Saturday, 1 August 2009

Pantani, Ullrich, Armstrong and le Tour

It's funny. A year ago, I didn't know what a promenade performance was. But ever since Stovepipe at the Bush, it seems I can't avoid them! Saw the Young Vic's unforgettable Kursk and then For the Best at the Unicorn and then a few days ago Mincemeat in Shoreditch. Today it was Pedal Pusher, an elemental story of struggle, willpower and excellence, all surrounding cycling and the Tour de France. (So that's 5 promenades in just 3 months, after not even one in the first three years!)

The plot features three modern greats of the sport - Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich, and the tragic Italian Marco Pantani. The setting is the late 1990s and early 2000s, when these three were battling it out amongst each other for supremacy. Who'll inherit the mantle of the immortal Miguel Indurain? Pantani is the charismatic crowd-pleaser whose career was derailed first by a horrific accident (that literally stripped his flesh from the bone) and finally destroyed by a positive dope test. Ullrich is the dour East German whose best proves not to be good enough to beat the powerhouse from Austin - Lance Armstrong, of course - who defied all critics and naysayers (not to mention testicular cancer that had spread to his brain) to win the Tour seven years in a row, thus putting himself up there with rarefied legends such as Merckx, Hinault and Anquetil.

Theatre Delicatessen who appear to have taken over a disused property on Regent Street (talk about prime location!) put on this show inside the cavernous ground floor space of the building. From the programme, it seems that the owners will eventually pull it down for a brand-new mixed development. But that's for later. For now it belongs to Theatre Deli and I remember they put on Hare's Fanshen on there last year, but I'd missed it.

This cycling play, however, I was not going to miss. It was propelled into the public consciousness by a highly complimentary Time Out review and such was the demand for tickets that they decided to stage an extra Saturday matinee - which is what I caught today. Rainy shitty weather, so a good day for the theatre.

It was a terrific couple of hours. To stage a show about the Tour de France without a single bike in sight is no mean feat, but they pulled it off. How? It was ingenious stuff. Plastic chairs were imagineered into state-of-the art racing cycles, as Pantani, Ullrich and Armstrong tackled the time-trials, climbed the Alps, conquered the fearsome Mont Ventoux, which Petrarch had climbed in the Middle Ages. (It reminded me of ghostly Shiprock, rising wild from the Navajo lands of New Mexico). All the while the trio fought bitterly with each other, the conflict between Armstrong and Pantani particularly intractable. They give us their life stories in the interstices of the races, glimpses of the ferocious motivation that drives them to such extremes.

There are a couple of magnificently staged racing scenes - one is Armstrong gifting Mont Ventoux to Pantani in the 2000 tour, another is the Texan fooling and then destroying Jan Ullrich a couple of years later. Even more impressive is the scene where Armstrong nearly destroyed himself when he forgot a feed-zone and went to the very brink of his physical limits in trying to finish a stage. Just as Pantani is revealed to have a terrible self-destructive streak, Armstrong shows superhuman willpower and self-belief; his charm is spiked with shafts of steel. Tom Daplyn is a dead ringer for Pantani, while sardonic Alex Guiney is excellent as Armstrong. Graham O'Mara's Ullrich is left to wonder what might have been. All the actors were in rare good form.

So an excellent play - full credit to the crew at Theatre Deli, and also to Time Out for exposing this to the rest of us. This one ranks highly among my plays of 2009, although promenade plays are physically quite demanding. No matter! In an hour, there's the final performance of Goodman and Stevenson's Duet for One. The fun never stops in this town.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

after the hols

I haven't written here since before the hols, but two plays since I came back deserve special mention:

1) Kursk by Bryony Lavery at the Young Vic
- for the richest, most complex sound design I have ever heard on the London stage. 2000 cues in 100 minutes. Enough said.

2) The Mountaintop by Katori Hall at Theatre 503
- for an authentic yet surreal reproduction of Martin Luther King's last sweltering night on earth in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. And also for an amazing pair of central performances, particularly by David Harewood who by a process of rare alchemy became the Voice of Dr King in that small pubtop room in Battersea.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The Winslow Boy, Rose of Kingston

The Winslow Boy and I have history. Going back to school, the key scene of this Rattigan play was vaguely familiar to me from the pages of Rhodri Jones’ timeless textbooks. The Winslow Boy accused of theft, expelled from naval cadet school, returned home in disgrace, interrogated mercilessly by the ferocious Sir Robert Morton. All this was familiar to me from school days.

