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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Jekyll & Hyde, Platform Theatre

4404a479-e69a-4d92-9600-3d8eb075ff6c-1390x2040Giant red paper lanterns float over a smoky Victorian London alleyway. Six actors in western clothes and eastern whiteface also marry East and West in what initially promises to be a vibrant, transnational reimagining of R. L. Stevenson’s gothic novel Jekyll & Hyde. With the addition of a female Jekyll and a textual deconstruction that incorporates a range of performance styles, there is a lot to process in Jonathan Holloway’s script and staging. Whilst each individual choice has merit, none are fully explored due to the overwhelming array of influences Holloway employs. The sum total creates a muddy hodge-podge of ideas rather less substantial than a focus on the development of one or two of them.

The show begins away from Stevenson’s story, with an older man in Chinese dress (who is not Chinese) sharing the discovery of a wonderful but horrific tale he wants to sell to a young woman in1920s dress, presumably a publisher. To pique her interest, he begins to tell the story contained in the tome’s pages. This unnamed pair reappear regularly as the story is acted out to the audience, using narration to preempt the action and distance the audience by reminding them it is indeed a story. This is one of several Brechtian devices employed; even though it is a useful one in plays addressing social issues, it is unclear what element of the story the alienation is meant to highlight and any contemporary social relevance.

The story that plays out from the old man’s book is the more traditional Victorian story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but Jekyll is a woman from Eastern Europe and the only woman doctor in the UK. It’s initially a great feminist touch, but the sex-crazed, manipulative Jekyll is hardly an empowering, feminist character. Having escaped war in her home country, she comes to London alone and uses her research to transform into a man. Though well-played by the physically expressive Olivia Winteringham, the character lacks depth and wears a costume that looks like it was put together in Camden Market rather than a costume workshop.

The set and lighting by Neil Irish are fantastic, though. Coordinated to create a horror film effect during particularly disturbing moments, they sumptuously support Holloway’s staging. Jon Nicholls’ sound design is atmospheric and sinister, well integrated with the other production elements. The costumes are somewhat inconsistent, with the men’s outfits appearing more historically accurate than the women’s. It is unsurprising that no costume designer credited.

The performances vary, with one of Chinese actors occasionally struggling to connect to the meaning in the language, creating unintended comedy. As this is a production incorporating two cultures, why shy away from using two languages? Other than a brief bit of either Cantonese or Mandarin at the start, the rest is in English. The story is well known enough to support a mix of languages, though with the melodrama, physical theatre, expressionism and naturalism already present, this would add further excess. As is, this adaptation feels predominantly English, with some East Asian design influence and a couple of Chinese performers. Though gorgeous to look at, the production never quite found the substance behind the façade.

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Carmen Disruption, Almeida Theatre

Bricks from disintegrating walls cover the stage.

A hulking, black bull breathes it last.

An aging opera singer arrives in a nameless European city.

A narcissistic rent boy readies for a “date.”

An awkward student is newly single.

A taxi driver prepares to meet the son she walked out on years ago.

A stockbroker travels to an appointment to “take care of” some poor transactions.

The one-woman chorus reaches out to each of them.

Two cellists watch and accompany from the edge.

carmen-disruption-1024x640Smash a mirror on the floor. Go on, do it. Now look at what remains. There are large chunks, long slivers and other bits that are so small they’re practically dust. Each one is uniquely sized and shaped. There is space in between them. Each one those sharp-edged, broken reflective pieces, no matter how large or small, is a person. Alone. Reflecting the world around them. With potential to fit into the pieces around us but. Just. Not. Doing it.

