Monthly Archives: January 2023

Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons – Harold Pinter Theatre

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons - Harold Pinter Theatre (by Johan Persson)

“Words, words, words,” Eliza Doolittle was sick of them particularly as empty descriptions of the love she wanted a practical demonstration of. Sam Steiner’s play Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons is first filled with too many of them and then not enough for Bernadette and Oliver, a couple who struggle to express their feelings for one another no matter how many or how few words they are permitted. Making its West End debut following an impressive rise from small regional premiere in 2015 to Edinburgh and London fringe, Steiner’s play, directed by Josie Rourke, is a rom-com of sorts filled with the minutiae and pitfalls that couples experience when getting to know one another and as their relationship matures and fades. But it is also concerned with class distinctions, inequality in various forms and political protest in which language and its control is constrained and then weaponised.

The romantic comedy standards give Steiner’s play its shape – there is a quirky meet-cute in which Bernadette and Oliver get to know one another in a pet cemetery by the grave of a dead cat that belonged to neither one of them. They go on dates, have ‘the talk’ about ex’s, have fights about trivial things that mask larger problems in their relationship, they move in together, endure one another’s colleagues and find themselves drifting apart as they both become complacent about what they have. So as their differences become obstacles rather than exciting opportunities, the play’s emotional stakes rise.

Bernadette is a lawyer who doesn’t always listen to what Oliver is saying and seem to resent any mention of her working class background and the empathetic or political obligations it assumes. Oliver is a musician with middling success but mostly an activist attending regular meetings and marches, spending time with a former girlfriend who he cautiously talks about and fails to accept his current partner’s need for silence. So far, so standard, but it is what the playwright does with this bundle of traits and devices that makes Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons more than a generic stage romance.

This is a play that has quite a meticulous structure but appears smooth and unruffled to an audience. There are no Acts or Scenes across the continuous 90-minute performance, but there are frequent time leaps indicated by a beat and a subtle change in Aideen Malone’s lighting design. These take the characters forward a few hours, days, possibly months and years without giving an exact indication of how much time may have passed, leaving that entirely to the audience and the performers to determine. There is also no suggestion that we see this relationship necessarily in chronological order, only a cluster of scenarios that happen ‘before’ and some ‘after’ a momentous change. Within these segments, dialogue is loaded quite differently and scenes occur at different paces. While some events certainly happen in succession, it is not at all certain that the audience is seeing the couple evolve exactly as they did. And it gives the play energy, forcing the viewer to piece together what happened from the quite selective words the playwright has chosen to represent how this couple verbalise their time together.

And Steiner adds further degrees of complexity to this by also toying with the audience’s exposure to those conversations into which we arrive at different points. Sometimes, the characters have just met, beginning with a “hello” as they get home from work or meet for a date, but more often we enter a conversation with an exchange already underway or drawing to a close. Like a scripted reality show, Steiner has only given his creations so many words to use and the confines of this are all the audience has to understand and connect their story together. Beyond the snapshots provided, their conversations and arguments must go on in oblivion and, unlike their television counterparts, real exchanges don’t just stop awkwardly when the script runs out. Arguments recur, they go round-and-round while even lovers at their happiest continuously talk reassuringly of their affection for one another or all the things their life together might, could and should be. Even in the ‘before’ period, therefore, Steiner is already limiting the characters to small amounts of words that must knowingly act as proxy for a much broader, fuller life together – a task made infinitely more difficult but somehow more moving in the ‘after’ part of the play.

So, before and after what? This is the second major device that Steiner employs that cuts through the scenario that Steiner has established, the passing of a “hush” law that limits all human speech to only 140 words per day, and it creates two dramatic consequences within Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons. The first is to focus the protest sections of the play around the shifting emotional connection of the couple, concentrating on fighting against the planned law and then advocating for its amendment and repeal which gives Oliver direct purpose in the plot, a place to express his desire for freedom from State control and a life away from Bernadette where his primary passion and focus exist.

As a result, this also becomes the root of their many disagreements, with Bernadette taking the potential law less seriously at first and later falsely reassuring her boyfriend that it would be possible to change it within a few months of imposition. It moves the standard relationship into a domestic dystopia where things are essentially the same but different enough to expose the pre-existing flaws in their connection that play-out across the remainder of the story. This ‘after’ section essentially carves the play and this couple’s settled perfect life in two, making it impossible for them to ignore their problems with even fewer words to hide behind.

And that leads into the second consequence for Bernadette and Oliver which is the technical challenge of communicating months of their relationship within set counts for each of them. Steiner generates both tension and pity by changing the number of words left to the pair in each of their conversations and this often happens in ways that reflect their emotional investment in the relationship and how rocky their connection becomes over time. Occasionally they try to save words for each other as a gesture of love, storing over a hundred by the time they come home, but in other scenes one or both of them have few words left, stilting what little communication is possible and forcing them to make choices about how they eek our their attempts to communicate or throw them away on an argument – the title itself coming from an exasperated waste of pointless words as tensions boil over.

The frustration and pain of two people with a lot to talk about yet unable to interact in full sentences becomes very moving as well as comedic, and with each scene beginning with an announcement of their remaining count, the struggle to engage is a testament to the technical challenge Steiner has set himself here. Conveying so much with so little is a balance of dialogue and creating moments where only one person has enough words to speak. Whether they choose to conciliate or attack thus becomes increasingly pointed.

