Theatre review: The Homecoming, Trafalger Studios

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

John-Simm-in-The-Homecoming.-Photography-by-Marc-Brenner1.jpg1-700x455

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: Golem, Trafalgar Studios (Studio 1)

Golem at Trafalgar Studios

Golem at Trafalgar Studios

Written, directed, animated and largely performed by the often off-beat, always on-point 1927, Golem is shaking up the conservative West End with its gleeful, quirky and wonderfully imaginative comment on the technology takeover of our age.

In Jewish legend, a golem is a creature made from inanimate material, usually clay (in Hebrew, golem means shapeless mass), that is magically instilled with the power to take commands from its master. In legend, a golem usually becomes ever more powerful and ultimately destructive, in Golem, our clay man becomes a nightmare embodiment of our relationship with technology – like Frankenstein’s monster with an iPhone.

Golem’s master is Robert Robinson (a fantastic turn from Shamira Turner), a nerd who loves binary code and brown clothes. His instrument of choice in his sister, Annie’s, band – Annie and The Underdogs – is a keytar. Robert and Annie, a former librarian from a time when libraries existed, live with their Beethoven and knitting-loving grandmother. Robert has a mundane job in the Backup Department, “backing up the backup”, with four other like-minded geeks, writing out binary codes to existing computer programmes in preparation for the day the power goes out. He fancies Joy (a delightful Rose Robinson who plays Gran with equal relish), the Backup Department’s stationery cupboard manager who is wonderfully odd and whose dream it is to one day visiting the Pencil Museum in Keswick.

Robert’s world is changed dramatically the day he bumps into an inventor friend who persuades him to take home a clay golem he’s been tweaking, promising that this lump of clay will make his life far simpler. Golem, who looks like a, erm, very adult Morph, is animated onto the screen along with the projections of a city from a future that could be ours, with derelict buildings abandoned by the Russian oligarchs and hipster restaurants where the food is served in aspic.

Robert sets put Golem to work – literally, he’s now backing up the backup – but unbeknown to Robert, a sinister corporate company have also recognised the power of Golem and one day take over Golem’s mind. Like Dr Frankenstein, Robert soon discovers that his creature isn’t as pliable as he’d like and he’s soon in thrall to his powers.

Golem is simultaneously old fashioned and cutting edge. It has a fringe feel to it, but is as slick as any West End musical. Suzanne Andrade’s script is shot through with wit and poetic and knowing popular culture nods.  In among the fun and the surreal charm, are lots of on-point messages about modern life – the power of advertising, social media, those unseen trend makers and, of course, our slavish devotion to technology that is drilling holes in our communities, big and small.

Paul Barritt’s animation is more than simply a projected set, it’s an integral piece of a production that encompass several art forms including a jaunty live score (the drums and piano are played by Lillian Henley and Will Close respectively) that hints at Robert and Annie’s jazz-obsessed father.

I loved the numerous imaginative touches – the broken 7″ in punk fan Annie’s hair, the moth that rises up from the table when gran bangs it in frustration. I also enjoyed the hugely funny parodies of the more ridiculous aspects of modern life; Joy’s interview for her role at the Backup Department sent up job description cliches so perfectly and my friend and I were knowingly amused by Robert’s dalliance with internet dating (or what passes for internet dating in this production) after Golem persuades him to ditch Joy for being “a frumpy 35-year-old who is going to trick you into having a baby”.

Golem reminded me of Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen and was every bit as joyful, clever and thoughtful. The message may be stretched a little, but wrapped up in such wit and originality, Golem could have been saying nothing and it would have still been tremendous fun.

Golem | Trafalgar Studios | Until 22nd May

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: The Ruling Class, Trafalgar Studios

James McAvoy as Jack Gurney and Kathryn Drysdale as Grace Shelley in The Ruling Class, Trafalgar Studios

James McAvoy as Jack Gurney and Kathryn Drysdale as Grace Shelley in The Ruling Class, Trafalgar Studios

Having seen a few rather pedestrian, slightly flabby plays recently, watching Jamie Lloyd’s production of The Ruling Class was like having a bucket of cold water thrown over me and every bit as refreshing, exhilarating and – at times – uncomfortable.

Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic with a messiah complex, Jack (James McAvoy) has been hidden away in a mental health institution for many years where he was treated by a Dr Herder (Elliot Levy). Following the death of his father in a rather 1990s MP style accident, Jack inherits the title of 14th Earl of Gurney and much to the annoyance of his family – notably his uncle, the ghastly Sir Charles Gurney (a brilliantly terse Ron Cook), Jack checks himself out of hospital determined to throw himself into his new role.

Shadowing him is Herder who believes he can cure Jack before his family disinherit this mad upstart. The play riffs off the similarity between an entitled a member of the ruling classes with a seat in the House of Lords and a paranoid schizophrenic whose messiah complex marks him out as unwell when his symptoms are strikingly like those he shares a house and a House with.

With a play as frenetic and as politically charged as Peter Barnes‘, no director could approach The Ruling Class with timidity. Jamie Lloyd, whose Trafalgar Transformed series has proved he’s not afraid to turn the theatrics up to 11, approaches The Ruling Classes with the required gusto. Equally as committed is James McAvoy as Jack Gurney whose performance is one of the best – and bravest – I’ve seen on stage. He’s very well supported by a brilliant cast particularly Anthony O’Donnell as the once trusty now mostly tipsy butler Tucker, but the production is McAvoy’s who even manages to convince during the balmier and borderline toe curling music hall moments.

Another star is Barnes’ script which is astonishingly dexterous. He threads through the themes and changes in tone to the narrative with an ease that defies the rapid pace and the subject matter which is far more searing than the comedy of the play lets on. For all the play’s radicalness – and I can presume it was particularly radical in 1968 – Barnes’s writing is peppered with Shakespearean and Biblical references that are added to the stew of theatrical influences of music hall and Ealing comedies.

The production is fittingly insane and gets even more surreal the better Jack gets.  I found it eyeliner ruiningly funny, even the obvious jokes had me giggling (I saw an Etonian buffoon talking LOUDLY and sloooowly to the foreign Helder, but still laughed like a loon). And while there was a charming surrealism to The Ruling Class, it’s grounded in its political agenda and Barnes doesn’t flinch from his criticism of a morally bankrupt upper class and the profiteering of those at the top at the expense of people further down the class chain. This play may have been written in the 1960s, but it highlights the huge divide between the Haves and Have-Nots that is more relevant today than it has been for years.

Unsurprisingly, Jamie Lloyd’s production has proven a divisive one; I can see how people could be squeamish to its frantic pace, unsubtle political message and the play’s more surreal moments that, at one point, see McAvoy unicycling in his pants. This production chucks it all at you and you either enjoy the jolt or you recoil. I relished every caustic slap. by Suzanne Elliott The Ruling Class | Trafalgar Studios | Until 11th April

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.

Theatre Review: The Pride, Trafalgar Studios

The Pride at Trafalgar Studios

Mathew Horne, Hayley Atwell, Harry Hadden-Paton and Al Weaver in The Pride at Trafalgar Studios

When I last left the Trafalgar Studios after Jamie Lloyd’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Hothouse, I was still chuckling from the play’s sheer physical force of farce (I merrily ignored the final, macabre scenes, seeing only Simon Russell Beale and a large piece of Christmas cake). But after watching The Pride,  Lloyd’s latest in his Trafalgar Transformed series, my tears weren’t of laughter, in fact I barely made it out the door – such was its power, it had welded me to my seat.

I went into The Pride knowing nothing more than it followed the changes in attitude towards homosexuality through the interweaving of two different eras, one set in 1958 and another in contemporary London. My ignorance payed off; not knowing anything about it meant it packed an even bigger punch and made some of the surprises particularly funny (Mathew Horne in a Nazi uniform was not something I ever expected to see, let alone find it hilarious – you have to trust me on this one).

I was right about one thing, the story is about a couple – Oliver and Philip – whose lives are mirrored (literary thanks to a clever and rather beautiful set design) across five decades. The play opens in 1958 in the home of Philip (Harry Hadden-Paton) and his wife Sylvia (Hayley Atwell) who has invited her boss, writer Oliver (Al Weaver) out to dinner with them. Suspecting her husband is shielding a side of him from her and the world, Sylvia has contrived the whole meeting and claims not to be surprised when the two men embark on a, then illegal, affair that has far reaching and heartbreaking consequences for all three of them.

