Monthly Archives: March 2016

Bug – Found 111 (Soho Theatre)

Bug -Found 111

James Norton is rather ubiquitous at the moment and there hasn’t been a single week of 2016 that he hasn’t been on TV either in War & Peace, Happy Valley and currently Granchester. But each of these performances couldn’t be more different from one another – an existentially challenged Russian prince, a psychotic prisoner vowing revenge on an enemy-policewoman and a crime-solving vicar in 1950s Cambridgeshire. Now Norton returns to the London stage with yet another persona in a revival of Tracy Letts’s play Bug alongside Kate Fleetwood and directed by Simon Evans at Found 111, London’s trendiest new fringe space on Charing Cross Road, with its press night on Tuesday (29th March).

Bug is set in a cheap motel somewhere in Oklahoma in high summer. Agnes is hiding from her husband Jerry who was recently released from prison and desperate to track her down. One day the mysterious but sweet Peter appears and forms an attachment to Agnes which quickly takes hold as she learns of his difficult past in the army and his escape. As the two trade secrets Peter, who fears he’s being watched, finds insect bites on his body and as the infestation increases the lines between reality and delusion become increasingly blurred as Agnes is drawn into his fears.

On one level, Bug is about loneliness and tells the story of two strangers, two lost people who find a kind of solace and safety in each other. Both have been lonely, by choice, for a long time and are unexpectedly drawn to some quality in the other. What is so fascinating about Letts’s play is that information about the characters and where their assignation is leading is allowed to unravel slowly, so that details are teased out. These are natural feeling conversations in which these strangers are unsurprisingly suspicious of each other and reticent about discussing their lives, yet have a need to confide in each other.

Director Simon Evans allows the palpable tension to build slowly so that even by the interval you’re still not entirely clear where these characters are going but finding it nonetheless compelling. If you don’t know the story (as I didn’t) then the direction it takes may surprise you and the more domestic feel of Act One becomes something considerably darker after the interval, and not at all in the way you might expect from this initial set-up. It has an age rating of 12+ but even that’s possibly too low for some of the themes discussed here including casual addictions to drink and drugs, domestic abuse and mental illness. Act Two also contains some astonishing violence that up close is pretty horrifying but is a necessary part of the unfolding action and adds considerably to our insight into the characters.

The intimacy of Found 111 works well for them as the audience take their seats on all sides around Agnes’s motel room and almost unnervingly close to the actors so that you feel that you’re in their lives, while actively adding to Peter’s growing paranoia that he’s being watched. Designer Ben Stones has used the tiny space well having the audience form the walls of the room. Although set near enough in the modern day everything looks a couple of decades out of date, adding to the ‘seedy’ feel the production needs. Instantly you sense the characters are leading inconsequential and shabby lives in this claustrophobic little room that adds so much to the tension. Richard Howell’s lighting is also very effective at adding to the atmosphere and intensity of key moments.

The central characters, Agnes and Peter, are really the only ones with any depth and are on stage for almost the entire show so it’s vital that this connection is credible and engaging. Norton and Fleetwood absolutely crackle together as the protagonists and it’s fascinating to see the tone of their relationship shift and twist as they get to know each other, and like a great Tennessee Williams drama the muggy weather is brilliantly reflected in the emotional heat between them.

As the older woman Agnes has an almost maternal response to Peter, drawn to his little-boy-lost simplicity in the early scenes. We learn that her own child, with husband Jerry, was abducted many years before and the case never resolved, so her willingness to offer Peter a place to stay and a shoulder to cry on makes sense as part of her loss. Fleetwood brings to Agnes a brittle strength that allows her to take control at times, but also a softness that succumbs to Peter’s direction. She can push her ex-husband away but cannot refuse the younger man, and we see her replace addictions to drink and drugs – her only method of coping with the despair of her life – with belief in Peter, so as the action plays out the way in which Agnes slowly unfurls and then shrivels is fascinating to watch, and it is the exposure of this inner darkness that makes Fleetwood such an interesting stage actress.

