Tag Archives: Michael Longhurst

Midnight Your Time and the Cinefication of Theatre

Midnight Your Time - Donmar Warehouse

Theatre has often been quite quick to react to new technologies, with set designers and directors at the forefront of integrating new approaches to staging and visualising a show. For better or worse, the association between theatre, television and film has only grown closer in the last ten years, not just with writers, directors and performers moving between the different genres with increasingly fluidity, but in the adoption of cinematic technique within productions. At a sector level, the influence of NT Live since 2009 has sometimes shaped how a show is put together. You need only look at the abstract way in which Frankenstein was shot to wonder what influence its film director Danny Boyle had on the final screening versions, and while the lure of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet brought the Barbican to a standstill, it was somewhat lost on its cavernous stage, but the production lived for its cinema-relay where the various technical decisions came together more successfully.

The use of video and film technique have also been integrated into the narrative experience  in a variety of ways, either as a means of identifying and recording action taking place “off-stage” or more directly as part of the overall visual design of a show. Ivo van Hove has made it a trademark and, love or hate it, much of his European work and now increasingly his UK output uses camera relay as an integral part of the show’s structure, projecting scrutinising close-ups of his actors even in the hidden crannies of the stage. This was notable in All About Eve where private moments in bathrooms and kitchens, from which other characters were purposefully excluded, were shared with the audience to increase the sense of dramatic irony and the notion of permanent performance which its group of creatives were experiencing. In Network at the National Theatre, van Hove had his actors begin a scene outside on the Southbank, live-streaming their arrival at the fictional TV studio where footage and the relationship between presenter and viewer was crucial. Even the more controversial Obsession – which is van Hove’s most European show to date – used its film noir ancestry to create an abstract, screen-filled experience.

But there are other kinds of show that have used film techniques for specific directorial and design effects as well as for driving narrative decisions. In 2016, Robert Icke’s superb adaptation of The Red Barn at the National Theatre adopted some of the split-screen approaches, used extensively in the 1960s, to build tension in a flowing murder mystery. Icke played with the proportions of the stage and seamlessly created window blocks to change the scale and visual impact of the action. Creators Benj Pasek and Justin Paul went a step further in Dear Evan Hansen  – the first musical to fully embrace and reflect the social media age – which opened in London last November, and created a stage filled with social media feeds that run continuously throughout the show as Twitter, Instagram and Youtube content became the context and the cause of the story.

And here we are at another moment of significant change where filmic content has been the major solution for an industry desperate to sustain engagement with its existing and new theatre audiences, as well as diversifying income streams during the lockdown. Previous productions recorded live and offered for free by the National Theatre at Home initiative have been so successful that more and more theatres have started to offer archived content with The Old Vic the latest to announce its own streaming channel from June. Prepared to “give back” at a time of crisis, content created for cinema screening and / or recorded using its techniques may yet be the saving grace of the theatre industry.

In a few cases, film and video-based platforms have also facilitated the recording and sharing of brand new material. Increasingly Zoom and other similar communication channels are been used to performed Shakespeare plays or musical theatre tribute concerts. Whether we openly recognise it, these are still cinematic experiences, ones watched on a screen, often with directorial consideration of camera placement, shot selection and cut decisions that pre-plan / rehearse how plays will be presented when they appear on audience laptops, smart phones and televisions.

All of this brings us to Midnight Your Time, a 30-minute play written in 2011 by Adam Brace and performed at the High Tide Festival by Diana Quick who stars in the Donmar Warehouse’s revival under the leadership of her director then and now, Michael Longhurst. Nine years ago, the staging took the Ivo van Hove route, projecting protagonist Judy’s image on a screen above the actor during a series of one-sided video calls. In 2020, Longhurst utilises the tools of film editing to transpose the entire production into Judy’s screen so the audience sees the show from unseen daughter Helen’s perspective as message after revealing message is recorded.

The video-based calling platforms have become all too familiar to many of us in recent weeks and whether it’s Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Zoom, Skype or seemingly endless others, these have been our primary means of communication with friends, family and colleagues since lockdown began. So it’s with a certain weary glee that Midnight Your Time reflects our current experience back at us, without altering the very specific era and political context of the show which begins in the small hours of New Year’s Day 2010.

