Review – Venice Preserved, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 30th May 2019

Venice PreservedSo it’s Thomas Otway who wrote Venice Preserved, not John Otway. My mistake. He’s the guy from Aylesbury who wrote Cor Baby That’s Really Free. Very easy to get the two confused. Actually, it makes you wonder what kind of person was writing plays in 1682 that weren’t Restoration Comedies. Thomas Otway must have had a hard life. Indeed, although he was apparently the talk of the town after the success of Venice Preserved, three years later he died in penury, allegedly choking to death on a bun which he purchased after someone gave him a guinea in the street when they discovered who he was. It shouldn’t happen to a playwright.

CompanyVenice Preserved is, I think it’s fair to say, rather an unpleasant play. Whilst it was perennially popular for its first 150 years or so, its attraction died away with the Victorian era; too dark and comfortless for those snowflakes, I suspect. This is the first British major production of the play for 35 years; and Prasanna Puwanarajah’s production pulls no punches when it comes to shedding light on some of the darker parts of human existence.

Stephen Fewell and Michael Grady-HallWhen we consider how people are today brainwashed into fighting for a cause like Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups, we’ve a tendency to believe that this kind of radicalisation is something new. However, Venice Preserved shows us that it’s a concept as old as the hills. History tells us, from Roman times to the present day, that charismatic leaders with ulterior motives can bluff their way into the public’s affections and then lead them all on to mass destruction. Otway presents us with another version of that simple truth.

Michael Grady-HallThe mild – if slightly eccentric – Jaffeir is convinced by his soldier friend Pierre to join the revolution against the failed city state of Venice. Pierre’s motivation is driven by personal animosity against the corrupt Senator Antonio, who has sexual gallivanting sessions with Pierre’s own mistress, Aquilina. Jaffeir, however, is simply swept away by Pierre’s charisma. When Jaffeir offers his beloved wife Belvidera as a hostage, to prove his commitment to the cause, it’s pretty obvious things have got out of hand. True, he comes to his senses when she narrowly escapes rape by the mercenary Renault, and the pair of them attack and kill her prison guard to set her free. But he cuts a very pathetic figure when trying to explain to her that he did it all because of “his friend”. Clearly there was need for a Restoration version of the Prevent programme.

Natalie DewAlongside all the political intrigue, two other plots delve into the characters of the story. The enmity continues to grow between Priuli, a senator and Belvidera’s father, and his son-in-law Jaffeir, who he insists “stole” her from him, even though Jaffeir saved her from drowning. His is the resentment and selfishness of the lone parent who refuses to accept that their children are growing up. And there’s the ludicrous relationship of senator Antonio, Otway’s satire on the character of the real-life Earl of Shaftesbury, with the courtesan Aquilina. He prefers it when she’s in a charge, getting his kicks in fetish gear and pleading to be spat on and kicked in the groin. Whilst on the face of it these scenes are the equivalent of Carry On Restoration, there’s something incredibly awkward and distasteful – even though it may appear strangely delicious – about seeing the sexual peccadilloes of the high and mighty revealed so graphically. Antonio is like a restoration comedy character transplanted into a sea of tragedy; I’m not surprised that Bowdlerized versions of the play in the 19th century completely removed the character of Antonio, and that Aquilina was only mentioned in passing.

Stephen Fewell and companyAt the end of the day, people like Jaffeir and Pierre are mere puppets. Promised safety if they grass on the names of all the conspirators, they’re still sent to their deaths and Belvidera is left to die in mental torment. In a touching scene, just before he dies, Jaffeir gives the priest Belvidera’s love token, that he’s been carrying around all the time, asking him to make sure she receives it. But once he’s dead the priest simply nicks Pierre’s ring, chucks the token in the gutter, and wanders off. Used and abused; there’s no trust in Venice. The City State may be preserved, but unless you have status, you’re nothing.

Steve NicolsonPrasanna Puwanarajah attributes his noir style for this production to his early interest in cyberpunk films and cartoons of the 1980s. This initially put me off; as I have very little interest or knowledge of such works, I assumed that this production somehow wouldn’t be for me. However, if that genre does influence this production, it didn’t impact on me. For me this was a classic presentation of a centuries-old drama, essentially tragic with a few light moments to break up the darkness.

