Theatre Review: Henry IV, Donmar Warehouse

Ann Ogbomo (Worcester) and Harriet Walter (King Henry) in Phyllida Lloyd's Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse. Credit: Helen Maybanks

Ann Ogbomo (Worcester) and Harriet Walter (King Henry) in Phyllida Lloyd’s Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse. Credit: Helen Maybanks

If theatre – or anything for that matter – can be semi-immersive then Phyllida Lloyd’s Henry IV is just that. The Donmar Warehouse has been converted into a prison (not too much of a push considering its institutional architecture) for the duration of Lloyd’s all-female production and there’s some very theatrical security on show. You start the evening over the cobbled street at the grandly named Covent Garden Member’s Club (more grudgey than Groucho), before being frog-marched (in a fashion) to the Donmar, where you’re shown to your seats not by smiling ushers, but fierce looking prison guards.  

As fun as this was, I’m not sure this over-enthusiastic scene-setting really added anything to Lloyd’s excellent production of Henry IV besides further highlighting how much the director has ripped up the Shakespeare rule book. In this all-female production, Shakespeare’s tale of kings has been condensed into one play that’s being performed by the inmates of a women’s prison.  We are never told why these female prisoners chose to put on one of Shakespeare’s most masculine plays, but it’s not hard to see why a tale of bullying, ‘gangs’, violence and redemption may resonate with those accustomed to sleeping ‘in filthy hovels, stretched out on uncomfortable cots’.

This is more Henry IV Part 1 with the end of Part 2 tagged on. I enjoyed this edited highlights approach; while much is lost in the furious trimming, Lloyd’s production benefits by bringing the cracking key scenes into sharp relief – although Hal’s swift journey from boisterous barfly to worthy warrior and noble king was perhaps a little jarring.

The all-female cast are fantastic, everyone of them convincing as a Shakespeare character while never allowing their contemporary prisoner roles to be forgotten. Clare Dunn as an athletic, cocky Prince Hal was a great foil to the majestic Harriet Walter as the stern, guilt-wracked Henry IV, but it was Ashley McGuire’s Falstaff, a character I usually can’t stand, that I loved. Falstaff is, in the productions I’ve seen, played as a fat, jokey piss-take punch bag, which of course he is. But he’s also a horrid man – cowardly, lying, stealing, nasty, self-obsessed, his disregard for ‘honour’ essentially a reluctance to do anything that won’t further his own fortunes. McGuire brought out Falstaff’s nasty side, highlighting his pomposity rather than his good-time bravado. Maybe because Falstaff is the kind of man who is particularly repellent to women (witness his barbs to poor Mistress Quickly) that meant McGuire and Lloyd weren’t afraid to make him more than the play’s joker.

I usually find myself nodding in agreement when at the end of Part 2 Prince Hal (now Henry V) rejects Falstaff with a “I know ye not, old man”. But this time McGuire’s performance and her reaction to this betrayal as a female prisoner as well as a sack-swilling slob, sobbing while the guards tie her wrists with plastic wire, was genuinely moving.

There were the occasional well-positioned slips into the present day that increased the impact of the production, reminding us that we weren’t watching a straightforward play about  a monarch fighting for his kingdom and heir. Hearing Shakespeare’s posturing, masculine dialogue in the mouths of women with *gasp* regional accents stripped away the stuffiness that can strangle a Shakespeare production and their delivery and the staging served to accentuat how contemporary Shakespeare’s language can sound. When McGuire’s prison alter ego slips from character during the scene where Falstaff is hurling insults at Mistress Quickly and throws in a few choice words of her own, the distinction was barely noticeable.

Single gender Shakespeare productions, especially those set in the modern day , always run the risk of seemingly contrived, but Lloyd’s production brought out the emotional heart of the play while losing nothing of its original intensity.

For tickets and more information visit www.donmarwarehouse.com.

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Theatre Review: Grand Guignol, Southwark Playhouse

Grand Guignol at the Southwark Playhouse

Grand Guignol at the Southwark Playhouse

The Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Montmartre, Paris opened in 1903 with an aim to scare the living daylights out of an unsuspecting audience. Parisians lapped up the fake-blood gore-fest and the theatre was a huge success until World War II when the rise of more sophisticated celluloid horror forced the theatre to shut its blood-stained doors for the last time in 1967.

The Grand Guignol is another production from the Theatre Royal Plymouth stable with the company’s director Simon Stokes at the helm for its reprisal at the Southwark Playhouse. Set in 1903 it’s a comedy-horror lite (on horror that is, there are plenty of laughs) and tells the behind the scenes story where the lines between the dramatic and reality become very blurred.The Grand Guignol is the story of what went on off-stage, or rather playwright Carl Grose’s version whose script cleverly weaves the scenes from the original plays with his own camp imagings and the result is a brilliantly crafted, perfectly pitched piece of faux-horror.

