I Value the arts

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Review: Lay Down Your Cross - Hampstead Theatre

Ever had that feeling in theatre that you’d rather be watching paint dry? Well in Nick Payne’s Lay Down Your Cross, for a few minutes at least you can do just that. Lay Down Your Cross takes realism to a whole new level, dialogue here is played out in real time, every pause, every stutter, every um given full credence. At times it even makes Pinter’s trademark pregnant pauses seem flowing.

Tony is living alone in a flat, having left the family home following the breakdown of his marriage. His daughter has moved to Australia and his estranged wife has turned to drink. There’s an elephant in the room, however, with the forthcoming funeral for their son forcing uncomfortable questions about his death finally to be asked. The questions are never fully answered, recriminations and reasons are flung around but the spectre of Adam’s death remains an enigma.

Payne’s script captures the awkwardness and repressed anger and regret of a family torn apart from grief and it’s certainly an accurate observation of natural speech pattern;  the question is does it actually make for good drama?

Played for 90 minutes straight through, the naturalism soon loses its novelty and we yearn for a bit of dramatic variety. When an argument finally erupts over a family dinner and both accusations and food begin to fly, we soon lose any tension as we then spend five minutes watching the family clear up the resulting (literal) mess in silence. Realistic, yes, but as drama flawed.

The ultra-realistic script makes things somewhat difficult for the cast – with so many pauses, stutters and half sentences it often sounds like a piece of improvisation. Engagement isn’t aided by four characters that we never really care about – the self-absorbed isolated daughter, the unfaithful girlfriend and the destructive parents.  There are, however, some nice observations; Susan Wooldridge’s Grace, using alcohol to mask her pain and block out reality and Angela Terence’s guilt ridden girlfriend.

Clare Lizzimore’s direction certainly achieves a naturalistic style but at the costly expense of any plot development.

There is a germ of a tantalising story here – looking at the destructive impact of depression, death and grief on a family.  At the moment though, while you can admire the realism, the lack of real dramatic progression kills any engagement. By the time two characters end the play painting a wall, we’ve lost interest and any compassion for these characters.

Photo: Robert Workman

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Feature: Regional Arts PR - A National Obsession?

Imagine you have just opened your 'Arts PR' text book and you are faced with the following scenario…

You are a national (and international) touring company. Your latest production has been touring for a while but has had a couple of weeks break. The spring section of your tour kicks off its first of six venues in February.

A week before opening night, the first venue’s press officer contacts regional critics to tell them that you, the touring company, have cancelled all review tickets, stating that reviews are now barred until the London run four weeks later.

Now, though it always seems to surprise press and PR agents, critics do talk to each other in intervals and the subject of ‘what’s next’ often crops up.  What unravels over one set of interval drinks is a tale of one publication being allowed in to review said show in the regional venue.

The venue press officer advises that the exception to the embargo had been specifically requested by the tour company.

You - the company - deny any knowledge, as does your external PR agent. Frantic email and phone conversations follow between venue, company and PR and the embargo is uniformly imposed on all parties and a ‘misunderstanding’ blamed for the embargo exception. Damage is already done however, with a feeling of mistrust prevalent and, for one organisation, a frantic rescheduling of diaries.

Along with your apology comes the line ‘we hope you are able to review the show in London’. Diaries checked and yes the London press night is free for the impacted media.

When it comes to arranging tickets, though, the mood seems to change as your external PR company states that review tickets for the London date are now limited to national media organisations only.

An isolated tale of poor communication used in a text book as an example of how not to handle PR? Sadly not. 

The names may have been omitted from the story to preserve working relationships in the future but this is an actual incident that happened this year, one of a growing number of anecdotes shared over those interval drinks of regional media being side-lined by PR companies only interested in the national print media.

We’re not talking major West End musicals here, or plays doing a limited run prior to London, these are national tours of productions that, for the majority of time, never hit the West End; the closest they get is a week in Richmond or Bromley.

So what is causing the issues? Do PR agencies need to improve their knowledge of media outside of London? Certainly there’s an element of London centric knowledge at play but, as touring product, surely there needs to be some liaison with the venue’s own press office?

It’s a relationship that often doesn't seem to be working to serve either the venue or the touring product. Confusion over where the boundaries between national and regional lie are all too common and all too often it is regional media that falls through the cracks.

It seems it’s a frustration shared by some venue press officers, who find their local knowledge and contacts are being ignored with the national PR agents using their own, sometimes wildly inaccurate and outdated, contact lists.  While local press officers understand their specific market and the local media, many of the PR agencies seem to rely more on national media.  Sadly it’s becoming a more frequent occurrence on contacting the PR to be told ‘we only deal with national media’.

While of course any national coverage of regional theatre is to be welcomed, do PR agencies risk antagonising those loyal media outlets who cover a regional venue week in, week out in favour of the big name?

