Wilde Without the Boy/The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Rose Playhouse


Near the end of his two-year imprisonment for gross indecency, Oscar Wilde was a man broken from hard labour, isolation and social disgrace. Until a sympathetic warden at Reading Gaol allowed him restricted writing privileges, he hadn’t been able to write at all. Provided with a single sheet of paper that would be collected and replaced when that one was filled, Wilde penned an 80-page letter of 50,000 words to the selfish lover who was his downfall, Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas. Heavily edited and published posthumously by Wilde’s friend and former lover Robbie Ross, the chatty letter was titled “De Profundis”. After Wilde’s release, he wrote poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” whilst exiled in Paris; this work details the execution of a fellow inmate.

In Wilde Without the Boy/The Ballad of Reading Gaol, actor Gerard Logan and director/writer Gareth Armstrong team up to create a staged version of these two narratives as a one-man show in two acts. Dramatic in structure and reasonably well performed, this is a text-heavy piece that suits the intimate Rose Playhouse. However, the consistent, even tone and pace that Logan employs has a lulling effect and the verbosity overwhelms with details. There is little to watch; though Wilde Without the Boy gives insight into Wilde’s state of mind at this challenging point in his life, it would make more sense as an audio recording and I cannot discern why it was put on the stage. The Ballad of Reading Gaol is performed with more vocal and physical variation so even though it is the shorter part of the event, it is the more compelling piece.

The set is simple: a bare table and two chairs for the first act, with a stack of documents that are occasionally referenced as letters. The red rope lighting that outlines the Rose’s archaeological remains casts a faint red glow on the walls reminiscent of the passion and anger that constantly burns in Wilde’s heart. Whether or not this was intentional, it effectively contributes to the heavy mood of both pieces. In the second piece, the table is covered with summer linen and a sole green carnation rests there. It is another powerful symbol of Wilde’s homosexuality that is repeatedly denied in Wilde Without the Boy. This show completely ignores the vast space beyond the stage, a decision that suits the script, but it’s still a shame to neglect such a unique feature. The musical score, intermittent in Wilde Without the Boy but a constant presence in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, is latterly a character in itself and Logan’s delivery is impeccably timed to its rise and fall. No programme was supplied, but whoever designed or composed this score deserves acknowledgement.

Though both are interesting pieces of text in that they aren’t normally performed or read by anyone other that Wilde enthusiasts or students, their theatrical potential is limited. Even with Armstrong’s adaptation and edit of the letter, as a one-person show it’s still more of a recitation with a thin story arc detailing Wilde’s views of Bosie and his experiences in prison. Logan has some lovely emotional moments, but it’s not enough to keep the mind from drifting. The Ballad of Reading Gaol has an actual storyline, which is an immense boost to Logan’s performance. He has a compelling stage present and vocal agility, but Wilde Without the Boy is not the best showcase of his abilities, the Rose as a venue or theatre itself.

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In the Heights, Kings Cross Theatre


Way up in Manhattan, so far north that it’s nearly the Bronx, is Washington Heights. You take the A or the 1 train to 181 Street to find this primarily Hispanic neighbourhood that’s not on any tourist radar. In the Heights shows the day-to-day struggles and celebrations of a group of residents on one block far removed from downtown prosperity with a soundtrack of salsa, hip-hop and poppy musical theatre.

The songs are the most innovative aspect of this mostly-sung musical with a stellar cast, but the book is rather sparse and the large cast of characters means it’s a cracking ensemble performance with frustratingly little development for any one character. The book and lyrics rely on stereotypes of Latino immigrants in New York City, though it both fulfills and destroys them within the diverse array of characters. The story feels rather tenuously squeezed around the songs with the dialogue serving as a plot point connector; most, of the scenes aren’t substantial enough to stand on their own. But, going back to the music, the songs make up the bulk of this musical and create a fabulous atmosphere complimented by excellent design. The Latin and hip-hop tunes are the best and most original, resulting in a fun evening and a memorable soundtrack.

