Miss Johnson

When I was younger, I had a personalised keyring – one of those that tells you what your name means and lists other famous people with that name. At the time I concluded that there hadn’t been many famous Lauras, as the keyring had to resort to “similar” names like Lauren and Loretta. The omission of Laura Knight, acclaimed twentieth century artist, Dame Commander of the British Empire, and first woman elected to full membership of the Royal Academy, now strikes me as unforgivable.

I didn’t know any of this, in fact I’d barely heard of Laura Knight, until I went to see Miss Johnson, a new play by Amanda Whittington. Specially commissioned for the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, it is currently being performed by students of the MA in Acting – Contemporary.

The play begins in 1970, as executors enter the now-dead Knight’s flat and begin to catalogue her work. A curious Knight watches from the sidelines, and soon we are back at the beginning of her career, as the young teenager Laura Johnson attends Nottingham School of Art and rails against the rule that, as a woman, she is unable to attend life drawing classes. She meets and later marries the painter Harold Knight. From then on, the play gives us snapshots of Knight’s life, as she visits Yorkshire, Cornwall, Baltimore in the USA, and a travelling circus, all in the pursuit of her art. The overarching theme is her search to better her art, discover new subjects worthy of painting, and establish herself as an artist.

The entire cast gave strong performances, belying their student status. Particularly good were Lauren Orrock as the young Laura Johnson, conveying the youthful artist’s passion and determination, and Phoebe Ladenburg as her older counterpart, as well as Sam Ducane as Harold Knight, notably in the scene in which he stands trial as a conscientious objector.

Where the play excels is in its exploration of the circumstances surrounding the creation of Knight’s greatest paintings. Scenes involving the circus performers, for instance, and the black nurse Pearl Johnson, show how Knight had a sympathy for her subjects. Some of the play was a little hard to follow for someone like me, who had no prior knowledge of Laura Knight’s life and work.

For me the greatest scenes came towards the end of the play, as Knight travels to Germany to paint the Nuremberg trials. A particularly difficult subject, Phoebe Ladenburg was able to convey Knight’s complex feelings about her commission, helped by a strong script.

Directed by Martin Wylde and with a simple but atmospheric and effective set, this is a strong piece that deserves to be seen.

The Diver

Last night I went to the Rag Factory off Brick Lane to attend a performance of Craft Theatre’s The Diver, starring Helen Foster and directed by Rocky Rodriguez Jr. It stars Foster as adventurer Kate Plank, who is about to undertake her most daring expedition yet: an underwater trek to New York across the ocean floor.

Helen is a likeable performer, drawing the audience into the piece and keeping them engaged throughout. She often calls upon audience members to participate, from getting them to pose as journalists reading out questions from a card to encouraging them to embody a piece of kelp. I often get nervous about things like this and I don’t know if I would have gone to the performance if I’d known this would happen – but I found myself enjoying the participation, and the small audience, ranging in age from around seven to about sixty – was relaxed and friendly.

The performance was extremely enjoyable, and the basic props and lack of set only added to the charm. Helen moved between all of the characters – herself, Kate, and a little fish and worm she meets along the way – with ease, and the result was charming. A small-scale show with a lot of heart, this is an ideal piece for all the family.

The Initiate

The Initiate was the second play I saw at Paines Plough’s pop-up Roundabout Theatre near the Southbank Centre. Written by Alexandra Wood, it stars Sidney Cole as Dalmar, a Somali taxi driver who has settled in London, proud of his city and eager to show it to the tourists who climb inside his cab. However, when his son is bullied at school for resembling one of the Somali pirates responsible for kidnapping a British couple, Dalmar decides to go out and rescue them. Will he feel the pull of his homeland, and what are his true motivations for this altruistic action?

Wood’s play remains nicely ambiguous, exploring issues of race, appearance, identity and belonging in a production that’s impressively complex considering its hour-long running time. In fact, I think it could easily have been expanded into a full-length drama with an interval. Cole is excellent as Dalmar, a likeable man in a difficult position, and does well at capturing his complex motivations. Sian Reese-Williams and Abdul Salis play all of the other roles between them, and do a superb job of differentiating between the characters. Often they are required to play characters of a different race, further challenging audience perceptions.

This compelling play, smart, funny and thoughtful, left me with lots to think about – definitely recommended.


A Land Without People

A Land Without People, playing at the Courtyard, is an attempt to show on stage the events leading up to the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948. Always a contentious subject, with the modern-day Israeli-Palestinian conflict well documented in the news, I was intrigued by how Palindrome Productions would handle this tricky topic.

Performed 70 years after the end of World War II, during which two-thirds of European Jews were murdered, Brian Rotman’s play incorporates careful historical research to explore, in a series of chronological scenes, the big events and behind-the-scenes wrangling that led up to the declaration. With scenes taking place in politicians’ offices, wartime fronts and the House of Commons, the subject matter could have been dull and dry, but instead it was utterly compelling, fascinating to listen to.

Directed by Lesley Ferris, the play employed a small cast of five who deliver superb performances throughout. In particular, I thought that Sifiso Mazibuko excelled as Chaim Weizmann and Jules Brown was excellent as Malcolm Mcdonald, setting a high standard in the very first scene. Roy Khalil was moving as David Ben-Gurion, and powerful as Winston Churchill. Elena Voce was also excellent as Gurion’s wife and Tracey-Anne Liles handled the puppet of Fahimeh Ali Mustafa Zeidan superbly. The colour-blind and gender-blind casting employed throughout emphasised the common humanity of all of the characters in the drama.