Longhurst’s production is a series of short ‘scenes’, each one a separate video message the despairing Judy sends to her unresponsive daughter over a period of months. The premise and the building drama of the show depends on the protagonist’s interaction with the video call platform and its functionality which allows her to record messages for the recipient, as well as the option to delete and reconstruct the conversation she wishes to have.

This becomes particularly important as the truth about this mother-daughter relationship slowly emerges, and as Brace conversationally drip-feeds information – a hint of a past row here, the growing resentment of unreturned calls there – Longhurst uses a series of quick cuts to indicate conversations happening in a compressed time frame to reflect Judy’s optimistic, concessionary mood at the beginning of the play, or, more dramatically, in a late night scene in which she repeatedly lets her temper get the better of her and has to revise her message – the screen equivalent of throwing balled-up letters over her shoulder.

The staging of this extended monologue is both casual and remarkably formal, filmed in different rooms of Quick’s house – a decision that seems to be more than one of sheer variety – feeding directly into the two halves of Judy’s personality that so distinctly emerge as the narrative unfolds. In the welcoming warmth of the clean kitchen, the audience learns of Judy’s day-to-day activities, her legal training, involvement in a women’s peace organisation and the succession of middle-class parties and dinners that comprise her social activity. The bright lighting and position of the camera, revealing a particular kind of lifestyle.

The contrast in the more emotional scenes is notable and fascinating. Set either in the plush bedroom or living room, the curtains are always drawn, the light is limited and filming seems to take place at an entirely different time of day. While the audience is invited into these other rooms of the house, there is something incredible personal and almost voyeuristic about the result as Judy’s emotional, and sometimes physical, disorder exudes from these shots, private moments of revelation, of alcoholic dishevelment and guilt that seem to spring from the cosy backdrop.

And this awareness of the camera, it’s ability to pick-up on the subtext within the play and extrapolate much through the social environment is just as essential to Quick’s performance. It may seem particularly obvious to note that this is a play in which the camera is the key means of communication, but acting to camera requires a different calibration than stage acting which changes the scale of facial movements and physical gestures. Look at Sea Wall briefly made available on Youtube last week in which Andrew Scott’s performance has an extraordinary understanding of how to elicit maxim pathos and drama from a fixed-position camera.

Unlike on stage, only Judy’s head and shoulders are visible, very rarely do we see her entire body and the audience must rely on Quick to deliver a series of social cues that reveal everything about her state of mind. In moments of confidence she leans happily back in her chair, her make-up, hair and outfit purposefully designed to show Judy in her most level and public state – something all of us will recognise as we ‘dress’ for calls.  At her most vulnerable, she slumps defeated or leans close to the camera, pleading with her daughter to notice and respond to her entreaties, which only enhances the visual effect of her disordered hair and broken expression.

The relatively short scene structure that Brace has put in place, and from which Longhurst elicits such nuance, also uses the camera to create another interesting facet to this production, that of narrative unreliability. The audience initially is asked to empathise with Judy, a mother persistently trying to contact her feckless daughter, but as the story unfolds the changing locations and style call into question Judy’s motives by slowly revealing a controlling and potentially offensive authoritarianism that rankles with her silent daughter as clearly as it seems to with her charity colleagues and neighbours. Quick and Longhurst uses performance, shot design and direction to slowly shift the balance, helping the viewer to wonder whose side we should really be on.

After lockdown, there are valid concerns that new voices may be swallowed up in the desire to programme safely or that only the larger commercial auditoriums will still be there when theatre’s re-emerge. Yet this confining period is giving the industry plenty of food for thought and conversations abound about how the sector might look when venues reopen, this is a moment for re-evaluation from which all kinds of innovation could come. And, there is no doubting that the links between theatre and film, so vital to the sustenance of community in recent months, will only strengthen. How the semi-improvised simplicity of Zoom Shakespeare or the screen-based interactions that have become our main point of contact with the world will eventually impact the stage remains to be seen, but the recording and sharing of the live theatre experience is surely changed forever.