Fast forward 55 years and a contemporary version of Philip and Oliver are in the middle of a messy break-up thanks to Ollie’s addiction to anonymous sex (this is where the Nazi uniform comes it). Their lives are in so many ways easier than their mirrored images, but society still hasn’t freed them from the chains of lazy stereotyping and off-the-cuff ignorance that can be just as damaging.

Writer Alexi Kaye Campbell’s taunt script swings violently from trivial and funny to ferocious and heart-wrenching. He allows us to acknowledge and appreciate how much has changed for homosexuals in this country in the past half a century, but we’re not allowed to rest on our smug 21st Century laurels, a point highlighted in the curtain call when the cast bring out placards bearing the slogan “To Russia, With Love”. Atwell’s modern Sylvia delivers a pitch perfect speech as her and Ollie settle down to watch Gay Pride in the play’s final scene about the darker, less obvious undertones that build stereotypes – “tell you who you should be”- that are knocked down by those that make them.

The Pride is as powerful a piece of theatre as I’ve seen for a long time. Theatre, for all its intimacy, can feel cold and sterile, its hyper-artificiality diluting the intensity and emotions. But The Pride has a real humanness to it, it’s all too believable. It’s cry-with-laughter movements segue into gut-wrenchingly sad scenes. It’s terrifying, tender, brutal, brave and honest. But while it’s an important play, it doesn’t take itself too seriously and the brilliant acting helps contain any amateur dramatic trip wires that the script may contain.

The actors were all on blistering form. Al Weaver as Oliver was particularly moving, inhabiting his meek ancient Greek loving 1950s Oliver with a sweetness and hope, while he tempered the flippancy of his modern Ollie’s campness with a sadness and a genuine desire to grow out of his lost boy past. Hadden-Paton was perhaps more at home in 1958, but his sensible 21st century incarnation was a nice foil to Ollie’s hysteria. And we all know Hayley Atwell can act the tea dress off a period piece as if she were born wearing Chanel Rouge, but she played her sweary modern day Sylvia with a deft lightness of touch that made her the perfect (potty) mouthpiece for a generation.

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

by Suzanne Elliott

The Hothouse, Trafalgar Studios

The Hothouse by Harold Pinter

The Hothouse by Harold Pinter

The last Pinter play I saw was the star-studded Old Times as it neared the end of its critically-acclaimed run at the theatre named after him earlier this year. It was classic Pinter, all pregnant pauses, non-sequiturs, ambiguous relationships and more unanswered questions than the average episode of The Weakest Link.

In contrast, The Hothouse, the second of Jamie Lloyd’s productions for the Trafalgar Studios following his hugely successful, James McAvoy-starring Macbeth, is turbo-charged Pinter. Eyeliner-runningly funny, sharply satirical, whippet sharp and cleverly bonkers, it’s like A Clockwork Orange meets Noises Off with a dose of Orwell all brought together under Pinter’s young eye (this is An Early Pinter) and served up with a heavy dose of mega-watt acting. It’s at once an allegory of totalitarianism and a belly-aching farce. And every bit as brilliant as that sounds.

The play is set on Christmas Day in an unnamed institution that’s only ever referred to as a ‘rest home’, that coy description mocked by the occasional screeches and cries that rattle through the ancient pipes and walls. While it may be Christmas, there’s not much to celebrate here, there’s not a single holly-decked hall or stray bauble. The institution’s director, Mr Roote (Simon Russell Beale), doesn’t even know what day it is until his sycophantic, slimy underling Mr Gibbs (a wonderfully controlled and creepy John Simm) tells him. But Gibbs isn’t just on hand to guide his boss through the calendar (although at one point, that’s exactly what he does do), he’s there to inform Roote of two unexpected problems that have arisen within the peeling walls of the institution that Roote prides on running with military precision; one nameless numbered patient has died, while another has given birth to a baby boy. Little does Roote know that these two catastrophes will be one of the day’s highlights (cake aside).

The opening scene between Russell Beale and John Simm delivers a 100-watt jolt. The play races out of the starting block quicker than you can say “oh, that John Simm is shorter than he looks on the telly” (which, admittedly, is quite a long time). The physicality of SRB is amazing. He could reduce me to giggles with every bulging stare and incredulous gawp. Not that the others couldn’t match his brilliance, including Indira Varma as a pitch perfect parody of a femme fatale, Miss Cutts.

