Monthly Archives: June 2021

Hairspray – London Coliseum

Hairspray - London Coliseum

In January 2020, three Tracy Turnblads gathered at the BFI for a special screening of John Waters cult 1980s dance musical movie Hairspray. On the panel were Leanne Jones, the UK’s first stage Tracy when the full-blown song and dance version of Hairspray arrived in London in 2007, Lizzie Bea eagerly anticipating her own stage debut in April 2020 in the first major revival and the very first Tracy Turnblad, Ricki Lake. It was a very special event, one that cemented the enduring appeal of a feel good show dedicated to body positivity and racial integration in which a 60s schoolgirl dances her way to social revolution. A dance film that became a stage musical that became a musical film, Hairspray’s enduring legacy, echoed by three decades of Tracys, is a message for our reviving theatres – ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat.’

It is fourth time lucky for Jack O’Brien’s much delayed revival at the London Coliseum originally scheduled for April 2020, soon after debutante Bea’s promotional appearance at the BFI. But April became September, which became April 2021 and eventually June, where after a full week of performances to a reduced capacity audience of 1000, the show officially opens to the press later this week. And it is an absolute treat. The production may have been battered by the elements in the last 14 months, but this Hairspray is holding firm.

And there are few better shows to welcome fully-staged musicals back to life. It may be set in a cartoonish version of the past, filled with larger-than-life characters bouncing between chirpy ditties, but Hairspray’s story echoes the duet sung by Tracy’s parents; it is ‘timeless to me’. Its underlying social messaging about body image, teenage bullying and feeling like an outsider is ever-relevant, while the characters’ campaign to end segregation on a television dance show through protest and even imprisonment, is as pertinent as ever. And after a long and tiring period of uncertainty, its determination that a changed future is coming is the sliver of hope that audiences want to believe in.

The London Coliseum is an enormous auditorium that in recent years has housed starry summer revivals of Sunset Boulevard and Chess, so O’Brien’s production feels quite at home in a venue that did much to support the continuation and development of musical theatre during the pandemic. Several digital concerts were filmed here and streamed online, while a revival of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change and the premiere of new musical After You were presented against the ornate backdrop of the theatre. The dates may have changed many times, but this production of Hairspray remained at the forefront of the Coliseum’s reopening plans.

Staging Hairspray

O’Brien and set designer David Rockwell have employed a little ingenuity in limiting the vastness of this stage and utilising their small cast of six principals, a handful of secondary roles and around 20 ensemble members to fill out the dance numbers. Often used for ballet, the relative intimacy of Tracy’s Baltimore home could easily have been lost on the Coliseum stage, but Rockwell creates a sizeable frame that contains the action within a smaller central television-shaped box that valuably reduces the width of the playing space by about a third to create an illusion of fullness that works very effectively. It gives the show a useful balance between the big, energetic numbers that fill the stage with bright colours, people and activity, and the smaller relationship-based songs that showcase the growing emotional connections between individuals which add heart to the political and entertaining elements of the musical.

Rockwell leans into the 60s aesthetic to create a deceptive flatness in the set that mimics animation from the era with houses in particular given tapered dimensions to create the illusion of height and scale. It is deliberately unreal to reflect the different kinds of bubble that the characters live in, where self-realisation is their path to enlightenment. Small islands are wheeled onstage to change location, moving between the streets of Tracy’s beloved city which whiz by in Good Morning Baltimore or the furnished illustrative platform containing a television set and ironing board to represent the Turnblad’s home, there is a simplicity to the set design and construction that creates fluidity.

Larger venues such as Corny Collins’s television studio and Maybelle’s record shop as core dance locations use far more of the floorspace with podiums containing their presenters’ DJ booths, hanging signs and freestanding doors doing just enough to create the illusion of place as Tracy and her friends go beyond the boundaries of their usual locations. Rockwell compensates for the minimal staging of the love songs with additional activity including silhouetted jailbird dancers seen through the backdrop for the prison in a nod to Chicago as Tracy and Link perform Without Love, later joined by Penny and Seaweed.

But Hairspray is a show that is ultimately about spectacle and O’Brien delivers some of the major set pieces with flair. William Ivey Long’s costumes and Paul Huntley’s wigs mirror the aesthetic that Rockwell has created in the set, drawing on the clash between traditional 50s shapes and the swirling patterns and extravagant trimming of the show’s 1962 setting. The transformation of Edna from drab housewife and laundress in shapeless dress and lank hair to glamorous ‘momager’ is a key moment, one which Long and Huntley manage with panache during Welcome to the 60s, and while Tracy’s own sartorial development is more subtle, her new found celebrity and romantic awakening are reflected in the clothing and wig choices.

