In amongst the stellar West End revivals of late – not least “mother of all musicals” Gypsy with Imelda Staunton and David Mamet’s American Buffalo starring Damian Lewis and John Goodman – are some spectacular brand-new plays on and off West End.
Here are three in particular that I highly, highly recommend. The first two (A Level Playing Field and Clarion) I’m particularly thrilled to recommend as they’re written by two lovely men I know and admire personally. All three have limited seasons that conclude in May so get your skates on. As usual, I’ve listed productions in closing date order.
If you follow me on Twitter (@TerriPaddock) – please do! – you’ll be able to see my #theatreselfie gallery and initial reactions from my every trip to the theatre. Scroll down to see the tweets for these shows collated below.
A Level Playing Field
Jonathan Lewis (a.k.a Jonathan Guy Lewis) had an early breakthrough as a playwright with Our Boys, based on his own experiences in a military hospital. Premiered in 1993, it had a star-studded West End revival (with a cast including Arthur Darvill and Laurence Fox) three years ago.
Jonny is now set to dominate a dramatic sub-genre populated mainly by students rather than soldiers: The School Play.
A Level Playing Field is the first in an “education, education, education” trilogy and, rather than post-traumatic stress disorder, it deals with a different type of stress that most of us have experienced: exam stress. All three plays are set around A-Levels in a top fee-paying London school.
This one focuses on the students themselves, 11 of them confined for an hour’s “isolation” before their next exam. We get hints of overlapping action in the next two plays, which shift focus to their high-achieving parents and league table-obsessed teachers, with a taboo love sub-plot and sirens outside the window.
“You’ve destroyed any interest I had in learning.”
Despite the anticipation, A Level Playing Field succeeds with top marks as a standalone play, thanks to its comic consideration of the serious Gradgrindian consequences of prioritising testing over creativity, Lewis’ fine ear for dialogue and some astonishing ensemble acting.
Apart from Joe Layton, who plays the largely absent teacher, none of the cast are professionals. Director Chris Popert has assembled 11 teenagers who’ve just left school themselves. This is some of the finest acting I’ve seen in ages so allow me to name them all: Jack Bass, India Opzoomer, Lydia Williams, Eve Delaney, Isabella Caley, AJ Lewis, Finlay Stroud, Jojo Macari, Joe Taylor, Christian Hines and Else Perryman Owens.
“In a few months, the world’s not going to be asking for your A-level results. It just wants to meet you, all of you.”
Their performances call to mind those from other recent School Plays like The History Boys (James Corden, Dominic Cooper, Samuel Barnett, Jamie Parker, Russell Tovey) and Punk Rock (Jessica Raine, Tom Sturridge). Whatever happened to those ‘unknowns’? I predict the same type of trajectory for some of A Level Playing Field’s cast, should they choose to go professional. See them now if only to be able to say you “saw them when” they were first starting out.
(By the way, the reason I’ve got to know Jonny Guy Lewis better on a personal level is because he’s currently tearing up the stage himself. Wearing his actor hat, he stars as Eddie Carbone in Touring Consortium’s revival of A View From the Bridge, which is now in its last week, at Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre. Check out Thom Dibdin’s review and high praise for Jonny’s performance: “Jonathan Guy Lewis not so much steals the show, he IS the show. His performance as Eddie Carbone is strong, commanding and magnificently compelling.”)
A note in the A Level Playing Field programme spurred me to re-watch this inspiring Ken Robinson TED talk on education, and why we’re all poorer by a system that places scores above creativity.
Clarion is the play that Richard Bean’s Great Britain should have been: a black comedy that’s much smarter, much funnier, and with much more serious things to say about the dark heart of tabloid journalism and its impact on society at large.
Mark Jagasia is the former showbusiness editor of the Daily Express and he knows of whence he writes. The morning newsroom conference at the Daily Clarion, the “worst newspaper in Britain”, is a place of maniacal mayhem, where the news reporters are bullied, berated and “forced to write bollocks at gunpoint” by a Mosleyite editor demanding daily immigration scandals (“Fury Over Sharia Law for Toddlers!”). And the showbiz correspondent, for the record, is relegated to the “Cunts’ Corner”.
