The Commitments

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Seen 1 November 2015, Palace Theatre London (Dernière)
Written by Roddy Doyle
Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Do you know how sometimes movies, plays or musicals open, you want to see them but can’t make it and suddenly their run is over? When The Commitments opened in 2013, I wanted to see the show, but somehow it never happened. When I noticed the day I was flying to London for a meeting the next morning was also that of the last two performances, I decided  to try my luck. Mixed reviews be damned and dernières are sometimes more fun than regular performances anyway. Continue reading

The Ruling Class

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written by Peter Barnes

directed by Jamie Lloyd

cast: Ron Cook, Michael Cronin, Kathryn Drysdale, Serena Evans, Paul Leonard, Elliot Levey, Forbes Masson, James McAvoy, Joshua McGuire, Anthony O’Donnell, Rosy Benjamin, Andrew Bloomer, Oliver Lavery, Geoffrey Towers

seen February 25 2015, Trafalgar Studios

Englishmen like to hear the truth about themselves.

Warning: I usually try to keep my reviews spoiler free (with the exception of Shakespeare), but the nature of this play makes it impossible. If you are still to see this: congratulations, you’re in for a real treat. Do yourself the favour of being surprised and please do come back, read on and comment after you have seen it. I’ll just say that I have so far seen three out of the four best actor nominees from today’s Olivier nominations and while all three were great in their own way, I’m rooting for James McAvoy.

End of Spoiler Free Zone

Can someone tell me why this play isn’t performed more often?! Not even three minutes into the play and I was already glad I bought the playtext along with the programme. I tried to think of which line to put into the short description and ended up with one or two bookmarks.

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The play starts with the 13th Earl of Gurney shuffling off this mortal coil in a rather unusual manner. I was glad it was clearly visible how they ensured the actor not suffering the same fate; scenes like that one tend to make me a bit nervous. His brother, sister-in-law and dim-witted wannabe politician nephew Dinsdale immediately start to scheme how they can get around the will by having the new Earl – a paranoid schizophrenic who thinks he’s God – married off and get him certified as soon as an heir is born.

Upon the 14th Earl of Gurney’s entry, he is described in the playtext as having a ‘magnetic personality’, so no pressure there with casting the lead. Additionally, the actor has to sing, dance, unicyle (can this be used as a verb?) and be believable in his journey from God of Love who ‘can defend his beliefs with great skill’ to member of the house of lords/Jack the Ripper Jr.

Everyone who has seen James McAvoy’s film work (especially Filth) knows he’s good at what he’s doing, but his Jack – or ‘J.C.’ – is something else. He has the audience’s attention right from the start and even cynical old me caught myself irrationally wanting JC to succeed when he was trying to perform a miracle. Not that it’s that hard to root for someone with a family like that, played masterfully especially by Ron Cook (Sir Charles) and Serena Evans (Lady Claire) as well as Kathryn Drysdale who actually has to belt out part of La Traviata’s drinking song as actress Grace Shelley, the future Lady Gurney. Even Tucker, the faithful butler, turns out not to be what he seems.

As soon as the drinking song first got played on the flute, I was cursing inwardly because I can never get it out of my head when I hear it somewhere. I shouldn’t have fretted though, because it was ‘Dem Bones’ (not Alice in Chains”Them Bones’, the other one) that took up residence in my brain for days. Regarded superficially this was a funny, surprising sing and dance interlude (and quite the workout for the actors involved). For me it was the moment it became chillingly clear that the inner fight of JC vs Jack had already been decided in favour of Jack, and the 1888 one to boot.

Elliot Levey is finally not playing a complete sleazeball, but JC’s German psychiatrist who gets entangled in the Gurneys’ mess. While quoting Goethe’s Faust is all good and well, there is no ‘p’ in ‘verdammt’. 😉

I said earlier that I was glad to have bought the playtext. This is for several reasons; firstly, I am likely to actually re-read this from time to time. I could have put hilarious quotes in this post to the point of copyright infringement and would still have had some left. Secondly, it was really interesting to see what changes were made in this production. The flowers that are imaginary in the playtext actually came up through the floor in the theatre; Mrs. Piggot-Jones and Mrs. Treadwell weren’t male actors pulling a Lady Bracknell initially. I preferred this version with multi-roled Forbes Masson and Paul Leonard enhancing the women’s ridiculousness.

As an added bonus, the guy sitting next to me on the plane looked at the book, rolled his eyes (maybe he thought I was a religious nutcase) and decided it was safe to talk company secrets with his work-mate (think huge, well known-corporation) in Austrian dialect. Him losing all colour in his face when I made a call at Vienna airport was almost as funny as the play.

I was surprised by English publications branding the play as dated. If you only see the set design and 70s clothes worn in the production maybe, and even then you could argue it fits with Richard III and East is East. However with all the debate about class currently happening, I’m really wondering how someone can consider The Ruling Class to be non-relevant. Seems suspiciously like being blinkered to me.

Whatever the case may be, I’m glad I knew about this business trip to England early enough to get tickets for this play. A tiny part of my job is watching new TV series and movies and I had just done that for three days and nights with one more day to go, so one might think I’d have had enough of staring at acting for some time. Not even remotely; there’s always room for good theatre.

To misappropriate a line of Grace Shelley:

It happens all the time. On certain nights. In front of the right audience. When the magic works.

I’d say the magic worked big time at Trafalgar Studios.

PS: Could Jamie Lloyd and Canadian director Chris Abraham please work on something together?

