Posts Tagged ‘Royal Court Theatre Upstairs’

Playwrights often produce minimalist work later in their career – Beckett & Pinter, to name but two – and I sometimes wonder whether its because they’ve learnt to make their point more succinctly, or if it’s a drying up posing as profundity. This Caryl Churchill miniature was first staged nineteen years ago Upstairs at the Royal Court. She’s still writing; last year she gave us four short plays Downstairs at the Royal Court, a satisfying though not exactly profound evening.

There’s no denying the dramatic impact of this 40-minute piece, superbly designed by Lizzie Clachan and deftly directed by Lyndsey Turner. In a series of short scenes we move between a country home and a hat-making business. We know they are some fifteen years apart because Joan is a child in one and an adult in the other. As a child she witnesses strange nighttime goings on outside the home where she is staying with her aunt and uncle. He appears to be involved in torture and death. Adult Joan is a novice milliner, making elaborate hats for parades. In one short, chilling scene we witness a grotesque ‘parade’ of people wearing these hats. Finally, adult Joan is back at the farm reporting on even stranger events happening in this dystopian world. Fear is the word.

It’s brilliantly staged and the performances are excellent, particularly from the actress playing young Joan, but for me the play is too obtuse for it’s own good, and at £1 a minute I left the theatre feeling cheated, both theatrically and financially. I’m afraid the cynic in me favoured the drying up theory tonight. They should have paired it with another Churchill miniature – there are enough of them to choose from – or reduced their usual seat prices to reflect the significantly lower value – as it is, it represents about the same VFM as Londons most expensive shows. Think Hamilton.

It looks like the Bridge Theatre will be pulling the same stunt on me next week when another minimalist Churchill play gets a revival. I’d better wear my ‘I’m A Mug’ t-shirt.

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It’s a long time since I’ve seen anything by the always imaginative Improbable Theatre; they appear to be moonlighting in large opera houses. Lee Simpson represents them here in a collaboration with actors Liza Hammond and Rachael Spence to produce a charming, thought-provoking piece about perceptions of, and attitudes to, disability.

The premise is that they are looking for ideas for their show, so they go onto the streets and ask the public. At first, they speak the ideas they’re given verbatim, repeating recordings they hear through earphones. Then we hear the people themselves as they act out suggested scenes. They contrast how we hail paralympians with how disabled actors are given token bit parts and the deaths caused by changes in the disability benefits system and the cruel, undignified and incompetent testing process that accompanies them.

Liza and Rachael perform with such warmth and humour that they lull you into a false sense of security which give the hard facts real impact. It’s a rare event which is entertaining but at the same time so insightful. Go see.

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Walking into the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs is like entering a pink boudoir, or maybe a wedding marquee. Carpeted, fabric hanging from the ceiling, seats covered. The audience are on three sides, the fourth is a platform on which sit two stools either side of a small table.

Jess and Jimmy have been together for nine years but have not had sex for fourteen months. It appears they are here to do it at last; there is a mattress of sorts in front of them, with two pillows. The dialogue concerns their past experiences and their current predicament. Sometimes, one of them gives a monologue the other is not supposed the hear. They are as aware of us as we are of them, though its not clear what our role is. Is this therapy? It’s often funny, sometimes intriguing, and passes a not unpleasant 70 mins, but it doesn’t really go anywhere and I’m not sure what the point of it is.

Sophie Russell and Jonjo O’Neill are very likeable and delightfully cheeky. When you laugh it tends to be with them, as if you’re complicit or involved in some way. Fly Davies’ quirky design makes you smile too. Playwright Anthony Neilson also directs; maybe he shouldn’t have – second opinions are often useful.

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For this show, Shon Dale-Jones has stripped it back to pure storytelling – no other characters, no props, no sound or lighting. It proves to be as captivating, but more unpredictable. That barometer of whether I’ll like something, the Standard’s Fiona Mountford, hated it, so it must be good – and it is.

He links the story of his childhood obsession with Robin Hood and his present day preoccupation with unfairness. The early story takes in under-11’s football, the relationship between his dad and grandma, 70’s politics and a bank robbery. The contemporary story takes in protest, arrest, therapy and his perilous financial state. It seems to move between the two randomly, but it’s clearly well made theatre. The big surprise is the genuine emotion, anger and passion on display, which sometimes makes you uncomfortable, whilst at the same time underlining its integrity.

