Thursday, 2 November 2017

Young Marx- Bridge Theatre

A review of two halves, as I can't be given a shiny new theatre to poke at without reviewing that too....

Everyone loves a new toy to play with...and The Bridge Theatre is a lovely new toy for theatreland. Firstly, it’s location is spectacular- the views of London are glorious and next summer it will make for many a delightful pre-theatre drink there. The location also is easily accessible by Tube and Bus (though I took the slow path and a walk along the South Bank). The building itself is light and airy, the bar area offering lots of room for sitting or loitering and with the space to ‘overspill’ outside on a nice day it makes a nice change from our obviously more ‘snug’ older buildings. The bar itself though I didn’t sample it, seemed to have an array of offerings, including some delicious looking cakes. I do love a good cake so I’ll be back for those. Another thing theatre-nerds like is a good toilet analysis. Well done Bridge Theatre. Firstly for Gender neutral signage, secondly for an ‘in’ and ‘out’ door system (even if that was challenging some patrons) and for toilets, so many toilets- more casual theatre-goers may not quite understand the joy this brings, but what joy it does. Also bonus points for water fountains in the foyers.

The auditorium itself is fantastic- it feels far more intimate than it’s 900 ish seats (depending on configuration) and the fact it’s a space that can be re-arranged to fit the production is truly exciting to have in London. The seats themselves are comfortable with nice leg room, and the restricted view £15 seat I sat in (A1 Lower Gallery) was a great bargain. The only issue was having to clamour over about 25 people to get there. The matinee audience of a certain age was not happy about this with one telling my neighbour she shouldn’t be going out (it was the interval!) and another asking “How I got out?” (same way I’m getting in dear).  But as I said to the particularly rude lady who didn’t want to let me in…I didn’t build the place. Overall though, a fantastic auditorium and I’m excited to see what it does next.

I admit it was something of a miracle I made it there, as curious as I was about the building I was…less than curious about the play. Let's just say I'm in a minority group when it comes to Bean's best-known work 'One Man Two Guvnors' and indeed I overheard a woman at the interval bitterly disappointed that it wasn't a 'Proper Farce' (Capitals implied). I on the other hand was most relieved. 

Young Marx is a witty, sweet romp through the lives of Marx and Engls. Unexpectedly moving as well as heart-warming Richard Bean and Clive Coleman have delivered an attempt to demystify the icon and bring him to life. With the help of a dynamic performance from Rory Kinnear and Oliver Chris as a great comedic foil, and something of an emotional root in the initial chaos. 

Act 1 it's fair to say veers towards face, with Police chases and hiding places and set-ups that stay on just the right side of ludicrous. But Bean/Cole balance the farce and visual gags with a witty patter and hints of a more serious undertone. We meet Marx struggling and penniless in Soho, where he shares rooms with his wife, two children and a maid. Unable to convince the Pawnbroker he really did marry Aristocracy “It was a traditional Prussian affair – military uniforms, guard of honour, firing squad.” He’s fleeing the law, creditors and a series of spies working on behalf of the Government. For Marx and his family are refugees who sought asylum in England and allegedly, so he can write.

Those looking for a heavy dose of his politics will be disappointed- and somewhat missing the point. Bean/Cole are unravelling the man- or indeed men with Engels as well- and showing the human side of the politics. We do get glimpses, from meetings to the occasional line of political genius spouted by Marx (which of course he isn’t writing down). But the play focuses on the circumstances that led to building the Marx we know. And yes it’s slightly farcical, and yes there are more than a few cock jokes (and bottom related humour). And yes, there may or may not be a question of who ‘Fucked the Maid’ several times over (the question and the act). But it all adds up to a charming, entertaining picture of domestic life with Marx (and Engels).

Act 2 is a more serious affair. Starting with a duel, it confronts across many themes the real mortality of life in 19th Century London. A comment perhaps on the academic existence removed from it that Marx is seemingly living. Already stripped back from the earlier farce and bigger references to Germany, the party and Revolution, it becomes a wholly more domestic affair. And when mortality and tragedy strike Marx reassess his stance, and we’re left with an emotional yet ultimately heart-warming portrait of the Revolutionary as a young man.

It’s a slickly put together production that begins to show off what The Bridge might do. On Mark Thompson’s revolving set that is primarily the Marx flat in Dean Street, it becomes a Police Station, a variety of pubs and the London streets. The top decorated with an array of chimneys does a good job of indicating the world beyond, while the inside is a cosy an claustrophobic flat. Music by Grant Olding gives a contemporary edge to the play with a thumping rocky underscore that matches the play’s quick-fire pace.

It is the cast that are the heart of it – and quite the cast has been assembled. Kinnear is excellent in the title role- his gift for comedy lends itself to both the physical elements and the witty delivery-and gives the second act the emotional weight it needs. Equally deserving of praise, and allowing Kinnear to do what he does so well, is Oliver Chris as Engels. He gets arguably the better lines, crisp one liners in response to Marx- or more often undercutting him. But he’s also the emotional heart of much of the play- be it steering Marx to where he needs to be, with often brutal honesty or being simply a window to the wider world. He’s warm and caring in the role and there’s a real sense of the friendship that ultimately drives the story. On top of that a pair of leads who can move from cock jokes to political testimony to emotional moments, via a visual gay and probably back to a cock joke again, are worth watching. Equally so however are the female duo in the play – Nancy Carroll and Laura Elphinstone as Jenny and Nym.  Providing an emotional backbone to the men’s early frolics, they are both far more than just foils for jokes, or a means to the narrative. Their friendship comes through in their excellent chemistry and both deliver moments of comedy as well-if not better than the showier male roles. The entire cast is in fact what lifts this play up a level- it’s a lovely piece of ensemble work and that drives the play.  

And the politics are there, in asides and comments on the state of the nation. In Marx’s slightly drunken ramblings. And a dig about how Christmas will be a weeklong affair before we know it. Though the politics are subtle, they are there, and it slowly rises towards the finale and there’s a hint of revolution around it. Teased through are elements of how much the 19th Century changed things from basic rights for workers, better labour laws, child labour laws, social spending by government, rise of the unions and the Labour Party. We see none of this come to fruition in this glimpse of Marx’s life, but there’s a real sense of the play and the audience wanting to cheer him on to get to that point.

And though the politics are slight, they are effective. We see the rise of the Marx we know and love or hate depending on your perspective. And you have to wonder, who is the play addressing- those who would rally and stand with Marx, or is it accusing the (presumably) fairly bourgeois crowd likely to inhabit the Bridge? But more importantly we get a glimpse of why he’s doing it. Engels here does the accusing, as he relays to Marx what he has seen in Manchester- the poverty, the suffering the humanity of the situation Marx is claiming to try and put right without seeing it first himself. Engels grounds Marx in what he is trying to achieve by pushing him, an challenging him to go beyond what he has yet done.

