Bound

Bound

Genre: Drama

Venue:  The Vault, Southwark Playhouse, Shipwright Yard, (Corner of Tooley St. & Bermondsey St.), London, SE1 2TF

Low Down

 

‘My soul has been torn and I am leaving’. These are the first words of the Boundperformance: they resonate in the darkened auditorium as the sonorous voices of the six cast members fill its cavernous space. Then in a beat, in full light, a young man appears before the audience surveying his location, looking right and left, above and around, pulling curious facial expressions that elicit much laughter from the audience. The contrast between the male voices singing out their mournful words and the curious young man with his funny facial expressions reflects something of the turbulent emotions the audience is about to experience in Jesse Briten’s play about “the fortunes of six trawlermen from Devon as they embark on one final voyage…into treacherous weather.” Using elements of political theatre and expressionistic drama, by the end of the play, the audience witnesses how the fishermen are bound to the sea in more ways than just for their economic survival.

 

Review

 

There was a time, particularly in the 1960s and 70s, when the term ‘the well-made play’ was used as a term of denigration. But I couldn’t help observe how Boundshows the effectiveness of well-made plays: the expositions of key ideas in the opening scenes; the use of a strong dramatic plot rising towards a climax; and the logical resolution of the action in the closing moments of the drama.

The play’s strength is Jesse Briten’s crafting as a playwright of a number of interrelated dramatic conflicts: the first we see is that of the Devon trawlermen getting caught up in a display of open hostility towards a Polish agency worker. This is strongly developed by James Crocker as John, Alan Devally as Alan, Joe Darke as Graham,  Daniel Foxsmith as Rhys and Thomas Bennett as Kerdzic aka Kirk. Fused together are parochial prejudices and work-class paranoia of ‘migrants taking our jobs’ and, ironically, the characters’ upbeat expectations that the Pole is unnecessary anyway since the fishing season is over and they are on the docks waiting for the skipper to give them their payoffs after a bumper catch. The complex layering of internalised tensions and externalised hostilities make the scene anything but formulaic or melodramatic. Instead, ironic tensions, built by juxtaposing the men’s bravado and uncertainties, expose their depth of feeling and continuously disrupt any easy reading of the dramatic action. I am reminded of watching plays by Irish playwrights Sean O’Casey and J M Synge.

Furthermore, Briten never seems to position the audience to abandon their compassion for the men who are shown capable of changing their stance towards the Polish Kerdzic and being resilient enough to act as a ‘band of brothers’. Any sentimentality that comes from the scenes of working-class males baiting each to extract maximum humiliation exists alongside their choice to face death for one another. This is the mateship of: the trenches of WW1; the Dunkirk rescue in WW2; the workers in coal mines, on oil-rigs and in other primary industries with historical links to a once fierce unionism and left-wing politics. I noticed, for instance, that the song ‘Bound For South Australia’ was used in the show and that the play went to the Adelaide Fringe Festival. The cultural resonances with mateship and the identification of the ‘underdog’ seem an interesting residue of former performances.

Joe Darke’s musical and movement direction brings much to the development of this complex play. The tradition of ‘folk song’ that runs through Celtic and other early English indigenous cultures lives on in it through the beauty of the songs themselves. They are transformative and give credence all the characters’ yearning to belong. The decision to let movement evoke ‘men at work’ is inspired as it reifies what otherwise exists as ordinary everyday actions by ordinary men.

Bud Jones’ design of unadorned table, chairs and bright yellow storm-weather gear is also highly effective. While not novel, the fact that the set design has no ‘wings’ masking the actors upstage works well with the hold and release style of movement which punctuates different episodes in the play. Most of all, from where I sat, the open stage allowed the audience to imaginatively keep alive the expansive ocean on which ‘The Violet’ existed: and so the drama was free, both metaphorically and literally speaking,  to float, bob up and down and violently sway right up until the end. It is a technique we see used in the storm scene of Act 1, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’sTempest and its power comes from viewing the helplessness of mere men caught up in a maelstrom. Briten’s use of irony in the final moments of the play as Graham and Rhys attend to the injured Kerdzic at the height of the storm marks the drama with the heroism of decent men who in helping their fellows still remain utterly afraid.

Ultimately, the question that the play asks the audience is: what’s worth living and dying for? The relationship between the skipper Woods (John McKeever) and his business partner and first mate John (James Crocker) highlight how it is the crux of the matter and why they find themselves out at sea in a storm: the manic skipper Woods whose lack of sleep betrays his fear of humiliation at the prospect of losing his boat is played out in a poignant scene with the gentler, more risk-adverse John. These are not only representations of two different men but of two different ways of living that paradoxically link progress and destruction in the human condition.

Bound warrants all of the praise it has received since it opened at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2010. From reading some past reviews, I suspect there may have been minor changes which have further strengthen it for its current production now at Southwark Playhouse. Like O’Casey and Synge’s well-made plays, I believe thatBound will be restaged in the future. I’m returning to view it again next week with my family and friends. Its intelligence and inspirational qualities deserves more than just one viewing.

 

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi Thursday, 29th September 2011

Website :

Bound

http://www.bear-trap.co.uk/

Shiver

 

 

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare

Venue: The Yard, Unit 2, Queens Yard, White Post Lane E9 5EN

 

Low Down

 

Before the theatre is found and a word is spoken for Shiver, the drama has already begun. Getting to the Yard Theatre to watch Theatre6’s rearrangementof Shakespeare’s Tempest is a drama. The theatre is tucked into an industrial factory site at E9 5EN. Once it is found you can hardly believe the welcoming site of an expansive and softly lit bar. A bell rings (a hand held one for those of us old enough to remember such school bells) and the entrance into the ‘theatre’ that you know was/ is a factory site. WOW! WOW! And WOW! Again. The stage setting that you encounter of a lagoon – that’s right you read it correctly – a wet and shimmering lagoon on which two ‘islands’ are placed: one created with wooden pellets on which sits an older man and the other rising out of the water (created with scaffolding) like an oil rig platform on which a young woman is stretched out. The tiered seating is beautifully curved. I remember thinking as I took my seat of the end of a wooden Elizabethan ship. The older man scraps away at something on the wood and as his emotions become more and more agitated he starts calling a name ‘Miranda’: Prospero is defined not by magic or power over men but through the fact that he is left with one relationship in his life, the one with his daughter. He tries hard throughout the next 45 minutes to convince the audience that he arrives at this point because he cares for her above all else. Miranda, elevated onto a higher plane, has another viewpoint.

 

Review

 

If there exists an award for the ‘best set design’ for the Fringe it should go to Miriam Nabarro and Any Yardley of Theatre6 who have transformed the cavernous dimensions of a factory unit into Prospero’s island. The superlatives cannot be found to describe the dynamic nature of their creation in which the water itself becomes a character in the enactment of Prospero’s colossal parental failure of Mirand. The rippling effects picks up Vivienne Clavering’s lighting design magically. As the hauntingly beautiful original musical composition by Danyal Dhandy is mixed with it, the audience is in no doubt that ‘the elements’ are far more powerful than mere mortals who like Prospero have believed in the past that they can be ‘mastered’.

 

Tarek Iskander’s vision of a different Prospero, defined by his fathering and education of Miranda strips away at all the artifice of Shakespeare’s last comedy.  As you hear the lines of the original play you sit uncomfortably wanting to protest ‘hang on a sec’ that’s not right! That curse was meant for Caliban not Prospero or that line was meant as a compliment not as an accusation. What do you mean that Ferdinand wasn’t what he seemed? The rearrangement of the text is in itself the disorientation towards a different Prospero who should have taken better care of his daughter.

 

In one sense it might seem moralistic and small-minded to accuse Prospero of being a rotten father. And then it hits you! In accepting the Shakespeare’s character clad with his powerful coat and staff we are in danger of accepting his divine right to manipulate everyone and everything. What if we were to view that power through just one role, over someone who did not ask to be brought to the island any more than she asked to be born, his daughter. Someone barely recognisable stands before us: a desperate man calling on his daughter to speak to him, to listen to him in order to rationalise his actions. The cloak and staff are nowhere to be seen. His rags and childish stone toys defining is irresponsibility towards his daughter and his own Kingdom of Milan.

 

I remained uncomfortable at times with the way in which Tarek Iskander (mis)used Shakespeare’s text. There were times, in fact, that I felt the logic of both the content and context of the Tempest was stretched to breaking point. This was made more obvious because of the wonderful acting of Peter Stephens and Emily Tucker as Prospero and Miranda.  Their rich voices working each nuanced meaning between the pair who seemed likely to remained imprisoned on the island for eternity. The acting skill needed to create a sense of intimacy while working on two different levels at quite a distance from each other was also obvious.  In effect, they were enacting two solo performances while reacting and reflecting on every word the other character spoke. Both performers coloured and shaped their performances with detailed movements, gestures and facial expression.  But despite their skills, the language still seemed to strain and pull against itself into another kind of artificial set of meanings, no less directorial than in Shakespeare’s Prospero and Tempest. But surely, the space to fail is as important as to succeed when working on the fringe….

 

Do all you can to see this rare and wonderful production. Go on an adventure as I did to E9 5EN and re-invigorate your mind, heart and soul on seeing the reason why fringe theatre exists in first place.

 

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi Wednesday 28th September, 2011

Website :

http://the-yard.co.uk/site/

This ends on Saturday so hurry to see it.

 

Of Mice And Men

Of Mice And Men 

 

Genre: Drama

Venue: The Brockley Jack Studio Theatre 410 Brockley Road Brockley London SE4 2DH

 

Low Down

 

On seeing students at the matinee performance I attended of the Jack Studio Theatre’s Of Mice And Men, I reflected on Steinbeck’s text in classrooms all around the world: each encounter with the story of George and Lennie provoking young minds to consider the harsh truths about our human vulnerability: Lennie with his ‘slow’ brain; Candy with his amputated hand; and Crooks with his broken back symbols of a deeper and more pernicious malaise. The extraordinary events of the Great Depression ironically giving rise to desperate dreams for a better life. As the audience come into the theatre, they encounter the world of 1930s rural California and those bad times: wonderfully evoked through broken wooden fences and a hessian sandbagged river embankment, the elegant simplicity of Linden’s realization of the play before them.

 

Review

 

The Jack’s production of Of Mice and Men held many refreshing surprises. The first was the effect of the pre-set on the audience entering the theatre: hues of the rustic, broken landscape seem to evoke reverence, as the practical need to be that little bit more cautious in finding a seat in dimmed light set the tone to carefully pay attention to the performance space as well. Jess Bennett’s set design expressionistically formed another country before us, like a world poised just above our everyday experience: held stretched out between the sky and the earth in sepia tones and soft greys.

 

The struggle to dream for something better is ever dignified in the play’s presentation of impossible relationships: firstly in George’s and Lennie’s friendship as George takes ‘care’ of Lennie and Lennie tries to be ‘just right’ for George. Their struggle to remain together sets the tone for the drama, and is exploited through Curly’s relationship to his restless, unsatisfied wife; Crook’s ‘the nigger’ relationship to the white workers; right down to old Candy’s relationship with his stinking, disease-ridden dog.

 

The style of performance from the ensemble of nine actors is physically beautiful to observe: it seems almost choreographed rather than ‘blocked’ in the space. Adam Diggle’s Lennie, for instance, moves from tall, upright and bouncing to falling about on the ground. By contrast, Tarl Capple’s George darts vigilantly here and there, squatting onto his knees, thinking what to do next for both himself and Lennie. It did cross my mind if perhaps assistant director, Hugo Carosa’s training with Phillippe Genty and other non-naturalistic practitioners might have been harnessed by director Linden:  to augment the play’s vision of internal struggles as well as physical hardship. The attention to physical detail on the actors’ bodies was marvelous: Candy’s missing hand; Crook’s broken back; Lennie’s holding of the mouse and puppy; and Slim’s cleaning of leather.

