Book Review: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer  (Vintage)

Flashes of genius can’t prevent The Interestings from too often getting stuck in a word bog 

Meg Wolitzer’s modern classic The Wife is a gripping, thought provoking and provocative novel that has become one of the defining feminist fiction books of the past few years. I loved it and, after taking so long to discover this great American writer, was delighted to see she had a back catalogue I could explore. The Interestings is her latest novel, published in 2013. It’s in the great American tradition of family sagas – a story for the sake of a story, the lives, loves and loses of a group of friends who meet at summer camp in the 1960s and – with an ironic wink – call themselves the interestings.

The plot is largely discarded for character, something I’m usually all for, but there was something a little meandering about The Interestings that never quite held me hostage to it in the way The Wife did. It seemed to be missing a heart;The Wife was cold and impersonal but that suited  the narrative. The aloofness of The Interestings meant I never felt I was there on this journey with the characters. I don’t believe in having to like characters to enjoy a book, in real life people are flawed so why can’t fictional humans be as irritating, self-obsessed and vacuous as we are. But when the characters are the novel’s driving force, it’s imperative that they’re, well, interesting. And I found them rather underwhelming

Jules – in many ways the story’s narrator and centre – should have been larger than life, a teenage misfit who finds herself in with the cool gang, including the beautiful, ethereal Ash Wolf and her brother, the beguiling if troubled Goodman. But instead she sat flat on the page, never quite pinging to life. I liked her husband, the great, hulking Dennis, the ordinary male provider and protector in a book full of creative dreamers.

Jules’s life is set on its path when she arrives at the Spirit in the Woods summer camp a geeky, suburban, awkward teenager and leaves an aspiring actress with a newly discovered funny side. Her and Ash will be life long friends. Ethan Figman, ugly and talented loves Jules, but marries Ash. He will become widely successful as an animator and creator of a Simpsons’s style show, his life becoming all staff and houses in the country while Jules and Dennis struggle to pay the rent on their one-bed apartment. Then there’s Jonah who drifts in and out of the story, a beautiful gay boy who becomes an increasingly wisp of a character as the novel progresses. I can’t remember the last time I was so bored by a character.

Maybe the novel’s lack of commitment is writing about friendships – and this is essentially what The Interestings is – is like breakdancing to town planning – it can never quite tell the whole story. Wolitzer tries to capture these complex relationships that are so full of happiness, sadness, secrets, simmering anger, pettiness, loyalty and compassion and yet are never as fiercely bonded as family. In fiction, friendships are often so perfect, devoid of the dramas and jealousies that bind you to people. Wolitzer does tap into the envy and the divide money creates between old friends, both socially as well as materially, but even she seems to chicken out of confronting it full on.

On form,Wolitzer’s prose is as arresting as ever, although there were pages when I felt the sentences got stuck in a word quagmire, some of the themes laboured intensively over a few chapters, before being left fallow (the friends with money thread being the obvious one, did I miss the point it suddenly went from being A Major Issue for Jules to her being totally fine with it?). And there were some fascinating paragraphs when Wolitzer speaks so eloquently about the human condition that it punches you hard in the heart. These parts are an absolute joy to read and the reason why the rest of Meg Wortlizer’s back catalogue remain mid-table in my TBR pile.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Alice’s Adventures Underground, the Vaults, Waterloo, London

Les Enfants Terribles' Alice’s Adventures Underground, Vaults Theatre

Les Enfants Terribles’ Alice’s Adventures Underground, Vaults Theatre

Go down the rabbit hole for a wonderful immersive experience in Alice’s Wonderland

You could argue that it’s difficult to go wrong with a story as enchanting as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the slightly darker follower up Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There , but handling a text as bonkers and imaginative as Carroll’s demands big creative thinking.

The minds behind Les Enfants Terribles’ brilliant production were clearly firing on full creative juices when they devised Alice’s Adventures Underground, a production that has transformed the musty, damp Vaults theatre under Waterloo station into a magical place where we disappear into Alice’s – and Carroll’s world – for 90-joyous minutes.

