Back in the days when theatre tickets were reasonable (we’re talking 2013 in this case) I used to see practically everything in Trafalgar Studio 2 – unless I really wasn’t keen on something – and because they would have a new show there every four weeks or so, I would pop in with such regularity that long-standing members of staff there still recognise me when I make the occasional visit, usually to review something. One of the many plays I saw there was Mrs Lowry and Son, a two-hander. Michael Begley played the painter LS Lowry, and June Watson played his mother, and she was almost terrifying in her takedowns of her son, who wasn’t commercially successful during his mother’s lifetime but persevered with his day job as a rent collector and spending the evenings doing his paintings portraying real life.
Fast forward to 2019, and with a night off from the theatre reviewing circuit, I thought I’d best make use of an underused cinema membership, to see this film adaptation. Vanessa Redgrave’s Elizabeth Lowry is comparatively softer on the big screen than her counterpart was in the theatre, though there were still audible gasps from the audience: she speaks plainly, and she’s one of those people unafraid to let it be known quite how much she despises her son. Theirs is a strange parent-child relationship, even now that the positions are reversed, such that he is now looking after her, and it seems to me that financial circumstances meant that she didn’t have much choice but to accept assistant from someone she so thoroughly disliked.
It is evident that he does love her, although this does verge on melodramatic, particularly in a huge meltdown that oddly turns out may not have happened after all. And what was with the final moments, basically advertising The Lowry, an exhibition space and theatre venue, promoted as being in ‘Greater Manchester’, which is technically true, but really, it’s in Salford Quays. It would have been okay to have merely pointed out that the place was named in his honour, but to then spend several minutes zooming in on the gallery spaces just seemed superfluous.
I liked it, but then I like plays – and this story doesn’t translate all that well to the medium of the motion picture. Mrs Lowry even suggests his son get out more – and the same could be said for the film itself, which spends rather too much time – for a movie – in her upstairs bedroom. It is, in a way, something of a missed opportunity to have focused so much on the dialogue and not enough on the cinematography.
The story of Emilio (Georgie Ioannides) and Gloria Estefan (Christie Prades), as On Your Feet! is subtitled, is a good one but their adversities aren’t far removed from anyone else who had doors closed, proverbially and literally, by various record labels because they wouldn’t conform to their pre-fabricated models of what they believed the general public was likely to enjoy listening to. But it may be easier to get a following now than it was then, in these days of YouTube celebrities and people with substantial numbers of Instagram followers.
The closest thing to an antagonist this show has comes in the form of Gloria Fajardo (1930-2017) (Madalena Alberto), who threatens not to speak to her namesake daughter again if her younger daughter Rebecca (Francesca Lara Gordon) is taken on the road with the Estefans and their band, the Miami Sound Machine. All is forgiven at some point as they do indeed resume communications – it’s hardly the stuff of Ike Turner over at Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.
The show doesn’t go as far into Estefan’s career as it might have done – Estefan was inducted in 2011 into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame, and I thought it would end there with a celebratory happy ending. Instead the narrative stops in 1991, when she performed ‘Coming Out of the Dark’ at the American Music Awards, having survived a road traffic collision in March 1990 and undergoing a protracted period of rehabilitation.
That is not to say that the audience is necessarily denied twenty years (or more) of her songs – it does feel like a complete story, although I suspect some of Estefan’s fans will doubtless be a tad disappointed at her later singles and albums weren’t covered here. There is some ‘triumph over adversity’ to speak of: in the struggle to assimilate into American society, these Cubans find at one point that their music is ‘too Latino’ for radio stations with majority white American audiences, and ‘too American’ for Spanish language stations.
While knowledge is gained about what character traits Emilio has, that doesn’t add up to character development. His grasp of American English, for instance, is portrayed as – well, diabolical – something which the audience is expected to laugh at. Forgive me for being a spoilsport, but I find that difficult, having long since learned not to laugh at someone who talks in broken English, if only because they know another language.
