A House Repeated Landscape promo

Turn to page 235. You encounter an angry goblin. Do you…

A House Repeated – Battersea Arts Centre, until 24 0ctober 2015 (tickets)

The first thing to note about A House Repeated is that it really shouldn’t be considered as theatre. Rather than this being intended as a criticism, it is something that should be taken as fact. The description on the Battersea Arts Centre website is of a performance-game, and for many this will be the reality.

Depending on your childhood reference points, it may remind you of choose-you-own adventures, point+click computer games, or even Dungeon and Dragons. Each of these is a kind of game, but they are also interactive experiences based around the idea that the player can create their own story (even if it is within prescribed limits).

Telling stories predates almost all other art-forms. It strips human imagination back to its most primitive level, and creates an intimate bond between teller and listener. The experience is quite unlike the standard theatrical experience. It encourages a less passive engagement. There are no visual stimuli to rely on, and we are constantly forced to respond to the text to keep the story alive in our minds.

Split into two groups and following similar, but slightly divergent, narratives, it creates a sense of camaraderie within your team and friendly competition against the other. The normal rules of theatre do not apply. Talking as a team is encouraged, and as the evening continues it is easy to find yourself in conversation with a stranger entirely outside of even these the loose boundaries. It becomes a social event that normal staging conventions could never hope to achieve.

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Hangmen Banner

Irish Blood, English Heart

Hangmen – Royal Court Theatre, until 10 October 2015 (tickets – returns only)

Transfer to Wyndham’s Theatre confirmed, from 01 December 2015  (tickets)

Expectations ran high for Hangmen, Martin McDonagh’s first new play for the London stage after ten years away. In the intervening years he turned his attention to Hollywood and delivered one of the most impressive debuts of recent times with In Bruges – a film that is remarkable for having managed to make it through the torturous process of film financing with its jet black content largely intact and, equally impressively, managing to get a good performance out of Colin Farrell.

For Hangmen he moves out of the small Irish villages where he made his name. However even as the landscape changes, the faces remain resolutely familiar. In the depressed Northern landscape of the 1950’s comes a cast of characters every bit as recognisable as those inhabitants of rural Ireland; spending their days congregating in the local pub, and being every bit as feckless as those seen in The Cripple of Inishmaan. Lacking any real clear sense of backbone, they spend their time revolving around the kind of minor celebrity that can hold together a kingly court in a land like this; David Morrisey’s Harry Wade – Britain’s last hangman, and every bit the self-proclaimed equal of that ‘bloody Pierrepoint’.

What makes a McDonagh play so enjoyable to watch is that you genuinely have no idea what direction it is going to go. Within the opening quarter there is a spectacular coup d’ theatre that changes the dynamic of the play entirely and throughout the plot jack-knifes at unexpected angles. Many playwrights attempt this kind of shift but few are very successful. It requires building an implicit trust in the audience that the pay-off is worth undercutting the narrative flow. McDonagh has wit and plot devices to burn, and there is a ghoulish horror in suddenly recognising that where he has decided to go with a story is so much further than you would have thought someone would have dared take it. His earlier plays have amply demonstrated that he is a master at finding the absurdities in the grotesque, and if Hangmen never quite reaches the blackest pitch of his early work then it still displays enough of his trademarks to make it an entertaining, if very slightly more West End friendly, production.

McDonagh is an actor’s writer. He gives charismatic performers the chance to revel in scintillating dialogue that is in shockingly poor taste but always undercut by a roguish charm that makes even the blackest heart slightly lovable. At Hangmen’s core is David Morrissey; a man built for the stage. He effortlessly commands proceedings and dominates the stage with a physicality and intensity that suggests there is the potential for truly great performances.

He plays the part to perfection – a man totally in hock to the legend that he has created for himself. It is no doubt with a knowing smile that McDonagh allows Wade just enough rope to hang himself with. The interview he gives to the local newspaper – full of bravado and pomposity –  is one of an emperor parading in front of the crowd safe in the knowledge that his court would never dare mention the questionable choice in clothing. He is a man drunk on adulation and with enough intelligence to crush any dissenting voices. Yet like any king who reigns without power, ultimately he is at the whim of his subjects and when he needs them the most he finds they abandon him.

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Talking Theatre – Mental health in the modern world

Back once again with further theatre chat. A whole bunch of plays in this podcast episode. I was particularly engaged this week with People, Places and Things (National) and Song From Far Away (Young Vic), which by chance I had booked within days of each other and that turned out to compliment each other perfectly. It is unusual to see two new plays of such high quality close together, and even rarer when they cover very similar ground. Both explore issues related to people who are experiencing a crisis event; yet how the plays unfold due to the nature of the crisis and the personality of the person in crisis is absolutely fascinating. They are performed with total commitment and great emotional honesty by two fantastic actors (Denise Gough and Eelco Smits), and are written and produced with a rare perceptiveness.

I must also confess an additional interest in both these plays, as I have recently spent almost a year and half looking into many of the issues that surround people in crisis, and (plug alert!!) have just written a report on crisis care in England (which you can find here). However when I booked the tickets I didn’t know what either play was about, and was knocked sideways by how accurately the events on stage had reflected the experiences people had shared with me.

You can hear my further reflections, and those of my trusty companions on the podcast – brought to the public as ever by Tim Watson at the (As Yet Unnamed) London Theatre Podcast. The full bill contains reviews of Photograph 51, Casa Valentina, People, Places & Things and Song From Far Away.

You can listen here: As Yet Unnamed London Theatre Podcast 

Enjoy (and, as always, thoughts and feedback are welcome)

Sarah Middleton photo by Richard Davenport

Disappointing dystopia

Pomona – Temporary Theatre @ National Theatre, until 10 October 2015 (tickets)

Ever since rave reviews greeted Pomona when it premiered at the Orange Tree, I had cursed myself for not summoning the energy to cross London to see a new play that promised dystopian terrors and whose advertising pomona photcredit Richard Davenportcentred on a wonderfully striking image of a Cthulhu sitting cross-legged in an underground car park holding a Rubik’s cube. It certainly seemed a world away from the usual fare of star-led Shakespeare, earnest Russians and undemanding musicals.

Hearing that it had secured one of the prestigious slots in the Temporary Theatre, I placed it alongside People, Places and Things as top of the list of shows to see in the National’s latest season. Full credit for Rufus Norris’ bold booking, and for helping to develop a clear identity for Temporary Theatre space, which is becoming a stage where the National can take risks on young playwrights and emerging theatre companies, and represents precisely what they should be spending their public funding on. It attracts new and diverse audiences, and the arrival of Pomona had clearly resulted in an audience at least a couple of decades below the average age of regular National attendees.

I entered the theatre in a state of anticipation. I exited the theatre (with apologies to Rogers & Hart) baffled, bemused and bewildered. I wish I could say that it was due to the challenging questions that Alistair McDowell’s imaginative script had left me with. I was hoping that it would be because the genre mash-up that throws together RPGs, cinema, Lovecraft and an array of dystopian fiction writers had resulted in a brave new world of theatre.

Unfortunately my bafflement was more with every critic who had seen the workings of a profound masterpiece, whereas I felt more like I had seen a play written by a precocious undergraduate talent severely in need of a dramaturg. There is no doubting McDowell’s talent. It shines through at times, illuminating the suitably dim and dank surroundings. The story makes leaps of the imagination that suggest an elastic mind, and the telling of it is done with verve and wit.

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And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

People, Place and Things – National Theatre, until 04 November 2015 (Tickets)

Event theatre is a curious phenomenon that is hard to predict and can emerge from a number of paths. Most often it is due to an attachment of a star name that turns a popular play into a must see; the Cumberbatch Hamlet being an extreme examples of this. Sometimes, such as with Jerusalem or Constellations, word-of-mouth and press reviews suddenly turn an unknown new play into the thing people are queuing round the block for. Most gratifyingly is when it assigned to a theatre company on the basis of their hard PPT Photo by Johan Perssongraft built over many years; Complicite gained this status, and surely Headlong have now joined their ranks. Among those versed in theatre, Headlong are a by-word for theatre that promises endless invention built on energetic staging working in harmony with high class visuals.

People, Places and Things is without doubt pure event theatre – it matches a theatre company that can sell-out a show before it opens with a lead performance that is rightly being described as career-making. You leave the theatre feeling that you have seen a very special production, with an exhilaratingly powerhouse piece of acting from Denise Gough at its heart. It is the highlight of Rufus Norris’ early tenure at the National, and a production that reminds you how truly invigorating theatre can be.

Denise Gough in People Places and Things Photo Johan PerssonBy pure chance I had seen it within days of seeing the devastatingly powerful Song From Far Away at the Young Vic. They work as superb companion pieces, and anyone who sees both cannot help but reflect on what they tell us about the mental outlook and wellbeing of the younger generations in affluent, western societies.

Both cover individuals at the point of crisis, but touch on different ends of the spectrum. In Stephens’ play, Willem is unable to articulate his need for help and his crisis reaches a more acute phase as he exists outside of supportive systems. In Duncan Macmillan’s play, we have Emma (or possibly we do, even her name remains ambiguous), another white, privileged and mainly unsympathetic character.

However, unlike Willem, she is vocal and able to recognise that there is a point where she must ask for help. Yet even at that this stage she uses her facility with language to keep people at a distance; she uses words as a defence mechanism to keep people away from her true self. Her extrovert nature is the polar opposite to Willem’s introvert, but ultimately her personality finds her unable to find ways of expressing herself in order to avert a significant crisis.

Denise Gough’s performance as Emma has drawn deserved plaudits. Her role in Tim Crouch’s Adler & Gibb hinted at her vast potential, and was one of the performances of the year. It was fluid, totally unselfconscious and demonstrated an assured facility for portraying characters on the edge of mania. She brings this and much more to Emma.

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Talking Theatre – Double Podcast Bonanza

Somehow slipping through the net towards the end of Summer was the latest in my occasional updates from the world of podcast. Brought to the public as ever by Tim Watson at the (As Yet Unnamed) London Theatre Podcast, this week brings a double bill of updates covering musicals from Kinky Boots, Dusty and Thoroughly Modern Millie, gritty new writing in And Then Come The Nightjars, less gritty writing in Hatched ‘n Dispatched.

And of course an inevitably in depth look at the mania surrounding a certain Mr Cumberbatch in a certain play by a certain playwright.  a long diversion   This week we cast our eyes other musicals, early Russian naturalism and ancient Greek tragedy. An eclectic mix as ever.

You can listen to Thoroughly Modern Millie and Hamlet here: As Yet Unnamed London Theatre Podcast 

You can listen to Kinky Boots, Hatched ‘n Dispatched, Dusty, The Man Who Had All The Luck and Here Come The Nightjars: As Yet Unnamed London Theatre Podcast 

Warning: This episode contains plenty of Benedict Cumberbatch related discussion.

Enjoy (and, as always, thoughts and feedback are welcome)