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:

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