The show is, by and large, very appealing to its target audience. A ten-piece band directed by Clay Ostwald (an actual veteran of the Miami Sound Machine) is sometimes visible on stage (always good to see) and the lighting design (Kenneth Posner) is extraordinary throughout, as if the lights have a choreography of their own. The celebrations are justified – this is a couple who held their nerve when pretty much the entire music industry was telling them they wouldn’t be a success. But is there a bit too much exposition and not enough dramatization? A lot of details are spoken about in conversation but are not actually seen on stage, a point underlined during a flashback scene in which the older Gloria belts out a song with an assured confidence.
The London Coliseum, alas, is too big a venue for this show. Further, the enjoyment of certain songs is curtailed by crowbarring bits of narrative into them, disrupting the flow of the tune’s rhythm before resuming once more until the next interruption, and so on. That said, it’s an enthusiastic show and one I’m pleased to have seen.
This trilogy of short plays, Making Noise Quietly, would have worked better as a motion picture if it had taken bolder steps to adapt its narrative arcs to the motion picture medium. In each of them, there are conversations that strike up between people who have never met before and end up creating memorable experiences. In the first place, I wondered if it would be better if it were titled Making Noise Very Quietly If At All, given that it is a full two minutes before any significant noise is heard – and even then it is a melancholy tune being played on a piano.
The cinematography is sometimes truly splendid, with panoramic views of sections of the British countryside. Other times, and too often in my view, shots are partially out of focus, as though this were a human equivalent of Animal Farm, where everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others. Perhaps, especially in the first scene, ‘Being Friends’, this is somewhat justified – Eric Faber (Matthew Tennyson) is a gay man in the Second World War (homosexuality was not decriminalised until 1967 in England and Wales), though is happy to confide in all the details with Oliver Bell (Luke Thompson).
But certain people being in focus and certain other people not being in focus carried on, even when in completely different contexts. It sits especially uncomfortably in the final third of the film, also called ‘Making Noise Quietly’, in which Helene Esslin (Deborah Findlay), a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, works so consistently to instil (amongst other things) mutual respect in Sam (Orton O’Brien), a child with selective mutism. The boy’s carer, Alan Tadd (Trystan Gravelle), who adopted him, has issues of his own to deal with, which makes for an intriguing last half hour.
Each scene is set in a different part of the countryside, where the way of life is relatively more sedate than the frenetic pace of living in the city. There are many advantages to this – I wonder if the sort of deep and introspective conversations that take place here would even be possible today, not least because of the seeming ubiquity of social media and instant messaging. But I found the movie was too much of a slow burner for me to properly maintain interest throughout, and I daresay that if I had seen this at the cinema, there’s a chance I may not have stayed awake throughout.
The best one for me is ‘Lost’, in which May Appleton (Barbara Marten) receives the sort of news that Geoffrey Church (Geoffrey Streatfeild) reasonably assumed she would already know: the Falklands War is ongoing, and her son Ian will be coming home in a coffin. There are all sorts of narrative details that arise from this simple meeting. It seems a little contrived, though – would a naval officer (or indeed anyone) really open up so quickly and with so much detail to someone they had met for the first time? Then again, this is precisely the point the film is making: it is possible to be perfectly honest with complete strangers and yet conceal the truth from friends and family.
The main problem for this film seems to be that, for all the scenery, there’s a lot of talking heads going on, and as I started by saying, this still feels like it should be in a playhouse rather than a cinema. The score (Stephen Warbeck) is to be savoured, however, and there’s no faulting the acting from a strong cast. An impactful reminder that the consequences of war and conflict stretches far beyond the immediate battlefield.
I really don’t watch television these days, and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a fairly new thing in my calendar (and may yet, the spiralling costs of accommodation and train fares being what they are, something I may decide sooner rather than later to stop doing), so I’d missed the initial run of Fleabag when at ran in 2013 at Underbelly Cowgate. Indeed, I had no idea who or what Fleabag was, which led to some astonishment on social media when I simply asked, “What’s Fleabag?” Most responses, though, were very understanding and told me what I needed to know, and I subsequently spent part of my journey up to the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe on the Caledonian Sleeper watching the Fleabag television series on DVD.
