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 400 shows. 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.

Pinter Two: The Lover / The Collection – Harold Pinter Theatre

Pinter at the Pinter

The Pinter Season is off and rolling, and after a strong start, the second collection of one-act plays completes the repertory opener. Pinter Two is a complete change of tone from its companion collection, moving from social politics to more familiar Pinter territory, relationship politics. From the dystopian world of Pinter One where power and violence played openly together, The Lover and The Collection transfer to the 1960s to focus on deception, betrayal and game-playing where characters may or may not be active participants in a marital subterfuge.

This is not the first time director Jamie Lloyd has approached this particular Pinter pairing, 10 years ago he presented the same double bill at this very theatre to mostly positive reviews. As much as this entire season marks a decade since the playwright’s death, in Pinter Two the audience can also observe Lloyd actively revisiting his own past, exploring new ways to interpret and visualise the same plays and thinking about the extent to which his perspective on the work has shifted with experience.

The evening opens with The Lover a 45-minute duologue between a very ordinary married couple in which they openly discuss the regular afternoon visits by the Wife’s lover while her spouse is dutifully at work. When the titular character is finally revealed, it becomes clear that the Husband is tiring of such shenanigans and tries to convince his Wife that the open arrangement should cease. As decent domesticity and wantonness collide, the Wife refuses to change and decides to take control.

If you’ve seen Pinter One, then Soutra Gilmour’s sugary pink world of early 1960s homely perfection will be a charming surprise. Lloyd has set this new version of The Lover in a slightly exaggerated scenario that calls on unattainable ideas of domestic aspiration that filled post-war advertising. Not so very far from Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling, initially this seems a meticulously managed household, everything in its place with a central couple who look and dress the part, even addressing each other in slightly singsong tones to emphasise the exterior charm of their union.

But, of course, beneath this placid surface the rot has set in, with plenty of unhappiness and tension waiting to burst the bubble. Lloyd draws out the contradiction so well, contrasting how characters look and sound with what they say, building-up to the disintegration of their fantasy life. Somehow Lloyd makes the veneer of civility look increasingly unsavoury as imposed social expectations of behaviour fight against natural urges and desires. In this way Pinter is showing us the nonsense of externally-created notions of decorum that work against human nature.

At the same time, this is an intimate story about fantasy creation that requires the collusion of two people with a mutual understanding of the rules. When the Husband decides to alter them, it allows reality to creep in, bringing with it implications of shame and guilt that reveal his inherent weakness. Pinter places the Wife entirely at home, so the fiction she creates for herself is far more integral to sustaining her sense of self, of allaying the frustrations of being a housewife which play out in her stronger need to maintain the illusion. Pinter is full of sensible strong women and it is her sexuality and pragmatism that drive the conclusion.

Hayley Squires’s supporting role was easily the best thing about last year’s rather cold Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and here she perfectly portrays the duality of the Wife, a domestic goddess on the one hand and practised seductress on the other. The couple’s entire life feels like a performance and Squires never let’s the audience know where the real woman begins and ends. Likewise, John Macmillan shows the Husband playing multiple roles and while he becomes increasingly frustrated, his true purpose is ambiguous. Does her really want to stop or is he trying to take the game to a new level?

Lloyd creates a feeling of chapters using occasional music but predominantly a sudden change of lighting to shift the tone, making scenes look richer when the couple are similarly-minded, and adding a greyer tinge when they are at odds – we even see a projection of the frequently mentioned Venetian blinds as the sun sets between scenes. Daylight, darkness and time matter in this play, and we see the Wife entertaining her lover only in the afternoon, noting she’s never seen him at sunset, whereas her Husband’s face belongs to the evening. The clock races through time as the couple’s clear distinction between day and night starts to blur.

Set entirely in the velvet-curtained night, Lloyd keeps The Collection in the 1960s but takes an entirely different approach to staging this tale of apparent adultery at a dress-makers event in Leeds. James believes his wife Stella has betrayed him and calls-up her supposed lover Bill to confront him, but Bill’s older lover Harry answers the phone instead. On finally tracking him down, James and Bill become friends, spending intimate evenings listening to opera, but the question of Bill and Stella keeps returning. Affronted by Bill’s sudden distraction, Harry seeks the truth.

This is a production that requires two locations and in his 2008 production Lloyd’s split-staged approach was criticised, so this version blends the respective homes together, trusting the audience to recognise that characters in the same space are not necessarily in the same room. It’s an excellent compromise, allowing the action to flow freely without restricting the view or impeding the performance, while being absolutely clear on who is where.

This time Lloyd and Gilmour call upon the tone and style of 60s movies to shape their new interpretation, sparingly using musical highlights that suggest a dark crime caper or mafia movie. The set uses deeper colours than The Lover, with a palette of forest greens and khaki tones that give the piece a wintry feel, while Lloyd emphasises the unnerving edge to the play. For Pinter fans, there’s much here that will resonate, the snappy dialogue and use of working-class characters to add a homoerotic implication feels like moments from No Man’s Land, drawing attention to (for the 1960s) the seemingly unusual domestic set-ups.

Despite it being a play about female infidelity, much of the interest centres around the three men and their changing interactions. Macmillan and Squires again play the central couple, but almost as an alternate reality from their previous incarnation. Stella and James are really another version of the Wife and Husband from The Lover, creating what may be a fantasy and openly sharing details with each other. In these plays no one appears to hide their betrayal.