Costume becomes a shorthand for characterisation in much of the show, just as it was in Waters’s original movie, and in this slimmed-down staging, costume is a visual tool to create status, personality, confidence and emotional depth. From Velma’s fitted fish-tale suit in vivid yellow, matched to Amber’s girl next door dresses in a similar hue, to Link’s drainpipe trousers and slicked hair, the PE kits in the sport scene, Wilbur’s dogtooth-patterned jacket and Maybelle’s luxurious fabrics, Long’s costumes sit neatly within the history of these characters in performance while reflecting the social tension between tradition and change, as well as the various sides of Baltimore life that reflect distinctions made in the show based on class, race and physical shape.

Choreography and Performance

By including Waters film in their movie musicals season, the BFI made the case for Hairspray to be viewed as a dance musical and its stage choreography is an important point of connection with the original non-singing film which uses the group routines and moves of the 1960s as its base. This revival retains Jerry Mitchell’s original stage choreography which does the same, drawing the distinction between the ‘cleaner’ moves performed by the ‘Nicest Kids in Town’ on the Corny Collins show dancing the ‘bird’ and the ‘mashed-potato’, and those evolving from Tracy’s response to music as she explores the more sensual rhythms of blues and soul with Seaweed and Maybelle which infuse the mainstream as the story unfolds.

With major musicals and new work largely limited to concert versions for many months, the opportunity to experience a full West End dance musical performance have been limited, so Hairspray is one of the first shows to stage big full company numbers on this scale for some time and it has a galvanising effect on the audience. The controlled complexity of the Hop scene in which the dancers are separated by race is particularly well achieved. Moving the shape of the dance around the stage to create character perspectives without mixing the segregated blocks looks effortless but is intricately done, while the ferocious spirit and pace of the finale number You Can’t Stop the Beat is a zesty riot of fluid movement, coordination and complex synchronisation as the cast deftly move around one another to bring the conclusion of different sub-narratives to the front of the stage before blending into the pack once more.

These larger-scale numbers never detract from the individual skill of the dance performers including Ashley Samuels as the fluid-hipped Seaweed whose nimble rendition of Run and Tell That is a dance highlight, along with showcase appearances in the detention scene, the Hop and Maybelle’s record shop. The Ensemble give the show its choreographic breadth and depth, performing as members of the Council for the formal TV show numbers while filling-out the world of Baltimore from street scenes to integration protesters, prisoners and the audience for the Miss Teenage Hairspray finale pageant where the full cast create a rousing song and dance spectacle to end the show.

Making her West End debut, Bea captures all of Tracy’s charm and carries the audience with her through the story, no easy feat in a show with experienced performers in front of an expectant crowd. A character that the audience instantly adores, Bea’s Tracy has very little self-doubt and is resolved to achieve everything she wants – whether that’s joining the Corny Collins Council, dating Link or ending segregation. Bea is comic when she needs to be, brings out Tracy’s naive and romantic sides at times and conveys her character’s infectious enthusiasm for music, new experiences and social change. Bea hits her stride early, landing her first big number – Good Morning Baltimore – while her performance of I Can Hear the Bells is a fantastic proclamation of Tracy’s ambitious delusion, earning her place on the panel of Tracys alongside Leanne Jones and Ricki Lake.

Michael Ball established the role of Edna in the UK in 2007 and his return is a triumph. His second trip down memory lane in recent years following a period in Les Miserables: The Staged Concert, Ball is clearly having so much fun as Tracy’s sweetly underrated mother who follows her daughter’s lead and transforms into a confident and sexy modern woman. Ball’s finest moment is the duet You’re Timeless to Me with Les Dennis (replacing Paul Merton as Wilbur) which turns into a comic masterpiece. The pair have a wonderful stage chemistry and, performed in front of the curtain like a Music Hall act, they fill their big number with cheeky jokes, a bit of improvisation and pure joy at being able to perform for a live audience once again – this number is a showstopper and, as the actors heroically avoid corpsing, it has the audience in fits of laughter.

Hairspray has an accomplished supporting cast including a slickly villainous turn from Rita Simons in fine voice as Velma and, making his own West End debut, Jonny Amies proves a great partner for Bea as heartthrob Link. Ahead of Press Night, Marisha Wallace as Motormouth Maybelle and Georgia Anderson’s Amber could slightly reduce the throttle in their acted scenes which for Anderson particularly doesn’t give her character anywhere to go but Wallace’s vocal on I Know Where I’ve Been is extraordinary, a goosebump moment that fills the room with sound as only live musical theatre can.

