Tag Archives: Play

A Taste of Honey – Trafalgar Studios

A Taste of Honey - National Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

A Taste of Honey is one of the great British mid-century plays, a piece of theatre written by a 19-year old in 1958 that seems to scream in the face of the witty middle class comedies and highly wrought dramas that came before it, placing not only two women centre stage but offering an unflinching examination of working class life in industrial Salford. The century before, Victor Hugo described the poverty of women as a far greater burden than that of men for the further bodily degradation it can lead to, and Shelagh Delaney uses this idea in her debut play, trapping mother and daughter in a lifestyle forced on them by the social limitations of the time, while giving them a pride and resiliance to bear their situation with an outward strength.

This co-production by the National Theatre, directed by Bijan Sheibani, has toured much of the UK this year earning rave reviews and now arrives at the main house of the Trafalgar Studios for an extended run. The last time this play was staged in the West End was also a National Theatre production, with Lesley Sharp and Kate O’Flynn in the leading roles and it continues to fascinate in frequent revivals around the country.

In our more permissive times, with greater equality rights and the expectation of work for self-sustenance, the position of women 60-years on should be very different. Yet Delaney’s insight feels as fresh and relevant as ever, as socially dictated notions of beauty, of promiscuity, motherhood and even marriage have changed far less than we imagine, making the characters of Helen and Jo still all too rare stage examples of complex and contradictory female leads.

Sheibani’s touring production sets Delaney’s play in a different context, and, as he did with his exuberant production of The Barber Shop Chronicles, uses music to underscore and drive the drama as well as linking to Helen’s former life as a club singer. It evokes the wider feel of the late 1950s and early 60s, the shifting tone of the decade and the sultry romance of its music, while connecting with the notion of impossible dreams that the play explores. This is a key theme in which both women pursue and hope for a better, easier and more respectable life knowing that they have only themselves and the grim reality of their lives to fall back on, something from which neither will ever escape.

There is an almost cinematic inclusion of live music – a drum kit, double bass and piano – which used in this way captures beat and rhythm within the action, underscoring moments of change, redirection and dramatic intensity in a scene while linking to the movie history of this piece. It’s a technique that Ed Stambollouian used to great effect in Pinter at the Pinter Collection Four last year for his vibrant interpretation of Night School, and while Sheibani applies the concept to set his production of A Taste of Honey apart, the overall effect inventively opens-out the emotional and political undercurrents of the play while creating a directorial flow between scenes that seamlessly shifts the action across ten-months in which the lives of Helen and Jo change but also stay remarkably the same.

There are so many fascinating aspects to this play that capture a particular moment in time including attitudes to inter-racial relationships and homosexuality, but are also timeless in their concern for the circularity of women’s lives and how easily history repeats itself. All of these themes emerge strongly in Sheibani’s production that simultaneously emphasises traditional social structures and its power balance while bringing an energy through the music and the staging that shows a generation on the cusp of change as Jo’s more relaxed attitudes to race and sexuality clash with Helen’s dismissive and sometimes traditionally bigoted expression. And as much as they appear to fight against it on the surface, both still hide behind the desire for respectability, fearing the gossip and disgrace that comes from stepping outside social norms.

Yet, even in 2019, there is still an expectation that all women want to be wives and mothers and it is this which makes the production feel so vital. The lack of maternal instinct or care both Jo and Helen express remains quite pointed, so when Helen abandons her 17-year old daughter at the end of Act One to follow her latest man, it remains a shocking and selfish moment, despite being a frequent occurrence as Jo later explains. Likewise, after Jo is abandoned by Jimmie she openly expresses a desire to kill the unborn child she doesn’t want. Both still create a frisson through the audience, and here Delaney’s (and Hugo’s) point is writ large, women caged by circumstances and forced into roles they have neither the desire or capacity to play with no means of support or escape.

It’s clear in this production how similar Helen and Jo really are, with Sheibani emphasising the frightening repetition of history in which Jo first despises then seems doomed to repeat the mistakes of her mother in a life filled with a succession of ineffectual men, momentary pleasures and unfulfillment. There is a feel of endlessness to their days with Helen having only reached her 40th birthday with plenty of life – and even the possibility of further children – still open to her, while the slow heat-filled months of Jo’s pregnancy seem to drag for her, a grinding cycle in which both struggle to maintain hope as each disappointment returns them back to the start before it all begins again when the next man comes along.

The character of Helen has been interpreted in various ways, but here she is a Diana Dors-type, perfectly made-up and stylishly dressed at all times even with a heavy cold at the start of the play. She makes for a stark contrast with her dank surroundings, the utilitarian privation of her one-room flat is a place she barely notices as she thinks ahead to the next opportunity. Both in spite and because of her past, there is a pragmatic dignity about Helen, she knows her worth and can take care of herself after every mishap, refusing to succumb to any form of emotionalism, insisting to her daughter that she must carry on, head held high come what may.

Jodie Prenger makes Helen less girlish than some interpretations but still a tenacious and glamorous figure, supported by a couple of musical numbers from the era that suit her voice and style. She has a seductive quality that explains her continued allure to certain types of terribly inappropriate men, while suggesting this hard surface knocked into shape by a life of relying solely on her wits and her charms to get by. Prenger makes Helen at once world weary, knowing (like the Mistress in Evita) that she will inevitably end-up alone again, but also hopeful that her past can be erased by marriage to the right man, a dream of suburban comfort and domesticity that motivates Helen to pick herself up after every knock.