What message does that send regional arts correspondents? Are they likely to give coverage to an event when the PR agency is so dismissive towards them? How likely are they to want to cover the rest of the venues programme one the big name show has moved onto its next date? Is gaining a couple of hundred words in a national publication once a year worth the risk of losing that weekly coverage from local media outlets?

Of course the problem isn’t purely down to external PR companies, even venue-based press and marketing teams don’t always get it right. It’s been interesting over the last few weeks to ask a number of established venue press officers if they knew what media organisations had the highest penetration in their areas.

Out of six venues questioned only three could answer. Of the rest two said they hadn’t carried out any research in a couple of years and the third said they relied on the media themselves to tell them circulation figures.

So while we need to continue the campaign to increase coverage of theatre outside London in the national media we also need to get venues and, more importantly, PR agencies up to speed on regional media.

It’s a fast moving and ever evolving sector but fail to adapt and you could find that when those coveted national critics fail to journey out to your venue, you could find your local media have already been alienated to your brand and moved on to a more receptive organisation.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Review: Private Resistance - Eastern Angles Touring

Freedom is in peril. Defend it with all your might. So proclaims the Ministry of Information poster that forms the backdrop for Private Resistance. For an extended family in 1940 rural Essex the peril is all too real, the horrors of war are coming close to home and, once Hitler’s forces have invaded, their way of life will never be the same again.

Ivan Cutting’s script may be a fascinating ‘What If’ scenario but it’s a scenario that Churchill took seriously, setting up a network of Auxiliary Units hidden across the country to disrupt an invasion force advance. Bunkers were dug, weapons and stores hidden and a network of cells recruited, never knowing who else was in the organisation.

In reality such units were never needed and details of their operation still remain somewhat shrouded in the secrecy of government. Cutting’s script looks at one such cell and the psychological pressures the units and their families would actually face in the event Hitler had invaded.

Despite her husband being imprisoned in a German Prisoner of War camp, Diane is determined to carry with as much normality as possible. Her 15 year old nephew, Wilf, though has ideas of a more active wartime role, something that fellow lodger ATS girl Prue can readily understand. As the war progresses, the plot takes a different track to known history with reports of German troops marching through Essex, groups of men and boys being rounded up and shot as punishment and, even more chilling, the Norwich to London train line being used by ‘cattle truck’ trains deporting Jews to Eastern European concentration camps.

The script is peppered with historical detail but at its heart this is the story of the human impact of war and the pressure put on ordinary citizens in extraordinary times to protect their Country and culture. There’s a mounting sense of frustration as the months pass, marked on the ever prevalent calendar, and the realisation that, unless decisive action is taken, a whole generation is threatened.

Thirty years after the final liberation of the UK, Diane is invited onto a radio programme to discuss her role in the resistance and we finally get to hear the true sacrifice those villagers made to defend their freedom.

Naomi Jones’ production grabs the attention from the outset and doesn’t drop the dramatic tension throughout. Details are slowly revealed, much like the Auxiliary Units themselves, on a need to know basis, so we only fully get the full picture at the moving climax. Jones makes great use of Fabrice Serafino’s impressive set, effectively revealing hidden secrets throughout.

There are impressive performances throughout the ensemble, all providing period characters that we can still identify with over 70 years on. Matt Addis, Phil Pritchard, Bishanyia Vincent, Fred Lancaster and Frances Marshall all give their respective characters dignity and humanity in the most testing of times.

We may all think we know what we would do if our country is threatened but what would we really do if faced with the challenge – ‘Could you look at people in years to come and say I did nothing’? East Anglia was a prime target for Hitler’s invasion plans, Private Resistance and its thought-provoking ‘what if’ scenario is a fitting tribute to those unsung heroes who were prepared to risk everything to defend their communities. A moving and uplifting tribute to humanities determination to protect freedom.

Photo by Mike Kwasniak

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Feature: Does your PR measure up?

Laura Brown recently published a blog on AP about the changing role of PR contacts in our fast-shifting media landscape. Laura reflects on the PR question: ‘who is your best contact?’ It has made me think about the view from the other side of the PR fence – someone who receives those press releases.

In pre-show discussions and over interval drinks the one subject that crops up time and time again, when talking to fellow arts correspondents and critics, is the service we receive from press officers and PR companies. While a good press officer can make life so much easier, sadly the talk is often of a more negative aspect. Tales of emails and phone calls that go unanswered, press releases that get sent late, issues with images and problems with tickets are common place.

The subject is becoming slightly more complex, with venues turning to external PR companies to either supplement their own in-house press and marketing, or even handle the entire operation. Laura’s question of ‘Who is your best contact?’ then becomes more acute. While a local press officer builds relationships and knowledge of the changing faces of local media, does a PR agency based in another part of the country have that same knowledge? Is their ‘best contact’ actually the right contact?

The sales pitch from PR agencies often sounds tempting – a wealth of contacts, industry knowledge and the ability to tap into the latest trends in technology and communication. But how do you check the glossy sales pitch actually delivers a service that enhances, not damages your brand?

Measuring success on column inches of coverage may be one popular method of capturing the return on your investment but it is only one part of the story.

Here’s a bold suggestion – why not ask your arts correspondents and critics what they think of the service your PR company provides? After all, they are the people most likely to have interaction with the company and the service received can either make their job easier, hopefully securing you more coverage or, in some cases, can make things so complicated that what is a potential story gets filed away under BIN.

Like many unsung heroes, when PR works well it tends to go unnoticed but handled badly it can make even the most interesting angle hard work. Writers don’t have the time or resources to constantly chase your PR company for information, yet some PRs make life as difficult as possible for someone wanting to cover their client’s production.

I have blogged on AP before about the importance of press officers talking to critics – to find out what works for them and what doesn’t. It is also time to include them in discussions over your use of outside PR and, as Laura suggests, test their knowledge of who actually is the best contact for your product.

Originally written for Arts Professional Magazine

Friday, 17 February 2012

Review: Reasons To Be Cheerful - New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

A true measure of the success of any musical based on the back catalogue of an artist is if someone unfamiliar with that music can still enjoy the show. While fans of Ian Dury and The Blockheads will undoubtedly revel in the nostalgia of Graeae Theatre’s Reasons To Be Cheerful, even those unfamiliar with his works will find much to warm the heart here.

It’s 1979 and Dury is at the height of his fame. Tickets for his concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon are like gold dust, not much comfort for fans Vinnie and Colin, a couple of shop assistants in a Southend supermarket. Colin knows every single fact about Dury and, for Vinnie, the opportunity of taking his terminally ill father to the concert is the one thing he feels he can do to make a difference.

Paul Sirett’s script makes no attempt to disguise the fact that it is shoehorning Dury’s material into the plot, but its upfront honesty adds to its charm. The audience are addressed directly, the cast remain on stage throughout, and the tongue remains firmly in cheek. That’s not to say there isn’t emotion here. Issues of prejudice, disability, terminal illness and grief are all handled with skill and will have audiences laughing one minute and holding back tears the next.

Dury’s often uncompromising lyrics may shock those of a more sensitive disposition but the show serves to highlight not only his poetical talent but also serve as a reminder of his own strong beliefs. It is perhaps fitting for a company such as Graeae, who have done so much to champion disabled performers, to include Dury’s Spasticus Autisticus, his passionate response to his own disability and discrimination, into the heart of their story.

All of Dury’s classics are here, Billericay Dickie, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, What A Waste, Blockheads, and the gloriously enthusiastic Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll. You don’t, however, need an in depth knowledge of punk, this talented company hand you the culture on a plate.

Director Jennie Sealey marshals her multi-talented cast with flair. There are impressive performances throughout, with detailed characterisation even when sitting on the side-lines. Singing, acting or signing here is a cast determined to raise the roof. Stephen Lloyd and Stephen Collins work well together as Vinnie and Colin, Lloyd brining a real emotional edge to his rendition of My Old Man and Collins displaying a fine sense of comic timing. There is also an impressive performance from Nadia Albina as Janine, cast aside by her boyfriend because of her disability. Karen Spicer and Garry Robson provide the emotional heart of the piece as Vinnie’s parents Pat and Bill, while John Kelly’s vocals more than invoke the spirit of the late Ian Dury.

Robert Hyman’s musical direction brings out the best from his onstage musicians and frequently threatens to lift the roof off the theatre. Mark Haig’s video design manages to incorporate subtitling with graphics to invoke a sense of late 1970s.

In a glorious celebration of life and music, it would be the coldest of hearts that didn’t find a huge Reason To Be Cheerful after seeing this exuberant show.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Thursday, 16 February 2012

News: HighTide appoints new Executive Director

HighTide Festival Theatre have announced the appointment of Holly Kendrick as their new Executive Director.

Currently Director and CEO of the National Student Drama Festival, Kendrick will join HighTide in July. Kendrick has led the NSDF since 2006, during which time she has produced five annual festivals in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, and for 2012 has created the International Student Drama Festival in Sheffield.

Commenting on the appointment, Criona Palmer, Interim Chair of the HighTide Board said:
“It's a reflection on the growing profile of HighTide that an arts executive of Holly's calibre has agreed to take on this new role. Holly is joining the company at an exciting and pivotal phase in its development and the board is confident she and Steven will be able to steer HighTide to even greater heights.”

Kendrick herself is looking forward to the challenges of getting an audience to take risks with new writing.
“Never in the whole of human history has there been fewer reasons to leave the house, with everything you can imagine being streamed, posted, delivered to your door. Despite this, festivals still exist and are essential. They cannot be replicated and they allow the audience to take risks, to go on an adventure, to be part of something in the flesh.”