14 months and four attempts later, Hairspray is finally back in the West End – the energy, sentiment and exhilaration of the show is completely irresistible. So many tentative steps have been taken towards the revival of live theatre focusing largely on monologue and two-person pieces, so it is almost overwhelmingly wonderful to see a full song and dance performance that showcases the very best creative talent in set design, costume, choreography and performance. Concluding with a rapturous standing ovation in which a thousand socially distant people made the noise of three times as many, whatever the hardships and struggles that theatre has endured, Hairspray sends a message of hope because you really can’t stop the beat.

Hairspray is at the London Coliseum until 29 September with tickets from £17.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Under Milk Wood – National Theatre

Under Milk Wood - National Theatre (by Viktor Gardsater)

There is something very comforting about walking over Waterloo Bridge and seeing the lights blazing in the National Theatre once more, and while full capacity audiences may still be some time away, the reopening of two of its three spaces in quick succession and the recent announcement of a year-long season, means this premiere venue is very much back in business. Only able to open one of its stages in the past 16-months, the resumption of performances in the Dorfman earlier in June with the premiere of Jack Thorne’s poignant new play After Life was a notable success. Now, the Olivier is also back online following its transformation into a 500-seat in-the-round space which briefly welcomed the Death of England: Delroy and Dick Whittington before successive lockdowns prematurely ended both runs. It returns with a beautifully pitched adaptation of the Dylan Thomas drama Under Milk Wood originally written for radio.

Premiering in 1954, Thomas’s much adapted drama has been produced many times as theatre, film, animation and even an album, and has featured renowned performers in the role of ‘First Voice’ including Thomas himself, Richard Burton, Antony Hopkins and most recently Michael Sheen for the BBC who also heads this National Theatre cast. Like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town which had a solid revival at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2019, Under Milk Wood explores the various families and experiences in a single village as a community is both dissected by its author and comes together to work, to gossip and to pass the time.

Taking place across 24-hours, liked Wilder, Thomas uses the structure of the day to suggest the endless routine of the villagers in Llareggub, a sense that their lives are ordinary, small and lacking in notable drama while also unchanging, solid and predictable. Mr and Mrs Pugh snipe at each other over every meal, Captain Cat sits in the same chair listening to the sounds of the world outside, Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard cleans her guest-less guesthouse and Mrs Cherry Owen watches her husband get drunk. On the surface, their lives are unremarkable, a place where nothing changes as day becomes night and night becomes day.

Yet, within the confines of this tale, Thomas expands the inner lives and needs of his characters, each haunted by the loss of a loved one, the dream of an unfulfilled life or the expectation of a future happiness that never comes. There is real tenderness in the way Thomas explores these wistful remembrances and the ghostly presence that haunts them all. But far from lifeless and in their own ways frozen in time, their existence in memories, hopes and illusions suffused with these emotion makes them seem more alive than ever.

Lyndsey Turner’s production for the National Theatre understands this completely. Before Thomas can ‘begin at the beginning’ there is some valuable scene setting to be done which gives the evocation of Milk Wood, the village of Llareggub and its community an added purpose by adding a frame, a tool through which the audience can view a wider context and purpose. This additional material written by Sian Owen bookends the play, focusing on Owain Jenkins’s attempts to renew a severed connection with his ailing father Richard. More than an amusing story of yesteryear, the telling of Under Milk Wood thus becomes a heartwarming act of love.

Owen’s sets her adaptation in a Care Home, a place pointedly filled with forgotten people, their age determining that their best years are behind them and, while treated kindly by the nursing staff, there is little to distinguish them from one another. The ten residents shuffle around, watch television and sit in their favourite chair with hobbies and crafts to pass the time – and already the daily trajectory of these characters echoes Thomas’s villagers. Owen’s big idea is to disrupt the routine with the arrival early one morning of Owain Jenkins demanding to see his father out of hours.

This cleverly sets in motion the circumstances that will lead to the slow recreation of Milk Wood and Llareggub as Owain’s desperation to form a lucid connection to the bewildered Richard takes them to a photograph album and ultimately to the famous beginning of Thomas’s drama where, to prompt his father’s memory, Owain assumes the role of First Voice and takes his father back in time hoping to provoke some shared memories of the place and its people. It is a lovely idea, one that gives renewed purpose and distinction to this retelling and is consistently maintained throughout the production as Owain becomes both Richard and the audience’s guide to the world of Llareggub while investing the original narrator character with an emotional investment in the retelling of this story.

