Review: Women Centre Stage: Power Play Festival – 24 Hour Plays | Making Headlines

“Open your eyes, what do you see?”

It may well have had much to do with the fact that I was knackered after the previous six but I have to admit that the seventh final session of the Women Centre Stage: Power Play Festival was probably my least favourite of the day. The 24 Hour Plays | Making Headlines programme saw writers respond to headlines of the moment to create rapid response plays – none of which really lived up to the quality of the programmed works that had preceded them.

There were lots of interesting ideas floating around – Rebecca Lenkiewicz and director Anna Ledwich’s scorching take-down of Vogue’s declaration that the cleavage is out of fashion probably worked the best, interleaved with a young woman’s desperate search for adequate healthcare and the inadequacy of male responses to a serious discussion about breasts. And Charlene James’ kidnap drama with a twist gave Maggie Steed a cracking part to play, directed by Alice Hamilton. Continue reading “Review: Women Centre Stage: Power Play Festival – 24 Hour Plays | Making Headlines”

Review: Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern, Watford Palace

“If she’s innocent, we’re simply sending her to God early”

The most powerful image of Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern comes courtesy of the centrepiece of James Button’s design, a timber structure illuminated as a church cross on one side and extending as a noose-bearing gallows on the other. It encapsulates the central thesis of Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s play – that twisted symbiosis between the Church and the witch-hunts that scarred society for so long – with an eloquence that characterises much of Ria Parry’s production, which is about to embark on a considerable UK tour.

An Out of Joint, Watford Palace Theatre and Arcola Theatre co-production, in association with Eastern Angles, Lenkiewicz based her drama on real-life events in a Hertfordshire village, an all-too-recognisable tale of society seized by collective fervour. It’s been several decades since any witch hunts but when tragedy falls on the village of Walkern, suspicion quickly falls upon the local cunning woman Jane Walkern and her herbal remedies amid whispers of the return of witchcraft, stoked by new priest Samuel Crane who is determined, quite literally, to get his woman. Continue reading “Review: Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern, Watford Palace”

Review: Miss Julie / Black Comedy, Minerva

 Miss Julie is in complete denial about the whole thing”
Something of a random double-bill – August Strindberg’s Miss Julie (adapted here by Rebecca Lenkiwicz) and Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy have previously been put together here at Chichester and so once again, they’re programmed as an engagement in the Minerva, partly cross-cast in a production by actor-increasingly-turned-director Jamie Glover. Each show has its merits but putting them together didn’t really add anything to the experience for me. 
Lenkiewicz’s version is solid rather than inspirational – the play has been adapted so many times now, it feels almost more surprising not to remove it from its original context. And consequently there’s no escaping the more misogynistic edges of the writing without the filter of another time. The glorious Rosalie Craig is excellent though as the titular, brittle aristocrat who can’t resist visits downstairs to bit of rough Jean, her father’s valet who is engaged to a kitchen maid.

Continue reading “Review: Miss Julie / Black Comedy, Minerva”

Review: Unusual Unions, Royal Court

There’s something special about being allowed to take part in something unique and though Unusual Unions actually took place twice on the same day, it still counts as a one off in my book. Part of the Royal Court’s convention-busting The Big Idea stream of work, this was a collection of 5 short plays all responding to the ideas raised by Abi Morgan in her main house show The Mistress Contract, taking place in unexpected nooks and crannies of the theatre in wonderfully small groups.

From dressing rooms to stairwells, the space under the stage to meeting rooms with a view, it was a brilliant way of exploring a building which isn’t normally so open (Wilton’s Music Hall’s promenade version of Edmund fulfilled a similar purpose). And even if the subject matter seemed to veer off what one might have expected, given the sexual nature of Morgan’s play, it was still compelling stuff looking at the ways in which we connect (or not) with those around us.  Continue reading “Review: Unusual Unions, Royal Court”

Radio Review: The Oresteia – The Furies / November Dead List

“Was he driven to it by someone’s rage?”

