Yes yes I’m very late to be publishing my cultural highlights from 2017 so I’ll keep it pithy. Experience wise being part of The Bush Theatre’s Project 2036 was an important thing for me. But in terms of my cultural highlights, in no particular order my faves were:
Wonderfully all but one of these are written by women. Some EVEN had female directors:
This Restless House – Zinnie Harris (Lyceum Theatre)
Lions and Tigers – Tanika Gupta directed by Pooja Ghai (Sam Wannamaker Playhouse)
The Interrogation of Sandra Bland – Mojisola Adibayo (Bush Theatre #BlackLivesBlackWords)
Glory on Earth – Linda McLean (Lyceum Theatre)
The Great Tamer – Dimitris Papaioannou (Avignon Festival)
It would be arrogant to also put The Scar Test my play here, as I wrote it but I was very happy it was produced this year at Soho Theatre and very proud of all the brilliant women (and the odd clever chap too) involved in bringing it to the stage.
Handmaid’s Tale (of course)
Yup those were the special ones for me in 2017 🙂
My December highlights are child’s play to choose… in that all of them are plays for young people.
The first is the RSC’s new Christmas Carol adapted by David Edgar. You might think Dickens for Christmas is a bit chocolate box but not in this version. Not at all. It’s an angry social commentary, urgent and relevant to now. Time and again I was struck by different brilliantly resonant lines, at one point Marley says to Scrooge (in a wonderful performance by Phil Davis):
“We are all dead if we can’t see ourselves in the hundreds, the thousands” – this gave me tingles. Hopefully a few politicians will see this one… It continues until 4 February so do get to Stratford Upon Avon if you can (Tory MP or not).
Next was a magical panto – Rapunzel at Theatre Royal Stratford East. I took mini-me and she and I both adored it, she for Baby Bear and the songs, me for the brilliant performances and cheeky winks to adult culture (the witch makes her potions in a Winnebago with walls covered in post-its in a nod to Breaking Bad). I can safely say a new tradition has been born and I’ll be taking my daughter to TRSE for panto every year from now on.
Finally I travelled to the Lyceum for a taste of Arabian Nights. Suhayla El-Bushra’s clever adaptation makes the naughty stories work for a young audience without straying too far from the spirit of the original work which winds stories into stories in a magical kaleidoscope. Once again there’s great songs, lovely performances, plus here the addition of talking goats to make a classic Christmas show. It was super.
In January I’ve already been to the Arab Theatre Institute’s Festival in Tunis – what a place… my Jan Highlights blog is already writing itself…
I’m a bit late to post this month – no way a reflection on some of the excellent stuff I’ve seen.
There was a mesmerising production of Dido Queen of Carthage at the RSC Swan in Stratford. Now I can’t pretend Marlowe’s text isn’t massively problematic (queen drugged by Cupid falls in love with man and gives up everything for him – hardly a feminist text) but it was a beautiful production. I love the Swan and designer Ti Green showed off the space to the full, while Ciaran Bagnall’s lighting was simply sublime – a work of art in its own right.
Then I went to Edinburgh – seriously everything I see at the Lyceum is inspiring and pushing the boundaries at the moment and Cockpit was no exception. Incredible programming. This play is set in a theatre in Germany at the end of the Second World War where displaced persons are being held until they can go back to their countries – whatever is left of them. So far so timely. But what’s astonishing is that it was written by Anglo-Irish playwright Bridget Boland in 1948. Wils Wilson’s compelling production uses the whole theatre and some amazing choral work to bring the brilliant company together to breath life into this forgotten classic. I really hope it gets a further life, it deserves to be seen south of the border and more widely for sure.
My last choice will surprise no one – at last I’m catching up with one of the most talked about TV shows this year, The Handmaid’s Tale. What a story. Again it feels hideously timely despite being a ‘dystopian future’. I haven’t read Atwood’s novel but I’m glad because I don’t know what is coming next and it is bloody riveting. Amazing performances, beautifully filmed with loads of space to really help you put yourself in the character’s shoes and let the full weight of what is happening to them settle on you. It’s deeply disturbing viewing (you need a glass of wine) and it makes you think about the world in a new way. Earth-shattering stuff.
