Review: Carthage, Finborough Theatre

“With my hand on my heart, I don’t know”

Brutally effective, unerringly inquisitive, indisputably compelling. January may only just have finished but it is not hard to imagine that we won’t be talking about Chris Thompson’s Carthage when it comes to totting up the best new plays of the year come December. A debut piece of writing, Thompson has 12 years experience as a social worker and it is that which he has channelled into this play, which takes an unblinking look at the ruthless realities of the care system and whether it might indeed do as much damage as good. 

The story centres on the case of Tommy Anderson – a young lad born in jail and fifteen years later, found dead in jail after officers tried to restrain him during a violent episode. Fragmented scenes skitter around this period trying to find the answers about who to blame and so Tommy’s mother, his social worker and his prison guard become the focus of the play – their actions (or inactions) exposed, their behaviours examined, their responsibilities explored. Continue reading “Review: Carthage, Finborough Theatre”

Review: Dangerous Lady, Theatre Royal Stratford East

“We could get the girls round for a game of kerplunk”

I’m a big fan of crime fiction but somehow Martina Cole has passed me by: none of my book-sharing buddies ever press her work into my hands, the TV adaptations didn’t grab me and the previous two Cole stage adaptations failed to tempt me to Theatre Royal Stratford East. But TRSE are clearly happy with how they went and it seems to be turning into an annual event there, so this year one can take in a version of her first novel, Dangerous Lady.

Cole seems to occupy similar ground, if not subject matter, to the Jilly Coopers and Jackie Collins of the world, the story has an epic sweep over several decades but an intimate focus in the struggles and self-empowerment of a ballsy lady. Here it is Maura Ryan, born into a family of gangsters but determined to do the right thing by avoiding the family business. An ill-advised liaison with a cop ends up in pregnancy but he swiftly departs and the subsequent back alley abortion leaves her broken-hearted, infertile and hardened to the world. She then joins her brothers and together they come to conquer gangland, but at considerable sacrifice. Continue reading “Review: Dangerous Lady, Theatre Royal Stratford East”

Review: Beautiful Thing, Royal Exchange

“God, coz I bunk off games does it mean I’m gay?”

Jonathan Harvey’s 1993 play Beautiful Thing caused something of a furore when it first opened at the Bush Theatre and watching it now, it is hard to imagine that this sweetly romantic tale of an emerging teenage gay relationship could have managed that. But 18 years is a long time, especially when it comes to attitudes towards homosexuality, culturally this was a pre-Queer as Folk time but more significantly the age of consent for gay men was still 21 (though it was being debated at the time). So despite its unassuming nature, it could well be argued that this play does occupy a landmark place in the development of gay drama.

The play presents three young people, Jamie, Ste and Leah, who are all struggling to ‘fit in’ with their family, their friends, their peers and the world at large. Even the adult characters have their own struggles on this Thamesmead housing estate as poverty looms large but even in these unlikeliest of circumstances, an unexpected flame flickers between Jamie and Ste which is slowly nurtured into something rather beautiful in Sarah Frankcom’s production for the Royal Exchange. Continue reading “Review: Beautiful Thing, Royal Exchange”

Review: The Swan, National Theatre

Second up in Double Feature 1 is DC Moore’s The Swan. Set in a South London pub, much as his brilliant one-man show Honest was, the scene is the morning of a funeral and preparations are being made for the wake in this rundown establishment.

At the centre of everything is Jim, a bombastic performance from Trevor Cooper and blessed with some brilliantly inventive swearing, who claims to have been practically born in the pub where his mother was a singer and where he has ruled the roost ever since. Slowly but surely, more people arrive and the picture comes into focus as we come to realise exactly who the funeral was for and what his connection was to each of the characters. Continue reading “Review: The Swan, National Theatre”

Review: There is a War, National Theatre

Tom Basden’s There is a War makes for a more entertaining second half of Double Feature 2, at least for the first few scenes. Occupying the kind of slightly surreal version of reality he has become known for, it is set in a non-specific domain where a civil war is being waged between the Blues and the Greys.

When he is being sharply satirical, Basden is at his best and it shows in the great opening third of the show and the way he skewers the group mentalities that emerge. Whether it is the meaningless bureaucracy of the military, the lengths some people are driven to to avoid certain things, the hypocrisy of the peace protestors, or the sheer ridiculousness of a conflict that no-one is 100% sure about – exactly how different is blue from grey anyway… – yet they all take part in it anyway, he mines a brilliantly dark shaft of humour through the brief appearances of some hilarious characters. Kirsty Bushell’s fantastically-unprepared dance-drama teacher, Trevor Cooper’s Big Dave – advising Richard Hope’s Field Commander Goodman on military strategy, the imprisoned yet chirpy soldier (I think played by Richard Goulding): they all help play up the absurdity of the situation. Continue reading “Review: There is a War, National Theatre”

Review: Ecstasy, Hampstead Theatre

“I’ve had me ups and downs but what with one thing and another, it evens itself out in the end doesn’t it”

Ecstasy, at the Hampstead Theatre, marks the first time that Mike Leigh has returned to and directed one of his own plays. It originally played at the old Hampstead in 1979 and was devised by a cast that included Julie Walters, Stephen Rea, Jim Broadbent and Sheila Kelley (mother of Leo Bill, trivia fans!). It was also designed by Alison Chitty who returns here to create a most effective cramped, depressingly chilly bedsit, convincingly 70s in every way and using just a portion of the available space on the stage, but the astonishing performances that spill out from there more than fill the room in this tale of alcoholism and grim despair in the winter of discontent.

Lead character Jean works at a petrol station, lives in a dingy bedsit in Kilburn and is resigned to a life of anonymous sexual characters with the wrong men, including married violent Roy. School-friend Dawn comes down from Birmingham for a visit, away from her three kids but bringing her Irish labourer husband with her and after Jean has a particularly nasty encounter, they go out for a night on the town. The majority of the play then focuses on the aftermath of this night out, as mutual friend Len, recently divorced, also joins them for a impromptu session back at Jean’s, full of Irish sing-songs, reminisces about their youth, the state of the world they’re living in and of course, a whole lot more drink. Continue reading “Review: Ecstasy, Hampstead Theatre”