Tag Archives: London

The Fellowship -Hampstead Theatre

The Fellowship - Hampstead Theatre (by Robery Day)

Roy Williams has primarily focused on the challenges of working class masculinity in recent years through his extraordinary play cycle the Death of England, a trilogy co-written with Clint Dyer, that became an instant modern classic as friends Michael and Delroy individually set out their experiences before coming face-to-face in the third installment released as a cinematic film. This year though, Williams is looking at the female experience with a rumored fourth monologue for the Death of England, this time for the pivotal Carly who links the friends, and Williams’s contemporary interpretation of Hedda Gabler opening at the Lyric Theatre in the autumn as Heather. But first, female friendship is the focus of his latest play The Fellowship, premiering at the Hampstead Theatre as class, race and past activism haunts this family saga.

Williams is particularly interested in intense friendships between two people, in this case sistsers Dawn and Marcia, and the events or people that come between them. As with Delroy and Michael, the strength of that bond is the focus of the play and how a sense of ‘otherness’ disrupts and sometimes destroys what they all have assumed would be a lifelong association. First, that otherness tends to manifest physically as a rocky relationship with a partner that disrupts the balance between the friends – in the Death of England, Delroy’s tempestuous involvement with Michael’s sister Carly contributes to the breakdown of their friendship, while here in The Fellowship both sisters have questionable love interests, ending up with men that the other despises.

But otherness is also about interactions between race and society, creating fault-lines within these established relationships that are more deeply exposed through the action of the play. Often inherited from a previous generation, Death of England is dominated by Alan’s deeply embedded racism that comes to play an important role in the deterioration of his son’s friendship, culminating in the pivotal concluding scene in Michael’s monologue which then becomes the starting point for Delroy’s. Here, it is Dawn’s vocal condemnation of white power that comes between the sisters and has intriguing personal and professional consequences for them both as former activist Dawn reels from the discovery of her son Jermaine’s relationship with Simone, a white woman she loathes, while Marcia insists she has taken her place as one of the few black barristers to have made silk as Williams uses his 2019 setting to explore whether being in the room is enough and what happened to the fight.

The Fellowship also has its own focus on inheritance and the troubling cost of legacy, looking across three generations of a single family from the absent grandmother of the Windrush generation through Dawn and Marcia’s experience of riots in the 1980s to son Jermaine in 2019. What has each of these generations left for the next is Williams’s focus, what did they achieve for those still to come and what are the mechanisms of inherited trauma? Does each new age pick up the baton from those who came before or – as Williams suggests here – is each generation cast adrift from its predecessor and successor, left to fight its own battles perhaps for its lifetime but with little tangible achievement, wisdom or support to pass on, everyone always starting again.

This notion of estrangement between the generations is a powerful one, played out in two ways, initially between Dawn and the son that she is fiercely protective of but with whom she finds it difficult to communicate. A hidden relationship with someone Dawn disapproves of leads to an important confrontation at a family event in the second half of the play in which Jermaine gives voice to some of the questions that Williams too is grappling with, whether Dawn’s lifelong activism has achieved anything and the legacy that parents are handing to their children – a concern Williams is raising about his own generation who have been shaped by their experience of marches, protests and rioting but wonders about the effect and meaning 40 years on.

But there is an equally important estrangement taking place between Dawn and Marcia and their mother who remains an unseen presence for much of the play, remaining bedridden upstairs and to whom Dawn acts as primary carer. It becomes an important mark of Marcia’s character that she has entirely disassociated from her mother, leaving the responsibility to Dawn who is the one to have an important elemental encounter. It is a strange scene in contemporary theatre but no more unusual than the ghosts of Old Hamlet and Banquo stalking Shakespearean heroes while also an important feature of Caribbean theatre – something Joubert also utilised.

Williams uses the scene to explore the make up of the Windrush generation – always talked about as a block of people – with Sylvia’s stern and detached approach to parenting which affects her daughters’ characters. As well as creating individuality, turning Sylvia into a credible person with aspirations and faults that directly inform the bigger reactionary elements of Dawn’s character and the sober dignity of Marcia’s, Williams also takes the opportunity to note the ending of their story, that this is a moment where the Windrush generation is starting to die out, moving the experience beyond living memory and subtly asking what that means for this particular family as well as dual heritage black British identity.

As with Death of England, class too plays its part in the complex family dynamic and Williams is interested in how two sisters find their relationship dividing along class lines when Marcia’s profession and status move her into a quite different social circle to her sister. And the contention this generates between them underpins many of the troubled conversations they have about the men they are with, family responsibilities they bear as well as the attitudes and responses to expected social behaviours. That Marcia considers herself a cut above is an important part of the dynamic Williams creates and the fall he sets up for them all.

But The Fellowship is primarily a domestic tale taking place in one room over three hours of performance in which the family unit is the primary driver. A drawing room comedy-drama of sorts, Williams spends some time establishing the close bond between the sisters, their shared love of 70s, 80s and 90s pop music and the small rituals that can only emerge from familiarity and love. The play’s dynamic comes from the holes that Williams starts to create as circumstances pit the sisters against one another, causing them to re-evaluate how well they still know one another and the extent to which they have hidden their real selves behind the habits of their friendship in which both play a comfortable but not quite true version of themselves.

In that, Williams is largely successful, generating considerable heat in the succession of conversations around which this play is structured and through which the various plot points (credible or not) advance the story. Arguably, it may not need all of them and the impact of Marcia’s relationship is lessened by the absence of her partner who could never co-exist in her sister’s world which is predominantly the one Williams is interested in. But by extension, the difficulties that Marcia brings in and the way their consequences play out are undermined by the lack of tangibility, harder for the audience to imagine her in what seems like a mythical place beyond Dawn’s living room with individuals we cannot quire grasp.

