Theatre FootNotes for September 2019 – a summary of other theatre events in my diary

SHAPING DUST – A work in progress from company Fancy Another? at the Tristan Bates Theatre (John Thaw Studio) at the start of September. Part of the theatre’s John Thaw Initiative Graduate Season 2019.

Are we still ourselves without our memories? Emma explores her past on her final day in her childhood home.

We open in the present day on Emma’s final day in her childhood home. Searching for a very important tea cup Emma is led through her house, discovering more and more of her memories until she enters an upstairs bedroom and encounters a memory that shakes her sense of self. Described as ‘magical realism on stage’, Fancy Another? uses puppetry, movement and hard-hitting naturalism to explore how identity is formed by memory and how our sense of self changes if we lose our memories. 

Currently only 30 minutes long, this is an early incarnation of a work which focuses on Alzheimer’s and makes some interesting points about the specifics of memory loss, including a brilliant analogy about memories being books in a bookcase and dementia being an earthquake which causes the bookcase to shake.

There was a lot of good work in the show that we saw, with some interesting use of visuals. I think that once they have doubled the length of the show and further developed some of their ideas, then they will have a show I would be pleased to see again.


EITHER – a new play by Ruby Thomas and directed by Guy Jones, at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs

As we all know (or remember), our twentysomething years are a time of discovering who we are, what we are and what we want. And often we discover that those we thought we knew are more complex than we might have originally thought.

EITHER introduces itself as “a play about one couple …. who can be of any gender”.

EITHER is a story about two twentysomethings looking for love. Or sex. Or something. The two characters who seem to be in some developing, loose kind of relationship, are tested by the proliferation of opportunities for experimentation. As one character says, “Having an opportunity doesn’t mean that you should take it”

The two characters are played by a total of six actors, who weave in and out of the two main characters, in a sort of acting relay race. It’s intriguing for a while, and it certainly keeps you on your toes, but it reaps diminishing returns. Further, it does also have the downside of fragmenting character and making us rely more heavily on what is said rather than a deeper understanding of the two characters involved. In that sense it is rather unsatisfying.

The play weaves its way around lots of ideas asking more questions than providing answers. And it seems that an abundance of easy opportunities via technological distractions (dating apps, etc) makes it harder for these characters to define what they actually want from their relationships. The feeling from the play is that they are looking for answers from outside themselves, rather than looking inwards.

It’s undoubtedly an interesting take on sex and sexuality, commitment, liberation and labels. Gender-fluid and narrative-fluid as well as actor-fluid, this is a show which keeps moving the goalposts to enable us to see things from different perspectives and to encourage us to ask questions and challenge our assumptions. A late focus on a discovery by one of the character’s fathers who has dementia reminds us that every generation has their fallibilities.

Ruby Thomas’ well-observed dialogue (in her first full-length play) is very twenty-something, self-conscious and a little wince-inducing at times, but it fits the characters and their ongoing development. Guy Jones directs smartly on Bethany Wells’ clever minimal set design.

The two characters age several years though the play, finally returning to a similar conversation that opened the show, which perhaps signifies that they haven’t really got very far. Which sort of sums up how I felt about the play; although the journey was interesting and I am glad to have made time to see it.


Theatre FootNotes for August 2019 – a summary of other theatre events in my diary

SHACKLETON’S CARPENTER at Jermyn Street Theatre – Mon 12th August, 75 minutes

Suddenly awoken from a nightmare, Harry McNish bursts out from under a tarpaulin covering a lifeboat. McNish was Shackleton’s Carpenter, and this is his story. Malcolm Rennie is an old dependable at places like the Finborough where his expressive face and physicality are welcome additions to period plays. Here, though, he is the whole show, recounting for 75 minutes the particulars of Shackleton’s perilous 1914/15 Antarctic expedition in which McNish was instrumental in saving the crew’s lives. We are plied with information to colour the portrait.

