Monthly Archives: December 2022

A Streetcar Named Desire – Almeida Theatre

A Streetcar Named Desire - Almeida Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

It has been fascinating watching Rebecca Frecknall’s development as a director, from making her mark with a defining production of Summer and Smoke four years ago to the multi-Olivier award winning Cabaret still running in the West End more than twelve months on from its astonishing debut. Now, she tackles one of the greatest plays of all time, Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire back in the intimacy of the Almeida Theatre and brings a devastating new clarity to it, eschewing the distraction of a heavy set and the cliches that tend to dog interpretations of Williams, from the exaggerated Southern accents to Blanche’s affected gentility. Instead, Frecknall restores emotional credibility to her protagonist by putting the relationship between two sisters at the heart of this production and using it to examine the wreckage that love and desire can leave behind for those too fragile to endure it.

A Streetcar Named Desire arrives with considerable regularity and it tends to be a favourite among professional and amateur companies. The last major London version was, however, eight years ago when Gillian Anderson took the leading role in Benedict Andrews’s 2014 version at the Young Vic, a contemporary staging on a streetcar-shaped revolving stage that was notably re-released via National Theatre at home. And with many star version before it including Rachel Weisz at the Donmar, the twenty-first century has not been short of Williams’s greatest play. But Frecknall offers a new dimension to this latest one, a simple but compelling truth that casts every scene anew and brings a fresh perspective to well-worn notions of what this play and its characters ought to be.

It is staged with Frecknall’s trademark simplicity, a bare stage no larger than the performance space for Cabaret with seating in the round. The significance of the slightly angled platform and clear wooden boards is stark, a blank canvas onto which the creators and indeed Blanche can project her skewed fantasies, a fresh start where anything is possible. The momentary resemblance to a ropeless bare knuckle boxing ring only adds to the anticipatory atmosphere as characters and occasional props appear. Frecknall never wants to get in the way of the text and so items are moved into the playing space only as they are needed by the actors, and delivered by those not in the scene. It is deftly done, a chair appearing a few moments before it is used, a telephone as required by the script, Blanche’s pre-packed suitcase ready to take her onto the next dream, all of it removed as seamlessly as it arrived.

Frecknell never hides these intrusions into the illusion of the play, effortlessly merging this vaguely Brechtian device with the naturalism that Williams demands and they never interrupt the flow of the scene. Instead, it draws attention to the prop and rather than cluttering the stage, they hint at place and at the claustrophobia of Stella and Stanley’s two-room apartment while leaving the characters with nothing to hide behind, no elaborate set to absorb or distract from their inevitable destruction as the audience observes their emotional unraveling from every angle.

The director uses music and lighting in lieu of unnecessary set to chart the beats of this play and its turning points. And it has a painterly quality, utilising cues from the scrip such as Blanche’s preference for dimly-lit spaces to preserve her modesty and the illusion of youth. So lighting designer Lee Curran (who also lit Summer and Smoke so evocatively) creates interesting patterns within the show that map the tone and changing mood of the story, opening with a warn and rich New Orleans afternoon sun casting its optimistic pinkish rays across the housing complex and instantly generating the uncomfortable heat that pervades the atmosphere that Williams infers. It is sultry and sweaty so Curran projects light from the side to suggest a sun beginning to set as shadows encroach – a pointed psychological moment in which the escaping Blanche seeks a hopeful welcome with her past and personality edging slowly into the frame, a place where she will only run into herself once more.

Later, inside the Kowalski’s home, the brightness is muted by the Chinese shade that Blanche insists should cover the single lightbulb hanging in the air and bringing a calm semi-romance as Blanche refuses to engage with the reality of her sister’s life and Stella’s more vivid internal and physical experience. Curran then introduces drama within the lighting scheme that responds to these contrasting emotional states and power shifts. The costume colour palette of red, salmon, yellow and mustard stand stark and vibrant in moments of confrontation. And the production looks beautiful as a result with several shots, particularly in the second part, creating some incredible stage pictures.

On Blanche’s birthday, for example, Frecknall creates a pointed moment in which the sisters sit at the front of the stage with a perfect looking blue and white-iced cake while far back Stanley looms between them, the pinkish tone of his t-shirt matching his wife’s pleated skirt, a nod both to the sibling focus of this interpretation as well as the interplay of hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity that suffuse this production through costume (by Merle Hensel) and characterisation. Further into the production, those two ideas contend again as Blanche in a stunning but flouncy yellow number with layers of skirt is starkly presented against Stanley’s blood-red silk pyjamas in a moment that seems frozen in time and lit dramatically by Curran.

