Hymn – Almeida Theatre

Hymn - Almeida Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

One of the things that keeps us going back to the theatre is the pursuit of a feeling. Drama exists to educate, to inform, inspire and entertain, to help us to develop empathy with communities and lifestyles we may not otherwise encounter and to understand more about the world now but also in the past and even the future. We can enjoy its humour, grapple with its debates and intellectualise its messages and there are plenty of shows that offer some or all of these things. But there are a heady few that do something more, that escape the boundaries of their medium and leave you a little breathless, and everyone will have a small selection of plays that live on as pure sensation.

Recall them now and of course the quality of the production choices come to mind but so too does a surge of feeling that is undimmed by the vagaries of memory; a fizz of excitement or stirred emotion taking you right back to those giddy disorientating moments as the curtain fell and the hours or even days afterwards when you try to process its effects. The pursuit of that rare but consuming feeling is what keeps us going back to the theatre, to shows like the bewildering tragedy of Ivo van Hove’s A View from the Bridge, the heart-rending ache of Rebecca Frecknell’s Summer and Smoke, the joy of live theatre resurrected in Regent’s Park contemporary Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert or the thrilling urban energy and poetic beauty of Jamie Lloyd’s Cyrano de Bergerac, shows that you didn’t just watched but lived every second of.

While digital theatre has had its detractors we forget that live theatre could also be a sometimes passive affair in which the viewer quietly receives the performance in the moment but remains detached from the action. With a busy cultural scene, a range of shows were on offer, some bad, many fine, good, excellent even, yet the audience remained firmly on the other side of the fourth wall. A screen needn’t be any more of a barrier to intimacy or connection and, as with live theatre, the experience of streaming can and does vary considerably. In a year of learning and trial and error, there have been a few that have made the transition by using and existing beyond the boundaries of their medium, allowing you to absorbingly experience the story along with the characters.

Late last year the Old Vic staged a production of Faith Healer that so brilliantly understood how a film created live could magnify the intense intimacy of Friel’s play that it made the distance between actors and viewers irrelevant, giving the four monologues a greater collective power than they would have in a vast auditorium. Now, the Almeida Theatre has found the same resonance for its first fully digital production Hymn, a new play by Lolita Chakrabarti, live streamed over five nights, in which there is a growing recognition that filming a play is more than setting up cameras but using them and carefully plotted direction to enhance both the shape and flow of the story.

Hymn is an heartfelt story of friendship, family and the deceit of middle age in which two brothers meet for the first time at their father’s funeral having lived for almost 50 years with no knowledge of one another. Chakrabarti has crafted something quite special, a two-hander that simultaneously exists in a small, domestic world as two quite different families are rapidly but openly drawn into each other’s lives, while addressing major themes around modern masculinity, performative social roles, class and opportunity that profoundly shape the lives of Gil and Benny over the course of a year. Hymn is a play that asks some profound questions about how well we know the people we love or even ourselves as the characters navigate external expectations and their own sense of good judgement.

Chakrabarti’s 90-minute play uses a fluid structure that runs scenes together with little more than a breath between, relying on the viewer to notice subtle cues and changes of tone that indicate months passing, closer ties developing and the changing pattern of behaviour as notions of power and responsibility shift between the educated, successful Gil and the hardworking modesty of Benny. Chakrabarti deliberately avoids unnecessary exposition or the need to colour-in every nuance of this developing relationship and instead provides a series of snapshots, of moments in time between the brothers where their connection is forged, tested and moulded, turning points that will profoundly affect them both. And in spite of this more fractured structure, the combined effect of these scenes gives Hymn a greater emotional heft adding depth and complexity to the unfolding relationship that may skim on the practical details of their integration but holds-on to the genuine bond that develops between the men.

That bond is crucial to the success of Hymn and Chakrabarti adds a Blood Brothers spin to draw parallels between the lives of two men born within a few weeks of one another and whose fate is ultimately decided by their sudden knowledge of the other’s existence. While Benny and Gil are nervous around one another, even a little suspicious to begin with, is entirely natural but they are soon established as the missing piece of each other that despite wives, children, sisters and parents of whom we hear much but never see, both men come to retrospectively recognise an absence in their lives that only their brother can fill, an experience that becomes restorative and calming to them both.

The exploration of fathers, sons and brothers within Hymn is nuanced and intricate, motored by the reaction to their deceased father whose funeral opens the show. Gil’s oration is filled with respect for a great man, a pillar of the community that his son describes as a supportive hero yet soon Chakrabati is tearing at this image, forcing Gil to contend with the falsity of the life his father led and instead face his knowing abandonment of Benny’s mother as well as the controlling forcefulness of a personality that scars Gil who has devoted his life to trying to impress and satisfy his dominant parent.

The way in which conflicting masculinities contend across Hymn is particularly fascinating; this notion of success or at least maintaining the appearance of it seems to occupy both Gil and his father who hid his shameful secrets while chiding his son’s lack of business acumen. Benny has no clear feeling of resentment towards his absent father but is deeply afflicted by a fluctuating relationship with his own son Louis who rages against Benny’s political passivity, while the connection with Gil exists through extreme expression of manly strength in a boxing club, a shared love of funk and early hip hop, as well as an unexpected honesty about their emotional struggles with family and work. Neither man is entirely open, nor are they completely reticent but spar and share in equal measure, mixing traditional and more contemporary concepts and expectations of masculinity that continually change the tone of this extended duologue as the men and the audience get to know them better.