It’s interesting to note the reviews from 2013 – Laura Barnett in The Telegraph found Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character “distinctly unlikeable… [her] narcissism does grow wearisome”, and Lyn Gardner, still employed by The Guardian at the time, gave it three stars, which by Edinburgh Fringe standards is pretty lukewarm. Philip Fisher in the British Theatre Guide, however, got it right: “For anyone that is not shaken by adult themes or contemporary language, this beautifully-performed, tautly-written play, which could soon become a cult, should prove a highlight of their trip to Edinburgh.”
It is, as far as single performer shows go, highly compelling. Even having seen the television series (and, evidently, I wasn’t the only one in the Wyndham’s Theatre audience that had) and seeing and hearing the storylines that are further developed on the DVDs than they are in the play, it’s still as poignant as it is hilarious. It’s incredibly sharp – Waller-Bridge has a subtle yet compelling stage presence, and delivers punchlines in such a deadpan manner that almost betrays quite how lewd some of it is. One national newspaper, really missing the point, complained about the number of swear words used in the play. Perhaps that journalist who works for The Sun should go and see The Book of Mormon before whingeing about the strong language in Fleabag.
The title character is ridiculously open about all aspects of her life, with the audience ending up knowing more than other characters as she acts as gatekeeper to her own secrets. Even in relatively liberal London, there were a few gasps at the revelation that Fleabag has “a handprint on the wall from when I had a threesome on my period”. Usually, given the choice between the DVD and the live theatre show, I’d plump for the latter. Here, though, other characters are (because there’s time and scope to do so) more fleshed out on the small screen than they are on stage. But it was still very much worth seeing an extremely versatile actor hold a West End audience captive all on her own.
A shorter list of non-reviewed shows to write about for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, as there weren’t that many shows that I wasn’t reviewing one way or another (my pithiest ones were a mere two paragraphs, a first for me). I’d have liked to have seen more stuff without a proverbial reviewer’s hat on, but as I appear to have found a repeat destination for my summer holiday (I’ve already booked for 2020) more people found out I was going back to the Fringe, and could I please consider their show? Then, as a result of Assembly (one of the Big Four venue operators, the others being Pleasance, Gilded Balloon and Underbelly – all are easy to distinguish from one another by the different coloured uniforms of their staff and the overall colour schemes of their signage, red, yellow, pink and purple respectively) wanting reviewers to obtain ‘accreditation’ from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, and I obliged, PRs and producers I’d never heard of were inviting me to shows. I just might go the whole hog next year and not see anything at the Fringe unless I am specifically invited to it.
I was invited to two ‘meet the press’ gatherings, both of which I missed on account of having shows to go and see when the meetings were on. This was the first time I ventured into Surgeons Hall, where the press office for theSpaceUK – I am grateful to the press team there for booking me into shows, sometimes just by me walking in and saying, ‘Hello, I would like a ticket for such and such a production’. I thank Emily Hay at Gilded Balloon for sorting out press tickets for shows, again sometimes at short notice. And the unnamed person at Underbelly who was beavering away, sending me confirmations of press tickets as late as 11:30pm on a Sunday night – well done.
Overall, it has been a very good Fringe – there was only one dud production I saw out of 58 – Bible John at Pleasance Courtyard if you must know. As I said ‘yes’ to so many miscellaneous review requests and had gone through the Fringe brochure to see if there was anything I wanted to see anyway, there was little scope to investigate show recommendations from others – it’s necessary to time oneself appropriately, leaving time for meals, getting to and from venues and finding time to bash out reviews. I was, however, able to check out ‘In Loyal Company’, written and performed by David William Bryan, on the recommendation of Catherine Francoise, a singing teacher based in Buckinghamshire, and on the back of that astounding performance, I booked to see his other Fringe 2019 show, ‘Fragility of Man’.
I also caught the new musical ‘Cathy: A Retelling of Wuthering Heights’, because its title character was being played by Emma Torrens. I wasn’t aware of Torrens previously, but she was highly recommended by Barney Wilkinson, a young musical theatre actor, who said she had the finest singing voice he’d ever heard. This turned out to be no exaggeration, and indeed Torrens even won the Derek Award for Best Voice 2019.