But Prenger also finds the conflicting emotions beneath the surface, the confusion of a woman who wants to feel maternal, to love and to help her daughter but cannot subsume her own desires. You see clearly Helen’s fear that Jo will repeat her mistakes while doing little to prevent it, and when her relationship with Peter first soars and then crumbles rapidly into alcoholism and implied domestic violence, a fascinating collection of expressions sweep across Prenger’s face in quick succession, fear, anger, determination and regret vie for primacy as we see Helen trying to save face as she searches her inner reserves for the strength to endure her latest bad choice.

Jo has a lot of growing-up to do across the two hours of Delaney’s play, starting as a sullen and disapproving schoolgirl who encounters her first taste of love, heartbreak and the inevitable consequences of freedom in just a few months. Gemma Dobson navigates the extremes of the role with skill, conveying Jo’s youth and naivety extremely well while also showing her maturity and self-sufficiency as the action unfolds. There is a sense that Jo was never really a child, unable to enjoy the same careless freedom as others, shaped by her often absent mother whose refused intimacy breeds a stubborn resentment in Jo. Dobson’s Jo develops an interesting chemistry with Prenger, a convincingly taut mother-daughter relationship that feels complex but also satisfying, knowing that they will always return to each other somehow.

Yet, Jo is more sensitive than Helen, lacking her experience of life and not yet sure who she is, Jo dreams of romance and escape in a far more sentimental way than her mother. Even after her abandonment, Jo continues to daydream about Jimmie and an idealised form of love and relationships that he embodies for her which Dobson makes credible and sympathetic as the character indulges her hope of escape and freedom from the confines of her homelife. Through this, the audience is shown that Jo cannot cope alone and her rapid adoption of Geoffrey as pseudo-husband and companion is setting in motion a chain of events that will ultimately lead to Jo becoming a version of Helen.

Stuart Thompson makes his professional debut as Geoffrey – a character whose open homosexuality was radical ten years before decriminalisation – and brings a warmth to the role as he also weighs-up the veneer of respectability, considering on the one hand whether to pursue a relationship with Jo while bringing domestic calm to their grimy flat. Thompson also provides some musical linking between scenes in Act Two, while Geoffrey’s dedication to Jo is tested by Helen’s return, allowing the actor to align the character’s weaknesses with the other men in the play including Tom Varey’s volatile Peter and Durone Stokes’s Jimmie.

Hildegard Bechtler’s set suggests the deprivation of the Lancashire slums but the one-room flat takes on a homeliness as the story unfolds with minor changes to the decor that reflect the central characters’ evolving relationship, while Paul Anderon’s lighting takes the audience from the sensual and atmospheric musical scene changes to the intense heat of summer as the two women are caught in a glare of social expectation. Occasionally the lines feel a little stilted largely due to the self-conscious stageyness of Delaney’s writing in places that creates an occasional sense of artificiality in the the drama, but Sheibani’s innovative use of music to underpin key moments in the story helps to galvanise the production – although the permanently onstage musicians could look a little less bored, they are as visible to the audience and as integral to Sheibani’s vision as the actors. Still, Delaney’s play feels as prescient as ever and with its comment on the burden of expectation placed on women, class struggle, race and sexuality, more than six decades on it’s lost none of its bite.

A Taste of Honey is at the Trafalgar Studios until 29 February. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Cyrano de Bergerac – Playhouse Theatre

Cyrano de Bergerac - Jamie Lloyd Theatre Company

It has been an extraordinary and prolific year for Jamie Lloyd with a huge array of works in performance that have earned considerable acclaim. As 2019 dawned, we were in the midst of the Pinter at the Pinter season with Collections Five and Six facing the press shortly after the New Year. In February, Danny Dyer and Martin Freeman completed the anthology series with The Dumb Waiter, and then there was Betrayal. Brilliantly reimagined for the Harold Pinter Theatre, the production starring Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox tranfered to Broadway where the New York Times reviewer hailed it an interpretation he seemed ‘destined to think about forever.’ But Lloyd was far from finished and an extraordinary reinvigoration of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita dominated the Regent’s Park Summer Season which gave fresh life to what many had felt was a 1970s period piece.

Lloyd excels at deconstructing classics and remodelling them for modern theatre, simplifying and decluttering the history of performance to find new emotional resonance in the original text. Any of the aforementioned productions may well feature in the forthcoming awards season (with Evita already taking trophies at the Evening Standard Awards), but before the year ends Lloyd has one more gift for us, the launch of a brand new season at The Playhouse Theatre where regular collaborator James McAvoy stars in the inaugural show, an achingly modern and exciting version of Cyrano de Bergerac adapted by Martin Crimp.

Crimp in fact bookends the year, staring 2019 with his fascinating (but hugely divisive) When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, a reworking of Pamela starring Cate Blanchette and Stephen Dillane. Cyrano de Bergerac is one of the last West End shows to face the press this year and Crimp has captured the essence of Edmond Rostand’s late nineteenth-century original with its devotion to language, poetry and the power of words to convey every aspect of human emotion. It is notably a verse play, one that uses groups of rhyming couplets throughout its five act structure, so the easiest path to contemporisation would be to turn it into a prose piece, but Crimp resists and instead utilises the rhythms and speed of urban poetry and rap to give his characters and themes their modern voice.

