The Permanent Way – The Vaults

4 star review

Sometimes plays are staged in perfect places, and here’s a first class example.

This revival of David Hare’s scathing examination of railway privitisation takes place in the tunnels under London’s Waterloo Station, and is soundtracked by the constant rumbling of trains overhead.

The play consists almost entirely of first-hand accounts of people involved in British Rail’s privatisation in the mid-1990s, and of the devastating testimonies of the survivors and the bereaved of the four rail disasters that followed – Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Potters Bar.

Director Alexander Lass gets things off to a brisk start with his nine-strong cast hurrying around the stage like commuters on a busy concourse in the rush hour.

Then we meet the individuals – the civil servant, the banker, the rail executive, the rail engineer, the union leader, the politician, the crash survivors and grieving parents – whose interwoven personal stories make up this play.

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The cast of The Permanent Way (photo: Nobby Clark)

Some lines you will never unhear. Like the relative of a crash victim being told “when you are thrown from the window, you always lose your shoes”. Or the terrifying account of a train derailment at 100mph.

Amongst the many harrowing accounts there are some lighter moments, such the series of encounters with a brusque John Prescott (a spot on performance by Paul Dodds). It’s fair to say the politicians and the men in suits don’t come out of this well.

One of Hare’s interviewees suggests that a play about railways is “an incredibly boring subject”. It is anything but. He asks searching questions about corporate responsibility and the notion of “profit over people”. There are no comfortable answers. Don’t be surprised to find yourself walking out of the dark tunnels under Waterloo in shock and anger.

(The press performance on 19 September took place on the 22nd anniversary of the Southall rail crash and was dedicated to those who lost their lives, and those who were injured.)

The Permanent Way is at The Vaults, Waterloo, until 17 November

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What’s in a Name? review – Yvonne Arnaud Theatre (and touring)

5 star review

This comedy about a dinner party that spirals spectacularly out of control was a huge hit in France after it premiered almost 10 years ago.

The UK touring version, adapted and directed by Jeremy Sams from Matthew Delaporte and Alexandre de La Patellière’s original, shifts the action from Paris to Peckham – and clearly nothing has been lost in translation. It’s a sharply written and perfectly structured delight. I haven’t laughed so much in ages.

The show’s poster – showing a cute baby with Hitler moustache – gives just a hint of what is to come. Sharp-suited wide-boy Vincent (Joe Thomas) and his pregnant partner Anna (Summer Strallen) have been asked round for a Moroccan meal by his sister Elizabeth (Laura Patch) and her pedantic husband Peter (Bo Poraj). Also invited is their childhood friend Carl (Alex Gaumond), an orchestra trombonist.

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Laura Patch (Elizabeth), Alex Gaumond (Carl) and Summer Strallen (Anna) in What’s in a Name? (photo: Piers Foley)

Arriving ahead of Anna, Vincent proudly shows off the ultrasound of his unborn son before dropping a bombshell about the child’s intended name. The shockwave turns the dinner party into a full-on ding-dong (as they might say in Peckham) – where long-buried resentments explode messily like a dropped bowl of cous cous.

The success of this play rests not so much on the one liners but on the interactions between the five characters. Even as the party guests arrive there are tiny tremors of discontent amongst the social niceties, such as Elizabeth repeatedly making the point that Peter doesn’t like her new hairstyle.

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The cast of What’s in a Name? (photo: Piers Foley)

The five-strong cast fires on all cylinders. Joe Thomas (of Inbetweeners fame) makes Vincent mischievous yet likeable, and takes on an amusing narrator role to set things up. Although she doesn’t turn up until the dinner party is well under way, Summer Strallen makes an instant impact as feisty mum-to-be Anna.

Full marks too for Francis O’Connor’s detailed and convincing set design for Elizabeth and Peter’s Peckham flat.

In short, this chaotic dinner party serves up delicious laughs for starters, mains and dessert.

What’s In A Name? ran at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre from 5-14 September and is now touring to Glasgow, York, Aylesbury, Cambridge, Windsor, Richmond and Southampton.

