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Sep 10th

The American Wife at the Park Theatre

By Carolin Kopplin

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Karen Ruiz (Julia Eringer)

All we care about is saving people from a very serious and imminent terrorist attack. Are you going to help your country or not?

When I returned to the U. S. after 9/11 the country had changed. There was paranoia in the air. People were led to believe that terrorists could hide anywhere - in NYC as well as in a barn in North Dakota. Therefore, restrictive laws and human rights violations became justifiable and accepted to protect American lives. The American Wife attempts to discuss some of these issues.

Karen Ruiz lives an idyllic life with husband Eduardo, a former Spanish football star, who now works as a soccer coach, and their two children. They are ready to move to Phoenix, AZ where Eduardo has been offered a job, when Eduardo suddenly disappears. Karen soon finds out that Eduardo has been arrested on terror charges by the American authorities. Advised by AP journalist Mark Loomis that her husband has been transferred to Afghanistan as an enemy detainee, Karen tries everything to see her husband released. Yet is the gentle Eduardo really the man she thinks he is?

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Eduardo Ruiz (Vidal Sancho) restrained by Egyptian soldiers (Sanee Raval and Sophie Angelson) 

Co-written by New York Times bestseller author Ralph Pezzullo and playwright Stephen Fife, American Wife is a failed attempt to deal with a very complex subject. Instead of a thoughtful play, they have produced a script for a cheap B movie with clichéd characters and a good deal of unhealthy nationalism and xenophobia that trivialises the problem of terrorism. The storyline is so preposterous that it might work as satire but hardly as a serious drama. 

Eduardo Ruiz (Vidal Sancho) an alleged "sleeper", supposedly committed terrorist acts whilst his Spanish team played away-games and he was laid up with a bad back - the matches "coincided" with terror attacks. No wonder his wife doubts the truth of this accusation. Karen (Julia Eringer) is understandably shocked about the way her husband is treated, especially because she considers him innocent and a patriotic American who has even painted the U. S. flag on his garage door. When she travels to Afghanistan, with the help of AP reporter Mark Loomis (George Taylor) who has some incredibly good connections, she is robbed, mugged, almost raped and ends up in prison. Thankfully, she lets the authorities know her nationality: "Please don't hurt me, I'm an American!" or worse things could happen as Afghanistan is obviously inhabited and ruled by thugs and thieves. The U. S. authorities are hostile too - she is almost shot in one instance - but these actions are justified because she is associated with an enemy detainee. After Eduardo is shipped off to Egypt, where he supposedly committed a terrorist attack, Karen is informed by the U. S. Ambassador (Mitchell Mullen) that "justice in Egypt is very different" before he picks up the phone to arrange an appointment with Dr Hassan (Emilio Doorgasingh), the man who has her husband tortured. The charismatic Dr Hassan immediately makes a pass at Karen and suggests a deal. However, in the end he does not use his powerful position to get what he wants. Instead he advises her: "Go home, pretty woman, and forget this piece of s***." It is surprising that the audience did not start giggling before the interval.

The actors have a difficult time working with a badly written, implausible script and some of the time I got the impression that they did not want to be on stage any more, which is understandable because their talent was wasted. The production itself is very cinematic and seems more like a TV show than a theatre play.

A disappointing production.

By Carolin Kopplin

Until 1st October 2016 at the Park Theatre

Venue: Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, N4 3JP 

Booking: www.parktheatre.co.uk / 020 7870 6876  

Running time: 2 hours including one interval.

Photographs by Orlando James.

Sep 7th

The Great Divide at the Finborough Theatre

By Carolin Kopplin

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Rosa (Hannah Genesius) and Jacob (Josh Collins)

Life was like being in a room with a locked door.

On the afternoon of Saturday, 25 March, a fire breaks out in a sweatshop and because of insufficient safety measures 146 people perish in the flames, 136 of them women. Although this terrible event happened in New York in 1911, it might as well be found in today's news - reporting on a factory in one of the countries were our clothes are now manufactured and workers often endure similar conditions to the sweatshop workers in New York 100 years ago.

Winner of the 2015 Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition, and a finalist in the 2015 Henley Rose Playwriting Competition for Women, Alix Sobler's play tells the individual stories of some of the doomed workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, most of them young Jewish women from Eastern Europe and Russia, who came to America for a better life.

The traverse stage is bare except for a few big suitcases. Splintered, burnt wooden slabs decorate the maroon walls, resembling a creepy skyline of a big American city (stage design by Sebastian Noel). The performance is framed by Tim Shaw's music, resembling Jewish folk songs. After their opening song, the cast state that their characters are not real, they are representatives of those who died in the fire, whose lives have been summarised. They could be from any country - Russia, Ukraine, Poland but the main character is to be Rosa, a young Jewish woman from Russia.

