Author Archives: Maryam Philpott

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 800 shows in that time. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy.

My Fair Lady – London Coliseum

My Fair Lady - London Coliseum (by Marc Brenner)

Henry Higgins is a problem. The question facing the creative team behind the London transfer of Bartlett’s Sher’s production of My Fair Lady, which opens at the London Coliseum this week, is what do you do about a lead character whose attitudes to women, to the sacred preservation of language and to poverty are at best dismissive and at worst, openly offensive? One of the greatest stage and screen musicals of all time, the comic extremes of Higgins views, aired frequently throughout the story, are easy to dismiss as being of their time and, even in the context of the narrative, shown to be of step with others. But a contemporary production of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s story cannot avoid the conclusion than Higgins is the very epitome of a toxic bachelor and Sher’s team must decide whether he should be rewarded for it.

Last year, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre faced a similar dilemma with its portrayal of Billy Bigelow in Carousel who, in the original score and romanticised Hollywood movie, is able to gain entry to heaven despite repeat acts of domestic abuse. Not so in Timothy Sheader’s production and Billy was given a slightly different kind of ending. Higgins is even more overt in his disdain for other people, and the snobbish superiority of his manner to Eliza – that he would treat a Duchess the same as a flower girl – may give him plenty of humorous lines, but in this entirely faithful adaptation, Sher’s production asks whether Higgins really learns anything about himself in the course of his encounter with Eliza Doolittle and whether his attachment to her is anything more than a personal indulgence.

It has been more than two decades since My Fair Lady was last seen in London in a fateful production that paired Martine McCutcheon with Jonathan Pryce, and the show itself in many ways is exactly the same as it was in 2001 and in 1956. Purists will be delighted that Sher’s production is true to Lerner’s lyrics and book while a full orchestra fills the Coliseum with Loewe’s unparalleled score. From Wouldn’t It Be Lovely to I’m Getting Married in the Morning, I Could Have Danced All Night to On the Street Where you Live, visually and musically, Sher’s production is entirely traditional, retaining the same period setting, full Edwardian costumes and every recognisable line.

The surprise here is in creating a show that is in look, feel and style exactly the My Fair Lady we all know, even if only from the indelible 1964 film, and without changing a single word, making the audience think again about the characters and their behaviour to one another. This is a story that pivots on the choice and pronunciation of language so hearing again Higgins’s repeated use of ‘baggage’, ‘guttersnipe’ and ‘squashed cabbage leaf’ feel uncomfortably different in 2022. This Cinderella story of a young woman’s transformation from ugly duckling to swan becomes mired in Higgins’s problematic insistence that Eliza has no feelings of note, that she has no right to live if she ‘utters such depressing and disgusting sounds’ and that credit for her triumphant appearance at the Embassy Ball is his alone.

Sher presents Higgins exactly as he is, a man who believes women are vague, eager to be married and objects to be dispatched, that they are ‘exasperating, irritating, vacillating, calculating, agitating, maddening and infuriating hags’ and that men are intellectually and culturally superior. None of this is softened or altered, and although he is a character that audiences have only ever been asked to take semi-seriously in his rants – particularly in Rex Harrison’s charismatic performance – and who is deeply affected by the presence of Eliza in his life, he still curses her intention and scoffs at her liberty until almost the last moment in I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face while still wanting her around to continue to support his lifestyle, locating his slippers and liaising with the housekeeper on his breakfast choices.

What you see in this production is, then, in some ways what we always see, a man of his time and an eager bachelor. Yet, a barely perceptible shift has occurred where inclusion, individuality and class are no longer tightly controlled by white Oxbridge-educated men who determine what is considered an ‘acceptable’ speech pattern and dialect, or the eugenicist undertones that imply one life is more worthy than another. In a subtly cast contemporary light, Higgins’s attitudes are far more damaging and deplorable than their surface comedy suggests. And while Eliza expresses precisely the same sentiment that Willy Russell’s Rita would later experience, that education leaves her in a no man’s land between one class and another, the swan Higgins has created is far less content or at ease with herself than the young flower girl he met in the Covent Garden piazza.

