Tag Archives: Sam Swann

“Oil” at the Almeida Theatre

Ella Hickson’s time-travelling play overflows with contemporary concerns. Scene one shows the not-so-good life of Cornish farmers in 1889. It’s followed by a trip to Tehran in 1908, Hampstead in 1970 and a couple of forays into the future. All show the consequences of oil, or the lack of, in society. Each scene is played around the dynamic of a mother called May (Anne-Marie Duff), Orlando-like over the centuries, with her daughter, Amy, who appears just conceived, aged eight, as a teen and as a middle-aged woman. You can’t doubt the play’s ambition.

The danger here is in overwhelming your audience. Hickson manages to stop her play feeling like an online search for conspiracies with the help of director Carrie Cracknell’s inventive staging and some deliciously mischievous humour. It’s a self-consciously crazy affair, with an experimental feel that has a certain charm. But there are moments of confusion. The box-of-tricks set by Vicki Mortimer has distracting elements, while repeated motifs that steer the audience are effortful. And there’s also a pop song (by Justin Bieber) – an overused trend I wish would stop.

Sam Swann and Yolanda Kettle
Sam Swann and Yolanda Kettle

The combination of global politics and gender studies is original and startling. Matching empire and parenthood produces some charge, not least an excoriating invective when Amy’s boyfriend (Sam Swann) is dispatched by May – the play’s best scene. But depressingly, the insights here aren’t revelatory, even if they are well delivered. Scenes set in the past don’t privilege historical accuracy, those looking to the future have silly touches; both are a little too obvious about how we live now, giving rise to a sense of naïvety. This is a young writer who sees the world getting worse and is angry about it. Fair enough. An impressive, almost intimidating energy drives the play, but it lacks control.

Oil is grim stuff. Hickson is harsh on all, not just those from the past, and the play’s themes of loneliness and narcissism, allied to the selfishness of Empire, create affecting moments. Trying to help is a confusing thing and the future will be lonely and (literally) cold. Unfortunately, cynicism overwhelms the text. It’s hard to knock a play with so many ideas, a good deal of them well executed. But it’s only Duff, seconded by Yolanda Kettle who plays her daughter over the centuries, who manages to inject some real feeling and provide a reason to see the play.

Until 26 November 2016


Photos by Richard H Smith

“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

“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


Photo by Helen Warner

Written 3 February 2011 for The London Magazine

“Dunsinane” at the Hampstead Theatre

By the final scene of Macbeth, the tyrant is dead, justice is served and the witches’ prophecy fulfilled. So what happens next? Leaping at the topicality of an occupying English army, David Greig’s sequal, Dunisane, asks questions that seem relevant to our time.

There are some surprises, but the plot is deliberately familiar. The occupying force professes the noblest of intentions, to bring peace and stability to a fractured country, underneath the motive of security for their homeland. But the exit strategy goes wrong, the local culture is misunderstood and the battle for hearts and minds lost.

More specifically, as befits the interests of a playwright, this is a battle of language. The words politicians use conflict with the soldier’s vocabulary. The Scots struggle with the English tongue and use the English’s ignorance of Gaelic against them. The occupiers fail to see the poetry in the situation – the drama of revenge or the tragedy of loss, which Greig’s language artfully struggles to convey.

This is best seen in Sam Swann’s role of a boy soldier who recites the letters he writes home to his mother. Leaving aside the idea of an infantry man of the time writing at all, let alone with such a contemporary tone, the writing has an authenticity that works wonderfully in dramatic terms.

This boy soldier is also an essential foil for the more central characters. Greig has set himself the ambitious task of creating roles that would not seem out of place on a Shakespearean stage – the kind of roles that have a life of their own.  He is fortunate to have a cast that also embraces this challenge.

Jonny Phillips plays Siward, the English commander in charge of the occupation. His problem is that he is a good man and Phillips does a superb job in displaying this nobility alongside making his character a true man of action.  Holding true to his convictions to the point of mania, he is outwitted at most turns by the Scots.

Brian Ferguson’s Malcolm is the King established by the English. The consummate politician in many ways, although his deadpan admissions of selfishness raise a laugh, it is he who truly understands the workings of power.

Just as politic but with far more passion is Siobhan Redmond’s Gruach. She embodies this royal role with dignity but also an eye to the vulnerability of her position, playful in her sexuality and willing to manipulate her reputation. Redmond also adds a conviction about her character’s culture that the long removed Malcolm can only play at. She shares touching moments with Siwald as both characters have lost children. Gruach is reunited with the body of hers in one of those deeply moving yet grotesque moments that seems very Shakespearean and which Redmond manages to pull off.

The first of the RSC’s forays into the Hampstead Theatre, it is no surprise to see those trademark crowd scenes the RSC does so well. No surprise, but it’s no small achievement nonetheless. Roxanna Silbert directs her cast to make numbers appear huge and has clearly imbued a sense of camaraderie in this company appropriate to a military drama.  For while political commentary is present, above this, Dunisane is a good story, well produced. What happens after Macbeth? Plenty. It seems that his death is just the beginning.

Until 6 March 2010


Photo by Simon Annand

Written 18 February 2010 for The London Magazine