Category Archives: Culture

Dear Evan Hansen – Noel Coward Theatre

Dear Evan Hansen (Broadway)

In a very strong year for musical theatre with big revivals and plenty of brand new shows opening in the West End it can be difficult to stand out, especially for young performers looking to establish a career with their first break-out role. But the heralding of a great new talent of any age is always big news and it’s comforting to know that while audiences flock to see their favourite established stars – and this year Jason Donovan, Sheridan Smith, Katherine McPhee and Bonnie Langford have returned to the London stage – important leading roles are still given to graduates fresh from drama school where exceptional performances can set them on the road to a glittering career.

Jac Yarrow’s Joseph was lauded by critics and audiences alike when he all but stole the show from his famous co-stars, instantly everyone knew his name and the show returns to The Palladium next summer. Over at the Noel Coward, the UK premiere of the American smash-hit musical Dear Evan Hansen may well do the same for some of its young cast, several of whom are making their professional debut in one of the year’s most anticipated productions. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are the musical theatre force behind hit films La La Land and The Greatest Showman that have arguably done more to modernise and popularise the genre than any other musicians and lyricists of the last five years, creating a cult following that is about to translate to the London stage. What sets Dear Evan Hansen apart is its status really as the first major musical of the social media age.

Where other shows have integrated smart phone and tablet technology into their stories as accessories, plot devices and sometimes staging techniques, Dear Evan Hansen is really the first musical to utilise and comment on the blurring of the boundaries between public and private that our 24/7 exposure to social media has engendered. The creation of online personas, communication channels and engagement is sewn in to every aspect of the show, it drives the plot as the protagonist accidentally unleashes an internet storm he struggles to contain but it also filters through to the way the show is staged, how characters are shown to interact to one another and to the bigger themes that Pasek, Paul and book writer Steven Levensen explore.

Over the course of its 2 hours and 45 minutes, those themes are shown to be increasingly complicated as our muddy relationship with the online world we simultaneously feed and resent is not as straightforward as it appears. So while the show initially looks set to vilify social media and its poisonous influence on image and expectations of behaviour, in fact the writers suggest a far more intriguing proposition, one which argues that it is the characters’ (and our) misuse of these platforms that has become so detrimental. So, even an attempted good deed can rapidly spin out of control. And this is one of Dear Evan Hansen’s most accomplished tricks, to let the audience think that they are watching a slightly cliched High School drama in which a lonely, nerdy 17-year old will transform into a beautiful swan. Instead, the writers take the story quite quickly in an unexpected direction.

Yet, for all its modern credentials, Pasek, Paul and Levensen know that musical theatre is all about human connection, that their technological framework is a structure for examining the ways in which families, friends and strangers interact with one another and the emotional ramifications of those relationships. Dear Evan Hansen is chirpy and fun, it bounces along with archetypal characters and occasionally outlandish scenarios as events unfold, and the creative team clearly enjoy playing with the multimedia staging techniques, but it never distracts them from the basis of the genre, focusing always on the personal examination of isolation, loneliness and self-acceptance at that crucial transition stage from child to adulthood.

Musicals may have a mixed reputation but their popularity resides in their ability to showcase complex or heightened emotional states in a single song, whereas a playwright might struggle to express the same in pages of dialogue or even an entire play. They have a unique ability to affect audience responses to the story through music – something which filmmakers know well and a carefully composed score can do as much as the actors to shape the mood of the piece. The songs in Dear Evan Hansen are a very modern mix of pop-influenced styles rather than the more traditional musical theatre melodies that take their lead from classical music and are more typical of the West End stalwarts. Increasingly, musical writers are looking to fresher, diversified styles to capture a different audience but the choices here also suit the age and personality of the characters they are writing for.

At the heart of this show is the perspective of four teenagers, Evan himself, the hapless and lonely protagonist, Connor whose early (unseen) suicide shocks the production out of its generic High School trajectory and drives the plot, Jared who conspires with Evan to lie to the world and Alana who becomes the self-nominated guardian of Connor’s digital memory project – all played by performers making their professional or West End debut.  Against a backdrop of tweets and Instagram posts, designed by Peter Nigrini and projected all over David Korins very simple set of stationary flies that cut up the large space to create intimate rooms including Evan’s bedroom and the Murphy family home, the character interactions take place both in person and on social media platforms demarcated on the stage in different ways.

Sitting on their laptops, each of the teenagers is shown in a separate projected frame that looks like a smartphone screen as they Facetime each other while updated feeds scroll behind them. When Evan makes his big speech at Connor’s memorial and when Alana updates the blog with new information, TV screens – sparingly used – project their words around the auditorium to represent the hundreds of people viewing the vlog online. But Nigrini also distorts some of these images, making them look warped as they project across different levels of set when the lie takes on a momentum of its own, with strangers reposting, commenting and offering faux sentiment on individuals they have never met.

