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Review | The Snowman at The Peacock Theatre

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Set-Up shots showing The Snowman @ Birmingham Rep Theatre. (Taken 12-01-17) ©Tristram Kenton 01/17 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com

This Christmas, join the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in their magical rendition of Raymond Brigg’s The Snowman.

Christmas would not be the same without this enchanting festive classic, and this particular adaptation makes its way to theatre for its 21st season! Closely following the TV adaptation, our childhood favourites are bought to life in this moving tale about a boy and his beloved (living) snowman exploring the mysteries of the world together with a rather childlike curiosity. A witnessing of the magical communication between a boy and his snowman on their journey to the North Pole.

The show evokes a much-needed warming Christmas atmosphere, with the magic of the woodland creatures and the quintessential winter scene. The biggest charm of the production came with the re-enacting of the classic Walking in the Air scene, tugging on all our hearts as the two are ascended into the sky. The movements were graceful, joyful and full of merry for a perfect holiday classic loved by all. With a few canivalesque additions by Birmingham Repertory Theatre, the adaptation is steered towards the younger generations for a night of feel-good family fun.

Though it could do with condensing at times, the production nevertheless manages to omit the soft warmth of our beloved Christmas tale. It carries the message of love, life, and friendship – key themes for us to reflect on during the holiday season. As we all know, the tale has a rather bitter end reminding us that all wonderful things eventually come to an end, and we are left with a memory. Yet, the play suitably steers away from the odd melancholy of the tale in order to enhance the tales magical qualities for its younger audience.

Overall, the Birmingham Repertory Theatre provides us with a necessary dose of Christmas spirit.

* Wishing you a magical Christmas and a joyous New Year, from all of us at The London Magazine.*

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Words by Briony Willis.

Raymond Brigg’s The Snowman, Birmingham Repertory Theatre

The Peacock Theatre, Thursday 22nd November 2018 – Sunday 6th January 2019

Essay | Shakespeare’s London and the Emergence of the Playhouse

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London from Southwark, c.1630.

Today, the idea of the theatre can evoke tradition and history, having perhaps one of the longest histories of all the arts. But when the theatres first began springing up in London in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, they were places that transgressed and challenged social boundaries, and were considered dangerous by the well-to-do of the age.

The Emergence of the London Playhouse

Although companies of actors had been performing plays for centuries, the first purpose built playhouse was the Red Lion in Whitechapel, built in 1567. Eight years later, in 1575, a spring a theatre spaces began to open across London, of which most were taverns and inns converted into playhouses, such as The Bull or Bishopsgate Street Inn. The Theatre, built by James Burbage in 1576, was one of the first which performed Shakespeare’s plays. This stood just outside the city walls, near Curtain Road in Shoreditch in today’s London. When Shakespeare’s company—The Lord Chamberlain’s Men— lost their lease on The Theatre in the late 1590s, they took the novel step of dismantling the theatre, transporting the wood and other materials to the other side of the Thames, and re-using them to build The Globe on Bankside, which is now famous for being the first theatre to operate solely as a place for plays (previous theatres had all doubled up as homes for other, often less salubrious forms of entertainment, mostly notably bear-bating). 

These theatres, both outdoor and indoor, where located in ‘liberties’—areas of private land free from city authorities and the Crown—which tended to be on the outskirts and margins of the city of London. Liberties were filled with playhouses, brothels, and bear-baiting pits, as well as other places, all of which were spaces of excess and lack of authority. Just as these places occupied the fringes of the city, the activities taking place there pushed social boundaries of morality to the extremities: they were associated with vulgarity, corruption and commonness, and the playhouse was a prominent feature in this scene. As Shakespeare scholar Russ MacDonald notes, if the city authorities had hold over the playhouses, they would have probably shut them down permanently, such was the strong opposition to them from London authorities and members of the population.

The Performance

Early modern performances were different to the theatre performances we know today in several ways, a significant one being the “bare stage” which actors performed on. There were for example, not even curtains to the stage (a much later development). Despite the fact that one of the early theatres used by Shakespeare being called The Curtain, this was in fact due to it’s proximity to the city walls due to anything on the stage.

