Monday, 20 April 2015

Theatre Review: Each His Own Wilderness (Orange Tree)

Clare Holman and Susannah Harker in Each His Own Wilderness (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Following on directly from Paulette Randall’s piquant production of Mustapha Matura’s Play Mas [review here], Paul Miller’s first Orange Tree season (now sans regular Arts Council funding, for shame) offers another superb rare revival of a Royal Court-premiered play. This time out, Miller himself is directing Doris Lessing’s Each His Own Wilderness, in the play’s first major production since its debut at the Court in 1958. It proves to be another occasion to celebrate, for Miller’s is an arresting, razor-sharp revival of an absorbing, provocative piece, illuminated by terrific performances, including two – from Clare Holman and Joel MacCormack – that it’s worth crossing the country to see.
MacCormack plays Tony, a 22-year-old who, following the completion of his National Service, returns to the family fold to find his widowed mother, Myra, shacked up with a guy his own age: moreover, Myra’s young man, Sandy, happens to be the son of her own best friend, Milly. Swearing and trouser-wearing, Myra, it soon emerges, is a sexual and political radical - her current cause is protesting the H-Bomb –who views Tony’s anti-activism stance as disdainfully as he views her commitment to causes. The conflicts that erupt between the pair – exacerbated by the appearance of Myra’s other ex-lovers and by Milly’s return from the Far East – point to a wider schism between the generations in terms of sexual and political attitudes.

Objectionable as it may be to speculate, Lessing appears to have been working through some very personal emotions in Each His Own Wilderness, particularly in relation to motherhood and the legacies of her left-wing political engagement.  The result is a fascinatingly conflicted work that pulls the viewers’ sympathies every which way. No precursor to the awful, accusatory blame-the-baby-boomers dramas that were so prevalent a few years ago, the play is remarkably even-handed in its treatment of its characters, none of whom are demonised and all of whom we may see as foolish and wise, selfish and admirable, at different moments in the piece.  

The play’s tone is as slippery as its allegiances: Lessing’s writing combines epigrammatic wit with moments of Ibsen-esque intensity, and there’s even a slight flirtation with farce before a truly wrenching climax. And if some of the political chatter feels a mite forced on occasion, the play brilliantly reveals the vexed complexities of its period, a time that’s all too readily diminished as merely drab or uninteresting these days. Cynicism versus belief, the advocating of revolution based only on particular models,  sincere concern for the world’s future marred (or is it?) by moral compromise in one’s personal life, the spectre of the Spanish Civil War, the crimes committed under Communism  … Lessing explores all of this in a rich and relatable way.   
Joel MacCormack in Each His Own Wilderness (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
At the play’s centre is a troubled mother-son relationship, with inevitable echoes of Hamlet, Ghosts and, especially, The Vortex. And Holman and MacCormack are simply sensational as they reveal the depth of Myra and Tony’s ties of loathing and love for each other. Astutely designed by Tom Roger, the production also feels fully inhabited across the board, with great work from John Lightbody and Roger Ringrose as Myra’s other suitors, from Josh Taylor as the ingratiating, calculating Sandy, and from Rosie Holden as a bewildered girlfriend brought into the fray. And though it’s something of a challenge to imagine Susannah Harker’s bodacious Milly travelling Asia to aid peasants, Harker is a striking presence, especially in a memorably brutal post-coital scene.
Lessing’s play sometimes seems a bit too pleased with itself for its own sexual frankness and daring. But its intelligent, insightful and complex examination of two generations’ disillusionment with each other succeeds in getting under the skin.

Booking until 16 May.

Theatre Review: All-Male Pirates of Penzance (touring)

My review of Sasha's Regan's all-male production of The Pirates of Penzance, which is currently touring, is up at British Theatre Guide. You can read it here.  


Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Theatre Review: The Twits (Royal Court)

My review of Enda Walsh's adaptation of The Twits, directed by John Tiffany at the Royal Court, is up at The Public Reviews. You can read it here.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Theatre Review: Play Mas (Orange Tree)

Melanie La Barrie and Johann Myers in Play Mas (Photo: Robert Day)

Debuted at the Royal Court in 1974, when it won its writer the Evening Standard’s Most Promising Playwright Award, Mustapha Matura’s Play Mas now receives an absolutely top-notch revival by Paulette Randall at the Orange Tree as the latest gem in Paul Miller’s hugely successful first season.

Matura’s play treats the subject of Trinidad’s independence in two Acts. In the first, the action unfolds in the late 50s, in a Port of Spain tailor shop owned by one Miss Gookool. Here Samuel is an apprentice working with Miss G’s garrulous son Ramjohn, who has his own very particular philosophy of suit-making. Carnival is coming – to the delight of Samuel and the disdain of Ramjohn – and so are stirrings of political unrest, led by the PNM's charismatic Eric Williams. In the second Act, taking place a few years later, Samuel has become Commissioner of Police and calls Ramjohn in for a favour. In between, independence has indeed come to Trinidad, bringing with it new political challenges, as student “terrorists” object to the State’s decisions and its pro-American policies.

