Monthly Archives: March 2020

New Perspectives on Chekhov: A Three Play Analysis

Uncle Vanya, The Seagull and Three Sisters

The new decade has brought us many unexpected challenges, panic buying across the country, a global pandemic that will last many months and, in the last two weeks, a consequential redefining of all our social and business interactions. But some changes have been for the better and this year three overlapping Chekhov productions have started to redefine the audiences’ relationship with a playwright whose work has been, at best, challenging. Three Sisters at the National Theatre, Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter and The Seagull at the Playhouse Theatre have all taken very different approaches to reworking Chekhov all with considerable success, together creating insight into a writer whose emotional and psychological brilliance has often been subverted for visual accuracy.

Each of these productions has taken a very different approach; Three Sisters adapted by Inua Ellams relocated Chekhov’s drama to the Biafran war in the 1960s, Conor McPherson’s Uncle Vanya remained within the limits of a nineteenth-century pseudo-Russian location, while The Seagull took a timeless approach of modern dress and minimal scenery. Yet, together these productions have much in common, sweeping away the overly didactic and weighty nature of costume drama to focus on the relationships between characters and the driving energy of the text, resulting in a more comprehensive understanding of Chekhov’s major plays that brings fresh insight and relevance to a writer whose plays have often felt rather dry.

Location and Staging

Location is extremely important to Chekhov with the three plays in question all taking place on a country estate among largely middle-class landowning people all desperate to be anywhere else. But in imagining these locations for the stage, most earlier approaches have adopted very similar themes, placing the characters in wooden rooms that reflect the shabby gentility of their rural settings with limited access to the outside world and heavy furniture that almost always includes a rocking chair – this visual shorthand has been consistent across UK and international productions from Russian and Eastern Europe that have regularly visited the capital. This attempt to preserve Chekhov in a pseudo-Russian aspic has reduced his plays to melodramatic agri-dramas where farming equipment and techniques have taken precedence over family and story.

Ellams took the most radical approach to location by moving his version of Three Sisters, directed by Nadia Fall, away from the nineteenth-century to demonstrated how readily Chekhov’s emotional perspective and understanding of human nature grafts onto an entirely different era and continent. The context of 1960s war in Africa was outstandingly realised by designer Katrina Lindsay who created a beautiful and chic villa in woods and reeds that dominated the lengthy Lyttelton Stage. A far cry from the drab wooden interiors of previous productions, this rotating house became a sanctuary as the Nigerian Civil War raged outside, emphasising so clearly characters’ attachment to home, place and memory in physical form.

Compare this to designer Rae Smith’s semi-traditional approach to Uncle Vanya that stayed within the confines of the nineteenth-century but broke free of earlier styles with a painterly vision that felt rich in tone and texture. Set in a single well lived in room and directed with sensitivity by Ian Rickson, Smith’s design eschewed the bland wood for a more tumbledown approach, a fading manor house filled with objects from family life overflowing from every shelf bordered by a forest visible through the large windows that cast light across the room as beautifully as a Vermeer painting. Somehow in this still traditional but more open environment, the humour and emotional interior of the characters was freed-up and allowed to fill the large room across four Acts of this Olivier-nominated drama.

Soutra Gilmour’s set for The Seagull is quite different again but has the same effect of clearing the cobwebs of traditional location to focus on the emotional and psychological interaction between the cast. Using a chipboard box, a single table and a set of plastic chairs, there is nothing that visually indicates time, place or era. The actors are dressed in modern everyday clothes that look like their own, with no attempt to create anything as false as a set of ‘costumes’, nothing implies the magical landscape of lake and stars that grounds the play in its very particular setting and so potently affects the characters’ romantic impulses. But the effect is the opposite, and like Smith and Fall, Gilmour has created a blank canvas upon which the real meaning of Chekhov’s text is finally released from the trappings of nineteenth-century dresses and claustrophobically designed rooms.

Character Psychology

The characters in each of these three plays are trapped – a Chekovian standard – not just physically unable to leave their location due to war, pecuniary distress or as for Irina in The Seagull the failures of a limited ferry service, but also in emotional holding-patterns which the activity of the play temporarily releases before returning them to their original state, often no better and sometimes only a little worse for their temporary engagement with the wider world. These events are by their nature tragic in the lives of the individual but are often hard to connect with as an audience member, with translations and directional choices unable to help the viewer navigate a series of events to the beating heart of the work.

The three plays presented so far this year have changed that, pulling down the wall between setting and meaning that has proved illuminating in terms of textual excavation. Uncle Vanya has achieved this most successfully within its traditionalist approach by drawing out a new humour in Conor McPherson’s translation that humanised the familiar interactions between siblings, family and neighbours and brought the audience more effectively into the story than ever before. The caustic and sometimes ridiculous relationship between Toby Jones’s Vanya and Ciaran Hinds’s pompous Professor became a fascinating clash of education, ambition and long-held rivalry for attention that spoke volumes about the long-term frustrations bubbling beneath the surface of the siblings, while the romantic yearning Aimee Lou Wood’s Sonya expressed for Doctor Astrov was shown through age and attitude to be entirely one-sided, almost (but not quite) comic in its unlikeliness but nonetheless meaningful for a young woman with little hope of finding happiness or choice.

