While Don DeLillo’s status as a Great American Novelist, with all those capital letters, is seldom questioned, his work as a playwright is less well known. If this turgid effort, receiving a UK premiere, is anything to go by, that might be best for the great man’s reputation.
The scenario is thin from the start and not developed – a great artist being euthanised by his family after a stroke reduces him to a persistent vegetative state. It’s an important subject, increasingly urgent in our society, but DeLillo adds nothing to the debate. Instead we get recollections of marriage and art that may be of interest, but only if you happen to be an East Coast intellectual. Both niche and unenlightening, it ends up boring.
The characters are well acted but too solipsistic to care about. The charisma needed for the lead comes entirely from Joe McGann’s performance. It’s too hard to credit that others are “clustered” around to support his character’s passing. Josie Lawrence is always watchable as his ex-wife and even manages to inject some humour. Jack Wilkinson takes the part of the son, Sean, and he deals with slowly revealed mixed motives and anger well. But nothing can save incredulity when it comes to the fumbled efforts with morphine; surely you’d read your Google printouts before overdosing your father? The current wife and carer, played admirably by Clara Indrani, has the only part with real emotion. But her role is hampered by some new age sentiment that needs further explication to stop it being nonsensical. When she requests, “Let’s not analyse”, she seems to be in the wrong play.
And these guys talk. Convoluted sentences make up a dense and unbelievable dialogue that ends up a drone. Even at 90 minutes it’s clear some editing is needed, as is energy – director Jack McNamara seems overawed by DeLillo’s text. An effort is made with an expensive set from Lily Arnold – there’s some movement at least – but static scenes drag despite their brevity. Worst of all, nearly every line, no matter how unoriginal or even silly, is presented as profound. It’s an approach that kills the script and hampers the performers. The script is bludgeoned, the performances strangled and the play ends up dead.
The advice is always to write about what you know. So it would have made sense in 1955 for African-American actress Alice Childress to set her play around the staging of a play – and to make both of them about race relations. Turns out that Childress knew plenty: creating a well-crafted text that ensures this exceptional production from Bath feels fresh, with a role for a leading lady that’s a dream.
The rehearsal scenario, expertly handled, is a great device, from which director Laurence Boswell generates tension and humour. It makes the play accessible and feel startlingly modern. As the black cast members debate the depiction of sharecroppers in the South, racism, art and the connections between the two are brought into focus. The pivot for all is character actress Wiletta and a star performance from Tanya Moodie.
Wiletta acts all the time. As she explains to a young colleague (great work from Ncuti Gatwa), you have to perform for the white crew and cast members even behind the scenes. This divide with the WASPs who run things creates fine performances from Daisy Boulton, as an idealist ingénue, and Jonathan Slinger, who tackles the fraught role of a tyrannical self-righteous director with characteristic gusto.
Then there’s Wiletta’s real acting. First, that engendered from the poorly written roles she suffers from – providing the clichés that the (white) audience wants. After this come glimpses of how she would really articulate the role. And, of course, the struggle between the two. With fascinating but perilously difficult layer upon layer, Moodie never gets lost and takes the audience with her. It bears repeating that she is stunning.
The racism in the piece is painful to watch. It leads to a remarkable monologue for Ewart James Walters as the eldest member of the cast recalling a real-life lynching. Yet it’s Childress’s use of humour that impresses most – adding an uncomfortable edge through the theatrical buzzwords of “relating to” and “justifying” a character’s motivation. The dissonance created between the real issues and their depiction on stage allows Moodie to show a “fighting mad” spirit, making the play burst out of its theatrical world to engage with real issues in a “militant” fashion.
Even a cursory knowledge of Tennessee Williams’ women raises expectations of this rarely performed play, which has no fewer than four female characters. A group of middle-aged singletons gather in cheap accommodation on a hot afternoon in St Louis, so you can imagine how the writer of Blanche DuBois and Maggie the Cat might go to town on them. But the most intriguing thing here is Williams’ restraint.
