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.

The Treatment by Martin Crimp, Almeida Theatre, 27 May 2017

By the time we got to our seats, Janie and I had probably had enough suspense, drama, excitement and surprise for one day.

We’d been following the ODI cricket all day, which was well poised when we left Noddyland, in good time to get to The Almeida.

Noddyland/well poised

In fact the traffic was very light, enabling us to take an unusually direct route, but that didn’t stop the cricket from taking more twists and turns than a Sat Nav assisted London journey in a traffic jam.

Janie was convinced England were going to win throughout the Saffer chase; whereas I was less optimistic in the absence of early wickets for England on a very flat track. But between the time we drove past Madam Tussaud’s to the time we drove past the Wellcome Collection, the Saffers reduced the ask from 26 runs off 13 balls to 10 runs off 10 balls. Even Janie briefly thought England were as stuffed as…well, waxworks aren’t technically stuffed, but some specimens in the Wellcome Collection must be.

The worst part about listening to the end of that cricket match in the car was waiting to turn from White Lion Street onto Islington High Street, when the Saffers needed just four runs off the last two balls. The radio signal hit one of those building-affected interference spots and we couldn’t hear a thing for about a minute – which felt like an hour. As we emerged onto the High Street, we soon learnt that we hadn’t missed a ball; merely a lot of faffing around in the field. Phew.

So the match was won – scorecard here – just as we arrived at the Almeida. Double-phew. We sat in the car a while to decompress and hear the post-match punditry.

The Almeida was heaving by the time we entered, a little after 19:00. We collected our tickets, bought a programme, ordered our drinks and found a quieter spot in the corner of the bar. Janie wanted to read the two or three sentence promotional teaser for the play, which was absent from the programme but is the information that enticed us to book the play. I volunteered to get her the little promo card, via the loo.

As I weaved through the heaving foyer/bar area, at one point a fellow, with his back to me, was standing in a particularly obstructive place, making it impossible for me to get past. I tapped him gently on the shoulder and said, “excuse me, may I please get past you?”, to which he replied, without turning around, “NO. You can go all the way around the other side instead.”

Then the unhelpful gentleman turned around.

It was Ollie Goodwin. An old mate from school…or should I say an old high school bud? It must be fully four days since we last met. Ollie had seen me coming.

Janie had met Ollie and indeed Ollie’s other half, Victoria, a few months ago at Chris Grant’s alumni do, so we needed little reintroduction, chatting briefly before the play and then again at some more length about the play during the interval and after the show.

It is one of those plays that gives you plenty to chat about.

The Almeida website has a superb resource on each production these days, with production information, pictures, descriptions and links to the reviews, so no point me replicating that sort of stuff – click here for The Almeida resource on the Treatment.

The Treatment has had superb reviews (as evidenced in the above Almeida resource), but one of Janie’s clients had absolutely hated this play, describing it as “rubbish”, so we went with a little trepidation. That particular client/lady often has taste that corresponds with ours. But on this occasion Janie’s client got it wrong; I can see how the play (indeed Martin Crimp’s writing generally) wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste, but it is very interesting and far from rubbish.

Martin Crimp’s plays are (in our experience) always sinister and weird. The Treatment (which Crimp wrote and was first performed in 1993) echoes some of the themes Crimp also covered in The City – which we saw at the Royal Court in 2008 and which I Ogblogged here. In particular the crazy, suspenseful nature of cities. Menace that is partly overt, partly covert; some only in our minds, some all too real.

Coincidentally, Benedict Cumberbatch was in the audience with us, sitting very close to or even next to Ollie and Victoria. As a young, up-and-coming, virtually unknown but clearly very talented actor, Cumberbatch starred in that production of The City (and indeed Martin Crimp’s version of Rhinoceros at The Royal Court – Ogblogged here). I think we first saw Cumberbatch at the Almeida as it happens, as Tesman in a superb production of Hedda Gabler in 2005.

Benedict Cumberbatch also plonked himself at the next table to ours during the interval, much to the complete nonchalance of Janie, Ollie and Victoria…until I pointed him out to them.

Actually, these days Benedict Cumberbatch is everywhere and in everything, so on that basis this encounter was hardly a coincidence. Indeed, given the size of the cast used in The Treatment it’s a miracle that Cumberbatch wasn’t in the play rather than merely watching it. Stranger still that Janie and I didn’t see him eating at Ranoush in Kensington later in the evening. Absolutely everywhere, he is.

Back to The Treatment. You can read many good reviews, mostly four star, linked in full at the Almeida resource – here. But the reviews are not universally great; Dominic Cavendish in the Telegraph is not so sure about the play.

I also wondered what the American critics might think of it; Marianka Swain in Broadway World was pretty impressed.

Janie and I will find ourselves talking about this play for some while, I’m sure; certainly for the rest of the weekend…and this is a long weekend. That’s the sign of a good play to us. We also thought it was a superb production, with excellent performances and very innovative stage direction/set design.