Midnight Your Time is available on the Donmar Warehouse website until 20th May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Teenage Dick – Donmar Warehouse

Teenage Dick - Donmar Warehouse (by Marc Brenner)

Shakespeare and the High School rom-com go way back; the universality of his plays make them suitable for adaptation to a number of different environments and in the prescribed social structure of the American High School with its strict categorisations, power plays and love of social gatherings (proms, pep rallies and elections) it is a perfect setting to explore some of Shakespeare’s most enduring themes. Gil Junger’s 1999 reworking of The Taming of the Shrew became the accomplished 10 Things I Hate About You, a high point of the genre that made stars of Julia Styles and Heath Ledger, while Baz Luhrmann took a more traditional approach to the language if not the style of his 1996 version of Romeo and Juliet starring pin-up Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. And plenty of High School movies have at the very least referenced or borrowed plot points or ideas from Shakespeare including Never Been Kissed in 1999 whose heroine played by Drew Barrymore adored As You Like It.

In this context, Mike Lew’s new stage adaptation of Richard III feels surprisingly at home in its new world of teenage angst and social divisions set against the backdrop of the Senior Class President elections at one normal American High School. Taking Shakespeare’s overarching plot, some characters and themes as inspiration, the way in which the two genres have been melded together is remarkably sophisticated although on the surface Teenage Dick looks and sounds like your almost average US teen movie. And while the adaptation has not found universal favour among the critics, anyone growing-up in the era of the High School rom-com will delight in its affection for the genre and an approach that celebrates rather than dilutes Shakespeare’s text.

From the mid-1980s with The Breakfast Club to the mid-2000s when High School Musical signaled the end of the golden age of this enduring genre, for 20-years the US high school movie was a relatively low-budget staple of productions aimed at the teen audience. While the tone varied, they all had their stock formula, usually some kind of disaffected loner or outsider drawn into the world of the cool kids in order to effect change, social realisation and self-belief. There were highs like Heathers (1989) and Mean Girls (2004) – both now stage musicals – as well as the satire Election (1999) and there were plenty of lows too but the genre launched the careers of actors from Paul Rudd to Lindsay Lohan, Zac Efron to Rachel McAdam, Alicia Silverstone, Emilio Estevez and countless others who all went on to bigger, albeit quite different careers.

In Teenage Dick Lew absorbs all of this to believable create Roseland Junior High where jock Eddie is gunning for re-election as Senior Class President having served in the position for two years based entirely on his good looks and football-star status. Surrounding him in what is a very small cast for this kind of setting, we have a teacher Miss York looking to promote social equality and justice, therefore easy to manipulate, and the outcasts demarcated by their disabilities. But integrating Shakespeare into this context makes Lew’s approach so much more interesting than that and soon the audience is questioning whether the apparent divisions we are shown are only truly visible to Richard Gloucester, our protagonist and potential villain.

The central role is recognisably Richard III and those who know the play well will enjoy watching his masterful manipulation of friends and teachers as he manoeuvres himself into candidacy while letting his helpers think it was their idea. But in our more enlightened times, Lew deliberately sidesteps the notion of a truly dastardly Richard while also deciding to tone down the violence to make it appropriate for the High School setting. Instead, Lew asks interesting questions – as Shakespeare does to a degree – about the perception of Richard’s disability and its role in preventing others from seeing him as a leader. Most importantly though, we see clearly how Richard fails to see past his own physical appearance and it is this misconception about others that drives his behaviour and the action of the play.

What is so interesting about Teenage Dick is that there are no straightforward heroes and villains, so we see both Richard and Eddie behaving badly, squaring-up to one another while also being reminded that they are essentially children, 17-year olds acting out with a greater capacity for emotional development than the early part of the play suggests. The audience becomes complicit in its categorisation of the characters into their High School cliches before Lew spends some time in the second half revealing more complex truths beneath the surface.

Richard’s plan to bring about Eddie’s downfall initially seems straightforward and entirely justified when the popular boy taunts and mercilessly bullies Richard, using his disability against him. Eddie’s arrogance and use of offensive language to describe Richard’s condition pit the audience against him while he appears equally cruel in dumping the play’s love interest Anne Margaret before the action begins. Yet as with Shakespeare’s version, our changing opinion and understanding of Richard starts to recast the people around him, including Eddie so before too long other traits including his friendship with Barbara Buckingham known as “Bucks” and his clear popularity at the Presidential Debate force us to re-evaluate our judgement of him. This is only given greater emphasis by the shocking revelations and events of the last section that makes us wonder if, as our narrator, Richard has been manipulating the perspective of the audience as well as the characters.

