Tag Archives: Giles Terera

“Passing Strange” at the Young Vic

Another fantastic American musical has, finally, reached London. Stew’s 2006 award-winning piece, which follows the adventures of a ‘Youth’, narrated by his older self, is full of big sounds and grand ideas. Ben Stones’ wide-open set makes the Young Vic feel huge. It’s an appropriate stage for tremendous performances from the two leads – Keenan Munn-Francis and Giles Terera – that nobody should miss.

Like Hadestown and Next to Normal (now in the West End), Passing Strange is a very grown-up affair. Despite being a story about a young man, and both leads being magnetic performers, it is the older character we watch. Our narrator is harsh about his early years, coming close to suggesting such self-discovery is just a phase.

There are tough political topics tackled. The ‘passing’ of the title refers to race, but Stew also looks at prejudices associated with being a songwriter – as both he and his characters are. Observations are bravely close to the bone… and specific. The 1970s middle-class Los Angeles milieu is keenly observed (there are sure to be nuances missed). This is the life Youth wants to escape, and we travel with him to vivid depictions of Amsterdam and Berlin. 

Passing-Strange-Rachel-Adedeji-credit-Marc-Brenner
Rachel Adedeji

In each location, supporting performers – David Albury, Nadia Violet Johnson, Renée Lamb and Caleb Roberts – get the chance to shine in a variety of roles. It’s noticeable that the women we meet are treated badly, but the characters played by Johnson and Lamb have great numbers (and tricksy accents). All the time the action is anchored by Youth’s long-suffering mum – a role brilliantly performed by Rachel Adedeji.

“The head’s footnotes”

There’s also humour in the piece. Again, some depends on understanding what is being satirised. The laughs don’t always fit comfortably in such a serious work, but director Liesl Tommy appreciates the power of such disquieting moments. Mental health is examined as is, as part of this, frequent drug use. As one girlfriend sings, Youth is deep in his “head’s footnotes” (what a great description) and such self-absorption is intense. Like a third recent show from the states, A Strange Loop, there’s an interest in how the mind works that is insightful.

If this weren’t deep enough, the big topic is Art itself. Those questions about the mind, and the past, connect to how we tell stories. Passing Strange looks at how art is made, but also at what it can do, what a comfort it can be. Want another step? The search for “the Real” is an obsessive refrain. Again, it’s about passing – what passes for the real… and what is really real. There’s some profound thinking here, saved from pretentiousness by a big heart and humour.

Given the big ideas, Stew’s songs (the music written with Heidi Rodewald), have a lot to do. The score doesn’t just deliver, it is full of unexpected turns and hugely exciting. While predominantly rock, it serves up a potted musical history with so many styles that it is clear, despite protestations to the contrary, Stew can write anything. Numbers are heart-breaking, funny and dramatic. They are all catchy and their story telling is excellent. The lyrics are consistently intelligent – every word is worth hearing – and matched by superb verse dialogue. 

The trials and tribulations of artists can be a turn-off. I don’t doubt how difficult the job is and how much suffering is involved, but they do go on about it don’t they? But Passing Strange plays with such tropes, interrogating them and providing tough love, thereby breathing new life into old questions and sounding great along the way. 

Until 6 July 2024

www.youngvic.org

Photos by Marc Brenner

“The Power of Sail” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Paul Grellong’s strong play works well as both a think piece and a thriller. Set in Harvard, a professor who invites a right-wing speaker to a prestigious symposium causes predictable trouble that escalates into tragedy. With the help of director Dominic Dromgoole, and a crack cast, this quality affair is a success.

First the debate, and top marks for topicality. Arguments for and against the invitation are set out well. Free speech versus the feelings of students is only one angle. Our professor, Charles Nichols, wants to defeat the Neo-Nazi believing that the answer to hate speech is more speech. But Nichols is a narcissist, full of pride and privilege, even if we don’t doubt he’s one of the good guys. Julian Ovenden is perfectly cast in the lead and does a great job. The arguments are clear, presented with a cool passion, while there are just enough hints that something else is going on.

