Tag Archives: Trafalgar Studios

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   


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   


Education, Education, Education – Trafalgar Studios

Education, Education, Education - The Wardrobe Ensemble

The Spice Girls are touring, slip dresses and in fashion and the Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony is making the news, you might be forgiven for thinking we’ve gone back 20-years. In fact, the pop culture of the 90s is having a mini renaissance where its influence can be felt across cultural boundaries, not least in The Wardrobe Ensemble’s new play Education, Education, Education that makes its way to Trafalgar Studios after a critically acclaimed appearance at the Edinburgh Festival.  Specifically, they take us back to one day in 1997, the 2 May to be precise the day everything changed.

The landslide New Labour victory that made Tony Blair Prime Minister, at the time, felt like a turning point in modern history. 18 years of Conservative rule had been categorically swept away on a tide of optimism, the popularity of a young charismatic leader and promises of Cool Britannia. The future would be fresh, youthful and provide greater opportunities for everyone. “Education, Education, Education” Blair proclaimed would be the new Government’s priority, and after years of underfunding and decline for Britain’s schools, things could only get better.

The Wardrobe Ensemble set their 70-minute play in the full-flush of that hope, the day after the election when anything and everything was possible. This frames the drama, but it’s the daily business of the school that comes immediately under scrutiny. Six teachers and a receptionist face “muck-up day” and presentation assembly, the final day of school for Year 11 pupils about to begin study leave before sitting their GCSEs. Disastrous pranks, disciplinary problems, variable teaching methods, staff rivalries and broken promises all feature in one chaotic day that highlights the gap between ministerial rhetoric and life in the classroom.

The play uses a narrator, a German teaching assistant who arrives at Wordsworth School on that very day, speaking directly to the audience and relaying his impressions both of the Britain he has come to admire and the disordered nature of school life for staff and pupils. On one level Education, Education, Education is a light comedy, full of nostalgia for the music of the decade which plays in the Trafalgar Studios bar and auditorium, as well as peppered throughout the play. But politics lurks beneath the surface and like The History Boys and Labour of Love, this is far from a ringing endorsement of the Blair administration, and in fact builds on Bennett’s technique by looking briefly at the future consequences for particular individuals and the physical school building, insisting that despite D Ream’s promise very little actually got better after all.

For anyone who was there, what hits you first is Ben Grant’s sound design, piped through the building and blasted loudly as you take your seat. M-People, Oasis, Gina G, Celine Dion, the Verve, Suede and Take That as well a series of dance classics are among the songs that will take you right back to your 90s common room or first club night experiences. Before the play starts it quite smartly creates a false idea that somehow the world was better then, simpler and more united. With references to the Spice Girls and the UK’s last Eurovision winner Katrina and the Waves, we are primed to agree with headmaster Mr Mills, 22-years ago we were living in a much better time.

But The Wardrobe Ensemble have far more to say than that and a key debate focuses on the faux surety of British concepts of identity and the extent to which we too readily believe our own myth-making. Again and again in the post-war era we keep tripping over hollow ideas of past national glories, of an Empire, military victories and hundreds of years of history that mark out our national identity. Despite the dictates of Cool Britannia, of musicians and rock-star film directors flocking to New Labour parties by 1997, the writers argue, Britain was no longer as special as we imagine, which, as teaching assistant Tobias (James Newton) drily points out, we need to make some kind of peace with.

This idea plays out at the micro-level through the story of disruptive pupil Emily Greenside (also the name of the actor) whose behaviour becomes increasingly erratic when denied a school trip to York with violent consequences. The culmination of this plot leads to one teacher insisting to the assembled group that none of the pupils are special, at least no more special than anyone else, take away the school structure, the ranking within classes and underneath everyone is the same.

At the macro-level, The Wardrobe Ensemble use English teacher Susan Belltop-Doyle’s (Jesse Meadows) lessons in which the pupils enact scenes from Arthurian legend to make points about the inculcation of those damaging national myths. In one of the oddest sections Susan hallucinates King Arthur who comes to tell her that our entire concept of identity is based on a false premise. Its silly and jarring but it skewers the polarising preoccupation with Englishness and sovereignty that led to Brexit, and continues to fuel the right-wing leave parties that feed on these emotional attachments to a largely imagined past.