As a digital experience, Hymn really comes alive in an long middle section in which the brothers wander down memory lane and back to their 80s childhoods. That they loved the same things but never knew each other has a slightly tragic edge but the energy of this scene leaps from the screen as they dance, sing and enjoy each other’s company. Dressing-up in silly outfits, wigs and sparkly jackets, they play and joke as though they were teenagers again, riffing together, entirely in tune as Chakrabati once again explores the unexpected symmetry of their personalities. This connection with music that feeds through Hymn – even extending to Benny’s children being given the names of jazz legends Miles, Louis and Ella – gives a liveliness to the show that draws the audience into their happiness. The warmth of their attachment and the joy it gives them both is infectious, if only it could last.

That this scene comes in the middle of the play can only mean that a cliff edge awaits. The switch, when it comes, is sudden and grave, quickly jettisoning the characters by suggesting how little they really know one another. The control of tone owes much to Blanche McIntyre’s smart direction and, with increasing numbers of pre-recorded shows available in this lockdown, the frisson of live performance adds much to the impact that Hymn creates, not least in the technical decisions required to manage scene breaks and set changes in real time.

What McIntyre does with her camera brings the same immediacy that the Old Vic found in Faith Healer using shot selection and framing to overcome the required distance between the actors who can never touch or stand close enough to convey their burgeoning relationship and how passionately they need it. That you stop noticing those restrictions and become absorbed in the experience of this play is testament to McIntyre’s choices and the performances. Those lingering, intrusive close-up capture long reactions which can sometimes act as filmic slight of hand, allowing costume and set changes to occur. But McIntrye uses the camera to reflect the purpose of each scene, not merely cutting between the actors democratically but tracking the ebb and flow of emotion, knowing when a conversation is designed to reveal Benny rather than Gil, and training her cameras unforgivingly on his every reaction. For the actors this visibility during every moment of their 90-minute performance is pure theatre.

The combination of Danny Sapani and Adrian Lester in the leading roles is electrifying as their characters travel quite different but related paths in discovering their true selves. Lester’s Gil is the senior partner for much of the play, financially secure, confident and surrounded by an uncomplicated, loving family that enjoys a supportive sibling rivalry. Gil’s ease with himself is slowly tempered by Lester as cracks appear in the facade revealing a complex relationship with his father, a need to independently prove his credentials and the hints of suffocation even emasculation that being surrounded by powerful women creates. The untrammelled joy Lester expresses in the dance scenes with Benny is extraordinary, the rapid thawing of suspicion and intense bond of the brothers reveals an absence in Gil that he never knew, a need for male support that liberates him as much as their inebriating dreams for the future eventually reveal his weakness.

Sapani will entirely break your heart as a man who has known nothing but struggle and so ground down by the difficulties of life that even stepping forward to claim a place in the Jones family is inconceivable. Everything about Benny feels fragile, forever teetering on the brink of collapse be it his mother’s mental health, his son’s rage or his own precarious financial circumstances. Yet, Sapani lets Benny be blinded by Gil’s confidence, swept along in the sweetness of being with someone who understands and cares for him, wanting to know a fraction of the peace of mind that Gil implies. And while Benny may be more emotional he is also more grounded, come what may you know he will somehow make it through to deliver the play’s final speech, one in which Sapani will leave you sobbing.

There is an inevitability to the outcome of Hymn which the audience will spot very quickly, but it hardly matters amidst the thrill of watching a production with such transcending energy. While the structure deliberately skips time leaving many questions unanswered, the cumulative effect of this relationship and the void that both characters discover that becomes a desperate need for connection is moving and memorable. The Almeida Theatre’s long anticipated reopening may have been interrupted after only a few days in December but their sophisticated arrival in the live streamed digital content space celebrates the power of live theatre. You will remember this feeling.

Hymn ran at the Almeida Theatre from 17-21 February and hope to make it available on demand soon. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels – Part 1 – Finborough Theatre

Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels - Aegis Productions

The development of our hybrid theatre model continues apace, but this third lockdown has produced a particular period of acceleration as the transfer from stage to screen becomes even more innovative, daring and sophisticated. This week Nick Evans premieres his CGI version of Romeo and Juliet that dispenses with the Zoom boxes to place actors in a virtual world. It makes for a strange viewing experience but it demonstrates the leaps and bounds of technological possibility in the last 11 months. Athena Stevens takes an entirely different but equally fascinating approach to her new play serialised in 28 parts for the Finborough Theatre, half of which are now available for free on their YouTube channel.

Steven’s story is an exploration of toxic masculinity and the complex and contradictory responses of two women connected to the unseen male character. But this is not about a large scale abuse of power but the smaller, casual and everyday experiences of coercion and control that affect the unnamed man’s girlfriend and best female friend whose perspectives are dramatised. What was intended to be a two-hander in which the protagonists narrate the unfolding story, painting a picture of their friend in common, comes alive on screen in an addictive 6-7 minute format.

By definition, theatre is a difficult thing to reformat; the process and cost of asking an audience to potentially return night after night to see a longer story often isn’t practical and while there are notable examples of plays that exist over multiple parts – the Henriad Trilogy and Angels in America (recently added to the National Theatre at Home streaming service), being the most obvious – what Stevens in looking to do with Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels just isn’t possible on stage, and this play will certainly take on a different resonance when the Finborough space reopens. So, the current lockdown gives Stevens the opportunity to serialise her work as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle once did in periodicals, while at the same time using the technical possibilities of digital theatre to create a particular visual style and tone that brilliantly enhances the depth of this material.

With 14 of the 28 episodes so far aired and new editions premiering daily at 6pm, Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels has already become a gripping anatomy of relationships and the attempts to manipulate two quite different women. Stevens plays “A”, the man’s confidant and world-wise best friend who, while well-aware of his approach to dating and occasionally inappropriate behaviours, remains weirdly drawn to him almost in spite of herself. This smart, glamorous and self-assured woman feels only sympathy for his forlorn girlfriend, known only as “1”, but in trying to offer support, her conflicted loyalties become entangled in awkward exchanges and territorial divides that build a wall between the two women.

