Review: The Glass Menagerie, Nottingham Playhouse

“But Mother
‘Yes?’
I’m crippled”

You might, not unreasonably, think that I’d had my fill of Glass Menageries, having seen three in the space of a month late last year but Tennessee Williams’ memory play is one I enjoy especially and am usually keen to see. And so it was with Giles Croft’s production of The Glass Menagerie for Nottingham Playhouse where he is Artistic Director, this play being the one that inspired him to become a director and now 40 years later, he feels ready to tackle for himself. 

Another key factor in my decision was this theatre’s participation in the Ramps on the Moon project, helping to mainstream disability arts and culture through programming and increased opportunities, here taking the form of casting wheelchair user Amy Trigg as Laura, the young woman whose physical fragility is matched by her emotional wellbeing, smothered as she is by overbearing mother Amanda and abandoned by brother guilt-ridden Tom. Continue reading “Review: The Glass Menagerie, Nottingham Playhouse”

Review: A New Play For The General Election, Finborough

“That looks like George Osborne…”

Well you certainly can’t fault Chris New for finding a new angle amidst the glut of election-themed political theatre that can be found from the Donmar to Theatre Delicatessen. And there’s something fascinating in reading about the way in which A New Play For The General Election was devised over a four week period by New and his cast of four, using guided improvisation to get to a predetermined end point, a brutal “final destination” that spits with real menace.

The forty-five minutes leading up to that point don’t always kick with the same force though. Its intentions are clear as the disturbed Danny drags his abducted victim into an abandoned warehouse and commences an obtuse line of questioning which reveals that in fact, this really is George Osborne. Two more people then arrive – the equally troubled Maggie and her tolerant partner Richard – throwing an already turbulent situation into more turmoil. Continue reading “Review: A New Play For The General Election, Finborough”

Film Review: A Smallholding

“You won’t make it”

 
I should probably start this off with a full disclosure notice – I invested in this film! Well, it was peanuts really as sadly I don’t have enough money to be investing here and there but given how much I enjoyed the theatrical productions of Chris Dunkley’s Smallholding (at the Nuffield and then at the Soho), I was intrigued to see how it would turn out as a film and so joined my first ever Kickstarter campaign. And I have to say it was fascinating, I loved the updates that we got, lending a real insight into the lengthy film-making process and the unique pressures it brings with it so if you see a project you like the look of, I’d recommend digging as deep as you can. 

But back to A Smallholding as it has been retitled here, the film adapted by playwright Chris Dunkley and director Chris New who starred in the original productions but has moved behind the camera here (he was a busy boy indeed as he directed, shot, edited, graded and mixed it). and what a beautiful thing it is. I’m well-disposed to the piece already but it really does flourish in the new medium, its location in deepest rural Northamptonshire allowing scenes to be played out in the vast emptiness and quiet, really emphasising the totality of the seclusion that Andy and Jen originally sought for their sanity and seeing how it soon curdles into oppressive isolation. Continue reading “Film Review: A Smallholding”

Re-review: Smallholding, Soho Theatre

“That’s a turnip for the books”

I’ve enjoyed previous plays by Chris Dunkley so when the invitation to see Smallholding, a co-production between HighTide and the Nuffield, came my way, I took the chance to make my first ever visit to Southampton (via a matinée in Salisbury of course) where I had a great time, ranking the play 22nd out of the 300 odd I saw last year. Spurred on by its success, the production has now resurfaced in the sweltering heat of the Soho Upstairs, where the bruising intimacy of this two-hander has only gained power. 

After a rocky time of it, Andy and Jen have moved back to the East Northamptonshire village of their youth and taken on a small farm, a smallholding where they intend to make a new life, rearing pigs and growing parsnips and garlic. It’s difficult to outrun demons though and the rural isolation presents its own set of challenges – Smallholding is a story about how we sometimes grip so tightly onto the things we deem most precious to us, we don’t notice them shattering in our hands.  Continue reading “Re-review: Smallholding, Soho Theatre”

Short Film Review #30

 
War Hero

 

Doug Rao came to my attention as part of the Spanish Golden Age ensemble currently at the Arcola and I was intrigued to see he was an acclaimed writer and director as well as an actor. His debut short film War Hero hit the festival circuit in 2007 and it isn’t hard to see how it was considered worthy. A densely packed story set in a military hospital , Rao poses questions about the morality of warfare (particularly in Iraq), its effects on the individuals tasked with carrying out the orders and the collateral damage it inevitably collects.

