Saturday 31 March 2018

Theatre Review: White Guy on the Bus (Finborough)

Plays dealing overtly with the thorny topic of "race in America" (usually narrowly defined as relations between WASP and African-American characters) have found considerable favour on British stages in recent years - ever since Bruce Norris scrawled all over Lorraine Hansberry's classic A Raisin in the Sun with his scabrous update Clybourne Park. Currently, Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm's Br'er Cotton is sold out at Theatre503, while Ned Bennett's Orange Tree-originated production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's An Octoroon is National Theatre-bound in June. Though different in content and approach, these works can be linked by a few factors, notably a boldly revisionist attitude to past narratives and a pessimistic perspective, one that, as Armond White argues in his fine review of Jordan Peele's film Get Out, often "paints a limited, doomed picture of race relations."

Receiving its European premiere at the Finborough, Bruce Graham's White Guy on the Bus is in many ways another example of this type of drama, charting the relationship between a white financial consultant, Ray, and a black single mother, Shatique, that shifts from apparent sympathy into more complicated territory. As the title suggests, the pair meet on a bus that Shatique takes every Saturday to visit her brother in a Philadelphia prison. Ray's reasons for being on the bus are more mysterious. But as the play shifts between his chats with Shatique and scenes in which he and his wife, Roz, entertain another couple, Christopher and Molly, at their home, Ray's intentions towards his fellow passenger become clear.

With its public transport setting, White Guy on the Bus seems to gesture further back than its immediate peers, specifically to Amiri Baraka's Dutchman (1964), which dramatised an explosive meeting between a middle-class black man and a white woman on an NYC subway car. Ray and Shatique's encounter is not a sexually charged one, however; rather, the pair's initial interactions (which include some of Graham's best writing) appear to reveal a certain gentle affinity and connection, as Shatique opens up about her life. The tension ratchets when we hear Ray telling Shatique something that we know - or believe - to be a lie but it's a shame that the play reveals its hand rather quickly after this, dissipating the intensity with a surprise reveal and developments that don't always fully convince. Generally avoiding the snark and satirical tendencies that have become associated with the most popular US-derived race-based dramas, Graham's storytelling is admirably lucid but sometimes excessively brisk, leading to a pacy evening but one that could be boosted by a little more depth and texture in elements of the writing.

Jelena Budimir's production remains highly engaging, though, placing the audience on both sides of the action, and negotiating the drama's location and temporal shifts with elegant economy. The production also benefits from strong performances from the cast. Donald Sage Mackay compellingly suggests a volatile temperament beneath the "numbers man" Ray's mild-mannered exterior. Samantha Coughlan brings a striking, vivid quality to her role as his spouse, a woman whose experiences as a teacher in a tough inner-city school have made her impatient with PC platitudes. Carl Stone and Marina Bye convince as the younger couple, while Joanna McGibbon is subtle and searing as Shatique moves from curiosity and warmth to confusion and distress in her attitude towards the stranger.

The high quality of the acting ensures that the on-the-nose debates about crime, racial representation and city versus suburb sound less contrived than they might. And as issues of vengeance rise to the fore, and latent prejudices are - inevitably - exposed, Graham's writing includes some subversive insights that help to counter the less convincing elements of the plotting. Overall, Budimir's production makes for an involving, gripping evening. However, as Bola Agbaje's very British Bitches demonstrated at this venue two years ago, it might be worthwhile for Artistic Directors to seek out more explorations of race relations beyond fashionable North American contexts.

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub. [**** stars].

Booking until 21 April.

Monday 19 March 2018

Theatre Review: Humble Boy (Orange Tree)

Jonathan Broadbent in Humble Boy (Credit: Manuel Harlan)

In The Full Room, his combative and deliciously partisan “A-Z of Contemporary Playwriting,” Dominic Dromgoole speculates that the work of Charlotte Jones “may represent the future of a form of populist theatre.” Praising her plays for their “magic realism that reflects life,” their “pervasive warping of the world, practised with heartfelt affection,” Dromgoole states that “Jones is naturally a public writer, and the theatre desperately needs talent like hers. Writers who can talk to an audience, engage them without begging for favour, and gently change their perceptions.”

