Song from Far Away, Young Vic Theatre

Willem is 34. He moved from Amsterdam to New York City 12 years ago. After an inconveniently timed phone call from his mother on a cold New York morning, he goes home for his younger brother Pauli’s funeral. He is greeted by his father’s disappointment, his sister’s lectures and the disorientation of not knowing where “home” is anymore. Much has changed, yet so much has remained the same.

I’m 33 years old. Eleven years ago, I moved to the UK from New York City. I use the term “home” fluidly because I don’t know where that place is anymore. So far I haven’t had to suddenly return for a family funeral, but that time will come. I know too well that disarming, unnamed feeling of simultaneous comfort and sadness from remembered places and people, those that have stayed the same and those have changed or disappeared altogether. There are many things that I miss, but much that reinforces my choice not just to leave, but to stay away.

I should have been in tears by the end of Song from Far Away, especially as I saw the 11 September performance, a day indelibly impressed on my memory with an anniversary no easier to bear with each passing year. Willem unexpectedly lost his little brother to an undiagnosed heart condition; I fortunately lost no one in 9/11. I was moved at times, by Simon Stephens’ delicate language, Mark Eizel’s folksy travelling tunes, and Eelco Smits’ honest portrayal of Willem’s understated struggles. Frustratingly, I never received the cathartic cry I sought from this production though, and I should have, considering how keenly I relate to Willem.

The performance and design elements are subtly beautiful, but the production is skeletal. The changing light and shadows of time passing have more connection to the present than the character does, who is more at home in transit than in the arrival at a place. The production seems to want to be minimalist in the extreme in order to draw attention to Willem’s displacement in the world, but in doing so creates an ethereal anti-theatre that doesn’t manage to come close to the audience’s heartstrings. Willem’s extended monologue in the form of letters to Pauli opens his heart to us as he (literally) bares all, but his world is so insular that we are excluded. We can witness, but not engage.

Stephens’ script sounds like it would read better on the page than performed as a theatre piece, at least with Ivo van Hove’s chosen directorial concept. The language is undeniably beautiful and human, and creates a wonderful character, but the production concept distances and isolates him from us, reinforced in the final moments of the play. A Song from Far Away is just that – too distant to hear the details of a faintly mourning cry on cold winter’s day in New York City. We want to comfort the singer, but he is moving further out of our grasp the longer we listen.

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Reckless, Rose Playhouse

The pool preserving the remains of The Rose Playhouse is the sea surrounding a nameless, remote island. Fascinating, dangerous, wild or wonderful, all of the island dwellers have lengthy, close relationships with the sea, for better or worse. These intertwining, turbulent histories meet and join each other at the Old Man and his Boy, a story of a new, young love and a past love, long lost. Heady Conduct’s Reckless unfolds a timeless tale of love, truth and community dictated by the sea using narration, site-specific influences and direct address interspersed with conventional performance. The story is both sweet and saddening, but the play’s structure is disjointed and thin, occasionally unclear in time and place, causing the story to lose support and clarity. Fortunately, the scenes between characters are endowed with honesty and intimacy, and the unique performance venue is fantastically utilized by director/actor Rebecca Rogers.

Rogers is the central narrator figure, the Harbour Master. She is the all-seeing and all-knowing, performing with a reserved omniscience. Rogers also plays the Old Man’s dead wife, a quiet enigmatic character often referenced but rarely seen. She’s a wonderful, etherial presence when she does eventually appear. The other living characters have more energy, particularly Alison Tennant as feisty, confident Girl that shy Boy falls in love with, and Blake Kubena as the Old Man, father of Boy. Kubena’s Old Man is a ball of pent up mourning that’s become a threatening obsessive, controlling his son’s every move. Though there is no issue with their performance, Kubena and Simon Rodda’s Boy look like they could be brothers in their late 20s or early 30s, not an elderly man and his teenaged son. The lighthouse keeper, played by Edward Bijl, is a watchful outsider trying to engage with the native islanders though never succeeds, resorting to desperate measures to fit in. Though the character provides some comic relief, he contributes little to the story and provides minimal plot progression.

The general atmosphere is good; atmosphere is vital to make a successful show in such a vast and unusual performance space. It gives productions here specificity of location and time period, otherwise the dark emptiness beyond the stage dwarfs the play. Nautical elements deck the back wall of the site, a hut perches precariously on the water’s edge, seagull puppets and some good sound design add specificity. The lighting isn’t fully utilized to create mood, nor does it do much to counter the sweeping grey ceiling and walls, but this island could be in a location that’s perpetually cloudy.

