The Tempest, Steiner House Theatre

Shakespeare 400 has understandably inspired a glut of Shakespeare productions this month. Whilst it’s brilliant to see people celebrating the Bard at all performance levels and abilities, the quality of productions out there hugely varies. The Steiner House’s Shakespeare Festival production of The Tempest, with it’s Asian-inspired music and costume, cuts a lovely aesthetic but the majority of performances are painfully sub-par. At nearly three hours long with the interval, it’s also entirely too long, made so by some of the cast’s laconic pace, slow transitions and no noticeable cutting. Though commendably diverse in race and nationality and lovely to look at, the performances make this production more like a dull, drizzly day than an otherworldly storm. 

Hedi Pinkerfield’s music is subtle and atmospheric, with more personality than most of the characters portrayed on stage. It never overpowers, and provides a dynamic, nearly-constant soundtrack for the story. Indian and Japanese influences don’t try to be edgy or interesting, but appropriately populate this island that’s full of more noises than people. It’s lovely and soothing, and helps alleviate the tedium of the poor delivery on stage.

Emma Caller’s costumes are similarly rich, drawing on Indian influences of rich coloured tunics and flowing dresses. The set incorporates the same “slightly brighter than pastel but not garish” colour scheme. It’s as soothing as the music, with a giant full moon watching the action on a gauzy backdrop. Initially seeming solid, Prospero hides behind it, illuminated, at one moment. It’s a great choice, but one sadly avoided in the numerous other instances where he invisibly observes other characters.

Of the sixteen-strong cast, a few are quite good. Alexander Yousri and Machael Claff are energetic double-act Trinculo and Stephano, as are Robert Land (Sebastian) and Eshy Moyo (Antonio). Samuel Mattioli is a sweetly wistful Ferdinand, but let down by a Miranda who doesn’t articulate her consonants, making her difficult to understand. Director Geoff Norris casts three Ariels for indecipherable reasons; Bowy Goudkamp is the strongest, resisting the instinct to constantly writhe around or pull constipated faces at the audience.

The rest struggle with maintaining Shakespeare’s rhythm and variation of tone at the same time, some chew the words rather than easily speak them. Still others mumble or don’t articulate consonants, creating a white noise rather than a comprehensive story. There’s a general lack or pace and genuine characters, making this a highly frustrating experience. Director Geoff Norris seems to lack experience directing inexperienced performers and handling Shakespeare’s text, particularly this more linguistically complex final play.

Norris’ misguided casting and lack of structural instinct are the primary shortcomings in Perform International’s The Tempest. Fortunately his choice of composer and designer provides some relief, but not enough to alleviate this particular island’s drudgery.

The Tempest runs through 30th April.

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My Mother Said I Never Should, St. James Theatre

Doris, Margaret, Jackie and Rosie are four generations of the same family. They often fight, but they’re always there for each other. Though they each grew up in a distinct era and often misunderstand the others’ world views, there’s a lot of love in the baggage they carry. These women that playwright Charlotte Keatley created are passionate, feisty and reflect society’s views of women from the 1930s through the 1980s. Though there’s been inevitable progress in women’s rights, Keatley’s script shows how agonisingly slow it’s been. Excellent performances by the ensemble cast of four and a decade-spanning politically commentary make My Mother Said I Never Should a relevant, fun and poignant production that, even though written in the 1980s, still holds important messages about womanhood.

Doris (Maureen Lipman) is the formidable matriarch of the family who always says exactly what she thinks and has little patience for frivolity. Lipman’s dry comedy is impeccably timed with delightful results. Her uptight daughter Margaret (Caroline Faber) is a great foil, ferociously protective of her punky, energetic granddaughter Rosie (Serena Manteghi), who she’s raising as her own so her scatty daughter Jackie (Katie Brayben) doesn’t have to give up her gallery-owning dreams. As time passes and each woman navigates love and heartbreak, we see a wonderful array of strength, vulnerability and commitment from the cast to these women. This tight knit family are wholly believable as they power through the trials and tribulations of growing up as the second sex.

Keatley’s script, though structurally groundbreaking at the time it was written, has less shock value now but the non-linear, disconnected scenes of female children playing have as much of an impact as the realistic family’s story. Girls playing at casting “spells” to kill their mummies and regarding motherhood as an inevitable part of life is still powerful social commentary today. Though these scenes decrease in frequency as the family’s story takes shape, they are more directly powerful and disturbing. That’s not to say the majority of the script isn’t good – it’s great, with well-defined characters and clear linguistic distinction between the four.

Signe Beckmann’s wintry set of white, blues and greys is a cold but striking backdrop to the story. Old fashioned TV sets display dates and locations as well as historical footage to create a greater context around the play’s microcosm. It’s rather clinical, but doesn’t distract from the action. It gives director Paul Robinson plenty of freedom to use the space as he sees fit and effortlessly transition between Keatley’s eras.

This powerfully moving play showcases stellar performances and writing that’s surprising relevant today. It’s a potent reminder that whilst there has been progress in women’s rights over the past 80 years, there is still so much to do about how society views women, and how women view themselves and their relationships.

My Mother Said I Never Should runs through 21 May.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.