I learned a great deal from this production: about the British involvement in Palestine and the “Jewish question”, the United Nations proposal to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab territories, and how the horrific treatment of Jews by the Nazis fuelled the argument in favour of a Jewish homeland, as well as how Zionist terrorists overthrew British rule and inflicted atrocities of their own on the Arab inhabitants of Palestine. I was impressed by how balanced the play was, demonstrating arguments from both sides without lecturing, and not simplifying the issues.

This is a superb play and well worth seeing, whether you are interested in the subject matter or not. The writing, acting and directing are first class – a hugely worthwhile production.

The Young Idea

The Questors Academy Student Group performed this early Noël Coward play in Ealing’s Questors Theatre. The Young Idea, first performed in 1923, brought the 21-year-old Coward his first real success as a playwright, and contains seeds of what would later develop into Private Lives, with a long-separated husband and wife who still harbour feelings for one another. This early play, however, concentrates on the couple’s two children, Gerda and Sholto, who at the ages of eighteen and twenty-one have travelled to England from Italy, where they live with their mother, and reacquaint themselves with their father, harbouring a plan to get their parents back together. The pair dislike the stuffy upper-class milieu their father inhabits, and come into conflict with his second wife, who is herself carrying on an affair. The conflict between bohemianism and the bourgeois anticipates Hay Fever, and provides for some sparkling comedy.

The cast did a brilliant job, with several really superb performances; a couple of actors did speak a little too fast, but that is a minor criticism. The verbal sparring was perfectly paced and the wonderfully Cowardian witticisms delivered with flair. I thoroughly enjoyed this production, which shows Coward’s talent and potential even as a very young man; it would remain one of his own favourites.

The Mentalists

The Mentalists, a comedy by Richard Bean that premiered at the National Theatre in 2002, has its first major revival at the Wyndham’s Theatre, in a production directed by Abbey Wright. It is a two-hander that stars Stephen Merchant, most famous for co-writing and starring in The Office, alongside Steffan Rhodri. I got to see the show on a complimentary ticket thanks to theatrebloggers.co.uk.

Richard Kent’s set is a nondescript hotel room in your average budget national chain that could be anywhere – but this one happens to be in Finsbury Park, although Merchant’s Ted has told his work he’s in Exeter. By day a middle manager in an industrial cleaning company, he’s convinced his friend Morrie (Rhodri) to help him out with a film he’s making. The gangly, grumpy Ted wants to convince members of the public to buy into his utopian dream – and if this sounds like a somewhat implausible set-up for the play, it’s worth noting that Bean based his work on a real-life video he himself sent off for out of curiosity. His own study of psychology and his encounters with psychologist B.F. Skinner – who espoused radical behavioural psychology as an alternative to “mentalism” – has informed the play, with the character of Ted inspired by Skinner and his sci-fi novel Walden Two.

With his dour West Country accent, uptight Ted delivers his cynical take on the world, inspiring plenty of laughter in the audience. Morrie is an excellent foil, a Cockney hairdresser full of anecdotes and stories, his fantastical take on the world a contrast to Ted’s Daily Mail-esque look-out. Both actors perform well in their roles, playing off each other with superb comic timing. Their dynamic leaves the audience wondering how these two very different people became friends, and the nature of their connection is revealed towards the end of the show.

In some respects the show is timeless, a discussion that could be any time from the Fifties until now, though a mention of the year 2009 confirms that the action has been updated from its original 2002 setting. The writing is sharp and funny, as befits the writer of One Man, Two Guvnors, and sometimes surprisingly prescient – as Ted predicts the coming century will utilise direct action as a means of political protest.

The first half of the play had me intrigued: I went in “blind” and was absorbed in trying to work out what was going on. After the interval I thought that the play started to lose its way a bit – until a twist emerged which lent an altogether darker tone to the piece and caused me to re-evaluate everything that had gone before. If I have a criticism, it is that the twist comes as too much of a surprise: I would have preferred a more coherent tone throughout, some hints of the developments to come. That said, I enjoyed this play, more than I had expected to – it isn’t perfect but it’s well worth seeing.

La Bohème Pre-Performance Talk

I enjoyed La Bohème when I saw it at the Royal Opera House last year, and when I found out that John Copley’s legendary production would be retired after this year, I decided to attend this pre-performance talk to find out more about it. The talk was delivered by Dr Alexandra Wilson, an expert in the opera, and not knowing much about Puccini or the background to the work, I found it really interesting.

The author of the work on which La Bohème was based, Henri Murger, was 38 when he died and Wilson suggested that when Puccini composed his work he was sad at the prospect of turning 40 and growing old in general. Unlike Murger, who died poor, Puccini was far from penniless, his previous works having brought him success. The composer reused one of his own early student compositions in the work, a nod to his earlier youth. La Bohème was written in a different style from many previous operatic works, with a more continuous, flowing style than traditional operas.

Wilson touched on the success of the current production, which has been performed since 1974. There is strong interest in what the new production will be like when it premiers in a few years’ time. Will it be traditional or modern in style? One example of a new production played the whole thing as a flashback in the mind of Mimi, who is dying from cancer in hospital. It will be interesting to see what kind of production eventually emerges.