Review – Of Kith and Kin, Crucible Theatre Studio, Sheffield, 30th September 2017

Of Kith and KinMothers-in-law, eh? We’ve all got them. Well, no, I realise we don’t all have them. I have one, and she’s a queen amongst mothers-in-law (she’s reading this). Mrs Chrisparkle had one; and like most mothers-in-law, the Dowager Mrs C had her moments. Daniel and Oliver both have mothers-in-law, in Chris Thompson’s new play Of Kith and Kin, currently playing at the cosy Studio theatre at the Sheffield Crucible. We never see Daniel’s mother-in-law; but we do meet Lydia, Daniel’s mum, a woman who can extinguish all hope out of both her son and his husband, with her subtle manipulation, deliberate use of gently antagonistic language and both hurt and hurtful expressions.

OKAK James Lance and Joshua SilverOf course, she doesn’t feature that highly in Daniel and Oliver’s domestic arrangements. They’re much more focussed on the fact that they’re expecting their first baby any minute now, courtesy of their friend and surrogate-mother-to-be, Priya. Priya’s already been a surrogate for another couple so she knows the ropes. However, when Lydia arrives unannounced at the baby shower, tempers flare, things are said that can’t be unsaid, and the general stress of the situation causes Priya’s waters to break.

OKAK James LanceSo far, so good; a modern family situation deftly created by Chris Thompson, with lots of comic moments and perhaps room for an underlying tragedy lurking somewhere ahead. Come Act Two – still before the interval, it’s a traditional three Act play and the cliffhanger moment comes at the end of the second act – and we suddenly realise the play has gone in a direction that’s completely unexpected. That black comedy of the first Act has turned into challenging and thrilling drama that doesn’t let up until the end. Think you’d got to know the characters quite well? Think again.

OKAK Joanna BaconIt’s hard to discuss the play in depth without giving away the plot and I’ve no wish to ruin it for you, gentle reader. Anyone can have a bad mother-in-law day, when she identifies your weak spot, pushes all the buttons and detonates an explosive response. However, not many people would experience the same disastrous fall-out as Daniel and Oliver, which is the main substance of the plot development. The play is full of fascinating and compelling themes like honesty in relationships, manipulative behaviour, loyalty, and “doing the right thing”. It’s a very grown-up piece of writing, in that it never criticises or casts doubt on the desire of a gay couple wishing to have their own child through surrogacy; not even Lydia sneers at that. It raises the issue of the inherited nature of abusive relationships, and subtly explores it in an unexpected way. In the end, only one character actually gets what they want; and it’s a very revealing insight into that kind of character.

OKAK Chetna PandyaBut there was just one thing we didn’t understand in this play – and it’s quite a big one: Priya. Priya makes a number of decisions through the course of this play and we could not understand her motivation for any of them. Maybe it’s because the play is very much written from the perspective of the character of Daniel, and perhaps Oliver too, that there’s no real attempt made to get inside her brain and emotions and examine her motives. Still, at least it makes for an unexpected and constantly surprising play.

OKAK Donna BerlinIt’s beautifully acted throughout, with James Lance as Daniel and Joshua Silver as Oliver forming a very convincing couple, bright and relaxed on the surface, bubbling with tension on the underneath. Chetna Pandya’s Priya comes across as a sensible but fun-loving best friend, although her anxieties begin to show toward the end of the first Act. Joanna Bacon turns in two superb performances, both as the sullen and difficult Lydia and the hard-nosed, manipulative Carrie; and I really enjoyed Donna Berlin’s performance as Arabelle, a character in a position of authority but with a devilish streak of unconventional humour.

OKAK Joshua Silver and James LanceIt’s certainly a play to make you think; and you may come away wondering how you’d ever trust anyone ever again. This smart production runs at the Crucible Studio for one more week until 7th October and then plays the Bush Theatre in London from 18th October till 25th November. Very enjoyable, but also uncomfortable viewing!

Production photos by Mark Douet

Review – A Tale of Two Cities, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th March 2014

A Tale Of Two CitiesI have a confession to make, gentle reader. Despite the fact that I went to that Oxford place and got a degree in English, I have never read A Tale of Two Cities. I’ve never seen the film of A Tale of Two Cities. I didn’t even know the story of A Tale of Two Cities. I knew the first line, and the names of the two cities involved, but that’s about it. I know, I’m shocked too. It’s therefore difficult for me to assess how true Mike Poulton’s adaptation is to the original – Oliver Dimsdalea quick read of Wikipedia’s “Two Cities” page suggests that a few characters and storylines have been removed but I can see how they could have got in the way of recounting the main story and that the conciseness is probably a good thing. What I can tell you, from my position of ignorance, is that it is a thrilling story that moves at a fast pace and it’s a production that gives you an amazing sense of sweeping, grand theatre on such a relatively small stage.

Sydney CartonThe play follows the fortunes of two men. One: Charles Darnay, born French aristocrat but renouncing the title in principled protest against the injustice of the society of his birth; a kind of eighteenth century continental Tony Benn I suppose. Two: Sydney Carton, a wastrel of a solicitor, who saves Darnay from the gallows, falls in unrequited love with Darnay’s beloved Lucie Manette, and in a surgeJoshua Silver of extraordinary altruism plans to get Darnay smuggled out of prison in Paris and takes his place at the guillotine. There’s a lot in between of course, but it’s a rough framework. I was staggered by the ending – I expected Carton to make some heroic last minute escape. That’s what happens when you’re 155 years behind everyone else in the book club.

La tricoteuseMike Britton’s fantastically adaptable set of peeling walls and wooden battens suggests equally convincingly the courtrooms, dingy pubs, elegant drawing rooms, streets and prisons of London and Paris, as walls and partitions slide open and close, revealing and concealing hidden onstage depths. The costumes are a splendid mix of the plush and the threadbare, suggesting the gulf not only between the French aristocracy and peasantry, but also a distinctionAbigail McKern between the likes of the Manettes and Carton. Rachel Portman (I’ve seen her Oscar) has composed the stirring and moving original music for this production, including a delicate overture at the beginning of the play, gently sung by cast members rather mysteriously wending their various ways behind a gauze screen. And James Dacre’s lucid direction concentrates on Dickens’ enigmatic characters and riveting story so that the evening passes far too quickly. It’s extremely impressive how the mainChristopher Good professional cast and the Royal and Derngate Community Ensemble work side by side so that you can barely see the join. I loved the ribald London mockery of the ensemble during the early court scenes jeering at the protagonists from the balconies, a fine contrast with the grim-faced Parisian citizens who observe the Tribunal and take serious, considered notes with their quill pens (no doubt all their notes just read “guilty”). Using the ensemble gave the whole production an extra depth and a sense that a terrorising mob may never be more than a few feet away.

The TribunalAt the centre of the story is Sydney Carton, played with thoughtful gusto by Oliver Dimsdale. The play starts with Carton convincing the Old Bailey jury that Darnay is innocent, so he automatically becomes a “good man” as far as the audience is concerned. But he’s an incredibly complex character, not your usual Dickensian young hero, because of his drinking and challenging behaviour. Christopher HunterYet at the same time he is remarkably noble and almost Christ-like in the way he redeems himself by giving his own life so that the people he cares about can enjoy theirs. There’s only really one scene where Carton is depicted as a bad lot, and that’s when he takes Darnay to the pub and tries to goad him after downing too many glasses of fine Burgundy. I thought Mr Dimsdale gave a very good insight into a character that can never be at peace with himself, Ignatius Anthonybut at the same time I never really felt he was that much of a lowlife, and that he’d probably be quite a laugh down the pub. Maybe that says more about me than him. Certainly the final scene, when he does a far, far better thing than he has ever done, is totally superb, with the guillotine and the static mob slowly coming into focus as he approaches his doom with complete dignity and heroism.

Mairead McKinleyThe character of Darnay, however, is virtuous throughout, in his dignified appearances in court, in his honourable abandonment of his dreadful heritage, in his generous behaviour towards Carton, and in his devoted love for Lucie. Joshua Silver appears the very model of decency throughout and gives a strong convincing performance. I very much liked Christopher Good as Dr Manette, refined, sincere and wanting only the best Michael Mearsfor his daughter, struggling with the mental scars left by his eighteen years in prison, and visibly disgusted at how Defarge uses his old letter further to condemn Darnay. Yolanda Kettle is a very demure Lucie, yet strong in the face of adversity when Darnay returns to Paris and I reckon she could put up a tough fight when pushed.

Sean MurrayIgnatius Anthony has a great stage presence in all his roles and I particularly liked his defiant Defarge and his languorous Attorney General. Mairead McKinley is a suitably vicious tricoteuse Mme Defarge (knitting provided courtesy of Lady Duncansby’s lady’s maid, the Belle of Great Billing), and a rather charmingly comic myopic Mrs Keating. Abigail McKern is fantastic as the faithful and spirited Miss Pross, with her brolly a force definitely to be reckoned with, and also as court witness Jenny Herring, tart with a heart of granite. Sean Murray gives great support in all his roles including as a delightfully devious Barsad. But for me the two stand-out performances of the night are by Michael Mears, both as the authoritarianYolanda Kettle but human solicitor Mr Stryker, and the good-hearted, selfless, brave banker (not often you see that phrase these days) Mr Lorry; and by Christopher Hunter in all his roles but particularly as the vile Marquis St Evrémonde, arrogantly taunting his nephew and treating everyone like dirt, and as the aggressive, demanding President of the Tribunal who masks his own personal sadism with the glorification of the Republic.

An engrossing story, richly told, with some great performances and all presented within an exciting, stimulating production. Definitely recommended!