Friday, 4 July 2014

A View From the Bridge

A View From the Bridge
Young Vic

Ivo Van Hove puts his own unique brand on a classic with an immensely powerful take on Arthur Miller’s modern tragedy. Set in the Sicilian-American community in 1950s Brooklyn, A View From the Bridge is a searing tale of loyalty, honour, and betrayal; and the Young Vic’s production brings its harsh world to stage in stark, vivid detail.

Jan Versweyveld’s stripped back set – a rectangular thrust stage that closes like a boxing ring around the characters – skilfully emphasises the tight-knit, oft oppressive living situation. Whilst the stylistic choice not to include the full tenement set sacrifices the sense of an omnipresent community, it pays dividends in highlighting the universal themes of the play. Free of historical markers, the empty stage reminds the audience that this particular tale of love and hubris could be from any time and any place.

In keeping with the sense of timeless tragedy, Alfieri is the character who most explicitly ties A View From the Bridge to its roots in Greek drama. Michael Gould’s troubled lawyer picks his way around the set; the only character allowed beyond the bounds of the rectangle stage in a nod to his outsider status. His scenes with Eddie are electrifying; when Alfieri tries to painstakingly hint around Eddie’s real problem: “We all love somebody […] but sometimes… there’s too much. You know? There’s too much and it goes where it shouldn’t,” Mark Strong’s face twists in momentary recognition and shame. 

The whole cast is excellent. Nicola Walker’s Beatrice is more hard-faced and robust than other portrayals; her pain and bitterness over Eddie’s wandering eye seems to have worn her down to a sharp-edged watchdog. Against her better nature, she cannot quite conceal her resentment towards Phoebe Fox’s Catherine; the scene in which Beatrice tries to tell Catherine to “be [her] own self more” is agonising, the air thick with the painful truths that neither woman can acknowledge.

It’s these unspoken truths that eventually tear Eddie’s world apart. If Eddie Carbone is a tragic figure, he’s a deeply flawed one. The genius of Strong’s performance is that he makes his troubled longshoreman a figure of pity as well as brutality. Eddie wants a black and white world; where people live by codes of honour and debts are repaid. But his own desire for his niece Catherine transgresses against what Alfieri calls the ‘natural’ law; and Strong powerfully shows how Eddie is unable to reconcile these two warring moralities within himself.  

Miller’s previous play The Crucible is a fairly straightforward condemnation of naming names; in A View From the Bridge Miller allows a vein of ambivalence to enter the dramatic discourse. Eddie names names not out of fear for his own safety as the Salemites do, but out of a misplaced sense of honour and righteousness. The strengths of Hove’s direction mean Alfieri’s famous last words about the problematic purity in Eddie’s actions are deeply resonant in this production; a lone man left standing on a stage drowned in blood both literal and metaphorical.

Monday, 12 May 2014

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable

Punchdrunk's latest show The Drowned Man had people queuing round the metaphorical block again for tickets - they're one of the few theatre companies in England that can generate such a fervour with every new show. But I wonder if the shine might be off the apple after this slightly lacklustre offering.

The Drowned Man is set in a 1950s Hollywood studio and the narrative is ostensibly based on Georg Büchner's Woyzeck, with two plots of marital infidelity running parallel. This being Punchdrunk however, the audience is part of the action. We don masks to explore the cavernous studios (and the woods beyond) and are sometimes drafted in to aid the action. More often we are spectators to short scenes between disparate characters as they interact in various settings around the detailed set.

Now, I happen to be a fan of interactive theatre. But this 'choose your own adventure' approach inevitably leads to frustration. Comparing notes with other audience members hammers home how many scenes you missed - in one sense it's a good thing that every spectator has a different experience, in another sense you don't pay the best part of forty quid to hear you missed out on "the most amazing contemporary dance scene" because you were meandering round a doctor's office looking at 1950s X-rays.

I can't help but feel the overall experience was more akin to concept art than theatre. The intricate and lovingly created set was endlessly fascinating to me; so much so that I felt more like I was wandering round an exhibition than watching a play.

There were some great moments of physical theatre. I managed to catch an enjoyably frenzied table cleaning scene twice, and I enjoyed the slow dance/fight to 'Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad.' I happened upon several intriguing bits, but that's all they were: bits. A series of tiny vignettes, no matter how well crafted, do not a satisfying theatrical experience make. I'm all for fragmented narrative when it serves a specific purpose, but the whole evening seemed oddly aimless, barely anchored by the perfunctory attempt at plot the actors occasionally hinted at.

