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,

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”.

Nuclear War by Simon Stephens, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 22 April 2017

“I didn’t have a clue what was going on, but still I rather liked that”, was Janie’s unusual verdict. The first phrase would usually precede a phrase such as “what a load of rubbish” or similar.

But in many ways I could see Daisy-do’s point.

Actually, about five minutes into this short (45 minutes in total) piece, I thought I was really going to hate it.

I didn’t have a clue what was going on, it was cold, it felt soulless and some ghastly member of the audience was coughing and spluttering so much I couldn’t concentrate on trying to penetrate the impenetrable. It certainly wasn’t about nuclear war.

But once I realised that Simon Stephens and Imogen Knight had no intention of giving us a clue as to what was going on, I relaxed and went with the flow. The flow was mostly astonishing dance and some poetic words.

I sensed that the central character was bereaved and/or seriously mentally ill. I sensed that the chorus were her inner tormentors/comforters.

In the end, I did, like Daisy, rather like the piece.

I wondered what our friend Michael Billington would make of it all. We ran into him as we entered the Royal Court and had a quick chat with him, realising that we hadn’t seen him for ages.

We also chatted, in the queue, with a nice man who clearly goes to theatre a great deal and whose late partner was a cricketer as well as theatre-lover – a point that came out as I checked the Middlesex v Essex cricket score for the umpteenth time.

Anyway, turns out our friend Michael Billington (as I suspected) didn’t like it at all – a rare two stars, “baffling and obscure”. Other critics agreed with the obscure tag but were kinder on the piece:

We enjoyed a veritable smörgåsbord of nibbles when we got home, for a change.

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.

 

 

Unreachable by Anthony Neilson, Royal Court Theatre, 9 July 2016

I’ve heard it said that jazz is the only form of live music where the players seem to be having more fun than the audience. That was certainly so last night at the Wigmore Hall in Janie’s case; she certainly did not enjoy Christian McBride and Chick Corea as much as they enjoyed themselves.

Unfortunately for Janie, Unreachable by Anthony Neilson might be described as a theatrical equivalent of jazz. Neilson’s writing technique is to start with no more than an outline and to work up a piece through workshops, rehearsals, trial and error.

So much so that, rarely for the Royal Court, there was no play text available for this piece. Simon David at the bookstall told us proudly that the piece is still being devised even beyond press night (which was the previous night). Simon also commended the piece to us.

I got a heck of a lot more out of it than Janie did. She hated the piece so much she even wanted to abandon me and the car at half time; then reluctantly relented and agreed to stay for the remaining 45 minutes, suggesting that she might sleep a bit during that second half. But it wasn’t a relaxing enough piece to fall asleep in much, according to Janie. I agree with that last point.

The play opens with a scene showing Natasha (a very confident young actress named Tamara Lawrance) auditioning for a role in a movie. We hear the dismembered voice of auteur/director Max (played by Matt Smith) describing the film. It is set in a dystopian near future after a virus has wiped out most of the population etc. etc.

Some members of the audience laugh at this horrifying scenario; presumably they have been told that the play is basically a comedy. But Natasha then acts out a quite lengthy gruelling monologue as a mother who believes that a malevolent militia is about to inflict terrible cruelties upon her and her child.

So far, so Vicky Featherstone’s Royal Court. I have written before about the relentlessly dystopian theme of the new regime on Sloane Square, where the ubiquitous grimy kitchen sink has been replaced by the apocalyptic landscape.  But perhaps this time the dystopian opening is a tongue-in-cheek nod to the new norm in SW1’s corner of theatre-land…

…because, beyond that early monologue, Unreachable is basically a lightweight, albeit black comedy, looking behind the scenes at the world of movies and movie-making people. They are a grotesque, dysfunctional lot, if this play is to be believed. Probably the play shouldn’t entirely be believed.

Another element you might find hard to believe (but this bit is true) is that Janie and I live in such a limited-TV-viewing bubble that we had no idea that Matt Smith was Doctor Who. We just thought of him as the fine young actor we saw in That Face by Polly Stenham a few years ago. But it was clear from the business he was given to perform and the audience reaction to it that Matt’s performance was the centre-piece of the play…

…until the arrival of the craziest character of all; Jonjo O’Neill’s Ivan “The Brute”.

Even Janie agreed that all of the performances were very good. She just struggled to get her head around the play. The plot was perhaps so superficial Janie was looking for “more in it” when there was no more to be had.

But I laughed a lot and enjoyed the sheer nonsensical intrigue of it. Indeed, in our troubled post-referendum times, the preposterous back-stabbing, feigned walk-outs and the politically-motivated engagement of an uncontrollable anarchic element in the interests of some unattainable “light at the end of the tunnel”… it seemed to me to be quite an appropriate tonic for the live-arts-supporting troops at the moment.

