Monthly Archives: April 2018

Mood Music – The Old Vic

Mood Music - The Old Vic

Another week, another brand new play arrives in London, the fourth in as many weeks, and the second successive opening to focus on female creativity and the nature of toxic masculinity. Despite being obsessed with reflections of its own image, captured in films like All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard or TV shows including Smash, which have long reflected the the scheming arrogance, male-dominated power-structures, falsity and inherent cruelty of showbusiness, the entertainment industry, it seems, had barely changed in decades. Now, in the wake of successive scandals that began with Operation Yewtree and culminated in the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, an unyielding light is shining into every corner.

The consequence of all this is the beginnings of a notable shift in how the various branches of commercialised art are managed and sustained, and these industries have rarely had to respond so readily to the widespread rot and abuses of power that have filled our newspages for many months. But will it really be so easy to dismantle? Joe Penhall’s new play Mood Music which opens at The Old Vic on Wednesday is set in the music industry, and examines the complex and tricky personalities whose deep and longstanding knowledge of how the ‘business’ works means they have become adept at manipulating every system, using their power to control everyone around them.

Like Ella Hickson’s The Writer, Mood Music considers the ways in which male-dominated structures affect the creation of female art, where inspiration comes from, and the problematic border between collaboration and ownership within our existing creative environment. It asks important questions about the boundary between celebrating and recognising achievement in a more experienced creator, while not allowing your own contribution to be pushed aside, and the extent to which stars use their art and the adulation of others to fulfil a deep void in themselves.

Cat is a young female songwriter in the midst of a legal battle with middle-aged producer Bernard over the creative credit of her big song. Both insist they added the magic ingredient that made the song a hit and catapulted Cat to fame. But as the audience learns how their relationship became so acrimonious, shocking details of their working life together start to emerge as the entertainment lawyers attempt to build a case. With both parties also in therapy, embittered by their experiences, can they learn to be generous about each other’s art or will the business always win?

Penhall creates a multi-layered narrative which brings the audience into three different sets of conversation all happening simultaneously. The narrative is initially dominated by Bernard and Cat’s discussion with their therapists as they put forward their perspective, recount events and reveal what shaped their personalities, but quickly Penhall intersperses interactions with both their lawyers and occasionally restages scenes from their studio sessions. It sounds complex, but works extremely effectively in practice, allowing the play to break free of traditional scene structures, change shape and maintain a constant rhythm throughout its two-hour runtime.

And while it has plenty to say about the toxicity of the entertainment industry, where young hopefuls seemingly stand little chance of besting established figures with nothing to lose, this message is fairly subtle at first, becoming stronger and clearer as the story unfolds. This is no finger wagging piece of drama, yelling its message at the audience or deliberately exaggerating scenarios to create the right effect, but instead suggests a highly credible picture of people with nothing but their own interests to attend to.

Penhall trusts in the strength of his multifaceted central characters to essentially undo themselves, showing that while there may be minor fault on both sides, ultimately Bernard is all too real an archetype that whether you work in showbusiness, in a normal office or any other kind of workplace, you will know men who think like him. For all that, he is a fascinating creation and one that displays both the charm and enthusiasm for his work that attracts Cat to his talent in the first place, as well as the mind-blowing lack of empathy that make him entirely self-contained. And while you’re laughing at his coldness, Penhall’s trick is to let us see underneath just for a moment, not just to write him off as abominable, but to understand why. And if you understand why you can do something to change it.

Playing Bernard, Ben Chaplin is outstanding, managing to be completely engaging and utterly repellent at the same time. Careful not to muddy the focus with any suggestion of a sexual connection with Cat, Bernard sees himself as a perennial victim, delivering most of his lines with boredom, as if he cannot believe he’s in this ridiculous situation when everyone must know he wrote all the music. Chaplin offers a very clever performance that amplifies Bernard’s arrogance, selfishness and fatal lack of empathy, but without overstatement, he always feels unpleasantly real but charming enough that on more than one occasion you almost believe his version of events.

At the same time, Chaplin implies the grand delusion of a man who sees the world entirely on his own terms, and cannot conceive of anyone else’s thoughts, feelings or imagination. He suggests both strength and self-sufficiency as well as a tragic loneliness and an inability to genuinely connect to anyone else, driven by nods to his childhood experience. He is blinkered but doesn’t know it, and Chaplin gives life to one of Penhall’s key themes on the relationship between emotional damage and the need to seek control.

While Penhall’s female lead endures being patronised and pushed aside, she’s also full of human complexity that allow the audience sympathies to swing occasionally between the protagonists. It’s a cunning way to demonstrate how easily we are all manipulated by Bernard’s particular view of the facts – its not even that he twists them, he genuinely thinks his interpretation is right. Cat is given her own demons to contend with including addiction issues and frequent references to an idolised father that ensure her feeling towards Bernard remain ambiguous even well into to the legal dispute. None of this is meant to excuse Bernard’s conduct, but to demonstrate how young female behaviours are used to judge and condemn in a way they’re not for men.

Seana Kerslake gives Cat both a naievity about the industry and a determination to keep fighting for the right to own the music she created. As the play continues, Kerslake presents a complex picture of a young woman with her own emotional baggage that affects the personal and musical choices she makes, unable to control her impulse to escape and being forced into the shadows by her overbearing collaborator. We see a performer who becomes recognisably self-destructive in a way that many young artists have, but Kerslake plays this credibly as we see the effect on the relationships with those around her and a growing irritation with being controlled even by therapists and lawyers.

There is a degree of hero-worship in her response to Bernard that never entirely disappears, even when it becomes impossible to work together she still admires his talent, with Kerslake even suggesting a touch of regret that working with an idol has been so difficult. Her performance taps into some of Mood Music’s more difficult questions about whether the creation of great art is worth the pain of collaboration in an industry populated by ‘damaged’ people, and if individual brilliance is ever possible without someone to push an artist to their extremes.

The supporting cast are deliberately more anonymous and less rounded, used as reflections on the central characters or the industry that shapes them. Jemma Redgrave and Pip Carter are the therapists whose sympathetic air wanes as their clients begin to question what role they’re really playing in the power structure, while Kurt Egyiawan and Neil Stuke are the respective entertainment lawyers who try to play the system to get the best deal for their clients. Interesting to see Chaplin and Stuke in the same production having once played the same role in the 90s sitcom Game On.

On Hildegard Bechtler’s thrust stage that emulates a recording studio meets therapy session with a curtain of hanging microphones and scattered chairs, the design approach suggests both simplicity and complexity, reflecting the characters’ creative abilities but ultimately giving them nothing to hide behind. Director Roger Mitchell uses the full extent of the stage to keep the action flowing, which is particularly tricky in the rapid transitions between conversations that in the space of a line can switch to an entirely different scenario, time and place. But ultimately, Mitchell and Bechtler provide a showcase for the characters, allowing them to reveal their own failings to the audience.

Mood Music’s focus on ownership in collaboration is a fascinating and engaging examination of the power structures in the entertainment industry, and while it may seem petty for the characters break down a single song to fight over every bridge, chord or lyric, when art is for sale, personal and professional betrayal are never far behind – the overriding commercialisation of every piece of art means that ultimately the winner will always be the industry and never the creator.

Mood Music is at The Old Vic until 16 June and tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.

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The Writer – Almeida Theatre

The Writer - Almeida Theatre

It feels as though we’re living through a golden age for new writing, unsurprising given the heightened political circumstances of the last two years, but this has coincided with a period in which mainstream theatres have been prepared to take greater risk, making space amidst the musicals and classic revivals for a blossoming of new work. The Ferryman may have had all the best new play categories sewn-up in the recent award season, but its fellow nominees – Ink, Oslo and Network –  in any other year would have been equally deserving. And there were plenty of impressive new shows that were overlooked including Anatomy of a Suicide and The Grinning Man.

2018 is proving to be equally rich, and along with The Inheritance which premiered at the Young Vic last month (Part 1 and Part 2 reviews), three new plays have opened in as many weeks in London’s major theatres – Quiz at the Noel Coward Theatre, Instructions for Correct Assembly at the Royal Court, and now Ella Hickson’s The Writer at the Almeida, her much anticipated follow-up to Oil. While all of this writing has been innovative, exciting and engaging, it also set a high bar exposing the weaknesses in less satisfying work.

The creative process is a complex and fascinating thing, but Hickson argues there is a personal cost for those who put something meaningful into the world and, if the artist happens to be a woman, there are also significant obstacles to overcome in a system that favours and empowers men. The Writer reflects our current interest in sexual misconduct and gender inequality to tell the story of a young writer whose early encounter with a sleazy male director and later a passive-aggressive boyfriend affect her work and emotional development. While she actively rejects many of the social expectations placed on women and embarks on what seems a more contented path, she cannot quite escape the expectations of others and her own self-sabotage as reality fails to match the world of fiction she wants to create.

Hickson uses an abstract approach that constantly keeps the audience guessing about the nature of truth and fictionalised versions of it. The Writer opens with a post-show confrontation between an audience member who claims to have left a bag in the auditorium (Lara Rossi) and a member of the crew (Samuel West) who asks her opinion of this hit show and receives a lengthy and impassioned diatribe about theatre reflecting the sullied gaze of the male director who sexualises his female, but not male, actors, patriarchal blocks to the progression of women, the overly middle-class subject matter and attendance at theatres, as well as the desperation of men who marry much younger women. At one point, the nameless audience member astutely remarks that whenever a woman walks on stage we instantly assess her attractiveness and clothes, but when a man walks on we wonder what he’s going to say.

It’s a great scene, uncomfortably long for some as we learn why the conversation becomes increasingly embittered, but Hickson prevents it from being too one-sided, subtly shifting sympathies between the two sides before delivering a knock-out blow. It’s a discussion many women in theatre have longed to have and to see it played out onstage feels significant. With the house lights staying up for the first two scenes on a virtually bare stage, there is no artifice, and the company are eager for us to know that the audience is equally complicit in the prolongation of this aspect of the industry.

