This Will End Badly, Southwark Playhouse

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Originally written for Exeunt.

The title of Rob Hayes’ latest play is a promise. This will end badly. And not just for the trio of troubled protagonists whose stories his fragmented, three-part monologue rapidly snaps between. The whole male sex, contorted under the pressures of modern masculinity, comes out of this badly. As his portraits of wounded, angry men make clear, it is not only women who suffer under the rigid, oppressive structures of patriarchy. Hayes’ prowling alpha male character, describing tactics for picking up women, puts it most succinctly: “it exists within a framework”.

The framework of the piece itself, however, is often unclear. It begins confusingly: performer Ben Whybrow, intense from the outset, rattles through the words at astonishing speed, clearly speaking from more than one perspective – but whose? Only gradually do three distinct (and sometimes less distinct) voices emerge. One man, reeling from a recent breakup, is suffering from a case of extreme constipation; it’s almost two weeks since his girlfriend left him and he still can’t take a dump. Another is trapped by different forces, confined to his flat by chronic anxiety and OCD, frantically turning switches on and off. And a third is on the hunt for casual sex, in the process of making his latest conquest. If the three are occasionally difficult to distinguish from one another, it’s surely deliberate. These three men represent three jagged shards of modern masculinity, all harmed and harming as part of the same, long-entrenched system.

The central scatological metaphor – immediately signalled by the toilet in one corner of Jemima Robinson’s otherwise sparse set – can’t be missed. A lot of shit has built up here, and it’s not so much hitting the fan as poisonously accumulating. The message may not be subtle, but it lands with force in Clive Judd’s relentlessly fast-moving production. These men are emotionally as well as physically constipated, blocked up by a world that tells them to control their feelings, to project confidence, to dominate others. What we see is a male culture that has little room for vulnerability or tenderness; a culture in which suicide – the statistics of which one character obsessively lists – might seem like the only way out.

There are points of meeting and overlap with Chris Goode’s furious, scaldingMen in the Cities, another collection of voices from men flailing under the violence of patriarchy. Next to Goode’s piece, though, This Will End Badly feels strangely incomplete, stating rather than interrogating its points and at times doing little more than replicating the abuse it examines. It is also, unlike Men in the Cities, overwhelmingly preoccupied with the predicament of the straight white man in today’s society, a choice that sharpens its focus but at the same time narrows its scope.

The pick-up artist – his monologue tellingly titled ‘Meat Cute’ – is in many ways the most interesting and the most problematic of the three men put on stage. He speaks in the plural first person, always ‘we’ and ‘us’, as if acting as a conduit for the entire gender. He could also be a conduit for countless opinion pieces and online comments about sexual politics and consent, mansplaining the media’s impossibly contradictory standards of femininity (“How do you even know what you’re supposed to want?”) and toying dangerously with rape apologism. Hayes’ introduction of these issues is blunt and bludgeoning, especially when knocking up against the humour elsewhere. When occupying this role, meanwhile, Whybrow often delivers lines directly to (always female, as far as I could tell) members of the audience, with an aggression that wavers between the ironic and the downright violent. It raises a serious question, especially with material that may be a trigger for some: when does a representation of harm become simply harmful?

This is not a question that This Will End Badly really attempts to address, instead using these difficult moments as part of its (admittedly formidable) critical arsenal. Still, it’s a disturbing and intense window on the twenty-first century man, its abrupt conclusion leaving behind a lingering sense of unease. The urgent implication, as the whole destructive cycle prepares to start again, is that if something doesn’t change then things will continue to end badly – again and again and again.

Photo: Ben Broomfield.

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Upper Cut, Southwark Playhouse

Upper Cut - Juliet Gilkes Romero - Southwark Playhouse - 14th January 2015Director - Lotte Wakehamcast includes Emma Dennis-Edwards, Akemnji Ndifornyen, and Andrew Scarborough

Originally written for Exeunt.

How do you make politics – or any sphere, for that matter – representative of the population? Do you focus on creating opportunities for minorities? Do you hope that the success of the few will simply inspire the many? Or do you positively discriminate, bringing in quotas and limiting application processes?

There’s also another, specifically theatrical question about representation. In staging just such a debate as the one started above, within the specific context of black representation in British politics, Juliet Gilkes Romero runs into a problem. Factual accuracy and clarity of argument, so important in any other attempt to tell a neglected history, often come at the expense of dramatic dynamism. All exposition and no action rarely makes for compelling theatre.

The difficulty is, there’s a hell of a lot of background to cover before Upper Cut can even begin to land its blows. Gilkes Romero’s play is about the struggle for black MPs in the Labour movement, a battle that threatened to split the already embattled party in the 1980s, and which for that very reason was sidelined in the attempt to get elected under leader Neil Kinnock. Subsequently, the account of that struggle and the Black Sections movement that initiated it has itself been marginalised in the telling of recent British political history. Gilkes Romero’s play is an attempt to remedy that.

