Crowning Glory

Women v Hair: Crowning Glory at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East

51YymvmlHpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This story of race, gender and hair will see you laugh, cry and fume, as an unflinchingly honest portrayal of black women dissipates the myth that we live in a post-feminist age. Explosive drama. At the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.


If you attached a Geiger counter to Somalia Seaton’s Crowning Glory, it would break the dial. The drama radiates energy, each part colliding and moving ever outwards to encompass a monumental blast that explodes the myth that we live in a post-feminist age.

Seaton presents the play as an entertaining kind of Brechtian Lehrstucke, or “learning play”, showing that the black woman’s struggle to tame her hair (with scarves, wigs and a multitude of hair products) is part of the core of her existence. The play’s seven characters present a series of first-person narratives, sometimes stylized as poetic verse, which are broken up by third-person commentary, also delivered by the characters. I found the effect utterly engaging. The contrasting personal and public worlds in which Seaton’s women exist are called up beautifully.

For instance, there’s “Pickyhead” (Toyin Aydun-Alase), part mother, part fidgety little girl, craving to be let out to play. Her monologue comically shows how it is the black mother’s fears for her “ugly” daughter that set in motion a lifetime of worrying about self-image, and what is acceptable.

Then there’s “Bounty” (Rebecca Omogbehin), a highly educated woman who gives the audience her private reactions to her public argument with other black women who criticize her for successfully integrating into a white European lifestyle. Other stories by the mixed-race “Halfbreed” (Allyson Ava-Brown), “Panther” (Lorna Brown), “Haircomb”(Sheri-An Davis) and “Bal-Ead” (T’Nia Miller) also show the public and private dimensions of women who are questioned, insulted and abused for their African looks and hair.

The play shows how many contradictions are at work here. It suggests that African women are more likely to suffer from put-downs and mistreatment from their own families, and that as young girls mature into womanhood, they often face rejection from black men who see them as less attractive than the smaller and more petite white girls they pursue.

However, Seaton shows us that women can grow stronger through adversity, through physical self-assertion and mental resistance to imposed images. So, while the play begins with the little girl “Pickyead” it ends with the Amazonian figure of Bal-Ead, dressed in red and black lingerie, who confronts her husband’s disapproval with dignity and strength.

This all-woman ensemble is very well directed by Dawn Reid, while Nick Barnes’s set design is highly inventive in underscoring the themes of the play, with multi-level angular platforms giving the effect of different kinds of pathways climbing ever higher. At one point, the levels turn into the shelving of a hairdresser’s shop comically displaying wig-wearing mannequin heads.

The play makes use of projection and film, disrupting the live performance with snippets of real women talking about their lives, their hair and the idea of beauty. Other filmed excerpts are fictional, as cast-members portray either self-advertising clueless women, giving make-up advice on YouTube, and or opinionated men, vocalising their judgements on women.

Although Seaton goes some way in revealing the shallowness of the idea that white women bear some ideal of beauty, and are more liberated than their black women, she reserves her sharpest barbs — in a play about race and gender — for black men.  There is not an enlightened, sensitive black man in sight. Even Michelle Obama appears in the filmed projections without her husband. Black men are consistently referred to as wife deserters, absent fathers and crude lovers, whose egos seem unconstrained by family rules or social expectations.

That such men exist is indisputable, but the one-dimensional view of them doesn’t sit well with the ironies, contradictions and humanity of the rest of Crowning Glory. I feel that Seaton could rework her presentation of them to incorporate some of the subtleties of character which make her female characters so appealing.

Date reviewed: Tuesday 22nd October 2013


Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain II

How Henry laughed! Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain II at the Garrick Theatre

Eight-year-old Henry takes our reviewer on a truth-seeking historical adventure. Birmingham Stage Company’s sensationally-scripted Barmy Britain II proves that satire for kids is in fine shape. At the Garrick Theatre.

