Monthly Archives: September 2021

The Normal Heart – National Theatre

The Normal Heart - National Theatre

Creating socio-political change and even recognition doesn’t just happen, somewhere, sometime, someone has to fight for it, and history is full of organisations who since the end of absolute monarchies (and arguably even before) have tried to make their voices heard. Activists, anarchists, revolutionaries, freedom fighters, radicals, call them what you will, ultimately they all face the same question – do you use peaceable means to lull the government into meetings and reasonably state your case, or incite protest and even violence to force the issue? Larry Kramer’s powerful play The Normal Heart, which celebrates its 35-year anniversary with a National Theatre revival, explores this issue as a group of New Yorkers in the early 80s try to draw attention to a deadly virus stalking the gay community.

With press night later this week, expect to hear plenty of references to Angels in America, It’s a Sin and The Inheritance as recent stage and screen representations of the same era, as well as obvious allusions to our experience of the last 18-months. And while The Normal Heart indeed has much in common with these approaches in its character-driven structure on an epic scale, Kramer’s exploration of the nuances, barriers and conflicts within the community set this play apart, looking as much at the political organisation of awareness campaigns and pressure groups as the stories of the men disagreeing about how they should fight for their lives.

From the Luddites to the Suffragettes, the Diggers to the Chartists, organisations demanding change have always found themselves divided on the issue of whether the end justifies the means. The Chartists in particularly were hugely conflicted between William Lovett’s peaceable and domestic aims for social reform which included Sunday schools and educational improvement of the working classes, and those of fellow-leader Fergus O’Connor whose more explosive approach pushed physical force as a means of ratifying the People’s Charter. And here, in The Normal Heart, Kramer expands on a similar division between the hot-headed Alexander ‘Ned’ Weeks and the closeted Bruce Niles who become co-leaders of a single organisation that pulls in two contentious directions.

The story runs chronologically from 1981-1984 during a period when political and medical groups refused to acknowledge the presence of an epidemic moving through a community they equally pretended did not exist. But the virus itself had yet to be properly identified and the consequences of this are the context for Kramer’s play, focusing on a period of considerable uncertainty as cases were doubling rapidly in New York and the first deaths occurred. As authority figures remained unmoved, refusing even to fund pioneering medical experiments, how to break through that wall of silence is the play’s dramatic driver. The formation of an advocacy and support group for the community becomes increasingly bureaucratic, and Kramer astutely balances their growing frustration with government process and the unpreparedness of its members for the scale of the fight as the disease takes hold, intricately combining the personal and the political.

The distinction Kramer draws between radical and peaceable protest is managed through the subtly changing nature of the organisation that Ned and Bruce start together. What was – to paraphrase one of Ned’s impassioned speeches – a start-up in his living room becomes a formal, almost corporate-style entity with the introduction first of a President-figure as the acceptable public face of a charitable concern, and later a Board who manage operations and personnel. As the game and its scale changes, the balance between activism and lobbying makes miniscule shifts throughout the play; where once the group distributed newsletters, Kramer raises the stakes, so as more men are infected, their organisation is simultaneously required to adapt its behaviour and tactics for a bigger audience, becoming increasingly embroiled in government petitions and appeals.

What this means for the characters is equally defining and while O’Connor’s belief in physical force created a temporary swell for the Chartists, Ned’s outspokenness is seen to be detrimental to himself and his movement. Kramer manages this with care; Ned is the anchor of the play, an isolated figure in many ways who espouses some extreme views on abstinence that ruffle feathers, but Kramer never judges his lead and, in fact, Ned’s claims are never shown to be wrong – in fact much of what he says proves in time to be correct – only his refusal to play by the rules and allow others to bury their heads in the sand, mark him out as an agitator who knows the only way to achieve his aim quickly is to forego the social niceties and create a public disturbance.

Bruce, by contrast, is the role model leader, a man concealing his sexuality to maintain a lifestyle. With a well-paid job at a leading bank, a reputation to protect and plenty of business contacts, Bruce is an inside man, someone who knows how to charm the mayor’s office or a journalist into taking a meeting where he can gently apply the right kind of pressure to advance their cause. While Ned questions Bruce’s bravery and desire for privacy, the context Kramer creates for him in that particular professional world in the early 1980s makes sense of Bruce as a character and his desire to use the proper channels.

