The Wind of Heaven, Finborough Theatre

Years ago I worked with a patriotic Welshman who referred to his homeland as “God’s own country”. Playwright Emlyn Williams clearly thought the same as she based her allegorical play in a Welsh mountain village, Blestin; a place that by virtue of nominative determinism seems guaranteed a second coming.

The play originally opened in April 1945 and you don’t have to be Kenneth Tynan to realise The Wind of Heaven’s about post-war anxiety and social rebuilding – specifically, the moral reconstruction of the nation following the existential threat it had faced. Its Crimean War period setting – 1856, acts as a suitable proxy. There’s wounded soldiers housed in local hospitals suffering from tuberculosis and cholera, a town stripped of its children, and a local matriarch, Dilys, who’s flirted with atheism since her husband died.

Enter Ambrose Ellis, a former local boy turned obnoxious city slicker and circus entrepreneur, who’s returned to search for local freaks. Naturally, he’s materialistic, opportunistic and Godless – the antithesis of community spirit and civic virtue. A chance encounter leads to the uncovering of a biblical prophecy and Gwyn, the town’s only remaining child, whom scripture suggests may be a Welsh Jesus.

From the, er, comfort of 2019 it’d be easy to sneer at The Wind of Heaven’s sentimental moralising, so let’s do that. The Finborough’s great strength, when blowing the dust off forgotten plays, is that it refuses to update them for modern audiences – they’re time capsules and all the more interesting for it. But the corollary of this approach is that occasionally the cultural assumptions embedded in these old texts may strike the modern eye as regressive.

Williams’ play finds great virtue in the idea that modernism is corrupting, the pastoral is soul cleansing, and that good old Christian values like subservience, abstinence, humility and charity must be observed if society is to heal itself following a period of great upheaval (and moral threat). If that strikes you as reactionary, you’re not alone, and consequently it’s difficult to see the play’s wind as anything other than a brain-fart.

Still, if you don’t mind the preachiness or the admonishment, The Wind of Heaven boasts a suitably earnest cast and fine staging; the Finborough’s tiny space once again miraculously reconfigured with the sparing use of period props and canny lighting. In a complicated world the story offers some time worn comforts; it’s the dramaturgical equivalent of that thing you old Dad used to say. Just try to forget what he did after that.

Chemistry, Finborough Theatre

There’s an intriguing philosophical quandary at the heart of Jacob Marx Rice’s (not to be confused with Jacob Rees-Mogg) play. As our personalities are essentially chemical formulas, is a medicated man and woman, wrestling with mental illness, their true self or an idealised pair of pharmaceutical experiments living on borrowed time? Is it desirable to start a relationship under therapy, in a state of unstable transition, buoyed by yellow bentines, in pursuit of a doctor sanctioned best self? Or would such a union be a by-product of a false consciousness?

This sets up an inevitably heartbreaking scenario in which a manic self-harmer meets a wry depressive with barely suppressed suicidal tendencies; two self-harming, intelligent people who are dependent on drug regimens to function normally.

In an enclosed set, a box of sorts, like the one we put those suffering from mental health problems in; adorned with neutron-signifying electrical wires and bulbs; Steph and Jamie’s (Caoimhe Farren and James Mea) relationship plays out – first with caution and defensiveness, then with self-awareness tested, then with boundaries reset, then with defences lowered, and finally the beautiful highs and inevitable lows of disfunction and tragedy as their respective illnesses take hold.

The simple shorthand would be Romeo and Juliet with added psychoanalysis, but the play’s more ambitious than that – it’s out to document how terrifying abstractions like depression and self-harm disrupt and derail lives, sabotaging happiness, and how self-recognition of the dangers does little to avoid them. Add to this Catch-22, the ignorance and judgement of others, and you’ve got a path to true love laced with landmines and charity muggers. Puts your relationship failings – namely being selfish and thoughtless, in perspective, doesn’t it?

The Finborough have laid on an involving, emotionally harrowing two-hander; performances that add complexity and vulnerability to a couple of likable but shaky lovers. You root for them, you worry about them, then you worry about them some more, particularly in the tough latter stages when the writing , with the imprimatur of lived experience, grips the heart and twists the gut.