Hensel’s costume design, though contemporary, is extremely evocative both in style and shade, and considerable thought has gone into the contrast between Blanche and everyone else; she also picks pleats along with gauzy material, sheer fabrics, romantic floral designs and shoulder ruffles which speak to a grander approach to dress and a degree of polish that distinguish her particularly from Stella whose more casual manner is reflected in more practical shape and fabric choices. Character and themes are incorporated into every production choice and the overall vision is an artistic one.

Frecknall’s non-musical productions are really defined by their composition and its becomes a sparingly employed theatrical device to denote the emotional beat of the play. The use of piano and metronome were essential to the slow-burn intensity of Summer and Smoke, while this Streetcar applies drums and percussion to similar effect, underscoring but never distracting from Williams’s text which remains the absolute centre of this production. Often there is no musical accompaniment beyond those proscribed by the author; the radio that Blanche uses to irritate Stanley’s poker game or the romantic band sound she hears as a faded echo of memory when remembering her last night with her husband. Where Frecknall and composer Angus Macrae insert additional music it is in places where a change is occurring in the scene, beating out a suddenly acknowledged tension in which characters are learning something new about themselves and times when their relationships are in flux from which, as the culminating drums and cymbals indicate, they will emerge with an entirely new perspective on one another.

While most productions tend to build themselves around the sparky confrontation of Stanley and Blanche, more than any version of this play in recent years, this Streetcar foregrounds the connection between the sisters, initially contrasting their approaches and responses to the New Orleans scenario as well as their shared past at a beloved childhood home. At different points in the play the two women are shown to be more realistic or pragmatic than their sibling and while it is Blanche who tends to be the dreamer, hiding behind illusions about herself, its so interesting to see Stella being drawn from the shadows of Williams’s play and given almost as much time in the spotlight in a story that fundamentally shifts the nature of her marriage and her future beyond the action we observe.

At the start we see a powerful version of Stella, comfortable in her womanhood, sexually fulfilled by a man who she desires and quite happy to have rejected the gentility of her childhood for the modest life with Stanley. Blanche, by contrast, seems the less experienced of the two, uncomfortable around the magnetism of this couple and seeking Stella’s maternal protection. But slowly that shifts as Blanche’s influence over her sister subtly increases, bringing with it a reminder of the people they once were. Later in the play, this production suggests, it is Blanche who is more realistic about the consequences of their family life, living with the death of their parents and the financial burden of sustaining a large home that Stella (and by extension Stanley) have slightly more romantic notions about. It is under Blanche’s influence that Stella starts to question her husband’s manners about which they fight and, despite the famous reunion scene in the middle of the play, months later they are drifting apart as something between them has broken and the sisters become a closer unit almost in spite of themselves.

And much of that is possible due to the more naturalistic presentation of Blanche that over time draws the sisters closer together. Here Blanche is less overtly a “Southern Belle” and more sympathetically viewed as a woman experiencing a deep and affecting trauma at a young age that has shaped her life immeasurably. She has all the same affectations, the tendency to bathe as a way to repurify herself, the want of beauty and calm in every space and a prioritisation of genteel manners, but Frecknall’s interpretation of Blanche is far more human, more subtle than previously seen making her a deeply tragic rather than a comic figure that means her trajectory is all the more affecting.

Stepping in at extremely short notice, Patsy Ferran gives the most astonishing performance as Blanche, though younger than we have ever seen her, softening the extremes of the Southern accent to create the portrait of a woman with nowhere else to turn and ultimately in the last place she ever wanted to go. There is deep resilience in Ferran’s Blanche, a strength that has helped her to endure years of shame within her hometown and the aching loneliness that sits at the heart of this character. Ferran has always dug deep into the seeming fragility of her characters to found greater reserves within and this is exactly what she finds in Blanche. And there is a deep sensuality in Ferran’s performance – not something that has been required of the actor before – one that, again, is subtle but nonetheless vital to her eventual descent into delusion. Ferran finds that place where Blanche’s romantic hopes, so often dashed by brutish men, crash disastrously against the reality of her physical existence, charting her final capitulation with meaning and a true empathy for a woman who has barely known a moment of happiness.

Anjana Vasan brings her Stella out of the shadows to give her an equal place in this drama, a woman who seems initially more in touch with the reality of life than her sister but with Vasan’s performance understanding the romantic delusion that Stella too has been living under, one that comes tumbling down as the months roll on. And Vasan is particularly good at charting the changing relationship with Stanley as her confidence grows under the influence of her sister which sees the spousal connection begin to fracture. Where once their marriage was a tight unit, it becomes far less satisfactory to this Stella as her husband’s attitudes increasingly put distance between them, and as Stella’s pregnancy advances so too does her dissatisfaction with the life she once enjoyed with a finale that marks a clear and permanent change in their marriage.

