Monthly Archives: December 2021

From Cruise to Cabaret: Changing Theatre in 2021

Cruise; Cabaret; South Pacific; Spring Awakening; Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels

It has been another complicated year for theatres with venues unable to welcome in-person audiences for more than five months of 2021 and the tail end of the year returning to enforced closure and performance cancellations as Covid once again affects lead cast members, their understudies and backstage crew. In spite of a returning familiar dread, there is, however, cause for hope as we end the year in a more interesting position than we started it with greater representation of all kinds of voices and experiences on our biggest stages, the effects of hybrid theatre continuing to expand audience accessibility and the transformation of the musical with several major works receiving a ground-breaking twenty-first century rethink.

New Voices and New Work

The long closure of theatre buildings has had far reaching consequences, and while the 2020 lockdowns and birth of hybrid forms gave regional theatres a national platform that transformed engagement with their work, promising much for future audience reach, in 2021 the eventual reopening of auditoria from May meant that any fears producers would only bet on safe, cash-generating productions with established performers in well-known plays were partially allayed.

In fact, one of the most inspiring trends this year was the refreshing arrival of fringe productions at major West End venues, a charge led by producer Katy Lipson through her Aria Entertainment company who brought Public Domain and then the brilliant Cruise to temporarily abandoned playhouses usually taken up with long-running shows. Cruise, which began as an online monologue, is one of the shows of the year, an outstanding one-man piece by Jack Holden about living through the Aids epidemic in 1980s Soho – a story that entirely deserved its West End platform representing as it did an essential period of modern British history. Lipson also oversaw the hugely acclaimed transfer of The Last Five Years from Southwark Playhouse to the Garrick where its stellar central performances from Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson played to packed houses. Shows that would almost certainly have been denied a transfer in the pre-Covid West End proved to be a shot of adrenaline, demonstrating a need to keep thinking differently about the shows that can attract audience and critical respect if given this wider platform.

Concerns that new plays and voices opening directly in major venues may be overlooked were quickly stamped out by super-producer Sonia Friedman who was among the first to promote new writing at the reopened Harold Pinter Theatre with the Re:Emerge season, a triple bill of plays from playwrights debuting in the West End – Waldren (though the weakest) was later filmed for a cinema release, the lively J’Ouvert set at the Notting Hill Carnival had a digital pre-life in the BBC’s Lights Up series and the superb Anna X was also filmed for Sky Arts and screened over Christmas. The latter in particular used innovative video design to underscore its central premise about the fluid nature of contemporary identity and image creation.

Established writers also offered plenty of challenging new work including Bess Wohl’s Camp Siegfried which simultaneously proved to be a fascinating political piece about the thoughtless extremism of youth while providing one of the biggest treats of the year by uniting two of theatres most luminous rising stars Luke Thallon and Patsy Ferran in a memorable theatre moment. Likewise, James Graham’s Best of Enemies was an absorbing exploration of current political debate, tracking back to the late 1960s to chart the origins of celebrity-focused and sensationalist news media in the entertaining but deeply thoughtful style that has become Graham’s trademark

Dramatic Revivals and Hybrid Approaches

But new work was not the only place where theatremakers applied novel interpretations, and several impressive productions offered fresh insight into well-known plays. The National Theatre’s revival of The Normal Heart became a companion piece for Cruise in its first production for more than 30 years. This significant staging was notable for its strong performances including an emotional central character for Ben Daniels, another increasingly fascinating choice for Daniel Monks and an accomplished role for Luke Norris, collectively finding meaningful dimension in a play that not only reasserted its position as a modern classic but also its credentials as activist theatre.

Similarly, Lyndsey Turner’s reworking of Under Milk Wood also at the National proved extremely meaningful in a frame by Sian Owen uniting father and son to overcome memory loss with beautifully pitched performances from Karl Johnson and Michael Sheen. Antony Almeida made an equally distinct impression with his English Touring Theatre production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opening at Curve Leicester that proved a fiery and gripping portrayal of self-destruction that relished Tennessee Williams’s heat-oppressed classic.

And while the reopening of theatres in May has reduced the availability of streamed content, playmakers have continued to respond creatively to the possibilities that digital theatre offers. A major highlight was Athena Stevens’s binge-worthy drama Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels, a fascinating multi-part duologue released in daily 5-8 minute doses in February that used exquisite visual design to enhance its story of coercive relationships, toxic masculinity and female culpability in a memorable and genre enhancing collaboration with the Finborough Theatre – notable that smaller venues are still making big leaps in helping the industry to broaden its creative approach to storytelling and engagement.