Yet, the focus is predominantly on Harry and Bill whose relationship remains both clear and obscure at the same time. David Suchet’s Harry is possessive and demanding, a rich man who has some kind of hold over Russell Tovey’s Bill that keeps them together. Harry is petulant and uneasy, continually demanding Bill’s gratitude for the lifestyle that he provides for them. Suchet has the measure of the Pinter man exactly, registering low levels of menace throughout the performance tempered with intriguing moments of camp that elicit much of the play’s humour. His furious outburst in response to Bill’s disdainful attitude hint at a much larger backstory as he talks of rescuing him from a slum – the deliberate care with which Suchet weighs each word implies a seedy world based on class, money and prostitution which Stella and James have wandered into.

Harry never suggests any particular affection for Bill, which Suchet uses to create a sense of ownership, Bill is brought and paid for, maintained by Harry in a business transaction in which he expects loyalty in return – the tension comes from Bill’s casual response which infuriates his partner. The lengths Harry goes to protect that arrangement suggest a deeper feeling but Suchet translates that into jealousy and quiet fury, wanting nothing to interrupt the fantasy he has created around the two of them. It’s an engaging performance from Suchet, and one which suggests a Hirst at some point in his future.

In a way Russell Tovey’s Bill is aware of his dependency on Harry, but as with many of the Working-Class men in Pinter, he has an anarchic streak that likes to push against the confines of his existence. He’s certainly a game-player, equally attracted to men and to women which draws James into his sphere. Tovey slightly overdoes the “geezer” accent which occasionally brings an imbalance to his scenes, which should smooth out as the run continues, but he does suggest the level of Bill’s self-knowledge, a physical creation who must rely on his body to maintain his position.

Intriguingly, although the plot is driven by the alleged one-night stand between Bill and Stella – a possibility that despite Bill’s homelife seems credible in a character driven by grubby pleasure – Pinter never allows them to meet. In most drama there would need to be a scene in which all the characters come face to face and the truth is revealed, but here Pinter denies the audience this to emphasise the ambiguity. Stella becomes almost a secondary character, and it is Bill’s lies and the way he explores scenarios for his own amusement which dominated. Tovey’s Bill is therefore self-assured, almost permanently smirking as he toys with James and Harry, while still knowing how far he can take such entertainment without losing his very pretty situation.

As a pairing, these two plays offer light and shade in their presentation, one all about the shiny surface of advertising-like perfection and the other a more complex examination of dishonesty. Both reveal the underbelly of desire, where behaviours are driven by human need rather than decency or loyalty, and the ease with which individuals can throw-off the idea of responsibility. The Lover and The Collection deal with the idea of collusion, where characters deliberately opt-in to some form of game-playing but are destabilised when one partner decides to change the rules. The drama comes from reactionary attempts to return the status quo.

This is another great double bill in a season that’s already showing its mettle. The cast and creative team, led by Lloyd, are bringing a real clarity to the work that will help to engage new audiences who may have previously found Pinter rather inaccessible. Lloyd will direct the third collection from late October before temporarily handing the reins to others including Lyndsey Turner and Patrick Marber, which will make for an interesting changing of the guard as the season unfolds.  But with two very engaging and differently-styled repertory collections now playing, Pinter at the Pinter is proving to be exactly what a season ought to be – inventive and meaningful, reminding us why Pinter remains such a force in modern theatre.

Pinter Two is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 20 October, with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.      

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Pinter One: One for the Road / New World Order etc – Harold Pinter Theatre

Pinter One -  Pinter at the Pinter

As one season ends another opens and, as the Oscar Wilde season slowly fizzles out at the Vaudeville, attention turns to the short plays of Harold Pinter all of which will be staged by the Jamie Lloyd Theatre Company to commemorate a decade since the influential playwright’s death. In the next 6-months every single one act Pinter play will be presented together for the first time across seven specially curated ‘collections,’ and hosted at the theatre posthumously named after him. With 20 plays to look forward to and a host of star names already attached to the project as both actors and directors, the seasons builds to a much-anticipated stage appearance by Danny Dyer and Martin Freeman in February.

First though, Pinter One will run for just 23 performances, tackling four plays and a sketch in two hours and 15 minutes – The New World Order, Mountain Language, The Pres and the Officer, One for the Road and Ashes to Ashes. With any season, it’s vital that the first production sets-out the Company’s intentions, taking a perspective on the work that will guide the audience through the run and, ideally, generate repeat-business for the subsequent shows. By emphasising the common themes in Pinter One and the topicality of their subject matter, this a very strong start for the Pinter at the Pinter season.

As a director Lloyd has a particular skill in drawing out the dark absurdity of the plays he selects, finding the point where the comic surface meets the sinister underbelly, and from this Lloyd often finds an uneasy or threatening tone where characters seem unable to escape the confines of their limited existence. While his work tends to polarise audiences, Lloyd has a special affinity with Pinter helping to make the work more accessible than it can sometimes be, resulting in a particularly fine version of The Homecoming a couple of years ago.

It’s ok to admit that Pinter is hard and often very weird, which to audiences used to straightforward narrative plays with a discernible beginning, middle and end, means watching Pinter can be a disconcerting and difficult experience. And he’s not a writer that you can just walk into a theatre and make sense of straight away, it takes practice, you need to time to get used to his style, to disconnect from the safer dramatic conventions we are familiar with and, like the theatre of the absurd (which is closely related to Pinter’s style) to refocus on the play’s themes and tone rather than character and plot. Pinter is all about tone.

Lloyd directs the entire first half of Pinter One which contains three of the plays along with some other monologues and sketches, but don’t expect to know exactly where one piece ends and another begins. Set in a dystopian world, these works focus on Pinter’s political commentary in which a series of scenes shows the audience different aspects of an oppressive regime where free speech, individuality and dissent are violently crushed. Set in a series of metallic grey rooms housed in a revolving cube that carves the stage into a variety of angular shapes, Lloyd and regular design collaborator Soutra Gilmour have created a singular setting that unifies The New World Order, Mountain Language, The Pres and the Officer and One for the Road in one terrifyingly bleak series of prison cells and interrogation rooms.

The emphasis across the plays is on power and powerlessness, where one group of people dominate and control the existence of another, often toying with them and enjoying the easy recourse to violence that is a frequent feature of Pinter’s work. The show opens with a burst of ticker tape released onto the heads of the stalls audience to celebrate the birth of a new regime. At the lectern, a consummate politician (Jonjo O’Neill) delivers smooth answers to the disembodied voices at a press conference. It all feels remarkably familiar until this Minister of Culture reveals he used to work for the Secret Police and his smiling answers belie the fiercely repressive policies he’s promoting, putting you instantly in mind of Hamlet’s line ‘That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.’

This proximity to everyday experience feeds through the show so, like all good science fiction, Pinter slimly disguises fears about heavy government regulation, attacks on outsiders and the ease with which the thin veil of society can disintegrate. With New World Order we see a naked man blindfolded and tied to a chair about to undergo some kind of torture, but first his respectable looking, even effete, attackers (O’Neill and Papa Essideu) goad him with what they’re about to do to him. It’s a wonderfully sinister piece about the anticipation of violence that becomes almost as frightening as the act itself which we never see. Both actors exude the kind of quiet menace that is so particular in Pinter, rarely needing to raise their voices, the surface and the reality being not what they seem.

Mountain Language begins seamlessly as two women (Kate O’Flynn and Maggie Steed) are questioned by camp guards, told their regional language is no longer permitted. Both are looking for their abducted husbands and eventually discover the brutal truth of what happened to them. Here identity and communication are the focus, where a regime can destroy a distinct group by erasing or forbidding its language – not so different from the themes of Brian Friel’s Translations and pertinent to our multicultural society. This rapidly turns into the recently rediscovered sketch The Pres and the Officer in which a foolish American President orders the destruction of the wrong place. It’s the only duff moment of the night, less for Pinter’s writing and more for the all too obvious Trump allusion, performed by Jon Culshaw. The rest of evening creates such a subtly hostile tone that the buffoonery of this section feels misjudged.

Just before the interval the final piece of Lloyd’s sinister world is revealed and, as with the preceding works it looks very different below the surface. As the lights go up, the gently-spoken Nicolas (Anthony Sher) is questioning a frightened companion (Essideu) in what looks like a therapy session, but very quickly becomes much odder as Nicolas demands to know if Victor likes him. The former does most of the talking, posing questions and emphasising the power he has to do whatever he likes while believing that God speaks through him. As Nicolas goes on to separately interrogate Victor’s wife Gila (O’Flynn) and son Nicky a ritual of violence and sexual assault beyond the walls of the room emerge, which Nicolas enjoys in the abstract.

Sher is wonderful as the intimidating but strangely needy interlocutor who seems to revel in the repeated acts of terror the family have endured, as though organising the pain from afar. Sher draws out the ambiguity in Nicolas’s need for this human interaction but is callous in his dismissal of their suffering, a powerful statement again about the smiling villains that seem to unite these shows. Essideu is the image of wide-eyed terror as he crumples under Sher’s menacing glare, while O’Flynn is a powerful presence as the repeatedly violated Gila.

At the interval the actors take an unusual bow and most won’t return for the final play Ashes to Ashes directed by Lia Williams. Visually and stylistically this initially seems very different to the work earlier in the evening, set in a more modern flat as two lovers return from a night out and fall into conversation about the past. But Williams easily demonstrates how well Pinter’s play fits with the earlier shows, as conversation gives way to interrogation and intimidation with fragments of intruding memory that the audience must slowly piece together, linking a traumatic event with the totalitarian state presented by Lloyd.

Essideu as Devlin takes on the role of the increasingly sinister man whose motives are distinctly hazy, whether he’s acting out of jealousy or fear of discovery is left entirely open, but an early throwaway line about hypnotism feels crucial as the play concludes. O’Flynn is the troubled Rebecca torn between declaring her love for Devlin and the two memories that continually interrupt her thoughts.

What we see across the works in Pinter One is an examination of power and how rapidly it can be corrupted. The selection of plays reiterates modern fears that division, isolation and prejudice quickly descend into the brutality of Orwellian military states, where an innate love of violence is too easily awoken. This is a very political anthology of work that collectively asks big questions about the stability of current society, the intelligence and charm of our politicians and our openness to difference and diversity. Pinter’s work here is a warning against complacency, to accept that we’re always on a knife-edge where good people can want to do hideous things with the smallest inducement.

Theatrically, Lloyd’s opener, co-directed by Williams, sets-out a clear thematic vision for the season ahead, with common plays presented together to offer insight into Pinter’s political and dramatic purpose. It’s also a trademark Lloyd production, innovatively staged and quirky, and although the pop culture references are more restrained than usual, snatches of Jerusalem and Zadok the Priest suggest the exploration of British identity may play a significant role across the season. Pinter is difficult, but a one-act season is a good way to get a taste for his style, and in Lloyd’s hands it’s a compelling start.

Pinter One runs in repertory until 20 October and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.      


Dance Nation – Almeida Theatre

Dance Nation - Almeida

September is upon us and at this time of year, as the night’s draw in and the first signs of autumn appear, our thoughts turn to dance. For the last 14 years, the BBC’s behemoth dance show Strictly Come Dancing has dominated our screens, guiding the viewer from early autumn to Christmas with endless paso doble’s, tangos and foxtrots. And as the celebrities for the 2018 series set to work, the Almeida Theatre’s new play about American pre-teen dance troupe competitions has coincidentally, or perhaps purposefully, been scheduled to capitalise on the annual return of dance fever.

Set predominantly in a dance studio in middle America, Dance Nation follows the members of a dance troupe who enter a series of national competitions in the hope of winning the overall championship. Led by “Dance Teacher Pat” who choreographs a brand new number evoking the life and spirit of Gandhi, he pushes the team to live-up to the school’s reputation for producing winners, using the power of dance to heal the world. As Connie and Zuzu land the leading roles, star dancer Amina is left on the side-lines, but as their bodies and minds develop are any of the girls destined for a career in dance?

While Barron’s play mimics its teenage charges in not feeling fully-formed, it clearly draws on a variety of influences. There is a coming-of-age feel to the narrative, exploring that awkward transition between childhood and becoming a young adult where the mind and the imagination feel streets ahead of the body. The girls frequently think and talk about sex, love and their changing physiology  in the down-time between sessions, but while they cringe and giggle about it, their bodies are far from ready for such adult experiences. Barron shows us this confusion in a striking scene from the middle of the play as three of the girls are shown simultaneously at home, one washing her blood-stained tights, one exploring her sexual responses and one still playing with toy horses.

Barron also explores this progress into adulthood through referenced to their increasingly competitive interactions with one another, belying the idea of them as a team, as well as their perception of the play’s unseen men. Ashlee (Kayla Meikle) has a forceful monologue in which she becomes increasingly aware of the male gaze appraising her 13-year old body and the defiance she feels she has to subdue. Likewise, as the pressure to win increases, the girls move seamlessly from congratulating each other’s successes to accusations of selfishness and arrogance, adopting cut-throat behaviours that signal the end of childhood. There’s even one nicely-handled flash-forward a decade on, as Connie (Manjinder Virk) celebrates her lasting friendship with Ashlee and the deep troubles they have shared in the ensuing years.

While old Broadway song and dance shows have been a nostalgic feature of the West End in recent years, with 42nd Street and An American in Paris among the revivals that have won plenty of plaudits, the roots of Clare Barron’s short play are actually in independent film, and it is here, rather than the stage, that the world of dancers, competition and ambition have been more purposefully explored. By merging examples of competitive dance with the behind-the-scenes locker-room drama of six girls and one boy on the cusp of adulthood, characters reveal their inner selves directly to the audience while participating in the rituals and rivalries of teenage life. Barron’s approach is reminiscent of the satirical documentary-style films such as I, Tonya, Best in Show and Strictly Ballroom that are driven by competition and the financial or talent barriers to individual ambition.

There is a purposefully grubby, unpolished look to Samal Blak’s design that picks out an underfunded and slightly careworn space. The rotating mirror and glitter curtained panels are just that bit too well used, the glass warped and stained, while Moritz Junge’s costume design for the competitor outfits have a cheap glitz, evoking the soulless conference rooms and halls where these events take place, dressed-up but tacky and a bit bleak. So much of that aesthetic is realistically drawn from the various documentaries we’ve seen on American child beauty pageants or the  “mockumentary” film referenced above.

But there’s also an influence from the teen movies about preparing for a finale competition where the central narrative focuses on the protagonists’ will to win, and the various impediments they must overcome to triumph. The Pitch Perfect series is a prime example but also either version of Hairspray and even High School Musical, essentially anything in which the cast grapple with personal development issues while artistically competing for some kind of unifying end goal. Barron’s characters and scenario are deliberately less glamorous than these big screen examples, but the underlying desire to explore the confusing search for identity and future purpose is certainly the same.

Where Dance Nation fails is in bringing all of these strands together in a meaningful and dramatically satisfying way. There is a lot happening in Barron’s production which manages to be both engaging and alienating at the same time, without quite resolving the dilemma it creates by attempting to wrap a philosophical discussion in a narrative frame. The scenes focused on the dance competition, rehearsals and locker-room interaction feel much stronger than the rest of the play, unified by the need to move the story along while exploring the perspectives of its young teenage protagonists. When Barron focuses on character, she creates plenty of meaningful exchanges, loaded with empathy that bring the audience into the story as we are asked to weigh-up the difficulty of supporting the morale of the whole team while creating space for Amina to achieve her potential, even if it means trampling on her friends.

Like Ella Hickson’s The Writer from earlier this year, this production is on shakier ground when it branches into the surreal or makes jarring attempts to deliver its feminist messages – those messages are visible in the rest of the play and could have been better woven into the central story. Barron wants to experiment with technique and spotlight individual characters, allowing them to talk directly to the audience outside of the core story. This is a way to draw attention to the writer’s purpose and to help the audience to connect with the experience being presented, but here they feel like digressions, like another show trying to break-out from the middle.

Ashlee’s monologue about objectification, intelligence and the power she feels lies ahead of her is a great speech, it’s truthful, impassioned and inspiring, but it’s not clear enough how it applies to the wider team competition story Barron is telling. Young women are sexualised and taught to judge themselves from an early age, but this needs to be reflected properly in the main plot to underscore Ashlee’s concerns, to show the audience that in practice this happens to these girls in how they’re asked to dress, the make-up they have to wear and the suggestive dance moves choreographed by their male teacher. But Barron doesn’t draw the inference through the show, so this becomes an untethered monologue.

Likewise, a (presumed) fantasy sequence in which the new dance first becomes overtly erotic and then turns into a cannibalistic horror-film equally makes no sense in the overall piece, nor does the final section chant which attempts empowerment and respect for the female body. Again, as a stand-alone sections, choreographed by Aline David, they could be interesting but their relation to the consuming nature of dance, the outcomes of the story we’re being told and the imagination of teenage girls is much more obscure and makes for a frustratingly uneven experience.

Dance Nation has a pleasingly diverse cast, including actors with a broad age range, where each convincingly plays a teenage character and collectively create a group dynamic in which the individuals must work together. There’s a fine balance between the last flourish of childishness and young girls wanting to convey an impression of being older, more mature than they are which comes across really well in all the performances. The dance sequences, like the visual design, are purposefully a little blocky and after an opening number that feels like a memory – evoking something of The Entertainer and the flashback sequences from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane – the subsequent choreography is designed to amuse with the deadly seriousness with which the team perform balanced against their overall lack of finesse.

With the plot and the message occasionally pulling the play’s construction in different directions, there is less time to fully explore the character traits and experiences that Barron introduces, leaving plenty of interesting ideas unexplored. Some fair better than others and Karla Crome’s Amina has the most to do in exploring the isolating consequence of genuine talent that separates her from the rest of the group and her best friend ZuZu. Crowe’s earnest delivery feels just right for a young woman, notably given less time for non-dance activities, struggling to fit in but unable to downplay her abilities.

As Zuzu, Ria Zmitrowicz is a shy and occasionally sulky presence, a girl desperate to do well but with less talent than she would like. There is a subplot here about whether talent is innate or can be shaped with the right mentor, but Zmitrowicz emphasises the growing disillusion with dance, a dreaming loner with some difficult years of self-discovery ahead. By contrast Virk’s Connie is more confident but her centrality to the Gandhi dance is soon side-lined in favour of other stories, and we’re only given one tantalising psychological insight as she returns to an empty house – do her parents not care, do they disapprove, or have they just forgotten? Teasing these circumstances out would give us more insight into why Connie’s is so keen to dance.

Not all the characters are permitted a homelife and Miranda Foster offers a series of sketches as three ‘Dance Moms’, ZuZu’s pushy former dancer, Luke’s cosy mother and Maeve’s supportive parent, but it’s not clear what point Barron wants to make. Among the rest of the characters Sarah Hadland’s Sofia is the most interested in her developing body, while Nancy Crane’s Maeve is still more child than young woman. While they have interesting conversations and represent particular issues, they don’t feel entirely complete.

The male dynamic is also rather underdeveloped. Apart from Irfan Shamji’s Luke who is the only boy in the dance troupe which is barely referenced, Dance Teacher Pat is a highly ambiguous character but not in the way he could be. Brendan Cowell presents a complex figure who pushes the team to perform, a believer in tough-love but why he’s teaching and his overall role in the story is less clear. Barron doesn’t make him a predator – neither of the male characters is designed to reflect the issues she raises in Ashlee’s monologue – but nor does he really act as a catalyst for the events that unfold.

Dance Nation is a bit of a strange beast, a play that mixes straightforward dramatic narrative with more disruptive techniques but doesn’t quite marry the two aspects successfully. Like Against last year, a little more development time may have resolved some of these issues, helping to align the story arc with deeper characterisation to create a clearer picture of the complicated transition into womanhood. With plenty of influences from across film, there’s still a lot to take from Barron’s play, and as annual dance fever arrives in the UK once again and mingles with a year of female-led stories, Dance Nation is timely if not quite a ten from Len.

Dance Nation is at the Almeida Theatre until 6 October and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter: @culturalcap1 and Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Running Wilde: How to Manage a Theatre Season

Oscar Wilde Season - An Ideal Husband

As Classic Spring’s year-long Oscar Wilde season comes to a close, its timely to reflect on what it has achieved. Every theatre describes its forthcoming programme as a season, loosely tying together the varied collection of plays it will present in a 4-6 month period, releasing tickets for them all simultaneously. Here, though, a season refers to the external take-over of a theatre building by a Company formed specifically around a particular individual or to celebrate the work of one writer – as the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company and Classic Spring have done. Aside from its commercial purpose to attract as many patrons as possible, has London’s second major theatre season in three years really added anything to our perception of Oscar Wilde and his work?

This time last year Dominic Dromgoole’s newly-formed Company was preparing for its opening show – A Woman of No Importance – and promising that the programme would reposition Wilde in the theatre landscape, allowing us to view his writing and contribution with fresh eyes. With the rather lacklustre and ill-conceived version of The Importance of Being Earnest showered with largely 2* reviews and acres of disappointment, has Dromgoole failed where Branagh arguably succeeded? And what should a successful theatre season actually look like?

  • Play Selection is Crucial

With only four or five available spots each limited to an 8-10 week run, there are three important criteria for deciding which productions to include in the season. First is artistic value, the second commercial viability and the third variety. Classic Spring’s choices, including the two plays mentioned above along with Lady Windermere’s Fan and An Ideal Husband easily demonstrated the value of Wilde’s work, presenting his best-loved plays which guaranteed a healthy box-office return. Rarely off stage, Wilde has audiences flocking to the West End most years, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser each time.

Yet, with a season dedicated to one writer, predominantly working in one genre, variety is more difficult to achieve through the selection of work – how the forthcoming Pinter season manages this will be an interesting point of comparison. Branagh’s season could more easily offer a broad selection just by having a much wider pool of possible material, but it shrewdly combined the classics with modern drama, comedy and tragedy across the run. Yet, both seasons within their own confines gave dedicated audiences the chance to see work they would know well alongside more unusual or less-frequently performed pieces. Branagh’s curveball was the hilarious farce The Painkiller, in which our noble knight dropped his trousers, while Classic Spring cleverly opened with the lesser-performed A Woman of No Importance which offered the chance to see the more serious and emotional side of Wilde beneath the polished veneer and witty epigrams.

  • Vary the Presentation

Play selection might offer a Company all kinds of opportunities to present different types of production from different eras, but variety in staging and design can add considerably to arguments about the ongoing relevance of particular writers and their ability to draw on the consistent human emotions and behaviours that defy historical era. While each play is a standalone piece true to the purpose of the writer, a season should think more broadly about the visual effect it wants to create to offer variation and possibly even innovation for the repeat customer – it will be interesting to see the approach taken to setting and tone by the forthcoming Pinter season where up to four separate short plays will be presented on the same night.

Branagh’s season managed this well, often using the same design team across several plays, and presented five very different but thematically unified worlds to the audience. Running in repertory, viewers were taken from the magical pseudo-nineteenth-century kingdom of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale to the chaotic 1950s touring theatre of Harlequinade, with its faux medieval references in the costumes. The Painkiller, set in a Boutique Hotel, was a modern split screen with a sharp-suited assassin, while Romeo and Juliet referenced the monochrome glamour of 1960s La Dolce Vita Italy, before faded 1950s working-class Britain became the backdrop to The Entertainer. Each play was unique and individually designed to take the audience back and forth in time, but the human tragedy and delusion at the heart of every piece was always crystal clear, providing a unity across the work.

By contrast, the Wilde season seemed frustratingly unadventurous, despite different directors and designers separately taking charge of the four plays. Together they produced a remarkably unvarying and one-note portrayal of late nineteenth-century grandeur. Audiences have a passion for traditional Wilde, so it would be perfectly understandable that two or even three of the shows would want to retain their period-specific focus, but the hope that at least one would take a more creative path was soon dashed.

Of all the work presented in this season, An Ideal Husband most lends itself to taking a more unusual approach to characters and scenarios that more obviously reference the modern day. Most audience members may not regularly dine with the aristocracy, but politicians with dark secrets about the origins of their power being blackmailed by unscrupulous outsiders with plenty to gain is a recognisable and relatable construct. It becomes even more prescient when we consider that the inflexibility of the black and white morale code that Wilde toys with through the character of Gertrude, and which now reflects our Post-World War cultural love-affair with the anti-hero where a bad deed done for the right reason is forgivable and even desirably human.

Traditionalists will argue that to see Wilde performed well is always welcome, and An Ideal Husband was a particular highlight, but what is a season for if not to offer a creative opportunity to see the work afresh. One key way to do that is through the setting, imagining why the play has survived so well and what it has to say – Wilde’s writing is more than a string of funny lines, there is something about the fundamental human condition that runs through his work, which the repetitive framing failed to satisfactorily draw out.

  • Have a Point of View and a Grand Finale

Knowing what you want audiences to take-away from the work is the next key criteria, and strongly relates to the arguments above. As a collective body of work, what is it that the Company wants to say about the writer or the specific collection of plays that they have chosen to present? Or is the whole enterprise a cynical money-making scheme? Classic Spring’s original intent was to celebrate ‘proscenium playwrights’, rediscovering their ‘original brilliant wit and bold social critique,’ and across the four plays it is the former that has been the focus.

Emphasising the ways in which the work ‘still speak to us piercingly and profoundly today’ has been less clear, and after the emotionalism of A Woman of No Importance and the allusions we drew for ourselves in An Ideal Husband the productions themselves haven’t radically repositioned Wilde as a political commentator or collectively highlighted the foibles of social expectation, status and behaviour that could have drawn the four shows together. We enjoyed some of them as individual productions, but with a changing cast, director and designer they all felt independent of one another, and we haven’t learnt anything new from them as a collective experience.

The Wilde season built-up to The Importance of Being Earnest, rightly saving its most famous piece for the big finish. The end of the season is the opportunity to draw all of the strands together in the one production that visualises the season’s original themes, sending audiences away with a clear sense of its purpose and eager to see what the Company does next. Alas, The Importance of Being Earnest was a damp-squib, easily the worst of the set, an overly-forced disappointment receiving a heap of poor reviews. With little that was truly remarkable or insightful, where Classic Spring goes from here is hard to say.

By contrast, the Branagh season generate its own momentum, taking risks in the choice of production and style, while drawing the strands together in a loose but considered way. Thematically it focused on the theatrical life and particularly a desperation and delusion that prevented characters seeing their situations or themselves as they really are. From the faded starlets of Harlequinade to the star-crossed lovers driven to despair by family rivalry, audiences were able to form a picture across the series, culminating in the ultimate portrait of stale desperation in The Entertainer. A theatre season has to be more than the sum of its parts, we can love the individual plays but, through staging or unusual show selection, it should develop connections and insights for an audience that didn’t exist before.

  • Venue and Casting

Finding the right space is often more about availability than design, but in choosing the Vaudeville Classic Spring added an extra dimension to the work, meeting one of their key purposes of the season to stage shows in the place the playwright created them. Along with the added frisson, the Vaudeville also works for audiences with good sight lines from most seats. The Garrick was more frustrating for Branagh fans with a significant curve in the upper levels that obscured half of the stage, while the stalls seating is insufficiently raked for viewing.

Both seasons attracted plenty of famous faces guaranteed to draw audiences with Freddie and Edward Fox, Eve Best, Sophie Thompson and well-loved comedian Jennifer Saunders embodying some of Oscar Wilde’s most well-loved creations. Arguably by retaining some continuity of cast and crew between shows, Branagh’s approach had a deeper purpose, offering a form of repertory training for emerging talent on and off-stage, while providing platforms for actors fresh from drama school to work alongside theatrical titans including Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Greta Scacchi, and Branagh himself, as well as up-and-coming actors including Lily James, Richard Madden, Jessie Buckley and Tom Bateman who had previously or would go on to work again with the notably loyal actor-director.

