Category Archives: Theatre

Skin Tight at Hope

Louise Hoare as Elizabeth and Adam Slynn as Tom — Photo by Greg Veit

When one enters the small, cramped, performance space above the Hope & Anchor pub, Upper Street, Islington, a man lays sprawled on the floor, furiously tracing lines with chalk on the black floor. One cannot discern what it is he’s up to, what sort of image this is. There are chains of small lamps draped across overhead, a galvanized wash tub on one end of the small stage, a ladder against a wall, and the chalk lines on the floor.

The lights dim, and rise again. A woman has entered the stage, and runs at the man, throws herself onto the floor, seeking to erase the lines he has painstakingly traced. Over the next several minutes this man and this woman engage in fierce embrace, violent struggle, erotic, vicious, beautiful, dramatic. Like an entire lifetime together, distilled into dance.

New Zealand poet Denis Glover, in 1964, penned the much beloved poem, The Magpies, about a farming couple and their struggles. Here it is:

When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm
The bracken made their bed
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said

Tom’s hand was strong to the plough
and Elizabeth’s lips were red
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said

Year in year out they worked
while the pines grew overhead
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said

But all the beautiful crops soon went
to the mortgage man instead
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said

Elizabeth is dead now (it’s long ago)
Old Tom’s gone light in the head
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said

The farm’s still there. Mortgage corporations
couldn’t give it away
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies say.

Louise Hoare and Adam Slynn embody Elizabeth and Tom in sweeping, near operatic fashion, in Skin Tight at the Hope Theatre through 6 November. This is a reprise of a 2017 production, also starring Hoare, which wowed critics and audiences alike. When Pawn made plans to celebrate his birthday in London, J chose this show to cap off the evening, neither of us quite knowing what it was about.

This is a very different sort of play. It’s based on The Magpies, but only in the loosest of manners. It is dramatic, to be sure; intense and pressing. But it is really about memory, the sweep of time, the way one remembers oneself remembering. Elizabeth is gone, or is going. Tom once left her (off to war) and that betrayal is one she never forgave him for. She responded with her own betrayal, one he never forgave her for. They farmed, and loved, and had a family, and grew old. All the time their fierce love and devotion persisted.

And now we are inside of Tom’s mind (or that’s how I choose to perceive it) and he is remembering over and over again their lives together. They are so beautiful and young, fit and passionate, but they are aging and infirm, arguing over their daughter’s letters from her London discontent.

Throughout Skin Tight one sees echos of the opening dance, that violent pas de deux which started the show. Each gesture and move of that dance appears again, in sequence, in the following narrative. And each time we recognize this a small shiver erupts. But soon enough (the show is just under an hour) Elizabeth and Tom have fallen quiet, the music recedes, and all we’re left with is the chalk lines on the floor.

Skin Tight was a lovely, moving piece of theatre. Much recommended.

A Cold Night of Theatre

Patrick Brennan as Phil; Photo credit David_Monteith-Hodge

Pawn’s first visit to Arcola Theatre, Ashwin Street in Dalston, was back in 2008, for The Living Unknown Soldier. At the time I was impressed not just by the play, and the performances, which were brilliant, but also by the resourcefulness of the theatre and company. As I wrote then:

A side note, the theatre, Arcola, is a green space, and this show is the first presented, probably in the world, with a zero carbon footprint. The theatre is equipped with a biomass heating system, a fuel-cell power plant and mostly low power LED based theatrical fixtures. It all worked quite well, and I think this is the shape of things to come.

Since then Arcola moved to a new location, nearby, with two performance spaces, a large bar, and a greater impact within the community.

When the pandemic struck, it was illustrative that two of the London theatres quickest to respond were those with the deepest experience with festival settings, Arcola (Grimborn) and Pleasance (Edingburg). Arcola have built an outdoor venue, in a formerly empty lot just down the street from their main building, erecting a tent with proper stage, lighting, improvised seating. Shipping containers converted into a bar, production suites (lights, sound, etc.), and backstage areas. Proper tech is supported, even including hearing loop technology.

Last night was my first visit to Arcola Outdoor, for Broken Lad, and I can report that for the most part it works and works well. But boy was it cold!

