Tag Archives: review

Frozen – Theatre Royal Haymarket

Frozen, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Illness or evil, what causes people to commit genuinely horrific crimes and, for relatives or friends, is it ever possible to really forgive? Bryony Lavery’s 1998 play Frozen taps into our continual fascination with crime, particular with gruesome murder cases, and in writing this story about a grieving mother, criminal psychologist and a paedophilic serial killer, Lavery was the fore-runner for popular culture’s obsession with representing the darkest of human acts. The cosy murder mysteries cling on, but modern crime dramas can be a brutal experience; The Fall, Hard Sun, Luther, even the most recent Agatha Christie adaptations have been quite unforgiving. And it’s the villains that keep us watching.

Lavery’s play shuns physical brutality for a psychological examination of killer and relatives, but this is nonetheless an uncomfortable experience for an audience asked to understand both points of view without entirely, or exclusively, sympathising with either. Yet the play’s very existence also asks interesting questions about the way we view crime as a form of entertainment, seeing our professed shock and outrage at heinous acts as pantomimic reactions that are equal parts disbelief and enjoyment, a throw-back to the days of public execution, the filthier the crime and the more heavy-handed the punishment, the greater the frenzy to know every detail.

In understanding this insalubrious aspect of human behaviour, Lavery makes the audience awkwardly complicit in her story at the very moment they are rustling their sweet-papers and nursing interval drinks. And there is something unnerving, even warped, about the idea of people snacking away while watching an unfolding story of unrepentant, murderous paedophilia and the struggle of two very different women to understand how and why someone would kill a child. So, Frozen, perhaps unintentionally, also makes you wonder what’s wrong with all of us, that we can remain emotionally distant yet glued to cases like these, morally repulsed yet still able to finish our bag of Sherbet Lemons.

10-year-old Rhona is abducted on her way to her grandmother’s house, taken by creepy killer Ralph as a relief from the pain of his latest weird tattoo. As several other bodies are discovered Ralph is sent to prison where years later he meets academic psychiatrist Agnetha who holds regularly sessions with Ralph to contribute to her research, arguing that criminal behaviour stems from their own childhood mistreatment. Running alongside this, Rhona’s mother Nancy spends years hoping her daughter will return, and when she finally learns the truth she feels an emptiness that leads to activism.

Based on the title, it’s safe to say that anyone expecting Frozen to be about ice princesses and comedy snowmen would be in for a rude awakening.  Jonathan Mumby’s production at the Theatre Royal Haymarket manages to fight the size of the auditorium to offer an intimate and revealing portrait of three strangers forever connected by one crime. Mumby has taken Lavery’s not entirely satisfactory drama and, worked with the designer to create an innovatively-staged and free-flowing show that seamlessly overlays a series of fairly short scenes, as character perspectives start to overlap.

Using video images of water-shapes, a crackling image of Rhona and depictions of the brain’s internal wiring, these are projected in quick succession onto frosted plastic flies that come together to create a series of rooms and locations in moments, taking the audience from Rhona’s childhood bedroom, preserved for decades by her grieving mother, to Ralph’s simple jail cell and to the King’s College London lecture hall where Agnetha delivers a presentation on her findings.

This latter section is particularly well-staged as Mumby utilises the full-width of the stage so Agnetha can walk from the lectern directly into the room where she’s “treating” Ralph, peppering the key points of her lecture with dramatized examples of their conversations. The staging offers a sense of all characters being hemmed-in to an extent by the circumstances of the crime, while reinforcing Lavery’s multi-meaning interpretation of being frozen which is applied to each of the character’s slightly differently.

And while it is a play where emotions rise and fall over more than twenty years, this interpretation purposefully limits the histrionics, taking a more forensic approach to unveiling each of the characters motivation and arc during this time. It utilises a narrative structure in which each character directly addresses the audience, unveiling their point of view in a succession of quick scenes. Yet, as affecting drama, it is only partially successful, and while it has moments of intensity, the central section isn’t able to fully overcome the slightly undernourished aspects of Lavery’s characterisation and the rapidly passing years between scenes seem to take Nancy in particular to a surprisingly matter-of-fact acceptance of her daughter’s murder without giving the audience or the actor the chance to fully explore the immediate impact of the abduction, meaning what follows for that character is a little diluted.

The trouble is, everyone loves a villain and it is Ralph who feels the most tangible of the characters, given an unsavoury reality in Jason Watkins superb performance that dominates the production. Right from the start, Ralph’s true nature is offered up, unabashed and almost proud of his sickening tastes that will make you squirm in your seat. After an early fruitless search of his rented flat, Watkins is shudder-inducing as he reveals the contents of his treasured suitcase to the audience which he has recovered from his garage.

What is so important about Watkin’s performance, is the eerie normality he brings to the role, making Ralph all too imaginable. There are slight physical tics like a gentle limp on one leg but subtly done to suggest his own complex backstory, and the intensity of the performance, the fascination with his sense of order, offers meat to Agnetha’s argument about his psychological damage. Watkins presents a character who is largely without remorse, wishing his tastes were tolerated, a fairly bland man just slightly off-centre which makes him genuinely chilling.