Peter, on the other hand, begins as an American archetype, the lonely abstinent bachelor who has shut himself off from the world, a “lone wolf” with no ties. Reminiscent of James Dean in East of Eden and Giant, Peter is an educated young man but with something unreachable inside him, an emptiness that Agnes is clearly drawn to. Norton too is excellent at slowly revealing the character to us, the shy sweetness seemingly explained by early revelations of war in the Gulf, but becoming considerably more intense and frenzied as his theories about the bugs begin to take control. At times, Norton is even terrifying to watch as Peter becomes a greater and greater threat to himself, which testament to his skill as an actor remains sympathetic and pitiable, even at its most shocking.

The other characters are less well drawn which is a problem with the play rather than the performances, and seem to only exist to ‘explain’ bits of the action. They pop in and out pretty quickly so the audience has no real chance to understand how much of Agnes’s version is even true, and it would have been interesting to learn more about her ex-husband Jerry. Alec Newman at least gives Jerry a bit of a temper and a sense of entitlement in his limited stage time, while Daisy Lewis is all hot-pants and attitude as Agnes’s friend R C.

This is a play of two quite different halves, and as the domestic intimacy of the first gives way to a much stranger second, it may not be to everyone’s taste but there’s no doubting the power of Norton and Fleetwood throughout. This is not a cheap night at the theatre, all tickets are now £45 and seating is unrestricted so it is pot luck. Like most fringe venues doors don’t open until 5-10 minutes before showtime and at the preview I attended a queue had formed all the way around the two-room bar by 7.10pm – I’d never seen anything like it but such is the power of the latest hot-property actor. Bug is intense, intriguing and shocking and this may be early in the run but Norton and Fleetwood are already at the top of their game and you’ll definitely be talking about this all the way home.

Bug is at Found 111 a pop-up venue on Charing Cross Road in the old Central St Martin’s Building. Accessibility is restricted and there are several flights of stairs to climb so do check with the theatre before buying tickets. The play runs until 7th May and tickets are sold by the Soho Theatre.

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People, Places and Things – Wyndhams Theatre

People, Places and ThingsAddiction is a parasite and something that is never fully cured. But the media impression of addiction – be it alcohol, smoking, drugs or anything else – is that it can be identified, quickly fixed and put away, with the person at the centre of it often depicted as a figure of fun. How many sensationalist stories have we seen of various popstars and actors checking into rehab before coming out and going back to exactly the same lifestyle. Addiction has become part of the soap opera of celebrity culture that fails to consider the real and ongoing struggle of the people involved.

Opening at the Wyndhams Theatre this week (home of all the great West End transfers – A View from the Bridge and Hangmen included), Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places and Things which enjoyed a sell-out run at the National Theatre last year, focuses on the real struggles, frustrations, resentment and boredom that are part of the rehabilitation process. Theatre, films and television shows tackle addiction all the time from the seminal Trainspotting to the recently relapsed Phil Mitchell creating havoc on Albert Square, we are increasingly aware of the outrageous behaviour and wider emotional damage it causes for entire families or communities. Where People, Places and Things stands out, is its focus on the long and often painful road to recovery, taking in the individual struggle against the raging parasite of addiction.

As the play opens, a performance of The Seagull is taking place and the lead actress is spiralling out of control, unable to remember her lines because she’s too drunk. A moment later she’s checking into a rehab centre, still clinging to the drugs and cigarettes that have kept her going for so long. The play is largely about Emma (or Nina or Sarah or whatever other name she gives) going through the process of seeking help and the more difficult tasks of actually choosing to accept it before she can make any kind of real breakthrough. But as the treatment progresses we learn more about her background and profession that begin to make sense of her problems.

Making Emma an actress is an interesting decision because it immediately gives this a familiar feel to the audience – as I mentioned above, it’s something everyone has seen newspaper reports about. Emma is not an A-list Hollywood Star but a vaguely-recognisable actress meaning the action focuses on her personality and is not derailed by the supposed glamour of her profession and the other characters awe at sharing group sessions with a film star. Making her an actress also allows Macmillan to play with notions of identity, not just in Emma trying to work out which of the many personas she is, but also exposing the lies and deceits addicts create to mask their cravings, and convince themselves they are in control.

