Tipping the Velvet, Lyric Hammersmith


Note: an incredibly late response to this production, appearing so long after the show’s run because I submitted it for the Observer Anthony Burgess Competition (which, needless to say, it wasn’t shortlisted for).

“This is not how the show ends!” So goes the protest of the music hall MC in the closing scene of Tipping the Velvet, the Lyric Hammersmith’s knowingly theatrical stage adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel. David Cardy’s mansplaining cockney narrator is finally having his control challenged by Nancy Astley, the protagonist whose sexual awakening he has nudged and winked his way through for the last three hours. She has some problems with his telling and she’s ready – finally – to answer back. So who owns this story?

Writer Rebecca Solnit, weaver of her own exquisite stories, describes a book as “a heart that only beats in the chest of another”. Without the lifeblood of readers pumping through them, novels are just so many empty ventricles. Since its publication in 1998, Tipping the Velvet has pulsed beneath the ribs of millions of readers. The heart metaphor, indeed, seems especially apt for a novel that means so much to so many. A landmark in lesbian fiction, Waters’ tale of an imagined queer subculture glittering beneath the soot and grime of Victorian London has countless ardent fans.

It’s easy to see why the story of oyster girl turned music hall star Nancy has become so fiercely beloved. Tipping the Velvet is a sumptuous, enveloping read, packed with both period detail and lush imaginative embellishment. At the novel’s opening, Nancy is leading a drab, ordinary life in Whitstable, working in her parents’ oyster parlour and spending evenings with a local beau. Then, one night at the music hall in Canterbury, she sees Kitty Butler, a male impersonator or “masher”. It’s love – and lust – at first sight. In the course of a musical number, Nancy’s life is transformed.

Nancy’s infatuation is as much with the greasepaint and glamour of the music hall as it is with the gender-bending Kitty. And it’s this aspect of the novel that playwright Laura Wade and director Lyndsey Turner have seized on in adapting it for the stage. It makes sense: relocating a narrative to the theatre, why not emphasise its already theatrical elements? So Nancy’s journey of self-discovery becomes a series of music hall acts, ranging from the colourful to the ridiculous, all firmly rooted in the Lyric’s own music hall past.

There’s always been a hint of the fantastical to Tipping the Velvet. Waters herself describes the book as her “attempt to write a Victorian-style novel telling a very lesbian story in a way that was half-authentic but half-anachronistic too”. It’s semi-historical fiction: a sexy twentieth-century riff on lavish Victorian storytelling. Dickens with dildos. Nancy herself, meanwhile, is a chameleonic figure, forever shrugging on a new performance as changing circumstances demand.

It’s wise, then, to approach her tale with some fictional flourish. Gritty realism was never going to serve this narrative well, so it’s for the best that Wade and Turner, along with designer Lizzie Clachan, have embraced a more flamboyant approach, decorating the drama with gaudy painted backdrops and circus acrobatics. But Waters’ novel is no straightforward carnivalesque romp. It’s not with sex or spectacle alone that a novel steals its way into readers’ hearts. Nancy’s story is also passionate and heartbreaking, full of all the giddy vertigo and crushing despair of first love. It is as devastating as it is joyous.

The Lyric’s production, though, has only the one tone. That’s the problem with music hall: it’s designed as a vehicle for broad comedy and thigh-slapping entertainment. But emotional nuance? Not so much. It’s a form – with its insistent gags and relentless visual humour – that demands we laugh. When the object of that laughter is a tender, tentative relationship between two women, though, it’s uncomfortable at best and wildly offensive at worst.

The form also makes it tough to care about its characters. Nancy’s yearning, hot and urgent, should be palpable. In this version, though, Sally Messham – excellent in every other respect – struggles to reach across the gulf opened up by the production’s self-conscious style of choice. Her Nancy, at once bold and tremulous, contains just the right blend of naivety and defiance, but she is forever kept at one remove from the audience. Her romances, first with Laura Rogers’ self-assured and ambitious Kitty and later with socialist force of nature Florence (a no-nonsense yet soft-centred Adelle Leonce), are oddly distant.

There is, admittedly, fun to be had in this adaptation. At times rivalling the Lyric’s much-loved pantomime, the music hall turns deploy their share of ingenuity in moving the narrative forward. Nancy’s breathless journey to London, where she follows rising star Kitty as her dresser and later her fellow performer, is all conveyed through a busy chorus of voices and sound effects; the two women’s hesitant attraction is a tiptoeing dance of suppressed flirtation. For the music itself, Victorian favourites are traded for music hall arrangements of the likes of Prince’s “Kiss” and Miley Cyrus’s infamous “Wrecking Ball”, recalling the a capella numbers that Turner memorably inserted into Wade’s earlier play Posh and wittily filtering the past through the present.

