Shoe Lady review – Royal Court

4 star review

Katherine Parkinson is mesmerising in EV Crowe’s multi-layered, and sometimes baffling, tragicomedy about a woman who loses a shoe on her way to work.

In little over an hour we follow a day in the life of estate agent Viv as she wakes in bed, tends to her young son, stresses about her lopsided curtains, and then descends into increasing levels of frustration and panic as she attempts to cope wearing only one shoe, while her exposed foot is getting bloodier by the minute.

On the surface it all seems rather absurd but Crowe seems to be making a point about the fragility of the middle class comfort zone. The story is, for the most part, told through Viv’s monologue. On the page, her words are poetic and sparse. Under Vicky Featherstone’s direction, Parkinson brings them vividly to life alongside a handful of other speaking characters that include a similarly shoe-less homeless woman Elaine (Kayla Meikle) and, yes, a talking curtain.

Aided by Matthew Herbert’s atmospheric piano score, and an energetic song and dance number, the play’s 65 minutes fly by – and not just because Parkinson is almost always in motion on a travelator.

Shoe Lady is at the Royal Court, London, until 21 March

 

 

Theatre 2020: Pick of the plays

Here are a just a few of the plays The Man in the Grand Circle has his eye on this year.

Among the star names coming to the London stage are Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke (see above photo) in Anya Reiss’s adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull for the Jamie Lloyd Company at the Playhouse Theatre in March.  Timothee Chalamet and Eileen Atkins appear in 4000 Miles at the Old Vic the following month, while back at the Playhouse Theatre in June is one of my favourite actresses (I’ve been lucky enough to interview her twice), Jessica Chastain, in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

If you can’t wait that long for your Ibsen fix, then check out Stef Smith’s Nora: A Doll’s House – a “radical” retelling of the story at the Young Vic in February.

For Samuel Beckett fans it’s like Christmas all over again in January. Trevor Nunn directs a triple bill at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre (Krapp’s Last Tape, Eh Joe, The Old Tune) with a cast that includes Niall Buggy, Lisa Dwan, James Hayes and David Threlfall, while over at the Old Vic Alan Cumming, Daniel Radcliffe and Jane Horrocks star in Endgame.

February’s offerings include David Mitchell making his West End debut in Ben Elton’s Shakespearean comedy Upstart Crow at the Gielgud Theatre. I’m also intrigued by Hampstead Theatre’s The Haystack, a thriller by Al Blyth about GCHQ and surveillance.

Those who like their thrillers with a supernatural edge might want to check out The House on Cold Hill, starring Debbie McGee, at The Mill at Sonning in April.

On the National Theatre’s programme I like the look of Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin, starring Maxine Peake and Ria Zmitrowicz (opening this month). In April, Thea Sharrock directs  Jack Absolute Flies Again, a new play by Richard Bean and Oliver Chris based on Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals. And in August Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley are the star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet.

Talking of unmissable Shakespeare, Cush Jumbo takes on Hamlet at the Young Vic in July.

Further afield, my theatrical sweet tooth is tempted by Quality Street, Northern Broadsides’ revival of JM Barrie’s farce by  which opens in February in Halifax’s Viaduct Theatre and then tours. Barrie’s play was so popular at the time that it gave the chocolates their name.

And there I was trying to give up chocolate this month…

If you missed Laura Wade’s The Watsons at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2019, be sure to catch it at the Harold Pinter Theatre where it opens in May. This genius trip into the Jane Austen universe owes a lot to Pirandello, as does the title of this play at the Southwark Playhouse in April: Five Characters in Search of a Good Night’s Sleep.

Finally, to the Royal Court for a play (in June) which has quite possibly best title of the year: Purple Snowflakes and Titty Wanks.

Happy New Year!

 

 

A Kind of People review – Royal Court

4 star review

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s new play starts off as an entertaining and positive snapshot of multicultural Britain. School sweethearts Gary and Nicky are throwing a birthday party at their council flat. He’s black, she’s white – and they have their hopes pinned on Gary getting a promotion at work that will give them and their kids a better life.

The party guests include British Pakistani couple Mo and Anjum, Gary’s sister Karen, Gary’s workmate Mark (whose birthday it is) and Gary’s manager Victoria.

The big laughs and joyful atmosphere of the play’s opening scene quickly dissipate as Victoria gets drunk and comes out with a number of remarks that leave the atmosphere chillier than the Prosecco in the fridge.

What follows is a sharply observed examination of race, privilege, class and education in contemporary Britain. Victoria’s behaviour sets in motion a chain of events that open up devastating fault lines between Nicky, Gary and their friends.