Lew follows Shakespeare and incorporates aspects of his work in interesting ways across the play, occasionally having Richard break into a flowery Elizabethan structured speech (something which “Bucks” reminds him repeatedly is weird) and maintaining the wonderful soliloquies in which the protagonist directly addresses the audience in spotlighted revelations of his evil plans – there’s even a very funny moment when “Bucks” is onstage for one of these and thinks her unresponsive friend has just gone to “his happy place.” More humour comes from the occasional phrase borrowed from other plays including Julius Caesar – it is used sparingly but adds to the semi-artificiality that both the High School setting and Shakespeare create in allowing Richard to narrate his own story.

But Lew also gives Shakespeare short shrift for his treatment of women and the expansion of Anne Margaret’s character to create the central romance as well as delving into her backstory, aspirations and own feelings of self-exclusion which are meaningfully explored. There is a very sweet tentative chemistry that builds between the initially nervous Anne and Richard, two people from quite different cliques who find humanity in each other, and it is this which prevents Lew’s play from becoming either too snide or too lightweight. The effect of Richard’s decisions have significant consequences for this character and Lew gives her a chance to meaningfully address the viewer and stake her claim to relevance beyond Richard’s existence.

Lew has stipulated that both Richard and “Bucks” must be played by disabled actors which makes perfect sense in this version of the story. Daniel Monks is superb as the teenage Dick of the title, a young man tired of being defined and reduced by his physical appearance so decides to assume the mantle of the villain – as his Shakespearean counterpart does – to upset the balance of power in the school. What makes Monks’s performance so interesting is the conflicted perspective he brings to the role and not only does his Richard believe he is a good person using nefarious means to bring about a greater good, but sometimes he really is.

This nuance is evident all the way through the show and while it takes Richard to quite different places, navigating both a sensitive and sweet relationship with Anne Margaret that develops a real emotional honesty, and into some much more controversial territory as he schemes and undermines his friends, Monks retains the oily fascination of the original character who cannot see beyond his own image and uses that to blame others, while finding a large degree of empathy for his genuine social struggles. And this makes his final actions all the more shocking as he loses control and perspective.

The supporting cast is equally fine, particularly Siena Kelly as the compression of two Shakespearean originals to create a young woman desperate to hide from the spotlight to focus on her dream of becoming a dancer, but she learns to care for Richard and Kelly makes her trajectory extremely moving. Ruth Madeley is a calm presence as best friend “Bucks”, the only character to remain rational throughout, refusing to be blinded by Richard’s obsession with Eddie and finding plenty of comedy in their sparky interactions. Susan Wokoma is fantastic as the enthusiastically naive teacher unwittingly drawn into Richard’s plans, while Callum Adams as Eddie and Alice Hewkin as Clarissa perfectly represent their High School tribes but get to offer some deeper sense of motivation and emotion beneath the surface.

It all looks wonderfully recognisable in Chloe Lamford’s basketball court setting, with floor markings and hoop redolent of any secondary school gymnasium. Characters are dressed appropriately for their social status with Richard in the trademark black jeans and t-shirt of the outsider while sweatshirts and school-branded baseball jackets mark out the sporty boys. The transformations are quickly managed by Director Michael Longhurst who takes a cinematic approach to scene changes using speedily rearranged furniture and lighting to maintain pace. The ball scene is simply and effectively achieved instantly establishing the characteristics of an event we’ve seen in countless movies, but it is the inclusion of projected social media feeds, hashtags, tweets and characters filming on their smartphone that brings this up to date, skewering our modern obsession with an instant visual record and online responsiveness that magnifies every humiliation and private moment.

The murderous tension doesn’t build in the same way as Shakespeare’s original and that sense of deathly danger is all but expunged, yet at only 1 hour and 50 minutes rather than three hours something has to give, not to mention that the idea of mass murders in a High School setting would be in pretty poor taste. Lew has nonetheless created a version of Richard III that suits this context extremely well asking the audience to consider attitudes to disability, power and social structures that perpetuate all kinds of inequality. Teenage Dick may make less sense to those who bypassed the High School movie, but Lew’s play is funny, sad and meaningful, and like Joel Edgerton and David Michod’s film The King, Lew demonstrates that Shakespeare’s characters, plots, structure and themes are just as important as his verse and vocabulary, proving that Shakespeare’s understanding of human nature is as relevant to a battlefield in Leicestershire as it is to a High School gym in America.

