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Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons – Harold Pinter Theatre

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons - Harold Pinter Theatre (by Johan Persson)

“Words, words, words,” Eliza Doolittle was sick of them particularly as empty descriptions of the love she wanted a practical demonstration of. Sam Steiner’s play Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons is first filled with too many of them and then not enough for Bernadette and Oliver, a couple who struggle to express their feelings for one another no matter how many or how few words they are permitted. Making its West End debut following an impressive rise from small regional premiere in 2015 to Edinburgh and London fringe, Steiner’s play, directed by Josie Rourke, is a rom-com of sorts filled with the minutiae and pitfalls that couples experience when getting to know one another and as their relationship matures and fades. But it is also concerned with class distinctions, inequality in various forms and political protest in which language and its control is constrained and then weaponised.

The romantic comedy standards give Steiner’s play its shape – there is a quirky meet-cute in which Bernadette and Oliver get to know one another in a pet cemetery by the grave of a dead cat that belonged to neither one of them. They go on dates, have ‘the talk’ about ex’s, have fights about trivial things that mask larger problems in their relationship, they move in together, endure one another’s colleagues and find themselves drifting apart as they both become complacent about what they have. So as their differences become obstacles rather than exciting opportunities, the play’s emotional stakes rise.

Bernadette is a lawyer who doesn’t always listen to what Oliver is saying and seem to resent any mention of her working class background and the empathetic or political obligations it assumes. Oliver is a musician with middling success but mostly an activist attending regular meetings and marches, spending time with a former girlfriend who he cautiously talks about and fails to accept his current partner’s need for silence. So far, so standard, but it is what the playwright does with this bundle of traits and devices that makes Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons more than a generic stage romance.

This is a play that has quite a meticulous structure but appears smooth and unruffled to an audience. There are no Acts or Scenes across the continuous 90-minute performance, but there are frequent time leaps indicated by a beat and a subtle change in Aideen Malone’s lighting design. These take the characters forward a few hours, days, possibly months and years without giving an exact indication of how much time may have passed, leaving that entirely to the audience and the performers to determine. There is also no suggestion that we see this relationship necessarily in chronological order, only a cluster of scenarios that happen ‘before’ and some ‘after’ a momentous change. Within these segments, dialogue is loaded quite differently and scenes occur at different paces. While some events certainly happen in succession, it is not at all certain that the audience is seeing the couple evolve exactly as they did. And it gives the play energy, forcing the viewer to piece together what happened from the quite selective words the playwright has chosen to represent how this couple verbalise their time together.

And Steiner adds further degrees of complexity to this by also toying with the audience’s exposure to those conversations into which we arrive at different points. Sometimes, the characters have just met, beginning with a “hello” as they get home from work or meet for a date, but more often we enter a conversation with an exchange already underway or drawing to a close. Like a scripted reality show, Steiner has only given his creations so many words to use and the confines of this are all the audience has to understand and connect their story together. Beyond the snapshots provided, their conversations and arguments must go on in oblivion and, unlike their television counterparts, real exchanges don’t just stop awkwardly when the script runs out. Arguments recur, they go round-and-round while even lovers at their happiest continuously talk reassuringly of their affection for one another or all the things their life together might, could and should be. Even in the ‘before’ period, therefore, Steiner is already limiting the characters to small amounts of words that must knowingly act as proxy for a much broader, fuller life together – a task made infinitely more difficult but somehow more moving in the ‘after’ part of the play.

So, before and after what? This is the second major device that Steiner employs that cuts through the scenario that Steiner has established, the passing of a “hush” law that limits all human speech to only 140 words per day, and it creates two dramatic consequences within Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons. The first is to focus the protest sections of the play around the shifting emotional connection of the couple, concentrating on fighting against the planned law and then advocating for its amendment and repeal which gives Oliver direct purpose in the plot, a place to express his desire for freedom from State control and a life away from Bernadette where his primary passion and focus exist.

As a result, this also becomes the root of their many disagreements, with Bernadette taking the potential law less seriously at first and later falsely reassuring her boyfriend that it would be possible to change it within a few months of imposition. It moves the standard relationship into a domestic dystopia where things are essentially the same but different enough to expose the pre-existing flaws in their connection that play-out across the remainder of the story. This ‘after’ section essentially carves the play and this couple’s settled perfect life in two, making it impossible for them to ignore their problems with even fewer words to hide behind.

And that leads into the second consequence for Bernadette and Oliver which is the technical challenge of communicating months of their relationship within set counts for each of them. Steiner generates both tension and pity by changing the number of words left to the pair in each of their conversations and this often happens in ways that reflect their emotional investment in the relationship and how rocky their connection becomes over time. Occasionally they try to save words for each other as a gesture of love, storing over a hundred by the time they come home, but in other scenes one or both of them have few words left, stilting what little communication is possible and forcing them to make choices about how they eek our their attempts to communicate or throw them away on an argument – the title itself coming from an exasperated waste of pointless words as tensions boil over.

The frustration and pain of two people with a lot to talk about yet unable to interact in full sentences becomes very moving as well as comedic, and with each scene beginning with an announcement of their remaining count, the struggle to engage is a testament to the technical challenge Steiner has set himself here. Conveying so much with so little is a balance of dialogue and creating moments where only one person has enough words to speak. Whether they choose to conciliate or attack thus becomes increasingly pointed.

Josie Rourke’s production is beautifully balanced and predicated on the deep connection between two people that is, by definition, unspoken. This is where the Director begins, before the words are introduced by creating a place in which the characters are physically comfortable with one another so that they can lounge, sit and stand at ease together. Without the distraction of a physical set, these tacit signals and the specificity of the words themselves at every point in the play are then magnified, conjuring up the life of Oliver and Bernadette entirely and helping the audience to invest in their story, even as the ways that this is communicated it to the audiences changes as the play unfolds.

