Hope, Royal Court Theatre

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Local politics isn’t sexy. It’s the support crew that cleans up while the rockstars break out their set list of strained smiles and hollow promises on the next main stage. I still remember, as a child, my dad frustratedly filling us in on the council meetings he attended as a school governor; the high point, if I recall rightly, was a farcical dispute about bins.

Hope, therefore, is not particularly promising as a theatrical premise. A local Labour council struggles to make budget savings? Not exactly thrilling. But actually, Jack Thorne’s play feels like the perfect drama for the present political moment. In the context of the Royal Court’s revolution themed season, it might not be the most rousing call to arms, but it depicts the possibility for change on a level that actually feels within reach. It makes politics ordinary, turning its gaze on the crippling everyday impacts of austerity in a way that most national politicians seem incapable of imagining.

Thorne’s councillors are in an impossible position. With £64 million of savings to make by 2017, it’s a miserable matter of deciding on the marginally lesser of many evils. Should cuts be made to care for the elderly or the disabled? Where can savings be made on Sure Start Centres? As for the local library and museum – forget it.

Thankfully, though, Thorne’s play is not all hand-wringing budget meetings. At its centre is deputy council leader Mark, a tortured would-be idealist who is desperate to be a good man in dire circumstances. After his similarly tormented turn in Utopia, Paul Higgins seems made to inhabit characters crumbling under pressure, hair more dishevelled by the minute and body curling up further and further into his suit jacket. Compounding the difficulty of the cuts, Mark’s ex-wife Gina (Christine Entwisle) gets wind that her day centre for the disabled is going to be slashed and mounts a big, social media-savvy campaign, while his relationships with precociously intelligent son Jake (Tommy Knight) and fellow councillor and sometime lover Julie (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) come under increasing strain.

Like Mark, everyone on the council wants to “do the right thing” – a phrase that becomes more and more fraught as the play goes on. Never was there more proof that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Stella Gonet’s Hilary is cool and pragmatic, but beneath her armour she’s utterly committed to the town she serves, as is well-meaning, unassuming Lata (Nisha Nayar). At the more idealistic end of the scale are Julie – who also has to juggle the expectations of her council veteran father George (Tom Georgeson) – and recklessly principled Sarwan (Rudi Dharmalingam).

It’s the latter who acts as the catalyst for change, urging his fellow councillors to take a stand. Sometimes, though, principles come at a high price. The fate of the council serves to animate the precarious balance between what is right and what is pragmatic, highlighting the complexity of the decisions currently faced by local government. The choice seems to be a bleak one: either make devastating cuts yourself, or have others make even worse ones for you.

Thorne also turns his attention to the wider predicament of the modern Labour party and the erosion of solidarity by Thatcherite principles of individualism. In a slightly clunky but politically perceptive speech, former council leader George mourns the death of the party he has dedicated his life to and the political fervour that seems to be in retreat: “Idealism is dead. Solidarity is dead. It’s been destroyed by pragmatism and hatred and shame.” At the same time, though, there’s something freeing about this dissolution of past touchstones; “we don’t represent anything any more,” George observes, so perhaps now is the time to make bold decisions for the better.

Theatrically, Hope is not about to set pulses racing, but its plain, sober style feels just right. John Tiffany’s unshowy production contains all the scenes within Tom Scutt’s meticulously realised town hall design, its drab detail a constant reminder of the realities these characters are working within. No giant ball ponds here; this form of political rebellion is not fun (as Russell Brand famously promises) but hard and boring, as real change often tends to be. Revolution is just as likely to be a long slog as a sudden spark of action.

There is, at times, a slight tendency to use characters as mouthpieces for debate. George in particular feels a bit like the weary, battle-hardened voice of old Labour, while Mark and Hilary’s conversation about the advantages or otherwise of principles acts as something of a gloss on the council’s choice of course and its consequences. But however contrived, Hope‘s conclusion somehow, quietly yet insistently – and against all odds – engenders the sentiment of its title. Change probably will be slow and frustrating and involve a hundred painful compromises along the way, and it will probably have a lot more to do with bins and libraries and day centres than the Russell Brands of this world would have us believe, but there’s still the possibility that, if we just try, we might begin to make the world a better place.