So is Higgins a villain? Well not quite. Although selfish and driven by a Leopold and Loeb feeling of superiority over his fellow men, his motives are reasonably pure and he genuinely believes that what he offers Eliza will improve her life and give her the kind of choices she lacks in her original state. That she feels far more caged after her transformation is an unforeseen outcome of their experiment and his growing feeling for her is testament to a respect that grows between them. Higgins is capable of some change, moving towards a more generous acceptance of the capacity for growth in others than he previously possessed. However, like Billy Bigelow, does Higgins learn or do enough to earn a happy ending? In 1964, George Cukor and Hollywood clearly thought so, in 2022 that is not so clear and in creating a final ending for Eliza and Higgins that weighs-up the balance of morality across the three hours of performance, Sher consults George Bernard Shaw’s original script for Pygmalion.

So while Higgins becomes more ambiguous, Eliza is given greater clarity, with an enlarged spirit of independence and personality that give her far greater agency. When she arrives at Higgins’s door, Eliza is already a woman who has financially supported herself since her father abandoned her years before, who moves without fear around the late night streets of London and is confident in herself. Unafraid to ask for what she wants or to fight back when being maltreated, her quest for self-improvement is presented as a determination to take control of her future and a reflection of the respect with which she wants to be treated. Language, for her, is the tool for that but Eliza retains her savvy natural instincts. It is a shame that Sharif Afifi’s Freddy is played as a buffoon, rather than a credible suitor, throwing away both Lerner and Loewe’s sublime On the Street Where You Live but also the realistic prospect of marriage for Eliza, no one in this production could believe for a second that such a shrewd woman would consider this Freddy as a realistic option.

And while he may not think so, the audience is encouraged to see her as Higgins’s equal from the first, a woman who disregards social convention and the expectation of others as highly as her tutor prizes them. She scowls and scorns him repeatedly during their lessons, standing up to his bullying and refusing to broken by either his methods or his overbearing nature. The more he treats her as a semi-invisible living doll (as Mrs Higgins notes), the more unyielding Eliza becomes and the more determined to succeed, as much to spite him as to work towards her floristry shop aspiration. In Sher’s production, we note that while Eliza’s speech pattern may change, she holds on to a connection to the woman she was six months before, retaining the better part of her courage and self-sufficiency that allows her to face a different kind of future – far more bravely than Higgins does in fact. That instinctual ability to find her own way and to make a final choice that will be of most benefit to herself is an indication of her essential resilience and her intellect, underpinning the notion that the only person who transforms Eliza is Eliza herself.

Amara Okereke is outstanding as Eliza with a vocal that rivals Marnie Nixon. While it would be so easy to play her like Audrey Hepburn, Okereke finds entirely her own beat, exploring Eliza’s multifaceted personality while using both songs and scenes to create her own, distinct version of the character. Her cockney accent is authentically rooted in South London while her transformed voice retains a nicely false note of refinement, slightly over-pronounced, that makes Zoltan Karpathy’s suspicions of her origin more credible. But Okereke’s biggest achievement is to make Eliza feel real, a women plagued by self-doubt and aspiration in equal part, entirely sympathetic, scrappy and determined to forge her own path, and while she accepts help from Higgins, she never needs him or allows herself to rely on him.

Reprising his Lincoln Centre performance, Harry Hadden-Paton is bullish, self-satisfied and commanding as Higgins, a man unused to being challenged, particularly by women who, when he gives them a second thought, expects others to bow to his superior mind and reasoning. Hadden-Paton finds tones of humility in there somewhere, a spark of feeling that offers up the possibility of redemption and prevents Higgins from becoming too flat while delivering the songs with vigour and certainly singing them unlike Rex Harrison. Higgins, of course, never sees himself as a bad man and that is the greatness in Hadden-Patton’s performance, Higgins doesn’t purposefully offer himself up to be judged, that rests entirely with the viewer.

