Review – Mogadishu, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th February 2012

Mogadishu“It’s about Africa, then?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle on the way to the theatre. “No, I think it’s about a school” came my rather uncertain reply. In fact, the only reference to the capital of Somalia in the play is when the middle-class girl says that what sets her apart from the other scumbags is the fact that she knows where Mogadishu is. As it happens, she doesn’t; and in many respects she isn’t set apart from the other scumbags either. Not that the majority of them are scumbags. As you can tell, it’s not a straightforward business.

Ryan Calais CameronVivienne Franzmann’s play is as gripping and exciting an unfolding of a story as you could possibly wish. From the very first scene you are hooked into its snowballing tale of racism, lies, bullying and justice. And you really have no idea how it’s going to end until the final three scenes tie it all up. This is her first full length play, having worked as a secondary-school teacher for twelve years. It shows. I cannot imagine how anyone other than a teacher would have the insight and authority to tell this tale in this context. I completely believed in it all the way through.

Jackie CluneAnd, although the material in this play is very dark, it manages to be very funny too. It’s tightly written – not a word is wasted. Everything drives either the story or characterisation forward at a cracking pace. Its simple but effective staging emphasises the starkness of its reality, its people trapped in their lies. Co-produced by the Lyric Hammersmith and the Manchester Royal Exchange, it’s a credit to both of them.

Nicholas BeveneyOne particularly interesting aspect of Tuesday’s performance is that the theatre was full of school students. When Mrs C and I saw them in the foyers we were desperately hoping they were seeing Stomp in the Derngate; but no, they piled into the diminutive stalls of the Royal. We just hoped they would have some adults with them to make sure they stayed shut up. We needn’t have worried. This play clearly hit home with the youngsters – they were captivated; and they learned a few interesting lessons about being in an audience. This play has some Ayckbournian laughter moments – by which I mean you witness something desperately awful, that means a personal sadness to someone in the play – but it is written so deftly amusingly that you burst into hysterical laughter. Then the laughter stops in your throat as you silence yourself with embarrassment; then people around you laugh at your reaction. That happened a couple of times during the play; the youngsters sounded appalled at what they had found funny; and it’s fascinating to observe.

Jason BarnettI’m going to refrain from telling you anything about the plot of this riveting story because I think you need to see it for yourself. Let me tell you instead about its splendid performances. There are two characters right at the heart of this play. Jason, played by Ryan Calais Cameron, is the gang leader and thought by Amanda, the teacher played by Jackie Clune, to be more sinned against than sinning. Rosie WyattYou decide if she is right. Mr Cameron is perfectly cast – a natural authority with the minions who surround him, a tough bully to get his own way, wheedlingly affectionate (some of the time) with the girls when trying to coerce them against their will, yet instantly flinching and subordinate to his father Ben, played superbly by Nicholas Beveney. There’s a great scene where Jason starts out all cocky and mouthy with the unimpressed Ben, and who suddenly shrinks visibly as his father moves to dominate over him. Mr Cameron portrays the nature of the bully to great effect, both when they have power, and when their power is removed. Really good work.

James BarriscaleJackie Clune’s Amanda is the kind of teacher you would have liked to have had at school yourself – compassionate and caring, and with a clear sense of right and wrong. It’s fascinating to see her self-confidence and confidence in others slowly becoming eroded with the gradual realisation that she is no longer in control of her work issues. Just before the interval is a superb scene where her self-belief starts to ebb away and provides a tantalising cliffhanger moment to take you through fifteen minutes of deep discussion about the first half. You desperately want justice to go her way, but as it appears increasingly unlikely you get wrapped up in her emotional angst.

Savannah Gordon-Liburd She is matched by her mouthy, troubled daughter, Becky, played by Rosie Wyatt, whom we saw as the troubled daughter Rose in Love Love Love last year – careful, don’t get type-cast. She gives another exuberant and painfully honest performance; once you brush away the hard defensive exterior of her character, her great vulnerability is exposed. And there’s a solid support from Amanda’s husband Peter, played by Jason Barnett, offering kindness and practicality, often to have it thrown back in his face.

Hammed Animashaun James Barriscale’s Headmaster Chris gives a good account of a man already overworked and having to deal with an HR issue he really could do without, trying to be fair to all sides and having to fight against his personal views. His interview battles with Ben are powerfully exciting scenes. It’s very well written and staged.

Tendayi Jembere The other playground kids are all also excellently brought to life. I really enjoyed the assured performance of Savannah Gordon-Liburd as Jason’s most favoured girl Dee; more mature than the other kids, more intelligent and most aware of the difference between right and wrong. Her scene at the end with Amanda where she tries to make some reparation was pitched perfectly and tugged really hard at any notion of forgiveness you might have left in your soul.

Farshid RokeyAnother favourite was Hammed Animashaun as Jordan, the most carefree kid on the block, who gets some of the best lines and rises to the challenge of making the most of the humour in the play. The largely youthful audience really appreciated his characterisation and delivery. Tendayi Jembere played the rather dim but loyal Chuggs with sincerity and conviction, and Farshid Rokey’s Saif was the embodiment of chavtastic which somehow made his internal conflicts as to how much he was prepared to toe Jason’s line more painful and realistic. Michael Karim’s bookish Firat and Tara Hodge’s gormlessly gobby Chloe both added terrific support.

Michael KarimAt the end, I think it’s fair to say that no one wins, but the whole story hangs together perfectly and all loose ends get tied up with great satisfaction. If you’re thinking of taking Granny, do be aware that this play has more four-letter words than a bunch of sailors delivering dictionaries. I don’t particularly care for unnecessary swear words, but they’re all totally in keeping with the characters and context.

Tara HodgeA really strong performance of a really strong play that will make you think twice. You may come out of it a different person from the one that went into it; I love it when that happens. Touring till the end of March, definitely one to catch.

Review – Love Love Love, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 26th May 2011

Love Love Love I can remember as a teenager poring over my Plays and Players magazine and reading about this new dynamic company Paines Plough, who were doing tough new right-on plays that were changing the world. It’s only taken me 36 years finally to see one’s of their productions! Mike Bartlett’s Love Love Love has been touring since March and has two more weeks to go in Cambridge and Oxford.

The play traces the fortunes of a couple from their meeting in 1967, through their tempestuous marriage in 1990 to their coping with their grown-up children today. It pulls no punches where it comes to exposing the relationships bare and there are uncomfortable moments where the desperate needs of some individuals get annihilated by stronger characters.

Lisa JacksonAlthough it’s a play of three acts, it’s also a “play of two halves” to use footballing parlance, as both Mrs Chrisparkle and I found the first act somewhat underwhelming but the second and third acts riveting. Actually Mrs C described the first act as “a right turn-off”. This shows how Kenneth and Sandra got together, him downright pinching her from under his brother’s nose, and her being a willing pinchee. I thought Lisa Jackson as Sandra was particularly good in this scene, playing a most convincing posh 60s pothead. Looking like a young Tracey Emin, she strongly suggested all the freedom offered by the trendy lifestyle, and oozed a coy promiscuity by her body language and behaviour whilst also depicting the selfishness of the privileged young. The act certainly brightened up when she arrived on stage.

Simon DarwenThis scene also includes an excellent performance by Simon Darwen as Henry, Kenneth’s older brother who is hoping to score with Sandra but clearly hasn’t got a hope. Preferring classical music and disapproving of drugs because they’re “not legal”, I identified with some of the more staid aspects of his character and I felt he captured the doomed expectation that his brother would steal the girl away from him extremely well.

Ben AddisBut here’s the first act problem for me – well two problems. Firstly, it’s slow and seems to get unnecessarily bogged down with trivia in comparison with the tight, not-a-word-wasted speeches of the other acts. It’s almost as though there were two writers. The relative quietness of the first five minutes is a stark contrast with the overwhelming sense of confrontation that pervades every aspect of the rest of the play. The other problem is that, unfortunately, I didn’t really believe in the portrayal of the young Kenneth by Ben Addis. I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the actor or the writer, but I just could not see this slob, lounging around in a decadent dressing gown like a Slumdog Noel Coward, as having the magnetism required to “get the girl”. When I was a student I knew a guy who would always attempt to sleep with other guys’ girlfriends simply because he knew he could, and normally he did. But this young Kenneth really didn’t have that impact. However, as Kenneth in 1990 and 2011, Ben Addis was completely believable and gave a really top performance; although it’s stretching the imagination that by 2011 Kenneth was still playing his old record-player and hadn’t have gone out and bought all his favourite 60s music on CD, indeed if not having it all mp3’d wirelessly throughout his luxury pad.

Rosie WyattWithout giving away the rest of the story, Kenneth and Sandra get married, work hard, have two kids, and the rest of the play shows the journey (Yes! The “J” word!) that their self-obsessed relationship takes and the effect it has on their children, both as teenagers and adults. I commend the great performances from Rosie Wyatt as Rose and James Barrett as Jamie. Possibly the 1990 Rose was a little too like Catherine Tate’s Lauren for that age, but then I’ve never had a 16 year old daughter, so what do I know. Her 2011 parental demands pull everyone up sharp but are totally within character. There’s also a great little scene between father and 14 year old son where they smoke together and find a mutual ground in admiring one another. Throughout the play smoking is a common theme – it seems to be that if you’re smoking together, you’re on the same wavelength.

James Barrett  At the second interval, Mrs C and I decided that, given their upbringing and parenting, we thought the children in 2011 would have done pretty well for themselves and would be able to meet head-on the demands of daily life. You’ll have to see the play yourself to judge how accurate we were. Suffice to say the change of character in Jamie in particular was stunning to watch.

The whole question of coping with one’s parents or one’s children will always be one of life’s major themes. Some people manage it well, others don’t. The dilemma facing Kenneth and Sandra on the one hand, and Rose on the other is really well conceived and written. At times I agreed with one side, then I agreed with the other. I still don’t quite know who was right and who was wrong. It’s a play that keeps you thinking long past curtain down. I’m currently siding with the parents but I’m aware it makes me look like a heartless bastard.

I’ve read a comment online today from someone who attended the same performance and who described it as being “one of the worst things I have seen” at the Royal. Personally I think that’s way off the mark. It’s a challenging play and largely extremely well performed. The slow start is definitely to its detriment but it improves no end afterwards. No matter what, it’s great that Paines Plough continue to tour with innovative new work. Not everyone’s a Chekhov, but there’s still plenty here to get your teeth into.