At other points Nigrini emphasises the power of words that are the building blocks of social media, with text from Evan’s original letter with pertinent words picked out in bold projected across the whole stage, showcasing the starting point for all the ensuing madness and a reminder of the character’s own pre-existing personal desperation, mistaken for Connor’s, and now engulfed in an internet frenzy. When all of that dies down to focus on the Murphy’s grief or other moments of intimacy, the stage can look a little too empty yet the entire effect that director Michael Greif creates is an astute understanding of the pressures that our online presence can create not just for mental health and wellbeing, but also the ultimate emptiness of that outpouring of platitudes and sympathy expressed online by strangers after a tragic event who know neither the context or the person involved, especially when the object of their faux sentiments was previously overlooked and ignored. And while the outcome is a positive memory of Connor, what does it say about our society that his death means more than his life?

This is sure to be a star-making role for lead actor Sam Tutty who will undoubtedly be the one to face the press this week, but Alternate Evan Marcus Harman who assumed the part for this performance deserves as much recognition. In some ways Evan is  a classic teenage role, an outsider desperate to find a place in the confusing school hierarchy and, with divorced parents, grappling with self-confidence issues as he tries to work out who he is. Harman plays the occasionally stuttery and bemused Evan extremely well, charting his increasing panic and befuddlement as the depth and speed of his small white lie eclipses his entire life.

But Harman also shows an Evan emerging from solitude and using his storytelling ability to create on one level a false persona as Connor’s secret best friend who becomes a school star, yet underneath a more confident young adult starts to break through, finally able to vocalise his anger towards his often absent mother and start to accept his own sense of purpose. Some of his fellow characters are more impressionistic but Harman makes Evan likable and a credible adoptee for the Murphy family who fulfill his own yearning for traditional parenting and stability. Harman also sings well, his powerful voice conveying all those mixed teenage emotions to the back of the auditorium  in solos including ‘Waving Through a Window’ and ‘Words Fail.’ Tutty may get the press night glory but if you see Harman’s performance you won’t be disappointed.

Playing his classmates are a fellow group of debutantes who bring plenty of colour to the supporting cast. Jack Loxton as non-friend Jared is primarily a comedy sidekick who helps Evan to forge emails supposedly from Connor, and Loxton’s sharp timing adds much to the performance. Doug Colling as Connor has a larger role than you might think despite his early demise, becoming a conscience for Evan as well as his own personification in the brilliant ‘Sincerely Me’ with Jared and Evan. Finally Nicole Raquel Dennis as Alana goes from barely remembering Connor in her English or chemistry class to Co-President of his memorial website and guardian of his legacy. We discover little about her as a person but her purpose as the human face of the media storm is pertinent and well conveyed by Dennis, at once earnestly self-perpetuating and hungry for revelation while jealously guarding the right to control and determine the right kind pf public response.

Lucy Anderson as love interest Zoe and Connor’s sister belongs more to the family sections and marks Evan growth away from his teenage life and it is a solid debut from Anderson who offers more grit than many female characters in such roles. The adult are more in the background of the drama but there are some touching moments with Rupert Young’s Larry Murphy whose contained grief and cynicism sympathetically crumbles as he gets to know his son Connor (or thinks he does) through Evan and there is a subtle and sweetly played connection with Harman. Lauren Ward as Connor’s mother Cynthia suggests all the hope of a parent unable to come to terms with the loss of a child, while Rebecca McKinnis as Evan’s harassed mum Heidi does just enough in a small role to give context to Evan’s original plight as well as shaming him enough to propel the conclusion.

There are aspects of Dear Evan Hansen that perhaps don’t quite work, the style and lyrics are often quite saccharine, while the overarching story could easily shed a couple of numbers with no material effect on the plot that would help to neaten the running time especially towards the end of Act Two with several story strands to conclude – the depth of some of the wider characterisation perhaps not deserving of so many solos and reprises. But it’s dark and miserable outside – both politically and seasonally – so why actively resist the charms of this feel-good story. The close integration and self-enforcing completeness of story and technology makes this truly the first responsive musical of the social media age with a number of excellent break-out performances. So email, tweet, Instagram and Facebook all your friends and RSVP to Dear Evan Hansen’s message to us all -#youwillbefound.

Dear Evan Hansen is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 2 May 2020 with tickets from  £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Ghost Quartet – Boulevard Theatre

Ghost Quartet - Boulevard Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

The first show in a new theatre is both intriguing and exciting; for an audience member it is a chance to see a new space, to understand its possible configuration while assessing its comfort, sight-lines and to an extent its style. With new theatres popping up all the time, there’s a feeling of change across theatreland and a focus on big commercial venues including a new Nimax build by Tottenham Court Road Station and a second theatre for Nicholas Hytner at King’s Cross. And while there is a cost to some smaller venues like The Bunker which has announced permanent closure in the Spring, others like the King’s Head and Southwark Playhouse are also heading to new purpose-built venues. Somewhere in between is the new Boulevard Theatre, a classy, intimate space in the heart of once-seedy Soho which held its first press night last week for inaugural production Ghost Quartet.

In an area still undergoing extensive corporate redevelopment, this new theatre is a stylish and very comfortable addition to the West End landscape. Complete with a bar and restaurant all modishly decked in pink surfaces and rainforest wallpaper, the auditorium itself is an intimate space arranged in the round for its first unveiling. A central floorspace of burnished copper acts as the stage, with individual chairs – no flip-up stalls here – and an upstairs balcony area with additional seating. In any configuration, the audience will always feel part of the action while the entire concept has a 60s Mad Men vibe that suits the cabaret feel to the opening show.

Ticket prices are fairly reasonable for the area at £24-£36 – down on Shaftesbury Avenue a restricted view in the Balcony would be at least that with the best stalls view now at over a £100 – while the £12 Roulette Ticket scheme is a potential masterstroke if you book early. 10 tickets are available for every performance with seats allocated at random on the day.

Choosing a show to launch your brand new theatre should feel significant, it needs to showcase the facilities, technology and creativity of the artistic team while somehow advocating the brand, what sets it apart from other venues and showing what audiences can expect from the season ahead. But does anyone really remember these first shows with any notability? When the National Theatre launched in 1963 it chose Hamlet, while more recently in 2017 Nicholas Hytner christened the new Bridge Theatre stage with Richard Bean’s Young Marx which opened to warm if not ecstatic reviews but arguably remains the best new play the venue has managed to produce in the subsequent two years.

The Boulevard Theatre has chosen to host the London debut of Dave Malloy’s strange musical Ghost Quartet, and in some ways it is a curious decision. With its fragmented stories and concept-album structure, this is a show that requires the audience to pay attention as several different narratives are woven together, told in a jumbled, mix-up way, out of sequence, and even then you may not be sure exactly what is happening. And while it doesn’t feel like a show you’ll remember much about in a few months time, director Bill Buckhurst marshals the resources of the new venue to create an atmospheric and entertaining experience.

It is the right time of year for a stories of death and remembrance, officially opening on Halloween, Ghost Quartet uses four performers to tell four thematically related stories across 90-minutes. Unusually, the show is conscious of it’s album-like roots, announcing the Side (of which there are of course four) and Track number ahead of every song which has a way of disrupting the rhythm so the audience isn’t drawn too far into any single story, but it also helps to maintain the flow, like chapter headings announcing changes of direction and musical style.

Malloy’s four narrators take on multiple roles throughout the piece, performing as different characters as well as playing all of the music on the instruments that litter the stage. There is no formal scene setting or book, every story is directly created within each ‘track’ so the performers must use the lyrics to conjure the changing locations, settings and scenarios, while moving back and forth between them as Malloy weaves between his various tales.

Most recognisable is a version of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher which recurs throughout Ghost Quartet as Roxie Usher dies after her child is taken from her and her family keep her body in a vault beneath her mother’s bedroom. In a series of songs entitled ‘Usher’, the narrative moves back and forth through time as the seven year old Roxie talks about an imaginary best friend before later returning from the dead. In another strand two sisters Rose Red and Pearl White vie for the affections of The Astronomer who tries to show them both the constellations, but in the third section Rose Red enlist the help of a magic bear (yes really) to kill her love rival but must gather ingredients for a magic potion, while in the final story a young woman named Pearl is pushed onto the tracks at a subway station.

The names Rose and Pearl connects several of these stories, all in some way versions of the same women but interacting with each other differently depending on the narrative. It is sometimes confusing whether it’s the jealous Rose Red in the Astronomer’s story or the young Rose with a camera who sees Pearl’s train track murder who is being referenced and in Buckhurst’s version they are the same performer. But Malloy’s approach is deliberately opaque, making a wider point about the ways in which all human machinations end the same way, in our obsession with death and regret.

On a stage cluttered with musical instruments, furniture and an assortment of junk that reflects the eclectic tone of the piece, Simon Kenny’s design is not so much a set as a studio, albeit one with different layers allowing Buckhurst to vary the height at different points as stories reach crescendo or talk of the stars. Yet, anything that too obviously suggests time, place or character is deliberately held back, the room is a musician’s space not an actor’s one, and despite the busy mass of items that come close to the audience, nothing detracts from the prominence of the song lyrics and storytelling focus. Emphasis is created by Emma Chapman with a lighting design that adds texture to everything from cheery group numbers to haunting solos and dramatic strobe effects during the Poe horror sections.

And perhaps in a clear signal of what to expect from future Boulevard productions, there is an focus on fully interacting with the audience, passing out glasses of whiskey as they sing ‘Four Friends’, a few boxes of percussion instruments to shake in time with the beat during the Side One finale ‘Any Kind of Dead Person’ and a cunning use of people from the front row to actually play instruments in the show’s concluding number ‘The Wind and Rain.’ It’s all done with ease, as though the barrier between performers and viewers barely exists which is usually so hard to achieve in live theatre or even concerts. The space encourages direct involvement the way listening to an album at home feels like a personal experience with the musicians.

