Tag Archives: Royal Court

Road – Royal Court

Road. Royal Court

Back in 1999 the League of Gentlemen included a significant sketch about the effects of northern playwrights in their live tour show. It gently mocked their poetic style with mini-monologues that built to a rising chant, arguing that rather than merely reflect the world around them, writers such as Willy Russell, John Godber and Jim Cartwright had enshrined a particular vision of northern lives that had become impossible to shake off, which is perhaps now ripe for rediscovery. For the most part, their plays fell out of fashion and while Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, Blood Brothers and Shirley Valentine continue to attract audiences, it’s been a while since a major London theatre has produced a show by one of the key drivers of northern drama.

Jim Cartwright’s Road, returns to the Royal Court more than 30 years after it debuted in 1986, examining the lives of one set of residents in a generic Lancashire town. And while the odd accent drops by from Newcastle, it tells a story of poverty, hopelessness and futile ambition, yearning for a better future and nostalgic for a happier past. Road is essentially an anthology of monologues from different perspectives that build to form a picture of mass desperation and loneliness.

The message is not a subtle one and Cartwright pulls no punches in showing the bleakness of his characters’ lives, but his work retains a powerful force that if nothing else, reminds you still how rarely true working-class lives are depicted on stage. There’s not much time to spend with each character and how deeply you connect with the individual tale does vary depending on the subject and skill of the actor, but John Tiffany’s production does leave you with a wider sense of separate lives all struggling against the same sense of confinement and limitation.

Interestingly, Cartwright’s work also seems to fit into the wider representations of northern lives that use many of the same tropes and experiences, a sense of consistency with past and future that suggests a semi-unchanging pattern of life. Valerie’s monologue in Act Two is a painful examination of a woman at her wit’s end, struggling to keep her family above water because her oafish husband wastes their weekly giro on booze. Valerie’s fear and endless fret she realises has turned to hate for her alcoholic spouse who takes everything from his family and gives nothing in return. There are strong parallels here with Sons and Lovers as Mrs Morel experiences the same frustrations with her miner husband who leaves her to struggle while he drinks his evenings away. That same sense of entrapment, loathing her partner but unable to leave, needing to protect the children, links Cartwright and Lawrence so clearly 70 years apart.

And in the example of more recent writers, Cartwright’s work – or at least the same set of experiences – inform the TV creations of Victoria Wood and Jimmy McGovern. Cartwright’s set of ballsy young women out for a drink, a good time and a man for the night come up time and time again in Wood’s sketches, and when the characters in Road head to the chip shop on their way home, you can’t help but think of the Chip Shop song from Wood’s As Seen on TV, the last stopping point before the people desperate to forget, head back to their real lives. And McGovern’s recent dramas utilise the multi-perspective approach that Cartwright introduces in Road in his renowned drama The Street and recently Broken with different narrative voices driving each episode. Cartwright may not be as fashionable as he once was, but he’s part of a chorus of voices all trying to tell us the same thing in the last hundred years.

One of the startling things about John Tiffany’s new interpretation is the influence of more abstract European theatre-makers in the production design. We’re told at the start by our partial narrator / master of ceremonies Scullery (Lemn Sissay) that Road is set somewhere between the town and the slagheap, a purgatorial midpoint between everything and nothing. Chloe Lamford’s set abjures the expected row of houses for a courtyard-like meeting place where characters momentarily cross paths on their way to and from nights out, backed by the bricked-up window arches of a supposedly derelict house.

Interior scenes take place in a small off-centre square that characters drag chairs or ironing boards into, snippets of crushed-up lives in terraced housing. As one scene moves off, the entire square rises into the air revealing a glass box in which a series of rooms are presented throughout the course of the play, each with a different perspective and a shade of working-class life coexisting on the same road.

Microphoned glass boxes are becoming quite the thing; the Young Vic’s Olivier award winning Yerma, which has a brief revival this summer, takes place in one and they  appear regularly in the work of Complicite and collaborators Schaubuhne Berlin, used as a way to distance the audience from individuals speaking, while also making them seem like untouchable historical artefacts kept in pristine boxes commenting on our appropriation and repurposing of history from a living breathing thing to a rose-tinted fiction. So, you see this influence here as Lamford, who has worked with Schaubuhne, comments on this enshrined image of the northern working-classes that the League of Gentlemen mocked so voluble.

