Tag Archives: Play

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.


Mad House – Ambassador’s Theatre

For the second time in successive weeks an American family drama opens in the West End and while Jitney may be a less obvious group of characters, the premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s new play Mad House focuses on a more traditional dynamic. U.S Theatre is filled with dysfunctional family dramas and the relationships between siblings, parents and wider groups of relatives that tend to motor them. A frequent theme used by writers as diverse as Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and more recently Brendan Jacobs-Jenkins and Tracy Letts, unlike their television and film counterparts, stage families are rarely happy groups and Rebeck finds a somtimes winning black humour in the combination of cantankerous relations and end of life care.

Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate adopted a similar structure as a group of frustrated and estranged siblings return to the house they grew up in after their remaining parent died, looking for the building itself to yield secrets about its occupants. Rebeck – who notably also wrote Smash currently in development as a stage musical – also utilises the varied dramatic potential of the reunion but carefully spreads entrances out across the show to alter the dynamic as new arrivals create tonal shifts and generate opportunities to broaden conversational and behavioural tropes as the story unfolds.

Family drama may be set in the present but is almost always a vehicle primarily to examine the past, the individual lives and the experiences of a group of people who know each other intimately but whose lives have often developed quite differently and with each member of the family having differing degrees of investment in the original parental relationship or home. Tracing that back to their experiences in this house – usually through childhood resentments or traumatic experiences – exposes the uneven treatment they at least felt they received from their parents and becomes the core of why these people are who they are now and potentially what they will be by the end of the show.

Mad House actually changes shape across the 2 hours of performance time, neatly dividing into a straightforwardly comedic first half in which long-suffering Michael is relieved to meet new hospice nurse Lillian and a more straightforwardly dramatic second in which the expected secrets, betrayals and lies are revealed. Staged around the repeated arrival of new characters to repoint the drama and reposition what the audience has been shown in a much larger family context, Rebeck begins with an establishment scene, creating the charged interaction between father Daniel whose life is ending due to terminal emphysema and his wearied son Michael who returned eleven months ago to care for his father in his final months of life.

As serious as that scenario may be on paper this is no sentimental story of palliative heroism or tearful declarations of late-blooming filial love. Rebeck instead builds a deep and vocal resentment between father and son, building on a lifetime of mutual dislike to create an emotionally heightened scenario as Mad House opens, one that plays on the antipathy of its central ‘odd couple’. The audience learns quickly that neither man behaves well, purposefully seeking to thwart and antagonise the other and as much as they despise their situation there is a secret pleasure in locking horns over the trivialities of soup quality and whether Daniel should be smoking, with neither backing down in the sharp exchanges of cutting dialogue that Rebeck’s characters speedily fire at each other.

Into this semi-battleground nurse Lillian becomes the first external caller, a stranger to the family who throughout the play refuses to be drawn into the game between Daniel and Michael, although a timely intervention in family business will have significant consequences later on. Rebeck uses this tool twice more with the arrival of son Ned in the middle of the first half who like an equivalent character in Appropriate brings a fish-out-of-water, city perspective to Daniel’s lifestyle, returning home with personal gain in mind. Pam’s entrance as the conclusion to the largely comedic part of the play alters the narrative once again, and, as a more serious-minded character, pushes the show in a slightly different direction, her presence deliberately sapping what little sense of fun the play had built.

Across several scenes that represent weeks of activity, Rebeck develops layers of outrageousness that escalate across the play, using a farce-like model to up the ante as events become increasingly out of control. Although the humour is rarely physical, the extreme nastiness and curmudgeonly nature of Daniel’s character is ignited by Michael’s experience in a mental health facility some years before which becomes a major reference point for his character and is used by others to control and attack him. As they snipe at each other, openly discussing the inevitable, Daniel seeks ways to escape his incapacitation and as the 70-year old becomes all but bedridden, Mad House questions Michael’s increasingly reckless behaviour, culminating in a slightly over-egged but nonetheless dramatically effective finale scene in Act One that arguably takes the comedy as far as it can go while set entirely in a kitchen.

Throughout this first part of the play, Rebeck has woven in the resentments and painful collective memories that underscore the later drama. The arrivals tool gives the writer different ways to use her characters as well as adding extra dimensions as they start to form alliances – often short lived of course – that move the plot along. In Act Two this comes to the fore as the serious consequences of the earlier part of the play come into focus and the true darkness of this family dynamic finally plays out. With siblings Michael, Ned and Pam now under one roof with slightly different agendas plus nurse Lillian taking sides at last, Rebeck puts different groups in cahoots with one another to fight over their family legacy and their different interpretations of the past.

