Posts Tagged ‘Maria Aberg’

Alice Birch has written 100 scenes about women’s experiences of the criminal justice system and set theatre companies the challenge of choosing 30 in any order to create a play. It’s like a jigsaw which itself challenges the audience, but the subject matter is challenging too. It’s bleak and sometimes harrowing, but it is insightful and thought-provoking.

The scenes vary in length and subject matter, some examining how the women ended up in the system at all, some showing the damage to relationships with mothers and children, some the impact of incarceration. One very long scene seems to turn the tables on those trying to help as their motivation and impact is questioned. It isn’t a linear narrative, some characters return, some don’t, yet it does provide a glimpse into these often seemingly hopeless situations, though its lack of hope brings the bleakness which does become a bit relentless.

Rosie Elnile’s two-tier design facilitates swift movement between scenes. Maria Aberg’s staging is stark and visceral. It would be invidious to single out any of the excellent ensemble of sixteen women. It’s staged as part of Clean Break’s 40th anniversary and it continues their campaigning, raising awareness. I was glad I saw it, though it wasn’t an easy ride.

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I’ve had a soft spot for this Howard Ashman / Alan Menken musical since I saw the original London production 35 years ago. It was successfully revived at the Menier Chocolate Factory 12 years ago, heading off on tour afterwards. Now it’s the latest in the Open Air Theatre’s summer musicals, the 31st I think, reinvented by director Maria Aberg and designer Tom Scutt.

Based on Roger Corman’s iconic 1960 b-movie, the musical was an instant hit off-Broadway, on Broadway and in the West End, where it ran for two years. When it was itself made into a film, the budget was 1000 times that of the original (which gave Jack Nicholson his screen debut). You wouldn’t think it was a natural for the leafy green Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, but it works. Scutt has built a B&W cartoon New York City, with a riot of colour provided by the characters and the plants of Mushnik’s shop where geeky Seymour breeds Audrey II and is in love with Audrey (I), his fellow shop assistant, who has a sadistic dentist as a boyfriend.

Audrey II becomes a sensation, leading to radio & TV interviews for Seymour and lots of new customers for the shop, but Seymour has been feeding the plant with his own blood and can hardly keep up. He ends up feeding it whole people, starting with Audrey’s boyfriend Orin, as the fame leads to magazine features, TV’s first gardening programme and a plant cutting franchise which sees plants take over America. Audrey II is normally voiced by an offstage actor / singer, but Aberg’s big idea is to bring her alive and onstage in the form of American drag queen Vicky Vox and a handful of assistants, and though a good idea, I didn’t think it really worked. Towards the end, they turned up the excess dial and it became pure fantasy with a stage full of colourful SciFi plants raising the non-existent roof in the finale of Don’t Feed the Plants. With what seemed like an additional song turning it into a bit of a rock concert, the cast invading the auditorium and green pods flying around, the audience went wild and you just had to give in.

It’s very well cast, with Marc Antolin shining as Seymour. I don’t associate Jemima Rooper and Forbes Mason with musical theatre, but they both did a great job as Audrey and Mr Mushnik. Busted’s Matt Willis was excellent as Orin the sadistic dentist, plus four great cameos as TV exec, (female) magazine editor, agent and business guru. Ms Vox was outrageous and cheeky; I’m not sure what the parents of the kids in the audience made of it. The show is famous for it’s chorus of three black girl singers (Crystal, Chiffon and Ronnette – get it), an idea Tony Kushner and Jane Tesori stole for Caroline, or Change twenty years later, and Seyi Omoomba, Renee Lamb and Christina Modestou were all great.

I’ve got mixed views really. Part of me missed the nostalgic, b-movie aesthetic and part of me admired the reinvention, but I’m glad I went nonetheless.

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Roy Williams is one of our best writers and one of the few whose plays cover urban working class issues. This one may well be his most hard hitting, and surprisingly it puts the police centre stage.

Gail, a uniformed constable, transfers from Horsham to the Met full of enthusiasm and idealism. She tries hard to persuade a victim of domestic abuse to come forward. She disapproves of her colleagues off piste violence and payment of gang members for information. When she and her colleague Spence are stabbed and he dies, she goes off the rails drinking, upping the doses of prescription drugs and abusing her husband and daughter. At work she tries to buy information about Spence’s killer with leaks and suggests a dramatic new strategy for her domestic violence client which lands her in hospital and her kids in foster care. By now, another idealistic rookie copper, Vince, has arrived and the cycle begins again.

The stage is stripped back to create a cavernous space big enough to stage a riot, with multi-level rough metal performing areas that provide a violent soundtrack themselves. It also brings with it audibility problems and I was straining to catch all of the dialogue. Director Maria Aberg stages the violence very realistically. Sadly it’s in the wrong theatre and the typical Hampstead audience were visibly (and occasionally audibly) hating it, with very mute applause at the end. It should be somewhere like Stratford East where people have more of a stomach for edgy urban fare.

Lorraine Stanley is outstanding as Gail, making her transition very believable. She’s surrounded by a uniformly good cast, with Ricky Champ giving a particularly passionate performance as Spence. It’s good to see a piece about the police on stage and I found Williams treatment of the subject objective and empathetic, if a little too melodramatic. My problem with the play is its hopelessness. It’s presenting a reality that frustrates most of us and I left the theatre deeply depressed.


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I think Polly Stenham hadn’t finished her play when the NT called and said ‘rehearsals start tomorrow; we need it today’, so she just stopped where she was. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything that felt so unfinished.

In the theatre formerly known as The Shed, we’re in a villa in a hotel compound on an island in the Indian Ocean. British Government minister Vivienne resigned when news of a sex scandal involving her husband Robert broke, so the couple and their teenage children Ralph and Frances escape to this desert island idyl, though it turns out to be not much of an idyl, what with the squabbling, the truth about Robert’s internet dating and a pair of armed locals with a grudge.

The grudge concerns political decisions taken by Vivienne which caused deaths, some close to home for the captors, but as soon as the reprisals begin, another bunch of more professional kidnappers gazump the first and off go the adults, leaving the kids to get violent all on their own. The End.

It’s brilliantly staged by Maria Aberg on a very good set designed by Naomi Dawson and it’s genuinely shocking, with terrific effects. The acting, particularly Susan Nokoma as the chambermaid come captor, is excellent. The trouble is it only touches on the issues and doesn’t really go anywhere. A lot of talent wasted on not a lot of play.

I didn’t see Tusk Tusk, but based on No Quarter and this, I’m afraid Miss Stenham isn’t living up to the early promise shown with That Face.

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