Since I got back from my month of remote working in Mallorca, I’ve been lucky enough to pack in lots of trips to the theatre, including this quintuplet of limited season plays that are all worth a look. As usual, I’ve listed productions in closing date order, and the first on the list finishes this Saturday, so don’t delay if you want to see it…
Other shows I’ve seen recently, and blogged about separately, include star vehicle West End play revivals, The Mentalists (with Stephen Merchant) and The Importance of Being Earnest (with David Suchet), and two new British musicals at opposite ends of the scale spectrum, screen-to-stager Bend It Like Beckham in the West End and chamber piece The House of Mirrors and Hearts at the Arcola Theatre.
At the bottom of the page, you’ll find tallies for all of these in my ongoing curtain call count measuring diversity on stage.
I saw this Lazarus Theatre production on the same day that Greece voted on the EU’s bullying bailout terms: to be handed a referendum slip as I entered the theatre – asking the audience to decide whether Henry V’s war with France was justified – seemed apt. It speaks to this company’s knack for making Shakespeare timely and topical.
Artistic director Ricky Dukes’ adaptation is swiftly (under two hours) and imaginatively told, performed by a kick-ass band of sisters in boiler suits. Hats off to Dukes (a man) for his all-female casting in this and other Shakespeares: not only does it subtly shift how we hear the verse and consider the play, it goes some way to upping this diary’s diversity score.
It also provides a platform for some mighty talent. The entire Henry V ensemble impress, but seeing Colette O’Rourke swagger and sway in the gargantuan title role, I must mark her out in particular as one to watch – particularly if she gets a chance to give us her Hamlet as well.
Henry V finishes at the Union Theatre this Saturday 18 July 2015.
Robert Sean Leonard and one of three Scouts in To Kill a Mockingbird
To Kill a Mockingbird
Talk about another timely staging. Timothy Sheader’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird was first seen in 2013 at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park where – justifiably – it received rave reviews and a box office boon.
But it’s a very savvy decision to bring it back now, with a successful regional tour concluding in the limited London season – at the same time as the publication of Harper Lee’s ‘new’ Finch family novel, Go Set a Watchman.
Amongst the avalanche of press around Watchman’s release this week is the notion that this ‘sequel’ to the story may diminish Mockingbird in some way. To anyone who fears that may happen to them, I say: go and see this play.
“One thing does not abide by majority rule: your conscience.”
It’s hard to imagine a more successful transition from page to stage – one that is totally faithful to the story but also adds something new, one that makes our collective love for the book a key part of the experience, one that celebrates the beauty of storytelling in all its guises, one that is so beautiful it makes you want to read the book again and then come back and see the play again and so on and so on.
There are some great performances too. The kids (three teams of them – more reason for multiple visits) are simply astounding, and how many times will you have to see the great American actor Robert Sean Leonard onstage here? But it’s the sum of all this Mockingbird’s parts that is so breath-taking. I was so frequently moved to tears, of awe as much as anything, that I stopped bothering to wipe them away.
To Kill a Mockingbird finishes at the Barbican Theatre on 25 July 2015.
Gina Bellman as Vivien Leigh and John Hodgkinson as Orson Welles in Orson’s Shadow © Simon Annand
I also left Southwark Playhouse wanting to buy a book (or books) – though, after seeing Orson’s Shadow, it was non-fiction rather than fiction that I craved.
The premise of American Austin Pendleton’s play, receiving its European premiere here, sounds like a joke. You know the one: Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Tynan meet in a pub…
“A critic must be punctual: that’s all we ask.”
And the punchline is: it’s true! Okay not a pub, but backstage at the Royal Court. Olivier and Welles worked together for the first time in 1960 on the Court’s English-language premiere of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (a play both thought was crap), which Welles directed and Olivier and his soon-to-be-third-wife (once divorce from bipolar second wife Vivien Leigh went through) Joan Plowright starred in.
How did I not know that already? (I’m embarrassed at the paucity of my theatre history knowledge.)
Olivier, Welles, Tynan, Leigh and Plowright are played here by – respectively – Adrian Lukis, John Hodgkinson, Edward Bennett, Gina Bellman and Louise Ford, directed by Alice Hamilton. None of these real-life thespian giants (bar Tynan) come off particularly sympathetically in a backstage battle of egos, but enough glorious eccentricities and towering achievements are hinted at that I left needing to know more about each (thus, biographies now on order).
