And in the beginning there was the play. And the play was Everyman…

Everyman – Olivier Theatre @ National Theatre, until August 30 2015 (tickets)

As a statement of intent of what Norris intends to bring to the National Theatre during his tenure as Artistic Director, Everyman – his first directing role since taking over- could hardly have been more purposeful.

The bravura opening sequence that stretches from the studied simplicity of Kate Duchêne’s God to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s spectacular initial entrance marries energetic vitality to a clear eye for using the wpid-wp-1431261893128.jpgOlivier’s vast space to compose striking images. It is a breathless and hugely ambitious piece of staging that successfully draws the audience into the action from the off.

It feels like a mark of how the National Theatre stagnated towards the end of Nicolas Hytner’s tenure that one has to go back to Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein in 2011 (or, tellingly, Norris’ own direction of London Road in 2012) to find another play that so successfully combined powerful story-telling with making full use of the Olivier’s unique performance area to create a truly theatrical experience.

London Road – now a film – may well have done more than anything else to secure Norris the most coveted role in British theatre. The critically acclaimed production created a beautiful harmonisation between a visually spectacular design and a highly original approach to verbatim story-telling. The play took universal themes and pulled them inside out, seeking to give voice to those ignored by traditional genre plotting but who still have to live their lives at the epicentre of tragedy. Between Alecky Blythe’s dramatisation and Norris’ direction, the voices of regular people from a small corner of Britain were given as much weight as importance as Peter Morgan gave to the Queen in The Audience. London Road was not just a play but a thoughtful articulation on what a national theatre’s mandate could be.

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Lights! Camera! Acting!

Product – Inside Intelligence @ Arcola Theatre, until 23 May 2015 (tickets)

One could criticise Product for setting its sights too low. Hollywood – in all its gaudy, crass self-centeredness – is just too easy a target for a playwright as good as Mark Ravenhill; a writer whose wpid-wp-1430939978876.jpgdialogue is best delivered with a rapier’s thrust rather than a cudgel’s blow. But then, Hollywood being Hollywood, a complete shitball of a film like The Interview gets made (a film whose pointlessness is only equalled by its charmless offensiveness). Next thing a chain of events is set in motion that ends with news broadcasts dominated by the threat of North Korea going to war.

Whether we like it or not Hollywood matters. Cultural imperialism is one of the strongest weapons in America’s arsenal. Democracy may be won on the battleground but those beloved ‘western values’ are secured elsewhere. It is in the malls, the bootleg CDs and – for many – in the cinemas, where citizens are shown worlds of freedom, choice and (of course) sweet, sweet capitalism. Increasingly as the wheel continues to turn towards the East and the world welcomes China to the consumers club, we have seen the money men of Hollywood willingly kowtow to the emerging markets as American cinema spending flatlines. As a result major blockbusters, think Mission Impossible or James Bond, have whole sequences set in Macau and Shanghai shoehorned into the action.

wpid-wp-1430939985949.jpgThese strands of Hollywood venality and its relationship with the rest of the world were not the issues concerning Ravenhill when he wrote Product back in 2005. Then the focus was on the media’s response to terrorist events (9/11 is the shadow that looms large in the background) and the need for easily explainable narratives to sell to the public. The problem when trying to view the play in this light is that – and it may be a question of 10 years remove – these wider themes are never really brought into the light. It seems more obviously an often witty, always filthy, satire on the self-obsession of those working in the film industry. The play wonderfully breaks down a universal tragedy and places it entirely within the context of the individual – what does it mean to the character? What does it mean to the actress playing the character and to the person pitching them the role?

The play is strengthened immeasurably by the assured performance by Olivia Poulet. Always the character with not quite enough screen time on The Thick of It, Poulet is given room and time to develop the role. The script is so funny, and Poulet such an engaging and lively performer, that at times it has the air of a character comic rather than theatre piece. This is enhanced due to the fact that the audience effectively takes on the role of the actress being pitched to, and so Poulet talks straight to us. She is very good at flicking between the world of the film, and the abstracted commentator on the script she is describing, and by the end of the play she has conjured an entire film that the audience can believe it has really seen.

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'So you wanna be a boxer' Bugsy Malone. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

New generation muscles in as Bugsy Malone takes over Hammersmith

Bugsy Malone – Lyric Hammersmith, until 01 August 2015 (tickets)

Michael Billington (or as I imagine him – the Sage of Shaftesbury Avenue) described the Lyric’s production of Alan Parker’s sublime 1975 musical as “having nothing new to say about the gangster-movie”.

Whilst being factually correct, it also totally misses the point. Bugsy Malone is to musicals what an 18th century folly is to architecture. It has no purpose other than to be enjoyed for what it is. Bugsy Malone is pure sugar-rush pleasure. It enthrals children by showing people their own age James Okulaja-as-fat-sam-and-company. Photo credit: Manuel Harlanplaying at adults, whilst grown-ups are drawn in by the infectious enthusiasm and energy of the cast.

Bringing it all together is a highly effective team. Phil Bateman’s careful musical direction ensures songs stay within the cast’s natural ranges and Drew McOnie’s choreography has a highly physical comic style that adds vim to some terrific numbers, whilst Sean Holmes’ fluid but precise direction keeps everything humming along.

Eleanor Worthington-Cox already has one Olivier award for Matilda; she could get another for her Blousie Brown. It was a spectacular assured performance and her rendition of I’m feeling fine was exceptional. However it is James Okulaja’s Fat Sam that steals the show. Vibrantly energetic, full of confidence but still able to deliver a sparkling comedy pratfall – Okulaja shows who the true star of Bugsy Malone is.


