Review: Skylight

This article first appeared on Oxford Opening Night on 14 June 2017.

It was my last ever Oxford play review, and I’m glad I went out with a good one.

Student theatre can often be juvenile. In its weird, earnest, experimental brilliance, it sometimes feels lacking in emotional maturity, but Skylight is the antithesis of that. Its ad copy promises “a dangerous battle of opposing ideologies”, but this is a lie. Skylight is not a Bitingly Satirical Play about Politics. It is a play about three people, stupid, brilliant, a little bit broken, and all the pain and messiness that brings. The play’s naturalism feels hugely refreshing, even vital, as we close another academic year: this is the most human play Oxford has seen for months.

The play unfolds in a shabby little flat belonging to Kyra, a young woman working in the rougher parts of London. We open with her returning, exhausted, after a hard day’s work. As the evening progresses she is visited first by a young man named Edward, who has fallen out with his father, and later by that father himself, Tom, with whom Kyra has a history. The play is largely a two-hander; we never see all three characters together, and the lion’s share of the time is spent with Kyra and Tom. The two of them have had an affair in the past, but Kyra eventually left Tom to care for his dying wife, Alice. This, coupled with class tensions – Kyra is a penniless schoolteacher while Tom is a millionaire – generate the play’s action, which consists of Tom and Kyra talking, reminiscing, and arguing. This is helped by subtle, but ingenious touches to the production. The first hour’s conversation occurs while Kyra prepares dinner, and the decision to cook an actual spaghetti bolognaise during the performance is a masterful bit of verisimilitude.

The actors, naturally, are superb. Natalie Lauren is wearily sarcastic as Kyra, reacting sardonically to the two angst-ridden men, but holding her own in the more emotionally charged scenes. Her portrayal of anger is stunningly lifelike, and her gentleness with the shy and naive Edward lends credence to her character’s job as a teacher. Adam Diaper is brash and confident as Tom, but his swagger belies a real vulnerability. His constant banter and self-absorbed jokes make him intensely likeable, even as we recognise his character is a bit of an arse.

As a couple, the pair are impeccable; we understand intuitively why each of them has made the decisions they’ve made and why the other is hurt by it, and are able to sympathise with both. Luke Wintour is given a much less showy part as Edward, but he sells the character’s restless awkwardness. After two hours of sadness and conflict, the play ends on a note of unabashed sweetness, and it’s created by Wintour’s understated performance.

Skylight is a really special production. The gripes are there to be made – at two and half hours this may be a little long for some tastes, and the period details are messy – but I find myself somehow unwilling to make them. Skylight is proper, satisfying drama, and one of the finest productions I have seen in three years of student reviewing.

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Review: The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review on 16 January 2017.

With any new publication, especially concerning the “universal” bard, it’s worth asking, ‘Who is this for?’ The New Oxford Shakespeare is no different. Coming to us from general editors Gary Taylor, John Jowett, Terri Bourus, and Gabriel Egan, Oxford University Press’s fourth iteration of the complete works is actually not one book, but four: The Complete Works: Modern Critical Edition (under review here), The Critical Reference Edition (containing the folio and quarto texts in their original spelling), the Authorship Companion (explaining the editors’ choices in detail), and an online resource gathering all of the above. The Complete Works’ modern spelling and slick cover design marks it as one for Waterstones’ shelves, but its prospects for this audience seem dubious. At fifty pounds it’s hardly in the ‘stocking filler’ price range, and it comes at a time when access to Shakespeare is widening anyway, through live streams of major productions and online resources like Folger Digital Texts. Despite apparently having taken 27 credited editors and consultants ten years of work, The New Oxford Shakespeare seems uncertain of its audience, and for all its critical insight it never quite satisfies.

This lack of satisfaction is partly due to a frankly bewildering introduction. The first part, ‘Why Read Shakespeare’s Complete Works?’, takes the standard tack of listing every major historical or literary figure to ever say anything vaguely positive about Shakespeare. This routine list is enlivened by the editors’ knack for cringeworthy phrases. We are told that “Shakespeare is the ghost with the most”, and that The Complete Works is “an anthology of extraordinarily powerful and varied virtual reality game worlds.” Besides the fact that they mix metaphors like a sea of troubles, lines like these feel incredibly patronising, especially addressed to a reader who has already picked up the Complete Works, and so presumably does not need persuading of Shakespeare’s importance. The presentation is also woefully inconsistent. One section attempts to refute accusations of racism in Shakespeare’s plays with a bullet-point list of notable non-white people who have interacted with the bard. All of Shakespeare’s other appreciators are generously discussed in continuous prose rather than simple listing. The introduction also mentions both Delia Bacon and J. Thomas Looney, without once stopping to clarify who these people are, despite its stated aim to create “something more accessible”.

This inconsistency further manifests in the second part of the Introduction, ‘Why Read This Complete Works?’, which explains the book’s editorial decisions. The editors note that this is “the first edition of Shakespeare’s complete works to include music for the songs, whenever a reliable original score is available”. While this is slightly less radical than the editors state (the 2015 Norton Shakespeare’s online edition featured recordings of the original music), it is a genuinely worthwhile move. The Tempest, for example, reads very differently with a more pronounced emphasis on music, and this simple change does more to inspire fresh reading than any waffle about virtual reality. Similarly good are the performance notes accompanying each play. The Tempest opens with the following:

“The play begins aboard a ship at sea. This is often accomplished through the uses of wind machines or sound effects, and ropes and sails manipulated by the actors. In early modern stagings a cannonball was rolled down a wooden trough to simulate the sound of thunder.”

This running commentary draws attention to the gaps and ambiguities of the script, as well as to different periods and types of staging. But while these performance-centric details are admirable, the authorship choices are baffling. Collaboration is this edition’s watchword, reflecting the trend in Shakespeare scholarship over the last fifteen years or so, as seen in books like Shakespeare, Co-Author and William Shakespeare and Others. This edition has grabbed a few headlines for listing Christopher Marlowe as co-author of the Henry VI plays. Yet its other choices betray its bardolatry; Shakespeare is interminably front and centre, even when his hand in a play is minimal. The collaboratively-written The Spanish Tragedy and Sir Thomas More are represented only by the bits ‘probably’ written by Shakespeare, with no indication of what came before or after, obscuring his impact on the overall script, and frustrating any reader unfamiliar with the plays. This fragmented presentation comes to a head with The History of Cardenio. A lost collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, it was adapted by eighteenth century playwright Lewis Theobald as Double Falsehood. In presenting it here the editors have used specialist software to identify the words most likely to have been written by Shakespeare, and left out everything else. This approach results in unreadable gobbets of text:

RODERICK   Why he hath pressed this absence, sir I know not
But [             ]  letters [
Wherein [Cardenio], good Camillo’s son,
[             ] (as he says) [
[                                 ] gold
To purchase certain horse that like him well

know the value of

There is some critical value to an exercise like this, but presenting it this way is not only frustrating to read (and hardly accessible for the general reader), it contradicts the sense of co-authorship the editors seek to emphasise. It may have been better to include the complete texts while typographically demarcating the collaborators. The Oxford Middleton, for instance, put Middleton’s additions to Macbeth in bold, and the Arden Titus Andronicus presents an inserted scene in a different typeface. The insistence on isolating Shakespeare serves to increase his iconic stature, rather than qualify it.

All told, The New Oxford Shakespeare has a distressing tendency to miss the wood for the trees. For the most egregious example we must return to the introduction. In relating Shakespeare to today’s theatre, the editors spend a page on Hamilton, ‘the most conspicuous theatrical event of the 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death.’ The influence, it turns out, is fairly minor, but the truly shocking moment comes in reference to playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda’s dedicatory sonnet at the Tony Awards. The editors dutifully mention that it contained “the very Shakespearean tautology “And love is love is love is love is love”.” What they fail to mention is that the sonnet was written in response to the Orlando nightclub shooting that happened the same week. This is The New Oxford Shakespeare in a nutshell. For all its worthwhile contributions, its careful attention to detail, and its slick presentation, it suffers from a near total divorce from the context in which its material appears, be it that of 1616 or 2016.

‘The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition’ is available to buy in hardback, RRP £50.

 

Review: Henry V

This article first appeared on Oxford Opening Night on 17 November 2016.

King Henry, it should be noted, is a nasty piece of work. He’s an arrogant dictator, ruthlessly purging his own men and committing war crimes before forcing himself on a French princess. This new production of Henry V at the Corpus Christi auditorium has its faults, mostly stemming from a maximalist approach to Shakespeare’s text, but it’s worth applauding for its embrace of Henry as a despicable scumbag. It’s an uncompromising take on the character, but the cast and crew make the play’s nationalist tubthumping a thing of genuine horror.

This production opens with the edited highlights of Henry IV, before transitioning into Henry V proper. It’s an odd decision, and leads to some awkward moments (the ‘Prologue’, for example, comes fifteen minutes in). But it serves to show where things start to go wrong for the young Henry. His youthful love of Falstaff quickly morphs into outright contempt, and the eventual banishment of ‘plump Jack’ is not just cold but outright vindictive.

We see this brutal streak writ large in the older Henry: Laurence Belcher is brilliant as the ranting psychopathic tyrant. Quick to anger and devising elaborate punishments for his own men, Belcher’s Henry deliciously plays a scene of rooting out traitors, as he forces the naïve lieutenants to condemn themselves. Yet he also displays the demagogue’s knack for holding attention. His lengthy deliberations on diplomacy and torture are gripping, delivered with arresting conviction and variety – Henry is many things, but never predictable. The production is pleasing in its willingness to undermine him, too. Henry delivers the St. Crispin’s Day speech to two disgruntled guards rather than an army of fans, and, in the most subtly damning detail, he draws up the peace treaty with hands still covered in blood.

The rest of the cast acquit themselves admirably. James Bruce strikes a perfect tragicomic note as Falstaff and later Nim, nailing the physical comedy of the fat knight. Similarly good are Gerard Krasnopolski as Pistol and Harry Carter as Boy; a scrappy counterweight to Henry’s macho posturing. (Krasnopolski also performs the most impressive leek-eating ever to grace an Oxford stage). Tom Fisher is perfect as the dithering King of France, and Christopher Page is a gloriously contemptuous Dauphin.

The play’s main flaw is over-lengthiness; introductory scenes feel extraneous, and the second half flabby, mainly in service of hammering home how nasty Henry is. There’s also a bit of a problem with accents. There are some appalling attempts at Scottish and Yorkshire accents, as well as the usual cringiness of thesps affecting ‘common’ voices. It’s a nitpick, but when you’re trying to shed light on a complete monster it helps not to accidentally indulge your own stereotypes about non-royalty.

But this is still absolutely a play worth seeing. Belcher is a brilliantly monstrous leading man, backed by a production unabashed in tackling his brutality. Angry, bitter, and darkly hilarious, this is what Corpus auditorium does best. Watch it, and be thankful that we no longer allow thin-skinned psychopaths to lead international armies.

Review: Anything Goes

This article first appeared on the Oxford Opening Night website on 12 October 2016.

With the Playhouse newly redecorated for Michaelmas term, where better to start than a musical from the 1930s? Anything Goes is a retro-cool season-opener, and it delivers all the colour and style we’ve come to expect from Playhouse musicals, even if it’s a tad unpolished in places. Upbeat, funny, and energetic to a fault, it’s a jolly romp of a show that will surely make a delightful introduction for the many students getting their first taste of Oxford theatre this week.

Our hero is Billy Crocker, a young stockbroker in love with an heiress engaged to an English earl. With the help of his friend Reno, as well as a helpful tip from a passing gangster, he winds up on a cruise ship with all of the above, as well as being on the run from the law. Hilarity ensues (obviously), and the production team deserve credit for managing the play’s laundry list of elements as stylishly as they do. There’s a lot going on here, but the show hums along admirably, the scenes cleverly interwoven to give a sense of several plots developing at once. This helps maintain a brisk pace, as well as the shared space of the cruise liner itself.

The set is marvelous, with the band sitting up on the bridge like a kind of omniscient narrator. This is a show defined by song, so it’s great to see the musicians paced centre stage rather than cast into the pit. It’s also very much an ensemble piece, so it’s difficult to call anyone the ‘star’, but the all-cast musical numbers are stellar. The ‘Blow, Gabriel, Blow’ sequence which kicks off act two is a masterpiece of choreography, a perfectly-paced bit of dance and gymnastics which goes on for fifteen minutes, running the gamut from joy to heartbreak, with plenty of laughs along the way.

The individual parts are mostly unflashy, but the actors are a treat nonetheless. Toby Chapman is a capable straight man as Billy, reacting dryly to the madness around him, and Josh Blunsden is perfect as the ship’s put-upon captain (watch out for his final scene). Nils Behling is an adept physical comedian, and Laurence Belcher nails the part of the oblivious aristocrat, his cringeworthy love poetry forming the basis of the play’s most quietly brilliant set-piece. But the real standout is Kathy Peacock as Reno; agile, charming, and bursting with charisma, she may also be the best singer of the bunch.

It’s not a flawless show: the opening night saw severe audio problems, and several of the jokes fell flat. There was a sense of attempting to speed through the awkward material, rather than relaxing in its ridiculousness, a feeling not helped by occasionally rushed line readings. But these problems largely fell away by the second act, once awkward banter gave way to elaborate showtunes and personal confessions. Anything Goes is bubblegum theatre; it’s bright, cheerful, and drives away the academic blues, even if the memory of being pleased lasts longer than its actual pleasures. It’s a big, frothy delight, and for the year’s first major student play, that’s one hell of an achievement.

Review: Baker’s End — The King of Cats

In a year marked by celebrity death after celebrity death, it’s hard not to look at Tom Baker’s latest project — a trilogy of audio dramas about the death of Tom Baker — without going ‘yes, of course’. It’s not just a matter of being in tune with the zeitgeist. Tom Baker has displayed a morbid sense of humour before now, and he’s worked on audio projects with Paul Magrs since 2009. But while Baker’s End follows from what’s come before, this first episode, The King of Cats, crackles with a strange energy of its own. Magrs takes a constant delight in wrong-footing the listener, and Baker plays along gleefully; whatever one might expect from the premise, you can be sure you won’t quite be getting it.

Our story centres on actress Suzy Goshawk, played by the wonderful Katy Manning, who we meet on the train to Tom’s funeral in the quiet village of Happenstance. This is Manning’s show as much as Baker’s, and she’s pure charm; the plot throws tarot readings, sinister villagers, dancing dragons and twerking pensioners at her, and she sells them all with conviction and wit. She makes an excellent straight woman to the bizarre plot, as well as to Tom Baker himself, who makes his grand re-entrance at the halfway mark. Baker plays the whole thing with a darkly manic glee, relishing the wordplay of Magrs’ script, and generally overacting the hell out of everything. He’s clearly having the time of his life, and for all the sombre background the script never lets him become melancholy.

Baker’s star power is formidable, but the rest of the cast are great fun too. David Benson is delightful as a nervous stereotype of a vicar, and Susan Jameson is effectively sinister as Tom’s disgruntled housekeeper. Simon Barnard’s production is subtly creepy, solidifying the slight wrongness of the whole thing, even if the musical cues get a bit repetitive. The plot structure, typically of Magrs, is shambolic; things take a while to get going, and the conclusion feels awfully rushed. But that leisurely pace also gives the performers plenty of space to breathe, and lends the audio a pleasingly introspective feel. Magrs gets in some lovely jokes, including several pitched firmly at the Doctor Who crowd, but they all carry subtly dark undertones. The scenes of Tom Baker trashing a celebrity cooking show and falling off a rooftop in the nude are grimly whimsical, and the audio presents a strange melange of images that never quite sit comfortably. The conclusion naturally sees the baddies defeated, but the tone is one of menace as much as celebration. There’s a finality to this audio, a sense of bedding down for the winter, even with the promise of further adventures.

We all know why this is, of course. It’s there in the title. Despite the cast of Bafflegab and Big Finish veterans, the work Baker’s End most closely resembles is Blackstar; a closing note with all the energy of what came before. A refusal to go out quietly. But where Blackstar was intense and enigmatic, Baker’s End is playful and generous. It invites us to share in its twisted joy, even as it wilfully refuses to explain itself. Paul Magrs delivers a funny, beautiful, and deeply touching play on that shared knowledge, and Tom Baker throws himself into it with aplomb. This audio could only have come from their unique creative partnership, and it will be interesting to see where the series goes from here. Wherever it is, we can be sure it won’t be boring.

Baker’s End— The King of Cats is available from Bafflegab Productions, for £9.99 on CD or £6.99 as a download. 

The Oxford Revue and Friends – A review

This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 12 June 2016.

People who say Oxford is no laughing matter are very much not the target audience of The Oxford Revue and Friends, Saturday night’s showcase for the city’s hottest up-and-coming comics. Also featuring appearances from the Leeds Tealights and the Cambridge Footlights, as well as hot new stand-up Phil Wang, the evening felt like a promise of things to come – we were watching live what would likely end up on ‘best of’ compilation videos thirty years later. Fresh, witty, and raucously entertaining, this was a demonstration of the best UK student comedy had to offer, even if, at two hours, it perhaps needed a bit of a trim.

Phil Wang made an excellent host, cracking jokes about his own career (“it’s been six years, and I’ve just moved further up the bill”) and making easy banter with the audience. A rather mild introduction eventually gave way to some whip-smart jokes about racism (“it isn’t always black and white – there are shades of yellow too. I think I’ve just written a haiku”), and his affable stage presence helped to smooth the transitions between each act. The show’s first hour was split into two halves, with the Leeds Tealights and Cambridge Footlights respectively, before handing over to Oxford’s own after the interval.

The first half was overwhelmingly solid. The Leeds lot opened strong with a wonderfully grim bit about a girlfriend tied to the train tracks, followed by half an hour of similarly imaginative sketches. The highlight was a sketch involving a dude’s girlfriend catching him listening to Coldplay, (“It’s Arctic Monkeys!” “I would have preferred porn!). It perfectly captured the ludicrous yet pervasive power of music snobbery, and the performers delivered it with aplomb. The Varisty crowd were similarly good, with cleverly-written observational sketches about table football and improv comedy, although they were at their best when indulging their weird streak. Their best sketch was a slightly nightmarish dialogue about work experience in a chicken factory, delivered in an unnerving deadpan. Of the two acts, Leeds had the superior performers, while Cambridge had more refined and subtle sketch writers, which added up to an excellent showing overall.

The second half was a mixed bag. There was some seriously weak material towards the beginning, as some of the Revue’s newest recruits struggled with an overlong parody of student open mic nights, which had several good gags but lacked structural coherence. But once the old guard took the stage it was clear sailing right to the end, with clever scene after clever scene, including a genius riff on E4’s Skins and a Star Wars sketch worthy of Mitchell and Webb.

At two hours there were places where the show felt overlong – perhaps a ninety minute performance would have trimmed some of the fat – but this was a witty, subversive and thoroughly enjoyable evening. Well acted, creatively staged, and brimming with clever ideas, The Oxford Revue and Friends remains a highlight of the student comedy calendar.

Review: Twelfth Night

This article first appeared on the Oxford Opening Night website on 10 June 2016.

Garden plays are among the hardest to get right. Making a good play is difficult enough without having to worry about the weather, hay fever, and the possibility of an unscripted entrance by the local wildlife. Luckily, Worcester College’s Twelfth Night pulls through these challenges to create a light, breezy, raucously entertaining production. Complete with lutes, doublets, hoses and ruffs (not to mention a top-notch cast), Fishbowl Productions deliver all the bells and whistles of a proper Shakespearean romp, even if it occasionally suffers from over-complicated staging.

The plot is standard Shakespearean comedy. What starts out as a bit of light cross-dressing rapidly snowballs into a tale of lost family, mistaken identity, comic violence and passionate love. There are bold heroes, proud servants, drunken nobles, and a fool running around generally undermining the hell out of everybody. The plot builds to the traditional multiple marriage, and along the way there’s plenty of clever wordplay, slapstick sword fighting, and even a bit of topical humour to keep the audience engaged. The energetic pacing and bawdy jokes of the first half contrast nicely with the second half’s slightly darker tinge, especially in the scenes where the servant Malvolio is duped by arrogant nobles Belch and Aguecheek.

But while the individual scenes are well-staged, the overall structure is frustrating. This is a ‘promenade’ production, meaning different scenes play out in different locations, with the audience constantly shifting to follow the actors. This does nothing but create awkward gaps as viewers migrate, undermining the flow and fast pace crucial to good comedy. Scenes will start with half the audience still on the other side of the lawn, and the scenery occasionally blocks the audience’s view. This inattention to detail suggests a traditional stage might have better suited the production, and it would certainly have been far less distracting and inconsistent.

The cast, on the other hand, are solid across the board. Rebecca Bowen is marvellous as cross-dressing leading lady Viola, part relatable everywoman and part pantomime hero. Adam Diaper’s Malvolio effortlessly shifts between the sublime and the ridiculous, and Indyana Schnieder makes a delightful Feste, with great comic timing and a lovely singing voice. Alice Moore is wonderfully waspish as the widow Olivia, moving, Maggie Smith-like, from dry amusement to love-struck bliss. But the undoubted star of the show is one Coco Chanel, a West Highland Terrier making his stage debut as the Countess’s lapdog, who provides a number of unscripted laughs on top of generally looking cute.

Subtract the faults of its staging and Twelfth Night is damn near perfect. A calm, confident execution of an extremely tricky style, it balances a light tone with some refreshingly dark elements. The result is a satisfying evening’s entertainment, and worth seeing for the sheer raw talent on display. By turns charming, funny, poignant and edifying, Twelfth Night is the high watermark by which Oxford’s summer Shakespeares will be judged.