Paul Mescal’s Stanley has been much anticipated and proves just the right mix of bullish masculinity and sensitivity that make Stanley such an appealing character. Particularly interesting here is how the brutish, menacing side of Stanley evolves in Mescal’s performance which politely welcomes Blanche in the early scenes and demonstrates a real and deep tenderness for his wife following a violent outburst that reduces him to tears. But this is a turning point for Mescal’s deeply masculine Stanley who retreats into himself as the home where he was once “king” feels exclusionary, exhibiting an aggression that culminates in a betrayal of his wife and of the man he once was. Mescal’s performance perfectly complements Vasan and Ferran, with Stanley losing himself in a fantasy of who he should be. It may not destroy him as it does Blanche but it takes away the one thing that motivates Stanley, the love and respect of his wife.

This is an intense and compelling version of A Streetcar Named Desire that succeeds in presenting a more truthful but no less powerful version of this story. It is kinder to its heroine than ever before, bringing new layers to its intense and empathetic conclusion while exploring the interplay between the characters’ romantic and practical needs. Frecknall has a real feel for these mid-century writers and the compromises of living in limited circumstances while trying to maintain artistic pursuits and ragged dreams of a better future aided by the kindness of strangers. All of that comes together so beautifully here and Williams has rarely felt so powerful.

A Streetcar Named Desire is at the Almeida Theatre until 4 February with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

One Woman Show – Ambassadors Theatre

One Woman Show - Ambassadors Theatre

Oh the patriarchy, that pesky social control mechanism gets everywhere. It is so wily and ubiquitous that even when women think they are breaking the mould and pushing back against its restrictive tendrils, it turns out that is just been internalised patriarchy all the time. Liz Kingsman’s hilarious 70-minute One Woman Show may never actually use the ‘p’ word but it is certainly at the root of her withering and sometimes surreal pastiche of modern female writing and the longer strands of female representation on stage and screen. Making its West End debut at the Ambassadors Theatre, as one of only three women writers in a major venue right now – one being Agatha Christie next door with the Mousetrap and the other April de Angelis at the Dorfman with Kerry Jackson that doesn’t entirely deserve its stage – Kingsman has an extraordinary, and all too rare, platform in which to make her case.

One Woman Show has been quite the success story and a key example of why investment in grass roots theatre development is so essential. Kingsman’s piece began at the Vault’s Festival in 2020 before moving to the Soho Theatre earlier this year, on to the Edinburgh Fringe where it picked up further awards and now into the West End before an international stint at Sydney Opera House in 2023. It is a dream come true story in many ways that, like SIX before it, has enjoyed a phenomenal trajectory picking up critical and audience acclaim en route. But it speaks to the effectiveness of the theatre ecosystem where playmakers can gain valuable experience of adapting their piece to suit the changing scale of their venues and receive constructive feedback on their writing as they advance through the stages of festival, fringe, off-West End and eventually the big houses where One Woman Show feels perfectly at home ahead of its Press Night this week. It might not have felt so easy for Kingsman and her team in practice but in a sea of pantos and Christmas shows, the impact of the writer’s entertainingly political piece is all the greater.

One Woman Show is an inherently theatrical performance and what could have been a stand-up set is instead an opportunity to comment on the nature of performance itself using a multilayered structure that explores different narrative devices and representations of women’s lives in different media, but particularly television and film. That Kingsman chooses a theatre production as the vehicle for this assessment is especially interesting because theatre brings with it a much greater sense of complicit falsity in which the performer and the audience tacitly agree to suspend their disbelief until the illusion is broken and the actor steps forward to receive applause, at which point the performative nature of the story becomes apparent.

Not so in other media where no such breaking of the spell exists and the viewer is left to believe that the characters lives continue in their world until the next edition. Choosing theatre then as the means to expand on the misrepresentation of women in television and film and its role in creating an essential artifice that actively conceals a more complex truth is particularly fascinating and Kingsman utilises the notion of layers of reality and their interaction through the construction of this story which operates on several structural levels.

With tongue firmly in cheek, One Woman Show is essentially the story of one chaotic woman’s attempt to find love in the big city while navigating the challenges of life, work and friendship that will lead to an inevitable moment of self-realisation and self-acceptance if not a perfect romantic ending. A contemporary female protagonists is the star, a messy, complex and relatable figure with no idea what her life goals ought to be but somehow endearingly bumbling through one emotional crisis at a time. Kingsman’s point is that a modern heroine may be less than perfect, allowed to have casual sex and be selfish / unpleasant / narcissistic but this representation of women only serves to reinforce patriarchal judgments about female emotional instability and weakness that only a stable relationship with a man can fix.