Then I moved to the US and I looked up the play, read it as I also did Rattigan’s French Without Tears. Sitting on that warm balcony in Denton, Texas. When I first learnt that The Winslow Boy was about to be staged at the Rose in Kingston, starring Tim West no less, I knew right away that I was going to have to put this on my priority list. Even if the Rose is a long trek from the city.

The only question that remained was the reviews. Did the critics like it? When Billington gave it 4 stars, my mind was made up. I was going to Kingston, even though my last trip there resulted in an encounter with that epic asshole Richard Bean.


What a triumph it was. What a performance. It started off in cracking fashion, Ronnie come home, hiding out in the garden, getting wet in the rain while his grouchy old father let fly acerbic one-liners in the most casual fashion. Tim West was in great touch, although at times I thought that he might be playing a bit too throwaway, too low-key. But it all added up to a performance of great power. They were all fantastic, the callow Dickie who is taken out of Oxford and finds fulfilment in Reading!, the hapless Curry, once glorious with bat and ball, now a middle-aged solicitor, a total nobody, the mother who suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with grim dignity. Even the child Ronnie, oblivious to the national furore that he has caused.

The two central roles then. Claire Cox played the suffragette daughter Catherine with immense conviction and weary pathos. She gives up on her love for the sake of her principle. And Adrian Lukis plays the eminent barrister Morton. It was a very strange take that he had on his character I thought – a nasal deadpan is the best description, a blank expression combined with dispassionate delivery. And yet, in the triumphant grilling scene that plays out just before the interval, his voice rises along with his outrage and fills the hall. The midpoint curtain fell to rapturous applause. It is the same after the interval – Rattigan’s technique is so finely honed, even without leaving the Winslows’ living room for one second in the four acts, he keeps the pace going at a gallop, the audience breathless and keen in his wake. It’s written as tightly as a thriller.

But then in the final act comes heartbreak and pathos. Cate loses her fiancé, and every line of her face is carved with pain, but she knows, she knows what she must do. Let Right Be Done. On the other hand, there is Sir Robert, who has given up nothing less than the role of Lord Chief Justice in order to pursue the Winslow case to its end. As the scales fell from Cate’s eyes, the hairs rose on my arms, my eyes unbidden moistened and my throat constricted, and I knew then, in the final act of the play, I knew that this night had passed that fine barrier from ‘good’ to ‘great’, it was then that that fifth reluctant star was wrung out of me.

I rarely give out five stars to the London stage, but last night was nothing but highly deserved. It will stay very long in my memory. I’m glad too that my childhood classic was elevated to such a soaring production. So let right be done, let this show be shown up and down the land, but most of all in London on a very long run!

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

More Light, Arcola

A perfect little gem of a piece at the Arcola yesterday, in their Studio 3 no less, which is right off Studio 2. I’d never been inside 3 before. The first thing that hit me when I entered was the set – the ethereal beauty and grandeur of the Middle Kingdom had been somehow brought to life. The golden gates to Shih Huang Ti’s tomb shimmered, set off by ruby-red Chinese lanterns in the dark cavernous space. Together they provided a fine setting for the grotesque tale that unfolded.

The great emperor Shih Huang-Ti has died. All those who accompanied him in life must die too, inside his vast funereal complex consisting of outer rings and inner rings. In the innermost chamber, with the emperor himself, are entombed alive seven mistresses who bore him no sons. All robed in in black gowns, they are led nominally by the quick-witted More Light, played with terrific zest by the director herself, Catrina Lear.

As they are locked inside and the dark engulfs them, they unleash a blood-curdling scream of horror that chilled the very bones of this viewer. Soon though, they recover some of their composure. How to solve the problem of food? Simple. Eat the emperor himself. What price lines like these – “his love member that tasted of cheese, though we were already familiar with that, having tasted it often in the past”! Bryony Lavery’s script was a constant delight. What was just as fine was the ensemble work by the actresses, playing the roles of mistresses with names like More Light, Pure Joy, Playful Kitten and other such harem monikers. Even though their use of language is always ornate, proper and formal, it still manages to reflect the doom that has fallen in on them.

