Category Archives: Travel

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.

Old Friends

Day one and already out and about. J is happy to see me, and welcomes me into her home & studio. We haven’t seen each other in almost exactly two years, she being one of my last visits from my autumn 2019 stay. We catch up in her kitchen, tour her busy & messy studio, and then, following an intractable hunt for keys, are off to dinner at the De Beauvoir Arms, J’s local. I have lamb chops over an absolutely perfect mojadra, with celery and spinach, while J opts for the mackerel escabeche. Both meals very good.

Not the mackerel escabeche

Two of Pawn’s favourite places in London are Hundred Years Gallery and Bookarts Bookshop. The former in Hoxton, the latter by Old Street, not very far apart. Leaving with J from the pub, Pawn goes south towards the Kingsland Road and Hoxton whilst J has errands to run.

Hundred Years Gallery was open, as hoped, and empty, aside from G, the proprietor. Their current show is Nouns for Gabriel by Mary Lemley. This is a delightful series of large format sketches of objects the artist Mary Lemley has made for her autistic son, a suite of hand-made flash cards to help teach him vocabulary.

In the prints bin I quickly find several I cannot do without, and out comes the charge card. That didn’t take long. A bit more of a visit with G, and I’m out the door and winding my way down towards Old Street and Bookarts.

Bookarts Bookshop is a true gem. I’ve written before of its incomparable selection and broad reach. It’s a very tiny storefront on the corner of Pitfield Street and Charles Square, just north of Old Street tube stop. T, the proprietress and shopkeep, is likewise a gem. I had barely started to peruse the window display she had prepared for that day’s opening & book release party commemorating Thieri Foulc and the Oupeinpo movement, when, seeing me through the window, T waved her arms and beckoned me come in. In the small shop, perhaps three metres sqaure, she had erected a small table covered with books she felt I might like. T & I have similar tastes when it comes to artists books, hers being broader and more studied, to be sure.

Quickly my hands alit on A Book for Spiders, by Tom Alexander. This is a beautifully hand bound, octagonal volume, with brown covers, roughly 7cm across, with a small white loop of thread piercing the top cover. Lifting this opens the book, which is a helix, called Missing Limbs, written in Vox Arachnae, for spiders to enjoy. A translation key is included within the craftily constructed outer wrap.

Mine is #2 of and edition of 10. T was beside herself when I grabbed this; the shop had received only two copies, and she had bought the other one herself. She was certain I’d want one. Other volumes making the cut were a Blow Up Press edition. I’ll be back for more shopping. This being an opening, there were soon several people in the small shop, and I had to step out to make way for them. In these COVD times, one doesn’t want to crowd into a small space with maskless folk, no matter how well read they may be.

And that concludes the evening. Back at the flat Pawn relaxed for the first two episodes of Ridley Road, the BBC four-part series on the Jewish opposition to English nationalism cum fascism of the early 1960s. My family left here in August 1963, while these events were still playing out. My father was a teenager in the East End (Tower Hamlets) during the events which came to be known as the Battle of Cable Street, years prior. One wonders how much the return of Fascists to London’s political life had an effect on my relocation to America. Had the fascists kept to themselves, may this entire trip not have been necessary?

Home Again

After a nearly two year absence, Pawn fins himself back on the streets of London. Haunting the precincts of Angel this time around.

The trip here was both thrilling and frightening. After all these long months of lockdowns, re-openings, new variants, vaccines and anti-vaxxers, just masking up and getting onto public transportation was an act of both hubris and humility.

The bus ride from Milwaukee to O’Hare was fairly uneventful, but the failure to don masks, by the driver and at least one passenger, was daunting. Having opted for a later bus than normal, I had less time sitting in the terminal waiting for departure. Despite numerous entreaties from the airline to file all required paperwork, some passengers apparently hadn’t bothered doing so. Two of them claimed to have never been given physical CDC vaccine records cards, which led to pointless anxiety. I don’t think those two ended up flying, at least not on my flight.

Prior to departure, the seating charts had indicated a flight near 80% full, at least, but by takeoff we were at less than 50%. Even though most of my cabin was empty, I was seated next to a young woman furiously keyboarding away on her phone right up to the last minute. An enquiry of the flight attendant led to my re-seating two rows fore.

