Tag Archives: theatre

Actually – Trafalgar Studios

Actually - Trafalgar Studios (by Lidia Crisafulli)

One little word can change everything; it can mean the difference between right and wrong, force obligation onto someone and permanently alter the course of their life. Saying Yes or No brings clarity, an unambiguous message to proceed or not based on a mutual understanding of the expectations or consequences that follow. But life if rarely so straightforward and on the issue of sexual consent, can what happens in the heat of the moment between two people ever be entirely divorced from a wider set of circumstances that put them in that place at that moment. And what if the language they use is a little fuzzier, what does it mean for consent if the word they use is not “no” but “actually?”

Anna Ziegler’s play makes its European debut at the Trafalgar Studios, examining the various problems in distilling the events of a single drunken night between Amber and Tom during their first term at Ivy League university Princeton. While their narrative is partially driven by whether Amber agreed to have sex with Tom, Ziegler’s focus is two-fold, considering the backgrounds, characters, peer pressure and expectations placed on both freshmen while asking whether the formal and overly simplistic means of redress helps the victim or the accused.

Actually allows both characters to tell their own story directly to the audience, and Ziegler structures the action carefully to move between several different time periods – the night of the incident, the days surrounding it, the university’s sexual misconduct hearing and some unspecified later period in which Amber and Tom speak to the viewer. The result is to constantly sway the audience, asking us to respond to each protagonist depending on how much we know about them at any given moment, allowing Ziegler to fully control the narrative across the show’s brief 85-minute run time.

Less assured is the approach to consent itself and to a degree Actually ties itself in knots trying to be fair and comprehensive without taking much away from either person’s version of the truth. And, depending on your interpretation of the play’s conclusion, Ziegler never fully takes a position on the events she depicts, whether or not the word ‘actually’ is sufficient basis for a rape charge. Yet unlike Nine Raine’s disappointing play Consent that was essentially another tired story of middle class angst, wine drinking and extramarital affairs, Ziegler places all the evidence before us to demonstrate that clarity may exist for the people around them, but for Amber and Tom what actually happened is almost unknowable to the two people it most concerns.

Director Oscar Toeman takes the steer from Ziegler by allowing the various complexities of this case to take centre stage. Everything else is simplified, movements restricted to directing speech at different parts of the audience, no props, no furniture just the two characters who verbally carry the narrative between different locations including the Princeton Quad, several bars, dorms and eventually the formal hearing where three strangers will determine the veracity of Tom and Amber’s version of events and ultimately the future that awaits them when publicly branded either a rapist or a liar.

The set uses marble-patterned flooring and back panels to entomb the characters in both the formal process that will ultimately decide their fate, but also symbolically trapping them in the hallowed-halls of their esteemed university. Whatever happens in the rest of the their lives, this decision will come to define them. And it is here in the failure of the legal and regulatory codes that Ziegler’s strongest argument is to be found, that the black and white, yes or no approach to the infinite variety of human relationships is reduced, simplified and funneled until it no longer bears any relation to what really happened. As Tom observes, there is something too arbitrary about our evidence-based approach to justice, so when the scales are evenly weighted, a feather blown carelessly one way or the other can tip the balance at random.

Ziegler’s play feels purposefully controlled, using the creation of credible, multifaceted characters to ground her arguments in a recognisable reality. A heavily talky drama that requires your full attention, the wider information Ziegler provides on the backgrounds, personalities and past behaviours of both Amber and Tom help the audience to see the complicated and very flawed people struggling with the momentum of a one-size-fits-all sexual misconduct policy. As with her Rosalind Franklin in the award-winning Photograph 51, Ziegler is unafraid to create ambiguous stage women – difficult, contradictory, sometimes odd and even hard to read – Ziegler avoids the cliched need to make her characters likeable. What is so interesting about Amber is that she may be annoying but it doesn’t mean she’s a liar.

But Tom is Ziegler’s initial focus, a black student who fought his way to Princeton determined to enjoy the freedom that being 18 and away from home for the first time offers him. His core sentiment is “you’ll never get this time again in the rest of you life” expressed to his best friend, the chance to sleep with plenty of willing women every night with little consequence. And while these conquests come easily to him, Tom is far more interesting than a laddish love rat because Ziegler has given him plenty of attractive qualities, sensitivity, devotion to his mother and an important degree of self-awareness that becomes crucial to his character arc as the competing truths about his night with Amber work on his own perspective.

But first, whether deliberately or not, Ziegler gives us every reason to sympathise with Tom. His casual sex life is put into perspective by his love of music and the loneliness he experiences as part of university life that draws him into a deep friendship with a violinist. Tom plays the piano to escape, making the decision not to study it professionally so as to retain the creation of music as a refuge, a private pleasure that feeds his soul, learned entirely thanks to the charity of a kindly teacher who gave him lessons for free. And through this we begin to understand something of the restrictions, expectations and societal barriers that Tom has had to overcome even to make it to any university, never mind this elite American institution.

Ziegler also references the unfairness of the American justice system for young black men and in a startlingly powerful but briefly expressed image, Tom makes an allusion to “all those swinging men,” hanged for a crime they didn’t commit. It immediately connects Ziegler’s scenario to other cultural pieces including To Kill a MockingbirdWhen They See Us and If Beale Street Could Talk, making you wonder if Tom will share the fate of so many other young black men falsely accused in a system stacked against them. He is waiting, he tells Amber during one of their conversations, for the unseen hand to stop him, as it has so many before.