Bodey is a mother hen, portrayed brilliantly by Debbie Chazen, who makes the character easy to root for as she clucks over her roommate Dorothea (Laura Rogers), who has fallen for her no-good boss. They are joined by their depressed neighbour, a difficult role, mostly in German, that Julia Watson does well with. And paying an urgent visit is Dorothea’s colleague Helena, a “well dressed snake” and snob, seeing “absolute desolation” in the homely apartment. If the waspish lines, delivered impeccably by Hermione Gulliford, please the crowd, there’s also a touching monologue about her loneliness. True, these women have agendas. But they aren’t all devious or downright delusional (a common Williams trait), with hopes, dreams and a self-awareness that are entirely down to earth.
The production appreciates what might even be called a prosaic streak. Director Michael Oakley has crafted a tight domestic drama, with grandeur coming from Fotini Dimou’s impressive set and the appropriate shabby-chicness of the venue itself. Dorothea comes closest to a standard Williams heroine: we are warned she has a “Southern Belle complex”. Whether Rogers’ performance is wary enough of this is debatable. The play’s anticlimactic revelations and speculation on “the long run” (the future obsesses these women) may seem like small beans from a writer who usually dealt with higher stakes, but this play has a quiet appeal all its own.
Lurid, dense and poetic, Jean Genet’s play is revived with an expert translation by David Rudkin. We join three prisoners in a cell who say they will be “the slow death of each other”. The felons plot a murder, while creating a hierarchy of criminality that baffles as much as it intrigues. Genet said the play should unfold as in a dream and director Geraldine Alexander bears the dictate in mind, so this is a style that won’t appeal to all. Cryptic and cerebral, it’s an experience that’s dazzling, but might leave you dazed.
The cell is a cube reminiscent of cage fighting, placed in a circus ring with sawdust on the floor. The design from Lee Newby fits the play perfectly and The Print Room’s (newish) home at the Coronet only adds to the atmosphere. With an impressive lighting rig utilised by David Plater, the production values are top notch. As are the performances – there’s outstanding acting here. The murderer Green-Eyes, awaiting execution, has the most “clout” in the cell and the character’s animal magnetism and poetic fervour are convincingly portrayed by Tom Varey, showing the twisted depths of Genet’s writing. The cellmates share an obsession with Green-Eyes. Lefranc’s crimes may be “hot air” but he becomes a chilling figure through a balanced performance from Danny Lee Wynter. And Maurice is confrontationally played as a “screaming Queen” by Joseph Quinn, who gives a professional stage debut of great detail that bodes well for his future career.
All three roles are challenging. Unlike most (maybe all) crime fiction, Genet isn’t interested in the personal motivation behind crime. Backstories are suggested, but can they be trusted? Philosophy is explored as much as psychology. All this could ring alarm bells – or excite. Call me slow, I wanted more pauses – time for everything to stop and slow down – allowing an opportunity to drink in the language. Instead Alexander’s emphasis is on the tension, so fair enough. A more justifiable quibble is that even in this strong production the depth of Genet’s text isn’t plumbed, with the roles of brute force and mindless violence neglected. Nonetheless, an exceptional show.
Established as a first-class fringe venue over the last four years, The Print Room has now moved from Hereford Road to the former Coronet Cinema. The potential to transform this Notting Hill icon is exciting and the theatre is off to a stunning start with Notes From Underground.
Arriving from Paris, this adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s work by all-round clever fellow Gérald Garutti, collaborating with the show’s performer Harry Lloyd, is a fantastic piece. Taking the dense text and making it feel naturally performable is a huge achievement: the intellectual rigour of the Russian master is retained and a piece of superb theatre created.
Garutti and Lloyd have worked hard to create an immediacy, which, in this intimate space, becomes almost intimidating. Lloyd greets the audience as they arrive: we are the “ladies and gentlemen” he addresses throughout. And there is no historic distance here – we are in the now: the office life he has abandoned, which made him “a slave and a coward” is our very own nine to five.
The anti-hero of the work is a recluse, living in a “hole” and “over-philosophising” about existence. Retelling the events of a dinner party and an experience with a prostitute, the underground he talks about isn’t just the underbelly of society but the underpinnings of the human mind. The “higher consciousness” he claims to possess isn’t exactly appealing – it would be easy to see posturing and pretension – but Lloyd brings out the humanity behind the anguished ruminating, making sure we aren’t alienated from the ideas and share their “sting”.
