Another day, another piece of documentary theatre, this time with music.

I was first made aware of this Thatcherite swipe at all things different at the Olivier Awards in 1988 when Ian McKellen used a nomination speech to call it out. Most of the audience was a bit puzzled. A law to outlaw the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle was being sneaked through, but they hadn’t bargained on activism on a suffragette scale. Looking at the audience last night, I felt like I might be the only person around at the time, at least as an adult, yet they seemed acutely aware of the foundations it laid.

It was a piece of populist legislation that polarised in a way we see even more frequently today. Whatever its intentions, it may have achieved the opposite. It lasted fifteen years and met its demise twenty years ago. This show approaches it from the perspective of activism, something people relate to, identify with and use more today than pre-Section 28. It seemed to me to be factually accurate, much of it verbatim, with attributed quotes. The musical theatre form gives it great pace and energy, though it does at times seem a bit relentless, at the expense of vocal quality. A touch more subtlety wouldn’t go amiss, though this does come towards the end when it’s more reflective and serious, and I was after all bringing the average age up. A lot!

Ellice Stevens, Billy Barret & Frew’s show packs a lot of historical fact into less than two hours playing time, and story suits musical theatre. The four actors – Tika Mu’tamir, Ellice Stevens, EM Williams & Zachary Willis – perform with gusto, with Frew & Ellie Showering providing the accompaniment in Billy Barrett’s staging. There’s no set as such, but Zakk Hein’s projections allow swift changes between locations. It has it’s faults, but its an enlightening and enjoyable evening, and it struck me as original, documentary musical theatre!

Welcome back, New Diorama.

These tribunal’ plays used to be looking back from a distance after an inquiry was over, but when it came to the Grenfell Inquiry, it seemed too urgent, so the first part was staged late in 2021 whilst it was still in progress and now this second part just four months after the inquiry ended but before it reports. My emotions after Part One (https://garethjames.uk/2021/11/08/value-engineering-scenes-from-the-grenfell-inquiry) included disbelief and anger. Though these were still prevalent, an over-riding sadness overwhelmed me. This part of the inquiry focused on the testimony of the families and communities of the victims and survivors together with the responses of the technical experts and the authorities.

Seeing a dramatisation of extracts from an inquiry like this is a very different experience to reading about it or watching a news item concerning it. Most people wouldn’t concentrate on two hours of evidence and testimony and only those in the room would see the facial expressions and body language which is as important as the words. The grief and pain of the families as they describe the contrast between the warmth and empathy of the community and the clinical coldness of officials and experts is deeply moving. The implications of racism and suggestions that those lives mattered less is chilling.

It left me wondering how much more outrage there would be if it was a block of owner-occupier flats. The lack of sincere regret and remorse of most of those whose jobs exist to protect us from such tragedies is shattering. No other form of communication can convey all of this in a way which illuminates, enlightens and educates. I know there’s an extent to which it’s preaching to the converted but if only a handful discuss it with their friends and do something, however small, to press for change it will be an achievement in itself.

I urge you to catch the last few days of this important and urgent piece of documentary theatre.

Black Superhero

I love the Royal Court Mondays, where you can take a punt on some live theatre you wouldn’t otherwise book, for the price of a cinema ticket. Sometimes you’re disappointed, others thrilled, and all points in-between. Danny Lee Wynter’s debut play is a brilliantly staged and excellently performed piece that proves to be a chance well worth taking.

David is approaching forty, living with his sister Syd and her boyfriend, making his living as an actor by participating in her children’s entertainment business. His social life sees him at gay clubs with other black actors, most more successful than him, notably King, an American, star of a black superhero franchise. King is in an open relationship with his husband Steven, a white travel writer. David succumbs to King’s advances and even ends up accompanying him on a press tour to Australia to promote the latest film in the series. Though he appears to tire of the superficiality, promiscuity and obsession with sex in King’s world, he returns to his dark past of drink and drugs. During this time Syd becomes pregnant, he lets her down by going AWOL, and we learn more about their family background.

In another world again, we enter the black hero fantasies of King’s film character Craw in deftly executed scenes that seem to emerge from reality or run in parallel with it. The play moves between the three worlds seamlessly, packed full of great dialogue, very explicit and often extremely funny. There are lots of themes around identity and representation, but I didn’t feel they quite came together to create a cohesive narrative / message. That said, it’s a very audacious and impressive playwriting debut, which gets a brilliant production from Daniel Evans, with designs by Joanna Scotcher (set) Kinettia Isidore (costumes) & Ryan Day (lighting), which most debutants could only dream of. Wynter himself takes the lead role at the head of an exceptional cost in which Rochenda Sandall stands out as sister Syd.

