Review: The Greatest Wealth, Old Vic

Paying tribute to the NHS in its 70th year, the specially-commissioned monologues of The Greatest Wealth made for a great night at the Old Vic

“It’s a wonderful idea
It’s a marvellous idea
It’s such a very good idea”

It’s no exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t be here but for the NHS – it changed my life as a young boy, it saved my life as a teenager who didn’t look both ways. A story I imagine which finds resonance with so very many of us in the UK but as this venerable institution marks its 70th birthday, it finds itself under siege more than ever. So what better time to reflect on what has been, what is and what yet might be for our National Health Service.

Curated by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Adrian Lester, The Greatest Wealth took the form of a series of specially-commissioned world-premiere monologues, each responding to a particular decade of the NHS’s existence. Exploring the myriad ways in which it has become an integral part of the social and economic fabric of the nation, it proved a varied and thoughtful evening.

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Review: wonder.land, Palace Theatre

“You have to live in this world”

The lure of falling down the rabbit hole is one which has kept adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland appearing on a regular basis on screens and stages and the Manchester International Festival is no exception, commissioning this musical treatment with the National Theatre and Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet. Composer Damon Albarn (no stranger to the MIF after Monkey and Dr Dee) and writer Moira Buffini’s thoroughly modern version – stylised wonder dot land – certainly has a unique take on the story but has the feeling of something of a work-in-progress perhaps, no bad thing as longer runs in London and Paris will follow this brief engagement at the Palace Theatre.

Here, wonder.land is an online world, a virtual reality where people can escape the drudgery of their own lives or pretend to be someone completely different, for a little while at least. 12-year-old Aly is one such person, trying to hide from the bullies at school and the unhappiness at home by becoming Alice, her all-conquering avatar or online identity who accepts a mysterious quest as part of joining wonder.land. And in her journeying, she comes across variations on many of the characters we’ve come to know but viewed through a different prism, many of them being the avatars of other players, balefully reflecting their own insecurities.  Continue reading “Review: wonder.land, Palace Theatre”

Film Review: London Road

“Everybody’s very very nervous”
 
The theatrical production of London Road was a major success for the National Theatre, the opening run first extending in the Cottesloe and then being rewarded with a later transfer to the much larger Olivier – I was first blownaway by its originality and then later comforted by its message in the aftermath of the 2011 riots. So the news that director Rufus Norris was making a film adaptation was received with apprehensive anticipation, could this strikingly experimental piece of theatre possibly work on screen.
 
Writer Alecky Blythe uses a technique whereby she records interviews with people which are then edited into a play but spoken verbatim by the actors, complete with all the ums and aahs and repetitions of natural speech. And in 2006, she went to Ipswich to interview a community rocked by a series of murders, of five women in total, all sex workers, and set about telling a story not of salacious deaths but of a community learning to cleave together in trying times. Oh, and it’s all set to the most innovative of musical scores by Adam Cork, elevating ordinary speech into something quite extraordinary. 

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Re-review: Handbagged, Vaudeville

“One had to laugh”

Definitely something of a luxury revisit this one, my third time seeing it. But as Moira Buffini’s Handbagged has grown from a sketch as part of the Tricycle’s 2010 Women, Power and Politics season through to an Olivier-winning full length play which has now transferred into the West End, the chance to see its third incarnation was one I couldn’t resist. Not just seeing it on a larger stage, the one change to the cast from last year’s Tricycle production was what sold it to me. 
Lucy Robinson may not be the most recognisable name out there but she played the first Lady Macbeth I ever saw on stage (at the Bolton Octagon) and she also starred in the most amazing schlocky late-night soap called Revelations back in the 90s which I was obsessed with at the time. She replaces Clare Holman as the younger version of the Queen (Liz) who locks horns regularly with Fenella Woolgar’s awesomely impressive Thatcher (Mags), in a hugely entertaining manner. 
For they are not alone. Buffini also introduces their older counterparts – Marion Bailey’s Q and Stella Gonet’s T – and the four of them tell and retell history, and how their relationship (or lack thereof) impacted on key events of the time. Their interactions are full of humour and pathos – “’I’d like an interval now please’ ‘We don’t need an interval’” “’She froze me out for weeks over that salute’ ‘Nonsense’ ” – and the often quickfire banter is richly amusing yet balanced with precise care. 
Playing with form as well as content means that politics often ends up playing second fiddle to comedy. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the two men in the show who take on all of the multifarious supporting roles are brilliantly played by the game Jeff Rawle and Neet Mohan – but it does mean that as Buffini lets us know where her sympathies lies very early on, the positioning of these two uber-powerful women lacks any real subtlety or real investigation. 
That is part and parcel of writing about such current figures I imagine, and especially one as inscrutable as Her Majesty, and in all honesty, it doesn’t really matter too much at all whilst watching the play. Its breathless energy is expertly marshalled by Indhu Rubasingham and has swelled marvellously into the larger space which Richard Kent’s design fills well, and the opportunities Handbagged offers to see some of our best acting talent gathered on one stage is one you shouldn’t resist. 
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval) 
Booking until 2nd August 