‘Fragility of Man’ is a vastly different show to ‘In Loyal Company’, telling the story of John Doe, a name given to the narrator character in this one man show on account of his notoriety (I think – as I wasn’t on reviewing duty I was as relaxed as I could be, even in an extremely hot venue, and those two things combined in such a way that I wasn’t all that attentive to minor details, sitting back and enjoying the performance for what it was). There’s a partner, Jane, and together they have a son, Michael, whose very existence proves a game changer for John. For various reasons (not all of them his own), John keeps being put in prison, breaking my cardinal rule for anyone who wants to dabble in things like drug dealing: Don’t. Get. Caught. It’s a compelling story, and told with the intensity and passion that David William Bryan is starting to gain a reputation for.
I also managed to find time to catch ‘Holy Land’, presented by a fresh upstart production company called Elegy Theatre. I reviewed it for them when it previewed at The Space Arts Centre on the Isle of Dogs, and am pleased to report it has been enhanced with the kind of video projections and images that would have made the narrative clearer in its earlier incarnation. But they had an actor in their cast at the time who was sufficiently triggered by the hard-hitting nature of the narrative: he left the show by mutual consent. Another actor (Rick Romero) came in at short notice, and did very well at the London press night. It’s about the ‘dark web’ and the consequences of indulging in such online activity.
I also took a punt on ‘Christianity and Me’, a work in progress comedy act by Nick Dixon. I have seen enough Fringe shows to know that the title of the show is not necessarily even remotely indicative of its content. Fortunately or unfortunately here, he actually does want to talk about the Christian faith – his Fringe audiences have apparently been boosted by the membership of the evangelical Destiny Church Edinburgh. Most people in the audience on the night I attended were Christians, or at least said they were, and most of those were also evangelical, though one described her kind of religion as ‘liberal progressive’. Dixon has some traditionalist views, stating a preference for sombre and reflective services over guitars and chart-music style hymns.
His show is in a work in progress, so I’ll side with the religionists and be forgiving. His lines of argument do need fleshing out – why are songs from yesteryear superior to the ones written recently? But as Dixon says, he’s got one of the most difficult tasks at the Fringe, where the default position is to be atheist, or at least do what I’ve done and be highly critical of organised religion. My attitude towards Christianity is best summed up by Gandhi, who is quoted as having said, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians.” Still, it was a surreal experience, if anything, listening to someone promote chastity before marriage in all seriousness: it’s a message still given out at chapel but rarely if ever at a comedy gig. Dixon does at least have a suitably pleasant manner.
Australian comedian Rhys Nicholson, who I’ve seen and loved three Fringes in a row, likes to close his set by encouraging audiences to take a punt on someone they’ve not seen before – maybe there will be someone who people really like and will follow in the future, whether at the Fringe or elsewhere. Now, the first time I saw Irish comedian Ed Byrne live, he was on about how relentless wedding planning is. When I saw his subsequent show, he got married and he was on about living together with his wife Claire and getting used to one another’s eccentricities. Fast forward to Fringe 2019 and he’s 47 years of age and his two children are growing up fast. Well, he kept saying he’s 47 now, but he still jumps around and commands the stage with the energy of someone considerably younger. And he’s as funny as ever, at least as far as I’m concerned.
What else? That walk up to the Pleasance Courtyard is probably always going to be exhausting for me (it’s a particularly steep incline) and when August rolls around again, there’s no point denying it: I’ll end up succumbing eventually to the oh so calorific but oh so tasty eateries like the City Restaurant on Nicolson Street and the various places around the main Fringe venues that do pizzas and fish and chips and what have you. Don’t bother with the coffee from the outdoor stands at places like George Square and Assembly Rooms though – bleurgh. But no summer cold to report this year, and I’ve come back not nearly as exhausted as a schedule of 58 shows in 12 days plus reviews for the vast majority of those might suggest.
Haste ye back, so the saying goes. Is 21st September soon enough? I’m seeing some people I rather like in a touring production of Mamma Mia! at the Edinburgh Playhouse.
