What I Learned From Johnny Bevan, Soho Theatre; The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Jack Studio Theatre

Is revolution in the air? Or, are we all so broken and defeated by rising costs and a falling quality of life that all we can do is complain bitterly? Perhaps a bit of both? In any case, this is not the first time that I wonder if theatre is responding to the liberal sense of disaffection recently. Shortly before Christmas I questioned Dominic Cavendish’s assertion that theatre isn’t political enough, and my sentiment still stands, particularly after the coincidence of seeing two highly charged political pieces two nights in a row. Fringe theatre, like grassroots politics, is a place of community, a catalyst for change, and the foundations of revolt, as seen in Lazarus Theatre Company’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Luke Wright’s What I Learned From Johnny Bevan.

1997. The eve of the general election. Nick, who’s studying English Literature at a nameless uni stays up all night with his best mate, poet Johnny Bevan, to watch Tony Blair win. It’s the dawn of a new era and change is coming for the working class long oppressed by Thatcherite rule.  Fast forward fifteen years and Nick’s a journalist in London, but Johnny’s student aspirations didn’t come to fruition, and neither have Tony Blair’s. The story of these two lads’ friendship, written and performed by Luke Wright in a blaze of fiery spoken word, is an hour long tale of youthful vigour soured by the realities of adult life. Wright’s delivery and writing is fervent, topical and no moment is out of place in the trendy and on-point What I Learned From Johnny Bevan.

South of the river, an older revolution is taking place. In Soviet Russia, a group of peasants stages a play about a servant girl in Georgia raising the governor’s newborn baby that was abandoned during the family’s escape from a war zone. After a perilous journey, sacrifice for the sake of the infant, and a regime change, everything is put right again by a citizen judge. Lazarus Theatre Company, with its trademarks of a large cast and striking visuals, draws parallels between Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle and the despair of modern life – but “change is hope”. Energetic and in the round, the characters rally the audience to their side like they do in Wright’s monologue.

There’s optimism in both productions as well as despair, and an underlying current of discontent with the state of the UK’s current socio-political trajectory. Both display humanity’s capability for selflessness and selfishness, and the feeling that nothing has changed from Soviet ruled Eastern Europe, to Labour’s late-90’s victory, to present unviable economic conditions and Tory tyranny. We are undeniably flawed with a fickleness vulnerable to power and money, but as a society we are also deeply unhappy and feel that we lack the power to affect change. This sentiment now seems to be emerging in fringe theatre.

Though completely different in form and structure, both What I Learned From Johnny Bevan and The Caucasian Chalk Circle have plenty to say about the contemporary world from similar angles. What I Learned From Johnny Bevan is the better of the two productions, and  the more progressive. A solo performance delivered in spoken word accompanied by charcoal and watercolour landscape projections, most of the imagery in Wright’s language is precise and evocative. Brecht’s well-known play is linguistically stilted and stuffy in contrast, but it’s characters are just as colourful.

Performance poet Luke Wright is a singular tour de force and What I Learned From Johnny Bevan is politically charged and practically flawless. Lazarus Theatre’s performances vary, but of the ten-strong ensemble, no one was particularly strong or weak. Their choreography is well-rehearsed but director Ricky Dukes normally powerful movement sequences  lack impact in the round. The set components take up a lot of space and are used well occasionally, but otherwise clutter the stage with bright, industrial chaos. Neil McKeown’s sound design hints at atmosphere and mood, but is much too quiet to add the impact it could. It’s certainly not a bad production, but neither is it one of Lazarus’ stronger ones.

If theatre is a mirror held up to the world, then evidence is increasing that change is imminent. But what form will it take? Will the people rally as in The Caucasian Chalk Circle or will we either sell out or run away from it all like Nick or Johnny? Only time will tell.

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