 

Ultimately, the sense of choreographed movement seems to bring together the two intersecting lines of tragedy in the play: the one poised around Lennie’s extraordinary physical strength and the other precipitated by the desires of Curly’s wife for intercourse – for a conversation, a touch and, dangerously, more. As George and Lennie are travelling towards their dream homestead, Curly’s wife is on her way to Hollywood to fulfill her dreams for a better life: better, that is, than the one bequeathed by her mother which has lead her to marriage and life with Curly.

 

The mouse, the puppy and the wife-with-no-name are held in Lennie’s grasp and all are killed. As both a victim and violent agent himself, the ‘mentally retarded’ Lennie highlights the indiscriminate nature of social and economic destruction presented in the world of the play. The clarity of direction ensures that the audience doesn’t miss any detail of how the tragedy is unfolding moment for moment. The transition from scene to scene is a transformative experience: the actors’ singing of American spiritual and folk songs like ‘Shall We Gather At The River’ ensures that practical need is folded back into the play’s symbolic unfolding. Again, the physical setting performs an expressionistic role as the river embankment is rearranged into the bunk-house, then Crook’s room with the animals in the stable only to return again to the river’s edge.

 

I was genuinely sorry not to have viewed this production until the end of its run. I recommend that if serious theatre audiences have not discovered The Jack Studio Theatre in South London yet that they must do so and support Tanith Linden’s extraordinary talent: cast, crew and producers of the Jack exemplify how great theatre is created on ‘the fringe’.

 

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi Wednesday 21st September, 2011

Website :

http://www.brockleyjack.co.uk/index.html

 

J’ai Deux Amours: The Josephine Baker Story

J’ai Deux Amours: The Josephine Baker Story 

 

Genre: Musical Theatre

Venue: Etcetera Theatre 265 Camden High Street London NW1 7BU

 

Low Down

 

Cush Jumbo received a standing ovation from many members of the audience at the Etcetera Theatre on the opening night of her one-woman show J’ai Deux Amours: The Josephine Baker Story. There were many good reasons I could see for this: her great singing voice, her versatility in taking on different characters while telling Josephine Baker’s biography and, above all, her engaging energy. While acknowledging these qualities, however, my reaction to her presentation of Josephine Baker herself was less enthusiastic: mainly because in the end I felt that I came to know and feel little more about Baker than I’d already pick up over the years about her extraordinary life in both America and France – her Deux Amours.

 

Review

 

As previous critics have noted, Cush Jumbo is clearly one of London’s great young actors. Her versatile performance skills show an all singing, dancing and acting talent with high energy and tremendous focus and concentration. But on choosing Josephine Baker as her subject she chose a subject who continues to be difficult to contain in any story depicting her rise to fame. For this reason, Cush Jumbo’s depiction of Baker, virtually from the start of her life in a childhood of poverty to just moments before she dies at 68 as an extremely famous person, is extraordinarily ambitious.

 

The encounter between ‘the young woman from Lewisham’ watching the glamorous star on the screen at the start of the show holds the delightful promise of a personal relationship between two ambitious women which I thought was about to be explored: but once the switch is made into the Josephine Baker role, the young English girl is forgotten until the end. In her place, Cush Jumbo performs Baker largely in chronological sequence, after enacting her acceptance speech on being awarded the Croix de Guerre, Légion d’Honneur and Rosette of the Résistance for her bravery during WW2 and another scene in which she is refused entrance through the front door of New York’s Rosemount Hotel. The Rosemount Hotel scene is particularly strong in the way it shows racism as a kind of skin-prickling and gut-wrenching physical attack on her person as she listens to the porter’s request that she use the back entrance.

 

After this, the chronological sequence shows a poignant portrayal her parent’s turbulent relationship and how her mother sees young Josephine as competing for her husband’s affections. Dressed in a dirty, ragged non-descript gown, young Josephine McDonald ‘dances’ through her story as she watches her sad mother lives on tiny ‘little bits of happiness’ of the occasional soft embrace from her largely absent partner.

 

From this point onwards the scenes come as a series of ever climbing moments to success and fame: her job waitressing at The Old Chauffeur’s Club; her first marriage to Willie Wells, then her pregnancy and delivery of a stillborn daughter at 13; her subsequent divorce from Willie and return to work at Chauffeur’s Club and meeting her second husband, another Willie but this time Willie Baker, from whom she receives her famous surname. At this stage of the show, the audience receives an exhibition of Cush Jumbo the versatile dancer of tap and chorus line as she tells the story of moving from dancing on the street to a small theatre in St Louis to a stage in New York and then to Paris.

 

The rapid succession of scenes is dizzyingly rapid and I felt that the show could have benefited from changes of pace.  Instead, the showy energy minimises some extraordinary facts of Baker’s life in order to get across the broad expanse of her life. Most alarmingly, as a writer Cush Jumbo normalizes Baker’s early sexual experiences, marriage to someone fourteen years her senior, followed by pregnancy and the birth of a stillborn daughter as a kind of ‘step one’ and the bottom-most rung of climbing the ladder towards her fame. In fact, nothing about her sexuality  – her promiscuity and bisexuality  – is dealt with in any substantial way. I recognize the problems of what material is included or cut from a biographical performance project. But why, for instance, do Josephine Baker’s two American husbands get presented to the audience and not her two subsequent European ones – Frenchman Jean Lion (from whom she attained French citizenship) and French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon in 1947 (who helped to raise her 12 adopted children)? Couldn’t these relationships have served in further exploring J’ai Deux Amours and Baker as an American and a French citizen?