The show, by Robin Hooper, focuses on an aging, fading, comedian, Phil (Patrick Brennan), attempting a comeback in an Islington pub. His longtime fan and devoted enabler, Ned (Adrian McLoughlin), is on hand to buy him beers, talk him up (and, on occasion, down), and keep things moving. Son Josh (Dave Perry), who idolized his dad, despite having been largely abandoned as a boy, and his girlfriend (on and off again), Ria (the brilliant Yasmin Paige), round out the cast. Late in the show, they are joined by Phil’s ex, Josh’s mum, Liz (Carolyn Backhouse).

Yasmin Paige as Ria; Photo credit David Monteith-Hodge

This more than able cast deliver smooth performances despite the occasional bleating of sirens, squeal of tires, or encroachment of myriad other sounds one might expect of a Friday evening in Dalston. This is extraordinary, and likely lost on many in attendance. It’s easy to forget how hard it must be to keep moving, delivering dialogue, when such disturbances are ongoing. But this cast never missed a beat. Easily the smoothest and best acted production I’ve seen on this visit.

The action centres on Phil’s impending return to the stage to try to win back an audience, and a reason for being. He’s pretty much lost it all; his wife & marriage, his career, hist audience, his self respect. He’s got this one shot, fashioned out of the love and support mostly of his family, to try to win it back. Meanwhile he’s demolishing his relationship with his son, hiding incipient health issues, and fighting off his own irrelevance.

Photo Credit David Monteith-Hodge

Brennan turns in a top notch performance in the lead, as does Paige as the son’s girlfriend. Ria is the most interesting character to me, given her many layered involvements with various story lines and other characters. Paige plays the part with a mix of ambivalence and concern, always with agency. But her most fraught moments are bound up with a lack of agency, once upon a time, which carries great regret.

This was a very good night of theatre under the most difficult of circumstances, and a rousing success. But I was frozen by the time it was over! Not planning to spend a couple hours sitting outside on a cold night, I hadn’t packed warm enough clothing. What I wore was certainly the warmest I did pack, for which I’m glad, but it was a trial. This is not Arcola’s fault but solely mine. Arcola have outdone themselves, with a great venue. The bar was a welcome treat, the stage much better than one could have hoped for, and the production first class.

Joe and Ken

The signs on the wall imply that the Old Red Lion pub (or Lyon, depending upon era) has been on this site in Islington since 1405, or something like that. It’s held up pretty well, as has the Old Red Lion Theatre, which occupies the small but serviceable theatre space on the upper level. Last night’s performance was of Joe and Ken, by John Dunne, which concerns the rise and fall of actor & playwright Joe Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell. This two handed play, in two acts, starts with our dissolute stars playing themselves in the pinnacle of self-referential theatre, from shortly after they met at RADA, in the 1950s, and then settled in an Islington flat for as long as Ken’s dad would pay the bill.

Joe Orton

It’s an odd duck, this show. The two characters are mostly talking to themselves, until they’re not; they start to talk to us. They perform scenes from their own lives, but constantly squabble over who must play what role, how each is to be presented, etc. Joe (Craig Myles) is the bon vivant of the two, outgoing and brash. A kidder. Ken (Tino Orsini) is quieter, withdrawn. Joe will go anywhere to chase a fuck, Ken will stay home and wait to hear about it later. Together they dissect library books to add irreverent collages, or tear out blank pages from the back on which they type up bogus blurbs, inserted into the front. This is a crime which ultimately lands them both in jail.

Ken Halliwell

By the time we get to Act II, the two are in Tangiers, bedding the same series of boys and young men, complaining about them, and the “thieving” maid. All the time are the rapid fire jokes, asides, snarky commentary, foreboding intimations.

Not much more can be said about the plot, without giving too much away. The performances are fairly good, with the occasional stumble over dialogue or dialect. The lighting is basic, given how small the space. This is very much actor’s theatre, but with a script so freighted with theatrical conceit that it’s an awful burden to carry.

