Review – Blues for an Alabama Sky, Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, London, 26th October 2022

Blues for an Alabama SkyThe second stage (literally) of our three-part Blitz on the National Theatre was to see Wednesday’s matinee of Blues for an Alabama Sky at the Lyttelton Theatre – Lynette Linton’s acclaimed production of Pearl Cleage’s 1995 play. Set in Harlem in 1930, Angel is a club singer who shares an apartment with her friend Guy, a clothes designer whose dream is to create extravagant outfits for his heroine, Josephine Baker, in Paris. Fired from her job and dumped by her gangster boyfriend, Guy carries her home drunk with the assistance of a handsome passing stranger. Supported by Guy, and their friends Delia (from the adjacent apartment) and Sam, a local doctor, Angel sets about picking up the pieces of her life. But then the passing stranger passes by again, this time deliberately, to see if Angel has recovered, and he doesn’t seem likely to take no for an answer…

CastPlays are peculiar things. A bunch of words on paper, they come to life when transferred to a stage – especially if the creative team behind the production gets it right. This is one such occasion; a superb production that – dare I say it – elevates the words on the page to a level way further than you might expect. Lynette Linton’s direction, Frankie Bradshaw’s set and especially costumes, Oliver Fenwick’s lighting, Benjamin Kwasi Burrell’s music, and so on, all contribute to presenting us with the most elegant of productions. It shrieks class, although it’s far too elegant to shriek.

Angel and LelandThere’s also something about the production – and I can’t quite put my finger on why – that lures the audience into complete involvement with it. So when a character makes a really telling statement, or a very dramatic event occurs, there are audible gasps, even cries, from the audience. To create that link between us and what happens on stage is a rare gift.

DeliaHowever, and it’s quite a big however, I must confess that I didn’t really like the play itself that much. It feels long – I’m sure it could have shaved at least twenty minutes off without losing any of its content. It was, occasionally, a little bit boring. There are a couple of major plot events that are telegraphed a mile off. I don’t believe it’s in Delia’s character to do what she does at the end of the play (no spoilers). And the suggestion in the final scene that Angel is about to embark on some kind of Groundhog Day re-enactment of what has gone before means that nothing has changed, which is  a miserable conclusion, no matter how stylishly it’s conveyed. The direction also triggered one of my pet hates, when imaginary walls that divide rooms or buildings are unnecessarily breached by an actor walking through them. No!! What are you doing!! You’ve just picked that chair up and moved it through a brick wall!

Sam and AngelHaving said that, the play is genuinely fascinating with the development of a character who is absolutely committed to the cause of a woman’s accessibility to both contraception and abortion rights, particularly as it is progressed through promoting it through the church. It also nicely examines the bigotry of the Christian right through the character of Leland, slow to recognise homosexuality in his surroundings simply because he cannot believe it exists in any environment where he might find himself.

AngelThe performances are fantastic throughout and fully justify your decision to buy a ticket! Samira Wiley, in her UK stage debut, is incredible as Angel. She is the kind of performer you simply cannot take your eyes off. No movement, no gesture is wasted; she inhabits the role so fully that you are completely convinced she is Angel. Her singing voice is superb, her emotions get you in the guts, and she’s a dab hand at the comic timing and business too. A remarkable performance. Giles Terera impresses as Guy, with an entertaining range of camp mannerisms and vocal tics that delightfully bring out the humour of the character, but also complement his kindness and his realistic ability to the cut the crap and get to the truth. Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo is brilliant as Delia, combining her earnestness with her innocence; she brings the whole audience with her on her gentle journey of love with the supportive Sam, another excellent performance from Sule Rimi. And Osy Ikhile is great as the handsome stranger Leland, the epitome of dignity and romance until the brutality of life stretches his patience too far.

Delia and GuyThe superb atmosphere that the production creates never lets up throughout the whole play, even if the play itself does occasionally leave something to be desired. But there’s a delicate mix of comedy and tragedy, fascinating character development, and an incredible connection with the audience which means the good definitely outweighs the not so good.