East is East

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Seen January 02 2015 Trafalgar Studio 1, London

Written by: Ayub Khan Din

Directed by: Sam Yates

Cast: Ayub Khan Din, Jane Horrocks, Amit Shah, Ashley Kumar, Darren Kuppan, Nathan Clarke, Taj Atwal, Michael Karim, Sally Bankes, Hassani Shapi, Rani Moorthy

From the programme (no copyright infringement intended): Pakistani chip-shop owner George Khan – ‘Genghis’ to his kids)-is determined to give his six children a strict Muslim upbringing against the unforgiving backdrop of 1970s Salford. Household tensions reach breaking point as their long-suffering English mother, Ella, gets caught in the crossfire – her loyalty divided between her marriage and the free will of her children

The play premiered in 1996 and was turned into a film, becoming one of the most successful British films ever made. I have to admit to never having seen it (I am planning to hunt it down now though) and not knowing much about the play beforehand. The reviews by professional cirtics and on Twitter et al were intriguing however and considering how much we liked TrafalgarTransformed’s Richard III in September, we decided to get tickets for East is East when we planned our trip to London.

Apparently I’m in a confessional mood, so here we go: not only have I never seen the film, the reason I was initially undecided about the play was the fact that Jane Horrocks is in it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Apparently I hadn’t managed to see her in the right roles before, because she was a phenomenal Ella Khan.

In fact the entire cast was fantastic and played well off each other. Even a little accident that turned into corpsing was well handled and added some laughs to what was probably the funniest scene in the play already. The play is not just funny however. As hilarious as some scenes are, the issues the Khan family have to deal with are real and universal. Not just in terms of family dynamics which in such a big family are of course further heightened, but especially concerning everyone – especially the kids – straddling two cultures.

There are five teenage boys and their sister in the house, while an older son has been cast out for not abiding their father’s notions of how to live his life. This threat is of course hanging over the siblings who were all born in England and are stuggling to find their identities. Their father is glorifying life in Pakistan, which he hasn’t visited for decades, plans to marry two of the boys off without bothering to let anyone else, not even – or maybe especially not – his wife know beforehand and seems to lose his grip on reality and his family more and more throughout the play. The mostly light tone of the play makes the culmination in physical violence all the more jarring.

I had to think of friends and former school mates a lot during the play. The sisters who would never have worn a skirt, managed to convince their parents that Doc Martens were orthopedic shoes prescribed by their doctor (not kidding, those two are brilliant) and are now wearing hijab – of their own free will as everything else they are doing – and especially the one having to sneak behind her parents’ backs to see the older sibling cast out for not accepting the father dictating their future.

The Khan children are calling each other names like Twitch or Gandhi, one is dressed like The Fonz and Meenah, the only girl, is wearing jeans and Converse but can still beat up her brothers while wearing a sari for important visitors. What the kids in the play and my friends all have in common is the additional pressure of finding their own way navigating their parents’ cultures, that of the country they were born in or moved to as children, additionally to growing into adults as if that wasn’t confusing enough already.

If there ever is a follow up play showing us what the Khans are up to a few years later, they can count on my bum filling a seat.

Richard III

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Seen: 13 September, Trafalgar Studios. Trafalgar Transformed: Season 2

Cast: Alasdair Buchan, Simon Coombs, Philip Cumbus, Martin Freeman, Madeleine Harland, Julie Jupp, Gerald Kyd, Joshua Lacey, Paul Leonard, Gabrielle Lloyd, Forbes Masson, Paul McEwan, Gina McKee, Mark Meadows, Vinta Morgan, Lauren O’Neil, Maggie Steed, Jo Stone-Fewings, Louis Davison, Stuart Campbell, Ross Marron, Tommy Rodger, Will Keeler, Tom Sargent 

Directed by Jamie Lloyd 

Jamie Lloyd’s ‘Trafalgar Transformed’ Richard III starts with a bang. Actually, long before that, Margaret is already taking her place on a bench underneath a picture of the current monarch, but I am not sure how many patrons thought her to be a fellow member of the audience, so things really get started with said bang that also shuts everyone up nicely.

The production is set in 1979, a winter of discontent in England with the colours used on stage painfully reminding me of my late grandmother’s idea of interiour design.

I actually feel a bit sorry for Richard III for Shakespeare taking so much artistic license writing this play that he is probably always going to be a hunchbacked mass murderer in people’s minds. On the other hand, if he hadn’t, we wouldn’t have gotten such gleefully evil performances as Martin Freeman’s.

There can be so much humour found in Shakespeare’s tragedies when the right people are involved and this version was as funny as it was bloody and tragic. Based on reports and twitter pictures of people looking as if they just attended a Walking Dead convention, I expected a lot more blood. The first rows even got equipped with shirts to protect their clothing. The blood spray was not for cheap shock value; considering how it happened when it did, it was actually realistic.

Margaret, who was often in neutral at the side of the stage when she wasn’t directly involved in the proceedings, was rather interestingly used in the big final battle. I probably missed a few deaths keeping an eye on her. The inclusion of technology – especially after said battle – was cleverly done and apparently no fish were harmed in the making of this production.

They managed to assemble a cast that worked very well together, both in the serious and the hilarious parts. Martin Freeman really pulled off Richard, adressing the audience to include them in his scheming once in a while.

There were rumours going around that young people who usually didn’t go to the theatre went to see Martin Freeman in the title role and were behaving badly, clapping at inappropriate times or taking photos. We didn’t see anything even remotely like that. Everyone behaved respectfully and watched with rapt attention.

However, I just read a report that 55% of patrons of this play were first time West End theatregoers. Way to go, Trafalgar Studios! I can’t imagine anyone having seen this to ever call Shakespeare boring again or thinking that theatre is for old people or whatever the current prejudices are. If it takes Dr. Watson-Baggins to show them, why the hell not? It wasn’t stunt casting after all – that just doesn’t work with this role.

No matter what reasons brought people to the Trafalgar, I doubt many left with complaints. This production was definitely something different – in a very good way.