A nice night at theatre, but nothing to write home about…

Mayfair, Belgravia, Saatchi & No Saatchi

Before even leaving to come here, D had sent two suggestions: 1) Noah Davis at David Zwirner and 2) Lenore Tawny at Alison Jacques, both in Mayfair. Not familiar with the former, familiar enough with the latter to know not to miss it. Off we go!

It’s Wednesday early afternoon as I trudge up into Mayfair from Green Park station. I’ve booked a 1pm view, and want to be prompt. The gallery is classic David Zwirmer, stark and large, with tall ceilings and airy, uncluttered galleries. The show is spread across two floors, with The Underground Gallery on a third level, seemingly disconnected with the first two. As with the Paula Rego the Monday before, I am quickly taken by one of the first images in the show:

I like Davis’s work, a lot. Good narrative and composition. I’ll just leave you with another image and move on.

Art Institute Chicago included Lenore Tawney in a group show on woman in textiles, not too long ago. And the J. M. Kohler hosted a comprehensive show which included over 120 of her works, a recreation of her studio, and her epic Cloud Labyrinth. We won’t dwell on that. This show, at Alison Jacques, is small, just two small galleries, and much more human scale. One room holds a dozen or so of the roughly person-sized textile pieces, and a smaller, adjacent gallery holds a handful of small (roughly 6″ or so) works on paper. It’s one of these which grabs my eye, and I took a snap (doubtless against the rules):

I leave Alison Jacques and wind my way from Mayfair into Soho, and settle on Il Cucciolo for a late lunch (it’s past 2). A green salad with a fresh, crisp dressing, and a decent sized portion of spaghetti carbonara and I’m good to go.

This evening is Is God Is, a play at the Royal Court theatre, on Sloane Square, in Chelsea. It’s already near 3 when I leave Soho and take the tube down to Sloane Square. With the Saatchi galleries so close to the Royal Court, it’s become a bit of a habit of mine to combine visits. But as I approach the Saatchi I learn that it’s closed for the day, to prepare for a rare books show. Drats! So here I am, three hours to go before my show, and nothing to do. It’s too far to head back to the flat, and the local shops hold no interest for me. Instead I head northeast through Belgravia, up to embassy row, and fume at all of the lovely private gardens along the way, but nowhere a public bench or vista.

Finally loop the loop back around past the Victoria coach yard, and settle in at Ebury Square for a pleasant sit down, watching the fountain, and the locals. After a while I return to Sloane Square and settle on a bench there, again to people watch during the early evening hustle and bustle.

Royal Court have a small bar and cafe on the lower level, so in I go and have a couple Negroni and a bowl of peanuts whilst awaiting curtain time. The show, Is God Is, is by Aleshea Harris. My second play of the visit and like the first, Athena this is a show featuring two strong women of colour, by an American woman. I’ll come right out and say that I wanted to like this show. I really wanted to. But I didn’t. I won’t drag anyone through the mud, or launch any attacks. It just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Oh well, at least I got to see a lot of Chelsea neighbourhoods, and do a lot of walking, sitting and watching. Oh, and the Negroni were quite good!

Athena

Grace Saif (left) and Millicent Wong (right, above) are Mary Wallace and “Athena,” respectively, a pair of high schoolers practicing fencing in preparation for Nationals. Following a bruising match won by Athena, she proposes to Mary Wallace that they commit to regular practice together. Thus begins this taut 80 minute romp through fencing and teenage girlhood.

The show was born in Brooklyn, but has been refined and adapted for presentation here in England, as part of an NT Women of Tomorrow Directors Award series. The action still set in New York, but the script by Gracie Gardner has seen work. Grace Gummer, directing, makes up the third Grace of this production.

Some have described this as a comedy, but I think that does a disservice. There are many light and funny moments in the show, but it mainly explores the inner lives of these two 17 year old women as they struggle against family expectations, peer pressure, social anxiety, and all the rest of the lot which befall young women today. Their fencing, and their growing reliance on each other, is the part of their world over which they exercise near total control. It is there that we find them, oddly enough, with their guard down.

Pawn is no fencing expert, but it sure looks like these folks have done their homework. The practice routines are tight and refined, the pre- and post-match stretches and exercises convincing. At the end of the piece is a match, and for 20 minutes or so we are held rapt with some of the smoothest and most convincing fight choreography to be found in theatre. If nothing else this show gets the Best Fencing Match On Stage award for 2021.