This production is the same one that received numerous accolades and award nominations last year at Southwark Playhouse, and deservedly so. The Kings Cross Theatre suits this show well, with a wide traverse stage and audiences on either side, creating intimacy and suiting Drew McOnie’s circular, street party choreography. There are still design relics from The Railway Children, but Takis’ urban set and Gabriella Slade’s bright, revealing costumes pull the focus onto this completely contrasting world. With the performances practically in the laps of the front rows, it’s hard not to get up and dance. Some people do during the curtain call.

It’s not all a party, though. Nina (Lily Frazer), the first of the neighbourhood to go to university, has dropped out after her first year. Her father Kevin (David Bedella) hates her boyfriend Benny (Joe Aaron Reid) and is furious about Nina’s deceitful behaviour. Corner shop (or “bodega” in NYC lingo) owner Usnavi (Sam Mackay) and salon owner Daniela (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt) are getting priced out due to rising rents. Others came here for a better life only to find themselves cleaning houses and pigeonholed by poverty. The joy in this show comes in the characters’ ability to party and find solace in each other in the face of adversity – a powerful message for modern times.

I wanted to know more about these characters, though. This is a “slice of life” show that tries to fit in a lot of big personalities and backstories in a short amount of time, so the main characters and their tales have little space to grow. The storyline feels rushed and the ending, though a happy resolution, is a bit too “musical theatre twee” for a world that’s poor and gritty, albeit one soaked with colour and excellent music. It’s still possible to be pulled into this little stretch of Washington Heights in the height of summer and to want to dance the night away to this extraordinary blend of Latino, rap and musical theatre.

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Barbarians, Tooting Arts Club

Punks Paul, Jan and Louis are working class lads living in south London. School didn’t do much for them and unemployment is high, so they hang around and smoke, nick cars and try to pull girls. They’re bored, angry and frustrated at the lack of opportunities available to poor kids like them. They want to improve their quality of life and feel like they belong in society, but society’s too busy fighting terrorism and racism to pay them any attention so they do their best to get by, or not. It sounds like the present, right? Nope. Barrie Keeffe’s Barbarians premiered in 1977. As London battles the National Front, striking unions and IRA bombs to a soundtrack of The Clash and The Sex Pistols, audiences can’t help but draw parallels between life then and now. It’s unsurprising this Tooting Arts Club/Soho Theatre production will soon be followed by the Young Vic’s, a completely different production of the same play, what with its contemporary social relevance and three fantastic roles for young actors to get stuck into. Though close to three hours long and composed of three self-contained plays at different points in the boys’ lives, the excellent performances, atmospheric venue and socio-political comment make the time well spent.

The long-vacant uni building on Tottenham Court Road used as the performance space for this production is the defining feature of this production, fostering intimacy, interaction and that overused catch-all word, “immersion”. The decaying interior surrounding the audience reinforces the poverty in the the lads’ and how grim it is for them day in and day out. We are in this world too, rather than just observing. Political slogans and graffiti cover the walls. The ceiling’s falling in above the youth club tables and chairs. Barriers herd spectators like cattle at a football match. Discarded furniture lines Notting Hill’s streets during carnival. The audience doesn’t sit on comfortable theatre seats, but on the items that make up the set. We aren’t comfortable, but nor should we be as neither are these guys. The three rooms that are used for the three separate plays contained in Barbarians are small and crowded with people; the actors’ energy rushes around the room, occasionally making contact with those of us watching but we never feel threatened despite the regularly erupting violence. There’s a feeling of claustrophobia created by this space, but also the possibility for the walls to be blown away by all rage. It’s a wonderful, angry whirlwind that encourages our inner “fuck the establishment” punk anarchists and empathy with the characters even though their actions are often abhorrent.

