Tag Archives: Vicky Featherstone

“The Glow” at the Royal Court Theatre

A supernatural spectacular, Alistair McDowall’s new play travels to the beginning and the end of time. With a central character – The Woman – who is immortal, there’s an ambition to the piece that is almost foolhardy. Thankfully, the writer’s vision is matched by Vicky Featherstone’s bold direction and superb production values.

McDowall sensibly picks the spiritualist Victorian era to start. The Woman is plucked from a cell by a medium called Mrs Lyall. There’s to be an experiment. Mrs Lyall’s wish is to become the first necromancer – I guess it’s good to have ambition – but her victim turns out to be “something other” than she could possibly imagine.

All the way through – and a lot of ground is covered – McDowall’s sense of humour is key. Mrs Lyall’s imperiousness (pity her poor son, impeccably played by Fisayo Akinade) makes her a great role for Rakie Ayola. Back and forth in time we go with a Knight from the Middle Ages in tow (a strong character well played by Tadgh Murphy). Questions of death and suffering frequently arise. That The Glow is funny but still takes itself seriously is impressive. Spooky touches are abandoned, and conspiracy theories debunked – yet the fantastical manages to convince.

The Glow is far from silly sci-fi. The Woman has played major parts in history as well as myth (exploring the relation between the two proves a distraction). But what we see are smaller stories. A retired nurse who is grieving her son (excellent performances again from Ayloa and Akinade) adds some warmth to a generally cool play.

McDowell focuses on the personal for The Woman. Asking how someone feels about being eternal might strike you as simply strange. Yet it serves to look at mortality in an original way. As the character of the nurse remarks, “trying to think about something I couldn’t imagine” is hard: it’s a step McDowall is brave enough to take.

The Glow at the Royal Court inset credit Manuel Harlan

In the difficult role of ‘The Woman’ Ria Zmitrowicz excels, giving a character who mostly wants to hide, suitable charisma. The performance, and the plot, are nicely puzzling. But there’s a sense it’s the production that is the star here. Merle Hensel’s flexible minimalist set adds style as well as menace. The lighting and sound design, from Jessica Hung Han Yun and Nick Powell, aided by Tal Rosner’s video work, is superb. McDowall has plenty of ideas yet the act of bringing them to the stage is what impresses most.

Until 5 March 2022


Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Cyprus Avenue” from the Royal Court

While it’s difficult to define a work as deep as David Ireland’s 2017 play, currently being shown on YouTube with a request for donations, it’s easy to say that this thought-provoking comedy horror is something everyone should see.

It’s framed around the clinical treatment of Eric, a dour and obsessive Northern Irish protestant whose psychosis is at first amusing – he believes his grand-daughter is IRA politician Gerry Adams! Up until what Eric has done becomes clear, the play is full of belly laughs. Stephen Rea makes a masterclass of this starring role, with a magnificent, deadpan delivery.

Cyprus Avenue from the Royal Court photos by Ros Kavangh
Stephen Rea and Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo

Following the play’s descent into darkness, Eric is accompanied in his treatment by two very different kinds of therapists… one of whom isn’t even real. First up, Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo makes a calm and clear psychologist convincing – it’s a performance that grounds the play. Then comes Chris Corrigan, also superb, who plays a gun-toting paramilitary-turned-mindfulness guru – and film critic – whose role shows how mad things are becoming.

Cyprus Avenue from The Royal Court Photo Ros Kavanagh
Stephen Rea and Chris Corrigan

Plays don’t get much funnier than Cyprus Avenue, especially not when they deal with murder, mental illness and racism. But theatre also doesn’t get much more disturbing. Be prepared, as the final scenes are grotesque, shocking and traumatic.

What the jokes and drama have in common is Ireland’s intelligence and sense of purpose. Examining both sectarianism and racism, and the way prejudice links the two, brings up big questions in a challenging manner. The play is preoccupied with time – past, present and future – to show how each has a distinct impact on self-identity. And Ireland has a firm handle on how disturbing the disturbed can be. Eric’s breakdown devastates his family long before he physically hurts them – a fact carefully acknowledged in the moving performances from Andrea Irvine and Amy Molly as, respectively, his wife and daughter.

That the final scenes are so awful, with Rea transformed into a terrifying figure, confirms director Vicky Featherstone’s bold vision for the piece. Yes, the mood changes dramatically. But this comes with an insidious, sinking feeling that builds carefully. Eric’s crazed logic brings about a brutality that is impossible to predict in its extremity. Yet the idea that such consequences follow his demented reasoning, arguments we’ve been laughing at so hard, provides a powerful point to end on.

Available until the 26 April 2020 from https://royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/cyprus-avenue-film/

Photos by Ros Kavanagh

“The Cane” at the Royal Court

Mark Ravenhill’s new play uses education to examine politics between the generations and the sexes. Cultural pressure points, easily recognised, signal an author with his finger on the pulse, while intelligence and care call out hypocrisy on either side of a divide between ages and genders. The simple scenario has a teacher, about to retire, literally under siege by a violent mob of school children who discover that, once upon a time, he executed corporal punishment.

Fairy tales play a part; the language of the play is often comedically plain, reactions to extremes deadpan, and there’s reference to a witch or two. It seems that Edward, a dedicated Deputy Head, and his wife Maureen, are living in a never-never land, full of nonsensical nostalgia that the Daily Mail would be proud to print and everyone else can enjoy mocking. Those millennial snowflakes are a target of course – so far too predictable – with Alun Armstrong and Maggie Stead doing a wonderful job of making outrage believable. Thankfully, Ravenhill knows it’s essential to present another side to the story.

The presence of the couple’s daughter, Anna, estranged as a traitor since she works for an Academy school, shows the play’s strengths. Ravenhill has created a challenging character and Nicola Walker gives a superb performance in the role. She knows what “best practice” consists of,  yet doesn’t believe any of the jargon she is fluent in and her motives prove dark. Anna’s background, her childhood with this odd couple, leads to some extravagances on Ravenhill’s part. Walker juggles the anger her character has inherited with a façade of calm that is captivating.

Vicky Featherstone’s direction suits the play perfectly. But waiting for the headmaster, who has been scared away by scandal, and a trip into the attic, don’t really cut it dramatically. Efforts are made to inject tension, Chloe Lamford’s design tries especially hard, still it’s hard to believe a lot of what little action there is here. Credibility isn’t the point of course, but its lack can prove frustrating; a block to the admirable detail on offer when it comes Edward’s sexism or Anna’s vengefulness. The Cane works better as a set of ideas than it does as a play, but these are clever arguments, well presented and expertly performed.

Until 26 January 2019


Photo by Johan Persson

“Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

A big hit on the Edinburgh Fringe and at the National’s Dorfman auditorium last year, this coming-of-age show is now out on the town in the West End. Following the day-long misadventures of convent schoolgirls from Oban, let loose in the Scottish capital for a choir competition, it’s raucous fun, peppered with thought-provoking moments and fantastic singing.

Lee Hall’s adaptation of Alan Warner’s book (The Sopranos) is adventurous and tackled at suitable speed by director Vicky Featherstone. Partly a concert – and the singing deserves a second mention – and then a collection of character studies, the six performers all do a terrific job. Frances Mayli McCann’s voice is particularly strong and supremely versatile, while Dawn Sievewright and Isis Hainsworth do well with the strongest story lines, as a young lesbian and a cancer survivor, respectively. There’s plenty of drama in these teenage lives, but a spirit of humour presides. Caroline Deyga delivers insults with enviable skill while Kirsty MacLaren and Karen Fishwick are especially good when taking on male roles. There’s a pretty shaming view of masculinity here, but I am not going to argue with it – I wouldn’t dare take these girls on.

“Really, really rude” language is the warning all over the theatre foyer. And they aren’t joking. The swearing is enough to make a submariner blush – let alone what else they might have to say about him. The discussions of sex are… frank. Impressively, the drink- and drug-filled binge is fun but not glamorised. For all the crudity, Hall and Featherstone want this to be a play that respects its characters. The girls know they aren’t angels but they aren’t hypocrites either. Telling teenage life as it is, even if it makes some squirm, makes this a mature show about youth.

Until 2 September 2017


Photo by Manuel Harlan

“X” at the Royal Court

Don’t look at the script beforehand – the pages of Xs and blank spaces in ‘A_ct Two’ (sic) give the impression that Alistair McDowall’s new play is pretentious. Fear not, this latest head scratcher at the Royal Court is a spooky sci-fi that’s hugely entertaining.

Set in a research base on Pluto, after environmental collapse on Earth, the abandoned crew is going mad. The characters aren’t entirely successful: cynical captain (Darrell D’Silva works hard at this) and autistic scientist (Rudi Dharmalingam) are a little flat. Better written are younger, amusingly annoying crewmates, played by Ria Zmitrowicz and James Harkness. The most demanding role is for Jessica Raine. Alongside Harkness, she deals with the most challenging scene (those Xs again) admirably, and her vulnerability is an asset to the play.

It’s what happens to these astronauts that counts and, as with any good thriller, tension comes from simple events: the clock controlled from Earth goes wrong, there’s a nightingale flying around and a terrifying figure outside the window! Along with a goosebumps-generating soundtrack from Nick Powell, and a good sense of humour, this show is fun.

How time connects to memory, thus identity and even reality are the serious themes. With no sense of passing days, the crew collapses into paranoia and they, like the audience, can trust nothing. Director Vicky Featherstone pulls out all the stops, and adds a necessary ruthlessness to that printed script. As the crazy delusions mount, you come to dread each blackout and what might appear next. X has plenty of cinematic references and a filmic feel that make it easy to watch. McDowall messes around with everyone’s heads with terrific skill.

Until 7 May 2016


Photo by Manuel Harlan

“How To Hold Your Breath” at the Royal Court

Zinnie Harris’ new play, How To Hold Your Breath, may sound like it provides answers but instead is ambitiously determined to raise questions. A future financial apocalypse is envisaged and a woman has an affair with the devil, in a work combining current affairs and questions of worth in a puzzling fashion. A modern morality play, with a Faustian twist, it’s a work that intrigues but doesn’t satisfy.

The set up has the confident liberal Dana, clumsily presented as an arch capitalist, enduring the traumatic breakdown of European civilisation. At the start it seems Dana’s mistake was to have a one night stand with a demon – and refuse payment when he mistakes her for a prostitute. Then we see Dana is naïve about the world and human nature. There’s humour in the play’s ridiculous moments but any message or satire is far too blunt.

Directed in workmanlike fashion by Vicky Featherstone, even strong acting can’t save the night. Maxine Peake takes the lead giving a magnetic performance of fantastic stamina and adding a depth to Dana that holds the whole play together. Michael Shaeffer is charismatic as the demon and Christine Bottomley superb as Dana’s sister, who joins a desperate descent through a disintegrating Europe. There’s also a librarian who pops up along the way, played by Peter Forbes, who offers self help books to Dana. I am not sure why.

When Harris strikes an emotional chord it’s powerful, the language and imagery unforgettable (black semen…thanks Zinnie). Dana’s devotion to her sister is moving and a scene of miscarriage harrowing. There’s almost a nasty edge to the play’s relentlessness. Events get grimmer and grimier and the result too predictable. By the end, one of the librarian’s instructional books is entitled Which Charity You Should Give To To Make You Feel Better, so it’s clear we should be feeling pretty bad about our self indulgent lives. As for How To Get A Good Seat In The Theatre? Ouch. A gamble, that, with the all too obvious answer – pick a good play for a start.

Until 21 March 2015