Monthly Archives: May 2021

Death of a Black Man – Hampstead Theatre

Death of a Black Man - Hampstead Theatre

Alfred Fagon’s provocatively-titled play returns to the Hampstead Theatre as part of its 60th anniversary celebrations in a season that before and during the pandemic intended to restage significant work that had premiered at the venue. After two abortive attempts to stage Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter forced into submission by lockdowns two and three, and with Tennessee Williams’s Two Character Play rescheduled for July, Fagon’s fascinating two act drama opened at the venue in 1975 and while some of its gender attitudes may have dated, so much of Death of a Black Man feels as fresh and challenging now as it did 46 years ago.

It is highly likely that you will never have seen Fagon’s rarely performed play before or indeed anything by a playwright whose abstract work has been out of favour pretty much since it was staged. But the revived interest in Pinter thanks to Jamie Lloyd’s enlightening season (as much as Pinter requires reviving) that found new forms of contemporary resonance and perspective in these sometimes troubling works has created this similar opportunity to reappraise Fagon’s most notable play, one that applies similar techniques in the exploration of the existence, identity, language and social struggle of its characters.

Additional cultural context for this timely revival has been provided by Steve McQueen’s recent reflections on key moments in black British history in his outstanding Small Axe series, five films, set largely during the era in which Fagon was writing. There are many references in the Chelsea-set Death of a Black Man to Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill where Mangrove and Lovers Rock take place, while the centrality of music as a form of expression and community seers through McQueen’s films and Fagon’s play as the characters contend with their British, Caribbean and African heritage in a rich political and social mix.

What is most striking in Death of Black Man is a sense that Fagon has entirely lived in the world he is creating, an understanding of race, work, class, economic frustration and compromise that underscores the play and its cast of three. Indeed Fagon emigrated to the UK, worked for British Rail and joined the army before becoming a writer, and this understanding of how society operated in 1970s Britain – and arguably today – is felt through the experience of his wheeler-dealer creations trying to generate and sustain a particular type of lifestyle.

Using a three-person structure, Fagon explores the feeling of otherness within the drama, introducing rogue third elements that bring a sense of danger and disruption to a settled domestic arrangement. And in fact, he does this twice in slightly different but effective ways. The very first scene brings the long absent Jackie to the door of former lover Shakie who we soon discover is the father of her young child, a child she claims is in Paris with her current, wealthier boyfriend. Instantly Fagon establishes the blood connection between these people, an uneasy but decisive link that evolves during this opening section as Jackie inveigles her way into the flat as, an albeit, temporary resident while she is in London.

Into this disharmonious arrangement comes Stumpie, Shakie’s best friend, introduced as an interloper into the lives of the former couple. But quickly Fagon suggests something far more interesting and in giving the stage over to long duologues between the male characters that reinforce their own close relationship, it becomes clear that Jackie is the stranger come to cause the disruption that partially motors the drama and this knowledge then makes sense of the play’s subsequent direction and its consequences for the three individuals confined to Shakie’s flat throughout the action.

Divided into four scenes across two Acts, Fagon is able to use his three characters to create alternative currents within the drama, using different pairings that allow the characters to both contend and create changing levels of confederacy as the story plays out. Reference to the emotional and sexual relationship between Jackie and Shakie becomes a brutal tussle for power and status, while Shakie and Stumpie lock horns over culture, heritage and finance. Meanwhile, something far darker and more menacing takes place between Jackie and Stumpie who fight most openly for control of the conversation – that neither of them leaves the flat once they enter it is vital as they vie for control of Shakie who is able to leave at any time. Only rarely does Fagon place all three characters together on stage in what are pivotal moments where the tension of the duologues is partially released and from which new dangers emerge.

Fagon here is interested in different expressions of social status and how this affects the behaviour of his creations. Class is a major driver as Jackie snears at the men she considers beneath her, her middle class status referred to again and again, first as a protective layer that sets her apart in manner and behaviour but later as a way for the men to separate themselves from her as an equal and to profit from her body. Class is always as a badge of distinction between them and Fagon includes some subtle interplay about money, breeding and opportunity.

But all three of the characters are “on the make” in their own way with Shakie the only one who is honest about his profitable antiques business selling African chairs made in Yorkshire and forever worrying about the mark-up. Despite being only 18, Shakie’s entrepreneurial successes are represented in this Hampstead Theatre production in his flashy suits including a particularly striking turquoise/teal number and tidy, well-appointed flat with stereo, fitted kitchen and air of sophistication – a striking tonal design by Simon Kenny that has a great elegant 70s vibe.

The centrality of Shakie’s financial solvency is crucial to the drama and soon Stumpie is keen to secure investment for his dream of making an album with authentic African drummers, a desire for partnership with his friend that is sustained into the second half as Stumpie uses several political weapons to manoeuver Shakie into position. Jackie is more subtle – a mark of her class – and while she never openly asks for or talks about money, she plays frequently on the existence of the child between them and her former attempts to sue for maintenance. But Fagon also leaves the audience to unpick (with the supposed wealth she has access to) just why Jackie is there at all – a need for something more concrete from Shakie than baby Priscilla perhaps.