Rosa (Hannah Genesius) is tired of living in a country where persecution and pogroms are regular occurences. She feels like she is trapped in a cage. Her brother Avram (Josh Collins), a Marxist, urges her to stay and help him change the country - the Russian revolution had not happened yet - but Rosa prefers to try her luck in America with her sister Sadie (Mitzli Rose Neville). When Sadie meets a nice young man on the boat and marries him, she leaves Rosa to fend for herself. Rosa manages to find work in a sewing factory and helps support Sadie's family. She also makes a new friend - the poet Manya (Emma King) from Poland, who helps Rosa tell her story and prods her to continue whenever she is tempted to stop.

Alix Sobler's play is softened with a bit of humour and romance. Most of the workers are young Jewish women who converse in Yiddish. In one scene, Italian newbie Sophie (Mitzli Rose Neville) compliments Rosa on her very good English, confusing Yiddish with English because everybody in the factory seems to speak it. Rosa also attracts a suitor, Jacob (Josh Collins), who works as a cutter in the factory, but Rosa is reluctant because he admires her beauty, not her intellect.

Rosa's work is hard, back-breaking. Foreman Max (Michael Kiersey), a "pawn of the capitalist pigs" is driving them mercilessly and the noise of the rattling sewing machines, created by the cast, reverbarates in the intimate theatre. In 1909, Rosa decides to join the general strike of New York's shirtwaist industry, together with 20,000 others. One of the union leaders is 23-year old Clara Lemlich (Mitzli Rose Neville) who suffers brutal beatings by paid thugs. The strike lasts for eleven weeks. Some of their demands are met but safety regulations are not on top of the list.

Skilfully and sensitively directed by Rory McGregor, the play has a very Brechtian approach, with the cast frequently commenting on their actions and those of their characters. In one very touching scene, Manya refuses to accept what is going to happen to her. Instead she tells us the future that she sees for herself, as it shoud have happened. Sadly, there is no alternative for Manya.

A very important play with an impressive cast that should not be missed.

By Carolin Kopplin

Until 20th September 2016

Finborough Theatre 

Running time: 90 minutes without an interval.

Photograph by Graeme Braidwood. 

Sep 4th

The Gospel According to Philip by Arrows and Traps at the Jack Studio Theatre

By Carolin Kopplin

God moves in mysterious ways.

The Offie-nominated theatre company Arrows & Traps return to the Brockley Jack Studio after their sell-out production "Anna Karenina" with their take on the New Testament - the world premiere of Richard Melchior and Heidi Svoboda's hilarious black comedy The Gospel According to Philip.

In this fusion of Monty Python, Blackadder and The Book of Mormon, Jesus is trying to organise his Lord of the Dance 30AD tour, but his disciples are more hindrance than help. Judas and Peter are constantly bickering, Matthew keeps asking the wrong questions, and Paul struggles with his sexuality. James doesn't seem to know what is going on at all. Only Philip seems to keep a clear head and he is the one who writes everything down in his diary.

Young Philip (Will Mytum), a fisherman like his father and grandfather, drops everything to become a "fisher of men" and to see the world. His mother (Adam Elliott) is not amused but Philip's decision is final: He has to follow the Saviour. Philip is also the Narrator of the story. Philip's best friend is Simon, now called Peter the Rock (Tom Telford), who considers himself the top apostle, yet his position is constantly challenged by the cheeky Judas (Adam Elliott), a cool cat whose insolence is matched by his cleverness. Judas watches with obvious pleasure as Jesus (divine: Pearce Sampson) struggles with Matthew's (Gareth Kearns) never-ending questions and the childish squabbles among his disciples. Paul (Alex Stevens) is permanently angry because his sexuality, which he keeps on denying, condemns him to hell.

Ross McGregor's production is fast-paced and the cast have great comic timing. As Jesus is on a Lord of the Dance tour, there are plenty of dance numbers with suitable lyrics (choreography by Pearce Sampson). Although this is a laugh out loud comedy, there are also quiet, contemplative moments.

Pearce Sampson's Jesus is the straight man in this black comedy. He is trying to follow what is written but his often infantile disciples keep trying his patience. Sampson's scene in the Garden of Gethsemane is darkly funny but at the same time very touching. Adam Elliott is a charismatic Judas, skilfully playing his part in the story. Will Mytum's Philip is truly enlightened. Whenever he addresses the audience, his face takes on an otherworldly look coupled with a benign smile and he adopts a holy lisp. Alex Stevens gives a hysterically funny performance as the tortured Paul who is in extreme self-denial. Elle Banstead Salim is very good as a self-confident Mary Madalene and an obnoxious Receptionist.