Production photos by Marc Brenner4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – The Corn is Green, National Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre, London, 27th May 2022

The Corn is GreenEmlyn Williams wrote the first play I ever saw at the theatre – I was six, on my own, in the front row for the local amateur dramatics group’ production of A Murder Has Been Arranged at the Wendover Memorial Hall. I was entranced, and a lifelong love of theatre was born. Imagine a six-year-old being out on their own to see a play nowadays – you’d call in Social Services at once! Things were different in the old days. Thirty years or so later I became friends with a chap who had acted with Emlyn Williams when he was a callow youth, and Williams was a big star. He was very proud of his albeit slight association with Williams, and, remembering that he had written the first play I ever saw, I also felt a strange sort of connection.

Nicola WalkerSince then, I have seen a production of Williams’ most famous play, Night Must Fall, but never The Corn is Green; and it was never on my radar as a play I should catch up with, until I saw that the National Theatre were mounting a production with Nicola Walker in the lead role. Being a huge admirer of Ms Walker’s TV career, I jumped at the chance. That was sometime in early 2020, and – well, you know the rest. Now that the worst of the pandemic is passed  (fingers crossed at least) I was thrilled to secure myself some tickets for its delayed performance. They say that good things are worth waiting for; this certainly proves that rule.

Nicola Walker and Iwan DaviesThe premise of the play is pretty simple. Miss Moffat arrives at a remote Welsh village with the intention of setting up a school, so that all the local lads have an alternative to a life down the coal pits. She wants them to be able to appreciate books, to extend their minds; to give them a fuller, more rounded understanding of what life has to offer. Despite opposition, she succeeds; and her first promising pupil is young Morgan Evans, whom she encourages, and develops to such an extent that she arranges for him to sit for a scholarship to Oxford. But can a boy who’s been bred to work down the mines leave behind the dismal future that he has always been expected to follow and break out into a middle-class world of learning and self-expression?

Iwan DaviesIt’s a semi-autobiographical play, and in the original production Williams played Evans; the character of Miss Moffat was based on his own teacher, Miss Cooke. And in a fascinating new twist to the play, director Dominic Cooke (no relation I presume!) has made Williams a key player on the stage. Not only does this production provide us with a performance of The Corn is Green, it also shows Williams going through the creative process, sometimes steering the production, sometimes discovering that it steers him. It’s a masterstroke of an idea and works incredibly well.

Williams at a partyThe play begins, for example, not with the house that Miss Moffat has inherited and will make into the school, but with a society ball, maybe in London, maybe in Oxford, where smart young things dance to the latest craze until the young Emlyn Williams bursts out of the proceedings, a sweaty, anxious mess, and decides to sit down at a typewriter and put his initial thoughts onto paper. As the play develops, Williams takes on the dual role of writer/director, deciding, for example, whether a character would speak in English or Welsh, whether they would enter the stage now or later, or whether the plot would twist this way or that. At one point Williams stops the show and makes the characters retrace their steps and do it differently – it reminded me of Laura Wade’s excellent The Watsons, where a character takes charge and shakes the rest of the cast into performing a different play. This extra dimension to the production allows Dominic Cooke to bring in a chorus of miners, all grubby faces and golden voices, that serve as a constant reminder of the world outside the schoolroom, never allowing Evans to forget his roots. There is also all the fun of the radio studio, with squeaking door sound effects, and actors never actually leaving the stage, just turning their back on the action. There’s a lot of façade going on, but it works a treat.

Teacher Nicola WalkerThe presence of Williams also serves as a bridge between the Welsh backwaters and the smart young society things, capturing both the grit and the glamour. The humour of the story is beautifully observed, with a harsh lack of sentimentality between the characters, a dismissive reaction to parental obligations, and a delightful obsequiousness towards The Squire, the local authority figure with whom everyone wants to ingratiate themselves – and he certainly expects it. As an outsider, Miss Moffat wants none of that; but the scene where she deliberately fawns to him and flatters him, setting herself up as a mere woman who needs the strength and guidance of a capable man, is comedy gold.

