Tag Archives: Max Stafford-Clark

“Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage” at the Arcola Theatre

The life of Welsh rugby star Gareth Thomas, including his well-publicised struggle with his sexuality, makes for compelling drama. There’s a danger, though, that it might interest rugger fans more than anyone else. Here is where Robin Soans’ play, based on Thomas’ life so far, first scores: far more than a biography, or a work about sport, Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage is ambitiously expanded into a big, bold play. Full of intelligence and power, it lives up to its verb scrum of a title.

Working with Thomas, there’s a searing sense of honesty to the piece. The player is a hero because of his sporting status and charity work, but he is movingly portrayed as human and hurt. That the play isn’t a star vehicle is enforced by having all six cast members, male and female, don a jersey and take the leading role at some point. The casting works surprisingly well, although predictably the younger men, Rhys ap William and Daniel Hawksford, who also ably double as Thomas’ father and best friend, have the edge.

Expanding the play, Thomas’ story is told in tandem with that of a troubled young girl, also from Bridgend, in Wales. In a stunning performance from Lauren Roberts, Darcey’s story of self-abuse and attempts at suicide emphasises the admirable unsentimentality that marks the piece. Connecting these two very different locals, the play becomes a bullish kind of community theatre, rooted in geography and exploring politics in the punchy manner that director Max Stafford-Clark excels at. With the production ending a UK tour here in London, it’s stirring to know it has deservedly been offered over the country.

Until 20 June 2015


Photo by Robert Workman

“This May Hurt A Bit” at the St James Theatre

If you are in any doubt as to the current state of the NHS, then Stella Feehily’s new play, This May Hurt A Bit, will cure you of that. Just opened at the St James Theatre, this is one of the most overtly political works I’ve seen in a long time and, as such, has to come with a contraindication: for all its important messages, it makes fairly exhausting watching.

Entertaining the audience isn’t the primary aim, of course. And, awash with educational facts and figures, too much of This May Hurt A Bit is depressingly predictable, with A&E closures and PFI rip-offs culminating in the disastrous Health and Social Care Act of last year. To compensate, Feehily and master-director Max Stafford-Clark fill the play with angry humour and ingenious touches. Winston Churchill and Aneurin Bevan have a heated debate, while Margaret Thatcher and the Grim Reaper make surprise guest appearances. Audience interventions and a couple of dance numbers also keep us on our toes.

And the cast is great. Taking on several roles each, Tristram Wymark and Hywel Morgan excel as the elder statesmen commenting on current events, while Stephanie Cole is in a league of her own as a patient, adding a much needed human aspect to the debate. But here’s the problem – for all Stafford-Clark’s technical ability, there’s little in the way of emotional punch. Worse still, Feehily’s understandable anger starts to grate. There are plenty of fingers pointed, but positive solutions seem tacked on and the argument is so one-sided it becomes alienating.

While Feehily’s conviction is admirable, it isn’t contagious, and this play is no antidote to apathy. Which is a shame since this very problem is highlighted when charcters directly challenge the audience – “Why aren’t you angry?” So here’s a suggestion. If it takes seeing This May Hurt A Bit to get you to write to your MP and join the campaign to save the NHS, then by all means see it. Otherwise, just stay at home and write anyway. I am off to do that right now, which is surely the ultimate praise for the play’s spirit, if not its execution.

Until 21 June 2014


Photo by John Haynes

Written 20 May 2014 for The London Magazine

“Our Country’s Good” at the St James Theatre

Since its première at the Royal Court in 1988 Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play, Our Country’s Good, has been widely recognised as a modern classic. This production, coming from the show’s original director, Max Stafford-Clark, has a fine pedigree that makes it a revival not to miss.

The story of Australian convicts and their keepers who put on a play is a rich text that works on many levels. It’s easy to see why it has been adopted on to many a school syllabus. To the fore for Stafford-Clark is the theme that theatre has transcendent qualities that can transform its participants.

The hard-labouring cast take on a variety of roles playing prisoners, soldiers and the actors they become when putting on the play. As the lines they perform and different roles they take on become multi-layered, the cast maintains clarity and, under Stafford-Clark’s skilful hand, builds humour and tension.

Special note must go to Ian Redford who seems barely off the stage and makes each of his roles shine. If the play has a lead, it’s Matthew Needham playing Captain Collins, who becomes the director of a company of convicts, learning lessons about himself along the way. Needham brings a directness to the role that ensures its appeal.
Much of the humour in the play comes from theatrical in-jokes, but the play is strongest when it deals with bigger themes such as the plight of the female convicts, scarred by their transportation and forced into prostitution to survive. Wertenbaker’s writing has real bite here, and the performances, especially from Kathryn O’Reilly who plays the formidable Liz Morden, and Lisa Kerr as Duckling Smith, are superb.

At a time when his own excellent company, Out of Joint, is victim to savage cuts in funding, Stafford-Clark has drawn parallels with the current government and the philistinism of the Thatcher-era. Indeed, the transformative power of theatre seems especially important at a time when arts funding is under such pressure, despite the industry’s undoubted success. Our Country’s Good itself could easily serve as an example of how great British theatre can be: a superbly written play with brilliant performances and masterful direction.

Until 23 March 2012


Photo by Robert Workman

Written 5 February 2013 for The London Magazine

“Top Girls” at the Trafalgar Studios

What an opening: given its first act, it’s no wonder Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls has such a great reputation. A riotous dinner party unites women from myth, history and fiction in an Absurdist tableau to discuss their lives, loves and deaths. The stuff of doctoral thesis is seldom this funny – witness the Victorian explorer’s racist faux pas towards the medieval Japanese noblewoman – but what makes the scene so riveting is Churchill’s ability to bring the pain these women experienced so close to the surface.

How this connects to the rest of Top Girls is another chapter in that thesis. The play becomes the story of the party’s host Marlene. An 80s career women with a recruitment agency, the role is performed superbly by Suranne Jones. Wonderfully attired and every inch the thrusting executive, Joseph Epstein could have had her in mind when he coined the phrase ‘yuppie’.

Marlene’s is a cruel world. One of her clients, in a stand-out performance from Lucy Briers (who has a great night, also playing Pope Joan), is a bitter middle manager of 47, who’s told that her age is a “disabling handicap”. And Marlene’s back story, escaping to the city, has enough drama when she returns to Ipswich to match The Homecoming.

Max Stafford-Clark’s assured direction does a lot of favours to Churchill’s text. He has the experience, having directed the premiere in 1982 at the Royal Court, and this new production arrives from Chichester with rave reviews.

Marlene’s casual rejection of her daughter Angie, played cogently by Olivia Poulet, is devastating – she’s no “top girl”. The family confrontation that centres on Angie’s future is electric, with a passionate performance from Stella Gonet, the character who gets to ask what will happen if the young girl just can’t “make it”.

Top Girls is political to its core. Marlene’s pin-up girl is Mrs Thatcher – she’d give her the job – and Churchill’s particular politics of fear, debatably, makes the play feel dated. But the strength of this revival is to show the nuances within this landmark play. The complexity of the characters indicates that there are still questions to ask – Churchill’s provocative presentation demands they are answered.

Until 29 October 2011

Photo by John Haynes

Written 17 August 2011 for The London Magazine