The character of Dawn is, however, an exciting creation filled with layers of complexity and questions about her identity that explode across The Fellowship. An ordinary woman who thinks she knows herself and her place in the world, Dawn’s outward bravado and ferocity is underpinned by deep vulnerability as she attempts to reconcile what her life and relationships amount to. How have her role as a mother, partner and sister eroded her sense of self and does her provocative response to most issues stem from a concern that she is no longer in the fight to the extent that she once was, or perhaps the fear that it amounted to very little and her life is as conventional as anyone else’s.

Part of the issue for Dawn stems from being unable to admit who she really is, her hotheaded reactions to perceived instances of white oppression at odds with her secret music tastes filled with white musicians from the Bee Gees to Kylie and Take That – a device Williams uses throughout the show to examine the public / private division in Dawn, the elements she shares with her sister and how much of herself she truly understands, leading to a process of discovery across the events depicted.

Cherrelle Skeete, who stepped into the role at very short notice, finds all of these contradictions within the character, offering a remarkable performance given how little time the actor has had to prepare for the stage. Skeete is caustic but warm, making Dawn someone you would want to keep on side, a great friend if she likes you but a terrible adversary if she doesn’t. This is Dawn’s story and Skeet grasps every moment to sketch out the breadth of this multifaceted woman.

Llewellyn’s Marcia is a contrast, a placid, cool surface with fire beneath, able to command a courtroom and entirely comfortable in the choices she had made for herself. A little comfortable perhaps as a sense of entitlement creeps into her behaviour. Llewellyn creates a woman who both wants her family to think she is the same person that she always was while expecting them to be continually impressed and in awe of her. Ethan Hazzard and Rosie Day are more contextual as Jermaine and Simone rather than fully fleshed out characters. So too is Trevor Laird’s musician boyfriend Tony who is suitably laid back and disengaged to rile Dawn while Yasmin Mwanza as a local police officer and the younger Sylvie makes a great deal of two small roles.

Directed by Paulette Randall on a set dominated by an almost symbolic sweeping staircase designed by Libby Watson, The Fellowship is at its best in the conversations between Dawn and Marcia which Randall paces nicely – particularly given how little rehearsal the actors have had in their present roles. Occasional lags in energy are understandable over a long night and will tighten as the run continued.

If The Fellowship doesn’t quite have the explosive brio and masculine confrontation of the Death of England, that is the difference between the singular voice and a longer, multi-character piece within a family setting with no one decisive event to drive the plot. But Williams’s broader exploration of identity, class and the impossibility of creating and living up to community and family legacy has a quiet power of its own.

The Fellowship is at the Hampstead Theatre until 23 July with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Jitney – Old Vic

At heart August Wilson’s writing is part of broader tradition of family plays in American theatre and while his subjects are not necessarily the traditional groups of relatives gathered around the table for a fateful weekend or forced to reassess their lives in the wake of tragedy (such as Apologia or Appropriate), Wilson builds rudimentary families, often groups of men drawn together by their jobs whose complex dynamics, loaded interactions and status conflicts reflect the conventions of those often grand narratives about family that US playwrights return to again and again. Wilson tempers this solemnity with an examination of working class aspiration, history and hardship, placing his group often on the cusp of social change where the mixed age range of his characters brings both promise and disillusionment.

Jitney, revived at the Old Vic in a production by Tinuke Craig and officially opening later this week, is a piece that took the best part of 40 years to make it to Broadway in late 2016 after decades of smaller productions around America and at the National Theatre in 2001. Part of Wilson’s Pittsburgh collection, Jitney‘s concern with the cost of gentrification and the local heritage destroyed in the name of progress exists through the interactions of eight men, mostly taxi drivers and a regular customer, over the course of three days in which their livelihoods and their neighbourhood come under threat from redevelopers.

Thematically, this is a play about the black working class struggle, not directly against racism although much can be inferred from the context and conversations, but with their economic and personal circumstances as individuals try to get by while putting some kind of stake in the ground in order to claim even the smallest patch of it for themselves. Cab office boss Jim Becker is the manifestation of that desire for goodness and decency, of working hard to provide for his family and playing along with the system all to earn a fragment of financial and moral independence. What the sacrifices and endeavours of men like Becker are ultimately worth is the question that Wilson poses in Jitney as this quite diverse group face a collective ending of the disharmonious life they have known together.

In this sense, Jitney also links to more recent plays like Lynne Nottage’s Sweat that examines the destructive consequences of redundancy and deindustrialisation in a rust belt town with no other options, and even to David Hare’s latest Straight Line Crazy, still playing at the Bridge Theatre, which takes the opposite perspective to Wilson, focusing on the architecture of city planning in New York in the mid-twentieth century – concluding shortly before the period in which Jitney is set – that tore through working class districts to create freeways. Together these works comment on the powerlessness of communities to resist what becomes an inevitable future, but in giving them a voice, Wilson expands on the rooting of these groups in quite geographically-specific areas, looking back at the lives they have known but also forwards to the albeit limited expectations of what they want to become.

And to do this, Wilson creates a pseudo-familial structure, essentially trapping eight characters together in the same room for nearly three hours of performance. They come and go, collect fares for what are perhaps infeasibly short journeys, but are continually drawn back together to their work hub, a simple common room office where they wait for the phone call that will take them out again, applying the democratic ‘cab rank’ rule to maintain order and fairness. It is a business venture that Wilson deliberately gives them all a stake in, a kind of co-op of independent cabbies headed by Becker who collects subs once a month, sets fare pricing and the firm rules but each man owns his own car and, in a crucial scene in the second half, they make important decisions collectively.

Within that sometimes quite loose structure, Jitney becomes a fluid character study exploring the personalities and often fraught interactions between the men who spend too much time in the same place but really know very little about each other. They gossip, speculate and spread hearsay, they bicker and judge, there are small scale confederacies, violent altercations, resentments and cruelty while Wilson peppers the discussions with plenty of secrets, lies and revelations that emerge across nearly three hours of performance all of which are typical of the family dynamic play and culminates in a growing emotional connection to the group that somehow weathers its many storms together.