Given the slightly chapter-like nature of the play, it’s mix of realist and abstract forms make it a challenging watch, but director John Tiffany has assembled a creative team with considerable experience of working with some of the leading alternative theatre companies. As well as Lamford who has also worked with star director Ivo van Hove’s Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Sound Designer Gareth Fry and Assistant Director Grace Gummer’s have Complicite experience. Tiffany’s own work this year includes the excellent The Glass Menagerie (as well as Harry Potter), which brought a touching emotional truth to Tennessee Williams’s play about fragility, and this combined experience of showing constrained lives, and how external interpretations have shaped our picture of areas of our society, is something that comes through in this production’s attempt to liberate the emotional impact of Cartwright’s characters behind the clichés.

One criticism that can surely be levelled at the play is its lack of deep engagement with any of its characters, and while they all get some time to speak, either in specific talking-heads style monologues, or in conversation with others, it’s true that we only have a surface understanding of each one. But, arguably, Cartwright’s play does this deliberately to form a combined impression, and has much to say to us now about how well we know, or care about our neighbours. How many people on this road know as much about each other as we find out in 10-minute soliloquies; how much do we know about the people who live on our own street?

And the multi-tasking cast give us plenty to think about as they successfully inhabit as series of funny, touching and affecting scenarios. Leading a talented cast is Michelle Fairley first as Brenda the brusquely worn, impoverished single-mother scrounging money from her daughter getting ready for a night out, but best of all as Helen an older woman seducing a young soldier so drunk he can barely stand. Fairley manhandles him to great comic effect, attempting to undress him but falling in her chips, the one-sided conversation all-the-while insisting he’s seducing her, before a punch of reality cuts right through the humour at the end as Fairley conveys the hopeless domestic tragedy of Helen’s life.

Excellent and heart-breaking work too from Mark Hadfield as the former RAF man aching for a past that has long departed. Jerry’s loneliness is palpable as he reminisces about the gentility of decades past and his lost love, as shrieking drunken girls pass his window, which Hadfield seems to feel as physical stabs mocking the emptiness of his current life. Mike Noble is fascinating as Skin-Lad describing the transition from violent past to Buddah-loving peacekeeper, and as well as the Lawrencian Valerie, Liz White brings cheeky appeal to Carol who on the surface is all gobby attitude but with friend Louise (Faye Marsay) longs for something different, longs for escape.

Gareth Fry’s music choices are part of that momentary escape for every character and Road is stuffed with recognisable tunes that underscore the search for meaning and longing in each of the character’s life. Whether it’s the lyrics to Don’t You Want Me Baby sung by the girls going out on the town, the gentle 40s rhythms that pensioner Molly listens to as she does her make-up in the kitchen, Otis Redding soothing the flashy boys when they get home, or the stirring sweep of Swan Lake that erupts from the music box that Scullery steals, music is used to connect to the soul, something alive and still fighting for more, mirroring the poetic rhythm of Cartwright’s writing, and carefully selected to add insight to this show.

Cartwright may not be as fashionable as he once was, but Road leaves you with plenty to think about and the consistent impression of warmth, humanity and so much life amidst the petty tragedies and containment of working-class experience. Whether the League of Gentlemen were right and Cartwright and his ilk have done northern writing a disservice is for you to decide, but it’s telling that modern impressions of the ‘underclass’ are all about violence, hoodies and tower blocks written by people who’ve never lived that way. There is a kind of truth in the work of Cartwright, Lawrence, Wood and others we seem to be losing, the value of letting people tell their own stories, fostering creativity wherever it exists and looking beyond the clichés for all the different kinds of lives that Road reminds us we are far from understanding.

