Prism by Terry Johnson, Hampstead Theatre, 16 September 2017

The neighbours tried hard to put us off this one. Joy and Barry are film aficionados extraordinaire, having been “in the film biz” themselves. They are also knowledgeable about and great admirers of Jack Cardiff, who was one of the pioneers of colour cinematography. I suspect they found the piece uninformative and irritating.

I had trouble getting Daisy out of the house, after Joy had told her unequivocally that this play was garbage and that she & Barry had walked out in irritation at half time. I said we should judge the play for ourselves and we are both glad we did.

It is set at the end of Jack Cardiff’s life. The play tries to show Cardiff looking back on his fascinating life in cinema through the distorted lens of a long, lingering old age with advancing dementia.

I think we are supposed to see analogies between the cognitive distortions of dementia and the the natural distortions of light through prisms and colour lenses.  The latter can lead, ultimately, to beauty and clarity, whereas I’d suggest that dementia struggles to do that.

The play is also meant to show us the impact of Jack Cardiff’s success (and latterly his dementia) on his son Mason and his second wife Niki. I fear that both of those parts were underwritten, perhaps because both of those people are still alive. Indeed the son, Mason Cardiff, is credited as an associate producer of the Hampstead production. As is Robert Lindsay, who plays Jack Cardiff (rather brilliantly) and was very instrumental in encouraging this piece to be written and produced. I believe Lindsay was a neighbour of the Cardiff family in Denham, where the play is set.

Consequently, the normally excellent Claire Skinner had little material to work with, while I fear that Barnaby Kay who played Mason (and also vaguely attempted Humphrey Bogart and Arthur Miller) was stretched even by his sparse roles.

Actually we thought the stand out performance was Rebecca Night as the young carer, rather casually employed by the Cardiff’s to help Jack with his daily needs and also to help him write his autobiography. The young woman’s unfortunate story formed an interesting sub-plot – potentially more interesting, in my view; that sub-plot bubbled but didn’t really boil.

To my mind, Prism is certainly a flawed play. Terry Johnson is a very capable writer, but I think the conceits of this piece are inherently problematic and the cracks show throughout. There are some superb coups de theatre, though – not least when the boat scene of The African Queen more or less comes to life in front of our eyes on the stage, just before the interval.

Two scenes after the interval were genuine highlights – The African Queen one immediately after the interval and a scene soon after, in which we realise that an explosive earlier scene with the carer and family was perceived by Jack Cardiff to be with Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn and Arthur Miller.

On balance, we’re glad we have seen this play and glad that we have learnt a bit more about Jack Cardiff through it. But this is not one of Terry Johnson’s nor the Hampstead Theatre’s greatest hits.

Here’s a link to the Hampstead resource on this production.

Mixed reviews so not all that much shown at Hampstead – this search will find most of them for you.

Against by Christopher Shinn, Almeida Theatre, 26 August 2017

Unfortunately, this one didn’t really do the business for us.

I said to Janie at the interval, “if this play manages to pull together all of its big and disparate themes in the second half, we’re in for one cracker of a second half.” I didn’t think it would. It didn’t.

Here is a link to the Almeida resource on the play/production.

Strangely, I don’t think we’d ever seen a Christopher Shinn play before. I say strangely, because he has had so many of his works performed at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, which we frequent a lot. Perhaps the subject matter has never appealed to us before.

This sounded interesting from the Almeida blurb and indeed it was interesting subject matter. Too much of it; violence in society, sexual politics, religion, workers’ increasing sense of powerlessness…

…but the performances were all very good. They seemed, to us, wasted on this play.

Tellingly, the Almeida resource does not link to reviews, so here are a few links:

To help rescue our evening, we ran into Jilly Black sitting, with a friend, a few rows behind us. We chatted with them after the show; indeed Janie dropped them at Baker Street giving us quite a bit of very pleasant post show chat time.

It is not very often that we bemoan the extra few minutes journey time to the Almeida; normally that place is well worth the extra few minutes each way, but this piece left us warm to the interesting topics but decidedly cold to the play,

A Day At The Edinburgh Fringe Festival With Old Muckers, 22 August 2017

What fun.

Rohan Candappa announced that he would be performing his one man show, How I Said F*** You To The Company When They Tried To Make Me Redundant, at The Counting House, Edinburgh.

You can listen to the first 10 minutes of the show by clicking here.

Rohan piloted this show in the Z/Yen Boardroom in January 2016 – click here for my write up of that evening.

