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.

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. 

What Girls Are Made Of, Soho Theatre

The boilerplate review of Cora Bissett’s legacy gig-cum-memoir, goes something like this: What Girls are Made of is a heartfelt and pathos-strewn reminiscence from actor and performer Cora Bissett – one time lead singer of Scottish indie band, Darlingheart. With the aid of her teenage diaries and a trio of versatile actors/musicians (Acticians/Musicators), she recreates the defunct band and their highs and lows, grounding the story of rags to riches to rags with broad comic, and sometimes touching recreations of the colourful gaggle of characters that litter the story – from the garrulous, bawdy manager who ripped off the band, to the pompous English record company execs who dropped them when their debut album failed to break through. The show’s an intoxicating mix of memory, music and reflection.

The above isn’t wrong but it’s possible it doesn’t tell the full story of this show. After Bissett’s brush with fame she became an actress, and one has to say that she’s great as herself – heightened, incarnate; slipping eloquently between time periods and confidence levels, and polished to perfection when reborn as a singer – front and centre. You can’t fault Bissett’s stage presence or the skill of the supporting players here; the talent and earthy indie sound that led to a £90K record deal is very much in evidence. Darlingheart, you feel, could and should have been contenders.

What’s interesting, from the perspective of Bissett’s middle-age and a quarter century of hindsight, is the degree to which the show inadvertently turns her into the very thing the NME mean-spiritedly dismissed her as, a commodified fake.

Hers is an engaging story, framed – in truth or hope, as one of naivety, overreach, and reinvention. But it’s also a tale told from a single perspective; personal history and understanding repurposed as theatre. What, one wonders, does Bissett’s former bandmates make of the show? There’s no attribution of blame or feeling in this account, bar the disdain leveled at the manager who used blank cheques, signed by Bissett, to clean out the band’s coffers.

She’s clear that she took the record company’s offer to go solo and drop her bandmates, only to be dropped herself when they didn’t go for her new sound. But at this point Darlingheart’s former members disappear from the story (“I didn’t talk to Cameron again for 25 years”) and their views on everything from the music to the split, are lost.

Still, this is a show interested in what girls are made of – a formula that supposes that everyone we meet, everything we experience, shapes our character; true enough one would think, though it denies and extinguishes the reciprocity that underpins that deal – the impact we have on others and their lives.

Is Bissett’s background and subsequent experience as interesting as her brush with the early ‘90’s music scene? No. It’s an accretion of provincial stuff seen through a parochial lens. You half expect a scene reminiscing about Creamola Foam and Irn-Bru. Essential world-building perhaps, but ultimately, when coupled with domestic trials and tribulations, a curious celebration of conformity and mediocrity in a show about a rock and roll spirit that was prematurely snuffed out.

Watching the show, I thought of a lyric from Radiohead’s “Anyone Can Play Guitar” – destiny, destiny protect me from the world. If destiny won’t, repackaging the world in a theatre with the complications and contentious bits removed, isn’t a bad compromise.

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.

Louisa Keight – Jinkies, The Camden Head

Louisa Keight’s Jinkies is a one woman sketch show which is so good and remarkably varied that it suggests that Keight deserves to make it big, and on to our tv screens, as soon as possible. It’s not just the wealth of ideas that impress as she sings, dances, and takes on a variety of characters, but her skill with language is a thing of beauty, she has a unique take on life and expresses it in extremely funny ways.

Taking to the stage in clown make up, her first character is an American called Billi (short for Billionaire, after being named by optimistic parents) who talks about the Broadway version of Swan Lake she staged with a cast made up of real swans and John Travolta as the only human actor. It’s Louisa making it clear that this is not going to be your standard, predictable comedy show, and also that it’s one which will make you laugh a great deal as the story becomes more and more absurd as it goes on, with Billi confidently telling it as if it was the most normal thing in the world making it all the funnier.

After that, and a brief introduction to “Shy Comedian” who is anything but, we get the ongoing tale where she explains how she took ballet as a seven year old, but being taller than the other girls meant that she was cast in the unflattering role of a Jack In The Box. Keight returns to this story throughout the night in what’s one of only two recurring characters, in a story which becomes odder and then surprisingly sweeter as it goes on, it wasn’t my favourite part of the evening but it’s still very likeable, and works as a strong back bone to the show.

The other character we see from time to time is in video clip form, where Louisa is seen in various locations discussing her life as a clown, they’re smart but not hilarious, but still a fun part of the show. Even better though are the other characters she takes on, including Girl-Girl, a superhero who doesn’t actually have any superhero powers but is still pretty damn impressive, a part where Keight mouths along to samples of some really quite unique dialogue, and a rendition of Dolly Parton’s Nine To Five which then merges in to another song making it unforgettable.

Best of all however are Patrick Swayze, Ghost Pick Up Artist which sees Louisa misinterpret the film Ghost for a gorgeously hilarious sketch, and her performance of a monologue about life up north, written by someone who’s never come close to visiting the place which is rather Alan Bennett-esque if Bennett suddenly decided to be delightfully weird and madcap. Combined with everything else they made for one of the funniest shows I’ve seen in a good while, and one which makes Keight the kind of comedian you’ll want to see time and again.

Louisa Keight is performing Jinkies tonight and tomorrow night as part of The Camden Fringe and tickets can be bought here.