Not I / Footfalls / Rockaby – Duchess Theatre – Review

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Triology header

I’ve been having a “theatrical sabbatical” the last 6/8 weeks. I was meant to be seeing this Beckett trilogy at the Royal Court Theatre in January, but work conspired against me and I had to miss it. Which I was pretty miffed about. So I was delighted to see it had a West End transfer and bought a ticket straight away. I have a soft spot for the Duchess Theatre, it’s rather bland/functional but that’s perfect for Beckett. I saw Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape here back in 2010.

I know that Beckett isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but for me he is one of a handful of playwrights whose work truly speaks to me. When I studied his work (and other absurdist/existential writers) at college I finally found a philosophy that resonated with me and made sense of this crazy thing we call existence.

The cavernous Duchess has all eyes transfixed on this for Not I

The cavernous Duchess Theatre has all eyes transfixed on this for Not I

Not I is the first play we’re treated to – we’re warned the theatre will descend into complete darkness even the fire exit signs are put out. It was truly eerie to be in compete darkness, something in our neon lit/mobile screens going constantly world, seldom happens. Then Lisa Dwan’s mouth appears, hovering over the stage and wham she’s off on a relentless performance. In the 10 minutes she must easily cram in 20 minutes worth of words!

I'll have to work on my own version with this puppet mouth at somepoint in the future !

My own production didn’t quite get the West End transfer I was hoping for.

In this play Beckett perfectly captures that incessant noise we sometimes get in our heads when our thoughts whirl and those bizarre internal conversations we have with ourselves. It really is a performance piece for Lisa Dwan and it is staggering to see how she performs this.

Captivating and ethereal in Footfalls.

Captivating and ethereal in Footfalls.

Footfalls starts with a beautiful and haunting entrance of Lisa Dwan in white, the ethereal nature of her presence as she walks up and down the thin beam of light was beautiful and disturbing. It ended just as magically as it had begun with her melting away. A melancholy look at death, but sometimes it’s good to face our demons.

Rockaby Performed by Lisa Dwan  free pic

Rockaby was my favourite of the three. I found it truly hypnotic and felt I was being lulled into the world on stage. The repetitive and lonely nature of existence is wonderfully portrayed, and it ends with some say a bleak call to “f*@k life”. To me it’s not bleak, rather a hopeful rallying call, to not take ourselves or our existence too seriously.

A massive “thank you and congratulations” to Lisa Dwan for her performance in all three plays. I found her truly mesmeric to watch and these are no easy pieces to bring to life. Her mouth in Not I, lit and filling the Duchess Theatre was a fabulous thing to see and hear.

Sometimes theatre imbeds itself permanently onto your brain and into your life – this is certainly true for this trilogy for me.

STARS : ★ ★ ★ ★ ★


Birthday by Joe Penhall – Royal Court Theatre – Review

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Joe Penhall’s new play takes a look at the NHS but in a more humourous but equally damning way as his most well known (and best, in my opinion) play Blue/Orange.

The humour mainly comes from the role reversal that the character Ed is in. He’s pregnant. Over the 90 minutes of the play we see how he and his wife cope with his going into and then the other side of labour.

Ed is splendidly played by Stephen Mangan and his wife Lisa who gave birth to their first child is played by Lisa Dillon. Their interplay and quips range from laugh out loud to desperately sad.

Llewella Gideon plays the midwife and gets huge mileage from playing the gruff character nurse with the heart of gold buried underneath.

Louise Brealey as the doctor  is a small but important role especially when she explains her decision not to have children contrasted with why Lisa and Ed have decided to have children.

It’s an enjoyable play but I did feel Joe Penhall went for the easy laughs rather than stretch himself and his audience. A shame as the reality he exposes regarding the disgraceful way the NHS treats some pregnant women I think could have been served better with less of the vulgar humour and language.

It’s no Blue/Orange (and it’s no Haunted Child either thankfully), it’s a fun night out nothing more, nothing less.

