Room by National Theatre of Scotland etc at Dundee Rep: Review.


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Emma Donoghue has now written Room three times.

The novel, the Oscar winning movie and now this, surely award winning, play.

She’s worked it out like.

In tonight’s opening performance at Dundee Rep we witness a bringing together of some of the greatest of British and Irish theatrical, musical and writing talent.  A sort of Harlem Globetrotters of theatre.

Let’s start with NTS: not everyone’s favourite and they don’t always hit the mark, But for me they do so much more often than they are given credit for.   The company has brought us Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, The Strange Undoing of Prudentia Hart, The James Plays, Let the Right One In and Black Watch, all of which are nailed on five star shows.

That deserves extreme respect.

Then There’s Stratford East (just superb) and The Abbey Theatre (Ireland’s equivalent of NTS).

Add to that Cora Bissett.  Time after time after time she presents brilliant theatre with a strong musical strand.

And Roadkill.

Up and coming Scots composer Kathryn Joseph weaves music into this production in a way you would NEVER, EVER have expected from the movie.  She is an utter genius and this showcases her talent brilliantly.  It is NOTHING like her Scottish album of the year winner Bones you have Thrown me and Blood I have spilt, but who cares – it’s a further development.

OK, so the source material is superlative and the movie (featuring an Oscar winning best actress performance by Brie Larson) is really superb, but this takes the whole thing to a higher emotional plane.

Being in a small theatre as this outrageously horrific tale unfolds, with the consequent impact on the protagonists, is a remarkable thing.  Add a musical score to it and original songs that break your heart and you are in theatre nirvana.

(If you’ve ever seen a rape scene deconstruct itself into a beautiful ballad and then transmogrify itself back into a rape then, fine, I’ll agree with you this isn’t completely original.)

And what’s more, it’s two shows for the price of one because one could almost end the show at the end of act one.  The torture over we could all go home happy.  But the torture isn’t over because Ma and Jack’s brutal incarceration had conditioned them.  They were in their own Private Idaho and freedom from that safety net into the “world’ opens a Pandora’s box of horrors.

Imagine the agoraphobia, the media scrutiny, the accusations (the interview in act two with the TV reporter is brilliant, brutal and heartbreaking).

As Ma and Jack’s relationship threatens to break down we too are broken.

Cora Bisset’s supreme directorial achievement here is to cast two Jacks.  The boy (played tonight, by one of three, miraculously by the beautifully named Taye Kassim Junaid-Evans) really is just a boy; maybe 8 years old he is on stage for three hours.  But it is his inner and older self that actually steals the show. Cora casts the stunning, and I mean stunning, Fela Lufadeju as Big Jack.  His performance astounds.  His songs break your heart.  He acts off but never to distraction.  He is the narrative and emotional driver of the whole show and his arrival on stage for the bows was met uproariously.  He is nothing short of amazing.

And then there’s Ma: Witney White.  Simply beautiful.  A performance of great range and, you know, a tough gig.  She has to be compassionate, angry, broken and be able to sing great solos and torch songs.

She pulls it off.

You love her.

I can, and will, go on and on.

This great black cast ensemble, rarely seen in Scotland, has a conservative underscore.  Grandma (Lucy Tregear) and Grandpa (Stephen Casey) have thankless tasks.  For a start they are white (turns out Ma was adopted).  They’re divorced and they’re middle class.  We’re not meant to like them.  Especially Grandpa, the weak sod that left his wife having ‘buried’ his daughter.

But we do.  Much more so than in the movie.

Stephen Casey pulls off a grand larceny in his role.  The bastard of the movie, the utter heartless bastard quixotically transforms the part.  The scene in which he holds young Jack in his arms as he realises he actually loves this bastard son of a monster broke my heart.

The closing number also broke my heart and the emotional walls finally caved in.

One last mention.  the set design by Lily Arnold has to be seen to be believed, both my wife and I agreed it had echoes of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time but on probably 5% of the budget. It’s brilliant, particularly in act one.  But how she visually re-represents it in the closing scene is nothing short of genius.

This is very great theatre and you have only four days to see it.

There are seats.

If you miss it and you’re too mean to pay the train fare or petrol to get to Dundee don’t come greeting to me.

I told you, for free, how great it is.

(PS.  I’ve seen Let the Right one in, Road Kill, Sweeney Todd and now Room at Dundee Rep in recent years.  It is a trip but I’ll tell you what, £ for £ this is the best theatre in Scotland.  It constantly punches above its weight and it always disappoints me that the auditorium isn’t full.  Please fellow theatre lovers keep an eye out for their programme: their new season is peppered with brilliance.)