Craig’s production is particularly good at creating that complex interaction, the bristling tension between particular individuals whose combustible personalities flare and rage across the play, while balancing that with the more experienced old hands whose attempts at diplomacy and ability to take life as it comes create interesting tonal shifts that Craig manages especially well. But with lots of people to introduce and a faithful version of the script, it takes a little too long for the audience to settle into the show, to understand who everybody is and connect with the story arc – and even to hear it fully for a time. Jitney has two of these – the imminent closure of the cab office and the return of Becker’s son from a 20-year term in prison but neither generates sufficient heat in the 90-minute first half to give the production any anticipatory sense of direction or feeling of impending catastrophe to drive it purposefully forward.

Much of that is Wilson’s fault, a long opening scene introducing the characters in quick turn arounds as well as their working practices and routines becomes almost redundant with little of what is said or seen having any major significance to the plot. And there is a tendency to linger a touch too long in some of the duologues that cut through the fast-paced work of the cab rank, slowing the action to focus more intently on a particular interaction and the lives it represents. These begin as gripping and insightful scenes but can become circular in their discussion, occasionally repeating and verifying information the audience already has which unnecessarily prolongs more than one scenario.

The final third of the play is tighter as internal and external events come to a head but even here the balance of drama is a little off kilter with more time devoted to duologues, yet a major plot development occurs rapidly offstage between scenes with little opportunity to fully absorb its aftermath or even to question the motive of the character involved. In a story where relatively little actually happens and with not much plot as such, it seems a shame not to investigate this part of the play in more detail or to understand any potential ambiguities in what has been reported. Did things coincidentally happen in this way or, given the difficulties and pressure placed on the individual, was there greater agency at work? Just bad luck and a neat ending to the show, or a pre-determined act of sacrifice and despair?

Wil Johnson’s pivotal performance as Becker leaves you to wonder about the effects of this experience on the most decent man in the office. Striving all his life for the minimum comforts of job, home and family, Becker is a character without unlikely ambition, wanting nothing more than daily stability and the chance to give his child a little more than he had. Johnson has some terrific interactions with returning son Booster (Leemore Marrett Jr) and his fellow cabbies who break his simple rules and cause discord in the office. There is a grand tragedy to his life as a result, filled with the anguish and disappointment of the last 20 years which, for all his efforts and desire for independence, leave him unable to control the wider socio-economic forces shaping his life and narrowing his choices – a key theme for all characters in Jitney – that add particular ambiguity to the play’s conclusion.

Sule Rimi is equally commanding as the volatile Turnbo, a maverick creation whose comedic persona reveals an underlying tendency to violence. We learn relatively little about Turnbo’s history but he imposes himself on this office, still part of the family unit but handled carefully by the others. Although not by Solomen Israel’s Darnell known as “Youngblood” whose altercation with Turnbo over gossip simmers throughout the play. Like Becker, Youngblood is looking for a stable path ahead and while Israel hides that under layers of bravado and machismo, there is a melancholy beneath that partly emerges from those around him who think he’s too young to throw his life away driving jitneys but also from the character’s own fears about life’s continually moving goalposts that might trap him here forever.

This is an almost exclusively male world including Geoff Aymer’s rational old hand Doub, Nnabiko Ejimofor’s street smart Shealey who utilises the office for his romantic exchanges and gambling business, as well as Tony Marshall’s alcoholic Fielding clinging on by a thread while pining the absence of his errant wife 22 years on. Amongst this Leanne Henlon makes quite the impression as Darnell’s wife Rena who arrives to make her views about her man’s behaviour known to him. Henlon’s performance is refreshing, cutting through the fog of masculinity to drag them back to the reality of family and commitment, expounding on the wider consequences for their lives beyond the cab office. In a couple of great scenes, Henlon establishes Rena’s own desire for self-improvement and a refusal to take any nonsense as she bats away interference from the others and makes you long for a few more female characters to keep the men in check.

Staged by Alex Lowde in a representative but realistic space, there is a deliberate sense of imprisonment, even claustrophobia in the 70s bleached wood panelled cabin with no windows beyond a frosted glass pane in the door. No one can see out or in, disconnecting the characters from the real changes happening around them – given a literal interpretation by Lowde in a large frame around the action onto which Ravi Deepres’s video projects the Pittsburg streets and a dominant city plan that shifts from construction to a sea of new builds after the interval. All of this reiterating the blindness of these men to what’s really happening to their city and their livelihoods.

Jitney is a long night, one that could afford to cut 20 minutes or more of material without affecting the overall story, leaving a slightly slicker, more impactful piece behind that doesn’t compromise character insight. There are real moments of magic in Jitney, filled with the sorrow of endings for all of the people passing through the cab office. What even happens to their small community business in the end, Wilson places that in a context of huge and unstoppable change that this little patch of the past cannot resist forever. Something is coming for all of them and, whether they see it or not, Wilson knows the battle is lost before it begins – that is the power of Jitney and the great tragedy that Becker’s car service will never escape.

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


Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] – Park Theatre

Tony Blair became an MP and Prime Minister with the sole intention of meeting Mick Jaggers [sic], at least in Harry Hill and Steve Brown’s new satire Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera]. With a political story that includes celebrity, double dealing, royalty, charisma, war and the allure of a mega-watt smile, this world premiere production at the Park Theatre is already striking a chord well ahead of its Press Night later this week. Perfect fodder for a grand operatic story set to a lively rock, vaudeville and musical theatre score, the experience and consequences of political populism are mercilessly mocked while, like all great lampoonery from the cartoons of the eighteenth-century to the hey day of 1980s Spitting Image, it contains a bedrock of truth for our times.

