Monthly Archives: July 2019

Southern Belles – King’s Head Theatre

Southern Belles - Kings Head Theatre (by Scott Rylander)

It’s a great summer to be a Tennessee Williams fan, not just for the range of productions in recent months which have offered new insights into established and lesser-known works, but the last couple of weeks have felt like an immersive Williams drama for the entire UK. With a recent heatwave that at its peak felt like walking through soup, the catalyst of a new Prime Minister in a political climate strained to breaking point, and a feeling that everyone is holding their breath as the social tension rises. Right now, we all know what it feels like to be a Williams character waiting for that clarifying thunderstorm to clear the emotional decks.

Launching their 6-week Queer Season, the King’s Head Theatre have revived Something Unspoken and And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens, two rarely performed One-Act plays by Tennessee Williams that place same-sex relationships at the heart of the drama. In a spate of unconnected productions of Orpheus Descending, Night of the Iguana and a reimagining of The Glass Menagerie, this mini-season reveals a consistency in Williams’s writing about the experience of loneliness, the inevitable power-imbalance in all relationships and self-denial that belies sexuality, giving many of his central characters a kind of tragic dignity.

Badged together as Southern Belles, these two short plays – running at around 40-minutes each – are fairly slight by the writer’s own standards, but a lesser work by Williams still sits far above many other plays. What he does so well is to create emotional resonance and an intangible sense of thwarted desire, of patterns of behaviour replicated again and again from which his characters are unable to break free. In Something Unspoken that is the silent affection that Cornelia has harboured for her secretary Grace for 15-years, allowing it to sit unacknowledged between them, while in And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens transvestite Candy enters into a destructive cycle with a man she clings to.

These two pieces are also united by the class disparity in their central partnership; the mistress-servant relationship in Something Unspoken becomes as much of a barrier between them as their failure to voice their true feelings, and  Cornelia’s behaviour, which borders on the predatory, sits uncomfortably as she pushes her employee to admit feelings it’s not entirely clear that she shares. Similarly, in the second piece, Candy appears in male garb at the start of the play, displaying a delicate refinement, has picked up a working-class sailor for the night, drawing him back to her flat for an elaborate seduction. Candy’s insistence on friendship alone and the subtext between them suggesting that she too may be playing a more elaborate predatory game to coerce him into bed.

These central ambiguities come alive really well in director Jamie Armitage’s production, picking out the moments in both plays in which the closeness of the central pair ebbs and flows as the story unfolds, punctuated with moments of sharp confrontation and contrasting intimacy between the couples. Though both very short pieces, Williams creates waves of tension through these conversations that crest and resettle as the characters warily circle around each other, and it is these undercurrents that Armitage’s two productions manages to elicit so well, focusing-in on the tentative confidence and nervy reserve of four broken people.

The evening opens with Something Unspoken set in 1948 as Cornelia Scott awaits the election results of her local Daughters of the Confederacy group having refused to attend the vote, expecting to be automatically and unopposedly granted the leadership position. During the tense wait her long-dormant feelings for Secretary Grace are articulated and while there is an awkwardness in how Williams suddenly forces the two narrative strands to collide so rapidly, Armitage’s production draws-out many conflicting layers of meaning and interpretation. Willliams uses the frequent telephone interjections bringing updates from the election to slice through the building tension and reset the dramatic direction within the central exchange.

Annabel Leventon’s Cornelia is a forceful personality, attempting to impose her will both on the local women’s association and on the feelings of her employee who never outrightly confirms that this attraction is mutual. There is a hard surface to Cornelia, a prominent figure in a group that had charitable aims to memorialise Confederate soldiers and had raised funds for hospitals during wartime but by 1945 was linked to white supremacy with a discernible relationship with the Ku Klux Klan. Nothing Cornelia says makes reference to her politics or her intentions as leader, but this membership is no coincidence and despite the attachment to Grace which causes her great pain, Williams has chosen this membership deliberately to amplify her ambiguity as the play’s driving force.

Leventon’s performance captures these complexities, her Cornelia is full of outward dignity with a determination to which her refined Southern accent gives a cold entitlement. Her one-sided conversations with lackey Esmeralda in which she remotely attempts to overcome a clique of detractors set to destabilise the election are full of outrage and bluster, amazed that anyone would dare defy her but delivered with a cool social veneer that keeps everything respectable. And while the sharp turn into her romantic feelings is a little sudden from Williams, Leventon finds a genuine ache in Cornelia’s centre which the pressure of the day has exposed, although the final moments leave you wondering whether her political or personal life takes precedence.

Fiona Marr’s shy and confused Grace is extremely well pitched, contrasting thoughtfully with her more certain employer. No longer the young woman of 15-years before, Marr suggests that Grace is by no means as certain of her feelings as Cornelia, unable to determine if she feels love or merely great respect and companionship for this other woman. Marr skitters about the stage with furrowed brow unsure how to respond to these overtures and the extent to which her job security depends on returning them. But there’s just enough fright in Marr’s performance to suggest her demure may be the ‘silly little female trick’ the Cornelia accuses her of.  Left unresolved we’re not quite sure if Grace is the victim of unwanted attention of the victor of the long game.