Likewise, the National Theatre’s productions of Romeo and Juliet as well as the latest instalment of Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’s Death of England series Face to Face, took advantage of the empty Lyttleton to rethink the presentation of theatre stories. Working in partnership with Sky Arts and making these works available for free on the channel to a worldwide audience as well as selective cinema releases, they were filmed in usually unseen backstage areas, blurring the boundaries between stage and screen. These works continue to experiment with alternative staging models, thinking differently about theatre buildings, as well as how and where playing spaces can and should exist – a train of thought that should continue to evolve as the balance between audience engagement in specific rooms and wider forms of international engagement continues to expand.

A New Golden Age of Musicals

Throughout the pandemic, musical theatre responded best to the hybrid opportunities presented by theatre closure and, throughout 2020, it was notable how rapidly the industry reacted with new work, concert sessions and anthology shows like The Theatre Channel taking advantage of sophisticated filming techniques long before their drama counterparts. In 2021 two key themes dominated the year – promising new work performed in streamed concert try-outs and the rethinking and reimagining of classic musicals for a twenty-first century audience, picking up on a thread from 2019-20, by setting aside performance history and returning to the original text and songs.

Linnie Reedman and Joe Evans’s Gatsby: A Musical was a digital highlight of the 2021 lockdown, performed as a streamed concert from Cadogan Hall in February, focused on Daisy Buchanan in the years after Fitzgerald’s story. This elegiac and smart reimagining became a full staging at Southwark Playhouse that runs into next year. In the same month, Ricky Allan premiered an early working-version of Treason: The Musical, also streamed from Cadogan Hall, which promises much as the creators continue to work on their potentially explosive Gunpowder Plot story, even releasing a selection of teaser songs on 5 November. The development of this show is one to watch in 2022.

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has led the way with fresh takes on classic shows in recent years with reworked version of Jesus Christ Superstar and Jamie Lloyd’s production of Evita. This year, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel was given a contemporary shakeup, tackling the issue of domestic abuse head-on by allowing barker Billy Bigelow to feel regret but denying him the happy and heavenly redemption arc his creators intended. This darker vision of the story set in a Lawrencian working class community proved a welcome counterpoint to the bubbly Hollywood version that had dulled these themes, helping audiences to engage with the show’s troubling underbelly and behaviours.

Equally revelatory, Chichester Festival Theatre produced a thrilling retelling of another Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece, South Pacific directed by Daniel Evans that addressed the story’s racial stereotyping while excising the romanticism from the arguably coercive and exploitative relationships between American soldiers and young native women. Choreographer Ann Yee found meaningful ways to express the concept of occupation and invasion – of which the American forces were equally guilty – to create a more forbidding adaptation that allowed South Pacific to confront its demons. The show will be streamed for £15 on New Year’s Eve, followed by a UK tour and residency at Sadler’s Wells in 2022 ensuring this significant restaging will reach a much wider audience.

But this astonishing year for musical theatre was not quite done with two late additions cementing a new direction for the genre. The Almeida’s Spring Awakening, opening in mid-December, has an extraordinary youthful vigour generated by its enormously talented early career cast who have found a deep maturity in this coming-of-age tale of doomed romance and disaffection. As fresh and purposeful as theatre can be, choreographer Lynne Page created some of the finest work of the year in a powerful and definingly simple version of Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s show that is testament to everything musical theatre can be.

And defining is precisely the word for Rebecca Frecknall’s breath-taking reworking of Cabaret, one of the greatest shows of any year. If a single production can exemplify the combined advances and visionary approaches applied to theatre in 2021, then Cabaret has distilled them all by entirely reconsidering its source material and offering a more representative cast particularly within its two dance crews. Frecknall – notably a drama director – has brought an incredible new resonance to the story, exploring the shadowy tones of Isherwood’s original novella to bring an added emotional and social depth to Kander and Ebb’s version of Cabaret. This innovative interpretation will certainly affect future engagement with this piece which is everything you want a successful revival to do.

So what does this mean for theatre in 2022? There are positive signs that if venues can remain open then the variety of work we are seeing, how it is cast and, crucially, the platform it is given continues to change while engagement with hybrid styles have a significant role to play as venues commit to streaming some evenings across the run, while looking to innovative television and film partnerships to make work more widely available. The work itself is likely to continue the pre-pandemic trend for simplified staging which will help classic play and musical revivals to mine their original text for greater emotional, political and social resonance.

