Review: Goats, Royal Court

“Has anyone ever told the truth?”

Can I recommend Goats, even with live goats appearing onstage with the cast? Not by the hairs on my chinny chin chin. There’s definitely something interesting at the nub of Liwaa Yazji’s play, based on so many real events from her native Syria, but it has yet to achieve dramatically effective form. Whether lost in translation into English (by Katharine Halls) or onto the stage (by Hamish Pirie), it is hard-going indeed.

The problem is a pace that is stultifyingly slow. And in a society completely riven by conflict, increasingly divested of its young blood by rising death tolls, it shouldn’t be so. As Yazji interrogates the madness of an ongoing civil war, where the families of dead soldiers are rewarded for their sacrifice with the gift of a goat, where neither side can really be considered ‘good’, where the role of propaganda muddies the water even further, the potential is clear. Continue reading “Review: Goats, Royal Court”

TV Review: Cuffs Episodes 1-4

“All we can do is hang on”

Rather incredibly, given the number of crime dramas there are, Cuffs is actually the BBC’s first police procedural since 2007’s Holby Blue (according to Wikipedia at least), but a rather good one it is too. Creator Julie Gearey has set the show in Brighton and its environs, the territory of the South Sussex Police service, and the first four episodes (which entertained me on a train journey back from Amsterdam) started Cuffs off so strongly that I wanted to recommend it now whilst you can still catch them all on the iPlayer.

The opening episodes are jam-packed with incident, the first part alone crammed child abduction, stolen JCBs, stabbings and a racist released from prison to give a strong sense of the relentless pace of life in the force but the writing has been particularly strong in demonstrating the peculiar demands of modern policing. Traditional boundaries of respect have been torn down so we see the police punched, spat on, and kicked in the face and also having to deal with rubberneckers filming accident scenes on their phone, and members of the public chancing their arm with harassment claims. Continue reading “TV Review: Cuffs Episodes 1-4”

Review: Martyr, Unicorn

“I have a normal boy with behavioural problems”

There’s no doubting that the fight against fanaticism is a vital one but what Marius von Mayenburg’s play Martyr picks up on is that there is very little consensus on how to deal with it effectively. And in using fundamentalist Christianity as his hook, he subverts much of how we see radicalism. So it’s an ideal choice for Ramin Gray and the Actors Touring Company to follow up their hit production of The Events with this run at the Unicorn prior to a short UK tour.

Born-again Christian Benjamin is becoming increasingly disruptive at school – unwilling to join in swimming lessons as they’re mixed-sex and decrying classmates’ homosexuality and promiscuity – leaving the adults in his life unsure what to do. His mother and teachers struggle to understand but one teacher, Miss White from his Biology class, opts to tackle him head on, unprepared for the consequences of such an approach. Continue reading “Review: Martyr, Unicorn”

Review: The Kite Runner, Theatre Royal Brighton

“There is a way to be good again”


The final moments of this rendering of Khaled Hosseini’s epic 2003 novel The Kite Runner are really something special indeed, capturing the quiet ecstasy of redemptive hope with the subtlest of performances and a theatrical elegance that is gently breath-taking. But Giles Croft’s production, first seen in Nottingham and making its way next to Liverpool, takes a long time to get there, hobbled by a pedestrian adaptation by Matthew Spangler which exploits little of the storytelling possibilities within and lacks the excitement to really make it soar into the sky alongside the multi-coloured kites that play such a vital role in this tale of two young Afghan boys, Amir and Hassan, and their unlikely friendship.

It’s improbable because Hassan is the son of Amir’s father’s servant and belongs to a different ethnic group yet despite their differences, a strong bond exists between the pair, typified by the way they work together in the kite flying competitions that enliven their Kabul childhood. A brutal incident involving Hassan sets in chain a tragic turn of events though and as the heavy tide of history starts to turn, forcing Amir and his father to flee the war that erupts as the incoming Taliban take over Afghanistan, not even decades and continents can prevent the need for Amir to seek redemption.

The sweep of the story is certainly grand but Spangler’s script is mired in the prosaic and banal, overly focused on the descriptive and rarely delving into the rich emotion beneath the surface. Ben Turner’s Amir perfectly epitomises this dilemma, only intermittently able to bring the necessary depth of character to this conflicted young man as he constantly has to duck in and out of scenes to give us the next segment of narration, but he is good at showing us the boyish cowardice that Amir struggles to grow out of. For those able to stay in the scenes though, there’s much more compelling work, especially from Farshid Rokey as the fiercely loyal Hassan and latterly as Hassan’s son, he of the enigmatic smile, Nicholas Karimi as the sociopathic Assef who finds his spiritual home in the harsh regime of the invaders and from Emilio Doorgasingh as Amir’s father, who never loses his pride even as he is forced into menial work when they start their new, very different life on the west coast of the USA.

But though the cast are effective, the sense of unused potential pervades this production, exacerbated by the moments that do flare into gorgeous life. The kite flying scenes are mesmerising in their simplicity, the moonlit escape across the mountains most effective, the first meeting with the attractive daughter of a fellow ex-pat. Hanif Khan’s onstage table-playing adds an authentic rhythm to many of the scenes, but Barney George’s design is largely too polite to ever suggest heat and dirt and real life, whether in Kabul’s back streets or San Francisco’s flea markets. What it does provide is cool elegance and a chimerical ability to quickly shift, aided by William Simpson’s projections, ensuring a fluid journey throughout.

Whilst the story will move you – surely only the hardest of hearts could remain unaffected – this production rarely transports you. It is undoubtedly somewhat entertaining and the near-complete standing ovation is testament to that, but The Kite Runner is seldom exciting enough to fully exploit its theatrical potential and really involve us with the grandly epic emotion of its storytelling in a presentation that invents and inspires such as in that glorious final scene. 

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)

Booking until 25th May, then playing Liverpool

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: Mogadishu, Lyric Hammersmith

“Everyone has problems, he just needs a good slap”

Mogadishu is a new play by Vivienne Franzmann which was one of four winners of the Bruntwood Prize, a playwriting competition. It premiered at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, where it received the royal seal of approval from my Mum and Dad and Aunty Jean but it has now transferred to the Lyric Hammersmith.

White liberal teacher Amanda intervenes in a playground fight when she sees known troublemaker Jason bullying a younger pupil at their inner-city London secondary school but finds herself pushed and shoved to the ground in the ensuing fracas. She is anxious not to see him punished though, conscious of the social consequences for uneducated young black men, but when he flips the table and accuses her of physical and racial abuse, the security of Amanda’s world is shattered with her fitness to be a teacher, even a mother, called into question.

Julia Ford plays Amanda with a powerful dignity, well-intentioned to the end no matter what the cost and her scenes with Ian Bartholomew’s acting headteacher Chris, hamstrung by a world of bureaucracy, child protection legislation and the desire to be seen to be ‘doing the right thing’ ring with a depressing honesty. Shannon Tarbet as her daughter, and also a pupil at the same school, stole the show for me with a stunning intensity as she deals with her own issues and rages at the passivity of her mother. Continue reading “Review: Mogadishu, Lyric Hammersmith”