This is no easy monologue. Dostoyevsky’s philosophy is radical: a rejection of reason pushes his character to madness, and the masochism embraced is particularly hard to swallow. But the ideas are presented elegantly, forensically followed through and create a remarkable rhythm. We are warned, “You’re not going to like this”, but this assessment is a long way off the truth.
Time is of the essence Harold Pinter’s play The Dumb Waiter. The one-act work, which sees two hit men waiting for their instructions, plays with timescales and sets out to disorientate the audience. Protagonists Gus and Ben, your average working killers, complain about their employment conditions and are exposed to an increasingly bizarre series of events – including the eponymous serving hatch of the play’s title, from which strange and threatening orders emerge. The tension mounts, hilarity ensues and in true Pinter style, we’re exposed to raw emotion and left a little puzzled.
The director Jamie Glover, primarily known as an actor, has worked with the talented duo Joe Armstrong and Clive Wood to create superbly detailed performances. Wood plays Ben, the “senior partner”, who bristles with tension. Distracting banalities from the newspaper and professed confidence in the “organisation” they work for can’t hide his anxiety. Wood’s red-ringed eyes reveal he is close to the edge and one scene of his starring into the distance, collapsed in on himself, is extremely powerful. His younger colleague, Gus, is the one willing to ask questions – and there are lots of them. Armstrong gives a winning performance, combining a endearingly puzzled look with great comic skill when the couple squabble over semantics. His character might be a cog in a machine, but one with some spirit and the will examine the way in which they are being manipulated.
Maybe it was the delightfully-crafted pumpkins lining the entrance to the theatre, or more likely Peter Rice’s effective sound design to the show which makes the dumb waiter sound like a supernatural guillotine – but this is a scary night. The men’s boredom escalates into fear instantly but the comedy in the play suffers. Glover opts for menace – a valid decision – but I enjoy Pinter’s dark comedy and felt it lacking here. The absurdities of the situation raise laughs but the general air is one of brooding. It adds to the intensity though and the show becomes incredibly swift; there’s time for dinner afterwards and this play leaves you plenty to discuss.
The Print Room has produced another quality show with a revival of Arthur Miller’s The Last Yankee. Casting the spotlight on a pair of husbands visiting their wives in a mental hospital, this short play combines the stories of two very different marriages with a social commentary on the American dream. The production, combining the young talent of director Cathal Cleary and an experienced cast, delivers a great deal in just over an hour.
The performances are ones to relish. Paul Hickey has the strongest part as the carpenter descendant of a founding father, generating sympathy for a proud working man whose efforts to make ends meet frustrate his wife Patricia (captivatingly played by Matilda Ziegler). Their fellow New Englanders are self-made Frick and reclusive Karen, who seem to have it all. Andy De La Tour and Kika Markham make a fantastic team in these roles, forming the play’s emotional backbone as an elderly couple facing frightening problems.
Miller’s idea that money and status have become too damagingly connected is forcefully written and respectfully presented. Arguably, too much has happened in America in the 20 years since the play was penned for these concerns to overly interest an audience in Notting Hill in 2013. But even when Miller’s allegory pushes against credibility (in particular the suggestion that Patricia is punishing her husband by having a break down), human drama is to the fore. The performances focus attention on the pain of mental illness and there are heart-rending moments that make it easy to recommend this show.
Notting Hill’s Print Room has secured another theatrical coup, working with the Ustinov Studio at the Theatre Royal Bath to bring the UK premiere of 4000 Miles to London. Winner of multiple awards in the US, Amy Herzog’s play involves the relationship between elderly Vera and her grandson Leo, who unexpectedly pitches up at Vera’s New York apartment having completed a cross-country bike ride marred by tragedy.
Nurtured by his grandmother’s presence, the young man’s emotional journey is just beginning. It’s a modest premise, perhaps, but, with superb performances from Daniel Boyd and Sara Kestelman, love, life and death are observed with such a realistic eye that the play is fascinating.