I worked out that there was really only one day that I could be away from London that week, having committed to several days in Brum the week before for the first ever day/night test match in England.

Janie, who would have loved to have seen the show, felt that she couldn’t free up the day.

Still, I learned that there were to be several old muckers from Alleyns in Edinburgh that day and also that Marie and Joe Logan (the former being a Z/Yen alum) would at least be able to join us for lunch.

Marie and Joe’s application to become honorary school alumni for the day was unanimously accepted, especially when the gang discovered that Marie is a close friend of Linda Cook’s, as Linda had organised the Z/Yen Board Room gig.

But, when Marie inadvertently mentioned “Old Alleynians” in correspondence, I felt obliged to explain:

…there is one really important point you need to get right.

You are each an honorary Alleyn’s Old Girl/Alleyn’s Old Boy (respectively).  Neither of you is in any shape or form an Old Alleynian, honorary or otherwise.  Old Alleynians are alumni of Dulwich College, the pathetic, rival school of Alleyn’s.

Let me illustrate with well-known examples:

  • Alleyn’s Old Boy – Jude Law;
  • Alleyn’s Old Girl – Florence (and the Machine) Welch;
  • Old Alleynian – Nigel Farage.

Need I say more?

Mercifully there was no unpleasantness in the alumni-confusion-department on the day.

So I rose about 4:30 (a bit earlier than necessary in truth), setting off on an early flight from Heathrow (thank you, Janie, for the lift all the way to Terminal 5) and then took the tram into Edinburgh.

In schoolboy mode for a meet up with old school muckers, I got very excited with my smartphone when I realised that there was free wifi on the tram, sending Janie a picture and a sound recording of the Chigley-like tram sounds.

On The Tram To Edinburgh – Sound (below) and Vision (above)

Janie messaged back to say that I’m a big kid.

Then a solo stroll through Edinburgh from New Town to Old Town…

Edinburgh Old Town

…towards The Counting House…

The Counting House

When I arrived, only Rohan was there – John and Steve were out soliciting trade…for Rohan’s show, readers, control yourselves…

…but soon after I arrived, there was a surprise (to me) arrival – Claire Tooley (now Claire Brooke) – a very pleasant surprise indeed. Even more pleasantly, Claire was able to join us for lunch after the show.

Rohan was good…very good.

I thought the performance was very good. Rohan hasn’t changed the show much since the pilot, but he has tightened up the script and his delivery has some lovely pauses and nuances that have clearly evolved with practice and experience.

It was a pretty full house, which at 11:00 in the morning on the Free Fringe I reckon is a big win. Certainly there seemed to be little activity for the other morning/lunchtime shows at The Counting House.

The audience was very receptive, I thought, although those who had attended performances earlier in the week thought that the laughter was slower to build that day, but the attentiveness, reaction and laughter as the story built ended up better.

We strolled to Spoon to meet Marie and Joe. Apparently this place is an old haunt of JK Rowling’s, so well suited to an arty gathering.

Like a fool I neglected to take any pictures in Spoon, but we gathered as nine: me, Steve Butterworth, Rohan Candappa, Paul and Cathy Driscoll, John Eltham, Claire Tooley-Brooke, Marie and Joe Logan.

One coincidence about this event, I realised, is that this season is the 25th anniversary of my own material premiering at the Edinburgh Fringe. In 1992, Brian Jordan brought The Ultimate Love Song – click here to Edinburgh in his wonderfully-named show “Whoops Vicar, Is That Your Dick?”.

When I mentioned this coincidence, Rohan (naturally) asked me to give an acapella rendering in Spoon, which I did as best I could – not very well. You can hear Ben Murphy’s excellent recording of the song below:

But back to Spoon. The food was good, the chat was jolly. People drifted away as journeys home or appointments with other shows approached, but we were a pretty lively group for a couple of hours at least.

Eventually, when it was just me, Marie & Joe left, we went for a stroll around town to see what we might find for the remaining couple of hours, before I needed to head for the airport.

We found the Vintage Mobile Cinema outside the Assembly Rooms on George Street, where we heard a short talk about the extraordinary space and were shown some Pathé newsreels from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s about the Edinburgh Festival.

Logan! What are you and Logan doing at the back there? Stop it! Are you listening or taking pictures, Harris? Stop that too!

Then a stroll around the Book Festival before the lure of a wine bar just around the corner from my tram stop, for the last 30 minutes or so of my visit, was too much to resist.

Finally, a wee dram of wine (or two) with the Logans afore I go home

I got back home about 21:00 – it had been a long day but a very pleasant one.

I excitedly told Janie all about my exciting day.

Then I thought I should ask Janie about her day.

“Oh, nothing much,” she said, “I just did a few patients and met Rihanna.” You couldn’t make it up.

Continuity by Gerry Moynihan, Finborough Theatre, 13 August 2017

After Daisy suggested last week that heavy plays like Bodies at the Royal Court were currently doing her head in, it was a bit late to change plans, but it did occur to me that Continuity was unlikely to lighten the mood.

Continuity is basically a monologue about a member of the Continuity IRA and his personal journey.

The Finborough page on the play/production explains it all very well – here.

In this production the performer, Paul Kennedy, is simply excellent. Although it is a monologue – a story told in the first person by a narrator – he acts out some of his colleagues dialogue using ticks and gestures to indicate who is talking.

It is hard to see this play without thinking about Jez Butterworth’s outstanding play The Ferryman, which was recently at the Royal Court and is now deservedly wowing audiences in the West End.

Continuity is comparatively very understated. The Ferryman was surely written with the West End and Broadway in mind. Continuity was probably written with radio and/or small theatres like the Finborough in mind. But Continuity is still extremely effective and affecting. Where has this writer, Gerry Moynihan, been all these years? One to look out for again, to be sure.

Daisy agreed with me that the piece was excellent, but it did also make her reconfirm her determination to select a lighter batch of plays and avoid the heaviest subjects next time around. But when she suggested musicals and farces as the alternative, I guessed that her tongue is to some extent in her cheek.

Bodies by Vivienne Franzmann, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 5 August 2017

This was a highly-charged-emotional play about surrogacy.

We chose it primarily because we had been so impressed previously by Vivienne Franzmann’s writing, when we saw Pests at the same venue in 2014. That was a high-octane play too.

Productions upstairs at The Royal Court are top quality these days and this was no exception. All of the performers put in excellent performances and the set, while simple, was clever and engaging.

The Royal Court resource on this play/production can be found here.

The reviews on the whole were (deservedly) very good,

Susannah Clapp in The Observer is not quite so sure, describing the play and production as “over deliberate”.

Sarah Hemming in the FT goes for four stars, but shares my doubts about some of the fussiness in the potting.

But it was an incredibly powerful, mood-affecting piece. So much so that Janie suggested, after getting uber-strident over shawarmas at home after the show, that perhaps we should skip these very morally-upsetting subjects at the theatre for a while.

Nassim by Nassim Soleimanpour, Bush Studio, 29 July 2017

We loved this innovative, short piece.

It is described well, along with all the information you could possibly want, on the Bush site – here.

It is performed (alongside the author) by a different performer each night, who has not seen the script.  We got Phelim McDermott, who is one of the artistic directors of Improbable. He was very good.

The piece is, on the surface, very simple, childish even. Yet the more you think about it, the more you realise that Nassim is making profound points about freedom of speech, not least the pains people like him go through when they leave their home country (in his case Iran) in order to communicate what they have to say in a foreign place and a foreign language.

We sat right at the front but managed to avoid the worst elements of the audience participation. Having said that, I got the dirtiest of dirty looks from Phelim when I tried to help him follow his instructions, by pointing to an “X marks the spot” which was located next to my seat.

We weren’t just moved and thoughtful; we laughed a lot during the 70 minutes or so. Nassim is clearly a very innovative and skilled dramatist; we’ll certainly look out for his work again.

This Bush run is an Edinburgh preview – I think this piece will go down very well in Edinburgh. It is then returning to The Bush for a while after Edinburgh – I recommend that you grab a ticket for that while/if you still can, if you like this sort of thing.

Janie and I had a crazy craving for Iranian food after Nassim’s homesick piece, so decided to try Rice Chiswick, which we found very satisfactory. Not quite Mohsen’s standard, but close and very convenient for the Bush.

A splendid evening.

Gloria by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Hampstead Theatre, 24 June 2017

We’re on a bit of a roll at the moment; this was another very interesting piece.

It is a bit difficult to describe this play without spoilers – indeed the Hampstead Theatre staff we spoke to were bemoaning the fact that some of the formal reviews contain spoilers. Janie and I always avoid reading the reviews before we see a play/production, so it wasn’t spoiled for us and I’ll try not to spoil it for you.