It’s in part a play about rising to the challenge of your destiny. We know that Marx succeeds but at this point a 32-year-old penniless writer, who currently can’t sit down to write (and not just because of the boils) it all seems a bit distant to Marx. He’s contemplating taking a job as a rail clerk to pay the bills, but as guilt-ridden he is about the conditions his family lives in something in him holds him back. It’s in part a lesson in keeping on the path, Marx doubts himself, but Engels tells him; “I write down what I see. I’m a beta-plus. You’re an alpha, a bona fide genius, you prick.” And at a point when Marx himself can’t see what he can be his friend keeps him on the path. And that's the joy of the piece, it's meant to be slight on politics because Marx hasn't got there yet. It's a play about family, friendship and yes genius. But more about how the former allowed the latter to get there (once his boils subsided). 

Richard Bean was until 24 hours ago on my short list of playwrights getting a piece of my mind if I was ever trapped in a lift with them. However, everyone deserves a second chance. And Bean, after being thoroughly charmed by Young Marx, you're off the list. 


 At the Bridge, London, until 31 December. Box office: 0843-208 1846. To be broadcast on National Theatre Live on 7 December.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Holding the Man (some thoughts, not a review)

This isn't a 'review' because I saw this too close to the end of the run, but some plays make you want to put pen to paper regardless. It's also not a review, as this is filled with the kind of personal anecdotal nonsense that people tell me doesn't belong in my blog.

Well screw that, this is my blog, and for this one I'm writing it how I'd like.

A little background. For anyone who doesn't know me, I wrote my PhD in what essentially translates to 'Plays about AIDS'. There's a far more sophisticated description. But for the purposes of today, that about covers it. For anyone who wants more of that nonsense, my side blog is here

I started my PhD in September 2010. In June 2010 (June 21st, I looked it up. Yes I keep a list) I saw 'Holding the Man' for the first time. I actually had no idea what it was about going in, I was actually just a bit obsessed with Simon Burke at the time so booked to see him (what of it?). And so by accident as a little pre-term treat to myself I booked the 'Australian AIDS play'. I loved it. I laughed. I cried. It became one of my favourite plays of the 'genre' (for want of a better word) that I was studying. I read the play and the book over and over during my PhD. Both became a sort of 'retreat' from the other work I was doing. They became along with a few other things- the writings of Tim Miller for one, a place to be reminded about why I was doing what I was doing. I was never allowed to write about the play in my research. The narrow minded view of my PhD supervisors had no place for British plays, let alone Australian ones. (But she also had no place for War Horse, so she's basically dead inside).

So now, two years out of the PhD, and in a new kind of research hell (hello book attempts) it felt like a great time to revisit this play. And the team at Above the Stag have done a wonderful job. It's the perfect kind of venue, and perfect team for this play, the intimate setting really lets the actors hit home the powerful story. And the minimal (but visually stunning) backdrop lets the story shine through.

Holding the Man begins as a story about two young men in school, discovering their sexuality and each other. Based on Timothy Conigrave's memoir of the same name, about him and his love John Caleo. The title is a great play on a term from Aussie Rules Football, which John plays in school and college- it's an offence that incurs penalty. In Conigrave/Murphy's writing of the story, the penalty for 'Holding the Man' ends up being severe indeed.

The actors playing Tim (Jamie Barnard) and John (Ben Boskovic) have the added challenge of playing the boys from early teens up to their 30s. And both take us from wide eyed teenage innocence through struggles in their 20s, through to the anguish that comes with their AIDS diagnosis. Barnard as Tim narrates the story, addressing the audience sporadically throughout the play, and his easy charm draws the audience in. There's a great chemistry with Boskovic, who plays the at first hesitant John with an endearing charm. Both actors are funny and charming an make you fall in love with them, and their relationship. The first half of the play is funny and sweet as they discover each other at school, fall for each other and then struggle with life outside their high school bubble. Both play the conflict with a real honesty that cuts to the heart of how first love can be both intoxicating and soul destroying.

Around Barnard and Boskovic are a brilliant ensemble who create the rest of Tim and John's world. The structure of Murphy's play is beautifully theatrical, with actors doubling across multiple roles as friends, parents and other lovers. This adds some fantastic moments of comedy with Robert Thompson and Annabel Pemberton in particular offering some hilarious moments as supporting characters. As the set- David Shields' beautiful neon backdrops, combined with a series of function black panels and boxes, allows the story to move from year to year, and city to city, the backdrop of characters form Tim and John's life in the 80s and early 90s.

Of course life takes a darker turn. We start hearing about AIDS before the characters encounter it. But ultimately we see their diagnosis. Murphy's script cleverly takes us away from the logistics of medical elements- though these are there- and keeps things firmly rooted in the emotional, psychological elements that surround that diagnosis. The mysteries of the late 80s and all the questions sill unanswerable, all the ones nobody wanted to know in a way-who infected who and when. There are some wonderful moments of staging and dramatic writing around this. When Tim hears elements of his play, inter-cut with his own medical diagnosis is a hard hitting but beautiful way to convey the feelings of confusion, and the very real medical impact he was suffering. The play-within-a-play is a nice reference to the use of theatre as a response, and a nod to the more 'worthy' plays that often sprang up.

Ultimately this play rests on the central performances of Barnard and Boskovic. And as the play moves towards it's inevitable conclusion, both of them deliver. Boskovic in particular shines in the scene where he confesses what he wished he'd done in life. The sense of quiet resignation and regret is heartbreaking to watch. And Barnard gets the tough job of delivering Tim's final monologue directly after John dies. The final words 'A gift to John. The End.' he delivers with such sweetness and vulnerability, that I defy anyone in the audience to hold it together at that point.

And yes for me, Holding the Man proved a highly emotional, but also cathartic experience. Having spent the summer with 'the other AIDS play' one I have a complex emotional relationship with, and that moves and affects me in different ways. The outright emotional impact of Holding the Man is actually really refreshing. And that has in part always been the appeal of this play. For me Holding the Man, the play and Timothy Conigrave's original book, were a refreshing voice in the predominantly American dialogue on HIV/AIDS. Britain has a few voices in this- the equally refreshing and incredibly British 'My Night With Reg' springs to mind as a comparable example. What I loved about Holding the Man was the refreshing humour of the piece. Not just in the early scenes when 'everything is fine' but right to the end, a darker humour admittedly but still there. It's not holier than thou. It even makes a slight wink at the more 'worthy' AIDS plays within the narrative. but also it's an AIDS play that isn't just an AIDS play. Really it's a coming-of-age story, albeit one with a really tragic ending.

But what Holding the Man does so well is give over to simplicity. It's important that we had the political plays, the ones that shouted at the leaders failing to lead. But ultimately, what they were shouting about was people. Holding the Man gives us that powerful, personal story, and it's one that will still break your heart. And I think in all the noise, in all the career panic, in the publish the book anguish, once again I'd lost sight of some of the reasons I'd been doing what I'd been doing. And in a weekend where I saw one of the 'hot tickets' in the West End that left me cold and bored (and my arse numb) it was so refreshing to see a company that clearly put its heart and soul into a ply.

I'm glad I came back to this play. It has a way of finding me when I needed it. Back in 2010 it spurred me on gave me something at first new to inspire me, and then a fall back to remind me of what drove me. In 2017, this wonderful cast in the tiny theatre under the arches gave me that again. I had a damn good cry, left the theatre and picked myself back up again. Because there's something really inspiring about Conigrave's story. That fight right to the end, the book as a gift to John, and the legacy that lives on.