Upper Cut goes about addressing this history in reverse, beginning on the eve of Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012 – a handy springboard for discussing how far (or not) we’ve come in terms of representation – and gradually rewinding back to 1986. The arguments in question are dramatised through black activists Michael (Akemnji Ndifornyen) and Karen (Emma Dennis-Edwards); the former, when we first meet him, has gone on to become a career politician and deputy Labour leader thanks to his willingness to compromise, while the latter’s staunch dedication to racial equality has seen her pushed out by the party. Acting as both supporter and antagonist is Labour strategist Barry (Andrew Scarborough), who is more interested in the health of the party than he is in its racial make-up.

Gilkes Romero’s play never makes the mistake of being as simple as black and white, but neither do its varying shades of grey wholly convince. After becoming involved with Black Sections at the same time, Michael and Karen each experience a change of heart – if in different directions – but we are never given enough emotional insight to fully appreciate the weight of these tough political decisions. The suspicion is that these reversals serve the debate rather than the characters, whose motivations are murky at best. Gilkes Romero’s main concession to drama, meanwhile, is a sharp-edged love triangle between its three characters, which does little to animate either the human or the political.

Directing this dramatised editorial, Lotte Wakeham does little to raise the emotional stakes. In a nod to the play’s boxing metaphor, Rachel Stone’s minimal, cardboard box dominated set puts the actors on a raised stage for the duration, but little else about the production gets close to capturing the visceral cut and thrust of the boxing ring or the political arena. The rawness of betrayal and the sting of compromise are never fully felt; there’s plenty of fight, but Upper Cut fails to quite make contact.

Photo: Bob Workman.

The Dragon, Southwark Playhouse

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Ever wondered what happens in the fairytale after the dragon has been slain and everyone has been handed their “happily ever after”? In Yevgeny Schwartz’s 1943 satirical play The Dragon – and now in Tangram Theatre Company’s clowning adaptation – villains aren’t quite so easily deposed and the victims of oppression aren’t all that eager to be rescued. Sound at all familiar?

Knight errant Lancelot is in the business of slaying dragons. In one of those many once upon a times, he stumbles into a small town which is – surprise surprise – being terrorised by one of the fire breathing monsters he specialises in. What he finds, however, is something he’s never encountered before: a population who are willing – no, positively delighted – to be ruled over by this reptilian tyrant. After all, they reason, what other monsters might move in if this one were to leave?

But our scantily clad, testosterone dripping hero isn’t one to back down. After promptly falling for resident damsel in distress Elsa (fairytale archetypes, our storytellers warn us at the outset, are all present and correct), who is due to be sacrificed to Dragon the next day, Lancelot insists on a fight to the death. What he fails to anticipate is that, in the absence of one source of power, others will be all too quick to grab the reins.

This is cartoonish satire, and Tangram revel in it. There’s cross-dressing, dodgy costumes and caricatures galore, perhaps the most entertaining coming in the form of Hannah Boyde’s nutty, power-hungry mayor, who swiftly steps into the void left by Dragon. James Rowland’s Lancelot is half-lad, half-superhero, leaping boyishly around the stage, while Justin Butcher makes a brilliantly hammy villain. And it’s all presided over by talking cat narrator Rob Witcomb, archly acknowledging that this is all really just fooling around on a stage.

Warming everyone up for panto (all together now: “he’s behind you!”), The Dragon has more than a healthy dose of silliness, villainy and audience participation. But smuggled in under the cover of cape-wearing knights, fake moustaches and bad Russian accents is a much more serious point – or rather points. Because the targets of Tangram’s satire are multiple, extending the show’s aim well beyond Schwartz’s original attack on Stalinist totalitarianism. Now we have extra shots at political apathy and the current political landscape, culminating in an earnest but awkward plea for us all to get off our arses and actually do something.

The problem is, Tangram’s sudden call to action just doesn’t feel earned. There’s definitely something to be said for sneaking in political content, clothing provocative points in madcap comedy and forcing laughs that sour in the mouth. But in its climactic political speech, as Elsa (Jo Hartland) berates us all for failing to act, The Dragon becomes more hectoring than galvanising. This sequence breaks abruptly with everything that precedes and follows it – and not in a useful way. Its jolt is that of a clunky gear change rather than of a sudden, rousing revelation.

That old adage of “show, don’t tell” shouldn’t always necessarily be obeyed. I’ve encountered plenty of theatre that makes an art out of telling. But here, the telling is just too explicit, dissolving a previously fun yet thoughtful piece of theatre into pure (if passionate) lecture. It would be enough to present us with the narrative’s cheerfully submissive townspeople, who already accusingly reflect back our own complacencies. My sympathies are absolutely with the message, but I don’t go to the theatre to be told outright what to think. There’s a line, if a fine and blurry one, between that which energises and that which preaches. Make me want to act, don’t tell me to act.

Photo: Alex Brenner.

Hitting the Right Note

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Originally written for The Stage.

For Danielle Tarento and Thom Southerland, it’s all about location. The producing and directing duo, who have found a rich seam in small-scale, stripped back musicals at fringe venue Southwark Playhouse, are always conscious of making the right match between show and theatre. “We’re very much about being respectful of the space you’re putting something in,” Tarento explains, “not just whacking it in because we happen to have a slot.”

We are chatting in the freshly refurbished bar of the Southwark Playhouse’s new home in Elephant and Castle, recently named The Stage’s Fringe Theatre of the Year, where Tarento and Southerland have found the perfect partner for their shows. The vast warehouse space has been utterly transformed since the theatre moved in, offering a main stage space that the pair find particularly inspiring. “To be in a 220-seat theatre that feels like a 600-seat theatre, yet to be no more than five rows away from the action, is extraordinary,” says Tarento.

The theatre’s strong track record with musicals, however, stretches back to its previous venue under the arches of London Bridge Station. Southwark Playhouse is now readily associated with musical theatre, but it was only three years ago that Tarento, armed with experience from fringe musical powerhouse the Menier Chocolate Factory, convinced artistic director Chris Smyrnios to put on the theatre’s first musical: a new version of Stephen Sondheim’s Company. Although he needed some persuading, in the end Smyrnios “couldn’t resist programming it”.

It was during the run of Company that the seeds of Tarento and Southerland’s working relationship were sown. Having previously encountered one another while Tarento was working at the King’s Head, Southerland “accosted” the producer in the bar after the show to discuss a new potential project. “I’ve sort of not been able to get rid of him since,” Tarento jokes, quickly adding, “thank God.”

Their first production together at the Southwark Playhouse in 2011 was Jason Robert Brown’s Parade, an unlikely musical rendering of a famous American legal case from 1913, which Southerland staged in traverse in the theatre’s Vault space. Unlike the sumptuous production that had been seen at the Donmar Warehouse just four years previously, this new version emphasised the grit of the story by working with its surroundings. “There’s nothing comfortable about sitting in the Vaults at Southwark Playhouse and watching an injustice happen right in front of your eyes,” says Southerland.

A damp, dingy railway arch is hardly the most auspicious setting for musical theatre, but the Southwark Playhouse’s atmospheric venue offered rich inspiration for Tarento and Southerland. Reflecting on Company, Smyrnios suggests that “the juxtaposition between the show and the space seemed to enhance the work rather than detract from it”. For subsequent shows such as Parade and Mack and Mabel, meanwhile, the Vault theatre was central to the aesthetic.

In the case of Mack and Mabel, which had been a famous flop in the past, Southerland is convinced that their version worked precisely because of its gloomy environs. “It doesn’t belong in a proscenium,” he insists. “This show is about being dirty and people not having any money, and scrounging to make a buck but wanting to create art, and it’s set mostly in a disused film lot. It needs to be vast, but it needs to feel uncomfortable and claustrophobic as well.”

Despite the gains, working on this scale also brings its challenges. “Every challenge is a benefit,” Southerland insists, but Tarento quickly breaks in with “that’s the director speaking – the producer will say something quite different”. She concedes, however, that the difficulties of producing a musical on the fringe do open up new creative possibilities: “the minute I say no, they have to find another way, and sometimes those other ways end up being far more interesting”.

“If there were too many challenges, we’d just go ‘let’s find somewhere else’,” Tarento adds. She suggests that the secret of their continuing partnership is that Southerland “creates the sort of theatre that I want to create”, which is heavy on story and light on “stuff”. “The stuff is lovely, some shows need a bit of stuff, but I think if you’re talking about things that are true, or things that require the audience to actively engage and have an opinion, just tell the story, don’t cover it up with stuff.”

So why is it important that this kind of work exists on the fringe? Firstly, as both Tarento and Smyrnios point out, it makes musical theatre affordable to those who might not be able to access it in the West End. But beyond that, Tarento says, they “give people the opportunity to see a different kind of theatre”. Smyrnios adds that venues like the Southwark Playhouse “provide the opportunity to revisit noted musicals, try out new ones and explore established ones in new ways”.

It is the implicitly trusting partnership between venue and producer that has enabled these kinds of risks to be taken. “They give us ownership of the building,” says Tarento. “They take ownership of the show. It feels like it’s an in-house producing house and we’re just working here and we’re doing the next show. That is unbelievably rare.”

