Monthly Archives: July 2022

Chasing Hares – Young Vic

Exploitation can take many forms and sometimes it even begins with a creative opportunity. Sonali Bhattacharyya’s lead character in new play Chasing Hares takes a while to find themselves confronting a major moral dilemma but the road to it begins with storytelling, imagination and character creation. Bhattacharyya is interested in where these stories come from, what they represent and their meaning to the individuals and local groups from which they emerge. A play that navigates the hope and aspiration of working class communities in urban India yearning for rural and natural landscapes set against the cold political and economically deprived reality, Chasing Hares experiments with its theatrical form.

Dramas about strikes and factory unrest tend to follow a defined pattern, one in which solidarity and the humanity of the workers is developed before unfolding heroic, David versus Goliath tales of standing up to management in the pursuit of liberty and equality. Stage musical Made in Dagenham and the recent Shake the City appearing in Jermyn Street Theatre’s Footprint’s Festival are jaunty perspectives about female unionisation and pay disputes while a defining work like Lynne Nottage’s Sweat was not so much a play but a howl of pain for one-industry towns in rust belt America decimated by the move to imported cheaper labour.

Chasing Hares sits somewhere between these extremes, using allegory and theatre to create visual spectacle but equally concerned with the plight of factory workers in Kolkata where jobs are scarce and a major international contract creates a mad scramble to make money. And like Nottage, Bhattacharyya focuses on the difficult middle management role when Prab a former worker is raised to a position of power and ultimately compromised by it as he chooses between protecting his own salary for the sake of his young family and, in the face of unscrupulous management that pushes against his moral code, the pressure to care for the people in his charge.

But while politically fired, this is not a story in which right and wrong are presented as black and white concepts, and more than once Bhattacharyya notes the central character’s active consent to the events of the play and, despite his history as a former activist and agitator, we see Prab’s willingness to ‘sell-out’ his ideals for material comforts and, more seriously, to advance his creative ambitions. But there are other compromises too and while the workers of the Khub Bhalo factory are never seen, their financial desperation forces them to take significant risks, putting themselves in danger in ways that inform the ethical quandary at the heart of the show.

But Bhattacharyya’s point is an important one, mirrored in a modern-day conclusion based in the UK, that argues choice in these circumstances is a misleading concept when social constructs of power, money and influence create the conditions in which one group of people can exploit another. What the factory families chose to do may be morally and ethically troubling and the owners may argue that all applications to work are voluntarily given, but ultimately Bhattacharyya shows there is no other option when the alternative is to go without an income, food or housing.

Bhattacharyya dramatises that through the gentle rise and trajectory of Prab’s family, growing from a small set of rooms where they live with his wife’s mother to regular work, a stable job and the chance to live in a better neighbourhood. At the start of the play, Prab is one of many out of worker breadwinners who stalk the factory gates every morning in the hope that it will reopen and work will be plentiful. But Bhattacharyya creates conditions in which contracts are awarded to competitors operating at lower cost and the regular early morning clamber for work is a futile hope in an area in terminal decline. The sudden end to the drought brings with it another set of problems, an employers market in which the factory owners can offer almost any terms and still be inundated with applicants. And slowly Bhattacharyya starts to tip the balance where opportunity becomes no choice at all.

The journey that Prab is taken on is a complicated one as he navigates the shift from worker to manager urged by his wife, Kajol, to remain passive and do whatever is asked him of him to protect their young family. As the rewards for that flood in, improving their financial and, to a degree, their social status, Bhattacharyya’s Prab is troubled by the consequences that give grounding to the play, turning what could be a solely high-minded story about workers’ rights into a more complicated portrait of individual, family and social needs conflicting across the experience of one man.

The extent to which the protagonist is taken in by the factory owner’s son Devesh who is also a theatre performer is shaped by Prab’s personal desire for creative recognition and fulfillment, when an opportunity to write and perform alongside him and fellow actor, Chellam, in a Jatra troupe presents itself after a night at her show. It is an unusual entry point to the play’s central dilemma but it does create depth in the characterisation by giving Prab a separate interior life and aspiration that Bhattacharyya intricately works into his political ideals, creating opportunities to compromise Prab with multiple implications for his professional integrity as well as his morality. But the writer is also arming her character, giving him different ways to reach the same audience of workers by looking to the social power of theatre to reflect and inspire.