But Tom is no sacrificed angel, and Ziegler never shies away from his cocky arrogance and occasionally “dickish” behaviour, a word he uses twice within his narrative in recognition of his failure to behave appropriately or with empathy for others. Simon Manyonda gives a fascinating performance, you want to like him, to believe that he has been maligned and yet subtly we note that he has a problem reading situations clearly as a couple of encounters with his best friend prove surprising to Tom. Equally with Amber, he’s denigrating about her at first, and while he warms to her personality eventually there is still a marked separation in their perspectives long before they have sex. This cutting between the role of narrator and character in a dramatised scene is well managed by Manyonda, conjuring scenarios and engaging warmly with the audience.

If Amber is less easy to appreciate, it is because Ziegler has purposefully designed a female lead that defies expectations. There is a Dawson’s Creek earnestness about Amber that is hard to warm to initially and she speaks so rapidly that both Tom and the audience may find it difficult to catch every word. But there’s something vulnerable about her, lonely, uncertain of herself and constantly questioning her own existence. Amber is at Princeton on a sports scholarship being as she describes a mediocre player in an unpopular game.

Intriguingly it is Amber who sets the tone when on that fateful night at a party she asks Tom to play ‘two truths and a a lie’ if he wants to sleep with her that night. What these people are concealing from each other and themselves becomes highly pertinent to the twisting tale that Ziegler presents, so as events spool back Amber reveals that not only does she find herself in a state of ‘wanting something and not wanting it’ fairly often but a similar situation had arisen before, only then she didn’t pursue it – and it is pointedly noted early in the play that it is a friend who both defines what happened in simplistic terms and tells Amber to make a formal complaint.

Amber is both overly hard on herself and surprisingly confident when she needs to be. To muddy the waters further, she describes pursuing Tom and, after setting the process is in motion, feels sorry for him, even still likes him. Her romantic reading of their interactions – that incidentally contrast with the more casual perspective that Tom takes –  leads her to be bold but there’s always a suggestion that Amber is behaving how she thinks she should, doing what girls of her age are supposed to do to fit in whether she wants to or not, and eventually that feels like the crux of the consent issue, that there are wider forces at work than the two people in the moment.

Yasmin Paige expresses these many sides to Amber really well and doesn’t try too hard to make her likeable or to dampen her more irritating personal qualities. Instead, Paige sits back to an extent, allowing Manyonda to charm the audience while her talkative and occasionally bird-like Amber stands nervously in the background contemplating always whether she has done the right thing. But Paige charts Amber’s story so clearly that through the cumulative effect of the information we are given, we start to see the pain and to understand that her perspective is undiminished and equally valid.

Actually has its issues as a drama and the heavily discursive competing narratives approach limits how the play is staged that can feel repetitive at times, but Ziegler has created a scenario and two complicated people who feel credibly drawn. Too often we expect shows to tell their story and wrap everything up with a nice bow at the end, but sexual consent and its consequences are never so clear cut. Our legal and governance processes may want to boil everything down to a straightforward one word answer, but as Ziegler’s thoughtful play suggests, that can’t always be yes or no, sometimes there’s an actually…

Actually is at the Trafalgar Studios until 31 August with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

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Evita – Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Evita - Regents Park Open Air Theatre

Jamie Lloyd really has the golden touch at the moment and he’s not a director afraid to make a bold statement, in fact they are a trademark. The decision to dedicate a 6-month season to the lesser-known works of Harold Pinter was a huge commercial gamble on a playwright who was not exactly out of fashion but whose writing remains a challenge however much theatre you see. But it was a gamble that paid off, winning over audiences night after night for seven curated collections that proved a revelatory re-examination of Pinter’s variety and legacy culminating in a beautiful and hugely acclaimed revival of Betrayal starring Tom Hiddleston which transfers to Broadway next week.

Hot on the heels of that announcement came the news of a second theatre season from November at the Playhouse Theatre opening with Cyrano de Bergerac starring James McAvoy, followed by a series of yet-to-be-announced productions running until August 2020. Before all of that eyes turn to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre where Lloyd’s interpretation of Evita faces the press on Thursday. Although still in preview, the production is already astounding; daring and brilliant, a full audience standing ovation on its first weekend proving that Jamie Lloyd has serious momentum right now.

It’s also been an amazing year for Andrew Lloyd Webber with impressive revivals of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar (also an Open Air Theatre production) appearing alongside West End stalwarts The Phantom of the Opera and School of Rock. This revival of Evita makes five musicals running concurrently. It’s not an obvious step for Lloyd, but with a portfolio full of edgier approaches to classic texts, the choice of a 1970s musical beloved of theatrical divas turns out to be a very shrewd one.

Of all of Lloyd Webber’s musicals, Evita (written with Tim Rice) is the most overtly political, unpicking the cult of Eva Peron and rise to power of her Argentinian dictator husband during the late 1940s as the right-wing government balances the power of English oligarchs, growing military control and the demands of the working classes. It has that rare thing in any kind of theatre, a female lead whose narrative is not driving a romantic love story and happy ending. Instead Evita looks at Eva’s determination to escape her lowly origins by using her connection to the people to become the first lady of Argentina, and during the show she demands the chance to tell and mythologise her own story.

Lloyd’s approach is always consistent, strip away the history of performance, forget how shows have been staged before and get to the underlying truth of the story. Notably, Evita is as much a political warning as it is a biographical drama, and Lloyd’s version amplifies the dangers of too readily believing public narratives. So, the way in which Eva manufactures and then commercialises her own history does as much to keep Peron in power as his military junta.

What we see on the surface – the widespread distribution of charitable goods, building bridges with the unions and a glamorous tour of European leaders – belies the corruption beneath. Examining the motivations of political leaders who claim to act in the name of “the people” but really have only self-interest at heart, and dispelling the myths that those in power weave lies at the heart of Evita, making Lloyd’s revival as much a contemporary warning as a 1940s lesson in history.

Designer Soutra Gilmour clears the stage of unnecessary window dressing leaving only plain terraced steps with the show’s title in rusted Argentinian blue and white at the top concealing the orchestra. There is a deceptive simplicity to the staging created to emphasise Eva’s insistence on her own humble origins. The setting, like her early life, is devoid of frills, bare and straightforward in which Lloyd quietly introduces a concept of class in which certain groups occupy the upper regions of the stage depending on their societal influence. The same is true of Eva’s costume, a simple white slip rather than the enormous gowns of previous productions which psychologically attest to her belief that beneath the Dior dresses she’s still that impoverished urchin from the sticks.

But all is not what it seems because Gilmour, lighting designer Jon Clark and Lloyd know exactly when and how to unleash cavalcades of activity at crucial moments creating quite the spectacle. In the very first line of the show, Che Guevara sings’ “Oh what a circus” and this has been Gilmour’s inspiration – applied with a fairly light touch – along with the riots and victorious parades peppered throughout the story. No Lloyd production is complete without plenty of ticker tape, and here torrents of the stuff is unleashed, along with enough smoke effects to almost obscure the stage and front rows, projectile streamers and plenty of balloons all in the strict pale blue and white colour scheme of this South American nation.

What Lloyd does so well is to so carefully balance these explosions of public sentiment with the show’s more comedic elements and the emotional centre of the piece, the result of which is a first-rate piece of theatre. The visible outpouring of grief following Eva’s funeral where the story begins, are matched by the elation of Peron’s flag-waving victory during ‘A New Argentina’ just before the interval and the frantic enthusiasm of ‘And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out)’. But as we saw with the Pinter series, Lloyd pitches the emotive moments with tenderness whether it’s the melancholic resignation of Peron’s dejected mistress in ‘Another Suitcase in Another Hall’ or Eva’s own health struggles later in the show (‘You Must Love Me’), Lloyd clears the stage, focusing intently on the real feeling behind the bombast, the humanity amidst all this political posturing.

Musicals endure a lot of undeserved derision, but Evita is one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most arresting scores, full of heavy funereal brass for the Requiem sections, jazzy swing and showstopping solos that quiver with feeling. With the kind of visionary thinking that he is known for, Lloyd has contemporised this show entirely, working with Musical Supervisor Alan Williams to give the songs a modern feel, most notably incorporating tango and salsa rhythms that bring freshness to the songs. These are beautifully performed by the orchestra, particularly during the intensity and pomp of the big numbers which feel vivid and energised.

Fabian Aloise’s hugely accomplished choreography is just a joy to watch, modern, fluid, dynamic and full of storytelling using a relatively small ensemble that represent the working classes, English aristocratic colonists and Peron’s stylised army. Every one of the set-piece moments has been carefully constructed and staged with flair so that many of the big numbers will stick in your mind as those terraced steps light-up and offer opportunities for movement at contrasting levels across the stage.

But Alosie’s work is also full of small moments that create such a wonderful and satisfactory variety of steps and movements throughout, not least in the first act where ‘Goodnight and Thank You’ and ‘Art of the Possible’ give large balloons to Eva’s lovers and Peron’s rivals as they are picked off one by one, while Act Two offers some inspired approaches to ‘High Flying Adored’ and the spray-can filled ‘Rainbow High.’ All of this echoes the grittier, more urban choreographic choices made for Jesus Christ Superstar in 2016 and currently on lone to the Barbican.

Making her UK debut, Samantha Pauly is superb as Evita with the kind of rock voice that brings a different feel to these classic musical theatre songs, delivering the lyrics in more unusual ways. A surface rags to riches story, Pauly plays Eva with a cheeky confidence as she uses her charms to lure Magaldi and break into the Buenos Aires performance scene. But Eva Peron was no Cinderella, and Pauly brings a valuable ambiguity to the role reinforcing the shows central debate about the manipulation of the public image.

This is a woman who refuses to let anyone else tell her story, so Eva and Che indulge in a battle for control of the narrative fought over the possession of hand-held microphones as her star rises. Pauly’s creation is a bundle of so many things, arrogance, determination, spitefulness, revolutionary fervour, comedic timing and sexual confidence as well as a discerning political mind supporting the workers but propping-up a fascist regime, never letting the audience entirely sympathise or detest her. ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ is always a showstopper and here too Pauly makes it her own, a moment of wistful stillness in a frantic scramble for power, matched by the eventual fragility Pauly reveals as the vulnerable Evita reaches her conclusion.

Pauly has great chemistry with Puerto Rican actor Ektor Rivera who plays Juan Peron, almost happily pushed into the background by his wife’s star power, but they make a very handsome couple, easy to believe their youthful glamour would be attractive to the electorate. Trent Saunders is excellent as the disaffected Che Guevara as repulsed by Evita’s social climbing and political regime as he is attracted by the personal charisma and resolve that infect him. While Che’s influence fades as the show unfolds, Saunders’s sardonic quality and strong vocals makes this a compelling battle of wills between the leads.