The second play set in 1955 New Orleans (the same location as the charming The View Upstairs set in the 1970s) takes its title from a misquoted line in Shakespeare’s Richard II, a beautiful piece of poetry in which the now desolate monarch realises he has lost everything and can only ‘sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of Kings’ to which his own will be inevitably added. Evolving the idea that King Richard’s destruction was in part caused by the inability of others to accept his overt sexuality (in the play at least), Williams uses Candy to draw clear parallels with the medieval tragedy. The fractious interactions with sailor Karl who refuses to acknowledge his own attraction to Candy are contrasted by her desperation to feel love above all things. And like King Richard, she sacrifices money, dignity and even safety to secure even a moment’s deep connection to an attractive person.

Reprising a role he played last year when the King’s Head Theatre previously staged this production, Luke Mullins brings with him a damaged intensity from the start. Williams launches right into a deep conversation between these two men with Candy – at this point dressed as a man – speaking openly for several minutes while Karl is all but silent. There is a tender delicacy in Mullins’s interpretation of Candy with a nervous thrum that underscores the performance throughout, both determined to take the lead knowing that the young man before her will succumb eventually, but also reeling from the breakdown of a 17-year relationship that has left her fragile and frightened.

Mullins is superb, treading the line between seductive certainty and a tremulous need to be seen which brings a real heft to the charged interactions with Karl. There is a shifting cat and mouse element to the unfolding exchange that is extremely well realised in which Mullins’s intensely felt performance which veers between victim and conqueror as Williams tips the balance at various points. It’s too simplistic to think of Candy as an equivalent Blanch Dubois figure but Mullins finds a deep-seated strengthened fragility that aligns with the fearful determination of many Williams heroines to force a kind of happiness for themselves whatever it costs.

George Fletcher’s Karl (also reprising his role from last year) has many of the strong silent characteristics of Williams’s men, unable to articulate his desires with an illusion of physical control. Fletcher also uses the flow of the text to mark Karl’s moments of ascendance and fear, tracing his quite different path through the story while learning how much power he has to wield. The thuggish aspects of Karl play well against his uncontrollable physical attraction to Candy as both a man and a woman, creating a force between the actors which is impossible to resist and richly satisfying for the audience.

Sarah Mercadé’s three-quarter round set is a pink boudoir of fluffy carpet and gauzy curtains that utterly transform the tiny King’s Head Theatre and serve both scenarios well. Aside from a raised circular dais at one end with some seating, the approach is minimalist but representative enough of the feminine decadence of the South to allow Williams’s text and characters to take centre-stage without any physical clutter to distract us. Joe Beighton weaves the evening together with music, including a scene setting rendition of ‘All I Do is Dream of You’ performed by Ben Chinapen at the start and Michael Burrows emotive piano version of ‘You Made Me Love You’ tying both productions together.

With a combined running time of c.100-minutes this is a short evening and while And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens and Something Unspoken may not be fully evolved plays, Armitage’s production has plenty to say. As the conclusion to a strong season of unusual Williams revivals, Southern Belles proves valuable and illuminating, concluding with an important moment of solidarity that leaves the audience with a sense of hope and the value of community to take home. As the rain sets in across the UK clearing up the heat of recent weeks, perhaps our own real-life Williams drama is heading for some kind of conclusion as well.

Southern Belles is at the King’s Head Theatre until 24 August with tickets from £23.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog  

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The View UpStairs – Soho Theatre

The View UpStairs - Soho Theatre

2019 is officially the year of the musical; after a period of so-so revivals and uninspiring new work, London’s musical theatre scene is thriving again with reinvigorated classics and key investment in new productions that enchant audiences and critics alike. Already this year the West End has seen a celebrated Broadway transfer for Waitress with Katherine McPhee, now onto its second cast, the UK premieres of Come From Away and 9 to 5 (which recently announced a UK tour), alongside big-ticket revivals of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Palladium and a third-coming for the Open Air Theatre’s smart and moving version of Jesus Christ Superstar transferring to the Barbican.

Just over half-way through the year and there’s still plenty more to come – Michael Ball returns to Les Misérables to play Javert in an all-star concert version opening shortly while the much-loved original production gets a facelift and a redesigned theatre space, the anticipated arrival of Dear Evan Hansen strolls into town in the autumn and if you needed any confirmation that musicals are now cool again then Director-of-the-moment Jamie Lloyd swaps Pinter for Andrew Lloyd Webber with a new version of Evita.

The success of Dominic Cooke’s production of Follies at the National, which also returned to the Olivier this year, and Marianne Elliott’s re-gendered Company at the Gielgud which extended well beyond its original run changed everything, and musicals are now far more than lively tunes and hyper-real stories playing to coach-loads of tourists. With an ability to transfer serious social messages about the world we’ve created for ourselves and the expectations we place on the lives of others, done well a single song can be far more emotive than three hours of serious drama, so the arrival of Off-Broadway hit The View UpStairs a few weeks after Pride couldn’t be more timely.

Max Vernon’s musical, making it’s European debut at the Soho Theatre and running for just five weeks, commemorates the 1973 arson attack on a gay bar in New Orleans which was the most significant event of its kind until 2016’s Florida shootings. And while the fire and its consequences hang over the action, Vernon’s focus in on the humanity of the men and women inside at the time, the broken community of customers who found solace in the one place they could be themselves against a backdrop of endless persecution and hate beyond the walls of the UpStairs Bar.

