Review: Cougar

COUGAR at the Orange Tree Richmond until March 2nd 2019

IN BRIEF A short, sharp, shock of a play that leaves you thinking hard about the costs of consumption in all its disguises.

COUGAR is as powerful and stimulating as triple espresso. Rose Lewenstein’s script comprises 80 rapid snapshots of an unequal power relationship where the boundaries constantly shift creating a sense of unease and disorientation for both characters and audience; COUGAR is a compelling ride.

The set is a sterile corporate hotel room, bereft of personality or place, which serves as everywhere and anywhere, in an ingenious design by Rosanna Vize, its cuboid extremities delineating the room but also suggesting a cage. It’s a two-hander show. Leila (as sharply played by Charlotte Randle) is a driven, high-flying executive in her 40s advising companies on corporate sustainability at conferences around the world, emotionally detached and always in control. John (spiky Mike Noble) is a vulnerable, lost twentysomething hotel barman she has picked up for sex, subsequently travelling with her as ‘sex on demand’ in countless anonymous global hotel rooms.

Leila sees sex as a commodity to be bought and sold. John sees it differently, and falls in love with Leila, to his emotional cost. As the thrills repeat, she requires escalating extremes to get the same ‘hit’, calling into question ideas around responsibility and respect, both personally and globally.

Leila’s over-rehearsed corporate spiel comes across as another type of facade, indeed she seems to get more erotic charge talking about her massive salary hikes than climate issues or anything John can do for/to/with her. John, on the other hand is all bewildered masculinity, searching for love, humanity and meaning ever more frantically after each meeting leaves him feeling like every emptied minibar.

Chelsea Walker’s direction is fast, hair-trigger timed and as fully in control as the finely-tuned writing, which integrates some unexpected humour to leaven the tension. Lighting is unromantic and exposing. The sound design subtly brackets the restricted time frames of their meetings, aided by the lightning fast scene changes in blackout, giving the impression of a non-linear rough cut. It’s hard to do well, but these actors achieve this convincingly. Overall it’s a very demanding show technically but perfectly executed. Movement (by Shelley Maxwell) is an integral part of the show and expertly achieved, from the lightning scene changes to the increasingly careless way the characters move and behave (front row, watch out for flying popcorn/ water/champagne/ice) as their relationship deteriorates into chaos, leaving the audience drained but buzzing at the climax of its 85-minute running time.

I simply can’t get it out of my head.

Enthusiastically received by a younger audience than the Orange Tree usually attracts, COUGAR is well worth seeing for its writing, acting and staging. And with seats from £15, it’s a bargain too. Only until March 2nd at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond. More Information and tickets here

Review: Don Quixote

Don Quixote at the Garrick Theatre, London, until Feb 2, 2019

IN BRIEF A joyous, madcap journey with our deluded hero touches on frailty and loss in a show shot through with humanity, showcasing a great central performance.

Perhaps like you, I have not read Miguel Cervantes original story, but this production is probably the most effective (and entertaining) distillation of the work we shall see. Making an audience dream with you is a difficult ask, but the fantastic elements shine through in this loving adaptation by James Fenton enacted by an assured cast of 20.

The story? After a lifetime of reading books on the romance of chivalry, an eccentric old man embarks on a ramshackle quest to become a wandering knight, accompanied by his faithful and equally ill-suited servant, Sancho Panza. The self-styled Don Quixote sets out on a hilarious journey across medieval Spain, defending the helpless and vanquishing the wicked. Hopelessly unprepared and increasingly losing his grip on reality, we share his efforts to achieve his romantic ideal.

David Threlfall is superb as Don Quixote, capturing an other-worldliness in the man which is at once captivating and challenging. On stage for most of the running time, this is a very demanding role, and Threlfall plays it with such palpable commitment and sincerity that his demise is genuinely affecting. Rufus Hound as Sancho Panza fully inhabits the fat suit of his character as well as his personality. He acts as the bridge between the audience and the action, fantasy and reality. Messrs Threlfall and Hound clearly have a special rapport which charmingly underscores their playing and gives the relationship credibility.

