Ticking

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Seen 3 November 2015, Trafalgar Studio 2, London

Written and directed by Paul Andrew Williams

Last post of the year before we travel to London later this week to start off 2016 with a few days of theatre.

Unfortunately, work was insane in the last months and the one long weekend between the business trip that allowed me to see ‘Ticking’ and Christmas was spent theatre-less in Dublin, so this is extremely late but the play still haunts me after almost two months.

I didn’t know a lot about this beforehand. When I was buying the tickets for my November trip, The Commitments were a last minute decision for sentimental reasons hoping it would be fun and I was planning on seeing Mr. Foote’s Other Leg on the other free evening. While I still would have loved to see it (the continuing slightly gleeful tweets from the actors about fainting audience members are quite intriguing), I am very glad my sister ‘steered’ me towards Ticking. She desperately wanted to see this production and since she couldn’t go herself, at least this way she got a first hand report that consisted of me calling her upon leaving the theatre with the words ‘what the hell did you talk me into?!’.

Trafalgar Studio 2 is tiny, with only 98 seats, so everyone is very close to the action. The entire play takes place in a visitor’s cell of an Asian prison, where young Brit Simon (Tom Hughes) is waiting to learn if his American lawyer Richard (David Michaels) can  obtain  a suspension of his execution, which is planned for midnight. In the meantime, Simon’s parents (Niamh Cusack and Anthony Head) have one hour to say goodbye to their son.

This hour is what the audience get to witness; in this time we learn that Simon has been sentenced to death for murdering a prostitute, but we don’t know if he’s guilty or innocent. There is also no debate or judgement about the death penalty itsef, but something way more complicated: the workings of a family.

The family dynamics were acted extremely well by Hughes, Cusack and Head. Tom Hughes scared an elderly couple right next to his cell bench a couple of times with Simon’s unexpected outbursts. His performance was a tour de force throughout and I can imagine this role to be very emotionally and physically exhausting. Simon is already shaking like a leaf when things start and doesn’t stop; within the next one and a half hours (no intermission), there are not just a lot of lines, but all emotions possible. The play is in turn tragic, funny, touching, heartbreaking and shocking.

And here’s the real beauty of it: this could have been one hell of a tear jerker, milking Simon’s tragic fate for what it’s worth,  but every time the majority of the audience was on the brink of outright bawling, we were pulled back from the brink.

I don’t cry when I watch movies or series (with very few exceptions) and I am still waiting for the horror movie that actually manages to scare me because I know it’s not real. Actually, a co-worker recently asked me if anything scared me at all (clearly forgetting the times he had to heroically rescue me from wasps) and my reply was ‘people’. Having said this, Ticking and its family dynamcis were so realistic, my contact lenses didn’t dry out as they often do in theatres. Of course there is also a big difference between watching something on screen or up close, which made it only more real.

The intimate setting in this tiny studio was at the same time working brilliantly for the play and the only negative thing about it because due to the size of Studio 2, not as many people will get to see it as they should.

This production is definitely in my top 3 of this year, Tom Hughes is one to watch, Niamh Cusack broke my heart and as a fan of almost everything Joss Whedon, it was a great joy to see Anthony Head on stage, even though his character should have been tarred and feathered.

While Ticking’s run at Trafalgar Studios has ended, there is a Twitter account to keep informed about it being staged elsewhere if you are interested.

I’m off to give a piece of lamb a rosemary, thyme and garlic massage in preparation for its big debut (and dernière) as New Year’s Eve dinner tomorrow. May you all have fun journey into the New Year!

 

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.

Coming up this year

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Hi there! Just to let those of you following know that this blog hasn’t been abandoned. Things have been even more busy than usual at work and since sleep is overrated, I also did a twelve weeks Edx course on ‘Shakespeare: On Screen and in Performance’ by Wellesley College which was a lot of fun, but also time-consuming.

The new year started just like the last one: with a trip to London (the photo above shows the Austrian alps from the plane en route there). We saw East is East at Trafalgar Studios, City of Angels at the Donmar Warehouse and King Charles III at Wyndham’s. The reviews are coming up asap! The latter two are only on for a few weeks more and East is East is now touring, so a quick spoiler should you be undecided whether they are worth it: definitely.

This blog is now one year old and I never thought it would be so much fun. A friend kept suggesting I should blog about my visits to the theatre and after dismissing the thought for years, another friend said she’d start a band if I started the blog, so I went for it, thinking no one would read my ramblings anyway. Boy, was I wrong. A huge thank you to all of you who read, commented, contacted me via the contact form or retweeted!

Another big thank you goes to my sister iwishyoumuchmirth, who has kindly been contributing reviews to the plays she’s seen without me or when my day has not enough hours to get a review done in a timely fashion.

I can already say that this year will be as full of theatre as the last. We will watch all broadcasts of NT Live and RSC (as long as I’m in the country) and I’m still hoping the three plays filmed at the Stratford Festival in Canada are going to be made available in Europe too.

Additionally, we have tickets to The Ruling Class at Trafalgar Transformed, there will be at least two Hamlets (one in Stratford, On and one at the Barbican in London), The Pysicists, The Adventures of Pericles, Taming of the Shrew, She Stoops to Conquer, Oedipus Rex, Possible Worlds and an amateur production of Ödön von Horváth’s Jugend ohne Gott (Youth without God). I’m sure there will be more productions announced within the year that we won’t be able to resist.

In the meantime, I’d like to recommend spending your time over at Mingled Yarns (her review of King Charles III convinced me to get tickets) and for those of you who understand German, Singende Lehrerin. Don’t open the e-mail alert for a new post of hers if the title contains ‘Stilblüten-Quickie’ and you are in public or at work. Her English students provide her with the bloopers, but her commenting them is what is going to crack you up.

For the Shakespeare fans: There’s a MOOC about Hamlet starting on Futurelearn January 19, followed by Much Ado About Nothing (both by the University of Birmingham in collaboration with the RSC). Also, should you not know her work yet, http://goodticklebrain.com/ (or @GoodTickleBrain on Twitter) is hilarious.

And now I’m off to write the promised first reviews of the year. Talk you you soon!

The Trials of Oscar Wilde

3 November 2014
Trafalgar Studios, London

By Merlin Holland and John O’Connor
based on the original words spoken in court during the libel and criminal trials of Oscar Wilde

Cast: John Gorick, Rupert Mason, William Kempsell

Directed by Peter Craze

Continue reading

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.