The confessional style narrative used to reinforce the “cool girl” stereotype aligns female behaviour with laddish traits like drinking, being confrontational and enjoying banter, traits designed to appeal to men rather than necessarily reflecting the true diversity of female experience. Described as a direct parody of Fleabag by early reviewers, One Woman Show has a much broader range and is in fact looking at particular types of rom-com heroine from Bridget Jones to Trainwreck while reflecting on the desire to use these fictional creations to generate commercial success for their creator.

The way Kingsman does this is through a dual staging device, the first designed to disarm the audience and even to wrong-foot them from the start with a strand devoted to the career ambitions and monetisation of the creator’s vision. In the opening moments, Kingsman appears on stage seemingly as herself to talk directly to the audience ahead of the show beginning to explain a series of technical problems with the recording of the performance that are delaying the start. This becomes a recurring and important device throughout, stopping the show in its tracks to note that sound has been lost or the feed to the camera is compromised. Each time, it forces the audience out of the other story Kingsman is telling via her deliberately unnamed and oh so universal character, and acts as a way to break down the wall between the audience and their complete absorption in a story we are thereby reminded was never real.

A further purpose is to act as a comment on the nature of performance itself into which Kingman is slipping. Which of the two women presented in the play is the real Kingsman and does she necessarily have to be either? Within One Woman Show, Kingsman is playing a part that is playing a part, a technique that empashsies the multifaceted nature of the writer who presents two slightly different versions of the narrator, one keen to record her show for an absent producer in the hope that it brings her greater career opportunities and who has minimal regard for an audience that must endure her interruptions and occasionally petulant reactions, and one sweetly ditsy woman falling in and out of love at a ridiculous rate, overstating her emotional attachments but charmingly harmless in her way. That Kingsman is both of these creations at the same time and through the conceit of the show argues they are the same person only serves to underscore their ultimate falseness and fictional existence.

That both of these versions of a single woman are performed to camera (at least within the pretence of the show) only underscores the fantasy inherent in these creations and aligns them with the equally unlikely depictions of young women across different kinds of media. This continual commentary is woven so seamlessly and naturally into the show, used to disrupt the narrative arc while simultaneously maintaining a consistently entertaining performance, and gives One Woman Show its many layers and meaning.

The second storytelling device is a much more traditional romantic comedy framed as a confessional story that the protagonist is recalling, presented candidly to the audience. It takes place on a representative stage with an office chair and a reed-filled moat representing the nature charity where the character works in Marketing – a job that brings with it plenty of opportunities for humour. Kingsman here adds as many cliched tropes as she can giving the narrator a thinly drawn comedy best friend with a northern accent who only ever dolls out timely and sage life advice, an undemanding but worthy London-based office job, an older but experience manager and plenty of meet-cute opportunities all framed in a rose-tinted version of the capital that no one will recognise.

Toying with these concepts, Kingsman adds some sharply honed surreal humour that gently mocks the ridiculousness of these scenarios so the audience doesn’t get too comfortable. The writer then uses some of the secondary characters to challenge the stereotypes of women and the patriarchal expectations this genre continues to impose. Again, Kingsman never chooses to compromises interest in her character and her story with the audience continually lured into her world (for which the filming interruptions are a necessary rejoinder). However much we recognise the frustrations of this trope, Kingsman is all too aware how the slightly exaggerated nature and wide-eyed innocence of these characters can be all too engaging, designed as they are to be likeable and pleasing – the primary of purpose of women in the patriarchy.

Creating audience connection to and engagement with this character is deliberate of course so that it can be disrupted and Kingsman combines direct monologue with acted scenes in which she represents other characters through changes of body language and accent, and memory sequences that take the character back to previous experiences that are pivotal to her eventual realisations. The driver here is an emotional trauma about a man (naturally) which the audience will eventually learn and the character will be healed. Notable too is that Kingsman only ever plays the female characters and while male speech is reported, additional voiceovers are provided for the academic naturalist with whom she enjoys a whirlwind romance and the persistent crew member directing the technical recording – perhaps to be interpreted as even the voice of patriarchy itself telling her what to do.

One Woman Show is then more than a pot shot at Fleabag and the like, and is instead an assessment of the performative nature of female roles in popular culture products in which the inauthentic substance of these representations is both highlighted and satirised while fully acknowledging how appealing and entertaining these tropes continue to be. Kingsman’s show is designed ultimately to make the audience laugh, which it does repeatedly and often, and this is a rewarding way to spend 70-minutes however you engage with its layers of subtext. This is a writer fully grasping her moment on this huge West End platform to question the structures and expectations surrounding and consuming us, so don’t miss out on this brief opportunity to be part of it.

