Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Cut Throat / Camden Fringe

Cut Throat by Jean-Philippe Baril Guerard as adapted by Matt Cunningham. – London Irish Centre

I caught this play on the penultimate night a week ago now, so this is a quick late review.
The publicity promised:
"How far can you go in the name of free speech?
Does having the right to speak equal having the right to say everything?
In Cut Throat, the right to speak does not come with a promise that the speech be valid or harmless. 
14 characters speak their minds freely about race, religion, relationships, bodies, sex, money, and the meaning of life, without any filter, walking the thin line between comedy and cruelty. An irreverent play that will make you laugh... and cringe."

This was a relatively short, intense play with 14 characters, so nevertheless quite ambitious as the first production by Trip and Guts Theatre. The play takes the form of a series of monologues or largely one-sided two-or three part scenes (mostly loosely unrelated in terms of 'plot' but clearly related thematically). The audience sits around four sides of a square, and the actors pop out from the audience's ranks to perform their roles.

All the actors played their parts with evident relish and panache, and the very wordy play cracks on at a great pace. Stand outs amongst a strong cast for me were Joseph Rain-Varzaneh as the mugger and Hannah Wilder as the long-suffering Usher - one of the shortest spoken roles but she appears throughout the piece as the long-suffering innocent target of the other characters' nastiness. I can see why this play would appeal to actors - firstly, each character gets a lot to say and is completely central whilst they say it, each character has an internal dramatic tension to reveal as the 'real' inner person breaks through an initial 'polite' or politically-correct outer shell; and there is external drama in each mini situation too.

We saw this play on the back of Chemsex Monologues, also created (obviously) around monologues. Monologues are an interesting theatrical device, notably introduced by Shakespeare to reveal a character's innermost thoughts. They are at once the most artificial of constructs, breaking any feel of 'realism' on stage but simultaneously the most powerful and direct communication between actor and audience there can be - really harking back to ground zero of narration - speaker to listener. There is a tendency in a monologue for an actor to reach for a kind of declamatory style, which we thought a bit difficult in Chemsex but this works strongly in Cut Throat. I think this is because Chemsex the play has realistic fundamental assumptions - the play is about 'real' characters and plot whereas Cut Throat skews more conceptual. The characters are very far from realistic, are usually quite easily identifiable stock contemporary types  - and each scene and character unfolds in a similar way, repeating the themes of the play almost like an abstract pattern until the climax. My favourite character, the mugger, is completely surreal, made up as he is of bravura flights of literary language and philosophy completely alien I would imagine to any real mugger.

Altogether, a most stimulating evening.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Chemsex Monologues

It's not often one hears of an actor playing two roles in different plays at the same time - however, for the last week you could catch Denholm Spurr  as Damien/Jean Baptiste in 'The Past is a Tattooed Sailor'  by Simon Blow at the Old Red Lion Theatre (through to 27 August)  and Nameless in 'The Chemsex Monologues' by Patrick Cash at The King's Head Theatre (last performance tonight).

In fact, make that three roles! (Two different ones in the same play.)

One can only applaud Spurr's energy, commitment and enthusiasm in taking his final bows (after a two hours + performance) at the Old Red Lion and then dashing up Upper Street to The King's Head to don his makeup for Nameless. It would have been fun to catch both performances in a marathon night of theatre, but we took things much more sedately, catching Sailor last weekend (review here) and Chemsex last night after a quick dinner at Belanger on Islington Green.

They are both new gay plays by gay authors performed in pub theatres in Islington simultaneously, but that is where the similarities end.

Sailor is an expansive, nostalgic, traditionally-structured piece whereas Chemsex is much more contemporary in focus and experimental in form. Four narrators appear in sequence with monologues from their individual perspectives on their relationship with Nameless and his story. The audience pieces together Nameless's situation from each fragment - each narrative is slightly unreliable due to their tangential relation to Nameless and the plot line and each character is wrapped up in their own concerns.

This structure gives a sense of urban anonymity and alienation, but also creates a considerable amount of suspense as we follow Nameless's story to its climax. The total separation of the actors also serves to heighten the pathos of Nameless's descent.

The acting was all good, which was so important here when you can't talk of an ensemble. Richard Watkins plays the Narrator - an 'Everygay' sort of character who bookends the play - with breezy charm. Charly Flight is Fag Hag Cath - amusing but very warm and human. Matthew Hodson plays Daniel the Sexual Health Worker - again, a lovable doofus doing his innocent best, a very heart-warming performance. Denholm Spurr's Nameless is the heart of the play and he gives it a terrific performance moving smoothly from humour to the emotional depths.