It’s great to welcome a new playwright with such promise, who seems to have learnt his craft as much from being in the audience as performing on the stage.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been to a page-to-stage adaptation with someone who’s read the book and I haven’t, and not the first time we’ve both been satisfied with the outcome, which seems to me to be a hard thing to pull off. Hanya Yanagohata’s novel is by all accounts a mighty, dense tome, with a very loyal following. The stage adaptation has a 3 hour 20 min playing time, but it doesn’t feel like it.

Based on the pre-publicity I was expecting a story of four close friends, but it appears those of three of them have been moved more to the background in the interests of economy so that the play can focus on the story of Jude St. Francis, with two other older friends as much in the foreground, and the narration left to his social worker rather than shared amongst the friends.

Jude is a successful lawyer, a public prosecutor. He shares an apartment in SoHo New York City with actor Willem, artist JB and architect Malcolm. They have the sort of bond only university friends have. The others know little or nothing of Jude’s tragic background, which unfolds mostly in flashbacks. Abuse at a catholic school and in care follows him into adult life as a prostitute and even in work with rape, imprisonment and torture. The one beacon of hope is the benevolence of teacher Harold, with tragedy in his past, who eventually adopts him as an adult.

The most harrowing aspects involve self-harm, which stays with him as a permanent reminder of his past, and you know this will never go away. The long-term affects of abuse have never been brought home to me or impacted me like they do here. I have never looked away from the stage as much as I did here. It’s a tough watch, but it’s a story that should be told.

It’s almost thirteen years since I saw James Norton’s London professional debut in Laura Wade’s Posh at the Royal Court. A few more stage appearances followed, but this is on another level altogether. It’s a real tour de force of a quality that you rarely have the privilege of witnessing. Hugely impressive. The supporting cast is outstanding, with a special mention for Eliot Cowan who plays all three of Jude’s tormentors. The spontaneous standing ovation was certainly earned here.

Though it has a lot of director Ivo van Hove’s trademarks, and I’ve seen twelve other pieces by him, his staging here is less stylised and more realistic, in keeping with the material. It’s a small playing area, with a few rows of audience behind, onstage, but a continual projection of movement through the streets of NYC on one side opens it up.

Given its themes, you can’t use words such as ‘like’ or ‘love’, but it’s an extraordinarily dramatic presentation of important and seemingly timeless issues that we forget at our peril, one that seems to work as well for those who know its source as those new to it. If it takes a few star names to sell out a play like this in the West End, then so be it; theatre must continue to reflect the realities of society, good and bad, if it is to remain relevant.

You can always rely on theatre company Complicite to find something obscure and off-the-wall to adapt for the stage, and so it is again here, a Polish novel by Nobel prize-winner Olga Tokarczuk that is both a mystery about the deaths of hunters and an environmental man vs nature polemic.

Janina Duszejko, an eccentric old woman in a small mountain community, is both our protagonist and narrator. Her passions are the environment, animal rights and astrology. She is continually challenging men in power, and continually being put down by them. Though there is a linear narrative about the murders, the overarching theme is cohabitation of the planet between man and nature, and it goes off at tangents and in flashbacks into Janina’s world. It ends brilliantly with the narrator revealing whodunnit, and why.

The storytelling is illustrated by scenes played out on stage by nine performers in Complicite’s stylised combination of movement, mime and physical theatre, with Rae Smith’s predominantly black & white design featuring brilliant projected images and graphics on and behind them, and a highly atmospheric soundscape with original music. Kathryn Hunter is mesmerising as Janina / the narrator, onstage virtually throughout.

I felt it didn’t sustain it’s three hour length, though with better starting and interval timekeeping it would have been tighter, but Simon McBurney’s production was captivating storytelling nonetheless. Good to see Complicite back with a new work after six years or so.

Marjorie Prime

Jordan Harrison is another American playwright who’s never been on my radar, or indeed the UK’s radar it seems, despite having written 15 plays in 15 years. This 2014 work was his 13th, made into a film in 2017. It’s set 25 years into the future, but you wouldn’t call it SciFi, futuristic perhaps, though it’s prophesies may indeed come true sooner.