Now at the end of his life, destitute, alone and unable to work, McNish lives along the wharfs in New Zealand, reliving his glory days and most terrifying hours. He is visited by the spirit of Shackleton (“the Boss”) and tracks back over their time together. In exploring McNish’s compromised loyalty, there seems to have been some kind of personality clash between himself and Shackleton, which might explain why McNish was derided for being a pessimist and nicknamed “the old carpenter”. Further antagonisjng Shackleton by defying him and suggesting a different course of action to the inflexible “Boss”, McNish effectively saved the whole crew. It may have been this which influenced McNish’s not receiving the Polar Medal (which almost every other crew member received), but we shall never know.

Rennie creates a haunted but flawed character. A loner, still turning over why he was “one of the boys, but not one of the boys”. His enormous skill as a shipwright saved the entire crew but cost him the use of his hands, evermore crippled by the legacy of intense work in unforgiving temperatures.  Both McNish and Shackleton were obviously very strong characters, but the point in the story  where Rennie plays them both is a bit unfocussed and fleeting, so that one wonders why it’s there at all. There’s a rather nice finish as all the crew appear to him and one feels a pivotal life moment, but so much has gone before was stretched out that it can only partially reclaim the interest. A respectful biography by Gail Louw, the more interesting parts are where he muses on his wives and the little girl he wanted to call him Daddy; but for me, these moments are rather too few and far between.

Lantern-eyed Rennie is an accomplished actor who pulls out every trick in the book to keep things interesting, but it felt rather like he himself was stranded. He could have had much better support than this. How much light and shade would an interesting lighting design and even more, a sound design have brought us into McNish’s fevered recollections. It was disappointing to have neither of these stage assets to help the story along, further increasing the pressure upon Rennie to deliver the goods entirely alone. Aside from anything else, to have given it some visual interest. This is yet another show which could be recorded for radio without changing a word. Honestly, I must say that it became a little repetitive and was rather too long for my taste. The mysteries remain unanswered, but at least Shackleton’s Carpenter belatedly has his time in the limelight, given respectful dimensionality by Rennie’s full-blooded perfromance.

Theatre FootNotes for July 2019 – a summary of other theatre events in my diary

MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG

Monday 8th July – Guildhall School of Music and Drama final year students’ graduation show at the Silk Street Theatre, Barbican. Sondheim and Furth’s bittersweet musical complimented by an excellent 20-strong band, as always at Guildhall.


THE LAST SONG OF OLIVER SIPPLE

Sunday 14th July – The Last Song of Oliver Sipple (at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington) tells the story of a forgotten American hero tortured by prejudice, hypocrisy, media intrusion and the rift created within his own family.

“I loved my country, but my country didn’t love me”, laments Oliver (Billy) Sipple, a decorated Vietnam veteran who bravely averted an assassination attempt upon US President Gerald Ford in 1975. An invitation was planned to the White House to thank him. But Oliver Sipple was gay. So the invitation was withdrawn and Sipple received a tiny note of thanks from Ford instead. Sipple’s life story and death at an early age from drink in 1989 after years of media hounding and being preyed on by opportunists makes for a rather sketchy 50-minute play as presented here. It feels like there is a deeper story to tell, but not knowing what research this work is based on it is impossible to say whether anyone connected with the play actually knew Sipple.

The meat of the story is in the central incident, with the rest feeling very much like supporting material. The stories about meeting and working with Harvey Milk are interesting but go no further than a sort of diary entry, so it is difficult to know this character further. What is undoubted is that he was a national hero who was not respected. We hear a lot about what happened but the bio doesn’t leave much time to explore the feelings of this private man reluctantly thrust into the public eye with all the attendant challenges.

Here is another show with no specific theatrical, visual component until the final moments. This would make a fine radio play but I do not see what bringing it to the stage added to the script.

Whilst being grateful to writer David Hendon for bringing Sipple back to the public eye, this show itself is an historically interesting but sketchy introduction to an ordinary man who happened to be in the right place at the right time to avert a potential crisis…and happened to be gay.


THE OFSTED MASSACRE

Monday 15th July – LAMDA final year graduating students’ show. A specially commissioned new comedy by Phil Porter and directed by Joe Murphy. Acting was generally of a very high standard (particularly the leads) and a majority of these actors are clearly stage-ready. The script was relatable and funny, although sadly it ran out of steam halfway through act two, and would have perhaps played better if it was shorter. Nevertheless, by this time the actors had mostly been seen to good advantage.