The production’s big draw is a rare stage appearance for Suranne Jones as mother Nancy who is the emotional heart of the story. As we follow the aftermath of the tragedy, Jones takes us from continued hope that Rhona is still alive – a state that last for some years – to her growing activism, speaking at events that support women enduring similar ordeals. All of this is managed very credibly, while utilising the approachable warmth that Jones brings to her celebrated screen performances.

The emotional heft is there too, particularly in a tender moment with her daughter’s remains, and alongside her domestic activities, Jones’s Nancy tries to hold together the rest of her family, including a crucial relationship with her other unseen daughter, and the audience is given a clear sense of the texture of Nancy’s domestic life and the wider effect of the crime. The speed of the passing years between scenes means that the immediate aftermath of the abduction is suddenly 5 or even 20 years later so Jones presents a woman trying to get on with things but set on a permanently different course than the one she intended.

Lavery’s deliberately scientific characterisation and fascination with her villain does keep you a little more distant than her grieving mother and damaged psychologist deserve, and while Nina Sosanya does a fine job as American-Scandinavian criminologist Agnetha, the character isn’t fully developed on the page. Given her own backstory of sudden panic attacks and an emotional entanglement that affects her work, Agnetha’s is little more than Lavery’s academic mouthpiece, a chance to display the detailed research into the criminal brain.

Sosanya is a fine actress nonetheless and keeps you engaged, particularly in the direct confrontations with Ralph, as she attempts to lure him out. Its set-up replicates but lacks the danger of the Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter conversations in The Silence of the Lambs, but Sosanya clearly charts the developing human affection Agnetha develops, and, having treated him as little more than a specimen in the beginning, she starts to appreciate the contribution to her work, as well as pity for the damage inflicted on him in childhood.

Frozen is a complex play that asks the viewer to detest the actions of the paedophilic murderer while equally attempting to understand them. There is a conversation about illness versus evil that runs through the show, and, while it makes a case for the former it isn’t supported by any suggestion of what society should do about this other than forgive the perpetrators. The individual narrative structure doesn’t surprise you, and clearly builds to character cross-overs with Nancy, Agnetha and Ralph rather inevitably appearing in each other’s stories.

There are comparisons to be made with Jennifer Haley’s The Nether which opened at the Royal Court in 2014 before transferring to the Duke of York’s the next year. Dealing with a similar topic but updated to online predators, The Nether was a challenging watch that made you feel sullied as you left the theatre. Frozen doesn’t quite have the same overwhelming effect, and while it effectively grapples with dark themes, its more clinical approach wants the audience to think about the cause of these behaviours and the possibility of forgiveness. Well performed and interestingly staged, Frozen’s most important effect is in reflecting society’s unhealthy obsession with serious crime, making us complicit in its presentation as entertainment.

Frozen is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 24 April with tickets from £10 for restricted view seats. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The York Realist – Donmar Warehouse

Like a Yorkshire Brief Encounter, Peter Gill’s 2001 play The York Realist set in the 1960s has lost none of its power in the 17 years since it was written. Rather, it has only grown in stature as a sensitive and restrained tale of love and loss set against a background of tradition, duty and expectation in a Yorkshire farming village. The Donmar Warehouse’s revival couldn’t be more timely; two years ago the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality reinvigorated interest in telling the stories of repression and prejudice while celebrating hard-won rights and freedoms. This culminated in a seminal production of Angels in America at the National Theatre last year, which recently opened on Broadway, while Francis Lee’s 2016 film God’s Own Country also set on a Yorkshire farm has earned itself a number of BAFTA nominations.

The Yorkshire countryside has long been an inspiration for writers looking to elucidate the link between the unforgivingly beautiful landscape and the stoical men and doughty women who feel enduringly tethered to their physical surroundings. It may have started with Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights as the wild moors became synonymous with her dark hero Heathcliff, but plenty of great work has followed, from the comic creations of Alan Ayckbourn, each tinged with a deep-rooted sadness, through John Godber to more recent work such as James Graham’s fringe play Sons of York, as well as films including last year’s Dark River with Ruth Wilson. Yorkshire is arguably the one county that continues to fascinate and inspire popular culture.

With more than a nod to DH Lawrence, The York Realist may have a tough exterior, set in a slightly rundown cottage with an outdoor loo in the middle of solitary acres of hard farming land where nothing has changed for decades or even centuries, but it’s actually a fragile and deeply emotional piece. In Robert Hastie’s wonderful new production it feels like delicate china in your hands, as though any second you might crush it to pieces, and the gentle unfolding of Gill’s tale of impossible love clutches at your heart, making it ache for these victims of circumstance.