And this contrast leads to considerable nuance in the presentation of the community, drawing out strands of disagreement and discontent not often seen in equivalent works. Far from one homogenous group, Kramer looks deeply at what is a fractured and confused community of men, some believing that waiting and watching is the best course of action while cases are low and undefined, while others like Ned know this is the start of something bigger. Kramer here is looking at the process of hindsight, noting that it is easy to look back and think more should have been done sooner, but the variety of responses he presents in The Normal Heart consider how little concrete information was really available during those years and how difficult it was to pitch a suitable response.

Kramer’s play also considers this a crisis point in the external presentation of gay lifestyles with the fear that promiscuity was creating a negative and limited perspective on sexuality as primarily a physical act. Despite his more active approach, Ned is the one who wants to expand the impression of same-sex relationships, making another impassioned speech about the contributions of writers, scientists and creatives who he feels connected to and wanting to continue the growth of a cultural identity that extends beyond sex. By contrast, the character of Mickey Marcus in particular feels tainted by what he sees as Ned’s judgemental stance and in an important middle section talks about having fought for the right to be open and free, and struggles with now being labelled a ‘murderer’ and shamed for it.

In Dominic Cooke’s new production in-the-round on the Olivier stage, all of these themes are given the space to emerge and overlap during the show’s near three hour running time. There are lots of knotty debates and interlocking strands, but there is clarity in how these very different ideas are shaped within the play as Kramer treats the broad ranges of opinion and belief espoused by his characters with compassion. They may be united by a social scene but they have very different backgrounds and attitudes, amplified by the exposing nature of the playing space.

As a director Cooke, whose earlier success in this auditorium includes the incomparable Follies, has a feel for the emotional currents within a play and the different illusions that characters have about themselves and their situations, especially at the moment these are shattered or re-routed. Cooke finds those beats in The Normal Heart, creating a minimal visual impression in order to fill the space with character arcs, social shifts and the emotional impact of a story that successfully balances the complicated process of dissidence and protest with the often devastating everyday impact on the lives of the men trying to fighting these bigger battles on all fronts.

Designed by Vicki Mortimer (who also worked with Cooke on Follies), the simple marbled floor and benches have a dual purpose, simultaneously representing the foyer of grand buildings like City Hall, where Ned and Bruce must fight for recognition, and the conventional business-like locations that symbolise Bruce’s background and the governance structure that evolves within the advocacy group. There is a coldness and formality in Mortimer’s design that underscores the character’s struggles for official support, but there is also a subtle tomb-like feel to the staging that acts as a memorial to the countless men referenced yet never seen who die in the course of the play, enhanced further by the continuous flame that burns above the action throughout.

Delayed by the pandemic, Ben Daniels has swapped a previously announced part in the upcoming Manor for the role of Ned in The Normal Heart and it is a worthy exchange. Daniels’s Ned has a true and unyielding conviction, a man of extreme emotional states who believes in his causes as ardently as he eventually comes to love Felix. That slow opening up is something Daniels presents extremely well, and while never disconnected from the suffering of his friends, his relationship gives him a different perspective on the urgency of official support and acknowledgement. Daniels’s Ned can be harsh, even cruel in his desire to shake others out of their complacency while his fervency is sometimes misguided, but appearing in almost every scene Daniels fills the room with Ned’s burning zeal, while delivering his very fine speeches with sensitivity.

Luke Norris is equally skilful as Bruce navigating a complex position between two very different societies. Although there is very limited time to see his more emotional side, Norris creates plenty of empathy for Bruce, struggling to balance his public life with what he believes is the right and only direction for the advocacy group. His frustrations with Ned conceal an admiration for him, and there are some explosive and tender moments between the men that Norris weaves into a very meaningful performance.

Daniel Monks is superb as ever in the role of Mickey diligently supporting the administration of the organisation while feeling increasingly burdened by the polarisation of opinion. Danny Lee Wynter adds flair as the Southern Tommy Boatwright able to lighten the mood with a sharp riposte while Liz Carr brings a crusading spirit and authority to the role of Dr Emma Brookner. Robert Bowman also adds plenty of depth as Ned’s brother Ben who represents a more traditional standpoint but tries to understand this alternative perspective.

As with any in-the-round production, the blocking here tends to favour the traditional auditorium so those in the onstage seating won’t see the actor’s faces during many of the big speeches, but it barely detracts from the impact of this incredible play. Looking at the process of recognition and political activism during a period where almost no information was available, The Normal Heart offers a different perspective on these early days of HIV and, like the scores of political groups before them, leaves the audience wondering whether violent or orderly protest is the best way to be heard.