Miners ChoirI had high expectations of Nicola Walker as Miss Moffat and they were achieved in abundance. She has the most remarkably expressive face; no need for speech, but within a space of ten seconds she can show a sequence of emotions that follow naturally on from each other, going from, say, surprise to disappointment, then knowing she shouldn’t have been surprised, to seeing the funny side and then the tragic side. Basically, she can do anything! Her Miss Moffat is wonderfully no-nonsense and ruthlessly determined. At one stage she is so fixated on Evans’ Oxford career, she reminded me of that terrifying moment in Gypsy where Imelda Staunton broke into Everything’s Coming Up Roses not for the achievement of her prodigy but for her own overweening success. But Miss Moffat is also supremely altruistic – the sacrifice she is prepared to make at the end of the play is something quite extraordinary.

Saffron CoomberGareth David-Lloyd is excellent as the ever-present Emlyn Williams, a class apart from everyone else, attempting to take charge of his characters and plot, even when his characters have other ideas. I loved Alice Orr-Ewing as the shallow Miss Ronberry, fluttering for the attention of the Squire, repelled by the baser actions of the boys. Iwan Davies is also excellent as Evans, at first cheeky and one-of-the-lads, later a serious student who wants to do well; but he wants it to be on his own terms. Saffron Coomber is superb as Bessie Watty, desperate for a glamorous life away from the humdrum of rural Wales, and there’s great support from Richard Lynch as the lugubrious, saved, Jones. Jo McInnes as the hard-working and totally unmotherly Mrs Watty, and the marvellous pomposity of Rufus Wright’s Squire.

A kissI wasn’t sure about the final image of the scene; I understand that Williams was bisexual and had a number of liaisons with men during his marriage and after his wife died, but I still didn’t really see the relevance of his ending the show with a romantic dance with Evans. A small quibble though. This is a very clever and revealing production that breathes new life into a well-known, traditional play; and Nicola Walker is absolutely fabulous. It continues at the Lyttelton just until 11th June, so you’d better get your skates on.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Five Alive, let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Absolute Hell, National Theatre at the Lyttelton, 28th April 2018

Absolute HellRodney Ackland isn’t performed much anymore. The only other time I’ve seen one of his plays was the commercially quite successful Before The Party, revived in 1980 at the Apollo, directed by Tom Conti. But the story of how Absolute Hell came into being is one that intrigued me, so I decided it was one I had to see.

absolutehell_1You may know, gentle reader, that I am very interested in the history of theatre censorship – indeed, in this 50th anniversary year since the abolition of stage censorship, I’ll be writing some blog posts in recognition of this significant event later this summer. Ackland wrote the original play, The Pink Room, in 1952, at a time when the Lord Chamberlain’s control over what was presented on stage was in its hey-day. It’s set in a seedy nightclub in Soho just as the Second World War was ending in Europe, and he wanted to portray all the human life and spirit that six years of war had brought out of people; and now that war was over, the people needed to find a new vent and expression to reflect that freedom.

absolutehell_2Ackland wrote a play that he knew would get a licence – but by all accounts, it wasn’t the play he wanted to write. He wanted his characters people to use liberated, foul language. He wanted them to portray all the sexual freedom they wanted to enjoy, gay and straight, inside and outside relationships, legal and illegal. He wanted to show people getting drunk, not just gently tipsy for comedy purposes but rip-roaring, destructive drunk. You sense there was probably no physical boundaries that Ackland’s characters wouldn’t have breached.

absolutehell_16But it was a flop – produced by his friend Terence Rattigan, who never spoke to him again. Disheartened by the experience, Ackland hardly wrote another thing; but after stage censorship was abolished, he revised the play so that it would reflect more what he had originally intended. And when he was an old man, and down on his uppers, the play was rediscovered by the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond and finally became a success. A perfect example of a play written at the wrong time, you could say.

