Friday, 27 October 2017

Theatre Review: Romantics Anonymous (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

Forget Follies. (And, believe me, when it comes to that damn “Loveland” sequence, I’m still trying to....) A little further down the Southbank there’s now a lovely, intimate, humanly-scaled alternative. As the opening production of her final “Winter Season” as Globe Artistic Director, Emma Rice has turned the stage of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse into a chocolate factory, adapting Jean-Pierre Améris’s 2010 French-Belgian rom com Les émotifs anonymes into a sweetheart of a new musical that charms and amuses throughout.

Rice and the Globe board may not have proved to be an ideal match, but Rice and “le cinéma Français” certainly are, as previously demonstrated by Kneehigh’s glorious take on Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg back in 2011. Romantics Anonymous has a similar kind of spirit to that show: ludic and loving, soulful and silly, by turns. But, though difficult themes are glanced at, there’s much less melancholy in this material. Working with lyricist Christopher Dimond and composer Michael Kooman, Rice makes Romantics Anonymous into the equivalent of a big, warm hug: just what’s needed to brighten winter nights.  

The plot concerns the burgeoning romance between two characters with social anxiety issues. Angélique is a timid girl who, wishing to build her confidence, starts attending sessions at the “Les émotifs anonymes” support group. Through a contact there she ends up working as a sales rep at the chocolate factory run by Jean-René, a guy who, it turns out, is even more introverted than she is, as he skulks in his office listening to passive aggressive self-help tapes. A disastrous date follows, before love starts to blossom. But with the factory under threat, Angélique may be called upon to truly overcome her inhibitions and reveal her own secret chocolate-making skills.

Rice has said that she wanted to make Romantics Anonymous “very European” in tone, but in many ways the show feels British through and through: I found myself thinking of The Two Ronnies and Dinnerladies at various points. As in Cherbourg, the Frenchness of the source is intermittently played up with “haw-hee-haw-ing” cheek, particularly when the beret- and striped-shirt-sporting ensemble archly croon the hilarious “Don’t Think about Love” while wheeling out a bed and flinging rose petals for our hero and heroine’s first night together.

Dimond and Kooman have talked about French influences on the score, too – from Satie to Debussy – and, played here by a skilled quartet (Sophie Creaner on woodwind, Mike Porter on percussion, Llinos Richards on cello and MD Jim Henson on piano), the music has a lovely, light, gently undulating quality, with just enough bite and quirk to make revisiting the score an attractive proposition. The lyrics are variable, but sung with conviction by the cast, who seize on the wittiest lines and deliver them with gusto.

Indeed, Rice has recruited many of her favourite actors for this confection (including several from her Twelfth Night, which opened the “Summer of Love” season back in May). They all shine, with Carly Bawden (Twelfth Night’s minx of a Maria) and Dominic Marsh making a charmingly awkward pair; they’re especially delightful when singing together on “Some Things are Too Good for Words,” as funny and sweetly sexy a duet as recent musical theatre has offered.

Bawden and Marsh are well supported by a superb ensemble who multitask with gleeful aplomb, whether it’s Marc Antolin as a computer geek and a strident chef, or Joanna Riding moving from gruff Corrie-ish factory worker to incongruously sexy matriarch. (Riding also takes the wheel for one of the funniest driving sequences that the stage has seen recently.) I also loved Gareth Snook as both Angélique’s father-figure benefactor and a highly-strung prospective female buyer, and Natasha Jayetileke as the support group attendee who’s so bad at saying “No” that she buys PPI twice a week. (Since Rice, in her "Letter" regarding her departure from the Globe, seemed to define herself as a people-pleaser, can we detect a bit of wry self-portraiture here?) Lez Brotherston’s glowing design (with location shifts signalled by neon signs) also helps to keep the proceedings fleet and fluid, and Etta Murfitt’s witty choreography makes the most of the small space. 

Romantics Anonymous is slight, and those resistant to Rice’s brand of whimsy will doubtless find it too winsome a proposition – though in fact there’s a steely undercurrent to the show's presentation of the courage it takes to embrace change and face fears. The ending feels a bit rushed, and not quite magical enough, yet. Still, small of scale but huge of heart, this show is a charmer, and a perfect start to the final season of Rice’s all-too-brief time at the helm of the Globe.

Romantics Anonymous is booking until 6 January. Further information here

Theatre Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Merton Arts Space, & touring)

Published in 1886, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich remains among the most immediate and moving of all literary meditations on mortality, documenting the demise of a seemingly successful man, a legal functionary, as he belatedly questions the value and purpose of his life. Rosemary Edwards, a translator of the text, describes the novella as “a powerful, sombre record…[It] gives what Tolstoy required art to give: it is kinetic, moving the reader to intense pity and awareness of the spiritually therapeutic properties of prolonged physical suffering finally resolved in death.”
Sounds a cheerful proposition, right? Well, Stephen Sharkey, in his expert new stage adaptation of the novella, succeeds in retaining the intense moral seriousness of Tolstoy’s vision while also incorporating some elements of dark humour – a touch of Beckettian irony – into the mix. Sharkey has shaped the narrative into a dramatic monologue performed by one actor in under one hour, and while this has resulted in some necessary stripping away – of elements of social context, of the protagonist’s background and family history – the essentials remain, sometimes even gaining potency in their new form as an embodied, closely shared theatrical experience. This is adaptation as distillation, and Sharkey, whose other adaptations include writings by Dickens and Dostoyevsky, has done a hugely impressive job of giving Tolstoy’s work a vivid, fresh and immersive theatrical life.
Pungent and wry, Sharkey’s text is expertly served by Attic Theatre’s production, directed by the company’s Artistic Director Jonathan Humphreys, which (as staged at Merton Arts Space) makes the play into a thrillingly intimate experience. At once eerie and welcoming, Grace Venning and Jess Bernberg’s brilliant design (set/costume and lighting, respectively) places the audience at tables lit by lanterns, conjuring an atmosphere of séance that feels entirely appropriate for Sharkey’s revisioning of the material as a ghost story of sorts. Jack Tarlton’s spectre-like Ivan takes his place amongst us, a spirit who’s unsure if we can see him. Once reassured, he begins to tell his tale: that of a St. Petersburg-born magistrate whose life – with its unhappy marriage, social climbing, gambling, and Law Court duties – is abruptly curtailed when he’s struck down with a mysterious illness some time after an accident.
As Ivan – by turns bitter, denying, scared, confused and questioning – gradually confronts his fate, so other presences (a dim prospective son-in-law, a hypocritical friend, a kindly young peasant carer) come into focus, with Sharkey also spotlighting Tolstoy’s indelible image of impending mortality as “the black sack,” both feared and desired by the protagonist. 

