A Bright New Boise

This 2010 play by Samuel D. Hunter was the first LAMDA production I saw in their Carne Studio Theatre. A Bright New Boise is set in the American West, and looks at themes of family, religion and belonging.

Set in the Boise branch of the chain craft store Hobby Lobby, new employee Will is hired to work alongside his long-lost son Alex, that son’s adopted brother Leroy, and shy book lover Anna, under the management of the fiercely dedicated Pauline. Will has returned to his home town not only to reconnect with his son, but to get away from a scandal in his former church.

The play is extremely funny, but there are several sadder moments; the acting is superb, to the standard of a professional production. I really enjoyed this LAMDA show and I’d like to see more.

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Frogman

Frogman is a play with a difference. Devised by Curious Directive, it makes use of virtual reality technology to tell a story that goes back into the past.

In Australia in 1995, eleven-year-old Meera lives with her dad, who works as a police diver. When her friend Alex goes missing, it is assumed that she stole a neighbour’s boat and got lost at sea; a theory confirmed when her bag is found in the coral reef. In the present day, Meera works as a scientist specialising in coral reefs; she is confronted by a police officer, who brings the news that the boat has been found with no sign of Alex; there are, however, holes in the boat, and both Alex’s and Meera’s father’s blood are present. Meera is asked to reconstruct what actually happened that summer over twenty years ago.

This is an unusual setup but it really works. There are only two actors on stage, Georgina Strawson (Meera) and Aysha Kala (DCI Fiona Webb), and the rest of the story is told via VR flashback (you wear a specially-provided headset for these bits).

The parts where you get to explore the Great Barrier Reef are particularly impressive, but the scenes in the young Meera’s bedroom tap into the current mood of nostalgia for the 1990s. The story is a mystery, but it’s also a touching piece about friendship, with Meera befriending the lonely and misunderstood Alex. Some of the most moving parts of the play are those in which we see the pair’s friendship develop.

The story is gripping, but it’s also emotionally involving; the VR isn’t just a gimmick but an integral part of the play. I really liked this fascinating exploration of how tech can be used to tell a riveting story.

Lady Windermere’s Fan

Lady Windermere’s Fan is the second production in Classic Spring’s Oscar Wilde season, this time directed by Kathy Burke. It is the story of the aforementioned Lady Windermere, a young woman only two years married with a naively moralistic outlook on life, who is shocked to discover her husband is suspected of having an affair with Mrs Erlynne.

As with the season’s first production, A Woman of No Importance, Wilde’s distaste for the hypocrisy of society and appreciation of true feeling comes through in his 1892 play, even more than the wit for which he is famed. Funny the play certainly is, but it also has real heart.

Grace Molony is excellent as the titular character, who matures during the course of the play, while Samantha Spiro is superb as Mrs Erlynne, the society woman with a secret. Joshua James lends his character Lord Windermere an admirable decency, while an assorted cast of minor characters add colour to the ballroom scenes. Jennifer Saunders is the famous name of the piece: her character the Duchess of Berwick is very funny, and she also takes centre stage in an amusing musical interlude.

Another hugely enjoyable play in the Wilde season; I’m looking forward to the next.

Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost is a 1935 play by Clifford Odets, set during the Great Depression and chronicling the lives of an American family and their friends over a period of several years. This superb production was by students at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. There wasn’t a weak link in the large cast, and the Chekhovian tragedy made a strong impact. I haven’t seen many Clifford Odets plays – just Rocket to the Moon which played at the National a few years ago – but on the strength of this one I’d like to see more.

His Dark Materials

To my eternal regret I never did see His Dark Materials at the National Theatre – if I’d known then what I know now I’d probably have got some kind of coach down to London – but, oh well, you can’t change the past. South London Theatre have put on an amateur production, the first back in their refurbished home of the Old Fire Station in West Norwood, and I bough tickets straight away for both parts.

Nicholas Wright’s adaptation successfully compresses the three-book story into two parts, retaining most of the characters but streamlining and cutting some of the plot. The majority of the characters are played by children belonging to the SLT Youth Theatre; the two girls playing Lyra were particularly good. Adult actors took on the more demanding adult roles: I really liked Jenny McLauglin’s Mrs Coulter and Gerard Johnson’s Lord Asriel. One of my favourite characters, however, was the king of the armoured bears Iorek Byrnison, here portrayed effectively with just a head and two paws. This epic adaptation was extremely enjoyable and made me want to go and read the books again.

Summer and Smoke

It’s been a while since I’ve been to the Almeida, but watching Rebecca Frecknall’s production of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke, I was reminded why I love this north London theatre. This powerful, dreamlike production couldn’t have been bettered.

Young John Buchanan (Matthew Needham) returns to his father’s house, next door to Alma Winemiller (Patsy Ferran). Alma, conceived by Williams to represent the spirit (her name means ‘soul’ in Spanish, as she continually tells us), is in love with John, a doctor, who clearly represents the body, carrying on an affair with a local girl and drinking and carousing into the small hours. I’ve sometimes found Williams to be a bit too heavy-handed and literal in his symbolism, but the expressionistic nature of this production removes any hint of this, instead emphasising Alma’s state of mind with a row of pianos playing discordant notes. Patsy Ferran has gone from strength to strength since her West End debut in Blithe Spirit a few years ago; she is a tremendous actress and is perfect as Alma. Matthew Needham is also superb as John, and the two have excellent chemistry; their scenes together are full of tension. Most of the other actors play more than one character; Forbes Masson, for example, plays both Alma’s father and John’s, while Nancy Crane portrays Alma’s mentally disturbed mother and a local woman.

The intensity of the scenes between the main couple is balanced with welcome small-town social comedy, most particularly in the scene of the club meeting where a would-be writer threatens to read his lengthy epic. These scenes emphasise that Alma and John do not exist in a vacuum, and allows us a glimpse into Alma’s full, but not necessarily fulfilling, social life.

The play takes an unexpected and memorable turn towards the end, which has a profound effect on both protagonists and leaves the audience speechless. It’s early days, but this looks like being one of my highlights of the year.

Women Beware Women

Thomas Middleton’s play, first performed in the 1620s and published in 1657, is an archetypal Jacobean tragedy, with a complex plot and plenty of death. This RADA production of Women Beware Women, directed by Philip Franks and set in a mid-twentieth-century world, was a treat: excellently performed, doing full justice to Middleton’s language and giving his characters the complexity they deserve.