Monday 30 July 2018

Theatre Review: The Meeting (Chichester Festival Theatre)

(Photo credit: Helen Maybanks)

"Sometimes I hear my voice/And it's been here/Silent all these years..." Those Tori Amos lyrics may come to mind when watching The Meeting, the fine new play by Charlotte Jones which is premiering at Chichester's Minerva Theatre, in a gripping production by Natalie Abrahami. Grammars of sign and silence, and the challenges of self-expression, especially as they pertain to women's experience, are as central to The Meeting as they are to Amos's iconic song. The play, which unfolds in a Quaker community in Sussex during the Napoleonic Wars, offers a feminist perspective on faith, belonging and outsiderness, and, following the Orange Tree's hugely enjoyable revival of Humble Boy a few months ago, it's a further reminder of how much Jones's wise and humane voice has been missed on UK stages in recent years.

That said, Jones is not a dramatist who repeats herself, and The Meeting is strikingly different to anything that she's written before, mostly eschewing colloquial and comic elements for an empathetic examination of community vs. individual desires. It's a play that does not shy away from big emotions, achieving, as it progresses, a near-operatic intensity in the Minerva's intimate space. There's nothing remotely modish about the piece, but since religious concerns and contexts tend to be sidelined in contemporary drama, there's undoubtedly a subversive streak to the frank engagement with those issues as explored here.

Abrahami's production avoids ponderousness, though, keeping the proceedings pacy and taut, as Jones uses the familiar trope of the arrival of a stranger to disrupt the status quo. Already questioning the community's emphasis on silence, and even its pacifist stance, the play's protagonist, Rachel, lives with her deaf mother Alice and her stonemason husband Adam. Accustomed to being her mother's voice since childhood, Rachel has turned to the Quakers' regular meetings to express herself but her volubility is viewed with some suspicion. She finds herself unsettled further by the appearance of a soldier, Nathaniel, apparently discharged from the army. Rachel invites the stranger into their home where he assists Adam in his work, gradually assuming the roles of both surrogate son and romantic interest.

Through her focus on an outsider within an outsider community, a woman who was not born into the Quaker faith and who struggles to find a way to be useful, to be good, within its clearly defined parameters, Jones skillfully conveys the contradictions of the community, with its insistence upon gender equality yet its scepticism about a woman speaking up, and its emphasis on contemplative silence yet reluctance to engage with the hearing-impaired Alice.

She's created a complex heroine here, and, as Rachel finds herself deeper and deeper in a moral muddle, Lydia Leonard's compelling performance catches the heart; restless and conflicted, with her expressive back turned to the audience she might be a study for Vilhelm Hammershøi. As Alice, Jean St. Clair carries her scenes through look and gesture and establishes a great rapport with Leonard; theirs is a mother/daughter bond formed through nonverbal communication (and disrupted by a male presence) that can't help but recall Ada and Flora's relationship in The Piano. The actresses' excellent performances are well supported by good work from Laurie Davidson as the ambiguous soldier; from Gerald Kyd, a strong, charismatic presence as Adam; and especially from Olivia Darnley, who moves memorably from gaiety to grievance in a vivid performance as Rachel's garrulous friend.

Aided by beautiful lighting by Paule Constable and Marc Williams, Vicki Mortimer's set, with its stones and circles, conjures place and period with economy, while Ben and Max Ringham's sound design combines subtely interpolated natural sounds with an unsettling aura of dissonance - a futuristic hum - in the between-scenes interludes. A few plot elements might look hokey on paper, but the sincerity of the writing carries the day, and the dramatic arc is surprising, satisfying and, ultimately, powerfully affecting. Jones has always been particularly great at endings, and the conclusion of The Meeting - poetic and sad and embracing and affirmative all at once - is another example, encapsulating the play's mature vision, and the sympathetic "tender hand" that it extends both to the desire of the individual to break free and to the capacity of a fractured community to remake itself.

The Meeting runs at the Minerva until 11 August. 