Act Two has two long scenes set on the porch outside and it is here that the traditional airing of grievances occurs as all three of Daniel’s children take the opportunity to reflect on the life they have lived together, the timeline and responsibility for their mother’s death from cancer while Michael was in hospital and their schemes following the imminent death of their father. Ned and Pam are not well drawn enough for this to be an entirely successful conversation, both there largely as negative reflections of Michael who they attempt to trigger, nor do they possess any real subtly in the personalities that Rebeck has given them, but this is the meat of the show and the confrontation that everything before has been building to, a chance for the audience and the individuals to finally understand the truth before its consequences are felt in the final scene.

But what is the outcome that Mad House is looking for? It concludes quite decisively but also in a sudden way, our two central characters Daniel and Michael are given the ending they perhaps desire and the audience is left with certainty about the life of this family, even given a single moment of romanticism that slightly recasts the relationship between father and son. Yet, this finale is not truly satisfying. Perhaps the ‘bad’ characters are too simplistic in their demands and their tactics to feel truly bested, perhaps Michael has endured too much for so neat a conclusion, maybe the intensely talky revelations of the second half can’t match the more entertaining brutal comedy of the first Act. Perhaps this is really a character piece about two men who should have just had the floor for longer.

David Harbour gives a really big performance as Michael, one that fills the room and brings multi dimensions to what is a complex character. Michael is trapped in a kind of no man’s land between the difficult life he had before and whatever he wants to do next. Formerly holding a Wall Street job like his brother and working for a major oil company, Harbour shows how Michael’s breakdown took all of the fight out of him, returning to a half-life in the family home where memories and notions of failure have plagued him throughout his life. When we meet Michael, he’s worn out, barely dressed to leave the house and deeply frustrated as much with himself as with his father.

Across the play, Harbour explores Michael’s reawakening, a process that is not always attractive as he makes questionable decisions and rails loudly against the pressures and judgement of his family. He’s not always successful in controlling himself but Harbour’s Michael isn’t regressing as his sister asserts but slowly developing a strength that allows him to face himself for the first time. Added to that the acerbic style that Harbour brings to his comedy timing and this performance helps to lift the play.

So too does Bill Pullman’s Daniel, a world away from the surface decency and upstanding certainty of his Joe in the Old Vic’s All My Sons. Daniel may be another family man but this demands a very different kind of physical performance from Pullman, one that requires plenty of wheezing, coughing and fragility that the actor subtly draws. The boldness in Daniel doesn’t come from his condition, which is like a continued base note, but from his vivid personality, a man lost to time, a vile incarnation of his particular generation.

Much of that is played for laughs of course, though his sometimes shocking diatribes evoke more nervous laughter than confederacy with the audience. Daniel is not a man who understand the world as it is now or even cares to, much of what he says is unpleasant, bigoted and often circular, confounding his own arguments with more bile, but Pullman never holds back from any of it, allowing this man to be fully seen. That Pullman still elicits the tiniest moments of empathy is remarkable, to be able to contextualise Daniel as a sick old man with little left to live for is the gift of this performance and Mad House is really at its best when Harbour and Pullman are alone onstage.

Akiya Henry carves a niche for herself as nurse Lillian, a calming presence whose prioritisation of care seems to be the one thing always missing from this household, but Lillian holds her own and refuses to be cowed by either man while building a valuable rapport with both that becomes decisive. Stephen Wright and Sinead Matthews have less to work with as Ned and Pam, the fairly unscrupulous brother and sister who couldn’t care less about their father, but both actors elevate the material they’ve been given and demand their place in the action.

Staged on Frankie Bradshaw’s run down kitchen set that revolves to reveal an exterior porch, there is considerable attention to detail here from the yellow-tinged windows that speak to years of nicotine staining to the grubby-bottomed fridge and tired decor, there is no mistaking this house for any of the grand and cosy family abodes that we’re so used to seeing for American families. Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s direction is pretty pacy, controlling the necessary comings and goings well, managing the changes of pace particularly in the more introspective second half and the show rarely feels its length.

This production of Mad House, which officially opens later this week, really gets to grips with the multiple meanings of its title – the fury of its characters, its interest in the implications of mental health hospitalisation and the comedic frenzy it implies. Its slightly formulaic second half may not quite fit the pieces together but this unsentimental family drama, headed by two characterful performances from Harbour and Pullman, almost hits the mark.

Mad House is at the Ambassador’s Theatre until 4 September with tickets from £25. 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.


