Category Archives: Theatre

The Lovely Bones

When the email from Hackney Empire first arrived, back in September, announcing a new adaptation of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, I didn’t know what to think of it. I’ve not read the book, but was well aware of it. After some thought I booked a single in stalls for Friday night’s performance, and am now well glad that I did.

This production, by Birmingham Repertory Theatre, uses an adaptation by Bryony Lavery, and is directed by Melly Still. Starring Charlotte Beaumont as Susie, with a dozen other cast members, it’s a big show. The staging, by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita, set & costume, and Matt Haskins, lighting designer, is absolutely brilliant, and easily puts Bones into the same camp as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as far as visual innovation.

One thing which is almost immediately striking about this piece is how sparse the stage is. Even before the show begins, we see a mostly bare stage, with a row of corn stalks far upstage, and a wooden swivel chair. That’s all. Above the stage, however, starting just above the row of corn, and extending high into the fly gallery, is a Mylar mirror, providing a clear over-head view of the stage, from our perspective in the audience (one wonders how well this plays in circle and balcony seats?).

The Lovely Bones, photo by Pamela Raith for The Hackney Citizen

As the action begins, we first see a woman start to pour from a bag of salt, a thin line, in a large rectangle, around the centre of the stage. In that centre is Susie, who is recounting for us the story of how she was lured by her neighbour, Mr Harvey, into a newly dug bunker. Once there, he rapes and murders her. She is telling us all of this as if a bad memory, this teenage girl, for she is dead, she knows she is dead, and as the woman completes the rectangle, Susie faces her new reality; that her new “heaven” is circumscribed by this line on the floor around her.

The woman who has poured out this salt is Franny (Avita Jay), Susie’s “intake counselor” in heaven. Franny explains the rules of this heaven to Susie — The line on the floor surrounding Susie is the limits of her “heaven” and she cannot go past it — who immediately tries to break out and go back to real life. She fails, but does succeed, from time to time in these attempts, in “touching” someone from her life — her father Jack (Jack Sandle), her classmate Ruth (Leigh Lothian) — and planting a connection which may lead them to important information or influence.

So for most of the show not only is Beaumont on stage, but confined to this small part of it, unable to hide upstage, let alone exit into the wings. Kudos to her, then, for not just a brilliant, compelling performance (and totally believable as a teenage girl), but for her endurance and ability to remain on stage, not drawing focus, for those sections in which Susie isn’t the focus.

The cast is large, and multi-cast, so there are even more characters than cast members. Those paying double roles do so deftly, especially Samuel Gosrani as both Ray, Susie’s boyfriend, and Holiday, the family dog. This last bit involves the use a a “cone of shame” collar, as used by vets to keep dogs from picking at wounds, as a signifier of Holiday’s dog-hood. It’s a simple yet brilliant piece of costuming, letting the audience see the dog, yet not trying to convince us some fur suit is dog-like enough.

I shan’t recite the entire plot here; the story is well known. And, as I haven’t read the book, I cannot speak to how accurately the play tracks it (or the film, for that matter). What I can tell you is that the script propels the story forward, turning it into both a detective story, which we see from the victim’s eyes, knowing the perpetrator from the get-go, and a story of loss and love, of affections missed, and of the inevitable progress of the lives of others in our absence.

Jack, Susie’s father, is stuck; he can’t move past her death, and his conviction that Harvey is guilty. Abigail, mother, is bereft, not just of her daughter, but her husband too. She turns to the lead detective, Fenerman (Huw Parmenter), himself a widower, for comfort. Lindsey, sister, keeps growing up, starts a romance, goes to college, and settles down. The list goes on, as people move through their lives, seemingly teasing Susie, who doesn’t even get a change of wardrobe as they gain years.

Some casting is confusing at times. Color blind is so common these days as to be expected, but gender blind can leave one unsure who is who, and this is at times the case with the choice to have a woman, Leigh Lothian, play both Ruth, Susie’s artistic friend, and Buckley, her little brother. Especially as Buckley progresses in life, it is sometimes hard to track just who is who. Otherwise, none of the casting caused trouble, and the multi-role casting did allow for a wealth of characters without breaking the bank.

Story telling is what drives this piece, and here, again, the set lends a huge hand. That angled mirror mentioned earlier is also not fully silvered, so action on small sets, behind the mirror, shine through when lit properly. This allows for many layers of set to be in play at once, as Susie tells a bit of story, for example, a room lights up behind and above her, showing Mr Harvey working on a dolls house, his hobby. This is used to wonderful effect at several points through out the show, to augment to available spaces on the main stage, and is of tremendous effect to draw our gaze off of the stage floor, and create a more complete heaven/earth scenario.

The audience loved it. This is the fastest standing ovation I’ve seen on this trip. The Brits are more sparing about standing Os than American audiences, at least off the West End, where, alas, automatic ovations are becoming more common. This ovation was spontaneous, and well earned. This is a scrappy cast in a scrappy production which punches above its weight class and wins. Pawn won’t be surprised to hear someday that this show moves to the West End, or ends up on Broadway.

