Review: White Teeth at the Kiln Theatre

Zadie Smith has never lacked scope. Her debut novel told the story of three families, two generations, and over fifty years of history, culture, and mixing. White Teeth was a critical and commercial hit when it was first published at the dawn of the 21st Century – an epic story of finding one’s identity, one’s home, and one’s place in North-West London. Set in Kilburn, an adaptation of White Teeth made perfect sense for the local theatre, Indhu Rubasingham’s newly refurbished Kiln. The question is, how to go about about doing it?

  The cast of White Teeth. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

The cast of White Teeth. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

If you are the creative team behind White Teeth the answer is even more scope. Director Rubasingham and adapter Stephen Sharkey have taken not one but two leaps with the material. The first was to add another generation to the story, bringing its time-frame up to the present day. The second was to adapt the work by way of that most perilous of crucibles – the stage musical. Given the length and complexity of White Teeth, these decisions made me curious, if a little apprehensive. Having seen the show, I cannot imagine doing it any other way.

  Ayesha Antoine as Irie Jones and Richard Lumsden as Archie Jones. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

Ayesha Antoine as Irie Jones and Richard Lumsden as Archie Jones. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

White Teeth introduces Rosie Jones, daughter of Irie, and granddaughter of Archie and Clara, the white British and black Caribbean couple around which the novel is originally based. The addition of Rosie makes White Teeth relevant to 2018, but it also enables a clever framing device for a narrative that crosses both time and perspective to tell its story. Due to an unfortunate incident at the beginning of the play, Rosie is in a coma. She watches events that led to her conception with the help of Mad Mary, who serves as both narrator and Greek chorus in a joyous yet poignant rendition of Smith’s novel.

From its opening number, White Teeth establishes itself as a celebration. We see the very street upon which the Kiln resides, Kilburn High Road, brought to life by a colourful cast of characters. You might pass them on your way to school, to work, to the shops. You might even know them. Musicals, as with any form of drama, require audiences to believe in the worlds they portray, and White Teeth is no different. The play not only achieves this end, but does so with a palpable, irresistible sense of fun. This is Kilburn, only turned up to 11.

  Michele Austin as Mad Mary. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

Michele Austin as Mad Mary. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

Singing, dancing, and acting their way through this labyrinth of mixed-up identities and tangled love-lives is a superb ensemble. This multi-talented cast (some even double up as musicians) all produce fine performances, but special credit is owed to Tony Jayawardena as the hilariously pompous Samad Iqbal, Ayesha Dharker as his long-suffering wife Alsana, Ayesha Antoine as Irie, the beating heart of the piece, and of course, Michele Austin as Mad Mary, who commands the stage with cane waved and teeth kissed.

One of the downsides of White Teeth is that, except for its opener, the tunes are not particularly memorable. Adapting large sections of characterisation for snappy musical numbers is not an easy task, and White Teeth is often better at telling its story through drama, rather than music. In this regard, the production often seems less of a musical and more of a play with music, which may disappoint enthusiasts for the form.

White Teeth is nevertheless an excellent work and a warm welcome to the Kiln. Rubasingham and company have crafted a play that buzzes with life, love, and location. White Teeth is a mission statement for the theatre, showcasing a venue that represents its community while throwing open its arms to newcomers. The Kiln has a bright future, and I can’t wait to go back.

Review: Ear for Eye at the Royal Court

Theatre is infinite. Good drama can reveal histories, experiences and possibilities that go well beyond time and space. Words and actions can tell the stories of a multitude, through past, present, and future. The new play by debbie tucker green contains such voices, addressing the present moment while reaching back centuries.

  Photo courtesy of Royal Court (2018).

Photo courtesy of Royal Court (2018).

Ear for Eye is a devastating exploration of protest and power. This highly ambitious yet effective play uses monologues and conversations from both Black British and Black American voices to address lived experiences of white supremacy, its effects, its origins, and its perpetuation at every level of society.

For obvious reasons, I will not be able to properly articulate the emotional significance of Ear for Eye, and I await the views of writers for whom the play’s subject matter may have personal resonance. I add this disclaimer in the hopes that national newspapers and platforms carefully consider the critics they do send to review, as I can already sense that some will be reductively naming it a ‘#BlackLivesMatter play’. Reader, Ear for Eye is much more than a hashtag.

  debbie tucker green (2005). Photo courtesy of Sarah Lee for the Guardian.

debbie tucker green (2005). Photo courtesy of Sarah Lee for the Guardian.

