Reviews

Holes - Review

 

Nicholas Richards directs this 2013 play by Tom Basden, a four-hander black hole of a comedy in the NVT Studio, with set designed by Charly Sommers and built by Andrew Paul Smith and Simon Glazier. Shorthand naturalism sassily foregrounds sand, strewn luggage, a jungle fringe and part of a crashed airliner.

One young woman lies prone, another girl of sixteen sits aphasically incapable of speech and a dirt-smeared man nurses a broken arm. Whenjolly hollering breaks the silence we’re complete. These four are the sole survivors of an aircrash, and perhaps beyond.

Robert Purchese’s Alpha Male Ian is the hollerer. Purchese has lately cornered the unhinged wannabe and here he beautifully unfastens, at first overbearing and bumptious, and later, something other. Scott Roberts’ Gus slides the other way, from competent if damaged rationalist to alcoholic moumer for his lost family: the quartet believe afier a confused radio conversation they might just be the only humans left.

Despite having to bury the dead — two of whom as the traumatised girl, Erin finally speaks could be buried separately, being her parents — this promises to be a party. The other three are all en route to a Sydney conference for their diaspora-crunching company; Marie’s had the hots for Ian for some time. Kate McGann’s neatly self—obsessed Marie moves from sunbathing to slithen'ng up and down near Ian with a large banana to attract his ministration. Ian however is disturbingly drawn to the unimpressed Erin. As months wear on Marie thinks of having a child.

McGann conveys Marie’s three breathy strands with their wisps of narcissism: hedonistic heedless do-nothing sunbather, office HR bully treating Erin as the bottom of the food chain sourcing the wrong kind of food; and her almost comic coming-on to Ian. The last’s her most appealing suit: indeed on the face of it there’s no reason why Ian shouldn’t respond to her attractions, even before she’s the sexist woman lefi on the planet.

Why Ian thinks Erin at sixteen would make ideal breeding stock is a pitch-dark guess, but we’ve crashed the office on the beach and scene-changes show how gradually the accoutrements of civilisation are harvested discarded and buried.

Elsa Noad’s traumatised Erin discovers a sturdily sane voice, an even more measured counterpart to Gus, who’s lost to her as an ally through his descent into alcoholic singing. When Coldplay’s last song cuts out, it’s Gus’s voice amplified by real tracks in the sound design of Jezz Bowden that plays the soundtrack of what’s been lost, existing only in the survivors’ heads. Roberts charts this descent with consummate lurches out of clarity, into the most literal and bleakest of holes.

Erin’s fruit-gathering doesn’t impress Marie, only the berries, which Gus warns might be dangerous. Marie though wants to impress lan. In all the horror there’s laughter. ‘Berries not a good idea’. Ian’s team-leader quips remain intact whatever.

Both Gus and Erin can quote Pythagoras as Ian moves to a bizarre new phase of reclaiming all the knowledge of the world they can pool together from bible to scraps of science. Purchese too unhjnges just a notch from bumptious Alpha to psychotic cut—price visionary whose reclamation of human knowledge filters through fatuous Jingoism. His contribution is what his grandfather taught him: Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ with its racist assumption of an English ‘richer dust’ in a ‘foreign field. . . forever England’.

The bleak dynamic triangulates as Ian tightens his grip on the others whilst losing it on himself. The denouements jump-cut and must be seen.

Some of this is predictable (Lord of the Flies naturally), some not. Basden’s comic writing remains undented by all the literal and metaphoric holes that Gus claims Ian digs — not least those Basden might dig for himself. Holes sashays between naturalism and fable; even Basden can’t quite predict what a year will bring to the balance of his premise though his dramatic instincts don’t desert him.

Whilst Noad and McGann strongly characterise their performances, indeed wholly convince, Basden has rather slanted development towards his male protagonists. Roberts and Purchese seize the slithery psychosis of male identity wrenched and debased, and make something special and unforgettable out of the comically horrifying — indeed their performances seem definitive. Richards has produced a sovereign reading of a troubled, brilliantly unequal question mark.

