Theatre review: The Homecoming, Trafalger Studios

Harold Pinter’s dark 1965 play The Homecoming gets the Jamie Lloyd treatment

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John Simm in Trafalger Studio’s The Homecoming

Pinter’s mid 60s play, The Homecoming, isn’t an easy watch, and the Trafalgar Studios’s production directed by Jamie Lloyd, tightens the tension screws even further to produce a play that’s claustrophobic, dark and, obviously, funny.

The Homecoming is about an ill-fated family reunion in north London, rife with ghosts, bitterness and violence. Teddy, the eldest of three sons – is the family’s ‘success’ story, visiting for a few days on a break from his university job in the States with his beautiful wife, Ruth (Gemma Chan). Of course, the perfect life Teddy hopes to dazzle his suburban family with isn’t quite what it seems, and his smokescreen pretty much turns to dust before he’s even unpacked his toothbrush.

His father, Max, is an old school Londoner, played with real malice by Ron Cook. He over sees the family like a cut-prize gangster, all simmering anger and seething violence. Keith Allen plays his brother Sam, who lives with them, as an ‘obvious’ homosexual. Pinter’s portrait of Sam is far more subtle – not least because in 1965 homosexuality was still illegal – but the part is given an obvious otherness by Allen and he largely pulls it off without straying into limp-wristed territory .

Lloyd has once again ensembled a cracking cast. Of the three brothers – Teddy (played by Gary Kemp, has a reviewer described his performance as ‘gold’, yet?), John Macmillan as the youngest child, Joey, it’s John Simm’s Lenny who dominates. Simm is in fine menacing form, prowling the stage like a wounded bouncer. Simm is a very still actor, in fact this production generally was noticeable for its lack of hysteria – with dialogue this punchy no one should be hand-acting. The movement that Lloyd does incorporate is restrained, the actors moving around the stage like synchronised robots or geriatric former-dancers.

The Homecoming is a brutal play, it’s menacing and uncomfortable and Soutra Gilmour’s staging adds to the intensity. Set within a framed cube, the actors are caught in aspic, accentuating the claustrophobia of the play – they are like figures in a particularly vicious chess game – while the floor mirroring a blood-smeared butcher’s shop.

The Homecoming is also about a very particular point in history, a time when the Second World War was still casting its long shadow over the generation it ensnared, when kids still played on bomb sites, when people’s sexuality was the business of the law, when working class men were expected to be macho and women compliant. Historically we look back at 1965 as a time when London was swinging, but in some parts of town the only swinging some people were doing, were punches. Counter culture had yet to break through, despite the rumblings of change, not least due to playwrights like Pinter.

I found The Homecoming a difficult play to like, it’s just so nasty and the whole sordid ending with Ruth had me actually squirming in my seat – although that’s testimony to Chan’s cool acting that had me so invested in this difficult character. Does she have a voice, can she use her sexuality as a means to end? I’m not so sure, she seems like such a victim. But as ever, Pinter allows plenty of space for us to fill with our own interpretations, so let’s hope in someone’s else’s head she’s a winner, just as Lloyd and Trafalgar Studios are once again.

The Homecoming | Trafalgar Studios | Until 13 February 2016

Theatre Review: Jane Eyre, Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre

A newly-realised adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Victorian romance is invigorating and irresistible

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Jane Eyre at the National Theatre, devised by the Company from the novel by Charlotte Bronte

 

Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel can’t be an easy beast to tame for the stage. You have to grapple with the fact that everyone knows at least the outline of Jane Eyre (mad woman, attic, THAT wedding scene, fire) and, while the novel is so multi layered, so stuffed with action, it’s Jane’s internal monologues that are the book’s backbone. How do you bring a freshness to such a well-known tale while capturing Jane’s outward fierceness and inner delicacy?

Like this it would seem. This co-produced National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic adaptation of Jane Eyre has managed to harness the author’s – and the protagonist’s – energy and power and bring a fresh, original angle to this well-loved story that doesn’t diminish the source material.

