TV Review: No Offence Series 2

“Now is not the time for your Bronte Sisters-saurus act”

In what’s been a blistering start to the televisual year (Unforgotten, The Moorside), the second series of Paul Abbott’s No Offence is definitely up there, offering at least a little comic relief along with its deadly serious dark side. My views on episode 1 set the tone for the rest to come – the glorious return of the Friday Street team, led by Joanna Scanlan’s inimitable DI Viv Deering, having met their match in the arch-villain Nora Attah, a glorious performance from Rakie Ayola.

And typical of Abbott’s oeuvre, along with his co-writers, there’s a fantastic complexity to his characters. Attah may rule her gangland with a rod of iron, issuing icy reprisals against rivals who dare cross her path, but as subplots about FGM and sexual violence are threaded through the season, there’s strong hints about the harshness of the world that has shaped her. And that makes her the ideal counterpart for Deering’s anarchic policing style, our sympathies caught in the complex conflict between their respective shades of grey. Continue reading “TV Review: No Offence Series 2”

Review: Treasure Island, National Theatre

“Thanks for all the pies and adventures”

The big family-oriented show at the National Theatre this winter is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (though as it runs in rep right through to April, one hopes Spring will have sprung by then) which has been adapted for the stage by Bryony Lavery. But whilst Polly Findlay’s production has some very definite plus points, not least in an inspired design by Lizzie Clachan which utilises so much of the Olivier’s potential, it doesn’t quite have the full shiver-me-timbers factor to make it an undoubted success.

Clachan frames the theatre’s large revolving drum with a set of lowering curved ribs which suggest all kinds of mystical maritime adventures – the frame of a trusty ship, the ribcage of a giant whale, the quivering trees of a strange island. Deep in the revolve is where the real treasure is though, a warren of cabins that reflect the social hierarchy of the time and later on the maze of tunnels in which the gold can be found. Combined with the sensational starry skyscape up above, Bruno Poet’s lighting looking stunning, this is the National doing what it does so well. Continue reading “Review: Treasure Island, National Theatre”

Review: The Silver Tassie, National Theatre

“There’s no more to be said
For when we are dead
We may understand it all”

Commemorating the start of the First World War has turned into something of a full-time business for the nation’s theatres but in reviving the rarely-seen 1927 Sean O’Casey anti-war piece The Silver Tassie, the National Theatre has hit on something special. The play is structurally extraordinary in the difference of its four acts – a vaudevillian take on an Irish household transforms memorably into the visceral horror of a battlefield haunted by music hall songs, after the interval a hospital-set comedy eventually turns into stark realism, as the shattering effects of war on society are laid bare. Howard Davies’ epic production forges through blood and noise to find a most painful truth.

The cumulative effect may challenge some and is certainly disorientating at times but it also has a form of progression that feels natural, like feeling a way through what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Opening in the Dublin tenement home of the Heegans, the play riffs on Irish stereotypes through the clownish figures of Sylvester and Simon and the neighbourhood archetypes they teasingly mock but soon allows young gun Harry Heegan to take centre stage, boasting the trophy – the Silver Tassie – he and his teammates have won playing soccer, just before they head off to join the British war effort.  Continue reading “Review: The Silver Tassie, National Theatre”

Review: Once, Phoenix

“Raise your hopeful voice, you have a choice”

Unusually for a West End musical, Once gently pulses rather than powerhouses its way into the affections, beating very much to its own unique rhythm with a sublimely sensitive story of the power of music and the pain of untimely love. From the working bar on stage that welcomes the audience into the auditorium of the Phoenix with a makeshift ceilidh to the presence of quality names like Enda Walsh and John Tiffany, it is immediately clear that this is no ordinary film-to-stage transfer.

Augmented and adapted by Walsh, the book covers the brief but intense journey of a guy and a girl, named Guy and Girl, who connect strongly but find that what they can sing to each other, they cannot say once the music has stopped. He’s a busking vacuum cleaner repairman missing his girlfriend in New York, she’s an unhappily married Czech mother searching for purpose and when she spots his potential, starts up a project to get him to record a demo but their feelings soon threaten to pull them onto the cusp of new possibility.  Continue reading “Review: Once, Phoenix”

Not-a-review: Troilus and Cressida, RSC and Wooster Group at Riverside Studios

“The common curse of mankind, – folly and ignorance”

For those unclear, the ‘not-a-review’ title usually pops up on the rare occasions that I don’t make it to the end of a play. I usually try and stick it out as it is difficult to have so firm an opinion on something as to blog about it if one hasn’t taken in the whole shebang, but occasionally, just occasionally, a play makes its bafflingly misguided intentions so apparent from its opening moments that I knew within the first minute that I wouldn’t be staying beyond the interval. It was the running on the spot with a sideways leg motion, as comedic a thing you might see yet executed with deadly serious intent that got me (I didn’t quite laugh out loud unlike some people further along my row though), quickly making me realise I wasn’t going to enter the correct headspace for this production of Troilus and Cressida.