Marjorie is an eighty-something with dementia. Her daughter Tess and her husband Jon arrange for a ‘prime’, an AI companion with whom she can reminisce over episodes in her life they can teach him. He’s modelled on Walter, her deceased husband, at a much younger age. Her relationship with her daughter is brittle, but better with her son-in-law. When Marjorie dies, Tess gets her own prime, of her mother, but more to exorcise their troubled relationship than to relive happy times. The cycle continues when Tess passes away and Jon has his prime of her.

It’s the sort of play that occupies your thoughts more after it’s over than during. I felt I was looking at a version of the future, albeit only one, that I’m personally unlikely to experience. Nonetheless it has a plausibility about it which I found thought-provoking and more than a bit unsettling, even disturbing. It packs rather a lot into 75 minutes, slowly, delicately. Dominic Dromgoole’s production, on Jonathan Fensom’s handsome set, is gentle and brooding, making you feel like you’re peeping into the future in a clandestine, privileged way. All four performances – Anne Reid, Nancy Carroll, Tony Jayawardena and Richard Fleeshman – are pitch perfect, as subtle and nuanced as the material.

Some may find it too slow, I found it rewardingly cerebral.

The inspired idea that underpins Chris Bush’s play with songs (by Richard Hawley) is the telling of sixty years of social history through a building, an estate in fact, and one flat within it in particular. Though firmly anchored in Park Hill in Sheffield, it has a universality which makes you feel you are viewing the last sixty years of British social history through this one place and two interconnected families within it. Though the NT building is ten to twenty years younger, it’s architecture seems like an evolution of Park Hill’s brutalist style, so the play sits perfectly on its largest stage. This is a deeply satisfying piece of theatre.

Park Hill is a homage to French architect Le Corbusier, a post-war development meant to recreate the sense of community of the houses it replaced. It was built as a council estate to house thousands of the growing steel town of Sheffield’s working class. Newlyweds Rose and Harry, an ambitious young foreman, make their first home there. Their struggle to start a family eventually succeeds with the birth of son Jimmy. A while later, an influx of immigrants brings refugees Grace, her nephew George and niece Joy, from Liberia. Further on again and Jimmy and Joy get together, marry and give birth to daughter Connie. With the rise of Thatcherism in the 80’s comes unemployment and social unrest and the estate goes into decline and is eventually abandoned until the 21st Century brings regeneration and gentrification and a more affluent owner-occupier influx, here represented by outsider Poppy, escaping from London.

The blend of social history and personal storytelling work well together. In Ben Stones’ design, the stage is a footprint of one flat which houses these different families at different times, the iconic walkways of the estate rising behind and above it. The story hops back and forth between periods, sometimes scenes from each played simultaneously, seamlessly. Hawley’s songs, selected for the show rather than written for it, also seem to grow out of the story, commenting upon and illustrating it, sometimes sung in character, at others ‘in concert’. Though it doesn’t shy away from problematic issues and tragic events, the writing is objective, such as when it makes arguments for and against gentrification.

I was captivated by this show and felt I was looking back at the last sixty years, understanding more by focusing on it as a big picture rather than the detail of particular events. Robert Hastie’s staging is a brilliant use of the space, Hawley’s songs act as a soundtrack of this city and all of the hugely talented performers – too many to list – bring these people to life. One of the most memorable nights I’ve had in many at the Olivier Theatre.

Shirley Valentine

It seems to me surprising that Willy Russel’s iconic play about a mid-life crisis, or empty nesting as we might call it today, has only had one West End revival since it’s first production here in 1988 with Pauline Collins. Thirteen years ago it was the turn of Meera Syal, now it’s a triumphant return to the stage for Sheridan Smith, and it proves to be timeless.

Shirley’s in a loveless marriage with Joe, her two children have left home and we find her talking to the wall and sipping wine whilst cooking Joe’s dinner. She reminisces about the fun she’s had, that she no longer does, and the rut she finds herself in at 42. She’s frustrated and unfulfilled. Her best friend Jane wants her to join her on a holiday in Greece, but she knows she can’t, until she reaches breaking point and decides to go without telling Joe.

Before they’ve even arrived, Jane deserts her; she met a man on the plane. Shirley makes the most of her opportunity, then the tables turn when she meets Costas. She’s not deluded and realises she’s the latest in a line of conquests for Costas, but she doesn’t care as she too just wants some fun. When it’s time to return, though, she just can’t, and ends up in a different relationship with Costas, as an employee in his bar.

The occasional period joke falls flat (the Mersey poet Henry Adrian), but the dialogue still sparkles, funny but also poignant. Shirley sometime talks direct to the audience (as if we’re also the wall) which is just one aspect where Sheridan Smith comes into her own, with unparalleled audience engagement. This role is made for her, and she for the role, and she performs it with a relaxed realism that hits every note, to the point where she herself can’t help laughing. You could feel the identification of the women in the audience with the story, but even men today find it easy to empathise with her.

A 35-year-old play still resonating with a contemporary audience. I call that a classic. Great suff.

Romeo & Julie

I can’t remember the last time I was so emotionally engaged in a play. It isn’t a reworking of Shakespeare’s play, it’s a modern love story – moving, tragic and beautiful. Simply staged, with stunning performances, I adored every minute of it.

Romeo is a single dad from Splott, a working class area of Cardiff. He got a girl pregnant on a one-night stand which she at first decided to terminate but then changed her mind. After the birth she didn’t want the child, so Romeo is left, literally, holding the baby. His alcoholic mother tries to get him to put her in care and when she fails refuses to play a part in her granddaughter’s upbringing. He’s on his own, but he’s a loving dad.

There’s a chance meeting with Julie in the library. He’s killing time and she’s trying to study. She’s destined to read Physics at Cambridge, spurred on by her dad and step-mother who live nearby, but in a better part of town. Their relationship develops and history repeats itself, which results in a period of agony for them both as they weigh up their options. Julie’s parents won’t support her, Romeo’s mother is incapable of support though they do take refuge with her. Not only are they in love with one another, but both with Romeo’s daughter.

Playwright Gary Owen showed he had an affinity with stories like these in three previous plays in the last eight years – Violence and Son, Killology and Iphigenia in Splott. He has an ear for the dialogue of such characters – authentic and sparkling with humour, accompanied by sincere emotionality and pathos. You can’t fail to have empathy with all of these people, not just the lovers. There is a sense of both hope and hopelessness. I was captivated by it.

All five performances are pitch perfect. Callum Scott Howells invests Romeo with a nervous energy, physicality and vulnerability that is extraordinary. Rosie Sheehy brings the intelligence and logic of a budding scientist to Julie, but also her profound love for Romeo and his daughter Neve. Catrin Aaron as Romeo’s mum Barb shows the scars of being a single mum, her support for her son tempered by realism. Paul Brennen as Julie’s dad Col conveys the desperation he has for her to realise her potential and frustration with anything that might get in her way. Anita Reynolds as step-mum Kath shares these, but in a more detached way. Rachel O’Riordan has directed two of the other three Owen plays I’ve seen and she clearly has a strong connection with the material.

It’s great to see the NT hosting and co-producing the best of regional theatre, with Sheffield’s Standing at the Sky’s Edge in the Olivier next door, and this really is the best. Don’t miss this little gem.

Women, Beware the Devil

This is a new play set in England in the mid 17th Century, a turbulent period that included the English Civil War, leading up to the execution of King Charles I and the abolition of the monarchy, albeit only for a decade or so. This is the historical backdrop, but Lulu Raczka’s play is not a historical drama. It’s a fiction involving one noble family and witchcraft, oh, and the devil, of course. I was expecting something earnest, but its actually rather fun.

It takes place in the home of Lady Elizabeth and her louche brother. She’s on a mission to secure their line of succession, which means getting him married so that he can produce a male heir. She recruits young Agnes, who everyone is convinced is a witch. They engineer a union with Catherine, of somewhat lower status, but the Lord of the house doesn’t take to her and fails to consummate the marriage. He seems to have desires for just about everyone except her – servant girls and his sister amongst them. Lady Elizabeth and Agnes continue to plot, which involves the pregnancy of another servant with the Lord’s child and the promotion of Agnes to a full member of the household. As the English Civil War rages, the Lord finds himself a reluctant participant, drawn in to the royalist cause.

There’s a brilliant prologue by the devil linking the historical events to the present day and he reappears later to make sure we know who’s in charge. There’s witchcraft throughout, something very much in keeping with this specific period, yet its a very funny piece given an audacious production by Rupert Goold. Miriam Buerther’s design and Evie Gurney’s costumes are terrific, and there’s superb music from Adam Cork. This is the sort of production any young playwright can only dream of. In truth, I think the production outshines the play, which is entertaining but perhaps a little lacking in substance.

The performances are uniformly outstanding, with Lydia Leonard in total command of the stage as Lady Elizabeth, an unrecognisable Leo Bill as the Lord, absolutely brilliant, and Alison Oliver shining as Agnes. There’s a fine supporting cast, including a terrific cameo from Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea as the devil.

If you don’t take it too seriously, its a really entertaining evening.