Like her production of Measure for Measure at the Donmar Warehouse where the interaction between Isabella and Angelo was loaded with the things the characters could never say but still managed to express, Rourke also brings that intensity to Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, understanding the slow burn inevitability of the finale. Though Steiner reduces the words as the play continues (occasionally cutting back in time to the chatty good days to show how they once were), Rourke fills that space with something else instead. Where dialogue once existed that absence fills up with a palpable loss, fear and the sorrow of dimming love that the characters try so hard to keep alive.

Jenna Coleman made a significant impression when she made her stage debut in All My Sons at the Old Vic in 2019, and appears here with all the confidence of a seasoned theatre performer. Her Bernadette manages to be both frustrating and put upon, quick to rise to the bait and calmly indulgent of her partner’s whims. She is a complex woman, never wanting to be defined by whatever reductive description is applied to her and Coleman’s Bernadette reacts with equal irritation to the words ‘lawyer’ and ‘working class,’ seeing only the weighty expectations they bring and struggling always to break free of such confining terminology. And Coleman’s performance is full of those many layers, capturing the excitement of love in the beginning, the mundanity of routine and the present absence as her character begins to check out of the relationship. There remains a quiet sadness that follows which Coleman makes just as contained as the words that describe it, trying hard not to hurt her partner but equally bewildered by how they got to this place.

All of this is underpinned by the chemistry that Coleman has developed with co-star Aidan Turner, an ease with one another that makes their individual and collective performance so engaging. Turner loves a chance to flex some comedy muscles, and while his television roles have tended towards the terribly serious, the stage seems to give the actor a freedom that opens up his performances. Following a hilarious and critically acclaimed turn in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, in Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons he is the more gregarious character who finds it hard to contain this emotion within the words that Steiner slowly takes away from him. Oliver has lots of feelings about the world, politics, himself ad his relationship but Turner still makes him seem easy going, caring, even fun, someone that Bernadette would want to be with. But as their situation deteriorates the extent of his concealment becomes clear.

It is an interesting line for Turner to tread, between the overt honesty of his character and the selective holding back of information that contributes to the certainty of its ending, as though by hiding it Oliver can stave-off that inevitability a little longer. The growing jadedness that Turner finds adds an interesting dimension as another relationship fades which Oliver regrets but cannot seem to stop. The fast-paced interchanges with Coleman are some of the production highlights as arguments and truth-telling sessions about their foibles and annoyances become nicely tragicomic.

Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons is a play about the relationship formed by words and the words that form a relationship, of which Steiner suggests are too many and too few at the wrong times. Bernadette and Oliver find that they say a lot when they don’t need to and cannot say enough when they most need to talk. Rourke’s production underscores how entirely the playwright controls how this relationships is expressed with Robert Jones’s curved shelving design highlighting the materiality of the life between them, the objects and possessions that wordlessly suggest who they are or were or have never quite been. As the ordered shelves disappear into the air, their life together comes apart with it with a few remaining items, like the couple, suspended in limbo. Are they or aren’t they? But by this point, there are no words left.

Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 18 March with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Noises Off – Phoenix Theatre

Noises Off - Phoenix Theatre

Noises Off is 40 years old and it is amazing to think there are vast numbers of people who have never seen it, certainly judging by the gales of laughter it is already provoking in the Phoenix Theatre where Lindsay Posner’s production has transferred following a successful UK tour. It’s more than a decade since Posner’s last version in the West End, staged at the Old Vic in 2011, although it was revived at the Lyric Hammersmith and then the Garrick Theatre in 2019 by Jeremy Herrin. As a concept, Michael Frayn’s play has largely stood the test of time relatively well considering it was originally designed to mock the stale three Act drawing room farce of yesteryear, and while there are now far fewer of those to compare against, the comedic pitch of Noises Off continues to entertain while its reflections on life in a touring theatre company now perhaps contain its sharpest observations.

A well-timed comedy is the hardest kind of performance to manage successfully. It has to look absolutely effortless, as though misfortune is raining down on hapless characters trapped in a hell of their own making, while for the actors it is a genre that requires a high-level of technical finesse, precision timing and incredible stamina, especially when the story demands a combination of interlocking verbal jokes, visual and physical comedy. To create the rolling and building humour that sustains the energy of a show like this over a couple of hours is no mean feat and Noises Off is a hugely demanding piece for its nine-strong cast.

It is also the blueprint for everything that followed. For example, Stephen Moffat’s The Unfriend opened down the road at the Criterion Theatre last week, a glorious transfer from Chichester, that also ticks all of the farce boxes, a witty and sparkling sitcom on stage that combines a great character-based story, delicious one-liners, strong comedy performances and a sense of building chaos as the stakes get higher and higher across its two Act structure. Likewise, The Play That Goes Wrong (now back at the Duchess Theatre) involves a single performance coming apart at the seams which is the direct child of Noises Off and has served over a decade in the same place, covid interruptions notwithstanding. Among the musicals and serious dramas, feather-light but skillful comedies are few and far between so this is a rare opportunity for audiences to see how great a debt contemporary stage comedies owes to Noises Off by seeing them side-by-side.

With mini-farcical crescendos in each of the three Acts, Noises Off begins with the stuttering dress rehearsal of a farce called Nothing On about to open in Western-super-Mare. The cast still think they’re in technical rehearsal so timing and commitment are all a bit lackluster but it’s edging towards midnight on the day before opening night and their frazzled director Lloyd Dallas just wants to get through Act One. In the first two parts of the play, Frayn puts the audience in the position of secret observers, able to view the preparations, politics and troubled partnerships that will shape the remainder of this tour while giving the viewer all the information we will need to understand the events that follow.