This leads into the world of narrative and imagination that anchors the play and Bhattacharyya has Prab create an allegory that runs through the show, an original piece that speaks to the mystical traditions of India storytelling with its fairytale characteristics including an oppressed princess, talking animals and an evil landlord destroying the natural habitat but with fervent political undertones that speak to worker conditions and the possibility of a utopian equality. Bhattacharyya feeds the audience this story in chapters running throughout the show, told first to Prab’s baby as he tries to lull her to sleep and later as acted scenes performed by Prab’s famous new friends as he dramatises his imagined world for them.

What Bhattacharyya is doing here is quite interesting, on the one hand exploring the consistency of these ideal societies, partly referencing communism but also deeper traditions in not just Indian writing but in broader international romantic responses to the growing pressures and confinement of urbanisation. This fantasy world that Prab creates is entirely rural and equitable – there would have to be a lot of meetings as one character jokes but there is a wistfulness in the creation of these places that is both aspirational and, the storyteller knows, almost certainly unachievable. For Prab and Chellam the question becomes to what degree are they motivated to do something, to make a small difference while all the time knowing what they truly want is nothing but fantasy.

In order to tell his tale, Prab allows himself to be bought, initially for financial security but also for art, to be able to work with creative people. His head is turned by their flattery and interest in his ideas, giving him a platform that it takes him some time to recognise and use, eventually prompted by events elsewhere in the play. But there are other costs too, not just to his integrity but there is a price to speaking out both in muted and amplified forms which are explored in the final section of the play as the consequences of the two sides of his life come together, that in themselves create a whole new direction for his family. Within Chasing Hares then, Bhattacharyya asks what power does a story have and what should be the cost?

In staging the play, designer Moi Tran has appropriately created two playing spaces, parallel stages, one of which sits in recess. And across them the two worlds of Chasing Hares intersect – Prab’s reality and the illusory dramas performed by the actors allowing director Milli Bhatia to move between these stories, retaining their distinction but blending them and their outcomes together. Akhila Krishnan’s striking video design projects across the stage, creating spectacle by filling it with an animated version of the forest landscape that Prab develops in his mind, unfolding its trees, creatures and tonal shifts as he recounts his dark but hopeful story.

Across the piece, Krishnan’s work begins to creep into the sparse simplicity of the everyday that Tran implies with only a few props to represent the changing spaces from family homes to the factory floor and its backrooms. The appearance of silhouetted birds edging into the corners of this story is pointed, taking on a foreboding quality that adds to the atmosphere. Jai Morjaria’s lighting and Tran’s costume contrast these subtle moments with an explosion of theatricality when the actors perform with interesting reflections on the visual effects of messaging and, as our very best political theatre shows, commentary and entertainment need not be mutually exclusive.

Irfan Shamji as Prab settles into his role quickly, a likable lead that the audience can invest in and follow through the stories as a representation of thousands of similar lives. Shamji moves well between the straightforward scenes in which Prab comes to understand his own limits and the jackanory moments in which he conjures a whole world for baby Amba, although really for the audience. A good man in an impossible situation, the character grows in confidence as Chasing Hares unfolds and Shamji captures well the energy and enthusiasm for Prab’s creative endeavors, his increasingly troubled conscience and the pressure to hold onto any job for the sake of his family.

Zainab Hasan as his pragmatic wife Kajol offers a contrast, a woman who knows the price of things and wants to make less high-minded choices but nonetheless complements Prab as a partner. It would be useful to see more of her perspective, particularly as she too works multiple jobs and is the primary carer for Amba but Hasan makes much from the material she has. Scott Karim brings nuance to the show’s main baddie Devesh who could easily have become a bland boo-hiss villain. Instead, there is personality in his lack of empathy and ability to manipulate that make Karim a strong and compelling presence on stage. As is Ayseha Darker’s Chellam, a starlet tired of the classic works she must endlessly perform and eager to tackle something more meaningful. But Chellam is also a character with some depth and a similar pragmatism that makes her almost cynically dismissive of her work until inspired by Prab’s writing. Darker also has great comic timing and a cutting delivery that brings some alternative moments of levity to the piece.

Chasing Hares is a short play, running at just over two hours with an interval and there is much in this world particularly among the secondary characters and their motivations that could be expanded. Not seeing the factory workers isn’t a problem given the play’s setting in middle management and domestic spaces but towards the end a sense of the widespread fervour for change and the impact of Prab’s actions on the community needs a little more might behind it. Nonetheless, Bhattacharyya’s play is packed with commentary about the power structures that support political and economic elites, the limits to freedom of choice and the optimistic possibilities of one great story as the means to tear it all down.