A show as intimate as this one naturally stands or falls in large part on the strength of its actor, and it’s hard to see how Tarlton’s performance as Ivan could be bettered. From the opening moments, Tarlton makes us his fellows and confidantes, directing lines at individual audience members, taking a seat at certain tables, or even (in a gesture evoking the already-famed performance art set-piece in Ruben Östlund's new film The Square [2017]) climbing atop one table to lay himself out as a corpse. Now still, now charging, Tarlton’s attention to the rhythms of the text is evident vocally as well as physically, and he keeps a palpable tension in the air, not allowing us to forget that Ivan’s fate is the common fate of everyone present. There’s catharsis in that recognition too, though, and Tarlton brings to Ivan’s journey a true sense of spiritual and emotional progression. It’s a terrific performance, rich and generous, unsentimental and intensely felt, and one that’s destined to make a deeply personal impression on all who see it.
In another generous gesture, Attic have been staging a stripped down, “pop up” version of the show, for free, at libraries in the Merton area. It’s to be hoped that Humphreys’s haunting production, and Tarlton’s great performance, continue to get the further life that they deserve.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich was performed at Merton Arts Space between the 6 and 29 October 2017, before one night at Theatre N16, and four free performances at libraries in the Merton borough.
Photos: Claudia Marinaro

Monday, 23 October 2017

DVD Review: Life is Sweet (dir. Mike Leigh [1990]; BFI, 2017)

My review of the new BFI DVD/Blu-ray re-release of Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet (1990) is up at PopMatters. You can read it here

Saturday, 23 September 2017

CD Review: A New Way, by Amy Clarke (2017)

Though composed and developed over a number of years, the thirteen carefully crafted songs that make up Amy Clarke’s debut album A New Way form a compelling and cohesive whole. As its title suggests, this is a record that’s concerned with transition and change - its difficulties, challenges, opportunities - and Clarke approaches the theme from a variety of perspectives, offering character portraits, relationship confessionals and spiritual ruminations while sustaining an intimate, confiding tone throughout.    

A single, stark piano note ushers in the arresting opener “Rain Come Round”: the song then picks up pace with rolling percussion and an urgent vocal as Clarke anticipates a tempest to come: “Tornados, I have lived where they land/ But this time I am not frightened/I have built a better border/and I’m safe here from your storm.”     

A New Way is indeed heavily piano-based: the classically trained Clarke is a versatile and creative player who combines jazz, rock, pop and classical elements in her arrangements. Liner note thanks expressed to Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan (with whom Clarke has collaborated) feel apt; in fact, at times the album seems to set up a warm sisterly dialogue with Amos’s just-released latest record, Native Invader [review], in its potent exploration of feminist and ecological themes. The connection is especially evident on the beautiful centrepiece “Between the Ice and the Ocean”, with its “Reindeer King”-evoking imagery, and on  “We Are the Web,” an ardent plea for unity between humans and the natural world: “we must listen to each other/listen to our Mother/to heal her and to make her whole.”

Occasionally, as on the closing “Shine,” Clarke’s lyrics resort to more generic statements of uplift, but the album isn’t afraid to introduce some  discordant elements as well. The terrific “Belmont Blues” is an ambivalent relationship reminiscence delivered in a sultry, defiant style. The elegant and touching “From Here” doubts that divisions can be bridged. “Once” combines graveness and buoyancy to compelling effect. “Goddess” offers a double-tracked, gently percussive, spirits-evoking assertion of personal power and the challenge of its maintenance, as Clarke challenges herself: “I must remember to remember this.”

Still, the album’s tone is, overall, loving, open and conciliatory, as evidenced on the title track, which draws assurance and inspiration from mindful attention to nature’s offerings and a recalibration of perspective. Most moving of all is the celestial “Ella Mira,” a gorgeous ode to unexpected faith wrought from fleeting connection that works as love song, spiritual declaration, and cosmic reflection. Delivered in Clarke’s warmest vocal tones, the song encapsulates the best of A New Way. It's a cleansing and inspiring  album by a talented artist to watch. 

A New Way is released on 5th October 2017. Further information here.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Theatre Review: Follies (National Theatre)

 Znalezione obrazy dla zapytania Follies national theatre poster

Do people really enjoy Stephen Sondheims sour sentimentality songs like Every Day a Little Death?’” wondered Pauline Kael in 1978. The answer, these days at least, seems to be a definite Yes: so much so that every major revival of a Sondheim musical becomes a cultural Event and even shows that were indifferently or negatively received at their premieres are now all treated as classics of the American musical theatre. As such, its no surprise that the hype machine has gone into maximum overdrive for Dominic Cookes production of Follies (1971) at the National Theatre, with the production billed as the latest dazzling take on a musical masterpiece.
Is the show a masterpiece, though? Theres no doubt that there are some wonderfully enjoyable bits throughout Cookes lush and lively production: whether its a charmingly staged Beautiful Girls; Janie Dee coarsening up to deliver a biting Could I Leave You?; a tap-happy “Who’s That Woman?”, exuberantly choreographed by Bill Deamer; Di Botcher’s knowing, gutsy take on “Broadway Baby”; or Imelda Staunton and Philip Quast wringing maximum emotion from a great “Too Many Mornings.”
A problem for me, though, is that Follies is just that: bits a selection of skits, routines and turns in search of a dramatic centre. Its no surprise that the show has had so much success in concert presentations, since theres no plot to speak of, just a situation: the reunion of a group of former showgirls (plus spouses) on the stage they used to share, shadowed by their younger selves.
James Goldmans book (rewritten for some productions but apparently presented in a slightly tweaked version of its original form here) provides scenes that are just sketchy little blurts. The piece seems to have many more protagonists than it knows what to do with, or that can be developed in any depth. As it is, the characters scuttle around Vicki Mortimer’s ever-revolving, crumbling-theatre set, dropping waspish quips or soppy revelations, stopping occasionally to sing. But don’t expect to learn much about most of them, as they’re shuffled on and off.
Clearly the structure is meant to evoke that of Follies shows, but that doesn’t make it particularly satisfying, conceptually or dramatically. There are few arcs, and so the show feels incohesive, thin, unintegrated: a selection of broads, belting. (At first it looks like Tracie Bennett is going to do something really fresh with “I’m Still Here”, starting the song in a more muted conversational style, but by the end the song’s become a generic camp show-stopper.)
Only four characters - Staunton’s Sally, Dee’s Phyllis, Quast’s Ben and Peter Forbes’s Buddy (played in their younger incarnations by Alex Young, Zizi Strallen, Adam Rhys-Charles and Fred Haig, respectively) - really come into focus, and I’m afraid their relations are mostly marked by the “sour sentimentality” that Kael identified as characteristic of Sondheim. Amid the quartet’s quarrels, Dee is the funniest and Staunton is most successful at bringing humane touches throughout listen to her lovely light pause before Sally delivers her married name - but it’s not a happy development when we’re cued to understand that the character is simply, in Sondheim’s definition, “crazy.” If Staunton’s much-anticipated Losing My Mind feels self-conscious and slightly disappointing, to me, it’s possibly because its part of the Loveland sequence: an expressionistic dream/nightmare vision of the characters’ different neuroses that I found to be a bit of a kitsch horror.
By this point, in fact, Follies seems to have degenerated into a something of a style exercise, and it seems that most of its number could be shuffled around and placed anywhere without the show losing too much. Compared to other theatre-maker Sondheim musicals, I’d rank it as better than the endlessly blasting Gypsy but inferior to the nuanced and truly touching Merrily We Roll Along. Cooke’s production is going to get lots of praise, and maybe its as good as it could be. But, for all its undoubted high spots, Follies is such a bitty piece of work that its hard to imagine any production really making the show cohere.

