Monday 22 July 2013

Theatre Review: Sisters (IYAF, Rose Theatre, Kingston)

I only managed to catch one show so far in this year’s International Youth Arts Festival (IYAF) at Kingston’s Rose Theatre; the production I saw made me sorry not to have been able to make it to more shows in the Festival. Lifelike Theatre’s Sisters, which runs for four performances in the Festival (the final show takes place this Sunday; further details here) is a gem: a warm-hearted, poignant and involving contemporary variant on Chekhov’s Three Sisters, adapted skilfully by writer/director Ben Clare. The action, unfolding between 2010 and 2012, is relocated to a remote island off of the north coast of Scotland (mobile reception: unreliable). Here four orphaned twentysomething siblings – Evie, Olivia, Mia, Antony – face their futures with a mixture of optimism and despair. As the naming of the central protagonists suggests, characterisation here is fairly faithful to Chekhov’s models and so is the structure of the piece: London replaces Moscow as the girls’ dreamed-of Paradise; the army’s Afghanistan-bound. This approach results in some slightly strained context-setting elements (when in doubt, blame the bankers) but overall it works very well.

Aided by a neat sound design that progresses from the hypnotic litany of the shipping forecast to the final tormenting sound of a plane leaving the island via the pitter-patter of rain and La Roux’s “Bulletproof,” the production is sparsely staged yet atmospheric, and admirably eschews the attention-seeking tendencies of last year’s much-admired Young Vic Three Sisters and Headlong’s recent, slightly tacky take on The Seagull. Clare and his collaborators are clearly more concerned with involving the audience in the characters’ dilemmas than in forcing questionable gimmicks on the material. And those dilemmas certainly communicate here, thanks in large part to the nuanced performances of an altogether excellent cast. Sophie Grace’s touchingly eager Evie, Naomi Marsden’s supremely caustic yet sympathetic Mia, Hannah Platts’s warm, hard-working mother-figure, David Howard’s love-sick hanger-on, Sue Viney’s housekeeper and Peter Wicks’s striking army captain are among the standout characterisations of the production.

Running the production without an interval, Clare avoids lags and flags of pacing, and the themes and relationships are drawn with clarity and insight. The production can’t quite replicate the particular, elusive quality of Chekhovian drama - those moment-to-moment oscillations between hope and despondency, comedy and tragedy, that are so hard to pull off - and its ending is muted. Still, Sisters provides something valuable: a highly resonant (and, yes, entirely “relevant”) portrait of the challenges of growing up, of the difficulties of marriage, work and parenthood, of the frustrations of entrapment that so many still experience in different ways, and the dream of escape.

Thursday 18 July 2013

CD Review: Portraits, Andreas Ottensamer (Deutsche Grammophon)

Portraits, the debut album by Andreas Ottensamer, proves a cause for celebration. The 24-year-old Austrian, principal clarinettist of the Berliner Philharmoniker, has won prizes in competitions for cello and piano as well as clarinet and has performed as a soloist and chamber musician throughout the world to much acclaim. Outside the classical sphere, Ottensamer is doubtless best known for his work with Tori Amos on her awesome Night of Hunters project, where his great contributions to almost all the tracks (including the celestial duet instrumental “Seven Sisters”) were among the elements of the album that helped to coax the latent classical musical enthusiast out of many a hardcore pop/rock fan.