And Hickson maintains this energy through the next two scenes. As we discover that what we have just witnessed is part of a play written by another writer about her own experience (played by Romola Garai) the scene dissolves into a Q&A in which the ‘real’ overbearing Director gives her pretentious and patronising notes. This is followed by a deliberately artificial scene in which the audience watches the stage crew construct the set, before the Writer goes home to pressure from her boyfriend to commercialise her work, get married and have children because these are the ‘expected’ measures of a successful life.

Blanche McIntyre takes an alternative approach to staging each new section which comments on the variety of ways in which real life is filtered into different kinds of theatre, making it harder to tell which parts of the play represent reality or its reconstruction, all of which are interesting viewing. The purposeful artifice of the boyfriend scene is particularly effective, not just in drawing attention to the pressure of social expectation and how one couple could have such opposing approaches to the same circumstances, but also emphasising the idea of constant female (and to some extent male) performance in society, expected to dress, look, sound and even think a certain way, and the exhaustion that engenders.

So, by the play’s midpoint, you’re convinced that The Writer is an innovatively envisioned and mind-expanding piece of work that uses the very idea of theatre to explore the pain of female creativity within our socially constructed value system. But then it starts to unravel, with a confused second half that removes the male characters almost completely to focus on the Writer’s journey of self-discovery. It takes her into a more satisfying emotional and sexual connection with another woman but lacks a coherent link with the power of what’s come before.

The tone switches completely and a new form of theatrical presentation is used for the fourth scene as the Writer calls on the style of Greek mythology to offer a third person narrative of her experience of retreat from reality. She finds both love and a sense of calm, told using a bit of physical theatre, complete blackout and swirling video design designed by Zakk Hein. Despite openly acknowledging the scene’s flaws in one of the many meta-theatre references, as the ground shifts from under the audience’s feet, you can actively feel a lot of the room disengaging with the production and no one’s quite sure what this is about any more, Arguably, distancing you from what has come before is exactly the point, Hickson actively wants to push you out and shake your complacency, but its less clear what she wants you to take from this part of the production.

The final section almost exactly mirrors the earlier boyfriend scene, using a similar approach to uncover the Writer’s own relationship with a partner but in new circumstances. Its still artificial but in a much classier and more expensive-looking set which, again, we watch the crew construct before us. However, this time, the purpose is slightly more opaque, and while there’s a connection to the idea of cost referenced earlier, and the difficulty of being with someone who cannot understand the creative process, this scene is rather ponderous. A couple of sex scenes, some silent eating – which admittedly hardly anyone does on stage – and lots of pauses don’t quite do enough to join-up the various bits of the show. It sends the audience away slightly frustrated because The Writer has front-loaded the most powerful sections and left a somewhat diluted ending that will take away from the important point the play is making about women in theatre, as well as, unfortunately, giving others a reason to dismiss it.

The inherent strangeness of the show is one of its strengths, and, as we saw with The Treatment, heightened reality is something that the Almeida is quite adept at presenting. McIntyre directs creatively, not allowing the multiple-staging techniques and Anna Fleischel’s exciting flat-pack set to distract from the central purpose. McIntrye also balances the transition between the layered scenes, offering a clarity to the Russian doll-like distillation of argument as Hickson uses her the fictional Writer played by Garai as her mouthpiece, while she in turn uses her own creation played by Rossi to open the debate.

As the protagonist, Garai presents a woman – if indeed each scene is the same woman – who has endured all the hurts and frustrations the industry can inflict, and while we see a slightly timid person learning to defend herself against these external assaults, its always clear how profoundly the initial encounter with the Director has shaped her. As we know from her other work, the subject matter is something Garai is passionate about and she uses that anger to great effect to rail against other people’s expectations and their failure to recognise her own essential difference. The purpose of the final section is an enigma, but Garai here makes her character less sympathetic, as though the she’s now enjoying a selfish freedom that makes her unable to connect to others.

It’s always a pleasure to watch a Samuel West performance and here he takes on the duel role of the fictional Director in the first scene and the real Writer’s boyfriend. As the former, he has an easy charm, displaying a comfort in his own skin that reflect a certain type of powerful man. During the sparky confrontation that opens the play, his quips and sense of detached amusement almost win you over, and you see why these figures have remained unchallenged for so long. As the boyfriend, he is equally engaging but offers a gentler portrait of a good man, accepting of life’s unglamourous reality and unable to really understand his partner’s creative scruples.

Rossi’s fictional Writer opens the play with a strong performance delivering a credible and heated speech that will resonate, possibly unnervingly, with many in the room. But there is a vulnerability too as Rossi slowly introduces her character’s backstory that gives nuance to what could be an unrelenting force. As the real Director, Michael Gould is initially condescending and dismissive, but in a later scene reveals his own inability to explain his own emotions, to praise someone he admires hinting at the persona he too must project to maintain his status.

The Writer is a show about women, made by women celebrating the creative strength of women which is still all to rare on any stage. But for all its use of technique and intelligent staging, only half the production really delivers its intellectual and political purpose with significant vigour, while the remainder doesn’t quite feel as impactful. This is, and should be, a show that will divide audiences, making tomorrow’s press night a particularly interesting occasion, but while The Writer is pointed social commentary, it also has dramatic flaws that start to put out its own fire.

The Writer is at The Almeida until 26 May and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1    


Instructions for Correct Assembly – Royal Court

Instructions for Correct Assembly - Royal Court

Perfection is something we’re all supposed to strive for, living the ideal Instagrammable life, to be seen in the right places, eat the right food, wear the right clothes and create a home that is the exact balance of calmly-designed refuge and welcoming social space. What other people think, and all kinds of external judgment have grown in importance, and as a society we crave some kind of external validation to know that we are worthy, accepted, good enough to belong. And, whatever our internal thoughts, however much turmoil exists beneath the surface, we need to paint on a smile, to show the world that we are carefree, happy and perfect.

Nowhere is this pressure more keenly felt than in the modern cult of parenting, where the need to be seen as a perfect mother or father is steeped in expectation. Whether you exclusively feed your child organic handmade meals, where they go to school, what skills they develop, their hobbies, friends and future path are all mini-reflections on an individual’s parenting technique. Thomas Eccleshare’s new play Instructions for Correct Assembly goes to the heart of this quest for perfection, using the story of a couple who choose a robot son to fulfil their slightly confused lives. And while Eccleshare has plenty to say about Artificial Intelligence (AI), our desire for control over any object we create, and the convenience of our flatpack world, this is really an emotional and beautifully told family story about grief and guilt.

Harry and his wife Max need a project, they’ve put together the wardrobe and have all the furniture they need, but something is missing. Spotting a magazine advert, the couple order a new son, a mechanical young adult, and spend many happy hours putting “Jan” together, adjusting his personality settings and teaching him to reflect their liberal middle-class values, all to make him perfect. But, as Jan’s occasional embarrassing malfunctions increase, and their neighbours express concern, Harry and Max are forced to recall their history with similarly-aged son Nick. It soon becomes clear that the couple are haunted by a past they can never change and that their life is far from ideal, but is Jan really the second chance they so desperately need?

Instructions for Correct Assembly is a subtly constructed play in which Eccleshare comments on the consumerist nature of our society, where each home can have the same pieces of replicated furniture, a Stepford Wives reality where personality, difference and complexity are conveniently designed out of our lives. In Hamish Pirie’s production, we first see the couple via a curtained hatch, a small window through which a series of scenes are played along a fast-moving conveyer belt, as if the very theatre is dispatching identikit pre-packaged scenes. It’s some time before the front panel is lifted to reveal the full interior of their room, while, as events play out and we get to know the couple, further elements of their home are slowly revealed.

Eventually the full breadth of humanity is unveiled, complete with a “living wall” of plants at the rear of the stage, and room bathed in natural sunshine from the skylight windows. By this point in the story, every layer of packaging and padding has been removed from the characters and we see the full and complicatedly rich life they once lived with Nick. Cai Dyfan’s set is a marvel, superbly representing not just the flat-pack world the couple inhabit, but in creating layers of meaning that help the audience to understand the psychological journey of the characters. Everything we see deliberately looks like a DIY job, put together from a pack, shiny and bland, while the remaining set is constructed from boxes and a permanent dusting of packing chips – a whole world of convenience, home delivery and customer service phone lines. Towards the end, the walls and panels begin to slot back into place, and you realise that what you’re really seeing is a shroud of grief, confining and restricting Harry and Max until their whole world has reduced to that tiny curtained window of empty, soulless necessity.

And, slowly, subtly Eccleshare makes you feel their pain, which, like a dull ache that becomes increasingly difficult to ignore, grows gently throughout the production until the extent of their loss and delusion becomes quite desperate. Wrapped in an AI-inspired tale that wouldn’t be out of place as a Black Mirror episode, the writer initially wrong-foots you, making you expect a clichéd story about the worrying effect of machines on the human condition, but for Eccleshare the presence of Jan is almost a red herring, he is just the excuse to explore the couple’s pre-existing guilt and sense of failure – their obsession with perfection stems from believing they got it so wrong.

Intercutting the two stories – with Jan and Nick played by the same actor – is an excellent device, demonstrating just how much is at stake for Harry and Max. Director Pirie exerts great control over the way scenes unfold, so what is happening soon becomes apparent without any wasteful exposition. This 100-minute show progresses with much hilarity at Jan’s mistakes, crudeness and failure to read the situation, culminating in a disastrous dinner party with neighbours Laurie and Paul (the representative Jones’s the couple want to keep up with, played by Michele Austin and Jason Barnett) and their daughter Amy who is purposefully “perfect”. Jan’s muddled logic and crass conversation are a high point, but only serve to emphasise the growing focus on Harry and Max’s grief which slowly and unexpectedly hits you with an emotional punch that is quite poignant.

Leading the cast is Mark Bonnar as Harry, a man who has internalised every bit of emotion and leaps enthusiastically from project to project because then he never has to think about what really happened. Harry seems like a good man, a well-regarded friend and pleasant company but needs to be constantly distracted from his own thoughts. In the flashback sections Bonnar also shows us that Harry as a father was a slightly softer touch than his wife, more forgiving and arguably more hurt by his failure to properly connect with his grown-up son.

Crucially, there are no histrionics, no elaborate weeping and wailing, nor at any point does Eccleshare let Harry or Max say how they feel, all of this is down to the actors to convey, and Bonnar does this superbly. Everything – humour and tragedy – is played straight, letting the writing do the work, and through that Bonnar elicits a quiet devastation that he brings into focus for the audience as the show unfolds, and without a single tear makes us feel the full emotional weight of a man drowning in his grief, clinging to a dream concept of a second chance and plastering-on a public jollity, even for his wife, with his true feelings clearly miles beneath.

Jane Horrocks as wife Max is a more remote figure and it’s not until much later in the play that her part of the story really comes to life, but when it does, her quiet housewife exterior belies a much harder centre. In retrospect Horrocks suggests that Max acted hastily, that her past actions are a source of much regret, but in the flashback scenes with Nick we see instead a woman choosing to act decisively, at a loss how to proceed and taking the only course of action she thinks will work. And while Max is less overtly emotional than her husband, Horrocks suggests the mutual pretence between the couple in order to survive.

Playing both Jan and Nick is demanding for Brian Vernel who frequently switches character between scenes to considerable effect. His Jan is almost imperceptibly human, and in keeping with the subtle approach taken to the rest of the play, there are no overt references to his mechanical interior, no attempt at a synthesised voice or juddering cyberman movements, which is entirely the right call. Instead, Jan’s purposefully bland personality is only slightly heightened, just out of joint with everyone else to draw attention to his status, and Vernel elicits much of the humour from Jan’s shocking malfunctions.

By contrast as Nick, he is a grouchy, frustrated and troubled young man, eager to escape the cloying attentions of his parents and fully, complicatedly human. Far from the perfect image presented by neighbour Amy (Shaniqua Okwok) who wins a place at Oxford, Vernel’s Nick is on a parallel track to self-destruction. What is so interesting about Eccleshare’s writing and Vernel’s performance is that for all his complications, the audience is encouraged to see that the flesh and blood Nick is preferable to his robotic replacement, however much pain he causes.

In what has been a slightly over-earnest Winter season for the Royal Court, Instructions for Correct Assembly is their best show since Anatomy of a Suicide last summer, and both use a family structure as the basis for explaining the long-term effects of grief and loss. Eccleshare’s play could lose the slightly awkward choreographed movement sections between scenes which has the actors robotically shuffling around, the only misfire in an otherwise restrained and thoughtfully created piece that questions why we all strive so hard to suggest a veneer of perfection. Perhaps because, underneath all those layers of polish, there are truths we just don’t want to face.

Instructions for Correct Assembly is at the Royal Court until 19 May, tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Quiz as State of the Nation Drama – Noel Coward Theatre

Quiz by Johan Persson

When you hold a mirror up to our society what can you see? The obvious things perhaps; an obsession with social media, selfies and surface, the continual loosening of social responsibilities, and a nation divided as its struggles to reconcile its continual attempts to look backwards and forwards at the same time. But look deeper and there are cracks everywhere, in every system, every support service, in every pillar of our social structure, and you start to wonder where did it all go wrong? Our greatest political playwrights have always interpreted the times we live in, and, as Quiz transfers to the West End, James Graham’s insightful reflections on crucial moments in post-war history have fast become a vital resource in understanding who we are.

In a little over a year, Graham has had four highly regarded plays running in the West End, three of which, since September, have been entirely new work. It’s an outstanding achievement, almost without comparison in modern theatre, and after picking up his first Olivier Award last night for Labour of Love (plus a Supporting Actor award for Bertie Carvel’s turn in Ink), this is a good time to reflect on what has been an astonishing year, one in which Graham has found a unique interplay between political purpose and popular style.

This House, which has had a remarkable lifespan since its premiere in 2012 and is currently on national tour, showed us the marked difference between political self-interest and genuine government, where staying in power at all costs outstrips the business of passing legislation for the greatest good. Set in the 1970s at a moment of upheaval that shifted British politics to the right, into Thatcher’s willing arms, and changed it forever, in This House Graham shows us why our democratic system now feels so remote from the people it governs, with constituency representation frequently losing out to individual ambition and Party directive.

This is exactly the theme of Labour of Love, in which Graham pits New against Old Labour in one particular midlands constituency over 20 years to show us the deep division and confliction of purpose that runs through our political parties. When a shiny young man with a bright Ministerial future is parachuted into a safe Labour seat in the mid-1990s, it causes considerable upset for the more traditional left-leaning local constituency office. Over two decades we observe the problems caused by MPs treading water until they can get somewhere better and Labour’s failure to bridge the precipice that still runs down the centre of the Party.