Review: Handbagged, Tricycle

“We are both Britain”

Moira Buffini’s Handbagged started life as a short play as part of the Tricycle’s Women, Power and Politics season back in 2010 and now, in a fully fleshed out version, it returns to Kilburn to imagine the relationship that might have existed between two of the most significant British women of the last century – the Queen and Margaret Thatcher. But much has happened in the meantime, not least Peter Morgan having a huge success with a play that also depicted the relationship between monarch and Prime Minister(s) and the small matter of the death of the UK’s first female head of government.
Perhaps conscious of the impossibility of trying to envisage what was really said between the pair, 


Buffini opts instead for a meta-theatrical fantasia and huge fun it is. Older incarnations of the women (Q and T) interact with their younger selves (Liz and Mags), each giving us their own take on Thatcher’s reign through the weekly meetings held with the Queen, whilst two actors play any number of supporting characters – Reagans Ronald and Nancy, Rupert Murdoch, Neil Kinnock, a simple palace footman, the list goes on… As one of them recounts an event, the others pass comment, challenge memories, offer explanatory excuses, even break entirely out of character sometimes.

It’s an ambitious project for sure but one which sparkles with wit and playfulness. It doesn’t pretend to offer any great psychological insight, how could it, but it does examine the way in which history, particularly political history, is reported and remembered, how the myth relates to reality (or not as the case may be) and how the force of personality can ride roughshod over even the most deeply felt voices of protest. Buffini nails her colours to the mast pretty early on – the Queen would love to enjoy a girlish gossip but a profoundly respectful Maggie is stridently intransigent ad nauseam – but the lively spirit of the writing, even as it touches on the darker times of the 1980s, should ensure interest across the political spectrum.

Indhu Rubasingham directs the whole affair with a keen sense of sharpness, maintaining clarity even in the more tangled scenes, and encourages some simply extraordinary performances from her cast. On first glance, these are impersonations par excellence – Marion Bailey nails the vaguely blank public façade of today’s Queen and Stella Gonet’s blown-dry helmet mounts the rigid stateliness of the latter-day Baroness. Clare Holman is appealing as a younger monarch but Fenella Woolgar is simply outrageously good as the fresh-into-power Thatcher – the walk, the head-tilt, the relentless drive, the absolute self-confidence, it’s all there in spades and should most definitely be seen by all.

The connection between the performers is also excellent – several moments occur where a character’s movements are amusingly mirrored by both actors, and there’s a genuine warmth at the way in which they often gently admonish the other for embellishing the truth – “I didn’t say that”. Jeff Rawle and Neet Mohan are great value for money too as the journeymen working their way through the list of supporting characters, garnering their own fair share of laughs (Rawle is particularly excellent at the quick switches) as well as pulling out moments of genuine pathos in representing the voice of the people. Richard Kent’s simply effective design of a deconstructed Union Jack is an art installation in itself and makes the perfect backdrop for an excellent, amusing piece of drama. 

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)

Playtext cost: £3.50
Booking until 9th November

DVD Review: Tamara Drewe

“You’re just a sex object, no-one would have you”

I did a lot of travelling this weekend so I got to catch up on a fair bit of DVD watching on the train: some were directly theatre-related and others not, but the cast of Tamara Drewe was so thesp-heavy I couldn’t resist jotting down a few thoughts about this film. Any film that opens with a shirtless Luke Evans and having his role as a sex object acknowledged within the first 15 minutes is surely onto a good thing and combined with Roger Allam’s deliciously fruity turn of phrase, the film made a bright start which endeared me greatly.

The film, directed by Stephen Frears, has a screenplay by Moira Buffini derived from Posy Simmond’s graphic novel-style drawings and is set in the sleepy village of Ewedown where everyone knows each other’s business and can’t help but poke their nose in. When Tamara, an appealing turn from Gemma Arterton, returns after her mother’s death to sell up the old family house, she thinks that she’ll be heading straight back to her adopted London lifestyle, but a new affair with rock star Ben, Dominic Cooper in fine form, keeps her a little longer and allowing old feelings and passions to stir in several men of the village, making life most complicated for all.

