What makes a play like The Old Room successful is its ability to make the portrayal of pertinent contemporary issues believable. There are examples where technological algorithms have been used with harmless and hilarious consequences – one online retailer, for instance, was said to have promoted ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ to customers who purchased a DVD of ‘The Theory of Everything’, apparently because such customers might like another DVD with the word ‘of’ in its title.
Here, different settings – an office, a bar, an apartment – are laid out rather simply on stage. I fear I doth protest too much by pointing out that the movements of characters sometimes means that it is, technically, clear only from the dialogue which setting a given scene is in. The upside of having all the furniture and seating for each setting on stage is that the lighting is all that is needed to effect a scene change – there’s no frantic shifting around by stagehands, just a slick and smooth transition to the next part of the narrative.
It is important to keep a sense of perspective while watching this story unfold – it turns out Sam Conway (Nicholas Limm), an IT specialist with an interest in online security, has himself had some of his personal details in the hands of people whom he never authorised to handle such information. No wonder Lulu (Miranda Shamiso) loses her temper with him: if the online security consultant’s details have been compromised, what hope is there for IT laypersons who don’t know the difference between ‘dynamic tessellation’ and ‘quantum dot’?
But as those who have seen this production may be keen to point out, there are other reasons why Lulu loses her rag. Most characters have what they get up to outside work revealed in some way. While the details of who is supposed to be having a drink with whom were difficult to care about, it is interesting that such details came out through face-to-face conversation – that is, offline. It could be argued that a show of this nature might have done well to use, for instance, projections of contributions to a WhatsApp or Facebook group, or email correspondence, or whatever it was that Sam was typing away on his laptop, in his attempt to improve security settings on the servers of a political activist group called ‘4C’, victims of hacking.
It’s certainly a very timely play, coming weeks before the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulations, and in the light of activities carried out by Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm. Not necessarily in chronological order, a separate storyline involving Sam Conway, Rowland Gant (Patrick Romer) and Romy (Karina Knapinska), runs in parallel with the office politics, banter and post-work drinks at ‘4C’. The script gives ample opportunity for discussions about online security and the implications of applying additional measures, without sounding too artificial.
The first half was a tad too slow for my liking, but the show comes alive after the interval. Nina (Nicole Roberts) finally displays some emotion, and thanks to Gant, the threats that Romy was being exposed to have been severely curtailed. The ending is far from conclusive, however, and the audience is left to make up its own mind: are the 4C servers now safe, or at least safer? As Conway points out, if someone really wants access to the server, they will find a way through somehow. One can only mitigate rather than eliminate. Thankfully, in this production the audience is never bamboozled by IT jargon. An absorbing and thoughtful play that explores the consequences of online hacking for all parties concerned.
At the White Bear Theatre until 12 May 2018. www.whitebeartheatre.co.uk
This is Ed Byrne’s warning to his audiences, even if he offers no solutions – practical or otherwise – as to what steps could be taken to try to do something about it. Today’s generation of parents of dependent children, which Byrne counts himself amongst, having two boys (who, in the great tradition of stand-up comedy, are subjected to character assassination) are spoiling their offspring, partly by default, partly by design. There are already signs in graduates and school leavers entering the workplace today who expect that the world owes them everything they desire, and the fuss that they kick up when they don’t get what they want (and f*ck everyone else and their requirements) is tantamount to a volcano exploding. It’s a wonder, to me, that such people don’t spontaneously combust, such is their vitriol when there’s just one teeny weeny insignificant thing – and there is always, always, something – that isn’t to their exacting standards.
Not that such people are going to set about doing anything regarding what they perceive to be a ‘problem’, or to be more precise, ‘the greatest injustice in the history of the world’, an indication of how up their own backsides these frivolous and fickle people are, given that the history of the world includes miscellaneous genocides, floods and earthquakes, international wars, the Holocaust, 9/11, the potato famine and anything else involving death and destruction one can care to think of. Oh no, no, no. It’s always someone else’s fault, and someone else’s responsibility to correct a (non) fault.
