Tag Archives: Chloe Lamford

“Is God Is” at the Royal Court Theatre

Whether young, middle-aged or old, the women in Aleshea Harris’ play are tired. Traumatised, abused, abandoned – or all three – what drives them is anger. Revenge and rage take their toll, but for the 90-minute duration of Is God Is they create an exhilarating piece – it’s the characters and not the audience who are exhausted.


A hit in New York, the play is a good fit for the Royal Court, where we expect to see the engaging of big themes and explorations of dialogue and theatrical form. And we’re used to a dark sense of humour, which this play takes to an extreme. Is God Is succeeds all round and stands out as original.


Harris’ use of dialect and characters’ deliberate inarticulacy is sophisticated. There are influences from hip-hop and Afropunk (excuse my ignorance – I’m trusting the back of the script on that). But the blunt statements and a new level of deadpan understatement make this murderous revenge story very funny.


As for form, the road trip that twins Racine and Anaia embark on engages with movies as much as the theatre. It’s an Americana tour from the “dirty South” to a not-so-wild West that ends with a showdown. The acceptance of a circle of violence is seldom questioned – as in a movie – which is surprisingly unsettling on stage. In her mad mash-up of Cain and Abel with an inverted sacrifice of Isaac, Harris isn’t scared to create a satire of biblical proportions.

Serious subjects? The title is hardly subtle. The twins’ long-missing mother is immediately and inexplicably identified as God. And ‘She’ issues the mission of murdering their father! Harris makes sure we question free will and plays with plenty of excuses for all kinds of inexcusable behaviour. Messages and morals are skilfully slippery, and audience complicity in blood lust manipulated. For all that praise, the larger motives behind Is God Is get lost.


Firstly, some especially vivid characters prove distracting. This isn’t an even-handed issue. With the men in the show the best we get is Mark Monero’s crisp father (who only appears in the penultimate scene). But the women in the play are – in every sense – fantastic. Both Cecilia Noble and Vivienne Acheampong, two very different kinds of mothers, have great roles that they develop marvellously. More of Acheampong’s Angie would be welcome: this bored housewife, who has her own plans, adds to the mix immeasurably. As for the leads – Tamara Lawrance and Adelayo Adedayo – are barely off the stage and don’t so much hold attention as grab and throttle it: “hard end” Racine and the emotional Anaia are a consistent, entertaining and invigorating pair.


Despite the bizarre premise and having its tongue firmly in its cheek (it really is funny) Is God Is triumphs with its plotting. How old fashioned! Ola Ince’s direction, and a set full of fun and signposts from Chloe Lamford, make this bloody journey breakneck. No matter how crazy, the story is driven impeccably. Gory and tense as well as sometimes silly makes for a fascinating and memorable production.

Until 23 October 2021

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photos by Tristram Kenton

"The Antipodes" at the National Theatre

Playwright Annie Baker’s first two outings on the Southbank made me a big fan. While The Flick and John were also concerned with storytelling, this third trip to London makes that topic even more explicit. As with the other plays, the setting is one room; this time a group of writers are trying to come up with ideas. Frustratingly, the scenario is never fully explained but as they brainstorm, telling seemingly random stories for inspiration, the play becomes obtuse and ends up a disappointment.

Led by Conleth Hill’s Sandy, some kind of studio guru who wants to create a “safe space” for ideas, there’s sharp satire on the creative industries, with some great observations on hierarchy in the workplace. And, as usual, Baker’s ear for contemporary voices is faultless. It’s a shame none of the characters we meet is someone we come to care about. Two old hands reveal intimate details just to shock (which leads to great performances from Arthur Darvill and Matt Bardock). Other recruits do less well: Stuart McQuarrie’s character, superbly performed, disappears after his tender personal history doesn’t impress. It all raises questions about creativity, pretty obviously. There are lots of discussions about formulas for stories that naturally interest writers – maybe audiences not so much? But Hollywood (or possibly the videogames business) isn’t really Baker’s aim…there’s more to come and The Antipodes gets increasingly confusing as a result.

The target is myths, the origin of storytelling, which takes us into dark territory. There’s much discussion of monsters and voids, but to what aim? Possibly Baker directing her own work, with the aid of Chloe Lamford, is too close to the project? The journey to explore all these themes is poorly handled, the results unconvincing. Take the forest fires that trap the protagonists at work – a too obvious attempt to create an apocalyptic air. As the writers continue failing in their aim to come up with new ideas – which in itself isn’t very interesting to watch – what’s going on becomes more bizarre. A scene performed by Bill Milner is the focal point here, but defies explication. It’s fine to abandon narrative structure (Milner’s character’s actions aren’t part of any plot) but expanding their thematic fit would be helpful. The tension Baker and Lamford create becomes both uncomfortable and uncanny. Top marks for atmosphere. But what the whole exercise is for becomes a puzzle.

Until 23 November 2019

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“The Cane” at the Royal Court

Mark Ravenhill’s new play uses education to examine politics between the generations and the sexes. Cultural pressure points, easily recognised, signal an author with his finger on the pulse, while intelligence and care call out hypocrisy on either side of a divide between ages and genders. The simple scenario has a teacher, about to retire, literally under siege by a violent mob of school children who discover that, once upon a time, he executed corporal punishment.

Fairy tales play a part; the language of the play is often comedically plain, reactions to extremes deadpan, and there’s reference to a witch or two. It seems that Edward, a dedicated Deputy Head, and his wife Maureen, are living in a never-never land, full of nonsensical nostalgia that the Daily Mail would be proud to print and everyone else can enjoy mocking. Those millennial snowflakes are a target of course – so far too predictable – with Alun Armstrong and Maggie Stead doing a wonderful job of making outrage believable. Thankfully, Ravenhill knows it’s essential to present another side to the story.

The presence of the couple’s daughter, Anna, estranged as a traitor since she works for an Academy school, shows the play’s strengths. Ravenhill has created a challenging character and Nicola Walker gives a superb performance in the role. She knows what “best practice” consists of,  yet doesn’t believe any of the jargon she is fluent in and her motives prove dark. Anna’s background, her childhood with this odd couple, leads to some extravagances on Ravenhill’s part. Walker juggles the anger her character has inherited with a façade of calm that is captivating.

Vicky Featherstone’s direction suits the play perfectly. But waiting for the headmaster, who has been scared away by scandal, and a trip into the attic, don’t really cut it dramatically. Efforts are made to inject tension, Chloe Lamford’s design tries especially hard, still it’s hard to believe a lot of what little action there is here. Credibility isn’t the point of course, but its lack can prove frustrating; a block to the admirable detail on offer when it comes Edward’s sexism or Anna’s vengefulness. The Cane works better as a set of ideas than it does as a play, but these are clever arguments, well presented and expertly performed.

Until 26 January 2019

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“Pity” at the Royal Court

Rory Mullarkey is a playwright who explores allegory and fable. It gives his voice standout and makes him easily described as experimental. Self-conscious in telling tales and quick to point out quirks, his skill is clear, and this story of a “completely and utterly archetypal town”, subjected to a series of incredible tragedies, gets some big laughs. It’s the treatment, a mix of the ludicrous and the deadpan, that is the focus and used to examine our compassion. Arguably, this investigation of delivery – the way the story is told – while of keen interest to theatre practitioners is clearly of less appeal to a general audience.

While stripping the scenario back seems to make a distinctly academic point – I am open to suggestions, but the text is so reductive it rules out other options – it is an achievement to stage something so stark. Characterisation and plot are reduced to parody. Mullarkey’s imagination is fecund and his play full of exaggeration, as the mostly nameless characters meet and die in ever more inventive fashion. Bringing the events of an apocalypse-in-a-day to the stage takes real guts.

This is a mixed job from director Sam Pritchard. His tactic seems to be to maximalise. Along with Chloe Lamford’s set and plentiful props, most of which fall from the sky, we have quirky movement direction from Sasha Milavic Davies, and lots of noise and lots of lights. But added together, it all highlights the script’s flaws and makes the show too slow, with too many speeches padded out. Some ideas are good (I liked the brass band and the tanks), but others, like an extended battle between the Reds and the Blues, repeated ad nauseum, are truly terrible.