Simon Jenner

The Clean House - Review

Sam Chittenden directs Sarah Ruhl’s 2005 Pulitzer—shortlisted ‘The Clean House’ — the latest production at the New Venture Theatre, Brighton. Designed by Adam Kincaid in the still-new Theatre Upstairs it features a
simple white sofa and small table, with stage left a balcony. lt’s magically lit on occasion by Strat Mastoris with Rima Stankute’s video FX up centre and raised, mainly functioning as a story- board.

Brazilian Matilde the maid to married doctors Lane and Charles, tells jokes. Brazilian jokes which spoken in Brazilian we’re not likely to get. She relates too — in English — how her mother died laughing at her father’s joke — though we’re not told what it is for health reasons. She searches for the perfect killer line though understandably fears finding it, so seems condemned to infinite jest. Matilde can’t stand
cleaning, though.

However Dr Lane's sister Victoria does, now offering to fill the empty ritual of her day — Greek scholarship having failed her. Lane discovers the ruse, though not the stray undies the others spot. Lane’s solidly devoted husband Charles has fallen in love with older Ana on whom he’s just performed a mastectomy. Then wondrously plausible narratives take over.

Threaded with Matilde’s need to tell jokes — which delivers the plotline — we’re treated to how Kerri Frost’s uptight Lane unbends, how Jozede Scrivener’s beautifully expressive Victoria — each gesture notched to
warm irony — bridges subsequent estrangements; how Ana’s friendship with Matilde extends beyond apple—picking by the sea — apples are thrown close by the audience — strewn into a path of love and acceptance. The full sheen of this quietly magical drama focuses when the vision clears and an absolute need for jokes assumes an epiphany.

To reveal why Charles shoots off to Alaska to uproot a yew tree, why in 2004 telegrams are sent even from the land of Sarah Palin, would be telling. Minor clunks might be expected in transposing this tale to Sussex, since here a Brazilian and Argentinean are more unexpected, and a trip to Alaska even more surreal than just a hop to another state. It hardly seems to matter.

Shaila Alvarez’ Matilde is both personally and physically expressive, like Scrivener able to render something aching in a single glance, flecked to laughter. Diane Robinson’s Ana (she also doubles as Matilde’s mother in dumb show) triumphs in the enormous task of appearing idiomatic in Spanish, and talking English with a strutting opacity laced with Ana’s stoic courage. As does Frost’s unbending Lane whose warmth tricks out confronted with something bigger than her personal experience, which she now invites to her home.

Against the authoritative Scrivener, Alvarez, Lane and Robinson, Jeremy Crow’s normal amplitude is shoehorned into a few expressive speeches as Charles, and mute in Matilde’s father — his parts aren’t the most developed and it needs someone like Crow to flesh them. Crow exudes a puzzled warmth, a baffled ardent awakening to shock him out of his medical carapace.

Steve Hoar’s recordings of mostly Villa—Lobos piano music (with a vintage Stokowski of Bachianas brasileiras No. 5) punctuate hauntingly, as does his setting of Medicine meum quod est amoris’ raptly sung by Crow.
Hoar captures the contrapuntal curb and pointillistic wildness of this vast repertoire alongside lesser—known pieces — it perfectly projects the fabulous ripeness of Ruhl’s writing as well as this production.

The versatility of some set items — the sofa turning into an operating table for instance — calls for special praise; the versatile FX and lucid unfussy design takes on the shimmering clarity of dream. Chittenden paces this with clean elegance, counterpointing the messiness of existence with the neatness of fable, and the human need to straddle, even celebrate both. She allows this extremely fine ensemble to explore their own weight. Movement too is full of economy so when a character paces across upstage, you know why they pull focus and laugh. We get the joke and far from killing us it offers us a small lesson in loving.

Simon Jenner

The Accidental Death of an Anarchist - Review

First reaction to ‘The Accidental Death of an Anarchist’ is excitement and pleasure in a play that provokes an active and radical engagement with the political scene. The diminishing potency of the left demands a shot in the arm: once possible from playwrights Wesker or Stoppard, there are few left to provide it on stage. (David Hare, just.)