One evening while having his tea, young farmer George is surprised to find John, an Assistant Director, on his doorstep wondering why he hasn’t been to rehearsal for the York Mystery play for a few weeks. That night their relationship begins, but with a farm to run, a live-in ailing mother to take care of, his sister’s family nearby and plenty of neighbours traipsing through, the two men find themselves on different paths. As John’s visit to Yorkshire comes to end and a return to London beckons, what future can they have even when circumstances change?

Taking place entirely in George’s farm kitchen, the play starts with a Brief Encounter-style ending as John arrives evidently many months after their separation. Exactly like Noel Coward and David Lean’s film, by setting-up the beginning of the end in advance Gill’s play creates an emotional pitch from the start as this small teaser fades instantly back into the past re-establishing a world long disappeared. Gill takes the audience back to only the crucial moments of George’s recent past where love, family and possibility existed and were sacrificed, while commenting on a lost agricultural world of community and support.

The Lawrence parallels are clear, dominant mothers, silent sons with artistic souls, the warmth and sometimes claustrophobic effect of small working-class communities and feeling as though opportunity narrows rather than increases with age. Gill, like Lawrence writes with romantic realism about the land, of the physical connection to place in a way people can never feel in cities, and this flows through Hastie’s production as each of the residents we meet feels permanently anchored to Mother’s kitchen, the latest in generations of Yorkshire folk to have been part of this enduring community.

This sense of timelessness is also represented in Peter McKintosh’s set design, incorporating a graphic depiction of those ancient hills and dales that stand eternally behind the house, suggesting both a hint of life beyond the walls of the cottage – which John offers to George – while also being the reason he can never accept it, can never be too far from this stretch of earth. While ostensibly set in the 1960s, there’s deliberately little here to suggest that decade apart from the odd text reference.

Instead, McKintosh has rightly chosen to create something that looks long-standing in both the set and costumes, built at any time in the last 100 years, dominated by an ancient cooking range and fireplace, and added to by the occupants -while the 60s may be raging elsewhere, here modernity and history have little place. And for a production that makes its central love story with virtually no physical contact so poignant, this agelessness adds to its power and effect on the viewer.

Hastie’s approach draws out some concept of contrasting worlds, of the comparative social freedoms and variety of London life, referenced in one of George’s later conversations, and the more contained existence of the Yorkshire farmer, but it’s not a point that’s laboured. In some ways the differences between George and John are the very reason they are drawn to one another and why they are a perfect match, but – like Laura and Alec – it’s circumstance and duty that forces them apart, an inability to take the ultimate disruptive step, to pull down their existing lives for one another. Fear not difference divides them.

Ben Batt as George, slowly builds a sense of inner turmoil, and the importance of the deep-rooted connection not just to John, but to his mother and to his community. What begins as expected – a quiet no-nonsense Yorkshireman – soon flourishes as performing in the Mystery Play gives him confidence, and a taste of wider purpose. Batt reveals George’s essential fragility and vast emotional life in stages as we see the happiness performing brings him comes with the pain of discovering a talent too late for it to change his world.

As the plot unfolds, Batt starts to retreat once more behind his stone wall as the disappointments stack-up, but by this time it’s clear to the audience the raging feeling underneath. There is a claim to home, family and decency in his character that he is powerless to resist, which builds well to a final meeting with John where the pain of allowing himself to open-out only to be stung becomes incredibly affecting in Batt’s wonderful performance as he struggles to reclose his heart and face a future of lonely expectation and duty.

In Jonathan Bailey’s performance John is much easier in his own skin, with fewer ties to a sense of place and purpose than George which gives him a transitory feel. Though wedded to the idea of London and the development of his career which he is as unwilling to sacrifice as his lover, John feels instantly at home in Mother’s cottage, thrilled by the location and the ancient authenticity of George’s family home, welcoming him warmly in.

Yet John is also unable to quite grasp the importance of the Yorkshire family, and in Bailey’s equally contained performance, there is a sense of John wanting to improve George’s life by rescuing him and freeing his talent for performance and expression. Bailey demonstrates that for John artistic freedom and pursuit sit above anything else, and, with no mention of family or home of his own, John cannot imagine any longstanding commitment that would remove him from his world. While the feeling between both men is clearly tangible and heart-warming, they can only ever be ‘visitors’ in each other’s experiences.

Despite George’s essential loneliness, his home is never empty with a succession of people popping by throughout the play, and no one is alone in the kitchen for more than a few moments. Lesley Nicol brings subtly to the role of George’s Mother, a hearty woman whose continually tiredness is covered up by her own sense of duty, a need to keep house for her working son. There is an ease between the two that allows Nicol to exert a domestic care but also shows she is a stalwart of her community, attending church and supplying endless cups of tea that no one gets to finish.

Lucy Black as George’s sister Barbara, Matthew Wilson as her husband Arthur and Katie West as neighbour Doreen add texture, helping to create a solid sense of local life beyond the kitchen that includes working on the farm and going to one of the local pubs. West’s Doreen is also George’s alternative life, someone he could marry largely because the circumstances are right, they are the same age more or less and both essentially kind-hearted. But Black and West have a lovely all-female duologue in which they gently hint that they know and accept George’s true inclinations, and there is some well-played ambiguity as to whether Doreen will fully accept her lot.