One detail I left out. This whole PhD madness started in a way, with Hugh Jackman in 'The Boy from Oz'. From that musical I started reading around plays about HIV/AIDS. And it led me all this way. In Act 1, this production used Peter Allen's music. I'm not one to believe in signs usually, but maybe somewhere someone is telling me keep going.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

The idea of music existing "between the notes" seems to be the best description of Heisenberg. A bit like the principle from which it takes it's name, that you cannot view a thing and observe it's momentum at once. The music analogy is more romantic though. And there is romance to Stephens' script. Even if it is not the traditional kind.

The script itself feels a bit like a science experiment- a viewing of distinct, choice moments in a relationship history. Again with gaps, unobserved, unknown where we cannot be certain where our particles- Georgie and Alex- are in those moments. Neither can we quite be sure where they are heading at any given moment we do observe them. Science analogies aside, seeing only snapshots of a relationship, watching it evolve in abstract is both charming and engaging. It feels like a series of dates for the audience, and it draws us in wondering about the next moment as well as the ones missed in between. It's a fast-paced, contemporary feeling way to catch up with an unusual relationship drama.

The plot follows Georgie and Alex- she a 42 year old woman, he a 72 year old man as she kisses him on the neck in a station, through to New Jersey, a hunt for her son and a complex at times questionable relationship. They move through bafflement (mostly his) to flirtation (hers initially but he soon joins in) to deception (possibly, her or possibly incredibly frank honesty), to recrimination and reconciliation. It's a fast paced perpetual motion that means- to continue the metaphor- you couldn't pin down where anyone is exactly if you tried.

The pace is pulled along by Elliott's direction. It's slick and stylish to look at but there's weight to the pacing and movement that accompanies it. The actors power on at a pace, moving from scene to scene, but there are moments of real air there, and points they and the story gets to breathe and take in the moments of human reflection the script has-sometimes slightly hidden. It's a play that could be done with a bare stage and a table (as indeed the 2016 Broadway production did) but theatre is a visual medium as well and the stylish light-box staging and Contemporary-Dance influenced movement transitions help flesh out the world of snapshots Stephens has written. In the transitions- slick and aesthetically pleasing as they are- we get hints of the moments of transition in between scenes as well. None of it exactly clear, which is how it should be, but all of it building a picture. The set itself- brilliantly realised by Bunny Christie- creates a backdrop that's at once white and sterile and indeed scientific, but also filled with light and movement. Paul Constable's lighting design compliments it perfectly creating a rich but abstract backdrop for the couple's stories to be told against.

The stories themselves are told with expert precision by Ann-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham. The acting masterclass you might expect there's a visible chemistry between them that allays any reservations about the unusual relationship the characters have. Duff is a powerhouse of chatter and energy, but also pulls it back to quiet reflection when needed. You feel the vulnerability beneath- whether it's a moment her mask of chatter drops and a quieter exchange takes it's place, or her physical interactions with Cranham, Duff understands the nuances between Georgie's 'Exhausting or exhilarating' persona. Cranaham gives his gruff butcher Alex a sweetness alongside world-weariness and slight world-wariness. It's a charming performance, really pulled together by the moments of reflection and sadness when he alludes to his loneliness often with an air of steadfast resignation. There is a neat balance as well as chemistry between the two performances that truly lift this play up.

Heisenberg is an interesting reflection on the nature of relationships, and the oddities of human life. Do you question their plausibility? judge their actions and words to each other? Yes. But so we do the 'real' couples we know and observe. And that was key in Heiseberg- it's an observation of a relationship, a set of moments captured that are fascinating to watch. It's not a play asking for a scientific conclusion, more one recording it's set of observations for future reference. And human relationships-particularly of the romantic kind- never run short of things to study. And as the principle itself suggests, we can never see all things at once. The snapshots Stephens gives us, and the world Elliott creates lets us also imagine what goes on 'between the notes'.

It's a brave and bold first outing for Elliott Harper- a 'small' in scale play on a big stage in every sense. But bringing with it a solid play, in a safe pair of hands to perform it makes it a strong  first statement. Theatre doesn't have to re-invent the wheel every time, and this production gives us good theatre- interesting stories, well performed with slick interesting direction. I wrote previously on my excitement at Elliott Harper's arrival in the West End (here) and this production has firmly cemented that excitement.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle is at the Wyndams Theatre until January 6th 2018

The Busy World is Hushed- Finborough

The Busy World is Hushed- Finborough 

It's a rare play that gets both into your head and under your skin. Watching The Busy World is Hushed sends both a mind reeling trying to keep up with the ideas and questions posed by the characters, but also cuts to the heart with some frank, honest reflections on grief and love.
Keith Bunin's play manages to weave 'academic' ideas of life and love with the reality in a way that's both intellectually rigorous and emotionally engaging. He puts Hannah (Kazia Pelka) at the centre of this; an Episcopalian Minister in Manhattan and an academic she is professionally wrestling with issues of God and associated ideas of good, bad and love. While in the background to her professional life she has spent half a lifetime wrestling personally with reconciling the loss of her husband before her Son was born. It’s a rare complex part for a ‘Mother’ role in a play, and Pelka plays the nuances and conflicts of Hannah well. As the play picks up as her son Thomas reaches the age his father was when he died, and Mother and Son confront their own respective ways of dealing with the path in life that set them on.

There is a real sense of the lens of academic analysis in Bunin's play, and it is the focus on her work and events around it that throws Hannah's personal life into equal academic scrutiny. She hires young writer Brandt to Ghostwrite her thesis on the Gospels. A neat narrative nod to the writing of the Bible itself and the theories of 'authorship' Hannah may or may not be trying to prove. This metaphor is also played out in that Thomas is piecing together his Father’s life through stories and artefacts left behind. And neither she nor Thomas can arrive at any conclusion in their ‘academic’ or personal life respectively. The plays leaves the sense of faith in the intellectual and personal sense must often go unproven and unresolved.

The intrusion of Brandt (Mateo Oxley) into their world continues Bunin’s drawing out of the spiritual, academic and personal intertwining. Brought in despite being ‘not qualified’ for the job, he is to work at the heart of Hannah’s spiritual work, but also finds himself at the centre of her personal world working from her living room ‘library’. Oxley at first plays a charming and slightly lost ‘soul’ to Hannah but one with real steel to challenge her intellectually. Their debates on religion give Oxley and Pelka some great material to spar with and fuels the characterisation of ‘intellect’ and ‘heart’ that shapes the narrative and the characters.

The intimacy of the Finborough and the beautiful design that Marco Turcich has created work well for this. The audience feels like they are sharing Hannah’s flat with the characters, and there is a real urge during the interval to rummage through the piles of books to try and discover something like Thomas is in the play.

With Brandt in their world, Hannah and Thomas are challenged in different ways, and manage to challenge Brandt in return. A professional and personal challenge to Hannah’s ideas, forcing her to debate the issues she is including in her book. She sees his lack of Faith not so much as a religious but intellectual challenge. Bunin weaves these questions so well with the personal arc of the characters in his play makes for a series of intellectual questions about life and what lays beyond that feel incredibly natural in the world of the play, giving us things to think of beyond. Meanwhile his relationship with Thomas feels like a natural evolution, and a reflection of their respective emotional states- the lovely moment where Thomas ruffles Brandt’s hair in Act 1 seems to transition seamlessly into the nature of their new relationship in Act 2, and both actors play that transition, and one towards the conflict in their relationship in an easy, natural manner. 