The-Power-of-Sail-at-the-Menier-Chocolate-Factory-Julian-Ovenden-and-Giles-Terera-by-Manuel-Harlan
Julian Ovenden and Giles Terera

Students past and present argue with him, providing neat roles for Michael Benz, Katie Bernstein and Giles Terera. There is more to each than meets the eye. Meanwhile the Dean, played by Tanya Franks, isn’t happy either as her friend Nichols is turning into her biggest problem. Franks is perfect at showing underlying tension, making us wonder if her problems are personal or political. It turns out everyone here has other agendas.

The-Power-of-Sail-at-the-Menier-Chocolate-Factory-Katie-Bernstein-and-Tanya-Franks-by-Manuel-Harlan
Katie Bernstein and Tanya Franks

As motives come to light, the play contains twists. OK, there aren’t any gasp out loud moments. And moving the action back and forth in time might be a bit clearer. But the sense of disappointment over some characters or a wish to cheer others on is real and shows how smart the writing is. Plus, all those extras complicate the debate in an intelligent way.

Campus dramas can be rarefied. The Power of Sail doesn’t quite escape that problem and, although Dromgoole keeps the pace quick, in general the characters are too naïve. How caught up everyone is in their own world might be explored, how their actions have wider consequences emphasised, instead everyone just seems a little out of touch. Nonetheless, what could be a dry subject, although important, is made dramatic and the production impresses.

Until 12 May 2024

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Clyde’s” at the Donmar Warehouse

Hope is the takeaway from playwright Lynn Nottage’s diner-based drama. The ex-convicts who are employed by the owner of the restaurant that takes her name know they’ve made mistakes and won’t find work elsewhere. But they still have aspirations – to make the perfect sandwich. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but Nottage and this five-star production make it a fulfilling menu.

Nottage often writes about the world of work – about trades unions in Sweat or the rag trade in Intimate Apparel. But while the setting is America, evoked with great skill, the concerns she raises are global: expectations, exploitation and the gig economy. A sense of pride in work is made palpable. To show the importance of the cuisine, the lighting and movement are invaluable, with credit to Oliver Fenwick and Kane Husbands respectively. It’s important we take these sandwiches seriously!

To really make sure we care, it’s Nottage’s larger than life but credible characters that power her drama so effectively. You root for each in a variety of ways. Director Lynette Linton and her cast present a surprising collection of heroes to perfection.

The lead role, of sorts, is Clyde, a monstrous creation performed by Gbemisola Ikumelo, who is mesmerising. Despite being the boss from hell, Clyde’s difficult life and her problems make her intriguing as well as repulsive. She’s filled with hate – the question is why. Her counterpart is the Buddha-like Montrellous portrayed by Giles Terera with suitable mystery and charisma. For all the calm, it turns out his backstory is just as dramatic.

Montrellous inspires his three fellow chefs, acting as a mentor. And he can teach us all a thing or two. These younger characters adore him in heartwarming fashion while, of course, having their own problems. The dynamics between them prove engrossing. A potential love affair between characters exquisitely portrayed by Sebastian Orozco and Ronkẹ Adékọluẹ́jọ́ adds romance, while an unrecognisable Patrick Gibson has a stunning role as former gang member Jason.

There is nothing laboured about Nottage’s dialogue or, indeed, its delivery. While the problems faced are heavy, the humour is light – Clyde’s is a very funny play. Many playwrights can show their wit and create characters a little too amusing to believe. But the humour here feels effortless and flows naturally. Chef’s kisses for this great work.

Until 2 December 2023

www.donmarwarehouse.com

“Rosmersholm” at the Duke of York Theatre

Theatre folk love to make revivals of plays relevant to current times. Now and then, the connections made seem forced, but this new adaptation by Duncan Macmillan of Ibsen’s play from 1886 resonates with the present in a way that frequently astounds. Set around an election, with a country polarised and inequality increasing, nationalism and fake news are everywhere. Meanwhile, the play’s central figure of Rosmer recognises that his privilege comes with a “moral debt” – as they say on Twitter, he is ‘woke’. A conscience examined in the finest detail and a brilliant performance by Tom Burke contribute to a superb production that fizzes with topicality.

Rosmersholm is no dry political disquisition. Giles Terera’s stage presence – as the establishment figure of Andreas Kroll – makes sure that the debate is entertaining. Rosmer’s brother-in-law and old friend, Kroll views radicalism as a threat to not just the country but the soul. And there’s more – ghosts for a start – which director Ian Rickson allows to be symbolic as well as pretty creepy. The characters and the damaged house of Rosmer, with its gorgeous set from Rae Smith, are haunted in many ways, with gradual revelations about the family’s history that make this quite the thriller. It’s all balanced expertly by Rickson and, if the evening is overpowering at times, it’s always exciting.

Tom Burke and Giles Terera

Above all, Rosmersholm is a romance – a particularly intense and tragic one. Marking out Rosmer as a “fallen man” involved with an “independent woman” could remind us too forcefully that this is a period piece. But not a jot. While Burke brings out the complexities of his role as a former pastor who has lost his faith and whose family name becomes a political football, his love interest, Rebecca West, is made the star of the show. This is a tremendous vehicle for Hayley Atwell, who gives a performance full of fantastic detail. West even seems as if she might provide a happy ending. You don’t need to have seen too much Ibsen to be suspicious of that, but Atwell and Rickson make subsequent revelations edge-of-the-seat stuff.

This is a relationship based on talking politics (that’s how our couple fell in love). The chemistry is fantastic, but the ideals discussed are also exciting and challenging. West proves an extreme figure who allows no compromise and there’s an immaturity in both her and Rosmer – take your pick blaming stunted upbringings or a narrow society – that leads to catastrophe. Rosmersholm becomes a frightening place – the talk is of sickness and sacrifice, death or change. No middle ground is allowed. It’s surely just the position, with all its dangers, that we face right now.

Until 20 July 2019

www.rosmersholmplay.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at the National Theatre

Part of August Wilson’s decathlon of plays about race relations in America, this 1982 work is set in a 1920s Chicago recording studio. While the titular diva, known as the mother of the blues, fights with her manager and producer over adapting her signature song into a modern jazz style, her backing band’s members reveal personal and political tensions of their own.

It could be heavy stuff. Yet, by setting up plenty of laughs and endearing characters, Wilson’s play is hugely entertaining. Most impressively, by showing how racism infuses – indeed poisons – lives, the politics here are as emotive as they are educational. The segregated society the play is based in takes some getting your head around – the gap between races so fundamental – but showing how the players take it for granted has a humbling effect.
If the play has a failing, it’s that you can’t – and don’t – get enough of Ma Rainey. A flaw compounded by the fact that the excellent Sharon D Clarke takes the role. Written relatively thinly, the motivation behind her often-amusing artistic temperament is portrayed confidently and certainly makes you think. But with a voice this strong, it seems downright foolish not to get more music out of Clarke.

Impeccably directed by Dominic Cooke, Ultz’s design creates a sound booth aloft and a basement room that the band rehearses in. The feeling is sparse, almost wasteful given the size of the Lyttleton stage, but the claustrophobia is fitting enough. In a narrow space a quartet of excellent performers carefully reveal frequently harrowing stories from the boys in the band.

O-T Fagbenle and Lucian Msamati
O-T Fagbenle and Lucian Msamati

Giles Terera and Clint Dyer make a great double act as long-standing friends who play together. O-T Fagbenle has the star part as Levee, a talented, troubled and ambitious youngster, who embodies the power of new music – jazz. A tough call, we have to take Levee seriously while laughing at him quite a bit and Fagbenle manages this balance well, skillfully revealing the character’s tragic background. Lucian Msamati’s philosophising Toledo wants to open the eyes of his illiterate colleagues. Exquisitely delivering the most didactic of lines, he deserves our applause – our affection for him paying off with the play’s startling, tragic, conclusion. The impact and legacy of racism is clear here, making the play still frighteningly apposite.

Until 18 May 2016

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Johan Persson