Chasing Hares is at the Young Vic until 13 August with tickets from £12.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Closer – Lyric Hammersmith

Closer - Lyric Hammersmith

For all its political associations, the romance and the primacy that society suggests we give it in our lives, the human heart ‘looks like a fist wrapped in blood.’ This searingly anatomical description is spat out by a character who has had theirs broken in Patrick Marber’s anti-love play Closer, a modern classic about the messy dramas between four people that still hangs heavy 25 years after it premiered. Very much situated in its 1990s context – a setting the Lyric Hammersmith retains for its latest staging – the play nonetheless retains a contemporary power not only in its brutal commentary about relationships, lust and the availability of desire, but also in its melancholy (rather than cynical) perspective on the emptiness, absence and even the insufficiency of love between people who believe it should give their lives the meaning and purpose they look for others to supply.

Opening in 1997, Closer is a play that could not be written now, or certainly not in quite the same way. At the most surface level, a key plot device in Act One relies on Internet Chat Rooms that could only exist in a world before Twitter and Instagram. There is still comedy mileage in bored writer Dan posing as a woman called ‘Anna’ to tease dermatologist Larry, little knowing that his online entertainment will set in motion events that will culminate in his own heartbreak. Catfishing still goes on, of course, but a Closer relocated to the Tinder generation would lose the desperation of confined characters who would now have unlimited access to multiple partners and an unashamed openness about fulfilling their desires – perhaps rather than talking about them.

Likewise, Larry’s visit to the strip club in Act Two couldn’t work so well in the age of Internet porn where he could fire up his laptop at home to access any number of live or pre-recorded women to suit his tastes. The ‘service’ Alice claims to provide is readily available in a global marketplace while Alice herself could disappear into that world and never be found again, not even by chance. Human needs and behaviours may not have changed, but the mechanics of meeting and diverting them, upon which the plot of Closer rests, certainly have.

The other noticeable element of the play that will keep it firmly in the 1990s is its language and the way in which men speak to and about its women. The vocabulary of Closer is highly sexualised, graphically so in places, and while we are no more modest than we were when this was written, the tendency of male characters to use words like ‘whore’ and ‘slut’ as derogatory insults in everyday conversation feels far less palatable now, particularly when asking the audience to continue to invest in the life of the group. Larry, Dan, Anna and Alice have complexity in which they are their desires and more than that, but Closer noticeably represents the male gaze and especially the fickleness of male desire when seen in the context of our twenty-first-century attitudes to and descriptions of sex. Even as early as 2004 – notably the year that Mike Nichols film version was released – Tina Fey used Mean Girls to question the use of this vocabulary as a tool of oppression and disrespect to dehumanise women, so it is this language that also dates Closer.

As do the incidences of male violence – a rather unpleasant underbelly that Marber employs to prevent us from rooting for anyone too much. Larry’s temper and toxicity are openly repellent, felt not only in his lurid pursuit of sex at any cost, even cheating on his wife of only a few months, but also in the tone of his bullying rages when he argues with her about her own infidelity. Meanwhile, Dan’s more manipulative coercion is equally difficult to tolerate and a contemporary-set version of Closer could not justify either woman still wanting to be with these men. And while it wasn’t acceptable even in the 90s and Marber puts his male characters through considerable emotional pain to balance out their actions, it is harder to write these kinds of male characters now without properly punishing them or drawing attention to their behaviours and the effects on the women who endure it.

But Closer still has a hold, its convoluted entanglements and the easy pain the foursome cause themselves and each other has a universality that 25-years hasn’t dimmed. These are characters unafraid to show their ugliest sides in the selfish pursuit of love, a love, that Marber shows, is fleeting and uncertain. As Anna, Alice, Dan and Larry vacillate back and forth for 2.5 hours and several years, the cumulative effect is poisonous rather than romantic, that the concept of being with the right or wrong person is made to seem ludicrously inconsequential in the face of almost everybody’s fatal indecision and the primacy they give to their own happiness.

That Alice is the only character who can truly distinguish between love and lust, between true self-knowledge and momentary desire is pointed, tapping into the questions of identity and awareness that run beneath the surface of the play. Marber builds an essential dichotomy into the heart of Closer, showing three of his creations using their real names to play roles in their own lives, looking to the relationship they’ve just started and just lost to complete something that their creative endeavours or jobs cannot entirely fulfill. They are dreamers believing happiness is within their grasp if only they are with a different person, except they are as unfaithful to their romantic ideals as they eventually are to all their partners. Only Alice is the person whose entire identity is falsified but whose emotions and intentions are genuine, knows instinctively when she’s in love, when she is being used and when to leave. And there is a fascinating tragedy in that which makes Closer worth reviving and examining anew, even within the changing context of a quarter of a century.

