Category Archives: Theatre

A Very Expensive Poison – The Old Vic

A Very Expensive Poison - Old Vic

It’s not often a show leaves you unsure what to think, usually you come down on one side of the other, you will know whether you think it was good or bad storytelling, if the methods of the playwright and director do justice to the narrative, and whether you have enjoyed yourself or not. Sometimes, these things are not mutually exclusive, you can enjoy yourself without thinking it was a great play or you can admire the use of theatrical devices while knowing they conceal more fundamental faults. Either way, you usually know how you feel.

But Lucy Prebble’s new play A Very Expensive Poison, which enjoyed a luxurious two-week preview period, may leave you grappling with conflicting emotions, unable to quite locate, interpret or even name the exact response it has provoked. Her tale of the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko is framed as a murder mystery, one that takes the audience back in time to Mother Russia to understand how the Litvinenko family ended up in England – where citizenship had recently been granted – and just who was responsible for ordering and carrying out the death of Alexander. The play quite rightly asks some very big questions not just about the freedom of foreign operatives to undertake political business and state-mandated assassination attempts on British soil and the apparent disdain for sovereignty and international law that this suggests, but also, in our era of fake news and narrative deception, how easy is it to lose sight of the real people the headlines affect.

Starting with the positives and Prebble’s clearly well-researched play has much to say about the ownership of storytelling, and while these themes are not elucidated with the power and purpose that perhaps this subject deserves, there is a desire to understand how alternative perspectives are both created and subsequently adopted as the ultimate ‘truth.’ There is a coming together in Prebble’s work of both the ‘great men of history’ theory and the notion that ‘history is written by the winners’, particularly when the full armory of state propaganda is at hand and recent historiography has attempted to address the notable gaps in our knowledge of a past shaped by the immediate personal, political and nationalistic needs of the present.

The storyteller themselves also cannot escape their own bias, where their view of the world is shaped by where and when they grew up and the socio-cultural, economic and political experience of their lives. The information she provides offers fascinating context to an event that few audience members would know beyond the series of headlines a decade ago and a famous front-page image of the dying man. The way in which Prebble excavates Litvinenko’s earlier life and situates it not only in his prior work in the FSB but his record of inconveniently standing up to the corruption and misuse of power he observed in his colleagues starts to make sense of what was far from a random attack. One of the most interesting aspects of  A Very Expensive Poison is the shifting narrative that Prebble employs to demonstrate how Litvinenko’s story has been purposefully controlled by state actors in the UK and Russia to further and protect existing alliances.

We are show clearly in the second Act that investment in the UK by Russia through property and business connections helped to drive the official response which for a long time denied the Litvinenko family any true justice. How this is fed through the show is managed with interesting technique revealing the layers of FSB administration that distanced senior officials from the crime. One of the show’s highlights is a sinister, knowing performance from Reece Shearsmith playing Putin as a finger-drumming comic-book villain, and it is during one of his speeches that the audience is introduced to the idea that what we are seeing is only one perspective on events, something which he counters with an “official” version just before the interval, insisting we needn’t return for Act Two now he’s revealed the play’s happy ending. Dismayed to see us all again, Shearsmith’s Putin occupies the boxes on the sides of the Old Vic auditorium where, like the Critics from the Muppets, he is able to comment on scenes being played out, arguing against their veracity.

Appropriately, it does encourage the viewer to think about how the presentation of all news and events through the Internet, newspapers and other media are controlled by external forces, how what we see everyday is pre-processed, smoothed and constructed to create a precise impression, spoon-feeding the public only what they need to know. If you take anything away from A Very Expensive Poison then to leave with these two notions of his former career and the context in which Litvinenko’s death occurred, as well this concept of narrative manipulation are the aspects of Prebble’s work that are most successful.

But there is a downside, and by drawing attention to the falsity of these narratives it highlights the play’s own contribution to public storytelling which for all its insistence on this being Marina Litvinenko’s story, to which she  contributed and is the driving force, you become increasingly conscious of the writer’s hand, that this is Prebble’s version of Marina’s version of Litvinenko’s experience of his Russian colleagues in a central knot that the play never quite unravels. It is the presentation of this information and the staging techniques applied to the story that are so troubling and this is the source of the unresolved conflict in your thoughts.

