Preview: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Wyndham’s Theatre

Preview: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Wyndham’s Theatre

Audra McDonald finally has made it to the West End after pregnancy delayed her debut and it is incredible to me that she isn’t more of a household name. Her claim to fame is her 6 Tonys, won for both musicals such as Carousel and for dramas like Raisin in the Sun. She remains the only actress to have done this. An achievement for any performer but unprecedented for a woman of colour. Her West end debut is a revival of one of her award winning performances as Billie Holiday. She plays Billie towards the end; tired, addicted and a bit of mess. She often reminded me of Amy Winehouse, a singer I adored who was always destined for a sad end. McDonald not only embodies Holiday’s emotional destruction through casual chat and casual drug use but also her unique voice. It felt like watching Holiday rather than watching an actress playing Holiday

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The fabulous set helps, with on-stage seating and some of the seats removed for stalls tables, it feels less like a theatre show and more like a late night jazz show in Philadelphia. McDonald is aided Shelton Becton as her pianist Jimmy, whose frustration with Billie felt so real. There is an awareness that she is real talent (a songwriter as well as singer), who tried to break down racial barriers with her work with Artie Shaw and her bold songs like Strange Fruit but a woman who never stood a chance.

This is where I have mixed feelings on the play; a woman telling us about her life, even a fascinating one, doesn’t always work and Laine Robertson’s 1986 work seems less groundbreaking in a world of Wikipedia. The play is as good as its performers and this would work less well if there weren’t the songs. That isn’t to say the stories are played well; Holiday’s haunting relationship with her mother (“The Duchess”) as well as her failed marriages, relationships and her sadness at never becoming a mother feel like a woman confusing all before it is too late.

I came away moved but with a skip in my step. It is a rarity to see such a moving, skilled performance from an actress that makes you forget you are watching a matinee in London and not a woman falling apart. I hope Audra makes a return to the West End in a role that showcases her humour, her voice and her talent, as well as this, has.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill at

First performance: 17 June 2017

Final performance: 9 September 2017

Press Performance: 27 June 2017

For full performance schedule see website: LadyDayWestEnd.com

Tuesday to Saturday at 7.45pm

Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 2.45pm
Box Office
Website: LadyDayWestEnd.com
Telephone: 0844 482 5120
Prices from £19.50

 

Kiss Me, Trafalgar Studios

Kiss Me, Trafalgar Studios
Guest Review by Jake Laverde

Originally produced at Hampstead theatre, Richard Bean’s Kiss Me is making its west end debut. Kiss Me is a two hander set entirely in one London bedroom 10 years after the first World War.

In the opening moments, we see Claire Lams as “Stephanie”, a stiff cardigan in the shape of a woman, nervously preparing herself and her room. At one point folding over a duvet corner as if to welcome someone in before changing her mind. A smartly dressed Ben Lloyd-Hughes enters the scene and we work out exactly why, all stiff upper lip and sense of duty as he does his part to help with the re-population of the country. A medically prescribed gigolo in other words.

Richard Bean wrings out every last drop of bathos and pathos over the next hour and a bit. Claire Lam is all nerves and twitchiness in the opening scenes while Ben Lloyd-Hughes acts like he’s preparing to perform a chore. Carrying out his seduction like a well trained mechanic opening the bonnet of a car.

As both “Stephanie” and “Dennis” carry on their meetings, they open themselves up to each other. “Stephanie” literally sheds her uptight appearance, an uptight skin cast off. “Dennis” too opens up and soon his braces are hanging by his sides.

Though only running at around 70 mins, it’s possible to find yourself lost in Richard Bean’s dialogue. Flowing elegantly, touching on the absurdity of the social niceties of the time. However when Bean reaches for philosophical musing it falls a little flat and at times you can hear his voice creeping into “Stephanie’s” observations. Kiss Me touches on many themes but never seems to explore them. Not least the rather unusual relationship that develops between the leads which would have raised many eyebrows at the time.

