Monthly Archives: January 2022

A Number – Old Vic

It may be the second time in as many years that Caryl Churchill’s A Number has been performed in the West End, but it is a play that bears restaging, yielding greater insights every time you see it. While its surface level explores the consequences of human cloning, written at a time of considerable media outrage at the scientific practice, its central story of a father and his sons remains universal and infinitely adaptable. Like Shakespeare’s plays, Churchill provides the scenario and the frame but allows each new company to see the play afresh, making their mark with perceptible changes in tone that fundamentally alter its emotional resonance. What could be a very clinical piece can also be deeply human.

Structured across five brief chronological scenes, A Number uses three separate but parallel interactions between Salter, the man who cloned a child 35-years previously, and three of those sons – Bernard 1, Bernard 2 and Michael – in what becomes a complex two-hander about the nature of parenthood, second chances, the mechanics of individuality and self as well as the ethics of cloning. Which of those aspects a director chooses to emphasise allows the central premise to be re-pitched and reconceived with every staging as Churchill’s text, though fundamentally the same, evokes new meanings and depth.

But it is also a play about character and the extent to which the audience can believe or trust the information they are being given at any point in the play and Churchill deliberately shifts the tempo in each of the father-son confrontations, revealing new insights and story points that cast doubt on things that were said in a previous scene that has significant consequences for both the established and nascent relationships between the men. Quite why this misinformation is given Churchill leaves to us and the company to interpret, offering open discussions not only about the ethics of cloning but how that wider context of morality is reflected in specific, domestic character choices and behaviours.

Two years ago Polly Findlay’s production at the Bridge Theatre with Roger Allam and Colin Morgan placed Salter in the spotlight, making him seem sinister and possibly even dangerous against the very homely interior design of the living room where most of the play takes place. Salter, in Allam’s performance, lied easily and deliberately for his own ends, to prevent difficult conversation and because fundamentally he is a man with limited feeling whose past choices rightly come back to haunt him. Churchill’s play became a story about someone who didn’t deserve to be a parent and engineered a perfect child because he lacked the skill, capacity and interest in the reality of complicated fatherhood.

This new production at the Old Vic directed by Lyndsey Turner has a very different perspective on Salter and gives the character considerably greater empathy and understanding while still acknowledging the severity and consequences of his faults. Lennie James’s Salter is capable of far greater feeling, overwhelmed by the impact of his choice to clone his only son and genuinely bemused by the sudden appearance of multiple adult versions created without his permission by the unnamed scientists for which he genuinely feels aggrieved, consistently suggesting a lawsuit to both Bernard 1 and 2.

A Number has some extremely dark themes that explore child neglect and possible abuse, abandonment, maternal suicide and self-destruction that affect both Salter and the Bernards in different ways. The Old Vic to an extent gives Salter some benefit of the doubt as he reflects on his decision to make another identical child. The particularly revelatory second conversation with original son Bernard 1 is played from the perspective of someone who was suffering from the impact of his wife’s death and, it is suggested, various forms of substance abuse leaving him unable to take care of himself or his son. The text implies a two-year period of lone parenting that became too much for this version of Salter seemingly suffering from some kind of emotional and potentially even mental collapse.

The later decision to clone Bernard 1 then becomes more palatable having recognising the damaged he caused to a son that was ‘given away’ and, in the most generous possible reading of Salter’s character, not wanting to cause the boy further disruption by trying to get him back. Instead, Turner’s production hints that Salter took the opportunity for second chances all round, giving original Bernard a better life elsewhere while Salter himself tries – and we discover largely succeeds – to do better by playing out another version of his life but at a time when he has the emotional and domestic stability to fully support the needs of a child.

What we get in the present day, then, is a sense of James’s Salter deeply affected by the rotten consequences of that decision making and deeply troubled to learn that his first born son hasn’t flourished but remains psychologically affected by the trauma of those early years. James’s Salter is far less monstrous than Allam’s cooler interpretation, showing the shock and guilt that start to overwhelm him as he faces-up to what he did while simultaneously processing the huge ramifications of having a number of identical adult sons in the world who have nothing but a DNA connection with him and the impact on his favourite second child Bernard 2.

Yet, while all of these elements exists in James’s Salter, at the same time he is not entirely the good man led astray by medical science or mere victim of his younger vices. There are still edges to Salter that prevent the audience from fully accepting or sympathising with his version of events. For all his shocked bewilderment (and we believe he had no idea about the multiple clones), he still lies to both sons in the first instance about what really happened to their mother and Bernard 1, shifting timelines to suit his current story. Possibly caught out by the sudden explosion of information and discovery of multiple children, trying to spare the Bernards’ feelings by concealing the truth, there is a readiness to protect himself above either of the children he claims to have loved that never quite squares but at the same time isn’t fully contradicted by James’s intriguingly balanced performance.

Likewise, the readiness to sue which Salter repeats multiple times during the play suggests a mind that runs quickly to potential monetary gain and Churchill is particularly elusive on this point, not quite suggesting that it would pacify Bernard 2’s distress. Even when he meets Michael in the final scene, Salter is looking for some kind of gratification, some evidence that this cloned version of his original child can satisfy his own need to connect rather than what he can bring to the lives of his family.