Teenage Dick is at the Donmar Warehouse until 1 February with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Appropriate – Donmar Warehouse

Appropriate - Donmar Warehouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Caroline or Change – Playhouse Theatre

Caroline or Change - Hampstead Theatre

Individual reactions to the same show can vary wildly, which is why a single performance can draw a range of different ratings from the critics. When the same production receives both 2 and 4-star reviews your only hope is to align yourself with the writer who most often reflects your taste and book (or not) accordingly. But it is a very different conundrum when a show has received nothing by 5-star acclaim and yet, despite an equally enthusiastic ovation in the room, you’re left feeling cold, or at least less than rapturous about what you have just seen. The top rating is perhaps awarded a little too easily these days, but for an audience it gives rise to a particular set of expectations about how great the show will be and how you will feel about seeing it, expectations that sometimes only end in disappointment.

It is always a strange and disconcerting experience to feel out of kilter with an entire room of enthusiastic fans, when people are giving raucous standing ovations yet you remain firmly seated or clap enthusiastically at every available opportunity while your own hands remain undisturbed in your lap until the final bows. “What am I missing” you wonder as the entire room responds to an excitement you just don’t feel, “how is this failing to connect with me and why don’t I get it”? Well, it is a perfectly normal and legitimate reaction to an art-form predominantly based on interpretation and taste, that sometimes however much you mentally appreciate its technical skill, moments of engagement, over-arching themes and excellent performances, the expected emotional impact never comes – it’s just not for you.

Caroline or Change has absolutely everything going for it, a double transfer showered in stars at every turn. It opened at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2017 before a run at the Hampstead Theatre earlier this year, and now this production makes its way to the West End for a run at the Playhouse Theatre. And that’s not all, it’s written by Tony Kushner whose ‘gay fantasia’ Angels in America was revived to powerful effect at the National last year by Marianne Elliott before heading for Broadway last Spring, plus Caroline or Change stars the sensational Sharon D. Clarke who could break your heart singing the phonebook.

Even the themes of race equality, working class poverty and societal change set against the backdrop of the Kennedy assassination evoke one of the most interesting periods of twentieth-century history. All the building blocks are there for what should be an amazing night, and yet the magic doesn’t come, you feel like the only person in the room who has missed the boat.

With such a well-rehearsed show, despite its new location in the Playhouse, the fact that Caroline or Change is still in previews isn’t the issue, it feels slick, the Company at ease with the music and each other, the show running like a well-oiled machine. So, there must be something in the show itself, in its combined domestic drudgery and social change storyline, and the mixture of pointed political commentary with moments of metaphysical silliness that just doesn’t quite tick the boxes.

Kushner likes this approach and Angels in America, with its frequent dreamlike fantasies and visions of demonic-looking angels crashing through Prior Walter’s ceiling, is a delight, one you can accept wholeheartedly in the spirit of the show. Yet here, the personified domestic appliances that sing to or frighten Caroline are a flight of fancy too far, a touch of children’s television that extends to a talking bus and a woman in the moon who oversees events. Maybe it’s just fun, a bit of whimsy to lighten the mood, but it never quite connects or makes sense. It feels like a dramatic device to reflect Caroline’s thoughts which could have been achieved a hundred more effective ways.

There are lots of musicals about this era that successfully combine the individual and the political, telling an entertaining story with great music while subtly emphasising the social barriers still to be overcome. So maybe that is the problem, if you have seen and loved Hairspray, Dreamgirls or even the songs from Bombshell the fictional Marilyn Monroe musical from Smash, then perhaps a chatty washing machine and a scary tumble dryer just don’t feel as effective in relaying the context of 1960s America and particularly the position of a black working-class women with a family to support

The strangeness of this reaction is compounded by the fact that when Caroline or Change works, it works really well with plenty of fascinating characters with things to say in unusual and meaningful ways. Three contrasting experiences are presented through the narrative; first the upper middle-class lifestyle of the Gellmans, a Jewish family that Caroline works for and the various domestic problems they face as a blended group with different personalities and expectations; second, we observe the politicisation of Caroline’s neighbourhood and particularly her own children who are swept-up in the fight for race equality spreading across Louisiana; and finally we are taken into Caroline’s interior world, broaching the gap between these other experiences as she tries to keep her head down and avoid the change that ripples through the other stories.