Ellams adaptation of Three Sisters focused far more on the ennui of confinement and while war raged a few miles away, the constricted sisters are in some ways a stage beyond the inhabitants of Vanya’s farm, their choices made, embedded and cannot be undone whether through unequal marriage as for Natalie Simpson’s Nne Chukwu (the reworked Masha) or desperation for status and recognition as sister-in-law Ronke Adékoluejo found which they must now try to bear. It was an adaptation that emphasised male character purpose bringing the notions of the military and domestic together but it well balanced the competing forces that drive individual personalities including the need to perform specific gender roles, to feel love or need from another person and, again, the strength of family ties to hold things together when all other hope or normalcy is gone.

The Seagull is a far more openly romantic play that either of the other productions which Anya Reiss’s new version drew particular attention to as characters actively sacrifice themselves to destructive forms of love with little regard for the consequences. This approach hones in on the numerous romantic entanglements in the play and exposes the duel excitement and pain they cause for characters such as Tamsin Outhwaite’s Polina, who like Nne / Masha in Three Sisters is caught in a loveless marriage and clings only to a passion for another as her only sustenance. There is a sense in Reiss’s text of how the naivety of early infatuation is cruelly exposed to harm, and we see through Emilia Clarke’s Nina the downward spiral this creates for a woman reduced and tainted by the societal consequences of unguarded passion, while Daniel Monks’s full-bloodied Konstantin is bent on self-destruction when his unrequited love for Nina takes its inevitable course. In all of these adaptations, it is the richness of this multi-character psychology that has more fully allowed the audience to see beneath the period surface of Chekhov’s work and finally feel its range and human depth.

Finding Comedy and Tragedy in Chekhov

Chekhov has rarely been celebrated as a humorist and while he subtly mocks the stiff social conventions that have so often been a feature of adaptations, this new raft of productions have showcased a breadth and depth in his writing that has warmed each of the theatres they have appeared in. Bloated pomposity and ego have been beautifully skewered whether manifest as The Professor in Uncle Vanya or the serious military men buzzing around the Nigeria home of the Three Sisters, we are finally seeing Chekhov’s skill with irony and caricature as he uses these gatherings of overly-familiar groups to draw out the silliness of human interaction and the nonsense of the modes of politeness that underpin class and tradition.

But by clinging to such expectations, none of Chekhov’s characters are allowed to escape tragedy, not tragedy on the grand scale which brings universal death and destruction, but what Chekhov is doing is exposing the tiny tragedies in everyday life that will leave his characters no better placed at the end of the play than at the beginning, that going through the clash of personal and external which each character represents will not ultimately save or change them. These recent productions have conveyed this so well as Richard Armitage’s superb Doctor Astrov opens his heart much as Clarke’s Nina or Simpson’s Nne Chukwu do to a doomed passion that temporarily erupts which must be internalised, repacked and restrained by the end of the play, returning each of these characters to lonely isolation and emotional sterility. In all three of these performances Chekhov’s understanding and charting of how people must survive when all hope is extinguished has been extremely moving.

And although Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya and The Seagull have taken quite different approaches to presenting and elucidating Chekhov’s themes there is a consistency in the way these Directors and their teams have mined the text to more fully understand the psychological drivers within the community of characters Chekhov employs to focus not just on the foregrounded individuals but those who comprise the wider context and how together they are all helping to make each other miserable. All of this is resulting in an exceptionally insightful period of shows that are unveiling a playwright whose work has that timeless and universal quality so redolent of theatre classics, easily transposed to different eras, contexts and situations while still yielding considerable meaning for an audience. As our theatres recover in the coming months let us hope for less period woodwork and far more heart and humour because Chekhov’s secrets are finally emerging.

Uncle Vanya was due to play until 2 May and The Seagull until 30 May. Three Sisters ended in February. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Seagull – Playhouse Theatre

The Seagull - Jamie Lloyd Theatre Company

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’; the next few weeks promised much in London with the West End transfer of the Donmar’s City of Angels opening at the Garrick and giving Vanessa Williams her UK stage debut, Clybourne Park was due for a revival at the Park Theatre and in mid-April Timothee Chalamet was also scheduled to make his first West End stage appearance with Aileen Atkins in 4000 Miles. In unprecedented times, theatres and all other social venues have shut their doors for several weeks. At present The National Theatre is closed until Easter Day with others expecting to remain dark until early May. Yet the effects are likely to last much longer with shows unable to rehearse and schedules being rearranged for later in the year.  But all of these shows will be back and we will be surprised how quickly we return to business as usual.

One of the big casualties of the Covid-19 restrictions was Jamie Lloyd’s new production of The Seagull which had completed a week of previews and should have faced the press last Thursday before closures prevented any further performances. Marking the West End debut of Emilia Clarke and following-on from the lauded version of Cyrano de Bergerac, Lloyd’s work brings with it high expectation these days, a chance to see a text at its purest, where the emotional undercurrents of the story are given renewed clarity as Lloyd rolls back the years of performance history to attempt to rediscover the play anew.