There is a sense of levity across the production that sits uncomfortably with the protracted and very painful death that Alexander Litvinenko suffered for, as Prebble forcefully argues, merely speaking out. There is nothing wrong per se with using entertainment to educate, and the positive audience and critical responses furiously promoted by the theatre on social media suggest that many viewers have loved and been deeply moved by the events of this play. But you are also bombarded with theatrical approaches, an exhausting barrage of styles and ideas designed quite purposefully  – and some may even say manipulatively – to make the subject matter “fun.”

And there is a huge amount going on here, mixing a variety of visual styles to keep you involved. As well as straight-forward dramatic scenes several characters also break the fourth wall,  stepping out of Tom Scutt’s box-shaped set to address the audience, first MyAnna Buring’s Marina, but also Tom Brooke’s Alexander and Shearsmith’s Putin later do the same. As the story unfolds the set gives way, opening-out into the warehouse-like expanse of the Old Vic backstage area emphasising Prebble’s increasingly meta approach concluding with audience members being asked to read excerpts from Litvinenko’s final message into a microphone from their seats.

But director John Crowley and Prebble continue to pull apart the norms of storytelling as actors in giant satirical costumes of Russia’s leading politicians of the late twentieth-century invade the stage as a reference to the Spitting Image-type show that the family had been watching on TV. Later there is an alligator hand-puppet and performers wearing full-sized ballroom dancer models strapped to back and front to create a crowd scene (a bit Generation Game). And there is more visual spectacle to come as the small platform stage moves back and forth to create space for the overarching police investigation that connects the pieces together as well as serving as the three London locations where the poisoning may have happened, the stage for a series of Music Hall acts to accompany Putin’s introduction to Act Two and even a party of disco-dancing Russians – if that sounds simultaneously inventive and exhausting then, well, it is, A Very Expensive Poison doesn’t hold back on the visual assault.

Yet, the audience doesn’t really learn anything new either, this is not a radical re-positioning of public knowledge on the Litvinenko case, but a descriptive history that rarely delves beneath the surface. With the poisoner suspects presented as a blur of cliches, what do generic and stereotyped Russian accents and characters really add to our understanding of why this happened? Wouldn’t Litvinenko be better served by trying to understand a nation where friends and colleagues betray each other at the state’s behest, where personal loyalty means very little and the fear of reprisals, the rise and fall of powerful men and the consequences of betrayal can last for decades. Yes we find out who did it, but we still barely know why.

Buring as Marina is the only significant female character in the play but is given next to nothing to do except plead. There is little sense of Marina as a woman in her own right, who she was outside of the roles of wife, mother and campaigner in which the play confines her. Always an actor who finds many layers, Brooke fares much better as the tragic Alexander drawing out a sense of Litvineko’s pragmatism, a quiet, good natured man looking to do the right thing but with a dogged determination to expose corruption. There’s excellent support from Shearsmith as the sinister and comic uber-villain Putin, as well as Gavin Spokes as the police detective.

Prebble has self-depricatingly referred to the show as “messy” in pre-interviews and it is in several ways; some of the bombast feels superfluous in a story that should be exciting enough on its own. It is fun and silly and engaging but it also trivialises to a degree, and when the play tries to regain lost ground with its serious final passage it loses impact, the seriousness partially undermined by the presentation of this crime as a hoot. Prebble has serious arguments to outlay about the relationship between international governments and narrative misdirection but the broadly comic approach to presentation feels at odds with the meaning of the play. Audiences love it and the critics have largely raved about A Very Expensive Poison but there will be some of us in the middle who just don’t know what to think. Clever and entertaining certainly, but given a man died in horrible circumstances perhaps it’s also a bit glib.

A Very Expensive Poison is at the Old Vic until 5 October with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

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Hansard – National Theatre

Hansard - National Theatre

Writing a play about the political experience of the last three years may seem an impossible task, not because the events don’t naturally lend themselves to drama but because if you saw it on the stage you would think it all so ludicrously unlikely, every twist and turn so perplexingly farcical that audiences just wouldn’t believe it. But we are living proof that truth is stranger than fiction, and while that may give comfort to future historians unpicking every aspect of our socio-political activities 30 years from now, how do contemporary playwrights begin to anatomize and reflect on one the of the biggest constitutional issues of our lifetime when the story is far from over – the answer is to look to the past.