Vernon uses a time-travel structure in which an entitled millennial moving home from New York unknowingly buys the bar to turn into his fashion emporium, only to find himself unexpectedly back in 1973 getting to know the regulars. It sounds unlikely but works fairly seamlessly in practice, allowing Vernon to point to the ease with which we all take for granted any of the rights and freedoms hard won by previous generations, and how little we know or appreciate the suffering and fear of discovery  which the pioneers of democratic and social freedoms had to endure.

It is a theme that has echoed through a number of high-profile productions about the history of the LGBTQ+ experience in recent years. Both Angels in America and The Inheritance commented on the longer-term consequences of the 1980s AIDS epidemic in both devastating and galvanising the gay community, while remarking on how the impact of those losses was remarkably little known among the younger generation. Similarly, the TV show Pose which came to BBC2 earlier this did the same for the ball culture scene charting internal divisions within the Trans African American and Latinx Houses and struggles for recognition. Vernon’s new musical however looks beyond the 1980s, to pre-existing hostility and prejudice which he suggests has never entirely disappeared from American society, drawing clear parallels between the violence of the 1973 attack and the erosion of equality as hard-line politicians dominate modern US government.

Lee Newby’s set largely eschews any suggestion of camp exuberance, this is not an era in which the characters could be out and proud even in their own space. Newby’s work has a lot of lovely detail, fitting nicely into the small Soho Theatre stage to create a slightly worn 70s boozer with a sticky-looking tiled floor, tired furniture and heavy curtains. The only concession to the cabaret entertainments occasionally offered by the bar is a large white grand piano, but this shabbiness suits the underground nature of the story, and there’s something inviting even homely about Newby’s interpretation of The UpStairs Bar that grows in stature as the characters’ attachment to it becomes clearer.

Director Jonathan O’Boyle keeps most of the characters on stage throughout the show, even in the opening and closing scenes where the 1970s cast linger like shadows or ghosts keeping the past alive as Wes agrees to buy the building. It’s a musical with 15 songs and dialogue so things move briskly and O’Boyle moves his performers around the space, sitting at different tables and when not participating in the central discussion there are lots of silent vignettes that add texture to the underlying tensions and alliances within the group that become vital later in the story.

The culture clash between 2019’s Wes and the inhabitants of The UpStairs Bar is Vernon’s key device, and it’s one that earns plenty of laughs as Wes’s modern ideas, shallowness and clear naivety about his cultural ancestry clash against the darker reality of the people hiding their sexuality and living in fear of public shame. Smashing Wes’s phone immediately as a spy device and criticising his gender-neutral clothing style are easy wins for Vernon, but Tyrone Huntley’s Wes is not a character who is easy to like. Obsessed with image, sexting and presenting his life as a success on social media, it makes him hard to root for and Wes takes too much of the focus. Huntley is very funny and sings beautifully, giving heart to the growing connection with hustler Patrick (Andy Mientus) that starts to reform him. The point of the show is to see his growth as he begins to understand the importance of the room he now owns, but he’s still a rather two-dimensional creation that may drive the narrative but is ultimately the least interesting thing about it.

Instead, Vernon has created a cast of fascinating 1970s characters who, though sparingly used, form a convincingly disparate group who genuinely seem to care for each other. Across the one hour and 45-minute running time, the audience is able to spend a little time with each one of them individually, spread-out across the show, while catching snippets of their attitudes and personal circumstances that build a broad but satisfying picture of different personalities clinging together. With eight additional characters there’s little time to flesh them all out as fully as we’d expect, but somehow Vernon has shown us enough of their humanity and their complexity that by the end the individual and collective cost of the arson attack is devastatingly realised.

Buddy is a married man with children living a lie for the sake of convention and playing piano at the bar once a week, a night he lives for. Frustrated by his need to invert himself, John Partridge’s Buddy is full of stunted frustration as the man he is is constantly subdued by the man he needs to be to protect his family from retaliatory actions because of his choices. And Partridge sings beautifully, particularly ‘Some Kind of Paradise’ which opens the show with a blusey feel that runs through the music. There’s a gentle tragedy in Buddy that Partridge brings out to great effect, having to weigh his options all the time, and even in the supportive surroundings of the UpStairs Bar he must stay in control – a key theme of The View UpStairs being the eternal debate between violent and peaceful means to achieve change –  even at the cost of his friendships.

Declan Bennett has a great rock voice which suits the role of the troubled Dale particularly well, a character on the periphery of the group, feeling excluded and pushed to greater extremes as the action unfolds. Bennett plays Dale as a bundle of ready aggression, and filled with subtle tics, unable to stay still and rather pointedly fiddling with a lighter at every opportunity. He never seems quite as volatile or “mad” as the other characters imply but Bennett finds surprising reserves of pathos for Dale in his solo number ‘Better Than Silence’, the sadness of his homelessness and prostitution explaining his behaviour as he feels unseen by the others, a cry for help ignored with disastrous consequences.

The smaller roles are also full of colour including the sweet mother and son duo of Latina seamstress Ines (Victoria Hamilton Barritt) and Drag Queen Freddy (Garry Lee) who’ve struggled on when her husband left, finding greater happiness by embracing the unexpected path life gave them. Impressive work too from Cedric Neal as the more flamboyant Willie, with a dancer’s technique and an incredibly soulful voice, particularly in the charming ‘Theme Song’, and Carly Mercedes Dyer as bar owner Henri, a no-nonsense proprietor who keeps everyone in line but refuses to give much away to her clientele, while Joseph Prouse’s non-practicing pastor Richard argues for peaceable methods while trying to maintain everyone’s faith in themselves.