The first act has an overextended “warm up” by Mr Hound, and after this the first act occasionally lurches into farce -with audience participation- to bring us on board, but it does not prepare us for the change of mood in the second act where Quixote finally succumbs to the realities of human frailty. Quixote’s death is poetically achieved in a memorable scene which stilled the audience totally.

The music which peppers the show is charming and “in character” but perhaps a few too many numbers? (The overall show is about 15 minutes too long in my opinion.) Staging using a simple set is very effective and the design renders a usefully quirky quality to the whole show, with the wooden horses a particular highlight.

With our contemporary fixations on Alzheimer’s and dementia, it is easy to see how this adaptation of the story drills a direct line into our consciousness and renders a charming fable up into a scorching yet tender reminder of our own mortality.

Finally, this DON QUIXOTE’s finest gift is that it poignantly reminds us that magic is wherever we choose to see it. I, and the audience I was with, loved it.

Review: Leave To Remain

Image from Lyric Theatre Hammersmith website
Leave To Remain at Lyric Hammersmith until 16 February 2019

IN BRIEF A tight, contemporary urban musical with a compelling story and movement which deserves to be seen by a wider audience.

It’s great to welcome a new musical set in London and this one has a lot going for it.

The story of a same-sex couple whose relationship is tested to its limits by visa regulations has a timely feel.  And it’s great to find a contemporary musical which reflects the look, sound and dynamic “feel” of London. What really distinguishes this show is the excellent cast, intriguing and captivating music (by Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke) and the direction/movement which adds its own value to the overall show.

Obi and Alex meet in London (in a whlrlwind-fast setup which opens the show) and only 10 months into their relationship, Alex’s company plans to move from the UK, taking him with them as he is American. The pair’s decision is to marry (so Alex can stay) is fraught with uncertainty and surprise as the compressing of their short time together into a legal commitment puts strain on their relationship and also their families. Family exposure brings new and old issues to the fore and the pair must address these before finding a stronger commitment. Can they navigate the pitfalls and fully trust each other?

The music mix is recorded, complemented by Chrio Blake’s live guitar accompaniment, and is always intriguing though occasionally over-repetitive. The songs do not have a traditional “musical theatre” structure but still allow characters to elaborate their feelings in a manner which feels very current and for musical theatre, exciting. Personally, I really enjoyed the music’s ability to sweep me along with it. The two leads, Tyrone Huntley as Obi and Alex, played by Billy Cullum are dramatically and vocally impressive – both actors have powerful voices which they use to the full.

Choreographer Robby Graham directs, and certainly the fully integrated movement/dance is one of the eye-catching things about this show. Put to specific use, it creates a disorientating and unsettling feeling particularly during scenes of high tension, such as the family dinner party, and Alex’s comedown from a drug relapse, which is both fascinating, tightly-drilled and effective. The scene containing four separate conversations (staged simultaneously and in the same space) is particularly ingeniously done, highlighting characters’ similarities and differences at the same time by assured vocal choreography. Rebecca Brower’s industrial-feel set designs are flexible, dynamic and restrained leaving plenty of open space, effectively reflecting London’s loft-living generations.

My only concerns were that the script spends much more time on Obi’s backstory than Alex’s, which affects our ability to care about both characters and their relationship. Matt Jones’s script does vary its pacing but sometimes that pacing is too slow (leading to one or two over-extended songs and scenes) so that getting to the story’s conclusion (in the straight-through 1 hour 55 minutes) feels rather rushed, somewhat cluttered, and therefore less dramatically satisfying than it might have been.

I saw this show at its last preview with an audience mostly aged under 35, who took to it eagerly and attentively. They ate it up, as did I.

Information and tickets here