Instructed to root out the ‘rapist’ father of the baby, Gibbs turns out to be every bit as menacing as he seems, picking on the bumbling, naive new-boy Lamb who’s subjected to electroshock treatment so brilliantly acted by Henry Melling (Dudley in Harry Potter minus the puppy fat) that I was squirming in my seat, the intensity and horror sharpened by the comedy that had preceded it.

Simon Russell Beale is magnificent as Mr Roote, although he’s more cuddling that callous even when he’s beating the shit out of his impertinent subordinate Lush (deftly and charmingly played by John Heffernan). The comedy in The Hothouse is there as much to bring into sharp relief the horror of the place as it is to reduce the audience to giggly messes, but at times the eye-wateringly funny lines and the comedic delivery rather swamps the sinister message at the heart of it.

But it would be churlish to complain about a play being too funny. Pinter’s script is full of clever witty lines and Long’s production was not afraid to exploit the play’s physical comedy either. Even Russell Beale has said he took the part because he got to throw whisky in another character’s face, not once, but twice. And when you leave a theatre laughing (rather inappropriately) and are still on a theatrical high in Zone 2, you know he was right to.

The Hothouse is playing at the Trafalgar Studios until 3 August 2013. For tickets and more information visit www.thehothousewestend.com.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Macbeth, Trafalgar Studios

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James McAvoy as Macbeth

Jamie Lloyd’s production of Macbeth is the inaugural play in a season of work for Trafalgar Transformed at the Trafalgar Studios and it’s a brutal, intense, powerful and physical piece of theatre that’s restless and electric from the minute the three witches emerge from trap doors.

The ‘stage’ is a post-apocalyptic vision – all upturned metal chairs and utility tables; the characters in filthy army fatigues – in a non-determined time that could be the near past or near future. It was very 28 Days Later; the starkness adding its own neurosis to Shakespeare’s play about the occult and the blood-thirsty and power-hungry.

Shakespeare, of course, doesn’t need histrionics to stir the emotions and get the heart thumping, but the savagery of the newly configured stage and the physicality of this production sidelines the hocus pocus and brings out the bloodiness and horror behind the witches and ghostly daggers.

This has been billed as a James McAvoy vehicle, but it’s far more than that. If anything, McAvoy threatens to be overshadowed by both the powerful staging and the other actors. There’s been some debate (well, an article in The Independent) as to whether McAvoy is too young to play Macbeth. Shakespeare never specifies his age, but the character has traditionally been played by those in their late 30s or older. McAvoy – and his partner in crime Claire Foy as Lady Macbeth for that matter – might not be too young, but they look it, and their baby faces do make it harder to believe that these are two power-hungry tyrants who go around thrusting daggers through children’s heads. But while McAvoy might not quite convinced as a warrior, he does mad very well, writhing on tables and spitting out his demons with a rabid intensity.

Lady Macbeth has become shorthand for the ultimate malevolent wife, but she’s not purely evil. An ambiguous character, she’s a woman who begs to be bad, but ultimately isn’t bad enough – the last remaining speck of goodness is what ultimately leads to her demise. Still, she’s manipulative enough to persuade her husband to kill the King of Scotland while many women can’t even persuade their partners to make them a cup of tea so she’s no sweetheart.

The super slight Foy though, doesn’t look like a grand manipulator and I’m not sure whether it was her youthfulness that meant I didn’t quite believe in Foy as Lady Macbeth. A great angsty actress, Foy rather struggled to fill Shakespeare’s great villaness’ well-worn shoes, never quite seeming powerful and strong enough for a woman who could encourage her husband to commit regicide. For an actress who usually excels in shouty parts, Foy was at her best during the sleepwalking scene when she caught the vulnerability and fear of the Lady’s
nocturnal stirrings very movingly.

McAvoy and Foy were ably supported by a brilliant cast with standout performances from Forbes Masson as Banquo and Jamie Ballard as Macduff while Allison McKenzie’s brief turn as his about-to-be-murdered wife was eye-catching.

The screams of delight from the adolescents in the audience (of which there were many) is testament to the pull of a Hollywood star, but this is far more than a one-man show.

Macbeth is on at the Trafalgar Studios until 27 April 2013. For ticket information, including £15 Monday tickets, click here.