Denise Gough’s performance as Emma is really as good as you’ve heard and will almost certainly win her the Olivier in a couple of months. She’s largely objectionable from the start, refusing to buy-in to the processes of the treatment centre and just wanting to wait out the minimum 28 days before she can get her certificate and leave. She’s not there because she actively wants help but because no one will employ her until she’s clean. Gough is superb in the early sequences as the drunk and high Emma is disorientated, aggressive and frustrated by the check-in process. As she fails to engage in the loathed group sessions, Gough offers small cracks in Emma’s façade, where occasional brutal truths appear among the lies. You’re never being asked to like Emma very much, and you’d probably never want to meet her, but in Gough’s intense and brittle performance you do really care about her which makes the inconclusive punch at the end considerably more powerful. It’s an extremely skilled and moving performance that deserves every plaudit.

That ambiguity about the future is something that makes this play so successful, it doesn’t wrap everything up in a nice shiny bow at the end or remotely imply that rehab facilities will ‘cure’ addicts – in fact it suggest that perhaps that the safe environment may not entirely equip patients for the outside world. At one stage we see Emma, and several other residents of the centre, ‘rehearsing’ speeches to the people they love when they go home, and later we see how entirely divorced from reality that is as Emma eventually confronts her parents. This sense of a continuous struggle against Emma’s own personality reminded me of the film Shame, Steve McQueen’s beautiful and astonishingly touching movie about sex addiction, where the isolated central protagonist is repeatedly unable to overcome his urges, however much he consciously wants to, and finds no happiness or pleasure in these acts – a troubling and amazing film that I found myself thinking about even months later. And People, Places and Things has a similar effect.

Some of that is down to Headlong Theatre’s vivid and dynamic design. With previous experience of provocative shows like The Nether, here the action is set in a white-tiled u-shaped stage which gives it a clinical feel but at key moments video-projection, lighting and sound are used to show Emma’s disorientation as a result of the drugs she’s taken, shown as woosy green lights and the tiles on the wall cracking and flying upwards, or in a brilliant detox scene as 5 other ‘Emmas’ crawl out of her bed and walls, moving around the stage in a frenzy of delusion. This inventiveness, which director Jeremy Herrin uses sparingly, is more than just showy technique and helps to add insight into Emma’s struggles.

There’s good support from Barbara Marten as the doctor, therapy leader and Emma’s mother, as well as Kevin McMonagle as a failing fellow patient, but arguably the cast of additional characters are thinly sketched at best. While the group therapy sessions do try to give them all a backstory and chance to explain their own problems, these sections feel a little bland because we’re not properly invested in anyone else. They do tell us that ‘normal’ people suffer from these problems too and emphasises the value of the help they get, but it’s hard not to sympathise with Emma’s strong reaction against all the touchy-feely care-bear stuff, although they do give her a springboard to rail against it all which is fascinating.

People, Places and Things is an absorbing antidote to your preconception about addiction and rehab facilities. While the story is a little flabby in places, Denise Gough’s performance and the innovative design are well worth the ticket-price alone. Ultimately, this is just Emma’s story and, although it’s full of humour, it’s never a cliché but full of pain and loneliness and fear. We never know how Emma’s story ends because, for addicts, it never does and while the ending gives you some hope that Emma finds coping mechanisms to manage her cravings, you and she continue to fear that the pressure of modern living might just be too much for her.