Ottensamer might just continue to do the same with his clarinet album Portraits. Overseen by Alexander Buhr, exec producer of Amos’s opus, Portraits comprises a similarly wide range of material, combining concertos by Cimarosa, Spohr and Copland with shorter pieces by Gershwin, Debussy and Beach. That the diverse mix of material sounds not only coherent but also complementary is due to the dynamism and expressive range of Ottensamer’s playing - now gliding, dancing, shivering and bursting across the material - a seamless amalgam of feeling and technique. Clearly, he’s a risk-taker, not afraid to experiment with fresh arrangements (which come courtesy, here, of his Berliner Philharmoniker cohort Stephan Koncz) or to go beyond the standard repertoire. Sympathetically accompanied by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Ottensamer opens the set with a Latin jazz-edging take on Gershwin’s 1926 First Prelude for piano which serves as an appropriate introduction to a wonderfully rich and fluid rendering of Copland’s Benny Goodman-commissioned 1950 Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra with Harp and Piano. The other two Concertos – with the playful Cimarosa at the centre and the powerful, intensely lyrical Spohr to close – are equally fine, while Debussy’s La Fille aux cheveux de lin and Beach’s 1898 Berceuse provide exquisite complements that effectively augment the drama and beauty of the longer pieces.

Coupled with his versatility and talent, Ottensamer’s model good looks (made the most of in the album’s glossy Il Divo-ish cover and liner art) suggest that major stardom could well be in his future. Portraits adds up to a thoroughly compelling debut.

Saturday 13 July 2013

Theatre Review, Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi (Finborough)

The plays of Pam Gems have often focused upon celebrated figures – from Queen Christina to Edith Piaf, Stanley Spencer to Marlene Dietrich – with the playwright attempting to examine the human reality behind iconic images. But the work that helped to make Gems' name was actually a more intimate affair centred entirely on the experiences of "ordinary" characters in a relatable domestic situation.
Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi, which premiered at Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1976 under the less-alluring title Dead Fish and which then had great success in its transfer to London, takes as its focus the lives of four young women sharing a tiny flat. Often described as a landmark of 1970s feminist theatre, Gems' play looks a little thinner in its weave and more contrived in its design than it might have done in 1976; it's not, after all, as deeply textured or richly complex a piece of work as its reputation might suggest.
Still, Helen Eastman's piquant, well-acted and surprisingly tuneful revival at the Finborough (staged to commemorate the centenary year of the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison) nonetheless proves a welcome event, and a worthy addition to the Finborough's reliable repertoire of revivals.
The play concerns the arrival of Dusa, an anxious twenty-something who's just separated from her husband, at the bedsit owned by her friend Fish and shared by Fish's flatmate Stas. Though Dusa discovers that the flat already has another lodger - the teenager Vi - room is made for her, and as the four women set about adjusting to each other, the details of their individual lives and personalities start to emerge and entwine. Dusa is fretting about the fate of her two children following the split. Stas is a physiotherapist moonlighting as a prostitute in order to fund her prospective PhD in marine biology. Vi is an anorexic who's aborted an unwanted baby. And Fish, a campaigner inspired by the left-wing German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, is embroiled in a tricky relationship with her partner, Alan.
The impact of Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi isn't hard to see. The play's short, blurty scenes, its crude sex talk, its spliff-sharing, its occasional surges into melodrama and its attempt to dramatise unspoken aspects of women's lives has influenced everything from TV's much-missed Pulling to Amelia Bullmore's correspondingly titled - and similarly-themed – recent Hampstead hit Di and Viv and Rose.
Clearly, Gems has constructed her quartet as representatives of contradictory/complementary aspects of femininity, and uses them to demonstrate her thesis that all of the four women, though apparently "liberated," are, in their different ways, casualties of the ongoing sex war: in Gems' terms, "an indictment of our age". Dusa embodies maternal instincts; Fish evokes politically conscious feminism and socialism; Stas represents sexual stereotyping; Vi is the truculent teen. These images are also subverted, though, as Gems strives to show that each of the characters has her measure of strength and vulnerability, often residing in unexpected places.
And yet you may feel, ultimately, that Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi looks considerably less radical in its position on gender than, say, the early 20th Century work of Githa Sowerby, whose Rutherford and Son and The Stepmother have both received accomplished revivals this year. The play's perspective on Fish's idealistic position – a vision of men and women "breaking moulds together" - is pessimistic, but that pessimism – cemented by an abrupt and inauthentic tragic final twist – feels pat and unearned at the end. This may be due to the rather sketchy, soapy elements in Gems' writing, and the fact that the play, while consistently lively, doesn't really go deep enough into its characters to make their dilemmas count as much as they might.
Despite these shortcomings, though, at its best Gems' play has the savour of its moment and shows vividly how the problems facing the four characters – dilemmas traditionally sidelined as "women's issues" – are in fact central to the texture of their daily lives. And Eastman's production succeeds in finding most of the writing's strengths, nicely managing its movements from merriment to melancholy. Vivid performances help, with Olivia Poulet's bustling but unravelling Fish, Emily Dobbs's strident Stas, Helena Johnson's Jane-Horrocks-in-Life-is-Sweet-channelling Vi, and Sophie Scott's harried Dusa working well to make the characters' shifts from conflict to camaraderie feel natural.
Katie Bellman's design - garish flowery wallpaper, a green sofa bed, Sexual Politics on the book-shelf – conjures place and period without fuss, while the production's use of the theatre's "real" window – which gets smoked out of, and shouted through – is a lovely touch.
But perhaps the most affecting and evocative element in Eastman's production is its use of music. A range of 70s folk, pop, rock and punk songs by female musicians are employed to augment and punctuate the scenes, accentuating themes and emotions in a subtle and moving way. In the loveliest, most sustained of these interludes, Scott's Dusa, left alone in the flat, responds to a piece of heartening news as Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" lilts away on the stereo. Eastman can't make Gems' contrived climax work, but in such quiet, unstressed episodes, the production transmits the intimate moments in its characters' lives in a way that goes straight to the heart.

