Sir Jonathan Miller dies aged 85

Photo from ENO website

How fitting that English National Opera are currently playing Sir Jonathan Miller’s delightful production of THE MIKADO, now in its 32nd year and its (I believe) fifteenth revival for the company.

More eloquent writers than me will have summarised this fascinating man’s life by now, who has been in the public eye in a variety of roles since the 1960s.

You can find many tributes and career highlights elsewhere, but I just wanted to recall the last show of his that I saw. Northern Broadsides’ production of Githa Sowerby’s RUTHERFORD AND SON toured the UK in 2013. As directed by Jonathan Miller, it gave us his compelling and insightful view on Sowerby’s devastating 1912 classic which has stayed with me to this day.

His many talents spanned numerous areas of the arts and sciences. He will be remembered as an actor, director, presenter and author of a number of books on the subjects of psychoanalysis, humour, acting and medical matters.

How bitter that a man with such an agile and capable mind should succumb to the dismantling effects of Alzheimer’s. I am sure that THE MIKADO company will pay him a fitting, rousing tribute at their final season performance this Saturday, November 30th.

Review: UNKNOWN RIVERS

UNKNOWN RIVERS plays at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs until December 7th. Details and tickets here

IN BRIEF Engaging celebration of young black women’s resilience raises the spirits

Young Nene hasn’t been out of her house for five years, since a brutal sexual assault left her with two legacies – mental health issues and a child. Helped by her devoted friend Lea, Nene ventures outside. Intricately detailed preparations (to assuage Nene’s anxiety) are derailed with the unexpected arrival of Lea’s workmate Lune. Lune is outspoken, gay, a loose cannon; she disturbs Nene, but gradually they all bond.

All three face their own challenges- community disapproval of her sexuality has caused Lune to self-harm, and Lea too feels the weight of expectation that she must have a better life than that of her parents. “I can’t let her lose her dreams (for me)”. The trio’s afternoon outing extends to the local shopping centre where familiar music causes Nene to endure a terrifying flashback to her assault. However, later at a swimming pool another experience helps Nene to face the future through immersing herself in the past.

Chinonyerem Odimba’s compassionate play focuses on the three young women and the pressures they face from both inside and outside their communities. It is clear that they are a generation of young women that have to work together to create their own community, and it is this that Odimba’s play shows us with hope and admiration for their courage.

Doreene Blackstock radiates warmth in her loving portrayal of Nene’s Mother, musing on motherhood and telling fantastical traditional, handed-down stories with a fluidity and comforting manner. The trio of young women are all played effectively; Aasiya Shah as Lune highlights her defiantly out of step approach, learning to be proud of herself and who she is; Renee Bailey as friend Lea is careful, cautious and weighted, her measured approach thrown off-balance by the arrival of Lea and gradually learning to adjust. Nneke Okoye meticulously  expresses Nene’s edgy, ultra-cautious frame of mind well as she embarks on her own journey.

Odimba’s script is engaging and warm-hearted, whilst not flinching from the hardships the characters face. What lifts it is the subtle interplay of the mystical/storytelling elements which remind us that we can all find hope in the poetry of stories.

Daniel Bailey directs with a knowing respect. Amelia Jane Hankin’s spare but surprising set works well also.

I did feel that Nene’s nightmare flashback and subsequent “renewal” was rather too rapid a dramatic transformation for someone having suffered for five years, but this small point aside, UNKNOWN RIVERS is a warm and positive celebration of the spirit and resilience of young black women, and it is very welcome. See it if you can.

UNKNOWN RIVERS plays at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs until December 7th. Details and tickets here


Radio: The drama behind the birth of the National Theatre

Broadcast this week on BBC Radio Four, THE NATIONAL is a fascinating listen. Written by Sarah Wooley, this three-part drama about the creation of the National Theatre on London’s South Bank features all the main players: Sir Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Tynan, Lord Goodman, The Lord Chamberlain, Peter Hall and Harold Pinter as well as many others.