One Woman Show is at the Ambassadors Theatre until 21 January with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Sons of the Prophet- Hampstead Theatre

It hasn’t been a vintage year for new writing, certainly not in mainstream venues where there have been notably more misses than hits. Hampstead Theatre’s latest venture is in the former category, a middling American import billed as a comedy with a focus on identity that suffers from a dramatic identity crisis. Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet is not exactly new either, first staged in 2011, but it makes its European debut here by starting a lot of conversations that it doesn’t manage to finish and while there is solid investment in the Douaihys, the central Lebanese-American family coming to terms with their recent grief, the play never quite translates into the zippy family comedy it aspires to be or the detailed analysis of personal, cultural and sexual identity that are the basis for many of its scenes.

The second new US play to open this season, like the over-praised Eureka Day, Karam’s writing has a sparring quality, creating combative situations in which its characters can interact. But beneath the surface scenario, neither writer digs deep enough into their creations to properly underpin the messaging. And while Eureka Day was enlivened by a brilliantly comic online chat group – which notably was a sideline scene and did not involve or enhance the role of its protagonists – Sons of the Prophet is certainly lighter on laughs, drawing most of them from the ineptitude of its characters rather than than the situations in which they find themselves which are, on the whole, universally tragic.

There is certainly brevity in the writing, and, like Jonathan Spector’s school-based play, words are carefully controlled. It is a feature of American drama in fact that the characters rarely say things that aren’t relevant to the plot or its psychology in some way. It is a style that comes from those great mid-century novels, all tightly honed prose, antiheroes and utilitarian literary structures, something that since became a feature of US playwriting using a fixed number of scenes between and outside of which the world of the characters really exist. The audience then is given illustrative excerpts from which much should be inferred or imaged about their fuller lives – see also Theresa Rebeck’s Mad House, another so-so US comedy reaching the West End this year.

For Karam’s play there is a singular dramatic end point and within that several narrative hares that are set running with different degrees of success. The primary driver focuses on the aftermath of the Douaihy patriarch’s death from a heart attack a week after he swerved off the road to avoid a plastic deer placed there as a prank by a school football star. The extent to which these two events are aligned possibly even cause and effect, are debated by the family and Karam creates two moments where the grieving relatives and the rising sports star intersect; at an agreed meeting at their home and a final community hearing where both sides can give an opinion about whether the young man should pay immediately for his carelessness or be allowed to complete the season before attending juvenile detention. Neither scene is ultimately fruitful, certainly not in a dramatic sense, as the writer is too distracted by family arguments and weaving in the subplots to fully investigate the moral dilemma here and its consequences for various people included in these events.

First, Karam sends the perpetrator to the Douaihy family home at Christmas and having previously refused to entertain the notion, he suddenly appears in their living room with little explanation about why they changed their minds – a feature of this type of American drama being the snapshots of life with big changes of direction happening in between. A potentially interesting conversation is then abruptly stopped as Vin is reading a letter of apology and Uncle Bill is getting exorcised about the nerve of the youngster. Instead of pursuing the evident disagreement between the Douaihys about the value of this meeting, Vin’s physical presence and a pressure to reasonably respond to the young man, Karam decides to create a subdued farce in which exasperated characters come and go but with little plot or comic purpose.

It would have been far more satisfying here to pursue the original conversation a little longer to understand why Bill is so unwilling to accept this as a tragic accident – what has happened to him in the past to shape this absolutism in his reaction – and why younger brother Charles is so eager to forgive and even befriend Vin, someone he clearly already knows and seems to admire. And where does this leave lead character Joseph who is too distracted by other needs to give any real thought to the meeting? What of the football star himself, what has prompted this contrition, is it genuine guilt or a ploy to ensure a reduced sentence, what was the context of the original prank and what might guilt do to his character and his prospects in the months and year ahead?

The second interaction comes during the play’s finale at a community event chaired by two unexplained gossipy women who give anyone the right to speak. It is unclear whether this is a social or legal set-up but it establishes a freedom to give speeches while the various subplots crossing through Joseph’s story arc are used as disruptors, intended like the house scene to build to a farcical pitch. Most of this is a rehash of opinions we have already heard, Charles offering generous support to Vin, Uncle Bill chastising him and Vin himself nervously apologising and trying to justify his actions with promises of future remedy. What we don’t get is any new information or a resolution that attends to the plays’s central dilemma, whether or not the Douaihys should forgive Vin.

