TOXIC: THEATRE REVIEWS

THEATRE

Mood Music @ The Old Vic 

Credit thestage

Under a canopy of microphones, like an omnipotent garden of confessional devices, an unscrupulous record producer and his new protege (a young female singer with whom he has collaborated on a wildly successful single) descend into rancour and antipathy over intellectual property rights and psychological abuse. Structured as a series of three simultaneous conversations-legal, therapeutic, personal, occasionally overlapping-the play explores, somewhat schematically, the nature of the artist (the ways in which narcissism shading off into sociopathy may be excused due to talent), deceptive legal manoeuvrings, the politics of ownership of a shared piece of work , the pressures and liabilities of partnership, venomous power dynamics cut along gender and generational lines.

Credit the stage

Ben Chaplin is charismatically  dissolute and grungy as the wholly self-absorbed producer, coasting on a nonchalant egomania that helplessly pulls otherwise smart, savvy people into its vortex, and Seana  Kerslake is emotionally raw and wounded as the young artist experiencing her first professional betrayal (reeling still from her father’s early passing).

Credit oldvictheatre

The other actors (the respective lawyers and therapists) unfortunately exist only as sounding boards and contrivances to pose the script’s conceptual inquiries, not allowed to exist much beyond the surface-if writer Joe Penhall had found a way to dramatise the issues solely as an  assiduous byproduct of the argumentative, calloused relationship between the two leads, had them battle through their words and actions, the play would have really crackled and felt much more immediate, shaking off the rather stodgy approach, which continually interrupts the vigour with a lethargic, staid sense of the academic. Mood Music continues through 16 June

https://www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on/2018/mood-music/cast

Teddy @ The Vaults Waterloo 

Credit londontheatre

This original musical details the youth rebellion (and revolution) following the austerity and deprivation of World War II, whereupon the dark and damaged facade of Britain rose a new generation full of swagger and cool (the Teddys) with their own lexicon, their own rituals of wardrobe and behaviour-as in America, here was the start of the rock-‘n-roll era. Writer Tristan Bernays isn’t interested in presenting his material as a history lesson, instead revealing the parameters of this burgeoning lifestyle in the blooming love affair between the lead boy and girl, following them from their respective preparations for a night out on the town, their strategies for negotiating their way around disapproving parents, their troubled acquisitions of funds, their furtive movements around neighbourhoods where police prowl and enemies lay in wait and, finally, in a club where they first notice one another, revealing  their mutual passion for the American teen idol Johnny Valentine, playing a secret gig at a grotty club in Elephant & Castle that very evening.

Credit mytheatremates

Molly Chesworth and George Parker work furiously in the lead roles, Chesworth all hard edges and grand detachment, Parker confident and cocksure, both vulnerable beneath the bluff (and each inhabiting a host of supporting characters skilfully). By the end of the show, both are drenched in sweat at the effort. From the moment an audience member walks into the space, Max Dorey’s set design is already registering, the whole of the theatre resembling a bombed-out area, full of detritus and crumbled material, dense fog lingering. A quartet of spirited and lively musicians, each with a distinct character arc, portray Johnny and his band, essentially playing an ongoing gig throughout the length of the play (a mix of original tunes in the style of the 50’s and a few standards).

Credit britishtheatre

Bernays has his lead characters speak in rhyming couplets much of the play, mostly in their private musings, which is a poetic device that doesn’t always work seamlessly (oftentimes it calls too much attention to itself), and there are a few unfortunate developments, the material trending darker as the play progresses, that aren’t in keeping with the generally upbeat nature of the majority of the show (the storylines feel ill-suited and inconsistent). There’s a curious punitive nature to the closing moments, a rather peevish adult confirmation of youth being abandoned to vice and criminality, their sum total of choices and conduct ruinous.

Credit londontheatre

That the audience is asked to jump onstage following curtain call for a dance and jive with the musicians is a bit immodest considering where we have just left the protagonists. Teddy has now concluded its run

https://www.thevaults.london/teddy

 

 

 

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FROZEN: NIGHTFALL @ THE BRIDGE

THEATRE 

On the grounds of a rather ill-at-ease Hampshire farm (weathered, chipped, broken, worn-down land and furnishings), a family quietly but trenchantly succumbs to the depravities of grief, engendered by the death of the patriarchal figure and their inability to confront or process the information. All three surviving members (mother, son, daughter) suffer a state of suspension, enmeshed in personal (perhaps pathological, possibly misplaced) networks of duty, responsibility and expectation-it’s clear that the farm is no longer productive enough to provide monetarily for the household, yet stubbornly the family endures in its activities, lorded over, with formidable passive-aggressiveness, by Claire Skinner’s Jenny. A staggering (and monopolising) oil pipeline runs through the yard in designer Rae Smith’s haggard, arid set, a tremendous metaphorical symbol of the concessions the family has had to make to corporate interests and encroachments just to be able to remain afloat (the product of which son Ryan and friend Pete have begun to siphon off). Pete is both agent of hope (his rekindled relationship with daughter Lou offers a lifeline of escape and retreat) and victim (he shares a complicated, entangled past with this family, having spent a spell in prison for something for which he was not directly responsible, another character on stage moreso). Time has collapsed to such a degree that progression is practically non-existent, past and present and future troublingly crushed together. Jenny masterfully manipulates her children (playwright Barney Norris provides her with some awe-striking arias of blistering, near-comic cruelty), infantilising them into crippling destabilised psychological states, assured to never abandon her. A plaintive, minimalist music score registers each tremor of desolation and discord. The oppositions and conflicts between the family members is given effective emphasis in sharp triangular and circular patterns of blocking. Sion Daniel Young as Ryan registers the strongest of the ensemble, in some ways the most fragile and sensitive person on stage-open, wounded, passive, charting stars-not quite able to declare himself, paralysed by obligation; Ophelia Lovibond tremulously gathers force of resistance and courage in confronting her mother and the meaning and sense of their rural existence; Skinner, distorted and embittered, may not even recognise the ways in which disappointment and anger have shaped her into a form of monster (I only wish that Norris and Skinner had found a way to better suggest the transition of her character, Skinner never quite convincing that she ever was the sleeves-up, dirt-encrusted kind in the first place that she would hold the farm and its continuance in such sacred trust and esteem). The final moment bestows upon her a redemption, a confession which she is only able to speak to the wider cosmos (although witnessed by the ever watchful Ryan, who offers consolation). A muddied sound system rendered the very earliest dialogue difficult to comprehend, quickly remedied, but I wonder if, overall, the intimate structure of the relationships would be better served in a smaller space. Along with Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem and Peter Gill’s The York Realist, there is a real movement to push outside the urban centre into a mythic and pastoral realm, exploring the outer reaches of British identity, giving voice to the disaffected and the forgotten-nothing like a surprise in this anxious age of Brexit and political discontent, a crisis of cultural selfhood.

https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/nightfall/

 

 

ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE IF YOU THINK ABOUT IT HARD ENOUGH: VAULT FESTIVAL

THEATRE 

A boy. A girl. Chance encounters on the Tube, in the queue at Caffè Nero, interest stirred, a concentration and attention paid to small personal details, a tentative and bold step towards first words and communication-with breathless brevity, writer (and actor) Cordelia O’Neill sharply limns the arc of a relationship from its burgeoning start through to its eventual capsize on eruptive grounds of circumstance and sad, supreme indifference of the universe. An omniscient narrator orbits around the main characters, a suggestion of some greater (cosmic?) force acting beyond the couple to construct an alliance, the two heedlessly and helplessly in its grip, foolishly following its template, not for once believing that there is anything other than the traditional trajectory in place. Small quibbles with in-laws, friends, preferences, each other’s personality traits and characteristics gently trouble the surface, but remain benign in threat, until a truly tragic turn severely, and with sweeping suddenness, wholly destabilises and breaks connection-with sanity, with comprehension, with sense, with basic belief in a benevolent universe, and ultimately with one another. O’Neill makes the audience keenly feel the sting of this piercing event, the gulf it creates, the intractable grief that consumes, hardens and exiles especially one individual. The audience is just as beguiled as the central couple, so breezing along on the heady tumult of a relationship in progress that when the ground is abruptly altered, it’s left as scalded and bereft and unmoored as the characters. O’Neill also does something very skilful with the narrator, who almost imperceptively shifts into an aspect with a much more personal stake in the story, so subtle you long to go back over preceding moments, now armed with the knowledge, to witness how she may have been all along building it into the script. This piece is emblematic of the opportunities a festival such as Vault provides: a forum and space to develop and produce work by forcefully talented emerging artists, with bold voices and fearless style. Vault continues through 18 March-in addition to the list of arts events, the venue also hosts a restaurant, cafe and bar, plenty of areas to gather for an evening’s full, satisfying entertainment.