Monday, 14 August 2017

CD Review: Native Invader by Tori Amos (Decca, 2017)

“Knowledge sown in Gaia’s bones…/Her uncorrupted soul/Will not be possessed or owned.” Briskly intoned by Tori Amos and her daughter Natashya Hawley on the centrepiece song, “Up the Creek,” these lyrics are among those that cut closest to the heart of the concerns of Amos’s new album, Native Invader, a record which frequently turns to nature, to the rhythms of (Mother) Earth, as a source of strength and wisdom against divisive, destructive forces. As the album’s pitch-perfect title suggests, and its closing (bonus) track “Russia” makes clear, these forces may be internal as much as external, referring to illnesses and disabling thoughts that might inhabit/inhibit an individual as well as to the oppressions perpetrated by leaders against their own people or against the land itself.

Originally inspired by a Smoky Mountains road-trip undertaken last summer, the album, Amos has said, dramatically shifted its focus due to two events: the result of the US election in November, and a stroke that left her mother Mary partially paralysed and unable to speak. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that Native Invader combines and fuses all these elements, resulting in a work whose overt combination of personal and political preoccupations makes it a spiritual sister to two of Amos’s masterpieces, Scarlet’s Walk (2002) and American Doll Posse (2007).

Such syntheses have always been central to Amos’s music, of course. At her best, she’s an artist with an extraordinary gift for taking the temperature of the present moment, but doing so via unpredictable excursions into myth and history, and references (variously arcane or direct) to personal experience that render her work truly unique. The aforementioned “Up the Creek,” for example, is an urgent, echoy duet that feels both edgily contemporary – synth stabs, dramatic electronic flourishes, cathartic piano breakdown – and weirdly old timey in its incorporation of the expression “Good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise” (itself made into a Jerry Reed-penned, Johnny Cash-popularised song in the 1950s). That expression (apparently a favourite of Amos’s beloved Cherokee Grandfather) is suitably subverted here, not least through a title that nicely nods to the notion that the phrase might refer to the Creek people as much as a body of water.

In its allusiveness, then, Native Invader is an album that makes the listener work: don’t be surprised to find yourself inspired to brush up on the theories of Carl Sagan, Thomas Nast’s 1830 cartoon of Andrew Jackson as the “Great White Father,” or the Veil of Veronica at various points as you listen. Following such trails is not only productive and exciting, though: it also seems absolutely central to the anti-isolationist ethos of an album that stresses the value of making connections, of seeing one thing in terms of another. Of building bridges, not walls.

As an in-house production built around Amos’s collaborations with her engineer/guitarist husband Mark Hawley (plus John Philip Shenale on two tracks), Native Invader shares much the same base as its predecessor, Unrepentant Geraldines (2014), which came after two of Amos’s most ambitious collaborative projects: the epic classical song cycle Night of Hunters (2011) and the sublime musical The Light Princess (2013) at the National Theatre. But the sound here is darker, richer-toned, and more ambient than the lighter, lower-keyed arrangements on Geraldines, sometimes gesturing back to Amos’s more elaborately produced works:  from the choirgirl hotel (1998), To Venus and Back (1999), and Abnormally Attracted to Sin (2009).

A case in point is the album’s stunning opener “Reindeer King,” a majestic seven minute epic on which strings and synths are used as haunting accents to Amos’s piano-work, which is gorgeously rich and deep here. In commanding voice, Amos locates the listener (after Eliot) “at the still point of the turning world,” reporting the title character’s advice to the divided. Entrancing and cinematic, it’s a spine-tingling song, destined to be canonised as a classic in her catalogue.

Without ever quite hitting that height again, the rest of the album offers many pleasures and puzzles for the listener. Those with kneejerk objections to Hawley’s guitar-playing (which is rather dominant throughout the first half) may be as resistant to the record as those sad cases who still keep complaining when each new  Amos album turns out not to be More Boys For Pele.

But those listening without prejudice will find that Hawley’s contributions add nuance and atmosphere at their best.  Warm washes of guitar reverberate through the measured, deceptively mellow first single “Cloud Riders,” on which a shooting star serves as an ambiguous portent of challenges to come, and the sensuous “Wildwood” which finds replenishment in the forest on its way to a poignant reunion. Meanwhile, there’s wah-wahing urgency to the intricate “Broken Arrow,” another standout track that advocates the avoidance of snap judgement reactions to political events at the same time as it urges citizens’ to vigilance of those in power. Amos drops a heart-stopping piano part behind her tribute to the resilience of “Lady Liberty” and the nation she represents: “she may seem weak/we may be battleweary/still those songlines sing.”

The album gets into somewhat stickier territory when it ventures into what has been one of Amos’s strongest suits: couples’ communication and relationship conflict. The twitchy, skeletal “Chocolate Song,” a tale of warring opposites spun from a domestic scene, works best as a rejoinder to Geraldines’s “Wild Way.” But the notion of “vowels and consonants” as “weaponry” was more dynamically explored on Night of Hunters’s great “Battle of Trees,” while the cooed opening line to the chorus sadly sounds destined for a Thorntons’ commercial. The softly pulsing “Wings” fares rather better as a song of relationship renegotiation, Amos bringing both sadness and sultriness to her delivery. Still the track doesn’t quite take flight, especially when the lyric “Sometimes big boys they need to cry” renders the theme too explicit.