 

Perhaps the most problematic treatment in the show is Cush Jumbo’s handling of La Baker’s ‘savage’ nude dances that was the reason for Baker’s notoriety in the first place. The strength of describing the dance through its rhythmic beats is again promising. Yet, the question of nudity itself is passed off in American sitcom fashion as an outraged Baker comes to terms with the word ‘nude’ spoken through the speech inflections of her French theatre manager.  To suggest that Baker was innocently caught up in the world of the Paris nightlife is not sustainable: nudity is at the heart of Josephine Baker’s performance history and inseparable from the subject of skin colour and ethnicity. Josephine Baker, the Amazonian statuesque woman on screen that we view at the end of the play is a jolt to the senses, one which reminded me how different she was from the innocent and polite portrayal of her which Cush Jumbo gives us in her rendition.

 

Undoubtedly, Cush Jumbo has ample material to create an entire musical on Josephine Baker’s life. As it is at present, the show is worthy viewing becauseof the extraordinary talent of Cush Jumbo herself.  I look forward to seeing if she can realize more of the complex and problematic Josephine Baker in the next version of her project.

 

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi Tuesday 20 September 2011

Website :

http://etceteratheatre.com/

 

Constance

Constance 

 

Genre: Comedy Drama

Venue: King’s Head Theatre  115 Upper St  Islington LONDON N1 1QN

 

Low Down

 

Kate Youde’s article on ‘Oscar Wilde’s Lost Play’ in The Independentin July this year outlines artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s rationale for producing Constance at the King’s Head. The play is a “major discovery” as it is “the only play written by Wilde…after his fall from success and imprisonment for gross indecency with men. It is a Wilde we have never seen before on stage, and that is why it is so important and ought to be included in his collected works.”
 

Review

 

On arriving at the theatre on Friday night, the assumption that Constance should be viewed as a play-within-the-real-life-drama of Wilde’s tragic post-prison life is substantiated by the attached one-pager accompanying the theatre programme: the audience have in their hand a chronology of events from Wilde’s creation of the play’s scenario in 1894 through to the King’s Head Theatre’s realisation of director Marc Urquhart’s current world premiere production.

It is certainly an intriguing history which includes: Wilde’s selling his play to an American actress; her bequeathing of the script to a French writer; the original script destroyed by the French resistance during WW2; then author and theatre critic Charles Osborne’s translation of the French back into English in 1994. It is this reconstitute text that Marc Urquhart uses for his production. So how can it be, as Urquhart claims, a ‘new, untouched and virgin’ play by Oscar Wilde?  Wilde’s son stated in 1954 that “the dialogue has the authentic stamp of my father” while, according to Kate Youde, John Stokes, emeritus professor of English at King’s College, urges “caution about assuming these were Wilde’s exact words.”

While the authentication of Oscar Wilde exact words are disputed, what seems clear from the direction, the design and the performances ofConstance is that it is a production revelling in the style of Oscar Wilde: the drawing room setting, the fin de siècle costumes and the clearly drawn portrayal of class and gender through characters whose satirical quips rarely miss their intended targets. Just as in Importance Of Being Earnest and Ideal Husband, the dialogue is simultaneously acerbic, witty and stunningly insightful.

The strength of the current production is the strong ensemble of ten actors who clearly understand comic timing:  the placement of their characters’ conscious remarks and unconscious revelations is very well done. The roles that stand out are the Duchess by Tamara Hinchco, Daventry by James Vaughan and the Reverend George by Bradley Cole: but really each and every actor makes a strong impression. Elle Beaven’s Constance is a clearly defined portrayal of a ‘good woman’ in an ensemble of hard and showy others like Deborah Blake as Lady Virginia (widow of the Duchess’s older son) and Delia (the former chorus girl and now wife of Reverend George). Both the laughter and gasps of horror at the many sexist and racist comments throughout the play showed that the audience was kept entertained.

But there is nothing novel about the interpretation of the play: the presentation of the late nineteenth century is familiar to us andreconfirms assumptions of that era as one of suppressed sexual desire, the emergence of the ‘new woman’ and of class struggle. Though, even by the impossibly high moral standards of that time, the world of the play seems even more extreme: one in which marital relationships are the most impossible if you want to be happy and sexually fulfilled.

For this reason, Urquhart’s choice to stay with Wilde’s usual naturalistic style doesn’t quite make sense. If, as he proposes there’s “nothing else like” Constance in Wilde’s collected works, then why not exploit the play’s extreme presentation of disastrous marriages through non-naturalistic dramaturgical effects?

Ellie Beaven’s portrayal of Constance’s as the ‘ideal wife’ is unproblematic and modern as a woman who comes into her own desires and finally acts on them: a kind of Nora Helmer of theDoll’s House who gets to have a life! But what is the audience to do with the fact that she achieves her new life only through her patroness the Duchess? What of the fact that she goes from one rich husband to another: from Daventry the rich industrialist to Gerald, the Duchess’s second son and only heir? What exactly is her ‘constancy’ in such a hypocritical society? Why not push the issue of the complicity of women as ‘God’s police’ in such a repressed society? Despite Urquhart’s reference to the matter in its publicity, the director doesn’t give expression to Wilde’s vision of the society that imprisoned him for his sexuality.

From the reactions I heard around me, the audience seemed to recognise characters as Oscar Wilde ‘types’: the matriarch Lady Bracknell type for the Duchess and the youthful lovers for Constance and Gerald. But the characterisation remained only stereotypical as most relationships remained undeveloped. How does the sweet Constance get together with the crass Daventry or the chorus girl Delia with the Reverend George? The contrasting coupling seemed more like caricatures of Wilde’s great plays which made the play seem rather lengthy and pointless

I applaud King’s Head Theatre’s for staging this very interesting ‘new’ Wilde play and I believe that its strong cast of actors will make the production tighter and more edgy as the season continues. But, I don’t believe that the vision of the production as a ‘different’ kind of Wilde play has been fulfilled. I remain intrigued how the playwright’s art was changed after spending two years in prison for his private sexual pleasures.

