Knowing that my theatregoing – and overall mental and emotional bandwidth – would be going into tailspin this week, I packed in as many shows as I could over the past fortnight.
Amongst them, the five notable plays below. As usual, I’ve listed them in closing date order. Don’t delay with the first two in particular, both of which finish their limited seasons this weekend.
If you follow me on Twitter (@TerriPaddock) – please do! – you’ll be able to see my #theatreselfies and initial reactions from my every trip to the theatre. Scroll down to see the tweets for these shows collated below.
Eye of a Needle
Eye of a Needle is set in a UK Immigration Office tasked with interviewing gays and lesbians seeking asylum for persecution in their home countries. It’s a thoughtful, well constructed and balanced piece of hard-hitting drama, shining a light on a system that, by anyone’s standards, is not “fit for purpose”. The title refers to the near-impossibility of these desperate people being granted asylum.
Remarkably, Eye of a Needle is the first play by 27-year-old actor-turned-author Chris Macdonald. Even more remarkably, given the confidence and gusto with which the subject matter is tackled, Chris is not gay and has never been an immigration worker. His initial interest was in writing about the quarter-life crisis that many of his friends were going through, including one who did indeed work in an immigration office.
Not only has Chris written the play, but he set up Gutshot Productions with Ine Van Riet to mount it in this premiere production, directed by Holly Race-Roughan. Definitely, watch out for new plays and productions from Chris and Gutshot.
Amongst Eye of a Needle’s excellent cast, Ony Uhiara and Ekow Quartley stand out with their portrayals of asylum seekers from Uganda and Jamaica.
“I am black, I am gay. Do you think these people want me in their country?”
“Do I have to show you the quotas for this quarter again? I think we could both do without that dose of dejection.”
Richard Bean really is everywhere at the moment. From the ongoing tour of his uber-hit One Man Two Guvnors to his new play Great Britain transferring from the National to the West End, his new new play Pitcairn just opened at the Globe, and big-budget screen-to-stage musical Made in Dagenham (for which he’s written the book) now in rehearsals, it’s hard to keep track.
Toast takes us back to the beginning. His first major play, it premiered at the Royal Court in 1999 and shows, even then, Bean had enormous talent and brio. The all-male story takes place in the 1970s in a northern bread plant, where this night-shift could be the one that decides the fates of the characters and the plant.
“I’m never in a good mood working on a Sunday, cos I spend all week looking forward to the weekend and then when the weekend comes I realise I work weekends.”
Matthew Kelly is quietly dignified as old-timer Nellie, whose somber contemplation of a slice of cheese is one of my favourite moments in the play. And he’s accompanied by a superb ensemble of male actors who should all be better known, not least the wonderful Steve Nicolson as ex-con foreman Blakey and Simon Greenall as oh-yes quipster Cecil.
Toast is directed by Eleanor Rhode for Snapdragon Productions, which she leads with executive producer Sarah Loader. Another young company to watch.
I first saw Sam Shepard’s True West in a famous 1994 production directed by Matthew Warchus and starring Mark Rylance and Michael Rudko, who alternated in the roles of battling brothers Lee and Austin. Twenty years on, I have to confess I can’t remember much about it, but I can’t imagine that it was much better than Phillip Breen’s excellent current revival, which has transferred to the Tricycle following a run at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre.
Alex Ferns and Eugene O’Hare may not swap roles nightly, but they commit fully to their roles. Ferns is a frightening menace throughout as bad boy Lee while O’Hare as over-achiever Austin slowly disintegrates until, as the story of a manic script-writing session gone wrong builds to its climax, he unleashes his demons.
“I love the smell of toast. It’s like salvation sort of. It makes me feel like anything is possible. Like a beginning.”
“What are you going to do with all those toasters.”
Between coyotes, strident crickets, typewriter and Ferns’ violent use of a golf club, True West creates quite a racket – bring earplugs if you must. I’d also advise you to eat beforehand as, in this play unlike Bean’s play titled Toast, you do actually get the mouth-watering smell of toast, care of 18 very active onstage toasters.
Speaking of young up-and-coming female producers, Vicky Graham is the woman behind the world premiere of Ben Ockrent’s comedy Breeders, which launches the Stage One “One Stage” season of shows from new producers at the St James Theatre.
Vicky has assembled a Rolls Royce company, with Tamara Harvey directing Tamzin Outhwaite and Angela Griffin as lesbian couple, Andrea and Caroline, who enlist the help of Andrea’s brother Nick, or rather Nick’s sperm, to try and conceive. Jemima Rooper is Nick’s bystander girlfriend Sharon who moves into Andrea and Caroline’s house in order to be close to the syringe in this modern familial mélange.
“Just because I’m gay, it doesn’t mean I can’t love in all the same ways as everybody else. Because I do.”
While Ockrent’s script veers towards the slapstick – with Swedish Abba interludes and a flour fight – it depicts a modern dilemma, that, judging by my conversations with Coronation Street actor Charlie Condou (who’s raising two children with his boyfriend and their biological mothers) and others on opening night, is more common than you might think.
Breeders continues at the St James Theatre until 4 October 2014. It’s followed in the One Stage season by offerings by two more young female producers: Uncle Vanya, produced by Emily Dobbs for Jagged Fence, and Accolade, produced by Nicola Seed.
King Charles III
Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. That’s the main word that comes to mind when I think of how to describe Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, which has transferred triumphantly to the West End from the Almeida Theatre, where it was directed by Rupert Goold in his inaugural season as artistic director.
In this future history play, Tim Pigott-Smith plays Prince Charles who ascends the throne briefly after the death of Queen Elizabeth. His conscience gets the better of him though and he is outmaneuvered by smooth politicians (Adam James as the Prime Minister and Nicholas Rowe as leader of the opposition), a conniving Kate (Lydia Wilson) and an easily manipulated William (Oliver Chris).
“Without my voice and spirit, I am dust.
This is not what I want but what I must.”
The brilliant – sorry, that word again – Bartlett has written the whole thing in iambic pentameter, with verse that challenges Shakespeare’s own for its wit and inventiveness and brings it bang up to date with modern references to the likes of Primark, Doritos, current, text sex and police who “leak like carrier bags”.
The fact that, unlike in Shakespeare’s own history plays, these are royal characters, including the ghost of Diana, that we already feel like we know well, makes it feel all the more intimate and personal while at the same time epic.