The chance to work on the Suffolk festival is a real appeal for Kendrick;
“I am delighted to join the HighTide team who produce the most exceptional festival in Suffolk with the most wonderful array of new writing. HighTide is without doubt the future of theatre.”

HighTide’s Artistic Director Steven Atkinson is also looking forward to working with his new joint CEO, having worked together in the past.
“Holly and I have worked together many times at the NSDF where I am a Selector and I have the utmost admiration for her achievements there. She’s a tenacious and gifted producer and I couldn’t wish for a better partner with which to lead HighTide.”

HighTide have recently announced the line-up for their sixth Festival in Halesworth, an expanded programme following the organisation’s success in gaining Arts Council portfolio funding. The Festival runs in Halesworth in May and Kendrick will join HighTide following the International Student Drama Festival that runs 22-30th June and will then partner with Artistic Director Steven Atkinson to lead the company together as joint CEO.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Review: Stagefright - Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

Beware things that go bump in the night, things may not be all they‘re cracked up to be. In the darkened manager’s office in the eaves of London’s Lyceum Theatre, Henry Irving has just finished entertaining the Prince Of Wales with his Faust. His manager, Bram Stoker, is working on a manuscript about a Transylvanian Count.

It’s a dark and stormy night and an empty theatre can spook even the sturdiest soul but Irving is worried that his portrayal of Mephistopheles may have invoked malevolent spirits.  As doors start to close unaided and lights flicker, is seems there are spectral forces keeping the two men company in the otherwise deserted theatre.

Ghost stories are notoriously difficult to pull off on stage; horror is a subtle genre with the mind being the most effective special effect. In a theatre, though, you need to generate something tangible to get your audience to jump out of their seat and it’s a delicate balance to find that effect that gives enough for the ear and eye yet still gives the mind room to add its own level of fear. Tension and fear need to build, things need to just barely register on the senses to create a feeling of apprehension.

Sadly, on opening night of Stagefright, the balance isn’t there. The story has potential but the overall result is  laughter rather than screams.

There is real potential in Michael Punter’s tale, with the world of theatrical superstition and the interaction between the two characters providing ample scope to weave both a chilling ghost story and also an insight into two giants of the creative arts. That potential isn’t realised, however, dialogue is rambling and we never get a real insight into these two or enough suspense to make the chills believable. Lines such as ‘I have had you in bondage’ reduce the audience to giggles rather than on the edge of their seats.

It is perhaps the technical aspects of the show that let down the production most. Without wishing to provide spoilers for future audiences, let’s just say that some of the illusions recall a clapped-out seaside ghost train ride rather than anything truly spectral; the lighting needs to be much more evocative and subtle and the soundscape needs to rely less on volume and provide a subtle aural underscore.

There are a couple of ‘jump’ moments but not enough to sustain the chills. Further tension is lost in a laborious scene change before the final scene and, overall, the whole thing needs to be much tighter. The script and production should drive us forward to a terrifying climax but, on the few occasions the chills do build, they soon evaporate.

Jonathan Keeble and Barry Ward have some chemistry between them, though performances would benefit from being dialled down from melodrama a couple of notches. Yes, Irving was ‘theatrical’ but the over-theatrical performance loses characterisation and steps quite clearly into parody.

In the historical setting of the Regency Theatre Royal, there are the workings of a genuinely chilling ghost story but Director Colin Blumenau and his creative team should take a close look at the production. A tightening of the script, a look at bringing the relationship between Irving and Stoker to a naturalistic fore and some urgent revisiting of the technical production values will pay dividends.

Young audience members of the audience screamed in places on opening night but, when the overall sound you hear at a ghost story is laughter, you know something is deadly wrong.

More Carry On Screaming than Paranormal Activity.

Review: Vertigo - The Junction, Cambridge

Small is often beautiful in theatre and such is the case with Vertigo, not one but two shows woven into a cohesive whole. The story goes that, due to an error, two young actors were booked to perform their show called Vertigo at the same venue at the Edinburgh Festival. Rather than compete the two combine forces to create a touching look at life, hopes and fears.

Part monologue, part comedy, part cabaret, vertigo takes us on a whirlwind trip through Philippa and Tom’s childhoods, though the trials and tribulations of youth are nothing compared with the challenges that adulthood promises.

A series of scenes intertwine, superficially individual but combining to create a warm and textured piece. Tom’s recollection of learning to ride his first bike is a wonderful combination of observation and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, while Philippa’s sharing of her first skydive reduces the audience to tears of joy.

Alongside the comedy, though, there is a deeper, darker vein. As Tom shares with us the moment when he told his first true love his feelings for her it’s a deeply personal moment. When we then go on to hear that she didn’t reciprocate those feelings, it turns into something much more poignant – almost too uncomfortable to watch but handled with skill.

The piece is deceptively simple – on the surface manic and improvised, but look closer and it’s all carefully constructed and thought out. Technical support from Tom’s ‘French Exchange Student’ Chris Bradbury adds another level of subtle humour without ever losing the poignancy and charm of the piece.