I’ve already had to cancel two November theatre outings because of sinusitis, but I’m hoping to get to the cinema to see the new Armando Ianucci film which I’m excited about and I’ve also discovered an excellent new comedy on Netflix…
My highlights this month comprise a play and two TV comedies – unusual for me.
I saw Thebes Land at the Arcola early in the month – I had heard great things about it when it was first produced last year. I missed it then so had no intention of doing so again. And I’m so glad I did see it, a properly theatrical ride, featuring two astonishing performances. I’m not saying anything more than that because I think if you go to see it (and you should – you’ve until 7 October) it’s best to know literally nothing – have no expectations. That was how I saw it and it was all the better for the surprise.
Next the very brilliant Quacks, a BBC Two comedy following the progress of four young medical pioneers in the daring and wild days of Victorian medicine. Go for Rory Kinnear stay for Lydia Leonard, Tom Basden and Matthew Baynton not to mention James Wood’s scorching script. I had high expectations from the writer of Rev and they were exceeded. Brilliant stuff – I do hope it gets a second series (I’ve already watched the initial six episodes twice!)
Finally Channel 4’s Back. Another cracking cast fronted by Mitchell and Webb with the additional and delightful comedy stylings of Olivia Poulet, Penny Downie and Louise Brealy. And Simon Blackwell’s writing – sublime, the one-liners had me cackling.
October brings Dido at the RSC, Unknown Island at the Gate and Beowulf at the Unicorn… exciting.
Another month another festival (lucky me!): in August – Edinburgh. Here two of my highlights were consumed. The third back in London – all three this month are plays (again).
First up, This Restless House at the Lyceum in Edinburgh. This is technically three plays, as it is Zinnie Harris’s genius reworking of The Orestia. She makes adapting look easy and avoids the usual pitfalls of trying to be too up to the minute, or overly reverential. Instead we get a haunting and compelling play for today about the sins of the parents being visited on the children, and in Dominic Hall’s ballsy production all the elements are perfectly in tune: performances, music, design, lighting – all mesmerising – I was broken afterwards and I won’t forget it. If you can get to the Citizens in Glasgow to see it before it closes (on 9 September) you must. I really hope this one gets further life and comes south of the border.
Next the beautiful, theatrical Nassim, which I saw at the Traverse in a Bush production. I won’t say much about this as the surprise of the performance is what makes it – for audience and performer as it is someone different every time. And like the audience they have no idea what they are in for. A funny, touching piece about ‘home’ and what that means, catch it (or something else by the excellent Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour) at the Bush in London as part of a retrospective of his work in mid-September.
Finally, back in London town, I had the delight of seeing Lions and Tigers at the Globe. To my shame I’d never been to the Sam Wannamaker playhouse before this – what a beautiful space it is. And I’m so glad I discovered it through Tanika Gupta’s engaging and relevant play about Indian independence and freedom fighter Dinesh Gupta in a compelling production by Pooja Ghai. The performances are everything in this intimate, candlelit setting and the actors were superb, telling the story with gusto and passion. It continues until 16 September and you’d be a fool to miss it.
It goes without saying that my plays The Scar Test (at Soho) and How it Ended (at The Bush) were massive highlights in July. But it was a month where I was entirely spoiled because it culminated with a trip to the Avignon Theatre Festival where there were delights galore.
We travelled by Eurostar *DIRECT* (this was a wonder) and as we arrived at the walled city I knew this was the start of a love affair for me. It’s the most beautiful place. Full of inventive theatre spaces. Three shows that blew me away while there were:
Les Yeux de Taqqi
A beautiful children’s show based on a traditional Inuit story about a little boy who can’t see but goes on a quest to find his eyes. Three performers breathed life into some beautiful puppets – it was such a slick and professional piece of work and the storytelling so adept that even with my poor French I not only understood, but laughed and cried at the tale of Taqqi.
