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Integrity

Parliamentary Backstop?

Integrity

by Vaughan Evans

Krimson Kestrel at OSO Arts Centre, Barnes until 25th October

Review by Wendy Summers

Integrity – “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles that you refuse to change” (Cambridge English Dictionary).

The action of this play occurs in the murky world of Westminster politics, where it would appear, “integrity” is a dirty word. Ostensibly a play about the 2010 Coalition Government and the Liberal Democrat’s policy on tuition fees, the play also tries to tap into the #MeToo movement that arose at the same time following the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Somewhere along the line the tuition fee debate gets lost, forgotten or ignored in favour of playing up the “casting couch” and abuse of power themes.

Integrity debuted at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2018. It is perfect Fringe material; it deals with “issues”, has a fair amount of angst and lasted an hour. This new, full length version has, by the playwright’s own admission not been revised. Instead, a second act has been bolted onto the end to make room for an interval. And it doesn’t work. The first act is a complete play in itself and has a definite conclusion. Act Two meanders through “what has happened in the interim six years” without as much structure as the original piece and there is a lot of talk about characters and events unseen and previously unmentioned. In fact I completely missed that there was a further two year time lapse in Act Two until I re-read the programme.

The play is directed by the author, who also appears on stage as one of the man protagonists. This multi-tasking, although admirable – and understandable – to entrust one’s “baby” to the care of another is difficult – is sadly to the play’s detriment. The cast are all capable actors and work very hard to breathe life into their characters but their performances suffer from direction by someone who is both too close to the piece and unable to give the cast his full attention as he is also performing and can never see the whole picture. Thus, Clare Farrow’s Vicky plays the entire piece as a femme fatale, which takes away any element of surprise when she is revealed as a sexual predator and Francesca Stone’s Tanya is glamorous, knowing and manipulative, but much of her dialogue is lost in the delivery, which could have been easily fixed by someone “out front” really listening to what she is saying. As Evan, Evans himself is sympathetic but could do with a little more “edge” as the play progresses and Richard Scott does a good job with George, the chauvinist who in the end shows himself to have the closest thing to integrity of anyone in the play. The fun second act cameos by Marie Bushell and Jenny Fownes brought some much-needed light relief.

Krimson Kestrel’s production values are excellent. It is an uncommon pleasure to see a black box space used effectively with minimal furniture and the lighting and sound effects are effective and unobtrusive at the same time. Scene changes are slick and fast.

In summary, this is an interesting piece that tackles the issue of power and corruption well. Sometimes it is a little heavy handed, but the first half is thought provoking and well-constructed. A little more thought on how best to expand that initial hour would serve the piece well.

Wendy Summers
October 2019

Image courtesy of OSO Arts Centre

Toast

The Food of Love

Toast

by Henry Filloux-Bennett, based on the book by Nigel Slater

PW Productions and Karl Sydow, Richmond Theatre, until 26 October

Review by Matthew Grierson

In the 1960s and 1970s, long before British people had iPhones and Instagram and emojis, the only way they could express their feelings was through food. Yet the humble national palate, all bread and baked goods and biscuits, proves highly articulate in this impressive, life-affirming adaptation of cook Nigel Slater’s hit memoir.

The relationship between young Nigel (Giles Cooper) – clad in sleeveless pullover and shorts à la Blue Remembered Hills to evoke the child the actor plays – and Mum (Katy Federmen) is one based on their shared experience at worktop and hob. The son’s enthusiasm makes up for the avowed shortcomings in his mother’s expertise, and the baking of jam tarts and mince pies binds them together. Dad (Blair Plant) meanwhile has fussy rules about what and how one should eat, memorably playing out as an episode of Top of the Form in which the contestants have to correctly gender confectionery as either ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ sweets.

(L-R) Katy Federman, Samantha Hopkins, Stefan Edwards, Giles Cooper - photo credit Piers Foley

The second-act appearance of Dad’s fancy woman Joan (Samantha Hopkins) on the scene then gives rise to a cookery conflict between son and stepmother, escalating from condiments to entire dessert trolleys. There’s even an excruciating but hilarious moment where Dad and Joan eat walnut whips in a manner bordering on the erotic, much to the embarrassment of Nigel. But we can tell how much he still cares for his Dad in the form of the impressive wedding cake he makes the couple, a gesture all the more poignant because he has used the Christmas cake recipe he and his mother once shared.