The Normal Heart is at the National Theatre until 6 November with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Grand – King’s Head Theatre

The Grand - Kings Head Theatre

With so much focus on the return of the West End and, in recent weeks, the opening of big shows including Cinderella, Frozen and Back to the Future as well as the arrival of Hollywood stars in shows like Macbeth at the Almeida, the development of new work at fringe venues shouldn’t be overlooked. The King’s Head Theatre in Islington has a reopening programme focused on new work including a play by David Hendon which arrives in London for the first time, directed by Paula Chitty. The Grand is a hidden gem offering just four performances set in the same hotel room across three war torn decades.

This intriguing structural device is an opportunity to explore not just the changing nature of warfare across the twentieth and twenty-first century but the consistency of human relationships, fears and desires even with the world crashing around you. Set in 1943, 1982 and 2001, The Grand is based on real events, and while the hotel setting in Brighton is most obviously associated with the second decade, the decision to focus the play in a fixed location proves to be a smart and interesting choice.

It is a decision that orientates three seemingly disconnected stories around the notion that, while there will always be wars and militaristic ideologies, around them ordinary lives take place, shaped and ultimately defined by the impact of conflict on the physical and mental wellbeing of people who continue to exist in spite of their challenging contexts. Each era, then, offers a single scenario through which the human experience of prolonged warfare is viewed in one room on 11 September in three very different decades.


Hendon sets his first scene in the middle of the Second World War as a young housewife checks-in to the hotel for a dirty weekend with her American airman lover for their first time together. Edith and Frank’s duologue is filled with the confusion and drama of life on the Home Front with subtle hints about the confines of rationing and references to the Blitz. However it more explicitly examines the effect of evacuation on a young mother missing her children and soldier husband, who suddenly has time on her hands when she is left in London without them.

Hendon writes Edith with a particular sensitivity, capturing the excitement and attraction to Frank, flattered by his feeling for her and, to a degree, his New York exoticism that on several levels proves an escape from her very British outlook. This is combined with an underlying guilt, even an innocence about men and extra-marital relationships that fuels much of the division between them. A character torn by an innate duty to her family and even to a particular way of life, this focus on Edith’s maternal and marital duty underscores her sexual shyness and feelings of guilt that builds the tension between them.

Frank, by contrast, treads a more familiar path as a visitor to Britain, fighting a war that he has no personal connection to. Hendon uses this character to contrast the domestic experience of the UK and US, the freedom and more relaxed attitudes of the latter that contrast so well with the more stultifying rules and gossipy small-mindedness that shape Edith’s outlook. Despite a tendency to complain about his desire for a relationship over the more immediate satisfaction his friends sought, Hendon gives Frank greater depth as the story unfolds, a dreamer, even a risk-taker able to see beyond the here and now to some other kind of existence.

And although this is a cataclysmic event in the life of Edith and Frank, Hendon situates what is in reality a very ordinary romance, the like of which The Grand Hotel must see have seen replicated across its rooms on a daily basis during the brewing pressure of a conflict that all couples knew could not last forever. What this means for them adds an unforeseen dynamic to their weekend, distilling every feeling they have for one another and the future in one room at this defining time. And Hendon builds a tender, believably complicated love story in a traditional wartime setting that is recognisable in the moral and physical restrictions it imposed on its citizens, while, most importantly establishing a locked room tension that extends throughout the play.


Act Two is a very different proposition almost forty years on in a vastly changed political climate. Here two members of the IRA are arming a bomb two weeks before the Conservative Party conference – but this is two years before the infamous Brighton bomb. Hendon, then, is building another kind of expectation into this section of the play, knowing that whatever happens in this room, the plan will be aborted or delayed. This scenario adopts the style of a thriller, initially another two-hander, that identifies a new form of combat and a more esoteric concept of warfare that replaces armies and invasion with guerrilla-style targeted attacks on choice locations.

To build tension in this part of the play Hendon uses the concept of betrayal within the organisation and a mole hunt that comes to a head in this hotel room either side of a brief interval. Hendon reaches back to Act One for the romance concept to add an additional flavour to the interaction between agents Paula and Gerard but uses it instead to expose their vulnerabilities, as a tool to disarm a potential traitor in a place where political and nationalist motivations have merged. Unlike the opening scenario, here there is no separation between the personal and a conflict they cannot control happening outside, this time the struggle is more overtly in the room with the characters and ultimately its outcomes will be determined by them.

