Category Archives: England
May 18 – June 1, 2019
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
Be My Baby is a subtly gripping history lesson about an underexposed and somewhat shameful aspect of our collective past. Set in a home for unwed mothers it centers on the lives of a small group of young women from very different backgrounds who never the less find themselves in the same predicament: being single and pregnant at a time ( the early 1960’s) when to be so was tantamount to social suicide.
At the very heart of the play is Mary (Simona Bitmate), a young woman from a comfortable middle class background whose disapproving mother (played brilliantly by Jo Mousley – all brittle anxiety and superiority) is conflicted about leaving her in such a place.However under the firm hand of Matron, the head of austere St Saviours Mary begins to find her feet. She befriends the other girls, sassy, hardbitten Queenie ( Crystal Condie ), giddy, naive Dolores ( Tessa Parr )and serious, self-contained Norma ( Anna Gray) as they bond over their mutual incarceration and their shared love of soulful pop.
All have their individual fantasies of boyfriends, jobs and escape which they begin to reveal to each other, all in different levels of denial about their situation. The play started slowly creating a sense of time and place before gradually drawing the characters out (none of whom are entirely what they seem). I found the dialogue with its flashes of humour and underplayed emotion very naturalistic. The script relied as much on what was not said as what was. There was a sense that things were hinted at and suggested which made the gradual revelations both believable and all the more affecting. The potential heaviness of the subject matter too was handled in such a way that it seemed to gradually seep into the play almost imperceptibly until the quietly devastating final act.
At first we are encouraged to view matron as being a negative figure, the girls jailer a prudish and stern disciplinarian but such is the depth of the play that Matron is shown to have great empathy for the girls. There is a tenderness and care beneath her stiff exterior. Even during a deeply uncomfortable scene in which she forces Mary to understand how the world outside might view her we don’t doubt that this is done for the best intentions. Susan Twist’s performance as Matron is a masterclass in restraint, with tenderness and deep feeling glimpsed beneath her character’s stiff exterior.
In fact the script encourages the audience to empathise with all the differing perspectives of the characters to the extent that we can see how everyone is equally struggling with social rules they had no say in making. For though this is a play about women men still act as a shadowy presence off stage, their actions pushing the events of the story as much as the women on it. In this way the play shows how all the women are contained and restrained by the expectations and desires of the men around them. Even the sassy Queenie appears to ultimately accept that to imagine another way is nothing but a pipe dream.
The play has something to say about class too as it looks at the different expectations the girls and others have of them. The interplay between Queenie and Mary, showing how the former’s inverted snobbery stops her from seeing they are both equally trapped. The actors all have good material to work with and all manage to create fully realised nuanced performances. No-one here is a cliché or cypher yet through them the show explores issues as varied as back-street abortions, rape and forced adoption. I found the relationship between Queenie, the tough cynic with dreams of pop stardom and Mary, the naive girl from the genteel background with the steely resolve particularly finely drawn. It felt like we were watching the growth, blossoming and wilting of a friendship before our very eyes.Although both the script and performances are uniformly excellent some of the credit for making the play a success must go to the overall design, sound and lighting.
The costumes of the characters were cleverly used in a symbolic way. . The pastel pinks,purples and blues of the parental figures denoting a faded authority, the grey pinafores of the girls seeming to suggest a desire to turn back them back into little girls, whilst also implying the dull uniformity of the prison yard. The overall use of a limited palette in terms of costume and set allowed the performances themselves the space to breathe which they needed. The set which could – given the time period of the play – have been used in a more hackneyed way was used to convey a sense of sterility, it’s minimalist grey cabinets, shelves and boxes evoking more the furnishing department of a high street department store than the swinging 60’sof lore.
The only element which did place us in a particular time-frame was the play’s imaginative use of music. Between each scene change we hear and see the girls sing along to 60’s pop which wittily expressed their situation. Towards the beginning when a moment of romantic pop segued and merged with a hymn and later as the music overlapped a wistful monologue this was handled in such a masterful way as to really hit me in the gut. The lighting, subdued throughout was particularly effective during the spotlit birthing scene. This created a real sense of wonder as the actress performed in a kind of flowing, slow-moving mime the act of her baby bulge becoming a living, breathing child.
I found the play to be unexpectedly moving as I found myself drawn into the lives of these young women journeying with them through their excitements, fears, frustrations and disappointments. It was all the more emotionally rich for being performed by all with such obvious care and empathy. Ultimately it was a fitting tribute to the lives of all those young women whose unknown story it now told so well.
April 13-28, 2019
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
The play began with the trio of actors performing an a capella medley of music hall songs placing us squarely in Victorian England. The set was quite minimal for Leeds Playhouse, with a large clock facing the audience centre stage within a wooden partition behind which looms what appears to be the rafters of a ship’s hull. In the background various objects can be made out; an armchair, a globe, luggage cases. It looked rather like someone’s attic or a steampunk jumble sale.