With big productions of The Glass Menagerie staring Amy Adams, Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the resumption of Jamie Lloyd’s season including a return for Cyrano and The Seagull, as well as Kit Harington in Henry V for the Donmar, Taron Egerton and Jonathan Bailey in Cock directed by Marianne Elliot at the Ambassadors, and a further collaboration between Ruth Wilson and Ivo van Hove (The Human Voice) at the Harold Pinter, there are plenty of major shows lined up all with the capacity to rethink approaches to these plays for contemporary viewers. This year has demonstrated that West End audiences are more open to a broader selection of shows, voices, experiences and performers representing different communities and identities. So the message for 2022 is a simple one – just keep making room.

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Peggy for You – Hampstead Theatre

Peggy for You - Hampstead Theatre (by Helen Maybanks)

What is a play? A message to the future, a fart in your face or a pain in the arse? Just a few of the suggestions that the writer clients of agent Peggy Ramsay offer up when a young ingenue asks that fatal question in her office one otherwise ordinary day. Hampstead Theatre’s latest anniversary revival is a cheeky celebration of the business of playmaking in a smart, female-led piece from 1999 but set in the late 60s, and as Covid cancellations begin to rise once again, this affectionate satire may be fairly cosy but Peggy for You is a hopeful place to end the year.

Staged for the Hampstead Theatre by Richard Wilson, there is a deceptive layer to Alan Plater’s play which begins as a fairly standard three act Drawing Room comedy before twisting into something with a far greater punch in its final section. It takes place across two rooms in Peggy’s office which split the stage in half; on the right, the plain reception area with visible toilet where assistant Stephanie (referred to in what appears to be characteristic Peggy style as ‘Tessa’ throughout) has a desk. The room on the left is far grander, noticeably period with a warmer, furnished Living Room or Study feel which is Peggy’s own space to receive her clients.

Though connected by a central door, these distinct zones speak well to the separation in the play between the glamorous front of being in the theatre as an art form with its romantic list of famous names, opening night parties and adorable luvvies, and the practical reality of business and contracts. Equally, James Cotterill’s design choices draws distinct lines between the way Peggy sees herself and the rather utilitarian view she has of others and their role in her business (quite distinct from her role in their writing!). This appreciation of Peggy becomes one of the drivers in a play that moves from comedy to a more introspective and openly dramatic engagement with concepts of personality, professionalism and loyalty as the story unfolds.

It begins by placing Peggy herself in hero mode, and writer Alan Plater is asking the audience to recognise her authority, to feel as in awe of her imposing personality, skill and manner as new writer Simon does. For much of the first two Acts, we see her through his eyes as an eminent, impressive, even overbearing figure who controls everyone around her while keeping an encyclopaedia of drama knowledge in her head to be drawn out with ease as the occasion arises – a case in point being the correction of a short but pivotal quote from Henry IV.

And much of Peggy for You is very witty about life in the theatre with throwaway references to swearing at Laurence Olivier, the shame of selling out to Hollywood, the easy money to be made writing terrible drama for television or newspaper columns, and plenty of sage advice for budding writers from those jaded and battered by their own careers. All of this is bolstered by the appearance of several of Peggy’s clients in her office, giving Simon (still sitting quietly in the background) a unique position from which to observe his new agent’s changing manner depending on the youth and success of her charges.

Plater creates a sense, at least early on, that some kind of farce is likely in the manner of Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward, that having traded witty bon mots in the first two Acts, that some ridiculous mix-up or light-hearted scheme will follow that will have Peggy careering from room to room, taking increasingly fraught calls and trying to resolve a hilarious muddle. Instead, Plater does something almost unexpected, he sends Peggy off-stage for several minutes at the end of Act Two leaving two of her clients alone.

It signals a rather remarkable change in tone – one which director Richard Wilson manages with skill – that defines the remainder of the play as Simon and toast-of-the-town Philip start to pull at Peggy’s character, the latter noting her faults and warning his companion of the pitfalls to come. Having built Peggy up to the audience, given her sparkling dialogue and a seemingly unsurpassable professional expertise, suddenly removing her from the action in order to undertake a critical assessment of her by uncovering the veiled frustrations and disappointments that her behaviour evokes in others, Plater swiftly moves the story into a slightly different gear and one that leaves its comic trajectory aside.

The Third Act is far more revelatory than the early scenes implied, and Plater seeks to almost actively disrupt the comfortable inevitability of the play he started to write. Instead there is both character assassination and justification in the final section as the consequences of the ideas and behaviours seeded in the play are turned against Peggy in an accusatory conversation with established writer Henry whose arrival she had dismissed earlier that day. And Plater starts to grapple with what happens beneath the surface as Peggy is momentarily asked to reckon with her equivalent of Scrooge’s spirits (all in the guise of Henry) who come to challenge her way of being.

