Wild. Live relay from Hampstead Theatre. 23-07-16

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Caoilfhionn Dunne and Jack Farthing in Wild. Production photograph Stephen Cumminskey.

Mike Bartlett’s play Wild, which has just finished it’s run at Hampstead is an interesting and ambitious piece of theatre. It is difficult to write about because it contains a terrific coup de theatre- even the fact that it is there shouldn’t really be given away- and this is what you come away remembering and thinking about. The other thing which makes it difficult is that I was only able to see it by live relay and this sometimes makes it hard to judge performances. I found one of the characters- Caoilfhionn Dunne as “woman” a little overdone and mannered but every time that the camera pulled back and I could see her in the same way that I would have as part of the audience things came into focus. The part was being played on stage for the benefit of an audience who were actually present and those of us who had free seats via our computer for the final performance couldn’t be taken into account. A screen performance requires a very different technique and depending on the character that they are playing, a stage performance doesn’t always translate onto screen as well as it deserves to. Perhaps it was just me………….

I admire Mike Bartlett’s ambition as a writer. He has the courage to tackle a big subject, one which is not inherently theatrical, and make it work on stage. It examines the consequences of a large scale release of private information by a whistle blower- Andrew- who has now been forced into hiding by his actions and faces an uncertain future, not knowing who to trust. It allows the play to look at the real life actions of Edward Snowden, and what they mean, both for society and for us all, as individuals who are often prepared to give up so much of our privacy without a second thought. In the past those who stole and revealed sensitive and private information were thought of as traitors but Edward Snowden has also been called a hero. It’s a complex issue and while the play doesn’t fully work, a very big ask, it goes some way to untangling it. There are just three characters in a rather average looking hotel room. This means that it needs plenty of very good dialogue and lots of energy from the actors if the writer doesn’t want to risk sending the audience to sleep. Mike Bartlett does much more than this by turning things around at the end and reminding everyone in no uncertain terms that this is a piece of theatre. This takes real imagination- and great stage design from Miriam Buether. There is humour and some sharp playing from the three actors. John Mackay is a cool, quiet, enigmatic presence as “man” and Jack Farthing gives a natural, understated and convincing performance as Andrew.

And there is always that coup de theatre. Well worth seeing. I wish I had been there.

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Tiger Country. Hampstead Theatre. Live relay. 17-01-15

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                                                     “You can’t save everyone.”

As someone who has had quite a lot of contact with the NHS as a patient I can vouch for the authenticity of Nicola Raine’s play Tiger Country, which has just ended its second run at Hampstead theatre with a live relay of the final performance. It takes a compassionate, truthful and sometimes searing look at the NHS. It is a fearless piece of writing which lays bare the toll the NHS takes on its staff. They are a dedicated group of people who are sometimes working under enormous strain to service the needs of their patients with great care and compassion in an underfunded, flawed and cumbersome service. In spite of this it still manages to provide amazing results free at the point of delivery to patients, but not without enormous cost to those working within the system. It’s a long way from television’s Holby City. It feels real and honest and it goes at a fastand furious pace, weaving many stories together in an intricate structure to give an impression of daily life in a busy hospital.

There are some fine performances. I loved Indira Varma as Vashti, an arrogant and difficult but ultimately dedicated and compassionate surgeon. She is a very beautiful and stylish actress who also has great conviction and strength and that is quite rare. I also liked Ruth Everett and Alastair Mackenzie, who gave two heartfelt performances as a young couple whose relationship struggled under the pressures that work brought. The whole company work beautifully together and make the most of the moments that they are given. I found every one of them completely credible as people who I might meet on my hospital visits.

How the staff manage to cope with the inevitability of failure in heartrending circumstances and learn to remain both open and caring while still being hardheaded enough to cope with a constant series of difficult decisions is one of the key themes and one of the great strengths of the writing. I also admired the way that Nicola Raine stayed well away from melodrama. This is already a highly charged scenario and there is no need for it. She also directs with great skill and the play moves along quickly, helped by great timing from the actors and simple lighting and set cues to signal a change of place or mood, a difficult thing to achieve when there are a lot of short scenes.

Really good work, yet again at Hampstead. I am very grateful that the free live streaming gives me a chance to watch it up in the north of England.

