Review: Merlot and Royal

This article first appeared on Oxford Opening Night on 30 May 2017.

Merlot and Royal is a new musical being staged at Tingewick Hall this week. While it demonstrates genuine effort and no small degree of skill, it gives me no pleasure to say that the piece unfortunately falls completely flat. A period musical with no laughs, no tears, and no memorable tunes, it’s surprising that so many talented actors and musicians have managed such a mediocre display.

The plot feels both contrived and poorly-paced. Our hero is Robert Merlot, heir to the titular Merlot and Royal Banking Firm. After the death of his father he finds himself thrust into a world of high-powered meetings and luxurious parties, while also falling for a waitress ‘below his station’. You can probably guess the rest, but that summary does not do justice to the tangled mess that is the play’s structure. A mountain of undeveloped sub-plots, the play lurches awkwardly from scene to scene, lacking drive and panache. There are hardly any jokes, and the few there are struggle to raise a smile.

The production focuses entirely on the music, at the expense of character, plot, and charm. While the music is beautifully played by the impressive ensemble, opening night saw near-debilitating audio problems. The band were frequently too loud to hear the songs’ lyrics, and microphones seemed to stutter and cut out with every alternate word. Though competent, the music is ultimately forgettable, with not a single catchy melody. The blocking and choreography are also too static and unimaginative to make any of it memorable.

The actors are poorly served by a wooden script, but most of them manage acceptable performances. Sammy Breen has plenty of leading man charm, and Amelia Gabriel almost manages to wring some pathos out of her frequent passionate confrontations. The real standout is Alex Buchanan as a slimy bank clerk turned traitor turned bank robber (why?) who plays a scene of sudden contrition and suicide with such conviction as to almost distract from its sheer contrivance.

The rest of the cast are perfectly adequate, and the singing is good across the board, but the fact remains that there is no spark of life in this production. The setting is unusual, but feels bland and generic; the ambition is admirable, but the execution is timid and dull. The sad fact is that these actors, these musicians, and these concepts, all deserve a much better play.

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Review: Reigen

This article first appeared on Oxford Opening Night on 24 May 2017.

Reigen is a play about sex. It is also about society, class, gender, power relations: all regular subjects of student theatre. Written by Arthur Schnitzler in 1897, the play presents a series of sexual encounters between nine characters of various social classes and dispositions, which vary, worryingly, in levels of consent. It is also in German, which poses something of a difficulty for your Anglophone reviewer. Nevertheless, language society plays have consistently been some of the most inventive in Oxford drama, and Reigen is no exception. Ambitious, clever, and unapologetic, this is undoubtedly a worthwhile production.

The plot is conveyed through ten distinct vignettes, each involving a sexual encounter building up to the carnal act itself, with the exception of a more contemplative finale. The ten characters’ names, including The Soldier, The Parlour Maid, The Poet, and The Prostitute, suggest that they are broad archetypes rather than individual characters, staying true to the play’s satirical intent.

Being a play about sexual politics, Reigen’s age arguably hurts the production. Its no doubt groundbreaking treatment of sex feels tame in 2017, and it displays a distinctly nineteenth century attitude to issues of consent. The second and third chapters deal with sexual assault and bullying in a way audiences may find uncomfortable, and the fact that one of the assaulters is later treated sympathetically is somewhat disconcerting. That being said, the play is clear about the suffering caused, and we are not encouraged to view it positively. The play is also critical of patriarchy elsewhere, though in a more humorous context: there is a hilarious scene where The Husband lectures his wife on the evils of infidelity while she nods along, bored. The fact that we have seen the wife having an affair in the previous chapter only heightens the comedic effect.

The performers, too, are broadly comedic, but they bring some real nuance to their stock roles. Ruth Eichinger is brilliant as both The Soldier and The Young Wife, moving seamlessly from brutality to reluctance to deadpan sarcasm. Stephen Jones is another highlight as The Poet, by turns creepy and hilarious, and his character lends the play a self-awareness in his capacity as a self-indulgent writer.

The production’s main flaw, from a technical standpoint, is one that primarily impacts clueless Anglophones. The subtitles on opening night were appalling, constantly skipping both forwards and backwards, and connecting very little to the action on stage. While not a problem for the play’s main audience of German speakers, it is a shame for others to miss out on the full experience due to a technical problem.

Overall, however, Reigen is worth checking out. Funny, disturbing, and occasionally moving, it’s a type of theatre we just don’t see often enough. Go and see it, and chew over your own bemused reactions for a few days. Isn’t that what student plays are all about?

The Homecoming: A Freudian Reading Is a Bit Too Obvious

This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 16 February 2017.

This is not a show to beat the fifth week blues. And frankly, thank god for that. Dark, cruel, and deeply sinister, this new production of the Harold Pinter classic is a delightfully absurdist tonic to our horribly absurd time. With its story of a family reunion gone terribly wrong, the play is unafraid to deal with class and gender politics, and as such it feels relevant today in ways it couldn’t have in its original performance in 1964. Do not go in expecting light entertainment, but do expect scenes of perverse fascination, and some of the best acting in Oxford right now.

The action takes place in a shabby old house on the cheaper side of London, inhabited by an old man and what passes for family; two sons, Lenny and Joey, and a despised younger brother, Sam. But when his third son Teddy returns unexpectedly from a six-year absence, with his mysterious new wife in tow, things take a turn for the bizarre. The new daughter-in-law, Ruth, exerts a strange influence on the men of this dilapidated house, and before long they’re actively fighting for her attention and favour. There’s a gradual slide from semi-affectionate banter to merciless infighting, and the whole thing plays out with the quiet illogic of a nightmare.

The set dressing is suitably run-down, with period details like a cheap gramophone and yellowing newspapers, and the shabby armchair (a kind of central throne for the action) looks liable to collapse at any moment, in a suitably obvious metaphor for this household’s patriarchal structure. Even the smell is appropriate; sweat and cigarette smoke permeates the house, and the confined space of the Michael Pilch works well to create the oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere the play demands.

The acting is similarly in tune with the script. Adam Cameron Diaper plays Max, the family patriarch, and he does very well with a part clearly written for a much older actor. Rather than focusing on his character’s decrepitude, he plays up the spite and pettiness of the role, while also adding a dimension of pathos to his nostalgic ramblings. Adam Goodbody is obsequious yet oddly creepy as Max’s limousine-driving brother, and Alec McQuarrie plays dim-witted son Joey with well-honed comic timing. Rupert Stonehill is suitably pathetic as Teddy, projecting smug elitism and fragile insecurity with equal aplomb.

But the real standouts are Hugo McPherson as Lenny and Cat White as Ruth. McPherson plays a London gangster, his sharp suit instantly distinguishing him from the rest of the cast. He veers between pedantic arguing and soft-voiced threats, rising to a shout at moments of tension. It’s a forceful, menacing performance, matched by White as the play’s domineering interloper. Initially curious, and eventually actively manipulative, there’s something hypnotic about her presence on stage. The other characters fall silent as soon as she speaks, her voice and eye movements subtly asserting control over the situation. The chemistry between these two is electrifying, and their slow dance/ kiss in the second half is what really sends the play into overdrive.

This isn’t a production for everyone; it’s over two hours with an interval, and the sensation of being trapped in a bizarre situation with people you don’t understand is far from a pleasant one. But for its top-drawer acting, its sinister atmosphere, and its overriding commitment to its aesthetic, this is absolutely a play worth seeing. Just don’t invite the parents.

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: The Trojan Women

This article first appeared on Oxford Opening Night on 2 November 2016.

Greek tragedy, like most ancient drama, feels wrong in the modern day. The recourse of the playwright, then, is to make that wrongness their point. Set in the mother-and-baby unit of a post-war prison, Caroline Bird’s rewrite of Euripides’s The Trojan Women puts the traumas of its female characters front and centre. Sickly funny and deeply disturbing, it’s a hard, uncompromising polemic, an aggressively feminist reframing of the male-dominated mythology of Troy. As a production, it suffers from technical and pacing problems, but as a political statement it’s one of the most powerful Oxford has seen all term.

The play opens with a bare cell; two women. One old and untethered, one pregnant and handcuffed to her bed. The first is Hecuba, ex-queen of Troy. The other is not supposed to be there. A working class woman imprisoned with a queen, the setup makes for some good jokes, with the nameless one as straight woman to the melodramatic Hecuba. But it’s a source of horror as well as comedy; the women are visited by Cassandra, Helen, even Menelaus himself, as well as their own hapless male guard, and the nameless woman is shouted down constantly. Not allowed to speak, she can only gaze, appalled, at the meaningless squabbles which have destroyed her life. It’s an astonishingly bleak story, and it ruthlessly confronts the horrors of a society stratified by both gender and class.

The script’s ideas are disturbing in the abstract, but the cast help make them viscerally horrifying. Georgie Murphy is effectively traumatised as Hecuba, but conveys a sense of the ingrained prejudices which drive the plot. Marcus Knight-Williams is funny as the guard, pathetic and bumbling despite his petty authority, and Alannah Burns is a chilling Menelaus, all icy psychopathy and insecure shouting. India Phillips is impeccable across her three roles, her sweetly morbid turn as Casssandra marking the play’s creepiest moment. But the standout performance is Elizabeth Mobed as the nameless woman. By turns sardonic, deluded, outraged and anguished, she is the play’s emotional core, and her status as a silent onlooker of history drives home the central point with humanising force.

That said, the play can occasionally feel a bit much. The dialogue is full of over-ripe metaphors, and the script is awkwardly structured. After a few episodic encounters the play’s climax stretches on for more than twenty minutes, and there’s a point at which the horror simply becomes exhausting. But then again, that exhaustion is part of the point – the audience, like the characters, are faced with the absurd horrors of this masculine world, and that exhaustion creates a crucial sense of empathy. So I can recommend The Trojan Women; it’s harsh, angry, and extremely moving, an intimate character piece and a scream of rage against an unjust world. This is what the BT is all about.

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: The Tempest at the Donmar Warehouse

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 29 September 2016.

Shakespeare has many faults, not least his failure of the Bechdel test. Director Phyllida Lloyd has taken it upon herself to correct this, and since 2012 she and her team have staged a trilogy of all-female productions for the Donmar Warehouse, with the final instalment debuting this week. The trilogy has grabbed a few headlines for its setting in an all-female prison, and it’s certainly a bold move. The Tempest is about a powerful wizard in command of a mysterious exotic island, so setting it in a chilly concrete cell seems counter-intuitive. In its best moments this produces an interesting tension, but it often feels like the play is struggling against its own concept. Rough, strange, and a little bit shambolic, there’s a lot to like in this production, but there’s also a sense of a gimmick wearing a bit thin.

The play starts with the cast lining up, and Harriet Walter announcing she is serving a life sentence for “a politically motivated bank robbery”, before taking up her role as Prospero. The story unfolds as a performance, or shared fantasy, of the prisoners, with the realities of prison life intruding at key intervals. It’s a good idea, but it feels a bit arbitrary — guards are constantly harassing Sebastian and Antonio, but they never come near Prospero, despite her constant tricks on her fellow inmates. This ought to be ambiguous and fantastical, but comes across muddy and confused. Lloyd jams in some extraneous musical numbers, mostly sung by Ariel, and while they’re mostly competent they disrupt the flow significantly. Ariel’s final song painfully drags out one of the play’s best moments, repeating the same lines ad nauseam rather than coming up with new ones. The stage dressing is minimal, but nicely evocative, strewn with rubbish befitting Sophie Stanton’s interpretation of Caliban as a kind of mad bag lady.

While Caliban and Ariel are fun, it’s Prospero who anchors the play, and Harriet Walter excels in the part. She’s every bit the weary old scholar of Shakespeare’s text, but she’s much less spiteful than the usual interpretation. Strolling around with hands in her pockets, her contemplative attitude makes her louder moments stand out, such as her unhinged delivery of the ‘insubstantial pageant’ speech. (A rather beautiful moment involving video projections onto a cloud of white balloons, emphasising the otherworldly splendour). Her affection for Leah Harvey as Miranda is genuinely touching, and Harvey manages the shift from youthful joy to adolescent wonder impeccably. Between them they form the play’s emotional core, and it’s nice to see a Shakespeare production focused on a mother-daughter relationship rather than the Bard’s paternalism. Jackie Clune and Karen Dunbar are funny as Stephano and Trinculo, and Jade Anouka makes a fine Ariel, even if her rapping was a bit weak at the preview performance. The rest of the cast don’t make much impression, but to be fair these are hardly Shakespeare’s most memorable characters, and finding depth in Gonzalo is a challenge few actors have met.

The Tempest is a potpourri, then, but not without its charms, and, more importantly, not without relevance. The boldest choice comes at the end — in the original Prospero ‘abjures’ his magic, and returns to Milan, a moment many have read as reflective of Shakespeare’s own decision to retire. Lloyd’s ending goes beyond Shakespeare’s text — Walter delivers her final monologue, and then steps out of character, becoming a prisoner again. We then hear a set of messages from Walter’s friends and family, including the daughter she left behind when she was arrested. The message is clear: don’t give up. The light returns to the harshness of the prison, the voices fade into the whirring of a vacuum cleaner. The final impression is of resilience rather than resignation, and for that alone it’s worth applauding. It’s a wonderful subversion of Shakespeare’s text, and one that could only have been done with this cast and this setting. Because, let’s face it, after 400 years, the male angst version is played out.