As for the jazz analogy, well clearly the cast seemed to be enjoying themselves enormously. In particular, once Jonjo O’Neill got going with Ivan’s foul tongue and ludicrous boasts, you could tell that not only the audience but also the other members of the cast didn’t quite know where his verbal cadenzas might go. The other actors needed to react quickly to those crazy outbursts without corpsing; which they were able to most but not all of the time.

To be fair, although Janie didn’t enjoy herself and some audience members left at half time, the vast majority stayed and were clearly enjoying themselves at least as much, if not more than the cast.

Here’s a link to the plentiful Royal Court resources on this play.

The Royal Court will no doubt post some reviews eventually, but they are only starting to come out, as the press night was the night before our visit. So far:

Janie would say “take my word for it, don’t bother” whereas I would say, “decide for yourself  – go see it!”.

Lawrence After Arabia by Howard Brenton, Hampstead Theatre, 21 May 2016

Feisal_I_of_Iraq
It has been said that his majesty and I bear some slight resemblance… https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Feisal_I_of_Iraq.jpg

Oh dear.

It sounded like a good idea when we booked it. Such an interesting period of Middle-Eastern history. Howard Brenton, who did such an interesting job on Ai Weiwei, taking on an interesting character in T. E. Lawrence. Timely, as it is the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement this year…

The problem is, that period was also a period when English theatre was in its dull Edwardian through 1920s drawing room drama doldrums. Howard Brenton seems to think it a good idea to parody the very worst of that period’s drama for this play. Director John Dove takes the idea further with a staid, static style to the piece. There are some good actors in this play but frankly we couldn’t care less what happened to any of the characters, which doesn’t give the cast much room for manoevre.

Neither Janie nor I could tell you too much detail about the first half; we both slept through much of it. It was a deathly dull hour, even when sleep spares you much of it. It would have been a deathly dull two hours, but we agreed to cut our losses and leave at the interval. So we can’t tell you anything about the second half. I am reliably informed by Grant (someone I know from the gym who did suffer the whole thing) that it gets no better in the second half.

The Hampstead Theatre area for this play has lots of good reviews – here , so it has clearly received good reviews, not least in both of the Telegraphs. The audience certainly looked like they had all been bussed in from Telegraph reader central casting. However:

Congratulations to all of you critics for managing to stay awake sufficiently to review the piece, or alternatively for covering up your lack of wakefulness deftly in your columns.

I did wake up for the bit where Lawrence shows off the thawb, bisht and igal, the garments of a bedouin leader, gifted to him by Prince (later King) Faisal. I liked that bit. Firstly, I am said by some to resemble Faisal (see picture above); I certainly resemble him far more than the actor who plays him in this play.

Secondly I have a fine collection of natty thawbs, bestowed upon me by one of Janie’s wealthy Saudi clients. Indeed I do much of my writing at the flat wearing a thawb; especially in the summer when it is a very sensible way to dress when writing.

But I digress. The play is deathly dull. Did I mention that before? Is irritating when people waste your time simply repeating stuff they have said before? Or is it a quirky, whimsical touch, that could maintain your interest and tickle your sense of humour for a couple of hours.

On a positive note, the programme is a really interesting read. We highly recommend it. The programme is well worth the trip to Swiss Cottage and its £3.50 cover price. Just don’t waste your time and money on this turkey of a play.

German Skerries by Robert Holman, Orange Tree Theatre, 5 March 2016

The questions Daisy and I debated over our Spanish dinner at Don Fernando after this short play were “why?” questions. Primarily, “why on earth did Paul Miller choose to revive this particular play?”

Yes, the Orange Tree rubric  about this play – click here – says that Simon Stephens reveres Robert Holman. Any friend of Simon Stephens blah blah…

…but this play, which won awards and all sorts in the late 1970s, must have either come from a lean year (1977? – I don’t think so) or simply aged badly, as some plays do. It simply didn’t resonate for either of us.

Some of it felt like writing by numbers to me – the birdwatchers spot a cormorant impaling itself on some stray wire, presumably the wire is there because of the industrial activity out by the skerries. “Oh dear”, I thought, “one of the characters is going to cop an industrial injury before the 80 minutes is up.”

Cormorants on Lake Nicaragua skerries
Cormorants on Lake Nicaragua skerries

It didn’t help that I have a slight cold (or do I mean man flu?) on our recent return from Nicaragua – from 30 Centigrade to 30 Fahrenheit overnight is a bit of a shock to the system. I did a pretty good job of stifling the sniffling and coughing, despite the cast members smoking pretty constantly and the smoke machine designed to make the night scenes seem misty being located right by my seat! Thank goodness for the trusty bottle of water when you need it most.

