Review – King Lear, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 6th October 2017

King LearThere was a positive glow of excitement last February when we found out that this year’s Chichester Festival would include a new production of King Lear with Sir Ian McKellen as the titular monarch. Not only us, but our friends Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and Professor and Mrs Plum all decided they wanted a slice of the regal action. In order to be within a pillicock’s whisker of a chance of getting tickets, they all joined the Chichester Friends’ scheme; and, as a result, last Friday night the six of us were all scattered round the various rows of the intimate Minerva Theatre to witness this rare sight.

KL Ian McKellen, Dominic Mafham, Patrick RobinsonActually, it’s not that rare; we saw Sir Ian play Lear in 2008 at the New London Theatre. Call me shallow, but my main memory of the evening was holding a door open for Joanna Lumley who beamed me the most heart-melting smile imaginable in gratitude. That surpassed most other memories of the production, although it was notable, of course, for Sir Ian getting his kit off completely on the Blasted Heath; more than one critic was unable to resist the every inch a king line. I wasn’t blogging at the time, but if I had been, then rest assured gentle reader, I wouldn’t have been so pass-remarkable, true though it may have been.

KL Sinead CusackI’ve seen three other Lears in my time, and they’ve all created their own special character, as you would expect. Pete Postlethwaite’s at the Young Vic was troubled but calm. Derek Jacobi’s (touring in Milton Keynes) was petulant and wheedling. Michael Pennington’s (at the Royal and Derngate in 2016) was quick to ire and was robust with dementia. Sir Ian McKellen (first time around) was simply majestic. This time, he’s still majestic, but with more of the common touch. This Lear genuinely loves the company of his retinue, and when his daughters slowly pare away the numbers they will allow to accompany him, it truly injures him to the sinews. He and the Fool are great mates and you can easily imagine them down the pub together carousing till dawn.

KL Tamara Lawrance, Jake MannLear’s kingdom is very autocratic. The boardroom where he invites his daughters to say how much they love him is overshadowed by a huge portrait of McKellen as Lear; imagine, instead, it depicting President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and you’ll get the picture (literally). When the daughters are invited to praise him, they come up to a podium and speak into microphones; this is a public proclamation of love and division of the country, not just some quiet family arrangement. After Goneril has declared her undying love, Lear grabs his grand office scissors and slices through the map, handing Albany Scotland. Now I’ve nothing against the land of Loch and Trossach, but you can imagine Goneril saying to herself “Scotland? Scotland!! I was hoping for the Thames Valley at least.” Regan’s oily contribution to the debate wins her a cutting of Wales and the West Country. He really was keeping the best back for Cordelia; but she blows it (sorry if that’s a spoiler for you). Lear’s sarcastic and dismissive treatment of her whilst Burgundy and France are preparing their suit for her is tetchily painful to witness.

KL Phil DanielsMaking such a big show of the division debate means that the publicity will be enormous. The public nature of what he perceives as her denying him his rightful self-abasement means he can’t take her response rationally; everyone has witnessed her speech and he feels he has no choice but to cut her out of the inheritance. I almost felt sorry for Burgundy; he really did end up being there under false pretences. Fortunately, that nice King of France seems to love her for more than her riches (which is just as well.) We won’t see Cordelia again they’re both clad in rather dashing grey and white combats.

KL Ian McKellenJonathan Munby’s production is vivid and thrilling throughout. There’s no hiding place in the intimate space of the Minerva, so the harshness of life and the cruelty of the story are emphasised by the audience’s proximity to the action. The torrential rain that thunders down on to the centre of the stage, and soaks Lear, the Fool, Edgar and whoever else comes near, is icy and forceful. Seated in Row A, we didn’t get wet but, boy, the rain sure made us feel cold. The sadistic delight with which Gloucester’s eyes are put out results in their being squished underfoot by the ruthless Cornwall, whilst his perverted wife gets turned on by the violence. By the same token, those brief moments of kindness and love are very strongly conveyed; for example, I’ve never been more moved by Edgar’s sad and shocked realisation of what’s become of his father. However, Mrs Chrisparkle always expects to be moved to tears when Lear brings Cordelia’s dead body on to the stage; she wasn’t this time.