More compelling and mysterious by far is the plaintive piano dirge “Breakaway,” a quiet heartbreaker that laments betrayals, words unsaid and associations regretted, Amos smuggling in a tribute to a cherished collaborator and a reference to Miss Saigon, to boot. The beautiful “Climb” movingly sketches out suggestions of childhood transgression, trauma and shaming (and the challenges of overcoming that legacy) to brisk acoustic guitar and piano, with superb lyrics to make Sylvia Plath proud.

The one-word-titled alliterative songs are among the album’s oddest impulses. “Bang” is driving and dramatic, boldly subverting anti-immigrant sentiment through astrophysical references as it defines all humans as refugees from the cosmos, “molecular machines” composed of star stuff. “One story’s end/seeds another to begin,” Amos intones, and the song builds to an exhilarating finale. “Bats,” by contrast, is drifting and ambient, Amos’s narrator anticipating the arrival of a mythological female force: “dripped in mist sisters rise/quietly from the fens and marshes/… Keep breathing, girl.” “Benjamin” celebrates other subversives, approaching the “Juliana vs. United States” climate change case via the figure of a “science whiz” investigator. There’s some lyrical awkwardness here, but the track’s proggy, retro ambience is arresting, with bleeps and buzzes providing their own message to decode.

The song leads into the album’s closer “Mary’s Eyes,” on which Amos confronts her mother’s aphasia. In contrast to the more intense and lugubrious tone of the similarly-themed  title track of The Beekeeper (2005), the vigorous piano work and beautiful strings here give the track an uncanny jubilance, as Amos refers to attempts to communicate through music. The sentiments expressed in the chorus encapsulate the mood of an album that's as devout as it is questioning, its merging of Christian, Pagan and Native American beliefs speaking not only to Amos's personal history but to the history of America itself. In a culture that presently feels so divided and fragmented, the record seems dedicated to revealing the importance of connection, the multiple ways in which, as “Mary’s Eyes” has it, “patterns matter/stringing sequences together matters.”

The titles of the bonus tracks, “Upside Down” and “Russia,” gesture back to two of Amos’s earliest songs. Intimate piano-only numbers which are equally delicate yet determined in tone, the former focuses on an outsider’s resolution to see the happiness of others as inspiration rather than threat. Book-ended by numbers station samples, “Russia” is more pointed, highlighting the divisions stoked by both Left and Right as it locates State surveillance in the East and West. A Russian leader (though not necessarily the one you might expect) gets name-checked, as Amos at last unfurls the album’s title here.

It's a stirring, quietly anthemic conclusion to an album which, despite a couple of underachieving moments, feels vital, its combination of the combative and the conciliatory speaking directly to our polarised period. Encompassing earth and sky, spirit and machine, science and soul, Amos has once again produced a richly absorbing record that bestows balance, bringing us back to ourselves, giving us the strength and courage to go on.

Native Invader is released on Decca Records on 8th September 2017. 

All album images by Paulina Otylie Surys.

My interview with Amos will be published at PopMatters next week. 

Friday, 4 August 2017

Theatre Review: Apologia (Trafalgar Studios)

Following on from his popular 2008 Royal Court debut with the dual-timeline gay drama The Pride, Alexi Kaye Campbell’s second play Apologia was produced at the Bush in 2009. It’s one of a number of plays of its period (Mike Bartlett’s Love Love Love and Stephen Beresford’s The Last of Haussmans spring to mind) that attempted to explore the legacy of 1960s radicalism by focusing on the generational conflict between the now-ageing radicals (often represented by a strident maternal figure) and their offspring in the present day. While these works differed a little bit in their attitudes, it’s notable that most offered a judgemental and unsympathetic take on the ’60s generation, flagging up the hypocrisies and compromises of the baby boomers in a way that seemed designed to flatter younger audiences eager to view themselves as victims of the older generation’s selfishness.

Somewhat tweaked, Kaye Campbell’s play now receives its first major revival at Trafalgar Studios in a production by Jamie Lloyd (who directed The Pride in 2013) that casts Stockard Channing as the ’60s representative. Kristin Miller is a leading art historian who was a firebrand of the radical Left in her youth. She’s just published a memoir, in which her two sons, Peter and Simon, have not been mentioned.  The dramatic device used to bring her and said sons into collision is, predictably enough, a dinner party, at which Peter, a banker, arrives with his American girlfriend Trudi, to be joined by Simon’s girlfriend, Claire, an ambitious actress currently starring in “a serialised drama that happens to follow the trajectories of various people's lives". Simon himself, a depressed failed novelist, is late to the party, but also along for the bumpy ride is Kristin’s bawdy gay pal Hugh.

It’s the most conventional of dramatic set-ups, then, and one that’s not entirely persuasive. We’re meant to see how  Kristin’s “neglect” of her sons has led them to life choices that directly oppose hers, but details such as Peter’s having met Trudi at a prayer meeting (to his mother’s horror)  never completely convince.  Kaye Campbell certainly tries for fair-mindedness in his presentation of the characters but sometimes accomplishes this by foul means, briskly scuttling two characters off-stage so that a third can deliver a sympathetic speech that’s meant to fundamentally change our view of the heroine.

Reining in his tendency for pushy touches, Lloyd’s production treats the play in an unfussy manner, with Soutra Gilmour supplying an attractive, picture frame-bordered kitchen set. The production has an interesting rhythm, its broad comic tone giving way to a quiet, tender (if overextended) mother/son scene at the mid-point. And the essential mediocrity of the material is partially compensated for by a couple of fantastic performances.

Joseph Millson doubles efficiently though not scintillatingly as the resentful sons, while Desmond Barrit gets laughs for fruitily playing Hugh as the ever-quipping quintessence of camp. (Nonetheless, the character is a stereotype, with no suggestions of interior life; it’s a jarring touch when we learn that he and Kristin are still out there attending protest marches.)
Channing is absolutely terrific, though, underplaying effectively to avoid making Kristin a mere monster; with stillness and economy, she suggests the doubts and disappointments lurking beneath the character’s implacable facade. Kristin’s trajectory - from icy intelligence to inevitable emotional breakdown - is highly problematic but Channing makes that arc a whole lot less gruesome than it might be, scrupulously avoiding sentimentality.

The production’s other great performance comes from Laura Carmichael (so memorable in Lloyd’s thrilling production of The Maids last year) who finds the goodness and integrity in Trudi’s comically perky politeness.  Freema Agyeman  is less assured, but gives some gusto to Claire’s run-ins with Kristin. “It’s not a soap,” goes the running gag about Claire’s TV show. Kaye Campbell’s play is, at heart, a sitcom. Its conflicts frequently feel contrived, but the cast sometimes succeed in bringing a few sparks of truth to the table.

Runs until 18th November. 

Festival Report: Transatlantyk Festival, Łódź (14 -21 July 2017)

My report on the 2017 Transatlantyk Festival is up at Film International. You can read it here.  

