The Suitcase @ Northern Stage 14/09/17

Based on Es’kia Mphahlele’s short story, written in the midst of South African apartheid regime, The Suitcase follows a young married couple hoping and hunting for a better life. Originally placed and still set in the 1950s, Timi and Namhla leave their rural home for Durban, pursuing work in the city. United in their optimism and clearly in love, everything is new to the pair, and although there are no guarantees, once they obtain a flat and Timi begins the search for work, the future looks rosy.

Time passes and no work materialises. The apartheid regime has meant a jobless Durban, and gradually Timi’s optimism fades. The couple’s love becomes strained, and with little choice, they make plans to return to their village. When Timi sees a suitcase left on a train, he takes it for himself and his wife, hoping it will provide the big break in life they have been searching for.

Accompanied by music throughout, The Suitcase manages to bring you into its world with ease. Composed by Hugh Masekela, simple yet poignant arrangements of guitar and voice add beautifully to the energy on stage without ever taking over. The cast on the whole is strong, with special mention for the leads Siyabonga Caswell Thwala as Timi and Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni as Namhla. It is perhaps the ultimate compliment that when Namhla sheds tears towards the end of the piece, much of the audience concurs. The piece is also beautifully directed by James Ngcobo, taking the audience through every mood from joy to sorrow, and allowing the story to flourish.

The Suitcase may be set in apartheid-era South Africa, but its themes are universal. Timi and Namhla merely hope for a better life, and in spite of their efforts come up against a system not designed to allow anyone else to have a piece of the pie. Timi’s slow descent into despair is played to perfection, and the injustice caused by poverty and prejudice results in his arrest for stealing the suitcase. It is a classic case of society dealing with crime over causation, and until the political spectrum changes worldwide, The Suitcase will remain timely and relevant for all future generations.

*****

No Dogs, No Indians @ Live Theatre 19/07/2017

Siddhartha Bose’s No Dogs, No Indians takes its name from a notice on the door of a whites-only club in 1930s Bengal, and marks the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

The play weaves together three narratives from different time periods. One is the true story of Rani Waddedar, an educated woman who joins the independence movement. Another follows a man in 1970s India, desperate to secure his future by earning a scholarship to London. The third concerns the man’s son in the present day, visiting India from England to visit his father’s funeral, and finding his friends better off than he is in London.

Rani’s actions prove her as dedicated as any male revolutionary, yet she is the only one performing domestic duties when at base. Shyamal in the 1970s sees London as his future, and upon failing to reach there, turns to drink, destroys his life and loses his family. His son Ananda, visiting India years later, is taken aback by his friends’ lifestyles in a country shifting towards consumerism. Although disparate stories, all look at issues of identity and colonial influence across generations.

There is a real subtlety in the writing, with no attempt to make this a flag-waving piece for any particular cause. Simply by watching the differing struggles of life across three timespans do we get hints alluding to the bigger picture. Whilst both the colonial and independent eras are shown to have positives and negatives in terms of governance, it’s the effect on the individual that is conveniently forgotten by history. No Dogs pushes it rightly to the fore.

The sparse set and excellent direction from Russell Bender perfectly convey the differing time periods and proves that lavish stages are an irrelevance in modern theatre. Archana Ramaswamy, Omar Khan and Ashraf Ejjbair handle multiple roles with ease, and Komal Amin is an inspirational figure as Rani. Their performances are full of hope yet tinged with sadness; political affairs complicating the already-difficult challenge of finding oneself.

The current crop of world leaders could learn from such work – life may have to be lived looking forwards, but to understand it, check behind you.

*****

Gods and Mortals @ Sunderland Minster 12/05/2017

Promoting a diverse array of artistic mediums and using a variety of venues, Sunderland Stages have a wonderful philosophy in putting theatre first and promoting as many forms as time allows. It’s an inventiveness that manages to thrive despite the arts’ cuts of recent years, and after an award-winning 2016, this year’s programme continues to strive ever higher. This performance of Gods and Mortals by the Odissi Ensemble takes place in the Grade II-listed Sunderland Minster, a wonderful setting for the intimate performance that follows.

With its origins in ancient Sanskrit, the odissi form originated in Hindu Temples. Following years of suppression under colonial rule, oddissi experienced a resurgence after India gained independence. This performance shows the form to not only be thriving in the modern era, but promotes its respectful evolution from being a traditional female dance to one performed by a mixed-gender quartet, featuring dancers and musicians from around the world.