The use of ritual and tradition gives the story gravitas; the Harbour Master’s Festival of the Lost is a moving tribute to those drowned at sea. It connects the characters to each other and to the island, helping to counteract the loosely fitting scene structure. It also emphasizes the seriousness of the small twist at the end where the audience learns the details of the Wife’s death, and the gradual muddying of the truth with the passage of time. The most moving plot point is Boy giving a ring of his mother’s to Girl, inscribed with a medieval French saying, “pences pour moye du” or “think of me, God willing”. Historically, this ring was found during the Rose’s excavations and now lives in the Museum of London (The Rose sells replicas in its giftshop). This is a delightful nugget of Rose history bonding the theatre to this particular production.

Though Reckless is in the early stages of its expansion into a full production from a one-person show, it still needs more flesh on its skeletal frame. There are great characters and the love story at its core is wonderful, but its dreamlike atmosphere needs more detail to make the world of the play truly believable. It’s most certainly achievable, and this play will develop its sea legs as it continues its development.

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Tamburlaine the Great, Tristan Bates Theatre

That which goes up must eventually fall. Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great tells of the title role’s rise from common thug to emperor of Persia and Africa. A precursor to, and probable influence of, Shakespeare’s ruthless Richard III, the man is needlessly brutal: he orders rivals’ remains displayed on city walls, women and children killed, manipulates others to join his cause and then betrays them. Fate eventually catches up with Tamburlaine after he sets fire to books, including the Qu’ran, and proclaims himself more powerful than God.

Lazarus Theatre Company returns to form after a disappointing Henry V with a modern, concise presentation of Marlowe’s play depicting Tamburlaine as a violent, string vest wearing hood rat transformed into a suited and booted world ruler. Social mobility is the dominant theme, emphasized through Rachel Dingle’s costume design in this rags to riches tale. With visually arresting movement sequences, skillful use of light, and pointed similarities with Middle Eastern politics, immigration and Western meddling in the region, this is a relevant, well-crafted adaptation of the Elizabethan original.

The defining feature of this Lazarus’ adaptation is the extended movement sequences, with a powerfully striking one opening the show. A large cast use militaristic stylization and East Asian performance techniques to slowly travel across the stage, setting the tone for Tamburlaine’s merciless and unfeeling crusade. The choreography is precisely angular and even though the actors are well-rehearsed and the effect is visually stunning, there are hints of restrained self-consciousness from some of the company. Accompanied by deep, tonal sound design by Neil McKeown with the actors smartly dressed in modern suits, it reflects the contemporary Western political machine that coldly invades other countries. These sequences are used throughout, enough to be effective but not so much that they lose their power. No choreographer is credited, so they are assumed to be a product of co-directors Ricky Dukes and Gavin Marrington-Odedra.

Performances from the company of 15 are good, with delivery occasionally broken and overindulgent. These moments are rare and don’t affect the pace or energy of the cast as a whole. Particular highlights are Kate Austen as the aggressive, trackie-bottomed Techelles who is Tamburlaine’s number two. She never loses her fierceness, even when Tamburlaine’s success means she has to wear a fitted dress. Robert Gosling is the simpering, camp Mycetes, Emperor of Persia. He’s a great contrast to Prince Plockey’s earthy Tamburlaine. Alex Reynolds is the captured prisoner Zenocrates that Tamburlaine woos and makes his bride. Her transition from victim to doting wife is a disturbingly good example of Stockholm Syndrome, reinforcing Tamburlaine’s power and manipulation. Lorna Reed plays three smaller roles, with a calm strength and subtly powerful voice. She would make an excellent Hermione or Lady Anne. The bombastic Bajozeth, Emperor of the Turks, is played by Alex Maude and is a joy to watch, particularly when imprisoned and force fed by Tamburlaine.

There are few weaknesses in this Lazarus production, but those that are present are minor. Tamburlaine’s final speech has too many pauses and the use of five identical crowns can cause confusion as to which character is the most important at any given moment. There was also an unsatisfying lack of blood considering the play’s violence. However, fringe productions tend to not have a dry cleaning budget; having the Mads Mikkelsen-as-Hannibal Lector suits cleaned daily would cost a small fortune. Artistic director Dukes’ flair for updating classical theatre with contemporary relevance and visual staging is at its finest in Tamburlaine the Great and is certainly worth a watch, particularly as it’s a play rarely staged.

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We Just Keep Going, Hen & Chickens Theatre

Everyone’s family is messed up, with mother/daughter relationships an infamous source of tension. At the start of We Just Keep Going, Ruby (Elle van Knoll) and her mum Susan (Hilary Tones) recently relocated from San Francisco to England after Susan split from Ruby’s dad for hinted-at sinister reasons. As time passes, Ruby grows up and both ladies are in the dating scene, leading to even more conflict between the two. Though the subject matter is rather serious, the delivery most certainly isn’t. Elle van Knoll’s script is full of hilarious one-liners and situation comedy; director Helen Oakleigh intuitively adds pace and timing. The scenes are excellent stand-alone pieces and the company has good chemistry, though the performances are occasionally too heightened and the transitions are lengthy, particularly considering the scenes are numerous and short. Despite these issues, this is a great effort from new company VK Unlimited.

This is van Knoll’s debut as a playwright; as well as playing the lead role and producing. For a debut play, the script is very good. Van Knoll has a great sense for character comedy and narrative arc; her choice of episodic structure is an effective storytelling device. Ruby and Susan’s conflicting history and personal issues show some depth, though there is more of a focus on Ruby rather than Susan. Ruby’s character has a clearly defined journey that van Knoll skillfully captures, but similar character development in Susan wouldn’t go amiss as she recovers from her divorce and finds her independence as her daughter grows up. The male characters, Michael (Scott Westwood) and David (Sam Parks), get less attention though their story of estrangement is just as interesting as the women’s troubled family history. The interval wasn’t particularly needed at the current length, but with further development and character exploration, We Just Keep Going could become a full-length play.

The performances from the company of four are wonderfully funny, but don’t always feel genuine in moments of high conflict and revelation. Westwood’s and Parks’ performances feel uncommitted at times, understandingly so as they are less developed and have less stage time than the women. When Michael (Ruby’s boyfriend) and Sam (Susan’s boyfriend) eventually clash, their fight, choreographed by Andrei Zayats, feels restrained and staged rather than convincingly violent. Tones has a lovely, warm quality that is a great contrast to van Knoll’s spikiness. Westwood and Parks have a similar dynamic that is an effective mirror.

Though the comedy is the main feature of this play, it has potential for a darker focus as well, what with the themes of abuse and abandonment that feature. For a first production, We Just Keep Going is good, but a more balanced use of comedy and characterization would make this an excellent play with meaty roles that are a treat for any actor to play.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

Consolation, Bridewell Theatre

Carol (Holly Joyce) moved to a village in Carcassonne to rebuild her life after a devastating divorce and her son had grown up. She is convinced that in a past life, she was a medieval troubadour called Guy in the time of the Cathars. Raymond (Danny Solomon) is an actor working in the second-rate tourist attraction that Carol stalks, and longs for a life in the more exciting London. With a poetic, reflective script by Nick Wood and direction by Natasha Wood, Consolation has riveting moments between these two damaged, conflicting characters as they travel on parallel journeys of self-discovery, but at two and a half hours with a lengthy, slow-burning beginning, the production could use a trim. The slow development and several sub-plots lend a real-life complexity to the story, though the last to be introduced has insufficient expositional time considering its importance to the play’s conclusion. Despite the script’s need for additional development, this is a moving character piece unsentimentally following two individuals as they come to terms with the insubstantiality of their dreams.

By far, the best scenes are between Carol and Raymond. She’s middle-aged and needy; he’s young and cynical. Both struggle to live in the present, instead finding solace in imaginary worlds. Their conflict is charged and spiky; their softening and opening up to each other is rewarding. These scenes are a welcome break from lengthy conversations Carol has with the meditative voice in her head and the languid, but beautiful, projections from Raymond’s workplace and the fantasies in Carol’s head. Also good are the awkward skype conversations between Carol and her theatre technician son Jamie (Tom Grace) and his girlfriend, Laura (Nathalie Barclay). Jamie and Laura are projected onto the ever-present, multi-purposed large screen, further enhancing the discrepancy between Carol and Raymond’s real life in conflict with their fantasies.

There are numerous themes at play here, dreams and ambitions versus reality, and the dreams never fulfilling expectation dominate any others. There is also a nod to mental health issues, living as an immigrant, running away from real life, family loyalty and the politics of domestic terrorism. The latter isn’t exposed until the end after subtle foreshadowing and provides a convenient dénouement, but feels underdeveloped and unneeded. The central focus of the story is Carol and Raymond’s personal journeys, which are captured with nuance and truth by Joyce and Solomon. Their electric confrontations are the bright focal points of Consolation with chemistry that makes this production worth watching, but half an hour of the script could easily go and not be missed.

This is a good offer from Strasbourg’s Theatre Voliere, bridging the gap between UK and continental theatre in an increasingly small world, with human stories that are capable of transcending international boundaries.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.