Dromgoole’s loving appraisal was written with reference to two Jones plays – In Flame and Martha, Josie and the Teenage Elvis, which won her the Critics’ Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright in 2000 – and just before the premiere of the work that would prove her biggest hit (so far): Humble Boy. Staged at the National Theatre in 2001, before a West End transfer the following year, Humble Boy offers a distinctive, appealing mix of sitcom humour, poetic flourish, family conflict, science and bee-lore, as it focuses on the return of a depressed Oxford research fellow, Felix Humble, to his family home in the Cotswolds following the death of his father, where he finds his mother already contemplating marriage to another man. The play’s ghostly intertext is, of course, Hamlet, and John Caird’s original production came complete with several cast members from the NT’s contemporaneous staging of Shakespeare’s play, most notably Simon Russell Beale, whom Jones had in mind when writing the lead role.

Inevitably, Paul Miller’s new production of the play, its first UK revival, doesn’t have the associations of Caird’s original staging. But it makes a great, fresh case for the play anyway - and a welcome one, since, contrary to Dromgoole’s prediction, Jones’s post-Humble work, such as 2004’s chilly The Dark, proved less immediately accessible to audiences. Here Simon Daw’s lovely garden set – with ivy up the pillars, and flowers planted into the stage - provides the cosy entry point for a play that cleverly mobilises the mode of pastoral English comedy for its own cheeky and sometimes subversive ends.    

Belinda Lang in Humble Boy (Credit: Manuel Harlan)

Jones is a whiz at writing characters with distinctive, individual voices and those voices come through vividly here in a memorable set of performances. The mother/son conflict is brought out particularly sharply from the off, with Jonathan Broadbent’s terrific Felix stuttering in his cricket whites as he observes his Ma’s removal of the bees that were his deceased entomologist father’s passion, pride and joy. By turns smart-alecky and achingly vulnerable, Broadbent makes the role his own, bringing both humour and real poignancy to Felix’s intellectual questioning and his confrontation with the limits of his own theorising. He’s exceedingly well-matched by Belinda Lang as the brittle matriarch Flora; elegant in sunglasses and Jean Muir, Lang shows no concern for likeability as she relishes the character’s waspish ripostes yet also suggests the crushed hopes that motivate Flora’s cruelty and vanity.  

As Rosie, the girlfriend whom Felix unceremoniously ditched when he left for Oxford, Rebekah Hinds makes the character a wry, resilient anti-Ophelia, while Selina Cadell’s befuddled, self-effacing hanger-on Mercy coverts a lunchtime grace – where conversation has already shifted from accusation to revelation to the best way to kill yourself – into a tragicomic showstopper.  

Selina Cadell and Christopher Ravenscroft in Humble Boy
(Credit: Manuel Harlan) 

Randy and ruddy-faced, a prosthetic penis poking out of his pants during the infamous urination scene, Paul Bradley brings a bullish, vulgarian’s vitality to the proceedings as Flora’s would-be fiancé. The spirit to Bradley’s flesh, Christopher Ravenscroft is as glorious here as he’s been in all his Orange Tree roles (Alison’s House, The Promise, The Conspirators, The Man Who Pays the Piper, The Stepmother), his gorgeous voice – a honeyed tone, indeed – employed to perfect effect as Jim, the gardener with a secret.  

Beautifully lit by Mark Doubleday to conjure summer's days and evenings, Miller’s production is perfectly attuned to the tonal shits in Jones’s writing. As farcical set-ups give way to philosophical speculation, the production builds to a transcendent, redemptive final sequence that re-purposes Ophelia’s mad scene to create one of the most beautiful and moving finales in contemporary British drama. Absent from UK stages for far too long, it’s good news that Jones has a new play, The Meeting, coming up at Chichester Festival Theatre from July, a complement to this richly enjoyable revival.     