But it’s the chemistry and tension between Lams and Lloyd-Hughes that carries this bittersweet 70 minutes. Both leads infuse their performances with their characters guilt. “Stephanie’s” nerves and “Dennis’s” stiffest of upper lips both mask and betray their pasts. Between them, they transform a small studio into the only space that matters. With each other they find a small freedom from everything else going on in the world but like all good things, it can’t last.

Kiss Me may not bring any big surprises but as a gently humorous and bittersweet tale, it delivers on all counts. A delicate and sweet thing, sort of like love really.

Anatomy of a Suicide, Royal Court

Anatomy of a Suicide, Royal Court

Three generations of women live out their lives simultaneously, in this devastating examination of inherited trauma, suicide, and motherhood.

Two women kill themselves, slowly, for two hours.

Time crashes into each other. Linear time ceases to exist. Past present and future elide. A triptych of female pain. Generations of hurt reach across the decades but can’t quite cross those last few feet; the only boundary between them their own isolation. A trauma reverberates down the generations, only (medicalised) violence putting pay to (self-inflicted) violence.

And a woman who wears nothing but red.

Alice Birch’s new play Anatomy of a Suicide opened last Thursday at the Royal Court Theatre, directed by previous Birch collaborator Katie Mitchell. A vivid study of suicide, loss, and the way lasting effects of trauma, three stories are told simultaneously. The stage is dissected into three, each part existing within a different time zone (the 1970s, the 1990s, and the 2030s), each inhabited by a young woman: grandmother, mother, daughter living out their lives in union. In the 1970s Carol (a devastatingly effective Hattie Morahan, forensic in her elusiveness) struggles to remain alive for the sake of her daughter Anna (a 1990s hippie, with harder drugs) whose own daughter Bonnie lives in a future more concerned with love and career advancement than depleting fishing stocks.

They fuck you up, your mum and, well just your mum in this case. And your grandma.

This is a play about depression: the opening scene shows a desperately worried husband distractedly wrangling over floors flood-wrecked by a tub running over with bathwater and blood. His wife is “fine”, and remains “fine” throughout medication, ECT, different doctors, threats of Sectioning, a new house, and a baby: a tyrant in a romper suit, a “ fish hook round my middle pulling me up when I want to be under.”

The girl who once jumped off buildings to the delight of her less adventurous classmates is now a study in controlled and decisive terror at her own aliveness. Her daughter (Kate O’Flynn, playing an infuriatingly sympathetic and instantly recognisable mess) ploughs through cults, over sharing, heroin, hippie chic, ladette, statutory rape (disturbingly brushed over) and finally love and motherhood as transient solutions to more than a lifetime of trauma. Her own daughter (the always watchable Adelle Leonce) mirrors her grandmother’s stoic, arctic numbness. A protective self-contained froideur that not even “the best sex ever” (lesbian, as it happens) can defrost. Sex without intimacy. Motherhood without love. Or maybe with love, when love just isn’t enough.

This is not a play about depression: it is a play about mothers and daughters. How we struggle to establish our own identities and escape the shadow of our genetic legacy. It could be a play about the nature or nurture debate, but Birch is far too careful a playwright to reduce this cathartic twisty tragedy into a mere Ted talk.

Or a feminist lecture, yet feminism run through the play. Reproductive rights, sexual orientation, gender double standards, the myth of the happy housewife, the myth of having it all, motherhood.

It wasn’t until seeing the play for the second time that the level of complexity around all these largely unanswered questions really became clear. The absence of direct focus on the issue of consent draws more attention to it than a more detailed exploration could have done. Carol steadfastly rejects the same ECT her daughter presumably gave some form of consent to, but the fact Carol is not even allowed to view her new home unaccompanied suggests her right to make decisions about her own body is temporary and on sufferance. Anna’s drug-addled (and questionably illegal) seduction of a teenage boy is humiliating and traumatic to her and her alone; even when taking the role of predator, women are always the victim. Finally Bonnie’s decisive choice to stop generations of inherited trauma could be a rally for female reproductive rights, but the hollowness of her perceived lack of options defangs it. Which is as it should be, because this is a play about women: real, individual women, not causes.

