Monthly Archives: April 2022

Jerusalem – Apollo Theatre

When it first premiered in 2009 at the Royal Court, Jerusalem was hailed as the greatest British play of the twenty-first century. As Jez Butterworth’s production returns to the West End, with original cast members Mark Rylance and Mackenzie Crook, it is interesting to reflect on how well-anointed modern classics fare more than a decade after they were originally feted. Britain has changed since 2009 and many would say not for the better. How well does Butterworth’s work still reflects notions of British identity, of the urban/rural divide, of poverty, belonging and coming-of-age rites? While the very notion of a single play being the ‘greatest’ of a whole century is fairly reductive – and there are countless works in the intervening years that deserve similar accolades – there is much in Jerusalem‘s understanding of the underlying truths of pastoral England, the contention of the small-scale and the universal as well as a desire to find pockets of escape, places or people that remain steadfastly and reassuringly the same at points of relentless and irreversible change that make Jerusalem as pertinent as it ever was.

Butterworth’s play is rooted in the folk lore and traditions of pastoral England, and is almost Shakespearean in its use of woodlands as places of nocturnal mischief and refuge. Around the central character of Johnny “Rooster” Byron – the Oberon of his merry band – he gathers a flock of pixies who dance to his tune. Opening after a wild night at Rooster’s stationary caravan (importantly on that site since 1982), the devotees come and go throughout the next 24-hours, always returning to this spot and the man who has achieved a God-like status among them, carousing while listening to the wisdom and tall tales of their master of ceremonies. As well as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Butterworth’s other key reference point here is J.M. Barrie’s Lost Boys (and Girls), generations of whom come to Rooster’s woodland pleasure garden, allowing them to defer their real lives and problems as well as the pressure to grow up for a night or even a summer.

Around this drug-fuelled idyll without rules or judgement, Butterworth creates a sense of ending, of time slipping away for two characters certainly, as well as the beautiful strip of untouched England. Rooster is served with an eviction notice at the very start of the play, a piece of paper he affects to ignore but quietly acknowledges that this time the local Council mean business. It gives him just 24-hours to vacate, a ticking clock that the play tries to conceal in its languorous (but very pointed) storytelling that adds a last days of Rome tragedy that sits beneath the surface of the scenario.

Equally, young reveller Lee is departing for Australia, provoking wider reflection among the partygoers on their determinedly local perspective on the wider world along with the fear and suspicion of places beyond their county. But Lee’s imminent flight, also within the same 24-hour period, means this merry band will soon be dispersed forever, this last night likely to be the final time they too will ever be together in this way before their adult lives and responsibilities claim them. Even if the frightened Lee returns, he won’t be quite the same person that he is in this unique moment. While the wider cast know of Lee’s departure but not the scale of the threat against Rooster’s occupation of this land (at least this is not something they consciously acknowledge), that ending hangs heavy in the air.

The context for this finality is the encroaching urban landscape, the recent completion of a new estate that here ambiguously represents both greater opportunity and civilisation, bringing characters like Pea into the area, while also presenting a fundamental threat to the landscape and traditional ways of life symbolised by Rooster’s caravan. His camp is labelled an eyesore, his presence a danger to local life and his personality out of sync with contemporary morality, but Butterworth implies that the removal of Rooster is not to preserve the beauty of the location and improve the view for residents, but to provide more land on which to build, that the mixed fortunes of the estate will swallow up this patch of hallowed ground, losing its ancient forest and mystical connections forever.

This links also to the changing nature of the fair which the characters are attending off-stage, an annual celebration of local life that has a mystic pull on the locals with its selection of the May Queen (another ending as the outgoing monarch must crown her successor). Yet, the fair has also decreased in value over many years the youngsters complain that its once broad appeal has been sanitised and reduced by regulation and policy. In this, Jerusalem is in the Romantic tradition, a warning about the consequences of industrialisation that beds the play in a 250-year poetic and cultural and poetic approach that reinforces the universality of its themes.

But Butterworth is not wholly swept away by his subject, taking some time to reflect on the underbelly of rural life and the mass of contradictions that Rooster and his lifestyle represent. This is a place where hate festers, opportunity it limited and compassion has very little traction. The disappearance of a 15-year-old girl casts a dark shadow, another piece of the play that Butterworth tries to bury in light conversation but a subject that hauntingly returns in each scene, culminating in acts of savage violence that speak to simmering tensions in this community fuelled by bigotry and isolationism. A lighter example comes in Act 2 when Davey complains about the wider focus of the local TV news station, refusing sympathies for old ladies beaten-up in Wales and only concerned with the immediate neighbourhood. This extends to his equally scathing view of Lee’s travel plans, wondering what the point of other countries is and dismissive of the need for any experience or existence beyond his enclosed definition of locality. Butterworth uses this humorous example to question the insularity of the characters and the negative traits it reinforces, creating cycles of behaviour that are perhaps dangerously unchanging. This resistance to some personal development sits against the externally-imposed change creating a tension in the action that is deliberately never resolved, leaving the audience to determine whether Davey or Lee is really on the right track.

Much of the play’s darkness also comes from the ambiguous character of Rooster whose folk hero status and role as a comedic protagonist are repeatedly undercut by his behaviour and choices. Almost entirely amoral in many ways, or at least unwilling to comply with social and political rules he had no input into making, Rooster is a drug-dealer, an alcoholic, troublemaker and lothario who lies continually while surrounding himself only with people too young to question him. He has fathered a child by a local woman who he has no interest in and very little contact with, claims to have had adulterous liaisons with several of the town’s wives and, in one of the play’s most troubling scenes, comes dangerously close to crossing the line with an underage girl, a sequence that looks a little different with the passing years and one that casts the subsequent retribution in a slightly different light. In this contemporary restaging, Rooster is by no means a benign figure or the party master he sets himself up to be. Described as a Pied Piper, the less savoury connotations of that make for an interesting clash with the empathy the play also reaches for.

Butterworth simultaneously puts Rooster in an interesting position among the other characters, a figure that everyone needs but, ultimately, no one wants. Attention is momentarily drawn to the disrespect with which the younger characters actually hold him, happy to take his drugs and hospitality but never giving Rooster a second thought once the party is over. At times of true need, Rooster is left to face his fate alone, the gatherers long since departed for their own problems, leaving him without anyone to rely on. Even friend Ginger flees in fear. There is a tragedy in this that Butterworth, and Rylance though his performance, make very tangible. None of this entirely absolves him of his poor behaviour and character weaknesses but it adds depth to the play with Butterworth drawing on a variety of theatrical tragedy reference points including the sadness of the clown out of the spotlight and even the feeling of the dying monarch or leader in Shakespeare, his followers gravitating to a successor. It coalesces as an individuality in the play in which all characters are ultimately self-serving, retaining neither friendship or any true loyalty beyond the immediate moment, something which Rooster himself is as guilty as anyone else.

Structurally, like The Ferryman much later, Jerusalem is built around a sense of seemingly disconnected and disparate conversations that ebb and flow, both reflecting and creating the action. And it is through this concept of oral tradition , of communities telling stories, legends and myths about earlier generations and themselves that identity formation occurs and is reinforced within the play. The passing of information is partially the job of Rooster who establishes himself as a knowledge provider, a man who has seen and experienced it all, however fantastical some of those self-aggrandising tales appear to be. And while there is no complexity in the plot as such, more a capturing of 24-hours through its moods, tones and shifts in activity, these somehow successfully encapsulate a way of life in this part of England as the unfolding of these stories, the way they hang together and the manner in which they are told become collectively revelatory and insightful.

What emerges speaks to another of the play’s deliberate central tensions – the role of Rooster as both interloper on the land and an essential part of a local life and experience expressed through a scene in which he responds to names on a petition against him, revealing his knowledge and encounters with every person over decades of living close by – a place he is also genetically linked to through his son. Using this loose conversational technique, Butterworth explores the nature of belonging and the legal, political, social and geographical meanings of identity.

Rylance’s performance as Rooster is full of verve, moving away from the slightly more mannered Shakespearean performances of recent years to remind the West End what a powerful actor he can be. Entirely immersed in the character, the passing of more than a decade hasn’t dimmed his performance and the creation of this complex, multidimensional character, every comic contradiction of which is lived large on stage. Managing to be captivating and repellent at the same time, Rylance’s Rooster is king of all he surveys and entirely deluded, half believing the nonsense anecdotes he tells while consciously glorying in his reputation for excess and disruption. He is aggressive and kind, merciless and vulnerable, devil and angel. All of this Rylance conveys as part of Rooster’s allure, never forgiving him for what he is but finding that kernel of loneliness, fear and insecurity that he buries with booze, drugs and the vigorous energy of his young companions.

Crook leads his band of followers as the more worldly Ginger, long-term associate for whom the party never ended. Chief Lost Boy, Ginger is, however, more grounded, less in thrall to his friend and ultimately no more willing to put himself in danger for Rooster’s sake. Jack Riddiford is particularly excellent as Lee, nervous about facing the real world but knowing deep down that he must if he is ever going to escape the locals and himself while Charlotte O’Leary, Kemi Awoderu and Ed Kear complete the ensemble of desperately foolish but oblivious young revellers having the springtime of their lives. Barry Sloane makes a couple of tone-changing appearances as Troy, the stepfather looking for the missing girl whose own history with Rooster brings the threat and the reality of violence to his door.

Back at the Apollo where it transferred in 2010, Ian Rickson’s production uses real grass and trees, giving an immersive experience to the front few rows who can inhale the odour of country freshness while dodging sprays of beer in Rooster’s more exuberant moments. Does it stand up 13-years on, well yes it does because Butterworth recognised that some things just don’t change and the picture he paints of receding opportunity, polarisation and the breakdown of identity in the name of progress are perhaps more true now than they were in 2009. Now this modern classic has certainly earned that place on the list of the 21st-century’s greatest plays.

Jerusalem is at the Apollo Theatre until 7 August with tickets from £40 although day seats are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Marys Seacole – Donmar Warehouse

Marys Seacole - Donmar Warehouse

The Donmar’s last production dealt with the causes and consequences of male violence, the rhetoric and celebrated gung-ho spirit that takes men to war – legitimate or otherwise – charismatic leadership and the destruction of the male body. Henry V is a play filled with ambiguity, men die on the battlefield, they die in between, they are soldiers, they are civilians, they are noblemen and paupers, prisoners, spies and thieves. And Henry may walk away with another crown and a bargain princess with whom to start a dynasty, but someone has to pick up the pieces, to care for the wounded and dying when the King’s glory leaves them with shattered limbs, infections and survivor’s guilt. A biographical drama about Mary Seacole seems like a fitting follow-up.

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s new play Marys Seacole is an entirely female affair, no male characters are present, implied or even speak, only the time-travelling idea of Mary, her ghostly mother, Mary’s daughter and another tri-generational white family that she helps in a twenty-first century hospital setting. And while Sibblies Drury creates an overarching structure in which the story of the original Mary is played out from her early days in Kingston to the conflict zone of Crimea, the deliberate ‘s’ to pluralise the protagonist takes a long lens perspective on the role of female carers across two centuries and the gendered biological structures that continue to constrain women.

But Marys Seacole is a tough watch, an abstract style and disjointed scenes make it difficult to invest in what are archetypes rather than characters performing in what often feels like a chaotic assemblage of disconnected activities. It opens with Mary introducing her story, emphasising her determination and success as a woman who escaped conventionality to establish her own business and defied military and nursing authorities by arriving close to the battlefield with her team. Across the 1 hour and 45-minute running time, these elements are dramatised and distributed through the show like a backbone, (largely) retaining their period drama aesthetic to complete her physical and character journey from her homeland to a wider acceptance abroad.

From this, Sibblies Drury hangs another more nebulous dramatic device, using snippets drawn from scenarios involving versions of Mary and her daughter in different contemporary times and places. First we see her providing palliative care to a disorientated elderly woman in what we assume is an NHS hospital or facility and being chastised by the woman’s middle-aged daughter and granddaughter. Later, she sits on a park bench in the USA where mothers with babies in prams stop momentarily, ignoring Mary while one conducts brash phone conversations with a pharmacist and friend, while another complains about her loneliness. In a final scenario, Mary is running a trauma drill for new nurses, trying to heard a group of actors into performing their various roles in the aftermath of a terrorist incident.

They are connected by the cast performing similar character types and by the themes of motherhood and caregiving. There are also dialogue links between these situations with particular phrases uttered in earlier scenes returning later as individuals demand care, compassion or understanding, building to a frenzy of experience as Mary’s time in the Crimea becomes somehow bound-up with all of the people she has met and been throughout the play. And as the walls of time give way, allowing these shadows to bleed into her era and pick through the rubble, they overwhelm her with their demands for help.

And through this, Sibblies Drury weaves a broken connection with Mary’s ghostly mother, a lurking, spiritual presence that is always so strong in Carribean identity, who silently moves through the action, perhaps a yardstick for Mary to test her achievements against or a reminder that however far she travels she remains a Kingston woman. A lengthy monologue from this maternal ghost in the final scene speaks to these ideas, something of the shame Mary felt or disconnection from a parent who sent her away to care for a local white woman, but simultaneously reminding our heroine and all the Marys like her that their nursing efforts are in vain. There are nods to the government’s Windrush generation deportation plans to insist they will never be truly accepted and certainly never thanked for their work in the current NHS or contribution to wider social development in the last 70-years.

Sibblies Drury is telling an individual and a universal story at the same time, and there are powerful statements interwoven here, but together the seeming randomness of these various scenarios puzzles more than they explain or converge. The ideas are clear and the performative structures Sibblies Drury employs to tease out these concepts are certainly arresting, yet their overall meaning feels hazy. They are not quite straightforwardly dramatic yet also not impressionistic or representative enough to be either personally or politically pointed. The result is a piece that feels quite consciously stagey, keeping the audience on the outside of the drama and the emotive concerns it tries to address.

It is possible to see the influence of Carly Churchill and Sarah Kane in Sibblies Drury’s play, the combination of abrupt, anti-realist settings, the compression of time and historical figures into a single space as well as the interest in gender roles, motherhood and even the anthological style link to these two powerhouse political writers. Yet Marys Seacole doesn’t find quite enough strength in its connections, the joins between the various situations not yet strong enough to either grab the audience or push them to a place of discomfort where new thinking is possible. Instead, it feels as though most of the pieces are there but they just don’t fit together.

In staging Marys Seacole, Nadia Latif implies a simple but clinical medical field tent in a drab scrubs-green that sits somewhere between khaki and mint. Designed by Tom Scutt, there are two layers to the stage, front and back, divided by a strip of curtain with large Velcro pockets that double as storage rooms and sanitation facilities. Props are minimal which allows the story to travel relatively easily though time but there is no particular purity about period setting so anachronistic clothing or items (such as a nineteenth-century woman in trainers) appear throughout, although whether that is a deliberate statement to reinforce the fluidity of eras or a practical shortcut for costume changes is unclear.

There is however a powerful use of costume early on as the Victorian Mary delivering her opening biographical monologue is disrobed piecemeal by her daughter, removing the restrictive bodice and full skirt to reveal a modern nurses uniform. As a piece of identity performance, it is a fascinating moment, smartly easing our way into the next scene while simultaneously giving the audience a visual reference point for the core themes of Marys Seacole, as the narrative moves through and applies across time. And one of the production’s biggest successes is the way in which Scutt has represented changes in practice, dress and the management of conflict medicine through the design choices and reveals.

A contemporary hospital bed becomes an important and ingenious symbol of the Marys caregiving status. Initially used in the family scene in its original form, the bed transforms into a flat table with bench seating for Mary’s Kingston hotel and, later, into a park bench for the American moms encounter. Yet, there is inconsistency in how props are changed or moved within the production, sometimes actors bringing on their own items in relevant costume while the bed is repositioned and reformed by very visible stage managers in jarring modern black outfits and headsets, a necessity perhaps but it further breaks the illusion of the play and, like the undecided degree of abstract in the piece itself, it’s not clear what effect Latif is aiming for. There isn’t quite enough of this alienation technique to feel deliberate and if it isn’t then it just makes it even harder to maintain the spell during scene changes.

The production builds to a final confrontational scene that also tries to be symbolic and realistic at the same time. Finally, at the culmination of Mary’s story, there is some comedy in the brusque exchanges with a seemingly heartless and condescendingly competitive Florence Nightingale, but the men they tend are obvious dummies scattered chaotically around the stage, their torsos dressed in military jackets, trailing crepe paper streamers suggesting intestinal and other matter. Into this interaction between real people comes the people and phrases from other eras, holding plastic baby dolls – absurdist theatre is nothing without plastic baby dolls – and rifling through the debris. Visually, it’s a solid representation of the kind of battlefield carnage that those like Henry V would have caused but it has none of the visceral impact of Max Webster’s previous production, despite using some of the same soil. What we get instead, as in other parts of Marys Seacole, is powerful stage pictures but little translation of their meaning.

The performances are very good with a small ensemble cast of just six performers led by Kayla Meikle as the Marys. She is commanding from the first, delivering a rousing insistence of her worth, certain of her agency and importance, refusing to listen to the objections of others and pursuing her own course. Meikle explores some of the consequences of that determination in the final scene, responding to the maternal ghost’s warning of incipient racism, disinterest and betrayal, allowing her characterisation to crumble as the demanding world claws at her.

Meikle is supported by Llewella Gideon as that spirit who also delivers an final intense speech with bitterness and resignation, making the most of her only chance to speak. Olivia Williams is best as a haughty Florence Nightingale but is also given a harassed mother and simpering tourist in Kingston while Deja J. Bowens, Esther Smith and Susan Woolridge complete the cast as a series of mother and daughter figures at different stages of life, in various times and countries. They do a lot with a small ensemble, changing scenes rapidly to keep this relatively short show moving quickly even if very little of it makes sense.

Like the award-winning Fairview before it (staged at the Young Vic), Marys Seacole will certainly divide audiences with its sprawling approach and indecisive tone. It is certainly interesting to see a new play that tries to place a historical figure in a broader context of caregiving and racial injustice, particularly one devised and presented by a predominantly female creative team. But although Sibblies Drury’s play has lots of things to say and some interesting ways to say them, it can’t quite decide what it wants to be, leaving the audience equally baffled.

Marys Seacole is at the Donmar Warehouse until 4 June with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The 47th – Old Vic

Cultural reimaginings of the past are fairly commonplace; Robert Harris’s Fatherland wonders what the 1960s would have been like had Germany won the Second World War, Stephen Fry supposes the direction of the twentieth century had Hitler never existed at all in Making History while Dr Who is forever warning his or her companions of the consequences of meddling with historical timelines. But playwright Mike Bartlett has made a bit of an art out of notions of the counter-factual future, an oxymoron perhaps as those facts cannot possibly exist yet, but in Charles III and now in The 47th at the Old Vic, Bartlett grounds his flights of fancy in the knowledge of institutions, people and political tides rooted in the past and present, asking not only from what vantage point should we study contemporary events but when does the future become history?

The 47th is a both a parody and a warning about that future, and while fictionalised Donald Trump’s decision to run for re-election in 2024 may lend itself to easy spoof, Bartlett sets himself the same challenges as he did with Charles III, setting almost the entire play in iambic pentameter and drawing on grand Shakespearean structures to shape this story of dynastic rivalry, power, war and hubris. Capulet vs Montague, The Wars of the Roses, Egyptians vs Romans, Republican vs Democrat, Bartlett creates two great houses through which to explore his themes, deftly moving between camps while building anticipation for a decisive meeting between the rival leaders.

But Bartlett also finds layers of subterfuge, betrayal, resentment and vengeful desires within the family unit, placing the subtle but decisive effects of anguish and rivalries within The Trumps that have classic Shakespearean consequences. Like Richard III and his brothers, Lear’s daughters and Hamlet’s step-father-uncle issues, The 47th draws on tools and structures that Shakespeare employed to unpick the darker underbelly of family relationships in which loyalty and obedience are demanded by blood but rarely given without resentment. And it is this creation of different waves of activity, subplots and themes working through the grandiose framework that bring character depth and gravitas to a play that deals with a man who has become a caricature in an imagined future scenario.

The use of iambic pentameter is distinctive and, like Shakespeare, it is most noticeably spoken by those with elite status, defined by their membership of the inner circle – either as politicians, advisors or intellectuals. A handful of scenes set among the ordinary American Trump supporters use prose as well as stylised and choreographed movement to distinguish the different perspective and vocabulary of these encounters. Although audiences are more used to verse in contemporary plays since Charles III premiered in 2014 with recent successes like Cyrano de Bergerac‘s spoken word and street forms levelling the use of poetic rhythm and vocabulary to convey meaning across an entire show, Bartlett’s writing remains conversational despite the linguistic structures underpinning it, only occasionally ringing a duff note and stiffly drawing attention to itself.

Bartlett also plays with snatches of the Shakespeare canon, lifting concepts or scenarios from specific works, leaving the audience to spot the references. In one of the earliest scenes when Trump is choosing his heir, the writer of course looks to King Lear for an equivalent scene as each Trumpian child states their case for inheriting the mantle. Later Trump himself briefly reaches for the glorious rhetoric of Mark Antony’s funeral speech when he predictably betrays Ted Cruz and turns his audience into a baying mob. There are nods to Macbeth and again to Julius Caesar in the subsequent curse of Cruz’s wife Heidi that brings with it a driving destructive inevitability that defines the rest of the play, while the same influences feed into a Joe Biden sleepwalking scene filled with subconscious trauma. Trump’s own behaviour leans into both Iago and Richard III as his desire for self-preservation brings betrayal upon betrayal. Bartlett employs these nods subtly and sometimes comically, creating confederacy with the omnipotent audience who becomes increasingly complicit with the writer.

Trump himself retains the same ambiguous position in the show that he did in political life, a figure of fun much of the time whose delusions of grandeur offer a warped perspective, but nonetheless a powerful and dominating personality. Regardless of whether anyone in the play respects him or even agrees with his decisions, Bartlett finds the menace that he poses, the straightforward and disruptive charm that appeals to his voting base as well as the tricks of the orator whose bullish approaches to conversation, which rarely require a second voice, demand status. He may be ridiculous but you cannot ignore Donald Trump. The audience may laugh but that’s how he gets in.

And this is how Barlett takes the audience into this imagined story, looking at the morality of political decision-making and the extent to which Trump’s detractors can only truly defeat him by employing the same shady tactics as the 45th President. For those in public office, where should you draw the line between upholding an ethical and decent approach to problem solving and making dubious sacrifices for the greater good? The challenge that Barlett’s Democratic Party members face in The 47th is whether to heed Shakespeare’s advice in The Merchant of Venice – ‘to do a great right do a little wrong’ – and compromise themselves in order to save America.

The context for this within the story is instigated via another big thematic question about the nature of democracy and its protection. This plays out first through Trump’s insistence on throwing out the rule book at every turn, defying debate protocol and tearing up political structures to install cut-throat business practices in their place. His early betrayal of Cruz, the carving-up of the family fortune and his single-minded pursuit of a personal agenda that concentrate wealth and power in his own hands, tearing at the foundations of American public life including the two-term limit for Presidents are all traits grounded in behaviours and opinions expressed by the real Trump in the last six years. And Bartlett doesn’t aim for cheap laughs here, recognising the allure for the powerless of a man who wants to bring a whole system crashing down even if the one he builds in its place is closer to despotism. The notes on equivalent antidemocratic tendencies in Britain’s current Government do not pass unnoticed.

Using Shakespeare’s structural model, Bartlett uses public disorder, violence and chaos as the culminatory vehicle to explore democratic systems as off-stage events shape the actions of the political elite. Like the climactic wars in Antony and Cleopatra, Richard III and particularly Coriolanus, Bartlett creates opportunities for characters on both sides of the political divide to reflect on the causes, consequences and unfolding drama of civil unrest incited by Trump to smooth his path to power. Crisis meetings, plots and plans are mixed with movement pieces featuring riotous Americans led by a shaman that explore the role of mob rule and public protest in the rapid breakdown of democracy. The consequences of populism and Trump’s Joker-like enjoyment of the mayhem he unleashes would have seemed all-too fantastical a few year ago but after the events of January 2021, Bartlett warns that democracy is as fragile as ever and destructive forces are ever-ready to unleash.

Staged by Rupert Goold at the Old Vic, The 47th transforms its traditional proscenium arch into a jutting circular stage that evicts the first few rows of seating and brings the action into the auditorium. While the character of Trump needs little help in drawing attention to himself, Goold brings balance, giving space to other characters who are democratically given soliloquies, asides to the audience and opportunities for political speechifying. On Miriam Buether’s set with its walkways, staircases and back offices, it evokes the feel of the oval office and the complex corridors of power as well as the very public platform that the characters have to speak to the nation. And its big enough to drive on the full scale golf cart that opens the show.

With Barlett’s interest in the boundary between public and private, particularly within the Trump family, Goold frequently employs phone camera technology projected onto the back wall in grainy, distorted black and white as scenes are captured and relayed through social media, an instrument of public goading and insurrection given energy by Adam Cork’s composition and Neil Austin’s atmospheric lighting design. And as these wider elements unfold, the spotlight that Trump claims for himself slowly shifts as Goold brings the decisive figures of Kamala Harris and Ivanka Trump into focus.

Tamara Tunie’s Kamala Harris is the rational, reasonable epicentre of the show and truly Bartlett’s focus. A background figure as Vice President initially treated like a ‘flunkey’ by Trump, The 47th is really about Kamala grappling with duty and the dirty side of power. Tunie is superb, slowly assuming a central position in the play, charting the rise of Harris that brings a feeling of order, calm and rationality to the havoc both within the political system and on the streets of her country. Whether she will succumb to the temptation to use Trump’s methods against him, as the only means of defeat, is a question Bartlett poses on several occasions but Tunie’s dignified and collected performance is really the one to watch.

Lydia Wilson’s Ivanka faces that exact quandary as she too faces the impact of her father’s actions and the testing of her own limits of power. Ivanka is an ambiguous figure for much of the story, a clear killer instinct that quickly dispenses with her rival brothers (a good comedy pairing of Oscar Lloyd and Freddie Meredith as Donald Jnr and Eric) to assume the role of heir, but in later heeding her oldest brother’s warning, the ways in which Ivanka’s approach to dispensing authority and the most legitimate path to power drives a wedge between her and Trump. Wilson takes those cues to create a character who may also be underestimated but will allow little to stand in her way.

Bertie Carvel has taken on two of the biggest political figures of the last 50 years and after winning plenty of plaudits as James Graham’s version of Rupert Murdoch in Ink, his Trump goes beyond a surface imitation to look for the drivers beneath. While there are no surprising revelations – a competitive nature, a blatant sexism and disregard for other opinions and a degree of self-assurance that even Narcissus would baulk at – Carvel finds the switch that makes him so popular, eliciting plenty of laughs from the audience that explain Trump’s appeal entirely. Wearing facial prosthetics and a wig created by Richard Mawbey, it is the kind of extraordinary physical transformation usually seen on film, but Carvel’s Trump has Lear-like rages and a certain inevitability to his trajectory (certainly with Heidi Cruz’s curse hanging over him) but why ordinary people support him is exactly the button Carvel is able to push.

The 47th does have a Shakespearean predictability but when the time comes it slightly fizzles out, and having built a context of conflict and disorder, the conclusion is far smaller in scale than Shakespeare would have chosen. The subplots also suffer as a result, particularly James Cooney’s political aide infiltrating the opposition with Earl of Gloucester overtones. Bartlett is perhaps making the point that for all Trump’s bombast, the conclusion of this story may well be far more muted than dramatic cliché might suggest, but the end does feel a little underpowered on stage. Nonetheless, the race to be the 47th President is just around the corner and Bartlett’s plays distils the events of recent years and encourages us to think carefully about their consequence. In homage to Shakespeare, Bartlett’s smart counter-factual future is a great piece of theatre and while its predictions may seem hopeless, it offers a few surprises along the way.

The 47th is at the Old Vic until 28 May with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Anyone Can Whistle-Southwark Playhouse

Southwark Playhouse is this first major theatre to respond to the recent death of Stephen Sondheim with their new revival of Anyone Can Whistle, one of the strangest and least performed musicals in the canon. This wacky tale of faked miracles, town economics, mental health and social segregation is a puzzling one, combining some really great Sondheim songs and some strong female characters with a cartoonish plot by Arthur Laurents that barely holds together. But with some great performances and more than enough gusto, Southwark Playhouse just about make it worth a two hour and 30-minute investment.

First performed in 1964, Anyone Can Whistle is most notable for introducing (now Dame) Angela Lansbury to musical theatre on Broadway, but the show was deemed a disaster, closing after only 21 performances, a dozen of which can before press night. Southwark Playhouse will hope they fair rather better but the full show has largely been scavenged to provide numbers for out of context cabaret and concert performances including the glorious title song and brilliant melodies including There Won’t Be Trumpets.

So, is it any good? Well as a story, even as a socio-political commentary it is really quite lightweight and, while Laurents’s script taps into some interesting arguments, few of them feel properly developed or particularly tangible in their hugely exaggerated form. The plot is weak at best, even nonsensical and almost criminally basic by Sondheim’s usually rather high standards, lacking depth or even proper purpose. Most characters are either elaborate grotesques or generic concepts that lack individuality and are never fully fleshed out within the story in spite of the wonderful emotional nuance and interior landscape that Sondheim creates for the leads in the music. Yet, there is fun to be had in its broad-brush generality and the amplified silliness of the scenario that stays on just the right side of panto.

Stunted themes about the compromising nature of power are potentially quite interesting as the female Mayoress with the big name – Cora Hoover Hooper – in some senses tries to do the right thing by drumming up business for her economically-compromised town and struggles to manage the nuances of civic action. Here too, there is a sense of the venality of those in authority and Clara’s determination to not only shore-up her personal power but to gain more of it using a team of underlings appointed to civil positions including Comptroller, Treasurer and Police Chief are designed to retain her grip on the town. And it is through Cora’s desire for the personal acquisition of that wealth, that Laurents and Sondheim want to make their points about the intricacies of civic corruption across multiple forms of public office, showcasing the distance between those who govern and the people they are supposed to care for, a note which certainly has plenty of contemporary resonance.

The story hinges on classifications of mental illness when patients of an asylum known as The Cookie Jar are released into society because Cora refuses permission to let them taste the miracle waters for fear of revealing her scam when all 40+ of them remain uncured. Later, the authorities are unable to identify them among the ordinary citizens and, like the corruption theme, there is little subtly here and a great deal of simplification. But Laurents and Sondheim are asking some interesting questions about where the boundary between sanity and insanity lies and by what criteria societies define madness – should Cora and her team in fact be institutionalised for their scheming and lack of empathy?

In developing this revival, Southwark Playhouse plays up the exuberance of it all and chooses to embrace the kooky style. Staged on a thin traverse catwalk, it creates opportunities for the actors to include the audience in the action, physically dividing the auditorium into J. Bowden Hapgood’s Group A and Group 1, moving characters between them to underscore the comedy of their indistinct categorisation. Designed by Cory Shipp, this is a children’s TV world of bright colours as pinks, reds, yellows, bright greens and bold blues filter through the set and costume design, making this an intense visual experience with a carnival feel, all given an extra boost when ticker tape is released on several occasions and bold modernist paintings adorn the end walls.

Directed by Georgie Rankcom, they chose to overcome the shortcomings of the book and plot with a more-is-more approach that makes the best of the material by heightening its unreality. It’s not easy to manage quite a big show filled with dance numbers, multiple group scenes and changing locations in a very thin strip of performance space but Rankcom controls it well, using the length of the room effectively to move the action around as well as playing evenly to both sides of the divided auditorium.