They Drink It In The Congo by Adam Brace, Almeida Theatre, 3 September 2016

Our first visit to the theatre for a wee while, as there tends to be less of the stuff we like to see over the summer.

This play looked very interesting in the Almeida leaflet. Unusually, this was the only play we booked at the Almeida this season; they seem to be doing fewer new plays these days.

It was indeed an interesting play. Mostly set in London, where a do-gooder jolly hockey sticks woman is trying to organise an awareness raising Congo Festival with the consent and co-operation of the local Congolese diaspora community. Funny and sinister in equal measure. But the play doesn’t shy away from also showing us a glimpse into the horrors of life in the war-torn DRC.

Michael Longhurst directed this one, as he did Carmen Disruption last spring. We found that play interesting with some excellent scenes, but a little disjointed. I’d suggest that They Drink It In The Congo is similar in that regard. In particular, some of the festival-organising intrigue was a little drawn out and convoluted, but some of the scenes were superb. Interesting set and scene changes. All performances very good indeed.

The Almeida stub with all the details of They Drink It In The Congo is linked here.

Reviews:

In our household, I’m with the “four stars out of five” reviewers (most of those above), while Daisy would be more with Fiona Mountford and the three stars brigade.

We went home with plenty to think/talk about and nibbled at cold compilations rather than our more regular routine; to take away a hot meal.

 

 

Boy by Leo Butler, Almeida Theatre, 16 April 2016

Oh boy, this is a good one.

We’ve enjoyed Leo Butler’s work before, at the Royal Court. We booked this basically on the back of remembering that we like his writing. We didn’t realise that this production also brought back the imaginative team, which brought us Game at the Almeida early last year; Sacha Wares as director and Miriam Buether as designer.

The Almeida’s website has lots of information about the production and also collates the good reviews. As a glance at the review headlines suggests that they have been more or less universally good, this Almeida link should be pretty much definitive. 

We knew that the Almeida had done something funky with the set and seating, because we had a call from the theatre last weekend, asking if we minded that that a rejig of the set and seating meant that there would be an aisle between our front row seats. We could either put up with that or sit together further back.

We politely suggested that it ought to be possible for them to shift people around such that we can still sit together in the front row; we asked the gentleman at least to try. A few minutes later, the nice gentleman called back with the good news that he had achieved our wish.

Just as well, as we observed on entry to the theatre that the aisle in question was more like a chasm than a small gap.

But soon enough we also observed that the characters on the set, who were going around on an industrial conveyor belt like human sushi in one of those sushi bars, were sitting in perfect sitting posture without seats. I worked out that they each must have a support in one of their trouser legs, but the effect was very eye-catching and warmed us up for a short evening of theatre with a difference.

It is hard to do this piece justice in the description. It is 70 minutes of edge-of-your-seat theatre in which nothing much really happens. We are simply following a young 17 year-old lad, Liam, around London on one of his interminable, listless days. Yet all around him (and therefore us) we see glimpses of London life that resonate wonderfully. We are also made all-too aware of the hopeless of such a lad’s circumstances.

In one telling scene, Liam goes to register at the job centre or some such, only to be told that he should return when he is 18 and find himself something useful to do in the meantime. “That’s nearly a year,” Liam yells, despairingly.

The mostly very young cast do a brilliant job, but Frankie Fox as Liam really does stand out. I recognised Wendy Kweh from our recent visit to North Korea as depicted in the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs – the irony of being reminded of North Korean hopelessness while being shown London hopelessness was not wasted on me.

But for us the star performance really is the extraordinary set and direction. The cast have to navigate some tightly choreographed scene changes and movements across the conveyor belt, plus those extraordinary “seats of their pants”, as it were. The wonderful movement elements of the production reminded us a little of Complicite; that’s a complement coming from us.

Lots to think about and talk about after the show, which is what good theatre is all about as far as we are concerned. As only tends to happen after really unusual and excellent pieces, that conversation started with strangers in the audience and some of the Almeida ushers before we’d even left the theatre.

One of the ushers told us that this production has not yet sold out – so if you are reading this fairly soon after the date in the headline, get on to the Almeida and snap up some of those remaining tickets.

This really is a hot ticket.

 

 

 

Medea by Euripedes, a new version by Rachel Cusk, Almeida Theatre, 26 September 2015

This was a very powerful modern adaptation of Medea, wonderfully acted, directed and produced.

Kate Fleetwood was superb as the increasingly crazed Medea; so was Justin Salinger as the creepy, unreasonable Jason.

Of course, this was a modern adaptation, so it doesn’t quite end as the bloody original, but it does naturally end in tears.

Both of us were really struck by the power of this production; Janie has a natural aversion to ancient works but this modern adaptation did enough to keep her engrossed.

As always these days, an excellent Almeida stub with all the details and resources you might want if you want to know more, including links to pretty much all the reviews as it was universally heaped with praise – click here.