Like James Graham before him, who used the 1970s setting of This House to draw parallels with the coalition government of 2010-2015, Simon Woods’s smart and affecting new play Hansard returns to 1988, to the height of the Thatcher government as an active member of the Government and his  Labour-supporting wife tear each other to pieces on a Friday morning in the sanctity of their Cotswold’s home. It’s a play about many things, about the fundamental theoretical difference between the approaches to citizenship and care in the two major parties, about the nature of political and personal legacy, about the traps and sore spots created by decades of marriage, and about the fundamental failure of Robin and Diana Hesketh (becoming ciphers for their own parties) to truly act for the causes they so passionately espouse. Woods’s brilliant 90-minute play is a searing assessment of our national dilemma and of who we have become.

But first, as with all two-handers, you will notice how smartly Woods has constructed his play to create waves of activity that manage the changing levels of intensity and tension between the characters, while cumulatively taking the audience deeper into their marriage. Woods writes with a real understanding of genuine conversation, with its loops of meaning and circular arguments. It is crucial to the overall effect of Hansard that at no time do Robin and Diana ever say anything unnatural that make the play feel theatrical or false in its presentation of a particular moment in this relationship. Woods makes you feel like an interloper, listening with a glass to the wall in this private presentation of real pain and there is not a single clunky moment as the conversation turns corners or changes direction.

Instead, Woods rather masterfully controls the simultaneous unfolding of the Hesketh relationship and their life together as well as using their experience to reach the viewer, engrossing us in their Friday morning in order to see ourselves a little better in their reflection. And while Hansard is a deeply political play, its most striking reference is to Edward Albee’s campus drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Imagine George and Martha on a quiet night in  when there are no guests to play to, Robin and Diana are somewhere here. Woods has the same ability to write dialogue that runs through a number of topics, introducing new strands as needed to revolve the action, but like Albee, he is able to loop the entire discussion back to the one or two fundamental issues, recurring motifs that anchor the play. And it is the eventual unveiling of this central secret, the true reason for the bitterness in this very broken marriage that hooks you in.

Hansard is often very funny and you will cry with laughter at the brilliant jabs that Woods lands on old-Etonian Ministers and their perspective on the world, shaking your head in amused recognition at how expertly he skewers the ruling classes on both sides of the House. Yet, what really emerges from Woods’s writing is a compassionate comprehension of the many forms of suffering that two people with such knowledge of one another can casually inflict. Like George and Martha, this is situated in the complex interior life of his characters and the clarity with which he sees them both so, however much you resist, their actions become comprehensible even if they are never exactly likeable.

It begins with a fairly clear distinction between the Left and Right positions on the purpose of government – is it to provide a maternal protection by shielding citizens from difficulties or should it be a paternal facilitation that allows each member of society to face and manage hardship without recourse to outside assistance. Woods uses his characters, initially, as physical forms of this debate, Robin the typical Conservative politician whose patrician principles extend beyond the legislation he helps to enact – in this case Clause 28, voting to prevent homosexuality from being discussed in schools – to his behaviour at home, as well as his entire outlook on life. Woods uses Robin to demonstrate the Thatcherite concept of meritocracy, of learning to stand on your own two feet and grasp opportunities for yourself, that natural talent, hard work and ambition will be justly rewarded.

It is an opinion that for much of the play will provoke your anger, and we learn to dislike the smug Robin for all his self-deprecating wit, and through the well-directed scorn of his wife, we come to understand that this view of the world is one born from privilege, of entitlement bred into him at public school and because no barriers have been placed in Robin’s path to power. It’s not hard to align this impression of Robin as pertaining to the lack of compassion we see in our modern governments. But the story Woods is telling is far more complicated than that, and over the course of the play, told in real time, our perspective on Robin shifts as Diana’s own failings come into focus.

Most of the time, the audience will applaud her, the years of bile erupting into a series of beautifully and heroically delivered snipes that champion the vulnerable and dismiss the overgrown schoolboys she believes work with her husband. But Diana’s own position becomes equally untenable in Woods’s narrative, a suggestion that personal weakness undermines her political passion leading to a crucial discovery that affects her role in the play. Through Diana, we see how the high-minded ideals of the Left and her demand for kindness as a starting point for all policy becomes as naive a strategy for government as Robin’s dismissive approach seems cruel, and while Woods clearly has no time for the glut of self-serving Right-leaning politicians, neither does the play suggest, has the woolly liberalism of the arts and the series of “geography teachers” who headed the Labour Party until 1988, served the nation any better. Here we are then as an audience caught between Diana and Robin, but also as a society of citizens trapped between Left and Right, facing the failure of both doctrines to create the levels of social support needed. This is very smart writing.