The first act is a fairly conventional office politics satire set in a magazine publishing house; well acted and with some delightful vignettes. One ranting speech, towards the end of that act, by the chief fact-checker (played by Bo Poraj) will live long in our memories. Still, such office satires have been done many times and we have seen plenty to know that we are not wild about the genre…

…but…

…there is a pivotal moment at the end of the first act which reassured us that the second half of the play would be quite different.

Indeed, the second half was far more interesting and progresses, through two more, shorter, acts, in intriguing ways from the slow build of the first act.

Here is a link to the Hampstead Theatre’s resource on this play/production. 

Gloria has deservedly had good reviews from all the majors. It was a great success in its native USA and should do well in the UK too – at the time of writing the Hampstead run has already been extended and a West End run surely beckons.

Go see it.

Janie and I rewarded ourselves with some Chinese food from Four Seasons afterwards.

Ink by James Graham, Almeida Theatre, 17 June 2017

Bloomin’ ‘eck this was good.

This was the first preview of Ink – so if you are reading this within 10 days or so of the above date, you still won’t be able to see formal reviews but you might still be able to get tickets. Get them before it’s too late!

Brilliant production, incredibly pacey, wonderfully designed, superbly acted – we were gripped from start to finish – for more than three hours – despite the heat and the exhaustion therefrom.

Here is a link to The Almeida’s resource on Ink.

Ink starts with Rupert Murdoch buying a maligned, failing broadsheet paper, The Sun, from IPC (which was in effect The Mirror Group then) and persuading Larry Lamb to edit The Sun for him and help Murdoch beat the Mirror at their own game.

The rest is history and the history of that first year of Murdoch ownership pans out relentlessly on the stage.

The first half was especially pacey, taking us through the early days of the Murdoch era, not least the tension of the tabloid launch in November 1969.

The second half goes deeper and at times darker; the Muriel McKay kidnap/murder and the start of the Page 3 era being covered in a great deal of detail.

I had a strangely good feeling about this play/production despite its provenance. We didn’t much like the preview we saw of This House by James Graham a few years ago – indeed we left in the interval – but I sensed that his writing style would please us in this Fleet Street context far more than it did in the Westminster setting.

Biographical/history plays of this kind have a fundamental problem of course; we know how the story and even the main sub-plots end, so the drama, tension and thought-provocation has to come from elsewhere. James Graham is becoming a master at doing this. His style is different from Peter Morgan’s (Frost/Nixon etc.), but I think we are now blessed with two British writers who are world class at this genre.

Being hyper-critical, I think James Graham is probably a little too kind on Rupert Murdoch and a little too harsh on Larry Lamb. The inference in several scenes is that Lamb was going further than Murdoch wanted him to go, but to my mind it is a classic media proprietor’s trick (and certainly an archetypal Murdoch one) to hire street-fighters to do their work and then seemingly recoil in genteel horror when the street-fighter fights.

James Graham might have shown up the hypocrisy in Murdoch’s position more, but I suspect Graham deliberately chose not to. Murdoch is still alive and hugely influential whereas Larry Lamb and the other main protagonists are gone.

But these are minor points; the story is wonderfully portrayed and I hope the play and this production do extremely well; they deserve to do so.

I might spoil the fun if I reveal the clever effects and coups de theatre that come thick and fast in this production, but I will share a couple.

In one of the scenes illustrating the then ground-breaking marketing and advertising campaigns run by The Sun, the actors threw fistfuls of “money” into the air, much of which landed at the front of the stage but some came tumbling into the audience; in our front row seats I scored a crisp (albeit false) Ayrton on my lap:

A welcome breach of the fourth wall.

Not that the front row was all good news for me and Janie. In one scene, in which Larry Lamb angrily beats out a printing plate himself, because none of the unionised workers will touch the story, Janie and I got showered with…

…ink? Whatever it is, it went all over our clothes.

I called the Almeida on the Monday to ask them what the substance might be and how best we might wash our clothes. Strangely, it was one of the actors who answered the phone; he seemed especially concerned that they try to avoid breaching the fourth wall that way in future performances. Fair point.

But the actor also kindly called me back a few minutes later, after speaking with stage management and wardrobe, to say that they were very cagey indeed about revealing what the actual substance is, but they did give him some washing instructions to pass on to me. The instructions started, “firstly, put on Cat 3 asbestos-hooded coveralls…”  I’m kidding, I’m kidding.