The production merges Alice’s first adventure in Wonderland with her return in Through the Looking-Glass. Alice is absent for much of our journey, but she’s never very far away if you look in the right places…

Wonderland is now ruled by the tyrannical Red Queen who has banished nonsense from her kingdom and is on the warpath to find the cards who ate her tarts (I can confess I was one of them now there’s no chance of having my head cut off).

The content is perhaps a little light, but the plot isn’t an issue when the staging is so charming and entertaining. Samuel Wyer’s maze-like set is hugely impressive as we weave in and out of the Caterpillar’s middle eastern cushion-strewn den into Bill the Lizard’s ‘secret’ room, ducking under corridors hung with pages from novels and walking through wardrobes. There are some wonderful details in the set, particularly in Lewis Carroll’s cluttered study, the first room we find ourselves in, that’s littered with references to the novels if you look hard enough.

Oliver Lansley’s script is sparkling and funny and throws new light on the sheer inventiveness of Carroll’s often poetic prose. The interactions with the actors also lead to some properly belly-laugh moments (Knave of Hearts: “What fruits to do you think are in All-Fruit-Jam?” Audience member: “Strawberry”. Knave “…”

Along the way you meet the floating grinning head of the Cheshire Cat (a great piece of puppetry) and enter the Duchess’s steamy kitchen where I stood grinding pepper into the soup under the stern eyes of Chef. You, as the audience are very much a part of this so leave any self-consciousness at the burrow door.

The exact journey you have will depends on the choices you make and the cards you are – literally – dealt. Will you drink to shrink or eat to er, grow? Will you be a Club, Spade, Diamond or Heart? After separating through two doors, each group is taken on their separate journey before meeting up again at the lush Mad Hatter’s Tea Party where you sit at a huge table set for 60 celebrating an un-birthday while the Mad Hatter and March Hare run riot over broken tea-cups and poor dormouse, confusing the poor White Rabbit (who was as adorable as he should be) with their endless tea-time and confusing riddles.

The production is wonderfully imaginative and hugely fun. Grown-up theatre is many things, but it’s rarely as playful and charming as Alice’s Underground Adventures. The production runs until 30 August 2015. Don’t be late to the party…

Alice’s Underground Adventures | the Vaults Theatre, Waterloo | Until 30 August 2015

Theatre Review: Death of a Salesman, Noel Coward Theatre

Antony Sher and Harriet Walter in the RSC's Death of a Salesman

Antony Sher and Harriet Walter in the RSC’s Death of a Salesman

Now into its final week at London’s Noël Coward Theatre after transferring from Stratford-Upon-Avon in May, the RSC’s Death of a Salesman shows no sign of slowing down. The Gregory Doran-directed production is hugely powerful, a juggernaut of emotions and intensity with staggeringly good performances.

Arthur Miller’s tale of one man’s downfall at the hands of his own stubborn pride is a masterpiece of theatre, but one that requires a deft directorial hand and confident acting to pull off. Willy Loman, the salesman of the title, has been flogging stuff on the road in New England for 36 years and is dog tired. His small life isn’t big enough to contain his dreams and he starts hallucinating about the past, back to a time when his sons, Happy and Biff, were young and full of potential. He also re-visits the moment his successful – and now dead – brother Ben left New York to start a new life in Alaska – later Africa – and his ghostly form drifts into Willy’s head and onto the stage with a smarmy smugness.

Juggling the past and present in a theatre production isn’t easy, but Doran makes it look like it is, the ease with which Willy’s mind alerts in front of us is impressively seamless and the cast handle the jolts in time with a fluidity that takes us right into the heart of the story.

Willy is, of course, a frustrating character. On the brink of madness, he’s been dealt some fierce blows in his 63-years, but his downfall – like King Lear’s – is ultimately his stubborn pride in himself and his son Biff. That he isn’t able to live up to the man he projects to be is a key part in the downfall of the adolescent Biff, who goes from being a well liked teenager with potential to the 34-year-old man we see on stage – broken, bitter, confused. The Death of a Salesman is in many ways about the curse of being ordinary