Now this is a departure from the usual Edinburgh Fringe staple diet of straight plays and stand-up comedy sets: An Introduction to Joy, presented by a former Free Church clergyman. There are more verses from the Bible read out than there would be at a typical church service, all of which are from Ecclesiastes. In an arguably radical (re)interpretation of the selected verses, it would appear that the relative fleetingness of life means that life is to be lived and appreciated. Bell goes on to quote the Talmud, a major source of Jewish theology, “A person will be called to account on Judgement Day for every permissible thing he might have enjoyed but did not.”
If this goes against the ideals of organised religion, which has a habit of eschewing anything remotely fun or entertaining, so be it – Bell draws his audience back to the essence of the holy texts themselves, and at the same time (and I’d say this is crucial) nobody is asked to convert to anything. It’s all about the practicalities of increasing the amount of joy in people’s lives, small steps that people can actually take. And this is a very slick presentation, complete with photographs and images projected onto a large screen, which demonstrate the points being made very well.
Amusing social media posts are shown and chortled at, and the repeated mantra is to “lower the bar”, to the point where one is able to lighten up at smile at things that others may find infantile or unfunny. There are road signs showing distances to oddly named destinations, cute pictures of cats and dogs, that sort of thing. I can see why some adherents of religion absolutely hate the guy – God forbid people should actually have “life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). In the end, whatever one’s stance on faith, whatever one’s sexual orientation, whatever one’s stage of life, there’s joy to be found wherever we are, if we just look closely enough.
Rob Bell: An Introduction To Joy
The Stand’s New Town Theatre (Grand Hall)
17, 18 and 19 August 2019
21:00 (1 hour)
Former pastor Rob Bell is the New York Times bestselling author of Love Wins, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, The Zimzum of Love, How To Be Here and What is the Bible?. His podcast, RobCast, is the number one spirituality podcast. He’s been profiled in the New Yorker, toured with Oprah, and Time Magazine named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. He has a regular show at Largo, the legendary LA club, and now brings his brilliant new show to the 2019 Fringe.
Ah yes, a handgun in a production of Romeo + Juliet. Or is it Romeo & Juliet? Or plain old Romeo and Juliet? There’s even a pop music take on the story, called & Juliet, though even that show still has a Romeo. But it recalls to my mind the Baz Luhrmann motion picture of the Shakespeare text, where characters draw ‘swords’ which are actually guns. This production from Sir Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures company is pure dance – that is, no spoken dialogue, and unlike the touring production of the New Adventures’ Swan Lake which I caught earlier in 2019, this one has a live orchestra.
It’s a comfortable journey that lasts just shy of two hours, including an interval, and the stage is often bathed in white, both in the lighting and in the costumes of most of the characters, who appear to be in some kind of bedlam, called – wait for it – the Verona Institute. White trousers and white shirts are the order of the day, all day, every day. Romeo Montague (Paris Fitzpatrick), who in this interpretation is rather eccentric, is left with the Institute by his parents, Senator and Mrs Montague (Matt Petty and Daisy May Kemp), who have paid them a handsome sum of money.
Sir Matthew has expressed his difficulties in coming to grips with Shakespeare texts. I offer three reasons why this may be so, for him and for others. The first is that most people’s first encounter with Shakespeare, at least in the UK, is at school, read slowly, line by line, dissected and analysed in a fashion that Shakespeare (probably) never intended. There is therefore little if any motivation to have anything to do with Shakespeare texts later in life. The second is that it is largely written in what was the contemporary language of that generation, so the idioms and idiosyncrasies haven’t aged well over four hundred years. The third, as literature scholars will tell you, is that there are inconsistencies in the text, for instance to do with the passage of time within narratives.
This isn’t, when one thinks about it, Shakespeare at all. I don’t make that statement as a criticism, merely as an observation. That whole thing with the apothecary telling Juliet to drink some potion or other is gone, and Tybalt (a suitably menacing Dan Wright) lives. There are three acts, not five. There is a balcony, but it’s not used for discreet meetups between Romeo and Juliet (Cordelia Braithwaite). And so on, and so forth. The battle is effectively between the inmates, or patients, or whatever they are, against the Institute’s management and staff. It’s a little like that show I kept returning to during its relatively short runs in London in 2017 and 2018, Bat Out of Hell The Musical – the youth are in conflict with the establishment, the latter misusing – and possibly abusing – its power.
