Saturday, 10 February 2018

Finchey's fine words... Mad as Hell, Jermyn Street Theatre

Stephen Hogan (photo Eddie Otchere)
I watched a Peter Finch film called No Love for Johnny a few weeks back, made in 1961 it was a very prescient view of a kind of new Labour politician detached from his grass-roots party and blowing with the wind. Very now and, as it turns out, very “Finchey”.

He hated phony and the crowning glory of his performance in Network had him saying words that he had been close to his heart through decades of film-making. The film remains painfully pertinent and, co-incidentally – or otherwise – is currently being performed as a play in the West End.

So, Peter Ingle Finch has been in the air and tonight’s play showed an aspect of his life I’d never been aware of and one that deserves wider recognition: a happy ending and a good marriage for the famous philanderer – a denouement denied so many of the characters he played of that ilk, including the one in No Love for Johnny (clue is in the title…).

Vanessa Donovan (photo Eddie Otchere)
The story begins in a Jamaican club  as a hard-drinking white man (Stephen Hogan) eyes up a beautiful black woman dancing rather splendidly to Bongo Boogie. He calls her over, offering to pay her the one shilling she charges for three dances. We naturally assume that this discourse can only go so many ways; he’s quite obnoxious and she’s pretty smart… but there’s something in him, a vulnerability, that makes her give him the benefit of the doubt.

He says he’s a movie star and she, Eletha Barrett (Vanessa Donovan) doesn’t believe him at all pointing to all the movie stars already in the club, Errol Flynn and Clark Gable among them… Sadly it’s 1965, three years after Jamaican independence, and the man has to inform her that they are both dead. Eletha is less than impressed with such things, especially after repeating a rumour about Mr Flynn which I’d never heard. She has the mark of every man, no doubt.

She dances with the man and it’s a Strictly 9 from this judge (props to choreographer Ryan Francois all round) and she finally gets his name: Peter Finch. Always eager for gossip, I lapped up the Finch roll call of famous affairs, Shirley Bassey (again, I had no idea!) was a big one as was Vivien Leigh… his good pal Larry Olivier always being on two minds about matters of intimacy. They seem to click, and he arranges to meet her at the Colonial Club but he stands her up and as she fumes in drunken disappointment we assume he’s as full of hot air as we first thought.

Liver Bird: Alexandra Mardell (photo Eddie Otchere)
The scene shifts to Finch’s London flat sometime later and the startling arrival of Debbie (Alexandra Mardell) singing Hey Big Spender; a Scouser short on skirt and long on ambition. Debbie’s trademark directness is further foil to flesh out Finch’s self-loathing. He’s mid-divorce on his second marriage and after his lover threatens to sell-all to the tabloids, shouts that he is beyond being shamed. He’s run out of pride his professional life being propped up by extensive drinking to numb the destruction of his private life.

He tells Debbie it’s all over and she hits him hard: “just ‘cos you like black girls doesn’t mean you see us as equals…” We worry she has nailed him and we root for Peter to prove us wrong.

Back to Jamaica and a poignantly worked re-union with Eletha. Sometime later It’s 1968 and the news of Martin Luther King’s death comes across on their radio… he doubles his drink in misery but Eletha is not convinced that anything will change for most black people, in America or Jamaica; there will always be racial and class snobbery. Finch makes them toast and “up yours!” to “racialists” the island over.

The relationship between the two is well developed uneasy at first – “fine words Finchey!” she cries, echoing our doubts given Finch’s behaviour, race and status – but as they so obviously endure so does their language soften and their sympathies align.

You dancin'? (photo Eddie Otchere)
The play was co-written by Adrian Hope and Cassie McFarlane (who also directs) and sets out their life with a mixture of imagined and actual quotations.

Most powerful of all are the extensive quotes from pivotal scenes in Network with Mr Hogan earning his crust with some of the most affecting lines in film history: he must have been exhausted! Similarly, Eletha’s words after collecting Finch's posthumous Oscar are heart-breaking and touching all the same. This is a great love story and the happiest of endings for two people who found each other and made a new life.

I could listen to Vanessa Donovan’s Jamaican accent all day and she has the ace comic timing to go with it – she plays so very well off Stephen Hogan and there’s a real depth to their connection. I could also listen to Alexandra Mardell’s Scouse accent all day, not sure if it’s her actual accent, like… but she nails it, and, on a good day, so can I, la!

Vanessa Donovan (photo Eddie Otchere)
Three energetic and thoroughly-convincing performances and a genuinely moving and heart-warming story, you would indeed have to be mad to miss Mad As Hell!

The play runs until 24th February so be quick and book your tickets now!

IThankYou Theatre Rating: **** 

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Seeker after truth... Ken, The Bunker Theatre


The bunker was laid out like a post-trippy nightclub, with Persian carpets, tables and chairs all mildly shrouded by the smell of joss sticks as Donna Summer and Spaced played us in: this was the mid-seventies between counter-culture and punk. At around that time as a 14-year old I was buying LPs in Liverpool’s Probe Records and used to be fascinated by ads for The Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool and a mysterious play called Illuminatus! I still have the flyers in a box complete with programmes for the Playhouse and Everyman, my Eric’s membership cards, old NMEs, Zigzags (a punk fanzine) and a collection of the mind-expanding Brainstorm Comix!

Forty years on and finally I get to find out more about the man behind this arcane theatre, Ken Campbell, a radical presence who influenced not just a generation of off-beat actors such as Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent and Sylvester McCoy but also the Liverpool scene in general including Bill Drummond – member of the seminal Big in Japan (a scouse super-group – look ‘em up, la!), manager of the Teardrops and Bunnymen and from there to the KLF. Campbell was an instinctive iconoclast with an energy that brought out the best from some and drove many others away.

For playwright Terry Johnson he was “…my friend, champion and occasional nemesis…” and the man who placed his finger directly on his sternum and told him that he needed to turn his “switch” on! It was a moment of intense personal connection and one that Johnson still cherishes; it helped drive him on to success as a director and innovative writer himself – I’d seen a revival of his Insignificance only a few months back and its star, his daughter, was in attendance tonight.

Terry Johnson
Johnson wrote and acts in this play and it is as disarmingly personal portrait of Ken that shows the good and bad of their relationship. Lisa Spirling directs with real style and has Ken (played by another former collaborator, Jeremy Stockwell) positioned in the audience ready to spring up when we least expected and from there on to break the fourth wall into so many pieces.

It’s a bold production that makes the most of the intimate energy this direction generates. Johnson’s words flow so beautifully well on occasion but they’re also from the heart and it is hard to imagine that they are all of them so easily said. But, his switch is “on” and he is infused with the spirit of his friend, emboldened into telling us all of Campbell’s call to just do it!

The play starts when Terry met Ken and ended up being cast in one of his plays, this time the sprawling 24-hour The Warp based on the life of Neil Oram. After Campbell had decided Oram’s original play was rubbish, he told him he wanted to “write him” and, together (maybe) they produced a script 14 inches deep that was to be performed in just six days in Edinburgh at the run-down Regal Theatre which the crew also needed to renovate. The result still holds the record for the longest play ever performed and being such a marathon, once required moving cast and audience to a tennis court to keep everyone awake.

Campbell was famous for the greeting “good evening seekers!” and was always on a journey to find new experience and to challenge those daydreaming through life. He was surrounded by a gang of talented eccentrics, John Joyce, a woman called Mia who Johnson considered the most beautiful he has ever seen (even as he doubts her existence as a single entity…), Daisy (his daughter with actress Prunella Gee, who is now also a playwright), not to mention Hoskins, Conti, Lord James Broadbent and Chris Langham.

Terry Johnson and Jeremy Stockwell
Ken was full on and sometimes would look straight in you challenging any wayward complacency or phony thoughts. He was also a one for grand-scale pranks and once re-titled the RSC the Royal Dickens Company on the grounds that they did more 19th than 16th Century work. He contacted the actors and issued press releases succeeding in convincing enough people that Trevor Nunn had to come out and deny that it was happening.

It’s an intensely personal exercise for Johnson and a brave one as well he’s acting himself through some of the most important moments of his life and the barrier between performance Terry and actual Terry must be wafer thin. But you know that Ken, if he is anywhere else, and who knows, maybe the Illuminati spirited him away…, would nod in approval before launching off on yet another scheme.

Jeremy Stockwell is so energetically convincing as Ken that the great man might as well be in the room. It’s good that the role is in the hands of another friend and he does his old pal full justice with outrageous eyebrows, eyes on full twinkle and a cackle that is straight from deepest, darkest Campbell.

All photographs courtesy of Robert Day
Ken is life-affirming, and because it plays around us, the message also infuses us as watchers… watchers can only do one thing and, you just know, we have to start being seekers!