Ear for Eye is less about individual characters and more about a variety of experiences, brought to life by an ensemble of talented performers. Split into three parts, the play blends social realism with abstract poetry, a protracted ‘conversation’ between professor and student, and historical evidence of the laws and practices that established racism in the West, a system that shapes and stunts lives to this day.

Part one consists of a series of short interactions between cast members. Some of these are connected, as in the case of an argument between two young men, but most are not, showcasing different social relations and how they should respond to violence. These include students arguing over the use of protest, men and women reliving humiliation and abuses by police, as well as parents giving their children ‘the talk’ of how to behave when stopped by law enforcement.

With a cast as talented and broad as this, it is difficult to pick out select performances for credit. However, special mention is owed to Tosin Cole and Nicholas Pinnock for their nuanced portrayal of differently aged men discussing pride and masculinity, Eric Kofi Abrefa and Michelle Greenidge for the gravity and horror they invest their harrowing tales, Angela Wynter for the formidable power of her sermonising, Anita Reynolds for her warm portrayal of a mother trying to help her son as best she can, as well as younger cast members, Jamal Ajala and Shaniqua Okwok, who both bring charm and light to their performances, yet are no less rich with emotion and depth.

  The cast of Ear for Eye. Photo courtesy of Suki Dhanda for the Observer (2018).

The cast of Ear for Eye. Photo courtesy of Suki Dhanda for the Observer (2018).

Part two is entirely dedicated to one interaction, namely that of a white professor and a black student. The piece showcases green’s mastery of language, as the truth of the situation is gradually revealed through tense, infuriating, and occasionally funny back-and-forth (as one-sided as it is). Lashana Lynch is simply stunning as the student, whose self-control, self-policing, and growing frustration will sadly be familiar to women talked over, belittled, and disrespected when trying to give their opinion. Demetri Goritsas is equally fantastic as the insufferable professor, whose refusal to listen not only reveals his bias, but also how white supremacy operates, unknown to white people, perpetuating itself in the most supposedly open and liberal of spaces.

The last part is difficult but necessary. Breaking again with conventional narrative, part three is made up of recorded clips of American and British white families, elderly people, couples, and children who read out Jim Crow laws of segregation and slave legislation in Jamaica. The section is harrowing but important, as it reminds us not only of the historical and legal precedent for abuses against Black people but also how the faces of white supremacy belong to normal, ordinary people.

Ear for Eye is unlike any other play I have seen this year and will likely see for some time. Unsurprisingly for a talent as renowned as hers, debbie tucker green has created a work that is both personal and intimate yet crossing oceans, history, and lifetimes. Ear for Eye demands to be heard and seen.

Review: Legacy at Rich Mix

  Fireworks at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London (2012). Photo courtesy of EPA.

Fireworks at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London (2012). Photo courtesy of EPA.

You remember the Olympic ceremony, right? That glorious display of British history and culture, that celebration of a modern country both welcoming and diverse? How times have changed, the commentators still say. Whatever happened to Britain, they ask, whatever happened to our sense of community? They forget that communities have been under attack well before the torch was lit. For the residents of the local area, the Olympics were not the start of the problems, but they did advance their impact.

Legacy explores what happened. While the Olympic games brought the promise of uplift to an area long under-served, under-funded, and under-represented, this uplift would not be for the benefit of the community, but rather private interests. Developers moved in, and the tenants, some of whom were life-long residents of the area, were forced out. Sound familiar?

The word ‘important’ gets thrown around a lot these days, and usually by lazy writers determined to reduce all art to political grandstanding. So, I want to be very clear when I say that Legacy is important, not only for what it says but what it represents – the real stories of people fighting against the erasure of their lives, homes, and communities. Get angry. It happened. It’s still happening.

Legacy is a powerful yet touching reminder of the importance of community and fighting back. A work of careful and compassionate research, the play was work-shopped and developed with local residents, and draws upon the real-life story of Mary Finch, a 75-year old fighting to save her home from private development.

Naturally, there is a lot of anger in the piece, but most importantly heart. Written by Susan Avery and Sally Grey, the script blends both the comic and the tragic. Legacy avoids easy stereotypes of working-class people, presenting a community of individuals with their own qualities and quirks, and all, in some way, compromised and galvanised by the threat of ‘regeneration’ in the name of private investment.

  Photo courtesy of Blueprint Theatre (2018).

Photo courtesy of Blueprint Theatre (2018).

The performances are uniformly excellent. From the steely determination of Marian (Shenagh Govan), the warm-hearted generosity of Jackie (Sally Grey), the campy silliness of Jason (Adam Elms), to the wonderfully sleazy Richie (Nick Khan), the characters are immediately recognisable. These could be our family, friends, neighbours, hairdressers, shop-keepers, neighbourhood police and, well, landlords.

Special mention should also be paid to Katie Males who turns in a stunning and nuanced performance as Leah. Charming, forthright yet ultimately vulnerable, Leah ends up leading a movement but, just like all of us, is not invincible to cruelty and stress. Similarly, Jacqui Mackenzie Gray also deserves credit for her icily villainous portrayal of media personalities, misrepresenting the facts and destroying people’s lives, and all through cut-glass vowels and perfect teeth.   

From a directorial standpoint, Legacy is significant for its combination of the socially real and the fantastically surreal. Under the smart direction of Tracy Ryan and Debbie Fitzgerald, the play moves between Marian’s cosy living room to Jackie’s nightmarish hallucinations, all of which lead to a thrillingly bizarre conclusion aided by the superlative efforts of the technical team, made up of designer Ruth Sutcliffe and lighting and sound designers George Bach and Patrick Ball, respectively.

  Mock-up of what the regeneration of Newham could look like, courtesy of the Newham Council website (2018).

Mock-up of what the regeneration of Newham could look like, courtesy of the Newham Council website (2018).

The sad reality of Legacy is that its story has continued relevancy, not only for the present moment but for years to come. Stories like Mary’s are not uncommon in London, nor indeed the rest of the United Kingdom, and Legacy not only draws attention to what’s going on but makes a compelling case to hold government, local and national, to account.

Legacy explores the tragic consequences of community versus capital. The play blends the political and the personal in a way that never preaches nor patronises, but rather presents the very real impact that money-making schemes, ordered in the name of ‘regeneration’, can have on the lives of ordinary working people.

Legacy deserves just that. I hope that more people will get an opportunity to see this play, to learn from its story, and to be moved to confront the injustices faced by Mary Finch and the rest of her community. The legacy of the Olympic games may not have all been positive, but hopefully in this instance, they might provide motivation to do better – for our communities, for local people, and for Britain.

More information about Blueprint Theatre can be found here.

Review: Mrs Dalloway at Arcola Theatre

  Image courtesy of Arcola Theatre (2018).

Image courtesy of Arcola Theatre (2018).

Adaptation isn’t easy. The decision to shape a text for another medium, whether film, drama, music or art, should not be taken lightly, particularly when the source material does not lend itself to easy interpretation, or even easy reading.

So when it was announced that Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’ would be performed as a stage play, I can admit to feeling some trepidation. The novel, as typical of Woolf’s writing, toys with time, memory, and narrative voice, and explores the outer and inner lives of Clarissa Dalloway, a society woman of the 1920s, and her colourful cast of friends and acquaintances.

Luckily then, Mrs Dalloway succeeds not only as an adaptation of a great work, but also as an artful expansion of the world its characters occupy. While the play is faithful to the novel, using clever staging and technical flair to show shifts in chronology and perspective, adaptor Hal Coase and director Thomas Bailey skilfully and accessibly get to the heart of what the story is about.

  Photo courtesy of the Press Association.

Photo courtesy of the Press Association.

Set over the course of a day in June, the story follows Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares for a party. The novel but does this in a highly unconventional way – exploring not only her memories and inner thoughts but those of the people around her, from a precocious daughter, an alienated husband, secret love interests, pompous friends, and a disturbed veteran of the First World War.

The novel explores post-war anxieties, psychology and mental illness, existential questions of life and death, but ultimately the reality of being an older woman in a time full of liberating promises, yet still held back by the darkness and destruction of its recent history. These aren’t easy topics to stage, particularly in a narrative that relies so much on jumping between times and characters, but the play does so magnificently – making Woolf’s story accessible without compromising its structural or emotional complexity.