Unlike the present day, where much effort goes into producing a set that creates a sense of reality for the audience, early plays were self-consciously aware of themselves as a performance, and it seems there was little attempt to convince the audience otherwise. While the stage itself remained relatively empty, the lack of spectacle was compensated for by the extravagant and unrestrained costuming of the actors, which drew much criticism from Puritans for its decadent excesses. Another aspect of costuming criticised by the puritans of the city was cross dressing—men and boys decked out in women’s clothing and make-up—which was seen as vulgar. Although this might suggest a transgression of gender boundaries however (which to a degree was the case), this was in turn caused by necessity, as it was considered socially unacceptable for women to act in theatres until well after the Reformation in the seventeenth century. 

But through the dressing up of actors, who were considered extremely low on the social ladder (not much better than beggars), in costume that impersonated higher classes, even nobility, we see an emergence together of a different class that could probably only occur in the theatre. Moreover, plays often placed characters of different social ranking in dangerously close proximity with each other, a good example being Prince Harry and Falstaff, the working-class drunkard in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Here, class distinction is reduced to mere performance, rather than something that is rigid and fixed. 

The Audience

The concept of theatre etiquette was virtually non-existent in early theatres. Audiences were not expected to be still and silent throughout the performance, rather they were loud, bawdy and raucous, the extent to which depended on subject matter being performed. They were more a part of the play than passive spectators, which is accentuated by the fact that, because of the “bare stage”, audiences had to rely on their powers of observation to discern things like the time of day.

While it is impossible to be certain about the make-up of audiences, Russ Macdonald argue that outdoor theatres would have been filled by most social classes, from ‘apprentices to gallents’. This appeal to various social classes was something exclusive to the theatre, and part of the reason they were seen as a threat to order. However, despite this type of cultural egalitarianism, it’s important to note the structure of theatres did its best to maintain class distinctions: higher paying people sat higher up, with the poorest gathered at the bottom of the stage. Interestingly, the place below the stage was called ‘hell’ and the place above it ‘heaven’, terms implicitly associating the poor with debasement and the wealthy with elevation. So there was certainly tension between the merging of social classes, and certainly resistance to it.

The Crown and the Theatre

Further resistance to theatres as places of freedom from authority is evident in their relationship to the royal Court. King Henry VIII created the Revels office during his reign, which was to ensure that plays were protecting the Crown’s interest at all times. This censorship limited the extent to which theatres were places that challenged authority, and, moreover, the fact that plays were often performed in Court suggests they sometimes functioned as royal propaganda. Indeed, some critics argue that had the Royal family not enjoyed watching plays, theatres would have not been given leeway and allowed to function. The theatre, then, carried a strange duality; it was marginalised to the outskirts of the city, yet its plays were often performed in Court.

While it is easy to read the early modern theatre as a tool to transmit monarchic propaganda to the masses, doing so disregards the genuine threat they were felt to pose to the established order. This was not only in the subversive content of the plays, but through the ability of the theatre to draw together people from all different social standings, the costuming of the actors, and the very location of the theatres, in the outskirts of the city, hidden from the centre.

Words by Khadeeja Saleem.

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Review | A Very Very Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre

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Fairy tales are not really for children. Bluebeard beheads his wives; Little Red Riding Hood’s beloved grandma is eaten alive and impersonated by a wolf; Snow White’s stepmother is forced to dance to death wearing red hot iron slippers. To justify their violent imagery we tell ourselves that these stories communicate valuable morals to our children: stay away from curiosity, disobedience, and envy respectively. But should children be warned off these feelings? Envy can be a spur to ambition and social reform; disobedience is necessary to confront abuses of power; curiosity is the basis of creative endeavour. Only the authoritarian wants to extinguish these characteristics. And while violence and the threat of violence are the nuts and bolts in the authoritarian toolkit, effective propaganda means you don’t even have to get that toolkit out of the cupboard.

With a seven-hundred-year record of persuasion in the home, it is unsurprising that fairy tales and other forms of folk legend have also been adopted by political propagandists. Der Stürmer founder Julius Streicher published a children’s book Der Giftpilz (The Poisoned Mushroom) whose titular story uses elements from Hansel and Gretel to promote anti-Semitism, while the opening show tune of Disney’s Aladdin (released in 1992, a year after the Gulf War and two years into the Iraq sanctions regime, estimated to have killed half a million children) describes the Middle East as ‘barbaric’. An eighteen-year-old serving in Iraq eleven years later may well have sung along as a kid.

