#WeAreArrested / Day of the Living

#WeAreArrested set

Since reopening The Other Place, the RSC have gone strength to strength with their Mischief Festival, which takes place a couple of times a year. The latest is based around the themes of free speech and the right to protest. The two plays in this Mischief Festival are contemporary and vital.

#WeAreArrested has been adapted by Pippa Hill and Sophie Ivatts from the book by journalist Can Dündar, a real-life tale of a brave journalist exiled for telling the truth. Day of the Living, created by Darren Clark, Amy Draper and Juliet Gilkes Romero, explores the circumstances surrounding the 2014 disappearance of 43 students in Mexico.

The first play, narrated by the journalist (played compellingly by Peter Hamilton Dyer), tells how his decision to publish an exposé of his government’s corruption comes to have fateful consequences. He leaves the country, returns, and is imprisoned. The prison scenes are actually some of the best: they are certainly challenging, could easily have been bleak, but they are among the most uplifting of the whole play. Impressive stage tricks, all the more impactful for taking place on a nearly-bare stage, feel like magic, but it’s Hamilton Dyer’s strong performance, ably supported by Jamie Cameron and Indra Ové who play a variety of roles, which really holds the attention. It’s interesting that, although the play was inspired by events in Turkey, no country is mentioned in the work, which reinforces the fact that these events could happen anywhere.

Day of the Living lacks the coherence of the first play, and the story is harder to follow. However, it is a lively tale full of music, and conveys the fear and terror felt by the students and their families in the aftermath of the disappearance, mostly through the eyes of one family. Featuring a multi-talented cast who sing, play instruments, act and take on a number of roles, it’s a strong reminder that repressive regimes are not a thing of the past.

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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

I confess to being one of those people who can get a bit obsessive about spelling, but I definitely don’t come up to the standard of the kids who take part in spelling bees in the US every year. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a musical about this very concept, with music and lyrics by William Finn and a book by Rachel Sheinkin. It originally debuted on Broadway in 2005.

The Drayton Arms Theatre is a small space above the pub of the same name, but the producers have transformed it into a technicolour school hall (you can see the basketball hoop in the top right corner) with the cast donning cartoonish costumes. We have presenter Rona Lisa Peretti (Elizabeth Chadwick), a former Spelling Bee champion herself, accompanied by official word pronouncer Douglas Panch (Michael Watson-Grey) and the glum ‘comfort counsellor’ Mitch Mahoney (Inti Conde). Then, of course, there are the contestants, all from very different backgrounds and with their own hopes and dreams, which we get to see and understand during the course of the show.

As the competitors spell their way to a hopeful victory, we get to see what makes them tick. Tightly-wound Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere  (Lottie Johnson) wants to please her two dads, while shy Olive Ostrovsky’s (Thea J. Wolfe) parents haven’t turned up at all. William Barfée (T.J. Lloyd), who had to drop out of last year’s competition because he ate a brownie containing the nuts he is allergic to, has a ‘magic foot’ he uses to spell out the word on the ground. Eccentric Leaf Coneybear (Danny Whelan) wants to prove he isn’t the idiot in the family, Chip Tolentino (Aaron Jenson) is distracted by Leaf’s sister, while child prodigy Marcy Park (Jeannie May) is tempted to lose so that she won’t have to be perfect any more. There are also several audience members involved (not me, thankfully) who are invited to compete and have a go at spelling increasingly obscure words.

The songs are great fun and often very witty, and many have a touch of sadness, as when Olive sings about the dictionary being her only friend. The wry commentaries and random word definitions were hilarious, and despite the small performance space, the cast really got stuck into the big numbers.

I really got into this show: it was great fun, performed with energy by the talented and enthusiastic cast.

Finishing the Picture

The Finborough Theatre have scored another coup by premiering Arthur Miller’s final play, Finishing the Picture. It’s a thinly-disguised portrait of Marilyn Monroe and the production of her last film, and while it’s not one of Miller’s best, it’s still an interesting curiosity.

A film crew, including the director, producer, cameraman and acting coach, wait anxiously for news of whether the film’s star Kitty will show up to make the movie. Racked with insecurity and addicted to drugs, her physical and mental health is precarious, and the crew mix genuine concern for her wellbeing with worries about whether the movie will ever be completed. In desperation, Kitty’s coach (Tony Wredden) is sent for.

We don’t see Kitty herself – in some ways a wise decision as who could possibly live up to Marilyn’s reputation and charisma? – but this does leave us wondering what things looked like from her perspective. We do see Miller represented in the form of Kitty’s husband, Paul (Jeremy Drakes), writer of the screenplay. To be fair to Miller, he doesn’t seem to be trying to excuse himself or his behaviour. Rather, it seems to be an examination of his own guilt and potential culpability as he approached the end of his own life. During filming of Marilyn’s last movie, as reflected in the play, the relationship broke down and a few months later she was found dead.

Isabella Van Braeckel’s claustrophobic set is bounded by red walls, enclosing the characters within this small space. There are some great performances by Stephen Billington as director Derek and Oliver Le Sueur as the producer.

Overall, while it doesn’t quite match up to the Finborough’s previous Miller production, An Incident at Vichy, it’s still a must-see for fans of the American playwright, and anyone who is interested in the story of Marilyn Monroe.

Acis and Galatea

Acis and Galatea is a 1718 work by George Frideric Handel, performed by English National Opera as part of their ENO Studio Live season at Lilian Baylis House in Hampstead. With text by John Gay, the opera, based on an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is the story of the love between the semi-divine nymph Galatea and the shepherd Acis, and the tragic interference of the cyclops Polyphemus. The production is directed by Sarah Tipple and designed by Justin Nardella.

The fresh modern staging was the first thing that struck me about the production. Set at what appears to be a festival, with rainbow decorations, fridges full of beer and elaborate costumes, it did appeal to me. There were many lively moments involving the ensemble cast, including a big conga line, and the production did well at getting across the lively and youthful feel of the piece. I quite liked the use of selfies and social media throughout.

Though it was sung in English, there were no surtitles, so I couldn’t always follow what was going on: there’s something about the operatic voice that makes it hard to understand. That said, the basic plot was straightforward enough, and the ending was surprising and quite moving. The musical style isn’t my favourite, and I found it hard going at times, but there were moments I really liked.

Altogether, a fairly successful evening out for me, and a perfect show for a summer’s day.

Murder on the Nile

I do love a good Agatha Christie play, and was happy to go and see Murder on the Nile (also known as Hidden Horizon) at the Brookside Theatre in Romford. The 1944 play was adapted by Christie from her 1937 novel Death on the Nile; the original novel featured Poirot, but Christie removed him from the play, replacing his character with a church canon who ends up solving the mystery.

In many ways it’s a typical Agatha Christie: bright young things, suspicious foreigners, domineering relatives and a complex plot. It was entertaining and enjoyable, but I thought the ending a tad anticlimactic. I thought the cast did a great job, however.

The Rink

Southwark Playhouse is known for its productions of lesser-known musicals, and when they announced a production of Kander and Ebb’s 1984 show The Rink, I booked straight away. Last night, I finally saw it.

The show, with a book by Terrence McNally, proved very different from what I expected – the publicity image of a pair of rollerskates made me imagine a glittery cheese-fest with plenty of skating. Instead, I got a profound mother-daughter drama with plenty of bittersweet nostalgia.

Anna has sold the skating rink she inherited from her father-in-law, and the demolition team has moved in. As they start packing up, Anna’s 30-year-old daughter Angel arrives; Anna hasn’t seen her for seven years, and the two soon begin to clash. Their turbulent relationship is explored through flashback, as we see how Angel’s father left when she was very young, leaving Anna to struggle on alone. There is plenty of resentment, guilt and bitterness, but there are also several touching moments as mother and daughter realise they aren’t all that different.

The cast are superb: Caroline O’Connor is excellent as the lively, determined Anna, while Gemma Sutton is great as her daughter Angel. The supporting cast of men switch easily between a number of roles, and their highlight is a number in Act 2 when they don skates in a show-stopping number about the grand old days of the rink.

Kander and Ebb’s score is rich, evocative and perfectly suited to its setting. The musical highlight is ‘Colored Lights’, in which Angel sings about her former rootless life and her longing for the bright lights of the rink. The music takes on a hippy-ish, 70s, California tinge when Angel sings about her travels, changing into a more traditional musical theatre mode for the rink itself.

A glorious, nostalgic homage to a bygone age, this is a must-see.