Yet, it is also very emotional writing and Woods never lets this political conundrum diffuse the reality of the people he is creating, and through this marriage we are asked to also consider the individual’s deep yearning for legacy. Robin is overly preoccupied, as many modern leaders have seemed to be, with manufacturing his place in history, in ensuring his work, his presence and what little influence he has amassed is remembered. He is comforted by the existence of Hansard – the political diary that records every moment of the House of Commons – which will mark his contribution. But Robin’s legacy, like his marriage and house is rotten. Looks around the edges of Hildegard Bechtler’s excellent set, the ceiling is lightly dusted with mold, the skirtings and corners are decayed with age and there is a hint of damp beneath the beautiful middle-class facade with its extensive garden and fitted AGA. Even the walls are bare of pictures, of anything that denotes that real lives are lived in this house, physically and metaphorically there is nothing inside.

Instead of creating history, Diana and Robin are haunted by it and they have become frozen in this cycle of reproach and recrimination. She uses the origins of their relationship in an affair as evidence that his now cheating again, the fact of his mysterious Wednesdays something he never confirms or denies however often she needles him, while he resents her blatant alcoholism and refusal to behave appropriately on public occasions. For the Heskeths the past is weaponised, their lives like Hansard an exact diary of former hurts and humiliations, their legacy full of destroyed electoral promises played out across damaged personal loyalties and conspicuous clashes. The child they barely mention sits between them which, like George and Martha, takes the game to a level beyond which either wants to play. By the play’s conclusion the Heskeths (and we) are clear on how we all got where we are, even if we have no way to fix it.

Director Simon Godwin knows well how to control the rise and fall within these relationships and his recent Antony and Cleopatra on the Olivier stage was superbly managed. Diana and Robin are similarly matched and played with relish by theatre titans Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings. Godwin fills the long Lyttleton stage with their trauma, positioning his characters as far apart as possible without ever losing the captivating intimacy of their relationship. One moves towards the other, so Godwin has the other depart instantly for the opposite side of the stage, it becomes a routine so embedded in the rhythm of their life together they are barely aware it is happening, and even at the conclusion where all the battles have been played out, they find no physical intimacy in the more hopeful aftermath.

Alex Jennings is superb as the beleaguered Robin, devoted to his Prime Minister and more than willing to vote as instructed if it will further his own career. Robin truly believes the views he espouses, with no hint of self-awareness about how his comfortable life has been created through the inequalities he sustains by his actions. Yet, Jennings very slowly introduces Robin’s humanity and while as a character he claims to have no time for Freud or for the need to bewail his lot, there is an active psychological direction in Jennings’s performance that ultimately leads to a sensitivity that is quite moving in the play’s final moments.

Lindsay Duncan is equally magnificent as Diana, a trickier prospect in some ways, shut off at home and restricted by the opportunities for late middle-aged women in 1988 unable to effect the kind of change she needs for herself and the nation. There is so much to enjoy in Duncan’s delivery of every put-down and jibe, but, like Robin, it becomes clear that Diana is hiding a frailty that Duncan draws out as the morning draws-on, a need to purge her life of the poison that has effected their marriage, one which gives Diana strength as well as fear. Unlike her husband, Diana is filled with a need to expurgate the past, to release the demons that hold them back which drives the drama as the chemistry between Duncan and Jennings ignites.

Woods has written a scintillating new play where the dialogue never stops, there are no moments of silence to pause or reflect, and even when characters momentarily leave the room the other continues to address them. In just 90-minutes this creates a continual flow that is both fascinating and enthralling. Hansard is a great political play, one that tells us everything about the society we have become and why the impasse of the last three years cannot be easily broken. But Woods has also achieved the one thing that seems to elude our polarised nation, in the creation of Diana and Robin and using their fractured marriage as a metaphor for our ailing democratic system he shows us the humanity of both sides, that the possibility of finding common ground may not be as remote as we fear. With incendiary months ahead at Westminster, let’s hope he’s right.