Dario Fo’s play is set in the doldrums of the recent past. Although written as a response to actual events in Milan
during the 1970’s, Fo sanctioned constant updating and adaptation to reflect current political mores – some of which remain unchanging. We know that political corruption is endemic, that many a true word is spoken in jest – and that you could probably never trust an Italian.

The story, like life, is unclear to start with and remains a mystery. Characters are limitlessly fluid as they ttempt to grapple with the unknowable. Four bent coppers, one beautiful journalist and one lunatic impersonator with papers to prove his psychotic identity) ask one central question: did the anarchist jump or was he pushed? The fourth wall disappears as the cast desperately look for the answer and perhaps the audience can help? The play becomes a play within a play, as characters shift identity and rush about the stage with the violent energy of a
farce, occasionally singing loudly in Italian and dancing together along the way.

Des Potton proved comic genius with his portrayal of Darry Burrill in Sean O’Casey’s ‘End of the Beginning’ for the NVT in 2014 : his ‘Harpagon’ in Moliere’s ‘ Miser’ (2015) went to the opposite end of the scale. As ‘ Maniac’ he was the central character, the Fool of the commedia dell’ Arte and no one could have been more brilliantly over the top. Bouncing around in fright wigs with an occasional glass eye and removable wooden prostheses, he was exhilarating to watch with a performance which raised the entire cast to stunning levels of acting ability. Nick Richards, tormentor in chief, aided and abetted by the perfectly sinister Pissani of Robert Purchase, bloke-bonded Culann Smyth and Jack Lewellyn Roberts, sweetly naïve as Constable. Heather Andrews gives a wonderful, feisty performance as the only woman on stage.

Director Rod Lewis knew the play from its London run in the 1980’s and it stayed in his mind — I can see why.

Louise Schweitzer

Dick Barton and the Tango of Terror - Review

Gerry McCrudden troubles the world with this unveiling of plots against it. Happily ‘Dick Barton and the Tango of Terror’ lends some respite, though Phil Wilmott’s vivid witty text is merely the third of a series of homages he made around 2001. It specialises in cliff—hangers even at the end of a narrative. Steve Hoar’s musical direction is crucial, Simon Glazier’s shrewd recreation of a 1951 BBC studio including parqué floor in puce and peppermint is beautifully organised and meticulously sourced with old broadcasting bric—a—brac, down to the costumes of Mark Green and Jackie Jones. Strat Mastoris lights in neat period fashion.

Lovingly guyed, the constant undercutting of narrative with radio asides, intrigues and studio spats, square—jawed Dick Barton has to surmount not only EFlL (Evil Foreigners in London) but radio convention teetering to obligatory BBC disaster. Jack Edison makes a superb crack of this with rapid RP delivery, sings well and blasts a trumpet at least lustily. For that’s the point; it seems the Light Programme has strayed wowing in from another frequency and this is a crazily-paved musical of sorts.

Not only that, of his working-class deferential sidekicks Snowy’s actor has reverted to Soho gutters, and an actress Kirrily Long is brought in giving a spirited exhibition of sidekick shyness. Even more of a shock there’s a lady announcer Genevieve (Lex Lake) who in one highlight dances with Edison’s Barton despite his anxiety to pursue criminals, because there’s a dead—air spot she won’t let him leave her to. David Eaton as announcer and Alistair Lock Producer enjoys a flustered sexist continuity; they look horribly plausible.

So does Mark Green, here a poker-stiff Colonel Gardener in several senses, hapless M15 spymaster who can’t keep a briefcase or it seems a guardsman let alone what he does with Brussel sprouts.

Juan el Bigglesworth (Tom Slater’s excellent here, in two accents and at least two chips balancing his sultry foreign shoulders), whose father’s one great organ tune was stolen, has sworn revenge in guise of a tango master, seducing girls and their jewels. No-one’s safe, not even Barton’s housekeeper Mrs Horrocks (a fine turn by Kate McGann, you’ll never eat crumpets the same way again). He’s also pursuing all British agents and Rodger and Wilco (a charming camp double act Alex Williams and Matt Mulvay) are in mortal danger in Rio, but have they chanced on Mrs Horrocks’ sister and her daughters?