Wednesday 25 July 2018

Concert and CD Review: Float Like a Butterfly: The Songs of Sting (Barb Jungr and John McDaniel) (Kristalyn Records, 2018)

"You consider me the young apprentice," sings Barb Jungr, surveying the crowd with her singular mixture of warmth and challenge as she takes to the stage at Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho. Immediately, we're drawn into the story. Accompanying Jungr is John McDaniel, the brilliant pianist, singer and arranger with whom Jungr collaborated three years ago on Come Together, a collection of Beatles songs. The opener here is "Wrapped Around Your Finger" by Police, that memorable evocation of master/servant dynamics in a love relationship, which serves as the entry point to the the duo's latest venture: a programme of songs by Sting.

Jungr and McDaniel debuted this material in live performances last year, and the recent Soho show served as a launch for the album of the songs, Float Like a Butterfly, which is available now. It was, to be sure, a revelatory evening. Jungr and McDaniel have been thorough and judicious in their research and selection of material, combining songs from the range of Sting's output - Police work, solo stuff, soundtracks, collaborations and his recent musical The Last Ship - to create a marvellously varied yet cohesive whole.

In a way, taking on Sting songs might be viewed as a riskier project for the duo, since, while the greatness of the Beatles (or Jungr's other frequent touchstones, Dylan and Cohen) is seldom disputed, views on Sting tend to be much more mixed. Still hugely popular, he is nonetheless an artist whose persona has often met with kneejerk derision (especially in the British press); it doesn't take much online searching to find commentators sniping about him as "one of the most narcissistic performers in pop." Jungr alludes to this perspective a little bit in her witty intro, but her and McDaniel's response is to place the focus firmly on Sting's terrific, wide-ranging body of work which they illuminate in striking and sometimes surprising ways, digging deeply into its personal, political and mythological resonances.

Stripping the songs back to piano and voice (with occasional harmonica blasts) the pair have developed fantastic, crisp arrangements that allow the images and melodies to emerge freshly. As such, lyrics that you'd hardly noticed in the original versions are suddenly revealed as the soul of a song, whether it's the take-down of conventional notions of masculinity in the Quentin Crisp portrait "Englishman in New York" ("Takes more than combat gear to make a man/Takes more than a license for a gun"); the opening salvo of "Russians" ("In Europe and America/There's a growing feeling of hysteria..."), updated here with a Putin reference and given a thrilling cabaret strut; the desolation of the imagery in "King of Pain"; or the urgency of the hope for deliverance in "Message in a Bottle." Moreover, Jungr, with her subversive, unpredictable and often hilarious between-songs commentary, finds ways to make the songs personal, prefacing an empathetic "Roxanne" with a recollection of her time working at a knocking shop cloakroom and incorporating a memory of Isle of Skye sublime into a stunning "Fragile."

The album itself conveys all of this and is one of Jungr's most accomplished releases, sustaining an intimate and confiding tone, and testifying to the extent to which her and McDaniel's rapport has deepened. The structure of the album is the same as the show with only "Russians" snipped (shame!). The subtlety of the arrangements, the skill of McDaniel's piano-playing and the intricacy of the harmonies can be savoured, from the withholding of the chorus in "Don't Stand So Close to Me" to create a tense atmosphere that's equal parts seductive and sinister, through the elegant waltz of "Until (A Matter of Moments") (from Kate and Leopold), to the embracing warmth of a dappled, rapt "Fields of Gold" and the jazzy late-night ambience of "Moon Over Bourbon Street." Most extraordinary of all, perhaps, is the reinvention of "Desert Rose," Sting's collaboration with the Algerian singer Cheb Mami. Shorn of the chants and elaborate instrumentation of the original, the piece is revealed in all its crystalline beauty through Jungr and McDaniel's alchemic interplay.

Passionate and controlled, with exquisite phrasing, Jungr has seldom sounded better on record, while McDaniel's elegant, heartfelt leads on "Shape of My Heart" and "August Winds" are also highlights, the latter gaining poignancy from its reinvention here as an expression of gay desire and longing ("In my private moments/I drop the mask that I've been forced to wear..."). "This world is beautiful. Our world is beautiful," Jungr declaims on the added spoken word interlude on "Fragile" (which the record preserves). Humane and restorative, the radiant performances on Float Like a Butterfly offer further proof of that.