STARS : * * *

The Witness by Vivienne Franzmann – Royal Court Theatre – Review

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Danny Webb, Pippa Bennett-Warner and David Ajala

An emotional evening tonight at The Royal Court Theatre as we watched the story or Rwanda genocide survivor Alex and her adoptive father Joseph.

Danny Webb plays the father, he’s one of  best actors I’ve seen. He always moves me and creates believable characters of profundity. (I’ve previously seen him in Blasted, and Chicken Soup With Barley ) It was again a joy to watch him tonight as he brought Joseph to life before our eyes. His drunk scene in Act 2 was a highlight for me, I won’t say too much about it as it features a great dramatic surprise.

Into their cosy safe suburban Hampstead existence comes a blast from the past that disrupts and changes everything, emotions run high as the uncomfortable past is dredged up.

The in the round living room set designed by Lizzie Clachan gives a sense of being trapped that Alex has and the security Joseph wants to hold on to.

Vivienne Franzmann has written an emotive piece that grapples with identity (just as Belong did last month in the Theatre Upstairs). It seems to be part of the zeitgeist as we try to gain or hold onto some form of identity in this fast changing 21st century. She also examines the roll of the journalist in the darkest parts of world affairs, are they witnesses? Do they help to change world opinion or are they voyeurs who stand by and watch rather try to stop the evil they see? It’s powerful and moving.

STARS : * * * *

Ps. I mentioned in my last review of a Royal Court production that I was finding the music played in between acts far too loud in the last few plays I’ve seen there. This appears to have been rectified as the music was just right tonight. 🙂

Love, Love, Love by Mike Bartlett – Royal Court Theatre – Review


Mike Bartlett’s new play takes us through the heady carefree days of 60’s free love to late 80’s “money, money, money, me, me,me”, to the comfortable retirement of the two protagonists Kenneth and Sandra.

This was an enjoyable and funny play. Ben Miles and Victoria Hamilton as Kenneth and Sandra, showed us their evolution from carefree teens to relaxed retirees. It was a bit of a stretch of the imagination to think of them as 19 as they claim in Act 1. The wigs used throughout were excellent, but I do wonder if having different actors in each act may have worked better? I’m also never really convinced when actors claim to be acting stoned on stage, it did veer off into 60’s clichés I felt. However the act did set the scene and I looked forward to seeing where life would take them in Act 2.

Between each act music was played setting the scene for the era we were going into. Again I plead with the Royal Court, please turn your music down!!! I’m not some old codger but the levels they play it at, both upstairs and downstairs in numerous productions are actually uncomfortable, I’d like to be able to talk to people I’ve gone with during the intervals. Perhaps it’s their not so subtle way of driving out their patrons into the bar areas?

George Rainsford, Victioria Hamilton and Claire Foy

Act 2 opened with George Rainsford as Jamie dancing around the 1990 living room the stage had now become to loud music (excusable now as it was part of act) . This brought a smile to my face, as I would have been Jamie’s age in 1990 and I also remember prancing about my families lounge to the Stone Rose’s She Bangs a Drum. Sad but true. This act grappled with Kenneth and Sandra dealing with being hard-working middle class parents of teens. It also brought up the infidelity of each of them and we saw their relationship start to crumble.

Another interval (with loud music – grrrrr) and at this point I was enjoying myself but felt this play was really lacking in pace, I was hoping Act 3 would not let me down.

Tension in the air – Victoria Hamilton, Claire Foy, Ben Miles

Act 3 takes us to the large and sunny living room of a country house (The Royal Court as ever, excels at totally transforming the stage between acts – Lucy Osbourne was the designer) Here we find Kenneth enjoying his retirement (of £65,000 a year) which he feels he deserves. He and Sandra have long since split up, but it appears to be amicable. This act really delighted me. FINALLY I’ve seen on stage an issue that has been totally ignored for the last decade (Alex Sierz in his book Rewriting the Nation observed this issue had been absent in theatres during 2000-2010). What is this “issue”, well it may be “very middle class”, but it’s a key issue for anyone of my generation – The amount of money required to buy a house or even get on the property ladder.

