Expression of murder

In 1928, an American woman was sentenced to death by electric chair for killing her husband, Albert Synder. She was Ruth Synder. Her execution was recorded in a highly publicised photograph. Sophie Treadwell’s play Machinal (Old Vic) is based on those events and homes in on Helen Jones and her husband, a couple who appear to have a ‘happy marriage.’ Then she murders him. Treadwell’s writing is a nuanced, intelligent and fearless look at someone pushed to breaking point by the relentless machinery of life, especially in the context of expectation and convention connected to women in a patriarchal society. What could drive an ordinary woman to commit such a crime? Richard Jones’s tightly directed production is unrelenting.
On a claustrophobic set that looks like an enormous foldable box cum shute that becomes a place of suffocation, often lit by nauseating yellow, the play opens with repeat scenes inside the offices of a company, in which Young Woman (we learn later that she is Helen) works. She struggles with the everyday monotony while her colleagues have become corporately institutionalised automatons. Their voices and movements under controlled instruction. She on the other hand is restless and agitated, her mind in constant overdrive leading to an outpouring of haphazard thoughts and feelings. Here is a woman who yearns for something different, a chance to be free.
Expressionistic in style, yet intensely real, the beating heart of the production is an immense performance by Rose Sheehy. It is a juggernaut of emotions that treads a very fine line between sympathy and condemnation, manifest in spasms of contorted physicality and pained outcries. That she manages to achieve both is a monumental feat and she is supported by a superb ensemble of well-cast and skilled actors, who are both participants and voyeurs of the tragic journey, their repetitive sounds like those of a Greek Chorus in a Sophiclean tragedy. Those very sounds adding further torment to an already agonised mind. It does require a few moments of stillness and silence to allow the audience time to breathe and reflect such is its unremitting pace and power. Otherwise, it is theatre at its shattering best – the final image in particular an electric coup de théâtre – making enormous demands of both performers and audiences.

Who doesn’t love a comedy about those we all condemn and mistrust, and one of the very best has to be Gogol’s The Government Inspector (Marylebone Theatre) where an over-privileged liar is mistaken for a high-ranking government inspector by corrupt local officials of an English parochial town. Cue cover ups, bribery and drunken debauchery with characters whose names suggest madness and tomfoolery, including Reverend Jargogle (David Hartley), Ivan Grubble (Dan Starkey) and Percy Fopdoodle (Kiell Smith-Bynoe). What could go right? Adapted and directed by Patrick Myles, it premiered in 1836 with Tsar Nicholas I in the audience, it feels like it has been overly tweaked to suit a modern British audience. Nevertheless, for much of the time it is a hoot, though some of Gogol’s more acerbic satire seems to have got subsumed in the silliness.
Being a farce the pace and comic timing are paramount to making it fun and the cast certainly has plenty of the latter with Smith-Bynoe’s Fopdoodle being disreputably good in conveying a heap of questionable morals. Dan Skinner is a deliciously corrupt Governor Swashprattle – no I’m not making these names up – and Peter Clements is an absolutely bonkers Ivan Brabble, obsessed with ‘boiled pears.’ Hard as the cast try, the adaptation lacks the satirical bite one associates with the play. When the audience laughed at a reference to Jackie Weaver’s now infamous parish council zoom call during the pandemic, it felt like the parody had become paradoxical without a cutting edge. The pace of the production is also an issue. It’s fast, which means the script is sometimes sacrificed for a visual gag. Nonetheless, if you enjoy the mayhem and disarray associated with farce, this light-hearted entertainment ticks those boxes while you smugly smile at the misdemeanours of these megalomaniac hypocrites and hustlers. Not me guv!

It’s that time of year again, the alfresco theatre season is here, and Owen Horsley’s Twelfth Night (Regents Park Open Air Theatre) is a fabulous way to open things up. This is a version that will surprise, delight and appal. Purists will curse the artistic audacity; newbies will wonder what all the intellectual fuss is about when it comes to Shakespeare and lovers of high camp will find it a blast. Word of advice – if you don’t know the story, make sure you read a synopsis beforehand or you might think you’ve stumbled into the wrong show with all of it taking place in Olivia’s, a seaside nightclub. Horsley must know Brighton well, although its actual location is not known. Basically, it’s a story of mistaken identities, misled would be suitors tricked by false letters, all in pursuit of the beautiful Olivia, a brilliant performance by Anna Francolini who seems to have escaped from the Dickensian world. Meanwhile Toby Belch, played by Michael Matus, upstages everybody in dodgy drag outfits and clumpy size 10 heels, he struts around creating havoc for everyone. The audience loved him and unlike some drag acts, he didn’t try and hog the limelight, he just did! The show also plays with gender, blurring of sexual attraction and Richard Cant’s Malvolio could have been a reincarnation of Larry Grayson. There are antics and pranks in abundance and I was having so much fun I cared little about the actual story being diluted into a sitcom. After all some scholars are convinced that the Bard was also multifariously attracted so to speak.
Imagine Shakespeare set in Eurovision (there’s an idea) and you’ll have an idea of how deliciously camp it is. It needs a trim from its current three hours, so for now I give it huit points.