The Lovely Bones completed it’s brief run at Hackney Empire on 1 November 2019. This review was of the final performance of the run.

Wokeness or not?

This is a bit of a Catch Up post, in that the events described herein occurred Saturday last, but I am only just now getting around to writing them down.

Saturday was a full day for Pawn with a matinee of Shuck ‘n’ Jive, at Soho Theatre, in Soho, and an evening performance of Dirty Crusty, at The Yard, in Hackney Wick. And it actually turns out to be a pretty good double bill.

Shuck ‘n’ Jive is a piece by Cassiopeia Berkeley-Agyepong and Simone Ibbett-Brown, about two young black women named Cassi & Simone, played by Tanisha Spring and Olivia Onyehara, respectively. Directed by Lakesha Arie-Angelo, the two performers are on a single set, between two risers of seating, on a long, narrow stage. At each end of the stage are set walls, studded with props which will be used during the show, as well as a pair of video screens which grant us visibility into the character’s text messages.

The plot is simple enough; Cassi & Simone are frustrated in their intersectional lot in life. They are black in a white-dominated society, and they are women in a male dominated society. Not only that, but they are artists in a society which doesn’t deem that too important, providing a third axis to their intersectionality. We are voyeurs on the wall of their auditions, which inevitably devolve, at least in their minds, from Ophelia’s soliloquys into minstrel show rags.

They’re fed up, and they’re not going to take it any more! So, in Howard Beal meets Mickey Rooney, they’re going to put on a show, and most of the rest of out show is watching Cassi & Simone plan how to put together their ground-breaking new show about black women artists putting on a show for unappreciative white producers, and audiences.

So, how well does it work? Pretty good, if you ask me. There’s a little preachiness now and then, but the diverse audience at this Soho matinee seemed appreciative of even that. One of the show’s best bits, which pops up now and then, is a Game Show divertissement called Fine When We’re Friends in which a racial- or gender-insensitive or ignorant phrase is read aloud, and contestants must identify whether this would be generally acceptable, acceptable from a friend, or not acceptable at all. Overall there’s a very optimistic aire to this piece, well performed by the high energy duo of Spring & Onyehara, who’s bubbly energy and, at times, wide-eyed enthusiasm, infects the viewer.

So is this a minstrel show itself? Perhaps, but one with a point, and acid point.

Next up was Claire Barron’s Dirty Crusty at The Yard. I mention the playwright before the title as Ms Barron has earned top billing, with her earlier successes, Dance Nation, You Got Older, I’ll Never Love Again, and Baby Screams Miracle. Barron’s work has won her Obie awards, Pulitzer nods, Drama Circle nominations, etc. Girl got game.

This production, directed by The Yard’s founder and Artistic Director, Jay Miller, stars Akiya Henry as Jeanie, an aimless thirty-something, Douggie McMeekin as Victor, Jeanie’s neighbour and old friend, and Abiona Omonua as Synda, a dancer and instructor at a local youth club.

Photo by Maurizio Martorana

Plot? There is no real high mission on this tale of a woman finding herself in the middle of her life (in her eyes, she’s pretty young if you ask me) and feeling as though she’s just been drifting sideways, with no forward movement. She doesn’t really like her friends; lives like a slob; wants sex but not love; and feels like she’s getting out of life exactly what she’s putting into it; Nothing.

After skipping out on a party, she runs into Victor on the way home. Not having seen each other in some time, they realize they’re now neighbours. It’s not really giving too much away to reveal that they quickly decide that they want to fuck a lot, but not get too attached. Yeah, right. We all know how that goes. Meanwhile, Jeanie stumbles across Synda practicing her ballet steps through the windows of the kids club. They strike up a discussion and soon Synda is teaching Jeanie rudimentary dance, and considering her for a role in a small performance piece.

So these three people, in various combinations, bounce off of each other and impinge upon each other’s dreams and fears. That Jeanie and Synda are both black is, perhaps, totally ancillary to the story, but having just seen Shuck ‘n’ Jive, perhaps Pawn was sensitized to this fact. Victor is white, yet there is no real racial tension implied or expressed. Perhaps just colour-blind casting at it’s best?

I shan’t go in to much more depth. This is a somewhat aimless play. until it very much isn’t, but to reveal the ways and means of that would be to reveal too much. I liked this show, a lot. The performances were top notch across the board. Henry, as Jeanie, has perhaps the heaviest lift of all, as aimlessness can be so hard to portray, but she does so with viscious passivity. Omonua is somewhat a cypher as Synda, but comes into her own later in the show. McMeekin deserves special note for his affable willingness to do whatever is required of him by this script, and his director’s whims, and to do so gamely.

Shuck ‘n’ Jive closed its run at Soho Theatre following Saturday evening’s performance. Dirty Crusty having only just opened last Thursday, runs through 30 November at The Yard, Queen’s Yard, Hackney Wick, E9 5EN; Box Office Line is 0333 320 2896.

