Review: Death of England, National Theatre

In Death of England, Rafe Spall delivers the performance of a lifetime in this punchy monologue by Clint Dyer and Roy Williams at the National Theatre

“These are my dad’s words, not mine”

When the Dorfman gets it right, it really is something special. The combination of our National Theatre’s calibre and the intimacy of its smallest theatre means that when a play dares to do something different in there, the results can be extraordinary. I felt it in the pit for the first run of London Road, in the genius pre-show of Barber Shop Chronicles, and it is now in evidence once again with Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’ epic monologue Death of England, featuring a stunning performance from Rafe Spall, directed by Dyer.

Ferocious and fearless, we first meet Michael on the mother of all benders while he mourns the death of his father and then quick as you like, he flashes into storyteller mode and proceeds to not so much dismantle the fourth wall as to charm it into buying him six pints and then home for an unsatisfactory fumble. For about a quarter hour, Spall sets up Michael’s world beautifully by bantering with audience members with consummate ease, offering a sniff of this, a taste of that, seeking validation too as we come to realise how fragile a man he currently is. Continue reading “Review: Death of England, National Theatre”

News: the National Theatre announces 15 new productions for 2019 and 2020

So much goodness! The National Theatre have just announced details of productions stretching deep into 2020, and with writers like Lucy Kirkwood, Kate Tempest, Roy Williams and Tony Kushner, and actors like Lesley Manville, Maxine Peake, Conleth Hill, Cecilia Noble and Lesley Sharp, it is hard not to feel excited about what’s ahead.

Olivier Theatre 

Following a sell-out run at Rose Theatre Kingston, the acclaimed two-part adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s MY BRILLIANT FRIEND by April De Angelis is reworked for the Olivier stage by Melly Still (Coram Boy). When the most important person in her life goes missing without a trace, Lenu Greco, now a celebrated author, begins to recall a relationship of more than 60 years.  Continue reading “News: the National Theatre announces 15 new productions for 2019 and 2020”

Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, National

“This is an empty world without the blues“

The title might be something of a misnomer in that there ain’t a whole lot of Ma Rainey in this play but that shouldn’t detract from the extraordinary power of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, part of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle of plays examining each decade of the twentieth century African American experience. And Dominic Cooke’s production for the National Theatre loses nothing of its urgency, it may have been written in 1984 about 1927 but its incendiary racial politics are sadly just as pertinent in 2016.

Rainey was one of the first professional singers of the blues and among the first to be recorded but the play opens with the ‘Mother of The Blues’ singular in her absence. Her manager and studio manager, both white, are fretting about her lateness and how financially dependent on her records they are and downstairs in the rehearsal basement, the four black men who make up her band are shooting the breeze as they gear up for some music-making. But as the wait grows longer, patience wears thinner and long-ingrained injustices start to bubble to the fore. Continue reading “Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, National”

Review: Valhalla, Theatre503

“When it comes to pain and fear and love, we are a breed apart”

Hmm, a difficult one this. Due to the very very late withdrawal of Clint Dyer from the show, Theatre503’s Valhalla opened to critics with the playwright Paul Murphy stepping into the role, understandably performing script in hand. But whilst the ‘show must go on’ ethos is admirable, there’s no denying that forging on ahead in this manner does Jo McInnes’ production little favour, fatally unbalancing it for the moment whilst offering frustrating hints of what might have been and what might yet still be once Murphy is able to settle into the part.

It doesn’t help that I found the play, from first-time writer Murphy, difficult. Valhalla did win the 2014 Theatre503 Playwriting Award from over 1600 other submissions but its gnomic, over-saturated nature is challenging. Explorations of eugenics and genetic testing rub shoulders with hints of Nordic folklore and witchcraft as a couple flee riots in the UK for the isolation of a Scandinavian research facility where they’re on the cusp of finding a cure for a global pandemic (what a time to be alive…). But this scientific advancement comes at personal cost, the terms of which the couple thrash out. Continue reading “Review: Valhalla, Theatre503”

Review: Perseverance Drive, Bush Theatre

“I know we have a certain amount of dirty laundry in this family, but is it really necessary to keep on washing it so publicly?” 

Robin Soans’ new play for the Bush Theatre takes a little time to get where it is going but by the time it arrives at its destination, it has gathered into something really rather moving. Perseverance Drive opens in Barbados as the Gillards come together to bury their matriarch Grace. Pentecostal pastor Eli heads up a deeply religious family but not one that is close – one of his sons Joshua has been exiled for being gay, and Nathan and Zek who are both ministers as well have splintered into opposing factions of the church.
 
Their battles are endless – who will get to speak the eulogy, what will happen to their mother’s soul etc etc and though the gospel-inflected ambience created in Madani Younis’ production is powerful, this opening half is a little too static for its own good. Fortunately, after the interval the energy shifts subtly to become much more affecting. It is four years later and now it is Eli’s turn to die in the somewhat less tropical surroundings of a run-down Leytonstone flat but as he slowly shuffles closer to the end of his mortal coil, it is clear that little has really changed.

Continue reading “Review: Perseverance Drive, Bush Theatre”