To do all of this within the chocolate box tradition of My Fair Lady is fascinating and Sher’s production applies many of the same staging techniques that his version of To Kill a Mockingbird is using only a few streets away. Michael Yeargen’s set is a series of watercolour flats that drop or are consciously wheeled into place to suggest the façade of Covent Garden, railings and the market scenes while some moveable lampposts and disconnected door frames stand in for Wimpole Street. Broadway often romanticises the classic film musicals and draws on the Technicolor studio production style as its theme – see also An American in Paris. The concept here is semi-fantastical, a heightened version of a London that never existed in which real characters and emotions take place in front of painted scenes visibly wheeled around in choreographed patterns by the actors in a sort of Brechtian escapism.

Like Atticus Finch’s house, Yeargen’s design for Higgins’s home is a block set that both moves in from the back of stage and has the capacity to rotate, giving a multi-room view of his Victorian townhouse that includes the Study / Library with spiral staircase and the hallway where Eliza dreams of Higgins’s death at the hand of the King. Catherine Zuber echoes Cecil Beaton in the costume design, creating a homage to his vision particularly for the stylish Ascot sequence, Eliza’s beautiful ballgown and even nodding to the lines and shape of her leaving Wimpole Street outfit, although Zuber exchanges the dour peach for a hot pink. There are plenty of choices here that pay court to the very specific look that My Fair Lady has and its audience might expect while also introducing some bolder tones that stand out in a large auditorium.

Yet, the size of the space does have its downsides and the pre-sized set blocks and scenarios occasionally looks a little swamped in the Coliseum. With a relatively small ensemble cast, this is most noticeable in the two numbers that really ought to fill the stage. The Ascot scene with only two lines of well dressed aristocrats looks very sparse at first with almost no set to offset the large gap at the back of the stage – not even some silhouetted horses projected across the back wall. A similar issue afflicts the Embassy Ball where only a dozen couples stand to one side in what should be a crowded society event full of whispers and intrigue. Covid safety and budget aside, what should be set piece moments feel a little underpowered compared to the dense decoration of the Higgins residence.

Part of this is a lack of dance incorporated into this interpretation on a sizeable stage made for ballet and opera, which last year was filled to capacity by teenage dance fanatics in Hairspray. My Fair Lady on stage actually has very limited full ensemble choreography until late in the second half when Alfred sings I’m Getting Married in the Morning, and here Sher’s production comes alive with a spectacular performance from Stephen K. Amos, departing from the Stanley Holloway take, to create a colourful pub-based extravaganza filled with can-can dancers, working men and plenty of table-hopping joy. In a sequence that lasts several joyous minutes, Trude Rittmann’s choreography is multi-tonal as Alfred celebrates and mourns his last night of freedom, lighting up the show with an energy slightly lacking from those other big ensemble pieces.

If you want to see a My Fair Lady that feels like a scene for scene remake of the film, then this production will not disappoint, but equally for anyone looking for a more contemporary resonance beneath the surface, then that is certainly here as well. Sher’s re-examination of the show’s central relationship and shifts in the balance of power are enlightening, proving the modern musical doesn’t have to be gritty or necessarily stripped-back to find new meaning.