Another children’s show with three performers: this gem has no words only music and sounds. The main focus is what looks like a large wooden orange on a stand in the middle of the stage. Each segment is then opened to reveal an unusual musical instrument which is discovered and then played – falteringly at first but then with aplomb – by the hugely talented cast. Children and adults alike were mesmerised with this charming show.
The Great Tamer
The Great Tamer is a show conceived and directed by Dimitris Papaioannou for 11 performers. It is a strange dreamlike scape of bodies and ideas, moments and magic. There’s no plot or story per se but by god it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen in the theatre – ever. At the risk of sounding pretentious I’ll admit to finding myself crying half way through as I realised that I could still be THAT excited by a piece of theatre after 20 years of theatregoing. I can’t say much more than that. Or I don’t want to – I want you to go and see it yourself because my description will never be as good as the real thing. It’s on a world tour currently but criminally is not coming to London. If you are curious check out the trailer but it’s not for the faint hearted and contains lots of nudity. You can see it here: https://vimeo.com/221573027
Boy what a show – I’m still recovering. Hopefully I’ll be fully recovered before my next Festival – Edinburgh at the end of the month…
As well as rehearsing for my play The Scar Test (which runs at Soho Theatre until 22 July) I also found further cultural satisfaction (blessed are the babysitters).
Firstly a reading at the stunning Mosaic Rooms in Earls Court of the brilliant Hassan Abdulrazzak’s new play Maroon. A thought-provoking, engrossing play dealing with tough themes in an incredible entertaining way. And what actors! Robin Soans, Sirine Saba, Jaz Deol and Seven K Greene. Can’t wait to see a full production of that one.
Then I went to Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court (pictured at top). What a show. It deals with suicide but also post natal depression. What I loved so much was the way the fragmented form of the play disoriented the audience and made your brain work in a strange new way much as I imagine such a mental health condition might. The performances were stunning (Kate O’Flynn and Adelle Leonce so intense and watchable; Hattie Morahan and Paul Hilton – just astonishing, gut wrenching as they desperately tried and failed to communicate with one another). Katie Mitchell’s directing is masterful (of course). I’m still reeling from that one and expect I will be for some time to come.
And then a telly. Jimmy McGovern’s Broken. The other half had to force me – I suspected it would be a misery-fest and I couldn’t really face it. But after some gentle persuasion I girded my loins and put on iPlayer. And I’m delighted I did.
It’s a state of the nation piece, masterfully written and performed – not just by key figure Sean Bean but the supporting cast are incredible. And what makes me even happier is that in every single episode there was a brilliant actor who I have worked with in the past and who is on my list to work with again. It’s so satisfying when great actors get to do great work.
July has been mad with my plays at Soho and the Bush and I’m off to the Avignon theatre festival at the end of the month so expect a blog about Le théâtre très bientôt…
May was another bumper month culturally for me in a personal and wider way too. Not only did my new play The Scar Test (which opens at Soho Theatre in July) go into rehearsal with a cracking team on board, I also saw two astonishing pieces of theatre and made a film:
First up I went to The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth at the Royal Court. Directed by Sam Mendes it has a massive cast including a host of young children and is set in Northern Ireland at the height of ‘the Troubles’. I had my reservations before I saw it – could the writer pen anything to rival his amazing play Jerusalem? Also even though I saw an early performance there was already a lot of buzz about it – could it live up to the hype? For me it really did – amazing performances, nuanced writing encompassing the poetry and drama we all know to expect from classic Irish plays, plus a deeply compelling personal and political story. It did the thing great historical plays should – made me draw comparisons with today and none as stark as the conflict of how best to fight oppression
– peacefully with the pen or with direct action and even violence. The plight of the Irish Hunger strikers is also referred to in the play and it made me think about similarities with the current Palestinian hunger strikers imprisoned in Israel. I found it so compelling that as soon as I got home I booked to see it again – you don’t get much higher praise than that.