Pritchard does well with his cast: a committed ensemble who seem to be having fun. Sophia Di Martino and Abraham Popoola take the leads as survivors of events. After overcoming each disaster, they tell each other, “I’m all right”, and they manage to make this tiresome repetition almost effective. And there’s great work from Helena Lymbery as the Prime Minister and Sandy Grierson as the Red Warlord. But all the cast impress. Time and again, they save scenes with charm and bring out Mullarkey’s humour. There’s a lot of bravery here, not least with the play’s hostage-to-fortune title, but no amount of effort or energy manages to make it all worth bothering with.

Until 11 August 2018

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Helen Murray

“Road” at the Royal Court

Just before the interval during Jim Cartwright’s play, two young
unemployed characters, who have taken to their bed depressed, rage about their lives and imagine “the last job in the world”. It’s a startlingly contemporary moment, given speculation about the perilous future of employment, in a production too-happily rooted in the mid 80s of the play’s origin. The soundtrack, dialect, and accurate costumes in Chloe Lamford’s design, all serve to examine The North in Thatcher’s Britain, and they do so authentically. But, when combined with John Tiffany’s precise direction, a painful history is presented with a coldly anthropological air.

Mark Hadfield
Mark Hadfield

Life on an average road is presented in a series of short scenes, visiting different characters. There are frustrations with this snapshot treatment, but the standard of each scene is high and the anger from Cartwright and his characters stands in contrast to the clinical approach that prevails in this revival. Several monologues are highlights, in particular those with a nostalgic air performed superbly by June Watson and Mark Hadfield. The challenges of the text are meat and drink to the talented cast, who Tiffany has clearly worked closely with, nearly all of whom perform more than one role and differentiate characters superbly – none more so than Michelle Farley whose transformations astonish.

Michelle Farley with Mike Noble
Michelle Farley with Mike Noble

Our visit is guided by a narrator, played by Lemn Sissay. His
character’s focus is a good night out and jokes about the escapism of sex and alcohol threaten to take over, driven by Tiffany’s high energy approach. It’s left to Jonathan Watkins’ direction of movement to add gravitas and appreciate Cartwright’s poetry. That the show plays a little uncomfortably amongst the wealth of Sloane Square is testament to its confrontational approach. Cartwright appreciates the sharp wit of his protagonists – there are some very funny retorts here – but the laughs around the poor and uneducated come with a warning. Moods change within seconds,  on the whim of a fraught nerve, and darkness prevails despite the production’s over-enthusiastic moments.

Until 9 September 2017

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“Amadeus” at the National Theatre

One of several artistic greats to die in 2016, Peter Shaffer’s association with the National Theatre serves as a reminder of the institution’s nurturing role. Away from the West End, the playwright’s vision, creating ambitious works filled with myth and history, flourished. Returning to the Olivier stage for the first time since a legendary premiere in 1979, this new production of one of his best works, directed by Michael Longhurst, has the energy and originality to qualify as a fitting tribute.

There are plenty of big ideas to be voiced, about art and religion, arising from court composer Antonio Salieri’s battle against the God-given genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Longhurst’s particular skill is to make sure the play’s entertainment value is clearly heard: balancing the drama and humour. Music too, obviously, and also movement, both coming from the onstage presence of the Southbank Sinfonia. The 21 musicians’ interaction with the cast forms a commentary that is visual as well as auditory.

Adam Gillen as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Adam Gillen as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Excellent smaller roles provide a lot of laughs: praise for Tom Edden and Hugh Sachs as, respectively, the emperor Joseph II and the imperious head of the Viennese Opera. But most of the fun comes from an exuberant performance by Adam Gillen in the title role. Joined by Karla Crome as his wife Constanze, who also gives a powerful performance, Gillen has charisma and a clear connection with the audience. Mozart is presented as a spoilt rock star, complete with “vulgar” clothes including pink Dr Marten boots – just one element of Chloe Lamford’s excellent design. This Amadeus is so exaggerated he occasionally irritates, but the portrayal is consistent and makes sense.

If Gillen tips the balance of sympathies from Amadeus to the real lead of Salieri, well, those scales are weighted from the start, affording Lucian Msamati star status. From the opening scene, where he invokes a future audience and the lights in the auditorium rise, he commands attention. A deadpan tone shows comic skills while the awe and grief felt at Mozart’s achievements are convincingly passionate. Msamati has a clear control of Shaffer’s themes and plays them perfectly. Salieri may claim to be the patron saint of mediocrity, but Msamati’s performance is the antonym of that.

Until 18 March 2017

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Rules For Living” at the National Theatre

Using, of all things, Cognitive Behaviourial Therapy as a very literal framework, Sam Holcroft’s new play for the National Theatre makes for a riotous evening. A family’s foibles are revealed to us in the form of their coping strategies, or ‘rules for living’, to use the therapists’ term, on a game show-style screen – all part of Chloe Lamford’s witty set. So we know, for example, that one character sits down when they lie and another stands up to tell a joke. Every move realises its comic potential.

Holcroft’s strategy is a neat gimmick that’s so effective that the actors have half the work done for them. Nonetheless the cast is superb. Stephen Mangan and Miles Jupp are brilliant as brothers who reveal their competitive streak and long-held grudges. Claudie Blakley and Maggie Service play their partners, full of repression and insecurities, revealed, respectively, by booze and bad jokes. Best of all is Deborah Findlay as the mother who ‘cleans to keep calm’ – a performance that magically transcends her deliberately recognisable character to become comedy gold.

Rules For Living might be a touch too long in places, and the final act adds disappointingly little, but Marianne Elliott’s direction is impeccable and the jokes have a high hit rate. And underneath the original twist is an old-fashioned dysfunctional family comedy – it’s even set at Christmas – that works superbly. The show gets better the sillier the events and the characters become. The culminating luxury food fight alone means you get your ticket money’s worth. It’s not a play if you hate to see food wasted, but the whole thing is a great deal of fun.

Until 8 July 2015

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Simon Annand

“The Kreutzer Sonata” at the Gate Theatre

Having broken box office records a couple of years ago, the Kreutzer Sonata’s return to the Gate Theatre gives us the chance to take an extraordinary journey once again. Designer Chloe Lamford transforms the auditorium of the Gate Theatre into the inside of a railway carriage, her clever set further condensing an already intimate space. We are about to travel with a quiet unassuming man sitting in the carriage corner.

The man is Pozdnyshev, who will reveal to us the story of his marriage and how he came to murder his wife. While hardly charming, his frankness endears him to us – he seems honest, albeit disturbed. As his jealousy and the play’s tension mount, his irrational fears begin to seem understandable – trapped in a loveless relationship, his musical wife is attracted to a violinist. Pozdnyshev becomes the victim of his own rage but believes his actions to be entirely understandable.

Pozdnyshev’s unsettling position is grippingly portrayed in Hilton McRae’s quietly nuanced performance. Considered and philosophical, what really pains him is what he views as the inevitability of events. Most impressively, McRae has the stage presence to hold our attention during this 85-minute monologue. His wife and her lover, played by Sophie Scott and Tobias Beer, make music and appear through screens on the carriage doors.

Nancy Harris handles the adaptation and translation of this short story from Tolstoy with great skill. Highlighting the narrative increases the drama and does away with the (to be frank) rather madder elements of Tolstoy’s philosophy. The misogyny is still present but just more believable – a question of character development rather than political creed.

A live performance of parts of the sonata accompanies the piece, focusing attention on the relationship between music and passion: a preoccupation for Tolstoy as an aesthetician. It also serves as a potent dramatic device, as the musicians present directly to the audience the turmoil of emotions that haunt Pozdnyshev. It’s stirring stuff. In fact, this is a train not to be missed, so get your ticket soon as I suspect many who have already seen it will be buying a return ticket.

Until 18 February 2012

www.gatetheatre.co.uk

Photo by Simon Kane

Written 12 January 2012 for The London Magazine