Review – A View from the Bridge, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th October 2019

72458640_558168685003851_1621455574212280320_nIf asked the perplexing question, What’s Your Favourite Arthur Miller?, I think most people go for The Crucible option, with perhaps a solid minority plumping for Death of a Salesman. However, way back in 1988 I took the young Miss Duncansby on a date night to see the National Theatre’s production of A View from the Bridge directed by Alan Ayckbourn and starring Michael Gambon as Eddie Carbone – and it remains one of our all-time most memorable theatrical experiences. The pre-wedding anxieties faced by the Carbone family resonated very strongly with our own familial disasters in the lead up to ours. I could fill you in on the details, but that’s probably best kept for another time.

Nicholas Karimi as EddieJuliet Forster’s storming production for the Royal and Derngate, together with York Theatre Royal, arrives with many plaudits from its Yorkshire run – and quite right too. Fantastic performances, clear, lucid storytelling, usefully flexible stage design, and a story just as strongly valid today as it was in 1955. The Bridge in question is Brooklyn Bridge, which spans from smart Manhattan to down-at-heel Red Hook in Brooklyn, where immigrant labourers offload the cargo from the ships. Eddie and Beatrice play host to her cousins Marco and Rodolpho who have arrived illegally from Italy where there is neither work nor money. It’s just one of many such arrangements throughout the whole of Red Hook, and there’s only one code of conduct: you don’t snitch to the authorities. But when Rodolpho and Beatrice’s daughter Catherine become romantically entwined, Eddie’s jealousies and prejudices come to the fore.

Eddie and CatherineIn today’s Brexity times, immigration is a very live issue, and anything that makes us think harder about the personal problems facing immigrants and society’s attitude towards them, must be a good thing. But I was very much struck in this production how Miller was exploring not only the general subject of immigration, with questions of loyalty and family relationships, but also those perhaps more modern topics of mental health and what it is to be a man. There are four principal male characters in this play – Eddie, the family provider; Alfieri, the authoritative high achiever lawyer; Marco, the workhorse; and Rodolpho, the creative artist. Whilst Eddie would, naturally, see himself as being the pinnacle of manhood, he respects the lawyer although is “man enough” to question his opinion, and he respects the head-down, hard worker for grafting all the hours God gives to send money home to look after his children.

Lili Miller as Catherine Nicholas Karimi as Eddie and Pedro Leandro as RodolphoBut he has no respect for the artist, whose strengths lie in other directions – in the arts, in entertainment, and in surreptitiously winning the hearts of all the ladies. To Eddie, Rodolpho simply ain’t right. But Miller shows us that all four of these people are “proper men” in their own ways and in their own right. The only one who fails to abide by the common code at the end of the day, is Eddie – and you sense his mental health is far from stable, with his wild and unpredictable behaviour. That’s why this play translates perfectly as a modern version of a classical tragedy, with Alfieri as the chorus and Eddie as the tragic hero. Whilst the more cerebral Alfieri and Rodolpho use their intelligence and know that conciliation is the successful way forward, it’s not the same for the more physical Eddie and Marco. When Eddie demands that Marco makes good the dishonour he cast on him, and Marco seeks vengeance for the betrayal, there’s only ever one outcome in this clash of the alpha males.

CastRhys Jarman’s set is stark and comfortless, with the Carbone’s furniture arriving out of a packing case that descends from the sky, just like the crates the longshoremen unload from the ships – an Ikea ex machina, if you like. But the simplicity of the set is its strength. Even Alfieri’s office is represented by sitting on an old tea crate; and worrying prominence is given to the pole-mounted telephone stage right, always visible, but only used once, for the ultimate act of betrayal. Sophie Cotton’s opening scene background music is intriguing and atmospheric, and I was sorry not to hear more of it.

Nicholas Karimi as Eddie and Lili Miller as CatherineAt the heart of this superb production is an immense performance by Nicholas Karimi as Eddie. At first, I thought he might be a trifle young for the role – Miller’s stage direction stipulates that he’s forty years old – but those thoughts quickly passed as I realised that his relative youth intensified the creepier aspect of Eddie’s love for Catherine. Dogmatic, unreasonable, and with a finely expressed sense of his own self-doubt, Mr Karimi is hugely watchable throughout the whole play and conveys all of Eddie’s wild emotions with a mixture of great control and maniacal turbulence.

Robert Pickavance as AlfieriAlso threading through the production is Robert Pickavance’s tremendous portrayal of Alfieri, which elevates what could otherwise be quite a humdrum role into a genuinely tragic framework. Mr Pickavance takes instant control of proceedings, with his thoughtful, considered delivery directly slowing down the pace of the busy first scene. He has a fantastic stage presence, and it’s a commanding performance. Laura Pyper plays Beatrice with loving concern for both her husband and her niece, providing a voice of moderation in a volatile household. In her professional stage debut, Lili Miller is excellent as Catherine as her character journeys from trusting innocence to the sad realisation that she is being controlled and, you may feel, emotionally abused.

MarcoAs the vulnerable outsiders offloaded like cargo into the Carbone house, Reuben Johnson and Pedro Leandro create a very effective couple as Marco and Rodolpho. Mr Johnson’s impassive expressions convey the worries and the silent heartache he has in leaving behind his wife and children; because he is the kind of man who cannot talk about his feelings, those emotions build up angrily inside. His final showdown is a great expression of aggression mixed with justice. Mr Leandro is terrific as Rodolpho; it’s tempting to make the character overly effeminate or camp but this Rodolpho is a beautifully precise portrayal of a man whose strengths and abilities take him outside the usual herd; strengths that make the longshoremen laugh, that attract Catherine, that repel Eddie and that make Marco protective of him.

Not gonna lie – on the performance we saw, the stage fight at the end was incredibly clumsy and unconvincing, but everyone can have an off night. That aside, it’s a riveting, thought-provoking drama that explores many of mankind’s worst aspects. Timely, slick and with tremendous performances, this production continues at the Royal and Derngate until October 26th, but really deserves a life hereafter.

Production photos by Ian Hodgson

Review – The Kite Runner, Wyndham’s Theatre, 11th February 2017

The Kite RunnerIt appears that I have been living under a rock for the past fourteen years because I confess, gentle reader, that I had never heard of The Kite Runner. You know, that famous book by Khaled Hosseini, published in 2003, that spent 101 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list, that was adapted into the film of the same name that was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007. That’s the one. Never heard of it.

the-kite-runner-3-ben-turner-and-andrei-costin-photo-robert-workmanMatthew Spangler’s dramatic adaptation of the book first saw light of day in 2009 at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, San Jose, California, but didn’t appear in the UK until it was picked up by the Nottingham Playhouse in 2013, and this West End run is basically the same production including many of the original cast members.

-kite-runner-nottinghham-playhouse-2013-image-robert-day_023d0b9211c81080a1a608b6bee371feIt’s the story of Amir, the son of a wealthy Afghan merchant, and his friendship with his father’ servant’s son Hassan, as boys growing up in an exclusive area of Kabul in the 1970s. Kite flying in Afghanistan (subsequently banned by the Taliban) was a popular and respected sport, and the boys would love nothing better than to spend the day in competitive fun; Amir was a great flyer, and Hassan excelled at Kite Running – knowing the precise spot where the kite would land so that he could bring it back to his master. It’s a similar relationship to that between a huntsman and his ghillie. It’s not enough simply to win the tournament, you also have to regain possession of your victorious kite. It’s like catching the boomerang again once it returns.

23306_show_landscape_large_04-kite-runnerAmir longs for recognition and love from Baba, his father, but he is a distant and strict man, who doesn’t have time for Amir’s woolly pursuits, like writing fiction, for Heaven’s sake. Amir knows the only way he will win Baba’s attention and affection will be if he wins the kite flying tournament. Hassan knows this too, and will do anything to secure the kite back for Amir; absolutely anything. But when Hassan’s unquestioning and unconditional loyalty to Amir takes him into physical danger, Amir fails to step in and prevent his friend from being harmed. And he’s going to regret that for many, many years to come. The story is full of surprises and twists and I’ve no wish to deprive you of experiencing the first-hand discovery of what happens next, so if you want to see how Amir and Hassan turn out, you’ll have to go see it for yourself.

the-kite-runner-2-ben-turner-centrephoto-robert-workman1-700x455It’s a play about loyalty and trust, love and devotion; racial and religious intolerance; the plight of refugees and the instinct for survival. It takes us from cosmopolitan Kabul in the 70s, through the 80s invasion by the USSR, the family’s resettlement in California a little later, to Peshawar in Pakistan in the mid 90s, back to war-torn Kabul under the Taliban rule before finally completing its story in California in the 21st century. At times the story takes on epic proportions, at others it’s very intimate and personal; and the unifying thread throughout the play is Amir, permanently onstage as the narrator of his own story, the focus of all the attention from child to adult.