The male characters are strangely passive and two-dimensional, and while it’s hard not to ponder why this doesn’t feel lacking. Women have been reduced to wives, girlfriends and the odd supporting (and supportive) nurse or secretary for ever, let the men take their turn. Not all stories have to be about men. It is pleasing that one woman’s mixed-race relationship and another’s same-sex relationship are treated in such an utterly casual and unremarkable (and unremarked) way, but fundamentally this is a play about three woman. There are interesting interludes from visiting children (apparently children from the 1970s to the 2030s are equally given to gnomic wisdoms and startlingly moments of insight in their childlike straight-talking), but only the three leads feel really real. Perhaps that’s intentional. Perhaps they are the only real ones.

The staging is that deceptively clever kind that feels like the obvious or only choice. The overlapping stories and dialogue led to some confusing or challenging moments in previews but these had been smoothed out by press night. Moments big and small are mirrored, dialogue and gesture showing a genetic legacy trapped in half a century of oppression.

There is little attempt to explain or hand wave the origin of a (multiple-) life long desire for non-existence. “Like carpenters they want to know which tools. They never ask why build.” (Anne Sexton, ‘Wanting to Die’) Does it matter where Carol’s original depression came from? A body in motion tends to stay in motion. Did Carol’s suicide render the future (present? past?) inevitable? A body at rest tends to stay at rest.

Two women kill themselves, slowly, for fifty years.

 

The Enchanted, The Bunker

The Enchanted, The Bunker

Guest Review from Angel Belsey

4-out-of-5-stars-rating

Finding a partner to come with me to see The Enchanted at The Bunker was a surprisingly tough sell. It turns out many people have a strong emotional reaction, bordering on complete aversion, to all things related to the death penalty. Fortunately for any audience member who may have been suffering from a similar concern, The Enchanted is a story less about the death penalty than it is about people, relationships, kindness and unkindness.

The play is wholly rooted in humanity—even as it outlines the consequences that can occur when humanity gets forgotten. In the primary narrative strand of The Enchanted, a prisoner tells us the story of his fellow inmate, York, who is racing against the clock in an attempt to stop his execution going ahead (though York sometimes asserts that he wants to die). Working to help York is a woman known only as The Lady. The Lady is a death penalty investigator—someone who works to build a defense against an inmate’s execution by finding out what happened and looking for anything that might convince a judge to extend mercy to the condemned person. Woven together with York’s story we learn more about The Lady, as well as her counterpart, The Priest, and the prisoner who is doing the narration. It is at this point that the play falters a little bit; it is easy to explore the background of characters fully in a novel, but finding the right balance between rumination and forward action is harder for a stage production, and I’m not sure the play gets that balance exactly right.

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Having said that, though, I found the character development intriguing, and I would absolutely read the Rene Denfield novel of the same name that this work is based on. At times, the subject matter is excruciatingly bleak, and some particularly difficult moments set in the prisoners’ childhoods are told through puppetry. In fact, the puppetry in combination with occasional dance elements and the simple staging made this production less a play and more a Happening—one with an important message about how imperative it is that we take care of each other.

The Enchanted is on until 17 June

Viewpoint on Hamilton London Casting

Viewpoint on Hamilton London Casting

Following Baz Bamigoye’s exclusive news that Jamael Westman and Michael Jibson will join the previously announced cast as Alexander Hamilton and George III I had mixed feelings. This wasn’t the big name casting that some of us had hoped for, despite Lin-Manuel Miranda ruling out his presence it was a hot role for a hot ticket, this is very much in keeping with what Hamilton is about; multi-cultural casting and showcasing new talents.

The previously announced cast are Christine Allado (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds), Rachelle Ann Go (Eliza Hamilton), Tarinn Callender (Hercules Mulligan/James Madison), Rachel John (Angelica Schuyler), Jason Pennycooke (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson), Cleve September (John Laurens/Philip Hamilton), Giles Terera (Aaron Burr) and Obioma Ugoala (George Washington).  At certain performances, the role of Alexander Hamilton will be played by Ash Hunter.

