Theatre FootNotes for March 2020 – a summary of other theatre events in my diary

STICKS AND STONES by Dameon Garnett, seen at The Tristan Bates Theatre on Sat 7 March (matinee)

Charting the conversations between a white school-dinner lady and the black school deputy head, STICKS AND STONES boils down to two extended dialogues. There was a lot in the show that was interesting; how social media is something we take far too casually, not thinking about implications or offence, as well as addressing deeply ingrained societal racism. The two actors do good work in bringing the script to life. I felt that there could have been more exposition to make the relationship more solid (before ripping it apart), and also the structure felt somewhat unfinished. Also the staging, in a weirdly lopsided traverse configuration, with a stage management person moving the set sitting in full sight for the duration of the play, felt not only ill-considered but also distracting. Nevertheless I was sorry to see the show’s run cut short by the blanket theatre closures later in the month.


Review: CAN I HELP YOU?

IN BRIEF Compassionate exploration of mental health is challenging but ultimately uplifting

Be Kind. To yourself and others. That’s the core message in Philip Osment’s final play, CAN I HELP YOU? It’s an intriguing puzzle of a play which gradually pulls together a picture of two very different people who have mental health issues. Both have blamed themselves for things not in their power to control, causing them lifelong guilt and self-punishment.

Just as Francis, an off-duty policeman, is about to throw himself off of Beachy Head, he encounters Fifi wandering along with a large shopping bag and a cat box.

Fifi has battled cruelty all her life, from being the only black child at her school, to her own child’s stillbirth, and to her husband’s lack of love and care. Relying on God, voices in her head and her cat (Kat), she has somehow forged her own way through life. Still guilt-ridden, she envisions what her son (Michael)’s life would have been like, and she yearns for him. She thinks she sees him in the people she meets.

Francis is racked with guilt about a time when as a young boy he left his chronically depressed mother alone so that he could get away from her and go on holiday – leaving her to commit suicide undetected.

However, the interspersed flashback scenes demonstrate that rather than being their fault, these events were out of their control, and not as their memories had chosen to recall them.

The guilt of the son and the guilt of the mother are delicately contrasted here and provide an eventual part-catharsis for both Francis and Fifi as they work through their troubled pasts through talking with each other.

Covering mental health from a view of both race and gender, Osment’s script highlights the human costs of the failures of social care systems and their impacts upon innocent people who try to carry on whilst absorbing the overwhelming mental damage this causes.

The script treats the characters with warmth, compassion and understanding, providing a reflective mood for characters and audience alike. As one of them says, “we get so caught up with things that don’t matter you forget the bigger picture”. And here, away from the rest of their lives, it feels that they can get a precious “bigger picture” view of their situation.

A symbolic ending seems gently uplifting in Osment’s signature way; a fitting way to sign off a life’s work.

Technically, the flashback scenes were effectively achieved by changes in lighting and swift physical and vocal character shifts, done with aplomb by the two actors. I did feel that Gabriel Vick’s Francis was rather underplayed at the start of the play, although he gains dramatic “weight” as he gets into the role. Perhaps this might have been a direction issue, although the rest of the play comes across well. Susan Aderin’s Fifi is a magnetic performance, rolling with all the drama and swell of the stormy sea that surrounds her. She gives a powerful performance of pain, loss and hope.

Max Pappenheim’s ebbing and flowing seascape sound design nicely captures the feel of place and the power of nature, the stormy weather echoing the internal mental turbulence the characters feel.

Like other of Osment’s plays, I found that it was rather overstuffed with themes and ideas; the strand about immigration needed more time to enjoy its own space rather than being quickly raised and dropped. But the central themes are well-expressed and the 75-minute running time flew by.

CAN I HELP YOU? Ran at the Omnibus Theatre, Clapham until March 15th after which it was closed early owing to the public health emergency.


Review: LIPSTICK

LIPSTICK runs at Southwark Playhouse until 28th March. Information and tickets here

IN BRIEF Two teenagers struggle to find themselves in well-written portrait of difference

A single tube of lipstick propels this interesting play about Tommy and Jordan, two teenage boys. Tommy likes lipstick. Jordan likes how Tommy looks in lipstick. Seeking stability away from his warring parents, Jordan finds a kind of refuge at Tommy’s house next door. They cultivate a connection based on outsidership, Tommy having been absent from school.

