Tag Archives: Simon Slater

“Wilde Without The Boy” at the Playground Theatre

Here’s a one-man show with a difference. Gareth Armstrong’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s prison letter, De Profundis, takes a fascinating text and reveals its complexity admirably. As the genius author’s relationship with his lover Lord Alfred Douglas is recounted with considerable tension, an emotive case for a spiritual journey is presented. More than a monologue, the show is an intelligent engagement with a historic text.

Gerard Logan takes the role of Wilde. The performance is one of great subtlety and nuance. Already well-acclaimed, and rightly so, Logan presents an Oscar without exaggeration and few affectations. Nearing the end of his prison sentence, it’s a broken man that we see. But also one claiming to have rebuilt himself through suffering.

How convincing you find the humility of the self-proclaimed “lord of language” is for you to judge. How much of a victim to an uncontrollable passion is also open to debate. And how pain and suffering relate to plenty of talk about the soul might make your head spin. But Logan is utterly convincing when it comes to Wilde’s devotion to Douglas. And he is very good when it comes to showing Wilde’s terror at events. Further, with more than a little superiority and glimpses of cruelty, care is taken to ensure Wilde isn’t entirely likeable.

The evening ends with a further treat. A performance of Wilde’s poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol. It’s an excellent pairing that aids the argument within Armstrong’s text perfectly, and the influence of Wilde’s experience on his art becomes crystal clear. Accompanied by a sensitive score from Simon Slater, Logan’s delivery is a huge achievement. Surely this poem is the one last work of art discussed in De Profundis and the case made for the work’s status as a masterpiece. It is a rare treat indeed to hear a recital of this quality.

Until 27 September 2020

www.theplaygroundtheatre.london

“Wonderland” from #HampsteadTheatreAtHome

This second online offering from Hampstead Theatre shows Britain in a different kind of crisis than the coronavirus we currently face – The Miners’ Strike of 1983. Although it’s always clear where the show’s heart rests, presenting events from the perspective of both workers and government creates problems. But playwright Beth Steel’s achievement is to convey a sense of those times as epoch making, giving the history a palpable urgency in a play full of passion.

There’s real heart in Steel’s depictions of the miners and it makes the story engrossing. Starting off slow, showing work underground, during the strike both tension and emotion build well. Performances from Paul Brennen as the ‘Colonel’ of a mine and a pitman who disagrees with the strike, played by Gunnar Cauthery, are highlights. If the roles of two young apprentices, Jimmy and Malcolm, seem less secured, with their motivations and characters more confused, there are further strong performances from Ben-Ryan Davies and David Moorst. Steel is strong at showing a blend of comradery, with humour and machismo, alongside revealing the craft behind the graft. It makes Wonderland powerful stuff.

When it comes to the politicians and businessmen on the other side of the strike, what is mined is conspiracy rather than character. The result is a selection of stark portrayals that, even if they are accurate, mean performances struggle. Michael Cochrane has a good go as Ian ‘Butcher’ MacGregor, Chairman of the Coal Board, which is an interesting role, surely written as too naïve. The parts for Transport Secretary Nicholas Ridley and that of David Hart, whose role in events is understandably confusing, are too villainous (likewise any police shown). It’s left to the ‘wet’ Energy Secretary Peter Walker to present any kind of balance and, while Andrew Havill, who takes the part, does a good job, he isn’t given enough to work with.

There are moments when director Edward Hall could help more: a scene of political debate disappears into the pit as it’s getting interesting and a tragic finale, which enforces the dangers of mining and has some of Steel’s finest writing, is sacrificed for the sake of action. Yet Hall deals with all the incident Steel crams in – and it’s a lot – with commendable efficiently. The set from Ashley Martin Davis, mining lifts and all, is excellent and well used. There’s valuable support from lighting designer Peter Mumford and composer Simon Slater, whose ‘theme tune’ for the miners is highly effective. The commitment behind the show shines out as the injustice of “proud working men treated like dogs”, victims of ideology and political machination, are exposed with conviction.

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Available until 12 April 2020

Photos by Manuel Harlan

"Orpheus Descending" at the Menier Chocolate Factory

While recent revivals of works by the great Arthur Miller have attracted a lot of deserved attention, new productions of plays by his compatriot Tennessee Williams are just as exciting. This one, showcasing a difficult piece that’s often ignored or dismissed, should be a hot ticket. Director Tamara Harvey has crafted a great show that views the text as an opportunity rather than a problem, and the result is revelatory.