Chemistry is a challenging play with no clean answers to the quandaries it raises, and no comfort for those who’ve suffered as these characters suffer, or have been close to those with similar problems. If the production errs, it’s in the use of mawkish American folk pop, as the soundtrack to certain transitions. It’s the equivalent of telling the audience how to feel when the performances provide all the priming required. Regardless, Chemistry is an at times unsettling, but always compelling evening. It humanises the stigmatised and touches the soul using a wonderdrug – intimate performance.

Death of a Salesman, Piccadilly Theatre

What is Death of a Salesman about? Arthur Miller’s original conception was arguably (so let’s argue) about the crushing effect of American individualism – the myth of exceptionalism, that convinces those in lowly occupations, ascribed a market value, that they live in a country that can alchemise anyone’s potential. It’s a cruel lie, Miller suggested, with dissembling consequences, because it convinces the majority of Americans, who are not exceptional, and who lack the requisite industry, intelligence, imagination and luck to tear away from the pack and make their fortune, to accept the predatory economic model that enables the few to profit at the expense of the many. For this reason, above all others, the first British critics to sample the fall and disintegration of Willy Loman, thought they detected a Marxist critique of US life; a bullet glazed in tears, fired straight into Uncle Sam’s dick.

One of the most recent developments in Marxist thinking, or rather its user-friendly derivation, the social sciences, is the replacement of the old, problematic working class with other oppressed groups; class struggle and its attendant power relationships, expanded to include race, gender and sexuality. This, one feels, is where Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s production comes in, right on cue.

There’s little change to the text, more the texture and soundtrack of Miller’s opus, but a significant tonal shift – the skin colour of the cast. The Loman’s are a black family now who, according to the programme notes, are here to challenge the old orthodoxy; the white privilege of the family as written, who by virtue of their ontology could opt out of representing their race; a pernicious fallacy say the salesmen for intersectionality.

Indeed, it’s almost like Miller’s intent was to examine the cultural conception of self-worth rather than explicit and historically embedded social hierarchies, but why not use his scenario to implicitly comment on economic segregation – even if it somewhat obscures the point that Death of a Salesman is about a false consciousness that occupies and consumes the imagination of every American? Yes, a system that at its most cruel and dehumanising sanctions slave labour and cleaves a society in two along racial lines, but also, at a microcosmic level, can break an otherwise happy family, whose principal handicap is that they’re entitled but ordinary.

The political recalibration of the material, the invitation to apply the play’s critique to an African American context, barely registers. One can look for it, but if it isn’t there, it isn’t there – even if there’s convenient contrasts between American capitalism and colonial exploitation (here reimagined as Uncle Ben profiteering from ancestral lands), and the Lomans with the success and social access of their Jewish neighbours. The latter might have attributed a little anti-Semitism to Willy. In this version there’s the equally obnoxious, though very different suggestion that Charley and Bernard represent white privilege.

None of which should detract from the fact that an excellent cast, headed by Wendell Pierce and Sharon D. Clarke, sell every moment of disappointment, heartbreak, frustration, and disillusion that the text demands. The characters may not be exceptional but the players certainly are.

The production’s also notable for its design; a hanging set that reconfigures and reframes as Willy’s memories shift and intrude on his present; lighting and sound design that use the conceit of a reel-to-reel tape recorder – a significant prop in a crucial scene, as a structuring metaphor for the way Miller’s tortured protagonist plays and replays moments of happiness, regret, mortification and sadness.

As ever with Miller’s play, it’s the universality of the disappointments and failures under glass that abides. Perhaps that’s why this production’s decision to sub-divide those truths and examine them through a racial lens feels like a false note.

In preview: Christmas 2019

The nights are drawing in and as the evenings get colder I find myself wondering what theatre will dominate the 2019 Christmas schedules. Christmas for many is the one time of year they go to the theatre, whether it is their local panto or a seasonal West End show.