And finally with Ink, Graham explained the rise and rise of the tabloid, and its unshakeable hold on every kind of political and popular thinking. Again, using the crucial period 1969-70 when Rupert Murdoch purchased the newspaper and set its editor Larry Lamb a target to beat its nearest rival, the pair essentially opened Pandora’s Box, unleashing every base and questionable journalistic impulse to create a public appetite for sleaze and scandal we are far from abating even 50 years later. Crucially, Graham shows us, that the fourth estate is an entirely unelected group of people with little but sales figures and click bait in mind, and undergoes almost no scrutiny, but their continual intervention and control of public opinion wields a fearsome power that challenges the independence of many of our oldest institutions.

Collectively, this is a body of work that tells us that much is broken, that the once enviable clarity of our democratic system and freedom of the press have curdled, where the gap between the government and the governed has never felt wider. None of it, Graham suggests is beyond hope, its all still worth fighting for, but that there are crucial moments in history – much like the one we’re living through now – where there is a chance to change things for the better, because getting it wrong will lead to decades of rot. And throughout, Graham asks questions about the power of the individual to effect change, where even the best intentions can forge an unexpected future.

So, to Quiz and the power of the television media to thwart or even misdirect our justice system. Transferring from Chichester where it opened to rave reviews, Quiz is about fluctuating concepts of truth in a world of fake news and trial by television. What does justice mean in this new environment and does it have anything to do with truth and fairness? At the heart of Quiz is a debate about the nature of innocence and the extent to which our legal system, founded on the principle that guilt must be proven beyond doubt, is subject to the highest bidder, where scant circumstantial coincidence can be contorted to suggest an alternative story. Quiz effectively sets the near powerless individual against the might of a TV company with the resources to influence not just the outcome of a trial but also our collective memory of an incident none of us ever saw.

Mention the name Charles Ingram and your first thought will be millionaire cheat. But that perception, Graham argues, has been manufactured by a powerful media of newspapers and television, and embedded by 15 years of mythology. With only a few small tweaks since its Chichester run, Quiz is still as sharp and exciting as it was 6 months ago (see previous review here), presenting the case for the prosecution in the first half and the case for the defence in the second, based on the book Bad Show by Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett (well worth a read if you want more detail on the case).

Getting a West End transfer right is not always easy, but director Daniel Evans and designer Robert Jones have clearly thought carefully about how best to bring their ¾ -round production into the proscenium arch theatre. Fitting perfectly onto the slightly adapted Noel Coward stage, which has been turned into a TV studio with onstage seating, Jones’s design reflects the exuberant glitz of the TV game show, a brightly lit world of neon cubes, flashing panels and multiple screens to relay the drama from every angle.

Some additions include a new warm-up act, played by the chameleonic Kier Charles, to start the two halves, reinforcing the falsity of the gameshow set-up, nodding to the mask performers wear in public, while crucially (and finally) delivering those pub quiz answers at the start of Act Two which were absent from the Chichester version. But most importantly, the warm-up act creates the tone of the show, the fundamental purpose of which is to bring the audience into the action from the start. This is no passive West End play where you sit back and receive a performance, but through the pub quiz round, an opportunity to appear in the montages and the chance to vote on Ingram’s guilt using the electronic devices attached to every seat, the audience is constantly asked to play along, to think and pass judgement on what you have seen, much as you would if you read the ‘evidence’ in a newspaper.

And you can certainly feel the auditorium responding to Graham’s dramatic techniques more actively than most West End shows. People engage with each other as the baton is handed back to us to make decisions, but also, given the addictive nature of the Millionaire format, people mutter as they try to answer the questions in the reconstructed TV scenes or in the wonderful section where the Ingram’s test their popular culture knowledge by guessing the karaoke tune and identifying classic characters from Coronation Street, almost as if they were watching a game show at home on the sofa. How interesting an NT Live screening of this play would be – introducing the screen element to a concept that deliberately comments on how we use screens to make cursory assessments of truth and justice.

Graham’s work is always full of wonderfully observed pop culture references and a warm nostalgia for the cultural past, but in Quiz these really come into their own, and you can feel the audience’s delight as Graham walks us through the wider context of the Ingram case. The fantastic gameshow montage is still a high point, and while Brucie may have been excised to make way for other content, there is still so much charm in the recreated version of The Price is Right and Bullseye, now even more poignant given the passing of the great Jim Bowen since the Chichester run. And while you can feel Graham gleefully revelling in his childhood memories, it also evokes the same connection for much of the room, of a simpler time that was clearly the forerunner of the madness of Who Wants to be a Millionaire and our more recent obsession with constructed reality TV.

Daniel Evans’s direction is light and effortless, with the action moving so effortlessly that 2.5 hours speeds by. But the fun elements of the story remain perfectly in balance with the play’s serious purpose, so the tension builds carefully in the Millionaire scenes and there are several poignant moments where the once colourful world is starkly lit by Tim Lutkin as the consequences of the action and the real nature of ‘justice’ are truly felt.

The performances have deepened since the earlier run, and Kier Charles almost steals the show with his hilarious portrayal of a collection of much-loved TV hosts. From Leslie Crowther and Bowen to Chris Tarrant, Charles clearly relishes every moment, amplifying the tics and mannerisms of each of these well-loved presenters with often hilarious results. Gavin Spokes as Major Ingram has found greater depths of emotion in the role, so that now the damaging effects of his time in the hot seat are considerably more poignant, while quiz-loving Diana played by Stephanie Street is a tad more ambiguous.

Two further notable points also emerge from the West End run of Quiz ; first that London audiences are considerably more cynical than those in Chichester, and while there is a swing towards Not Guilty after the second half, the statistics for recent performances show it is far closer to 50:50 than it was in West Sussex; Second, in reality the way justice is dispensed can be wildly disproportionate to the crime committed. While the Ingrams may have been given relatively short suspended sentences to accompany their guilty verdicts with the need for justice to ‘seen to be done’, the wider response was ludicrous. Graham leaves us to question whether they really deserved to be hounded by the press and the public everywhere they went, to have their children bullied at school, to have their pets shot and for Charles Ingram’s much-loved army career to be terminated, all for supposedly cheating on a quiz show? Multiple lives irreparably damaged for arguably a minor infraction?

Like the plays that have gone before, Graham has taken a key moment in TV history and asked us to think more carefully about what it means and why it set society on a new, less worthy, path. Justice doesn’t begin and end in court rooms any more, and while the media can whip up a frenzy and bring the full might of the mob down on the powerless individual, there seems to be little hope of fairness. If you leave this show discussing the case and the way in which we all jump to conclusions, then Graham has done his job because challenging how we all respond to the institutions that wield societal power is the only way to improve them. As for Quiz itself, as a theatrical experience, let’s leave the final word to Jim Bowen – super, smashing, great!

Quiz is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 16 June. Tickets start at £15 with day seats available for £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Way of the World – Donmar Warehouse

The Way of the World - Donmar Warehouse

Restoration comedy generally takes a rather dim view of marriage; the central lovers may want to overcome every obstacle placed in their path to reach their happy union, but those who are married already want nothing more than to be rid of their boorish, shrewish or philandering spouse. These plays suggest that marriage transforms people and not for the better, so what future awaits the affianced couple? Arguably, it is marriage made for material gain, and between people who are hopelessly incompatible, but William Congreve’s 1700 play The Way of the World shows us that even those people once fancied themselves in love.

The play was written at the latter end of the theatrical form of restoration, as the sobering William and Mary reached the end of their first decade as rulers, offered the throne in place of Charles II’s brother James – an absolutist and a Catholic. While these plays always had a moral element with good and bad getting the ending they deserved, Congreve’s writing introduced the idea of morality of money too. The importance of fortune drives The Way of the World’s plot, peppered with references to dowries and female inheritance, money separates eligible women from those with mere beauty to recommend them.

As the play opens, Fainall is playing cards with the hero Mirabell, who is in love with Millamant, but her aunt, Lady Wishfort, loathes Mirabell and would refuse to pay the £6000 dowry. To trick Lady Wishfort into giving her consent to the match, Mirabell plots to use his manservant, Waitwell, (who he has married to Lady Wishfort’s maid Foible) to impersonate an aristocrat and make advances to the middle-aged aunt, assuming that rescuing her from the indignation would earn her eternal gratitude. Fainall meanwhile lives a semi-separated existence from the wife he no longer loves and who despises him in return, but he cannot survive without her money. Fainall is having an affair with Lady Wishfort’s friend Mrs Marwood who hears of Mirabell’s plan and uses it to help her lover lay claim to the rest of his wife’s fortune.

James Macdonald’s production at the Donmar Warehouse is still finding its feet and while some aspects of the farce are working well, particularly once Mirabell’s plan begins to take shape in Act 3, it needs a few more performances for the actors to find an ease with the lines and for the comedy to really sparkle. It’s early days, but with press night this week, it lacks a little bounce and, while the performances are uniformly impressive, they’re not yet fully relishing the full malice or humour of the lines.

It’s a sluggish and quite static start, and it takes a while for the conversation and the complexities of the inter-related plot to warm-up. There is a lot of crucial information in the early discussion between Mirabell and Fainall, so Macdonald has created what feels like an entirely masculine environment that sets the tone really well, but with lots of comings and goings, as yet unseen characters talked about and intrigues aplenty, there isn’t quite enough clarity to help the audience with setting the scene and confirming the tone.

And this is a problem that runs through the production, which sharply vacillates between rather broad slapstick-like comedy, taut social satire and credible emotional engagement, without quite settling into its groove. There is a lot of sneaky plotting in Act Two and Three which could feel more covert and shadowy, and while Witwoud and Petulant have some amusing scenes, even by the end of the play it’s still not clear what role they have really played in proceedings or what relation they are to the rest of the characters – they may be essential but that hasn’t been conveyed as clearly as it could be. Streamlining the play’s current length – at a rather unjustified three and a half hours – could improve the flow and help to focus on the key elements of the plot.

It’s not all bad, and there are plenty of positives which over a few more performances should help to settle the characters and mannerisms. Once they get going, the farcical elements build well as the manservant disguised as Sir Roland enjoys a hilarious encounter with Lady Wishfort (Haydn Gwynne) in her rooms. It’s an exaggerated scene in which the obviously overacting Waitwell (Alex Beckett) exuberantly declares his love for the garish aunt, growing increasingly hilarious as the seduction becomes progressively more lustful.