Catching an early preview of The Seagull it was set to be another insightful interpretation of a well-known piece. It is Chekhov’s most magical play in many ways, not only is it set in a very theatrical world of actors, writers and aspiring artists but its four acts take place at the lakeside home of Pjotr Sorin (Robert Glenister), an incredibly romantic spot which the characters frequently rhapsodize over, noting the beauty of the lake, the starlit sky and the charmingly situated little theatre built in the grounds for the performance of Konstantin’s new play which opens the show. Location is incredibly important to Chekhov’s work and his characters are largely in places they don’t wish to be, either longing to return to a favoured home or trying to retain land they must sell. Here in The Seagull this beautiful country estate has a duel purpose, a perfect habitat on the surface, only one which causes plenty of claustrophobia and eventual pain for the group who gather there over the play’s two year time period.

This of course reflects the emotional strains of the play as well, the dream of becoming an actor which drives local girl Nina and of becoming a successful writer which is Konstantin’s purpose – the play he stages is an abstract form attempting to create a new type of art which is much derided by the audience. Both these roles are contrasted against successful artists whose presence causes much despair for the young aspirants; Irina, Konstantin’s mother, is a famous actor in the city and comes to visit her brother Pjotr and son but is dismissive of her son’s talent and is herself entirely involved with Boris Trigorin a famous writer. The pairing of Nina and Konstantin stand in opposition to Irina and Boris as symbols of what they want to be and are somewhat naive about how to survive as real artists.

Lloyd’s production uses an adaptation by Anya Reiss which relies entirely on the spoken word to conjure these various physical and emotional boundaries and while that’s a shame to a degree, it is entirely in-keeping with the style of this Playhouse season. Like Cyrano, designer Soutra Gilmour retains the wooden box and simplisitic staging, using microphones to emphasise the language of the play, allowing that rather than scenery to conjure the magic of the country estate. The four acts are styled like a picnic, with table and chairs used to reflect the different beats of the play with an initial line up approach facing away from the audience to allow the slow introduction of the characters and their various romantic and personal entanglements.

As the plot becomes knottier, the arrangement of chairs and people becomes more enmeshed, angular and mass-like, giving characters the opportunity to overhear what others think of them and to imply much about the offstage activities of the group. The Seagull has a number of crucial developments happen out of sight such as Nina’s ultimate fate between sections Three and Four where over the space of two years she finally leaves the area of her birth to follow Boris, pursue her dream of becoming an actress and suffers the squalid consequences of becoming involved with fame. There are major ramifications too for Konstantin who becomes the Chekhov character with the always significant gun. But no one actually leaves the stage for much of this production so words become the means to suggest the passing of time and to signify who is really present.

Reiss’s adaptation of Chekhov’s work is largely a good one, offering plenty of character variety to create the community feeling that exists on the estate. Early on Reiss allows her characters to work against Chekhov by making some quite plain statements about people’s psychological state whereas the original text is more opaque, allowing characters to imply, hint and weave around topics rather than address them directly, but as the story unfolds, the emotional clarity is given stronger reign as characters actively miss or ignore declarations of love or affection they do not care to hear.

It is tough to follow a production as successful as Cyrano however where Martin Crimp’s urban poetry not only told the story but was the story, verse so integral to the plot that it became a rare theatre fire of form, function and performance. Reiss’s adaptation is not so purposeful, and while engaging doesn’t have quite the same completeness as the earlier production. Comparisons are tenuous but having these shows in the same form – and presumably the forthcoming A Doll’s House will use the wooden box, plastic chairs, microphone arrangement as well – makes it difficult to not to assess how well it works as a technique on quite different plays.

Performance-wise, Indira Varma was stealing the show in early preview as the glamorous Irina, an actress at ease with her own fame and thoroughly enjoying the position of prestige it gives her within the family. Believing the world revolves entirely around her, even when it clearly doesn’t, Irina is dismissive of her own child, barely conscious of the other members of the estate and entirely absorbed by her love affair with the much younger Trigorin. Yet, Varma finds an emotional fragility underneath Irina’s layers of taste and certainty that feels the threat to her own happiness posed by Nina and while Irina tries to appear strong, Varma clearly demonstrates her vulnerability beneath.

Daniel Monks was also doing excellent work as Konstantin, an overly serious young man trying to develop an artistic career of his own while hoping to impress Nina who may or may not know of his love for her. Excellent as the lead in Teenage Dick before Christmas, Monks is a great choice for Konstantin, bringing a sense of the young man’s intensity and frustration with his lot in life and his speeches with Nina in particular suggest a sensitivity not dissimilar to his mother’s which is challenged later in the play when artistic renown proves far from his expectation.

Emilia Clarke may have felt at drama school that roles like Nina were not for her, and while Coronavirus is preventing her chance to perform, the part suits her extremely well. She brings a sweetness to the role initially, a young woman often physically separated from the crowd who is almost too scared to fully pursue her dream of acting until meeting Trigorin and craving the life Irina leads. As Nina’s story unfolds, Clarke introduces a more brazen manner, seeking out and dominating Trigorin’s time with little regard for any but her own feeling, and as the full consequences of that play out in Act IV, Clarke demonstrates well how little Nina was prepared for the realities of the life she dreamed of and how much further she can yet fall.

The surrounding cast provide plenty of texture as numerous unhappy love stories play out. Everyone is eventually married to the wrong person but obsessed with someone else including Tamsin Outhwaite’s Polina the wife of the Estate Manager who is in love with Patrick Robinson’s Dr Yevgeny Sergeyevich Dorn – everyone loves an unattainable doctor in Chekhov – while Seun Shote’s local teacher wants to marry Sophie Wu’s Masha (Polina’s daughter) but she loves Konstantin who barely notices her. And although described as one of the great male roles, Reiss gives Tom Rhys Harries as Trigorin little to do but be brooding and silent making it harder to understand why he is the cause of so much suffering for this family.