What Byrne is suggesting in his latest stand-up tour, Spoiler Alert, is that youngsters are being increasingly inclined to expect entitlement. Of course, there are going to be those that buck the trend, and for every young selfish prick out there, there’s another warm-hearted and generous youngster, articulate and assertive as opposed to sullen and irritable. I am not entirely immune to Byrne’s observations. I spend too much on takeaways, brought to my doorstep by Deliveroo drivers, because I can’t be bothered to cook. I turn up at the theatre hurried and flustered because I didn’t leave enough time to get there, and I probably shouldn’t (much as I hate to admit it) accept as many invitations to review as I do.
Byrne is that rare sort of comedian that I have always enjoyed seeing live over the years: I think I have seen him on the stand-up circuit more times than any other humourist. I simply appreciate his incisive observations. An example: his systematic demolition of the concept of semi-skimmed milk (why not buy a pint of skimmed milk and a pint of full fat milk and mix them together?) may not stop me from being a green topper altogether, but it did make me think.
Long-form stories take precedence over Tim Vine-style one-line punchlines, and Byrne doesn’t bother with incivility, preferring friendliness with the audience and being genuinely articulate (yes, there’s swearing, but it’s not as compulsory as breathing), as well as being shrewd enough to judge the New Wimbledon Theatre audience as being different from that of, say, Hove or Sheffield. But, in effect a performer directing himself, he digresses to the point where a story that begins fairly early in Act One isn’t completed until Act Two.
I must admit I groaned inside when Donald Trump came up. As so often, though, Byrne redeems himself in my book, with a delightful discovery of how ‘Donald Trump’ translates into British Sign Language. It originated in American Sign Language, as I understand it. The right hand moves to smooth down Mr Trump’s hair, as though ruffled in the wind. Brilliant.
At least there’s no pretentiousness in this play insofar as the show’s title reveals there is a critical incident that occurs in this play that markedly changes things for everyone concerned. Repeated references are made of “the Datia incident” in a show that bills itself as a ‘historical re-imagining’, which to me is a contradiction in terms. But there are different accounts of what happened when Gauhar Jaan (1873-1930) (Sheetal Kapoor) accepted an invitation from the King of Datia, Maharaja Bhawani Singh Bahadur (1837-1907) (Harmage Singh Kalirai) to perform at his court. The kingdom no longer exists, as the Maharaja of Datia, along with most of the 550+ ‘princely states’ recognised by the British Raj, acceded to the Dominion of India after India’s independence from Britain in 1947.
Which version of the so-called Datia incident is correct? It is impossible to say for certain, for various reasons that are set out in history books and biographies (I recommend ‘My Name Is Gauhar Jaan!’ The Life and Times of a Musician by Vikram Sampath). This production, quite cleverly, presents three versions, each of which begins with someone local to whichever region Fred Gaisberg (Jordon Kemp) is travelling through.
The locals are played with some considerable verve and palpable passion by Jas Steven Singh – one of them prefers choruses from Europe like ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’, dismissing his own country’s music as “too serious”. Gaisberg, working for the Gramophone Company was trying to track down Gauhar Jaan, but encountered difficulties, not least because there were other entertainers and ‘courtesans’ with similar names. Sampath’s book tells of his own need, during his research, to separate this Gauhar Jaan of Calcutta from “Gauhar Jaan of Patiala, Gauhar Jaan Jaipurwali, Miss Gohar (associated with the Parsi Theatrical Company in Bombay” (his list goes on).
