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
Written by Ian Rankin
Adapted by Rona Munro
Directed by Robin Lefevre
It is just over thirty years since Ian Rankin published the first of a long series of crime books set in Edinburgh and featuring John Rebus as the dour detective. Although successfully adapted for television this is the first time the character has stepped on to a stage. Rankin created this new story for the now retired detective and opted to develop it for the stage with award winning Scottish playwright Rona Munro. The result is an entertaining play that is low on action and gore but delivers a beautifully reflective insight into the mind of a retired detective who is adrift without his career and who is haunted by the victims of unsolved crimes.
Charles Lawson delivers a strong performance as Rebus. He truly embodies the crumpled, slightly arthritic aging man whose curmudgeonly nature ensures his best friend is his whisky bottle. This is a performance which is a slow burner, opening with a weary, brow beaten man and culminating in a powerhouse performance when he is challenged by his nemesis ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty. The scenes between the two men are the standout moments in this performance. John Stahl steals the show when the action shifts to his penthouse apartment near The Meadows. Monarch of all he surveys. He exudes suave cunning and all the smugness of a crime boss who believes himself untouchable by the law. It is a fascinating moment watchin them try to outwit each other as they square up like aging prize fighters The interplay between the two men is nuanced and well crafted highlighting the grit and the vulnerabilities of both men.
Sadly the character development of the female lead is not as satisfying. Cathy Tyson is a gifted actress and seems well cast in the part of detective Siobhan, yet it feels frustrating that so much of her dialogue is process driven and rather dull. The writing needs to reveal more of who she is and what has established her strong relationship with Rebus for her character to have the relevance it has in the books and television series. The other female characters portray the ghostly reminders of crime that haunt the misty Edinburgh streets and the whisky addled dark reaches of Rebus’ memory. As a plot device they perhaps too often but do evoke a tangible sense of tragic loss and wasted lives.
Ti Green has designed a suitably gloomy set with creepy archways and soaring walkways that would look equally at home on the stage of the current National Theatre production of Macbeth. Deceptively simple it smartly shifts from dank flat to gleaming penthouse via a police evidence room filled with ghosts. Although the staging does not clearly evoke Rankin’s beloved Edinburgh it is a successful backdrop to the production. The lighting also serves to further the gloomy and spectral feel that ensures the aging Rebus seems suspended between his twilight years and a netherworld of dead victims with stories to tell.
The central story feels slightly tentative, as though a work in progress feeling out what a theatre audience might expect of Rebus. The most powerful aspects of this production are the cerebral and emotional connections which Director Robin Lefevre draws out between the two complex male leads. This is a big, wordy play with some exciting and engaging speeches and well paced exchanges, reminding me why I so loved Monro’s The James Plays. Given the rather open ending to this story, I suspect Rebus will be returning to thread the boards and solve more crimes.
Opera House 30th Oct – 3rd Nov
Images by Robert Day
The Lowry Theatre
Written by Michael Morpurgo
Adapted for Stage by Nick Stafford
Directed by Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris
A National Theatre production
Warhorse had it’s regional première at The Lowry in 2013 and returns for the third time, fittingly as the centenary of the end of WW1 approaches. The book by Michael Morpurgo was adapted at The National Theatre in 2007 and has been hugely successful ever since with worldwide audiences of over 7 million. It is a extraordinary show in terms of scale and ambition with a use of puppetry by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company that is breathtakingly effective. It takes the audience on a journey from sleepy pre-war Devon countryside to the horrors and brutality of the battlefields of France. It is a poignant tribute not only to all that wasted youth and unfulfilled potential but to the animals who suffered and were slaughtered in appalling numbers.
This is a huge production relying on the puppetry effects merging with a large cast in a believable way. There are moments with the birds early on that don’t seem as effective as perhaps intended but otherwise it all works incredibly well. Moments like the puppeteers reverently stepping away from Topthorn perfectly convey the loss of the heart and soul of this proud animal. Similarly the sudden breaking of the colt to make way for the fully fledged Joey is spectacular. This is clearly a team effort with the whole cast giving their all to a very special theatrical experience.
The design work on Warhorse is astounding in its apparent simplicity. Rae Smith’s set is a bare stage using occasional props but to stunning effect. Doors appear in the dark backdrop or poles create market day or become paddock fences. Barbed wire draped at the front of the stage creates a visceral horror that is unforgettable. The brilliance of the vast overhead projection screen is incredibly special. As the performance opens it looks like a slash of white cloud across the Devon countryside but is of course a torn fragment of parchment from a soldiers sketchbook. The backdrop of images of country villages, callow youths on horseback and soldiers’ arrival in France and the battlefields of The Somme are sketched out across the screen in black and white drawings. The only splash of colour is when the screen bleeds red for a lost comrade and poignantly becomes the blossoms of poppies on The Somme.
The lighting by Paule Constable is beautifully done creating golden summer days and crisp winters before shifting into the bleak battlefields where soldiers emerge from the gloom or are blinded by the white flashes of explosions or the yellowing haze of gas attacks. The lighting has the effect of breaking the fourth wall by making the audience experience the battlefield horrors as though they are there too. The impact of the sound and visuals have created a powerfully immersive experience that lingers after the show has ended.
My grandfather was a country boy like Alfred and fought throughout the war. He was to be the sole survivor of his platoon at The Somme and initially was listed as dead. He was seriously injured, placed on a cart of dead bodies dragged back through the mud and debris by a horse such as Joey. He started to regain consciousness as the bodies of his friends were lifted off for burial. He was one of the lucky ones who came home.
This is an incredibly moving experience especially as the young soldiers go over the top and are cut down so brutally. The horrors of horses ridden into barbed wire with no escape or dragging ambulance carts or tanks through the treacherous mud. Warhorse is a potent reminder of why WW1 is rightly still remembered as a testament to the senseless cruelty of war.
The Lyric Theatre, The Lowry
13th – 30th June
Images by Brinkhoff & M Âgenburg
Written by Duncan Macmillan
Directed by Jeremy Herron with Holly Race Roughan
Almost 2 years after it’s world premiere at the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre Headlong open the first UK tour of People, Places & Things at HOME. The play retains the original set, but has a new cast and is updated to include reflect recent major political events.
The stark white set is like a tabula rasa before the sudden ear splitting plunge into period drama with Emma as the fragile Nina from Chekhov’s The Seagull. Seconds later and time fractures again like a skipping cd and the seamless shift to the reception area of a rehab unit reveals a second audience facing us with traverse like staging. This device toys with the layers we may all sometimes hide behind. It also manages to convey that sense in therapy that someone literally has your back. In many respects the seating of the audience serves as a second circle of trust in this therapeutic space.
If there is a huge amount of pressure on Lisa Dwyer Hogg to follow the award winning performance of Denise Gough it is not apparent. She delivers a wonderfully brittle, fractured addict trying to survive her many demons. The frequent use of gallows humour sits well with her Northern Irish accent and places her securely in a family of distant fathers and relentlessly harsh mothers.
Her Nina/Emma/Sarah is “excellent at being other people and totally useless being myself.” Like so many addicts she displays a toxic combination of low self esteem and grandiosity, doubting herself as an actress while challenging her doctor to “be cleverer than this. I need you to match me.”
Bunny Christie’s set facilitates the craziness of withdrawal. Aspects of the walls and floor move and shift like prisms and open up to reveal floating images, and alternate Emmas fragment and appear through walls and furniture like ants crawling on skin during withdrawal.
The therapy space reveals the raw vulnerabilities of those in recovery seeking to deal with pain, make amends in the 12 step programme and ‘practice’ ways to avoid the triggers of people, places and things. As a therapist I can vouch for the authenticity of these characters, the fragility of their sobriety and the beauty of those ‘lightbulb moments’ when new truths are revealed.
The closing scenes are brutal and harrowing as a family explores honesty and their separate truths. Therein lies the painful reality that sometimes the people, places and things we most yearn for are truly the most dangerous. The final moment on stage sees a fragile survivor seeking acceptance from us the audience.
22nd Sept- 7th Oct.