Malloy’s musical influences are as eclectic as his narrative ones, and the 23-song soundtrack use a piano, cello, drums and guitar as their base but incorporate all kinds of percussion and other instruments to create sounds as diverse as folk music, ballads, gospel and avant-garde styles amongst others. And despite its disconnected approach, there’s something about Malloy’s combinations that works, it may not always make a lot of sense as a complete experience but it always maintains your interest. There is a lively warmth to the production which despite its subject matter helps you to feel included even when you’re lost in its twists and helps to maintain an energy that drives your investment as it unfolds.

Performers Carly Bawden, Niccolò Curradi, Maimuna Memon and Zubin Varla are hugely talented actor-musicians with the very difficult job of guiding the audience through so many bits of narrative. Together they create the changing atmosphere of Malloy’s songs and it is testament to their skills and performance as a company that they hold this eclectic evening together. They look to Varla – recently seen in the West End transfer of Equus – on the piano to set the tempo who brings a darkness to his role as The Astronomer, with Memon adding a haunting quality as the various Pearl characters, while Bawden adds emotion and occasionally an ethereal quality as the Roses.

Reminiscent of Hadestown a similar concept-album approach that reimagined the song cycle of musical theatre, Ghost Quartet is a interesting experience if not always a satisfying or even a very clear one, so in what has been a very big year for musicals it may be easily forgotten. Malloy’s experimental musical does however take the building blocks of the genre in a new and unusual direction by utilising different music styles and a fragmented structural approach which certainly has presence in the intimacy of this new performance space. If this inaugural show means the new Boulevard Theatre is setting out its stall for a programme of unusually staged and challenging productions in the future then there is every reason to come back soon.

Ghost Quartet is at the Boulevard Theatre until 4 January with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


The Antipodes – National Theatre

The Antipodes - National Theatre (by Manuel Harlan)

Annie Baker is a major force in modern American theatre whose work captures the sense of a nation battling with its identity, history and loss of purpose. Her characters are always people who, whether they realise it or not, dream of more, of being something or someone else but are economically and emotionally trapped in the perpetual cycle of their own existence from which they are unlikely to break free. The way in which Baker deconstructs the modern American psyche is every bit as accomplished and vital as David Mamet’s skewering of masculinity in the 1980s, but with her own cerebral approach that distinctly uses language to create tension between the intellectual and instinctual in her plays, while drawing on the the underlying tones of religion and mysticism that run through Western societies where faith and science sit side-by-side.

Her latest play The Antipodes is at least an hour shorter than her previous works in the UK – The Flick and John – and focuses on the essential nature of storytelling set in a kind of writers’ room where a small group of people share personal anecdotes over a three month period. What they are all doing there, what the outcome is supposed to be and who they are working for isn’t the point – and it’s not something Baker spends any time trying to explain -because for a play in which plot is the key driver, there really isn’t one. Instead it is these various interactions that become the point as the team explore what it means to tell a story, where stories come from and why they need to feel authentic.

That is not to say that Baker’s scenario doesn’t create a number of questions that have subtle points to make about the ways in which we appropriate individual stories and often commercialise them with little benefit to the storyteller – note here the character of Josh who months into the project still hasn’t received his ID card and most importantly hasn’t been paid despite being an equal contributor to the group – is he being used? Clearly, the team are working for a big commercial organisation represented in Chloe Lamford’s design as a large corporate and soulless boardroom – no pictures or inspiration adorning the wood paneling  and just a stockpile of Perrier water in the corner. There is nothing about this room that inspires imagination or creativity, yet the occasional references to boss Max suggest the scale of this business endeavour and whether it is TV show development, a film project or video game design, there is a feel of exploitation, of something being taken from these people without them realising, dressed up as an exclusive opportunity.

One of The Antipodes most interesting aspects is how Baker controls the changing nature of the stories being told and while these may seem random there is a deliberation behind what people share and when that builds a sense of isolation and even mania around the room as the play unfolds. So it begins with questions posed by Sandy – a management representative who controls the pace and nature of the conversation without sharing himself – using icebreakers that encourage the group to reveal intimate details such as how they lost their virginity and biggest regrets. Over time these become clearly fantastical, taking on the sci-fi bent that they have been gathered to create and running alongside this are discussions about the nature of time, as well as the monsters and creatures that will be included in the final story. The point is that eventually one of them will tell the right story, that the influence of the collective unloading will be something they can sell.

What is so interesting about Baker’s play is not only the intensity of the pressure as eight people remain trapped in a room, but that it takes them all back to the beginning of life itself. Those strands of mysticism and Christianity emerge in elaborate evocation of the Adam and Eve story where the act of creation becomes the ultimate tale, and one which is mirrored by the simplicity of the childhood stories that Eleanor tells. Baker has things to say about how we over-complicate our stories, we elaborate, add dramatic emphasis to make them seem more important and include complex subplots to sustain interest, but what we miss is the youthful innocence of a child’s story with its straightforward detail and rapid resolution, while our obsession with monsters and fear of the dark stems from the biblical twosome who started it all, that all stories will eventually take us back to the origins of life.