But by forcing Tipping the Velvet into this tight music hall frame, Wade and Turner have smashed it into troublingly small fragments. Each miniature scene whisks past before it can have any real impact, sticking around only as long as it takes to deliver a punchline. Unlike the intense, confessional prose of Waters’ novel, this is a frustratingly interrupted narrative. More worryingly, the curtains have a habit of swishing closed right at the moment the female characters are nearing intimacy. When we do get lesbian sex, it’s studiedly metaphorical: performers twirl and sway in coy aerial acts. The implicit message is that this desire is to be hidden, kept safely behind curtains or cloaked in metaphor.

Most problematic of all is the leering, ever-present master of ceremonies, doling out enforced jollity regardless of the emotional tenor of the drama. Brandishing his gavel – regularly employed to stop and start the action – Cardy’s narrator is two parts East End geezer, one part sleazy uncle. His telling of Nancy’s Sapphic adventures is painfully patronising, enclosing everything on stage within the voracious male gaze. There is a purpose to this, establishing a dominant framework in order to eventually dismantle it. But why can’t this female narrative, told by a female creative team, reject patriarchal frameworks entirely?

Solnit has another startling metaphor for stories. They are “compasses and architecture, we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice”. By insisting on the music hall framing, Wade and Turner have robbed Nancy of her story. She’s left without direction or shelter, stumbling blindly through act after whimsical act.

The production’s nadir coincides with Nancy’s – though not in the way its creators might have intended. Betrayed by Kitty and utterly bereft, our protagonist trudges aimlessly through the streets of London, suddenly finding herself amid the meat and guts of Smithfield Market. In the novel, this is a moment of complete, all-consuming despair. On stage, by contrast, Nancy is hauled up in a harness, dangling alongside a row of puppet pig carcasses for a musical number that nudges the ridiculous into the realm of the offensive. It’s greeted not with empathy for the character’s suffering, but with muffled snorts of embarrassment.

So, again, whose story is this? You can tell a lot about a narrative from its ending. Waters’ novel closes with “a rising ripple of applause”, as though in the quiet contentment that Nancy finds with Florence she has finally stepped onto the right stage and into the right story. At the Lyric, on the other hand, Nancy wrestles back her story with just enough time to hide it away again, as the heavy velvet curtain falls on her and Flo’s private happiness. Wade and Turner do at least problematise the fashion of their storytelling, but Nancy is granted only enough narrative agency to bring about her own disappearance. And that, ultimately, is the most worrying music hall turn of them all: the vanishing act.

Carmen Disruption, Almeida Theatre


Carmen Disruption had me at the bull.

Entering the once again reconfigured Almeida auditorium, those of us with seats in the stalls are directed through dingy backstage corridors, emerging onto a rubble-strewn stage. We’re in a crumbling opera house, winding our way past the huge stricken bull that dominates Lizzie Clachan’s design. It remains there in the centre of the stage – hulking, symbolic, breathing its last – as the fractured lives of Simon Stephens’s play circle it, step over it, snap photos of it on their ubiquitous, glimmering smartphones.

The bullfight metaphor has mileage. In Mike Bartlett’s Bull it provides the entire form for the play, as two suited-and-booted matadors savage their doomed colleague. In Islands, the violent ritual is once again symbolic of capitalism, described in extended, gory detail by a grinning Caroline Horton. Here, the dying animal oozes tar-like blood across the stage, an ever-present image of devastation.

It’s also a reference to the bullfighting backdrop of Bizet’s opera, which Carmen Disruption explodes and pieces back together. There’s a moment right at the start of Michael Longhurst’s production – discordant strains of cello, darkness pierced with splinters of light – which somehow feels like a shattering of glass. The rest of the play is spent gathering those shards, fingers bloodied, jagged reflections glinting off the multiple shiny surfaces. It’s Carmen smashed, Carmen refracted, Carmen disrupted.

At the play’s centre – if it can really be said to have a centre – is an unnamed Singer (Sharon Small). She arrives at an unnamed airport, travels through an unnamed European city, arrives at an unnamed opera house sat on the edge of an unnamed river. All she really knows is that tonight she’s singing Carmen, the role she has performed in multiple productions in multiple cities, each shading into the next. And as she traverses this strange yet familiar urban landscape, the opera becomes more real than the faces and buildings sliding past her, imposing itself on the contours of the city.