The 1990s are very much back in vogue with big cultural reappraisals of its music – including reflections on the influence of The Spice Girls and Oasis – its clothing and the political shifts from 18 years of Conservatism to the glamorous hope of New Labour. Slightly ahead of that particular curve, James Graham’s Labour of Love in 2017 re-evaluated the effect of New Labour with a time travel drama set in a fictionalised northern working class constituency as the party tore itself apart over its fresh face. Last year, the BBC followed up on its excellent assessment of Thatcher with a five-part series on Labour focused on the division between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair that shaped the political agenda for over a decade. Both have lain the groundwork for Hill and Brown’s musical that covers much of the same period but with a much jauntier, though no less savage, take on Blair’s fraught premiership. Over two hours of performance, Tony! carefully and cunningly charts the rise and fall of the most successful and most controversial Labour Prime Minister of recent decades.

Hill and Brown structure their story in two Acts, Blair’s ascent told as biography and then as a tightly focused second half on the personalities and key decision-making moments leading to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. All of this pivots from a standard but useful dramatic device, the deathbed reckoning, where the much older Blair is asked to weigh up his achievements and failings. Tony! essentially asks the same of the audience, to decide whether the here presented egomania and failure of judgement in the later years does and should eclipse the better, brighter moments of Blair’s first term in office. And, while the answer to that at a 25-year distance may seem easy, entrenched even in our knowledge of what came next, Hill and Brown challenge us by wondering whether it was all Blair’s fault and the responsibility the electorate must bear for voting for him even after the war. The World is Run By Assholes the finale song decries and we put them there.

Our guide through the story is somewhat appropriately Peter Mandelson who arrives in a puff of smoke and with a crack of thunder, playing up his oily, Blair-devoted loyalty. This fourth-wall-breaking creation interacts directly with the audience, introducing scenes and characters, commenting on events and marshalling history as Tony! compresses more than ten years of political activity into two hours of stage time. But Mandelson’s role sets the tone for plenty of irreverent activity with asides, direct appeals to the audience and attempts to engage people in a sequence of events that most will have already lived through once. And largely it works very well, the silliness of Tony! earning big laughs from the start as the show races through his privileged early years, time at Oxford, revoking a pop music career for politics, marriage and Parliamentary rise, all to meet his hero Mick Jaggers [sic].

The story has more or less written itself, so Hill and Brown look to characterisation for most of the comedy, avoiding direct impressions with the need to look or sound like their counterpart by creating broad interpretations of individuals based on a single characteristic or activity that gives the audience a hook to recognise figures in the story each time they appear. And as few of them require more than a surface introduction in the back of what is Blair’s story, the approach works consistently well, offering opportunities for the surreal slapstick that has become Hill’s trademark while creating opportunities for repeat laughs with versions of the same gag when individuals reappear in later scenarios.

So, John Prescott is all beer-guzzling machismo with a thick northern accent offering everyone a pint, Robin Cook a quietly spoken liberal more interested in his extra-marital affairs than his ministerial duties, Mandelson known as ‘Mandy’ is obsequious and almost cacklingly dark, while Neil Kinnock and John Smith are fleeting figures passed almost in montage as Blair rises to the top. With Blair himself pretty much the straight-man in all of this – defined more by a few well-known mannerisms than any particularly eccentric behaviours – Hill and Brown concentrate on recasting some of the leading players in more interesting and innovative ways to enhance their comedic potential.

A fine decision gives Cherie a Liverpudlian accent akin to Cilla Black that underscores the slight social differences between Blair and the woman he married, as well as giving her a distinct voice in his ear as she tangos into his affections. Gordon Brown as core antagonist repeatedly asking Blair to make good on their deal, is seen as a dour, unsmiling Scot with a passion for macroeconomics and a dry style that leads to several very funny confrontations. Likewise, the presentation in Act Two of Osama Bin Laden, Sadam Hussein and George Bush does just enough to define their personalities, giving each a personalised song that draw on Music Hall styles by contrasting their murderous intentions with an upbeat tune. The creators even look to Groucho Marx for their interpretation of Hussein which, brief as it is, lands well.

Controversial though it may be, the best moments in Tony! take place between Blair and Princess Diana who quietly join forces in their quest for popular appeal, performing a hilarious duet in Act One that is filled with sultry charm while noting a mutual awareness of the media benefit of their relationship – leading of course to Blair’s defining ‘People’s Princess’ speech. Knowing they’re onto a good thing, Hill and Brown reprise the partnership in another form later on as this part of the show takes a quiet savvy perspective on kindred spirits both finding their allure is enhanced by the spotlight and commenting on broader socio-cultural waves in the 90s that celebrated hopeful, seemingly angelic or messiah-like figures of which Blair and the Princess of Wales were the figureheads.

There is a lot packed into Tony! and arguably the second half doesn’t yet quite fulfil the promise of the first, getting a little lost in the details of the war. So where a high-level approach brought a faster pace to the comedy conveyor belt initially, Act Two is a little bogged down in dossiers, resolutions and establishing a homoerotic special relationship which slows the story. This is a more serious subject of course and the centrepiece of Hill and Brown’s show which questions the extent to which these defining moments of Blair’s premiership should erase anything else, but the order of events is well-hashed knowledge. The superfluous addition of extra domestic material including a BSE reference feel like unnecessary padding in a second Act that could be streamlined. It means the laughs are noticeably slower to come as the pacing of Peter Rowe’s production slips.