The performances are superb. Clare Perkins brings both grace and wit to Clarissa, embodying the kind of charisma and sardonic humour one imagines a necessity of high-society women of her time. Equally impressive is Emma D’Arcy who has the unenviable task of playing both her free-spirited daughter Elizabeth and Italian Lucrezia Smith, who is at wit’s end by her marriage to Septimus, for whom the horrors of war are still present, and convincingly, hauntingly realised by Guy Rhys. Clare Lawrence Moody and Sean Jackson also deserve credit for their portrayals of Sally and Peter, two of Clarissa’s old friends and (to differing degrees) love interests, who bring levity to the production, but also help to bring Clarissa’s upper-class world to life.

Mrs Dalloway has an unconventional narrative structure even now – a near-century since its publication. However, through a combination of smart directing, design, and technical skill, transitions between time and voice are handled effectively and clearly.

  London in June 1922. Photo courtesy of the Old Pics Archive.

London in June 1922. Photo courtesy of the Old Pics Archive.

Changes in lighting, movement of actors between fore and background, and small touches such as speaking into walkie-talkies help delineate what is being spoken and what is being remembered or thought. Designer Emma D’Arcy, as well as sound and lighting designers Tom Stafford and Joe Price (respectively) deserve special mentions for creating an immersive and coherent world, inhabited by characters that are brought to life by the exquisite period costuming of Louie Whitemore.

Mrs Dalloway will not be for everyone, and certainly not those who desire straight-forward stories of beginning, middle, and end. But beyond fans of Virginia Woolf, the play truly has a lot to offer. If you are interested in evocative, experimental theatre that challenges and excites in equal measure, this is the show for you.   

Mrs Dalloway is showing at Arcola Theatre from 25 September to 20 October.
Tickets available
here.

Review: Caterpillar at Theatre 503

  Photo courtesy of The Other Richard (2018)

Photo courtesy of The Other Richard (2018)

In both folklore and fiction, the caterpillar has long symbolised rebirth. In transforming into a beautiful creature capable of flight, the lowly insect has come to represent the potential for personal change and has featured in everything from children’s fables to a platinum-selling hip-hop album. The title of Alison Carr’s new play is therefore appropriate, given its questions of identity, authenticity, and what it truly means to ‘fly’.

Or it could just refer to the cake. The play is mysterious, in both content and meaning, avoiding categorisation and leaving audiences with more questions than answers. For these reasons, this review will avoid any detailed description of the plot and its developments, for while there are plenty of laughs to be had, there are also plenty of turns, all of which deserve to be experienced in person, rather than spoilt here.       

Set during a seaside town’s annual ‘Birdman’ competition, Caterpillar focuses on the lives of a B&B owner Maeve (Tricia Kelly), recovering from a stroke, and her caring but abrasive daughter Claire (Judith Amsenga). The relationship of mother and daughter is complicated by the arrival of the keen but well-meaning Simon (Alan Mahon), whose determination to fulfil his deceased girlfriend’s wish has brought him to the town to take part in the competition, hoping to fly off the pier in an amateur hang-glider.

  Photo courtesy of The Other Richard (2018) 

Photo courtesy of The Other Richard (2018) 

Caterpillar keeps you guessing. Tightly directed by Yasmeen Arden, the play skilfully switches between moments of great wit and moments of bizarre and sometimes unsettling recrimination. It’s an entertaining but tense watch, for beneath the jokes and the banter there is genuine darkness and pain, sometimes suggested, sometimes present, but always threatening to explode.

  Photo courtesy of The Other Richard (2018)

Photo courtesy of The Other Richard (2018)

Balancing humour and tension is a difficult trick to pull off, but Carr manages it with a script that is both well-paced and well-judged, offering audiences just enough information without ever giving the game away. The performers do well with this material, with each actor presenting characters that are plausible but peculiar, giving us an impression of a person, but one that might not necessarily be completely true.

Credit must also be paid to the set design of Holly Pigott, whose Bayview B&B feels homely, lived-in, and belies any of the troubles that may lurk beneath its exterior – much like its occupants. The walls, put together with what appear to be wooden shipping crates, were a particularly nice touch, invoking the salt and surf of the seaside, and helped in no small part by Jac Cooper’s sound design that drifts between the cawing of gulls and eerie electronics.  

Caterpillar will not please everyone. The play takes several risks during its later sequences that may seem a little far-fetched, particularly when it comes to the changing behaviour of its central characters. As mentioned above, the play offers no easy answers and no simple explanations, and this lack of resolution could prove unsatisfying for those who want to understand the why of it all.

Caterpillar is an amusing, strange, and provocative work, delivering up a twisty tale where no one is quite who they seem, and everyone appears to have something to hide. Who is the caterpillar? Who is the butterfly? Who falls and who flies?   

Review: Emilia at Shakespeare's Globe

  Photo courtesy of Helen Murray (2018)

Photo courtesy of Helen Murray (2018)

It’s a strange thing, watching history. But that’s exactly what the final performance of Emilia felt like, standing in the yard of Shakespeare’s Globe while the cheers rang out for encore after encore, all tears and hugs and a feeling, distinct and yet somehow universally shared among the assembled, some of whom had returned for third, fourth, and even fifth viewings. A feeling that something had happened, or rather, was about to begin.

I am not equipped to articulate the significance of this play. Neither am I equipped to articulate the significance of what it might mean for women, people of colour, the differently-abled and, more generally, the marginalised voices of history. Far better (and more capable) writers than I have already done so. Besides, one need not look very far for these opinions – just search #Emilia on Twitter. What I can do however, is articulate how well Emilia succeeds as a play, a performance, and a production. And reader, Emilia exceeded in all three.

Emilia Lanier (née Bassano) was a poet of the Elizabethan era, the first Englishwoman to publish as such, and a possible inspiration (or originator) for Shakespeare’s work – namely as the ‘dark lady’ of his sonnets with dun skin and black hair. Written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and under the direction of Nicole Charles, the play tells Emilia’s story and struggle to assert herself as an artist and woman, and does so with heart and humour, passion and purpose, and endless, joyous invention.

Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s script perfectly captures the language of the time for a modern audience, making excellent use of period detail and gleefully knowing, anachronistic humour. Despite its historic setting, the play is freshly relevant to our times, not least for its subtle yet effective discussions of immigration, race, and female agency. In relating the past to the present day, the play smartly and subversively questions how far we really have advanced as a society when such issues remain unsolved.

  Photo courtesy of Helen Murray (2018)

Photo courtesy of Helen Murray (2018)

The ensemble cast are a delight to behold. The performers bring life to a vast array of personalities both tragic and comic, from dedicated heroines (Leah Harvey, Vinette Robinson, Clare Perkins), courtiers both sleazy and affected (Shiloh Coke, Carolyn Pickles, Sophie Russell, Amanda Wilkin) and of course, Shakespeare himself (Charity Wakefield), wonderfully imagined here as an insufferably self-important oaf. 

Why heroines and not heroine? Well, there are three Emilias in the play, all representing various stages and ages of the poet’s life. To use three people to play one character (often simultaneously) could easily be awkward and confusing. However, Nicole Charles’s creative direction blends the performances seamlessly. We are not just watching Emilia at different stages of her life but also Emilia in different states of mind – the determined, the despairing, and the defiant – and sometimes all at the same time.

Credit must also be paid to the production team for creating a world of sound and colour that feels both imminently real yet undeniably magical. The music, as composed by Bill Barclay and performed by Elinor Chambers, Calie Hough, Sarah Humphrys and Sharon Lindo, evokes the time and place yet carries with it mystery and promise befitting Emilia’s tale, while Joanna Scotcher’s costuming is exquisite and charming, with meticulous attention to detail.

One of the real stars of the show is Scotcher’s set. The design conjures images of an enchanted library, a sacred space of learning and actualisation so often denied to women throughout history and completed here with a circular portal that could well represent an opening to the world of the past, the mind, and maybe even the future – one in which women might be truly free to create, to love, and to be.

Emilia is not history rewritten, but history relived. The play is the rarest of achievements, a work that serves as more than its writer, director, cast and crew. Emilia sings, shouts, and screams with the voices of generations stretching back into the past and outward into the future – an echo through time, and a call forward, forward, forward.