Wednesday 14 September 2016

Theatre Review: Torn Apart (dissolution) (Theatre N16)

Produced by No Offence Theatre, the enterprising company that he founded with Nastazja Somers, Bj McNeill’s Torn Apart (dissolution) is back at Theatre N16 following a preview period at the venue last year and a run at this year’s Brighton Fringe. It’s a most welcome return, for this is a resonant and rewarding piece that fully deserves wider exposure.  

Three decades-spanning love stories – two of them transnational – unfold and interweave over 75 minutes, each taking place in a different bedroom. In West Germany in the early 1980s, a Polish student, Alina (Somers herself) is involved in an affair with an American soldier (Simon Donohue), their encounter at once highly specific yet also reflecting wider tensions and attractions between East and West at this time.  

In London in the late 1990s, Casey (Christina Baston), an Australian backpacker, has hooked up with Elliott (Elliott Rogers), an intense young chef, but the progress of their partnership seems stymied by the imminent expiration of Casey’s visa, which, as she wryly notes, has given her enough time to make a life in the UK but not enough time to stay (not that she’s entirely sure that she wants to, anyway). 

In 2014, meanwhile, the affluent Holly (Sarah Hastings) has left her husband and child to be with Erica (Monty Leigh), but the relationship is challenged by, among other things, Holly’s conflicted feelings and some distressing news from Erica. 

Concealing and disclosing as it elegantly develops its complementary triple time-line of  liaisons,  the structure of Torn Apart (dissolution) recalls works as diverse as Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours and, especially, Tim Kirkman’s wonderful (and sadly under-seen) 2005 film Loggerheads, in which the fallout of a decision forced upon a young woman reverberates over three interwoven time periods some years later.

Despite such resonances, McNeill’s play doesn’t feel derivative, though. Rather, it offers an astute look at relationships that are simultaneously enabled and compromised by forces both external and internal. With an excellent set by Szymon Ruszczewski that boldly evokes the cage of circumstances that confine and inhibit the characters (and the “cage” of coupledom itself, perhaps) the play adds up to an insightful exploration of the factors that both unite and divide lovers.  

The sensibility of the piece is notably different to that of much contemporary British work for the stage: while not without moments of levity, McNeill’s text maintains a seriousness of intent and approach that’s bracing, refreshing. Whether it’s Somers’s outspoken Alina reflecting on her father's fecklessness and her mother’s conservative attitudes, or Hastings’s Holly worrying that her abandonment of her child is a repetition of her own father’s behaviour, this is a play that’s profoundly concerned with parental legacy, and the way in which mothers and fathers, whether known or unknown, may condition and affect the lives of their children.  

As director, McNeill keeps the production fluid and dynamic: the sharply rhythmed scenes sometimes overlap, with characters appearing as ghostly presences in the other strands. (Only the pivotal penultimate sequence could benefit from a little more clarity and definition.) And it’s not all talk, either: music (including Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” Fat Boy Slim’s “Praise You” and Sia's “Elastic Heart”) is judiciously employed throughout, and the piece is punctuated by economical yet expressive moments of movement that brilliantly evoke the characters’ inner lives and emotional states.

The accomplished cast of six work together wonderfully well, delivering brave and exposing performances that create vivid individual impressions while also forming a cohesive collective. Sensitive to the caring and the cruelty that takes place in relationships, unsentimental yet also uncynical, McNeill and his collaborators have crafted an intense and intimate production of the kind of play that you see pieces of yourself in.

Torn Apart (dissolution) is booking at Theatre N16 until 30 September. Further information here

Tuesday 13 September 2016

Theatre Review: Jess and Joe Forever (Orange Tree)

It surprising to realise that it’s already been two years since Paul Miller began his tenure as Artistic Director of the Orange Tree. With a mixture of revivals and new writing that’s encompassed everything from sterling Shaws (Widowers’ Houses, The Philanderer) to hipster-friendly hype-fests (Alistair MacDowall's Pomona) unforgettably powerful dramas (Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone) to possibly the most delightful French Without Tears ever, Miller’s programming has showed continuity with his predecessor Sam Walters’s while also branching out in some new directions, especially through an emphasis on co-productions.     

Time, continuity and change, are among the concerns of the play – a premiere – which opens Miller’s third year as OT Artistic Director. Commissioned by Old Vic New Voices, and co-produced with Farnham Maltings, Zoe Cooper’s  Jess and Joe Forever centres on two young people as they grow up, spanning several summers in Norfolk, that take our protagonists from ages 9 to 15. Jess is a tubby little girl who, neglected by her parents, holidays in the village with her au pair, while Norfolk-born Joe helps on his father’s farm. As the two gradually edge into friendship, a portrait emerges of two outsiders challenged with making their way in the world against the sometimes harsh judgements of the community.

With its rural setting, a running time of just an hour and ten minutes, and its intimate focus on two characters, Jess and Joe Forever  is a modest work but it’s one whose themes run deeper than many pushier, ostensibly more “ambitious” plays.  The premise may suggest the low-key naturalism of Robert Holman (whose German Skerries was revived at the Orange Tree earlier this year) but what makes the play distinctive is its structure and narrative approach. Jess and Joe Forever mobilises narration and audience address to become a play that’s very much about the construction of a story, as Jess and Joe take us through their impressions and experiences, and, sometimes, debate how best to present those shared memories. 

Rather like Jess, who earnestly declares herself a vegetarian while eagerly consuming a scotch egg, it’s an odd combination of archness and innocence that Cooper achieves here. Initially the archness seems to be winning out in Derek Bond’s production and James Perkins’s spare design, with its representative small pile of sand, and two microphones through which the protagonists speak when they morph into (their versions of) other characters.

But while the self-consciousness about storytelling has some drawbacks (resulting in some sketchy characterisations and underdramatised moments), it becomes more beguiling as the evening progresses, adding up to a mischievous (yet mature) spirit of play that feels appropriate for a work concerned with imagination, transition and transformation. One particular surprise reveal will be the play’s main talking point but what’s admirable is the scrupulous way in which Cooper avoids an “issue-led” approach to the material, opting instead for a more quirky, personal and poetic perspective. Her dialogue is lively and characterful, with great attention to detail that sparks the characters to life.

Bond’s production succeeds in keeping the transitions fluid, with great help from Sally Ferguson’s lighting and from Nicola Coughlan and Rhys Isaac-Jones’s terrific performances, which make the evening a beautifully textured duet. Coughlan is particularly adorable, as she reveals the neediness and vulnerability underpinning Jess’s penchant for showing off. Quietly subversive, not without pain, Jess and Joe Forever truly earns its final joyous flourish. It’s a lovely, loving work that makes you eager to see what Cooper will do next.

Jess and Joe Forever is booking at the Orange Tree until 8 October.   The production then tours until November. Further information here.  

Monday 12 September 2016

Theatre Review: Little Shop of Horrors (touring)

My review of  Tara Louis Wilkinson's new touring production of Little Shop of Horrors is up at The Reviews Hub. You can read it here.  

Theatre Review: Bitches (Finborough, National Youth Theatre)

My review of Bola Agbaje's Bitches is up at The Reviews Hub. You can read it here.