And what emerges is a character of far greater depth and contradictions than the playwright has thus far allowed us to see in spite of placing her at the centre of the story. So who is Peggy – a real agent fictionalised by Plater for this play who demands most of the oxygen in the room. Intimidated by no one and more than willing to speak her mind to anyone who she believes needs to hear it, Peggy is an uncompromising, unforgiving and, in every sense, brilliant woman. She knows she is right, always admits any mistake she may have made but never apologises for the offense she causes – most amusingly in a line noting a mix-up of National Theatre Directors who are blasted by her contempt; she confesses her mistake in launching a volley at the wrong one, yet is clearly equally satisfied, or it would be fairer to say equally unperturbed, to have insulted either of them.

What is so enduringly fascinating about this creation is her charisma which, in spite of her rather brazen ignorance of silly details like people’s actual names and widespread dismissal of the industry she works for, gives Peggy a different kind of chemistry to every other character in the play and there several points at which Plater emphasises her vast knowledge of the work she has read and promoted. This is the crux of her own motivation; artists come and go, their personal needs are immaterial, it is the work that she strives for.

We see this again and again in a photographic memory for particular quotations, correcting others as well as bastardising and colloquialising well-known phrases as part of her own patter. The most powerful example of Peggy’s prioritisation of the work comes in the final confrontation with Henry who continues to nurture the seed that Philip planted at the end of Act Two, by openly chastising Peggy in Act Three and declaiming her faults. As Plater momentarily suggests a reclamation story may emerge to transform this hardened woman by showing her her own reflection, Peggy’s force of personality hits back, reciting the synopsis and venue of multiple plays picked at random from her files based on the title alone, proving to Henry that she is as good at her job and as devoted to the definition of a play as the audience has been prepped to believe.

But what emerges in the final portion of the play adds yet another conflicting edge to Peggy’s personality, a coldness and detachment that may seem shocking on the one hand because it not only accentuates the characteristics displayed so far, but pushes them to the ultimate extreme. Yet, it unexpectedly adds further insight as Plater gives the agent a single moment of pause alone in the office taking stock of the events of this single day where she betrays a flicker of hurt that begins to turn almost two hours of performance on its head. Is she human after all; is the battle-hardened, carefree front merely a suit of armour that Peggy must put on to deal with the barrage of entitled men (and it is only ever men) that she must meet, call, inspire and manage in the unfriendly world of 1960s theatre? She may seem cruel for sneering at her assistant’s tears but showing any kind of emotion or weakness could ruin her reputation, so, just for a second before the façade goes back up, the audience is shown the struggle Peggy has had to keep her business afloat and the life she has had to live to stay at the top of her game.

Tamsin Greig is ideally cast as the title character, a great stage actor who instinctively and quite carefully treads the line between comedy and tragedy in all her performances with a unique skill for making the audience feel deeply for even the most ridiculous characters. This ability to almost command pathos at precise moments in a play is really valuable and here as Peggy she saves it up for those last moments where the audience has already seen Peggy from Simon’s point of view as a hero, through Henry’s eyes as a soulless villain detached from reality, but in just those few moments Greig shows us Peggy as she sees herself, where the impact of it all cuts deep in a private moment, and you do feel for her.

Greig is also exceptionally funny in the rest of the play, candid and cutting in equal measure, exuding self-confidence and certainty as she flitters from call to call, able to turn on the charm when needed while almost skating over the surface of all these other lives she encounters. Greig is commanding in the role, delivering the witty one-liners with savage precision and moulding Peggy’s personality to suit the tone of her callers, she never misses a comic beat while making all of the changes of pace – from potential farce to drama and then tragedy – feel like a consistent journey across a day in the life of Peggy Ramsay.

The supporting cast orbit around her, giving Greig a series of credible interactions making Peggy for You more than a star vehicle. Josh Finan as 21-year old aspiring writer Simon is full of the seriousness of youth, keen to get her to read his melancholy little play being performed above a pub and while in awe of Peggy’s energy and intelligence, Finan makes space for Simon’s slightly earnest openness, a willingness to absorb the lessons Peggy dishes out that ultimately wins her over. Jos Vantyler as Philip is a little too suave perhaps as the bright young thing currently burning up the spotlight, as though he has stepped out of a Noel Coward which doesn’t feel quite right for the times, but Trevor Fox’s Henry becomes quite a match for Peggy in Act Three as he channels years of neglect and rage. Finally, Danusia Samal makes a great deal of Tessa who tries to keep her occasionally scatter-brained boss in line in the play’s most practical and grounded female role.