Carmen becomes Jack Farthing’s swaggering rent boy, all leather jacket and sex appeal. Don José (the quietly astonishing Noma Dumezweni) is a driver for a shady character, trying to pay off old debts and right old wrongs; Escamillo (John Light) has traded bullfighting for investment banking, with a huge bet riding on the canned beef market in China, while Micaëla (Katie West) is a lost, lonely student. Their lives overlap, intertwine, glide past each other, as they all catch glimpses of a mysterious woman with long, curly black hair.

It’s a lot to take in. Longhurst’s direction is swift and sharp; miss a sentence and you won’t get it back. But while these intersecting stories are occasionally hard to follow, you can’t miss the distinctly 21st-century loneliness that throbs through all of them. Instead of speaking to one another, the broken individuals of the play talk out to us. As in Pornography, or in the never-quite-connecting monologues of Barrel Organ’s Nothing, Carmen Disruption offers a portrait of atomisation. The only respite from solitude and heartache is found in the glowing rectangles of smartphones – “should I look it up on my phone?” Small’s floundering Singer keeps asking, eyes darting wildly – while fleeting identity is invested in the things people buy: shirts, espressos, opera tickets.

There’s a thick vein of alienation and global dislocation running through Stephens’s more recent plays. The Singer is Paul in Birdland. She’s Iggy in Three Kingdoms. The world has fallen away from her, sloughed off by countless airport departure lounges and identical hotel rooms, disappearing along with any sense of self. Directors tell her where to stand and how to move her arms, but “they never tell me who the fuck I’m meant to be”. There’s a line repeated from Birdland: “none of this is real”.

That’s one way of reading Carmen Disruption. None of this is real. But that loss of reality is less to do with the Singer’s disorientated mental state and more to do with the identical, antiseptic spaces of late capitalist cities; the global simulacra of hotel rooms and lobbies and shopping centres. It doesn’t feel real because there’s nothing distinct about any of it. We might as well be anywhere – and in Longhurst’s production we are. This is a shadowy world, one eschewing the shiny coloured surfaces of Carrie Cracknell and Ian MacNeil’s Birdland in favour of the crumbling alternate reality of the opera. Theatre has become more real than life, but even that illusion is dissolving at the edges. The only constant is the low hum of electronic alerts, a peripheral stream of information scrolling on the surtitle screen mounted in the back corner of the stage.

The result is smashed-up and bruised and bloody, but breathlessly beautiful nonetheless. There’s a murky, eroding grandeur to Clachan’s design, with occasional bursts of glitter and dust, while the disjointed monologues are laced with echoes of Bizet’s score courtesy of the two onstage cellists. As that other, shadowy Carmen, glimpsed out of the corners of characters’ eyes, Viktoria Vizin is a haunting presence, her voice layering gorgeously over everything else. In the programme, she’s listed simply as Chorus, and there’s something about her constantly observing presence that seems to anticipate the Almeida’s upcoming season of Greek tragedies.

This tragedy, though, is not one of a fallen individual, but perhaps of a falling continent. No matter what the unspecified country we are in, this is clearly a Europe in crisis, its people worshipping at the feet of money and technology while failing to engage with – or even see – one another. The sadness that seeps into every pore of this production speaks of a wider malaise, a crisis that might be averted if only we were capable of reaching out to one another. There’s an insistent humanity to this scattered collection of characters, who yearn for intimacy while shunning it in the same movement. Again and again, they can’t connect. The tragedy is collective, but the pain is isolated.

Photo: Marc Brenner.

Fireworks (Al’ab Nariya), Royal Court


Fireworks is an exercise in dislocation. From its first, flashbulb bursts of light, we are shoved slightly off-kilter. With deft simplicity, Dalia Taha’s play and Richard Twyman’s production wrench us into the fear and uncertainty of war-ravaged Palestine, a suspended present moment in which nothing can be relied upon. Violence shades into playground games and make-believe shimmers with menace.

At the same time, we are always set at one remove. We can never forget that we are, after all, just watching, choosing to spend an interval of our privileged lives in this simulated state of precariousness. We can see the clearly demarcated outlines of Lizzie Clachan’s self-contained bunker of a set, a picture frame opening out onto another world. It might as well be the firework display that its title references; an explosive diversion, one that may leave us rattled but that we can walk away from nonetheless.

This closeness and distance, this sense that we walk in the characters’ shoes but can throw them off at any point, is crucial to how Fireworks functions. We need to be there, with the action, but at the same time always uncomfortably aware of the huge chasm that safely separates us from what is being depicted. We can be transported, but only temporarily, conscious all the while that our shaken responses cannot possibly be enough.

Almost everything happens in the deserted apartment building so vividly represented by Clachan’s design: all exposed pipes and wires, corners cluttered with the detritus of living. The side-by-side existence of two families, eschewing the questionable safety of public shelters for the claustrophobic refuge of home, is here compressed into one space, their lives overlapping and interweaving in the single, dingy room.

Taha’s play is anchored by the two children at its centre, both teetering on the brink of adulthood at the same time as staring down death on a daily basis. The familiar contours of childhood are mapped onto violent, shifting terrain. Like so many other youngsters, Khalil and Lubna play at being soldiers, but their games are unnervingly close to home, throwing back sharp reflections of the conflict they are surrounded by. Khalil’s favourite is the checkpoint game, one played out with chilling brutality.

Adults play too. Khalil’s mother attempts to coax him into childish fantasies, desperate to preserve their brittle shared innocence. The two women find fleeting respite in a game of skipping. Lubna’s father tells her that the rockets lighting up the horizon are just fireworks, a fiction that he seems to take more comfort from than his solemn, perceptive daughter does. Roles are reversed.

Through these playful coping mechanisms and loving deceptions, the lines between reality and fiction become increasingly blurred. Dreams, too, acquire unusual importance, representing a world beyond everyday reality – be that in the afterlife or up among the clouds. With the wall dividing the living from the dead so perilously thin, Taha vividly captures the importance of believing in an existence beyond the final bomb blast or hail of bullets; those lost in the conflict are always martyred, never killed.

If it all sounds a little amorphous, that’s because it is. There is little shape to Taha’s play, which instead lurches from one scene to the next. Given the circumstances, however, it feels utterly apt. The impression created – by everything from the restless performances to Natasha Chivers’ flickering lights – is of delicate moments carved out of an extended, indefinite zone of uncertainty. In the knowledge that everything could come crashing down at any moment, these small exchanges, these little sparks of connection, take on painful, nerve-shattering significance.

Gastronauts, Royal Court


Originally written for Exeunt.

Anything that addresses its audience as “intrepid eaters” asks to be approached with a touch of apprehension. Gastronauts, dreamed up by April de Angelis, Nessa Muthy and Wils Wilson, is teasingly tight-lipped in its marketing material, explaining only that the show will offer a range of tastings for its “brave dinners”, along with the details necessary for them to make informed choices about what they eat. Probably not for fussy eaters or the squeamish, then.

Led into a dimly lit holding chamber in the upstairs theatre and instructed to drink from glasses of lurid Alice in Wonderland-style potion, the automatically tentative stance seems justified as we prepare to throw ourselves headlong down the rabbit hole. But for all the uneasy mystery and foreboding hints, the Royal Court’s surreal theatrical dining experience lacks the bite it so tantalisingly promises.

The basic concept of the show is contained within its title: we are travellers, embarking on a flight towards the flavours of the future. Once seated at our tables on board Lizzie Clachan’s futuristically reconfigured performance space, the cast of four gamely point out the nearest exits, while Alasdair Macrae as our pilot and maître d’ is a deliciously oddball host, at once strange, charismatic and lightly threatening. He reassures us, with a twinkle in the eye, that “nothing here will harm you – in the normal sense of the word”. His introduction, as it turns out, is a fitting primer for the show itself: quirky, kooky and charming, laced with just a dash of menace.

In keeping with the modest courses brought out one by one to delight our taste buds, the show itself is divided into small, bite-sized portions. The performers slide in and out of their roles as waiters to present short sketches on everything from derivatives trading to family dinnertimes, punctuated with Macrae’s brilliantly wacky songs. The audience watch all of this from our tables, eating and drinking throughout. There are, as one expects, a few surprises served up on our plates, but none that are particularly unpleasant or challenge our consciences too taxingly. Even one seemingly unappealing dish ends up being surprisingly innocuous, the tense frisson prompted by its arrival quickly settling into grinning relief.

And herein lies the problem. As a novelty dining experience, Gastronauts ticks most of the boxes: idiosyncratic waiting staff, eccentric host, a range of dishes that assault and confound the senses. As a meditation on our species’ messy relationship with food, however, the Royal Court’s creation is disappointingly uneven, movingly clumsily from madcap comedy to cutting critique while trying too hard to cover all bases. One impetus for the show was the recent horsemeat scandal, which brought the question of where our food comes from right to the fore of the public consciousness, offering more than enough material to chew on. Rather than focusing attention here, however, the show distractedly casts its gaze in all directions, also offering nods to eating disorders, food banks and the communal ritual of eating together.