After the initial musical medley we were thrown into the action as what appears to be a heist is committed by a be-cloaked thief. The struggling music, alarms and flashing red lights amidst the onstage gloom created a sense of excitement and intrigue which quickly fell away as we settled down into a scene in which we meet Phileas Fogg, and his assistant as they make preparations for their journey around the world. This scene however was soon broken by the intrusion of Jules Verne, the writer himself who admonishes the actors for their handling of his material and questions the nature of the performance. As soon becomes apparent this is no ordinary telling of the tale as these direct addresses and asides to the audience become an intrinsic part of the show as it goes on.
Breaking the 4th wall as it’s sometimes known is more often used as a kind of intellectual game to make a point about the nature of the work itself. Less rarely is it used – as it is here – as fuel for fun. One could see how it was used throughout the play to draw attention to the difficulties inherent in performing the play itself (3 actors attempting to represent a round the world trip with a multitude of characters) and also how the inclusion of the ‘Jules Verne’ character brought up questions about the nature of ownership and the difficulties inherent in adapting another’s work but mainly these digressions and asides created another layer of humour which flattered the audience’s ability to engage both in the plot whilst simultaneously recognising its artifice.
These narrative breaks worked very well and sometimes allowed for a rest from the sometimes hectic nature of the show. They worked even better however when they were seamlessly woven into the show. I particularly enjoyed the scene in which Jules Verne playing the princess read a copy of the titular novel whilst giving away plot spoilers to Fogg.
This aspect to the play was interwoven into a high speed adventure story which took us – not surprisingly – around the world. At times such as in the scene in Bombay the pace got a little too hectic and I felt a sense that the whole thing may come off the tracks like a runaway train but luckily there was a masterful driver at the helm and a very able crew of actors keeping things running smoothly. The sheer technical difficulties of performing so many characters at such a pace was impressive as was the physical dexterity required by the performers. All the actors though played their parts with real verve and energy.
Fogg was nicely underplayed by Robert Pickavance as a bemused fop with just the right touch of ambiguity to him leaving the audience guessing all along as to whether there was some ulterior motive to his trip than the mere winning of a gentleman’s bet. The show was really brought to life though by the brilliant buffoonery of both Joe Alessi as Passepartout and Darren Kuppan’s Inspector Fix. Both gave excellent comic turns as Fogg’s naively faithful retainer and his detective nemesis respectively. Kuppan’s turn was particularly notable for demonstrating his skills as a physical performer who has both the grace of a dancer and the expressiveness of a mime. His antics of running on the spot and hiding in disguise from Fogg were a joy to behold. Special credit too should go to Dan Parr’s Jules Verne who was played as a kind of endearingly eager and vulnerable man-child forever wanting to shoehorn his way into the show. The different minor characters too were brilliantly played with some faintly ridiculous regional accents and ludicrous costumes adding to the overall feel that at times we were watching something akin to a live action cartoon.
The quick change artistry of the performers playing this multitude of characters were ably abetted by the supreme skills of the props and costume team who managed to convey real individuality to all these minor characters. Whether this was done by a simple change of hat or a whole costume colourful and memorable characters such as the Indian temple musician in his silks and turban or the grizzled old bewhiskered sea captain were brought vividly to life.
The stagecraft overall was exemplary. Whether this was the soft yellow glow of an early evening in a wood panelled drawing room or the heat and light of an Indian bazaar subtle changes in lighting and the inclusion of found sounds and snatches of music managed to convey changes in time and place as we moved from continent to continent with Phileas and friends. The use of props too throughout showed real imagination as objects were twisted from one form to another and the relatively simple set was used in new ways from scene to scene. One minute it was a steamer ship on its way from Hong Kong, the next a train bound for Calcutta, the next an elephant charging through the Indian jungle. The way the destination and number of days left kept appearing throughout the play on handkerchiefs, jackets and umbrellas was also a charming touch. It brought a little ripple of pleasure from the audience to see which unexpected spot it would appear in next.
This was all part of the rich attention to detail and charm of the overall show. One never forgot that this was a world where – like children playing ‘let’s pretend’ – a tin bath could become a horse drawn carriage or a wooden slide could become an elephant. At times this was reminiscent of Harry Hill or even Monty Python and had a similarly endearing child-like sense of the playful and the absurd. The humour generally had a seriously clever silliness to it which combined word play with slapstick and several amusing running jokes. Though there were many moments of madcap fun the stand out was the chase scene on a train made from suitcases. Here we saw not only the team’s gifts with physical comedy but also their ability to interact with and transcend their environment creating with the audience a real belief that they were travelling at breakneck speed through the wild west. This scene seemed to represent the show at its best veering as it did somewhere between a giddy sense of fun and a knowing self-consciousness and inducing in the audience a sense of child like wonder throughout.
The Old Vic, Bristol
March 4-16, 2019
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
This was the first time I’ve stepped into the Old Vic after living in London for the last twelve years, and I instantly noticed the massive change in the whole theatre, and how lovely the atmosphere had become since the major renovation. I had chosen to see Matt Grinter’s Orca – part of the exciting & innovative ‘New Plays in Rep’ season – about the unspoken, the mystical and the magical tales of a small, island fishing village.
The first scene focused on Maggie (Heidi Parsons) and her playful, curious and intelligent, yet rather gullible younger sister, Fan (Rosie Taylor-Kitson). While Fan longs to be chosen to go out in the fishing boats to scare off the Orcas, Maggie becomes the protective & stern older sister who is hellbent in protecting Fan at any costs, even if it means that the family is hated within the village.
Joshua (Finbar Hayman) plays Maggie and Fan’s father, a coward who is willing to avoid the truth, and is failing to protect his daughters in order to adhere to the prevailing ritualistic mysticism of their the village. This is a place with many secrets and an almost cult-like atmosphere; denial is the norm, laced with the eeriness of ignorance.
At this point I found the story paradoxically suggestive & conspicuous, offering a familiar correlation within today’s society and how our ‘taboo’ subjects are generally addressed. This became more prevalent when Gretchen (Holly Carpenter) made her first appearance, and consequently The Father (Sam Henderson), from whose arrivals the story began to unfold in more detail.
At the dramatic core of Orca is the highlighting of small-mindedness and a community’s willingness to bury the truth at all costs, against which push displays of courage and integrity amidst the darkness of people choosing to look the other way. In the end it was a good watch, the theme was compelling, but there was a certain something missing in terms of enticing dialogue.
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Mar 5-30, 2019
“Frailty, thy name is woman,” says Hamlet to his mother, Gertrude, in an early scene in Shakespeare’s most iconic work. The misogyny is clear, one facet of Hamlet’s borderline oedipal relationship with his mother and also evident in his treatment of Ophelia. In director Amy Leach’s interpretation, however, Hamlet is a woman. In this production, Leach manages to shine a completely new light not only upon this particular line of dialogue, rearranging its gender politics into new shapes, teasing out themes of sexuality, but most importantly, she thoroughly reinvigorates this play in a way that arguably improves the narrative and makes it fresh and relevant today. Now, it’s not entirely unheard of for Hamlet to be played by a woman, but for the character to re-gendered as a Princess of Denmark is where this production boldly strays away from convention. And the convention shredding doesn’t stop there.
It starts with a wordless prologue that takes place before Act 1, Scene 1. Tessa Parr’s Hamlet is engaging in a playful sword fight with a similarly re-gendered Horatio. Parr is energetic and flirtatious, licking her lips at her opponent – we’re in entirely new territory here and this is a suitably audacious statement of intent. We are then taken silently through King Hamlet’s funeral and the subsequent coronation of Claudius and his marriage to Gertrude. Along the way, Hamlet manages to engage in passionate embrace with Ophelia. Never mind that we’re watching a female Hamlet, this Hamlet is unapologetically gay. This is in no way merely shoe horned into the narrative to serve an agenda, this Hamlet feels as though this is the way the play should have been all along. What an opening sequence – it effortlessly sets the tone and themes to be developed upon later, all without the need to utter a single word. In a way, it’s almost a disappointment when the cast set upon the main text of the play and begin to speak. Almost.
At this point, it is worth stopping for a moment to admire the production design on display. The stage is a two tier affair, minimal but with enough detail to perfectly encapsulate Elsinore Castle. The lower tier is bedecked with wreaths and candles to represent a graveyard and provide a hint of the tragedies to come. On the top tier, stark metal poles mounted with floodlights provide a harsh modern light, occasionally sinking into darkness to be replaced by strips of neon light that are at times abstract and at other become crucifixes. The cast use the stage to its full potential, with energetic militaristic displays and tightly choreographed sword fights. They are all dressed in modern costume, from tracksuits, to army camouflage, to pyjamas… At one point, Ophelia sports a set of headphones as she listens to music in her bedroom. Smoke billows out from the stage at key moments to soften the stark edges of the set, to transform it from its modern landscape and plunge it into a more timeless and ghostly atmosphere. Full marks to Hayley Grindle (set design) and Joshua Carr (lighting), the work on display elevates the production to a high level.