Peggy for You may not be the sharpest comedy and it is a structurally ‘safe’ piece in many ways, but Plater finds ways to work against audience expectation as the story unfolds, bringing to life a rarely dramatised aspect of the business in a memorable central character who we can only hope behaved exactly like this in real life. A play that takes such joy in the process, politics and consequences of writing for the stage is a positive conclusion to another troubled year for theatres and, as the curtain comes down, it leaves you certain that whatever a play may be, all the highs and lows are worth it in the end.

Peggy for You is at the Hampstead Theatre until 29 January with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Spring Awakening – Almeida Theatre

Spring Awakening - Almeida Theatre

This time last year the Almeida Theatre briefly reopened with Nine Lessons and Carols, an anthological Christmas show directed by Rebecca Frecknall that managed only a handful of performances before another Tier change peremptorily ended its in-person run. Now, twelve months on and Frecknall is running the greatest show in town at the Playhouse Theatre, where her Cabaret has been entirely and beautifully reimagined for twenty-first century audiences, while the theatre that nurtured her talent brings an equally fresh perspective to Spring Awakening performed in a hybrid nineteenth-century-contemporary style that adds incredible resonance to this 2006 musical.

Directed by Rupert Goold with a cast of highly talented young performers, this energetic production about teenage desire and the failure of parental direction is a rare musical choice for the Almeida, but one that amplifies the intimacy of the story and the characters’ complex anxieties. Based on a German play of the same name written in 1891 by Frank Wedekind, the musical is a lively and often brutal statement on the stifling of youth culture.

What may begin as a typical High School drama set at two same-sex public institutions in the mould of Gossip Girl or many American Teen movies like Cruel Intentions, becomes something far closer to Ibsen – a contemporary of Wedekind publishing his greatest psychological works around the same time as Spring Awakening. The Almeida’s approach draws out a contrasting public face and need to maintain social polish with the raging emotional subtext of human relationships. As Ibsen fills his characters’ interior lives with acres of feeling, so too do Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater elicit the thrumming lust and confusion of young people looking for guidance as their bodies, thoughts and lives change, yet failing to find it in the external structures designed to protect and teach them.

Instead they are cast into cavernous unknows where they must learn from each other while discovering that the adult world, which they are only just beginning to enter, is full of great and equally terrible things as their own reactions both awe and frighten them. Like Ibsen’s creations, all these teenagers know is that nothing fits, so like Hedda Gabler, Rebecca West or even Halvard Solness they dream of a better, freer time all the while struggling against the confining reality of the one they are in. But, Sheik’s rock score and Sater’s lyrics gives the musical a modern grounding, blending a more current approach to language and linguistic structure with the traditional attitudes and restrictions against which the students chafe.

There is a strong sense of rebellion running through Goold’s new production staged in a fixed proscenium with raked steps that have become a key feature of modern musical and play reworkings. Steps create height and depth on small stages while offering far more interesting choreographic options – the Open Air Theatre at Regent’s Park used a similar stepped staging for Our Town, Evita and the emotional return of Jesus Christ Superstar after the first lockdown. Designed here by Miriam Buether the steps effortlessly merge the demands of changing scenic locations from classrooms to haylofts and even a graveyard with the school steps notion that has become a trademark of the high school genre used in everything from 10 Things I Hate About You to Glee, and although the tone here has a tragic inevitability, the symbolism of the stepped staging is a useful visual shorthand for an otherwise relatively sparse visual approach.

Goold employs this simplicity really effectively using accents like Nicky Gillibrand’s costume to hint at nineteenth-century uniforms for some characters with waistcoats and short jackets mixed with gymslips, hoodies and rebellious-goth inspired schoolwear. It creates individuality for the dozen or so students, each departing from traditional uniform to differing degrees that reflects their personalities while underpinning the musical’s central notion that the young protagonists are dreaming of a free future where the imposed order and expectation of their parents’ generation will be overcome. Gillibrand captures exactly that in the costumes, merging tradition with a forward-looking consciousness.

Across the piece, this creates investment in the troubled and multifaceted lives of these classmates with Goold managing character distinction and depth where it’s needed, but also trusting the story and music to deliver bigger group numbers that showcase the general attitudes, objections and frustrations of this younger generation. It gives this production a double punch of emotional heft and an in-your-face ferocity that is hugely impactful in such a small space.

The most powerful effect comes from Lynne Page’s remarkable choreography that places the performers around the stage and uses the raked space with incredible invention. Students undulate down steps, skidding on their bottoms and hanging backwards as they fall in love (The Word of Your Body) and Page creates endlessly fascinating shapes with coordinated line-ups moving together in synchronised rhythmic packs either seated or travelling in unison around the stage. She brings an ordered chaos to some of the full company segments in which the characters’ angry rebellion create a punk madness.