So old are fairy tales and so often retold that they possess an aura of timeless innocence, rendering us ignorant of their darker aspects. This irony has been fruitful ground for a range of writers since the 1960s, including Angela Carter and Robert Coover, who have rewritten fairy tales to reveal how they serve, and how they might subvert, power. Martin McDonagh is alive to these counter-currents and, in A Very Very Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre, he has written a companion piece to The Pillowman, which explores how the stories we tell our children can both empower and engender tremendous cruelty.

Set in Denmark in the 1870s, it tells the story of an aging Hans Christian Andersen (Jim Broadbent) who is revealed to be a fraud. He did not write any of his famous children’s stories, which were in fact dreamed up by Marjory (Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles), a one-legged Congolese Pygmy he keeps imprisoned in a box in his attic. Marjory is a victim of Belgian King Leopold II’s Congo Free State. She has travelled back in time to ten years before the establishment of this brutal colony in an attempt to stop the Belgians from ever conquering her homeland, only to be captured by Anderson and held captive in his attic.  

Over the course of ninety minutes without an interval, McDonagh indulges his appetite for pitch black humour. Marjory and Hans make an entertaining couple: she is always ready with a quick put-down; he bumbles like a lovable uncle. But even as they banter, Hans continues decreasing the size of her box and we find out that he was the one who cut off her foot. The unsettling contrast between the comic dialogue and the violent action is echoed in the wonderfully gothic set design by Anna Fleischle, which sees puppets hanging by their strings half-shadowed amidst scattered 19th century ephemera, while a computer-generated background image of Copenhagen as seen through the attic window is the only view of the outside world that we get during the play, mirroring Marjory’s confinement. Her box swings a few feet above the stage like a pendulum, opaque wood covering one face, transparent plastic the other and we see her stories, her only means of escape, plastered over every inch of space Hans leaves for her. Snowy rooftops and children’s toys ought to be a postcard picture, but here they are deeply uncanny, and with every sweep of the spotlight I flinched, expecting a puppet to jump out from the darkness.

But despite the fantastic set and fizzy dialogue, including an entertaining scene at Charles Dickens’ house, McDonagh’s script suffers from incoherent plotting, falling far short of his previous successes. The premise itself draws on the well-established tropes of the mad woman in the attic and the captive muse, as exemplified by other works such as Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: Dream Country, in which a frustrated author keeps Calliope locked up in his attic, relieving his writer’s block and making him a highly successful novelist. The same tropes used in this play serve to echo Belgian imperialism in the Congo, of which Marjory is a victim; the occupying state takes the conquered state’s resources as its own, paralleled in Anderson’s theft of Marjory’s creativity. However, the glitch in this parallel is that Anderson is Danish rather than Belgian, and is therefore a member of a state which had no such imperialistic relationship with the Congolese. McDonagh forces a connection between Anderson and the Congo, which left me unconvinced about the relationship between these two strands of the story.

Where The Pillowman weaved its twists and turns into a rivet-tight plot that exemplified fairy tale logic (allowing the play to explore the sinister relationship between fairy tales and cruelty without sacrificing McDonagh’s love of darkly comic dialogue), the plotting of his latest play is much looser. In order to have Marjory come from the Belgian Congo, the script is required to invoke time travel, since Andersen died ten years before its establishment. This is a risky move because time travel is inevitably paradoxical, and unfortunately McDonagh leaves too many loose ends untied, which even allowing for the deliberate tonal absurdity, undermines suspension of disbelief.

A Very Very Very Dark Matter is certainly different in its fantastical and bold nature, and the link between colonialism and the authorship of history is an interesting one to explore. But in its wild historical jumps and over-the-top brashness (particularly the Tarantino-esque climax of violence at the end of the play), it can become difficult to engage with its themes. As such, we never truly get a sense of the depths of the well into which it dips its toes.

Words by Mathis Clément

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Event Preview | HighTide Theatre

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After a hugely successful year in 2017, HighTide Theatre returns to Walthamstow for a second outing. Bringing a varied programme of theatre, comedy, music and activities for children, HighTide has announced an enticing line-up of local vendors and performers to lure residents back to the pop-up festival site of Walthamstow Town Square Gardens. 

The event will take place from 18th-30th September, and will be free to enter. Featuring a large bar and dining area housed in two giant heated tipis, with art pieces on loan from the Walthamstow wonderland God’s Own Junkyard, HighTide certainly looks the part. Its neon fantasies, restored and retro signs, cosy furniture and nostalgic pinball machines will transport you to another time. The bar will be a collaboration between local and national companies, featuring beer and cider from Walthamstow breweries Pillars and The Real AL company, spirits from Hunter’s Gin, and soft drinks from Peter Spanton.  HighTide will also host the local company Velopresso with their famous pedal-powered coffee trike, serving signature blends from the Waltham Forest coffee company Perky Blinders. 

Food will span from speciality sausages from Walthamstow Dogs, Vietnamese street food from Hanoi Câ Phè and Mexican street food from Wood Street’s Homies on Donkeys. At the weekend, Wendy’s Vintage Ices will serve their retro ice creams and lollies and Romeo’s Sugar Free Bakery will provide their trademark sugar-free cakes and biscuits. You’ll be spoilt for choice. 

The festival will host a range of local talent, inviting them to feature in the festival after taking part in Open Mics nights in Waltham Forest on the 4th, 5th and 6th September. Winners from these dates will perform in the bar during the festival, providing free entertainment. Performers aged 18-25 will also be considered for HighTide’s new talent showcase, Stars Over The Forest, at the Festival on the 22nd September. 

For ticketed acts, the programme features eleven family shows, among them the local company Baby Panda presenting Five Little Monkeys, visiting companies such as HighRise Theatre with Lil.Miss.Lady exploring the history of Grime, and Waltham Forest company Stand and Be Counted presenting Where We Began, exploring the concepts of home, featuring an international cast. The comedy programme features work from artists such as Arthur Darvill, Tim Key’s Megadate, and excitingly the arrival of five productions fresh from Edinburgh’s Fringe. 

HighTide’s centerpiece production, co-produced by their associated company DugOut Theatre, is a coming of age tale by Aldeburgh-based writer Tallulah Brown called Songlines, seen by Fest Magazine as riding ‘a wave of gentleness and compassion for teenage awkwardness’, and is elsewhere highly reviewed. Other productions include Jessica Butcher’s two-part ‘Sparks’, Danusia Samal’s gig-theatre piece ‘Busking It’, David Aula and Simon Evan’s ‘The Extinction Event’ innovative examination of what happens when science starts thinking for itself, and finally Harry Blake’s fabulous new comedy musical about Norse gods ‘Thor and Loki’, which has likewise been greeted with rave reviews. 

It promises to be another successful year. 

 

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Review | End of the Pier at the Park Theatre

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©Hannah Price

Review | End of the Pier by Danny Robins

By Francis Beckett

Mike is a successful stand-up comic with his own television show.  His father Bobby used to be a successful stand-up too, until one dreadful day in Macclesfield he made an offensive joke about race (we never discover what it was). A journalist recorded it, and Bobby never worked again.  He was shunned, and Mike is too ashamed of him to invite him to his wedding, perhaps because Mike’s fiancée is a black television executive.

It looks at first sight like a cry against racism, with Bobby as an appalling stage racist and Michael’s fiancée Jenna as a fluent fighter against injustice, transcending victimhood.  But Danny Robbins is far too good a playwright to do anything so obvious.

Quite quickly we know that we are not going to like Jenna, who has all the brisk and brittle self-righteousness that the BBC seems to demand of its executives, conveyed in an assured performance from Tala Gouveia.

And we know that we are going to like Bobby, played sympathetically and with understated charm by the actor, comedian and television presenter Les Dennis. He tells a long and very funny story about a club he once performed in, and his son asks if it’s true. ‘Can’t remember, I’ve told it so many times’ comes the weary and transparently truthful answer.  He’s one of what Danny Robbins describes in a programme note as ‘the mainly male and working class stand-ups of the seventies and eighties’ who ‘are now largely expunged from history for their prejudiced stereotypes.’

So far from being a simple attack on racism, the play questions the central importance we have attached to questions of race. Have we rushed down the road of identity politics as a way of escaping the real chasm in our society, which is money, class and power?  And does not Jenna have more of any of these than Bobby, and even Mike?

‘We were the voice of the working class,’ says Bobby.  ‘We gave them what they wanted to hear. And on Saturday nights for fifteen years, it lifted them out of their lives – their sometimes hard, often unfair lives – and made them laugh.’ And his downfall, he thinks, was due to ‘class war.’ Racism isn’t really a disease of the poor; it’s ‘a rich man’s invention.’

Where Bobby grew up, he knew no black people.  There were lots of places like that while people of his (and my) generation grew up.  I remember, at the end of the sixties, a series of jokes doing the rounds on my university campus about a character called Rastus, who was lazy, dishonest, priapic, and startlingly well-endowed. That was what was funny.  

We are better than that now.  Or are we? Danny Robins seems to doubt it.  He wonders whether Bobby’s generation made racist jokes without meaning them, or knowing what they were talking about, and that something far worse is around now.  We realise that Bobby’s son Mike, in his heart, resents foreigners, especially black and brown ones, who get any of the goodies society has to offer. This is the new, carefully camouflaged racism. I had a quick word about that with Danny Robbins, after the show. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but I avoided mentioning the B-word.’  The B-word is Brexit.

Mike can’t own up to anyone about his racism, or make racist jokes in his act, but he feels it deeply.  This pours out of him one night when he’s drunk, and is the mainspring of the plot. Mike is the hardest part to play, because we are never sure we know him.  We follow him through the twists and turns of his subconscious, and Blake Harrison makes each new persona interesting and credible – until the very end, when (for me, at any rate) his final act of self-immolation was a twist too far, and I couldn’t quite believe it.

That’s my only criticism – and a very mild one – of a well-crafted play, with a strong story to tell and an assured way of drip-feeding information to the audience at the playwright’s chosen pace.  It boasts four accomplished performances – the fourth, whom I have not yet mentioned, is Nitin Ganatra as Mohammed, and it would give away too much of the plot if I told you where he fits in. Director Hannah Price makes it all work, in front of a set which helps us believe without distracting our attention from the action.  

End of the Pier is the funniest, most moving, and most thought-provoking evening I have spent in a long time. See it if you can.

End of the Pier plays at the Park Theatre until 11 August.

Review | Fatherland at the Lyric Hammersmith

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The cast of Fatherland at the Lyric Hammersmith, taken by Tristram Kenton

The coats stand out in the exhilarating performance piece Fatherland now on at the Lyric, Hammersmith after its premiere in the Manchester International Festival in 2017. The armour of manhood in the 21st century. Men in black, beige and tan coats.  Leather jackets. Tracksuit tops.  Parkas.  Faceless firemen in what might as well be hazmat suits in a nightmare of X- Files proportions. Marching, swaying, writhing, climbing, dropping from the sky. Using ladders and doorways to fly.  Gathered in a workers’ or maybe hobos’ circle around the glow of a bonfire and marching through the streets like a massed football army but with flags that appear to be made of delicate silk. The sole flash of colour is the red of a Man U top standing out for its brightness in the gloom as much as for its ancient sponsor’s logo.

And only men’s voices are heard – from baleful to operatic.  At one stage the 13 men on stage are joined by massed voices from the aisles and circle. The men (like the audience thankfully) are diverse in ethnicities and accents. Fatherland finds myriad stunning ways to express verbatim testimony collected from small-town England and echoed through songs and chants against Karl Hyde’s brooding soundtrack which booms or whispers. Telling stories of harrowing sadness about fathers lost or never known. These are the stories of “real” men where real means from Kidderminster, Stockport and Bewdley and emphatically still there. Men who haven’t left to join the metropolitan elites which the creators Hyde, Scott Graham and Simon Stephens aren’t afraid to allow themselves to be mockingly identified with. And the men in Fatherland don’t want to leave their home towns: one character is sure that the place you grew up in makes you who you are.

The question reverberating through the show is “what is the earliest memory of your father?” In his memoir And When Did you Last See Your Father? Blake Morrison describes unflinchingly the black, white and greys of his relationship with his dad, the contradictions of the respected professional and family man who nonetheless seems addicted to small petty triumphs and finding ways to cheat the system.  And not only his father’s status as a figurehead is ambiguous: looking back through the family tree he finds a “heritage of neglect” and the example of “the Absent Father, who had his story too, grief and nervous breakdown”. In the media to be a contemporary father is almost automatically flawed – notable usually  for being both needed and not there –  and the paternal relationships of the men in Fatherland  portray all those complexities and then some.

Fatherland is not just about fathers – it’s very much about being a son too and the pain of one not being able to connect with the other. Women and girls are mentioned of course – what is stark and powerful is the love of fathers for the daughters they protect or raise single-handedly. But the stage is a space for men’s stories and movement, the raggedy bravado of their cockiness a front for aching tales of not being loved. As one character says: we all hurt.

My favourite depictions: Graham (Neil McCaul), whose affable Dad Zero unpacks his childhood scars; Mel’s (Michael Begley) hymn of a climb into horror which defies any attempt to pigeonhole his chirpy Black County persona; Daniel (David Judge), brittle, fragile and still standing through his own battles with mental health; and the scarcely buried violence of Alan (Joseph Alessi) whose stare, stance or even slight pause convey years of “being a bit handy”.

But Fatherland isn’t just a journey through the bad bits of being a man – it finds ways to lift you into admiration and eventually joy including with a stunning flash mob chorus on the night I attended in the bar post-show. I smiled a lot not least because of the gratingly incongruous but perfectly fitting reference to the children’s movie Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and the tongue-tied and repressed father in that story who needs a machine to make his love audible.

The poet John Hegley explores his relationship with his father in several pieces in the collection The Sound of Paint Drying. One poem October ’71 describes how Hegley Senior presented his son with his old artist’s brushes. Hegley Junior asks his dad why he gave up painting and finds the answer is:  He gave up for me to go on. Fatherland’s stunning visions will leave men asking themselves what legacy they will be remembered for. Go see it.

Fatherland is at the Lyric Hammersmith until June 23rd, 2018

By Alexis Keir

 

Review | Red at Wyndham’s Theatre

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Image by Johan Persson

Walking into the Wyndham, the stage takes you by surprise. Alfred Molina sits unmoving, back to the audience, staring fixedly at one of the many deep crimson paintings that loom over the stage. Instantly, we find ourselves in Mark Rothko’s studio circa late 1950s.

There is little plot to Red; the short play’s events circle around Rothko’s commission for a Four Seasons restaurant in New York and his resentment for the new pop-artists nipping at his heels, but it is his diatribes at young assistant Ken that overshadow all else. At first, Rothko appears god-like in his commands, teaching Ken and the audience how to view his paintings; and yet as the years go by and Ken becomes disenchanted with Rothko, we see a certain vulnerability and the cracks begin to show in his character.

Molina dominates the stage and entrances with his lectures and theories on colour and art. He is utterly convincing in his indifference to Ken, completely selfish and absorbed in his art with an intensity that is felt from the moment that you walk into the theatre. He portrays the perfect contrast; his bullying of Ken a striking polarity to his almost fatherly protection of the inanimate. Rothko’s spiralling is beautifully played out, and Molina exudes his internal conflict perfectly whilst avoiding the cliché of the tortured artist.

On the other hand, for the most part I found Alfred Enoch unconvincing as Ken. Rothko’s assistant is there to mix paint and fetch coffee, but ultimately to act as an audience and foil for Rothko’s philosophical rants. Enoch’s acting for most of the play feels forced and uncertain, his timing slightly off. That said, he grows as Ken does, particularly during his character’s retaliation to Rothko’s apathy and hypocrisy. His real shining moment is talking about his parent’s murder. This contrived plot point, echoed by the intense on-stage painting that leaves both actors and stage looking as though they are splattered in blood, hit home purely through Enoch’s performance. Staring at the spraying of paint, tears glistening in his eyes, Enoch takes a hollow plot point and gives it life.

