Month: February 2014

The A-Z of Mrs P @ Southwark Playhouse, London – February 2014

There is something very intriguing and distinctly admirable about the creation of a piece of theatre from subject matter that is unlikely and unusual. Most people would be completely unaware that somebody actually wrote the iconic London A-Z. They’d be even less aware it was a portrait painter called Phyllis Pearsall who came up with the idea and even less aware again of the interesting twists and turns her life took as she created it. Yet it is Pearsall’s colourful life on which The A-Z of Mrs P, with book by Diane Samuels and music and lyrics by Gwyneth Herbert, is based.

THE A TO Z OF MRS P, Southwark Playhouse, London, UK.

 The use of the space in Southwark Playhouse’s “Large” is truly excellent and Klara Zieglerova’s design is innovative and inspiring. All manner of paraphernalia – postcards, books, maps, chairs, papers, suitcases – hangs from the ceiling, reflecting a life of thought, travel and work. The audience is seated either side of an oblong space flanked at each end with moveable doors that are controlled by cast members. The band is visible on a raised platform.

Beginning with her decision to leave her husband in Venice and step out into her beloved London to pursue her painting career, the piece explains the inspiration behind Pearsall’s famous map book, cataloguing its creation, introducing the draughtsmen she recruited along the way to assist her, her commendable decision to convert her company into a trust for the benefit of her employees and her later physical decline. All set against a backdrop of turbulent family life which veers from great affluence to bankruptcy and, owing largely to the selfish, misogynistic antics of her father, features the death of her mother in an asylum.

The action is relatively fast paced throughout and Gwyneth Herbert’s score and lyrics are punchy, quirky and decidedly “Sondheimesque”. Pretty impressive for someone who claims never to have seen a stage musical before starting the project. One particular highlight is a song which sees Pearsall (played by Isy Suttie) relay the names of 70 London streets in quick succession as they are recorded in the book. It is often really a fun form of recitative, but Suttie embraces the challenge of her first musical role head-on, giving a performance which manages to be sympathetic, endearing, independent and vulnerable all at the same time. Other casting highlights include Frances Ruffelle, whose Bella is tragic, sexy and gritty and Stuart Matthew Price, who is in beautiful singing voice as Pearsall’s brother, Tony.

THE A TO Z OF MRS P, Southwark Playhouse, London, UK.

For a piece that is supposed to be largely about the life and achievements of one protagonist, though, this show meanders decidedly off course at times. For example, it allows itself to focus too heavily on Pearsall’s father. Played adeptly by Michael Matus, who is also in fantastic voice, this man not only shapes the lives of his wife and daughter to a staggering degree, but dominates the theatrical proceedings themselves. Whilst this obviously makes sense on some level, he just becomes annoying by the end and, to be honest, I’d rather have seen more time spent exploring further aspects of the life and plight of Phyllis herself.

The highlights of this show are many. Its charm is undeniable, there is much to enjoy and the passion and thought behind it are obvious. However structurally it currently feels a little like an experimental work in progress.

Photos by Jane Hobson

Thebes @ New Diorama Theatre, London – February 2014

There seems to be no limit to the Faction’s creative ambition and this third and final instalment in their latest Rep season is arguably their most ambitious work to date.

Not content with another straightforward adaption, the company commissioned Gareth Jandrell’s Thebes for this production, a brand new piece which draws from not one, but several tragedies by Sophocles and Aeschylus, weaving together various pieces of speech and plot elements masterfully. Oedipus and Antigone meet Seven Against Thebes as Jandrell shifts the focus of the stories from the plights of individuals and their relationships with the gods to political unrest and tyranny.

Despite this marked alteration, the inhabitants of Thebes remain physically central to Jandrell’s drama, and director Rachel Valentine Smith uses this to her full advantage, taking the Faction’s traditionally excellent ensemble work to an inventive new height. All twelve of the cast remain on stage throughout the piece, periodically forming a sinisterly “hoodied” Chorus which rolls and punches its way through the action, delivering not only simultaneous speech but assortments of animal sounds, yelps and yowls as it moves, sometimes in the company’s trademark stylised slow motion, sometimes as a mass of entwined bodies. To quote the text itself, this Chorus is a ‘malleable entity’ forming ‘the set’, ‘the people’, ‘the sound’, and the device does not fail.

As ever, there are some inspiring performances. Kate Sawyer is completely credible as Jocasta, the queen Oedipus marries whilst oblivious to the fact she is his mother. Lachlan McCall’s Oedipus is similarly convincing as he discovers the horrific truth about himself and gouges his own eyes out, although he possibly lacks some of the gravitas and stature necessary for such a weighty role. Cary Crankson delivers another effortlessly smooth performance as the increasingly power-hungry Creon, brother-in-law of Oedipus, and Derval Mellett’s Antigone seethes with determined passion.

Whilst this is undeniably a memorable, bold and powerful piece of theatre, one cannot help but feel that whilst it is one of the Faction’s most ambitious productions it is also one of its most inaccessible, relying heavily on the audience having a good deal of prior knowledge of its subject matter in order to glean full appreciation and understanding. The lack of scenery and props, which usually works beautifully for the Faction, unfortunately makes a hard-going piece even harder going.  Whilst it is fantastic to be presented with the full text in the programme, those of us unfortunately less familiar with the works of ancient Greek tragedians would have appreciated a brief synopsis of events, too.

