Monthly Archives: March 2021

The Meaning of Zong and Afterplay – BBC Sounds

The Meaning of Zong - Bristol Old Vic

With light at the end of the tunnel for live performance and some of our biggest institutions announcing summer programmes at their venues, the BBC’s new Lights Up Festival has arrived at a moment of optimism, not just acting as a reminder of all the talented people and great work under threat from sustained closure but of the opportunities to come. Running across several weeks in March and April on BBC television and radio showcasing talented stars and writers, Lights Up has aired its first new play developed in association with the Bristol Old Vic and the National Theatre, but that’s not the only new theatre-related work being broadcast.

The Meaning of Zong

The first of these is Giles Terera’s The Meaning of Zong, a 100-minute piece reflecting on the long legacy of slavery, politics and identity by dramatising a court case which shed light on the murder of 132 slaves thrown overboard by the crew of a British transport ship which claimed it was running out of supplies. This real event from 1781 is an attempted cover-up by the British legal system and becomes the basis for the abolition movement, asking questions about the right to own and therefore destroy another human being.

Terera’s debut play directed by Tom Morris, was originally written for the stage and will undoubtedly find one soon because this first dramatisation already feels like a very visual experience and structurally, Terera employs three related layers through which to tell his story. The Meaning of Zong is framed in a modern day bookshop as a young woman questions the location of the volume she is holding while hearing the echoing voices of her antecedents trying to connect her identity to this story. The concept of shared pain and linked experience also feeds through the play’s other layers, the first in which Olaudah Equiano who requites his given name of Gustavas Vassa pursues the case in London enlisting support to interview witnesses and locate the truth, and the second which evocatively recreates the last days on ship as the possibility of death approaches.

Where you draw the line between what is ‘other’ and what is you is central to Terera’s piece, excavating concepts of racial oppression and disenfranchisement that reflect through the centuries, while also using the central relationship between Equiano and abolitionist supporter Granville Sharp to explore ingrained concepts of difference, privilege and charity that overcome basic principles of humanity and equality. That all this plays largely as a courtroom drama is testament to Terera’s skills as a debut dramatists, using the shape and purpose of the legislative process to motor the play and give it a time-bound structure while interrogating the falsely made claims and human cost of a terrible crime reported by the English court in its dry matter of fact style.

That this presents an opportunity for dramatic climax is something Terera carefully sidesteps, using the court’s decision not as the outcome of the play but the introduction to a third Act that examines the character’s longer history and connection through the centuries to those who have come before and since, as well inculcated assumptions that even the liberal Granville struggles to recognise. In the lead role Terera uses his character to explore the Establishment’s long-held prejudices and attempts to dehumanise both victims and perpetrators in the system, most notably and all too recognisably in a scene where the eighteenth-century equivalent of the police stop the innocent Equiano and roughly manhandle him because of his skin colour – an experience that links this play to those such as Ryan Calais Cameron’s Typical with Richard Blackwood available via Soho on Demand and films including The Obituary of Tunde Johnson shown during BFI Flare 2021 and Ken Fero’s documentary Ultraviolence from October’s London Film Festival.

Terera’s performance is pivotal to the three strands of storytelling, bringing them together in the experience of Equiano whose quiet determination drives The Meaning of Zong and draws together a diverse collection of characters which includes Michael Balogun’s (Terera’s understudy who brilliantly premiered in the Death of England: Delroy) agitator and fellow theatre star Samuel West who brings concern and energy to the role of Granville whose development during the play is marked by his own contention between compassionate humanitarian ideals and the realities of structured racism.

The trapped women on the ship awaiting death are the play’s lasting memory, hauntingly and poetically played by Monronke Akinola and Gloria Obianyo which upend the formal business and language of the British courtroom with the real human experience of suffering, fear and solidarity as they approach a certain death. And here the play links to Winsomme Pinnock’s Rockets and Blue Lights that also draws on Turner’s The Slave Ship painting and premiered as an audio drama when unable to perform in Manchester.


Though not badged as part of the Lights Up Festival, Brian Friel’s 45-minute piece Afterplay certainly belongs in the programme as the renowned playwright makes his own radio debut with a new play celebrating the work of Anton Chekhov starring the brilliant Janie Dee and Alex Jennings who are both superb. At the end of Uncle Vanya, when Sonya says ‘we must live out our lives’ there is little hope for a young woman whose spirit has already broken, when the man she loves has made his indifference clear and the family she relies on has become fractured. The yearning and unyielding emptiness – one of Chekhov’s favourite themes – is all that awaits Sonya and her like, forever dreaming of what might of been while trapped in the hard reality of dissatisfied existence.

Friel imagines Sonya a couple of decades later when the unvarying routines of her life are shaken up by the passing of her beloved Uncle Vanya and she must take a trip to the mythical allure of Moscow to settle the family business. There by chance in the same cafe over three nights, she meets and dines with Andrey, a musician escaping the clutching hold of his family’s estate for the chance to play the violin in the capital far away from his three sisters.

Directed by Martin Jarvis, Afterplay is a duologue between Sonya and Andrey, two of Chekhov’s beleaguered but level-headed characters who were largely observers of the complicated socio-economic and political struggles that taxed their families in the famous plays set years before, and Friel uses them to explore this concept of endurance that Chekhov tackles in Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters where life’s ills should be accepted uncomplainingly with hope of creating a better future. Returning these characters to the centre of those narratives allow us to revisit and reinspect the finality that the ending of those plays artificially imposed on their lives.