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Theatre Review: Directors' Festival (Orange Tree)

Orlando James in Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against A Brick Wall
(Photo:Robert Day)

As Paul Miller and Imogen Bond remind us in their programme note to the Orange Tree’s new Directors’ Festival,  “[d]irector training is part of the Orange Tree’s DNA”, with successful alumni going on to become artistic directors of the Open Air Theatre, Hampstead Theatre, Birmingham Rep, and other high-profile venues. During founder Sam Walters’s tenure, the fruits of the labour of the theatre’s trainees were presented at the end of each Spring season in the “Directors’ Showcase”, resulting in terrific productions of such challenging plays as Jon Fosse’s Winter [review], Caryl Churchill’s The After-Dinner Joke [review] and Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman, the latter featuring a galvanising performance from Hamlet-to-be Paapa Essiedu.

The End of Hope (Photo: Robert Day)

Now, the OT has teamed up with St. Mary’s University to develop an MA course in Theatre Directing, and presents the work of the first graduates of the programme over ten days. The five plays staged  - James Graham’s Albert’s Boy, Brad Birch’s Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against a Brick Wall, David Ireland’s The End of Hope, Enda Walsh’s Misterman, and Kate Tempest’s Wasted - are all contemporary works, and while it’s a shame that some older plays have not been engaged with, the high quality of the five productions is bracing.

Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against A Brick Wall (Photo: Robert Day)
Directed by Hannah de Ville and Max Elton respectively, Birch’s Even Stillness… and Ireland’s The End of Hope are both dark-hued male/female two-handers that receive pin-sharp productions here. Even Stillness … is particularly jaw-dropping. Men in meltdown appear to be a speciality of Birch’s, and while I wasn’t much of a fan of his play The Brink [review], which was produced at the OT last year, Even Stillness… is much more effective in its spiky take on the existential anxiety beneath the daily grind.

The play’s nameless protagonists are a couple undergoing two parallel corporate hells: Georgina Campbell’s Her is subjected to harassment from male colleagues, while Orlando James’s Him oscillates between cockiness and defeat: “My degree in business studies did not prepare me for being this inconsequential.”  The couple’s unhappiness ends up leading to revolt, gloriously rendered in an anarchic destruction scene scored to “I Think We’re Alone Now.” It’s an apt choice of song, as Birch’s play comes close to romanticising the couple as a form of resistance before complicating that position in the final stretch.

Birch’s default mode of swearing and scatology can become tiresome, but he’s good at honing in on divergent, discordant aspects of the contemporary world, from impotent rage at foreign wars to the embarrassment of not having contactless. The opening up of the OT’s floor may be in danger of becoming a fetish, but de Ville’s fleet, highly physical production – with a witty design by Max Dorey that freshly puts the orange into Orange Tree – is consistently dynamic and boasts brave, exposing performances from Campbell and James. 

Misterman (Photo: Robert Day)

A tour de force turn also ignites Grace Vaughan’s visceral, gripping production of Enda Walsh’s Misterman, with Ryan Donaldson’s exhilarating performance as Thomas capturing every shade of the volatility and vulnerability of a character whose harsh judgements on the inhabitants of his town inevitably lead to violence. Whether viciously ventriloquising the voices of his foes, or settling into a moment of repose as he softly sings a hymn at his father’s grave,  Donaldson’s physical inhibition and command of Walsh’s wild, poetic text, with its Beckettian and Biblical echoes, is masterful, and Richard Bell’s rich sound design pulls us further into the protagonist’s disordered psyche.  

Wasted (Photo: Robert Day)

The writing of Wasted, by the popular Kate Tempest, is less assured: punctuated by self-conscious poetic sections, this tale of three twentysomething friends, each questioning their life direction as they look back to carefree days of clubbing, is sometimes too explicit in its approach to its themes. Still, Jamie Woods’s often very funny production keeps the energy level infectiously high, and Daniel Abbott, Gemma Lawrence and Alexander Forsyth sketch out a believable rapport as the trio, with Forsyth particularly effective in conveying the condition of the title in a hilarious display of morning-after befuddlement.

Albert's Boy (Photo: Robert Day)

First seen at the Finborough in 2005, Albert’s Boy by the prolific James Graham is more sober, lower-keyed fare, and Kate Campbell’s production treats it with tenderness and wit. The play, Graham's second, dramatises an encounter between Albert Einstein and a friend, Peter Bucky, a Korean War veteran, in the former's study in 1953. As the men catch up, it becomes apparent that each has a contrasting view on warfare, with Einstein crippled by guilt over his role in the development of the atom bomb.  

Some of the dialogue in Graham's play smacks of flaunted research, but Andrew Langtree and Robert Gill - whose Einstein is sockless, avuncular, haunted, and finally disconsolate - make it a compelling duet. They're aided by a another good design by Dorey, with warmly inviting lighting that turns nightmarish in a final expressionist flourish. Throughout, Campbell's sensitive, unfussy staging is perfectly attuned to the material.

That goes for all the productions here, in fact; the work of a talented and enterprising group of directors who would all seem to have bright futures ahead of them.

The Directors' Festival runs until 29th July. Further information here.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Book Review: Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner (Jonathan Cape, 2017)

Nicholas Hytner’s twelve year tenure as Artistic Director of the National Theatre is widely regarded as among the most successful and dynamic directorships of one of Britain’s flagship cultural institutions. Hytner took over the role from Trevor Nunn in 2003, and immediately shook things up at the Southbank venue via a game-changing £10 ticket scheme and some unexpected programming; the inclusion of Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s Jerry Springer: The Opera in his first season allegedly prompted one NT regular to call the box office and enquire: “I want to see this new opera, but who is Jerry Springer?”

Buoyed by that successful and slightly subversive first season, Hytner went on to preside over an exceptionally fertile and creative period in the NT’s history, one that combined new plays and adaptations (such as The History Boys and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) with sharp revivals (Rattigan’s After the Dance), crowd-pleasing entertainments (the Cumber-Miller Frankenstein, One Man, Two Guvnors, and War Horse) and a smattering of exquisite, innovative musicals, both imported (Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline, or Change) and brand new (Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson’s The Light Princess).

Such successes mean that Hytner’s account of his time at the NT (published just a few months before he launches his new venture, The Bridge Theatre) has been eagerly awaited, not only by those of us who saw a great deal of the productions staged under his tenure, but also by those interested in the UK theatre scene more broadly. Sadly, though, Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at the National Theatre proves disappointing: the book is erroneously advertised, unillustrated, and indifferently written, though not without a few scattered insights to keep the reader on board.