It is very skillfully done, sustained across the three-hour run-time to both hilarious and emotive effect. As Cyrano and his agitator lock horns in the opening Act their ensuing duel essentially becomes a poetry slam, trading insults in the back and forth at a blazing pace with considerable rhythmic complexity. Crimp plays with the language so that the rhyme is sometimes masked, coming mid-sentence and even occasionally mid-syllable or using assonance to prevent the dialogue becoming too sing-song in the delivery. But there is also a consciousness about the way characters speak, drawing on Cyrano’s renown as a soldier-poet and actively commenting on the mutual skill of the verse club that gathers at Ragueneau’s cafe, as well as distinguishing the marked shift to prose occurring during the period of the play’s setting (1640-1655). It is a subtle meta-theatrical expression that  adds social commentary while also marking a key shift in the history of performance, creating the notion of something significant coming to an end which frames the plot.

In bringing Cyrano de Bergerac to the stage, Jamie Lloyd once again demonstrates the clarity with which he always sees a classic text, stripping away the layers of earlier interpretation and popular culture expectation to deliver something that feels admirably pure. Soutra Gilmour designs an MDF box with only a few microphones and chairs from which the actors will use words to create this pseudo-seventeenth-century setting. Later, the back of the box lifts out to create more performance space with wooden steps to give added depth to the war scenes and Jon Clark’s atmospheric lighting design to subtly shift the mood from the bawdy humour of the encamped poet-soldiers to the dimly lit interior heartache of Cyrano’s tortured soul.

The emphasis as ever with Lloyd is on the text and like his radio-play staging of A Slight Ache in Pinter at the Pinter Collection Seven, the strength of language is relished and celebrated, allowing the emotional force of the work to build and resonate. Lloyd controls the fine balance between the play’s strong masculine energy coming from the encamped army and the softer mood of both the romantic plot and the emphasis on poetry and expression. Both elements work comprehensively and credibly together, feeding the unfolding narrative with Lloyd easily switching the tone as the two stories enfold and intersect.

The sense of machismo is particularly felt in the early scenes as the intensity of Cyrano’s arrival and his laddish interaction with his comrades builds to a bare-chested maul that instantly establishes their Company dynamic and loyalty. Yet, the group equally express their sensitivity and individuality through the poetry competition that ultimately makes the return to war and the seeming hopelessness of their predicament in the penultimate scene so effective, the careful staging creating order and unison in their coordinated movement and military stance.

Crucial to the establishment of Cyrano as a character, the audience needs to believe that he is both a military leader and overwhelmed by unrequited love for Roxanne. And while previous interpretations have emphasised the comedy, particularly Cyrano’s enormous nose (on screen especially), McAvoy’s approach eschews a nasal prosthetic to create a man tormented by inner demons that affect the way he seems himself and his own attitude to happiness. At every point McAvoy radiates complexity with a duality that feels almost Macbeth-like, as a powerful masculinity visible to the outside world fights with a broken interior life that alters his destiny and purpose. Driven by inevitability, where Macbeth is motivated by power, Cyrano is by an ungovernable love he can neither satisfy or resist, one that will consume and ultimately destroy him.

Always a strong stage presence, McAvoy delivers both aspects of Cyrano’s personality with skill, creating an imposing soldierly presence, glowering and menacing as he takes control of the play scene, a man comfortable with the use of violence and its consequences as well as arrogant about his own ability to make demands and control situations. In the emotional unfolding to come, the way in which McAvoy slowly dismantles Cyrano’s outward armour is extraordinary, revealing the layers of self-abasement beneath. In a number of highly affecting soliloquies in which McAvoy holds the audience in thrall, Cyrano painfully describes observing the normalcy of other people, jealously noting the couples around him and piteously describing the physical deformity holding him back from the easy happiness of others.

The decision to avoid a fake nose is a shrewd one in this stripped-back production which adds a layer of deep psychological wound to Cyrano’s soul, allowing the audience to wonder if the barriers he perceives to his own happiness are truly physical or just in his mind – an outcome that adds to the growing heartache that increasingly pours forth. Even the comradely ribbing he receives from his fellow soldiers may reflect the group sensing weakness and, like children, using it to test the limits of their commander’s authority.

McAvoy is also a very fine theatre technician, relishing the complexity and challenge of Crimp’s complex rhythms to which he proves himself more than equal. The urban poetry rolls beautifully, and sometimes at considerable speed, in McAvoy’s native Scotch, with the actor mastering the rhythm so well that the dialogue springs naturally from the character and not enslaved by the artificiality of the tempo. Whether as himself or in an entertaining impersonation of love rival Christian’s very different speaking style, McAvoy uses his voice as an instrument to create and alter the tone of Cyrano’s expression, taking a more forceful approach to instructing his men while speaking in a lower, softer register, almost a whisper at times as he conveys the sincerity of his love for Roxanne when narrating the letters he writes so passionately to her, full of desperate yearning and painful separation.

These declarations are sentimental, even sugary and could so easily sound comic, but the sad tenderness with which McAvoy delivers them reveals the full excavation of soul the character experiences as hope is slowly and movingly extinguished. It is a wonderful performance, full of raw melancholic heartache that will make you simultaneously despair for his anguish and thrill at such a meaningful return to the stage.