Josie Rourke’s production is beautifully balanced and predicated on the deep connection between two people that is, by definition, unspoken. This is where the Director begins, before the words are introduced by creating a place in which the characters are physically comfortable with one another so that they can lounge, sit and stand at ease together. Without the distraction of a physical set, these tacit signals and the specificity of the words themselves at every point in the play are then magnified, conjuring up the life of Oliver and Bernadette entirely and helping the audience to invest in their story, even as the ways that this is communicated it to the audiences changes as the play unfolds.

Like her production of Measure for Measure at the Donmar Warehouse where the interaction between Isabella and Angelo was loaded with the things the characters could never say but still managed to express, Rourke also brings that intensity to Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, understanding the slow burn inevitability of the finale. Though Steiner reduces the words as the play continues (occasionally cutting back in time to the chatty good days to show how they once were), Rourke fills that space with something else instead. Where dialogue once existed that absence fills up with a palpable loss, fear and the sorrow of dimming love that the characters try so hard to keep alive.

Jenna Coleman made a significant impression when she made her stage debut in All My Sons at the Old Vic in 2019, and appears here with all the confidence of a seasoned theatre performer. Her Bernadette manages to be both frustrating and put upon, quick to rise to the bait and calmly indulgent of her partner’s whims. She is a complex woman, never wanting to be defined by whatever reductive description is applied to her and Coleman’s Bernadette reacts with equal irritation to the words ‘lawyer’ and ‘working class,’ seeing only the weighty expectations they bring and struggling always to break free of such confining terminology. And Coleman’s performance is full of those many layers, capturing the excitement of love in the beginning, the mundanity of routine and the present absence as her character begins to check out of the relationship. There remains a quiet sadness that follows which Coleman makes just as contained as the words that describe it, trying hard not to hurt her partner but equally bewildered by how they got to this place.

All of this is underpinned by the chemistry that Coleman has developed with co-star Aidan Turner, an ease with one another that makes their individual and collective performance so engaging. Turner loves a chance to flex some comedy muscles, and while his television roles have tended towards the terribly serious, the stage seems to give the actor a freedom that opens up his performances. Following a hilarious and critically acclaimed turn in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, in Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons he is the more gregarious character who finds it hard to contain this emotion within the words that Steiner slowly takes away from him. Oliver has lots of feelings about the world, politics, himself ad his relationship but Turner still makes him seem easy going, caring, even fun, someone that Bernadette would want to be with. But as their situation deteriorates the extent of his concealment becomes clear.

It is an interesting line for Turner to tread, between the overt honesty of his character and the selective holding back of information that contributes to the certainty of its ending, as though by hiding it Oliver can stave-off that inevitability a little longer. The growing jadedness that Turner finds adds an interesting dimension as another relationship fades which Oliver regrets but cannot seem to stop. The fast-paced interchanges with Coleman are some of the production highlights as arguments and truth-telling sessions about their foibles and annoyances become nicely tragicomic.

Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons is a play about the relationship formed by words and the words that form a relationship, of which Steiner suggests are too many and too few at the wrong times. Bernadette and Oliver find that they say a lot when they don’t need to and cannot say enough when they most need to talk. Rourke’s production underscores how entirely the playwright controls how this relationships is expressed with Robert Jones’s curved shelving design highlighting the materiality of the life between them, the objects and possessions that wordlessly suggest who they are or were or have never quite been. As the ordered shelves disappear into the air, their life together comes apart with it with a few remaining items, like the couple, suspended in limbo. Are they or aren’t they? But by this point, there are no words left.

Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 18 March with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Noises Off – Phoenix Theatre

Noises Off - Phoenix Theatre

Noises Off is 40 years old and it is amazing to think there are vast numbers of people who have never seen it, certainly judging by the gales of laughter it is already provoking in the Phoenix Theatre where Lindsay Posner’s production has transferred following a successful UK tour. It’s more than a decade since Posner’s last version in the West End, staged at the Old Vic in 2011, although it was revived at the Lyric Hammersmith and then the Garrick Theatre in 2019 by Jeremy Herrin. As a concept, Michael Frayn’s play has largely stood the test of time relatively well considering it was originally designed to mock the stale three Act drawing room farce of yesteryear, and while there are now far fewer of those to compare against, the comedic pitch of Noises Off continues to entertain while its reflections on life in a touring theatre company now perhaps contain its sharpest observations.

A well-timed comedy is the hardest kind of performance to manage successfully. It has to look absolutely effortless, as though misfortune is raining down on hapless characters trapped in a hell of their own making, while for the actors it is a genre that requires a high-level of technical finesse, precision timing and incredible stamina, especially when the story demands a combination of interlocking verbal jokes, visual and physical comedy. To create the rolling and building humour that sustains the energy of a show like this over a couple of hours is no mean feat and Noises Off is a hugely demanding piece for its nine-strong cast.

It is also the blueprint for everything that followed. For example, Stephen Moffat’s The Unfriend opened down the road at the Criterion Theatre last week, a glorious transfer from Chichester, that also ticks all of the farce boxes, a witty and sparkling sitcom on stage that combines a great character-based story, delicious one-liners, strong comedy performances and a sense of building chaos as the stakes get higher and higher across its two Act structure. Likewise, The Play That Goes Wrong (now back at the Duchess Theatre) involves a single performance coming apart at the seams which is the direct child of Noises Off and has served over a decade in the same place, covid interruptions notwithstanding. Among the musicals and serious dramas, feather-light but skillful comedies are few and far between so this is a rare opportunity for audiences to see how great a debt contemporary stage comedies owes to Noises Off by seeing them side-by-side.