Friday 12 July 2013

Theatre Review: Relative Values (Richmond & touring)

My review of Trevor Nunn's spiffing new production of  Noël Coward's Relative Values is up at British Theatre Guide. You can read it here:

CD Review: The Conversation, Texas

My review of Texas's new album, The Conversation, is up at PopMatters. You can read it here.

Monday 8 July 2013

Theatre Review: Unrivalled Landscape (Orange Tree)

“If it is a choice between Richmond and death, I chose death,” sulked Nicole Kidman’s Virginia Woolf (c/o David Hare) in one of The Hours’s worst camp moments. Titled in reference to the Walter Scott quotation that deemed Richmond “an unrivalled landscape” and drawn from material produced by the theatre’s Writers Group, the six short plays that constitute this year’s Orange Tree Directors Showcase seek to construct a more complex portrait of the leafy Greater London ‘burb (hometown to yours truly) than Hare and co provided. Just as Jimmy Grimes’s And Then The Snow Came explored the plight of Richmond’s homeless in the 2011 Directors Showcase, OT writers have again been encouraged to take the theatre’s hometown itself as Muse, creating work that unfolds in Richmond and its environs, with the development of the pieces overseen by this year’s pair of resident trainee directors, Alexander Lass and Nadia Papachronopoulou.

It’s an interesting premise, to be sure, but one that doesn’t consistently pay the dividends it could. The bar having been set high by last year’s wonderfully confounding Showcase (which progressed, brilliantly, from a quaint Edwardian proto-Home Alone escapade to a fierce take on Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman via a spot of disturbing Haneke-esque home invasion) Unrivalled Landscape ends up feeling more uneven by comparison, despite the intimately collaborative nature of its genesis. Still, the evening offers some striking moments and strong performances, and rewards the patient viewer with a radiant finale.

While the pieces are tonally and formally diverse (encompassing the comic and the melancholy, monologues and duologues, the naturalistic and the surreal) Lass, Papachronopoulou and the writers have striven to make them interconnected affairs; the dramas are based around the trajectories of five individuals, characters who might be mere bit-players in one play and then become protagonists in the next. The evening opens by sounding its most eerily enigmatic note in Laura Muth’s intriguing but too-brief “Killing Time”, which finds a suicidal man, Andy (John Bowler), conversing with a “tourist” (Sarah Malin) during a night-time deer cull in “the purgatory of Richmond Park.” It’s an apt curtain-raiser for a sequence of plays that mostly focus upon characters who feel hunted or haunted to some degree.