Some of the scenes are a bit dragged out, such as the preachy epsiode in the desert when Jesus encounters Satan, played by Olivia Hanrahan-Barnes, who is very good as Lazarus's wife. Satan is wearing a kiddie costume with footsies, which is, of course, the opposite of scary or tempting. Philip's final speech could also do with some cuts. Yet these are minor issues in a fun-filled evening. 

This production provides lots of laughs and is a great evening out.

By Carolin Kopplin

The short run at the Brockley Jack Theatre has ended.

Until 8th September 2016 at Theatre N16 in Balham.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including an interval.

 

Sep 3rd

Noël Coward's Home Chat at the Finborough Theatre

By Carolin Kopplin

RichardDempseyandZoeWaitesbyBobWorkman.jpgPeter Chelsworth (Richard Dempsey) and Janet Ebony (Zoë Waites)

I am shirking off the chains that have shackled me for so long – I have suddenly come to realise that I am a woman – a living, passionate, pulsating woman – it never occurred to me before.

The Finborough Theatre is presenting yet another gem - a forgotten Noël Coward play that has not been performed in the UK in almost 90 years! When Home Chat premiered at the Duke of York Theatre in 1927, it was met with hostility. Obviously the audience was not ready for Coward's revolutionary play, which features a strong female character breaking societal norms - one year before women were finally granted the vote. Yet times have changed and one would expect this witty and intelligent play to be part of the regularly performed canon of Noël Coward's work, especially because it boasts a wonderful female lead - Janet Ebony.

Janet and her best friend Peter are on their way home from Paris when they become involved in a terrible train crash. They survive unharmed but outrage and scandal ensue when it is revealed that they were sharing a sleeping compartment at 3.30 am, when the accident occurred. Janet is not welcomed by a loving family, concerned about her welfare, but by a husband who, influenced by his agitating mother, is convinced that Janet and Peter are having an affair. Even her own mother does not believe in Janet's innocence, chiding her for not being more discreet. Incredulous at her family's accusations, Janet decides to take revenge by inventing an adulterous affair with Peter, who is fair game.

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Mrs Ebony (Polly Adams) and Mrs Chilham (Joanna David)

Janet Ebony (Zoë Waites) had resigned to a life in stagnation with her unexpectedly dull writer-husband Paul (Tim Chipping). Yet when she finds her nearest and dearest accusing her of having an adulterous affair although she pleads her innocence, she realises that it is time for a change. Janet, like one of Ibsen's heroines, decides to break free and live her own life. She dismisses her husband's unwarranted forgiveness. His hurt indignation is quite ironic as he claims to have a similar relationship with Mavis Wittersham (Clare Lawrence Moody) as Janet has with Peter. Maybe he is so ready to suspect Janet because Mavie is truly in love with him and - unlike Janet - adores every word he utters. Janet is a courageous, strong character and a gift to any actor, and Zoë Waites makes the most it. She has good chemistry with Richard Dempsey, who plays the somewhat underwritten Peter Chelsworth. The two matriarchs, Mrs Ebony (Polly Adams) and Mrs Chilham (Joanna David) deliver some of Coward's wittiest and most cutting lines as they fight for their respective children like lionesses.

Martin Parr's production does full justice to Coward's sharp wit and Robert Hazle's rendition of Catherine Jayes' jazzy songs during scene changes accentuate the melancholy undertone of the piece. Rebecca Bower's ingenious stage design, aided by Peter Malkin's sound actually manage to reproduce a train crash on the intimate Finborough stage.

A production that must not be missed!

By Carolin Kopplin 

Until 24th September 2016

Finborough Theatre

Running time: 2 hours including an interval.

Photographs by Bob Workman.

Sep 2nd

Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola: Maria de Buenos Aires

By Carolin Kopplin

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Sleepy Sparrow of Buenos Aires, you will never reach me.

María de Buenos Aires with the music of Astor Piazzolla and the poetry of Uruguayan writer Horacio Ferrer is a celebration of the tango. First performed in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1968, this “tango operita” is a surreal, spiritual story filled with passion divided in two parts. Born in a deprived suburb, on a day “when God was drunk”, the dancer Maria lives and breathes the tango. She is desired by all men and eventually ends up as a streetwalker. One day she is killed in a crime of passion. In the second part, Maria is reborn as the “Shadow of Maria”, roaming the streets of Buenos Aires to atone for her sins, haunted by the voices of thieves and brothel keepers in the city that killed her. Yet in a way Maria is now free.