It may be on (hopefully) temporary hiatus, but this production of The Seagull was shaping up very nicely, giving a very different look to Chekhov’s work than we may have seen before but still finding the complicated undercurrents particularly among the four leads. ATG Theatres are closed until at least 26 April so let’s hope the virus abates and more people are able to see this production before the original end of the run. Whatever happens, there is great work out there just waiting to be seen. The show will go on again!

The Seagull is on suspension until 26 April at the current time and is scheduled to run until 30 May but do check the website for further updates. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Peace in Our Time – Union Theatre

Peace in Our Time - Union Theatre (by Phil Swallow)

The theatre V.E. Day Commemorations are officially underway with a few big events ahead including the relocation of Sheridan’s The Rivals to a 1940s airbase as the National Theatre stages Richard Bean and Oliver Chris’s much anticipated new comedy Jack Absolute Flies Again next month. But first, the Union Theatre  in Southwark has found a long-forgotten Noel Coward play written in 1946 which assume the Nazis won the Battle of Britain and conquered the UK shortly afterwards. Given our modern perception of Coward’s work as all pithy witticisms, cocktails and cigarette holders, a counter-factual history set entirely in the private bar of an ordinary London pub may surprise you. But Coward’s writing about human nature and experience is far more relevant  than it is often allowed to be, and with a frighteningly prescient understanding of nostalgia, Peace in Our Time receives its first UK revival at an appropriate time.

Last year Matthew Warchus heeded these pleas to unleash Coward from his period confinement and his pseudo-40s production of Present Laughter at the Old Vic has been handsomely rewarded with critical acclaim and plenty of award nominations. Here, the Union have learnt these lessons and while this version of Peace in Our Time by necessity retains its Second World War setting, director Phil Willmott largely avoids the mannered and overly-stylised interpretation of Coward’s characters.

Instead he creates a show that has many salient points to make to modern audiences who have lived through the pomp and misdirected patriotism of recent years where our history has become a political tool to sway emotion with rose-tinted tales of former glories, a world that never really existed. Knowing that as long ago as the mid-1940s Britain’s military past was being evoked for dubious purposes seems prophetic and Coward’s reference in this play to Britain’s ‘bloated pride’ and unreasonable belief in its past attainments is a fascinating one given how forcibly the Second World War has since featured in modern rhetoric, used as a means to convince and control.

The substance of the plot essentially focuses on whether it is best to collaborate or resist the German occupation and the extent to which different characters play along with the regime. Coward uses the timeline of the original conflict to establish the parameters of this two Act play which opens in 1940 and ends in 1945, reimagining the course of the war before setting history back on its original path. But he is sparring with the details of Nazi control and only one German officer has a significant speaking role, focusing the rest of the story entirely on the British customers and publican family that create a patchwork of London life.

Peace in Our Time is a long play, running at around 2 hours and 40-minutes, and for some the over-arching jingoism could feel dated while the loose plot starts to drag in the second half as more characters are unnecessarily introduced and the story becomes a tad overloaded with melodrama. But Coward was an enthusiastic proponent of British verve and determination during the war, penning propagandist films including In Which We Serve and This Happy Breed all designed to bolster morale, so this play, while considerably different from his most celebrated works, had a social purpose designed to instill community and faith in the essential decency of most British people at a time of national crisis.

Yet, there is a darkness to this piece that slowly builds a sense of danger in which the severity of the Nazi regime increases as resistance to it grows. Coward drip feeds information to the audience carefully and conversationally, the fate of Winston Churchill, the position of the Royal family and the impact of restrictive measures on the freedom of the public, all delivered with little sensation, and in Willmott’s atmospherically smoky staging you feel the grip tightening as the years go by.  The pub location gives Coward the freedom to introduce a vast array of characters, each of which is lightly but distinctly drawn as working men, middle class ladies and club singers rub shoulders with secretaries, retired couples and the odd German officer. There is a real coming together in Coward’s vision of London and of the pub in particular as a safe haven for all kinds of people.

This vision of early/mid-twentieth-century life is a familiar one and there are tones of Patrick Hamilton whose novels, particularly Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky and Hanover Square are centred around a specific homely pub, while also evoking Norman Collins’s book London Belongs to Me evokes the London working class experience of lodging houses filled with all kinds of people existing side by side on the eve of war. In 2018, the National Theatre successfully staged Rodney Ackland’s Absolute Hell a similar multi-perspective play set in a drinking den shortly after the war, so Coward’s focus on location is a significant one, giving his characters a reason to come together in a public space, but one that speaks to a wider strand of literature interested in the public house as a place of destruction and redemption.

Reuben Speed’s design is a canny one, a long bar which splits in two and is moved around the auditorium to mark the changes in scene and time period. It is also notable how the bar is used to shift the audience’s perspective from the customers to the publican’s family throughout the play with the very first scene primarily introducing the wider group. The bar staff stand with their back to the audience, but later the bar is shown in diagonal, giving equal weight to both sets of characters, while at others it is the landlord’s concerns that take precedence, facing the viewer while the patrons turn their backs to the auditorium. In this way Willmott uses the small Union space and structured lighting design quite effectively to move the psychology of the play along, while Ralph Warman’s sound design helps to create moments of intensity as external political dangers threaten the initial neutrality of the pub.