Westman and Jibson are not big names but both are very experienced actors; Westman was recently in Torn at the Royal Court, London and Jibson has many stage and screen credits behind him. The excitement behind Hamilton is that it is different from your usual musical theatre repertoire focusing on rap and hip hop. It reminds me of the excitement surrounding Bat Out of Hell. Whilst Bat… on paper is another jukebox musical the genre of rock musical in the style of Tommy and We Will Rock You seems to have gone out of fashion and as a result it genuinely seems new and interesting again in a world of Mama Mias, Thrillers and Phantoms.

As interesting as the casting of someone like Riz Ahmed or even Miranda changing his mind would have been it wouldn’t have been in keeping with the spirit of Hamilton to be a platform for new and less well-known talents. Why does a show, which has sold out its initial booking period even need big names.

Let’s look at the character descriptions from a casting call

I doubt even the finest drama schools are training their talented pupils to be “Eminem meets Sweeney Todd”. The excitement around Hamilton is still about the fact BME people are underrepresented in the theatre. Forgive us for getting excited about a show that takes the utmost liberty when it comes to colour blind casting. Will the audience be made up similarly? Personally, I doubt it, with premium tickets going for £200 (though there were options of £20-40 to be found) At best the audience will be made up of rich people of all colours.

Though I won’t lie I share the disappointment of those who were hoping this would be announced.

Public booking opened on 30 January 2017 and the initial release tickets for the first booking period from 21 November 2017 through to 30 June 2018 is now sold out. In the autumn nearer the time of completion of the theatre’s refurbishment the producers hope to make further tickets available for booking period one. Further ticket releases will be announced at a later date via official HAMILTON channels. Full ticketing information can be found on the official website at hamiltonthemusical.co.uk and details of how to apply for the daily and weekly lotteries will be announced closer to performances.
In order to protect patrons from paying highly inflated prices, the producers of HAMILTON are determined to combat the unauthorised profiteering of third party resellers and ticket touts. Delfont Mackintosh Theatres has pioneered for the West End a paperless ticket system for this production – HAMILTON Paperless Ticketing, powered by Ticketmaster. No physical tickets will be issued in advance. Upon arrival at the theatre on the day of the performance, patrons will be asked to swipe the payment card they used to originally purchase their tickets to gain admission to the theatre. Patrons wishing to pay by cash can only do so once the Box Office at the Victoria Palace Theatre reopens in the autumn. Additional security measures to prevent profiteering of tickets purchased by cash customers will also be in place.

Hamilton opens on 21 November at Victoria Palace Theatre, booking until 30 June 2018

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Tristan and Yseult, Shakespeare’s Globe

Tristan and Yseult, Shakespeare’s Globe

Two minutes into Emma Rice and Knee High’s Tristan and Yseult at the Globe and two men are dancing together, miming falsetto. One of them is a sexy-camp bad boy. We know he’s a sexy-camp bad boy because he’s wearing a sharp suit with sockless trainers (and a lilac ruffled shirt, introducing a 70s vibe to an otherwise rather 50s styling).

What follows throws everything but the kitchen sink into the mix: disco, cross-dressing, random bursts of dry ice, balloons, audience interaction, audience interaction involving balloons, acrobatics, ballroom, topical political references, aerial silks, deelyboppers, poetry, and what looks vaguely like a Kalamatianós with invisible handkerchiefs..

When the Riverdancing starts it reaches the cusp of being too much but then (marked by the most accidentally perfectly timed helicopter overhead) then the real men, the powerful men, the military men arrive, and the party stops.

But not for long, because then the fighting starts and they’re dancing, it’s a party, it’s all a party, even stabbing is a kind of dance and death just another side to life’s party.

Perhaps I’m overthinking. It’s true though that the music, carnival atmosphere, and general frenetic pace leaves few opportunities to slow down and let the real drama and emotion just… be. The first meeting between Tristan (Dominic Marsh, the standout and no doubt aimed for super stardom) and Yseult’s (Hannah Vassallo, impishly charismatic) takes place with her straddling him, unconscious in a hammock. The girl is certainly bold, but their initial encounter goes from lust to misunderstanding to hate to love in the space of about three high-energy minutes.