Float Like a Butterfly is available for purchase here.

See Jungr and McDaniel Live at Zedel's in October. Details here.

Tuesday 3 July 2018

Concert Review: The Light Princess in Concert (Cadogan Hall, 1 July 2018)

There are shows that you enjoy, and then there are shows that change you. An example of the latter, for me, was Samuel Adamson and Tori Amos's musical The Light Princess, which was a case of love at first sight and first hearing when I encountered it at the NT in September 2013. That love for Marianne Elliott's production only deepened across the 10 visits I made to the show - I wrote a little about why in a piece here - and it was with a heavy heart that I and many others who had connected deeply with The Light Princess bid farewell to it at the final performance in February 2014. A heavy heart - and also the sense that the musical hadn't received anything like its due from certain mainstream critics ("Saint" Lyn Gardner among them), who'd proved themselves inadequate to the task of engaging with the show's intricate, densely patterned, classically-inflected score and the highly original ways that it serves character and narrative. 

The release of the cast recording in October 2015 was a delight; still, the hope of seeing the show revived has remained. Organised by Club 11 London and Alex Parker Theatre Company, and directed by Paul Foster (Staff Director on the original production), Sunday's concert performance at Cadogan Hall went some way to fulfilling that desire. This most physical - even balletic - of musicals, with its floating heroine, requires a bold approach to movement (such as it received at the NT thanks to Steven Hoggett's startling, surreal choreography) to fully soar. But Foster's simple and unfussy concert staging - with the terrific ensemble occupying the back of the stage, the musicians, conducted by Parker, in the centre, and the leads at the front - succeeded in placing the focus firmly on the music, which sounded rich and glorious - with a chamber intensity - throughout. With so much character and narrative detail packed into the score, the show's themes of generational conflict, patriarchal tyranny and the necessity of finding your own path emerged clearly, as did the parallel arcs of its hero and heroine: she towards gravity, he towards levity, he learning the value of rebelliousness, she becoming responsible on her own terms. 

Returning to the role that she so powerfully originated, Rosalie Craig sang with all the passion, wit and sensuality of her NT performance, delivering standouts such as the yearning "My Fairy Story," the jubilant " Better Than Good," and the wrenching "No H2O" with deep feeling. Taking on the role of the Solemn Prince Digby, husband Hadley Fraser proved an unsurprisingly great sparring partner, bringing swagger to "Sealand Supremacy" and romantic spirit and sweetness to the intoxicating love duet "Althea," as well as thrillingly partnering Louis Maskell's Llewellyn on "Bitter Fate."

Gabrielle Brooks offered a winning combination of tenderness and defiance as Piper, doing well on the very complex duet pieces "Queen Material" and "The Whistleblower," and stepping forward for Craig to touch her tears on "No H2O." Trevor Dion Nicholas - the Genie of the West End's Aladdin - proved himself every inch King material with a galvanising performance as Darius that fully conveyed both the character's arrogant authority and his wounded core. As the Sergeant-at-Arms, the stylish Anna-Jane Casey took on the hilarious "Scandal" with relish; returning to her role as Falconer, Laura Pitt-Pulford maximised her "Sealand Supremacy" cameo (aka the show's "Bonnie Tyler moment"); and an on-fire David Langham tripled up spectacularly as Messers Flowers, Crabbe and Grey in the great "suitors" sequence. 

Some judicious edits set the scene and condensed the narrative so that only the omission of Darius's aria of repentance "My Little Girl's Smile" felt like a great loss. And, in a lovely surprise, the concert also restored to the score several sequences that were cut in NT previews. The addition of "Not a Fairy-tale" and Darius's death song brought the "Althea Selma Isadora Darcy" theme to completion beautifully, while tweaks to individual lines kept things fresh and interesting throughout. ("I'd rather eat my spleen" declared Althea on her great face-off with the King at the start of "Queen Material".)

