Visitors

Visitors is a play by Barney Norris; I attended the Wanstead Players production at the Kenneth More Theatre in Ilford. It was an enjoyable, bittersweet production, very well acted by all involved.

Visitors is the story of husband and wife Arthur and Edie. Edie has dementia but Arthur doesn’t want to put her into care, despite protests from their son Stephen. Instead they hire a young woman, Kate, to help look after Edie.

The play follows the four of them over the next few weeks as they try to figure out where life is taking them. It’s very moving in parts, and quietly memorable.

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Edith in the Dark

Before she was a renowned children’s writer, famous for The Railway Children and Five Children and It, Edith Nesbit wrote ghost stories. This play by Philip Meeks brings together several of those stories, with a spooky connecting tale.

Bored during a party at her house, Edith escapes to her attic refuge, only to be joined by Mr. Guasto, an enthusiastic young fan. At his request, and aided by her housekeeper Biddy, she reads aloud some of her tales of terror, a telling which soon becomes a full-blown performance with assistance from all involved.

The performers were superb and assured; I particularly liked Penny Thomas’s sardonic Edith, but I was impressed with Tom Watts and Eileen Coan too and the way they all took on a number of roles throughout the evening. The show was genuinely spooky at times and the connecting story was well thought out. A memorable evening at South London Theatre.

Rasputin Rocks!

I seem to have been reading a lot about Rasputin this year; well, it is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Rasputin Rocks! was clearly always going to be an irreverent take on the legend, judging by the title. A new rock musical premiered at the Stockwell Playhouse (formerly the Lost Theatre), with book and lyrics by Andrew Hobbs and music by Alistair Smith, it follows in the tradition of shows such as We Will Rock You and Bat Out of Hell in having a gloriously ludicrous plot and a banging soundtrack.

In the not-too-distant future, Russia is ruled by a female Emperor who harbours ambitions of taking over, and then destroying, the world. The West has sent ‘leader of the free world’ Tony Blair (the musical has its tongue firmly in its cheek) to negotiate, but the Emperor has one special weapon up her sleeve: the frozen body of the immortal Rasputin, whom she plans to defrost and wield as a weapon. The only thing standing in her way is a group of underground rebels.

The show is full of catchy rock tunes, performed with aplomb by the talented cast. I particularly liked Jake Byrom as Rasputin, presented as a kind of rock star, who had a strong stage presence. Maria Alexe as the Emperor was suitably menacing, and Tanya Truman as Svetlana, the leader of the rebels, was also good although I wish she hadn’t had to sing soppy ballads about wanting a man. She’s the leader of a rebel army, for goodness’ sake.

Andrew Hobbs captured Tony Blair’s character perfectly and a highlight was his character’s version of Pulp’s Common People (the only cover version in the show), about his rise to and fall from power, which was hilarious.

I thought the show was a bit long, but overall thoroughly enjoyable. I particularly liked the final climactic scene. It’s obvious the producers didn’t have a big budget for this show, judging by the set, but they’ve done a great job with what they have. It’s already pretty good – With a few tweaks, this could be a really first class show.

Russian Chamber Music: Poetry & Piano

As part of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Voices of Revolution: Russia 1917 series, some events are taking place at the Royal College of Music. I attended a Russian chamber music event entitled Poetry & Piano, featuring RADA students and RCM students in a programme incorporating piano pieces and literature readings from just before, during and just after the revolution.

The programme featured the following pieces, and was really enjoyable.

Reading: Bely – Petersburg (1914)
Prokofiev Visions fugitives op 22
Reading: Balmont – Visions Fugitives (1917)
Reading: Babel – Red Cavalry (1926)
Medtner Piano Sonata in A minor op 30
Prokofiev Sarcasms op 17
Shostakovich Piano Sonata no 1 op 12

The Lighthouse

Shadwell Opera have come to the Hackney Showroom to perform their latest production: The Lighthouse by Peter Maxwell Davies. This one-act opera, first performed in 1980, was inspired by a true story: in 1900 three lighthouse keepers vanished from their post, and what happened to them was never discovered.

In the confined space of the Showroom, Jack Furness’s inventive low-budget production, designed by Alex Berry, feels right at home. Most of the drama takes place either in the centre, around a table in the middle of the lighthouse, or just behind it on some scaffolding. The orchestra are placed close to the audience.

Davies uses courtroom drama and flashback to tell the story, and it has a distinctly eerie quality. There are only three singers in the piece, Paul Curievici as Sandy, Owain Browne as Blazes and Pauls Putnins as Arthur, and they are all superb, with fantastic vocal and acting ability. I was genuinely unsettled quite often as I watched the show. The music, with its discordant tones, suits the work well. Overall, a memorable production.

Labour of Love

I got up early on my day off, even earlier than I do on a work day, to make sure I got to the day seat queue at the Noel Coward Theatre in plenty of time. A seat in the front row for a tenner is not something to be passed up lightly. Having said that, a theatre bargain is meaningless if you don’t enjoy the play. Luckily I loved it.

James Graham seems to be some kind of super-playwright, churning out great plays at the rate of knots. His plays tend to be political, so I find it impressive that I actually enjoy them. Labour of Love is set in a MP’s office in a working-class area of the Midlands (I can’t bring myself to call it the North) and centres around an MP, David Lyons (Martin Freeman) and his constituency agent Jean Whittaker (Tamsin Grieg) over nearly three decades. We begin close to the present day, just after the most recent election when Corbyn made a better-than-expected showing but David has just lost his seat. The subsequent scenes take us back in time, finally ending up when the new MP arrives in his constituency during the final years of the last Conservative era. After the interval the order is reversed, bringing time forward from the early 90s until we are back in the present day. In between scenes, media clips bring us up to date on what is going on in the Labour party and the wider political world – the ascent of Tony Blair, the death of John Smith, multiple elections – to place everything in context.

Jeremy Herrin’s production is a joy to observe: the entire play is set in the same office, but subtle details and decorations help to fix it in time in every scene. There was a knowing laugh from the audience when David turned on the TV to check the election results on Teletext.

From a purely political point of view I found the play fascinating. I was alive during the entire time period this play covers, but at the time much of it went over the head of my younger apolitical self. Obviously a play is no substitute for historical research, but I feel my knowledge of the period has increased.

Graham is able to capture what is still a common point of contention within Labour: the conflict between more centrist pragmatism, keen to compromise to get into power, and the harder left, more principled but perhaps more difficult to appeal to the electorate. Largely this is shown by the conflict between the play’s principal characters: David, who grew up in the area but went away to Oxford, and Jean, the down-to-earth wife of the area’s former MP. David initially becomes an MP with the intention of using it as a stepping stone to bigger things, encouraged by his wife, who looks like she would be happier with the Tories. Jean cares deeply for the community – she is a resolute part of it – and initially sees David as something of an outsider.

Neither character is a caricature, however: they are both incredibly complex, and the heart of the play is their relationship and how it develops over time. Freeman and Grieg are both superb, supported by a strong cast including Rachael Stirling as David’s wife and Dickon Tyrrell as the old-school Labour head of the council. On a human level, it’s utterly engrossing.

What the play ultimately left me with was hope: hope for people, hope for politics. It’s honestly one of the best things I’ve seen this year.

Shakespeare Schools Festival

I love Shakespeare, and I normally like to see professional productions, but every year up and down the country schoolchildren of all ages perform abridged versions of Shakespeare plays on ‘proper’ theatre stages, and I thought this might be interesting. I attended the performance at the Broadway Theatre in Catford (also admittedly because I wanted to see inside this theatre, as I’d only ever visited the studio before).

The plays performed were Julius Caesar, The Tempest and Macbeth, with slightly older children performing the latter. The plays were abridged in such a way that it was still easy to follow the story, and the youngsters had clearly worked hard on their productions. The actors in the lead roles were particularly strong. Overall an enjoyable evening.