Friday 30 September 2022

Jews. In Their Own Words - Review

Royal Court Theatre, London


Written by Jonathan Freedland
From an idea by Tracy-Ann Oberman
Co-created by Vicky Featherstone, Tracy-Ann Oberman & Audrey Sheffield
Co-directed by Vicky Featherstone & Audrey Sheffield

The company of Jews.In Their Own Words

Jonathan Freedland’s verbatim play Jews. In Their Own Words sees a company of seven actors perform a hundred minute one-act verbatim drama that has been drawn from the words of twelve British Jews interviewed by Freedland earlier this year. It is their true stories that form the framework for much of this play that seeks to examine the history and present state of antisemitism.

The play is born from from the Royal Court’s own troubled relationship with Jews. Smarting from being caught out over the stereotypical naming of a villainous billionaire in the Court’s 2021 production of Rare Earth Mettle (a non-Jewish character curiously named Hershel Fink, an admitted lapse that the Court blamed on “unconscious bias” before renaming the character as Henry Finn) Freedland was swiftly hired by the theatre to expiate their sins, taking Tracy Ann-Oberman’s original idea and setting it to paper.

The dozen interviewees who include politicians Dame Margaret Hodge (played by Debbie Chazen) and Luciana Berger (Louisa Clein) all brought sound testimony, some of it terrifyingly mundane in the racism they spoke of and much of it harrowing. What these individuals have suffered and endured is not to be criticised at all. It is however Freedland’s stitching together of their stories that has created a flawed play.

The flaws lie in the structure of the piece that at times relies too heavily on exposition, lacking dramatic initiative. The historical depictions of the tragedies of York and Lincoln are treated with a patronizing simplicity that diminishes their horror and equally, a musical number that pops up half-way through the work is both incongruous and childish. If one is going to satirise Jews on stage and in song then recognise that both Monty Python and Mel Brooks have done it before, to perfection. Freedland’s verse pales in comparison.

And then there are the glaring omissions and bias of Freedland’s work in a play that may have been better titled Some Jews. In Their Own Words. Those of his original twelve whose political stance was known, were all from the Left. It may well be the Labour Party that has had to challenge its own problems with antisemitism, but in excluding Jews from the other shades of our political spectrum, where was the balance? The clumsy and dangerous impression that has been created here is that political antisemitism only exists on the Left.

Where was the reference to the ghastly, commonplace antisemitism that so many Jewish students face on campus today? And where was any reference at all to the vile antisemitism that sees frequent calls for the destruction of the State Of Israel and which was so clearly thrown into relief last year, with calls in London for the murder of Jews and the rape of Jewish women? 

Notwithstanding Hodge’s remarkable and tragic personal history, where was there any argument to counter her harsh criticism of modern Israel? By all means let Dame Margaret have her opinion, but for Freedland to have omitted any balanced debate on current Israeli policies simply letting Hodge’s criticisms stand as an unquestioned truth, could be charitably described as his own unconscious bias. Others may call it a useful idiocy.

There has to be a good play waiting to emerge from Oberman’s original idea. This isn’t it.

Runs until 22nd October
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Thursday 8 September 2022

Rehab The Musical - Review

Playground Theatre, London


Music & lyrics by Grant Black and Murray Lachlan Young
Book by Elliot Davis
Directed & choreographed by Gary Lloyd

Keith Allen

Rehab is one of those rare finds in the world of new musical theatre writing. A strong story, supporting stunning songs, brilliantly performed and all expertly directed.

In a story that’s drawn from writers Grant Black and Murray Lachlan Young’s personal mental health journeys, Jonny Labey plays Kid Pop, a rock star at the height of fame who gets papped doing a line of coke and is promptly sentenced to 60 days rehab at The Glade. Pop’s journey from denial to recovery is subtly yet brilliantly defined, alongside 3 other patients, with songs defining their respective addictions and flaws that capture a wryness of wit, honesty and humour and which show sensitive perception from both writers and performers.

The Glade of course is a supposedly safe and therapeutic place. Outside the clinic’s confines blows the cruel winds of the paparazzi and the media, with the villain of the piece, PR guru Malcolm Stone wonderfully defined by Keith Allen, delivering what has to be the greatest tribute act to Max Clifford ever. Pop is Stone’s client, with the PR man concocting vile and corrupt manipulations (no spoilers here) to keep his client in the headlines. As part of Stone’s deviousness he recruits Lucy Blake, a young mum who’s down on her luck (played wonderfully by Gloria Onitiri), as a honey-trap, paying her to check herself into The Glade. Onitiri has a magnificent presence and she takes the roof of the Playground with her second act number Museum of Loss

There are moments of musical theatre magic - and literal cheesiness - in the story that evolves, but such is the talent on display that the pathos evoked by the story is both credible and at times, deeply moving.