KL Michael Matus, Sinead CusackSir Ian McKellen is magnificent in the role, as you would expect; a tyrant in his division of the nation; a lad in his dealings with his retinue, a benefactor in his care for Poor Tom, a victim of his own folly and his power-grabbing daughters. His voice rages and cossets, demands and plays; in one moment he’s in full command, the next he’s pitifully useless. Not for nothing is this a chance to see probably our greatest actor in probably the greatest role for an older man. But there’s a tremendous cast about him that means every element of this great play is expressed to its full potential.

Danny Webb, Jonathan BaileyLear’s great supporter, Kent, is here transformed into a Countess, played by Sinead Cusack. It’s a bold move but it really works. As the Countess, Ms Cusack appears as the perfect administrative adviser, somewhere between a Chief Executive and a politician. As her alter ego Caius, Ms Cusack adopts a shapeless parka and looks for all the world like a docker has just wandered in. To be fair, the King is much more likely to spend time with the likes of Caius than he is the Countess. This is an unexpected Shakespearean cross-dressing character that you feel would be totally believable. Danny Webb is perfect as Gloucester, laddishly proud of creating the bastard Edmund because of the good sport at his making, which makes him all the more easily duped by him. You feel the tragedy of his downfall just as greatly as you experience Lear’s.

Dervla Kirwin, Damien MolonyDamien Molony (whom we last saw also alongside Ian McKellen in No Man’s Land) is an excellent Edmund; not too obsequious in his manipulation of his father, nor too pantomime villain as he plays off Lear’s daughters against each other. He’s just quietly, intensely credible. Jonathan Bailey is a smart, self-effacing Edgar who becomes a very wild Poor Tom. Dervla Kirwan plays Goneril with poise and self-assurance; you get the sense of a very practical person with a detailed plan for how she can gain influence. Kirsty Bushell’s Regan is very much the opposite; girlishly excitable, with the accent on physical enjoyment much more than Goneril’s cerebral stimulation. Ms Bushell’s glee at Gloucester’s misfortune is frankly loathsome.

KL Ian McKellen, Danny WebbI also really enjoyed the performances of Dominic Mafham as a delightfully worm-turning Albany, finally bringing some honour and decency to the Lear family mess; Michael Matus as a rather grumpy, formal Oswald; Patrick Robinson as a self-indulgent and patronising Cornwall, and, above all, Phil Daniels – inspired casting for the Fool – streetwise, scruffy, self-confident, and not afraid to use his ukulele. I have to say that I felt Tamara Lawrance’s Cordelia was very slightly underplayed; in this production of quality performers in quality roles, this is probably one of those times where “less” isn’t “more”.

KL Kirsty Bushell, Patrick RobinsonThis is one of those productions where you can say I was there – an acting masterclass that’s riveting throughout. It sold out faster than you can say nothing will come of nothing; but you might get returns if you’re lucky. A production as fantastic as you’d hoped it might be.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – No Man’s Land, Wyndham’s Theatre, 22nd October 2016

No Man's LandI remember when No Man’s Land first hit the stage back in 1975. It was the first new Pinter to appear after I first started reading him and seeing his plays. We’d read The Caretaker at school. I’d seen The Collection and The Lover as an amateur production in 1973. I was impressed with Pinter’s gifts as a director over the years, enjoying his London productions of the Simon Gray plays Otherwise Engaged, The Rear Column, Close of Play and Quatermaine’s Terms. But it wasn’t until four years ago that I actually first saw a professional production of a Pinter play – Betrayal, at the Sheffield Crucible. There’s a lot of ground to make up.