With a scheme offering reduced price tickets to those on low incomes or wouldn’t usually go to the theatre, the supporting cast will feel like a recognisable community and a rare opportunity to see a classic work performed by a company that reflects the audience watching it. This may be badged as 1640 but dressed in jeans and tracksuits this feels like London in 2019. Anita-Joy Uwajeh’s Roxanne is charming but tactless and selfish, pursuing her physical attraction to Christian without noticing Cyrano’s desolation. Crimp has used the character to make a number of contemporary points about the changing position of women, and it is notable that Uwajeh delivers a performance in which Roxanne takes charge of her own destiny, outwitting the men folk and determining a path for herself,  not letting so much as a battlefield stand in her way.

Eben Fugueiredo as Christian has an entertaining swagger that masks his own degree of doubt concerning his intellectual and romantic qualities, drawing him reasonably into Cyrano’s scheme, and while there is a moment in Act Four that feels awkwardly show-horned into the play to make an unclear point, Fugueiredo delivers Christian’s comic gormlessness well. Tom Edden as finger-drumming baddie De Guiche is also a comic delight, using a clipped RP delivery to convey the character’s evil machinations with glee, while Michele Austin adds a maternal touch as Cyrano’s friend and eventual confident Ragueneau, as well as embodying the community which her cafe serves and supports so well.

The simplicity of Jamie Lloyd’s approach seems deceptive at first, unsure whether the empty staging can truly sustain momentum over three hours, but the intimacy created by the microphones and the focus on the emotional and military currents of the play becomes utterly engaging. Freed from is exaggerated comic overtones and reimagined for the modern stage with a contemporary cast, this feels at every moment like theatre at its most exciting, liberating and inclusive. You always know that a production by this Company will play with your preconceptions to deliver something new, but Lloyd still manages to dazzle and surprise. It has been an exceptional year for the director and this latest collaboration with James McAvoy ensures that for Jamie Lloyd 2019 ends on a high.

Cyrano de Bergerac is at the Playhouse Theatre until 29 February with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


The Beauty Queen of Leenane – The Tower Theatre

The Beauty Queen of Leenane - Tower Theatre (by Robert Piwko)

With two West End shows last year, Martin McDonagh is also back in vogue on the fringe as two productions of his early play The Beauty Queen of Leenane  opened in London within a week of each other, one at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch and the second at the new home of The Tower Theatre Company in Stoke Newington. McDonagh’s very particular brand of black comedy, at once cartoonish in its characterisation with undertones of violence, is skillfully balanced with an affecting pathos, bringing out the play’s central themes of mental illness, Irish identity and the broken dreams of youth that irreparably change the lives of the Folan family.

The Tower Theatre company has existed for more than eight decades but this inaugural seasons at its new permanent venue is clearly setting a standard for the future with well received productions of Terry Johnson’s Dead Funny and Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit for Halloween, with Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living concluding the autumn season in the run-up to Christmas. With a focus on comedy so far, this third production The Beauty Queen of Leenane seems perfectly suited to the intimacy of the Tower Theatre auditorium where the stationary setting of the Folan family kitchen feels warm and intimately inviting, belying the ferocity of resentment between mother and daughter.

With the exception of the awful A Very Very Very Dark Matter, McDonagh draws his characters in full bloodied glory, they are inherently comic in behaviour, attitudes, circumstance and language yet they never realise the degree of their own folly. And McDonagh’s gift for social observation makes them both tangible representations of recognisable archetypes and grounded enough to endure credible emotional experiences that sustain the drama of the story.

Here, the central character Maureen is overshadowed by her demanding and only partially lucid mother who sits in a rocking chair demanding cups of tea, bowls of porridge and regular doses of Complan. Instantly we note a long-established scenario, a routine of dependency and expectation between two women who long ago came to terms with their personal shackles. The drama emerges from the ways in which McDonagh upsets that dynamic by bringing back childhood love Pato (who has been working in England) to give mother and daughter a simultaneous hope and fear of what a new and very different future could hold for them both.

The obsession with the long effect of the past and how it shapes the very basis and structure of village life is at the heart of McDonagh’s play in which several characters explore the effects of some kind of loss in earlier years that continues to afflict and limit their current lives. In Colette Dockery’s production there is a sense of the characters being frozen in time, with only memories of a better era and fantasies of what life might have been to give them comfort.

There is a notion – as you find in Brian Friel’s work – of past and future colliding, of a rural, confined Ireland clashing with the urban possibilities of the city and often of overseas migration. While both Maureen and Pato cling to a romantic memory of their teenage love for one another and seek to reclaim an opportunity they once lost to be together, the characters also symbolise the very different paths open to young people to either remain in their communities and become their parents or to move away – even to the dreaded shores of England – where they can shake-off the traditions and expectations of their families.

The tragedy of McDonagh’s play lies in the essential inability to reconcile Pato’s symbolic role as both past and future which is strongly conveyed in Dockery’s interpretation; to Maureen her romantic longing for Pato is an escape from the drudgery of her daily life as virtual slave to her mother’s whims, yet the reality of the man she yearns for and his true nature and life beyond the village barely occurs to her. Even after their night together and when the possibility of moving to Boston is raised by letter, Maureen speaks of it in fantasy terms, as though imagining something that will never be just as she had earlier goaded her mother about similar daydreams that she enjoys to wile away the hours on the farm.