Churchill uses the Bernards and Michael to present a very different proposition from Salter, characters who are implicitly truthful and the audience is never given any reason to doubt the things they say or that the experiences they present truly happened. Introduced to Bernard 2 first, we see the easy, happy relationship with the father he is very close to and openly confides in. The alarm he feels at discovering he has been cloned which establishes the premise in the opening scene, although Churchill never reveals how he found out, is eased by this first conversation and while Bernard 2 seems sensitive and gentle, it is only in a later interaction that his uncertainty is revealed.

It is here that Bernard 2 displays a considerable vulnerability and fear of his identikit other that questions his stability. He is the favourite child yet cannot remain at home, choosing to escape from what appears to be a threat to his life. It’s never clear why he doesn’t trust or allow his father to protect him but it implies a separation in the relationship that muddies the perfect idea of their relationship that the audience has been fed. And given the throwaway outcome of the play revealed in Scene Five, is Bernard 2 ‘defective’ like his brother and is that due to nature or nurture? Are we to infer that a genetic failing has passed between them or, as the final meeting with Michael suggests, that Salter is the common factor in the lives of the Bernards, that his second chance was ultimately no more successful than the first?

Bernard 1 is where the actor gets to really explore the darker side of parenthood and, played here by Papa Essiedu, the character is a troubled, nervy figure with the possibility of violence under the surface. Not quite as all-out threatening as Morgan’s version at the Bridge who seemed to have made his peace with the pain by turning it into menace, there is greater emotional exposure in Essideu’s approach showing the deep scarring and raw wound that continues to fester, haunting Bernard 1 and dominating his concept of self.

What is perhaps most interesting in Essiedu’s performance is the contrast that Michael offers in the final scene, played here as an American that Salter meets in an art gallery. Michael is unbelievably bland, unable to describe anything about himself or come up with an original thought or feeling that could allow Salter to build a connection with himself or his other sons. And while his life has been happy which we are led to conclude is because it has been untouched by Salter’s present, there is something of the Pop Art print about Michael, with Essideu playing him as a reproduction of a reproduction tapping into one of Churchill’s key themes in A Number that copies become increasingly inferior and faded at a distance from the original.

It may feel as though Churchill’s play has itself been cloned given the various versions that continue to appear; in each one the central characters are the same yet there are shaded differences with earlier incarnations. But A Number is a piece that seems to reveal more about itself every time you see it, asking complex questions about self-knowledge and individuality, whether you are you if someone else already is and Turner’s production on Es Devlin’s stark red set is certainly one of the best yet.

A Number is at the Old Vic Theatre until 19 March with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Ava: The Secret Conversations – Riverside Studios

Women of the Hollywood golden age are only ever defined by two things, their beauty and men, the ones they stared alongside and the ones they married or had scandalous affairs with. No one talks about Marilyn without some reference to JFK, Arthur Miller or Joe DiMaggio, Lauren Bacall’s name is always coupled to Humphrey Bogart, Elizabeth Taylor to her many husbands and Ava Gardner to her four major relationships with Mickey Rooney, Howard Hughes, Artie Shaw and, of course, Frank Sinatra who left his young family for her. Elizabeth McGovern’s new play adapted from Peter Evans and Ava Gardner’s book which debuts at Riverside Studios this week makes this point all too clearly as the actor, now holed-up in London after a semi-paralysing stroke, engages with a journalist commissioned to write her life story. ‘They took my voice’ she complains of her Studio bosses but in arranging her play around the men Gardner loved, so too does McGovern.

Beautiful, sexy and luminous are words most associated with Hollywood starlets of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, and indeed they were, but they were also talented and savvy movie actors who commanded the screen with a technical and commercial understanding of cinema every bit as proficient and bankable as their male counterparts. Marilyn’s ultimate sex symbol status tends to obscure the brilliance of her comic persona in films like How to Marry a Millionaire and particularly Bus Stop while her tiny role in All About Eve is superbly pitched. Bacall is every bit Bogart’s intellectual and courageous equal in both To Have and Have Not and Key Largo, while Paul Newman more than meets his match in Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Ava Gardner forged a career playing tough, enigmatic and emotionally complex, resilient characters in all kinds of movies, yet it is still their glossy image and their private lives for which they are best remembered and, as is the way with indifferent journalism, these details always accompany their lives in print. Gardner and co rarely stand on their own terms, she is always actor and wife to Rooney, Shaw and Sinatra.

Ava: The Secret Conversations wants to set the record straight and actively sets out to do so, putting Ava in charge of telling her own story to biographer Peter Evans in a two-hander over 90-minutes of conversation. The scene setting is strong; the alcoholic Gardner is down on her luck, chain-smoking in a property in Ennismore Gardens, alone and despairing of the mess she has made of her life. Introduced by McGovern who also takes the title role, Ava is still a force, demanding and uncompromising, using her continued allure to manipulate Evans, telling only the things she wants to remember and purposefully evading attempts to draw out salacious tales of her varied menfolk. The outwitted Evans, increasingly pressured by his Editor to get Ava talking about her relationships, starts to flounder as his wily adversary evades him again and again, leaving the audience to assume she will only talk on her terms when she’s good and ready.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work out that way and the piece is structured around the four men, priming the audience to anticipate their arrival and then, crucially, playing each of these scenes from the man’s perspective, nominally asking how this affected Ava but never fully exploring the consequences of these scenes for her own emotional, personal and career development. Instead she is pushed to the side, playing the all but silent role of “the wife” while the personalities, beliefs and neuroses of her starry partners is given the floor. What did Ava feel when her 9-month marriage to Rooney ended, when Hughes it is implied raped her, or when she was vilified for stealing Sinatra from Nancy, we never know because the play is too busy looking at them to worry about the consequences for the woman with her name on the title page.

