Theatre Review: Pride & Prejudice at York Theatre Royal

Sara Pascoe’s riff on Austen’s most widely-loved novel is a reinterpretation aimed at those with a prejudice about the characters’ choices. The original story is present as the larger part of a jigsaw of meta modern interludes; a couple editing the story for film/TV, a class of Catherine Tate style schoolgirls being taught by Lizzie, a TED talk on love and Austen, and the actors in rehearsal for the play-within-the-play. The framework attempts to bring some quantifying commentary to the Bennett sisters’ unique range of feminisms in relation to love and marriage. It both directly provokes inane questions (“Can we make this feminist?”; “Can love as we know it exist in a time like this?”) and subsequently evokes more intelligent ones (“What exactly is it about Austen’s stories that make us swoon so?”)

Carla Goodman’s design sees the action taking place within a giant birdcage in front of a tarnished mirror, no doubt enhancing the emphasis on the societal trappings experienced by our protagonists, and their parallels to our modern situation, with notable blind spots.

It’s unclear what the juxtaposition truly adds to our current understanding of Pride and Prejudice. Given the novel’s standing in popular culture, the presumption of such a level of ignorance in the audience seems a bit of a misfire. With such a lauded source text, it’s important to note what’s new about this version.

The differences: Darcy (Matt Whitchurch) is such a scanty presence, and displays little, if any, quality for Lizzie (Bethan Mary-James) to fall for; indeed they have so little interaction that there is no chance for convincing “dynamism”, perhaps left out to enhance Pascoe’s point on the shallowness of love connections made in the era. The modern intercuts bring Austen’s work into the territory of a kind of time-travelling Love Actually. Self-aware songs arrive late into the action, proving somewhat trite and awkward despite Emmy The Great’s perfectly fitting scores elsewhere, including on Austenland, which inspires similar self-examination of our attraction to the world of AustenThese lyrics fall short of revelation, though there are some refreshing and satisfying moments including a song between Lizzie and JaneMary (played by the brilliant Rachel Partington) is mostly played up for comedic effect, transcending simple distaste for what she perceives as her sisters’ trivial interests, and presenting instead as neuroatypical. Mr and Mrs Bennett (played by Adrian Irvine and Kerry Peers respectively) have moments of tender connection not present in other adaptations, which is both moving and welcome.

What remains? Lizzie is a role model in exemplary female friendships. She shares poignant moments of unconditional support with Jane, Mary and Charlotte, making no judgments on their disparate choices, which is more than can be said of the writing. Lydia (Olivia Onyehara) is familiarly obnoxious and vivacious, while Bingley (Matthew Romain) is unfalteringly charming. Mary-James’s Lizzie is perfectly sardonic and removed in public; loyal and generous with her loved ones. The superb cast make the show thoroughly enjoyable, as do some playful touches such as dressmakers’ dummies making appearances in the dance scenes. We’ll all be voting for Dummy #1 and Wickham (Alex Sawyer) on the next season of Strictly. Other highlights include Romain’s Mr Collins, with his interminable sermons and severely misjudged compliments.

The verdict: Austen was successful enough a feminist pastiche artist, and we need to place more trust in her. If this production proves any point about her stories, it is that their cores are so strong that we can pretty much do anything we want with them, and they will still be great stories populated by entertaining characters.

The show runs until Saturday 14th October. Tickets are available from the York Theatre Royal box office or online at: https://goo.gl/9YBDh8
Check this out if you like: Austenland, Lost In Austen, Love Actually
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Theatre Review – Robin Hood: The Arrow of Destiny at York Theatre Royal

Richard Hurford’s modern spin on the legend of Robin Hood is just what we need right now. From its diverse cast to its feminist hero profferings, this heartwarming production directed by Damian Cruden and Suzann McLean is fun for all the family; even that uncle with the cold, black, anti-panto heart.

Joanna Holden in Robin Hood The Arrow of Destiny. Photo Anthony RoblingJoanna Holden. Photo by Anthony Robling.

From the moment you enter the foyer, your experience of the show is a magical one; enhanced by an aviary soundtrack, brightly coloured flags and a children’s dress-up corner, placing you right in the heart of medieval Sherwood Forest.

Trevor A Toussaint as Friar Tuck in Robin Hood The Arrow of Destiny. Photo Anthony Robling

Trevor A Toussaint. Photo by Anthony Robling.

In a refreshingly feminist take, both communities dwelling in Sherwood Forest are matriarchal (whether they realise it or not), being lead by Maid Marian (the talented Siobhan Athwal) and ‘Little John’ (seasoned comedic pro Joanna Holden). The majority of the core-cast goodies are people of colour; Friar Tuck being played by the vibrant Trevor A Toussaint. The tongue-in-cheek humour is well-placed and well-delivered. The subversion of expectations accompanied by a mixture of lounge funk and rap in Rob Castell’s adorable score make this a Hamilton for all ages. Indisputably love-to-hate-able baddies the Sheriff of Nottingham and Guy of Gisborne are played by John Elkington and Ed Thorpe (also the Musical Director) respectively.

John Elkington & Ed Thorpe in Robin Hood The Arrow of Destiny. Photo Anthony Robling

John Elkington and Ed Thorpe. Photo by Anthony Robling.

Marian is The Woman Behind The Man, or rather the woman behind the legend of Robin Hood (charming stage newbie Neil Reynolds). The show makes no bones about the fact that she is motivated and competent, while Robin is lazy and inept, and right down to Robin’s moment of surprise at an impromptu, matter-of-fact outing of several merry men as Actually Girls Too, it celebrates capable women without making a fuss about it.

Joanna Holden Neil Reynolds & Siobhan Athwal in Robin Hood The Arrow of Destiny. Photo Anthony Robling

Joanna Holden, Neil Reynolds and Siobhan Athwal. Photo by Anthony Robling.

Although it avoids undermining its own message in the comedy, unlike so many modern family tales afraid of picking a political side, it does do this somewhat in the third act, introducing a hitherto unheard-of (and uncharacteristically dark) threat in order to turn Marian’s heroism into fragility, bound by her maidenhood and in need of rescuing. Granted; the message is, “It takes a village”, rather than that all women need a knight in shining tights, but it feels like more negotiation of its own feminism than is necessary.

Siobhan Athwal as Marian in Robin Hood The Arrow of Destiny. Photo Anthony Robling

Siobhan Athwal. Photo by Anthony Robling.

Possibly the most rousing sentiment is Marian’s “I know I’m not enough” – an obstacle that all who strive come up against. She is the hero every little girl and boy needs, and maybe they can in turn give her a lesson in taking credit where it’s due. There is a note in the programme about the passing on of a legend, and the various re-tellings we encounter in each generation, and this show makes its joyful mark in the evolution of Robin Hood.

Performances run until 2nd September, 7pm (Tuesday & Thursday – Saturday), 2.30pm (Wednesday – Saturday), tickets available from www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

Theatre Review – Rent The Musical

Jonathan Larson‘s hit musical, presented by Rent 20th Anniversary Production Ltd
York Theatre Royal, Tuesday 18th April 2017

Photograph courtesy of Rent 20th Anniversary Production Ltd

Rent is an imperfect musical about imperfect people, produced originally in 1996 and countless times since (and before – it’s a modern adaptation of Puccini’s La Bohème.) It’s easy to see why we keep coming back to this tale comprised of author Jonathan Larson’s heart and soul. A landmark turn in musical theatre, Larson’s unusual, rocking score captures the lives of the marginalised citizens of mid-90’s East Village.

Dancer Mimi (Philippa Stefani), drag queen Angel (Layton Williams) and boyfriend Tom Collins (Ryan O’Gorman), performance artist Maureen (Christina Modestou), and singer-songwriter Roger (Ross Hunter) are among the strugglers and stragglers. Aspiring film-maker Mark (Billy Cullum) frames the piece as a disposable white male narrator; his own troubles unrousing but his lines painfully relevant:

How do you document real life
When real life’s getting more like fiction each day?”

Photograph courtesy of Rent 20th Anniversary Production Ltd

Despite the obvious incredible talent of the cast, the atmosphere and chemistry fall slightly short. There is something missing in the room; only occasional moments hitting the mark and sending home the sentiment that should be firing a crowd in any decade. Lee Proud’s choreography is in turns over-ambitious and bafflingly meaningless and dull. The use of gritty industrial scaffold set from Theatr Clwyd mostly as a backdrop is a missed opportunity, and the music levels vary from too loud to be intelligible, to too quiet to have any impact. The love matches aren’t quite convincing either, though this is not the fault of the cast; the script simply doesn’t allow the breathing room to relax into their spark.

Highlights are Stefani’s sexy, emotional and empowered Out Tonight, Modestou‘s masterfully observed Over The Moon and Santa Fe, performed with knowing compassion by O’Gorman, Cullum, and the impressive Williams, whom you fall hopelessly in love with at first sight. Thanks both to his sublime voice and Williams’ colourful performance, O’Gorman’s reprise of I’ll Cover You is simply beautiful.

Photograph courtesy of Rent 20th Anniversary Production Ltd

As always, full-scale high-end musical theatre about the marginalised presented to paying middle-class audiences raises the question of who this is speaking to, and what its message really is.

Catch the show and decide for yourself, tonight and tomorrow at York Theatre Royal. Tickets are available online or on 01904 623568.

Guilt

A retrospective post – a journal entry – now that I have enough distance to appreciate it as a useful document of a temporary emotion.

I want to talk about guilt. Guilt is taking over my life, and I don’t think I’m the only one. Third-generation inherited Catholic guilt. The guilt of being born into a first-world country in a first-world family, whatever that means these days. Biscuit guilt. Toilet guilt. Relationship guilt.

Too many times repeating the word ‘guilt’ until it sounds alien.

I feel guilty about things I haven’t even done yet. I feel guilty for entertaining the idea of having children, when our planet is already insanely overpopulated. I feel guilty about not living life to the fullest while I have a perfectly functional body and mind. Not everyone gets that chance. I feel guilty about how I am spending my time; what would my boss think of this? My friends? My family?

Should I be earning more to be able to do a certain thing, like adopting a mistreated animal, and if I had enough to do one good thing, surely I could be spending it on something even more ‘good’, like building schools in underdeveloped countries.

Surely I could have done something, made more effort, to make that relationship work?

Smoking and dropping cigarette butts. Getting a cat and letting it shit anywhere outside, most likely on other people’s, or public, property. This is stuff everyone does, so is it just a choice I have made to feel this way about it? Is it right?

Chewing gum and, even when disposing of it ‘properly’, knowing that it is a small contribution to the landfill waste that doesn’t decompose for god-damn ages, filling our planet with crap and gunk.

What is the point of guilt? How can we use it?

In Britain we seem to use it to get active in small ways. You see shudders of guilt-inspired activism on social media sites. ‘Sign this petition’, ‘Tell everyone’, ‘Come on guys, let’s stop this now.’ Knee-jerk reactions to a constant flow of seemingly well-intentioned propaganda. What next? Not a lot, it seems. A brief follow-up email. We don’t really see the change. And would we, if we lost those little fights? Would we notice?

At the moment, guilt is beginning to rule me. I feel guilty for not doing well in the different roles in my life, and instead of manifesting itself in an activist way, this guilt is driving me to paranoia and hopelessness. Why? How? Is it just a pride issue over getting up from the guilty place and making that journey back to where you are supposed to be?

The guilt of not writing. Of missing birthdays. Of not saying thank you enough, and soon enough. Of not spending time.

Guilt I recognise as being imposed from an outside body, and guilt I cannot separate from my own beliefs.

The guilt of how I treat my body. The guilt of not reading enough.

Guilt over decisions I have tried to enforce in my life to make positive changes, that seem to be working out for the worse. Of assuming a superfluous status. Of demanding too much. Of doing too little. Of being unaware.

Have awkward conversations

I still question
whether it’s a weakness
to retain words inside you
when they boil up your throat
flap about your brain
because there’s no civilised way out.
We’re taught to behave
to eloquate
articulate
formulate
anything but retaliate.
How some people can look with only a slight smirk,
unerring in the face of complete dissatisfaction,
derogation, insult. When anger would engulf someone smaller
like me
they stand still and let it wash over them
as if they were pleased to be there.
As if there were nothing more pleasant in life.
How trite, how lucky we are to live life,
and these moments are so small, such trifles in the face of the great infinity.
How wise, how enlightened.
I always thought it was a weakness to
let them get away with it;
whatever it was.
Racism, sexism,
crossing of social boundaries,
heinously antagonistic political views.
I thought, “No, fuck you,
how dare you think you can say that, do that,
you must hear that you are wrong,
and discover it, and feel ashamed,
and never do it again.
I have made the world a better place.”
And, of course, I haven’t.
The decided will not notice what you think
if it doesn’t fit their picture.
This is not is your target audience.

Untitled 2-2-17

A group of men are chasing a little girl down a street. It is night.
They are fast. They are frantic.
She is small.

She turns and blows a cloud of bubbles which
stretch and push into the markings of a cheetah
formidable muscle forming around them
not solidifying but preserving their energy
for the moment they will need so strike.

Ghosts of Partners Past

They say that every time you end a relationship, a ghost of the person stays with you. Every time. Can you imagine the noise? How crowded, how busy your space would be? And never mind you, how busy must those ghosts be? Do they have to split their time haunting all their other exes? Do they split their time or their essence? If their presence gets thinner, I suppose you can tell they have been through and ended another relationship.

Let’s not forget, you ended things with them for a reason. You decided not to spend the rest of your life with them. Surely they do not remain willingly either. Surely neither of you can move on while they linger. Do you get a say in who stays?

How do you quantify a relationship anyway? How long do you get to make up your mind before you have to either break things off or get stuck to a soul for eternity? Or both? And what qualifiers let you know that someone is an essence you do want to be doused in for the rest of time? Do vampires ever really know what they’re getting into when they turn someone? Why am I writing vapid questions like Carrie Bradshaw?

Perish the thought… can you ever leave yourself? And if you do, what kind of ghost are you left with?

I am followed by no less than Stephen, Stefan, James, Jamie, Ryan, Aaron, Nathan, Martyn, Chris, Tom (sorry, Thom), Pete, Pete, Pete (shut up), Jamie, Carl, Brindle, Mark and… phew, no, that’s it. So, that’s seventeen, if you’re counting, and some of them are rowdy fucks. God help me if they were all to surface at once. I think I’d be surrounded by the most intense of British unease of difference of character; the poets, the thugs, the clowns and the cheaters.

That sounds like not much that’s nice to say about you as a collective. Which is a shame, really, given my ethos of honouring the connection, of respecting one’s past decisions. Maybe I’m not so upstanding after all. Maybe I don’t practise what I preach. But there’s time.