FERNANDO AND HIS GRANDMOTHER

Wednesday 31st July – At Clapham’s Omnibus Theatre, Out of the Wings ( https://ootwfestival.com/ ) is presenting its fourth annual festival, exploring untapped theatre from the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking world. Over five days, a series of staged readings bring to life new English translations of works by playwrights from six countries, alongside workshops, talks and events, in celebration of theatre in translation.

“It’s the voices, boy, the voices.”

In a dance across the generations, the legendary Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa duets with his irrepressible grandmother Dionísia Seabra. Spanning almost a century, their meetings continue despite illness, distance, and even death. Come what may, some bonds refuse to be broken.

Fernando’s a troubled boy, haunted by his private terrors. From an early age the only refuge is his intimacy with his demented grandmother. They are a conspiracy of two. They are complicit. Faced with a disapproving and seemingly threatening world, they share a private universe of make-believe games and songs.

Are genius and insanity as close as this? These two both spend their lives in different ways as outsiders. Dionísia hears voices in her madness. Fernando as a child is already inventing alter egos which as an adult become the fully fledged fictional “heteronyms” – the many writers under whose names his work is eventually published – and considered among the greatest of the twentieth century.

Written by Armando Nascimento Rosa , translated by Susannah Finzi and directed by Almiro Andrade

Cast Dora DaCruz, Patrick Campbell


Theatre FootNotes for May 2019 – a brief summary of other theatre events in my diary

DEATH OF A SALESMAN at The Young Vic

This was always going to be a big event, so my opinions are small beer to the attendant PR tsunami. I saw this show at the first preview, another reason not to formally criticise or rate before Press Night. However, just briefly, this was already in tip-top shape from the start. Elliott and Cromwell’s idea of making the Lomans African American (which has been done before) was interesting but perhaps not quite as ground-breaking as some might have expected. Having said that, the entire cast give studied, committed performances, the standout for me being Sharon D Clarke as Linda Loman, her grinding quiet hopefulness weighted by years of neglect and disappointment, given outlet through her religious/spiritual singing. The use of music was interesting but not again quite as revelatory as one might have been built up to expect from this director team. Running time was spot on first time, with the high standard of professionalism one has come to expect from this team. Impossible to give it less than four stars.


THE FIRM at Hampstead Downstairs

Roy Williams’ play has much to say that is significant and timely. A gang of villains – the Firm of the title – meet up again over a decade after their last job, and time has changed them all significantly. “We’re not the Firm anymore…more like the Infirm” quips one character bitterly in probably the best joke in the show. The various arguments and revelations as they wait for a fifth member who never appears, highlights the long-term damage done by absent fathers, broken families and the threat of gang culture which seems so smoothly to be replacing the family unit. All this is terribly important in our country today, and the themes that Williams explores are vital and engaging and he is no doubt sincere. However, the swaggering, homophobic, loud and violent men-children characters who populate this play make it hard, if not impossible, to care about these people. For me, frustrating. The play, which ran 90 minutes straight through, had a stylish “bar” set from designer Alex Marker.


DON’T LOOK AWAY at The Pleasance Downstairs

An obviously well-meaning and earnest play about an asylum seeker gets sidelined and ultimately, sunk, by too much plot, including domestic drama and unnecessary distractions in this 90 minute play from NOVAE Theatre, a new sister company to the brilliant Idle Motion. The gritty reality of the subject isn’t really aided by some inter-scene expressive movement work which tries to explore the tension between the characters but feels a bit out of place. The piece didn’t add up and left this viewer somewhat confused and dissatisfied with a very double-edged ending, although there was some good acting by Julia Barrie as the cleaning lady.

Venue Note This venue is not audience- (or actor-) friendly. Five minutes of the play were drowned out by a motorbike revving-competition immediately outside the un-soundproofed doors of the studio, the rest of the running time underscored by singing and shouting from the drinkers in the bar next door, which made it impossible to concentrate on the play. Top marks here to the actors for not being fazed by this unacceptable distraction, which was hugely disrespectful to the performers. If you ever see a show advertised in the Pleasance Downstairs Studio, please think twice before booking!