We see Rosie challenge her parents about it, their response is not to help her out, but rather berate her for complaining. She will have to resign herself to the fate many of my generation have, we’ll only own a property when our parents die. This wasn’t an “issue play” though, it came from the strong characters Mike Bartlett portrays, but I was so pleased to see home ownership of 25-40 year olds being raised as something that does provide dramatic conflict between children and their parents.

As Rosie points out to her parents:

“You didn’t change the world, you bought it, privatised it. What did you stand for? Peace? Love? Nothing except being able to do whatever the f*&k you wanted.”

It also had a tragic note in this act. Rosie has “followed her dream”, encouraged by her parents and yet this has not provided happiness to her. This was a sobering revelation and actually an acute observation from Mike Bartlett. As for a great many following your dream does also require sacrifices and there is a price to be paid. Is telling your child to “follow their dreams” responsible parenting?  This is one question Mike Bartlett poses to us.

I like the way by focusing on one couple over the last 40 years we see a range of issues and how decisions made in the past affect the present. It is not some cerebral boring play though, it’s full of humour, strong characters and heart-felt issues. Alas it doesn’t offer any easy answers, but that’s because there aren’t any.

STARS * * * *

Belong by Bola Agbaje – Royal Court Theatre – Review


The Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre is a laboratory of theatre, it has its fair share of failed experiments BUT it can also work its alchemy and produce some really special and important golden theatrical pieces. Belong is one such golden nugget.

Bola Agbaje (whose play Three Blind Mice I saw last year) has written a powerful and resonant play. It follows the path of Kayode whose political aspirations come to a halt in the UK and on a trip home to Nigeria for a break, realises that perhaps his political calling is there.

His wife Rita, has her own views on this and what it means to be British and/or Nigerian as do his sister, mother and adopted brother. What follows is a tense, humorous and insightful journey into what it means for anyone of us to belong to any country, race or people.

However at no point does Bola Agbaje condescend to her audience or shirk away from uncomfortable portrayals of characters views and traits. The night I was there, a large proportion of Nigerians were in the audience, and they were audibly saying “people are just like that”, “that’s so true”. Despite the play featuring Nigerian references that I certainly didn’t get, at no point did I feel like an outsider, rather it made me think about my own identity.

What Bola Agbaje understands though is that a play should not be a soapbox, this is a piece of drama. It’s fast paced and had me guessing what would happen next. This is an entertaining play as well as one that gives you much food for thought, that is a RARE thing. She is an excellent dramatic writer. This play is full of colourful characters, tense emotions, well written and paced dialogue, and she realises that bad language is a dramatic device, it is never gratuitous or over the top but used to emphasise dramatic moments, and in one case close a scene with a HUGE laugh.

Thankfully her script is served by a cast who bring light, darkness and shade to their characters, each one is excellent, I especially liked Noma Dumezweni’s portrayal of her character Rita. Her speech on where she “belongs” is one of the most salient parts of the play.

I was really impressed by the simplicity of the set which seamlessly took us from London to a variety of locations in Nigeria, very clever and this helped keep the play’s pace moving. Well done to Ben Stone’s excellent design.

The play is sold out for its run at the Royal Court, which left me saddened as I think this play should be given as much opportunity to be seen as possible, so I was glad to see it will be on as part of the Royal Court’s Theatre Local run from 31st May to 23rd June. I suggest you get tickets for it there before it sells out again. At only £10 a ticket it is a BARGAIN to see top acting and a top play. I’m going to try and see it again I enjoyed it that much. It’s a brilliant play that has much to say to us all.

