Review: Hostage Song, Finborough Theatre

“Why won’t God deliver me, oh I may never know”

You don’t get many hostage stories in musical theatre so the allure of the Finborough’s Hostage Song was one that proved intriguingly strong, sufficiently so to overcome my natural antipathy to anything that describes itself as an indie rock musical. But though the band onstage is full of boys dressed in black who look like they need a pie, the music of composer and lyricist Kyle Jarrow, in conjunction with Clay McLeod Chapman’s abstract book, makes for a pleasingly different piece of musical theatre.

In an unspecified country (albeit one which has experienced some kind of US military intervention), reporter Jennifer and Pentagon contractor Jim have been blindfolded, handcuffed and kept prisoner by unseen captors. To pass the time and to help try and keep a hold on their sanity, they play games of I-Spy, tell stories of their lives in flashbacks (and forwards), even go on pretend dates to help keep spirits up. Chapman’s book shudders around this timeframe with a hallucinatory energy that always keeps us on our toes and thus makes the amplified indie rock seem a more appropriate choice. Continue reading “Review: Hostage Song, Finborough Theatre”

Review: Damned by Despair, National Theatre

“Look on this and learn. Let that be your punishment”

I don’t think there is another director who frustrates me quite as much as Bijan Sheibani. The devastating simplicity with which he tackled 2009’s Our Class and the elegiac beauty he brought to the Iranian-themed Bernarda Alba earlier this year has delighted, but he’s also responsible for making 70 minutes seem like a pained lifetime in Moonlight and threw everything including his kitchen sink into the multi-authored chaotic carnival ride that was Greenland. So it is hard to know what to expect from his work, but it seems sure to provoke strong emotion in me one way or another. Sadly, his latest foray at the National Theatre – Damned by Despair – errs towards the latter of the above categories. It is still in previews to be sure, but it is hard to imagine that this isn’t a fatally flawed production. 

The play is a religious epic from 1625, written by Spanish monk Tirso de Molina, and delves into sticky questions of spirituality such as is heaven is reserved for those who spend a lifetime believing and can non-believers be redeemed through the accomplishment of good deeds. This is subject matter of a deeply different kind to what our more agnostic tastes are now suited, but the difficulties inherent in translating such ideas to a modern audience are simply magnified by a clumsy new version by Frank McGuinness and some baffling directorial choices from Sheibani which swung from cringeworthy to laughable and almost always misguided – I fear some serious trimming will need to be done if there’s any hope for the production. Continue reading “Review: Damned by Despair, National Theatre”

Review: Collaborators, National Theatre

“It’s man versus monster Mikhail, and the monster always wins”

Apparently the play Collaborators was sent to the National Theatre on spec and as it is now opening in the Cottesloe (this was a preview) in a production directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Simon Russell Beale and Alex Jennings amongst others, it would perhaps suggest that anyone could be in with a chance of getting a play on the stage. But things are rarely as simple as they seem and although this is the debut play from John Hodge, he is a highly experienced screenwriter whose credits include Trainspotting, Shallow Grave and The Beach. His play riffs on historical fact to portray an imagined relationship between Russian playwright Mikhail Bulgakov and one of his biggest fans, Joseph Stalin, who commissioned him to write a play about his life for his sixtieth birthday.

Set in Moscow 1938 with the repressive regime well established and the secret police encouraging people to inform on dissident neighbours, Bulgakov had been forced into the difficult position of compromising his biggest success – The White Guard (a recent great success here at the NT) – to make it politically palatable for Stalin and accepting the banning of many of his other works due to their subversive message. Thus when he was offered the chance to write the Stalin play, it made both artistic sense – in finally getting his work on the stage again, and economic sense – in that he was able to negotiate a new apartment and a much better standard of living for him and his wife. The play imagines a series of meetings between the two, getting to know each other as the play gets written but whilst Bulgakov seems to get closer to Stalin and his viewpoints, his friends and associates are left living a life of increasing fear and intimidation. Continue reading “Review: Collaborators, National Theatre”

Review: Men Should Weep, National Theatre

“It’s only rich folk can keep theirselves tae theirselves. Folk like us huv tae depend on their neighbours when they’re needin help”

Men Should Weep is a play by Ena Lamont Stewart, voted as one of the top 100 English language plays of the twentieth century but has been very rarely performed. A programme note suggests that it was O H Mavor’s dismissal of her talent that prevented her from developing further as a playwright and stifling her reputation and it was crushingly sad to find out that the real appreciation of her work as a classic and its placing in said poll came too late for her as her memory had gone by then and she passed away in 2006. So this is an important revival in that sense, spearheaded by Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre Josie Rourke’s directorial debut at the National, but in its look at the everyday life of people in poverty, it rings with an ominous political resonance given the news in yesterday’s Comprehensive Spending Review and the effect it will have on the poorest in our society. This was the third preview, so all the usual caveats apply.

Set in the 1930s, the impoverished years of the Great Depression, in the crowded working-class slums of the Gorbals in the East End of Glasgow, it follows one family’s struggle for survival in a tough world. Working mother of seven Maggie is the lynchpin of this family but has to deal with an unemployed husband who won’t demean himself to do any domestic work, the return of a troublesome son and his wife to an already over-crowded home, one child with TB, another longing to fly to family coop and a gaggle of over-bearing friends and neighbours. Continue reading “Review: Men Should Weep, National Theatre”