Kevin N GoldingDesigner James Cotterill’s set suggests a courtyard with just a manhole in the centre from where bedraggled fugitives can emerge, drenched from the sewer; by contrast there’s an elaborate decorated screen above onto which are projected maps of Venice, Pierre’s execution wheel and Aquilina’s social media page. Blue lasers flood down from the ceiling to represent Belvidera’s cell, bringing a little fantasy magic to the stage. Costumes range from the lavish ermine of the Duke, the sharp business suits of the senators, and Pierre’s splendid military uniform to Jaffeir’s stuck-in-the-seventies look and Aquilina’s moderately dominatrix garb.

Jodie McNeeThere’s a star turn from Jodie McNee as Belvidera, full of emotion and sorrow, showing strength and vulnerability at the same time, which is some feat; an ordinary character who shows true heroism when called for. She’s matched by Michael Grady-Hall’s Jaffeir, a classic underachiever, easily influenced; an innocent abroad who takes what’s precious to him for granted and falls prey to wiser powers. It was unfortunate that there was a sightline issue with the jailer’s death towards the end of the first act; I would imagine that a good third of the house would not have been able to work out exactly how Jaffeir and Belvidera did him in – I felt like that was a visual milestone of the play that I was sorry to miss.

Stephen FewellAnother superb performance comes from Stephen Fewell as Pierre, cutting a dashing military figure, a fascinating blend of the manipulative and the trusting but for whom nobility comes first. Les Dennis’ Priuli comes across as a petulant actuary but it’s a very effective characterisation; Steve Nicolson is a lowlife rogue of a Renault; Kevin N Golding makes for a suitably authoritarian Duke, and there’s solid support from Alison Halstead as the hearty Spanish ambassador and Carl Prekopp as the conspirator Eliot. And Natalie Dew conveys Aquilina’s passionate nature and embittered fury with appropriate fervour.

John HodgkinsonBut the scene-stealing performance comes from the ever-reliable John Hodgkinson as Antonio, pompously respectable on the outside and a right little raver on the inside, visibly turned on by the merest threat of discipline. He’s the source of any guffaws or audible cringes that the audience can’t hold back.

Michael Grady-Hall and Jodie McNeeAt almost two-and-three-quarter hours long, this does at time feel a little ploddy and a little repetitive. The text has been cut in part but I think it could do with further pruning. It’s a play that illuminates and informs, but, in my mind, not at all a likeable play. But it’s a fascinating opportunity to see something rarely seen today but which was never out of the West End two hundred years ago!

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – Bend It Like Beckham, Phoenix Theatre, 10th February 2016

Bend It Like BeckhamI’ll be honest with you, gentle reader. I really didn’t want to see Bend It Like Beckham. I really enjoyed the film, and remember it fondly; and my reaction when I heard it was being made into a stage musical was Why Can’t They Leave It Alone and Why Don’t They Write Musicals With Brand New Source Material Anymore. So I didn’t book it. However, I saw that it won the Critics’ Circle award for Best New Musical, and that Mr Mark Shenton of The Stage whose opinion I greatly value said it was the best thing since sliced naan, and one of Mrs Chrisparkle’s colleagues said they saw it a week ago and absolutely loved it. So I cut myself a huge slice of Humble Pie and booked to see it just in time, given that it’s closing on March 5th.

The BharmasMy original decision not to see it earlier must count as one of my poorest decisions in theatregoing history. This is a completely joyous show. You come out of the theatre with a spring in your step and an aorta full of love. It’s one of those rare instances where the cast and creative team’s affection for their project runs right through it like a stick of Bombay rock. It’s perfectly cast from the top to the bottom, the songs and arrangements are catchy and memorable, and whilst there is an element of stereotyping in some of the characters, it never strays into caricature and is both completely believable and recognisable. Its themes are timeless; its message uplifting.

Lauren Samuels and Natalie DewDo you remember the original film? We’re back in 2001 and David Beckham is at the height of his sporting prowess. Jess, from a Sikh family living in Southall, is mad on him, and on playing football in general. Unbeknownst to her, she has been spotted by Jules, another soccer mad girl, who plays for the local Hounslow Harriers team. Jules arranges for Jess to get a trial with coach Joe, who is quietly impressed, and soon she is a vital part of the team. But all this tomboyishness is out of synch with Jess’s parents, Mr and Mrs Bhamra, who are keen to impress the family of their other daughter Pinky’s husband-to-be, the snooty Chopras. When Jess is forbidden to play football anymore, she is torn between her natural obligation to obey her parents and her desire to fulfil her talents. But does sari have to be the hardest word? (Apologies for that one). There is a solution – as the song says, at times everyone has to bend it. But what does Jess do? You’ll have to go and see it to find out.