The Odissi Ensemble – the only group of its kind within the UK – comprises four dancers and four musicians, who combine traditional odissi with a modern inventiveness. In keeping with odissi traditions, the six pieces performed detail a narrative, with quartet presentations interspersed with solo and duo dances, plus musical interludes and accompaniment.

As a whole, Gods and Mortals looks at the relationship between gods and humans. Detailing the highs and lows of the gods, parallels are drawn with human lives and the lines of separation occurring between ourselves and divine beings is seen to grow ever closer.

From the opening Mangalacharan – the traditional beginning to any odissi – in which a salutation is made to both the Supreme Being and the audience; to the closing Kali Sloka and Moksha in which the dancers break away from their earthly bonds, Gods and Mortals manages to tread a balance between the delicate and powerful, resulting in a beautiful, unforgettable performance. It is a joy from beginning to end, and a delight to see the odissi form come alive on an international scale.

*****

East is East @ Northern Stage 20 April 2017

From the outset, East is East transports us back to the 70s with an angular and imposing set engulfed in orange. The furniture evokes northern working class urban life with intimate enclosed space and pride in the family home. Sajit or ‘twitch’ (Viraj Juneja) enters bouncing on a space hopper and hooded in his parka and immediately sets the tone for warped humour, pathos and identity. One of the main triumphs of the production is the inventive, seamless, rotating stage. Every turn increases the play’s momentum shifts the tone and beautifully complements the performances. It was also powerful to smell the cigarette smoke as an immersive reminder of times gone by.

Language plays a crucial role in this play. It is a fantastic script bejewelled with  hilarious and poignant gems. Much of the action is instigated by the actions of stubborn, tyrannical patriarch, George (Genghis) Khan, played by Kammy Darweish. Darweish embodies the essence of an immigrant father whose grasp of English results in its unhinged, unpredictability and frequent repetitive swearing (bastard!) that forms the heartbeat of his dialogue. His long-suffering wife Ella (Vicky Entwistle) shines during jocular and harrowing scenes with George’s manic moods of love and fury. Entwistle’s performance as Ella is truly magnificent; emotional, powerful and loving, she is born to play this role. Her best friend Auntie Annie (Judy Flynn) brings great comic relief to her scenes and exemplifies the easy integration that can exist in working class communities. The whole cast is a joy to watch and the energy they bring is infectious and joyous. Special mentions to Deven Modha as Maneer ‘Gandhi’ Khan who elevates his scenes with effortless ease and Sarina Sandhu who represents the outnumbered, but never outgunned Meenah in a passionate, fiery performance.

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first production of East is East, it is fitting to reflect on its relevance in the current context. Themes of identity, loyalty and fear resonate strongly with the political fever spreading through the west. Perhaps most jolting are the references to war in Pakistan and scenes of domestic violence which progressively become numbing after their initial shock value, just as the conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan roll on today. The exploration of some of the doctrines associated with Islamic culture are also hugely significant, balanced and relevant discussion pieces. George’s line, ‘if there no God, what we all bloody doing?’ seems to sum up the internal conflict of the moment. Maneer’s line later in the play ‘Being Pakistani is more than just religion’ strikes to the core of modern labelling, fear and bigotry. Hopefully, lessons can still be learned from such vital messages. It is often in art that truth can be most meaningfully expressed and this play is no exception.

East is East is a Bloody Belter of a play audiences will be privileged to enjoy this terrific new production with its vibrant cast, wonderful staging, laughter and a powerful message to take home.

*****

The Red Lion @ Live Theatre 11/04/2017

Patrick Marber’s The Red Lion was inspired by the writer falling in love with his local non-league football team, and finding he preferred the experience to watching the game at Premier League level. When his team hit financial difficulties, Marber formed a takeover group and continued to run the club on a shoestring budget until leaving the locale.

This experience forms the setting for the play, which takes place in the club dressing room of a non-league outfit, beautifully designed by Patrick Connellan. The Red Lion is told through three characters – the manager Kidd, the team’s odd-job man Yates, and Jordan, an aspiring player– with the action taking place over three Saturdays, neatly dividing the piece up into three acts.

The play details the story of Jordan – the team’s new superstar – and the attempted transferring of him to a better club. As the deal is made complicated by bungs, the saga of who benefits most from the transfer is pushed to the fore. All three men have their own interests in both themselves, the club and each other; and the dressing room becomes a metaphor for society and human behaviour within it.

Although football forms the backdrop to the piece, this is a play for everyone, wonderfully detailing the human psyche at three stages of life from young to old, and the shifting of priorities from desire to ambition to reminiscence. The cast of Stephen Tompkinson, John Bowler and Dean Bone are captivating throughout, with special mention given to the blistering quick-fire nature of the opening act. Marber’s script is a delight; funny, touching and true. All of the lines are human, and the characters have a depth to them that is rarely seen, with surprises right up until the end and a genuine wonder as to what will happen beyond the ending of the play. There’s a sense that although the characters’ lives have changed, the dressing room exists regardless – an effective reminder that our time in the world is fleeting, and life will go on no matter what we achieve, or fail to.

*****

Frankenstein @ Northern Stage 23/02/2017

The second of Greyscale’s brace of Queens of the North plays takes on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, featuring the same cast as Hedda Gabler, also performed at Newcastle’s Northern Stage. Adapted again by Selma Dimitrijevic but directed this time by Lorne Campbell, Dimitrijevic has made several major changes to the original novel, including swapping Victor Frankenstein for Victoria, and the monster from a created ‘man’ to a man brought back from the dead.

The set is a delight, and the lighting wonderfully atmospheric. Polly Frame delivers a brilliant performance as the lead character, charming and likeable despite an obsession with her work that leads to her being more upset with the death of a rabbit used in her experiments, than with the death of her own brother.

Ed Gaughan is a fantastic monster, and his monologue on the confusion of life a real highlight. If life is confusing enough when born through natural means, the monster’s confusion is magnified tenfold when his life can be solely put down to another’s experiment. His dishevelled appearance, physical disabilities and terminal health condition add further weight to his musings, for having been given a second life, he is in pain and already dying.

Although delightfully ambiguous, this adaptation adds an intriguing extra level to the novel’s central theme. If Shelley asked what to do with life once you create it, Dimitrijevic extends this by asking: why bring back the dead? Although Victoria attempts to justify her work in the name of curing disease, there’s a cloudy motive present that perhaps even she fails to realise until her dream comes true.

It’s in the final scene with Victoria and the monster that the reason behind the gender-flipping of the lead role becomes most apparent, and in listening to the monster’s story her human side comes to the fore. By becoming close to the monster she appears almost maternal, and her final willingness to engage with him feels like a recognition of her responsibilities. Unlike in the novel, the play ends with scientist and creation side by side, suggesting they have something of a future together – however short – and it’s a touching conclusion to a highly cautionary tale.

****

 

Hedda Gabler @ Northern Stage 21/02/2017

Hedda Gabler is the second of two plays from Greyscale Theatre that form a part of Northern Stage’s Queens of the North series, a season of great female stories and great female storytellers. The first, based on Mary Wolstencroft Shelley’s Frankenstein (review to follow), features the same cast. Hedda Gabler, a recognised classic from Henrik Ibsen, tells the story of a woman who, after living her unmarried life to the full, is unimpressed with the boundaries opposed by her new marital status. Ibsen deliberately left her motives open to interpretation, with conclusions as to her mental state left to the viewer, and this new adaptation adds further intrigue whilst blending the original timescale of the piece with some modern twists.

Created and directed by Greyscale’s Selma Dimitrijevic, Hedda Gabler keeps the corsets and finery of the original, but adds a more modern-looking stage and soundtrack. Dimitrijevic has also introduced a freeze-frame device, in which Hedda stays active whilst the world around her stops. Such a move serves to emphasise the character’s eccentricities and shows a person in a world of their own, adding depth to the character that cannot come through her often repressed dialogue. Although the pace at times feels uneven, Victoria Elliott’s on-the-edge performance as Hedda keeps all enthralled, and from the first line her character treads an exquisite path between trying to appear normal and being ready to explode.

In the context of the Queens of the North, Hedda Gabler makes perfect sense as a woman refusing to accept the life granted her. In a stand-alone play interpretations are more confusing, given this adaptation pushes Hedda’s lack of humility and selfishness to the fore, suggesting her obsession with shaping a man’s destiny stems more from some form of personality disorder rather than being poorly treated by others. An ending in which Gabler’s corpse rises again and leaves the building – defying others’ expectations, including the original writer, yet again – is a happy twist. And without such ambiguity, Ibsen’s play would never have had such lasting impact.

 

****

James & The Giant Peach – by/at Northern Stage

Northern Stage blow out the close of the year with a colourful and amplified adaptation of James and The Giant Peach. To accommodate their vision for the set, the wall between NS’s two main halls was removed, seating an audience filled with wide-eyed children on three sides of tiers towards the stage.

The size of Rhys Jarman’s set (extending out from a giant peach floor design) along with Jeremy Bradfield’s / Tim Dalling’s Gershwin-influenced music playing in the background, instantly immerses you before the adventure begins. Then a New York Tour Guide (a nod to Speed Levitch perhaps?) sets the scene, before the stage is invaded by the cast, some on peddle-scooters.

Throughout, the ensemble movement arranged by Martin Hylton’s could not have been performed more slickly by the actors, never missing a beat, when a slip here or there could have resulted in a domino of consequences.

The creativity was relentless – like the sudden and horrific death of James’ parents by a rhinoceros, imaginatively built through umbrellas, and the growth of the peach imagined through artfully replaced spheres.

What was most important throughout was concluded in James’ words at the end “…my, no – our story.”

The children attending (and greater audience) were forever involved, from call-and-response sections of dialogue, to being invited to wear dorsal fins, becoming sharks in the story, – as well as constant props, such as seagulls extended on rods, being thrust out into the seating for small hands to touch. The celebration of inclusion was endless, added to in every part of this production’s development.

*****

Harriet Martineau Dreams Of Dancing – Live at Live Theatre, Newcastle [15th November 2016]

Max Roberts’ stage adaptation of Shelagh Stephenson’s play is built around our lead character’s chaise longue sofa; a buoy Martineau clings onto throughout as she faces realisations about her life’s work and where it might lead. This central anxiety is at first subverted through Martineau’s denial, her perception of personal ailments and prospects explained through wit, delivered with a whipping tongue. Lizzy McInnerny’s command of unveiling the subtle changes of this remarkable woman, a mind both trapped and freed by achievement, is a power that cannot be underestimated. The supporting cast were also beyond robust; particularly Amy McAllister as Impie Haddock, the innocent deviant, a perfect compliment to Martineau’s rational anarchism.

The disrobing of Robert Gray’s prejudice and fraudulent behaviour following the interval, was written more dryly, and as a result the mood felt sharply turned. Though the plot required the conveyance of a more ernest bravery and confrontation at this point, the energy of the raucous first-half was hard to balance. A scene where Haddock misunderstands ’black-face,’ although carefully framed, further stiffened some of the audience. The show cadenced organically with a plethora of revelations and a vibrant dance sequence, choreographed by Lee Proud, that perfectly crowned this hot-blooded piece of theatre.

****

Kicking and Screaming @ Northern Stage 13/10/16

Bursting into life with music, light and fizz, Kicking and Screaming is a journey of emotional birth and rebirth. We join two couples: Sam (Royce Cronin) & Ronnie (Hannah Gittos) and Jay (Ciaran Kellgren) & Natasha (Sara Templeton) with the colourful and guiding influence of our narrator (Laura Mugridge) at the start of one of life’s greatest events. The scene is set with an ultrasound and the contrasting emotions of these diametrically opposed couples in terms of preparation, stability and love. It is the arrival of the bundle of light, energy and all-consuming life that changes everything; simultaneously uniting and destroying the two relationships with ruthless precision.

This is a play that never pulls its punches with such heavy themes as Post Natal Stress and depression, parental estrangement, anxiety, fear, separation and love all fully addressed. The direction is rapid, exciting and innovative. Use of props is brilliantly executed throughout and the pure physicality of the cast is a joy to behold. Transitions from fly on the wall observer to guiding fairy-godmother-come-narrator and frenetic, Faithless-fuelled insomnia rave interludes wonderfully illustrate the sheer chaos of early parenthood.

Particular highlights of this tour of emotion were the deeply moving scenes of heartache as the relationship between Sam and Ronnie changes beyond control. Trust is broken, fear and anxiety is heightened and feelings shattered. In contrast, Tash and Jay become each other’s rocks as he learns the maturity and responsibility to be the dad his estranged father clearly never was. A flash point with a broken promise highlights the turning point for the couple wonderfully. The visual motif of baby clothes representing the chaos, routine and progression of life is a masterstroke and never allows you to detach from the setting. Another highlight in a vast reel is the narrator’s cameo as the baby at feeding time with Ronnie, it was extremely well acted and hilarious.

Although the plot is perhaps a little predictable in its trajectory, from initial setup to ultimate resolution, the journey to get there is an unrelenting and fantastic success. The humour, pathos and love that forms the beating heart of this play is a credit to the creative team behind it. The cast should be congratulated on tremendous performances of great skill and emotion. This is a must-see for anyone with a modicum of human emotion within them and 70 minutes to spare (you won’t regret it)!

On until Saturday 15th October.

****