Road is at the Royal Court until 9 September and tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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The Ferryman – Gielgud Theatre

The Ferryman by Johan Persson

Looking back across the Twentieth-Century one of the things you see most clearly is violence, as each generation passed the experience and legacy of conflict onto the next. From the Boer War at the beginning to the invasion of Iraq at the end, the effect of war on the countless young men who fought it and their families had far reaching consequences. Yet, on mainland Britain after the Second World War, the knowledge of being under fire at home receded, and wars once again became something that happened somewhere else in the world. For those living in Northern Ireland however, violent confrontation with the consequences of British rule continued to be felt, laying a trail of protest and suffering that ran like a backbone through the century.

Jez Butterworth’s new play The Ferryman, directed by Sam Mendes, opened to considerable acclaim at the Royal Court before transferring swiftly to the West End, where last week’s press night heaped more plaudits on a show that instantly extended its run until January. Subsequent audiences now see this production with a great weight of expectation attached which The Ferryman does live up to, but as a fellow audience member pointed out it is perhaps interesting more than obviously enjoyable, a fascinating experience rather than something that is profoundly emotional or straight-forwardly entertaining. Yet, it is nonetheless an affecting theatrical experience.

Set in the early 1980s at the time of the hunger strikes at the Maze prison, The Ferryman takes place over 24 hours in the rural home of the Carney family, but it is a play about the whole century using three generations who link the Easter Rising to IRA activity beyond the date of the story. Butterworth has carefully structured the play so the audience can practically see the baton pass from the elders of the family, whose stories and experiences dominate the early part, through to the teenagers and younger children who will replace them in a continuous battle between those seeking Irish independence through violence and those who crave a peaceful future.

10 years before the start of the play, Caitlin’s husband “disappears” and she spends a decade living with her brother-in-law Quinn’s family on their farm. But the body unexpectedly comes to light and the local priest acting on instruction from IRA front-man Muldoon breaks the news to Quinn as the family gather to take in the harvest. Reeling from finally knowing the truth, the Carneys try to carry on with the celebration, but Muldoon has a deal to offer them which will disrupt the fragile peace they’ve built in the last 10 years.

Butterworth is writing here on a large scale, using the experience of one family as a microcosm to understand the history and future of Ireland at this point. As a result, the way he presents intimate stories and memories are also sprawling in nature, and rather than focusing on one strand or generation, the three Acts are a series of interlinked but also separate conversations between a family that knows virtually nothing about itself as different groups of people share their experiences. There is an ebb and flow to his writing that you feel across the production as particular memories or characters come into focus and then recede into the background while others take their turn.

And so many themes wash through this production, all of which give you a sense of the context for this particular moment in time and how it sits within the history, culture and mythology of Ireland. First and foremost, it asks big questions about when the individual should stand-up and be counted, and when it’s best to do nothing, as head of the family Quinn (Paddy Considine) finds the choices he made in his own impassioned youth are echoed in the present day when he has considerably more to lose.

There is also a strong emphasis on storytelling that creates an ongoing dialogue with the world beyond the family, and the play is essentially a series of stories in which different people hold forth, conferring a kind of status on their experiences. And while that does occasionally add to the play’s protracted length, Butterworth’s writing uses each segment as an opportunity to shine a light on different corners of the farmhouse, whether it’s the politicised great Aunt Patricia who never recovered from seeing her brother die during the Easter Rising, or the young tearaway cousin Shane who’s proud to be secretly working for Muldoon’s men while on his paper-round.

One of the most interesting but subtly woven elements is the influence of military life on the Carney family. As they set-out to begin the harvest day, the younger boys act like soldiers under the direction of Quinn who marches them out to work, which later links not just to the real-life warfare going on in the nearby towns full of real servicemen, but also to the family’s history of soldiering and active protest across the century. Both the missing brother and Quinn were connected to the IRA, while their sons debate it, and several of the women in the family share the fate of their counterparts across the century by becoming eternal widows, losing someone they care about and living a life of permanent absence, here given almost physical form by their longing.

Sam Mendes doesn’t so much direct all of this as conduct it, as waves of story and meaning roll and crash across the stage. It is technically impressive to keep control of such an elaborate saga, while allowing each piece to land at the right emotional pitch. Mendes, no stranger to managing scale and intimacy on stage and film, makes this feel like a concert where he orchestrates the pitch and swell of the music, keeping some sections low while others erupt, but each feeding in to the slow-burn feel that drives the play.

However, as admirable and skilled a construction as it is, The Ferryman is a play you watch more with your head than your heart, recognising its intellectual contribution but not ‘living’ it with them.  A sizeable cast and the continual movement between stories means you get a range of viewpoints and breadth of family experience but, with a few exceptions, no one story gets the time or depth of connection to really touch you.

Paddy Considine as Quinn is a man who has left his past behind and reinvented himself as a happy farmer with seven children and a largely untroubled life. We first see him dancing wildly to the Rolling Stones in the kitchen – one of several nicely pitched moments where past and future collide through music –  and it’s clear he is the fun dad heading a harmonious household – apart for the growing attraction to sister-in-law Caitlin which neither chooses to confront. There is an interesting tension between Considine and Laura Donnelly throughout the play suggesting the deeper connection they’d developed, while Considine gets to explore a darker element as the intrusion of Muldoon slowly reignites Quinn’s engagement with the political and dangerous world he once escaped from.

Donnelly meanwhile has to navigate being a surrogate parent to Quinn’s children while their mother claims illness upstairs, running the household and fighting her attraction to Quinn. But the arrival of firm news about her husband’s death starts to unpick the balance she had established, and Donnelly brings considerable emotion to Caitlin’s attempts to stifle her grief for the sake of appearances. As the other woman in Quinn’s life, Genevieve O’Reilly’s sickly Mary is a pale figure, giving a different dimension to the running theme of absence, but grows in stature in the final Act as she attempts to reclaim some lost ground.

Among the wider cast, there are excellent turns from Brid Brennan as Aunty Maggie whose partial lucidity brings forth several important memories from the past, while Dearbhla Molloy’s caustic Aunty Patricia has more fire and political anger than anyone else in the play, finding the triviality of the harvest hard to stomach while prisoners are starving in protest. Des McAleer proves a great foil as Uncle Patrick whose sparring with Patricia leads to a hilarious exchange of barbs, while Tom Glynn-Carney has verve and swagger as the teenager Shane who thinks he’s a big man but reeks of naivety. Meanwhile, Stuart Graham casts a dark shadow as Muldoon, his presence a blot on the Carney family festivities whose performance adds a necessary touch of menace.

As well as being a serious piece, The Ferryman is often a very funny play with many lighter moments to ease the tension – although arguably that tension is not pointed or protracted enough, and it would have added considerably to the drama to feel the political and military situation intruding more sharply as the play unfolds. Aspects of the conclusion also feel a little unlikely as several things happen in quick succession, taking the scene to the point of melodrama that sits uncomfortably with the rest of the play. For it to make sense, some of these outcomes need to be built into the play at an earlier stage, because as spur of the moment actions they don’t quite convince, and this would also remove the unnecessary exposition of things the audience had already gleaned from the preceding scenes. How much more powerful and satisfying it could have been to forego all of this hysteria and end the play a few minutes earlier with a female sacrifice to protect the family she has grown to love.

In many ways The Ferryman is a companion piece to Steve McQueen’s 2008 film debut Hunger a more brutal depiction of the events at the Maze prison which, taken together with Butterworth’s play, show both the political and social impacts of the protests and the desire for justice. Your response to The Ferryman may well vary depending on your knowledge and experience of the era it depicts, but whether it captures your head or your heart, it is part of a wider story about the militarisation of young men and its consequences across the Twentieth-Century.

The Ferryman is at the Gielgud Theatre until 6 January and tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Anatomy of a Suicide – Royal Court

Anatomy of a Suicide - Royal Court

When you think about all the things you’ve inherited from your mother, what springs to mind? A particular physical resemblance perhaps; the colour of her hair, the shape of your nose or your height. Maybe you have characteristics of her personality; a fiery temper, a quick wit or a placid demeanour. Some will receive a troublesome genetic legacy that passes through the maternal chromosomes – male baldness perhaps – but one of the things you rarely imagine your mother could give you was a predisposition to suicide.

Alice Birch’s new play, premiering at the Royal Court, considers just that possibility in the story of three generations of the same family – grandmother, mother and granddaughter – who at a relatively young age consider ending their lives, and the effect this subsequently has on the child they leave behind. Anatomy of a Suicide may not be cheery viewing, and its central premise about the genetic transmission of trauma is scientifically dubious, but Birch’s play is one of the most innovative and exciting pieces of theatre in 2017.

Carol, Anna and Bonnie never properly know each other, yet they are as closely related as it’s possible to be, direct descendants in fact. Each woman’s story is presented simultaneously, and though occurring decades apart, overlap and resonate in what is an ambitiously conceived and carefully controlled narrative. Its visual style is initially overwhelming and trying to concentrate on what seems like three separate stories is distracting, you’re always more involved with one than any other, but give yourself time to adjust to the style and you’re soon engrossed.

The play opens in the 1970s in the aftermath of Carol’s first suicide attempt as she apologises profusely to her bewildered husband while claiming the ingestion of so many pills and slitting her wrists was an accident. Unable to bear the idea of living, Carol is advised to have a child to give her stability and meaning, but will it only delay the inevitable? In the 1990s Anna is a mess, taking drugs regularly and like Carol before her, entirely lost in the world she inhabits. At her lowest point Anna meets Jamie and moves back to her childhood home to start a family, but sinks into a postnatal depression that seems unshakeable. Finally, in the 2030s doctor Bonnie is isolated and troubled by the demands of her job, until she too is drawn to the family home seeking some kind of escape from her loneliness and connection to the past which she cannot control.

One of the most impressive elements of this story is how clearly Birch must have visualised it as she wrote, in order to carefully construct how each story would be unveiled and where particular phrases or experiences would echo across the stage. The technical aspects of playwrighting are commonly underestimated as an art form, and although it is similar to novel writing in giving first importance to the creation of interesting characters and story, a playwright must also have some concept of how their work will look and flow in physical form.

A director will get the play on its feet, but they need strong structures and guidance from the written text, and here the harmonious partnership of Birch and Katie Mitchell brings meaning and credibility to the interaction between the three stories, each getting their own time to develop and create impact, while sitting together as a tightly paced thematic unit. You never get the sense that these three stories are happening in isolation, that they are independent of what’s happening in the scenario next door, and much of that is down to the clarity of Birch’s writing, while Mitchell utilises the small Royal Court space to highlight the similarities between them even though each story occurs in its own confined physical location and separate decade.

Birch’s play is all about women and the outcome of societal pressures to live a certain way, particularly when subverting their own happiness to expectations of motherhood and duty, a theme also examined in the recent film Lady Macbeth which she also penned. Although secondary characters exist in each of three scenarios, they are sketchily drawn in comparison with the three leads suggesting the somewhat muffled engagement each woman has with the world, barely registering anyone else’s existence.

In a two hour show without interval and all three women on stage almost throughout, Mitchell controls the complicated staging extremely well and the pace never slackens. Each story unfolds at different rates with speedy and slow burning elements that keep the audience invested in each while moving between the eras seamlessly. At times conversations from two time periods are overlaid so particular words are said at the same time, or the same phrase is repeated in a different way highlighting the connection between these women. Sometimes, we move rapidly between stories with only a line or two in each decade, while at other times one woman comes more strongly into focus as the key moments in her life are played out uninterrupted. As I mentioned above, for this unusual approach to work successfully, both Birch and Mitchell had to have a strong grasp of the effect they wanted to create and it is this obvious clarity of vision that makes Anatomy of a Suicide so narratively and technically satisfying.

Creating three characters with similar but differently troubled experiences, across three decades while keeping the audience invested in all of them is no mean feat. Hattie Morahan is simply outstanding as Carol, a woman who decides quite rationally that she just cannot go on. Morahan is calm and cool throughout, never resorting to histrionics or overplaying the “woe is me” sentiment, yet manages to convey the deepest struggle and pain of a woman who has no desire to fight for any kind of life. Carol is entirely driven by the need to end her life, and while she conscientiously lives on for the sake of her young daughter, it’s clear in Morahan’s moving and subtly substantial performance that each moment of living is agony to her, and as the years go by her struggle pulls her further and further away from reality.