October-fest – Pint Sized

Last evening took pawn to The Bunker theatre, Southwark St., for a mini-festival of new, short, works, October-fest Pint Sized. This annual event solicits submissions from playwrights, puts them before a jury, and ultimately a handful of pieces — five this year — to be presented, in whole or in part, on stage.

Preceding the jurying process are a series of workshops and mentoring for the writers, to try to bring people along, grant them confidence, and overcome obstacles. It’s a great idea, and it works surprisingly well. This year over 1500 new works were submitted, and winnowed down to five for the week-long series of showcase performances.

Quoting from Bunker’s website:

The winning plays are:

Bullring Techno Makeout Jamz by Nathan Queeley-Dennis
directed by Robert Awosusi
Nathaniel is getting ready for a date and takes us through the various local barbers where he can get the best haircut for his special night. A funny and heart-warming one-man show about Black British life in Birmingham.

How To Kill Your Mother by Georgia Green
directed by Emma Baggott
A subversive and irreverent dark comedy about a daughter helping her mother get through her terminal leukemia – and all the methods one takes to cope.

work.txt by Nathan Ellis
 directed by Andy McNamee
An immersive, experimental piece where the audience tells the story. Through projections and captions, the audience explores the gig economy and how the concept of ‘work’ is changing.

All Aboard! At Termination Station by Lilly Burton
dramaturgy by Tatty Hennessy
A raucous and powerful one-woman piece exploring the effects of abortion. Using audience interaction, music and surrealism, Lilly tells the story of how she deals with this episode in her life.

This Kind of Air by Vera Ion
directed by Nastazja Somers
Anna is suffering from anxiety. Which isn’t helped by the arrival of her mother, with a human dog on a leash. A funny and powerful account of family relations and immigrant life in the UK.

Excerpted from https://www.bunkertheatre.com/whats-on/pint-sized-october-fest-2/about 26 October 2019 @11:04AM BST

Bullring Techno Makeout Jamz is a monologue about the primacy of a man’s relationship with his barber, with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humour about dating and family relationships thrown in. This sweet piece is friendly & jocular, and Simeon Blake-Hall was as sweet-hearted as the script. A lovely bon-mot to start off the evening.

How To Kill Your Mother is a tight two-hander dealing with a woman facing lukemia, Miriam, touchingly played by Caroline Wildi, and the daughter trying to help her, Layla, played with equal tenderness by Talia Pick. The conceit here is that mother has asked daughter to help her end her life, and this provides the vehicle by which mother & daughter can have frank, and not so frank, discussions on the topic they both desperately wish would just go away.

Wildi’s portrayal of a mother gradually losing her grip on her faculties is quite moving, as is Pick’s case of a daughter gradually losing her mother. While at times skating near predicable, the script keeps us engaged and keeps our hearts in our throats. Only an excerpt, pawn wonders where else the larger piece could go?

work.txt is almost impossible to discuss in the same column as the other pieces, and was far-and-away pawn’s favourite in this package. Nathan Ellis, with dramturgy by Andy McNamee, has given us a script, projected upon an upstage screen. The piece begins with a prompt printed on the screen, “A member of the audience reads the following aloud:”

There being no immediate reaction from the assembled audience, Pawn himself read aloud the words on the screen. My seatmate seemed somewhat shocked to hear her neighbour doing this, but this first creen was soon followed by many more, calling on us all (The audience…) or certain groups, (Those making more than £30,000 per year) or perhaps a person with a special quality (Member of audience with a loud voice).

The piece “explores the gig economy, financial instability and automation” according to an early draft detailed at The Yard’s webite, here. The early draft was presented at The Yard during their Live Draft programme, earlier this month. A trailer, which gives the viewer a sense of how this works, is available on that site.

While at times verging on tedious, in whole this piece was a rousing success, drawing the audience in, inspiring waves of laughter and flurries of giggles. One hopes that this is just the beginning of such inspired original new works from Ellis.

All Aboard! At Termination Station is a true one-woman-show, well crafted and bravely performed by Lilly Burton. The topic is abortion, and it’s dealt with soberly and not, dipping into dance, spoken word, song and outrage, in roughly equal measure. This is a deeply personal show, and as such gets uncomfortable at times. One suspects that the performer’s family was in attendance, seated in a row of chairs along stage right, which only contributed to the sense of unease one felt at times.

Lastly, This Kind of Air wrapped up the evening with ruminations on citizenship and belonging, on family ties and bizarre undertakings. Dramatically, this is probably the tightest piece of the programme, but it felt somehow hollow to Pawn, not really landing its pathos.

All in all, this was a great night of theatre and held my attention for all of its 2:15 running time. Gaps between the pieces were filled by house musicians — Royce Cronin, Laura Evelyn, and Joe Hardy — who’s contributions kept the audience engaged throughout the scene changes needed to support such a diverse group of performances. Oh, and speaking of diverse, this was a diverse evening, from the cast balance of gender, age & (somewhat) race, as well as the writers themselves.