Original No Man's LandThat’s one of the reasons I leapt at the chance to book to see No Man’s Land when it first came on sale many months ago. I always think of it in terms of Gielgud and Richardson (both of whom I was lucky to see in other productions) and it struck me that the casting of Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart was about as darn perfect as it could get. So, given the fact that Sir Patrick was off sick (forbidden to take to the stage by his doctor) with a throat infection, I’m surprised how well the whole audience (ourselves included) took the news that the role of Hirst would be played by Mr Andrew Jarvis. No pressure on him, then. But sometimes having an understudy in the role can really spice up the entire performance of the play. It’s not going to go precisely the same way that it normally does, with all four regular members of the cast on board. There will be changes – everyone will have to think on their feet a bit more. There’s a seat-of-pants edge to it.

ian-mckellen-and-patrick-stewartBut first: how does the play stand the test of time forty years or so since it was written? Extremely well, in my opinion. Perhaps more than most Pinter plays, it’s not obvious what’s happening. Usually, I think the best way to take Pinter is at face value. Don’t try to read “a meaning” into what you see and hear – the meaning is no more, or less, than what is acted on the stage. Hirst lives near Hampstead Heath and he appears to have met Spooner whilst out walking. Spooner has come back to his place to join him for some drinks. They’re both arts aficionados, and seem to have a lot in common. Spooner is talkative, Hirst taciturn. patrick-stewartThey both drink vast quantities of whisky. Eventually (drunk? defeated?) Hirst crawls out of the room. Briggs and Foster, two younger men, come in and take part in an elaborate conversation with Spooner, involving hinted relationships and veiled threats. As the first act curtain falls, it looks as though Foster is going to make a move towards Spooner which might be one of physical or sexual violence; or maybe medical intervention.

ian-mckellenThe more I think about the play, the more I feel that Hirst and Spooner are imprisoned in some form of institution. Spooner insists to Hirst that he is a free man, which causes Hirst to reply: “it’s a long time since we had a free man in this house.” Spooner is locked in the room all night – doctor’s orders, says Briggs. Hirst threatens to dismiss Briggs, but he won’t leave, because he doesn’t have the authority. Briggs and Foster insist that Hirst goes on his morning walk. Hirst’s animated second act recollections of old days with Spooner, Emily, Bunty, Stella, Arabella and Rupert, whilst on the surface seem real and affectionate, are clearly the product of an unbalanced brain. To what extent Spooner simply goes along with it, or is equally befuddled, is a moot point. The text defines “no man’s land” as a place “which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older but which remains forever, icy and silent.” That could be a definition of Hirst’s house; it could be a definition of the workings of a failed, unwell mind. In any case, I don’t think the “take it as face value” approach works for this play. I’m sure it has a much greater hidden significance.

ian-mckellen-owen-teale-and-patrick-stewartThis riveting production is directed by Sean Mathias with a strong regard for the play’s sense of claustrophobia. On entering the auditorium you are met with a strangely disturbing, overly artificial, moving projection onto the front curtain of Hampstead Heath trees, flickering and glistening in the wind and the movement of the birds. This sets you up for a heightened expectation of uncomfortable detail, which Pinter’s words and Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set deliver in droves. The harsh light that invades the stage from who knows what outside the door pierces the calm darkness of Hirst’s room like a dagger. The tops of the trees shimmer unattainably above the stage, part aspirational, part mocking. Everything is nearly natural – but not quite.

no-mans-land-castSo what of Saturday’s matinee performance, with Andrew Jarvis in place of Patrick Stewart? We’d seen Mr Jarvis once before when he was Duncan in Sheffield’s Macbeth four years ago. He was excellent in that, but in No Man’s Land he truly shone. In those early conversations where you sense that Hirst is losing his way, he was dignified but uncertain, passionate but hollow, engaging in a fencing match with Spooner where the latter did all the work trying to find a way in and he merely had to occasionally parry riposte. When he’s fully lost, and trapped in the no man’s land of a memory of a photograph album, his emptiness is truly emotional. But when he feels like he’s in charge, he has something of the Act One Scene One Lear about him, bestowing grandiose beneficence; and he carries off that wonderful scene where it appears that he and Spooner are old friends with beautiful lightness and rhythm that was a joy to watch. As Sir Ian said at curtain call, although it was no doubt a disappointment not to see Sir Patrick, there was no need for an apology.