There are other smaller moments pertaining to the same theme; neighbour Ray bemoans the loss of a swing ball set as a child and continues to feel the same degree of anger at its loss while Mother Mag complains about the petty long-held grudges held by the people in the area. The claustrophobic setting of the kitchen in the small Tower Theatre space easily suggests both the limited daily activity that creates a disproportionate primacy of domestic matters for a place in which very little else happens, and the emphasis on local tradition and expectation that maintains this particular way of life regardless of the occasional intrusion of the outside world – the final scene in which the old ways reassert themselves by claiming the next generation is a strong and meaningful conclusion to this production.

McDonagh also plays with our expectations about age and mental health using the character of Mag as both the play’s anchor around which much of the action circulates, allowing her to force some of the plot developments by choosing to destroy and conceal crucial information from her daughter. In this Tower Theatre production the sympathies and expectations subtly shift between the characters and while it is Mag who initially seems to be the most troubled due to her age, relative infirmity and total reliance on her daughter for sustenance, Dockery shows us not only how calculated Mag can be but that it is, in fact, Maureen whose grasp of reality is challenged by the events of the play, a sympathetic tragedy that has tones of A Streetcar Named Desire full of the unfulfilled sexuality of a woman on the cusp of middle age.

And much of this is shaped by the failure of communication within The Beauty Queen of Leenane which has to retain its early 1990s setting to allow the stunted transfer of information to retain its credibility. Phillip Ley’s set is a aged farm kitchen, still welcoming and cosy but far from its best, even a tad deprived with features that wouldn’t have been updated for many decades. The story depends on the failure of communication where letters are intercepted and destroyed before the addressee can read them, and Ley ensures there are no phones or other means of contact with the outside world – except an old TV on which only Australian soaps of the era (The Sullivans and A Country Practice) are shown while Mag waits for the news that never comes. The almost Beckettian purgatory situates the play in a very particular time period while opening-up the possibility of mix-up and failure that Dockery shows is both farcical and tragic.

Part of the creation of this world comes through the language that McDonagh employs for each of the characters, often using dialect to develop a rapid back and forth with characters firing lines at one another as the tension builds. Dockery’s control of the changing tensions within the play uses the rhythm and cadence of McDonagh’s dialogue to great effect as the plot weaves between bitter exchanges between mother and daughter, to a sweet love scene between Maureen and Pato in the second section, building to the wistful devastation of the finale. None of this ever takes away from or undermines the sharpness of McDonagh’s black comedy resulting in a production that is both wickedly funny and quietly moving.

Amanda Waggott ages-up to play the troublesome Mag, a seemingly confused and demanding 70 year old incapable of taking care of herself, but there is a purposeful cruelty beneath the surface in Waggott’s performance, a sense that Mag is manipulating those around her at every point rather than genuinely requiring their care. There is a touch of Mrs Overall on occasion, but Waggott conveys a sense of Mag’s surface identity, using her physical frailty to hide a calculating streak that wants to hold on to her daughter’s attention at all cost, yet when Mag complains of Maureen’s ill treatment and abusive behaviour there is ambiguity over whether she’s telling tales or telling the truth.

Julia Flatley is a superb Maureen in a complex role that changes considerably across the course of the play taking the character from disgruntled carer and farm hand to tragic heroine whose grasp of reality is shattered by her proximity to true love. Flatley makes Maureen largely sympathetic, a woman trapped in her own life watching from the sidelines as her sisters and former love depart for new lives beyond the village and hopelessly resenting the care of her mother, circumstances which credibly underscore her own viciousness. The joy at seeing Pato again visibly lights her up and Flatley is particularly good in the moments between the expression of this fantastical happiness and the grim reality of Maureen’s existence, twisting the knife  by parading her good fortune in front of her mother. As Maureen is driven to desperation to cling to that fleeting future, Flatley’s performance of the collapse of those illusions becomes both violent and full of emotional intensity, it’s pure Tennessee Williams.

The male characters in McDonagh’s play are mere ciphers for the final breakdown of the relationship between the Folans. Nick Cannon as Pato develops a great chemistry with Flatley that suggests the desperate longing and long-held passion between two people finally coming together, but Cannon adds a hint of indecision, of a man keeping his options open that makes the play’s final blows so savage. Simon Brooke is very funny as local Ray, the messenger of the story whose choices determine the fate of the two women at the centre. Brooke’s Ray is an innocent in many ways, unaware of the role he’s playing – and being maneuvered into – yet through his conversations with Mag emphasises some of the themes of national identity, community and tradition that suffuse McDonagh’s work.