My Fair Lady is at the London Coliseum until 27 August with tickets from £20, followed by a UK and Ireland tour. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Age of Rage – Barbican

Age of Rage, Barbican (by Jan Versweyveld)

The work of Ivo van Hove has proven divisive, the extent to which the director incorporates cinematic styles and influences into his work is a question of personal taste, so while some critics and audiences find work like All About Eve gimmicky, his parred-down version of The Human Voice was also criticised for not being gimmicky enough. So, it is interesting to look at the techniques he employs with the Dutch theatre company Internationaal Theater Amsterdam where the boundaries of all forms of artistic expression are easily and innovatively blurred. Building on long, immersive dramas including the acclaimed Roman Tragedies, Age of Rage, staged at the Barbican for only four nights, put a rock and roll spin on five stories in Greek tragedy emphasising the female impetus for violent revenge.

van Hove’s best work has focused on female protagonists and he is a director that acutely understands and can convey the interior female experience. And while there may be plenty of techniques employed in their presentation, these never detract from or overshadow the emotional substance of the lead and her context. The simplicity of the stripped-back staging choices for Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre sit alongside public-private divisions explored in All About Eve and the truly personal and deeply affecting experience in The Human Voice where unobserved deterioration was powerfully captured. Here in Age of Rage, van Hove’s work, co-adapted from Euripides and Aeschylus by Koen Tachelet, follows a notable drama trend in restoring and more fully excavating the role of women in Greek tragedy and returning a sense of agency, danger and determinism to their lives in a period usually associated with male bombast, war and all forms of directed masculine violence.

Like Jermyn Street Theatre’s 15 Heroines shown during lockdown and more recently Kyo Choi’s Galapagos, the understanding and presentation of women in Greek mythology as victims and chattels is being revised, and while the murder, rape and bestial transformation by the Gods of women has informed subsequent gender structures, expectations and behaviours, the consequences of these actions when instigated by women were severe and often gruesome for the men who betrayed, captured or violated them. Age of Rage places those female stories centre stage, showing how female-driven revenge truly shaped the lives of men.

Telling the story of the Trojan War through the fortunes of Agamemnon’s family, this production explores notions of inherited trauma and inter-generational suffering by comparing concepts of individual and national sacrifice. When Agamemnon slaughters his daughter Iphigenia to guarantee favourable winds for the Greek fleet, it sets in motion a chain of events that play-out over the 3 hours and 45-minutes of this intensive drama. Structured around five related and consequential narratives – Iphigenia in Aulis, Trojan Women and Hecuba, Agamemnon, Elektra and Orestes – there are both dynastic and thematic links across the show that see some of the same events occur in different places and periods, while subsequent characters feel the impact of those who came before. The extent to which individuals are used or destroyed to pay a larger debt is significant and the ruination of the innocent looms large across the show. The death of Iphigenia to support someone else’s family, another man’s war and the whims of the Gods is crucial to understanding the female position in Age of Rage and the events their fury unleashed.

Mother and daughter relationships disrupted by male intervention occur again and again. When Clytemnestra discovers her husband’s betrayal, the conversation focuses on why Agamemnon chooses to sacrifice their daughter in order to rescue Helen, his friend Menelaus’s wife. From here, two particular narratives emerge that flow through the remainder of the production; the first is the role of Helen in causing all the events that follow and her active part not just in the deaths of thousands of men in the ten year conflict that ensues, but also as the cause of innocent deaths among civilians where several male parents choose to offer up their children to the Gods for her sake and the victory of Greece over Troy for which the women of the story violently resent her. The second is the role of the Gods in guarding and shaping events and the extent to which mortals have any control over their destiny. The arrival of Cassandra in one of the later segments with her prophesies that come to pass are part of a theme about ritual and practice in Greek life, examining how far the behaviour of everyday Greek citizens is fundamentally driven by religion and the space between the divine and human, especially in maternal decision-making.

Although men are in the foreground in determining the narrative direction of Greek tragedy – they start and conduct the wars and sacrifice the children – their emotional life in Age of Rage is, on the whole, relegated and associated with compliance with social dictates and religious expectations. Likewise, the consequences for them are largely political, having to balance this pleasing of the Gods with adhering to the mob and honouring bonds of fraternity with other men. We see them interacting in formal structures as comrades, war leaders and as politicians choosing to support or condemn behaviours based on the exacting strictures of “manly” behaviour. No amount of pleading prevents Agamemnon and others from sacrificing Iphigenia or Hecuba’s daughter Polyxena, thus the King remains immune to the wailing of women in order to do his duty as a man. This is most notable when Orestes is chastised by his grandfather Tyndareus despite avenging his father’s death because he is seen to have been coerced by his sister Elektra. In the male-structured world in which Age of Rage takes place, deference to any woman in the play is perceived as weakness from which only disgrace can follow.