  • Critical Data

While the Critic no longer wields the make-or-break power they once held as audiences draw on a range of information when selecting a show, the reviews are still a valuable indicator of a production’s value in the wider landscape. Looking at the star ratings apportioned to each show in the Wilde and Branagh seasons by the leading publications is very revealing, and, in terms of average critical acclaim, The Branagh Theatre Company outperformed Classic Spring overall.

Looking at averages for The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Time Out, The Stage, WhatsonStage and The Reviews Hub reveals:*

Season Averages

Only An Ideal Husband earned 3.5 stars or more, while three of Branagh’s shows achieved that. And despite a 5* outlier from Whatsonstage, The Importance of Being Earnest only received a damming 2.8 stars, Branagh’s lowest scoring show being Romeo and Juliet with 3.3 stars. The critics clearly found less to love in the Wilde season for some of the reasons mentioned above.

The dedicated theatre season is slowly becoming a notable and much-anticipated feature of West End scheduling, but running one is never as straightforward as it may seem. Putting on a series of shows loosely strung together has lessened the impact of the Wilde season, missing an opportunity to offer the promised new perspective. With a 6-month season dedicated to Harold Pinter about to begin over at the theatre named after him, Jamie Lloyd and his theatre company can learn some lessons from Classic Spring. With plenty of star names, rarely seen work and Lloyd’s particular touch, let’s hope London’s next big theatre season is one to remember.

The Classic Spring Oscar Wilde Season concludes with The Importance of Being Earnest until 20 October. The Pinter at the Pinter Season begins in September with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

* The full data from the critics:

Critics Data

Key – Tm – The Times, Tl -The Telegraph, Gd – The Guardian, In – The Independent, St – The Stage, TO – Time Out, Wh – WhatsonStage, RH – The Reviews Hub


From Stage to Screen: Allelujah! – Bridge Theatre

Allelujah - Bridge Theatre

70 years ago, the NHS came into being, and not too long after that the first medical dramas followed. The history of our free health service and the history of television almost go hand-in-hand. Medical soaps and dramas dominated the schedules for decades, until arguable crime replaced them as our favourite genre. A particular affinity with the screen, early examples like Doctor Kildare, General Hospital and Dr Finlay’s Case Book evolved into much-loved American dramas like ER and Grey’s Anatomy, as well as the invincible long-running shows Casualty, Doctors and Doc Martin – the world of doctors, nurses and patients is ever ripe for dramatic interpretation.

But that’s only the tip of the medical iceberg; during the lifespan of the NHS, a plethora of documentary series from 24 hours in A&E to Embarrassing Bodies have given us plenty of fly-on-the-wall access and real-life insight. Meanwhile film has also used the hospital as its location many times, and long before more recent American examples including Extreme Measures and Parkland, British movie depictions started with the gentle humour of Doctor in the House and its ensuing sequels, and the cheeky naughtiness of numerous Carry Ons (Nurse, Doctor, Again Doctor and Matron). Popular culture has, then, long reflected the intensity, silliness and political deprivation that has blighted the development of our free health service in the last 70 years.

Theatre though has paid relatively little regard to the medical services, and despite Nina Raine’s Tiger Country, last revived at the Hampstead Theatre in 2014, and The Globe’s Doctor Scroggy’s War set during the 1914-1918 conflict, few plays have used the hospital or doctor’s surgery as their primary focus. The doctor as a character turns-up all over the place, from Agatha Christie suspects to Patrick Marber lovers (in Closer), but their own environment has been strangely neglected by playmakers. So the duel promise of a new NHS-based play written by Alan Bennett – his first in six years – is interesting for many reasons, not least that it will receive its very own cinema transfer on 1 November, a medium that given the screen history of the NHS, may change our perception of the production.

Bennett is easily the biggest name to premiere a play during the Bridge Theatre’s first year of operation. Set in a tradition “cradle to grave” hospital, Allelujah! has quite a broad remit, tackling issues of individual patient care, hospital management, the closure and integration of smaller facilities and the politically sensitive cuts advocated by central Government. Bennett’s writing touches on so many issues that, understandably, his narrative frame becomes rather over-stretched so the forces that compel the core story become a little contorted.

But to what extent is this the consequence of its theatrical form, a place where conventions of drama create certain structural preconceptions about story and character? Seeing Bennett’s medical story on a screen may lend it an entirely new face, where the broad episodic structure of the writing and its impassioned personal versus the political plot may seem more at home among the serialised medical dramas seen every week on screen. Our leading playwrights are just as likely to be seen penning screen-dramas and forthcoming attractions include Mike Bartlett’s 6-part series Press in September set in a news agency and James Graham’s Brexit drama next spring. With so much crossover between stage and screen, seeing Bennett’s latest play in a specifically-commissioned cinema presentation after the run has officially ended feels like a logic step.

Facing closure, The Beth hospital remains a haven for geriatric patients who form a choir to liven-up their stay. When the father of a political aide is admitted, he cycles to the hospital to visit him one last time despite their estrangement. Unbeknown to the staff, Colin is responsible for the policy that will lead to the merger, and when a documentary crew arrive to film a fly-on-the-wall series everyone tries to be on their best behaviour. But with the lives of vulnerable patients in their hands, not all of the hospital staff are quite what they seem.

The three strands of Bennett’s play attempt to shine a broad comic light on our current health provision while making a rallying cry for its future protection. First, it examines the mixed approach to healthcare for the elderly and the value we place on long life versus quality of life, which is one of the most successful themes Bennett explores in Allelujah! Although some critics found the musical sequences a little jarring and designated too much room in an otherwise packed 2.5 hours of theatre, there is merit in them, reflecting the community spirit that smaller hospitals can generate and serving as a timely reminder that mentally, if not physically, these characters have rich emotional lives connecting them directly, through song, to the memories and emotions of their youth.

It is hardly a coincidence that La La Land has reinvigorated the fantasy song and dance sequence on screen, so Bennett draws on this to take his characters away from the mundane and beleaguered into an alternate reality and happier times. And, by limiting the major set-pieces, like La La Land, Bennett actively juxtaposes the everyday with the grand romance of the musical. In between the showcase numbers, many of the film’s scenes show Mia and Sebastian’s relationship played out in ordinary locations by two ordinary people looking for a break. If it’s good enough for Damien Chazelle, it’s good enough for Alan Bennett, and Allelujah! puts its choir in a bubble that separates them briefly from the reality of ill health and old age. These sequences, choreographed by Arlene Phillips, should make even more of an impact in a cinema where audiences are more used to the stylistic movie techniques and allusions that Bennett employs.

The second strand is a political one in which the controversial march of progress is measured against its personal impact. The depersonalisation of NHS services, the drive for efficiency savings, targets and reduction of overheads affects debate about the success of our current healthcare structure, with Whitehall notably divorced from the reality of caring for the sick. Bennett uses political aide Colin (Samuel Barnett) as a cipher for London, modernity and centrist control that ranks statistical success above the people being cared for.

Joe – a former miner – easily becomes one of Allelujah!’s most sympathetic characters, a kind and engaging creation whose complex relationship with his son, and fond memories of dancing in his youth which he recreates with Sister Gilchrist are played with considerable pathos. There is a really interesting dynamic between Joe (Jeff Rawle) and his son (Samuel Barnett) as their bedside meetings result in loaded silences and strained conversation, belying the genuine affection that they have for one another, and speaking volumes about the conventions of masculinity and pride that prevent a reconciliation. Bennett offers small hints at their background, at the local versus metropolitan world view that has driven them apart, but it’s an area that is frustratingly under-explored as the core drama evolves away from their meaningful interaction.

Bennett’s writing has always been at its best when showing the intimate contradictions of human relationships and personalities that can come across so well in screen close-ups. Comic on the surface and desperately sad or lonely underneath, this complicated connection between father and son should have been the main thrust of the story, driving the dramatic narrative with Joe becoming slowly more unwell as Colin’s merger policy takes effect, uniting the personal and the political in the way Bennett intends. Both actors suggest much of this, but the space to develop is reduced by Allelujah!’s third, and theatrically least successful, strand.

To prevent spoilers its impossible to describe this section as its occurrence is sudden and deliberately surprising, but it drags the show away from its original purpose, muddies the narrative and sets-up a central inconsistency just before the interval that is never satisfactorily resolved. Yet, this section will almost certainly play better on screen where the melodrama and overly-contrived nature of the storyline will have more in common with the commonplace life and death-jeopardy scenarios of most televised medical drama. In the kind of theatre that Bennett creates this feels more out of place than any amount of nostalgic musical sequences can ever do, leaving you unsure whether Bennett is campaigning to save smaller hospitals or revealing the abuse of power they facilitate.

Allelujah! may not be Bennett’s finest play but it has a lot going for it, not least the creation of a suite of characters that you want to know more about – it’s just a shame you never really do. From Gwen Taylor’s bolshie Lucille to Simon Williams’s Ambrose as a former English teacher reduce by age to Patricia England as Mavis the eccentric showgirl still determined to be beautiful. So many potentially fascinating lives are offered-up but never given a proper chance to link their wonderful backstories to the modern day in the way that, say, Follies managed so extraordinarily this year.

The 1 November cinema screening, steeped in the history of medical dramas, will be kinder to Bennett’s set-up than perhaps the theatre space has been. Large cast, multi-strand narratives with pacey incident-based drama and short scenes are the bread and butter of screen depictions of healthcare, so Allelujah! fits more completely into this genre than perhaps the different demands of the stage. As theatre, although it has plenty of potential and all the elements we’ve come to expect from a Bennett play, this needed to be more streamlined. Despite a productive partnership with Nicholas Hytner, the Artistic Director hasn’t taken a firm enough line with the work – arguably true of all of Bennett’s plays since The History Boys. Sometimes, even a national treasure needs an edit.

The overly dramatic final act, driven by plot twists, just distract from the people at the heart of the play, the patients, visitors and staff of The Beth hospital, and serves to dampen Bennett’s scathing political comment on the failure of the NHS to serve its community. With such an incredible cast of famous faces including the wonderful Deborah Findlay as Sister Gilchrist – a key role – Sasha Dhawan as a newly arrived immigrant doctor on a student visa and Peter Forbes (the Follies connection) as a slick hospital manager, it seems a shame to have underused them all so cruelly – there are lots of half-ideas that never quite make a whole.

Screening Allelujah! may well alter the viewer’s perspective, placing it within the tradition of television and film drama that lends itself to the cliffhanger-based six-part series that Bennett’s broad and episodic approach calls upon. Audiences love Bennett’s warm wit, comic parody and relatable characterisation, full of stoic people in difficult scenarios that can be incredibly moving. It may be diluted in the enormous Bridge auditorium but will the proximity of cameras offer cinema-goers a unique perspective? 1 November 2018 – make an appointment.

Allelujah! is at the Bridge Theatre until 29 September and will be screened as-live in cinemas on 1 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


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