 

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi Friday 16th September 2011

Website :

http://www.kingsheadtheatre.com/main.html

I would like to record the appreciative ‘ahhh’  from dog-lovers in the audiences as Tickets Doreen Edna Spreadbury-Maher entered the stage

Lost Theatre’s One Act Festival

Lost Theatre’s One Act Festival 

 

Genre: Short Plays

Venue: LOST Theatre Company 208 Wandsworth Road London SW8 2JU

 

Low Down

 

The Bush and Orange Tree theatres are celebrating significant anniversaries this year. Likewise, the Lost Theatre’s twenty-six year history of producing its one-act festival marks its importance as a company that has tirelessly supported the development of new writing and young performing artists.  The process that begins in March and leads onto the Winner’s Week in September is quintessential ‘fringe theatre’ in its nurturing of young talent.

 

Review

 

The One-Act Festival’s Winner’s Week performances were presented in the following order: Almost 1 Million by Roding Valley High School for Best Direction; The Winning Crowd by Alan Fielden for Best Cast; and Suffer the Little Children by Jamie Chandler for Best Writing. Each play was introduced by a MC and was commented on after its conclusion by festival adjudicator andTimes theatre critic, Mr Jeremy Kingston. Mr Kingston also made the trophy presentation to the winners. An interval came after each act.

 

 

The winner for Best Direction in 2011, Almost 1 Million, was a devised drama by Year 10 students of Roding Valley High School in Loughton.  Drama teacher & winner of best director Jenny Parsons’ attention to detail was exemplary. Her use of isolated body movement – from twitches to repeated choric gestures – was wonderful to observe throughout the presentation of many fractured episodes whose components were arranged and rearranged to show the implications for the UK’s ‘almost 1 million’ unemployed. Parsons’ young cast did not miss a beat. Despite, their strained voices, they pulled off their presentation with highly disciplined moves, interesting costuming and an inventive use of the space.

 

The winner for Best Cast category went to The Winning Crowd. The play took as its subject the obsession with remaining happy and how such a condition can lead to absurd and violent situations.  Director and playwright Alan Fielden created a surreal world in which, eight extremely happy individuals, with all the emotional depth of cardboard cut-outs, gave ridiculously inappropriate responses to cataclysmic moments in their lives: for instance, terminal illness, unfaithfulness and the sickness and death of children  Charlotte Baker, Pandora McCormick, Tyson Douglas, Loukia Pierides, Sara Griffin, Luke Stevenson, Vincent Williams and Brett John perform as an exceptional ensemble and hold the fast moving action with great sense of timing.

 

The final performance was Suffer the Little Children by Jamie Chandler. Chandler both wrote and performed this winner of Best Writing category.  The play is based around the theme of children killing children and the action is from the point of view of one of the offenders. The cleverness of the writing, however, does not reveal that the character on stage is any one other than a young man who is dressing up for an important occasion in his life.  The first clues that that he may be in prison cell and heading for a court appearance comes very gradually: for instance, the audience notices that he does not have a belt for his suit trousers. Revelations about his part in murdering a child are given as he chatters casually while readying himself. Its strange innocence is carefully development by the playwright as the audience witness his childish temper and his desperation to remain in relationship with his co-offender, someone who he explains is more like a brother to him.

 

Despite the good work evident on the night, I felt the Lost Theatre missed an opportunity to receive the kudos it deserves for the One Act Festival. The theatre’s website, for instance, has little more than FAQs and the rules and regulations for prospective entrants for the festival. There are no images of the work the theatre company put in to realise the festival event, particular the hard work of members of the theatre responsible for providing its vision.  The audience also seemed exclusively made up of family and friends, a fact which doesn’t quite seem right since the event has been running for twenty-six years.

 

Now that it’s over for 2011, I recommend that Lost Theatre reconceptualise its advertising and presentation of the One Act by better communicating its creative process and sharing with prospective audiences the difference it has made, and continues to make, to the development of young artists.

 

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi Friday 9th September 2011

Website :

http://www.losttheatre.co.uk/

 

 

The Amazing Vancetti Sisters

The Amazing Vancetti Sisters 

 

Genre: Drama

Venue: Tristan Bates Theatre 1A Tower St, Covent Garden WC2H 9NP

 

Low Down

 

Children do not ask to be born. The majority of children are ‘treasured’ but some, sadly, experience growing into adulthood as a kind of death-defying act which they are lucky to survive. Athena Stevens’ The Amazing Vancetti Sisters shows sisters Jane and Elisa dealing with the legacy of being born to the ‘Great Vernon Vancetti’, a Las Vegas magician: the originality and power of her playwriting forges an epic struggle for self-determination. In her play’s presentation of an illusionary ‘magic childhood’, the sisters become anyone and everyone who struggle to become independent and fulfilled human beings.

 

Review

 

The fact that the eighty minute Amazing Vancetti Sisters does not have an interval is entirely appropriate: as is its cohesion of one location, set in the lounge room of the Vanzetti family home, coupled tightly with the strained tensions between the play’s three characters. The structure of the play moves apace as it alternates between episodes of intensely entertaining dialogue between the sisters, Jane (Athena Stevens) and Elisa (Lorna Beckett); Jane and her boyfriend Michael (Timothy Knightley); Elisa and Michael and scenes with all three characters.

 

The strength of Steven’s characterisation is in the physicality of the acting on stage: movements, gestures and utterances are crafted in detail. Brecht and his acting method ‘gestus’ comes to mind, but so does watching the subtly of a Chekhovian comedy.  These complex, well-defined characters are also pitted against the virtual presence of newsreaders and actors whose voices are heard, but not seen, from the television box. And if this is not enough, the virtual characters are augmented by other remembered characters who are merely called up by name such as the sisters’ now dead father Vernon Vancetti and his apprentice, Adam or appear as generalised categories like Michael’s ‘other women’ and ‘the people’ of the small town of Baker who Elisa believe are constantly judging her. Though not present, these characters wield a strange illusionary power in the play: their effect on the relationships of the characters on stage packs even more tension between them.

