Category Archives: Play

Actually – Trafalgar Studios

Actually - Trafalgar Studios (by Lidia Crisafulli)

One little word can change everything; it can mean the difference between right and wrong, force obligation onto someone and permanently alter the course of their life. Saying Yes or No brings clarity, an unambiguous message to proceed or not based on a mutual understanding of the expectations or consequences that follow. But life if rarely so straightforward and on the issue of sexual consent, can what happens in the heat of the moment between two people ever be entirely divorced from a wider set of circumstances that put them in that place at that moment. And what if the language they use is a little fuzzier, what does it mean for consent if the word they use is not “no” but “actually?”

Anna Ziegler’s play makes its European debut at the Trafalgar Studios, examining the various problems in distilling the events of a single drunken night between Amber and Tom during their first term at Ivy League university Princeton. While their narrative is partially driven by whether Amber agreed to have sex with Tom, Ziegler’s focus is two-fold, considering the backgrounds, characters, peer pressure and expectations placed on both freshmen while asking whether the formal and overly simplistic means of redress helps the victim or the accused.

Actually allows both characters to tell their own story directly to the audience, and Ziegler structures the action carefully to move between several different time periods – the night of the incident, the days surrounding it, the university’s sexual misconduct hearing and some unspecified later period in which Amber and Tom speak to the viewer. The result is to constantly sway the audience, asking us to respond to each protagonist depending on how much we know about them at any given moment, allowing Ziegler to fully control the narrative across the show’s brief 85-minute run time.

Less assured is the approach to consent itself and to a degree Actually ties itself in knots trying to be fair and comprehensive without taking much away from either person’s version of the truth. And, depending on your interpretation of the play’s conclusion, Ziegler never fully takes a position on the events she depicts, whether or not the word ‘actually’ is sufficient basis for a rape charge. Yet unlike Nine Raine’s disappointing play Consent that was essentially another tired story of middle class angst, wine drinking and extramarital affairs, Ziegler places all the evidence before us to demonstrate that clarity may exist for the people around them, but for Amber and Tom what actually happened is almost unknowable to the two people it most concerns.

Director Oscar Toeman takes the steer from Ziegler by allowing the various complexities of this case to take centre stage. Everything else is simplified, movements restricted to directing speech at different parts of the audience, no props, no furniture just the two characters who verbally carry the narrative between different locations including the Princeton Quad, several bars, dorms and eventually the formal hearing where three strangers will determine the veracity of Tom and Amber’s version of events and ultimately the future that awaits them when publicly branded either a rapist or a liar.

The set uses marble-patterned flooring and back panels to entomb the characters in both the formal process that will ultimately decide their fate, but also symbolically trapping them in the hallowed-halls of their esteemed university. Whatever happens in the rest of the their lives, this decision will come to define them. And it is here in the failure of the legal and regulatory codes that Ziegler’s strongest argument is to be found, that the black and white, yes or no approach to the infinite variety of human relationships is reduced, simplified and funneled until it no longer bears any relation to what really happened. As Tom observes, there is something too arbitrary about our evidence-based approach to justice, so when the scales are evenly weighted, a feather blown carelessly one way or the other can tip the balance at random.

Ziegler’s play feels purposefully controlled, using the creation of credible, multifaceted characters to ground her arguments in a recognisable reality. A heavily talky drama that requires your full attention, the wider information Ziegler provides on the backgrounds, personalities and past behaviours of both Amber and Tom help the audience to see the complicated and very flawed people struggling with the momentum of a one-size-fits-all sexual misconduct policy. As with her Rosalind Franklin in the award-winning Photograph 51, Ziegler is unafraid to create ambiguous stage women – difficult, contradictory, sometimes odd and even hard to read – Ziegler avoids the cliched need to make her characters likeable. What is so interesting about Amber is that she may be annoying but it doesn’t mean she’s a liar.

But Tom is Ziegler’s initial focus, a black student who fought his way to Princeton determined to enjoy the freedom that being 18 and away from home for the first time offers him. His core sentiment is “you’ll never get this time again in the rest of you life” expressed to his best friend, the chance to sleep with plenty of willing women every night with little consequence. And while these conquests come easily to him, Tom is far more interesting than a laddish love rat because Ziegler has given him plenty of attractive qualities, sensitivity, devotion to his mother and an important degree of self-awareness that becomes crucial to his character arc as the competing truths about his night with Amber work on his own perspective.

But first, whether deliberately or not, Ziegler gives us every reason to sympathise with Tom. His casual sex life is put into perspective by his love of music and the loneliness he experiences as part of university life that draws him into a deep friendship with a violinist. Tom plays the piano to escape, making the decision not to study it professionally so as to retain the creation of music as a refuge, a private pleasure that feeds his soul, learned entirely thanks to the charity of a kindly teacher who gave him lessons for free. And through this we begin to understand something of the restrictions, expectations and societal barriers that Tom has had to overcome even to make it to any university, never mind this elite American institution.

Ziegler also references the unfairness of the American justice system for young black men and in a startlingly powerful but briefly expressed image, Tom makes an allusion to “all those swinging men,” hanged for a crime they didn’t commit. It immediately connects Ziegler’s scenario to other cultural pieces including To Kill a MockingbirdWhen They See Us and If Beale Street Could Talk, making you wonder if Tom will share the fate of so many other young black men falsely accused in a system stacked against them. He is waiting, he tells Amber during one of their conversations, for the unseen hand to stop him, as it has so many before.

But Tom is no sacrificed angel, and Ziegler never shies away from his cocky arrogance and occasionally “dickish” behaviour, a word he uses twice within his narrative in recognition of his failure to behave appropriately or with empathy for others. Simon Manyonda gives a fascinating performance, you want to like him, to believe that he has been maligned and yet subtly we note that he has a problem reading situations clearly as a couple of encounters with his best friend prove surprising to Tom. Equally with Amber, he’s denigrating about her at first, and while he warms to her personality eventually there is still a marked separation in their perspectives long before they have sex. This cutting between the role of narrator and character in a dramatised scene is well managed by Manyonda, conjuring scenarios and engaging warmly with the audience.

If Amber is less easy to appreciate, it is because Ziegler has purposefully designed a female lead that defies expectations. There is a Dawson’s Creek earnestness about Amber that is hard to warm to initially and she speaks so rapidly that both Tom and the audience may find it difficult to catch every word. But there’s something vulnerable about her, lonely, uncertain of herself and constantly questioning her own existence. Amber is at Princeton on a sports scholarship being as she describes a mediocre player in an unpopular game.

Intriguingly it is Amber who sets the tone when on that fateful night at a party she asks Tom to play ‘two truths and a a lie’ if he wants to sleep with her that night. What these people are concealing from each other and themselves becomes highly pertinent to the twisting tale that Ziegler presents, so as events spool back Amber reveals that not only does she find herself in a state of ‘wanting something and not wanting it’ fairly often but a similar situation had arisen before, only then she didn’t pursue it – and it is pointedly noted early in the play that it is a friend who both defines what happened in simplistic terms and tells Amber to make a formal complaint.

Amber is both overly hard on herself and surprisingly confident when she needs to be. To muddy the waters further, she describes pursuing Tom and, after setting the process is in motion, feels sorry for him, even still likes him. Her romantic reading of their interactions – that incidentally contrast with the more casual perspective that Tom takes –  leads her to be bold but there’s always a suggestion that Amber is behaving how she thinks she should, doing what girls of her age are supposed to do to fit in whether she wants to or not, and eventually that feels like the crux of the consent issue, that there are wider forces at work than the two people in the moment.

Yasmin Paige expresses these many sides to Amber really well and doesn’t try too hard to make her likeable or to dampen her more irritating personal qualities. Instead, Paige sits back to an extent, allowing Manyonda to charm the audience while her talkative and occasionally bird-like Amber stands nervously in the background contemplating always whether she has done the right thing. But Paige charts Amber’s story so clearly that through the cumulative effect of the information we are given, we start to see the pain and to understand that her perspective is undiminished and equally valid.

Actually has its issues as a drama and the heavily discursive competing narratives approach limits how the play is staged that can feel repetitive at times, but Ziegler has created a scenario and two complicated people who feel credibly drawn. Too often we expect shows to tell their story and wrap everything up with a nice bow at the end, but sexual consent and its consequences are never so clear cut. Our legal and governance processes may want to boil everything down to a straightforward one word answer, but as Ziegler’s thoughtful play suggests, that can’t always be yes or no, sometimes there’s an actually…

Actually is at the Trafalgar Studios until 31 August with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

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Evita – Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Evita - Regents Park Open Air Theatre

Jamie Lloyd really has the golden touch at the moment and he’s not a director afraid to make a bold statement, in fact they are a trademark. The decision to dedicate a 6-month season to the lesser-known works of Harold Pinter was a huge commercial gamble on a playwright who was not exactly out of fashion but whose writing remains a challenge however much theatre you see. But it was a gamble that paid off, winning over audiences night after night for seven curated collections that proved a revelatory re-examination of Pinter’s variety and legacy culminating in a beautiful and hugely acclaimed revival of Betrayal starring Tom Hiddleston which transfers to Broadway next week.

Hot on the heels of that announcement came the news of a second theatre season from November at the Playhouse Theatre opening with Cyrano de Bergerac starring James McAvoy, followed by a series of yet-to-be-announced productions running until August 2020. Before all of that eyes turn to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre where Lloyd’s interpretation of Evita faces the press on Thursday. Although still in preview, the production is already astounding; daring and brilliant, a full audience standing ovation on its first weekend proving that Jamie Lloyd has serious momentum right now.

It’s also been an amazing year for Andrew Lloyd Webber with impressive revivals of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar (also an Open Air Theatre production) appearing alongside West End stalwarts The Phantom of the Opera and School of Rock. This revival of Evita makes five musicals running concurrently. It’s not an obvious step for Lloyd, but with a portfolio full of edgier approaches to classic texts, the choice of a 1970s musical beloved of theatrical divas turns out to be a very shrewd one.

Of all of Lloyd Webber’s musicals, Evita (written with Tim Rice) is the most overtly political, unpicking the cult of Eva Peron and rise to power of her Argentinian dictator husband during the late 1940s as the right-wing government balances the power of English oligarchs, growing military control and the demands of the working classes. It has that rare thing in any kind of theatre, a female lead whose narrative is not driving a romantic love story and happy ending. Instead Evita looks at Eva’s determination to escape her lowly origins by using her connection to the people to become the first lady of Argentina, and during the show she demands the chance to tell and mythologise her own story.