Structurally, Stevens employs a she said / she said format, giving each woman the space to talk in half the episodes. Usually 1 is first and A second, with only two of the 6-minute sessions involving a conversation between them on the phone – the only piece of direct dialogue in this first part of the series. Each monologue advances the overall story, outlining particular incidences, activities and plot developments that progress the narrative while complementing one another. In doing so, the viewer is able to see two versions of the same story with an insight into how events are intended and then received.

1 agonises over a racy picture to her boyfriend, posing for and trying to perfect it, yet we learn from A that the boyfriend received it during Sunday lunch with his family and showed it quite thoughtlessly. Later in Episode 8, the women reflect on their own conversation with one another; A reiterates her feelings of sympathy and concern for 1 as a result of the man’s bad behaviour while these overtures are less well received by 1 who, afraid that her boyfriend will find out, is unconvinced by A’s protective approach. The shifting perspective here is one of the most intriguing aspects of the play, considering how the same events can be perceived or be relayed completely differently.

Steven’s writing captures those unspoken nuances between two people and the messages conveyed without any words being spoken. D.H. Lawrence elucidates this so well in Sons and Lovers where he explores an unspoken tension between the central couple resulting from changes of mood and the process of two souls struggling for and against one another that undercuts the success of their meeting. Stevens draws out precisely that experience here, where communication becomes stilted even uncomfortable despite A and 1 both saying the right things. This recognition that voice and chemistry can simultaneously be at odds adds layers to the story that keeps the audience coming back for each installment.

Its cinematic style is another, and director Lily McLeish along with Designer Anna Reid have created one of the most visually arresting hybrid productions of recent months, using colour, tonal variation and pattern to give variance to each sequence while saying so much about the personality and emotional state of the characters. The back and forth structure is energised by locating each scene in a different part of A and 1’s homes while unusual shots and perspectives add a beauty and meaning to the unfolding story. It is incredibly stylish, even chic, and McLeish uses the spaces so carefully to immerse the viewer in these separate lifestyles while pushing the boundaries of technique to visually hold our attention – an approach that works whether you watch this piecemeal or in binge sittings.

For 1, softer shades and patterns are a feature, using accents in frosty blue and soft pink. Even when 1 is wearing a stronger hue in Episodes 10, 11 and 13, the framing of these scenes still accords with her surroundings, like a high-end magazine photograph creating rich but slightly flattened tones. To enhance this effect, McLeish shoots 1 from strange and unexpected places or angles, framing her against the black, grey and white patterned floor in the bathroom while capturing her face from above or from the side. In Episode 11 the same patterned flooring becomes a foreground, no longer dominating the screen but drawing the eye towards 1 squeezed into the corner by the toilet where a partially open door offers a light and shade effect that feels quite painterly. With other locations including her bed, sofa, hallway and living room, these combinations of colour choices, shot selection and performance create mutually beneficial harmonies with the monologue content.

By contrast, A’s set design is bolder and cleaner, preferring stark jewel colours and modern minimalist design using bright accents to underscore the notion of A as a women to be feared and admired. Costume too is an important element of self-expression for A, wearing fitted office dresses in bold shades that reinforce a level of independence, taste and even financial security including a royal blue dress against the white and red kitchen or a yellow loose gown in her Episode 5 bedroom, while her home is decorated with contemporary art and chic appliances in shades deliberately designed to pop. The effect, conversely, is to draw attention to some of those unspoken contrasts with A’s outward appearance and, certainly at this stage of the story, these suggest an unresolved emotional undercurrent – in such a stylish setting, why does she live only with an occasionally visible cat, never mentions her own love life and talks only of this quite imperfect and unavailable man? McLeish films A in the reflection of her own window, leaning against the sofa or in her kitchen; so far always upright, often outraged but always in control – at least she thinks she is.

In a story of this kind, it is the absent characters that must feel as vivid and credible as those we see in order to make sense of the obsession with them. The man here is still a little blurred by Episode 14, but Stevens has given the viewer just enough to recognise his behavioural traits and mode of operation that makes his effect on 1 and A believable. His casual treatment of 1 seems callous, even cruel especially when A adds her interpretation of his words and actions, helping the view to build a picture of a man who refuses to commit fully, runs a mile when his girlfriend says she loves him (Episode 10) and never sustains a relationship beyond 18-months. This is someone who likes to feel powerful and to have others envy him hence his insistence on how 1 should look and the bragging way in which he shows her off to A. He is, we note, indiscreet about their private relationship, talking openly about their sex life and 1’s personality flaws which he uses as a means to control both women, making 1 think she has everything to lose while dangling the possibility of his dissatisfaction in front of A, flirtily indicating she is the perfect women instead. While half way though this series we don’t know so much as his name, what he looks like or any material detail of his life, we know he is a toxic presence and one that makes us fear for both 1 and A in the remaining editions.

Both actors are providing immersive, gripping performances. You wonder, perhaps, if these characters are on opposite trajectories because there is something unresolved in A’s attitude to this man that goes beyond a simple friendship. Stevens is navigating this possibility really well, suggesting A is almost a stranger to herself, that her natural impulse to be kind to 1, knowing the man as she does and her to-camera outrage at his actions suggests a deeper hope than she may yet realise. Stevens gives A confidence, surety and balance, hinting that she would never let anyone treat her so badly yet leaves so many questions unanswered especially on why she has never challenged his behaviour directly. Where the rest of the series will take this character remains to be seen, but her (so far) stifled interior life has far more invested in this man then she knows or is prepared to admit.