There is real tenderness in Hastie’s production of The York Realist which runs through this well-realised 1hr and 45-minute show. There is an interval and despite its short run-time, this one feels necessary, giving the audience a chance to reflect, allowing the various ideas of place, home and identity to sink in before the conclusion. Nothing feels rushed, allowing this beautifully sad production to really touch the heart. A modern classic and a Yorkshire Brief Encounter indeed.

The York Realist is at the Donmar Warehouse until 24 March. Tickets are largely sold out but are available through the Klaxon Scheme every Monday at 12pm and daily standing tickets are released at 10am. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

Julius Caesar – Bridge Theatre

Julius Caesar, Bridge Theatre

‘The fault… is not in our stars / But in ourselves… think of the world’. No matter where Julius Caesar is performed or when it is set, as these commuted lines demonstrate, this 400-year old play is always incredibly prescient, asserting the foolishness of rash action and the arrogance of politicians. Yet, over-hasty decisions are made by officials all the time, ones that have avoidable consequences had they been given proper thought and chosen for the right reasons. And while the assassination of a leader may be the ultimate political act, nobility of intention ultimately results in uncertainty, fear and a dangerous power vacuum.

Many of Shakespeare’s plays examine the corrupting and destructive desire for power that urges men to ruin or, more often, murder their friends. When Macbeth plunges daggers into Duncan’s chest, it is a lust for Kingship that has driven him to it; Claudius, intending to wed his sister-in-law, pours poison in the ear of Hamlet’s father to feed his monarchical ambition, while Lear’s grasping daughters secure their inheritance and his crown, but turf-out their ill father to wander in the wilderness. But none of these characters are allowed to enjoy their victory for long, those who falsely obtain power are punished, the blood on their hands being a symbolic first step to their own demise.

Julius Caesar follows the same course, considering two types of power – the dictator and parliamentary approaches – leaving it up to individual productions and the audience to decide which (if either) offers the most chance of happiness for a nation. At the start of the play Caesar is triumphant, returned from Gaul feted, loved and invincible, a colossus bestriding the world, and we hear rather than see that he is a dictator, an emperor, near enough a King trying to rule without democratic process. Pitted against him are a band of Senators who fear their ‘overmighty’ ruler and determine that for the good of the Republic he must be assassinated. Although led by the noble Brutus whose honourable conscience urges action to assuage his principles, the other conspirators have muddier means, and so Shakespeare offers a fascinating debate about the right to kill for a supposed greater good.

This has long been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, and the buzz surrounding the first few performances of Nicholas Hytner’s interpretation, and its excellent cast, has raised considerable expectations. And the excitement is entirely deserved because the Bridge Theatre’s new production of Julius Caesar is magnificent, energetic and perfectly conceived, with a vision that not only brings a new clarity to the play but is consistently applied to every imaginatively staged and riveting minute of this two-hour show. Yes, it’s loud, brash and even a tad gimmicky in places, it starts with a blaring concert and ends celebrating the name of a ‘glorious’ new leader, but this rock-and-roll Shakespeare has an emotional depth and force that is never less than entirely compelling.

This in-the-round / promenade (for the pit audience) production, is a marvel of design ingenuity. Created by Bunny Christie, multiple platforms rise from the floor to create stages, homes, the Senate and the battlefield, placing the characters above the crowd and lending an authenticity to the moments of genuine oration and spectacle. The whole place feels like a boxing ring or a bullfighting arena, starkly lit by Bruno Poet and carried through into the performances as David Calder’s Caesar makes his entrance like a victorious champ returning to the ring for one last bout. It feels appropriate for what follows, as soldiers and politicians go head to head in a fight to the death.

Of the many intriguing elements in Hytner’s approach, the clear divide he draws between the two camps brings real clarity to why the story unfolds as it does. Caesar, Mark Anthony and even Octavian are strategic, powerful men who think logically about what must be done, while the conspirators, led by Brutus, are cerebral, carefully arguing their case with precedents and regulation using assassination as a theoretical act, without properly understanding the physical effect it will have on them or the ability to foresee, or satisfactorily conduct, the war which follows.

The conspirators don’t feel dangerous as such, a deliberate choice, and while they do kill a man, Hytner makes them seem like a group of liberals, bogged down in the intellectual cause and utterly out of their depth. A sly hint too of the distance of politicians from the will of the people and how little they understand what people really want from government. How timely that feels.

The portrayal of Brutus underscores all of this with Ben Whishaw easily delivering one of his best stage performances to date, and that is a high bar indeed. Brutus is actually quite a difficult role and is often the weakest aspect of productions. Noble in both behaviour and respected lineage, the contradiction of his friendship with Caesar and decision to end his life can make the character seem too remote. But Whishaw sidesteps this with an idea of Brutus’s essential fallibility that offers new insight into his behaviour and to the eventual failure of the central plot.

