Wednesday 24 July 2019

Theatre Review: One Night in Miami... at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide 

As newly crowned heavyweight champion of the world, the night is alive with possibilities for the youthful Cassius Clay to celebrate. But 25 February 1964 finds him closeted in a downtown Miami hotel room with three of his closest friends: American football star Jim Brown, singer-songwriting legend Sam Cooke and Nation of Islam activist Malcolm X.

This much we know to be true. The rest of this thoughtful, hard-hitting play, written by Kemp Powers and first performed in 2013, speculates about the conversations and events of that pivotal night. It harks back to an era of overt, violently enforced racial segregation and the subsequent 1960s Civil Rights movement that still resonates today, and to which each of the assembled quartet has a different response.

Through the rapid-fire, robust banter of four old friends, improbably sharing tubs of vanilla ice cream, the answer to one circling question becomes increasingly heated: how can each man further the cause of African Americans against their oppression?

Clay has acted with his fists; Conor Glean portrays all his buoyant charm and cockiness in achieving an unexpected victory over Sonny Liston without receiving so much as a scratch to his pretty young face. But underlying this victory are concerns over the momentous personal transformation he is about to make.

Clay is heavily influenced by the separatist rhetoric of Malcolm X, captured as a man of austere, single-minded discipline and drive by Christopher Colquhoun. Only later do his own uncertainties and complexities surface as the shadowy grip of the Nation of Islam, represented by his two Muslim security guards, becomes manifest. In earlier scenes, he is intent on lambasting high-living Sam Cooke for achieving his success on a white audience’s terms, producing the sort of music that is palatable to their ears.

Matt Henry as Cooke is mischievous, freewheeling but with an underlying core of steel. He delivers the play’s highlights with a charismatic performance and dazzling vocals; his rendition of the iconic “A Change is Gonna Come” is spine-tingling. But he fights back like a cat when cornered by Malcolm X - empowered by his own record label and shrewd business deals, he doesn’t just want a piece of the pie: “I want the damn recipe”.

Miles Yekinni’s warm and witty Jim Brown bridges the divide, bringing the friends back together when the rift seems too wide - but he too has concerns: about shades of blackness and phoney liberalism. He’s tentative in taking his first steps in a new direction, preferring the racism he encounters to be overt, so he knows just where he stands.

Matthew Xia’s direction brings the issues and tensions of men on the cusp of great change to the fore, but the chemistry between the ensemble is still palpably warm and humorous. There are demands for girls to share the party and happy recollections of past liaisons in purely physical terms; marriage and children being no hindrance when the era’s activism doesn’t yet extend to women’s liberation.

Grace Smart’s open box set recreates the sixties functionality of a motel room deemed suitable for black residents, adjoined by a balcony for the four to be guarded - and watched - by security. Ciarán Cunningham’s lighting design colours the oppressive heat of the night and simply transforms the stage to strikingly reimagine the rounds of Clay’s boxing triumph or the venue of a Cooke concert.

There are all the highs of what we now know will be achieved but the lows of the personal cost and devastating losses along the way. Undoubtedly these fictionalised voices reach from the past to speak to us of a struggle that is still very far from over, in a skilfully constructed night of enlightening gloves-off discussion and courageous revelations.

Reviewed on 25 June 2019 | Images: Richard Hubert Smith

Monday 15 July 2019

Theatre Review: Blithe Spirit at Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Theatre Royal Bath’s 2019 summer season has begun with an emphasis on the supernatural; while Cassandra predicts the future in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at the Ustinov Studio, in the main house Jennifer Saunders brings back the dead as Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. Perhaps this speaks to an overwhelming need for escapism right now, but in both spaces the intervention feels divinely welcome.

In 1941, with his London office and flat destroyed in the Blitz, Noël Coward decamped to the Welsh village of Portmeirion for a short holiday and penned Blithe Spirit within a week. As a distraction from the horrors of World War II, his comedy proved an instant hit with the public and over the decades it has been revived many times. Though tricky to stage and light with its ghostly interludes, here Anthony Ward’s towering book-filled set inspires confidence from the first.

Charles Condomine is a novelist and, in researching his latest book, he invites eccentric medium Madame Arcati to conduct a séance in his home. He and his second wife Ruth are sure she’s a fake, smug in the condescension they share with their dinner guests, Dr and Mrs Bradman. Charles’s objective is to pick up some appropriate jargon and tricks of the trade, but when Madame Arcati inadvertently conjures up the spirit of his dead first wife Elvira, the stage is set for an evening rife with marital discord and unexpected complications.

Geoffrey Streatfeild and Lisa Dillon as Charles and Ruth are the archetypal Cowardian couple: verbally jousting, witty and knowing, but more than a little cold-hearted. Their marriage works because they are both beyond the first youthful throes of passion - but in questioning Charles about his previous wife Elvira, Ruth portrays a jealousy that will come back to haunt her.

Simon Coates and Lucy Robinson are properly upright as the sceptical Dr and Mrs Bradman, providing a conventional contrast to the force of nature that is Jennifer Saunders as Madame Arcati. Grey-haired and dowdy but red-cheeked from her bicycle ride, fanning herself wide-legged while downing the dry martinis, she draws all eyes to her meticulous portrayal of a comical, eyebrow-raising but real woman with visions of ectoplasmic manifestations, living outside of all 1940s norms.

Charles is in the eye of the storm; the only person who can see and communicate with Elvira, an ethereal spectre of silvery gauze waspishly portrayed by Emma Naomi. Their conversations lead to a comical love triangle of misunderstanding and disharmony with Ruth, but the cracks in Charles’s first marriage soon begin to resurface as Elvira settles in for the long term and her attempts to ensure they are together forever go badly awry. Madame Arcati is at a loss to reverse the turmoil she has unleashed, but help is at hand in the form of the hapless maid, Edith, played with immaculate comic timing by Rose Wardlaw.

Howard Harrison’s lighting is flawless and the supernatural effects leading up to the final scene are simply but gloriously wrought. Coward has long been a staple of the Theatre Royal’s summer seasons, yet his plays are difficult to stage outside their original era, and so can feel dated and overly reliant on the writer’s indubitably incisive wit. Not so here; this revival, under the distinguished direction of Richard Eyre, provides exceptionally fast-paced, illuminating comic entertainment - the most spirited production of a Coward play seen in Bath for many a year.

Reviewed on 19 June 2019| Images: Nobby Clark

Wednesday 3 July 2019

Theatre Review: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Melancholic, middle-aged Sonia laments to her adopted brother Vanya that she no longer remembers the Italian for ‘window’ or ‘ceiling’ and that she’s forgetting more and more every day. In present-day Bucks County, Pennsylvania, she mirrors a line originally spoken by Irina in Three Sisters, one Chekhovian reference in a work stuffed full of them. It’s a play that resonates with the Russian dramatist’s preoccupations and motifs; in the programme notes, American writer Christopher Durang admits that he ‘takes Chekhov characters and themes and puts them into a blender.’

Yet, you don’t need any prior knowledge of Chekhov’s enigmatic dialogue to enjoy this UK première of a celebrated Broadway comedy that won a Tony Award in 2013. It’s playful, bittersweet and slyly subversive; so, when Vanya replies with the Italian translations of Sonia’s forgotten words, she realises they are unfamiliar—because she never learned the language in the first place.

Set in the jaded wood-beamed family home where Sonia and Vanya for years nursed their now-deceased professorial parents, it opens with the siblings musing on the disappointments and limitations of their lives. This is no weary meandering; they may have the familiarity of long-time cohabitants, but these are sharply observed characters. Though weighted with the opening scene’s burden of exposition, Durang captures the cadences of their relationship, the rivers of unspoken meaning running beneath the words.

Careworn but fiery Sonia exudes pent-up rage for a life that never happened, while Vanya, though more conciliatory, is determined to stand his ground. Then their psychic housekeeper Cassandra injects a dose of comically overblown Greek tragedy with grim prophecies of forthcoming doom. When their glamorous movie-star sister Masha arrives complete with Spike, her latest toy boy, and their pretty young theatre-infatuated neighbour Nina strolls into their lives, the catalyst for change is in place as an entertainingly eventful weekend begins to unravel.

As Masha announces she has decided to sell the family home, lingering regrets clash with boisterous youthfulness to rip apart the thinly papered cracks of old resentments. Cassandra’s premonitions, it seems, are being fulfilled.

Such is the Ustinov’s reputation for finding and producing dazzling works previously unseen in this country, the play has attracted a garlanded Broadway director in Walter Bobbie and an outstanding cast; West End favourite Janie Dee shines as charismatic, self-obsessed Masha who insists on everyone dressing as acolytes to her Snow White for a costume party, while Rebecca Lacey becomes increasingly animated as Sonia, finding her alter ego in diamante, lace and a hilarious Maggie Smith impersonation. Michelle Asante has fun imbuing the somewhat archetypal character of Cassandra with larger-than-life foreboding and Lewis Reeves’s physical comedy is superb as superficial, clothes-shedding Spike.

Mark Hadfield, only recently slain in the bloodletting of the RSC’s Tamburlaine, excels as Vanya - given the honorary title of ‘Uncle’ by Aysha Kala’s sweetly earnest Nina. He echoes his Chekhovian namesake in a heartfelt tirade, railing against the loss of shared memories in a world of constant change.

Yet, shared memories still link the three siblings and, unlike Chekhov, Durang steps back from the edge and allows green shoots of hope and reconciliation to emerge through the weekend’s fast paced, verging-on-farcical turbulence. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike marks the beginning of Theatre Royal Bath’s 2019 summer season, and (unlike the weather) it’s off to a shimmering start.

Runs until 6 July 2019 | Images: Nobby Clark