Review: Leave Taking, Bush Theatre

A scorching revival of Winsome Pinnock’s Leave Taking is an absolute triumph at the Bush Theatre

“What they know about a black woman soul?”

It’s the little details. A quiet mention by two sisters of the four grandparents that they never met, all remaining in Jamaica as their mother emigrated to England in search of a better life for the family she was destined to have. It’s an aching sadness that permeates Winsome Pinnock’s 1987 intimate and insightful play Leave Taking and one which I’d never really considered before (my grandpa lived next door and my nan and grandad were only ever a couple hours drive away). Consider my eyes opened.

Life in Deptford has proven far from a dream for Enid, working her fingers to the bone in two jobs to provide for her daughters Del and Viv, themselves struggling with an identity caught between Caribbean roots and their mother’s new-found Englishness. To help soothe their souls, they visit a local Obeah woman, a spiritual healer, though no-one is prepared for the depth of feeling and the uncomfortable nature of the truths that need to be unleashed.    Continue reading “Review: Leave Taking, Bush Theatre”

Review: Nine Night, National Theatre

Ferociously funny and blisteringly intense in its depiction of a Jamaican family dealing with grief, Nine Night is a surefire success for the National Theatre – book now!

“When yuh get to Heaven, yuh see, God will deal wid yuh”

Grief is universal, but the world of Natasha Gordon’s debut play Nine Night is entirely specific. When Gloria, the grandmother of a Jamaican family passes away, her London home becomes the focus of the Nine Night ceremony, wherein the local community and family of the deceased gather to mourn the passing but also to celebrate the life with love, laughter and no small amount of rum.

But nine days of a wake can take its toll on a family under strain and here, Gordon sets up an archetypal family drama. The sibling resentful of being the one who shouldered the burden of caring, the sibling who wants to sell the house quick because of money troubles, the other half-sibling who got left behind… Plus the ever-present remnants of the older generation who never stop fussing, and a secret pregnancy to deal with, tensions just keep rising.   Continue reading “Review: Nine Night, National Theatre”

Review: The Iphigenia Quartet, Gate Theatre

“We all make – sacrifices”

And still the Greeks come. The Gate Theatre have taken Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis and asked four playwrights to react to it with short plays from varying viewpoints, giving us The Iphigenia Quartet. Split into two double bills, we thus get Caroline Bird’s Agamemnon and Lulu Raczka’s Clytemnestra, and Suhayla El-Bushra’s Iphigenia and Chris Thorpe’s Chorus, two strong pairings that crack open the Greek tragedy and offer a kaleidoscope of responses.

Such is the enduring resilience of the original that it can take diverse treatments – to wit, the trio of Oresteias that graced British stages last year – and packed into this studio intimacy and seen on the same day (as I saw them) or not, the impact is visceral and considerable. From the raw anguish of Bird’s duelling parents to Raczka’s academic debate spun on its head, from El-Bushra’s family of Marines to Thorpe’s babbling chorus of commenters, the shifting focus is at once enigmatic and entertaining.  Continue reading “Review: The Iphigenia Quartet, Gate Theatre”

Review: Les Blancs, National

“Do you think the rape of a continent dissolves in cigarette smoke?”

To think that just a couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t ever seen a play by Lorraine Hansberry and now I’ve seen two – the extraordinary A Raisin in the Sun which has now completed its UK tour and this new production of Les Blancs at the National. The sad reality is that there isn’t much more to see now, pancreatic cancer taking her life at just 34, but what a startling legacy this writer left of theatre that delves uncompromisingly into issues of race and identity, that remains as pertinent today as it did the mid-twentieth century when she was writing.

Hansberry didn’t get to complete Les Blancs before her death and so this final text was adapted by her sometime husband and collaborator Robert Nemiroff and it is directed here by Yaël Farber, making her National Theatre debut after her highly acclaimed 2014 The Crucible for the Old Vic. And people who saw that production will instantly recognise Farber’s modus operandi as this show opens in a highly atmospheric manner – a group of matriarchs, led by musical director Joyce Moholoagae, chanting and singing in Xhosa to leave us in no doubt what continent we’re on. Continue reading “Review: Les Blancs, National”

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: The Rolling Stone, Orange Tree

“Memories fade. Memories contort and change”

First seen last year at the Royal Exchange in Manchester and Leeds’ West Yorkshire Playhouse where it was partially cross-cast with a striking reinvention of Anna Karenina, Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone has kept on rolling down to Richmond where it has now opened at the Orange Tree. And at its helm, Ellen McDougall continues to prove herself one of the more exciting and inventive of a new generation of directors, with a simple but searing production. 

The title comes the name of a Kampala newspaper that outed gay Ugandans by publishing their names and addresses and calling for their execution and Urch examines its fallout in the micro-perspective, looking at how it played out for one family. Joe has just become pastor of an Anglican church, under the aegis of the manipulative Mama, but neither are aware that Joe’s younger brother Dembe is happily cavorting with a mixed-race doctor from Northern Ireland called Sam. Continue reading “Review: The Rolling Stone, Orange Tree”

Review: Here We Go, National Theatre

“Are those the pearly gates?” 

Almost like buses, you wait for a new Caryl Churchill play and two come along – Escaped Alone will play at the Royal Court in the New Year but up first is Here We Go at the National, directed by Dominic Cooke. Described as “a short play about death”, it clocks in at 45 minutes but depending on how you fare with it, it may seem like longer… 

Churchill has split her musings on mortality into a triptych of distinct but related scenarios. The first scene sees the playwright deploy her characteristic linguistic playfulness on a group of mourners at a funeral, their fragmented chit-chat skirting around the larger issues, their individual asides to the audience riffing beautifully on the coda to Six Feet Under’s magisterial finale (of all things).  Continue reading “Review: Here We Go, National Theatre”

Review: As You Like It, National Theatre

“I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad”

For regular theatregoers, it can sometimes feel a bit hard to get excited about the umpteenth production of a play, so much so that I almost didn’t see the winning combination of the much-loved Blanche McIntyre and Michelle Terry until the very end of their run at the Globe this summer. So the news that Polly Findlay was also tackling As You Like It for the National was tempered a little (though it is the first time in 30 years it has played there) but as Rosalind was announced (Rosalie Craig poached from the cast of wonder.land to replace an indisposed Andrea Riseborough), the excitement began to build and the inevitable ticket was purchased and boy am I glad that I did. 

For the transformation of the set into the Forest of Arden is a moment of genuinely breath-taking theatre, Lizzie Clachan pulling the rug from under us and her design to create a most singular vision. And it is one in which enchantment slowly grows with sylvan sound effects created by company members onstage and a choir singing Orlando Gough’s contemporary and complex score (akin if alike to the one he composed for Bakkhai). There’s a lovely conceit in which Alan Williams’ Corins, nominally a shepherd but here more like a forest deity, summons the music every time love is needed to cast its spell, enhancing the magical feel. Continue reading “Review: As You Like It, National Theatre”

Review: Bakkhai, Almeida

“I am somewhat…supernatural”

What is most fascinating about the way that the Almeida Greeks season is unfolding is that it is as interested in interrogating storytelling as much as stories. As with Aeschylus’ Oresteia and now Euripides’ Bakkhai, we’re being presented with striking new versions of these familiar tales which simultaneously make a case for why they have endured into a third millennium rather than complacently assuming they will just speak to modern audiences regardless.

Robert Icke incisively opened up the domestic and legal ramifications of the House of Atreus in forensic detail. And now Anne Carson, following her version of Antigone for Ivo van Hove, and director James Macdonald position their Bakkhai deep in the recesses of folk memory, a guttural song passed from generation to generation with its cautionary tale of the consequences of leading society to defy convention. It is sure to be divisive but I have to say that I found it endlessly interesting. Continue reading “Review: Bakkhai, Almeida”

Re-review: Medea, National Theatre

“I choose to take back my life.

My life.”

Booking a return trip to anything Helen McCrory is starring in is something of a reflex action now but I was more pleased than usual to be able to revisit Medea as conversations with numerous of my friends who were not fans had left me questioning whether I had maybe over-rated the show on first viewing. And it was equally nice to find out that I had not. I can see why elements of Carrie Cracknell’s production might have been polarising but for me, the synergy between the different disciplines is alchemical.
 
From jerky dancing to Goldfrappian swells of music, luxury cameos through to an actor magisterially making her mark on an oft-played role to dominate the vast auditorium of the Olivier, it’s a Medea for our time and so it was entirely correct that this performance should be part of the NTLive programme and be broadcast to cinemas across the world. Spine-chillingly remarkable stuff and that’s all I really have to say!

Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 4th September