Tag Archives: Vivienne Acheampong

“Is God Is” at the Royal Court Theatre

Whether young, middle-aged or old, the women in Aleshea Harris’ play are tired. Traumatised, abused, abandoned – or all three – what drives them is anger. Revenge and rage take their toll, but for the 90-minute duration of Is God Is they create an exhilarating piece – it’s the characters and not the audience who are exhausted.

A hit in New York, the play is a good fit for the Royal Court, where we expect to see the engaging of big themes and explorations of dialogue and theatrical form. And we’re used to a dark sense of humour, which this play takes to an extreme. Is God Is succeeds all round and stands out as original.

Harris’ use of dialect and characters’ deliberate inarticulacy is sophisticated. There are influences from hip-hop and Afropunk (excuse my ignorance – I’m trusting the back of the script on that). But the blunt statements and a new level of deadpan understatement make this murderous revenge story very funny.

As for form, the road trip that twins Racine and Anaia embark on engages with movies as much as the theatre. It’s an Americana tour from the “dirty South” to a not-so-wild West that ends with a showdown. The acceptance of a circle of violence is seldom questioned – as in a movie – which is surprisingly unsettling on stage. In her mad mash-up of Cain and Abel with an inverted sacrifice of Isaac, Harris isn’t scared to create a satire of biblical proportions.

Serious subjects? The title is hardly subtle. The twins’ long-missing mother is immediately and inexplicably identified as God. And ‘She’ issues the mission of murdering their father! Harris makes sure we question free will and plays with plenty of excuses for all kinds of inexcusable behaviour. Messages and morals are skilfully slippery, and audience complicity in blood lust manipulated. For all that praise, the larger motives behind Is God Is get lost.

Firstly, some especially vivid characters prove distracting. This isn’t an even-handed issue. With the men in the show the best we get is Mark Monero’s crisp father (who only appears in the penultimate scene). But the women in the play are – in every sense – fantastic. Both Cecilia Noble and Vivienne Acheampong, two very different kinds of mothers, have great roles that they develop marvellously. More of Acheampong’s Angie would be welcome: this bored housewife, who has her own plans, adds to the mix immeasurably. As for the leads – Tamara Lawrance and Adelayo Adedayo – are barely off the stage and don’t so much hold attention as grab and throttle it: “hard end” Racine and the emotional Anaia are a consistent, entertaining and invigorating pair.

Despite the bizarre premise and having its tongue firmly in its cheek (it really is funny) Is God Is triumphs with its plotting. How old fashioned! Ola Ince’s direction, and a set full of fun and signposts from Chloe Lamford, make this bloody journey breakneck. No matter how crazy, the story is driven impeccably. Gory and tense as well as sometimes silly makes for a fascinating and memorable production.

Until 23 October 2021


Photos by Tristram Kenton

“Monster Raving Loony” at the Soho Theatre

If you want to classify contemporary playwrights, James Graham is the one that writes about politics. His new play, via the Theatre Royal Plymouth, is engaging and imaginative. Taking as its subject David Screaming Lord Sutch and his political party, which gives the play its name, biography is combined with politics, cultural history and inspiring touches of English eccentricity. The masterstroke is to tell Sutch’s story via famous comedians. It’s a bonkers technique that’s appropriate for its subject and it’s original, funny and brilliantly written.

So, Sutch’s mum is first a pantomime dame. Then, as mother and son plan to open a bric-a-brac shop, she becomes Albert Steptoe. Interviews are conducted on Just A Minute and a visit to the doctor is a Monty Python sketch. It’s quite a carry on – yes that’s there too –  an encyclopaedic journey through comedy masters. In each sketch, Graham is up to the job – he could have written for any of these greats. And it’s all manipulated to tell Sutch’s life story. Wow.

Joseph Alessi & Samuel James Photo Credit Steve Tanner
Joseph Alessi & Samuel James

A demanding play for actors, the impersonations are non-stop and the delivery breathtaking. Samuel James gives a stellar performance as the lead, joined by four others, alongside Tom Attwood whose role as The Musician roots the play. Highlights may depend on your comedy preferences: Joe Alessi’s Alf Garnett is perfection, and how quickly Jack Brown embodies Kenneth Williams and Julian Clary cannot fail to impress. Tellingly reflecting the sexism of the time, the women have fewer pickings. But Vivienne Acheampong does well in a bed-hopping farce and Joanna Brookes is stunning in the male roles she adopts.

James’ performance is the one that requires real depth. Not that this stops a great Frank Spencer impersonation. But there is Sutch’s struggle here as well. Focusing on this fascinating figure is a task slightly at odds with such a high-energy show. Prone to depression and trapped in a public persona, his story gets a little lost despite the skills of director Simon Stokes. Sutch’s suicide seems too much for the play to handle.

Stokes shows fine work when it comes to audience participation – it’s cunning for a director to control this. Such planned fun is always a pet hate (joining in with songs makes my toes curl). But the raffle tickets and bingo cards waiting on seats have a point here that makes them (almost) worthwhile. Another bold stroke from Graham, games typify his novelty and magpie humour in this damnably clever piece.

Until 18 June 2016


Photos by Steve Tanner