This spectacular set which both looks and acts as a real studio, is filled with vibrant paintings which pulse and suffocate the work space. I am somewhat doubtful that Rothko would have held such eloquently enlightened and lively discussions in his real studio, however the dialogue and performance here is excellent. Whilst the play itself feels somewhat empty, the staging and performance of Red fill it and make it well worth a watch, particularly for art-lovers.

Red is at Wyndham’s Theatre until July 28th 2018 

By Emma Quick

Review | The Inheritance at The Young Vic

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Photo by Simon Annand

The Inheritance stands at almost seven hours long: Matthew Lopez’s two-part, self-aware epic on the legacy of gay men past-and present. Treating everything from the devastation of a post-AIDs generation and the LGBT reaction to the Trump-era, The Inheritance paints a vivid image what it means to be homosexual and living in modern day New York.

Openly narrated, a cast of beautiful men collaboratively recount a tapestry of stories, circling around the pair who sit at the epicentre of the performance – Toby and Eric. The Inheritance is a testament to the power of storytelling; the men squabble over details, however ultimately their paths are set for them – inherited from and dictated by the events that have passed before them. It is at times both heart-wrenching and hilarious, with themes as universal as love, or as specific as Trump, being handled in a way that is quite simply innovative.

Lopez is unafraid of pausing the plot to make way for intense debate on LGBT culture, privilege and poverty; he deftly avoids lecturing the audience, and instead weaves fair, impassioned and considered points into the dialogue between characters. The audience (speaking particularly as a white, straight woman) does not feel isolated but rather included in these debates, forbidden from a feeling of disinterest and implicated in the grappling of these issues.

The cast sit around a deceptively bare, table-like stage which rises and falls throughout. Devoid of all but a few props, it is the intricate dialogue and narration that paints the settings, transporting the audience better than any elaborate set might. Lopez’s writing is undeniably beautiful and uninhibited, coming alive against such a simple backdrop.

The actor’s handling of the text is also exceptional, with many a stand-out performance. Kyle Soller brings alive a potential ‘safe’ character with his conveyance of Eric’s inherent decency, which contrasts perfectly with the tragedy of Toby’s complete self-absorption and route to destruction, portrayed by Andrew Burnap. A few actors handle multiple characters, however it is Samuel H Levine flipping between the confidence of Adam and the uncertain self-consciousness of Leo, even during the same scene, which is spell-binding. Similarly, Paul Hilton’s portrayal of both Walter and Morgan Forster is stellar. Walter’s quiet humanity paired with the representation of Morgan as a caring but measured British man in a tweed jacket truly epitomises just how far the LGBT community has come in recent years. This is a cast dominated by men, and whilst Vanessa Redgrave’s appearance in the latter parts of the play is moving, it is incomparable to the ambitious speeches and constant presence of the other cast members.

A play of this length is certainly an undertaking, and this features as the gag of many a joke throughout. I had a little more processing time than most, seeing the two parts with a week in between. Whilst the end of part one is not left on a cliff-hanger as such, I was still desperate to see the second even a week later. The soap-opera like nature of the multiple storylines left me wanting for more, even having seen part two.

The Inheritance is fundamentally significant and utterly enjoyable; the perfect combination of comedy and genuine issues tied together perfectly with a stunning script. Whilst this marathon of a play may feel like a commitment, it is one you will not regret.

The Inheritance is now booking for its West End transfer at the Noel Coward Theatre, 21st September 2018 – 5th January 2019 

By Emma Quick

Dark Fairytale – Review of McQueen at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

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McQueen
Theatre Royal Haymarket
Limited run from 19th August

Reviewed by Lauren Hepburn

It’s been five years since Lee McQueen took his life. The exquisite dress worn by Kate Middleton on her wedding day along with the V&A’s fabulous ‘Savage Beauty’ exhibition this year have meant that the name Alexander McQueen has become synonymous with British design. James Phillips’ play, currently enjoying a limited run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket after having been transferred from the West End, comes in the wake of these momentous events. But this offering spotlights the designer differently. It’s an exploration of Lee the man – not Alexander the brand – the imagination, the creative genius and the darkness that went hand in hand with his talent.