It is a play that relies on a lot of dramatic convenience with characters undertaking expanded lives off-stage that don’t always ring true and when Coward digresses into the growing resistance movement the play certainly starts to creak. In 1946, this would perhaps have resonated more significantly with an audience newly released from the burden of war and interested in what might have been, but it now feels rather heavy-handed, a forced attempt to demonstrate British pluck and to insist that small acts of resistance, however satisfying, will ultimately lead to bigger protests. Coward isn’t necessarily wrong to have such faith in British decency but Peace in Our Time is at its best in the less grandiose moments, where small groups of characters just talk about themselves and the impact of the war. This does more to create a feeling of good people holding-out together than elaborate story arcs and silly twists – but it is what people needed to hear in 1946.

As landlord Fred Shattock, Patrick Bailey holds the show together, a man who is everyone’s friend and a pillar of his community. Troubled by the loss of his pilot son in the disastrous Battle of Britain, Fred plays by the rules without approving of them and looks for any opportunity to cheat the system to benefit his beloved customers. Bailey’s warm performance builds a growing sense of determination in Fred to fight back while remaining rational about ensuring his business stays afloat. Virge Gilchirst is a more emotional figure as his wife Nora who happily stands by her husband but suffers under the pressure of maintaining a public presence.

The customers largely divide into resistance and collaborators, although the degrees of this alter across the play and Coward is reasonably forgiving of characters like singer Lyia (Caitlin Rutter) and the gender-swapped George (Helen Rose-Hampton) who accept drinks from the German officer and jolly along but later are clearly shown doing their bit. Interesting texture is provided by the other regulars including outspoken novelist Janet (Carlotta Lucking) whose fierce wit is showcased in a couple of explosive arguments, Jemima Watling’s Alma Boughton is a well-spoken woman who gives little away about her personal life but comes in every day for solidarity, while the Graingers (Katy Feeney and Robert Lane) forlornly prop-up the bar as they worry for the fate of their son imprisoned in an Isle of Wight concentration camp. Along with many others in this 22 character piece, they create a feeling of friends and neighbours, a community suffering and surviving together.

Coward is less forgiving of the collaborator faction using two of his creations to explore the arguments for playing up to the enemy and accepting their inevitable dominance. Joe Mason’s Bobby Paxton although a small role is a man who blows with the wind, a chancer happy to take what he can right now rather than worry about the future, while Dominic McChesney’s Chorley is a far more dangerous man who affects a veneer of smooth charm and indifference but has sold his soul so completely to the Nazi rulers that he looks to protect their (and his) interests above anything which threatens the safety of the pub. It is, however, a mistake for McChesney to pitch his performance as a kind of Coward impression, entirely out of kilter with the more sober performances of the rest of the cast and given Coward’s message in this play and his known anti-fascist views – he was reputedly on a Gestapo death list – to imagine the Nazi-sympathising Chorley as Coward seems wrong-headed.

Peace in Our Time may not be the best Noel Coward play but its long absence from the stage is an unreasonable one as it showcases a playwright whose work is far broader than the handful of comedies we frequently see. As a writer of human behaviour, Coward taps into the irrational fears that drive people to behave badly or selfishly under pressure, and in week when panic buying and stockpiling of household goods tops the news, this play gives us much to reflect on. Even after V.E. Day and European liberation Coward knew that courage is not distributed equally and level-headedness maybe less so, as the UK faces some of its biggest social challenges since the Second World War, time will tell if he’s right  Counter-factual histories always ask us to consider what we would do in the same situation, which of us would collaborate and who would resist, can you be so sure you would act for the good of the whole rather than for yourself?

Peace in Our Time is at the Union Theatre until 4 April with tickets at £22 (concessions available). Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Shoe Lady – Royal Court

Shoe Lady - Royal Court (by Manuel Harlan)

The one-hour play format has really come into its own in the last few weeks with several of the larger theatres staging meaningful One Act pieces and taking the lead from fringe theatre and festivals where shorter works are often programmed back-to-back to appeal to two or even three different audiences in one night. In some ways this is a natural reaction against a period of extra-long plays extending to at least if not beyond three hours, but the chance to be home by 9pm is a welcome one even if this spate of short plays doesn’t last long. The revival of two Carol Churchill plays is largely responsible with artistic integrity prized above interval bar sales with Far Away at the Donmar Warehouse and A Number at the Bridge Theatre playing solo, both so packed full of atmosphere and meaning that a second work would only detract from the power of their commentary on how the domestic and social is affected by science and politics.

Now, Graduate of the Young Writer’s programme, E.V. Crowe presents her new 65-minute play Shoe Lady at the Royal Court, which opens to the Press this evening, and takes an equally impactful look at the pressures of modern living. The central concept, that of a character with one one shoe forced to live with the indignities and physical challenges that it presents, is on the surface a silly one and the audience might expect plenty of slapstick encounters or Sex and the City posturing as the heroine Viv hobbles through this one day.