The flight itself was fairly uneventful. People were mostly attentive to masking, and most of them fell right asleep in any event. Mine own mask was a US made N95 of the around-the-head strap variety. While earlier tests had me thinking this one of my least comfortable mask choices, it was actually better than I had any reason to expect. The choice to opt for contact lenses, something I had avoided all my life (my vanity has never rebelled against spectacles), proved key to sanity, as I never once had to contend with fogged lenses.

Dinner was served an hour into the flight, and brought with it a true joy, in the form of a real cloth napkin. Inspection revealed that, indeed, it bore a button hole in one corner. Over the top shirt button it went, and I felt suddenly invincible in a way I hadn’t for the entire trip up to that time. Especially in this environment, where I appeared to be one of the few trying to actually replace my mask in between each bite, as dictated by airline policy, I felt protected. Mask on my face, napkin across my chest, I was ready for whatever may come. Like a super hero, but with the cape in front. Bring it on!

Sunrise over Ireland

Heathrow was a more lightly populated version of itself, which was welcome. Still masked up — over twelve hours at this point — I made my way through the seemingly endless tunnels, escalators, conveyors and lifts from the gate to passport control. There have recently been several incidents where the touted automated, biometric, passport scanner-gates have stopped working, for hours at a time. And sure enough, as I approached I could see that fewer than half of them were functional. One of the biggest issues for those which were in use is that they often fail to recognize the faces of those wearing masks. No signage prompted the removal of masks for the facial recognition phase, so most failed to do so. This led to long logjams, and frustrated passengers and gate assistants to an equal degree.

The Indian family ahead of me just couldn’t get their matron (mother, aunt, not sure) through the gate, so I ended up slipping by them, into a functioning gate, and through onto baggage reclaim, and customs. Next thing I knew I was back to an endless sequence of tunnels, conveyors, lifts and escalators, on my way to the promised land of the London trains. My return ticket purchased, I heard the announcement for my train’s departure from platform 2, still a few minutes trudge away. That’s okay, by the time I got to the platform it was only 28 minutes until the next. Time spent coordinating with my rental hostess on meeting arrangements.

The train to Paddington was nearly empty. Nine coaches, and I the only soul in coach two all the way from Heathrow to Ealing-Broadway. By the time we arrived Paddington the coach had maybe a dozen people. I shuffled my way through the arrivals hall to the lift to the taxi ranks. There was nobody queued there! This was not a sight I was expecting. Without a queue to suggest where to stand and such, it wasn’t really apparent which taxi to approach. A questioning look at one cabby made this clear, and quick as can be I was on my way through Saturday morning traffic, towards King’s Cross and past that, Angel. My Irish cabby warned me that Prebend Street, being one of many already pedestrian-friendly streets, was now partially barricaded, making it hard for drivers to figure out the best approach for drop-offs. But his memories served him well, and in a blink I was ascending the stairs to my flat.

B, my hostess, greeted me and helped haul luggage up. The flat is nice, with views over a lush greensward out the windows and ample light. My home for the next two weeks is agreeable. A 2 hour nap, shower, and out the door. It’s now 1:30pm the day of my arrival, and I am heading out for some groceries. An hour later a short stroll takes me to friend J’s home, and the visit is underway.

The view out the windows

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.

Comic Book Heroes, Blake Style

William Blake is a point of pride for the English, and they’re quick to remind you he was an artist as well as poet. I contend he was a man before his time, a comic book maker before comic books existed. The current exhibition of his drawings, prints, books and such at Tate Britain makes my point for me. Pawn attended Sunday along with artist friend J.

Blake was born in London in 1757, in Broad St, Soho, and stayed in that area throughout his life, passing away in 1827. While most American college students know Blake for his poetry, here his work as a print maker is at least as well known, and celebrated. Print making is how he made his living, for the most part, having been trained as an engraver. In 1788 he developed a new technique, Relief Etching, which allowed him to combine text and graphics (sound familiar?) on a single page.

Most of Blakes prints center around biblical themes and stories, and, as such, are somewhat a mystery to me, with my not-so-religious tendencies. I can still enjoy the imagery, of course. Religious stories dovetail with the overwrought nature of Blake’s work. Musculature is always on display, to the point of absurdity at times. Take this example, where even the clutching child is ripped:

The exhibit is expansive, containing tonnes of Blake’s work, including several complete volumes, many of which had previously been rent from their bindings, the better to be displayed as individual pieces. There’s even some discussion of this practice, and rumination upon how the viewing experience is changed when these images are encountered separately, as opposed to turning page after page of them.