With so many of London’s small theatres so aggressively promoting writing workshops, and the next crop of young writers, one can only imagine a great future full of diverse voices on London’s stages. In addition to Bunker, and the afore-mentioned Yard, add Pleasance (both Islington and Edinburg), New Diorama, The Hope… the list goes on.

Grief is a…

Meet Me At Dawn, production photo, 2019

In April, X & Pawn attended Grief Is A Thing With Feathers at Barbican; Enda Walsh’s theatrical adaptation of Max Porter’s novel. In that production, Cillian Murphy plays a husband, and father of two young boys, as he tries to cope with the loss of his partner. It is through the intervention of, and his eventual transformation into, Crow, a force of denial and liberation, that his grief is made tangible, and ultimately…

Ultimately what? There often are no happy endings with grieving. No tidy wrapping up and stowing away of these large, powerful, emotions uncorked by the loss of a loved one. Grief Is A Thing With Feathers didn’t try to offer us one. Neither, tonight, did Meet Me At Dawn, the new Zinnie Harris piece presented by DOT Theatre and Arcola.

It’s hard to write about a show like Meet Me… without feeling as if one is giving away too much of the plot. I will tell you this much; at its core, it’s a play about grief.

Pawn first reported on Arcola over a decade ago, with The Living Unknown Soldier, a rumination on a different sort of loss; loss of self, of identity, but also the desperation of grief. Whilst familiar with small playhouses, studio work and the like, it was a handful of productions seen on that long-ago trip which fed the fire of my affection for Off-, and Off-Off- productions — be they off of Broadway of off of the West End. Another show that trip, Thin Toes, at Pleasance, prompted this comment:

Sitting in the small performance space with only about twenty or thirty other people, the theatre in the round presentation meant that we all were within feet of these actors and yet they neither dialed down their performances nor acknowledged the audience in whose laps they were nearly sitting. In such an environment it is easy to detect small flaws that a more typical theatre setting might disguise.

Arcola’s Studio 1 is not so small a space, but preserves the intimacy of the performance.  And, in this case at least, some of the most fraught scenes of Meet Me… came down on top of my front row seat, with gale force and profound affect.

Again, one feels constrained not to reveal too much of the plot, but I can tell you that this production, starring Jessica Hardwick as Helen and Marianne Oldham as Robyn, is a deft two hander, expertly directed by Murat Daltaban, which will drag you into the heart and soul of grief, and do so almost without warning. One moment you share these two lady’s prosaic, if troubled, concerns about the fallout from a boating accident — is one concussed? which direction will get them off of this sand bar and back home? — and the next you feel you have gone into the drink with them and are fighting to get back to the surface, gasping for air.

Grief is a place, a place where the rules are not the same

Robyn in Meet Me At Dawn, by Zinnie Harris

Recent months have been particularly harsh ones in Pawn’s circle of friends, and no small amount of grief is bound up inside this fragile carapace. Meet Me… broke that wide open. Thankfully a tissue (a Kleenex® brand “Mansize” tissue, mind you) was close at hand, but no effort was made to conceal the tears or near-sobs which ensued. Thankfully, at just an hour in length, the release was over soon enough. But in a good way.

Two people on a small stage, before an audience, can be a fraught enough situation all on its own. There were few props populating this island upon which our protagonists are marooned. A single table and chair; that’s all. A blank wall upstage is lit in changing colours, shifting with mood, and at times overwhelming the front lights. The lighting, by Cem Yilmazer, bore silent witness to the action on stage, never too much, always in compliment. Likewise, O?uz Kaplangi’s score slips by, just beneath consciousness, but propelling us forward.

But it is this lovely, aching, moving script by Harris (How To Hold Your Breath, Royal Court; Further than the Furthest Thing, National Theatre; Rhinoceros, Edinburgh Lyceum) which drives this piece. That, and the incredible performances of Ms Hardwick and Ms Oldham. A particularly sharp scene, deep into the denouement, brought an intense confrontation between griever and grieved right up to my seat, and nearly reduced me to a blubbering mass. Only the pure shock of the outburst prevented that meltdown, but, ultimately, that Mansize Kleenex was put to the test.

After the bows, the house lights came up, and a woman sitting a few feet from me leaned in and, with a kind hand on my shoulder, inquired, “Are you alright?”

After re-reading this, it’s clear I wrote too much about myself and not enough about the play. It is most important that you see that it wasn’t just that I was thin skinned to the subject matter; it’s that the play does such a good job of bringing us inside of Robyn’s grief. I would have been reduced to sobs regardless of my own recent losses. This play is just that effective, like a fortune teller or cheap medium, of persuading us that it knows how we feel, and we do know how she feels.

Meet Me At Dawn in performances at Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, London E8 3DL, through 9 November 2019. Tickets at the website. #MeetMeAtDawn @arcolatheatre

Unreported Stories — London 2018

Battersea Arts Centre, the Great Hall, before the fire

Battersea Arts Centre, the Great Hall, before the fire

Friday morning and I haven’t written a thing since Tuesday.  Must fix that.