So I need say no more.

Bakkhai by Euripides, Almeida Theatre, 22 August 2015

Janie’s not normally one for classics, but this was promised as a new version of Bakkhai, so we went for it.

In truth, Bakkhai cannot modernise in the way that, say, Medea (which, as part of this Almeida Greeks season, really was modernised) can.

Still, this was a superb production so we both really enjoyed it. Ben Whishaw is exceptional, but the whole cast was good, as was the design, choreography, the lot.

Excellent Almeida stub with all the details, including links to most of the major reviews, saving me the trouble – click here. Those reviews were almost universally very good.

Nuff said.

 

 

Carmen Disruption by Simon Stephens, Almeida Theatre, 11 April 2015

“What was that about” said Janie after the show; proof positive that her review would not be 100% positive. “I liked bits of it but it seemed all over the place at times and I’m not really sure what it was trying to say.”

Janie has a point.

Yet it was a very entertaining play/show in many ways.

Centre stage as we walked in was a dying bull, or rather a moving facsimile of same. It remained pretty much centre stage throughout.

Men were dressed a women, women were dressed as men, it was sort of about an opera singer, sort of about a toy boy…

…read the reviews and figure it out for yourself if you wish.

Excellent Almeida resource including links to several full reviews – click here.

The reviews were more or less universally excellent. It certainly deserved the high praise for an extraordinary production.

We are big fans of Simon Stephens writing, so we delight in this play’s success, but I think we prefer it when his writing is a little more direct.

Still, we enjoyed our evening and had bragging rights for having seen this production early on.

Game by Mike Bartlett, Almeida Theatre, 28 February 2015

This was a truly shocking piece. In a good way.

Shocking, as in, it left us feeling really quite shaken and discombobulated.

In a way, this was immersive theatre. The Almeida was reconfigured, such that the audience was divided into sections in sort-of booths, from which you could see some of the action live and the rest on screens. You have to wear headphones to hear everything, which increases the confusion between the real and the virtual.

The conceit of the play is that some people who cannot afford good housing choose to live in an attractive-looking home, but the price is that they are spied upon by sadistic paying customers who are allowed to shoot stun darts at the residents “for fun”.

It is a horrible thought. The story plays out in interesting ways, not all predictable. The experience is disconcerting, because, as an audience member, you feel somewhat complicit in the voyeurism and sadism playing out before your eyes and on the screen. Occasionally some of the action takes place within your booth itself.

It made us think about the housing crisis, the ways that computer games and so-called reality television are encroaching on people’s lives and more besides.

 

Excellent resource on the Almeida site about this play/production, including quotes from many reviews and links to full text for some – sparing me the trouble – click here.

We left the Almeida genuinely feeling in a state of shock and spent much of the remainder of the weekend talking about this play/production.

An Almeida special as far as we were concerned.

Rope by Patrick Hamilton, Almeida Theatre, 19 December 2009

We weren’t as keen on this one as we had hoped to be, given the synopsis and the fact that the Almeida was going through a purple patch at that time.

I’m not sure that Patrick Hamilton works for us on the stage – indeed we have recently at the time of writing (May 2017) passed up an opportunity to see one of his in the forthcoming Hampstead Theatre run.

We’re becoming an increasingly picky pair these days. We tend to avoid booking much in that pre-Christmas period also, now, given the nightmare journeys that often ensue at that time of year.

Anyway, here is the Almeida on-line resource about the play and production, which includes information, review links, photos and even a vid from the rehearsals.

It was of course an excellent production and very well acted. I think it was the play that didn’t quite do it for us. Janie and I like 1920’s and 1930’s styles generally, but strangely we don’t tend to like plays/the theatrical style of that era.

The reviews – mostly very good but not great – are mostly linked from the Almeida resource – here’s that link again.

For some reason British Theatre Guide doesn’t usually make it to those links – Philip Fisher makes good points in this review, not least that the play is quite long compared with the much vaunted Hitchcock film version.

Skimming the reviews reminds me how very well acted and produced the piece was, it just wasn’t really our type of piece.

Still, we’re both glad we caught this production; I have little doubt that this production is as good as it gets for Rope.

Mrs Klein by Nicholas Wright, Almeida Theatre, 24 October 2009

We both really enjoyed this play/production about he psychoanalyst Melanie Klein.

I had seen the original production of this play at The Cottesloe back in 1988 and really liked it.

Janie and I are keen Almeida-istas;  I guessed that this would be yet another really good Almeida production and that the play would be to Janie’s taste. Add to that a superb cast – Clare Higgins and Nicola Walker are two of our favourites, plus Thea Sharrock (formerly at The Gate) directing…

…what could go wrong? Nothing. This was a great production and Janie did really like it.

As usual, there is an excellent Almeida resource about the play/production – click here – with information, pictures and reviews.

The reviews were nearly all very good and the very good ones are accessible in full from the above resource.