Across this Karam instead brings in the subplot characters, journalist Timothy who adds little to proceedings except to prove journalists are as mercenary as Joseph always suspected, and Joseph’s depressive boss Gloria who crashes the meeting to make a vague speech while either high or drunk but irrelevant to Vin’s case. All of this is presided over by two members of a Board that the audience has never met before but who are given authority and judgmental asides that, again, don’t really contribute to the outcomes of this story. What the Board is for, what their decision-making process is and why there are only two of them is never explained.

All of this is meant to shed light on Joseph, and Karam devotes most of Sons of the Prophet to the establishment of this character, a man with unspecified and undiagnosed physical pain in various parts of his body for which he is undergoing medical tests that he cannot afford. There is something in this character’s struggles to balance the needs of his family including a cantankerous undiluted uncle and perhaps naive younger brother, people he feels responsible for, with his own desires and wants. Joseph is never given the chance to express his own feelings about his father’s death or even to really process them because he’s constantly dealing with other people’s reactions as well as navigating personal issues with relatively little support.

Joseph is an interesting if not fully developed character and it’s not always easy to see where Karam is taking him and why. A former long-distance runner whose fitness level is not what it was, Joseph’s biggest storyline involves these medical test and their results which the audience is invited to observe as he seeks a final understanding of his ailments. Calls to doctors are the primary reason for his distraction during important scenes such as Vin’s visit, but this is left unresolved as Joseph ends the play still performing the shoulder exercise it began with. There is a brief suggestion these may be psychosomatic symptoms but the accusation comes too late in the play and without any sufficient context to leave the audience questioning what they have seen.

Likewise, the sexuality of Joseph and brother Charles is mentioned several times but for no real purpose. Joseph has a brief affair with journalist Timothy who he meets in a bus station and later turns to to escape his family. But indications that they met at inter-scholastic cross-country tournaments and the convenience of Timothy’s appearance at that exact moment are not followed through. Similarly, boss Gloria instigates conversations about Joseph’s Lebanese identity in the opening scene and her hope to write a book based on his family connection to The Prophet writer Kahlil Gibran. A creation who admits to barely leaving his home town of Nazareth Pennsylvania never mind the US, there are some really interesting debates to have about multiracial second and third generation identities emerging from cultural heritage rather than geographical knowledge of, in this case, Lebanon, and what that means for individuals navigating dual identities in the twenty-first century. But instead both Timothy and even Gloria who has considerably more personality, are ciphers for an incomplete assessment of Joseph.

Karam uses the chapters of The Prophet to shape his scene titles such as On Pain, On Talking and On the Home which are displayed across Samal Blak’s largely black box set. Creating a triangular space, Blak places the action on two levels with revolving mini stages that appear in the walls on the upper level when needed. But much of the time, they are not required and with a semi staged approach taken to generating the locations of the Douaihy family, it accidentally results in an even greater sense of disconnection within a story taking place largely in a great black void where perhaps a projected set would better fill the space with the life this play is trying to represent.

Irfan Shamji well represents all of Joseph’s interconnected issues, taking his physical pains consistently through the performance and exploring the various frustrations with family, medical and personal issues that plague him. It’s a shame that Karam’s text doesn’t give Shamji more to work with in terms of conflicted – or perhaps even disinterested – identities but Shamji really anchors this production with a performance that retains both sympathy and uncertainty about some of Joseph’s motives as written. His fellow family members are less rounded but Raad Rawi as irascible Uncle Bill and Eric Sirakian as the kindlier Charles bring them to life. Poor Jack Holden, though has almost nothing to do as journalist Timothy while Juliet Cowan takes a thinly written part and generates some great comic moments through her characteristion of Gloria as a convincingly steely but equally wispy boss who spots an opportunity to exploit the Douaihy’s pain.

Bijan Sheibani’s production never quite generates enough energy to sustain momentum across its 1 hour and 45-minute running time or build to those seemingly farcical moments of character overlap and emotional chaos that the text indicates. But Sons of the Prophet feels incomplete as a play which makes for a less satisfying experience for the audience and a missed opportunity to really drill into the layers of identity that these characters offer.

Sons of the Prophet is at the Hampstead Theatre until 14 January with tickets from £18. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Kerry Jackson – National Theatre

The National Theatre has quite mixed fortunes when it comes to new play commissions, some become and instant hit – like After Life and the storming success this year of Jack Absolute Flies Again – while others can feel significantly more under-nourished and perhaps staged a little too soon. April De Angelis’s new play Kerry Jackson falls into the latter category with a tale of a relationship across the class divide that looks to explore polarised opinions about homelessness, immigration and compassion between two people who seem, on the surface, ill-suited. But the play never delves beyond its cliched creation of character, political viewpoints and behaviours that retain an essential artifice in their construction, while De Angelis is never sure how she wants the audience to respond to the contradictory scenarios she establishes.