In an interview with The London Magazine, lead actor Stephen Wight described McQueen the Play as a ‘Dickensian journey through London… back in time’, a dark fairytale about the pivotal moments and relationships in the life of one of Britain’s national treasure’s. Indeed, from a nostalgic visit to the Saville Row tailor where McQueen learnt his trade, to a poignant meeting with the ghost of his original mentor, Isabella Blow (Tracy-Ann Oberman), James Phillips’ play is packed full of McQueen trivia.

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Wight as McQueen and Tracy-Ann Oberman playing fashion muse Isabella Blow. Credit: Spectacular
Carly Bawden as Dahlia and Wight with iconic McQueen golden skeleton. Credit: Spectacular

Wight, who is literally and figuratively the star of the show, looks astonishingly like the real man with his Celtic colouring, striking blue eyes and close-shaved head, and brilliantly conveys the dry wit and razor sharp mind of Lee McQueen as well. Wight’s comic timing is well balanced with the presentation of McQueen’s emotional turmoil and regularly saves the performance from a script quite dense with clichés. His subtle rendering of the man also served to counterbalance Carly Bawden’s performance, whose character, Dahlia, delivered the majority of the play’s more adolescent lines in a singsong voice, and whose role didn’t come quite as naturally to her as Wight and Oberman’s did to them. In fact, one of the play’s most successful scenes is delivered by the latter two; an otherworldly meeting between McQueen and Blow in a room decked out with butterflies and a white chaise-long. Wight and Oberman exude chemistry and the result is a very touching exchange, fueled alternately by humour, playfulness and tragedy.

In the beginning it’s hard to tell what direction the production is going in – a mixed media dance piece? A musical? A catwalk? Dahlia’s self-consciously casual singing sporadically interrupts the script and I couldn’t really work out why – except that Bawden has a good voice. Contemporary dance, choreographed by Christopher Marney, also punctuates the performance and is inventive and skillfully delivered (though, as a fan of Sadler’s Wells productions, I wouldn’t recommend the play for its dance element alone). But by the end of the play, it’s clear that the production’s unwillingness to be relegated to a particular genre is all part of its relationship with McQueen’s oeuvre. Even the soundtrack is drawn from his catwalk shows.

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Ensemble dancers. Credit: Spectacular

Disappointing is the notable absence of original McQueen designs. The play’s inspiration, his 2008 show The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, is played out in Dahlia’s fanciful claim that she has sat in a tree outside the designer’s studio for eleven days. It’s also there in her thick black, almost triangular bob (as per the models in the catwalk show’s first half), and in the black dress McQueen makes for her – though this came closer to Vivienne Westwood than McQueen in aesthetic. The play uses (from what I could glean) only two other replicas of his designs. The copies are impressively crafted and capture all the theatricality of McQueen’s clothes but going into the show I expected more – isn’t that the allure? However, in retrospect Director John Caird was probably right to avoid the performance becoming an endless catwalk of McQueen’s designs – anyone who visited the V&A’s exhibition knows that it would be hard to compete with.

The focus on Lee McQueen the man (as opposed to the big-name brand) is a point drummed home as the narrative exhibits the pressures of artistic ambition and the fashion industry on the designer. It is a powerful story, flashy and theatrical but also dark and tragic and that was how, according to this play, McQueen’s creativity worked. Both Wight and the company’s Dance Captain, Amber Doyle, were keen to tell us that the fusion of theatre, dance, fashion and music in this multi-genre play came directly from an appreciation of McQueen’s shows. It is ironic then, that a central focus of the script is on McQueen’s anger about the assumptions of outsiders who think they might know him after a single ‘Google search’. A recurring motif in the play that couldn’t help but prompt me to think that Dahlia, who alternately represents McQueen’s inspiration/subconscious/alter-ego, is a character created on the assumption that we might ever be able to understand what went on in the mind of this troubled genius. In a metatheatrical twist, it occurred to me that Phillips may have chosen to highlight McQueen’s frustrations with ignorant ‘outsiders’ in order to remind us that even if we leave the theatre thinking we better understand the man behind the craft, Lee McQueen, true to his spirit, would likely come right out and tell us we didn’t.

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Wight portrays McQueen with depth and verisimilitude. Credit: Spectacular

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