The pacing of The Antipodes is still finding its rhythm ahead of Wednesday’s press night but co-directed by Baker and Lamford, it’s almost there with only a couple of energy sags later in the production as the characters themselves tire of the process they’re being subjected to. Like Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs, Baker employs no clear scene breaks and instead changes in time happen with just a flicker from the actors, the lights alter perhaps or the group simultaneously move their chairs creating an unbroken flow to the narrative that helps to create the growing displacement that affects the characters as the show unfolds.

There is also a strong sense of the apocalypse outside that increasingly draws Sandy away to attend to diseases and extreme weather conditions that give the Boardroom a bunker feel, as though storytelling has become our refuge against the outside world. That contrast is well created by Baker and Lamford, adding a fear of the external and a growing displacement from it that adds to the safe-space concept within the room. The reality seems fantastical, that, outside the stories being created in the room, the world is upside down and only here is truth.

While we hear often deeply personal tales from each of the  members of the group, Baker determinedly doesn’t distract us with too much characterisation and although there is enough distinction between them, it is their collective function as a a hive mind that holistically  deteriorates and struggles that determines the ebb and flow of the narrative. Their stories and  their ability to conjure these experiences is the point and it is notable that while petty competition  and momentary tensions exist between them, these are not the focus, so there are no dramatic breakdowns for individuals or even particularly separate trajectories. This can be a strange and puzzling  experience at times but as with the scene in which the team take part in an interrupted futuristic-looking conference call with Max, Baker is asking us to consider how we form the collective stories we tell as groups, societies and nations. And by taking the voices or experiences of others into the very concept of identity, how we express and communicate that through language to embed these ideas and reinforce them between generations.

Of the eight characters, Sinead Matthews’s Eleanor is purposefully the only woman in the creating set, and Baker uses the character quite carefully to explore both her different mode of storytelling and the small moments of sexism endemic in these scenarios. Matthews is clearly separated from the others not by distance but in bringing her own food each day as well as the expression of her anecdotes. You see in the opening scene that the men describe their first sexual experience as a technical or circumstantial occurrence – who, what, and how – but Eleanor never shares these details only the feeling, the strong impression of it which Matthews delivers with the warmth the memory holds for her character. Later, she subtly conveys her astonished indignation when she sees Dave take credit for an idea she had expressed in an earlier scene. Matthews has a way of drawing the audience to her character, part of the group but always noticeable and intriguingly fragile.

Arthur Darville’s Dave is the most competitive and is the team member trying to keep everyone else on track when Sandy is absent. He’s outraged when he catches Eleanor texting after phones were banned and takes a high-handed approach to chastising her. Similarly, he frequently emphasises how lucky they all are to be chosen and how hard he has worked to get into this room. Dave’s behaviour stems from a need to ensure that no one else jeopardises his big chance, but Darville also gives him a hint of neurotic frustration, an arrogance about his creative abilities and a need to be seen as the unofficial second that adds additional layers to a play where movement and dramatic development are deliberately stifled.

Among the remaining cast, Conleth Hill is a force as boss Sandy, the only one allowed to stay in contact with the outside world and who openly displays his interest or contempt for what he’s hearing with a steely gaze. Imogen Doel as PA Sarah becomes a marker of time passing with constantly changing outfits and is the pleasant face of the corporate machine who becomes increasingly drawn into the creative process, while Fisayo Akinade has a great monologue in the final part of the show. Completing the cast is Matt Bardock as Danny M1 who has more of a no-nonsense approach than the rest and tells a wince-inducing and graphic story that will make you recoil in your seat, while Bill Milner as note-taker Brian performs a strange ritual that could be better explored in the text. Stuart McQuarrie as Danny M2 whose squeamish reluctance opens him up to criticism adds a depth to the dynamic, as does Hadley Fraser as new recruit Josh obsessed with stories that play with time but finds himself unable to fully benefit from the corporate machine determined to use him.

Annie Baker’s plays can be an acquired taste and in spite of its much shorter running time this is one of her most challenging so far. At times you do wonder if perhaps she has bitten off more than she can chew in an attempt to explore the universality of storytelling, while the descent into a kind of collective insanity may seem strange in lieu of a plot. But this is a writer with lots to say and always with her work, you find your thoughts returning to it again and again once the curtain comes down. We are a culture built on storytelling, the myths we believe about ourselves and our national history, the way the news is presented to us and the tales we daily pay to consume on TV and in the cinema. But we never stop to ask ourselves who is telling these stories and why – this is the brilliance of The Antipodes, Baker’s decision to jettison the plot leaves us to wonder what madness is filling the void?

The Antipodes is at the National Theatre until 23 November with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Lungs – The Old Vic

Lungs - Old Vic (by Helen Maybanks)

“We’re good people aren’t we?” wonders the neurotic couple at the center of Duncan Macmillan’s play that examines attitudes to climate change by contrasting the theoretical and statistical conscience of W and M with their desire and fundamental biological drive to procreate. And in the week where Extinction Rebellion continue to make headlines with protests all over London and in the context of inspirational messaging from Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough’s major appeal to cut single-use plastics, the effects of human behaviour on the world and its immediate future couldn’t be more relevant. But while Macmillan uses the planetary effects of child rearing as a frame for Lungs, his focus is on the two flawed people at the centre of all this confusion, wondering what it means to be a good person and still get all the things you want.