Booking until 14 April. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

Friday 9 March 2018

Cinema Made in Italy 2018, Ciné Lumière, 7-11 March 2018

Italian cinema may not, nowadays, have quite the cachet and international recognition that it had in its golden years from the post-WWII period to the 1960s. Back then, a mix of neo-realist grit and modernist chic stretched the boundaries of the medium, making renowned auteurs out of directors such as De Sica, Visconti, Pasolini, and Fellini, and international icons from actors including Marcello Mastoianni, Monica Vitti and Sophia Loren.

That’s not to say, however, that interesting, worthwhile films are not still being made in Italy - simply that they’re not always receiving the wider exposure and distribution that they deserve. This state of affairs makes the annual "Cinema Made in Italy" showcase, held at Institut Francais's Cine Lumière, an extremely valuable event, allowing Londoners to catch up with Italian films that would otherwise likely remain inaccessible. Not only that, but the screenings are generally followed by Q&A sessions with the filmmakers and actors. In the past few editions, films as diverse as Ermanno Olmi's Greenery Will Bloom Again, Lamberto Sanfelice's Chlorine, Giuseppe M. Gaudino's Anna, and Gabriele Mainetti's They Call Me Jeeg Robot have testified to the range of work currently being made by Italian filmmakers, much of it exciting and innovative. (You can read my coverage of the 2015 and 2016 editions here and here.)

This year’s well-curated programme (the eighth edition of the showcase, with films selected again by Film London CEO Adrian Wootton), is similarly wide-ranging, encompassing relationship dramas, social realist works, and adult animation, and offering a number of standout films. A new movie by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani is always an event, and while Rainbow: A Private Affair doesn't rank as one of their finest, it's stronger than the rather indifferent critical reception that it's had so far might suggest. An adaptation of Beppe Fenoglio's 1963 novel, the film focuses on a love triangle during Italy's partisan resistance in World War II, and while that aspect is not so compelling, the film gains its power from scattered indelible sequences: a jazz drumming prisoner; a girl rising from among the dead bodies of her family, making herself a drink, and then taking her place among the bodies once again. Such potent moments connect back to the Tavianis' earlier work, such as the great The Night of the Shooting Stars.

Meanwhile, another pair of director brothers, Antonio and Marco Manetti, deliver a wild and enjoyable dark musical comedy in Love and Bullets. Equally distinctive is Alessandro Rak's Cinderella the Cat, a decidedly non-kiddy-friendly animation which places the fairytale in the very Italian context of Neopolitan capitalism and crime, mixing sci-fi and noir genre tropes to sometimes disturbing effect.

More low-key but no less arresting is Leonardo di Costanzo's The Intruder,  a sensitive and well-developed drama which pulls the viewer's sympathies in several directions, as it documents the tense situation that results when a young mother takes up residence at a centre for disadvantaged children, following the arrest of her husband. Giovanna (Raffaella Giordano), the social worker/manager of the centre, finds herself caught between her sympathy for the woman's plight and the concerns of parents who find her a disruptive presence. Avoiding a Ken Loach-style didactism in its approach, the film holds in balance a range of perspectives and is all the richer for it. The ending is muted, but the film is taut and compelling throughout, and anchored by superb, naturalistic performances from all the cast.

Best of all the films featured, though, is Andrea Pallaoro's Hannah, which casts Charlotte Rampling as the titular heroine, going about her routines - or attempting to - during a period of enforced separation from her husband (Andre Wilms). To say more about the reasons for that separation would be to spoil the film's secrets and its intense slow-build, but suffice it to say that Hannah continues the series of intimate, first-person portraits that have formed a strand of Rampling’s output since Francois Ozon's classic Under the Sand in 2000. The actress deservedly won the Best Actress prize at last year's Venice International Film Festival prize for her subtle but searing work here. Pallaoro has named Michael Haneke and Chantal Akerman as among his inspirations, and those influences are clearly felt throughout.  The film's elliptical approach to narrative, with information drip-fed to the audience and some large gaps remaining, can verge on the obtuse, yet it's also pivotal to the film's mysterious aura, which enfuses daily activity with a palpable sense of uncertainty and dread. (The director has described the film as "an existential giallo.")

