The Caretaker, 23 April, The Old Vic

The attraction to this production isn’t just that Harold Pinter’s play seems to be attract some very fine actors in all its adaptations, just look at its incredible production history over the last 55 years but that the Old Vic have managed a real on coup in getting Timothy Spall, one of Britain’s greatest character actors to return to the stage after an absence of over twenty years, his last role being Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It is clear that theatre has moved on without Spall, his performance is far more hammy than necessary, I love a bit of ham but for it to work in 2016 ALL the actors need to be old hams and Daniel Mays as Aston, the gentle giant who allows Spall’s homeless Davies to share his room and George Mackay as Mick, Aston’s landlord brother are from a far less hammy generation of acting styles and it contrasts doesn’t enhance anyone’s performance.

Whilst it oozes humour there is a real psychological aspect that I feel is missed, especially compared to the darkness of Pinter’s The Hothouse, revived by Jamie Lloyd and Matthew Warchus’s production just about hits on it during Aston’s monologue, this is an image (1).jpgextraordinary performance by Mays an actor I have never taken to because he usually plays unkind characters with an unkind face but he seemed like a different actor here,  about his stay in a psychiatric ward but otherwise I came out wondering “Why should I care?”.  The standout performance is Mackay, his confidence at such a young age surely marks him out as one of his generation’s actors to watch (and my friends thought he looked great in his tight black outfit) but both Mackay and Mays are unfortunate to have the majority of their roles with Spall, who is adequate but has taken on a role far too big after such a long absence

My concern, having seen a couple of productions at the Old Vic by Warchus is that he is not good with such a large space. He uses small sets with black outlines, which for those sat beyond the stalls is incredibly distracting and I cannot blame the Old Vic for usurping Warchus for Spacey when the opportunity arose in 2003, now he has arrived his reign feels as mundane as the National Theatre’s and more expensive. I have high hopes for Glenda Jackson’s Lear but right now the Old Vic needs an injection of plays that aren’t too long and aren’t too dull.

Your Ever Loving, N16 Theatre, 21 April

I studied at London Metropolitan and one of my lecturers was the excellent Jonathan Moore, now working in the Journalism department but when I studied History he was the Irish History lecturer and set up my long term fascination with the ever complicated story of Irish History, which includes famine, fascism and civil war amongst other things.
I mention this as Martin McNamara was inspired to write this play after finding Paul Hill’s letters in London Metropolitan’s Archive of the Irish in Britain’. Paul’s story wasn’t entirely unknown. As part of the Guildford 4 he was featured in ‘In the Name of the Father’ played by John Lynch in 1993. At the age of 21, with a child on the way, Paul Hill found himself sentenced to life in prison for terrorist offences he didn’t commit. McNamra’s script isn’t just a monologue of letters written by a young man to his mother and family but a depressing tale of how we have truly failed to learn from the past. This has a happy ending, Paul is now married to a Kennedy and has met the Obamas

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Paul Hill is played by charismatic and compelling Stefan McCusker, who along with James Elmes (who plays everyone else) provides a compelling evening of drama. Elmes naturally stands out playing characters such as the police, the therapist, other prisoners, torturers but also historical figures such as Margaret Thatcher and Roy Jenkinson. It would be tough on any actor but Elmes, reminded me of a young Christopher Eccleston, and almost steals the show through his sheer range of characters and performance. That isn’t to belittle McClusker, who never leaves the stage and has the toughest role as the intelligent and pragmatic Hill,who knows he is innocent and missing out on the life his peers had but sees no way out. I thought McCusker’s move into a slight American accent (Hill married an American) was a really nice touch and I really hope to see these two young actors in more productions.

It is an important piece of work that deserves a far bigger audience but the theatre’s small space above the Bedford Pub in Balham makes the play more intimidating and more believable that we are in that cell with Hill, experiencing the lows but mainly the internal anger he builds up-anger over missing out on his daughter’s childhood, anger towards the police, the judiciary and his own guilt at putting his family through this.   The most shocking and controversial element is the claim that Hill and others were tortured into making those confessions and their families were threatened. The police deny this but in the light of the continuing war on terror (Muslims, instead of Catholics) it isn’t that hard to disbelief that Hill’s recollection is inaccurate.