It is a more ferocious proposition than the emotional confusion of 1943, and with the introduction of a third team member – Mairead – it becomes a high-stakes drama that results in a number of shocks. Possibly the most disconnected of the three Acts, there is a growing apprehension here created by Chitty’s direction and underscored by the decision to cut to an abrupt interval at a cliffhanger moment. The intriguing storytelling does indeed demonstrate the vast life of a single hotel room but it is a tad melodramatic in its focus on the explosive consequences of the treachery plot rather than the external context driving this scenario and the characters. In a future iteration that velocity could be pulled back a touch to expand on individual motivations, but Hendon recreates the era and its simmering anxiety really well.


A very different prospect again, the final part of the play set on the day the Twin Towers fell takes the play in yet another direction. It has much to say about the culture of the early 2000s and the cult of celebrity that filtered through society changing the way the media reported and commented on the personal lives of famous people. This section is more of a social comedy initially, a high-profile singer waking in a hotel room with his secret and cynical girlfriend as well as a drunk fan picked-up at a Brighton concert the previous evening.

The humour here comes from the hungover state of the characters, the piecing together of the night before and Adam’s reflections on the fame that is at once a burden and a lifestyle of partying and entitled casual encounters that he is not prepared to relinquish. In this 2001 setting, Hendon reflects on the shock of 9/11 and the knowledge for ordinary people that something significant changed in an instant, picking up the terrorism threads from 1982 but understanding the global shift in perspective that this act of warfare created.

Wrapping that in a human drama about media exploitation, the very different values and morals of the twenty-first century and the characters experiencing a defining historical moment together is neatly done. Arguably, the conclusion of this piece which connects too tidily to the 1940s couple is unnecessary in a play that focuses on the life of the room, yet Hendon succeeds in recognisably recreating an era in which war and ideology were inextricably bound and, in this less predictable and intangible form, had direct consequences for ordinary people.

Staging 60 Years of Society and Conflict

Taken together these three Acts exist at points of change in the nature of combat and in the lives of these characters, a moment where the world shifted slightly and new forms of existence were being forged. For Edith and Frank, Gerard, Paula and Mairead, Adam, Gena and Lara, the consequences of their few hours in The Grand Hotel prove lifechanging, emerging into a different emotional, social and political world. And Hendon charts well the changing nature of social interaction across these decades, how people behaved and the extent to which the outside world intrudes on and drives their conduct. Equally, it captures a consistent feeling of danger which in 1943, 1982 and 2001 came from quite different but related sources.

Chitty stages The Grand in a simple hotel set, using a central bed, desk and off-stage bathroom which is integral to the action in all three periods as a place of refuge and composure, the site of the proposed incendiary device and a functional space where a drunken Lara can vomit. Some slightly overlong scene-changes update the features of the set, substituting telephones (external calls a feature of the unfolding drama in each section) and other props for era-appropriate versions. But the consistency of the location draws the strands of the play together, emphasising the value of this single setting on the same September day and its many many stories.

The Grand also uses a cast of just three to replicate its character types throughout the decades. Eloise Jones is particularly strong as Edith, a sweet and mild women in circumstances that entirely befuddle her, with a very 1940s ability to subdue her true desires for decency and respectability that Jones expands into a complex inner life. Her more manipulative Paula and Lara make an excellent contrast as powerful female characters using their scenarios for their own quite different purposes. Thomas Deller is strongest as musician Adam in the 2001 section, conveying his arrogance and self-absorption while maintaining some empathy for him, while Emily O’Mahony has most to work with as the calculating and powerful Mairead.

The ways in which Hendon explores echoes of memory through the years is really interesting, looking at how societies are shaped by the changing nature of warfare, community values and morality as well as the consistency of love, identity and a need to be seen which connects the characters and settings together. Most of all, the life of a single hotel room gives The Grand a strong platform to build upon, and, with a little refining, this promising concept-driven play has a much longer life ahead.

The Grand was performed at the King’s Head Theatre on 14-18 September by Irrational Theatre. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Camp Siegfried – Old Vic

Camp Siegfried - Old Vic

Cast your mind forward a few decades and a desperate scramble for tickets to a new play with a couple of theatrical luminaries, two all-time-greats of the theatre about to give a rousing Antony and Cleopatra, perhaps a Gertrude and Claudius. You turn to your friend and say ‘I remember seeing them in 2021 in their first production together. It was Camp Siegfried at the Old Vic, and I was there.’ It happens now of course, the wistful memories of those who remember Olivier’s The Entertainer, Macbeth with Dench and McKellen or even After the Dance with Cumberbatch, shows that for long-time audience members recall the heady day of performance, the satisfaction of seeing a big star in the theatre before they were truly famous but knowing they were on their way before everyone else had discovered them.

