Miriam Gillinson: co-editor, theatre
There are no tangible divisions or barriers in Christopher’s world. When he walks about the streets, trying to track down the murderer of the neighbour’s dog, the houses have no walls. Christopher’s world is a without boundaries – or, at least, without divisions that he can easily recognise or understand.
But for much of the time, we’re simply badgered and bullied by a number of aggressive types, the threat of execution held – ridiculously – over our heads. It feels silly. It also feels completely out of synch with Kafka’s novel, which doesn’t look death in the eye until the very final moment.
The classic Kneehigh touches - the karaoke sessions, a moon that doubles up as a clock and the spooky cold music that trembles beneath every scene - only make the dialogue sound weaker still. While these kooky visual and aural touches scream out ‘THEATRE’, the dialogue whispers ‘television’.
This disorientating disconnect between sound and reality lies at the heart of this show. At first, we resist the obvious inconsistencies between what we hear and what we know to be possible. But the 3D soundscape, which is so convincing and so overwhelming, gradually wears us down
Yes, it’s there in the central love story between ‘Katherine’ and ‘Petruchio’ but this musical isn’t really about the love between a man and a woman. It’s about Cole’s love for theatre. As the two gangsters find their groove, their eyes light up. And, when the applause comes, they take endless encores.
There’s a glorious and typically pertinent scene, when the two escape to a nearby loony asylum. It’s no coincidence that it is here – in this abandoned mad house – that the two patients fall in love. As every good writer will tell us, the line between love and insanity is an absurdly fine one.
The younger characters feel less textured and more self-conscious. All the boxes are carefully ticked; there’s the posh and self-entitled chap, the sensitive lad and the savvy girl. But when the three banter together it feels too clinical, the manufactured punchlines landing rather heavily.
It’s brilliant to see younger actors read Stephens’ sparse dialogue. Often the apparent sparseness of Stephens’ scripts prompts actors to amp up the emptiness and you’re simply left with nothing. Here, the actors pour their heart and soul into every line, buoyantly happy with one word and hideously depressed the next.
When Nora eventually turns against her husband, it’s as if all Morahan’s carefully placed character clues are finally strewn about the stage. All those clever little glimpses into Nora’s soul, laid down by both Morahan and her director Carrie Cracknell, suddenly shine with incredible force.
For all the innovations here and some gorgeous, enveloping visuals this is essentially a cerebral experience; a show that gets you thinking but never really wriggles right into your heart. Still, there are some very smart touches, which make Shakespeare’s language fizz in exciting new ways.
McNair kicks of with an impressively lucid narrative on the history of money and the emergence of currency. With a few deft strokes, McNair describes the transition from stone age transactions (‘Who wants this ‘ere carcass?’), to the first discovery of gold and the eventual adoption of paper money.
The actor’s painful catharsis feels too much, though, and a gap opens between the audience and the action. This gap widens, as the warped music envelops us and the actors crack up completely, storming around with strange props, including a massive penis, attached to their flailing bodies.
It all feels frustratingly and wilfully dry. Bond’s desire to write a highly stylised and starkly symbolic piece has ripped the guts out of his writing. ‘The Under Room’ never throbs with the kind of thick danger that wraps its way around his other, better and meatier plays.
Rain pours from the ceiling. Odd little crucifixes flash up, initially comforting but quickly threatening. Thunder rumbles, lightning flashes and music, outside of Magill’s control, envelops everything. The effects grow bigger, madder and wilder, as Magill loses his grip on his story and his sanity.
Many reviews of this show have included the slippy caveat: ‘This is not an easy viewing experience’. This phrase is often slipped in as an afterthought, following a careful exploration of all the cerebral pleasures, to be mined from said misery fest. And yet, what this phrase really means is: most of the audience will not enjoy this.
Canham prowls, thoughtfully, around the stage, placing scraps of masking tape on the floor and across the walls, as stolen conversations rumble around him. A blueprint of the theatre gradually emerges, breaking up the space into three distinct areas. Now all that is needed, is to colour in between those white lines: that’s where the dancing comes in.