People, Places and Things is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 18 June. Tickets start at £15 for the Upper Circle (recommend front or very back row as this the other rows are not raked enough to guve a clear view). Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


The Painkiller – Garrick Theatre

Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon

Kenneth Branagh’s theatre company has been a good for thing for London, and its latest production The Painkiller which opens this week at the Garrick is a promising addition to the shows that preceded it. Audiences have loved this season because it feels like something special is happening even though this concept of a company taking residence at a single theatre has a very long tradition – although these days is less common in the West End. For audiences this has been a chance to see a developing body of work which, with the pulling-power of Branagh, has attracted some of acting’s finest names – and anyone who brought tickets before casting was announced can feel pretty pleased as first Judi Dench and Michael Pennington took to the stage in The Winter’s Tale while the recent announcement that John Hurt will join The Entertainer in the summer caused a ripple of excitement. And not to forget the chance to see Branagh himself in the West End has been well worth the eight year wait.

But, this season is also offering a training ground for younger actors, giving them the chance to work with and learn from more experienced performers, while experiencing a company environment in a major West End theatre. In The Painkiller Marcus Fraser makes his professional debut fresh out of drama school in a small role, while Branagh’s next project Romeo and Juliet gives leads Richard Madden and Lily James a chance to extend their theatre experience. In a sense then, everyone wins, and with reviews and award nominations of previous shows The Winter’s Tale and the double bill of Harlequinade / All on Her Own receiving very positive reception on the whole (Red Velvet came under the umbrella of the KBTC but was co-opted in from somewhere else’s production), there is a lot of expectation on The Painkiller to maintain this high standard.

On the whole I think it does but of all the shows it’s probably the most risky. This is a new-but-not-new piece adapted from a 1960s French farce by Francis Veber, but this is the first stage version in English written by Sean Foley. The original is not a famous play in the UK despite a few unremarkable films, and Foley discusses seeing it in Canada as the inspiration for this production. Branagh and Rob Brydon performed an earlier run in in Belfast in 2011, and both reprise their roles in this developed version. Set in a London hotel, Brydon plays Brian a failing Welsh photo-journalist planning to commit suicide because his wife has left him for her psychiatrist. In the neighbouring room is Ralph, an assassin who is using the hotel window to perform a contract killing on a visiting dignitary. Initially brought together by an over-zealous bellhop, the two men soon become embroiled in each other’s lives, but as the scenarios become increasingly ridiculous they find themselves battling tranquillisers, enraged exes, interfering policemen and too many cushions.

If you loved Harlequinade then this more modern farce will be for you and, as so often with comedy, will become sharper as the run progresses. There are still three previews before the official press night later this week so there are some elements that will work better when it’s been performed a few more times including some of the fight scenes which even from the upper circle are a little off-cue presumably as the actors are still holding back a little while they get used to the set, and saving something for the critics. But once the stagey beginning is over, and you get into the story, it very quickly finds its feet as the various incidents inflicted on the two protagonists become increasingly outrageous. Foley (and Veber of course) mixes together a variety of forms of humour from clever wordplay and sarcasm to plenty of slapstick, funny walks, accents and pure farce that keep you engaged for 90 minutes without it ever feeling too samey. There are occasional reprises of the same joke or act but overall Foley has been very restrained in ensuring the plot still progresses rather than just focusing on making the audience laugh, which they frequently do. It’s a good balance of still, and occasionally quite introspective dramatic moments, and side-splitting hilarity that can only come from a cast really enjoying themselves.

Brydon is the emotional heart of the piece, despite also being the cause of all the crazy things that happen, and it is essentially Brian’s story that we’re following.  Much like his role in the recent Future Conditional at the Old Vic, of which he was by far the best thing about it, Brydon is very good here at combining the broad physical comedy with the sadness of a man who feel he’s lost everything, which will deepen as the run progresses, and for a lot of the time there’s a childishness to Brian ‘acting out’ until he gets what he wants. Interesting too to see how the relationship with Ralph forces him to reflect on how needy he has been, and at crucial moments takes the lead by looking after someone else, which Brydon makes believable without losing the comedy heart of the piece.

