It is quite often the case, though I seldom mention it in reviews, that a fair amount of new comedy writing for the stage would probably work better for television. But broadcasting regulations are what they are (at the time of writing, the Ofcom Broadcasting Code runs to 166 pages, and even quotes articles in the European Convention on Human Rights), and it’s possible to get away with being cruder and crueller in the theatre that it is on the small screen. Consider, for example, the hit musical The Book of Mormon.
There are quick fire scenes, which sometimes only last a couple of minutes, and frantic scene changes, sometimes to-ing and fro-ing between characters and settings too much. It’s become so prevalent that when I recently attended a new play that started with a monologue that lasted almost half an hour, it caught some other theatregoers by surprise, and some found it very hard going, despite the richness and intensity of both the script and its delivery by a talented performer.
In reviewing a theatre show, one should consider how well it works as a production, and not spend much (if any) energy evaluating its potential as a television programme, motion picture or radio play. I’ve only made a big deal of it here as Sharon Sexton and Riona O Connor, in presenting a staged performance of Sucked! are quite happy to let it be known that this was a presentation of certain sketches and songs from a “musical comedy television series” that is still a work in progress. “Don’t stress if it don’t [sic] make sense,” the prologue tells the audience. Some scenes do indeed work better than others here, but they are, to use their choice of phrase, “thematically linked”, but not dramaturgically so.
This isn’t the kind of irrational feminism that assumes that all men are useless simply because they are men. It’s just certain ones for specific reasons, and the comedy shines through in the details provided. Every so often, however, someone is accused of something not very believable – one particularly memorable ‘yeah, right’ story was about a man who apparently had a habit of clipping his toenails on the London Underground.
There’s no doubting, however, that there are some vivid descriptions in the lyrics, with some hilarious recollections. In one instance, a man was made love to “so hard that [his] penis bled”, and in another, O Connor tried and failed sexual relations with another man, because, “you can’t pound a mound”. A third man, presumably one in a marriage or long-term relationship, is told that if he could only be bothered to do his fair share of the household chores, then and only then will she agree to bedroom activity.
The show pulls no punches in its exploration of what it is to be a single woman, when many others of their age are now married or otherwise cohabiting. It’s rare to come across genuinely amusing toilet humour, for instance, and I can only wish Sexton and O Connor well with their television series. There aren’t any further details about production, filming or broadcast dates – I assume the focus for the time being is on getting it written. There may be a bit of a wait: Sexton will shortly resume her role as Sloane in that amazing musical, Bat Out of Hell, as it plays Toronto from mid-October to Christmas Eve 2017, and as has been well publicised, that show returns to London at some point in 2018.
Regardless, given the lack of proper context, the scenes work very well. The opening sketch was not far removed from the actual callousness and lack of tact that performers are subjected to when auditioning for roles. The punchlines had some people in the audience openly gasping, as the show plunged straight in at the deep end with the sort of hard-hitting comedy style, gloriously irreverent and brimming with passion and assertiveness. That it didn’t let up until the very final song is immensely commendable.
Chaos and order, order and chaos, and then a gentlemen’s agreement, in principle, but terms and conditions apply. Oslo, a play about the Oslo Accords, the result of months of secret negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, is otherwise best summarised by a line by Ahmed Qurie (Peter Polycarpou), the PLO’s Finance Minister at the time. Speaking to his Israeli counterparts, he threatens to “wage war upon you until the last days of time”, but without drawing breath, he adds, “but also we are open to a counter proposal.”
There’s an underlying sense of humour that keeps breaking through proceedings, partly down to Terje Rød-Larsen (Toby Stephens) and his dry wit and diplomatic skills, but also the willingness of people on both sides to talk as ‘friends’, at least within the confines of the meeting room. It seemed a little contrived to break the story up, more than once, with a joke, which suddenly appears almost out of nowhere. The punchlines were at least topical, and strangely refreshing in their lack of sensitivity – not for nothing is a fight director (Jonathan Holby) listed in the show’s credits.
It’s absorbing yet complicated, and, truth be told, it starts to drag in the second half, perhaps because Acts Two and Three (of three) are lumped together, making the interval in an almost three-hour long play come too soon. The story is big and the staging is, somewhat unnecessarily, imposing, but given the magnitude of the storyline, there aren’t that many actors involved in making it all happen. This is probably why it’s incredibly focused, without being overwhelming: only those who need to be present are on stage, and even then there are times when business continues via telephone.
Bits of set are, slightly remarkably for a production at the National Theatre about to transfer to the West End, pushed and pulled into place by the cast more often than not. But then, to not use automation is something of a metaphor – there really is no outside assistance, and almost everything is kept under wraps. The scene changes are not at all clunky, and the intensity of some of the proceedings is such that a brief period of quiet during a changeover is welcome.