This is a by no means comprehensive round up of productions, including screen to stage adaptations, pantomimes and other seasonal productions across London and elsewhere

Bromley

The Churchill Theatre launched their 2019-2020 pantomime Aladdin in September with a Q&A, a cake and a lunchtime buffet. Christopher Biggins stars as Widow Twanky and his Q&A included a great anecdote about working with Cannon and Ball, which resulted in him chasing Bobby Ball. The production has already sold more than 50% of its tickets and it is the centrepiece of the Autumn season

https://churchilltheatre.co.uk/Online/bromley-pantomime-panto-kent

Croydon

The recently reopened Fairfield Halls launches their pantomime Cinderella later this month starring Ore Oduba making his panto debut and Tim Vine as Buttons

https://www.fairfield.co.uk/whats-on/cinderella/

Elsewhere in Outer London and Beyond

New Wimbledon Theatre also have Cinderella, with former Eastenders actress Samantha Womack, Lesley Garrett and Pete Firman

http://www.pantomime.com/venues/wimbledon

In Richmond Jo Brand in this Wicked Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs http://www.pantomime.com/venues/richmond with Craig Revel Hordwood taking on the role in Manchester and Lesley Joseph taking on the role in Birmingham Southampton has Marti Pellow as Captain Hook in Peter Pan and in Bristol a very smooth looking Shane Richie is Dick Whittington . The star of the panto season is at the London Palladium where an all star cast are in Goldilocks and the Three Bears Full QDOS Entertainment pantomimes for 2019-2020 can be found at http://www.pantomime.com/

If panto isn’t your thing then there are a range of adaptations for the stage. The Bridge Theatre bring Elliott Harper’s critically acclaimed Leeds production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to London. Amelie the Musical, following on from its original run in the Watermill Theatre and UK tour comes to the Other Palace . The launch of the London run acknowledged that in these divided times Amelie is a feel good musical that has an unusual story and a talented actor-muso cast, please see my video below from the event.

At the Old Vic, toilet controversy aside, we have A Christmas Carol for a third year in a row. Paterson Joseph stars as Scrooge, following on from Stephen Tompkinson and Rhys Ifans in previous years. Jack Thorne’s production will also make its Broadway debut . Antic Disposition present their own version in Middle Temple Hall and on Broadway.

At the Dominion White Christmas is on until January 2020 and Mary Poppins opens in October 2019 at the Prince Edward Theatre with Zizi Strallen and Charlie Stemp

At the Young Vic family drama Fairview transfer from New York, Death of a Salesman transfer to the West End. Tower Theatre present a revival of Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living and an imaginative retelling of Black Beauty comes to the Southbank Centre alongside Circus 1903.

If you are looking for something less seasonal Donmar Theatre presents Teenage Dick, based on Richard III and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti‘s A Kind of People at the Royal Court offer contemporary and modern plays that may not even mention the C-word.

Whatever your theatrical plans this Christmas I hope you are inspired to see a show and have a lovely time

Velvet, Above the Stag Theatre

Tom Ratcliffe’s one-man show follows a tributary of the River Weinstein to the English audition scene – a world of bits parts and capricious agents. Essentially, it’s a riff on the old joke, “who do I have to blow to get this job?”

When we meet Tom he’s fresh-faced, pretty, a little waspish and self-aware enough to know that he’s plying his wares in a cutthroat industry where the pay is peanuts and the gatekeepers are entitled, talentless shits with God Complexes.

Before we follow him into the seedy milieu of online exploitation, there’s a hint that he’s entered a world in which it’s necessary to make moral compromises with oneself. He’s shacked up with a high-earning boyfriend he’s half into, lured by the promise of cheap living. It’s later suggested to him that this is an acceptable form of prostitution. Naturally, Tom is aggrieved by this slight, but it foreshadows the dilemma to come, when an encounter with an anonymous online Hollywood agent, promising a role in a Star Wars movie, leads to coercive behaviour.

Apart from providing an explanation for one of the decade’s greatest mysteries, namely how the hell did Felicity Jones gets the lead in Rogue One when the movie demanded a dynamic, charismatic anchor, Velvet has little new to say about sex and power in the Me Too era. One thinks of Kevin Spacey and the awful truth that this kind of baiting and violating of young talent, desperate to make their mark, has been going on since power dynamics in human affairs was a thing. By my count, at least 13 years.