Simon Stephens slingshots Bizet’s Carmen into a wall at a billion mph, creating an explosion of bricks, sparkly confetti, agony, death, black blood, desperation and loneliness. His magnum opus to date, Carmen Disruption is a mess, but one that gloriously mirrors modern life with painful accuracy. Amongst the rubble are characters who are also these broken bits of mirror, pointing at us, mirroring us and paralleling Bizet’s original cast. We are them. They are us. They/we are also the creation of the deteriorating mind of the Singer (Sharon Small), who endlessly travels the world performing the same role over and over, no longer seeing truth in real life but only when she is Her. Carmen. Everyone she sees reflects an archetype from the opera, and not just the characters. Us, too. We are the Stephens’ characters, they are us, two mirrors facing each other. Reflecting infinity.

The five characters all lead radically different lives, intersecting only by chance because of opera and a motorbike accident. They never speak to each other, only to us. Even when they meet their narration is to the audience, about the others. They have no direct contact with anyone other than the observational Chorus (Viktoria Vizin). Fractured monologues weave in and out of each other, building their world that could be any major city, anywhere in the world. Fireflies blinking in the night sky. Their contact with the world filters through mobile phones, a comment on our dependence on our gadgets and urge to document rather than experience. If we take on the role of recorder, we don’t have to engage. Did technology cause the detachment from each other? This question is posed, but never answered, but not a major plot element anyway. By being posed, it makes a statement, calling on us to examine ourselves and our society in which we exist as lonely fragments of a shattered mirror.

Confrontational and omnipresent throughout the stories arising from our characters’ episodic speeches is the dark, hulking carcass of a bull. Its eventual movement surprises, showing a dying struggle rather than death. The actors pick their way around it as the audience did when they entered from the foyer, surprised and disorientated. A creeping pool of black blood eventually consumes. It is a striking visual, the elephant in the room, highlighting the destruction towards which we all hurtle.

The cellists are also fragments, as is their music. An LED surtitle screen adds an operatic element with sporadic, sarcastic content. None of the characters are particularly likeable, instead they evoke pity or disdain. The only thing that brings them together is a terrible accident they witness, but even then they only manage to bounce off of each other and continue spinning into the darkness. Alone. All roles are impeccably performed and the actors engage with each other in the space even without direct interaction.

It doesn’t matter if you know the story of Carmen or not before seeing this production. I don’t know it well at all and may have taken unintended meaning from Stephens’ script, but its ability to communicate Important Messages without having Bizet’s frame of reference attests to Stephens’ skill and the script’s excellence. Every individual will find different aspects of the production incredible and abhorrent, depending on their own frame of reference. John Light’s stockbroker, Escamillo, disgusts me. I am horrified by rent boy Carmen’s (Jack Farthing) details of his rape. I feel sorry for the naïve student (Katie West) who sexts her 63-year-old married lecturer boyfriend and believes their relationship has any love. Or meaning.

I could watch these characters forever. Not having an interval was certainly the right choice for this play. The compact snippets from their lives allude to distinct pasts and futures. Even though the world they inhabit is nameless and featureless, they were flawed, beautiful, unique humans. Smash another mirror. Go on, do it. Each individual fragment is totally unique, unlike those from our previous mirror. Future broken mirrors will be unique as well. Despite the presence of archetypes, the microscopic details of their stories are unrepeatable. On what trajectory would they all continue? I need to know. If Simon Stephens were to make a Synechdoche, New York version of Carmen Disruption, I would happily live in it. Forever.

Though director Michael Longhurst’s creative choices challenge perceptions of contemporary British drama, he could have emphasized the interaction and audience engagement even further. Even though the Almeida is known for its cutting edge work, this is a piece that could have been more fully explored in a large studio setting, without the constraints of a balcony and distinct actor/audience boundaries. I wanted to dance with these characters. I wanted them to move around me. I wanted them to look me directly in the eyes as they relayed their journeying tales and not have any regard for personal space. Carmen Disruption is aggressive, bold and visceral, the sort that is supported by more audience immersion rather than less. At the very least, the audience could have been lit so the actors could see their/our eyes, allowing a connection I craved and they characters clearly yearned for.