The relationship might within the plot be contrived a little by Hannah, but both Oxley and Michael James (Thomas) have found the heart of the real affection between the two in the play. To find a play also in which a gay relationship is at the heart, but the play nor the conflict is about them being gay is a rare gift. Although there are allusions to earlier conflicts with coming out or promiscuity, the issue of them being Gay is neither debated or conflict in the play or their relationship. The conflict simply comes from being emotionally equipped for the relationship, and all the things that come between anyone in seeking love, rather than sexuality. It shouldn’t be underplayed how significant this is, and how heartening to see a Gay relationship treated both normal, and not the source of a character’s conflict or downfall. Oxley and James play the dynamic beautifully, and there is a great ease and chemistry between them that draws the audience into their relationship, rooting for them and hearts breaking for them when things unravel.

The heart of things is a good way to describe the way the play goes far beyond these intellectual questions to an emotional yet honest core. We see Thomas, the young man lost in life, trying to figure out an identity that he’s hanging off an absent father. Meanwhile Hannah struggles to reconcile herself as a Mother, a Minister and as a woman. There is a sense of her losing much of the latter, having thrown herself into her work and her son for so many years. Her talks with Brandt seem to bring out a personality she’s long kept partially hidden, but when he challenges her there seems to be a light returning. Meanwhile Brandt thrown into this world, while struggling with an unseen world of his own. Watching his Father die from a brain tumour, and bearing the responsibility of an only child, he is struggling with a moment of ‘growing up’ in his late 20s. His relationship with Thomas reflects an earlier decision that he wants to move past throwaway relationships to something real. Brandt reflects the often-over-looked struggle of just getting through your 20s.  Brandt is a character caught between many worlds- he’s a writer who is writing for someone else, he’s an adult but at that point where he’s not quite feeling ‘grown up’, he’s a child losing a Father while also forced to be a carer and a man who longs for commitment but feels life keeps preventing him from committing. And while the central story is about Hannah and her son on the surface it’s Brandt that raises the questions and gets to the heart of the piece.   

It’s a deftly handled three hander and all the actors do some extraordinary and heavy work. Kazia Pelka gives a strong grounded performance as Hannah. There’s a spark and strength to her performance, and she delivers lines with wit and sharpness that give us a real sense of a woman strong because she has to be. Her Hannah is intelligent in an intellectual and emotional way, but she also offers a vulnerability without weakness. It’s a performance that could be overlooked, as it is understated, but she brings a real strength that anchors the play on her performance.  Michael James gives a whirlwind performance as Thomas, capturing the frustrated energy of the character that is fuelled by a long-seated grief. He’s also funny and charming pulling the audience immediately on side. Thomas’ attitude or actions might read as unsympathetic in the hands of another but instead he remains affable, charming and ultimately a character your heart breaks for rather than resenting. Alongside the Mother/Son relationship Mateo Oxley is doing incredible, emotional but intelligent work in a role that in the hands of a lesser actor might become overblown or contrived. There’s a real sense of Oxley getting to the heart and head of Brandt- which is also the centre of what Bunin has written. Oxley gives us a character who retreats to his head to avoid his heart, but in fact in doing so his heart shines through. There’s a wonderful pacing that Oxley gives to the character- he gives us energy in debate, humour even in his sparring with both Thomas and Hannah. But bubbling under is a quiet grief that spills over only occasionally, and oh so subtly that it’s incredibly powerful. He’s an actor with such control, and a clear thought and intelligence behind the character that is both engaging and devastatingly moving to watch.

This is a play that raises complex issues, and doesn’t attempt to resolve them- and there lies its real strength. It’s dialogue heavy, but in a way, that feels authentic. And Director Paul Higgins handles this deftly, making sure none of the moments feel forced or artificial. We get a lot of talk around life, and beyond because that’s what the character’s need. But Higgins is careful to leave space in between, and pace all this so the audience can breathe.

The play ultimately is a reflection on death and grief and how the living incorporates that into their lives. In looking at three different experiences, and showing they are all current no matter how long ago- or how far in the future death and grief for it are, the play gives an airing to an often-avoided subject. Every audience member will likely find their own personal moment of alignment with the three character’s experiences, and that makes it a difficult watch at times. And while they play never gives us complete resolution there’s a catharsis in hearing those feelings shared, and value in the questions asked.  

As a final personal note as an academic currently struggling with the act of writing a book, I clearly identified with elements of that narrative. Not least the personal anguish, and investment that calls for, it proved for an unusual evening to see that played out. To see that done with an actor I was about to interview for said book amusing added extra. Add to that a couple of shared jokes about Angels going on and...proof positive we all bring our own personal experiences to the theatre with us.

Until 25th November, Finborough Theatre

Tickets and information Here

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Why Elliott & Harper is the company I've been waiting for

 I can never resist a good (bad) pun in a title. As the first production from Elliott & Harper opens its doors for previews tonight, it’s worth pausing to think what this new production company means and why indeed we need more like it. Something of a ‘power house’ company formed of Marianne Elliott and Chris Harper. Both coming from the National Theatre- as Director and Producer respectively- there’s a real understanding of both the craft of theatre and the audiences that do- and don’t- come to it there. And theatre made by and produced by theatre people, in the commercial realm. That’s potentially very exciting.

Firstly, the act of two theatre people who really love theatre, really understand theatre both from an audience point of view and an artistic point of view. Secondly, one of the UK’s best directors striking out on her own to make theatre on her own terms. Thirdly, and you bet it’s an important factor, a woman artistic director. It’s all exciting, and has the potential, we already know to produce exciting work. A company that is starting with a new Simon Stephens play starring Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham is obviously a pretty strong start. When your second play is a radically re-imagined Company, with Rosalie Craig in the starring role, and a small matter of Patti LuPone also starring. Even in the most unforgiving critic’s eyes that’s a bold and strong start.

Why then is Elliott & Harper both such a good idea and an important one for theatre? Firstly, then theatre people making theatre. As loathe as some critics are to admit it, we do have a lot of great theatre happening in London and beyond (and can we pause to note that already Elliot& Harper are working beyond London with their collaboration with West Yorkshire playhouse, this gives me great hope for a regional outlook in the future) The London fringes, subsidised sector and indeed a lot of regional work are brilliant, daring and pushing boundaries and audiences to the limits. And that is wonderful work. I love the West End, I love a big musical and a classic play. I even firmly believe there’s a place for Mama Mia in this world, but what we need is a balance.  Theatre that challenges audiences, gives something new, twists those classics but is also accessible to casual and seasoned theatre goers alike.