First and foremost, Act One of Noises Off is a chance to familiarise ourselves with the slight plot of Nothing On, a silly story about a sardine-eating housekeeper, an Estate Agent and his girlfriend as well as the tax-exile owner of the house and his wife. It is a revolving door story involving characters just missing one another as they dash in and out of multiple exits in the belief they are alone in the house. The shape of this story and the exact position of the actors performing it at any given time are vital to understanding how badly the play-within-a-play deteriorates across its run. And while this initial amble through is frequently interrupted by the actors with questions for their beleaguered director, it gives the audience the base information to understand how what follows impacts on that plot.

But this first section is also a means to introduce the characters whose foibles and intertwined lives will so spectacularly sink this production. Frayn saves the impact of touring for later in the piece and in Act One creates a sense of optimism and, to an extent, support as the group pull together for the sake of the show. The inter-relationships that will derail future performances are the point, so we learn of Lloyd’s affairs with younger actor Brooke but also with Assistant Stage Manager Poppy who discover each other’s existence in this first segment, of the equivalent affair between the grande dame Dotty and her younger lover Garry with a jealous streak, and we meet the eternally unreliable alcoholic Selsden who cannot remember lines or cues and spends most of the play attempting to steal away with a bottle of whiskey.

In Posner’s new production at the Phoenix Theatre, there is a nicely controlled energy in this first part, a gentle introduction to plot and character that very slow builds its own rhythm. Frayn allows the audience to see vast swathes of Nothing On uninterrupted and Posner doesn’t create too much haste here, allowing the gentler comedy to slowly build and build as the actors real lives start to intrude and Lloyd’s exasperation grows. It is the longest scene in the play, a 50-minute opener that Posner controls well, taking the audience to a medium pitch just before the interval which allows the actors to conserve their energies for the faster-paced farce to come without making this feel in any way lackluster – a very finely balanced piece of directing that holds the audience back from expending too much of their own energy all at once.

Act Two is a completely different proposition in many ways. Already several weeks into a tour by this point and already some of the key relationships have blown up spectacularly and tensions are running high. The audience now sees Nothing On from backstage in Ashton-under-Lyne, a deeply chaotic performance in which the personal lives of the actors is the key focus and the play they are performing becomes a sketchy activity happening almost unseen in the background. And while the company initially retain a modicum of professionalism in trying to conceal their behind-the-scenes dramas from the unseen Ashton-under-Lyne audience, Frayn ups the stakes here considerably by setting this Act in a place the characters cannot speak to one another except in the dialogue of the play they are performing, in effect creating a farce akin to silent movie.

This is a masterful piece of writing that lives almost entirely in the stage directions and performances, driven by pure adrenaline. Much shorter than the First Act because Nothing On runs without interruption for about 30-minutes, this is the comic high point of Noises Off and the place where the work and the actors real lives crash up against one another as they silently fight, injure and vengefully meddle with one another all while trying to meet their cues. Like the play they are performing, this evolves into a revolving door comedy played on the same two levels in which the Noises Off actors are required to run up and down stairs, cross paths at exact moments in order to lift whiskey bottles or axes being brandished by their colleagues, and deal with tied shoe laces, lost props, bouquets given to the wrong women and missing colleagues all in a tightly timed fiasco.

Posner controls the appearance of chaos really well and in what is a complex and highly complicated sequence of events happening simultaneously, the audience will be unable to watch all of the incidents at the same time. Like a densely packed cartoon frame, activities overlap, there are plots, subplots and minor occurrences happening in isolation but also in chains of activity which the cast perform with a practiced ease that feels spontaneous and silly, showcasing the spectacular precision and tacit understanding they have developed together. Like Act One, this builds to the very edge of disaster and Posner’s cast expend the most physical energy in this section before the consequences of their personal and professional calamities plays out in the less actively demanding Act Three.

The final part of Noises Off is less frantic than Act Two but requires more seemingly incidental comedy as the play more clearly melds verbal and physical humour during the final disastrous performance of Nothing On at Stockton-on-Tees, placing the viewer in the position of the final performance audience watching the play straight through. But Frayn doesn’t directly repeat Act One and instead the comedy comes from the differences between the dress rehearsal and final night of this tour in which there are significant changes to the story we are by now familiar with. As the piece implodes it requires considerable adlibbing from the characters to cover up the endless mistakes that take the performance far off course.

It happens slowly at first, a spilt plate of sardines causing slide hazards, props appearing in the wrong places or not removed when they should be, and again Frayn gently develops a sense of the show slipping beyond the control of the actors most of whom no longer care, until their dialogue is out of sync while backstage and onstage story-lines have mixed. There is a blend of comedy style in here but Frayn draws the most laughs from the differing reaction of the cast to the breakdown of their show, from the ever-reliable Belinda stranded onstage, attempting to fudge the pandemonium and smoothly improvise her way out of disaster to the self-absorbed Brooke who refuses to acknowledge the problem and just delivers her lines regardless. Posner directs the changing tone well, less intense than Act Two but with a greater charge than Act One that clearly demonstrates the time lapse across the period of the play and the complete deterioration of the relationships that keep Noises Off alive.

And it is those interactions and the reflection on the consequences of close proximity for several months within a touring company that emerges most strongly in this production – the growing to hate one another over seemingly petty issues, the affairs that turn into much larger dramas, the deterioration of company morale after Press Night when the Director leaves to rehearse their next show leaving no adults in charge (not that Lloyd behaves any better than his team here), the clash of experienced professionals and young actors and the lagging energy as the tour unfolds that affects the cast and backstage crew in equal measure. And it is these personal dramas within the reflections on theatre itself that prove most enjoyable.