Supporting the story’s three principals are a cast that seamlessly segue in and out of various roles. John Barr as patient Barry Bronze, a man addicted to tanning is, as always, outstanding.  Phil Sealey as obsessive eater Phil Newman is equally compelling, while slightly more thinly-sketched is Annabel Giles’ Jane Killy. All of these three deliver top-notch musical theatre work, not least in their introductory number At The Glade. There is also a fine turn from Dawn Buckland in two modest cameos, firstly as Phil’s wife, singing the haunting Still Here and later with a comic masterpiece as an oligarch’s wife.

Jodie Steele is another of the evening’s treats as Stone’s assistant Beth. With her number Die At Twenty Seven And You’ll Live Forever, Steele steals the show (almost) with her breathtaking power and passion.

Above all, Rehab displays a bold, brave verve and vigour. With songs that range from first-class duetted balladry in Two Broken People through to the stadium-powered Everyone’s Taking Cocaine, slick lyrics are melded with Gary Lloyd’s pinpoint choreography and precise direction. This is a show that has invested as much in its production values as in its libretto (take a bow designers for set, light and sound Andrew Exeter and Chris Whybrow respectively) with Simon Lee’s 4-piece band, hidden atop the stage, making gorgeous work of the exciting score.

Rehab is destined for a larger future. With its brave narrative, exciting score and a company that define musical theatre excellence, catch it in The Playground for an outstanding night out.

Runs until 17th September
Photo credit: Mark Senior

Friday 2 September 2022

I, Joan - Review

Shakespeare's Globe, London


Written by Charlie Josephine
Directed by Ilinca Radulian

Reviewed by Isla Beckett

Isobel Thom and company

What would Shakespeare think? He wouldn’t, for that is the level of detail afforded by this play. Fancy that. Shakespeare stunned into silence in his very own theatre. O brave new world that has such mockery in it.

I, Joan is based on Joan of Arc’s life, one of the earliest documented feminists. Born in 1412 into poverty, she grew up possessed by a belief that she was channelling God. Convinced of her singularity, she requested a meeting with Charles VII of France, and the rest is history. Joan of Arc helped lead France to triumph against England, motivating a demoralised army and providing strategic input. She was later caught by the enemy and burned at the stake for heresy. Why? Joan reportedly had visions and experienced didactic voices in her head. The same as those that elevated her to the highest ranks of politics. In today’s world, she may have been classed as schizophrenic. In her era, she was deemed a witch. Adding fuel to the fire, she also wore men’s clothes in a defiant act of blasphemy. 

For all intents and purposes, Joan was unusual. Her history is rich and colourful, providing a wealth of material for an adaptation of her life. What a thrilling woman to explore. A walking contradiction. A fighter. A rebel. The skin of a lady with the heart of a man. Her vulnerabilities must’ve been fascinating. What a shame, then, that I, Joan deems it more appropriate to use this woman’s voice as a crass political megaphone. The fourth wall is frequently broken by Isobel Thom's Joan, with what follows being almost always a diatribe against pronouns and patriarchy. After a certain point this becomes tiresome, repetitive and pointless. In the unspoken background, Joan of Arc’s story is screaming to be told. We could learn more from her about gender equality than we ever could by being preached to here.

I, Joan crowbars the present into the past, forcing Joan’s narrative to be what it is not. Her tale is not one of complaint but of courage. Not one of bombastic opinion, but devotion to a cause. Joan did not proclaim herself a feminist, she lived the reality and died for it. So focused is the play on the narrator’s own personal beef with society that it falls flat in its depiction of a hero. For just under three hours, the play literally and metaphorically limps along. One has to admire the writer’s audacity for the constant gender-identity outbursts, couched in a plot that spends much of its time focused on a bunch of actors jiggling around the stage to simulate a 15th century war. A messy and uneven work, I, Joan suffers beneath the weight of two competing points of view. Ultimately, it is rendered characterless. Joan is a vessel for protest, but protest is not Joan. Protest does not stir the mind or the emotions. It does not have the capacity to haunt. As in life, in Charlie Josephine's play Joan does not get the justice she deserves.

Runs until 22nd October
Photo credit: Helen Murray