Jane Eyre: National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic on tour. Review.


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My wife and I were not in the right frame of mind today and so a trip to the theatre this afternoon was neither top of our priorities nor particularly anticipated; but we’d bought the tickets.

I have two theatre mind sets.  Amateur and professional.  And it always disappoints me that professional theatre doesn’t get the emotional response that Amateur does.

That changed today with a standing ovation at The Festival Theatre in Edinburgh.

For this is a show that astounds in every way.  Sound, light, scenery, performance, music, movement and, above all else, direction.

We have a new superstar in British theatrical direction.

She is named Sally Cookson and she is miraculous.

Well, I say new, she’s been directing for Bristol Old Vic for over a decade.  But I knew her not.

This production is mouthwatering.  It’s eyeballing.  It is superb.

It brings a degree of women’s lib to a book (that I have not read) that is compelling and meaningful.  Maybe Bronte meant it that way Maybe Cookson just saw it that way.  Anyway it’s fucking brilliant.

Three hours that pass in a nanosecond.

The music, which draws from Penguin Cafe sequence style at one moment, to jazz at another and pop in a third is gobsmacking.

The sound design helps.

I wept at the the last line.  “It’s a girl.” Five times.

That is not a spoiler, but when you see it I hope you too are reduced to pulp.

My wife and I agree on much, disagree on many things, but both of us said (in a state of heightened emotion as we left the Festival Theatre) “that was the best experience I have ever had in a (professional) theatre.”

Theatrical perfection.

We will be going again to see it in Glasgow and I urge you to do likewise.

Fences: Movie Review


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I feel a little mean criticising a Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony winning play that has now become a movie.   In the 2016 stage revival of the 1983 August Wilson play, both Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, the movie’s stars,  picked up best actor awards for their performances, alongside fellow actors Stephen Henderson (Bono), Mykelti Williamson (Gabe) and Russell Hornsby (Lyons).

But, and here’s the rub. This is very much a play.  Not a movie.

Ever seen a good movie version of All my Sons, A view from the Bridge, Death of a Salesman? (A minor success of the latter hit our screens in 2000, winning a couple of Golden Globes, but nothing of significance from the Miller pen has made the cut in the last 50 years.)

That’s because Miller, like Wilson, wrote for the stage.  Long, often deeply allegorical speeches populate both of their plays about life, the universe, family, honour, duty, human fragility and responsibility.  Meaty subjects that work in the intimacy of theatre where you can almost smell the actor’s vulnerability.

Hats off to Denzel Washington for taking a modern theatre classic, crafted very much in  the style of Arthur Miller, and attempting to recreate that dramatic tension on the screen. Incidentally it has taken 35 years to reach us because August Wilson strictly instructed that this ultimate of ‘Black’ plays could only be directed on screen by a ‘black’ director.

But, my overall criticism is that, from the opening extended and overly vernacular scene (for my ears) which is a dialogue between Troy (Washington) Bono (Henderson) and Rose (Davis), this feels like a stage production with a few wide angle shots and locations thrown in.

(As an aside, in the first scene the continuity person needs a rocket as the levels in the very obvious ‘pint’ of gin that Troy shares goes up and down like a yo-yo.  A criminal mistake given that the prop is central to illustrate Troy’s dependence on alcohol.)

The play’s title is a full-on allegory about the role of the fence that Troy laboriously builds throughout the play (something Donald Trump might surely prick his ears up to).  On the one hand it’s a physical and protective barrier (Trump’s not much cop at complex allegories so that’s him out of the way now) on the other it’s both an emotional barrier representing Troy’s inability to accept his sons’ affections and a shield to the Grim Reaper who stalks his life.

Both Washington and Davis are excellent in their roles, as are the supporting ensemble, but I could not escape, almost at any point, the fact that this felt a cheat. A pirate movie for those of us who couldn’t see it (like me) in the theatre, where it should be seen.  It made me distinctly uncomfortable.

It’s like watching pop stars mime in film studios.  Somehow fake, unreal, unworthy.

For all its strengths I’m reminded of a quote by a former Hibernian FC manager, Bobby Williamson, a dull and forgettable man in any other scheme of things.

He uttered the immortal sentence, after another 0 – 0 draw,  “If you want entertainment, go to the theatre.”

That’s how I saw this production.