With its highly complex requirements, Noises Off is a true ensemble piece and this cast is working tightly together to keep the pace sprightly, exactly timing Frayn’s mix of verbal and visual humour. Tracy-Ann Oberman as the glamorous Belinda providing moral support to all, Felicity Kendall as the TV star turned dowdy housekeeper who provokes jealous rages in her younger lover Garry played by Joseph Millson who stalks the backstage area with murderous intent, Matthew Kelly as the sleepy Selsdon who’d rather be tucked up with a bottle than delivering his few lines, Jonathan Coy as Freddie whose sensitivity to violence causes inconvenient nosebleeds and Alexander Hanson as their amorous director Lloyd who cannot control the cast on either side of the curtain especially his lovers Sasha Frost as the single-minded Brooke and Pepter Lunkhuse as the sweetly overwhelmed Poppy. Everyone gets their moment while providing a finely calibrated comedy performance that never falters.

There are odd moments of Noises Off that certainly show their age, not least the now questionable presentation of a Sheikh which feels rather awkward in the twenty-first century while some of the sexual politics and Brooke running around in her underwear for much of the play is quite dated. Noises Off is a fast-paced show that still demands an enormously skilled and precise technical performance from every member of its cast and Posner’s team makes it look far easier than it really is. 40 years on, Frayn’s play has still got it.

Noises Off is at the Phoenix Theatre until 11 March with tickets from £25 plus booking fee. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


The Village / Rush – Almeida Theatre

You can tell a lot about the confidence of a theatre by its programming and never more so than in the degree of community and youth engagement it undertakes. The Almeida Theatre, then, couldn’t be more exciting and following a highly acclaimed Autumn / Winter season with rave reviews for both Tammy Faye and its current production of A Streetcar Named Desire, the stage is given over for two Sunday evenings to the Almeida Youth Company, presenting two brand new 50-minute plays written for and by a vast company of young performers under the direction of Abi Falase. Working with two established theatremakers – Tatenda Shamiso and Rafaella Marcus – this evening of performance is a true collaboration, one that showcases the Almeida’s talent development ecosystem.

Often, the work of young companies is confined to the tricky summer holiday period when much of the theatre community decamps to Edinburgh and no one risks opening a major show. Last summer, both the Donmar Warehouse (The Trials) and the Young Vic (Of the Cut) offered their spaces to works created by their youth and community programmes, two highly successful concepts that explored production techniques and site-specific opportunities to celebrate the venues that nurtured them. Now, the Almeida Theatre has taken the concept a step further, tying its Youth Company performance to its current show with both The Village and Rush directly responding to themes and concepts raised by Tennessee Williams’s play – a smart and insightful decision that creates a future model for its community engagement activities.

The Village

The first performance of this double bill is The Village, a deeply political piece guided by Shamiso that draws on notions of utopian ideals in Williams’s play and the ways in which dreams and reality are often sacrificed at the point when old and new worlds collide. In this scenario, the young people of the UK have created a pilot society, designed and governed by themselves, an ideal place in which policies and State functions are provided by a Council of emancipated youth free to set their own priorities and budget using devolved powers given to them by the adult Government in the outside world. It is an interesting and well-worked premise, one that explores concepts of power, management, democracy and corruption within both the economic and physical limitations of the village they establish.

There are two particularly intriguing elements here that ultimately shape the direction this 50-minute piece takes; the first is the geographical boundary of the village itself, housed in an abandoned seaside town which instantly evokes notions of dereliction, decline and, importantly, distance from the real seat of power in London. Although the physical location is never specified, this created commune is clearly on the margins of the UK, as close to the edge of the land mass as it is possible to get, and thus without connection to much of the country. Are the young people being set up to fail deliberately while similarly isolated from any kind of wider connection that could add momentum to their cause?

But this is also a piece about the limitations of the space they are given to govern, a physical patch of ground that only affects those living within it. The Government of the day has not awarded them total power for all young people in the country allowing their needs to be met by this group, and instead grants them jurisdiction over those living within the boundaries of the youth State. As youth members ‘age out’ they are replaced. It is this contested physical limitation that drives much of the drama that follows and it is in this space where those notions of utopia and reality must co-exist. Naturally more than one kind of betrayal occurs, not least in the relationship between central Government and this small pilot site with little to gain from its shackled independence. The youth have been given their dream but in a place that in every physical and geographical sense will fail them, undermining the regime in much the same way that Blanche’s fantasies betray her when the price of realising them proves too brutal.

The second important element of this society is that is was created from mass protest, a violent and energetic opener in which 20 performers storm the stage in masks that obscure their faces. But a society created from revolution and built on foundations of anarchy is doomed to fail when attempts to reimpose rules and a form of governed democracy become compromised by elitism and mass disillusionment. This is the main driver of The Village, the growing disenchantment of the people which is escalated upwards to the seemingly ineffective rule of its Council. That further protest and regime change are subsequently mooted naturally stem from the State foundations, and, in subtle reference to works like Animal Farm (not to mention recent Government scandals), frustrations about the meaning of equality play out across this story.

There are real complexities here though with an understanding that rules and leadership are far more complex than they may appear. While the Council is not sympathetically portrayed, the difficulty of balancing the economy, food shortages and negotiating their independent status with the existing Government proves troublesome. Similarly, there is much advocacy for a newly created Education system based on student interest but an equal recognition that boundaries and regulations are necessary for a society to function which add nuance to what could have been an idealistic but naive concept of utopian democracy. That State failure seems inevitable never detracts from the hope everyone has for improving and achieving this idealised society regardless of the human behaviours that prevent it from happening.