ALL IS NOISE: COTTON @ VAULT FESTIVAL

THEATRE 

A stark stage is strewn with the detritus of technology: a visual cacophony of cast off modems, keyboards, consoles; gratingly brutal bursts of discordant modern jazz punctuates scene changes, sometimes overwhelming the pitiable stabs at conversation and communication between the characters. This manic hour-long piece invites the audience into the spiralling world of three intense gamers , one of whom spectacularly flames out (by overdose of Adderall) from competition (staged to resemble the aggressive push of a trading floor) , forcing the retreat of the trio from this insulated and consuming environment into the unforgiving parameters of the “real” world, requiring a state of being and clarity for which all three are woefully lacking. What is profoundly cynical and disturbing in writer Alex Benjamin’s accelerated debut script (not always particularly subtle or nuanced) is that the supposed saner, more rational world of conventional responsibility and behaviour hasn’t much to offer, here a sum total of unsuccessful job interviews, eviction notices, monetary insecurity, dysfunctional relationships, unrequited love and abandonment, and all the space one needs to tremendously drift off-to become completely lost and unmoored. In an overeliance on technology (and an inability to feel valuable or complete without some online presence), the most severely troubled character, Kieran, exiles himself to his bedroom to spend the bulk of his time on a live-feed, accruing a league of followers, mostly to watch him sleep. It is he who poses the theory that perhaps the world could be constructed from not concrete (definitive, strong, unyielding) but cotton, a substance at once more fragile, but also supportive and pliable (a needed cushion)- he then goes even more drastic, proposing it be built from the certainty and compactness of code.  The acting, for the most part, is earnest, if not a bit erratic (with an odd bit of casting for the father, the performer of which doesn’t appear very much older than the two actors portraying his sons-it’s a young company, so this may be forgiven in terms of dramatic suspension). The tone is one of continual attack (perhaps mimicking the tenor of millennial ADHD angst), but over the course of the running time, and unregulated, grows somewhat wearisome and frustrating. A final sequence, borne of a thoughtful and loving gesture on part of father to son, is a quietly powerful kick of nostalgia, in the son’s hands the now-primitive (and innocent) device which started his love of the potentials of gaming and its access to consuming and palliative realms of fantasy and escape, before a curdle into obsession-on the precipice, with an adulthood looming, will he choose to succumb wholly once again, or devise a way in which to incorporate it into a wider life? I fear for him, as the dialogue of his two colleagues, sat on benches behind him in the dark, recedes further and further away from audibility, and from his consciousness.

The Vault Festival continues through 18 March, and has a full schedule of theatre, music, comedy and cabaret events from which to choose, as well as several options for food and drink.

https://vaultfestival.com/

BE STILL, MY HEART:THE YORK REALIST @ DONMAR WAREHOUSE

THEATRE 

This gentle, unemphatic production puts the lie to the principle that theatrical convention must favour confrontation and hysteria and heightened reality to be successful. Its virtue lies in its tremendous ability to evince storms and spirals of feeling and sensation without ever once disrupting the calm, polite surface of its cast of characters, as taciturn and pastoral  as the Yorkshire landscape that holds them (a large screen, an image of the vast and spacious moors, is situated imposingly above the set). Gruff, reticent George (Ben Batt), sharing a cosy home with his aging mother, joins a troupe staging the York Mystery Plays (catching the eye of a director’s assistant, wide-eyed and anxiously analytical urban boy John, played by Jonathan Bailey, in from London); when George  suddenly stops attending rehearsals, curious (in all aspects) John makes a pilgrimage to George’s front door, and steps  into his life. The attraction between the two men, although almost never physically overt (except for one thrilling moment with a tentative, affectionate and secret hand on back) is marvellously suggested through body language and look-something positively liquid flows between the actors, quivers of fear, lust, possibilities. For me, the two lead performances were revelatory, as I know both actors from television work, personas quite fixed (Batt as a tough, criminally minded sort; Bailey the glib, smug, ruthlessly aspirant careerist)-here, both reveal heretofore unknown reserves of yearning vulnerability and tenderness. I don’t know how Batt does it, but his posture, a particular slouch that somehow communicates a steady backing away from life and conflict, indicates the sadder, melancholy man he will be when older.  The impediments to a successful relationship in this scenario is not the scorn or repugnance of the wider public (given this takes place in the early sixties, it wouldn’t be a great leap to expect this), but the limitations and fallibilities of both men, frailties of confidence and potential (although George, as in all facets of his life, is very matter-of-fact regarding his sexuality).  The script explores the enormous claim that land and place has on a soul, how unlikely it would be for George to thrive in the metropolis of London, even if he were to share it with his beloved (and how equally difficult it would be for John to relocate to the scale of the rural ). Batt is quite happy to remain in his composed, known parameters, a domicile happily set in period detail, not shift too radically, even if it costs him a degree of personal fulfilment. Temporally, past and present co-exist, happier, carefree moments of discovery and companionship for the two men, and the sorrowful consequences of impasse and time passing; never in doubt, though, is the profound way in which George honours and remains devoted to John even in his absence (the care with which he retains an otherwise obsolete appliance only because John cherished it, albeit in a fetishised way).