I didn't dislike it, but the original pleasure of the location and set up was fleeting. Perhaps it says it all that the highlight of my evening was the handsome bartender slinging me a free shot of whiskey. It was great to look at, and sometimes thrilling, but ultimately the novelty factor wasn't enough to sustain interest or engagement.

Monday, 28 April 2014

American Psycho

American Psycho

Almeida Theatre

‘This is not an exit’ reads the final line of Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 cult novel American Psycho, but Headlong’s frenetic musical take thankfully doesn’t need one. 

American Psycho isn’t the most obvious choice for a musical adaptation but in Headlong’s capable hands, a fast paced and convincingly bleak vision emerges. Duncan Sheik skilfully weaves a soundtrack appropriate to the amoral milieu of money and status – cool detached vocals and slick 80 drum beats. Believe it or not, a haunting cover of Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight is a genuine highlight. The music is ably backed by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s smart script, in which the most outrageous sentiments go unchallenged because no-one's listening to one another anyway.

Matt Smith is excellent as bored predator Patrick Bateman – arguably a more vulnerable and fragile presence than Christian Bale’s feverish killer in the film version. Some critics labelled Smith’s singing as flat, but I found his affectless tones perfectly suggestive of his disconnected psyche. Jonathan Bailey is also good as increasingly unhinged colleague Tim, and Ben Aldridge commands the stage with sinuous ease as Bateman’s doomed rival Paul. 

The graphic scenes of violence and torture in the novel present an onstage dilemma – how explicit should an adaptation be? Headlong sensibly opt for the suggestive over the visceral – Patrick’s first murder is a master class in bloodless carnage. Later, director Rupert Goold neatly sidesteps the potential for fetishisation in the prostitution scenes by bringing the whole cast onstage to take turns in miming sexual positions with ghoulishly blank faces. 

The direction in general is excellent; the stage is constantly busy without being overcrowded, and the talented cast sing, dance and interact with aplomb. Set pieces like Patrick’s birthday dinner or a trip to the nightclub play out in garish technicolor; as the vapid characters flirt, compete for rank, and pick each other apart. It's a cool, incisive adaptation that successfully captures the novel's sense of yuppie materialism and postmodern alienation.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Let the Right One In

Let the Right One In
Royal Court

I wouldn’t have banked on disturbing Swedish vampire flick Let The Right One In transferring well to stage, but the film finds new life in this brutal, beautiful adaptation from the National Theatre of Scotland.

Writer Jack Thorne cannily situates the story in snowy Glasgow; a move that works supremely well. The bleakly picturesque Swedish scenery is neatly transposed to an estate in Scotland; where the biting cold and gloomy forest setting add to the foreboding atmosphere. Christine Jones’ set is gorgeous; the stark trees of the frosty woods a constant backdrop as beds, lockers, and sweet shops are dragged onstage for short scenes. There is a dreamlike quality to the scenes that actually take place in the woods, as cast members engage in synchronised dances, often as a precursor to some gruesome bloodshed. 

Martin Quinn is brilliant as the bullied Oskar – a sparkier and funnier protagonist than his film counterpart. His acceptance of Rebecca Benson’s eerie Eli is both heart-warming and chilling – as in the film, the ‘happy ending’ is ambiguous to the extreme. The supporting cast are also excellent; Stephen McCole excels as a frustrated cop hunting the perpetrator of the recent killings, Graeme Dalling convinces as a vicious school bully, and Angus Miller makes a terrifying appearance in the final scenes as a small time psychopath. 

Let the Right One In is not for the faint hearted. The attack scenes are genuinely brutal; and the climatic pool scene is disturbing in the extreme. But the horror goes hand in hand with tenderness; as Oskar and Eli forge a friendship that saves them both from despair. It’s a love story of a sort, but Thorne also encompasses themes of friendship, innocence, and loyalty. Under John Tiffany's accomplished direction, it's a haunting meditation on loneliness and dependency, and the strength of a connection formed in blood.

Friday, 18 April 2014

The Fastest Clock in the Universe

The Fastest Clock in the Universe
Old Red Lion Theatre

Fastest Clock first premiered at the Hampstead Theatre in 1992, a year after Ridley’s debut play The Pitchfork Disney. Over twenty years later, the themes of Fastest Clock – vanity, aging, and self-obsession – are possibly even more relevant today then they initially were. In the era of the ‘selfie’, of plastic surgery, airbrushing and a glut of anti-aging products in every Boots; Ridley’s narcissistic protagonist Cougar Glass looks less like the exception than the rule. 

