Review – Falkland Sound, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 5th September 2023

Falkland SoundThe Falkland conflict; I remember it so well. I turned 22 during those alarming 74 days in 1982, and if it had escalated to full-scale extended war, I would have been ripe for conscription. Everyone watched and waited; hanging on every word reported by the Ministry of Defence’s Ian McDonald’s daily TV updates, gripped by Brian Hanrahan’s journalism:  I counted them all out and I counted them all back. The nation was divided when the Belgrano was sunk as it was sailing away from the exclusion zone – your attitude towards it basically depended on whether you were a fan of Thatcher. It was the era of Gotcha! and Stick it up your Junta! And of course, the conflict was Thatcher’s golden key to No. 10 for the next eight years.

the islandersRather than concentrating on the conflict’s effects on Thatcher and her government, Brad Birch’s new play tells the story of the Falkland Islanders themselves; their way of life, their environment, their national attachments (to Britain, and by nature of location, to Argentina), their relationships, their work, their leisure. 8,000 miles is a long way away, and few Brits ever get to visit the Falklands, so any extra insight into this loyal community is always welcome. Although they still had access to the pop music of the time, it still seems a world apart; letters take ages to arrive, and the prospect of coming to Britain to study is just a pipe dream for most. Still, if your boss is kindly disposed, he might allow you to let off steam with the occasional two-nighter, which sounds like the maddest hangover experience ever.

GabrielThis is a bold attempt to remind ourselves of the conflict and also that the Falklands are still there, still part of Britain, and still loyal. The characterisations of the islanders are both creative and powerful, with much of the narrative coming from two outsiders – John, who has arrived from England as a teacher, and Gabriel who works at a scientific research establishment and is Argentinian. The experiences they share with us, both concerning their day-to-day lives before the invasion and how they survived both the occupation and the liberation, are told with moving realism and sensitivity.

John and the islandersHowever, these scenes are also juxtaposed with life back in Britain, where the Conservative government was very unpopular and Tory grandees were looking for a way to make Mrs Thatcher look good again – and the Falklands invasion was the perfect opportunity. However, these scenes are depicted in a completely different way; unlike the realism of the Falklanders, the government figures are caricatures. They don’t even have names, just numbers, and there’s an almost pantomime-like ridiculousness to the way they behave. As a result, for me, the UK scenes are much less successful than the Falklands scenes.

Joe UsherThere’s also the problem that, with a lot to say, Brad Birch’s play gets very wordy and rather heavy going at times; to the extent that I found some of the narratives rather difficult to follow, with so many characters involved, including those who are not actually portrayed on stage, so there’s a lot of reported activity and conversation. As the play progresses, the writing improves as Mr Birch can concentrate on the immediate issue at hand – the arrival of the British troops and the recapture of the islands. But overall, the play does feel a bit chewy and long.

IslandersI wasn’t sure about the music; not so much the local playing at the drinking get-togethers, but more why the characters would break into the occasional rendition of, for example, Supertramp’s Goodbye Stranger or Spandau Ballet’s Gold. And it didn’t really aid our understanding of the play to have the islanders regularly picking up their buildings – houses, church, shop, etc – and moving them around the stage. I think the idea was to indicate whereabouts in Port Stanley each scene was set; but in reality it’s just a distraction.

Mrs HargreavesThere are some very good performances – Tom Milligan’s John and Eduardo Arcelus’ Gabriel stand out, as does Joanne Howarth’s Mrs Hargreaves and her impressive Mrs Thatcher impersonation. Joe Usher is excellent as Robbie, the British soldier who basically represents the entire British army. At our performance Oliver Hembrough who plays Geoff/Dad was indisposed and assistant director Mariana Aristizabal Pardo stood in, presumably at very short notice, and enabled the performance to go ahead – so three cheers to her!

RosieA fine attempt to tell this important and still relevant story, and it’s a fascinating insight into the lives of the islanders themselves. It’s a little heavy, a little slow, and a little inconsistent. But there’s much more that’s good about it than isn’t.