Hansard is at the National Theatre until 25 November with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Appropriate – Donmar Warehouse

Appropriate - Donmar Warehouse

Family troubles are an essential subject for drama, particularly the difficult relationships between parent and child, as well as strained interactions between siblings. Plenty of writers are keen to explore the complex possibilities that the family unit can offer; Chekhov found plenty of variety in the roles, expectations and desires of his Three Sisters, and Shakespeare used the same format with the competing daughters of King Lear. More recently, Jack Thorne used three siblings struggling with a parental legacy of social change while now Branden Jacobs-Jenkins builds his narrative around two brothers and their elder sister drawn home to sell their family’s plantation house after the death of their father. With expectations of responsibility and questions of parental favoritism, three turns out to be a significant number.

Appropriate premiered in the States in 2014 and now makes its UK debut as part of Michael Longhurst’s first season at the Donmar Warehouse. Europe was a clear statement of intent from the new Artistic Director, an unusual almost abstract work that spoke to ideas of community, society and the creation of shallow boundaries of exclusion. Appropriate equally pulls no punches in its examination of the ever-presence of history and the extent to which we ever fully know those we love. Longhurst is taking a broad canvas approach to his programme, telling intimate stories focused on a small group of people but with a much wider resonance for how we define and determine the values we live by.

Jacobs-Jenkins’s play has three key drivers; first unpicking the decades-old relationships between three very different siblings which are discovered through detailed character study and the shifting nature of their conversations across a 24-hour period; second Jacobs-Jenkins looks at how attitudes, expectations and behavioural lessons are passed down the generations to understand how children actively differ from their parents and the outlooks they osmotically absorb to frame those behaviours; and finally, the central narrative is dominated by a pseudo-mystery plot in which the discovery of an unsavoury and ethically dubious photo album alters everyone’s perspective on their own past and its meaning.

It is the first of these which is by far the most successful aspect of Appropriate, and one that links Jacobs-Jenkins to the great American dramatists of the last hundred years. Character is at the heart of these plays and managing their interaction is a skill that can seem effortless with a great dramatist. Act One is possibly Appropriate’s most interesting and carefully drawn section as the audience is immediately and bracingly immersed in the middle of a contentious family arrangement. Toni and Bo are playing-out years of the same fight about providing day-to-day care or monetary support for the ailing father bolstered by petty resentments, jealousies and assumptions about the other’s lives with their own spouses and children.

Into this wanders Frank (now styling himself as Franz), the younger brother with a shady secret and a much younger fiancee who hasn’t been seen for 10-years and now expects his share of the estate sale as well as a chance to make amends. What unfolds here gives rise to and sets in motion the contentious business of the rest of the play, whilst instantly conveying the troubled complexities of a family that we, as outsiders, will never fully understand.

Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Ola Ince for the Donmar, commands this first Act with skill, creating a densely wordy but fascinating slice of Lafayette family life where even the most mundane discussions about sorting their father’s effects are loaded with recrimination, grievance and expectation. In these early scenes there are tones of Tennessee Williams, Tracy Letts and August Wilson in the creation of the potentially combustible family dynamic, and the inter-generational clashes of perspective that underscores the story.

The unfolding pace with its narrative dead-ends and focus on the small everyday conversations that eventually unite to form a tapestry-like impression of their family are also reminiscent of Annie Baker whose plays The Flick and John have been widely celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic. As a writer, Jacobs-Jenkins sees clearly how his unti fits into the wider socio-historic and political context of the South, but also how they co-exist in their more modern urban experience of US professional living in the northern States.

What unfolds in the other strands of the play is less self-assured, never quite matching up to the promise of this opening portion, and Jacobs-Jenkins moves away from these core sentiments where the purpose of Appropriate becomes a little muddled. The stories given to the younger generation are predominantly played as comedy, and while this may not be intentional, it is harder to accept the credibility of characters who feel like thinly-drawn stereotypes from every sardonic, grumpy teenager textbook without adding meaningfully to the overall story. The comedy can amuse but too often it either misses the mark or competes with Appropriate’s dramatic structure, as with the farcical fight two-thirds of the way through, making the three siblings more ridiculous than empathetic – the fact you retain an interest in Toni and Bo especially is credit to how well they are drawn.