Presented by Operaview, a company known for merging opera with dance and visual arts, Natalie Katsou’s production features the tango quintet Deco Ensemble under the musical direction of Ricardo Gosalbo and a cast of six singers and dancers. The stage is a dance floor, with the orchestra located upstage and red dancing shoes suspended from the ceiling and a garden with a floor of red fabric and decorated with beautiful flowers on the upper level (set design by Jemima Robinson). The cast and the orchestra are dressed in black and red costumes except for the young Maria and the Shadow of Maria, who are dressed in pure white (design by Kate Royds).

Duende (Matthew Wade), a creature of the night, wearing a black fishnet dress, leggings complete with dragonfly-like wings and goggles begins narrating the story of Maria, thereby conjuring her. She first appears as an innocent child (Meliz Taylor) who suffers deprivation, using a cable as a skipping rope, before she turns into a young woman (Catarina Sereno) with a burning passion for tango as she walks the streets of Buenos Aires, becoming one with the city. The Payador (Ian Helm), a folk singer, comments on her experiences as she encounters two passionate dancers (Bianca Vrcan and Sacha El Masry), the Thief (Ian Helm) and many other characters. After her death, she reappears as the Shadow of Maria in a beautiful garden before descending back into the city where she is haunted by the voices of the seedy underbelly of Buenos Aires - a Chorus of Old Thieves, Brothel Madams, and 3 Magi Bricklayers.

The poetry of the Horacio Ferrer's libretto is strange and beautiful, complimenting Astor Piazzolla’s powerful music - a fusion of jazz and tango rhythms, milongas and contramilongas, structured around classical forms such as waltzes and marches. Instrumental pieces such as the remarkable “Fuga y misterio” alternate with magical arias – “Yo soy Maria”, which became an instant hit and is one of the highlights of this production -, the funny song of the psychoanalysts and the heartrending “Carta a los arboles y las chimeneas” (Letter to the Trees and Chimneys).  DecoEnsemble, composed of Lucia Veintimilla (violin), Elena Marigomez (double bass), Ricardo Gosalbo (piano), Bartosz Glowacki (accordion), and Rob Luft (electric guitar) was excellent. Ian Helm and Catarina Sereno sang the difficult arias flawlessly.

Yet I found the production very static and the action on the stage left me unmoved. If I had listened to a radio broadcast, it would have had the same effect. The characters hardly moved, except for the dancers and Duende who seemed to overcompensate for the lack of action in the production. Matthew Wade was acting his heart out and did too much whereas the other characters did not do enough. There was little applause until the quintet played the “Fugue”. The lyrics and text were in Spanish, with the exception for Duende’s lines, and English surtitles were projected onto the walls but the surtitles closest to me were obscured by the red shoes that were suspended from the ceiling. Whenever I turned to the alternative options I missed what was happening on the stage.

The production was rather scaled down. The voices haunting the Shadow of Maria were identical, no matter whether we were listening to the 3 Magi Bricklayers, the Chorus of Brothel Madams or the Chorus of Old Thieves. The puppetry consisted of a bar with three marionettes attached that was tilted up or down. It was not quite clear why they were there in the first place but I read later that they were controlled by Duende which was not actually made clear.

A production that becomes alive through its music and the beautiful singing voices but is lacking as a performance.

Until 3rd September 2016

Arcola Theatre

Running time: 90 minutes without an interval

Suitable for 12+ 

Aug 30th

The Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre

By Carolin Kopplin

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 This is an opera for a city that has gone beyond morality.

When Brecht and Weill staged The Threepenny Opera in 1928, Brecht intended their work to pull a punch. This was no dour didactic piece, lecturing people on capitalism, but a highly theatrical show that was meant to make people think, true, but also to entertain.

Rufus Norris has had some experience with both The Beggar's Opera and Brecht's adaptation, which was based on Elisabeth Hauptmann's translation of John Gay's piece. Realising that the book needed editing and updating, Norris asked Simon Stephens to provide a fresh and raw text that would speak to today's audience.

Stephens' version takes the action to 1920s London. An eight-piece band, directed by David Shrubsole, opens the performance with the Balladeer (George Ikediashi), who is wearing a gold helmet as a connection to more traditional opera, and provides a rendition of "Mack the Knife" whilst some of the ensemble help us visualise Macheath's misdeeds by performing shenanigans in a flimsy frame resembling a puppet theatre.

Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum (Nick Holder), a solid businessman who runs a profitable begging organisation, is not amused. His wife Celia (Haydn Gwynn) projectile-vomits across the stage after another binge drinking night and Filch (Sarah Amankwah) thought he could get away with working freelance, taking potential earnings away from Peachum's organisation. Peachum sets Filch straight and sends him off to Canning Town after having cast the new man in a suitable begging role. The beggars all play parts - shell-shocked war veteran, lunatic, abused child... But there is another shock in store for Peachum: His daughter Polly (Rosalie Craig) has run off with gangster boss Macheath (Rory Kinnear).

Meanwhile Polly is enjoying wedded bliss with her new husband as they are lowered onto the stage in a shiny, sparkling moon. When Macheath's gang hopes to gang-rape her as usual after one of Macheath fake weddings, Macheath refuses. And Polly looks very much unlike Macheath's usual ware - donning glasses and a plain dress, she resembles an accountant or librarian and but she has brains, which is just what Macheath needs because he wants to become a businessman like Peachum. When Polly sings "Pirate Jenny" she gets the respect of Macheath's gang, taking over whilst Macheath has to lay low for a while.

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Polly Peachum (Rosalie Craig) and Macheath (Rory Kinnear)

But Macheath visits the brothel instead of hiding away. A notorious womaniser, his brain is inoperative once his sex drive kicks in, which is why he included Police Chief "Tiger" Brown's daughter in his collection. John and Jackie served in Kandahar together and are firm friends and - in Stephens' version - far more than that. Tiger Brown needs Macheath to keep quiet about their past, which makes it even easier for him to turn a blind eye to his friend's wrongdoings.

Polly's parents are not pleased about her new husband and Peachum pressurises Tiger Brown to arrest Macheath. Celia offers the whores a vast sum of money to lure Macheath into a trap so the police can arrest him. When Macheath is caught and jailed, he is visited by both of his wives - Polly Peachum and Lucy Brown (Debbie Kurup) who is a sexy seductress and the opposite of the somewhat mousey Lucy. Their argument escalates into an impressive song duel, one of the highlights of the show. Macheath ditches Polly and Lucy helps him escape.

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Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum (Nick Holder) and Tiger Brown (Peter de Jersey)

Rufus Norris’ production should please Bertolt Brecht because it is highly theatrical. There is little room for naturalism. Simon Stephens' language is rougher and filthier but some of the characters look like pure Otto Dix, others resemble cartoons or comedians straight out of the silent movies. The police force is the spitting image of the Keystone Cops, which might be intentional as in one scene Peachum is holding a megaphone with "Sennett" printed on it, clearly referring to Mack Sennett. Entrails of red wool spill out whenever acts of violence are committed. The stage design by Vicki Mortimer consists of set pieces moved about the stage including various devices that look interesting but don't have any function whatsover. The production has a carnevalesque grotesqueness that distances the audience from the characters and judge them critically.

The cast is excellent throughout. Rory Kinnear is not a matinee idol as Macheath but Brecht did not intend him to be. Donning a thin moustache and dressed in a three-piece suit, he is sinister in a rather attractive way and has a beautiful singing voice. Nick Holder is outstanding as Peachum, so sure of himself and his status that he dares prance around in makeup, heels and a Louise Brooks wig. Haydn Gwynne is wonderfully unscrupulous as his alcoholic wife Celia. Rosalie Craig and Debbie Kurup convince as Mcheath's combative, sharp-tongued wives.

Simon Stephens' adaptation proves that this work is still relevant in a world that is ruled by the rich 1% who know that they can get away with anything. Yet the heart and soul of The Threepenny Opera remain Kurt Weill's timeless melodies - "Pirate Jenny", "Mack the Knife" and "Surabaya Johnny" - which is a guest tune from another show, strictly speaking.

By Carolin Kopplin

Until 1 October 2016 at the Olivier Theatre (National Theatre)

Tickets: https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/threepenny-opera 

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including one interval

The Threepenny Opera will be broadcast live to over 650 cinemas nationwide on Thursday 22 September.

Photographs by Richard Hubert Smith.

Aug 29th

Grimeborn at the Arcola: The Dowager's Oyster by Mander/Cherry

By Carolin Kopplin

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Grimeborn has returned to the Arcola for the 10th year, offering bold new versions of classic operas, forgotten works and brand new pieces.  The Dowager's Oyster with music by Louis Mander and lyrics/ book by Jack Cherry is a new operetta supposedly combining Gilbert & Sullivan with Agatha Christie.