Clare Lizzimore’s production for the Lyric Hammersmith understands that far better than the Donmar’s unsatisfactory version in 2015 which never quite got to grips with the different layers within the play. And while the 90s setting draws attention to itself only through a changed response to the text, the simplicity of Lizzimore’s vision allows the emotional beats and deceptions of the play to come to the fore. Enhanced by live music between scenes which help to shape the mood, there is a forlorn sense of longing in Act One in which the protagonists are ready to fall in love and find themselves in the wrong relationships. Lizzimore excavates the intensity in these declarations of passion and in the sometimes violent consequences of infidelity, building a quiet hollowness within these entanglements that makes the characters lack of fulfillment palpable as they selfishly scramble for someone or something else, often with remarkably little guilt about the pain they cause. The overlapping scenes of Dan leaving Alice while Larry and Anna leave one another are particularly sharp, manifesting for the audience the physical and poignant impression of a third person in each relationship.

That all becomes far darker in Act Two as a series of nastier encounters take place and again the layered scene in which Anna confesses her indiscretion to Dan while simultaneously bargaining with Larry earlier in the day is gripping. You feel the tone shift in Lizzimore’s production from people acting from what they believe is love to using sex and possession to coerce and control. There is something sour and uncomfortably sordid about it that leaves a distinct impression at the end of the show, and Lizzimore balances the tonal shifts across the play well arriving at a place of ruin and ambiguity where no one has anything left to fight for but that it could all just start again.

It is a shame then, that the interpretation of Alice is not quite right and for much of the play performer Ella Hunt struggles to make her feel like a real person or give her the same flawed tangibility as the other characters. The show is still in preview and it is a difficult role, one that is cheeky and enigmatic, never quite giving a straight answer but alluring and sympathetic at the same time. Yet, somehow the complicated reality of Alice and her emotional life isn’t claiming its place in the play. She feels like a sketch, a work in progress, even a plot device around which the characters move, the otherness that makes her so compelling and desirable not yet making her seem as credible as her fellows. Some of that is about pitch, relaxing the performance a little in Act One, although Hunt has already found a valuable and considered detachment for her scenes in Act Two where we see a matured version of Alice.

Nine Toussaint-White has found a brilliantly conflicted Anna, given far more agency in the drama than some versions allow. A sophisticated creation offering a complete contrast to Alice, Anna offers the play’s most astute commentary in noting how the men create a fantasy idea of them but never come close to the true all-knowing love they claim to seek. Anna is also honest about the semi-failure of both men to truly satisfy her desires – while on the receiving end of their barbs – and while she instigates her own relationship destruction with poor choices and by wavering between Dan and Larry, there is an underlying brittleness in Toussaint-White’s performance that makes Anna frustratingly sympathetic, deserving of more than either man can offer if only she could see her own value.

Larry is a difficult character to pitch, a slave to his own desires which he never attempts to control and with a violent temper that may not erupt physically but indicates a low estimation of women and the service role they should play in his life. As a doctor, there is a tendency to play him as rather suave for all that but Sam Troughton makes Larry much earthier, a man with few redeeming features and almost reveling in his physical desires, his arrogance and delight in using his power to torture others. There are moments of tenderness, of deep pain beneath the surface which Troughton captures well but it is interesting to see a full throttle version of Larry that doesn’t hide behind the manner of his profession and instead sees him at his most selfish and spiteful.

Jack Farthing’s Dan is one of the best interpretations of recent years, a bundle of contradictions that take some time to reveal themselves to the audience. Dan is overly romantic, dying for love every few scenes but never sorry for the pain he causes others in pursuing his emotional satisfaction. He doesn’t have the same overt desires as Larry but is no less dangerous for it and Farthing is incredibly at ease with all the things that Dan is and wants to be. There is depth to the slow burn of his career failure and a grasping at happiness that is desperately destructive for all concerned. Still, for all Dan’s demands for empathy and a consuming singularity in the love he receives from his partners, Farthing shows how little he considers others and quite how noxious a seemingly quiet, poetic man can be when his own desires are thwarted.