The production was originally devised by the company without a script; improvised by the cast and then tamed by dramaturg Mike Akers. This fluidity and lack of constraint, wonderfully directed by Sally Cookson, really shines through in this production and lends it so much of its magic.

Akers, Cookson, a fearlessly talented and committed cast and a beautiful score by Benji Bower capture Brontë’s magic and Jane’s restless spirit – no narrative net or awkward theatrics ensnare Madeleine Worrall’s Jane as we follow her from a squawking baby to a contented mother. The whole production seems to spin around Jane’s musings near the beginning of her time at Thornfield: “It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.”

I loved the restlessness of this Jane Eyre, the small company, multitasking in several roles, are rarely off stage (in Worrall’s case, never). Jane Eyre is a force of nature, brave and self-possessed, her self-awareness so complete that she’s beyond shocking with the truth. Worrall excelled in the part, giving Jane that fierce determination and vulnerability that Rochester and the reader fall in love with. Her inner monologues are spoken aloud by members of the cast like a chorus in a Greek tragedy, but they’re never overcooked, they feel part of the script not a convenient way around it.

Felix Hayes’ Rochester is every bit the striking, booming, self-righteous Brontë hero, perfectly walking the line between boorish posho and sensitive, repentant new (Victorian) man. Despite the worst proposal this side of Colin Firth’s Darcy, oh, and the small matter of his wife in the attic, we are rooting for these two to get together. There is humour too, some of it provided by Brontë’s own witty hand, some by Laura Elphinstone as Rochester’s hyper excitable ward Adele and a great deal by Craig Edwards’ brilliant comic turn as the hero’s dog Pilot. (On paper this role must have sounded like the stuff of an actor’s ‘back-end-of-a-pantomime-horse’ worst nightmare, but Edwards’ plays it so well, that it’s human equivalent of the scene-steeling goose in War Horse).

The set is integral to the play, a deceptively simple design of raised wooded boards and ladders that is as believable as a grand mansion on fire as it is a TB-ridden school. Wrapping all this up in a delightful aural package is composer Bower’s score that fuses jazz, soul and folk in original arrangements to beautiful effect. Melanie Marshall is both the ghostly form of poor Bertha in the attic and a captivating singer, crystallising Jane’s thoughts in song, her voice as clear and startling as a frosty Yorkshire morning.

You may think you know Jane Eyre, but this production is so full of surprises and such a stunning piece of theatre, that you’d do well to take a another trip to Brontë country.

Jane Eyre | Lyttelton Theatre at the National Theatre | Until 10 January 2016

Theatre Review: Mr Foote’s Other Leg, Theatre Royal Haymarket

A witty, engaging grease-paint smeared story of Georgian modern theatre that fizzes along with gusto

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Joseph Millson, Dervla Kirwan and Simon Russell Beale in Mr Foote’s Other Leg, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Transferring from the Hampstead Theatre to its rightful home – the Theatre Royal Haymarket plays a starring role – Mr Foote’s Other Leg is a rollicking zing of a play.

There are some pretty big theatre names in this production about a big theatre name. You may not actually know his name, but the titular Mr Foote is a man credited with changing the stage landscape, his influence still resounding in theatrical practice today.

Simon Russell Beale plays Samuel Foote in this Richard Eyre-directed production of Ian Kelly’s play. When we first meet Foote (after a quick posthumous trip to meet his long lost right leg), he’s at an elocution lesson, a budding actor on a mission to rid himself of his broad West Country accent to train his vowels for a life treading the broads (after his life changing incident, his Truro cadence mysteriously reappears).

In the first half, we follow Foote on his journey to being one of the biggest names in 18th century theatre, through the face-powder smeared dressing rooms, the bitching, the post-show highs and the rivalry with fellow thesp, David Garrick (Joseph Millson). He’s having a whale of a time – as are the audience, or me at least – mingling with Benjamin Franklin (nicely played by Colin Stinton) and getting the unseen 1700s crowd roaring in the aisles with his cross-dressing comedy routines (a shout out for the costumes, they’re wonderful in there petticoated abundance). But Foote’s fun comes to an abrupt end at the half way curtain when an unfortunate bet involving a spot of horse riding ends with Foote a leg down. 

