Orpheus Returns

It’s always welcome to hear of a small scale show that returns due to popular demand. A Little Bulb Theatre’s highly original take on the Orpheus myth was one of those charming, quirky surprises that most unexpectedly Flyer for Orpheussweeps you off away on a wave of inventive playfulness and understated talent. An excellent cast made light work of a high-concept, high-risk approach of using the BAC’s gorgeous period interiors to recreate the feel of 1930′s Paris – pastiching both the music of that genre, early cinema and classical scores to great effect.

In light of its return then click here for the review of last year’s production, which gives a feel for the evening.

More on the Battersea Art Centre’s website.

Orpheus is on at the Battersea Art Centre until 17 May 2014.

Egusi Soup 4

The legacy of Mr Anyia

Egusi Soup – Albany Theatre, and touring until 05 April 2014 (Tickets)

At its heart Egusi Soup, a play by Bruntwood Prize winner Janice Okoh, is a comedy-drama about a British-Nigerian family experiencing the familiar tension between the life they have built themselves in the West and the traditions that their mother, Mrs Anyia (Lorna Gayle), left behind.

Egusi Soup 7The trigger event that drives the action is the one year memorial for Mr Anyia. The suitcases are forever nearly packed and the family (if not the storm clouds) are gathering ahead of a trip back to Lagos to celebrate Mr Anyia and his legacy. It is clear from the outset that life is not quite the rose-tinted paradise that Mrs Anyia would like those in Nigeria to believe.

The formal structure of Egusi Soup hints at Janice Okoh’s background, which includes an MA in Creative Writing and a place on the BBC Drama Writers Academy. It makes a refreshing change to see a two act play that takes place in an traditionally linear fashion. Flowing from scene to scene, the play moves confidently through the action and delivers a number of enjoyable set-pieces before building inevitably to a resolution where secrets are unveiled and resolution is found in forgiveness and acceptance.

Okoh clearly knows these characters and Egusi Soup is anchored by Gayle’s performance as Mrs Anyia. Gayle treads a careful path between colourful stereotype and a wife who has lost the person who filled her world. Any slip into cliché is knowing and is offset by the sense that this is someone desperately trying to hold onto tradition as a way of holding onto her husband. This is drawn out of the smaller touches like the spare room that still Egusi Soup 10holds Mr Anyia’s possessions and her willingness to believe he was poisoned rather than taken by cancer before his time.

The comedy is primarily driven by the two male characters, Richard Pepple’s Pastor, Mr Emmanuel, and Seun Shote’s Dele. These draw on stock roles of the Nigerian entrepreneur and evangelical; they artfully mirror each other and serve to bookend the proceedings with light relief that, whilst firmly based in Nigerian culture, is accessible to everyone.

Here Okoh demonstrates a subtlety in her writing; drawing out the strange duality in the two positions without overtly referencing it. Mr Emmanuel being a fine entrepreneur and a man who sees opportunity everywhere, whereas Dele is a hopeless businessman who is happy to turn to religion as the answer to his financial and fertility worries.

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Full Cast - Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Rufus Wright and Lu Corfield

Brutal or brutally funny?

The One – Soho Theatre, until 30 March 2014

In the middle of one of the many conversations between Jo (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and Harry (Rufus Wright) that tread an impossibly fine line between needling argument and verbal foreplay, Jo’s mobile phone goes off. The ringtone is familiar but not quite identifiable, moments later, before the chorus kicks in, Jo answers the phone with ‘Hi Mum’ and at the same moment you realise that she has set the ring tone to be I Touch Myself by the DiVinyls.

Vicky Jones’ The One is a play that is peppered with jokes that rely on an audience with an eye for high and low cultural reference points and a penchant for filthy dialogue. It is as comfortable expounding on Madame The one  Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Rufus WrightBovary as it is in displaying the realities of unengaged sex. There are some brutally funny lines in The One and there also some just plain brutal ones. It is a play that sets out to shock its audience and it more than succeeds in doing so.

DryWrite, the theatre company created by Vicky Jones and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, was the force behind two of the most unexpected treats of 2013, Mydidae and Fleabag. With The One this creative partnership have created a trio of plays that, while formally unconnected, work together to create a portrait of dysfunction within a certain strata of well-educated, middle class women in 21st century Britain. As a whole they form a serious and important contribution to the ongoing cultural debate about whether there are ways that women should live and behave in the context of feminism as being something that had been ‘won’.

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Waller-Bridge excels in each of the plays. She inhabits characters that clearly show the challenges of women who have grown up to believe in the freedoms hard won by their parents but struggle to shape an identity for themselves in a society that is still undeniably masculine.

At the heart of Mydidae and The One is the presence of a formidably intelligent woman who self-censures herself in order to maintain the fantasy of the dominant male. In both cases the self-censuring has a warping effect and the emasculating quality of the action (even as it seeks to avoid this very outcome) ultimately leads to displays of violence; physical, sexual and emotional.

The One demonstrates writing of exceptional quality and Jones’ displays a real talent for carving heightened language out of the banality of the everyday; creating prose that is grounded in reality whilst seeming disturbingly unreal. That the play is set over the course of the evening and scenes are intercut with Phantom of the Opera’s The Music of the Night adds to the sensation that is closer to nightmarish dreamscape than the real world.

Yet this is no Athenian forest and here there is no honest Puck to make amends and to ensure that Jo and Harry ‘think no more of this night’s accidents’. Rather than sleep and awake to a new dawn, they continue their conversations until sunrise when they are forced to look at each other in the harsh light of day.

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Rebecca Howell, Caroline Quentin, Alice Bailey Johnson and Zoe Rainey in Oh What A Lovely War

Michael Gove: A donkey in lions clothing

Oh What A Lovely War, Theatre Royal Stratford East

There can’t be many productions playing in London that begin with an announcement that the evening’s entertainment will be dedicated to Tony Benn – a statement followed by an unprompted and hearty ovation. With top oh what a lovely warprice tickets for the revival of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit with, soon to be Dame, Angela Lansbury clocking in at £92.50 (plus booking fee, naturally) one can’t begin to imagine why the trend hasn’t caught on.

Somewhere Michael Gove would be pursing his lips at the news and busying himself with the retrieval of the hatchet he had carefully placed in Boris Johnson’s back before steadying himself for another swing at the leftist establishment. This is the combined massed ranks of the cultural elite and academia who have the temerity, if his recent diatribe is to be believed, to suggest that Britain is not necessarily as ‘great’ as Mr Gove thinks it is.

Mr Gove is one of those unfortunate politicians that have managed to hold onto the illusion of the Edwardian gentleman that saw Britain truly as the empire on which the sun never sets and, unlike those pesky Europeans from across the channel, a country that left behind a colonial legacy of democracy, fair play and cricket. No matter that there are those in Kenya and Malaysia who may choose to disagree with this assessment.

That people still express these opinions in the 21st century points to the continuing necessity of productions like Oh What A Lovely War. 50 years from its debut, 100 years from the start of World War One, it is clear that proximity to power still seems to blind our political leaders to some painful home truths about our nation’s history. Indeed the myopia of Mr Gove is not a million miles from the delusions of Field Marshall Haig that allowed him to happily order men to walk into the field of fire whilst declaring there must be ‘no squeamishness over losses’.

There is no-one who can seriously engage in the content of Oh What A Lovely War and see a show that reflects at best an ambiguous attitude to this country  and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage’.

Rebecca Howell, Caroline Quentin, Alice Bailey Johnson and Zoe Rainey in Oh What A Lovely WarIt may be true that Littlewood’s original production could have at least mentioned that the sense of traditional values of a large part of the embedded aristocracy meant that they were among the first to volunteer for the front and as a result suffered absolutely catastrophic losses, and far disproportionate to any other social class.

However this is a straw man argument and deliberately ignores the fact that the show quite clearly shows a deep and abiding love of Britain, and most particularly the men and women of Britain. It shows only compassion for the hapless men who were destined to be pinned between German machine gun fire and the equally lethal artillery of their own lines. It demonstrates every virtue that Mr Gove accuses it of undermining. There is never any doubting that Littlewood believes in the courage and virtue of the men who signed up to go to war, even when the lies and insanity of decision-making of their superiors, far from the front, must have been clear to them.

Has the show lost its power? Part of what made the original a revelation was that these attitudes were genuinely radical. They were telling stories that felt totally anti-establishment, that did not fit with the myth of the just and true war, of heroic stands and grand plans. However the seismic shift in history scholarship, away from the ‘great man’ theory of leadership and towards the narratives of everyday men and women has meant that World War One has been mined from every conceivable angle.

We now know ‘Tommy’s story’ inside-out; we recognise the deprivations of the trenches and the incompetence of the commanders. Increasingly the pendulum has begun to swing towards the middle-ground and new arguments highlight the complexity of the war and go further than the cheap jibes and easy solution found on both sides of the debate. This then begs the question of whether there is still a purpose for Littlewood’s production or has its iconic status turned it into the very thing that it probably most wants to avoid – something co-opted by the establishment as one of the official narratives for understanding the war?