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Once, Phoenix Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Once is a quiet revelation of a film. Running at a brisk 86 minutes, it is a shimmering sliver of a thing, played out in muted, almost documentary style naturalism. While very little happens and even less is said, it quickly but gently grasps at the emotions, stubbornly refusing to let go.

Replicating this subdued and intimate experience on a big proscenium arch stage would be an impossible, thankless task, and it is one that adapters John Tiffany and Enda Walsh have wisely avoided. Instead, delicate watercolours are traded in for broader, brighter brushstrokes, in a production that adds plenty of colour – perhaps too much – to John Carney’s film. Staged entirely in a pub, this bittersweet tale is subjected to lively and occasionally raucous storytelling, helped along by a skilled chorus of actor-musicians.

The plot is simple enough. A Guy and Girl – we never learn their names – meet on the streets of Dublin. He’s a busker and hoover repair man on the point of giving up his music, while she’s a Czech immigrant who plays a mean tune on the piano. In exchange for fixing her broken vacuum cleaner, the Girl prevents the Guy from throwing in the towel, injecting both his music and his life with fresh energy. Inevitably, the two begin to fall for one another, in spite of the Guy’s unfinished business with an ex-girlfriend in New York and the Girl’s daughter and absent husband. In other words, it’s complicated.

While Markéta Irglová in the film was a quietly enigmatic, inscrutable figure, Walsh’s book has added new, vivid lines to the female character, transforming her into the driving motor of the story. Zrinka Cvitešić is an electric presence, charging the Girl with an overflowing, infectious energy, but this new characterisation has more than a touch of Manic Pixie Dream Girl about it. Cvitešić is the kind of kooky romantic interest that has become a Hollywood staple: mysterious, intelligent, daydreamy, and ultimately inserted to enable the male lead to discover his purpose in life. This now feels less like their story, and more like his.

This irritating niggle aside, Tiffany and Walsh’s adaptation makes clever, playful use of the conventions of the stage. The Irish pub, a setting that is also proving effective down the road in The Weir, creates an instantly convivial environment, even inviting audience members on stage with the musicians for a pre-show pint. Smartly embracing the simplicity of the storytelling form, it never pretends that it is anything other than theatre, having fun with the juggling of basic props to transport us from scene to scene. Steven Hoggett’s movement, meanwhile, explores a tender physical language that begins to communicate some of the many things left unsaid in the film, though Walsh’s script still succumbs to the urge to spell things out more explicitly than the quietly reserved original.

One of the main attractions of this particular incarnation of the show is Arthur Darvill, of Doctor Who fame, who has taken over the role of the Guy after a stint in the Broadway production. He makes an expressively awkward male lead, hands frequently stuffed in pockets, packing layers of meaning into a single shrug of the shoulders. And there’s no doubt he can sing, belting out the opening number with the kind of furious intent that instantly dispels any reservations.

Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s Oscar-winning music translates comfortably onto the stage, with some charming, unobtrusive added orchestrations by Martin Lowe. It is still the poignant and rousing “Falling Slowly” that dominates the score, with many of the other folksy, Mumford and Sons-esque tunes fading quickly from the memory. There is a fresh musical highlight, however, in the gorgeous a capella rendering of “Gold”, which weaves a haunting choral tapestry in the second half. As in the film, it is through the music that emotion is most simply and powerfully communicated, with little need for added frills.

And it is the few frills and flourishes that have been added which, for me, let the piece down a little. The need to flesh out the supporting characters is justified enough, but the humorous edges added by Walsh have a tendency to feel forced, while joviality occasionally threatens to smother emotion. It’s hard to protest against Once‘s intoxicating charm, but I could have done with a little more of the film’s sighing wistfulness.

The Pass, Royal Court

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Following Thomas Hitzlsperger’s decision to publicly come out, renewed focus has fallen on the prejudice still faced by gay footballers, bestowing something of a mixed blessing on the Royal Court’s latest offering. On the surface of it, John Donnelly’s play is “about” a premiership footballer struggling with his sexuality, which he stubbornly refuses to define or discuss. But it also touches on lots of other things – fame, money, friendship, competition –which get slightly elided in the wake of its sudden topicality.

The play, following a familiar trajectory, traces the journey of footballer Jason (the ever-excellent Russell Tovey) from early promise through to the giddy zenith of fame, plotted out via three pivotal moments in three different hotel rooms. Its first scene, while slow to develop, offers plenty to relish. Jason and best mate Ade (Gary Carr) are killing time on the night before the biggest match of their lives – two tensely coiled springs in close proximity. Their relationship and its silent undercurrent of mutual attraction are believably and wittily sketched, as laddish banter gradually gives way to compelling tenderness.

Cut to seven years later, when Jason has gained fame and fortune but lost the puppylike glimmer of mischief that so animated him on his first appearance. This is where the piece begins to slacken its initially confident grip, taking a long time to get anywhere. The scene’s encounter between Jason and table dancer Lyndsey (Lisa McGrillis), though enjoyable, feels convoluted and contrived for the sake of a plot point that could be achieved with much less meandering. The swagger returns after the interval, as Jason and Ade are reunited for a hedonistic night that crackles with danger and desire, but it’s hard to shake the suspicion that this is a script in need of some tightening.

Alongside the main thrust of the plot, there are also some more ambitious shots which – though on target – rarely hit the back of the net. Buried within the classic tale of fame’s empty promises is an implicit critique of the parameters of success in modern society, most of which rest on money. Competition, in life as in sport, also receives a bit of a battering; the sense is that this, more than anything else, is what drives a wedge between Jason and Ade, while Jason’s desire to win leaves him cripplingly lonely. But these avenues are left frustratingly underexplored.

Despite its weaknesses, however, Tovey holds the piece together in a remarkable central performance. From his first youthful grimaces of self-congratulation, furiously skipping to the imagined roars of the crowd, to the hunched husk of a form that he becomes in the final scene as he bends determinedly over his exercise bike, Tovey’s every last muscle is employed in fleshing out the character of Jason. Astonishingly, he seems to age physically as well as emotionally, subtly transfiguring himself before our eyes as he progresses from enthusiastic newcomer to hardened veteran. One imagines that he behaves on the football pitch as he does in life – dodging, sprinting, pulling off slick manoeuvres without breaking a sweat, yet all underscored with a faint attitude of desperation.

This is reflected in John Tiffany’s production, which marries polish with uncertainty, machismo with vulnerability. There are also brilliant outbursts of playfulness, Jason and Ade’s gleeful trashing of the hotel room in the final scene being one of the most entertaining, though these do not always sit comfortably with the rest of the action. More could perhaps be made of Laura Hopkins’ clean, slick design, capturing both the attraction and the cold impersonality of the hotel room setting. It’s a canny choice of location, at once encapsulating glamour, escape and loneliness. I’m particularly struck by Lyndsey’s loaded observation that “tomorrow someone will come in and clean this all away”; a simple factual statement that resonates deeply with Jason’s transitory, unfulfilled existence.

As the piece closes, however, it leaves the nagging sense of something lacking. Ultimately, the main disappointment of The Pass is that it fails to add anything significantly new to the discussion it engages with, leaving my opinions on its subject matter little altered or challenged at the end of two and a bit hours, in spite of many intriguing turns along the way. But this is, perhaps, less a failure on its own terms than on the terms of the media discourse surrounding it. Timeliness, it seems, is something of a double-edged sword.