Dr John Hunter, played exuberantly by Forbes Masson, saves Mr Foote’s life – and his leg, the play begins with Mrs Chudleigh (Sophie Bleasdale) and Frank Barber (Micah Balfour) attempting to steal it back from the doc’s basement. But Foote is never quite the same again, his eccentricity slipping more and more into bad judgement and self-sabotage. The second half is less frantic, more moving and bittersweet, Foote’s love of the spotlight illuminating his less palatable quirks and landing him on the wrong side of a powerful socialite. 

Mr Foote’s Other Leg is a richly comic play that fizzes along with intelligence, wit and charm. Occasionally it gets a little tangled in its own cleverness, but for the most part, the story is gripping and hugely entertaining. SRB is, as usual, an impressive acting powerhouse as Foote – mischievous, camp, haughty and endearing, he wraps his tongue around Kelly’s sometimes odd prose rhythm with an assurance that only someone so at ease with theatrical linguistics as Russell Beale could.

Simon Russell Beale may dazzle, but the rest of cast don’t wilt in his bright light. Dervla Kirwan as his acting partner Peg Woffington gives a lovely understated performance that has wit and charm, and later, sadness. Bleasdale as the Mistress Quickly-alike Chudleigh injects the part with zeal, while Balfour offers a nice sobering presence among all the dramatics. Playwright Ian Kelly (Hermione Granger’s father no less) makes an imposing appearance as George III (before the madness set in, in fact he’s often the sanest person on stage).

Kelly’s play owes something to the bawdiness and calamity-strewn themes of restoration comedy, but there’s also touches of Shakespeare. There is a good dose of theatrical in-jokes, a recurring seam involving the Georgian revival of Shakespeare and the birth of the Stratford-upon-Avon plastic skull cash-in is funnier than that sentence sounds. But Mr Foote’s Other Leg goes deeper than clever-clever English-grad pleasing moments, it’s touching, funny, warm and richly entertaining. Not to mention a treasure trove of knowledge for anyone with an interest in theatre.

Theatre Royal Haymarket | Until January 23rd 2016

Theatre review: Teddy Ferrara, Donmar Warehouse

A largely engrossing production becomes a little tangled in its issue led web 

Ryan McParland as Teddy Ferrara

Ryan McParland as Teddy Ferrara at the Donmar Warehouse

Based on the true story of Tyler Clementi, a student who killed himself after his roommate secretly filmed him kissing another man in their room, Christopher Shinn’s University Campus drama makes its British debut at the Donmar Warehouse.

The Teddy (played brilliantly by Ryan McParland) of Shinn’s play is an outsider in many ways. He’s awkward, odd and gay – a freshman struggling to establish himself against a world resistant to difference. He hangs around on the periphery of things, instantly forgettable to everyone, even those who are well meaning like Luke Newberry’s Gabe, the charming head of the queer students’ group. Bullied and ignored, Teddy never gets to graduate.

Teddy’s suicide is the catalyst for dialogue between the University President and representatives from the college’s minority groups in a bid to improve conditions and attitudes for homosexuals, trans-gender and disabled students. These conversations are the play’s backbone – a tennis match worth of self-interested ideas batted back and forth – played out alongside Gabe’s bid for student president and his relationship with his jealous boyfriend Drew and his unlikely friendship with jock,Tim (Nathan Wiley).

Dominic Cooke’s production is terrifically acted, and the first half at least is a powerful piece of drama that hits a xylophone’s worth of excellent points. Shinn asks us to examine are own prejudices and the need for us to be honest about them, something represented in Gabe, who, as the play’s ‘good guy’, is possibly the post blinkered of anyone – he certainly has two of the most horrid and flippant lines that make the audience vocally gasp.