That the women break through this structure to dominate and fundamentally shape the play is vital, emphasising the cost of these choices, of the human pain and consequences that mires the Atreus family across multiple generations. This tension runs through the show, pulling the female characters into the centre of the drama and creating psychologically complex creations who are in equal parts sympathetic and monstrous, instigating murderous crimes that emerge from their earlier maternal wounds and long-festering resentments. Men may create dangerous situations and embark on drawn-out, complicated wars, but it is the women who hold on to their hurts and wreak a terrible devastation that shakes the very foundations of morality, bringing social upset. From Clytemnestra’s brazen murder of her husband and subsequent flaunting of her lover to the aggrieved Hecuba physically attacking men with her loyal followers and Elektra castrating the body of her mother’s lover, Age of Rage is a ferocious statement of strategic female power and bodily vengence.

And in van Hove’s production, that power extends to an extraordinary visual experience that seamlessly combines theatre, a heavy metal soundtrack, dance and an operatic grandeur that is intense, bold and fresh in its vision while never drawing attention from the emotional volcanoes erupting between the characters. Jan Versweyveld creates a representative metal framework around the stage from which items including bloodied corpses can be dropped into the centre of the action, or the rigging used as additional platforms to alter the staging levels by creating opportunities for the Chorus cum dance troupe cum mob to observe the very public behaviours of their royal family. Into that almost Brechtian space, van Hove allows his creativity to flow freely, unconstrained by the more timid styles of British theatre, using a vast video backdrop – largely used for colour and pattern that cinematic relay – and minimal props to set the scene.

The first Act, lasting around two hours, opens with a deep heavy metal prologue played on electric guitar with bursts of flashing light also designed by Versweyveld. Throughout this first section, the tone is trashy glamour, a rock concert of sound and colour drawn together in An D’Huys’s grungy sequin costume design that gives the piece a seediness that prevents the audience from connecting to closely with characters whose moral and personal aptitudes will never be straightforward.

The tone is different again in Act Two as the story accelerates a generation to become a revenger’s revenge, blurring the boundaries of crimes and their appropriate punishment. Focusing largely on Elektra and Orestes, this becomes a pastoral piece far from the sheen of the court where a base of mud physically and metaphorically mires the characters. Fed by constantly dripping water from the rigging, it represents people now steeped in generations of corruption, staining their lives and anyone who comes into contact with them – not least the crisp cream suit of Tyndareus denoting a man very much out of place in this agrarian setting. Smell too becomes an important storytelling device, expanding the sense of immersion as the fragrant incense and turbine-driven smoke of Act One give way to the earthy freshness of wet mud filling the auditorium as these former aristocrats, almost God-like in their power, status and (notably) seemingly immune from consequences, are physically brought down to earth where their bodies join the thousands of others who die in this story either in combat or in sacrifice. Blood will beget blood Macbeth states, and so it proves.

As an exercise in artistic creativity, van Hove’s easily combines theatre and dance to tell the story and understand its wider impacts. Dance is often a separate moment in UK theatre, either it is its own distinct art form or a chance to pause for a specific number within a musical or opera. But in Age of Rage, all kinds of contemporary dance is integrated into the narrative either reflecting the ritualistic moments associated with worship, the “headbanger” style of heavy metal which exemplified the uncontrolled female fury of the title or used as a Chorus that combines movement and song to comment on and progress the story. There is less sense of separation between these different media and instead van Hove is telling the story simultaneously via dance, music and dramatic exchange, each woven into the other, raising and enhancing each style to provide an integrated and often booming experience. Although opera itself is not used, the grand narrative approach, big characters and stylised visual design is operatic in scale, enough to capture the inter-generational themes, life, death and the god-drivers while still retaining its intimate and psychologically-intensive character focus that examines the human and family cost of tragedy.