As a first piece it’s an impressive debut and one that could easily extend beyond its current 50 minutes, though whatever future plans, it needs to be careful to retain its small scale charm. The medical condition vertigo may induce dizziness and headaches but the show is likely to leave audiences dizzy with laughter and tears.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Monday, 13 February 2012

News: Artistic Director to leave Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds after 15 years

The Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds has announced that Colin Blumenau will leave his role as Artistic Director at the Suffolk venue at the end of July.

Blumenau joined the theatre in 1996 and led the theatre’s major project to restore the venue to its original Georgian glory in 2007. He has also directed or written many of the theatre’s in-house productions, including directing the venue’s current production of Stagefright. He has been instrumental in the venue’s championing of rediscovering the lost Georgian repertoire and was awarded the Theatrical Management Association’s (TMA) Manager of the Year award in 2009.

In announcing his departure Blumenau comments: “I’ve had a fantastic 15 years here. There have been so many highs but now it is time to move on. In the last year I’ve had the privileged opportunity to have had time to hand over the Chief Executive part of my role to Simon and to work closely with him to plan the next stage of the Theatre Royal’s development. However, every creative enterprise needs constant rejuvenation, and it is now time to hand over the creative baton to someone else whilst I look forward to developing my own writing and directing.”

Blumenau won’t cut off ties with the venue entirely and will direct a production of Jane Austin’s Mansfield Park in the autumn as well as writing the venue’s popular pantomime.

“For me, working at the Theatre Royal has been a truly life-defining experience. I will leave with some brilliant memories as well as vastly expanded knowledge and experience. I also owe an enormous debt of gratitude to all who have worked with me - staff, Board, stakeholders and audiences - to make the Theatre Royal an exceptional and uniquely valuable part of the town, the region, and the nation’s theatrical landscape.”

Simon Daykin, Chief Executive responded “Colin has done a truly extraordinary job. Under his artistic leadership the Theatre has grown enormously in stature and reputation. His commitment to bring quality to the stage, and to Bury St Edmunds, is deeply embedded in the organisation, giving us rock-solid foundations upon which to build. Our future work will continue to amaze and delight. Colin’s achievements to make this possible have been immense.”

The venue is the only surviving working Regency playhouse in the UK and one of only nine Grade 1 listed theatres in the country. Owned by the Greene King brewery, the theatre is now leased to the National Trust and is the only working theatre in the organisations portfolio.

The theatre received a £7,000 a year reduction in its Arts Council funding from 2012 and had recently announced the cancellation of a planned fundraising Lands End to John O’Groats horse ride by Blumenau, citing the failure to raise enough sponsorship for the event. In 2011 Blumenau handed the responsibility for Chief Executive duties to Simon Daykin, concentrating on the artistic management of the playhouse.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Review: Mogadishu - Arts Theatre, Cambridge

Not everything is always black and white. Facts about an event can be manipulated to suit personal agendas and racism can flow in many directions.

In an inner city secondary school, teacher Amanda steps in to break up a fight between students. In the process, she is assaulted though is reluctant to report perpetrator Jason as his exclusion would harm his future prospects.

Jason also recognises the impact of his actions but strikes first by fabricating a counter claim of assault and racial abuse against his teacher. Amanda initially thinks the fuss will soon blow over but the ensuing drama is like watching a pile of dominoes crash one after the other – each move causing further layers of hurt, hate and destruction.

As things progress from the school through the layers of local authority bureaucracy, the allegation has grave consequences for both sides.

Vivienne Franzmann’s debut full length play is an assured work, drawing heavily on her extensive teaching career for an insight into the challenges of trying to balance support and encouragement with discipline in education. Franzmann’s script carefully unveils layers of detail, building for a horrifying yet compulsive viewing. Much is helped by the gritty realism of the dialogue and the carefully drawn characters, each totally believable and recognisable.

Franzmann could have easily turned Jason into a villain; however, while his attempts to intimidate and control his gang to make increasingly overblown accusations to support him are abhorrent, there is a backstory, carefully revealed that, while not condoning his actions, make them comprehensible. It is his father who perhaps describes it best – a little boy desperately trying to play at being a man.

There are strong performances throughout the company, giving each character a well observed depth. Ryan Calais Cameron is impressive as the troubled Jason – full of pent-up aggression and frustration. Jackie Clune’s Amanda also develops nicely, from the easy going teacher always seeing the best in her pupils to a woman whose hopes and dreams have been destroyed by the system.

Matthew Dunster’s production flows seamlessly from scene to scene, building up tension throughout, making great use of Tom Scutt’s multipurpose caged set. Using the ensemble to carry out swift scene changes maintains pace and Ian Dickinson’s subtle yet effective underscore builds on the palpable sense of conflict.