But while the writing and acting are pin-sharp, the narrative arch is a little flabby. Shinn tries to tackle too much – Teddy Ferrara throws lots of issues up into the air and the pieces never really fit together as they fall to earth in the second half.

The production does produce some great acting. Matthew Marsh is outstanding as the insincere university president and senate member in waiting. Luke Newberry (currently playing bumbling young policeman in From Darkness) as Gabe is compelling as a self-righteous student whose struggling with relationships, friendships and his own ambitions. Ryan McParland and his snotty nose strikes such a vulnerable figure as Teddy that he’s difficult to watch (especially with that snotty nose).

Teddy Ferrara is a an uncomfortable watch, too uncomfortable for some as the empty seats after the interval revealed. The woman behind me who left, commented to her friend that while the play was “interesting” it’s “not our world” which I would say is the very reason to stay. Theatre is as much a portal into other world as it is a reflected of our own. This reaction rather reinforces Shinn’s and this production’s point that the mainstream is reluctant to raise the issues of those they cast aside.

Teddy Ferrara magnifies society’s defects. It’s hard hitting and bleak yet curiously unemotional. There are some funny moments (many courtesy of some excellent comic timing of Marsh) but Shinn’s script is taunt with politics. But it’s a gripping, insightful piece of theatre. See it – and stay.

Teddy Ferrera | Donmar Warehouse | Until 5 December 2015

Theatre review: Measure for Measure, Young Vic

Joe Hill-Gibbons production for the Young Vic is a healthy measure of comedy, darkness and inventiveness

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Romola Garai as Isabella in Measure for Measure

Earlier this summer, I saw the Globe’s Measure for Measurea frolicking, lighthearted period production that negotiated Shakespeare’s problem play with frivolous fun.

Joe Hill-Gibbons Young Vic production, meanwhile, tears up the parchment and thrusts the play’s darker, murkier themes in our faces. The play opens with the characters crawling out from under a pile of inflatable dolls, complete with comedy appendages that are both crude and funny. They get thrown around and kicked about, but hang around the stage for the duration, a constant visual gag and a reminder of Vienna’s (and probably our own) grubbiness. They should have had their own curtain call.

Like the Globe’s, this production manages to be lots of fun, but Hill-Gibbons keeps the murky world of political corruption and sexual power and abuse at the heart of this black comedy. Shakespeare’s bawdier bits are helpfully illustrated with well know gestures, verbal stresses and visual – comically graphic – graphics. At just under two hours, the text has been slashed by dramaturg Zoë Svendsen along with some of the characters (Mistress Overdone is undone – I didn’t miss her). This makes it a far neater story and Isabella’s virginity, and the men (Angelo and the Duke) desperately grabbing at it, is given a keener edge. Romola Garai plays Isabella at full pelt. She’s VERY angry, there is none of the meek novice nun about her and there is no faux happy ending for Garai’s Isabella, it’s made clear she still pays a price for freeing her brother. 

Music plays a central role, although forget about any lutes. There constant hum of haunting music which crescendos at key points adds suspense even if at times it seemed intrusive. And the fact that Mariana – the woman Duke-stand-in Angelo stood-up after her dowry, along with her brother, was lost at sea – is an Alanis Morissette fans seems important, if rather an oddly dated reference.

We see some of the action through a video feed as the characters move ‘backstage’ to an industrial concrete space that doubles as a prison. Sometimes we see the characters on stage and on the screen, the jittery camera work adding a layer of menace and claustrophobia.

All this clever staging does at times threaten to upstage the actors, and, occasionally it does (I was completely distracted during Duke Vincentio’s  speech as he prepared to return from his undercover friar mission because of the kaleidoscope of inflatable dolls’s bits and bobs behind him) but mostly the actors win. Zoning Varla plays the Duke with real gravitas until the end when he returns and seems to unravel under the strain of his odd decisions – he’s along way from Dominic Rowan’s loveable, jovial leader. Paul Ready’s Angelo is a nervy civil servant, creepy and officious while John Mackay as Pompey had a suitable sly menace to him beneath his comedy posturing. And, Garai, Garai is great although I would have enjoyed a little more light and shade in her furious Isabella.