The choreography is, of course, far more exquisite than a rock and roll dystopia could ever be. The lighting (Paule Constable) is extraordinary, and the choice of music, all compositions by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), is stunning and varied. The family feud may have been excised from the story in this version but it’s the opening tune, ‘Montagues and Capulets’ that this production returns to repeatedly during the evening. Mercutio (Reece Causton) and Balthasar (Jackson Finch) are in a relationship, which does drag the story into the modern era, and when Mercutio fails to survive a stabbing, it’s a poignant moment seeing Balthasar try to come to terms with it.
Trigger warning: there’s about as much fake blood as there is in an episode of Holby City. One of my fellow theatregoers didn’t like it, the others said they very much did! This is the kind of slick and enthusiastic reinterpretation of a well-known story that New Adventures has become known for putting on – another triumph for them. Well worth seeing.
Photo credit: Johan Persson
There are, I suppose, very few theatrical adaptations of books that are as gripping as the books themselves. Now, this may be an unpopular opinion, but I found that Paula Hawkins’ novel, The Girl on the Train quite sluggish for the first couple of hundred pages – it was the kind of book I read if I had a few moments on the London Underground and there weren’t some tourists and/or children screaming like banshees in the carriage and carried on reading only when similar circumstances arose again. But I remember reading the last hundred pages in a single sitting at home, staying up to get to the end.
The play, however, hits the ground running quickly, and regardless of whether one has read the book or not, it’s all rather intriguing. A bit like The Mousetrap, there are possible clues that lead to Person A possibly being the prime suspect, before some additional information comes to light that could mean it was Person B, and so on, until it all comes together in the end. A missing person enquiry turns into a murder investigation, led by DI Gaskill (Alex Ferns), speaking in his natural Scots accent, which reminded me of a flippant remark by Quentin Letts in which he managed to piss off the likes of James McAvoy. In a review of the National Theatre production of Peter Gynt, he writes of an RP-accented character bringing “a welcome calm to proceedings and relief at last from the whining Scottish accents.”
It wasn’t the accent (not problematic at all for yours truly) that irritated Rachel Watson (Samantha Womack), but rather the incessant questioning. Her ex-husband Tom (Adam Jackson-Smith) and his new wife Anna (Lowenna Melrose) get just as annoyed, having to cover the same ground repeatedly: what happened on such-and-such a night in such-and-such a place? Who said what to whom? What time? And it’s not like there was ‘good cop’ and ‘bad cop’ going on, as the other two police officers (Matt Concannon and Phillipa Flynn) both had non-speaking parts. Had the characters not expressed their displeasure at every possible lead, no matter how bizarre, being followed up in all seriousness, the audience might have ended up very bored themselves. Instead, I found myself identifying with them, inasmuch as I would have felt similar sentiments towards such an infuriating approach.
The other characters in this sorry tale are Scott Hipwell (Philip McGinley), his wife Megan (Kirsty Oswald) and Megan’s therapist, Dr Kamal Abdic (Marc Elliott). Essentially, Rachel’s train journey is so slow and shit that she has time each and every weekday on the morning commute to observe the back gardens of certain people and notice when Woman X is snogging someone other than the same man, presumably her husband or at least long-term partner, whom she usually kisses and embraces. As tends to be the case with adaptations of this nature, the narrative is somewhat simplified – Cathy, Rachel’s de facto landlord in the book, is relegated to an estate agent whose voicemails are swiftly deleted by Rachel (one wonders why she (Cathy) features at all in the play, except to appease the book readers who might otherwise have thought she was conspicuous by her total absence).
Of course, I’m not going to bother stating who did what to whom here. The set (James Cotterill), while functional, has parts banging into each other with unnecessary force, and shifts about uncomfortably and jerkily during scene changes. I get that this is a touring production, but it’s still in the West End, even for a brief residency – and it’s just not good enough. But at least there no weak links to report in the acting. A gripping and absorbing night out.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.