Tag Archives: Bush Theatre

“Harm” at the Bush Theatre

Leading the welcome return to theatre, this beloved West London venue is staging Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s smart monologue. After far too long away from live performances, the temptation is to be excited about almost anything…but Harm is a strong piece and it’s great to report that the show is a definite ‘Go See’.

Kelly Gough gives a brilliant performance as a disaffected estate agent which, at first, has the feel of a stand-up comedy routine. Full of witty and blunt observations, Gough has a fantastic presence, energetic despite her character’s lethargy, that wins you over right away. Both Gough and the play are funny.

As Gough’s character sets about selling a home to an Instagram influencer called Alice, there are plenty of vicious laughs: Eclair-Powell makes sure Alice is a character it’s enjoyable to dislike and from that cleverly questions a desire to hate her. Harm adventurously morphs into a thriller, as an obsession with Alice’s wonderful life develops.

As the estate agent morphs into an internet troll – ‘sadbitch11’ – the play reiterates common enough concerns about social media. Yet we become increasingly uneasy about what real life action might occur. And the text flips again, as concern for its troubled lead takes over, raising serious issues about mental health. Gough has made us laugh so much playing ‘The Woman’ that seeing her cry is heart wrenching.

Previously seen on BBC Four, director Atri Banerjee brings the show to the stage with a strong sense of theatricality. And the set from Rosanna Vize, with its giant fluffy bunny, is sure to prove memorable. Eclair-Powell’s ability to juggle genres, taking us from comedy to commentary on the edge of our seats along the way, means that her play defies the simplistic hashtags. But if we must… Harm is #fantastic.

Until 26 June 2021

www.bustheatre.co.uk

Photo by Isha Shah

“Overflow” at the Bush Theatre

Trans activist Travis Alabanza’s new play is set entirely in a toilet. Given that public conveniences are currently contested places the location is, if a little depressing, appropriate enough. But what Alabanza does within this limited space, and what is achieved with the play’s careful focus, is remarkable.

A theatre blog isn’t the best place to discuss trans rights. Like the Twitter comments Alabanza’s character Rosie decries, the issues are complex and emotive. And this play certainly manages to speak more eloquently about them than I could. Theatre, in Alabanza’s hands, proves a stirring forum: the argument put forward is intelligent and elaborated with a human experience that makes for a powerful show.

Reece Lyons in 'Overflow' at the Bush Theatre
Reece Lyons

The key is Rosie, a well-written character brought to life in a strong performance from Reece Lyons, ably directed by Debbie Hannan. Smart, sharp and often witty, Rosie proves a fascinating guide as we learn her history – fun and fraught – through different toilets. From hiding as a child, to school pranks, then discovering her identity in night clubs, the space performs more functions than I at least ever imagined. The smallest room was a place of sanctuary… until recently.

Alabanza provides an essential dramatic twist for Overflow. For it seems that Rosie’s experience of toilets has got worse as society commends itself for being more liberal. The show is punctuated by knocks on the door from men waiting outside; Rosie is under threat. There are also discussions of how women have become more hostile to Rosie, making the space she considers her own one that she now wants to wreck.

The rage that culminates in the destruction of Max Johns’ clever set – the circular shape recalling an arena, adding to the drama – becomes understandable and also moving. And touches of bravado to hide her fear deliberately fail to convince: this isn’t what Rosie wants, rather the wish is to “swim not drown” in these metaphorical waters. It’s Rosie’s address to women – an appeal to sisterhood – carefully drawn together as the piece culminates, that provides Alabanza’s strongest points. And a hope for a kinder future.

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Until 16 January 2021

Photos by Sharron Wallace

“Sea Wall” from the Bush Theatre

The film of Simon Stephens’ fantastic half-hour monologue is offered during lockdown and serves to remind us of its original home – the West London venue whose new writing, the playwright has observed, makes it one of the most important theatres we have. Specially written for the venue, although subsequently filmed on location, this is a piece of the highest quality. But some caution – and a plot spoiler – follow.

Andrews Scott in Seawall at the Bush Theatre
Andrews Scott in Seawall at the Bush Theatre

Given that Sea Wall is about the sudden and random death of a child, it isn’t for everyone or an easy watch. But it is a play full of love. As soon as we meet Alex, we see he is a character of enormous appeal, carefully nurtured in Andrew Scott’s magnificent performance. His adoration of his wife and daughter is entirely convincing, as is his love for his father-in-law. Stephens’ detailed descriptions of a happy life full of holidays are all the more endearing as Alex knows how lucky he is.

Or how lucky he was – as the expertly written story unfolds and Alex’s life plummets unexpectedly into the depths of despair, the piece becomes something of a confessional. His cruelty towards the “shattered” form” of his father-in-law and the “hole in the middle of him”, a visceral image of the pain he is now experiencing, show the power of Stephens’ nightmarish imagining. Questions about God are probed throughout – they are surely a natural part of an experience such as this – but Stephens handles them with considered sophistication.

The success of the piece, which Stephens directed for film with Andrew Porter, is guaranteed by Scott’s performance. Originally written for the actor, Scott is an expert on camera, and his connection to the audience is a marvel. Brief pauses and halts in the delivery ensure the illusion of spontaneity and his movement is expansive without ever seeming artificial. Scott grabs lighter touches forcefully and he makes sure we fall a little in love with his character. It makes the telling of this private tragedy all the more moving; traumatic but also strangely beautiful.

Streaming for free until 25 May 2020

www.seawallandrewscott.com

To find out about a new series of monologues commissioned during lockdown and to support the venue see www.bushtheatre.co.uk

“Misty” at the Trafalgar Studios

There are two sides to Arinzé Kene’s hit transfer from the Bush Theatre. It’s the story of a young criminal who attacks someone on a night bus. And it’s the story of Kene himself, writing the show and defending his art. While one character is on the run from the police and ruminating about the home he may be forced to leave, our author is questioning whether his story perpetuates stereotypes and angry at the responsibility writers of colour are burdened with. Mixing the stories together makes for an original work whose rave reviews testify to its popularity.

The show’s novelty, all the more impressive now that it’s in the West End, is to combine songs, poetry and spoken word. It’s called ‘gig theatre’, and director Omar Elerian deserves praise here, as it would be easy to feel lost. And designer Rajha Shakiry, working with lighting and video from Jackie Shemesh and Daniel Denton respectively, produces visuals worthy of any art gallery. Along with the singing and acting skills of Kene himself, there’s a suspicion that performance and production are slightly better than the play. No matter, as the show works superbly.

Misty is unmissable for its central performance: Kene has real star quality. This isn’t a one-man show, and there’s strong support from musicians Adrian McLeod and Shiloh Coke, who also appear as friends of the playwright. And a superb role for a child actor as Kene’s older sister (not sure why). But all eyes are on Kene and there’s seemingly nothing he can’t do, whether cry or laugh. His physicality is remarkable and his singing voice unique.

Back to that parallel narrative – the making of the play and the story itself. My preference was for the simpler. The tale of Kene’s intriguing friend is moving, in particular scenes imagined with his sister. When it comes to the process of making the play, the issues raised are valid and important. But that this introspection becomes anguished and intrusive – which is part of the point – is nonetheless frustrating. The traditional narrative could be developed so easily – omitted details are much needed – and it would have been great to see more. But that’s another demand on the writer, hopefully sincerely motivated on my part. Kene’s point is about artistic freedom and, given the achievement here, it’s difficult to argue with him.

Until 20 October 2018

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Helen Murray.

“Guards At The Taj” at the Bush Theatre

Reopening after a year of refurbishment and looking very smart indeed, artistic director Madani Younis’ reinvigorated west London venue is off to a brilliant new start. An award-winning play from American writer Rajiv Joseph combines with two big UK names: director Jamie Lloyd and designer Soutra Gilmour.

Joseph’s play is a marvel of economy – 80 minutes packed with ideas, emotion, comedy and tragedy. Two guards on the Taj Mahal construction site are forbidden from seeing the mausoleum before its completion, by decree from Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. The tension between despotic whims and these average guys escalates into horrific acts that are the stuff of myths (the play has its share of gore) and raise profound questions about aesthetics and the individual in society. Yet Joseph deals with his themes lightly – no matter how dark and dangerous the drama gets.

Lloyd embraces the play’s contemporary feel, following instruction in the script that dialects are not to be used and highlighting every possible moment of relief in shocking circumstances. The performers – Danny Ashok and Darren Kuppan – both deserve the highest praise. Kuppan makes it impossible not to love his character Babur’s “fancies and prophecies and inventions”. The more pragmatic Humayun more slowly grows on us (through our appreciation of his family life) a feat Ashok manoeuvres to give full force to both men’s tragedy.

Gilmour’s industrial aesthetic, recalling for me the work of Richard Serra or Richard Wilson’s 20:50 installation, looks fantastic. Working alongside lighting designer Richard Howell, this set is a real stunner. And Beauty, with a capital B, is important here. There are moments of wonder at architecture, also nature. And a beautiful friendship: touching scenes between the two men do more than lead to the final trauma. Babur and Hamayan’s dream of a different life produces that ingredient of hope that provides a “wow” to the play as a whole.

Until 20 May 2017

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“The Angry Brigade” at the Bush Theatre

Playwright James Graham continues his hugely successful engagement with politics by looking at the history of 1970s anarchist bombers, The Angry Brigade. The first act opens on a grim basement room in which four young coppers are secretly tasked with investigating the new phenomenon of homegrown terrorism. Parallels with current concerns aren’t forced, and the authorities’ efforts are often comic, as the police loosen their ties and discover pot in an attempt to understand this new breed of criminal. Harry Melling and Lizzy Watts excel with a variety of roles: police, victims and suspects. But the act belongs to Mark Arends as the impassioned young detective Smith, whose performance is perfectly attuned to the writing’s clever drollery.

Angry-123-2000x1331
Harry Melling and Pearl Chanda

After the humorous highs of the first act, the second act may slightly disappoint. Now with the Brigade, played by the same cast of four, the laughs are more guarded and there’s less period detail to poke fun at. Whatever you think of the politics, the ideas are presented (rather frighteningly) well. And the performances are full-bodied and intense, in particular those of Melling, again, and Pearl Chanda (as Anna Mendleson), whose fraught relationship provides a necessary emotional core to the section.

The temptation may be to see the play as split into two sides of the same story, both bravely sympathetic and boldly different. But The Angry Brigade is so meticulously written that parallels between the police and the protesters are developed with estimable precision. The crafted complexity of the script is highlighted by James Grieve’s direction and Lucy Osbornes’ design, which add a visceral, shock element to the dialogue – cast members slam filing cabinets to the ground to signify each bomb that goes off. No surprise, then, that this play feels like an explosive hit.

Until 13 June 2015

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Visitors” at the Bush Theatre

After an acclaimed run at the Arcola earlier this year, Barney Norris’ Visitors is now playing at the Bush Theatre. Impeccably directed by Alice Hamilton, the story of elderly couple Arthur and Edie, she sliding into dementia, is finely written and superbly acted. It’s hard to believe this is Norris’ first full-length play, it’s so accomplished: a moving family drama full of excellent observation and real heart. The subject matter is difficult, but the play so infused with gentle humour and poetic wisdom that it’s a delight to watch and an inspiring experience.

Two younger characters, the couple’s son, Stephen, and Kate, a recent graduate employed as a carer, serve as entry points for all ages in the audience. It’s clear that Norris aims to examine not just the afflictions of old age, but also how memory links to identity, and the importance of the choices we make throughout life. Stephen’s poor jokes show how spot on the humour in the show really is and, while his mid-life crisis might be a touch predictable, Simon Muller does well in the role. Eleanor Wild is superb as the young Kate, ostensibly the visitor of the title, an intriguing and carefully drawn figure.

The elderly couple is an often uncomfortable memento mori for the younger characters. With little action in Visitors, the play reminded me, somewhat fancifully, of a Dutch still life painting; something demanding careful attention and worth treasuring. Arthur and Edie are in no way clichéd and never patronised. Robin Soanes is utterly believable as the elderly farmer Arthur and Linda Bassett’s performance one of the best I’ve seen this year. Bassett makes good lines great with assured comic touches. As Edie’s observations on life, though obscured by her illness, become increasingly poignant, each line she delivers becomes all the more memorable.

Until 10 January 2015

www.bushtheatre.co.uk
Photo by Mark Douet

“Perseverance Drive” at the Bush Theatre

Last night saw the world premiere of Perseverance Drive by Robin Soans at the Bush Theatre. This is the story of the dysfunctional Gillards, starting with the funeral of the mother in Barbados and ending with the death of the father in Leytonstone. The treatment is detailed and the story interesting, but broader themes are often overshadowed by a dysfunctional family drama.

Our theme is religion. The Gillards set up their own church, but the three sons have “back-slid”: one obsessed with the form rather than function of religion, another setting up his own roving ministry, and the third by being homosexual. Interestingly, the latter two contend for position as most disappointing son. There’s a wealth of detail about the church that, perhaps through my own ignorance, I found slightly distracting. The humour is welcome, but grave situations need more emphasis – could smoking a cigarette really be so outrageous? Apparently so.

Some characters are too sketchy to satisfy – Akiya Henry actually does well to get laughs out of the reborn but vicious sister-in-law Joylene, where even a dramatic backstory provides little flesh to the character. In the major role of Josh, Clint Dyer seems handicapped by some clunky lines but pulls through at powerful moments. The best performance comes from the patriarch, a picture of stern power diminished by illness, movingly depicted by Leo Wringer.

There’s a vague whiff of melodrama around Perseverance Drive. Not from Madani Younis’ efficient direction, but rather the explosive arguments that sometimes baffle and resolutions that come close to being sentimental. But the family arguments, including an excruciating scene in church, will have you gripped and Soans’ ambition to write a play about religion, marked by a lot of common sense, is nonetheless admirable.

Until 16 August 2014

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Richard Davenport

Written 11 July 2014 for The London Magazine

“Incognito” at the Bush Theatre

This is it. Nick Payne’s play Incognito, which opened in London last night at the Bush Theatre, is the kind of exciting new play you wait a long time for. Theatrically bold, startlingly intelligent, full of insight and wit, there’s a palpable sense that this is an important piece.

The play interweaves three compelling stories: a man without long-term memory is observed over time by researchers; a scientist steals Einstein’s brain for research in 1955; and a neuropsychologist has a life-changing love affair in the present day. Incognito is an exploration into the science of the mind and the philosophy of the self: the ‘stuff’ that makes us who we are. Intellectually curious and full of big themes, it is also lively and entertaining.

There’s common ground with Payne’s previous award-winning play, Constellations. The different paths lives take sounds a continuous bass note. But Incognito explores fertile philosophical questions more explicitly and engages with science more forcefully. Father figures are used in a thought-provoking manner to examine the contribution heritage and history make to our identity. And, wait, there are great laughs too. As with David Hume, whom I suspect Payne admires, there’s an earthiness that develops into a rich humour. This serious play is also very funny.

For all the jokes, Incognito is a demanding work, but there’s a deserved sense of confidence from the terrific writing. Payne’s ability to form connections between the many characters so quickly is unerring. The switch from pathos to a great gag is like lightning, and having the characters and themes “come together and move away” is as exciting as a thriller. Director Joe Murphy builds a breathtaking rhythm, carrying (and crediting) the audience as the scenes become less naturalistic in casting and speedier in transition. Incognito is wonderfully crafted and hugely exciting.

This is a challenging play for performers and the cast’s achievement will amaze. Four performers share 21 characters, differentiating mostly with accents as the stories move geographically and through the decades. Paul Hickey transforms himself remarkably, Alison O’Donnell and Sargon Yelda show tremendous comic skills and Amelia Lowdel is spectacular in every scene. This is riveting stuff that deals well with powerful emotions and piercing questions. One for the heart and the head, it’ll have your synapses snapping, and will hang around your hippocampus long after you leave the theatre. Five stars. See it.

Until 21 June 2014

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Bill Knight

Written 16 May 2014 for The London Magazine

“Disgraced” at the Bush Theatre

It’s easy to see why Ayad Akhtar’s play, Disgraced, which receives its UK premiere at the Bush Theatre, has been such a critical hit. Directed by Nadia Fall, it’s a classically constructed, painfully topical story about how religion and terrorism touch the lives of four successful New Yorkers.

Amir is an apostate, forcefully rejecting his Muslim background, a faith that is embraced by his young nephew Abe, and of interest to his Caucasian wife Emily, an artist in awe of the “formal language” of Islamic tiles. Their friends are a Jewish curator, Isaac, admiring of attempts to make art “sacred”, and his wife, Jory, an African-American lawyer, who is Amir’s rival at work.

The main quartet don’t travel that well. They seem a contrived set and it’s difficult to gage how humorous their chitchat is supposed to be. Amir’s objections to Islam and removal from his heritage are intended to be an “issue”, but British audiences know a touch of self-loathing is perfectly normal and might find the absence of deprecation a little suspicious.

That said, the talented cast make the most of the roles and breathe a great deal of life into them. Nigel Whitmey has the hardest job as the curator, Sara Powell makes her smaller role as his wife stand out and Danny Ashok gives a credible performance as a young man slipping toward radicalism. In the lead roles Hari Dhillon and Kirsty Bushell are spectacular, both showing the development of their characters and their intense emotions marvellously.

It’s when the veneer of civilisation breaks down that the play takes off. Much like Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, when the booze flows and the gloves come off, things get very dirty indeed. And, with its focus on religion, Akhtar’s play comes close to the bone, especially in light of recent tragic events here in London. Many of the views expressed seem incendiary and the violence in the play is truly shocking.

If you like your drawing room drama intense, this one is for you. Akhtar’s attempts to open the swish Upper East side to some big issues is admirable, but whether or not he succeeds, or really just shows we can all use history, politics and religion ignobly, is debatable. Where disgrace lies is the open question concluding the play, but one thing is sure, Akhtar and this talented team in London, have nothing to be ashamed of.

Until 29 June 2013

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Simon Kane

Written 24 May 2013 for The London Magazine