Category Archives: Theatre

Against – The Almeida

Ben Whishaw in Against, The Almeida

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

The Silicon Valley set rarely come off well in popular culture with a combination of technological innovation and immense wealth that seems to separate these CEOs and entrepreneurs from the world they’re intent on changing. From Christopher Walken’s deliciously evil Bond villain planning to drown his competitors to ensure his microchips became invaluable in A View to a Kill to the determined protagonist in Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs who rode roughshod over the feelings and loyalties of his colleagues, the tech billionaire is usually presented as someone who wants change at any price.

In reality though, there is another side to these businesses and to the people who run them that can be equally controversial. The charities, foundations and outreach programmes set-up by big multinationals or well-known entrepreneurs can often generate as much negative publicity as helpful support for local communities. And society takes quite a contradictory view on attempts to patronise the arts, fund school buildings or establish charitably foundations – on the one hand, we expect organisations with vast wealth to share it, while condemning donations from unethical sources. In the world of the tech billionaire, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Christopher Shinn’s new play Against explores these issues using one technology entrepreneur who leaves his multiple businesses to begin a nationwide campaign to highlight the different kinds of violence in everyday America. But, rather than pressure from society or the media to share his fortune, Luke’s motivation is more internal, believing he has received a direct order from God to go out into the world and help people. The messianic qualities of the mission become muddied by the mixed reaction he receives and how his logical mind responds to the ever-widening definition of violence he encounters.

It’s clear that Luke (Ben Whishaw) is someone who hops from project to project, although why is never really explored – is it the way his mind works, boredom or a form of short-term thinking that allows him to flutter between activities but never really settle on one thing. We discover early on that he made his money from designing rockets, and has several companies, but his rise to the top of his profession, what he actually does and the effects of this on his decision to transform himself into a social campaigner are not part of this story. Instead, we’re initially asked to take Luke as we find him, although later Shinn tries half-heartedly to give him some unrelated backstory.

The first half focuses on his tour of America, and we see him bounce from issue to issue, and while promising never to leave, soon moving on to the next opportunity. He starts with the recent aftermath of a high school shooting, before moving on to the problem of campus rape and finally the treatment of prisoners, where he incites the various people he meets to follow his cause. This structural approach has much in common with Steve Jobs that used three product launches to examine the changing issues and personality of the entrepreneur and gave the story both a narrative drive and continual tension as you watched him interact with the same set of people over a number of years. But Against takes a more lightweight approach to Luke’s involvement with these communities; he gathers their stories and brings publicity but Shinn isn’t using this deliberately to give us insight into Luke and his purpose, nor really to the acts of violence described.

While Act One is enjoyable to watch with plenty of dramatic possibilities set up in the various encounters Luke has, Act Two seems to squander almost all of them, turning largely away from the causes and consequences of violence – and away from Assassin’s Creed territory –  to Luke’s own personality and the effect of his visit on the ‘disciples’ he leaves behind, people once inspired by his proximity left to fend for themselves. And while that sounds like a sensible direction for the show to take, in practice the effect is muddled and unsatisfactory.

In Act Two, Luke halts his campaign, for reasons that are not entirely clear, and begins to struggle with his feelings for colleague Sheila (Amanda Hale) and a romantic subplot develops between them. He also returns home for a month and looks through old boxes from his school days and even meets up with a former childhood friend, reminiscing about why they lost touch for a while, but doesn’t add anything to our understanding of violence or Luke’s motivation which seemed to be the focus of the first part.

The surrounding cast are also given more spotlight moments in which they move from talking about the violence they encountered to solely discussing Luke, his whereabouts and when he might be returning to their community. These scenes are not sculpted enough to give proper character insight into these various individuals inspired by Luke’s mission, but nor do they properly tell us anything about the way Luke has been perceived and why he inspired people. It frequently mentions detractors but never shows them, so the story seems unevenly loaded towards liking Luke but without proper reasons for doing so.

Against is an odd collection of ideas, philosophies and political standpoints that never really delves beneath the surface of the causes and consequences of violence in society or the characters it follows. It’s not clear what questions Shinn is even asking in its near 3-hour run time and it too often feels that the breadth and complexity of the issues he touches on overwhelmed him, and so, like Luke, Shinn is only creating awareness without teasing out the root causes of the human behaviour that drives people to violence.

Luke has an interesting early conversation with the parents of Tom who shot his schoolfriends and then himself in the cafeteria, as well as hints at the isolation and exclusion that may have driven him to it, but this never fully develops across the show to meaningfully highlight the effects of these acts on his family and friends. Neither does Against build on the other initial theme about what happens to communities when the cameras stop rolling and again, like Luke, Shin becomes distracted by other layers of debate that lead to a meandering and introspective second half that blurs the focus between Luke’s self-discovery and the people he meets.

This production’s saving grace is Ben Whishaw’s magnetic and thoughtful central performance which gives an intensity to the character of Luke that allows the audience to understand why the characters are drawn to him. Happily, this sustains your interest even in the most wayward moments, helping to smooth over the cracks in the work, at least during the period of the play. Whishaw is an actor who could make the back of a cereal packet seem profound, and he uses all his skills here to give life to a character with an almost zealous purpose, but short-attention span for individual causes.

There is an Aspergic quality to Luke, who though highly intelligent, clearly sees the world differently to those around him, where an inability to communicate means he cannot make others see his logic. Again, there are interesting comparisons to be made with Michael Fassbender’s depiction of Steve Jobs, and how the success of tech entrepreneurs can stem from a closure to the emotional world, particularly the sensitivities of others, where logic, science and business-need drive these genius individuals to place machine-like process above human need. And although Whishaw subtly suggests many of these things the text isn’t actually interested in who Luke is and what makes him so special.

In somewhat subverting that, Whishaw commands the stage, introducing a contained physicality into the performance that creates a sense of separateness from the those around him, reinforcing the Jesus-like role he’s cast in (but is also under explored). He uses small gestures such as scrunching his hands or tightening the jaw to convey the mental processes happening beneath the surface as Luke tries to make things fit, and there’s a consistency in the rational-minded man that runs through the play, so he seem as innocence and well-meaning at the end as he was at the start.

The surrounding cast provide solid support in a number of underwritten roles that draw us into the lives of various people Luke meets along the way. As well as Sheila (Amanda Hale), Luke’s long-suffering colleague who facilitates his work while waiting patiently for him to return her feelings, Naomi Wirthner gives a sensitive performance as Tom’s mother deeply affected by her child’s actions but, unlike her husband, open to understanding more about the causes. Kevin Harvey as a former sex-worker turned creative writing Professor gets several scenes in which he coaches Emma D’Arcy’s Anna, herself in a polyamorous relationship that feeds into her writing, but neither of these things develop into properly layered insights into various ways of living, and it’s here that the concepts of violence that Shinn wants to discuss become confused. When attention turns almost entirely to the subplots in the second half, it’s difficult to empathise, despite the performances, because Shinn hasn’t done enough to make us care about them earlier on.

Against is a watchable and pleasant enough experience, but it ends up on too many tangents that never quite add up to a satisfactory experience. It has some valuable points to make about our definition of and response to acts of violence in society, but as the play unfolds it feels like Shinn became so awed by the scale of his creation that the hasty attempt to draw these strands together and find an ending feels wholly unconvincing.

This is a shame for The Almeida after a highly fruitful year that has seen positive acclaim for all of its productions, with Hamlet about to conclude its successful West End transfer and the transfers of Mary Stuart and Ink opening in the next few months. Their run of form had to end sometime and Against probably would have benefitted from another 6-12 months of development to smooth out the many inconsistencies, tie up the loose ends and decide what it really wants to say. Whether this a story about violence, religious idealism, the personalities of tech billionaires or the double-edged sword of charitable donation, Shinn’s play leaves the audience with all the wrong questions at the end. Depsite a very fine performance from Ben Whishaw – which is worth seeing – you leave wondering what was the point of that?

Against is at The Almeida until 30 September and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Apologia – Trafalgar Studios

Apologia - Trafalgar Studios

In the UK, we take most of our daily rights and freedoms for granted and forget the hard-won struggles that brought us the right to vote, to work, to design our lives however we choose. “Millennials” are also a generation that grew up a step removed from the experience and consequences of European warfare, the long-term effects of which were felt first-hand by our grandparents and through them our parents’ generation who took to social protests to overcome the economic and political downturn the Second World War created.

Alexei Kaye Campbell’s play Apologia is all about this generational struggle within a family divided by the external world they grew-up in which shapes their attitude to each other and the parent-child relationship. Our childhood determines the type of adult we become, but Campbell’s play argues that this has varied across the Twentieth-century and makes it considerably harder to understand each other. Someone growing up in the 1960s has a very different idea of what the world could and should be than someone raised in the 1990s.This separation of perspective casts a dark shadow over the play and defines its central relationship between an absent mother and her stolen children.

Respected art historian Kristin invites her adult sons, their girlfriends and her gay best friend to celebrate her birthday with a dinner at her tasteful country home. But relations are strained between the family as Kristin’s recent memoir “Apologia” entirely omits her children Simon and Peter from the story of her life. Frustrated by what they see as her absence, both are determined to have it out with her, while their respective partners Claire the actress and the American-Christian Trudi clash with Kristin over their own lifestyle choices. As the evening unfolds family tensions simmer and it becomes clear that the boys don’t understand their mother at all.

Jamie Lloyd’s direction tends to be love-it or hate-it and Apologia along with his previous works The Ruling Class, Faustus and The Maids has divided critical opinion. I’m in the love-it camp because risky approaches designed to entice new audiences is something London theatre needs as much as the reverent recreation of classic texts. Faustus in particular had many detractors but it’s grotty hyperrealism was a pointed comment about our obsession with transitory fame, empty celebrity and meaningless status, which for many feels like the only escape from a future of limited opportunity, unemployment and purposelessness.

Asking James McAvoy to ride around on a unicycle in his pants or Kit Harrington to take a “blood shower” are part of bigger conversation Lloyd is having with audiences about the changing nature of the modern world and how we engage with it. So, it is in this space that Lloyd meets Campbell and with a text full of skirmishes between past and present, of people born decades apart who can’t quite reach each other, Lloyd directs with considerable understatement that allows the rising and falling waves of family tensions to determine the pace of the show.

At the core of the play is the idea that the post-1980s generation are self-centred, caring only about making money and protecting their own individuality and status, without a thought for the good of society, and Kristin virtually says as much as she locks horns with Simon’s girlfriend Claire. Her youth and indeed the rest of her life was spent protesting for anyone who needed help – an idea Claire finds ‘quaint’ – and we begin to see Campbell’s point that whatever road you take there is a cost. Acknowledging that ‘having it all’ is a media myth, women have long struggled with the balance between family and work, and been severely judged either way.

For the women of the 1960s being the first to really forge careers, enjoy political, social and sexual freedoms, and live in relative economic stability, some experienced a domestic cost in the proximity to their families. Stockard Channing, returning to the West End for the first time in 25 years, gives Kristin a somewhat hard surface, a testament to a life spent earning a respected position as an art historian and politicised figure. The result was having her pre-teen sons taken from her by her former husband, and although they are now back in touch, an air of resentment and abandonment persists within the family.

At the start of the play, Kristin is given a tribal mask by Peter and Trudi, and while it’s a none-too subtle dramatic device, we watch Kristin’s own mask slip during the dinner party and its aftermath. Channing makes this a compelling and skilled unwrapping of a woman who neither knows nor cares what effect she has on others. Frequently when told something about her character, her only disinterested reply is “do I,” and this Kristin is forever controlled, even in criticism she barely raises her voice, preferring to leave the room than rant and rave.

However, formidable and cutting she may be – and her barbed retorts aimed at Claire and Trudi are a well-timed comedy highlight – underneath the hard-shell Channing’s Kristin has suffered for her work. As the initial awkwardness of the reunion turns to outright enmity from her sons, Channing reveals a regret and fear for her children that elicit considerable sympathy, that this accident of history, of being a woman of her time, has led to unbreachable divisions in her family.

And while we eventually learn what really happened when the children were removed from her care, Channing ensures that Kristin is not entirely let off the hook, that her decision to pursue her work has affected her sons’ lives irreparably. The audience is left knowing that although the truth has finally emerged, no one feels any better for it, and much of this is due to the clever ambiguity of Channing’s performance that gives an apologia, a defence of herself, but not an apology for it.

Joseph Millson plays both Peter and Simon, who through another slightly unlikely dramatic device, are never seen together, and leads to a moment of confusion about the position of the interval as Millson rapidly changes costume for his one scene as Simon. Peter is given more stage time and has clearly coped better with the lack of engagement with his mother, but has built up a bitter resentment about the memoir that explodes at dinner. Millson commands the stage and fills it with a lifetime of anguish but it’s clear Peter isn’t there to find redemption but out of duty on his mother’s birthday.

Simon whose emotional problems stem entirely from childhood does come seeking answers and again Millson is impressive as the more fragile brother in what becomes a tender duologue between mother and child. Simon’s girlfriend Claire (Freema Agyeman) is never seen with him, but battles with Kristin repeatedly about the work she does and her lifestyle. Agyeman makes Claire smug, attention-seeking and unphased by the slights of her near mother-in-law, but Claire becomes the exact counterpoint to Kristin that Campbell and Lloyd want us to see, a product of her time that, despite a small monologue about her own upbringing, is interested in vacuous fame and status only for the self.

Laura Carmichael’s Trudi is initially seen as the opposite, a good natured Christian girl absolutely out of her depth intellectually and emotionally in the charged family atmosphere. And while Kristin’s attacks make her see her life differently, the two form a respect of sorts that add nuance to what could have been a slightly two-dimensional role. Carmichael delivers a cleverly ditzy performance that balances the comic timing with a sense of the innocent bystander trying to keep the peace.

The themes of the play are pronounced in Soutra Gimour’s (a long-term Lloyd collaborator) set that eschews an art strewn household for a cosy kitchen almost devoid of any paintings, save for a few postcards pinned to the fridge door. The emphasis is on the family dramas rather than Kristin’s career, but Gilmour sets the whole production on a raised proscenium arch, surrounded by a picture-frame adding to the discussion about the boundary between life and art that feeds through the production.

Apologia is not perfect, and at times overly reliant on worn scenarios and coincidences that are a little jarring, but there is an intensity to the writing that well captures the difficult balance of engagement that typify family life. And while the presence of Channing anchors the production with a pitch-perfect performance full of emotional uncertainty, the surrounding cast members are given equal opportunity to shine. More than anything, we see the problematic balance between nature and nurture at the heart of Campbell’s play that shows we are as much a product of social, political and cultural forces of the era we’re born as we are the people who raise us, making the generational divide within families much harder to breach.