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Spotlight on: John Arden

John Arden (1930 – 2012)

In a recent article Michael Billington wrote about five flops that deserved a revival. For those who have read Billington for a long time the choices are relatively unsurprising; playwrights that were either writing or hitting their peak in the late 1950′s / early 1960′s and plays that address the great social changes and political upheaval that the period was witness to. Of all those chosen, it was most heartening to see John Arden, who died in 2012, on the list; Arden seems destined to become one of those unfortunate writers regarded as brilliant by their peers and critics but failing to gain traction with the public at large.

Over the last few years there has been a definite shift towards reevaluation of writers from this era, which was perhaps prompted by the Rattigan Centenary productions that has done much to restore the reputation of a writer that was all too lazily dismissed as representing, with Noel Coward, an old-fashioned Edwardian sense of theatre. With the status of Pinter and Osborne set in stone and recent productions of Arnold Wesker and Shelagh Delagny in London, it feels the time is right to re-examine a writer whose radicalism has never quite found a fit within the British theatre scene.

Like so many writers who never quite achieve the status they deserve, Arden proved to be too radical for mainstream consumption. Radical in his politics – he was a Marxist intellectual who used his plays to challenge the established order and was an ardent pacifist- he was also a radical in his writing. Arden’s plays are a rich and vivid affairs that blend prose, poetry and songs. He had a remarkable talent for dialect that allowed his characters to spring fully-shaped from the page. He also offered the audience no obvious direction as to whether their moral sympathies  should be directed –  characters that would normally be signposted as ‘bad’ and ‘good’ remain equally vibrant and engaging, leaving critics unsure as to what the message of his play were supposed to be

Reading his plays (because you won’t find many on stage) leaves an impression of a writer who had managed to distill the spirit of Brechtian theatre into the British landscape. There are hints of the stringent criticism of the political order that blend with an understanding of the changing social pressures of 1950′s England and the sense of the pastoral you find in the English folk traditions. Whereas Osborne and Delagny delivered critiques from the level of the domestic, Arden works on a more panoramic scale and sets his plays in a Britain that is both immediately recognisable and entirely alien.

Like so many other writers of the period, Arden came through the Royal Court’s Writer’s Group and his first play, The Waters of Babylon, highlighted his desire to engage with the social issues of  the time but also to avoid the trap of moralisation and gritty social realism. It also demonstrated Arden’s uncanny ability to pre-figure national events that were yet to break into the public consciousness, with a plot that identified the simmering tensions over immigration that were to explode in Notting Hill, eleven months after the play opened.

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Le Docteur Miracle - Pop-up Opera

Violently assaulted by tambourines

Le Docteur Miracle – Pop-Up Opera at Drink Shop & Do then touring (tickets)

Being entirely unequipped to comment on the musical quality of Pop-up Opera’s Le Docteur Miracle, Civilian Theatre found itself both perplexed and perspiring in hipster paradise Drink Shop & Do  – a location Pop-up Opera Spring 2014, Le Docteur Miracle 1 (courtesy Jenny Dale)that clearly thinks that what it lacks in circulating air can be made up for in aggressively twee interior design.

The production can be seen as part of the continuing rise of the small-scale opera; a surprisingly niche success story even by the standards of a city that has managed to revitalise shops that specialise solely in knitting, cupcakes and inept service. The movement has being gaining ground since 2009 and the great success of OperaUpClose’s genuinely fantastic La Boheme, which lead to the company gaining a residency at The King’s Head Theatre in Islington where they went on to produce programmes that combined interesting work with variable quality.

Rather than establishing a permanent base, Pop-up Opera appear to have taken the form of the travelling players that have decided their form would be comic operas rather than morality plays. Le Docteur Miracle hearteningly plays for one-night-only in locations where London is merely a distant blight on an OS map; for every Hackney Wick and Dalston there is an evening performing to the good people of Herefordshire, Cornwall and Sussex.

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A travelling production brings with it logistical challenges. Each venue is likely to be prepped only hours before the show and so a slightly rough-and-ready approach to the proceedings is only to be expected, and in this case forms part of the production’s immense charm. The cast work hard to actively draw the audience into proceedings and there is an undeniable pantomime feel to some of the evening, which may offend the purists but arguably puts at ease those less comfortable with the whole concept of opera.

That is not to say that it all works; the short get-in combined with the unraked seating leads to some major issues with audience sight-lines. There were some moments that were probably lovely but as they had been staged at the same level as the seated audience it meant all that could be seen was a sea of trendy haircuts.

However the story-telling was impeccable. Not being able to follow librettos when they are in English, it would certainly have been challenging to follow Bizet’s French. However the artful staging of the surtitles was an excellent touch. Eschewing the classic libretto of the original, there is a real verve to how Pop-up Opera have taken it forward.

Bizet’s classic story has been updated to the 21st century; it blends internet-era visuals and memes with witty takes on current affairs to create a plot that even opera philistines – like this reviewer – could follow without resorting to the programme synopsis.

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