Albion by Mike Bartlett, Almeida Theatre, 27 October 2017

As  usual for the Almeida, we booked this as soon as it was announced because it sounded very interesting and we normally enjoy the Almeida stuff.

We normally go to a Saturday preview or an early Saturday in the run; this time we couldn’t do those dates, so chose a Friday two or three weeks into the run.

The play/production has had universally good reviews, which sounded like good news, but in truth this play did not really do the business for us. A shame, because the cast were superb, seemed very much a team, the design was stunning and there were some excellent coups de theatre and some very good lines. But the play just didn’t work for us.

To us, the garden was a rather clunky metaphor for that section of the English elite that hankers back to bygone glorious times.  A dramatist’s reaction to David Goodhart’s The Road To Somewhere.  The plot, limited though it was, contained one or two rather predictable twists that were well-signalled in advance and very clumsily explained in arrears.

As King Charles III is Mike Bartlett’s Shakespeare pastiche play, Albion is his Chekhov pastiche. Janie liked neither; I had more time for the Shakespearean style of the King Charles III one (to be Ogblogged in the fullness of time).

We’re not averse to Mike Bartlett – we loved Game and we loved Wild. Bartlett can have such an original voice, I’m not sure why he falls back on pastiche. Janie points out that his pastiche ones seem to be way more successful with critics and the transfer market than the more original ones.

“Most of the theatre audience is naff,” says Janie, with her trademark subtlety and tact.

In truth, the Almeida audience the night we saw Albion was dreadful and irritated us. Older on average than the Saturday night crowd, they seemed especially and unnecessarily elbows-out pushy at the bar and in the queues for tickets/entry. Janie was especially irritated by the woman sitting next to her who took off her shoes and then held us up for five minutes at the start of the interval trying to put her shoes back on her ever so smelly feet.

I had spent an hour before the show saying goodbye (workwise) to Ian Theodoreson at his leaving drinks in The Barley Mow. A shorter play would have probably suited me better on the night. But we have both turned up to theatre after longer, harder days than this; in truth this play/production just wasn’t to my/our taste.

Here is a link to the Almeida information hub on Albion – including links to those rave reviews.

Wild by Mike Bartlett, Hampstead Theatre, 17 June 2016

Wow, this was great.

Funnily enough, the day before our visit, I had run into Vince Leigh (most recently of Orange Tree/The Brink fame) at the health club. I congratulated him on The Brink and we discussed theatre generally. When I mentioned our impending visit to see Wild, he said he was going to see it that very day. He also told me that the production had experienced some technical problems with the set, so although the press night was supposed to be that very day (the Thursday), press night had actually been put back to Monday.

When Janie and I got to the Hampstead on the Friday, I asked the front of house staff whether the technical problems had been resolved for this evening. Two of them exchanged glances and one said, “we’ll find out”!

Well, the coup de théâtre that had (very understandably) had some teething problems came off with aplomb. But it would be a shame if this play and production is remembered only for that.

The play is basically about a character, based on Edward Snowden, disoriented in a “hotel room” in Russia. The dialogue is fast paced and whizzes around a myriad of big, important issues like a maelstrom.

In short, we loved it.

Here’s a link to the Hampstead’s area on this production, which provides plenty of detail, including (we subsequently learn) headlines and extracts from the excellent reviews this play/production deservedly received.

Coincidentally, I ran into Vince Leigh again the morning after the referendum result, this time on the street in Notting Hill Gate. He asked me how we found Wild. I told him and we agreed how good it was. Vince and I then also agreed what a strange day it was, everyone we had spoken to wandering around in a zombie-like state, trying not to cry about the result. I didn’t make the connection at the time, but our disorientation had something in common with that of the Snowden-like character. It felt like several of our walls had come down.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill, Royal Court Theatre, 12 March 2016

A conversation with Janie back in January.

Janie: I’ve just heard Front Row. They were talking about an amazing new play by Caryl Churchill at the Royal Court.

Me: (inquisitively) Yessss…

Janie: …so why haven’t you got us tickets for it?