Tuesday evening was Bryony Kimmings’ I’m A Phoenix, Bitch at Battersea Arts Centre, itself a bit of a Phoenix.  Friday the 13th March, 2015, fire broke out in the roof of Battersea’s Great Hall.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by REX (4527938a)
Fire at Battersea Arts Centre
Battersea Arts Centre on fire, London, Britain – 13 Mar 2015
A major fire has broken out at Battersea Arts Centre, a leading independent theatre and arts venue in south London.

The entire rear third of the building was lost, but with steely grit and unflagging determination, and loads of support from the community, BAC rose from the ashes.  It held a public event in the (relatively) unscarred front of the building just 26 hours after the fire was extinguished, and this year marks their “Phoenix Season.”  More of the building than ever before is open to the public and in active use.

Byony Kimmings is a performance artist.  In 2016 she was beset by a series of tragedies which, together, nearly broke her.  Her and her partner bought a tumbledown cottage, in the middle of nowhere, to settle their new small family, but post partum depression had a grip on her.  Then her son, Frank, began to suffer unexplained seizures, and she and her partner began to disintegrate.  This is the story Bryony presents to us through an intriguing and fascinating set of theatrical devices.

Not content just to talk to the audience, ala Spalding Grey, another performance artist best known for turning life into narrative, Brynony has four small “sets,” initially covered by sheets, around the performance space, and the back wall is black scrim.  One by one she undrapes the small sets, one a kitchen counter with backdrop, another a bed, etc.  She rolls a camera on tripod up to marks before each set, settles into the set, and on with makeup, wigs, etc.  In each she performs a mini-sketch which brings us into her mind for the “morning after the night before” with her new love (kitchen) or the pregnancy and birth (bed).  We can watch her working within the cleverly designed sets, or watch her on the video, projected onto the scrim.  We can enter her story, or observe it, or both.

The most interesting of these small sets is a model of the small cottage and the hill upon which it stands.  Fans of model railroads will recognize the construction materials; Norwegian moss, sawdust drass, etc.  It’s strikingly realistic, and we are brought into it by Bryony wielding a small video camera as she narrates their occupancy of the home, acting it out with small dolls.

I’ve described some of the tools and techniques Kimmings uses, but what I cannot do is describe much of the story, or the more awesome stage effects.  This is due to my respect for the artist’s prerogative that the show not be revealed too much to prospective future audiences.  I will say that it was a deeply moving story, told with unique story telling tools, and bursts with vision from a singular creative mind.  Some day I may post a photo or two, but for now this will do.

Much thanks to a pair of Phoenix; Battersea Arts Centre and Byony Kimmings.

Clouds, Clowns and Oresteia — London 2018

Pawn has come frequently to London in the past decade, spending about six months here in that time.  Along the way, one builds up a list of go-to venues when looking for new, edgy, fringy, performance.  Arcola, Bunker, Menier Chocolate Factory, Pleasance, among them.  Pleasance and Arcola stand out in this list in that they are a regular part of Fringe.  Pleasance have a large and popular venue there every year.  With their Caledonian Express program they are short-circuiting the old six-month process of bringing new work from Fringe to London stage.

For those not familiar with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it’s a loosely organized (one of their founding by-laws is that there are no rules) annual showcase, running for most of the month of August.  It’s become one of the foremost producer’s showcases in Europe, alongside events like ITS Festival (focusing on recent European arts academy grads) and has long been a critical component in bringing new works, performers and troupes to the stages and screens of the world (the popular television show Fleabag, for example, originated as a Fringe production).

With Caledonian Express — so named for Pleasance’s North London venue, off of Caledonian Road — they are now presenting promising Fringe acts just a month or so after the festival.  An act one sees during this phase is not really finished, per se.  A full six month development cycle would lengthen many shows, refine them for a more formal theatre setting, things like that.  In the Fringe, every act must find their own venue, many in tents or other pop-up spaces, with severe limitations of technical aspects, like lighting, sound, video, etc.  And time.  A Fringe piece is an hour long.  That’s tradition.  In many newer “fringe” festivals (outside the Edinburgh original) the rule is 50 or 55 minutes.  To become a full-scale show, suitable for the stages of the world, much work is still needed.

Pleasance are a mainstay in that process, as are many other presenting venues throughout London; Battersea Arts Centre, The Bunker, Arcola, etc.  These venues don’t just provide a space to perform, but they provide mentorship, connections, designers and the friendly surround artists need to make a successful transition to the stage.

Today brought Pawn back to Pleasance for the second time this trip, having seen the Edinburgh hit In Loyal Company here just the other day.  First was a late matinee performance of The Oresteia,  “  is a trilogy of Greek tragedies written by Aeschylus in the 5th century BC, concerning the murder of Agamemnon by Clytaemnestra, the murder of Clytaemnestra by Orestes, the trial of Orestes, the end of the curse on the House of Atreus and pacification of the Erinyes.” in the words of Wikipedia.  In the hands of Splendid Productions, it’s hip-hop meets vaudeville by way of British music hall.