With the swell and soar of the voices on the majestic finale "Coronation" "ringing out" across the hall and inspiring a standing ovation, the love for this most loving of musicals was moving to witness. What emerged afresh was the huge ambition, originality and emotional range of the show, conveyed through music that's as thrillingly diverse as it is wonderfully cohesive. The show needs - and deserves - another full production soon. Still, this heartwarming evening proved conclusively that there's more than one way of feeling Light

See concert photos here: 

Sunday 1 July 2018

Theatre Review: Utility (Orange Tree)

Is there a more underrated production currently on in London than Caitlin McLeod's staging of Emily Schwend's play Utility, at the Orange Tree? It's not that McLeod's production hasn't received some good reviews. But in a period of (over-)saturation of US drama in UK theatres - from Killer Joe to Fun Home - it feels like Utility hasn't quite got the recognition it deserves. In fact, it's an exceptional, perfectly pitched production of a terrific new American play, one that should be selling out.

Perhaps the issue regarding the play's reception is the usual one: an association of the domestic with the trivial or "miniature" that's dogged literary art for decades. (And perhaps a gender bias underpins that association still. To quote Carol Shields: "When men write about ordinary family life they are called subtle and sensitive. When women do so, their work is classified as domestic.") "Ordinary family life" is Schwend's unswerving focus in Utility: the action of the play unfolds entirely in the kitchen of Amber and Chris, an East Texas couple trying to make a go of it together after a period of separation. The birthday of Amber's daughter is a day or so away and Amber is determined to make it a special occasion. But with financial pressures piling up, and Chris's unreliability causing hassles, the burden falls on Amber to hold things together - albeit with some assistance from her mother and from Chris's brother Jim, who is helping out with the renovations of the house.

Schwend's style could hardly be further from the flashy, meta pyrotechnics of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's An Octoroon, last year's big American OT hit, which is currently ripping up the stage in its transfer to the NT. But her play does something undoubtedly more relatable, and equally challenging, too: it gives a vivid sense of the ebb and flow of daily life that feels totally authentic. The approach is somewhat reminiscent of Annie Baker's, but without the more calculated, slightly self-conscious air of Baker's plays - or the ostentatious length. Observant and shrewd, Schwend writes admirably light, unstressed dialogue that doesn't strain for effect but that achieves an absolute ring of truth throughout. As a portrait of a cash-strapped couple negotiating household roles and responsibilties, the play's political resonance is clear but never forced or pushed. There are no big blow-ups or huge revelations; tensions reside in "small" incidents and comments. What we respond to here are the characters: their dilemmas, desires and struggles in the moment.

Playing out on Max Johns's superbly detailed set - the most convincing OT kitchen since Muswell Hill  back in 2012 - McLeod's production attends to the text with scrupulous sensitivity, creating an immersive mood of low-key naturalism that makes small hurts, recollections and compromises really resonate. Unafraid of silences, or of leaving characters alone on stage, the production is carefully rhythmed, with a sense of the family's history emerging naturally: in a remark about a semi-estranged brother, a memory of a cinema trip to The Little Mermaid, a surprising vivid reminiscence. (How and what we remember - the difference of those memories - is part of the subtle texture of the play.)

As the under-pressure, ever-bustling Amber - making packed lunches at 5am, attending to the party preparations, finding just an occasional moment for a reflective cigarette - Robyn Addison inhabits the character with total conviction and compelling emotional transparency to create a touching portrait of a young woman losing herself. Some of Addison's best scenes are with the terrific Jackie Clune as Amber's mom who offers both unsolicited advice and practical help, and views the feckless and unfaithful Chris as a man worth holding on to. Robert Lonsdale makes Chris soft-voiced and charming, aware that he needs to make amends yet still resorting to old behaviour patterns, and Matt Sutton is quietly affecting as the brother with a secret.

There's a heartening generosity of spirit at play here: none of the characters is demonised, and it's particularly pleasing to see folks from one of the most generalised and joked-about of American states being presented without the kind of crude caricaturing that's often the case (and that might find favour with some audiences) but rather with careful patient attention.
Beautifully complementary, Emma Chapman's lighting and Max Perryment's music and sound design give the proceedings a hum, a pulse, a glow, providing a suggestion of the mystery beyond the everyday that Schwend's writing so brilliantly illuminates.

Utility is at the Orange Tree until 7 July.

Image credit: Helen Murray.