And you know what, I think Elliott Harper are the ones to brings us that. Theatre people who understand both theatre as a craft, and audiences. That’s what our theatre needs an intelligent alliance at the head of a production company, one that understands and wants to challenge but excite audiences. The Harper in ‘Elliott&Harper’ will drive a production company that’s business savvy, but also doesn’t lose sight of the- at the risk of sounding artsy, and yes, a bit wanky- the art in theatre. We have a lot of business savvy producers, and we have business savvy producers who do I’m sure care about the work. But I fear a lot of them have lost touch with that. In a difficult market, when a proven commodity or safe bet is easier it feels like ‘why?’ is a question only answered by ‘money’. We need money in theatre, we all know that but a producer relationship with an artistic director that drives that question ‘Why?’ with a more complicated answer is far better for us all in the theatrical world. And having a director like Elliott then answering those questions for you with the productions is possibly a recipe for theatrical gold in every sense.

Elliott’s directing work has always been both risk taking and accessible. Proof that you don’t have to alienate an audience to challenge them, that you can be bold to engage an audience not put them off. Proof also that visuals and spectacle and turning theatre on its head work only when engaged with the heart of the matter: human storytelling. The National, where Elliott &Harper have both honed their craft, is as a rule good at this kind of risk taking. Of pushing boundaries with form or taking a risk on the kinds of stories told.  Any of Elliott's ‘big hits’ could have ended in disaster, and in interviews she’s far too modest to say so, but in other hands they likely would have. From the ‘let’s tell this children’s story but with puppets, giant horse puppets’ to the Scottish fairy tale with a floating princess and Tori Amos music, to the inside of an Autistic boy’s mind to, yes, Angels crashing through ceilings. These were pushing theatrical boundaries in one way or another. But in their final execution were so well put together that it becomes almost too easy to forget that element. As a personal example, the most vicious argument I had with my PhD supervisor was about War Horse as an innovative piece of theatrical storytelling, because it’s so easy to miss just how clever, innovative and important it was. (Given my PhD itself was 3 years of arguing that Angels in America is an important theatrical work I can’t help but be amused, and wonder if I could now persuade Elliott to shout at my supervisor for me)

Honestly I think I'll go to my grave arguing about this damn horse. 

Elliott’s work is big and risk taking, but the thing that always guides it back is an innate instinct at her heart as a director for stories. That she’s also one of the most conscientious and through directors working today also helps. Too many productions seem a little ‘thrown together’ a ‘best fit’ or ‘will do’ which leaves glaring gaps obvious to, and ultimately off putting and insulting to audiences. Not in Elliott’s work- no research stone, or exploration of staging or performance seems unturned until it fits together. The work always feels like it gives credit to the audience’s intelligence and investment, and repays that with a sense of authenticity to the work.

Known for big storytelling, and big visuals- from Angels crashing to Rosalie Craig floating for an entire performance, to yes, those horses again. But what perhaps goes unnoticed in the bigger picture is that all of Elliott’s work is at its heart about people, the human stories. And that’s what makes her directing not just good, but something special. Anyone can throw together big visuals with the right team, and the right budget. What distinguishes Elliott’s work is that underneath all those big images is a story driving it. Angels in America proved that once and for all, the biggest most sweeping spiraling narrative you could ask for, writ large on the Lyttleton stage and some full on Brechtian Epic staging, but what came through are the people. In ten years, while the Angel crashing to the stage will be a memory, it’ll be how you cried for Prior or the affinity you felt with Harper (or Louis….no just me?) that you’ll remember.  When I think of Curious Incident I have a general memory of the slick, brilliantly realised staging. But really, I think about Christopher and his story (ok and the dog).

And yes, it’s important that it’s a woman at the artistic helm. Not just because we need more women visible in what is a male-dominated industry. But we need more women visibility taking charge and running things. That Elliott has used the status and freedom that being at the helm of the National Theatre’s biggest hitters not just to pick and choose what she directs, but to take more artistic charge with a production company, is exactly the steer the industry needs. Elliott could well have gone on directing for the National, or the Old Vic or frankly any other major theatre company who would a) be lucky to have her b) probably bite her arm off to have her direct for them. But in choosing to break out alone Elliott has taken back control, and is able to steer not only her career but in a broader sense the theatrical landscape in directions she chooses. And my goodness does it make a nice change to write ‘she’ in all these sentences.

This isn’t about quotas, or a numbers game. It is also about getting women’s voices heard. And that is on stage and off. Off stage it’s about the sense of hope a woman in charge brings, the idea that the person running this show (in the literal and figurative sense) understands the challenges women face- firstly to get a foothold in a room of noisy men, but then as we get older and it gets harder to be heard, as we juggle children with career, still playing catch up from before and often fade further into the background. And it’s not about saying women will automatically give other women opportunities (though that’s what men have been doing since the dawn of time) it’s saying women will recognise those struggles. The women who end up working with Elliott will still be the best of the best, because they’ll need to be, but the difference is that elsewhere those women might have been overlooked.
And then there’s telling women’s stories. Putting women’s stories at the forefront. That doesn’t mean telling only stories about women or written by women (though obviously that is something we all need to keep pushing for) but it means not pushing the women to the back in the stories we have. Looking at how Elliott directed Angels we already see that- in a story that is filled with men, the voices of the women still rang out strong and for once I felt Harper’s story was as much at the centre. Now in Heisenberg we have a woman in Simon Stephen’s play sharing equal footing with the male character- that’s a woman’s story on stage. We aren’t asking for it to all be about women, we just need stories, and directors who get that voice heard.

And a part of that of course is Company. That deserves its own analysis just for existing. But the fact that people (men) are already complaining that it won’t work, exactly proves why it’s a story begging to be told. As a 33-year-old single woman, honestly the thought of Company told through a woman’s lens makes me want to cry- because it feels like my voice is being heard. Because I’ve heard all the things thrown at Bobby a hundred times, and because as a musical theatre nerd I want a woman at the heart of something not just to fall in love with the man. And because well who doesn’t cry a bit at the thought of Rosalie Craig in anything right? But in all seriousness, maybe the piece has started to age with Bobby as a man but put a woman’s voice at the heart and it feels like that answer to a question I hadn’t thought to ask. And that’s why, that’s why we need women like Marianne Elliott taking charge, making work.

And if your opening move involves re-writing Sondheim…well I can’t wait to see where you go from there. So, Elliott & Harper, break a leg as Heisenberg opens its doors. And from there…who knows but it looks like it’s going to be something worth watching in every sense. 

Welcome to Night Vale 'All Hail' (Tour)

For those unfamiliar with it, Welcome to Night Vale is a podcast written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, starring Cecil Baldwin as Cecil Palmer, the voice of Night Vale's community radio show. Night Vale is a scenic little desert community where all of the weird things that have ever happened. Think the love child of X Files and Radio 4. A world of forbidden dog parks, hooded figures, floating cats, and mysterious lights in the sky (mostly void, partially stars). In a way completely inexplicable but makes perfect sense upon listening. The show began in 2012 and releases twice a month, alongside numerous live performances, books and of course various merchandise. It’s a very ‘Millennial’ experience- released into the wild for free, crowdfunded and supported by a loyal and growing audience. But it also marks a success story of that very ‘Millennial’ approach to doing things.