Unlike former directors Peter Hall and Richard Eyre, whose accounts of their time at the NT were presented in journal form, Hytner “kept no diary” (p.15) during his tenure. This means that Balancing Acts lacks the sense of immediate, day-to-day ups-and-downs that are conveyed so vividly in Hall and Eyre’s books, and instead adopts a necessarily more retrospective approach. The book begins quite strongly: after an introduction that sketches out a “typical” day running the NT, Hytner describes his route to this much-coveted position. He contextualises the early 21st century London theatre scene with brisk precision, noting the vogue at that time for intimate, studio venues (such as the Donmar Warehouse, where he himself directed a galvanising production of Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending in 2000) and the need for the National “to be the big public alternative” (p.40) to those smaller spaces.

As it progresses, though, Balancing Acts starts to feel more and more like a book with an identity crisis, and one that fails to fully make good on its subtitle. By far the most satisfying sections are those in which Hytner indeed takes the reader “behind the scenes” of the theatre: his reflections on the development of particular productions (such as his “euphoric” experience on The History Boys, his Iraq War-referencing Henry V, and his hugely ambitious staging of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials) are all interesting, as are his accounts of important innovations like the £10 ticket scheme, and NT Live, which broadcasts productions to cinemas worldwide.

But, in totality, the book feels partial and fragmented, with strange focus and odd digressions. Hytner laments that he does not have “space to mention many … excellent new plays” (p.293) and emphasises that “the book does not record everything that happened at the National Theatre between 2003 and 2015” (p. 287). Naturally enough, but, if space is such a consideration, then why waste time on lengthy accounts of his film work and pre-NT musical productions, neither of which are directly relevant to this project? Ultimately, the book seems uncertain about what it’s trying to accomplish: it’s a strange hybrid of a text, more a general career retrospective than a comprehensive portrait of the NT’s workings.

Hytner offers some engaging general commentaries on, for example, “the negotiations with contemporary sensibility that old plays normally require” (p.180) and “the challenge of bridging the gap between Shakespeare’s world and our own” (p.31). But the white heat of collaboration, the  personalities of the directors and actors and designers  involved, are not conveyed very vividly, and the book certainly lacks the characterful, textured quality of  another artistic director’s recent swansong publication: Dominic Dromgoole’s Hamlet: Globe to Globe. 

There’s also a disproportionate emphasis on hits: while Hytner is frank in identifying a few disappointing productions, he never once goes in to bat for an underrated show, preferring to focus on what he terms “hot tickets”. (Pretty much all that he has to say about Deborah Warner’s great Fiona Shaw-starring production of Mother Courage and her Children, for example, is that Shaw is “always a hot ticket.”) While the financial complications of running the NT receive some illuminating reflections, Hytner gradually comes to seem as preoccupied with box office as any Hollywood mogul.

In terms of style, Hytner’s writing veers uneasily between confession (“in the safety of the rehearsal room I … confront all the stuff that threatens to be too painful in the world outside” [p.126]) and evasiveness (he claims to have no memory at all of the interview that secured him the NT job). And I’m not sure what’s going on in the closing “Casts and Creatives” chapter, which consists of a seemingly random selection of brief remarks about stage moments and performances, some already mentioned in the book, and many not even connected to Hytner’s work at the NT.

In a predictably glowing review, Richard Eyre praises Hytner’s book for conveying  “the anatomy and psychology of a large organisation.” In fact, that’s precisely what Balancing Acts fails to achieve. The book is worth reading for its scattered observations, such as Hytner’s sage remarks about directors’ personal investment in a play: “[D]irectors too determined to use a play as a vehicle for their own preoccupations can send it down a dead end where it locks its audience out. When you discover a personal stake in a play, you need to balance your connection to it with your need to connect it to its audience” (p.26). As the book’s title indicates, that notion of “balance” is central to Hytner’s conception of theatre, which he describes early on as a series of negotiations between art and commerce, vision and compromise. It’s a shame, then, that, when it comes to combining the specifics of particular productions  with general reflections on theatre as an art-form,  this highly anticipated publication fails to get the balance right.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

CD Review: Nightfall, Quercus (ECM, 2017)

Quite a lot’s been said, in recent years, about so-called Slow Cinema, the minimalist, observational aesthetic that characterises a certain strand of contemporary filmmaking, including work by the likes of Tsai Ming-liang, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Apichatpong Weerasethtkal and Bela Tarr. While theres no denying that the films of these directors are challenging, and may, at their weakest, induce frustration, there can also be something gloriously subversive about their languorous approach and the way that it requires the viewer to take their time, to look closer and really work with the images. Indeed, Thomas Elsaesser sees the form as an act of organised resistance (analogous to the Slow food movement) that challenges the hyper, fast-cut style of most contemporary filmmaking - and, I would add, the incessant, damagingly choppy experience of online activity,  referred to by James Wolcott as the hyperspace of attention-deficit culture.

If theres a musical equivalent to the profound pleasures offered by Slow Cinema at its best, then one prime exponent is Quercus, the folk jazz trio comprising June Tabor (vocals), Huw Warren (piano) and Iain Ballamy (saxaphones). A wonderful sense of spaciousness and expansiveness, an attentive, meditative quality, characterises this group’s music, and the results are deeply restorative and rewarding. 

Art cinema has often been cited by Tabor as an influence on her work; after all, her second solo album, Ashes and Diamonds, was named for the final part of Andrzej Wajdas War Trilogy, while the elliptical, image-rich qualities of folk ballads (and some contemporary song writing, such as Lal Watersons and Bill Caddick's) have been compared by her to film narrative, something that she discussed with me in interview back in 2011. The cinematic aspects of Quercus’s work have to do with ambience, the way in which they offer the listener spaces to pause and reflect. Instant easy-listening the album is not. But the deeper you dig, the richer the findings.


Tabor and Warren have, of course, been collaborating fruitfully since the 1980s, but Ballamy is newer to the fold, completing the trio after appearing on Tabor's 2005 release At the Wood’s Heart. The fruits of the group’s labour were first released on their self-titled debut album – a 2006 live performance finally issued by the great ECM label in 2013. From its artwork to its content, Nightfall feels like a complement to, and extension of, that record. (Th title comes from Edward Thomas’s poem “In Memoriam (Easter 1915)”: “The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood/This Eastertide call into mind the men,/Now far from home, who, with their sweetness should/Have gathered them and will do never again.”) 

From the first spare opening note, Ballamy, Warren and Tabor continue to bring out the best in each other; their combination of elements – metropolitan jazz/classical stylings wedded to songs of tradition (mostly drawn from Somerset sources this time) – proves, once again, intoxicating. The group’s distilled approach, in which every note counts, doesn’t result in austerity: instead, there’s a stealth sensuality to the record, evident in Warren’s lithe and rhythmic piano work, in Ballamy’s billowing, shadowing sax playing, and in the commanding intensity of Tabor’s magnificent vocals.