ian-mckellen-and-owen-tealeSir Ian, himself, gives one of his fascinatingly detailed performances where every muscle in his face moves with purpose. You always know precisely what it is that Spooner is thinking or feeling by simply watching the visual signs. He’s a wily character; happy to bludge a free drink, never letting go of his coat in case he has to scarper, always on the lookout to exercise his sense of moral or artistic superiority; reliant on his so-called friendship with the pub landlord in the same way that Blanche Dubois depends on the kindness of strangers. Sir Ian takes us on an epic journey of emotions where he tries to blend in with this apparently generous and extravagant household, in the end beseeching Hirst to let him be his secretary; the outsider desperate to be part of the in-crowd. It’s always a privilege to watch his performances; I love his attention to detail and his fantastic timing. In No Man’s Land you have the delight of seeing him take a champagne breakfast. I’ll say no more.

owen-teale-in-no-mans-landIt feels wrong to refer to Briggs and Foster as supporting roles because they’re completely vital to the plot and structure of the play – as well as dishing out the usual menace that we expect in the Pinter landscape. Owen Teale invests Briggs with all the necessary brute force just hovering at the back of the character somewhere; you always sense he’s just a gesture away from something downright evil. This makes it all the more delightful when his character starts to open up – like when he’s reminiscing, in that Pinteresque manner, of the difficulties in getting to and from Bolsover Street, the subtle implications that there may be more to his relationship with Foster than just colleagues, or when he just slips into the subservient role of breakfast and wine waiter; damian-molony-in-no-mans-landeven though the menace is still lurking just beneath the surface. Damien Molony (stunning in The Body of an American a couple of years ago) plays Foster as a trendy, cocky, self-centred man about town; someone who thinks and behaves like they’re more successful in life than they really are; the kind of character who’s recognisable in many a Pinter play. He delivers the end speech of Act One with a chilling sense of danger, and is always a tangibly disconcerting presence whenever on stage.

nomansland-castI thought this was a tremendous production that breathed superb life into the play forty years on. It was also a fantastic example of how, just because the star performer cannot go on, the show nevertheless must, and the understudy can pull off a superb performance. Yes, it’s true – this play is not for everyone; there were a few seats around us in the second act where people hadn’t returned after the interval. I guess if you don’t “get” Pinter’s vision of life, you could find it just too obscure to enjoy. Stick with it though, the second act is hugely rewarding and feels more accessible and understandable than the first act. This production is on until 17th December – and I think if you like your Pinter, you’re going to love this.

Production photographs by Johan Persson

Review of the year 2014 – The Fifth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Once again our esteemed panel of one has met to consider all the wonderful shows we’ve seen in the previous year so that we can distribute plaudits to the arts world in Northampton, Sheffield, Leicester and beyond! Actors, directors and producers, musicians, dancers and entertainers have all striven to make it to the 2014 Chrisparkle Awards short list, which this year relates to shows I have seen and blogged between 17th January 2014 and 11th January 2015. There’s lots to get through, so let’s start!

As always, the first award is for Best Dance Production (Contemporary and Classical).

I saw six dance productions last year, all of which I remember with much admiration and affection, from which I have struggled to whittle down to a shortlist of four. And here are the top three:

In 3rd place, the powerful and hard-hitting dance version by Matthew Bourne of Lord of the Flies, which we saw in May at the Birmingham Hippodrome.

In 2nd place, the marvellously inventive, comic and moving modern dance drama, Drunk, by Drew McOnie’s McOnie Company, which I saw at the Leicester Curve in January and again at the Bridewell Theatre in February.