The difficulties of single motherhood becomes a major theme as both Caroline and new step-mother Rose Gellman are forced into semi-maternal roles through the circumstances of their lives. Wishing to teach her step-son Noah the value of money, Rose becomes the driving force of the show as she veers between trying to earn his affection while providing the kind of structure and recognition of consequences he has been lacking. Crucially, Rose’s own overbearing father and all but absent new husband create considerable pressure on her to take control without any of the personal support she needs to transition to effective stepmother. This is mirrored in Caroline’s own relationship with the boy that is difficult for the most part but masks a mutual affection that neither seems to fully recognise. And it exists in the distant relationship she has with her own children where, at work for most of the day, her knowledge of them is limited, as though they have grown-up without her noticing.

This leads neatly into the activist community life that Caroline purposefully avoids. A Confederate statue has been stolen as the show opens leading to a half-hearted whodunnit strand that runs through the story, but the assassination of JFK and the race riots spreading through the South become a much more meaningful backdrop, marking-out a period of national instability and change that is mirrored in Caroline’s own domestic disputes. This works really well, offering the characters a different kind of future – not necessarily a better one – while tapping into the Kennedy mythology of a President prevented from achieving the greatness he aspired to.

There is fear about the nature of progress which excites Caroline’s daughter Emmie and friend Dotty, but worries a protagonist used to the idea that staying quiet and invisible is the only way to survive. In Kushner’s story this is one of the strongest elements, a key moment between past and future  reflected in Jeanine Tesori’s soulful music including a collections of songs titled ‘Moon Change’ in which Caroline and Dotty argue about local events and hear of Kennedy’s death, as the personal and political, historical and day-to-day collide, making the inanity of a talking  washing machine all the harder to reconcile.

Finally, it is Caroline’s inner perspective from which we observe most of the show’s events, and here this production plays its trump-card, the wonderful Sharon D. Clarke in the leading role. Everything you need to understand or know about the character is right there in Clarke’s performance, the years of being ground down by a society that has labelled her as a second-class citizen because of her skin colour, the effect of years of poverty and the resignation of a single mother who needs to keep her job in order to provide for her family. Clarke too balances Caroline’s continual turmoil, a desire to keep her place and not to rock the boat with a pent-up frustration that feels ready to explode at any time – abused once by the husband she adored and then continually broken-down by the structures of her confined world trapped in a basement day-in, day-out, her only hope to win a better future for her family.

Clarke shines in numbers including the spectacular Underwater, her powerful and emotive voice lifting the auditorium as the audience feels deeply for Caroline. In those moments you see that all those 5-star reviews were more for the leading lady than for the show itself,  because perhaps the real issue is that casting a star of Clarke’s calibre means you don’t need an animated tumble dryer or bus to tell you how Caroline feels because we already know, it’s right there in Clarke’s whole demeanour and in every quiver of her voice, she is luminous.

The secondary characters have plenty of interesting texture, especially Lauren Ward as the lonely beleaguered stepmother trying to do the right thing with almost no support from her family. A show-stealing Charlie Gallacher (one of two alternating Noahs) brings all the difficulty of his situation to the fore, developing a charming rapport with Caroline while hitting all the right humorous notes in every scene, and revealing a boy who is still coming to terms with his grief. There is perhaps not quite enough content for Emmie, Caroline’s eldest daughter who becomes a campaigner, eager for a new future to start, but Abiona Omonua is a delight in the role with a fresh and eager approach that enlivens every song she performs.

Caroline or Change has a lot going for it and three potentially interesting plot lines that should fully engage, yet it never quite unites as tidily and explosively as it promises to do, the wackier aspects serving to alienate rather than enhance the rest of the story. Lots of people have loved and will love this, and this high calibre production is certainly ready for its press night later in the month, but something just didn’t connect within the show’s structure. It may not happen with this particular show but it will somewhere sometime; if you are at a production that has been covered in praise, know that its fine to disagree, even if it gets a full standing ovation and the whole of the Internet tells you you’re wrong, it’s still ok to say, “this wasn’t for me”.

Caroline or Change is at the Playhouse Theatre until 6 April and tickets start at £20.Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Belleville – Donmar Warehouse

Belleville - Donmar Warehouse

In a year of great new writing, the less perfectly constructed plays somehow seem more obvious. From the Norwegian-managed peace talks between Israel and Palestine, to rural Ireland in the early 1980s, to the birth of a powerful tabloid on Fleet Street in 1969, this year’s best new work may have been geographically and topically diverse, but they have been carefully constructed with strong characterisation and skewering political messages. But, because this is an exceptional year, imperfections seem more glaring, plays that haven’t quite found their rhythm are more obvious, and Amy Herzog’s new play Belleville, premiering at the Donmar Warehouse, relies on excellent central performances to cover its dramatic weaknesses.

Set in contemporary Paris, a seemingly perfect young American couple rent a flat from their Senegalese neighbours. But Abby is an actress and yoga teacher who lives in a permanent state of high nervous excitement that makes her stay in Paris far more of a trial than she is prepared to concede. Abby idolises husband Zack who works as a doctor for an international aid organisation and speaks eloquent French, but coming home early one-day Abby finds Zack not working. The perfect exterior begins to crack, and some surprising truths emerge; why are they really in Paris, how well does Zack really know the neighbours, and why can’t they leave for Christmas?

Herzog does well to create a set of characters and a scenario that, initially at least, the audience can invest in. The first two scenes are a portrait of Abby and Zack’s marriage which are both engagingly written and subtly revealing; there is an interesting flow to the interaction between the characters that feels like natural conversation and gives a sense of the companionship and frustration of living with a long-term partner. In minutes, their conversation moves smoothly from general catch-up on their day, to affectionate intimacies, to fairly amiable bickering and back again, in what feels like a detailed anatomy of marriage.

And, at the same time, the audience is given a glimpse of the difficulties of their partnership when Zack speaks openly to landlord Alioune early in the play about the intensity of Abby’s moods and how waring it is to be with someone refusing to take their anti-depressants. Herzog is constantly asking us not to take the characters at face value but to see them through the eyes of their partner, so we see Zack’s strength and Abby’s weakness based on conversations when the other isn’t around, and it is only later in the story that the audience is forced to re-evaluate those judgements.

There are also some intriguing themes and questions which are solidly established in Herzog’s writing, and, alongside the dissection of marriage, there is early implication that Belleville will also take-in father-daughter relationships, the long-term impact of grief, how well we really know the people we’re closest too, the strain of living far from home and, to some extent, the failure of the American dream. It’s a huge amount to pack into a 100-minute show, and the play’s inability to deliver on its early promise, satisfactorily managing the issues and character insights it raises, means too many aspects of the story are left unresolved.

Instead, as the plot unfolds across the next few scenes, Belleville feels rather half-hearted and unable to successfully marry the plot and the themes together, almost as though the ideas have become too big for the story and, having thrown everything into those early scenes, finding a way to bring all the strands back together has been rather elusive. In particular, aspects of the characterisation should have been seeded much earlier to make the sudden and almost melodramatic switch at the end seem more likely. Similarly, Abby’s reliance on calls to her father and the reasons the couple left the USA have considerable dramatic potential, going to the root of her relationship with Zack, and should be better used to tease out the idea that their relationship has been one long deception.

Herzog is trying to show a snapshot moment in their lives, one that turns-out to be crucial, but for the ending to feel meaningful and credible, these earlier questions about who they are and why they are in this situation also need to be more fully answered. It’s not enough for a character to have an eleventh-hour about-turn, this must be carefully woven into the play from the start and make psychological sense. There are some great moments of tension, but too much time is wasted on empty stages and superfluous detail that doesn’t make this short show as slick and tense as it really should be – particularly a wasteful final scene which is just 5 minutes of stage-tidying that has virtually no relevance to the plot, before fading out.