Inventive and sexually charged, this production still had Shakespeare at its core and is as bold and absorbing as his works, done at their best, should be. 

Measure for Measure | Young Vic | Until 14 November

Theatre review: Medea, Almeida

A clever reworking of Euripides’s classic text that is full of rage, but never quite catches fire

Kate Fleetwood as Medea

Kate Fleetwood as Medea

I missed the National Theatre’s powerhouse production of Medea with Helen McCroy in the title role last year when a broken foot curbed my theatre outings temporarily. I am still disappointed I didn’t see it, it sounded everything a Greek tragedy should be, one that punches you in the stomach and leaves you gasping.

The Almeida’s production, as part of their Greek season is, in contrast, rather underpowered. On paper this is theatre gold with author Rachel Cusk on script duties and the Almeida’s artistic director Rupert Goold in the director’s chair, but it’s almost too clever for its own good. All brain and little heart.

Set in modern times, Cusk has, unsurprisingly, re-written Medea as a feminist text and added in a dollop of her brand of suburban nastiness. The chorus is now a group of bitchy yummy mummies, all babyccinos and sniping. They’re good actually, you’ll recognise these characters immediately and even the dancing with baby dolls was witty and tight enough to not to make me – who is very sensitive to theatrical affectation – cringe.

In this reboot, Medea is a successful writer, her husband, Jason (Justin Salinger) a less successful actor. He’s left his wife and moved in with a young, rich model with an indoor swimming pool, leaving Medea with the children. Jason is a weasley spineless twonk – again he’s very recognisable. Medea is obviously a handful, but he is unwilling or unable, to accept his part in the devastation he’s caused. “I fell in love with someone else, that’s all,” he says at one point. Unlike the Euripides’s original, he’s not doing this for the greater good and, at least, doesn’t propose picking up Medea as his mistress once things settle down.

Jason’s downfall is guaranteed the minute Medea makes a pact with the lovely Richard Cant, who plays a Hollywood producer – a modern stand in for the childless King of Athens in the original – struggling to write the book that he has promised to his publishers by the end of the month. Medea says she will write it for him on the condition he gets a script she has written made. The show will go on to be a smash hit and weave the story of Jason’s – and ultimately Medea’s – disgrace. Art imitates life as life starts imitating art.

Gender plays a huge role in this re-write. In Cusk’s (very good) hands it’s a feminist play, although the balance does tip precariously towards gender sniping. There’s a lot of ‘that’s the problem with you women’ and ‘all men have a wandering eye’ etc. Cusk’s absolutely hit the nail on the feminist head with the father of the unnamed mistress who comes to Medea to tell her to back off. His misogyny was horribly recognisable, berating Medea for not being young or beautiful enough and, worse, daring not to care. Not that women come off unscathed – Cusk would never allow that – they are complicit in the trappings of their gender, accepting of their fate as objects of the male gaze, happy, as Medea says, in their “soft bed of compromise”.

Cusk and Goold’s Medea may dig deep into gender politics and attempt to dissect what it is to be a wife and a mother, but ultimately this play is a blood bath. It’s about revenge and one woman’s determination to destroy the man who has betrayed her. Kate Fleetwood as Medea puts in a fine performance, her eyes a blaze with rage for the full 90 minutes, her impressive cheekbones seemingly sharpening with every angry exchange with her ex-husband.

Echoes of the play’s Greekness remain in the costumes that combined jeans with flowing Grecian things. This sartorial mash-up did kind of work, although I disliked the final chorus’s black/white, masculine/feminine costume that seemed curiously half-baked. The production, generally, went a little wayward towards the end, the final 15 minutes rather lost me. We had been transported from the urban modern surroundings we had been in to somewhere else, but I must have missed where – there were mountains. Cusk and Goold duck out of Medea actually killing her children; she does it metaphorically in a scene where the chorus recites the final tragedy. We learn the boys took their own lives (or maybe that’s what everyone is meant to think as in the original? – told you it was confusing). 