Vernon’s musical isn’t perfect and like a lot of American imports it sometimes prioritises cheese over the gritter experience of the regulars of the bar and our route into the show via the time-looping Wes feels unnecessary, but there is something life-affirming about The View UpStairs and its faith in the essential value of all people regardless of what they have to do to survive that entirely wins you over. In the context of recent shows, it’s also a useful reminder that the AIDS epidemic was neither the first or only battle the LGBTQ+ community has had to fight, and, whatever your sexuality or gender alignment, established political and social rights are always one election away from retrenchment. So, forget what you think you know about musicals, because in 2019 they have much to contribute to ongoing debates.

The View UpStairs is at the Soho Theatre until 24 August with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog    


The Night of the Iguana – Noel Coward Theatre

Night of the Iguana - Noel Coward Theatre (by Brinkhoff Moegenberg)

The Night of the Iguana rounds off what has been a fascinating mini season of American drama in London in which the lesser known works of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams have appeared alongside and been treated with the same reverence as their most famous plays. Williams in particular is rarely out of fashion and recent productions have shed new light on the depth and quality of his writing. The Glass Menagerie transferred from Watford Palace to the Arcola Theatre, recasting the struggling Wingfields as an African-American family while at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Theatre Clywd’s vibrant production of Orpheus Descending breathed life into this underappreciated work.

Fringe and regional theatre is in love with Tennesse Williams at the moment, a further one-act double bill to come at the King’s Head Theatre as part of its Southern Belles season later this month, but there’s also a big West End revival this summer that’s not be missed. The Noel Coward Theatre has lured Clive Owen back to the stage for the first time in 18 years to play another messed-up character called Larry in The Night Of the Iguana, often described as Williams’s “last great play” based on his own short-story written in 1946.

Williams brings together an assorted collection of personalities who under normal circumstances would never form a connection and only through travel can ever really be thrown together in such an intimate setting; Larry Shannon the feverish former-priest turned tour guide stricken with panic attacks, the sexually predatory widow Maxine Faulk who owns the hotel, Hannah Jelkes the sedate New England artist and her verse-writing grandfather Nonno trying to write his final poem, all set for collision course as a physical and emotional storm brews between them.

Described by the playwright as a story about “how to live beyond despair and still live”, there is a sense in James Macdonald’s production of various strands coming to an end, of the conclusion of a  particular chapter in the characters’ lives as they arrive at the ramshackle Mexican hotel on the hill. By the conclusion of the play the life they have known before will have ended, and a new (not necessarily) better phase will begin. This focus on endings is multi-various, it is the end of the holiday season in Mexico where Maxine’s former life has ended with the death of her much-older husband Frank. When Larry appears at the “end of his rope” what follows explores the end of road for him in particular as he experiences the end of both his faith and his desire.

Through these various interconnections Williams’s concept of spiritual endings plays out across the story using the idea that both sex and religion can be a salvation as well as the ultimate destructive force. So, like the captured iguana of the title, there is a contained wildness in all of these characters who in this transitory place away from their real lives will come to a kind of reckoning within themselves and because of themselves. Macdonald’s production brings an intense slow-burn effect to the competing forces of life and death that drive the play, giving Williams time to weave his magic and the result is compelling and satisfying.

There are plenty of plays that never justify a three-hour runtime, but James Macdonald’s production has an enthralling quality that keeps momentum in a story with relatively little plot, most of which remains in the background as different conversations slowly reveal the backstories and viewpoint of the guests, focusing on a faltering and unlikely connection between polar opposites Larry and  Hannah. But through these repeatedly broken conversations, interrupted by the encroaching outside world of passing tourists, Larry’s busload of angry passengers and the natural environment, Macdonald draws out strands of  loneliness and isolation for two people entering middle age, losing the freedom of their youth and living unmarried beyond normal social expectations.

An experienced director of American drama who’s worked extensively on Broadway, Macdonald knows well how to marshal these long discursive plays. As with Annie Baker’s John and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – both of which Macdonald has directed in the UK in the last two years  – he is particularly attuned to the subtle changes of tone in the writing that slowly reposition the emotional direction of a scene, knowing precisely when and how to emphasise the small crescendos of drama and subsequent calm in each Act, building the layers to create a powerful and climatic overall effect that changes the characters’ lives unalterably as the curtain comes down.

Unlike more recent stripped back productions this is a bold, almost cartoon-like depiction of Mexico with its simple guest huts, backdrop of rockery and plants, and roped staircase carved into the hillside. Night of the Iguana talks about life having a “realistic and a fantastic level” realised through Rae Smith’s hyper-real and unchanging set where every conversation takes place, so the stage is filled with ephemera that it doesn’t really need. The props and scenery look pretty, creating an idea of the alfresco beauty and wildness of Central America that unleashes and reflects Larry’s turmoil, but it’s also a bit heavy-handed in its suggestion of claustrophobia, a distraction from the intensity of the conversations that the actors and Macdonald have to work against rather than within.

But this they do superbly. We have certain expectations of Williams’s characters, they are often fragile, repressed and trapped in their own lives, unable to overcome the limited expectations of society that forces them to cage the natural passion they can barely contain. Williams tends to be more critical of men than women, burying themselves temporarily in alcohol and lust until the pressure and emptiness of their encounters breaks them into conformity. We see this in Summer and Smoke as doctor John seeks solace from the pain of being alive in the local club, a desperate love for his neighbour Alma crushed by the increased numbing of his emotional and sexual life.