There are a few moments of self-realisation within the story where Ava herself bemoans her lack of voice, using the chance to explain her biography to explore how the mechanics of the Studio System, and their commercial power to control both her career and physical representation on screen, sought to silence her when replacing her vocal in Showboat with another singer despite Gardner having prepared and rehearsed the songs for several months – a decision ultimately reversed for legal reasons. And there is much eyebrow-raising amusement to be drawn from the layered process of copying vocals back and forth. It is one of the crucial points that the show does well to land, making the ludicrous levels of control exhorted by a small cabal over what could and should be seen.

And this version of Ava actively acknowledges this power and cumulative effect it has had on her, referencing her subsequent determination to edit and control the manuscript Evans is creating through these meetings, a part of the story that allows Ava to hear her own voice reflected back at her for the first time without the filter of Hollywood scriptwriters and editors polishing her words. And although she is surprised by her own sweary shamelessness, it is an angle that should be more dominant in the production, exploring where the screen Ava and the lonely woman in the London flat with nothing but memories overlap.

Yet these moments are all too fleeting and the play prioritises Peter’s point of view, giving him the driving purpose and using the same actor to recreate three essential love affairs. That this becomes another male lens through which to view Ava seems to escape the creators but The Secret Conversations is framed as Peter approaching Ava. She may have requested the help but he sets the tone for the conversations they have through the questions he tries to ask her, and, vitally, it is Peter we follow beyond this room and are asked to psychologically align with throughout the show by going with him during the interludes between meetings. The audience is shown the pressure heaped on him by the publishing house to deliver a husband-focused impression of Ava’s life and the tension rises as his subject’s elusive, unyielding approach puts his deadline in danger.

The audience is also given an indication of Peter’s home life, the wife and children he must support and who he claims to love while it is his growing feelings for Ava, discussed with the unseen Editor portrayed as a God-like voiceover, that we see develop and cloud his judgement. Nowhere in this do we see what Ava was thinking, feeling, hoping for or needing from the project when trusting this stranger with her story. Across the production her changing feeling for him in the many months they spent together hardly feature and even her own circumstances during this period – why she was in London, who she knew and what she did between these sessions – is entirely overlooked. Ava throughout is presented as a figure to be admired, the screen siren alluring yet another man.

This slightly muddled narrative perspective is exacerbated by the choppy design approach that combines dramatic scenes recreating conversations between Ava and Peter as they develop the biography with recreations of key moments in her relationships, excerpts from films, photographs and some meta segments that have something to say about the nature of performance by revealing the inherent falsity in the staging that in some ways questions, even undermines the veracity of Ava’s perspective. Is what she is saying true or, in the nature of memory, a rehearsed fantasy version of what happened that she is so used to telling time and again that she is now convinced it is true?

At times, the scene dissolves as an exterior voice intrudes on Ava’s reminiscences; Peter thinks it is his Editor, Ava the command of Louis B. Mayer. That they both hear this intrusive presence and are yanked from the scene is never fully explained and it is not a theme that feels particularly developed nor does it seem intentional to question Ava’s version of events, Nonetheless, the style forces the audience to rethink what they are seeing as past, present and imagined scenes slip together leaving large question marks over the sequence of events and, with the play lightly touching on so many incidents in Gardner’s life, a slightly unsatisfactory or unresolved feeling as it concludes.

The design is visually impressive, employing a similar approach to Robert Icke’s The Red Barn (designed by Bunny Christie) that utilises a series of sliding black panels that move horizontally and vertically to create differently-sized boxes where scenes are played. It is quite a cinematic device that suits the subject matter and easily facilitates the shifts in location from Ava’s Knightsbridge flat to Peter’s home and the various hotel rooms, bars and studio sets where Ava worked and conducted her amours. It also allows director Gaby Dellal to create distinct points of interaction for the characters, adding intimacy to the their conversation in the flat where the full colour and expansiveness of her earlier life is only a memory as Ava and Peter sit on tasteful but drab furniture discussing a life of glamour, fame and excitement that took place many thousands of miles away and decades previously.

These contrast well with the brighter lit widescreen with which her former life is presented and helps Dellal to maintain the distinct phases of Gardner’s life while adding fluidity to the production as memories slide together seamlessly. These windows into the past are enhanced by a video design that helps to blur the lines between past and present, taking the central characters from rainy London at different times of day to a multitude of other locations. Although the rear stage backdrop has a tendency to bob very slightly like an old Technicolor musical (or Acorn Antiques background) that is deliberately false, the projection onto the main rooms is much more effective, allowing the scene to dissolve and become somewhere far more magical or exciting that stylishly transport the audience through the phases of Ava’s life.