Whishaw’s bookish Brutus, for all his academic prowess, is shown to be a terrible decision-maker – something more clearly marked in Whishaw’s performance than previously seen. As unofficial leader, he repeatedly overrules the cautious and more astute Cassius to take the wrong path, leading to their downfall. The decisions to only kill the dictator, to bathe their hands in Caesar’s blood, to let Mark Anthony speak to the mob alone and to face his enemy at Philippi where he then attacks too early are used by Whishaw to demonstrate Brutus’s arrogance and lack of strategic thinking.

Casting Cassius as a woman – a superb interpretation by Michelle Fairley – only adds even more weight to Brutus’s flaws as he becomes a mansplaining fool, patronising his female colleagues who have considerably more insight that he does. Whishaw’s Brutus believes he is a good man and for a while the audience thinks so too, but for all his conscience-wrangling before the act, he has no insight into himself or ability to see beyond the intellectual liberal cause he espouses. He is no man of the people and Whishaw shows with incredible clarity that Brutus aligns with Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes, a man driven to destruction by his own fatal flaw, an inability to see the world as it really is.

By contrast David Morrissey’s Mark Anthony is fully a man of the world, not remotely sensitive, arrogant and determined to enjoy life’s pleasures, but steeped in military knowledge and loved by the mob which makes him a far shrewder politician than his counterparts. Morrissey shows that love for a fellow soldier is more real than the false idea of friendship offered by the political elite, and his carefully controlled oration at Caesar’s funeral is brilliantly delivered as he sets aside the microphone to walk into the crowd, genuinely creating a sense of outrage and thirst for revenge that fills the auditorium. Unlike Brutus, Morrisey’s Mark Anthony knows exactly who he is and has the savvy to evoke a chaos in Rome that he knows exactly how to control.

The gender-blind casting is a production highlight, fitting seamlessly into a traditionally male-dominated play, adding a modern spin, while allowing Michelle Fairley as Cassius, Adjoa Andoh as Casca and Leila Farzad as Decius Brutus in particular to deliver top-notch performances as co-conspirators. Fairley’s Cassius is full of bitter scorn for the great leader she once rescued from drowning, and her demands for equality seem to speak to the ages. Fairley charts how Cassius’s manipulation of Brutus is abruptly turned around when she is forced to concede to what she supposes is his greater understanding, which adds fury to their confrontation before Philippi as she viciously chastises him for the mess he’s created.

Andoh’s Casca is a glowering presence who enjoys the grubby criminality of murder far more than ideals of liberating the Republic, while Farzad brilliantly captures the contrast between thought and deed as her confident Decius Brutus leads Caesar to his death then promptly bursts into tears afterwards, overcome by the reality and stain of what they’ve done. Through all this David Calder’s small role as the hardly seen titular dictator haunts everyone, a man who dons a politician’s suit under the slogan ‘Do This! (cleverly taken from Antony’s line in Act 1, Scene 2 “When Caesar says, ‘do this’, it is performed”), but retains his military bearing. Calder is commanding and ‘constant as the northern star’ but leaves the audience to decide whether he deserved to die.

Nicholas Hytner’s production of Julius Caesar is nothing short of Roman triumph, capturing the wonderful lyricism of Shakespeare’s writing, in what are some of his most beautiful speeches, with an urgency of action that means two hours just races by. The production vision is so strong and so consistently applied that a plot that starts in Brutus’s living room and ends at the wire-strewn battlefield of Philippi seems a natural progression. Whether you’re being slightly pushed around in the pit or safely seated, once again the striking modernity of the play, of people who kill for power and leave disaster in its place, rings out. It is humanity’s poor thinking not destiny that causes the world’s problems, and 400 years after it was first performed this play reminds us this is still the case. So, listen to Caesar’s moto and get a ticket for this thrilling production while you can – “Do This!”

Julius Caesar is at the Bridge Theatre until 15 April with an NT Live cinema screening on 22 March. Tickets start at £15, with standing tickets available to be part of the Roman crowd. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1   

John – National Theatre

John, National Theatre

2017 was a great year for new writing and in the next few months, judging panels will have the unenviable task of trying to decide whether Oslo, Ink or The Ferryman deserves the accolade of best new play, knowing that whoever they chose, will rob the other two. But now three weeks into January, the first new play of 2018 is opening at the National Theatre. Following the success of The Flick which had it’s UK premiere in the Dorfman in 2016, Annie Baker’s latest play, intriguingly called John and first performed in New York in 2015, makes its London debut in the same space. Baker’s work is a subtle examination of modern ideas of self-worth, often bringing characters together at times of transition, trapping them in a contained, often claustrophobic space, as they try to determine a way forward.

Troubled young couple, Jenny and Elias, arrive at a local bed and breakfast for a few days as they pause their trip to visit some local Civil War sites. It’s the week after Thanksgiving and along with the decorations, the strange little house, run by host Mertis, is filled with dolls and ephemera that clutter every available surface. During their stay the couple get to know more about the attentive owner, and, as their own relationship begins to strain, confide in her hoping to discover what their future should hold.