The combination of comedy and tragedy is a delicate skill but the two here are not entirely woven together. Instead, the comedy almost stops for a melancholy interlude in which a seemingly unassuming audience member confronts Blair about the war dead and failures of his leadership, accusations that are reasonable if a little blunt in comparison to the tighter satire of the rest of the story. And while the character of Blair acknowledges the ‘tragic bit’ as part of the disarming structure in which these creations recognise the staginess of their own lives, and there is a need to confront the man with his ‘crimes’ as part of the weighing of conscience that his deathbed moment has established, it does cut rather inelegantly into the show without perhaps offering any new information. Tony! quickly recovers itself, returning to its caricatured best in the closing scenes with a rapid handover to Brown and Blair’s final assessment of his time as Prime Minister but there may be a cleaner way to integrate the two styles.

Steve Brown’s songs are very enjoyable, merging different musical influences to create an eclectic but consistent score and some very memorable songs that are a production highlight and provide each character with a distinctive sound while merging solos and duets with larger ensemble numbers that are crying out for a bigger theatre. Libby Watson has mastered the look and feel of New Labour in Whitehall with a formal black suit, red tie base for all characters over which she adds more extreme and elaborate wigs, jackets, masks and even a full cow head to create different personality quirks that adds a nice visual humour to Tony! that sits well with both the tone and the limited physical comedy aspects. Watson also ensures the set is minimal but multifunctional with a backdrop of wood panelling and a hardworking chest that becomes Blair’s birthplace, desk and platform all overlooked and impressively dominated by a large sign ensuring Tony’s name is up in lights throughout.

As Blair, Charlie Baker doesn’t need to look like the character but captures the trademark tics and habits that replicate his speech pattern, gestures and cheery charm, clinging to the notion that he is a good guy. Over the performance, Baker shows Blair’s lust for power growing, enjoying the mania resulting from a hyped-up encounter with George Bush and providing a solid central vocal around which the song and dance numbers are built. Holly Sumpton’s excellent Cherie is a great foil, a powerful presence with an impressive voice that keeps her husband in line and on track while Gary Trainor’s Gordon Brown becomes a blank and monotone contrast to Blair.

No one enjoys their performance more than Howard Samuels as nefarious narrator and Master of Ceremonies Peter Mandelson, with Samuels virtually bounding around the stage in glee while delivering a great character study of one of Blair’s most notorious supporters and, as it turns out, a balloon animal expert. Kudos too for Madison Swan’s on the nose Princess Diana, capturing those familiar shy eyes and coquettish glances which Swan has comically exaggerated just the right amount while adding a powerful vocal to an ensemble who perform multiple roles as established political and social figures from the Cabinet to international leaders and noted cultural personalities from the 1990s version of Number 10 parties attended by Liam Gallagher and Bernie Ecclestone.

Tony! needs to smooth its wartime narrative, but it gets the balance right most of the time by taking familiar events and squeezing them for comedy value. And there’s plenty of it in a show that begins by questioning Blair and slowly turns its gaze on the audience asking us who is really culpable for the people we elect or allow to continue in power. Already well on the way to being a very fine political satire, once its run at the Park Theatre concludes Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] might soon find itself on an even bigger stage.

Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] is at the Park Theatre until 9 July with tickets from £18. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


The Glass Menagerie – Duke of York’s Theatre

The Glass Menagerie - Duke of York's Theatre

It’s a sign that London theatre is beginning to settle back into its familiar patterns when spring and summer heralds the arrival of American stars keen to make their mark on the West End stage. The last summer before covid it was Sally Field and Bill Pullman in the Old Vic’s All My Sons with Pullman clearly enjoying the experience so much he’s back again, rehearsing with David Harbour for performances of Mad House in late June. Jake Gyllenhaal’s acclaimed Broadway appearance in Sunday in the Park With George was scheduled to transfer in that infamous summer of 2020 while Patti LuPone who came for Marianne Elliott’s Company in 2018 has taken the production back to Broadway with her where it is currently playing.

Now it is the turn of Amy Adams, already an acclaimed and multi Oscar nominated film actor with some notable stage experience in the US, making her West End debut in Jeremy Herrin’s new version of The Glass Menagerie, a play that has been perhaps a little over produced in the UK in recent years with notable versions at the Arcola in 2019 and another starring American actor Cherry Jones also at the Duke of York’s in 2017 making her UK debut as the fragile and affected Amanda Wingfield.

As well as seeing Tennessee Williams’s play with astonishing regularity, its basis in the playwrights own family history and experience is its most commonly reproduced fact, and one that gives added meaning and depth to an elusive and delicately crafted piece about a family trapped between their semi-imagined past and a desired future. But focusing almost exclusively on the semi-autobiographical nature of The Glass Menagerie takes away from its more interesting discussion on the haunting reconstruction of memory and the falsity of both remembrances, and indeed theatre, in bringing to life events and people long since faded away. Herrin’s production steps away from some of the more traditional approaches to applaud Williams’s technique as a conjurer, a stager of scenes that capture the fleeting moment and its cumulative effect.

Herrin through his Headlong Theatre Company tends to think a little differently about the productions he directs, telling immersive stories but with lively approaches to engagement including the use of video screens, music and lighting to enhance or amplify the overall experience and to convey complex messages or political themes as he did recently with Best of Enemies and with challenging, almost confrontational pieces like People, Places and Things and The Nether before that. Two big decisions define this production of The Glass Menagerie, the first slightly adjusts how the story is usually narrated which leads to the second, a design choice derived solely from character and the memory theme.

Williams leaves the storytelling duties to his dramatic proxy Tom Wingfield, son of Amanda and brother to the fragile Laura, who steps out of the story to speak to the audience from a period decades later while also performing as himself in the family scenes he is retelling. Herrin has separated these two versions of the man into two characters, one the older version of Tom casting his mind back and critically reflecting on these crucial months in the small St Lewis flat, while the other is the young, frustrated man of the house desperate to escape the stifling heat of his relations and their expectations of and for him.