It is an impressive and relevant piece that manages to keep the wide age range in the audience totally enthralled throughout. The ending, while dramatic, does seem somewhat out of kilter with the rest of the production and some of the teenagers’ performances need dialling back a couple of notches away from Catherine Tate’s ‘am I bovverred’ angst. These are minor points, however, as overall this is a production that can’t fail to impress. It may prove uncomfortable viewing at times, and the language is certainly not for the faint hearted, but it is a compelling and powerful drama told with skill and flair.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Review: The House Of Bernarda Alba - Almeida Theatre

A woman’s place is in the home. Well it is when your father has just died and your mother expects you to spend eight years mourning his death. Relocated from Catholic Spain to Iran, Emily Mann’s new translation of Lorca’s final play helps build an overbearing feel of repression and tension.

Bernada Alba is determined to rule her household with absolute authority; this is a matriarch that firmly believes that locking her daughters away is for the best. It’s not a decision borne out of vindictiveness, however, but a cast iron belief that it is the right thing to do to protect the family honour and reputation.
One daughter, though, has a chink of light in the darkness of mourning, a prospective husband to whisk her away from confinement. For Asieh it’s not clear if she is being married for love or as part of a financial transaction. Her sisters also have ideas of escape though realising their love is for the same man, it is a dream that can only end in tragedy.

This is a remarkable and intense look into familial relationships, class and oppression. Condensed into 90 uninterrupted minutes, it is impossible to tear your eyes away from the brewing storm unfolding on stage. Once the storm finally breaks, it provides no relief, just a shattering sense of loss and waste.
This is a beautifully layered and textured House of Bernarda Alba, capturing great intensity in the smallest of inflections. Much of the atmosphere is aided by Bunny Christie’s stunning design, a house hinting at class but also a mausoleum, the sunlight streaming into the hallway an ever-present reminder of a life outside of the shuttered walls. Jon Clark’s lighting also aids the almost painting-like quality of key images, with key light and shadow balanced in tableaux.

Bijan Sheibani has an eye of an artist in his direction, with a strong sense of the power of the visual – from the breathtaking opening image, through the effective use of a group of black burka clad mourners, to the striking images of the matriarch and her family.

Shohreh Aghdashloo shines as Bernarda, a woman of bearing and self-control. There’s something almost regal about her portrayal, considered movements and inflection and just enough acid to keep the servants, and her daughters, in line. Despite the ice cool exterior, though, there is a sense of pain and loss threatening to break through if not controlled.

In contrast to the immaculately presented Bernarda, Jane Bertish’s pinny-clad housekeeper Darya proves to know more than her status would suggest and there’s an uneasy balance of power between the two women.
There is impressive work from the daughters with Hara Yannas giving a beautifully observed portrayal of heartbreak as Adela and from Amanda Hale as the equally in love but more restrained Elmira.

There may be purists who miss the original Andaluc√≠an backdrop but this visually stunning, intense and well observed House of Bernarda Alba grabs the attention from the start and doesn’t let the energy drop throughout. Images from this production will stay in the mind for a long time.

Photo: Johan Persson

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

News: 18 Premières for sixth HighTide Festival

When a theatre new writing festival was first announced, based in Halesworth, a small Suffolk market town, some outside the region thought it was doomed to fail. Suffolk and East Anglia as a whole, though, have a strong tradition of creating art and now the HighTide Festival has grown to become one of the country’s major events on the theatrical calendar. Organisers have just announced the programme for the sixth Festival, taking place in Halesworth this May.

It’s an impressive programme, including 18 World or European premieres alongside a range of support events. The organisation has a history of taking productions onto a further life after their Halesworth showing and this year is no exception, with productions touring to the Latitude and Edinburgh Festivals and the Soho Theatre.

Announcing the festival line up, Artistic Director Steven Akinson highlights the expansion of the season:
“These eighteen plays are a huge expansion from our historical four. They present a wide range of new writing, from full production to work in progress, and experimentations in form including promenade performances and audio headset productions.”

Highlights of the Festival include the European premiere of Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and the world premiere of Ella Hickson’s new play, Boys.

There is also a strong cross Atlantic element to the Festival with HighTide working with New York’s Public Theater Emerging Writers Group to present a series of new American plays. Local writers, though, are also represented at the Festival with readings of new plays from East Anglian writers over coffee and brunch.

This year, HighTide is also hosting an all-day symposium on the state of new writing in the UK, a partnership with the University of East Anglia, the British Theatre Consortium and the Central School of Speech And Drama. Looking at the changing way new writers are developed, this looks to be a vital discussion for anyone interested in championing new writing.

Post-show talks and a series of talks from industry experts supplement the Festival with a full line up of speakers still to be announced.

The sixth HighTide Festival will take place in Halesworth from 5-13 May and full details can be found online at  www.issuu.com/hightidefestivaltheatre/docs/hightide_festival_2012  

Monday, 6 February 2012

News: Theatre cancels major fundraising initiative

Plans for a major fundraising initiative for the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds have been shelved, it has just been announced.

Colin Blumenau, the venue’s Artistic Director, had planned an ambitious challenge of riding from Land’s End to John O’Groats, via Bury St Edmunds. En-route Blumenau was due to visit famous Georgian sites along the 1,200 mile journey to reflect the theatre’s own Georgian history.

The theatre had hoped to have raised around £150,000 from the event and, at the launch, Bluemenau said:
“I have had the privilege of being Artistic Director of this extraordinary theatre for 14 years and, throughout that time, we have struggled to make exciting artistic choices against a backdrop of reducing finances.
Whilst I may not be able to change Government policy, or magic a tax incentive for giving, I can ride horses. And so I am bringing that skill and a passion for seeing the length of the UK from the saddle, as my offer to the long-term support of this theatre.”

The fundraiser was scheduled to take place this spring but, in a statement released by the theatre, the venue has decided not to go ahead with the challenge,  citing difficulties in finding major sponsorship for the project.
Despite nine months of planning, the venue felt that the pressures on donations posed to great a risk to continue.

Simon Daykin, Chief Executive of the venue explains:
“It has been Colin’s long held ambition to ride this endurance route, and both he and his horses were primed and ready for the challenge. However, our strong sense is that the country’s financial health is not robust enough to provide the level of funds envisaged; we just cannot take on additional risk when we have to concentrate all our resources on trying to thrive in these straightened times. “

The venue is the only surviving working Regency Playhouse in the UK and the only theatre in the National Trust’s portfolio. The theatre currently raises around £200,000 towards its work a year through other fundraising and sponsorship schemes but faces a £7,590 a year reduction in its Arts Council funding from 2012.

It’s facing up to these challenges that Daykin now believes the theatre needs to concentrate:
“We are very saddened that we have to ask Colin to unsaddle his steeds and bring the project to a close, but we have to be realistic. It’s now essential that we redouble our attentions on our core work as a quality producing theatre.”

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Review: Beating Berlusconi - New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” For many, Bill Shankly’s quote could sum up Liverpool. A city of intense football passion and rivalry, loyalty to one of the city’s two football teams are instilled from birth.

Football has brought the city success but also tragedy. Tragedies at Heysel and Hillsborough still cast a dark shadow over the community. It is, though, one of Liverpool FC’s finest hours that provides the spark of inspiration for John Graham Davies’ play.

In May 2005, Liverpool are playing AC Milan in the Champions League Final at the Ataturk Stadium in Istanbul. At half time things aren’t going well, with Liverpool losing 3-0. Liverpool Fan Kenny has risked his finances and his marriage to be here and he’s in desperate need of alcohol to lift his spirits. As he wanders the labyrinth stadium he somehow finds himself in the VIP area, quaffing champagne with Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

Like many of the seemingly most absurd tales, this story is based on real life but while forming the centre piece of the play there is more here than this anecdote. Alongside the tale of Kenny’s remarkable journey to Turkey we also get to explore Liverpudlian social development, prejudice, loyalty, and a sense of almost tribal belonging. Politics come in for much scorn but it turns out to be a cross party drubbing – Thatcher may be described as a Nazi in a dress but Blair and New Labour fare little better.

Paul Duckworth switches from character to character with consummate ease. It’s a huge array of personalities to portray but the delineation is always clear. There is plenty of colourful humour (and language) here but also moments of deep poignancy. With just a table, two chairs and some video highlights Duckworth delivers a personable and engaging performance.

Like the beautiful game itself, this is a play of two halves and while it’s played at pace it does seem slightly overlong. There is so much detail here that sometimes it is lost in the overall ambition of the story.

That said though this is a fascinating and engaging look at how an entire community are influenced by a weekly 90 minute game between two teams. While some of the football references may pass non-football fans by, there is enough human observation here to please all – well maybe not Mr Berlusconi.

Written originally for The Public Reviews

Review: American Anthems - Corn Exchange, Cambridge

Route 66, the fabled American highway immortalised on film and in song – a fitting backdrop for a new rock musical, especially one produced in association with legendary motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson. Sadly this is one show that arrives with two flat tyres, a stalled engine, and turns out to be the stage equivalent of watching a multi-car pile-up.

There are so many elements that don’t work here; it is difficult to know where to start. Fundamentally the question needs to be asked if this is actually a musical. Ross Mills, Ged Graham (who also stars) and Ryan Mills have created a paper-thin central story about a legendary rock star, Rocky Rhodes, who walked out of a concert in Madison Square Garden in the 90s and hasn’t been seen since.  Twenty-odd years later and radio station Route 66 FM teams up with his former roadie to head out on a trip across the USA to find him.  The plot, such as it is, serves nothing more as an excuse to play nearly 50 American classic songs.  Apart from a couple of half-hearted efforts (a comedy vicar joins the search for Rocky as an excuse to sing Son Of A Preacher Man and Living On A Prayer), songs are not integrated into the action and long sections pass without any narrative as we hurtle through the music catalogue.