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


The Unfriend – Minerva Theatre Chichester

The Unfriend - Minerva Theatre Chichester

Delayed two years by the pandemic, one of the most hotly anticipated shows of 2020 finally makes it to the stage in 2022. The combination of TV writer and former Dr Who showrunner Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith proves irresistible as The Unfriend finally premieres in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre and it has been worth the wait. A snappy two hour comedy about a family who inadvertently invite a murderer to stay with them, Moffat creates a Pinteresque scenario that embraces its sitcom humour by combining a classic 2.4 children domesticity with a high pitch farce that wonders if knowing an avowed killer can actually improve your life, especially if they don’t behave as you might expect.

The intruder in an established scenario, particularly a domestic space, is a well used dramatic and comic construct, one that Pinter applied to many of his plays to create an unnerving tension, upending the established behavioural rules of that location and upsetting the power dynamic by slowly moving authority and focus from the householder or dominant partner to the interloper who gradually assumes control. The Unfriend uses this idea as its starting point and although not deliberately sinister in tone or narrative, the arrival of Elsa changes a pre-existing dynamic.

What Moffat does so well is to graft this notion onto a traditional sitcom trope – the dysfunctional family with stroppy and uncommunicative teenage children. And the two ideas blend rather well, Elsa retaining the unspoken concept of authority that Pinter would have given her but neither hiding or celebrating her notoriety but becoming a comic catalyst for family transformation that keeps The Unfriend light and largely frothy.

But nor is the play driven fully by finding out whether Elsa is a murderer after all or the concern that she might kill again. In fact, Moffat reveals her background in scene two, establishing immediately that an apparent homicidal maniac is coming to stay and watching the fall out from that knowledge across the play as protagonists Peter and Debbie try to decide what to do, concealing it from their children but equally too afraid to ask her to leave. It is their very Britishness about it that motors the comedy in fact, getting themselves into a series of scrapes and foolhardy situations. Again, these are very traditional sitcom structures which from Frank Spence to Rene Artois only lets the hapless lead make their situation worse as every attempt to improve their lot backfires or adds a new level of misery. And Moffat has a lot of fun tangling his characters in knots that leave them with almost nowhere to go.

The unfailing politeness begins in the very first scene set at the end of a cruise as Peter and Debbie try to escape the acquaintance they have made onboard. As they say their goodbyes to Elsa on sun loungers on deck shortly before the boat docks, they are unable to escape her attentions, the polite chatter escalating as the couple – desperate to make their farewell and leave it at that – cannot find it in themselves to be rude. It is a recognisable scenario, one that adds to its hilarity, as the consequences of an intensely short but functional friendship play out with the inevitable promises to keep in touch, the faux delight at the memories of their trip and eventually the passive aggressive expectation that contact details are exchanged.

Moffat’s point is that this failure to admit these things are any more than what they are is the cause of all the mishaps in The Unfriend, acknowledging what was a contained but time limited relationship and being honest about how they really feel at its conclusion is combined with a desire to please in order to spare the feelings of others and to be considered ‘good’ people even at great expense to themselves. And while the context of this prologue scene could have easily been woven into the text as some form of expositional conversation, Moffat wants us to observe Peter and Debbie’s behaviour to understand why the rest of the story plays out as it does.

Essentially a two Act drama which is then broken into a number of scenes taking place across the several days that Elsa spends with the family, the action of The Unfriend coalesces around “before” and “after” moments. We see the minutes prior to Elsa’s unexpected arrival as Debbie and Peter discover her secret via a very funny American-style crime series on YouTube and panic about how to defer her visit, beginning a number of running jokes including one about Peter’s mother that becomes a core looping point. The introduction of Elsa into the family space is very pointed, her bold, blunt and dismissive gregariousness providing a fierce contrast with the silent fury and emotional withholding among this British household who struggle to communicate or listen to one another.

A key reference point here is Joan Cusack’s groomed and charmingly evil nanny in Addams Family Values who conceals an equally murderous backstory. Elsa’s immediate assumption of their space and refusal to be cowed by their reserve creates some quite broad comedy but in this first Act, we see the threat she poses as a disruption to their routines and established stability (if not their lives) as the parents fail to tackle her or manage the dialogue as they hoped.

Act Two fast forwards a few days to the end of the week to show the effect she has had on them all. While Debbie and Peter are no nearer to getting her to leave, there has been a positive transformation in family relationships with the individuals in the household taking better care of themselves and each other under her influence. Elsa’s Pinteresque power is at its height having manoeuvred herself into a leading role by bringing change and improvement while continuing to pose a threat (still unknown to the children). The drive again comes from muddled attempts to speak with her and the failure of Debbie and Peter to be open or take charge.