The new building in Elephant and Castle, which the Southwark Playhouse moved into in May of last year, demands a new approach. Southerland raves about the new theatre’s “height and scale”, explaining that “you can do epic without losing any intimacy”. It was this mixture of the epic and the intimate that allowed the director to stage his version of Maury Yeston and Peter Stone’s Titanic, which he is preparing to transfer to New York when we speak.

Thanks to Tarento and Southerland’s success, the doors at the Southwark Playhouse are now open to musicals from other producers, such as Floyd Collins, The A-Z of Mrs P and upcoming show In the Heights. “There is now an audience who will come and see the next thing regardless of what it is or who has produced it, because they trust,” says Tarento. “That’s every venue’s dream, to have an audience who will come and see everything.”

For Smyrnios, although plays are still the Southwark Playhouse’s priority, musicals are becoming an increasingly important ingredient of the theatre’s programme, with space regularly set aside for them. As for the relationship with Tarento and Southerland, it has “gone from strength to strength”. “From the start there seemed to be a naturally productive working balance between producer and venue,” he says. “It’s been a relationship that has been fruitful for both of us and one we hope to continue.”

Tarento and Southerland have similar hopes, already mapping out future plans for the venue. Despite pursuing projects elsewhere, Tarento is confident that the relationship with Southwark Playhouse is one that the pair will keep returning to. “I think wherever we go and whatever we do, we’ll always end up coming back here.”

Photo: Annabel Vere.

Three Sisters, Southwark Playhouse

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Originally written for Exeunt.

A clock is ticking in the Prozorov household. Minutes pass loudly, inexorably, mercilessly. When the hour noisily announces itself, each chime a dagger for the siblings who count the seconds of their self-imposed exile, the purgatorial tenor of the Southwark Playhouse’s new imagining of Three Sisters is made immediately clear. The century might have changed, but precious little else has. As Tusenbach would put it, “life is always life”.

Anya Reiss’ updating, which transplants the Prozorovs to the modern day, is more striking for its fidelity than its revision. All the outlines of Chekhov’s play are there; only some of the shades have been altered. The provincial Russian town of the original is swapped for a British Embassy in an unspecified Middle Eastern country, with queasy echoes of colonialism, while the semi-mythical escape of Moscow has been replaced by London. The modernising touches, meanwhile, are all feather light: a mobile phone here, a newspaper there. Reiss’ take on the play is even – more so than most versions – loyal to Chekhov’s often neglected comedy, tugging on some of the more absurd strands of its protagonists’ situation.

So how do you answer for the sisters’ immobility when they could just hop on a plane home tomorrow? Wisely, the barriers that Reiss and director Russell Bolam erect are all psychological rather than geographical, the greater ease of movement heightening the characters’ own deadening apathy. Irina’s cry of “I want to go home” at the end of the first half, delivered with wine glass in hand by Holliday Grainger, is more whining than despairing. Here, more than ever, the sisters’ own self-sabotage and navel gazing jump to the fore.

It helps that Three Sisters is one of those plays that offers new aspects to the view on each return visit. Even without a bold, bracing treatment, the play is constantly teasing out new emphases, different scenes or lines snagging on the mind each time. Placed in a modern context, it is the speeches about work that catch the ear, acquiring new resonances in a political landscape where the idea of hard work has become a tool for dividing those whom the system disadvantages. Class relations (and, as an added dimension, racial tensions) are also sharpened, with the largely invisible locals hovering like a ghostly presence at the edges of the production. As Olga, Masha and Irina blindly wallow in their own misery, you almost wish for a yell of “check your privilege”.

In Bolam’s straightforward but polished production, slight traces of the past cling to performances that are otherwise grounded in the here and now. Paul McGann’s quietly commanding Vershinin, voice dripping with authority, could almost be dropped into any era, his futile philosophising barely interrupted, as could Michael Garner’s mildly grumbling Chebutykin. The sisters, meanwhile, are largely as we expect them, even if they have acquired new gadgets. Emily Taaffe is the most impressive of the trio, as a painfully bored Masha who finds a violent release in her passion for Vershinin, while Olivia Hallinan as Olga and Holliday Grainger as Irina are suitably maternal and dreamy respectively.

But the shift of time and location, while working surprisingly well, seems at a loss for what it has to contribute to Chekhov’s existential questioning. The parallels are neat, but only occasionally illuminating. If the play’s timelessness is its point, then the historical context is almost irrelevant. For this reason, Three Sisters often works best when located in a sort of nowhereland, a setting with suggestions of both then and now. While Benedict Andrews’ striking production at the Young Vic effortlessly unmoored itself from time, the subtle yet insistent modernity of this version does not quite convince, in spite of all the elegance of its execution. The play might time travel with impressive ease in Reiss and Bolam’s hands, but the question that lingers underneath it all is why?