 

 

By far the most influential character in the play is the father Vernon Vancetti whose work as a magician sets up the pivotal relationship between the two sisters. The older sister, Elisa, is overlooked for the young one, Jane, when Vernon with Prospero-like acumen decides the role each will play in his act: Elisa is to be backstage playing piano while Jane is to remain with him on stage as his support act.

 

Lorna Beckett’s portrays Elisa with a cold steely fixation that is reflected on stage through her obsessive cleaning. All emotion is masked by rambling chatter about removing spots from carpets. The director, Hanna Berrigan, and set designer, Nicky Bunch, fully exploit her paranoia and obsessions as she is shown moving around the space pulling out the various props: an axe under the settee, diamond-studded high heels from the cupboard. These are props once used in Vernon’s act.  Their reappearance no longer assists in creating his illusions but reveals their real intent: the subjugation of his daughters’ lives to his will.

 

Athena Steven enacts Jane as Elisa’s nemesis: where Elisa is compliant, Jane is argumentative; where Elisa is dutiful, Jane is irresponsible. More importantly where Elisa has decided to remain in Baker holding onto memories of the past, Jane will have none of them. The portrayal of the sisters through oppositional characteristics is complexly layered. The ethical dimension of what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ between them is thrown out to the audience to decide. It is not an easy thing to do as Steven’s presents Jane to be as fiercely manipulative as the father whom she is trying to convince her sister to abandon, even if only now in memory.

 

Tim Knightley’s Michael is appropriately confused, as anyone would be if they fall between two combative sisters with a long history of family dysfunction. The actor’s restraint shows his skill at working in an ensemble. Stevens explodes his role as an Adonis-like hedonist bartender working at a strip-club as well. Michael is given one of the most moving monologues of the play when he explains Magic isn’t when people disappear… it’s when they come back’.  The transformative effect on the fiercely independent Jane is subtle and totally believable.

 

I recommend that you run and buy your tickets and see The Amazing Vancetti Sisters.  It is a beautifully intelligent piece of theatre that gives its audience a profound experience of human resilience and personal courage.  The term ‘family dysfunction’ somehow can no more describe what you will view on stage than it canKing Lear and his belligerent daughters. The truth is more that there are some stories that just take us somewhere else in our hearts, mind and soul. This is one of them.

 

 

 

 

 

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi Thursday 8th September 2011

Website :

www.tristanbatestheatre.co.uk

 

 

http://aegisproductions.co.uk/

Director: Hanna Berrigan

Cast: Lorna Beckett, Timothy Knightley, Athena Stevens

 

 

Set designer: Nicky Bunch; Lighting: David Plater

 

The Tempest

 

Antic Disposition’s Tempest marks the 400th anniversary of the first recorded performance of the play before James I at Whitehall Palace in 1611. While that venue now no longer exists, the Middle Temple Hall’s direct link to another first performance of a Shakespearean play, Twelfth Night, in 1602, is crucial for maintaining historic and artistic links between the 2011 production and the Elizabethan theatre.

Antic Disposition’s Tempest shows how, as theatre designer Richard Southern’s (1968) claims, the Elizabethan theatre works as a ‘stage IN an audience’. As in the Globe, the performance space in the large, rectangular-shaped Middle Temple Hall is surrounded by the audience on three sides:  ‘the stage’ runs lengthwise from its entrance to the end of the hall, before finishing in front of a tiered seating area. Two rows of seats run parallel along its sides, beginning half way down the hall. This means that hall’s entrance doubles as both the upstage stage entrance and the doors through which the audience enter to get to their seats.

On entering, the audience find themselves ‘on stage’. Arguably, those who know The Tempest’s story see the cargo-like boxes strewn across the area and are reminded of the opening storm scene and shipwreck. Others less familiar with the tale, perhaps just experience the sombre lighting and irregularly placed boxes which make walking in the space unsettling as they decide the direction to their seat. The effect of Prospero’s magic island has begun viscerally and is already affecting a sea change. And so, director, Ben Horslen, and designer, John Risebero proceed to dismantle Elizabethan stage convention by using a mirror image of the Elizabethan stage to reflect The Tempest in contemporary ways.

The storm scene that opens The Tempest is effectively realised through use of a large white rope, which gives form to the both the wild weather battering the ship and the interference by an arrogant group of passengers who impair the crew’s ability to save the ship. The tension between elemental forces and human arrogance sets the tone of the play as predominantly political rather than ‘magical’.

The storm over, the audience now looks upon an argument between a daughter and a father, Miranda and Prospero. Curiously she is clothed in a plain, soiled dress that makes her look wild and unkempt while, her father is dressed in the cleanest and finest of clothes, complete with stunning coat of gold and sky blue. As the play proceeds, the difference in costuming becomes emblematic of Prospero’s relationship with the island and its inhabitants.  By the end of the play, we acknowledge that he is far more like the imperious characters that he seems to have arranged to be stranded on the island with him. By contrast, Miranda’s appearance and demeanour depict her as far more like the two ‘natives’ of the island, Ariel and Caliban.

Richard Franklin presents Prospero with extraordinary restraint. He is a gentle father who is preparing his headstrong daughter to leave the island and return to civilisation. He recognises the island’s effect on her: she is intelligent, strong and self-possessed.  Ami Sayers is stunningly good in the role: every word and movement are expressed with understanding, and she finds new meanings in many difficult passages.

Miranda’s strength also seems to affect the way Prospero is depicted as a magician. This can be viewed particularly through his interactions with Ariel: beginning from Ariel’s report on how he affected the storm through to all his interventions around the island, highlight Prospero’s dependency on him. The end confirms Ariel as the real spirit of the island and the one who enables Prospero to be reconciled to his past life and return to Milan.

Arguably, such an effective overturning of Prospero as the island’s master is made possible by a crucial editing out of the former Duke and would-be magician’s constant and imperious demand that Ariel obeys him since it was his magic that freed the spirit from the witch’s (Scoriax) spell.

Christopher Rowland’s Ariel is inspiring to watch.  His sense of space defines the island, and through him, the audience views the stage magic of moving and lighted boxes on stage. His singing channels James Burrows’ superb atmospheric music that brings another dimension to the play, though it seems as if Ariel is the music’s immediate composer as well as its instrument on stage.

The detailed rearrangement and altering of dramatic conventions seen in the three key roles of Prospero, Miranda and Ariel are evident throughout the production. We see it in the depiction of brotherly relationships (Prospero/Antonio, Alonso /Sebastian). We see it in the relationship between parents and children (Miranda/ Ferdinand), as well as between servants and masters (Gonzalo/ Trinculo/ Stephano/ Caliban).

The strength of Antic Disposition’s ensemble of actors is built on the strength of their clear understanding and use of Shakespeare’s script, imbued with stage direction embedded in its poetic language. Every performer in The Tempest exploited this convention and delivered surprising new meanings to the text. There were no weak performers in this production.

I recommend that Antic Disposition’s The Tempest deserves to be viewed widely, nationally and internationally, achieving well-deserved milestones along the way.  I warrant that it will be one of the best productions of the play audiences will see for a long time.

CREDITS: Tony Austin/ Caliban; Ben Benson/Boatswain & Trinculo; Maurice Byrne: Alonso; Callum Coates: Antonio; Richard Franklin/ Prospero; Alexander Jonas/ Sebastian; David Pibworth: Master of the ship & Stephano; Robin Rightmyer/ Ferdinand; Christopher Rowland / Ariel; Ami Sayers/ Miranda; Tony Wredden/ Gonzalo.

Directors: John Risebero & Ben Horslen; Designer: John Risebero; Lighting Designer: Howard Hudson; Music: James Burrows

Richard Southern (1968) The Seven Ages of the Theatre; with line drawings by the author (2nd ed.)

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi Saturday, 3rd September

 http://www.anticdisposition.co.uk/the-tempest.html

http://www.middletemple.org.uk/the_inn/History_of_the_Inn

The Conspirators

The Conspirators 

 

Genre: Comedy Drama

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre, 1 Clarence Street, Richmond, Surrey TW9 2SA  

 

Low Down

 

Sam Walters & The Orange Tree Theatre’s relationship with Vaclav Havel reveals a long and fruitful history, so its fitting that the artistic director stages the UK premiere ofThe Conspirators to begin the theatre’s 40th anniversary season. The play is a political satire, which Havel completed in 1971,  a rather neat excuse for a double celebration.  Part soap opera and part vaudeville, it portrays how a dystopia’s powerful elite pursues and plots against ‘conspiracy theories’.  Dramatic ironies ripple down through successive scenes like dominoes. The audience, placed in a position of viewing how imagined plots actually destroy the Rule of Law, comes to understand how would-be saviours of the State have their conspiracy theories confirmed and ‘the enemy’ – in Havel’s play the tyrant Olah – returns to rule again!

 

Review

 

 

The Conspirators is structured episodically around the home of a wealthy citizen (Helga & family), and offices of the judiciary (Dykl the Chief Prosecutor & other judges) and the police (Moher, Chief of Police & body guards). These three locations draw in a large ensemble of characters: five characters consisting of the rich widow Helga, the Chief of Police Moher, the Major Ofir, the State Prosecutor Dykl and the Censor Aram assemble, in various configurations, in every scene. In contrast, the poor prisoner Alfred Stein is limited to the Colonel’s office for interrogation & torture and the democratically elected Prime Minister is managed through the Chief Prosecutor and the Chief of Police.

 

The State we view on stage is unnamed geographically and the term ‘new democracy’ in 1971 (as in 2011) could have been applied to many places in South America, Eastern Europe and Africa. Havel’s dystopia is nonetheless easily identified as a society where choice and debate threaten those with vested interests. Consequently, the lead characters representing the politically powerful are continually looking for ‘strong’ and simple solutions.  To show their single-mindedness, Havel portrays them as performing certain actions and speeches repeatedly. This makes their paranoia seem simultaneously both more comic and sinister as it blends with an ethos of violence and sexual perversion for political gain.

 

The Conspirators was the first play that Havel wrote after his work had been banned in Czechoslovakia and that it took him five years to complete. Havel’s personal experience of a regime whose fears had given rise to conspiracy theories cannot be underestimated.

 

Sam Walter’s interpretation of Havel’s play as a naturalistic drawing-room comedy seems to work against his theatre’s configuration as theatre-in-the-round. There are too many scene-changes which require large pieces of furniture to be moved again and again. This results in unacceptable gaps in flow of entrances and exits on stage. Perhaps, more importantly, the set design and lighting undermine the pressurized political atmosphere which the characters are attempting to create through the Havel’s dialogue.  As a result, for instance,  Helga’s (Lucy Tregear) sexual manipulations of the Major, the Colonel and the Prosecutor remains virtually unrealizable.

 

Robyn Wilson’s costuming also seemed to be inconsistent:  sometimes realistically defining a particular time period and class of character and then, for other characters suggesting a non-naturalistic iconic effect.  For instance, the prisoner Stein wore the classic ‘old fashioned’ white and black-arrowed penal suit but had perfectly new and modern runners for footwear.   Military and police uniforms ranged from sword-carrying officer attire to jungle-camouflage.  Helga’s chic Paris frock in autumnal colours and her little girl shoes with pretty bows made her look like a modern woman. Its straight slim line looked totally unsuited for her sado-machistic scenes with the Colonel: surely in real life such a dress would have been taken off in order to run about as aggressively as is her desire.

 

Nonetheless, the production contains many good performances. Christopher Ravenscroft as Dykl the State Prosecutor was superb. He seems to build his character in detail in both a physical and symbolic sense and delivers a very fine representation of a powerful man past his potency. In doing so, Ravenscroft captures the failed sense of justice in the State in every part of his presentation. He shows how conspirators are often idealists who come to embody their unrealized passions, together with their loss of courage. The other impressive performance for me was the Censor whose depiction of inane stupidity flags the simpleminded pursuit of fear-driven power.