Patsy Ferran and Luke Thallon are those future luminaries, great early career actors united in the Old Vic’s hotly anticipated production of Bess Wohl’s Camp Siegfried, a two-hander that must have had the casting team punching the air with joy. Bringing Ferran and Thallon together for the first time is a masterstroke and one that does not disappoint in this sharp and often beautiful new play exploring young love, the awkward transition to adulthood and how individuals are enticed by order, structure and certainty amidst the confusion and unpredictability of finding out who you really are.

These two actors have complementary skills and it has been interesting to consider their career choices in the last three years. Ferran has specialised in playing nervous or withheld characters, people with acres of emotional capacity and depth but unable to physically express that to the people they care about. Her wonderfully contained performances – including Alma in Summer and Smoke and Olga in Three Sisters – were quiet, sensitive, overly responsible people but Ferran fills the stage with the things not said and choices not made, creating a palpable despair that is all the more emotive for its gentle expression. Her Ariadne for 15 Heroines was more ferocious, as Ferran showed her range capturing the bitterness of abandonment and a steely strength that made her monologue one of the highpoints of the anthology while multiple characters in the Bridge Theatre’s A Christmas Carol was a more light-hearted showcase for her talents.

Thallon has risen rather stratospherically, working across a broad range of projects building here to his second leading role in a matter of months. First coming to the attention of critics in The Room as part of Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season with an astonishingly moving performance, his range has been extraordinary with subsequent, perfectly pitched roles in comedy (Present Laughter also at the Old Vic) and drama (Leopoldstadt, Nine Lessons and Carols, and After Life). Thallon shares Ferran’s ability to convey a huge and very tangible emotional range that is utterly absorbing, and both actors are much in demand, making this combination of two rising talents really something to savour.

Camp Siegfried is Bess Wohl’s latest play and, as theatres finally settle into some consistency and stability, the chance to see new writing by a female playwright is hugely welcome. And Wohl has constructed a remarkable piece of drama that is bursting with interesting themes and comments while simultaneously creating two quite believable, complex and contradictory characters in an unusual but convincing period context. Set prior to the Second World War, the play uses the American Summer Camp as a platform to explore the formation of individual and collective identity, gendered expectations of behaviour and perfection placed on teenagers and the quite dangerous imposition of unchecked political ideology.

Wohl’s skill is to wrap this in a coming-of-age love story in a seemingly idyllic last summer of innocence setting that slowly unravels as the true cost and consequences of the play’s events unfolds. Playing with many of the tropes of what is usually a cinematic genre, Wohl utilises the inexperience and reticence of her characters, two opposite personality types thrown together by accident who discover common ground as their bond deepens. There are long, shy conversations, romantic moments under the stars and, inevitably, bumps in the road that challenge the lovers as the holiday draws to a close.

But through this, Wohl creates moments of discord that, like a spreading ink-blot, stain the perfect surface image that these two nameless people are projecting. First the odd view about racial purity casually emerges, later military ‘leisure’ activities like target practice act as background to their interaction before parental expectation and the very adult purpose of Camp Siegfried has infected every scene. As more uncomfortable views are espoused by these children with a surprising vehemence, Wohl has successfully undercut her sunnier context to show the disturbing underbelly of a place many of us never knew existed.

And Wohl plays her hand very carefully, introducing contextual information slowly to reorientate our perspective and knowledge of what is happening. The year is 1938 and we are in Long Island, a monied and lush part of America, but why the characters are here, their socio-economic backgrounds and even whether this is a counter-factual reality is a clarity that only comes into focus over time. This gives drive and considerable possibility to Wohl’s narrative, presenting multiple levels within the play’s construction that build to a more complete and increasingly uncomfortable position.

A central pillar of Camp Siegfried is the overt gender norms provided to the characters as models of perfection. Entirely typical of the ways in which ideals of masculinity in particular were presented after the Boer War, the association of manliness with athleticism, strength and youth were common in multi-country contexts and can be seen in Russian, German and (to a lesser but still noticeable degree) British promotional material advocating public health that ultimately fed military recruitment. Sporting prowess was celebrated and encouraged with indicators of physical perfection bestowing social status on the images of god-like young men whose bodies become synonymous with patriotism and good citizenship. And it’s notable that every scene in in Camp Siegfried takes place outside in the clean, fresh and healthy air of Long Island.