The simple story is elevated to extraordinary theatre by Herzog’s characterisation and James Dacre’s precise direction. Each scene, though dealing with the mundane is never ordinary, as the subtle, detailed observations build. The cast rises to the writing with Boyd and Kestelman joined by Leo’s love interests, both wonderfully drawn and performed by Jenny Hulse and Jing Lusi, although it has to be admitted that the latter steals the show for comedy value.
Herzog never stereotypes her characters – an especially impressive feat considering the politics in the play. Vera is an old Communist, Leo a new age hippy, and fun is poked at both. But Herzog is less concerned with single-issue politics than with the nature of our responsibilities to one another. Recognising the difficulties of both old age and youth, with plenty of wry comment to entertain, 4000 Miles shows different generations finding common ground in an original and moving manner. A remarkable achievement.
Regardless of your religious view, as a repository of stories the Bible rates pretty near the top. But few writers have taken inspiration from it in quite the style of Howard Barker in his play Lot and His God, receiving its UK premiere at The Print Room in Notting Hill. A ‘re-imagining’ of the story from Genesis, about the destruction of Sodom and the fate of Lot of his family, Barker’s take is predictably outrageous – highlighting all that Old Testament fire and brimstone that nowadays makes nearly everyone uncomfortable.
Lot and His God is a complicated, demanding piece that you need to be wide-awake for. To get the most out of its references, get up to speed on Genesis before you head to the theatre. This play’s politics are as challenging as its dense poetic language and as a human drama it is compelling with its incessant power struggle between the characters. This is a sexy story of biblical wife-swapping with an angel who has a shoe fetish. It’s as bizarre as the original source material.
And spare a thought for the actors in Robyn Winfield-Smith’s fine production. Barker’s characterisation is deliberately stylised, and his script complex, but they rise to challenge. Justin Avoth has great presence as the Angel Drogheda and Mark Tandy is an articulate Lot presenting many of Barker’s arguments with a clarity that marks him as a performer in control. Hermione Gulliford, who plays Lots’ wife, comes close to stealing the show with as steely a grip on the men in her life as her stylish clutch bag, and a deadpan delivery that subtlety brings out the humour in the piece.
This hour-long play is full, rich and intriguing. Barker’s is a unique, important, voice and the intimacy of The Print Room is a great place to hear it. But for all its intelligence this work is fuelled by an intense anger against religion that is in danger of being alienating. This conversation with God should make you think, but may leave you feeling it’s an argument from which you’re being excluded.
It’s the fourth time that writer Mike Poulton has adapted Uncle Vanya and it seems that practice makes perfect. Chekhov’s masterful exploration of the human condition is presented boldly, directly and, most notably, with a great deal of humour. Artistic director of The Print Room Lucy Bailey takes charge with a deft touch that highlights the play’s rich complexity. And this tiny theatre has the coup of a stellar cast, led by the magnificent Iain Glenn in the title role. Glenn gives a riveting performance of immense variety and subtlety.
It’s the story of a disastrous summer sojourn. After Vanya’s beloved sister dies, he devotes himself to the professor she married. But Vanya realises the man, played in fine comic style by David Yelland, is a pompous fool while falling in love with his brother-in-law’s new wife. At the same time she starts an affair with his best friend, the excellent William Houston, who in turn is loved by Vanya’s niece Sonya. It’s no big surprise that none of them is happy.
The way Poulton plays with this Chekhovian cliché of misery is delightful. Everyone is bored and everyone is exhausted all the time. Even the roses are “mournful”. All of the players are driven to drink and bemoan the “inexplicable” fact they are old (regardless of their carefully spaced ages). It’s enough to make anyone flee the countryside. But Chekhov and Poulton can see the funny side of boredom as it mixes with the most potent emotions of love and jealousy. Add a touch of madness and you have a strange combination of farce and tragedy that comes close to describing life itself.
The desperation within Uncle Vanya, stemming from a sense of wasted life, is conveyed movingly by Glenn, while Sonya’s self-sacrificing strategy comes across an illuminating performance from Charlotte Emmerson. Alongside the family servants’ acceptance of their lot, embodied in delicious cameos from David Shaw-Parker and Marlene Sidaway, Uncle Vanya becomes a painfully funny play full of faith and grief. In this production, Uncle Vanya is as big and as clever as ever and is not to be missed.