Despite the tragic ending, I was rather unmoved – this production may have given me a great deal to think about, but little to care about.

Medea | Almeida Theatre, N1 | Until 14 November 2015

Theatre Review: Three Days in the Country, the Lyttelton, National Theatre

Patrick Marber’s retelling of Ivan Turgenev’s A Month In The Country is witty and elegant, full of gags and Russian angst

Three Days in the Country at the Lyttelton Theatre Amanda Drew as Natalya, John Simm as Rakitin ©Alastair Muir

Three Days in the Country at the Lyttelton Theatre Amanda Drew as Natalya, John Simm as Rakitin © Alastair Muir

Three Days in the Country is Patrick Marber’s reboot of Ivan Turgenev’s A Month In The Country, the action condensed into three days and this National Theatre production cut to two hours 15 minutes  versus the Russian playwright’s bum-numbing four.

Set in a grand country estate, the home of rich landowner Arkady (John Light), in the mid 19th century, Three Days in the Country has all the ingredients for a pre-revolutionary Russian tale of heartbreak and woe.  Class division? Check. Unrequited love? By the bucket load. A big house in the country, a weapon and an interloper whose thrown a spanner into the works? Da, da, da.

A languid air hangs over the stage, created here by Neil Austin’s lighting and Mark Thompson’s painted backdrop and spacious set, but behind this seemingly tranquil facade lie deep passions, betrayals and unhappiness. What, you thought a piece of Russian literature was going to be lighthearted and frivolous?

The outsider who is the catalyst for trouble is Belyaev, the handsome young tutor to Kolya, the son of Arkady and his restless wife Natalya (Amanda Drew). His arrival puts the household in a tizz and causes a fatal rift between Natalya and her 17-year-old ward, Vera (a brilliant stage debut by Lily Sacofsky) as they both fall in love with this enigmatic young man.

Also court in Cupid’s crossfire is an old family friend, Rakitin (John Simm), who has nursed a deep love for Natalya for 20 long years. Simm is excellent in the role giving a wonderfully composed performance that captures Rakitin’s bitterness, pain and desperation with real feeling.  

Despite the rather bleak path the story weaves (although compared to Chekhov this is Neighbours) there is a light touch to Marber’s witty script and the modern cadence to the dialogue gives Turgenev’s tale a fresh edge and a big dollop of humour. Mark Gatiss as the hopeless doctor, Shpigelsky, turns in a particularly fine comic performance that produces the funniest scene of the play, collapsing with backache during a bluff  proposal of marriage to Debra Gillett’s Lizaveta who was Gatiss’s comedy equal in a scene that threatened to steal the show. A less arthritic audience might have been rolling in the aisles.

Beautifully acted with great subtlety and space, Three Days in the Country is a lovely production that’s nicely paced and understated with just enough heart and soul.

Three Days in the Country | Lyttelton Theatre | Until October 21 2015

Theatre Review: A Girl and a Gun, Camden People’s Theatre

A complex, witty and thought-provoking look at the ambiguity of how women and violence are portrayed on screen

Louise Orwin (c) Field and McGlynn

Louise Orwin (c) Field and McGlynn

Part of Camden People’s Theatre’s Calm Down, Dear: A Festival of Feminism, A Girl and a Gun is performer and writer Louise Orwin’s challenge to Jean Luc Godard’s comment “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun”. It’s a witty and multi-layered show that sets out to highlight how the relationship between women and violence became an accepted, even glamorous, part of the movie experience.

Hollywood with its penetrating male gaze and fear of difference has long put women in the shadows when they’re not playing a wife or a victim (or, indeed both) and Orwin’s script aims to untangle the audience’s own coercion with this accepted narrative. A Girl and A Gun examines how the distance between what’s playing on a screen in front of you immediately gives you a different perspective on the events unfolding in front of your eyes as you sit munching popcorn in a dark cinema. Do these  images change when we’re confronted with in front of you on stage? Will the audience recognise what it means to a plot device and their own complicity in this on-screen given? There just a couple of the questions Louise Orwin is asking.

Each night alongside Louise is a ‘him’, played by a man who has no idea of the script or what will be demanded of him. The night I saw A Girl with A Gun, William Drew played ‘him’ and Drew – like those to come read his lines from an autocue and responded – or didn’t, there’s a caveat that he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to – to the stage directions. This involved him dressing as a cowboy, shooting toy guns and dancing. His responses were interesting – he doesn’t for example force Orwin to her knees as instructed and is uneasy pulling the plastic trigger.

Hollywood’s construct of femininity, of women as victims, is played out by Orwin at the end with a montage of several of the ways women in films so often meet their grisly end. This is followed by a scene where Orwin questions women’s own responses and involvement in the on-screen game. She has until that point played a sexy flirt with a Texan drawl obsessed with her hero and his gun. She suddenly drops the drawl and walks off stage, leaving Drew in the spotlight to explain her motives.

The performance is filmed and we see it on the projectors behinds the actors, asking us to confront how differently we respond to what’s on screen and real life in front of us.

This all sounds terribly worthy, and of course Orwin’s show confronts serious issues, but A Girl and A Gun is also fun, with a gentle humour and real wit. It’s a complex show that would hold up to several viewings with its unravelling of mixed messages that is an ambiguous and – at times, confusing –  as the images and screen mythology Orwin is deconstructing.

A Girl and A Gun | Camden People’s Theatre | Until 3 October 2015

Theatre review: Splendour, Donmar Warehouse

Genevieve O'Reilly and Sinéad Cusack in Splendour at Donmar Warehouse

Genevieve O’Reilly and Sinéad Cusack in Splendour at Donmar Warehouse

Abi Morgan’s gripping, tense tale set against a brewing revolution held me captive  

Set in the opulent palace of a dictator (who we never meet) of an unnamed country in the grip of civil war, Splendour is a taut, tight, tense play that’s ice cool and compelling.

A photojournalist (Genevieve O’Reilly), personally invited by the dictator to take his portrait, arrives at the palace accompanied from the airport by an unreliable interpreter, Gilma (Zawe Ashton), a young jittery woman from the war torn north, hiding her real identity out of fear.

The tyrant is not there, but his wife Micheleine (Sinéad Cusack) is there to greet – admittedly not with open arms – Kathryn. Hair as rigid as her grin, last season’s Prada handbag clutched to her body, her pony-skinned heels clip-clopping on the marble floors and standing her ground even though it’s littered with bodies – Cusack’s Micheleine is like a uber-glossy Margaret Thatcher (star of course of Abi Morgan’s The Iron Lady).

The three of them are joined by Micheleine’s best friend of 35 years, Genevieve, a brittle, bird-like widow who has been held emotionally hostage by her powerful pal for reasons that become clear towards the end. She arrives dripping wet from the falling snow, dressed like a World War 2 landgirl whose dug one too many potatoes, urging Kathryn to study the painting by her late husband that hangs in the room (we never see this either).

Across the river, and seen from designer Peter McKintosh‘s huge stately windows, the south side of the city burns under a barrage of bombs. The main roads are blocked by caravans of refugees fleeing the bombing, the back roads thick with treacherous ice. The four women are locked together in this moment that may change them forever.

Splendour is a splintered, yet ultimately tidy tale, Morgan’s script employs some dexterous dialogue that skips between time and language. There’s no linear structure and parts of scenes are repeated with different characters delivering the lines, intertwined with their internal monologues. It sounds complicated, but Robert Hastie‘s neat production that punctuates each part with – literally – a bang helps bring the themes and story arc together while also reflecting the bombardment outside.