I suppose those two breaches of the fourth wall combine well in an expression that the quintessential Yorkshireman, Larry Lamb, would often have used:

where there’s muck there’s brass.

Jam by Matt Parvin, Finborough Theatre, 16 June 2017

This was not the best Friday evening Janie and I have ever had.

First stop was the Finborough Theatre – our latest hot place – in several senses of the term that evening – it had been a scorcher of a day and was still well hot early evening. The heat in part explains our irritability.

I deposited our “friendship form” with the delightful volunteers at the ticket desk who were unsure what to do with the form, making an almighty fuss about it until someone senior enough came downstairs, grabbed the form and took it away. By this point, Janie was convinced that the senior response was inadequate in the circumstances, whereas I was convinced that it was fine; all I had wanted to do was save myself the price of a stamp by handing the thing in rather than posting it.

We were there to see Jam by Matt Parvin – click here for Finborough resource.

The acting was superb and the subject-matter really interesting, but Janie and I both found it nigh-on impossible to suspend our disbelief in the behaviour of the characters,  in particular the school teacher, given the situation.

Before any savvy readers start to think that we read reviews and then find ourselves seeing the production as reviewers would have us see it, I should say that it is our habit studiously to avoid reading reviews until we have seen a production and formed opinions for ourselves.

But on this occasion, our friend, Michael Billington’s review in the Guardian – click here – sums up almost exactly how we felt and how we discussed it in the minutes/hours after we left the theatre.

David Ralf in The Stage is kinder on the piece; “a touch contrived”. He is also full of deserved praise for the quite excellent performances by the two on stage; Jasmine Hyde and Harry Melling – remember where you heard the names first.

Long before we got to the theatre, Janie and I had agreed that we had a crazy craving for Persian food – Mohsen’s. This craving was only exacerbated by references to the Iranian origins of the teacher character in the play.

But it turned out that Mohsens is closed for a refurb at the moment.

No matter, we thought, Alounak is still there and not such a detour for us. Well, we used to be fans of Alounak’s food, but the standard seems to have declined considerably – at least to our taste. Now we can hardly wait for Mohsen to reopen.

Not the most successful Friday evening ever – but then there was still Saturday evening to come and that turned out to be an altogether more pleasing experience…

…I guess it was a case of “jam tomorrow”.

Footprints on the Moon by Maureen Hunter, Finborough Theatre, 4 June 2017

Janie and I have been meaning to try the Finborough Theatre for ages. Eventually we got round to booking a couple of productions this June – Footprints on the Moon being the first of them.

What a friendly place.

We went on a Sunday evening for this one and it was lovely to have a drink in a quiet local pub before strolling upstairs to take our seats in the theatre. Perhaps when we go on a Friday or Saturday night, the pub will heave a bit like the The Bridge beneath The Canal Cafe Theatre or The Prince Albert beneath The Gate Theatre.

But I digress.

Footprints On the Moon is set in a remote town in the Canadian prairies, the town being loosely based on Indian Head, Saskatchewan, from whence the playwright hails.

Being a tiny theatre club operating on a minuscule budget, naturally the Finborough has an excellent on-line resource with information about the production and quotes from reviews – click here. It simply wouldn’t be possible for a big beast like The National theatre to do this, would it?

But I digress again.

Footprints On the Moon is a very well-written chamber play centring around a feisty female character, Joanie, who has rich thoughts but is trapped in her small town world. We learn at the end of the play that she has never been beyond her immediate prairie environment, not by train, not by plane. She doesn’t want her daughter to move to Toronto, where Joanie’s estranged husband now lives.

It was written and is set in the 1980s, so there are no cell phones or internet connections either. Janie and I discussed afterwards whether that particular type of parochialism has gone for ever in the internet age.

Anne Adams as Joanie was excellent, as was Derek Hagen as the love interest and Samantha Coughlan as Joanie’s loyal friend. Sally Cheng did a decent job as the sultry teenage daughter, although looked a little too senior to be quite such an immature broody teen.

This is a claustrophobic (in a good way) chamber play – we never leave Joanie’s stoop/dining room – such plays work especially well in small theatres like the Finborough.  The second half of the play worked better than the first half for me, although I enjoyed the whole thing – Janie if anything preferred the first half.

We were both quite tired on Sunday evening yet came away delighted with our evening of theatre and looking forward to our next visit.

We shall be signing up as friends of the place next time we go.