Tag Archives: Sharon Small

“The Trials” at the Donmar Warehouse

Dawn King’s climate change play has a strong scenario – the youth of the future hold their parents to account in court for environmental damage. A sci-fi dystopia, the piece is an effective, well-written call to action. It’s big on ideas and, while important for all to see, perfect for a younger demographic. There’s a powerful sense of rage propelling the controlled script: this is theatre for the angry young gen.

Accountability and justice are meaty subjects. As is the impact on the planet of being a carnivore. If some of the future King imagines is far-fetched (it would seem the revolution that has occurred is the first in history to benefit the poor) the balance with what we can all imagine as the shape of things to come is good. It’s easy to guess that folk of the future will be aghast at how we live now.

Overblown touches add to a sense of urgency. But there are hitches. It could be clearer from the start what the outcome of the trials is. Also, for a piece about a generational divide, it would help to know what the date is. Is it Gen Z in the dock? Since King wants to be vague, I’ll avoid spoilers. Suffice to say that there’s a lot of drama from a tight, twisty plot. And those accused aren’t just the usual suspects.

The play also manages its young cast superbly. First, three experienced performers – Lucy Cohu, Nigel Lindsay and Sharon Small – punctuate the action. Their speeches, as their characters defend themselves, are superbly delivered. Then, under the careful direction of Natalie Abrahami, the ensemble, some of whom are very young, all acquit themselves admirably.

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Lucy Cohu

Fans of Heartstopper (and I spotted a few) will be pleased with performances from Will Gao and Joe Locke. The former injects some much-needed light relief, while Locke clearly revels in having a darker character to deal with. But this is an ensemble piece – great care is taken to give all 12 cast members time and the show is good at this. Twelve is a lot of characters. Some of the roles may be sketched – they represent attitudes (often, anxieties) – but King ensures all are memorable and distinct.

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Honor Kneafsey

Honor Kneafsey as Ren is the central role, the strongest written character with a performance to match. Jowana El-Daouk also stands out for a streak of ruthlessness combined with a hatred of “dinosaur” elders – an internal conflict that is important. King has an uncanny ability to show and balance the conviction and anger of youth. The mischievous Tomaz intrigues most and Charlie Reid’s energetic performance of this lethargic character (not easy) is good. The role brings home how young those in charge are in the story.

Charlie-Reid-in-THE-TRIALS-Donmar-Warehouse-credit-Helen-Murray
Charlie Reid

But are they really running things? There’s a lot unspoken in The Trials, which King plays with and could extrapolate. The jurors can ask for help… but from who? Do these witch hunts have a darker purpose? Is there some kind of catharsis going on? Or is it all about resources being scarce? With more big ideas bubbling away, this Utilitarian future comes under question. Avoiding easy answers, King has a fine play that is bleak, but undeniably absorbing.

Until 27 August 2022

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Helen Murray

“The Threepenny Opera” at the National Theatre

While the chance to see Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s famous work is welcome, regrettably, this production isn’t the finest hour of anyone involved. There’s nothing embarrassing – there are even good bits – but Simon Stephens’ new adaptation lacks charge, while Rufus Norris’ direction of his talented cast is low voltage.

Of course it’s fine to change the original setting (Brecht and Weill used John Gay’s earlier work themselves). Mack the Knife, aka Captain Macheath, the libidinous crook whose adventures we follow, is recast as an East End gangster. Neat enough. But not specifying a time period for this ‘updating’ diminishes its power. The dark reflections on human nature are robbed of satire, falling into a generic gloom that fails to challenge. Stephens’ lyrics are admirably clear, but they can’t shock – no matter how many expletives are crammed in – as it feels those involved would like them to.

The Brechtian staging of the work is tokenistic. There are knowing gags, including Keystone coppery and Buster Keaton, but the production feels lost or, more specifically, better suited to a smaller stage. Regular visitors to the National Theatre will know how powerful the Olivier can be – even empty – but here, Vicki Mortimer’s set of stairs and paper screens feels both slim and cumbersome. And there are a lot of signs to read – tricky from the circle. Impressive moments of staging have to be ascribed to Paule Constable’s lighting.

Haydn Gwynne and Nick Holder
Haydn Gwynne and Nick Holder

The biggest disappointment here is the cast. There are good performances when you’d expect great ones. Rory Kinnear takes the lead, his singing voice a pleasant surprise, but even his brilliant acting can’t hold things together. The excellent Rosalie Craig, as his young bride Polly, fails to bring her normal shine (maybe the interpretation of the role as an accountant hampers too much), while Sharon Small, as one of Mack’s many former lovers, sounds painful. The show belongs to the Peachums, Macheath’s enemies, played by Nick Holder and Haydn Gwynne. With this malicious Mr and Mrs, exaggerations in the piece pay off. Elsewhere, this Threepenny Opera feels deflated.