Velvet’s one new element is to imagine this dynamic transferred to the world of encrypted messenger software, where anonymisation and global reach add a sinister layer to an already mucky backdrop. In this way, Ratcliffe’s story serves as a double warning; it’s the casting couch fetishized in porn’s power fantasies combined with the social media’s double role as a virtual Soho walkup.

The evening may be familiar to those who peruse trade publications and tabloids then, but Ratcliffe is a vulnerable and versatile presence throughout. He holds the room as he flits from hopeful to devastated, by way of lost. It’s an emotive and heartfelt performance.

The play’s coda, its bravest moment, will alienate some; it’s either an empowering development for the character, a chance to own his experience, or art reduced to a seedy, immoral transactional relationship. Who do you have to blow to get this job? Yourself, it seems.

We Anchor in Hope, The Bunker

“I hate the theatre. It’s just like the cinema, only with more cunts,” observes Valentine Hanson’s bereft pub landlord, Kenny; a man whose musical loving girlfriend left him for someone implicitly more highbrow in their cultural tastes, now reflecting on this, the final day for The Anchor and its disparate group of lonely regulars.

The cunts attending this show find themselves in a very untheatrical milieu, a working pub populated by realistic characters. There’s the odd sop to the play-loving sophisticates Kenny despises; stage dancing, put-upon barmaid Pearl, vulnerable Bilbo, lonely old boy Frank, and itinerant worker Shaun – reduced to seeing his family on weekends and tempted by Pearl, stepping out of the action to provide background thoughts and laments. But for the most part this is an earthy and well-observed reflection on the death of traditional pub life; not merely the surface world of the working class local, but its role as the functional nexus for all the emotional and psychological wants of otherwise lonely people.

For all the characters in Anna Jordan’s funny and moving play, there’s an understated want for community and solidarity that only the pub can provide. Pearl, whose Mum suffers from mental illness, gets her respite and her ballast from her friends at the Anchor. Bilbo, a stray who’s brokered a deal to live in the flat above the pub, relies on it for sustenance and stability. Some of the play’s best scenes are those in which a heartbreaking Daniel Kendrick desperately tries to give voice to his need to be looked after, hoping the closing of the pub won’t see him returned to the streets. For Frank the pub is both a through line that spans his adult life and the companionship he craves. For Shaun it’s home away from home; another life, a world without responsibility.

Over the play’s two hours you get to know these people like they were your mates from your local, and you fear for them when the bell for last orders finally rings.

Jordan’s play has a lot to say about London’s changing landscape, about the breakup of communities. Not for nothing is it set in 2016, on the brink of Brexit and Trump; a society on the verge, about to fragment. This creeping uncertainty is palpable in the Anchor; the regulars all feel it, their mixed politics notwithstanding. Outside, predatory capitalists and investors have turned Frank’s London – a world he knew as a cab driver like the back of his hand, into something hard to recognise, and for Frank, hard to recall.

The culminating effect of We Anchor in Hope is gratitude for spending time in the company of relatable and flawed characters, mixed with sadness for the world portrayed; a world familiar to many of us, that is passing away. Society must progress of course, but a society without a strong and vibrant community feels as empty and inconsequential as an overpriced and empty flat in an unloved housing development.

The Permanent Way, The Vaults

Of all the obnoxious artefacts of Thatcherite monetarism, Rail Privatisation, or the vandalism of British Rail, remains one of the most vivid. In 2003, following disasters like Hatfield, Southall, Ladbroke Grove, and Potters Bar, in which the outsourcing of network maintenance to private contractors lead to many deaths, David Hare interviewed key players. These included civil servants responsible for “balkanising” Britain’s railways – the profit motive replacing safety as a paramount concern, to contractors, the former Chairman of Railtrack, and finally victims of those horrific crashes – survivors and the bereaved. Their verbatim testimonials constitute this play, now revived in a hollow under Waterloo Station. There you listen to the miserable story unfold in a symbolic dark void beneath overstuffed commuter carriages.

If the devil’s in the detail, then Hare’s old polemic is a satanic ejaculation. There’s anger at New Labour, in power when the play was written, in the form of their pugilist Transport secretary John Prescott. He’s held up here as a symbol of Blairite hypocrisy and inaction; a failure to renationalise despite a 1997 election pledge and therefore a mandate to do so – an acceptance of an embedded orthodoxy that killed people.

