Tag Archives: Moira Buffini

“The Greatest Wealth” from the Old Vic

If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that the NHS is as emotive and essential a subject for debate as it ever was. This series of monologues, curated by Lolita Chakrabarti, directed by Adrian Lester and funded by the TS Eliot Estate, uses the humanity – and drama – surrounding the greatest of British institutions with a strong sense of purpose. It is essential viewing.

The project started in 2018 but a new commission, from Bernardine Evaristo, starts the line-up online. First, Do No Harm has a personification of the NHS recounting her achievements and challenging us as to her future. Overtly political, with an attack on “myopic puppet” politicians, this effort to give the institution a voice is stirring and powerful. If some of Evaristo’s references, let alone lines such as “I have X-Ray vision”, come close to being overblown, a magisterial performance from Sharon D Clarke makes them work. The effect is tremendous.

Sharon D Clarke in 'The Greatest Wealth' from The Old Vic
Sharon D Clarke

Patients

Chronologically, the series starts with Jack Thorne’s charming piece, Boo, performed by Sophie Stone and showing the impact of the new NHS on a young deaf girl. It’s interesting to see suspicion about the service at its inception, and the writing has plentiful details and an admirably light touch.

Another patient’s perspective – similarly fresh and funny – is told in Choice & Control by Matilda Ibini, which has Ruth Madeley’s character getting on with her life in a wheelchair. It may not be “the Rolls-Royce of wheelchairs” but the point about having access to mobility is well made and Madeley has a lovely way with the audience.

Slightly less successful, if a touch more ambitious, Paul Unwin’s piece adds a dystopian twist that makes his At The Point of Need confusing. David Threlfall’s performance recounts how the NHS has touched his character’s life, but in too much of a rush. It is the only piece that ends more depressing than celebratory – a brave effort that backfires.

Practioners

A gentle humour, with an increased sense of awe about the science of medicine, is present in pieces about the 1970s and 1980s. Sister Susan by Moira Buffini and Speedy Gonzales by Chakrabarti show us a nurse and a consultant telling us about their work. Characters to truly admire lead to wonderful performances from Dervla Kirwan and Art Malik. 

Sister Susan from 'The Greatest Wealth' at The Old Vic
Dervla Kirwan

Pressure on the NHS is carefully conveyed in the piece about the 1990s. Another nurse and another strong role are present in Family Room by Courttia Newland with Jade Anouka. And stress on NHS staff gets a good twist. Newland highlights the difficulty of health workers protesting that fits well with the whole project’s aim.

High points

For me, the two highlights of the season contained the most humour, used to great effect in Meera Syal’s Rivers. Performing as a midwife in the 1960s, Syal handles the comedy expertly, with delicious irony and sarcasm. While many of the monologues highlight the role of immigrants within the NHS, Syal has a prime position within the debate and opens it up into a broader look at racism. The result rings true and gets laughs – an impressive combination. With powerful emotional twists, the writing has some great turns of phrase and a lovely rhythm.

Myra Syal in 'The Greatest Wealth' from The Old Vic
Myra Syal

A cabaret monologue, The Nuchess by Seiriol Davies makes for a great change of pace. There’s plenty of satire, including outsourcing the last chorus! And more points for rhyming heaven and Bevan. Performed with exuberance by Louise English (pictured top), this jolly personification of the NHS is markedly different from that in First, Do No Harm. But neither are performances to forget in a long time. The NHS doesn’t lack advocates, but they seldom come as articulate as the contributors here. Let’s hope that a monologue addressing the next decade contains only good news.

www.oldvictheatre.com

“Handbagged” at the Vaudeville Theatre

Moira Buffini’s Handbagged, which after a hit run at the Tricycle Theatre had its West End premiere last night, tells the story of Margaret Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minister by imagining her private audiences with the Queen. The characters Liz and Mags reenact their 1980s meetings and are watched over by Q and T – the same figures in later life, who are portrayed as staging the show and provide an acerbic additional commentary on the action. For every joke there’s an equally amusing interjection, so you get two laughs for the price of one – brilliant.

Now, playwrights are not generally Thatcher’s natural constituency, so it is no surprise that the highlights picked out by Buffini are predictably low points. The Miners’ strike, the Falklands, South Africa and the Poll Tax: there are plenty of targets for satire. But Handbagged isn’t just funny, it’s intelligent as well. The history lesson here is cleverly told and not as biased as you might fear. As well as the notion that the ultimate establishment figure is to the left of Mrs T, the Queen’s devotion to the Commonwealth is given its due. And Thatcher is allowed to answer back – well, it would beggar belief to think she would give a playwright an easy time.

Acknowledging the evening as a theatrical production full of “artifice and sham” adds an honesty to the piece. Those meetings were private after all, speculation about their relationship just that, and Buffini wisely never presents her work as the final word. It’s fun: not only do we get discussion about whether there should be an interval – carry on through or enjoy your ice cream? – but the real anger at some of Thatcher’s decisions is given a magically light touch.

In their capacity as the show’s ‘producers’, Q and T recruit two jobbing actors to play a huge variety of roles, and they end up trying to take over the show. Jeff Rawle’s repertoire of accents is astounding and Neet Mohan is superb as he endures the “stroke of casting genius” that sees him dragged up as Nancy Reagan.

Handbagged is superbly performed. Under Indhu Rubasingham’s skillful direction, all four leading ladies excel. These are reinventions rather than simple impersonations (although Marion Bailey’s top lip deserves an award of its own). More credit then to Bailey, Stella Gonet, Lucy Robinson and Fenella Woolgar for injecting real heart into the roles. There is gravitas, when it comes to key speeches the women gave, and emotion at traumatic events. Staying just the right side of parody, Woolgar in particular never takes her eye off this fine balance. Politics has seldom been presented so originally or with such great laughs.

Until 2 August 2014

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 11 April 2014 for The London Magazine

“Greenland” at the National Theatre

Over population is just one of the huge problems facing the natural world. It’s an irony that the National Theatre’s new play about the environment, Greenland, suffers from a similar issue. With four writers having contributed, the play is a disaster in itself.

Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne have all attempted to address the issue of climate change. The idea of making Greenland a collaborative event is ambitious, and I guess all aimed at inspiring a Big Conversation reflected in a series of after show events. The writer’s stories are supposedly interwoven to scope out the effects of climate change and how we react to the threat. Unfortunately the stories don’t so much interweave as unravel. Even worse, none of them is that interesting.

The future, it seems, is not just bleak, but boring. Director Bijan Sheibani paces his production far too quickly. Maybe sleight of hand started to look like a good idea during rehearsals, but the problems of this script aren’t going to disappear just because you race through it. There’s quite a bag of tricks on display: wind machines, a rain curtain, and plenty of things dropping dramatically on to the stage. The National Theatre’s always excellent production department is to be praised, but for hard work rather than results.

Nobody doubts the environment is an urgent issue but there’s always the danger that you are talking to the converted. One of Greenland‘s faults is to not just preach to the choir but to shout at it. And shout in a rather unpleasant tone. It feels as if the National Theatre’s audience is to blame for the world’s woes with its greed (mostly for coffee) and its ignorance (particular concerning the capital of Mali). Even worse, Greenland is remarkably uninformative. You will learn nothing new here and that is shocking omission.

A large cast wonder haplessly around the stage and can do little to save things. Only Amanda Lawrence gives a stand-out performance and manages to bring some humour and warmth to proceedings. And it’s good to see some young talent on the stage, Isabella Laughland and Sam Swann deal ably with their roles as young activists and it’s a shame they don’t have more to do.

There is little hope in Greenland. The aimed-for humour points a finger at activists and the complacent but only hits home ironically – “this eco stuff is making you unhappy,” says an exasperated mother to her campaigning daughter. We know just how she feels. The prevailing feeling is one of anger, justified but hardly constructive. The preaching tone taken might make you angry, too. But, sadly, for the wrong reasons.

Until 2 April 2011

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Helen Warner

Written 3 February 2011 for The London Magazine

“Welcome to Thebes” at the National Theatre

We all appreciate how annoying it can be when a phone rings during a performance. At the National Theatre they’ve really had enough of it; the start of its new production, Welcome to Thebes, has gun-toting child soldiers warning us to switch off our mobiles. We then hear the story of how one girl was raped before becoming a mercenary in her war-torn country. This is an uncomfortable mix and it is clumsily done. Unfortunately it sets the tone for the evening. From the very start of this play you might well want to call someone and tell them how bad things are.

Moira Buffini’s play recasts Greek myths to modern day Africa. The inhabitants of Thebes experiment with democracy after a devastating war and look to wealthy Athens to help them out. There can be no objection to reinterpreting myths (indeed there is a prestigious heritage of doing so) but Buffini’s efforts are a worrying failure. The contemporary setting isn’t specific enough to be politically satisfying and the mythical characters seem like lost novelties. Doing justice to the dangerous creativity of Dionysus and contrasting that with the arrogant politics of the Athenians would be enough to aim for without trying to draw unconvincing parallels to current events. To make matters worse, what is universal about myths – their emotive power – seems to have no attention paid to it at all, making the play dull as well as pretentious.

Richard Eyre’s direction makes the production as swift and tense as it can be but he has too much to work against. The cast battle valiantly and produce some good performances. The new government’s cabinet of ministers make up the chorus and the actresses do well to differentiate themselves. The opposition is formed by Pargeia (Rakie Ayola) and Prince Tydeus (Chuk Iwuji) – a fantastic power-mad couple brimming with sex and violence. Thebes’ new boss Eurydice (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and the visiting Theseus (David Harewood) also work well together and convince as very different types of leaders.

Achieving some electric mixtures of personalities on stage is no small achievement given the script and static set that the actors have to work with. The text varies crazily from the stubbornly prosaic, taking in scraps of poetry, to the painfully clunky. Having been welcomed to Thebes, take my advice and look swiftly for the exit.

Until 18 August 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 23 June 2010 for The London Magazine