For John, comprehending the custom and ritual of Yorkshire is the true mystery. The supporting cast all provide compassionate performances, the script extending them respect and understanding (Lesley Nicol’s careworn mother; Lucy Black’s knowing sister; Katie West’s enduring Doreen, her fidelity to George never to be reciprocated; Brian Fletcher’s callow, bored Jack), a resilient, loyal network of community. The final image, George in the kitchen alone, reciting lines, as the pool of stage light recedes, is one of twilight and exile. This unhurried, understated work (perfect in the intimate confines of the Donmar) manages to speak louder of matters of the heart and hearth than the bombast and noise of most any other production. The York Realist continues through 24 March

https://www.donmarwarehouse.com/production/6395/the-york-realist/

 

THE KIDS ARE NOT ALRIGHT: 300EL X 50EL X 30EL @ BARBICAN

PERFORMANCE/THEATRE 

If Ingmar Bergman, David Lynch and Roy Andersson were to collaborate on a project, the product may very well resemble this feverishly surreal, ineffably moving, and strikingly staged work from Belgian theatre company Toneelhuis/FC Bergman, the title of which references the dimensions of Noah’s Ark (rhythmically powerful, vaguely threatening water imagery recurs throughout the evening). The audience enters the auditorium to find a brooding gentlemen, quite still, sitting at the edge of a fishing pond, flanked by two small video screens (and one large one looming above his head) with the image of an elderly man in bed, forlorn in bearing, wired up to some medical equipment, encaged pigeon at his side. You struggle to sense movement in the frame, uncertain whether what you see is a still or live image (barely perceptible movement soon convinces it’s live). As soon as he rises from bed and heads for his door, the curtain rises, transforming what was a cramped space into a sudden broadness, revealing six wood shack dwellings, three each side of the stage surrounding a commons area, a thick grove of trees sealing them off from the greater world. We see the older man emerging from his home and walking off into the forest, seemingly swallowed up. A metal track around the circumference of the set allows for a quartet of production assistants, astride a vehicle reminiscent of the handcar used on railroads for maintenance, to film the interior activities of the village inhabitants, as the audience is only given the public space to see. Behaviour, initially mundane, grows increasingly bizarre, as if a toxic boredom has loosed some pathology in the characters (one family indulges in operatic meals, the voracious matriarch taking to the furniture when food runs out; a stern mother drills her daughter on the piano, all the while a black slime worryingly fills the tub; a gastrically distressed wife eventually passes-or births?-conch shells while her distracted husband casually masturbates; a group of men while away the hours playing games which grow progressively more violent towards each other, and an anxious youth takes to ever more destructive acts against a table-top diorama, which, it becomes clearer, is a recreation of the village). The interior detail of each home is a revelation of design, unfussy but pointed and revealing. An absurdist strain of humour is very nearly always present, which aids enormously in humanising the stories and eliciting a strange compassion for these people trapped, to a degree, in empty ritual, spiritual and emotional malaise, and cosmic abandonment. As the action becomes more frenzied, the camera crew wildly circling the stage, the interior dramas escalating,  you learn to appreciate and respect the tremendous precision of timing that must be in place to capture the exact, pinpoint image in each home as the camera passes-in the climactic moments, the camera whips around to expose the audience itself watching, a gesture that intimately implicates the audience and consciously heightens awareness of the artificiality of the experience simultaneously. Music is used powerfully throughout, especially an incendiary Nina Simone song near the end, scored to a tribal ceremonial dance enacted by the villagers, rigourously dousing their heads (for quite alarming lengths of time) in buckets of water then tossing the spray from their heads. There are a number of memorable images, in addition to those already mentioned: the forest folding up on itself, revealing a void behind; a man in silhouette violently taking axe to boat; an astounding clamour of people rushing the stage in the final moments to stand amongst the main characters; the carcass of a sheep lifted from the pond, elevated over the stage, a deluge of drip allowed to lessen to mere dribble in real time-all quite startling. Threaded through is the tender, heartbreaking story of the young girl pianist and the anxious young man as they plan what is inevitably a futile escape, claimed as they are by the land and custom. A distinct narrative does course through the work, despite the bizarre perspective and aberrant expression, which keeps you engaged and sympathetic. This was part of this year’s London Mime Festival, which has now concluded. I’m linking the Barbican page so that the interested may watch a trailer for the show, which will give a flavour of what the piece offers probably much better than a static image.

http://mimelondon.com/fc-bergman-300el-2018/

 

CARRY ON, MARX: YOUNG MARX @ BRIDGE THEATRE

THEATRE 

Full disclosure: I booked this inaugural production at Nicholas Hytner’s and Nick Starr’s brave venture at the One Tower Bridge development (arguably the most significant new commercial theatre of scale in London in several decades) less for the play then for the experience of the building and space-and in this respect, I was not disappointed. It’s modern and sleek without going overboard on design features, an elegance of economy and modesty ruling throughout. The foyer offers an appreciable spaciousness, a nest of pendant lamps wrapped in scrims of gold fabric casting a honeyed light upon the surroundings-even when quite populated, as the floor was on the Saturday matinee I attended, it’s possible to sculpt a personal space without feeling the crowd bearing down upon you. Inside the 900-seat performance space, the seating of which is adjustable for each production (amenable to traditional proscenium, promenade or thrust staging), it’s warm indirect lighting, lush curves of comfy seating (a rust-tinted blend of traditional fabric with flecks of leather) and soft bridgework of steel and wood, an unfussy and classy utilitarianism. The theatre is a private enterprise, funded by a group of investors, and will in no way chase after government or charitable subsidies-profit will depend solely on revenues generated from their programme (quite a world and challenge away from the founders’ previous tenure at the National Theatre, justly celebrated for the innovations and progress they brought to the august institution, and their ability to abundantly increase audience numbers). Hytner and Starr intend for equal representation for female playwrights and directors-the initial season features new pieces from Nina Raines, Lucinda Coxon and Lucy Prebble, and Laurie Sansom will direct the upcoming Nightfall.

As for the opening work, Richard Bean’s and Clive Coleman’s befuddling Young Marx, which seems to want to degrade Marx’s early life and struggles in London’s Soho neighbourhood to the level of farce or pantomime, I’m mystified. Suggesting that in his experiences in impecunious straits as a refugee Marx located the raw material for his future titanic work of socioeconomic philosophy Das Kapital is evocative, but the headlong, madcap pace, with every action pitched at a degree of hysteria, more often resembles a routine episode of Friends relocated to late 19th century England, constant streams of grand entrances and exits from the Marx flat with ample helpings of gesture and stage business (a disheartening majority of peripheral characters are broadly proportioned). So much of the material is pushed to such comic extremes that by the time the playwrights address more somber themes (a death, a burial, an outpouring of grief), it’s difficult to feel very moved, as the emotional foundations of the script haven’t been properly built. Bean and Coleman insist that all action and incident is based in what is accepted fact (Marx lived in poverty in a small flat with his family, he impregnated his housemaid, he and his wife lost children, Friedrich Engels supported him financially for a great part of his life and somehow agreed to name himself as the father of Marx’s lovechild, he duelled on Hampstead Heath, squabbled in the reading rooms of the British Library), but I can’t believe these life events tumbled along with the comedic tenor they assume here (the less said about the atrocious scene of the screwball brawl in the British Library, the better-like a very misjudged sequence in an earnest, but wayward, university production). It’s a reduction of a complicated and faceted life to an easily digestible trifle. Rory Kinnear bounds across the stage with selfish aplomb, a figure drinking his way through local pubs, cheerfully oblivious and ungrateful towards the loved ones working hard on his behalf-he’s meant to be a monstrous symbol of the overweening artist, a solipsistic behemoth, somehow excused because of perceived genius. Nothing here suggests the revolutionary man who will go on to write a landmark work. The handsome revolving set morphs smoothly from the squalid interior of the Marx residence to the back room of a pub where the league of rebels plot against the establishment to the streets and byways of Soho, capped off by a gray roofscape of chimneys and vents, which get a surprisingly fair amount of use. The material strains towards contemporary resonance with its themes of refugee crisis and border issues, the suspicions of authority towards foreigners, but the lightheartedness defeats the attempt. I could have done with less of the boisterousness of Marx and more of the reflection and steadiness of Engels (embodied with grace and integrity by Oliver Chris). One of the most effective scenes is of a late-evening drunken confessional conversation between the two combative friends, the play easing off for a brief moment from its incessant hectic thrust-otherwise, it treats their relationship like a music hall duo. The closing scene, with its underscoring of domestic tranquillity, Marx finally sat down, in the nascent stages of writing his opus, alludes to the idea of collaboration, discussing ideas and fielding proposals from his family and close friend. Young Marx continues through 31 December

https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/