Wohl draws this framework into her play, giving the male character a template that he is trying to uphold, seen in the carrying out of physically demanding tasks like chopping wood, while the uniform of vest and shorts makes visible the visual signs of vigour and muscularity. Within female templates of behaviour fitness has some place, but for the countries with tighter government control of social functions, its ultimate purpose is to create the right conditions for motherhood, to people the mother or fatherland with future generations of robust healthy children who can in turn fulfil their biological destinies to fight, work and breed.

The relationships in Camp Siegfried, we learn early on, advocate this template, encouraging teenagers to adopt these pre-defined roles and, at just 16 or 17, determine the future course of their lives. This induction into the adult world is another key strand of Wohl’s play and her characters exist in this borderline state where they want to seem older than they are but frequently betray their inexperience with an earnest blundering and emotional vulnerability that has much to say about the pressures placed on them by parents and the American-German community, indoctrinating youngsters to do their bit to uphold purity of the bloodstream.

These young adults are given ways of being, structures to live up to and ideals to believe in long before their own personalities and temperaments are fully formed. Wohl shows the consequences of this as an initial heady rush of compliance, embedded in the unyielding principles and hard lines of youth which descends into confusion as they begin to understand themselves better. Know only as ‘Her’ and ‘Him’, this initially freeing but ultimately confining setting allows past traumas to emerge as they share themselves with one another, these characters learn what they really want and what hope they really have in the ideals and ideologies handed down to them.

Patsy Ferran’s Her is the character with true strength and an independent, intellectual reasoning that allows her to be swept up only for a short time before a kind of sense, a low-level gut instinct emerges to guide her choices. Initially, reserved and uncertain, Her is the more experienced and probably closer to adulthood with a prior sexual relationship that she discusses with a matter-of-fact casualness which, at only 16, carries with it a wound that she is entirely unaware of, and as Wohl probes the circumstances, the consequence is a growing claustrophobia and ability to detach from Him that feels brutal but comes from a place of deep vulnerability.

Wohl’s characters are largely so likeable but increasingly remind us of their abhorrent views, the hard-line certainty of which sit so uncomfortably in the mouths of teenagers. Ferran’s Her is a loner, a little pitiable at first but grows in stature as romance gives her social and academic confidence to pursue one of the camp’s top prizes. The diatribe she unleashes is uncomfortable as Ferran gives her character layers of contradiction and complexity, building towards a conclusion that completes a character arc for her and believably sets her in a new direction.

Thallon’s Him is physically strong and outwardly confident, knowing with conviction that his future is a military one. Him likes to believe he has superior knowledge of how things work and the true purpose of the camp while casually advocating views he’s inherited. Thallon never lets us know how deeply Him truly believes in the things he says or even how much he wants to fight and that deliberate ambiguity creates an innocence in the character that frequently betrays his youthful naivety, as though he’s planning a storybook life where Wohl encourages the audience to see how the cold, unpleasant reality will entirely deconstruct his sweet personality and make him a very different adult.

Partly that first brush with real life happens in Camp Siegfried through the relationship with Her that allows Thallon to explore a painful disillusion and process of self-realisation as he fears his own brutal instinct. There is deep concern in Him about the instinctual behaviour he cannot control and while he too fails to recognise the association with the hyped-up militaristic ideology he is fed, in the poignant conclusion Thallon shows Him choosing a future that will force him to succumbing to a barbarity that will harden him irreparably. For all his struggles and confusion, for Him, this moment is probably the best person he may ever be and Thallon leaves us sad and afraid for what’s to come.

That you want to know what happens to both of these people at the end of the story is testament to the world Wohl has created and the engrossing performances of Ferran and Thallon. Together there is a sharpness in their dialogue which is sometimes abrasive, two young adults trying to outsmart each other and Her appropriates Him’s tendency to refer to the other as a ‘dummy’, almost as punctuation at the end of a sentence. Not quite perfect for one another but at the same time meant to be, the chemistry between the actors creates a believably charming if doomed romance in a beautiful but ultimately terrible place.

It is those contrasts that resonant so brilliantly through Wohl’s writing, beauty and destruction, innocence and exploitation, peace and war, love and loss, all coexisting in this one place and in Him and Her who are simultaneously children and adults – old enough for sex, children and war but still spending their summers in knee-high socks at camp. Staged by director Katy Rudd on Rosanna Vize’s representational hinterland, the space keeps the focus on the characters and the acres of meaning that Wohl has packed into her play. Brought to life by two theatre actors on their way to a big career and finally united at the Old Vic, Ferran and Thallon are great now and are only going to get better – make sure you’re there to see it.

