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.

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.