A sound effect towards the end of the play, a low humming noise, presumably meant to heighten the rising tensions as the negotiations get simultaneously more pedantic and more interesting, was wholly superfluous. In the end, it began to irritate me, and then to distract from what were momentous and poignant scenes. The play does much better with asides from Mona Juul (Lydia Leonard), an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, in which she addresses the audience directly, ensuring it is fully briefed on who is who and what, as far as the character could reasonably be expected to know, is going on.
Every character, as far as I could deduce, had at least some development, including Toril Grandal (Geraldine Alexander), the cook. I liked a running gag about her waffles, which, being appreciated by both sides, became a reliable source of common ground. Hassan Asfour (Nabil Elouahabi), the official PLO liaison, is abrasive but very lively. The script (JT Rogers) is extremely well-written, and it appears to me that every generation must find its own way: the methods of diplomacy deployed here may have worked wonders in its time, but in the current era of social networking and instant messaging, it comes across as a tad outdated. The same cannot be said of the play itself, which may well become, if you can excuse the oxymoron, a modern classic.
It takes a lot to get me out of London to see shows elsewhere, but such was the fuss being made in certain quarters about the Hope Mill Theatre’s production of Pippin The Musical that I trekked up to Manchester to see what the fuss was all about. The theatre is still fairly new to the Manchester scene, having formally opened its doors at the start of 2016, but has already secured London transfers of their productions: Yank! completed a run at the Charing Cross Theatre earlier this year, and later this year, Hope Mill’s production of Hair comes to The Vaults in Waterloo – an advert for it adorns the back page of the programme for Pippin.
But the taxi driver at the hackney carriage rank at Manchester Piccadilly station hadn’t even heard of the Hope Mill Theatre, and as I told him I had contact details for them, he dropped me off halfway up Pollard Street and left me to figure the rest out for myself. As it turns out, I could have managed to walk it all the way, as I did on the way back to Piccadilly. I don’t know why I’m such a stickler for this sort of superfluous detail – a venue is where it is – but I note with interest the nearest tram stop is New Islington, but the theatre considers itself to be in Ancoats. A look at the ward maps on the Manchester City Council website reveals it to be in Bradford Ward. I suppose one can only default to saying that the Hope Mill Theatre is in Manchester.
I got lucky with the crowds having plumped for a Saturday matinee – the 55,000 seater Etihad Stadium is within walking distance of the Hope Mill, but Manchester City Football Club were playing ‘away’ down in Watford (no, I didn’t have the foresight to look this up beforehand). The train back to London was particularly quiet. No wonder the train crew were almost beyond happy, providing customer service with a smile – no boorish and loutish football fans shouting and swearing abuse at them and one another.
I don’t know if it’s typical for the audience to be sat on three sides at the Hope Mill, but the catwalk-style stage worked remarkably well for this production. Perhaps only from the most extreme ends of the side blocks is the view somewhat restricted. Pippin pre-dates Avenue Q by almost a generation, but the quest to find meaning and purpose for one’s life appears in both, as do the conclusions that such a purpose is not going to be narrowly defined – because, you know, c’est la vie – and that there is much to be treasured in the everyday and so-called ‘ordinary’.
Jonathan Carlton in the title role is simply amazing. The production makes brilliant use of the actors’ natural accents, and to this end Rhidian Marc’s Charles is a bombastic Welsh-accented patriarch, the likes of which the 1972 original Broadway production, or indeed the 2013 Broadway revival, could never have envisaged. And it works. Carlton noticeably sings in American but speaks in British, presumably because he is directed to do the former, and the latter just comes naturally. (If you want to hear what a British accent sounds like in a song, have a listen to Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’.) When Carlton sings – oh my! – the vocal range is impressive, and it’s the sort of voice I could listen to over and over again. Not that I’m calling for a cast recording of this production or anything…
If the accents are, collectively speaking, from different places, the storyline appears to be all over the place too. Another audience member’s exit poll verdict was that he didn’t know what it was about before he went into the theatre, and having seen it, he still doesn’t know what it’s about. It does seem to be difficult to place historically or geographically. But it’s also clever. Catherine (Tessa Kadler) deviates from the script, winding up the Leading Player (Genevieve Nicole). Except nobody is actually deviating from the script, because it’s scripted that there would be a deviation from the script. This can only happen if there’s another script within the script.