Great storytelling looks easy but requires enormous skill and imagination when transferred to the stage. I was thinking just that on my way to the London Coliseum to see the work of legendary animator and director Hayao Miyazaki. How would it be possible to take an incredibly complex animation and fantastical spectacle, Spirited Away, and remain true to the story and its complexities through the medium of theatre. Just as when you read a book and then give great consideration as to whether to see the movie adaptation as it may not live up to expectation, so too the move from animation to stage takes on the same such consideration.
Performed entirely in Japanese (with English subtitles), the play follows a 10-year-old girl called Chihiro (played by Kanna Hashimoto on press night.) Driving with her parents to a new home, they happen to come across an abandoned theme park. Her parents are transformed into pigs whilst gorging on a buffet. Chihiro is trapped in the land of spirits and forced to work in a bathhouse filled, it seems, with gods. With tremendous flair, the show takes you on a remarkable visual and aural journey, the music is captivating and provides an amazing contrast and atmosphere with all the constant unpredictable scene and character changes. They include the six-armed boiler room operator Kamji (Tomorowo Taguichi) and Haku (Hikaru Yamano) whose benevolent spirit transforms into a flying dragon. The many faces of Yubaba (Romi Park) fascinate and enthral.
Unsurprisingly, Chihiro steals the limelight by sheer dint of relentless physicality and emotional depiction of a naïve and resilient pre-teen. A masterpiece, a must see of outstanding proportions.

The music is the message in this vaudevillian romp. Come and be delighted by the vocal gymnastics of talented performers. There’s also a sweet emotional narrative in this story of love’s longing and its ultimate fulfilment. Maria, a besotted naïve soprano, pursues the has-been tenor Alfredo, who is lost in his own melancholia, unable to sing. Together with the cast, they form a gorgeous story, choosing the most beautiful arias from Madame Butterfly, La Traviata, Lakme, Barber of Seville and other much-loved operas. This is a joyful celebration of their powerful affair, as the plot swells, unravels and reforms in immaculately timed, manic mayhem. There’s lots of pop too, in sassy song-shots of Queen, Whitney Houston, Elton John, Mika, U2 and Elvis, always with an eye on the outrageous.
I’m an opera lover and know the great tunes almost by heart. The Opera Locos (Peacock Theatre) cleverly entwine top 20 operatic hits with pop songs and, hey presto, a new genre is born – ‘op-pop’! The production has nailed it, and by ‘it’’, I mean making opera accessible to a wider audience. I’ll bet that by the end of this performance you’ll have the Royal Opera House on your go-to theatre list.

Machinal – www.oldvictheatre.com
The Government Inspector – www.marylebonetheatre.com
Twelfth Night – www.openairtheatre.com
Spirited Away – www.spiritedawayuk.com
Opera Locos – run complete

A flatulent nation

Politics is a world of the committed, passionate, bright and experienced people who want to “change things” and make life better for their constituents. You will have heard those words many times from Members of Parliament and you will do so again in the coming months leading up to that general election. The political world also contains some who should be committed, with little or no common sense and the moral compass of a flea, making it the perfect environment for satire. Party Games! (an Yvonne Arnaud original production), a new play by Michael McManus is a political comedy that could not have been better timed considering the recent comings and goings of the local and mayoral elections, defections and resignations. Ripe content for risible times.
McManus knows this world well, having been a special adviser, parliamentary candidate, campaigner and journalist. The Westminster “bubble” and those who dwell within it will be familiar territory. On a stage dominated by a neon lit ‘One Nation’ sign, he gets straight into lampooning the political elite, introducing us to a motley crew of characters, including party leader John Waggner (Matthew Cottle), a fair-haired buffoon, who quotes Latin at will, struggles with detail but has a particular prowess for farting. However, the power behind the throne is scruffily dressed election guru Seth (Ryan Early), a man who would undoubtedly work better with misfits and weirdos rather than the status quo represented by John’s younger wife Anne (Natalie Dunne), deputy PM Lisa (Debra Stephenson), eager beaver Luke (Jason Callender) and exemplary civil servant Candice (Krissi Bohn). All easily recognisable cardboard cut outs, and therein lies the problem. Lampooning the familiar with familiar political tropes is intermittently amusing, raising occasional laughter, but the lampooning is signposted and as a result the comedy begins to wear thin, which makes the ending a welcome relief rather than the thought-provoking denouement that McManus intended.
As I wrote this, a story flashed up on my iPad saying that Dominic Cummings is proposing a new ‘start up’ party, adding that a returning Nigel Farage could reduce the Tories to single figures in the polls, through he wouldn’t be welcome in Cummings’ new party. It’s that kind of craziness that is missing from a script that is far too safe and reliant on flatulence rather than wit. The real One nation Tories can relax, this party hasn’t really got started.
Coming up soon at The Arnaud is the unforgettable tale of The Kite Runner.

Party Games! – now on tour – www.yvonne-arnaud.co.uk

Review by Barney Efthimiou

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