No one should go to a Baker play expecting plots stuffed with drama and activity, instead she writes slow-burn stories that centre almost entirely on character and theme. The National Theatre’s production may have so far managed to shave 10 minutes off the run-time but John is a monster show of 3 hours and 20 minutes with two intervals. Yet, there is considerable engagement with the world Baker creates, and you feel yourself pulled into their discussions about love and purpose. Baker has a particular ear for realistic dialogue and while she out Pinters Pinter with elaborately long pauses and deliberate stillness, her writing genuinely reflects the small moments of awkwardness or tension between sentences that accurately reflect the circularity and stilted nature of real conversation.

Despite its title, this is a play about women and for much of the time it is the female characters whose perspectives we hear and sympathise with. But they are complicated and, as we discover in the plot, not always entirely moral people whose bad behaviour is called into question. Purposefully the three women are nothing alike, representing very different kinds of living as small-town collides with the big city, work and home, glamour and comfort crash into one another while still finding a semblance of emotional common ground between them.

And it is the power of three that seems to fill Baker’s work, as many of John’s scenes are an ongoing dialogue between three people, often those with a close relationship and an alien third. Initially it is the central characters, Jenny, Elias and Mertis, but increasingly as the central couple’s stability begins to fracture we see other trios deliberately and, sometimes unexpectedly united – one of Baker’s skills is to suggest that there are always three people even when you only see two.

For instance, early on, the audience discovers why Jenny and Elias’s relationship is so precarious and all of their conversations, including muffled offstage arguments, have the presence of a third party hanging between them. Even in the occasional spots of happiness, the reality of their predicament intrudes upon them, borne out by other aspects of Baker’s writing, not only the mysterious absence of Mertis’s husband who she claims is in the house yet unwell, but also the continual references to the universe, to spirituality, ghosts and God. Never fully elucidated or woven successfully into the text, these themes nonetheless reiterate the idea of the constant third in any scenario, someone who silently watches.

The idea of being observed is raised several times, and in a particularly neat duologue between Mertis and Elias both recall feeling observed as a child, concluding that this presence was guiding and protecting them. Jenny feels differently, and in a separate conversation triggered by seeing the same toy in Mertis’s house, has a more unnerving and judgemental interaction with a doll she claimed used to make bad things happen to her which she would have to make amends for. Baker uses this to reinforce her idea about individual conscience and self-worth, showing that Jenny in particular requires external validation for her actions even if those are projected into a lifeless figurine.

For the second time in as many weeks the private home turned into a hotel becomes an important setting, used to create a tone of uncertainty and underscore the tension to be drawn from the arrival of strangers into someone’s else’s environment. From Pinter’s seaside boarding house in last week’s The Birthday Party designed by the Quay Brothers, to this sinister establishment in Gettysburg America, the displacement of characters is reinforced by inserting them into a world far from their own. For all its domestic warmth and cosy appeal, Chloe Lamford’s detailed set suggests at best a quirky owner, and a worst something considerably more sinister beneath the chintz and endlessly staring figures that make Brooklynites Jenny and Elias seem out of place.

Lamford has created a strange little world of domestic harmony crossed with eccentricity, which fills the centre of the room with sofas and a bizarre self-playing piano, while at one end is an enormous window that looks out onto the beautifully coloured sunsets, lit by Peter Mumford, that offer freedom and a slightly obsessive idea of the natural beauty of the universe which is a frequent refrain in the text. At the opposite end of the room is “Paris”, Mertis’s arrangement of bistro tables for her guests to use.

Director James Macdonald allows all of these elements to coexist in a jumbled harmony that reflects the cluttered set and emotions of the characters. Nothing is rushed which, to the despair of some audience members, means things move very slowly across the evening, giving the protagonists time to think, to sit and to reflect which is so true to life but so rarely permitted on stage for fear of losing the audience’s attention. It’s such a shame, however, that too many long conversations happen at the far sides of the stage meaning a good proportion of the Dorfman audience cannot see anything.

Having a proscenium arch show always feels like such a waste in this most flexible of theatres, and while necessary for this one, poor blocking often puts all the characters out of sight of anyone seated at the sides. You are warned about restricted views of course, but the scenes could be positioned a little better and given that a lot of people moved seats in the interval, there are clear benefits in rethinking a couple of those extreme side locations before press night (although of course critics will be seated where they can see best).

Mertis the B&B owner is a fascinating creation, at once cosy and welcoming, thoughtful and kind to her clearly cold and fractious guest, but with an underlying sinister tone that would allow the character to be interpreted in several different ways and leaves plenty of unanswered questions about who she is. Marylouise Burke decides to make her a semi-sweet all-American mother-figure, fussing about the home and plying her guests with biscuits.