Antony Sher’s performance as Willy Loman is really something special. He captures Loman’s madness, vulnerability, nativity and arrogance in a compelling performance. The always watchable Harriet Walter is exceptional as Linda, Willy’s long suffering wife whose patience is saintly yet steely. As with other Miller wives, Linda’s husband is her life; her strength is his – in many ways she’s the powerful figure in the house. I can’t imagine these Miller’s wives are easy roles to play without seeming meek and submissive, but there’s real strength in Walter’s performance. Alex Hassell as Biff is also a perfect mix of vulnerable, confused and angry. He is the only character who seeks the truth about himself and his family. He is as believable as the ‘hey, gee’ football playing 17-year-old as he is as the jobless kleptomaniac he becomes. Sam Marks as the younger son Happy manages to flesh out what is a deliberately a one-dimensional character – I even rather liked him.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set accentuates the gloomy claustrophobia of a Brooklyn before it was fashionable without it overwhelming. Although it would have had its work cut out to overshadow this powerhouse of a production.

Death of a Salesman | Noel Coward Theatre | Until 18 July 2015

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer published by Penguin Classics

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer published by Penguin Classics

‘Peter, Peter, Pumpkin eater

Had a wife and couldn’t keep her…’

Penelope Mortimer was as celebrated as her husband John, he of Rumpole of the Bailey fame in the 1960s, but has drifted out of fashion and with it print. But now her most successful and critically acclaimed novel, The Pumpkin Eater, has been published as a Penguin Classic.

The Pumpkin Eater is a short, sharp, quirky little book that has a wonderfully barbed dreaminess to it. Published in 1962, this novel is rich in language, an evocative tale of a Mrs Armitage (we never know her first name) who suffers a breakdown in the linen department of Harrods ground down by the domesticity of her life and bruised by many betrayals. She is a woman saddled with the constraints of her gender and time.

Twice divorced, when we meet her she is about to marry again. She already has a brood of children – we’re never told how many, in deed Mrs Armitage seems to have lost track of her offspring and seems baffled by their presence.

When she first meets her third-husband-to-be Jake, Mrs Armitage is still married to her second husband and living in a barn. Attracted by the bohemianism poverty, Jake, who is then a struggling writer, falls in love her and she him and, leaving three of the kids in boarding school at the insistence of her father, they marry. Jake becomes an increasingly successful screenwriter and Mrs Armitage moves from poverty to a life of confusing leisure where she’s weighed down by the grinding invisibility of being a wife and a mother.

The novel is an singular description of a woman suffering from depression,  burdened by the domesticity of her life and bruised by many betrayals. There is languid air hangs that hangs over Mrs Armitage, moving through her life as it were treacle, bemused at the presence of all these children and confused by her husband’s infidelity and cruelty. She doesn’t know any other way than the life she is leading – as many women didn’t in the days before the sexual revolution. She was born to breed and dust and not concern herself with her husband’s affairs – in every sense.

The Pumpkin Eater is a loosely autobiographical story. Penelope Mortimer was a woman very much of her time, at the tail end of the 1950s when women were still confined to the domestic world. Mortimer also married several times and had six children. The world The Pumpkin Eater inhabits flirts with Nancy Mitford’s descriptions of a boho world where no one gives a damn about morals, but this is a far more serious, unusual book . I was often reminded of Penelope Gilliatt in the sparse, dialogue-heavy narrative that had an almost filmic quality to it. Mortimer actually succeeded Gilliatt as film critic of The Observer, a fact I gleaned from this great article by Rachel Cooke in the same paper.

The Pumpkin Eater is a darkly funny, wry look at one woman’s world that is so small it’s crushing her, but that isn’t consumed by its own earnestness. Mortimer deserves to be back in print – maybe it won’t be long before she’s back in fashion too.

by Suzanne Elliott

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Savill Garden, Windsor

A Midsummer Night's Dream' at The Savill Garden

A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at The Savill Garden

A jug of Pimms and the waft of char-grilled sausages aside, I can’t think of many things that sum up an English summer more than Shakespeare performed outside in a royal park in the plush Surrey countryside on a warm evening.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its fantastical plot featuring fairies, star-crossed lovers, potions and an ass’s head, lends itself to an outdoor immersive production in a setting as delightful as the Savill Garden in the Windsor Great Park, where not even the booming jets from near-by Heathrow could spoil the bucolic mood.

Watch Your Head’s ambitious production of Shakespeare’s comedy literally covers a lot of ground – some new some a little more well-trodden – as we follow Bottom, Puck and Oberon through the gardens, moving further into the woods with each scene.

