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

THE WIND OF HEAVEN by Emlyn Wiliams – Finborough Theatre.

You can always rely on the tiny Finborough Theatre to bring out an unusual play for its Christmas slot. Although you can see why they were drawn to this interesting exploration of the search for faith by key 20th-century writer Emlyn Williams, sadly the play shows its age and struggles to engage.

Set in 1856, the small Welsh village of Blestin has turned away from God since a disaster swept away all its young people 11 years earlier. Dilys Parry, widowed recently by the Crimean War is visited by a money-minded circus owner and his assistant who have heard rumours of a “little man” who produces “music in the air”. The only youngster in the village, the son of Parry’s maid, is identified. He has something about him which suggests he is special, and the villagers come to believe him to be a spiritual figure, apparently confirmed when he pushes back the wave of cholera which imperils the village.

It’s a complex story, and I feel sure that written at the end of World War Two as it was, there was a lot more need in audiences for hope and a general willingness to embrace the spiritual elements of this story, with so many people having experienced direct loss in tragic circumstances who may have read its messages as cathartic. However now, 75 years later, in our modern, less religious world, its power is greatly diminished. Your reception of the piece will also depend upon your own belief and faith, if you have any. Personally I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief, but I still enjoyed the ideas and the poetry of Williams writing.

The production uses sound and lighting to good effect but despite the best efforts of the cast, who all work hard and with the utmost conviction,  the show remains earthbound.


MARTHA, JOSIE AND THE CHINESE ELVIS by Charlotte Jones – Park Theatre (Park 90).

Josie’s tired. Tired of the Bolton winter. Tired of looking after daydreaming daughter Brenda-Marie. Tired of working as a dominatrix to make ends meet. Too tired to celebrate turning forty. But her favourite client Lionel insists on a birthday party and, knowing Josie’s a huge Elvis fan, invites a very special guest. Just as hips start swinging, somebody no-one expected arrives and skeletons come tumbling out of the closet…

Written in 1999, Charlotte Jones’ play has not been seen in London before. This could be because it’s rather an unwieldy piece, very much a game of two very different halves. The first act is short but drags towards its end – superficially saucy, with flimsy characters, faux naughtiness and a soap-y first act curtain: but then the longer second act asks us to take it much more seriously- which is difficult. What also surprised me is that the play feels extremely dated, far more so than its twenty years.

It was also regrettable that the free cast sheet handed out to audiences did not include any cast or technical biographies, which could (to my mind) have been easily accommodated on the reverse of the single sheet.


THE TYLER SISTERS by Alexandra Wood – Hampstead Theatre Downstairs

Spanning several decades in the lives of three sisters, this looks like a very ambitious play which presents about 30 short snapshot- scenes of significant years in the three siblings’ lives from teenagers to retirement. The audience sees how their characters and situations change across the years through the oft-encountered lifetime issues- parenthood, children, divorce, sexuality, middle age, loss, conflict and retirement amongst others.

It’s an interesting idea but sadly, with the time that is spent establishing each new situation and then the reasons for the changes, there is rarely much time left to delve into the actual characters, so for all its two-hour length it (ironically) feels sketchy. In its ambitious breadth it sacrifices depth. The actors all do what they can, giving interesting performances- they work hard throughout the show and they are rarely offstage; however as a non-sibling myself (if that has any bearing upon my view) I felt this show difficult to engage with, or to care about these three people.


ESCAPE FROM PLANET TRASH by Ginger Johnson – The Pleasance

An adult queer/drag panto. It did what you would expect it to do, and the audience had fun. David Cumming (from SpitLip) and Lavinia CoOp (ex-Bloolips) were featured less frequently than I personally would have liked, these two performers being the reason for my visit to the show.


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


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!