With mini-farcical crescendos in each of the three Acts, Noises Off begins with the stuttering dress rehearsal of a farce called Nothing On about to open in Western-super-Mare. The cast still think they’re in technical rehearsal so timing and commitment are all a bit lackluster but it’s edging towards midnight on the day before opening night and their frazzled director Lloyd Dallas just wants to get through Act One. In the first two parts of the play, Frayn puts the audience in the position of secret observers, able to view the preparations, politics and troubled partnerships that will shape the remainder of this tour while giving the viewer all the information we will need to understand the events that follow.

First and foremost, Act One of Noises Off is a chance to familiarise ourselves with the slight plot of Nothing On, a silly story about a sardine-eating housekeeper, an Estate Agent and his girlfriend as well as the tax-exile owner of the house and his wife. It is a revolving door story involving characters just missing one another as they dash in and out of multiple exits in the belief they are alone in the house. The shape of this story and the exact position of the actors performing it at any given time are vital to understanding how badly the play-within-a-play deteriorates across its run. And while this initial amble through is frequently interrupted by the actors with questions for their beleaguered director, it gives the audience the base information to understand how what follows impacts on that plot.

But this first section is also a means to introduce the characters whose foibles and intertwined lives will so spectacularly sink this production. Frayn saves the impact of touring for later in the piece and in Act One creates a sense of optimism and, to an extent, support as the group pull together for the sake of the show. The inter-relationships that will derail future performances are the point, so we learn of Lloyd’s affairs with younger actor Brooke but also with Assistant Stage Manager Poppy who discover each other’s existence in this first segment, of the equivalent affair between the grande dame Dotty and her younger lover Garry with a jealous streak, and we meet the eternally unreliable alcoholic Selsden who cannot remember lines or cues and spends most of the play attempting to steal away with a bottle of whiskey.

In Posner’s new production at the Phoenix Theatre, there is a nicely controlled energy in this first part, a gentle introduction to plot and character that very slow builds its own rhythm. Frayn allows the audience to see vast swathes of Nothing On uninterrupted and Posner doesn’t create too much haste here, allowing the gentler comedy to slowly build and build as the actors real lives start to intrude and Lloyd’s exasperation grows. It is the longest scene in the play, a 50-minute opener that Posner controls well, taking the audience to a medium pitch just before the interval which allows the actors to conserve their energies for the faster-paced farce to come without making this feel in any way lackluster – a very finely balanced piece of directing that holds the audience back from expending too much of their own energy all at once.

Act Two is a completely different proposition in many ways. Already several weeks into a tour by this point and already some of the key relationships have blown up spectacularly and tensions are running high. The audience now sees Nothing On from backstage in Ashton-under-Lyne, a deeply chaotic performance in which the personal lives of the actors is the key focus and the play they are performing becomes a sketchy activity happening almost unseen in the background. And while the company initially retain a modicum of professionalism in trying to conceal their behind-the-scenes dramas from the unseen Ashton-under-Lyne audience, Frayn ups the stakes here considerably by setting this Act in a place the characters cannot speak to one another except in the dialogue of the play they are performing, in effect creating a farce akin to silent movie.

This is a masterful piece of writing that lives almost entirely in the stage directions and performances, driven by pure adrenaline. Much shorter than the First Act because Nothing On runs without interruption for about 30-minutes, this is the comic high point of Noises Off and the place where the work and the actors real lives crash up against one another as they silently fight, injure and vengefully meddle with one another all while trying to meet their cues. Like the play they are performing, this evolves into a revolving door comedy played on the same two levels in which the Noises Off actors are required to run up and down stairs, cross paths at exact moments in order to lift whiskey bottles or axes being brandished by their colleagues, and deal with tied shoe laces, lost props, bouquets given to the wrong women and missing colleagues all in a tightly timed fiasco.

Posner controls the appearance of chaos really well and in what is a complex and highly complicated sequence of events happening simultaneously, the audience will be unable to watch all of the incidents at the same time. Like a densely packed cartoon frame, activities overlap, there are plots, subplots and minor occurrences happening in isolation but also in chains of activity which the cast perform with a practiced ease that feels spontaneous and silly, showcasing the spectacular precision and tacit understanding they have developed together. Like Act One, this builds to the very edge of disaster and Posner’s cast expend the most physical energy in this section before the consequences of their personal and professional calamities plays out in the less actively demanding Act Three.

The final part of Noises Off is less frantic than Act Two but requires more seemingly incidental comedy as the play more clearly melds verbal and physical humour during the final disastrous performance of Nothing On at Stockton-on-Tees, placing the viewer in the position of the final performance audience watching the play straight through. But Frayn doesn’t directly repeat Act One and instead the comedy comes from the differences between the dress rehearsal and final night of this tour in which there are significant changes to the story we are by now familiar with. As the piece implodes it requires considerable adlibbing from the characters to cover up the endless mistakes that take the performance far off course.

It happens slowly at first, a spilt plate of sardines causing slide hazards, props appearing in the wrong places or not removed when they should be, and again Frayn gently develops a sense of the show slipping beyond the control of the actors most of whom no longer care, until their dialogue is out of sync while backstage and onstage story-lines have mixed. There is a blend of comedy style in here but Frayn draws the most laughs from the differing reaction of the cast to the breakdown of their show, from the ever-reliable Belinda stranded onstage, attempting to fudge the pandemonium and smoothly improvise her way out of disaster to the self-absorbed Brooke who refuses to acknowledge the problem and just delivers her lines regardless. Posner directs the changing tone well, less intense than Act Two but with a greater charge than Act One that clearly demonstrates the time lapse across the period of the play and the complete deterioration of the relationships that keep Noises Off alive.