Despite this, the effect created was a Brechtian one of alienation and motivation to action. It’s no coincidence that Stephens’ work is popular in Germany. As I picked my way along Friday night’s Upper Street towards the tube station, the stories of those passing by and enjoying their warm, social evenings exploded around me like fireworks. I felt the need to connect. Never has the loneliness of modern life been so starkly emphasized on stage, and afterwards carried through the dark night.

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Don Q, Greenwich Theatre

Production shot 4 croppedI really struggled to come up with a suitably erudite introduction to this review of Flintlock Theatre’s Don Q. Not because it’s hard to summarize – quite the opposite. The structure works, the message and plot are clear and the performances are excellent in this suitable-for-all-ages appropriation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I am chalking my difficulties up to this being such an enchanting and moving play that words aren’t quite capturing that “warm and fuzzy but actually quite sad” feeling I had the entire time. Everything I tried to write came across as cold and clinical. It’s a rare occasion that I go to theatre and nearly forget to take notes because what I am seeing on stage grips me by the proverbials that as a woman, I don’t even have. Seeing Don Q evoked the joy and wonderment I had on my first experience of theatre as a small child.

It’s not a simple show, though. Four actors take on numerous levels of characterization. Like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a group of unrelated characters bookend the play. In this case hapless librarians, frustrated by the council’s efforts to close them down, highlight the importance of storytelling by relating the tale of Norman Vaughan to us. Norman, as we soon find out, is probably their most infamous patron. Norman’s nameless nephew thinks Norman, now 81 years old, has gone mad. You see, Norman loves to read and reenact the stories he reads with his younger friend Sam and anyone else he cajoles into joining him. It is immediately and painfully clear that Norman is completely lucid; he just has a joyful passion for stories and acting them out. The younger generation are so busy being adults that they have forgotten the pleasure of playacting and the power of an absorbing tale. So not only are the audience reminded of the importance of reading and allowing ourselves to be absorbed in a good book, we are also more subtly admonished for not taking the time to listen to our elders and treat them like human beings. So what if Norman (or any other elderly person) loves what he does? As long as no one gets hurt, we are told to leave well enough alone.

Norman’s nephew, having had enough of Norman’s mishaps and convinced he has gone mad, puts him in a nursing home to be looked after properly. He strictly forbids Norman from having access to any books. Sam, on one of his visits, smuggles in a copy of Don Quixote into the nursing home. A comedy chase results in their escape and an adventure imitating a selection of escapades from the original novel. Sam is a begrudging Sancho Panza, a pair of scooters augmented with push brooms and spoons are their trusty steeds and other people they encounter on the way play other characters (some more willingly than others). Their madcap journey is full of whimsy, spontaneity and emotional turmoil but with a potentially tearful ending for the more sentimental of audience members.

Director Robin Colyer skillfully employs physical theatre sequences to add variation and an atmosphere of a touring troupe of players. This is clearly a well-rehearsed, established production; not a breath was out of time. Objects and costume pieces are used liberally and often comically, in a style reminding me of the West End’s 39 Steps. The set and costumes are simple and rustic, but versatile and thought through. Nothing is excessive, nor sparse; the production design is just right.

The performances unite a fantastic script with heaps of audience interaction, and the great design to create a beautifully polished little show. Some call and response would have made more people feel included, as well as giving costume and lines to those in all parts of the auditorium rather than only those sat in the front row. Actors Jeremy Barlow, Francesca Binefa, Kate Colebrook and Samuel Davies are versatile multi-rollers with outstanding chemistry as an ensemble. Whilst I considered that having an older man play the role of Norman would have brought more to the story, the role is incredibly physically demanding and would be difficult to play at a more advanced age.

Don Q is only at Greenwich Theatre for a brief time, but then continues its national tour. This Oxford-based company is worth seeing no matter what your age, where you are or what you do. They use physical theatre, Brecht, storytelling and meta theatre but in an unobtrusive, charming way to create this lovely, warm, gem of a play.

Intention: ☆☆☆☆☆

Outcome: ☆☆☆☆

Star Rating: ☆☆☆☆ 1/2

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.