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The cast of A Kind of People (photo: Manuel Harlan)

At a brisk 95 minutes it sometimes feels like watching a soap opera, but director Michael Buffong ensures every scene has the power to make the audience squirm or cheer out loud.

Richie Campbell and Claire-Louise Cordwell are outstanding as the central couple Gary and Nicky. Petra Letang’s no-nonsense Karen and Asif Khan’s Mo provide some comic relief, and there’s strong support too from Manjinder Virk as the ambitious Anjum, Thomas Coombes as Mark and Amy Morgan as Victoria.

There’s not much Christmas cheer here, but Bhatti’s emotional drama delivers a punch that you’ll feel for a long time after you’ve left the theatre.

A Kind of People is at the Royal Court until 18 January

 

 

 

 

 

Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. review – Royal Court

4 star review

Blood-drenched mythology, #MeToo monsters and surreal domesticity intertwine in this quartet of curiosities by Caryl Churchill.

Directed with lashings of visual flair by James Macdonald, each play feels distinct yet work cumulatively to create a satisfying whole.

The Jerwood Theatre Downstairs stage is framed by lightbulbs like a giant dressing room mirror. The effective lighting design by Jack Knowles places every scene within against a pitch black void, creating an air of unease. 

The intrigue of the titles carries through into the works themselves. Imp, the longest piece, is preceded by three shorts (which are separated by a juggler and a balancing act).

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Glass (photo: Johan Persson)

The opener, Glass, is the most enigmatic of the four. It features a conversation between a clock, a vase and a toy dog on a mantelpiece, while a girl made of glass (“she looks like people look”) encounters a scene of child abuse.

In Kill, the character of Gods (Tom Mothersdale) recounts gory stories from Greek myth while sitting on a cloud, smoking.  Below him a child scribbles furiously in a book.

The allegory thickens in Bluebeard’s Friends, set at a dinner party in which the attendees engage in fractured exchanges about a friend-turned-serial killer.  “He was good at stories and we always believed him,” says one. “And he played the piano so beautifully,” observes another. Many of the lines echo those that have been said in the context of the #MeToo revelations. In the background hang six blood-stained dresses, like headless corpses.

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Imp (photo: Johan Persson)

The final play features four actors from the previous plays. Deborah Findlay is scarily good as Dot, a chair-bound ex-nurse with temper issues who keeps an imp in a bottle. The ever-excellent Toby Jones plays her creepy cousin Jimmy, who runs obsessively to battle depression.  There’s strong support from Louisa Harland as their niece Niamh and Mothersdale as homeless Rob.

While Imp feels slightly overlong, it has the richest characterisation and the sharpest lines. I loved Jimmy’s casual allusions to plot lines from Shakespeare and Oedipus. Dot’s rage during one scene gave me goosebumps.

In my notes, I scribbled down a line from Bluebeard’s Friends which pretty much sums up this whole, intriguing theatrical event. It’s said by Toby Jones during a debate about turning the blood-stained frocks into a marketing opportunity:

“So that’s quite noir.”

Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. is at the Royal Court until 12 October

 

 

 

 

 

The End of History review – Royal Court

3 star review

He may be best known these days for writing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but Jack Thorne’s new play about a pair of leftist activist parents and their offspring has a magic all of its own.

Directed by Thorne’s regular collaborator John Tiffany, the first act begins with Sal (Lesley Sharp) and David (David Morrissey) getting their three grown-up children – all named after socialist heroes – together for a meal at their home in Newbury in 1997.

Eldest son Carl (Sam Swainsbury) brings his posh girlfriend Harriet (Zoe Boyle) home to meet the family for the first time, super-bright student Polly (Kate O’Flynn) is back from Cambridge University, and youngest son Tom (Laurie Davidson) has been in trouble at school. It’s fair to say that the gathering doesn’t go smoothly.

After setting up the family dynamic in act one, we get to see how things play out in 2007 and then 2017.  To say more would spoil things, but it’s a journey that’s beautifully handled over the play’s interval-less one hour and 50 minutes.

Sharpe’s Sal is a joy to watch, whether she’s over-sharing with Polly about a new mattress (“We never have sex any more because we don’t want to damage the springs…”) or gabbling about Little Chefs while trying to make small talk with Harriet. She’s got great comic timing. Morrissey, meanwhile, gets to twist our emotions during a key speech in the third act.

The story raises interesting questions about privilege, inherited wealth and how different generations judge success over time. In Tiffany’s expert hands, the transitions between the decades become absorbing mini-sagas all of their own.