Amsterdam review – Orange Tree Theatre

3 star review

Maya Arad Yasur’s play, getting its UK premiere in Richmond, follows a day in the life of an Israeli violinist – nine months pregnant – living in an apartment in a trendy district of Amsterdam. When a gas bill dating back to 1944 is mysteriously pushed under her door she goes about her daily routines across the city with a heightened awareness of her own Jewish identity and how she is perceived by others.

It’s a journey that also leads her to discover the dark history of the canal-side building in which she has made her home.

On an initially bare stage, four actors use a method of free-form storytelling to relate the thoughts and actions of the nameless protagonist and of other characters present and past.

michal horowicz, hara yannas, daniel abelson, fiston barek in amsterdam by maya arad yasur - orange tree theatre - photo by helen murray
Michal Horowicz, Hara Yannas, Daniel Abelson, Fiston Barek in Amsterdam (photo by Helen Murray)

The result is an engaging, but often disconcerting, experience. Sentences pass between the actors like batons in a relay race. There are a lot of repeated phrases.  It sometimes feels like you’ve walked in on an acting workshop where the narrative is being made up on the spot.

Director Matthew Xia works his brilliant and energetic cast – Daniel Abelson, Fiston Barek, Michal Horowicz and Hara Yannas – hard. They rarely stop moving around the in-the-round space (except when they insist on a long pause after the word “genocide”).

The latter half of story introduces some solid scenery to the stage as story shifts back to events in Amsterdam in 1944.

Daniel Abelson, Hara Yannas, Michal Horowicz in Amsterdam (photo by Helen Murray)

All the way through the play a bell is used to interrupt the action so the cast can provide relevant context through a microphone at one corner of the stage. It’s a clever device that becomes irritating through overuse.

Amsterdam is a challenging work that makes its audience consider the horrors of the Holocaust through the prism of events in present day Europe.

This is Xia’s first production as artistic director of Actors Touring Company. What a bold way to start.

Amsterdam is at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond until 12 October. It will play at the Theatre Royal Plymouth in February 2020. 

 

 

 

For Services Rendered review – Jermyn Street Theatre

3 star review

It begins with the distant thwack of tennis racquets and the tinkling of teacups. But Somerset Maugham’s play, first performed in 1932, doesn’t present the cosy vision of England these things might suggest.

Set in the home of the well-to-do Ardsley family in Kent, the story focuses on the disappointments and frustrations of the Ardsley parents, their grown-up children and assorted friends who are dealing with the physical, emotional and economic fallout from World War One.

Tom Littler’s production puts a big cast on a small stage. Among them are Sydney (Richard Keightley), the Ardsleys’ son, scarred and blinded in action, and his sisters Eva (Rachel Pickup), grieving for the lover she lost in the war, Ethel (Leah Whitaker), who has married below her class to an alcoholic farmer, and the flighty Lois (Sally Cheng), desperate to escape her suffocating village life.

It’s all very Chekhovian, but with fewer laughs.

For Services Rendered - Somerset Maugham - Jermyn Street Theatre - 4th September 2019Directed by Tom Littler Set Designed by Louie Whitemore Costumes Designed by Ali Hunter Sound Designed by Yvonne Gilbert
Rachel Pickup (Eva) and Jotham Annan (Collie) in For Services Rendered (Photo: Robert Workman)

One of the play’s most affecting plotlines involves family friend Collie Stratton (Jotham Annan), an ex-navy commander who runs a garage but desperately needs a loan to keep himself financially afloat.

The opening act – which sets all this up – is very engaging, but things go awry after the interval when the obtrusive sound design for the wind and rain outside the Ardsley house becomes a distraction. There’s also an interlude when the men in the cast are plunged into silhouette and strip the garden set of its paper roses. It’s clearly meant to be symbolic, but it felt at odds with the rest of the play.

These niggles apart, there’s a wonderfully dignified performance from Diane Fletcher as the Ardsley family matriarch Charlotte. Pickup is superb as her emotionally-scarred daughter Eva, as is Viss Elliott Safavi as Gwen Cedar, who desperately clings onto her marriage to wealthy Wilfred (Michael Lumsden), even though he has professed his love for Lois.