Aware of its radio play origins and the lush vocabulary and rhythms of Thomas’s writing, Turner avoids the temptation to ‘act’ the entirety of the piece in the conventional sense. Instead, the simplicity of the Care Home is maintained for far longer than you might expect and Turner doesn’t succumb to audience expectation for some theatre magic to clear away the day room and replace it with the colourful houses and characters of Llareggub immediately. Instead, Turner tries to offer the viewer the best of both worlds, relying on Owain to set the scene using only Thomas’s descriptions, making this part audio drama that requires the audience to use their imagination to conjure the scene – much as Ellen McDougall’s production of Our Town did.

Enhancing the effect, residents and Care Home workers steadily assume the persona of the Under Milk Wood characters, fleetingly at first as they are momentarily enchanted as they pass by Owain, physically adjusting to a new role as he anoints each one with an alter ego like statues coming to life or somnambulists gently reviving before the moment passes and they go on their way. As Owain describes the villagers’ dreams, Turner controls the flow of the early segments of Thomas’s work with care, introducing faint fragments of sound that begin to break down the barrier between past and present, transporting the audience in stages to Llareggub before its inhabitants come to life in full which is timed to coincide with the dawn.

Under Milk Wood doesn’t have a single plot as such so what follows is a series of scenes that meet the same characters at different points in their day, controlled in flows of activity that cross the Olivier stage, all conjured by Owain. There is some clever stagecraft from the National team, particularly set designer Merle Hensel who dispenses with fixed backdrops and uses a series of illustrative props to represent the roles or activities of the villagers. Fluidity is created with rotating table tops and cloths whipped off to instantly move the scene to another household, while actors sharing the same piece of furniture can be in entirely different family set-ups as Thomas light-footedly skips between homes.

This building sense of community and multiple lives being lived simultaneously is well managed in Turner’s production which finds a strong balance between comedy and pathos. The mismatched Pughs are particularly memorable as Cleo Sylvestre’s acidic and controlling wife becomes a bane to Alan David’s scheming husband, ordering books on poisoning and dreaming of dispensing with his spouse. But it is some of the darker moments that linger most and, supported by Tim Lutkin’s lighting design that evolves from the warm orange of daybreak and the spring morning to starker blues and near blackout for the introspective moments, the layers of memory and regret in Thomas’s work are acutely felt.

Particularly affecting is Polly Garter played with a sharp nostalgic yearning by Sian Phillips who sings for her lost loves while evoking all the loneliness of her current and future state. Likewise, Susan Brown’s Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard is tormented by the ghosts of two lost husbands, paralysed by grief as the sun finally goes down, while Antony O’Donnell’s Captain Cat meaningfully observers the village from his window while remembering his lost shipmates and deceased lover Rosie (Kezrena James). Turner’s production has vibrancy and life but is underscored by a fragility, a consciousness that these are just fragments or ghosts exuding from Owain’s mind, a people lost long ago that will dissolve in an instant, and it gives this production a sorrowfulness that is quite affecting.

Nowhere is this more tangibly realised than in the relationship between Owain and Richard that is threaded through the entire piece as a worried son tries to help his father find his way back to their shared memory. Both are on stage for almost the entire show as onlookers in the village scenes, like Scrooge and the trilogy of Christmas Ghosts observing the things that have been. Turner and Owen have together created a strong purpose as Owain tries to provoke his father’s memory which overlays Thomas’s own anthology approach to structurally and emotionally pin this expanded production of Under Milk Wood together, driven by the reawakening of and reconnection with Richard.

Michael Sheen is superb as Owain and gives Thomas’s words a mellifluous reading in what is a complex and demanding role that is as much a feat of stamina and memory as performance. There is excitement and enthusiasm for the village, amusement at its people and poignancy in its more tragic undercurrents, and Sheen eases the audience through all of the changes in pace, tone and direction that Thomas demands. When he accidentally assumes the role of alcoholic Mr Cherry Owen there is some mirroring of Owain’s own personality, himself a secret drinker whose regretful reflections take on a valuable duality.

Yet, some of the very best moments are entirely unscripted and the absorption in Owain’s character is such that Sheen looks constantly to Karl Johnson’s Richard for his reactions to the appearance of every new Llareggub resident. Much of this may go largely unnoticed by an audience distracted by the village scene playing out centre stage, but Sheen is immersed in Owain’s emotional state and commitment to the psychology of his character who hopes that something will trigger in his father’s mind. These tiny moments of care and concern are happening throughout Sheen’s performance, manifesting as Owain’s reason for creating this story and demonstrating a son’s act of love for his father that becomes quietly moving.