Ostensibly a co-production between the RSC and the US-based Wooster Group of this noted problem play of Shakespeare’s, the approach to this production was to redefine the nature of collaboration in a way to complement the play itself. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, the Americans, playing the Trojans (although re-imagined as Native Americans), rehearsed separately from the British company, directed by Mark Ravenhill after Rupert Goold withdrew, who took on the Greeks, and the two were only brought together late in the game to capture something of the clash of civilisations that lies at the heart of the Trojan War-set drama. Continue reading “Not-a-review: Troilus and Cressida, RSC and Wooster Group at Riverside Studios”

Review: Blasted, Lyric Hammersmith

“It all has to mean something; otherwise there’s no point”

Running with the tagline “Reviled. Respected. Revived.” Sarah Kane’s Blasted is the latest play to open at the Lyric Hammersmith under Sean Holmes’ artistic direction. I was aware of some of the controversy around this play, the flyer proudly quotes the Daily Mail’s original review “this disgusting feast of filth”, but had avoided reading too much about it as this was my first experience of Sarah Kane’s work and wanted to approach it with fresh eyes. Thus this review (of a preview FYI) is mostly reactive to this production and accompanied by the few nuggets of biographical information procured from my companion over a pre-show slice of cake.

Set in a nondescript hotel room, well designed by Paul Wills in a letterbox format, we meet Ian, a sleazy unreconstructed tabloid journalist who has invited Cate up for the evening to seduce her. We soon ascertain that Cate is a naïve young woman, given to epileptic seizures and not a fully compliant partner in what Ian has planned. After a traumatic night, Cate eventually escapes but Ian is left to pay the consequences and then some as an armed soldier storms the room and events take a mightily explosive turn. Hereafter lies spoilers, so be warned.

So after the extremely uncomfortable scenes where Ian forces himself on Cate sexually in all manner of ways, culminating in a brutal rape, the tables are turned as what seems like a civil war is raging outside the hotel and its impact is soon felt as the hotel is blown up. This allows for a starkly effective dismantling of the set and the utilisation of the full depth and height of the Lyric’s stage, enhanced by menacing lighting from Paule Constable, to represent this apocalyptic scenario. And boy do I mean apocalyptic as with this war has come barbarity and so the soldier who invaded the room sodomises Ian and then sucks out his eyeballs. When the soldier then takes his own life, the broken Ian is left to fend for himself in this nightmare world, a confused Cate returns with a baby who then dies and in the most disturbing scene of a play made up of disturbing scenes, Ian is driven by extreme hunger to eat the corpse of the baby. Only in the final moments, does an unexpected show of humanity lift the spirits slightly and suggests the way forward from this darkness.

Kane pulls no punches in her depiction of civilisation gone horribly wrong, the implication being that the capacity for human cruelty stretches from the rape of one individual and inconsideration for others to the annihilation of society through the type of behaviour excused by the pretext of war: it is all just a matter of scale. Given that Blasted was written in 1995, it presages the post-terrorist-atrocities world with an eerie resonance; its warnings being applicable to all sides, a point reinforced by the recent revelations from Wikileaks of cover-ups in Iraq. And in its portrayal of the events: non-consensual sexual activity, masturbation, urination, anal rape, cannibalism, mutilation, Holmes’ production is uncompromisingly bleak: much is unflinchingly, painfully realised right in front of us.

It is shot through with a darkly humourous side too though lest we get too depressed: whether it is the funniest use of the exclamation ‘shit!’ towards the end; Cate surreptitiously turning over the pillow which she has just helped Ian to ejaculate onto or the deadpan comments which accompany many of the atrocities, there’s a bleak comedy, a sense of the ways in which people have to rationalise their behaviour in order to just keep living no matter how hard it may seem, as best portrayed by Aidan Kelly’s intruding soldier. Lydia Wilson plays the stuttering Cate with an unnerving intensity, taking us through manic episodes and her childlike wanderings and Danny Webb is uncompromising in his strident Ian, unafraid of exposing both cancerous body and cancerous soul whilst simultaneously desperate for attention and then suggesting the slow discovery of hidden depths as he is forced onto the most desolate of journeys.

I’m not sure if it was the nature of the audience on the night, the fact that the show provokes comment or a deliberate choice by director Sean Holmes to keep it almost episodic or some combination of all of them but the atmosphere in the theatre was quite peculiar. Whereas the Tricycle’s Broken Glass used live cello music in its interludes to maintain its contemplative air, as the curtain descended for each of the scene changes here, the mood was broken by the instant chatter around me. This production ends up working as a series of thrusts rather than a sustained assault on the senses, possibly better for the nerves this way but it did mean that the evening felt quite disjointed. Hopefully the changes can be speeded up (a definite possibility by opening night I would think) but I’d be tempted to ramp up the volume of the interlude sound effect to preclude too much talking and maintain some of the atmosphere that has been built up. I wasn’t convinced by the use of silences either: used too often and to too little effect, one assumes the intended effect was gravitas but it ended up feeling like delaying tactics.

It is hard to not to view Kane’s work without considering her suicide: indeed many reviewers changed their mind, after reviling its first run, when it was revived at the Royal Court after her death; the literature describes this play as seminal but one does wonder if that reverence has been earned entirely the right way. Coming away from Blasted I was left with the sneaking feeling that there was a little too much of the childish desire just to shock in what I had seen where there could have been more of the deeply moving, as in the montage of images that form most of the final scene which is just hauntingly beautiful to look at. That is not to deny that there is some extremely powerful writing in here, a sense of compassion for humanity no matter how twisted and cruel it gets and the kind of daring imagination that, combined with this clear-sighted production, makes this a confrontational and challenging night at the theatre that will live in the mind.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 20th November
Note: where to start! Full-frontal male nudity, smoking and scenes of a disturbing nature from start to finish, the Lyric advise a 16+ age limit.