The art of dignified ambition

“There’s something incredibly remarkable about to happen, something…and I don’t want to miss that…I do not wish to be on the wrong side of history.” The prophetic and defiant words of Sidney Poitier, the first Black actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. His career was a journey of obstacles, challenges and ultimate triumph, culminating in him being presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 by then President Barack Obama. Retrograde (Kiln Theatre) delves into Poitier’s rollercoaster life with an imagined meeting in 1950’s New York between him, an emerging talent, Bobby, a wannabe screenwriter, and Larry, a cutthroat NBC executive. This was the height of McCarthyism with “radicals” being hunted down and if you were Black too there was no hiding place. Poitier enters this cauldron of bigotry and bias determined to pursue his dream. Bobby is equally keen to convince him he can provide the artistic vehicle which will do just that. Larry has other ideas which essentially is to get Poitier to snitch on other politically active Black artistes. These included the recently deceased Harry Belafonte, a man who paved the way for so many.
Ryan Calais-Cameron’s play is a slow burn drama, a simmering conversation piece skilfully revealing the intellect and decency of Ivanno Jeremiah’s beautifully crafted performance of Poitier. He captures the soft yet ambitious demeanour, the determination to break down barriers and the distinctive voice is uncannily recreated. The white folk fare less well, both Larry and Bobby are too one dimensional to be anything more than laughable caricatures who blurt cliches and nonsensical one liners. Realistic perhaps but do an injustice to Poitier’s struggle to overcome what were unscrupulous and controlling men who mapped out every twist and turn of their warped thinking. That said Ian Bonar (Bobby), a man tormented by ambition, and Daniel Lapaine (Larry), a smarmy egoist and very much a product of the times, are both accomplished actors.
Studiously directed by Amit Sharma the final moment of the play is one of those theatrical moments (no spoilers here) that will linger for some time and leave you in no doubt that groundbreakers like Poitier deserve enormous credit for remaining true to their conscience. We stand on the shoulders of those like him who come before us and here was an acting giant who changed perceptions but did so without ever compromising his activism, decency and quest for fairness. A thoughtful and compelling show and a reminder that I should visit the Kiln (previously The Tricycle) more often.
Meanwhile Athasha Lyonnais relishes a double dose of poetry…
Body 115 (Hope Theatre) is poet Jan Noble’s one hour exploration of loss, displacement and decay. In a journey that takes him from London through the migrant camps of Calais, to the more romantic destinations of Paris and Milan, Noble is ferried along by Body 115, the unidentified victim of the 1987 King’s Cross Station fire. Noble’s poetry is evocative and beautifully performed, and crucially, takes the form of a classical ‘narrative poem’, which makes it a damn sight easier to follow than modern poetry, even for the casual theatregoer/poetry averse. An excellent piece that made me wish there was more poetry on the London theatre scene.
Venus and Adonis (Riverside Studios) is perhaps Shakespeare’s least-respected work, even more so than Titus Andronicus. Although immensely popular at the time of publication, it has been consigned to the waste bin of history as a bawdy poem. So why bring it back? The story is straightforward – the goddess Venus pursues the uninterested, beautiful Adonis, who eventually relinquishes his virtue, which of course means that he is as doomed as is anyone who trifles with the Gods.
This adaptation (adapted and performed by Christopher Hunter), places a lot more emphasis (without tweaking Shakespeare’s words) on the impropriety of Venus’ pursuit. Previous analyses have spoken about Adonis being ‘punished’ for the crime of being frigid, but Hunter is looking at asking an uncomfortable question about Adonis’ consent – can we ever hope to scratch the Gods with a #metoo movement? Is Venus the Lydia Tár of the Greek Pantheon? Hunter performs the poem virtuously, and the subject matter is delivered thoughtfully and sensitively – a piece that could have felt like a smutty limerick is deftly handled.
Finally, Sotira Kyriakides enjoys two eclectic gems…
To paraphrase Samuel Johnson’s famous phrase about London, when a man is tired of Under Milk Wood (Wilton’s) he is tired of life. Dylan Thomas’s setting of a fictional fishing village is a homage not only to his native Wales but also the gamut of characters, places and emotions it is home to, symbolising humanity’s attractions and foibles as a whole. Guy Masterson has been performing this 20th century classic for the past thirty years. The feat that is his verbal and physical performance is a joy and astounding to behold in its relish and exuberance. He flips between characters and scenes with an ease that is mesmerising and contagious in its vitality and obvious love for Thomas’s creation.
“Great theatre should be a tempest of energy, illuminated by flashes of blinding communication, where the audience are on the receiving end of a theatrical thunderbolt”, he explained in an interview. These words ring true as the performance unfolds, carrying us with it all the way. Reliant primarily on the text and its performance, this monologue is even more startling in the contrast between the bare necessities it uses versus the amazing richness of the world it conveys.
Christina Bianco’s In Divine Company (Menier Chocolate Factory) is a hilarious homage to a collection of divas, in a breathtaking performance spanning various musical eras. This multi-talented singer, songwriter and impressionist is a must-see. Her vocal impersonations, including Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Liza Minelli, Bette Midler, Julie Andrews and Celine Dion, are a tour de force. The stage set is simple, with a mic and iridescent colours in the background, which allows the music be the focus.
Bianco has a brilliant section in the show called ‘Topical’, where she sings about political issues and recites poetry in the voices of Sofia Vergara from ‘Modern Family” and Edina Monsoon from ‘Absolutely Fabulous’. Her take on the Disney song ‘Let it Go’ from ‘Frozen’ lets us know that “her nodes didn’t bother her anyway”, a brilliant parody. Her medley of James Bond theme tunes meshes to great effect divas such as Bette Midler, Streisand and Minelli. Life is indeed a cabaret with this brilliant show.

Retrograde –
Body 115 – run complete
Venus and Adonis –
Under Milk Wood – run complete
In Divine Company –

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