Nine Night, Trafalgar Studios

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Cecilia Noble in Nine Night (Photo credit: Helen Murray)

Arriving at the Trafalgar Studios after a wave of critical acclaim at its National Theatre run earlier this year, Nine Night already bears the acclaim and intense scrutiny that comes with being the first ever West End play written by a black woman. Fortunately, it is more than well-equipped to handle the unfair burden that comes with blazing a trail – Natasha Gordon’s remarkably accomplished debut play is a muscular dissection of grief and adherence to tradition.

The title refers to the Jamaican funeral custom of nine nights of mourning, with the family’s matriarch Gloria’s offstage death occurring in the opening scenes of the play. Her death and the pressure-cooker environment created by the extended mourning period exposes the cracks in a British-Jamaican family. It’s a time-honoured framework for drama that is given new life by the very fact that it’s putting front and centre an under-represented section of the British community and takes on a particular resonance in the shadow of the Windrush scandal from earlier this year.

Gordon herself steps into the role of Lorraine, taking over from Franc Ashman for the West End run, and she paints a deeply humane portrait of the daughter who gave up everything to care for mother. Coming in at a lean 100 minutes, Lorraine initially serves as the play’s quiet centre, slowly eroding to the effects of grief over the nine nights.

Director Roy Alexander Weise has assembled a cast who tear into the material with gusto and there is no weak link in the cast, as each get the chance to showcase a different facet of dual national identities. Particular praise must go to Cecilia Noble who plays the majestic Auntie Maggie, and knocks every one-liner out of the park, frequently stopping the show. It’s a titanic performance that had me at first wondering if it was merely a (brilliantly executed) comic relief turn, but in a masterstroke of Gordon’s calibrated writing, Maggie’s presence ensures that a left turn in the final moments of the play feels completely earned and impactful.

A shrewdly-observed portrait of grief and nationality that doesn’t pretend there are any easy answers. Highly recommended.

Yerma, Cervantes Theatre

YERMA 1. Cervantes Theatre. Photo by Elena Molina

Leila Damilola in Yerma (Photo credit: Elena Molina)

Since opening its doors in 2016, Southwark’s Cervantes Theatre has quietly become a force to be reckoned with, with intimate bilingual stagings of classic Spanish works, counterpointed with new writing. In their current production of Yerma, Lorca’s enduring “tragic poem”, director Jorge de Juan has seamlessly transposed the action to an Afro-Cuban setting, where the unhurried pace of life highlights how empty Yerma’s days truly are. I saw the English language version, which has a completely different cast to the Spanish version, with only Venezuelan TV star Gledys Ibarra appearing in both, although in different roles. The cast are uniformly excellent, marrying the sometimes-ornate translation by Carmen Zapata and Michael Dewell with the spare, stately direction. Leila Damilola anchors the piece as Yerma, rarely offstage, emerging at the start of the play from a giant hammock draped across the stage in a potent act of symbolism.

The standout moment is when the slow and steady pace gives way to an explosive ritual scene performed in Fang and Yoruba, and choreographed by Jordan Mba, as the women of the town pray in vain for Yerma. As the play heads towards its inevitable tragic climax, the action is kept intimate and spare yet again, allowing the full weight of Yerma’s desperation to sink in. Damilola unearths a raw and shattering performance, and the director wisely entrusts her to carry the play’s final moments, which will stay with you for some time. Highly recommended.

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, Bush Theatre

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Marc Graham in All We Ever Wanted Was Everything (Photo credit: Helen Murray)

Off the back of a two-year Edinburgh Fringe tenure and a tidal wave of rapturous reviews, Hull playwright Luke Barnes’ gig theatre opus All We Ever Wanted Was Everything arrives at Shepherds Bush. Spanning a 30-year timeline from 1987 to 2017, the play drops in on our everyman heroes, Leah and Chris, at ten-year intervals as we watch them start as children dreaming the impossible as life slowly shapes them into something more unremarkable – dreams are put aside, compromises are made, self-doubt replaces a belief that if you can dream it, you can be it.

Each era is punctuated by period-evocative music by composer James Frewer. While the play doesn’t directly use real-world music, it patchworks motifs and lyrical snatches to successfully evoke each time period with its original soundtrack – a keen listener can play spot-the-reference for the whole 75-minute running time.