The result is rather effective, reducing the burden on a single actor to carry most of the show while able to draw a much starker contrast between the young Tom filled with aspiration for adventure and the man who must live with the consequences of his actions at the end of the play, a broken wretch unable to escape his guilt or to reconcile his disappointment with how his life has turned out. It makes tangible a really quite central theme in Williams’s work – the unceremonious shattering of illusion that leaves characters with nothing but despair, breaking through the romance of their intentions and those wistful hopes of something better, to find only ugliness and disillusion when they are left with the truth.

Like Chekov, Williams’s characters are living in falsely created worlds of their own, ones in which hope is the only thing they have to cling to and is often forcibly taken from them during the course of the play. But while Chekhov creations tend to look towards an imagined brighter future blocked merely by practicality – the need to sell a property or to move to the city – Williams’s characters are mired in their past and dream only of a future that takes them back to happier times. The present never seems to exist for them as they lose themselves in the recollection of halcyon days or seek escape to an unspecified future freedom where they will shake off their own personalities and become different, happier people.

Seeing two version of Tom in this production of The Glass Menagerie shows us the inherent falsity in the notion that the future is a better place than the past. The future Tom is not a man who has found contentment or even confidence through travel or experience, and although he has got what he wanted, it is clear that he has never escaped himself or the man that he used to be. It is a smart and meaningful dramatic choice from Herrin, one that grasps the clues that Williams places throughout the text to expand the character from regretful brother to someone who has lost the essence of himself through searching for it, and comes to view the events of this play as the turning point that continues to torture his conscience.

The second choice that Herrin makes is in designing a more symbolic location for the play by using its theatrical status to create sparse representative spaces for the action where this memory momentarily comes to life. There is a deliberate construct in Williams’s play which is essentially false, a story told from one perspective by a man who was there piecing together fragments of memories which he brings to life before the audience. Williams didn’t chose to write this as a 1930s family whose life occurs in chronological procession but as a casting back from the future with all the overtones of regret and melancholy that this evokes. Nor are we to assume that all the scenes necessarily occurred in the order in which we see them – although some clearly follow on from earlier discussion – but are fragments of experience, of conversations and irritations that occur to Tom while living at home with his mother happening across no specified time period. The events we see created could have occurred across weeks, even years building to a point at which Tom takes decisive action – a culmination we never actually see but only hear about in retrospect.

Herrin uses the ambiguity of structure to create two spaces on stage, a central black platform with minimal props where the family home exists and a surrounding area cluttered with junk, furniture and props that nod to a world beyond the Wingfield establishment while also holding a rehearsal room quality. The actors move between these spaces, sometimes sitting and waiting on the edges for their cue but only truly becoming their characters either standing on or in close proximity to the central platform. Designed by Vicki Mortimer who has considerable experience of creating memory-laden sets (see also Follies), the space is purposefully unremarkable, reflecting the layered fictions within Williams’s structure that make his scenarios real but also figments of imagination at the same time.

This illusory quality is aided by the feeling of the 1960s that runs through the visual style of the show, not only in Edward K. Gibbon’s costumes but also Ash J. Woodward’s video design that creates patterns of refracted colour as though we are seeing these people through a distorting prism of glass – manifest in Mortimer’s sizeable glass cabinet filled with treasures that dominates the stage, the only tangible physical object in their home. It suggests that Tom’s memory is not strong enough to create the 1930s without a little of his present era bleeding in, making him unreliable as a narrator who twists and reforms the past in order to understand his present self. This is reinforced by the decision to physically engage in his own memories, interacting with his mother and sister as though he were there, holding up props and squeezing their shoulders, almost nudging his memories to life and unable to resist returning to those times even in this other guise.

As the older Tom, Paul Hilton has command of this story, welcoming the audience but never allowing them to become to comfortably ensconced. As the action unfolds, Hilton is almost ever present, reacting to activity and often wincing in pain as the past swims before Tom once more, wanting to be part of it all once more but increasingly affected by it. There is anger and resentment in the performance, but also frustration with himself as the events and their outcomes visible nag at his conscience. Tom Glynn-Carney plays his younger self as a distant and irritable figure with some affection for his family but using drink, movies and work as a place to escape the responsibilities that claw at him. Young Tom is rarely sympathetic and sometimes even cruel but Glynn-Carney and Hilton align their approaches to create consistency between the eras.

Adams is a superb Amanda, a more mumsy interpretation of the role than often seen but capturing just the right degree of fussing and largely wholesome parent trying to kickstart her children into life while seeing them as an opportunity to live out her own failed dreams. Amanda is a character that also lives in the past creating further layers of memory within Tom’s singular memory, trapped in her own youthful beauty and abundance of ‘gentleman callers’ that belie the regret she feels about the way her life has panned out. Like the older Tom, Amanda is frustrated by her failure to attain the life that was once promised to her, but Adams steers away from the obvious Blanche Dubois possibilities to create a neat, almost prim woman whose softly spoken approach contains real authority in controlling her adult children.

Adams treads a very nice line between being an embarrassing mother and wanting to find something for herself. She allows her character to come alive when Jim O’Connor finally visits, almost flirting with him herself and swept up in her blustering excitement about the evening and its possibilities. Adams shows that Amanda too is looking for escape, not in the physical sense like Tom, but at least in her imagination, allowing hope of something new to take hold of her while never forgetting the economic and maternal responsibilities that return her to the ground. It is a quieter version of Amanda, but very effective in this more symbolic production.

Laura and gentleman caller Jim really have their moment in Scene VII, left alone on stage to discuss the glass menagerie and the fragility of their lives. Lizzie Annis’s Laura has been in the background before this, talked about and momentarily passing through the scene but here she emerges from her shyness and Annis draws the parallels with the delicacy of her ornaments and a similar past-loving hopefulness as her mother. Victor Alli gives Jim a depth of compassion which makes their decisive conversation compelling showing, unlike the Wingfields, that he lives in the present, happy to reminisce for a few hours but upfront and truthful about who he is and his limitations.