Johnson has much less dialogue and hardly speaks at all but emotes all the confusion of his character who sits on the sidelines for large parts of the play unsure what is happening. But Johnson is acting all the time, sometimes lost in Richard’s own world, sometimes captivated by the snatches of something he recognises which develop as the story unfolds, taking him to some unexpected places. There is lots of saddness in Johnson’s portrayal of Richard, a heartfelt pity for the things he has lost but Johnson gives him some hope as well, creating real theatrical power in his final moments with Sheen.

Making Under Milk Wood a story within a story is a risk but one that pays off, adding a tender father-son connection that ties that multifaceted sprawl of Thomas’s story together. The rich tones of Thomas’s language and the splintered nature of the drama may not be to everyone’s taste but it is really exciting to see an older cast being given the opportunity to play characters of all ages. They are utterly convincing as the wide-ranging and lively inhabitants of Llareggub, while subtly reinforcing Owen and Turner’s Care Home concept of individuality revived. After Life and Under Milk Wood are meaningful and compassionate pieces, a strong return to live performance for the National Theatre whose lights are blazing once more.

Under Milk Wood is at the National Theatre until 24 July and is largely sold out but returns are available and the show is part of the Friday Rush scheme. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Film Preview: In the Heights

The stage to screen transfer is never a straightforward process and what a show loses in immediacy, direct flow and the intensity of live performance, a movie director must replace with imaginative shot choices and enough visual flair to not only fill the expanse of a cinema screen but to overcome the physical separation from its arguably more passive audience. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s much anticipated filmic treatment of their own stage musical In the Heights has much to recommend it, a rare opportunity to see representations of and diversity within New York communities centered around the deprived but beloved neighbourhood of Washington Heights. And while the film never entirely overcomes the flaws in the original stage show, Director John M Chu’s contemporised soundtrack and integrated choreographic sequences speak to emerging trends in the style and impact of twenty-first-century movie musicals.

It may not have been universally admired but La La Land was a game-changer for the genre, repurposing a cliched format for modern audiences while simultaneously paying homage to the great technicolor song and dance films offered by the big studios during the Golden Age of the movie musical. Director Damien Chazelle’s techniques – which arguably pay their own debt to Baz Lurhmann’s equally genre-busting Moulin Rouge – were deliberately and effectively disruptive both within the story and the wider musical movie industry. In particular, the playing of instruments and the process of creating music becomes as dynamic as the character stories within his films.

The creation of dreamlike states and glamorous locations in La La Land were enhanced by swirling, even fizzing camerawork, and big, sweeping tracking shots that move to the beat of the music rather than the path of the character, following its leads, for example, through a giant house party that even takes the audience into the obligatory LA pool and underwater to create the almost riotous excess of this lifestyle. Similarly, Chazelle offers grand romance in the finale section as Mia and Sebastian travel through a fantasy sequence that distills their lives and speaks to what might have been if only the Director wasn’t really contrasting these unashamedly grandiose moments with the drab and disappointing reality that the lovers were really living in which he uses sophisticated cinematographic styles to burst the bubble of the Hollywood dream.

In the Heights employs some of these same visual narratives to tell its story, understanding the centrality of the big set piece moments when the neighbourhood comes together at the local swimming pool, in after-dark festivals and in celebration to create vibrant and fast-paced dance sequences reminiscent of La La Land as Chu feeds his camera into, above and around the big movement numbers to emphasise and partially create the heat, mass and intensity of the action.

It gives these parts of the film an immersive energy, a chance for the audience not just to aesthetically admire the precision and skill of the dancers from a respectful distance, but to imagine the proximity of the camera and, through rapid cut and track shots, create the feeling of being in the action as well – something which distinguishes modern movie musicals. A fantastic Busby-Berkeley-inspired sequence sees the characters decamp to the local swimming pool to fight the heat and dream of winning the lottery as they sing 96,000. The final segment staged in the water uses synchronised swimmers, floating lilos and reclining songstresses to create one of the film’s strongest visual spectacles.

And like La La Land, the fantasy sequence retains its place within In the Heights including a sequence that directly echoes Mia and Sebastian’s ability to defy physics and waltz through the stars at the Griffith Observatory. In their parting number, College-student Nina and taxi operator Benny sing When the Sun Goes Down from a balcony overlooking the Hudson river and the bridge that will soon take Nina back to the city and some other life. Here again, physics gives way to romance as the couple find themselves in a Christopher Nolan world of rotating buildings and changing perspectives as the couple dance up the side of their tenement block, over the windows of their astonished neighbours’ flats and across the balconies. The CGI isn’t quite as sharp as La La Land nor the concept as rich as perhaps Gene Kelly’s layered dream sequences from Singin’ in the Rain, but this fantasy premise in which love allows people to view the world differently is part of the visual language of In the Heights and its more contemporary choreography.