kite-runner-panoramic-shot1-1024x397And it’s overwhelmingly emotional. At least, that’s what I felt. By the time it ended it had made me cry not once, not twice, but three times. Honestly, where was my self-respect? It’s quite uncomfortable sitting in the middle of the crowded stalls with your body going through those barely controllable convulsions you get when you really want to burst into hysterical tears but have to keep it hidden inside for the sake of decorum. Much to my surprise, Mrs Chrisparkle managed to avoid having to fight back the tears, leading her to suspect that this is more of a boys’ play than a girls’. She might be right; although the lady to her left was drowning in Kleenex barely 30 minutes in to the first act. It’s certainly a very male-centric play, if that word exists, with few female characters of any substance; but then again, that’s probably an accurate representation of Afghan society.

thekiterunner2017_02But it’s more than just a blubfest, it’s a riveting story, told beautifully, with crystal clarity and simplicity and with some immense performances that will stay with you long after curtain down. Barney George’s design pays maybe almost too much attention to those two large unfurling kites at the back of the stage. They act as a screen backdrop for swirling images and to hide backstage characters before and after they leave the stage – but, to be honest, I found them a little disruptive to the general flow of the story. Apart from that, I loved the use of the staging; the simple formality of Afghan lifestyle later to be overwhelmed by the garishness of the refugees’ arrival in California, which provides a much needed few minutes of hilarity. Hanif Khan makes a tremendous contribution to the show with his tabla playing; providing the equivalent of an overture before the play gets underway (which gets a huge round of applause) to providing constant incidental music throughout the show, never obtrusive but always atmospheric and enhancing the mood. Who knew that you could get such tuneful sounds out of drums?

thekiterunner2017_01At the heart of the play is the central performance of Amir by Ben Turner. I’ve not seen Mr Turner before but what a mesmerising portrayal he gives! The youthful Amir with a strong heart full of optimism; the older boy with his heart tainted by his selfish lack of care for his friend; the young adult tentatively getting to know the (apparently) only female Afghan in California; the wiser man lured back to Asia to see his father’s best friend and desperate for atonement for his sins; the family man trying to make the best of what remains in the post-Taliban era. Mr Turner makes you empathise with Amir both when he’s a kind, good man and when he’s more of an anti-hero. Even though the character makes some appalling errors of judgment, you still care about him. Technically brilliant throughout, with neither a foot out of place nor a vocal inflexion underplayed. Fully deserving of his instant standing ovation.

thekiterunner2017_04Andrei Costin’s Hassan is a study in devotion; like a puppy removed from its mother at too young an age, he simply worships the ground on which Amir treads, or he just wants to play. It’s a wonderful portrayal of someone who is too trusting, too self-effacing, but who almost gains strength and credibility by the extent to which he allows himself to be hurt. When Hassan is presented with those dreadful moments when the only way of supporting Amir is to sacrifice himself, Mr Costin shows us those angst-ridden flashes of pain and dismay as he accepts the inevitable, and your heart breaks for him. You’re in for some very emotional times. This is his West End debut – and boy, is it a good one.

thekiterunner2017_03Emilio Doorgasingh invests Baba with a forceful personality that dominates the young Amir but also lets you see his vulnerable side as his relationship with Ali and Hassan breaks down; Baba’s eventual slowdown once he reaches California is very moving to observe. Nicholas Khan is great as Baba’s friend Rahim Khan, showing Amir a warmer side to the traditional male role model, and again very moving when Amir returns to see him in Peshawar later in the play. I was very impressed with the physicality of Ezra Faroque Khan’s performances as Ali and Farid, the-kite-runner-2creating very believable and recognisable characters even before they have spoken a word, just through his movement. Antony Bunsee gives us a magnificently stern General Taheri; Lisa Zahra plays Soraya with charm and kindness; and Nicholas Karimi makes the best of his villainous opportunities as the cruel Assef, a vindictive, sadistic thug who hides his true nature with his hypocritical behaviour with Baba and Rahim. But it’s an all-round excellent ensemble who work together beautifully and there isn’t a weak link in the chain anywhere.

the-kite-runner-8-lisa-zahra-and-antony-bunsee-photo-robert-workmanMrs C said that some of the so-called surprises didn’t come as a surprise to her. Well, all I can say is that she must be psychic or something. As for me, I was simply hooked from the start to the finish, I took and accepted everything the story told me – I was putty in the production’s hands. It gave me an insight into lives I didn’t know about, and shows that those human emotions we all recognise in ourselves and our loved ones can also be found in those statistics of Islamist war victims. It’s on at Wyndham’s until 11th March and I’d highly recommend it.

Production photos by Robert Workman and Robert Day