And Lungs is far more than an extended rant with Macmillan’s intriguing structural approach being one of the most notable features of the play. Performed in the round on a platform of solar panels with mounds of rocky earth breaking through the otherwise flat structure designed by Rob Howell, Lungs has no scene changes or visible locations. Instead, time, place and the activities or changes in between are only revealed through the text in a continuous flow much like life itself which never breaks so neatly into distinct chapters. Reference to a particular location such as the Ikea car park with only a beat between one scene and the next is the basis for much of the play’s humour, where the audience only later discover that the shocking, emotionally turbulent or intimate conversation we’ve eavesdropped on is happening in an unexpected place, often to hilarious effect.

The lack of scenery and any attempt by the actors to indicate location may sound like a strange and disconcerting experience, one that would surely alienate an audience from the story Macmillan is telling. Yet, while Lungs borrows the clothes of Brechtian and absurdist drama, in Director Matthew Warchus’s interpretation, on the contrary, the viewer is not only drawn into the central relationship but the approach also makes the issues and emotions they face feel more universal, as though any of us could graft these conversations onto our own lives. Throughout the play, this creates considerable investment in the outcome, with occasional gasps of  surprise reverberating around the auditorium as information is slowly revealed in the final third that alters what we know – until this point, you may not have even realised you cared about them so much.

Much of this is down to Macmillan’s impressive characterisation which, like the minimalist approach to staging, is more engaging than perhaps the pen portraits developed in the early scenes suggests. On paper, there are many things about this play that shouldn’t work; the dramatic direction of the story isn’t revelatory, some of the twists are fairly predictable, even cliched, while the bulk insertion of climate change data that both characters recite at each other should feel really clunky. But Macmillan achieves something remarkable by making his couple feel like people who would have read and memorised these kinds of facts in order to win a future theoretical argument with each other and their equally guilt-ridden friends (who we never see but are easy to imagine). And through this wordy but warmly engaging dialogue between two people who thought they were entirely in harmony, Macmillan weaves some kind of magic, making us care about their deeply flawed and muddle-headed reality.

Part of the success of Lungs is that this is not the uber-liberal, finger-wagging climate change play you expect it to be, and although Macmillan’s overall message is that we are reaching the tipping point, he’s really examining why individual action may never be enough, that selfish human needs and decisions at the micro-level will always take priority whatever the consequences. We watch W and M agonise for a long time about the carbon footprint that having a child will engender, comparing it to the daily flights to New York they could take or similar. And yet, in spite of the angst they express, the theoretical cost doesn’t ultimately affect their decision to proceed or not, so how much of their intellectual debate is lip-service to developing trends in expected middle class behaviours? And while Macmillan takes the opportunity to skewer the cosy ideas of recycling, energy-saving bulbs and organic shopping that make us and them feel like good people, the focus remains on the interaction between the couple.

W is a character you assume will come to be incredibly frustrating during the 100-minute run time. She explodes onto the stage in a mass of confused thoughts, over-processed reactions and exaggerated emphasis, the kind of person who lacks the ability to differentiate between internal monologue and vocalised emotions. When boyfriend M suggests they consider having a baby her mind is thrown into disarray from which a virtually uninterrupted monologue emerges that essentially continues throughout the play as she attempts to process, rationalise and cope with the events that follow.

What is so interesting about Macmillan’s writing is how rapidly we warm to W, how the muddy hypothesising that tries to make logical sense of her situation and the conflicted principles it creates in her mind fight a losing battle against the biological impulse to create and nurture life – not necessarily because a child is something she desperately wants or because of declining fertility, but because a child becomes an act of both genetic legacy and of continuation, where two ancestral lines come together – arguments W obliquely makes in a debate about the wider context of child rearing. Through this we come to feel the confusion, warmth and loneliness that W experiences on a trajectory that takes the couple in an unexpected direction.

By contrast, M is more straightforward, certainly in his emotional responses if not necessarily in being any less neurotic than his girlfriend. M’s view of the world seems clearer, more basic, as though acts can be committed and then taken back if you rethink. So like climate change, the choice to have a child is reversible in his view, that nature can be controlled, harnessed and contained with enough human determination – and when the might of nature strikes back at this couple in two distinct ways the folly of their over-planning is revealed. Although M raises the question of children, he could just as easily be asking if they should get a takeaway for dinner so casually is the topic introduced and so poorly considered before he speaks.

The path they take is one that finds M emotionally at odds with his partner, developing feelings his cannot express and equally unable to understand her needs. Macmillan again has taken what could be a fairly generic male character and turns his own confused outlook into something we can at least relate to if not exactly sympathise with. The enormity of a child and the enormity of the climate change problem are to M the same unscalable dilemma and his response to both becomes occasionally insensitive, even weak if not surprising. He’s not painted as an out and out villain but instead Macmillan makes his efforts seem, small, bumbling, inept and very human.