Staged simply as Marber directs, Soutra Gilmour creates the representative spaces that cover several years of action and transport the drama from living rooms and parks to the London Aquarium, an art gallery and Larry’s various offices. All of this is underscored by Arun Ghosh’s music performed by Radhika Aggarwal which rarely intrudes but adds energy to the production by marking the swirling emotional currents. Not quite a perfect version of Closer but a compelling one. If the heart really just looks like a fist wrapped in blood then why, Lizzimore’s production asks, does it hurt so much?

Closer runs at the Lyric Hammersmith until 13 August with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Jack Absolute Flies Again – National Theatre

Delayed by covid for over two years, Jack Absolute Flies Again finally lands on the Olivier stage when we have never needed Richard Bean and Oliver Chris’s goofy and hilarious romp more. An adaptation of Sheridan’s The Rivals relocated to a 1940s air base on a Sussex estate, there is a care in the construction of the play and a determination that everyone watching should have a good time that speaks to a wider need for lighter fare. And while the writers of Jack Absolute take their responsibility to represent the airmen of the Second World War seriously and with respect, the shenanigans of Sheridan fit remarkably well into their new context. After years of pandemic, economic woes and political free fall, the National knows that what we all need now is a good night out.

Restoration comedy is something the National has always done well, since Simon Godwin’s marvellous period appropriate production of The Beaux’ Stratagem delighted audiences. The Olivier Theatre is particularly well suited to the farcical revolving door plots with frequent comings and goings, mistaken identity tropes, eavesdroppers and exuberant characterisation that requires a speed and intricacy this space facilitates comfortably. In transferring the characteristics of Restoration comedy to a very particular twentieth-century setting, Bean and Chris have skillfully retained the sentiment, style and tone of Sheridan’s original while updating both the language and, to a notable degree, the morality and political subtext of The Rivals.

Most importantly, Bean and Chris have avoided the trap of the pointless period setting that afflicts most adaptations of Shakespeare primarily but other classic playwrights too, in conscientiously sewing their story into the era in which it is set, recognising and actively responding to the enduring quirks and foibles of human nature as well as the desire to love and be loved that underpins as much of our contemporary theatre as it did at the time of the Restoration.

The Battle of Britain connotations and long held concepts of the chivalric hero-pilot also bring with them their own set of expectations that Jack Absolute both neatly folds into its interpretation and actively challenges in the way that Bean and Chris create characters and define their interaction. The collective memory and consequent memorialisation of airmen tropes were formed in the later years of the First World War and came to dominate perspectives on the role of the pilot in the ensuing years until the Battle of Britain cemented notions of untainted glory, sacrifice and individual courage.

This staging, by coincidence appearing at the same time as another kind of airman fantasy – Top Gun: Maverick which is still in cinemas – plays into these audience preconceptions to an extent by creating a group of largely posh young men larking about in the English countryside with sports and afternoon tea before gallantly slipping into their aircraft and putting their lives on the line to protect it all from enemy violation – and it is notable that they succeed at least in preventing any direct incursions into Malaprop Hall for the duration of the play, saving this patch of green and pleasant land from bombs and preventing the tone from veering too sharply away from the jaunty choreographed confusion and misdirection of its Restoration form.

However, Bean and Chris push their scenario just enough to check the reality and consequences of the hero-pilot myth which expands the vision and sense of jeopardy, facilitating a nicely balanced emotional depth within the constructs of Jack Absolute. The first of these looks at class, making one of the central players a real character in his own right – the false Ensign Beverley in Sheridan’s original becomes ‘fitter’ Dudley, an RAF mechanic with whom both Lydia and maid Lucy fall in love. Though not a flier himself, several references are made to Dudley’s role in winning the war and the skill of the engineers in repairing planes, working class heroes keeping them running while acting in partnership with their pilot. This helps to expand the singular notion of airborne heroism to incorporate the wider teams and systems upon which war functionality is based.

The second uses video and projection technology to create two semi-immersive flight sequences that become integral to the plot and the emotional recognition of the characters, underscoring their entanglements and adding a tender but high-stakes reality that works against the levity of the lovers’ drama. Expanding beyond the confines of the stage to fill the walls and ceiling of the Olivier, Jeff Sugg’s footage of planes in combat sequences performed by the actors, is a device that neatly expands the world before us, surrounding we grounded folk who, like our Second World War counterparts, can only glance skywards as a melee of sound, lighting and video suggests vicious encounters with enemy aircraft. That Bean and Chris so deftly draw meaning and poignancy from their Restoration-inspired play and the fraught context in which it is newly situated is one the many achievements of a production that has both pathos and hilarity.