The energy in this production dips very slightly in the final third in the run-up to the more confident conclusion and the silent black out of the fairly speedy scene changes – which are difficult to avoid on a static set – do interrupt the flow and there may be a way to imagine a neater transition from one to the next. Yet the skill with which this production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane has been developed clearly demonstrates a theatre company with a revitalised energy, settling into its new home with a six-month season of classic and relatively new plays that show a level of ambition on which the company is determined to deliver.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is at the Tower Theatre until 16 November with tickets from £11. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


The Antipodes – National Theatre

The Antipodes - National Theatre (by Manuel Harlan)

Annie Baker is a major force in modern American theatre whose work captures the sense of a nation battling with its identity, history and loss of purpose. Her characters are always people who, whether they realise it or not, dream of more, of being something or someone else but are economically and emotionally trapped in the perpetual cycle of their own existence from which they are unlikely to break free. The way in which Baker deconstructs the modern American psyche is every bit as accomplished and vital as David Mamet’s skewering of masculinity in the 1980s, but with her own cerebral approach that distinctly uses language to create tension between the intellectual and instinctual in her plays, while drawing on the the underlying tones of religion and mysticism that run through Western societies where faith and science sit side-by-side.

Her latest play The Antipodes is at least an hour shorter than her previous works in the UK – The Flick and John – and focuses on the essential nature of storytelling set in a kind of writers’ room where a small group of people share personal anecdotes over a three month period. What they are all doing there, what the outcome is supposed to be and who they are working for isn’t the point – and it’s not something Baker spends any time trying to explain -because for a play in which plot is the key driver, there really isn’t one. Instead it is these various interactions that become the point as the team explore what it means to tell a story, where stories come from and why they need to feel authentic.

That is not to say that Baker’s scenario doesn’t create a number of questions that have subtle points to make about the ways in which we appropriate individual stories and often commercialise them with little benefit to the storyteller – note here the character of Josh who months into the project still hasn’t received his ID card and most importantly hasn’t been paid despite being an equal contributor to the group – is he being used? Clearly, the team are working for a big commercial organisation represented in Chloe Lamford’s design as a large corporate and soulless boardroom – no pictures or inspiration adorning the wood paneling  and just a stockpile of Perrier water in the corner. There is nothing about this room that inspires imagination or creativity, yet the occasional references to boss Max suggest the scale of this business endeavour and whether it is TV show development, a film project or video game design, there is a feel of exploitation, of something being taken from these people without them realising, dressed up as an exclusive opportunity.

One of The Antipodes most interesting aspects is how Baker controls the changing nature of the stories being told and while these may seem random there is a deliberation behind what people share and when that builds a sense of isolation and even mania around the room as the play unfolds. So it begins with questions posed by Sandy – a management representative who controls the pace and nature of the conversation without sharing himself – using icebreakers that encourage the group to reveal intimate details such as how they lost their virginity and biggest regrets. Over time these become clearly fantastical, taking on the sci-fi bent that they have been gathered to create and running alongside this are discussions about the nature of time, as well as the monsters and creatures that will be included in the final story. The point is that eventually one of them will tell the right story, that the influence of the collective unloading will be something they can sell.

What is so interesting about Baker’s play is not only the intensity of the pressure as eight people remain trapped in a room, but that it takes them all back to the beginning of life itself. Those strands of mysticism and Christianity emerge in elaborate evocation of the Adam and Eve story where the act of creation becomes the ultimate tale, and one which is mirrored by the simplicity of the childhood stories that Eleanor tells. Baker has things to say about how we over-complicate our stories, we elaborate, add dramatic emphasis to make them seem more important and include complex subplots to sustain interest, but what we miss is the youthful innocence of a child’s story with its straightforward detail and rapid resolution, while our obsession with monsters and fear of the dark stems from the biblical twosome who started it all, that all stories will eventually take us back to the origins of life.

The pacing of The Antipodes is still finding its rhythm ahead of Wednesday’s press night but co-directed by Baker and Lamford, it’s almost there with only a couple of energy sags later in the production as the characters themselves tire of the process they’re being subjected to. Like Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs, Baker employs no clear scene breaks and instead changes in time happen with just a flicker from the actors, the lights alter perhaps or the group simultaneously move their chairs creating an unbroken flow to the narrative that helps to create the growing displacement that affects the characters as the show unfolds.

There is also a strong sense of the apocalypse outside that increasingly draws Sandy away to attend to diseases and extreme weather conditions that give the Boardroom a bunker feel, as though storytelling has become our refuge against the outside world. That contrast is well created by Baker and Lamford, adding a fear of the external and a growing displacement from it that adds to the safe-space concept within the room. The reality seems fantastical, that, outside the stories being created in the room, the world is upside down and only here is truth.

While we hear often deeply personal tales from each of the  members of the group, Baker determinedly doesn’t distract us with too much characterisation and although there is enough distinction between them, it is their collective function as a a hive mind that holistically  deteriorates and struggles that determines the ebb and flow of the narrative. Their stories and  their ability to conjure these experiences is the point and it is notable that while petty competition  and momentary tensions exist between them, these are not the focus, so there are no dramatic breakdowns for individuals or even particularly separate trajectories. This can be a strange and puzzling  experience at times but as with the scene in which the team take part in an interrupted futuristic-looking conference call with Max, Baker is asking us to consider how we form the collective stories we tell as groups, societies and nations. And by taking the voices or experiences of others into the very concept of identity, how we express and communicate that through language to embed these ideas and reinforce them between generations.