Macdonald’s production also emphasises the strength of the female characters, whose multiple forms of power is another highlight – while the men may plot and scheme, ultimately they are beholden to the superior fiscal and social power of the ladies. Lady Wishfort holds the future of all the men entirely in her hands, it is in her gift to bestow Millimant’s much debated £6000 dowry on Mirabelle, while she is the route Fainall chooses for his blackmail plot to extort the remained of his wife’s fortune. The other women are equally well drawn; the fiendish Mrs Marwood utilises her single status to exact revenge on her enemies, while maidservant Foible becomes key to enacting Mirabell’s plot, and even the young love interest Millamant is a scathing and authoritative figure dismissing her multiple lovers with a withering put-down.

Macdonald’s emphasis on materiality is also extremely effective, with even the servants becoming embroiled in their master’s schemes based on some sense of human ownership – who else to enact a vicious rouse to enhance your own personal gain, than the people who depend on you for their livelihood. There is also a fascinating scene between Millamant and Mirabell as they indulge in what is essentially a marital bargain, each outlining the terms under which they would accept each other. Crucially, none of these are about love but the right to dominate particular rooms, have their own way whenever they feel like it and to control both those invited into their homes and the conversations permitted. These are two resolutely single people insisting on a mode of living that suits them, a marriage of material comfort.

Geoffrey Streatfeild has some particularly notable experience with restoration comedy, starring in the National Theatre’s superb production of The Beaux’ Stratagem back in 2015. He has an ear for the pace and flow of the writing, able to deliver Congreve’s lines with a natural speed and meaning that bring out the full flavour of Mirabell’s character. Streatfeild’s performances are always worth seeing, and while he was by far the best thing in the recent production of Cellmates at the Hampstead Theatre, bringing a new subtly to the role of the stranded spy in Russia, here again he applies his considerable range to the complex role of the lothario in love.

His Mirabell makes for a credible lover, and in a play where no one else seems to mean any protestation of love, he brings sincerity and underlying emotion to each declaration. In the presence of his object, he seems overwhelmed, almost tongue-tied in admiration as she repeatedly outwits him, enjoying his suffering. Streatfeild conveys deep feeling so well, and despite the powerful intrigues he sets in motion, a genuine heart beats beneath the surface – potentially for a woman who does not deserve his devotion.

As Millamant Justine Mitchell presents a sharp and sarcastic woman who is well aware of her own worth, and willing to play her lovers off against one another for her own amusement. She implies a preference for Mirabelle which is entirely practical, based on the freedom to conduct much of her life as she chooses and to retain her status in town. It’s a refreshing presentation of a female lead in a period drama, and Mitchell makes Millamant’s powerful position clear, certain she will at least be in a marriage of equals. Whether she is in love with Mirabell is debatable, but she at least has the gumption to control or hide her feelings in order to secure the best deal for her future self.

Haydn Gwynne’s Lady Wishfort is a larger-than-life interpretation that suits her farcical scenes quite well. Splendidly, and somewhat gaudily, dressed by Anna Fleischle, Gwynne is clearly having a fantastic time as the fluttery aunt desperate to be seduced one last time, and her performance is at a comedic pitch of nervy anxiety and reawakened passion throughout. She has lots of hilarious moments, although the depth of her loathing for Mirabell (and others) will become deeper as the run progresses.

There is impressive support from Jenny Jules as the scorned Mrs Mawood who enjoys using her power to exact revenge, although Jules could revel in the lines a little more and make them really bite, while her rival Mrs Fainall is given a likeable and controlled exterior by Caroline Martin. Sarah Hadland is an excellent Foible, bringing great timing and delivery to the more farcical elements, and proving that even serving women make feisty wives, while Fisayo Akinade plays up the foppery as Witwoud. There is a general tendency to speed through the lines and occasionally quieter tones are lost in the loud rustle of silk dresses but, again, this should even out as the cast become more confident.

There’s plenty of potential here and the performances, which still feel a little isolated, should become a company effort as more time on the stage familiarises the flow, and repetition reinforces the play’s relationships. Anna Fleischle has designed a set that becomes increasingly feminised as the power shifts from the dark panelling of the all-male first Act where the intrigues are born, to the more elaborately decorated home of Lady Wishfort with carpets, paintings and a chaise longue to imply a richly furnished female space where ultimate power rests.

Macdonald’s production of The Way of the World still has a little more to do ahead of press night to discover its spring and, crucially to bring the audience more fully into the joy of the schemes Congreve sets up. After the interval, the audience in the circle had notably thinned – a result of the long run time in conjunction with the slightly flat first couple of Acts – but the remainder is worth staying for as the core plot and comedy ramp-up, ending with a well-choreographed formal dance. The Donmar’s new version of Congreve’s play has plenty of musings on marriage and the role of women which still feel extremely pertinent; it just needs to even out the tone to make this restoration comedy really fizz.

The Way of the World is at the Donmar Warehouse until 26 May. Tickets start at £10 with Klaxon tickets released every Monday at 12pm. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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