Yet she is a mass of contradictions, refusing to turn on the heating at night despite a shivering Jenny having to sleep in the living room. Mertis also makes dismissive references to some of her rooms having a mind of their own, and Burke continually makes it seem that Mertis is hiding facts if not outright lying to cover up something unsavoury. Even the strange absence of her second husband is dismissed so suspiciously by Burke that the audience begins to wonder if there is something much stranger happening in this house, but the joy of Burke’s sweetness and light approach is that the audience is never quite sure if something much more terrifying is about to occur.

Anneika Rose plays Jenny as a modern woman keen to make amends but unwilling to continually prostrate herself for past indiscretions. Its clear she has made the trip to Gettysburg to placate Elias but uses the time to try to discover her future. Rose makes Jenny smart and friendly, fascinated by ideas about the enormity of the world that come through conversations with Mertis and her friend Genevieve. We see her become increasingly dissatisfied with Elias, and, despite her conscious attempts to be close to him, she actively seeks time away from him, their room and their joint activities, a separation that Rose charts convincingly.

Elias is a more neurotic character than his girlfriend, and Tom Mothersdale allows much of that to stem from an idea of moral superiority, of being the wronged man. Fascinated by the Civil War, and carrying the burden of an unconventional hippy Jewish childhood, it isn’t until much later in the play that Elias is given the chance to reveal his own inner turmoil, and Mothersdale takes the opportunity to balance the scales with an important and well delivered discussion with his hostess about whether to persist with or end his relationship, tempering his unyielding exterior with moments of doubt and sympathy.

John has its faults and some of the themes aren’t as clearly elucidated as they need to be to draw all of the strands together satisfactorily, but Baker’s plays are so rich with detail and full of insight into the way people really behave that they draw you into their world for the duration. With plenty of new plays yet to come in 2018, Baker has set the tone with an intriguing examination of the fear of being watched and judged that prevents people from living the life they should.

John is at the National Theatre until 3 March and tickets start at £15. The National Theatre also offers £20 tickets for the week ahead in its Friday Rush scheme.

The Birthday Party – Harold Pinter Theatre

The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter Theatre

High-profile productions of Pinter plays with an all-star cast have been a regular feature of the West End in the past few years. Jamie Lloyd gave interpretations of Pinter a shake-up with his stylised version of The Homecoming starring John Simm and Gemma Chan in 2015, and since then a hugely acclaimed version of No Man’s Land united Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan in late 2016. Now, one of Pinter’s early controversial full-length plays, The Birthday Party has arrived at the theatre named after one of the twentieth-century’s most influential playwrights.

Yet, Pinter is not the easiest experience for an audience with his focus on abstract meanings and heightened realism that for the uninitiated can mean his work seems impenetrable. But, his plays last because they manage to do something still fairly unique in modern theatre, and while plot and character exist to an extent, Pinter eschews traditional ideas about narrative and instead wants to create a particular impression or feeling – predominantly a sense of sinister unease – that pervades his best work, with a sparse style that continues to draw actors and audiences alike.

The Birthday Party is set in a seaside boarding house run by Meg and Petey Boles (also a deckchair attendant), whose long-term lodger Stanley is their only guest. Claiming to be a pianist with offers to tour the world, Stanley’s place in the house is unclear, but happily settled. That is until strangers Goldberg and McCann arrive for one night, intruding on the birthday celebration Meg has innocently planned. But it’s not really Stanley’s birthday and suddenly his whole existence comes into question; just who is Stanley and what is he really doing in this quiet little town?

Ian Rickson’s assured and compelling new production positions Pinter’s work in a form of shabby realism, a dark little room from which the characters find it difficult to escape. Designed by the Quay Brothers, the Boles boarding house is an abyss in a world of sunshine, filled with dark wood and muted autumnal colours that belie the beautiful summer’s day referenced outside. And, interestingly, although all of the characters except Stanley commute into this warmer world or, through the occasional opening of doors and windows, try to draw the external freshness in with them, they only really exist in this drab chamber, as if permanently yoked to it, unable to escape to the better existence they crave beyond the walls.

As ever with Pinter the blurring of fantasy and reality is a common theme, and Rickson’s production is quite subtle in relaying the contrast between the two. Everything is played with deliberate realism to match the detailed everyday approach to the set and costumes, so the onus is placed on the audience to recognise the moments when characters contradict themselves and to judge what parts of the conversation are a dream or a lie. For example, at several points, we’re given similar bits of information about Stanley’s professional life and during each new conversation the extent of his achievement is scaled down forcing us to question which version is the truth. Rickson, underscores this with a sense of unease because we cannot be sure if Stanley consciously lies to the other characters or to himself, adding a valuable sense of instability to an already unpredictable play.

Pinter also likes to explore the consequences of forcing strangers into established worlds to consider the fragility of human structures and relationships. He does this in The Homecoming as Teddy brings his new wife Ruth into the family home, upsetting the routines and the very male balance that exists there. This also happens in No Man’s Land as Foster is upset when his master brings the garrulous Spooner into the house for a late-night drink that similarly alters their path. Here in The Birthday Party, Meg, Petey and Stanley have developed a similar form of domestic bliss that seems to suit them and although we’re not quite clear how innocent the arrangement is, it is clearly an established and comfortable one.