But Crowe uses this seemingly trivial scenario to more closely examine the ways in which we internalise and respond to societal expectations while judging those who fail to meet these prescribed standards – something as minor as a lost shoe becomes a symbol of Viv’s increasing ostracization and rapid descent into social dejection. The role of women as workers, wives and mothers is central, so to maintain status, lives, homes and families along with set notions of normalcy into which we painfully force ourselves, we all try to fit in, play the game and stay afloat. Crowe’s work is particularly interested in how the “merry-go-round” of commercial city living along with the “have-it-all mentality” this engenders affects female mental health which Shoe Lady charts in Viv’s declining stability as life and health unravel.

The compression of time in this play means Viv’s story acts as a symbolic or representative experience taking place across a single day in which the central character changes from reasonable optimism at the brightness of the morning to disorientation, devaluation and despair at its close. Director Vicky Featherstone’s approach adds layers to the concept with nods to seasonal changes as well, the charming spring morning turning to the searing and uncomfortable heat of summer that burns the exposed sole of Viv’s foot on the tarmac before autumnal leaves blow at her as she flees from a rash and pressured act, leading to an engulfing darkness as the consequences of her shoeless state are felt.

There is also a focus on the uneven balance of the trivial and more vital functions of life, with Viv frequently distracted by small homely concerns that put her wider purpose at risk. The flow of Viv’s mind between these different degrees of concern is one of Crowe’s most notable achievements here, and as the character prioritises fixing her bedroom curtain over taking her son to school and getting to work on time, or is distracted by a hidden and unnoticed smear on the window of a house she is showing to a potential buyer, Crowe reflects on the multitudinous expectations of perfection that Viv experiences, where the ideal home or outfit is given as much precedence in our overly-stylised instagrammable society as the basic functions of providing food and shelter.

Shoe Lady packs a lot of themes into its 65-minute run time, held together by the semi-absurdist style that Crowe has adopted in which her monologuing female lead talks to the audience, herself and occasionally to other characters in a scattering of dramatically constructed conversations. In staging the show, Crowe and Featherstone draw their influence not from the contained almost apocalyptic worlds of Beckett or Ionesco but from the dreamlike illusion of 1960s French cinema but mixed with the noirish splintered imaginings created by Salvador Dali for 1940s films like Hitchcock’s Spellbound. This heightened but vaguely nightmarish state is well maintained throughout the show as the tone darkens and the consequences of Viv’s lost shoe take on a terrible momentum of their own.

Chloe Lamford’s exciting design is simultaneously simple yet complex, a plain narrowing black box that creates a funnel shape with no exits to left or right, with only a square rear window at the back which references both those tense Hitchcock screen designs as well as the inescapable nature of this scenario for the lead character. Drawing more on this metaphor, Lamford creates further height within the stage with two descending staircases for Viv and her family to access the downstairs rooms of her house. Initially covered by a bed, the centre has a thin treadmill with clear allusions to the relentlessness of the society that Crowe depicts as well as creating opportunities for Featherstone to incorporate movement, travel and emotional emphasis within the rhythm of the play.

Katherine Parkinson’s recent stage work has focused on the challenges for modern women expected to publicly deliver an idealised concept of themselves and their lifestyle. Her last major West End role in Laura Wade’s superb Home I’m Darling as a wife wanting to live-out an idea of 1950s domestic perfection and vintage ease was a fascinating study in the dangers of nostalgia and our misplaced concept of historical reality that fractured beautifully in Parkinson’s fragile and nuanced performance. Parkinson has such an ability to tread the line between comedy and emotion which she uses here to great effect, drawing out the inner sadness and anguish that Viv experiences but maintaining the lightness of the play’s frame.

Here as the titular Shoe Lady there are similar ideas about the pressures placed on women especially to look, behave and even think a certain way. Crowe’s character is shown to be immediately afflicted by various contradictory worries but to the outside world as long as she looks presentable and normal in two shoes and can physically put one foot in front of the other, Viv’s interior struggles are irrelevant. Using that idea as the baseline of the play, we infer much of this from the writing and Parkinson’s performance, with Crowe starting from the point at which that changes. What we see, then, in Parkinson’s fascinating performance is a constant battle between wanting to maintain a semblance of normality, of adherence to social expectation while struggling to cope with the physical demands of her shoeless state.

So, while Viv proceeds with her day wearing only one shoe, makes it to work and continues to engage with her family, two intertwined things are happening to her; first her balance is physically and emotionally disrupted by the absent shoe, making her hobble but also slowly fracturing her sense of self and completeness with the missing part of her increasingly dominating her thoughts and actions. Parkinson is particular good at creating the confusion of Viv’s mind, the ways in which her thoughts splutter and disconnect, mindful only of the missing shoe – which itself represents another kind of internal balance that the treadmill of work and family expectation is disrupting or at least muting.

Second, is the bodily effect of Viv’s bare foot that becomes bloodied, painful and inflamed as she walks the city streets without any protection from the grit and damage of her journey. Parkinson often holds that leg out, drawing attention to its damaged state and incorporating greater physical distress into the performance as the impact of her day takes its toll on vulnerable flesh and bone. There is a sense of how easily we can suffer, how random acts and decisions, even the loss of a single shoe, can cause someone’s life to unravel fairly quickly and the audience is given an insight into the economic consequences for this small family.

