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.

The Herd

The Herd is actor Rory Kinnear’s first play. Performed at the Bush Theatre in west London, it is a fine piece that shows Kinnear to be one to watch.

The play is about a family with a severely disabled child, and how this impacts on all of them individually and as a unit. Andy is about to turn twenty-one, and is making the journey, with his carer, from the care home in which he lives in order to celebrate with his family. His mother Carol waits for him, accompanied by his elder sister Claire, and later by her boyfriend Mark and grandparents Patricia and Brian. We see the strains placed on the family by the stress of looking after Andy, the powerful love felt for him by his mother in particular, and the complex nature of the relationships that bind every family member.

With the audience seated at either side of the cosy living room in which the play is set, I felt as though I was myself a participant in this family drama – when the doorbell rang I almost got up to answer it. A talented cast gave fine performances: Amanda Root is brilliant as Carol, overwhelmed with protective love for her son; Louise Brealey is superb as Claire, whose love for her brother sits side by side with her resentment at being forced to become like a second mother to him after their father walked out; while Adrian Rawlins is also excellent as that father, Ian, hoping to make amends for his prior abandonment. My favourite character, however, is Patricia, brilliantly played by Anna Calder-Marshall with a sharp wit reminiscent of Maggie Smith’s Downton Abbey matriarch.

Kinnear and director Howard Davies are spot-on in capturing the complexities and nuances of family life. The whole thing is deeply moving and powerful, and the final scene incredibly affecting.