Posts Tagged ‘Alex Marker’

I’m very fond of the work of playwright Roy Williams. He’s one of the very few writing about contemporary urban life, black lives in particular. This is my eleventh play of his and he hasn’t let me down yet, and he doesn’t here.

The Firm were a gang of late-forties / early-fifties small time crooks in South East London. They’re reuniting to celebrate Shaun’s release from prison at Gus’ new bar on the eve of its grand opening. Selwyn brings young lad Fraser with him, allegedly a relative, a member of one of a new generation of very different gangs. Leslie and Trent have encountered Fraser before – he’s been preparing the way, and now he’s there with a proposition, but it gets lost in a deluge of skeletons and ghosts as truths are revealed, myths debunked and regrets surface.

Williams writes such authentic, ripe dialogue and after a slow start, the story unfolds and unravels with great pace. I liked the way it exposed the very different personalities and their motivations, how they’ve gone their different ways and how it contrasts the two generations. Though history is likely to repeat itself, it will be a very different one.

It’s superbly performed by a crack cast – Clinton Blake, Jay Simpson, Delroy Atkinson & Clarence Smith as the members of the old Firm and Simon Coombs as young Fraser. The Finborough’s resident designer Alex Marker has got his hands on a bigger budget and delivered an excellent realistic new bar. Denis Lawson’s staging is very visceral, not afraid to let its hair down as it exposes shocking truths.

This made me wonder why I don’t go to Hampstead Downstairs, a low profile, intimate space, more often. Definitely worth a visit.

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In a weekend of short plays, this second selection of three were all written and first performed during the first world war. They are separate plays by three different playwrights, but they go together well, with wartime songs as a prelude and some linking ‘business’ between them. They successfully create a real sense of what it must have been like for the women back at home.

In the first, Luck of War by Gwen John, Ann’s husband George has been missing in action. She has moved on and re-married Amos, who her children now call dad. Her life is turned upside down when George turns up again. This was the most satisfying of the three for me, with great central performances by Victoria Gee and Simon Darwen.

Handmaidens of Death by Herbert Tremaine (in reality, Maude Deuchar) is set outside a munitions factory where women of all classes risk their lives without even knowing it. Single girls share their feelings about their ‘predicament’ and the likelihood of marriage after the war as one of their number sees her man go to the front. The second half is cleverly performed in black-out. I enjoyed the performances, particularly Susan Wooldridge as Mrs Herring the tea-shop owner, but it didn’t really go anywhere.

The Old Lady Shows her Medals, by J M (Peter Pan) Barrie no less, features Mrs Dowey who feels so out of it that she invents a son. It starts with war wives and mothers boasting of their respective relatives, but takes an unlikely turn when Mrs Dowey’s non-existent son turns up out of the blue! He ‘adopts’ her so that she can continue her fantasy, until another turn of events makes it ever so real. Again, Susan Wooldridge and Simon Darwen impress as Mrs Dowey and her ‘son’.

It’s not the plays themselves, but the combination, that makes for a satisfying evening. By fringe standards, they’ve gone to a lot of trouble to build a big set (Alex Marker) and find excellent period costumes (Emily Stuart) and there’s an adult cast of 14 plus two children. I loved the scene-setting singing and the changes of tone of the plays themselves. A timely revival and a very worthwhile project from Two’s Company and director Tricia Thorns.

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For the second time this weekend, I found myself captivated by a 80 / 90 year-old play, though this one had more success first time round and was made into a film & also televised – but it hasn’t been staged for more than 80 years until this impeccable production by the ever enterprising Finborough Theatre. Why?!

John Van Druten’s play is set in a solicitor’s office in The City, but the play really revolves around the love lives of the secretaries. One is going nowhere with a Dutch diplomat. Another is going nowhere with a married man. A third is going nowhere with someone who’s too shy to say what he feels. This is all set against a backdrop of 30’s office life with the conformity, sexism & misogyny you might expect at that time, and people rushing around with rubber stamps and pink ribbons (I think they still use those today!).

It’s a beautifully structured play, with well drawn characters. There’s the old buffer who runs the firm, a young solicitor who thinks he’s god’s gift, a cheeky chappie office boy, the four secretaries & one of their beau’s and just one client. Alex Marker’s period set and Emily Stuart’s costumes are superb and the set changes are a delight, as the actors stay in character. Tricia Thorns staging has a fine attention to detail and brings out all the charming period idiosyncrasies.

It’s yet another terrific Finborough ensemble, anchored by Alix Dunmore’s superb interpretation of Miss Janus and Alex Robertson’s sleaze ball Brewer, who moves from flirting to predatory sexual harassment. Jake Davies is a brilliant bundle of energy as the office boy (a young John Mills in 1931!) and David Whitworth has real presence and authority as the firm’s principal. There are delightful cameos from Marty Cruickshank as a bonkers customer and Timothy O’Hara as secretary Miss Milligan’s love interest.

This is a thoroughly satisfying and hugely entertaining evening that I’m so glad I didn’t miss. The Finborough is turning into the sort of venue you just have to trust, as it sells out soon after openings (or before, in the case of the forthcoming Laburnum Grove by J. B. Priestly!).

After this and The Stepmother at The Orange Tree Theatre on Friday, I feel like time travelling to the 20’s / 30’s, when they clearly knew how to write proper plays!

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Fringe powerhouse The Finborough Theatre and one-man musicals machine Thom Sutherland have teamed up again to give us another European premiere of a Rogers & Hammerstein show that proves to be even more of a delight than State Fair.

It’s got nothing to do with Shakespeare’s R&J; it’s a simple onstage-backstage love story, but you get a real baddie and a second love story for your money. Clearly it’s not in the Oklahoma / South Pacific league, but it’s a decent show and therefore astonishing that it’s taken 27 years to be seen here. It didn’t take long to sweep me away.

Designer Alex Marker has cleverly reversed the usual theatre configuration and integrated both audience and cast entrance doors and the spaces above them into the set. There’s some terrific staging, including scenes of the show-within-the-show lighting men from both above the stage and looking down from the stage which are inspired, and there’s a brilliant surprise entrance. The chorus numbers are delicious Busby Berkley miniatures staged with tongue slightly in cheek looking back 50 years very affectionately.

The singing and acting are first class. Laura Main and Robert Hands are great romantic leads. John Addison was so menacing he brought a believability to the bad-guy character which could easily have been a caricature.  Jodie Jacobs was so spot in every way she could have time-travelled from the 50’s for the evening. Dafydd Gwyn Howells (wonder where he’s from?!) and Anthony Wise also impressed as Company Manager and Lighting Man respectively. The musical standards are outstanding with MD Joseph Atkins alone playing the whole score on his upright piano.

Charming and irresistible, I hope that, like State Fair, it gets a second outing . We’re so lucky to have theatres like the Finborough, Landor and Union putting on musical productions of this quality and people like Thom Sutherland to present us with opportunities to see rare gems like this. I’d say GO GO GO, but it’s probably sold out by now!

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