The show is presided over and narrated by Marc Graham’s MC character, a vision of Northern charm and eyeliner. Much of the narrative text is in rhyming verse, to create the effect of an epic poem about the stubbornly un-epic: everyday life. And it’s here where Barnes deserves the most praise: in refusing to sprinkle saccharine pixie dust over his characters’ lives, he creates an uncompromising tableau of grit and salt that would be bleak were it not for the colourful, musical staging.

It’s a rich setup, but for me the payoff wasn’t fully realised. While skilful in places, the writing occasionally sags, and a cynical part of me couldn’t fight the suspicion that the show was scoring cheap nostalgia points by name-checking things like Virgin Megastores and the Nokia 5110. As the play builds to a final act in which the humanity of our characters is slowly extinguished, in more ways than one, I found myself wondering what it was trying to say. As its narrative threads came together in an intense finale, the message we were sent home with felt somehow preachy and non-committal at the same time.

This is not a show without skill at the wheel – Barnes has an ear for the wonder in the everyday, the direction is assured and the cast work hard. But the piece ends up as a curate’s egg – a forceful, thoughtful experiment that fails to stick its landing.

Kiss Me Kate, London Coliseum

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Stephanie Corley & Quirjin de Lang in Kiss Me Kate (Photo credit: Guy Farrow)

Set backstage at a ropey production of a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Kiss Me Kate has endured now for 70 years since its Broadway debut to become arguably the most famous backstage musical in history, and Cole Porter’s most fondly remembered work. Opera North’s revival of their 2015 production, which sought to restore the piece using sections of the original orchestration and scenes normally cut in modern productions, has taken up a brief residency in the London Coliseum. And it’s a suitably lavish choice of venue to match the production values – a 27-strong cast and a towering set serve to give this production a decidedly sumptuous feel and create a Golden Age feast for the senses.

The cast perform admirably – operatic soprano Stephanie Corley offers a powerhouse vocal as Lilli/Kate, even if we see too little of the vulnerability that should let us connect with her character. She’s adroitly matched by Quirjin de Lang as Fred/Petruchio who offers a softer, more likable Fred than would typically be expected. Zoe Rainey and Alan Burkitt round out the principals as Lois/Bianca and Bill/Lucentio, with each bringing a determined energy to their solo numbers – Lois’ Always True To You and Bill’s tap dance numbers are both highlights of a more buoyant second act that helps blast away some of the stodge of the lumbering first half.

Unfortunately the preservative approach applied to the production seems determined not to cater the show to a 2018 audience – at 3 hours the show feels overstuffed – already a risk with a show containing 20 (twenty!) songs. While it’s a joy to believably see the show in full Golden Age mode, the dated approach also extends to the show’s humour, twee and gentle on the page and lacking the directorial fine-tuning to sharpen the gags for modern expectations. The musical numbers are also performed in a more period style, with the iconic opening number Another Op’nin Another Show a more stately affair and lacking the sense of euphoric lift-off seen in recent productions.

Ultimately, the show is famously problematic at the best of times. Centred around one of Shakespeare’s nastier plays, the show’s approach to gender has never been forward-thinking, and feels positively out of place in the #MeToo era. A more vivacious production could have succeeded in partially distracting from the troubling sexism, but the more patrician approach on offer here places it front and centre, for better or for worse.

In choosing to restore rather than rejuvenate, Opera North have created a genuinely fascinating and faithful window into a bygone era. In doing so, however, they’ve chosen to celebrate the show as an antiquity, rather than drawing on its more timeless qualities.

 

Mayfly, Orange Tree Theatre

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Irfan Shamji and Niky Wardley in Mayfly [photo: Helen Murray]

Under the tenure of Paul Miller, the Orange Tree Theatre has shown a fierce commitment to new writing, but Joe White’s Mayfly is the first debut play to be staged there since Miller’s ascendancy, and it’s easy to see why it made the cut.

Set in a remote village in Shropshire, Mayfly takes place over a day in the life of a fractured family, and a stranger whose life intersects with theirs. If I’m being vague, it’s deliberate – the slow drip of information is what fuels the gradual reveals over the course of the play. With careful direction by Guy Jones, Mayfly is a sharply-observed portrayal of grief, and the sadness that rises to fill the spaces that form when something is removed unexpectedly from our lives.