In updating the text, the writers have also given some consideration to female agency both as the instruments of the drama and in managing their own love lives. And while much of that is directed to comedic outcomes, the marriageability of the female roles and their contentment with expected notions of wife and motherhood are given a necessary shake up. Lydia Languish – always a spirited and independently-minded woman – adopts a more feminist perspective through her espousal of socialist principles that she only half believes. Although funny and an opportunity to create a series of scrapes for Lydia, including having her notions poo-poohed by the older generation, ultimately we are not asked to laugh at those aspects of her character, and Bean and Chris craft an ending for her that doesn’t betray her beliefs however little Lydia is shown to know her own heart throughout.

Likewise, maid Lucy is the agent of the drama, the character who confides in the audience most often and in whom rests an awareness of herself as a meta-theatrical tool, frequently commenting on the rules of Restoration comedy and the ‘magic’ of theatre. Lucy deliberately directs the action through the mis-delivery of letters which is done out of malice, jealousy and, usually, bloody mindedness, giving her a directional power over the play and its people. Mrs Malaprop who owns the Estate and Julia who wants nothing more than to marry her pilot cousin Roy may seem more traditional but Bean and Chris give them both a colourful, sexually liberated past as well as plenty of comedy in their own right, allowing them to pass as far more than secondary characters, ones who have a significant effect on the play’s male contingent.

The comedy in Jack Absolute largely emanates from a rapier-like wordplay with touches of controlled physical humour that build the farce to its pinnacle across two Acts staged largely on a single, unchanging set. And the jokes roll continually from the moment it begins as Mrs Malaprop welcomes us all to her home. A great deal of comedy comes from the increasingly inventive ways in which she mangles her vocabulary – some of it positively filthy but said in all innocence – and at times the audience is laughing so hard it is easy to miss a few jokes coming as quick-fire verbiage. And opportunities for humour are quite equitably spread around, the group of pilots each given individual comedic tics that mirror their Sheridan counterpart, as well the witty, often very daft interactions between the household member and military interlopers.

This is nicely balanced with an equally silly physical humour using disguise, character concealment behind bits of set and plenty of japes – anyone familiar with Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors will recognise the style, a lightness that doesn’t take itself too seriously. But Jack Absolute manages to remain consistent in the delivery of laughs at regular intervals throughout and consistently entertaining as the communal atmosphere builds within the auditorium. Replete with running jokes, this kind of comedy is by no means easily achieved or maintained, taking some skill to write escalating hilarity and you may find your cheeks hurt the next day for having laughed and smiled for more than 2.5 hours.

In staging Jack Absolute, it is wonderful to see the National do what it does best in harnessing the power and creativity of its in-house workshops and costume team for a gloriously cartoony but imaginative full set that covid restrictions and theatre fashion has denied for so long. Every inch of the Olivier stage is put to use with a large country house, shed and ‘tin’ office for the airmen in the grounds. The building are printed with flat imagery that imply a comic book inspiration but they magnificently unfold like dolls houses to allow interior sets to slide into place representing Lydia and Mrs Malaprop’s eventful bedchambers. It is all inventively and lusciously designed by Mark Thompson who simultaneously incorporates nods to grand Restoration-era furnishings – the perfect image of a lush English estate with croquet lawns and picnic spots mashed with the spare but evocative utility of the RAF in the 1940s.

This is a true ensemble piece directed by Emily Burns that keeps the energy high from start to finish with barely a moment’s lag across the evening. Caroline Quentin takes advantage of what is her best comic role, a delightful Mrs Malaprop whose rapacious appetites are pitched just right and Quentin never once betrays her character’s linguistic mauling by pushing jokes too hard, retaining a perfect and hysterical innocence at her conversational blunders. Peter Forbes matches her with his take on Jack’s frequently apoplectic and cantankerously old-school father, Sir Anthony, reimagined as an army office in appropriately brown uniform who develops an excellent rapport with Quentin.

Laurie Davidson is a charming hero, full of verve but with an emotional depth that creates audience investment in his story, neatly capturing how the pilots’ relaxed pursuits on the ground were frequently interrupted by the need to fly, and Davidson, like his colleagues, captures that instant switch to professionalism and duty. Natalie Simpson’s Lydia is suitably spirited and humorously full of her own importance while Kerry Howard’s Lucy wins over the audience completely as the cheeky maid. Kelvin Fletcher proves a fine unwitting patsy to Jack’s schemes while pilots Bob (James Corrigan), Bikram (Akshay Sharan) and Roy (Jordan Metcalfe) along with their grounded commander Coventry (Tim Steed) are distinct, sweet and full of adorable quirks.