Finally, the season presents a welcome opportunity to see a classic film, too: a restored print of Ettore Scola's 1977 A Special Day, starring Marcello Mastroianni, as a gay radio announcer and Sophia Loren as the put-upon housewife with whom he bonds over a few hours on the day of Hitler's visit to Rome in 1938. I had the pleasure of seeing the film at an outdoor screening at Wroclaw's New Horizons festival two years ago, and can testify that it has aged extremely gracefully, and that the actors' performances (the film is practically a two-hander) are among their best-ever. Scola's film will make for a fine conclusion to another excellent edition of "Cinema Made in Italy," bringing a bit of the cinematic past into the present.

"Cinema Made in Italy 2018" runs at Institut Francais from 7 -  11 March. For full programme details, see here.

Theatre Review: Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em (Richmond Theatre, and touring)

While not quite boasting the reputation of Fawlty Towers, Dad's Army  or Steptoe and Son, Raymond Allen's Some Mothers Do  'Ave  'Em  nonetheless remains among the most enduringly popular of '70s sitcoms, its combination of sharp writing and slapstick proving pretty timeless in its appeal. The travails of its disaster-prone, proud but oddly innocent protagonist Frank Spencer, whom the show follows through marriage to the patient, put-upon Betty, parenthood to daughter Jessica and sundry failed jobs and other mishaps, made for delightful comedy. A 2004 poll to find Britain's best sitcom placed the show at number 22, while a one-off 2016 reboot for Sport Relief (which reunited Michael Crawford and Michele Dotrice in their iconic roles, alongside Bradley Wiggins, ahem) was also warmly received.

Still, a theatre production based on the sitcom sounds like a rather risky prospect, not least because of the difficulty of replacing Crawford and Dotrice. Happily, this new production, which opened at Swindon's Wyvern Theatre two weeks ago and is at Richmond this week before touring to Bromley, Portsmouth, Crewe, Aberdeen, Eastbourne, Northampton, Dartford, Wolverhampton, Crawley, Tunbridge Wells, Plymouth, Ipswich, Harrogate, Hull, Darlington, Norwich, Leicester, and Southend,  is good fun, with lively peformances and a generous spirit that proves infectious, especially in the first half.

Written and directed by Guy Unsworth, the show doesn't attempt a quirky take on Allen's original material, as Kneehigh did - with mixed but interesting results - in their staging of Steptoe and Son a few years ago. Rather, the approach is straightforward and pretty reverent: a replication, essentially, not a reinterpretation. Focusing on Betty's attempts to tell Frank about her pregnancy, and the arrival at the house of a BBC crew to film Frank's magic act, the show amalgamates or adapts situations and lines from various episodes of the series, and while the late addition of some - fairly incoherent - extra plot is unnecessary, it does so quite effectively for the most part.

Joe Pasquale is a smart casting choice for Frank; with his unmistakable voice and physical comedy skills, he brings his own persona to the part rather than simply conjuring Crawford. Kitted out in beret and trench coat, he relishes the pratfalls and malapropisms, and has great audience rapport. Sarah Earnshaw also does well as Betty, bringing, as Dotrice did, a little undertow of poignancy to the character's combined love for and exasperation with her husband. As Betty's mother Mrs. Fisher, perpetually aghast at her son-in-law's mishaps, Susie Blake gets some of the evening's biggest laughs, and Moray Treadwell doubles effectively as her Scottish bank manager beau and a BBC interviewer. David Shaw-Parker as Father O'Hara and Chris Kiely as a cameraman and policeman complete the likeable cast.