Wonderland. Live relay from Hampstead Theatre. 26-07-14

Wonderland

Production photograph: Tristram Kenton for The Guardian.

Wonderland, Beth Hall’s new play about the 1984 miners strike has been given a wonderful production by the company at Hampstead Theatre. It needed some stagecraft to do the subject justice, as it is a huge canvas which a lesser playwright could have easily lost in muddle and cliché. By focusing in on a small group of men and allowing us to get to know their close knit community in the pit we are able to feel the personal heartbreak as their lives are torn apart. The writing is clear and very well structured and the action moves along very swiftly. Points are made and motivations are laid bare with great economy and compassion. This is an ambitious play with a very big heart. It needs to be seen in the North of England.

There are some excellent performances. I was very moved by Gunnar Cauthery as Spud, a reluctant scab, and by Paul Brennan as Colonel Deputy- a man worth far more than any of the smug, suited figures who are intent on bringing him down and taking away his livelihood. It is important that we see a slightly softer side to the implacable government in the person of Peter Walker and Andrew Havill makes him real and conflicted. Two young apprentice pitmen, Jimmy and Malcolm, are very well played by Ben-Ryan Davies and David Moorst and we see them learn the brutal facts of life after an idealistic start. Having said that, this is truly a company show which needs split second timing and physical skill and it is this which impresses most.

The company has been given the best chance it could possibly have to shine by Edward Hall’s direction and a spectacular set by designer Ashley Martin Davis which matches the ambition of the play and takes us both below ground and into the corridors of power. This is done by a combination of theatrical bravura as a pit lift descends, or the simplicity of a single table with a decanter of whisky on it rising up. It is wonderful to watch, often lit by little more than the headlamps of the miners and the music, strong traditional folk such as The Blackleg Miner, is sung with great feeling.

This is proper theatre, real and dynamic, a team working with enormous skill and talent to tell a part of our national story which should never be forgotten. It’s to Hampstead theatre’s credit- and to Edward Hall’s credit personally- that a company has been gathered who are able to allow a small theatre with big dreams to make work which our National companies can envy.

Drawing The Line. Live relay screening from Hampstead Theatre. 11-01-14

Drawing the Line at the Hampstead, London

Peter Singh as Lord Krishna and Tom Beard as Cyril Radcliffe.
Production photograph by Tristram Kenton for The guardian.

All I can suggest is we try a tentative scribble.

When Cyril Radcliffe is asked to draw the line which will partition India and Pakistan as the British leave India in 1947 he is placed in an almost intolerable position. There is no right answer for him to find. Leaving the people of the sub continent to potentially tear themselves apart with no line drawn is not seen as an option but no matter where the arbitrary line is drawn there will still be conflict and bloodshed as India is a subcontinent, not a single nation, and its diverse people are never going to be herded into place quietly as if they were sheep. Everybody accepts that- the British are already talking about what might be an acceptable level of bloodshed- and he is the well meaning, principled “patsy” who has been drafted in to sort it out. The sooner the better as the British can’t wait to leave. It is a horrible mess described unflinchingly with compassion and a certain amount of humour in Howard Brenton’s new play Drawing The Line at Hampstead Theatre. The writing is sparse and to the point, moving along swiftly to its inevitable conclusion, and you watch the action unfold with a mixture of horror, disbelief and deep sadness. We are shown the essence of the situation with great skill and economy.

The central performance by Tom Beard who plays Radcliffe is very fine indeed. He shows us the man’s pain and good sense with great delicacy, never overplaying. It was a good decision to centre the play around him. We need someone who we can identify with among all the swirling points of view and he is our everyman, we see things through his eyes. This throws into focus the deeply unsympathetic portrait of Mountbatten and the suspicion and anger of those around him. Muhammed Jinnah is portrayed with a real sense of danger and suppressed anger by Paul Bazely and Silas Carson has great dignity as Jawaharal Nehru, a cultivated man who is having an affair with Mountbatten’s wife. One of the most beautifully written scenes in the play is the one which shows their final meeting as events drive them apart.

The design by Tim Hatley, based around filigree screens is a vision of traditional India, calm and serene, a world as it should be, a world which is under threat, and it is beautifully lit by Rick Fisher. Howard Davies direction is clear and understated, matching the writing perfectly. A deeply satisfying, well executed and thoughtful piece of theatre.