These are conclusions that Chekhov forsees as repetitious, that routine and the unchanging continuation of their existence marks a return to normality after a brief period of disruption caused by the actions of the play. In both, external figures intrude on the emotional harmony of the household and their retreat causes the family dynamic (which existed before even the audience enters the playing space) to resettle. Friel’s work wonders how true that is and speculates on the intervening years where that very continuation of life causes ripples and effects of its own, born directly from the upheaval of the original period of the play.

For Sonya, the relationship with Doctor Astrov – so beautifully and poignantly rendered in Ian Rickson’s production at the Harold Pinter Theatre filmed for the BBC – lumbers on in Afterplay as Friel picks-up on the unresolved chemistry between them and uses it to shape Sonya’s still devoted interior life. Hearing her casually refer to him as Michael is telling, a growth of intimacy that had not existed years before, with Friel suggesting that their mutual isolation has drawn the pair together socially despite their separation at the end of Uncle Vanya.

Astrov still fills her every thought and even with a stranger most of her conversation relates to him, his work with the poor, his enthusiasm for improving environmental conditions and crucially, his alcoholism which has taken much firmer hold in the intervening years and seems to predicate his moments of devoted yet still unresolved attachment to Sonya. She suggests too that although he is still unwilling to be with her, the notional death wish remains, putting himself in danger with his patients. Her admiration for him, though less girlish, is by no means dimmed as Friel elaborates on the rich psychology of Chekhov’s characters in later life.

Andrey by contrast is less openly in control of his own circumstances and quickly admits to lying about his reasons for being in Moscow. When Afterplay opens, this is Andrey and Sonya’s second meeting, having also found themselves in this cafe on the previous day and quickly Andrey admits having misled her. When the pair meet for the third time, Andrey corrects his stories once again and further details of his experience are revealed.

This tendency to lie, Friel suggests, comes less from an enjoyment at misleading others than a desire to give and maintain an outward social impression and status – another Chekhovian theme – that reinforces an illusion of class, success or personal happiness which does not exist. That Andrey clings to these ideals repeatedly, ever conscious of the impression his life makes on others is one of Friel’s most interesting interventions looking more broadly at this contrast between an individual’s exterior and interior existence.

For lovers of both plays, there are many interesting snippets as Friel speculates on what may have happened to the other characters while musing on the consequences of abandonment, betrayal and the yearn for impossible love that Sonya, Masha and even Natasha think will bring them contentment. The denial of these longings for material connection have significant consequences for the individual’s emotional stability and ability to endure, and Friel’s subtle exploration of the afterlife of these characters chimes brilliantly with Chekhov’s intentions in stranding them at the end of his plays.

Afterplay is a brief encounter but one that affectingly considers the later life of two Chekhovian characters left just to exist at the original end of their stories. That their subsequent lives continued and will continue to be shaped by the same notions of delusion, illusion and the empty pointlessness of their repetitive existence as imagined so well in Afterplay, leaves them psychologically and circumstantially precisely where Friel found them. Chekhov does the same, the circuitous nature of his plays returning his creations back to the start, still dreaming of impossible things.

The Lights Up Festival and associated drama premieres on BBC Radio will be celebrating the breadth and creativity of the theatre industry in the coming weeks, ahead of a return to live performance. While radio plays have long attracted stage actors, they also offers new avenues for writers to try out plays exploring crucial events and experimental approaches. In a strong week for new work which also include William Humble’s two-parter, The Performer, a biographical comedy monologue read by Stephen Fry, The Meaning of Zong and Afterplay showcase the power of audio drama to transport an audience’s imagination and to see the familiar a little differently.

The Meaning of Zong premiered on BBC Radio 3 and Afterplay on BBC Radio 4, both are available via BBC Sounds. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

ASSEMBLY – Donmar Local

ASSEMBLY - Donmar Warehouse

While many productions have been postponed in the last year, the effect on community theatre has probably been least discussed with the inability to gather in groups having a major impact on the outreach and engagement programmes of theatres across the country. Several of the London venues have reputed community projects working with groups who live and work in the vicinity of the theatre or in one of its partnership institutions. The National Theatre’s Public Acts initiative has brought well-received interpretations of Shakespeare and Brecht to its main stages, the Almeida Theatre has a number of community response projects that engage with its main shows while the Donmar Warehouse was due to launch its first Donmar Local production before the pandemic which was instead premiered as an online production on Saturday.

Written by Nina Segal and directed by Joseph Hancock, ASSEMBLY is a 70-minute production created with residents and workers in the boroughs of Camden and Westminster considering what a future might look like and the limits of human endeavour. Streamed from 16 UK locations, this inaugural play mixes a semi-dystopian style with an increasingly surreal, fantasy approach to consider the impact of climate change, the difficulties of consensus decision-making and the fallacy that the future is something that can be controlled.

The Play

Segal’s increasingly strange story begins with the appointment of a Citizens Assembly given a remit to decide what comes next, to design an unlimited vision for the future together as chosen representatives of humanity – their first democratically agreed act being to adjourn the meeting until everyone is individually furnished with a cup of tea and a biscuit or toast, a humorous observation about people’s priorities that becomes characteristic of ASSEMBLY’s observational and surrealist comedy. The split screen effect employed to show various cups of tea and coffee being made and custard cream packets being opened adds nicely to the effect.

As the ten contributors begin to debate what to keep with suggestions raging from houses and paths to marmalade and disco balls, Segal’s concept seems focused on the silliness and triviality of human thinking. Yet, the frame nods to plays like Kafka’s The Trial and Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People which focus on the attempt to fit complex and varied humanity into inflexible institutional processes, where characters attempt to work within or fight against a system that will ultimately consume or overtake them. These early scenes in ASSEMBLY have some of that same quality as people with opposing perspectives try and fail to see beyond the here and now to conceive an entirely different world, and instead are draw to the familiar.

It leads to some interesting early debates which the play addresses in a slightly haphazard way as characters question whether existing structures and basic requirements for food and shelter will be the same in the future, wonder what is so wrong with the present and think about the nature of utopia and whether it should be an aspirational ideal for their task. There are also questions about the implementation of this future, whether it can be achieved bloodlessly, without some form of revolution and whether the group should approach the design from the perspective of what to include or what to leave out.

The inability to think beyond the status quo and create radical alternative solutions is a common failing in change management projects where sweeping away every structure, working practice and system is often inconceivable to those who have worked within them. So these are really engaging scenes which Segal’s show could think about more broadly and potentially expand in a future iteration that could explore the failings of humanity and its limited scope for genuine innovation when given a blank piece of paper.

The second half of ASSEMBLY is far stranger and from the point at which a blood-stained polar bear joins the meeting as a ‘citizen’ the show never quite regains its equilibrium as Segal heads in a different direction entirely, creating a Creatures Assembly that includes natural resources such as a glacier, a heatwave and the wind, with mice, a bee and a plant who consort to disrupt the increasingly fraught human meeting and occupy the building themselves. This new cataclysmic strain is more straightforward in its comment on the effect of climate change where the angry interactions between different elements focuses on melting, flooding and burning as the inevitable outcomes of the future.

While these sections feel a little unfocused and may be harder to follow depending on how jaunty or surreal you like your theatre, they usefully note that there is more than just a human future at stake which requires broader input and consideration. But the play is joined together by a strand of Future News which neatly satirises the media’s approach to disaster reporting with few positives, while the reporter creates on air conflict between phone-in guests by encouraging inflammatory opinions and extremism, later broadcasting from a warzone as a natural disaster sweeps through the future.

A conclusion involving a polar bear baby, the universe and a lingering sense of ambiguity is partially satisfying and a little wistful. ASSEMBLY could, however, return to some of those early questions about the inevitability of violence, the existential comfort of utopian ideals and the failure of democratic consensus more clearly to reinforce the ending by joining up the seemingly fruitless attempt to impose ‘order’ on the process of creating a future in the early scenes with the limited power and grand naivety of humanity to control nature and fate.

Production Approach

It has been noted many times how progressive digital theatre has become in the last few months, moving away from the limited Zoom box visual to create more integrated backdrops, visual fluidity and immersion in the story to try to overcome the distance between performers and viewers. For ASSEMBLY, director Hancock employs some interesting techniques to give the film a colourful and memorably heightened style, building on the split screen idea used in the tea-making interlude to include hotspots through which characters can speak, integrating graphics and animation and using costume to create a consistency and distinction that is full of craft.

Cardboard is designer Frankie Bradshaw’s material of choice used to convey basic instructions to the audience with chapter headings drawn in marker pen that signal the changing nature of the assembly, but it is also employed in a more sophisticated design with a small city created entirely from cardboard comprising the main classically-designed town hall with Corinthian columns, a rising motorway covered in cars, high rise buildings, factories and a giant antenna. It is a beautiful piece of model-making to neatly represent the impending destruction of existing institutions and structures.

This versatile material is equally integral to Bradshaw’s vivid costumes which dominate the second half of the show as natural elements, creatures and astral objects become the focus. Much work has clearly gone into the creation of headdresses and hats that help to personify these creations including an excellent sunflower shaped structure with yellow petals and leaves that fit around the face of the actor in the centre, a white cloud headpiece with vivid blue raindrops suspended from its edges and a fiery orange wig for the heatwave. Bradshaw’s work on the planets is equally impressive with a fascinator made of planet rings containing a wire solar system, a silver, sleepy crescent moon and a bright, dominant sun.

It is the creativity and visual style of ASSEMBLY that really impresses, placing these cleverly representative costumes in Andrzej Goulding’s video settings to suggest the starry night sky or the swirling winds of a tornedo when the glacier, wind and heatwave get too close. Characters are also placed around the screen in different patterns, seen through what seem to be burn-holes in the atmosphere while Bradshaw’s town model is shown either in the centre of the screen or in the corner, the Assembly Hall always the focus of the characters.

Hancock controls all of these elements with skill, capturing the changing tones in Segal’s story as the plainer Citizen’s Assembly sections evolve into the colourful convention of creatures and eventually to the destruction of the known world represented in darker tones with orange light, smoke effects and a calming white and purple tone at the conclusion. That visually the show evolves consistently and finds a storytelling advantage in its new digital setting is one of ASSEMBLY‘s most enjoyable aspects, leaving the audience to wonder if it could have been staged as well in person.

The Company

ASSEMBLY has a large company playing the ten original members of the Citizen Assembly and the mysterious convener as well as doubling later as representatives of the natural world and wider solar system. Each commits to their performances despite having rehearsed online and having to give their first live show via YouTube. Actors Angie Lieu, Brian McGinnis, David Cunningham, Jenneba Sie-Jalloh, Josiah Phoenix, Karen Walkden, Martin Fisher, Michael Turney, Patrick Burrows, Paul Ringo, Pen Riley, Rita Barry, Sadhbha Odufuwa-Bolger, Stephen Rooney, Ubah Egal, Victoria Valcheva and Youyangg Song are particularly effective in the early scenes where they fail to design a consistent or especially radical future, capturing the difficulty of large meetings with a couple of louder voices driving the debate as conversations become increasingly fractious.

It is an area ripe for expansion where greater characterisation is possible as individuals represent their own specific small-scale interests or fail to balance the needs of an international community with their inability to conceive a vision of the future divorced from their fear of change. Each of the elements and creatures has a distinct personality from the furious glacier whose melting form creates conflict with the heatwave to the frustrated little mice whose size is ignored by the water-preserving river and wider group who want to abolish the litter that keeps them alive. It’s a strong ensemble who embrace their roles and relish their performance time.

With a couple of brief technical disruptions during the premiere, this first production from the Donmar Local company shows a lot of promise, combining an enthusiastic group of performers with a creative team eager to explore technical boundaries in the presentation of meaningful stories.

ASSEMBLY premiered on the Donmar Warehouse YouTube Channel on 20 March. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Treason the Musical in Concert – Cadogon Hall

Treason the Musical - Cadogan Hall

With 2020’s Guy Fawkes celebrations sacrificed to restrictions and next November still far away, it may seem like a strange time to premiere a new musical based on the Gunpowder Plot. But we’ve been in lockdown for so long it’s hard to know what month it is and a Spring preview of Treason the Musical gives creators Ricky Allan and Kieran Lynn plenty of time to work on their next iteration for an autumn staging. Filmed as live and streamed from Cadogan Hall, this 50-minute concert staging certainly suggests a production with a lot of fantastic material and plenty of room to expand.

Musicals set in centuries past are surprisingly few and far between given the scope for flamboyant costume, stylised dance and dramatic stories. Two recent shows have not only caught the popular imagination but managed to bring history to life by giving it a contemporary resonance using musical style, tone and design with Six, based on the wives of Henry VIII, and of course Hamilton about a Founding Father of America, demonstrating how to create very human insights into famous stories.

Reaching back to the final days of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, through the accession of a new monarch whose failure to bring religious tolerance to England underlies the plot to eradicate the ruling class, and concluding with the round-up of the co-conspirators, Allan and Lynn’s musical covers a lot of ground. Framed by the grief of Thomas Percy’s widow Martha (Lucie Jones), Treason the Musical is told in flashback using a female perspective on a story that is, in the history books at least, exclusively male.

The action is also directed by a female Narrator who summarises large chunks of the story in rhyme that transport the viewer back and forth through time, outlines the growing contextual frustration that drives the Plotters, presents the characters while introducing and sometimes explaining their interior life. It is a useful structure, particularly in this Cadogan Hall try-out where digital viewers are guided through the sparsely-staged story and its numerous inter-locking plot points.

And there is much to admire in Allan and Lynn’s approach which eschews the character of Guido Fawkes – who does not appear at all – to focus on Thomas Percy in the first half and in the second on the driving force of Robert Catesby who instigated and coordinated the conspiracy (in this retelling). In doing so, Treason The Musical is also interested in the wider impact of religious persecution after Elizabeth I’s long rule, the quickly fractured hope of a new age and the sacrificial wishes of some of the individuals involved. 50-minutes is not quite long enough to explore and develop these themes sufficiently but the foundation of a bigger musical is clearly in place.

The Songs

Allan has composed twelve consistent songs that draw on both traditional musical theatre and more historically-appropriate folk styles in the score to bridge the 400 year gap between the events relayed and the viewing audience. Together they make an atmospheric combination, one that is generally favourable and sympathetic to the schemers, offering psychological depth in places as well as a growing fervour of discontent as the events of 1605 accelerate. The opening number When Will I See You Again sung by Martha Percy reflects on mourning her husband Thomas, immediately reorientating a historical story that we think we know so well and suggesting the very personal and painful consequences for this women. It sets the tone for a show that is shaped both by the inevitability of its outcome (we all know how it ended) and our preconceived, distorted and disassociated socially manufactured understanding of the Gunpowder Plot.

Allan’s approach seeks to restore the everyday reality to this intrigue and the humanity of its proponents, exploring this in the more dramatic and insightful numbers given to the leads. Blind Faith, a duet for the Percys, for example examines the strain on their marriage, an obsessional number in which Martha descries losing her husband to the cause while Thomas explores his obsession with Robert Catesby, simultaneously sharing lyrics but speaking about quite different relationships. Similarly, Catesby’s first big number I’ve Got a Plot (that rhymes anarchy with monarchy) has a beating pulse that builds as he tries to inspire his gathered colleagues, suggesting both the danger of their meeting and the conviction required to instigate such a deadly action.

While the tone is largely quite serious, a single encounter with King James provides the show’s only true comic number when Thomas delivers a letter from the Earl of Northumberland to the Scottish King in 1603 acquiring promises of tolerance for Catholic subjects. It is a high point of the show, richly characterised by Daniel Boys in the role of the Stuart heir that plays with notions of James’s reputed sexuality as well as making him a spoiled, needy and demanding brat who addresses both Thomas and the audience quite differently while warming to the idea of his own beneficence should he inherit the English throne – there are notes of Hamilton‘s George III. James should really have a light Scottish accent but this is a character who demands at least another song if not several in an extended version of Treason the Musical.

The Narrator never sings but Allan and Lynn’s use of verse and rhyming couplets is another nod to the style of the era. When James ascends the throne and quickly fails to honour his promise of tolerance, the story escalates dramatically, mirrored in the pace of the Narrator’s speech which turns into rap and beat poetry, as Allan and Lynn again traverse the boundary between traditional verse and contemporary rhythms to add shape and variety to the different ways that information, plot developments and character insight are conveyed within the structure of the show.