The Conservatives, who started with the headline dream of introducing competition to the network to raise standards, despite the manifest structural impossibility of doing so, live through their proxies – bankers and civil servants, who reject all expert advice and any sense of civic responsibility, to engineer a ruinous policy that excludes engineers. In 2019, it would have been great to relate the notion of a sitting government taking a hammer to an institution that gifts the public freedom of movement, in the name of economic liberalisation, but sadly there’s no obvious example.

As the players ventriloquize Hare’s interviewees, we learn that a SPAD isn’t just a ministerial adviser who rationalises botched privatisations to sleepless Cabinet members, but an acronym for “signal passed at danger” – which inevitably is followed by bodies crushed at speed and lives ruined by government. The play’s other heart stopping bit of jargon is “VOL” – value of life; the shocking revelation that a dead man’s mother can be asked to estimate her son’s inherent worth based on his disposable income.

Hare’s tapestry of testimony throws up some unexpected villains; social comment as evidence. Monetarism, apparently, is so permeable it extends to its victims. One of the play’s most arresting moments has members of a survivor’s group recalling a vote to exclude the bereaved because they were primarily interested in attributing blame and responsibility. The survivors, by contrast, some of whom were company directors and office managers, empathised with the managerial class in charge of the rail franchises, content with a modest payout. One tells us he bought a car with his £18,000 compensation, thereby adding to already gridlocked roads and increasing the chances of being involved in another fatal accident by a factor of 17.

If there’s a not-quite-fatal flaw to Alexander Lass’s production, it’s lived experience reconstituted as heightened, and therefore affected theatrical performance. Inevitably, the demands of projection and articulation engender alienation; in some instances, overemphasis bordering on camp.

Would microphones and a more natural register have produced greater realism, and therefore closer emotional identification with the play’s cast of solemn witnesses? It would surely have stopped the wife of one Tory MP, whose name is an anagram of Allah Wreckers, falling asleep during an otherwise harrowing account of the Hatfield crash.

The accidents may have stopped, but the damage to passengers’ wallets, wellbeing and schedules continues for Britain’s beleaguered rail users. Hare’s play is a useful reminder of how we got here and what’s required to fix it; a run that will usefully cut across an election campaign in which one party will pledge to return the network to public ownership. If you need convincing, buy a ticket and consider nationalisation would be the first time something being disenfranchised would work to the public good.

The Permanent Way runs to November 17th. Photo credit: Nobby Clark. 

An Inspector Calls, Churchill Theatre

J.B. Priestley’s old standard turns up unannounced in Bromley (not to be confused with the play’s setting of Brumley), and it’s a polished and handsomely mounted production to boot. The Birling house, in keeping with their position in the Edwardian pecking order, is precariously elevated, its facade easily pulled back and exposed, its interior narrow and small like the minds that reside therein, self-congratulatory and decadent, until the titular investigator approaches from the cobbled street beyond.

It may appear mannered and overly didactic to some members of a modern audience, but An Inspector Calls remains depressingly relevant on account of being a weapons grade piece of social commentary; Inspector Goole (autocorrects to Inspector Google) an avenging spectre from a more egalitarian and socially cohesive plain.

That he’s a working class Scot with a no nonsense manner, and righteous in the best Presbyterian tradition, serves as a sharp contrast with the well-to-do capitalist clan who’ve made their money on the backs on the working poor. As they gather to celebrate the engagement of daughter Shelia to another empire builder, with the hereditary Birling waiting in the wings – a lofty and indulged son that exasperates his self-made Dad, it’s like looking at a snapshot of everything rotten with society then and now; a system driven by greed, preferment and self-interest.

Goole picks this apart in a series of earnest exchanges with the hypocritical brood and their role in the destruction of a fired factory worker whose lot was made progressively worse by each family member. Damned back luck that she managed to find herself on the receiving end of an uncoordinated assault by the same family, but the inspector’s only got time and stage space to call at one house, so everyone, from the factory owning father to the pampered daughter, via the matriarch playing God using the respectable front of a charitable trust for fallen women, plays their part. A girl who had the affront to ask for better pay is condemned to a miserable life of penury, prostitution and finally, suicidal despair.