And it is those interactions and the reflection on the consequences of close proximity for several months within a touring company that emerges most strongly in this production – the growing to hate one another over seemingly petty issues, the affairs that turn into much larger dramas, the deterioration of company morale after Press Night when the Director leaves to rehearse their next show leaving no adults in charge (not that Lloyd behaves any better than his team here), the clash of experienced professionals and young actors and the lagging energy as the tour unfolds that affects the cast and backstage crew in equal measure. And it is these personal dramas within the reflections on theatre itself that prove most enjoyable.

With its highly complex requirements, Noises Off is a true ensemble piece and this cast is working tightly together to keep the pace sprightly, exactly timing Frayn’s mix of verbal and visual humour. Tracy-Ann Oberman as the glamorous Belinda providing moral support to all, Felicity Kendall as the TV star turned dowdy housekeeper who provokes jealous rages in her younger lover Garry played by Joseph Millson who stalks the backstage area with murderous intent, Matthew Kelly as the sleepy Selsdon who’d rather be tucked up with a bottle than delivering his few lines, Jonathan Coy as Freddie whose sensitivity to violence causes inconvenient nosebleeds and Alexander Hanson as their amorous director Lloyd who cannot control the cast on either side of the curtain especially his lovers Sasha Frost as the single-minded Brooke and Pepter Lunkhuse as the sweetly overwhelmed Poppy. Everyone gets their moment while providing a finely calibrated comedy performance that never falters.

There are odd moments of Noises Off that certainly show their age, not least the now questionable presentation of a Sheikh which feels rather awkward in the twenty-first century while some of the sexual politics and Brooke running around in her underwear for much of the play is quite dated. Noises Off is a fast-paced show that still demands an enormously skilled and precise technical performance from every member of its cast and Posner’s team makes it look far easier than it really is. 40 years on, Frayn’s play has still got it.

Noises Off is at the Phoenix Theatre until 11 March with tickets from £25 plus booking fee. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Village / Rush – Almeida Theatre

You can tell a lot about the confidence of a theatre by its programming and never more so than in the degree of community and youth engagement it undertakes. The Almeida Theatre, then, couldn’t be more exciting and following a highly acclaimed Autumn / Winter season with rave reviews for both Tammy Faye and its current production of A Streetcar Named Desire, the stage is given over for two Sunday evenings to the Almeida Youth Company, presenting two brand new 50-minute plays written for and by a vast company of young performers under the direction of Abi Falase. Working with two established theatremakers – Tatenda Shamiso and Rafaella Marcus – this evening of performance is a true collaboration, one that showcases the Almeida’s talent development ecosystem.

Often, the work of young companies is confined to the tricky summer holiday period when much of the theatre community decamps to Edinburgh and no one risks opening a major show. Last summer, both the Donmar Warehouse (The Trials) and the Young Vic (Of the Cut) offered their spaces to works created by their youth and community programmes, two highly successful concepts that explored production techniques and site-specific opportunities to celebrate the venues that nurtured them. Now, the Almeida Theatre has taken the concept a step further, tying its Youth Company performance to its current show with both The Village and Rush directly responding to themes and concepts raised by Tennessee Williams’s play – a smart and insightful decision that creates a future model for its community engagement activities.

The Village

The first performance of this double bill is The Village, a deeply political piece guided by Shamiso that draws on notions of utopian ideals in Williams’s play and the ways in which dreams and reality are often sacrificed at the point when old and new worlds collide. In this scenario, the young people of the UK have created a pilot society, designed and governed by themselves, an ideal place in which policies and State functions are provided by a Council of emancipated youth free to set their own priorities and budget using devolved powers given to them by the adult Government in the outside world. It is an interesting and well-worked premise, one that explores concepts of power, management, democracy and corruption within both the economic and physical limitations of the village they establish.

There are two particularly intriguing elements here that ultimately shape the direction this 50-minute piece takes; the first is the geographical boundary of the village itself, housed in an abandoned seaside town which instantly evokes notions of dereliction, decline and, importantly, distance from the real seat of power in London. Although the physical location is never specified, this created commune is clearly on the margins of the UK, as close to the edge of the land mass as it is possible to get, and thus without connection to much of the country. Are the young people being set up to fail deliberately while similarly isolated from any kind of wider connection that could add momentum to their cause?

But this is also a piece about the limitations of the space they are given to govern, a physical patch of ground that only affects those living within it. The Government of the day has not awarded them total power for all young people in the country allowing their needs to be met by this group, and instead grants them jurisdiction over those living within the boundaries of the youth State. As youth members ‘age out’ they are replaced. It is this contested physical limitation that drives much of the drama that follows and it is in this space where those notions of utopia and reality must co-exist. Naturally more than one kind of betrayal occurs, not least in the relationship between central Government and this small pilot site with little to gain from its shackled independence. The youth have been given their dream but in a place that in every physical and geographical sense will fail them, undermining the regime in much the same way that Blanche’s fantasies betray her when the price of realising them proves too brutal.

The second important element of this society is that is was created from mass protest, a violent and energetic opener in which 20 performers storm the stage in masks that obscure their faces. But a society created from revolution and built on foundations of anarchy is doomed to fail when attempts to reimpose rules and a form of governed democracy become compromised by elitism and mass disillusionment. This is the main driver of The Village, the growing disenchantment of the people which is escalated upwards to the seemingly ineffective rule of its Council. That further protest and regime change are subsequently mooted naturally stem from the State foundations, and, in subtle reference to works like Animal Farm (not to mention recent Government scandals), frustrations about the meaning of equality play out across this story.