The Garrick Theatre was buzzing with the energy of children, eager to see Birmingham Stage Company’sBarmy Britain II, the latest live performance of the popular television and Scholastic reading book phenomenon from Horrible HistoriesAs the wise child, Henry, aged 8, who accompanied me to the event pointed out, having followed HH since his seventh birthday, he knows that he can depend on its storytellers to give him historical facts which school books just don’t believe children can handle. Such wisdom at such a young age. I ask if he will help me rate the show afterwards. He seems unfazed by the responsibility.

After finding our seats in the stalls and, in response to Henry’s prompts, giving minute by minute announcements on when the show is due to start, we scrutinise the theatre left and right, floor to ceiling. When finally, not a moment too soon for Henry, the safety curtain rises, we view the stage set consisting of two long strips of material upstage ablaze with changing colour from stage lights. In front of the towering panels of light stand two ‘trees’, equidistant right and left of each other, loaded with props and costumes. Between them but further down, centrestage, is a multi-panelled cupboard/ cart-like contraption which becomes a source of wonder throughout the show.

I ask Henry what objects he recognizes on the stage. He points to one of the helmets hanging from the costume ‘tree’, upstage right. As natural as breathing, he then continues to say how the lighted panels, now bathed in a deep blue, look like ‘waterfalls of light’. I’m in awe of the description and ask if I can use it in my review!

Beams of dazzling magenta now frame the first performer, Anthony Spargo, of the duo who will play a host of characters between them. Spargo warms up the audience in traditional comic style, with witticisms and word puns. The laughs come throughout his routine of flinging out body parts of scalp, lungs and heart, to signal how the show will be ‘hair-raising’, ‘breath-taking’ and ‘heart-stopping’. He has Henry’s attention, his knowing smile says to me, ‘Yes! You are being as horrible as I know you can be’.

The contract between Anthony and audience is a done deal and the children cheer on the total irreverent hypothesis that Britain it a barmy place and its history proves that it’s so when suddenly and without warning, arrives the second performer, Lauryn Redding, dressed as a City of-Westminster traffic warden. She demands that our irreverent clown and his unlicensed cart ‘move on’. The wrangling between the duo cleverly introduces how the telling of history is mixed up with the social permission to speak in public and how history is contentious and complex.

The rest of the hour-long show consists of representations of key English historical figures: Queen Boudicca, Richard I (the Lionheart), Queen Bess and Queen Victoria. In between the VIPs, the audience also sees representations of ordinary people such as the barrow wheeler of medieval times who goes from house to house collecting the dead during the Black Death and the ‘Groom of the Stool’ of the Tudor era, responsible for wiping King Henry VIII’s bottom!

Terry Deary and Neal Foster craft a sensational script, which is also directed by Foster.  It is punchy and engaging, using many pantomime conventions: cross-dressing, the arrangement of popular songs with adapted lyrics, mock fighting and audience participation. Sound effects, either in the choregraphed action or within the scripted dialogue, never miss a beat and the use of dance styles such as rap, make the routines a wonderful way for the audience to travel between past and present.

Looking at Henry’s smiling face, I know he’s weathered the shocking yarns extremely well. On the other hand, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed when Henry beckons to tell me he gives the show four stars. Only four stars, I ask? He explains, ‘I didn’t like how the smoke was trying to cover up when they were changing their costumes. I could see through the smoke’. I probe a little.  What was so bad about that? Henry sticks to his point about how the smoke, for him, inadequately covers up the actors changing, barely obscured by smoke gushing from the smoke machine.

I have my own reason for giving the show four stars too due to what I feel is the show’s poor ending.  For me, it seems to abandon the dramatically interesting critical stance maintained throughout, for a fairly facile conclusion which attempts to say that our current leaders seem worse than the barmy characters presented in performance. What can the audience do with this historical comparison? Are Deary and Foster seriously putting forward that hundreds of years of English leaders who have worked for justice and democracy amount to nothing in human history?