In fact, where Chu’s film particularly excels is in these big dance moments peppered throughout the film, and on screen these complex creations which sometimes involve what at least is made to look like hundreds of people are visually arresting and energetic while emphasising the community spirit that sits at the heart of the film. The influence of Chazelle and his musical director forebears is notable here too, not least in set pieces staged on the streets of Washington Heights including Carnaval del Barrio and Abuela Claudia’s fantastic dream sequence during the blackout in which she leaves the style of the film behind and moves into an imagined world of beautifully designed ghost figures in 50s and 60s styles dancing in rooms and endless corridors, a stylised representative memory of her life and one of the most impactful pieces of jazz choreography in the movie.

The influence of the LA highway opening number from La La Land is clear, focusing in on individual stories within the overall narrative of the dance but retaining control of the camera to also take in the bigger picture when everyone comes together in unison in what are both show-stopping and traffic-stopping sequences. But while Chazelle phases out these grand numbers through the film as the Hollywood dream slowly curdles into a greyer vision of a lonely city, Miranda and Hudges’s story retains a sense of hope and as characters start to move on, In the Heights variously uses dance as a tool for community building, as a memory of something that is fading away and for sustaining dreams that all of the characters somehow retain of a better life out there somewhere.

In the Heights is tapestry drama uniting collective memories of the area, its people and their Dominican and Cuban heritage with a common American dream of getting out, of finding a better life through hard work, perseverance and a, perhaps, naive belief in meritocracy – a notion questioned in the second half of the story. The show underscores this wider kaleidoscopic examination of community drivers by charting the individual paths for a group of characters each planning different routes out of the borough. But a patchwork narrative can sometimes be patchy and, like the stage incarnation, this filmed version stumbles when trying to strike a balancing between the personal and group levels of storytelling.

The experiences of the younger characters are foregrounded – Vanessa looking to be a designer in Manhattan, Nina unsure about continuing at Stanford and Usnavi who runs the shop and wants to move back to the Dominican Republic, the latter fulfilling dreams set for them by their parents and grandparents. And each of these perspectives is richly told as individuals struggle to get a foot on the ladder, questioning their ability to endure and noting the incipient racism that holds them back in the world beyond the Heights. And while these emotional and romantic entanglements have much to say about the formation of immigrant communities and the complexities of hybrid identity in second and third generation families born in the US but immersed in the heritage of their forbears, they don’t have quite the same fizz as the group numbers when Chu looks at the bigger picture.

Partly this is the minimal time given to characters beyond this core group and while gossipy beauty salon owner Daniela or taxi firm owner Kevin (Nina’s father) feature, their own experience is either downplayed or absorbed within the neighbourhood sections. This affects the group numbers because the audience is less familiar with and therefore less invested in these trajectories. As a result, the intense emotional response that the film wants the audience to feel for Nina, Vanessa and our guide to Washington Heights Usnavi, is not replicated as effectively amongst the wider group of central characters who become comedy sideshows or barriers to the happiness of the core group.

Hamilton-alumnus Antony Ramos plays Usnavi who is the film’s eyes and heart, retelling the story not to the audience but to a group of children in the future from where he reflects back on the events of a few years before – a new frame for the narrative that also advances the stage show’s original conclusion. Ramos is a charismatic lead and whether mooning after love-interest Vanessa, caring for his beloved Abuela Claudia or serving the needs of his, often cheeky, customers, Usnavi anchors the film, connecting the sometimes disparate embroidery. Ramos captures all of the pride his character has in the neighbourhood as well as the conflict he feels between his heritage, the present and the future.

Melissa Barrera is a sympathetic Vanessa whose big dreams of a downtown apartment and entry into an elite world of New York trendsetters is well managed as the character explores a future identity that she wants to adopt. Barrera captures the hope and pain in those aspirations well, and, while rummaging in bins for fabric off-cuts and painter’s rags, Barrera simultaneously demonstrates Vanessa’s ambition and talent with just how far she still has to go in achieving it. Leslie Grace’s Nina and Corey Hawkins’s Benny are a slightly diluted second couple but Nina is a projected version of Vanessa, and having tasted society beyond the Heights, Grace captures all of Nina’s feelings of displacement, the pressure of her father’s expectations and need to overcome her own fears to fully claim the intellectual place she has earned.