Here, Larry starts the play sullied by his many encounters with very young women on his tour and during his single year as a working priest. Recently deflowering a 16-year old who’s now obsessed with him, Larry is bent on self-destruction, a figure loathsome both to the audience and himself. Clive Owen’s performance is full of nervous energy as the strung-out and anxious Larry treads around his own imminent breakdown for most of the play. The nervy disposition he suggests as his unhappy tour group endlessly blast the bus horn, meets a rising panic, hoping that a few days of recuperation at the hotel will soothe him all the while knowing deep down that he is trapped there.

Everyone in Williams’s plays is seeking some kind of salvation and purification, and Owen’s Larry needs it more than most as the weakness of his flesh collides against his version of Christianity that sent him fleeing from the unpalatably mild view of God in the American church. His Old Testament belief in the power of the deity, expressed through the raging violence of tropical storms, entirely reflects the weather-like nature of his own moods – a pattern of behaviour in which a passion for young women clouds his judgement with a violent aftermath.

In a superb return to the stage, Owen’s Larry is a haunted man, pursued by his “spook”, a kind of depression or devil that he can never escape. As his breakdown advances and he waits for “the click” in his head like Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to restore rationality, Larry seeks solace in his growing friendship with Hannah, a need to be understood by another person that is desperate but never pitiable. Larry is an unforgivable character and Owen embraces his many sides while still retaining a humanity that makes his need for someone to truly see him rather than his office one of the most engaging aspects of the play. What we see in Owen’s performance is the slow entrapment and reduction of the wild iguana, the taming of a man’s spirit and, like many a Williams hero, the acceptance of a conventional, emotionally confined future, the easy option.

By contrast the leading female characters in Williams’s plays have a towering inner strength that only grows within the crisis of the play, leaving them free to become another kind of being despite their seemingly fragile exterior shell. The chameleonic powers of Leah Williams have delivered some exceptional performances in recent years and here she adopts the saintly placidity of the hustler-artist Hannah Jelkes, travelling the world by selling art to fund her adventures. The unrufflable and saint-like demeanour is reflected in Williams’s carefully controlled refined New England accent, suggesting a woman whose physical passions are almost non-existent in an life driven by intellectual and artistic pursuits that have a spiritual gratification. Slowly she comes into view, the prim restraint replaced with a clear compassion for lonely middle-aged men and a surprising non-judgemental worldliness that makes her the ideal confident and the only person who can bring respite to Larry.

Williams’s Hannah has purity and serenity but there is a resourcefulness in her, a deep-rooted fight that prevents anyone taking advantage of her. Her conversations with Larry are brief at first, invested with so much potential chemistry from Williams and Owen that they tantalise the audience with what’s to come. When they finally speak at length in the long third act it is enthralling. Both actors are mesmerising as the conversation morphs constantly from a polite friendship to something more complex, an almost spiritual connection loaded with unfulfillable desire. Hannah’s long monologue about her romantic encounters is delivered in pin-dropping silence by Williams lost in the memory of the past and while her current existence also ends in this shabby hotel, unlike Larry you know she will continue to grow, to emerge stronger and fuller for the experience.

As hotel-owner Maxine, Anna Gunn is a woman who knows exactly what she wants and before the play begins has determined that Larry will stay with her. Maxine may be openly provocative and blunt, but Gunn also shows her hidden vulnerability and a subtly in her dealings with Larry, knowing not to push him too quickly. There seems to be genuine affection for her late husband despite her dismissal of their marriage in public, and, as with the other characters, while Maxine is not exactly likeable, Gunn suggests a loneliness under the surface, a determination to keep others at arms-length emotionally.

Like the tethered iguana, James Macdonald’s fascinating production shifts and bucks at its restraints until the characters can no longer contain their inner selves. We could do without the comedy Germans and perhaps a slightly less cliched way to present the Mexican staff could have been found, a set of Williams’s creations that feel awkward in the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, gripping performances from Clive Owen and Lia Williams, and Macdonald’s slow-burn direction allows Williams’s writing to cast its spell.

Night of the Iguana is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 28 September with tickets from £17.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – The London Palladium

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat - The London Palladium

A surprising amount of modern theatre is hugely nostalgic, looking back to what seem to be happier, simpler times. While plenty of new writing reflects the here and now, our deep-rooted connection to writers such as Terence Rattigan, Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward are steeped in our love of the past and rarely seen without the period paraphernalia. But there is a more individual nostalgia in theatre that is also deeply personal, one that connects us to the shows we have loved at different times in our lives, shows that take us back to our childhoods.

Perhaps not many people remember the first West End show they ever saw but a primary school aged child taken to see their then hero Jason Donovan make his own West End debut at the London Palladium in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 1991 is not something you easily forget, and it’s possible to overlook just what a huge star Donovan was back then. Having only seen regional panto before including Fiona Corke (i.e. Gail from Neighbours – spot the theme!) playing Peter Pan at the Marlowe Theatre, this formative experience in one of London’s most prestigious venues made a lasting impression.

