A SMALL PLACE - 3 STARS
Stage adaptation of Jamaica Kincaid’s devastating takedown of colonialism in the Caribbean
In 1988, New Yorker writer Jamaica Kincaid wrote a letter to her editor, William Shawn, to explain ‘where I came from’ – Antigua, a Caribbean island colonised by the British, who imported African slaves. It was published as a short book which was, she recalls in a new preface, regarded as ‘angry and unpleasant and untrue’.
This new stage version, adapted by director Anna Himali Howard and Season Butler, is angry. It is unpleasant. But it also feels painfully, brutally true. It’s astonishing how little art in the UK demands that we really face the legacy of empire, but Kincaid is completely uncompromising in laying out how colonialism has irreparably damaged her home country, and how impossible it is for her to ‘get beyond’ it.
Two actresses – Cherrelle Skeete and Nicola Alexis – speak her words as they move around the audience, who are sat on benches facing different directions. ‘A Small Place’ begins by addressing the tourist: ‘as your plane descends to land, you might say: “What a beautiful island Antigua is.”’ The tone is knowing, skewering the tourist’s fetishising of Antiguan’s ‘simple’ way of life. ‘A tourist is an ugly human being,’ we’re told, and the imbalance of power revealed inevitably recalls the master/slave, coloniser/native dynamic.
All this is delivered by both actresses with disingenuous, mocking geniality which is – intentionally – extremely uncomfortable to sit with. As the perspective flips from the imagined ignorant outsider to Kincaid’s insider view, with knowledge of the island’s past and more recent troubled history, the tone grows increasingly bitter and accusatory. It is uncomfortable in a different way.
Skeete begins as if reading from the book, and reading is a theme throughout: Antigua’s beautiful library, damaged by a hurricane in 1974 and still not repaired more than a decade later, becomes a symbol for the endemic corruption of the Antiguan government and lack of opportunities for its people.
The actors throw English books to the floors in rage – Jeremy Clarkson thudded at my feet – and Camilla Clarke’s set is like a half-finished library, with metal book trolleys and ‘silence please’ signs. Although that’s not quite right: there are also TVs showing ‘The Beauty and the Beast’, a Christmas tree, a raised desk with a MacBook and microphone. As anger mounts, a printer spews paper, fans whirr, ceiling lights flicker red. An old-fashioned OHP is also used – or rather, not really used, Skeete projecting nothing except a square of light to illustrate Kincaid’s descriptions of Antigua.
The design is surely deliberately ugly and mundane, denying us the romantic beauty of the island. But Himali Howard’s staging itself doesn’t feel terribly illuminating: its gestures aren’t clear or confident enough to really bring Kincaid’s text to theatrical life. The actors walking around the audience allows for directness, but it can also feel fussy and less potent than when they are holding us all together in their gaze.
‘A Small Place’ explored what was – in 1988 – Antigua’s political predicament. Of course, that now makes it a period piece. I wished it could have somehow been brought up to date. The reminder of this chapter of the UK’s history still feels urgent, though, and the skewering of the blinkered tourist mindset still wince-inducing. Even if this production sometimes diffuses rather than intensifies Kincaid’s writing, there’s no denying the power of it.
BY: HOLLY WILLIAMS
POSTED: WEDNESDAY NOVEMBER 14 2018
PInter at the 1 & 2 - 4 STARS
“One has to be so scrupulous about language,” purrs the interrogator in one of Harold Pinter’s most chilling short plays, the devastating One for the Road. Words are powerful things.
Intended to celebrate and commemorate Harold Pinter on the 10th anniversary of his death at the theatre that now bears his name, Jamie Lloyd’s ambitious Pinter at the Pinter season features all 20 of his one-act plays, as well as a series of little-known poems and sketches. These have been split into seven productions featuring a remarkable cast including many of Pinter’s former collaborators.
The first batch of plays, Pinter One (★★★★), focuses on his late political work. It’s pretty harrowing stuff and not the most obvious way to launch the season, but its best moments are very effective.
These plays are peopled by suited, sinister men who intimidate, torture and gleefully misuse their power. The threat of rape permeates many of these plays. Women are ripe for violation, as a way of breaking both them and the men who love them.
In Mountain Language, for example, Kate O’Flynn and Maggie Steed play two women trying to visit their imprisoned sons and husbands in a world in which their language is banned by the state. Paapa Essiedu spends several of these early pieces lashed to a chair, bloodied or quivering with fear. Soutra Gilmour’s versatile yet bunker-like set adds to the ominous atmosphere.