Lloyd’s approach is always consistent, strip away the history of performance, forget how shows have been staged before and get to the underlying truth of the story. Notably, Evita is as much a political warning as it is a biographical drama, and Lloyd’s version amplifies the dangers of too readily believing public narratives. So, the way in which Eva manufactures and then commercialises her own history does as much to keep Peron in power as his military junta.

What we see on the surface – the widespread distribution of charitable goods, building bridges with the unions and a glamorous tour of European leaders – belies the corruption beneath. Examining the motivations of political leaders who claim to act in the name of “the people” but really have only self-interest at heart, and dispelling the myths that those in power weave lies at the heart of Evita, making Lloyd’s revival as much a contemporary warning as a 1940s lesson in history.

Designer Soutra Gilmour clears the stage of unnecessary window dressing leaving only plain terraced steps with the show’s title in rusted Argentinian blue and white at the top concealing the orchestra. There is a deceptive simplicity to the staging created to emphasise Eva’s insistence on her own humble origins. The setting, like her early life, is devoid of frills, bare and straightforward in which Lloyd quietly introduces a concept of class in which certain groups occupy the upper regions of the stage depending on their societal influence. The same is true of Eva’s costume, a simple white slip rather than the enormous gowns of previous productions which psychologically attest to her belief that beneath the Dior dresses she’s still that impoverished urchin from the sticks.

But all is not what it seems because Gilmour, lighting designer Jon Clark and Lloyd know exactly when and how to unleash cavalcades of activity at crucial moments creating quite the spectacle. In the very first line of the show, Che Guevara sings’ “Oh what a circus” and this has been Gilmour’s inspiration – applied with a fairly light touch – along with the riots and victorious parades peppered throughout the story. No Lloyd production is complete without plenty of ticker tape, and here torrents of the stuff is unleashed, along with enough smoke effects to almost obscure the stage and front rows, projectile streamers and plenty of balloons all in the strict pale blue and white colour scheme of this South American nation.

What Lloyd does so well is to so carefully balance these explosions of public sentiment with the show’s more comedic elements and the emotional centre of the piece, the result of which is a first-rate piece of theatre. The visible outpouring of grief following Eva’s funeral where the story begins, are matched by the elation of Peron’s flag-waving victory during ‘A New Argentina’ just before the interval and the frantic enthusiasm of ‘And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out)’. But as we saw with the Pinter series, Lloyd pitches the emotive moments with tenderness whether it’s the melancholic resignation of Peron’s dejected mistress in ‘Another Suitcase in Another Hall’ or Eva’s own health struggles later in the show (‘You Must Love Me’), Lloyd clears the stage, focusing intently on the real feeling behind the bombast, the humanity amidst all this political posturing.

Musicals endure a lot of undeserved derision, but Evita is one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most arresting scores, full of heavy funereal brass for the Requiem sections, jazzy swing and showstopping solos that quiver with feeling. With the kind of visionary thinking that he is known for, Lloyd has contemporised this show entirely, working with Musical Supervisor Alan Williams to give the songs a modern feel, most notably incorporating tango and salsa rhythms that bring freshness to the songs. These are beautifully performed by the orchestra, particularly during the intensity and pomp of the big numbers which feel vivid and energised.

Fabian Aloise’s hugely accomplished choreography is just a joy to watch, modern, fluid, dynamic and full of storytelling using a relatively small ensemble that represent the working classes, English aristocratic colonists and Peron’s stylised army. Every one of the set-piece moments has been carefully constructed and staged with flair so that many of the big numbers will stick in your mind as those terraced steps light-up and offer opportunities for movement at contrasting levels across the stage.

But Alosie’s work is also full of small moments that create such a wonderful and satisfactory variety of steps and movements throughout, not least in the first act where ‘Goodnight and Thank You’ and ‘Art of the Possible’ give large balloons to Eva’s lovers and Peron’s rivals as they are picked off one by one, while Act Two offers some inspired approaches to ‘High Flying Adored’ and the spray-can filled ‘Rainbow High.’ All of this echoes the grittier, more urban choreographic choices made for Jesus Christ Superstar in 2016 and currently on lone to the Barbican.

Making her UK debut, Samantha Pauly is superb as Evita with the kind of rock voice that brings a different feel to these classic musical theatre songs, delivering the lyrics in more unusual ways. A surface rags to riches story, Pauly plays Eva with a cheeky confidence as she uses her charms to lure Magaldi and break into the Buenos Aires performance scene. But Eva Peron was no Cinderella, and Pauly brings a valuable ambiguity to the role reinforcing the shows central debate about the manipulation of the public image.

This is a woman who refuses to let anyone else tell her story, so Eva and Che indulge in a battle for control of the narrative fought over the possession of hand-held microphones as her star rises. Pauly’s creation is a bundle of so many things, arrogance, determination, spitefulness, revolutionary fervour, comedic timing and sexual confidence as well as a discerning political mind supporting the workers but propping-up a fascist regime, never letting the audience entirely sympathise or detest her. ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ is always a showstopper and here too Pauly makes it her own, a moment of wistful stillness in a frantic scramble for power, matched by the eventual fragility Pauly reveals as the vulnerable Evita reaches her conclusion.

Pauly has great chemistry with Puerto Rican actor Ektor Rivera who plays Juan Peron, almost happily pushed into the background by his wife’s star power, but they make a very handsome couple, easy to believe their youthful glamour would be attractive to the electorate. Trent Saunders is excellent as the disaffected Che Guevara as repulsed by Evita’s social climbing and political regime as he is attracted by the personal charisma and resolve that infect him. While Che’s influence fades as the show unfolds, Saunders’s sardonic quality and strong vocals makes this a compelling battle of wills between the leads.