Branagh’s role initially is the more straightforwardly dramatic and for a long time it seems Ralph, (posing as John), will be the straight-man. In these opening moments as a cold hearted assassin, and at this very early point in the run, Branagh has more to give and will evolve his business-like contract killer into something slightly more menacing as he gets more performances under his belt. But a little way into the play Ralph’s character shifts too and here Branagh is already hitting his stride brilliantly as he gets his share of the comedy.  As we saw with Harlequinade Branagh really has a flair for this kind of silly humour and he fully dives in here, enjoying the opportunity to push it to the extremes, and the post tranquilliser scenes are some of the funniest things you’ll see in London right now as Ralph loses control of his speech and limbs to hilarious effect.

The budding rapport between the two could easily be forgotten amidst the hysteria, but director Sean Foley ensures we see two lonely men finding unexpected support and solace in each other’s company, so you leave feeling they could have a life beyond the story – particularly as they end up in each other’s clothes, a hint that they’ve adopted traits as well. Great support from Mark Hadfield as the Porter / Bellhop whose cheery demeanour is severely tested by the goings-on in these adjoining rooms and having him popping in and out not only provokes some great comedic reactions but also a constant reminder of the ridiculousness of the situation. Alex McQueen and Claudie Blakley have small but important roles as Brian’s ex-wife and new lover which add nice variety to the plot and both are great at conveying the long-bubbling frustrations of their back-story with Brian.

Alice Power’s set is a perfect reproduction of a generic higher-end hotel with its fancy linens and surround-sound multimedia systems used to good effect. Showing the two rooms side-by-side really does emphasise how soulless these places are despite hotels going to considerable lengths to make visitors feel at home, and you get that sense from Power’s set that these kinds of rooms are the backdrop to endless human dramas which today just happens to be a suicidal man and an assassin.  Incidentally, this is not the first time that these two characters-types have been brought together, there’s a 30 minute Murder Most Horrid episode from the 1990s with Dawn French and Amanda Donohoe that in a slightly different way was interested in the interaction of these two extremes.

So, The Painkiller is a worthy and enjoyable edition to the Branagh Theatre Company’s season that should mature very well as the run continues. I suspect the critics will be divided as they so often are about this kind of daft humour and Harlequinade received a variety of low 3 star and high 4 star reviews. But the audience loved it so much the cast got three curtain calls, and it will continue to delight. Following this are two serious productions of Romeo and Juliet and The Entertainer that complete the season, so at the end of a long dreary winter, The Painkiller is well placed to cheer us up as spring begins.

The Painkiller is at the Garrick Theatre until 30 April. Tickets start at £17 from a variety of ticket sellers but tickets are likely to sell fast after Press Night on 17 March. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Artist and Empire – Tate Britain

Edward Armitage's Retribution, 1858Empire is a bit of a dirty word and something we don’t really like to think too much about. But in the last ten years historians have increasingly turned their attention to reconsidering the Empire and its meaning in an attempt to understand what Britishness means in the twenty-first century. In effect the British Empire began in the sixteenth-century and fell into decline after the First World War as countries won their independence. Our modern perception is that Empire meant slavery, subjugation and looting of other countries but as with most historical events it is never as simple as it looks, and while it existed for more than 350 years, it also led to cultural exchange, technological advancement and engagement with the world that benefited both Britain and its conquered territories. Tate Britain’s big winter exhibition Artist and Empire tells this story through painting, sculpture and map-making, and while it doesn’t decide whether Empire was ultimately good or bad, it has brought together one of the most fascinating collections about this defining era in British history.

Thematically arranged, it begins with cartography, because the first thing you need to do when you conquer somewhere is make a map of your new territory, and this initial room contains some fascinating examples of early scientific exploration from as long ago as the sixteenth century accompanied by enormous portraits of explorers including a fine centrepiece of Thomas Cavendish, Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins painted in the 1600s. There are also examples of original maps made within Britain including siege plans for Enniskillen Castle by an English soldier called John Thomas, which may explain where this love of capturing and subduing lands came from. From the start it’s clear that this show will take a multi-country perspective and pieces depicting Ireland, America, Africa, Australia and India sit side by side as astonishing examples of the Britain’s reach at any given time and the millions of people it affected.