Three performers, Nuala Maguire, Grace Goulding, & Tanya Muchanyuka each perform multiple roles, starting with the Furies, whose role in the lives of men are marginalized by the events enacted in these three plays.  Given the 60 minute time frame, the stories are severely shortened, as one might expect.  The story telling was fast and furious (no pun intended) as we whipped through the background of all of the various murders, slights, infidelities, patricides, matricides, etc.  Some of this involved a not-so-strong fast-forward/reverse conceit of fake reverse motion.  One hopes that gets worked on, or eliminated.

All in all, most of the piece was strong.  It moved along, had moments of great beauty, and got us involved (quite literally) in the story.  It’s hard to flag individual performances, since the three women so often were acting in unison, but Macguire, as Clytemnestra, was exceptional.  That she had arguably the best part certainly helped.  But, too, she resisted mugging and gave some of the best straight performance of the show.

I saw this show with a handful of regular theatre goers, those one might expect in a late-afternoon (16:30) matinee, and about 150 schoolkids.  The kids were a noisy bunch, but fully engaged by the music-hall aspects of the show, and not the least off put by the history.

Things would be different for A Clown Show About Rain, by Silent Faces.  This small show was performed in the much smaller Downstairs venue, a small thrust space with minimal wings, no flies, and about 40 seats.  Silent Faces is a female clown troupe – a rarity – with a sense of politics and a hopeful, optimistic mein.  This show is a take on depression, but you wouldn’t know it for most of the hour.

The performances are crisp and smooth.  These women know how to share a stage with each other, and with five of them in such a small space, that’s no mean feat.  Most of the time, however, it’s just two or three at a time.  We have three sailors, or are they fisherwomen?, weathering a gale, in their macs, being blown to and fro, fighting over the ship’s wheel, or frantically trying to place buckets under an invisible leak.

Or we have two mates, off fishing, having a light snack and listening to the shipping forecast on the BBC.

These may or may not strike you as funny, or potentially funny, situations, but Silent Faces find the humour.

And slyly, ever so slyly, they start to introduce the issues of mental health which lie at the heart of their work.  We don’t see it at first, it may just be there on the fringe, but it’s there, and it’s devilishly clever.  Given that this is mostly physical theatre, and very well done physical theatre, it’s intrinsically hard to describe.  So I’ll take the coward’s way out and punt on that.  I can tell you that there are moments of great beauty here, and striking pathos.

Watch Your Neighbour, Redux

[This post has been updated both to reflect my evolving thoughts on the performances, and to correct a glaring oversight of description.]

Back in 2008, I wrote about both the prevalence of CCTV camera throughout London, and of the guerilla marketing campaign for the Ausie-import on the telly, Neighbours.  Last night at Menier Chocolate Factory, Pawn attended Pack Of Lies, which, set in the cold-war-heightened intensity of the early 1960s, brought that guerilla marketing campaign’s chief slogan, “Watch Your Neighbours” a quite literal meaning.

It was a savvy bit of genius to revive this play now.  Originally written for a BBC playhouse series in 1971, as Act of Betrayal, when the original events were still fresh in the public mind.  Playwright Hugh Whitemore then adapted it to the stage for its original 1983 run, starring Judi Dench and Michael Williams (real life marrieds).

Highly appropriate in our own times, this story seems ageless.  While we bridle at the thought of spying on our neighbours, we read daily newspaper accounts of Russian agents offing people with poisons, stealing secrets on-line and in-life.  The events of this story could just as easily have transpired today, but by leaving the setting historically accurate (and then some), director Hannah Chissick has chosen to give us a little breathing room, some distance from our own reality.

Based on a true story, action takes place in the northwest London suburb of Ruislip, Middlesex.  The set itself is a near perfect recreation of the classic British two-up/two-down semi-detached homes so common both in London and in the bedroom communities all around England.  Ruislip, itself, is just 5 kilometres from North Harrow, where Pawn was born, at about the time the events recounted in this play were actually playing out.

Pack of Lies — Set

The Portland Spy Ring affair involved a Soviet spy ring gathering intelligence and stealing secrets related to UK & allied (NATO) naval operations and capabilities, and smuggling that out to the KGB, via micro-dots and radio transmissions.  The central figures were businessman Gordon Lonsdale (Canadian), civil clerk Harry Houghton, his moll, Ethel Gee, and others.  Lonsdale was tailed, and observed to make frequent visits to Ruislip, to the home of antiquarian bookseller Peter Kroger and his wife Helen.

MI-5 proceeded to make contact with the neighbours across the street, Bill & Ruth Search, and it was from their first storey window that MI-5 surveilled the Kroger home, and ultimately collected enough evidence to arrest, charge and convict the whole ring.

Agent Stewart talks to Bob & Barbara

Agent Stewart talks to Bob & Barbara in the sitting room

In our play the family is Bob & Barbara Jackson and their daughter Julie, but all of the other names, or, aliases, really, are left as is.  The Krogers, Canadians, are really the Cohens, Americans.  Lonsdale, the Canadian businessman at the center of the ring was, years later, revealed to be Konon Trofimovich Molody, a Russian agent.