The Slaters’ feelings are also given physical form in the set, resembling a sparkling showroom kitchen – the kind in which the aspirational family long to feel at home. But the units are more than a workspace, more than status symbols, and are swung out into a range of charming dance routines, their wheels keeping pace with the cast’s effortless footwork.

For the food of love would be incomplete without its music, and the numbers that accompany the production evoke the period in which Nigel was growing up, and his own story in particular. The Crystals’ ‘Then He Kissed Me’ is an effective score for his first romantic encounter, and the anachronistic leap ahead to Talking Heads’ ‘Psycho Killer’, soundtracking his culinary arms race with Joan, can be forgiven because it is such fun.

Samantha Hopkins - photo credit Piers Foley (2)

This joyous and playful spirit is shared with the audience through a fourth wall that is not so much broken as entirely knocked through to make way for a kitchen extension. Nigel’s monologues are delivered so frequently to us that his exchanges with his parents are at risk of being asides themselves. There is also a danger that these speeches become the smug account of a middle-aged man nostalgically recalling his childhood. But the device is prevented from being wearing by having the other characters interrupt him or even remark wryly on Nigel’s habit  of self-presentation (‘Who is he talking to?’ ‘He does this a lot.’)

It helps, too, that Cooper is never less than endearing as the infant and later teenage boy, and any self-satisfaction is always that of a child trying to take charge of his own story rather than a comfortable adult relating it as an after-dinner speech. As exuberant as his delivery is, Cooper is also a master of the telling look or expressive silence; similarly, a sudden frenzy of activity in making Christmas cake crumbles away in the desperation of wanting to hold on to the mother he is about to lose.

(L-R) Katy Federman, Giles Cooper - photo credit Piers Foley

As Nigel’s Mum, Katy Federman is just as wonderful as her offspring, conveying a depth of character in declining health with a delicacy of touch throughout. Her comic timing is deft, and she is as capable as her son of making a glance speak volumes, whether in endurance of her husband’s idiosyncrasies or in flirty admiration of gardener Josh (Stefan Edwards). The high point is a worktop dance between mother and child, punningly enough to the strains of Charles Aznavour’s ‘La Mer’.

With the passing of Mrs Slater, Federman also proves admirably adaptable in the form of Nigel’s subsequent surrogate mothers, such as home economics teacher Miss Adams – an hilariously dipsomaniac turn in which she rails against tinned custard – or Doreen, the big-hearted cook at the local hotel where Nigel apprentices himself.

In a play where the cast is already given to distribute sweeties among the audience, Nigel’s Dad could so easily have been a pantomime villain, with his commanding presence and sudden anger. But Blair Plant’s sympathetic performance, and Henry Filloux-Bennett’s script, make him a much more nuanced character: the aspirational factory worker who joins the masons, makes a failed attempt to cook spaghetti Bolognese (the parmesan ruins it because ‘it smells like sick’), and is literally floored by his wife’s death.

Even though we see him capable of the worst – there’s a latent homophobia that surfaces whenever his son does anything remotely ‘girly’, and a sudden outburst that sees him repeatedly beat the poor boy – we understand these are the reactions of a man repressed, whose historical moment does not give him any other means of expression than a stiff upper lip and his fists. His temper is cut with a tenderness that complicates Nigel’s relationship with him, and ours. His unexpected death marks a believable climax to the emotional journey of the play: Nigel marks his sudden independence by devising a new dish on stage in front of us, the aroma of mushrooms, butter and toast drifting across the auditorium.

Giles Cooper - photo credit Piers Foley

If Nigel and his parents are the chefs and maître d’ of Toast, the no-less-important serving staff are Samantha Hopkins and Stefan Edwards, who each take on a succession of swing parts (some of them actual waiters). As Joan, Hopkins affords the character enough particularity to be more than merely a wicked stepmother, as she successfully weaponises her homemaking to oust dust, and the ghost of Mum, from the Slater household, essaying some precision dancing into the bargain.  As a Midlander myself, though, I think it’s a little unfair that she’s the only one charged with having to land the local accent (as though this were some signifier of her hated status for young Nigel).