The two-act operetta is based on an original story by the composer and takes us back to 1924, Rochester House. Cynthia (Jane Wilkinson) convinces her aged mother Lady Tindale (Melanie Lodge) to embark on a holiday to the French island of Oléron, accompanied by their maid unenthusiastic maid Genevieve (Caroline Kennedy). Cynthia's fiancé Freddy (Aidan Coburn) cannot join them as he prefers going to Morocco with his - unknown to Cynthia - lover Christopher (Tom Morss). On their journey to France, Cynthia and her mother encounter two old friends - Karl Grinzig (Henry Neill) and his wife Marta (Clare Barnett-Jones), who indulge in gossping about everyone on board the ferry, including the Dowager and Cynthia, who they consider much too dowdy for an attractive catch such as Freddy.

As they arrive on the somewhat backwards island Oléron that - nomen est omen - has a distinctive fishy smell, they share a rickety ride to their chalets. Whilst Cynthia is pining for her absent love, Freddy is having a ball in Morocco. But Freddy knows that his love for Christopher has to remain a secret. He will have to marry Cynthia and continue to hide his true love. One day when Cynthia and her mother, whose unpleasant demeanour has not made her many friends on the island as yet, have a meal in a nice café, Lady Tindale suddenly drops to the floor and dies. The coroner Dr Gibaud (Julian Debreuil) declares that Lady Tindale was poisoned and sets off to find the culprit as he is also the police detective of the island.

Jack Cherry's production is broad farce and the characters are drawn as caricatures, leaving the actors/singers little room to develop their roles. Still Melanie Lodge's comical performance as the sour faced Dowager is definitely one highlight of the show. Although this is a new operetta, the book appears very dated and does not even come close to Gilbert's writing, which seems fresh and sophisticated in comparison. Many of the jokes are very clichéd, e.g. "Freddy is having a gay old time in Morocco", and there is plenty of slapstick humour. However, the music and singing are highly enjoyable with many catchy tunes by musical director Louis Mander, who also directed the talented orchestra during the evening: Karen Street on the accordion, Jack Cherry on double bass, and Jacob Powell - usually hidden away in complete darkness - on the drums. The set design by Anna Driftmier is very basic, adding to the cartoonish nature of the production.

This is a very silly bit of fun.  

By Carolin Kopplin

Arcola Theatre

Running time: 100 minutes with one interval

Grimeborn Festival

 23 July - 8 Sepember 2016

More info: http://www.arcolatheatre.com/grimeborn/

Aug 28th

The Plough and the Stars at the National Theatre

By Carolin Kopplin

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Nora Clitheroe (Judith Roddy) and Uncle Peter (Lloyd Hutchinson)

Ireland has not known the exhilaration of war for 100 years.

After the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, the National Theatre is now also staging Sean O'Casey's classic to commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising. The third play in O'Casey's Dublin trilogy, The Plough and the Stars is set in a tenement house in Dublin from November 1915 to Easter 2016 and focuses on the lives of the tenents rather than on the actual participants of the Easter Rising.

As the curtain rises, a run-down tenement building appears that looks like it is crumbling in front of our eyes. Mrs Grogan (Josie Walker) is gossiping about Nora Clitheroe who she accuses of thinking herself better than anybody else in the building. Her point seems to be proven when Nora receives a big package with an expensive hat inside. The good-natured Fluther Good (Stephen Kennedy) is taking her rant with a pinch of salt. Meanwhile Peter Flynn (Lloyd Hutchinson), Nora's uncle, is getting ready to attend a memorial in honour of the Irish patriots, to be followed by a "meeting". He is relentlessly mocked by Young Covey (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), a would-be socialist who throws quotes by Marx at him and makes snide remarks about Peter's outdated uniform. Also in the tenement building lives Bessie Burgess (Justine Mitchell), a unionist whose son has joined the British Army and is fighting in the trenches. She appears tough and stubborn but takes care of Mrs Grogan's daughter Mollser (Róisin O'Neill), who is suffering from comsumption.

This is Nora Clitheroe's (Judith Roddy) birthday and she is eagerly awaiting her husband Jack (Fionn Walton). Jack is a member of the Irish Citizens Army but has not seen much action lately because Nora has destroyed a message from Captain Brennan (Adam Best), Jack's commanding officer, promoting Jack to Commandant. When the Captain comes to find out whether Jack has received his message, Jack learns the truth from Nora and leaves immediately to do his duty, leaving his pregnant wife behind.

The revolving stage then transports the action to a pub where the meeting is taking place - outside. Sean O'Casey deliberately distances us from the speakers by letting us witness the meeting only in parts through the large pub windows, reducing the main speaker to a mere "Figure in the Window" (Christopher Patrick Nolan), who makes his appearance at the same time as the local prostitute Rosie Redmond (Gráinne Keenan): Both have something to sell and are equally unimpressed by the harm they might do - whereas the prostitute is probably the lesser evil. The Figure in the Window is portrayed as an agitator who praises World War I as being good for Ireland and tells people to strike now, to get accustomed to the use of arms and to fight the British: "Without the shedding of blood, there will be no redemption!" Neither of the men are particularly roused by the speech and Rosie is equally unsuccessful with the young socialist.

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Mrs Grogan (Josie Walker)

After the interval, the fighting is in full swing and a very pregnant Nora is desperately searching for her husband Jack to take him home. Nora is not impressed by the patriotic sacrifice she is supposed to make: "They have driven away the little happiness life had to spare for me". Whilst Bessie Burgess is enthusiastically belting "Rule Britannia" from her window, British artillery is rolling into Dublin. Bessie and Mrs Grogan are soon fighting over a pram to join the looters in the streets who take advantage of the anarchy in their city. When Jack appears with another officer and a wounded comrade, Nora tries to take him back inside but Jack cannot desert the cause. Jack might never return to her, leaving her alone to raise their baby: "Men die a hero's death and women are left to mourn them."

Sean O'Casey's play is a satirical view of the Easter Rising, there is little sympathy for the rebels who are responsible for immense suffering of the civilian population. The fighters are willing to sacrifice themselves for a free Ireland but the civilians who don't have any choice or say in the matter, also suffer the consequences: 450 people were killed and another 2,500 injured, half of them civilians. Yet there is also heavy criticism of the British Army as a corporal and a sergeant nonchalantly discuss "plucking" the occasional innocent civilian, also women and children, because they confuse them with snipers. There is little remorse.

When Howard Davies fell ill, Jeremy Herrin took over as director and their co-direction produced a round and gripping production that transports the audience 100 years back in time, helped by Vicki Mortimer's ingenious and flexible set design that uses the revolving stage to full effect. The cast is outstanding, most of all Judith Roddy as Nora who has to embark on a journey of pain because Ireland is more important than a wife.  

By Carolin Kopplin

Until 22nd October 2016 at the Lyttelton Theatre (National Theatre)

Tickets: Click here

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including one interval

All photographs by Johan Persson.

Aug 26th

Lazarus Theatre Company Presents Tis Pity She's a Whore at the Tristan Bates Theatre

By Carolin Kopplin

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Annabella (Lucy Walker-Evans) and Giovanni (Prince Plockey)

Love me or kill me, brother.

John Ford's scandalous play about an incestuous relationship between brother and sister was omitted from an 1831 collection of his plays and harshly judged until well into the twentieth century. Recently revived by the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the controversial and rather gory play is now presented in a new adaptation by Ricky Dukes and Lazarus Theatre Company at the Tristan Bates Theatre.

The auditorium has been transformed into a traverse stage dominated by a table in the centre. Members of the audience are welcomed with red wine and directed to either side of the stage. The story is now set in the twentieth century and the actors are wearing modern dress. The performance begins with a dance that soon turns into violence - a metaphor for John Ford's gruesome tragedy.

Annabella (Lucy Walker-Evans) is the right age to get married and her guardian Putana (Steph Reynolds) is discussing suitable husbands with her. Soranzo (Alexander Shenton) appears to be perfect - "a rich, wise nobleman" but Annabella is not interested in any of her suitors. Annabella's brother Giovanni is meanwhile seeing Friar Bonaventura (Edward Boon) because he has a severe problem - he is in love with his sister. Despite the Friar's warnings, Giovanni declares his love to Annabella and she reciprocates his feelings. Putana welcomes Annabella's decision. Annabella and Giovanni are happy for a while but Giovanni knows that Annabella will have to get married. Soranzo seems like the best choice. But Annabella is already pregnant with her brother's child.

Hippolita (Sasha Wilson) and her lover Soranzo have plotted to murder her husband, Richardetto (Nick Biadon). After Richardetto is supposedly dead, Soranzo leaves Hippolita because he wants to marry Annabella instead. Soranzo's servant Vasques (Stephen MacNeice) promises to help Hippolita to avenge herself on Soranzo, and the pair agree to marry after killing him.

Bergetto (Luke Danford) is in love with Philotis (Valerie Isaiah) who has arrived with the new doctor. The doctor is really Hippolita's husband Richardetto and Philotis is his niece. Richardetto is plotting his revenge on the treacherous Hippolita and Soranzo.

The cast is on stage at all times, wearing 3D glasses like a 1950s cinema audience, whenever they are spectators watching the tragedy unfold - curious yet without emotion. Vasques takes over the role of MC, using a microphone for additional effect. Prince Plockey is excellent as Giovanni, wooing his sister with mellifluous verse and defending his love passionately before the scandalised Friar. Lucy Walker-Evans is virginal in her innocence before she is thrown into an abyss by her brother and her guardian, who should have protected her. Alexander Shenton is a smooth villain as Soranzo. Luke Danford provides some badly needed comic relief as the awkward yet lovable Bergetto.