Corbyn the Musical: The Motorcycle Diaries, Waterloo East, 20 April

There felt like a huge urgency to see ‘Corbyn the Musical: The Motorcycle Diaries’ when I booked in January. I wasn’t entirely sure Jeremy Corbyn, who doesn’t want to see this,  would even still be leader by the time this opened at Waterloo East Theatre in April and after seeing it I am wishing Corbyn had been destroyed in a coup so I might have been saved from this kitsch work

The issue isn’t that ‘Corbyn…’ is bad but people have paid for either a really good time or a full on car crash. This is neither; some elements are very good such as musical numbers and some elements are very bad like the structure.

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Martin Neely as Corbyn (Rupert Myers)

It doesn’t help that the play is set in a Dystopian future where Jeremy Corbyn (Martin Neely) is PM, Boris Johnson (David Muscat) is opposition (which is never clearly explained, at first I thought he had crossed the floor) and Vladimir Putin (Muscat, again) is out to bomb the homosexual loving UK, in a desperate attempt to hide his own love of men. There is also the Motorcycle Diaries element; Diane Abbott (Natasha Lewis) and Corbyn’s now infamous 1970s trip to East Berlin, which feels like a last minute addition to a story that needed some padding, with strong support from James Dismore as a Doctor Strangelove/Bond Villain Tony Blair

The whole production feels slow (a friend cried out “PLEASE END” as it continued to drag out) and already a little dated, with references to Mark Clarke, the  Tory who was accused of bullying then suspended and its main strength are Jennifer Green’s compositions for songs such as  Putin’s love song to Laika the Space Dog, which felt like it belonged in a good Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice production about the USSR  and Corbyn’s loving tribute to Islington (though oddly to the part where he isn’t an MP), even the sound quality meant these weren’t as enjoyable as they could have been, despite containing some strong talents like David Muscat as Putin (thought his full head of hair and outfit in a video sequence made me think he was Kim Jong-il)  and Johnson and Natasha Lewis as an excellent Diane Abbott.

The whole dramatic element feels under researched at times and seems unsure of its audiences, an audience that if they take any interest in this musical will have a strong interest in politics and current affairs. I feel like writers of the book and lyrics Bobby Friedman and Rupert Myers were expecting a more generic crowd, who might listen to ‘Today’ occasionally. I know for a fact that the audience I was in contained two (failed, Labour) Prospective Parliamentary Candidates, not the sort of people you want to present pretty sloppy political satire to.

Sadly, this musical just isn’t strong enough to be the memorable night out it wants to be. I’ve seen comparisons to Edinburgh Fringe shows; it does feel very much what some ex-Footlights would put on once they graduated from Cambridge; very aware but not very thought through.

Still I look forward to the inevitable Trump: The Musical that will grace the London stage soon enough…

 

Corbyn the Musical is sold out at Waterloo East Theatre until 30 April but returns may be available on the day. 

 

 

Boy, Almeida, 18 April

My patience is running a bit thin with the Almeida Theatre; a mediocre Bakhai, a outright awful Medea, a boring Little Eyolf, an overlong Uncle Vanya/Johnny and now the pointless Boy. I booked based on the director-design team Sacha Wares and Miriam Buether,who previously produced the innovative Game at the Almeida. The set was going to be amazing, even if nothing else was.

Unfortunately this is what we got, I worry when a theatre of Almeida’s reputation doesn’t have star names and it has chosen gimmicks: a travelator and impressive props-including the floating devices that ‘Yoda’ uses in London’s top tourist areas) over a coherent play and a cast capable of doing anything with it. The set, no matter how interesting, cannot distract from a weak play.

The sad truth is Frankie Fox’s Liam (the Boy) is not interesting, important or even realistic enough to care about. Fox’s strength is being able to make this character consistently awful in his performance as it is clear it hasn’t come from the writing.

Leo Butler’s script is basically buzz words. ‘Sanctions!’ ‘ESA!’ ‘Zero hours!’ and some unconvincing swearing from an 8 year old. It isn’t that Butler doesn’t understand poverty or the underclass-he simply doesn’t care and as a result neither do the audience.

The audience is one of the problems. The middle class theatre audiences of Islington don’t understand or want this. A recent Guardian article called this poverty porn and that is exactly it. It reinforces the opinion that the poor can’t help themselves and as a child of a single parent on benefits I find it infuriating. Not one character is poor and trying to better themselves. The poor are ignorant, rude and incapable of bettering themselves, not because of the cuts or society but because them. It is an issue where a good play can be produced. This isn’t it.

There’s issues of race too. I can’t boohoo for the white Liam, who will have more opportunities than any of the ethnic minority poor in his orbit. A white middle class character approaches his asking character for drugs because he looks a bit rough. Really? At 80 minutes it is 80 minutes too long and a real disservice to theatre aimed at young people.