Eddie Izzard would tell you that claiming ownership of somewhere also requires that you stick a flag in it – “no flag, no country” – so the exhibition also brings you right up to the twentieth-century with some handmade Asafo Flags from West Africa designed by the Fante a Ghanaian people showing collaboration between local culture and the British invaders with some incorporating elements of the Union flag. As they hang from the ceiling they seem to entirely represent the contradictory thoughts about Empire, hinting both at tales of repression, occupation and acquisition, as well as the development of local alliances that led, for a time at least, to mutual systems of government.

One of the major consequences of the Empire was its scientific output and the second room considers its effect on the collections of natural history, art and literature. From exploratory voyages which recorded new species of animal and plant life to the development of the ‘Grand Tour’ for aristocratic young men around Europe, the engagement with the effects of Empire was considerable. This room includes beautifully detailed botanical drawings such as those by Lady Anna Maria Jones who collected and drew Indian plants while stationed there with her husband in the late 1700s. This is brilliantly balanced by related bird drawings by Shaikh Zain-ud-Din who was commissioned by Lady Jones among others to add to her collection, and this is another fascinating aspect of this exhibition, it’s not just the British perspective on foreign lands but the increased appetite for locally produced works of art and cultural objects.

The interest in new species is an opportunity to show Stubb’s superb painting of A Cheetah and a Stag with Two Indian Attendants which became part of the Duke of Cumberland’s menagerie and took part in stag hunts at Windsor.  There’s also the Stubbs Dingo, as well as John Lewin’s Tasmanian Tiger, placed alongside discussion of Joseph Banks who voyaged with Captain Cook. The trafficking of goods and animals (as well of people) back to Britain was part of a cultural influx at home too, meaning it wasn’t just the people who travelled around the Empire who experienced its effects, signalling a huge shift in the movement of goods around the world.

No study of Empire is complete without mention of the military campaigns that effected the subjugation of other lands, and the next room considers the grandiose, and often misleading, statements about the heroism of the army. From virtual nonsense including Benjamin West’s The Death of General James Wolfe which falsely imagines the great leader succumbing on the battlefield surrounded by his men and a Native American, to George William Joy’s depiction of the death of General Gordon, military heroes are given a saint-like composure, likening their demise to religious imagery of sacrifice – essentially rewriting history and the nature of conflict to suit the iconography of the Empire.

In the following rooms, the merging of British and local cultures becomes more apparent as several portraits show the exchange of costume, with famous faces such as T. E. Lawrence in tribal wear and John Foote in beautiful India muslins painted by Joshua Reynolds. But this influence worked both ways as British style portraits and customs were adopted. We can see this in Simon de Passe’s portrait of Pocahontas in European dress. Ethnographic studies of different cultures also became increasingly popular and many of the pictures in the final rooms document the nature of tribal life including portraits of Maori chiefs, the King of Matabeleland and leather goods from Nigeria. This again implies the dual nature of Empire, both as a scientific and cultural exploration of the rest of the world leading to the exchange of knowledge and experience for all involved, but still with the knowledge of Britain as an invading force detailing the wonders of its new territories.

As you leave this exhibition, which took me about two hours to see everything properly, it’s difficult to form any certain conclusions on the experience of Empire. The Tate has been very careful not to take a clear line on this and while it had terrible consequences for many, this is a fascinating and revealing walk through its history. Somewhat unintentionally, by placing so many pieces from around the world next to one another so that you move from the Caribbean to Australia from South Africa to North America in a few steps, you can’t help but be a little bit awed that Britain managed to keep control of all of that simultaneously and for so long. The rights and wrongs aside, the very fact of its existence is overwhelming. As much about scientific exploration as it was about subjugation, the concept of Empire is one that will continue to trouble us, and as this fascinating exhibition makes clear, the British Empire was far from black and white, it was full of people, cultures and colours that tell us so much about being British in the twenty-first century.

Artist and Empire is at Tate Britain until 10 April. Tickets are £16 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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