In some ways, this is a show about a show. A performance troupe has amongst its members three people simply listed in the Pippin programme as ‘Player’, Ellie Seaton, Andrew Halliday and Olivia Faulkner. A fourth ‘Player’, Scott Hayward, doubles up as Theo, Catherine’s son. Characters are rarely entirely off-stage, generally seated at the rear of the stage when inactive. Whether that was strictly necessary is debatable. The musical numbers are of varying pace and style – always a good thing, and ‘Corner of the Sky’, a perennial favourite in musical theatre concerts and, apparently, stage musical auditions, is a highly inspirational ‘I wish’ song. The sound levels are comfortable and the balance between the band (nine-strong and led by Zach Flis) and the cast was only occasionally too slanted in favour of the musicians.
A note in the programme mentions the recreation of the ‘Manson Trio’, and if I’m brutally honest, I’ve seen Bob Fosse’s famed choreography done better elsewhere. The staging could be improved on, too, though I hasten to add that the action moves very slickly in this production, and might be slowed down somewhat if the scene changes were more elaborate. The lighting (Aaron J. Dootson) is excellent, however, making it easy to focus on the most relevant part of the action at any given point but allowing the audience to observe several other things simultaneously.
It’s all performed with verve and conviction, though, and that’s infinitely more important than an expensive set. And people were humming tunes from the show as they trekked back to Manchester city centre, which is always a good indication of their enjoyment. I hope this production follows in the footsteps of Yank! and Hair (the Hope Mill seems to have a preference for one-word musicals) and finds its way down to London in due course. In the meantime, the trip up from the Big Smoke was certainly worth it.
4 ½ stars
Photo credit: Anthony Robling
The set is in some disorder in The Blinding Light, quite deliberately, to depict the state of mind of August Strindberg (Jasper Britton), as well as to demonstrate undoubtedly – in a storyline in which there are so many ambiguities – how far away from what was considered normal in the 1890s, or indeed today, Strindberg had come at a certain point in his life. The play is not to be taken as historically accurate, and while there is a lot of humour in this production, a substantial suspension of disbelief (that is, more than usual) is required to fully appreciate proceedings.
It is, as I observed recently with regards to a different show, difficult to portray the supernatural in theatre. The difficulty is compounded in the challenge set by playwright Howard Brenton to portray characters that may or may not fall under the category of ‘supernatural’. Indeed, all of the characters are plausibly real people, but the dabbling in the occult and conversations with Siri (Susannah Harker) and Frida (Gala Gordon), Strindberg’s first and second wives respectively, had more than a whiff of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit about it. The dry wit, clipped tones, and eventual repetitiousness are evident in both plays too.
This being, in part, about marriage and family life, there are disagreements, and worse. Through the torments foisted upon Strindberg, both internal and external (or is it all internal?), Jasper Britton puts on a masterclass in theatrical character acting. The paranoia becomes very extreme, and the ideas in his mind become increasingly absurd. Walls have ears, as the Ministry of Information used to say during the Second World War, but do they have personalities?
The play is more well-researched than it can come across, perhaps because of a relatively heavy emphasis on what may or may not have transpired in the confines of Strindberg’s hotel room. An early reference to terrorism aroused my curiosity, and having looked it up after the show, it appears there were indeed bomb blasts instigated by anarchists in Paris in the 1890s, the place and era in which this play is set. Elsewhere, the level of power that Siri holds over Strindberg, while somewhat pleasing for a modern audience to see, doesn’t seem commensurate with the sort of influence that a woman would have over her husband, divorced or not, at the time.
Of the supporting roles, character development seemed strongest in Siri, who starts off as calm and collected but gradually becomes more assertive and confrontational. If only the same could be said for the production as a whole. The first half was briskly paced, but as the production got closer to the curtain call, it slowed down considerably. By the closing scenes, it was a little like being on a plane circling Heathrow Airport for some time before finally being given the go-ahead from air traffic control to land. I really do wish the production had started slower and built to a crescendo.
This should not detract too much from the excellent performances from all four cast members – Lola (Laura Morgan), a chamber maid, a forthright and hilarious character, is far from superfluous to the action. While the comedy is plentiful, the production does not make caricatures of anyone except perhaps certain off-stage characters mentioned only in passing, and treats the mental health issues arising from the play sensibly.
The production involves a lot of talking heads, and would only need the most minor of modifications to become a radio play. In so many new plays these days, there are a large number of short scenes to break up the narrative. This play, refreshingly, bucks that trend, allowing the audience to be drawn into longer scenes, uninterrupted. While it could be tighter, particularly, as I say, towards the end, it’s a promising start to a new chapter at Jermyn Street Theatre, now putting on its own shows as opposed to being primarily a receiving house. An intriguing and impassioned play.
At Jermyn Street Theatre until 14 October 2017.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.