Heather

Heather was the first play I saw in the Bush Theatre’s new studio, a two-hander by Thomas Eccleshare that was original and unsettling. It began with a series of email exchanges between an author and an editor, culminating in a children’s book series to rival Harry Potter in popularity. Only then did we discover that quiet, retiring author Heather Eames was not who she claimed to be, a revelation that had a shocking impact on the life of her editor.

The short play was divided into three distinct sections, each contributing to our understanding of events, but it was the third section that was the most original and seemed to pull everything together. The performances from Ashley Gerlach and Charlotte Melia were superb.

If anything I thought this play was too short: I think you could make a full-length play out of the ideas and themes portrayed in this one. Still, a play that leaves you wanting more has to be seen as a success.

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Of Kith and Kin

The Bush Theatre in Shepherd’s Bush is known for presenting new writing, and I went along to see Of Kith and Kin, penned by Chris Thompson. It concerns Daniel (James Lance) and his younger husband Oliver (Joshua Silver), a couple who are having a baby together, their friend Priya (Chetnya Pandya) acting as surrogate.

We first meet the trio as they enjoy a baby shower: a game of pin-the-sperm-on-the-egg, miniature babies frozen into ice cubes. This genial set-up is threatened when Daniel’s mother Lydia (Joanna Bacon) walks in, setting off a conflict between her, Daniel and Oliver that gets out of hand, as Priya can only look on helplessly.

This event has powerful repercussions for everyone concerned, and from then on what we witness is a custody battle, as Daniel fights for his child while the law says that any baby belongs to its mother, even if that mother is a surrogate.

It’s an emotive subject, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the courtroom scene especially. To whom does the baby belong? Who should have the right to bring him up? It’s a problem that could easily arise in real life.

It isn’t without humour, either: the insults passed between the characters are often funny, if uncomfortably so at times, and the courtroom judge (Donna Berlin) is a standout, even if I’m not convinced a real courtroom judge would be allowed to get away with the things she says.

Ultimately this is a play about relationships: not just between all concerned and the new baby, but between the couple and their friend Priya, and most particularly between Daniel and Oliver themselves. The strain of the situation brings out latent conflict and throws their relationship into question.

This tense, compelling play is well worth seeing: another success for the Bush.

Guards at the Taj

When I visited the newly-reopened Bush Theatre for a tour recently, I made a note of the first full-run play that would be on there, as I thought it sounded interesting. That play was Guards at the Taj, written by Rajiv Joseph and directed here by Jamie Lloyd. It’s about the construction of the Taj Mahal, but it’s also about friendship and moral responsibility.

Set in Agra, India, in 1648, the play starts off as something of a comedy, with two very different guards, Humayun (Danny Ashok) and Babur (Darren Kuppan) passing the time in (forbidden) conversation. Humayun is responsible and follows the rules, Babur is more carefree. Both know one thing – they mustn’t turn and look at the beautiful building being raised up behind them. They also repeat the legend that the emperor has ordered that the 20,000 men who built the Taj should have their hands cut off lest they ever create something as beautiful again. In this play, the myth becomes reality.

The pair’s conscientiousness backfires when their good behaviour earns them the ‘privilege’ of carrying out a particularly brutal deed. This proves to be too much for one of the men in particular, and sets forth a train of events that test loyalty and friendship and commitment to the prevailing orthodoxy. It’s a violent, bloody play, short but heartbreakingly sad. Definitely worth seeing.

Bush Theatre: Tour

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The Bush Theatre

The Bush Theatre in Shepherd’s Bush reopened this week after a refit. I took a tour of the building, which used to be a public library, back in 2015, and wanted to go back and see what has changed.

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New glass doors and outdoor area

The bar and the library look very similar. The main change is to the side of the building, where windows open onto an outdoor area, allowing passers-by to see into this light, airy space. The location of the ticket desk has also changed.

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Ticket desk

Another key change is that the theatre now has a studio!

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Entrance to studio

I’m happy to report that ticket prices will remain low, with prices starting at £10. This is brilliant news for the local community and theatre lovers in general.

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The Bush is back – check it out!

The Royale

Originally performed at the Bush Theatre in 2015, Marco Ramirez’ play The Royale is being revived, during the Bush’s period of refurbishment, at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill. It’s a good sign when a new play is revived so soon after its initial performance, and I had high hopes for it.

The play is inspired by the real-life story of Jack Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion. The stage is laid out like a boxing ring, with the audience on all four sides, and the play is told in six rounds. We meet champion boxer Jay ‘The Sport’ Jackson as he fights with a challenger – some clever stagecraft at work – and gives us an insight into his determined personality. He employs the unsuccessful challenger Fish as a sparring partner, and with the help of his trainer Wynton and manager Max sets out to bring the reigning champion out of retirement for one more bout. The only problem – he’s white, and might not take kindly to a challenge from a black man.

The play grips from the start, giving us an insight into Jay’s mind and the forces empowering him in his determination to become the boxing champion. The performances are strong, particularly Nicholas Pinnock as Jay. The Royale uses boxing as a metaphor for black success which breeds resentment among the white community – unfortunately highly relevant in today’s climate. It weaves scenes within one another in a highly skilled way, leading to a powerful ending. At only ninety minutes long, the play certainly packs a punch – excuse the pun – and will be one of the more memorable theatrical experiences I’ve had this year.

Fuck the Polar Bears

I booked for this play with interest, having thoroughly enjoyed Tanya Ronder’s Table at the National a while back, hoping that Fuck the Polar Bears would be of the same standard. The Bush Theatre is known for its commitment to new plays, which I don’t see nearly enough of, so I was looking forward to this.

It’s the story of a privileged family forced to face up to environmental issues: husband Gordon is about to be made CEO of an energy firm, wife Serena wants to move to a bigger house, the live-in au pair Blundhilde is obsessed with green issues and daughter Rachel has lost her toy polar bear.

Rarely have I seen such unlikeable characters in a play. With the exception of the young child, whose feelings for her missing toy are commendable, and Gordon’s brother Clarence, a recovering drug addict who is repaying his brother’s assistance by painting his house, they are the most unpleasant bunch of people I have ever had the misfortune to see on stage. Blundhilde is overbearing and humourless, Gordon treats his brother with contempt and Serena is self-obsessed and whiny. I honestly couldn’t bring myself to care whether Gordon and Serena would be able to afford to move from their multi-million pound mansion to an even grander multi-million pound mansion, nor was I concerned whether they’d be swallowed up by the environmental apocalypse.

The play does broach some of the important issues regarding the environment – the temptation to ignore the crisis and carry on as normal. However, it only examines them in a superficial way, during the last ten minutes or so of the play. The earlier part of the work largely involves Gordon becoming increasingly convinced that Phoebe, the missing toy polar bear, has come to life and is stalking him – this sounds funny, but unfortunately isn’t.

I loved Chiara Stephenson’s set, which framed the house and set the scene for the effects and the explosions. Unfortunately, however, the play left me cold – as cold as the polar bears before their habitat succumbs to global warming.

Bush Theatre: Tour (Open House London)

It’s that time of year again: Open House London, the weekend in September when buildings of all kinds are opened to the public for exploration and adventure all over London. Last year I visited three theatres. This year I broadened my outlook a bit, only taking in one theatre during my weekend of visits. This was the Bush Theatre, located – as the name suggests – in Shepherd’s Bush.

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The theatre moved to its current location, an ex-library, in 2012. The foyer, with its welcoming bar and comfy seating, echoes its literary past with a library of playtexts, not (officially) borrowable but free for anyone to use on the premises. Even when there is no show on, the bar is often full of people working, reading or relaxing.

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The box office is a small desk at one end of the space, with posters of current and recent shows displayed above. There are several interesting features in this room, not least the front of the bar, which was made with doors found lying around upstairs.

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We were taken into the auditorium, a “black box” space which is very versatile and can be adapted for each production. Later in the tour we got to see some of the scale models made for different productions, showing just how adaptable the space is. Even the four columns in the room can be worked into the designs. This area was part of a 1950s extension to the library, and the windows have been covered up so that light cannot seep into the theatre space.

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We couldn’t see the dressing rooms because the actors were using them, but we were able to see the backstage area where scenery and props are made. Again it was possible to see that this space was part of a later extension to the library.

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We exited this space and went round the building to see the foundation stone, laid by J. Passmore Edwards in 1895.

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We spent a brief amount of time in the garden, which looked like a lovely place to relax away from the bustle of Shepherd’s Bush. The “carpet” is made of tyre shavings, and had a strange smell which I actually rather liked!

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Here, we were able to witness the extension from the outside.

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Back inside, we ventured upstairs, passing a window which had a good view of the Overground tracks.

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In the Attic Space (sometimes used for performances) there was a small display of photographs and artefacts relating to the history of the building, including pictures of its use as a library.

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One of the items was this interesting leaflet from the opening day.

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As a librarian I’m always sad to see a library closed, but the building has been put to excellent use. The Bush Theatre is a versatile, welcoming environment. The theatre specifically focuses on new plays and regularly champions new playwrights, so is a much needed part of the London theatre scene.