The Village has a conventional theatrical approach, a linear story that, like The Trials, explores notions of young people bringing forward power to make decisions about the kind of future they want to build. Focusing that around the driver of new recruits being inducted as well as the ways in which this society tries to hide its struggles, to present its best self to the outside world through the presence of an (unseen) documentary film crew and social media manager are areas that could be expanded in a longer project. Yet, this is a 50-minute production filled with interesting questions about that tricky space between fantasy and truth.

Rush

The second performance, shaped by Marcus, is a quite different proposition although it too considers a place between dreams and reality. Set during a single night at a fairground, Rush is about wistful lost love, the pursuit of idealised happiness and co-dependency in various forms. The Company create a last night atmosphere in this piece, of a world or way of living that the various inter-related characters already know has ended but who chose to suspend their disbelief for a single night in order to recapture the innocence of their connection one last time. By morning, everything will change, particularly as one of the protagonists is about to leave the group forever, bound for a grown-up life abroad.

Linking to Williams’s creation of characters fooling themselves about who they are and what their future will be, Rush also considers the last-chance desperation of individuals pursuing a fantasy that only takes them further away from themselves. This takes places across two groups of friends, each containing one half of a couple who dated for a year before their relationship fell apart, and both coincidentally, or perhaps deliberately, in the same place for this one night where there is one last chance to set things right. What takes this away from rom-com territory is that the desire for reconciliation is one-sided, a scenario that nods to the changing connection between Stella and Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, that places protagonists Leah and Toni on opposite trajectories.

Under Marcus’s guidance, there is a dreamlike quality to this scenario aided by Fraser Craig’s romantic lighting design and Phoebe Shu-Ching Chan’s evocative costume choices. The setting is more Coney Island-like that Dreamland Margate, tapping into a very American notion of innocence that fairground rides and safe end of the pier spaces create. It feels like a warm summer night with characters dressed in shorts and crop tops or Hawaiian shirts, an easy, casual vibe where everyone wants to have a good time, and like the similar scene in Blood Brothers in which Micky, Edward and Linda go to the fair while the narrator casts doom over their unaffected joy, in Rush there are no thoughts of what’s to come.

The two friendship groups are well created but given slightly different structures, one in which Leah is too distracted by the possibility of finding Toni to fully appreciate her friends and the other in which Toni is fully absorbed in every moment of the evening unconcerned by the possibility of bumping into an ex they have emotionally left behind. The groups are loud and boisterous at times, fun-loving and cheeky, performed with energy by the Company who create a very credible connection between people with more than a decade of friendship to call upon, but are also in their early 20s and on the cusp of change.

To this, Rush adds some intriguing theatrical devices and movement sequences that focus on the existential pressures individuals are feeling that hide beneath the jaunty projection of happiness. Juxtaposing these monologues or philosophical reflections within the central story as characters talk about the momentary freedom offered by being in the Hall of Mirrors where you can evade the constriction of societal rules, or the claustrophobic smallness of the individual relative to the uncaring universe dampen the romance of the central scenario, and while these could have a stronger role in pulling out contrasting notes of potential ugliness at the funfair, the choreographed precision of the complex mirrors sequence is particularly effective.

Rush also has plenty of expansion potential, drilling further into Leah’s need to rekindle this defining romance and the willingness to sacrifice everything for its sake. Like Williams, the Company are exploring the cruelty of unrequited desire and of rejection about which these characters clearly have more to say in the aftermath of their meeting. Nonetheless like The Village, this 50-minute play probes the place between reality and fiction, where individual fantasy and hope are subsumed into a more satisfying collective.

These plays may not be the obvious responses to Streetcar that you might expect but are all the more interesting for it, and the development of contemporary work delving into the themes of Williams’s mighty play is well worth spending a Sunday night at the theatre. This model for youth participation is a promising one, filling a space between classic plays and audience engagement that is rich with possibility. Creating space for it in future programming will be the challenge but one that will offer rich rewards for a thriving creative culture.

The Village / Rush will be performed again at the Almeida Theatre on 22 January. Tickets at £5. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


A Streetcar Named Desire – Almeida Theatre

A Streetcar Named Desire - Almeida Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

It has been fascinating watching Rebecca Frecknall’s development as a director, from making her mark with a defining production of Summer and Smoke four years ago to the multi-Olivier award winning Cabaret still running in the West End more than twelve months on from its astonishing debut. Now, she tackles one of the greatest plays of all time, Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire back in the intimacy of the Almeida Theatre and brings a devastating new clarity to it, eschewing the distraction of a heavy set and the cliches that tend to dog interpretations of Williams, from the exaggerated Southern accents to Blanche’s affected gentility. Instead, Frecknall restores emotional credibility to her protagonist by putting the relationship between two sisters at the heart of this production and using it to examine the wreckage that love and desire can leave behind for those too fragile to endure it.

A Streetcar Named Desire arrives with considerable regularity and it tends to be a favourite among professional and amateur companies. The last major London version was, however, eight years ago when Gillian Anderson took the leading role in Benedict Andrews’s 2014 version at the Young Vic, a contemporary staging on a streetcar-shaped revolving stage that was notably re-released via National Theatre at home. And with many star version before it including Rachel Weisz at the Donmar, the twenty-first century has not been short of Williams’s greatest play. But Frecknall offers a new dimension to this latest one, a simple but compelling truth that casts every scene anew and brings a fresh perspective to well-worn notions of what this play and its characters ought to be.

