Review – Two Trains Running, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th September 2019

Two Trains RunningAugust Wilson’s 1990 play starts the new Made in Northampton season at the Royal and Derngate and is (I believe) its UK premiere. Set in Memphis Lee’s café in Pittsburgh in 1969, the urban environment all around is being demolished to make way for a regeneration programme, destroying the lives of its largely black inhabitants. The local authority want to seize and knock down the café too, but Lee isn’t going to accept less than $25,000 – having paid $5,500 for it originally.

LeeThis slice-of-life play contains a variety of themes and plots, weaving in and out of each other, over a few days. Lee worries about his failing business; his one and only chef/waitress, Risa, self-harms by cutting her legs in order (she says) to put off unwanted attention from men; wide boy Wolf uses the café phone as his personal office, taking illegal gambling bets; mentally unstable Hambone can’t get over being cheated over payment for a job; young chancer Sterling steals his way out of financial problems; and old guard Holloway dispenses his wisdom and undertaker West works hard, getting on with their lives as best they can.  Overriding all these is the all-pervasive atmosphere that black lives are inferior to white lives, with the growing Black Power movement and the destruction of black homes and businesses with the urban regeneration.

Round the counterIt’s a curious play. At three hours, it feels too long. All the points that the play makes could be made and still shave at least half-an-hour off. Dramatically, there aren’t many plot progression points. However, the characters are strangely spellbinding, and the play, despite its faults, oddly compelling. Admittedly, not a lot happens on a day to day basis; but isn’t that true of life? Take the title – Two Trains Running – it’s part of a throwaway speech by one of the characters, elevated to its titular significance although it’s just a phrase from everyday life. The play reminded me a little of Eugene O’Neill – a big helping of The Iceman Cometh with a tad of Desire Under the Elms and a sprinkling of All God’s Chillun Got Wings. Everyone has their own concerns, some of which they’re prepared to share, others they’d prefer to keep private. Most of the plot threads are tied up at the end – maybe too neatly. I’m still uncertain as to whether Lee’s good news at the end was genuine or pretence. But maybe that’s a strength in itself.

Sterling and WestFrankie Bradshaw has done a fantastic job in recreating the café in the midst of a building site. The furniture, the bar, the phone, the windows all exude an air of 1960s disappointment. The jukebox is perfect for the era, although I remain unconvinced by the more modern-looking coffee jug. Amy Mae’s lighting design is also superb, creating eerie, dreamlike effects juxtaposed with the harsh neon lights of real life. And Nancy Medina’s direction respects the text and allows the characters to develop without ever imposing an external slant.

SterlingThere are some stunning central performances. I found Andrew French mesmerising as Memphis Lee, bringing out all the character’s hopes and dreams, strengths and weaknesses, truths and self-delusions. Michael Salami is also superb as Sterling, the kind of waster who nevertheless has a charisma that you find hard not to like, flipping easily from childish enthusiasm to incensed fury. And with a deceptively challenging role, Anita-Joy Uwajeh impresses with her constant reactions and attention to the events in the café – portraying that difficult balance between keeping the customer satisfied but existing one step aloof from the rest of them. Beautifully done.

WolfRay Emmet Brown gives an enjoyable performance as the flashy Wolf, full of confidence and brashness, humour and cynicism. Also – great shoes! Derek Ezenagu tackles the problem role of the vulnerable Hambone – who only says a couple of sentences, repeated time and time again – with great commitment and sincerity, creating an uncomfortable, but very realistic watch. And Geoff Aymer brings authority and dignity to the role of West, the undertaker/businessman who’s never short for work and provides the clearest insight into what the world outside the café doors looks like. For me, Leon Herbert didn’t convey Holloway’s self-assurance with what I felt was a faltering, uncertain performance – hopefully he will grow into the role as the run progresses.

RisaAfter its run at the Royal and Derngate, the production tours to Southampton, Oxford, Doncaster, Ipswich, Guildford and Derby, finishing at the end of October. A four-star production that provides three-star entertainment. Great characters with some great lines supported by a magnificent set; but, in the final analysis, also somewhat rambling and woolly. Like life, really.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Romeo and Juliet, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 1st May 2018

Romeo and JulietThere’s an argument for believing that Romeo and Juliet is the greatest love story of all time; although maybe they’re too young, and in love too briefly, to lay claim to that accolade in full. Of course, today, to be termed a Romeo is more of an insult than a compliment. It implies all show and no commitment; possibly a roving eye and a love ‘em and leave ‘em attitude. True, Shakespeare’s Romeo starts off in love with Rosaline (Juliet’s cousin, so he was always attracted by those damned Capulets) but all it takes is just one glimpse of Juliet, and Rosaline’s toast. Funnily enough, no one ever gets called a Juliet, by comparison.

R&J9Erica Whyman’s new production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre has a few stand-out and inventive aspects. It toys with sex and sexuality to an extent that I’ve not really seen done seriously in a Shakespeare play before. For example, both recent productions of Julius Caesar that we’ve seen over the last year or so have featured a female Cassius, which was interesting inasmuch that it shows that a woman can be just as good a lead conspirator as a man – no real surprise there. But in this production, we go one (or possibly several) steps beyond.

R&J5Escalus, Prince of Verona, is played by a woman, Beth Cordingly. She’s a no-nonsense, strict ruler who has to act decisively to keep the peace between those pesky Montagues and Capulets; but she’s always referred to as a Prince, and it’s a strong, authoritative performance from Ms Cordingly. Mercutio, Romeo’s friend and cousin of Escalus, is also played by a woman, Charlotte Josephine. The character is always referred to as “she”, so she’s definitely female, although they haven’t gone down the line of feminising the name into Mercutia. This Mercutio has all the blokey belligerence you’d normally expect from the role, and I guess you’d see her as something of a tomboy. I wasn’t expecting this characterisation, and at first I confess it irritated me a little, but as I got used to her, I appreciated that she had as much right to be part of the gang as anyone else. It was a challenge to me, and one that caught me out at first – and that’s definitely my bad.

R&J12Benvolio, on the other hand, is still played by a man, Josh Finan, but with a mancrush on Romeo as a big as a rainbow coloured unicorn. Bally Gill’s Romeo comes across as 100% straight, and doesn’t remotely notice how Benvolio has to catch his breath and fan himself after he plants a big excited smacker on Benvolio’s lips. Mr Finan gives an excellent performance as Benvolio and really highlights the difficulties of being gay in a very straight group. These modern interpretations certainly bring the play bang up to date and help our understanding of these characters and the issues they face.

R&J4But a play like Romeo and Juliet is nothing if it doesn’t speak clearly to its audience. No degree of directorial embellishment, no manipulation of the text to support weird clever-clever theories, or re-imagination of the play in another time or place simply because we’ve got some great props can make the slightest bit of difference if the story isn’t told simply, from the heart, and true to the original. I’m so glad to be able to report that this Romeo and Juliet is about as clear as you can get.

R&J1At least, that’s true after the first fifteen minutes or so. For the first scene we are bombarded with a cacophony of lines from a bunch of people whom we know nothing about and I was instantly lost. To be fair I think this was the Chorus’ speech that begins Act Two of the play; but the alert amongst us realised we were only at Act One. I felt harangued and deliberately confused, and feared the worst for the rest of the night. Warring factions started to form; Montagues and Capulets, no doubt, literally thumbing their nose at each other and then running away like naughty schoolkids. I blame the parents. Romeo’s caught up in this bunch of idiots; a lot of street-fighting, anger, teasing and generally bad behaviour. I thought we’d skipped Romeo and Juliet and gone straight to the gang violence of West Side Story but without the songs.

R&J2However, once it had all settled down, and we’d been introduced to the youthfully ebullient Juliet (Karen Fishwick), her gossipy, fussy and slightly coarse Nurse (Ishia Bennison) and her hands-off, hesitant and generally inadequate mother (Mariam Haque), the production just took on its own life force and thrilled, delighted and horrified its way through the next two and a half hours, never taking a wrong turn. Tom Piper’s design consists of a box. That’s all there is. You can move it around so that it becomes a cave, or Juliet’s balcony, or the Capulet Family Tomb, but, at the end of the day, it’s just a box. And the simplicity of that reflects the simplicity of the story-telling, enabling the audience’s imagination to fill in all the blanks, which is just how I like it.

R&J7But it’s all about R & J, isn’t it? Two incredible, first rate performances that make you laugh and (almost) cry; certainly that remind you of your younger days when you used to make a fool of yourself over someone you fancied, and how you were horrified when your new-found love didn’t go down well with the rest of the family. Bally Gill’s Romeo is the embodiment of that chap that all the girls want to be with and all the guys want to be like; bright, great company, funny and hideously good looking to boot. As he sidles up to the Capulet garden party only to veer away at the last minute through embarrassment you know this is someone you can identify with. Montague or Capulet, he’s our Romeo. We’re completely on his side. And for Shakespeare purists, when it comes to his delivering the classic lines of poetical love, he’s as eloquent and passionate as you could wish.

R&J6And he’s matched by a sensational Juliet in the form of Karen Fishwick; if you think Juliets should be all pure and demure, think again. Ms Fishwick plays her as a spirited wild child, full of adventure, a giggling provocatrice who can’t wait to start living and loving – provided it’s with the man she chooses. When her domineering father sets her up with Paris – to be wed a few days after her cousin Tybalt has been killed (and awkwardly having already married his murderer) – you won’t believe the fit of fury that overtakes Juliet, pounding the cushions with flailing fists, shrieking her refusal to comply. You can see where she gets this hot-headedness from; her father Lord Capulet disciplines her with a substantial roughing-up that takes you by uncomfortable surprise – a very good physical performance there by Michael Hodgson.

R&J3I loved Ishia Bennison’s kind-hearted, meddlesome but very knowing Nurse, who created a good deal of comedy out of her characterisation. Andrew French gave a perfect portrayal of Friar Laurence, just the kind of cleric you would want as your own family priest; understanding, non-judgmental and with a sense of humour – the kind of person you could confide in. Raphael Sowole’s Tybalt is a figure of intimidating power, although no match for Romeo’s fancy footwork with a knife; and I really liked Afolabi Alli as Paris, a refined, polite characterisation but showing just that flash of sleaziness as he relishes the prospect of getting Juliet between the sheets.

R&J11An intelligent yet accessible production of what may be considered the ultimate tragedy, yet retaining a brilliant lightness of touch to reflect the youthful aspirations of its characters. Hugely entertaining, and you leave with a much deeper insight into the characters than you had before. It’s in the Stratford repertoire until 21st September then in the Barbican repertoire from November to January 2019. Highly recommended!

Production photos by Topher McGrillis