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – Rock, Paper, Scissors, Crucible, Studio and Lyceum Theatres, Sheffield, 28th & 29th June 2022

Rock Paper ScissorsIt’s always fun when a playwright thinks outside the box for new ways of presenting a story. The challenge that writer Chris Bush and Artistic Director Robert Hastie set themselves was to create three pieces that would use the three locations of the Sheffield Theatres all at the same time, dovetailing into each other and making one complete whole in the process. There’s been some precedent for this, but nothing quite on this scale. Alan Ayckbourn tells the same story three times in the Norman Conquests, from different locations within the house and garden. Michael Frayn’s Noises Off gives us the first act of the generic sex farce Nothing On from three different perspectives; in rehearsal, backstage and in performance. SusieIn both these plays you can piece together a fuller account of what’s going on simply by a hilarious mixture of repetition and relocation. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead Tom Stoppard shows what happens when characters who are not involved in the main story live out their own lives until the main play catches up with them. Here you get a sense of other lives carrying on outside of, and irrelevant to, the main plot; thus the backstage becomes the forestage (and then back again.)

Joe and LivBush’s immensely inventive and hugely enjoyable triple threat of Rock, Paper and Scissors, at all three of the Sheffield Theatres simultaneously, provides another of these riveting feasts where different perspectives cast different lights on the same story all at the same time. To say it’s a technical achievement would be the epitome of underestimation; and if the unexpected happens – and this is live theatre, so it does – causing a problem or a delay in one theatre, it has a knock-on effect in the other venues, as happened when we saw them, more of which later…!

ZaraThe basis for the plot is simple. Sheffield scissor makers Spenser and Son has been in business for decades. Eddie, the most recent owner, has died, and his two remaining relatives – Susie, his sister and Faye, his adopted daughter – both have plans to make something of the extraordinary building that remains.  Rock chick Susie envisages a funky nightclub, whereas Faye and her partner Mel feel a residential conversion would work. But Susie and Faye haven’t spoken for years; nor did either of them realise that Omar, the manager, still had a team of four apprentices making scissors in the workshop. Too soon, then, to adapt the building for other purposes? No matter what, there are three sets of plans and practices that completely conflict with the others!

Mel and FayeThe blurb maintains that each of the three plays can stand alone; or audiences could choose to see any combination of two plays or indeed all three. In my opinion, if you were only to see one, it should be Paper as that (I reckon at least) is the only truly standalone play; if you were only to see two you should combine it with Scissors; and if you see all three, see them in the traditional order of Rock, Paper, and Scissors, as we did. Although each play is written by Chris Bush, each has a different director, a different designer, a different lighting director, and so on. So each has a very different vibe and character.

The WorkshopAll three plays take the same central themes, although with varying degrees of emphasis. There’s the struggle between hanging on to the past versus making way for the future. Traditional values and skills set against modern cost-cutting methods. Opportunities through hard work are compared with opportunities through privilege. Bar work is offered instead of skilled apprenticeships. Hard truths and difficult problems are balanced against credible lies and living within your comfort zone. Perhaps most of all, the take-home element of these plays is what happens when you make assumptions about people, their motivations, characteristics and private lives; people have a remarkable ability to keep secrets, and then reveal them when you least expect.

Trent Liv and AvaRock is dominated by the character of Susie Spencer, the opinionated, ambitious sister who wants to create a nightclub out of the old factory space, beautifully realised on the Crucible stage by Ben Stones’ wonderful design. To kickstart the project, she plans to hold a photoshoot with a top photographer and a real band to promote the new venue. Susie tends to ride roughshod and be unnecessarily critical of others, which makes her an unsympathetic character, but Denise Black’s excellent performance invests her with all the brass neck and charisma to fill out a truly credible portrayal. She gets as good as she gives from a brilliant performance by Lucie Shorthouse, who was fantastic as Pritti in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie four years ago, as Omar’s daughter Zara, Xanderplus there’s excellent support from Andrew Macbean as her long-suffering wannabe beau Leo, and a superb comic turn from Leo Wan’s Xander (who is even funnier in Scissors) as the nervous corporate design consultant. But for me, this particular play suffers from its structure and script. It expends a lot of time and energy in a comedy of mistaken identity which is amusing at first but quickly palls as you realise that a simple conversation establishing who everyone is would put an end to the confusion. It’s too obvious a comic construct and I found these elements both unfunny and tedious. There are also passages of enjoyable but irrelevant singing, and it feels like there’s a lot of padding here.

OmarThings get so much better in Paper, which is written with much smarter tightness and purpose. The play looks closer into the relationship between Faye and Mel, their plans and their attempts to track down missing and vital paperwork to prove ownership and Eddie’s will. Samantha Power’s Faye faces the uphill task to find the will from amongst the reams of paper stuffed into his ramshackle old office. She is uncertain as to the right way to progress, unlike the much more practical and determined Mel, who divides the office into quadrants so that they can search methodically, and who takes charge of Xander’s professional visit when Faye starts to wobble. Primarily the play is a beautiful examination of the relationship between the two; the problems that lurk beneath the surface – issues of trust, respect and faithfulness, that lead on to serious mental health worries. Natalie Casey’s amazing performance as Mel had me choking back the tears as she sits on the floor desperately trying to her explain her feelings.

CocodamolThis emotional space is also invaded by the comically horrendous Coco and Molly – Chanel Waddock and Daisy May on excellent form – as the squabbling, pretentious, self-serving band Co-codamol. It was during one of their sparky arguments that the stage manager had to come on stage and inform everyone that due to a problem in one of the other theatres, they would have to pause the performance; Ms Waddock and Ms May looked as stunned as the rest of us felt as they were ushered off the stage. We later discovered there had been a little fire on the stage of the Studio during Scissors – much to everyone’s gasp of horror – and they were just waiting for that to “settle down”. It was a tough moment for Coco and Molly but they resumed their argument perfectly when it all re-started. Presumably other actors in the other theatres faced the same problem!

MasonPartly due to its modest setting in the round in the Studio, Scissors feels like a much more intimate play. Here we observe the apprentices actually doing the real work, for less than minimum wage; their relationship, their arguments, their commitment (or lack thereof) and their fears for the future. They reveal so much about themselves, and the importance of their jobs to their lives and their prospects. The whole factory is their domain, so when voices are heard in other parts of the building, they immediately assume industrial espionage or burglary, they distrust everyone who isn’t part of their group, and act as though everyone else is out to get them. That’s all except Trent perhaps, who is calmness and kindness itself when dealing with others. But they all have their secrets, which will astonish, entertain, and move you to tears. Jabez Sykes is terrific as the unpredictable and defensive Mason, and Joe Usher turns in a superb professional debut as the eloquent Trent. Maia Tamrakar is a powerhouse of energy as Liv and Dumile Sibanda shows fantastic maturity way beyond her years as the earnest Ava. All four create an incredible ensemble in this play and should have wonderful careers ahead of them. It’s up to Guy Rhys’ wounded, heavy-hearted Omar to break the news of their future to them – and it’s a complex, sad but truly beautiful ending. You may take away a different interpretation of the conclusion of the plays if you only see Scissors; you’ll have a very solid understanding of the outcome if you only see Paper. I’ll say no more!

Ava and LeoObviously, the very nature of this production must call for a certain degree of compromise and technical jiggery-pokery in the writing and construction. Just as the Porter scene in Shakespeare’s Macbeth allows for Macbeth and Lady M to wash off Duncan’s blood and change into their nightgowns before returning to the stage to deny all wrongdoing, Chris Bush has had to include tricks and passages to build in time to enable characters to leave one theatre and enter another. This may have some detrimental effect on the artistic integrity of the plays as a whole. I’m also unsure as to the necessity of having each character appear in each play; Mason’s appearance in Paper, for example, is totally irrelevant. I realise I am being super-critical for raising this, especially as it is the very challenge of staging three plays at the same time that is the most fascinating aspect of the entire production – more so than the actual subject matter of the plays. But the performances, the vision and the technical ability to stage this trio trump all criticisms. Really glad I caught this production – they only play until 2nd July and you won’t want to miss them.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Five Alive, let Theatre Thrive!