I would have liked, in keeping with its pantomime style, a reprise that underscores the themes established by each of the Horrible Histories during Barmy Britain II. Each historical vignette was perfect in itself, beautifully constructed and presented by two extraordinarily talented young performers. In the end, I applaud their dynamic realisation of the fun of putting on a critical view of the past to better understand and interact with it in the present.

Date reviewed: Saturday 12th October 2013

The White Witch of Rose Hall

The Chilling Drama of Annie Palmer: The White Witch of Rose Hall at Broadway Theatre

A historical tale, set in the 1830s on one of Jamaica’s largest plantations. A story of power, sex and a fight for freedom, set against the backdrop of William Wilberforce’s campaign for the abolition of slavery.

The White Witch Of Rose Hall, at the Broadway Theatre, Catford, proves once again that reality can be stranger than fiction. The historical tale, set in the 1830s on one of Jamaica’s largest plantations, Rose Hall, involves a powerful plantation owner, Annie Palmer, an honourable English supporter of William Wilberforce’s abolition of slavery campaign, Robert Rutherford, and an indomitable, spirited ‘free’ black girl, Millie. The interplay between race and sexual politics that binds the characters fuels this production.

Themes of sexual jealousy and human freedom make for great drama, as writer Simon Collier’s believable characters are brought to life by a strong ensemble. Gemma Rook as Annie Palmer is a frightening figure while Tom McCarron, as the steadfastly principled Robert Rutherford, is aptly vulnerable. Alicia McKenzie’s Millie is engagingly innocent – and yet maddeningly wilful.

Robert Rutherford acts as a catalyst for emancipation when his arrival at Rose Hall precipitates a series of tragic actions, arising from the plantation workers’ sense of injustice. The slave owners exploit their power to the full, and themes of gender, race and class emerge from a brutal household, where the housekeeper is a sexual slave and the plantation owner uses male slaves for her own sexual gratification.

What playwright Simon Collier makes brilliantly clear is that even at their apparent best, the Europeans hold on to their belief of cultural supremacy: for instance, the honourable Rutherford’s treatment of Millie never once hints that he sees her as his equal. Conversely, the black slaves who are movingly characterised as dispossessed African people, show the moral compromises they are forced to make as they learn the ‘benefits’ of European civilization.

The most testing aspect of the production for me was the barbarity shown towards the slave Abraham.  His torture was horrific and I confess to turning away from watching it.  But I don’t think it is just squeamishness that worries me about the staging of the scene. The gruesomeness of showing teeth-pulling on stage challenges Collier’s decision to work in a naturalistic style – as there are inevitably compromises that have to be made. I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps it would have been more powerful to leave something to the imagination.

Another qualm concerned the unresolved way the play deals with magic and voodoo. History shows us how magic can be a proxy for knowledge – be it of the human anatomy, the human psyche, control of language or the laws of science – in that it can feed power. It has often (along with superstition) been a powerful tool in power struggles and subjugation. This was touched on, but the sense of magic belonging to a culture ‘other’ to European, was not given the depth it could have been. Apart from the customary voodoo doll, we were given few clues as to the powerful magic that has allowed Annie to survive three husbands and maintain her Rose Hall fiefdom. I longed to be surprised by Annie’s skill in creating in Rose Hall a place to trap her subjects and bend them to her will – something which could also have been aided by some more ambitious set design.

Despite these points of criticism, The White Witch of Rose Hall deserves good audiences and much applause.  It is a vital story and a solidly good play. In the fullness of time perhaps it could grow into a great one in which the Caribbean, and Jamaica in particular, is imagined as vital to the creation of an English cultural identity.

Date reviewed: Friday 11th October 2013

As You Like It

Comedy turned on its head: As You Like It at the Rose Theatre Bankside

 As You Like It, directed by Jessica Ruano, rewrites Shakespeare’s comedy by omitting the sub-plots of the play involving the comic characters of Touchstone, Corin, Silvius, Phoebe and Audrey. Her re-arranging and editing of Shakespeare’s narrativeensures that the play is re-written as a tragedy, resisting the redemptive themes in the original As You Like It text.