This premiere staging of Jack Absolute may have had to circle the runway before gaining permission to land but land it really does and fate has delivered it at just the time. Utterly joyous, Bean and Chris’s play is the National Theatre at its best, a sparky Restoration comedy that finds hilarity and poignancy among the pilots of the RAF. Exactly what we need and more, Jack Absolute Flies Again is certainly a high flyer, in fact it’s ace!

Jack Absolute Flies Again is playing at the National Theatre until 3 September with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Tikkun Olam – Riverside Studios

Tikkun Olam (by Tom Grace Portraits)

Political theatre most often means governmental and national politics, exploring the structures of leadership, the top level functions of parties and, usually, the life of the Westminster set. David Hare’s stage and television dramas like I’m Not Running and Roadkill are about the machinations of leadership, while even Netflix’s adaptation of Sarah Vaughan’s novel Anatomy of a Scandal looked at the consequences of a rape allegation made against a cabinet minister. So, the world premiere of Teunkie Van Der Sluijs’s Tikkun Olam performed simultaneously in the small studio theatre at Riverside Studios and live streamed to an international online audience, offers something a little different, a community-focused story about the building of a Holocaust memorial which stirs up local protest and questions the integrity of a Labour candidate running for their seat. With a focus on identity, privilege and the extent to which history is imposed upon us, Van Der Sluijs’s 90-minute play has much to say about the local / national balance.

Part of Riverside Studio’s mini-festival of new writing in partnership with Original Theatre Company, showcasing the three shortlisted contenders for the Originals Playwriting Award, each performed once over three nights, Tikkun Olam is the last to take to the stage as a script-in-hand reading. The drama establishes three sets of character perspectives – Labour candidate Steve Alexander and his researcher Dan championing the memorial for ambiguous, possibly entirely point-scoring reasons, influencer and activist Leah who they to convince to support them and Mary who heads the community protest group hoping to save their small plot from redevelopment.

For much of the play, these groups interact in clearly demarcated ways, combinations of which establish the political and personal dramas that emerge as a Public Enquiry into the build looms. It is conventionally structured with scenes taking place in domestic or office locations primarily, and requires some speechifying to establish the opposing positions. But Tikkun Olam‘s subject matter proves the starting point for a number of knotty debates that morph across the period of the play, continually shifting perspectives on the memorial, its meaning and its consequences.

Though perhaps the least fully explored, the initial focus is on the nimbyism of local residents objecting to the proposed Holocaust memorial largely, it seems, because it is being built in their park which, due to its proximity to the Houses of Parliament, is interpreted as a form of political profiteering, making a local space into a national tourist attraction. With statues already celebrating the Suffragettes and acknowledging the slave trade within their small patch of greenery, Mary’s views are eventually made to feel narrow and obstructive, protectionist in all the wrong ways.

But it doesn’t start that way and Van Der Sluijs tries to give them more depth as the story unfolds, creating a balance in the text that openly explores the appropriateness of a commemorative monument to an international event when Britain fails to acknowledge others in the same way. Van Der Sluijs, it seems, is working through these varied arguments for himself including the propensity to build on the few remaining spots of green land and through Mary (played by Diana Quick), he also looks at the pressure of urbanisation in large cities where space is precious so residents like Mary with no gardens must reconcile themselves to losing outdoor recreational areas for the greater good. It is this part of the play that is most concerned with the local, micro perspectives in which concerns about facilities and access are pitted against big society requirements and political party game playing.

In testing these views in the mouths of his characters, it is not long before Van Der Sluijs decides that Mary’s perspective must fall away, sidelined towards the end and curdling into a failure to recognise she is living in a different kind of present. It creates a more cliched view of local protest driven by bigotry, lack of compassion or understanding and a desire to cling to antiquated notions of a Britain that never was, championing achievement rather than choosing to look at an ever-present reminder of death as Mary argues. It is almost too easy to reduce and typecast the character in this way and to dilute these local concerns by equating them entirely with intolerance. Perhaps in a future draft Mary could be just someone who doesn’t want to cut down trees to build anything, and perhaps giving her a companion would even-up the stakes a little. Extremism may be more dramatically entertaining but winning over the moderates is the hardest part of local politics.

