ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI

Written by Kemp Powers

Directed by Matthew Xia

HOME

This play is a genius idea by Kemp Powers. One Night in Miami literally locks the audience into Room 12 of a Miami motel on February 25th 1964. We watch 4 old friends chat about politics and life as they celebrate the success of the new World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. It’s quite a night to behold as the four friends are King of the World boxer Cassius Clay, soul singer Sam Cooke, NFL supremo Jim Brown and political activist Malcolm X. We are flies on the wall watching and listening, as are the FBI and the Nation of Islam while outside amongst the palm trees the Press are also gathering. There is only Joe Brown left alive to say exactly what did transpire that night, but Kemp has created something that feels authentic. Offering a glimpse of these men in the midst of private struggles and uncertainty that are played out alongside the thrills of public success and the darker themes of repression and segregation in Sixties America.

Designer Grace Smart has created a capsule motel room that effectively boxes in the four men as they talk privately but also works wonderfully well in recreating a boxing ring and an Auditorium stage. Lighting design by Ciarán Cunningham and sound by Max Pappenheim enhance the experience and help create the standout moments such as the boxing scene and when Sam Cooke sings. The neon sky and palm trees vividly contrast against the plain decor of the motel room, creating a perfect backdrop to the ordinary and extraordinary events unfolding in that room.

The characters on stage are vividly portrayed by the cast with fervour and passion. At times they are so full of life that the dialogue risks them becoming caricatures of themselves. Conor Glean as Cassius fizzes with energy, giddy with his success but increasingly wary of what his imminent conversion to Islam will mean. Miles Yekinni brings depth and strength as Brown as he contemplates a move from sport to the movies as a “Black action hero”. Christopher Colquhoun is convincing as the impassioned activist who clearly carries a heavy burden and is wrestling his own fears and demons.

The standout performance is Matt Henry as Sam Cooke who moves between confidence and assured charm and his fear of what may happen to his hard won success if he does indeed change his style and use his music to do more than just entertain. I would happily pay again just for the moments when he performs – he brings down the house as he brings his “Sister Flute” to his explosive rendition of You Send Me. As the play draws to a close and he tries out his new song A Change Is Gonna Come, Henry is simply sublime. Director Matthew Xia creates a moment when it truly feels like witnessing something intensely personal and genuinely moving as though we too are hearing this musical masterpiece for the very first time.

HOME 2nd – 5th July 2019

Images by Richard Hubert Smith

Hobson’s Choice

Shalini Peiris and Esh Alladi in Hobson’s Choice. Credit Marc Brenner

Written by Harold Brighouse

Adapted by Tanika Gupta

Directed by Atri Banerjee

In this new adaptation of the 1915 classic, Tanika Gupta has moved the setting from a cobbler’s shop in Salford to a tailor’s shop that is vibrant with silk saris. Set in Eighties Ancoats, Hobson and his three daughters are Asian Ugandans who fled the regime of Idi Amin and have spent the last 15 years building a life and a business in the Britain of Ted Heath who had welcomed 30,000 refugees. Using sparkling dialogue and a clear understanding of the original Gupta honours the familial relationships established by Brighouse while ensuring that the societal themes remain fresh and current.

The set design by Rosa Maggiora blasts colour and a keen sense of detail into this production. Director Atri Banerjee brings a lightness of touch to this production insuring that the witty dialogue sparkles throughout. His experience at the Royal Exchange is evident in how he uses the space. He creates an intimacy and a sense of participation for the audience. Wedding favours are shared out during the interval creating a lovely sense that we are participants in the wedding celebration. The catwalk triumph of Asian Chic serves as a joyful finale and also as a celebratory parade of all the actors.

This is a really strong cast that brings an absolute authenticity to this production. We see young women wearing mini skirts and dancing in The Hacienda, rebelling against a father who tells them to “Live within your boundaries. It’s a Man’s World.” There is the destructive theme of racism from Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech that still resonates today. Hobson has slipped into alcoholism and his best tailor works for a pittance because he “is the lowest of the low”, staying because “Your Papa has my passport.”

Esh Alladi as Ali Mossop. Credit Marc Brenner

Esh Alladi is utterly engaging and believable as the shy downtrodden worker full of twitches and tremors. There is real delight in watching him grow in confidence from tentative bridegroom to a loving husband and a budding entrepreneur. Shalini Peiris as Durga Hobson is cooly decisive and resourceful. There is no self pity for her situation instead she ensures the best possible outcome for herself and her sisters. Peiris skillfully balances being both a funny and blunt force of nature with the delicacy and vulnerability of being a new bride on her wedding night.

Tony Jayawardena as Hobson gives a performance full of bluster, self-pity and patriarchal arrogance. He embodies a man living in complete denial who has slipped into alcoholism and is facing bankruptcy and the loss of his family. Even when Hobson is at his most outrageous Jayawardena still brings enough warmth and charm to his character that his daughter’s return involves residual affection and not just duty or ambition.

This new adaptation is a real success that brings the issues of intergenerational conflict, class snobbery, alcoholism and immigration into sharp focus while never feeling preachy or worthy. Over one hundred years since the original opening night, Hobson’s Choice remains relevant, engaging and thought provoking.

Royal Exchange 31 May – 6 July 2019

GRAND FINALE

Choreography and Music by Hofesh Schechter

Performed by Hofesh Schechter Company

HOME

Hofesh Schechter has created a world both nightmarish and blissfully optimistic in Grand Finale. His latest work is defiant, mischievous and brutally beautiful. Part gig with a small orchestra onstage; dance and theatre merge with the same seamless fluidity that allows monolithic slabs to both create a sense of endless time and club land rave scenes. Grand Finale is both an anguished salute to lives lost in destruction and war, and two fingers held up to the doomsday predictors. The musicians are integral to the flow of the piece. Ever present though always on the move, they are formally attired and one even sports a life jacket as if to allude to the musicians who played on as Titanic sunk.

We can all dance to the same beat but sometimes we may hear a different unique beat in the same music and so we separate as individuals and respond in a myriad of ways. So it is with Grand Finale, Schechter’s dancers come together and replicate movements, their bodies harmonizing in unison and at another times they clash and jar with seemingly murderous intent.

Perhaps Schechters greatest skill is in how he uses dance and music as unifiers. There is a universal commonality in the throbbing beat that seems to connect with one’s own body – the movements you see on stage can feel as though they are simultaneously experienced in your own muscle memory. Moments from rave scenes feel intensely familiar then flow into Celtic dance or Maori Haka or riotous dance to klezmer music. This is modern yet ancient, ageless and current.

The blend of sound and light by Schechter and lighting designer Tom Visser is beautiful. Beams of light illuminate upturned faces as though kissed By the sun. Grey gloomy mist can signify Dawn or the dry ice of a nightclub. At other times it seems like there is the red dust of African plains which may be the fires of Dante’s Inferno. They are glorious playful moments as hundreds of bubbles drift down like snowflakes unto the battlefields of No Man’s Land at Christmas time. Here figures dance like marionettes and later with gay abandon to Franz Lehár’s Merry Widow Waltz as worries are cast aside culminating in a chilling end piece as a pile of bodies grows at the side of the stage and is silently saluted.

Scenes start to get smaller and more specific as they fragment into tableaux scenes that echo snapchat or Instagram poses. Figures embrace, party or pray as the dance slows down and the orchestra gets softer and starts to fade. Are these open mouthed figures aghast in horror or yawning with ennui as everything changes and yet still remains the same?

Grand Finale 22nd – 25th May 2019

Hofesh Schechter Company

Images by Rahi Rezvani

RICHARD III

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by John Haidar

Shakespeare’s tale of the “undigested and deformed lump” that is his Richard III is considerably tweaked in this version by John Haidor for Headlong. Here we see a man more emotionally stunted than physically restricted by his disability. Tom Mothersdale delivers a Richard whose twisted body is as fluid as his nature is mercurial. The hall of mirrors that dominates the set serves as judge and jury to Richard’s lack of conscience and reflects back to the audience as a means of drawing us into this tale of political greed, narcissistic ambition and false news.

Mothersdale manages to repulse and charm in equal measure. His capacity for brutal acts and honeyed words is that of a true sociopath or charming manipulator. Moments of visceral violence as he bites his victims with the suddenness of a deadly spider sit uncomfortably alongside humour as he mischievously addresses the audience close up or prances with a makeshift crown like a gleeful child ransacking the dressing up trunk. For all his cunning and remorseless violence there is the vulnerability of a child who recognizes his mother is ashamed of his twisted body and repulsed by his twisted nature. Director Haidar ensures that we see this wounded child who has long ago decided that if he cannot have the love and admiration of others, he will command their hate and fear. Mothersdale captivates throughout in what is a truly demanding role. Rarely off stage he is never less than electrifying especially in the second act when demented by jeering ghosts he sees his fleeting success melt away on the battlefield. Bloodied and mud stained he smears mud across the reflected ghosts as if to wipe out any hint of his own wrongdoings.

Chiara Stephenson has designed a set that is gloomy and forbidding in its grey ramparts and dungeons but cut through with reflective mirrored archways. These arches allow actors to move rapidly between scenes while also creating depth to the set as the ghosts appears behind them and the audience is reflected in them looking at ourselves just as Richard examines himself in these multiple looking glasses.

Haidar makes use of every possible dramatic element that can be drawn from this gothic castle. Stony grey yet pulsating with life and bloodied by death this is a building that echoes its history in every mirrored arch reflecting lives once there and now just ghosts in the fabric of the building. The use of light and sound by Elliot Griggs and George Dennis provide striking flourishes that give the murders and battles scenes slashes of colour and sound that evoke video game violence- perhaps to suggest Richards own childlike lack of awareness of the real consequences of his actions. If at times elements appear overplayed or exaggerated they encapsulate Shakespeare’s original exaggeration of the real man. Whether you love it or not the impact of the attention seeking design elements and directorial flourishes are as in your face as Richard himself.

This feels a very fresh and timely revisiting of Richard III. There is a truly monstrous quality to this character in his relentless quest for political power. The wily cunning off an ambitious man who exalts in having neither pity love or fear is a chilling reminder of some of our politicians who make decisions for us based on their own fragile narcissistic egos and lust for power. Like Richard they strut across the world stage daring us, the audience, in how much we will allow them to destroy before we revolt and them down. Personally there are quite a few political anti heroes I would love to see buried under a carpark in Leicester!

Headlong

HOME 30 April – 4 May 2019

Images by Marc Brenner

West Side Story

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Directed by Sarah Frankcom

Initially conceived by Jerome Robbins in 1949, WEST SIDE STORY finally arrived on Broadway in 1957. A resounding hit, it was made into a movie in 1961 and has remained an iconic and groundbreaking musical ever since. New versions are in production for Broadway and cinema, but the first big production to makes changes to the choreography and score is this Sarah Frankcom version.

Based on star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet, this tale of thwarted love amidst gangland violence and knife crime is as horribly relevant in modern British cities as it was in 1950s Manhattan. It speaks so vividly of young people adapting to their burgeoning independence in a world where they may struggle for acceptance. This tale of gangs is evergreen in that it perfectly depicts the human quest for social identity. We all seek a sense of belonging and to affirm this we adhere to an in group which might be family, social class, a gang or a football team. To increase self esteem we discriminate against the out group, the more prejudice and seperateness then the greater enhancement of self image. The beauty and the tragedy of this has resonated throughout the ages and in every culture. In my teenage years it was Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland where boys were knee capped and girls tarred and feathered if they dared to fall in love with someone outside their religion.

The set design by Anna Fleischle is all clean stark lines of white steel and glass, like possible staging for A Clockwork Orange. Although beautiful in a minimalist manner it initially seemed too cold for this tale of passion. There is no context or sense of location which is disconcerting yet highly effective as a potent reminder that this story is ongoing – here in the theatre and outside in every town and city.

This set also works brilliantly with the new choreography by Aletta Collins. She has kept the beauty of the original but adapted it for the round stage and added a fresh athletic element that sees the performers really use the multi levels of the set with cat like grace and agility so there is almost an element of Parkour in the choreography.

Jason Carr has ensured that the music really is the star of this production with an orchestra concealed outside the theatre itself delivering a glorious version of Bernstein’s score. Every note seems flawless and crystal clear as though the orchestra was actually centre stage.

The cast exude the confidence and youthful exuberance of teenagers with a lust for life and a casual disregard for the brutal reality of death until tragedy actually strikes. There are some great vocal performances. Gabriela García as Maria has a pure soaring operatic vocal while Andy Coxon as Tony has a rich warm voice which grows in confidence throughout the show. Gang leader Riff Michael Duke is a powerful dancer but it is his lover Anita, Jocasta Almgill who steals the show. A brilliant singer and dancer, it is also her stage presence which ensures she exudes both passion and compassion.

The central protagonists Coxon and García have do have great chemistry as the lovers torn between two worlds. The love scenes are full of tenderness and the reckless passion of teenage hormones. The rumble scenes and resulting deaths are impactful and exude horror and regret at the wasted young lives. The overall feel of this production is that it is a beautiful and lovingly crafted yet I left feeling curiously flat. Perhaps as Maria says It’s not Us, its everything around us, the knowledge that our young people appear destined to keep repeating the same mistakes in an unyielding world.

Royal Exchange Theatre 6 April – 25 May 2019

Images by Richard Davenport: The other Richard

KINGDOM

HOME

Created by Àlex Serrano, Pau Palacios, and Ferran Dordol

Agrupación Señor Serrano

HOME has a marvellous flair for showcasing pieces of theatre that excite and assault the senses. KINGDOM is a perfect example of irreverent, loud and brilliantly clever theatre that ramps up the energy and has a theatre audience feel like they have just come out of a hi-energy gig. Co-produced by HOME this UK premiere of this Señor Serrano show is a fabulous and fruity part of the 25th VIVA! Festival.

Staged with long tables of archaeological or architectural like exhibits, alongside fruits, foliage, booze and fags with chain smoking macho men in front of a giant projection screen. The performers’ casual demeanor suggests no rush to even start the show yet the overall effect is gripping. Before anything even happens all eyes are on the stage attempting to drink in all the props and their possible uses.

This is a story of the cycle of demand, consumption, crises and insatiable desire. The history of the humble banana, its discovery by Minor Cooper Keith in 1876 and its introduction to the Western world and subsequent growth as a plantation crop leading to overproduction, crop blight and world financial crises. The growth of the banana from fruit to iconic superfood, mans’ fascination with King Kong and machismo are threaded through the growth of capitalism and consumerism. So many ideas and concepts packed into a one hour show should produce an scrambled mess yet somehow what emerges is thought provoking and energizing.

Using a unique blend of video, performance, scale models,dance and live music Señor Serrano are masters of their craft – creating cinema-in-real-time. The skill and artistry and nonchalant ease with which they intricately film tiny models of railroads and bananas highlighting the onward march of consumer greed. The impudent glee as a human hand starts moving into the footage or a performer sprays himself with a plant mister to appear sweaty in the jungle foliage. Old newspaper covers with moving film images in the columns and TIME magazine covering celebrating everyone from King Kong to Hitler, Tarzan and JFK. Every tiny movement is meticulously accounted for yet simultaneously these performers are playing instruments and dancing around with infectious energy.

The result is phenomenal as this tale of greed and disaster grows so too does the energy and pace of this piece. By the end the stage is filled with more bare chested posturing macho men dancing to an ever louder beat as confetti cannons shoot euros into the audience. Is this theatre or a utterly brilliant night on Canal Street? It’s certainly memorable and as we are repeatedly told, Estamos bien, estamos bien.

HOME 9th – 13th April 2019

Señor Serrano

Images by Vicenç Viaplana

Barber Shop Chronicles

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE/CONTACT

Written by Inua Ellams

Directed by Bijan Sheibani

Ropes of light like tresses of a weave overlap and knot into bunches as they encircle the gallery of the Royal Exchange – the result is a kind of messy beauty that intrigues. Untangle it and it might be neat and tidy but somehow less than it was before. Such are the tales from 6 barber shops ranging from Peckham in London to Lagos, Johannesburg and Kampala. Writer Inua Ellams understands the value of the barbers’ chair as a confessional and uses it to chronicle the communality of black male global experiences. In a trip that criss- crosses timezones and cultures Ellams takes a razor sharp look at mental health stigma and the struggle with identity, racism and integration.

Barber Shop Chronicles is a riotous, colourful affair full of life and bristling with energy. There is music, singing, dancing, universally familiar bar room jokes, and there are haircuts to fit births, deaths marriages and job interviews. Every shop has the obligatory chair and mirror in which to relax and contemplate your inner world and your outer appearance. Every shop has men chatting about football and their favourite team, reminiscences about countries left behind or expectations about those to be visited. Politics and politicians are scrutinised and families are spoken of with affection or with hurt and frustration. The brilliance of this beautifully constructed drama is the little stories told and the small kindnesses demonstrated that are always present in every shop in every city.

At the heart of this work is the need for communication and the sharing of experiences. It is a basic human requirement for good mental health. Sadly statistics suggest that in Britain black men are 17 more times likely than their white equivalents to be diagnosed with a serious mental illness and young black men are six times more likely to be sectioned. At one point a young man questions how to appear as a strong black man while acknowledging the absence of his own father since he was six. Emmanuel, his barber quietly reflects on the core of this dilemma as he speaks of men living outside our countries often failed by our fathers and our politicians. In understanding the value of vulnerability when letting someone touch you with a razor Ellams approaches his characters like a barber, from “a place of delicacy, of gentleness, of absolute trust.” The result is a perfectly pitched script that speaks a language as universally valuable as the Nigerian Pidgin that cuts through any need to go through English to understand each other.

Royal Exchange Theatre and CONTACT

Co-produced by Fuel, the National Theatre and Leeds Playhouse

Royal Exchange Theatre 7th – 23rd March 2019

Images by Marc Brenner