Wednesday 12 February 2020

Theatre Review: The Political History of Smack and Crack at Weston Studio, Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

The Political History of Smack and Crack traces the present-day glut of hard drugs awash on the streets of Manchester and other British cities back to an explosion of availability in 1980s Thatcherite Britain, arguing its root cause was a combination of Tory foreign policy and the desire to subdue the riots catching light in urban working-class districts across the land.

If that sounds like a treatise of abstract polemic then, in fact, it’s anything but: this urgent and energetic 80-minute two-hander—winner in Edinburgh 2018 of Summerhall’s Lustrum Award—threads this history through a deeply personal love story of addiction, recovery and the struggle to get clean of drugs, drawn from writer Ed Edwards’s own personal experiences.

Mandy and Neil are childhood friends and lifelong addicts, born and bred to deprivation and abuse in Manchester’s Moss Side. Between them, they narrate the story of their lives, fluidly weaving past with present in an ongoing cycle of dependency and rehabilitation, where shoplifting, prostitution and robbing from chemists alternate with sessions at Narcotics Anonymous and the support of friends.

It’s gritty and often tough to watch but also endearingly warm and funny, made so by riveting performances from Eve Steele, sure-footedly reprising her role as Mandy from the show’s previous runs, and newcomer William Fox taking over from Neil Bell in the role of Neil. The two break out of their narration to characterise other players in the story: instantly we are with Irish Tony watching a policeman being attacked in the riots, Mandy’s mother with a broken arm walking home from A&E to save the fiver a doctor gave her for a taxi, or Martin offering a spare room and lashings of unheeded advice. Nimbly switching back into the story, they are unapologetic but vulnerable, caught in a purgatory between life and death with confusion and self-loathing pock-marking their back-and-forth bravado and debate.

On the Weston Studio’s unadorned stage, Cressida Brown’s direction focuses intensely on the actors, their fleet physicality filling the space but supporting rather than overwhelming the storytelling. Similarly, Richard Williamson's lighting and Jon McLeod’s sound design are unobtrusive in the main, used with sparing intensity to highlight moments of particular tension.

Such is the pull of this absorbing and affecting tale of mismatched love and survival even after death that the political elements, though cleverly spliced into the action, can occasionally feel intrusive. But the play’s message is a shocking and hard-hitting one, leading you to question and want to find out more, ultimately inseparable from the characters whose lives it touches.

Reviewed on 22 January 2020 | Images: The Other Richard

Wednesday 5 February 2020

Theatre Review: God Of Carnage at Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Building on the reputation for sharp social observation established with her 1994 comedy Art, Yasmina Reza strips away the veneer of middle-class pretension and politeness in God of Carnage to expose the savagery that lies beneath. First performed in 2006, the play went on to garner a clutch of awards on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as an adaptation into the 2011 film Carnage, reset in Brooklyn and directed by Roman Polanski.

Now the production that featured in Theatre Royal Bath’s 2018 summer season has been revived by its director Lindsay Posner and is back prior to a West End run, with Elizabeth McGovern of Downton Abbey fame—currently with one arm in a sling due to injury—reprising her role as Veronica.

The play opens with two London-based couples convening to discuss the playground fight between their children, eleven-year-olds Freddie and Henry, which resulted in Freddie knocking out two of Henry’s teeth. Henry’s parents Veronica and Michael are the hosts and instigators of the meeting, while guests Annette and Alan are the parents of perpetrator Freddie.

What begins with pleasantries over coffee and clafoutis cannot of course remain that way, and tensions quickly surface, both between and within the couples. McGovern’s Veronica, an American author full of earnest sensitivity and underlying waspishness whose current subject is Darfur, seems to have little in common with her hardware merchant husband Michael, played by Nigel Lindsay as an out-and-out East End geezer—so much so that you wonder how they got together in the first place.

Annette and Alan (she in wealth management, he a prickly commercial lawyer) might appear better matched but soon begin sparring over his constant taking of work-related mobile phone calls. She, it seems, is given all the responsibility on the domestic front, while he is totally absorbed in the professional. Samantha Spiro and Simon Paisley Day are both convincing in their individual characterisations, she pained and long-suffering, he soulless and callously corporate. Yet, despite the revelation of an endearingly embarrassing nickname, it’s hard to imagine them ever having had enough chemistry to get hitched.

That neither couple seems to completely gel undermines the credibility of the ensuing comedy of manners. That said, as bourgeois civility begins to break down, the play’s farcical elements are well delivered with laugh-out-loud moments to savour. There’s a devastatingly ruinous attack of gastric upset and a rum-swigging session that finally puts paid to any lingering social niceties. Allegiances between the quartet form—the women siding together over the Neanderthal tendencies of their husbands, the men reminiscing over their time in playground gangs—and just as quickly implode over the next newly perceived slight.

As the decibel level and physical wrangling spiral, Peter McKintosh’s ceiling hanging design of African spears suspended above the chic living room becomes increasingly apt. This is little short of war in a domestic setting, the parents’ behaviour worse than their children’s, the passive aggressive comedy pierced by an underlying tragedy of desperation.

Caught up in the primeval vitriol are themes concerning the relative importance of local and global issues, the raising of children and the ways in which we say one thing and mean another. It’s a shame that, despite strong performances—particularly from McGovern—some of the subtleties of Reza’s clever construction ultimately become lost in the fever-pitch of hysteria.

Reviewed on 21 January 2020 | Images: Nobby Clark