The Savill Garden is an impressive stage and the production is vivacious and hugely fun. The cast, many of who play dual roles (on and off-stage), are largely impressive. Joss Wyre is an engaging Puck capturing the merriment of the evening with her mischievousness not to mention some pretty fantastic acrobatics. She’s as light on her feet as a fairy as she leads us through the gardens that become increasingly magical as dusk descends. Olly Lavery as Bottom is also having a great time, with a performance that draws out the comedy of the weaver’s pomposity.

The costumes, by Shabnam Spiers, are sumptuous and reflect the pastoral setting – from Oberon’s cloak adorned with peacock feathers to the Athenians’ Lysander and Demetrius 1930’s Wimbledon inspired boaters-and-blazers outfits.

The production is as enchanting as the spells cast by the fairies and a wonderful way to spend a summer’s evening.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream  | The Savill Garden | Until 19 July 2015

by Suzanne Elliott

The Seagull, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

THE SEAGULL by Chekhov

The Seagull by Chekhov, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson

Chekhov seemed like an odd choice for one of London’s more laidback theatres. Surely Russian theatrical gloom on a soft June evening was too awkward a pairing for a theatre where the pre-play picnic is often as important as the production itself?

But, of course, The Seagull is the perfect play to stage outdoors, what with Act I revolving around the performance of an outdoor play. That’s far too deliciously meta for any theatre to dismiss. And it wasn’t just the handy opener that makes Matthew Dunster’s The Seagull work so well on the moonlit stage. This new version written by Torben Betts sheds much of the gloominess that can haunt Chekhov – he described The Seagull as a comedy, although when you write endings like he did, then being labelled bleak is kind of your own fault. Betts version brings out Chekhov’s latent humour and is sharply funny and wittily acted, even irrelevant at times, the jaunty translation injecting the 21st century into the dialogue without losing any of Chekhov’s gravitas.

The Seagull is set over three days – the second and third are two years apart – at Irina Arkadin’s house in the countryside. Everyone is rigid and cruel with boredom, and ground down with love sickness. We learn quickly that all the characters are in love with the wrong person and/or desperate  for success (or screwed up by it). Black-clad Masha (“I’m in mourning for my life” – an engaging Lisa Diveney) seeks vodka to numb her feelings for Konstantin Trepliov who in turn is infatuated with his neighbour Nina Zarechnaya. Even the older, married, houseguests are moping about their failed relationships and dreams. All of them want to be successful and to be in love, and in Chekhov’s world, that ain’t going to work. In short – the stage is littered with broken hearts and dreams.

The play The Seagull opens with is written by Konstantin (Matthew Tennyson) who is out to impress two women in his life, his neighbour and budding actress Nina (Sabrina Bartlett) and his mother, Arkadina a fading theatre star. Set in the garden of Arkadina’s country home, she rudely heckles her son’s work and steals the show by taking the stage to quote Gertrude in Hamlet. Konstantin is desperate to become someone and step out of the shadow that his mother and her bohemian, intellectual friends cast over him. Arkadina’s critical slaying of his play is exacerbated by her relationship with the handsome, self-obsessed novelist Boris Trigorin (Alex Robertson)  who he despises. By Act III – two years later – things haven’t improved for any of the characters, in fact, they’ve got a whole heap worse.

But at least the setting at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is cheery in its loveliness. Even by the hand nature gives the stage, Jon Bausor’s set was hugely impressive. This was a living, breathing stage that was at first laid with grass and later parquet flooring, the lake (which is referenced many times in Chekhov’s script) is real enough for two of the characters to take a skinny dip in. The stage is reflected by a large mirror above it, so the actors appear in double. The change of perspective is quite dramatic, even if I’m not entirely sure what it was meant to add (other than a whole host of symbolism, obvs).   

I wasn’t convinced by the booming taped monologues which seemed a little incongruous, as did the thunderous sound effect that resounded every time Nina said “seagull”. Chekhov is laden with so much symbolism we don’t need any more aural nudges.

But these are minor quibbles in what is an engaging, well executed and impressively acted production. I particularly enjoyed Janie Dee’s exuberant Arkadina that was shot through with a physical humour while also expressing her heartbreak and insecurity.

An unexpected summer, if not summery, hit.

by Suzanne Elliott

The Seagull | Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre | Until 11 July 2015

Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Set in post-Arthurian Britain, The Buried Giant is the tale of a country in a fitful peace, Britons and Saxons living side-by-side in a tense standoff held together by a forgetfulness fog spread over the isle by a dragon, Querig.

The amnesia the dragon breaths lingers over the island and renders its inhabitants incapable of remembering all but the thinnest of memories from their past.

I know how they feel, as reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel put me into a mind numbing stupor where I found myself re-reading paragraph after paragraph in an attempt to understand what the hell was going on.

An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice have a sudden urge to find their son, who left the village several years before. They only have haziest of memories of him and they’re not entirely sure where he is, but they’re also miffed that their neighbours won’t allow them a candle so it seems like a good time to trek across Britain with absolutely no survival skills. Set in a pre-Saxon ruled Britain, this was a time before the island became split into three, a harsh and divided land with no Ubers, so their journey is a difficult one. It’s a Britain of myth and legend, a place where Arthur had recently galloped and where you find ogres dead in ditches, dragons snoozing in pits and pesky little pixies pulling you into the river.

Along the way Beatrice and Axl meet one of the knights of the Round Table, Sir Gawain – without the Green Knight – now an old man who travels the land with his trusty horse Horace (Gringolet has long since gone to horse heaven). Beatrice (whose husband calls constantly – and annoyingly – ‘princess’) and Axl also pick up a young Saxon along the way after saving him from his village when his people turned on him. His presence attracts the attention of Wistain, a warrior Saxon who is rather blade-happy and leaves a trail of blood and destruction in his wake. His quest is to find and kill the dragon Querig. Standing in his way is Sir Gawain who knows the importance of keeping the buried giant breathing.

You certainly can’t accuse Ishiguro of getting stuck in a writing rut. He’s done period romance (Remains of the Day), science fiction (Never Let Me Go) and even dabbled in the detective genre with When We Were Orphans. The Buried Giant seems to be his stab at fantasy, a kind of sub-Tolkien work that reads like an assignment for a creative writing course. Is it a parable? A comment of modern life? Or simply a rather half-hearted fantasy?

Ishiguro is a writer whose skills lies in his minimalist prose that is vivid in its sparseness and it’s a style that I’ve found engaging in the two novels of his I’ve read (Never Let Me Go and When We Were Orphans). But the tone of The Buried Giant is as flat as the Fens and directionless as I would be in those pre-GPS days.

Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Dirty Special Thing, Platform Theatre, Central Saint Martins, King’s Cross

The cast of Dirty Special Things, a Generation Arts production

The cast of Dirty Special Things, a Generation Arts production

Theatre-goers know that a great play can alter your worldview, but it’s rarely as genuinely life-changing as the Future Stage Company, a scheme run by Generation Arts, a project committed to transforming young, disadvantaged people through theatre.

The project takes young adults aged 19+ who are classed as NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) and offers them high quality acting and theatre-making training. It’s a much needed project in an industry that is overwhelming, and seemingly increasingly, white and privileged (both on and off stage).

Dirty Special Thing is the culmination of nine months of the cast – Future Stage Company members – being put through their acting paces. It had a four night run at the impressive Platform Theatre, Central Saint Martin’s very own stage.

Dirty Special Thing proves that Generation Arts is far more than just a worthy experiment. There is genuine talent on display in this ensemble piece, an original production that follows the interlinking lives of everyday Londoners. At the heart of the piece –  like a human Charing Cross – is a young taxi driver, on the cusp of passing the Knowledge and gaining his Green badge. There are several set pieces, following individuals from different walks of life as their lives criss-cross – and eventually collide (quite literally).

There was a great deal to recognise in the characters – the lost kid in care inspired to study by a great teacher, a self-obsessed City boy, a frazzled carer – and while the stories Dirty Special Thing told didn’t wander too far from stereotypes, all the parts were well-grounded in reality and reflected this town in ways theatre rarely does.

And while the story itself might not be radical, this is important theatre and it’s good to see progression especially at a time of savage arts cuts. Many of the cast have gained places at acclaimed drama schools and universities, a path that I’m sure many of them were never sure they’d be in a position to follow and I won’t be surprised to see some of these faces again in the not too distance future.