The Rose Bankside’s As You Like It, directed by Jessica Ruano, rewrites Shakespeare’s comedy in significant ways, mainly by omitting the sub-plots of the play involving the comic characters of Touchstone, Corin, Silvius, Phoebe and Audrey. Instead, Jaques the Melancholic gains a far more central role, with his monologue of ‘All the world’s a stage’ opening the play, cutting the first two and a half acts of the original, and reducing a 120-minute play to 75 minutes.

More significantly, the Bankside production ends with an image of death and the hunt, rather than with the comic convention of marriage, which in As You Like It sees Rosalind present, rather ironically, the woman’s view on marriage: ironic, that is, because the actor and the audience would be in on the joke that the words are spoken by a young man playing Rosalind. Instead, Jessica Ruano’s re-arranging and editing of Shakespeare’s narrative, I feel, ensures that the play is re-written as a tragedy, resisting the redemptive themes in the original As You Like It.

Of course, license to interpret Shakespeare’s texts has been the prerogative of theatre directors ever since the Restoration of English theatres in 1662. One noteworthy rearranger of Shakespeare’s plays — the American director Charles Marowitz — proudly claimed, in the mid-1980s, that his rearrangement of Hamlet, Merchant of Venice and Othello was about destroying Shakespeare’s plays like you might smash a precious old vase. Speaking of his production of Hamlet at the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre he explained that after smashing the vase in a thousand pieces, he intended to ‘take those pieces and put them back together… Shakespeare provides the vase and I provide the glue.’

I am jolted from the very outset of Ruano’s interpretation of As You Like It. I try to imagine the purpose of the production as a reconstruction of Shakespeare’s darker themes of wilful pride leading to social chaos as brother fights brother and rightful heirs are denied the inheritances they’re entitled to.  In eliminating the professional jester, Touchstone, the fools become those aimlessly pursuing true love and personal happiness in the Forest of Arden.

However, I remain unclear about what is gained by the re-arrangement. In the past, I have enjoyed the way that Touchstone, and through him Rosalind, ends up being caught up with the local country folk, Corin, Phoebe, Silvius and Audrey. To my mind, the plot complication this brings to the dramatic narrative amplifies the foolishness of the Court characters. I missed the banter, and in particular, Touchstone’s edgy risk-taking comments alongside his own foolish actions. Without him I believe what we are left observing is the immaturity of the young lovers romping about unimpeded in the forest.

I grant that such an approach may be interesting as ‘performance research’. Consequently, the production holds my interest through its use of space, particularly in lighting and sound designers Sarah Crocker and Luca Romagnoli’s, use of the watery lagoon (which conserves the foundations of the original Rose Theatre) as a backdrop of the drama. Suzanne Marie and Stacy Sobieski do a good job of portraying Rosalind and Celia as both strong and dynamic in showing young women caught up in the conflict between duty to parental demands and personal integrity.

Orlando and Jaques are also well portrayed as counter-balancing characters, by Matthew Howell and Andrew Venning. While Orlando believes in ‘true love’, Jaques has only contempt for it. However, the role of Oliver, played by Tom Hartill, was weakened by the simplified plot, so that his attraction to Aliena/ Celia seemed only to contradict his darker purpose. Similarly, the omission of Duke Frederick weakened the representation of Duke Senior and his band of forest outlaws and their need to continue to live away from the deathly advances of the younger Duke.

What we are left with is an arrangement of scenes showing that we live by sheer human will, mostly alienated and alone. With Touchstone nowhere to be seen, the space for the fool and foolish arrogance is also eliminated and the phrase ‘as you like it’ is emptied of its ironic meaning. When the play ended, with a deer being killed, I was disappointed — I’d been looking forward to hearing how laughter might sound in a re-imagined Forest of Arden.

Date reviewed: Saturday 5th October 2013