As a modern movie musical, In the Heights employs many of its shot, direction and choreographic techniques to create a swirling visual experience that immerses the audience in the story. And while it doesn’t always strike quite the right balance between spectacle and emotional investment, Miranda and Hudges’s film is still a relatively rare example of a musical about working class lives and aspirations that also expands on the experience of immigrant communities with multifaceted identities. With so few of these on stage, it stands to reason that even fewer make the transition to the screen. A significant step forward then, and one that Steven Spielberg’s reprised West Side Story later in the year may advance as movie musicals continue to evolve.

In the Heights is released in the UK on 18 June. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Name, Place, Animal, Thing and Michael X – Almeida Theatre

Six Artists in Search of a Play - Almeida Theatre

It is a focus on international theatre traditions for the newly reopened Almeida Theatre with a two-week festival dedicated to socially distanced rehearsed readings of plays selected for their global perspective. Six Artists in Search of a Play was a series that, from the comfort of the auditorium, celebrated different approaches to theatremaking, taking the audience around the world in one of the most inclusive theatre offerings so far including nineteenth-century Eastern Europe to China, Ancient Greece and Nigeria. The final two pieces travel to India with Annie Zaidi and to the incendiary racial divide of 1960s Britain. Whether any of these plays will result in a longer run remains to be seen and while a one-night only try-out is rare given the usual demands on the space, the directors, cast and crew have grasped the opportunity created by the pandemic for a cost-effective and all too rare live audience reading.

The alternative appeal of the final two plays is an interesting consideration and the domestic setting of Zaidi’s Name, Place, Animal, Thing makes for a stark contrast with the firebrand nature of Vanessa Walters’s Michael X, both plays originally written around the same time. Zaidi’s 100-minute story, directed by Atri Banerjee, focuses on women escaping unfortunate marriages and the small-scale power dynamics within the families they return to. What is ostensibly a narrative driven by and existing within social and political structures created by men means women are cast solely in the roles of wife, servant and victim often at the same time.

Name, Place, Animal, Thing

Zaidi’s 2009 award-winning story almost entirely emphasises the needs and experiences of women – women who need the freedom to fail, to reconsider and to try alternative paths. Staged by Banerjee in two gender-defined rows, female actors are placed on the front row and the majority of the action revolves around their conversations as niece/servant Nancy returns rapidly from an ill-conceived union to the home of her aunt/employer whose friend and neighbour regular drops by to cast aspersions. What drives Nancy’s decision to leave her husband within days of their marriage is subtly alluded to, a combination of poverty, incompatibility, disillusion and status that conceal a wealth of intricate motives that sit in the background of the play including the nature of the urban-rural divide in India, how class shapes the opportunities available to younger women and the strength of family ties in the aftermath of tragedy and grief.

When men appear in this fascinating story, they create lane-changing momentum in the pace and direction of the play and Nancy’s life. Her severe Uncle Malik represents the established social order, the old world that seeks to confine Nancy within a religious and political structure that sees marriage as the ultimate outcome for a woman. Malik’s personality and belief in his absolute righteousness defines the play, motoring the action that, prior to and during this story, shape his family so completely – especially the haunting presence of his daughter lost shortly before Nancy took the same treacherous path.

But other men provide direction as well, not least Nancy’s ineffectual rubbish collector husband who appears more than once to demand the return of his wife as property and to plead his cause, while a clothing salesman’s alluring patter charms the homely women of the play in a variety of ways. What is clear is that none of these men have the best interests of the womenfolk in mind and, young or old, these men prioritise their own happiness and sense of propriety such as it is with fateful effects.

Another fascinating theme is the power of a name – a link to the childhood game of the title – and its ability to encapsulate different forms of familial, religious, social and individual identities. It is significant that Nancy is the third such name she is given and, as the character slowly rebels against the status quo, she begins to reject the monikers chosen for her by one group or another. Her preferences notably shift as the story unfolds and at various times she refuses to respond to anything but the name given to her by her husband, her employer-protectors, father and by her changing faith. While this often plays-out to comic effect, the result is a crisis of identity for a young woman constantly defined by external factors and through the events of Name, Place, Animal, Thing comes to understand the strength and independence in her own womanhood and ability to define her own future.

The Almeida gathered a very fine cast and as a rehearsed reading, stage directions were read allowed by Anushka Chakravarti creating a vivd setting in the minds of the audience suggesting the respectable Middle Class apartment block above the city. Chakravarti also plays the ghostly presence of the Malik’s lost daughter whose memory stands between the couple and overshadows Nancy’s experience with them. Saroja-Lily Ratnavel as Nancy has a quiet everywoman quality, a maid who in some ways knows her place, is even grateful for it, but fights cleverly for her own position until it destabilises the household. Ratnavel’s unassuming nature has an understated power in which she is both unafraid to leave the comfortable position to establish her own life, but is equally determined to return when it doesn’t suit her.