Lloyd has gathered an effortlessly diverse cast for the secondary roles and a hard-working Ensemble that fill the stage with energy in some excellent dance numbers. There’s also a notable performance by Frances Mayli McCann as Peron’s Mistress – the only other woman in the show to warrant her own song – delivering ‘Another Suitcase in Another Hall’ with a quiet despair in another of those moment’s when we pause to take stock, thinking about the easy disposability of women in this world and how hard Eva had to fight to rise above them all.

What you want from a Jamie Lloyd production is a sense of contemporary resonance, a focus on the emotional and truthful centre of a show, and to be surprised by endlessly inventive staging – Evita offers all of this in spades. The result is a production that delivers on the big moments with style but is off-set by the complex and intimate journey through the competing faces of Eva Peron – the lowly descamisado, the predatory social climber, the mother-figure, greedy dictator’s wife and the saintly Evita – a complicated, rounded, powerful and fascinating woman who burned brightly for a time. With plenty to say about the shallow foundations of political leaders hiding behind their PR machines, Jamie Lloyd’s triumphant Evita is raw, fresh and intense – “oh what a show!”

Evita is at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park until 21 September with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Southern Belles – King’s Head Theatre

Southern Belles - Kings Head Theatre (by Scott Rylander)

It’s a great summer to be a Tennessee Williams fan, not just for the range of productions in recent months which have offered new insights into established and lesser-known works, but the last couple of weeks have felt like an immersive Williams drama for the entire UK. With a recent heatwave that at its peak felt like walking through soup, the catalyst of a new Prime Minister in a political climate strained to breaking point, and a feeling that everyone is holding their breath as the social tension rises. Right now, we all know what it feels like to be a Williams character waiting for that clarifying thunderstorm to clear the emotional decks.

Launching their 6-week Queer Season, the King’s Head Theatre have revived Something Unspoken and And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens, two rarely performed One-Act plays by Tennessee Williams that place same-sex relationships at the heart of the drama. In a spate of unconnected productions of Orpheus Descending, Night of the Iguana and a reimagining of The Glass Menagerie, this mini-season reveals a consistency in Williams’s writing about the experience of loneliness, the inevitable power-imbalance in all relationships and self-denial that belies sexuality, giving many of his central characters a kind of tragic dignity.

Badged together as Southern Belles, these two short plays – running at around 40-minutes each – are fairly slight by the writer’s own standards, but a lesser work by Williams still sits far above many other plays. What he does so well is to create emotional resonance and an intangible sense of thwarted desire, of patterns of behaviour replicated again and again from which his characters are unable to break free. In Something Unspoken that is the silent affection that Cornelia has harboured for her secretary Grace for 15-years, allowing it to sit unacknowledged between them, while in And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens transvestite Candy enters into a destructive cycle with a man she clings to.

These two pieces are also united by the class disparity in their central partnership; the mistress-servant relationship in Something Unspoken becomes as much of a barrier between them as their failure to voice their true feelings, and  Cornelia’s behaviour, which borders on the predatory, sits uncomfortably as she pushes her employee to admit feelings it’s not entirely clear that she shares. Similarly, in the second piece, Candy appears in male garb at the start of the play, displaying a delicate refinement, has picked up a working-class sailor for the night, drawing him back to her flat for an elaborate seduction. Candy’s insistence on friendship alone and the subtext between them suggesting that she too may be playing a more elaborate predatory game to coerce him into bed.

These central ambiguities come alive really well in director Jamie Armitage’s production, picking out the moments in both plays in which the closeness of the central pair ebbs and flows as the story unfolds, punctuated with moments of sharp confrontation and contrasting intimacy between the couples. Though both very short pieces, Williams creates waves of tension through these conversations that crest and resettle as the characters warily circle around each other, and it is these undercurrents that Armitage’s two productions manages to elicit so well, focusing-in on the tentative confidence and nervy reserve of four broken people.

The evening opens with Something Unspoken set in 1948 as Cornelia Scott awaits the election results of her local Daughters of the Confederacy group having refused to attend the vote, expecting to be automatically and unopposedly granted the leadership position. During the tense wait her long-dormant feelings for Secretary Grace are articulated and while there is an awkwardness in how Williams suddenly forces the two narrative strands to collide so rapidly, Armitage’s production draws-out many conflicting layers of meaning and interpretation. Willliams uses the frequent telephone interjections bringing updates from the election to slice through the building tension and reset the dramatic direction within the central exchange.

Annabel Leventon’s Cornelia is a forceful personality, attempting to impose her will both on the local women’s association and on the feelings of her employee who never outrightly confirms that this attraction is mutual. There is a hard surface to Cornelia, a prominent figure in a group that had charitable aims to memorialise Confederate soldiers and had raised funds for hospitals during wartime but by 1945 was linked to white supremacy with a discernible relationship with the Ku Klux Klan. Nothing Cornelia says makes reference to her politics or her intentions as leader, but this membership is no coincidence and despite the attachment to Grace which causes her great pain, Williams has chosen this membership deliberately to amplify her ambiguity as the play’s driving force.

