. Sheppey’s family is equally arch and artificial. His daughter Florrie (Katie Moore) is cartoonishly callous and her fiancĂ©, Ernie (Josh Dylan), amusingly pretentious. None of their scenes feel real.
Yet some of the quieter moments in Sheppey – particularly when he talks with Dickie Beau’s agonisingly enigmatic prostitute Bessie Legros – are intimate, textured and true. John Ramm fascinates as the title character. He has a smile that spreads – very slowly – over his entire face. It’s as if Sheppey’s goodness is swallowing him whole; an acid that is reducing him to nothing. He is a very real character in the middle of an unreal play. The suspicion and anger that Sheppey provokes when he attempts to do good is a very sad and revealing thing. In the play’s best moment, Sheppey sits in a chair that threatens to engulf him and cries out: ‘It’s the pain of the world that gets me.’ And, just for a second, we sit and cry out with him.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

'The Sewing Group' review or 'Who is in charge of the thread?'

The Sewing Group, EV Crowe
Royal Court Theatre, 16th November 2016
Written for Time Out

Writer EV Crowe sure does like to play with her audience – almost as if she’s wielding the question mark as a weapon. ‘The Sewing Group’ is full of uncertainty. It’s set in a rural village in the 1700s. It is about women, narrative, the very idea of usefulness. Or is it? This is a teasing tapestry of a play, which Crowe keeps picking away at, until we’re left with a startling new image – and a fair few loose ends.
Stuart Laing designs and directs and his set is minimalist with a hint of spookiness and silliness too. The stage looks a little like a giant sauna. Everything is wooden: the walls, stools, floor and ceiling. This is where the women – dressed in great black cloaks – work. A single door opens out onto a pitch black beyond; the end of narrative, the beginning of backstage, a great big shrug of the shoulders.
The dialogue and performances slip constantly. A mysterious new woman (Fiona Glascott) – named in the script as C – joins the village. She wants something more for these women – new patterns, purpose and stories. But the women are a little strange. Their speech is rinsed of emotion and peppered with anachronisms. As the framework begins to slide, they start to control the music, lights, costumes.
The actors do really well to do hold on to the ambiguity but also extract a few giggles and even empathy. Fiona Glascott’s central performance hums with skittish energy, Jane Hazlegrove’s easy humour lightens the atmosphere and Alison O’Donnell – who recently starred in Crowe’s play ‘Brenda’ – is arch, comic and confident. 
But the laughs feel a little strained – as if the audience is madly trying to ‘get’ the joke. When the big reveal happens, it’s a tad underwhelming. Crowe is a master of form – but sometimes it crowds out her writing, trapping her play rather than setting it free.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

King Lear review or 'Cheeks cracked. Soul broken.'

King Lear, William Shakespeare
Old Vic Theatre, 8th November 2016
Written for The Ham & High 

Deborah Warner’s fizzing, flawed – and brilliantly playful – take on King Lear contains a wink or a chuckle in almost every scene. Bums are displayed proudly. Edmund skips to his soliloquies. A raging storm is recreated with thundering sheets and blazing screens and, if you’re really lucky, Gloucester’s eye might fly clean past you. Atop these flourishes and twists – which are patchy but consistently sparky - there is a once-in-a-life-time performance from Glenda Jackson as King Lear that will blow your mind and break your heart.

Perhaps it’s Jackson’s past as an MP (she only stood down from her Hampstead and Highgate constituency in 2015) that makes her such a convincing politician in this modern-dress production. Perhaps it’s her RSC work that makes her a singularly natural interpreter of Shakespeare. Perhaps it is her age (80 years) that allows her performance to shimmer on so many levels – both a testament to human resolve and a wrenching display of vulnerability. Whatever the reasons, the dramatic stars have aligned to create a performance of breath-taking authenticity and feeling.

Here is a plain-dressed King that is strong, sarcastic and a horrible show-off – with only a hint of the senility that will later take hold. Jackson’s use of her hands is inspired: every flourish of the fingers deepens Shakespeare’s poetry. Most impressive are the moments when Lear curses ‘his’ daughters. The rage that Jackson summons – the venom and heat that surges through her speech – is terrifying and otherworldly, as if Lear has finally made contact with God.

The other actors sound a little clunky in Jackson’s presence. Harry Melling is particularly laboured as the wronged Edgar, and Jane Horrocks – as Lear’s false daughter Regan – feels awkward. The comic turns work better and Rhys Ifans’ Fools is genuinely funny – no more so than when he has two eggs rammed in his eyes.

There are moments when this restless production flags and the screen-based set (Warner and Jean Kalman) is resolutely minimalist and ugly. But despite a faltering second half, a dark tension builds as we wait – with dread and sick excitement – for Lear’s fate to befall him and for Jackson to return to the stage and tear our hearts in two. 

Monday, 7 November 2016

'Orca' review or 'Are you sure you can see to the bottom?'