Lazarus Theatre Company are committed to making classical texts more accessible to a modern audience by fusing text, music, and movement. Often this combination transports the essence of the play far more clearly than a traditional production. In his production, Ricky Dukes decided to focus on love and how society perceives it. Incestuous love is still a taboo today even though nobody would be burned at the stake or mutilated for engaging in it in our society. The gory scenes of the play are toned down and metaphors or narration are used instead, which is just as effective if less bloodthirsty. Lighting is used to great effect (design by Jai Mojaria) in the scenes with the Friar and Giovanni, particularly when the Friar describes what Giovanni's afterlife will be like - a green hell in eternal torment.

An intriguing adaptation of a controversial classic.

By Carolin Kopplin 

Until 10th September 2016

The Tristan Bates Theatre 

More information about the company at www.lazarustheatrecompany.com

Running time: 90 minutes without an interval.

Photo by Adam Trigg.

Aug 25th

National Youth Theatre: The Reluctant Fundamentalist at the Finborough Theatre

By Carolin Kopplin

 Know the true definition of yourself and after you know it, flee from it.

This is the third and final production ending the short yet exciting season of the National Youth Theatre at the Finborough. It is also the first ever stage production of Mohsin Hamid's novel, in an adaptation by Stephanie Street.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist tells the story of a young Pakistani named Ghangez who wins a scholarship to Princeton and soon finds himself on the road to success, working as a financial analyst in Wall Street and living the high life. But after 9/11, Ghangez begins to question his choices. Written in the form of a dramatic monologue, the story is framed by a meeting between the protagonist and an American visitor whom he meets in a street café in Lahore to tell him the story of his life.

As the audience is taking their seats in the auditorium, which has been transformed into a theatre in the round, daylight is streaming in through a window facing Finborough Road. Two actors are already on the bare stage. One actor is looking out the window, then closes the shutters before he addresses the audience: The American visitor of the novel has been replaced by the audience as we find ourselves in a street café in Lahore, being served street food and tea throughout the performance. Ghangez, the Urdu form of Genghis, starts off with a discussion about identity: “We are made of who we’ve loved and hated.” Ghangez loves his brother Hafez (Abubakar Khan) who is a poet like his famous uncle. Together the two brothers take us on a journey from Lahore to New York, on to the Philippines and Chile.

When arriving at Princeton on a scholarship, Ghangez (Akshay Sharan) quickly adapts to the new culture, rooming with a WASP student named Chuck and soon finds himself spending a holiday in Greece with some of his fellow students. Whereas the American boys show the typical rudeness of ignorant western tourists, Ghangez treats the Greek waiter with respect, even bothering to remember his difficult name – Nikos. Ghangez’s mood lightens considerably when he meets Erica (Alice Harding), a would-be writer and genuine person who likes Ghangez because he is polite and “gives people space”. Her boyfriend Chris died of lung cancer some time ago but Erica is still feeling his presence. Ghangez and Erica become fast friends but their relationship is platonic. When Ghangez returns to the States, he starts a highly competitive job as a financial analyst with consultancy firm Underwood Samson in New York. The other new starters are Wainwright (Jasmine Jones), Penn graduate April (Jennifer Walser), and Brit Neil (Joseph Allan). Ghangez is always top of his class and soon wins the respect and friendship of his boss Jim (Laurence Bown), who recruited him because he saw a warrior quality in the young man.

Well adapted, well-adjusted and liked, Ghangez is the poster boy for integration. Yet then 9/11 happens – and Ghangez finds himself feeling pleased. He begins questioning “his new normal”, searching for his true identity. The process is sped up by the growing xenophobia and paranoia in his new home country. Returning from Pakistan, Ghangez faces a humiliating procedure before he is allowed to enter the United States. After Erica agrees to sleep with him, pretending that he is her deceased boyfriend Chris, her mental condition worsens and she breaks up with Ghangez.

Directed by Prasanna Puwanarajah with great skill and sensitivity, this highly relevant production features great performances by the young cast, especially Akshay Sharan as Ghangez and Alice Harding as Erica. The production asks many important questions and it is up to the audience to answer most of them. I overheard several discussions after the performance and found myself searching for answers, together with fellow critic.

A production not to be missed. 

By Carolin Kopplin

Until 27th August 2016

Finborough Theatre

Running time: 90 minutes without an interval.