The central conflict in the story is that the Jacksons are being asked, if not to “spy” on their neighbours, their best friends, at least to facilitate spying on them, and lie about it, to their friends and their own daughter.  Bob seems ready to accept this; he’s a civil servant himself, bound by secrecy for his work, and is used to submitting to the state on these matters.  Barbara, who admits she has a hard time making friends, just cannot abide that she must lie to Helen.

Barbara and Helen during a dress fitting

Barbara and Helen during a dress fitting

In the moral calculus of the story, the state is to be trusted and the neighbours are not.  That Barbara takes so long to come around to see this almost makes her a Polly-Anna, but is that so healthy a message in a world where it seems our every undertaking is watched, observed, catalogued, accounted for, by someone?  Grocers track our every purchase via our “Club Card” (or the like), Amazon know everything we buy, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter compile vast storehouses of knowledge on us, for sale to the highest bidder.  Cambridge Analytica steal into these storehouses to figure out how to get millions of people to vote against their own self interest, throwing elections for Brexit and US President.  The Russians, not to be left out, stir the pot too, but, at least in the present cases, their targets are email servers instead of submarine plans.  And, amid all of this, one might not be blamed for thinking that our own government is the least of our worries.

Maybe, maybe not.

The most remarkable thing about this production is easily the total verisimilitude achieved in all aspects.  Paul Farnsworth’s set and costumes are stunners!  The flexible Menier space has been configured to support the single set laid out lengthwise along a long wall.  We see the entire ground floor, from the bay windows in front (stage right) past the staircase up, the sitting room, and kitchen, finally the door to the back garden (stage left).  The upstage rooms are fully formed, the downstage rooms represented by their baseboards and door frames.  The furniture is spot on accuracy — the comfy chair, settee, telly, dining table and sideboard all perfect, as is the coat stand in the hall, the kitchen appliances; everything!  Costumes, similarly, are perfect.  Barbara is a home seamstress, and many of the clothes would have been made by her, other than Bob’s suits and the knitwear.  A 1954 Ford Consort sits in the front garden, a proud possession.

The Ford Consort sits out front the home

The Ford Consort sits out front the home

Accents, language, tea ritual, it’s all just right.  Homework was done, and done well.  Not a thing is wrong.

The performances are all quite serviceable, but it must be said that Finty Williams shines as the troubled Barbara.  Her struggle with the competing loyalties to country and friend, her chafing under the constant presence of MI-5 staff, and her effort to persevere and raise her daughter not to lie, are almost too much for her to handle.  Williams makes us ache for her.  Similarly, but with less of a splash, Chris Larkin as Bob brings us a perhaps overused canard of a submissive British husband, ruling over his home while submitting to his wife and cow towing to his superiours.  He delivers this less than complicated character with sufficient realism to bring us along, and he is obviously troubled by the jam his wife is in.  Jasper Britton, as Agent Stewart, seemed to muff a couple of lines, but that may just have been affect.  Otherwise this was a tight ensemble, midway through a six-week run, comfortable in the piece and their roles, but not sloppy comfortable.

All in all, this was a lovely night at theatre, and a potent story for our times, even if it is based on facts nearly 60 years old.

Waiting For Peer Gynt — London 2018

Photography by J. Schmitz

Yesterday was a busy day of theatre, and started with Henrick Ibsen’s Peer Gynt in a German language production by Theater an der Ruhr.  This is the third Ibsen piece I’ve seen in the past 30 months, and all have been in different languages: Hedda Gabler first in Norwegian, in Amsterdam in July 2016, then in Czech in Prague in 2017, now Peer Gynt in German.  One of these days I’ll enjoy hearing the words of Ibsen once again, in a language I understand, but for now, surtitles will suffice.

Photography by J. Schmitz

But the words of Ibsen seemed rare in this production.  This two-handed presentation was more of a rumination on Peer Gynt, a sort of Meta-Peer Gynt, or, as alluded to in the slug for this post, a couple of clowns interpreting Peer Gynt.  The two performers seem to be passing the piece back and forth, between them, as they consider the story, characters, scenes, and settings.  First one then the other is the titular Peer, or the father or mother, or Solveig, the desirable neighbour’s daughter, or Ingrid, a former girlfriend of Peer, now seduced by him in the woods, on her wedding day.

Photography by J. Schmitz

For me this performance was so reminiscent of Waiting for Godot, not so much in content as in the feeling one got, in the audience, as two clownish performers tossed language around between them, each holding the story-telling “ball” for a moment or two, commenting upon it, observing it, and then tossing it back.  Neither performer, Maria Neumann or Roberto Ciulli, plays any given part for long, and while this can be confusing at times, one soon learns that it doesn’t really matter so much who is playing whom.  The cast of forty-odd characters are dispatched with alacrity by this able duo, and we soon just stop bothering to keep track, and enjoy their faces, their pose.