An urgent and well-considered piece of contemporary theatre; I'm really pleased to have caught it.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Plough and the Stars

Confession time - I have never seen a Sean O'Casey play performed; nor have I read one. I usually tend to avoid overtly political drama.

However, as 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the Easter uprising I decided to honour my Irish ancestry and indulge my literary curiosity by seeing this revival at the National Theatre (itself mounted to mark the occasion, playing until 22 October 2016).

Reviews have been a bit mixed, so I took my seat with some trepidation. However, I was soon sucked into the world of the Clitheroes' Dublin tenement. This is really a full-blooded, lushly romantic and visually very beautiful production of a traditionally-structured drama. The politics of the play are sophisticated and rooted in the frailty of human character - O'Casey pulls no punches with the British army's occupation and artillery bombardment of Dublin but he is equally harsh on the shortcomings of the nationalists and totally mocks the pretensions of the play's socialist. Nevertheless, O'Casey was a socialist himself and demonstrates a sympathy with all the individual characters - even the British Tommies when they appear are decent blokes who would rather have a cup of tea - and instead he shows how they are all individually trapped in unequal and exploitative social conditions.

It is true that the actors do have varied degrees of success and consistency with their accents, and that some words are difficult to hear. The play is very literary and 'wordy' though, and the directors Howard Davies and Jeremy Herrin were probably wise to sacrifice pockets of legibility in favour of pushing the pace and drama overall.

What charmed me immediately was O'Casey's dexterity in the dramatic arts of foreshadowing, parallelism and contrasting. We first see Nora, the wife of a bricklaying Commandant in the Irish Citizen Army setting a table for tea; in the last act she sets it again in hugely different circumstances with a tragic outcome. In the second act there is a massive contrast between a political meeting outside a pub and the comic antics of a prostitute inside (this caused a riot at the play's premiere in Dublin). The third act, set in the street outside the tenement, starts off emphasising the poignancy of the characters' extreme poverty (Little Mollser clearly on the point of death from Tuberculosis); moves into the broad comedy of everyone looting when the British start to shell the city; followed ominously by the Irish Nationalist fighters with a severely wounded comrade escaping the inexorable British advance; and ending with the crisis between Nora and her husband, with the British soldiers very near. British soldiers make their physical entrance in the fourth act, and despite the horror of British military action the individuals themselves are ordinary guys just doing their job.

From today's perspective one could probably accuse the play of a kind of poverty porn (much played up by designer Vicky Mortimer's exquisite sets) - but on the other hand this is a function of the time it was written in. And surely it is so much more preferable to the Chav-bashing "Benefits Street"-style propaganda of today.

There are excellent performances from the female leads in particular - Justine Mitchell as Bessie Burgess and Judith Roddy as Nora Clitheroe are beautiful, poetic and tragic. Josie Walker as Mrs Grogan is funny and heart-warming; and Gráinne Keenan (Rosie Redmond) and Róisín O'Neill (Little Mollser) shine in smaller roles.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

The Past is a Tattooed Sailor

It’s always pretty exciting to see new work, and a first play by a neophyte playwright.

Joshua, a posh but poor aspirant writer (Jojo Macari), seeks to create a closer relationship with his great-uncle Napier,  a bed-ridden ex-social butterfly and fading beauty shut up in his country mansion and living only through reminiscences of his past success amongst the social and artistic elite, as well as his raunchy liaisons with French sailors in Marseilles. Napier’s penchant for rough trade is shared with Joshua, who has a builder’s mate boyfriend Damien (Denholm Spurr) - shared quite literally as the bed-ridden Napier nevertheless craftily manages to put the moves on Damien.

There is good material in Tattooed Sailor, and an intriguing premise, but I felt the writing could have benefitted from further work editing and refining purpose and dramatic direction. I sense a number of unresolved issues in the writer’s emotional responses to these autobiographical events, which sadly accrue around the leading character Joshua, the cornerstone of the entire play:  weaknesses in the construction of this character impact the whole piece. Macari struggles manfully with this underwritten and confused role.

Bernard O’Sullivan and Nick Finegan are evocative, stylish and affecting as the older and younger Napiers - Finegan especially evokes the authentic note of a 1930s Bohemian dandy and rake and contrasts pleasingly with the more contemporary Joshua and Damien. Denholm Spurr exudes an effortless animal sensuality and displays rampant sexual chemistry with all three of the other leads - in French too as the titular tattooed sailor in a tryst with the younger Napier.

Overall, this play held my attention and I did enjoy the experience, with the caveat that I ended with feeling a much stronger play is hidden deep within.