The girls unbinding their long-bound feet is one of the more joyful scenes in the story. Shedding their heavy robes, they skimp about in identical red undershirts. More Light goes off in search of help, is waylaid by a eunuch with whom she forms an affection of sorts. Two other girls go semi-lesbian. One girl creates naïve art that she hopes will live long after they are dead, to be discovered by generations who will arrive centuries later. Another girl, a fierce blonde, finds herself taking charge as others falter. The music enhances the horror, as do the darkness, the lighting, the looming silhouettes of the vast bronze soldiers. It’s all over in 55 minutes but for that period, you are given a penetrating insight into a different world, a different people, a different time. The insight may or may not be exact, but you get the feeling that it might not have been so far from the truth after all.

This is the best kind of theatre. Savvy and transforming – theatrical in the true sense of the word. Kudos to the cast and crew, many of the girls were making their professional debuts. Afterwards, I even had a brief chat with Judith Musil (not related to the writer) who played the role of Pure Joy. Light grey skies and a cool wind over Hackney, and I walked off into the evening.

P.S. Big rumpus in the blogs - see Guardian, Whingers and Madam Miaow. But most particularly, see Catrina Lear's own comments in Lyn Gardner's post. Powerful stuff.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Burnt by the Sun, NT Lyttelton

Went to see Burnt by the Sun at the Lyttelton last night. Renowned Russian movie turned into a stage adaptation by Howard Davies. The story is one of lost love and treachery at the height of Stalin’s purge, and a grim tale it is too. General Kotov is a bigwig in the party apparatus, complete with dacha in the country. His wife is entirely too lovely and too young for him, but they have a precocious little daughter and seem content enough. A whole posse of mothers, grandmothers and other extended family spend their summer holidays at the dacha, thanks to the General’s generosity. In the middle of this soporific idyll (and the first half of the play IS dead slow) enters Mitia, a blast from the past and not in a good way. Mitia was Maroussia’s beloved before he disappeared inexplicably; now he has come back after 12 years to stir the pot. After the interval, the plot slowly uncoils with gut-wrenching horror – Mitia is here at the dacha at the behest of Stalin himself. Kotov is to be extinguished in the purge. The final scenes are almost unbearable in their evocation of terror and wanton, random violence.

What did I make of it all? Evidently the second half of the play was far more gripping than the first. That however could be attributed to the nature of the source material. But I have some other gripes. Firstly, Howard Davies’ literal approach to theatre-making is wearing a bit thin on me. The cheap attempts at realism – realistic sets, realistic props, etc – there’s no artifice in his approach. Unadventurous I think is one way to describe this brand of theatre. Secondly, the cast. I think Ciaran Hinds and Michelle Dockery were excellent choices in the role of the earthy Kotov and his porcelain wife. However, as far as I am concerned Rory Kinnear, fine actor though he is, was fatally miscast. He is entirely too youthful, too callow to pull off the role of Mitia convincingly. Who should have been played with more scars, more pathos, the weight of a dark history. I don’t think Rory was the actor for that.

Other cutesy touches – the beach scene, the gas masks, the Pioneers paraphernalia – you could either praise as earnest, or dismiss as earnest. What is undeniable is the power of the last half hour of the piece. The tension rises, the horror multiplies until one can hardly bear it. When Mitia says to his henchmen “Clear up this mess”, the gunshot that kills Mokhova’s old beau is so sudden, so casual in its finality, that the whole audience jumped.

All in all, it was a competent but not transforming night at the theatre. There was a young blonde girl dressed all in white in the row ahead and a more annoying bitch you never did see. People like this should have their names put down on the banned list of every theatre. Her phone went off twice and she insisted on talking, whispering, crumpling packets, and generally raising all hell and pissing the fuck out of everyone around her. Thank God they exited before long. I had to throw in my dig – ‘don’t come back’. The girl who played Kotov’s daughter was crying at the curtain call, which was really rather sweet – this was the final performance and it must have got to her, poor thing. Lastly, I saw old Trevor McDonald in the bar during the interval, hair all white, sitting on his own.

P.S. The other recent purge play at the national – Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is about to be revived next year. I think I’ll go see it again, seeing as I slept through much of it first time round.

P.P.S. Thanks to Sanjana for helping me rediscover this blog. This is my first post here in a year and a half!