Edwards in turn plays a roster of young men from handsome gardener Josh – sacked by a troubled Dad for having undressed in front of his son – to schoolmate Worrall and Doreen’s ballet-dancing son, with whom Nigel shares a first tentative kiss. It’s a versatile contribution, a magic ingredient that helps the show to rise.

So, think of it less as a cliché and more as a favourite dish when I say that Toast is a perfect recipe, its mixture of sweet and savoury flavours producing a satisfying and still surprising evening’s repast.

Matthew Grierson
October 2019

Photographs © Piers Foley

The Mask of Orpheus

Blast of Phosphorescent Psychedelia

The Mask of Orpheus

by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, libretto by Peter Zinovieff

English National Opera at the London Coliseum until 19th November

Review by Mark Aspen

Exotic, excessive, eccentric … and that was just the audience!   The buzz at the first-night of ENO’s ambitiously flamboyant new production of Birtwistle The Mask of Orpheus was electrifying.

The Mask of Orpheus has not been seen as a fully-staged opera since its premiere at ENO in 1986, a third of a century ago, for this is a monumental piece, at nearly three and half hours long Wagnerian in length, musically and technically demanding. To call it complex would be an understatement, for here we have a creative titan, intricately multi-dimensional, not only in its narrative and artistic expressions, but in its musical and technical structures.

The narrative, as expressed in composition and libretto, is described as non-linear, but it is more than that; its chronology is circular, or as Birtwistle put it “more precisely, I move in concentric circles”. Hence, the story of Orpheus striving to repossess Eurydice, his dead wife, and rescue her from hell is told and retold through different “what-if” scenarios. After all, we know of the ancient myth through retelling ranging back to Ovid, Virgil or Plato and beyond, each retelling with variants on the narrative theme.

Moreover, the opera explores three manifestations of the psyche of each of the three main characters, Orpheus, Eurydice and Aristaeus (the apiarist god, who seduces Eurydice), as a human, a myth and a hero. These three expressions of the characters act out their own versions of the story simultaneously, which calls for a tripartite setting on the stage.

Birtwistle sets his extensive score for an orchestra bereft of its bowed string section, but expanded with a battery of percussion instruments, and with guitars and harp. This is augmented further by electronic music, originally realised for Birtwistle by the late Barry Anderson, including the creations of “auras” and interludes comprising electronic transformations of the sounds of a harp. The traditional and contemporary sections of the orchestra each has their own conductor.

For director Daniel Kramer, this epic production forms his swansong as ENO’s Artistic Director and, my, is he going out on a bang! His The Mask of Orpheus is an extravaganza that threatens to overwhelm the senses with its lavish opulence and sheer scale. It is very much design-led.

Kramer has co-curated ENO’s Orpheus Series, which takes four different approaches to retelling the Orpheus myth via with four very different composers and four very different directors, but all on variations a single set by the prominent designer Lizzie Clachan.

'The Mask of Orpheus' Opera performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

Motivated by multiple visual symbolism, Clachan’s white tiled basic set now incorporates many eclectic elements, ranging from Japanese screens to iced water dispensers, in settings across gardens and bathrooms. Peter Mumford’s lighting design throbs with vibrant fluorescence, dynamic in its changes from cool and delicate into vivid and saturated colour. However all this is trumped by cult stylist Daniel Lismore’s debut stage costume designs. Outrageously camp and glitzy, they dominate the overall design, and indeed threaten to swamp the production with their eye-catching self-indulgence. There is a clarifying colour coding for the character: Orpheus and his alter egos wear red, Eurydice and her many manifestations are in blue, whereas the forms of Aristaeus are yellowy-greens. If this were not enough, 400,000 Swarovski zirconia (plus a few diamonds we are told) are stitched into the costumes in an overdose of bling. The riot of crystals scatters Mumford’s light so that every surface becomes a glitter-ball or a Newton’s prism. So we have glittering gauntlets and a diamond skull that, For the Love of God, would make Damien Hirst envious. (It even caused quite a stir in the jewellery world, getting an article in Professional Jeweller magazine.)  We can safely say that Lismore’s design is brilliant, literally so.