There are real complexities here though with an understanding that rules and leadership are far more complex than they may appear. While the Council is not sympathetically portrayed, the difficulty of balancing the economy, food shortages and negotiating their independent status with the existing Government proves troublesome. Similarly, there is much advocacy for a newly created Education system based on student interest but an equal recognition that boundaries and regulations are necessary for a society to function which add nuance to what could have been an idealistic but naive concept of utopian democracy. That State failure seems inevitable never detracts from the hope everyone has for improving and achieving this idealised society regardless of the human behaviours that prevent it from happening.

The Village has a conventional theatrical approach, a linear story that, like The Trials, explores notions of young people bringing forward power to make decisions about the kind of future they want to build. Focusing that around the driver of new recruits being inducted as well as the ways in which this society tries to hide its struggles, to present its best self to the outside world through the presence of an (unseen) documentary film crew and social media manager are areas that could be expanded in a longer project. Yet, this is a 50-minute production filled with interesting questions about that tricky space between fantasy and truth.


The second performance, shaped by Marcus, is a quite different proposition although it too considers a place between dreams and reality. Set during a single night at a fairground, Rush is about wistful lost love, the pursuit of idealised happiness and co-dependency in various forms. The Company create a last night atmosphere in this piece, of a world or way of living that the various inter-related characters already know has ended but who chose to suspend their disbelief for a single night in order to recapture the innocence of their connection one last time. By morning, everything will change, particularly as one of the protagonists is about to leave the group forever, bound for a grown-up life abroad.

Linking to Williams’s creation of characters fooling themselves about who they are and what their future will be, Rush also considers the last-chance desperation of individuals pursuing a fantasy that only takes them further away from themselves. This takes places across two groups of friends, each containing one half of a couple who dated for a year before their relationship fell apart, and both coincidentally, or perhaps deliberately, in the same place for this one night where there is one last chance to set things right. What takes this away from rom-com territory is that the desire for reconciliation is one-sided, a scenario that nods to the changing connection between Stella and Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, that places protagonists Leah and Toni on opposite trajectories.

Under Marcus’s guidance, there is a dreamlike quality to this scenario aided by Fraser Craig’s romantic lighting design and Phoebe Shu-Ching Chan’s evocative costume choices. The setting is more Coney Island-like that Dreamland Margate, tapping into a very American notion of innocence that fairground rides and safe end of the pier spaces create. It feels like a warm summer night with characters dressed in shorts and crop tops or Hawaiian shirts, an easy, casual vibe where everyone wants to have a good time, and like the similar scene in Blood Brothers in which Micky, Edward and Linda go to the fair while the narrator casts doom over their unaffected joy, in Rush there are no thoughts of what’s to come.

The two friendship groups are well created but given slightly different structures, one in which Leah is too distracted by the possibility of finding Toni to fully appreciate her friends and the other in which Toni is fully absorbed in every moment of the evening unconcerned by the possibility of bumping into an ex they have emotionally left behind. The groups are loud and boisterous at times, fun-loving and cheeky, performed with energy by the Company who create a very credible connection between people with more than a decade of friendship to call upon, but are also in their early 20s and on the cusp of change.

To this, Rush adds some intriguing theatrical devices and movement sequences that focus on the existential pressures individuals are feeling that hide beneath the jaunty projection of happiness. Juxtaposing these monologues or philosophical reflections within the central story as characters talk about the momentary freedom offered by being in the Hall of Mirrors where you can evade the constriction of societal rules, or the claustrophobic smallness of the individual relative to the uncaring universe dampen the romance of the central scenario, and while these could have a stronger role in pulling out contrasting notes of potential ugliness at the funfair, the choreographed precision of the complex mirrors sequence is particularly effective.

Rush also has plenty of expansion potential, drilling further into Leah’s need to rekindle this defining romance and the willingness to sacrifice everything for its sake. Like Williams, the Company are exploring the cruelty of unrequited desire and of rejection about which these characters clearly have more to say in the aftermath of their meeting. Nonetheless like The Village, this 50-minute play probes the place between reality and fiction, where individual fantasy and hope are subsumed into a more satisfying collective.

These plays may not be the obvious responses to Streetcar that you might expect but are all the more interesting for it, and the development of contemporary work delving into the themes of Williams’s mighty play is well worth spending a Sunday night at the theatre. This model for youth participation is a promising one, filling a space between classic plays and audience engagement that is rich with possibility. Creating space for it in future programming will be the challenge but one that will offer rich rewards for a thriving creative culture.

The Village / Rush will be performed again at the Almeida Theatre on 22 January. Tickets at £5. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

On the Ropes – Park Theatre

On the Ropes - Park Theatre

The sports biography is a great focus for drama and at the Park Theatre the focus is on boxing legend Vernon Vanriel who is telling his own story in the world premiere of On the Ropes, a play he has co-written with Dougie Blaxland. A tale of sporting prowess, celebrity self-destruction and eventually national betrayal, Vanriel and Blaxland’s overlong story doesn’t pull many punches, presenting the good, bad and the alarming misdirections of Vanriel’s event-filled life. It is a play that occasionally explores the context and consequences of Black British identity, the incipient racism and the incumbent police brutality that follows, although On the Ropes could take a clearer perspective on how the protagonist’s life is shaped by these external forces.

Vanriel’s story is undoubtedly an interesting one, beginning with scholastic under-achievement and concluding with a Windrush-related rejection despite having grown-up in Britain. In between is a lengthy intermediary chapter in which Vanriel becomes both the No 2-rated British boxer and, as the play argues, an innovator who introduced both walk-on music and cheap tickets to boxing matches that allowed more people like Vernon to see his fights, rapidly democratising access to sport. There are though a lot of notes like this wrapped into the play’s long biographical structure that takes a strictly chronological approach to presenting the episodes of Vanriel’s life without pausing for long enough to really tot up or properly analyse those decisive contributions. The political disaster of Vernon’s struggle for recognition pre-dates the Windrush scandal but the play never asks why this is so decisive in shaping his eventual identity which is only ever alluded to and not fully excavated.