Orca, Matt Grinter
Southwark Playhouse, 4th November 2016
Written for Time Out 

'Orca' unfolds at the end of a pier in a remote island community. The pier is covered in patchy moss and has been worn down by the crashing sea and searching winds. Matt Grinter’s fine new play gently – and finally devastatingly – explores the way in which a small community moulds and reshapes its inhabitants, with sometimes brutal force. 
It revolves around a local legend, which states that only the ‘daughter’ can protect the fish from the orcas (killer whales) that swarm the seas in midsummer. Every year, the local young girls eagerly – and prettily – dance for the role of the daughter. This year it is young Fan’s turn to dance, but her sister Maggie is desperate for Fan not to take part. The more Maggie protests – and the more she hints at the horror she herself has experienced - the more isolated she becomes.
Director Alice Hamilton’s production hovers hauntingly at the edges of reality. There’s something a little too picturesque about Frankie Bradshaw’s set; as if a coastal painting had been willed into existence. Yet the sand and pebbles that line the stage and spill into the audience are all too real. The pier occasionally throbs and glows and the music screeches – but Richard Hammarton’s authentic sound effects (wind whistles past our ears) keeps us rooted in reality.
There’s a beautiful balance about this piece, which seduces us with myth and theatrical magic – but carefully and continually brings us back to our senses. The performances are equally compelling and complex. Cara Langley’s Fan radiates with a type of innocence so strong you might touch it. Roba Morison’s body is taut with resolve and one realises – with dread – what awful conviction it takes to speak out. Aden Gillet plays the Father of the village and, whilst his speech is smooth, his eyes flicker, dart and darken, utterly at odds with the supposed support he offers.

Monday, 26 September 2016

'Pilgrims' review or 'How's your pulse?'

Pilgrims, Elinor Cook
The Yard Theatre, 22nd September 2016
Written for Time Out

A tiled mosaic lies atop a raised platform. There are gaps in it; holes through which the actors can fall. Above the stage hangs jagged lattice work – a broken horizon perhaps, or the unfinished edges of a story? ‘Pilgrims’ is a play rich in metaphor. It is about two male mountaineers and the one girl – Rachel – stuck in the middle. But ‘Pilgrims’ is also about men and adventure, and how men might lose sight of themselves. It’s about love, and how we all lose sight of ourselves through that. And it’s about narrative and control, and just whose story is this anyway?
This is a seriously smart new play from Elinor Cook – a restless piece of writing that keeps chipping away at itself, leaving sharp and glittering edges exposed. ‘Pilgrims’ begins at the end, with old friends Will (Steffan Donnelly – brilliant and dangerous) and Dan (Jack Monaghan) stranded at the top of a mountain. They seem like the best of friends. They seem like heroes.  And then Cook weaves and darts backwards – back to the beginning and to Rachel (Amanda Wilkin) – and cracks emerge. The story of these two men, once as solid as packed snow, melts and flows away from us. 
Tamara Harvey directs with a feather-light touch. When Dan has a panic attack – frightened at the safe life he now lives – Will’s shadow looms large. A gasp of breath occasionally blasts out of the speakers; frightening and foreboding, and then gone. The wall between the scenes is wafer thin – broken with a stolen glance, a giggle from an actor, a nod from the wings.  
But there are moments when this forensic play seems a little too self-conscious and controlled.  Rachel just happens to be a PhD student – majoring in folk songs, war and women – and spends a lot of time telling hyper-relevant myths. The metaphors and myths begin to crowd out the characters and, for all its impressive ambition, this mountaineering adventure ultimately feels a little cold. 

Friday, 23 September 2016

'Emily Rising' review or 'Up, up and away...'

'Emily Rising', Dan Rebellato
Little Angel Theatre, 17th September 2016
Written for Guardian online 

Emily Rising is a play about growing up and growing away. It’s a meditative show about the connections we form in life and just how fleeting and potentially limiting those relationships might be. It is funny and beautiful and sad and hopeful and, at the end, my nine-year-old theatre-friend Qeiva clapped with so much force that I started to worry for those little hands.
Oliver Hyman’s production of Dan Rebellato’s play (for audiences aged seven and upwards) is visually dazzling, but this is also a very honest piece about how strange and surprising life can be for an older child such as Emily, who is learning to stand on her own two feet. The play is set in a flat in Islington, north London, where 10-year-old Emily lives with her mother, Sarah, and little brother, Robbie. Emily’s parents are getting a divorce and, one morning, Emily wakes up and discovers that her feet no longer touch the ground. She soars higher and higher, until she can barely make contact with her family, her school or her friends below
Children’s shows can often be quite vague, but Rebellato’s play (co-produced byLittle Angel and Goblin) is poetic and precise. The characters are played by puppets – but the actors’ hands, arms or legs are incorporated into the design so that there’s always a bit of the puppeteers (David Emmings, Yana Penrose and Peyvand Sadeghian), poking around the edges. Emily wears jeans and a hoodie and is a big BeyoncĂ© fan. At one point, If I Were a Boy plays and Qeiva whispers: “I know this!” This is Qeiva’s world on stage.
All the puppets, other than Emily, have a surreal and subjective twist. Emily’s mum has a wooden face, huge, jangling earrings and a dress that tapers down to nothing. She is all head, just as Emily might see her from above while floating. The puppets’ bodies reflect the environment in which they live – such a clever touch from designer Alison Alexander. Emily’s teacher has black binders for hair and a yellow-pencil scarf. The doctor has two stethoscopes for eyes (yet cannot see what is wrong with Emily), and the nosey neighbour’s head is made of fussy flowers. The social worker is constructed from piles of paperwork, with a clipboard for a face.
Rachel Champion’s set shows us the world through Emily’s eyes and includes a warped fence that stretches out towards us and a spindly house. Emily is initially attached to the house by string but – eventually – floats off. Emily drifts away from her family and, the further she drifts, the “more beautiful” the world becomes. It is such a mature and complex ending – but Qeiva knows exactly what it means: “She’s gone off into the universe.”