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

118) Jenufa, Arcola

That's pronounced Ye-noo-fa by the way. I didn't know. This 19th-century tragedy (which was turned into a famous opera by Janacek) has been given its first British outing, via an English translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Beat that name if you can! From the beginning we are in familiar Arcola territory, i.e. some remote Slavic outpost under the nominal heel of the even more remote Ottoman emperor, but ruled really by local tradition and prejudice. It is a grim tale, a tragedy of Greek dimensions. However, I have to say that I found the first hour to be really quite dull - some interesting directorial choices regarding music/movement and pacing. The big hole in the middle was the girl in the title role - Jodie McNee as the hapless Jenufa turned in something of a colourless performance on the night (maybe she's better on other nights) but I had trouble believing that a girl as plain as that could be the prize catch of the village, even of a godforsaken Moravian village in the middle of nowhere. Her lack of panache or personality was manfully covered by Paola Dionisotti in the role of the devoted and worldly-wise stepmother Kostelnichka who'll go to some serious extremes to look out for her daughter - up to and including infanticide. Cue nemesis. Dionisotti was the key to the piece and she held it all together very well. The supporting cast was good too - Oscar Pearce in the role of the luckless lover Latsa did some heavy-duty glowering, while his rival Steva (Ben Mansfield) and the Mayor's wife (Patti Love) added colour to the proceedings.

The play gained considerable momentum after the first hour, and by the end Kostelnichka's gruesome comeuppance fair had me by the balls. Some of the most interesting bits came during the above-mentioned music and movement (designed cleverly by Christopher Sivertsen) - with very little in the way of piped sound, the cast used only vocal chords and physical movements to create the necessary atmosphere at key points of the story. Some excellent Slavic singing was the result. In the end, the audience was fulsome in its applause. A good production then, well worth checking out, but alas not enough meat in it really to lift it out of the crowded field that falls under the heading of 'competent play'. See it if you like.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

116) Five Tanks, Hackney Empire

Considering the number of struggling actors, musicians, artists etc who have done time in call-centres while they’re waiting for their next gig, you’d think that the call-centre play would develop into a mini-genre of its own. The inherent absurdity of call-centre work - nightmarish yet preposterous at the same time – ought to provide young writers with a rich source of comic potential and surreal drama. But that alas is not the case. To the best of my knowledge, there aren’t that many call-centre plays out there, although Lab Ky Mo’s sophomore effort Five Tanks tries to go some of the way to fill that gap.

Let me say at the outset that there was quite a bit of promise in the play and plenty to like. For a start, not many contemporary plays based in London do full justice to its bewildering ethnic diversity. But Lab Ky Mo himself is of Chinese origin, and he’s taken into account the rich mix of peoples in this crazy capital. Call centres tend to draw people from all kinds of backgrounds, and that is faithfully reflected in the play. The setting is a call centre in Hackney: the callers are trying to conduct a government survey of minority business owners, their supervisors are trying to keep up the ‘strike rate’, and in the meantime it’s Ramadan and there’s been a bomb scare on the number 26 bus that cuts through the heart of Hackney.

Two of the characters are Muslim even. Not one, but two! One of them is Rehana, a typical East London girl, cute, hijabi and full of spunk. She’s assistant supervisor to Nick, a harried lad who hates his job – not an unreasonable feeling given that on the morning of his birthday, he is finding that getting his callers to actually make calls is harder than trying to herd cats. They are a fractious lot, to say the least. Bronwyn is the typical call-centre employee – ugly and badly dressed, she’s a failed actress with faded dreams. (In fact, how someone like Bronwyn could ever make it in the acting profession is a mystery. The character had zero style.) Saeed is the newbie, a black guy who used to be a trader in the City, but he got laid off and has now decided to keep his hand in by working in a call centre – he turns up dressed to work in a natty suit and tie! (I must say that that character didn’t convince either. Maybe Lab Ky Mo has met actual City folk in call centres, but they’re not very likely to deal with a spell of unemployment by doing this kind of work. Not in my experience anyway, but I could be wrong.) Like Rehana, Saeed is also Muslim and causes a bit of a kerfuffle on his very first day by demanding to pray during work hours.

Bronwyn and Saeed are the weakest links in the play. The cast is rounded up by Erno, a fast-talking Irishman who’s served in Iraq and who’s saving up to go to Australia to see his estranged wife and daughter; and Dougal, a man drifting through life, who I thought was the most interesting character of the lot. I used to know people like Dougal. Back in the Lost Years, I did two spells of call-centre work myself – first in Oxford and then in Glasgow – and Dougal reminded me of some of my colleagues. The ‘genuine strivers’. People who managed to immerse themselves in their meaningless work, who would come to work 10 minutes ahead of time and spend every minute in earnest effort and sincere calling. I mean it was (and still is) nothing more than minimum-wage slavery - and the most soul-deadening slavery at that - but working alongside people like Dougal and Richard, you’d never get that impression.