Get involved or learn more about Generation Arts and the Future Stage Company

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Product, Arcola Theatre and Hurling Rubble at the Sun, Park Theatre

Bharti Patel and Ragevan Vasan in Hurling Rubble at the Sun at Park Theatre

Bharti Patel and Ragevan Vasan in Hurling Rubble at the Sun at Park Theatre

In the run up to the 10th anniversary of the London July 7th bombings, it’s inevitable that the day’s catastrophic events will be commemorated and analysed in art as well as in the media.

The events of that day are obviously part of a wider picture, one that begins many years before the planes flew into the World Trade Centre on 9 September 2001 and one that grew even wider following Britain and America’s invasion of Iraq.

As these things have a habit of doing, I saw two plays in one week that were loose comments on the aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7, threaded together by the West’s struggle to understand and respond to these attacks.

Mark Ravenhill’s Product is a blistering, gaspingly funny pitch perfect satire on Hollywood’s cultural and racial attitudes. His monologue sees an agent, Leah, desperately pitching a toe-curlingly awful script to a disinterested A-list actress we never see. The script, ‘Mohammed and Me’ is the story of Amy, a 9/11 widow who falls in love with a Muslim man on a flight and a chance taxi-encounter. The script, told through Amy’s eyes, is culturally and religiously insensitive and wincingly crude with a plot so ludicrous it makes Lord of the Rings look like a documentary.

Product staring Olivia Poulett, Photo: Richard Davenport

Product staring Olivia Poulett, Photo: Richard Davenport

Leah is played beautifully by the impressive Olivia Poulet who manages to capture a woman on the brink while never letting go of Leah’s obnoxiousness and self-belief. Her job isn’t an easy one in a theatre as small as the Arcola where she is eye-ball to eye-ball with a front row that is alternatively amused, stunned or fast asleep (it was a matinee).

I thought Poulet’s performance combined with Ravenhill’s scorching script was a fine duo and while its original message has been somewhat diluted over the last 14 years – Hollywood hasn’t been quite as insensitive as Ravenhill predicted – there’s still enough bite in it to be a gleeful 50 minutes of theatre.

Over in N4 at the lovely Park Theatre, Avaes Mohammad’s two plays Hurling Rubble at the Sun and Hurling Rubble at the Moon are playing in tandem. They work individually, although by all accounts they are better seen consecutively. Time restrictions meant I only saw Hurling Rubble at the Sun, Mohammad’s fact-based fictional account of suicide bomber Taufeeq ‘T’ Sultan, a character loosely based on Hasib Hussain, the man who blew up the number 30 bus in Tavistock Square on 7 July 2005.

The play hinges on the central performance, and Ragevan Vasan who plays the Blackburn-born bomber is excellent and elevates what is a rather confused story to a gripping drama. Mohammad’s script is asking some big questions – what drives a person to commit mass murder for a cause – that he never really answers. T is neither devout nor worried about local social injustice, so it’s a big leap for us to believe he’s a man ready to blow himself and others up on behalf of children in Iraq. But maybe his muddled motives are the point, perhaps he’s simply a disenfranchised young man from Lancashire who sees terrorism as an outlet to express himself rather than say, a creative writing course.

Hurling  Rubble at the Sun is a 60 minute play carved into three distinct acts. It opens with ’T’ cooking explosives, rapping away to a tune on the stereo. He flirts with his girlfriend on the phone and hums to himself as he packs his day’s work in his backpack. Next we’re in the Sultans’ house where T is late for dinner and his Amma is furious. But it’s not about dinner, is it, as we’re reminded several times. Despite some fine acting from Vasan and Bharti Patel as his mother, this act is flabby and rambling. We’re led to assume Vasan’s father is violent towards his wife, that the mosque her father built is vandalised on a daily basis. And we go round in circles, Mohammad’s script chasing its tail until it gives up finding an answer and instead reverts to Amma feeding T with her own hands as she did when he was a boy.

