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.

The Invisible Hand by Ayad Akhtar, Tricycle Theatre, 14 May 2016

Wow.

Last week, Janie and I were trying to figure out when we had booked this piece and why. The rubric just didn’t sound like our sort of thing: “thriller…American banker…a cell in rural Pakistan…every second counts…”

We even wondered whether we’d booked it by accident.

Then it started to dawn on me, slowly. Back in October, we agreed that we hadn’t been to the Tricycle in ages and wanted to go. We spotted that this play was by Ayad Akhtar. We had booked ahead at the Bush a few years ago “on the off chance” to see his play, Disgraced, and had been thrilled by it. So we decided to take a punt on seeing a preview of this play, The Invisible Hand at The Tricycle.

As a City trader might put it, we’d made a very good speculative punt back in October 2015 and cashed in on 14 May 2016.

The play is not for people of a nervous disposition. It is full of suspense. Just in case the scenario didn’t remind you of the tragic case of Daniel Pearl, the play reminds you of that terrible story early on.

Ayad Akhtar understands finance and the markets pretty well; he proved that in Disgraced. Whether or not it would effectively be possible to day trade with millions of dollars on the Karachi exchanges from a makeshift cell in rural Pakistan is neither here nor there. Even I was able to suspend belief for that conceit.

Indeed, I think Ayad Akhtar is, to some extent,  “having a laugh” with us by making the hero’s protégé a young man from Hounslow. That echoes the peculiar case of Navinder Sarao, the Hounslow chap who is believed to have made up to £30M day-trading from a semi in Hounslow and who is accused of causing the 2010 Wall Street flash crash. Finance doesn’t lend itself to laugh-out-loud in jokes, folks, but I suspect that the linkage is deliberate.

Indeed most of Ayad Akhtar’s writing seems incredibly tight and deliberate, making the audience think about complex issues from several sides while at the same time moving the plot along at pace.

The notion of the invisible hand is of course taken from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and also, more famously, The Wealth of Nations. It is not novel to bring the fundamental economic idea of the invisible hand into drama. But where others, such as Bruce Norris in The Low Road, for example, managed to irritate the living shit out of me with inept handling of this complex concept, this play by Ayad Akhtar provides a suitably profound and conflicted setting for ideas around the ethics of commerce, finance and money. These subjects are close to my heart, hence my Gresham lectures on Commercial Ethics and The Future of Money, so I was pleasantly surprised at Ayad Akhtar’s deft handling of these tricky subjects.

It would be unfair to say too much about how the play pans out, as thrillers aren’t so thrilling once you know what is going to happen. I am prepared to say that Janie and I both left the theatre quivering from the experience, but in a good way. I guess we’re just about on the right side of the nervous disposition line.

It probably is fair to say that the plot hinges on the uses and abuses of advanced (or inside) information. Now I’m not wanting to get anyone into trouble for insider trading, but actually Janie and I did have advanced warning that this production is a cracker. I got an e-mail from cousin Hilary the day before our visit, which said:

Saw mum yesterday .. & Michael .. took them to 1st performance of Invisible Hand at Tricycle.  Really enjoyed it.  Looking fwd to reading reviews when they come out.

Come to think of it, the reviews aren’t out yet (on writing this posting 15 May), so I suppose this Ogblog post is also advanced information. Is that the sound of drones overhead?…

Cyprus Avenue by David Ireland, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 30 April 2016

Many months ago, when I read the sparse Royal Court promotional synopsis of this play, to Janie, she said, “surely not?” But I said, “it sounds weird and intriguing, I’d really like to give this one a go”.

Eric Miller, a Belfast loyalist, believes that his new born granddaughter is Gerry Adams.

I was also attracted by the fact that this was to be a joint production with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and that the magnificent Stephen Rea was going to be in it.

Several months later, when (as is often the case) we have both forgotten what we booked and why, Janie asked me again what the play we were due to see that evening was about. I told her. “I can’t believe we booked that,” said Janie. “It was my idea; my bad if it’s no good. But I have a feeling it’s going to be something special”, I replied.

It really is something special.

When we got to the Royal Court, we went to see Simon David in the bookstall to buy our programme and find out what he thinks. Simon is often quite critical and we don’t always agree with him. “It’s marvellous”, said Simon, “I’ve seen it twice and am hoping to sneak in again this evening to see it for a third time.” He did.

When we sat down, the lady sitting next to me said, “you’re in for a treat this evening. I don’t often come back to see a play a second time, but I’ve come back to see this one again. The acting is just marvellous.”

Frankly, I might look at the script to get my head around some of the incredible dialogue again, but having experienced this extraordinary piece as a member of the audience, once is enough. It is unusual and special and a very clever piece; it is superbly acted, provoking laughter, thought and horror in equal measure. But once is enough.

From the very first scene, when Eric (Stephen Rea) calmly asks his psychiatrist, “why are you a nigger?”, through the flashbacks where we learn of Eric’s delusion about his granddaughter and his back story from the troubles, the piece is funny and yet chilling.

Perhaps the funniest scene is the watershed (scene six) which starts as a long soliloquy by Eric and ends as a frantic scene between Eric and Slim, the loyalist paramilitary, played wonderfully by Chris Corrigan. You know you shouldn’t be laughing at the rantings of these crazed extremists, yet there is something inherently funny about them. Heck, my NewsRevue friends and I wrote enough songs and sketches about it back in the day – one example linked here.

When the play pans out to its inevitably horrific conclusion, of course you know that discrimination, extremism, prejudice and terrorism are no jokes. This play/production works the audience’s cognitive dissonance like a maestro conductor with a great orchestra and a fine symphony.

Highly recommended, but (as they used to say on the telly when I was a child) not for people of a nervous disposition.

Cypress Avenue by David Ireland – click for Royal Court Information Here,

The play and production has understandably been very well received by the critics:

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.

Wastwater by Simon Stephens, Royal Court Theatre, 2 April 2011

We do both like a bit of Simon Stephens. We’re also partial to Linda Basset’s acting. This piece reminded us why on both counts.

We actually thought it was brilliantly acted and produced throughout.

Here is a link to the Royal Court resource on this play/production.

Three seemingly different stories that sort-of overlap and sort-of don’t. It’s hard to explain why, but Simon Stephens has a way with drama that simply keeps you gripped and thinking throughout.

Here is a very interesting behind the scenes short film from Sky Arts, including interviews with Simon Stephens, Linda Basset and several of the other cast and creatives, about Wastwater:

Royal Court – Wastwater from daniel bougourd on Vimeo.

Here is a link to a search term for reviews and other resources. The reviews are not universally great – some rated it very good, some rated it poor and cold-hearted.

We rated it very highly.