Tag Archives: Ned Bennett

“Equus” at the Theatre Royal Stratford East

The last London outing of Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play boasted exciting star casting. But even the presence of Daniel Radcliffe, who did a great job playing the stable hand Alan who blinds the horses in his care, didn’t quite distract from the dated manner of this psychodrama. Equus can be a laboured whydunit, as the aloof Dr Dysart lags behind the audience in reconstructing events and struggles to provide an explanation for an all-too-symbolic outrage.

In this new production, director Ned Bennett gallops over many flaws, adding a physicality that balances the theorising monologues. Meanwhile, the lighting and sound design, from Jessica Hung Han Yun and Giles Thomas respectively, add psychedelic flashes of light and bursts of sound to great effect. With a strong cast, dashing on and off stage with unnerving speed, the piece is served superbly – this is one of the best revivals you’ll see in a long time.

The play’s problems are still there, of course. A contemporary audience is probably too used to tracing trauma – and too familiar with psychobabble – to find such a quest revelatory. But Bennett manages to make it exciting. The clever move is to focus on the doctor, played superbly by Zubin Varla, as much as the patient, and to make the philhellenic clinician’s dissatisfaction with his own life a source of questions. With increasing distress, Dysart sees his treatment will deprive Alan of a life-enhancing passion – the key word is worship – which is a challenging proposition, given Alan’s actions. Varla provides convincing fervour, and plumbing Shaffer’s text to bring out the theme works well.

The production flirts with a period setting, sometimes to its detriment. Georgia Lowe’s minimal design of clinical curtains is used to great effect, but the costumes, as a nod to the 1970s, are confusing. And too little is done about the female roles. Norah Lopez Holden, who plays Alan’s love interest, feels so contemporary she could come from another play. While Alan’s mother is in 1950s mode with Syreeta Kumar’s oddly wooden depiction.

Ira Mandela Siobhan and Ehtan Kai

The cast is superb though when it comes to doubling up as the horses, led in this endeavour by Ira Mandela Siobhan. Avoiding fancy puppetry emphasises the sensual to an almost risqué level – the show is confrontationally sexy. For a final exciting element, there’s the performance of Ethan Kai as Alan. Theatregoers love a career-defining role and this surely counts as one. As well as creating sympathy for the character – no easy leap – he also makes Alan scary. Presenting a young man so dangerously unaware of his own strength, Kai allows Alan to stand as an individual rather than an object in Shaffer’s intellectual game – and all benefit as a result.  

Until 23 March 2019


Photo by The Other Richard

“Yen” at the Royal Court

Anna Jordan’s play won the Bruntwood Prize in 2013 and has already had an acclaimed run at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. A bold look at the ever-topical issue of our problem youth, Jordan’s unflinching eye earns her work the distinction of being one of the most depressing plays you could go and see.

Hench and Bobbie, 16 and 13 respectively, have been left to fend for themselves. Jordan lists signs of poverty and depravity relentlessly: dirt, crisps, lager and pornography. Incapable of caring for themselves, let alone the large dog they have imprisoned in their bedroom, the boys can’t call for help as they have no credit on their phones. Remind yourself the situation is unusual – but it isn’t unbelievable.

Writing gritty is relatively easy. Writing something this grim is harder. To steer clear of a documentary feel there are embellishments. A portable heater stands in for the dog. And Bobbie becomes literally feral at one point (he barks when distressed) – a brilliant and powerfully unsettling moment. And there’s the PlayStation, their only source of solace (which they pass out while playing), superbly staged as a bank of lights.

Annes Elwy as Jenny

The performances and Ned Bennett’s direction are first class. Sian Breckin manages to evoke sympathy as the boy’s awful mother, indicating a tragic back story: throughout the play we are reminded that you can love someone (or a dog) yet treat them horribly. Annes Elwy makes a credible character out of Jenny, who tries to stop the animal cruelty and then starts an unlikely romance with Hench. It’s Jenny’s nickname that gives the play its title, but having another young character as such an obvious foil, painfully showing what it is boys yearn for, feels forced.

In the lead roles Alex Austin and Jake Davies’ performances are marked by an awesome physicality. A mix of hormones, menace and boredom, they inhabit their characters fully and it’s all about frustration. Each instance of physical contact, indeed the potential of touching, becomes intense. It makes the unspecified trauma that affects Hench and the violence Jennifer experiences all the more potent. Austin and Davies’ efforts bring out the very best in the text and do justice to a play that is both hard working and hard work.

Until 13 February 2016


Photo by Richard Davenport

“Pomona” at the National Theatre

Alistair McDowall’s loopy, plot-fuelled drama is structured like a Mobius strip, as we join a frightening search for a missing girl in a dystopian Manchester. Propelled by an HP Lovecraft role-playing game, which the characters all join and where it’s never clear who is in charge, what might have been confusing keeps you intrigued throughout.

The people of the sinister urban wasteland of Pomona fascinate as they search for obliteration in a variety of nasty ways. The cast is superb, including Nadia Clifford’s Ollie, looking for her sister, along with Sam Swann and Sean Rigby as two security guards getting deep into trouble. Rochenda Sandall plays a frightening brothel madam and Rebecca Humphries is outstanding in the most fully formed role of Fay. Presiding over all are Guy Rhys as Moe – a commanding presence despite his claim to be “neutral”, which is saying something since he spends the entire play in his underpants – and Sarah Middleton’s spooky Keaton, a part urban myth, part autistic anime character.

The idea is simple… deep down. A mesh of genres, including thriller and sci-fi, is skilfully woven with plenty of conspiracy theories to examine society’s complicity with moral injustice. Do we ask or ignore awkward questions? The play is a moral maze in more ways than one. I guess there had to be a dose of determinism as well, nicely embodied with gaming dice. Along with all the tension and supernatural overtones Pomona is plenty cryptic and could be frustrating, but instead it’s thoroughly entertaining.

Director Ned Bennett’s skill in bringing this often downright peculiar vision to the stage is remarkable. With a fraught atmosphere he avoids pretentiousness by bringing out the humour in the script and emphasising action. Above all, it’s a game that will keep you guessing. Short, sharp scenes along with creepy touches (much credit to designer Georgia Lowe) can be described as a nightmare that is a puzzle to you upon waking. And puzzles, after all, are great fun.

Until 10 October 2015


Photo by Richard Davenport