There is also a strand of mysticism and haunting that feels at best half-hearted, as though Jacobs-Jenkins was unable to decide if he wanted to write a saga, a comedy of a ghost story. These spooky happenings include mysterious breezes and poltergeist-type activity – ably created by designer Fly Davis and the stage management team – such as lamps switching on unexpectedly and ornaments falling over. There is frequent reference to the barely visible graveyard beyond the window in which the bodies of plantation slaves were buried, and the characters of Frank and his girlfriend River are motivated by a New Age sensibility where spiritual connection to the earth and its rhythms are their grounding point.

But while these strands exist and the question of how the building’s heritage affects the modern family is uppermost, the ghostly elements are fairly light-weight and hardly integral to the central story. The ideas compete for attention with the comedy and family aspects without feeling fully formed as a concept or properly woven through the action. What works best is Jacobs-Jenkins’s sense of reality through the charged and often pounding dialogue that so effectively captures the family dynamic.

To emphasise this, Davis has designed a detailed set that revels in the infinite detail of the former patriarch’s lifestyle. This absent character is well conjured through the hoarded junk that overwhelmingly litters the living room set at the start of the play as Toni picks her way through ancient cameras, dolls, books and tat from an entire life. But beneath, Davis subtly suggests the grandeur of these plantation houses with a sweeping (now uncarpeted) staircase, a decorated frieze around the upper level and the large windows with fitted shutters to protect from tropical storms. It is evocative enough to feel like Big Daddy’s home from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Boss Finley’s mansion from Sweet Bird of Youth, a feeling of heat and oppression hanging among the faded grandeur.

Central to this reverence for the past is Monica Dolan’s Toni who struggles to accept the various aspersions cast on her beloved father by the rest of the family and their readiness to leap to conclusions with only an unmarked set of photographs as evidence. Dolan suggests Toni’s fury throughout the play as a having an ebb and flow that reacts to events but always places herself at the centre of conversations. As the senior sibling and matriarch, Toni is hugely resentful of the disproportionate share of caring she has had to undertake first for her brothers and later for their father, unappreciatedly sacrificing her own relationships to tend to the family. Many of the arguments that follow stem from this perceived disparity in fairness.

But Dolan is such a wonderful stage actor because she never lets Toni feel out of reach of the audience. Her volability and competitive control are sympathetic as she suggests deeper vulnerabilities stemming from the expectations placed on her as the eldest, and an inability to measure-up to Bo especially. Whether she is seen by them as a good sister, daughter and mother-figure combust with some sympathy in Dolan’s layered and thoughtful performance.

Matching her is Steven Mackintosh as the second child Bo, a family man clinging to a successful job and feeling the pressure to assume financial responsibility for his less self-assured siblings while raising his own children with solid moral values. Pulled in many directions by his wife and sister, Mackintosh’s Bo appears as a man with no clear desire of his own, a peacekeeping middle child in some respects navigating between the contentious elements in his life which bending under the weight of his own barely voiced concerns.

But it is later in the play when his own perspective comes into focus and Mackintosh presents a man trying to do the right thing while dealing with a variety of unspoken pressures to be the right kind of man in the right kind of job with the right kind of values. Exhausted by this, there is an underlying chemistry with Dolan’s Toni where Bo can be his true self, the long relationship with his elder sister suggesting that even on the basic level no one can entirely escape their past. Notable among the supporting characters is Jaimi Barbakoff as Bo’s wife, a prissy helicopter parent unafraid to speak her mind to the wider family that came with her marriage as soon as she senses any threat to her children’s morality.

Appropriate is part of a larger strand of American drama that uses the domestic to examine big socio-political questions about the modern era in an attempt to reframe what we know about the present. And while a couple of its elements are underdone, using the three-sibling structure Jacobs-Jenkins explores how even fairly recent national history can be sanitised and reduced when examined from only one perspective. Appropriate suggests that the past is never just the past.