One later piece, in the final gallery, is displayed with each page laid out, and a magnifier lens available to place over to aid in the reading. One visitor took this not as a suggestion, but a commandment, and proceeded to go from page to page with the magnifier, reading aloud the text for all to hear. Quite odd, that.

Enough of my prattling, for that matter. Here’s more snaps, cleaned up a bit. Then I’ll leave you to it.

These are from Blake’s Busby Berkeley phase 🙂

As with almost all of the large museum shows this trip, William Blake was heavily attended, the crowds making it quite hard to enjoy the works in many cases. The show, at Tate Britain, runs through 2 February 2020.

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

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.

Inward and outward gazes — Part II

Okay, I’m back. Also at Royal Academy, alongside Lucian Freud, is Antony Gormly, a farily impressive mid-career retrospective, including some truly humongous works, six of which were commissioned or produced for this show, making full use (and more!) of the large gallery spaces of the RA.

The smallest work, 1999’s Iron Baby, isn’t even “in” the show, as it’s a rather subtle lump of metal on the floor of the RA’s courtyard; a baby, indeed, upon closer inspection.

Iron Baby, 1999, photo by Martin Kennedy https://www.studiointernational.com/images/articles/g/074-gormley-antony-2019/gormley-iron-baby-01-photo-martin-kennedy.jpg

The first room of the exhibit, attended by a crowd exceeding even that in the Freud show, is filled with early works, from the 1970s – 80s. I honestly had a hard time getting to where I could appreciate many of these, for as soon as one could establish enough distance from a piece to properly look at it, someone would step in to fill the void and thus obscure the work. As a result, I adopted the technique of simply trying to see what I could, and take quick snapshots of what I couldn’t properly appreciate, for later viewing. Here’s some of those, in no particular order.

From “Slabworks”, 2019
Crowds around more of “Slabworks,” 2019
A figure silhouetted in toast
“One Apple” Each of the fifty-three lead balls encloses an apple (still inside) from a different stage of growth.
“Subject II” 2019
“Clearing VII” 2019 — 8 km of aluminium tubing, coiled into the gallery space and then allowed to relax.

Now we are into the modern works, and these are huge, and huge crowd pleasers. Just getting around Clearing VII took effort. Not just from clamoring over and around the unspooled tubing, but working through the crowds of onlookers.

The next gallery contained Matrix III, 2019, a massive piece of lightweight construction. Twenty-one room sized cages made of construction steel mesh (“98% recycled” the pamphlet assures us) all intersect in the space above our heads in the large, central gallery. The effect is amazing, and finally calms the crowds somewhat. Some simply lay down on the floor beneath it, staring up, dazed.

One of the most successful, and bewitching, pieces is Lost Horizon, 2019, in which countless of Gormly’s trademark male figures stand in a room, on all surfaces of a room, peering aimlessly out into space.

Two galleries further along, past cases of sketchbooks and drawings (almost impossible to get to and look at) is a confounding pile of metal, piled up just past the entrance to the next gallery. A part of this assemblage opens like a hungry maw into this gallery, providing a path for those adventurous souls. This is Cave, 2019.

The next room, into which one spills if passing thru Cave, (Pawn, by the way, chose not to), is a smaller gallery with a door partially open to view Host, 2019, a large gallery, the floor lined with clay from the seaside, and filled with ocean water. The crowd simply piles up around this doorway, gawking and fumbling with phones.

So what? I love Gormly’s work, in small doses. His human forms are so simple, resonant, and moving in their mute vulnerability. In this exhibit, with the large and imposing works, one sees more than those simple figures. It is wildly successful, as the crowds and their reactions reveal. Matrix III is an amazing accomplishment in realization, and is both jarring and contemplative at once. Host, less so, for me at least; same with Cave. Although the jumble of metal behind Cave is a joy, in its irreverence to the hallowed halls of RA. All in all, I enjoyed this exhibit, but, once again, for the crowds.

Antony Gormly, through 3 December 2019 at the Royal Academy, Picadilly.