Lloyd has gathered an effortlessly diverse cast for the secondary roles and a hard-working Ensemble that fill the stage with energy in some excellent dance numbers. There’s also a notable performance by Frances Mayli McCann as Peron’s Mistress – the only other woman in the show to warrant her own song – delivering ‘Another Suitcase in Another Hall’ with a quiet despair in another of those moment’s when we pause to take stock, thinking about the easy disposability of women in this world and how hard Eva had to fight to rise above them all.

What you want from a Jamie Lloyd production is a sense of contemporary resonance, a focus on the emotional and truthful centre of a show, and to be surprised by endlessly inventive staging – Evita offers all of this in spades. The result is a production that delivers on the big moments with style but is off-set by the complex and intimate journey through the competing faces of Eva Peron – the lowly descamisado, the predatory social climber, the mother-figure, greedy dictator’s wife and the saintly Evita – a complicated, rounded, powerful and fascinating woman who burned brightly for a time. With plenty to say about the shallow foundations of political leaders hiding behind their PR machines, Jamie Lloyd’s triumphant Evita is raw, fresh and intense – “oh what a show!”

Evita is at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park until 21 September with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Southern Belles – King’s Head Theatre

Southern Belles - Kings Head Theatre (by Scott Rylander)

It’s a great summer to be a Tennessee Williams fan, not just for the range of productions in recent months which have offered new insights into established and lesser-known works, but the last couple of weeks have felt like an immersive Williams drama for the entire UK. With a recent heatwave that at its peak felt like walking through soup, the catalyst of a new Prime Minister in a political climate strained to breaking point, and a feeling that everyone is holding their breath as the social tension rises. Right now, we all know what it feels like to be a Williams character waiting for that clarifying thunderstorm to clear the emotional decks.

Launching their 6-week Queer Season, the King’s Head Theatre have revived Something Unspoken and And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens, two rarely performed One-Act plays by Tennessee Williams that place same-sex relationships at the heart of the drama. In a spate of unconnected productions of Orpheus Descending, Night of the Iguana and a reimagining of The Glass Menagerie, this mini-season reveals a consistency in Williams’s writing about the experience of loneliness, the inevitable power-imbalance in all relationships and self-denial that belies sexuality, giving many of his central characters a kind of tragic dignity.

Badged together as Southern Belles, these two short plays – running at around 40-minutes each – are fairly slight by the writer’s own standards, but a lesser work by Williams still sits far above many other plays. What he does so well is to create emotional resonance and an intangible sense of thwarted desire, of patterns of behaviour replicated again and again from which his characters are unable to break free. In Something Unspoken that is the silent affection that Cornelia has harboured for her secretary Grace for 15-years, allowing it to sit unacknowledged between them, while in And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens transvestite Candy enters into a destructive cycle with a man she clings to.

These two pieces are also united by the class disparity in their central partnership; the mistress-servant relationship in Something Unspoken becomes as much of a barrier between them as their failure to voice their true feelings, and  Cornelia’s behaviour, which borders on the predatory, sits uncomfortably as she pushes her employee to admit feelings it’s not entirely clear that she shares. Similarly, in the second piece, Candy appears in male garb at the start of the play, displaying a delicate refinement, has picked up a working-class sailor for the night, drawing him back to her flat for an elaborate seduction. Candy’s insistence on friendship alone and the subtext between them suggesting that she too may be playing a more elaborate predatory game to coerce him into bed.

These central ambiguities come alive really well in director Jamie Armitage’s production, picking out the moments in both plays in which the closeness of the central pair ebbs and flows as the story unfolds, punctuated with moments of sharp confrontation and contrasting intimacy between the couples. Though both very short pieces, Williams creates waves of tension through these conversations that crest and resettle as the characters warily circle around each other, and it is these undercurrents that Armitage’s two productions manages to elicit so well, focusing-in on the tentative confidence and nervy reserve of four broken people.

The evening opens with Something Unspoken set in 1948 as Cornelia Scott awaits the election results of her local Daughters of the Confederacy group having refused to attend the vote, expecting to be automatically and unopposedly granted the leadership position. During the tense wait her long-dormant feelings for Secretary Grace are articulated and while there is an awkwardness in how Williams suddenly forces the two narrative strands to collide so rapidly, Armitage’s production draws-out many conflicting layers of meaning and interpretation. Willliams uses the frequent telephone interjections bringing updates from the election to slice through the building tension and reset the dramatic direction within the central exchange.

Annabel Leventon’s Cornelia is a forceful personality, attempting to impose her will both on the local women’s association and on the feelings of her employee who never outrightly confirms that this attraction is mutual. There is a hard surface to Cornelia, a prominent figure in a group that had charitable aims to memorialise Confederate soldiers and had raised funds for hospitals during wartime but by 1945 was linked to white supremacy with a discernible relationship with the Ku Klux Klan. Nothing Cornelia says makes reference to her politics or her intentions as leader, but this membership is no coincidence and despite the attachment to Grace which causes her great pain, Williams has chosen this membership deliberately to amplify her ambiguity as the play’s driving force.