Cheng is outstanding as Lois, a glowing portrait of self-assured youth. “Romance doesn’t last,” she says with cynicism beyond her years. “All that is left is dust and ashes.”

There’s a beautifully acted scene between her and Wilfred when he demands a kiss and she mischievously chomps on an apple.

For Services Rendered - Somerset Maugham - Jermyn Street Theatre - 4th September 2019Directed by Tom Littler Set Designed by Louie Whitemore Costumes Designed by Ali Hunter Sound Designed by Yvonne Gilbert
Aoife Kennan as Gertrude (Photo: Robert Workman)

Finally, a shout out to Gertrude – the Ardsleys’ hard-working maid. Aoife Kennan, in her professional theatre debut, makes her character an engaging and calming presence amidst all that family angst. Oh – the stories she could tell!

For Services Rendered is at Jermyn Street Theatre, London, until 5 October

Posh review – Oxford Playhouse and touring

4 star review

The first thing we see in this touring production of Laura Wade’s Posh is one of its characters, a Tory politician, reading the The Telegraph with a front page dominated by a giant photograph of Boris Johnson.

First seen in 2010, Posh has always been a political satire, but the timing of this revival – opening in Oxford in the same week that the new prime minister made his parliamentary debut – makes it seem more relevant than ever.

For most of the play we are in the company of 10 members of The Riot Club, an elite Oxford dining society which has hired a private room at a local country gastropub for a night of drunken debauchery.

Wade has always pointed out that her story is pure fiction – inspired by Oxford University’s real-life Bullingdon Club (past members include David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson) – and the show’s programme helpfully decodes some of the Riot Club lingo such as “beasting” (public pre-dinner punishment), “chateaued” (being absolutely drunk beyond belief) and “trashmeister” (you can probably guess that one).

Posh is a bitingly funny portrait of an entitled class who believe that money will buy them out of any sticky situation. The laughs however become more nervous as the story enters its darker final act. It isn’t called the Riot Club for nothing.

Tyger Drew-Honey (from TV sitcom Outnumbered) makes an impressive stage debut as Alistair Ryle, who delivers a memorable rallying speech to his fellow toffs about their superiority over the poorer classes.

There are excellent performances throughout, particularly from Jack Whittle as dashing Harry Villiers, Matthew Entwistle as Toby Maitland (a student who gets a beasting for having brought the club into disrepute) and Adam Mirsky as Guy Bellingfield, who attempts to impress his fellow students by arranging a “ten bird roast”.

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The play’s two female characters are strongly played by Isobel Laidler, as the landlord’s waitress daughter Rachel, and Ellie Nunn as prostitute Charlie. Both give short shrift to the boys’ vile behaviour. I also admired Peter McNeil O’Connor’s portrayal of hapless landlord Chris.

As part of his set design, Will Coombes cleverly suspends a number of gilded portraits in mid-air over the pub dining room, lending it the air of a stately home, while director Lucy Hughes does a great job choreographing the climactic trashing scene.

I last saw Posh in the West End in 2012, when Laura Wade told me how she’d updated it from its original version to reflect the changing politics of the time. 

Like the vintage red wines that the Riot Club members quaff in extremis, this already impressive play has aged beautifully.

Posh began at Oxford Playhouse, and is now on a UK tour visiting Cambridge, Bath, Kingston, and Mold. 

 

Hansard review – National Theatre (Lyttelton)

While Boris Johnson was facing a crucial vote in parliament on Tuesday night, the National Theatre was staging a political drama every bit as gripping.

Simon Woods’ debut play unfolds in real time in the spacious Oxfordshire home of Conservative MP Robin Hesketh and his wife Diana on a specific Saturday in May 1988.

Robin (Alex Jennings) arrives home after a week away on parliamentary business to find his beloved lawn ravaged by foxes and Diana (Lindsay Duncan) in her dressing gown and in a combative mood.

What initially appears to be loving banter between the couple turns into a sustained bout of verbal jousting fuelled by Diana’s suspicions that her husband is having an affair and her fierce opposition to his support for the Thatcher government’s introduction of the anti-gay law Section 28.

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Lindsay Duncan as Diana Hesketh in Hansard (photo by Catherine Ashmore)

Although set during the late 80s (there are references to Princess Diana, Aids and the lesbians who invaded the BBC Six O’Clock News while it was being presented by Sue Lawley), Woods has one eye firmly fixed on contemporary times.

Diana, who mockingly describes herself as a “frightful left wing woman”, often sounds like she’s just stepped out of a Tardis from 2019. At one point she even makes a barbed allusion to “man-splaining”. During another exchange, Robin utters the line: “In 20 years’ time you won’t be allowed to be a white heterosexual male.”

They make an unlikely and often unlikable couple. There are times when you do wonder how they have ended up staying together. The reasons become more clear in the play’s final minutes. What started out as a wordy, witty comedy drama turns into something very different.

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Alex Jennings as Robin Hesketh in Hansard (photo by Catherine Ashmore)

As the only two on stage, Duncan and Jennings give awards-worthy performances. Director Simon Godwin ensures there is never a static moment during the political and personal dog-fighting. The ending, when a deeper layer of meaning behind the play’s title is revealed, is beautifully handled.

All eyes might be on the House of Commons these days, but here’s a fascinating drama just across the river that’s keen to win your vote.

Hansard is at the Lyttelton Theatre until 25 November and will be broadcast live into over 700 UK cinemas on 7 November

The Son review – Duke of York’s Theatre

Laurie Kynaston (Photo: Marc Brenner)

The West End is no stranger to the name Florian Zeller. When I interviewed him back in June 2016 at the opening of his comedy The Truth, the Paris-born playwright had already enjoyed success in the UK with The Father and The Mother. He told me he was planning to write a play called The Son which he hoped would premiere in London…

Well you read it there first.

And three years later here I am at The Son’s West End opening – a few months after its debut at London’s Kiln Theatre.

Be warned: this is not a comfortable watch – especially if you are the parent of a teenager. The signs are there even before the lights go down. On arrival, the audience is greeted by a deep rhythmic throbbing sound and the sight of a boy writing on the walls of a pristine apartment. A huge bag stuffed with unseen objects is suspended above the stage like a sinister piñata.

Amanda Abbington (Photo: Marc Brenner)

The story begins with Anne (Amanda Abbington) arriving at the home of her former husband Pierre (John Light) and his new partner Sofia (Amaka Okafor) to reveal that their teenage son Nicolas (Laurie Kynaston) has been skipping school for three months.

“Don’t worry, everything will go back to normal,” Pierre reassures her. It’s a line that echoes chillingly in one form or another throughout the play.

Nicolas, however, is far from alright. He’s self-harming, depressed and consumed by anxiety about changing schools. After he moves in with Pierre and Sofia (and their new baby) it becomes clear he harbours huge resentment against his father for breaking up the family home to be with another woman.

John Light and Laurie Kynaston (photo: Marc Brenner)

Zeller powerfully explores family dynamics, guilt and father-son relationships throughout The Son’s intense one and three quarter hours.

There is much that is close to perfection in Michael Longhurst’s production: in particular the casting and the fluid use of the set.

Abbington and Light brilliantly convey raw frustration and fear in their exchanges with each other and their troubled son. Kynaston fills the character of Nicolas with so much anguish it’s sometimes almost too painful to watch.

There are shards of joy that pierce the gloom, such as a wonderful shared family moment that involves some hilarious dad-dancing to the song Happy.

Longhurst makes full use of Lizzie Clachan’s opulent yet clinical apartment set with its folding doors, choreographing the characters so that they appear in some scenes like silent ghosts.

But there are some frustrations too. So much of what happens is entirely predictable. There’s a reference early on to a possession of Pierre’s that might as well be accompanied by a klaxon and a flashing red light.

And amidst all the beautifully-acted pain and rage towards the end, it seemed unnecessary to soundtrack it with a well-worn classical piece seemingly designed to open the tear ducts.

Bleak as it is, Zeller’s play is an intelligent and moving portrayal of teenage depression that will linger long in the mind.

The Son is at Duke of York’s Theatre until 2 November.