The action takes place in a dingy room above an abandoned fur factory in the East End. Birds nest and caw outside the windows, mirrored by the ornamental birds that adorn the room. The occupants – the vain, louche Cougar Glass and the fussy, anxious Captain Tock are making preparations for Cougar’s “nineteenth” birthday. Cougar plans to seduce a young man named Foxtrot but when he arrives with girlfriend Sherbet in tow, all of Cougar’s carefully constructed plans are threatened beyond endurance…

Joshua Blake is a wonderfully sinuous and menacing Cougar. The strength of his performance is really highlighted in the second act, when Cougar only has a single line. Blake effortlessly dominates without saying a word; an explosive mix of death glares at Sherbet and come hither looks to Foxtrot. He is, quite aptly, a ticking time bomb and the entire second half is a countdown to the explosion. 

But he doesn't overshadow the rest of this fine cast; particularly not the inspired performance of Nancy Sullivan as Sherbet Gravel. She’s a pint sized firecracker who punctuates every sentence with “babe”, and shows herself to be a lioness in defence of her naïve fiancé Foxtrot. 

Ridley employs several motifs within the play; the constant bird references seem to symbolise a freedom and escape that the characters can only dream of; while the allusions to Peter Pan emphasise the link between Cougar and the original boy who refused to grow up. The language is typically Ridley-esque; which is to say beautiful and sinister. But it’s funny too; the cast wring every last drop of black humour from the lines and Ridley knows how to shape a one liner, as this exchange on Foxtrot's porn preferences shows:
Captain: What does... Foxtrot like?
Cougar: Women with women. 
Captain: Lesbians. 
Cougar: Oh, don’t get all technical. 

Tom O’Brien’s skilled direction brings out both the comedy and the darkness in Ridley’s singular vision; while Emily Harwood’s set is a perfect mix of decay and beauty. It’s a riveting production which succeeds in cementing Ridley's status as one of our most prescient and gifted playwrights.

Friday, 22 November 2013


Finborough Theatre

The mark of a good play is often the amount of time you spend thinking about it after. The mark of a really good play is the amount of time you spend frozen in your seat after it finishes. I sat a good ten minutes once the lights went up, not quite ready to leave and break the spell of this incredible, bruising piece of theatre.

Unscorched is this year’s winner of the Papatango prize; a new writing competition that awards the winner with a three week run at the Finborough. Luke Owen's play focuses on Tom, a young man who takes a job in data analysis at a small company. The data he happens to be analysing is websites containing images and videos of child abuse. The workplace milieu is incredibly well realised; videos are referred to on a scale of severity from category one to category five, counselling is mandatory, employees are encouraged to take breaks to watch daytime television or play X-box. Experienced colleague Nidge is even on hand to make sure the pressures of the job aren't too much for Tom. But it quickly becomes apparent that all the safeguards in the world aren't enough to protect Tom from the horrors he sees.

This creeping trauma is depicted in a series of subtle scenes. There is a perfectly done vignette early on in which Tom goes speed dating and strikes up an instant connection with the chatty Emily. In the audience, we find ourselves unavoidably counting down to the agonising moment where Emily will ask where Tom works and surely shatter the burgeoning attraction between them.

In a calm, un-hysterical way, Unscorched proceeds to show the terrible toll the job takes on Tom. The trauma of his job inevitably bleeds into his personal life; leaving him unable to conduct a sexual relationship with Emily when even the stuffed toy on Emily’s bed is a horrible reminder of the material Tom has seen.

Justin Audibert's directs this difficult piece with tenderness and intelligence; allowing even the smallest of scenes to build to a gripping emotional climax. Georgia Lowe’s set design is genuinely ingenious; turning the tiny Finborough stage into an immensely versatile space where fridges and phones pop out of walls, computers flip up from boxes and the whole centre stage opens up to reveal a fairy lit bed.

The acting is sublime. Ronan Raftery puts in a very impressive performance as Tom; a man who initially fears the videos he views, then later fears the day they cease to affect him. Eleanor Wyld is also excellent as the girlfriend that starts out sweet and sparky, but ends up vulnerable and alienated by the darkness of Tom's world, while John Hodgkinson skilfully lets us see the pain behind Nidge's light-hearted facade. It's an altogether astonishing little slice of realism and hopefully speaks of great things to come for Luke Owen.