That these two have performed together a long time seems a given, and they are both resident members of the company; Ciulli, and Italian director, being one of the founders.

In Loyal Company — London 2018

In Loyal Company, from Lab Rats, blew through town last night for a One-Night-Only engagement at Pleasance Theatre on Caledonia Road and Pawn was there for the whole hour of it.  Yes, 1 entire hour; this being a piece conceived for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it was constrained in length.  A one-hander staring David William Bryan, who also wrote it, with Sascha Moore, tells us the story of a young Liverpool lad, Arthur (Joe) Robinson, who joins up during WWII and is sent off to the Pacific theater.

Joe, Arthur’s family nickname, is telling us his story, while skillfully acting out the best bits of it, on a mostly bare stage.  He tells of his time in training, for reconnaissance, and his deployment.  He tells of Loyal Company, his battalion, and his reassignment to an infantry division.  He tells, of the hardships of slogging through jungles and confronting an enemy unschooled in the gentleman’s battle behaviour Joe has trained for.  When a Japanese unit breaches a line of barbed wire — the first wave throw themselves upon the wire and subsequent waves cross their backs like a bridge — he is shocked.

He was shocked?!?  We were shocked, such is Bryan’s amazing ability, through both his storytelling and his delivery, to draw us into the world he’s inhabiting, and to let us see through his eyes, feel through his soul.  More than a few times I was left scrobbling for tissues to staunch the tears as one trial, indignity or another was visited upon poor Joe; when we heard the notes his Mum wrote on his behalf, or those he crafted (wrote upon his mind, lacking stationary) to her.

I won’t tell any more of the story, as this show “has legs,” as they say, and will likely end up on telly or tour or otherwise present many opportunities for more audiences to see it.  And it deserves to.  Bryan has given us not just a view into the unsuspecting young lads thrust into unconventional warfare, but this unsuspecting lad was Bryan’s great uncle, and the story is true.  He has researched it with great effort, and crafted a compelling narrative which brings the audience along with self deprecating humour and magnetic pathos.

Kudos to Bryan and his team for a job well done, a story well told, and for not being afraid of the raw nerves and emotions which come from telling true stories of people we love.

La Maladie de la mort — London 2018

Photography by Stephen Cummiskey

This is a bit of a delayed reaction post.  Pawn attended the Wednesday 3 October performance of The Malady of Death (La Maladie de la mort) by Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, at Barbican Centre.  But, it’s taken me a while to get around to writing about it, and to clarify my thoughts on the piece.

La Maladie was written by Alice Birch, based on a 1982 novella by Marguerite Duras.  This production is hard to describe, so bear with me.  The basic story is that of a man and a woman in a hotel room.  The man has hired the woman, for a rather high fee, to spend a series of nights there with him, as he tries to learn how to love, how to admire, how to relate, intimately, with another.

The set is of a hotel room, the hallway outside, a window upstage looks over a courtyard and the sea, beyond.  The hallway leads upstage, and we can see one or two other room doors along it.  An elevator lurks upstage right, we are lead to believe.

To far stage right, however, is a small sound booth.  A woman sits in it, dimly lit.  Before her a stand with pages on it.  She is the narrator, hers is the predominant voice we hear.  The two characters, the woman and the man, are not silent throughout, but any thoughts they have, are spoken by the narrator.

Photography by Stephen Cummiskey

That’s not the whole story, nor the whole cast, however.  For this is a live piece of film making.  Above the set is a projection screen, and upon that screen is a film maker’s view of what’s happening in front of us, augmented by interwoven clips from other settings, such as the woman’s private life, or the beach beyond the window; the elevator we hear but cannot see.  Around the set are three camera teams, a sound man with a boom mike, a couple of stage hands and dressers.  These folks are not on the periphery, they are in the middle of the action, all beautifully choreographed.  Never do they get in the way of each others shots.

Photography by Stephen Cummiskey

Key to the story telling here — and I shan’t get into the story itself — is the frequent transition from the male to the female gaze.  The woman undresses and lays out on the bed.  The man looks at her, but it’s not just that he looks at her, it’s how he looks at her.  He makes a comment, and the woman looks at him.  Again, it’s the how that matters.

Photography by Stephen-Cummiskey

So this is commentary, then, not just on how men and women regard each other, not just on isolation and personal distance, not just on prostitution and pornography (the man a frequent user of such), but a holistic examination of these themes, a realization of their inter-dependency upon each other.

The work is impressive and compelling.  The story, I found, fell, at times, into easy tropes.  Sometimes the characters seemed to resort to actions simply for the shock factor, or for the In Your Face aspect.  As a whole, it was a grand new kind of performance, pushing at the edges of film and theatre in ways we haven’t seen before.  But story, no matter how it is told, must still speak for itself, and here, Duras’s story let me down.

Performances were brave and bold by Laetitia Dosch as The Woman and Nick Fletcher as The Man.  Irene Jacob narrated, Katie Mitchell directed, Paul Clark composer.  The final show at Barbican is this evening, 6 October 2018.