That’s what I liked about Lab Ky Mo’s writing – he’s faithfully captured some of the ‘types’ that work inside these hellholes, and he could only do it because he’s done time himself. He also captured some of the surreal pettiness that sours this kind of work. The insistence on ‘signing in’ at the correct times if you want to be paid for your work, and that unfailing injunction - ‘stick to the script’! Lord, they brought back memories! I always had trouble sticking to the script. At the Phone Room in Oxford, I had a couple of disciplinary meetings because of it, with that slick swine whose name I forget, a more oleaginous asshole in the workplace I haven’t met since. He’d call me up to the meeting room and play back my calls to me and then upbraid me. Sigh. It all feels like such a long time ago - and yet not long enough.

And then there were the breaks. Ahh the breaks. Rushing out to catch a fag or three in the 10 mins allotted to you, standing outside a bleak industrial shed in a nameless industrial park, hunched over next to the brick wall, trying to catch a ray of weak sunshine which in turn is trying to break through the grey cloud cover. All I remember from my call-centre breaks is the cloud cover. Does the sun ever come out over a call centre? Probably not. Only that one time I remember, summer of 2005, when for a few days the sun shone over Glasgow and we went out and sat in the lawn and burned ourselves up in the heat. But that was the only time. The rest of the time, it was cold, grey, hunch, fag. Scuffling your shoes in the industrial grit.

The odd thing is that like the characters, I too was in the call centre that morning of 7/7. It was called RHL. (Lab Ky Mo’s one is called ISS.) Surfing online, I was one of the first to learn about what had happened in London, and I called up my neighbours as soon as the news broke. More parallels…


But yes. Back to Five Tanks. Why Five Tanks by the way - a bit of a non sequitur, surely? It’s actually a reference to Erno’s time in Iraq, a battle that took place in a wadi. So, nothing to do with call centres really. Five Tanks – rather like Three Kings!

What about the play’s weaknesses? Alas, these were legion too. Although Lab Ky Mo has already met with some success on the arthouse/indie film circuit, the theatre game is new to him, and his inexperience showed through in the script as well as in the direction. Firstly, the humour - it fell rather flat. There were some good one-liners that raised a few chuckles, but these were few and far between. A funnier writer would have made hay with this kind of material, call centres being natural goldmines of comic surrealism. But not our Lab, so this was definitely a missed opportunity for him. (Don’t you just love saying that name though? I certainly do – Lab Ky Mo, Lab Ky Mo!)

>Some of the acting was weak as well – Bronwyn, Rehana and Saeed coming to mind here. This was partly due to the poor pacing and plotting – deliberate dialogue can also be deadly dull at times, and such longeuers almost took over the middle part of the play last night. Bad choices by the director there. The play was always at its most engaging when the fast talkers were on show – Erno the soldier and Nick the supervisor. When Bron and Saeed opened their mouths, it usually started to flag. The Braveheart speech was a serious bit of idiocy, though perhaps of a piece with Bronwyn’s utterly lurid character. But, in general, slow and stilted is not the way to go with this kind of stuff. D’ye hear me, Lab – you want fast and cracking!<

The level of detail about Muslim life was commendable – Lab Ky Mo is definitely an open-minded fella. But they should have gotten Saeed’s prayer movements right – this is something they always manage to get wrong, whether on stage or on screen. There was also a bit of attraction between Nick and Rehana, some heavy cross-cultural flirting going on - but that storyline was kept firmly under wraps.

Still, when all is said and done, Lab Ky Mo has learnt the most important lesson of all, which is that if you start well and finish well, your audience will forgive you a lot in the middle, and this was certainly the case last night. Lab Ky Mo finished strongly. The audience was well pleased at the end and congratulated Lab Ky Mo on the way out. He had been sitting right in front of me during the whole play. The only pity is that more people didn’t show up to see it - the galleries were barely half full. I think, with a bit of tightening up, a lot more Londoners could enjoy this entertaining piece.

So mo pawa to Lab Ky Mo. Lab Ky Mo! Lab Ky Mo!

P.S. Looks like the cute hijabi girl is actually a Bangladeshi rapper from Manchester. Give it up for Sarah Sayeed!