As on the first album, the opening track here is from Robbie Burns’s pen: this time the venerable “Auld Lang Syne”, pleasingly defamilarised with a subtly altered tune, the song is shifted from its usual employment as a hearty singalong to an intimate, deeply personal expression. The misty ambience conjured on “On Berrow Sands,” would have fitted comfortably on Tabor’s great sea-themed album Ashore, the track revolving around the hypnotic, trancelike repetitions of the gulls’ warning to sailors. There’s a similar attention to atmosphere on the captivatingly languid “The Shepherd and His Dog” on which an otherworldly arrangement renders an everyday pastoral scene mystical and mysterious: a passage from Hardy as directed by Ingmar Bergman.

The album’s centrepiece is a thrillingly dramatic and powerful rendering of “The Manchester Angel”. The song starts off looking like it’s going to be about a faithless soldier’s seduction of “a pretty young doxy” but twists into a tale of war as separator. Tabor delivers a series of negations with stunning power, and Ballamy’s sax soars with the heroine’s resolution. And I’ve never heard a better version of “The Cuckoo”, the song treated to a twinkling, delicate arrangement that does the floating verses ample justice – as intimations of Love Gone Wrong are offset by the birds’ recipe for happiness: “we are single and free”.

The more contemporary material – including two terrific instrumental duets composed by Ballamy and Warren - also compels. A biting “You Don’t Know What Love Is” is directed inwards and outwards in just the right way. Wistful sax and piano re-purpose Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, as Tabor’s vocals shift through irony, scorn, amusement and acceptance.  Personally I could live without another version of Sondheim/Bernstein’s West Side Story warhorse “Somewhere” (which closes the album), but Tabor’s control and dramatic power succeed in bringing some freshness to the piece.

That’s true of all the tracks here, in fact. In a cluttered, pushy, snap judgement-dependent culture, Nightfall captivates by slowing us down, giving us room to breathe, making us listen closely and thereby experience these songs afresh. It's a glorious record. 

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Concert Review: Shelter from the Storm, Barb Jungr, Jamie Safir, Davide Mantovani (The Other Palace, 25th May 2017)

Recorded in a sweltering New York studio in summer 2015, and released early last year, Barb Jungr’s album Shelter from the Storm (Linn Records) [review] was a fine collaboration with the award-winning pianist Laurence Hobgood, the pair’s fresh and vibrant versions of a range of material – showtunes, Dylan and Cohen, Bowie and Mitchell – supplemented by some strong original tracks, all linked, as the album’s subtitle emphasized, as “Songs of Hope for Troubled Times.”

I wasn’t able to see Jungr and Hobgood perform the album live during their tour last year, so was glad to have the opportunity to catch the show at The Other Palace (formerly the St. James Theatre) on Thursday night, where the performance was the third edition in the venue’s new “Jazz Divas” programme.

With the album’s US-based personnel (not only Hobgood, but also Michael Olatuja on double bass and Wilson Torres on percussion) otherwise engaged, Thursday night found Jungr taking to the stage with her regular bassist Davide Mantovani and the young pianist Jamie Safir (fresh off a plane from Mallorca). From the opening “Something’s Coming” through the dynamically shifting rhythms of “Shelter from the Storm” to the penultimate “What the World Needs Now is Love” (hilariously prefaced by Jungr), the musicians proved more than up to the task of navigating Jungr and Hobgood’s idiosyncratic arrangements, often fleshing out the album versions with distinctive flourishes and spontaneous interplay all their own. Mantovani’s  work was characteristically elegant, subtle and supple, and Safir’s playing was a pure delight, by turns passionate and playful, and generating several spontaneous rounds of applause from the audience.

In great voice, Jungr herself was radiant as always, creating a warm and witty ambience for the evening, illuminating songs old and new in revelatory ways. Bruce Springsteen’s “Long Walk Home” was revealed as a beautiful torch song, Jungr leaning hard into the “Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t” lyric. “Bali Hai” was approached via Brexit. “Life on Mars?/Space Oddity” was fruitfully developed  from the more skeletal album version, with stunning playing from Mantovani and Safir. “All Along the Watchtower”, with Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” elegantly entwined in its folds, was taut and powerful. Tracks drawn from elsewhere in Jungr’s repertoire – such as her jaunty-deadly jazz strut through Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” and a gospel-influenced, singalong “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”  to close – were also appreciated. She and Hobgood’s own compositions sat snugly beside this diverse material, with a soulful “Hymn to Nina” and a soaring “Venus Rising” among the standouts.

While even the most talented contemporary songwriters have struggled, so far, to write very profoundly about the US in the Time of Trump, Jungr brilliantly hot-wires us to the present moment by turning the clock back, finding relevant content in older material. Her version of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” was achingly poignant and deeply moving in this context, its chorus – “Good morning, America, how are you?/Don’t you know me, I’m your native son” – turning gradually into a devastating enquiry from a soul betrayed. Her vibrantly funky take on “Woodstock” also reinvigorates the song as an urgent anthem for our age.  Loving and subversive, witty and engaged, Jungr and her collaborators help us find our way back to the garden.

Further information on the "Jazz Divas" series at The Other Palace here.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Theatre Review: Twelfth Night (Shakespeare's Globe)

The sad story of Emma Rice's premature departure as Globe Artistic Director needs no further rehashing from me (besides, I already indulged in some in my review of her predecessor Dominic Dromgoole's recently-published Hamlet: Globe to Globe). So let's just get straight down to a few remarks about Rice's production of Twelfth Night, the second foray in the theatre's "Summer of Love" season, following  Daniel Kramer's decidedly unloved take on Romeo and Juliet.

The moniker seems an apt one for this final season, because Rice is such a loving director, with a generosity of spirit that shines through even in her weaker work. She approaches Shakespeare exactly as you approach a lover: with tenderness, curiosity and wonder jostling close to irreverence, impatience and cheek. She and her companies cut speeches, incorporate new dialogue, add or extend songs. (Credit for most of these changes goes, this time, to the excellent Carl Grose, Rice's collaborator on various Kneehigh shows, and the unforgettable Oedipussy.) Rice draws from a grab-bag of cultural influences: pop and punk, music hall and cabaret, film and sitcom. Her bracing inclusivity - her refusal to see a division between high art and low - makes her, in my opinion, a true Shakespearean.