In 1st place, a company absolutely at the peak of its powers, the stunning programme by Richard Alston Dance Company that we saw at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in September.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

Of the five concerts we saw in 2014, these are the top three:

In 3rd place, the Night with the Stars gala concert, by the Worthing Symphony Orchestra aka the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra, with soloists Julian Bliss and Martin James Bartlett at the Derngate, in October.

In 2nd place, John Williams plays Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto, plus Stephen Goss’ Guitar Concerto and Gershwin’s An American in Paris, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Derngate in June.

In 1st place, Mozart’s Requiem, together with Alexandra Dariescu’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21, with the RPO at the Derngate in February.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

This is the all-purpose, everything else category that includes pantos, circuses, reviews and anything else hard to classify.

In 3rd place, The Burlesque Show at the Royal Theatre, Northampton, in January 2014.

In 2nd place, the amazingly entertaining and funny two hours of magic in Pete Firman’s Trickster show, at the Royal, Northampton, in November.

In 1st place, and I think I have categorised this correctly because you can’t call it either a play or a musical, but it is devastatingly funny, Forbidden Broadway, at the Menier Chocolate Factory in July.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

It was a very good year for seeing big star name stand-up comedians this year – we saw fifteen of them! Only a couple disappointed, so it’s been very hard to whittle down to a final five; but here goes:

In 5th place, Russell Brand in his Messiah Complex tour, at the Derngate in April.

In 4th place, John Bishop’s Work in Progress show at the Royal, in June.

In 3rd place, Paul Chowdhry’s PC’s World at the Royal, in October.

In 2nd place, Trevor Noah in his “The Racist” tour, also at the Royal, in January.

In 1st place, Russell Kane in his Smallness tour show at the Warwick Arts Centre in February.

Best Stand-up at the Screaming Blue Murder nights in Northampton.

Always a hotly contested award; Of the thirty-three comics that we’ve seen at Screaming Blue Murder last year thirteen made the shortlist, and the top five are:

In 5th place, the Plusnet man on the adverts, who cornered Mrs Chrisparkle and I into telling the entire audience how we met, Craig Murray (12th September)

In 4th place, a comedian whose made-up character of Troy Hawke reminded us of a filthy Clark Gable, Milo McCabe (26th September)

In 3rd place, the commanding, intelligent and ludicrous material of Brendan Dempsey (10th October)

In 2nd place, local lad the razor sharp Andrew Bird (16th May)

In 1st place, someone who took control of a baying audience in the funniest and most inventive way Russell Hicks (11th April).

Best Musical.

Like last year, this is a combination of new musicals and revivals, and we had fifteen to choose from. It was very tough indeed to pick between the top three, but somehow I did it. Here goes:

In 5th place, the ebullient and thoroughly enjoyable Guys and Dolls at the Chichester Festival Theatre in September.

In 4th place, the lively and inventive story of The Kinks in Sunny Afternoon at the Harold Pinter Theatre in December.

In 3rd place, the daring and emotional The Scottsboro Boys at the Garrick in December.

In 2nd place, the stylish and hilarious Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Savoy in September.

In 1st place, the stunning revival of Gypsy at the Chichester Festival Theatre in October.

Best New Play.

As always, this is my definition of a new play – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. An extremely difficult decision here as it involves comparing uproarious comedy with searing drama; but somehow I chose a final five from the nine contenders:

In 5th place, Alan Ayckbourn’s thought-provoking and very funny Arrivals and Departures, at the Oxford Playhouse in February.

In 4th place, the sombre and intense Taken at Midnight at the Minerva Theatre Chichester in October.

In 3rd place, the moving and beautiful Regeneration, at the Royal in September.

In 2nd place, the laugh-until-your-trousers-are-wet Play That Goes Wrong at the Royal in May.

In 1st place, the claustrophobic, immaculately staged and haunting The Body of an American Underground at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in March.

Best Revival of a Play.

Thirteen made the shortlist, easy to sort out a top nine, but really hard to sort out the top five:

In 5th place, the delightful Relative Values at the Harold Pinter in June.

In 4th place, the star-vehicle for Angela Lansbury but a strong production too of Blithe Spirit at the Gielgud in April.

In 3rd place, the atmospheric and brutal Dealer’s Choice at the Royal in June.

In 2nd place, the powerful yet funny Translations at the Sheffield Crucible in March.

In 1st place, the stunning, all-encompassing Amadeus at the Chichester Festival Theatre in August.

Brief pause to consider the turkey of the year – there were plenty of candidates this year, but in the end I plumped for the tedium-fest that was Wonderful Tennessee at the Lyceum Theatre Sheffield in March.

Best play – Edinburgh

In the first of three new awards, this category is for the best play we saw at the Edinburgh Fringe. It could be a comedy or a serious play, new or revival, grand scale or all perched on a couch. There were five serious contenders, and very tight at the top between two plays, but in the end I am awarding this new Chrisparkle award to Trainspotting performed by In Your Face Theatre at the Hill Street Drama Lodge.

Best entertainment – Edinburgh

The second new award is for the best show in Edinburgh that wasn’t a play – so it could be a musical, a review, comedy stand-up, magic, dance, you name it. And the winner is Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho at the Assembly George Square Gardens.

Best film

The last of the three new awards is for the best film I’ve seen all year, no matter what its subject matter. Twelve Years a Slave and The Imitation Game came close, but I’m giving it to Pride.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

Ten contenders in the shortlist, but the top four were very easy to identify:

In 4th place, Jodie Prenger’s’s spirited Jane in Calamity Jane at the Milton Keynes Theatre in March.

In 3rd place, the amazingly versatile and surely soon to be a star Debbie Kurup in Anything Goes at the Sheffield Crucible in January 2015.

In 2nd place, the wonderfully funny and sad performance by Sophie Thompson as Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls at the Chichester Festival Theatre in September.

In 1st place, probably the strongest central performance by any performer in a musical ever, the extraordinary Imelda Staunton in Gypsy at the Chichester Festival Theatre in October.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Again ten fine performances in the shortlist, but here’s my top five:

In 5th place, for his sheer joie de vivre, the dynamic George McGuire for his role as Dave Davies in Sunny Afternoon at the Harold Pinter in December.

In 4th place, Alexander Hanson’s strangely vulnerable title character in Stephen Ward at the Aldwych Theatre in February.

In 3rd place, Paul Michael Glaser’s funny, realistic and sincere Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof at the Derngate in April.

In 2nd place, Robert Lindsay for his sheer style and panache in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Savoy in September.

In 1st place, Brandon Victor Dixon’s stunning performance as the principled, tragic Haywood Patterson in The Scottsboro Boys at the Garrick in December.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Twelve in the shortlist, but a relatively easy final three:

In 3rd place a wonderful comic tour de force from Sara Crowe in Fallen Angels at the Royal in February.

In 2nd place, the emotional but still very funny performance by Caroline Quentin in Relative Values at the Harold Pinter in June.

In 1st place, the strong, dignified performance by Penelope Wilton in Taken at Midnight at the Minerva Theatre Chichester in October.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

Twenty-two contenders in my shortlist, and I whittled it down to this:

In 5th place, Aaron Neil for his hilarious portrayal of the useless police commissioner in Great Britain at the Lyttelton, National Theatre in July.

In 4th place, Rupert Everett still on amazing form as Salieri in Amadeus at the Chichester Festival Theatre in August.

In 3rd place, Kim Wall for his brilliant performance as the kindly Barry in Arrivals and Departures at the Oxford Playhouse in February.

In 2nd place (or maybe 1st), William Gaminara as Paul in The Body of an American Underground at the Royal and Derngate in March.

In 1st place (or maybe 2nd), Damien Molony as Dan also in The Body of an American Underground at the Royal and Derngate in March.

Theatre of the Year.

A new winner this year. For a remarkably strong programme, comfortable welcoming theatres, and a fantastically improved dining experience, this year’s Theatre of the Year award goes to the Festival Theatre/Minerva Theatre, Chichester, with the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, and the Menier Chocolate Factory, close behind.

It’s been a great year – and thanks to you gentle reader for accompanying me on the trip. I hope we have another fantastic year of theatre to enjoy together in 2015!

Review – The Body of an American, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 3rd March 2014

The Body of an AmericanOne of the first things, dear reader, that I did in those early days at that Oxford place what I went to study at, was to join the University Dramatic Society. In those days (not sure if this still applies) there wasn’t only the famous OUDS, but also a little fringey society alongside it called the ETC (Experimental Theatre Club). You could join either and both gave you access to the activities of both societies, but you kind of set your mark in the sand by whether you took the traditional or experimental approach. I found myself instantly attracted to the ETC, so I joined them. And that interest in the more experimental, daring, unorthodox side of what you can put on a stage has stayed with me all my life. I’d much sooner see a bold, experimental failure than a lazy easy success. So it was with great delight that I saw that the Royal and Derngate were to stage Dan O’Brien’s Body of an American, a two-hander drama-documentary multi-media production, in the largely neglected space that is the Underground in Northampton.

William GaminaraNot that this production is in any way a failure, quite the reverse. As an audience member, you face a number of small challenges when you go to see this play, all of them insignificant in themselves but en masse they mentally prepare you for something out of the norm. You approach the Underground space from a different door than usual. You have to take your coat off and hang it on the rail because you are told inside it is hot and there simply isn’t any room to put your coat under your seat. You walk in and are plunged into darkness. You enter the auditorium to see two long benches either side of the acting space, in traverse, and the floor covered in stage snow, which you will find sticks to your shoes and your trousers, subtly, subliminally, drawing you closer to the action ahead, making you part of the set. The seating is unreserved but it isn’t obvious where the best place to sit will be. There are video projections on the far end walls – both sides. You check left and then right to see if they are identical. It feels a bit claustrophobic. When everyone is seated, there isn’t a lot of space on which to perch your bottom. You get the sense of a forthcoming shared experience that is going to be much more than simply watching a play.

Damien MolonyIn a way, the whole performance starts when you enter the room. It’s exciting, but a little unsettling. The lady behind Mrs Chrisparkle apologised in advance for being a fidget and that she will probably knee her in the back on and off during the performance. The fact that she felt comfortable about telling her that, and Mrs C’s generous “oh that won’t matter” reaction back to her, again underlines the fact that somehow, we’re all in this together. How very different from the traditional atmosphere where you only interact with the proscenium stage in front of you. In traverse, you not only focus on the actors but also the audience on the other side. If you sit in the front row, as we did, other audience members are facing you probably less than six feet away. You notice what aspects of the play are particularly intriguing them; which audience members are focussing on one actor, who is darting their eyes and head all over the place, who concentrates by looking down and listening more than watching; who’s finding it funny; who’s leaning forward to get as close as possible; who’s tuning out because they’ve had a hard day at the office and it’s requiring more attention than they can give. It’s all a very shared experience. Added to which, it’s a very narrow acting strip – no hiding place there, as one member of the audience pointed out during the post-show discussion afterwards – and that also helps unify the audience and the cast – both the givers and the receivers of the play become one experiential entity. You can’t have one without the other, as this setup makes abundantly clear.