Robust, witty and generous in its language, and highly astute in its exploration of identity politics and carnival (as  genuine transgression or colonialist construct), Matura’s play is ripe for rediscovery. And Randall’s vibrant production leaps off the stage, boosted by a terrific design by Libby Watson (including some  truly fabulous costumes), well-judged music selections, and superb work from the cast.

Determined to keep politics out of her shop, even as she snaps at her staff and son and fawns over an Englishman (Rob Heanley), the brilliant Melanie La Barrie manages to make the no-nonsense matriarch Miss Gookool more deeply sympathetic than simply shrewish. Victor Romero Evans is vivid as a philandering neighbour  and brilliantly pulls off one of the play’s most bravura interludes.  Lori Barker contributes a priceless comic cameo as Samuel’s demanding wife.

And as the colleagues whose relationship is at the centre of the piece, Johann Myers as Ramjohn and Seun Shote as Samuel establish a beautiful rapport, whether shooting the breeze over films (the play contains some truly delectable movie-based chat) or subtly conveying the big shift in power in the characters' dynamic. Only the production’s final moments are perhaps a little too subdued, lacking the needed punch. But this remains a thrilling and absorbing evening that’s not to be missed.

Play Mas is booking until 11th April. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

Reviews of Cinema Made in Italy 2015

My coverage of the Cinema Made in Italy 2015 season, hosted at Cine Lumiere, is up at PopMatters. You can read it here.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Film Review: X+Y (dir. Matthews, 2014)

Morgan Matthews' delightful X+Y is out in the UK on 13th March. You can read my review from the London Film Festival here.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Concert Review: Chas & Dave (Richmond Theatre, 25th February 2015; touring)

Shouting, standing, boogieing in the boxes, and – of course! – singing along, the crowd out for Chas & Dave on Wednesday night were perhaps the rowdiest that Richmond Theatre’s seen for a while, with the theatre turned for the duration of the show  into pretty much the equivalent of an East End boozer.
The great love and affection that many have for Messrs Hodges and Peacock has dimmed not a jot over the years. And it’s not hard to see why, for the duo’s “rockney” mix - boogie woogie, skiffle, pub singalong, a spot of music hall - is as distinctive as it is irresistible, a throwback to vibrant working-class culture that still feels surprisingly fresh. In fact, in doing their own thing so brilliantly, honestly and unapologetically, I’d argue that  Chas & Dave – sampled by Eminem, covered by Tori, parodied by The Two Ronnies, openers for Led Zep and inspiration to Libertines - are pretty much as punk as you can get.
Whipping briskly through the two-hour set, the pair – accompanied by Chas’s son Nik, dynamic on drums –  were in storming form, delivering a mix of covers and originals that passed from New Orleans to Edmonton Green (via Margate, natch) and demonstrated the strength of the pair’s musicianship, which has so often been overlooked. “We’re gonna be doin’ everything tonight,” Hodges promised, and the pledge was pretty much kept up, as the set started with their 70s material, including a  cover of Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s “I Don’t Know Why (But I Do)” and  a rollicking and rapturously received “Gertcha”.
The pair are great at covers, actually, giving each song their distinctive stamp and performing the (mostly US) material without recourse to American accents (take heed Adele et al., ya fakers).  A chunky “When Two Worlds Collide” (from their new album, That's What Happens [2014]) was sublime, showcasing the interplay of Hodges's great piano-playing with Peacock's supple bass at its best, while arrangements of “My Blue Heaven” and “The Sunshine of Your Smile” were also pleasingly inventive.

Still, it’s their own material - quirky, funny, full of affectionate detail and rapid-fire word-play - that most have really come to hear, and the second  half – beginning with a double of “London Girls” and “Margate” that drove the young woman in front of us into near-orgasmic raptures of delight – was simply a blast, offering a break-neck “Diddle Um Song,” a cheeky “Rabbit,” a spontaneous “That’s What I Like Mick (The Sandwich Song)” when someone called for it, and that immortal kiss-off “Ain’t No Pleasing You”, before "The Sideboard Song” brought the night to a raucous close.    
If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that the pair tend to go full throttle for the whole show when modulating the set with some quieter numbers (as their albums tend to do) might give a fuller sense of their artistry. That artistry should not be underestimated, though. And neither should the cathartic, empowering potential of a mass singalong of “Ain’t No Pleasing You.” Catch 'em where you can. Altogether now…