Until 1 October 2016

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Richard Hubert Smith

“Carmen Disruption” at the Almeida Theatre

When you enter the Almeida Theatre for Simon Stephens’ latest play, Carmen Disruption, it’s via the stage. It seems part of a campaign by the Islington venue to shake up its audience and perfectly embodies this innovative and imaginative play’s spirit. If you’ve bought a ticket, congratulate yourself and take a bow… but be careful not to walk into an animatronic bull on your way in.

It doesn’t get any less weird. The play follows the nervous breakdown of a singer, who performs the role of Bizet’s Carmen all over the world, interweaving monologues from others, cast as archetypes from that opera, accompanied by a real singer as a chorus. Carmen Disruption clearly has enough arty touches to make plenty of eyes roll. But it works. Stephens’ magical touch creates a world of pure theatre – visionary and inspiring.

Stephens’ work can’t be easy for the actors but the performances are uniformly good. Viktoria Vizin, who has sung Carmen in 17 productions, has a voice that blows you away. Sharon Small, as The Singer, is superbly believable; I bet she’s been chatting to Vizin a lot about the pressured nomadic lifestyle of an opera star. Playing Stephens’ version of the title character, recast as a narcissistic rent boy, Jack Farthing is especially strong.

Michael Longhurst directs the production marvellously, with a control that gives Stephens’ text perfect space to breath. Lizzie Clachan’s design, along with stunning lighting by Jack Knowles, matches the poetry of the piece. Vitally, the whole team seems convinced by the power of the play.

Stephens’ motif is loneliness. His characters are isolated, desperate and frustrated, using whatever they can, mostly sex, to connect with others. Yet, despite some extreme behaviour and extravagant lifestyles, we can always connect with them. And no matter how strange the play feels, it is rooted. Much is sure to be made of the technology in the play – phones are plentiful and often commented upon – which gives Carmen Disruption its contemporary commentary, but the play’s power comes from universal themes.

Until 23 May 2015

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by March Brenner

“Men Should Weep” at the National Theatre

Josie Rourke, renowned for her work at the Bush Theatre, is canny in her choice of play to mark her directorial debut at the National. Ena Lamont Stewart’s Men Should Weep is a social drama with a large cast enacted on an intimate level. Rourke uses her experience of small venues while exploiting the Lyttelton’s resources to create the play’s larger world. Her skill envelops the audience; her talent is a fresh approach for the National Theatre.

Bunny Christie’s magnificent set reflects the claustrophobic squalor of the 1930s tenement in which the play is set. It’s impressive, but Rourke is never distracted by it. Lamont Stewart’s slice of life story receives the respect it deserves. The playwright worked in the Glasgow library and hospital during the depression and her text has an authentic feel that is captivating. The language maybe daunting, but might only prove a problem for the truest blooded Sassenach.

Men Should Weep is full of great roles for women. Sharon Small plays Maggie Morrison the matriarch of the family, around whom the story revolves. It is a demanding role performed with aplomb. Jayne McKenna is wonderful as her sister, a brittle, regretful woman. The younger generation fight against their poverty any way they can, with excellent performances from Sarah MacRae and Morven Christie. Thérèse Bradley puts in a great turn as the miserly sister-in-law, “so hard they dug her from a quarry”. These are women not to be messed with, but the mess their lives are in makes you understand why.

What of the men who should be weeping? Robert Cavanah plays John Morrison. The character’s faults make him a difficult man to sympathise with but love of his family and intelligence are always behind Cavanah’s performance. John says that poverty bends a man over double and makes him like “a human question mark”.

It’s grim up north to be sure, but the play is masterfully free of clichés and histrionics. Laughter and love of the family shine forth but without a ‘salt of the earth’ touch. There are no angels or devils here – just difficult circumstances. The domestic violence and vice can be harsh and shocking, but the motivation is desperation, and humour is never far behind. The Morrison children certainly suffer, but these are the sorts of lives the Jeremy Hunts of the world should consider before proscribing how many children people should have. Our current recession differs in many ways from that Lamont Stewart experienced, but her insight into human dignity has important lessons for us all.

Until 9 January 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 27 October 2010