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.

Scarlett by Colette Kane, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, 4 March 2017

I’m almost boring myself by going on about how good the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs is, so goodness knows what effect such comments are having on long-suffering Ogblog readers. But by gosh the quality of productions and performances is high.

The one paragraph description of Scarlett – a play about a woman who escapes to try and start afresh in the Welsh countryside – might not have caught our eye as being different enough, but we set that “synopsis bar” a little lower for the Hampstead Downstairs, as we so consistently enjoy our evenings there.

Yet again, we are so glad we chose to book this one.

Interestingly (and unusually) it is pretty much an all woman production – i.e. the writer, director, designer and all five performers are women.

Here’s a link to the excellent Hampstead resource on this production for all the details.

We had seen a Colette Kane play at the Hampstead Downstairs before; “I Know How I Feel About Eve” about four years ago – that will be Ogblogged in the fullness of time – for now here is a link to an introductory piece/mini-interview with Colette Kane at that time.

In both Colette Kane plays we have seen so far, the writing is delightful and thought provoking. Perhaps she has yet entirely to find her own voice. She is clearly a playwright steeped in modern theatre who knows how to cherry-pick style and tone without quite making her pieces unmistakably her own.

Still, Scarlett is a really superb 75-80 minutes of drama. All five performers are excellent, especially Kate Ashfield as the eponymous lead. All five surprise us a little at some point in the drama, but without interrupting a natural-seeming flow to the simple but compelling story.

Scarlett is very well directed too, by Mel Hillyard. We have seen her work before, quite recently; The Brink at the Orange Tree last April. We were very impressed then too. A young director to watch, methinks.

We started the evening by bumping into John and Linda – a couple we know simply because we quite regularly see them at theatres and who coincidentally (it transpires) live just across the road from the Notting Hill Gate flat. They were seeing Sex With Strangers upstairs – a production that didn’t appeal to us for booking. Janie and I rounded off our evening with some Iranian food from Mohsen.

At the time of writing, Scarlett still has three weeks to run. Janie and I would both recommend it thoroughly to people who enjoy top notch productions of well-crafted, short plays in small theatres.

Giving by Hannah Patterson, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, 4 June 2016

Janie wasn’t sure that she was in the mood for the theatre when we set off for Swiss Cottage that evening, especially when I said that the subject matter was big donor philanthropy. “More your sort of subject than mine,” she said.

Still, there was the promise of a different oriental restaurant to try afterwards, Singapore Garden, a result of Janie’s research. Plus the fact that the play was billed as a short one; 90 minutes without an interval.

Janie’s spirits were further dampened when we took our seats, as a group of four people asked us to budge along our row to the end. At first Janie simply said no, so they split their group around us. Frankly, I couldn’t understand why they hadn’t gone to the other side where there were at least two blocks big enough for their group. Still, I told Janie that I thought she had responded rather abruptly, so Janie relented and we ended up tucked in the corner. “They didn’t even say thank you and I’m stuck with a lousy view,” fumed Janie.

After a while, I turned to the gentleman next to me and arranged for us to sit more centrally while they took the four corner seats, which seemed fairer in the circumstances. One woman in front of us turned round and said to Janie,  “good on you; I hate it when people badger me like that.”  Oh for the relative simplicity of allocated seats.

Anyway, it turned out that this was a really good play/production. The set is simple but clever, as furniture representing different locations get tucked away into the walls of other locations; not original but well done in this play. The acting from all four was excellent.

The plot satisfying enough. We aren’t really made to dig too deep into the moral dilemmas around conscience-salving donors, but there is enough intrigue, love interest and moral uncertainty to keep you guessing and to make you think. Well worth the 90 minutes and the modest price for tickets downstairs. We continue to see the Hampstead Downstairs as a gem of a place with a terrific hit rate from our point of view.

Downstairs productions don’t get formal reviews, of course, but it is covered well on monkeymatterstheatre.com, also on the oughttobeclowns blogspot. The latter points out how very special  Sinéad Matthews is as an up and coming actress. We first spotted her more than 10 years ago, in The Wild Duck at the Donmar, when she was but a nipper.

Later, to add compliment to remedy, we thoroughly enjoyed our Singapore Garden dinner. Where has that place been all our lives? Well, it’s been in Swiss Cottage/South Hampstead for some while I gather.

The Rolling Stone by Chris Urch, Orange Tree Theatre, 16 January 2016

We seem fated to sit next to the luvvies this year. Last week Daisy ended up with Benedict Wong sitting next to her at The Royal Court. Then earlier this week, she took a call from the Orange Tree , to see if we minded shifting up one seat on our row to make space for an actors’ seat. I’m not sure what would have happened if we had refused this request. Anyway, I ended up with half the cast sitting next to me at one time or another (not all at the same time).

Don’t let the jovial start to this posting deceive you. This was another bleak piece about troubled people in a troubled place. This time the place is Uganda and the story is basically that of a young man who gets himself and his religious family caught up in the persecution of gay people. At no point in the play would you sensibly anticipate a happy ending.

The play has won awards and is another of Paul Miller’s canny transfers from Royal Exchange Manchester, where it was deservedly very well received – see synopsis, reviews from Manchester (presumably, eventually, also from Richmond – we attended the last Oraneg Tree Preview), cast and creative credits here.

This is only Chris Urch’s second play, so his is certainly a name to look out for in future.

The title, The Rolling Stone, refers to a newspaper in Uganda that acts as a focal point for persecution by naming and shaming homosexuals.  You’d need a heart of stone not to be moved by this production and the real life plight of gay people in Uganda (and indeed many parts of the world), which this play puts under the spotlight.