Further adding to the atmosphere is Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s hauntological soundtrack – filled with eerie drones, crackles of static, flashes of synthesiser melodies and glitchy echoes of gunfire. The soundtrack starts as the audience begins to take their seats and never lets up, a wonderful mix of old and new that is in perfect step with this iteration of Hamlet.
In all honesty, the quality of the acting isn’t entirely commensurate with the thematic ambition and production design, but there is still a great deal to celebrate. At the top of the list is Susan Twist’s standout performance as Lady Polonius – she delivers a light and comedic take on the character, an overbearing matriarchal figure, who drips with disdain at her daughter Ophelia’s dalliances with a woman (the horror!) and a seemingly unhinged one at that. I’ve never seen this character so vital. Ophelia’s exchanges with her mother bear all the hallmarks of a difficult coming out to an even more difficult parent and the scene bursts with energy as it absorbs new meaning.
Robert Pickavance’s performance as the gravedigger delivers another highpoint, bringing much needed comic relief as the tragedies begin to hit thick and fast. There’s a lightness of touch at work in these comic performances – the strong emphasis on humour prevents the otherwise heavy plot from becoming unbearable. It’s also worth noting that the production leans away from a reliance on the classic soliloquies, which are often delivered in muted tones. Instead, the real focus is placed on the more throwaway conversational dialogue, which is a delight to listen to as it revels in bringing to the fore the northern accents and phrasings of the cast and allows the smaller – but equally important – character moments to shine.
Tessa Parr’s Hamlet is a very fragmented affair, and this is potentially a deliberate decision. She switches from maudlin contemplation to a manic confidence and then into a very theatrical despair. At moments this performance can come across as uneven. However, at its high points, this is a stunning, energetic and very natural performance, one that sells every single decision and narrative alteration made throughout.
The plot itself is stripped back in several ways – Rosencrantz appears on his own without his friend Guildenstern, the character of Fortinbras is merely referred to as story context but is never seen, and the play that Hamlet commissions to prove his uncle’s guilt happens entirely in the imaginations of the main characters as they sit in a row and stare out at the audiences. These cuts and abbreviations provide a refreshing economy and efficiency to the plot, whilst the playful gender switching adds an additional depth.
There was nothing but a palpable sense of warmth in the auditorium for these reimagined characters. This is a version of Hamlet that both managed to pass the Bechdel test for possibly the first time in its performance history, and in its twisting of the line, “Frailty, thy name is woman,” provides a real dramatic irony as Hamlet is no longer chastising womanhood for their perceived flaws, but is instead unwittingly chastising herself for her own tragic flaws. It’s hard to imagine that this version isn’t the one intended originally by Shakespeare, all the parts fits so perfectly together.
West Yorkshire Playhouse
February 8-16, 2019
Random is a solo drama, written by Debbie Tucker Green for a solo female performer. It was originally performed in 2008 and later adapted into a BAFTA winning drama for Channel 4. This production was directed by Gbolahan Obisesan and stars Kiza Deen in the roles of Sister, Brother, Mother, Father and many other supporting characters.
The first thing that catches the eye is the rather striking set – a backdrop of haphazardly stacked chairs that evoke both the title of the play and that neatly visualises the idea of a household turned upside down. Hidden amongst the chaos are odd anchors of normality – a fridge and some school lockers. As the play begins with undercurrents of foreboding that bubble beneath the bright and lively dialogue, the starkly lit stacks of furniture are a threat of looming chaos over the family as they otherwise blissfully head into what is destined to be a catastrophic day.
The story begins with Sister’s reluctant conversation with her alarm clock. As she gets ready for work, she keeps a running track of time that continues throughout the entire play, providing an increasingly urgent momentum. The script provides small but vivid and relatable details of mundane family life – the stench of Brother’s bedroom, an argument about burnt porridge, Mother’s disdain of her children’s inappropriate dress sense, the preparation of unpleasantly sweet tea for some unwanted visitors. A seam of gentle humour runs throughout the dialogue as Deen addresses the audience directly, drawing them into the events as they unfold, who become unwitting members of the extended family group. The entire audience was alive with ripples of laughter in reaction to her engaging and lively performance.
The dialogue itself is certainly the play’s strongest asset – each member of the family speaks with their own distinct rhythms, their own language. Mother has a thick Caribbean twang, Father is gruff monosyllabic, Sister is sassy and confrontational and Brother is cocky and disarmingly charming. Deen’s delivery and performance sells each individual character as she bounds across the stage one moment as Brother and then freezes into the stiff and guarded Father. The dialogue has a real poetic quality, breaking out at times into almost-verse, transitioning between more formal soliloquies and conversational dialogue between the family members and the audience.
For a solo performance, rapidly switching between characters is a hugely demanding task and Deen mostly sticks the landing here. The main distinctions between the characters lie in the shifts of tone and dialect, propped by with subtle shifts in body language. These distinctions are more pronounced as moves energetically across the stage, however the lines are far more blurred during intimate and static moments and can cause at times a certain confusion as to which character we are hearing.