Produce Michael Harrison and Director Laurence Connor understand the emotive power of that nostalgia and the decision to include Donovan in the latest revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s evergreen musical as the Elvis-like Pharaoh is incredibly savvy casting. But Joseph is a show which has always had a kind of childhood nostalgia baked right in, whether from its early incarnations as a school production through the many iterations and revivals since, its light-hearted melodies and almost cartoonish story have captured the imagination of generations of children. Anyone lucky enough to catch Donovan’s brief run in 1991 or any of the subsequent incumbents – Philip Schofield, Darren Day, Stephen Gately, Lee Mead even Gareth Gates – are, 28 years later, hoping to re-live that experience. Even if this is your very first Joseph, you won’t be disappointed.

It’s not easy to create a show that looks backwards and forwards at the same time, that will satisfy an audience with a decades-old memory of it while offering enough modern application to prevent this highly performed musical feeling like a museum piece. Connor impressively manages both, working with Musical Director John Rigby and Choreographer Joann M. Hunter to update some of the music and dance sequences to include more rap and street dance stylings. This gives the overall show a dreamlike urban feel particularly in the vision for Act One finale ‘Go Go Go Jospeh’ and through the characterisation of the Narrator.

Like the Adrian Mole musical down the road in Covent Garden, Connor also mixes child and adult performers together in unusual ways that work extremely well. Of the eight children who form a fireside circle around the Narrator at the start to hear the story of Joseph, they end up scattered through the action as several of the protagonist’s 11 brothers, the snooty aristocrat Potiphar who Joseph works for in Egypt, as well as the Butler and Baker, Joseph’s dream-plagued cellmates. A large pool of young actors will rotate these roles, lending an additional charm to the show including some great solo moments that add to the comedy of the Potiphar scenes as well as creating an opportunity for one little brother to start the wonderful ‘Benjamin Calypso.’ It’s a smart approach from Connor and Harrison who use their young cast members to create a warm family feel while tying the show back to its school hall origins.

But Connor has more tricks for us and creates a hybrid quality-makeshift production. There is a fluid simplicity to the construction here that belies the technical complexity behind the scenes. The result is a show that actively and warmly welcomes in the audience but similar awes them with a spectacle that it wears rather lightly for the most part. Part of that idea is realised by doubling the Narrator character with several additional roles in the story including Jacob, Potiphar’s vampish wife and a fellow prisoner. It is an interesting but very successful choice, deepening the notion that the Narrator is a contemporary master of ceremonies, controlling and conjuring the story before us, while retaining a playful, dressing-up box feel that runs through the set and costume design.

A lot of time has passed in theatre design since the 1991 production and Morgan Large has clearly been inspired by the bold impressionism of big West End shows like The Lion King. Puppetry has advanced apace as well so the show includes two mechanical camel puppets made from bicycles and some comedy static sheep that look like scaled-up children’s toys. The centrepiece of the design is a huge backdrop filled by an enormous round sun (or moon) that moves rapidly across the wall as required, but is tonally altered using arresting block colours to suggest the burning orange heat of Canaan as the brother’s plot against Joseph, becoming blood red as Reuben sings the Western-inspired ‘One More Angel in Heaven’ and even an emphatic blue at the end of ‘Joseph’s Coat’.

It is a very colourful production in every sense, inspired by the fantastic array of shades in the famous technicolor garment, Large has created a forceful and vibrant experience, full of block primary tones that give a heightened feel to the action, referencing the notion of dreams and storytelling that drive the plot. Again, this looks simple with layers of basic shapes to suggest time and place, but the overall effect is strong, with an almost Van Gogh-like intensity in the way colour has been deliberately chosen to change the mood and tone of the show. Notably in Act One, the humbler presentation of the character’s lives uses an arrangement of reddish patterned cloths to form the  tent-like home of Joseph’s family, later contrasted by the elaborate detail of Pharaoh’s gold palace. Together, they form a considered and impactful production design which speaks to the show’s history in school productions while making it distinct from earlier, more naturalistic approaches. It feels memorably modern.

Connor’s production certainly never takes itself too seriously and every opportunity to make the audience laugh or clap along is seized with gusto by the show’s other big-name Sheridan Smith. A decorated musical theatre star, Smith is an energetic and engaging Narrator, encouraging the crowd at every opportunity and refusing to stand on the side-lines of the story she is telling. Using her comedy background, Smith not only takes on multi-gendered roles with the aid of an elasticated beard but utilises her meta-theatrical role above the story to add a few nods and winks in the right places to increase the humorous effect.

Given modern harem-style trousers and trainers, Smith’s Narrator reflects the more urban feel to some of the music by marking and punching the beat. By far the largest role in the production, Smith’s vocals are richly layered, precisely mapping the tone changes across the quiet varied song styles while joining the larger dance numbers that reference styles as diverse as Can-Can, line dancing and hip hop. Smith is a hugely charismatic stage performer and here that warmth is her biggest asset, using humour to connect with the audience while creating a distinct and sparkling personality for the Narrator, setting and controlling the tone to hold this episodic tale together. Removing the artificial barrier between audience and performers, Smith’s approach is a key asset in the show’s success.

With only a couple of appearances in Act Two, the Pharaoh is a small but memorable role, amplified in this instance by the return of Jason Donovan to a show that solidified his megastar status nearly 30 years ago. And with the ‘Pharaoh’s Story’ given over to silhouette, Connor allows Donovan to make a spectacular entrance carried dramatically through the rear doors on a sedan chair to a rapturous applause from the auditorium. Essentially an Elvis impersonation, the role is really an extended cameo, full of camp silliness the extremes of which actors often have a lot of fun with.