But it deserves more, too. The stage, designed by Ingrid Hu, is clean and spartan, beautifully complimented by Marty Langthorne’s lights. The fine movement and fight work falls to Yami Lofvenberg & Claire Llewellyn, respectively. But it is ultimately the hard work and careful reading of Saif and Wong which carry the day here. Two thumbs up!

Diving in with Glass

Whenever Pawn comes to London, theatre, dance, music and art are a big part of the undertaking. Life under COVID makes this a somewhat more fraught exercise, but vaxxed and masked, we jump right in. The first show of the visit is the Philip Glass opera, Satyagraha, presented here by English National Opera (ENO), and produced in cooperation with New York’s Metropolitan Opera. This production is a collaboration not just with the Met, but also with Improbable, a British company who are, in their own words, “Pioneering improvisers, theatre makers and conversation facilitators.”

Pawn and X first encountered Improbable’s fine work in 2012’s The Devil and Mr Punch, a collaboration with Julian Crouch and Basil Twist. That was a small performance in the Pit, the Barbican’s smallest venue. This event couldn’t be further from that; a humongous performance in London’s largest (>2300 seats) theatre, the Coliseum. While not a frequent attendee of opera, Pawn does appreciate the bombasity, sheer size, spectacle, and audacity of well done opera. Aside from some Pucini, back home in Milwaukee, the last big show I’d seen was Benvenuto Cellini, an ENO production conceived & directed by Terry Gilliam, at a performance in Amsterdam. Or William Kentrige’s take on Lulu, here in London.

So how was Satyagraha? Sung in sanskrit, sans surtitles, one was left only to imagine precise action. While there was a synopsis provided, in the form of a one page handout, it is somewhat non-traditional. But this didn’t really matter. The score is propulsive where the action demands it, and contemplative where it doesn’t. The staging, as one expects of these things, was truly spectacular. Improbable’s impact was most surely felt in the many instances of puppetry, as shown in the scene above, or here:

The story follows the full arc of Gandhi’s life and works, from his youthful engagement with Tolstoy (The Tolstoy Farm) all the way through to Martin Luther King, Jr., as shown in this scene from King (Act III):

It is that final act with King which yields perhaps the most moving tableau of the piece, and it is deeply emotional. It is in this emotion, however, where Glass’s score risks leaving us wanting. The swirling, repetitive, patterns which characterize Glass’s compositions risk becoming tedious over the span of three hours and ten minutes (including intervals). But it is in these final scenes, with King, that these same repetitions bring force to Gandhi’s imploring, almost chant-like final aria.

I came to this show primarily on the basis of Improbable’s involvement, and was not disappointed in any way. The show was beautiful and stunning. The performances strong, the staging expansive. This is no small feat.

God’s Dice

The premier play by David Baddiel, just opened at Soho Theatre, leads with this blurb:

What would happen if someone was able to prove, scientifically, the existence of God?
When Edie, a student in university lecturer Henry Brook’s physics class, seems to do exactly that, his universe – including his marriage to celebrity atheist author Virginia – is rocked.

https://sohotheatre.com/shows/gods-dice/

Hmmm, okay. Buy a ticket.

Alan Davies as Henry and Alexandra Gilbreath as Virginia

The show is not bad, but plays a little fast and loose on the science end of things. Not being religious, I cannot speak to how well it treats that side. Regardless, it is a good yarn. Henry, Alan Davies, is a teacher of sub-atomic physics — quantum mechanics, relativity, string theory, etc. — and Edie, Leila Mimmack, comes up to him after a class to ask him a question about belief. She’s a Christian, a fact she leads with, brandishing an intellectual carapace to ward off what she assumes will be his scientific arrogance against believers. Her question, when she finally gets to it, has to do with why she should believe in the wild assumptions of quantum mechanics rather than the mythology of her religion.