Her Twelfth Night has all of that, in spades. The production approaches the play through a 1970s prism in its design and its aesthetic, allowing for disco flourishes and the wry, naughty inclusion of some good ol' sitcom stereotypes (including Marc Antolin's lisping, camp Andrew Aguecheek and Kandaka Moore and Theo St. Claire's brilliant West Indian evangelicals).

Still, proceedings start at too high and forced a pitch, with a "We Are Family" rendition aboard the "SS Unity", led by the great alt cabaret drag sensation Le Gateau Chocolat, who serves, following the shipwreck that divides Anita-Joy Uwajeh's Viola and John Pfumojena's Sebastian, as a ghostly Feste: ludic and melancholic in equal measure. (Gateau's function here is a little like that of Meow Meow's Maitress in Rice's undervalued The Umbrellas of Cherbourg of 2011.)

Le Gateau Chocolat and Joshua Lacey in Twelfth Night. (Photo: Hugo Glendinning)
Indeed, as often with Rice, irritation and rapture, clunkiness and illumination, are exhilaratingly close in this Twelfth Night. As in her terrific A Midsummer Night's Dream last year, the lunacy of love is a major theme, expressed with all the mania one could desire. Katy Owen's show-stopping Malvolio moves from brisk, whistle-blowing priss to a horny honeybee rubbing against a pillar and jumping on Annette McLaughlin's statuesque (and very funny) Olivia. Carly Bawden's Maria is a gleaming-eyed minx, as seductive as she's steely. Joshua Lacey's Orsino has Michael Flately's moves and his self-satisfaction, his messages conveyed to Olivia via tape-recorder.

Amid the mayhem, the notion of splits and divisions - not only from loved ones but also from the various aspects of the self - comes through with fresh poignancy, as "the whirligig of time brings in its revenges", subjecting characters to good or bad fortune. And for all her giddy, sometimes over-insistent flourishes, one can't accuse Rice of neglecting the company's verse-speaking, which is exceptionally clear throughout.

Moments of pure, surprising theatrical magic radiate. A boat carries Pieter Lawman's lovelorn Antonio through the crowd. A shower of glitter accompanies Olivia's "Most wonderful!" In a final heart-grabbing gesture, Gateau's Feste takes Malvolio's hand. Rice breathes theatre, gives us excess of it, and her production can make the viewer deliriously happy.

Twelfth Night is at the Globe until 5th August. Further information here.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Book Review: Hamlet: Globe to Globe by Dominic Dromgoole (Grove, 2017)

My review of Dominic Dromgoole's new book Hamlet: Globe to Globe is up at PopMatters. You can read it here.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Film Review: Afterimage (dir. Andrzej Wajda, 2016)

My review of Andrzej Wajda's final film, Afterimage (Powidoki), is up at Film International. You can read it here.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Theatre Review: JOAN (Ovalhouse)

From a silent film classic and an often-revived George Bernard Shaw play to songs by Leonard Cohen, Kate Bush and Madonna, the singular figure of Joan of Arc has remained a somewhat unlikely icon and object of inspiration in 20th and 21st century popular culture. This enduring fascination must be down, in part, to the contradictory qualities embodied by the so-called Maid of Orleans. Peasant, prophetess, warrior, witch, martyr, saint - the identities encompassed by (or ascribed to) Joan of Arc make her a slippery, weirdly radical figure whose transgressions can be seen to go beyond their very specific historical, political and religious contexts and find resonance here and now. 

The question of Joans identity - and, more particularly, her gender identity - lies at the heart of the most recent play to represent her: Lucy J Skilbecks JOAN. Seen last year at Battersea Arts Centre, and subsequently in a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe (where it won several awards) Skilbecks one-person show now comes back to London for a couple of weeks of performances in the intimate Downstairs space at Ovalhouse. Its a most welcome return, for JOAN is an embracing, illuminating, hugely enjoyable work that adds something genuinely fresh to our perception of its heroine and her historical (and contemporary) significance.

Skilbeck’s play has clearly been carefully researched. The focus is on the events leading up to Joan’s execution: we learn about the death of her mother at the hands of the English; her decision to leave her father; and the visions of Saint Catherine that inspired her to convince the exiled King to let her lead an army against the country’s oppressors.

However, the novelty and urgency of the piece lies in the way in which it reflects and refracts Joan through the prism of contemporary gender politics. This it does boldly yet also delicately, without attempting to impose one reductive reading on the protagonist’s identity. It’s no surprise that Joan’s religious zeal is less of a concern, conveyed mostly through her deep sense of connection to Catherine. Instead, the focus is on a much more modish aspect: namely, the confrontation of a radical, “gloriously confusing” body with the rigid apparatuses of patriarchal power.  The show is particularly good at conveying the sense of freedom and possibility that Joan experiences in her male attire, as she turns her bra into a trouser bulge, and feels “for the first time total ease.”

The fluidity of Joan’s identity is echoed in the form of the show itself which combines elements of dramatic monologue, cabaret and musical. The approach couldn’t be further from strained Shavian verbosity: rather, it’s physical, fleet and often very funny, with some exhilarating musical interludes. Complemented by Joshua Pharo’s terrific lighting, Emma Bailey’s simple set of crates and mirrors lightly accents the plays themes, and Skilbeck’s direction keeps the pace supple at all times so that the proceedings turn from wry to wrenching on a dime.  

In Lucy Jane Parkinson, the show has its ideal performer, too.  Winner of Drag King Idol 2014, Parkinson (aka LoUis CYfer) is a dynamic presence: a whirlwind who plays off the encircling audience with hilarious aplomb, especially when mobilizing us to become an army. This Northern-accented Joan embraces something of a Riot Grrrl aesthetic: Tank Girl top, big sneakers, dreads springing from a partially shaved scalp.

Yet, as Joan confronts the consequences of (in Judith Butler’s great phrase) “doing one’s gender wrong,” Parkinson skillfully modulates her performance, doing justice both to Joan’s swagger and her aching sense of set-apartness. The late scenes in which Joan tries to appease her oppressors by letting her hair down and attempting to find a male mate are equal parts funny and painful, revealing femininity to be its own kind of drag act for women. Parkinson’s generous, open interpretation hotwires us to the heroine’s humanity throughout.  

But that’s not all. Via brisk on-stage transformations Parkinson also morphs into three of the men in Joan’s life: her father, Charles VII, and her pro-English interrogator Pierre Cauchon. It’s these guys, in fact, who get the evening’s irreverent songs, and Parkinson’s manic metamorphosis into the disco-dancing Dauphin is particularly sublime. However, Joan herself is finally allotted a moving, intimate number that Parkinson delivers beautifully, as this huge-hearted, playful yet profound revisioning of an icon arrives at its deeply poignant close.

Booking until 22nd April. Further details here

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub.