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?…

Reasons To Be Happy by Neil Labute, Hampstead Theatre, 8 April 2016

We were really looking forward to this one. We have been fans of Neil Labute’s writing since he first burst onto the theatre scene in London with Bash, all those years ago. We saw Reasons to be Pretty at the Almeida some five years ago and thought it was a very good play and production.

This one, Reasons to be Happy, is a companion piece/sequel with the same characters. Michael Attenborough, now no longer at the Almeida, directing as a guest at the Hampstead. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, the problem with this one is the play. Labute has, for once, written a dull, ordinary play. There are some really sharp dialogue exchanges, as you might expect, but the plot is from “Rom Com Writing 101” and even some of the dialogue drags. The menace that usually underscores a Neil Labute play was there, sort-of, but was more like muzzled poodle menace than the usual unfettered pitbull menace.

In fact, some of the script was so predictably ordinary, I wondered whether Neil Labute has programmed an artificial intelligence version of himself to keep his writing going while he does other things, like crossing the Finchley Road and getting spotted by Ged and Daisy. If so, he hasn’t programmed the machine all that well.

I was well rested, after denying myself a punishing night after the Middlesex AGM Thursday, so I stayed awake throughout, just about. Daisy was not so well rested and had experienced a trying morning of slavery at the hands of her increasingly unreasonably demanding mother. Thus Daisy took full advantage of the opportunity to catch up on her sleep during the play. She didn’t miss much, although she was understandably slightly confused about the outcome at the end of the show.

But she didn’t really care about that outcome. Nor did I.

It’s a shame, because the cast were good, doing their best to get something out of the dull script. The set was interesting enough. Michael Attenborough sure can direct, but you cannot make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

On The Beach by Steve Waters, Bush Theatre, 25 April 2009

This play was part of a double bill of plays about climate change known together as The Contingency Plan.

We only fancied the first part; On The Beach.

The Bush was still above the pub on Shepherd’s Bush Green in those days.

It was well acted and produced, but we both found the first play a bit long, ponderous and not entirely plausible. We didn’t seek to book nor did we regret not having booked the second part.

On the whole the double-bill was reviewed jointly, so our take is only partial:

Happy Now? by Lucinda Coxon, Cottesloe Theatre, 9 February 2008

Unusually, we took Phillie to the theatre with us on this occasion. It must have been a long prearranged thing; I think Tony was doing one of his long business trips in the far east, so we had Phillie to stay for the weekend and it was planned far enough in advance for us to book a good Cottesloe production for us all to see.

This was a very good play/production. Funny, thought-provoking and very well acted. Great cast; not least Stanley Townsend, Olivia Williams and Dominic Rowan. Thea Sharrock, who had impressed us so much directing at the Gate, was starting to get higher profile gigs; this being an early example of one of those.

This award-winning play and production has a comprehensive Wikipedia entry – click here, which includes links to some of the better reviews.

Phillie, bless her, unaccustomed as she was to the theatre, was a bit “west-end theatre-ish” at first, talking as if she was in her living room watching TV, until Janie gave her “the look” a couple of times. I think Phillie enjoyed that theatre trip very much.

I’m pretty sure this was the occasion that, afterwards, we went on to Zinc Bar and Grill in Heddon Street.  Now gone, I believe, a couple of reviews of that Conran place survive:

Anyway, Phillie really enjoyed herself that evening – she got quite tipsy at Zinc, as was her wont by then, but the important thing was that she had a good time.

The Giant by Antony Sher, Hampstead Theatre, 2 November 2007

On paper, this appeared to be a seriously hot ticket. So seriously hot we booked to see the first Friday preview. Antony Sher wrote it, Greg Doran directed it, Roger Allam starred in it…

…what’s not to like?

Well, in truth we didn’t like it at all. The plot revolves around the Florentine story of Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo competing for the same sculpture commission. The play might have been fine art’s equivalent of Amadeus – I suspect that’s what Sher had in mind, but we found the piece laboured, pretentious and dull.

We didn’t stick around after the interval for the second half of the play.

The reviews were not so special: