New Works 2014 (1914 Machine / Blind Eye)

Looking for something to do on our last night in Glasgow, my mam and I decided to check out some new writing at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. The plays have been developed in conjunction with the Playwrights’ Studio, Scotland, and students from the MA in Classical and Contemporary Text. Two out of three plays are performed on each night of the run: we saw 1914 Machine by Clare Duffy and Blind Eye by Isabel Wright (the third, called White Ted and the Right to Die, is by Jo Clifford).

1914 Machine is set in July 1914, as pioneering Frenchwoman La Marquise flies over the English channel to deliver war plans to the government, radium to the king and cocaine to the bohemians. As the evening progresses in the Bohemians’ home, we learn about the different characters and get a snapshot of life for different people during that time: the writer, the pacifist, the Suffragette, and others. A twist in the tale leads to a very different kind of ending, a meditation on progress and scientific developments. All the actors were excellent, but I was particularly impressed with Isobel McArthur as the Marquise. The show employed some unusual scene changes and movement, but it really worked.

The second play, Blind Eye, was equally good but completely different. Set in the world of politics, it explores a PR firm who claim to be able to save any politician’s reputation. However, problems arise when an idealistic young intern joins the firm. Again, the acting was excellent, particularly from Jason Vaughn and Ayana Major Bey as John and Kim, the owners of the PR firm. The play explored serious issues while also managing to be very funny, particularly during the almost farcical end.

These two short plays are incredibly promising and, while they are by no means perfect, are hugely entertaining and excellently performed. The three plays are transferring to the Cockpit Theatre next week for a very short run – do catch them if you can.

Twelfth Night

On Saturday I went to see Twelfth Night at Etcetera Theatre in Camden, performed as part of the Camden Fringe by the all-female Get Over It Productions. The company are no stranger to the Fringe, having performed (mainly) Shakespeare here for several years, but this was my first experience of their work.

Directed by Paula Benson, the show is set in 1969, and a hippyish, psychedelic vibe pervades the space – before the play proper begins, characters sway around the stage in thrall to Sixties music. This sounds odd, but in fact it really suits the play: when Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Paula Benson) utters the opening line “If music be the food of love, play on”, you almost expect the next line to be “Yeah, man”. In fact, the whole plot, with its mistaken identities, romantic entanglements and conspiracies, has a mischievous vibe, perfectly suited to this interpretation.

Velenzia Spearpoint and Rhiannon Kelly looked spookily alike as siblings Viola and Sebastian, and throughout the show I was rooting for them to reunite. Abigail Glasser’s sophisticated Olivia was a deep contrast to Faye Barber’s Sir Toby Belch and Paula Benson’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek, whose antics and tricks provided much hilarity. One of my favourite characters was Veronica Quilligan’s Malvolio, a ridiculous figure when tricked into wearing the famous yellow stockings, yet chilling when declaring “I shall have my revenge”. Overall, the performers were excellent, and it was refreshing to see an all-female cast (with additional beards when needed) perform the work of a dramatist whose characters are more often portrayed by men.

I had wondered how the company would manage to compress this complex plot into an hour-long show, however they managed it admirably, with all the major plot points and events kept in. A complete newcomer to the play might have found it hard to follow, but I was impressed with the clarity of the storytelling. The company’s roots are in physical and absurdist theatre, and this was apparent during the show: the wacky performances might have been over the top in a different context, but here they worked really well.

Get Over It Productions’ Twelfth Night is Shakespeare treated with a refreshing irreverence, and I hope I can catch the company’s next show at the 2015 Camden Fringe.


*Note – I saw this production on a complimentary ticket (thank you!) but as always, my opinions are 100% honest and completely my own.

A Streetcar Named Desire

It’s happened. After a decade and several productions, I think I finally “get” Tennessee Williams. At least, A Streetcar Named Desire, currently running at the Young Vic, is such a fantastic production that I can finally appreciate Williams’ status as one of the great American playwrights.

Directed by Benedict Andrews, who also directed the Young Vic’s fabulous Three Sisters in 2012, the play tells the story of Blanche DuBois, who goes to New Orleans to visit her sister Stella and her husband, Stanley Kowalski, a decade after the sisters last saw each other. Over the course of the play, we learn more about the characters and witness Blanche’s breakdown.

Magda Willi’s design is of a rectangular revolving stage, representing Stella and Stanley’s small apartment, with the audience seated in the round. At first I was apprehensive about the design, fearing I wouldn’t get to see much of the play, the more so as my seat was at the back of the set as it was laid out when I entered. However, the revolve does ensure that every audience member gets a decent view; it also adds to the sense of voyeurism, as the audience as well as the characters look in on secret conversations and bear witness to things that they shouldn’t.

Gillian Anderson is electric as Blanche, perfectly capturing her initial glamour and unsteadiness, her love for her sister and her personal struggles, as well as her tragic disintegration as the play goes on. Vanessa Kirby is equally good as her sister Stella, caught between her love for Blanche and her feelings for her husband, the loving but violent Stanley (a superb Ben Foster). I also liked Corey Johnson as Mitch, Stanley’s friend, who for a time seems to be offering a chance of happiness to Blanche.

The production is another long one – three and a half hours. While the time didn’t fly by, as it did in The Crucible, I didn’t resent the length of the piece, which is a powerful, unsettling must-see.

Play a Day

Back in June I joined in with the Borough Press‘s Twitter chat #bookadayuk, in which participants talked about the books they loved. I have been inspired to create a similar chat about the theatre – please join in with #playaday!*

There’s no need to stick rigidly to the prompts, and you don’t have to join in every day if you don’t want to – I just want to get lots of people talking about theatre, whether you’re a superfan or a relative newbie.

  1. Your earliest theatrical experience
  2. Best bargain
  3. Do you prefer plays or musicals?
  4. Favourite play by a living playwright
  5. If you were an actor, which character in which play would you love to be?
  6. The play you would take a theatre newbie to see
  7. Immersive theatre – love it or hate it?
  8. The funniest play you’ve seen
  9. A play you were made to read or study at school
  10. A production starring your favourite actor/actress
  11. A play you gave a standing ovation to
  12. Favourite Shakespeare
  13. A play you left at the interval
  14. A play you thought would be great, that turned out to be terrible
  15. A play you had low expectations for, that turned out to be fantastic
  16. A play you would love to see, but you haven’t had a chance yet
  17. A play you could watch again and again
  18. A memorable production (as opposed to a play itself)
  19. A play that had a particularly profound effect on the way you see the world
  20. Theatrical guilty pleasure
  21. A play in an unusual setting (not necessarily immersive)
  22. Favourite children’s play
  23. A play everyone should see
  24. The play you have seen the most
  25. A play that you saw with someone you love
  26. A particularly memorable theatrical moment in a play you saw
  27. A play in which something went wrong on stage
  28. A play you thought deserved more success than it received
  29. A play you think is overrated
  30. A play adapted from a film or TV show
  31. Favourite play of all time


*Though I almost always use the word “play” here feel free to assume that it encompasses musicals, opera, ballet and dance too – anything performance-related, basically. It’s just that “playaday” sounds better, and #playormusicalorballetoroperaaday was a bit too long a hashtag.

The Crucible

When I found out that one of my favourite actors, Richard Armitage, was going to appear on the stage, I was very excited, even more so because the play was The Crucible, one of the most famous and acclaimed twentieth-century plays in existence. 2014 is proving something of a vintage year for Arthur Miller plays, with All My Sons and A View From the Bridge receiving equally excellent but completely different productions at the Open Air Theatre and the Young Vic respectively. Even with these to live up to, however, The Crucible manages to blow them out of the water.

The in-the-round staging at the Old Vic works particularly well for this claustrophobic and threatening play about the Salem witch hunts of the 17th century (but also inspired by the McCarthyism of mid-twentieth century America). The simplicity of the set transports you to the past without becoming bogged down in period detail, the dark wood and distressed detailing of the backgrounds evoking the shadows and dark places of a vengeful and suspicious society. Yaël Farber’s direction brings out the themes of the play with a clarity and simplicity which allows the text to speak for itself.

There is not a weak link in the large cast; every single performance is outstanding. Richard Armitage prowls the stage, his raspy voice raging against injustice, protesting his innocence despite his deeply felt guilt about his brief affair with Abigail, and movingly conveying his feelings for his wife (an excellent Anna Madeley). Abigail herself is powerfully played by Samantha Colley, her vindictiveness and spite coming across along with her charisma and clear power over the other girls, whose displays of demonic possession are genuinely frightening. Natalie Gavin also deserves a particular mention as the frightened Mary Warren, who tries to tell the truth despite Abby’s anger, and Adrian Schiller is deeply moving as the Reverend John Hale, initially a party to the witch hunts but increasingly horrified at what he comes to recognise as a miscarriage of justice.

Much has been made of the production’s long running time. It’s true that the play is three and a half hours long – the first half alone is almost two hours. However, every single minute counts, and I was never once bored or restless. The scene changes do take some time, but I found that each scene was so packed with intensity that I needed these long scene changes to recover and mentally prepare for the next one.

This play is in the running to be one of my favourites of the year, and we’re only half way through. Absolutely incredible.

The Last Days of Limehouse

The Last Days of Limehouse is an intriguing show presented by the Yellow Earth company and performed in the atmospheric Limehouse Town Hall. Nowadays when we think of Chinatown we think of Soho, but this was not always the case. Up until the 1950s Limehouse was home to the largest Chinese community in London, and this production documents the end of this era.

It is billed as a promenade production, but this is not strictly accurate, as although the actors do move about the large performance space, there is no real need for the audience to do so. The production was engrossing and fascinating: I enjoyed learning about the history of this place. I particularly liked that the production avoided sentimentality: the character of Eileen Cunningham (Amanda Maud), who grew up in Limehouse but at the time the play is set lives in America, is anxious to preserve the area but the residents, including Iris and Johnny Wong (Gabby Wong and Matthew Leonhart), are tired of the poor conditions and are looking forward to making a fresh start.

The production looks at the history of Limehouse in particular, but in a more general sense it is about how to balance the desire for preservation with the need to make places suitable for current inhabitants. It’s a tricky question and one that writer Jeremy Tiang manages to explore thoroughly.

The Events

The Events is a powerful play about a mass shooting, and one woman’s attempt to come to terms with it. Performed at the Young Vic after a national tour, the play brings a choir on stage for each performance – there is a different one every time, leading to a fresh feel and a community atmosphere. At the performance I attended, the choirs were Ermine Voices and Sanctuary Voices, who did a really good job.

David Greig’s play, directed by Ramin Gray, looks at how a vicar, Claire (Derbhle Crotty), tries to come to terms with her experiences. It is challenging and moving, as she recalls the events of that fateful day when her choir was attacked by a person known only as “Boy” (Clifford Samuel). It is deeply sad and affecting, but ultimately uplifting.