I confess I’ve not listened to Night Vale in probably a year. Nothing to do with their work I am just not a podcast person. I think my dyslexia makes listening to spoken word difficult if I’m trying to do anyting else, and I rarely have time to sit and simply listen. So through no fault of their own Night Vale had fallen off my radar. But actually coming to the live show fresh, was a real advantage and treat.

The beauty of a radio show of course is that you don’t have to ‘perform’ it and if it goes wrong, you can re-record. So there’s a little worry that this won’t translate to ‘live’ performance. But Night Vale know how to pitch their work- they don’t over-perform or try and inject a ‘stagey’ element to it. It’s as if you were watching them record the podcast, which is exactly the right way to pitch it.
The show includes a musical element (The Weather on a Night Vale broadcast is always a musical guest, again it makes sense if you hear it) and on this tour it was the brilliant Erin McKeown. A great mix of soft-rock love songs and political anthems. McKeown worked the crowd well, sensing a Welsh crowd enjoys a sing-along got everyone involved. I highly recommend seeking out her music as well, particularly those fond of Queer love songs and anti-Trump anthems (I strongly suspect those categories overlap somewhat). Her song ‘The Queer Gospel’ is the actual ‘weather’ segment in the middle of the show and is the perfect addition to the world of Night Vale.

It is difficult to explain or review Welcome to Night Vale. It is very much a ‘cult following’ and the demographic- Millennials with interesting hair- are devoted. It also feels like a welcoming audience, the kind of crowd you look around and figure if you were on your own, you could find someone to chat to at the bar based on their cool T Shirt or a pin badge on their bag. And that nerd-space experience is as much a part of what Night Vale offer their audiences as much as the performance itself.

Being a bit out of the loop with happenings in the Vale I worried I’d feel left out. And while there were a few jokes that no doubt passed me by, it really doesn’t matter as Night Vale is a world weird enough that you can dip in and out of at any time. There does seem to be a fair bit of fan-service going on in the live shows, which is to be expected and doesn’t detract from the excellent writing and overall is a fun experience in which you’re carried away by the fan’s excitement and enthusiasm. Though, being a slightly grumpy person in this respect, I could have lived without the amount of audience interaction in this show. Amid the strange comings and goings of the town that are par for the course, this show ‘All Hail’ also had a strong message at its core. Based around the town’s blind worship of the now infamous ‘glow cloud’ there was at its heart a message against blind following and an invocation to action. It’s not a subtle message by any means, but it doesn’t have to be, and in the world we live in maybe it shouldn’t be.

The performers, are as brilliant live as they are in the recording. They include Meg Bashwiner as our compare and Haze-cloud Deb and others that are best left as a surprise on the night. But at it’s heart of course is voice of Night Vale Ceil Baldwin. As funny, engaging and with a voice that could sooth Tigers or politicians, Ceil really does embody Night Vale. He spins the narrative with such ease (well except when he nearly sent a microphone flying) and weaves together the strange world with such nonchalance you’d think the was reading the weather for real. It’s a sweet and funny performance and he clearly relishes the audience reactions. He’s funny, engaging and brings a real heart to this sweeping and surreal world.

Night Vale is big on a sense of activism under the weirdness. It’s an inclusive, LGBTQ supportive, and political group of people. And that comes through in the writing. And good for them. Not only does it create work with a message, but it brings people together on that message. It’s full of Queer performers and people of colour and although they don’t name names in the fictional world the trajectory of the statements is clear. But at its heart it’s sweet and hopeful and inclusive and kind. And you know what, that’s kind of lovely. 

Welcome to Night Vale 'All Hail' is on tour worldwide:

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Our Town- Royal Exchange Manchester

It seems everyone has a first memory of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Mine, in typical style is mildly embarrassing and reveals me to be the uncultured swine I so often am. It was my third year in University, which happened to be my 'Study Abroad' year. So I find myself in an introduction to theatre class at McGill, with the Professor (you have to call them that there I discovered even if they aren't a proper Prof like at home) holds up a book (this was 2004, we're old school) and asked what the famous image was from, a work that was of great importance he said, it changed American theatre he said.

He looked at me. 

"Oklahoma" I said. 

I actually have no idea why. Actually I do, they were all dressed in farm clothes on a stage and that was literally the only play about being on a farm in America I knew. Also I'm an uncultured swine. (In my defence I hadn't studied theatre since GCSE at this point) 

So my 'Out Town' first encounter story is not a particularly rose-tinted one of discovering this theatrical masterpiece, more mild embarrassment and slinking down in my seat. However, as the Royal Exchange's programme notes indicate, a formative work for so many theatre makers. Why? probably because it encompasses both parts of theatre making so perfectly- the magic of the theatre with the humanity of the stories we tell.

The setting in the round at the Exchange works perfectly and brutally for the exposure of the humanity of it all. Keeping the lights up and engaging with the audience throughout makes it clear that 'Our Town' is very much 'your town' as an audience. Incidentally the warm welcome and vocal 'hello' the Stage Manager gets at the start is possibly very much indicative of this being Manchester not London. It in fact seems the perfect set up for this welcoming of Cities, where the actors spend all of the pre-show period sat chatting with their onstage seated neighbours. It was a delight to play spot the actor but also relish in the easy manner in which people were chatting as they sat on their tables looking like they were indeed coming for a town meeting of some sort. And you have to wonder how much of this working is to do with the Manchester setting- it's hard to imagine some of London's stuffier audiences warming to that, but here it works and it feels like something you could drop down in many regional cities and foster this small town in a large town feeling that the setting generates. From the opening monologue then that includes 'Manchester in 2017' it already feels like 'Our town' is indeed 'our town' at this moment. 

All of this frames the play as a part of where we are now, rather than the historical setting it's placed in. Stripping it back from the Hallmark-styled productions that Wilder himself hated, we get the bones of the production and with it the characters stripped back to their bare humanity. 

It's too easy to strip Wilder's play back to just a small reflection on the lives of the townsfolk. But that's not to say it can't be also enjoyed for that. Indeed, enjoying the early scenes for their humour and charm only serves to strengthen the emotional punch that the play builds to. So why not sit back, enjoy the quirky humour of the townsfolk and the innovative setting and moving of actors and furniture for Act 1? because actually if you let the small town charm wash over like an episode of Gilmore Girls, the punch it packs at the end is all the more powerful. 

This staging suits it effortlessly, stylised without feeling gimmicky, it moves the story along at a pace and makes the stage come alive with the bustling of  the town. And the engagement with the audience works perfectly. The blurring of lines between fiction and the 'real world' works beautifully especially when it's revealed there are yet more actors scattered around that we didn't know of. (Member of the wonderful Royal Exchange Company of Elders). The in-the-round setting of the Exchange lends itself perfectly to this stripped out approach, looking your fellow audience member in eye adds to the community feel and when the Stage Manager asks you to introduce yourself to the person next to you, it feels like fostering that community further. And for me an outsider to this town that it was staged in also felt like being oddly welcomed by the world of the theatre too.

The key thing about Our Town is the pace at which it whips by. Wilder's commentary on life stretched across the play. No sooner are we settled into a scene than it's stopped, moved on  to a next one. Time is narrated and years lost in a line. Characters we think we will like are glimpsed but hardly seen again. The moments it feels like it slows enough to catch breath are moments of music in the church with that repeated refrain of 'Blest be the tie that binds'. Punctuating the play and sung each night at the interval by a guest choir, it is a moment of pause and a refrain to pull the town and the audience into focus, and it's done beautifully here building towards the final heartbreaking rendition.