Continue reading “Short Film Review #30”

Review: The Precariat, Finborough

“You’re tinkering with a fundamentally unfair system”

The plays that end up in the Sunday/Monday slot at the Finborough have to ride the luck of the draw when it comes to the sets upon which they have to perch, borrowing space as they do from the main show. And for Chris Dunkley’s new play The Precariat, the garishness of Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi’s set has actually worked well here for in having to cover it up with dark drapes, much of design consultant James Turner’s work is then done. It forms the ideal backdrop for the sparse bits of battered furniture and the array of video screens that litter the intimate space in which this tale of a teenage North Londoner trying to find his place in a world decimated by the financial crisis.

Fin is a 15 year old schoolboy and is clearly a bright boy but the road ahead is far from clear. His mother is depressed and disconnected, his younger brother has fallen in with a bad crowd and has started taking drugs and his petty criminal father is barely on the scene. And in a Tottenham still recovering from the seismic shock of the 2011 riots, Fin only sees opportunities shrinking away for him and his brother alike, both in terms of the lack of decent jobs in the immediate future and with the long-term prospects in a society that has been irrevocably broken.  


Dunkley is a writer I’ve come to admire (I made my first ever trip to Southampton to see his Smallholding) with a gift for combining powerfully intimate stories with a wider social context, and it is a similar model that he employs here. Sharply observed dialogue captures a visceral sense of how disaffected this world is – Kirsty Besterman is blistering as Bethan, the very epitome of parental dysfunction as she invites her feckless ex over, ostensibly to reconnect with his sons but really just to have a quickie in the flat – and as the dynamics of the family shift with desperation and darkness creeping in from all sides, there’s a pungently compelling depiction of the seemingly inescapable trap that social, economic and cultural deprivation creates.


What works less well is the attempts to locate this drama in the big picture, the proselytising and prophesising about the evils of capitalism and damage that will be consequently wreaked on the world doesn’t ever feel that natural, not least coming out of the mouth of a 15 year old. These references to the wider world feel shoehorned in and though Scott Chambers is superbly naturalistic as the troubled adolescent Fin, he struggles to make such erudition feel genuinely real.


Part of this also comes from a delivery of the North London patois which I personally found near-impossible to decipher at times. It sounds incredibly authentic but so much of his dialogue was swallowed up that I was left grateful for the playtext. Likewise with the sound effects for some of the supporting characters’ voices– drug lord Balthazar is superbly and creepily portrayed through video alone and Fin’s one ray of light is the friendly voice on the other end of the drive-thru intercom who we only ever hear – Chris New’s direction perhaps erred on the side of atmosphere rather than clarity, this was a rare time that my deafness really impacted on being able to fully comprehend a play in such a small theatre.


But New’s use of the video screens is frequently witty and inspired, always feeling an integral part of the production rather than something bolted-on for effect, and he navigates the quicksilver shifts in tone well, balancing the grimness with an everyday levity, reminding us that lives like these are being lived all around us and are becoming increasingly hard to ignore. Perhaps the play could have done with a little more ambiguity in its political arguments to create an intellectual debate to match the physical drama, but this still remains an ambitious attempt at capturing something of the modern malaise that is blighting so much of our disaffected youth. 


Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Playtext cost: £3
Booking until 30th July

Review: Smallholding, Nuffield

“London and that were just a phase”

Two former junkies break into an abandoned East Northamptonshire farmhouse – such is the opening premise of Chris Dunkley’s new play Smallholding, a co-production between Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre and the HighTide festival. But it soon becomes apparent that this 75 minute two-hander is no stereotypically sunken-cheeked tale of crackheads and crime but rather a brutally frank and insightful exploration of the cruel dynamics of addiction and co-dependency on a young couple trying to make a future for themselves.

Signs look promising at first. Matti Houghton’s well-put-together Jen has a breezy determination to make good on the opportunities offered by her well-intentioned family and fresh out of rehab, Chris New’s edgily wiry Andy is full of positive thinking and enthusiasm for the bio-dynamic farming that is their chosen way forward. The thrill of setting up home together and making a new life soon wears thin though against the privations of rural life and the shadow of temptation that lingers unshakably over their relationship. Continue reading “Review: Smallholding, Nuffield”

DVD Review: Weekend

“You know what it’s like when you first sleep with someone you don’t know” 

There’s unfortunately still a paucity of interesting work that explores aspects of just being gay, rather than centring on coming out, gay-bashing or repressed love, which makes Andrew Haigh’s 2011 film Weekend all the more refreshing for its frank normality. Russell and Glen meet on a Friday night and what starts off seeming like a regular one-night-stand turns into something altogether more significant, as that special spark ignites between them and they spend a potentially life-changing weekend together, despite or perhaps because of the knowledge of they only have this weekend to share.

The film received immense hype from critics and several friends alike on its limited release last year and since I didn’t get to see it, I naturally found myself a little wary (after all, how can something be declared good if I haven’t given it my seal of approval!) and this wasn’t helped by the pedestrian pace of the opening third of the film and its rather soap-like tone, it wasn’t grabbing me at all. But slowly, it develops and matures into a really rather affecting story as the two lovers confront their preconceptions about each other, about themselves and about what they are looking for from life and love.  Continue reading “DVD Review: Weekend”

Review: The Pitchfork Disney, Arcola

“That’s a nice jacket, a real bobbydazzler”

Some playwrights click with you instantly, and others just don’t. Philip Ridley is one of the latter for me, my limited experience with his work has not been one that I’ve enjoyed and I’ve struggled to make a connection with what it is he is trying to say. He delights in the darkly poetic and wilfully enigmatic, but I rarely get on with that type of play – the word ‘lyrical’ increasingly strikes fear into my heart. But I do like to test out my limits regularly and so I had no problem booking for The Pitchfork Disney at the Arcola to see if it could change my mind.

Written in 1991, this was Ridley’s first play and heralded the new age of in-yer-face theatre with its harsh outlook and depictions of deep social unease and fantastical violence. Twins Presley and Haley live a sheltered existence in a pokey East London, very rarely venturing out into the real world and subsisting on a limited diet of chocolate bars and pills. As we see how twisted and inter-dependent their relationship has become with each sharing disturbing stories with the other, we find out that their parents are no longer with us and haven’t been for some time. An unexpected knock at the door reveals the mysteriously flamboyant figure of Cosmo Disney who sets about shaking up the brother/sister dynamic as we edge closer to finding out about what happened to their parents, and just who Disney’s associate Pitchfork is. Continue reading “Review: The Pitchfork Disney, Arcola”

Review: Lingua Franca, Finborough

“They can have us spooning and forking any time between breakfast and bedtime”

Continuing the 30th anniversary celebrations at the Finborough Theatre is the world premiere of a new play by Peter Nichols, Lingua Franca. The play is set in 1950s Florence, where Flowers gets a job teaching English at Lingua Franca, a shambolic language school housing a ragbag collection of individuals from across the globe, all struggling to come to terms with a new society in a Europe no longer at war, whilst luxuriating in the Florentine cultural bounty all around them. The programme informed me that the lead character Steven Flowers is also in one of his earlier plays, Privates on Parade, it made no difference to me not having seen that but there’s a neat bit of casting in that Ian Gelder who appears here in a different role, played that character in the original RSC production.

At the centre of the story is a love triangle of sorts: once Stephen has become accustomed to his new way of living, he throws himself into a life of gay abandon, whipping his classes up into a raucous frenzy of singalongs and chants as a different way of learning and having already caught the eye and rapt attention of repressed and depressed English Peggy, launches headlong into a passionate, physical affair with German Heidi. As Stephen, Chris New brings a wonderfully warm charm which makes it easy to see why so many women fall for him and plays the darker, crueller streak that comes as he ruthlessly pursues his sexual urges at the expense of all else equally well. Continue reading “Review: Lingua Franca, Finborough”