Community tensions on a mysterious island

Secret Theatre Show, Secret Theatre Lab – London City Island, until 01 September 2015 (tickets)Secret Theatre Show, Secret Studio Lab (2)

Well Secret Theatre proves a tricky one to review. Given the whole purpose of the enterprise is for the show to be, well, secret, there are some fairly clear difficulties in talking about it without giving the whole game away.

In actual fact, press have been given permission to name the play in question. However that does not feel quite in keeping with the spirit of the event and so this review will provide some general clues and maybe a few more cryptic hints along the way – probably enough to give most readers a likely shortlist.

The production is of an existing play. Secret Theatre Lab have previously adapted Edward Scissorhands and Reservoir Dogs for live shows, but in this case the work is a regularly staged play. It is an extremely well known story. The chance of not being aware of it is very small indeed. And if you went to school in England then it will be practically zero.

It takes place in London City Island. One of those developments that rise unnoticed until you turn around one day and find that a previously unloved and forgotten corner of the city is now covered in flats being pitched at foreign traders who have a half million lying around in pocket change (not the penthouses naturally). It is canny choice of location. Not least because the half-built isolated state is perfect for a promenade production that requires both interior and exterior scenes. Everything is self-contained and there is less risk of unplanned factors derailing affairs.

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Breathing life into a statue: Fiona Shaw as Mary, Mother of God

The Testament of Mary – Barbican Theatre, until 25 May 2014

The Testament of Mary opens with a quite remarkable image that captures in tableau the vision of the director, Deborah Warner, the mesmeric focus of Fiona Shaw and the inspiration of set-designer Tom Pye; Fiona Shaw’s Mary is in her most recognisable garb, portrayed as a Raphaelite Madonna, but the seemingly tranquil pose is undercut a furious muttering, is it a liturgy or is it something more, which suggests that all may not be as it seems.

Shaw’s Mary presented in a Perspex box with the audience invited on stage to gawp at the figure within; this image hints not just towards Mary as one of art’s most famous faces but also towards the public spectacle of MaryMary as a carnival attraction, the figure of endless fascination.

There is something grotesque about the scene and it is hard not to think of visitors to P.T Barnum’s famous circus. The voyeuristic aspect is brought home by the vulture that sits and watches proceedings and reflects both on the way that the acolytes would feast upon Jesus’ legacy after his death and the role that we continue to play as audience members.

So begins this brilliant adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novella that consists of a monologue from Mary reflecting upon her son and the events leading up to his death. Tóibín gives voice to Mary and presents a human relationship that deftly prizes open the centuries old fallacy presented by the Christian church of Mary as a form of virginal purity; this Mary is a mother, not just in name but also in deed.

Crown of thornsShaw embodies this earthy, human Mary. She is raw, alive and mourning the loss of Jesus as only a mother can. There is a humour amid her grief, thick and black, as she considers the impact her son had on others. Her Mary is Irish, this is both important and unimportant; what nationality should she be? She could be from anywhere but in making her Irish Shaw finds a folksy grounding and enables access to a natural informality in dialogue that can both raise the everyday to the state of the miraculous whilst grounding the miraculous in the everyday.

Running through the play is a strong feminist undercurrent that gives voice and power to the women in Jesus’ life. Advertising the play is an image of Mary gagged by a crown of thorns. It is a heavily symbolic image and suggests the fact that Mary, as woman and mother, is isolated in the aftermath of the crucifixion by those creating the mythology. One could argue that Shaw’s Mary is outlandishly modern but this critique seems misplaced, this is not being presented as history but as fable. Mary’s modernity is only as misplaced as the existence of miracles that she is so sceptical of.

Shaw’s Mary is no true believer – time and again we are pulled back to the central mother-son dynamic and, like many mothers, she cannot bring herself to trust her son’s friends and the actions that the ascribe to him. Her outsider status gives her an angle on to the famous miracles. The Lazarus myth is skewered quite brilliantly and demonstrates the horror that might accompany bringing someone back from dead. She is able to delve into the darkness of the story and the Lazarus that returns is closer to a zombie, reduced to wandering in a near-fugue state or sitting alone halfway between one world and the next.

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Watch the trailer

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/92254717″>The Testament of Mary – Trailer</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/barbicancentre”>Barbican Centre</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

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Cabaret-infused Conrad is confusing cocktail

The Secret Agent – Theatre O @ the Young Vic, until 21 September

Note: This review was a preview performance

London in September; leaves begin to turn autumnal brown and regular theatre-goers, who have shunned the opportunity to join the annual pilgrimage north of the border to experience rents higher even that those for a 1-bed The Secret Agentshoebox in Clapham and a population densisty that rivals Waterloo Bridge at 11:59 on New Year’s Eve, settle in for one of the more interesting months in the London theatrical calendar.

September is the month for quietly baking in one studio space after another as London’s theatres take their chances of the pick of the fringe, and companies from across the country set out their stall and make their pitch for the hearts of audiences and the wallets of producers.

Working out of the Maria Room at the Young Vic, Theatre O have certainly snagged a prized piece of theatrical real-estate. Despite it being the first night of previews a bustling atmosphere is in evidence, which is testament to the anticipation of Theatre O’s return after five years away and to the strides made in both the Young Vic’s innovative programming and muscular promotion over the last few years.

03-Young-Vic--The-Secret-Agent.-Photo-by-Stephen-Cummiskey..previewThe mixture of highly inventive company and classic novel with modern resonance is a potentially intoxicating blend. Theatre O take a high-concept, extremely physical approach to staging the play – not exactly a rarity amongst the Fringe where naturalism tends to push budgets to the limit, but all too infrequently seen in London since the likes of Berkoff and Bond have been pushed into the shadows. Edinburgh is increasingly a refreshing anecdote to the depressing move towards a process-heavy, formulaic approach to the development of new writing that is affecting London’s major fringe venues.

Theatre O’s production highlights the best and worst of physical theatre. There are moments when actors and actions synchronise and time appears to slow down to a point of transcendent stillness. Theatre O’s use of an expressionist style enables them to capture the physical manifestation of a character’s emotion and then focus on it with such a relentless intensity that the world appears to have shrunk around it and all that remains is a tableau of emotion frozen forever in time.

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Radcliffe crippled by burden of expectation

The Cripple of Inishmaan – Noel Coward Theatre, until 31 August (some tickets available)

It is the website that gives it away. Alight on Michael Grandage Company and it is all too clear that this play is less about the ‘Company’ and very much about a certain Daniel Radcliffe. This is not in itself a criticism of Michael Grandage or Daniel Radcliffe. One must swallow the bitter pill of realism when it comes to the financial dynamics of the West End, which is, if you want to stage a play like The Cripple of Inishmaan for 12 weeks in one of the larger theatres of the West End then you must have an ace up your sleeve to get the audiences in.

Daniel Radcliffe is quite an ace, and paired with Martin McDonagh – notably of In Brugges and, rather less notably, Seven Psychopaths fame – the evening is set for quite a potent mix. The problem is that at times it feels that Michael Grandage has been so keen to find an edgy, modern play to entice a young actor looking to mould his career that he has failed to notice that he has chosen one of McDonagh’s weakest plays.

In Brugges had some incredibly dark scenes but was leavened by its acute sense of place and the fish-out-of-water verbal sparring of its two leads. The Lieutenant of Inishmore looks for black comedy and manages to eventually locate it in something the colour of pitch; a breathtakingly offensive yet hilarious play about the troubles of an Irish torturer considered too mad for the IRA.

McDonagh’s first play – The Beauty Queen of Leeane – won four Tony Awards and has a plot that marvellously manages to deceive its audience at every turn. It is rightly revered as a near-classic and a stunning achievement from the then-25 year old. Unfortunately the Young Vic revived it in a celebrated production less than two years ago and there are certainly no Radcliffe-shaped parts in it.

Daniel Radcliffe - STAR (not pictured: other actors)

The Cripple of Inishmaan is not a bad play and it follows McDonagh’s other plays in exploring an Ireland that seems to exist out of time. Eventually it can be placed temporally in the mid-1930’s but realistically it could be anytime from 1780 to 1980. On these rural islands the sense is that life continues much as it has always done; roles are fixed and nicknames determine character rather than other way. The arrival of the film crew on a nearby island is the jolt that throws the island off its axis – it acts as the classic outsider who engenders change on the local and drives the actions of the play.

Daniel Radcliffe plays Cripplebilly – a young man cursed with a limp and a name that he cannot shake. He sees the arrival of a film crew as his chance off the island and Hollywood as a place where his disability can be, if not accepted, at least overlooked.

It is another undeniably smart decision in the post-Potter career for Radcliffe. He deserves a great deal of credit for tackling Equus – a difficult play and a difficult part – and so far he has broadly eschewed the Hollywood-fodder that would seem so tempting. The lead in a reasonably intelligent The Women In Black and acting alongside Jon Hamm in ‘A Young Doctor’s Notebook’ on Sky Arts are the only real mainstream exposure he has received in a post-Potter universe. If the adaptation of Bulgakov’s short stories was a bit of a mixed bag it still represents a remarkably leftfield step for someone with the choice of pretty much any script.

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Peter and Alice and a whole lack of wonder

Peter and Alice – Noel Coward Theatre, until 01 June 2013

It all works so well on paper: Michael Grandage and Christopher Oram as director and set designer; John Logan behind the script; Ben Wishaw and Dame Judi Dench heading the cast. If any more of a hook was needed to guarantee an audience, the plot concerns Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland (or at least their real-life inspirations).

What could possibly go wrong?Peter and Alice - Ben Wishaw and Judi Dench

In some ways very little.

The major problem is that very little goes right.

For the audience, Peter and Alice is an almost pitch-perfect study in the average, the mediocre, the reassuringly dull. No doubt the brigades that travel on mass from the Home Counties, that can afford to sit in the stalls, that buy a programme, a drink and an ice-cream, that keep the West End at near maximum-capacity and that are, without doubt, vital to the on-going vitality of the London theatre scene, are going to be satisfied.

However Charles Dodson and J.M Barrie would be appalled. Not necessarily by the character assassinations perpetrated on them by Logan, in scenes that have a loose connection to the truth, but certainly by the sheer lack of imagination displayed by everyone involved in the production. Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland are two of the finest examples of the flexibility of the adult mind; the sheer imaginative range of Carroll’s wordplay and of Barrie’s adventuring is a joy that has not receded in over one hundred years.

Peter and Alice fails to capture one tenth of this joy, this anarchic free-spiritedness, in one hundred minutes.

Reading the description of Barrie’s original production of Peter and Wendy one learns that Tinkerbell was created by the expedient use of a mirror to reflect a light onto the stage so that it would seem to dart and fly. This illusion, using the simplest mechanism imaginable, holds more wonder than the entire po-faced philosophising of Logan’s script.

To begin on the positives; Christopher Oram’s set is a delight. Opening on a musty office, it unfolds to a reveal the reassuringly sight of a chequer-board set and instantly recognisable Tenniel-inspired drawings of familiar characters. Given Peter Pan’s origins on stage it was a nice touch to reflect this in the use of classic flats that drop from the sky and retain a resolute two-dimensionality that highlights the artifice that lies behind theatre, and that means it will only ever be a simulacrum of reality.

Ben Wishaw and Judi Dench are perfectly adequate, and one hopes that, given this was a preview, there is a certain vitality that is still to come as they feel their way into the roles. Dench has a commanding presence that cannot help but be transferred to her characters – it is hard to imagine her playing a particularly vulnerable part. Her Liddell has developed a cast-iron exterior to the pressures of the world, and this contrasts well with Wishaw’s more vulnerable Peter Davies, a man who has not come to terms with the world as it is and the man who he will always be.

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