McGovern captures the mercurial complexities of Ava, a woman who wants to take control of her life and how it is represented, using her continued allure to get what she wants. But there is something broken underneath, the consequence of being cast aside by Hollywood and her lovers that exists in McGovern’s performance that the play doesn’t fully mine in the way that Matt Greenhalgh’s film about Gloria Grahame, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, managed much better in contrasting the happiness of then and the pain of now.

Anatol Yusef really has the best of the action playing Peter, Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra, capturing the essence of Ava’s trio of lovers with an interesting character performance that really brings the story to life, showing their influence over Ava as well as their controlling role in the relationships. As Peter, Yusef blends awe with a growing empathy for his subject, genuinely torn between his family and Ava’s fragility with increasing concerned about the betrayal of both.

Ava: The Secret Conversations is candid about her character and love affairs, suggesting a woman who didn’t want to play by the rules. But a show so focused on giving Gardner her voice still views her through the lens of her relationships, defining her by the men she married and the one who helped her to write her final story. Ava herself remains unreachable and silent.

Ava: The Secret Conversations runs at Riverside Studios until 16 April with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story – Jermyn Street Theatre

Thrill Me The Leopold and Loeb Story - Jermyn Street Theatre (by Steve Gregson)

A hundred years ago, not long after another world-wide pandemic, Nietzsche’s concept of the Superman took hold and inspired two 19-year old students to kill a child for the thrill of it. Following Darwin’s theories about survival of the fittest and related eugenicist notions that lasted through the Boer and Great Wars into the 1920s, the notion that some men are born superior and are therefore immune from the laws and social customs of lesser folk was sustained. And while later generations may think they are more liberal, reasoned people than their ancestors, we need only look at the news in the last fortnight to see that those notions of elite exemption, that rules needn’t apply equally to everyone, are still very much in evidence.

Stephen Dolginoff’s 2003 musical Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story was the latest in a long line of cultural products inspired by this infamous murder case in 1920s America. Orson Welles starred as their lawyer Clarence Darrow in the film Compulsion in 1959 while, most famously, Alfred Hitchcock based his 1948 movie Rope on the crime, while Rope itself has gone on to inspire both Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s Psychoville as well as Sam Mendes’ one-shot technique used in 1917. Dolginoff’s musical itself has been continually revived with productions in 2015 at the Greenwich Theatre followed by a 2017 stint at the Arcola directed by Guy Rettalack, then in 2019 at the Hope Theatre led by Matthew Parker which now transfers to the Jermyn Street Theatre for a three week run.

At just 85-minutes, Dolginoff’s musical is a masterclass in succinct and intensive storytelling, a fascinating character study that tries to unpick the reasoning behind what was perceived as a motiveless murder while never detracting from the cold-blooded horror of Leopold and Loeb’s actions. But far from a scientific and remote assessment of their actions, Dolginoff created a production that is filled with emotional complexity as 34-years on Nathan Leopold looks back on his part in this savage murder framed as a parole hearing in which he reveals a story of acute sexual obsession and coercive control that is as dramatically interesting as the superman concept the killers used to justify their lawless spree

Told in flashback from a single perspective, Dolginoff in many ways feeds a societal obsession with the perpetrators rather than the victims of serious crimes and while their target Bobby Franks is named, like his murderers who chose him at random from the school gates, the audience learns almost nothing about him. Instead we are taken into the mind of Nathan Leopold whose testimony to the Parole Board is used to move the story along, seamlessly filling gaps in time and changes of location that maintain the overall pace and shape of the show.

But it also serves as a reminder that everything being presented to the viewer is Leopold’s version of events, and despite being a clever two hander, even the presentation of Richard Loeb is being told from Leopold’s perspective, a structural slight of hand that is easy to forget as you become immersed in Dolginoff’s consuming storytelling. But Loeb is never around to offer his point of view and for those who don’t know the outcome, just what happened to Richard Loeb is one of the musical’s drivers along with the result of Leopold’s Parole Board and learning their true motive in the retelling of these defining months in his life.

Dolginoff spends some time setting the scene, painting a picture of young men who were more than friends but tainted by different notions of superiority that colour their time together. As well as scenes and songs discussing their intellectual belief in Nietzsche’s philosophies of class-like social layers in which individuals are born above the basic existence of others and are therefore more worthy and free of ordinary constraints, as much time is spent establishing the semi-abusive personal relationship between Nathan and the disdainful object of his affection, Richard.

And it is still relatively rare to see this abuse dynamic in a same sex relationship on stage, so while Leopold is by no means a likeable or even emotionally stable personality, Loeb’s callous manipulation of his seemingly ‘weaker’ partner, using his obvious devotion to demand collusion, complicity and, eventually, protection from prosecution, is one of Thrill Me‘s most unusual aspects giving it additional layers that qualify what could have been a sensationalist account of a gruesome crime. It is particularly notable that Loeb casually uses sex as a weapon to coerce his lover into assisting him, withholding it when it suits him despite their blood contract to ‘thrill’ each other with crimes and carnal encounters. As their bargain becomes tiresome to Loeb, his own feelings of superiority over the more emotionally invested Leopold, lead him to make a series of arrogant mistakes that shapes the remainder of the story.

Yet Dolginoff never allows Leopold to become too sympathetic either. He may be in an abusive relationship but Thrill Me asks some unanswered questions about the extent to which Leopold was culpable for the crimes he assisted with – including early thrills such as arson and burglary – and whether he could have stopped them in songs like Way to Far just before the murder which is also reprised later in the show. Leopold’s obvious sexual obsession with Loeb and jealousy of unseen friends adds to our uncertainty about his stability. It marks him as an oddity, a loner who doesn’t quite fit with little to focus on other than his much admired friend, and this marks a particular contrast to the more grounded and measured character he presents 34 years later. Was this a youthful fit of young love or is Leopold skilfully bending the historical record to impress the prison authorities and the audience?

In Bart Lambert’s performance for Jermyn Street Theatre’s production you are never entirely sure. His Leopold is an unnerving creation, a bundle of feelings and thoughts that manifest as tics and expressions that make for a extremely physical interpretation of the character. Lambert is never still, his Leopold never at ease at any point in the story, either anticipating affection or rejection from Loeb in a trembling feeling that courses through his limbs and vocal. He is constantly thinking, the mind appearing to leap from worry to happiness, despair to passion in just moments, giving him a mercurial although not necessarily dangerous quality.

It’s a potentially clever piece of misdirection from Lambert, using the strands of empathy that Dolginoff builds into the character to give Leopold a geeky sadness, a man desperate to be loved by someone who actively refuses to return his feelings. And it builds right into the musical’s point of view, that this is Leopold showing us Nathan as we ought to see him, the poor, misguided student driven crazy by love and forced to go along with a series of terrible crimes. Lambert contrasts this so well with the older Leopold, transforming in a second into the reasoned, regretful prisoner trying to win his freedom by adopting a deeper tone to his voice and more confident stance that adds considerable weight to the revelations that conclude this story.

Jack Reitman’s Richard Loeb is a harder character to pitch in some ways largely driven by an intellectual curiosity and arrogance that, understandably, leaves no room for emotional depth or empathy with his perspective. Reitman presents Loeb as detached, cold even sociopathic, with no evident conscience or concern in the aftermath of his crimes. He becomes more animated during the acts themselves but the brief excitement quickly subsides.

But Reitman’s Loeb has a charisma and easy confidence that makes sense of Leopold’s obsession with him, a need to be the centre of attention, to have the final world that makes him often disdainful of his companion’s advances. There is a weakness underneath, a fear of not doing anything that matters that Reitman feeds through his characterisation which subtly undercuts Loeb’s enjoyment of the power he wields, and while he believes that power gives him freedom to act without consequence, Reitman makes the most of his final song Afraid to explore an eventual dark night of the soul as it inevitably catches up with the deluded boy he always was underneath.

Thrill Me suits the intimacy of smaller venues and Matthew Parker’s production brings a feeling of pacey claustrophobia to Jermyn Street as these two men become trapped in an addictive cycle. Rachael Ryan’s set is a wonderfully evocative police reconstruction wall filled with photos, maps and notes created on Loeb’s crucial typewriter as well as tagged evidence connected by red string that extends across the top of the playing space to create accusatory links into the audience that question our social philosophies, laws and fascination with killers that created and sustain a ghoulish interest in Leopold and Loeb.

Chris McDonnell’s lighting design is incredibly atmospheric moving from a beautiful spring day in the woods when the friends are reunited before slowly sucking the light out of the show, first in dim rooms in which crimes were planned and then the pure multi-level darkness of the central murder moment lit only by the intensifying glare of Loeb’s roadster headlamps. McDonnell also creates valuable and swift locational changes such as the impression of a raging fire in a factory as well as the stripped flickering light of the prison when Leopold is making his final appeal.

Parker’s production is swift but evocative, integrating scene changes into the story as the characters shift boxes and benches naturally to establish the next location and keep Dolginoff’s musical on track while the absence of other actors – besides the pianist (uncredited) providing accompaniment- adds to the notion of being in Leopold’s mind throughout with even the booming pre-recorded voices of authority seeming to come from a distant, unrelated place.

It is such an interesting time for musical theatre, offering real opportunities to rival drama in the successful and meaningful presentation of more complex or tragic stories. From the latest Cabaret revival to Gatsby: A Musical, there is a darker form emerging that suits this timely revival of Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story, and at a time when our leaders really do think they are Nietzsche’s ‘supermen’, this Jermyn Street production is a stark warning of just how dangerous feeling superior can be.

Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 5 February with tickets from £15 in preview. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Force Majeure – Donmar Warehouse

Force Majeure - Donmar Warehouse (by Marc Brenner)

Force Majeure, a random act of God that cannot be predicted or measured that entirely disrupts planned activity, something we can all appreciate a little better in the past two years, certainly as force majeure has caused significant delay to Tim Price’s play of the same name. Originally scheduled for 2020, Covid struck again in late 2021 when the production was forced to close because company members tested positive and had to isolate, cancelling the show’s original Press Night. Returning to the stage between Christmas and New Year, not even a random act of God can save this slightly underwhelming production whose staging choices place spectacle over narrative purpose and audience engagement.

Based on a two hour movie by Ruben Östlund, the play Force Majeure brings across some interesting themes about human behaviour under extreme pressure and, in the wake of natural disasters, begins a philosophical debate about the ‘correct’ instinctual response when something goes unexpectedly wrong. When father of two Tomas abandons his family and is seen running away from an avalanche at an exclusive ski resort, it sets in motion a chain of events that affect his marriage and the opinion of his children and friends.

Across 2.5 hours, Force Majeure unpicks Tomas’s instinctive response and the consequences, mixing fraught family drama with this more abstract discussion of nature, the protective instinct and the ‘right’ response when making a split-second decision. So far, so interesting, but Price’s adaptation instead becomes overly repetitive with the central family having several versions of the same conversation with each other and then with their late-arriving pals who miss the main event. While we get a sense of Tomas’s actions as an emotional turning point that no one can let go, it makes for stodgy drama as the plot stalls with even a major pre-interval revelation leaving the audience wondering what could be left to say in the final hour.

Part of the problem is a series of short scenes that work fine in the cinema where quick cutaways create drive and direction but in the theatre require clunky scene changes to take the characters to new locations without developing the depth of perspective that makes you care about the individuals or properly pushes them to explore and justify their behaviours. In adapting the film, Price also takes each scene round in circles, having individuals say the same thing several times or carry on a particular joke a beat too long, making the plot feel overly laboured while sacrificing any serious development for the central family.

This static drama is very noticeable in the first half of the play where – aside from an energetic opener and the drama of the avalanche careering towards the trapped family – over an hour of subsequent talking is taken up almost exclusively by the question of whether father Tomas ran away from rather than seeking to protect his wife and kids. And the characters have multiple versions of the same discussion for the rest of the play – Tomas denying it and claiming Ebba’s perception of the event is misconstrued, Ebba equally adamant about what she saw. They talk about it as family, the couple argue about it when they are alone and they talk to strangers as well as friend Mats and his girlfriend Jenny, going over and over and over the same ground with neither yielding. By the time the interval arrives, it is increasingly difficult to care about this fractious family and their endless, somewhat stagey, arguments.

Price also begins Act Two in a similar fashion with Mats and new, much younger girlfriend Jenny debating the same issue as they take sides resulting in judgements about their own personalities. It is a scene intended to be comic as Mats agonises about the reflections on his character and late-night refusal to drop it and go to sleep. Their mutual exasperation is funny to a point but several minutes into the scene, the repeated scenario becomes tiresome, willing them to go to bed so we and the play (with another hour to run) can move on.

What we never get is a proper sense of why these people behave as they do and the pre-existing context that might make their reactions more explicable. Information is relatively basic, Tomas and Ebba’s marriage was already on the rocks, Mats had left his first wife and is now dating Jenny who is blithely and unquestioningly accepted despite being 20-years his junior, while Tomas and Ebba’s son implies some form of behavioural issue that requires careful management and intense parental attention, yet none of this is fully explored within the play and in asking the viewer to just accept the circumstances without deeper consideration misses an opportunity to ground the collective hysteria and avoidance of the truth in a much wider story about relationships, family and work pressure that has created a deep fissure waiting for almost any excuse to give way – the aftermath of the avalanche becoming a proxy for the true cause of and excuse for disharmony.

The single-issue focus of the story creates a feeling of dislocation between character and drama, so while Force Majeure builds to a moment of self-realisation and a consequential clearing of the decks, it is difficult to feel emotionally invested in the individuals in any meaningful way. That is partly a question of staging but also of tone, and Michael Longhurst is never quite sure if he is directing a comedy or a drama, eliciting laughs in some of the play’s more incisive moments. Like The Boss of It All and Another Round, Scandinavian dramas often have a particular blackly comic style that mixes irreverence with an oddball quality that allows a tragi-comic feel to emerge, and throughout Force Majeure there is a sense that a similar piece is trying to escape but the show is yet to find that balance, lost in the overwritten nature of the scenes and the slightly choppy drama that prevents any momentum from growing.

This is further exacerbated by the Donmar’s peculiar staging decision, building a ski slope that allows for a couple of very stylish moments as supporting cast members project themselves diagonally down the stage, but with the whole design facing forward, it loses opportunities to play to the wraparound-style auditorium particularly when the vast majority of scenes are based in bars, hotel rooms and cafes that are not on the mountain at all. The Donmar is a rare venue with no truly restricted views – there are side views in both the Stalls and Circle that sometimes put the audience’s eyeline behind the actors for a time, but all seats are close to the stage with clear, unobstructed sightlines.

So, in a venue with three sides and an apron stage, it seems ludicrous to build a piece of staging that creates quite severely restricted views for anyone sitting in the side Stalls (usually some of the best seats). Yet designer Jon Bausor has created a slope that increases in gradient towards the back of the stage meaning these audience members are unable to see the stage floor, can barely see the actors when they are sitting on the slope itself, often have views obscured by furniture or other actors blocking their colleagues and spend most of the action staring at the sides of a furry ramp. Only the straight-on Stalls seats will see a full view. Stylish it may be, memorable certainly and prices have been reduced accordingly but these choices do very little to enhance the experience of the play or particularly reflect its locations and context.

It is notable how often audience experience is sacrificed to design and directorial preference, and with the top critics usually given the most advantageous (and ergo most expensive) seats, the problems of restricted view seating has been given very little profile. In older theatre buildings, the curvature of the room and the existence of pillars just cannot be avoided, yet theatremakers rarely sit in these seats to watch their own show from these unusual angles – it might alter their choices if they did. Someone spending £10 on a ticket doesn’t love or understanding theatre any less that someone spending £70 nor do they necessarily prefer a vertiginous view of a far away story, it is an economic decision based on affordability and it shouldn’t mean their enjoyment or ability to see a show is any less worthy. Venues could do more to reasonably accommodate the known restrictions, for example by not setting too many scenes at the sides of the stage – particularly now when £70 may only get you a seat in the balcony in some places.

To purposefully create viewing limitations in an otherwise intimate theatre is baffling, and Force Majeure suffers from forcing a proscenium arch design that plays in only one direction into a three-sided auditorium that cuts visibility for a quarter of its audience. There is very little benefit to these staging choices and while the cross-ramp skiing is impressive and unusual, there must have been multiple other possibilities for a story set largely indoors. For once the Circle is probably the best place to see this production and even the £10 seats here will offer a superior experience to the side Stalls.

Among the performances, Rory Kinnear and Lyndsey Marshall are always worth seeing and while their characters offer relatively little substance, the actors find the emotional depths of Ebba’s blind fury and disgust with her husband that Marshall subtly suggests gives her the excuse she needs to finally leave while Kinnear’s blank effrontery is both wounded and embarrassed, sometimes hiding a deeper purpose and half believing his own nonsense. Sule Rimi as Mats and the excellent Siena Kelly, fresh from her triumphant Maggie in ETT’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, add some much needed relief from the claustrophobic family drama, offering convincing depth in their comedy side roles.

Nonetheless, Force Majeure feels like a missed opportunity for a tighter, more philosophical drama about different forms of self-preservation in the face of natural disasters and how these are conditioned by the fears or phobias we carry around with us. We all wear masks everyday, desperate to hide our weaknesses and foibles from others, and it is only in these moments of great crisis that they fall away and a raw nature is revealed. That tight character study was the focus Force Majeure really needed and, in staging this play, remembering that the audience experience should matter, whatever you’ve paid for your ticket.

Force Majeure is at the Donmar Warehouse until 5 February with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Folk – Hampstead Theatre

Folk - Hampstead Theatre (by Robert Day)

Hampstead Theatre is first out of the gates once again in 2022 with its new piece Folk, a smart two hour story about composition and the appropriation of music by those wanting to capture a truly English sound. With its interest in identity, ownership, tradition and the ‘rules’ applied to written rather than oral forms, Nell Leyshon’s play, which aired on Radio 3 in 2021, now earns a fully staged run in the smaller downstairs space at the Hampstead Theatre, offering an insightful consideration of artistic integrity and music styles.

Plays about music tend to focus on two things – novelty of form brought about usually through the arrival of a particular or radical individual, and rivalry in which singers or bands compete with one another for Number 1s or top billing. Some like Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus do both, charting the disruptive effect of Mozart’s composition told through bitter rivalry with Salieri who tries to destroy his genius.

But most of the work about the creation and dissemination of songs tends to happen through musical theatre and largely in tales of twentieth-century American bands overcoming personal strife as they make their way from tour group to TV sensation. And shows like The Jersey Boys, The Drifter’s Girl, Sunny Afternoon and recent addition Get Up, Stand Up follow this trend. Folk, then, is a different kind of show altogether in not exploring the development of new songs or singers but in the presentation of a pre-existing collection of common melodies handed between the generations and connecting past and future through stories of individuals and landscapes.

Leyshon’s play has several dimensions; set in 1903, it looks at contrasts between rural communities and self-styled urban elites, between ordered, industrial forms and free, creative or instinctual styles as well as class, gender, economic and educational divides. Focused on just four characters, the action revolves around two glove-making sisters in Somerset recovering from the recent death of their mother and the men they encounter as different attitudes, opportunities and turn-of-the-century mores collide through the performance of and discussions about the appropriation of folk music.

Based on real people and to an extent real circumstances, Leyshon imagines the conversations between Cecil Sharp, a London-based teacher and composer, and Louie Hooper, a glovemaker turned parlour maid who is convinced to share the songs her mother taught her as Sharp looks to be the first person to capture England’s folk songs in printed form. Although it is staged as a dramatic narrative in two Acts, the play is filled with the very songs Sharp ensnared and there is a central debate about Sharpe’s actions and the extend to which he betrayed Louie and the people like her.

Did Sharp ‘steal’ their music and then sell it with his name on the cover or did Sharp play a more positive role in capturing what he describes in the play as a ‘dying’ form, threatened by industrialisation and the urbanisation of manual occupations? So through the conversations with Louie, Leyshon is asking some quite challenging questions about the imposition of socially-engineered rules for music which becomes a scientific need to record, analyse and distribute that clashes with the more Romantic notions of free, evolving creativity.

The provenance of the folk songs that Sharp hears in the play becomes fiercely contested. To Louie, suffering from a deep and abiding grief for a lost parent, these are the last remnants of the mother who taught them to her and although she has the freedom to change them, Louie possessively thinks of them as her family’s songs. And in them, Leyshon argues, are layers of meaning and geographical specificity that Sharp’s reductive versions can never fully appreciate.

When Louie speaks about the songs as she performs them, they not only hold a personal connection to the home she lives in and the singing that the Hooper family have always done to pass the hours as they work, but they represent a linguistic and pastoral experience that is very much a living thing. In one especially powerful moment, Louie charts the progress of a young woman through several specific fields in the local area, describing the length of the verse and repetition of phrases based on the size of the various meadows and the inclination of the land. What Leyshon creates in these exchanges is a tangible sense of the music’s physicality as well as its energy and shape that can only be truly recited by those who understand and have inherited its meaning.

It leaves Sharp’s role in a complex position – although not an entirely unsympathetic one. While certain of himself and his own skill with musical notation and composition, Leyshon creates this warmer feeling to Sharp, like a man aimlessly running around with a butterfly net trying to pin down an intangible and brilliantly-coloured creature that he cannot begin to understand but is equally incapable of possessing as it wriggles and shifts its way to freedom.

Sharp consequently represents a middle-class desire for order, trying to impose orchestral music regulation by writing folk songs as a series of notes and expressions on a sheet to be played. This is a position that he sticks to, insisting that he has done a greater good in publishing the songs while muddied by the claims of his own ego and desire to be publicly recognised among his peers. How this can be viewed as a betrayal of the people who shared songs with him through Sharp’s failure to grasp the meaning of the songs he published and without crediting their authors is nicely balanced with Sharp’s enthusiasm for the music, his genuine desire to record it for posterity and, crucially, his initial willingness to learn from Louie, adapting his record with her advice.

What emerges in the early part of Folk is a reverse Henry Higgins scenario as Sharp receives instruction from the young working class woman who spends many hours trying to teach him about these stories. So while Sharp brings a metropolitan sophistication to Somerset with his greater literacy, wider knowledge of orchestral composers and an ability to read and write musical score, it is Louie who grows into a position of power and authority that belies their class divide and the educational barriers between them.

And the play develops a strand that explores the rigid learning from which Sharp seems unable to escape compared with the instinctual knowledge of life, nature and meaning that Louie exemplifies. That Leyshon balances these theoretical debates about the form and function of music with a subplot about the pressure placed on the sisters and a local man to deliver their hand-sewn gloves to targets as their traditional ways of working are being squeezed by the presence of a local factory and its soulless mass production adds to the reality of Folk, giving its Somerset characters a grounding in a lifestyle on the cusp of change with the last group of families whose livelihoods are all but lost to ‘progress’.

That London, by extension, is never seen and only represented by the personality of Sharp or referred to in his Second Act return makes it seem like a mythical place of concerts and parties with music critics and audiences that has very little to do with real life. Leyshon is creating a feeling that the reality of this music rests not in books and cultural gatherings but in the people whose lives both appear in the songs and continue to provide material for future verses. Thereby, Leyshon leaves her audience with the thought that Sharp may not have been entirely in the wrong, although his methods were shoddy, but even having a printed book from 1903 cannot begin to capture the depth, range and meaning of a form of music that defies simplification and through its oral tradition continues to be free.

Mariam Haque as Louie grows in stature as the story unfolds, particularly as she starts to trust her superior understanding of the songs, increasingly emboldened by her certainty about how they should be performed, heard and shared. Leyshon provides just enough backstory for Haque to draw on as the play opens on a young woman whose damaged leg has meant she was more at home with her mother, allowing Louie to become the guardian of these songs. The grief and agoraphobia Haque projects are manifested as frustration; first unwilling to engage with those around her until the music itself draws her out, ready to carry the traditions and honour her mother’s legacy. Haque explores this with considerable empathy for Louie as she becomes more confident in her own voice and her strength of character emerges.

By contrast, Simon Robson’s Cecil Sharp is a city creature expressed in his formal manner and civilised forms of address as well as a consuming acceptance of the established modes of musical expression. There is a touch of superiority in Robson’s Sharp, a belief that Louie should be impressed by his refinement and the seriousness with which he takes her music. His mistake is to assume that her people would want the same things as him, that a publication and acclaim could be the ultimate goal of Louie’s life as well as his. Yet, Robson doesn’t make Sharp a two-dimensional villain and he is both chastised by and amazed by Louie, willing to listen to her and absorb the lessons, sometimes all too aware of his inferiority of subject and personality which detracts from his less worthy qualities, giving the drama its drive.

The supporting storyline between Sasha Frost’s Lucy and Ben Allen’s John is less well developed however, although there are some interesting themes about working class aspiration, the reluctance to take jobs in the local factories and marital limitations in small communities. It is a strand that could be expanded to consider what the future may have in store for the sisters once the menfolk are gone – just as Sharp left these characters behind, so do we.

Directed by Roxana Silbert with a very smart design by Rose Revitt, merging a plain cottage backdrop with beautiful wallpaper that speaks to the content of the songs as well as charmingly sanitised city-based perceptions of the countryside, Folk packs of lot of meaning into its two hour running time. A rare play about music that eschews rivalry and fame for meaning and provenance, Folk has much to say about songs that may speak to a rural experience of England that belongs to the land and its people but can never truly be contained.

Folk is at the Hampstead Theatre until 5 February with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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