Leventon’s performance captures these complexities, her Cornelia is full of outward dignity with a determination to which her refined Southern accent gives a cold entitlement. Her one-sided conversations with lackey Esmeralda in which she remotely attempts to overcome a clique of detractors set to destabilise the election are full of outrage and bluster, amazed that anyone would dare defy her but delivered with a cool social veneer that keeps everything respectable. And while the sharp turn into her romantic feelings is a little sudden from Williams, Leventon finds a genuine ache in Cornelia’s centre which the pressure of the day has exposed, although the final moments leave you wondering whether her political or personal life takes precedence.

Fiona Marr’s shy and confused Grace is extremely well pitched, contrasting thoughtfully with her more certain employer. No longer the young woman of 15-years before, Marr suggests that Grace is by no means as certain of her feelings as Cornelia, unable to determine if she feels love or merely great respect and companionship for this other woman. Marr skitters about the stage with furrowed brow unsure how to respond to these overtures and the extent to which her job security depends on returning them. But there’s just enough fright in Marr’s performance to suggest her demure may be the ‘silly little female trick’ the Cornelia accuses her of.  Left unresolved we’re not quite sure if Grace is the victim of unwanted attention of the victor of the long game.

The second play set in 1955 New Orleans (the same location as the charming The View Upstairs set in the 1970s) takes its title from a misquoted line in Shakespeare’s Richard II, a beautiful piece of poetry in which the now desolate monarch realises he has lost everything and can only ‘sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of Kings’ to which his own will be inevitably added. Evolving the idea that King Richard’s destruction was in part caused by the inability of others to accept his overt sexuality (in the play at least), Williams uses Candy to draw clear parallels with the medieval tragedy. The fractious interactions with sailor Karl who refuses to acknowledge his own attraction to Candy are contrasted by her desperation to feel love above all things. And like King Richard, she sacrifices money, dignity and even safety to secure even a moment’s deep connection to an attractive person.

Reprising a role he played last year when the King’s Head Theatre previously staged this production, Luke Mullins brings with him a damaged intensity from the start. Williams launches right into a deep conversation between these two men with Candy – at this point dressed as a man – speaking openly for several minutes while Karl is all but silent. There is a tender delicacy in Mullins’s interpretation of Candy with a nervous thrum that underscores the performance throughout, both determined to take the lead knowing that the young man before her will succumb eventually, but also reeling from the breakdown of a 17-year relationship that has left her fragile and frightened.

Mullins is superb, treading the line between seductive certainty and a tremulous need to be seen which brings a real heft to the charged interactions with Karl. There is a shifting cat and mouse element to the unfolding exchange that is extremely well realised in which Mullins’s intensely felt performance which veers between victim and conqueror as Williams tips the balance at various points. It’s too simplistic to think of Candy as an equivalent Blanch Dubois figure but Mullins finds a deep-seated strengthened fragility that aligns with the fearful determination of many Williams heroines to force a kind of happiness for themselves whatever it costs.

George Fletcher’s Karl (also reprising his role from last year) has many of the strong silent characteristics of Williams’s men, unable to articulate his desires with an illusion of physical control. Fletcher also uses the flow of the text to mark Karl’s moments of ascendance and fear, tracing his quite different path through the story while learning how much power he has to wield. The thuggish aspects of Karl play well against his uncontrollable physical attraction to Candy as both a man and a woman, creating a force between the actors which is impossible to resist and richly satisfying for the audience.

Sarah Mercadé’s three-quarter round set is a pink boudoir of fluffy carpet and gauzy curtains that utterly transform the tiny King’s Head Theatre and serve both scenarios well. Aside from a raised circular dais at one end with some seating, the approach is minimalist but representative enough of the feminine decadence of the South to allow Williams’s text and characters to take centre-stage without any physical clutter to distract us. Joe Beighton weaves the evening together with music, including a scene setting rendition of ‘All I Do is Dream of You’ performed by Ben Chinapen at the start and Michael Burrows emotive piano version of ‘You Made Me Love You’ tying both productions together.

With a combined running time of c.100-minutes this is a short evening and while And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens and Something Unspoken may not be fully evolved plays, Armitage’s production has plenty to say. As the conclusion to a strong season of unusual Williams revivals, Southern Belles proves valuable and illuminating, concluding with an important moment of solidarity that leaves the audience with a sense of hope and the value of community to take home. As the rain sets in across the UK clearing up the heat of recent weeks, perhaps our own real-life Williams drama is heading for some kind of conclusion as well.

Southern Belles is at the King’s Head Theatre until 24 August with tickets from £23.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog  


The View UpStairs – Soho Theatre

The View UpStairs - Soho Theatre

2019 is officially the year of the musical; after a period of so-so revivals and uninspiring new work, London’s musical theatre scene is thriving again with reinvigorated classics and key investment in new productions that enchant audiences and critics alike. Already this year the West End has seen a celebrated Broadway transfer for Waitress with Katherine McPhee, now onto its second cast, the UK premieres of Come From Away and 9 to 5 (which recently announced a UK tour), alongside big-ticket revivals of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Palladium and a third-coming for the Open Air Theatre’s smart and moving version of Jesus Christ Superstar transferring to the Barbican.

Just over half-way through the year and there’s still plenty more to come – Michael Ball returns to Les Misérables to play Javert in an all-star concert version opening shortly while the much-loved original production gets a facelift and a redesigned theatre space, the anticipated arrival of Dear Evan Hansen strolls into town in the autumn and if you needed any confirmation that musicals are now cool again then Director-of-the-moment Jamie Lloyd swaps Pinter for Andrew Lloyd Webber with a new version of Evita.