Now an established musical theatre star, Donovan certainly makes it his own, adopting the fairly broad but high energy approach taken across the production to maximise the comedy. So while he employs the Elvis low drawl and inward-facing knees, he keeps the impersonation under tight control. The look of exhaustion Donovan throws the audience as Pharaoh slumps into his throne at the end of song provides additional amusement, as do the several reprises of the ‘Song of the King’ he delivers before finally letting Joseph speak to him. Some of the vocals are lost to over-amplification but no one cares, the room is alight, lost in our own circles of personal nostalgia – not bad for a 10-minute appearance.

With two big names to sell tickets, Harrison and Connor cast the unknown Jac Yarrow in the lead role after seeing a student production. Due to graduate on the final day of the run, it proves a canny decision as Yarrow delivers a confident, star-making performance. Joseph is not always a likeable character, arrogantly bragging about his power dreams and Jacob’s blatant favouritism, so you may feel the tiniest bit of sympathy when his brothers set upon him. Yarrow navigates all of this extremely well as Joseph’s fortunes rise and fall across the story.

It’s not a show that allows the central character to let loose very often with only two solos including the, let’s face it, almost painfully schmaltzy ‘Any Dream Will Do’ which Yarrow delivers well. Buy it is in the more meaningful ‘Close Every Door’ that his performance really shines, building forcefully across the number and showcasing the strength of his vocals. The extended applause that follows the song is well deserved and despite the lyrics you can practically hear doors flinging open to Yarrow all over town.

One of the most likeable aspects of the Joseph soundtrack is the variable but unified musical combination of country, calypso and French cabaret which reveal the interior experience of the brothers. Richard Carson as Reuben gives ‘One More Angel in Heaven’ a Seven Brides for Seven Brothers feel that comes through the choreography, while Michael Pickering delivers a brilliant rendition of Simeon’s ‘Those Canaan Days’. There’s good support from the surrounding cast in a variety of guises including the extended central family, Pharaoh’s attendants and fellow prisoners that fill the stage with activity at all the right moments.

Given the rousing reception to this production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and full-house standing ovation for the entirety of the ‘Joseph Megamix’, it barely matters what the press make of this on Thursday. With two much-loved performers in key roles and a bright new talent as Joseph, it’s almost certainly critic-proof. Harrison and Connor may play on our nostalgia, leaning on childhood memories of school productions or Donovan’s run in the 1990s, but the staging and orchestration of the Palladium’s new version looks to the future, as a whole new set of children fall in love with this perennial musical. If Yarrow returns to it in 20 years, his army of new fans will come back with him.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is at the London Palladium until 8 September with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog,  


The End of History – The Royal Court

The End of History - Royal Court

Writer Jack Thorne has one of the most interesting CVs in theatre, filled with eclectic projects as diverse as Channel 4’s sexual predator drama National Treasure and more lighter child-friendly fare including the internationally acclaimed two-part stage show Harry Potter and the Cursed Child that seems to run and run. Thorne is difficult to pigeonhole but his work most often focuses on the micro effects of class, economics and legacy in a subgenre you could describe as the political family drama. His latest project is exactly that, examining the experience of one family over 20 years, beginning with the early months of the Blair administration in 1997 and ending just two years ago in the Brexit vote aftermath of 2017.

Thorne is fascinated by the complex and evolving relationships among groups of people tied to one another over a long period of time. The experience of government policy, social and financial forces are the backdrop to that, helping to shape character responses, but Thorne places personality and small-scale often domestic tragedies at the forefront of his drama. These themes were exceptionally well realised in three series of This is England co-written with Director Shane Meadows which charted the working class experience across the 1980s as political activism, violence and small-town deprivation forced their way into the lives of a group of young friends trying to find their place and themselves as their circumstances narrowed. Harrowing at times, and unrelenting, Thorne (and Meadows) optimism, their belief in the fundamental goodness of most people created characters to invest in.

The End of History takes the same essential principle and applies it to the generational chasm between those raised in the 1970s and their own children muddling through our more commercial and self-interested modern times. Thorne uses the tight family unit to explore the changing social and political expectations of the last two decades, accompanied by lasting shifts in technological connectedness and reliance – almost as pop culture mileposts. But at the heart of the play is also the idea of parenting as a “legacy” endeavour where characteristics and beliefs about the world are passed down to your children in the hope that they will continue your work. Does this become as much a burden to individuals wanting and needing to live their own lives as the financial implications of inherited wealth that Sal and David so forcefully argue is destroying society? Thorne is asking where and should history end in order to create a new beginning.

Strictly as drama, the first two acts of Thorne’s play are more successful than its conclusion; played straight through at 1 hour and 50 minutes there is an incredible richness in two thirds of The End of History which proves compelling viewing and neatly shifts our perspective on the characters as more layers of the story are revealed. It begins with a reasonably conventional set-up, a family preparing to meet their son Carl’s new girlfriend for the first time and speculating on her supposed wealth and class. The very first interaction proves to be a crucial one as mother Sal and 19-year old daughter Polly, returned home from university, awkwardly navigate the semi-reluctant distance that has grown between them. Instantly the audience is pulled into the drama where unresolved tensions and personality clashes bubble beneath the surface in a strong opening exchange.