Crowe uses secondary characters sparingly and allows them very little dialogue. Tom Kanji is Viv’s husband Kenny who remains mute for most of the time he is on stage, a presence in the same bed who attends to their child but rarely voices his own feelings or concerns to his wife. We learn that Kenny is also facing potential problems at work with redundancy looming but Viv quickly becomes absorbed by her own day, creating an interesting effect that Kanji manages well to create a character who is present but somehow colourless.

There is a similar challenge for the younger actors with Archer Brandon at this performance as Viv and Kenny’s child (he will be alternating the role with Beatrice White) and has a key birthday scene in which Viv tries to teach him an important life lesson without considering the impact of her behaviour. Her final interaction is with Elaine played by Kayla Meikle as a fellow shoeless woman fallen on hard times that Viv meets in the park and represents how far Viv has to fall. This also offers the play’s most comic scenes as the pair awkwardly tussle over footwear and their relative superiority.

Some of Shoe Lady’s production decisions are a little curious, including the regular appearance of stagehands to deliver props and dab further gory mixtures onto Parkinson’s exposed foot. And while the purpose is to jolt the audience back to reality, drawing attention to the unreality of the scenario created while practically managing the changing scenes creates a jarring effect, intruding on the carefully constructed composition of Lamford’s staging. The talking curtains in the house sale scene are also a weird addition that doesn’t develop into anything more significant later in the story, and is left hanging in every sense.

Matthew Herbert’s piano composition adds to the increasing drama, creating tension and anxiety that integrates really effectively with Lamford’s multipurpose design and the overall tone of nonsensical unease that Featherstone and Crowe create. With a very short run of only three week at the Royal Court, Shoe Lady may only be an hour but this is an intriguing and well-considered examination of the social and domestic pressures placed on women to perform multiple and often contradictory roles in our society.

Shoe Lady is at the Royal Court until 21 March with tickets from £14. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

The Last Five Years-Southwark Playhouse

The Last Five Years - Southwark Playhouse (by Pamela Raith)

Love stories are the bread and butter of most drama; people are born, die, get new jobs, commit crimes or do mundane chores but love is the device used most often to drive character behaviour. Given its prevalence, coming up with more interesting and inventive ways of reimagining the boy meets girl or equivalent scenario and what happens next is crucial for a writer to stand out in a crowded field. We have seen love stories told conventionally from A to B, a concept endlessly repeated, there are some told in reverse of which Harold Pinter’s Betrayal is an especially accomplished example, and plenty of variations thereupon. But Jason Robert Brown’s musical The Last Five Years manages to bring something quite new, as the two characters tell their stories in different directions – the female lead from devastation to first encounters, and the male lead in an opposing linear style. The effect is remarkable.

This deceptively simple premise manages to create a substantial emotional impact across the show’s 90-minute run time. Structurally, it is a take on the she said / he said idea that not only moves the couple in contradictory directions but alternates the solos between them first her, then him as they fall in and out of love both backwards and forwards at the same time. Initially, it seems as thought this concept will run out of steam before the end – how many songs about the stages of love can people sing and surely both halves of the show will end up looking the same, her impression of early love will uninterestingly match his – but Brown’s writing is much smarter that that, giving us two people who don’t quite feel the same way about each other at the same time, building a cumulative effect that locks the various jigsaw pieces together.

The Last Five Years is like hearing two sides of the conversation only minutes or hours apart, revealing fragments of interactions, arguments, mutual dreams that when we come to it never quite match up. The unfolding narrative is purposefully not quite balanced, we never see the other side of each specific conversation – Brown could easily have shaped his show that way – instead when the other half of the couple eventually arrives in the same time period later in the show we get a similar but not quite equal impression of their life together, one in which many related conversations were clearly taking place about their levels of happiness, commitment and connection. For example, in the early days she sings about her excitement at being with him, he’s excited about his career prospects. And the audience doesn’t need to hear one whole conversation because the emotional clutter that emerges from these snippets suggests plenty of one-sided interactions happening, adding an inevitability to their eventual parting, as though from happiness to sorrow the two of them never really heard each other at all.

And The Last Five Years is at first most notably about the imbalance in relationships, how one person often cares more, contributes more than the other, one thinking always of “us” the other of “me”. This is a musical that both uses and comments on the primacy of male perspective, how Jamie’s career as a writer, his wants and purpose come to dominate not only the day-to-day business of his relationship with Cathy but also her own thoughts and feelings. Across her perspective it is Jamie that is the focus, songs and frustrations addressed to and caused by him, arguments about his perceived neglect and even audition material for her career as an actress shown for his approval. As the show begins it is her paranoia, her pain that is seemingly the cause of their breakup, only later are we shown how entirely Cathy has molded her life around his.

So Jamie is the bad guy? Initially perhaps as he happily focuses on his budding reputation as a writer, his relationship is a happy subplot for Jamie, something he wants but most of his songs in this early section of the musical are about him as a person. Upbeat, rock-inspired numbers including Shiksa Goddess and Moving Too Fast contrast pointedly with Cathy’s I’m Still Hurting after the marriage is over and See I’m Smiling which follows as she begs for more time to fix their problems. Jamie seems insensitive to anything but his own success. But as Brown’s clever story unfolds that perspective shifts and while there is a cruelty in Jamie’s later behaviour there is also feeling which plagues him as he reaches the breakdown of their marriage.

