Bad Jews - Review by Simon Jenner

Joshua Harmon’s 2012 Bad Jews is his breakthrough play – effectively his first, he quips, to last more than three nights. It’s fast becoming a play that barely comes off. produced everywhere. Despite the London Underground’s initial refusal to allow posters advertising it – misreading it as inciting racial hatred – the very title, provocative and edgy, alerts you to the act that it’s a quintessentially Jewish American paly. More than that, it’s a quintessentially coming-of-age play, the bit where you argue and grow up. Bob Ryder’s cracking production confirms NVT’s unrivalled form in American drama.

Simon Glazier’s studio flat L details a blue-toned bedsit of three beds improvised for relatives descending after a beloved grandfather’s funeral. A finely detailed kitchen area with stools, where the missing square’s in fact a bathroom we glimpse as people disappear into it and predictably hear everything. It’s beautifully executed. Strat Mastoris’s lighting neatly glares a night bulb over weariness, lit by tenebrous windows and at the end a closing down into stillness and unexpected shock of tenderness. David Miller’s and Max Videux’ sound mainly consists of brief bursts of music; ideally discreet

It’s Jonah’s flat. Emmie Spencer’s Cousin Daphna neatly trashes his temerity in having parents rich enough to buy it from him, living on the same floor as they do; Daphna’s are poorer schoolteachers, not so rich that Joshua’s mother who’s never worked can now set herself up as consultant of nothing-in-particular. Daphna is clearly the type who wars with the world. Consumed with injustice collecting she’s first snacking on her cousins.

‘Bad Jew’ is a term for those who don’t observe, who don’t transmit their culture intact in an increasingly homogenized robotic world. Daphna in advancing these arguments makes her case powerfully. But in this comedy, as Ibsen said of tragedies, everyone is right.

Spencer’s unrecognizable from the incipiently middle-aged Hester Collyer of The Deep Blue Sea she played at NVT recently. Here, she’s a gloriously brash big-haired young Zionist with an extraordinary Chicago snarl, impeccably but energetically delivered. Unlike Collyer too, she’s never still: like her cousin Jonah she twitches, though to a purpose. Her next assault, her next parry, her inner scream of injustice simmers visibly as if Spencer’s about to blow her very big-hair top. Hers is a barnstorming performance, the finest single one since Isabella McCarthy Somerville’s performance in the title role of Anna Christie, itself one of the finest seen at NVT in recent years, Spencer’s previous performance being another. Like True West, another NVT triumph, the directors grip and quality of production incubates the finest performances possible, and it’s not just Spencer’s.

Chris Knight’s Jonah is clearly geeky, furrowed over his Apple laptop. In fact Jonah’s clearly slightly on the spectrum, which Knight attempts to convey in small twitches and refusal to make eye-contact. He’s quite commanding in height and compensates by greying himself out, though the (emerging) convention is to go for the traditionally weedy, flinching type. It’s an ungrateful part, punching a non-verbal coup.

Into this already charged atmosphere Jonah’s elder brother and his gentile girlfriend burst like a water mains. Daphna with no right whatsoever – it’s not her flat – demands they sleep on the small single bed. Matthew Wyn Davies’ Liam already simmers with resentment, but Daphna’s been needling Jonah on the whereabouts of their grandfather’s precious Chai, the one item of inestimable personal value he’s hidden n his tongue for two years in Auschwitz (we assume) where he was branded.

That motif returns at the end but for now it’s the large treble clef on girlfriend Melody’s calf that draws attention. Jews don’t do tattoos except the imposed ones, Daphna starts on the hapless sweet-natured and unintellectual Melody – Sarah Drew’s fine portrait of a young good-natured woman wholly unprepared for the verbal needling and onslaught that outrages Liam. And she’d not Daphna, but Diana, he counters – to her assertion that Liam’s real Hebrew name is Schlomo – Solomon. It’s also a play about claiming and disavowing birthrights.

When alone Daphna asks Melody her origins. Melody’s ‘Delaware… forever’ means her ancestors committed genocide on the indigenous population and so on. It’s not so much virtue-signalling but vice-pointing. Your very ethnicity is a criminal existence, Daphna suggests. It’s uneasily very funny, especially when Drew is pushed to revisit her brief opera-singing degree and render a terribly pinched and literally-pointed ‘Summertime’. It’s a consummate Florence Foster Jenkins performance and deserves its round of applause.