Appropriate is at the Donmar Warehouse until 5 October with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Les Miserables: The Stage Concert – Gielgud Theatre

Les Miserables The Staged Concert - Gielgud Theatre

After 34 uninterrupted years, Les Misérables has a strong claim to be the greatest musical ever written and 2019 is proving to be one of the most memorable in its history. Victor Hugo’s redemptive tale of an ex-convict discovering his lost soul through the love of a child amidst the revolutionary fervor of the Parisian underworld received a starry six-part BBC period drama by Andrew Davies earlier this year and it is a story that continues to captivate. But in 1985 it was beautifully and evocatively adapted by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricst Alain Boublil (English translation by Herbert Kretzmer), condensing Hugo’s broad sweep and focus on compassion for all of humanity into a neat three-hour show. Les Misérables is nothing if not a call to arms, a melodious message to fight for the things that matter and above all to be kind, to ask yourself whether “You Hear the People Sing?”

Having previously been staged at the Barbican and a long run at the Palace Theatre, Les Misérables moved into the Queen’s Theatre in 2004. But the soon to be renamed Sondheim Theatre is being renovated before the touring version is (somewhat controversially for fans of the original revolve) permanently installed on Shaftesbury Avenue. So, producer Cameron Mackintosh has stripped back his most well-known show to create a staged concert version running at the neighbouring Gielgud Theatre for four months which will allow Les Misérables to retain its position as longest running West End show.

It’s actually a rather canny move and one that speaks nicely to the show’s own performance history. Concert versions have been staged for key anniversaries, welcoming back a fantasy league of theatre stars who have passed through its UK and International ranks but never appeared together. Most recently the 25th Anniversary Concert was held at the O2 in 2010 but it was the 10th Anniversary Concert at the Royal Albert Hall that has never been bettered – Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean, Ruthie Henshall as Fantine, Alan Armstrong as Thénardier, Lea Salonger as Éponine and Michael Ball as the original and definitive Marius.

With directing credits for James Powell and Jean Pierre Van Der Spuy, this new version is essentially semi-staged in what is a fully acted approach from the cast with performers in costume to embody their character and some props. It uses a technically excellent but also meaningful lighting design primarily to shift between the many locations of Hugo’s story as well as the 15 or so years that it covers. The prepared stage opens with a lighting rig crashed like a barricade across the space which rises up to reveal four large microphone stands during those famous opening bars.

The lighting design is particularly striking, emphasising the changing moods and purpose of the vocals. One of Les Misérables  most notable features are the generous solos given to all the key characters that rapidly and effectively reveal their psychological state, motivations and often tragic pre-history. These are lit with care, picking out the more spiritual conversations of Valjean, Fantine and later Javert in bright white and pale blue, changing the intensity of the spotlights or combining them as the singer peaks, while opting for darker purples and greens for the murkier scenarios including Cosette’s childhood enslavement and the Thénardier sewer.

Most notable though is how vividly the team create the feeling of violent action at the barricade, bathing the stage in red light as the stationary students are picked-off one by one with blasts of white light like individual bullets darting across the stage to their target. It is a key scene in the fully staged version on a real barricade that lingers on their sacrifice during ‘The Final Battle’, but is cleverly and effectively rendered on the smaller Gielgud stage here.

Powell and Van Der Spuy also maintain the audience’s attention with a number of small moments that prevent the show from seeming too static including a meaningful approach to character entrances and exits. Matt Kinley has designed three routes to the stage with a staircase at the back between choir stalls that house the ensemble and a metal gantry that lowers into place from above to create variation in height and volume – although core performances are all given at the downstage microphones. Departing performers freeze in their final moments to cast meaningful glances that summarise their struggles; Carrie Hope Fletcher’s Fantine reacts to her daughter Cosette crossing her path, while Shan Ako’s Éponine turns to offer-up a final glance at Marius as she departs. These moments add poignancy and credibility to the performances, a concert version that still ably creates and conveys Hugo’s world.

Like its predecessors, 2019’s Les Misérables: The Staged Concert will be long remembered as another notable event in the musical’s performance history, heralding the return of Michael Ball to a show he helped to establish, but this time in the role of Javert. Recently, Ball was described as the last great musical star, with fame extending beyond the regular theatre-going audience. Now a household name with TV and radio success, a Eurovision runner-up in the days when the UK stood a chance, and chart success as well as frequent appearances in shows from Aspects of Love to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Sweeney Todd and Hairspray to which he returns next year, Ball’s star has never dimmed.