The performances are equally bold and deep, particularly Chris Nietvelt’s Clytemnestra flaunting her womanhood and sexuality in a low-cut sparkly halter neck dress and knee-high boots while being vigorous in her maternal grief for a daughter snatched away. Later, as she overtly parades her liaison with a younger man and years of embedded rage that boil over, Nietvelt creates a complex, contradictory and rounded Queen who evokes quite opposite reactions. Hans Kesting as Agamemnon and Gijs Scholten van Aschat as Menelaus are ultimately weak men able to use their indiscriminate power but both unable to hold on to their wives or recognise any free will that might exist to defy the high price asked by the Gods. Hélène Devos dominates the second half as a fiery Elektra resenting every moment of her poverty and using that resentment to fuel a sustained rage over more than a decade while quickly manipulating brother Orestes (Minne Koole) to act in the destruction of their mother. Outside the core family, Janni Goslinga as Hecuba powerfully conveys the cost of motherhood while Ilke Paddenburg as Iphigenia and all the sacrificed children makes an important point about the universality of that grief as the body count racks up with visual representation on screen as dancing figures lost forever.

There is real moral complexity in Age of Rage that not only passes between generations but also refuses to let one act expunge other faults – Clytemnestra may have just cause to murder her husband but her lascivious lifestyle means her own death is equally justifiable. With smoke, wind machines, video design, brash costumes, music and mud, van Hove’s show on paper seems like a lot, bold and gaudy, yet in practice it has emotional depth and an energy that is redolent of European theatre and of the lives Greek tragedy represents. Performed for only four days, Age of Rage was a thrilling retelling of familiar stories, a rare chance to see a van Hove grand vision come so vividly and memorably to life.

Age of Rage ran at the Barbican from 5-8 May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Oklahoma! – Young Vic

Productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals have undergone quite the transformation in the past 12 months with versions that return to the source text to reimagine and reconsider shows like Carousel and South Pacific for the twenty-first century by returning the darker, often violent, subthemes that beat beneath the surface or to reposition some of the attitudes to race, gender, conquest and even physical attraction that reflect contemporary morality. Now, the Young Vic presents a rather sexy version of Oklahoma! that replaces twee interpretations of cowboy country with a throbbing desire that inflicts the inhabitants of this rural town, and becomes a fascinating technical exercise in deconstructing a musical.

Oklahoma! is perhaps not the best loved Rodgers and Hammerstein show, its dual romance plot is pretty thin and it lacks an expansive moral message to pin the show together. And while there is plenty of crossover with scenarios in Carousel – the same small community, the same drum beat of violence and notions of performative masculinity amidst non-conforming women and a similar commercial connection to the landscape – a set-to over a barn dance and bake sell doesn’t have quite the same sense of life and death jeopardy as some of their more accomplished work.

But Hollywood has much to do with interpretation, toning down the raunchier aspects of Oklahoma! to pass the censorship requirements but also to create romanticised versions of the great American past. What directors Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein have done at the Young Vic is to pull back the gingham curtains to reveal a showing that is teeming with unfulfilled sexual desire among a group of young characters confused about what their futures hold and unable to articulate or fulfil those needs. Looking again at the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Fish and Fein set notions of true love aside and instead look at the causes and sometimes hefty consequences of desire as unrequited passions, sexual jealousy and denial drive the characters to extreme behaviours.