Camp Siegfried runs at the Old Vic until 30 October with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Curve Leicester

Regional theatre was given a whole new market thanks to the opportunities created by digital streaming during the last 18-months, leading the way on audience engagement and the innovative development of filming techniques that made watching shows from home increasingly enjoyable and immersive. Now, it’s our turn to give back, taking the chance to support these reopened venues with in-person visits to theatres that made the London-centric sit up and finally take notice. With gripping screen-only productions of The Colour Purple and a particularly transformative Sunset Boulevard, the lure of Curve Leicester is increasingly irresistible.

The reason for this long overdue attendance, a searing production of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the small studio space that absolutely burns with the fire and fury that the playwright built into this towering drama. Tight as a drum and thrumming with palpable tension, Anthony Almeida’s production, premiering at Curve before the English Touring Theatre take it to several other venues, is ferocious, a magnificent adaptation that follows other recent approaches to Williams by modernising the setting and focusing on the complex emotional intensity as a family combusts in front of us.

Previous attempts to place Williams’s work in a more contemporary or at least timeless setting have had mixed results; the Young Vic worked its magic with a 2014 version of A Streetcar Named Desire gratefully broadcast by National Theatre at Home last year, the Almeida too with that defining production of Summer and Smoke that did so much to revive the immediate potency of Williams’s emotional excavation. More recently, Hampstead Theatre’s pandemic-delayed version of The Two Character Play incorporated plenty of modern tricks and techniques but failed to lift this difficult work, while the most recent West End version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof directed by Benedict Andrews with a starry cast was a sorry, cold and lustless affair that confused nudity with chemistry.

So, Almeida’s production for Curve is an interesting lesson in how to take a beloved classic play, really strip it back to its essential characteristics using minimal staging and still hold on to all of the complex emotional currents, changes of direction and the bubbling tension that make it worth revisiting. There is, crucially, real danger here, it absolutely bristles with confrontational energy, that once-in-a-lifetime truth-telling session for the Pollitt family that was somehow inevitable but long delayed, as characters buried their feelings or hid from the truths they cannot bear to face. What Almeida brings to this revival is that feeling that its now or never for these people and once the storm plays out, everyone’s outlook will be forever different.

Because this is a play about the fight, everyone has an agenda, they all need something, a clarity that relies on someone else noticing them or being honest about what’s going on. And the audience sees, particularly in the stonking first half and the early part of the second, is that this is really high stakes stuff, and while Williams holds back some of the cards for later scenes, we come to realise that everyone has everything on the line on this fateful night that Almeida’s production rather gloriously brings to life.

And across the 2.5 hours of this story, there is very little relief, plunging the audience immediately into the marital troubles of Maggie and Brick and thereon holding our attention with an iron grip. Even the sudden interval which comes in the middle of the intensive and combative duologue between Brick and Dig Daddy gives little pause, leaving characters on stage before jumping right back into this full-throttle encounter without missing a beat – it is an extraordinary feat for the actors and demands an instant hush from an audience resettling after the break.

What this Curve and ETT revival does so well is to delineate the individual trajectories, opening with a forensic skill the wants of each character while still creating a consistent family dynamic – albeit a relatively dysfunctional one – and you believe in all of their ways of being. Williams, of course, shines the brightest spotlight on the central couple kept apart by sexual jealousy, resentment and self-loathing, inspired and fuelled by Brick’s alcoholism. Here, we are shown their parallel tracks as Maggie tries desperately to bring their paths back together. She is fighting for her marriage and a remembrance of the man she loved. It is a furious, desperate, scrappy business for her using every bit of her armoury from her body to various means of manipulation to get what she wants. Brick, by contrast, and arguably unrecognised by his wife, is actually fighting for his life, even more so than Big Daddy, almost letting it slip away but clinging to fragments of his own memories – the man he was, his athletic prowess and friendship. There are snatches when he looks at Maggie with something like his old feeling for her, amused, impressed, even proud of her resilience and determination.

