Review: Contractions, ND2

“We have a duty of care to all our employees”

I may not be a Deaf Critic but I am a critic who is partially deaf, a state of affairs positions me rather uniquely when it comes to appreciating Deafinitely Theatre’s latest production – a bilingual version of Mike Bartlett’s 2008 two-hander Contractions. Bilingual as a matter of course, as all of Deafinitely’s productions are in using British Sign Language and English but bilingual too as a provocation, in that director Paula Garfield uses neither language continuously.
So as we sit through a series of business meetings between a brutally officious manager (who signs) and corporate wannabe Emma (who both speaks and signs), there’s an ingenious sense of dislocation, of delayed and incomplete comprehension, which is as incisive a theatrical representation of what it is like to be deaf in a hearing world as I could ever imagine. And it is a fascinating way to portray the brutal acuity that typifies much of Bartlett’s small-scale plays and their sharp dialogue.
Nearly a decade down the line, Contractions has lost none of its relevance in its indictment of corporate culture, both in how it is exacted upon workforces and also how (some) people subscribe so fully to it, at the expense of anything else in their life. Fifi Garfield’s imperious manager is magnificent as she drips with disdain at having to deal with this underling and clearly relishes the control she is able to exert, taking care to cleverly implicate us all in the expectation of what is ‘reasonable’.
And opposite her, Abigail Poulton’s Emma is an intriguing presence. Hauled up under a suspected breach of contract then sinisterly pushed to unimaginable limits, Poulton plays out the conflict of someone who knows the ground is being hollowed out from under her, distancing herself bit by bit even as she’s drinking the Kool-Aid. This comes to brilliant fruition in the final grace note of the production which suggests she might just have learned how to play the game. 
Contractions also sees the public debut of ND2, the New Diorama’s new rehearsal room complex centred on the extraordinary space of the Atrium, a former trading floor for JP Morgan and a cannily site-specific location for this play, surrounded as it is by working offices looking down onto us. Paul Burgess’ design naturally works effectively here and Joe Hornsby’s lighting design does extremely well to provide interest in a space bleached out by strip lighting, enhanced by the atmospheric swell of Chris Bartholomew’s compositions.
I can’t help but have an intensely personal reaction (as with Tribes back in 2010, it’s hard to sufficiently explain the feeling of seeing yourself represented onstage when it happens so rarely) but this is a fiercely intelligent production of a strong play and one which has much to say to all audiences, regardless of hearing ability. How much are we willing to sacrifice in the name of business, and how much are we willing to let them demand of us but more importantly, how good are we at communicating with each other, at really understanding what other people might need.

Running time: 75 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 29th November

Review: Albion, Almeida

“The fantasy that brings the reality into being”

As Mike Bartlett’s profile grows and grows, one can’t help but fear that his TV successes will lead to movie commissions but for the moment, he’s not forgotten where he started and with Albion, there’s a ferocious reminder of how theatrically skilled he is. Additionally, there’s one of the performances of the year from Victoria Hamilton so I’d hotfoot it to the Almeida now, there’s no guarantee this one will transfer.
Successful businesswoman Audrey has her world rocked when her son is killed on duty in the Middle East and so she decides to retreat to the countryside, rural Oxfordshire to be precise, where she buys the neglected home of her uncle, along with its once-impressive garden. But what first seems like a fun restoration project snowballs into chaos as her increasingly ambitious plans threaten to push everyone close to her away.
Self-obsessed and domineering, Audrey is a terrible person but Bartlett and Hamilton ground her in the bewildering fug of extreme grief so even in her worst moments, you never lose sight of the person was/is/still could be. And she’s surrounded by a crack ensemble from her writer daughter (Charlotte Hope) to her best friend (Helen Schlesinger), her son’s grieving ex (Vinette Robinson) to the retainers who have long served the property (Margot Leicester and Christopher Fairbank), all of whom she alienates one way or another.
In the rich depth of Bartlett’s writing, the Chekhovian allusions are stronger than the Brexit parallels, the turbulent complexities of family life more fruitful ground than the analysis of recent English history. But it is also unexpectedly spikily funny and Rupert Goold’s production further elevates this probing play with a stunning (re)design by Miriam Buether, full of shrubbery and surprises. 
Running time: 3 hours (with interval)
Booking until 24th November

TV Review: Doctor Foster Series 2

“How does this end Simon?”

In some ways, you can’t blame ’em for trying to replicate the extraordinary success of the first series of Doctor Foster, quality drama that fast became a rare appointment-to-view fixture  with a rare return to weekly instalments.  And given that writer Mike Bartlett is known for his prolific nature, that a second series quickly came into the offing was no great surprise.

But it can be hard to recapture the magic and though all of the key players have returned – most notably warring ex-couple Suranne Jones’ Gemma and Bertie Carvel’s Simon – this set of five episodes has really suffered from a lack of raison d’être. Waves of vicious revenge percolate throughout but with no discernible driving narrative beyond that, it proved far less engaging.

Not even the presence of a veritable treasure trove of theatrical luminaries – Victoria Hamilton, Adam James, Thusitha Jayasundera, Prasanna Puwanarajah, Siân Brooke to name but a few – could rescue the show from the dullness of retreading old ground and a wearying sense of not giving a shit about anyone here, particularly in the interminable longueurs of the final episode.


Cast of Mike Bartlett’s new TV show Press announced

An ensemble cast of some of Britain’s hottest talent will portray the determined and passionate characters behind the daily news at two fictional, competing newspapers in Mike Bartlett’s (Doctor Foster, King Charles III) drama series, Press, on BBC One.
Charlotte Riley (King Charles III, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) will play the News Editor of fictional broadsheet, The Herald and Ben Chaplin (Apple Tree Yard, The Thin Red Line) will play the Editor of fictional tabloid newspaper, The Post, while Priyanga Burford (London Spy, King Charles III) will play The Herald’s Editor. Paapa Essiedu (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, RSC’s Hamlet) will play The Post’s newest reporter and Shane Zaza (Happy Valley, The Da Vinci Code) its News Editor; while Ellie Kendrick (Game Of Thrones, The Diary Of Anne Frank) will be a junior reporter; Al Weaver (Grantchester, The Hollow Crown) an investigative journalist and Brendan Cowell (Young Vic’s Yerma, Game Of Thrones) the Deputy Editor at The Herald.
They will be joined by David Suchet (Poirot) who will play the Chairman & CEO of Worldwide News, owner of The Post.
Press will be directed by Tom Vaughan (Victoria, Doctor Foster) and produced by Paul Gilbert (Humans).
Set in the fast-paced and challenging environment of the British newspaper industry, Press immerse viewers in the personal lives and the constant professional dilemmas facing its characters. The series follow their lives as they attempt to balance work and play, ambition and integrity, amid the never-ending pressure of the 24-hour global news cycle and an industry in turmoil.
Press is a Lookout Point, BBC Studios, Deep Indigo production, co-produced with Masterpiece, for BBC One. Executive Producers are Faith Penhale and Mike Bartlett for Lookout Point, Bethan Jones for BBC Studios, Nigel Stafford-Clark for Deep Indigo, Mona Qureshi for BBC One and Rebecca Eaton for Masterpiece. International Distribution will be handled by BBC Worldwide.
Press begins filming in London in October and will broadcast on BBC One in 2018.

TV Review: Doctor Who Series 10

Episodes, in order of preference
World Enough and Time
The Doctor Falls
Thin Ice
Knock Knock
The Eaters of Light
The Pilot
Empress of Mars
The Pyramid at the End of the World
The Lie of the Land

Top 5 guest spots
1 David Suchet’s Landlord was as perfectly written a character as befits one of our more superior actors
2 Regular readers will know I’m a big fan of Kieran Bew and his astronaut in Oxygen was no exception
3 Nicholas Burns‘ malevolent Sutcliffe was a delightfully Dickensian villain 
4 Another theatrical delight of mine is Anthony Calf, impressive as the pseudo-Victorian Godsacre
5 Rebecca Benson’s young Pict impressively led The Eaters of Light from the front, a perfect vessel for Rona Munro’s vision

Saddest death
Michelle Gomez’s Missy has been a brilliant breath of fresh air and whilst her decision to follow Moffat and Capaldi out the door is understandable, it isn’t any less disappointing. And perhaps the timey-wimeyness of the circumstances around her passing mean that maybe this isn’t the last we see of her…

Most wasted guest actor
I don’t what I expected from the reliably excellent Samantha Spiro in Doctor Who but I didn’t get it from her part in The Doctor Falls.

Gay agenda rating
With Bill onboard, A+!

TV Review: King Charles III, BBC2

“I ask no less than power to achieve my will in fair exchange for total service to the state”

Uneasy lies the head that waits for the crown. Mike Barlett’s King Charles III was a deserved award-winning success when it took the Almeida by storm in 2014, transferring into the West End and then Broadway, later touring the UK and Australia too. Its success lay in the conception of a Shakespearean future history play, written in verse but set in a world recognisably our own, where Prince George is nonchalanting eating croissants, Queen Elizabeth II has just passed and before he has even been crowned, Charles finds himself in a constitutional crisis of his own making. A bold but welcome move from the BBC to commission a version then.
Directed as it was onstage by Rupert Goold and adapted by Bartlett (the narrative has been telescoped down by over an hour), it re-emerges as a powerful, pacy drama, a fascinating look into how the relationship between monarchy and government could so easily shift at a time of transition, anchored by an achingly nuanced performance from Tim Pigott-Smith in the title role. The ache is of course deepened by the actor’s death last month but that sadness shouldn’t overshadow the quality of his work here, masterful in his command of the verse, mesmerising as a man trapped by history.
Trimming the play down was clearly a necessity but you can’t help but wish it had stretched out just a little longer than the 90 minutes. The slow burn of the opening third or so is deliberately set to allow the cycling up to intense political thriller territory, but it does mean that the final third ends up feeling a little hurried, the dramatic resolution perhaps a little too easy here. But the journey is fantastic, the co-opting of Shakespearean convention with contemporary reference points (press freedom, the NHS, a junior prince involved in a mixed-race relationship – Bartlett impressively predicting the future there) perfectly encapsulates the contradictions of this Charles and Pigott-Smith mines the role for all its humane tragedy, aided by the Latinate choral beauty of Jocelyn Pook’s compositions. 
Goold also managed to tempt back a large number of the original leading cast for this adaptation. Adam James’ all-too-unlikeable PM, Margot Leicester’s under-used Camilla, Oliver Chris’ uncanny William and Richard Goulding’s “ginger joke” of a Harry all impressing once more. I’d have to check the playtext but I think Harry suffered a little in the edit, though I was most pleased to see Tamara Lawrance as his ‘commoner’ intended, an actress doing vivid work onstage at the moment in Twelfth Night and making the absolute most by shining in her limited screen time here.
But even if even the marvellous Katie Brayben could return to reprise her passing appearances as the ghost of the sainted Diana, and I’d forgotten just how delicious her scenes were, I wonder why Lydia Wilson wasn’t onboard to give her Kate once more. No slight on Charlotte Riley who was very good as the most forcefully ambitious of the younger generation, the allusions to Lady Macbeth an easy one but nonetheless compelling. So a much-welcomed opportunity to revisit this most excellent of plays and hopefully an introduction to the power of theatre for those new to this world.

Blogged: Theatre on screen July 2016

“Things are going to get, now and for the rest of your life, extremely difficult”
Well actually, things are getting easier to watch theatre in different ways and as I leave on holiday for a wee while, I thought I’d round up a few of the current offerings.
Mike Bartlett’s smash hit Wild at Hampstead Theatre was livestreamed yesterday and is available until midnight on Tuesday. 
Talawa’s touring production of King Lear is available on the iPlayer (I was a tiny bit disappointed with this to be honest)

And Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag has been developed into a TV series – not got round to watching it yet but could well be good

Review: Wild, Hampstead

“You have no freedom, no choice, at the moment you don’t even have a passport”
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Mike Bartlett is one of our finest contemporary writers and so it is pleasing to see that his new play Wild sees his reunite with creatives with whom he has had great success. Director James Macdonald was at the helm of the intense inter-relationships of Cock and designer Miriam Buether has reveled in transforming spaces such as the then-Cottesloe for Earthquakes in London and the Almeida for Game and both are on top form once again here.
At first glance, it might not look like Buether has done much to the Hampstead’s main stage but you can rest assured that she’ll have tipped the world on its axis by the end of the play, and what a fierce play it is. Bartlett has turned his gaze to the realm of information security as he imagines the experience of an Edward Snowden-like figure called Andrew who stuck two fingers up to the state by releasing sensitive data online. Sequestered in a Moscow hotel room on the run, he’s left awaiting his fate. 

I like Bartlett’s writing when his focus is on the macro-level but I love it when it drills down to the micro, the sheer intensity of people just talking, wielding power unknown over each other. And that’s what we get here as Andrew is visited first by a woman named George who assures him she’s the contact he’s been waiting for, to put him in touch with ‘him’ (a man ‘trapped’ in a foreign embassy in London…). An hour later after she’s gone though, a man named George turns up claiming he’s actually the contact.

And so Jack Farthing’s Andrew gets increasingly strung out under the barrage of mutual questioning from both Caoilfhionn Dunne’s superbly cajoling Woman and John Mackay’s more gnomic Man – who can he trust, who can really secure his exile, is the threat of assassination that real, why did he do what he did, how does he feel about the loved ones he’s had to leave behind, was it worth it. And most crucially, who can he trust when his enemy is apparently the state? 

Bartlett keeps the mood brilliantly slippery, as conversations tread the line between interview and interrogation, as suspicion lights on even the most innocent-looking of chocolate bars. And the scorching performances from all three keep the dialogue-heavy scenes ticking over with an ever-growing sense of fore-boding, the ominous feeling that nothing is quite as it seems, that the walls of reality could just fall away. Nail-bitingly intense and breathlessly exciting, go Wild

Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Stephen Cummiskey
Booking until 16th July

Re-review: Bull, Young Vic

“Don’t you feel any guilt?”

So having succumbed to the temptation to see Jim Broadbent in A Christmas Carol despite vowing not to do Christmas shows this year, I also went back to see the vicious Bull at the Young Vic for my fourth time in seeing Mike Bartlett’s drama. Recast since its first run at this theatre, I couldn’t pass up the chance to see actors as fine as Max Bennett, Susannah Fielding, Nigel Lindsay (in a suit!), and Marc Wootton and at just £10 for the ringside standing spots (which is the only way to see the show), I’d recommend catching it before it closes. See more about the show in this post.

Running time: 55 minutes (without interval)
Photo: Manuel Harlan
Booking until 16th January

TV Review: Doctor Foster, BBC1

“It’s just once you have the thought…”

I was late to my appointment with Doctor Foster, only getting round to watching episode 1 on Monday but I loved it so much (how could I not when the opening subtitle is “belt buckle being undone” and Bertie Carvel soon strips to his boxers) that I mainlined the next three so that I could watch the finale with the rest of the world. Written by noted playwright Mike Bartlett (King Charles III, Cock, Love Love Love amongst many others), it’s a fierce revenge drama anchored by a cracking performance from Suranne Jones as the titular medic with the errant husband.

From the moment she discovers a long blonde hair on her husband’s scarf, the scene is set for an almighty showdown but Bartlett’s skill is in stretching that moment tantalisingly over the entire series. Secret after secret tumbles out of the closet as she pulls at the thread but almost as destructive as his conduct (and Carvel is brilliantly craven as the slippery Simon) is the behaviour it unleashes in Gemma, her forthright determination cutting swathes through her employment prospects, her friends and neighbours and even her relationship with their 11-year-old son Tom.

Though it occasionally flirts with the slightly preposterous (Gemma’s fast friendship with patient Carly rang false for me), it is largely highly effective as an intense drama but also as an exposé of suburban living (previously explored by Bartlett on TV in The Town). The Fosters live in Simon’s hometown so when the couple tear apart, historical friendships duel with present-day loyalties, none more so than in Thusitha Jayasundera’s very good Ros, a schoolfriend of his but a GP colleague of hers. The climax to episode 1 is utterly fantastic in this regard.

And in the magisterial final part, Bartlett reconfirms his reputation as a writer utterly unafraid of peeling back façades to reveal the nastiness beneath (see Contractions, Bull) with a remarkable amount of sourness permeating the majority of the episode. Gemma’s slow-burning revenge finally takes flight as truth bomb after truth bomb is dropped at a brilliantly awkward dinner party – Jones relishing the matter-of-factness about the whole affair and Bruce Goodison’s direction hitting every beat of excruciating discomfort.

The fallout is significant and crucially, takes no prisoners. The way in which Gemma’s public perception is revealed is chillingly done, Victoria Hamilton as neighbour Anna excelling with her own explosive truths, and the story swerves into Medea territory, brutally, effectively so (all the more interesting given Bartlett’s less-than-stellar recasting of Euripides back in 2012) as Tom Taylor’s Tom comes into his own, the often neglected child’s point of view a scathingly refreshing contribution in relation to both parents.

The scant relief of the ending is thus much-welcomed and a pointer to the everyday reality of such situations as opposed to out-and-out drama for the sake of it. Some quality drama right there with the BBC doing what it does best.