Last up in the reinvention of Aeschylus’ Oresteia is Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s take on The Furies, bringing this tale of murder, revenge and justice to an end as the gods opt to end the vicious cycle of blood vengeance by introducing the concept of trial by jury and instituting the first ever homicide trial. 

Niamh Cusack’s perfectly modulated tone makes for an engaging narrator, Lesley Sharp has the intensity and ferocity of a thunderstorm as the vitriolic Clytemnestra, and Maureen Beattie, Polly Hemingway and Carolyn Pickles are intimidatingly malevolent as the Furies, determined to get their revenge on Will Howard’s Orestes. His defender comes in the form of Chipo Chung’s Athena, who spots the chance to change the way humans sort out their grievances yet still has to battle against the established order. It’s an interesting story but something in this production didn’t quite gel for me in the way the previous two parts of the trilogy did, possibly due to the use of a narrator, something I’m rarely keen on. Continue reading “Radio Review: The Oresteia – The Furies / November Dead List”

Review: The Turn of the Screw, Almeida

“It’s hard to do things that are interesting and keep your hands clean”

Horror is a notoriously difficult genre to get right in any format, not least because we all have different triggers that give us the heebie-jeebies. So to take on Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw feels like a bit of a brave choice by the Almeida theatre but from the outset, there are mixed signals as to the approach that has been taken. Lindsay Posner has commissioned a new adaptation of the tale from Rebecca Lenkiewicz but this is also a co-production with the Hammer Theatre of Horror, setting the scene for some interesting creative tension.

But that never really materialises as the ambiguity that frames the entirety of James’ tale of a governess appointed to look after a pair of orphans but finds them haunted by spirits past has been dispensed with. There’s much to be played with in the uncertainty as to whether the ghosts of the children’s’ former governess and her lover are really haunting these two moppets or whether it is the fevered imagination of the new woman in post whipping up the drama but Lenkiewicz leaves no such room for any subtleties from the get-go. Continue reading “Review: The Turn of the Screw, Almeida”

Review: The Painter, Arcola

“The fashionables…they just want to know if a painting’s hot…”

As their premiere production in their new premises at the Colourworks in Dalston, the Arcola theatre have commissioned The Painter, a play about the well-known artist JMW Turner which plays on the historical links of the building, a former paint factory actually frequented by Turner. And to write it they returned to Rebecca Lenkiewicz, a playwright whose first play was the first to be staged at the old Arcola. It follows other plays about artists which keep popping up at this theatre, The Line and Reclining Nude with Stockings (the title of which has skewed my hit count something chronic) but it is not always easy to translate the aura around an artist and his work to the stage without a genuinely interesting story and I am not convinced that Lenkiewicz has managed that here.

The Painter covers the middle period of his career and centres around the key relationships with women in his life, his mother who is slowly succumbing to dementia, his fertile lover and the prostitute who becomes his model and confidante. This is contrasted with his steadily growing professional success as a painter despite difficult relationships with his contemporaries and as an intellectual who frequently lectured students at the Royal Academy on his views on art despite being of ‘lower’ birth. But to be honest, there’s no real insight offered here beyond that of the superficial biographical. Continue reading “Review: The Painter, Arcola”

Review: That Almost Unnameable Lust – Charged, Soho Theatre

Part of the Charged season at Soho Theatre

“You think it’s a mad idea…that prison might give some women just time on their own”

Keeping the same trio of actresses from Part 1, director Caroline Steinbeis gets to work in the main theatre for her second offering which is probably the strongest piece of writing, That Almost Unnameable Lust by Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Two lifers are visited in prison by a writer who is trying to carry out research for a book as she discovers that all sorts of women can end up inside.

Beatie Edney’s Liz movingly talks of the regular spousal abuse that finally resulted in her putting an end to it, but it is Janet Henfrey’s haunted Katherine that is unmissable. She does not speak, yet through her subconscious tells us of happier times in her youth though the hints of darkness around the edges are never far away and made explicit with her propensity for self-harming. Continue reading “Review: That Almost Unnameable Lust – Charged, Soho Theatre”

Review: The Lioness, Women, Power and Politics at the Tricycle

Play number three of the Then half of Women, Power and Politics season at the Tricycle Theatre


“I am blank between the legs”

Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s contribution is The Lioness, a character study of Elizabeth I, picking out two encounters from her life to show how she dealt with the pressures of power and the political role she chose for herself, of wife and mother to the nation. The confrontation with the dour John Knox, founder of the Presbyterians and a shocking misogynist, reminding her that being Queen in a man’s world was rife with long-held antipathy to female leaders and whilst his vituperative writings were not aimed specifically at her (but rather her sister), her sense of sisterhood was sufficiently strong to never forgive him.

And her relationship with the Earl of Essex, a favourite in her later life despite being the step-son of Dudley who possibly came closest to marrying her. In this continued liaison, there’s more of a sense of her need for companionship with Oliver Chris’ Essex after a hard life of power, his handsome arrogance proving irresistible and thereby making her devastation at his ultimate betrayal despite their familiarity (‘he called me Bess…’) all the more heartbreaking. Continue reading “Review: The Lioness, Women, Power and Politics at the Tricycle”

Review: The Typist, Riverside Studios

“It’s not a result of excessive masturbation”

The Sky Arts Playhouse: Live project has commissioned five new short plays which will be broadcast live on Sky Arts 2 but we have the opportunity to watch previews of them at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith before they are transmitted: first up is The Typist. Written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who will seemingly be forever known as the first woman to have a play performed on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre and directed by Bijan Sheibani, responsible for one of my favourite things from last year Our Class, there is obviously a very high class field of creatives brought together here by executive producer Sandi Toksvig and there are some corkers coming in the rest of the programme, not least Lesley Manville and Juliet Stevenson in a new Mark Ravenhill piece.

It tells the story of the relationship between Mary Parks, an artist and photographer who has lost her sight, and Fit, a smart but shy teenage boy who she has employed to transcribe her thoughts and writings. From the moment of his employment, their rapport is obvious despite their differences but as they become more and more honest with each other, Mary tests the relationship to its limits with an extraordinary request. It is a fine piece of writing, a brilliantly rounded portrait of a feisty mature woman and the real issues affecting her.

It opens extremely well, showing the inner turmoil of a woman struggling to deal with the reality of her affliction but when her visitor arrives, she’s so comfortable in her surroundings, it is several minutes before we actually realise that she is blind, it is very slickly done and as we see, typical of Mary’s approach to life. Gemma Jones beautifully plays the slow unfolding of a woman unused to being dependent on another, but coming to realise that she does need help and indeed the balm of human contact. Tobi Bakare is also good as the astronomy-obsessed Fit, learning more about the world from his interactions with Mary but also possessed of a strong moral code despite his relative youth. The reveal of the truth behind his name is a touching scene too, albeit a device borrowed from Slightly in Peter Pan.

Set entirely in Mary’s study, it is well dressed with book-laden shelves on the one side and an attractive variation of pictures and photos hanging on the other in Naomi Dawson’s design and complemented by Martin Kempton’s lighting which has been heavily influenced by Mary’s profession as a photographer. The brief scene changes are carried out in the deep red light of a darkroom and then there’s a bright flare of flashbulb and the lights come up for the scene: it was highly effective in the auditorium and I hope it comes across well on the television screen.

The Typist was an interesting piece of writing which accomplishes an impressive amount in a small space of time, though I’d be interested to see if there’s any plans to develop it further. It is lifted up by some excellent creative choices and acting, and for me it was a great opportunity to see Gemma Jones up close (who as it turns out, I still haven’t forgiven or going rogue in Spooks). There are three more dates to see this live if you so desire and it will be transmitted live on Sky Arts 2 at 9pm on Wednesday 9th June.

Running time: 45 minutes
Programme cost: free cast and creatives list available