It is staged with Frecknall’s trademark simplicity, a bare stage no larger than the performance space for Cabaret with seating in the round. The significance of the slightly angled platform and clear wooden boards is stark, a blank canvas onto which the creators and indeed Blanche can project her skewed fantasies, a fresh start where anything is possible. The momentary resemblance to a ropeless bare knuckle boxing ring only adds to the anticipatory atmosphere as characters and occasional props appear. Frecknall never wants to get in the way of the text and so items are moved into the playing space only as they are needed by the actors, and delivered by those not in the scene. It is deftly done, a chair appearing a few moments before it is used, a telephone as required by the script, Blanche’s pre-packed suitcase ready to take her onto the next dream, all of it removed as seamlessly as it arrived.

Frecknell never hides these intrusions into the illusion of the play, effortlessly merging this vaguely Brechtian device with the naturalism that Williams demands and they never interrupt the flow of the scene. Instead, it draws attention to the prop and rather than cluttering the stage, they hint at place and at the claustrophobia of Stella and Stanley’s two-room apartment while leaving the characters with nothing to hide behind, no elaborate set to absorb or distract from their inevitable destruction as the audience observes their emotional unraveling from every angle.

The director uses music and lighting in lieu of unnecessary set to chart the beats of this play and its turning points. And it has a painterly quality, utilising cues from the scrip such as Blanche’s preference for dimly-lit spaces to preserve her modesty and the illusion of youth. So lighting designer Lee Curran (who also lit Summer and Smoke so evocatively) creates interesting patterns within the show that map the tone and changing mood of the story, opening with a warn and rich New Orleans afternoon sun casting its optimistic pinkish rays across the housing complex and instantly generating the uncomfortable heat that pervades the atmosphere that Williams infers. It is sultry and sweaty so Curran projects light from the side to suggest a sun beginning to set as shadows encroach – a pointed psychological moment in which the escaping Blanche seeks a hopeful welcome with her past and personality edging slowly into the frame, a place where she will only run into herself once more.

Later, inside the Kowalski’s home, the brightness is muted by the Chinese shade that Blanche insists should cover the single lightbulb hanging in the air and bringing a calm semi-romance as Blanche refuses to engage with the reality of her sister’s life and Stella’s more vivid internal and physical experience. Curran then introduces drama within the lighting scheme that responds to these contrasting emotional states and power shifts. The costume colour palette of red, salmon, yellow and mustard stand stark and vibrant in moments of confrontation. And the production looks beautiful as a result with several shots, particularly in the second part, creating some incredible stage pictures.

On Blanche’s birthday, for example, Frecknall creates a pointed moment in which the sisters sit at the front of the stage with a perfect looking blue and white-iced cake while far back Stanley looms between them, the pinkish tone of his t-shirt matching his wife’s pleated skirt, a nod both to the sibling focus of this interpretation as well as the interplay of hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity that suffuse this production through costume (by Merle Hensel) and characterisation. Further into the production, those two ideas contend again as Blanche in a stunning but flouncy yellow number with layers of skirt is starkly presented against Stanley’s blood-red silk pyjamas in a moment that seems frozen in time and lit dramatically by Curran.

Hensel’s costume design, though contemporary, is extremely evocative both in style and shade, and considerable thought has gone into the contrast between Blanche and everyone else; she also picks pleats along with gauzy material, sheer fabrics, romantic floral designs and shoulder ruffles which speak to a grander approach to dress and a degree of polish that distinguish her particularly from Stella whose more casual manner is reflected in more practical shape and fabric choices. Character and themes are incorporated into every production choice and the overall vision is an artistic one.

Frecknall’s non-musical productions are really defined by their composition and its becomes a sparingly employed theatrical device to denote the emotional beat of the play. The use of piano and metronome were essential to the slow-burn intensity of Summer and Smoke, while this Streetcar applies drums and percussion to similar effect, underscoring but never distracting from Williams’s text which remains the absolute centre of this production. Often there is no musical accompaniment beyond those proscribed by the author; the radio that Blanche uses to irritate Stanley’s poker game or the romantic band sound she hears as a faded echo of memory when remembering her last night with her husband. Where Frecknall and composer Angus Macrae insert additional music it is in places where a change is occurring in the scene, beating out a suddenly acknowledged tension in which characters are learning something new about themselves and times when their relationships are in flux from which, as the culminating drums and cymbals indicate, they will emerge with an entirely new perspective on one another.

While most productions tend to build themselves around the sparky confrontation of Stanley and Blanche, more than any version of this play in recent years, this Streetcar foregrounds the connection between the sisters, initially contrasting their approaches and responses to the New Orleans scenario as well as their shared past at a beloved childhood home. At different points in the play the two women are shown to be more realistic or pragmatic than their sibling and while it is Blanche who tends to be the dreamer, hiding behind illusions about herself, its so interesting to see Stella being drawn from the shadows of Williams’s play and given almost as much time in the spotlight in a story that fundamentally shifts the nature of her marriage and her future beyond the action we observe.

At the start we see a powerful version of Stella, comfortable in her womanhood, sexually fulfilled by a man who she desires and quite happy to have rejected the gentility of her childhood for the modest life with Stanley. Blanche, by contrast, seems the less experienced of the two, uncomfortable around the magnetism of this couple and seeking Stella’s maternal protection. But slowly that shifts as Blanche’s influence over her sister subtly increases, bringing with it a reminder of the people they once were. Later in the play, this production suggests, it is Blanche who is more realistic about the consequences of their family life, living with the death of their parents and the financial burden of sustaining a large home that Stella (and by extension Stanley) have slightly more romantic notions about. It is under Blanche’s influence that Stella starts to question her husband’s manners about which they fight and, despite the famous reunion scene in the middle of the play, months later they are drifting apart as something between them has broken and the sisters become a closer unit almost in spite of themselves.