The reunion of The Crown co-leads Claire Foy and Matt Smith is a big coup for the Old Vic given the rare appearances both are able to make on stage, as well as being a well-timed one given that the next generation Netflix cast will unveil the new series in mid-November. Both are superb here and entirely believable as the couple who use words and principles to mask their deep love for one another – and it is this rather than their need to save the world or share it with a child that keeps them together. This sits under Macmillan’s story as he takes the couple through some difficult times.

Together Foy and Smith manage the technical flow of the play extremely well, building the relationship as well as the changing locations and time periods with little more than a breath between scenes. They make you care about these people, grounding them in a credibility and reality that slowly counteracts the difficult personality traits that Macmillan has given them. Foy arguably has the more complex character, W is a bundle of contradictions, a woman who seems to imprison her emotions in logic, someone whose life is always planned, clear and filled with direction expressed in continual verbiage. What is so interesting about this performance is seeing how W responds to surprises – of which there are many in this play – and Foy’s particular gift is for revealing W’s instinctual needs and how they emerge from her controlled exterior. What seems neurotic initially becomes increasingly touching as Foy builds W’s emotional state where she can no longer control her responses, it’s a brilliant and illuminating performance.

M has less depth as a character and spends much of the play mutely listening or enduring W’s verbal assault, yet Smith navigates the character’s contradictions really well, suggesting a man who wants a quiet life but is still deeply attracted to this very complicated woman. Smith also suggest the small hurts that affect M’s responses to W as the story unfolds, the build-up of his own sense of isolation and inability to cope with the pressure of these scenarios that take the pair into uncharted territory. His storyline may not take M anywhere unusual but Smith ensures you understand why he behaves as he does and remain invested in the outcome.

Lungs suggests that not only will nature make its own way through our lives however much we try to plan every detail, and while the concept of a child may be the engine of the story, it is never really the point. The wonderful connection between Foy and Smith adds an extra dimension to the text, the perfect fit of this imperfect couple is truly at the heart of this play. The last 10-minutes feel tacked-on, a look into the future that breaks the spell and makes for a weaker conclusion than this play deserves, but it does have a purpose and Macmillan is challenging us to see that individual action is really so small in the face of the climate problem, that we may congratulate ourselves on the things we do to make a difference, but ultimately those contributions are insufficient because no one is prepared to make the big sacrifices we need. Maybe we are good people but perhaps none of us are really good enough.

Lungs is at the Old Vic until 9 November with tickets from  £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Knives Out – London Film Festival

Daniel Craig in Knives Out (Director Rian Johnson)

Cosy murder mystery adaptations are a much loved TV staple, endlessly repeated on ITV3, but in the last 10 years the crime drama has changed dramatically and even the cosy cornerstones of Sunday afternoon television have taken on a far darker hue. The emphasis is now on the gritty and the grisly with gruesome murders often shown in frightening detail – think The Fall, The Killing and Luther. Even the ones that shy away from such excruciating visual assault take a tone of portentous doom like BroadchurchHappy Valley or The Missing, leading the way with multi-episode series that lean on the conventions of psycho-drama with dark subject matter including child abduction, serial killers and rapists.

And that more serious approach has made its way into even the lightest dramas; Midsommer Murders is fun but the inventiveness of the modes of death has always been grim – from death by cheese wheel to a pitchfork to the back through a deckchair. Think too of the more ominous tone that dogged the later Poirot and Marple adaptations as the protagonists were plagued by doubts and worries about the human condition, things that never used to trouble the Belgian detective and St Mary Mead villager so intently. Sarah Phelps’s Christmas adaptations have only continued the trend with a brooding tone to her versions of And Then There Were NoneWitness for the Prosecution and The ABC Murders. 

Big screen adaptations of crime stories tend to suffer from trying to squeeze a sizeable and complex novel into under two hours losing some of the characterisation that makes the story tick. Often, they are forced to bow to Hollywood conventions to liven things up as Kenneth Branagh did with the strange action sequence inserted in his adaption of Murder on the Orient Express that found an extensively mustachioed Poirot dangling from a train. But this intensity wasn’t always the case, serious adaptions of Agatha Christie films in the late 1970s and early 1980s morphed into something a little more exuberant, and by the time Peter Ustinov made Evil Under the Sun in 1982 everyone was having a lot more fun with a genre tipping over into self-parody.

Jonathan Lynn’s Clue which followed in 1985, a cinematic interpretation of the board game, was a hoot with a stellar cast of comedians including Tim Curry, Madeline Khan and Eileen Brennan. But more recently, inspired by Scandinavian dramas, even film outings for murder stories have followed television with the same preference for moody and brutal depictions of crime including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Snowman with varying success. When did fictional murder stop being fun?