Kerry Jackson is built around two things – the first is the character of Kerry herself, a 52-year-old restaurateur opening her first business in Walthamstow Village and brilliantly played by Fay Ripley. The second is an ongoing scenario in which a homeless man named Will has pitched himself in close proximity to the premises and is repeatedly noted as defecating behind the bins for which Kerry, who openly finds him repulsive and a perceived threat to her livelihood, wants him to be removed. And the biggest issue for Kerry Jackson is where these two ideas interact, leaving the viewer uncertain whether to despair of her views, support them or try to see both sides.

The play just isn’t sure what it wants to say and De Angelis cooks up what often feels like a disconnected collection of scenes that struggle to find either a consistent plot or a political position that it wants to advocate. Is Kerry Jackson making a plea for greater humanity when dealing with homelessness and the individuals it affects, or is Kerry right to be nervous around Will and to eschew the weak liberalism of left-leaning Stephen and his daughter. No one in this story develops, every character is the same at the end and there are no resolutions. Arguably, this reflects a reality in which people do not change that much, but it doesn’t make for engaging or terribly satisfying drama when there is nothing for the viewer to take away.

There are lots of things happening simultaneously in Kerry Jackson but the light-touch treatment of homelessness is its linking thread. The audience sees both perspectives; Kerry’s strident view on Will’s existence and her disgust with his physical appearance and what she believes to be his personal failure to manage his life. This is offset by a rather mawkish interpretation of rough sleeping in which the sensitive Will, know as “The Reader” for his love of books, interacts with the left-wing characters Stephen and Alice who try to help him, at least at a surface level by having conversations and bringing him food. All of that seems relatively straightforward if not terribly incisive, and a potential trajectory in which Kerry changes her mind seems likely.

But then De Angelis muddies the waters so drastically it becomes increasingly unclear why our sympathies must shift from Will and what this mean for the play’s messaging. A crucial scene comes in the Second Act where, having met the characters in several scenarios, Will approaches Kerry one night when she is alone in the restaurant, ostensibly to thank her for giving him a coffee a few days before. In Indhu Rubasingham’s production, the scene is played as potentially threatening, not just through Kerry’s palpable fear in which she edges around the furniture to avoid giving Will (Michael Fox) a physical opportunity to get close to her, but also in the tone of the encounter in which the man’s behaviour is erratic and intimidating. The concept of a relatively defenseless woman (whatever her views), alone in a small room with a younger, taller and stronger man who is covering the exit leads the audience to imagine Will as the very danger that Kerry has always suggested. And later, hearing about his drug problem, it begins to alter our impression of this character and his purpose in the story – the unanswered question though is why and what De Angelis means by it.

There is something potentially Pinteresque about Will and the situation which, like The Caretaker, creates an opportunity for an unknown outsider to enter an established world and disrupt it. The potential power shifts could be quite an interesting directional shift in an otherwise naturalistic play and one that, as is often the case with Pinter, could make comments about wealth and class being overturned, with new social orders coming into effect. But Kerry Jackson is a comedy and doesn’t take this opportunity to use the character as any kind of reflective instrument either for Kerry or the audience who are instead lead to think Will wasn’t so nice after all. Meanwhile, Stephen’s liberal hand-wringing over him is ultimately no more helpful when Stephen’s kindness only goes so far before it begins to encroach on his own life. What then is Will’s purpose in this play?

Everything in Kerry Jackson should be in service of the the title character and the greater understanding or development of her personality. And she is a complicated creation, at least in Ripley’s performance, who in some ways is admirable; a middle-aged woman starting her own business to which she is dedicated, someone who doesn’t give up on the things she wants and is confident enough in herself to start a relationship with Stephen despite the differences between them, refusing to be cowed by the class shaming that is sometimes directed at her. Kerry can also be kind, even thoughtful, she cares deeply about her friends including chef Athena (Madeline Appiah) and unseen pal Carol, has plenty of self-awareness and even conceeds that Will is “alright.”

But then there is the other side to this character who complains about homelessness and immigration levels, lashes out in thoughtless and sometimes racist ways, voted Leave despite running a tapas restaurant and loving Spain, and is comfortable manipulating others to help herself. Kerry is also prone to making graphic revelations about bodily functions that tend to end conversations. What is lacking in both the character of Kerry and in the wider staging is any sense of the grounded reality of these people, that they have convincing lives beyond and between the scenes. Go around the corner to the Lytteleton and Clint Dyer will transport you with his consuming Othello, hauling you ready or not into that world, but Kerry Jackson just doesn’t feel real enough.

And part of that is convincingly creating a backstory for Kerry that barely exists in this production. Who is she and where does she come from? De Angelis drops a single hint that she gave up a child as a young woman but it is never mentioned again, nor is her inability to find a lasting relationship. At 52, Kerry is unmarried, childless and opening a business; she seems to be happy, even flourishing yet she is an archetype, a colourful one granted, but the writer never fully investigates her story or her psychological state. How has giving up a baby or not finding a significant other shaped her attitude to life – if it hasn’t then why mention it at all? What has Kerry been doing during her adult years prior to joining the restaurant business and how is she finding the money to open this one? Why tapas? Why Walthamstow? And what does she ultimately want? Has class been a barrier to her success? Does she resent being looked down upon by people like Stephen and how does she reconcile all her complicated and contradictory views?

There is so much potential in this character that is never exploited and Kerry as a creation doesn’t actually go anywhere. She doesn’t quite say “I am what I am,” but she may as well because this is the person that De Angelis presents and it becomes the story’s main strength as well as its dramatic weakness. If a character doesn’t change, learn or develop through the action of the play, if they don’t act as a warning or a moral allegory, if the story doesn’t take them or their situation forward in some way, then however funny, impressive or shocking they are, it is not clear why that have been called into existence for 2.5 hours in the Dorfman and why the audience should care.

The same can be said of all of the other principal characters unfortunately. Michael Gould’s Stephen is a man riddled with middle-class guilt, a walking cliche of cloth-bag carrying, bicycle riding, European literature reading wealthy liberalism – “Jeremy Corbyn without the sex appeal.” Recovering from his wife’s death, there are strands about him cheating on her when she was sick that are referenced but not used to comment on his own personality in any substantive sense – is he a man who leaves when the going gets tough? – and he has an antagonistic attitude to Kerry that blossoms into a primarily sexual attraction. Again, Gould gives him some life but his philosophy teacher doesn’t feel real and also ends up exactly where he started, learning nothing from Kerry except to reinforce his own prejudice about her. The audience also learns nothing about why this man would find solace with such a different woman. Is De Angelis’s point that opposites don’t attract whatever Paula Abdul may have to say on the matter?

The least effective character is Stephen’s daughter whose role in the drama seems even less clear than the others. She is there as a slightly more extreme version of her father with a compassionate earnestness that sets her against Kerry, although not immediately and is largely seen as misguided or misplaced. This lightly sketched creation also talks about grief but never demonstrates it, seems to encourage her father’s dating life but then resent its, demands greater freedom from his stifling care and then behaves like a sulky child for much of the story. Alice (Kitty Hawthorne) is even rather vindictive, inviting Will into the restaurant to give him Kerry’s stock for free – and behind the backs of the owner and chef (who gets nothing but a deportation story herself) – but never displays an ounce of understanding for anyone else. It is not clear what De Angelis uses this character to do other than give Stephen someone to talk to and be another face in the restaurant rather than explore the layers of her own grief and fears about change resulting from her mother’s death.

None of this is aided by the deeply artificial scene setting which from the start never escapes the feeling of watching actors in a play. De Angelis sets this drama in the tapas restaurant and in Stephen’s suave kitchen. Set designer Richard Kent creates a revolving block set for these two otherwise static rooms, except almost nothing said in Stephen’s house is site specific, certainly in Act One and the rotation becomes a distraction with Stephen and Alice failing to justify this investment in a private space for their relationship, adding to the lack of reality in Kerry Jackson that seems to infect place and structure as much as it does dialogue and character. Kent’s restaurant set works better (although three tables isn’t much of a business) but still there is little atmosphere of a busy London borough, no sense of bustle or distant traffic, or even other customers to suggest place and it makes the two locations of the play, however detailed their realisation, seem adrift from the city they supposedly exist in.

Kerry Jackson is ultimately the vehicle for De Angelis to explore the polarisation of left and right at the local, everyday level. This is the prism through which attitudes to social justice, education, wealth, class and character are then explored. Yet the results it too stagey and inconclusive to elicit any real meaning for the audience, problems too fundamental for any major changes to be possible before this week’s Press Night. So while Kerry Jackson has some funny lines and moments, and indeed Ripley’s very enjoyable central performance, there needs to be another six months of development time to crystallise its perspective and determine what it wants to say. Compare this to equivalent works that pit opposing views against each other such as Simon Wood’s Hansard or the sophistication of James Graham’s political but character-driven and entertaining This House and Best of Enemies (opening in the West End last week) and Kerry Jackson ultimately feels too lightweight in its treatment of the issues it covers.

Kerry Jackson is at the National Theatre until 28 January with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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