As Death of a Black Man takes shape, the question of black heritage and community in the unwelcoming confines of Britain comes more sharply into view, and Stumpie uses these debates to win Shakie to his side both morally and financially. Like McQueen’s films, there are debates here about living in the discriminatory confines of 70s Britain and its effects on the treatment the male characters receive particularly during the course of business transactions. Shakie notes he is fairly benign in the eyes of his white partners on the Kings Road where much of the unseen external action takes places while Shakie angrily rejects black musicians who make songs catering to white tastes – a similar point is made to the character of Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami exploring whether genuine acceptance and equality is possible.

What emerges during the play then is an exploration of complex notions of identity in which Stumpie in particular and later Shakie begin to question the boundaries and purpose of their life in Britain, a discussion that broadens beyond interactions between races to look at variation within black communities. Certainly in Director Dawn Walton’s production, characters at first adopt a hybrid British-West Indies accent, slipping between different kinds of pronunciation sometimes within the same sentence – something which also happens in Lovers Rock as the leads return to their real lives and London accents at the end of the house party. It feels pertinent that Jackie has recently returned from Jamaica while Stumpie becomes increasingly politicised by the notion of a return to Africa, something he rhapsodises fervently about as a solution to the issue of identity in crisis. None of this is resolved within the play or necessarily given any preference by the writer but it speaks to the rich, multi-faceted and conflicted heritage that writers are still grappling with today.

As with McQueen’s drama, the expressiveness of music is a central pillar in demarcating, shaping, celebrating and sustaining black British identity, and Walton selects diverse pieces across the production to reflect these very different facets both within the action and between scenes to mark the changed energy. Early on, there is reggae to which the all the characters dance while changing the set, there are pieces that nod to the African drums that call to Stumpie while the final section includes blues and jazz which emerged from southern America, appropriately appearing at a point in the play where everything changes for them.

In staging Fagon’s play for the Hampstead Theatre, Walton never flinches from the more disturbing elements of the text. The sexual relationship between the 15-year old Shakie and the, then, unknowing 27-year old Jackie comes up again and again, while Shakie’s casual and predatory attitudes to women, the brevity of his relationships with them and Jackie’s recurring fears of being raped by either man add a feeling of violence that sits uncomfortably. Audience members audibly gasped during a single moment of shocking physical contact but the play is so finely riveted, its language brutal in its expression and sparing in its creation of contextual detail and tone, that the ending will only make sense against the backdrop of the more unpleasant sections. And like Pinter, Fagon is not asking us to like or approve of these characters, only to see them and their behaviours in the context of the power dynamics he is so vividly creating.

Walton takes these cues from the text to create a more realistic first half in which Shakie, Stumpie and Jackie are more grounded in their surroundings and the fairly ordinary lives they experience. But in the second Kenny’s set becomes a shell of its former self, the wall panels removed to create a large black surround as though burnt away and while the furniture remains in place, the room becomes increasingly distorted, disarranged and abstract as Fagon’s text moves to a different level. Johanna Town’s lighting becomes quietly more or less intense at turning points in the play, building to a crucial moment in which the characters speak their truths to the auditorium, their last words before the inevitable destruction that awaits them.

With a few days before the play’s official press night, this production of Death of a Black Man is already taking shape and its undertones will become stronger as the run continues. Nickcolia King-N’Da is a swaggering Shakie, a boy older than his 18-years and very pleased with his life but finds it irreparably disrupted by the new residents of his flat and King-N’Da conveys how rapdily Shakie is pulled into the black hole they create. Toyin Omari-Kinch is already on excellent form as the threatening Stumpie, a creation whose enthusiasm and amity comes with a dark edge of menace and fanaticism that makes him unpredictable while Natalie Simpson’s Jackie gets stronger as the production unfolds, finding the rhythm in Fagon’s text and taking Jackie to a dreadful and haunting conclusion.

Death of a Black Man is undoubtedly a dark and difficult play, one that has a discomposing effect on the viewer even 46 years after its first staging. But this is bold programming from the Hampstead Theatre at a time when audiences are clamouring for different perspectives, and while there are plenty of plays that would have been an easier sell, reopening with Fagon’s astoundingly contemporary drama feels significant. This may be a belated birthday celebration for the venue but with gems like this in its arsenal the Hampstead Theatre won’t be collecting its bus pass just yet.

Death of a Black Man is at the Hampstead Theatre until 10 July with tickets from £18. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Cruise – Duchess Theatre

Cruise - Duchess Theatre (by Pamela Raith)

As theatres reopen, the long influence of digital forms is already making itself felt. Jack Holden’s new play Cruise premiered online last month via Stream Theatre and last week stole a march on its digital equivalents by becoming one of the first shows to open in the West End. The opportunities afforded by the closure of large complex shows and musicals unable to perform with social distancing has meant smaller, more flexible works have found a central London debut when perhaps they may have struggled to find large homes before Covid cleared the decks.

Nimax most notably capitalised on this during the second brief period of theatre opening in early December with productions including Potted Panto and Death Drop filling spaces left vacant by West End stalwarts, while The Comeback utilised the empty Noel Coward during Dear Evan Hansen‘s enforced extended break. The outcome has been a chance to rethink the types of show offered a West End transfer, and as many hoped during the pandemic, these are small signs that theatre is beginning to open-out, building on the platform that digital theatre has created to give new voices and experiences the widest possible audience.