The trio - Brian Logan, Alex Murdoch and Neil Haigh - also makes clever, comical use of their own limitations. Often, the most pathetic, ant-climatic lines are the funniest. It is the pause, as an actor attempts to summon up a sharp quip and finds himself wanting, that creates the biggest laughs
Eve Best is the one free spirit in this over-marshalled production. She enters in a celestial glow of light but, once released from this formal introduction, is utterly her own creation. Spirited and strikingly ‘normal’, her Duchess of Malfi would make sense in any production.
The complexity and stretch of Sondheim’s score is breathtaking. Not a second, or a voice or a single utterance is left to float free from the music. Instead, every ‘yum’, as Mrs Lovett’s customers dig into their fleshy pies, is thread into the music. Every swoon is a note. Every scream becomes a chord.
Olivia Poulet, as royally messed up mother Lyn, is incredibly hostile but occasionally tender. She might snap her son’s pencils but she also ruffles his hair, affectionately, when he carries on regardless. Simon Lenagan digs even deeper with his role, even if does initially appear a solid and straightforward father.
There’s no doubt this audience-focused approach allows for some overwhelmingly effective moments - particularly when one longs, with such a fierce terror, for the darkness to end. Nevertheless, this focus on the spectators’ senses also creates a slightly selfish and adrift audience.
Ishy Din is not your usual Royal Court Programme playwright and has, in his time, worked in video shops and restaurants and driven mini cabs. This unusual background shows. Although Ishy Din’s straightforward plotting might lack the tricksy ambition of a more polished writer, this is a playwright with a natural ear for dialogue, alternately comic and touching, and an instinctive feel for emotional arcs.
While the arrival of Shelley and Tom does provoke important debate, with ex Captain of Industry Ken growling at delicate, writer Tom – ‘Why do you think we’re apathetic?’ - it is bare and blatant discussion. The play becomes a platform rather than a stage.
Tovey and Winstone’s characters look like they long to be elsewhere. Tovey’s eyes dart about anxiously, constantly searching for something or someone else. Grace’s screeching laughter is far from a thing of a joy. And, even when the two kiss, it feels like they’re grappling about for a connection they cannot find.
Bubbling away in this cauldron of emotion and ideas, is the theme of homosexuality and exclusion. I have never before extracted such a concrete idea from one of Ridley’s plays, but this theme is impossible to ignore in Edward Dick’s clear-headed but head-spinning production.
Harris throws in just enough sinister hints about this new nanny, and her oddly intimate knowledge of Hazel’s family, to keep these early encounters fizzing nicely. But despite these Ortonesque overtones, the atmosphere gradually flattens and the over-defined characters, with little room to develop, hit a dead end.
At one point, Thierrée brings a grey, paper-thin man to life simply by placing her own arm in his sleeve. ‘They’ talk, grope and dance together. And then, with one slip of her arm, this almost-nothing man is dead again. It’s a strange little scene and and quite frightening too; one lad was crying for his mummy, the night I watched.
Henry’s infectious incredulity – those massive eyes that role with such relish – emphasises the frantic, unfurling chaos around him. He also takes the edge off what can sometimes seem a cruel play. There’s a flurry of beatings here, as each Antipholus grows increasingly exasperated, but Henry’s fights never sting.
The level of detail just isn’t here and grating inconsistencies emerge. A strong adaptation should bring new meaning to worn-out lines, but Rickson’s show actually renders many lines ridiculous. ‘The Royal bed’, ‘the kingdom contracted in woe’, ‘the war-like state’; all these references point to the awkwardness of the adaptation and, as we flinch, distance us from the production.
Shadows loom and smoke swirls, as Bartlett’s chaotic, dystopian vision comes to life. It is more than a little bit frightening. Just what haunts these characters at night? Why do they keep jolting weirdly? And why is a booming voice, which sounds like the Milk Tray lady turned bitter, warning us of sleepless nights?
Amala whispers her words to her companion, who in turns translates. Sadhbh then questions Amala ‘directly’, but her words, again, must be translated by Mathilde. The layers of removal pile up on each other and we begin to understand the supreme effort required to break through these obstructions to communication and discover and disseminate the truth.
Sport, and football in particular, is becoming a holy-grail for theatre makers. It’s been repeatedly observed that the two have heaps in common; the ritual, the rules, the crowd interaction, the emotional highs and lows. Damn, even the ticket prices. It seems the two are a match made in heaven and yet, time and again, they play poorly together.
Kane’s plays often have depression buried deep in their core, but this doesn’t call for empty, glazed over-acting. Instead, it requires the type of achingly strained performance that throbs with absence. The best Kane performances pulse with a desire for something more – but Shaw’s Hippolytus seems to welcome the abyss that engulfs him.
A distinctly Chekovian plot seeps through the cracks of this old, 19th century house. The proprietor, Lady Lambroke, has resolved to marry off her daughter, Hannah, and thus save the family from financial ruin. Only, in McPherson’s play, the ghosts and regrets that haunt Chekov’s characters are alive and kicking – or, at least, screaming spookily through the walls.
The play never settles and although the central ‘dream’ scene allows for some more serene reflection, it’s no surprise to learn this segment was interpolated much later on. There are some beautiful whispers of poetry here, as chef Peter urges his mechanised colleagues to think for themselves, but it strains rather than thickens the play proper.
Sometimes the families, each confronting unthinkable tragedies, sing in harmony. Often, they clash, with one lonely family member struggling to be heard against her babbling and frightened relations. The timbre of Tucker Green’s dialogue is so expressive that one imagines, were the words to be removed completely, the meaning would remain.
As Johnny surveys the mess he has created, he comments with characteristic understatement, ‘This is getting awkward.’ It is when the show undermines the epic scale of Mozart’s piece that it actually feels strongest. Other undercutting works less well. So, as Blake merges in his R&B and dubstep beats, the cast is left to valiantly fly Mozart’s flag above this stream of sound.
This idea of the duplicitous life a successful woman must lead is exacerbated by Churchill’s extensive use of doubling. Most actresses play three roles and, as the actors make their relentless transformations, we recognise this is the same ‘performance’ most women undertake every day.
Terry Doe is a real and exciting talent, who could not be generic if he tried. Yet there is a risk of ‘sameness’ in this production as a whole, which is often impressive but occasionally crude. For a piece that examines all manner of racism, it’s a little too black and white.
The fact the script is in Arabic places a particular pressure on the actors’ rhythms and expressions. Hlehel is more musician than actor, spitting out some sections in fierce staccato and savouring other moments with a smoother and lazier delivery. He should be hideous but his loyal respect for the machine makes him hard to hate.
‘Mistreated? I don’t want to hear about it!’ Burt’s otherwise velvety voice takes on a flinty edge and his impatience for human frailty flares up. The crushing impact of a life of one-sided dialogue occasionally escapes this piece and these slips are ugly, interesting moments.
At the end of Realism, protagonist Stuart’s girlfriend asks: ‘And what did you do today?’ ‘Fuck all,’ replies Stuart. Well, these pictures, scribbled frantically in the dark, tell a different story…
Julian Barratt, as the corrupt Mayor thrown into chaos by the imminent arrival of the Government Inspector, is not a richly textured actor. He doesn’t feel particularly solid on stage. But what Barratt does do brilliantly is to calmly absorb the increasingly bonkers action on stage – a skill he probably picked up working on the equally mental Mighty Boosh.
Dominic Cooke is brilliantly tuned to the pressure points in this play and he pitches this wordless fight perfectly. The aching silence which stretches out between this eye-rolling wife and eyes-down husband expresses their irreconcilable differences even more starkly than the crackling confrontation that follows.
As each actor watches his or her grandparent ‘perform’, it is moving to witness the old and new remembering together. The pleasure here is in the obscure details these stories unearth; the significance of the tiny things in life, despite the urgent political context in which these recollections unfurl.
The backdrop is really just a massive ream of paper but the joy is in the freeness of invention, the personal flair of their strange imaginings. It is telling that the screened segments are some of the show’s best moments and perhaps suggests these brave but bonkers performers could be destined for TV sketch comedy.
Outside the theatre, an alarming array of machines is presented to the audience of one. Some severe-looking goggles are clamped to your face, headphones plonked on your head. It feels odd and disconcerting. Yet, in a matter of minutes, you will forget these objects are there. You will forget where you are completely.
This might be a simple story but the storytelling is sophisticated and unusual. Summers disappear and friendships are forged in chaotic but fluid montages: the careful rearrangement of chairs, a few choice chords and some speedy costume changes gleefully sketch out the passing of time
No doubt Wallace’s play, which looks at two imprisoned women in 1950s America, reveals some important facts about an unjust justice system. It is also a touch formulaic, however, with characters that feel overdone, and symbolism so thick you could reach out and touch it.
In those rare moments when The Other jumps off the boat and attempts to moor the raft, his rough interaction with nature – his splashing, tugging and floundering – feels hopeful. It feels like living; dangerous, unpredictable but deeply satisfying and solid.
Perhaps it’s slightly generous to call this a satire. What Chekhov in Hell really is, is a series of brilliantly conceived comic sketches. They are hugely enjoyable and contain some scathing observations but they aren’t anchored closely enough to reality to really touch a nerve. But they sure do hit the funny bone.
Jack Gordon leaps head first into these romantic ‘trips’ and his innocent energy does a good job of grounding Ridley’s quixotic imaginings. It helps that Ridley’s phrases, although exotic and soaring, are so convincingly coined as to make them almost believable: ‘It’s like digging a hole in a sky of meat.’
The opening, as the audience is led by strange, incanting men through cold and shady tunnels, is brilliant. Another man sits above the walkway and snippets of Shakespeare’s prologue waft through the dusty dungeon. Shakespeare is a great one for setting the scene and Belt Up Theatre re-imagine this portentous opening spectacularly well.
The redundancy of words shines out in this occasionally self-indulgent but authentic script. Leigh keeps hammering out the same phrases, emphasising the idea that though these characters talk incessantly they rarely communicate. It might be painfully repetitive at moments but it is effective, too.
The only two voices to rise above the political clamouring are those of the vodka-swilling, crotchety ex-SS soldiers. Director Longhurst teases a glowing chemistry from these two survivors, who drink like demons, compare war wounds and bitch, woefully, about the youth of today.
This is what Churchill does so well; she finds a period and a community steeped in tradition and unspoken rules and sets a firework fizzing in its midst. She then creates one exceptional but credible character and uses this anomaly to highlight the cruel rigidity of a particular time in history.
Patrycja Kujawska is enchanting as the scarlet-shod girl, initially liberated and later fettered by her glamorous red shoes. When she first puts on her shoes, she smiles, impish and guilty, like a lady who’s just bolted down a massive Cadbury’s crème egg. She oozes guilty pleasure.
The actors, given such freedom by director Rufus Norris’ clever approach, invest their roles with abandoned but focused energy. Peter de Jersey, as the sleazy reporter who turns Texas’ finger of blame of Vernon, swaggers around like a serpent, recently gifted legs.
The preoccupation with facts also means the stories feel stretched and the characters, on the whole, perfunctory. It becomes easy to dismiss Greenland as a preachy piece about climate change – something distant and non-threatening – as opposed to a scary and recognisable exploration of something that will affect us all.
As Dr Taylor is subsumed by her stroke, a flurry of past patients flashes through her consciousness and across the stage. A suspended clothes rack is dropped from above and, with outstretched hands and yearning faces, the actors assume their identities. It feels a bit overdone and many of the flourishes in this show could be flattened slightly – not every second needs to be stylised.