Fresh from her critically acclaimed role in The Glass Menagerie, Kate O’Flynn plays Carol’s grown-up daughter Anna sent into a torrent of drugs and alcohol abuse to obliterate the events of her childhood. Yet, Anna’s story seems to go in the opposite direction, away from her trauma and towards a more redemptive future as she finds love and family security after addressing her problems. O’Flynn takes Anna from spiralling addiction to the normality of a warm family life, capturing the humour and openness of her character, but shows her inability to deal with sudden knocks that send her hurtling unexpectedly towards her own moment of decision.

Initially with so much to pull the audience into the experiences of Carol and Anna, Bonnie’s much more gently paced story feels almost on the side-lines, but this is purposeful and Birch balances this later in the show when Bonnie’s story is given its place in the light of what we then know about her relatives. With such a family legacy, Bonnie is afraid to feel anything, fearing the consequences of what she sees as an inevitable pull towards the end. Adelle Leonce gives a wonderfully contained performance as Bonnie, who is also somehow distanced from the life she is leading, a figure not in control of her own destiny, trying to limit the knock-on effect for others.

And while the secondary characters have less time to shine, Paul Hilton is excellent as Carol’s exasperated husband, and in the neighbouring scenario, as Anna’s caring father. Birch’s exploration of how lives can be shaped by forces beyond individual control is replicated in the doll-like costume changes as each woman is dressed on-stage by external hands between scenes, which is an integral part of this play’s impact.

Whether or not you believe that trauma can be inherited as easily as the family home that traps these women, Anatomy of a Suicide is a fascinating and emotive experience. Watching three powerful stories unfold side-by-side is unlike almost anything else you’ve seen – although the staging of multiple perspectives has tones of the National’s current production of Part 1 of Angels in America except the action occurs at the same time as well. With three incredibly strong central performances, and a brave approach to a difficult subject, Anatomy of a Suicide reveals how powerfully a single act can reverberate across the decades, shaping the lives of those yet to exist.

Anatomy of a Suicide is at the Royal Court until 8th July. Tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


Hangmen – Royal Court

Hands down this is the best new play of 2015. The end of hanging may not be an obvious source of humour but when has that ever stopped Martin McDonagh? Capital punishment remains an emotive topic and although the practice had long since been abandoned in Britain, it remains on the political agenda with some seeing it as the best deterrent against serious crime while others a gross violation of human rights. McDonagh’s wonderful new plan examines this debate by framing it around two interlinked crimes, one for which a man was hanged, and one two years after that punishment has ended, asking us whether we can ever be sure enough of someone’s guilt to kill them for it.

Harry (David Morrissey) and Syd (Reece Shearsmith) are hangmen and as the play opens we see them perform their grisly duty. A couple of years later Harry is now running a pub in Oldham with his wife Alice and has a number of regulars propping up the bar, including a police Inspector, all of whom are attracted to the pub by Harry’s former profession and tales of his rivalry with leading hangman Pierrepoint. On the second anniversary of a famous hanging, not only does a reporter appear to interview Harry, but a mysterious and menacing stranger from London comes into the pub. Suddenly Harry’s past begins to catch-up with him and threatens the new life he has built.

Dignity is a major theme in this play and it is fascinating then to open with a very undignified death. Often in TV and films where someone is to be executed, we see them nobly accepting what must be done and quietly acquiescing. Not here, Hangmen opens with prisoner Hennessy going to his death kicking and screaming – he protests his innocence over and over again, clings to the bedstead and fights off his restrainers. It’s a full on opener and although laced with dark humour serves as a useful frame for the production, reminding us that ultimately life is all there is and we should be pretty sure before we take it away.