In Belleville, these hints are too small to make the outcome believable and, in their final scene both Zack and Abby suddenly act in ways that are unlikely based on their earlier behaviour. For that to work, these aspects of their character, or at least the conditions that create that possibility have to be built-in, otherwise it just feels like a hasty and appended conclusion.  Like Against at the The Almeida in August, Belleville would benefit from another 6 months of preparation to address the play’s inconsistencies, and perhaps moving it to the end of the Donmar’s Winter / Spring season would have allowed more time to decide the nature of the piece – is it a domestic drama or a something darker – and utilise the detail of those first two scenes to better effect.

With press night this week, however, what makes this a worthwhile are the two central performances from James Norton and Imogen Poots who bring credibility to their characters and help to disguise some of the weakness of the material. Actors, of course, do far more than read the words their given, with this show being a case in point, and in large part, the audience investment created at the start of the show, comes from their ability to breathe life into Abby and Zack, encouraging your interest in what happens to them.

Poots in particular is excellent as the neurotic and talkative Abby, and from the first moment she appears chatting veraciously to Alioune, thoughts skipping from one to the next, you get a clear picture of a warm and friendly young woman, eager to please but unable to control her impulses. There are undercurrents of obsession and paranoia that Poots picks out quite carefully, subtle at first but amplified as the story unfolds. And while Abby’s actions are less credulous in the second half of the play, Poots has created a real and conflicted person.

Early on, we learn Abby is almost constantly connected to her father, receiving calls from him several times a day, and Poots shows a woman willingly, but not happily, distanced from her family, concerned for them and homesick, but wanting to support her brilliant husband. Slowly she introduces the idea that life is not as perfect as she wants to believe, struggling with the language and intimidated to go out alone – the flat is largely her entire experience of living in France, and it’s a shame the writing squanders the opportunity to explore these ideas in more depth. Building on her acclaimed work in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf earlier in the year, Poots manages to make Abby sympathetic, with an inner reserve, while making it clear that being around her would be exhausting.

Zack by contrast has an easy confidence and sense of being the “grown-up” in the relationship. Norton exactly grasps Zack’s slightly controlling nature and, while the surface may be calm and charming, their lifestyle is driven by his needs. The unsavoury aspects of Zack’s character are frequently pitted against his perfect image as the child-saving doctor, but Norton is able to veer between the two while revealing a man equally unhappy and insecure in the life they have built.

From the start as Abby catches him watching porn, Norton’s Zack struggles to maintain the fiction he presents to his wife, and the various ways in which he deflects her attention from the truth are rapidly discovered by the audience. The frequent drug-taking mirrors Abby’s dependence on her father’s calls, and in these moments Norton reveals Zack’s anxiety, becoming increasingly boxed-in by his own desperation. More of this needs to be supported by the script however, and too often the reasons for Zack’s responses are glossed over or not fully explained, and while Norton does the best he can with the general placidity of the character, he has considerably less depth to work with than Poots. He needs to be either more hapless or more deliberately sinister, and without the proper backstory it’s difficult to understand why he ends as he does.

The role of the neighbours, played by Malachi Kirby as Alioune and Faith Alaby as wife Amina, is potentially interesting but underpowered. While there is clearly a more ominous connection between Alioune and Zack, it never becomes clear what that is. And although well performed by both – Alaby entirely in French – they could be better used as a counterpoint to the ‘perfection’ of the central couple, and arguably, with a young family, two properties, a business, and also living away from their cultural origins, are the more successful pairing, a point that could be better emphasised.

Belleville does have a lot of potential, but it hasn’t yet been fully developed. Tom Scutt’s set evokes European-style apartment living, but the Parisian location could more completely draw out the discomfort of strangers in a strange land – frankly they could be anywhere. Michael Longhurst’s direction is swift if not always as deft as it could be, and despite some strong moments between the two leads, tension tends to dissipate rather than build in the interim. With a bit of revision, Belleville could be either a tight one-hour thriller or a more expansive anatomy of a destructive relationship, but until it can answer the questions it asks at the beginning, it cannot compete with the quality of this year’s best new plays.

Belleville is at the Donmar Warehouse until 3 February. Tickets are largely sold-out but at 12pm each Monday the Donmar releases £10 Klaxon tickets for the week ahead. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


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