Putting Cruise on the West End stage feels like a step forward and Holden’s play is exactly and deservedly where it needs to be. Comparisons have naturally been made with Angels in America and – on television – the more recent It’s a Sin and Pose, but Cruise’s tale of community, identity and youthful freedom also has much in common with Max Vernon’s The View UpStairs, a wonderful revival of which was staged at the Soho Theatre two years ago. Though focused on different eras, the sense of physical refuge in a place of understanding, friendship and mutual respect is palpable in both stories with Holden and Vernon focusing on surrogate families, music and recreation, as well as personal and shared experiences in forming and celebrating key moments in LGBTQ+ history.

But, more than this, Holden in particular shows how these stories are part of a wider history that goes beyond particular groups, becoming part of the unified experience of the 1980s, of the modern development of Soho and of a common understanding of an unstoppable virus whose legacy has parallels and direct effects on the last 12 months. What Cruise does so powerfully, is to give voice to a generation of young men whose story is an integral part of contemporary and social British history, not just of their community and subsequent generations, but of us all – and this is why it belongs in the West End.

Holden’s one-man show uses a dual flashback structure which takes the audience from the present day in which a 30-year old Jack recalls his arrival in London aged 22 and the LGTBQ+ telephone support line he volunteered for. Within that frame, the viewer is then taken further back in time by caller Michael remembering the early to mid 1980s when he made the same journey for much the same reason – to escape and to find a like-minded community. These timelines dynamically interact throughout the play and while Holden skillfully creates an easy surface flow, underneath Cruise has a complex structure that like a Christopher Nolan movie moves up and down its timeline as scenes from all three eras overlap.

This carefully constructed rigging gives the play its solidity, a firm and consistent basis around which the narrative is meaningfully created. And while this play-within-a-play-within-a-play approach sounds overly complicated – after all Holden could have staged Michael’s story as a straight-forward linear portrait of the era – its purpose is two-fold, looking at how individuals reflect on their own experiences a few years on in the formative and deterministic construction of personal identity, and the ways in which community memory is generated, embedded and passed between generations.

This seriousness of purpose subtly feds through an entertaining 90-minutes and much of this furious paddling is concealed beneath an easy-going confidence in which the play projects a smooth and unruffled surface to the audience allowing the story to trip along. In wearing its subject matter relatively lightly at first, Soho becomes the heaven-like location for the combined stories of modern day Jack and 80s Michael, and although the exuberance of this central London location has been tamed over time, its legend and attraction as a place of freedom, fun and expression remains intact, deeply connecting the two generations of young men that Holden’s play examines.

The similar desire and need to explore a life and expression beyond the confines of their own, to feel nurtured by a like-minded community and to find release and compassion in sex, music and social interaction is palpable in both sections of the play and the creation of Soho as a character in Cruise is significant in a piece that examines the changing nature, openness and acceptance of gay culture in the last 30 years. It is notable that both Jack and Michael’s stories begin with the ingenue, a fresh-off-the-bus young adult naively looking for a new life with no idea what he’s about to find.

And these sections of Cruise have an empathetic coming-of-age quality which soon becomes a whirlwind of ‘people, places and things’ that shifts the perspective and builds the confidence of the two characters. This is particularly energetic in the 1980s as Michael competitively proves to Jack that no one did big nights out like the men of his era, and his fast-paced lifestyle of well-known bars and venues, drugs, flatmates and drink, one-night stands, parties, hangovers and a plethora of unusual but welcoming and legendary Soho characters is presented in dizzying form that give an instant snapshot of the world Holden is believably recreating.

Played on a physical edifice that reflects the structural complexity of Cruise, Nik Corrall and Stufish’s set has a run-down urban simplicity, using metal rigging to imply the play’s many locations, the centrepiece of which is a rotating metal cage that becomes venue doorways, the streets of Soho, the interior of slightly seedy but much loved bars and clubs and Jack’s office telephone booth. It allows the play to seamlessly travel between the different eras and places, keeping-up with the rapid-fire nature of Holden’s dialogue and the energy of these party sections.

Add to this Jai Morjaria’s neon lighting design that naturally uses 80s electric pink as its base colour and plenty of green, blue and flashing whites for the club scenes, and the visual impact of Cruise is strong. John Elliott’s music performed live on stage completes the rave-like feel, partly acting as Michael’s DJ friend ‘Fingers’ but primarily charting the development in music during this era, emerging from the much disparaged disco to the House music of the mid to late 1980s that transformed the club scene and gave that generation of men their own distinct soundtrack. Together, the energy and vibrancy of these sound and design choices reinforce and evoke the vivacity and zest in Holden’s text.

And then the play undercuts all of this with an unexpected love story and the slow shadow of HIV that movingly reveals the impact of the virus on Michael and his friends, and not in a way that is overly sensationalist, but almost poetic, factual and very human in its real and lasting impact. The relationship between Michael and his lover Dave is unexpected and sweet, a tender rendition of Elvis’s Presley’s You Were Always On My Mind sung at a karaoke bar cutting through the more traditional pop music to create the first real moment of pause in the show to emphasise the point when a genuine connection is created between two people who didn’t know they needed it – and its a showstopping vocal performance from Holden.

The inevitable outcome of this relationship plays out and – as the show’s synopsis reveals – both men are given a four year ‘sentence’ by their doctor, the aftermath and outcomes of which are sometimes very moving but still presented in a tragicomic form that manages to be heartwarming and sad at the same time. Later in the play Michael attends funerals, a list of names some of which we know that again quite quietly show the audience the scale of the virus just within Michael’s own groups of friends and acquaintances. How this all feeds back into Jack’s growing understanding of his heritage and its meaning in 2021 is striking, and though never laboured the character undergoes a subtle transformation that repositions his perspectives on personal identity and connection to the recent past.

Holden performs his text here, adapting the intimate digital performance for Stream Theatre to the much large Duchess Theatre auditorium without losing that close connection with the audience. Playing the two leads – Jack and Michael – as well as an array of secondary characters, many of whom slip by in the vortex of 80s Soho, Holden superbly transforms with accents, changes of posture, and tone in order to people these two quite different worlds. Jack’s youth and inexperience is almost wholesome but there is a touch of condescension in his dismissal of an older creepy colleague that gives the character room to grow in both embracing his new lifestyle and understanding how his freedoms were constructed by those who came before.

The character of older Michael is much more brazen, even sarcastic, a man who has seen it all and Holden draws the distinction with Jack well during their phone call. Younger Michael is a mixture of the two, evolving throughout the narrative as fun and freedom give way to a meaningful relationship and eventual life-defining tragedy. The comedy cast of Soho faces are some of Holden’s funniest moments from the fox-fur draped Lady Lennox and American Queen Stanley to pessimistic Drag Queens, four-day partying Nymphs and maternal barmaids, all of them taking care of each other in a tour de force performance from Holden.

Cruise in a way is about a lost world, a Soho that no longer exists and has become all the more legendary for it. And while the clubs, pubs and some of the people may be gone and a more sanitised, mainstream district has grown in its place, Holden’s play is more than a love letter to ghosts of the past, it is a statement that this is a shared and very present history. A microcosm of society, the impact of HIV and Aids in Soho is not just confined to the LGTBQ+ community but is part of the history of Britain in the 1980s and of us all. Holden’s play may have grabbed a rare opportunity for a central London venue but a West End stage is exactly where this story belongs.

Cruise is at the Duchess Theatre until 13 June with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Love and Information – Guildhall School of Music & Drama

Love and Information - Guildhall School of Music and Drama

In the week that theatres can finally reopen, it seems timely to look to the future and not just the avalanche of show and season announcements in the past fortnight, many from venues unable to open for 14-months, or the proposition that several major and regional venues and companies have committed to retaining their digital presence with streamed dates for several productions promised to improve accessibility. But, there is another kind of theatre future that has always needed investment and recognition, one that has been materially impaired by the pandemic – its students.

The Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London has recently initiated a short programme of plays by final year students live-streamed over three nights before a brief “On Demand” window. An important showcase for the next generation of performers and creatives, this season of works includes Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play streaming later this week. But, the first show now freely available via a pre-registration on demand service is Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, a 100-minute production playing without an interval and available until 19 May via the Guildhall website.

Open to critical input for some time, the Guildhall has invited professional reviewers to final year performances prior to the pandemic to give the students the experience of external criticism, and past productions have including Earthquakes in London, Gut and The Wheel which prove a useful showcase for the students as well as the School’s facilities including several larger capacity auditoria and a smaller studio space where this production of Love and Information takes place. Director Pooja Ghai uses three or four cameras which give the remote audience a chance to connect with the contrasting intimacy and scale of Churchill’s multi-faceted, multi-character story.

Love and Information first performed in 2012 is a fragmented and episodic exploration primarily of love and relationships, but also of memory, ritual, social expectations, fate and science, God and modes of control in which scenes or snatches of conversation appear before the audience in a seemingly disordered and deliberately disarranged state. Containing more than 100 characters, performed here by 10 actors, Churchill’s play has variegated effects, the value of which builds as the production unfolds, prioritising breadth and comment over character depth, traditional narrative direction and distinct thematic shape.

Nonetheless, Churchill’s skills is in seeming to arrive at the crux of the conversations her characters are having without us, removing unnecessary preamble or post-event debate so that the audience is delivered to the heart of the moment and removed from the lives of these creations just as swiftly as we arrived in them. Sometimes, those interactions last a few minutes, others a few seconds, but each is given an equality of importance in Churchill’s concept with its unique title cards for each – subtly included in Ghai’s Guildhall production on small ticker-tape-style banner screens – be it Wedding Video, Maniac or Dinner. There is an overriding feeling in the play that these have been edited for our consumption, so whatever the wider lives of this 100 or so people might be, whoever they are and whatever their relationship has been or may yet be, only this moment, these few seconds is what we need to see.

Every scene is, then, singularly important and in service to the overall effect of Churchill’s play, with no value distinction made between big and little lives, conventional and unusual ones, or happy or sad experiences, only that individually and together they have been chosen, that they are representative of the experiences of love. The seemingly scatter-gun presentation has its own momentum, a snowballing rhythm that builds in intensity as the piece unfolds in which the viewer will recognise everyday scenarios and questions, while noting some of the recurring themes across Churchill’s expression of human experience.

Rather than an alienating process which the continual lurch between scenarios could create, instead there is a confederacy, a drawing-in of the audience motored by the rhythms of the dialogue and the binge-like quality of the drama (before that was really an established mode of cultural consumption). As unexpectedly as it starts, it stops – its not really appropriate to describe it as an end – and this impressive Guildhall production never lags.

Staged in and around a series of doorways, Designer Rosa Maggiora has created a space with limited physical movement around the playing area but with plenty of entrances and exits which seem to echo the snapshot nature of Churchill’s play where endings and beginnings are voids through which the main event occurs. The changing use of material across the design also nods to the thematic references in the text – the central freestanding doors are made of plastic and glass with reflective or mirrored surfaces in which characters are seen from different perspectives, suggesting the introspective nature of some of the pieces

Colour too is a signal of the emotional complexities of the text, and the shade of the rear wall is draw from Churchill’s interest in red, the depth and facets of which a character muses upon in the second half of the play. As John Logan’s play on Mark Rothko notes so well, the slashing red design draws the viewer towards the depth of this short staging space while giving it an energy and vibrancy that contrasts with the black and white design towards the front, enhancing the kaleidoscopic feel that Love and Information creates.

Ghai uses this meandering space well to create a flow between scenarios that keep the show moving rapidly and build its collective effect. With few additional props, many locations are implied from ordinary domestic homes to vague external spaces and hinterlands that are both nowhere and anywhere. That all this happens with meaning and confidence on the Guildhall stage is notable and although the cameras are positioned quite far back initially to capture the expanse of stage so the audience can observe the active motion around the space, later, close-ups from left and right are introduced to focus more closely on some of the performances that adds a useful variety.

Connected together by a sparingly used stretching and clutching movement piece choreographed for the full Company by Diane Alison-Mitchell, several of the scenarios will make a greater mark and while not purposefully linked, Churchill gives the Company the freedom to construct the play quite fluidly, making few determinations about scene order, gender, stage direction or even demarcating speakers – the text is written like poetry. Here, Ghai’s production uses the 10 actors to construct a version of the show that draws effective parallels between different sections while still making them individually distinct and standalone.

The Guildhall’s version has a particular emphasis on memory, focusing on its haunting and recurring qualities throughout everyday life. In one particularly poignant scene entitled Ex, a post-break-up couple recall the happier days of their early relationship, using almost elegiac dialogue in which the shadows of the past momentarily consume the present, reviving a whole other life between them before it dissolves like smoke and drifts away and the pair return to the awkward emptiness of the present. The pained wistfulness of memory appears in other piece of the play as well including The Wife in which a husband fails to recognise the women he’s married, desperately insisting ‘No, she’s gone. They’ve all gone… /Everyone I know. Everyone who loved me’. The blurring of past and present, of love present and lost blend together meaningfully in this version creating a dual concept of love in reality as an illusion, and reality as an illusion in love.

This production also draws connections between Churchill’s interest in science and maths, a factual interpretation of the world and how we process it which contrasts with the more philosophical impressions of abstract emotion that the playwright creates elsewhere. A brief scene called Climate involves an apocalyptic discussion about scientist warnings that creates alarm between the characters unable to grasp the scale of it. In Lab, two people use cold research language to describe the gruesome process and ethical implications of experimentation on battery chickens, while later in Star the speed of light is the topic of a tiny exchange as Churchill grapples with how ordinary people understand and process factual knowledge within the intangible confines of their own lives.

Ghai’s production also notes an alignment with ideas of religion that recur throughout Love and Information – in God’s Voice, one character as a pseudo-Moses tries to explain to his sceptical friend how hearing can happen without a physical process but as a sensation of faith. Likewise in God, Churchill presents a similar conversational set-up, one person describing the centrality of religion as a guiding principle in their life, the other questioning the practicalities and meaning of an overseeing God. And these segments also examine belief through other forms of pre-determination such as the existence of fate and freewill.

Collectively the Guildhall company highlight these complex debates that absorbingly contend or complement one another throughout Churchill’s play. This is a true ensemble piece, performed by Aoife Gaston, Caitlin Ffion Griffiths, Lily Hardy, Genevieve Lewis, Conor McLeod, Umi Myers, Felix Newman, Sonny Pilgrem, Sam Thorpe-Spinks and Dolly Webb who seamlessly perform at least ten characters each, creating distinction between the scenarios and people with little steer from the text while capturing the free-flowing significance of each section.

With two further shows planned including the live stream of Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play later this week, as venues reopen making space for the next generation of theatremakers is increasingly important and Love and Information proves a challenging but vital showcase for these final year students. This mini-season of plays is an important platform for them, and this reorientation to online performance a timely decision by the Guildhall in an industry increasingly embracing a hybrid model of theatre production and presentation.

Love and Information is available on demand from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama until 19 May. Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play is live-streamed from 20 May for free but pre-registration is required. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

The Barn – Turbine Theatre / Stream Theatre

A raging storm is a great basis for drama, a chance for a writer to build tension, for pressured character interactions to finally simmer over and when the break comes, to ultimately move into a clearer future. From Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson going toe to toe in Key Largo to that crucial battering between Big Daddy and son Brick in the cellar of their mansion in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and the snow storm that contains the characters in The Red Barn and The Mousetrap, being cut off from the outside world by the elements with no means of communication or escape gives an instant shape to the thriller.

Paul Bradshaw and Naomi Miller’s new play The Barn, performed as a one-night-only semi-staged preview at the Turbine Theatre and made available via Stream Theatre creates its scenario with care; a ramshackle and isolated home on the edge of the woods, a lonely man with no family or friends, the arrival of a stranger needing help, plenty of innocent conversation, some bourbon and a raging storm that pounds and blows throughout the two hour duration of this slow-burn story.

With only a week until theatres finally reopen and a flood of exciting season announcements pouring in, the focus on new work is more important than ever and an appropriate conclusion to almost fourteen months in which digital theatre created opportunities for all kinds of work to be accessed more easily. And The Barn made excellent use of its medium, a tense and gripping two-hander that was suited to the unflinching intimacy of the camera while emphasising its stage credentials by helping the audience to visualise elements of the scenario.

And in that nod to its future stage life, Bradshaw and Miller’s play was wholly successful in creating a broader impression of the eventual set design as well as the flow of movement around the single room in which the action takes place across two Acts. Like an audio drama, this called on the audience’s imagination to fill in the gaps, prompted only by sparing stage directions read aloud off-screen to give context to the characters’ actions and some carefully chosen audio effects, crucial to the atmospheric charge of The Barn.

The story itself is deceptively simple – two Texan strangers, Joe and Lucy, flung together by chance – and much of the play is conversational as the pair make awkward small talk initially before warming to their various themes as the hours pass and the drinks flow. There is talk of family relationships, childhood games and farming the Texan landscape before their experience of tragedy and grief starts to infect the discussion, helping the audience to slowly make sense of the present. Across that time, the pair play cards and participate in small domestic rituals that intriguingly belie their status as unknown quantities to one another.

Bradshaw and Miller have created a highly discursive duologue punctuated with moments of intense drama and changes of mood that guide the audience with skill through this complex narrative to the story’s satisfying final moments. Nothing here is tangential, even if it feels so at the time, and there is a tight focus to the writing that even in this parred back format with none of the tricks of the stage to enhance it, drives the action forward, providing two dense character studies within the thriller format. Bradshaw and Miller navigate that line really well, as past and present collide and implode, serving both our understanding of Joe and Lucy as well as the building connection between them.

The ever-present effect of memory and how it shapes the present is a key theme in this play with homeowner Joe living a half-life in his 1983-set home. Due to a double family tragedy years before, Joe is now entirely alone apart from his beloved dog, his sole companion and comfort. We learn that generations of his family once owned a profitable dairy farm in the area, a trade his father insisted would be lucrative as long as people wanted milk and cheese, yet the whole plot was sold long ago and during his guardianship for reasons that remain obscured.

But Bradshaw and Miller never present Joe as deliberately mysterious or suspicious, he is instead a man wrapped in grief for all the things he has lost, a man who once had everything but now can only go on living in the Chekhovian sense with no hope or thought of a different kind of future. Joe is a character whose life has stopped in any meaningful way, the last of his name with little to show for his efforts who is couched in the painful but comforting memories of a happier past.

Again none of this is overtly designed and it is a really interesting way to present a character, a man who just ‘is’, who welcomes a bedraggled stranger in from the rain, offering them shelter and company. That Joe’s remote and dilapidated home becomes a symbol of the man is thoughtfully achieved; filled with stuff piled haphazardly around the room which Joe barely sees and has never sorted through, and using the steady drips of rain collecting in strategically placed buckets along with the precarious fragility of the structure as the storm rages, we see that Joe too has hidden depths of feeling and experience as the events of the play chip away at his equally brittle facade. The crumbling house is a strong metaphor for what is to come as the arrival of Lucy slowly creates cracks through which Joe’s character and the circumstances of his life come more clearly into focus.

Lucy is a complete contrast in many ways, an innocent arriving with tales of a broken down car, an all-American girl who couldn’t be more stereotypically perfect (for the 1983 setting) – a sweet-mannered young wife, devoted to unseen husband Mitch, baking pies and speaking with a wide-eyed wonder about the world they have experienced beyond Texas include the glamour of a honeymoon trip to the Poconos with a heart-shaped bath tub and a round bed. Lucy speaks with animation about the cinematic romance of it, her one chance to almost live like the people in the magazines she loves to read.

That Lucy is not all she seems will be no surprise – a fundamental principle of the thriller being that no one is – but Bradshaw and Miller take their time with this character, letting her win over the audience just as she does with Joe as she chatters about her life, dominating the dialogue in Act One as she ingratiates herself into his home and tries to help him with some of the domestic activities like feeding the dog and emptying the overflowing buckets.

The first, very subtle, hint given that Lucy has a quite different agenda happens over several games of cards which the characters play for many minutes while talking about other things. Joe easily wins the first few hands and while the writers draw no particular attention to it, the game doesn’t end until Lucy wins, pleased to have distracted Joe sufficiently to present an indisputable winning hand – finely drawn though this small event is, Lucy’s need to beat her competitor is a notable character trait, essential to the play’s conclusion and the increasingly pugilistic nature of their interaction.

The ability to write sharply taut and semi-loaded dialogue disguised as casual conversation is something that Bradshaw and Miller do extremely well, holding the audience’s attention throughout the drama and only a second viewing, with the knowledge of its conclusion, will reveal the many layers they build through the play’s structure from the start. Especially engaging is how well the tone shifts between Lucy and Joe, fueled by increased familiarity and drink – as the night wears on, Lucy becomes emboldened, challenging her interlocutor directly and taking time to let him unravel.

As the power shifts between them, who is in control of the conversation becomes important with Joe providing hospitality and bare essential facts in Act One as Lucy talks openly, while across Act Two, Lucy waits for her moment as she becomes more accusatory, more judgmental as Joe descends into inebriated defensiveness. Its cat and mouse stuff of course but so well shaped, so rich and almost camouflaged by Bradshaw and Miller that just who is the pursuer and who the victim remains ambiguous for some time.

The directorial choices are interesting ones and while performed onsite at the Turbine Theatre, the actors are clearly separated, shown in split screen and the focus for both is head and shoulders throughout with nothing but darkness around them. When either Lucy or Joe leave the room, the image of the remaining character fills the screen – a useful compromise – while activities like the card playing are off-screen gestures, read as stage directions or are enhanced by the evocative use of sound effects to create the lashing rain and wind – even the occasional rumble of trains through the actual theatre only adds to the atmosphere. That all of this is performed live adds considerably to the energy and intensity of The Barn and makes its anticipated transition to the stage all the more exciting a prospect.

With so many different ways to create digital theatre, this unflinching approach is hugely exposing for both actors who rise to the challenge magnificently, conveying the whole world of the play and their character’s interior lives so vividly. That the absence of a real audience and their own physical separation is barely noticeable is remarkable. Ben Turner is just so good as Joe, giving this incredibly nuanced performance that holds the audience captive. With no props or set to rely on, Turner at first shows the character’s essential goodness, a caring concern for his guest and an easy companion who tries to put her at ease in his home.

Yet as the story unfolds, Joe becomes slowly more inebriated and it is as though Turner’s whole face goes into soft-focus. This is not roaring, slurring or obvious drunkness, but a really precise change of the features, an inability to focus the eyes and a world-weariness that suddenly descends on the character that Turner almost indefinably turns-up as the final confrontation looms. In the last moments of the play when his now broken character is once again left alone in the ruins of the evening, Turner is astounding, pained, ashamed, unable to make his thoughts connect, it is almost sympathetic and a powerful note to end on.

Evelyn Hoskins is equally good as Lucy in what is in some ways a harder role to distinguish as she conveys her girlish enthusiasms and goodness without making the character either too bland or too suspicious before the narrative has sufficiently laid the groundwork for the audience to facilitate that shift in perspective. Like Lucy, Hoskins bides her time, building a particular image of Lucy that may or may not be true, before gradually introducing discordant notes like a moment of inappropriate activity when Joe’s back is turned. Hoskins gives very little away in the intrusive camera close-ups, maintaining her perfect facade even with the audience.

The second Act gives Hoskins the chance to expand beyond the confines of the fiction Lucy is creating, as her attitude to Joe markedly shifts, quietly letting him talk and fiercely questioning his actions as the truth spills out. In this, Hoskins is as ferocious as Turner is defeated, a growing strength and determination emerges that gives the final revelation and Lucy’s decision to pursue it an increased impact.

As with any thriller, when a writer asks the audience to bear with them and to invest in the route to an outcome, the denouement can sometimes feel underwhelming or unlikely – just ask Line of Duty of Game of Thrones fans. But here, Bradshaw and Miller just about sidestep the melodrama with some strong final speeches and that muscular ending to reorientate the story we have been told in order to move quickly between cause and consequence. With its tones of Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and more recently Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate, The Barn is a gripping two act piece whose perfect storm of story, tone and character will be a must-see on stage before too long.

The Barn was performed at the Turbine Theatre and made available via Stream Theatre for a single performance. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Tarantula – Southwark Playhouse

Tarantula - Southwark Playhouse

The long aftermath of trauma is the subject of Philip Ridley’s latest monologue for Southwark Playhouse building on the writer’s established relationship with the venue and the sensational The Poltergeist which premiered last November to an online audience. This latest play, running at a somewhat lengthy one hour and 45-minutes and available for only three-live streamed performances, takes a central character who feels out of kilter with the world around them and exacerbates their isolation with a violent encounter, the shadow of which they are unable to shake off even though it takes them in a more positive direction.

As Ridley has demonstrated time and again, he excels at these forensic character studies and the ability to create vivid, energetic scenarios with minimal need for physical sets or music to control the pace and the vacillating emotional landscapes of the individuals in his work. Tarantula has much in common with The Poltergeist, a companion piece almost, that uses (albeit differently) some of the same props – a domestic scenario that focuses on the complexities and demands of a family relationship particularly between opposite siblings, the chance of love or affection that allows the lead to see the possibility of experiences outside of the family unit and a fatal implosion of repressed anger with the need to maintain a surface impression of calm control and acceptance.

The focus here is a teenage girl, a voracious reader with a kind-heart who volunteers to help with afternoon teas and events for the elderly while preparing essays on Sylvia Plath that will hopefully lead to a place at Oxford. Instantly, Ridley creates a sound basis for Toni’s fast-paced dialogue and extensive vocabulary – a feature of his characters – but introduces several layers of narrative that conspire to derail her plans, not just in the stark experience of violence in the second Act and its aftermath, but from the earliest moments of the play in the subtly-created and uneasy conditions of family life that place Toni at odds with the dubious lifestyle of her brother.

Structurally, Ridley does two key things with Tarantula; first, he allows Toni to tell her own story at different points in time from which she reflects back on a series of events recounted in vivid detail. In doing so, Ridley balances a complex interplay between narrative storytelling as Toni retrospectively reveals events in a chronological sequence addressed directly to the audience seen through the camera. But at the same time, Toni dramatically recreates and relives dialogue with other characters all of which, as with The Poltergeist, a single actor must portray, often in rapid fire conversational bursts.

The effect is illuminating as these two dramatic tools create both a sense of memories being relived and sometimes happily or painfully re-experienced while simultaneously giving the impression of events happening spontaneously in the present in which the viewer is absorbed by Toni’s detailed moment-to-moment recollections. This control of timelines is one of Ridley’s most remarkable skills, weaving between past and present reflection with ease while creating such a comparative energy that both feel equally valid, important and indivisibly entwined as a means to effectively portray multilayered themes and characters.

Ridley’s second structural device is much simpler, a beginning, middle and an end that divides the activities of the play into three distinct and not always obvious phases. The first is almost a romantic dream, an establishment period in which the audience is introduced to gently affable Toni and her shy flitation with Michael who takes her for their first date, although Ridley quietly undercuts some of the sweetness with hints of darker themes to come. The dramatic second section is staged quite differently, a disjointed experience in the immediate aftermath of trauma that has a nightmarish quality as flashbacks of an attack and its context are mixed with recurring dreams and an almost fractured consciousness in which Toni no longer makes sense even to herself.

The final act is a slow-burn surprise, one that simmers a little too long as the contained aftermath of violence finds its way to the surface. Ridley makes this a mirror of the first, using a similar date-based scenario that fills in some of the gaps in the year or so since the previous section and a tantalizing alignment between the circumstances – Michael and new date Bebe are both photographers, both encounters begin outside a repurposed building that has retained its original name and, crucially, Toni deliberately makes the opposite choice of direction second time around. At first it is unclear if this is a continuation of the play as we know it, or whether Ridley is perhaps offering an alternative version of reality which remains ambiguous enough to the end.

While there is sympathy for Toni, there is also a lingering suspicion that she might be an unreliable narrator, one over-romanticising her story for effect or to play down her less attractive qualities. In one of the earliest scenarios, Toni is seen having a vicious argument with her brother Mason known as Maz, who she clearly disapproves of and suspects, a disagreement their father has to break up. None of this fully accords with the timid and nervous girl who does charity work and hides behind her Macdonald’s strawberry milkshake during her date with Michael that follows quickly from this scene.

Later, in the third scenario she seems to lie to Bebe or at least tell her a story about the past year that doesn’t accord with the information the audience has been given so far. Is Toni justifiably protecting herself by not revealing so much personal information to a stranger or are the excuses she gives – elaborate and unethically dishonest as they are – a more calculated attempt to win the sympathy and attention of the person she now likes. It is notable, perhaps, that Michael is never mentioned in this part of the play and the viewer has no way of knowing which version of the kindly Toni we are seeing. A further possibility, of course, is that the story she tells is also true, that all of the events recounted in the play are correct and Ridley is adding further layers to his labyrinthine structure by having Toni tell Bebe before she tells us.

Crucial to the credibility of a one-person show are the absent characters and how well the writer creates a wider cast of personalities for the lead to interact with. This is one of Ridley’s strengths, and while we never get to know anyone else in detail, in Toni’s design of them they feel slightly more than two-dimensional ciphers for the drama. From Michael the good-natured love interest to Maz the dodgy but caring brother, the hardworking optician’s assistant mother and the stay-at-home dad and collection of old ladies, teachers and baddies, there is enough substance to the scenario Ridley creates to hold the attention throughout, absorbed by the world of Tarantula that flits from home to a busy town centre, a fancy new gym and the park. That some of these characters and the outcome of their lives seem too good to be true only adds weight to the implication that Toni is not quite what she seems.

A small but notable feature in the play is the agency and power of the female characters woven through the scenario that Ridley has created; not only in the use of a female protagonist whose personality and credibility remains somewhat ambiguous while also finding reserves from which to rebuild her self-esteem and manage her vulnerability after Act Two, but Toni’s family set-up rests on a largely absent mother-figure who is the family breadwinner, enduring a job she doesn’t really like while her husband takes care of a late baby and their teenage children. Even one of the perpetrators of the central incident carries it out because his girlfriend is insulted, a woman who clearly wields sufficient influence to insist that wrong be so brutally reddressed.

Yet, it is that very incident that remains one of Tarantula‘s biggest flaws, with the motivation for the main event and the subsequent persecution of Toni and her brother feeling unlikely and even superficial given the scale of the revenge and persistent levels of threat visited upon them. There is perhaps, again, a suggestion that Toni has played down her version of events making a far more serious encounter seem like a casual accident but Ridley’s script doesn’t investigate this in any depth, leaving it to the audience to make this huge leap in the context of other lies and misrepresentations that Toni may have told.

Georgie Henley nonetheless gives this long and complicated performance everything she has, sustaining the changes of energy and pace in the three phases of the show really well and relaying the sparkling fast-paced dialogue as she plays several characters having conversations with one another while sometimes addressing the audience with knowing asides in the middle of a barrage of interaction. With nothing to support her and three cameras trained on her for 105-minutes, Henley controls the rhythm of Ridley’s uninterrupted text, giving a joined-up life to the various scenarios the play creates with only a breath between them, while opening-up the possible ambiguities of a character able to draw the viewer into this story and hold our attention for its full running-time.

Directed by Wiebke Green, the Southwark Playhouse space becomes an empty black box – no props, set or music to assist the actor or to distract from the conjuring force of Ridley’s writing. Lighting is the only tool used to create mood with the low-beams and gloomy shadow effects of Act Two particularly effective in heightening tension. Tarantula isn’t perfect and is certainly too long but Ridley’s latest twin works have been ideally suited to the nature of hybrid theatre, utilising the intimate and seemingly one-to-one focus that only a camera can create while building on the energy and vibrancy of live performance. How this play will look when player and audience are eventually in the same space we will discover later in the year.

Tarantula was live streamed from Southwark Playhouse on 30th April and 1 May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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