Leventon’s performance captures these complexities, her Cornelia is full of outward dignity with a determination to which her refined Southern accent gives a cold entitlement. Her one-sided conversations with lackey Esmeralda in which she remotely attempts to overcome a clique of detractors set to destabilise the election are full of outrage and bluster, amazed that anyone would dare defy her but delivered with a cool social veneer that keeps everything respectable. And while the sharp turn into her romantic feelings is a little sudden from Williams, Leventon finds a genuine ache in Cornelia’s centre which the pressure of the day has exposed, although the final moments leave you wondering whether her political or personal life takes precedence.

Fiona Marr’s shy and confused Grace is extremely well pitched, contrasting thoughtfully with her more certain employer. No longer the young woman of 15-years before, Marr suggests that Grace is by no means as certain of her feelings as Cornelia, unable to determine if she feels love or merely great respect and companionship for this other woman. Marr skitters about the stage with furrowed brow unsure how to respond to these overtures and the extent to which her job security depends on returning them. But there’s just enough fright in Marr’s performance to suggest her demure may be the ‘silly little female trick’ the Cornelia accuses her of.  Left unresolved we’re not quite sure if Grace is the victim of unwanted attention of the victor of the long game.

The second play set in 1955 New Orleans (the same location as the charming The View Upstairs set in the 1970s) takes its title from a misquoted line in Shakespeare’s Richard II, a beautiful piece of poetry in which the now desolate monarch realises he has lost everything and can only ‘sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of Kings’ to which his own will be inevitably added. Evolving the idea that King Richard’s destruction was in part caused by the inability of others to accept his overt sexuality (in the play at least), Williams uses Candy to draw clear parallels with the medieval tragedy. The fractious interactions with sailor Karl who refuses to acknowledge his own attraction to Candy are contrasted by her desperation to feel love above all things. And like King Richard, she sacrifices money, dignity and even safety to secure even a moment’s deep connection to an attractive person.

Reprising a role he played last year when the King’s Head Theatre previously staged this production, Luke Mullins brings with him a damaged intensity from the start. Williams launches right into a deep conversation between these two men with Candy – at this point dressed as a man – speaking openly for several minutes while Karl is all but silent. There is a tender delicacy in Mullins’s interpretation of Candy with a nervous thrum that underscores the performance throughout, both determined to take the lead knowing that the young man before her will succumb eventually, but also reeling from the breakdown of a 17-year relationship that has left her fragile and frightened.

Mullins is superb, treading the line between seductive certainty and a tremulous need to be seen which brings a real heft to the charged interactions with Karl. There is a shifting cat and mouse element to the unfolding exchange that is extremely well realised in which Mullins’s intensely felt performance which veers between victim and conqueror as Williams tips the balance at various points. It’s too simplistic to think of Candy as an equivalent Blanch Dubois figure but Mullins finds a deep-seated strengthened fragility that aligns with the fearful determination of many Williams heroines to force a kind of happiness for themselves whatever it costs.

George Fletcher’s Karl (also reprising his role from last year) has many of the strong silent characteristics of Williams’s men, unable to articulate his desires with an illusion of physical control. Fletcher also uses the flow of the text to mark Karl’s moments of ascendance and fear, tracing his quite different path through the story while learning how much power he has to wield. The thuggish aspects of Karl play well against his uncontrollable physical attraction to Candy as both a man and a woman, creating a force between the actors which is impossible to resist and richly satisfying for the audience.

Sarah Mercadé’s three-quarter round set is a pink boudoir of fluffy carpet and gauzy curtains that utterly transform the tiny King’s Head Theatre and serve both scenarios well. Aside from a raised circular dais at one end with some seating, the approach is minimalist but representative enough of the feminine decadence of the South to allow Williams’s text and characters to take centre-stage without any physical clutter to distract us. Joe Beighton weaves the evening together with music, including a scene setting rendition of ‘All I Do is Dream of You’ performed by Ben Chinapen at the start and Michael Burrows emotive piano version of ‘You Made Me Love You’ tying both productions together.

With a combined running time of c.100-minutes this is a short evening and while And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens and Something Unspoken may not be fully evolved plays, Armitage’s production has plenty to say. As the conclusion to a strong season of unusual Williams revivals, Southern Belles proves valuable and illuminating, concluding with an important moment of solidarity that leaves the audience with a sense of hope and the value of community to take home. As the rain sets in across the UK clearing up the heat of recent weeks, perhaps our own real-life Williams drama is heading for some kind of conclusion as well.

Southern Belles is at the King’s Head Theatre until 24 August with tickets from £23.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog  


Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – The London Palladium

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat - The London Palladium

A surprising amount of modern theatre is hugely nostalgic, looking back to what seem to be happier, simpler times. While plenty of new writing reflects the here and now, our deep-rooted connection to writers such as Terence Rattigan, Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward are steeped in our love of the past and rarely seen without the period paraphernalia. But there is a more individual nostalgia in theatre that is also deeply personal, one that connects us to the shows we have loved at different times in our lives, shows that take us back to our childhoods.

Perhaps not many people remember the first West End show they ever saw but a primary school aged child taken to see their then hero Jason Donovan make his own West End debut at the London Palladium in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 1991 is not something you easily forget, and it’s possible to overlook just what a huge star Donovan was back then. Having only seen regional panto before including Fiona Corke (i.e. Gail from Neighbours – spot the theme!) playing Peter Pan at the Marlowe Theatre, this formative experience in one of London’s most prestigious venues made a lasting impression.

Produce Michael Harrison and Director Laurence Connor understand the emotive power of that nostalgia and the decision to include Donovan in the latest revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s evergreen musical as the Elvis-like Pharaoh is incredibly savvy casting. But Joseph is a show which has always had a kind of childhood nostalgia baked right in, whether from its early incarnations as a school production through the many iterations and revivals since, its light-hearted melodies and almost cartoonish story have captured the imagination of generations of children. Anyone lucky enough to catch Donovan’s brief run in 1991 or any of the subsequent incumbents – Philip Schofield, Darren Day, Stephen Gately, Lee Mead even Gareth Gates – are, 28 years later, hoping to re-live that experience. Even if this is your very first Joseph, you won’t be disappointed.

It’s not easy to create a show that looks backwards and forwards at the same time, that will satisfy an audience with a decades-old memory of it while offering enough modern application to prevent this highly performed musical feeling like a museum piece. Connor impressively manages both, working with Musical Director John Rigby and Choreographer Joann M. Hunter to update some of the music and dance sequences to include more rap and street dance stylings. This gives the overall show a dreamlike urban feel particularly in the vision for Act One finale ‘Go Go Go Jospeh’ and through the characterisation of the Narrator.

Like the Adrian Mole musical down the road in Covent Garden, Connor also mixes child and adult performers together in unusual ways that work extremely well. Of the eight children who form a fireside circle around the Narrator at the start to hear the story of Joseph, they end up scattered through the action as several of the protagonist’s 11 brothers, the snooty aristocrat Potiphar who Joseph works for in Egypt, as well as the Butler and Baker, Joseph’s dream-plagued cellmates. A large pool of young actors will rotate these roles, lending an additional charm to the show including some great solo moments that add to the comedy of the Potiphar scenes as well as creating an opportunity for one little brother to start the wonderful ‘Benjamin Calypso.’ It’s a smart approach from Connor and Harrison who use their young cast members to create a warm family feel while tying the show back to its school hall origins.

But Connor has more tricks for us and creates a hybrid quality-makeshift production. There is a fluid simplicity to the construction here that belies the technical complexity behind the scenes. The result is a show that actively and warmly welcomes in the audience but similar awes them with a spectacle that it wears rather lightly for the most part. Part of that idea is realised by doubling the Narrator character with several additional roles in the story including Jacob, Potiphar’s vampish wife and a fellow prisoner. It is an interesting but very successful choice, deepening the notion that the Narrator is a contemporary master of ceremonies, controlling and conjuring the story before us, while retaining a playful, dressing-up box feel that runs through the set and costume design.

A lot of time has passed in theatre design since the 1991 production and Morgan Large has clearly been inspired by the bold impressionism of big West End shows like The Lion King. Puppetry has advanced apace as well so the show includes two mechanical camel puppets made from bicycles and some comedy static sheep that look like scaled-up children’s toys. The centrepiece of the design is a huge backdrop filled by an enormous round sun (or moon) that moves rapidly across the wall as required, but is tonally altered using arresting block colours to suggest the burning orange heat of Canaan as the brother’s plot against Joseph, becoming blood red as Reuben sings the Western-inspired ‘One More Angel in Heaven’ and even an emphatic blue at the end of ‘Joseph’s Coat’.

It is a very colourful production in every sense, inspired by the fantastic array of shades in the famous technicolor garment, Large has created a forceful and vibrant experience, full of block primary tones that give a heightened feel to the action, referencing the notion of dreams and storytelling that drive the plot. Again, this looks simple with layers of basic shapes to suggest time and place, but the overall effect is strong, with an almost Van Gogh-like intensity in the way colour has been deliberately chosen to change the mood and tone of the show. Notably in Act One, the humbler presentation of the character’s lives uses an arrangement of reddish patterned cloths to form the  tent-like home of Joseph’s family, later contrasted by the elaborate detail of Pharaoh’s gold palace. Together, they form a considered and impactful production design which speaks to the show’s history in school productions while making it distinct from earlier, more naturalistic approaches. It feels memorably modern.

Connor’s production certainly never takes itself too seriously and every opportunity to make the audience laugh or clap along is seized with gusto by the show’s other big-name Sheridan Smith. A decorated musical theatre star, Smith is an energetic and engaging Narrator, encouraging the crowd at every opportunity and refusing to stand on the side-lines of the story she is telling. Using her comedy background, Smith not only takes on multi-gendered roles with the aid of an elasticated beard but utilises her meta-theatrical role above the story to add a few nods and winks in the right places to increase the humorous effect.

Given modern harem-style trousers and trainers, Smith’s Narrator reflects the more urban feel to some of the music by marking and punching the beat. By far the largest role in the production, Smith’s vocals are richly layered, precisely mapping the tone changes across the quiet varied song styles while joining the larger dance numbers that reference styles as diverse as Can-Can, line dancing and hip hop. Smith is a hugely charismatic stage performer and here that warmth is her biggest asset, using humour to connect with the audience while creating a distinct and sparkling personality for the Narrator, setting and controlling the tone to hold this episodic tale together. Removing the artificial barrier between audience and performers, Smith’s approach is a key asset in the show’s success.

With only a couple of appearances in Act Two, the Pharaoh is a small but memorable role, amplified in this instance by the return of Jason Donovan to a show that solidified his megastar status nearly 30 years ago. And with the ‘Pharaoh’s Story’ given over to silhouette, Connor allows Donovan to make a spectacular entrance carried dramatically through the rear doors on a sedan chair to a rapturous applause from the auditorium. Essentially an Elvis impersonation, the role is really an extended cameo, full of camp silliness the extremes of which actors often have a lot of fun with.

Now an established musical theatre star, Donovan certainly makes it his own, adopting the fairly broad but high energy approach taken across the production to maximise the comedy. So while he employs the Elvis low drawl and inward-facing knees, he keeps the impersonation under tight control. The look of exhaustion Donovan throws the audience as Pharaoh slumps into his throne at the end of song provides additional amusement, as do the several reprises of the ‘Song of the King’ he delivers before finally letting Joseph speak to him. Some of the vocals are lost to over-amplification but no one cares, the room is alight, lost in our own circles of personal nostalgia – not bad for a 10-minute appearance.

With two big names to sell tickets, Harrison and Connor cast the unknown Jac Yarrow in the lead role after seeing a student production. Due to graduate on the final day of the run, it proves a canny decision as Yarrow delivers a confident, star-making performance. Joseph is not always a likeable character, arrogantly bragging about his power dreams and Jacob’s blatant favouritism, so you may feel the tiniest bit of sympathy when his brothers set upon him. Yarrow navigates all of this extremely well as Joseph’s fortunes rise and fall across the story.

It’s not a show that allows the central character to let loose very often with only two solos including the, let’s face it, almost painfully schmaltzy ‘Any Dream Will Do’ which Yarrow delivers well. Buy it is in the more meaningful ‘Close Every Door’ that his performance really shines, building forcefully across the number and showcasing the strength of his vocals. The extended applause that follows the song is well deserved and despite the lyrics you can practically hear doors flinging open to Yarrow all over town.

One of the most likeable aspects of the Joseph soundtrack is the variable but unified musical combination of country, calypso and French cabaret which reveal the interior experience of the brothers. Richard Carson as Reuben gives ‘One More Angel in Heaven’ a Seven Brides for Seven Brothers feel that comes through the choreography, while Michael Pickering delivers a brilliant rendition of Simeon’s ‘Those Canaan Days’. There’s good support from the surrounding cast in a variety of guises including the extended central family, Pharaoh’s attendants and fellow prisoners that fill the stage with activity at all the right moments.

Given the rousing reception to this production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and full-house standing ovation for the entirety of the ‘Joseph Megamix’, it barely matters what the press make of this on Thursday. With two much-loved performers in key roles and a bright new talent as Joseph, it’s almost certainly critic-proof. Harrison and Connor may play on our nostalgia, leaning on childhood memories of school productions or Donovan’s run in the 1990s, but the staging and orchestration of the Palladium’s new version looks to the future, as a whole new set of children fall in love with this perennial musical. If Yarrow returns to it in 20 years, his army of new fans will come back with him.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is at the London Palladium until 8 September with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog,  


The End of History – The Royal Court

The End of History - Royal Court

Writer Jack Thorne has one of the most interesting CVs in theatre, filled with eclectic projects as diverse as Channel 4’s sexual predator drama National Treasure and more lighter child-friendly fare including the internationally acclaimed two-part stage show Harry Potter and the Cursed Child that seems to run and run. Thorne is difficult to pigeonhole but his work most often focuses on the micro effects of class, economics and legacy in a subgenre you could describe as the political family drama. His latest project is exactly that, examining the experience of one family over 20 years, beginning with the early months of the Blair administration in 1997 and ending just two years ago in the Brexit vote aftermath of 2017.

Thorne is fascinated by the complex and evolving relationships among groups of people tied to one another over a long period of time. The experience of government policy, social and financial forces are the backdrop to that, helping to shape character responses, but Thorne places personality and small-scale often domestic tragedies at the forefront of his drama. These themes were exceptionally well realised in three series of This is England co-written with Director Shane Meadows which charted the working class experience across the 1980s as political activism, violence and small-town deprivation forced their way into the lives of a group of young friends trying to find their place and themselves as their circumstances narrowed. Harrowing at times, and unrelenting, Thorne (and Meadows) optimism, their belief in the fundamental goodness of most people created characters to invest in.

The End of History takes the same essential principle and applies it to the generational chasm between those raised in the 1970s and their own children muddling through our more commercial and self-interested modern times. Thorne uses the tight family unit to explore the changing social and political expectations of the last two decades, accompanied by lasting shifts in technological connectedness and reliance – almost as pop culture mileposts. But at the heart of the play is also the idea of parenting as a “legacy” endeavour where characteristics and beliefs about the world are passed down to your children in the hope that they will continue your work. Does this become as much a burden to individuals wanting and needing to live their own lives as the financial implications of inherited wealth that Sal and David so forcefully argue is destroying society? Thorne is asking where and should history end in order to create a new beginning.

Strictly as drama, the first two acts of Thorne’s play are more successful than its conclusion; played straight through at 1 hour and 50 minutes there is an incredible richness in two thirds of The End of History which proves compelling viewing and neatly shifts our perspective on the characters as more layers of the story are revealed. It begins with a reasonably conventional set-up, a family preparing to meet their son Carl’s new girlfriend for the first time and speculating on her supposed wealth and class. The very first interaction proves to be a crucial one as mother Sal and 19-year old daughter Polly, returned home from university, awkwardly navigate the semi-reluctant distance that has grown between them. Instantly the audience is pulled into the drama where unresolved tensions and personality clashes bubble beneath the surface in a strong opening exchange.

Thorne elicits plenty of comedy from this early scenario, the overly familiar and too open Sal and David putting their foot in it with the timid and terrified Harriet unable to cope with the onslaught of questions about her family finances and misunderstandings about their social position. The increasing chattiness of Sal in particular is both uncomfortable and amusing as she crosses the line again and again, almost indulging the awkwardness of the situation for her own mischievous and provocative effect.

What follows is carefully constructed to change our perspective, so the true purpose of the play evolves and adapts in front of us. The family focus of Act One concerned with cooking, the testing of social niceties and intrusion of an outsider into an established group making everyone behave differently morphs into a heavily politicised Act Two which, 10 years on in 2007, looks at the effect of parental choices on their adult children’s self-assurance and contentment. Here the primary driver is an impending announcement around which conversation circulates for most of the Act, with the consequences offering interesting dramatic ramifications.

Thorne is more overtly political here, drawing on the play’s title – a theory on whether society can evolve to a maximum state –  to including statistics and more complex economic arguments, but having built character so thoughtfully in Act One, it feels natural that they would speak in this way and are mocked by their children for it. So as David expounds on the horrors of landowning entitlement, rather than a lecture you feel for his silent but slightly horrified children who face the knowledge that their parents have a higher regard for their political views than for the security and contentment of their offspring.

This should come to a head in Act Three but now 20-years since the start of the play, Thorne opts for a far more sentimental conclusion that his writing or these characters really deserve. Avoiding spoilers, what occurs here is in a sense a betrayal of the events and decisions taken in Act Two, but one which the characters barely acknowledge. The action itself is understandable, and perhaps inevitably in a play that deals with familial conflict some parting of the ways must occur to provide a satisfactory conclusion but, in the decade that has now passed in the character’s lives, not enough time is given to explaining to the audience why the revelation of Act Two is no longer applicable.

Instead there is an emotional arc to the story in Act Three that doesn’t sit quite properly with the rest of the play. Still in preview until Wednesday with the Royal Court actively asking for audience feedback some elements may change, but even though the scenario itself is credible, the centrepiece of which is an overlong monologue by David, the tone jars somewhat with the richer and more natural dialogue of the younger characters earlier in the scene. Yet, it is in the creation of character that Thorne excels and, as with his other projects, these are strong and engaging.

The End of History centres on matriarch Sal, played with a finely tuned skill by Lesley Sharp. A long-term activist from Greenham Common to marching against the War in Iraq to local causes, Sal is a collected and shrewd woman, although the first time we see her she’s playing the embarrassing, inquisitive mum to Carl’s new girlfriend. And you do feel she is playing, that Sal enjoys provoking the quiet sensibilities of her children as much as she passionately cares about a variety of social issues.

Sharp’s performance has warmth and genuine care for her children, but rather than an indulgent mother, she’s desperately trying to hide her frustration that she has failed to impart the same degree of social conscience to her two sons and daughter. Yet there are many layers to Sal, a character who is difficult for the others to live up to and prepared to stand her ground, but simultaneously blind to her family’s needs. The amusement of oversharing, Sharp suggests indicates a more deeply rooted failure to recognise the crisis she has created in her children.

Kate O’Flynn as eldest child Polly has the lion’s share of the younger generation’s dramas, resenting the Cambridge education she was forced into and her subsequent career as a corporate lawyer almost deliberately designed to most irritate her parents. More like her mother than she realises, there’s a long-running reference to her singledom and childlessness that Polly turns into a strength, but in the scenes with her brothers O’Flynn suggests the vulnerability of a young woman navigating her emotional needs – including married boyfriends and sexting – a suggestion that Polly failed to find the support she really needed at home. There’s also notable work from Zoe Boyle as the nervously out of place Harriet of Act One who completely transforms into a self-assured and slightly catty member of this dysfunctional group a decade on.

The male characters are less fully explored but David Morrissey is a strong presence as father David, who may only come to light occasionally but has a stronger bond with his children that he cannot properly express, realising only too late that he and they are not what he thought. Sam Swainsbury’s Carl has a more traditional trajectory with a family life of his own, but in Act Three he finally comes into view as he struggles to reconcile the events of the past twenty years and while only in his early 40s fails to see a clear path ahead. Laurie Davidson is a fragile Tom and the events of the play seem harder for him to bear. His Act Two conclusion is rather melodramatic but Davidson gives a wider sense of Tom’s instability and interior angst despite a relatively small role in the overall story.

Grace Smart creates a sizeable middle-class kitchen with portions of the walls exposed or broken through to reveal the abundant garden beyond. In a way it reflects the false reality of this family’s life, but even from the rear stalls some of the brick panels are too obviously fake, lending a cartoony feel to the room that gets in the way of the emotional and intellectual confrontations of the play. A simpler, more impressionistic approach might have worked better in which the problem of the political dominating the personal could be more clearly confronted.

Thorne’s writing is meaningful and engaging, enhanced by the reunion with Cursed Child (and The Glass Menagerie) director John Tiffany who brings a televisual feel to the direction, controlling the movement of characters and adopting a swirling montage during scene changes to play out the passing of the years. In The End of History Thorne shuffles various perspectives within the family, examining their different experiences of the same events from multiple angles, and while these differences drive wedges between them, ultimately and with hope for the future, he explores the ties that keep people together.

The End of History is at the Royal Court until 10 August with tickets from £12.Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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