Anna Fleischle’s set design is magnificent, first the brick prison cell with strip lighting looks suitable grim and imposing, and the incorporation of the hangman’s noose into that room is clever way to keep the action moving. Later in the play Pierrepoint talks about maintaining the dignity of their work by keeping it behind the prison walls, so this nicely reinforces that sentiment. Rather spectacularly, the whole room then lifts into the air revealing the brilliant recreation of a smoky Oldham pub in the late 1960s, complete with functioning beer taps, wall lights and dubious wallpaper that all looks well lived in. Later still a large section of the top wall slides down to reveal the interior of a greasy builder’s café by the seaside. It’s this inventiveness in staging that makes you love the Royal Court and ensures that all levels of the theatre have an excellent view.

This was only the third preview and press night is on Friday but this is already absolutely brilliant so people seeing it later in the too short run are in for a treat as it matures. David Morrissey perfectly captures the essence of man who likes to be in charge, the small sense of power that being a hangman granted him has transferred to dominion over his pub and the eager band of followers who ‘hang’ on his every word. Morrissey brings a really interesting mix of conviction, small-mindedness and arrogance to Harry – very much a man of his time – who took more pleasure in his former occupation than he’d like to admit. Later in the play as things start to unravel we see these tensions violently bubble over and in an interesting scene Harry is humbled by his rival.

It’s a stellar cast but one of the best performances comes from the more unknown Johnny Flynn as the menacing stranger Mooney, whose connection to events twists and turns before the audience. Flynn is incredibly charismatic, charming even with a consistent hint not just of latent danger but also of derangement. Mooney becomes the cypher for McDonagh’s argument on capital punishment so Flynn’s performance takes on added value in intriguing the audience while keeping us guessing about his true nature. Reece Shearsmith as hangman’s assistant Syd gives another fantastic dramatic comedy performance mixing Syd’s bumbling incompetence with a darker element that gives the impression that he’s always in over his head. Shearsmith also nails some fantastic one-liners and reaction shots that have the audience in stitches.

Harry’s world also includes a connected sub-plot with his beleaguered no-nonsense wife, played magnificently by Sally Rogers, as the strong landlady in a world of men, and their ‘mopey’ daughter Shirley played by Bronwyn James giving a fabulous stage debut as the lonely teenager dealing with her seemingly uncaring parents. Ralph Ineson is the gruff Inspector Fry who has his ‘spot’ at the bar but never seems to be at work, supporting Harry to intimidate the customers and suggesting a backstory of corruption. Pub regulars Bill (Graeme Hawley), Arthur (Simon Rouse) and Charlie (Ryan Pope) provide a lot of the humour as they become embroiled in events but still imply they’ll be back in the pub tomorrow because that’s just what they do.

McDonagh’s new play is an absolutely treat from start to finish, and there’s not a word wasted. It’s packed with his typically ‘gallows’ humour and fantastic lines which are drawn from neat observation of northern working class life and from the ridiculous situation in which these people find themselves. Not only will you be laughing all the way through but McDonagh has created a set of characters that, despite the ludicrousness of the situation, you entirely believe in, making the dramatic moments wholly credible. Amazing also that this fabulous cast had only two performances under its belt and was still completely brilliant – no doubt the critics will agree come Friday and with such a short run let’s hope for a West End transfer. It’s so rare to find a play that can keep you giggling while having you on the edge of your seat wondering what will happen, and the skill of McDonagh’s writing is to get you thinking about capital punishment without even realising it. The message is provoking but clear, if you want to have a criminal justice system that ends in death, can you ever really be sure enough of someone’s guilt to hang them?

Hangmen is at the Royal Court until 10 October. Tickets are sold out but check the website for day seats and returns.


The Nether – Duke of York’s Theatre

We can be anything we want to be these days, we are told. But what if the thing you want to be is socially and morally unacceptable? The internet has created a vast realm where almost anything is possible and allied with video games the development of increasingly sophisticated virtual worlds where users can be represented by maquettes with any combination of physical features. Here either resembling themselves or looking like another person entirely they can interact with others, join communities, create their fantasy home and live a life free of consequence.