Daphna keeps up her onslaught. We laugh at her, certainly, but are with her too as she lands tellingly on the unexamined life, the bland assumptions of cuteness and unblinking reach-me-down robotic American identity. ‘We’re all Americans’ as even Liam and certainly Melody pleads, isn’t quite enough.

But Daphna’s met her match in Liam. Wyn Davies only sheaths his fury at the behest of Melody and Jonah but breaks out when Melody’s not present, since the two countervaling dynamics are the ownership of the chai and the unexpected interventions of Melody. Furious at Daphna’s overweening assumption of rightness Liam’s equally sure the chai should be awarded to the man who’s going to do with it what poppy did: bestow it on his fiancée as he proposes. Daphna and Melody guess at different moments in his monologue, with the most electrifying results. What falls out after that will have to be seen. In particular Melody’s sweet-natured insistence that everything is brought out. And in superb catastrophic fashion it is.

Wyn Davies wholly convinces as the towering yet fury-hunched intellectual – Liam’s off for a PhD, funded by ma and pa – and as waspishly alert to Daphna’s failings as she is of his family. For one Liam punctures her fantasy of marrying an Israeli soldier who had one-night drunken sex with her, and says more tellingly that her furies stem from never having loved, and probably never loving in the future. It’s certainly George and Mildred for cousins. Wyn Davies energizes, hunches and uncoils in a watchful, forever steaming and barely-contained rage. The electricity and animosity he and Spencer generate together is mesmerising. It’s not a time for healing. Yet the final scene is the play’s reward, an extraordinary revelation and answering gesture. You’ll have to see it.

This is a play supremely worth seeing: for its flayed comedy, acerbic wit, farce-dipped dynamics, monster roles, wincing and raw truths. It’s a triumph from all parties in the best NVT American vein. Don’t miss it.

Review by Simon Jenner - First published -

1984 - Review by Simon Jenner

Matthew Dunster’s elegant compression of George Orwell’s 1949 1984 is brought vividly to life in this outstanding new production at New Venture Theatre’s Upstairs or retitled Main house. There’s a post-interval surprise though, one of several, in Nick Richards’ commanding production. It’s a play offering a terrible agency on the seventy-years’ vision, an ultimate negation of humanity.

In a work where the very date – long passed but not a bit passé -still encapsulates everything about total state control, we bring our own fears. That’s what its about. And fear is what Orwell wanted to incite. Novelist C. P. Snow wrongly thought it an attack on socialism and called it ‘cheek’. But as Martin Seymour-Smith added: ‘It will take more than Snow’s monumental ‘cheek’ to dispel its power. It’s just possible that Orwell’s book has prevented the very events described in the novel.’

Richards also designs the set with Nathan Ritson deploying numerous props and Simon Glazier leading the construction team. This really merits description. Screened walls on casters flank off various tableaux, the main one being Ingsoc HQ, the Ministry of Truth whose job it is to rewrite history and reduce the number of words in the language. There’s a distressed ancient interior above a junk antique shop, and open market as well as shady sidlings off; and at one point through Alex Gooch’s tele-screen videos a dappling of countryside to Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending. Later, a striking black and white-floor painted prison cell with angled cut-offs, hosts a bare metal-framed bed with implements of electronic torture and a wheel-chaired contraption allowing a box with a funnel attachment. The detail’s remarkably sustained throughout.

Logos designed in red and black by Dan Kaufmann and Jezz Bowden range from central icon to delicate details such as Victory Gin. Maise Wilkins’ uniform clothing reinforces the red/black motif, with boiler suits, one with a red sash for the Anti-Sex League, proles’ high-viz and a sudden dress).

Jezz Bowden’s sound and visuals are crucial to crafting claustrophobia. Paul Tripp and Sophie Dearlove work as tele-screen announcers but Tripp’s also the hated Goldstein, that bogey-figure designed to keep notions of the enemy ever-fixated. Lisa Shabbas starts the hero Winston Smith’s day as a fitness instructor too. the whole’s lit by Strat Mastoris making striking use of the artificial days and nights, particularly in the latter half.

The story’s so well-known its etched on most peoples’ consciousness. Richards’ production though gives it full force to anyone coming fresh to its horrors, and lets virtually no salient detail pass unchecked. Dunster’s script elegantly reproduces nearly all the quotes. ‘The object of power is power, of torture torture’ is deleted before the great pay-off. And the Old Prole’s memories aren’t extended to the funeral of his sister. These are tiny things that might have been included but this is Dunster’s text.

What does Richards do for those of us with at least a passing acquaintance with the novel? How does he evoke the ever-living entity that governs Oceania, which absorbs Britain, one of three world states perpetually at war with one of the others, though this shifts? And the time frame, after a nuclear war brought this globally about? Shrewdly Richards avoids images of Big Brother – except cheekily in profile on the programme’s front cover, where in Ulricke Schilling’s design a rather well-known world leader profile darkens counsel.

First he produces a visceral tableau where Scott Roberts’ Winston Smith is peripheral, emerging almost unnoticed oblique and silent to the mob indulging in the obligatory Two Minutes’ Hate, and it’s here too the last scene in the play, an neat analogue to more interiorised events.

Roberts is commandingly quiet. His hesitant picking through the day pays dividends: where the over-enthusiastic Syme (James Macauley) tries to show him the elegance of reducing all good/bad tropes to the variants on good, and is arrested for thought crime; where Jonathan Howlett’s blokey unthinking Parsons enthuses on his children’s acuity in denouncing stray people (you can see where this heads); to the amenable old shop owner Charrington, Andy Grant’s reasonable persona; Bryony Weaver’s truculent Old Prole, a neat gender change in a rather male-dominated narrative. Another is a contrast in the prole Prostitute played by Beatrice Cupido, almost a mute role, taken with attitude.

What Roberts’ Winston doesn’t predict in his secret diary damnations of Big Brother, is a rather smug-faced young woman he despises as so embodying the Anti-Sex League sash she wears. Julia, Charlotte Anne Atkinson’s quick-witted hard-faced and then joyously amorous character as she passes Winston a note. ‘I love you.’ Later Winston’s anxious that Julia’s desire for sex isn’t just rebelliousness. It isn’t. ‘I adore it’ she assures him, and Atkinson’s warmth convinces us her Julia’s fundamentally passionate, personally driven.

They meet in a circuitous fashion and consummate their relationship furtively in countryside a few times before Winston suggests the junk shop in the old quarter, with the old bedroom above, facilitated by the ever-obliging Charrington. There’s a picture of St Clement Danes too, and he and Winston remember snatches of the old rhyme Ruins of churches converted to other uses litter the place still just known as London.

Julia remembers more. Atkinson combines a rapid sense of their true state with a pragmatic disinterst in politics. she reviles the state, but wants to snatch joy before she’s caught, which they both feel is inevitable. Atkinson captures Julia’s impatience, her rebellious fire, decisive courage – and occasional terror. She also glows with her desire to show her femininity, bringing banned make-up and a dress. ‘You’re only a rebel from the waist down’ Winston tells her.

O’Brien who meets Winston in the corridor and invites him and Julia (though they shouldn’t have come together) remembers still more. This is the resistance, the shadowy Brotherhood with no network but an underground mushroom connectedness. Jim Calderwood’s soft-voiced infinitely patient, authoritative O’Brien refuses the hard glint or Richard Burton’s portrayal. He comes across as paternal. Cai Jones his assistant Martin invests his small role as a smilingly eager technocrat.

What happens if you don’t know this, will be something to discover. Were confined to a single set now, not shifting. Roberts gives the performance of his life as a man tortured by someone he’d trusted, and there’s a procession of actors which breaks the duologue: Syme, Parsons, and Sam de Costobadie as the luckless prisoner Bumstead (and barman earlier) and Rebecca Kerr as a vision of Winston’s mother as well as a strikingly panicky prisoner about to be led off to Room 101. All these vignettes are well taken, some like Kerr having no chance to shine before excelling themselves. Macauley’s syme maanges to evoke PTSD repeating conversations he used to have with Winston. Howlett’s conversation with Roberts is infinitely affecting, full of pathos as the befuddled Parsons; one thinks of Dobbin from Animal Farm. The trusting and outwardly loyal aren’t safe.

Its Roberts’ muteness and strangled responses that strike one, even down to the induced vomiting. Physical acting in the second half is brutal and believable. The torture bed and Roberts’ responses to ever-patient inquisition recall the rack and Jesuits, and show fundamentally similar people applying the screws. Winston though has one frayed trick up his torn sleeve. He doesn’t mind being a minority of one, the definition of madness. He doesn’t finally resist the two plus two equals five – a stunning piece of acting from him and Calderwood. The patient unpeeling of a soul is presented in a way that wouldn’t have looked amiss in the Almeida where this was first staged.

An epilogue with the two old lovers again strikes by its detailed hesitancy, its restraint as Roberts and Atkinson negotiate changed circumstances.

Roberts has excelled before as Haimon in last October’s Antigone, as well as in Holes. But this evinces much of his full range, and is a commanding tour-de-force, one of the greatest performances I’ve seen at NVT, and there have been two or three recently. Atkinson especially and Calderwood too turn in superb foils to Roberts, but the eleven-strong cast generally is exemplary. Richards has drawn this together through direction and set with consummate skill. If you can catch this in the Fringe, you’ll have seen one of the best things in it.

Review by Simon Jenner - First published -

Orphans - Review by Simon Jenner

Gary Owen’s Violence and Son is just one of his plays showing a profound kinship with Dennis Kelly. It’s an apt summary of their respective progeny. It’s difficult to think of a play of theirs where violence doesn’t smash into an audience’s solar plexus.

Kelly’s achieved an outstanding hit this year with his Royal Court Girls & Boys – even more shocking than his 2009 Orphans. In nine years he’s gained even more cunning, craft and conviction. Orphans also unpeels an act of violence, though by stripping back and resolving, rather than straight narrating. It takes more risks and being a (mainly) three­ hander, not a solo performance, owns a visceral dynamic. In the right hands, Kelly’s mastery of dialogue is thrilling.

No pressure then for debut director Charly Sommers, known as actor and playwright (in the NVT shorts series of 2017). She’s blessed with Tim McQuillen­Wright’s set constructed for the NVT Studio by Simon Glazier and team, a sweep of diagonals, all diamonds to crack diamonds. A table and two chairs in dove grey flare a white and yellow suggestion of food, white wine; a light­grey rhomboid beneath is environed by deeper grey. Behind, there’s a skew­mounted rectangular white frame where shadows of chairs and table suggest themselves. After the interval it’s stripped to reveal an identical black diptych of chairs with table, at a steep­raked angle. Which then falls into total shadow. Another chair’s fetched. Strat Mastoris suffuses dinner lighting with sheer blackouts. Saira Yates’ costumes ensure downbeat t­shirts for the men; only Helen the single female protagonist asserts sartorial killer dress: one black number and grey­green robe.

Jonathan Howlett appeared just once here in 1984, the only one of the trio to do so. His Liam is joined by Stuart Curlett making his stage debut as Danny, and Cerys Knighton’s Helen.Liam’s arrived at his sister Helen’s house in a t­shirt dripping with blood. He’s not quite articulate, blathering about helping a man who’s been hurt. He suffers from some distress and it seems learning disability. Helen’s rational liberal husband Danny tries to pin down what’s happening and the fiercely loyal Helen rounds on him, rebuking his probing questions however delicately phrased. Like, can we help this injured man Liam held? Helen gets at the truth Danny doesn’t quite want to see, calling Danny then later Liam a piece of shit.

Overlapping dialogue, elliptical phrases and incomplete statements are kerned here to an inch of comprehension. It’s beyond Pinter or Mamet since it’s not indicative of a hidden narrative of which these are disjecta membra. It’s happening, out of control and this is dialogue spinning like plates; some smash. This cast outstandingly make them sing too. The ensemble is extraordinarily tight; pauses too are on point.

Helen’s threats of violence match anything she suspects in her brother. If Danny calls the police she threatens to terminate her second pregnancy. Kelly’s excellent at showing Helen’s manipulative use of language: ’No I’m not saying don’t call’ morphs to threaten Danny with what she’ll do if he does. Desperately thinking about how to contain Liam’s latest run­in – it transpires she lied to the police about another incident when Danny was away – her ferocity knows few

The clue’s in the title. Their parents dying in a fire (typically violent, no explanation) Helen stayed with Liam although she had been offered an attractive family. At the time Liam violently assaulted another boy, Brian; they lost their only good school. Later it transpires why he did this, what Helen lost.

Liam’s life revolves around Helen and Danny whom he says he’d ‘do anything for’. He expresses love mawkishly, at the edge of saying. His axes of inarticulate hang­dog and cloying fantasy of a close family are riven by what he in fact does. He needs Helen close. You might feel it’s merely incestuous desperation. Helen’s all he’s got. But deeper than that, violence is all he possesses.

Helen will do anything for Liam, lie to the police, caring nothing for any victim. ‘He’s nothing to do with us.’ Kelly depicts primal, selfish clan loyalties. Outside too, she suggests, the world is more violent than now; Danny’s been assaulted for some dim reason. Liam claims he’s acted from loyalty.

Stripped back to truth, as Danny finally asserts it, backed by Helen worried at the DNA trail, Liam admits what we suspected plainly. But is he, and who is the man he assaults, still alive?Liam and Danny between them depict Liam’s Nazi­memorabilia­obsessed friend Ian. There’s a connection. And Danny’s asked to make a decision.

Here’s where Kelly’s psychology fails. He suggests we’ve all got thuggery, even racist abuse, deeply coiled. I’m not entirely convinced of certain actions at this point, and sketched a mental alternative before it unfolded. But the
outfall’s utterly convincing and the cast know no bounds in depicting it. There’s three volte­faces from Danny, and one each from Helen when she learns more truth and Liam, when co­operation isn’t forthcoming.

Howlett’s Liam is outstandingly good in his halted and lame speech gnarled with a simmering fury just beneath. Everything in him’s bunched, verbally and physically. Like Greek tragedy, he has a coil. The others are more than foils to this, and stopping Liam’s full unleashing – both himself and what’s he brought to them – becomes a panicky priority. He has to be the key to the work. Kelly’s wholly convincing portrayal of a pathologically­motivated man, Liam’s use of broken
half­sentences and mewling retreats is beautifully written. Howlett seizes on it.

Knighton’s hardly less remarkable. Her taut body, snappy lines and range, from explosive temper to wheedling, echoes her brother. Kelly makes her far more articulate, suggesting something mentally distressed in Liam. Knighton’s intensity is like Medea’s. She’s riveting as an unlikeable manipulative woman whose disdain for her husband suggests she married him to gain the professional liberal family life she missed out on; and is redeemed by the dawning realisation of whom she should love, perhaps does. But will she be too late? She takes redemptive action anyway.

It’s difficult to credit this is Curlett’s stage debut as Danny. Whilst his speech patterns are normative – typically liberal for much of the play – he too is forced to enter pitch black territory and recount horrors with a mind suddenly clenched against itself. It’s a remarkable performance, increasingly so when Danny’s range is widened and his own dark is allowed play. We should see more of him – and clearly Knighton and Howlett. Sommers too doesn’t direct in the least like
a debut creative. As an experienced actor she clearly values letting the cast find their own rhythms, then tautening.

This is an ensemble – and production – of distinction. There’s also a surprise addition to the cast. But you’ll have to see that. Another Kelly masterstroke handled with delicacy and aplomb. It might be nearly sold out but queue for returns if you possibly can.

Review by Simon Jenner - Previously published in Fringe Review

Jumpy - Review by Simon Jenner

‘You’re having some kind of crisis. It’s called turning fifty. You must be having it too.’ So says best friend actor Frances to anxious Hilary, fellow former Greenham Common feminist turning over a dying marriage with reading out Great Expectations to snoring Mark whilst her own literacy job’s under the axe; and a teen daughter Tilly she can’t believe she’s exhorting to wear more clothes. Where did her radicalism go? Showing sisterhood photos to Tilly who’s not heard of Margaret Thatcher confines you to pre-history. Frances isn’t going without a sexual claw-back. Why doesn’t Hilary?

April de Angelis is known for period plays about theatre itself, the Restoration Playhouse Creatures from 1994, featured by Brighton Little in 2015; or in 2002 A Laughing Matter set in Garrick’s world. Her range is wide though and Jumpy premiered curiously at the Royal Court in October 2011 at a time when such comedies were (briefly) permissible there again.

It was a hit – most who saw it felt in the buzz of something special. Starring Tamsin Grieg and directed by Nina Raine (now famous for Tribes and particularly Consent) it soon transferred to wide acclaim to the Duke of York’s in August 2012. Greig often combines a sassy vulnerability and hapless accidie: tough but slapstick-prone. Hilary the protagonist turning fifty gloves her and Sharon Drain, directed here by Diane Robinson, has roomy shoes to fill.

It’s a surprisingly long evening too in the attractive Upstairs Main. It’s not a very long play per se. There’s a pace set in frequent lights-down for de Angelis’s many scenes. So the hyper-efficient stage team move props around they’d have found easier if they could see.

Simon Glazier and team’s superb set is supremely adaptable too: white sofa, white and chrome bar stools, cocktail bar, kitchen tops and furnishing stage right; with moveable white cube screens with pictures (which change to seascapes on a horrendous Norfolk boarding-house trip), one of which reveals a double bed and bedroom; but otherwise does service as a wall. With brief service downstage as a Norfolk beach, lit by Strat Mastoris and his team (with felicitous use of individual lamps), Adam Hewitt’s sound and composition featuring Kate Bush Donna Summer and his own work, and Maisie Wilkins’ nearly-now costumery, this is a sumptuous production to lose yourself in.

Jumpy’s title might suggest that turning-fifty angst, as well as turning-sexually-active. Like ‘Rosebud’ though in Citizen Kane there’s a reveal right at the end. In fact critiques of Jumpy itself range from suggestions by director Carole Bremson that it’s a pilot for Friday Night Dinners (also starring Greig) whose frequent set-changes and multi-stranded plot points prove ideal for TV; to critic Michael Billington feeling that behind its apparent modernity and up-to-date plotting it has a ‘strong whiff’ of the old debutante Shaftsbury Avenue comedies the Royal Court seemingly banished forever (The Theatre Royal Brighton ran Douglas-Home’s The Reluctant Debutante as late as April 2009).

Jumpy can survive all this triumphantly, and so can this production. De Angelis is both funny and flinchingly wise about ageing, teen-parenthood, late sexual choices and the imbecility of men. There’s no villain here, though Bea the HSBC-drone mother of Tilly’s squeeze Josh runs that term pretty close. No-one generates a disaster, and perhaps there’s no essential crisis, though the one we get is one of the most screamingly funny pieces of comic timing I’ve seen and that includes all Ayckbourn. The finale’s a curious diminuendo, and it’s difficult not to feel it’s the end of an episode that might later be resumed. De Angelis, a brilliant comic writer, revels in circularity in her storyline; perhaps life demands something slightly rougher.

For de Angelis’ play is gentle and held aloft by language. Drain’s Hilary juggles the rising tensions of Tilly and Josh, Tilly’s falling pregnant just like her hapless friend Lyndsey, parleys with Josh’s parents about how to handle this and the rare treat of being hit on by Josh’s father, actor Roland. Egged on by Frances who’s irritated Roland isn’t hitting on her after wife Bea leaves him, Hilary even tries some burlesque maid-up dancing when they’re alone together. Frances though tries it on all the assembled adults. Just as a crisis hits. Rather in the manner of the man who asks a new widow: ‘But apart from the assassination, Mrs Lincoln, what did you think of the play?’

Drain makes a fine wry Hilary, strong on that mix of strength and vulnerability grounded in guilt and being unloved herself by a chilly mother. Drain makes Hilary demonstrably more awkward than the over-fluent 1970s-bound Frances, who has all the moves and sexual confidence but an obliviousness to boundaries, taste, or anything remotely to do with passing forty. She’s the friend you need, despite managing to fall out repeatedly with Hilary who just can’t take her heedlessness any more. Frances reflects even Kim Cattrall could do with a jaw firming. Hilary reflects on Tilly scoffing at her ‘vagina neck’. Sandie Armstrong’s Frances is superb: consummate comic timing, absolutely assured in her absurdity. She lights each of her scenes with pink neon.

Maya Bowles is a two-and-a-half-hour scowl of lanky, pouty peer-consciousness. Oh and there’s sex. There is a streak of tenderness in Tilly, underneath the bluster, and Bowles mines it in a brief clinch with Drain’s Hilary. This Tilly’s perpetually wired. Bowles might perhaps relax into a touch more amplitude, but it’s difficult from de Angelis’ text to read more tenderness; it’s there flickering occasionally between the lines.

Simon Hudson’s Roland is another stand-out. Like Frances he’s self-involved, narcissistic, quickly empathic and unlike Frances somewhat fickle. We close Act One with Hilary’s answering him snog for snog. Yet there’s the small matter of his being frightened off by a bang. You feel he doesn’t deserve Hilary, but he’s not the only man around her.

I can’t quite believe in Roland’s marriage to Liz Ryder Weldon’s Bea though. Or that, on this interesting take on her, she’d be having affairs. Her great moments are about callously defending Josh, ensuring he’s not exposed to all this sordidness over pregnancy, since Tilly and her friend Lyndsey are toast anyway – there’s a breathtaking moment when Bea implies Lyndsey’s barely human, to the astonishment of everyone else. But a young man has so much potential. Ryder Weldon’s very good as a chilly HSBC bean counter though I can’t see why on this evidence she and the charismatic feckless Roland ever married. There’s no soured chemistry, no history, just contained hostility.

Ella Verity’s Lyndsey is a joy. It takes talent to render such a hopeless daffy idiot so truthfully on stage without guying her and indeed investing her with some dignity and pathos. Verity manages to elicit sympathy for her character; it’s winning and rather special.

Mark Lester’s Mark puts in a sterling performance as the intermittently sensible Mark. It’s not a role allowing much beyond a vestigial decency, a certain common sense. Lester does what he can whilst the dramatist’s attention is elsewhere.

Tom Gould’s Josh again has less to do, but he’s bright, attentive, looks a match for Tilly, exuding a certain grace and charm to explain her sassier character’s attraction to him in the first place.

Simone Severini’s Cam though is a different matter. He has a chance to erect something of himself and he takes this beautifully, in scenes where he attends the grazed Hilary’s leg, revealing how it reminds him of something he did for his mother who unlike Hilary didn’t survive a bicycle crash. The chemistry’s simmering. You will Hilary to go for joy. Her husband’s moved out, Roland flim-flams with great panache. In fact de Angelis has a few tricks even Frances wouldn’t credit. It’s one reason you must see this play.

All these charms wind up to a perfect storm. Whilst the scene-changes with lights over-dimmed slow down the action a little (it will probably have speeded up by the time you see it) it’s a play that can’t hang fire. It’s one too where you begin to wonder how life, not the playwright, will treat these playhouse creatures. Their residual existence beyond the play confirms de Angelis has hit a true vein. I just wonder at the forced circularity, the feeling that this would make a superbly-televised experience. Meanwhile, you must see this delirious state-of-the-pause play.

Review by Simon Jenner - First published -

Laundry And Bourbon / Lone Star - Review by Simon Jenner

Mark Lester makes his debut as director in James McLure’s linked on-act plays Laundry and Bourbon and Lone Star.

McLure’s real southern territory got flickering notice on Broadway for Lone Star, but he never made it back there. Like the very different Robert Holman, he has a following for making noise quietly.

These one-acters are quiet shouters: naturalist slices of hamburger life, riven with aspiration, desperation and an end to trauma. It’s post-Vietnam. Laundry and Bourbon and Lone Star pass an hour each in real time across the lives of three women, then three men, variously struggling people in Maynard, Texas.

The first sets up the second, since Elizabeth the central character from Laundry and Bourbon is married to Roy, the protagonist of Lone Star. Lone Star in fact came first in 1979, paired with another short about injured Vietnam Vets that McLure then extended. McLure then retrospectively added Laundry and Bourbon in 1981 to play before Lone Star. Set in a backyard, it takes place hours before and during the latter’s timescale in a downtown bar.

Simon Glazier and his team (George Walter and five scene-painters) use the simple reversible backyard of house, flat and naturalistic as a brown Hopper homestead, with the grey-scaled grotty backyard of a bar later, with a full moon up – appropriate since there’s a real full blood moon at the outset of this run. Keith Dawson’s lighting enjoys satisfying nuances in the second play, where night draws on.

Ian Black’s sound bounces the melancholy twang of the period wherever country and western meet bluegrass and pop. Pat Boxall’s costume design wickedly digs at the accidental replication of two dresses, green with yellow sunflowers, and mid-seventies period dress, all run up by Sue Salt.

At a time David Mamet and Sam Shepard exploded onto the America theatre scene, McLure’s naturalism closer in mood to Shepard, was crowded into a shade. Lauded for its truthfulness it lacked the zany darkness Shepard found in similar scenarios, and indeed Shepard’s refactory, complex scope and vestigially believable denouements. Nor of course would McLure even attempt the adrenalin-
rush hassle of Mamet in his own ironic twists. There’s a Chekhovian patience to McLure that’s winning on its own terms and his writing will endure.

Laundry and Bourbon
Sarah Drew’s Elizabeth waits for her ‘wild’ husband Roy. We don’t know for how long, nor does her friend Hattie, played to the hilt by Kate McGann as a noisy but well-meaning best friend. Elizabeth’s patient, stand-by-your-man (even to accepting his flings) Hattie, dumped by her exciting lover Wayne, both admires Elizabeth for keeping up with the wildest (and sexiest) man round, and cajoles her for accepting his infidelities. But more importantly, there’s that pink 1959 Thunderbird that exists as his
freedom. Elizabeth frankly revels in recalling sex in the backseat beating any bed, and after ten years her own passion’s undimmed, but she harbours (as we discover through each of the plays) two secrets.

Drew’s capacity to draw in an audience to her small-scale ambitions, to hold on to and expand just a little of what acetylene-blasting voice modulates to tenderness and reverie on occasion, lending this vibrant shadow of a role real chiaroscuro.

This interaction is a slow patient reveal between both actors. Drew allows us to see Elizabeth’s capacity for patience, empathy, lack of material ambition is admirable whilst exposing her vulnerability: doormat status. It’s not – as we find out – that Roy takes Elizabeth’s love entirely for granted. McLure’s gift is to portray the dilemmas of a couple still vibrantly in love after ten years. But there’s unspoken conditions attached. They don’t have children. And the car is one of Roy’s lodestars, his ‘pussy wagon’
as he later terms it. Every engine cough brings Elizabeth anxiously out, but she knows that engine: it’s never the one.

That’s to anticipate. The similarly unspoken alliances between Elizabeth and Hattie are threatened when someone Hattie loathes – Amy Lee – arrives. Prosperously married (if for money), and wearing the same dress as Hattie, she makes everything in that straight-talking woman bristle like static up a nylon dress. To this bridge-playing enclave she’s introduced the new game that will supplant it: mahjong. And she’s brought it to Elizabeth without Hattie’s knowing. The fall-out is explosive, and though things are just about patched up, it opens a new space where Elizabeth reveals something after Amy Lee’s departure.

Isabella McCarthy Sommerville’s catalyst Amy Lee is beautifully coiffeured and this describes her performance. Normally famed for front-and-centre intensity, she proves she’s similarly adept at scratching comic roles such as here, and lends a little inwardness to a queasy character.

It’s a play whose patience occasionally seems to hang fire, but that’s when you need to be on guard. It certainly enriches what follows.

Lone Star
Cai Jones’ Vietnam Vet Roy has done a bunk for several days. It’s not that he’s really run out on Elizabeth. We’re here introduced to the full tragi-comic gamut of a man two years back from the war (so this is all 1975) and still not reconciled to a world where, as he wakes, men’s heads aren’t being blown off in front of him. Jones’s expression seems even throughout, shell-shocked slightly, dazed but capable of unnerving re-enactments. Jones manages the leatherneck uprightness and sudden leather cracks with a rivetingly fazed nonchalance.

That’s mostly at the expense of his slightly dopey brother Ray, who wasn’t fit enough to join up. In Matthew Wyn Davies’s wincingly fine portrayal, we’re introduced to someone not quite savant-like, though he understands engines, hopelessly naïve, somehow slow to take up life. Until we find he isn’t. Not quite. Never one to even rival his roistering brother’s sexual conquests, he protests he’s not quite a virgin. You might think this face-saving.

Chaffing though is nothing to the mirror-situation we’ve just witnessed in Laundry and Bourbon. Roy can’t stand Cletis, here gawkily, embarrassingly well portrayed by Neil Drew. He wants heroic Roy’s approval, but Roy can’t stand him.

As Roy stumbles off briefly, Cletis makes a terrible confession to Ray, but begs Ray to deliver this to Roy. Faced with Roy again, Cletis flees. However, before he does this, Ray makes a confession of his own, one that is so astonishing it might be designed to ensure Cletis’s misdemeanours fall in its shadow. and Ray fears Roy might kill him. Roy claims he loves his wife, his country and his car. He’ll need to make some adjustments before and after he stumbles home to the most remarkable truth of all.

McLure proves here over his two plays he can command symbolism and naturalism in a compellingly believable way. It’s more than good to have got to know this quiet master. Yet again NVT deliver small shrouded gems of Americana.

Review by Simon Jenner - first appeared in