Review: For King and Country, Southwark Playhouse

For King and Country at the Southwark Playhouse proves an ineffective revival in this centenary year of  WWI’s end

“It’s a bit amateur to plead for justice”

Belatedly, I found out that this play hasn’t been performed in London for 30-odd years and in this case, it is tempting to say you can see why. The intent behind John Wilson’s 1963 play For King and Country is certainly honorable, a courtroom drama about a WWI soldier who deserted his post. And Dilated Theatre’s production at the Southwark Playhouse has merit, the idea that it might serve as an investigation into the issues that we now label as PTSD.

But a contemporary lens reflects harshly on the play, particularly through the prism of the writer’s decade. Watching his interpretation of what happened with our current knowledge of war’s psychological impact doesn’t feel like the most effective tribute to our armed forces as we commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War. My mind constantly wondered why we weren’t hearing either a) a fresh new piece of writing or b) something more historically direct. Continue reading “Review: For King and Country, Southwark Playhouse”

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.

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Review: Much Ado About Nothing, Old Vic

“He hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age”

There was certainly a raised eyebrow or 3 when it was announced that the leads in Mark Rylance’s take on Much Ado About Nothing for the Old Vic would be Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones. Neither have previously taken on the roles of the warring Beatrice and Benedick and having worked together recently on Driving Miss Daisy (which others liked even if I didn’t), their’s is a pairing with history. But undoubted quality aside, it is a brave move to cast so daringly and with a production that relocates Shakespeare’s play to England in 1944. 

Does it work? Making the Aragonese soldiers into a company of GIs has a visual impact that works well and turning Sigh No More into a bluesy harmonica-driven ditty is inspired. But putting Shakespeare’s language into the mouths of American soldiers doesn’t always work “my Lord…” and without wanting to open too far the can of worms that is the subject of race, I’m not so sure the lack of comment on a 1940s inter-racial marriage, never mind the issues of honour flung about later, really flies. Messina as the home front is neat though, making the Watch a Dad’s Army-style collection of ragbags and kids (including one called Beryl, maybe?). 

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Review: Chariots of Fire, Gielgud

“100 metres can feel like a marathon”
For the longest time, I was sure that I didn’t want to see Chariots of Fire, not least because the hoarding for this Hampstead Theatre transfer into the Gielgud finds it necessary to call it Chariots of Fire on stage, as if it could be anything else in a theatre. But Mike Bartlett, who adapted the film, is a writer I like and a change of cast meant Gabriel Vick, an actor whose charms I, erm, appreciate, was able to tempt me there on the final day of the (curtailed) run. The most arresting aspect of Edward Hall’s production is Miriam Buether’s design which snakes a running track around the front stalls and puts audience members on the stage – it makes for constant visual interest and not just for the men in shorts.
As a story set around the Olympics (Paris 1924), when the production was first announced it felt like a bit of a cash-in to the upcoming Games (London 2012) and sure enough, a West End transfer was announced even before it began. And to be honest, I’m not sure that it really stood up as a piece of effective theatre when separated from all the 2012 buzz. I’ve never seen the film so I wonder if this had an impact, but essentially the thrill of having athletically performed athletic races aside, it was rather dull.

The rivalry between two British runners – religious Scot Eric Liddell, played with fervent defiance by Jack Lowden and James McArdle’s first-generation Lithuanian immigrant Harold Abrahams – never really takes off dramatically as it is largely implicit, rather than actualised (the pair are rarely together). The whirl of supporting characters get so little stage time that very few of the fine actors onstage get the opportunity to make an impact and I wasn’t a fan of the way in which the action sequences were blended, or otherwise, with the dramatic scenes, too often the transitions felt painfully obvious. 
Using the famous music, written by Vangelis, also didn’t really work for me. It’s a no-brainer in the end and the oohs and aahs of recognition from the audience around me clearly showed that it was the big money note they’d been waiting for but it felt so unsubtle, so bolted onto the production that it just didn’t connect with the whole. So I should have listened to my instincts in the first place! 

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval) 
Booking until 5th January

Review: Schiller’s Luise Miller, Donmar Warehouse

“The stuff of seduction is also the stuff of politics: lies and promises”

Schiller’s Luise Miller is Michael Grandage’s penultimate outing as director at the Donmar Warehouse before Josie Rourke takes on the reins of Artistic Director. A bustling German 18th Century tale of romance, class struggles, tragedy and court politics, the play, Kabale und Liebe (previous translations have been called Intrigue and Love, and Love and Politics) has been given a new treatment here by Mike Poulton, who if Wikipedia is anything to go by (bearing in mind this is my first experience with the play), has reworked quite a bit of the latter part of the play, bringing to mind Dennis Kelly’s liberal approach to The Prince of Homburg at this same venue.

Noble-born Ferdinand, son of the one of the most powerful statesmen in the country, is in love with Luise Miller, the middle-class daughter of a middle-class musician and willing to sacrifice all for love. But the political scheming and power games that govern the world they live in means that their destiny is out of their hands, no matter how honourable their intentions, they are at the mercy of those more powerful who will stoop to nothing to ensure they survive. Continue reading “Review: Schiller’s Luise Miller, Donmar Warehouse”