I Want My Hat Back, National Theatre


Originally written for the Guardian.

The kids’ verdict on the National Theatre’s new family offering comes in early. “This is a funny show!” exclaims one girl about 15 minutes in, giggles erupting around her. It’s hard to disagree.

Narratively speaking, there’s not a lot to Jon Klassen’s laconic picture book. The plot is mostly spelled out in the title: Bear’s hat has gone missing and he wants it back. This simplicity, though, is part of the joy of both book and adaptation. Around the limited framework, director Wils Wilson and her team have built a mischievous, boisterous delight of a show.

Bear (Marek Larwood) loves his red, pointy hat. But when he leaves it unguarded in the forest, opportunistic Rabbit (Steven Webb, with all the hyperactive energy he has brought to the Lyric Hammersmith’s pantomimes) is quick to snatch it up. Bear’s attempts to track it down lead him through a series of encounters with his fellow forest inhabitants.

Wilson’s version lets young audiences in on its tricks, welcoming them on stage at the beginning and making few attempts to hide its make-believe. Fly Davis’s DIY design has pot plants for trees and animal ears for costumes, while the chorus’s rapid changes of character often happen in full view. It’s a production that gets that kids understand pretending.

There’s plenty for the big kids in the audience too, from Arthur Darvill’s genre-hopping music to Joel Horwood’s book and lyrics, which retain Klassen’s concision and offer knowing winks to the adults. Wryly ad-libbing through the vocal responses of younger spectators, Larwood gives a brilliantly deadpan performance, which plays to two levels simultaneously. A show for all ages is a rarer thing than marketing copy tends to suggest, but I Want My Hat Back achieves that aim with ease.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

Image of an Unknown Young Woman, Gate Theatre


What’s in an image?

The power and potential deceptiveness of the image has become something of a recurring theatrical theme over the last few years. The most interesting thing by far about Chimerica was its ambivalent relationship with the iconic photograph at its heart, set against the backdrop of an image-saturated world. It followed The Witness, a play in which an image comes back to haunt the man who captured it, and was followed in turn by The Body of an American, which again revolves around the act of witnessing and the images that come to stand for entire conflicts.

Now, in Elinor Cook’s new play Image of an Unknown Young Woman, one small snippet of video footage both sparks and stands for a whole revolutionary movement. A woman – a young, beautiful woman – a young, beautiful woman wearing an eye-catching yellow dress – is shot during a protest. Video images of this act of brutality go viral, concentrating international media attention on a nation whose sufferings had previously been ignored. One pretty girl, one instantly iconic snapshot, does more than hundreds of deaths.

Cook’s revolution unravels in an unspecified country under an unspecified oppressive regime. While that device of “unspecified country” (especially when “Middle Eastern” or, as was the case a couple of decades ago, “Eastern European” is nestled in the middle) can often carry a whiff of racism, here the vagueness feels justified for a change. Although the play has echoes of various protests and revolutions across the world in recent years, it feels as though it could just as easily be happening on the streets of a Western city. The point is both closeness and distance – as hammered home by the parallel narrative of a wealthy Londoner’s frustrated desire to help.

In fact, Image of an Unknown Woman is constructed from a series of parallel narratives, all running along neighbouring tracks but – with one exception – never quite meeting. Ali (Ashley Zhangazha) and his girlfriend Layla (Anjana Vasan) deal with the fallout from uploading the video that sparks the uprising; lonely, rage-filled Candace (Susan Brown) confronts an ethical dilemma as she gets tangled up with a charity – fronted by Nia (Wendy Kweh), an activist who has escaped the regime under attack – that is not what it seems; and one woman (Eileen Walsh) simply picks her way through the carnage in search of her missing mother. Running around and between them is the three-strong chorus (Oliver Birch, Emilie Patry and Isaac Ssebandeke), taking on the murky, shape-shifting roles of leaders, protestors and commentators.

When I spoke to Cook about the play, she uncomfortably described “the girl in the yellow dress” – as the nameless subject of the video becomes known – as a sort of brand. As grotesque as the idea may be, it speaks powerfully to what captures the collective imagination in an information-flooded, fiercely consumerist age. People need a catchy slogan, a bitesize backstory, a striking image. This is also an idea that Christopher Haydon’s production and Fly Davis’ design have latched onto. With the audience configured in traverse, sliced down the middle by a catwalk-like stage, the entire space of the Gate’s auditorium is decked out in hazard-tape black and yellow. Aside from the costumes, the yellow of the young girl’s dress – and subsequently of the popular protest movement – is the only colour permitted to pierce the gloom. Armbands, balloons and scattered sheets of paper are all in keeping with the revolutionary “brand”.

The whole thing is as stylish and carefully coherent as the design, remaining immaculately consistent in its concept even as it evokes the noise and chaos of revolution. On the one hand, the pleasing sharpness of the aesthetic feels a little obscene, as if cleaning up the mess and blood of violent conflict into something almost pretty. Yet for that very reason it’s a brilliant artistic choice. This is what we as observers clutch at, what catches our attention: narratives that knit together, images that are neatly ideological, colours as bright and as vivid and as far away from those troublesome shades of grey as possible.

Haydon’s production is also effortlessly, unshowily diverse in its casting, both reinforcing the everywhere-and-nowhere quality of the play’s unspecified setting and actually looking something like the world beyond the Gate’s walls. Seeing Image of an Unknown Woman on the same day as reading Stephen Berkoff’s comments about the supposed “reverse racism” of ring-fencing the role of Othello for black actors, I was doubly aware of the importance of such a simple act. Sure, let’s have conversations about theatrical representation, but those conversations can’t be stripped of context. Until there’s real representation at all levels – until all theatre reflects the make-up of the UK population as a matter of course – any suggestion that the few roles reserved for BAME performers should be up for grabs for their already over-represented white counterparts smacks either of wilful ignorance or veiled prejudice (and that’s before we even consider the cultural history of blackface and all its racist connotations).

Representation is equally a concern for the play itself, which interrogates not just the impact that images gone viral can achieve today, but also the nature of the images that go viral in the first place. It’s no coincidence that the emblem of this revolution is young, female, attractive, blonde. As Nia puts it, this is an image of violence that is “palatable”, clear-cut – even titillating, as hinted at in the frenzied social media hubbub that opens the play. It’s a stark illustration that only some representations of suffering provoke a response and certain lives continue to be valued over others (as countless news stories in just the past few months alone have demonstrated). Indictments of twenty-first-century society don’t come much bleaker than that.

Photo: Iona Firouzabadi.

I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole, Gate Theatre


Originally written for Exeunt.

If stress is the number one modern malady, sleeplessness might just be a close second. Distracted by technology, preoccupied with work and perpetually pumped with caffeine, it is harder now than ever to get a good night’s kip. This is certainly the experience of Rodrigo García’s restless narrator – hence the cumbersome title of this slender, slippery monologue. Railing against the tedium of insomnia and the spectres of capitalism that keep him up at night, García’s unnamed protagonist is adamant that “you have to do something”.

His idea of doing something is blowing his life’s savings, shipping over a fashionable philosopher and breaking into Madrid’s Prado museum out of hours to gaze at Goya’s Black Paintings. An unlikely brand of rebellion. Along for the ride are his two young sons, who in Jude Christian’s bold production take on a startling, scene-stealing form. Joining lone actor Steffan Rhodri on stage are two small, cute and surprisingly loud piglets, greeted with a ripple of excitement from the audience. Immediately, we are in surreal territory.

Like the piglets, who wriggle and squeal in Rhodri’s arms, García’s play is difficult to get a grip on. The furious, fidgety stream of thought goes round in circles – or, perhaps more accurately, spirals, as we never return to quite the same place as before. The narrator is at crisis point, that much is clear, his words a wounded howl against the plastic deities of Coca-Cola and Disneyland. There are hints at a fractured family and a lifetime of disappointments, but all we can be certain of is an underlying queasiness towards the modern world. As our protagonist succinctly puts it, “life’s a bloody mess”.

If modern existence is a cesspit, then we are all rolling in the filth. This is perhaps the point of the piglets, who also stand in for the animal urges and images of gluttony that crop up periodically in García’s text. When the animals’ unpredictable bathroom habits play momentary havoc on stage, it seems apt that Rhodri is literally cleaning up shit. But beyond these obvious associations, the piglets also have a distancing effect, enhancing the protagonist’s dislocation from his sons, the world around him, and possibly even his own existence.

The strange inner world of García’s narrator is strikingly drawn out by Christian’s production, which has created a captivating visual and aural landscape. The show opens with Rhodri’s tall form crammed into a grubby miniature kitchen mounted on the back wall, which suddenly begins to turn on its axis; the world is off-kilter and the protagonist is a hamster trapped inside an ever-turning wheel. This visual fluency is characteristic of Fly Davis’ design, which hems Rhodri and the piglets inside a clinical white space, surrounded by toys as brittle as the happiness they promise. Adrienne Quartly’s uneasy sound design, meanwhile, presses in on an already beleaguered mind with a tumult of heartbeats, ticking clocks and blaring sirens.

At the centre of this bewildering, claustrophobic world, Rhodri makes a compellingly embattled anti-hero. In spite of the anger, self-destruction and unsavoury streak of misogyny glimpsed in the character written by García, Rhodri renders him surprisingly sympathetic – more of a bitter lost soul than a listless misanthrope. There is also a sense, supported by the visual language of the piece, that his response to the modern world is the only one left available; even if his pursuit of Goya ultimately lacks meaning, it’s better than the Disneyland his sons would prefer. García’s short monologue might be a frustrating, evasive slip of a thing, but this arresting production makes its searching, impotent fury feel uncannily resonant.

Superior Donuts, Southwark Playhouse


Originally written for Exeunt.

Arthur Przybyszewski’s donut shop, a relic of an American dream past its sell-by date, is being taken away from him piece by piece. In this UK premiere of Tracy Letts’ 2008 play, Fly Davis’ deliberately dilapidated design is falling away at the edges, its grubby walls at once sturdily worn and precariously fragile. It’s the sort of place that radiates the permanence of having been around forever and yet might disappear tomorrow, stamped out by the unstoppable advance of Starbucks.

Such is the contemporary America of Superior Donuts. The context of Letts’ drama is rootedly specific, making frequent reference to its surroundings in Chicago and taking the donut shop of the title as a focal point for the lives of those who pass through it, but it equally speaks to a wider sense of modern malaise. Arthur, an ageing hippie nursing the failures of his idealistic youth amid the ruins of his family business, exhibits a paralysis that seems to typify contemporary apathy. There’s a stubbornness to his resistance to change, but also a weary resignation that can be read in every gesture of Mitchell Mullen’s performance. Here is a man who greets life with slumped shoulders.

Into these stale surroundings, where most of the donuts go to a pair of passing cops and an old wino who never pays a penny, enters the requisite young American dreamer. Jonathan Livingstone’s infectiously energetic Franco is a bundle of enthusiasm, ideas and audacious ambitions, both for the “great American novel” that he has penned in dog-eared exercise books and the donut shop that is falling apart around him. The set up, and subsequently much of the action, is typical clash of the generations, old-cynic-meets-young-optimist stuff, as the new employee grapples with his jaded boss in his attempts to ring in the change. Superior Donuts rehearses a familiar and distinctly American narrative, one littered with the wreckage of dreams but faintly illuminated by friendship and hope.

And yet, hard as it is to pin down, there’s something more to it than that. Letts’ play – and indeed Ned Bennett’s production – has a way of sneaking up on its audience. It is delicate, meandering and unapologetically slow, its rhythm capturing the ebb, flow and occasional eddies of everyday life in this fading staple of uptown Chicago. The pace is slowed even further by the occasionally frustrating interjection of Arthur’s introspective monologues about his past, which have more of a literary than a theatrical quality. Just as the itch comes to check your watch, however, you discover that the play has somehow grabbed you – ever so gently, mind – right by the scruff of the neck.

It is possibly down to the characters, who are deftly captured by Bennett and his cast. Mullen and Livingstone in the central pairing are particularly compelling, their relationship endearing without giving in too much to sentimentality, while Sarah Ball’s policewoman packs a world of yearning into a few snatched glances. Each of the individuals who passes through Arthur’s donut shop, however fleetingly, feels convincingly, compassionately sketched.

But perhaps it has more to do with the play’s relationship to hope, a relationship that is more complicated than it might appear at first glance. Bennett has described the piece as “hugely optimistic”, which it is in many ways, but neither the play nor this production are quite that straightforward. Just as Davis’ design has stripped whole panels from the walls, this is a world in retreat, being dismantled bit by bit in the wake of corporate expansion. It’s telling that even the great dreamer enthuses in marketing speak, discussing poetry readings in the same breath as brand identity. There is optimism to be found, not least in Letts’ determined use of the future tense, but even hope is shown to have its limits.