Ken runs at The Bunker Theatre until 24th February and if you don’t go you’ll simply never know how to turn yourself on!


IThankYouTheatre Rating: ***** It has to be for Johnson’s bravery and for Ken the Seeker.





Saturday, 20 January 2018

Clouds over Luton… Bunny, Tristan Bates Theatre


“I don’t like thinking, I don’t like thinking…but I do it all the time.”

Catherine Lamb hits us with everything she’s got for a well over an hour, giving us a whirlwind of powerful, teenage narrative including fighting, a car chase, school disco and sexual power play. She brings Jack Thorne's meticulous prose to life: 70 minutes of dialogue, one woman, three clouds and a battered chair… it is an amazing performance you are consumed by her energy and emotive force and you are left reeling by a cliff-hanger ending I won’t reveal.

Bunny tells the story of Katie, 18-year old school girl, bright enough to get A’s in her GCSEs and in her AS “ass-levels” and the first in her family to get a place in university. Her parents read The Guardian and she is almost at Grade Five on the clarinet. She’s what we used to call working class but her future awaits even though she’s by no means sure of it.

Katie doesn’t quite fit in with the fast set at school, all of the girls who came to her 18th decided to leave on cue at 10.30 as some kind of statement… she’s too off-beat to really hold down a position in their ranks and had only one real friend and overweight girl she was ashamed of but who liked and understood her.

Katie’s boyfriend – she’s ambivalent on his status – is a 24-yeard old black guy called Abe who even now was a shock to her parents and no doubt many others. He works in a factory and seems distinctly un-invested in Katie’s opinions and personality. The couple meet after her day at school and Abe gets into a fight with an Asian boy who tries to nick his ice cream.

Catherine Lamb, photograph Michael Lindall
Katie doesn’t like fights and whilst she’s undoubtedly thrilled by the frisson of male combat, she’s not giving them high marks for style. The boy gets a choke-hold on Abe and the fight fizzles out as he heads off on his bike.

Two of Abe’s workmates have seen the scuffle, a man called Jake and the commanding figure of Asif, a man they all defer to and who seems to take an interest in Katie from the start. Asif is a compelling character as drawn by Catherine/Katie: he drives a fast car, takes command and plays subtle games with all of those around him.

He decides that they must pursue the boy – who spat at Abe to start the quarrel – and to meet out justice. They set off in his car playing tag with the boy as he cycles down passageways but can’t get far enough away. He gets cornered and manages to give the gang a slip as a young boy distracts them… Asif then puts pressure on the boy to let them know his name and where he lives… it’s uncomfortable even in the re-telling and we’re lost in Catherine Lamb’s story telling feeling the fear and threat.

The pack head off to Luton’s Bury Park and after Asif finds out where the boy lives they sit outside in his car eating a kebab. Asif plays all those around him including Katie who, childlike, responds to his attentions as she would anyone who gave her the compliment of simply being interested. We’re appalled that she is in this situation, “I know what I’m doing…” but she really does not.

The tension mounts as they go inside the boy’s house to sit and wait with his unsuspecting mother… Katie must decide who’s side she is on, Asif’s or her own: it’s a difficult choice to make and, given that she is telling the story, one we presume she has already made?

A clouded future? Catherine Lamb, photograph Michael Lindall
Throughout the play there are cut-aways to the more introspective world before Katie cuts back to her story. It’s a very well-constructed narrative that never loses momentum even in these moments and Lucy Curtis is to be congratulated on her direction. I also loved the minimalist set with three clouds changing colour with Katie's mood.

Catherine Lamb is so cohesive and committed to the performance that you believe her every word. In the end we’re left hanging on to each sentence… hoping for the best and recognising the terrible ease with which young lives can turn.

“I think life can be basically divided into two things: suspense and surprise. I prefer surprise to suspense. But that’s basically because I feel suspense all the time.”

Bunny is a production of Fabricate Theatre Company and runs at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 27th January – so yourself a favour  and grab a ticket whilst you can!


IThankYouTheatre Rating: ***** Breathless.

Lost in translation… The Claim, Shoreditch Town Hall


Ncuti Gatwa wanders front of stage and looks out to the audience gazing smilingly into our eyes with the room still lit: he has a performance to give and we’re not sure if he’s talking with us or to us… It’s not the first nor last time that Tim Cowbury’s play will toy with meaning, misunderstanding and the lines between story, telling and interpreting.

The Claim deals with a single asylum case and if it’s extended miss-communications feel occasionally contrived it’s worth pointing out that the play is based on two years research with time spent at immigration courts, as well as working closely with asylum seekers, refugees and representatives from migrant organisations.  

So, yes indeed, what we see could actually happen. In another context, it could be you and it could be me.

Gatwa is a charismatic central focus playing the eloquent and intelligent Serge, also known as Sese who is from the CDR region of Congo but is living in Streatham via Uganda. He has a story to tell but he speaks French and only a little English. He has been called for interview by the Home Office and faces a sympathetic but distracted male (Nick Blakeley) who speaks French quite well but not fluently. At first we’re not aware of the language, just that Serge and the man are talking at odds with the latter making the occasional mistake: “incontinent” travellers rather than “inter-continental” and elephant trumpets rather than trumps… it’s only as things progress that you see the damage done by these innocent imperfections.

Ncuti Gatwa  (photograph courtesy of Paul Samuel White)
Serge talks of Willy Wonka and the man jumps to Willy Fog and the animated adventures of Around the World in 80 Days… another example of two cultural references not meeting. If only the man was less self-absorbed and distractedly fantasising about his “partner”/co-worker and his planned holiday to the Greek island of Ios.

The woman (Yusra Warsama) duly arrives and now we realise that, when talking to her, Serge has an African accent and that he knows very little English; cleverly done but still we expect that these three, reasonable people will, between them, work things out properly.

But it’s not so simple. In the second segment of the play, the woman gets the impression that Serge has been involved with the Congolese militia, the M23, and it is painful to see the two failing to connect with the actuality. But… this is as nothing to the final third when French to Franglais to English equals double-dutch… as Serge’s last chance is frittered away by the man who can’t listen or understand what he’s really trying to say. He means well but… his French isn’t up to it, his attention span isn’t robust and his pursuit of his co-worker as a partner means he almost doesn’t want to let her miss-conceptions down.

It is excruciating… you want to slap him… but compared to the actuality?

Yusra Warsama, Nick Blakeley and Ncuti Gatwa (photograph Paul Samuel White)
The Home Office mantra of “coherence, consistency and credibility…” is fatally undermined by incoherence, inconsistency and incredulity. This may not happen in many cases but it surely does in others. And that, my friends, makes us *all* complicit. Gatwa’s disappointed disgust at the close says it all; he’s been let down just like too many before him.

Mark Maughan directs boldly and with the resolute purpose of challenging the audience of wrong-footing us and making us think about why the play is at times annoying, frustrating and ultimately bitterly poignant. Tim Cowbury’s constructions are clever but also credible, he is aware of the dangers of discussing story in a story and weaves his way through with logic and precision.

The three players all do well, especially Gatwa who effectively has three roles to play: Sese himself, Serge the friendly French speaker and Sese/Serge whose English ties him up in knots.  Yusra Warsama is so smoothly proficient as the professional interrogator, worn down by process and anxious to get the right result but quickly, whilst Nick Blakeley, who’s wistful, distracted and infuriating co-interviewer inadvertently does so much damage, still manages to convey compassion and a likeability (whether he escaped from the Town Hall without being slapped I can’t say…)

All three interact so well with the complexities of the script and the staging which left the lights on the audience throughout. A job well done.

Yusra Warsama  (photograph Paul Samuel White)
The PR says that The Claim is “the only contemporary work to both satirise and humanise everyone around the Home Office interview table…” and you can well believe it but there are also a number of what are termed “wraparound” activities with organisations such as UNESCO. These include: a specially commissioned series of testimonies written by refugees in collaboration with Freedom From Torture, one-off legal surgeries for those soon to face the Home Office interview, post-show discussions, Q&As and more.

The Claim isn’t just telling a story, it’s taking action too and we should take note for injustice is all too easy to imagine as a foreign problem… 

The Claim continues until 26th January at Shoreditch Town Hall, London – tickets available from the box office. It then plays to single dates on 29th January at Gulbenkian, Kent and 31st January at the Platform Theatre, Glasgow.      


IthankyouTheatre Rating: **** Just imagine the roles reversed…

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Way out… East, King’s Head Theatre


First performed in 1975, Stephen Berkoff’s East is described by its author as "a revolt against the sloth of my youth…” and “…a desire to turn a welter of undirected passion… into a positive form.” It is a fierce construction that even now knocks the audience onto the back foot not just with the force of its words but with the response required from the performers.