Together, the company do evoke the impression of a much larger town than the dozen people we see as well as the external competition from other municipal centres nearby, each looking to boost their own local tourism. The audience must double for the broader community and Rankcom has the actors appeal to the room as well as distributing the ‘Cookies’ in empty seats as they attempt to blend in. There are a few occasions where unsuspecting members of the public are drawn into the action as readers or even dancers so avoid the front rows if you’d rather not participate. But Rankcom’s choices largely work and with entrances at both ends of the stage, it creates a feeling of distance across the auditorium that allows groups of characters to meet and conspire in what feel like subtly different parts of town. While the raggedy plot requires some considerable suspension of disbelief, the scene setting is more than good enough to at least construct the world of the musical.

Choreographically, Lisa Stevens is constrained a little by the space and what could have been some big showcase numbers are necessarily pinned-back by the thin catwalk and small aisle’s in front of them. As well as scale, Stevens has on the whole limited the complexity of dance, giving performers something they can do without too much movement or needing sequences of activity given how many people are sharing the same stage strip at times. But, drawing out the cabaret and jazzy notes in Sondheim’s more sultry music, Stevens has created a tap-based choreography that leans into A Chorus Line with high kicks, rapid pivots and Fosse long-armed wrist-flicks for bigger numbers with occasion soft salsa for duet moments.

And there is something very characterful in the way Stevens has created specific movements for different individuals depending on their relative allure, power and personality while also allowing the quality of the dance to come from the haplessness or skill of the character. One great sequence at the top of Act Three sees Cora performing an aerobics workout routine with hand weights that has a lovely jaunty comedy when joined by her three stooges who cook up a new dastardly plan and reconfirm their allegiance to one another. It is a bold moment and one that rises to meet Sondheim’s music.

There are moments of real greatness in Anyone Can Whistle and most of them are in the music in which Sondheim gives a tenderness and complexity to leading characters nurse Fay Apple who, somewhat incredulously disguises herself as a French miracle authenticator from Lourdes, and Hapgood, believed to be the new doctor and therefore in charge of the classification of the townspeople. Through the title song, the pair draw closer, suggesting an emotional connection filled with vulnerability and need that is entirely lacking from the text and the silly subterfuge they enter into, but brings some real clout to the show which Rankcom’s production really makes the most of.

Performed by Chrystine Symone nurse Apple is really two characters, one an order-loving nurse who demands respect for her patients and refuses to be brow beaten by the political elite. Symone has a superb voice for Sondheim and her version of There Won’t Be Trumpets is a high point of Acts I and II capturing all the hope and certainty in the song as well as Fay’s grounded belief in justice. Her second character, the French miracle inspector is a tougher proposition, an Allo Allo cliche in lingerie and curly pink wig which Symone shows is essentially her superhero costume, allowing Fay to explore more forthright aspects of her character without fear or reget.

Fay’s duet with Hapgood as they hopelessly fall for one another, With So Little to Be Sure Of, is tender and charmingly performed showing the balance they bring to each’s others lives and quite different but complementary personalities, while the solo See Where It Gets You is another highlight as Symone’s vocals explore the emotional range of her character in way that the book and disguise devices never fully allow. In song, Symone ensures that Fay emerges in three dimensions with a trajectory worth investing in.

This is contrasted by a quite joyous comic performance from Alex Young as Cora who wrings every ounce of amusing malevolence from her character giving her a love-to-hate quality that all but steals the show. Cora may be self-serving, callous and devoid of empathy but Young also makes her glamorous, witty and powerful, controlling the men around her and running rings around the other characters. Even at the end, when good triumphs to a degree, the audience is assured that true survivor Cora still has the nous to find a way out of her predicament.

Young also has a great vocal quality and Sondheim’s tunes suit her very well. The delightful Me and My Town and A Parade in Town have an anthemic quality in which Young encapsulates all of Cora’s ambition, while I’ve Got You to Lean On at the beginning of Act III is a cheeky piece that Young brings extra comedy to through her big but tempered performance. You may even feel a bit sorry for Cora at the end, testament to the way in which Young fills and exudes this role.

Jordan Broatch is also well cast as Hapgood, proving a decent foil for Symone and adding a stranger-in-town energy that explores identity and assumption. The musical complexities of Simple are very well managed while Broatch brings a calm but grounded messiah-like quality that draws on some of the themes in Sondheim’s lyrics. The larger ensemble of Cookies are unfortunately given a collective identity in the story but here are individually distinguished by costume, providing excellent support in the bigger numbers while Danny Lane grows in confidence as the Comptroller.

Anyone Can Whistle is really not the greatest musical and Sondheim’s songs deserve a better vehicle than this strange little tale that isn’t quite abstract or absurdist enough to make its concept work. But this Southwark Playhouse production has more than novelty merit, and by embracing its failings to make it a boldly comic piece, it earns a lot of credit. Fortunately, where plot and purpose are lacking, Sondheim’s timeless music remains enough.

Anyone Can Whistle is at Southwark Playhouse until 7 May with tickets from £16. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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