Most of this comes together best in the second half of Herrin’s show where the staging concept along with Williams’s story and the performances, catch fire while the first part of the production is still a little disjointed. But as Williams’s structural approach and characterisation start to take hold, Herrin’s production becomes compelling, even haunting in moments that generates spontaneous emotional reactions from its audience. While it is probably time to let the play rest for a while, the three productions in five years have all had something slightly different to contribute and Herrin’s interpretation with Adams at the helm has certainly added further layers of meaning.

The Glass Menagerie is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 27 August with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


My Fair Lady – London Coliseum

My Fair Lady - London Coliseum (by Marc Brenner)

Henry Higgins is a problem. The question facing the creative team behind the London transfer of Bartlett’s Sher’s production of My Fair Lady, which opens at the London Coliseum this week, is what do you do about a lead character whose attitudes to women, to the sacred preservation of language and to poverty are at best dismissive and at worst, openly offensive? One of the greatest stage and screen musicals of all time, the comic extremes of Higgins views, aired frequently throughout the story, are easy to dismiss as being of their time and, even in the context of the narrative, shown to be of step with others. But a contemporary production of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s story cannot avoid the conclusion than Higgins is the very epitome of a toxic bachelor and Sher’s team must decide whether he should be rewarded for it.

Last year, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre faced a similar dilemma with its portrayal of Billy Bigelow in Carousel who, in the original score and romanticised Hollywood movie, is able to gain entry to heaven despite repeat acts of domestic abuse. Not so in Timothy Sheader’s production and Billy was given a slightly different kind of ending. Higgins is even more overt in his disdain for other people, and the snobbish superiority of his manner to Eliza – that he would treat a Duchess the same as a flower girl – may give him plenty of humorous lines, but in this entirely faithful adaptation, Sher’s production asks whether Higgins really learns anything about himself in the course of his encounter with Eliza Doolittle and whether his attachment to her is anything more than a personal indulgence.

It has been more than two decades since My Fair Lady was last seen in London in a fateful production that paired Martine McCutcheon with Jonathan Pryce, and the show itself in many ways is exactly the same as it was in 2001 and in 1956. Purists will be delighted that Sher’s production is true to Lerner’s lyrics and book while a full orchestra fills the Coliseum with Loewe’s unparalleled score. From Wouldn’t It Be Lovely to I’m Getting Married in the Morning, I Could Have Danced All Night to On the Street Where you Live, visually and musically, Sher’s production is entirely traditional, retaining the same period setting, full Edwardian costumes and every recognisable line.

The surprise here is in creating a show that is in look, feel and style exactly the My Fair Lady we all know, even if only from the indelible 1964 film, and without changing a single word, making the audience think again about the characters and their behaviour to one another. This is a story that pivots on the choice and pronunciation of language so hearing again Higgins’s repeated use of ‘baggage’, ‘guttersnipe’ and ‘squashed cabbage leaf’ feel uncomfortably different in 2022. This Cinderella story of a young woman’s transformation from ugly duckling to swan becomes mired in Higgins’s problematic insistence that Eliza has no feelings of note, that she has no right to live if she ‘utters such depressing and disgusting sounds’ and that credit for her triumphant appearance at the Embassy Ball is his alone.

Sher presents Higgins exactly as he is, a man who believes women are vague, eager to be married and objects to be dispatched, that they are ‘exasperating, irritating, vacillating, calculating, agitating, maddening and infuriating hags’ and that men are intellectually and culturally superior. None of this is softened or altered, and although he is a character that audiences have only ever been asked to take semi-seriously in his rants – particularly in Rex Harrison’s charismatic performance – and who is deeply affected by the presence of Eliza in his life, he still curses her intention and scoffs at her liberty until almost the last moment in I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face while still wanting her around to continue to support his lifestyle, locating his slippers and liaising with the housekeeper on his breakfast choices.

What you see in this production is, then, in some ways what we always see, a man of his time and an eager bachelor. Yet, a barely perceptible shift has occurred where inclusion, individuality and class are no longer tightly controlled by white Oxbridge-educated men who determine what is considered an ‘acceptable’ speech pattern and dialect, or the eugenicist undertones that imply one life is more worthy than another. In a subtly cast contemporary light, Higgins’s attitudes are far more damaging and deplorable than their surface comedy suggests. And while Eliza expresses precisely the same sentiment that Willy Russell’s Rita would later experience, that education leaves her in a no man’s land between one class and another, the swan Higgins has created is far less content or at ease with herself than the young flower girl he met in the Covent Garden piazza.

So is Higgins a villain? Well not quite. Although selfish and driven by a Leopold and Loeb feeling of superiority over his fellow men, his motives are reasonably pure and he genuinely believes that what he offers Eliza will improve her life and give her the kind of choices she lacks in her original state. That she feels far more caged after her transformation is an unforeseen outcome of their experiment and his growing feeling for her is testament to a respect that grows between them. Higgins is capable of some change, moving towards a more generous acceptance of the capacity for growth in others than he previously possessed. However, like Billy Bigelow, does Higgins learn or do enough to earn a happy ending? In 1964, George Cukor and Hollywood clearly thought so, in 2022 that is not so clear and in creating a final ending for Eliza and Higgins that weighs-up the balance of morality across the three hours of performance, Sher consults George Bernard Shaw’s original script for Pygmalion.

So while Higgins becomes more ambiguous, Eliza is given greater clarity, with an enlarged spirit of independence and personality that give her far greater agency. When she arrives at Higgins’s door, Eliza is already a woman who has financially supported herself since her father abandoned her years before, who moves without fear around the late night streets of London and is confident in herself. Unafraid to ask for what she wants or to fight back when being maltreated, her quest for self-improvement is presented as a determination to take control of her future and a reflection of the respect with which she wants to be treated. Language, for her, is the tool for that but Eliza retains her savvy natural instincts. It is a shame that Sharif Afifi’s Freddy is played as a buffoon, rather than a credible suitor, throwing away both Lerner and Loewe’s sublime On the Street Where You Live but also the realistic prospect of marriage for Eliza, no one in this production could believe for a second that such a shrewd woman would consider this Freddy as a realistic option.