In spite of the impact of this blast of phosphorescent psychedelia, it does not overpower the force of Birtwistle’s musical; in fact is seems complementary. Hoarse woodwinds, centred on Birtwistle’s beloved clarinets, are accentuated by throaty brass. In the most dramatic moments the full expression of the score punches through, impetuously punctuating the emotion, and when the full weight of the percussion weighs in the result is hair-raising. Then there are quiet moments with the ululation of the electronics adding a sense of pathos. The orchestra has conductors who extract the full essence of the Birtwistle score. Martyn Brabbins, ENO’s Music Director and an eminent disciple of Birtwistle, unifies and paces the orchestra while James Henshaw co-ordinates the metallic edgy feel of the less conventional instruments and of the powerful percussion.

This deliria of invention is startlingly surreal, and quite appropriately surreal, for the exposition of the story is as a dream, with a dream’s sublimated desires and frightful fears. The dream generates graphic images of sexual ecstasy and of violent horror in juxtaposition. Hanging, flailing, cannibalism are set against carnal joy. Violent rape is set against the tenderness of marriage.

We first see Orpheus the Man struggling out of a deep bath, a creaking aged rock-star of a figure in his Beverley Hills mansion. But is it a bath, or a tomb … or a womb? He strives to put together the elements of speech, finding the basic phonemes to voice his thoughts. Then on to the chilled drinks dispenser where he finds his alter egos, Orpheus the Myth and Orpheus the Hero. They drink Mary-less Bloody Marys.

'The Mask of Orpheus' Opera performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

This, you see, is a production overloaded with symbolism, visual, musical and physical. It is dense with symbolism, much only half-understood. What are all the babies about? And the poor little mites always come to a violent end, dismembered, cannibalised, put through a liquidiser. Is that where the Bloody Marys come from?

The stamina of Peter Hoare as Orpheus the Man, almost continually on stage during this marathon opera, is remarkable. The force of his full tenor voice is unflagging. Particularly demanding is his relating his journey into the underworld in Act II, in which Orpheus must surmount the barriers of seventeen “Arches”, which form the bridge to overcome his own grief.

Much of the evocation of Orpheus’ journey is related to memory and indeed to the authenticity of memory. Could his memories be accurate, or could they be a dream? The fragmented ambiguity in Peter Zinovieff’s libretto gives us less than a few clues.

'The Mask of Orpheus' Opera performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

Eurydice the Woman has an equally harrowing time of things, and Marta Fontanals-Simmons expresses the deep pathos of the role, her rich voice imbuing the role with a haunting melancholy. Eurydice’s motif is one of birth and rebirth: at one point she is battered to death with long clubs by the Judges of the Dead, who feast hungrily on her entrails. Her alter ego Eurydice the Myth is abused with abandon. In this role, Harewood Artist Eurydice Claire Barnett-Jones is entrancing. These two mezzos are taken on a roller-coaster ride across their range by Birtwistle’s score.

'The Mask of Orpheus' Opera performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

As Orpheus the Myth, Daniel Norman complements the Orpheus tenor roles. He seems to send much of his time on stage attended by pseudo-nurses come mortuary attendants, the erstwhile Furies, here outrageously pneumatic comic-book phantasies of the big bust-big bum hourglass women of the schoolboy imagination.

'The Mask of Orpheus' Opera performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

Aristaeus the Man and Aristaeus the Myth, incarnations of a god, but one with the evil intent of taking Eurydice to hell one way or another, are sung in the baritone register, as menacing yet seductive figures by James Cleverton and Simon Bailey. Both are clad in honeycomb-yellow puffer jackets, appropriate for the god of beekeeping. Bees feature strongly in both the design and the music of The Mask of Orpheus.

Impressive in their stage presence are the remarkable coloratura soprano Claron McFadden as The Oracle of the Dead; and Robert Hayward, whose richly robust bass as The Caller creates a character far different from his cuddly rogue Falstaff in his earlier role this summer.