Perhaps because the inclusion of a critical incident has become a hallmark of many modern plays, the astonishment that locals appear to have with Gaisberg’s unfamiliarity with ‘the Datia incident’ added comic effect, as if it were a subliminal, even slightly mocking, commentary on the near ubiquity of incidents. It was as though the production was saying, “Welcome to our show! You’ve seen so many shows with critical incidents. Well, we have one too!” But there is much that is unique about this production, too – the inclusion of the sort of music that Gauhar Jaan would have performed permeates the proceedings, sometimes to the irritation of the Maharaja, and it is left to his trusted servant Bakshi Saheb (Devesh Kishore) to try to smooth things over. Whether he succeeds is dependent on which version of the Datia incident should be believed.
This was not a dull and repetitive evening in which one wishes everyone would just stop talking and let Gauhar Jaan sing. Combined, the uncertainties and differences in the details of the story, and who said what to whom, prove for a fascinating couple of hours. The lighting (Paul Micah) works well to add to the already apprehensive, or light, atmosphere. There are even parallels between what happened in Datia (which, thanks to this production, doesn’t stay in Datia) and what happens today: I have never been a recording artist or performer, but I have done what Gauhar Jaan did. I have agreed to lengthy and jargon-filled terms and conditions, signing off on a document which I never read in full.
If only the story of Gauhar Jaan were explored more. The audience is made aware that Gaisberg succeeded in tracking her down and that they made a gramophone recording. But then the show abruptly ends, and there is no indication of how many records were sold, or what she went on to do post-Datia. Then again, it is better for a show to leave an audience wanting more than to outstay its welcome, and this absorbing production is a useful introduction to one of the most influential musicians of her generation.
Omnibus Theatre, until 29 April 2018
7.30pm Tuesday to Sunday, and 4pm Sunday
India, October 1902. Fred Gaisberg is traveling across the country capturing the exotic sounds of the East to be played on his miraculous new machine, the gramophone. He is hoping to record the beautiful voice of Gauhar Jaan, a young courtesan famed not only for her musical prowess but her arrogance.
Numerous travellers Gaisberg meets along the way recount the famous Datia Incident where the Maharaja and Gauhar Jaan ‘the Queen of the Arts’ indulged in a fierce battle of egos, the outcome of which threatens Gaisberg’s mission. Each tells the tale of what happened on that dark day in Datia. So what exactly happened?
The programme’s cover image for Small Faces includes a telephone off the hook, a bottle of Jack Daniels whisky and a tub of pills. All it needed was a book by Sylvia Plath to be included. Then it would showcase possibly the most melodramatic and depressing play of the year. But even if my experience of school included as many examples from teaching staff of how not to live one’s life as an adult as Gwen (Murigen O’Mahoney) experienced in her own formative years, one of the few memorable and positive things that have stayed with me over the decades is the saying that one should not judge a book by its cover. Likewise, a play ought not to be judged on its cover image.
This play takes the form of two monologues, one with Gwen, the other with Lori (Jamie Lee Pike). The former is pregnant, the latter is widowed. There’s an obvious generational gap, but what they have in common is physical proximity – they live in the same block of flats, close enough such that Gwen can hear it when Lori’s stereo is cranked up – and a similar need for companionship. This need explains why Lori telephones Gwen as often as she does: a need for assistance with what certain functions the remote control for her television perform is really a need to talk to someone. For reasons that become clear in the narrative, Lori doesn’t get out much these days. Not being au fait with social media and other technological means of communicating with others (her description of the online dating process is quite hilarious), her options are limited.
Even without allowing for this most unassuming audience (the performance was a fundraiser for another show by Temporary Misplaced Productions that will enjoy a run this summer at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe), the play is an intriguing one. It remains intriguing to the end, which is quite an achievement given that Act Two is essentially the same as Act One but from the other person’s perspective: but in, for instance, hearing that ‘other’ side of a phone conversation in the second half, the narrative comes together as a cohesive whole.
There’s some humour, mostly in the form of comic relief from the serious themes the play brings to the fore, partly because of misunderstandings, and partly because, in the soliloquies, some pleasant memories come to mind. Both characters, in their own way, wrestle with whether they should even carry on living. For Lori, toasting her widow Fletcher’s birthday, the celebratory mood gradually turns sourer; for Gwen, a stressful argument with ex-partner Peter compounds an already bleak situation.
There was, as someone pointed out to me afterwards, a generous dosage of swearing, particularly in the second half – though I didn’t personally detect any more profanity than has become normal in contemporary plays. The play did make me shifty and uncomfortable at times but not because of ‘eff, cee and effing cee’. It’s not nice seeing someone describe themselves quite convincingly as someone who “should have been sectioned years ago” and builds herself a wonderful portrait of doing everything possible to help her child to be get the best possible start in life, only to tear it all down again for lack of self-esteem.
Certain details are relatable to many, such as humming a tune but not quite knowing why, before getting frustrated that one can’t recall what the tune even is. The very end, though predictable from what happens just before the interval, is still a pleasant reassurance when it comes. Now, it is quite normal for creatives to be bags of nerves on opening night: all their collective efforts have come down to this live performance. It is relatively rare, however, for someone, whose blushes I shall spare by retaining their anonymity, to be the wreck they were, even after the show. I have no idea why they were so concerned: this very topical and bittersweet production flowed brilliantly, and I hope this isn’t the last time the show graces the London stage.
What a pleasurable and delightful play this is. I could go on at length about certain aspects in this production of You Can’t Take It With You that don’t make a lot of sense, but rather like The Addams Family, the eccentricities are what make the characters in this bizarre and chaotic – but nonetheless hilarious – so compelling and unique. I should qualify that comparison: Paul (Mark Watson Gray) and Penny Sycamore (Dara Seitzman) and their extended family are merely quirky, rather than enthusiastically macabre, as the Addamses are.
Both the set (Peter Foster) and the costumes (Andrea Ortiz) fit the storyline like gloves. The original Broadway run was in 1936, and just occasionally the script shows its age. But given it’s the script’s strength and the sheer amount of fun this company seemed to have on stage, it’s a little surprising that there aren’t more productions of this play. The vocabulary is often rich, as it was back in the day when insults were as imaginative as compliments and used a much wider lexicon than the blunt expletive-ridden putdowns often used today.
Given its clean language as well as being a period piece, it’s no wonder that it enjoys an enduring popularity amongst those high schools in the United States that put on amateur student productions – even the minor characters, such as the all-too-briefly seen Donald (Joe Docherty), are far from superfluous in a plot that has a sufficient number of twists and turns. It’s very much a straightforward comedy: no characters are killed in the course of proceedings, and the sweet conclusion is a touching (if crowd-pleasing) moment.
The performances were fine overall, though the standouts for me were the older characters Gay Wellington and Olga Katrina (both Lily Ann Green). The former adds to the borderline anarchic proceedings while under the influence. The latter is a ‘grand duchess’ who might still have some royal privileges in her native Russia had it not been, quite literally, for the revolution. Then there’s Martin Vanderhof (Robert Pennant Jones), the patriarch of the clan, whose mealtime graces are like none other – and far from dull, prove to be welcome moments of calm in a sea of chaos.
The awkwardness (and, for the audience, amusement) reaches a peak with the introduction of Anthony Kirby (Craig Karpel) and his wife Miriam (Cathy Abbott), a rather stiff and principled couple (the Dindons in La Cage Aux Folles came to my mind). Their ways are so diametrically opposed to their hosts that it is no wonder Alice Sycamore (Izzi Richardson), dating Mr and Mrs Kirby’s son, Tony (Graeme Langford) can’t see how their relationship could last in the long run. For all the pandemonium that goes on, one thing is relatable: there are a great many people who have gone through meeting their partner’s family for the first time, and one just doesn’t know how well or how badly the first impression will be.
The play ultimately serves as a poignant reminder that there is little point in pursuing wealth to the point where it cannot be enjoyed: work to live, don’t live to work. After all, you can’t take it with you. A hearty and humorous production, this is comic escapism of the highest order. What I did take away with me is a memory of a highly enjoyable evening.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.