Review: The Pulverised at The Arcola

This review was first published by Theatre Bubble

Four characters lie spread out, bodies twisted, on a pile of rubble next to a forbidding concrete wall.  Pounding music plays, and they rise and dance jerkily, faces contorted in pain. Then they begin to tell us about their lives, and for 90 minutes, their stories of the horrors of the modern globalized world are relentlessly communicated. This is not a comedy.

A Quality Assurance of Subcontractors Manager from Lyon flies the world, dropping into outposts of his multinational company for brief, ritualistic visits – China one day, India the next. He is so caught up in his efficient, box-ticking progress he only gradually notices his build-up of jet-lag, his disconnection from his family and the dehumanization of the workers he polices.

A factory worker in Shanghai, 16 years old, stands in a designated square metre of space, assembling TV boxes for consumption in France. There are only a limited number of toilet breaks available, so she daren’t succumb to normal bodily functions. She lives in a crowded dorm on site and spends her nights doing extra work for pin money.

A call centre Team Leader in Dakar, Senegal rises from the bed he shares with another underpaid worker and travels hours to his job, where he dons his fake Versace suit and chivvies the staff into speaking to customers like automatons, treading the company line to a fault, only breaking when a potential new recruit shows up his wage-slavery and submission to The Man.

A Research and Development Engineer in Bucharest, an executive, makes plenty of money but at the cost of time with her child at home, who she views from her desk on CCTV. When she doesn’t gain promotion, after working very hard for an interview in which her interlocutor falls asleep, her life and her hope in the future fall apart.

THE PULVERISED is a portrait of a world that has lost its heart. In the pursuit of profit, workers at various levels of multinational hierarchies become disassociated from normal human rhythms, their bodies merely dispensable cogs in the great machine. Intimate relationships are tortured until they’re destroyed. Connection with others is made via screens, and all co-workers are in competition, on an impossibly fast treadmill designed to make their company owners more market-share. We may have thought we knew the meaning of the term ‘rat-race’, but this piece of theatre makes the global connections that highlight how much worse than our understanding things really are.

Writer Alexandra Badea has crafted a brutal but essential play with a broad reach yet so many particularities that we can experience being under the skin of each benighted protagonist.  Andy Sava directs with imagination and force, and the actors are strong, particularly Solomon Isreal as the call centre employee, who has a directness and nimble grace that are compulsively watchable. Audiences will have to search hard for hope, but the play is better for having no pat solutions to the gargantuan problems it illustrates – issues humanity clearly must address if it wants to work against the spoilage of all our lives by big business.



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Review: Home Chat by Noel Coward

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A good Noel Coward production is a delicious sweetmeat to be savoured, and this one does not disappoint. Home Chat opens in a homely, book-filled drawing room with man of the house, rumpled novelist Paul Ebony and the twittering Mavis Wittersham, his fawning friend, waiting for the return of Paul’s wife, Janet, from Paris. In a flurry of septuagenarian female energy and appliqued millinery, Paul and Janet’s mothers both arrive, and it is gradually revealed that Janet has put herself in a very compromising position: the train on which she was coming home was involved in a fatal accident, and Janet, though alive, was discovered to be sharing a sleeping compartment with an old ‘friend’ Peter Chelsworth. All the recipients of the news jump immediately to the worst possible conclusion, that Janet and Peter must be having an affair. This appears to be corroborated when Peter’s fiancé, Lavinia, arrives, in tears at her man’s betrayal. When Janet enters thankfully into her own house after her ordeal, she is greeted by a committee of outraged moralists akin to a Daily Mail editorial team.

The action that ensues centres on one of the brightest, sparkiest proto-feminists to be found in English drama. Janet Ebony is a fantastic character. Angry at her family and friends’ refusal to believe that her relationship with Peter is genuinely platonic, she, in cahoots with Peter, nevertheless taunts and teases them with an elaborate pretence that maybe there is something going on. A scene where she and Peter simulate having sex whilst the old ladies listen aghast in the next room is hilarious, all the more so because it must have been outrageous when the play was first shown in 1927. And yet it seems this exciting woman may have to return to her inert marriage to hide from The Scandal on the Train.