All of this is subtly – and not so subtly – woven through the show, but directors Jesse Jones and Helena Middleton use a variety of interesting physical theatre approaches to entertain the crowd. In a highly stylised and fast-moving production, the cast are brought together at key moments to say or enact the same gesture simultaneously. Sometimes furniture is rapidly spun around the stage to form classrooms and other locations in a quick montage of scenes introducing Tobias to the subject’s taught at the school, at other times they use dance and movement to energise the quick-fire nature of the piece as we skim through a not very usual day-in-the-life of a 90s school.

There is a comic-book caper to some of the show’s scenes which whirl through in colourful forms, emphasised by Katharine Williams’ lighting design and the two movable doors of Lucy Sierra’s minimal but creative staging. And Education, Education, Education is a lot of fun, references to Tamagotchis and Titanic fly around a combustible staff room where everyone avoids the P.E. teacher’s pleas for a pub outing, secretly hates the over-enthusiastic headmaster and have ill-advised liaisons after the election victory. At times, it paints in big, broad strokes, with plot and character development considerably simplified creating several unlikely comic contrivances to drive the story in the right direction.

Yet, what we see in the staff room is the history of education played out in microcosm as two streams of thought clash as unresolvedly as they have for a hundred and fifty years. Educationalist Friedrich Fröbel’s nineteenth-century belief in individuality, learning through play and personalised curricula for each child is manifest in Tom England’s Mr Mills, the enthusiastic headmaster who is always a very physical presence, moving his body in waves and gesticulating wildly to indicate his softer approach and belief that the New Labour victory heralds a new dawn in school funding and individual pupil investment. He clashes with his disciplinarian deputy who equally vehemently believes that, like the Victorian schoolmasters who preceded her, that rules and punishments are the only way to create a valuable member of society.

They are supported by Tom Brennan’s Paul McIntyre whose unchecked but unapologetic personal choices inadvertently create much of the drama as he unreasonably denies Emily her trip to York and fights with Ben Vardy’s gauche P.E. teacher Mr Pashley kept on the periphery of the teaching community and amusingly asked to cover a French lesson. Meadows’s Sue is the archetype of the wafty teacher who loses control but connects with the children, while Greenslade’s version of herself is filled with teenage injustice and emotional responses she cannot control, while nonetheless showing the cycle of denial and punishment that stoke her behaviour.

However light its frame, ultimately this play has serious points to make about the short-termist approaches to education funding used cynically as a political tool to win voters. The cost, The Wardrobe Ensemble argue, are the pupils and pointedly it is them and not the teachers who appear on mass to dance enthusiastically to D Ream’s rallying call in the final moments. Pictures of the actors as they were in the 1990s flash across the back of the stage to make us think about the consequences of these policies. Those children became the actors in front of us, but in their pupil characters their future is yet to be shaped. Education, Education, Education suggests pupils should be sent into the adult world full of hope and possibility, we know now looking back that the optimism of 1997 faded as fast as the funding for schools. Without it and for as long as we refuse to face-up to who we really are as a nation, whether they know it or not, our schoolchildren don’t stand a chance.

Education, Education, Education is at the Trafalgar Studios until 29 June with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


The Grinning Man – Trafalgar Studios

The Grinning Man, Bristol Old Vic

However much theatre you see, it is rare to find something that is truly magical, and in the week before Christmas few things will gladdened the heart as completely as Bristol Old Vic’s production of The Grinning Man now showing at the Trafalgar Studios. If you’re not a panto person, can’t face another version of A Christmas Carol and are by now shouting “humbug” at a festive period that started in earnest in October, then this glorious adaptation of Victor Hugo’s dark tale hits all the right notes to tally with your mood, melting your icy exterior with its focus on pain, rejection and injustice.

There is something very distinctive about a Victor Hugo story and even when translated for the stage, the essential characteristics are the same. Whether you’ve read all 1000+ pages of Les Misérables (and you should it’s stunning), or seen the musical, or even watched versions of Verdi’s opera Rigoletto, Hugo’s writing manages to be simultaneously epic and intimate, covering grand sweeps of history and decades in a character’s life, giving anatomies of entire cities, while focusing on the slog of every day living, the physical and emotional fragility of individual characters, rich or poor united by a common humanity.

The Grinning Man does exactly that, weaving together high and low in a complex story of brutalisation and loss of innocence. As a child Grinpayne is savagely mutilated with his face sliced from ear to ear in a permanent grin. Hidden beneath bandages and orphaned, the boy finds a baby crying in the snow where the two are taken in by a local man who raises them as his own. Years later, at the palace, the three bored children of the King find themselves captivated by the ugly-beautiful face they see at the local fair and set out to know him better. But the man’s history starts to emerge, and very soon the Grinning Man will find out who he really is.

The success of this production lies in the sincerity of Carl Grose’s text, supported by an emotive score by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, and an absorbing vision from director Tom Morris that marries a shabby travelling circus aesthetic with warped fairy tale quality. Working with Jon Bausor’s design, and while seemingly set in the eighteenth-century, this is a far cry from the cliched vision of downtrodden urchins in designer dirt. Instead we’re offered a semi-fantastical world driven by the characters rather than the period setting, in which the macabre moments are perfectly balanced with humour and romance. It’s never allowed to be either too maudlin or too light, but is constantly full of complexity as characters, divested of their innocence, aspire to be more than they are.

The notion of dreams runs through the show, uniting the key players in their desire to be someone different, a desire that is shared equally among rich and poor, whether it’s the wealthy royal children craving real emotion and escape from the imprisonment of their privilege, or Grinpayne’s adoptive father Ursus (Sean Kingsley) exploiting his son to take them all to a better life in the new world.

Morris’s production implies a permanent night in which characters and sets appear abruptly from the surrounding darkness. It has benefited from some revision and a slightly shorter run time since its first outing in Bristol, but still focuses on all the classic Hugo themes – a sense of personal injustice, a lifelong quest for truth, father-daughter relationships, the transition between the generations and spiritual uplift in moments of political upheaval – and shrouds them in a carefully conceived gothic wrapping that draws together a variety of innovative techniques to keep the audience enraptured.

Initially, the story of the Grinning Man is told to bored Prince Dirry-Moir who escapes to see the fair, but he soon becomes involved in Grinpayne’s life along with his lustful sister Josiana. Using Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie’s child-sized puppets, primarily in the first half, the history of Grinpayne’s tragic childhood is brought engagingly to life, partially operated by his grown-up self, played by Louis Maskell. The addition of a giant wolf that the Ursus family keep as a pet, superbly rendered by combining a mask head and front paws with performer Loren O’Dair as the hind-legs, will impress fans of the War Horse puppeteers. This is highly sophisticated work that seamlessly blends marionettes with the real actors to keep the show on the border of unreality, underscoring Morris’s heightened vision.

The audience is told repeatedly that all who look on the Grinning Man are entirely compelled by him, and Louis Maskell’s performance as Grinpayne is the heart of the show. His lower face is covered by a prosthetic sling and, for the most part, a bandage, so Maskell is only able to use his eyes and voice to deliver all the complexity and suffering of a social outcast, pushed beyond the bounds of normalcy by his disfigurement. It is also an intensely physical performance, and Maskell uses his full body to convey the deep-rooted anguish that has shaped Grinpayne’s character, and you frequently see the strain ripple through his neck and upper body, as he conveys an endless contortion of soul.

Yet, he retains an essential innocence, a purity that raises him above the other characters despite his physical shape, reinforcing Hugo’s notion that external appearance and goodness are not always aligned. Maskell’s voice is extraordinary, with a range and depth that display the complexity of his experience, and in a powerful performance he manifests the combination of loss, fear, determination, love and self-discovery that mark his development as the plot unfolds, demonstrating Grinpayne’s charisma and appeal to the audience. It is extremely skilled work to convey all of this with only half a face.

Of the surrounding cast, there are notable performances from Amanda Wilkin as the sex-crazed Duchess Josiana and Mark Anderson as comically arrogant Prince Dirry-Moir, both living a lifestyle of high hedonism but unable to feel real emotion. And while there is plenty of saucy humour in the female role which Wilkin elicits, she avoids making Josiana entirely cartoonish and instead hints at a woman equally pained by her circumstances, as both she and her brother seek a kind of liberation from their encounter with Grinpayne.

Sean Turner’s Ursus must navigate an equally interesting path through the show, taking him from the lonely and noble widower who houses two abandoned children, raising them as his own, to a man who exploits his mutilated son to win the chance for them all to escape abroad. Turner unfolds the intricacy of Hugo’s character, a man shaped by the circumstances of his life, making bad decisions, often for good reasons, with a similar need to find redemption and atonement.

Hugo’s writing rarely has outright villains, and one of the things he shows so well is how characters are driven by different beliefs and purposes that cause them to clash. Grose stays faithful to this idea with Barkilphedro, the sullied clown and servant to the Royal Family, who in Julian Bleach’s performance is a sinister and resentful figure whose unrewarded loyalty drives the machinations of the plot. By contrast, Hugo includes a highly angelic, if deeply insipid, young love interest – think Cosette in Les Misérables –  and here Sanne den Besten assumes that role as Dea, the blind child Grinpayne rescues from the snow, who grows up with him and becomes his intended. den Besten sings beautifully in what is a bland role and the relationship between Dea and Grinpayne is the only duff note in the show. For the more cynical it may be too much to believe that a virtual brother and sister with so unevenly weighted characters are a perfect pairing.

The Grinning Man may not a be suitable for children (it has an age limit of 12 years), and it’s certainly not a Christmas show in any way, but within the grotesque world that Grose, Morris, Teitler and Phillips create there is a rare and genuine theatre magic. Amidst the endlessly enforced Christmas spirit, it is in this half-way world between fantasy and reality that something entirely unexpected happens, a genuine festive warmth emerges from this tale of broken humanity, sending even the most hardened audience members home with thoughts of goodwill to all men. So, kudos to the Bristol Old Vic, the creators and cast of The Grinning Man, you have achieved what no one else ever has, you have broken London and made it a better place… well, at least until the New Year. Happy Christmas!

The Grinning Man is at Trafalgar Studios until 14 April with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturcalcap1.


Apologia – Trafalgar Studios

Apologia - Trafalgar Studios

In the UK, we take most of our daily rights and freedoms for granted and forget the hard-won struggles that brought us the right to vote, to work, to design our lives however we choose. “Millennials” are also a generation that grew up a step removed from the experience and consequences of European warfare, the long-term effects of which were felt first-hand by our grandparents and through them our parents’ generation who took to social protests to overcome the economic and political downturn the Second World War created.

Alexei Kaye Campbell’s play Apologia is all about this generational struggle within a family divided by the external world they grew-up in which shapes their attitude to each other and the parent-child relationship. Our childhood determines the type of adult we become, but Campbell’s play argues that this has varied across the Twentieth-century and makes it considerably harder to understand each other. Someone growing up in the 1960s has a very different idea of what the world could and should be than someone raised in the 1990s.This separation of perspective casts a dark shadow over the play and defines its central relationship between an absent mother and her stolen children.

Respected art historian Kristin invites her adult sons, their girlfriends and her gay best friend to celebrate her birthday with a dinner at her tasteful country home. But relations are strained between the family as Kristin’s recent memoir “Apologia” entirely omits her children Simon and Peter from the story of her life. Frustrated by what they see as her absence, both are determined to have it out with her, while their respective partners Claire the actress and the American-Christian Trudi clash with Kristin over their own lifestyle choices. As the evening unfolds family tensions simmer and it becomes clear that the boys don’t understand their mother at all.

Jamie Lloyd’s direction tends to be love-it or hate-it and Apologia along with his previous works The Ruling Class, Faustus and The Maids has divided critical opinion. I’m in the love-it camp because risky approaches designed to entice new audiences is something London theatre needs as much as the reverent recreation of classic texts. Faustus in particular had many detractors but it’s grotty hyperrealism was a pointed comment about our obsession with transitory fame, empty celebrity and meaningless status, which for many feels like the only escape from a future of limited opportunity, unemployment and purposelessness.

Asking James McAvoy to ride around on a unicycle in his pants or Kit Harrington to take a “blood shower” are part of bigger conversation Lloyd is having with audiences about the changing nature of the modern world and how we engage with it. So, it is in this space that Lloyd meets Campbell and with a text full of skirmishes between past and present, of people born decades apart who can’t quite reach each other, Lloyd directs with considerable understatement that allows the rising and falling waves of family tensions to determine the pace of the show.

At the core of the play is the idea that the post-1980s generation are self-centred, caring only about making money and protecting their own individuality and status, without a thought for the good of society, and Kristin virtually says as much as she locks horns with Simon’s girlfriend Claire. Her youth and indeed the rest of her life was spent protesting for anyone who needed help – an idea Claire finds ‘quaint’ – and we begin to see Campbell’s point that whatever road you take there is a cost. Acknowledging that ‘having it all’ is a media myth, women have long struggled with the balance between family and work, and been severely judged either way.

For the women of the 1960s being the first to really forge careers, enjoy political, social and sexual freedoms, and live in relative economic stability, some experienced a domestic cost in the proximity to their families. Stockard Channing, returning to the West End for the first time in 25 years, gives Kristin a somewhat hard surface, a testament to a life spent earning a respected position as an art historian and politicised figure. The result was having her pre-teen sons taken from her by her former husband, and although they are now back in touch, an air of resentment and abandonment persists within the family.

At the start of the play, Kristin is given a tribal mask by Peter and Trudi, and while it’s a none-too subtle dramatic device, we watch Kristin’s own mask slip during the dinner party and its aftermath. Channing makes this a compelling and skilled unwrapping of a woman who neither knows nor cares what effect she has on others. Frequently when told something about her character, her only disinterested reply is “do I,” and this Kristin is forever controlled, even in criticism she barely raises her voice, preferring to leave the room than rant and rave.

However, formidable and cutting she may be – and her barbed retorts aimed at Claire and Trudi are a well-timed comedy highlight – underneath the hard-shell Channing’s Kristin has suffered for her work. As the initial awkwardness of the reunion turns to outright enmity from her sons, Channing reveals a regret and fear for her children that elicit considerable sympathy, that this accident of history, of being a woman of her time, has led to unbreachable divisions in her family.

And while we eventually learn what really happened when the children were removed from her care, Channing ensures that Kristin is not entirely let off the hook, that her decision to pursue her work has affected her sons’ lives irreparably. The audience is left knowing that although the truth has finally emerged, no one feels any better for it, and much of this is due to the clever ambiguity of Channing’s performance that gives an apologia, a defence of herself, but not an apology for it.

Joseph Millson plays both Peter and Simon, who through another slightly unlikely dramatic device, are never seen together, and leads to a moment of confusion about the position of the interval as Millson rapidly changes costume for his one scene as Simon. Peter is given more stage time and has clearly coped better with the lack of engagement with his mother, but has built up a bitter resentment about the memoir that explodes at dinner. Millson commands the stage and fills it with a lifetime of anguish but it’s clear Peter isn’t there to find redemption but out of duty on his mother’s birthday.

Simon whose emotional problems stem entirely from childhood does come seeking answers and again Millson is impressive as the more fragile brother in what becomes a tender duologue between mother and child. Simon’s girlfriend Claire (Freema Agyeman) is never seen with him, but battles with Kristin repeatedly about the work she does and her lifestyle. Agyeman makes Claire smug, attention-seeking and unphased by the slights of her near mother-in-law, but Claire becomes the exact counterpoint to Kristin that Campbell and Lloyd want us to see, a product of her time that, despite a small monologue about her own upbringing, is interested in vacuous fame and status only for the self.

Laura Carmichael’s Trudi is initially seen as the opposite, a good natured Christian girl absolutely out of her depth intellectually and emotionally in the charged family atmosphere. And while Kristin’s attacks make her see her life differently, the two form a respect of sorts that add nuance to what could have been a slightly two-dimensional role. Carmichael delivers a cleverly ditzy performance that balances the comic timing with a sense of the innocent bystander trying to keep the peace.

The themes of the play are pronounced in Soutra Gimour’s (a long-term Lloyd collaborator) set that eschews an art strewn household for a cosy kitchen almost devoid of any paintings, save for a few postcards pinned to the fridge door. The emphasis is on the family dramas rather than Kristin’s career, but Gilmour sets the whole production on a raised proscenium arch, surrounded by a picture-frame adding to the discussion about the boundary between life and art that feeds through the production.

Apologia is not perfect, and at times overly reliant on worn scenarios and coincidences that are a little jarring, but there is an intensity to the writing that well captures the difficult balance of engagement that typify family life. And while the presence of Channing anchors the production with a pitch-perfect performance full of emotional uncertainty, the surrounding cast members are given equal opportunity to shine. More than anything, we see the problematic balance between nature and nurture at the heart of Campbell’s play that shows we are as much a product of social, political and cultural forces of the era we’re born as we are the people who raise us, making the generational divide within families much harder to breach.

Apologia is at the Trafalgar Studios until 18 November. Tickets start at £35. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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