The biggest effect is on Beth and Nicholas Hardiment. He’s a mildly successful crime writer, she subserviently runs the writer’s retreat that serves almost as his fan club and it soon becomes apparent that Nicholas and a young Tamara had some kind of flirtation going on which his randy eyes are more than willing to reignite. And it is the casting here that makes the film: Roger Allam’s hilarious yet oleaginous writer, constantly having affairs and getting away with it due to Tamsin Greig’s long-suffering wife, aware of what is going on yet clinging onto the responsibilities of running his life and business that she still enjoys.

Throw in a pair of celeb-obsessed teenage girls, Jessica Barden is superb here as is the quieter Charlotte Christie , and a brood of inquisitive writers including Bronagh Gallagher, Pippa Haywood and Josie Taylor and the scene is set for a highly entertaining comedic romp through the countryside as the ripples of Tamara’s reappearance impact on all and sundry. There’s a sensitive depth too though, in the sadness in Greig’s eyes, the self-destructive tendencies of Arterton’s Tamara and the teenage precocity of Barden’s Jody who doesn’t know when to stop.

Being so immersed in the world of theatre now, I get strange pleasure from random things like spotting Amanda Lawrence in a small role or trying to work out what I’ve seen various people in without looking on here on the blog. But I found Tamara Drewe to be most watchable and most enjoyable: Gemma Arterton is such an appealing actress in whom I take pleasure watching and whilst Luke Evans and Dominic Cooper provide monumental amounts of eye candy they are both talented actors too. But it is in Roger Allam and Tamsin Greig’s performances that the film really catches fire and makes it pretty much a 4.5 out of 5 for me.

Review: Greenland, National Theatre

“It’s like we’re conducting a big, massive experiment…”

Pulling together narratives and investigative work from four playwrights, Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne around the ever-current issue of climate change, Greenland is the latest play at the National Theatre to tackle this issue, following on from Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London last year. Based on interviews with scientists, politicians, money-makers and philosophers, woven together by dramaturg Ben Power and directed by Bijan Sheibani, this is a highly ambitious, challenging piece of work and though this was the first preview, it seems that some of these challenges might be a little too much.


Predictably, multiple strands of story run parallel, some explored and revisited more than others as the narrative shifts around, there are occasional intersections but these are perfunctory rather than integral to the stories. Amongst everything, there’s a young woman moved to drop out of university to become a climate change activist; two women in a therapy session (there was division in the group as to whether they were mother/daughter or a lesbian couple, but it really isn’t that important) who are being driven apart by the strident ‘green’ views of one of them; two guys bird-watching in Greenland, one of whom has been doing it for 40 years; a Labour politician struggling to make a difference leading up to and at the Copenhagen Climate Conference. All are trying to make sense of the conflicting viewpoints around the issue and figuring out who to trust and what, if anything, can be done.


And perhaps this is true to life in that nothing really gets explained clearly or debated truly or decided to any degree. The few connections that exist between the narratives are random rather than essential which creates a disjointed feel which is never quite surmounted despite Sheibani marshalling a vast number of elements into his creative vision aided by Bunny Christie’s design. But it is just too sprawling to ever really gain any of the cohesion that would make this an essential piece of involving drama.

With such a swirling mass of plots and characters and large ensemble scenes and staging devices, few performances were given enough time to really stand out. But as the play progressed, there was some genuine narrative development and the burgeoning relationship between Lyndsey Marshal’s frustrated politician and Peter McDonald’s scientist became really quite engaging, Sam Swann’s idealistic young man about to go to university was appealing and Amanda Lawrence was excellent in a multitude of small parts, raising chuckles at the inanities of how a major international treaties are drafted, articulating the views of many at the frustrations at the perceived uselessness of tiny individual actions when we’re being warned of impending global catastrophe and also as a dippy hippy. Isabella Laughland also makes an impressive NT debut in just her second professional theatre role.

Visually, it is quite something and there’s a hugely ambitious amount of just…stuff happening almost throughout the show. There’s [spoiler alert] a girl in a flying shopping trolley, paper snow falling, rope climbing, a recurring game of Deal Or No Deal, a rain curtain, stylised dance numbers and possibly the best polar bear ever seen on stage. It is all rather impressive but collectively amounts to little as there is little or no cohesion to everything. Aline David has done some sterling work with the movement, there are lots of strong visual moments with the whole company onstage but too often, and Finn Ross’ video work is particularly culpable here, the aesthetic feels too close to Headlong’s Enron or Complicite’s A Disappearing Number with numbers and statistics being projected everywhere, tightly choreographed dance routines in uniforms and the occasional reference to the time and place of a character popping up on the back wall. The connections are obvious due to the presence of Power (who worked on both) as dramaturg but came across as a tired rehashing too often rather than fresh and exciting.

The usual caveats about first previews remain as pertinent as ever, even more so here perhaps, given the ambitious scope of a multi-author, multi-discipline production such as this and Sheibani and his team have the opportunity to make refinements that could make a difference: indeed I can’t say that I hated this and there were moments and flashes throughout, especially in the third quarter, when I came close to enjoying myself. But ultimately, the play just feels like a cacophonous deluge of information, none of which really stuck in my mind, without the necessary clarity of vision of the message it is trying to portray.* And given the distinct lack of the enthusiasm for the play before it had even opened, climate change seems to be drawing a lot of apathy from people at the moment, I can’t see Greenland changing anyone’s mind, which is a real shame.

*That said, some of the information that was provided on the pieces of paper that fall from the sky was most interesting indeed: it is all paper from the National Theatre being recycled, we are given to believe, so I now apparently have in my possession a most interesting list of future plays and directors being considered by Hytner and two pages of the script for Frankenstein!

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 2nd April
Note: some flashing lights and a little smoking onstage

Review: Welcome to Thebes, National Theatre

“If you intend to f*ck with the god of power, then make sure you don’t fall asleep besides him”
Any play that can use the epithet “your mother-f*cking brother” with complete accuracy has to be worth your attention and sure enough, Welcome to Thebes, a new play by Moira Buffini opening in the Olivier auditorium at the National Theatre, is more than equal to the challenge. The play is quite huge in scope, it looks at the role of women in politics, the state of Africa, the aftermath of war, the relationship between Africa and the West, the tragedy of child soldiers and it tells of them through the prism of Greek mythology, but relocated to the modern day and an unspecified (West) African state.
So we have the story of a female president-elect, Eurydice, struggling to exert herself in both her domestic situation in a country reeling from years of civil war, but also in the male-dominated world of international relations as she needs to establish links with global superpower Athens for much needed aid and investment by engaging with its charismatic leader, Theseus. The clearest analogy to make is with Liberia, the only African state to have an elected female leader of state in Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who came to power after the concerted efforts of a mass movement of women hungry for peace after years of civil war. And if Thebes equates to Liberia, then Athens becomes the United States, the superpower and apparent bastion of democracy but unwilling to provide assistance without considerable caveats; Theseus being an Obama-like leader with a touch more arrogance.

Circumstances had led happily to me attending this with an old friend visiting from Canada who works in the conflict management arena and has a particular interest in developing West African countries so it could not have been better planned if we tried. And it was very interesting to see how convincing she found much of what was depicted onstage. Buffini is really alive to the alternative politics suggested by a female-dominated administration as currently demonstrated in Rwanda, and given colourful, amusing life by a trio of ace supporting performances. Aïcha Kossoko as the pragmatic, no-nonsense Foreign Secretary Aglaea, Joy Richardson as the sympathetic Thalia Minister of Justice and a warm Pamela Nomvete as Finance Minister Euprosyne were all excellent, struggling to come to terms with the horrors of a seemingly endless civil war and the situation they find themselves in in dealing with the bureaucracy of the world’s most powerful nation, but ultimately undaunted by their task in hand.
Nikki Amuka-Bird had a job in convincing me that she’d be ok given that the last time I saw her was in the execrable The Gods Weep but I was blown away by her powerful, passionate performance of a woman finding her way in “the politics of dire need”, fighting opposition from so many sides and desperate for Athens to believe in what she is doing in rebuilding her country, she fills the stage well with her presence. David Harewood is an actor of whom I am not particularly fond but he was impressive as the manipulative Theseus and the relationship and power games played between the two leaders were well done as they struggle to come to any kind of working agreement. Chuk Iwuji was terrifyingly convincing as the leader of the opposition, any resemblance to Charles Taylor I’m sure was totally coincidental(!) and his partner in crime, Rakie Ayola’s cobra-like Pargeia possessed of a glacial calm, brought a real sense of danger to the fragile political situation.
Elsewhere I enjoyed Jacqueline Defferary’s frustrated peacekeeper Talthybia, a woman who’s grown to love and understand the country she’s stationed in but as much a victim of patronising sexism from her own leader Theseus as the women of the ‘less-developed’ country, the stunning Tracy Ifeachor as Ismene desperate to get the hell out of Dodge and a raw, impassioned Madeline Appiah. Fans of Wicked might be interested to see that Alexia Khadime turns up in the ensemble here as the guide of the blind seer Tiresias and sings a couple of laments but she has little real role to play in the drama.
The use of Greek mythology is largely well done, bits from various tales have been stitched together here into a new whole and the analogy works, to most of us the world of child soldiers and violent civil unrest is as alien to us as the world of the Ancient Greeks and their gods and yet the beliefs in the spirit world is a connection between the two. However, the tension between the epic and the everyday was often highlighted by the disparities between the epic language used, with its talk of the gods and overarching concepts, and the modern day slang “you are my bitch” that permeates much of the conversation.
The set design was fairly simplistic: a ruined palace as a backdrop with a barren sand and rock-filled desolation surrounding. Given the staging opportunities in the Olivier, it initially felt a little underwhelming but in actual fact served to concentrate the attention on the acting and story-telling, something perhaps a little underestimated in productions like Women Beware Women with its giant revolve.
The quiet moments were often the strongest, the moving moment when the child soldier First Lieutenant was asked his real name, Ismene’s desperate attempt to leave the country where she is so unhappy, the Cabinet’s brief moment of self-doubt in the conference “we like to wear comfortable shoes…”. Welcome to Thebes offers a timely reminder that the developed world really does need to learn better ways of communicating with the Third World if we’re to ever to seriously tackle the problems of global poverty, but also adds a more universal thread in considering the greater role that women ought to play in politics, no matter the country. Recommended.
Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes
Programme cost: £3
Note: there’s some strobing and a gunshot

Review: Handbagged

“’I never said there was no such thing as society’
‘Yes you did, it was in Women’s Own!’”
Play number 2 of the Then half of Women, Power and Politics season at the Tricycle Theatre
Written by Moira Buffini, soon to become the second living female playwright to have a play performed on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre (although by saying that am I undermining what this season is trying to achieve? I know it shouldn’t matter but surely it is significant enough to mention?), Handbagged is an extremely witty look at what the relationship between the Queen of England and Margaret Thatcher might have been like. Thatcher had a weekly audience with Elizabeth II during her Prime Ministership and this could be seen as the most constant professional relationship she had with another woman during that time, but it was not the easiest of times between the two as we see here.

They were tested by a range of major challenges. Like Reagan’s invasion of Grenada, supported by Thatcher but as a Commonwealth country the Queen had an interest as the Head of State there, and the Queen took great exception to not being fully included in the consultations around it. Like Thatcher’s rejection of sanctions against South Africa in order to try and weaken apartheid, something supported by the Queen as she felt it was threatening the stability of the Commonwealth. Like the Sunday Times’ alleged exposé of the rift between the women, leaked (or was it?) by the Queen’s Press Secretary Michael Shea, a waggish Simon Chandler in an excellent cameo here.

The play makes a virtue of the fact that we know nothing of what their conversations were like by having an older version of the pair reminiscing about events which was played out by younger versions. Thus the scene is set for a little historical revisionism on the part of both ladies, and often challenged by the other, especially when their actions do not paint them in the best light. This is a rather clunky explanation and does no justice to the deftness of touch with which this has been written and how brilliantly it is acted on the stage.

Stella Gonet as Mrs T and Kika Markham as the Queen initially face off as the women (‘Why don’t you sit down?), born just five months apart in 1925 and then Heather Craney and Claire Cox emerge as the younger versions to take us through the 11 years. Along with the difficulties, Buffini also draws lines where she thinks they might have had real connections, amusingly so in their girlish appreciation for Ronald Reagan (Tom Mannion here) and touchingly so in their deep, unwavering love and admiration for their fathers, clearly a defining characteristic for both ladies. And it is full of beautifully judged moments, even during the short running time: the look of triumph on Gonet’s face in being able to wrap Reagan around her little finger and the look of horror as the Queen talks about how she liked Ted Heath, Markham’s pride in having gone to the theatre recently (War Horse!) and the combined withering stare of Gonet and Craney is terrifyingly amazing. All four women are just brilliant though and I think I liked this play the most out of the entire two days.

Each pairing sparks off each other beautifully and there’s also good connection between older and younger as there is much overlapping dialogue, quick denials (‘I never said that’ is repeated a lot!) and hurried remembrances which make Handbagged an absolute treasure to watch and extremely funny. It really does feel like a realistic depiction of what this relationship might have been like, forever in flux but deeply meaningful to each woman.

Running time: 30 minutes