I imagine anyone interested in screen or stage history – and, if you’re reading my site, I’m guessing that’s you – will be similarly fascinated.
Orson’s Shadow finishes at Southwark Playhouse on 25 July 2015.
Steven Webb and the cast of As Is at Trafalgar Studios
Here’s another must-see for those interested in theatre history. Billed as “the first AIDS play” (though my friend Tom Hescott challenged this on Twitter – see below), William Hoffman’s As Is premiered in 1985: six years before Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and nine years before Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg.
The barn-storming and barrier-breaking success of those later plays contributed to As Is being virtually forgotten. Luckily for us, British director Andrew Keates has sought to rectify that with this 30th anniversary production.
“I feel the disease closing in on me. All my activities are life or death.”
Steven Webb stars as Rich, a young New York writer whose career is just taking off when he learns he’s contracted a new disease called AIDS. As his life and other relationships fall apart (“don’t touch me”, his scared friends and relatives screech), the one thing strengthened is his connection to his ex-lover Saul (played by David Poynor), who wants to stick by him, through whatever, forever, “as is”.
This current West End run of As Is follows a 2013 season at the Finborough, during which Keates himself discovered that he was HIV+. In addition to staging the play, Keates has organised a series of invaluable post-show events, including free HIV testing every Friday, to raise awareness of the devastation that AIDS continues to wreak today.
As Is continues at Trafalgar Studios 2 until 1 August 2015.
Alexandra Gilbreath and Sirine Saba in The Invisible at the Bush Theatre. © Helen Maybanks
And, as I conclude my daisy chain of links (you know how I love to make connections with my theatregoing – if not, read about it here), here’s another play which a) seeks to raise awareness about a pressing social issue and b) increases the height of my reading pile.
The Bush Theatre commissioned Rebecca Lenkiewicz to research and write a play about the impact of this government’s swingeing cuts to legal aid. The Invisible – so called because, if the poor have no recourse to justice, their plight goes unheard and unseen – is the result.
The play centres on two committed legal aid lawyers – played with deep conviction by Alexandra Gilbreath and Sirine Saba – whose local law centre office, and all the cases they handle through it, is unlikely to survive the latest round of budget cuts. Where will the people behind the case numbers go then?
“When I was growing up, the poor were seen as unfortunates. Now they’re seen as manipulative. Grasping. Scroungers. It’s very sad.”
The Invisible is sponsored by The Law Society, and your ticket includes an extensive programme, written by the access-to-justice charity, the Legal Action Group (LAG), which explains the political machinations that have brought us to this perilous state. There are also copies of LAG director Steve Haynes’ tome Austerity Justice for sale in the foyer (I bought mine), more Law Society blogs on the Bush Green website and a post-show talk on Wednesday 22 July.
Given my own experience in the System over the past 18 months (and I echo one of Lenkiewicz’s characters when I tell you, it is absolutely terrifying), I believe passionately in the need for plays like The Invisible to tell the wider public what’s really going on – and to make them angry enough to shout about it.
The telling of the fictionalised stories here didn’t leave me feeling as outraged as I think we all should be about legal aid cuts. There is much more to be done to ensure real access to justice – personally, politically and dramatically – but this is at least an important marker, and I applaud all involved for taking a stand.
The Invisible continues at the Bush Theatre until 15 August 2015.
My theatre (diversity) diary
My curtain call counts for these and the other recent productions I’ve seen are as follows. (Ready about why I’m tracking these stats here.)
Diversity count = 0 male, 10 female (3 BME)
To Kill a Mockingbird
Diversity count = 9 male, 4 female (3 BME)
(Plus three rotating teams of children’s casts, which are 2 male, 1 female)
Diversity count = 4 male, 2 female (0 BME)
Diversity count = 6 male, 2 female (1 BME)
Diversity count = 3 male, 2 female (3 BME)
Diversity count = 2 male, 0 female (0 BME)
The Importance of Being Earnest
Diversity count = 6 male, 3 female (0 BME)
Bend It Like Beckham
Diversity count = 12 male, 26 female (21 BME)
The House of Mirrors and Hearts
Diversity count = 2 male, 3 female (0 BME)
(Plus two teams of children’s casts, which are 2 female)
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Theatre Diary – 15 July