We had other why questions; such as why did the young man stay up by the bird watching hut leaving his young wife to take the injured man to hospital alone? There was a bicycle in the hut which seemed to have been left there for a purpose (perhaps that purpose) but the bike was ignored when crisis struck. Perhaps a change of heart from the writer, left hanging like…

The subject matter had the ability to resonate – ordinary folk in Teeside, caught up in the late 1970s industrial changes and disquiet…but by gosh this is a slow and dull piece. The play had only the faintest echo of the power possible in similar small northern town microscope pieces, such as Stockport by Simon Stephens. Yes, I can see where the influence on Stephens might have come; yes I understand that the industries that were controversially established on Teeside in the 1970s are controversially shutting down now. But 40 years on, leave it to Stephens…or revive a Stephens, don’t try and revive this dated and clumsy piece.

Michael Billington and his good lady were in the house tonight sitting opposite us. Billington is a great supporter of the Orange Tree but I suspect he’ll struggle to give this piece a favourable review – it will be interesting to see what he writes about it.

Daisy struggled to stay awake and was fearful that she might have nodded off while the young man character was bird watching in our direction through his binoculars. I don’t think she nodded off at those particular junctures, nor do I think that Michael Billington nodded off at the times when the binos were pointing his way, although I cannot vouch for the wakefulness of Billington’s whole evening.

We too are long-term supporters of the Orange Tree and think that Paul Miller’s tenure so far has had more rock than a massive outcrop of skerries, but this play missed the mark for us by a long way. We know that financial pressure is a major factor, so these joint productions are doubtless the way. Perhaps this piece will work better in Northern towns (although frankly I doubt it).  But in any case, I’d prefer to see more risk in joint productions – better the odd miss that has given a young writer or an emerging theatre troupe a chance, than a revival miss that leaves us simply asking, “why?”.

Forget Me Not by Tom Holloway, Bush Theatre, 19 December 2015

A powerful evening at the theatre, this play.  It is about the forced migration of thousands of British children to Australia in the quarter-of-a-century or so after the second world war.

Janie came away from the play feeling very angry about the Australian Government, although in truth the Church and the UK Government have just as much to answer and apologise for; which, to some extent, all these parties have done in recent years.

The play is focused on one such child’s story and the impact this ill-thought policy had on his life and the lives of those around him – explained well in the Bush Theatre rubric – click here.

It is superbly acted by all four actors and well produced at the Bush, one of our favourite places at the moment, putting on interesting work with a consistent high quality; very few misses there.

Michael Billington was full of praise in his Guardian review – click here.  Henry Hitchings in the Standard was perhaps even more keen on it – click here.

It was originally produced at the Belvoir Theatre in Sydney in 2013, where it also seems to have gone down very well – for information and reviews click here.

It is quite a short evening at the theatre, which was just as well for us, as Janie and I wanted to go on to Lisa Opie’s party afterwards and get there before most people had left, which we achieved.  The party did a jolly good job of cheering us up again after this sobering but gripping evening at the theatre.

Plaques and Tangles by Nicola Wilson, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 14 November 2015

This was a very interesting play at the Royal Court Upstairs. As usual these days, there is an information-packed stub on the Royal Court website – here, saving me much of the trouble to write about the basics.

I had been avoiding the subject of dementia for a while, but I guess we booked this some six months after mum died so I was starting to feel able to handle the subject again.

In many ways, this play was about a different type of dementia, as the protagonist has a rare genetic form of the disease that takes over the person’s life much younger and therefore far more invasively.

This difficult subject and the dilemmas that spring from it were handled with skill, dignity and humour in this play. Well acted and produced too.

Lots of rave reviews are linked through the reviews tab in the Royal Court stub – click here specifically for that tab.

Michael Billington was not so sure in Guardian – here...even less sure was Matt Trueman in WhatsOnStage – here.

Janie found the non-linear nature of the piece (moving backwards and forwards in time on several occasions in short scenes) more than a bit confusing. I think we were supposed to feel somewhat disoriented, to enable us to empathise with the protagonist.

Still, we were both glad to have seen this one.

 

When We Were Women by Sharman MacDonald, Orange Tree Theatre, 5 September 2015

I had been really looking forward to this one. I recalled seeing and liking the companion piece, When I Was A Girl I Used To Scream And Shout, many years ago.

Sadly,  this one was rather grim and dark by comparison. Well acted, well directed, but neither Janie nor I much liked the play.

Here is a link to the Orange Tree’s stub for the production, which was reasonably well received – the stub includes some good quotes from the reviews.

As usual, we didn’t feel we’d wasted our time and enjoyed our evening out, not least our Don Fernando dinner which we almost always enjoy as an occasional treat after the Orange Tree.