Of the eight characters, Sinead Matthews’s Eleanor is purposefully the only woman in the creating set, and Baker uses the character quite carefully to explore both her different mode of storytelling and the small moments of sexism endemic in these scenarios. Matthews is clearly separated from the others not by distance but in bringing her own food each day as well as the expression of her anecdotes. You see in the opening scene that the men describe their first sexual experience as a technical or circumstantial occurrence – who, what, and how – but Eleanor never shares these details only the feeling, the strong impression of it which Matthews delivers with the warmth the memory holds for her character. Later, she subtly conveys her astonished indignation when she sees Dave take credit for an idea she had expressed in an earlier scene. Matthews has a way of drawing the audience to her character, part of the group but always noticeable and intriguingly fragile.

Arthur Darville’s Dave is the most competitive and is the team member trying to keep everyone else on track when Sandy is absent. He’s outraged when he catches Eleanor texting after phones were banned and takes a high-handed approach to chastising her. Similarly, he frequently emphasises how lucky they all are to be chosen and how hard he has worked to get into this room. Dave’s behaviour stems from a need to ensure that no one else jeopardises his big chance, but Darville also gives him a hint of neurotic frustration, an arrogance about his creative abilities and a need to be seen as the unofficial second that adds additional layers to a play where movement and dramatic development are deliberately stifled.

Among the remaining cast, Conleth Hill is a force as boss Sandy, the only one allowed to stay in contact with the outside world and who openly displays his interest or contempt for what he’s hearing with a steely gaze. Imogen Doel as PA Sarah becomes a marker of time passing with constantly changing outfits and is the pleasant face of the corporate machine who becomes increasingly drawn into the creative process, while Fisayo Akinade has a great monologue in the final part of the show. Completing the cast is Matt Bardock as Danny M1 who has more of a no-nonsense approach than the rest and tells a wince-inducing and graphic story that will make you recoil in your seat, while Bill Milner as note-taker Brian performs a strange ritual that could be better explored in the text. Stuart McQuarrie as Danny M2 whose squeamish reluctance opens him up to criticism adds a depth to the dynamic, as does Hadley Fraser as new recruit Josh obsessed with stories that play with time but finds himself unable to fully benefit from the corporate machine determined to use him.

Annie Baker’s plays can be an acquired taste and in spite of its much shorter running time this is one of her most challenging so far. At times you do wonder if perhaps she has bitten off more than she can chew in an attempt to explore the universality of storytelling, while the descent into a kind of collective insanity may seem strange in lieu of a plot. But this is a writer with lots to say and always with her work, you find your thoughts returning to it again and again once the curtain comes down. We are a culture built on storytelling, the myths we believe about ourselves and our national history, the way the news is presented to us and the tales we daily pay to consume on TV and in the cinema. But we never stop to ask ourselves who is telling these stories and why – this is the brilliance of The Antipodes, Baker’s decision to jettison the plot leaves us to wonder what madness is filling the void?

The Antipodes is at the National Theatre until 23 November with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Lungs – The Old Vic

Lungs - Old Vic (by Helen Maybanks)

“We’re good people aren’t we?” wonders the neurotic couple at the center of Duncan Macmillan’s play that examines attitudes to climate change by contrasting the theoretical and statistical conscience of W and M with their desire and fundamental biological drive to procreate. And in the week where Extinction Rebellion continue to make headlines with protests all over London and in the context of inspirational messaging from Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough’s major appeal to cut single-use plastics, the effects of human behaviour on the world and its immediate future couldn’t be more relevant. But while Macmillan uses the planetary effects of child rearing as a frame for Lungs, his focus is on the two flawed people at the centre of all this confusion, wondering what it means to be a good person and still get all the things you want.

And Lungs is far more than an extended rant with Macmillan’s intriguing structural approach being one of the most notable features of the play. Performed in the round on a platform of solar panels with mounds of rocky earth breaking through the otherwise flat structure designed by Rob Howell, Lungs has no scene changes or visible locations. Instead, time, place and the activities or changes in between are only revealed through the text in a continuous flow much like life itself which never breaks so neatly into distinct chapters. Reference to a particular location such as the Ikea car park with only a beat between one scene and the next is the basis for much of the play’s humour, where the audience only later discover that the shocking, emotionally turbulent or intimate conversation we’ve eavesdropped on is happening in an unexpected place, often to hilarious effect.

The lack of scenery and any attempt by the actors to indicate location may sound like a strange and disconcerting experience, one that would surely alienate an audience from the story Macmillan is telling. Yet, while Lungs borrows the clothes of Brechtian and absurdist drama, in Director Matthew Warchus’s interpretation, on the contrary, the viewer is not only drawn into the central relationship but the approach also makes the issues and emotions they face feel more universal, as though any of us could graft these conversations onto our own lives. Throughout the play, this creates considerable investment in the outcome, with occasional gasps of  surprise reverberating around the auditorium as information is slowly revealed in the final third that alters what we know – until this point, you may not have even realised you cared about them so much.

Much of this is down to Macmillan’s impressive characterisation which, like the minimalist approach to staging, is more engaging than perhaps the pen portraits developed in the early scenes suggests. On paper, there are many things about this play that shouldn’t work; the dramatic direction of the story isn’t revelatory, some of the twists are fairly predictable, even cliched, while the bulk insertion of climate change data that both characters recite at each other should feel really clunky. But Macmillan achieves something remarkable by making his couple feel like people who would have read and memorised these kinds of facts in order to win a future theoretical argument with each other and their equally guilt-ridden friends (who we never see but are easy to imagine). And through this wordy but warmly engaging dialogue between two people who thought they were entirely in harmony, Macmillan weaves some kind of magic, making us care about their deeply flawed and muddle-headed reality.