absolutehell_9The main problem with the play – and by the sound of it, it’s always been the case, right since 1952 – is that it is just too long. The original word from the National Theatre was to expect a three hour, forty minutes production, and, with the best will in the world, you can’t even concentrate on Hamlet for that long. Forty minutes have been shed between the early previews and opening night, which makes you a) feel extremely grateful and b) wonder what in the way of narrative has been left out; because the other downside to this play is that not a lot happens. That isn’t a strength, like in Beckett, where it would have been so disappointing for Godot to turn up and take everyone down the pub; in Absolute Hell you always feel like it’s going to break into a strong storyline, but it never ends up going down that path.

absolutehell_4Spoiler alert in this paragraph! Four scenes – the opening and closing times at La Vie en Rose club over a period of five weeks – show manageress Christine slowly losing her hold over the club, from an opening position of running a place that everyone loved but didn’t make much money, to a final scene with a structurally unsafe building that has to be closed down. As La Vie en Rose slowly disintegrates, the fortunes of the Labour Party offices over the road thrive – in what might be seen as some rather heavy-handed symbolism; even their constant typing (which of course in real life they wouldn’t have been able to hear) provides an interruption and irritation to the activities of the club – and, indeed, to the audience. Over those five weeks, the hopes and dreams of La Vie en Rosers are shattered. Writer Hugh Marriner’s last ditch attempt to make a movie gets nowhere. His agent Maurice is exposed as a sham. His boyfriend Nigel leaves him for a woman. His mother finds out he’s not as successful as he pretended. His friend Elizabeth discovers a dear friend has died in the Holocaust. And of course, Christine loses her business and the building becomes derelict.

absolutehell_11As a slice of life snapshot of the summer of 1945, it makes fascinating viewing – you really get a feel for that post-war energy and optimism, but only outside of the club. Inside the club, life is claustrophobic and going nowhere. There are black market etiquettes to observe, and self-important people to be pandered to. You sense that any fun they have on the inside is purely ephemeral. The future is on the outside.

absolutehell_12There’s no denying it – this is an unpleasant play. Binkie Beaumont described it as “a libel on the British people” and I see his point. There are few positive characters in it, vastly outweighed by a variety of self-obsessed, cruel, pig-headed people whom you would run a mile to avoid. But who are we to say how any of us would be if we’d lived through the Second World War like these people? An experience like that would take a massive toll on society, and that, I think, is the prime aim of the play – to show fairly desperate lives and without any real judgment against them.

absolutehell_14Unpleasant it may be, but there is a big upside; this is an extraordinarily good production, primarily because of several really superb performances that keep you hanging on to find out what happens to the characters. Charles Edwards inhabits the character of Hugh Marriner down to his tobacco-stained fingertips. The slight stoop he adopts, the rambling, wheedling manner of speech, the petulance, his general impotence and all his other characteristics are all perfectly captured as he wastes his way through life. It’s an incredible performance. Kate Fleetwood is also brilliant as Christine who manages the club, with a perpetual twinkle in her eye at the sight of any remotely desirable man; she has all the attributes of a tough businesswoman apart from the important one of keeping an eye on the till. Welcoming and indeed almost grovelling to those in influence, whilst dismissing anyone who doesn’t fit her own opinion of a good customer, this is another excellent performance.

absolutehell_15Jonathan Slinger gives a superb performance as the arrogant agent Maurice, steeped in his own self-esteem to the belittling of anyone who gets in his way; Joanne David is delightfully charming as the easily duped and surprisingly refined Mrs Marriner; Martins Imhangbe conveys Sam’s desire to learn and expand his horizons in a terrifically enthusiastic performance; Jenny Galloway invests the critic R B Monody with a wonderfully huffy self-importance; and John Sackville gives a tremendous performance of sheer stiff upper lip as Douglas Eden. But it’s a marvellous ensemble cast of thirty-plus who throw everything they have at making these characters come alive. If it hadn’t been so superbly performed, it would have felt like a much, much longer show. An interesting period piece; but, seen once, you’d never want to see it again.

Production photos by Johan Persson