STARS : * * * * *

Vera Vera Vera by Hayley Squires – Royal Court Theatre – Review

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The play opens with a torrent of foul language from the character Sammy, from there it descends into a brief look at varying characters lives, that are linked in a somewhat tenuous way to Bobby, a British soldier killed on a recent tour of Afghanistan.

This is Hayley Squires first play, and to be honest it shows. It feels clunky and the reliance on foul language makes it a shallow piece (cutting the bad language would make the play about a third shorter, there’s that much). Towards the end, probably the last 15 mins of the play we start to see signs of depth and we begin to see that Hayley Squires certainly can write with care and attention it was a shame it took so long for that to emerge.

Daniel Kendrick’s performance as Lee was a highlight, as he dealt with the bullying of Danny and his feelings for Emily. The rest of the cast did well with the script they’d been given.

Daniel Kendrick as Lee

I’m not trying to be overly harsh, for someone’s first play this was a good attempt. It just wasn’t good enough. Yes it may be “realistic” or show us a picture of “urban teenage angst”, or it could just be a portrayal of potty mouthed, violent thugs, druggies and a whore, with an over reliance on the F word as a way of filling time and space. I’ve seen some engaging plays featuring characters with the above foibles, but this one left me feeling distanced and gave me no reason to want to connect or care about them.

I’m sure she’ll learn from this and I hope her next work shows that and I’ll be interested to see it, because there were moments in this that I thought worked well, her sense of humour came across and the final two scenes certainly engaged me, it was just too little, too late.

STARS : * * (and a half)

In Basildon by David Eldridge – Royal Court Theatre – Review



A touch of glamour comes to Sloane Square at the moment in David Eldridge’s new play In Basildon. Well maybe not glamour but certainly a lively and entertaining piece of writing. Romford boy Eldridge has penned a piece about love, loss, inheritance, greed, money and mortality. The play is set in the living room of Len’s house in Basildon as he is slowly slipping from this world. Around him are friends and family, including his sisters Maureen and Doreen and his best mate Ken. I’ve never seen the Royal Court transformed into a “theatre in the round” space before. It works extremely well having us all seated around the room and provides a more intimate and involved feeling to the play.

After his Lens death attention turns to his will and it is here we see the fractures that finances can bring to family members. Be they close or whether they hate each others guts. Eldridge’s play touches on numerous emotions and thoughts, with wit and tenderness.

Despite Eldridge tipping his hat to a few stereotypes and the sense of humour that is part of Essex, he provides his characters with depth and intelligence. I loved the scene where rich boyfriend Tom is confronted by the hard facts of people who graft and have a sense of pride. As opposed to his poncy liberalism. Those that know me, know I bemoan the fact that theatre seems to have an aversion to portraying the right of centre political view. In the unlikely event they do portray it, usually it is to mock it or say how bad it is. Here I find liberalism confronted with heart and pragmatism, by right wing politics,  something I never thought I’d see on the stage of the Royal Court!

The cast give excellent performances. I’m a bit of a snob I’ll admit (well I am from Kent you know) but my heart grew to love them, and understand the reason they love their town and county. The play is also exceedingly funny, and I’m sure there were plenty of “in jokes” that people from Basildon and Essex got that I didn’t. 

The Brilliant Basildon Cast

I also found it a pleasure to watch as it was so well structured and written. I’ve long admired David Eldridge’s work and his writings on plays and theatre. I was also able to hear him in person last year at this event speak about playwriting. Here we have a play that is crafted. It has tension, humour, and drama. Each act builds and it’s nice to have a “cliffhanger” to ponder on during the interval. I’ve mentioned before my admiration for writers that craft their work, and Eldridge is certainly in this school of playwriting.  The final act is especially touching. I’m sure they’ll be some that find it idiosyncratic or maybe even anti climatic, for me though I felt it provided a nice change of pace to the riotous act before and helped cement the more serious aspects of the play.

I left the theatre with a spring in my step and I really suggest you take some time to go and see it. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, performed superbly.

STARS : * * * * *