Part of the success of Lungs is that this is not the uber-liberal, finger-wagging climate change play you expect it to be, and although Macmillan’s overall message is that we are reaching the tipping point, he’s really examining why individual action may never be enough, that selfish human needs and decisions at the micro-level will always take priority whatever the consequences. We watch W and M agonise for a long time about the carbon footprint that having a child will engender, comparing it to the daily flights to New York they could take or similar. And yet, in spite of the angst they express, the theoretical cost doesn’t ultimately affect their decision to proceed or not, so how much of their intellectual debate is lip-service to developing trends in expected middle class behaviours? And while Macmillan takes the opportunity to skewer the cosy ideas of recycling, energy-saving bulbs and organic shopping that make us and them feel like good people, the focus remains on the interaction between the couple.

W is a character you assume will come to be incredibly frustrating during the 100-minute run time. She explodes onto the stage in a mass of confused thoughts, over-processed reactions and exaggerated emphasis, the kind of person who lacks the ability to differentiate between internal monologue and vocalised emotions. When boyfriend M suggests they consider having a baby her mind is thrown into disarray from which a virtually uninterrupted monologue emerges that essentially continues throughout the play as she attempts to process, rationalise and cope with the events that follow.

What is so interesting about Macmillan’s writing is how rapidly we warm to W, how the muddy hypothesising that tries to make logical sense of her situation and the conflicted principles it creates in her mind fight a losing battle against the biological impulse to create and nurture life – not necessarily because a child is something she desperately wants or because of declining fertility, but because a child becomes an act of both genetic legacy and of continuation, where two ancestral lines come together – arguments W obliquely makes in a debate about the wider context of child rearing. Through this we come to feel the confusion, warmth and loneliness that W experiences on a trajectory that takes the couple in an unexpected direction.

By contrast, M is more straightforward, certainly in his emotional responses if not necessarily in being any less neurotic than his girlfriend. M’s view of the world seems clearer, more basic, as though acts can be committed and then taken back if you rethink. So like climate change, the choice to have a child is reversible in his view, that nature can be controlled, harnessed and contained with enough human determination – and when the might of nature strikes back at this couple in two distinct ways the folly of their over-planning is revealed. Although M raises the question of children, he could just as easily be asking if they should get a takeaway for dinner so casually is the topic introduced and so poorly considered before he speaks.

The path they take is one that finds M emotionally at odds with his partner, developing feelings his cannot express and equally unable to understand her needs. Macmillan again has taken what could be a fairly generic male character and turns his own confused outlook into something we can at least relate to if not exactly sympathise with. The enormity of a child and the enormity of the climate change problem are to M the same unscalable dilemma and his response to both becomes occasionally insensitive, even weak if not surprising. He’s not painted as an out and out villain but instead Macmillan makes his efforts seem, small, bumbling, inept and very human.

The reunion of The Crown co-leads Claire Foy and Matt Smith is a big coup for the Old Vic given the rare appearances both are able to make on stage, as well as being a well-timed one given that the next generation Netflix cast will unveil the new series in mid-November. Both are superb here and entirely believable as the couple who use words and principles to mask their deep love for one another – and it is this rather than their need to save the world or share it with a child that keeps them together. This sits under Macmillan’s story as he takes the couple through some difficult times.

Together Foy and Smith manage the technical flow of the play extremely well, building the relationship as well as the changing locations and time periods with little more than a breath between scenes. They make you care about these people, grounding them in a credibility and reality that slowly counteracts the difficult personality traits that Macmillan has given them. Foy arguably has the more complex character, W is a bundle of contradictions, a woman who seems to imprison her emotions in logic, someone whose life is always planned, clear and filled with direction expressed in continual verbiage. What is so interesting about this performance is seeing how W responds to surprises – of which there are many in this play – and Foy’s particular gift is for revealing W’s instinctual needs and how they emerge from her controlled exterior. What seems neurotic initially becomes increasingly touching as Foy builds W’s emotional state where she can no longer control her responses, it’s a brilliant and illuminating performance.

M has less depth as a character and spends much of the play mutely listening or enduring W’s verbal assault, yet Smith navigates the character’s contradictions really well, suggesting a man who wants a quiet life but is still deeply attracted to this very complicated woman. Smith also suggest the small hurts that affect M’s responses to W as the story unfolds, the build-up of his own sense of isolation and inability to cope with the pressure of these scenarios that take the pair into uncharted territory. His storyline may not take M anywhere unusual but Smith ensures you understand why he behaves as he does and remain invested in the outcome.

Lungs suggests that not only will nature make its own way through our lives however much we try to plan every detail, and while the concept of a child may be the engine of the story, it is never really the point. The wonderful connection between Foy and Smith adds an extra dimension to the text, the perfect fit of this imperfect couple is truly at the heart of this play. The last 10-minutes feel tacked-on, a look into the future that breaks the spell and makes for a weaker conclusion than this play deserves, but it does have a purpose and Macmillan is challenging us to see that individual action is really so small in the face of the climate problem, that we may congratulate ourselves on the things we do to make a difference, but ultimately those contributions are insufficient because no one is prepared to make the big sacrifices we need. Maybe we are good people but perhaps none of us are really good enough.

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


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