Mission: Accomplished

Mission Drift – The Shed, National Theatre, until 28 June (some tickets available)

You can’t fail to notice the The Shed, the National Theatre’s striking addition to London’s Southbank. It looks a little like a student’s upturned IKEA table. In bright red. Walking into this new temporary venue, which on the inside is somewhat reminiscent of The Young Vic, is quite an adventure in itself; the smell of new wood, a wonderfully up close and personal stage area, visible stage management and technical. I like it already.

The Shed or Battersea Power Station after an elaborate student prankThe idea behind The Shed is for The National Theatre to celebrate original, ambitious and unexpected new theatre in an excitingly small venue. And on this level, boy does Mission Drift deliver.

Created by New York based The TEAM, Mission Drift is a stunning, well-crafted and inventive musical, yes it’s a musical, which takes us on a whirlwind journey through the American dream. From Las Vegas to New Amsterdam, covering 400 years of political and economic history (atomic bombs, economic downturns, slavery, prospecting, gambling; it’s all here), we follow two couples on their pioneering adventures.

In the world we recognise is Joan; a cocktail waitress laid off from her job and alienated from Las Vegas – the city she once lived for. Joan’s life is changed by the arrival of a mysterious and beguiling

Mission Drift's take on Americana

stranger who offers her a way out of everything she knows. And loves. This is equated to the mythical journey undertaken by two 14 year olds, Catalina and Joris, setting sail from Europe with the Dutch West India Company to start a new dream, in a land where space, as well as life, is cheap.

All of this is overseen by Miss Atomic (Heather Christian), an all at once alluring and repulsive figure who epitomises the best and worst of American capitalism. Her narration is funny, sleazy and engaging – a clever way of holding this bubbling pot of ideas together. She has a voice that grabs you by the balls and dominates the space. I wish her character could have been more intertwined with the two couples but it was a stunning and strong performance that captured the fragility of the American Dream perfectly.

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The Theatre of Politics

This House – National Theatrebooking until 16 May

This House has been the surprise package of what is proving to be a very successful season for the National – defying the surrounding economic gloom with a string of sell-out hits. It was inevitable that tickets for The Effect, Lucy Prebble’s follow-up to ENRON, and the latest Alan Bennett play would be scarcer than gold dust.

However This House did appear to be an altogether tougher sell; a play based almost entirely back rooms of Parliament, set between 1974 and 1979 and refusing the safety-net of caricature by eschewing references to MPs byPhil_Daniels_This_House name. Unless one held an acute knowledge of mid-70’s parliamentary constituencies it paid little concession to providing a Spitting Image-style satire on its subjects other than references to a certain ‘MP for Finchley’ and a fleeting appearance from a young Michael Heseltine.

As a self-confessed political and theatrical nerd none of this was particularly troubling as seeing the political process dissected on stage was the real joy. The likes of David Hare may stage politics with a big ‘P’, and there have always been any number of young tyros looking to reflect the impact of politics on society, but the institutions – the strange and archaic mechanisms that have supported one of the world’s longest running parliamentary democracies seem to have been rarely considered by playwrights.

Lord Scarman summed up the position eloquently in the late 80’s when he referred to the fact that the people are ‘only occasional partners in the constitutional minuet danced for most of the time by Parliament and the political party in power’. For all the radicalism of playwrights and protestors, politicians continue serenely onwards, safe in the institutions that have bent, flexed and twisted but never entirely shattered over the centuries. The British parliamentary system finds durability in its seeming lack of permanence. The lack of a codified constitution allows great flexibility in its approach; rules are in place because they are in place and always have been in place, not because they are written down in a book.

The very essence of maintaining the status quo, a great British tradition, is built into this approach. Without an awareness of the rules, and without any access to them, how can someone challenge the system? It is into these murky waters that James Graham’s This House looks to shine a light. It illuminates the hidden world of small ‘p’ politics; the grindingly mundane processes that allow the Government to govern and teases out exactly what happens when the metaphorical rulebook is thrown out of the metaphorical window.

So much of Parliament – the opening of Parliament by Black Rod, the Queen’s Speech, Prime Minister’s Question Time – is laced with symbolism about the importance of the function it serves, even if these aspects mean nothing to actual governing. James Graham and Jeremy Herrin have intrinsically grasped the parallels with theatre, which is that behind the spectacle there are those working themselves to the bone to keep the wheels turning and where power really resides. This is why the play focuses on the political Whips; the backroom boys who ensure that everything happens on time, that people know what they are supposed to be doing and that things actually happen.

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The show that ate itself

In The Beginning Was The End – dreamthinkspeak @ National Theatre, until 30 March 2013

In the beginning we are full of a nervous expectation. In the end we are full of a crushing disappointment. In the middle we find a soufflé – an indulgent and elaborate work that looks more and more underwhelming as time goes by.

It is difficult to describe how many things are wrong with dreamthinkspeak’s attempt to weave inspiration from Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘A Cloudburst of Material Possessions’ into a multi-stranded meditation on a world at a supposed crux of developmDa Vinci's Cloudburst - a work by a true geniusent and chaos.

It is difficult to describe because that would have entailed dreamthinkspeak feeling it was necessary to share any of their ideas with the audience rather than thinking that a hotchpotch collection of site-specific installations mixed with cod-philosophy and an imagined future that seemed startlingly reminiscent of a mid-1980’s episode of Tomorrows World was an acceptable substitute.

At the end of the audience’s ‘journey’ (even the word makes me cringe) you are handed a leaflet outlining the thinking behind what you have just seen. It is quite a useful addition if for no other reason than for the fact that it demonstrates that the cringingly pretentious claptrap that you have spent the last 70 minutes watching seem just as cringingly pretentious when written down.

‘John the Baptist…seems to be ever present. Is he pointing the way to The Second Coming, to our death, to the end-of-world, or is he a false prophet who leads us on then abandons us to an uncertain fate? Does the slightly strange man obsessed with lemons have the answers? He seems to be dreaming of a new kind of Eden. But is it a real or a comprised paradise? The final installation mixes the organic with rudimentary technology but is it really the way forward?”

Well, when given lemons…

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Bennett’s People suffer from Trust issues

People – National Theatre, until 02 April 2012

Perhaps it was figures published by the Office of National Statistics that suggested the top 10% of households are now 850 times wealthier than the bottom 10%, or possibly it was the leaks to the media that categorically ruled out a Mansion Tax whilst uplifting the majority of welfare benefits by just 1% but, whatever the cause, it was difficult to warm to Alan Bennett’s latest play, People, that contains some questionably judgements on the balance to be made between those who inherited thePeople - National Theatreir wealth and can’t afford it, and those can afford it but can’t enjoy it.

Alan Bennett has always existed as a very British radical. Not one to follow in the footsteps of the Angry Young Men of the 1950’s and a world away from Edward Bond’s ferocious anger, one suspects that Bennett has always looked to subvert opinion in unexpected ways – right from the earliest days of Beyond the Fringe.

However watching People, it was hard to not question whether the targets of his ire are particularly deserving of it. There is nothing wrong with it as a play, even if it is a little slighter than some of his earlier work. It is an intelligent comedy that contains Bennett’s traditional meshing of farce with wry humour. There are plenty of excellent one-liners and fully-rounded characters that manage to make what are fairly broad comedy tropes (the Bishop and the porn film could have been a terribly tired cliché) seem reasonably fresh.

Frances de La Tour and Linda Bassett in PeopleNo-one goes to a Bennett play expecting the uncomfortable laughs of Martin McDonagh or the breathless extreme farce of Joe Orton, but there is a certain softness that at times makes everything a little too comfortable. The play continues to set up quite uncomfortable philosophical positions about class, inherited wealth and the self-importance of organisations that take it upon themselves to reflect the nation, and then edges away to operate the middle ground.

There are targets scattered throughout the script and whilst Bennett is perfectly capable of doing with a stiletto what others would do with a 12-bore shotgun, there are times when the mercy he shows his subjects makes it difficult to gauge where the audience’s sympathies are supposed to lie.

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And so goodbye to summer…

For regular theatre goers there can be few markers that you have passed the last dregs of summer than no longer suffering a twinge of jealousy as you walk past all the tourists drinking merrily on the South Bank as you take your seat in the hot, sweaty and dark auditorium.

Not that, as we were constantly reminded, this was a summer like any other. In effect normality went into a two month hiatus as London, and in time the rest of the country, came to a complete standstill as we eventually recognised that we are not nearly as useless as we enjoy telling each other we are. The trains arrived, the people were friendly, we avoided being blown up by terrorists or trigger-happy missile silos, the army ran the logistics and G4S ran nothing and the Mo-Bot became a meme. In short the Olympics and the Paralympics happened and everyone forgot about the rain.

In between all of this excitement the London theatre scene quietly ticked over in the background. Unsurprisingly Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s predictions of audience carnage proved entirely wrong as the West End’s goal of relieving punters of ever increasing amounts of money from their cash-strapped wallets in exchange for third-rate musicals culled from second-rate films continued remorselessly onwards. Luckily for the rest of us the National Theatre proved that affordable theatre can have depth, resonance and even the odd sprinkling of star power.

The revival of London Road – transplanted to the Olivier – was an example of how to draw on a weighty subject with a lightness of touch that is rare among those more used to the deadening hand of television. Having somehow contrived to miss the first run, despite being aware of the sacksful of critical praise that it gathered meant that this was a must see. The fact that the engrossing Katherine Fleetwood reprised her role only added as an extra incentive – an actor indelibly marked in my brain following her unforgettable turn as the strongest Lady Macbeth I have had the fortune to see, and surely a match for Judy Dench’s classic portrayal, in Rupert Goold’s memorable production.

How unfortunate to have been released in the same year as the equally critically-acclaimed and certainly rather more family-friendly Matilda, London Road never received the awards it richly deserved but the fact it could sell out the Olivier for a musical based on interviews with people who lived on the same road as Richard Wright, the Ipswich serial killer, tells its own story about the power of the production.

A truly haunting piece, skilfully manipulated and never less than engaging, it raises many interesting questions about the stories that aren’t told; the impact on the community, the everyday people, of a media circus and a major police operation. Whilst there are legitimate questions over how composite characters reflect the truth and whether they bring forward narrative interest over narrative truth, there is enough in the words and the playful skill with which they are turned into song that sets this apart as a musical of rare power and intelligence.

Alongside this, the Olivier season included Simon Russell Beale giving us Timon of Athens. Without fail described as a difficult play, Timon of Athens has so many contemporary resonances that it should mean more to us. The parallels of the first half to the modern day are so clear, so apparent, that one almost hopes that the play doesn’t resume after the interval. This production, like so many before it, faced and failed the classic problem of trying to unpick and restitch Shakespeare to craft a specific relevance to modern times.

Watching the rise and inevitable fall of Timon, one is both appalled by the actions of Athenians but also frustrated by Timon’s obvious naiveté. It is hard to truly accept that Timon could have fared so well in society based on the actions we see in the play. The fault here is part Shakespeare and part Simon Russell Beale – who was a strangely passive and reedy presence in a play that really demands a lot of heft. His slightly cherubic public school persona – so perfect as Widmerpool in A Dance to the Music of Time – feels out of place in his hermit hovel on the outskirts of the city.

The most interesting aspect of the play is to follow the generally accepted fact that the play was written by two different playwrights. Shakespeare, it is assumed, is responsible for the grandstanding and most of the second half, and Middleton, who is believed to behind the city-based Athenians. It is clear that when one thinks of the play in these terms, it is Shakespeare who comes off worst. Middleton’s play fizzes with a comic satire and adds to his reputation as one of the great comic playwrights of the Elizabethan era. His background characters hit the stage fully formed and when interacting with one another there is a robust and fascinating take on the avarice of Athenian society but the play too often grinds to a deathly halt once the moralising fury of Timon takes centre stage.

It was a disappointing production underpinning a disappointing play. There are many who call Simon Russell Beale one of our finest character actors, yet the case is still to be made of his credentials as a great Shakespearian actor following his rather undercooked Falstaff with this forgettable Timon.