And much of that is possible due to the more naturalistic presentation of Blanche that over time draws the sisters closer together. Here Blanche is less overtly a “Southern Belle” and more sympathetically viewed as a woman experiencing a deep and affecting trauma at a young age that has shaped her life immeasurably. She has all the same affectations, the tendency to bathe as a way to repurify herself, the want of beauty and calm in every space and a prioritisation of genteel manners, but Frecknall’s interpretation of Blanche is far more human, more subtle than previously seen making her a deeply tragic rather than a comic figure that means her trajectory is all the more affecting.

Stepping in at extremely short notice, Patsy Ferran gives the most astonishing performance as Blanche, though younger than we have ever seen her, softening the extremes of the Southern accent to create the portrait of a woman with nowhere else to turn and ultimately in the last place she ever wanted to go. There is deep resilience in Ferran’s Blanche, a strength that has helped her to endure years of shame within her hometown and the aching loneliness that sits at the heart of this character. Ferran has always dug deep into the seeming fragility of her characters to found greater reserves within and this is exactly what she finds in Blanche. And there is a deep sensuality in Ferran’s performance – not something that has been required of the actor before – one that, again, is subtle but nonetheless vital to her eventual descent into delusion. Ferran finds that place where Blanche’s romantic hopes, so often dashed by brutish men, crash disastrously against the reality of her physical existence, charting her final capitulation with meaning and a true empathy for a woman who has barely known a moment of happiness.

Anjana Vasan brings her Stella out of the shadows to give her an equal place in this drama, a woman who seems initially more in touch with the reality of life than her sister but with Vasan’s performance understanding the romantic delusion that Stella too has been living under, one that comes tumbling down as the months roll on. And Vasan is particularly good at charting the changing relationship with Stanley as her confidence grows under the influence of her sister which sees the spousal connection begin to fracture. Where once their marriage was a tight unit, it becomes far less satisfactory to this Stella as her husband’s attitudes increasingly put distance between them, and as Stella’s pregnancy advances so too does her dissatisfaction with the life she once enjoyed with a finale that marks a clear and permanent change in their marriage.

Paul Mescal’s Stanley has been much anticipated and proves just the right mix of bullish masculinity and sensitivity that make Stanley such an appealing character. Particularly interesting here is how the brutish, menacing side of Stanley evolves in Mescal’s performance which politely welcomes Blanche in the early scenes and demonstrates a real and deep tenderness for his wife following a violent outburst that reduces him to tears. But this is a turning point for Mescal’s deeply masculine Stanley who retreats into himself as the home where he was once “king” feels exclusionary, exhibiting an aggression that culminates in a betrayal of his wife and of the man he once was. Mescal’s performance perfectly complements Vasan and Ferran, with Stanley losing himself in a fantasy of who he should be. It may not destroy him as it does Blanche but it takes away the one thing that motivates Stanley, the love and respect of his wife.

This is an intense and compelling version of A Streetcar Named Desire that succeeds in presenting a more truthful but no less powerful version of this story. It is kinder to its heroine than ever before, bringing new layers to its intense and empathetic conclusion while exploring the interplay between the characters’ romantic and practical needs. Frecknall has a real feel for these mid-century writers and the compromises of living in limited circumstances while trying to maintain artistic pursuits and ragged dreams of a better future aided by the kindness of strangers. All of that comes together so beautifully here and Williams has rarely felt so powerful.

A Streetcar Named Desire is at the Almeida Theatre until 4 February with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


One Woman Show – Ambassadors Theatre

One Woman Show - Ambassadors Theatre

Oh the patriarchy, that pesky social control mechanism gets everywhere. It is so wily and ubiquitous that even when women think they are breaking the mould and pushing back against its restrictive tendrils, it turns out that is just been internalised patriarchy all the time. Liz Kingsman’s hilarious 70-minute One Woman Show may never actually use the ‘p’ word but it is certainly at the root of her withering and sometimes surreal pastiche of modern female writing and the longer strands of female representation on stage and screen. Making its West End debut at the Ambassadors Theatre, as one of only three women writers in a major venue right now – one being Agatha Christie next door with the Mousetrap and the other April de Angelis at the Dorfman with Kerry Jackson that doesn’t entirely deserve its stage – Kingsman has an extraordinary, and all too rare, platform in which to make her case.

One Woman Show has been quite the success story and a key example of why investment in grass roots theatre development is so essential. Kingsman’s piece began at the Vault’s Festival in 2020 before moving to the Soho Theatre earlier this year, on to the Edinburgh Fringe where it picked up further awards and now into the West End before an international stint at Sydney Opera House in 2023. It is a dream come true story in many ways that, like SIX before it, has enjoyed a phenomenal trajectory picking up critical and audience acclaim en route. But it speaks to the effectiveness of the theatre ecosystem where playmakers can gain valuable experience of adapting their piece to suit the changing scale of their venues and receive constructive feedback on their writing as they advance through the stages of festival, fringe, off-West End and eventually the big houses where One Woman Show feels perfectly at home ahead of its Press Night this week. It might not have felt so easy for Kingsman and her team in practice but in a sea of pantos and Christmas shows, the impact of the writer’s entertainingly political piece is all the greater.

One Woman Show is an inherently theatrical performance and what could have been a stand-up set is instead an opportunity to comment on the nature of performance itself using a multilayered structure that explores different narrative devices and representations of women’s lives in different media, but particularly television and film. That Kingsman chooses a theatre production as the vehicle for this assessment is especially interesting because theatre brings with it a much greater sense of complicit falsity in which the performer and the audience tacitly agree to suspend their disbelief until the illusion is broken and the actor steps forward to receive applause, at which point the performative nature of the story becomes apparent.