Coward stuck up for women, and in Janet’s situation we see the double-standards for the sexes that he often highlighted. Janet’s healthy friendship with Peter is seen as suspicious and socially unacceptable but Paul’s friend, Mavis (a very funny Clare Lawrence Moody) is always welcome in the Ebony home (though not by a discerning manservant who reveals in some of the subtle acting that is everywhere in this lovely piece that he can see through her simpering ways).

Janet is made compulsively watchable by Zoe Waites, a whirlwind of energy and luminosity, who myself and the girls sitting next to me agreed we would like to make our new best friend. The old ladies are divinely eccentric courtesy of Polly Adams and Joanna David. Tim Chipping makes Paul a very plausible stuffy husband, and Richard Dempsey as Peter plays well the sweet, funny male mate with whom any woman would like to share some innocent naughtiness.

Martin Parr directs with great mastery of Coward, with some wonderful fresh touches in stage effects, and one of my favourite things, a manservant character (Robert Hazle) singing Coward songs as he changes the set. A sublime idea in a thoroughly enjoyable show.

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Review: What Kind of Fool am I?

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Helen Wood is no ordinary woman. She’s not famous, and she isn’t a multi-millionaire or a great leader of humankind, but in her own way, she has led a very interesting life. And in this unusual and surprising one-woman show, she tells us all about it. Through the biographical material, Helen weaves information and observations about a personality ‘system’ that she loves, called The Enneagram (a bit like Myers Briggs only easier to understand). Which of the nine personality types does Helen fit into? And how do various characters in her life, who we learn about, fit into it too? The audience is also gently invited to consider their own personalities –  Wood gives us some really substantial food for thought to take away.

Her story is deftly told with a large collection of ingenious props that would defeat most performers, but which she uses with such grace and fun that we are enchanted and amused by them all. Her manner is warm and conversational, and she is confessional without seeking shock for its own sake – though there is at least one moment of chilling sadness. She plays a few characters, such as Freud and Goethe, her dog, and her friends, and is self-mocking in the way that the most intelligent performers are. What endears an audience to a real-life solo show is hearing about the subject’s vulnerabilities and missteps in life, but not to the degree that we feel afraid for them. Wood straddles that line expertly. This is an absorbing, charming and very funny piece that would appeal to those who give some thought to their inner lives, and are hungry for the help of a wise, wry woman in doing so.

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Review: La Soirée

Forget pantomime, spurn West End musicals, turn your back on Christmas choirs – if you want glorious festive entertainment, book tickets for La Soirée.

The only downside (upside?) is that you won’t be taking the children. In a gorgeous Spiegeltent – all red plush and shiny wood and multi-coloured glass – a peerless ensemble of cabaret and circus performers present act after act of enormous skill and delicious mischief. To describe them in any detail is to spoil the great pleasure of being endlessly surprised. Suffice to say, you will not have seen trapeze, or clowning, or magic or pole-dancing done like this before.

The performers present a new envisioning of traditional skills, then season their dextrous physical displays with cheeky or downright filthy humour that has you spluttering into your drink. Sexual jokes are delivered in novel ways and with real style; the glee of taboo-breaking bonds the crowd in a complicity of grown-ups who know about such things, but seldom hear or see them expressed so boldly and with such wit.

Some characters are beautiful physical specimens – take a bow, The English Gents strongman act – others are freakish, like weirdly bendy nerd Jonathan Burns. Then there’s the singing clown, Puddles, who brings a moving poise and exquisite melancholy to proceedings, and the hilarious and multi-talented Ursula Martinez who has ‘bad girl’ written through her like a stick of rock. Other human marvels join them. The cast is international, and this and their great range of abilities make the bill of fare comprehensive and richly textured. With pumping pop music throughout, the show is a sensual extravaganza that also, given the warmth of the performers, feels friendly, even intimate.

Ten years since the debut of a version of this show at the Edinburgh Festival, this much travelled and universally enjoyed troupe are back at base in London. Grab a takeaway bite from the Southbank’s Christmas market, then hit the Spiegeltent bar, take your seats and prepare to be ravished.

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Review: This Was A Man by Noel Coward

After having seen a dramatic divertissement by the divine Noel Coward, it is frightfully difficult to desist from speaking in his wittily distinctive idiom. So much of the joy of Coward’s work is in the carefully tooled language, and at times his aphorisms, encapsulating the concerns of the milieu he so frequently portrays – British high society between the wars – achieve the greater height of universal truth.

This Was A Man written in 1925 by the precocious twenty six year old playwright, takes us to familiar, gorgeously attired, territory. Edward (Jamie de Courcy), a society painter, using one of his circle, Margot (Grace Thurgood) as a model, banters with her and reveals the moral territory: Margot despises marriage and wants affairs instead. Edward, reticent and troubled, is soon to receive confirmation that his wife Carol (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) feels the same. When Zoe comes to visit, we see Edward’s spirit’s rise: here is a woman he nearly married once, attractive and searingly clever, the two have remained great friends. Georgina Rylance gives Zoe satisfyingly languid elegance, pin-sharp diction and a Coward staple – a suggestion of a raised eyebrow whenever she has her defences about her. When her true feelings are revealed later, this eyebrow is dropped and Zoe’s face takes on a more contemporary cast: authentically vulnerable.

Edward’s other supposed great friend, Evie (Robert Portal) is a military man. Whenever Evie enters, we are cheered by the characterisation: his bullish determination to stick to an antiquated code of manners is beautifully and humorously captured by Portal in a rigid, pin-striped posture, pursed lips and a staccato delivery. He castigates Edward for not having a macho response to Carol’s infidelities, but soon proves that he cannot stick to his own principles in a clumsy failed attempt to right the moral universe.

Carol burns her way through the action with a callous disregard for male suffering. In this character more light and shade would have been welcome. As an early version of a type no longer unfamiliar or castigated (by sane people at least) – the woman who enjoys sex – director Belinda Lang could have rendered Carol more sympathetically. As it is, she is so hard-faced and scheming, we uncharitably wish for her comeuppance.

The Finborough have scored a notable coup in giving us the premiere of This Was A Man, which was (whimsically) banned by the Lord Chamberlain in the U.K. between 1926 and 1934, though it found an audience internationally. Definitely worth reviving, the piece has wise things to say about the complex negotiations of marriage and sex which ring true today now that we all have license to experiment as the toffs once did.
Lang’s production is remarkably sumptuous for the tiny theatre and sticks rigidly to a naturalistic interpretation (apart from the invisible pictures framed on the wall.) Surely it is time now to treat Coward’s drawing room dramas with less reverence? The pulsing subtext of betrayal and trauma would lend itself well to a more radical theatrical retelling.

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Review: Pests at The Royal Court

On the walls of the staircase up to the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs are framed playbills advertising the original production of “Look Back in Anger” at the Royal Court in 1956. Osborne’s wail of lower-middle class dissatisfaction gave a voice to a formerly unheard section of society, and most critics and audiences were aghast at its squalid setting and anarchic values. Yet it transformed what was able to be seen in British theatre, and was one stimulus of a discourse that led to greater social awareness. It is a sign of the times that we are so accustomed to seeing plays, TV and film about the suffering of the outcasts of our hyperactive consumer society that “Pests” will be unlikely to have a similar impact. In a world without political inertia and compassion fatigue, Vivienne Franzmann’s extraordinary new play would deafen us with the sound of its alarm bells.

Twenty five year old sometime convict Pink lives in conditions that make Jimmy Porter’s bedsit look like a sumptuous palace. She whores for the cash to buy drugs, and life is a series of skirmishes with punters, dealers and the outside world in general. Her younger sister Rolly, freshly released from jail, heavily pregnant and determinedly clean, comes to crash in Pink’s ‘nest’. Rolly, though barely literate, has plans – she will get a job as a cleaner at a hotel in the country and life will turn around. Unfortunately, Pink has other ideas.

As Rolly’s precarious hold on virtue is severed by her sister, still holding a grudge against Rollo for her having had a home-life with foster parents whilst Pink had to make do with the abusive swamp of a care-home, the two waifs flail about in their filthy pit. What stops their plight being unwatchable misery is the flaring energy between the drug-bouts, exemplified by the remarkable heightened street-talk that Franzmann has crafted into a new type of 21st century English, an absurd – and funny – argot mixing the recognisable English/Afro-Caribbean patois of modern youth with nursery talk, off-beat cultural references and made-up words. After a couple of minutes of adjustment, it’s surprisingly easy to understand, yet it would have been completely unintelligible to “Look Back in Anger”’s crowd.

Ellie Kendrick as Rolly shows how a sweet unworldliness can be corrupted when it sits on shaky foundations: her performance tears at the heart. Sinéad Matthews’ Pink is a wired force of nature, with an energy that, in better circumstances, might have been harnessed for good. Along with Franzmann’s exuberant yet tenderly perceptive writing, the exceptional performances and Lucy Morrison’s pacey direction keep us mesmerised. I could have lived without the psychedelic video projections which were clumsily ‘symbolic’, and two scenes – the taking into care of Rolly’s child, and Pink submitting to sex with invisible men – were both too perfunctory. But I felt flayed afterwards, and I say that in high recommendation. “Pests” is a co-production between Clean Break Theatre Company, the Royal Court and Manchester Royal Exchange and will go on a short U.K. tour after its stint at The Court. If you want to see the state of modern theatrical social comment, don’t wait to book your seat.

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Review: Theatre Uncut at The Young Vic

The Young Vic has given a space to Theatre Uncut to present six short political plays, with no editorial input from its management. This is a great opportunity for Theatre Uncut’s producers and a commendable demonstration of faith on behalf of the theatre.
On the face of it, this is a noble enterprise. The plays are all available, for a limited time, to be played anywhere, with no royalty fees. Several international, as well as British theatres are currently producing their choice from this repertoire with the aim of spreading their messages far and wide. If only the plays on offer were of high calibre.
Neil LaBute’s Pick One has three American politicians discussing which ethnic group should be bumped off to improve society for the white majority. The premise is so absurd as to be risible, and the fact of America having a black president ignored. This is lazy, silly writing. Amanda by Kieran Hurley is a pseudo-poetic whine by a politician who is finding her job hard work. Her idealism has slipped and, lounging in her comfortable home, she is finding work overwhelming. This does identify a modern conundrum, but the piece doesn’t earn its place as political theatre.
Mark Thomas’ Church Forced to Close its Gates after Font used as Wash Basin by Migrants (phew) brings some entertaining wit and a narrative at last. An amoral newspaper proprietor is held captive by his organ’s cleaners on behalf of the migrants he persecutes in his pages. There is a Dario Fo-esque brio here, but Thomas’ exuberant real-life work in leading demonstrations outside tabloid newspaper offices and other dens of corruption is a better call to action than this sketch. To his credit, Thomas, in a post-show ‘discussion’, pledges to rewrite the piece to enhance its immediacy. The rigour in his wish to improve his work would have been welcome in the evening’s output as a whole.
Recipe by Rachel Chavkin is incomprehensible, sub-Brechtian tosh. The Wing by Clara Brennan features a working class father and his university-educated daughter squabbling about important contemporary issues, and contains some proper meatiness, but the transformation of his right arm into a wing as he defends his joining of the EDL (geddit?!) is laughably crass. Finally, Capitalism is Crisis by Tim Price is easily the most interesting piece, examining the downsides of the Occupy initiative at St. Paul’s, and the perils of lack of leadership for modern movements for change.
Theatre Uncut have appropriated the moniker of a crusading group who are serious about addressing the inequalities and injustices of a selfish political system. On this evidence, and to deserve the ‘Uncut’ name, they need to find writers who can address these crucial topics with significantly more sophistication than most of this batch, with some stimuli for real, plausible action to counteract corporate and political wrongs. All of the performances, incidentally, are first-rate.

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