The church choir also reveals one of this production's hidden gems- the incorporation of BSL and a D/deaf actor into the show. I'd actually spotted Nadia Nadarajah chatting outside in BSL so it wasn't a surprise when she joined in with the chorus of singing in her own language, but it was a beautiful moment of theatre. To see a performer fully incorporated on a leading theatre's main stage using BSL, her character still the same as written by Wilder with the exception of how she communicates, proving that this shouldn't be a barrier to performers or audiences. Sarah Frankom makes this an inclusive performance seamlessly- some of what she says is 'translated' through repetition by the other actors, but other elements are left in BSL alone, and the audience understands, both the words and her character. Anyone who says that we can't make inclusive performance should look at this. Most importantly, artistically Nadarjah's use of BSL is integral to showing 'Our Town' as full of the kind of 'real' people that would populate it.  Having a D/deaf character using BSL is a part of representing diversity as colour blind casting, or having wheelchair users on stage. It's an element of who they are but doesn't define their character, and in a play like Our Town that is all about the people who make up our town and our world, it's a natural addition to the text.

Act One of the play is that whipped along frenzy of meeting half of the town, reminiscent of sweeping shots that open a film or TV show where characters are introduced in quick succession. We get absorbed into the world before we're delivered to the heart of the story. And the actors across it rise to the occasion. From Graeme Hawley's somewhat cheeky affable Mr Webb who feels like a man trying his best in an ever confusing world, to Carla Henry gives us a quiet sadness as Mrs Gibbs who longs for her vacation to Paris. While the young lovers Patrick Elue and Norah Lopez-Holden are heartbreaking charming and later simply heartbreaking. Of course it is the narrator we really get to know and Yousesef Kerkour is formidable in his command of the actors and audience but also charming and engaging from the off. He reigns in the audience and pulls them along at his speed giving them a tour of his actors and his town. The ensemble works tightly together, and there's not a beat missed in some tight direction and movement that weaves the world together on the bare stage

There is a warmth and sadness to the story of the young lovers. On one hand we feel for their young love, as with a rom-com we will them together. But also we're aware of their youth and wasted opportunity as their young marriage approaches. We feel the regret of the older characters, of lives lost, but are also won over by the charms of their young love.

Of course as with life, it's the final act that will break your heart. The weight of life catches up with everyone in the town. And the question of death looms in the air. As with the rest of the production it's subtly and beautifully executed and the half-lit auditorium gives the audience nowhere to hide. As the play draws to a close there's a stunning moment of theatricality that in the stripped down backdrop is stunning and well earned. Wilder's words alone will move you to tears but the visual picture Frankcom has been building to is enchantingly overwhelming and moving. And while there is a moment of feeling like your heart is being ripped out and that things may never be quite right, the production gives you back a sense of hope to close. A sense that you can go and reclaim what the characters might have lost- that appreciation of the moment, and it invites you to do it in your town. 

Friday, 25 August 2017

A Kind of Painful Progress...Angels in America and me

Almost a week ago now, Prior Walter bid the Lyttleton theatre ‘More Life’ one last time. Twenty-four years earlier it had opened next door in the Cottesloe. And some 14 or so years earlier they Angel first crashed into my life. Since then it’s been a labour of love, of 100, 000 words of PhD thesis and thousands more words in blog posts, message board comments, emails, tweets and arguments with wanker academics who obviously know better. And finally, this year, hours of conversation with my favourite director, hours of talking to an audience at the NT, kind words with the cast (and hugs!) and words committed to the programme. It’s been one hell of a ride, it hasn’t always been easy, but finally all the work to this point feels worth it.

I keep coming back to Harper’s final monologue, ‘In this world there is a kind of painful progress, a longing for what’s left behind, and dreaming ahead.’ And as much as I’m already longing for it what this production also gave me is a chance to dream ahead again.  To that end people keep asking if I’m sad or broken. And I have to keep saying no, I’m incredibly happy. Happy that it happened, that I was a part of it, and that I got back a thing that I loved. Like Harper’s ‘souls rising’ towards the ozone layer, I feel like I absorbed this production, and was repaired. And like Harper, I am finally after what feels like an eternity stuck in a far less fun place than a Valium induced daydream, I’m finally dreaming ahead again.

A lot of people do wonder why this play means so much. Honestly there’s no easy way to answer other than to explain how it’s woven into the fabric of my life.  From not to over-romanticise, a snowy night in Montreal, where we rented the DVDs because we didn’t have a TV that worked. To that film becoming one of those ‘comfort blanket’ films you watch over and over again. I don’t remember exactly when I then read the play, but it must have been around then. I was 19, living 1000s of miles from home, my Father had either just died or was about to die, it doesn’t take the world’s greatest psychiatrist to work out that Kushner’s big sprawling play of love, loss and politics was something that would speak to me. But, the bigger themes and ideas washed over me at first, who knows how many times, but it was the characters, the humanity of the piece I latched onto. 
Flash forward ten years, and I’m meeting a friend who I speak to every single day, who lives on the other side of the world to walk to the Bethesda Fountain, because it’s our ‘favourite place in the park’ because we only know each other because of this play. Leap to another moment and I’m throwing coins in that fountain the first time I went there after finishing my PhD. I greet her as Prior does in the film, an involuntary tic by now. Another time I’m telling someone ‘That was an editorial you’ mid-argument, insisting that ‘the world only spins forward’ or unable to hold in a smile if someone mentions a night flight to San Francisco. In short, this play like Prior’s Prophecy, is in me.

I spent years wrestling with the PhD, much like that Angel. Creating versions of it out of archive dust and still absorbing it. Learning every scene, in every version (thanks Tony!) by heart and backwards. Fighting for it, fighting against PhD supervisors who couldn’t, wouldn’t see its value. Who wouldn’t even read this thing that I loved so dearly. Being told by academics this thing I’d written wasn’t good enough, that nobody cared, that I wasn’t good enough. The fierce love of it dragged it through the PhD, but I had nothing left at the end of it. I don’t remember consciously falling out of love with it, I just feel like it was somewhere in a dusty cupboard in my mind. I had the confidence, but more importantly the love of it all beaten out of me by academia. I lost it and I barely noticed, I was so tired.

“Oh how I hate Heaven, but I’ve got no resistance left. Except to run.”

And so, I ran, retreated into failure rejected that part of my life. And tried to become someone else. I let myself forget the thing I love, because I had to in order to stay sane. Lose the passion, because I got knocked back, knocked out by academia and theatre so many times, I had no choice but to run and preserve myself. Angels and the rest of it had become a part of an old life, and an old me.
And somewhere…somehow…on the bank of the Thames in that concrete bunker…I started to find it again.