Not so in other media where no such breaking of the spell exists and the viewer is left to believe that the characters lives continue in their world until the next edition. Choosing theatre then as the means to expand on the misrepresentation of women in television and film and its role in creating an essential artifice that actively conceals a more complex truth is particularly fascinating and Kingsman utilises the notion of layers of reality and their interaction through the construction of this story which operates on several structural levels.

With tongue firmly in cheek, One Woman Show is essentially the story of one chaotic woman’s attempt to find love in the big city while navigating the challenges of life, work and friendship that will lead to an inevitable moment of self-realisation and self-acceptance if not a perfect romantic ending. A contemporary female protagonists is the star, a messy, complex and relatable figure with no idea what her life goals ought to be but somehow endearingly bumbling through one emotional crisis at a time. Kingsman’s point is that a modern heroine may be less than perfect, allowed to have casual sex and be selfish / unpleasant / narcissistic but this representation of women only serves to reinforce patriarchal judgments about female emotional instability and weakness that only a stable relationship with a man can fix.

The confessional style narrative used to reinforce the “cool girl” stereotype aligns female behaviour with laddish traits like drinking, being confrontational and enjoying banter, traits designed to appeal to men rather than necessarily reflecting the true diversity of female experience. Described as a direct parody of Fleabag by early reviewers, One Woman Show has a much broader range and is in fact looking at particular types of rom-com heroine from Bridget Jones to Trainwreck while reflecting on the desire to use these fictional creations to generate commercial success for their creator.

The way Kingsman does this is through a dual staging device, the first designed to disarm the audience and even to wrong-foot them from the start with a strand devoted to the career ambitions and monetisation of the creator’s vision. In the opening moments, Kingsman appears on stage seemingly as herself to talk directly to the audience ahead of the show beginning to explain a series of technical problems with the recording of the performance that are delaying the start. This becomes a recurring and important device throughout, stopping the show in its tracks to note that sound has been lost or the feed to the camera is compromised. Each time, it forces the audience out of the other story Kingsman is telling via her deliberately unnamed and oh so universal character, and acts as a way to break down the wall between the audience and their complete absorption in a story we are thereby reminded was never real.

A further purpose is to act as a comment on the nature of performance itself into which Kingman is slipping. Which of the two women presented in the play is the real Kingsman and does she necessarily have to be either? Within One Woman Show, Kingsman is playing a part that is playing a part, a technique that empashsies the multifaceted nature of the writer who presents two slightly different versions of the narrator, one keen to record her show for an absent producer in the hope that it brings her greater career opportunities and who has minimal regard for an audience that must endure her interruptions and occasionally petulant reactions, and one sweetly ditsy woman falling in and out of love at a ridiculous rate, overstating her emotional attachments but charmingly harmless in her way. That Kingsman is both of these creations at the same time and through the conceit of the show argues they are the same person only serves to underscore their ultimate falseness and fictional existence.

That both of these versions of a single woman are performed to camera (at least within the pretence of the show) only underscores the fantasy inherent in these creations and aligns them with the equally unlikely depictions of young women across different kinds of media. This continual commentary is woven so seamlessly and naturally into the show, used to disrupt the narrative arc while simultaneously maintaining a consistently entertaining performance, and gives One Woman Show its many layers and meaning.

The second storytelling device is a much more traditional romantic comedy framed as a confessional story that the protagonist is recalling, presented candidly to the audience. It takes place on a representative stage with an office chair and a reed-filled moat representing the nature charity where the character works in Marketing – a job that brings with it plenty of opportunities for humour. Kingsman here adds as many cliched tropes as she can giving the narrator a thinly drawn comedy best friend with a northern accent who only ever dolls out timely and sage life advice, an undemanding but worthy London-based office job, an older but experience manager and plenty of meet-cute opportunities all framed in a rose-tinted version of the capital that no one will recognise.

Toying with these concepts, Kingsman adds some sharply honed surreal humour that gently mocks the ridiculousness of these scenarios so the audience doesn’t get too comfortable. The writer then uses some of the secondary characters to challenge the stereotypes of women and the patriarchal expectations this genre continues to impose. Again, Kingsman never chooses to compromises interest in her character and her story with the audience continually lured into her world (for which the filming interruptions are a necessary rejoinder). However much we recognise the frustrations of this trope, Kingsman is all too aware how the slightly exaggerated nature and wide-eyed innocence of these characters can be all too engaging, designed as they are to be likeable and pleasing – the primary of purpose of women in the patriarchy.

Creating audience connection to and engagement with this character is deliberate of course so that it can be disrupted and Kingsman combines direct monologue with acted scenes in which she represents other characters through changes of body language and accent, and memory sequences that take the character back to previous experiences that are pivotal to her eventual realisations. The driver here is an emotional trauma about a man (naturally) which the audience will eventually learn and the character will be healed. Notable too is that Kingsman only ever plays the female characters and while male speech is reported, additional voiceovers are provided for the academic naturalist with whom she enjoys a whirlwind romance and the persistent crew member directing the technical recording – perhaps to be interpreted as even the voice of patriarchy itself telling her what to do.

One Woman Show is then more than a pot shot at Fleabag and the like, and is instead an assessment of the performative nature of female roles in popular culture products in which the inauthentic substance of these representations is both highlighted and satirised while fully acknowledging how appealing and entertaining these tropes continue to be. Kingsman’s show is designed ultimately to make the audience laugh, which it does repeatedly and often, and this is a rewarding way to spend 70-minutes however you engage with its layers of subtext. This is a writer fully grasping her moment on this huge West End platform to question the structures and expectations surrounding and consuming us, so don’t miss out on this brief opportunity to be part of it.

One Woman Show is at the Ambassadors Theatre until 21 January with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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