And in doing so, the directors open up a far murkier version of this story, one in which the two love triangles, Laurey-Curly-Jud and Ado Annie-Ali-Will, have less clear cut resolutions, leaving the audience uncertain about the destined lovers and losers as well as where they should place their sympathies. Ado Annie, principally a comic creation, is also a woman embracing her sexual liberation, control of her own body and the freedom to ‘flirt’ with as many men as she chooses, an agency that the Young Vic’s production wholeheartedly embraces. Yet, her actions not only cause hurt to others that arouses a dangerous jealousy, but her fun is ultimately dampened by the old-fashioned morality represented by her father that, in resolution, ends up clipping her wings rather than freeing her. And this show is not afraid to leave us with that somewhat dissatisfied feeling that Ado Annie has been cheated out of becoming the women she wanted to be by embracing someone else’s notion of tradition.

Likewise, there is something deeply unsettling about the central relationship between Laurey and her contentious beaux Curly and Jud. Usually presented as unsavoury, predatory and a bit weird (and therefore undeserving of love), Jud is the easy villain of Oklahoma!, his lurking presence designed to make the audience root for Curly as the avowed and deserving lover of the plucky Laurey. But it’s not quite so clear cut in Fish and Fein’s new interpretation, and while Jud may be a friendless loner, there is a nervy sensitivity that asks whether, knowing of his affection for her, did Jud deserve to be used by Laurey and have his hopes raised? And is Curly’s reaction proportionate?

At the same time, Curly is by no means a straightforward hero; he too is drawn to Laurey but at no point does he declare his love for her or, in the early part of the musical, any clear intention to marry her. Instead there is a physical chemistry between them that drives their intention, corrupting their behaviours in the remainder of the story. Here Curly’s reaction to Jud feels extreme – if he loved Laurey and she loved him there should be no reason to fear Jud – which implies that Curly either has no better purpose in pursuing Laurey and fears exposure, and/or that his competitive spirit is aroused by the presence of second suitor, that winning rather than the girl of his dreams are the ultimate motivation.

What unfolds in the final moments of this production is the result of this complex mixture of emotional and physical desires that is, it seems, deliberately designed to leave a sense of discontent with the conclusion. As the townspeople rapidly close ranks, the truth of Jud and Curly’s final encounter is foggier than previously seen, a statement that morality and justice are not fixed certainties but that the community can influence them for their own ends. And while Rodgers and Hammerstein have tied up all the love story loose ends with two couples in the ‘right’ relationship, this is not the happy ending you might be expecting and instead Fish and Fein leave you to feel disquieted and even sullied by our observation of this tale.

Part of the reason for that is a series of technical decisions that keep the audience on the outside and prevents the viewer from becoming too invested in anyone. Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher nod to Soutra Gilmour’s recent work for Jamie Lloyd (particularly Cyrano de Bergerac and The Seagull) by covering the Young Vic auditorium in untreated and bare slabs of MDF into which two shallow bunkers have been carved out for the onstage band. In what feels like a homage to Lloyd’s style of theatremaking, the set becomes a representative space with some trestle tables and fold-up chairs in which imagined scenarios take place, allowing the text and songs alone to move the physical location from Aunt Eller’s farmyard to the venue for the box social and its environs. Eschewing elaborate scenery feels appropriate for the way in which Fish and Fein mine beneath the surface of Oklahoma!, while the occasional use of handheld microphones is an emphasis device that has had considerable impact in Lloyd’s recent work.

This production makes its most experimental contribution through Scott Zielinski’s complex lighting design that takes the musical in a new direction, drawing attention to different emotional emphases and carving really interesting boundaries between fantasy and reality, not only in the purposeful ‘dream ballet’ but especially within the everyday interaction. Zielinki’s choices are designed to alienate the audience, keeping the house lights up for much of the show which makes it frustratingly difficult to focus at times but ties into Fish and Fein’s vision for a show that denies investment in the characters and traditional notions of emotional involvement in their lives. That concluding feeling of contamination, of being tarnished comes partly from this stark visibility, making the audience complicit in the outcomes of the story, blurring the line between the characters and us, all under the same unforgiving bright lights.

