Here are a few more plays that I’ve seen recently and can happily recommend. As usual, I’ve listed them in closing order – and two of them finish their London runs this weekend, so sorry for the short notice.
One of Those
Tom Ward-Thomas has been channelling Alan Ayckbourn – and his proteges Tim Firth and Torben Betts – for this new comedy. With his own twenty-something, 21st-century perspective, he also manages to bring Ayckbourn’s brand of situational humour, class consciousness and social awkwardness [not to mention playing with parallel time lines] up to date – there are Harry Potter and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo references, smartphones contributing to the mistaken identity larks and even a starring role for himself.
The action in One of Those is all set on a train journey to and from Cornwall. Ward-Thomas is James, a musician and young father, who meets a sexy hipster (Amy Newton) and tries to talk her out of relationship with an older man. Meanwhile, in the next carriage another young woman’s relationship with an older man is upset when the man’s wife arrives unexpectedly. In true Ayckbourn fashion, they’re all connected and simultaneously missing connections throughout.
It’s great fun to witness both the unravelling and tying up of loose ends. The perky and perfectly timed cast also includes Louise Bangray, Emmy Kelly and, taking a break from myriad West End musicals, Martin Ball, directed by Amy Ewbanks with train set design by Matt James. I’d expect a commercial transfer and longer run somewhere for this one.
One of Those finishes at Tristan Bates Theatre until 13 February 2016.
The cast of Pink Mist at the Bush Theatre
Premiered at Bristol Old Vic last year, Pink Mist featured on many critics’ best of the year lists; I feel very lucky that this transfer to the Bush Theatre has given me a chance to see it, and I fervently hope it goes on elsewhere from here.
The title of Owen Sheers’ play is the soldier slang for what’s left when the guy next to them receives a direct hit in battle. It’s a poetic way of representing the brutality of war. The same can be said of Sheers verse drama, which follows three boyhood friends from Bristol who “want to play war” and escape dead-end jobs and pub-crawl ennui. They join the army and are deployed to post 9/11 Afghanistan where they meet their separate fates and bottle up horrors to take home to their loved ones.
Sheers’ poetry finds fluid physical form in a movement-heavy production care of co-directors John Retallack and George Mann (of Theatre Ad Infinitum), designed by Emma Cains with exquisite lighting and sound by, respectively, Peter Harrison and Jon Nicholls. The committed ensemble – Phil Dunster, Peter Edwards and Alex Stedman as the soldiers, Rebecca Hamilton, Rebecca Killick and Zara Ramm as the women who become their collateral damage – make the storytelling at once intimate and epic. Also read My Theatre Mates colleague Aleks Sierz‘s review of Pink Mist.
Pink Mist finishes at the Bush Theatre on 13 February 2016.
Georgina Rich, Clare Skinner and Penny Downie in Rabbit Hole at Hampstead Theatre
David Lindsay-Abaire premiered his first Broadway hit (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Rabbit Hole in 2006 (with a starry cast that included Cynthia Nixon and Tyne Daly), five years before Good People. In the UK we’ve had them in reverse order: Good People received its London premiere at Hampstead Theatre in 2014 in a production which starred Imelda Staunton and transferred to the West End.
Shortly after that, it was announced that Rabbit Hole would premiere at the West End’s Vaudeville Theatre that autumn, directed by Nigel Harman and starring Joanna Froggatt. For undisclosed reasons, that production was cancelled and we’ve had to wait nearly two years for the play’s eventual London premiere, taking Lindsay-Abaire back to Hampstead Theatre under the direction of artistic director Edward Hall. Even this production started with a wobble when one of its stars, Alison Steadman, pulled out during rehearsals.
But all of that is now in the past. What we have here is an accomplished play about parenting and grief, delivered by a superb company – led by Tom Goodman-Hill and Claire Skinner as a young couple whose toddler was hit by a car, with Georgina Rich and Penny Downie (replacing Steadman) as Skinner’s concerned sister and mother – that mines the subject matter for its many compromised nuances. There’s also an incredibly assured debut from Sean Delaney as the teenaged driver seeking redemption.
Rabbit Hole runs at Hampstead Theatre until 5 March 2016.
Sharon D Clarke and the cast of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Speaking of Pulitzer Prizes, the late August Wilson won two of them for his ten-play “Pittsburgh Cycle”, chronicling the African-American experience in the twentieth century. The gongs came for 1985’s Fences (set in the 1950s, and revived in the West End in 2013, starring Lenny Henry and Tanya Moodie) and 1987’s The Piano Lesson (set in the 1930s).
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, premiered in 1984, won other awards (though not the Pulitzer). It’s set in the 1920s and revolves around blues singer Ma Rainey (played by Sharon D Clarke), who baulks against the demands of her white promoters in a makeshift Chicago recording studio. Powerlessness, the tension between commerciality and art, inner-racial prejudice and the causes of knife crime are just some of the big topics covered.
In fact, though Ma Rainey the “star” of the piece and Clarke delivers the song of the show’s title with spine-tingling, soulful gusto, the play is more concerned with “the boys” in the band. Lucian Msamati, Clint Dyer, Giles Terera and OT Fagbenle not only play their instruments but also personify them – piano, trombone, bass and trumpet – in a series of exchanges in the subterranean bandroom. They had me in tears at the end of both acts. A masterpiece, masterfully presented in Dominic Cooke‘s production, designed by Ultz.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom runs in repertory at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre until 18 May 2016.
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Theatre Diary – 10 Feb 16