The Robbers @ New Diorama Theatre, London – February 2014

The Faction’s ever-ambitious endeavours to unearth and breathe youthful interpretation into little-known classics continue with this remount of Schiller’s The Robbers, currently playing in rep with Hamlet and Thebes at the New Diorama.

Written by Schiller at the tender age of twenty-one and translated from 18th century German into modern day speak by director Mark Leipacher and actor/writer Daniel Millar, this is an exciting contemporary take on a debut that brought its playwright overnight success. Leipacher’s dark, “Tarantinoesque” production makes no attempt to hide, and in fact makes every effort to underline, that this is the work of a very young man.

Revolving around the grizzly conflict between two aristocractic brothers, Karl and Franz Moor, the plot twists, turns and weaves together the challenging themes of sibling rivalry, paternity, family rifts, manipulation, forgiveness and gang culture. This new translation does not lose any of Schiller’s emotional language and the depiction of his vision of copious violence is both fast-paced and imaginative. Boys and their dangerous toys dominate the proceedings, rampaging at times into invigorating theatrical climaxes which are clearly designed to shock.

Sometimes there is a little too much loud shooting for comfort, but the various sequences of criminal warfare showcase perfectly the Faction’s talent for working an ensemble and make for some excellent choreography and lighting effects. Especially memorable are the red filters. The use of chalk at the back of the stage is also a very nice touch, pervading the minimalist backdrop, providing an ever-fixed reminder of the demonic thoughts of gang members and harking back to the traditional blackboard as a means of communication.

I have to admit I found it difficult to empathise with any of this play’s characters, but this is not to say that there was not some great acting. Cary Crankson is as smooth and charismatic as ever as Spiegelberg, arguably one of the true villains of the piece as he attempts to overthrow and outdo the leader of the gang. Andrew Chevalier’s Franz, arguably the other true villain, although a little hammy at times, manages convincing, vile contempt for his father and absent brother and depicts both physical and emotional deformity admirably throughout.

The Robbers runs at the New Diorama until 22nd February.

What The Women Did @ Southwark Playhouse, London – January 2014

This remounting of What The Women Did, ‘Two’s Company’’s triple bill of plays about the First World War, marks several special anniversaries: the centenary of the Great War itself, ten years since the first production of the piece at Southwark Playhouse in 2004 and twenty years since the theatre itself opened.

The title of the trilogy and the way it has been billed are possibly both a little misleading in that they suggest a series of works that concern the plights of strong women who are left at home to keep families and lives together whilst husbands go to war, no questions asked. I was expecting a large dose of some possibly quite dull ‘keep the home fires burning’ gumpf, conveying quite literally ‘what the women did’. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Each play is as focused on the continuing, usually overwhelming, impact on women of men, whether they are absent through war or whether they have never been there in the first place. Whilst war is of course the common backdrop, at times it almost becomes a side issue. These plays are full of confusion and emotional turmoil, so much at times, that the war is forgotten. The very recognizable dilemmas and longings being portrayed on stage are often symptoms simply of being female and alone.

In Luck of War, a war widow recently remarried and pregnant has the difficult task of welcoming home her maimed first husband, presumed dead. Handmaidens of Death presents a gaggle of female munitions workers whose prime purpose in life appears to be to find a male soul mate. What is striking about this particular play is that despite the very obvious class divide, the women are exactly the same; strongly united through the predicament of war and in their plights for love and companionship. JM Barrie’s The Old Lady Shows Her Medals is a poignant account of the rivalry between four amusing charladies as they compete to have the bravest son at the front. Only one of them doesn’t have a son at all and is drawn into a complex web of manipulation. It seems JM Barrie’s preoccupation with the ‘son’ figure found its way into his drama, as well as his famous prose.

All three pieces are pacy and slick with some intelligent direction from Tricia Thorns. One particular highlight is the German soldiers who return to proposition the girls in Handmaidens of Death. Their disembodied voices are perfect and the dancing embers of their cigarettes in the darkness and the flashes of gore as they are briefly revealed are incredibly profound images. Alex Marker’s fluid design is also interesting and inspired, moulding itself perfectly to the three different settings.

The whole company provide consistently good acting, but particularly worthy of mention are Matthew Cottle, who gives a particularly insightful portrayal of the awkwardly placed Amos in Luck of War and Victoria Gee, who merges gormlessness and guilt perfectly in the same play. The Old Lady Shows Her Medals also spawns two fine performances in the shape of protagonists Mrs Dowey (Susan Wooldridge) and Kenneth Dowey, her pretend son (Simon Darwen). Both are utterly convincing as they play out the lies and deception and Darwen, perfect as the strapping Scotsman, is particularly adept at conveying uncomfortable, pathos-inducing exploitation. His sporran is too high, though; this, I have on good authority 🙂

What The Women Did runs at Southwark Playhouse until 15th February.

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