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A Taste of Honey – Trafalgar Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cyrano de Bergerac – Playhouse Theatre

Cyrano de Bergerac - Jamie Lloyd Theatre Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


My Brilliant Friend Parts One and Two – National Theatre

My Brilliant Friend - National Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

The page to stage transfer can be a tricky process and in the last few years The National Theatre has been at the forefront of a wave of inventive and on the whole successful co-produced adaptations of much-loved novels. Their Jane Eyre with The Bristol Old Vic utilised a host of theatrical techniques to dramatise the life of the proto-feminist governess, while last year’s production of Small Island felt significant. Yet the pitfalls are many in the process of removing the interior authorial voice and giving life to the wider  narrative context and characterisation that the novel has the space and capacity to consider in detail. This two-part reworking of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitian series is much anticipated and, after an acclaimed run at the Rose Theatre Kingston, makes its West End debut at the Olivier Theatre.

Part One summaries Ferrante’s first two novels, My Brilliant Friend from which the show takes its overall title, and The Story of a New Name with around 85-minutes given over to the content of the first book and 45 to the second. Part Two – which you can see on the same day or on successive evenings – deals with Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (c. 75 minutes) and The Story of the Lost Child (c.60 minutes) making both a little shorter than their advertised 2 hour and 45 minute run times.

It is undoubtedly an ambitious project to compress a couple of thousand pages of text, a huge cast of characters and 60-years of history into just over 5 hours of theatre, and while sometimes the show feels a little lightweight as it gallops through the incidences of Lenu and Lila’s story, the overall effect successfully conveys the complexities of long-lasting female friendship as well as capturing the undercurrents of violence that form the social structures of Nepalese society, not to mention the aspirational effects of scholastic achievement that run through the novel to create class movement in a period of rapid social and technological change, particularly for women.

People love Ferrante’s work for its psychological authenticity and the almost immersive quality of the writing that instantly pulls the reader into the world and experiences of her characters, vividly creating the nature of life in Naples in the 1950s and 1960s particularly well. Her characters are so well-rounded that no one is wholly good or bad but given depth and perspective that shifts over the long experience of the novels as lives go in opposing directions while opportunities, love affairs and calamities come and go. To bring all this to the stage Melly Still’s reworking of April De Angelis’s adaptation gives the show both a flowing and episodic quality as the interior monologue of the protagonist Elena Greco know as Lenu through whose eyes the reader sees the world entirely in the books, is replaced by fully dramatised scenes that in Part One tip the balance in favour of Lila’s character before restoring Lenu to the centre of her own story in Part Two.

As a result, Lenu becomes more an observer of her brilliant friend’s more vivid life. Events pass rapidly on Soutra Gilmour’s sparse set that (surely) repurposes the fire escapes from Follies to become the balconies and stairwells of the slum area of close habitation that frames the story – an effective approach which captures the bustle and tension of neighbours in close proximity and in which threats of spontaneous violence often erupt. The sparring use of giant wrap-around video screens project images of writing and drawing in Part One as Lila creates The Blue Fairy from which Lenu’s own desire to become a writer stems, while later images of apartment blocks, riots and even static distortion convey the wider social and political atmosphere.

The creation of community where love and hate live side-by-side is one of My Brilliant Friend‘s most interesting achievements in Part One building a strong foundation – as Ferrante does with the novels – for the direction of her protagonists in their simultaneous desperation to escape, control and be consumed by this formational place. It is here that the basis for both women’s future interaction with men are shaped, using Toby Olié’s puppetry to interesting effect to dramatise the violent confrontations that shock but also show the disassociation of the victim. When Lila is raped on her wedding night by her new husband, a puppet dress takes her place in a stylised confrontation while the real Lila lays distraught on the floor – it is powerfully rendered. The later use of puppets to represent children in Act Four feels superfluous and irritatingly twee by comparison.

The choice to make Lenu solely a character and not a narrator is – at least in Part One – an uneasy one, pushing her into the background and simplifying, on the one hand, her role and the intensity of her relationships in the first two novels including downplaying the mixed messaging of Nino. On the other hand, towards the end of the first evening, it does help to mark her transition to writer and chronicler of Naples life. When Niamh Cusack starts to recite text taken directly from Ferrante’s pages at the bookstore launch of Lenu’s first novel, the whole play suddenly comes alive in an entirely different way, arguably marking the point where Lenu finds her voice and a degree of independence from Lila that will shape Part Two which also makes sense as a stage decision. Yet the absence of her authorial perspective in the rest of Part One feels like a loss in what at times becomes a succession of connected scenes rather than an unfolding narrative held firmly and consistently together by Lenu’s controlling hand.

Part Two is considerably more successful and while potentially the earlier production has created the groundwork, it is here that the stage adaptation shows greater confidence in the management of the material and the overarching themes – helped not a little by the proper placement of Lenu at the centre of her own story. The growing discontent she feels as an intellectual woman force by circumstance and patriarchal expectations into the (to her) restrictive roles of wife and mother are really well conveyed, lifting dialogue so recognisably from Ferrante’s third instalment. Likewise, Lenu’s struggle to retain her sense of self and a momentum to keep writing throughout her awkward marriage to fellow academic Pietro well suggests the building pressure and loneliness of a woman who believes she was educated for more.

The third act is also more strikingly political as Still in her duel capacity as director uses the video screens and choroegraphed fight sequences by John Sandeman to evoke the riot at Bruno Soccavo’s factory, aspects of which intrude on Lenu’s growing domestication and seeing the two side by side with Lenu and her family blithely unaware of the violence around them is one of the high points of this production. Likewise, the growing Mafioso-like dominance of the Solaras has the two brothers and their matriarch enter like film noir villains, bathed in shadow and scored with a notable composition that strikingly contrasts with family life.

The skill with which Still combines these two aspects creates a stronger and more consistent narrative flow than Part One that cleverly represents traditional power structures under attack as they are brought under pressure from political activism as well as also the growing demands of female intellectual recognition. And Jon Nicholls sound design and music choices are integral to the context of the piece, playing snatches of era-defining songs at crucial moments to facilitate scene changes but also to rapidly relocate the action to a different year or decade creating instant recognition for the audience of the mood of the times and the individual characters at any given moment.

Across the four acts of this two-part drama, the changing friendship of Lila and Lenu is the strength of My Brilliant Friend and while this is at the expense of depth among the supporting cast, creating only impressionistic portraits of everyone else, the charting of an enduring but never smooth experience of female companionship and solidarity is rare enough sight on any stage. In many ways the story improves with Lila’s absence – an unpopular opinion perhaps – but the character never quite holds the allure her author originally ascribed to her, while Lenu’s trajectory was always far more interesting on the page even when she doubted her own value.

Niamh Cusack plays Lenu across the many decades of the story taking her from the gauche pre-teen playing with dolls to the assured author in her 60s, and while the concept of adults playing children usually means squeaky voices and plenty of exaggerated gurning, Cusack avoids all of that to make her youthful Elena studious and innocent, vastly overshadowed by her glamorous friend. But as the years pass, Cusack brings a growing strength to the performance that captures the Lenu we know from the books, navigating her way through domestic upheavals while reacting to the changes affecting Naples and the wider world that drive her own desire to commentate on it as well as enhance her education. As our narrator, Lenu is highly sympathetic and Cusack sustains the momentum well across more than five hours of theatre, an impressive performance and no mean feat given she is in almost every scene.

Katherine McCormack conveys the fiery aspects of Lila as she chooses a path that is ultimately far more treacherous than her friend’s. But Lila is a hard character to like, she’s largely dismissive, aggressive and at times self-pitying, making decisions that deliberately wound Lenu, so in the play’s more simplified approach its difficult to believe – as Lenu’s husband Pietro points out – that the pair could have remained friends for so long. McCormack captures the relentlessness of Lila’s life and the extent to which decisions that shape her are beyond her control leaving her with very few moments of real happiness, but across the many hours of the play the character’s attitudes and slightly dramatic style of speech are remarkably unvarying, giving McCormack little to work with.

A similar pruning happens across the sub-characters too, a necessity to bring this complex set of novels to the stage, and although well-acted across the cast, it does loosen some of the emotional undercurrents present in Ferrante’s work. Ben Turner’s Nino has far less presence here and while Turner suggests his charm there’s none of the charismatic intensity of long-held romantic or political passion for which Lila and Lenu risk both their marriages, while Mary Jo Randle’s mother to Lenu is primarily a comedy character transposed to generic northern housewife that gives little time to the substantial psychological influence Immacolata has on every aspect of her daughter’s life and the significance of Lenu’s determination to make her own decisions.

Part Two is a little more satisfying in construction and flow than Part One largely because Lenu is much more in focus in the second half, but the five and a half hours essentially fly by. This page to stage adaptation should largely please fans of the Neapolitan series, finally seeing much loved characters brought to life in this interesting way, although some may feel the breadth of this world compressed into two plays is at the cost of emotional and narrative depth within the subplots. Nonetheless its hard not to be impressed by the achievement of this two part production of My Brilliant Friend, and its interesting techniques to imagine the vast world of Ferrante’s novels.

My Brilliant Friend Parts One and Two are at the National Theatre until 22 February with tickets from £15 per show. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


The Beauty Queen of Leenane – The Tower Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ghost Quartet – Boulevard Theatre

Ghost Quartet - Boulevard Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

The first show in a new theatre is both intriguing and exciting; for an audience member it is a chance to see a new space, to understand its possible configuration while assessing its comfort, sight-lines and to an extent its style. With new theatres popping up all the time, there’s a feeling of change across theatreland and a focus on big commercial venues including a new Nimax build by Tottenham Court Road Station and a second theatre for Nicholas Hytner at King’s Cross. And while there is a cost to some smaller venues like The Bunker which has announced permanent closure in the Spring, others like the King’s Head and Southwark Playhouse are also heading to new purpose-built venues. Somewhere in between is the new Boulevard Theatre, a classy, intimate space in the heart of once-seedy Soho which held its first press night last week for inaugural production Ghost Quartet.

In an area still undergoing extensive corporate redevelopment, this new theatre is a stylish and very comfortable addition to the West End landscape. Complete with a bar and restaurant all modishly decked in pink surfaces and rainforest wallpaper, the auditorium itself is an intimate space arranged in the round for its first unveiling. A central floorspace of burnished copper acts as the stage, with individual chairs – no flip-up stalls here – and an upstairs balcony area with additional seating. In any configuration, the audience will always feel part of the action while the entire concept has a 60s Mad Men vibe that suits the cabaret feel to the opening show.

Ticket prices are fairly reasonable for the area at £24-£36 – down on Shaftesbury Avenue a restricted view in the Balcony would be at least that with the best stalls view now at over a £100 – while the £12 Roulette Ticket scheme is a potential masterstroke if you book early. 10 tickets are available for every performance with seats allocated at random on the day.

Choosing a show to launch your brand new theatre should feel significant, it needs to showcase the facilities, technology and creativity of the artistic team while somehow advocating the brand, what sets it apart from other venues and showing what audiences can expect from the season ahead. But does anyone really remember these first shows with any notability? When the National Theatre launched in 1963 it chose Hamlet, while more recently in 2017 Nicholas Hytner christened the new Bridge Theatre stage with Richard Bean’s Young Marx which opened to warm if not ecstatic reviews but arguably remains the best new play the venue has managed to produce in the subsequent two years.

The Boulevard Theatre has chosen to host the London debut of Dave Malloy’s strange musical Ghost Quartet, and in some ways it is a curious decision. With its fragmented stories and concept-album structure, this is a show that requires the audience to pay attention as several different narratives are woven together, told in a jumbled, mix-up way, out of sequence, and even then you may not be sure exactly what is happening. And while it doesn’t feel like a show you’ll remember much about in a few months time, director Bill Buckhurst marshals the resources of the new venue to create an atmospheric and entertaining experience.

It is the right time of year for a stories of death and remembrance, officially opening on Halloween, Ghost Quartet uses four performers to tell four thematically related stories across 90-minutes. Unusually, the show is conscious of it’s album-like roots, announcing the Side (of which there are of course four) and Track number ahead of every song which has a way of disrupting the rhythm so the audience isn’t drawn too far into any single story, but it also helps to maintain the flow, like chapter headings announcing changes of direction and musical style.

Malloy’s four narrators take on multiple roles throughout the piece, performing as different characters as well as playing all of the music on the instruments that litter the stage. There is no formal scene setting or book, every story is directly created within each ‘track’ so the performers must use the lyrics to conjure the changing locations, settings and scenarios, while moving back and forth between them as Malloy weaves between his various tales.

Most recognisable is a version of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher which recurs throughout Ghost Quartet as Roxie Usher dies after her child is taken from her and her family keep her body in a vault beneath her mother’s bedroom. In a series of songs entitled ‘Usher’, the narrative moves back and forth through time as the seven year old Roxie talks about an imaginary best friend before later returning from the dead. In another strand two sisters Rose Red and Pearl White vie for the affections of The Astronomer who tries to show them both the constellations, but in the third section Rose Red enlist the help of a magic bear (yes really) to kill her love rival but must gather ingredients for a magic potion, while in the final story a young woman named Pearl is pushed onto the tracks at a subway station.

The names Rose and Pearl connects several of these stories, all in some way versions of the same women but interacting with each other differently depending on the narrative. It is sometimes confusing whether it’s the jealous Rose Red in the Astronomer’s story or the young Rose with a camera who sees Pearl’s train track murder who is being referenced and in Buckhurst’s version they are the same performer. But Malloy’s approach is deliberately opaque, making a wider point about the ways in which all human machinations end the same way, in our obsession with death and regret.

On a stage cluttered with musical instruments, furniture and an assortment of junk that reflects the eclectic tone of the piece, Simon Kenny’s design is not so much a set as a studio, albeit one with different layers allowing Buckhurst to vary the height at different points as stories reach crescendo or talk of the stars. Yet, anything that too obviously suggests time, place or character is deliberately held back, the room is a musician’s space not an actor’s one, and despite the busy mass of items that come close to the audience, nothing detracts from the prominence of the song lyrics and storytelling focus. Emphasis is created by Emma Chapman with a lighting design that adds texture to everything from cheery group numbers to haunting solos and dramatic strobe effects during the Poe horror sections.

And perhaps in a clear signal of what to expect from future Boulevard productions, there is an focus on fully interacting with the audience, passing out glasses of whiskey as they sing ‘Four Friends’, a few boxes of percussion instruments to shake in time with the beat during the Side One finale ‘Any Kind of Dead Person’ and a cunning use of people from the front row to actually play instruments in the show’s concluding number ‘The Wind and Rain.’ It’s all done with ease, as though the barrier between performers and viewers barely exists which is usually so hard to achieve in live theatre or even concerts. The space encourages direct involvement the way listening to an album at home feels like a personal experience with the musicians.

Malloy’s musical influences are as eclectic as his narrative ones, and the 23-song soundtrack use a piano, cello, drums and guitar as their base but incorporate all kinds of percussion and other instruments to create sounds as diverse as folk music, ballads, gospel and avant-garde styles amongst others. And despite its disconnected approach, there’s something about Malloy’s combinations that works, it may not always make a lot of sense as a complete experience but it always maintains your interest. There is a lively warmth to the production which despite its subject matter helps you to feel included even when you’re lost in its twists and helps to maintain an energy that drives your investment as it unfolds.

Performers Carly Bawden, Niccolò Curradi, Maimuna Memon and Zubin Varla are hugely talented actor-musicians with the very difficult job of guiding the audience through so many bits of narrative. Together they create the changing atmosphere of Malloy’s songs and it is testament to their skills and performance as a company that they hold this eclectic evening together. They look to Varla – recently seen in the West End transfer of Equus – on the piano to set the tempo who brings a darkness to his role as The Astronomer, with Memon adding a haunting quality as the various Pearl characters, while Bawden adds emotion and occasionally an ethereal quality as the Roses.

Reminiscent of Hadestown a similar concept-album approach that reimagined the song cycle of musical theatre, Ghost Quartet is a interesting experience if not always a satisfying or even a very clear one, so in what has been a very big year for musicals it may be easily forgotten. Malloy’s experimental musical does however take the building blocks of the genre in a new and unusual direction by utilising different music styles and a fragmented structural approach which certainly has presence in the intimacy of this new performance space. If this inaugural show means the new Boulevard Theatre is setting out its stall for a programme of unusually staged and challenging productions in the future then there is every reason to come back soon.

Ghost Quartet is at the Boulevard Theatre until 4 January with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


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