The arrival of Goldberg and McCann is well managed, and instantly distorts the calm and cosy atmosphere that existed before. The audience feels the shift as fussing about cornflakes and the local paper quickly gives way to more intense debates about identity and self-delusion, prompted by the arrival of these two sinister strangers. Importantly, throughout the remainder of the play, they feel like an alien presence, characters who don’t quite belong in this time and place, put there purposefully by Pinter to create a rupture between what has gone before and what is to come. So, while the play’s language is typically opaque, the overriding feeling of this production gives strong signals to the audience about what is happening which keeps you gripped.

Toby Jones is a fairly rare sight on the London stage these days but his ability to play quite diverse types serves him well as the shambolic and uncertain Stanley. With a raft of acclaimed roles in TV and film from projects as broad-ranging as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Witness for the Prosecution, The Detectorists and a First World War soldier in the excellent forthcoming adaptation of Journey’s End, Jones brings a complex and slightly shifty tone to the central role.

Initially, he strikes quite a sad and lonely figure, half dressed in pyjamas and oppressed by the poor-quality breakfast supplied by Meg. But very soon, Jones reveals an undercurrent of something darker as the morality of his relationship with Mrs Boles is called into question hinting at something more than perhaps her husband knows, which, later in the production evolves into something suggesting complicity between them – a peculiar ménage à trois in which Petey is equally content with the ‘arrangement’.

With the announcement of strangers arriving, Jones’s Stanley becomes rapidly agitated, as if unexpectedly caught out, eventually receding into watchful silence and a traumatic emotional turmoil as the party itself gets underway. It’s a skilled performance that offers layers of meaning and interpretation that never quite allows Stanley’s rather slippery identity to be pinned down, leaving you wondering whether he’s genuinely maligned or whether some dark deeds from another time have finally caught up with him.

As Meg Boles, Zoe Wannamaker has rarely been better, creating a slightly empty-headed domestically satisfied working-class woman who dreams of being the centre of attention without ever realising that she is actually the pivotal point in the household. Meg would be a frustrating woman to know, always stating the obvious, asking her husband to his face if he is there, and wanting to hear the news as he reads the paper.

Her relationship with Stanley is rather dubious, and Wannamaker ensures it never quite settles on the motherly or the romantic bringing that constant sense of unease or hint of inappropriateness to a seemingly innocent domestic world. The party itself gives her a chance to let loose some of the girlish glamour and enjoyment of male attention that are usually held in check beneath her pinny, but Wannamaker retains a sense of Meg’s innocence throughout, as if she’s in the world but not part of it, and cannot really see what’s happening under her own roof.

Stephan Mangan’s Goldberg and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s McCann are a menacing double act that almost fully realises Pinter’s intentions for them as the catalyst for break-down and change, while at the same time making them distinctive individuals. Vaughan-Lawlor is particularly good at delivering much of the implied violence of the piece, and for much of the time he is the embodiment of physical threat. Simultaneously however, Vaughan-Lawlor brings shades of anxiety to the role of the former priest-turned-hard-man, using a latent nervous energy he reveals only to Goldberg and a peculiar need to tear newspapers into strips that seems to calm him.

Goldberg, by contrast, is the established crime boss who talks endlessly about family and respect for his heritage. He too has identity issues, referred to by several first names during the play, and there’s something of the Krays in the way he talks about protecting community. As a well-known comic actor, Mangan takes a more humorous approach to the interpretation of Goldberg and earns many of the evenings laughs with his well-timed delivery and judicious use of the infamous Pinter pause. There is room for a little more darkness in the portrayal however and at present this character seems to contrast most with the straighter interpretations of the other actors. Arguably, Goldberg is only incidentally funny and in fact means to be threatening, which is something Mangan has time to explore as the run continues.

There is a well-conceived small role for Pearl Mackie as neighbour Lulu whose purpose is to add an overtly sexual dimension  to the male / female interactions with her instant attraction to the much-older Goldberg. Played almost entirely as a fantasy figure, Lulu is there to cast light on the parallel bond with Stanley and Meg, and Mackie does well to match her accent to Wannamaker’s to give a nice consistency. Peter Wright, as the mostly silent Petey, must feel quite at home in this theatre having spent several recent months here in the West End transfer of Robert Icke’s Hamlet, and here he is an interestingly passive presence, a man who mostly abandons his home and allows events to occur unchallenged.

Setting this in the realistically depicted and familiar world of the seaside boarding house only adds to its distorting effect, and leaves the audience decidedly unsettled. Pinter is a difficult playwright to love and it has taken many attempts to start to understand why his work endures, but this exciting version of The Birthday Party makes Pinter’s appeal all the clearer – plot and character are only partly the point, it’s about the feeling it creates as you watch it. With press night still a few days away, Rickson’s production is already a tense and unnerving experience that utilises all the skills of its excellent cast to reinforce the oddity of one of Pinter’s most performed plays.

The Birthday Party is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 14 April and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.     

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