When Robert Purchese enacts Jock the other sidekick you begin to tremble. His hapless love for Daphne (pert but oh—so—helpless Emmie Spencer), threatened by Juan draws him into a series of gaffes, though he’s not
like Snowy prone to giving Barton’s address so a bomb can be deposited, activated when Juan’s father’s organ piece is played over the airwaves.

Purchese though plays violin to augment the band Steve Hoar directs from the piano, with Sarah Elliot clarinet and sax, and Adam Kincaid. This is a wonderfully turned set of musical treats, jazzing Mozart’s ‘Queen of the Night’ aria so Kirrily Long actually nails those dotted rhythms, to parts of Carmen to other popular period hits, where Fintan Shevlin’s choreography makes maximum use of studio space. Sheelagh Baker’s the sister of McGann whose daughters Laura Fosner and Jo Jameson make a stab at chortling and tangoing (Jameson’s moment): they’re all plotting to find the girls husbands.

How this all resolves, or not, who the Wireless Foley team are (Andy Osborn and Igor Goran Macukat jump up with props) how briefcases Brussel sprouts and Daphne’s true passion works out you’ll have to see for yourself. This is admirable high—quality festive fun; an excellent script well worth reviving and indeed sourcing again for others, a crack creative team particularly the musical numbers, and a cast who for
the most part are at home with whiplash RP, particularly Jack Edison who’s never tongue—tied once. McCrudden as ever keeps it all miraculously taut though knows just how to allow solos their flourishing, and this was essentially an ensemble — pirouetting with fiendish musical twirls.

Simon Jenner

A Christmas Carol - Review

 

Sarah Davies has taken an ensemble cast to build a swirl of fully-orchestrated and detailed scenes around John Tolputt’s excellent, very characterful Scrooge. It’s a memorable production, full of incidents one forgets and certainly never sees in any other adaptation -— especially one like this trying hard to suppress its secret title of Scrooge — the Musical.

It begins and ends with two contemporary destitute waifs starting the story, a neat underscoring (though with a book?).
The cast enacted anything fi'om choreographed dance to skat-and-descant—laden arrangements singing ‘God Rest Ye Merry’, and ‘Silent Night’ elegantly spliced with a Beethoven Piano Sonata and riffs to a superb score by Steve Hoar. They danced on as ghosts, proto-banshees foretelling Scrooge’s demise, clouds wafting Scrooge to the past, or sea—waves (a chorus offstage whooshing was the only moment this wonderful backwash didn’t quite chill).

Cast aren’t lined up to roles —— not even two/three plus ensemble, not an onerous task. As several execute fine turns this doesn’t do them justice. Robert Purchase is a spirited convincing nephew, Mark Green as a characterful older man, Jeremy Crow as Bob Cratchett, Christopher Dangerfield and above all Heather
Andrews as spirit of Christmas Past and a host of small roles shine out inhabiting their parts. Andrews in particular glints in every twist, vocal or otherwise - even mischievously proclaiming ‘I am a lighthouse’; at that point she is.

I’ve not seen it enacted before; it’s usually forgotten, as is the prostitutes scene, incidental to the plot. This is the fresh detail of Davies’ production. Like Dickens, unlike most adaptations understandably sticking to storyline, Davies makes a social point, embracing the message others over-simplify - even if Dickens does lay it

Jake Cargill as Younger Scrooge is another true to character. Amy Maynard and Lauren Kelly manage convincing pitches, not amateur-stage Victorian which did infuse some other contributions. The alacrity with which the cast — even young cast (Esther Marshall in particular sparked) move furniture off and on was miraculous. The chorus high up invisible or shouting
from the stage, and the vividness of word-pictures completes the most convincing adaptation of the perennial I’ve ever seen.

Simon Jenner