Natasha JayetilekeI reckon everyone at some point in their life has had to make a decision to follow their dream or to follow their obligations or what society requires. So Jess’s dilemma is something we can all recognise. Do you fit in, and keep the peace, or do you “be yourself” and go where your heart leads? It isn’t always an easy decision. The Bhamras are a very traditional family – and even Mr Bhamra himself knows all about giving up on one’s dreams in order to do The Right Thing. But parents always know best, don’t they? Just like in Fiddler on the Roof, the older generation prizes Tradition, but the younger generation questions it; it was ever thus. And whilst we’re comparing this show with other musicals, I was delighted to see BILB even had its own version of an Oklahoma-style dream ballet sequence, where Jess suddenly finds herself transported to a soccer pitch, alone with David Beckham – although not in the traditional romantic sense, as Beckham shows her how to kick that curved ball. For Jess, that is definitely the dream come true.

Preeya KalidasThe show has much to say about cross-cultural liaisons – of all types – and it brilliantly depicts them in its fusion of eastern and western musical styles and dances. Done haphazardly, this could be an absolute dog’s dinner. But the amazing side-by-side sequences of wedding celebrations and football celebrations are a perfect visual mix up of the two cultures, and the use of typical Indian instruments as part of the traditional West End band creates a musical unity for your ears; as does using both Hindi and English words to the same melody. It all works incredibly well.

Tony JayawardenaMusically, of course, this is a brilliant show – you would expect nothing less with the music written by The Hired Man’s Howard Goodall, and lyrics by Phantom’s Charles Hart. The orchestration is infectious and full of character. Miriam Buether’s set is fun and authentic (although I wish there had been a way to change the score in the Hamburg match!) Katrina Lindsay’s costumes are superb, reflecting the different cultures and styles; and I particularly liked the sassy dresses the team change into for a night on the town, especially the one worn by Jules – Mrs C would look amazing in that.

Sophie Louise DannBut what really impressed me from the start were the superb performances from absolutely every member of the cast. Natalie Dew is simply brilliant as Jess; fun-loving, wide-eyed and awkward, a delightful trace of naughtiness, enthusiastic, and loving every minute of it. And she’s a stunning singer. Lauren Samuels is perfect as Jules, with her no-nonsense spirit wrestling with her internalised desires and sparring with a difficult mother. She’s also a stunning singer. Natasha Jayetileke is hugely entertaining as the domineering Mrs Bhamra – constantly making demands of her daughters whilst you know deep down she has a heart of gold; raising the significance of an aloo gobi to an art form. And guess what – she’s also a stunning singer. Preeya Kalidas is simply hilarious as the gorgeously vacuous Pinky, finding romance behind the bushes and squeaking out her innits. You won’t be surprised to learn she’s a stunning singer. And Sophie-Louise Dann creates a wonderful anxious mess of a mother in the character of Paula, with a voice like Joe Pasquale’s secret love child, agonising magnificently over the word “lesbian”, and, naturally, singing stunningly.

Lauren Samuels and the teamAnd what of the chaps? Tony Jayawardena is a brilliant Mr Bhamra, reducing the audience to hysteria with the comic timing of his throwaway lines, balancing beautifully the character’s sense of The Right Thing with his own understanding of human emotions – I thought he was terrific. For our performance, the role of Tony was taken by Rakesh Boury, Jess’s playtime pal and support – delightfully gangly and uncomfortable, and with his own very nicely confessed revelations – hashtag awks. An excellent performance. Jamie Muscato brought genuine warmth and decency to the role of Joe, and he really conveys the scariness of interacting with Jess’s family when they don’t want to hear what he has to say. Raj Bajaj is a fantastically goofy Teetu, giving it large at the engagement party; intellectually a perfect match for Pinky; strictly speaking, he really should be called Perky.

Natalie Dew and Jamie MuscatoThe fantastic ensemble includes Irvine Iqbal and Sohm Kapila as Teetu’s marvellously haughty parents, Harveen Mann, Buckso Dhillon-Woolley among the wonderfully busybody aunties, and the best-looking team of footballers I’ve ever seen. Everyone gives their all, everyone’s a great dancer, everyone’s hugely committed to the show. The onstage joy spills out into the auditorium – in fact in the interval, I saw a guy in the bar doing his version of Teetu’s dance – it was quite impressive! One of those occasions when you leave the theatre a better person from the one you went in. You’ve got until March 5th to see it – and I reckon that last night performance is going to be One Swell Party. A privilege to be there – one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.

Engagement PartyP.S. It’s been years since I’ve been to the Phoenix Theatre – 32 years to be precise! I’d forgotten how charming it is.

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz