Allegiance, Charing Cross Theatre

George Takei proudly puts his name to this moving musical about the forced internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII isn’t an easy watch but it puts the heart and soul into a period of history rarely spoken about.

Takei’s presence in London, in any other production, would no doubt be seen as stunt casting but his role as America’s campy elder statesman hides a complex history with his nation. As a child, Takei and his family were part of 120,000 Japanese-Americans detained in camps following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. They weren’t released until 1944.

The book by Marc Acito, Lorenzo Thione, and Jay Kuo (who also wrote the music and lyrics) looks at a forgotten group in US military history; the segregated Japanese-American 442 Infantry Regiment and the role Mike Masaoka played in representing Japanese-American civil liberties and the fight the community had to be recognised as loyal and American.

The show opens with Takei playing the older Sam, who finds out his estranged sister Kei has died. We then head back to 1941 to find out what lead to this falling out.

Allegiance follows Sammy (Tony Leung) and Kei Mimura (Aynrand Ferrer), first-generation Americans who live happily in San Francisco amongst a diverse community. Sammy is at a crossroads, as the sole son, he is expected to become a lawyer but is not really academically minded unlike his older sister Kei who raised him following the death of their mother in childbirth. Their father and grandfather (Masashi Fujimoto and George Takei) played their father and grandfather, juggling their tradition with their American-raised younger generation.

This dynamic is disturbed by the events of 7 December 1941, a brutal attack that not only sees the US enter WWII but also turns against its citizens. It is debatable whether the US ever had a good relationship with its Japanese immigrants, who arrived in the late nineteenth century but detaining them in dusty and filthy conditions, which lead to illness and death, puts a nail in the coffin of that relationship.

The book and music look primarily at intersectionality. Sammy is American, he knows nothing else and wants to fight for his country. His country says he looks like the enemy. In the camp, there is a battle for resistance (why fight for a country that has treated you with contempt) against the Patriots. Even Sammy’s father refuses to commit to this adopted country.

As a musical I found the songs pretty average, a couple of days on I don’t really remember any of them but there are some nice set pieces such as Resist, which opens act II, and the romances between Frankie and Kei and Sammy and Hannah provide some nice moments like I Oughta Go and This is Not Over.

As a historical piece, it is fascinating. The story of 442 regiment isn’t a positive one, as they were used as a suicide unit to save their white comrades and it echoes many of the more well-known stories of African-American regiments.

Tony Leung is an incredible performer and this would be a very different production without his charisma and talent. At a time when the British East Asian community continues to find themselves underrepresented in theatre and musicals, it was great to see a production embrace the array of talent the UK has. I expect this has a strong future in London and is well worth seeing.

Allegiance is on until 8 April 2023 https://charingcrosstheatre.co.uk/

Six, Vaudeville Theatre

The cast of Six (Photo credit: Pamela Raith)

A true home-grown sensation, Six has gone from strength to strength, with a Broadway run and Australian tour currently playing. Having started at the Edinburgh Fringe, its word of mouth success has led it to it reigning supreme at the Vaudeville Theatre. 

Six tells the story of the wives of Henry VIII – nowadays most readily associated with the mnemonic rhyme describing their fates. The show challenges us to realise how little we really know about these women beyond being players in a more famous man’s story, and seeks to set that right. The result is a breezy 80-minute musical styled like a pop concert. The music, by show creators Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow is a delightful selection of pop-literate bangers, unafraid to twist the knife with a heartrending ballad or dark turn when called for.

As the wives each get their moment in the spotlight, the show achieves what GCSE History never could, and unearths distinct narratives and personalities. Rhianne-Louise McCaulsky brings a diva sensibility to Catherine of Aragon, Baylie Carson makes their mark as a quirky Aussie-accented Anne Boleyn (it works!), Claudia Kariuki gives wings to the show’s Adele-style ballad, Dionne-Ward Anderson knocks the show’s most fun number into outer space and almost walks away with the whole thing, Koko Basigara’s Kiss Kiss-style pop number gets darker with each chorus, and Roxanne Couch’s contemplative Catherine Parr gives us food for thought as the women contemplate their destinies. Music is supplied by the Ladies-In-Waiting, the all-female onstage band who can handle any musical riff thrown at them, from Survivor by Destiny’s Child to Greensleeves, by…. someone else.

We are very much in the realm of fantasy here – from Gabriella Slade’s gravity-defying unconventional material costumes, to the clever light-based set by Emma Bailey. There is a tacit admission at the end that a happy ending isn’t possible, based on the facts about these women as we know them, so they’ll have to invent their own. A cop-out, sure, but as the show itself says, this isn’t a history lesson, it’s her-story.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Gielgud Theatre

This review was written the morning after President Biden took to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, to warn the half of the American electorate flirting with fascism and the age-old allure of white supremacist ideology, that this was anathema to the nebulous concept of American democracy; a cherished ideal to be sure, but one that many, particularly African Americans, may argue, with some force, has never been fully-realised.

As Biden tried valiantly to make a distinction between the so-called MAGA extremists (Make America Genocidal Again) and ordinary Republicans, one is reminded of the tension – the liberal guilt and acute awareness of caste privilege that runs through Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

The 1960 novel, famously adapted to film in 1962 with a barnstorming central performance from Gregory Peck, is arguably the quintessential snapshot of the American psyche; a succinct and earnest critique of the politics of race that make the United States, particularly the South, such a hotbed of inequity and injustice.

“The white man built America!” cries the pinned down Mayella Ewell – the pasty white teen whose abusive father has shamed her healthy sexual attraction to black man Tom Robinson, and coerced her into making a (spoiler) false accusation of rape; a capital crime.

Mayella’s fragile identity is built on a myth of white exceptionalism; the industriousness of a master race that conveniently erases the slave labour that made such expansion possible. Mayella is brain dead, a victim of social and patriarchal forces beyond her control; a stooge for white elites. If she lived in 2022 she’d be a MAGA republican ready to cast her unrepressed vote for a resurgent Donald Trump. That’s the awful thing about To Kill a Mockingbird – the story refuses to lie down. It’s a reminiscence and period piece that intrudes on the present like a middle-aged diagnosis of lung cancer following a teen flirtation with cigars.

Biden’s speech avoided Hilary Clinton’s rhetorical error of badging the opponents of progressivism, deplorables. That’s hotwired into Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of the novel – the impossibly decent Atticus Finch, mighty fine in the form of Richard Coyle, warning against summary judgement of one’s foes.

One has to consider the antecedents of their grievances, show each man and mental respect. Finch embodies old fashioned notions of moderation, bipartisanship, civility. In short: tolerance. He’s so damned virtuous (though not, stresses Sorkin, immune to the odd spasm of hardwired white superiority), we desperately want to believe his mantra of mutual understanding. Black house servant Calpurnia speaks for a modern audience bred to see centrist politics as both moral capitulation and naivety, when she questions whether there’s anyone – like child rapist and Klansman Bob Ewell, who’s beyond the pale; for whom compromise is appeasement. Yet Finch, for the most part, stands firm. One has to maintain one’s values, even in the face of appalling provocation to set them aside.

It’s not clear if either Harper Lee or Aaron Sorkin, who finesses the dialogue in this theatrical version with his trademark wit and poetry, actually believes in the durability or practicality of the Finch doctrine. Both novel and play have that convenient get out clause – the concept of natural justice; the judicial blind eye that compensates for systemic failure.

The coda’s always been the weakest part of Lee’s story – moral closure in a society that allows none. Appropriately, given the deep southern setting, the proceedings close with a sermon and note of Christian optimism. But for me the story’s over the moment a prison execution closes off the last legal route to justice. The sin is committed, the innocent dies, the killers neck moonshine and return to their unjust lives. What better way to incite liberal theatregoers to check their complacency and rally their troops than by leaving it there?

Jean-Paul Gaultier Fashion Freak Show, Roundhouse

After its debut in France in 2019 Jean-Paul Gaultier brings his fashion show cabaret to London. I have adored JPG since Eurotrash so I was very excited to see what this show had to offer. It is everything and more you would expect from the original Enfant Terrible of Fashion-gratuitous, bright, loud and a fantastic tribute to his 50 years + of working in fashion

It is a biographical journey from his work at Pierre Cardin to his first love to his international success. You know when the video of an actor playing JPG as a child sewing the infamous cone breasts to his teddy bear that this is going to be a wild and funny show that never takes it self too seriously. There is a brief and moving reference to HIV and AIDS in the community JPG made his home, which is moving without being mawkish.

As a theatre blogger I am not very fashionable (I felt underdressed at the press night) but this show demonstrates JPG’s stunning ideas and technical ability as well as his ongoing relationship with blurring gender and other social norms. JPG isn’t just stripes and cone breasts.

The use of music and dance (all types) along with some interesting guests via video makes Fashion Freak Show one of the most interesting and diverse shows in London right now. Even if you aren’t a fashionista JPG is such a fascinating man that you will enjoy learning about him and getting to see his work in person.

Fashion Freak Show is on at the Roundhouse until 28 August 2022

https://www.roundhouse.org.uk/whats-on/2022/fashion-freak-show/

The Throne, Charing Cross Theatre

Acclaimed screenwriter John Goldsmith brings his first play to Charing Cross Theatre this summer. It is set in 2002, the year of the Golden Jubilee, and imagines an encounter between a Republican school teacher Derek (Charlie Condou) and Queen Elizabeth II (Mary Roscoe) when they get stuck in a toilet together.

Goldsmith’s comedy isn’t sure if it wants to be a state of the nation in 2022 piece (but *What* would happen if these minor royals disgraced her Majesty….) looking at education, politics and of course the monarchy or a silly idea about two very different people getting stuck in a toilet together. It doesn’t help that there is a throwaway reference to terrorism and the terrible battery life of phones in 2002 to keep the story moving and plausible.

The issue with The Throne is that it doesn’t feel particularly theatrical and feels more like a TV play, except nobody is commissioning TV plays like this anymore. It is wordy and desperate to throw in facts and quotations, great if you quiz like I do but a bit dull for most. One example is the headteacher character Peter (Michael Joel Bartelle) whose role is to provide exposition in the prologue and epilogue without really having a clear character or presence of his own apart from being an adversary to Derek. On stage it needs this clumsy introduction and resolution-on television it might appear more holistic and natural.

Charlie Condou, Mary Roscoe and Michael Joel Bartelle in The Throne by John Goldsmith @ Charing Cross Theatre. Directed by Anthony Biggs. (Opening 04-07-2022) ©Tristram Kenton 06-22 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com

The chemistry between Condou and Roscoe is fantastic, the tense scenes are uncomfortable and Roscoe never resorts to caricature in her performance playing her as a wife and mother who happens to have a divine right to rule. Condou’s Derek is a cynical man who has seen class from all angles; he is of an age where he is working class had opportunities to progress into the middle classes through his education at Cambridge University but Derek also has a lot of self-awareness; he is argumentative and annoying but he cares about his pupils and the opportunities afforded to them.

As production it does feel like the first half could be shorter and ending feels rushed but despite being set in a toilet in a school sports hall it is a pleasant looking production; Gregor Donnelly’s set takes away the sense of claustrophobia that would make this feel more tense but Anthony Biggs’ direction ensures we get a sense of how difficult and awkward the situation is.

I am not really sure who this play is aimed at but it is a pleasant way to spend two hours.

The Throne is on until 30th July https://charingcrosstheatre.co.uk/theatre/the-throne

A Doll’s House Part II, Donmar Warehouse

Some 140 years after the door slam that George Bernard Shaw said could be heard around the world, comes a sequel – first produced on Broadway in 2017, to Henrik Ibsen’s proto-feminist standard. Nora, wife of Torwald, has left the building and she’s taken many 19th century assumptions about the role of Western women with her. Nora’s closed the door on the idea that a woman shouldn’t be free to earn her own money, or express her own views, or not be able to live autonomously – not just as an adjunct to and as the legal property of her husband. Most grievously, she left behind a baby, and with it some cherished notions about a woman’s function.

Ibsen’s door slam was supposed to be final so what, you ask, does Lucas Hnath think he’s doing, having Nora return to face the music some 15 years later? Is there any value in a summative conversation, a literature seminar, transposed to the now quiet and implicitly settled Helmer household? Does a Doll’s House really need an epilogue?

On this evidence it’s a sound choice. A door slam may be decisive but it’s not final for the people left behind. The force and weight of Ibsen’s play came from the decision to abandon institutional forces – the husband, the baby, the estate; but Hnath, with sound reason and compassion, reminds us that human beings prop up society’s structures and they too have a voice and perspective worth hearing. Part II, then, is the mitigation, a mediation on consequences, a call for balance: a manifesto that makes it simultaneously modern and, in the age of social media and instant judgement, old fashioned.

Essentially a set of two handers between Nora and her the household members she left behind – husband Torvald, aged nanny Anne-Marie, and youngest child Emmy (now a young woman); a dynamic that underscores the debating posture adopted by Hnath; the play sets out the case for Nora’s moral prosecution with great concision.

An absent mother requires someone else to bear the responsibility, namely a notably debilitated Anne-Marie, a lifelong relationship is enriching and potentially vitalising – not as Ibsen supposed mere institutionalised servitude, and personal freedom, though liberating, does not inevitably engender happiness. Nora hopes for a day when everyone is free from shackles like family life and its burdens, but her family are there to remind her that some constraints are character forming and work to the collective good.

The Donmar’s production suggests this is a cathartic philosophical rumination. In transitions between scenes – in the play’s downtime, with the ticking of the clock insistent and loud – the simple set is bathed in red light, heightening its purgatorial aspect. The characters needed to reconcile, to talk it out – the staging tells us – having been in limbo for so long.

No strict resolution is possible, Hnatch suggests, because ultimately the idea of personal freedom and collective responsibility (albeit bound up by a system that oppresses one gender) is irreconcilable. Nora and Torvald are irreconcilable. The former has a touch of the activist in Noma Dumezweni’s characterisation. The latter, a solemn Brían F. O’Byrne, is not just a phallic bludgeon here, rather a gentle and somewhat lost human being, and the play is richer for noting the tragedy of a man who’s trapped by guilt and hallowed out by loneliness. He needs someone to look after him, one feels, but Nora can never be that person. Human wants and political awakenings make poor bed fellows.

There’s some Ibsen-like background complications – legal loopholes and societal barriers to overcome – but these are ultimately window dressing for the doll’s house. Part II successfully develops Ibsen’s themes – a conversation about liberty and responsibility set during a time when both concepts carried considerable societal weight. Men and women alike, of traditional bent and none, will surely find something to chew over.

Review: The Gunpowder Plot

Straight Line Crazy, Bridge Theatre

“A visit from the Old Testament!” proclaims a member of the Vanderbilt dynasty, as future head of the New York City planning commission, Robert Moses, invites himself round to talk with one of the city’s great landowners about the common man’s newly discovered taste for leisure and the opportunities therein. Vanderbilt’s right; Robert Moses is a biblical character. A man with a god complex, yes, but also a desire to create the world in his own image and impose his values. When nominative determinism is this on the nose, a play outlines itself.

The biblical Moses turned his back on the Egyptians and lead the enslaved population to freedom. The 20th century Moses admires antiquity’s architectural perfectionism and ignores the cost in human lives. The mind wanders to other egos from recent history who were big on city planning.

David Hare’s dramaturgical design incorporates biographical nooks and mile upon mile of social commentary. Moses, we learn, is a man whose narcissism works in tandem with a sliding scale of contempt for those he regards as barriers to progress. The more poor, female and non-white you are, the greater Moses’ tendency, fashionable amongst the intelligentsia of the early 20th century, to bulldoze your neighbourhood in the name of paternalism – an authoritarian and distinctly undemocratic tendency that’s useful for hiding all manner of destructive instincts. “Vandal”, “doctrinaire”, these words get bandied about. Uglier words spring to mind.

Straight Line Crazy’s a grand character study but it might have been a better play, though perhaps a weaker piece of biography, had Hare not delineated Moses’ self-interest when an up and comer. Though he later explores the irony of a neophile whose ideas have been frozen in aspic, Ralph Fiennes’ megalomaniac might have been a more tragic figure still had he actually once believed in a benign form of utilitarianism.

Swaggering and wryly cynical, Fiennes suitably puffed up and incredulous – his hands on his hips like a weary Leonard Rossiter, the younger Moses sets out his implicitly contemptuous idea that the green spaces he’ll create, betwixt the city’s new arteries, are a sop to the virtue symbolised by nature – manna for opinion formers.

His later declaration, that roads are simply the means by which urban renewal is facilitated, is either self-deception or outright dishonesty. As the play reaches its crescendo, with conserving forces finally rallying, though too late to prevent the commodification of traditional living, there’s no doubt. Moses’ plans for further “improvements” are defeated but the unforeseen consequence is lifestyle as a fetish – saved communities available only to the most affluent.

It’s sobering to think that just as Jane Jacobs was waking up New Yorkers and the American architectural orthodoxy to the deprivations caused by their abstract thinking (The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published in 1961), foaming UK urban technocrats, eyes like wall cavities, were preparing to replicate it as a panacea for the country’s post-war housing problems.

What lay behind the plans – corruption, fear and hatred of the working poor and minority communities, a Mr Toad-like fascination with cars, which just happened to exclude the worst off – was the same as before and it had exactly the same sociological impact; the displacement of generational communities, homes replaced by living cells in isolated blocks – anomie, alienation, and the low paid turfed into poor housing stock or the sense-deadening sprawl.

It would be comforting to exit Hare’s play and call it history. But some patrons will return to so-called shared owned homes in lifeless, recently built appends to once vibrant communities throughout London and lament an evening in the company of the man who made it all possible. You may want to contact your Housing Association by the way, that damp wall is starting to smell.  

Mulan Rouge, Vaults Theatre

Dining theatre is back! Actually it has been back for a while and back in August 2021 Mulan Rouge was the trendsetter. After Covid are theatre goers ready to be in close proximity to each other?

After a strong first run in summer 2021 ShayShay’s Mulan Rouge takes the classic Disney film (I found out recently it was based on a poem) and for reasons I am not entirely sure of moves the war zone to Moulin Rouge in Paris. What the audience gets is a campy, drag extravaganza. Ella Cumber stars as Mulan, singleton who after yet another war is declared disguises herself as her father to head to Paris to fight the huns and maybe in the depths of the Moulin Rouge she will find love.

This is also a dining theatre experience and it suffers as many dining shows do with that initial welcoming space. The backless benches and tiny bar (especially on a press night with unlimited drinks for reviewers) is no welcoming. It wasn’t always clear what part of the space was for patrons. A fellow guest panicked that a small snack offered at this stage was the dining experience.

After a practical and unusual practice where names were “called out like we were in a concentration camp” as my companion said and of course my name was called out first. The menu is French themed and impressive, both in its portions and serving. It nicely breaks up the acts of the story and I’ve previously found dining theatre to be clumsy, people are keen to eat but there is a limited time to perform the show. Mulan Rouge avoids this by running at about 3 hours. Usually I would question if a show needed to be that long but Mulan Rouge is a fun cabaret show.

The focus is on camp, drag and performance. It is crude but conscientious, such as its outfit policy which discourages cultural appropriation and is unashamedly aware that this Chinese tale has a very white audience. The British drag scene isn’t particularly racially diverse so seeing Cumber make a very good Drag King was refreshing. I adored her scenes with Grace Kelly Miller, as Ginger, the Satine of the Mulan Rouge. Crucially the show encompassed all aspects of drag and cabaret and felt like an inclusive experience, at a time when theatre doesn’t always feel like it wants to include everyone. Theatre is expensive, it feels quite limiting in terms of what is on offer and Mulan Rouge isn’t the most bold show but it is doing something risky and different.

This show felt like a gateway to seeing more drag and cabaret acts for traditional theatre audiences, which a dining show like this is going to attract and whilst it was clearly a lot for some audience members, a few leaving once the meal was over, I can see this show having a loyal audience who return regularly (which is how immersive experiences make their money). My main criticism is that there isn’t much change for audiences to be interactive. It didn’t feel like there was even an encouragement for audiences to stay and have a few drinks and being part of a show like this is much more important than observing a show like this.

Mulan Rouge is on until 28 August. General admission from £20, dining tickets from £45 https://www.thevaults.london/mulan-rouge