The bulk of Tikkun Olam focuses on the relationships between Steve, Dan and Leah instead as they join forces to make a case for building the memorial. And here it is Leah, played by Debbie Korley, who is the driving force of the drama, the person who needs to be convinced to harness the power of her social media following to back the campaign and to emerge from the safety of her own online anonymity to stand up for the things she believes in. There are a couple of quite interesting layers in Leah’s story, the first exploring the value of internet activism and its effect on political decision-making, something which the politicians hope to harness initially to pressure decision-makers into approving the memorial plans but also to bolster’s Steve’s profile ready for the next election.

The extent to which Leah’s head is turned by the power she has is well managed across the 90-minutes, and while Van Der Sluijs doesn’t explicitly ask questions about her vanity or desire to influence – Korley plays Leah as a rather sober, straightforward creation – her (slightly unconvincing and sudden) proximity to Dan in particular starts to blur the boundaries of her integrity, although the romance subplot adds very little to the overall story. Why she is so easily convinced to help them is unclear, is it that she trusts their sincerity or is merely won over by the appearance of it, the relationship with Dan may overcome her objections or perhaps it is just a cause she wants to fight? Nonetheless, as they form a coalition, the play does raise some unanswered questions about the cost of that for Leah in the period after the Public Enquiry and whether any of it was worth putting her reputation on the line.

Leah also asks some valuable questions about the nature of identity and how far these are aligned to physical geographical boundaries, as well as cultural and religious commonalities. As a black, Jewish woman, the concept of singular heritage that Mary, and to an extent Dan, cling to are challenged by the different experience that she brings and how it reflects on the collective symbols of history all around us. Much of this is a deliberate counterpoint to Mary’s arguments, and where she sees a lack of connection or culpability between the Holocaust and her leafy grove in Westminster, Leah gives voice to notions of silent complicity and memorialisation as a reminder of inactivity both during and after the Second World War, asking the age-old question of who and what are these monuments for – a focal point for bereaved survivors and families, a national symbol of sacrifice and tragedy for those who weren’t there or a prod to the conscience and understanding of future generations.

And this leads neatly into Steve and Dan’s motivation for championing the creation of a Holocaust memorial, something which remains ambiguous for much of the play as political cache contends with career ambition and the demands of constituency politics, and Van Der Sluijs is interested in that interaction between Steve’s personal beliefs and values with his immediate plans for advancement, using the memorial project as a springboard to greater things. Yet, Jake Fairbrother’s Steve is probably the least explicit character, held back for much of the play and hardly revealing his motivations that give the actor little to work with beyond the gravitas of authority. There is much more that the writer could say here, not least about the fleetingly referenced Antisemitism within the Labour Party that should have far more space in the text given the subject matter, expanding Steve’s own reference to allowing the Party to use his race to get onto the ballot and the effect of Steve’s position as a candidate rather than an elected official seeking endorsement throughout could add valuable contrasts to a character who largely sits on the surface.

Dan is quite a different proposition, more fully formed than Steve but a junior party member open about his lack of interest in the memorial other than as a tool to get them noticed. Dan’s trajectory is perhaps an unexpected one given his early enthusiasm for the project, his kindness and the developing relationship with Leah, but Dan comes to typify a self-aware white privilege, one that proves equally toxic. Played by Luke Thompson, his Dan is as quietly ambitious about the future as Steve and potentially dangerously under-invested in his role. He is competent, kind, even likeable and Thompson, in his first contemporary play for some time, is at ease with Dan’s humour and fast-talking amiability, lulling the audience into believing Dan is innocuous before a few gasp-inducing comments prove that beneath his charming and decent surface he is ultimately just as out-of-touch and uninterested in the constituents as Steve – Van Der Sluijs’s most savage comment on the hot-housing of politicians and their successors.

It is significant that a new writing competition has been given an important online platform by a theatre company who have specialised in innovative filming and streaming techniques in the past two years – particularly as most other efforts to share content online have been quietly forgotten. Simply staged by Director Michael Boyd using a series of chairs and benches, Tikkun Olam does have a lot to say from the enclosed, issue-based dissent of local communities to identity formation, how selective history is memorialised and represented, the alignment of political campaigning with digital outlets and platforms, and how all of those issues meld together. At heart this is a play about the intersection between local and national politics, and the ways in which elected representatives both use and ride rough shod over constituents if they think they know better, and clearly it has a much long life ahead and probably in an expanded form where more of its arguments and characters can be fully developed. Whatever the outcomes of the Originals Playwrighting Award, and in addition to his Artistic Development work for the Young Vic, we can expect to see more from this first time playwright.

Tikkun Olam was performed at Riverside Studios and streamed online on 2 July as part of the Originals: Live at Riverside series. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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