“The acting has to be loose and smacking of danger… it must be smart and whip out like a fairy’s wicked lash…” and tonight the exceptional cast, two making their theatrical debuts, let rip in style – in our faces, catching the unwary off guard in the close-quarters of the King’s Heads performance area. Nowhere to hide.

It might be too much for some, but if you can’t handle confrontation, don’t come to the theatre expecting to switch off and, yes, I mean you, the woman in the woolly hat who was outraged by something or other; I’m sure Mr Berkoff would be smiling over his 9d pint of ale over your ruffled sensibilities. She was a lone voice and the audience sat rapt and immersed in this brutal, blood-pumped performance letting rip with cathartic bursts of laughter and adrenalized cheers at the end.

James Craze, Debra Penny, Boadicea Ricketts, Russell Barnett and Jack Condon Photo (c) Alex Brenner 
Berkoff is describing a working-class culture that can still be found, one that rails against immigration and, as it grows older, mourns the passing of youth. Dad (Russell Barnett) regales his family with tales of marching with Oswald Mosely’s black shirts, and smashes the beans on toast around the table as he describes their ambush at Cable Street. We’re left to make our own judgement but there’s always a why that comes first.

Dad’s a busted flush, rotting in bitter middle-age, despising  his wife (Debra Penny) who takes solace in Z-Cars, Hawaii 5-0 and the pools… what else has she left with son fully grown and her future now far behind her.

Her son Mike (James Craze) is the next generation, he still has all to play for and yet he doesn’t really know what to do with the power of his youth. He is full of boundless energies and yet the very possibilities seem to overwhelm him.

Mr Condon and Mr Craze Photo (c) Alex Brenner
His friend Les, (Jack Condon) is an edgier, less focused presence violently agitated at most times and uncertain of himself. He sees a girl on the bus and is so overcome with her beauty he can do nothing… he just doesn’t consider himself worthy enough to even try to engage. He follows her as far as he can but simply lets her go as she alights at Mount Pleasance, ogled by all the postal workers as she heads off out of his possibilities.

Mike is the more successful with women and his bird in the hand, Sylv (Boadicea Ricketts – quite astonishing in her professional debut), is smarter than her partner and those around her; ready to commit while Mike still wants to reassurance of “the pull” … it’s no comment on her, just the only validation he can think of on a Friday night.

The play is directed by Jessica Lazar who uses every inch of the limited stage area to push her players through exhaustive choreography as they fight, mime silent movies, turn into motorbikes (you have to see how Condon and Craze combine for that sequence!) and dance (and you also must see the Boadicea Boogie!). It is so visually and emotionally inventive and you get the feeling that the cast have contributed so much content allied to their performance commitment.

Jack Condon Photo (c) Alex Brenner
Everyone is excellent, but the two youngsters are so impressive you wouldn’t believe this was their debut and I would expect we’ll see a whole lot more from Jack and Boadicea. Jack Condon gives an adrenalized, eyes popped performance worthy of Berkoff himself; a convulsive febrile presence in fear of his environment and struggling to think beneath the urge to fight or submission. Dad calls him a fag and he tries to joke “I don’t know what you mean…” only to be met with the aggressive blank face of the dominant male.

Boadicea Ricketts is smoothly in complete command of her brief and is a high-sparking emotion-engine as the woman trying to accommodate these passionately-conflicted males. There’s a deceptive ease to her transitions and she is utterly transfixing in key moments and those were indeed real tears we saw as the play reached its conclusion. And yes, her smile can stun you from ten paces.

All the cast are superb but these two, these two… watch out for them. As the play has it: “now you know our names…”

Boadicea Ricketts Photo (c) Alex Brenner
East plays at the King’s Head until Saturday 3rd February and whilst it’s only a slight diversion from Stepney, the heart of the East End beats ferociously inside.

Box Office Tickets are available from kingsheadtheatre.com


IThankYou Theatre Rating: ***** Socks blown off.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Tale as old as time… Beauty and the Beast, Kings Head Theatre

Spot the cast from the mob! All photos by Nick Rutter
At one point two cast members chime “please don’t sue us Disney…” but it’s far too late for that! This is now the only true version of Beauty and the Beast and Disney can afford to over look their casting errors in the recent live action film.

This production puts the cheek back into tongue in cheek right from the get-go with a mime of Mickey in Steamboat Willie (fnar!) followed by a torch-lit shadow-puppet introduction from within a child’s canvas castle that must have literally cost pounds. It’s a pitch-perfect piss-take that treats its source material with such affection that you could scare call it beastly.

If anything, it restores the earthy heart of the fairy tale, the lust that goes with the love and the humble faults that all heroes must have – even in Disney. Beau (Jamie Mawson) is a handsome bookworm who longs for a better life away from his ordinary, illiterate little town… every plastic prince must escape from the tawdry to a higher level. His mother Maureen (Allie Munro) is an artist fond of “lesbian ceramics” who wants only for her son to meet a girl who loves Jane Austen as much as he and to exhibit at the Camembert Art Fair.

Jamie Mawson photo by Nick Rutter
But Beau is coveted by Chevonne (Katie Wells) an alpha female fond of hunting all round and specifically concerned with capturing this winsome fellow. In truth they’re ill-matched but she has eyes only for surface attraction and is in every respect so like a man oblivious to the loyalty from La Fou Fou (Allie Munro again).
The plot dances round the well-worn narrative playfully inserting overt commentary that everyone who grew up on VHS copies of the cartoon would now be old enough to appreciate. It’s bawdy but then everyone’s old enough to vote.
Maureen sets out for the Art Fair with her wares on their trusty steed, “bicyclette” but is ambushed by Lynx ending up imprisoned in a mysterious castle… Beau sets off to find her and ends up swapping places after meeting her captor the Beast (Robyn Grant). The Beast is really a princess who was bewitched by an itinerant and highly-judgemental magician (Aaron Dart) who cursed her to remain as a beast until and if she could ever find a man to love her for herself.
Tough task… but once Beau settles in he begins to realise that there’s more to this gal than horns, hooves and hair: she’s well read for a start and that is, you know, so important.
Allie Munro attacked by lynx on Bicyclette! Photo by Nick Rutter
The castle is also populated by talking house hold objects, a Clock, a Teapot and his daughter, a cup called Crack. They also sing a song about that awkward eating time between breakfast and lunch, “eat our brunch” … well, be their guest!
It’s looking very like a fairy tale and we know how its going to go but Chevonne has Maureen committed in an attempt to lure Beau to her lap and things get complicated…

Beauty and the Beast is a riot from start to finish and the audience is so much in on the joke as the King’s Head’s performance space is used to maximum impact. It’s a perfect seasonal treat for all those who secretly believe in fairy tales but who have a mortgage to pay and jobs to hold down… somewhere out there amongst all the beasts is our sweetheart! And he/she might well have a sense of humour!

The cast are a blur of madcap invention with Allie Munro at one point playing two characters almost at the same time either side of Katie Wells. There’s a terrific impersonation of the Pixar Lamp by Aaron Dart who also plays a mob with the aid of two brooms. Robyn Grant makes for a perfectly beastly heroine and sings as passionately on the matter of eggs as she does for her Beau. Jamie Mawson harmonises so well with his Beast and is soppily sincere throughout.

Jamie Mawson and Robyn Grant photo by Nick Rutter
The troupe is well drilled and clearly used to playing together as part of the Fat Rascal Theatre company. Fat Rascal Theatre strive to create fresh and funny feminist musical theatre and here they succeed emphatically well.

Robyn Grant wrote the book and lyrics with Daniel Elliot and the music was written by James Ringer-Beck and well performed on the night by Nicola Chang.
  
Beauty and the Beast runs at the Kings Head until 6th January and if you’re looking for a more adult rendering of the classic tale with songs and humour then please don’t think twice - tickets available here. Male or female, in any combination, this story is indeed enduring… Disney won’t need to sue at all.


Ithankyou Theatre Rating: ****

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Jazz-age Jitters… Thark, Drayton Arms Theatre


The Twenties, the decade when we started our liberation through a vibrant mix of our own music, dance and style: a movement to joy that never really stopped, give or take a war or two. As a deep-diver in the world of silent film I can see the influence of the original The Cat and the Canary on this play not to mention the romantic comedies of Ivor Novello, the loaded direction of an Ernst Lubitsch and the flapper energies of Colleen Moore. There was so much invention at this time and broadening of cultural opportunities...

I don’t know much about Ben Travers but he, along with PG Wodehouse, would have set templates that are still being mined and this play is very much what you’d expect a “farce” to be: witty, clipped wordplay, delivered at speed with no let up from start to finish. In the hands of director Matthew Parker, Travers’ play becomes a Hi-NRG romp, with machine-gun diction and a cast that carries on with expression even when they have no lines… exactly like a silent movie! It’s like a competition, a free-form exhibition – no doubt highly rehearsed – of movement, expression, pantomime and even vocalise: when the butler’s name is called, it’s almost sung, “Hoooo-ook!!” whilst the bizarre maid at the supposedly haunted house, Mrs Death (called Jones, for obvious reasons…) lets out a sequence of strange, foreboding moans.

On top of this you had an audience whooping and laughing almost constantly throughout the play: they were having a ball and that provides more eloquent comment than my words could convey.

Ellie Gill, Isabella Hayward, Alexander Hopwood, Charlotte Vassell and Sophia Lorenti ((lhphotoshots)
There was also dancing and Beyoncé too! At the end of the first act the cast suddenly started dancing as a jazzed version of Crazy in Love boomed out of the speakers. This was unexpected but before we had time to react it got funnier as one by one the troop began stepping out. The icing on the cake was Lionel Frush (Alexander Hopwood) gurning his way in the middle of the women but the 10 Strictly points go to Isabella Hayward whose Cherry Buck was the jazziest baby and has early had extensive experience of the Charleston and possibly the Black Bottom too.

Farces can seem thrown together, but they require discipline and perfect control of space and time: those doors won’t open by themselves and the plot lines won’t tangle without due diligence and all the players and pieces fell exactly where they had to tonight.

As Matthew has said in interview, the men tend to be the idiots whilst the women are far smarter, but the beauty of the writing is that everyone finds their way on the end as gentile society is lampooned for the amusement of all.

A lady calls: Robin Blell and Isabella Hayward ((lhphotoshots)
The young cast clearly relished the chance to play “period” comedy but the writing is smart and the feel is very contemporary: it was a knowing decade. Having seen so many silent comedies even the play on words for “queer, very queer…” echoes a title card in Hitchcock’s’ The Lodger in which the famously gay Ivor Novello’s character is knowingly referred to as a queer fellow and that’s nothing compared to William Haines cheeky male-bottom pinching in Spring Fever: the twenties saw the beginning of liberation for all.

Indeed, the play’s very foundation point is marital infidelity as Sir Hector Benbow (Mathijs Swarte) starts the ball rolling by inviting Cherry Buck, a young window dresser he had met in London, for dinner at his house whilst his wife is away. Sadly for him, not only does Lady Benbow (Charlotte Vassell) announce her unexpected return at precisely the same time as his naughty tryst but so does Mrs Frush (Ellie Gill) and her son.

The Frusts had bought a country house, Thark, from Sir Hector who was acting on behalf of his ward, Kitty Stratton (Natalia Lewis) who also happens to be romantically entwined with his nephew Ronald (Robin Blell) … Needless to say, every relationship is quickly up for grabs with lie piling upon lie as Sir Hector tries to get the hapless Ronald to meet Cherry only for Kitty to get the wrong end of the stick and that stick to be swung in both men’s general direction.

I ain't afraid of no ghosts... (lhphotoshots)
It’s almost by way of distraction that the men decide they need to prove Thark is a sound investment by sleeping in the most haunted part of this most haunted house. Cue things that go bump in the night and a grandstand finish.

Thark is a far cry from Matthew Parker’s last play, Brimstone and Treacle and it shows his comedy chops especially in his joyous cast. Everyone is lovable with Blell deserving special mention for his facial displays of contorted horror and his elaborate attempts to communicate new lies through mime. Daniel Casper plays the long-suffering servant Hook, who always takes the blame even when he has to put off seeing his new baby daughter. Sophia Lorenti has a double role as the Benbow’s maid as well as the aforementioned Death/Jones when she really takes flight.

Sophia Lorenti gets a telling off from Mathijs Swarte's Sir Hector (lhphotoshots)
Kieran Slade pops up as the journalist Whittle and it’s interesting to see that even in 1927, little time was had for this profession with Sir Hector’s preference is for shooting first before answering any questions.

Thark plays at The Drayton Arms Theatre in South Kensington until 6th January and tickets are available from the box office site.

Don’t hesitate old bean, it’s a hoot!!

Ithankyou Theatre Rating: ****