The stunts, though well-timed, can't really rival the elaborately choreographed set-pieces of the TV seies, but Simon Higlett’s very  '70s design - complete with pictures of Bruce Forsyth, Engelbert Humperdinck and Jesus decorating the Spencer home - springs some fun surprises, most notably in the extended mayhem that concludes the first Act. A selection of pop songs of the period also brings energy to the evening, especially in a surreal late sequence that finds Pasquale and co. boogieing away to a medley comprising "Deliah," "Knock Three Times" and "Without You."

No-one's going to mistake Some Mothers Do  'Ave  'Em  for essential theatre, but the accomplished cast and Unsworth's affectionate approach make for an entertaining, retro evening. As our hapless hero might put it: "Mmmm. Nice!"

Theatre Review: The Weir (Richmond Theatre, and touring)

With his Bob Dylan musical – or “play with songs” – Girl from the North Country successfully transferred from the Old Vic to the West End, now seems a particularly good moment for a revival of Conor McPherson’s breakthrough success, The Weir, which is being presented in a new UK touring production to mark the play’s 20th anniversary.

Not that The Weir can precisely be said to have been neglected since its Royal Court debut in 1997 (in a production which boasted Brendan Coyle and Dermot Crowley among its cast). On the contrary, the play has proved popular at home and abroad in the intervening 20 years, ageing more gracefully than many of the flashier, more modish ‘In Yer Face’ offerings that were its direct contemporaries. Adele Thomas’s elegant new staging, a co-production by Colchester’s Mercury Theatre and English Touring Theatre, makes a fresh case for the play’s appeal, boasting good performances and sharp attention to atmosphere.

Self-consciously steeped in the oral tradition of Irish culture, The Weir is, overtly, a play about storytelling.  In an isolated rural Irish pub, the young publican Brendan chats with the garrulous Jack, a garage owner. The men are joined later by Jim, a carer for his Mammy, a woman who’s been “fading fast – for years.” The last regular to join the group is the married businessman Finbar, who brings along Valerie, a Dubliner who has rented a house in the area. As the men reminisce and share tall tales, Valerie’s presence prompts some subtle shifts in their dynamic, particularly when she belatedly reveals the reason that she left Dublin.

As a play, The Weir is static and not particularly dramatic. Its interest and momentum comes, instead, from the rhythms of the conversations, as the tales move from supernatural legend and myth to intimate personal revelation, from banter to soul-baring.  McPherson’s dialogue captures those shifts with skill.  Like water down a weir, the spotlight moves fluidly from character to character. At its heart, the play is a portrait of loss and loneliness, a work concerned with the experience of being haunted, yet the themes aren’t loudly stated or over-emphasised; rather they appear to emerge organically from the protagonists’ chat.

Thomas’s production takes its time, offering a slow-burn approach that leads to some lulls yet also gives a pleasant, unforced, natural feeling to the evening. Madeleine Girling’s pub set creates a warm yet appropriately ghostly ambience, enhanced by Lee Curran and Dara Hoban’s lighting, which fleshes out the mood with expressionistic washes, and complemented by Richard Hammarton’s subtle, effective sound design.

In a solid cast, Sam O’Mahony is terrifically likeable as Brendan, presiding over the others stories but never quite revealing his own. Sean Murray is vivid as the self-consciously cantankerous and belligerent Jack, who finally softens up as he recalls a lost love and a stranger’s kindest. John O’Dowd suggests the compromises of Jim’s life with touching understatement, and Louis Dempsey cleverly conveys the cracks in Finbar’s confident façade.  As Valerie, who first shakes things up with a request for a white wine and later with a heart-rending narrative, Natalie Radmall-Quirke is a strong, persuasive presence. The play probably needs a smaller space to truly flourish, but these actors succeed in creating - and sustaining - an involving, intimate mood.