When there is dialogue it is of questionable quality. There are echoes of both We Will Rock You and Rock Of Ages but those seem almost works of Tolstoy compared to this. Of course a rock musical shouldn’t be serious but it does need a story and here it seems to be a tribute show that is occasionally interrupted by some weak dialogue. When a character has to turn to the audience once to ask if they are getting it and a second time to explain a line was a joke you know you’re in trouble.  When actors forget lines or have to ask for their notes to introduce the next scene, things descend from the comical into the ridiculous.

Ok, so the script doesn’t work but many in the audience will have come to hear the music. Therein lies the second major problem. These anthems have stood the test of time as they were performed by artists who knew how to deliver a song. Here it often seems that the cast are struggling with the sheer range of many of these power ballads. Lyrics are lost with only the ends of lines being sung with conviction.  There is also a tendency to confuse vocal power with shouting, further distorting clarity.

Performances aren’t helped by the sound design that leaves even spoken lines struggling to be heard. Alongside sound, lighting often leaves performers in semi-darkness and the billed spectacular staging is little more than a Harley parked stage right, a bar stage left, two American Flags, a neon sign and a star cloth.
Midway through the second act, the ‘plot’ is stopped for 20 minutes to introduce 80s rock star John Parr, who abandons any pretence of being integrated into a musical and performs a set of his material. No reason, no plot device, just a straightforward guest appearance.

It all adds up for a muddled and confusing evening, not particularly well executed. The overwhelming feeling is of embarrassment for the company, desperately trying to encourage the audience to put their hands in the air and clap, but after the countless and out-of-context cries of ‘come on, Cambridge’, even the cast gives up.

American Anthems needs to decide what it is and fast. If it wants to be a rock musical, it needs to find the strong story that it so badly lacks. If it just wants to be a celebration of classic American road anthems, fine - just cut back the 2 hour 45 minute running time, improve the production values and focus on performance and delivery.

As it is, this is one road trip that needs the urgent attention of a breakdown service - that’s if the show isn’t already a total write-off.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Friday, 3 February 2012

Review: Top Girls - Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is widely regarded as a classic of 20th Century theatre, an examination of the sacrifices women over the centuries have had to make to become successful in a male dominated environment. However despite this status and the critical plaudits this revival has achieved it is hard, on this showing, to see why.

Churchill never makes things easy for her audiences and Top Girls is no exception. A reverse chronology, fragmented vignettes of plot, and harshly overlapping dialogue are all used to separate it from conventional drama. That’s fine and an audience should be make to work at a drama but here the techniques are used with such relentless fervour that it’s hard to take much away from the piece apart from a sense of frustration and ringing ears.

Things begin with confusion. Successful career woman Marlene is holding a dinner party for women from across history. Whether this is a dream, an allegory, or a manifestation of Marlene’s disturbed mind isn’t clear. It’s also often not clear what is being said with several characters speaking at once in a weird fist-fight of dialogue. Yes, it may be naturalistic but it makes for a tiresome start to the play and things don’t much improve.

Clarity isn’t bettered in subsequent scenes. A sketch set in the Top Girls recruitment agency does give some poignantly accurate observations on the recruitment process of bygone days, but it’s all too little to save the evening. And while a sub plot involving Marlene’s hurriedly fostered daughter does provide some dramatic tension, any real suspense is lost in the quality of the acting and accents in this horribly dated and irrelevant piece.

Touring a play to Suffolk with key scenes set in the county will always test the authenticity of the accents but here the accents veer from Devon and Cornwall via America’s Deep South. It’s not only the East Anglian dialect that comes in for a beating – a Japanese concubine at times sounds like she hails from the shadow of the Berlin Wall.

Director Max Stafford-Clark is seen as the authority of the piece, having directed the original production 30 years ago. Sadly this production does little to justify the revival. Stafford-Clark needs to look at reigning in some of the melodrama in the performances, find a way of presenting the somewhat weak central plot more clearly and work at some of the vocal performances. All too often here the audience are sniggering at the characters when they should be empathising with them.

There are some nice performances among the cacophony; Caroline Catz gives a nicely observed caricature as 80s business woman Marlene and Esther Ruth Elliott’s portrayal of Pope Joan gives a quirky insight into devotion and faith. Victoria Gee, as the Pieter Brueghel the Elder folk character Dull Gret, steals the first act with some beautifully drawn nuances.

Tim Shortall’s design does work well and provides the transition between locales effectively, but a set alone can’t make a production and, while fans of Churchill’s work may revel in the opportunity to see a revival of her most famous piece, it remains hard to understand why this confused muddle receives such acclaim. A case of the Empress’ New (Old) Clothes, perhaps?

Originally written for The Public Reviews