There are fashions in crime writing just as there are in other cultural fields and now Rian Johnson – who was previously at the helm of a Star Wars film – is given free-reign to reverse the trend creating a movie that has all the hallmarks of a much-loved genre which he places in a very modern black comic wrapper. Knives Out is not a spoof, the tone is considerably sharper than that, but it is a loving homage to the lighter crime dramas that Johnson would have watched as a child, including Murder She Wrote which is given a momentary nod as a character watches an episode on their laptop. The film has the momentum of a thriller but the jaunty tone and all the fun of a comedy where the actors are the only ones taking it seriously.

Written and directed by Johnson there is a real confidence in how classic characteristics are integrated into the story of a crime novelist murdered in his country mansion without losing the tone of highly respectful mockery that Johnson maintains faultlessly throughout the film. It all takes place in a big Gothic, faux Victorian pile full of dark wood paneling that gives the setting a claustrophobic and doom-laden feel more redolent of horror films. At the centre of the interrogation room is a chair with a huge halo of daggers and knives pointing to the head of whoever sits in it – very Iron Throne – while in the house the unfortunate Thrombey family gather for a fatal party.

The limited cast of characters restricts itself further, with the most likely set of suspects given the most screentime, all with equally plausible financial motives and all heard to have some form of run-in with the deceased in the days or hours prior to the murder. Stir-in a changing will, some bumbling policeman, a subtle massaging of time and an arrogant freelance detective and Knives Out really hits the mark.

Johnson wastes no time in getting to the point, the murder happens, suspects are introduced with their motives spelled-out immediately and the murderer is revealed to the audience. Seemingly in the know, like an episode of Colombo, it’s now up to the authorities to put all the pieces together while we sit back. Well, not quite because Johnson has plenty of tricks up his sleeve to entertain and double-cross us, not least in having us sympathise with the perpetrator and the unfolding circumstances that set them running like a scared rabbit, as not only the dapper detective but also the rest of the family come after them without knowing their guilt.

And Johnson isn’t nearly done with us as the sands start to shift revealing more layers to the story than we first supposed and – as all great crime dramas should – recasting the entire problem in an entirely new light. In the meantime there is plenty of humour drawn from the wonderful characterisation and unfolding scenarios that Johnson so skillfully creates. Each member of the Thrombey family is given just enough screentime to suggest the extent of their personality and how the events of the film affect them. Leading an exemplary cast is Christopher Plummer as the victim – mostly seen through flashback – who exudes frustration with his relatives and a stern authority when dealing with their many failings directed at everyone except his sweet young nurse Marta who becomes a close friend and confidant. Plummer is particularly funny during his own murder scene taking notes on the method for use in one of his future plots – such moments of dry humour abound through the film.

Portrayals of his adult children are led by Jamie Lee Curtis as “self-made” businesswoman Linda who prides herself on creating her own firm from scratch and building it into a successful enterprise. There is just enough of Linda to see her tenacity and dismissal of the weakness she perceives in the rest of the family – a trait she wholly shares with her father – but Lee Curtis also shows Linda’s protectionist approach, refusing to be drawn into criticising her family by the goading of the detective, as well as a softer side revealed in a single look towards the end of the film as a crucial revelation is made to her. Don Johnson as her husband is far less principled, outraged by the change of will and leading angry protests to suggest his own double-dealing that he goes to some lengths to conceal.

Michael Shannon as Walt Thrombey Linda’s brother heads his father’s publishing business dedicated to its principle client but the menacing Walt is not as weak as he appears to be. Toni Collette is full of earnest self-delusion as an Instagram Influencer whose online success cannot fund her entitled lifestyle or her daughter’s private school fees, and while most of the junior generation remain largely in the background, Chris Evans’s bad-boy son of Linda and Richard enjoys every minute of his caddish part and the chance to slink-off his goodie twoshoes Captain America image.

But it is the central roles that yield the most joy with Ana di Armas’s nurse Marta as the family outsider whose “good-heart” makes her the perfect aide to the investigation while managing to convey genuine upset at Harlan Thrombey’s demise – the only character who really cares he’s gone. Best of all is Daniel Craig’s hilarious Benoit Blanc, the unusual private detective whose fearsome reputation for solving crimes gives him licence to refer to himself in the third person and adopt a Southern accent. This is one of Craig’s best performances, a rare outing for comedy skills only hinted at during his tenure as the rough tough James Bond who blasts through walls and adjusts his tailoring while leaping from a digger onto a moving train. His deadpan performance in Knives Out is full of great lines and beautifully-timed delivery that result in plenty of laugh-out loud moments. It is a real pleasure to watch Craig showcase his skills for whatever a post-007 world might bring.

Brilliantly managed by Johnson who controls the twists and turns with aplomb while delivering enough new information to keep the audience invested, Knives Out is a celebration of the light-hearted murder mystery with a modern twist. Stylish, hilarious and full of love for the genre, Knives Out is dead fun.

Knives Out is on general release in the UK on 27 November 2019. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

A version of this review was posted on The Reviews Hub website.


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