As Marius, Ball captured all the complexities of the lonely student dazzled by the revolutionary passion of his friends but distracted by love. Schönberg and Boublil may have compressed hundreds of pages of character development into a few group numbers, duets and one major solo, but Michael Ball’s rendition of the desolating ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ at the 10th Anniversary Concert in particular is a sublime moment in musical theatre history, his voice breaking with emotional despair in the song’s rolling crescendo. That ability to pinpoint and powerfully convey the core of his characters, to unfold the breadth of their interior life makes his casting as Javert such an intriguing prospect, enough to draw audiences who may not have seen the show for years.

The relationship between Jean Valjean and Javert underpins the action, driving the narrative as they collide at different points. The casting of collaborators and friends Alfie Boe and Ball uses their playful yet competitive chemistry to great effect, yielding plenty of rewards for the audience. As Javert, Ball has the most difficult role to pitch, cast as a villain of sorts, operating with an inflexible moral code but through two solos must extract the pathos that Hugo also built into all of the character.

Schönberg and Boublil use Javert as chief antagonist, a harsh and unyielding figure in most of Act One, Javert’s main failing is not his hatred for Valjean but a refusal to accept that people can change, and it is this sudden realisation that determines his path through Act Two. Javert’s first solo ‘Stars’ is an important insight into this belief system, an idea of constancy and stability in which he maintains his faith. Ball sings this with great power, prompting a spontaneous standing ovation from a few audience members. The same occurs with ‘Soliloquy’ his final number as Ball’s Javert unpacks the unravelling of his mind with great meaning, leading movingly to his final turbulent release. It is a big coup for Les Misérables to have tempted him back and it proves a memorable performance – perhaps in the years ahead we may see his Valjean too.

Alfie Boe reprises a role he played next door and in the 25th Anniversary Concert. His operatic voice responds with ease to the changing registers of Valjean’s music but they allow Boe to vary the force of his delivery as his character’s circumstances and mental state fluctuate throughout the show. There is a predominant softness in his tone that reflects Valjean’s gentle nature and the essential goodness of heart that Hugo so carefully charts across the novels 1200 pages. Yet Boe uses the full power of his tenor range in Valjean’s moments of deep crisis, grappling with his own conscience in the Prologue numbers as the Bishop grants him a second chance, and later when the arrest of his lookalike forces him into a confession in the seismic ‘Who Am I?’

In some ways this is a very generous performance by Boe, allowing other cast members to shine, especially in the second half when political and romantic events among the younger generation dominate the story. But this is where Boe also delivers his best work; any Valjean will rise or fall on his ‘Bring Him Home’ and here it is all it should be, a huge transition for man about to lose everything he’s been living for, delivered with emotional might and rewarded with an extended audience ovation.

Les Misérables: The Staged Concert has a few other star names including Matt Lucas’s return as Thénardier in a great partnership with Katy Secombe. ‘Master of the House’ never fails to please the crowd, but Lucas and Secombe add some extra comedy asides and ad libs which the audience adore, although arguably the more serious ‘Dog Eats Dog’ is Lucas’s finest moment with Thénardier ruling the sewers and descrying the loss of God. Carrie Hope Fletcher is a sweet and tragic Fantine, a small role but she makes the first major solo of the show (‘I Dreamed a Dream’) a moving experience.

Any project like this celebrates the show’s past but also has an eye to its future and the younger cast members more than hold their own. The fervent rebel leader Enjolras is one of Les Misérables most exciting characters and Schönberg and Boublil have given him some rousing music which Bradley Jaden delivers exceptionally. Shan Ako is wonderful in Éponine’s ‘On My Own’ but Rob Houchen has the hardest role of all, standing next to the greatest ever Marius and trying to deliver his take on the character. Houchen may be a dreamier, more romantic version of Marius than Ball’s but his ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ is a strong moment for him.

If you go to the theatre often, the focus is so often on the new, the next production, a new play or rising star that we dismiss the long-running musicals as tourist fodder. But revisiting Les Misérables for this staged concert is a reminder why this show has lasted so long as well seeing a new chapter in its performance history. Schönberg and Boublil have captured the breadth and richness of Victor Hugo’s incredible novel without losing any of the psychological complexity of its multi-lead format. And it is Hugo’s call for compassion that you will take away – something we all need a little bit more of these days. “Do You Hear the People Sing?” the rebels ask, well they’ve been singing for 34-years and it’s time we listened.

Les Misérables: The Staged Concert is at the Gielgud Theatre until 30th November with tickets from £32.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


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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