They do what teenagers do, experimenting to try and find out who they are and how they fit into the world. Searching for connection and trying to avoid rejection. But Jordan’s assumptions that he and Tommy are similar are shattered when the full extent of Tommy’s acute anxiety comes out. 

Their relationship is often gentle, sometimes harsh, occasionally funny – but it feels authentic.

That painful tension of transition between childhood and adulthood that causes so much anguish is well expressed in Lily Shahmoon’s play which treats its characters with understanding.

Directed by Ed White, the acting is finely-tuned; both are memorable performances. April Hughes as Tommy captures the rather drug- subdued straightforwardness (masking the reality) of Tommy, at one point making a truly startling transition into his alter-ego Tina. The final confrontation where Tommy’s reality hits Jordan is impassioned and moving. 

Helen Aluko as Jordan shows us the inconsistency of someone exploring their sexuality, at times lashing out at others for what they most recognise in themselves.

It was an intriguing idea to use female actors to portray the boys – it subtly changes the dynamic and somehow allows us to focus on the feelings rather than the sexuality of the situation.

LIPSTICK runs at Southwark Playhouse until 28th March. Information and tickets here


Review: DRIP, DRIP, DRIP

DRIP, DRIP, DRIP runs at The Pleasance Downstairs until March 21st. Information and tickets here

IN BRIEF NHS staff battle racism in an alarming, intriguing and vital play for our unstable times

“We don’t tolerate “Othering”” says Steven the NHS Manager to Doctor Rahmiya. But “othering” is everywhere in Pipeline Theatre’s DRIP DRIP DRIP, a complex look at the “cancer” of racism and the ways it impacts upon two victims of that prejudice.

David, a white nationalist ex-lecturer learns he has brain cancer. In hospital he encounters overstretched yet measured and professional oncologist Rahmiya and charmingly hopeful nursing assistant Daniel, a refugee from Eritrea who is haunted by separation from his younger brother.

Agitated, fussy and ill at ease with himself and others, David is socially isolated, with only his cat to care for; he presents a pathetic yet still dangerous figure. Even Rahmiya falls into the trap of allowing herself to feel sorry for him, even going out of her way to feed his cat. But when the true horror of his beliefs are exposed, their corrosive nature test those attempting to care for him.

“It’s not about you” David blusters to Rahmiya after his beliefs have been exposed, fully aware how repellent his ideas are and embarrassed at their outing. But as we have seen, people can be incited to hate groups far more easily than individuals.

The absurdity of a dying man prejudiced against those who are keeping our healthcare system afloat (and him alive) seems an apt metaphor for a country rabidly desperate to cut off its own nose to spite its face.

The play’s writing (by Jon Welch, who also directs) is intriguing, twisty and at times challenging. There is an admirable even-handedness in the writing in that it takes on a range of assumptions, each of which can be seen as shaded and not binary, highlighting the reality that everyone is human. The range of differences in play are intriguing – man/woman, young/old, British-born/ Refugee, Christian/ Muslim, and make for a complex context through which the characters navigate. It was only the very last scene which I felt was a little unnecessary after the excellent scene which preceded it and, to me, felt like a more natural ending.

The acting is first-rate throughout. Lydia Bakelmun plays Rahmiya with a restraint and humanity that highlights her caring nature whilst also subtly pointing up the way that life, work and once-removed childcare is wearing her down. Her composure contrasted with David’s rantings speaks volumes about integrity and humanity.

David Keller is very effective as elderly paranoid David, out of control, out of time and out of love. His performance made my skin crawl (in the intended way). Michael Workeye brings a youthful , hopeful yet haunted Daniel to life with great charm and brotherly care in an impressive stage debut.

The design (by Alan and Jude Mundin) is ingenious in its creative use of a number of  hospital-related components; there is also clever use of projections, all making the most of the limited stage area.

Towards the end of the play, David’s death may be seen as a symbolic triumph, however the play reminds us that there are plenty of people waiting in the wings to continue the bigotry; the kind of people on the bus who shout at Rahmiya’s children to “go home”. But as Rahmiya says, “how do you go home when you are already there?”

DRIP, DRIP, DRIP runs at The Pleasance Downstairs until March 21st. Information and tickets here


One gripe. On my visit there was no cast sheet or other information available – very disappointing to audiences but also, surely, to the cast and crew themselves. Credit where it’s due please!


Theatre FootNotes for February 2020 – a summary of other theatre events in my diary

SOAPDISH

(Seen at Battersea’s Turbine Theatre on Saturday 8 February, duration 60 minutes)

As part of the Turbine’s Music Theatre Festival, I saw the last of three public performances of a much-anticipated work-in-progress, the Stiles and Drewe musical treatment of one of my favourite films, SOAPDISH.

The story of the attempts made to bring down a popular but demanding daytime TV star by her rivals was a hugely funny- and popular- film from 1991 which starred Sally Field and Kevin Kline, Whoopi Goldberg, Robert Downey, Jr and others.

From the work put in by Stiles and Drewe, book writer Robert Harling (writer of the original movie), director Rachel Kavanaugh, MD supreme Alex Parker and the starry cast, it all looks very promising.

Following the storyline of the film tightly, the songs are natural extensions of the plot framework, which gives them credibility and solidity.

The starry cast did a great job of putting over the material. The busy, uptempo “Get Ready” – set at the Daytime TV awards – is a perfect opener. It was great to hear Louise Dearman as Celeste the star, tunefully lamenting about wanting to “Wash My Hands of Soap”. Good also to see Laura Pitt-Pulford playing hard as nails Montana, Celeste’s mortal enemy, hilarious in her breathy seduction of the show’s producer David (nicely twitchy Richard Dempsey), in her gleefully tacky song “Tit for Tat”. Ben Richards, cast as Jeffrey (Celeste’s previous on-screen love interest but in reality bitter enemies, brought back to the show to torment Celeste) doesn’t get too much to do in Act One (which is essentially what we saw a digest of), but he was very welcome anyway.

Clive Rowe pops up delightfully as the philistine TV exec who gives a great number about what he likes – “Peppy and Cheap”.

Stiles and Drewe’s work is always a delight. Here they even musicalise “Death of A Salesman”. And what other team could so ballsily rhyme and coin new words such as “menopausable” ?

Having been to a lot of these readings and presentations over the years, often its the cast themselves who give you the best indication of how good the material is. And here the cast reactions while sitting and following the performers who were “on” were a delight. And if they enjoyed it, I can’t see how anyone else couldn’t.

This already has “big hit” written all over it.


THE ROYALE by Marco Ramirez at Milton Court Theatre (Guildhall School). (Seen on Saturday 8th February, 80 minutes duration)

Describing the aspiration of Jay “The Sport” Jackson to be the first black world heavyweight champion. Looking at the drive, the sacrifice and the real reasons behind his motivations-to give his sister a black role model she could identify with.

Good acting all round, but especially by Shaka Kalokoh as Jay and Anele Mahamba as his sister Nina

The play itself was highly descriptive but eventually too talkative and lacking in action to maintain my interest for the complete running time.


FLIGHTS by John O’ Donovan at Omnibus Theatre, Clapham. (Seen on Sunday 16 February, 2 hrs 30 minutes duration)

In a teenage hideout in rural Ireland, three contemporaries gather for their annual celebration and remembrance of their school friend Liam who died aged 17, now as long dead as he was alive. They sit around and reminisce, remember Liam, discuss their dissatisfaction with their current lives, drink a lot of beer and cider and take drugs, in ways which seem still stuck in adolescence.

With no action to speak of, it’s a very static two and a half hours, with long, rambling conversations interspersed with each actor taking a turn to metamorphose into the late Liam, with each having a fifteen-minute plus monologue about the world from Liam’s viewpoint.

All three actors do sterling work in being absolutely on top of reams of writer John O’ Donovan’s text, full credit to them all. But we are given little reason to care about these characters, and therefore for me their issues did not hit home.