The way we are taught to collectively remember history is event-driven, signified by key dates, simplified stories and moments of change or linear progress. So our modern impression of the Gunpowder Plot is shaped by our knowledge of its outcome and the associated annual celebrations that make the original events feel more like a cartoon strip than a dangerous sequence of activities involving people as real as we are. Allan and Lynn have taken a valuable character-based approach to the creation of Treason the Musical and while there is more development to be done here, there is a solid underpinning of complex and conflicting motivations across the characters they have chosen to follow that offer interesting and potentially affecting portraits of hazily understood individuals.

Primarily, Treason the Musical sees the events of 1603-5 from the perspective of Thomas Percy whose own fluctuating emotional state is the audience’s guide through the story. As an emissary from the Duke of Northumberland (an underused Cedric Neal) to King James, Thomas is optimistic that a new age of acceptance is about to dawn, revealed in the number All We Dreamed and More. The rapid decline of that fantasy draws him into the circle and thrall of Catesby where his dissastisfaction is transformed into murderous intent.

Treason the Musical is not quite there in fully articulating that journey but there are hints enough in this first draft for singer Bradley Jaden (After You and Les Miserables: The Staged Concert) to capture Thomas’s frustration and readiness to act. That he finds solace in Catesby’s charismatic company is clear and the score builds to a Les Miserables-like stridency that is often engrossing. In a longer runtime there is much more to Thomas’s character that could be explored; perhaps a duet with Catesby to compound the feelings of admiration, some post-Plot reflections on whether it was worth it or last thoughts about his wife and his own death. Thomas certainly deserves one or more solos to tell us more about his motivation.

Oliver Tompsett (I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change) as Robert Catesby is the Enjolras figure of Treason the Musical, quickly making his mark in the second half of the show with his blazing fervour for change in Got To Take Things Into Our Own Hands that leads quickly into the rabble rousing I’ve Got a Plot. It’s a great role for Tompsett who fills Robert with fire and certainty and, again, a longer production could explore his charm and impact on others in greater depth. Allan also gives Robert a fascinating piece of psychology with a backstory that uses the death of his wife to suggest his own desire for a speedy end. The haunting solo Cold, Hard Ground brilliantly implies that Robert Catesby was determined to die on one hill or another, and the Gunpowder Plot was a convenience – it is a really strong character point that offers plenty of scope for development in the future.

The remaining cast – though filled with great musical theatre talent – has far less to work with in their roles with Boys and Neal under-utilised as King James and the Earl of Northumberland, while the secondary cast including Rebecca LaChance, Waylon Jacobs, Emmanuel Kojo and Sharon Rose provide some beautiful harmonies and vocal support in representing the wider conspirators and their circle. Debris Stevenson doesn’t sing but as Narrator is key to welcoming and authoritatively guiding the audience through this story. Even with additional songs and an expanded life for some of the characters, the role of the Narrator in any future iteration is a crucial one, not least in offering a non-gendered role while underscoring the themes of storytelling, memory and inevitability that drive the action.

The Future of Treason the Musical

There is a huge amount here for Allan, Lynn and their creative team to be quite proud of and a future draft of the show can only build-on and expand the impressive material they already have in place. But there is still some work to do to really flesh-out the concepts the musical is exploring as well as envisaging what a staged performance might look like. Key to this is length and this first-look implies the show could feasibly double its runtime, dividing neatly into a Two Act structure that allows the creators to burrow a little deeper either into the build-up to the 5 November 1605 and the motivation of key individuals, or its aftermath where the writers could speculate on those last hours surrounded in Holbeche House.

Using the existing material, there are two possible options; the first would see Act One consider the context for religious dissatisfaction, why the broken promises of King James’s early reign took men to the point of no return and the pressures Thomas and Martha Percy experienced as Catholics forced to hide their faith, concluding at the point of putting the conspiracy into practice with I’ve Got a Plot – a good finale song. Act Two could then dramatise the days before and after 5 November which the current draft skips over, leaving the Narrator to slightly unsatisfactorily tell the audience about the main event.

Alternatively, leaving the familiar parts of the story to the audience’s already primed minds, the show could consider much of the existing material Act One but introduce a more reflective second where the men could muse on their decisions, the cause and what it means to so fatally fail. There are many examples in theatre and literature of such introspective moments, from the night before Agincourt in Henry V to the eve of the Somme in Birdsong and even in Les Miserables behind the barricade. In each, men quietly commune with their souls before facing the enemy one last time. A similar exploration of that moment of pause in the siege at Holbeche would add a new dimension to this story and the unfamiliar aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot where all we really teach is that the men were pursued, surrounded and savagely punished. This would add weight to Martha’s final contemplation of the personal cost to a newly-minted widow.

How the show would work in practice will help to clarify some of this, by thinking about the transitions between songs and if additional score or book is needed to facilitate changes of scene, perspective and mood. That this concert staging of Treason the Musical directed by Hannah Chissick leaves you wanting a little bit more is a good thing and testament to the exciting work that Allan and Lynn have produced here. What they have is a tantalising first draft that offers plenty of options for development, some strong character portraits and a platform for expansion. Most importantly, they have something new to say and by the time November comes around, Treason the Musical may be ready to explode.

Treason the Musical in Concert was performed at Cadogon Hall and was available to stream from 12-14 March. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels – Part 2 – Finborough Theatre

Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels - Finborough Theatre

When we left 1 and A in Episode 14 of Athena Stevens’s Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels they were both in some kind of moral and emotional jeopardy, and it seems appropriate on International Women’s Day to return to this nuanced and considered exploration of female agency, solidarity and behaviour. Created by a predominantly female team, including Stevens as writer and star, Evelyn Lockley as 1, Director Lily McLeish and Designer Anna Reid, serialised in 6-7 minute epsiodes in February and now available to view in its entirety, the second half of this story is unafraid to confront the confusion of relationships, our behavioural failures as women and the complex layers of perspective through which we view out friends and loved ones.

Episodes 15-28 are focused on self-reflection as the consequences of the first half play out against the carefully cultivated atmosphere of male toxicity and a groundless female competitiveness that affects the central characters in quite different ways. As suspected, A and 1 take opposite trajectories in the this section of Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels, although their paths to enlightenment are not straightforward. That both emerge with a new found recognition of their own power and independence by no means overshadows what becomes a sometimes torturous process for them both in different ways as whole chunks of their behaviour and attitudes are stringently re-examined. This brings not only empowerment and resilience but, for A especially, confusion, shame and even disbelief as her logical mind and instincts fight against the dawning realisation that this man is not what she supposed.

Part 2 is an especially honest excavation of our in-built assumptions about the people we trust and how difficult it can be to see them from an alternative and unfavourable perspective. Stevens digs deep by letting A come slowly to the realisation that not only has her friend mistreated and manipulated her by creating competition with another woman in order to bolster his own ego, but, by reconsidering a key event from Episode 2 which overshadows and drives the subsequent narrative, it becomes possible to quite specifically label this man’s actions.

Across a couple episodes in the final portion of the story, A truly and uncomfortably wrestles with the black and white starkness of the term and how its much wider societal implication seems hardly to apply to a man she knows and cares for. How Stevens weighs-up his traits both in writing and performance are fascinating – gruelingly so for A who struggles to reconcile the application of this incendiary word with the man she laughs with, shares confidences and even finds herself momentarily attracted to. That Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels becomes more than a message of solidarity makes this concluding segment so interesting while engaging critically with what it means to see an abstract term in a real situation, setting in motion the consequences of that realignment in her thinking.

Though perhaps coincidental, the chosen character names of 1 and A seem increasingly significant in Part 2, with both anonymising symbols notifying equivalent importance and seniority as well as universality, as though Stevens is subtly reinforcing the idea that whatever external or patriarchal layers are imposed on and shape our perspective of these women, they and their experiences in this story are of equal importance – reflected in the evenhanded she said / she said structure. This plays out nicely in the narrative of 1 who we were encouraged to see in Part 1 as something of a victim, a timid even weak personality whose self-worth and daily purpose is derived from her boyfriend.

While the viewer had already begun to question his value in her life by Episode 14, in Part 2 something very different emerges for 1 who comes to recognise her own needs and how to reach for them. There are wobbles as she reunites with this terrible man ever-believing that she can change him, but so involved has the viewer become in her experience and so invested in a positive outcome for her, that you may punch the air as 1 steps easily into a position of control in the relationship and its destiny. This strength was always there, only muted and as 1 grapples with a lingering interaction with A, her balance and clear-headedness prove a useful point of character development and contrast so pointedly with the messier emotional entanglement of A – a rare example in theatre and film where a romantic relationship ends with a cleaner break than a friendship.

And then there is him; how much more we learn about this unnamed middle-aged man toying with the honest connection two women offer him in the remaining 14 episodes. At 45, he reveals not only a disregard or lack of thought about other people’s feelings but an underlying deliberate cruelty and anger when the tables are turned on him. The way Stevens writes the absent presence of this crucial character is a little ambiguous, sometimes presenting him as coercively and deeply manipulative, using 1 and A to make the other jealous and to enhance his own feelings of control, but occasionally, there is a suggestion that this man may be blithely unaware of the impact he has or the ingrained toxicity that shapes his behaviour.

When challenged late in the series, he reacts with furious anger and a knowing defensiveness, severing a friendship and hitting-out with accusations of his own that refuse to address A’s questions, legitimising his own actions by actively belittling her concerns. The point, as Stevens final monologue goes on to elucidate, is to explore the many shades of character in which we can be different things to different people, where the context in which we interact can readily conceal another’s internalised prejudices. These wider realisations when they come for the man and his best friend A are hard to reconcile and process, and Stevens engages intellectually with externally reported instances of toxic behaviour framed by celebrity downfalls and criminal charges and the personal, everyday and accepted experiences of many women, a boundary that is valuably shown to be quite blurred. Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels demonstrates when and how lines are crossed. These are meaty and complex debates that Stevens tackles head-on, leaving her audience as much as her characters examining their own conduct.

Throughout this second tranche, the visual style of these monologues in colour, filming style and technique increasingly reflect the overspilling emotional experience of the characters whose fluctuating journeys are captured so beautifully. Episode 16 is a particular joy as the distraught A, having received an especially loaded birthday gift from her male friend, is thrown into tumult by its meaning and implications. Laying – for the first time – prostrate on her bed, the room designed by Reid is a maelstrom of vivid colour as the electric royal blue / purple walls and bedspread saturate the screen while A is picked out in her stark red dress, inconsolably confiding her confusion.

At other times, McLeish forms deliberate barriers by filming through objects that suggest the women are hiding from their true feelings or perhaps just concealing them from the unforgiving gaze of the intrusive camera. Notably, a wire wastepaper basket sits between us and 1 in Episode 15 as she reveals her own reaction to the birthday dinner; later A peeks through the slatted banister of her staircase in Episode 26 while angrily denouncing an aggressive phone call from Him. It’s clear also in this second half of the story that a darker mood begins to consume one of the characters as deepening shade and perspective are used within the visual design to a noticeably sinister effect – the very absence of Reid’s striking colours as significant as the tonal variations used to demarcate the lifestyles of 1 and A in the early episodes. 1 now embraces a vertical posture and the light as A is consumed by shadow in several segments including Episodes 20 and 27.

Both Lockley and Stevens deepen their engrossing performances from the earlier episodes, picking-up on some of the hints they gave about their character’s future while reinforcing the underlying confusion their quite different relationship with the man between them creates. But there is far more light and shade in the second set of performances, as moral ambiguities take precedence. 1 and A wrestle with the outcome of Part 1, with Stevens in particular having to chart a steep and rapid decline in her character’s emotional stability that turns her inside out. However, this never detracts from or lessens the expansion of Lockley’s character whose growing resilience is developed with equal care.

It is no exaggeration to say that this has been a tremendous piece of work – visually, tonally and in the openness with which it confronts larger issues around male and, crucially, female behaviours where women have (albeit unthinkingly in this case) created a culture of repression, judgement and exploitation of others. Stevens work considers the fuzzy limits between the personal and the political, as well as the ownership of female bodies, privacy and the consequences of not speaking out. To have used this short, episodic format to do that has been a revelation and a significant achievement of this third lockdown. Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels became an anticipatory event waiting for the next daily installment to appear at 6pm, and, if you can refrain from consuming all 28 episodes in one sitting, there is considerable value in experiencing these as Stevens and McLeish intended, as a slow-burn pause for thought that will consume more than their allotted 6-7 minutes as you muse on these character confessionals and their cumulative meaning.

While another prolonged period of lockdown has necessitated the online reorientation of Stevens’s play, the opportunity to reimagine it in this serialised format has been a huge success. As we approach the anniversary of theatre closures, McLeish and Reid in particular have notably demonstrated how sophisticated digital theatre has become in that year. February was all the brighter for a daily dose of Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels, a story that unfolds over many months, so with every episode now available, let them consume your March evenings as well.

Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels Episodes 1-28 are now available for free on the Finborough YouTube channel. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Gatsby: A Musical – Cadogan Hall

Gatsby A Musical - Ruby in the Dust

We’re yet to begin our own version of the Roaring 20s and after months of lockdown the possibility of a new Jazz Age, of celebration, dancing, freedom and fun seems pretty appealing. And while the 1920s inspired some great works of fiction, this defining impression of the equivalent decade a century ago in reality was little more than a fleeting moment, one that was over almost before it began. Linnie Reedman and Joe Evans’s haunting adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel Gatsby: A Musical, revived as a streamed concert at Cadogan Hall from 26-28 February, is a grand tragedy, not just a tale of lost love, dreams and delusion, but the story of what happened when the party stopped.

The Great Gatsby has been adapted in many form – all-star films, plays and several musical versions – many of which emphasise the glamour of the titular character, the buzz of his social world and the aesthetic of an era synonymous with liberation and excess as society shook-off the privations and strain of the Great War, launching headlong in a youthful new world, full of possibility for a different kind of future. That the rekindled relationship between Jay and Daisy plays out against this whirl of activity makes it one of the grand love stories of literature, represented by interpretations often more in love with the style of the book than its substance.

But the dreamy tone of Fitzgerald’s novel, published in 1925, is far from celebratory, Gatsby is a character who throws elaborate parties but never attends them, the marriages in the book are fraught and constrictive while the hotheadedness of youth and its exuberant passions hungry for people, travel and experiences are decisions individuals have come to regret in the intervening years. What appealed in their early 20s has paled at the start of the novel as individuals chase what they imagine is their last chance, hoping that time can be rewound and something lost recapture. The novel really exposes the underlying rot in all their lives, disguised perhaps but there all the time. The Great Gatsby is a novel about the self-destruction of a generation, untethered and adrift from its social moorings, where even the basic stability and normalcy of marriage is corrupted and mundane, giving every experience a hollow vulnerability.

This is a theme seen in other material set in the years around the publication of Fitzgerald’s novella and there are hints of Terence Rattigan’s superb After the Dance in this production which also tries to account for the Jazz Age generation and the ruined lives that resulted from the profligacy of their youth. Priestly’s Time and the Conways does a similar thing, examining a single family across the 1920s and 30s, while Noel Coward’s darkest piece The Vortex from 1924 focuses on vanity and the destructive effects of addiction that, like Fitzgerald, recognises how rapidly the carnival ended for this generation and its carnival kings.

Hoping to raise funds for a full staging later this year followed by an international tour and West End transfer in 2022, Reedman and Evans’s elegiac musical understands this beautifully with a structure and tone that looks beneath the surface of the novel for the inevitable tragedy at its heart. That Jay and Daisy belong together is less a desirable outcome of their years apart than the final sign that the revels have ended and the past can never be entirely glossed over or underdone however much Gatsby himself insists history can be repeated. In its place Gatsby: A Musical gives us more than characters living in fantasy worlds and instead implies a deep putrefaction at the heart of their lifestyle that cannot be reversed even by true love.

The melancholy underbelly of Reedman and Evans’s musical is given further significance by expanding Fitzgerald’s original with additional sections set in 1929 in which Daisy returns to once again look for her lost lover. There is a pleasing symmetry in this approach which sets Gatsby: A Musical apart from its competitors while nicely mirroring the novel’s original action set in 1922 where the leads seek to recapture their pre-war (for the USA) ease in 1916. Reedman and Evans’s musical has layered concepts of looking back on looking back with Daisy in particular imaging the last encounter with Jay in both eras was the greatest time of her life. The frame is a strong one, giving additional resonance to the mystery of Gatsby as a character and his enduring effect on those who knew him.