 

The Conspirators is a bold choice for a play which Orange Tree Theatre has chosen to launch its 40th anniversary. Despite some concerns with its direction and design, the production is worth viewing. Such political and artistic wisdom by both the Czechoslovakian playwright and Orange Tree is worth embracing.

 

 

 

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi Friday 3rd September 2011

Website :

www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk

Wittenberg

Wittenberg 

 

Genre: Comedy Drama

Venue: The Gate Theatre (Above the Prince Albert Pub) 11 Pembridge Road, London, W11 3HQ

 

Low Down

 

The programme verifies that the location before me represents Wittenberg, a place that changes the history of European Christiandom when in 1517 Martin Luther nails 95 theses (arguments) to the Castle Church door refuting Rome’s right sell his German parishioners indulgences (a kind of down payment for the remission for sins). More importantly, in doing so, he questions the Church’s spiritual authority… and so the Reformation begins. It is also clear from the outset of the play that Wittenberg is a university town, which is important enough location to have lived in Christopher Marlowe’s and William Shakespeare’s imaginations when they connected their tragic heroes, Faustus and Hamlet respectively, to it.

 

Review

 

Opening the theatre programme, it is striking how quickly the subtitle for David Davalos’s Wittenberg of “A Tragical-Comical-Historical in Two Acts” propels thoughts of Polonius and his feigning intellectualism in Act 2, Scene 2 of Hamlet as he advises young Hamlet on “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited”.  And then comes further and more worrying thoughts. Does that mean that there will be a good deal of ‘spotting historical and literary allusion’ for the rest of the evening? Hasn’t Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern shown us enough about using Elizabethan stagecraft to explore the existentialist angst?

 

However the questions are quickly dismissed as we encounter the stage design, a set consisting of dilapidated and dusty shelving, religious paintings and a crucifix or two. A damaged and dirty heraldic crest hangs gingerly at the centre of a curtained proscenium arch which resembles the curtained area on an Elizabethan theatre.

What kind of a playwright does Wittenberg make Davalos? Comic-Absurdist? Tragi-Brechtian? What is obvious from the programme is that Davalos’s fascination with history and with the European literary canon are a major part of his dramaturgy as the play superbly shows the tensions involved in measuring truth and authenticity alongside realising an entertaining stage play.

 

The linchpin of the drama is the trio of characters Father Martin Luther (Andrew Frame), Hamlet(Edward Franklin) and Dr John Faustus (Sean Campion) who together create a novel unholy ‘trinity’  as both Luther and Faustus claim Hamlet ‘as a son’. Hamlet, on the other hand, is not so clear which ‘father’ he should obey: the priest or the philosopher (or that matter his Royal father back in Denmark)?

 

From my viewing, in placing these known histories and fictional stories within his own invented narrative of university life at Wittenberg, Davalos repositions the key dramatic elements of ‘time’ ‘space’ and ‘action’ in his play in as in a kaleidoscope. There is a hard-edged definition and a disciplined logic to each episode in the play’s two-act structure.  For instance, Hamlet‘s ‘antic disposition’ is give a subtle origin with breath-takingly metaphorical power as the audience becomes aware that the young prince’s reading of Copernicus’s thesis in Poland faces him with the total revision of scientific law as it had been known since antiquity.

 

Davalos’s attention to anachronistic elements within the play’s metatheatrical structure comically replaces sixteenth century objects like the comic creators of the Stone Age in the Flintstones. However, in Wittenberg the analogy is invariably in terms of live performance evoking either the Elizabethan stage itself – the trapdoor, the appearance of ghostly characters –  or one of its derivatives such as Faustus’s Brechtian –styled cabaret act.

 

Conversely, Davalos also maintains dramatic tension by disrupting obvious parallels, creating moments of surprise. For instance, it is Faustus who goes around nailing notices and not the history-making Luther.  On the other hand, the fictional Helen is not depicted as Helen of Troy but as an ex-nun seduced (she says freed) by Faustus to forsake her vow of chastity. Perhaps, rather esoterically, Davalos is having a bit of an ‘in-joke’ with historians as it was Luther in real life (& not Faustus in Marlowe’s play) that marries the ex-Benedictine nun, Katharina von Bora.

 

The strength of the writing is well matched in Wittenberg in the play’s performances. Sean Campion’s Faustus and Andrew Frame’s Luther are a great partnership, with each performer seemingly calling up the best in each other. The ale-drinking bar scene was particularly outstanding as Luther explains his realisation of a loving God to his doctor & friend Faustus who in counterpoint focuses on understanding the event as a bowel movement.

 

Edward Franklin portrays a meek and gentle Hamlet . He is every mother’s frightened child and  Franklin holds the poignancy of the sensitive child amazingly well in the scene when he tells Dr Faustus that he’s been ‘born again’ in Jesus.

 

Sophie Britten as the ‘Eternal Feminine’ shows versatility in her four roles. In general, though,  I wondered why the only doubling up of parts in the play was by the actress playing two ‘whores’ (Gretchen & Helen) and two ‘madonnas’ (Mother Mary & Lady Voltemand) . Certainly, each role ‘serves’ to catapult the action of the play onto another plane – for instance, Gretchen’s receipt for bought indulgences propels Martin Luther into writing his treatises and the vision of Mary Mother of God gets the lost Hamlet to be re-born in Christ – but in my opinion, the gender politics of Wittenberg seems the least developed aspect of the play.

 

Even with this limitation noted, the experience of viewing Wittenberg is highly recommended. Its staging depicted a place where the paradoxes of religious faith and scientific truth coexist in a productive tension. Ironically at this moment in time, it is even perhaps a reminder that Christianity too had its own form of a‘Arab Spring’ beginning in a place called Wittenberg. Ultimately, Wittenberg is a magnificently contemporary drama bursting with paradoxes about our freedom of choice and our yearning for certainty.

 

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi Thursday 1st September

Website :

www.gatetheatre.co.uk