What ensues, then, is a bizarre bit of maths, in which Henry seeks to prove that it would take 2.5 joules of energy for Jesus to produce 100 litres of wine from water. This is a great deal of silliness, in that the entire calculation is based on the assumption that all that wine is is water with some small percentage of alcohol (it’s all chemistry — how much carbon, oxygen, hydrogen) and there’s no mention of tannin or flavour or anything else. This is a thought experiment gone haywire.

But, and this is the real stretch, this demonstration of using maths to prove that a biblical “miracle” might have happened, is enough to launch Henry and Edie into writing a book, God’s Dice, full of such wild calculations and “proofs.” Meanwhile, Henry’s wife Virginia, Alexandra Gilbreath, is a world renowned Atheist, and author of five books skewering religion. While she tries to be supportive of Henry, she is suspicious of Edie’s motives, and can’t help mocking this endeavour.

Ultimately, the book gets published, and during interval a counter on the backdrop shows us how many “followers” it’s gaining on social media. You see, a new religious movement is forming around this book, a “new” religion freed from the old ways, or so we’re told, by Edie, as she takes the helm of this new faith. She insists it isn’t a cult, by the way.

Okay, so Pawn you might be thinking, Why were you even at this show when you seem incredulous of so much of the plot? Well, you know what? It’s a really good play! The script, while venturing into wild misapplications of both science and theology, is well written and compelling. The acting is first rate, especially Alan Davies as Henry and Alexandra Gilbreath as Virginia. Her role has the widest range, as she must swoop from extreme top-of-her-game self confidence (with no small measure of arrogance) to the slouching in a sweatshirt, swilling wine, fearing social media attacks, losing hold of her marriage, professional life collapsing, being heckled during TED Talks reality of the second act. Gilbreath pulls this off with aplomb. Her performance is at once sympathetic and gripping, which is surprising since, at the top of Act I, we didn’t much like her.

The set, by Lucy Osborne, is a marvel of simplicity and effective as hell. What start out as multi-panel white boards, which slide up and down like sash windows, serve as projection surfaces and screens. They are used to great effect through out the show, being played upon by Ric Mountjoy’s able lighting and Ash Woodward’s video.

God’s Dice plays through 30 November 2019 at Soho Theatre, 21 Dean St., Soho. email box1@sohotheatre.com, or call 0207 478 0100

Heroin(e) For Breakfast

Rarely does theatre make Pawn angry, but this piece did. Heroin(e) For Breakfast is winner of the Holden Street Theatre Award, Fringe Review Outstanding Theatre Award, and sold out at Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Philip Stokes wrote this in 2009, and this production is a re-staging with updates, tho few were needed, one imagines. Stokes also directed this production.

A festival piece, the stage is simple — a desolate apartment shared by Tommy, Lee Bainbridge, and Chloe, Kristy Anne Green. At curtain we find Tommy slouching on the couch, watching telly and scratching his balls. In saunters Edie, his young (too young) girlfriend, half naked. She walks between him & the telly, raising his ire, before seducing him into a quick shag, which, from the looks of it, neither of them particularly enjoy. Tommy, when he’s not shagging Edie, is spouting off about how great of a revolutionary he is, how misunderstood, how he’s going to change the world, etc.

Part I of why I got angry was the audience. Many smaller venues in London are experimenting with, or have flat-out instituted, so-called Relaxed Performances. In some cases these are specific show times/dates, in other cases it’s all performances. In a relaxed performance, audience are allowed to do all of those things which they’re not allowed to normally. The original intent was to allow autism-spectrum viewers access to traditional theatre in a setting which would not disrupt. Now it basically means Hey, we’re loose.

The Bunker, Battersea Arts Centre, and others have these. All shows at The Bunker are relaxed, and many at BAC. This show was at Pleasance, and wasn’t advertised as Relaxed, but almost as soon as the show started, so did a stream of whistles, cat calls, and other outbursts from some audience members. If that wasn’t disruptive enough, the resultant procession of ushers trying to sush, warn, cajole, these unruly audience, who must have though they were in an Edwardian-era music hall. Finally, after opening a bag of crisps, and proceeding to crunch them, the offenders were banished, entirely or just to the back row is unknown to me.