It is a familiar musical theatre device, using a later period and looking at the main action in flashback – a technique used most notably in The Phantom of the Opera, which has a particular synthesis in the tone of Gatsby: A Musical giving the absent Gatsby a Phantom-like presence looming watchfully over his guests on the Cadogan Hall balcony, a spectre whose very reality is called into question by Daisy’s return to chase his shadow on the cusp of a new decade. Reedman and Evans conjure some interesting and credible reasons for Daisy’s lack of knowledge about the outcome of Gatsby’s story while dangling the possibility that Fitzgerald’s conclusion was not definitive in order to drive this part of the story – a theme that could be further expanded into a tantalising is he / isn’t he alive hook for the audience.

Much of the musical returns to Fitzgerald’s original story, told as recollections in which Daisy and Gatsby’s associates return to a now dramatised past. But rather than retaining the original narrative voice, Daisy becomes the central figure in this interpretation, relegating Nick Carraway to a far more peripheral role. It’s a valuable reorientation of the material that casts a slightly different light on events by seeing them from the more emotional perspective of someone centrally involved and directly affected by the various entaglments than Nick’s more detached observations. It also puts a rather flighty creation at the heart of what is a beautiful but often a very male novel – a male writer with a male narrator obsessed with a male archetype – but giving Daisy her own voice is more than a tokenistic female perspective, it adds complexity, highlighting the casual treatment of women in the story as their desires, needs and individuality are crushed by overbearing and possessive partners who eventually dictate their physical confines.

This is reflected in Evans’s music arranged by Henry Brennan with a majority of songs given to the women of the show. And while Daisy is the lead, ample stage time is also given to her husband’s mistress Myrtle who has a far more fleshed-out role and interior life than Fitzgerald could give her, drawing useful parallels about the pressure of stultifying marriages, the quest for empty pleasures that fulfill a momentary need yet prove fatal and the ultimate limitations of a woman’s social power in this era. We also get a fuller taste of the sweet and supportive friendship between Daisy and Jordan in their high-spirited girl group number Ab-So-Lute-Ly Pos-I-Lute-Ly which offers a brief glance at a relationship not driven by one of the men in the story.

Leaning away from the cliched vision of the 1920s as all fast-paced jazz and dance bands, Evans has created a more reflective score that certainly draws on the musical styles of the era, but in keeping with the plaintive mood of the piece uses slower blues melodies to give Gatsby: A Musical its haunting quality. There are some upbeat numbers to create the mood in the early sections of the production that set the scene for Gatsby’s 1922 parties and the New York vibe of the time with Manhattan Moon and The Gatsby being particularly notable, but this hugely appealing score focuses on character insight above era, offering much greater variety and impact across the numbers.

Some of the best really summarise the particular social and emotional situation of individuals; Myrtle’s solo You Can’t Live Forever and her sorrowful duet with Daisy Broken Wings, Broken Dreams are wonderful character portraits while the desperate connection between Gatsby and his former love is made to feel crucial and defining in I’ll Sing a Deathless Song, Who Are You Anyhow and The Moon That Never Rose. Most interesting is the continual recognition that something significant is ending, which thematically aligns this piece with Rattigan, Priestly and Coward with big ensemble numbers either side of the interval, Leave the Dance and The Party’s All Done which provide this valuable context of decline and wistful regret.

Filmed on stage at Cadogan Hall “as live” and cut together for streaming, there is a rough and ready feel to Reedman’s production that nonetheless captures the energy of live performance and the wonderful reverberation of sound and vocal in the empty room. Using the balcony behind the stage allows Gatsby to lurk Phantom-like above the action while nodding to the physical staging of the story as he watches his own parties from the staircase. There are a lot of screencards notifying the audience of place and date as the show flits quickly between 1922 and 1929 but this screen black-out is a momentary distraction although perhaps a necessary transition for a show apparently recorded in segments – however, in a fully-realised production it is less clear from this concert staging whether the existing material flows from scene to scene with projected location cards or if additional music is required for breaks and changes.

There are some excellent performances from this committed cast who, within the bounds of social distancing, few props and limited physical movement around the stage, really bring this story to life with an absorbing clarity. Jodie Steele’s Daisy has a tremulous poise which in both eras shows a woman looking to the past for escape. That Steele develops Daisy’s strength throughout is notable while her vocal range gives the songs plenty of heart. Equally, Ross William Wild’s Gatsby is every bit as absently charismatic as you could wish but given a flesh and blood emotional intensity by Wild that makes his obsessive love for Daisy and the contrasting detachment with the rest of life so credible. As his vocal unfurls it becomes a real high point in the later sections of the show.

Emma Williams is wonderful as Myrtle, really eking-out a thin character and creating a vast and textured inner life for her that matches Daisy’s. Williams is superb in her solo musical numbers and really makes the audience feel the effects of Myrtle’s circumstances. Great support too from Oliver Mawdlsey as Owl Eyes, Lauren Chinery as Jordan and Chancie Alexander-Burnett as Catherine. A note too for Belle Mundis’s delightful costumes and vision for the show with sequined flapper dresses, gauzy materials and slick suits that support not only Fitgerald’s concept of illusion but also of this concert version looking to its fully-staged future.

There are a couple of loose ends in Gatsby: A Musical which are left unresolved, particularly the hint given in 1929 that stealthy movement has been detected around the Gatsby house with various comings and goings late at night or lights left on. And while this may be another character, it is an avenue for development that would give these later sections greater jeopardy as Daisy tries to ascertain what happened to Jay. Nonetheless with big ambitions for the future, Reedman and Evans’s musical has something new to say about Fitzgerald’s most famous hero and the dark heart of the Roaring 20s myth.

Gatsby: A Musical at Cadogan Hall was streamed from 26-28 February and is available from 11-14 March. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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