Western photographer Kathryn doesn’t speak the language of the country she’s in so relies on the translator Gilma – who, as Kathryn says “is an interpreter who can’t interrupt”. The script is all in English – there are no attempts at dodgy foreign accents – and language and concealment are key themes, while images are held up as reflections of the truth. Genevieve hides her real feelings for her friend; Gilma stashes video tapes and shot glasses in her bag while Kathryn keeps her heart locked. The real truth of how Genevieve’s husband sees his ‘best friend’ – the dictator – is revealed in his picture and Kathryn seeks to tell the truth of conflict through her lens.

The ensemble cast are all fantastic. Cusack as Elnett-fan and Imelda Marcos alike Micheleine is poised and controlled as she watches her riches and power crumble around her. I particularly enjoyed Michelle Fairley as the broken yet steely Genevieve, her performance was beautifully controlled, yet you could sense the emotion seeping through her pores. O’Reilly was cool, considered and captivating as the photojournalist, a rather weakly written character on Morgan’s behalf but pumped full of life by O’Reilly. Ashton as the jumpy, conflicted Gilma also impressed with a punchy performance.

Splendour | Donmar Warehouse | Until 26 September 2015

Theatre Review: The Trial, Young Vic

The Trial performed at the Young Vic Theatre Rory Kinnear as Josef K, ©Alastair Muir

The Trial performed at the Young Vic Theatre
Rory Kinnear as Josef K,
©Alastair Muir

Great performances and the obvious affection for the original text, give this frantic production a heart

How do you adapt Franz Kafka’s The Trial for the stage or screen? It’s been done before of course, notably by Harold Pinter for his 1993 film version starring Kyle MacLachlan, yes, Kyle Maclachlan, then riding high on Twin Peak powers. I haven’t seen Pinter’s version, but Nick Gill, the playwright behind the Young Vic’s nervy production, has clearly gone for ‘let’s throw everything at it and see what works’ approach.

And… it does work – in places. It’s a rather ramshackle production that veers between gripping, frustrating, amusing and boring. Directed by Richard Jones – a man steadier at the helm of operas – this production is frenetic, it barely stops for air, possibly afraid that if it did it may be found wanting. The logic seems to be, that if we keep going at this frantic pace, the audience may not notice the flaws.

But while there were flaws, I largely enjoyed this production, thanks to some very fine performances and, of course, Kafka’s surreal tale as the backbone. As Nick Gill says in this interview for Exeunt Magazine “if I fucking massacre it, it’s The Trial, it’ll survive”. Gill certainly doesn’t “fucking massacre it”, but does it a bit of a thwack over the head leaving us all a little dizzy.

Despite a good supporting cast, this is Kinnear’s play. He’s so good as Josef K with his trademark low key style that sees him making so much impact with a raised eyebrow or frown. It would have been good to have seen his face more, but the rectangle stage that had the audience sitting either side as co-conspirators meant we became more familiar with his back (which could also be very expressive).

This not a diss on Miriam Buether’s set, which sees a conveyor belt run through the middle of the rectangle stage, bringing with it various bits of bland furniture – we’re in K’s office, now we’re in his bedroom, oh, and back to his office – without having to break the pace. No wonder Kinnear was sweating through his vest.

There were moments when this production really sparked, when Kafta, Gill and the characters were all working as one. But overall I thought this would have worked better as a darker, even more surreal production, one that didn’t have to play for laughs as much. I know it’s a cliche to compare The Trial to 1984 (they obviously share a totalitarian thread, but have very different tones) but what I enjoyed about the Playhouse production of Orwell’s classic was that it captured his sinister, claustrophobic atmosphere. Guaranteed, The Trial is funnier than you’d think (no really) but it’s not a book you’d read for its lolz. And lets never speak about the bit where the talented Hugh Skinner (W1A’s intern Will “ya” Humphries) had to pretend to be a dog (“like a dog!”), which was weird at first and then just boring. And weird is always better boring, but they’re not always that different.

The Trial | Young Vic | Until 22 August