André de Lorde, the Grand Guignol’s ‘Prince of Terror’ played by the likeable Jonathan Broadbent has been ordered by the theatre’s director, Max Maurey to crank up the gore and horror, demanding more fainters and theatre flee-ers. One of the first members of the audience to pass out from fright is psychiatrist Dr Alfred Binet (a convincingly nervy Matthew Pearson) who becomes fascinated by de Lorde’s compulsion to terrorise and persuades the playwright to be interviewed. In exchange for his confessions, de Lorde makes Binet spill his own childhood terrors and these regular conversations unleash de Lorde’s demon, both creatively and psychologically. As a consequence his plays, brought to life by the theatre’s leading actors, Maxa (‘the world’s most assassinated woman’) and Paulais – respectively played with absolute relish by Emily Raymond and Robert Portal – have theatre goers queuing round the block.

But the terror isn’t confined to the stage, prowling the streets outside the theatre is the Monster of Montmartre and things backstage are about to get a lot more realistic than even prop-maestro, stage manager Ratineau (Paul Chequer) could conjure up.

Grose’s Grand Guignol  is a gag-heavy, deliciously camp slice of kitsch horror that will have you giggly rather than gagging. There are some fantastic one-liners (including plenty of  jokes at theatre critics’ expense, which on press night went down very well) and wonderfully hammy acting that make it a Halloween treat.

For tickets and more information click here

by Suzanne Elliott 

With thanks to Official Theatre London.

Book Review: The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Book Review: The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

I was introduced to Patrick Hamilton’s books by Julie Burchill who included Hamilton’s Hangover Square in a 10 Books That Should Be Classics list describing it as “as the most beautiful book ever written”. And Burchill got it spot on this time; Hangover Square really was beautiful in a gutter-looking-at-the-stars sort of way with its atmosphere of dark smoky pubs and damp bedrooms.

Like Graham Greene in his more domestic novels and George Orwell’s non-political works, Hamilton’s world is one of grimy backstreet pubs, boarding houses, gas metres and stewed tea. And despite the mundanity, it’s a thrilling world to inhabit, but one that too few people do, as, despite some heavy weight literary names (Doris Lessing wrote the forward to my copy) hailing him as an underrated 20th century novelist, Hamilton remains largely forgotten by the greater 21st century reading world.

World War II has accidentally been looming large in my literary life at the moment, having recently read Philip K. Dick’s alternative history novel The Man In The High Castle by and Robert Harris‘ not-very-thrilling thriller Enigma. But while these books deal with space-travelling Nazis and Bletchley spies, The Slaves of Solitude focuses of the dull minutia of war.  The World War II in The Slaves of Solitude is not a war of bombs and bravery, of dancing all night with American soldiers (there is an American soldier, but he’s more drunk than dazzling). This is the forgotten war of dark staircases, cold bedrooms, powdered eggs and chill winds where evil isn’t the Nazis but the bullying bore at your table. Hamilton brings the war to life as a snarky thief, a ‘petty pilferer’ who takes everyday comforts away from you with a nasty smirk.

It’s 1943 and thirty-nine-year-old Enid Roach has fled the Blitz in London for the safe dullness of Thames Lockdon, a fictional town in South-East England thought to be based on Henley-on-Thames . She’s resident at the misleadingly named Rosamund Tea Rooms, now a repressive and stifling boarding house where Enid endures meal times with an elderly bullying bore, Mr Thwaites, brilliantly realised by Hamilton in some of the books funniest passages (although through the giggles your sympathies are with poor Enid). Enid’s life is given a little spark when she meets the whisky loving American, Lieutenant Pike, who pours gin and lemon down her throat in the local pub and half-proposes marriage to her on a park bench. Enid is underwhelmed by his attentions, but is perplexed when a friend – a German woman no less – Vicki Kugelmann starts inching towards him, seemingly attempting some kind of romantic standoff. And, after moving into the Rosamund Tea Rooms, Vicki becomes even more Single White Female, Enid is forced into an unpleasantness that’s more personally violent to her than her London days in the Blitz.

Enid was a joy to spend time with thanks to Hamilton’s deft hand at turning the mundane into an engrossing and witty read. Hamilton’s ear for dialogue and knack of colouring the bland with a brightness that transcends the small lives of his characters earned him fans in his lifetime and it’s surely time for a Stoner-style resurrection for his back catalogue.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Electra, Old Vic

Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra, The Old Vic

Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra, The Old Vic

Featuring enough wailing, gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands to make King Lear look like a sitcom, it takes a skilled hand to translate and reenact the melodrama of Sophocles’ Electra – the ancient playwright’s tale of the Princess of Argos who was sent into the pit of despair by the death of her father by her mother – to suit modern audience’s less histrionic tastes without losing the drama of the original.  

And hands don’t get much more skilled that Frank McGuinness especially when his translated script is brought to life by Kristin Scott Thomas and director Ian Rickson. Scott Thomas owns the stage – or rather the Round – from the minute she opens the doors of her mother and stepfather’s mansion – or as Electra calls it in her hyperbolic way, her prison – bounding down the stairs to the sandy space that she prowls like an injured lioness for the next one hour 40 minutes.

Besides the sand and those big doors, there are few props, just a bare tree trunk and the rather odd addition of a standing tap. If there’s one thing this production missteps on, it’s the inability to make up its mind as to which era we’re in; superficially it’s ancient Greece, but then there’s denim dresses and running water. There’s also more than a touch of modernity in McGuinness’s script, which is sprightly and often humorous, or at least Scott Thomas finds the wit in the contemporary rhythm of her delivery.

But despite the odd guffaw, this is serious stuff. Scott Thomas’ Electra distress is evident in her physicality; painfully thin, twitchy, dusty with that sand, bent double with grief, hatred and anger. Perhaps at times, her performance tips over into the overdramatic, her tears of anguish on hearing of the supposed death of her brother was to my ears more grating than great and their reunion bordering on the affected.  But then, Electra, the play and the woman, were never meant to be subtle.

I liked Scott Thomas best when she was spitting venom, much of it aimed at her poor mother who threatens to put her in an asylum if she doesn’t stop her ravings. There’s a great stand off between her and her hated mother, played with cool poise by  Diana Quick.

I was caught up in Scott Thomas’ performance, perhaps less so by the story and, as good as the supporting cast is – and some, including Quick and Peter Wight as Orestes’ (played by the physically imposing Jack Lowdon last seen, by me at least, in the Almedia’s Ghosts) gruff servant are very good – this was her show. Even the score by PJ Harvey but muted, its haunting strains seeping quietly through and underpinning, but never overwhelming, Electra’s distress.

For tickets and more information, visit www.oldvic.com.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: East Is East, Trafalgar Studios

East Is East, Trafalgar Studios

East Is East, Trafalgar Studios

Best known as a film, East Is East was originally a play, written by Ayub Khan-Din. Debuting in 1996 (the film followed three years later) the play was based on Khan-Din’s childhood as one of 10 children growing up in Salford with a white mother and a Pakistani father.

I remember the film very fondly,  but it’s been a while since I watched it and in my mind it’s a comedy, its warmth and humour blunting the harder realities of growing up in a mixed raced family in 1971, Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech ringing in the ears’ of immigrant communities.

The play, or at least this Sam Yates’ directed reprisal for Trafalgar Studios, brings out the darkness far more vividly than the film, and the humour, while still there, is blacker than the Khan family’s coal shed where the youngest, damaged, child Sanjit (a standout performance from Michael Karim) is often hiding.

The play deals with identity, family, religion and, perhaps less obviously, masculinity. George Khan, the family’s patriarch, was Indian when he left the subcontinent, but is now a proud Pakistani, obsessed with the news bulletins reporting the Bangladesh Liberation War.  George grows frustrated and furious that his seven children aren’t growing up as the good Muslim Pakistanis he wants them to be. He is estranged from his eldest son, Nasir, who shamed him by running away from home after being threatened with an arranged marriage and becoming a hairdresser. Khan is aggressively masculine, prone to violent outbursts against his wife and sons and dictating to them how they should live their lives with no thought for personal liberty. Ayub Khan Din is a menacing George, while Jane Horrocks may look bird like, but her Ella Khan is a tough northern cookie, the Kashmir inbetween her warring husband and children.

East Is East is an enjoyable, snappy family drama with some great lines and interesting themes. The young cast are enthusiastic and Horrocks gives a great understated performance as a mum trying to hold her chaotic family together. But I felt this production was missing a core. The thrust comes from George secretly arranging for his two sons to be married to two Pakistani women, the climax of his efforts ending in slightly-slapstick – rather haphazardly-directed, but worthy of a giggle – set piece, but this narrative isn’t enough to keep up the momentum.

East Is East also feels dated, not because of its early 1970s setting, but because of its nineties inception. The world was a light and frivolous place in the mid to late 90s, pre 9/11 and post the first Gulf War, when everything  – even, as Amit Shah’s quiet, considered Abdul discovers on his first trip down the pub, racism – was played for laughs.

Even with the nods to Enoch Powell’s racist stirrings, most of the tension in East Is East comes from within the family fighting against their culture. British minorities are hugely underrepresented on stage, their stories so rarely told. It would be great to see a similar piece written about a family like the Khans today. Post 9/11 the world has become a sterner place and British Muslim communities have been hit hard by the fallout of prejudice. I wonder whether Tariq (the Khan’s self-styled James Dean, all leather jacket and late nights played with a strut by Ashley Kumar) in 2014 would be quite so quick to dismiss his religion and culture now that it comes under so much attack. Would he be more protective, willing to identify?

But, despite not quite hitting the mark and throwing up more questions than it answers, East Is East is a thought-provoking play, offering up a slice of time in British history with a wry smile that hides a heavy heart,

by Suzanne Elliott

East Is East at the Trafalgar Studios runs until 3 January 2015. For tickets and more information on London theatre, visit Trafalgar Studios.