And while he may not think so, the audience is encouraged to see her as Higgins’s equal from the first, a woman who disregards social convention and the expectation of others as highly as her tutor prizes them. She scowls and scorns him repeatedly during their lessons, standing up to his bullying and refusing to broken by either his methods or his overbearing nature. The more he treats her as a semi-invisible living doll (as Mrs Higgins notes), the more unyielding Eliza becomes and the more determined to succeed, as much to spite him as to work towards her floristry shop aspiration. In Sher’s production, we note that while Eliza’s speech pattern may change, she holds on to a connection to the woman she was six months before, retaining the better part of her courage and self-sufficiency that allows her to face a different kind of future – far more bravely than Higgins does in fact. That instinctual ability to find her own way and to make a final choice that will be of most benefit to herself is an indication of her essential resilience and her intellect, underpinning the notion that the only person who transforms Eliza is Eliza herself.

Amara Okereke is outstanding as Eliza with a vocal that rivals Marnie Nixon. While it would be so easy to play her like Audrey Hepburn, Okereke finds entirely her own beat, exploring Eliza’s multifaceted personality while using both songs and scenes to create her own, distinct version of the character. Her cockney accent is authentically rooted in South London while her transformed voice retains a nicely false note of refinement, slightly over-pronounced, that makes Zoltan Karpathy’s suspicions of her origin more credible. But Okereke’s biggest achievement is to make Eliza feel real, a women plagued by self-doubt and aspiration in equal part, entirely sympathetic, scrappy and determined to forge her own path, and while she accepts help from Higgins, she never needs him or allows herself to rely on him.

Reprising his Lincoln Centre performance, Harry Hadden-Paton is bullish, self-satisfied and commanding as Higgins, a man unused to being challenged, particularly by women who, when he gives them a second thought, expects others to bow to his superior mind and reasoning. Hadden-Paton finds tones of humility in there somewhere, a spark of feeling that offers up the possibility of redemption and prevents Higgins from becoming too flat while delivering the songs with vigour and certainly singing them unlike Rex Harrison. Higgins, of course, never sees himself as a bad man and that is the greatness in Hadden-Patton’s performance, Higgins doesn’t purposefully offer himself up to be judged, that rests entirely with the viewer.

To do all of this within the chocolate box tradition of My Fair Lady is fascinating and Sher’s production applies many of the same staging techniques that his version of To Kill a Mockingbird is using only a few streets away. Michael Yeargen’s set is a series of watercolour flats that drop or are consciously wheeled into place to suggest the façade of Covent Garden, railings and the market scenes while some moveable lampposts and disconnected door frames stand in for Wimpole Street. Broadway often romanticises the classic film musicals and draws on the Technicolor studio production style as its theme – see also An American in Paris. The concept here is semi-fantastical, a heightened version of a London that never existed in which real characters and emotions take place in front of painted scenes visibly wheeled around in choreographed patterns by the actors in a sort of Brechtian escapism.

Like Atticus Finch’s house, Yeargen’s design for Higgins’s home is a block set that both moves in from the back of stage and has the capacity to rotate, giving a multi-room view of his Victorian townhouse that includes the Study / Library with spiral staircase and the hallway where Eliza dreams of Higgins’s death at the hand of the King. Catherine Zuber echoes Cecil Beaton in the costume design, creating a homage to his vision particularly for the stylish Ascot sequence, Eliza’s beautiful ballgown and even nodding to the lines and shape of her leaving Wimpole Street outfit, although Zuber exchanges the dour peach for a hot pink. There are plenty of choices here that pay court to the very specific look that My Fair Lady has and its audience might expect while also introducing some bolder tones that stand out in a large auditorium.

Yet, the size of the space does have its downsides and the pre-sized set blocks and scenarios occasionally looks a little swamped in the Coliseum. With a relatively small ensemble cast, this is most noticeable in the two numbers that really ought to fill the stage. The Ascot scene with only two lines of well dressed aristocrats looks very sparse at first with almost no set to offset the large gap at the back of the stage – not even some silhouetted horses projected across the back wall. A similar issue afflicts the Embassy Ball where only a dozen couples stand to one side in what should be a crowded society event full of whispers and intrigue. Covid safety and budget aside, what should be set piece moments feel a little underpowered compared to the dense decoration of the Higgins residence.

Part of this is a lack of dance incorporated into this interpretation on a sizeable stage made for ballet and opera, which last year was filled to capacity by teenage dance fanatics in Hairspray. My Fair Lady on stage actually has very limited full ensemble choreography until late in the second half when Alfred sings I’m Getting Married in the Morning, and here Sher’s production comes alive with a spectacular performance from Stephen K. Amos, departing from the Stanley Holloway take, to create a colourful pub-based extravaganza filled with can-can dancers, working men and plenty of table-hopping joy. In a sequence that lasts several joyous minutes, Trude Rittmann’s choreography is multi-tonal as Alfred celebrates and mourns his last night of freedom, lighting up the show with an energy slightly lacking from those other big ensemble pieces.

If you want to see a My Fair Lady that feels like a scene for scene remake of the film, then this production will not disappoint, but equally for anyone looking for a more contemporary resonance beneath the surface, then that is certainly here as well. Sher’s re-examination of the show’s central relationship and shifts in the balance of power are enlightening, proving the modern musical doesn’t have to be gritty or necessarily stripped-back to find new meaning.

My Fair Lady is at the London Coliseum until 27 August with tickets from £20, followed by a UK and Ireland tour. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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