On the Ropes uses the architecture of a boxing match, a 12 Round drama with chapters of indeterminate length that stages 6 of these rounds in each half of the play. It is a reasonable device given the subject matter and one that focuses the many fights and experiences of Vanriel’s life as the boxer’s rise and fall gives way to a prolonged exile in Jamaica and the sportsman’s well-documented fight to return to the UK and then on to the citizenship that should have been his right from the age of 6. The Round structure though has a significant downside, becoming a way to mark time for the audience, knowing for better or worse that the story cannot end before all 12 bouts are played out.

It is a concept that becomes problematic when the chapters are of such unequal length, reaching only 6 of these after a 90-minute first Act that makes the tempo feel slow despite Vernon’s incident-packed life, much of it interesting of itself. Yet, the show overshoots its advertised running time by nearly 40-minutes taking a 2 hour and 20 minute biography to nearly 3 hours of stage time, all paced against the slowly ticking 12 Round clock that makes narrative drive and momentum hard to sustain.

The difficulty is that On the Ropes is packed with conversations and encounters, covering a varied and engaging life that becomes perhaps even more compelling once Vanriel and Blaxland move into political territory and the questions of citizenship that focus Act Two. There is perhaps too much to say and more than one play lurking within this story meaning these strands ultimately struggle against one another, both competing for notice and to be labelled the most important or decisive periods of Vanriel’s life. What On the Ropes could do is decide which of its many stories it wants to tell and which version of Vernon Vanriel it wants the audience to see.

Is this the story of damaged celebrity, a boxing star thrust too soon into the limelight with little self-care or protection who, like so many others, burned brightly for a time before the inevitability of self-destruction burned him out with drugs and plaguing mental health that led to doubt and depression, or is this the story of a man betrayed by his nation after a lifetime of service, when bureaucracy and bigoted Government decision-making left him destitute in a place far from home? On the Ropes tries to be both but can’t entirely excel at either while the stories and length of this play compete to exhaust an audience nonetheless eager to hear the life of this fascinating man who enjoyed the highest highs and lowest lows of British society.

There is some gripping stuff in here which the overly episodic and completest nature of the biographical drama cannot entirely satisfy in the way that a publication perhaps could. A lightly sketched childhood would be sufficient for the stage and instead Vanriel and Blaxland’s drama should launch immediately into Vernon’s boxing career – perhaps even with a foreshadowing scene of the exile to come that will give purpose and direction to the drama. The first Act is where the excitement of the ring should live along with the increasing scale of the arenas, and thereby the stakes, then contrasted with Vernon’s too hasty fall from grace, where drugs and a growing arrogance make the character of Vernon overconfident and careless.

The very best moments of the existing Act One are those intense boxing encounters presented against a range of invisible opponents and accompanied by a running commentary describing the action into microphones. Here the plays comes alive with fight sequences that are served by their very theatricality on stage and the energy the descriptions bring. The thrust and parry, the choreographed dance of feet, the battle between lone individuals all come across well in On the Ropes as Vanriel’s rise and rise plays out nicely against a backdrop of conflicted management, Vernon’s demands and confidence as his success expands, while the scale of his talent takes him to the heart of the Establishment with a match at the Royal Albert Hall.

Vanriel and Blaxland also handle Vernon’s decline with skill, the personal frustrations that lead to substance abuse and the breakup of his family while also robbing him of the savvy management skills that consumed his earnings and left him with little to show for his years on top when the bailiffs come knocking. The notions of self-destruction, of fighting demons that destroy Vernon’s mental health taking him further from the man he was and wants to be are baked into the play but this needs to be the driving arc of Act One, a trajectory relieved of its fatty excesses, trimmed and given the necessary musculature to fight for Vernon’s central story in which the character is taken through and beyond fame. Losing some of the secondary roles to create a leaner, more focused first Act lasting around 60-minutes would make Vanriel’s story all the more powerful, leaving the character in a position to enter Act Two having experienced personal betrayal and ready to confront the State’s attack on his liberty after the interval. Most importantly, it would transform On the Ropes from an episodic and densely written narrative into a dramatically realised one.

Act Two could then concentrate, as it does now, on Vernon’s battle with the British Government to recognise his status as a citizen and the underhand tricks employed to keep him in Jamaica by callous British policymakers. Most of this is already in place but it also needs a slight trim. It may have taken 13 years, many trips to the visa service and many family calls to get to the bottom of these issues but it adds minimally to the drama to see all of them. Tidying up some of the more repetitious scenes would help the flow and pacing of the play. Compression may not be strictly accurate but the audience need only see an indication to get the gist while acknowledging the personal pain in this faceless attack on his humanity

Navigating these failures and the private toll it took on Vernon unable to live or work in Jamaica is already well-handled while the transition from The Guardian interview to the High Court battle for eventual justice makes for a compelling and neatly written conclusion in which the audience sees both Vernon’s failings – about which this play is remarkably clear-sighted and honest – and the circumstances where he was failed by whole systems pitted against him. A moving end to the play is well developed and the writers have created a character in which the audience can invest and empathise. Overly detailed it may be, but there is no denying the extraordinary life of Vernon Vanriel and the courage he has shown by staying in the fight to the bitter end.

Directed by Anastasia Osei-Kuffour, this production, which has its Press Night imminently, has endured an interrupted rehearsal period due to illness and won’t have the chance to address the text ahead of its opening night. But there is the glimmer of some really interesting approaches to staging, using a cast of just three actors playing tens of people across Vernon’s lifetime as well as performing the numerous reggae and ska songs that have been inserted at appropriate moments in jukebox musical style, capturing the flavour of British-Caribbean culture and the atmosphere of Vanriel’s time in both countries.

Osie-Kuffour stages the play in a boxing ring giving the in-the-round audience a view of the biography from all angles with even the non-boxing scenes played inside the structure, at least until Vanriel’s life starts to come apart. Designed by Zahra Mansouri there is a nod to the boxer’s destiny in this staging, the inevitability of his career and the ways in which it shaped his life, as well as the obvious allusion to the endless fights he would embark upon. But it becomes a little cumbersome, especially in Act One as it keeps the audience at bay. The fluidity of this story, of the movement between the personal and the professional begs for something simpler and perhaps a more representative set might help to better create the multiple spaces that Vanriel’s life requires. Like the text, the set could imply more than it needs to show, perhaps offering only half of the boxing ring or the four corners without the ropes that impede the actors’ movements.

The concept comes into its own in the more consistent narrative of Act Two as Vanriel’s life comes apart so too does Mansouri’s structure which is broken up and revolved, creating different spaces in which the characters can interact as connections to the protagonist’s former self become fractured. Mensah Bediako captures all of those changes in Vernon, a character he plays from the age of 6 through to his 60s, using his physicality to imply the force of the boxer during his prime as well as the toll of Vernon’s later years as homelessness and hopelessness eat away at him. Other roles are performed with verve by Amber James and Ashley D. Gayle who carry the energy of the production, transforming into boxing commentators, relatives, friends and officials while giving fine voice to all those great songs.

On the Ropes really does have a remarkable story (or several remarkable stories) to tell but it needs bringing into the light, helping the audience to understand why this is a stage show instead of a written biography. Vanriel’s tale of suffering, survival and showbiz needs an ending, not just a slightly sentimental rendition of (Something Inside) So Strong but an analysis of what all of this has meant. There is much more to say on the play’s central themes, the effects of continual harassment from the police and others as well as Vanriel’s final reflections on what Black British identity means to him now and whether his sense of nationhood has been forever tarnished by his experiences. Yes he eventually won every fight for his freedom, but was it all worth it?

On the Ropes is at the Park Theatre until 4 February with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Art of Illusion – Hampstead Theatre

The Art of Illusion - Hampstead Theatre (by Robert Day)

From a red handkerchief disappearing within the hands of a magician to fake footage in the early twentieth century, Hampstead Theatre’s latest international import is the UK premiere of The Art of Illusion, a 2014 French play exploring the history of magical performance and inventive approaches to entertaining audiences. Splicing together three biographical stories including two tradesmens’ sons – a watchmaker and a bootmaker – who went on to define the presentation of the magician across two centuries, with a fictional contemporary story about family and identity, Alexis Michalik’s sprawling piece develops in several directions at once and while it takes a little slight of hand to bring the loose ends back together to create a satisfactory conclusion, there is certainly plenty of theatricality to enjoy along the way.

Hampstead Theatre is traditionally first out of the blocks each year with a new production in its downstairs space. To open 2023, it gives us a play about the art of magic and its connection to the theatrical spaces that now house the magic show. And while many illusionists and showmen have brought their performances to London’s venues with some regularity, few plays have ever examined the magic-making process and personnel in any detail. Instead, this world has been the backdrop to murder mystery shows like Jonathan Creek, films including The Prestige and Now You See Me or the preserve of novelists with works like Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. These are the major influences for writer Michalik who presents his three tales in parallel using a Vaudevillian narrative style to tell a continuous story across 100-minutes.

Tom Jackson-Greaves’s production in the smaller Hampstead space is presented in the three-quarter round with a central circular podium designed by Simon Kenny that speaks well to the traditional magic show feel led by a Master of Ceremonies who guides the audience through these interlaced lives, acts as the defining advisor to two of the would-be magicians, setting them on their path to greatness, and provides philosophical and sometimes elliptical reflections for the audience. The overriding concept is that life is a circle not a line, and that everyone will have their time eventually. Underlying this are questions about faith, fate and magic – depending on which if any of these concepts the characters believe in – as well as later, mathematics as a guiding principle, any and all of which create forms of illusion that can deceive the eyes into believing logical impossibilities. Michalik doesn’t get too bogged down in how tricks work or whether audiences should focus on rationality over magic (which is perhaps The Art of Illusion‘s biggest weakness in not considering how and why audiences choose or even need to believe in the illusion in the first place) but presents instead these human stories of magic-makers with different degrees of success.

The first feels like a personal quest to distinguish between American illusionist Harry Houdini and French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin who inspired him and from whom Houdini derived his name. How a watchmaker became the “father of modern magic” across only six years of performance is Michalik’s focus, presenting choice snippets of a story that took the young Robert-Houdin from parental expectation within the family business and marriage through the chance discovery of a book of magic to utilising his horological skills to create automata that fascinated contemporary audiences.

Robert-Houdin’s name is spoken with reverance and awe throughout The Art of Illusion and Michalik colourfully recreates decisive moments of his life including an encounter with an Italian travelling conjurer who swept the younger man along and helped to shape his craft. It is a great scene, staged with all the pizzazz you could expect a nineteenth-century magic show to contain with a red-cloaked magician and plenty of atmospheric lighting as Robert-Houdin learns and then performs some of the key illusions in front of this audience including the disappearing handkerchief and the crowd-pleasing zig-zag woman – something the actors have worked hard to perfect in what is essentially a magical montage sequence.