The cast are uniformly excellent, but the emotional highlight of the production has to go to Niall Ashdown, whose maid Brangian deftly moves between comedy and genuinely touching pathos as she agrees to give her virginity in lieu of her more experienced newlywed Queen. Bed tricks are common in classical theatre, but it’s hard to think of many plays where the stand-in’s point of view is considered. Musing the morning after, the obedient servant and (former?) Unloved regrets not that she hated the fraudulent sex, but that she liked it too much, and ponders whether her royal mistress would take her place on her wedding night.

7e4f6ccf-d95f-2659-7681fe12cf45a256But don’t worry if such wistful contemplation of the commodification of the female body and the inherent inequalities of searching for love in a brutally classicist society is not your style, there’ll be a group sing-along of Get Lucky along in a minute.

This adaptation used two separate narrators as framing devices, the first an adorable if clichéd (but it works so who cares?) coterie of “love-spotters”. These anoraked and binocular-laden misfortunates are members of an exclusive but undesirable club: The Unloved. Yes, it allows for bits of japery using old comedy standbys like the love testing machine, but the Unloved have so much heart nothing else is needed. The introduction of a second narrator with her own tragic twist ending (taken from Thomas of Britain’s version of the legend) is rather odd. True love apparently means marrying someone else and being a dick to them till they act out in frustration.

 

The names Tristan and Yseult have been a byword for tragic love for centuries, but this joyous party ends with a sombre ambiguity. The betrayed King Mark (Mike Shepherd, bringing real humanity and depth) could have been a one-dimensional tyrant, but he’s not. His marriage to Yseult could so easily have been a happy one. Maybe the real tragedy is not in lovers torn apart, but in the pain they inflict upon others.

 

Tickets from £5 (Standing) can be purchased from the Shakespeare’s Globe http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/whats-on

 

Aisha, Hen & Chickens

Aisha, Hen & Chickens

In the opening scene, the titular character’s no-holds-barred description of her life as the forced wife of a man three times her age leaves the audience of Aisha in stunned shock. This intelligent, promising 17-year-old tells her story in the manner of a heroine in a Shakespearean tragedy, visibly battling to speak in beautiful, poetic language in her psychologically-bruised state. When we meet her husband, he is unquestionably the tyrant she describes and we watch awkwardly as she recoils and retches every time he moves. What a horrible life Aisha has.

Further into the play, we see her husband at his most extreme: punishing her brutally for a minor infraction. It is an awful scene to watch and played for maximum psychological effect but it was too much for one audience member. I can see why he walked out, but in context, it was not gratuitous. It was also necessary for understanding more fully what was to come.

This play is told very much from the perspective of Aisha, and much of the time the other characters feel less well-rounded than she is. We only see snatches of their personalities and we don’t necessarily understand their motivations or what’s really going on. The punishment scene and the scenes which follow it, where several of the husband’s friends come to the house for various purposes, put the brutality into context whilst in no way excusing it. It also allows the writer, AJ, to comment on African culture, child marriage, the true nature of racial integration in Britain, men’s attitudes to women, male friendship, excessive drinking and the way in which we all turn a blind eye.

But if you think this is an “issue play”, unsubtly dishing up a series of stock characters and wooden exchanges, it isn’t. It is about issues, lots of them, but it’s well written and engrossing, and even manages to be funny in parts.

Lloyd Morris is the closest we get to light relief, and he gives an excellent performance as the Brexit-supporting, drunken misogynist Mr White. When we meet him, he seems like a decent man, but Aisha pulls us up on that. We thought he wasn’t as bad as her husband because he’s white? Sadly, he is.

The star of this show is Laura Adebisi as Aisha, who gives a detailed, jaw-dropping performance. Unbelievably, Adebisi is only in her second year of English and Drama degree – we’ll be seeing much more of her in the future.

At the end of this play, it looks like there’s hope of a better life for Aisha. But it also becomes clear what she had to do to get out of her situation. Neither Mr White, nor healthcare professionals, or the authorities, or anyone else helped her. This play is about how we all turn a blind eye to what’s really going on and that this has consequences.