The cast is outstanding. Josh Williams is the aspirational black Louis; his skin colour is often unseen by his mates, and also makes him the victim of their racist “banter” and violence. Williams captures his inner strength and good intentions that eventually grow large enough to stand up for his beliefs. Whilst all of the characters want their lives to have a purpose, Louis doesn’t let leader Paul (Thomas Coombes) turn him into one of his violent minions as they grow up. Coombes’ terrifying Paul still manages to evoke sympathy when he is younger. His need to fit in always tends towards mob violence; the character reminds me of troubled young people from dysfunctional homes with little love around and no other knowledge of how to express frustration. Jake Davies is Jan, the shy mousy one who also tries to make something of himself but doesn’t have the inner strength that Louis does. Unsurprisingly, all three lads come to a horrible end when they meet again after going their separate ways, in the summer heat at Notting Hill Carnival.

Keeffe’s script is excellent and each of the playlets can stand alone and still make their point, but to present all three really drives the message home as the audience can see the effect of a poor quality of life on young people over a longer period of time. I would love to see a female equivalent of this play, as much of what’s contained in Barbarians is stereotypically male, and working class young women’s lives would have been no easier during the late 70s. Regardless, Tooting Arts Club’s production is worth seeing for its use of space and the effects it has on characterization and the energy of the piece. Director Bill Buckhurst’s work here is certainly to be commended in one of my theatrical highlights of this year.

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The Gastronomical Comedy, Cockpit Theatre

whatthehell_pressNew writing based on classical literature, with the audience being served Italian food as part of the performance, sounds like a cracking way to spend an evening. The Gastronomical Comedy tells Dante’s story as he tries to be an actor in London but ends up working in his wife’s uncle’s restaurant, The Inferno, to pay the bills. It’s a timeless story of artistic struggle meant to parallel Dante Alighieri’s journey through hell, though the connection between the two stories was tenuous at best as the modern day Dante didn’t encounter particularly difficult opposition to his dreams. Despite good performances, it’s a concept that is good in principle but feels very much like a work-in-progress in need of quite a lot of script development before being a completed piece of theatre.

Paolo Serra’s script co-written with Jud Charlton and Gian Sessarego is quick and choppy, too brief to allow the story to unfold at a realistic pace but neither is it episodic. Dante quickly gets a role in a profit-share show, he easily finds a day job, and his wife gives him a bit of grief but nothing major. The play runs at just over an hour, but this is too short for the time frame covered and character journeys contained in it. Dante is the active hero of the story rather than Alighieri’s passive observer and some comedy and magic opens the evening, which although fun, doesn’t contribute to Dante’s story. As for the food, there was plenty of it served by an onstage waiter-magician to select ticket holders who got several courses of food at onstage tables. Some other audience members received samples of pesto pasta from Dante’s frantic on-stage kitchen, but the rest were unlucky. Disappointing, as it smelled fantastic.

The performances are good though. Sessarego is the optimistic but poor Dante who left his wife in Italy to pursue an acting career. Two additional performers, Jud Charlton and Louise Lee, play several other characters in Dante’s life. These people are extremely heightened, which could clash with Sessarego’s naturalism but effectively draws attention to his foreignness. Charlton’s fringe theatre director who casts Dante in an adaptation of The Divine Comedy is particularly good, as is Lee as Dante’s wife Patricia who the audience mostly sees through projected skype calls.

Set was a chair and a metal trolley for the kitchen, not helping the incomplete feel of the production. There are some well-designed projections and music in Dante’s restaurant, The Inferno, which helped combat the sparseness of the script. The performances also help alleviate the lack of substance, but for The Gastronomical Comedy to really push boundaries of genre and create a food/theatre performance event, the script needs to follow through with several courses rather than try to get by with a predictable starter and a side salad.

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Pomona, National Theatre

There’s an abandoned island in the middle of Manchester. One gated and guarded road goes in and out. Zeppo owns it, like much of the land in Manchester, but he doesn’t like to get involved in the goings on at his properties. Too risky. After Ollie’s twin sister disappears, Zeppo tells her to try looking for her on his abandoned island, Pomona. So she does.