Beatboxing meets Brecht: Political theatre for 2015

No Milk For Foxes – Camden’s People Theatre, until 09 May 2015 (tickets)wpid-wp-1430563981332.jpg

In case you missed it, there is a little thing called the ‘general election’ happening in a couple of weeks. Across England the electorate appears gripped by apathy. Not for us the forceful, passionate women leading vibrant nationalist campaigns capable of instilling a sense of self-determinative belief in voters. For those sandwiched between Wales and Scotland the choice is between three different shades of beige – one shiny as a Christmas ham, one an amalgamation of several sock-puppets and one that leaves no discernible impression at all – or, how could we forget, everyone’s favourite part-man, part-pub sound bite generator.

wpid-wp-1430563988725.jpgVoter turn-out has been declining since the 1950 election when almost 84% of people cast their ballot and by 2010 had sunk to 65% of the electorate (amazingly this is still higher than the nadir in 2001 which saw less than six out of ten eligible voters bothering to have an opinion on who they wanted to control their lives). In the intervening years mass political movements have come and gone but the institutions of Westminster have remained as hierarchal as they have ever been, and – based on a simplistic metric of ‘private education and Oxbridge’ – may have gone backwards to Victorian levels of patrician governance, with few MPs from across the political spectrum able to claim a background that even Tony Blair’s favoured ‘Mondeo Man’ could identify with.

The question of how to get people back to the ballot box may not be solved by the London fringe theatre scene but at least they are trying. At present you can barely make it into any black-box space without being assailed by the sound of discontent with the political system. Camden’s People Theatre is no different and No Milk For Foxes finds itself at the centre of three weeks of drama drawn together under the appropriately-titled banner of The State We’re In.

The most refreshing thing about No Milk For Foxes is that it does not lecture its audience. There is little overt politicisation in the narrative and no attempt to indoctrinate those watching with a finale that involves a rousing rendition of The Internationale. Instead it seeks to engage with political issues by shining light onto the mundane everyday pressures of living in a 21st century economy where ‘flexible working’ refers to the terrifying prospect of zero hours contracts and no money in next week’s paycheck rather than the ability to work from home on Friday afternoons.

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Exclusive: Tabloid editor mined for comedic gold

Clarion – Arcola Theatre, until 16 May 2015 (tickets)

The last few years haven’t been kind to journalists. The decline in print journalism has led to the decimation to the 20th century model of news creation whilst their standing in the public’s eyes has wpid-wp-1429963568067.jpgfallen to levels usually reserved for MPs and lawyers as phone-hacking revelations continue to destroy the industry’s slender claims to ethical credibility.

However they continue to soldier on, harbouring a dewy-eyed nostalgia for behaviour of the sort that would not be acceptable in other line of employment. Against it all journalists continue to cling to the iconic image of the noble, incorruptible news reporter – immortalised many times on screen and in print – and try to square it with the reality of a culture of bullying and humiliation that – to outsiders – seems endemic to the profession.

These tensions are evident in Mark Jagasia’s scabrous satire Clarion.  Jagasia, who worked for the Evening Standard and the Daily Express, has written a play fuelled with an intimate knowledge of its subject that is brutally scathing about the news industry, gut-wrenchingly funny in parts, but that can also be seen as a love letter to a dying friend.

Technology has left the medium wobbling on its last legs. It is likely there will be people watching this play that have never paid for a newspaper. Even the idea of a front page splash is fading as people see news as a series of equally sized tiles on mobile phones. The profession survives but it is a shadow of what it was, and it is hard not to feel that Clarion carries with it the faint note of a eulogy.

For as much as this is a comedy, it is impossible to ignore the artful nods towards Greek tragedy. It broadly adheres to the unities of time, action and place – taking place across a single day in a newsroom that is coming under increasing siege – and we see characters undone by their own hubris, whilst the modern day god of Mammon sows destruction among the just and unjust alike. Jagasia even skilfully incorporates a Tiresias-like seer in the form of a prescient horoscope writer.

That these allusions work and don’t come off as pretentious is due to Jagasia’s skill as playwright. It is a very impressive debut and, by taking time to reveal its true depth, leaves a final impression of a play that displays a far greater degree of complexity than Richard Bean’s Great Britain.

Where Great Britain was a very broad satire, and incredibly funny at times, it never scratched the surface of the issues it portrayed. It preferred caricatures to characters and one never got the sense that in reality these cartoons are actual human beings. Clarion may appear to cleave to similar stereotypes but, by limiting the cast to six core roles, Jagasia has time to add extra elements that give humanity to his creations.

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A distinct lack of Werther’s Originals in this dystopian world

Animals – Theatre 503, until 02 May 2015 (tickets)

Emma Adams’ Animals is the latest play to benefit from Theatre 503’s commitment to staging new work by emerging playwrights. Iwpid-wp-1429443050288.jpgt is an admirable philosophy and, judging by the near full house on a Wednesday night for an unsung play, one that appears to be attracting a supportive audience.

For the regular theatre goer it offers a respite from the seasoned polish of restaged classics in central London theatres (that said I am now waiting sixteen months to see Kenneth Branagh in The Entertainer) and provides a welcome opportunity to simply enjoy the process of watching a story being told to you for the first time.

Watching emerging playwrights is akin to entering a lucky dip. You buy a ticket knowing that for the 95 times out of a hundred you leave having watched an average play, eventually you will be in the audience watching this generation’s equivalent of Pinter’s The Birthday Party or Sarah Kane’s Blasted.

Even if the play doesn’t quite hold together, there is still the chance to watch the formation of a new writing talent. This is certainly the case with Emma Adams’ Animals. It is a play that feels heavy with the influences of others and watching it provides an interesting chance to see an individual’s voice beginning to define itself.

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