The lively opening act is brought to a jarring halt as the titular random act of violence throws the family into crisis. The tone of the performance shifts into more muted territory, the humour becomes either bitter or non existent and the interplay with the audience cuts away, leaving the auditorium buried in a thick silence that conveys just as much as the dialogue. Throughout the performance, the lighting is barely perceptible yet thoroughly effective, taking the space through the various times of day – it starts in the darkness of pre dawn, then shifts subtly to the light of a cold yet sunny day and then brings it round back full circle to the darkness of night, a darkness that has consumed and inevitably changed a family that was only an hour before comically arguing over breakfast.
Given the striking nature of the scenery, it felt starkly distant from the action on stage and despite some perfunctory use of the lockers, it had potential to lend itself more fully to the performance and create a more intimate picture of a family home and a surreal depiction of a family home torn asunder by tragedy. That said, any quibbles are minor and the silence that descended in the final moments of the performance were testament to the play’s true power. The story comes round full circle with a solitary character sitting with their back against a wall, simultaneously ruminating on how much has changed and raging in denial of this very change. Where once warm laughter had been heard around the room, this were replaced with tears.
Random provides the stark personal context of knife crime, something that is all too often reduced to a statistic. This play is anything but random in its careful, precise and powerful detailing of how these statistics affect real lives.
Until Saturday 10th November
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
Viewing this play was a first on two fronts – the first time I had seen a live radio play and the first time I had seen a piece of work addressing Indian Partition. I was wary that I may be in for a lecture and with the stage left to the bare bones set of microphones and a table with sound effects equipment there would be no-where to hide from it’s preachy tones. Yet I need not have feared for ‘Partition’ addressed complex issues with a light touch. As a play it emphasised the humour of its situation whilst not shying away from the historical horrors behind it.
The play started with a collage of crackly recorded voices from the past as politicians, activists and royalty spoke of the fateful date when the Indian subcontinent was split in two and divided into India and Pakistan. Underneath the mix was the ghostly echo of a news bulletin unfurling the events. Then we were upended by a crying woman calling out to someone – her boyfriend, husband, father. It was all far from clear. The play started out in this rather jumpy way which felt initially quite jarring. I struggled to tell who the characters were or how they related to each other. This wasn’t helped by the novelty – to myself at least – of having different characters in the same costume playing multiple characters in quick succession, and with no stage props or scene changes to help guide me. Soon however the play seemed to settle into itself and I became accustomed to the nature of the radio play set up.
In fact the nature of how the play was staged often emphasised the skills of the actors involved. The actors were able to convey their different characters through acts as simple as taking off a hat or adjusting a scarf and at times seemed to physically embody their differing roles beautifully. All the actors were worthy of praise in this regard but special credit should go to Sushil Chudasama whose performances of both the energetic and playful Rajpal and his reserved Grandfather, Ranjit contrasted beautifully.
At first I was initially put off slightly by the central couple who I found a bit too ordinary to be compelling. The supporting cast of characters seemed bolder and more intriguing and yet I gradually I began to see that the strength of the play was in its every day setting and its gentle humour which rooted it in a provincial Northern landscape which felt both familiar and safe. The cosiness of this setting lent both tension and power to the moments when darker undercurrents were revealed.
The use of sound throughout the play was superb and added a great deal to the piece helping the audience to evoke changes not only in space and time but also in mood. With clever use of sound effects and music we were one minute in the cavernous magnificence of the town hall, the next in a bustling cafe. I found the judicious use of silence also highly effective lending power to moments of already heightened emotion such as the monologues.
Once we learnt of the struggles of the two lovers to bring together their families for their special day the play began to explore the darker undercurrents of the subject and the reasons for these divisions. These moments in which we found out the real life brutalities partition was responsible for were handled with a marked subtlety. In lesser hands these shocking and emotional truths – they are based on real life testimonials – could have jarred badly with the overall tone of the play but here they almost snuck up upon the audience making them all the more moving. We learn not only how events of real life horror can change individuals beyond recognition but how the fear and anger associated with them can be passed down the generations and have repercussions decades later and thousands of miles away from their ground zero.
I found Partition to be both an enjoyable drama full of lively characters and also a very effective tool for the historical and cultural lessons it clearly wished to teach. It’s light touch and affection for the people and places it evoked was its real strength and in this way made the darkness underneath seem all the more potent than any number of more bleak and worthy works could have been.
West Yorkshire Playhouse
June 14th-23rd 2018
The monologues which make up ‘Talking Heads’ were originally written for and presented on BBC2 over 25 years ago and I myself have vague recollections of them from that time. They have of course been performed since on the stage but what is special about these performances is that they are taking place here in Leeds where for the most part they were originally set. This is of course as much a Leeds of Bennet’s imagination as it is a real place – a heightened world coloured by fuzzy recollections of his childhood and youth as much as it is reality but what strikes – as ever – about these pieces is their rich sense of detail, their ‘lived-in’ quality which could only come from the most keenest of observers. From the specific number of the bus used to the details of the canteen pudding this is a world which feels startlingly – almost oppressively real at times.
When the first piece “A chip in the sugar” begins we are transported into the fastidious world of Graham a middle aged man living with his mother. Theirs is an uncomfortably close relationship of mutual dependence. Socially isolated Graham takes quiet control of his mother’s opinions in line with his own liberal Guardian reading ways ( something he feels is for her own good ) whilst she rely s on him for physical and practical support. All is well until the arrival of an old flame of his mother’s who gradually wheedles his way into her affections with his superficial charm and flash patter.
Chris Chilton’s performance as Graham is excellent avoiding either a knowing impression of Alan Bennet himself (whose mannerisms the character sometimes embodies) or a campy caricature. He manages to illicit sympathy for what is at times an unlikeable character. He manages to capture both the humour and the desperation of the language making the audience both laugh uproariously whilst in the same breath gasp with shock. By performing small actions such as the folding of his clothes and the pacing of the room we get a sense of the obsessive nature and suppressed anxieties beneath the controlled exterior. When the fear and anger burst out it is with a genuine sense of queasy unease.
It’s very special for various reasons: It’s the last show in the Courtyard before the Playhouse undergoes redevelopment. It’s also my first time directing in my home theatre, and the opportunity to co-direct with James and Amy is really exciting. We’re each of us working with fantastic, generous actors. As you may know, four of the monologues have already been on tour around Leeds, so it’s great to offer them out to our community. It also means we can present a very different show, putting them all together on stage in one big production.
Director: John R Wilkinson
Next came “A woman of no importance” in which we meet Peggy a woman with a sense of herself as the ‘lynchpin’ of her workplace. Flo Wilson gives a subtly powerful performance as Peggy. At first I found her a rather tiresome creation; self-regarding, boring and obsessed with the petty mundanities and power-plays of office life as she is but gradually as the piece progressed my feelings were transformed. Wilson captures a woman both in decline and in denial of her place in the world and the changing nature of her own powers. I began to feel a gradual growing sense of great empathy for a character I had actively disliked and a strange sense of admiration for the self-deluded way in which as her world shrinks Peggy still retains her sense of pride and dignity. What is most impressive about the performance is the physical transformation in which Wilson captures the declining physical powers of Peggy. Wilson manages in her movements to make Peggy grow heavier, wearier and older before our very eyes through subtle shifts in posture, breathing and enunciation. This is also cleverly expressed through the use of costume – her gradual change from smart dress and coat to nightie and bed-jacket , the way Peggy clasps her handbag so tightly– and set as we see the environment gradually change from one of a banal public waiting room to hospital bed.
Finally we have “Soldiering On” in which we find Muriel, a woman of advancing years trying to hold things together in the wake of her beloved husband Ralph’s death. Though clearly a member of the upper classes we see as the piece unfolds a gradual stripping away of both Muriel’s physical comforts and her illusions until she is reduced to a state comparatively worse than either Graham’s or Peggy’s. I ended up finding Muriel in many ways the most appealing of the characters due largely to Tina Gray’s performance. She managed to convey a sense of a woman who underneath her bravado and stiff upper lip was rather lost. Imbuing her with a sense of unworldly niaviety as-well as vigour and pluck she gave Muriel’s suggestion that her story was “not a tragedy -I’m not that sort” the ring of truth to it which just made it all the more heartbreaking.
Throughout the pieces the setting is first rate whether it is letting us into the dreary and claustrophobic bedroom of Graham, the fading glamour of Muriel’s chaise longue and packing boxes or the antiseptic melancholy of Peggy’s hospital bedside. The way in which the sets are changed – particularly by the overalled workmen in Muriel’s living room – is also a sophisticated touch. The use of lighting and sound is minimal but effective too conveying both changes of scene and time and place with shifts in colouration and strength of light.
What shines through – though it is ably abetted by the uniformly excellent cast of course- is the script itself. These three pieces took me on an emotional journey in which I was taken to places I did not expect to go by people I didn’t want to go with. Bennet is able to create characters which have the tang of real life to them with all its ambivalence and complexity. It shows the strength in his writing that even the characters referred to off stage so to speak seem as well rounded and believable as the ones speaking directly to us.
Though there is much humour in the work and I indeed laughed through much of it these three pieces are I feel more tragedies than anything else. Not grand tragedies – that’s not Bennet’s style – but tragedies of lives unlived, of repression, denial and self-delusion, themes which run through these plays like the writing through a piece of Blackpool rock. These are very clever plays indeed which manage with their use of the casual wit and trivial mundanities of ordinary speech to explore difficult topics such as mental health issues, sexual repression and the damaging binds of family. By tackling these issues with humour, realism and above all humanity Bennet’s work has lost none of its power or relevance over a quarter of a century after they were first written.
Talking Heads is coming to the West Yorkshire Playhouse this week. The Mumble managed to catch a wee chat with one of its directors…
Hello John, so where are you from & where do you live? Hello John, so where are you from & where do you live?
John: Hello. I am from Leeds, albeit its murkier backwater – Wetherby to be exact, where I still live. One of the great thing about Talking Heads is all three co-directors are from the North. Well, Amy’s from Lancashire but we’ll forgive her that.
When did you first develop a passion for theatre, and what, for you, makes a good piece of theatre?
John: My mum’s always been involved in light opera, so it probably stems from that. Also, I used to be an avid Masters of the Universe collector when I was little, so imagining all sorts of scenarios with He-Man and Skeletor probably helped as well. A good piece of theatre for me includes various things. There’s got to be a real element of mystery, or discovery if you like, in it. You should leave asking as many questions as you’ve had answered. It should improve your perspective on the world around you. I often talk about productions finding an “active somnolence” – a kind of hypnotic quality. They should call. You should respond. They should soothe and mend you in doing so.
Can you tell us about your studies?
John: I trained at Bretton Hall College and the Workshop Theatre, University of Leeds.
You are Director in Residence and Agent for Change at West Yorkshire Playhouse; can you tell us how you got the job & what your role is?
John: I was appointed in October 2017. Aside from directorial responsibilities, the role is designed to support the creation of opportunities for other D/deaf and disabled creatives and setting up opportunities during Ramps on the Moon tours for local D/deaf and disabled artists to introduce themselves to their local theatre.
You’re washed up on a desert island with an all-in-one solar powered DVD/TV combo & three films, what would they be?
John: 1 The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Extended Edition)
3. Withnail and I
What does John R Wilkinson like to do when he’s not being creative?
John: Which is most of the time! Let’s see: Well, James Brining and I cry over the current plight of Leeds United. Netflix, Books (Historical Fiction, Sports Biographies) and Cycling. I’ve also just had Botox – in my legs, not my face!
You’re directing Talking Heads at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. What’s exciting about this project?
John: It’s very special for various reasons: It’s the last show in the Courtyard before the Playhouse undergoes redevelopment. It’s also my first time directing in my home theatre, and the opportunity to co-direct with James and Amy is really exciting. We’re each of us working with fantastic, generous actors. As you may know, four of the monologues have already been on tour around Leeds, so it’s great to offer them out to our community. It also means we can present a very different show, putting them all together on stage in one big production.
Do you & the cast socialise outside of rehearsals?
John: Yes, we had a party last Saturday, actually!
What does the rest of 2018 have in store for John R Wilkinson?
John: Immediate priorities? My sister’s getting married at the end of next month and I’m looking forward to the World Cup!
Photography : Anthony Robling
TALKING HEADS IS SHOWING AT THE WYP
JUNE 14th-23rd 2018
West Yorkshire Playhouse
Until Saturday 9th June
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
I approached “The Girl on the Train” knowing nothing about it other than that it was an adaptation of a best selling thriller by Paula Hawkins and that it had already been adapted into a film. I was expecting something of an Agatha Christie style who-done-it by way of Steig Larrson but what I got was far richer and challenging than that.
The play opens onto a bare anonymous space in grey and blue tones as a woman lies in a crumpled heap on the floor. ‘Is she the first victim?’ I wonder but no the dishevelled figure rises and begins to clear up the debris of an apparent party. This is our heroine, Rachel a troubled young woman self medicating the pain away of a difficult break-up with lashings of alcohol. As she teeters on the edge of mental collapse she finds escape from her own drama through the mysterious disappearance of a neighbour.
Rachel becomes embroiled in the investigation itself and finds herself gradually slipping further into obsession as she becomes compelled to discover the truth of the missing woman. Her amateur sleuthing brings her into contact with various characters who are not necessarily what they appear from the woman’s distraught husband, Scott to her condescending therapist, Kamal to her own seemingly kindly and understanding ex husband, Tom. All the while she is trailed in her enquiries by the wryly cynical D.I Gaskill, who though at first dismisses her as a troublesome crank soon comes to suspect her own motivations.
Though it’s plot has the requisite twists and turns one might expect from a superior thriller it soon became clear that this play was far more than that. As Rachel herself refers to her alcohol blackouts’ and lapses in memory it became apparent that for all the guess who fun to be had the play is as much a meditation on the unreliable nature of memory as it is a conventional thriller. All of the characters have something to hide not only from each other but also from themselves as the lies, half truths and unclear memories pile up to reveal how we all twist the past to help construct our identities. The missing woman herself, Meghan appears only in flashback as we see her as a kind of brittle ghost, something of a mystery to even those closest to her. These scenes are beautifully staged, the lighting shifting to a subdued nocturnal blue, the characters standing stock still as the memories are played out and they look on like the audience frozen and unable to intervene.
The production design in general adds a great deal to the atmosphere of the play. There is particularly impressive yet subtle use of sound and lighting throughout which are used to effectively suggest the different environments and moods from the grey starkness of Rachel’s lonely flat to the warm fuzzy light of Scott’s living room. The way the scene changes are signalled by a flash of dark blues and blacks and the accompanied discordant white noise of train-song is also a powerful touch. The colours of the set, all washed out greys and blues are mimicked by the drab colours of the characters outfits which emphasise that we are in ‘any-town’ UK, a place of conformity and blandness which masks a darkness beneath the surface ready to bleed out onto all that sepia.
The set itself is also excellent, built as it is from a series of frames, the outer bright neon cleverly mimicking the rounded edges of a train carriage window the innermost one a modern art painting which draws the eye to the gaping black hole at its centre, a symbol of Rachel’s fragmented memory and the mystery at the heart of the play.
Though this is certainly a dark play tackling complex themes it is not without a sense of humour and the script has plenty of fun ribbing the social aspirations of Tom and his new wife or at times the convoluted machinations of the plot itself.
Though the thoroughly engaging first half of the play ends powerfully- the stage literally dropping back from us as if we the audience are falling into a grave – it is in the second half that goes further into its questions on the nature of identity and memory. Though the script and staging is excellent it is of course the cast who breathe it into life. They do a great job of making their roles believable and naturalistic. Colin Tierney as D. I Gaskill turns what could have been a world- weary cliché into a twinkle-eyed charmer whilst Florence Hall as Meghan creates genuine poignancy from a role which in lesser hands could have been a mere cypher. Yet the show really belongs to the central performance of Rachel by Ill Halfpenny. Played with a humour, charm and sassiness which still manages to capture the sense of rage, desperation and self-loathing bubbling under the surface Halfpenny’s performance is an exemplary study of a woman just about holding it together. It leaves us as the audience rooting for this angry, confused and vulnerable woman as she, through the course of the play grows in strength and understanding gradually coming to terms with the truth of her own past.
West Yorkshire Playhouse
7 December 2017 – 27 January 2018
This play is a dramatisation of the much loved children’s book by C S Lewis. Portraying such a well-known and involved work was bound to be an ambitious project, and it did not disappoint. At 2 hours 45 minutes long, it had the potential to lose the attention of its audience, but the length was unnoticed due to the enthralling nature of the spectacle. It is aimed at ages seven and above, which seemed about right. The audience was involved in the show at times, and the young members in particular appeared to enjoy this. This participation was helped by the choice of theatre in the round.
Because of the fantastical nature of the story and the restrictions that come with a theatre production, a compromise needed to be made regarding the grandeur of the special effects, staging and costumes. This balance between having enough of these and relying on the imagination of the audience was perfect. The set was sparse but key props were used and handled faultlessly by the actors – for example, white sheets representing snow, the wardrobe door, the method by which the Turkish delight appeared.
The costumes were brilliant and rang true to the book, particularly those of the beavers and Mr Tumnus. The White Witch’s costume was spectacular and actress Carla Mendonca masterfully portrayed the notoriously frightful character. Puppetry was also used to represent some of the creatures – such as the professor’s cat, the mice and, at times, Aslan. The puppets were handled beautifully and were very effective; the mice in particular.
Throughout the performance, movement and lighting was used to create the atmosphere. There were lanterns across the whole ceiling of the auditorium, and these went on and off and changed colours at significant times, proving to be simple yet effective and involving. The movement used to simulate the initial train ride went on a bit too long and became forced, but this was outweighed by the excellency of the other simulations – such as walking through the rooms of the vast house, travelling through the wardrobe and through the coats, riding in the sleigh, flying on Aslan. Last but not least, the cast should be commended; there was not a weak link. Cora Kirk (Lucy) and Ira Mandela Siobhan (wolf Maugrim) stood out tremendously.
All in all, this is a fantastic piece of theatre. There are themes and lines that are still relevant to life today – for example, the quote “trees have ears and eyes” resonates with today’s concerns about security cameras, the prying of big social media companies and the general threat to privacy. Everyone should see it.
Reviewers : Georgie Blanshard and Lucy Clark