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.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Edward II

Edward II
National Theatre

I was so excited when I read the early reviews for the National's production of Edward II. Not because they were so good, but because they were so bad. Tim Walker's review in particular made the production sound like a glorious train wreck. And if the choice is between an average show or a spectacularly bad one, I'll go train wreck every time. Edward II sounded like a hot mess.

So imagine my disappointment when it turned out to be surprisingly good. Don't get me wrong, I can see why it was so divisive. Gaveston as a leather jacket clad American who tears his clothes off at the slightest provocation probably tested a few traditionalists. And costume designer Alex Lowde was clearly so torn between period and modern dress that he decided to throw caution to the wind and go with a bit of everything. But the last Joe Hill-Gibbins I saw - The Changeling - was much in the same vein, and I quite enjoy a bit of theatrical disarray.

It's certainly not a static production. Kyle Soller's spirited Gaveston makes his entrance through the audience, treating the hallowed Olivier banisters like monkey bars. Shortly after Edward and Gaveston embark on a giddy chase around the set; and their later orgy scene is a frenzied piece of physical theatre. The pace is impressively breakneck all the way through, characters shoot on and offstage, alliances are formed and disbanded, war and peace are declared almost simultaneously.

John Heffernan makes an excellent Edward. More childlike than kingly, he bounds across the stage to Gaveston like a puppy, and literally showers titles upon him. Their courtship is conducted like a pair of naughty teenagers, tripping up the courtiers and running round the castle. In many ways this Heffernan's Edward is as much a child in politics as he is in love; it's his impetuousness rather than his homosexuality that seems to be his ultimate donwfall. 

The tragedy of Edward II of course, is that although the court is fully justified in deposing the feeble king, their transgression against the royal lineage is the undoing of them all. The hunt for justice becomes a hunt for revenge. Thus we see the (exquisite) Vanessa Kirby's spurned Isabella allow her righteous anger to curdle into greed and selfishness. Likewise, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith's dignified Mortimer begins the play proud and fair, and ends up as vain and corrupted a ruler as Edward before him. The whole cast does an excellent job of portraying this gradual decay; Kirsty Bushell's Kent goes from betrayer of the king to betrayer of Mortimer, while Penny Layden is gradually consumed by regret as the sympathetic Pembroke. On the other end of the spectrum, Ben Addis and Nathaniel Martello-White add some welcome comedy as roving chancers Baldock and Spencer, summoned by Gaveston to ensure the king remains in feckless fettle.

Some productions choose to emphasise the protagonist as a victim of his intolerant times but Edward-as-gay-hero sits uncomfortably, not least because there's not much heroic about him at all. The sheer idiocy of his defiant behaviour towards his loyal attendants, and his cruel treatment of Isabella make him an ambivalent figure at best. But Edward's heartbroken farewell to Gaveston truly demonstrates the love he feels for him, and Heffernan does a good job of bringing out the humanity and tragedy in the fallen king.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

The Herd

The Herd
Bush Theatre

It seems slightly mean spirited to question whether The Herd would have made it on at the Bush if it hadn't been written by super talented actor and all round nice guy Rory Kinnear; but it's a question that's been posed anyway. (By me. Right now. On this blog.) And the answer is, the jury's out. While this competent play didn't feel out of place on the Bush stage, a less well known first time writer might not have been so lucky.

But why be churlish? There's plenty to commend about this emotional drama, centring around a family gathering to celebrate the 21st birthday party of the absent Andy. Absent because Andy lives in a care home full time due to severe disabilities. He's being allowed home for his birthday, but can his family put aside their issues to enjoy his special day?

No, is the short answer. From the first moment, you could cut the family tension with a chainsaw; frazzled mum Carol is cursing the nutritionist, secretive daughter Claire is dreading introducing new boyfriend Mark to the clan, and the arrival of Andy's estranged father is welcomed by precisely no-one.

It's not an earth shatteringly original plot, but it's well executed. Adding some welcome spark are the two grandparents, played with charm and warmth by Anna Calder-Marshall and Kenneth Cranham. Marshall's matriarch is full of icy put downs and sarcastic asides, while Cranham struggles to keep the peace against increasingly steep odds.

The Herd is unashamedly emotional and there's quite a few stand up knock down rows - particularly between Claire and her parents. Amanda Root's Carol is already on edge before her ex-husband (deftly played by Adrian Rawlins) shows his face, and his arrival prompts the outpouring of long held resentments. Daughter Claire is also furious, and (my future wife) Louise Brealey does a good job of portraying the conflicting emotions of a daughter who both loves and resents her family for letting Andy dictate their lives.

But, despite a genuinely moving ending, and a hilarious performance from Calder Marshall; The Herd never quite becomes anything special. It's a workable, solid play and very well performed, but I don't think it's one that will stick in the mind.