Blondel, Union Theatre

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I am often impressed with theatre’s ability to transform the most serious of topics into bouncy, chirpy musicals. Tim Rice and Tom Williams looked to the Crusades for their comedic tale of Richard I’s court musician, Blondel, but discarded much of the history. This 1983 show has some great numbers, but its frivolity and insubstantial book focusing on a personal journey rather than the larger political landscape is diminutive rather than powerfully sweeping. This is no Les Mis or Miss Saigon; it is instead an under-developed documentation of a rise to fame – but it still has its moments of fun.

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I Am My Own Wife, Wimbledon Studio Theatre

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Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was a collector and museum curator in East Berlin who survived WWII and the the Stasis, and murdered her abusive father when she was a teenager. More remarkably, she was transgender. I Am My Own Wife is primarily her biography and a tribute to her achievements, but also the research process by playwright Doug Wright. Wright set out to make a play about her, but was so affected by her stories that his reactions make their way into the text. It deservedly won all major American theatre awards after its Broadway premier in 2003, but Unusual Theatre Company’s production doesn’t serve the text as well as it could.

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Richard III, Arcola Theatre

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As the audience enters, Richard sits at a pub table on an otherwise bare stage. It’s impossible not to watch him until the house lights dim, and this opening sets the tone for the two and a half hours to come. With generically modern costume and no clear concept, Mehmet Ergen’s interpretation employs a light touch on the design elements. However his focus on the text and story is on point, making this an easy to follow and engaging production. Staged in the Arcola’s main house where the audience closes in on three sides of the stage, this is the sort of space that brings out the best in Shakespeare’s energy and language.

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One Last Thing (For Now), Old Red Lion

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Families separated by war and conflict have kept in touch one way or another for time immemorial. Recently giving way to skype, texts and emails, letter writing is now largely neglected – but surviving relics betray heartache, fear and longing. International theatre company Althea Theatre draw on choral physical theatre and the intimate communications between family members from a range of global conflicts to create a moving tribute to love and patriotism.

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The Collector, Greenwich Theatre

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by guest critic Maeve Ryan

When the British army arrived in Northern Ireland, beleaguered Catholics came onto the streets offering them tea, biscuits and cake. How long did it take for the story to change to the one that we know today? In The Collector, Naseer joyfully swaps music CDs with the American soldiers who arrive into Iraq in 2003 because he hopes for democracy and change. He learnt his English by listening to American rap music and soon he becomes a valuable translator for the soldiers. The Collector documents the slow brutalization of the occupiers and the occupied through choices they make; choices that, in Henry Naylor’s play, feel inevitable.

 

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Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), Royal Court

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American, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks doesn’t shy away from epic projects. Six years ago, she wrote a play a day to create 365 Days/365 Plays, then went on to write the nine-part Father Comes Home From the Wars. Parts one, two and three centre around Hero, a strapping young slave on a remote Texan farm. Spanning the Civil War, this epic story with influence from Greek myths and contemporary socio-political issues in Parks’ distinctive, poetic language takes its time to develop and has some discordant stylistic choices, but its narrative and historical interpretation is both compelling and important.

Each of the three parts has moments of profound brilliance and devastation, but Parks is in no rush to tell her story. The dialogue-driven script takes its time, meandering around a complex landscape of slavery, loyalty and race within this particular slave family. Though set in war time, there is little action – broader issues drive the conversation more so than current events. This is more of a kitchen sink drama than a wartime adventure story.

Part one solely takes place on the farm as Hero debates whether or not join his master in battle. The rest of the slaves take bets and try to persuade him one way or the other, but in the back of Hero’s mind is a promise from the Boss-Master – but is he likely to keep his end of the deal? Hero’s loyalty is split between his owner and his wife Penny, but the lure of the cast-off but smart uniform proves too much. Though little happens, the domesticity of part one has some of the tension that precedes a huge decision. Seeing a tall, strapping black man in the prime of his life wearing Confederate greys is most unsettling; this paired with the ingrained, accepted attitude that he is the property of his owner is a potent reminder that there has been insufficient progress in America’s attempts at racial equality.

Part two, though set at a particular moment in the midst of the war, has the calm of an eye of a storm and is by far the best of the three parts. Hero and Boss-Master have captured a Yankee prisoner whilst separated from their regiment during a battle. Hero’s loyalty is tested again, this time by his prisoner upon discovery of a secret that’s hidden in plain sight and only skin deep. Racial identity, individuality and freedom intertwine in an intoxicating allure of potential for Hero, who is still doggedly loyal to his owner. The powerful ending devastates in its frank depiction of ingrained attitudes of racial inferiority and liberal frustration with this mentality.

Part three is the more mature sibling to part one. The characters are older, wiser and more world weary in the face of Southern defeat. The pre-war certainty has given way to a chance at the great unknown of freedom, and for the first time they can choose where they live – anywhere in the great, wide world, or on the farm they have known forever. Penny and Hero’s devotion is destabilised in this irrevocably changed world that is now free, but cold and dangerous – and still is for black Americans today. The morality of freedom isn’t black or white here, but the ominous, thought-provoking grey of Hero’s, (now called Ulysses) uniform.

Neil Patel’s unforgiving desert of a set doesn’t have bells and whistles, but it’s sparsity highlights the richness of Park’s language and characterisation. Steve Toussaint is the remarkable Hero, painted with delicate light and shade. The rest of the cast are excellent in their own right, though lack the development of the initially appropriately-named lead.

Parks’ script is almost completely bedded in realism (that’s occasionally heightened), though a talking pet and some contemporary costumes slightly skew reality. Both are used sparingly and without any evident justification across the three parts so their inclusion feels jarring and unnecessary. The onstage musician, though very much a separate commentator, doesn’t clash the way these choices do.

For a play set during a war and a pivotal moment of America’s history, it is oddly detached from violence and conflict. Instead, Parks’ text goes after deeper themes within this transition from slavery to freedom. Though a greater sense of danger and looming dread would add needed further tension in parts one and two, the nuance that flows through the story is undeniably exquisite.

Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) run through 22 October.

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.

Scorched, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Jack, feeble in body and mind, wiles away the days watching news broadcasts from operation Desert Storm. The former WWII soldier, now safe and looked after in a care home, vividly recounts memories from his youth and on the front line. He may not be aware of the present, but his past is ever present and will not let me rest. Solo show Scorched is a moving and honest look at veterans’ experiences of combat and ageing, leaving the troubling feeling that society is not fulfilling its responsibility to this vulnerable demographic.

Lisle Turner’s script, inspired by her grandfather’s life, is an expressionistic snapshot of his thoughts at the twilight of his life. Stationed in Egypt during the war, we hear tales of heat, explosions, and beautiful women interspersed with memories from his childhood. The storyline is loosely constructed; it is episodic rather than wholly linear. This structure works well considering that these are Jack’s memories he plays out for himself rather than for an audience arbitrarily included in the action without being allocated any clear identity.

There are some beautiful design elements: Jack remembers tattooing himself and this is projected on his arm rather than shown with makeup. To see something normally considered permanent conveyed through an ephemeral form is a fitting reminder that nothing truly lasts forever and Jack is nearly at the end of his life. The loveliest of other whimsical projections is on a cascade of sand poured from a dinner tray. This sand is everywhere, like the memories that cling onto Jack’s deteriorating mind and are constantly discovered in unsuspecting places – a clever device either by Turner or director Claire Coache. A simple puppet is used well but not enough, as are mundane objects that transform into others more exciting – an umbrella becomes a fishing rod, a footstool is a motorbike. This object manipulation is a lovely surprise and suits Jack’s mental state well, so it could be utilised further to comment on the childhood of old age.

Robin Berry plays Jack with power and pathos, initially with a delicate frailty that gives way to a younger, more powerful man who enjoys boxing, horse riding, dancing and defending his country. Berry has a strong physical presence that is eminently watchable and a range that makes him believe both as the older and younger Jack.

Strengthening and streamlining the staging and theatrical devices will help make the script feel less like a random collection of memories, and reordering some of scenes would also have the same effect. Jack is a fantastic character and the play is a fitting tribute to elderly veterans, though also serves to pay homage to a generation that soon will no longer be with us.

Scorched runs through 29th August.

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.