Taken – like the menu – as a set of tasters, there is plenty to relish. Visions of food crisis offer a bitterly entertaining satirical portrait of the unappetising future we are potentially heading towards, while there is a mad, hallucinatory joy to watching the cast don cow masks and sing about how we’re all fucked. But for all its playfully provocative statements, the appetite for probing critique is left unsatisfied, even if our hunger is appeased. Instead of making us think twice about what we blithely gobble down, Gastronauts hands us a spoon and urges us to dig in.

Photo: Johan Persson

Port, National Theatre


Originally written for Exeunt.

There’s a striking moment, towards the end of this nostalgic, grit-flecked portrait of Stockport, when the concrete-clad surroundings perceptibly shift. Protagonist Rachael, back in her home town after several months away, remembers once gazing up at the clocktower as a soaring skyscraper, a local landmark of immense proportions that in adulthood has dwindled to a mere speck on a vast world. It’s a simple moment, but one that speaks to the shifting space in which we play out our lives, the contours that seem to move and blur as we grow older, the once huge monuments that now feel inconceivably small.

Geography – or more accurately psychogeography – is central to this story of growing up in Stockport, which announces its preoccupation with place in its very title. Rachael, who over the course of the play transforms from a gobbily precocious eleven-year-old to a bruised but optimistic woman of 24, fighting fiercely all the while to get out of the place that has spawned her, is trapped in a town populated with ghosts. First Rachael’s mother and then her grandfather make swift exits from her life, leaving behind traces in the frayed urban fabric. Past exists alongside present in a way that is reflected in the circumstances of this production, a revival of the play’s 2002 premiere at the Royal Exchange Theatre headed by the same creative pairing of Simon Stephens and Marianne Elliott, equally haunted by their own memories of the shared home town that shaped them.

While the naturalistically rendered environment of this nostalgia trip vividly conjures the bus stops, battered cars and hospital waiting rooms of Rachael’s world, the space of the Lyttelton stage is engaged in more than a simple one-way exchange with the piece. Between the play’s collection of snapshot scenes, Lizzie Clachan’s beautifully constructed designs conspicuously dismantle around the perceptive central character as she very deliberately looks on, participating in her own transformation at the same time as the space transforms with her. This is habitat as clothing, old haunts shrugged off like school jumpers; the landscape seismically shifting within the perspective of the protagonist whose eyes we see it through as she struggles with family crises and collapsing relationships. Light, from anaemic fluorescent tubes to a heart-catchingly hopeful sunrise, is more than just illumination – it is frustration and desire.

This eloquent dialogue with the content stretches from the way the production looks into the way it sounds. Just as the concrete pulses with the pop music of a decade that played to the soundtrack of The Stone Roses and Oasis, so the structure of the play as a whole jitters and jumps to an almost musical score. The pace, beginning at a frustratingly slow patter, speeds and slows across the eight distinct scenes, with occasional furious rises in pitch that rip through the rhythm of the drama; repeated themes – home, childhood, fear of death – loop back around in refrains, or perhaps more like tracks that keep returning on shuffle. The whole is sometimes frustrating, sometimes catchy, but with a chorus that climbs insistently into the ear.

Amid all this movement and sound, it’s hardly surprising that Rachael repeatedly refers to the world as “mental”, with the double implication of inconceivable, unjust madness and a psychological dimension to the version of Stockport that we are presented with through her experience. Rachael is a challenge and a gift of a role, a complex, wounded but resolutely optimistic figure, who in the hands of Kate O’Flynn is unceasingly engaging. So captivating is this central presence that the characters around her often feel lightly sketched, faded and drab alongside her vivid outline, barely less ghost-like than the gaping absences in Rachael’s life.

While the grim realities that Port portrays have not evaporated, the nostalgic tint of the production is a reminder that today’s world, more than a decade after Rachael’s closing look at her home town, is in many ways a very different place. There is a heavy sense of this particularly in the play’s build-up to the turn of the millennium, at which Rachael ponders whether this break represents a beginning or an end. Thirteen years later, as this production is inevitably refracted through subsequent events, it’s a question we still seem to be asking. Just as the play’s cyclical structure rewinds the track back to the beginning, we often end up in the same place we started in.