Gravitas was added by Zubin Varla and Nina Wadia as the domineering but ultimately devoted matriarch, a couple in unity and conflict whose solidarity is challenged by the loss of their daughter and emotional withholding that creates waves when parallel events with Nancy cause those long-buried feelings to rush to the surface. The portrait of the perfect marriage that they represent and wishes for the next generation unravels with both Varla and Wadia on superb form finding the balance between comedy and pathos. A full revival of Name, Place, Animal,Thing promises much and Zaidi’s domestic tale becomes a potent debate about modernity and enfranchisement.

Michael X

While structurally very different, Walters’s drama shares Zaidi’s interest in how disillusion and disappointment in a restrictive and unwelcoming society builds resistance within the individual, and while the outlet is not the same, both Nancy in Name, Place, Animal, Thing and Michael de Freitas who earns the title Michael X become activists against the limitations imposed on them by external forces – Nancy by her small but significant acts of rebellion and Michael by political organisation and protest. Selected for this performance by Director Cherrelle Skeete, Walters’s play explores Caribbean Black British identity in the 1960s, a rallying cry for change that has considerable contemporary resonance.

Written as a single monologue, originally performed by Clint Dyer, in which the character of Michael delivers a rousing speech to a politicised community audience, Skeete redefines this 55-minute play using three actors sharing the title role. It is a decision that adds considerably to the dynamism of this rehearsed reading, emphasising the changing pace and currents in Walters’s writing, creating movement and flow around the stage while underscoring the universality of the central character, that his experience, heritage, anger and pain is representative of the wider Caribbean community in the last 50 years.

Michael X does two quite interesting things simultaneously; first, it charts the arrival of the younger man in the UK, reflecting quite vividly on the warm and vibrant Trinidadian lifestyle that Michael left behind and contrasts with the damp unwelcoming streets of Britain. But Walters also quite carefully and amusingly depicts the infusion of British life, culture and mannerisms through that Caribbean context, that being part of the the UK, of it being an aspirational way of life is really potent in building the expectations of those who considered themselves lucky enough to return to the ‘motherland’

How this rebounds through Michael’s speech is very meaningful, and not at all straightforward – despite a critical fondness for Trinidad this idea of Britishness and its weaponisation emerges from the contextual details of his life within which the play is framed. Second, there is a real skill in the way that Walters reconstructs his oratorical skills using the anecdotes and examples to slowly warm the audience to the political subtext which builds to a point of outrage, even a call to arms as it ends. The comparison with Mark Antony’s funeral speech in Julius Caesar springs to mind, as Michael says one thing but means or implies another until he can be more candid.

There are declarations of peaceable intent, of good will and belief in the possibility of trust and mutual understanding but slowly Walters introduces levels of complexity that turns this speech into a declaration of war – one that ends with a promise that echoes Enoch Powell in promising blood running in the streets. How Walters aligns these two interlocking narratives is very smart, drawing on her idea that violence hides behind British politeness but letting her character employ the same rhetorical technique to win his audience to the cause – while never shying away from his own still controversial embrace of white celebrity and the establishment in listing his many benefactors.

Performed by Martina Laird, Tomi Ogbaro and Mika Onyx, there is real power in the developing arguments within the play as the three actors move around one another, coming forward to speak their assigned passages of the text and representing the different sides of Michael’s character, of the multi-faceted nature of Caribbean-British communities and the many arms of protest, demonstration and even revolution. The gender-neutral casting also reflects the points that Skeete wants to make about intersectionality within the play’s debates and its continued relevance to the experience of current generations and there was a real energy in the presentation of this rehearsed reading that connected the audience to Michael’s 1965 setting, to Waters’s 2008 publication and to the Almeida in 2021.

The international focus of Six Artists in Search of a Play has been a valuable one and a timely reminder that these stories are still too rarely seen on UK stages despite large resident communities. Public rehearsed readings are a rarity these days but may offer alternative ways for audiences to engage with theatres, to assess the development of newly commissioned work as well as revivals of a broader number of productions. A commitment to fully staging a few of the works in this mini-season in the future should be the result of this initiative, giving UK audiences more opportunity to engage with global theatre traditions and understand how our own diverse communities interact.

Name, Place Animal Thing was staged on 2 June and Malcolm X was performed on 5 June as part of the Six Artists in Search of a Play season at the Almeida Theatre. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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