The devil is in the detail of course and never more so than with comedy, and the humour is often very specific, more situational or linguistic than shaped by character traits or failures. The Unfriend is a light farce so the laughs are broad but the show doesn’t rely on slapstick, physical mishaps or people running in and out in a frenzy, instead any physical humour in the show comes from character appearance and sudden changes in behaviour – for example the controlled use of the slightly underwritten but stereotypical teenagers – or from comic facial expressions and reactions from the actors as events occur that become harder to rationalise.

A major strand of humour comes through the minutiae and pettiness of suburban living, using the lurking neighbour as a means to explore the additional pressures on the family about walled boundaries, hedgerow placement and car parking spaces while enduring nosey social judgement about their recycling habits and ‘fit’ with the area. It grounds the louder comedy of Elsa’s character in a more tangible reality of routine and ordinariness, making for an interesting and often very funny contrast with the elaborate serial killer set-up, referencing exemplars of suburban snobbery such as Keeping Up Appearances and The Good Life as the modern family try to balance internal and external expectations, finding little true privacy in their own home.

Directed by Mark Gatiss, The Unfriend draws all of these strands together fairly consistently, maintaining a good pace throughout, building mini peaks of comedy on the route to a bigger finale at the end of each Act. And on what is essentially a static set beyond the ship-based preamble, that is not easy to do with all the action occurring in the same unchanging living room space throughout – although fans may note the Number 9 briefly glimpsed on the front door. Robert Jones’s two-room set is a typical residential new build house made to look open plan for the audience’s purposes by removing walls around the small kitchen. There are demarcated zones in which Gatiss directs the action and with limited movement between these spaces (certainly not at speed as a physical farce might employ), the placement of characters on the sofa, the space behind it, the kitchen or on the stairs which lead to an unseen upper level are important. It is testament to Gatiss’s direction that the simplicity and its limitations are barely noticeable. Jones also gives enough of an impression of the grandeur of the cruise ship with only a few loungers and a painted backdrop in the opening scene to create a contrast with the crowded domesticity to come where physical and emotional baggage is more noticeable.

Frances Barber’s performance as Elsa is the centrepiece and Barber looks to be having a great deal of fun in this early preview performance. Her character is both oblivious and shameless at the same time, never hiding who she is and certainly not apologising for her demeanour or the things she has done. Yet Barber’s Elsa is a warm, unexpectedly life affirming creation as well, bringing light into this household and a simplicity of vision that has eluded the family previously. There is much joy to be had in the second half particularly as more of Elsa’s past and her own attitudes are revealed, but Barber creates a woman that the audience can like, her warmth making her appealing and with a view of morality that proves an interesting take away.

As Peter, Shearsmith probably has the very best of the comedy, creating an archetypal harassed dad trying to juggle work, family and neighbourhood responsibilities with the arrival of a tricky houseguest. Often on the backfoot and forced into embarrassing or socially uncomfortable situations, Shearsmith mines every opportunity the lines offer with impeccable comic timing while also looking for opportunities in between, measuring out often quite subtle reaction moments with care to generate maximum impact. Elsa may be the focus but it is Peter that the audience looks to for response and comment on the unusual events that occur. Shearsmith successfully grasps that responsibility, proving the everyman anchor and the put-upon protagonist that the show needs him to be while landing every opportunity for comedy.

Amanda Abbington’s Debbie feels increasingly like a secondary character however, taking an equal share of the conversation early on but is either absent or allowing / expecting Peter to lead most events in the second Act. Abbington gives Debbie some distinctive characteristics, including a flash of anger as her frustrations flare, particularly as the couple find themselves increasingly hemmed in, and Debbie is the one to connect the strangeness of a supposed poisoner improving her domestic life. There is good support from Michael Simkins as the persistent neighbour whose innocent gall fuels an important subplot while Maddie Holliday and Gabriel Howell as teenagers Rosie and Alex are suitably whiney and then improbably charming in their periodic appearances that nicely up the ante for their desperate parents.

The Unfriend is not a perfect comedy; a few more performances ahead of Press Night will tighten the flow and there is an irrelevant anti-vax joke that even the writer didn’t seem to recognise, but it is great to see this play finally staged nearly two years on with the talents of its original team at an important out of town venue. Its conclusion about the fluidity of facts weighed against the imposing effects of personality adds a political spin that feels very contemporary, leaving us with one important recommendation – to be less British and unfriend while you still can.

The Unfriend is running at the Minerva Theatre Chichester until 9 July with tickets from £21. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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