'The Mask of Orpheus' Opera performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

Kramer’s The Mask of Orpheus has a strong element of physical theatre, embracing dance, aerial ballet and clowning in addition to the mimed parts called for by the original score and libretto. The roles of Orpheus the Hero, Eurydice the Hero and Aristaeus the Hero are consummately enacted by the aerialists, Matthew Smith, Alfa Marks and Leo Hedman. Their scenes within scenes are amongst both the most sensual and the most violent in the piece, but yet encompass an ethereal and enigmatic sentiment. Often working high above the stage, a powerfully athletic interpretation is put on violent acts, such as the hanging of Orpheus or the rape of Eurydice. Sensual scenes are lithe but tender acts of joy. The final scene of Orpheus and Eurydice suspended between life and death in a transcendental duet of love and grief is an unforgettable image.

'The Mask of Orpheus' Opera performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

Dance and mime feature in the interpolated “Passing Cloud” and “Allegorical Flowers”, episodes from Ovid that are interposed within the concentric circle chronology. These are realised in a transparent chamber that that makes a slow transition across the width of the stage, a display case of metaphoric curios. These punctuate or puncture the unfolding of the primary parallel plot(s) at moments of crisis or calm. These may be Arcadian, a travesty in which a Botticelli Venus meets a priapic pan; or they may be atavistic horror stories, manic Maenads lynch a hapless Pentheus. These all give opportunity for further flights of fancy from Lismore’s costume designs. Witness the carbuncular creatures that could have been created by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who are flayed of their grotesque skins to reveal other monsters inside, who are again flayed to reveal mankind in their nucleus, a sort of macabre series of Babushka dolls.

'The Mask of Orpheus' Opera performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

After all those hours, when the octogenarian Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Zinovieff were applauded tumultuously when they were brought on stage, most of the audience were reeling punch-drunk by all the excesses of the production.

However, when the hangover has passed, and one has chance to absorb what the colourful, grotesquerie of Kramer’s The Mask of Orpheus is all about, the question comes to mind, has the extravagant spectacle of this production really illuminated Birtwistle’s four dimensional epic, or has it engulfed and stifled it?

But then again, as they say in Hades, what the hell!

Mark Aspen
October 2019

Photography by Alistair Muir

Sweeney Todd

A Cutting Edge Production

Sweeney Todd

by Stephen Sondheim

BROS Theatre Company, Hampton Hill Theatre, until 19th October

Review by Helen Astrid

Sweeney Todd is a gruesome and gripping musical with music and lyrics by American composer Stephen Sondheim and has just opened at the Hampton Hill Theatre by the BROS Theatre Company this week.

Based on the 1973 play, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Christopher Bond, which was originally set in Victorian London, the plot revolves around a vengeful barber who is on the hunt for the evil Judge Turpin. Turpin had transported him to Australia for a crime he didn’t commit, for the Judge had designs on Sweeney’s wife. Despite being written for the 1850s the show is indeed relevant to our own present-day problems with crime, for revenge and punishment are central to the plot. BROS’ slick and innovative production by Paul Turnbull is certainly a modern day approach.

Sondheim, now 89 years old, considers the work ‘a little horror show’ though in reality it’s a true reflection of his own life, which was much troubled in his early formative years. Luckily for us, he emerged into a great writer, learning much of his trade from Oscar Hammerstein. Sir Cameron Mackintosh describes Sondheim as “possibly the greatest lyricist ever”.

SweenyPromo1

The opening ensemble number The Ballad of Sweeney Todd immediately transports us to the East End of London, namely Fleet Street, EC4, where the demon barber resides making a heinous living. With thirty-three musical numbers plus dialogue taking just over two hours and twenty minutes, there is not a dull moment.

BROS Theatre Company certainly displayed a strong, committed and mature approach with a dynamic cast led by Sam Sugarman in the title role who enjoyed brandishing his glistening blade with purposeful viciousness.

SweenyPromo2Jonathan Warriss-Simmons as Anthony sings and acts with conviction as the love-struck hero and displays control and command particularly in his song Joanna, a theme used again and again by Sondheim. Georgina Skinner as Joanna is the heroine who also has some great tunes, at times soaring to top B flats displaying her pure dulcet tones.

The boisterous and effervescent Mrs Lovett was superbly performed by Aggie Holland; her By the Sea in Act 2, was both impressive and touching. A promising stage presence indeed.