The show, meanwhile, is descending into further decrepitude. Chloe, Tommy’s roommate and ex, has shown up, and is picking fights with Edie when not complaining about Tommy. Tommy goes off to the store for breakfast goods and heroin. Oh yeah, that. We’ve been warned that this is a show about wasting youth and drugs.

In this case, Heroin(e) is also a person, or appears that way; a large brash blonde struts into the flat and in crass fashion by turns insults and seduces the occupants, until finally, with a vampire’s kiss to their inner elbow, enters them.

Along the way, racial slurs and other epithets are hurled — Paki, the “N” word, slag, whore, towel-head, etc. — without the slightest flinch. These people are horrid and completely uninspiring of compassion. Part II of my anger.

The play ends with a pile of overdosed corpses, and that’s well enough done for me. The programme tells us that King Brilliant Theatre, a producer of this show, “…was founded in anger in the summer of 2018 as a positive platform for working-class actors with the theatre industry. King Brilliant works in engaging with communities and young people in a language they understand and through work they respond and connect to…” Right o.

Pawn continues to enjoy the ready stream of Edinburgh shows coming down to London stages shortly after the festival closes, and will keep coming to the showcase presentations put on by venues like Pleasance, Bunker (soon to close and hopefully pop up elsewhere), The Yard and others. Sometimes, like tonight, what you get can be unpleasant.

Vassa

Maxim Gorky wrote plays from 1901 – 36, seventeen in all, and Vassa Zheleznova started life in 1910, but was not performed until after he rewrote it in 1935, making it, in a sense, the last he wrote.

In the new production at Almeida Theatre, little seems altered from the original, and, in a sense, it doesn’t really need it. Corporate corruption, family infighting, gross inequality, tension between the sexes; what’s so different now from then?

Here’s how Almeida’s website describes Mike Bartlett’s adaptation, directed by Tinuke Craig:

It’s 8am and a revolt is underway.
The father is dying. The son is spying. The wife is cheating. The uncle is stealing. The mother is scheming. The dynasty is crumbling. 
One house. One fortune. One victor. 

https://almeida.co.uk/whats-on/vassa/7-oct-2019-23-nov-2019

Spot on! This is a comedy which breaks the rules; there are deaths, and everyone doesn’t end up married in the end. As a matter of fact, few marriages survive in this tale. Pawn has seen a lot of theatre on this trip, and not even had the time to write about it all. I will say that this is a lovely and spirited production. The ensemble is strong, with no particular standouts, other than Siobhán Redmond in the titular role, the family matriarch. She dominates the stage, in a good way, right from the start, and never lets go. Amber James, as daughter Anna, returning to the family homestead just in time to bid her father rest in peace, turns in a nuanced yet powerful performance.

Siobhán Redmond as Vassa

Due to the dual blights of war and alcoholism, Soviet women from the era of the original production were left to run things, by and large, as so many men had been removed from society — via WW-I, the revolution, and drink. So strong female leads is no shock for a Russian play from the era, and it resonates well today.

Sophie Wu, Siobhán Redmond, and Amber James in Vassa

Well designed and presented within Almeida’s cozy little space, this is a crowd pleaser, and it certainly provided a light end to my evening, after the matinee of Death of a Salesman, earlier in the day.

Oh, and the dinner Pawn had in the adjoining Almeida Cafe was lovely. Chicken stew with fresh-baked bread, and a Negroni to sip with it. Delightful!

Vassa plays through 23 November at Almeida Theatre, Islington. Booking information at https://almeida.co.uk/whats-on/vassa/7-oct-2019-23-nov-2019

Death Of A Salesman

Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman is certainly an American classic, having been in virtually continuous performance on stages across the country since it’s premier in 1949. A favourite from college theatre programmes to Broadway or regional repertory companies. That the Young Vic chose to produce it for its Off-Westend space on The Cut, in Waterloo, isn’t then a shock. That it chose to do so with a mostly black cast (the entire Loman family, and some others) maybe was. That the Young Vic production, co-directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell, and starring Wendell Pierce as Willie Loman, went on to be a sell out, and transferred to the Piccadilly Theatre, on the West End, is no surprise at all.

It’s just that good.