This is often combined with Finn Ross’s chalk video design and animation projected across the stage that helps to create the buzz and disarray as physical performance and visual image create intensity. The show’s most memorable moment is certainly the outstanding Totally Fucked in Act Two using the full extent of the staircase staging to powerful effect as the cast fizz around it with a spectacular energy before stomping purposefully towards the audience in a single line as the song draws to its defiant and determined finale.

And while this dazzling version of Spring Awakening is an exciting place to be, it never relinquishes its emotional hold over the audience, using the up and down beats to hammer home the dangers of restricting the minds and bodies of teenagers, and giving them too little armour with which to face the challenges ahead. Adults in this reimagining are often caricatures with multiple roles played by the same two actors to emphasise the interchangeability of weak authority from the perspective of the muddled teenagers as well as the systemic failures to provide any form of sex education and guidance at the time when it is most necessary.

Catherine Cusack is known simply as ‘Adult Woman’ and Mark Lockyer as ‘Adult Man’ who between them play a raft of unpleasant and ineffectual grown-ups in more traditional nineteenth-century costume, neatly emphasising the stuffier rules and old-fashioned stilted lives of multiple parents, creepy mask-wearing teachers and, later in the story, a seedy backstreet practitioner. These are much bigger, often sillier performances than the rest of the cast, made to look purposefully ridiculous or authoritarian which just about stays on the right side of credible, reinforcing rather than distracting from the effect on their pupils.

With the tone set and these wider visual and contextual effects in place, Goold creates a place where this story can grow and slowly captivate the audience. There are a lot of characters, a tragic central love story between Wendla Bergmann and Malchior Gabor, a young man buckling under the pressure (Moritz Stiefel) and a number of other private crises. Sheik and Sater capture many of these subplots and interactions quite fleetingly and Spring Awakening asks a great deal of the viewer in the emotional impact of these impressions and sketches even though scenes often skip many months or make single references to personal circumstances that affect a minor character.

Across these, more collective strands emerge in those more personal stories. Several characters recall the simplicity of their earlier childhood which from their coming-of-age perspective seems suddenly romantic and blissful. This wistful longing couched in memory also echoes Ibsen, particularly in the tentative relationship between Wendla and Malchior who first met to play as innocent children, contrasting this with the new, more complex feeling growing between them. Ilse Neumann tries to draw Moritz to her using the same tactic, the long friendship between this foursome vital to the later turns of the plot as their connection to that shared past is permanently and brutally severed.

It is really exciting to see a large, relatively unknown cast create such a dynamic and affecting piece of theatre and, in adding this to the Almeida programme, it is really positive to see early career performers given the space to lead a show without needing a star name or two attached. Best known to regular theatregoers, Laurie Kynaston fills Malchior with a radical otherness, an intellectual and political philosopher waiting for his moment to make a stand in the mode of Enjolras from Les Miserables. He is initially more concerned with better worlds to come than the one he actually lives in but the rapidly developing relationship with Wendla brings him back to earth. Kynaston is really good at conveying that trajectory from theorist to a young man trying to put that into practice through his choice to live beyond societal expectation and use it to affect wider change. With a beautiful sorrow in his vocal quality, Kynaston finds all kinds of depth in Melchior as he tries to cling to his ideals despite their tragic outcome.

Amara Okereke matches him as the confused Wendla who is failed by her mother in the earliest moments of the show with disastrous consequences. There is such charm in Okereke’s performance that makes Wendla likeable and inexperienced but never naïve or silly, so her connection with Melchior develops organically from a shy flirtation to a very physical encounter which feels natural to them both and Wendla absorbs some of Melchior’s hope they can be free from shame. And great to see an Intimacy Director (Ita O’Brien) credited among the production team to support one the musical’s most important transitional moments.

Stuart Thompson brings lots of emotion to the pressured Moritz, struggling to reach adult expectations and consumed by what he sees as the closing of future pathways due to lack of academic attainment. The degradation of his mental health and movement beyond the help of his classmates makes him a lonely figure, and Thompson brings a weight of sadness to his trajectory and its aftermath. The leads are supported by Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea as Hanschen, Asha Banks as Thea, Taylor Bradshaw as Frank, Carly-Sophia Davies as artists’ muse Isla living in a bohemian exile, Kit Esuruoso as Otto, Bella Maclean as Martha who manages her domestic abuse story with care, Emily Ooi as Clara, Joe Pitts as Georg, Maia Tameakar as Anna and Zheng Xi Yong as Ernst. Together they are a strong ensemble, giving separate personalities to each of their characters but are equally adept as a dance and performance unit.

The Almeida may not have chosen a Christmas show this year but Spring Awakening is a glorious end to another strange and strained year for theatres in what is, nonetheless, becoming a wonderfully crowded market-place for impressive reworkings of well-known musicals. With its themes of throwing off the yoke of the past and dreaming of a better, fairer, more open life, the Almeida’s production offers a bittersweet hope for the future and in this very fine young cast they may have found it.

Spring Awakening is at the Almeida Theatre until 22 January with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Best of Enemies – Young Vic

Best of Enemies - Young Vic

Political commentators despair that the polarisation of debate has radically shaped our national life in recent years with Brexit, the election and removal of Trump, and the poisoned well of social media creating a context in which extremism and hate have flourished, even been rewarded in their dominance of our discourse. In the dismantling of reasoned, healthy but respectful debate, entrenched positions have bred a distrust of facts and experts as well as increased notions of States conspiring against their citizens, while embedding the idea that an individual’s worth is indistinguishable from their views on a single contentious issue. James Graham’s new play Best of Enemies takes us back to the 1960s, demonstrating that the roots of our division partially lay in the creation of televised intellectual debating.

Based on a 2015 documentary of the same name, this series of debates on the American ABC network between two public intellectuals in 1968, left-wing writer Gore Vidal and the right wing commentator William Buckley took place during the selection process at the Republican and Democratic conventions as each party selected their Presidential candidates. Graham puts this fractious interaction at the centre of a play that builds on many of the themes that define his work – the role of the media and especially news outlets in shaping public political understanding and belief, and the separation between grand political theory and the practical application of government, law and power beyond the political elite.

Graham’s work is always carefully structured and however the narrative is then overlaid, the play’s drive and shape come from a very precise framework that underpins the show. Across his canon, the writer has played with different structural bases – Quiz centred its two Act argument around the Case for the Prosecution and then for the Defence; Ink gave The Sun‘s Larry Lamb a year to increase circulation, punctuating the play with sales updates; Labour of Love ambitiously did a journey backwards and then forwards in time while plays like Bubble, The Angry Brigade and This House use an us and them perspective to cut between two sets of characters telling different parts of the same story. The mechanisms may differ but these structures set an audience at ease, giving reassurance that wherever the story is heading, the playwright is entirely in control of the material.

Best of Enemies absorbs dramatic lessons from the television and film work that Graham has undertaken, starting with a pivotal exchange at the end of the story – or at least the outrage following it – and spooling back to understand the combination of factors that led to this moment – a cinematic device. The play largely happens in chronologically occurring flashback that mixes the separate personal and preparatory stories of Vidal and Buckley as they ready themselves for their televised verbal skirmishes, before repeatedly bringing them together to recreate excerpts from the debates themselves.

In doing so, Graham blends the known historical reality with the imagined (although well researched) private interactions off camera to create a drama that, like Quiz, reinserts a rounded humanity into real historic characters flattened and reduced by the simplistic nature of media reporting which shapes the collective memory. More than spikey antagonists with opposite lifestyles and political affiliations, Vidal and Buckley instead take shape as individuals in a much wider of context of rapid and often quite violent political statement.

Key reference points include the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King in the same year as the debates take place in a nation still not quite reconciled to the Presidential shooting five years before. This was also the year of protest and activism across Europe and America with student demonstrations in France noted briefly in the plot, while the pivotal anti-Vietnam rallies sweep across the stage at various points between the debates. This bubbling tension, outbursts of violence and a growing combativeness in political interactions and State responses to them is vital in couching the Vidal-Buckley debate in a much wider and increasingly unstable context where polarisation of views was becoming more commonplace.

The echo of history and its preservation on television is woven tightly into the production directed by Jeremy Herrin for Headlong who builds on Graham’s textual approach that marries thoughtfulness with entertainment. Staged in the round at the Young Vic, in creating that wider context Best of Enemies has a complex technical set-up in which real footage of orations, rallies and protests is projected on screens around the room while the actors representing historic figures voice the speeches in time with the film. It’s a technique that is used sparingly but one that brings the wider social and political tides to life and, as Graham does with Vidal and Buckley, draws the two-dimensional screen image more purposefully into the room and the story.

The presence of cameras then becomes integral to the approach, placing the debating titans in the centre of the space while simultaneously capturing and projecting their comments and reactions around the room. This is not solely for visual purposes, the Young Vic is a contained space with good sightlines from all locations, but it reinforces the problematic nature of trying to understand history from film alone. While it may capture what is said, and the explosive outburst that Best of Enemies is building to which has, to some extent, subsequently defined perspectives on both men, the play demonstrates that why it was said and what it really meant is far more complicated – a warning that resonates well with a social media culture of soundbites and snippets that is equally reductive.

And Graham is scrupulously fair to both his characters and the positions they represent, offering all the shades of grey between them that leave the audience to decide whether these men are heroes, villains or something far more rounded. While the men are categorised by others as Republican or Democrat early in the play, Buckley immediately reorientates this as a discussion between conservatism of which he proudly advocates and the liberalism that Vidal represents while Graham rather neatly brings the two together. As the men work on their arguments, the tactics to lure the other onto the rocks and the witty remarks that form part of their pre-planned showmanship, the playwright subtly suggests the interlocutors perhaps have more in common than actually divides them – something Buckley’s wife goes on to say – and like This House the surface separation of the two camps slowly crumbles as the story unfolds even though their public personas take more antagonistic positions.

This is particularly notable in the extent to which both men are shown to play to the cameras, flattered by the idea that their views are being sought while the climbing ratings and evident enjoyment in the process of televised debating adds a hollow-ring to what they say. Graham is asking some really interesting questions here about the alignment between public posturing that brings rewards including acceptance and celebration by their respective communities, and their private beliefs, suggesting that the attention pushes both men to entrench in positions that, carried away by their platform, they (perhaps) don’t truly advocate. Being seen to win and having the means to outwit their opponent is more important than the content of their speechifying Graham suggests – a position reinforced in private scenes off-screen where surface strategies to goad one another and best the enemy dominate conversations in place of preparing arguments on their points of political division.

But more than their own reactions, it is the structures around them that Graham seeks to investigate, questioning the role of news channels in shaping modern political antipathy and the dilution of intellectual discourse through a focus on celebrity commentators and panellists. Like Larry Lamb’s team, the ABC news division purposefully uses the debates to disrupt traditional output and to save their ailing viewing figures. A central pillar within the play looks at the role of newscasters in presenting the facts while increasingly creating space for amateur commentary from those with political interests but without official intellectual credibility or credentials.

At the same time, Graham asks in the second half of the play about the value of intellectualism in politics when it separates those like Vidal and Buckley from the day-to-day reality of governance. Best of Enemies asks who really won? Vidal may have offered a suave and culturally-knowledgeable perspective that advocated reason and tolerance against some of Buckley’s less palatable views, but Nixon wins the election and the Hollywood actor, of whom Vidal is dismissive, is namechecked as a future President, so to what extent are social intellectuals out of touch with the general public and their needs – another theme that resonates with the vortex of recent US and UK politics which relates this story to the simpler, emotional messaging of modern politicians and their representation in the media.

David Harewood and Charles Edwards in the roles of Buckley and Vidal both play against type in some compelling and well nuanced performances. Harewood gives his ultra conservative character a gruff arrogance, a certainty that he can easily best his adversary and score significant political cache that would aid his own future aspirations within the party, following a failed mayoral bid in New York a few years before. But Harewood has the harder job in making his character appealing to a theatre audience, capturing Buckley’s changing fortunes and their effect, the slip in confidence in the early debates as Vidal outpaces him before a resurgence at the Democrat Convention as a growing frustration feeding off the anti-war protests courses through Harewood’s performance here leading neatly to the final confrontation that collapses his motivation in the rest of the play, eliciting some sympathy for the human cost when Buckley becoming enmeshed in his own rhetoric.

Edwards is superb as Vidal, balancing a widely-read intelligence with a catty bitterness that is never overplayed. Surrounded by a literary and celebrity following, Edwards places his interpretation of Vidal in a cultural bubble that separates him from the reality of the views he espouses while at the same time presenting quite as much ego and self-satisfaction as Buckley, enjoying the public performance and his time in the spotlight a little too much. Often very funny, particularly when rehearsing the bon mots that later appear in the debate, Edwards captures the waspishness of Vidal but balances it with a slow erosion of that confidence as the debates give Buckley the upper hand.

It ends with a fascinating imagined scene in which the men finally confront one another, no cameras, no posturing just reasonable and respectful interaction, a scene that pointedly underlines the separation of the political character that both men played in public and their multifaceted reality, two sides that the play attempts to reconcile by exploring the consequences of what should have been a small debate on a poorly received news station yet somehow came to symbolise and channel state-of-the-nation American political division. There is some equivalence with Frost / Nixon in the journalistic scrutiny applied to great men and the strategies used to entrap and chasten them, but in carefully selecting these turning points in modern political history and looking slightly to the side of well known figures, Graham’s plays more clearly reflect on our own political culture and the unreasonable debates we are now having every day.

Best of Enemies is at the Young Vic until 22 January with broadcast performances online from 20-22 January. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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