Likewise, the relationship between Big Mama and Big Daddy feels crueller than ever, his lack of sympathy and bullying a clear template for his sons and their struggle to connect with or impress him. The volcanic rage he directs at everyone very occasionally appears in his sons while his wife silently accepts his bitter diatribes while trying to find comfort in noise, knowledge and the family she has endured so much to create and sustain. But she has strength too, a refusal to bend or break whatever direction the wind is coming from, quietly holding it all together. Meanwhile the obsequious Gooper and Mae seem far more sinister than previous productions, a pretence of happiness designed to sell Big Daddy a dream and reward them with his millions. The switch from kindness to cold, hard business in the penultimate scene is, therefore, rather chilling.

In staging this production, designer Rosanna Vize creates a simple but evocative space filled with places for characters to listen-in on each other’s conversations – a key theme in the play that contributes to the tight claustrophobic experience that Williams generates and so unnerves the protagonists. Initially played through a gauzy circular curtain surrounding Maggie and Brick’s bedroom, the hazy focus responds to their mismatched view of each other while creating a seductive feel to the their passionate opening conversation. The intrusion of other characters, Mae in particular who draws the curtain back, cuts through all of this to remove the filter, presaging what will become a night of revelation.

The combination of design and lighting creates an intense central playing space which seamlessly becomes the various locations. A raised edge doubles for the eavesdroppers’ balconies and Almeida uses these areas to emphasis moments of particular tension, silently lining-up the usually off-stage or unseen characters who observe the action, placing further pressure on the speakers who struggle to be honest without privacy, while continually drawing attention to the complex network of family and neighbours whose lives so completely intersect. It is notable that the church and medical profession are represented as the outside-insiders who become part of this household tonight but represent death and damnation that hangs over the Pollitts as their crisis ripens.

The staging, then, becomes both narratively functional and representational, allowing Almeida to create drive and drama in this soulless space of opaque materials and emptiness, but at the same time fill it with the emotional baggage and vast landscapes of Williams’s creations. Occasionally, the symbolism goes too far asking the audience to imagine phones that don’t exist or the cashmere robe Big Daddy is given for his birthday, but unlike Andrews’s interpretation whose windowless luxury sucked the soul from the drama, Almeida finds a wonderful and utterly compelling harmony within these contrasting elements, unleashing the very great power in one of Williams’s finest work and, with Joshua Gadsby’s lighting, create pace and evocative stage pictures that illuminate the work anew.

This production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also owes much to its cast who find depth and resonance in their character to give them fresh appeal. Siena Kelly’s Maggie is both tenacious and vulnerable, driven by a need to make her marriage work that goes beyond the humiliation of failure to some almost romantic concept of destiny. But Kelly’s Maggie is an earthy creature, a woman open about her mistakes and failures but also her desires. Kelly carries herself so particularly, using her body and knowing its value as a communication tool, dressed in sensuous fabrics and prepared to grapple in the dust, pay whatever price and do whatever it takes to bend this family towards her.

Oliver Johnstone has been one to watch for some time with notable performances in the RSC’s Imperium and Cymbeline as well as All My Sons for the Old Vic. Here he gives his best performance yet as a deeply troubled and broken Brick Pollitt. There is such a desperate sorrow in Johnstone’s approach as his Brick becomes slowly more inebriated. But rightly, it never makes him pitiable or too empathetic. A character bent on his own destruction, there is a huge range here, disillusion turning to fury to amusement and attraction, despair, cruelty, disregard and even a hint of affection for his nephews that betrays his own desire for children, the chance that he and Maggie may really want the same thing after all. Johnstone holds the characterisation throughout, entirely immersed in the role, always reacting, responding or lost in Brick’s pain as he searches for release.

Peter Forbes as Big Daddy is equally strong, a self-made man who betrays his roots when a brush with death makes him vulnerable, something that manifests in his ebullience and need to re-establish control, making him a powerful and glowering presence while trying, like everyone else, to make sense of his life and its future direction. As Big Mama, Teresa Banham has less stage time as the men hammer-out their problems but the portrait of her marriage is vivid and while she may not have Maggie’s openness, Banham suggests a woman fighting in her own way for status and notice as a house full of domineering men consume all of the oxygen.

Curve Leicester is pushing boundaries with this version of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, combining a chic visual aesthetic that supports a deeply reflective take on a play that continues to yield new insights and surprises. Like Chichester with their divine South Pacific, this bold production at Curve Leicester shows that regional theatres have been quick off the starting blocks with imaginative and smart new work that, even accounting for the train ticket, costs less than a top West End seat. Having enjoyed several virtual visits during lockdown, a live one was long overdue and hugely rewarding.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is at Curve Leicester until 18 September before a UK tour. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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