The play isn’t afraid to go to dark places – it’s no spoiler to say that it opens with the suicide attempt of Ben (Simon Scardifield). Faced with an impossibly bleak opening, it’s to White’s credit that he’s able to puncture the drama with unexpected bursts of comedy that work well. There’s no weak link in a hard-working cast, but Evelyn Hoskins as Ben’s camo-clad daughter and Irfan Shamji as the stranger who blows in to the family’s lives are both particular highlights, with Shamji knocking his character’s awkward humour out of the park.

Running at a tight 95 minutes, it’s a play brimming with tenderness and emotional articulacy. This articulacy sometimes carries over to the characters a shade too much – everyone is a little too good at voicing exactly what is going on in their head, but this is a play that knows what is and wears it proudly. Meticulous in structure, White stacks the narrative chips early and cashes them in to great effect later on. With its motifs being called back and resolved so cleanly, the play does perhaps sacrifice some of its mystery, but remains a heartfelt and keen piece of writing. A highly promising debut.

The B*easts, Bush Theatre

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Monica Dolan in The B*easts

Following a well-received run at the Edinburgh Fringe, actor Monica Dolan’s writing debut arrives at the Bush Theatre. A provocative monologue performed by Dolan herself, The B*easts tackles the sexualisation of children, and nudges us into a hypothetical future that feels all too possible. The central premise of the show, while a surprise, is not necessarily a spoiler. A young mother buckles under mounting lifelong pressure from her 8-year old daughter who is desperate to have a woman’s body, and consents to take her to Brazil for a breast augmentation procedure. It’s a tricky scenario to sell and it’s to Dolan’s credit that she manages it, setting out the scenario in a way that feels dangerously plausible. Once back in the country, the child becomes a focal point, and the time-honoured rhythms of shock, scandal and outrage unfold in their depressingly familiar way. Dolan plays Tessa, a psychotherapist becomes involved with the case and retells it dispassionately.

Telling the story from a point of view of calm detachment and wry clinical observation is a shrewd choice. As the story unfolds engrossingly with an almost thriller-like gradual reveal of details, Dolan makes a mark as a great storyteller, interjecting with well-honed observations or acutely comic moments that buoy the play along and help drop our guard for its darker moments. And they come.

The play never shies away from one of its key themes – the vilification of the female secondary sex organs, just for the mere act of existing. The child and the mother are reflexively attacked by the press and people, with no consideration given over to why this level of outrage is appropriate. Repeated echoes of ‘responsibility’ and ‘power’ assert the implicit truth – that breasts are considered at large to be weapons, only to be wielded by those who can use them wisely. Rather than sit on the fence about it, Dolan’s writing forcefully tears into and deconstructs the myths.

It’s not a perfect show – Dolan’s character is perhaps too immediately on the side of the mother in the situation, leaving the classism and internalised misogyny instead to the masses in the story – although with so brisk and blazing a show it’s perhaps understandable that self-interrogation is not the priority here. There’s also a narrative thread involving Dolan’s character that doesn’t mesh as well with the rest of the piece, creating a slight feeling of disjointment.

But this should not detract from what is a forthright, considered and frankly astonishing debut about how just how heavily the weight of womanhood hangs. Highly recommended.

NeverLand, Vault Festival

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Michal Ish-Horowicz in Neverland (Photo credit: Helen Maybanks)

Following the success of their immersive Gatsby musical last year, The Guild of Misrule have once again taken up residence in the Waterloo Vaults with another immersive musical tale. This time the source material is JM Barrie’s enduring classic, Peter Pan, although this adaptation is definitely not intended for children. Rather than a straight adaptation of the story of Peter Pan, the show is a retelling of the life of the ‘real-life Peter Pan’, Peter Llewelyn Davies.

As the show begins, the audience are ushered into a large central space where the story begins. It’s initially unclear to what degree the show is ‘immersive’ – occasionally audience members are asked to dance or participate briefly in scenes, which may be worth warning about if you’re of a shy disposition. Eventually the action diversifies, and parts of the audience are led away by cast members to smaller, more lavishly-decorated spaces, where scenes unfold in parallel with the rest of the show. The use of these spaces, and the commendable imagination and effort involved in creating them, create the more magical moments of the evening, even if the scenes there suffer due to a lack of amplification, as well as audio bleed-through from the scenes happening elsewhere.