Me: (nervously) Cripes – I’ll look into it. Leave it to me.

But of course, I had already bought tickets for Escaped Alone at the Royal Court. I’d bought tickets for the play so long ago, Janie and I had both forgotten about it. So long ago, that we hadn’t then quite worked out when we were going to take our winter break. I had, for that reason, booked for right at the end of the run, 12 March, to ensure that our holiday window was as wide as possible.

By the time we returned from our winter trip to Nicaragua, we were aware that Escaped Alone had received rave reviews from almost all the critics, that several of our friends had already seen it and that no-one seemed very able to explain what the play is about.

Thus we went to Sloane Square with a great sense of expectation; perhaps that in part explains why both of us found the play rather disappointing. Yet I didn’t find the piece quite as obscure and mysterious as critics (and friends) inferred. So, for those readers who wonder what this play is about, (even those of you who have seen and/or read it) here is my take on the work.

Caryl Churchill gives us, at the front of the play text, the quote “I only am escaped alone to tell thee” from the Book of Job (Job’s servant with bad news) and also from the epitaph to Moby Dick (Ishmael’s words). But I don’t think this clue leads naturally to the idea that Mrs Jarrett’s (Linda Bassett’s) dystopian speeches are supposed to be her describing actual experiences prior to visiting the garden and/or that the garden scenes take place while other aspects of the world are turning hellish.

The start of the play reveals that Mrs Jarrett knows the other three women only slightly when she joins them in the garden. The other three clearly know each other well; that familiar trio are given and use only first names. It is only Mrs Jarrett, the surnamed partial outsider, who steps outside the comfort of the garden to make dystopian speeches in partial, flashing light of the outer stage.

In the garden scenes, as the play unfolds, each of the three familiar friends makes a relatively lengthy speech in which they reveal their inner demons. In Sally’s case, it is the fear of cats. In Lena’s case, it is workplace-induced depression/agoraphobia. In Vi’s case, it is obsessive thoughts about her killing of her husband and the effect it has had on her life since. Mrs Jarrett doesn’t make such a speech within the garden – we have heard plenty about her demons in her dystopian speeches from the outside. So Mrs Jarrett merely says the phrase “terrible rage” many times over, when it is her turn to open up to the others with a longer speech in the garden.

The point is, I think, that all four women are describing inner demons; Mrs Jarrett only articulates hers outside the garden. We all have inner demons, which we can only really “escape alone”, or sometimes reveal to friends as personal dystopiae, because those worries are unique to us.  There is an interesting counterpoint here with Hitchcock’s take on inner fears (which in his case manifest as plot devices and ways of making the audience anxious) – fresh in my mind after seeing Hitchcock/Truffaut the previous day. Perhaps Churchill’s subtle focus on the notion that everyone has inner fears explains why Escaped Alone seems to have resonated so well with the critics (and perhaps also audiences).

Janie and I have seen a fair smattering of Caryl Churchill in our time. They are often short works, with an absurd, obscure and/or dystopian feel to some or all of the piece. This piece didn’t seem, to us, to add much to that Churchill oeuvre. Among the critics, only Billington (whose review was also very good) at least alluded to dystopia overkill and the use of similar ideas in earlier Churchill works. Blue Heart, A Number and especially Far Away all came to my mind while watching the play, prior to reading that Billington review.

Yes, Escaped Alone had a super set. Yes, the production had a superb posse of senior actresses, but the play/production simply didn’t resonate well with either of us, unlike many of Churchill’s earlier works.

The audience was ecstatic at the end of the show, but then it was a last night audience and the critics had universally told readers that the play/production was top ranking. Thus the audience went into critic-induced raptures at the “Da Doo Ron Ron” rendition by the four ladies in the garden, sandwiched between two of Mrs Jarrett’s dystopian speeches, soon after Sally’s cat phobia speech, just before Lena’s depression/agoraphobia one. An excessive response, in my view, to something that was a nice touch but not a coup de théâtre.

Similarly, the universal acclaim for this play/production seems excessive to both of us, although perhaps this piece does far more for people who have been less steeped in Caryl Churchill.

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.

Sunny Afternoon by Joe Penhall & Ray Davies, Hampstead Theatre, 25 April 2014

We loved this show.

Not the sort of thing we’d normally go for; we don’t really do musicals and certainly not juke box musicals.

But we’re both very fond of the Kinks, and of the Hampstead Theatre. We also trust Joe Penhall as a playwright.

Good call – this show was so enjoyable and we sensed that the Hampstead had a hit on its hands…

…which it did.

Well written, well acted & directed, superb musical performances…

…great fun too. By the end, it was more or less like being at an exciting gig. We ate at Harry Morgan before the show.

Here is a link to the Hampstead resource on this production.

Here is a YouTube “behind the scenes”/trailer:

Here is a link to a search term which should find you plenty of reviews. They were mostly rave reviews; deservedly.

 

 

Cock by Mike Bartlett, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 14 November 2009

So we saw a young Ben Whishaw as far back as 2009 in this thing – who knew?

Mike Bartlett has also gone on to bigger and bolder pieces than this since.

I seem to recall that it was a fairly slight piece about someone who is confused about his sexuality; I think the modern term is “fluid”.

The Royal Court link is very slight for an archive of this age – click here.

As usual, high quality production and performances upstairs at the Royal; Court – we love that place.

Judgment Day by Ödön Von Horváth, in a new version by Christopher Hampton, Almeida Theatre, 10 October 2009

We love the Almeida Theatre, despite the extra shlep involved in getting there from West London. At the time of writing (29 May 2017) we have just been again.

One really excellent thing about the Almeida is the quality of on-line resource they put up for the productions, with lots of information about the play, the creatives involved in the production, plenty of pictures and links to many reviews (the favourable ones of course).

Here is the Almeida’s on-line resource for Judgment Day.

The other really excellent thing about the Almeida is the quality of stuff it puts on. This play/production was no exception.

Ödön Von Horváth (imagine answering the “how do you spell it?” question with that name) has long fascinated Christopher Hampton. This seemingly small canvas German play, about the moral consequences of covering up the true reason for a deadly train crash, is in reality a pre-war allegory with the wilful blindness that led to Nazi power.

It was an especially good evening in the theatre; Janie and I both remember it fondly well. I also recently (when we saw The Ferryman) remembered that we had seen the excellent Laura Donnelly before, but didn’t at the time connect it with this play/production.

Most of the reviews – eight to ten of them included in the Almeida resource link above and here – are very good, but:

We thought it was top notch.

When The Rain Stops Falling by Andrew Bovell, Almeida Theatre, 30 May 2009

Very interesting play, this one.

 

Lots going on, mostly in Australia, spanning eighty years. We saw this play before the Ashes started, so did not breach our “Aussie abstinence vow” during the Ashes, I’m pleased to report.

Andrew Bovell is a very good playwright; worth looking out for. Excellent cast and production too.

Here is the OfficialLondonTheatre.co.uk stub on this play/production.

In The Red And Brown Water by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Young Vic, 4 October 2008

Of course we hadn’t heard of Tarell Alvin McCraney when we booked this. We simply booked it because it sounded like an interesting play, which it was.

But at the time of writing this up (March 2017), Tarell Alvin McCraney is a topical name, because he wrote Moonlight, which won the best picture Oscar a few weeks ago. Go figure. Here is a link to a recent Young Vic blog piece recognising this achievement.

Official London Theatre has an excellent resource on the outline of this play/production from back then, saving me time & trouble – click here.

The Young Vic published an extensive resources document for students/teachers etc. this play/production – you can click it down – here – from this link.

Reviews were mixed:

I must say I concur with this view. I remember the production where the Young Vic was turned into a watery stage, but I couldn’t hand on heart have told you anything about it from memory, until after I flicked through the script just now.

Perhaps Janie’s memory will do better – I’ll test that a bit later but only report back if she surprises me with profound recall.

The Young Vic published a short vid showing how they made the watery stage happen – see below.