I’ve had a rich few weeks for playgoing. In addition to productions I’ve already written about elsewhere – including, of those still running, Arrows and Traps’ Frankenstein at Brockley Jack and Stephen Clark’s Le Grand Mort at Trafalgar Studios 2 – here’s a quick round-up of some other smart plays I’ve seen recently and can happily recommend.
A key theme in this batch of diary entries is the reward of visiting new, new-to-me or I-haven’t-been-in-so-long-they-feel-nearly-new venues. Of the first variety, there’s Spanish Theatre Company’s purpose-built home at the Cervantes Theatre, down the way from Off-West End musical powerhouse, the Union Theatre, in the Union Yard Arches in me. I became so besotted with this charming 75-seater that I took my photographer other-half Peter back with me the next day for a full photoshoot.
I really urge you to visit and support this initiative and, if at all possible, to get there by 14 October so that you can see the premiere of The Swallow, by leading Spanish playwright Guillem Clua, at the same time. Clua was inspired to write the play after last year’s homophobic terrorist attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida – which, until this week’s events in Las Vegas, was the most deadly mass shooting in US history (how depressingly quickly that ‘record’ is broken).
A young man shows up for a singing lesson with a music teacher who, we soon learn, is the mother of one of the terrorist’s fatalities. Early on in the 90-minute performance, the mother (played by Jeryl Burgess in the English-language performances) recounts how her son came to be known in the media as ‘the video guy’: inside the club, he used his phone to film what was happening until the final moment before his own murder when he turned the camera on himself and announced, “Mum, I’m going to die.”
This had me in floods of tears, which were regularly triggered in the evening’s other twists and turns, not least around the music student (played by bilingual David Luque in both English and Spanish-language performances) and his own relationship with tragedy. No spoilers here but I will say: if you empathised with Guardian columnist Owen Jones’ reason for storming off of Sky News last year after Orlando, you must definitely see this play. (And Owen himself certainly should.)
My new-to-me venue experience was Theatre N16, where I went to catch another world premiere two-hander that reduced me to tears, Sarah Milton’s touching, hour-long tale of female friendship in the face of a breast cancer scare, Lucy Light, starring delightful Bebe Sanders and Georgia May Hughes as best mates and Scarborough lasses Lucy and Jess. My visit happened to fall on the same day when the theatre announced that it must find a new home by December as the new owners of The Bedford pub, which it has called home just since 2015, are redeveloping. I’m kicking myself for not getting to Balham sooner – and fully support the #HelpSaveN16 efforts (read more and donate here).
In the haven’t-been-in-so-long-they-feel-nearly-new there’s the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill. I lived for several years in Ladbroke Grove (W10) so the Gate then was one of my locals and I spent a great deal more time there. There, new artistic director Ellen McDougall makes her inaugural mark with her own adaptation of the short story The Tale of the Unknown Island by Nobel prize-winning Portuguese writer Jose Saramago.
In this hypnotic journey of self-discovery, identity and finding your soul mate, the traverse stage of the Gate is transformed into the hull of a ship and we’re transported on an adventure to find The Unknown Island of the title. The crimson-clad quartet of actors (Jon Foster, Hannah Ringham, Thalissa Teixeira and Zubin Varla) share the narration and roles between them and, at one point, they also pause the action to share out wine, bread and olives with the audience. That’s my kind of audience participation!
I can spot connections between the other two plays in this round-up as well, albeit not of building-based nature: James Graham’s Ink, which relates the story of what happened when Rupert Murdoch bought The Sun newspaper, and Chris Hannan’s What Shadows, dealing with the legacy of Enoch Powell and his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.
Both plays concern watershed moments in the 1960s that helped coarsen and polarise our national discourse – and, arguably, both contributed to the divisive political and social climate we find ourselves in today. Murdoch acquired The Sun in 1964 and, as Graham’s play depicts, with the assistance of his helpmeet first editor Larry Lamb, within a year, not only turned it into the country’s best-selling tabloid but changed the very rules of journalism.
Four years later, Enoch Powell delivered his anti-immigration ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, which rocked the nation and inflamed racial tensions for generations. Neither play records how The Sun covered that speech or Powell’s subsequent surge in popularity, but I’ll hazard a guess…
Both plays also boast award-worthy male performances as the historical figures in question – Bertie Carvel and Richard Coyle as Murdoch and Lamb, respectively, in Ink, and Ian McDiarmid as Powell in What Shadows.
I can’t wait to return to the Park next Tuesday to talk to the What Shadows cast about many of the issues – including around press ethics – that both plays address. And I can’t wait to return to St Martin’s Lane to see James Graham’s other latest West End offering, Labour of Love, his new play about the history of the Labour Party, which has just opened a few doors down from Ink.
More on-the-night Twitter reactions below to these and a few other recent theatre trips (to the now-ended new musical The State of Things and modern-set Restoration comedy The Provoked Wife – look out for from AC Group and Marooned Theatre, respectively). Get in quick to see Lucy Light and The Unknown Island, both of which finish this weekend!