Milly Pickworth gives a fine performance as Tobias Ragg and her (or his) Not While I’m Around, another Sondheim hit, is delivered with charm and clarity of tone. Further mention must go to Faye Brann who gives the role of the Beggar Woman (an unforgiving role, whom we later find out to be Lucy, the lost love of Todd) a splendid performance.

SweenyPromo3Not least, Nigel Cole is cunning as the self-righteous Judge Turpin whom we finally see gets his just deserts. As with all good shows, there’s a moral to be learnt and Sweeney Todd is no exception. Some scenes though may be unsuitable for children, so adults too beware!

The set design by Wesley Henderson-Roe is simple and uncluttered; the barber’s shop, street corners and mad house are cleverly created from different levels and the use of the auditorium serves the cast well. Black and red appropriately dominate the stage as well as the colours for the costumes and the red and white striped pole sign reminds us where to go and have a close shave, if we dare. It’s fascinating that this trade sign is a real tradition dating back to the Middle Ages in England.

A small hidden band including a piano, flute, clarinets, trumpet, horn, double bass and percussion are competently led by Nic Luker.

Bravo to the entire team for what promises to be a stupendous run this week. Grab a ticket if you can!

Helen Astrid
October 2019

Photography by PNDPhotography

Prism

Poignant Sensory Journey

Prism

by Terry Johnson

Hampstead Theatre and Birmingham Repertory Theatre at Richmond Theatre until 19th October, then on tour until 30th November

Review by Eleanor Marsh

Jack Cardiff, played here by a charismatic and highly energetic Robert Lindsay was a ground-breaking cinematographer and film director. He was responsible for the “look” of the stunning Powell and Pressburger movie classics including Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and A Matter or Life and Death as well as the incomparable African Queen. The Prism of the title is the very prism used to create the original colour palettes of these films.

Prism1

The premise of the play is that Cardiff’s son, Mason (a bit of a thankless role until Act Two but someone must be the Ernie Wise to Cardiff’s Eric Morecambe), played by Oliver Hembrough is trying to get Cardiff to write his memoirs whilst he is still able. Cardiff (an absolute tour de force performance by Robert Lindsay) is suffering from the early stages of dementia and is an irascible old chap anyway. He would rather relive his memories than write them down. Thus his wife Nicola (Tara Fitzgerald), Lucy his carer (Victoria Blunt) and Mason are all perceived as the movie stars he worked with back in the day. It is a lovely device and becomes particularly poignant in the second act. The attitude of each member of the “family” to the actual writing of the memoirs is an excellent reflection of their relationship with Cardiff himself and each other.

Prism8Tim Shortall’s set is a delight to behold and holds many aides memoires in respect of the films on which Cardiff worked and the great stars he worked with. This, together with Ben Ormerod’s lighting and Ian William Galloway’s video design conspire to evoke the cinematic heyday of the 20th century.

The curtain on the first night at Richmond Theatre went up late, fifteen minutes late due to “technical issues”. With a play about a luminary of cinema there is no escaping the fact that – at least visually – it will be highly technical and, of course with a touring production the challenge of transferring to a different theatre each week cannot be underestimated.

Once the curtain went up however, the worry was that the incident had been with sound rather than anything else. The opening scene takes place behind a garage door, which gradually opens to allow the cast to enter. The gag is funny briefly but wears thin the longer it goes on, mainly as the dialogue being delivered at the very back of the stage and behind a metal screen was virtually unintelligible. This may not be the case in every theatre as acoustics are different everywhere but it’s another consideration that sometimes generic is best when touring.

And that, dear readers, is the last I have to say that is in any way negative about this excellent play and production.

Act One does an excellent job of setting up the plot and introducing the characters and the audience is left at the end of the act with a genuine desire to see how everything pans out. To say we were not disappointed with Act Two on opening night at Richmond is an understatement. The second act takes us on sensory journey that was (almost) totally unexpected. And I am not about to throw any spoilers into the mix but Victoria Blunt and Tara Fitzgerald both excel. Fitzgerald, in particular raised an audible “wow” from the audience when she appeared.

Prism5

In short, Terry Johnson has written and directed a well-crafted, poignant and highly amusing play with some real laugh out loud moments. It has excellent performances, is visually stunning and the music and sound are as unobtrusive yet effective as in any good film. As a biographical piece it does exactly what it should – it makes the audience want to find out more about the subject. And it has the ability to make us laugh and make us think without ever being “lecturing” in style.

But in the final analysis the night belongs to Lindsay – an instantly likeable actor, able to deliver comedy and tragedy in equally effective measure. And he even throws in a song and dance routine – Bravo !

Eleanor Marsh
October 2019

Photography by Manuel Harlan

Solaris

Projections

Solaris

by David Greig, based on the novel by Stanisław Lem

Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, Malthouse Theatre Melbourne and the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, until 2 November

Review by Matthew Grierson

Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Polly Frame) arrives on stage like the breath of reason in a madhouse. Boarding the space station in her pressure suit, she seems as alien as the planet Solaris below: Dr Snow  (Fode Simbo) treats her like one of the apparitions that have been plaguing the crew. Sure enough, Kelvin has soon thrown reason out of the window, or rather the airlock, and taken up with the spectre of her dead lover, Ray (Keegan Joyce).

(l-r) Fode Simbo & Polly Frame-SOLARIS-P-Mihaela Bodlovic

Solaris succeeds on stage because it is a ghost story, a tragic romance, a thriller, a chamber piece and even at times a comedy of manners. It doesn’t try to blind us with science fiction, and indeed takes a simple delight in such retro-futuristic flourishes as the VHS tapes used by the scientists to log their observations.

Even the impressive set, which smoothly transforms from cabin into lab, lounge and concourse, is satisfying low-tech. At rest it resembles nothing so much as the painting at contention in Art, all discreetly uneven white surfaces from which beds, benches and lockers are revealed. The curtain lowers frequently to enable these changes, and though intrusive at first this motion soon contributes to the nervous tempo of the piece, and gives the planet itself stage presence as its oceanic surface is projected on to the screen this offers. With the scenery transitions and a lighting palette ranging from clinical to 1970s movies, the characters’ moods play out on a cinematic canvas.

This makes, at times, for quite a raw experience. The oceanic planet, so far as the crew understand it, is trying to communicate with them through the medium of the ‘visitors’, manifestations of lost loved ones from their own subconscious. We only twig properly that this is going on with the sudden appearance of Ray in Kris’s bed, and her panic on waking to discover him there can be felt quite keenly. It becomes still more harrowing when she coaxes him out of the airlock to his death.

As a ghost, though, Ray continues to haunt Kris, and her attempt to hang on to her sense of scientific reason is in tension with his distress at being apart from her. The sight of his blood on the pristine white wall where he has been banging his head is a particularly shocking reminder of his physicality and agency.

(l-r) Keegan Joyce & Polly Frame-Solaris-P-Mihaela Bodlovic

Joyce’s portrayal of the visitor is affectingly primal and childlike, and he draws increasing enthusiasm and engagement from Frame’s Kris. Between them they can often turn a moment of terror into one of humour, modulating the tension with comic relief. This is seen most effectively in the lounge where the scientists attempt a formally informal soirée to get to know Ray, which plays out like an awkward dinner party (and boasts an impressive if implausible amount of wine for a space mission).

But existential dread is never far away on Solaris, and as Kris laughingly conducts a personality test on Ray he turns the tables on her sharply and tellingly. This means that the moment she leaves him alone in her cabin, and he looks falteringly around him, it is as though we the audience are now sharing and sustaining her delusion.

The contrast between the young, remembered lover and the maturer, more lonely scientist means their relationship does not always feel like a credible one. But then, as biologist Dr Sartorius (Jade Ogugua) reminds Kris, the young man is effectively her id, her unguarded sense of who she was, given physical form. There may be more the play could have done with this device dramatically, but as it is his presence provides at least some irrational rationale for Kelvin’s increasingly erratic behaviour.

It would be misleading to talk of character development as such in Solaris, because emotions happen to the two leads tidally, as the ocean outside on Solaris broils and churns. While this ups the pace of the more meditative novel on which the production is based, it also shows how thoroughly and effectively the story has been dramatised.

Against this dynamic, however, it is not so easy to gauge the characters of Snow and Sartorius, who (as Donna Grierson observed, with her own scientific eye) seem to exhibit tendencies as much as personalities. Snow is nervy, jokey and forever trying to record evidence of the visitors’ presence; Sartorious is more sceptical and dispassionate, only hinting at what she has had to endure in her two years on station. Neither Simbo nor Ogugua can be faulted on their performances, but had they had more to go on it would have enabled us more clearly to plot the fluctuations of Kris’s character.

(l-r) Hugo Weaving & Polly Frame-SOLARIS-P-Mihaela Bodlovic

For all their hard work, the cast cannot help but be upstaged by another absent presence. The sage countenance of Kris’s dead mentor Prof. Gibarian dominates the white wall of the set when she plays back the video diary he has kept. Ghosts take many different forms, and Gibarian’s is none other than screen legend Hugo Weaving. Afforded so much expressive space, he can be far more dialled down and nuanced than the rest of the cast and he turns in a compelling performance, though director Matthew Lutton works some nice interplay between projection and live actors.

In these interactions between the living and the dead lies the dramatic potential that this production successfully exploits. Despite its shortcomings Solaris, taken as a whole, is a bold theatrical experiment that proves just how disorienting an encounter with a truly alien consciousness would be.

Matthew Grierson
October 2019

Photography by Mihaela Bodlovic

Elemental

A Pure Joy to Hear

Elemental

music and lyrics by Elaine Samuels

Kindred Spirit, recording to be released on 2nd November

Review by Larry Richmond

Well, hello readers. I’d best put my glass of champagne down to tell you about a most interesting new record album that I have just heard.

The album, to be released on compact disc (CD) at a special launch gig at All Hallows, Twickenham, on Saturday 2nd November, is called Elemental and is from the Kindred Spirit Band. It has various musical elements to it. A combination of folk, with touches of Irish folk, jigs, reels and a touch of sea shanty, plus blues and light rock.

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The musicians are excellent. The lead vocalist has a very pleasant voice. Overall I found it a most enjoyable listen. The album is well produced, with the front cover and all the album art designed and produced by the versatile Elaine Samuels, who writes both music and lyrics and is the leading light of this group.

Elemental Elaine_BabyTaylor

Mention must be made of the individual performers, starting of course with the vocalist and guitarist Elaine Samuels, whom I believe wrote all the original new songs, has a most charming voice, hauntingly relaxing in her delivery. She has an immense talent and a pure joy to hear.

Martin Ash on violin and viola, plus Catherine Cooper on flute and saxophone both have a classical feel that is delightful. Les Binks on drums and percussion is equally perfect.
Mike Hislop and Aleem Saleh share the bass guitar credits and provide good bass support throughout, while Steve Hutchinson provides backing vocals.

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There are twelve tracks on the album, Elaine Samuels’ eleven original tracks and a bonus cover number, Feelin’ Good made famous by Nina Simone and Muse. Each track conveys an inner kindred feeling of life, and which are mesmerizing in their lyrical content and musical arrangements.

The title track, The Alchemyst, featured on the cover mount CD of the September issue of Prog Magazine, is inspired by the life of Dr John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s court advisor, alchemist and astrologer and hints at the heroic historical nature of his intriguing inquisitive mind.

A similar placing of the band’s previous album, Phoenix Rising as a Prog Magazine cover mount propelled them to international recognition.

Another historically based track, Vikings features no less than a Viking invasion and battle. With some stimulating time signature changes, it is suffused with the ambience of legend.

Perhaps this feeling leads on to the almost celestial atmosphere of Need Your Love, which Samuels revels as being inspired by the Philip Pullman, Northern Lights trilogy.

Progressive rock, or art rock, which is defined as “the expansive nature of lyrical themes and more unusual melodic and rhythmic structures” is well illustrated in Elemental in the versatility and virtuosity of the artists. The variety is evident in the tracks, Make a Change, with its world music flute-led sound and No Smoke Without Fire, skilfully steering its way between rock and the hard place of pure blues.

Now let me pour another glass of champagne … no, vintage champagne … and play again this excellent album, Elemental.

Life can be wonderful. Get the album and enjoy.

Larry Richmond
Oct 2019

Photography by Clive Turner and RP Photography