Review: The Bomb: a partial history – Second Blast, Tricycle Theatre

“There are over 200 countries in the world and only 8, maybe 9 have nuclear weapons”

The second part of the Tricycle’s The Bomb – a partial history is named Second Blast: Present Dangers and focuses its attention on where the nuclear threat lies now, i.e. in the Middle East and North Korea. Alongside the five plays, there’s more of the verbatim reportage, edited by Richard Norton-Taylor, in this section, effectively deployed to demonstrate the almost ridiculousness of the way in which the debate about Iran and nuclear capability has been framed the US and Israel, and later on to remind us of the official political positions of many of our own leaders in the UK.

Altogether I was a tiny bit disappointed with this half of the day (I’d’ve given it 3.5 stars as opposed to 4 for Part 1) as First Blast: Proliferation had cast its net far and wide to cover five different aspects of the history of the bomb but Second Blast returned time and time again to Iran (3 times in fact) in terms of the present day. Obviously it’s a massive part of where we are in terms of potential instability, but I felt that a more useful eye could have been cast elsewhere as well – in a savage indictment of those countries like Israel and Pakistan who still refuse to sign up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or indeed a more damning look at those countries that have signed yet show no signs of reducing their stockpile. Continue reading “Review: The Bomb: a partial history – Second Blast, Tricycle Theatre”

Review: Axis

Part of The Bomb: A Partial History – Second Blast season at the Tricycle Theatre

 

“Hungry as they are, they are proud to be North Korean and not American puppets”

Even within the constraints of a short piece of drama, playwrights often think and write big, but not always to the greatest effect, and so it felt a little bit with Diana Son’s Axis, one of the plays making up the second part of the Tricycle’s The Bomb – a partial history. Starting off in a White House strategy room, two advisers try to come up with a sexy soundbite that will help sell Dubya’s aggressive post 9/11 strategy, we then flip ten years into the future in North Korea where two members of the government discuss what things might be like under their new inexperienced leader Kim Jong-Un.

Both sections have their merits: the idea that something as powerful and definitive as the ‘Axis of Evil’ rhetoric is something that could have been whipped by speech-writers and spin doctors has a horribly persuasive currency but it felt a lost opportunity for the revelation that this policy threw away the considerable diplomatic efforts of the previous administration who had come close to buying out the North Koreans’ nuclear programme in exchange for aid to just be used as a post-script caption. And where the 2012 discussion of the huge uncertainty around their untried new leader does look at the repercussions of this hardening of the position on both sides, especially on worsening the poverty in North Korea, there’s an almost slapstick tone which undermined the seriousness of the subject. Continue reading “Review: Axis”

Review: The Bomb: a partial history – First Blast, Tricycle Theatre

“Gentlemen, let the race begin”

Nicolas Kent’s final hurrah at the Tricycle Theatre, which he has patiently nurtured into fine battling form as a theatre really at the cutting edge of hot-topic drama, is this multi-authored two-part epic – The Bomb – a partial history. Inviting nine authors to respond to the debate (or more accurately the lack thereof) around nuclear weapons, Kent has pieced together a stimulating and challenging piece of theatre, divided into two parts, which can be experienced separately on different nights or one after the other on certain days, in a seven-hour marathon, which is how I did it (and probably how I’d recommend to it). 

Part one is labelled First Blast: Proliferation and focuses on the period 1940-1992 as nuclear weapons became a horrendous reality as Japan found out to its cost and then a terrible threat to all as the Cold War descended between the superpowers of the USA and the USSR, and more and more countries sought to gain nuclear capabilities for themselves, threatening imbalances right across the globe. The attempts to control the spread of nuclear weaponry is also dealt with as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty came into being and international pressure exerted to try and bring everyone into the fold. Continue reading “Review: The Bomb: a partial history – First Blast, Tricycle Theatre”

Review: Option, Tricycle Theatre

Part of The Bomb: A Partial History – First Blast season at the Tricycle Theatre

“How can security not be our agenda”

Amit Gupta’s Option was my favourite of the plays that made up the first part of the Tricycle’s The Bomb – a partial history, and probably the best of the entire collection. It centres on the debates and soul-searching of three Indian nuclear scientists in 1968: Professor Akram representing the past and a link to Gandhi’s founding principles, Dr Mishra a member of the government negotiating the extremely tricky waters around the intense pressure to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and Prakash an idealistic young man whose scientific passion promises much for the future.

As China tests its own nuclear weapons and bitter enemy Pakistan increases its efforts to secure its own, India found itself torn between looking after the security of its own nation and succumbing to the international pressure to agree to the US/Soviet Union pact that would see them back down from arming. The geopolitics of the history of nuclear whatnot is normally most focused on the key players of the USA and USSR with little consideration for the realities on the ground in countries caught in their own mini-Cold Wars. Continue reading “Review: Option, Tricycle Theatre”

Review: Little Russians, Tricycle Theatre

Part of The Bomb: A Partial History – First Blast season at the Tricycle Theatre

“What’s the message, that we’re nutters?!” 

The final play in the first half of the Tricycle’s The Bomb was John Donnelly’s Little Russians, a black comedy about a Ukrainian family looking to make a quick buck selling the decrepit nuclear missile abandoned in their back yard after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Brothers Yuri and Andrei do a deal with wandering Russian soldier Vladimir to use his contacts to sell the weapon on the black market but his eye is caught by their mother Irina who then makes her own arrangement with Vlad. And when the arms dealer finally arrives, they all try to double-cross each other in order to get the best deal but the Russian/American joint force hunting for the missing missile are getting ever closer all the time.

With its outright comedic tone – the Ukrainians are given Irish accents here and there’s more than a hint of Father Ted mentalness – Little Russians felt really quite different to the rest of the works we had seen in responding in this manner. The disintegration of the USSR created unwitting nuclear states in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine who were quick to wield the bargaining card of security against Russia rather than surrendering them for decommissioning and with opportunistic mercenaries on the make in lawless tranches of the country, they posed a serious threat. Continue reading “Review: Little Russians, Tricycle Theatre”

Review: Great Expectations, ETT at Watford Palace

“I want to be a gentleman”

English Touring Theatre’s production of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations relocates the story of Pip’s advancement to nineteenth century India in this thrilling adaptation by Tanika Gupta. A poor village boy, Pip is given the chance to better himself after a frightening encounter with a convict and an engagement to regularly visit the reclusive Miss Havisham sets him on a new path that allows him to dream of being more than a village cobbler’s assistant. And when an anonymous benefactor allows him to move to Calcutta, the heart of the British Raj, he is free to pursue his dream of becoming a proper gentleman, part of the educated elite, in order to win the heart of the coldly alluring Estella.

Gupta’s reimagining works extremely well because Pip’s journey, with his aspirations to rise above his class and status, is given even greater impact by the fact that he is casting aside his cultural identity too, his Indianness, in the search to become the perfect educated gentleman, just like one of the ruling English. This makes the transformation he seeks to effect upon himself all the more dramatic, as depicted in a wonderful scene where he dons the waistcoat and cravat of his new station, and then provides a powerfully meaningful final transition in the last scene as he ultimately comes to recognise what his true self is. But also mixed in is another layer of racial tension: Magwitch becomes a black African convict, Estella is Miss Havisham’s “African princess” and so Gupta keeps the interplay much more universal than a simplistic Asian updating and she is unafraid to show both the comedy and violence in the story in its starkest forms.


Director Nikolai Foster (no relation!) manages the achievement of a great sense of fluidity to proceedings which is all the more remarkable when one considers that there’s 31 scenes here, reflecting the serialised way in which the story was originally published. Pulling in elements of traditional dance from Zoobin Surty and music from Nicki Wells (with Nitin Sawhney onboard as musical advisor too), the atmosphere is set perfectly and well-matched by Colin Richmond’s design with its saffron-dyed gauzy curtains which allows us to move effortlessly from murky graveyards to the burning sun of the village, from shadowed dusty corridors in mansions, to the bustling city streets of Calcutta and much more. Energy crackles from all aspects, from cast members bursting through the stalls to bowls of incense being lit in front of us, to create a real theatrical experience.

Tariq Jordan is exceptional as Pip, starting off as the naive youth oblivious to anything but his own desires and progressing slowly as experience is acquired, hearts broken, friends gained, dreams shattered, charting his maturing from boy to man and never letting us forget Pip’s humanity even when he is at his most blinkered. But this is a strong ensemble throughout: from Tony Jayawardena’s beautifully warm Joe Gargery and Kiran Landa’s wise-beyond-her-years Biddy, to Lynn Farleigh’s near-dessicated Miss Havisham and Simone James’ emotionally estranged Estella, there’s a real sense of clarity to all the characterisations here. Giles Cooper’s ever-so-English Herbert Pocket was a particular delight, as was Jude Akuwudike’s raw energy as Magwitch.

The only real criticism I found was that a couple of the more emotional moments were too heavily underscored by the swelling score that felt more akin to a Hollywood film, yanking at the heartstrings instead of playing to the more subtle poignancy of the actual play. But minor quibble aside, this is a superbly effective reimagining of Great Expectations which breathes a new vibrancy into this well-known story, which remains highly recognisable (the character of Orlick was the only one I could think of that has been omitted) and provides it with a timeless resonance, none more so than at the beginning of the final scene where a public speaker exhorts his crowd of listeners to “rise up brothers…break the shackles…we must argue our case for our right to determine the affairs of our own country”.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Playtext cost: £3.50
Booking until March 12th then touring to Cambridge, Brighton, Richmond, Guildford, Oxford and Malvern

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews