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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Review: Four Farces at Wilton’s Music Hall

I approached this night of Victoriana with trepidation, afraid that the humour would not travel well into the 21st century, and concerned that farce is often fumbled if the players are not physically dexterous and rigorously directed. Three writers are represented here: John Madison Morton with Box and Cox and A Most Unwarrantable Intrusion, William E.Suter with Wanted, A Young Lady and Joseph Stirling Coyne with Duel in the Dark. Each of them is set in a classic Victorian room, distinguished here by the actors manoeuvring screens and stuffed furniture into different arrangements.
Box and Cox was hugely successful in its day. It has the engaging premise that a landlady, Mrs Bounce (a Victorian Mrs Overall) has rented out the same room to two different men, Box and Cox, one who works a day shift, and one who works a night shift. One day, Cox is given the day off work and the two of them occupy the same space at the same time unwittingly until the truth is revealed, after which they discover they have many other things in common (including a girlfriend), with coincidence piling on coincidence in classic farcical fashion.
Wanted, A Young Lady features a dastardly rakish son falling for a ladies companion, aided and abetted by a drunken, cross-dressing servant. In A Most Unwarrantable Intrusion, Mr Snoozle, smug and middle-class, looks forward to a day of peace, without family or servants. Then a man tries to commit suicide in his garden pond, and, after saving him, Snoozle finds his house invaded by an apparent lunatic who dunks a muffin in the goldfish bowl, steals his snuffbox and tries to become his heir. Duel in the Dark concerns a suspicious wife who disguises herself as a French countess to entrap her errant husband on a trip to Dieppe, and includes a man playing a maid, and the aforementioned wife playing a love-rival for herself. It climaxes in a shoot-out.
All four playlets have similar elements: misunderstandings, disguises, double-crossings, accelerated comic escalation and boisterous action. The three performers, Richard Latham, Asta Parry and John O’Connor, throw themselves into their roles with madcap glee, expertly giving life to the stereotypes, and playing the slapstick with cheeky knowingness.
Director Jonathan Kemp understands his material well, and has instilled the discipline into the actors that farce needs. The language of the time is well worth savouring: a man is ‘frantically attached’ to his intended; a girl is ‘deucedly pretty’; and a fat chap is ‘an extensive creature’.
This is a very entertaining evening, fascinating for students of theatre history, but also enjoyable on its own terms. An added bonus is that Wilton’s are giving nightly prizes to audience members in the best Victorian costume – another way you could join in with the spirit of these surprisingly unstuffy Victorian forebears.

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Review: Blind Date, Charing Cross Theatre

The premise is simple: Mimi (Rebecca Northan) is an attractive Frenchwoman who has been stood up on a blind date, and so decides to choose a man from the audience to replace him.
The show uses a small set of prepared locations – café, car, lounge, bedroom – and a few given plot elements (to tell them is to spoil them). Otherwise, Mimi and her guest-beau must fly by the seat of their pants and improvise the whole date.
On this night, she picks Jamie, who affably joins Mimi onstage. From the start, Northan helps us and Jamie to feel safe enough to participate: she is never exploitative – mischievous, yes, but always warm and kind. In the hands of a lesser performer, Blind Date could be a bumpy ride, but Northan is a true pro, gently guiding Jamie through an absorbing, touching and frequently very funny evening.
A great asset is the clown’s red nose she wears – this conveys to Jamie and us all that the improvised show is a game, and not, lest we forget, a real date.
In spite of the playfulness of the piece, Northan extracts authentic biography, opinions and emotions from her man, and in sharing real-sounding confessions of her own, gives depth to what becomes a riveting story of two strangers getting to know each other.
Mimi is an endearing character, uninhibited and cheery, and Jamie looked like he was having a great time. Aided by three other actors in small parts, and using simple settings and sound effects, the show works very well in the intimate and charming surrounds of the Charing Cross Theatre.
Blind Date is a delicious experience. In spite of it having to be different every night, Rebecca Northan inspires such confidence that I feel I can strongly recommend the show. She uses impro in a fresh and distinctive way, with a subject no one could dislike, and treads the fine line between audience fear and delight with elegance, skill and abundant humour.
Alison Goldie

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Review: An Incident at the Border

On a set that would work for Godot, a young couple, Olivia (Florence Hall) and Arthur (Tom Bennett) sit on a bench by the duck-pond in the park on a beautiful day. Olivia reads an item from the newspaper revealing that the country has become a republic. Arthur is not interested – he’s more into a fantasy of being a duck.

A typical lover’s discussion ensues, a bit political, a bit affectionate. Then an oaf in a black boiler suit and a helmet turns up and runs a tape down the middle of the bench, separating the lovers. This is the new border and it may not be breached.

In this tight three-hander, the couple tussle with the border guard, Reiver (Marc Pickering) with increasing desperation to bring Arthur back to the side of Olivia. Reiver is emotionally damaged and a fool, a perfect minion to a never-ending hierarchy of bosses, where no one is ever accountable (cf. contemporary bankers’ excuses). His goofiness can lead to a false sense of optimism– surely he will see sense? — but he has the stun-gun, and the radio, through which armies can be summoned to support his crazy rule.

Playwright Kieran Lynn triumphs here with a sharp, modern satire on a timeless topic. Olivia says “If we are kept apart from each other, by borders for instance, then we start to believe that we are different from each other.” This is excellent material for debate, and Lynn’s take on it is bracingly radical and coherently argued.

The acting is very strong — Tom Bennett’s Arthur is particularly recognisable as the kind of sweet, uncommitted chap who, reasonably, would rather try and keep his head down than get involved. Olivia’s greater political fire cannot win the war alone, however. As well as the big battle, Lynn creates an undercurrent of typical male/female flashpoints which generate many rueful laughs. Ultimately, Lynn throws the gauntlet down to the audience rather than offering solutions.

An Incident at the Border is directed with great wit and economy by Bruce Guthrie, who is masterly in building the frustration of people trapped in a hellish limbo, and yet has made all three characters seem fully human and not merely ciphers for an idea.

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Review: Meat

Meat opens with a slaughterman, Vincent (Graham Turner), describing his job. In one day, scores of animals go under his knife on a conveyor belt. He is expert, but he’s not happy, and every day when he gets home, his wife has to smell the blood on him.

A 17 year-old lad in the neighbourhood has been killed. Vincent’s wife Joy (Tracy Brabin) and daughter (Charlotte Whitaker) become obsessed with the tragedy, contributing to the mob hysteria which venerates the dead boy and surrounds the bereaved mother in an orgy of mourning. Only Vincent points out that the kid was a bad ‘un, a habitual mugger and layabout who had previously threatened him.

It’s no surprise to discover who is responsible for the murder. After the grisly funeral, we discover Joy knows more than she’s letting on – her marriage, once harmonious and loving, has been on a downhill road since Vincent took the slaughtering job, and now he’s gone and stuck it to a human, she thinks she can blackmail her own husband.

Meat could be worse – it could use real carcasses like Dario d’Ambrosi’s repulsive Frustration (is butchery a trending topic in theatre? See also Davey in Jerusalem). Its failures lie in poor structure, a patronising attitude to the audience, a horrible set, and some really clunky dialogue. Every moment of overt theatricality – overlapping speech, characters coming out of cupboards – feels grafted on. The subject begs for a naturalistic style and would be better treated in a TV drama. Though playwright Jimmy Osborne clearly wants us to be deeply moved as well as fascinated in the moral issues, the actors work hard but cannot stimulate our hearts or minds. It’s difficult to work out why he wrote the play: is it some sort of plea for vegetarianism?

In summary, an evening full of gristle, undercooked and not very tasty. Avoid.

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Review: Let’s Get Visceral

Old railway vaults have become favoured locations for performance spaces in London in the last few years. They have great atmosphere, and suggest other-worldliness and the possibility of deep psychological experimentation, but the Old Vic Tunnels’ version is certainly the dampest and smelliest I have yet visited. Luckily the fragrant whiff of creative endeavour in this programme is strong enough to take the mind off the venue’s pungency.

The new theatre company, Viscera, present five short plays inspired by London. This connection to the capital is tenuous in two of the plays, and in one, ‘Wedding This, Wedding That’, spurious. The best play, ‘Two’s Company’ by Lola Stephenson brilliantly captures many people’s experience of living in London in the character of one man played with subtle, agonised skill by Paul Westwood. He monologues to the audience in an increasingly manic piece which reveals under his professed enthusiasm for all the joys of the city, his terrible loneliness and dislocation. The horrors of flat-sharing, the mediocre wage-slave job, the long journey home to an affordable area: it’s all there, and rendered with witty black humour. The reveal at the end isn’t successful, but it’s otherwise excellent.

‘Oranges on the Brighton Line’ by Roxy Dunn gives us an estranged couple meeting on a railway platform. He is fortyish, she is twenty-one, they’ve had an affair but it’s over, and he is back with his wife. Their analysis of what went wrong is very absorbing material and the raw emotion expressed by the actors, particularly Alys Metcalf as Cleo, is deeply moving. Certain surreal elements are unnecessarily puzzling (foxes on the line?) but this is writing full of rich potential.

‘My City’ by Rachel De-Lahay is a series of vignettes of immigrants to London, before and after their arrivals in the city. The struggles to escape dysfunctional homelands and come to the imagined paradise of London are told in a fresh, informative way. The piece has an air of authenticity, and is acted with convincing naturalness throughout. Of all the plays tonight, it feels incomplete, and could definitely be expanded.

‘What People Do’ by Molly Naylor is about two young women becoming stuck in a bathroom. Strangers, in a series of short jump-cut scenes, they gradually become closer, and somehow wiser. Full of humour and poignancy, the play enables Catrin Aaron and Emily Aston to give strong performances in a lightly-Beckettian meditation on the impossibility of escape from real life. And the dance routine is a joy.

In ‘Wedding This, Wedding That’ Laura Elsworthy gives an accomplished performance as a Northern girl who misses her father, but the monologue is derivative, and it’s hard to see how this play meshes with the rest.

As a showcase of emerging talent, ‘Let’s Get Visceral’ is a very successful event and Alys Metcalf and Roxy Dunn, the company’s founders are to be applauded. If they continue to find writers, directors and performers of this standard, there will be plenty to chew on from Viscera.

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