The Last Five Years is also about the deceptive nature of memory, something we see particularly from Cathy’s perspective that regresses from heartbreak and suspicion to hopeful expectation. The sunny optimism of early love and the endless plans for a lifetime together seem naive, even unlikely in the cold blue light of a relationship breakdown. Brown wants the audience to wonder to what extent this formative period is always a fantasy, something that Cathy looks back on as far easier and more joyous than it was. What were the signs she ignored in an eagerness to be loved, and likewise as Jamie journeys forward how little does he really know or care about the woman he wants to marry, how much of love is false memory and illusion?

Directed by Jonathan O’Boyle whose wonderful version of The View Upstairs played at the Soho Theatre last year, this production of The Last Five Years moves away from the dramatic stagings of earlier approaches and instead takes a more representational approach to imagining this relationship (which happily moves away from the 2015 film as well). Like Ghost Quartet at the Boulevard Theatre this show becomes a musicians’ performance piece, one that keeps the couple on stage at all times to focus on the emotional experience of each character. Designed by Lee Newby, on a small revolving stage dominated by a grand piano and four chairs at the corners of the 3/4 round space, this simplified, stripped-back approach removes the complexity of rapidly changing rooms and New York backdrops, and with only a few props to give context, it creates a far greater and considerably more powerful emotional intimacy, just the characters and their relationship, no distractions.

O’Boyle’s decision to use actor-musicians is also a canny one, underscoring the culpability of both characters for what ensues, they are quite literally making the music of their life together. But hidden behind Newby’s classy black walls a four piece band under the musical directorship of George Dyer add keyboard, violin (Elaine Ambridge), guitar (Ryan Webber) and cello (Andy Crick / Rachel Shakespeare). At first the sound threatens to overwhelm the singing – a problem of over-amplification dogs many modern musicals in small spaces and drowns out the lyrics – but the balance soon settles to wonderfully create Brown’s eclectic and multifaceted score, with the band bringing shade and tone to the different emotional currents and psychological beats within the show.

Playing piano and guitar, Oli Higginson gives an outstandingly physical performance as Jamie, energetically bounding around the stage and even up onto the piano stool as he belts out the early numbers. Higginson’s voice is extraordinary, full of lush variation, power and sensitivity as he charts Jamie’s difficult trajectory through this show. He’s not an easy character to like but his confidence and charm are magnetic, particularly in the comic touches he brings to numbers such as The Schumel Song which act out the story of a Jewish tailor that Jamie is writing and merges into a declaration of support and love. Like Cathy, the audience is seduced by Higginson’s Jamie and lives through the good years and the bad as commercial success as a writer takes him further away from his wife.

As those good years sour, Higginson finds a different resonance in the quieter and more affecting songs in the latter part of the show. The self-assured Jamie starts to fade and is replaced by cruelty as he jibes at Cathy’s lack of success, refusing to lose because she can’t win. But Higginson introduces notes of self-loathing into the performance, creating just enough understanding and empathy for Jamie’s perspective with emotive versions of Nobody Needs to Know and the affecting I Could Never Rescue You. It is a multi-layered and complex performance that is honest about Jamie’s flaws while never forgetting his own interior landscape.

Molly Lynch is every bit as good in the role of Cathy whose reverse journey through her own chronology has a melancholy feel, starting from a pitch of misery as Jamie chooses to end the marriage that Cathy still wants to save in the excellent Still Hurting, and spooling back to the more optimistic girl she once was. Lynch creates a woman who in many ways never knows who she is, we learn little of her own tastes, desires or plans for the future only what she hopes for them as a couple and her absorption in the relationship contributes to its decline. The sadness of her beginning weaves through every moment of those earlier years and Lynch beautifully charts the disappointments and limitations that stymie Cathy’s acting career and leave her clinging to a relationship that doesn’t work and a husband whose faithfulness she is paranoid about.

There is an excellent sequence in the middle as Cathy sings When You Come Home to Me at first to Jamie and then at auditions, a bouncy 40s-esque cabaret song that is increasingly curtailed and becomes downbeat as her plans stall. The carefree younger Cathy in cool dark glasses sipping coke through a straw seems a lifetime away from the world-weary wife she becomes and, like Higginson, Lynch gives such flesh to Cathy that you wonder 90-minutes later how she will ever survived the crushing blow of divorce, and what sense of self will exist for her in the Jamie-free future.

These versions of the characters meet only once at their own wedding in the middle of the show and it is an unusual task for actors to be constantly on stage together and develop chemistry while never being in the same scene or psychological state. That you can envisage them as a couple and understand why their relationship was always destined to fail is testament to the quality of these performances and the audience never doubts that these two people are and were together for five years. The technical skill O’Boyle utilises along with choreographer Sam Spencer-Lane to place the various Jamies and Cathys together but apart is crucial, amplified by the very few moments where their eyes meet or they momentarily inhabit the same space.

Forget the silly film and the dramatically elaborate versions of The Last Five Years you may have seen before because this production at Southwark Playhouse is the real deal. Within seconds of this preview performance ending the entire audience rose spontaneously and enthusiastically to their feet for an enduring and well-deserved ovation. It may be almost 20 years old, but Brown’s story feels timeless and recognisable, and this bold restaging at Southwark Playhouse is a triumph.

The Last Five Years is at Southwark Playhouse until 29 March with tickets from £16 in preview,  £27.50 (£22 concessions) thereafter. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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