This is the sixth of his shows I’ve seen. It’s just as charming, just as eccentric and as off-the-wall as the rest, but somehow more edgy. You never know how much of the story is true, but it doesn’t matter as it’s an effective combination of personal, ethical and political themes. He leaves you suggesting you donate (and top up) the difference between the actual ticket price and the normal ticket price (his profit) to Street Child United. He didn’t rob the rich, but persuaded them (us) to part with some dosh nonetheless.

A true original .

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Simon Stephens must be the most prolific playwright in the UK, or anywhere come to that. He’s had thirty-two plays produced, including five adaptations / translations, in just twenty years and I’ve seen about two-thirds of them. I haven’t always liked them, but I admire the ambition, diversity and creativity of his work, so I always come back for more. Given the stand-off in the North China Sea, the title suggests timeliness, though what the content has to do with the title is less clear.

It’s a collaboration with director Imogen Knight, better known as a choreographer / movement director. We sit on an assortment of chairs in two rows surrounding the actors, who themselves sit on a beige carpet (recycled from Cyprus Avenue, I suspect!). There are a few props – cupboards etc. – which get moved into and out of the space. The five actors have no character names. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of ‘movement’, but there’s also a lot of recorded dialogue and an atmospheric soundscape by Peter Rice. It appears to be a nightmare day for one woman, excellently played by Maureen Beattie, at home, on public transport, in a coffee shop etc., but beyond that I don’t really have a clue what’s it about or it’s connection to the title!

It has apparently been ‘created with a highly visual and physical language’ ‘with the intention that the words be interpreted and re-imagined through a highly theatrical and choreographic lens’. Well, I guess it does, and it kept my attention for it’s rather short 45-min running time It was intriguing and well executed, but it was only a fragment, I’m afraid, and an obtuse one at that.


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debbie tucker green has a very distinctive playwriting style. realistic, overlapping dialogue, sometimes with a non-linear narrative. characters called man, woman, x or y. moments of intensity alternating with moments of humour. puzzles for you to solve for yourself. oh, and a clear dislike of capital letters.

This latest piece is staged on three sides of the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs with the audience on fixed but swivelling stools in regimented rows within. It’s uncomfortable and the sight lines are poor. The ‘stage’ is like a green corridor open on one side. The five characters move around and make lines and shapes on the walls using chalk. In the first half of the 80 minutes a young couple seem to live their whole life, love, have children, argue, split. In the next quarter, an older couple bicker and snipe. In the last quarter, the older man is with a younger woman, who may be the young couple’s now adult daughter, talking about the issue of age difference.

Lashana Lynch and Gershwyn Eustache Jnr are terrific as the young couple (A & B) and Gary Beadle is great as the (older) Man. We get a lot less of Meera Syal as Woman and Shvorne Marks as Young Woman, but their contributions are excellent nevertheless. It’s a very original staging by tucker green herself, with a clever design by Merle Hensel. I’m not sure what it’s point is, and the discomfort did mar my concentration, but it’s an intriguing piece nonetheless.

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I’m very fond of the work of Shon Dale-Jones, affable eccentric storyteller AKA Hugh Hughes, formerly known as an ’emerging Welsh artist’. This new work, the fourth of his shows I’ve seen, is a delightful 60-minute solo piece which links together the accidental breakage of a family heirloom, the refugee crisis and a film script he’s writing (based on the first show of his I saw, Floating).

He greets each audience member as they arrive, and bids them farewell as they leave. He sits at a desk throughout, operating lights and sound himself. His tale is interspersed with snatches of music. It moves between Anglesey and Cambridge and features his mother, wife, Tony from the bargain car rental centre, film-maker Gavin / Kate, a porcelain-collecting senior policeman, four Royal Worcester porcelain figures (one of which is The Duke) and an Audi TT! It’s difficult to describe this very personal, charming, captivating story, at times funny and at times moving, which the audience engaged with throughout.

Tickets are free, allocated rather than sold, with donations to Save the Children encouraged. It was a bit sad that though all tickets were allocated on the night I went, there were many spaces – shame on you, no-shows!


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Well, you certainly have to put in some work with this play by Nathanial Martello-White. It’s a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. My brain was hurting trying to work out who was who, the time and sequence of scenes and what was and wasn’t true. It wasn’t completely rewarding, though I admired it’s cleverness and all of the performances.

When you enter the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs you seem to be in some sort of public hall. There’s a circle of those dreadful grey plastic chairs and we surround them sitting on similar ones. At first it seems like a family therapy session, with the focus on Angel, who may or may not have been abused. Eventually we work out that the others are her mother and stepfather, her brother, her mum’s three sisters, one a twin, with her son, Angel’s cousin. Angel’s biological dad comes in later. It moves back and forth in time and we learn the views of the various family members on the alleged abuse, together with much family history and some actual history. Doubts emerge about the truthfulness of Angel’s claims. Sometimes characters are talking about others not there, though they are looking on and acknowledged with eye contact.

It instantly grabbed my attention and held me throughout, partly because I was working hard on the jigsaw and partly because of the compelling performances, particularly from Adelle Leonce as Angel. It’s miraculous that the actors don’t lose their way given the staccato nature of the dialogue, sometimes overlapping. It wasn’t entirely conclusive and I didn’t engage with it emotionally much of the time, probably because my brain was working too hard for my heart to click in, which is why it wasn’t entirely satisfying. Still, it’s an original piece, clever, intellectually engaging and beautifully performed, and I would recommend seeing it.

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I saw an amazing site-specific play called Roadkill by playwright Stef Smith in Edinburgh almost six years ago. Her Royal Court debut is sort of amazing, but in a different way.

Something odd is going on. Animals and birds are being culled and their habitats destroyed in the belief that they are carrying disease. Our six characters react differently – complying, exploiting, rebelling or just plain resignation. As the situation gets worse, their relationships are damaged and reactions more and more hysterical. Alex has returned from her travels to see her widowed mother Nancy and ends up chained to the railings of the park they are trying to burn. Her mother just tries to get on with life, uninvolved with the decline outside. Jamie and Lisa, deeply in love, fall apart as Lisa starts working for a man who’s benefitting from the disaster and Jamie rescues and hides animals and birds. John has a strong friendship with Nancy but is puzzled by the intentions and attention of Si, Lisa’s new boss. We get a glimpse of what’s happening in the outside world through a Perspex wall.

I’m afraid I felt very ‘so what’ about it. It seems to be showing us how society can react with hysteria and panic, happy to blame nature for anything and everything, but it didn’t really go anywhere. There are six fine performances – Natalie Dew, Ian Gelder, Stella Gonet, Lisa McGrills, Sargon Yelda & Ashley Zhangazha – luxury casting indeed, the design by Camilla Clarke keeps surprising you (and sometimes challenges your tolerance – I was too close to cockroaches for my liking!) and it’s well staged by Hamish Pirie. In the end though I thought the material wasn’t worthy of the creative and acting talent.

Disappointed at the Royal Court again.

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David Ireland’s absurdist black comedy is one of the most unpredictable plays I’ve ever seen. It had me laughing uproariously one minute and turning my head in horror moments later. This is great theatre.

We first meet Ulsterman Eric with his black female psychiatrist. They don’t get off to a good start as he refers to her with the n word. We know this session follows some sort of crime or incident, but at this point we don’t know what. In flashback, we go to the start of his psychotic journey, when his daughter brings her newborn baby home, on to a meeting with a UDF paramilitary and from here it becomes ever more absurd and ever more horrific until a conclusion which tests the strength of your stomach.

Ireland uses the black comedy and the absurdity to send up the irrational and illogical bigotry of this protestant unionist very effectively, though I’m not sure I’d recommend they transfer the play to Belfast, where it is set in Cyprus Avenue, apparently a middle class suburb – we’re not dealing with your average politicised bowler-hatted unionist marcher here. It twists and turns and really does shock and surprise you.

Stephen Rea is superbly deadpan when conveying the most ridiculous views and theories, but turns viscous in an instant. Chris Corrigan is a much more manic unionist paramilitary; desperately funny. Wunmi Mosaku provides contrast – detached, non-judgemental, in control, with the occasional subtle display of her inner feelings. Terrific performances all round.

This is David Ireland’s tenth play, but the first I’ve seen (and the first to get a production in London?) and it has certainly whetted my appetite for more. One of the best nights at the Royal Court in a long time. If you’ve got the stomach for it, be sure to see it.


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