Those coming to the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs looking for an incisive commentary on British politics over the last thirty years are going to be disappointed. But those who want a wonderfully observed family drama about the changing – and often challenging – relationships between parents and children are in for a treat.

The End of History is at the Royal Court until 10 August

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

White Pearl review – Royal Court

As the audience for White Pearl take their seats in the downstairs theatre at the Royal Court, a giant screen in front of the stage shows a set of figures climbing inexorably upwards: 19,465… 19,466… 19,467…

It soon becomes clear this is the number of YouTube hits being racked up by a leaked video that’s causing a PR nightmare for a cosmetics company in Singapore.

The problem? Their advert – for a skin whitening cream – is racist and social media is going into meltdown.

Anchuli Felicia King’s super-smart black comedy packs into 85 expletive-laden minutes a thought-provoking examination of intercultural racism in Asia, corporate powerplay and a beauty industry that preys on women who “hate themselves”.

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Photo: Helen Murray

If there was ever a play machine-tooled for millennials, this is it. The hi tech set – with video design inspired by a mobile phone – fizzes with energy, YouTube comments punctuate each scene, and there are lines that leave you unsure whether to laugh or launch an indignant hashtag.

As King admits in her author’s note, casting this play is “really fucking hard”. The ethnic and cultural backgrounds of the six Asian female characters – all of them employees of cosmetics company Clearday – are integral to the dynamics of the plot.

Farzana Dua Elahe is fantastic as Clearday’s founder Priya Singh who prowls the stage looking for a scapegoat among her team. The cast is excellent overall, with Katie Leung as Sunny Lee and Minhee Yeo as South Korean Soo-Jin Park being particularly memorable.

Kae Alexander as the wise-cracking Built shares some great scenes with the play’s only male character, French “social justice warrior” Marcel (Arty Froushan).

In a world where the issue of race is rarely off the trending charts, here’s a play that deserves to go viral for all the right reasons.

White Pearl is at the Royal Court until 15 June

Pah-La review – Royal Court

An odd thing about this play: it gave me nightmares. That’s never happened before in all my decades of going to the theatre.

I have a vague recollection of feeling trapped in a place under threat, which makes sense when you consider the events that take place in Abhishek Majumdar’s new play.

Based on real stories during the unrest in the Tibetan capital Lhasa in 2008, the story focuses on two characters.

The first is a sparky young Buddhist nun called Deshar (Millicent Wong) who, when we first meet her, has just elbowed a Chinese soldier in the face and stolen his uniform, as well as one of his teeth.

The second is Chinese Commander Deng (Daniel York Loh), who has arrived to enforce a programme of “re-education”.

Events at the nunnery take a destructive turn, and Deshar carries out a shocking act of defiance.

*Spoiler alert*

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Photo:: Helen Murray

 

Her self-immolation is superbly handled. The audience sat in stunned silence as the lights went up for the interval.

Pah-La – Tibetan for “father” – explores many themes: violence, non-violence, father-daughter relationships, and an individual’s relationship with the state.

In the stronger first act, director Debbie Hannan builds a strong sense of atmosphere, particularly in the nunnery scenes where a giant Buddha statue glows in candlelight.

The second act, however, starts to sag under the weight of too many ideological speeches. The interrogation scenes involving a horribly burned Deshar aren’t an easy watch. They may well have contributed to my nightmare.

But Pah-La explores unfamiliar places and ideas that make it feel a fresh and exciting piece of theatre.

Pah-La is at the Royal Court until 27 April 

The Cane – Royal Court

“Why would they attack the most popular teacher in the school?” That’s the question posed at the beginning of this tense three-hander by Mark Ravenhill. The answer, of course, is in the title.

Alun Armstrong plays Edward, a teacher on the brink of retirement, whose home is besieged by a baying mob of children and adults. A brick has been lobbed through the window. There’s never any doubt that worse is to come.

But is the real enemy already inside the house? Edward, and his nervous wife Maureen (Maggie Steed), are being visited by their estranged daughter Anna (Nicola Walker).

“It was impossible to love you,” her mother tells her coldly, as she recounts how Anna ran amok with an axe as a child. The wall in the drab living room still bears the scars.

Walker, brilliant in the role, is the real focal point of the play. Anna asks questions like a detective rather than a daughter. She’s keen to help fix the the ugly situation outside, yet fails to recall her own adolescent rage.

Director Vicky Featherstone expertly turns up the tension as revelations about the past (and the contents of the attic) emerge. Even though the ending is easy to predict, it’s still shocking to witness.

In a social media age when five year old tweets can wreck a career or a job application, Ravenhill asks some searching questions about past actions affecting the present, and the nature of responsibility.