Joining Pierce in the cast are Sharon Clarke as his long suffering wife Linda (of course, as every wife in a Miller play), Sope Dirisu as son Biff, Natey Jones as younger son Hap, Joseph Mydell as Uncle Ben (a dream device), and Trevor Cooper as Charley, the neighbour; Ian Bonar, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt, Emmanuel Ogunjinmi, Matthew Seadon-Young, Carole Stennett, Nenda Neurer, and Femi Temowo round out the cast, some playing multiple characters.

The set is a lovely piece of spatial trickery. Massive, foreboding walls ring the stage, pierced here and there with passageways, and mostly just sink into the background. Suspended in air, however, are door & window frames, tables, chairs, mirrors, lamps, wall sconces, etc. The entire insides of a home, from the water heater to the window sill; all hang in silence, waiting their turn. There are a couple of set pieces — the fridge, a filing cabinet — which slide on from the wings, but pretty much everything else flies in and out, but never leaves our view, due to the total lack of drapery — the teasers and tormentors of a typical proscenium production.

Somewhat fuzzy view from the second row, before the show.

Not having seen the original Young Vic staging, Pawn cannot state this with certainty, but strongly suggests that these choices by designer Anna Fleischle was based on the more flexible space available there.

No synopsis should be needed for this show. Willie is 63 years old, has been working for the same firm for more than half his life, and has recently lost his salary and now only earns commissions. He’s been feeling shaky lately, having a harder time driving his territory, which takes him from his Yonkers home to the far reaches of New England, selling whatever it is he sells (not important to the story). He’s not been the best of men, but he has to tell himself that he is, it’s part of what a salesman has to do to keep himself going.

Sope Dirisu as Biff, photo by Brinkhoff Mogenburg

Likewise, his boys, Biff and Hap (shortened from Happy, nickname for Harold), the former a football star in school, who blew his chance at a scholarship by failing maths, the latter a fast talking accounts clerk, imagining himself heading his department by years end.

Wendell Pierce as Willie Loman, photo by Brinkhoff Mogenburg

The essential conflict in this story is between Willie’s overly high expectations for Biff, and Biff’s struggle against an unspoken scar left from some event fifteen years past. I shan’t ruin that, for those unfamiliar with the story, but I will say that as gifted as Wendell Pierce is in his portrayal of WIllie, it is Sope Dirisu’s turn as Biff which brings down the house. His performance is one for the ages. Not to take anything away from any in this all star cast.

Cooper, as Charley, provides both a comedic and observant counterweight to Loman’s overwrought angst and hyperbolic outbursts. His performance as even as his character’s patience and affection for the voluble Loman. Clarke’s Linda is the other counterweight, on the domestic front, always abiding her husband’s outbursts and suffering with him in his silent descent into whatever is gripping at his soul. Her final scene is sure to bring tears to many eyes, a fact proved by the people in the row ahead of me digging for tissues in their purses.

By the end of the play, the stage pieces (above), have been flown to the height they would rest at in the real house, creating the illusion of a physical first storey where no floor exists. It is a fitting metaphor for a home (final payment made just as the final denouement occurs) which looks solid while melting into air (to paraphrase Karl Marx).

Oh, and that bit about race? That thing where the Loman family, and some secondary characters are black, not white as in the original? What does that matter? Ultimately, it means nothing. Some may well seek and find racial allegory in this choice, but Pawn feels that it just doesn’t matter, and that that is the point of the casting choice. Or it could be.

During interval, a discussion with an older couple seated just down the row found them asking whether Pawn felt it mattered, not being as familiar with American race relations as they are with British. They were genuinely curious, and it lead to an interesting discussion. My main thought, at the midway point of the show, was that more theatres should pursue this casting so both to provide more meaty roles to actors of colour and the make manifest that, underneath such differences, we are all the same. A father’s dreams for his sons is a fierce driver.

Pawn loved this show. That it ran three hours (with 15 minute interval) puts it at the edge of most modern productions, but it was well worth it. Heavy for a matinee? Yes, but still well worth it.

Death of a Salesman runs from 24 October at the Piccadilly Theatre. Booking information at https://www.youngvic.org/perfs/2276