Evelyn Lockley by contrast shows a trepidatious young woman slowly eroded by the man she cares for, absorbing any criticism and picking-over every conversation as evidence that she is not good enough. 1 is quite delicate and despite a relationship nearing 18-months, she is like a crushed flower, timid and uncertain, pouring over his every word and action while nervous, possibly even suspicious though not necessarily jealous, of A’s proximity to him and complete contrast with herself. 1 is worn down by the man’s critiques of her personality and needs, making her passivity hard to watch but Lockley balances a wounded emotional despair with a determination for self-improvement, hinting at a stronger strain of resolution that may be significant as the story plays out. 1’s fragility is tempered even early on by a recognition of her own beauty (Episode 2) and while her desire to please and be acceptable to him has dominated the story so far giving Lockley the chance to explore the impacts of coercive control, there are suggestions that 1 knows something of her value and that the second half of this story may offer her a chance for decisive action.

The first 14 episodes of Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels utilises its digital format to enhance the themes and tone of the play while opening several possible directions this might take. This combination of Stevens’s text and characterisation, McLeish’s smart direction and Reid’s delicious visual design have created an atmosphere of intrigue, leaving the audience to muse over the potentially sinister tone, the silently complicated relationship between these two women, how long they will remain in the thrall of this undeserving man and the meaning of the title. With nearly 90-minutes of content already available and just as much to come, whether you tune in every day or consume this in one sitting, you’ll be eager to find out what happens next.

Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels is streamed for free on the Finborough Theatre YouTube channel with new episodes added at 6pm every day until 28 February. The full play will then be available from 1-30 March. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Little Wars – Stream Theatre

Little Wars - Stream Theatre

Besides looking in on itself, one of theatre’s other favourite preoccupations is imagining conversations between the great men and women of history; one way of doing this is to elaborate on meetings that could feasibly have taken place such as Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg’s scientific debate in Copenhagen, J. T. Rogers superb political meeting drama Oslo or the electrifying evening of power struggles, civil rights, fame and masculine sparring that took place in Kemp Power’s One Night In Miami (recently and brilliantly filmed by Regina King) pitting Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Muhammed Ali and Jim Brown together at a pivotal moment in the 1960s. Other plays take a more interpretive approach, giving their famous protagonists an entirely fictionalised scenario in which to explore their personality, style and legacy of which Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland is a most recent example, giving Patricia Highsmith’s own life the Highsmith treatment. These plays are designed to celebrate their illustrious characters but also to humanise them, looking beyond literary, political and creative reputations for the contextualised human beneath.

Late last year, Stream Theatre staged a rehearsed reading of a 2016 play in which five well-known playwrights and authors convened across the Channel for a dinner party on the eve of the Fall of France in 1940. What is remarkable about Little Wars is that every person in attendance was female, from the housekeeper Bernadette to the mysteriously ordinary psychiatrist introduced as Mary to a gaggle of famous faces including host Gertrude Stein and guests Dorothy Parker and Agatha Christie. Returning to Stream Theatre for two weeks of encore performances, Stephen Carl McCasland’s piece is most decidedly not a “women’s play” but an exploration of writers, their egos and the passivity of inaction.

Set at a decisive moment in the Second World War, aside from their literary credentials, it is notable that almost all of McCasland’s characters are Jewish, fearing the imminent arrival of the German army and responding in quite different ways to the rumours of mass extermination. That most of the characters are also American adds a different shape to the narrative of Little Wars as it explores the feeling of disassociation that some of these writers feel towards the war and its impact on others with whom they should share some affinity. That relationship with America is, for some present, equally problematic with several of the faultlines in this play depending on whether the individual plans to escape the war (and thereby the threat of Nazi persecution) by just going home and those who have forsworn their allegiance to the country of their birth and instead fervently proclaim kinship with their adopted nation.

What McCasland does so cleverly is to weave these debates into a much wider and more fluid conversation designed to get the measure of each person present while offering a series of character journeys that (largely) prevent the play from becoming too stagnant. Among such an illustrious groups of writers – a recognition they are well aware of – naturally, there is competition and over-familiarity which gives early parts of Little Wars a waspishness as the guests trade insults and personal critiques. Strength of character is hardly lacking as these titans of literature snarl and swipe, but a cohesive feeling builds between them as they debate their work, their lives and the developing pace of the war.

Remarkably, this dialogue feels like the conversation that (too often) would only have been given to men in a play, touching as it does on the big issues of the day and the views that each of the guests has independently formed, can astutely argue and defend. And while much later in the story there are sensitive discussions around the female experiences of rape, abortion and miscarriage that emerge from their own lives, for the most part McCasland gives his characters the same freedoms, intellectual rigour and discursive style as men so often receive in plays of this nature. No one present is a woman writer, they are just writers and had McCasland convened US-UK male contemporaries like Hemingway, Hammett, Rattigan and McCullers for an equivalent dinner, their conversation would have been largely the same – they drink, they compete and reveal a complex array of strengths, weaknesses, quirks and passions. It is refreshing to see an all female discussion reflect the reality of women’s varied and informed conversation.

What begins as a literary soiree perhaps designed to overawe the audience with the prestige of its authors arriving slowly, using their anticipated entrance to stoke and shape the play’s drive in the early scenes, becomes an exploration of morality and its gradations as each character is asked to reckon with the “what would you do” dilemma in response to the saving of Jewish lives in France and Germany as McCasland asks where the writer ends and the empathetic human begins. Increasingly, as this tale plays out, the high-minded swipes and barbs aimed at each other’s published works, themes and personalities by necessity give way to the more practical considerations represented by the two non-famous members of the group.

McCasland uses these two characters as devices to expose the gulf between the somewhat sanitised world of the American expat creatives living among their own set, steeped in the Albee-like rituals of domestic competition and one-upmanship, and the intrusive reality of Nazi government with its impending military occupation – worlds that move far closer together during the course of the play catalysed by the experience of Mary and Bernadette in which McCasland manages the taut scenario, circular nature of the interactions and escalating drama with skill.