Advance Notice – Highlights of the Autumn Season 2012

In recent days we have had announcements from both the Royal Court and Michael Grandage of their upcoming seasons. Representing the very different ends of the theatrical experience for audiences; the small intimately thrilling Royal Court where so many of our great playwrights were given a space to write and the cavernous and wallet-sapping Noel Coward Theatre, the name alone indicative of its West End heritage. It is heartening to think of Grandage’s past as Artistic Director of The Crucible and a ten-year stint at the Donmar and realise that it is still possible to trace a line from the heart of regional theatre all the way to the money-making centre of the British stage.

One might grumble about the prices of Grandage’s plays but it cannot be denied that a West End line-up containing two Shakespeare’s, a McDonagh and a new play by John Loga, whilst, maybe not groundbreaking, provides rather more interest than the usual fare of rehashed musicals, Coward revivals and vehicles for ageing American celebrities. Ticket prices may be steep at the top end but, as I have commented elsewhere, the £10 tickets actually undercut the National’s Travellex offer and, if star power is what you are after, provide fantastic value for money. Whilst advertised as ‘moderately restricted view’ I have found the seats to be absolutely adequate and you would miss virtually none of the action. Given they are available in both the Royal and Upper Circles they arguably offer better value for money than the Gallery tickets that are the next cheapest but are  already edging towards an uncomfortable £27.50 for seats right up in the gods.

With information about the National Theatre and the Barbican already available we can see that the upcoming months look very rosy indeed. And as a public service, Civilian Theatre is very happy to provide you with a month-by-month guide to the most interesting plays over the coming months (a growing requirement as it is becoming more and more evident that theatre is going the same way as gigs and stand-up comedy and selling its major events anything up to 18 months in advance – Jude Law in Hamlet in November 2013 anyone? Not busy I hope?)


September 2012

London Road (National)

This may be a last chance to catch one of the most interesting and innovative musicals in recent years. It sadly had the misfortune to go up against the Matilda juggernaut in all the major award ceremonies and as a result came home empty-handed but this tale, based on documentary footage taken from Ipswich in the aftermath of the discovery of five bodies in 2006 and put to music by Adam Cork, is one of the most complex and affecting new musicals in a long time. A real slow-burn hit, its success can be seen in the major summer revival it was given by the National just a year after it was first introduced. September is possibly the last time you will be seeing it in quite a while so go while you can.

Mademoiselle Julie (Barbican)

Hopefully not setting myself up for a fall after the general disappointment of Cate Blanchett in Big and Small – where the size of the play failed to meet the stature of the actor – we see Juliette Binoche meet Strindberg as another entry in the Barbican’s generally excellent international programming. Binoche is one of the deserved greats of French acting; an actress capable of turning down Spielberg’s Jurassic Park for a role in Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue (now that is range). The set photos are fascinating and suggest a radical take on a work famed for its naturalistic excellence:

love and information (Royal Court)

Whilst not to everyone’s tastes, a new play by Caryl Churchill is certainly not something to be ignored. One of Britain’s leading playwrights over the last 40 years and an icon for the current generation of female writers who grew up on Top Girls and Cloud 9, Churchill returns to the Royal Court with a new play, love and information. Details are scarce other but it looks likely that it will be a continuation of Churchill’s abiding fascination with non-linear story-telling and the use of the less naturalistic elements of theatre, as she creates a panoramic landscape of over 100 characters.

Hamlet (Queen Elizabeth Hall)

In what was very high up Civilian Theatre’s ‘Must Watch’ list was this import from Denmark – The Tiger Lillies performing Hamlet. Unfortunately recent news tells us that it has been cancelled for ‘scheduling issues’ but if they can find a slot for it in 2013 then I urge all to go and see it. The Tiger Lillies describe their own music as Brechtian street opera and are instantly memorable for all of those who had the fortune to see their version of Shockheaded Peter many moons ago. For those who have missed their vaudevillian morality tales then here is a performance of a song from Shockheaded Peter:


For more on the Autumn Season, including highlights from October and November then please click through for more.