A frenetically spiraling video game of a play, Pomona reminds us “it’s impossible to be a good person now” in our modern world where knowledge is power, but ignorance is bliss. Particularly when it comes to knowing what our fast food is actually made of. And what some people do for money. And that basically, life is really fucking awful and people treat other people appallingly. The characters that inhabit this dystopian world are brutally flawed and painfully alone in their horrible existences. But it’s a hold-your-breath-and-hang-on-for-your-dear-life, wonderful piece of theatre that captures the nature of existence for the Millennial generation.

Originally at the Orange Tree last year and now at The National, 27-year-old playwright Alistair McDowall’s play captures the Millennial generation’s pace of life, attention span, inability to have meaningful interactions with others and hopeless despair as they try to build a life of happiness in a crumbling world. A circular framework and an escapist D&D game quest provide some structure to the plot whilst drawing attention to the futility of the lives of both the misfit characters and an entire generation. The story manages to evade predictability, again mirroring the lives of young and youngish people trying to carve out a career, homeownership and a family from never-ending debt and exponentially increasing costs of living.

All of the characters are likeable in a painfully human sort of way, even if some are rather despicable. Though the play’s set in Manchester, it has a universality that could be anywhere. The minimalist set allows the audience to focus on the language and the story, and the actors to move around at high speed. Short scenes, loud noises and abruptly lit transitions evoke a video game, or comic book film. The ending reveal reminds us that its impossible to ever really know someone, and a person’s life is a many-sided dice of personalities and roles.

As a conventional, “audience sits down and watches actors” piece of theatre it works brilliantly, but there is potential to expand beyond the form. With a game within a play and numerous small choices that dictate the characters’ outcomes, I can’t help but feel there’s scope to develop an alternative, interactive version where the audience is able to follow their own paths within the story’s framework, like a video game/choose your own adventure book. McDowall’s language is highly visual as Ollie (Nadia Clifford) uncovers more and more information in her sister’s story, this could be seen as well as heard.

Pomona encapsulates a generation’s experience but is also a stunningly crafted piece of theatre that skillfully uses language and dynamic characters to tell a fascinating, albeit unpleasant story. As a piece of theatre and a social commentary, it is simply a must-see.

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Down & Out In Paris and London, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

George Orwell’s first full-length book, Down and Out in Paris and London, documents the Eton graduate’s foray into a life of artistic poverty in the 1920’s. About 80 years later, Polly Toynbee spent a period of time living on the minimum wage in London to write her book, Hard Work: Life in Low-Pay Britain. Writer and director David Byrne (not that one), deconstructing and interweaving these two books, creates a hard-hitting new play that confronts contemporary notions of social progress by demonstrating that experiences of a life in poverty have not improved, and “the system” created to support some of society’s most vulnerable people is inherently flawed.

A finely tuned, energetic ensemble of six multi-role a huge range of characters across London and Paris; only Richard Delaney as narrator George Orwell plays one part. His character consistency is the linchpin that holds the Paris story together, countered by Carole Street’s impressively performed Polly Toynbee. Mike Aherne, Andrew Strafford-Baker and Stella Taylor play a diverse array of smaller characters spread across both time periods using accents and costume to distinguish them. There is potential for confusion what with the constantly alternating worlds, but these three actors support clarity and understanding. They are also clearly talented performers; the only downside is that they didn’t have larger roles to really sink their teeth into.

Structurally, Byrne’s script is sound with clear transitions and sufficient exposition. He skillfully avoids audience confusion despite the constant switching between the two different settings. Polly and George embark on similar character journeys, albeit with slightly differing initial aims, but end with the same deeper understanding of society’s invisible working poor. The play is narration-heavy, restricting meaningful character interactions to unsatisfying short scenes. It also can feel more like a lecture than a performance. The fragmentary nature successfully drives the message home, particularly as adjacent scenes in the different settings focus on identical topics, including the bureaucracies of job hunting, flat hunting, and work environments. The play is robust and important enough that it deserves to be lengthened, which would allow for more development of the characters and scenes that are already present. Further emphasis on the individual human lives affected by crushing poverty will also generate further gravitas and audience empathy.

Down & Out In Paris and London returns to London’s New Diorama this spring (where Byrne is artistic director). Hopefully its message will have a wide reach and move people to rally in support of the working poor, particularly in the face of the government’s promised brutal welfare cuts. Its message is a vital one backed by a good script and great performances that deserves more attention.

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.

Feature – Redefining “Emerging”

When I think of the word “emerging”, I picture the finite stage between pupae and butterfly: a damp, crumpled creature working it’s way out of a safe, confined shell, in a completely different form to what it was previously. Within that set time frame, the butterfly must climb upwards and into the sunlight so its wings can straighten and dry out. If it fails, it will not be able to fly and fulfill the potential of its adult form. The time in which the emerging must be accomplished is set; at the end it has either succeeded or failed and there is no going back.

“Emerging” is a commonly used theatre term used to categorise those that have finished their training and are in the process of finding their feet within the industry. It implies they haven’t found success yet, but it is a definitely achievable point in the not-so-distant future. “Emerging” indicates transition and must be completed within a determined time frame, after which “success” is reached. Many actors have a concrete idea of “success” at the onset of their careers and say they will give up if they haven’t “made it” within three years/five years/by the time they’re 30, and so forth. Of course, the reality is far different. This definition of “success” is often reconfigured as they navigate working in the arts. The problem with using the words “success” and “emerging” in such a fickle industry is that the elusive “success” “emerging” hinges on is unlikely to be achieved at all, let alone within a predetermined time. Also, an artist’s definition of success is likely to be reconfigured time and time again as they grow and change. They easily could, due to the realities of the business, be in a state of emerging forever.

In theatre, “emerging” also usually applies to those under twenty-six or more rarely, thirty. The general use of the term means an early-to-mid twenty something who completed training within the last few years. Until recently, the now-no-more IdeasTap briefs were almost exclusively available to artists in those age brackets. After enough feedback from members, they began to lift those age ceilings to allow their ageing membership to participate more widely. (Then they closed because the costs of running the organisation were no longer being met.) This is rare, though. I still widely see grants, internships, and participation programmes limiting ages. I even see jobs that are exclusively open to those under 26 and unemployed. What about the unemployed 28-year-olds? Or those even older?

I am most certainly not saying that young artists don’t need and deserve support, but that older artists do too. They may still be in the state of emergence, having never reached that elusive “success” even after many years in the industry working for free or low-paid. Or, they may have entered the profession at an older age. I have met numerous people (usually actors) that changed careers and began working in theatre and film in their 30s, 40s or even older. Last year I met Hugh Hemmings, who became an actor after he retired. There are also people in theatre who start working in one field, then moved to another. A common transition I have seen is from actor to director, or actor to producer. Other people straddle several roles within the industry. They were emerging too (and still may be), and deserve the support of any other emerging artist, even if their emergence does not fall into the general understanding of the word.

What that support looks like may be radically different from people in their early 20s. I recently wrote about the issue of childcare in the arts, which applies to artists at all stages of their careers, but particularly those that are not yet “successful.” Housing, particularly in London, is a primary issue for working artists. Why should any working adult have to live with their parents in a perpetually infantilised state in order to pursue a career? It’s now depressingly commonplace for young people to be living at home into their 30s if they work in low-paying fields. Over all of this is availability of funds, courses and programmes that are designed to support artists’ work, but as previously mentioned, these often come with an age limit.

So, let’s collectively re-examine our mindsets. Arts organisations and funding bodies must learn that “emerging” includes all ages and does not indicate how long someone has worked in the industry. It can include those who have taken career breaks, or changed their career path within the industry. In this precarious time of funding cuts, the last thing we need is to pigeonhole those that need support as “established” or “successful” when that couldn’t be further from the truth.

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.