The success of Dominic Cooke’s production of Follies at the National, which also returned to the Olivier this year, and Marianne Elliott’s re-gendered Company at the Gielgud which extended well beyond its original run changed everything, and musicals are now far more than lively tunes and hyper-real stories playing to coach-loads of tourists. With an ability to transfer serious social messages about the world we’ve created for ourselves and the expectations we place on the lives of others, done well a single song can be far more emotive than three hours of serious drama, so the arrival of Off-Broadway hit The View UpStairs a few weeks after Pride couldn’t be more timely.

Max Vernon’s musical, making it’s European debut at the Soho Theatre and running for just five weeks, commemorates the 1973 arson attack on a gay bar in New Orleans which was the most significant event of its kind until 2016’s Florida shootings. And while the fire and its consequences hang over the action, Vernon’s focus in on the humanity of the men and women inside at the time, the broken community of customers who found solace in the one place they could be themselves against a backdrop of endless persecution and hate beyond the walls of the UpStairs Bar.

Vernon uses a time-travel structure in which an entitled millennial moving home from New York unknowingly buys the bar to turn into his fashion emporium, only to find himself unexpectedly back in 1973 getting to know the regulars. It sounds unlikely but works fairly seamlessly in practice, allowing Vernon to point to the ease with which we all take for granted any of the rights and freedoms hard won by previous generations, and how little we know or appreciate the suffering and fear of discovery  which the pioneers of democratic and social freedoms had to endure.

It is a theme that has echoed through a number of high-profile productions about the history of the LGBTQ+ experience in recent years. Both Angels in America and The Inheritance commented on the longer-term consequences of the 1980s AIDS epidemic in both devastating and galvanising the gay community, while remarking on how the impact of those losses was remarkably little known among the younger generation. Similarly, the TV show Pose which came to BBC2 earlier this did the same for the ball culture scene charting internal divisions within the Trans African American and Latinx Houses and struggles for recognition. Vernon’s new musical however looks beyond the 1980s, to pre-existing hostility and prejudice which he suggests has never entirely disappeared from American society, drawing clear parallels between the violence of the 1973 attack and the erosion of equality as hard-line politicians dominate modern US government.

Lee Newby’s set largely eschews any suggestion of camp exuberance, this is not an era in which the characters could be out and proud even in their own space. Newby’s work has a lot of lovely detail, fitting nicely into the small Soho Theatre stage to create a slightly worn 70s boozer with a sticky-looking tiled floor, tired furniture and heavy curtains. The only concession to the cabaret entertainments occasionally offered by the bar is a large white grand piano, but this shabbiness suits the underground nature of the story, and there’s something inviting even homely about Newby’s interpretation of The UpStairs Bar that grows in stature as the characters’ attachment to it becomes clearer.

Director Jonathan O’Boyle keeps most of the characters on stage throughout the show, even in the opening and closing scenes where the 1970s cast linger like shadows or ghosts keeping the past alive as Wes agrees to buy the building. It’s a musical with 15 songs and dialogue so things move briskly and O’Boyle moves his performers around the space, sitting at different tables and when not participating in the central discussion there are lots of silent vignettes that add texture to the underlying tensions and alliances within the group that become vital later in the story.

The culture clash between 2019’s Wes and the inhabitants of The UpStairs Bar is Vernon’s key device, and it’s one that earns plenty of laughs as Wes’s modern ideas, shallowness and clear naivety about his cultural ancestry clash against the darker reality of the people hiding their sexuality and living in fear of public shame. Smashing Wes’s phone immediately as a spy device and criticising his gender-neutral clothing style are easy wins for Vernon, but Tyrone Huntley’s Wes is not a character who is easy to like. Obsessed with image, sexting and presenting his life as a success on social media, it makes him hard to root for and Wes takes too much of the focus. Huntley is very funny and sings beautifully, giving heart to the growing connection with hustler Patrick (Andy Mientus) that starts to reform him. The point of the show is to see his growth as he begins to understand the importance of the room he now owns, but he’s still a rather two-dimensional creation that may drive the narrative but is ultimately the least interesting thing about it.

Instead, Vernon has created a cast of fascinating 1970s characters who, though sparingly used, form a convincingly disparate group who genuinely seem to care for each other. Across the one hour and 45-minute running time, the audience is able to spend a little time with each one of them individually, spread-out across the show, while catching snippets of their attitudes and personal circumstances that build a broad but satisfying picture of different personalities clinging together. With eight additional characters there’s little time to flesh them all out as fully as we’d expect, but somehow Vernon has shown us enough of their humanity and their complexity that by the end the individual and collective cost of the arson attack is devastatingly realised.

Buddy is a married man with children living a lie for the sake of convention and playing piano at the bar once a week, a night he lives for. Frustrated by his need to invert himself, John Partridge’s Buddy is full of stunted frustration as the man he is is constantly subdued by the man he needs to be to protect his family from retaliatory actions because of his choices. And Partridge sings beautifully, particularly ‘Some Kind of Paradise’ which opens the show with a blusey feel that runs through the music. There’s a gentle tragedy in Buddy that Partridge brings out to great effect, having to weigh his options all the time, and even in the supportive surroundings of the UpStairs Bar he must stay in control – a key theme of The View UpStairs being the eternal debate between violent and peaceful means to achieve change –  even at the cost of his friendships.

Declan Bennett has a great rock voice which suits the role of the troubled Dale particularly well, a character on the periphery of the group, feeling excluded and pushed to greater extremes as the action unfolds. Bennett plays Dale as a bundle of ready aggression, and filled with subtle tics, unable to stay still and rather pointedly fiddling with a lighter at every opportunity. He never seems quite as volatile or “mad” as the other characters imply but Bennett finds surprising reserves of pathos for Dale in his solo number ‘Better Than Silence’, the sadness of his homelessness and prostitution explaining his behaviour as he feels unseen by the others, a cry for help ignored with disastrous consequences.

The smaller roles are also full of colour including the sweet mother and son duo of Latina seamstress Ines (Victoria Hamilton Barritt) and Drag Queen Freddy (Garry Lee) who’ve struggled on when her husband left, finding greater happiness by embracing the unexpected path life gave them. Impressive work too from Cedric Neal as the more flamboyant Willie, with a dancer’s technique and an incredibly soulful voice, particularly in the charming ‘Theme Song’, and Carly Mercedes Dyer as bar owner Henri, a no-nonsense proprietor who keeps everyone in line but refuses to give much away to her clientele, while Joseph Prouse’s non-practicing pastor Richard argues for peaceable methods while trying to maintain everyone’s faith in themselves.

Vernon’s musical isn’t perfect and like a lot of American imports it sometimes prioritises cheese over the gritter experience of the regulars of the bar and our route into the show via the time-looping Wes feels unnecessary, but there is something life-affirming about The View UpStairs and its faith in the essential value of all people regardless of what they have to do to survive that entirely wins you over. In the context of recent shows, it’s also a useful reminder that the AIDS epidemic was neither the first or only battle the LGBTQ+ community has had to fight, and, whatever your sexuality or gender alignment, established political and social rights are always one election away from retrenchment. So, forget what you think you know about musicals, because in 2019 they have much to contribute to ongoing debates.

The View UpStairs is at the Soho Theatre until 24 August with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog    


The Night of the Iguana – Noel Coward Theatre

Night of the Iguana - Noel Coward Theatre (by Brinkhoff Moegenberg)

The Night of the Iguana rounds off what has been a fascinating mini season of American drama in London in which the lesser known works of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams have appeared alongside and been treated with the same reverence as their most famous plays. Williams in particular is rarely out of fashion and recent productions have shed new light on the depth and quality of his writing. The Glass Menagerie transferred from Watford Palace to the Arcola Theatre, recasting the struggling Wingfields as an African-American family while at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Theatre Clywd’s vibrant production of Orpheus Descending breathed life into this underappreciated work.

Fringe and regional theatre is in love with Tennesse Williams at the moment, a further one-act double bill to come at the King’s Head Theatre as part of its Southern Belles season later this month, but there’s also a big West End revival this summer that’s not be missed. The Noel Coward Theatre has lured Clive Owen back to the stage for the first time in 18 years to play another messed-up character called Larry in The Night Of the Iguana, often described as Williams’s “last great play” based on his own short-story written in 1946.

Williams brings together an assorted collection of personalities who under normal circumstances would never form a connection and only through travel can ever really be thrown together in such an intimate setting; Larry Shannon the feverish former-priest turned tour guide stricken with panic attacks, the sexually predatory widow Maxine Faulk who owns the hotel, Hannah Jelkes the sedate New England artist and her verse-writing grandfather Nonno trying to write his final poem, all set for collision course as a physical and emotional storm brews between them.

Described by the playwright as a story about “how to live beyond despair and still live”, there is a sense in James Macdonald’s production of various strands coming to an end, of the conclusion of a  particular chapter in the characters’ lives as they arrive at the ramshackle Mexican hotel on the hill. By the conclusion of the play the life they have known before will have ended, and a new (not necessarily) better phase will begin. This focus on endings is multi-various, it is the end of the holiday season in Mexico where Maxine’s former life has ended with the death of her much-older husband Frank. When Larry appears at the “end of his rope” what follows explores the end of road for him in particular as he experiences the end of both his faith and his desire.

Through these various interconnections Williams’s concept of spiritual endings plays out across the story using the idea that both sex and religion can be a salvation as well as the ultimate destructive force. So, like the captured iguana of the title, there is a contained wildness in all of these characters who in this transitory place away from their real lives will come to a kind of reckoning within themselves and because of themselves. Macdonald’s production brings an intense slow-burn effect to the competing forces of life and death that drive the play, giving Williams time to weave his magic and the result is compelling and satisfying.

There are plenty of plays that never justify a three-hour runtime, but James Macdonald’s production has an enthralling quality that keeps momentum in a story with relatively little plot, most of which remains in the background as different conversations slowly reveal the backstories and viewpoint of the guests, focusing on a faltering and unlikely connection between polar opposites Larry and  Hannah. But through these repeatedly broken conversations, interrupted by the encroaching outside world of passing tourists, Larry’s busload of angry passengers and the natural environment, Macdonald draws out strands of  loneliness and isolation for two people entering middle age, losing the freedom of their youth and living unmarried beyond normal social expectations.

An experienced director of American drama who’s worked extensively on Broadway, Macdonald knows well how to marshal these long discursive plays. As with Annie Baker’s John and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – both of which Macdonald has directed in the UK in the last two years  – he is particularly attuned to the subtle changes of tone in the writing that slowly reposition the emotional direction of a scene, knowing precisely when and how to emphasise the small crescendos of drama and subsequent calm in each Act, building the layers to create a powerful and climatic overall effect that changes the characters’ lives unalterably as the curtain comes down.

Unlike more recent stripped back productions this is a bold, almost cartoon-like depiction of Mexico with its simple guest huts, backdrop of rockery and plants, and roped staircase carved into the hillside. Night of the Iguana talks about life having a “realistic and a fantastic level” realised through Rae Smith’s hyper-real and unchanging set where every conversation takes place, so the stage is filled with ephemera that it doesn’t really need. The props and scenery look pretty, creating an idea of the alfresco beauty and wildness of Central America that unleashes and reflects Larry’s turmoil, but it’s also a bit heavy-handed in its suggestion of claustrophobia, a distraction from the intensity of the conversations that the actors and Macdonald have to work against rather than within.

But this they do superbly. We have certain expectations of Williams’s characters, they are often fragile, repressed and trapped in their own lives, unable to overcome the limited expectations of society that forces them to cage the natural passion they can barely contain. Williams tends to be more critical of men than women, burying themselves temporarily in alcohol and lust until the pressure and emptiness of their encounters breaks them into conformity. We see this in Summer and Smoke as doctor John seeks solace from the pain of being alive in the local club, a desperate love for his neighbour Alma crushed by the increased numbing of his emotional and sexual life.

Here, Larry starts the play sullied by his many encounters with very young women on his tour and during his single year as a working priest. Recently deflowering a 16-year old who’s now obsessed with him, Larry is bent on self-destruction, a figure loathsome both to the audience and himself. Clive Owen’s performance is full of nervous energy as the strung-out and anxious Larry treads around his own imminent breakdown for most of the play. The nervy disposition he suggests as his unhappy tour group endlessly blast the bus horn, meets a rising panic, hoping that a few days of recuperation at the hotel will soothe him all the while knowing deep down that he is trapped there.

Everyone in Williams’s plays is seeking some kind of salvation and purification, and Owen’s Larry needs it more than most as the weakness of his flesh collides against his version of Christianity that sent him fleeing from the unpalatably mild view of God in the American church. His Old Testament belief in the power of the deity, expressed through the raging violence of tropical storms, entirely reflects the weather-like nature of his own moods – a pattern of behaviour in which a passion for young women clouds his judgement with a violent aftermath.

In a superb return to the stage, Owen’s Larry is a haunted man, pursued by his “spook”, a kind of depression or devil that he can never escape. As his breakdown advances and he waits for “the click” in his head like Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to restore rationality, Larry seeks solace in his growing friendship with Hannah, a need to be understood by another person that is desperate but never pitiable. Larry is an unforgivable character and Owen embraces his many sides while still retaining a humanity that makes his need for someone to truly see him rather than his office one of the most engaging aspects of the play. What we see in Owen’s performance is the slow entrapment and reduction of the wild iguana, the taming of a man’s spirit and, like many a Williams hero, the acceptance of a conventional, emotionally confined future, the easy option.

By contrast the leading female characters in Williams’s plays have a towering inner strength that only grows within the crisis of the play, leaving them free to become another kind of being despite their seemingly fragile exterior shell. The chameleonic powers of Leah Williams have delivered some exceptional performances in recent years and here she adopts the saintly placidity of the hustler-artist Hannah Jelkes, travelling the world by selling art to fund her adventures. The unrufflable and saint-like demeanour is reflected in Williams’s carefully controlled refined New England accent, suggesting a woman whose physical passions are almost non-existent in an life driven by intellectual and artistic pursuits that have a spiritual gratification. Slowly she comes into view, the prim restraint replaced with a clear compassion for lonely middle-aged men and a surprising non-judgemental worldliness that makes her the ideal confident and the only person who can bring respite to Larry.

Williams’s Hannah has purity and serenity but there is a resourcefulness in her, a deep-rooted fight that prevents anyone taking advantage of her. Her conversations with Larry are brief at first, invested with so much potential chemistry from Williams and Owen that they tantalise the audience with what’s to come. When they finally speak at length in the long third act it is enthralling. Both actors are mesmerising as the conversation morphs constantly from a polite friendship to something more complex, an almost spiritual connection loaded with unfulfillable desire. Hannah’s long monologue about her romantic encounters is delivered in pin-dropping silence by Williams lost in the memory of the past and while her current existence also ends in this shabby hotel, unlike Larry you know she will continue to grow, to emerge stronger and fuller for the experience.

As hotel-owner Maxine, Anna Gunn is a woman who knows exactly what she wants and before the play begins has determined that Larry will stay with her. Maxine may be openly provocative and blunt, but Gunn also shows her hidden vulnerability and a subtly in her dealings with Larry, knowing not to push him too quickly. There seems to be genuine affection for her late husband despite her dismissal of their marriage in public, and, as with the other characters, while Maxine is not exactly likeable, Gunn suggests a loneliness under the surface, a determination to keep others at arms-length emotionally.

Like the tethered iguana, James Macdonald’s fascinating production shifts and bucks at its restraints until the characters can no longer contain their inner selves. We could do without the comedy Germans and perhaps a slightly less cliched way to present the Mexican staff could have been found, a set of Williams’s creations that feel awkward in the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, gripping performances from Clive Owen and Lia Williams, and Macdonald’s slow-burn direction allows Williams’s writing to cast its spell.

Night of the Iguana is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 28 September with tickets from £17.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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