Cyprus Avenue, Royal Court Upstairs, 16 April

My expectations were high for this joint Abbey Theatre/Royal Court production starring Stephen Rea, last seen in Ballyturk at the NT. Rea is one of my favourite actors, versatile and strangely ageless; he turns 70 in October I trust him not to put his name to anything poor.

There is no doubt that David Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue is my play of 2016-so far! Its intimacy (a small in the round production directed by Vicky Featherstone) increases that tension that would be nothing in a larger theatre but not only do feel like witnesses to Miller’s behaviour but also complicit in not stopping him. It humours and unsettles equally. as we descend into madness with Rea’s Eric Miller, an Ulster man who convinced himself that his new born granddaughter is Gerry Adams. Rea is rarely off stage and what could be a basic portrayal of an elderly, dour Belfast man becomes a story of identity, particularly identity in a divided country like Northern Ireland, race, gender and (lack of) acceptance by some of the older generation.

The strongest scene for me is Rea’s monologue about his trip to London, his confusion at the English embracing Irish identity over their Britishness-(with particular contempt for O’Neills pubs and English descendants of the Irish, as it mainly becomes it becomes clear that his fear is the unknown. He doesn’t know the Catholics and he has lived in this bubble in the belief that any knowledge of anything else will destroy all he has known.  That isn’t to say Rea can’t interact with his co-stars and his scenes with Slim (Chris Corrigan) and Bridget, his therapist (Wunmi Mosaku) reveal the depth of insecurity as they desperately try to understand him and his reasoning but I felt his wife Bernie (Julia Derden) and daughter (Amy Molloy) were underwritten and didn’t delve as deeply into Eric’s apparent hatred of women (yet another group he didn’t understand) as much the production could have done.

 

Royal Court until 7 May.

Les Blancs (preview), 23 March 2016

Les Blancs seems to have timed its arrival at the National Theatre (Olivier) perfectly. Its post-war colonial setting in an unnamed African country may not seem relevant today but tackling issues such as race, terrorism and the question of belonging as an immigrant it easily feels as though this was written in this decade and not 50 years ago.
Lorraine Hansberry’s title comes from her response to Jean Genet’s musical The Blacks (1961) and was her final work before dying aged 34 in 1965 and wasn’t staged until 1970. She considered it her most important work but its incomplete status (she was still writing until her death) means it is rarely performed.

Yael Farber (The Crucible, Mies Julie) creates an atmosphere of the Dark Continent, with traditional African singers and a smoky atmosphere, which reminded me of 2013’s A Season in the Congo, directed by Joe Wright, where nobody feels safe or at ease. Our protagonist could be a number of characters, Elliot Cowan’s Charlie Morris ,an American journalist disgusted with the colonialist racism who doesn’t confront America’s own issues of race, Danny Sapani’s Tshembe Matoseh, who returns after his father’s death after escaping to Europe and America, an experience which had both opened and closed his minds to white people and their attitudes or Sian Phillips’ Madame Neilson, a white immigrant who has tried to integrate and doesn’t understand her now low status amongst the natives.

The consistent theme is belonging; people trying to belong such as Gary Beadle’s portrayal of Abioseh Matoseh, Tshembe’s brother who has decided to become a priest rejecting African traditions, people failing to belong like Eric (Tunji Kasim), the mixed race brother of Abioseh and Tshembe who is raised with Christian name but is desperate to belong with the African’s fighting colonialism or Clive Francis’s Major Major George Rice, an old school colonialist who believes the white man has brought civilisation to the continent yet knows he is outnumbered and out of place relying on his gun and his race to get respect from the natives and his white peers but it is also looks at the fallings of both the white and the black characters. Characters that will kill rather than talk, characters who believe they are being paternal when they are suffocating, such as Anna Madeley’s Dr. Marta Gotterling. Despite the Olivier’s vast size it remains a claustrophobic piece and there is something haunting about Dr. Willy DeKoven’s (James Fleetwood) realisation that if given independence the African could live the quality of life a European would expect and had proven so in other countries.

At three hours with a 19:30 start it does drag a little, there are lots of scenes of actors running around the Olivier revolve and slow set changes, however where the piece picks up is the strong dialogue. I am not sure how much of the dialogue was Hansberry or whether it was National Theatre dramaturg Drew Lichtenberg but it is feels extremely modern and accessible with twists, that feel inspired by stories such as Hamlet and Cain and Abel, that whilst aren’t entirely unexpected they don’t feel like a gimmick to keep the piece moving.