You can listen to THE NATIONAL by clicking here

(Please note – users outside the UK may not be able to access BBC online programming – but give it a try anyway!)

Review: THE PERMANENT WAY

IN BRIEF Verbatim expose of botched rail privatisation makes for compelling, chilling viewing.

V.O.L.

It sticks in my throat and in my head.

V.O.L. The most chilling acronym in David Hare’s masterful THE PERMANENT WAY which weaves together first-hand accounts of those involved with the privatisation of British Railways in the early 1990s and its aftermath. V.O.L  means Value of Life. The financial sum that emotionally castrated corporate types nudge up and down to try to determine the financial worth of a person’s having been alive, after they have died.

I am sorry if that makes you feel as sick as it does me, but it is an integral part of David Hare’s vital public revisiting of the many hours of interviews that he and Out of Joint company undertook to weave together the story of incompetence at the heart of the rail privatisation, and of a terrifyingly quick succession of four rail disasters – Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Potters Bar- which claimed dozens of lives and hundreds of casualties.

This revival of Hare’s play from 2003 gives us a valuable illustration of the corporate mindset, where a 30% increase in passenger numbers is viewed as a “bit of bad luck”, and where those in charge decide to “push through (with privatisation) and see what happens” even though they don’t have the faintest idea what the outcome will be.

The figures etch themselves upon us – the money men, blinded to everything but a share price; the hapless suits who pass the blame and rely on broken chains of accountability to smokescreen their incompetence: and most moving, the ordinary travelling public who are doomed to always pick up the tab.

Corporates and individuals are juxtaposed to stark effect- bland brand babble against potent human experience, the language exposes the fake from the real, the good from the bad, the competent from the incompetent. Hare’s humanity, finely-tuned ear and clear-eyed editing expertly brings out the fundamentals of the words and their speakers.

Simply staged in the round, the play’s lack of visual elements does not matter. This is a vital play about real people which gives voice to the voiceless and exposes a system hopelessly corrupted at all levels.

The capable nine-strong cast each take a number of roles effectively. Alexander Lass’s direction is simple and humane, as befits the script’s forensic focus.

This is theatre at its most potent and relevant, skilfully building truth and fostering righteous anger at the terrifying injustice of it all. And after sixteen years it still seems just as relevant as it ever was.

With trains rumbling overhead at Waterloo Station, Debbie Hicks’s production couldn’t be more timely; as the UK stares down the barrel of a loaded Brexit, perhaps we should stop to ask- do we trust those who have their finger on the trigger? Or will it be another case of “push through and see what happens”?

THE PERMANENT WAY concluded its run at The Vaults on 17 November


Review: SHOOK

IN BRIEF Papatango prize winner spotlights offending fathers-to-be in well-written and acted debut

“Don’t be like me” is the only advice youth offender Cain can give to his as yet unborn child.

In Samuel Bailey’s Papatango prize-winning SHOOK, at Southwark Playhouse’s Little space, three fractured, young child-men in a young offenders unit are soon to be fathers themselves. They are being coached in childcare by visitor Grace, a mother herself who becomes the only adult in the equation.

Each of the trio is different: rowdy, manic Cain, chilled Riyad and hunched, twitchy Jonjo. Yet all three find a kind of security. For Cain, it’s the only “Home” he has really had. For Riyad it keeps him apart from rivals. And as for Jonjo, it’s space to reflect.

The group play exceptionally well as an ensemble. The small studio space gives a usefully claustrophobic feel. The set design reflects the basic functionality and knackered look of a secure unit.

There are some funny lines along the way, however I was struck at the sadness of the characters and that their lack of functioning family background which to some extent had contributed to their current predicament. As Riyad says “this moment doesn’t have to define you”; but when so much is out of your control, the potential for it to become a self-fulfilling prophecy is enormous.

We are left with the triple ending of one released, one caught up in more trouble, and another just biding his time. It’s a bleak picture, not one that I enjoyed much, but it was well-written and acted throughout.

SHOOK plays until November 23rd at Southwark Playhouse. Details and tickets here