But most important here is the way the writer toys with time, using the Italian teacher to tell a much earlier story set in the 1770s of the Mechanical Turk trick, again dramatised as a flashback by the actors while the eternal narrator explains the political significance and purpose of the illusion. What Michalik attempts here is the connection between different key moments in the history of performance and the growing sophistication of conjuring techniques using the biographies of the men (predominantly) who advanced the art form over hundreds of year. This is both as entertainment but also as personal necessity for the artists either requiring escape from their existing situations and/or an outlet for their manufacturing and creative talents. That this goes hand-in-hand with a concept of performance, of acting a part is particularly illuminating, and one of this play’s deeper themes is the extent to which the two major illusionists are more themselves when they perform than in the lives previously laid out for them by their parents. Michalik tends then to wrap stories around one another to create shifts in tone and personal development by using theatre techniques that create illusion, taking the viewer down into layers of narrative before realigning the pieces of his play once more.

The second story features George Méliès whose ultimate purpose takes far longer to reveal itself but who is deeply inspired by Robert-Houdin and the automata he created. Taking place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this strand reveals the technological innovation that inspired Méliès’s artistic development from painter to photographer and ultimately filmmaker that simultaneously advance concepts of illusion and illusionists. There are clear parallels with the previous story; both fairly disaffected young men wanting to find a different life away from their fathers’ business and both enchanted by notions of performance and the artistry of theatrical presentation.

By interweaving these two biographies, Michalik is able to find these interesting points of cross-reference, the younger man inspired by the older while equally emphasising Robert-Houdin’s role in laying the foundations that Méliès then built upon for those who followed. But the focus in Méliès’s segment is on the development of film and the establishment of footage designed to wrong foot the audience – not least the faked filming of a UK coronation screened in France ahead of the actual ceremony which was unexpectedly delayed. Michalik incorporates this into the story in two ways, first culminating in the film A Trip to the Moon which, the writer argues, is the apex of this filmmaker’s development as an illusionist and an innovator who, like Robert-Houdin, was interested in the mechanical and technological advances that make magic possible. The second is in giving the final story an end point as the characters pursue both Robert-Houdin and Méliès legacy for modern magic and special effects.

Set in 1984, the seemingly chance meeting of December, a young man of unknown parentage, and April, a mathematician who builds safes, when he steals and returns her handbag is the least convincing trajectory, stretching the concept of illusion a little too far in the search for an overly tidy contemporary relevance. December and April, their connection and meaning to one another becomes the reason for this story and through which Michalik makes the case for the importance of the two earlier magicians. But as the pair reflect on their own lives as non-performers, the scenario is too thinly realised to truly advance the underlying purpose of The Art of Illusion.

Michalik shows that April’s application of mathematics to her work and an uncanny ability to recognise patterns of ludicrous coincidence in their lives is part of the same evolution of magic that Robert-Houding and Méliès practised only underpinned by a different type of mechanics. But the presentation of this story is too soapy, even occasionally sentimental with its focus on identity, as it seeks to place the importance of love and family above all else. While it concludes, quite appropriately with a 2014 addendum, that video games immersion is the direct descendant of the magic show and film, the build up to that single statement is too elaborate, even superfluous to the biographies of Robert-Houdin and Méliès – after all the best magic tricks are deceptively simple.

A more impressive trick is pulled off by the cast who play multiple roles, often in quick succession. Jackson-Greaves’s production requires just six actors who begin as theatre staff and in a meta-narrative begin to assume positions in the story as excellent Master of Ceremonies Martin Hyder bestows a role and an indicative costume upon them, emphasing the deceptive nature of performance in the process with which this play is concerned. That Hyder then becomes the Italian conjurer who guides Robert-Houdin towards his destiny, the antiques dealer who helps Méliès along and a narrator who promises that patience will be rewarded seems fitting, and Hyder relishes his role as guide and oracle.

Kwaku Mills plays Robert-Houdin and a series of Méliès’s mistress-muses while Norah Lopez-Holden (recently an impressive Ophelia at the Young Vic) makes her Méliès a wide-eyed enthusiast first for magic and then for moviemaking. Brian Martin as December, Bettrys Jones as April and Rina Fatania as April’s friend complete a cast who deliver their principal roles along with an assortment of wives, friends, collaborators and confidants across three centuries, often with only moments to change a jacket. Collectively they conjure up these three worlds entirely and with immaculate timing.

Ultimately, more could have been made of the theatricality of The Art of Illusion and the solemn adoption and presentation of character by the actors – a device that becomes lost in the story as the the play itself unfolds. Neither does the text dig particularly deep into the motivations and emotional lives of its leads, skimming over the surface of the frustrations and failures that ultimately drove them to achieve eventual success – a key characteristic of innovators who rarely succeed first time. Why both Robert-Houdin and Méliès as practical and scientific-minded post-Enlightenment men sought out the falsity and allure of magic is never addressed particularly as superstition gave way to rational thought during their lifetimes, nor why magic continues to appeal to contemporary audiences who know as they watch it that what they see is nothing more than an illusion. It is certainly entertaining, though, to see such tricks performed within a semi-fictional narrative about their creators. And that is where Michalik’s drama excels, in recounting the inter-related lives of two leading but semi-forgotten French innovators whose contribution to the history of magical performance is as important as their tricks were showstopping.

The Art of Illusion is at Hampstead Theatre until 28 January. Tickets are £20 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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