Given the intention of the project to include everything he wrote, there’s an inevitable variability to the work. Newly discovered satirical piece The Pres and an Officer is a case in point. It feels pretty flimsy. Lloyd plays it for laughs, casting Jon Culshaw as the Calippo-skinned president of the United States. He has a mastery of Donald Trump’s gestures, the petulant puffing of his cheeks, but it’s a cartoon, albeit a disturbing one, useful mainly for diffusing the tension before the unrelenting One for the Road.
This is by far the strongest piece in this first batch. Premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1984, it’s a merciless piece of writing. Antony Sher plays the terrifyingly avuncular interrogator of a man (Essiedu), his wife (O’Flynn) and their young son. He veers from making overt threats to almost-casual conversation. He stands appallingly close to them. He uses his words to break them. He occasionally helps himself to a splash of whisky – “one for the road” – though he never leaves. We see no violence. It’s all implied. But that’s so much worse. Sher exudes menace. He breathes it. When he hovers over the young child, casually touching his hair, it’s almost unbearable to watch. The play is incredibly disturbing and upsetting, but by this stage in his career and in his politics Pinter believed that people needed to look at things in the world that repelled them.
Pinter 3 - 4 STARS
Jamie Lloyd’s dauntingly ambitious and carefully curated season of Harold Pinter’s entire body of shorter works continues with a series of pieces in which memory plays a key role – memory as a source of comfort, and of torment.
Pinter Three contains 11 pieces in all, spanning the playwright’s career from the 1950s to 2006. Some are little more than sketches, but it folds them into a coherent whole, bookended by two major works.
The evening begins with the hypnotic two-hander Landscape. Tamsin Greig and Keith Allen sit side by side on Soutra Gilmour’s huge rotating cube of a set.
Greig’s Beth, speaking into a microphone, delivers her lines in a gentle, lilting Irish accent, as she recounts a past encounter with a man on a beach, while Allen speaks more bluntly, spitting his words and growing increasingly agitated, briefly bellowing in her ear. Her words are soft and fond, his are hard and violent. They share the same space, but cannot hear one another.
Greig and Allen embrace the different rhythms of their overlapping monologues and capture the sense of emotional isolation that permeates the piece.
A series of shorts starring Lee Evans, Tom Edden and Meera Syal follow. Though some of these are fairly slight, this allows Lloyd to have some fun. In That’s All, a fragment from 1959, he has Allen, Edden and Evans don silly wigs. Night, on the other hand, is a tender two-hander in which a couple misremember a romantic incident from their past, that Edden and Syal invest with a sense of genuine warmth.
It is striking throughout how tightly this group of actors works as an ensemble, generous and responsive, but the production also provides a reminder of what an instinctive and gifted physical comedian Lee Evans is. There is seemingly no gesture or expression that he cannot make funny. He’s also an actor of considerable ability, particularly evident in Monologue, in which he addresses an empty chair as if it were an absent and once-treasured friend, remembering the strength of the bond that once existed between them and mourning its loss.
The Jungle - 5 Stars
t is so easy to feel disconnected from the world when we experience it from such a distance, watching the news on screens and scrolling through tweets simply exacerbates the sense that the world has no effect on you, nor you on it. A watershed moment during the European refugee crisis in 2015 was the photograph of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose drowned body washed up on a beach. It shocked the world and humanised the topic. Joes Murphy and Robertson’s vital play The Jungle also does just that, giving a voice and a story to a handful of the thousands of migrants who lived in the infamous Calais camp.
Informed by their experiences from running a theatre at the camp, the two young playwrights have chronicled the desperate, hopeful stories of the camp’s residents in what is a thoroughly affecting piece of theatre.
It’s West End theatre like you’ve never seen; the Playhouse has been completely remodelled to replicate the immersive set of the original Young Vic production last year. The stalls have become the café of Afghan refugee Salar (a temperate Ben Turner), the seats replaced with cushions and benches at which we some are served soup, rice and beans.
From the academics escaping violence in Aleppo to children fleeing for a better life, Murphy and Robertson expertly craft each emotive story, reminding you of this tragic reality. Running across motorways, hiding in railway tunnels, trekking across deserts just for the possibility of a better life.
There is also a conflict of culture. There are clashes in politics between mostly proud men from across the Middle East, but it also culminates in an explosion of hope, dance and song - including a couple of rousing renditions of “Glory, Glory Man United”. It may seem trivial to point out, but it’s perhaps the trivial details like this which remind you how focussed on getting to the UK these people really are. They are willing to risk their freedoms and their lives night after night to break into the back of a lorry and at the very least try for a better life. It’s unfathomable.
Stephen Daldry’s relentless production manages to make you like a helpless onlooker at the camp. The action takes place all around Miriam Buether’s incredibly authentic set, with actors weaving in and out of the audience, but there are more theatrical moments, like an intense monologue from Okot (a superb John Pfumojena), one refugee who tells us why he tries to cross the Channel to Britain every single night.
The play also highlights the role of the (mostly) insufferably middle-class English volunteers who felt they ‘just had to do something’. While at first it seems like they simply wanted another feather in their cap – like Sam, the Eton student who sees the camp as an excellent opportunity for a housing project. But to be fair, all five stick around for months and their urgency about the crisis is clear. (And an awkward Alex Lawther as Sam cements his place as one of the most exciting young talents around.)
While every effort has been made to recreate the set for the Young Vic, there is an addition: the dress circle has been opened up and renamed the ‘Cliffs of Dover’. They loom over the action with two screens relaying some of the action live. Just like many of us during the actual events, they are so close to the action, but never quite as involved.
Robertson and Murphy do well to avoid the play coming across as preachy, they let the audience feel by simply telling the story. This does stray slightly towards the end as the audience is played a clip from a volunteer currently working in Calais, but even so, it goes to prove just how current this issue still is, and why you need to see this play now.
The Play That Goes Wrong - 4 STARS
I have probably simply seen too much theatre – seen too many real-life disasters on stage – that I am being much too po-faced about The Play That Goes Wrong. It would certainly be churlish of me not to concede that I have seldom, if ever, heard louder or more sustained laughter in a theatre. I will admit that I was charmed, too, by the youthful cast of unknowns, headed by Henry Lewis as a wonderfully hammy old actor and his good companions Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields.
The trio wrote as well as star in the piece. Mark Bell’s direction is joyously manic and Nigel Hook’s set design is a delight as well: it immediately made me think of a thousand awful old am-dram Agatha Christies that it was my misfortune to have to review on local newspapers.
I thoroughly approve, too, of Roberto Surace’s exuberant costume design. This man comes with an excellent pedigree: he played a big part in making Top Hat look great, too.
All in all, it’s a great-looking, brilliantly performed piece that is a lot more than a poor man’s Noises Off – Michael Frayn’s original play about an awful play being staged. My only qualm about The Play That Goes Wrong is that in getting their play so dreadfully wrong night after night, they are also getting it absolutely right.
Super Duper Close Up - 4 STARS
Jess Latowicki performs Made in China’s new show on a set made up of an over-fluffy carpet, a calming waterfall backdrop, and, we are soon to discover, a camera providing us with a live-stream of the performance, beamed to a screen above her head. This intriguing idea veers from illuminating to overused in a show both razor-sharp and baggy.
Super Duper Close Up instantly hooks: Latowicki is a powerful presence and her (at-first) strident monotone and stock gestures create a gripping atmosphere around her delivery. She begins to tell us about her friends’ wedding and the niceties of their social media image manipulation, and proceeds to the nightmare of Instagram scrolling, internet-related information overload, Alzheimer’s anxiety, anxiety in general, perceptions of success and body image reflected unhealthily on our screens and the distracted mind of the millennial. And that’s only some of it.
It is refreshing to see a show which simply aims to take on such pressing but difficult problems (especially for younger people) head on, with no apologies and with a certain desperate rawness. This rawness matters as well, given that the show is also concerned with how we perceive women’s anger and how they can respond to the male-centric gaze of the socially-networked society. As the camera increasingly tracks our storyteller, ever-closer, evermore intrusively, the uncomfortable duplicity of the audience becomes obvious. We are witnesses looking for ‘entertainment’, powerless but following along behind as Latowicki apparently begins to lose control.
When Latowicki’s remoteness begins to descend into a series of cross-cutting fragments, like multiple tabs on a browser, her performance gains a depth and a vulnerability which feels truthful and is definitely troubling and unnerving. Everyone will recognise that split-mind and split-personality which so many options, narratives and images are being thrown at you, potentially, every second of every day.
But the show begins to lose its firm and gripping discipline and economy, and wanders too far and too widely. I’ll just say this about the filmed dance: nice, but too long. The monologue’s splintering into different recurring narratives is effective, but the concluding 20 minutes or so also give up compactness and humour for a more unfocused style of both writing and performance which mostly did not feel as effective.
There were moments of risk-taking and incorporation of media which I wished had gone further. While the writing is sharp and very involving, Made in China seemed to me to promise a show involving many different attempts at grappling with the issues at hand. Finally, it seemed that too much was placed merely on the shoulders of monologue and performer, at the expense of other theatrical possibilities. There was some wonderfully uncomfortable game-playing and risk-taking with the audience, and the use of live film is good and promises more.
There are shortcomings, but anyone interested in what it’s like to be an angry young woman will find the show worth it. Indeed anyone dealing with an ever-more exhausting, bewildering and inhuman landscape of fakery, screens and other black mirrors will not regret it if they go and engage with what Latowicki and Made in China are doing.
HADESTOWN - 4 STARS
It’s no surprise that the Orpheus and Eurydice myth has so often tempted songwriters. It’s a brilliantly tragic story about the power of songwriting and singing.
Unlike other adaptations, though, Anais Mitchell’s folk musical is much more than just the love story. She has built the show from her 2010 cult concept album with Rachel Chavkin – director of Broadway hit Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 – so that now it’s a metaphor for industrialisation and art’s place within a capitalist society and many other things besides.
Here the underworld is a deep mine, Hades its grim overseer, promising his workers freedom and giving them indenture instead. Since the album the show has only become more – in fact eerily – prescient. Its song about building a wall to keep the poor at bay sounds almost too obvious. The disquiet and destitution of old rust belt, white collar America? It’s hard to imagine anyone writing anything so glaringly unsubtle now.
Elements have been added to the piece slowly: more songs, character motivation, recitative. And now there’s this. The myth made into supercool folk opera in a tryout at the National Theatre before it hits Broadway next year.
Dialogue melts imperceptibly into song. Lines that start as spoken end up in full chorus and Mitchell’s stomping folk songs sound timeless. Chavkin oversees some great visual set pieces, particularly making use of the Olivier’s revolve. At one point Hades, Persephone and wafts of haze get sucked into the drum, descending into hell.
The amphitheatre at Epidaurus that the Olivier is based on is almost reflected back in Rachel Hauck’s design, concentric circles with a stage area in the centre and added dive bar feel.
Hauck has the band spread out across the stage – a guitar here, a cello there – which combine to create a fantastically warm panoramic sound. It’s also really exquisitely orchestrated by Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose, with glissandoing trombones, freewheeling accordion solos and drums which, in the song Livin’ It Up On Top, sound brilliantly as if they keep skipping a beat.
WHITE TEETH - 2 STARS
There's a raw, ragged and baggy charm to the portrait of a local community in White Teeth, Stephen Sharkey's new stage adaptation of Zadie Smith's debut novel White Teeth, originally published in 2000 when she was just 24.
As that novel is set in and around the very streets of NW6 -- where the Kiln Theatre itself is located -- it also has a powerful local connection. And that's what we see when we enter this theatre -- a replenished and lavishly rebuilt version of the Tricycle that used to be here, which has played and will continue to play such a central part in its local community: Tom Piper's set offers a view of Kilburn High Street (much as the current Young Vic Twelfth Night puts a vista of a Notting Hill street on view).
But for all that ready charm -- and the spirited sense of infectious energy expended by the 14-strong cast -- the show is never quite sure what it wants to be. Is it a play? Is it a musical? Is it a revue?
There's certainly a lot of cheerful songs that keep interrupting the action more than advancing it, by composer Paul Englishby. Indhu Rubasingham's production feels at times like it is wrestling with a python, having the life it is seeking to portray so vividly crushed out of it by the relentless need for dramatic momentum.
As it is, it is full of light and colour, but not enough shade, as we follow the fortunes of two families -- the Jones and Iqbals, living in the area. It is framed by an intervention of the adaptor who casts the action as a memory play as a local dentist Rosie Jones finds herself in a coma, from which she time-travels to the past to try to find out the truth about her parentage.
Some of this is muddled, some of it is affectionate, but then life is messy. It is also crammed full of incident and coincidence, as well as weightier themes about genetic engineering and radical Islamic fundamentalism.
While the cast bring plenty of vivid commitment to the stage, even their best efforts can't ultimately rescue it. But Rubasingham is nevertheless to be commended for aiming high in bringing this local story to a local stage; it's only a pity that the higher you aim, the further you can fall.