“Words have consequences. And a newspaper can be a dangerous place. Even still in the dying days.”
Full disclosure: Mark is a close friend. When he was at the Express, I used to benefit from his tabloid expense account; as a “key contact” in theatre, he treated me to post-show dinners at various fine restaurants. Since seizing voluntary redundancy with both hands several years, Mark has worked on various scripts for stage and screen. Clarion marks his – in my mind, long overdue – playwriting debut.
When I first read the script last year, I knew Clarion was sensational, but not even I was prepared for the near-incessant howls of laughter on the press night I attended, which were by no means restricted to the knowing journalists in the audience. This premiere production – directed by artistic director Mehmet Ergen, who has helped nurture the play’s development since it was previewed in the Arcola’s new writers’ festival last year – is blessed with performances from two actors at the very top of their game.
Greg Hicks, as I’ve never seen him before, rips into the role of editor Morris Honeyspoon with undisguised glee; his insane but ferociously well-argued, right-wing rants are absolute comic gold.
“The Methodists. Mary Whitehouse. Malcolm Muggeridge. The last of the moral vertebrates. They warned us. Presley opened the floodgates in Memphis… We let the music in and got what? Sixty years of culturally sanctioned underaged rutting and the fucking polytechnics. None of which happened when everyone went to lunchtime recitals of Vaughan fucking Williams.”
Clare Higgins adds slightly compromised and slowly sozzled integrity to proceedings as a foreign correspondent and former Fleet Street legend.
But don’t just take my word for how fantastic Clarion is. Check out what others are saying – and read about Mark Rylance’s part in bringing the play to the stage – in my separate Clarion #PressPass piece.
I have no bias whatsoever when it comes to recommending Oppenheimer. I’ve never met its author Tom Morton-Smith – though I’d love to have him round for dinner someday (and we do follow each other on Twitter so… here’s hoping).
Oppenheimer is a big-cast, epic play about J Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, “the destroyer of worlds”. He and his team are engaged in what, initially in any case, they believe is a noble race against Nazi nuclear physicists. And we all know how that turned out – Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Cold War.
“One death is a tragedy … one million instead
Is a statistic, my boy … and your audience reacts
Not with horror or revulsion but acceptance of fact.”
Beyond a fascinating physics and history lesson, Oppenheimer is an engrossing study in morality, loyalty and loss of conviction. As Oppy, John Heffernan is like a nerdy rock-star, erudite and arrogant, embarked upon a remarkable journey in which he abandons friends, family and his Communist beliefs as his ambition and ego grow. Fabulous.
“Let me tell you how to become a man of power, of influence. You trade in your ideals for self-interest.”
Oppenheimer, directed with flashes of kinetic genius by Angus Jackson (think Curious Incident, Enron, A Disappearing Number), is also a testament to the importance of subsidised theatre and the brilliance of our flagship institutions in this country. No commercial producer in their right mind would have taken a risk on such a relatively untried young playwright or mounted such a large-scale production. Bravo, the RSC.
My theatre (diversity) diary
My curtain call counts for these and other recent productions I’ve seen are as follows. (Read about why I’m tracking these stats here.)
A Level Playing Field
Diversity count = 7 male, 5 female (1 BME)
Diversity count = 5 male, 2 female (1 BME)
Also 6 non-speaking roles = 3 male, 3 female
Diversity count = 13 male, 5 female (0 BME)
In the Dead of Night
Claudio Macor play running at the Landor Theatre until 16 May
Diversity count = 8 male, 3 female (0 BME)
The Absence of War
Headlong Theatre revival of David Hare play, touring until 9 May
Diversity count = 9 male, 4 female (3 BME)
Diversity count = 12 male, 13 female plus 2 girls (0 BME)
Musical revival running at the Lyric Hammersmith until 1 August
Diversity count = 20 male, 15 female (17 BME)
(This includes three rotating children’s casts which are 4 male, 3 female)