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

Frankenstein

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

By Mary Shelley

Adaptation by April De Angelis

Directed by Matthew Xia

Matthew Xia reanimates Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 200 years after its first publication. This new adaptation by April De Angelis sticks closely to the original text and relates the story in flashbacks as the traumatised Dr Frankenstein tells his story to the Captain of the ship which rescues him from the ice. Xia turns his focus to producing a darkly Gothic exploration of the perils of dogged human ambition at the expense of family and friends. In this visceral production he also explores the vulnerability of those seen as “Other” in this World – the abandoned, the wounded and the misunderstood. The creations that don’t conform to our perception of idealized perfection or cosy sameness.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote this extraordinary piece of literature in her late teens and was barely 20 when it was first published in January 1818. The child of the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, she had fallen in love with the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at 17. Flouting social propriety of the period she had children with him before he was free to marry her after the suicide of his first wife. Traveling in Geneva in 1816 they joined the poet Byron and together conspired to each write a ghost story. From this challenge came Frankenstein, a Gothic novel influenced by the Romantic Movement and the study of Galvanism. The themes of death and reanimation must have resonated strongly with Mary. Her own Mother had died shortly after her birth and she was to have buried two of her babies before her novel was publisher.

Opening in sheer blackness the story unfolds with Captain Walton (Ryan Gage) on stage throughout the performance as the calm and steady listener to Victor Frankenstein’s wild, frenzied story that comes to life in a series of vivid flashbacks. Trapped on his ship in the ice Walton is transfixed as audiences and readers have been for two centuries.

This storytelling honours the original book but perhaps at the cost of developing authentic and empathic relationships between the characters. The dialogue sometimes sounds ponderous and doesn’t always flow in the way natural conversation would. The scenes can appear more as static tableau scenes and therefore the power of this drama can suffer at times.

The only truly potent and memorable character on stage is the Monster. Harry Atwell looms over the rest of the cast partly due to sheer physical presence and primarily because he steals the show as this doomed, traumatised creation, abandoned and rejected like a wounded refugee from the Underworld. Atwell is all wild eyed and unkempt with more than a look of Marty Feldman, yet his sensitive nature and eagerness to learn and to love and be loved seems very much taken from the creature as portrayed in the television adaptation Penny Dreadful by Rory Kinnear.

His journey is tragic and heartrending as he starts out stammering hesitant words and twitching with movements that seem like a creature with agonising phantom limb pain as nerve endings are raw or still newly knitting together. His journey is brutal as wounded and rejected, he becomes increasingly vengeful. Yet he evolves to develop a humanity and awareness that seems greater than the men before him. His quest for knowledge and his self education are sadly not really explored in this production but the result is a fully fledged man who feels emotions and can articulate his pain. Shaped by his experiences and composed of unknown body parts he is literally Everyman.

However this production like it’s namesake is deeply flawed. The other characters never develop in a satisfactory way. Indeed some feel as wooden as the bizarre marionette used to portray William the child. This addition seems awkward and uneccessary on stage and does nothing to create the emotional potency of a child’s death. There are occasional moments where humour appears to seep in jarring the intensity. The character of Henry, Frankenstein’s friend or the introduction of The Professors creates an almost vaudeville humour that simply does not work.

Designer Ben Stones has created a set which is lush with gore and bones and limbs. Death is everywhere and escape impossible. From the trunks filled with wedding clothes or body parts to the spectacular honeymoon bed or the Frankenstein’s laboratory; detail is everything in this lavish production. The costumes are fabulous and create an almost filmic aspectic to this theatre of the grotesque.

This is visually a feast in carnage and pathos. There are some moments of real terror and genuine poignancy, yet it all feels unsatisfactory and a lost opportunity to truly chill the audience. Just as the characters are trapped on the ice, I felt trapped in my seat daring to hope but feeling ultimately doomed to disappointment.

At The Royal Exchange until April 14th

Images by Johan Persson