Staged as a rehearsed reading in video boxes (though with no visible scripts), Little Wars is densely packed with activities and shifting conversations driven by the identity of the mysterious Mary – and listen out for a crucial slip when Gertrude Stein subtly uses a different christian name for her guest. It is a very talky play and – as with the recent film adaptation of One Night in Miami – some may find its intensely conversational style is weakened by the static nature of the streaming format, losing the movement that would vary the pace and intensity in a theatre. In places the drama is undercut as characters are prevented from flouncing out in a fury and are unable to physically impose on another’s personal space as a territorial move. Instead, their video gently fades out when their character exits.

Nonetheless, just listening to these people talk becomes engrossing, largely overcoming the boundaries of the platform and socially distant approach, allowing the viewer to envisage how Little Wars might be staged. The unused dining table, plenty of comfortable chairs, sofas and bookshelves around which the group can conduct their private and collective interactions, its boundaries demarcating a barrier with the outside world, a bubble of privilege and protection in which these writers have lived for too long and is about to be unceremoniously burst.

With an excellent cast, the performance quality is very high as these famous faces spring to life, almost all of whom feel like real people with a past and future beyond the confines of this one night, the play and, crucially, their own fame as a writer with which audience expectation will be laden. Best among them is Linda Bassett as Stein who balances her devoted belief in France’s ability to withstand the German army with her status as the grande dame of this literary salon. The liberty Stein feels in Europe living openly with Alice Toklas and the various ways in which she is cast as an outsider in this age and location – American, Jew, lesbian and woman – are starkly conveyed in Bassett’s performance, adopting a fierce exterior shell that protects a softer heart and sensitivity beneath that Bassett unveils during the course of the play.

Her chief antagonist is Juliet Stevenson’s playwright Lillian Hellman (consistently referred to as Lily-Ann by Stein) whose bruising and even brash personality initially offers little sympathy. And Hellman’s frankness is one of Little Wars most enjoyable aspects not only creating plenty of confrontational opportunities that stoke the rivalries between the writers but also asking some of the play’s most troubling questions about the extent of an individual’s ability to make a difference or even care for strangers. Stevenson gives Hellman a grounded reality that never hides or shies away from the character’s arrogance and sense of entitlement but there are moments when someone hits a nerve that show a depth of feeling beneath the seemingly callous exterior.

Debbie Chazen’s Dorothy Parker is also one of the more exuberant attendees whose comfort with her own life and experience is clearly conveyed. A hard drinker with a scathing tongue and many lovers, this version of Parker is more personable than some of her fellow guests, while later in the play her more emotional backstory is expanded, exploring the difficult journey through the consequences of those relationships and one in particular that makes sense of her alcoholism and determination to live for herself.

There are far quieter performances from Catherine Russell as Tolkas the writer-to-be whose calm, unassuming presence provides a social glue that brings the conflicting personalities together. Almost happy to live in the shadow of Stein, their relationship is clearly full of affection and Russell navigates that role of facilitator and chief support well. Sarah Solemani’s gives the mysterious Mary a gentle tone, respectful of the successful women around her but increasingly firm in her own views as the discussion turns. In playing a character with secrets to reveal Solemani makes Mary modest about her own history but is nonetheless a charismatic presence on screen hinting to the audience of her greater role in the story ahead, while Natasha Karp as housekeeper Bernadette is absent for long periods but becomes the emotional centre of Little Wars. She may be socially separated by age and occupation from the assembled party but has some of the most difficult material to deliver which Karp does with feeling and compassion.

It is perhaps the most famous of the writers – certainly to British audiences – that strikes the wrong note and Sophie Thompson’s Agatha Christie never seems at ease in this company. It’s not quite that she is the only British guest or that she has no religious association with the others, but something in the clipped headmistress tone and cold demeanor that never sits entirely comfortably in this play. Why Christie is here, how she knows or whether she even likes Stein are never fully addressed, and, while McCasland perhaps looks for an outside perspective, besides the value of her illustrious name in this company and the anticipatory value of arriving last, Christie’s presence, trajectory and manner feel entirely superfluous, giving Thompson little to do but wheel out once again the tale of her disappearance following her first husband’s infidelity almost 15 years earlier.

With a charitable donation for every digital ticket sold going to Women for Refugee Women, Little Wars is still an all too rare experience – a play that puts women at its centre without focusing specifically on ‘women’s issues’. With influences from the opening scene of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls to the plethora of imagined conversations between literary, scientific and intellectual greats, McCasland’s play seems destined for a UK stage production in the not too distant future. In the meantime this rehearsed reading via Stream Theatre offers very human portraits of great writers and their imagined meeting in France.

Little Wars is available from Stream Theatre until 14 February and tickets cost £13 including fees. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change – London Coliseum

I Love You You're Perfect Now Change - London Coliseum

With changing restrictions over Christmas and into the New Year bringing another lockdown and a now undefined period of theatre closure, it has taken a few weeks for venues to readjust any live plans and return to digital production. But, the weeks ahead promise plenty of new shows and material which will be streamed for the first time including major players like ATG and now the London Coliseum making their first independent ventures into the digital space after almost a year of closure. Announced late last year, Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts’s comic musical anthology I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change has been pre-recorded at the London Coliseum and streamed over three nights last week.

This St Martin’s Lane venue has long mixed opera, ballet and musical theatre, drawing audiences in recent years with starry revivals of Sunset Boulevard with Glenn Close and Chess with Michael Ball, while two attempts to host a much anticipated (and needed) return for Hairspray with Ball and Paul Merton were sacrificed to Coronavirus, with the show now rather optimistically slated for April 2021. However, the Coliseum hasn’t been entirely dormant, serving as the venue for several of Stream Theatre’s pre-recorded concerts while hosting the digital debut of new musical After You in October, but Kirk Jameson’s production for Lambert and Jackson is the first to sell under the banner of the venue.