The Nether has one of the most intriguing theatrical trailers you’ll ever see and well worth a look before you book tickets. Transferring from the Royal Court the play is set in the not too distant future where the internet has become so sophisticated that whole lives can be lived there and anyone deciding to transition from real-life will be able to experience not just actions but also sensation through their character. But within this new world of free-choice The Hideaway has been created, a place where men can go to enjoy the company of a child named Iris, a place that encourages paedophilia and murder without consequence. Internet detective Morris needs to find the server location and shut it down, and tries to extract information from the site owner and a user leading to some disturbing revelations, a couple of quite remarkable twists and some extremely dark food for thought.

This is an impressively realised piece of theatre that combines extraordinary design with a truly challenging issue, and one that you will change your mind about repeatedly as the story unfolds. Essentially it poses an impossible dilemma, is it better to allow paedophiles to have a safe place on line to satiate their wants and prevent their engagement with real children or by shutting down The Hideaway and its depravities, set them back into real life and a risk to society. It’s a classic Royal Court production which takes a current issue, particularly in the light of Operation Yewtree and its high profile convictions, and tries to show it to you from all somewhat uncomfortable angles – at no point is this an easy watch, so if you’re expecting a jolly night at the theatre, think again!

Luke Hall’s video design is as innovative as I have ever seen and brilliantly segues between the projected digital imagery and Es Devlin’s beautiful Hideaway set which initially you see in a computer-screen shaped box emphasising the projection around it, but is later revealed in its entirety as the audience and characters become complicit in the action. The Hideaway itself is a style mixture of modern and Edwardian, surrounded by poplar trees, encased on three sides by image distorting mirrors that created an illusory depth in this virtual world – a very nice metaphor for the play’s content.

The real-world shown to us in the interview room is drably grey and black in comparison with cameras and monitors observing these men from every angle. Seemingly so unappealing in comparison to the light and joy of the virtual world but no less voyeuristic in its Big Brother-like association, and this only serves to make us think more carefully about the way image is used to confuse us, and how beauty can often be used to mask a much darker meaning. In this case the faux paradise may seem enticing but what is happening there is heinous, and while our real world may sparkle less, it is still governed by enforceable morality that protects and helps us.

Jennifer Haley’s script is written with considerable economy – an eighty minute show with not a single piece of fat. Every word spoken by the actors is carefully chosen to either move the plot along or to contribute to the almost philosophical debate unfolding on stage. The four actors are very good; Stanley Townsend as the aptly named Sims is the creator of The Hideaway who rationally defends his work as a public duty, and in Townsend’s chilling performance you are forced to recognise the arguments he’s making however violently you disagree with them. It is also fascinating to see his absolute belief in himself shift as we learn more about his purpose and interaction with other characters.

Amanda Hale as Morris also begins on firm ground as someone who is certain of the legality of her role and her approach to the case. Yet in questioning the suspects, she too begins to reveal more about her methods and the audience is forced to question whether doing something terrible is worth it if the end result is a wider good. David Calder meanwhile is Doyle a member of the site who is willing to give up his real life to live there permanently. Calder gives us a broken man, struggling with his real-self with a fairy-tale-like desire to run away to a place where he’s happy. That desire to feel part of something and loved by someone comes across in his tender performance.

The Nether will send you home with more questions than answers. Is the internet a safe place, should it be better regulated, who should make those decisions and how should they be enforced? But it will also force you to consider much darker themes about identity, and how we present ourselves to the world. We may make jokes about who’s really behind internet dating profiles and fan-sites and it may seem harmless now, but will assuming alternative names, faces and personalities lead to greater danger for everyone, blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality. Will being whatever you want online have ramifications for people’s behaviour and moral codes in everyday life? Should those who want to commit unimaginable crimes be given a virtual space in which to do, if it will spare them being acted out in reality? I came out of The Nether not knowing the answers to any of these questions and you probably won’t have them either but as a provocative and challenging piece of theatre it is well worth having your mind and your conscience tested. So the question is, who do you want to be and are you sure there are no consequences?

The Nether is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 25 April. Tickets start from £10. Watch the trailer at http://www.anetherrealm.co.uk/. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


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