Priestley’s radiating anger at what he saw as gross inequality and the failure of the well off to support the less fortunate (for accidents of birth and luck have always been decisive), can still be felt in the stalls. Anyone who’s wasted their time and labour working for another bag of blood and bones with a title and sense of entitlement will feel it in their gut, lamenting we’ve made so little progress in the 74 years since the play was first performed.

On the night I attended an excellent cast held an initially unruly audience, a third of which were teen school children inspecting an English set text. They gasped, whooped and laughed in all the right places (and some of the wrong places), sold on the play’s emotional underpinning, moral lesson and social conscience. That, Director Stephen Daldry and the looming presence of the dead playwright would surely agree, is job done.

Cherie – My Struggle, Hen and Chickens Theatre Bar

The New Labour era has its share of bogeymen; the Prince of Darkness, Claire Shortbread, Punchy Prescott, Malcolm Tucker, and of course its figurehead – Christian fundamentalist and crusader, Anthony Sedgefield Blair. But amongst the cast of supporting characters was the former Prime Minister’s wife, Cherie Booth QC – the successful barrister and bootstrap belle, whose lack of facial symmetry, charm or style, made her an easy target for bitchy hacks and bored commentators; politicos who, hollowed out by the banality of the era’s politics, fixated on the trivial.

Lloyd Evans’ one act play resolves to give the former first lawyer a right of reply. In the form of Mary Ryder, who holds the audience close with great gusto, and tongue planted firmly in cheek, Cherie’s given voice and agency as she tumbles through a timeline that begins, as most do, in childhood, and ends, as most don’t, in Gordon Brown.

Along the way she recalls highlights such as the abdication of her father and the Tony her husband replaced, Booth, her failed bid to turn Thanet into a Labour seat at Westminster (one can’t help think this suicide run was reserved for candidates the party liked but secretly thought were dead on arrival as far as the voters were concerned), the 1992 election that Blair read as his sword in the stone moment, through to power, Iraq, and the long goodbye to all that.

Cherie’s unreliable memories are more political memoir than juicy confessional. Libel’s a bitch, so even if Evans was inclined to think Booth outright resented the preferment of Tony in the Labour Party, suspected the PM was fucking her stylist Carol Kaplan, and knew – because Blair talks in his sleep – that the war was illegal and hubby perpetrated a conscious fraud on the people, he certainly can’t say so here.

Thus Cherie’s struggle isn’t with her imagined principles or her conscience, but paper tigers like gossip columnists and straw men; the likes of Campbell and Brown. Their crimes, in this self-centred history, are failing to spin the war effectively to protect no.10 from criticism (how, wonders Cherie, did Blair get all the blame? Why didn’t MPs, and Parliament, and everyone who didn’t offer Bush unconditional support for a conflict spun from an unconnected act of terrorism, get more shit?), and pushing the Blairs out of Downing Street and into a hated life of wealth and opulence.

There are a few interesting titbits in this engaging monologue, some of which may even be true. We’re tickled by the aside that Blair read the Tory supporting Spectator as a young barrister, or that he’d been marked as ideologically impure as early as 1980. Cherie’s Daddy issues, namely childhood memories of a local rag publishing news of Pa’s new family, provide a neat bit of psychological shorthand that explains her antipathy to the press (the loathing being mutual). Her RADA trained parent and Convent school elocution lessons, that obliterated her northern accent, suggest (without being overly judgemental) a certain inauthenticity – a foretaste of the political era she’d later embody by association.

Ultimately, the best joke in My Struggle, is the idea that – relative to the people New Labour failed; the underprivileged, the disaffected, libertarians, those that value diplomacy and the international rule of law, Cherie struggled at all.

Yes, it’s tough being a woman in politics, yes media scrutiny is ghastly if you’re in the public eye, and sure – no one likes the sexist lack of recognition for a lucrative and prestigious career in favour of whimsy and tittle-tattle. But – as the aforementioned millions who’ve subsequently suffered on account of New Labour’s failure to embed change, and the door that opened to David Cameron et al might say – those are nice problems to have.