Paul Watson and Dan O'BrienThe play itself is based on the true story of Toronto Star War Reporter Paul Watson, who, when covering the Somalian war in 1993, took a seminal war photograph – indeed a Pulitzer Prize winner – of the dead body of American Staff Sergeant William David Cleveland being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by a baying mob. At the moment he took the photograph, he heard the voice of Cleveland saying to him in his head “if you do this I will own you forever” – one of those moments in one’s life where you know that if you go down a certain path, your life will never be the same. But it was a golden opportunity, professionally speaking, to show the world the horrors of war, and he had no choice. And for sure, that one – actually two – clicks of a lens did change everything for Watson, and he fell into a path of mental instability and substance abuse. Some years on, the writer Dan O’Brien, struggling to complete a play about ghosts, emailed Paul Watson after hearing him in a podcast because there was just something about him, his voice, his story, that fascinated him and he knew he just had to contact him to find out more about him. Again, it was one of those moments where he knew he had no choice. This developed into a wish to interview him and write a play about him. And through the course of this play, as the two men start to discover more about each other, they also learn about themselves and their own demons on a physical journey that takes them around the world but also an inward journey that examines their hearts and souls.

Damien Molony and William GaminaraIt’s an astonishing theatrical event. First, the play itself; intricate and exquisitely written, yet extraordinarily robust and powerful. As I was listening to the actors’ voices in the first few minutes I began to realise that this was poetry. Not the rhyming style, nor the plodding mid-20th century poetic drama of T S Eliot or Christopher Fry, but with that eloquence and dignity that you associate, even though it’s modern day language, with the Jacobean or Elizabethan age. And it’s true – at the post-show discussion Artistic Director James Dacre (what a great start for him at the R&D) pointed out that each line in the text has ten syllables. The two actors ostensibly play Dan and Paul but in fact there are about thirty roles in all. Nor do they just play their own role – both actors play Dan and both play Paul at different times or for different lines in the play, giving you a sense of the two characters merging. With many of the words being delivered at a fast and furious pace you don’t have time to assimilate absolutely everything that’s said, which very successfully helps convey the confusion, clamour and mayhem of a war environment. The inclusion of photographs actually taken by Paul Watson during the course of his career projected on the walls, together with the extraordinary sound and lighting plots which have to be enacted with laser surgery accuracy, make the whole event an extraordinary feast of visual and audio stimulation. So many images, both pictorial and verbal, assault your senses, that the production demands your full attention and alertness. All this with the aid of just two simple chairs, brilliantly working on our imaginations to suggest a full range of locations and props.

William Gaminara and Damien MolonyThis is also one of that small body of creative work where one of the main topics is about creating the work of art itself. Think of the film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, where the Victorian story is interspersed with scenes of the modern day cast actually making the film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Think of Spandau Ballet’s True, a song about the complexities of writing a truthful song – “why do I find it hard to write the next line”. To this you can add Dan O’Brien writing about writing this play – discovering his subject matter and assessing his involvement with it. Not mere autobiography – something much more revealing.

W GaminaraThen you have the performances. I can’t imagine how two minds can come together to perform this play with such verbal precision and dexterity as carried out by William Gaminara and Damien Molony. The way they allow Dan O’Brien’s flow of words to absolutely convince you of the reality of the characters’ situation is awe-inspiring; and the trust between them must be immense. William Gaminara as Paul at first seems laid back, savvy and in control; until fear, uncertainty and anguish creep into his tone to suggest Paul at his lowest ebb, haunted by that photograph. Damien Molony’s Dan is often polite, with that self-consciousness you have when you know you’re taking a liberty, but also terse and a little irritated when things don’t go his way. But because the two actors almost perform as one, it’s very hard actually to differentiate between them. They both use their considerable vocal talents to give individual identities and characteristics to all the roles. There are also some stand-out scenes – I loved the meeting between Paul and his very unsettling shrink; and also the scene where Paul finally tracks down Cleveland’s brother, an essentially selfish act to rid his own mind of any vestiges of guilt whilst not giving two hoots about how it would affect Cleveland’s family.

Body of an AmericanA stunning production that we are very lucky to have in our town. A tight, exciting play performed with immense conviction and skill in an experimental setting that both challenges and excites. There seems to be a move towards using the Underground for more experimental theatre in the future to which I would certainly raise my glass. In the meantime, when you reflect back on the play in the days afterwards, you are struck by how you have come to understand something of the raw nerves and emotions behind the people that went into the creation of a one-off iconic war image. One snap changes everything.