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.

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