Ultimately the production feels chaotic and disjointed, with the narrative particularly difficult to follow, owing in no small part to the lack of microphones in so large a space. The evening is peppered with musical numbers, performed with gusto by a cast of multi-instrumentalists, and while many of them are tuneful, they often end up feeling like brief diversions, rather than being naturally integrated into the story. The show closes on a more coherent note, with a powerful, if overlong, appeal to the younger generation to fight the injustices left behind by the previous generation’s excesses – a pertinent message for today if ever there was one. And the striking visual tableau and song that close the show are a powerful moment of the magic that is unfortunately lacking in the rest of the piece. The show is admirably ambitious, but it’s hard not to feel that a narrower focus would have stopped its reach from exceeding its grasp.

Monster, Vault Festival

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Joe Sellman-Leava (Photo Credit: Ben Borley)

What makes a man a monster? It’s no small question, and the one raised by Joe Sellman-Leava in his new work Monster, that attempts to deconstruct a facet of monstrousness – specifically, toxic masculinity. Originally debuted at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, author and performer Sellman-Leava had no way of knowing his piece would be performed as the world at large is finally taking steps to confront the dark side of unchecked masculine dominance in the entertainment industry.

Taking an incident from his own life – albeit going to length to stress that some is factual, some is fiction, and he won’t be telling us which is which – Sellman-Leava takes us to a period of his life showing him in rehearsal for a play reinterpreting the words of Shakespeare to form a tale of domestic violence, but more concerned with primal showmanship than exploring the issue. His concerns with the integrity of the piece start to bleed into his personal life, affecting a fledgling relationship. Throughout, Sellman-Leava weaves in testimonies of sorts, using pitch perfect impressions to recreate the words of Mike Tyson and Patrick Stewart, both of whom add differing perspectives on acts of abuse. The various narratives weave effectively, as something dark begins to spread its wings Sellman-Leava’s protagonist, something that has crash-landed from the outside world or, more worryingly, has perhaps been there all along. Over the course of an hour, the on-stage Joe commands the space effectively, with physical and vocal shifts, and lighting cues taking us from place to place.

With a narrative that skips from thread to thread, the play is disorienting, deliberately so. Although it’s peppered with moments of necessary light relief, Monster is no easy ride, and Monster offers no easy answers and does not pretend to do so. When we call someone a monster, we do so to distance someone from us, as if no human could perpetrate monstrous acts, when the sad truth is the exact opposite. An intriguing look at the dark nature of the male psyche and the destructive potential within us all.

Misalliance, Orange Tree Theatre

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Marli Siu (Hypatia) and Simon Shepherd (Lord Summerhays). Photo: Helen Maybanks

Over the last few years, the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond has put itself back on the map for a younger generation of theatregoer, with an eclectic and unpredictable programme of events that sees challenging new work aired as frequently as lost classics, and it’s in the vein of the latter that Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance is revived at the venue, to great success.

Taking place over the course of an afternoon in the conservatory of a large country house, (with a sterling set design from Laura Hopkins – make sure you look up!) Misalliance charts the preoccupations of the wealthier set, in particular, their preoccupation with bedding each other. And when two outsiders, the cartoonishly accomplished Lina Szczepanowska (Lara Rossi), and a young socialist with a bone to pick (Jordan Mifsúd) crash land into their lives (one literally), the ridiculousness of their desires is brought into sharp relief.

Before this happens, we’re introduced to the Tartleton family. Presided over by self-made man John (Pip Donaghy), the focal point of the family is his daughter Hypatia (Marli Siu), who is to be wed to the effetely aristocratic Bentley (Rhys Isaac-Jones in scene-stealing form), despite being an obvious romantic mismatch. Hypatia is a strong-willed Shavian heroine, unafraid to shape the world around her to her liking and endlessly amused by the cartwheels the men around her turn.  For there are hormones ricocheting all over the place: over the course of the play, a whopping eight marriage proposals are mooted.

The play is razor-sharp in its satire, and unafraid to contend with weightier themes like socialism and class disparity, but surprised me most in how raucously funny it is at almost every turn. Under Paul Miller’s expert direction, the cast deliver Shaw’s dialogue with an almost contemporary rhythm (Tom Hanson & Luke Thallon both excel at this particular) and land jokes that feel like they could have been written last week.

Clocking in at 2h45, it’s definitely one of Shaw’s longer works, and feels perhaps a touch overextended, especially in the first act, but with everything coming together in the second act to be uproariously hilarious. Even in the scenes that feel more weighted down, there is always Shaw’s glorious dialogue, delivered with relish. Highly recommended.