However, the connections between the pieces seem less intricately worked out that they might have been, with a couple of characters feeling crowbarred into their scenarios, and, more disappointingly, the significance of the Richmond locales isn’t always maximised. Andy’s story, for example, is later elaborated in Ernest Hall’s “Goodbye From Me” a monologue-as-meltdown that finds the character delivering a torturously inept stand-up comedy routine the day before his prison release, resulting in a confession of tragedy that’s supplemented by a ghostly apparition. But where “Killing Time” is too brief, “Goodbye From Me” (which doesn’t even take place in Richmond in any case) feels over-lengthy and despite a thoroughly committed performance from Bowler is neither funny nor touching enough to sustain itself or the portrait of the crying-on-the-outside comedian that it presents.

Archie Maddocks’s more accomplished “Kizzy and the Prince” builds on the promise of the playwright’s excellent riots-inspired Mottled Lines with a piece that presents a Kew Gardens-set encounter between a spiky Trinadadian security guard, Kizzy (Nicola Alexis), and – yup – a Bahraini prince, Faris (Ash Hunter). If the scenario sounds more than a mite contrived, Maddocks’s punchy, poetic writing transcends it, as do Alexis and Hunter’s fine performances which spark Papachronopoulou’s carefully modulated production. It’s a pity, therefore, that Kizzy and Faris’s narrative is picked up less compellingly in Benedict Fogarty’s “Ties” – which focuses on a hospital row between the pair that boasts over-explicit dialogue (“My family is part of a tyrannous regime!” announces Faris) and one of the stage’s least convincing pregnant bellies, as it demonstrates the myriad complications involved in hooking up with a Prince.

The central thematic of “ties” – to one’s past, to other human beings, to previous identities – receives a more vibrant spin in Will Gore’s “Portman Avenue” which takes its inspiration from an extraordinary real event: the fall of an African stowaway from an aeroplane flying over East Sheen. Said incident is here witnessed by Kizzy who, being courted at this stage by Faris, receives a visit from a pissed-off reporter, Kate (Malin), who’s keen to quiz her on what she’s seen. The most ambitiously structured of the pieces in its (often effective) recourse to overlapping scenes, Gore’s play ultimately struggles to bring all the characters together convincingly, but it has great touches and boasts an absolutely terrific turn from Alexis, here trading the swaggering confidence of her first appearance for fear and vulnerability as Kizzy’s painful memories resurface.

Last up is Caitlin Shannon’s super “The Getaway” which brings the evening full circle by transforming the “purgatory” of Richmond Park into a Paradise of sorts. The jewel of the evening, Shannon’s play is simply lovely: a warm, funny, fluid piece that charts the interaction of Kate with Gary (Kieron Jecchinis), the ex-cop Park warden who’s supervising her volunteering work. Oscillating between bolshiness and tenderness, the pair – he a Western-movie enthusiast and stickler for Park rules given to California dreaming, she a divorcee seeking solace in Nature and scornful of Hollywood myths – finally share a moment of drunken connection under the stars, an encounter that incidentally features the best bit of stage iPhone abuse since Anna Calder Marshall memorably boiled a mobile in Salt, Root and Roe.

“The Getaway” can’t bring the disparate, sometimes straggly strands of the other plays together. But this text, deeply concerned with redemption, redeems the evening, offering its most insightful discourse on identity and the possibility of change. Indeed, Shannon’s play, wittily scored and beautifully performed by Malin and Jecchinis, does what you hoped all these plays would do. It wrests something at once local and universal, profound and mundane, from its Richmond setting, leaving the viewer with a renewed sense of the potential for interest, beauty and connection in a town that - as is certainly the case for this writer - they may feel they know all too well.

Running until July 13.