Apologia is at the Trafalgar Studios until 18 November. Tickets start at £35. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Road – Royal Court

Road. Royal Court

Back in 1999 the League of Gentlemen included a significant sketch about the effects of northern playwrights in their live tour show. It gently mocked their poetic style with mini-monologues that built to a rising chant, arguing that rather than merely reflect the world around them, writers such as Willy Russell, John Godber and Jim Cartwright had enshrined a particular vision of northern lives that had become impossible to shake off, which is perhaps now ripe for rediscovery. For the most part, their plays fell out of fashion and while Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, Blood Brothers and Shirley Valentine continue to attract audiences, it’s been a while since a major London theatre has produced a show by one of the key drivers of northern drama.

Jim Cartwright’s Road, returns to the Royal Court more than 30 years after it debuted in 1986, examining the lives of one set of residents in a generic Lancashire town. And while the odd accent drops by from Newcastle, it tells a story of poverty, hopelessness and futile ambition, yearning for a better future and nostalgic for a happier past. Road is essentially an anthology of monologues from different perspectives that build to form a picture of mass desperation and loneliness.

The message is not a subtle one and Cartwright pulls no punches in showing the bleakness of his characters’ lives, but his work retains a powerful force that if nothing else, reminds you still how rarely true working-class lives are depicted on stage. There’s not much time to spend with each character and how deeply you connect with the individual tale does vary depending on the subject and skill of the actor, but John Tiffany’s production does leave you with a wider sense of separate lives all struggling against the same sense of confinement and limitation.

Interestingly, Cartwright’s work also seems to fit into the wider representations of northern lives that use many of the same tropes and experiences, a sense of consistency with past and future that suggests a semi-unchanging pattern of life. Valerie’s monologue in Act Two is a painful examination of a woman at her wit’s end, struggling to keep her family above water because her oafish husband wastes their weekly giro on booze. Valerie’s fear and endless fret she realises has turned to hate for her alcoholic spouse who takes everything from his family and gives nothing in return. There are strong parallels here with Sons and Lovers as Mrs Morel experiences the same frustrations with her miner husband who leaves her to struggle while he drinks his evenings away. That same sense of entrapment, loathing her partner but unable to leave, needing to protect the children, links Cartwright and Lawrence so clearly 70 years apart.

And in the example of more recent writers, Cartwright’s work – or at least the same set of experiences – inform the TV creations of Victoria Wood and Jimmy McGovern. Cartwright’s set of ballsy young women out for a drink, a good time and a man for the night come up time and time again in Wood’s sketches, and when the characters in Road head to the chip shop on their way home, you can’t help but think of the Chip Shop song from Wood’s As Seen on TV, the last stopping point before the people desperate to forget, head back to their real lives. And McGovern’s recent dramas utilise the multi-perspective approach that Cartwright introduces in Road in his renowned drama The Street and recently Broken with different narrative voices driving each episode. Cartwright may not be as fashionable as he once was, but he’s part of a chorus of voices all trying to tell us the same thing in the last hundred years.

One of the startling things about John Tiffany’s new interpretation is the influence of more abstract European theatre-makers in the production design. We’re told at the start by our partial narrator / master of ceremonies Scullery (Lemn Sissay) that Road is set somewhere between the town and the slagheap, a purgatorial midpoint between everything and nothing. Chloe Lamford’s set abjures the expected row of houses for a courtyard-like meeting place where characters momentarily cross paths on their way to and from nights out, backed by the bricked-up window arches of a supposedly derelict house.

Interior scenes take place in a small off-centre square that characters drag chairs or ironing boards into, snippets of crushed-up lives in terraced housing. As one scene moves off, the entire square rises into the air revealing a glass box in which a series of rooms are presented throughout the course of the play, each with a different perspective and a shade of working-class life coexisting on the same road.

Microphoned glass boxes are becoming quite the thing; the Young Vic’s Olivier award winning Yerma, which has a brief revival this summer, takes place in one and they  appear regularly in the work of Complicite and collaborators Schaubuhne Berlin, used as a way to distance the audience from individuals speaking, while also making them seem like untouchable historical artefacts kept in pristine boxes commenting on our appropriation and repurposing of history from a living breathing thing to a rose-tinted fiction. So, you see this influence here as Lamford, who has worked with Schaubuhne, comments on this enshrined image of the northern working-classes that the League of Gentlemen mocked so voluble.

Given the slightly chapter-like nature of the play, it’s mix of realist and abstract forms make it a challenging watch, but director John Tiffany has assembled a creative team with considerable experience of working with some of the leading alternative theatre companies. As well as Lamford who has also worked with star director Ivo van Hove’s Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Sound Designer Gareth Fry and Assistant Director Grace Gummer’s have Complicite experience. Tiffany’s own work this year includes the excellent The Glass Menagerie (as well as Harry Potter), which brought a touching emotional truth to Tennessee Williams’s play about fragility, and this combined experience of showing constrained lives, and how external interpretations have shaped our picture of areas of our society, is something that comes through in this production’s attempt to liberate the emotional impact of Cartwright’s characters behind the clichés.

One criticism that can surely be levelled at the play is its lack of deep engagement with any of its characters, and while they all get some time to speak, either in specific talking-heads style monologues, or in conversation with others, it’s true that we only have a surface understanding of each one. But, arguably, Cartwright’s play does this deliberately to form a combined impression, and has much to say to us now about how well we know, or care about our neighbours. How many people on this road know as much about each other as we find out in 10-minute soliloquies; how much do we know about the people who live on our own street?

And the multi-tasking cast give us plenty to think about as they successfully inhabit as series of funny, touching and affecting scenarios. Leading a talented cast is Michelle Fairley first as Brenda the brusquely worn, impoverished single-mother scrounging money from her daughter getting ready for a night out, but best of all as Helen an older woman seducing a young soldier so drunk he can barely stand. Fairley manhandles him to great comic effect, attempting to undress him but falling in her chips, the one-sided conversation all-the-while insisting he’s seducing her, before a punch of reality cuts right through the humour at the end as Fairley conveys the hopeless domestic tragedy of Helen’s life.

Excellent and heart-breaking work too from Mark Hadfield as the former RAF man aching for a past that has long departed. Jerry’s loneliness is palpable as he reminisces about the gentility of decades past and his lost love, as shrieking drunken girls pass his window, which Hadfield seems to feel as physical stabs mocking the emptiness of his current life. Mike Noble is fascinating as Skin-Lad describing the transition from violent past to Buddah-loving peacekeeper, and as well as the Lawrencian Valerie, Liz White brings cheeky appeal to Carol who on the surface is all gobby attitude but with friend Louise (Faye Marsay) longs for something different, longs for escape.

Gareth Fry’s music choices are part of that momentary escape for every character and Road is stuffed with recognisable tunes that underscore the search for meaning and longing in each of the character’s life. Whether it’s the lyrics to Don’t You Want Me Baby sung by the girls going out on the town, the gentle 40s rhythms that pensioner Molly listens to as she does her make-up in the kitchen, Otis Redding soothing the flashy boys when they get home, or the stirring sweep of Swan Lake that erupts from the music box that Scullery steals, music is used to connect to the soul, something alive and still fighting for more, mirroring the poetic rhythm of Cartwright’s writing, and carefully selected to add insight to this show.

Cartwright may not be as fashionable as he once was, but Road leaves you with plenty to think about and the consistent impression of warmth, humanity and so much life amidst the petty tragedies and containment of working-class experience. Whether the League of Gentlemen were right and Cartwright and his ilk have done northern writing a disservice is for you to decide, but it’s telling that modern impressions of the ‘underclass’ are all about violence, hoodies and tower blocks written by people who’ve never lived that way. There is a kind of truth in the work of Cartwright, Lawrence, Wood and others we seem to be losing, the value of letting people tell their own stories, fostering creativity wherever it exists and looking beyond the clichés for all the different kinds of lives that Road reminds us we are far from understanding.

Road is at the Royal Court until 9 September and tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Apollo Theatre

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - Apollo Theatre

You may not have enjoyed the recent heatwave, perhaps it made you more irritable, exhausted or frustrated than usual. Maybe in the soup-like humidity you found it harder to maintain your poise or to be diplomatic, and as the temperatures soared you started offering up some harsh truths or long held family secrets that could no longer be contained. This is, then, apt timing for a revival of one of Tennessee Williams’s most famous and beloved plays, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof which, like much of his work, uses the intense heat of the American South to unveil the greed, fear, loneliness and passionate rivalries in one very broken family.

And for the second time this year, a production tackles a role made famous on film by Elizabeth Taylor; Imelda Staunton made the role of Martha decisively her own in James MacDonald’s very successful version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Harold Pinter Theatre in the spring, and now Sienna Miller gives her take on Maggie Pollitt in Benedict Andrews’s new production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, played by Taylor in the glorious 1958 film, which has its press night today.

Set at the Pollitt plantation villa, Big Daddy is celebrating his 65th birthday with a family party attended by his two sons, their wives and children, having just been told untruly that he’s cancer free. But his athletic son Brick, a former-sports announcer and football star, is an alcoholic living reluctantly with cheating wife Maggie who’s desperate to win back his affection, while taunted about her childlessness by her brother-in-law’s 5 cheeky offspring and grasping wife Mae. Brick has broken his leg drunkenly jumping hurdles and on the night of the party, the deep rift in the family cracks open and hard truths come pouring out.

Williams’s play is a masterpiece, revealing the layers of deception and outright lies we tell ourselves and our families about our lives, as his characters are forced to really see themselves for the first time. Apart from Brick who has entirely given up, choosing alcohol over suicide, every other character should feel like they’re fighting for their lives all the time. Gooper, the overlooked and unloved son, and his wife Mae want to secure their inheritance having delivered plentiful heirs and suffered years of being second best; Big Daddy is straining to regain control of his empire having ceded authority during his illness while his wife Big Mama struggles to keep his attention. And then there’s Maggie, scrappy and determined, almost shameless in her desire to win control of her husband, stopping at nothing to restore the future she desires for them, which of course includes their fair share of the money.

Benedict Andrews has chosen a modern-setting and you can see the cast and crew have worked hard to put considerable distance between their interpretation and the famous film. There has been a noticeable move to free classic plays from their traditional period setting in the last few years, and when done well as with Ivo van Hove’s A View from the Bridge and Hedda Gabler, or Andrews’s own A Streetcar Named Desire, it brings the audience closer to the emotional heart of the play, and there’s nothing better than seeing something you know well in an entirely new light.

This version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof tries to do a number of things but its overall effect is only partially successful. The modern setting is fine but while Magda Willi’s design is striking, it does slightly impede the action. Maggie and Brick’s sparse bedroom on a raised central dais certainly reflects the current emptiness of their marriage, and is surrounded by 3 corridor spaces with gold floor panels and a mirrored tin back wall (see what they did there?). The idea is to present the monied but slightly tasteless lives of the Pollitt family, rich but ultimately hollow, with the tin wall distortedly reflecting the gold floor and the characters to emphasise the warped emptiness of their lives. Combined with Alice Babidge’s expensive but tacky costumes, the visual aesthetic is a sort of trashy Dallas.

But much of Williams’s play depends upon characters inopportunely interrupting meaningful conversations or heading onto the veranda to escape the stifling interior in search of a cooling breeze. Willi’s set reflects some of the play’s themes but it doesn’t create that feel of overwhelming heat, or convincingly suggest that there are other rooms beyond the one we see. Using just a neon frame as the rear wall of Maggie and Brick’s room, characters come and go from various ‘doors’ we cannot see but in the surrounding openness you don’t get the sense of covert eavesdropping and deception that is part of the fabric of the play. The vastness of the set has an echo that makes it seem more like an enclosed vault than part of a wider house wilting in the muggy climate of the South.

And there is a sense throughout that the show hasn’t quite utilised the huge potential in Williams’s story, as though you’re seeing a bit of a wider picture. The central relationship between Maggie and Brick is the most important aspect and there is a central ambiguity about their feeling for one another that runs through the play, creating a will-they won’t-they tension that keeps the audience invested. But here that ambiguity is largely swept aside and instead focuses on Brick’s instance that their marriage is over. While it does give a harder edge to the performances and in some ways a fresh insight, it also divests their relationship of much of its heat, and like the set, makes it harder to believe that they exist beyond this room with a past and a future.

It’s important to stress that these are production decisions and not necessarily down to the performances. It’s clear that they want to offer a new interpretation and there are lots of great moments and interesting approaches that make you think twice, but the joy of Williams’s plays is the complexity of human experience that they offer and the way that unfolds in moments of extreme pressure under certain climatic conditions. Take some of those layers away and it just doesn’t quite ring true.

One of the most surprising and successful choices is to make Maggie a more grasping figure than often seen. Married into money Sienna Miller’s once poor Maggie talks rapidly and shamelessly to fill the huge void between her and Brick. Words run on and stories overlap with current family observations which Miller handles well in a first Act in which she has almost all the lines. This Maggie is not a sophisticated figure, but instead has a redneck-made-good quality, constantly betraying her origins in her stance and love of gossipy one-upmanship. Miller is an actor whose performances come with considerable expectation largely based on her private life, and while her accent is initially a little thick it becomes more settled as the show progresses, turning in a thoughtful and intriguing performance.

She’s determined to lure Brick back into her bed but it’s not clear whether this is for love or a possessiveness that will lead to her share of Big Daddy’s money. Miller’s Maggie certainly puts up a good fight, but in steering clear of Taylor, the show sacrifices Maggie’s sensuality and romance which dilutes the relationship with Brick and prevents any proper sympathy for her. It’s a rather cold seduction. Jack O’Connell initially gives little back as the detached Brick, worthy of his name. He is an oblique presence, purposefully excised from those around him with no desire for anything but drink.

O’Connell has some excellent moments in conversation with Colm Meaney’s Big Daddy in Act Two where Brick’s resolve is finally broken releasing a torrent of anger and self-abasement that hints at the impact this performance could have had elsewhere in the production,  but the decision to make him impassive in the face of Maggie’s various attempts to provoke and allure him make it so much harder to really understand his purpose, and while O’Connell delivers a kind of nothingness, shutting down every avenue of reconciliation also leaves him nowhere to go in the rest of the production.

If Brick has no interest in Maggie then the psychology of their continued co-existence makes no sense, why wouldn’t he just leave her – a problem this production cannot resolve – and it prevents the growth of any sexual charge between them. A mistake this production makes repeatedly is in presenting both actors fully nude in several scenes (mostly O’Connell but occasionally Miller) in order to imply an eroticism that just doesn’t exist and O’Connell, hobbling on one crutch, is hampered by a towel he constantly has to re-tie during Act One, which could be easily resolved with some discrete Velcro. While fans may be delighted at the chance to see their idols in the raw, theatrically it serves no purpose without the character intent to support it – nudity is no substitute for chemistry.

There are great performances from the supporting cast which more successfully escape their screen incarnations. Colm Meaney’s Big Daddy is a cruel and wearied figure, worn down by the constant disappointments of his family and frustration with the pointlessness of his wife. There’s genuine heartache for Lisa Palfrey’s tarty Big Mama whose natural bubbliness is deflated by the abusive bitterness of her husband. Hayley Squires gives Mae a protective family instinct with a tendency to catty competition with Maggie which is often quite funny, while Brian Gleeson’s Gooper makes the most of his one attempt to take control.

This is by no means a terrible production, there are plenty of good ideas, an attempt to present a new version of the play, and some genuinely insightful moments, but it’s not as good as it could be. This focus on the brash hardness that the lack of love creates in people rides roughshod over the moments of tenderness and intimacy in Williams’s writing that make his work so powerful. A large West End stage feels wrong for it and perhaps in the Young Vic’s more intimate space this could work a little better – especially where £35 will buy you one of the best views rather than a Grand Circle seat where you have to crane round people’s heads to see properly.

It needs that sense of a family living too close to each other, of a heatwave that drives its characters to extremes and a central couple whose passion for one another teeters constantly on the edge of love and hate. Benedict Andrews’s almost clinical production needs fire, and although it wants to distance you from the famous film, Newman and Taylor hang heavy over this production. That Tin Roof needs to be much hotter.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is at the Apollo Theatre until 7 October. Tickets start at £35. Follow this blog on Twitter @cultralcap1


The Ferryman – Gielgud Theatre

The Ferryman by Johan Persson

Looking back across the Twentieth-Century one of the things you see most clearly is violence, as each generation passed the experience and legacy of conflict onto the next. From the Boer War at the beginning to the invasion of Iraq at the end, the effect of war on the countless young men who fought it and their families had far reaching consequences. Yet, on mainland Britain after the Second World War, the knowledge of being under fire at home receded, and wars once again became something that happened somewhere else in the world. For those living in Northern Ireland however, violent confrontation with the consequences of British rule continued to be felt, laying a trail of protest and suffering that ran like a backbone through the century.

Jez Butterworth’s new play The Ferryman, directed by Sam Mendes, opened to considerable acclaim at the Royal Court before transferring swiftly to the West End, where last week’s press night heaped more plaudits on a show that instantly extended its run until January. Subsequent audiences now see this production with a great weight of expectation attached which The Ferryman does live up to, but as a fellow audience member pointed out it is perhaps interesting more than obviously enjoyable, a fascinating experience rather than something that is profoundly emotional or straight-forwardly entertaining. Yet, it is nonetheless an affecting theatrical experience.

Set in the early 1980s at the time of the hunger strikes at the Maze prison, The Ferryman takes place over 24 hours in the rural home of the Carney family, but it is a play about the whole century using three generations who link the Easter Rising to IRA activity beyond the date of the story. Butterworth has carefully structured the play so the audience can practically see the baton pass from the elders of the family, whose stories and experiences dominate the early part, through to the teenagers and younger children who will replace them in a continuous battle between those seeking Irish independence through violence and those who crave a peaceful future.

10 years before the start of the play, Caitlin’s husband “disappears” and she spends a decade living with her brother-in-law Quinn’s family on their farm. But the body unexpectedly comes to light and the local priest acting on instruction from IRA front-man Muldoon breaks the news to Quinn as the family gather to take in the harvest. Reeling from finally knowing the truth, the Carneys try to carry on with the celebration, but Muldoon has a deal to offer them which will disrupt the fragile peace they’ve built in the last 10 years.

Butterworth is writing here on a large scale, using the experience of one family as a microcosm to understand the history and future of Ireland at this point. As a result, the way he presents intimate stories and memories are also sprawling in nature, and rather than focusing on one strand or generation, the three Acts are a series of interlinked but also separate conversations between a family that knows virtually nothing about itself as different groups of people share their experiences. There is an ebb and flow to his writing that you feel across the production as particular memories or characters come into focus and then recede into the background while others take their turn.

And so many themes wash through this production, all of which give you a sense of the context for this particular moment in time and how it sits within the history, culture and mythology of Ireland. First and foremost, it asks big questions about when the individual should stand-up and be counted, and when it’s best to do nothing, as head of the family Quinn (Paddy Considine) finds the choices he made in his own impassioned youth are echoed in the present day when he has considerably more to lose.

There is also a strong emphasis on storytelling that creates an ongoing dialogue with the world beyond the family, and the play is essentially a series of stories in which different people hold forth, conferring a kind of status on their experiences. And while that does occasionally add to the play’s protracted length, Butterworth’s writing uses each segment as an opportunity to shine a light on different corners of the farmhouse, whether it’s the politicised great Aunt Patricia who never recovered from seeing her brother die during the Easter Rising, or the young tearaway cousin Shane who’s proud to be secretly working for Muldoon’s men while on his paper-round.

One of the most interesting but subtly woven elements is the influence of military life on the Carney family. As they set-out to begin the harvest day, the younger boys act like soldiers under the direction of Quinn who marches them out to work, which later links not just to the real-life warfare going on in the nearby towns full of real servicemen, but also to the family’s history of soldiering and active protest across the century. Both the missing brother and Quinn were connected to the IRA, while their sons debate it, and several of the women in the family share the fate of their counterparts across the century by becoming eternal widows, losing someone they care about and living a life of permanent absence, here given almost physical form by their longing.

Sam Mendes doesn’t so much direct all of this as conduct it, as waves of story and meaning roll and crash across the stage. It is technically impressive to keep control of such an elaborate saga, while allowing each piece to land at the right emotional pitch. Mendes, no stranger to managing scale and intimacy on stage and film, makes this feel like a concert where he orchestrates the pitch and swell of the music, keeping some sections low while others erupt, but each feeding in to the slow-burn feel that drives the play.

However, as admirable and skilled a construction as it is, The Ferryman is a play you watch more with your head than your heart, recognising its intellectual contribution but not ‘living’ it with them.  A sizeable cast and the continual movement between stories means you get a range of viewpoints and breadth of family experience but, with a few exceptions, no one story gets the time or depth of connection to really touch you.

Paddy Considine as Quinn is a man who has left his past behind and reinvented himself as a happy farmer with seven children and a largely untroubled life. We first see him dancing wildly to the Rolling Stones in the kitchen – one of several nicely pitched moments where past and future collide through music –  and it’s clear he is the fun dad heading a harmonious household – apart for the growing attraction to sister-in-law Caitlin which neither chooses to confront. There is an interesting tension between Considine and Laura Donnelly throughout the play suggesting the deeper connection they’d developed, while Considine gets to explore a darker element as the intrusion of Muldoon slowly reignites Quinn’s engagement with the political and dangerous world he once escaped from.

Donnelly meanwhile has to navigate being a surrogate parent to Quinn’s children while their mother claims illness upstairs, running the household and fighting her attraction to Quinn. But the arrival of firm news about her husband’s death starts to unpick the balance she had established, and Donnelly brings considerable emotion to Caitlin’s attempts to stifle her grief for the sake of appearances. As the other woman in Quinn’s life, Genevieve O’Reilly’s sickly Mary is a pale figure, giving a different dimension to the running theme of absence, but grows in stature in the final Act as she attempts to reclaim some lost ground.

Among the wider cast, there are excellent turns from Brid Brennan as Aunty Maggie whose partial lucidity brings forth several important memories from the past, while Dearbhla Molloy’s caustic Aunty Patricia has more fire and political anger than anyone else in the play, finding the triviality of the harvest hard to stomach while prisoners are starving in protest. Des McAleer proves a great foil as Uncle Patrick whose sparring with Patricia leads to a hilarious exchange of barbs, while Tom Glynn-Carney has verve and swagger as the teenager Shane who thinks he’s a big man but reeks of naivety. Meanwhile, Stuart Graham casts a dark shadow as Muldoon, his presence a blot on the Carney family festivities whose performance adds a necessary touch of menace.

As well as being a serious piece, The Ferryman is often a very funny play with many lighter moments to ease the tension – although arguably that tension is not pointed or protracted enough, and it would have added considerably to the drama to feel the political and military situation intruding more sharply as the play unfolds. Aspects of the conclusion also feel a little unlikely as several things happen in quick succession, taking the scene to the point of melodrama that sits uncomfortably with the rest of the play. For it to make sense, some of these outcomes need to be built into the play at an earlier stage, because as spur of the moment actions they don’t quite convince, and this would also remove the unnecessary exposition of things the audience had already gleaned from the preceding scenes. How much more powerful and satisfying it could have been to forego all of this hysteria and end the play a few minutes earlier with a female sacrifice to protect the family she has grown to love.

In many ways The Ferryman is a companion piece to Steve McQueen’s 2008 film debut Hunger a more brutal depiction of the events at the Maze prison which, taken together with Butterworth’s play, show both the political and social impacts of the protests and the desire for justice. Your response to The Ferryman may well vary depending on your knowledge and experience of the era it depicts, but whether it captures your head or your heart, it is part of a wider story about the militarisation of young men and its consequences across the Twentieth-Century.

The Ferryman is at the Gielgud Theatre until 6 January and tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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