Thorne elicits plenty of comedy from this early scenario, the overly familiar and too open Sal and David putting their foot in it with the timid and terrified Harriet unable to cope with the onslaught of questions about her family finances and misunderstandings about their social position. The increasing chattiness of Sal in particular is both uncomfortable and amusing as she crosses the line again and again, almost indulging the awkwardness of the situation for her own mischievous and provocative effect.

What follows is carefully constructed to change our perspective, so the true purpose of the play evolves and adapts in front of us. The family focus of Act One concerned with cooking, the testing of social niceties and intrusion of an outsider into an established group making everyone behave differently morphs into a heavily politicised Act Two which, 10 years on in 2007, looks at the effect of parental choices on their adult children’s self-assurance and contentment. Here the primary driver is an impending announcement around which conversation circulates for most of the Act, with the consequences offering interesting dramatic ramifications.

Thorne is more overtly political here, drawing on the play’s title – a theory on whether society can evolve to a maximum state –  to including statistics and more complex economic arguments, but having built character so thoughtfully in Act One, it feels natural that they would speak in this way and are mocked by their children for it. So as David expounds on the horrors of landowning entitlement, rather than a lecture you feel for his silent but slightly horrified children who face the knowledge that their parents have a higher regard for their political views than for the security and contentment of their offspring.

This should come to a head in Act Three but now 20-years since the start of the play, Thorne opts for a far more sentimental conclusion that his writing or these characters really deserve. Avoiding spoilers, what occurs here is in a sense a betrayal of the events and decisions taken in Act Two, but one which the characters barely acknowledge. The action itself is understandable, and perhaps inevitably in a play that deals with familial conflict some parting of the ways must occur to provide a satisfactory conclusion but, in the decade that has now passed in the character’s lives, not enough time is given to explaining to the audience why the revelation of Act Two is no longer applicable.

Instead there is an emotional arc to the story in Act Three that doesn’t sit quite properly with the rest of the play. Still in preview until Wednesday with the Royal Court actively asking for audience feedback some elements may change, but even though the scenario itself is credible, the centrepiece of which is an overlong monologue by David, the tone jars somewhat with the richer and more natural dialogue of the younger characters earlier in the scene. Yet, it is in the creation of character that Thorne excels and, as with his other projects, these are strong and engaging.

The End of History centres on matriarch Sal, played with a finely tuned skill by Lesley Sharp. A long-term activist from Greenham Common to marching against the War in Iraq to local causes, Sal is a collected and shrewd woman, although the first time we see her she’s playing the embarrassing, inquisitive mum to Carl’s new girlfriend. And you do feel she is playing, that Sal enjoys provoking the quiet sensibilities of her children as much as she passionately cares about a variety of social issues.

Sharp’s performance has warmth and genuine care for her children, but rather than an indulgent mother, she’s desperately trying to hide her frustration that she has failed to impart the same degree of social conscience to her two sons and daughter. Yet there are many layers to Sal, a character who is difficult for the others to live up to and prepared to stand her ground, but simultaneously blind to her family’s needs. The amusement of oversharing, Sharp suggests indicates a more deeply rooted failure to recognise the crisis she has created in her children.

Kate O’Flynn as eldest child Polly has the lion’s share of the younger generation’s dramas, resenting the Cambridge education she was forced into and her subsequent career as a corporate lawyer almost deliberately designed to most irritate her parents. More like her mother than she realises, there’s a long-running reference to her singledom and childlessness that Polly turns into a strength, but in the scenes with her brothers O’Flynn suggests the vulnerability of a young woman navigating her emotional needs – including married boyfriends and sexting – a suggestion that Polly failed to find the support she really needed at home. There’s also notable work from Zoe Boyle as the nervously out of place Harriet of Act One who completely transforms into a self-assured and slightly catty member of this dysfunctional group a decade on.

The male characters are less fully explored but David Morrissey is a strong presence as father David, who may only come to light occasionally but has a stronger bond with his children that he cannot properly express, realising only too late that he and they are not what he thought. Sam Swainsbury’s Carl has a more traditional trajectory with a family life of his own, but in Act Three he finally comes into view as he struggles to reconcile the events of the past twenty years and while only in his early 40s fails to see a clear path ahead. Laurie Davidson is a fragile Tom and the events of the play seem harder for him to bear. His Act Two conclusion is rather melodramatic but Davidson gives a wider sense of Tom’s instability and interior angst despite a relatively small role in the overall story.

Grace Smart creates a sizeable middle-class kitchen with portions of the walls exposed or broken through to reveal the abundant garden beyond. In a way it reflects the false reality of this family’s life, but even from the rear stalls some of the brick panels are too obviously fake, lending a cartoony feel to the room that gets in the way of the emotional and intellectual confrontations of the play. A simpler, more impressionistic approach might have worked better in which the problem of the political dominating the personal could be more clearly confronted.

Thorne’s writing is meaningful and engaging, enhanced by the reunion with Cursed Child (and The Glass Menagerie) director John Tiffany who brings a televisual feel to the direction, controlling the movement of characters and adopting a swirling montage during scene changes to play out the passing of the years. In The End of History Thorne shuffles various perspectives within the family, examining their different experiences of the same events from multiple angles, and while these differences drive wedges between them, ultimately and with hope for the future, he explores the ties that keep people together.

The End of History is at the Royal Court until 10 August with tickets from £12.Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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