Much like the stunning Songs for a New World which reopened the London Palladium to the public in October (and whose deserved extended run at the Vaudeville has sadly become the latest lockdown casualty), DiPietro and Roberts’s musical is a series of disassociated sketches that look at the experience and process of romantic relationships across a lifetime as a series of couples and individuals navigate the highs and deep deep lows of falling and staying in love. And although no character or scenario appears more than once across this 80-minute production, the segments meld wonderfully together to form a coherent piece that borrows from plenty of theatre favourites along the way.

I Love You, You’re Perfect

First staged in 1996 on Broadway, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change feels as relevant as ever as the characters steer their way through the despair of awkward first encounters, endure tedious one-sided dates, reluctantly marry, have children and suffer the agonies of breakups, divorce and widowhood, little of which has changed in the 25 years since that inaugural production. Some of the detail has been brought up to date with a couple of recent replacements that substitute the agony of waiting for a call with the indignity of explicit photographs, while twenty-first century nods to popular culture giants like Netflix have found their way into the lyrics. Nonetheless, the structure, mixed musical styles and scenarios of DiPietro and Roberts’s musical have stood the test of time – not least with the return of video dating.

Musically, Roberts’s has written a show that uses an eclectic approach to maintain the audience’s interest in what are around twenty individual scenarios held together by their thematic and semi-chronological connection. Roberts has taken advantage of those differences to present some eclectic musical styles that touch on traditional musical theatre, the rhythms of Argentine tango, country, ballads and comic ditties to bring a broad but complementary range of influences into what remains a consistent and cohesive score. Roberts’s skill is to use each song to amplify the personality of the singer and their particular scenario whether it is the fed-up multiple bridesmaid performing a slightly bitter country rendition of Always a Bridesmaid, a seemingly doomed couple arguing over film taste during a cinema date, the amusing desperation of sex-starved parents performing a bedtime dance with their children while spotting a rare opportunity for an early night in Married Tango or the clipped tones of the modern singles with Better Things to Do than endure the inevitable perils of relationships.

And while I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change doesn’t follow a single character, the trajectory of the show builds both comic and emotional investment as each new vignette bonds the audience to the stories that come before and after. DiPietro plots a relatively rare course in an anthology show by including dramatised contextual scenes that ground the songs and give them additional heft. Unusually, some of these scenes are almost as long as the songs themselves including an extended scenario in which a gay couple force new baby stories on the happily single female friend – a nod to Company – before one half of the partnership is given a reflective solo about his lost single life. By the time the audience reach the only segment without a song, Rose Ritz’s increasingly moving dating video, and the two elderly strangers contemplating a first date after a funeral, the charm of DiPietro’s instant characterisation as well as the cumulative impact of these stories has entirely made its mark.

… Now Change

Reimagining this show for socially distant performance and digital streaming has given the musical a different life and Jameson has deftly translated DiPietro and Roberts’s vision to the screen. The intimacy and connection to each sketch is enhanced by a rotating cast of just four musical theatre performers who unite in various combinations to play lovers, friends, ex’s and strangers who build a rapport with each other and the audience. The connection between them only grows as the show unfolds, allowing the tight knit cast to convincingly portray relationships of anything from five minutes to thirty years while implying characters of all ages that play to their strengths as individual performers.

Brenda Edwards’s powerful voice is used to great effect in Better Things to Do as her character forcefully suggests skipping the relationship and heading to the wistful post-break-up phase to save them both some time, while making the first move with her shy squash partner in a subsequent scene offers Edwards the chance to belt I Will Be Loved Tonight using the full force of the Coliseum acoustic as she is framed against the pretty auditorium. There are some great comic moments too as the disgruntled woman bored on a date and as the amped-up sultry mother determined to sleep with her husband.

Alice Fearn leans into the tragi-comic numbers to produce some really affecting performances that skillfully tread the boundary between hilarity and despair. The bitter bridesmaid is particularly enjoyable as Fearn gives vent to years of terrible dresses subtly linked to doomed marriages, while her outrage as a young woman being sent A Picture of His… exactly captures the mystification of the modern girl with that particular photographic practice. There is a great duet with Oliver Tompsett in which two geeks wish they were A Stud and Babe only to find they are better suited as they are, while Fearn’s tour de force moment in the Rose Ritz monologue is a brilliant piece of theatre, both delude and embarrassing but also sweet, sad and really moving.

Oliver Tompsett is given some of the more exuberantly comic roles including the gay dad so immersed with his child he can’t shake off the baby talk in The Baby Song that includes an unexpectedly funny rap sequence, while his roles as many imperfect men in Single Man Drought, A Picture of His… and Wedding Vows are a fun collection of the smug, inane and silly forms of machismo. But Tompsett also gets his softer moments, particuarly in the delightful Shouldn’t I Be Less in Love With You as a long-married man wondering why his overwhelming love for his wife never wore off, one of the show’s tender highlights.

Finally, Simon Lipkin mixes some of the slimier personalities with the hapless and misguided, playing an affronted suitor on a first date with Edwards in Not Tonight I’m Busy, Busy, Busy / Better Things to Do as well as a smug father in the Whatever Happened to Baby’s Parents scene. But Lipkin’s most memorable performance comes towards the end of the show in the gentle romance of Funerals Are for Dating where he employs a very different physicality to create the mildly flirtatious old man looking for love, a scene filled with sweetness and personality.

But what really sets this apart from earlier versions of the show is Jameson’s approach to filming and its clear how much theatre directors have learned in a relatively short time. The style here is entirely in tune with Curve Leicester’s triumphant Sunset Boulevard in Concert that reimagined the semi-staged digital style using innovative approaches to location and shot selection that enhanced the themes and emotional experience of the characters. Jameson does the same, giving each vignette a slightly different mood and tone while using the camera to create alternative storytelling approaches.

In A Stud and a Babe, Jameson visualises the fantasy sequence using a cutting technique that switches to a heightened tone and hyper-real filming style where colour and mood are designed to contrast with the real life scenario. A similar technique in The Baby Song takes Tompsett’s character into a whizzing flashback / dream sequence about a night out that accompanies his rap. Whirling vigorously around the performer who gestures and dances into the camera, it gives the song a vital energy that explodes this moment of freedom and illusion that the character experiences before a sudden return to a still-contented reality.

And these production techniques are employed across the show to create feelings of distortion (particularly in Wedding Vows, sections of which are given a woozy effect), comedic impact such as the slightly silly Satisfaction Guaranteed advertorial for legal services in the bedroom, and particularly for emotional impact, using intense close up and stillness to intensify the more touching and sorrowful moments. Jameson selects these shots with particular dexterity, understanding the show’s status as a digital experience and using filming techniques to variously amplify and underscore the meaning and building effect of each scene.

With its universal comment on relationships, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change could probably make room for more than one slightly cliched same-sex relationship and, in reimagining it for 2021, the production could have been even more ambitious in representing a wider variety of pairings. Inevitably with an anthology show, some segments work better than others but with a show of this nature the overall effect is key and proves more than the sum of its parts, with some of the bittersweet moments lingering long after the 80-minute performance comes to a close.

With an indefinite amount of lockdown to come, the chance of seeing a live theatre show any time soon feels pretty remote, so a new tranche of digital offerings is to be welcomed. With filming techniques, styles and direction improving all the time, streamed performances are more adept at creating shots that offer audiences greater intimacy and connection with the original material. This semi-staged production of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change exemplifies our evolving relationship with digital theatre; we may have been on the rebound from our true love of live theatre, but as the month pass this slow burn anthology of stories is changing our future.

I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change was streamed by the London Coliseum from 28-30 January. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Staged: Series 2 – An Uber-Meta Constructed Reality

Staged Series 2 - BBC

The final episodes of Staged Season 2, Simon Evans’s hilarious lockdown comedy, air this week and, as with its first appearance last Summer, it has proved a lockdown boon. And while the show is inherently theatrical both in style and content while reflecting the screen boxes in which we have all lived for so long, Evans smartly decided to reorientate this second collection of episodes to give the interactions between characters a different energy while recasting and reconfiguring the audiences’ perspective on everything that had come before.

Originally Staged was of-the moment television created in response to and within the confines of the first national lockdown. It uses the video calling platform as its basis for communcation between a number of socially and geographically distant parties forced to reconsider their working practices as a result of the pandemic in order to progress with the development of a new piece of content. Both before and since, the boxed effect of this software has been seen across the arts as performances moved online and Staged, which was among the first to use this technique on mainstream television to underscore both its content and visual appearance, was unlike anything else before it.

Both Series 1 and 2 of Staged are inherently theatrical, with the first six episodes especially focused on the challenge for two reputed and sought after performers as well as their Director in failing to rehearse a version of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author – the nature of which the show mirrored. In terms of personnel alone, Series 1 utilised the particular nature of theatre-making, the rehearsal processes, casting and publicity along with the shape and form of Pirandello’s play as the characters slowly rebel against the authority of the Director. The deeply rooted theatre basis that ran through the first series was then enhanced with guest appearances from respected thespians Adrian Lester and Judi Dench who expanded the stage community that Evans’s script required.

Constructed Reality?

Series 2 continues to utilise the (now commonplace) video box style of Internet calling yet Evans has very carefully and astutely shifted the perspective of the show to give the premise a longer life. A tried and tested formula, more of the same would have been an easy sell but this new set of eight episodes allows the story to evolve in a very different direction and takes its inspiration instead from television rather than theatre. The central conceit is that Staged is now openly acknowledged as a TV show, a phenomenon for which an American remake is mooted with alternative stars. Instantly everything we thought we had witnessed in Series 1 is cast into doubt, a fictionalised reality where scenarios and characters were deliberately ‘constructed’.

The intimate ‘fly-on-the-wall’ quality of Series 1 has been repositioned as an elaborate fabrication in which the personal highs and lows of its famous protagonists in early lockdown were merely a feint. Staged Series 2 begins from this point of acknowledgment, recasting the existence of its predecessor as primarily a commercial rather than an artistic endeavour which will now be sold internationally. In both, the false past of Series 1 and the ‘truer’ reality presented in Series 2, mean Staged is owning its existence as a form of constructed reality.

The label may seem an unusual one for a BBC show about the interaction between two highly esteemed actors, but cast aside some of the negative implications of the term and Evans has actually created a form of heightened reality in which real people using their real names and relationships play versions of themselves. The way in which these scenarios drive the plot, the adoption and exaggeration of elements of the subjects’ day-to-day experiences and responses, the limited geographical location, techniques from soap opera drama and the editorial shaping of scenes, ‘chance’ meetings and conversations all figure in Staged, and are the very definition of constructed reality in which preconceived scenarios are exaggerated and spun for entertainment purposes.

When the character of David is caught lying to Samuel L Jackson and Michael Sheen twice in Series 1: Episode 3 it may be pure farce but, equally, it is the fundamental drama basis of most constructed reality shows where characters routinely lie, cheat, sell each other out and endure explosive bar-based confrontations. And this is even more apparent in Series 2 which leans openly into its reality TV credentials using Series 1 as a product to sell that Michael and David can sabotage. Again, the audience is given fly-on-the-wall access that echoes shows like Airport and even early Big Brother that journeyed to fiction through The Office and ultimately to Staged.

In each episode of Series 2, constructed conversations with possible US Davids and Michaels take place of which only a snippet is shown to the viewer, while the apparently conflicting ‘real life’ demands of family, filming schedules and old enmities distract and dominate the leads, giving them the chance to settle old scores. That the name of the show has multiple dimensions takes on a new significance in Series 2, not just referencing ‘the stage’ which thematically defined Series 1 and the meta level ‘staging’ of a televised conversation between two friends, but the notion of staging is fundamental to the constructed reality genre that Evans introduces into his concept with these new episodes.

Uber-Meta

Staged was always a show that drew on the meta associations of actors playing versions of themselves rehearsing a play while revealing the (here) lethargic process of developing a theatre production during a time of national crisis. The play withing a play concept fed throughout Series 1 offering plenty of humour as the protagonists misbehaved, lost focus and revealed their fears about their own styles and career paths. Series 2 takes the concept to a whole new level recasting the previously “true” story and making us aware instead that we were seeing actors playing versions of themselves playing versions of themselves – eight episodes of which can only be described as uber-meta.

And if that wasn’t mind-bending enough, Series 2 twists these meta principles even further by adopting a driver in which various pairs of actors are in discussion to play the parts in the American remake which will result in two actors playing versions of two other actors playing versions of themselves. So, within the boundaries of Series 2 many of the episodes contain both Tennant and Sheen plus cameos from single guests or duos each of whom is also playing a fictionalised version of themselves and who audition to play Sheen and Tennant in the US adaptation of the show (two actors playing versions of themselves playing two other actors playing versions of themselves). It is a Scaramanga / The Lady of Shanghai hall of mirrors that will hurt your head if you think about it too much.

A much simpler meta device focuses once again on Evans as a writer that cunningly incorporates some of the Series 1 feedback to create a recurring joke about improvisation. Lots of comedy is gleaned from Sheen and Tennant’s evident dissatisfaction at being recast and a fluid insistence on how much of the script they contributed to. The character of ‘Simon’ has been relocated to America (or at least to a leafy garden doubling for LA) for Series 2 where he continually reminds his original leads that he wrote the show and is therefore free to sell the material without consultation. That the hapless Simon is now doing rather well for himself and, for the most part, controlling the conversation is a clear development from Series 1 but that doesn’t prevent Evans as the writer from concocting scenarios in which guest stars question his input into conversations performed by Tennant and Sheen. The possibility of rewrites that crops up later in the series takes us into another meta loop of external rewrites of rewrites of a show Evans wrote, but let’s not start all that again.

Does it Work?

On the whole Series 2 is very successful, moving the story along in an interesting and perhaps unexpected way as Evans turns the premise of Staged on its head while extending it and even opening the possibility of further development – if each period of lockdown results in a new series of Staged then it can’t be too bad. But there are two areas where the second season slightly overreaches itself and despite two additional episodes has a slight tendency to focus on the action away from the spiky but devoted engagement between Sheen and Tennant which is the series’ biggest draw.

The premise of Series 2 requires a lot of guest appearances from performers with a more significant American profile than the UK version of the show. However, unlike Series 1 where guests were used sparingly and purposefully, here they become increasingly distracting using the impact of their profile rather than fully serving the story. Some of these scenarios, while jokey, do become repetitive as famous face after famous face reads a portion of the Series 1 script with Tennant and / or Sheen without really moving the story along.

And in places there is a falseness in their appearance that breaks the illusion of reality that Evans has created. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost riff with one another but, despite a real life friendship, their brief appearance in Episode 3 feels uneasy and stagier than it should. Later a reel of celebrity faces from Josh Gad to Jim Parsons and Ewan McGregor play themselves to varying effect – many of these encounters are humorous but they start to feel overdone. The star appearance works best either in the concluding episode when Evans provides a final and well-staged twist or when big names play non-real characters – so we mourn the loss of Nina Sosanya’s searing agent from most of the series (now we know she is not Jo but Nina) but welcome an equally brutal Whoopi Goldberg in a successfully fictionalised role.

There is a similar pallor to the expanded story given to Georgia Tennant, Anna Lundberg and in a couple of episodes Lucy Eaton who now have their own plot points outside the male-focused American adaptation. Having their perspectives is a valuable counterbalance and they have a great screen chemistry that brings a leveling hilarity to the more emotional interaction of Sheen and Tennant as they discuss an online charity event where the women will play versions of their partners. But the audience never gets to see it and developments in the show’s concluding episode essentially saps a possible outcome for these female characters.

While Series 2 occasionally tries to do too many things, the joyous interactions between Sheen and Tennant are the heart of the show and always its most successful element when they have time alone together on screen to rant, rave and connect. The progress in their relationship in this series is charmingly managed, building on the friendly fire of the first and using the rivalries with the guest stars to disrupt their relationship as well as give them a common enemy to unite against. There is a valuable consistency of character with Series 1, so even though they now acknowledge those initial versions were fictions, the emphasis on mental health, their bruised egos and unresolved feelings of displacement caused by the inability to work add to the richness of the developing bond between them.

Staged Series 2 successfully continues the story of these characters by utilising the concepts and conventions of reality television to create a window into the characters of David and Michael while playing with the interpretive layers of its enjoyable esoteric construct. That it is dressed in the production values, filming quality and casting power of the BBC while harnessing the immediacy of the video calling platforms in our lives may distract you but Staged is part of the broadening constructed reality genre. Popular culture and the arts are not so very far apart after all.

Staged Series 1 and 2 are available on the BBC iPlayer. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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