There are of course wonderful special things about the production that will stay with me- some big some small. Some a part of it, some little quirks I noticed on seeing it multiple times (the time Andrew Garfield accidentally threw his sunglasses at James McArdle, but styled it in real Prior Walter style is a great one).  If someone asks me in 10 years what was the thing I remember I’ll probably say: The Angel, Snow, Rain Machine, House Lights. Those specifics are for another blog, just snapshots of what I loved, what made it special for me. Those actors, what can I say about those actors? That while Andrew Garfield seemed to grow into Prior over the run, that James McArdle flipped what Louis is on its head, that Nathan Stewart Jarret was just too damn perfect, that Denise Gough ripped out her heart and the audience’s every night and the Susan Brown was doing quietly brilliant work. All of it has, and will be catalogued in different ways. That’s not what this is about.
But all that aside, at different points in the performance, the run I have sat open mouthed in awe, laughed so deeply, sobbed to the point I squeaked, walked out of a theatre shaking so much I had to sit down and smiled with such joy that I thought I could do anything- ‘More Life’ indeed Tony. Something odd happened in the last performance that I’ve never personally experienced- due to always seeing it in ‘analytical’ mode- I was just swept away in Prior’s story, I’ve never been so completely ‘with’ him watching it, always some jigsaw puzzle of theatrical analysis. But for eight hours, for the first time I just sat and lived it. It was like someone giving you a gift of the thing you missed most in the world.  

This production snuck in and re-wrote what I thought I knew. There are so many thoughts to write on how why, and who in that equation and again, I’m not being artistically or academically blind, I can and at some point, will have critical thoughts (in the ‘editorial’ use of the word critical). But stepping aside from that, in the most honest way, who care when a production gives you magic. As much as I could, and will dissect performance choices and staging and set ultimately these are so insignificant in the personal sense.

“But still….bless me anyway”

Because I don’t want to talk here of imperfections and choices and things others would do differently. I’m capable of doing that but right now I say ‘Bless me anyway’ the spirit of that line is ‘so what, keep going anyway.’ This was ultimately “My” production, the version of the play I will forever keep in my heart. And in the end, isn’t that what matters? The works that change us, not the ones that are technically, artistically brilliant (though this one is both) but it’s the ones that latch onto a part of our soul and refuse to let go.

And that’s why, when Andrew Garfield/Prior stood and declared ‘More Life’ at the final performance, I didn’t crumple and cry I soared with joy. I was on my feel celebrating what they had achieved over the run, but also what had happened to me. And in all this, I kind of feel, and hope that indirectly that’s what Kushner had intended for all of us; change in whatever form. The real purpose of Kushner’s play, after the eight hours of emotional labour, is to push us as an audience out in the world to make that ‘Great Work’. We can’t do that if we are left in despair, if we feel it was all for nothing. For Prior’s innovation to the audience to work we must be propelled forward with a sense of purpose. And for me, finding that purpose again that I thought I’d lost. My love for it, and over that last year a little bit more of who I was.

The day the revival was announced I was sitting at my desk, in possibly the worst job I have ever had (which frankly, is saying something). Sitting in that office, I was in the worst place imaginable (I mean literally, it was in Pontypridd…). I’d finished my PhD after disaster upon disaster, I’d taken a job in research support after knowing I’d always fail to get an academic job. I hated that job. My colleagues hated me. And I felt like the biggest failure. All that work, all the years of trying all for nothing. And to go from having such passion for my work, to feeling like nothing would ever matter again, and that there was no point to any of it. In my flurry of twitter excitement, I half-jokingly said ‘Do you think they want some help’ to which a friend (to whom I’m very grateful) said ‘No seriously, email Elliot’s agent’. I’m grateful to that friend (I introduced her to Elliot on closing night so I feel my debt is repaid) But most of all I’m so grateful to Marianne herself, for not ignoring that email when it made its way to her.

I set myself four ‘secrets dreams’ when I heard Angels was coming back: I wanted to give research to the production, I wanted to sit in on a rehearsal, I wanted to run an education event and I wanted to write something for the programme. I honestly thought I didn’t stand a chance. If I got 2 out of 4 it would be something. I got all four. Another story, Hugh Jackman is the reason I got into musical theatre and AIDS theatre (don’t ask) there’s a story of how he asked his Mum to take a picture outside the National Theatre, saying ‘I’ll work there one day.’ And he did.  I did the same thing, about 10 years ago. It might have only been for a blink of an eye. But it’s a damn good start. Likewise, my 4 things might be a drop in the ocean. But it’s a damn good start. Sheer force of will and tenacity played a part, but for once, for once in my life I went after something and I damn well got it.

Having spent nearly a decade being knocked back from everything I tried- from theatre, to academia and back again I can’t begin to articulate what it’s like to have someone finally, finally listen to you.  Of course, when that someone also happens to be one of the best theatre directors in the country…well even I in my most Louis-esque verbal incontinence don’t actually have words for that.  The point (the point dear the point) being that someone finally looked at me and said ‘Yes, you do have something to contribute’ it’s that simple. Instead of knocking me back, knocking me down, criticising, dismissing, taking someone else whose face fit better or the million other reasons there might be, someone finally listened. And even more importantly for myself, I proved myself. If I’d sent that email and been utterly appalling, a complete charlatan who really knew nothing I’d have deserved to get laughed right out of the National Theatre foyer. Instead, I picked myself up went in there and showed what I could do.

In part, all of this has been about getting that external validation. Of course, of course that Marianne Elliot and Andrew Garfield said how much they loved something I wrote and that I helped them create this…thing…of course that means the world.  To look at that stage and think, a tiny tiny microbe of that came from me. Of course, I’m proud. But it’s more than that. In having people who know what they’re talking about say that you make a valuable contribution, after being so beaten down, so discouraged and having every last ounce of confidence drained from me. Even given my Kushner-esque powers of sheer volume of writing, I don’t think I can find the words.  Except to say thank you, which is, to quote Prior ‘So much not enough’.

 “I’m almost done”

It’s not just these ‘important’ people, it’s all of the people- all of you out there reading this (if you’ve got this far) it’s every single tweet complimenting my programme essay, every question anyone asked me- every one of you who came up to me in the NT foyer. I don’t know how to explain how much I thought the work I had done was nothing, and by association, that I was nothing. To find people interested, in the thing, and what I’ve got to say about the thing. And not just the compliments (though those are nice!) but the finding likeminded people, who want to talk and share this thing (ok and share amusing pictures of the cast with me). In getting this play back, I no longer feel like the werido alone in the corner, liking the play that you dare not mention because it’s weird and about AIDS and gay people and your office colleagues will laugh and talk about you behind your back. I found what theatre is supposed to give you: community.

So, to anyone, and everyone who stopped and said what I spent four years of my life working on was worth it, meant something, from Andrew Garfield, to old friends, anonymous online visitors and new friends:

“You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.”

And what now? It’s hard not to let doubt creep in and think ‘this was a one off that’s it now’. But as Harper says, ‘nothing’s lost forever’ and there’s work to do with a renewed sense of …something. I’ve a book to write at last on Angels, and I feel I can finally do that. And I’ve got my love and drive for theatre back. And I have to believe that this is just the start of…something. My academic career might have ended, but maybe all of that was for something else.

“In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind. And dreaming ahead. At least I think that’s so.”

Death of a Salesman- Young Vic

Once more for those in the back Death of a Salesman was never a naturalistic drama. Once more Death ...