Harvey isn’t satisfied with the clichés of Southern Gothic that surround much of Williams’ work. She takes a quieter approach and, at first, the arrival of a charismatic stranger in a small town is played – almost – like a soap opera. There’s a strong sense of community embodied by gossiping neighbours, roles that Catrin Aaron and Laura Jane Matthewson excel in. After all, there’s no reason for the set-up to be instantly claustrophobic. There’s plenty of time for that to develop.

The same restraint is shown with the central pairing of the shopkeeper Lady Torrance and the wandering minstrel Valentine Xavier who comes to work for her. We can see Lady’s frustration and his charisma from the start, but the move into an affair is depicted with sophistication. The excellent performances from Hattie Morahan and Seth Numrich intrigue the audience before ratcheting up the tension.

Of course, Orpheus Descending has oddities – wonderful ones. Lady ends up as one of Williams’ most tragic female leads (which is saying something), while Valentine’s fate aims at being mythic. Yet Morahan prevents Lady from being too much the victim, exciting our interest and arousing our sympathy. Numrich makes his role credible by underplaying the extraordinary – he’s a nice guy rather than some unearthly gigolo.

You might be wondering if Harvey has shorn off too much of the show and perhaps domesticated Williams somehow? But it would be a tough allegation to substantiate. Music and myth are still central to the piece – and focused all the better. The score from Simon Slater is excellent, if too muted. The figure of Uncle Pleasant, suggesting both history and racism – played with commanding presence by Valentine Hanson – is given some of Williams’ scene-setting stage directions to read, enforcing his all-seeing role. There’s still plenty to question and unnerve.

Jemima Roper

Harvey’s strategy in miniature is shown with the role of local girl gone wrong, Carol. Suggesting conflicts in human nature that Williams wanted to examine makes it a tough call for a performer. But Jemima Roper conveys the ideas with real drama, presenting the desperate figure of a “lewd vagrant”, and a campaigner, clear about the corruption that surrounds her. Finally, she is a visionary who is “sick with neon”. Carefully taking us through these steps enforces the play’s structure, characters and ideas. With Harvey’s skills, Orpheus Descending gradually goes up, up, up, all the way.

Until 6 July 2019

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photos by Johan Persson

"Even stillness breathes softly against a brick wall" at the Soho Theatre

Unlike its title, Brad Birch’s new play, Even stillness breathes softly against a brick wall, which opened at the Soho Theatre last night, is a short, terse work. In a spirit of brevity, suffice to say – this is strong writing with much to offer.
A couple, “Him” (Joe Dempsie) and “Her”, (Lara Rossi) live recognisably modern lives – all about technology (Simon Slater’s accompanying soundscape is effectively annoying) and takeaways. There’s nothing new here and, although Birch writes about it well, it goes on a little too long.
The scenario develops with the couple rejecting consumerism and in so doing effectively turning away from the whole contemporary world. It’s a radical fantasy: just saying no. A dream, or nightmare, sure to divide an audience and a bold place for a dramatist to position himself.
It will either disappoint or reassure to find that this breakaway ends up being depicted as a breakdown: the squeezed middle turned screaming and mad. The pressure the successful young couple are under doesn’t move us enough, and reports of war on the news that obsess ‘Him’ are an opaque parallel.
But the play reads very well indeed. Birch started his work by writing a poem, and it shows; the text is layered and the language ripe. Taken off the page with great respect by director Nadia Latif, it’s staged skilfully in a carefully constructed set by Lorna Ritchie that the couple make a right mess off – I pity their landlord.
This is one of those works that makes an effective showcase for acting talent: demanding, intense and requiring intelligent performers. Making an impressive stage debut, Joe Dempsie seems very much at home, a great presence, appealing and charismatic with a natural ability to bring out comic touches.
As his companion, Lara Rossi’s experience, including her excellent performance in Philip Ridley’s play Tender Napalm, stands her in good stead. Rossi suppresses her character’s energy remarkably and deals with the sexually explicit content with the erotic nuance required. Like Dempsie, she establishes a great connection with the audience.
It’s when presenting a couple in love that Even stillness breathes softly against a brick wall is at its most appealing. Birch, aided by the fine performances, writes an engrossing internal dialogue for each character, combined with their conversations and occasional comments to the audience. It’s an exacting evening, but one with plenty of rewards.
Until 14 June 2013
www.sohotheatre.com
Photo by Richard Davenport
Written 31 May 2013 for The London Magazine