But this is not all Zielinki has to say and lighting, or its absence, becomes a pointed communication choice throughout. When Laurey and Curly first connect, it happens suddenly in a deep green pulse that almost freezes the frame – more a Royal Court trick than a typical musical moment. In the Second Act, a deep orange and red starts to creep into the lighting tones, taking Laurey from her dream self confronting her emotions at the end of the ballet to a touch of twinkly romance in the false half light that feels laden with doom. But it is the absence of light that becomes pivotal when Zielinki employs two periods of blackout. The first is uncomfortably long, a total absence of light under which Jud and Curly intensely contend, speaking with whispered heaviness into the microphones to create a disembodied experience – echoing Mrs Danvers urging the second Mrs de Winter to destruction. A partial blackout with fairy lights happens in the second half as well, another emotional turning point which brings events between Jud and Laurey to a head. This is really interesting work from Zielinki, taking what is often perceived as a sunny musical and creating so many textures within the Young Vic space that provoke bodily reactions that accentuate the disorientation and ambiguity the production is aiming for.

The venue has assembled an excellent cast whose performances dig deep into the moral turpitude of the characters and their unsavoury behaviours. Anouska Lucas is in fine voice as Laurey, a happily independent woman who doesn’t need a man to improve her lot but finds herself almost undeniably attracted to Curly. Lucas and Arthur Darvill have an intense chemistry as the would-be lovers, with Lucas capturing the subtle but sultry physicality of her character, almost Katherina Minola-like in her self-possession and determination to fight for her independence while equally confused when she accepts Jud’s date in spite of herself. Lucas’s voice really is stunning too, deep and bluesy when she sings People Will Say We’re in Love and wistful during the toe-tapping number Many a New Day.

Darvill too is excellent, a confident figure who swaggers into town but with real affection for Eller and a strong desire for Laurey, although it is the darker strands that Darvill finds most interesting, leaving the audience unsure whether or not Curly is a good man. A recourse to violence, to getting what he wants at any cost runs through the character and whether he’s manipulating Jud into ending his life, which Darvill does in hushed and hurried tones, or acting reflexively in the final moments, Darvill’s Curly isn’t a man to admire, a dubiety that he evokes well. Many of his songs are consciously performed into a microphone while playing guitar but Darvill excels in spinning the musical numbers, giving those famous pieces Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ and The Surrey with the Fringe on Top a fresh, less orchestral feel, playing with pitch and trills to bed them into the country-blusey sound of this production.

The rest of the cast are excellent too, the ever-amazing Marisha Wallace is a comic joy as Ado Annie, revelling in her sexuality and selling every cheeky moment to an audience who adore her from the start. Liza Sadovy, fresh from her Olivier award-winning triumph in Cabaret, is commanding if underused as matriarch Aunt Eller whose match-making attempts motor the drama while James Davis and Stavros Demetraki as Ado Annie’s lovers Will and Ali have a great time as hilarious rivals who lighten the mood. Particular plaudits to Patrick Vaill who makes Jud an awkward outsider but belies his villain status with an emotional depth that makes his big pathos number Lonely Room especially affecting and leaves you questioning the outcome of the show.

This is not the jaunty Oklahoma! many may be expecting and in a period of significant rethinking and repositioning of the musical, this almost abstract approach feels like a natural progression. With some striking design choices, not least the sparring use of Joshua Thorson’s intimate facial projection, Fish and Fein have created something that disconcerts more than entertains, its dissatisfactory feeling engineered through a deliberate combination of theatre techniques designed to distract and disengage the audience from the characters to make broader points about destructive jealousy, female agency and townsfolk closing ranks against outsiders. This is not an Oklahoma! to love, but its staging choices and intent to challenge the viewer make it an interesting experiment in dramatic practice.

Oklahoma! is at the Young Vic until 25 June with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Jerusalem – Apollo Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Marys Seacole – Donmar Warehouse

Marys Seacole - Donmar Warehouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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