The final scene, however, ramps up the tension and is heart-racingly arresting, helped by a pared down direction from Rob Dixon. T is now on the bus where he finds himself sitting next to a call-a-spade-a-spade old-school Londoner, brilliantly played by Nicola Duffett who brings a Cockney humour and pathos to the scene that helps ground the play in the human cost of T’s decision. The ending brought tears to my eyes, not a reaction I thought I would have had 15 minutes earlier when Amma was shoving curry into T’s mouth like a mother sparrow.

There’s a lot of good stuff in Hurling Rubble at the Sun, not least the performances that nicely paper over the cracks in the writing. That’s not to say that Avaes Mohammad’s script doesn’t have something to say and it’s a brave piece of writing by the playwright who is virtually a lone northern Muslim voice in an arena crowded by white southerns. Who’s to say Mohammad isn’t going to be as powerful a voice in British theatre as Mark Ravenhill one day?

Hurling Rubble at the Sun | Park Theatre, N4 | Until 6 June 2015

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

Shine a Light on Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

Light Shining on Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

Caryl Churchill’s play about the English revolution, a moment in history that could have changed this country forever – imagine, no Jubilee parties and commemorative mugs – but instead sort of fizzled out leaving the French and the Americans to show us how to do it properly.

The staging of Lyndsey Turner’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire production is fantastic and grabs you the moment the curtain rises to reveal the Lyttelton Theatre stage dominated by a giant dining table groaning with man-sized mutton legs and pig heads around which sit upwards of 30 men, gnawing away at the plastic feast, undeterred by the starving masses outside the banquet hall. This stage-sized table later gives way – once we’re got rid of the Norman nobles – to enclosures, then a barren field. Well done set designer Es Devlin and team.

But as well as been a spectacle, the impressive staging is also a bit of a distraction. Churchill’s play was originally performed by six people; in this National Theatre production the cast is enormous – 62 according to Michael Billington’s review in The Guardian, although we counted around 40 actors during the curtain call.

The bulk of the ensemble is made up of the Community Company who provide a large chorus that adds to the theatre of the production. The singing that bookends the play and heralds the Putney Debate scene is indeed stirring stuff. But at the risk of sounding like a philistine, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is wordy and dense, Churchill’s script packed with rousing speeches that demand the brain firing, if not on full, then at least 90% throttle. While the dialogue is often enthralling, it was too easy to get distracted by all that was going on. The group of students next to us, many who didn’t have English as their first language, certainly found the dialogue difficult to follow, squirming and sighing throughout the first half, only for one of them ask his mate in the interval what it was all about. “Robin Hood, I think”, his friend replied.

Well, the disposing of a leader by birthright and taking power and land from the few and redistributing them among the many was one of the revolution’s aims so maybe Oliver Cromwell in green tights isn’t such a ridiculous idea. And a mash-up of Robin Hood and the English Revolution may have been, dare I say, a little more entertaining?

That’s not to say there’s not plenty to enjoy. Churchill’s play focuses largely on the experience of the working classes for whom little changed in the seven years England was without a Monarch and it’s interesting to see history narrated by those who weren’t in power when history was made. There’s also some nice correlation with today’s politics. A focal point of the play are the Putney Debates of 1647 scene that reenact the famous discussions on the constitution and the future governing of England by soldiers and officers of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, lead by the Levellers (so much of this period in history reads like an issue of the NME in 1992). Apparently in the days following the General Election 2015, these scenes received a spontaneous round of applause at the part where they call for electoral reform.

It’s difficult to pick a performance from such a large company, but I enjoyed Daniel Flynn as Cromwell and as the rather less revolutionary vicar who survived the seven monarch-less years with his velvet cloak unblemished. Adelle Leonce was excellent as the vagrant preacher who dares to speak out in church when women are forbidden to. Churchill highlights the plight of women even in this male dominated cast, drawing attention to the complete exclusion of the fairer sex in this revolution and their disenfranchised from life generally as their punishment for Eve’s love of a Granny Smith.

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire isn’t a cosy piece of theatre, it feels old-school in its execution and performance, but it’s well-produced and interesting (that sounds more damming that it’s meant to). Worth a look for fans of history and magnificent staging – just do go expecting any merry men. 

Light Shining in BuckinghamshireLyttelton Theatre, National Theatre | Until 22nd June 2015

by Suzanne Elliott