Next, another historical play, this time at the beautiful Lyceum in Edinburgh: Glory on Earth by Linda McLean tells the story of a young Mary Queen of Scots and her early days after returning to Scotland from France when she met John Knox – the man considered the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. He hated Mary and everything she stood for. This beautiful piece of theatre imagines those days and meetings with Knox and Mary and her ladies in waiting (here a chorus of Marys) and we get the very distinct feeling that from the outset the poor woman’s fate was sealed. The way David Grieg’s production playfully portrays this world as a fusion of then and now with oversized ruffs, embroidered boots and the court dancing to Christine and the Queens is so delightfully imaginative. I learned something new and I was massively entertained. What’s more it’s so rare see a play that’s all females on stage (as this was – all bar one) that I left feeling hugely inspired. It’s a brilliant production and one worth travelling for.
Finally I have to include my short film. I wrote The Record a couple of years ago and won the Tommy Vine screenwriting Award at the Underwire film festival – which was some money towards making it. Thanks to my brilliant producers and SHH productions a dream team was pulled together including two young and incredibly talented actresses who withstood two gruelling days of filming like the pros they are. I was a wreck, barely slept the night before flapping about on set like a fifth wheel. Long and short is it’s going to be brilliant despite my involvement! Watch this space …
There are some months were my cultural satisfaction has been so low (mainly because I’ve failed to get out of the house or wrestle the remote from mini me, so as a result watched Hi-5
on Netflix on a loop) that I’ve scrabbled around for things to include in my top three. Not so this month where I’ve struggled with how to pick just three. Then I decided: hell I make the rules so I can break ’em. So this month it’s my top four as opposed to top three cultural highlights.
Firstly Dickie Beau’s Re-member Me
at the Almeida, directed by Jan-willem van den Bosch. Dickie is an incredible award-winning performer who has been described as an “actor, physical performer and intrepid drag fabulist. He is a postmodern cultural pickpocket, maverick theatre-maker and twisted video star; looting a range of performance traditions, from “low culture” to “high art”, in the creation of distinctive performance experiences.” In this piece he has interviewed many great actors and directors including Ian McKellan and Richard Eyre about the role of Hamlet. He lip-syncs to these interviews and transforms. There are many other exciting visual elements that come into play too and what’s so beautiful is that the journey we the audience take is probably the same as Dickie did in making this show: it starts as being about Hamlet but very gradually it becomes about Ian Charleston whose performance as the Dane stands out in all the interviewees minds. Re-member Me only played for a few nights at the Almeida and I really really hope it gets the further life it so deserved. If it comes back I’ll definitely go and see it again – it was powerful and a whole lot of fun.
Then I saw Guards at the Taj
the Bush’s reopening show. What a flag in the sand and what a piece of pure theatre… two men on stage telling a very simple story about humanity and responsibility. A historical piece set in another time and place but so clearly relevant to today asking the question ‘Where do we draw the line?’ The writing gripped, the performances were engrossing and the direction smooth and unobtrusive. If this is a statement of what’s to come in the new Bush I’m very excited.
And yet more theatre comes next (a wonderfully theatrey month) The Velveteen Rabbit
at the Unicorn directed by Purni Morell and with
Ashley Byam, Jason Carr, David Ganly & Christian Roe. I went for my daughter and loved it as much as she did. The beautiful children’s book is theatrically, imaginatively brought to life. The rabbit is played by a man without a bunny costume – no ears even, he just very simply runs his hands along his imaginary ears at the start and that’s enough. We know what he is – we believe what he is. More gorgeous performances and pure theatricality to brighten my day. And mini me adored the fact an actual real rabbit came on stage at the end. Magical.
And for my bonus number four you guessed it – more theatre! This time north of the border in Scotland. I went to see Girl In The Machine
by the brilliant Steph Smith at the Traverse, directed by Orla O’Loughlin. A dark futuristic warning with Black Mirror undertones it’s another example of two actors, one writer and one director (along with an amazing creative team) being able to engross and provoke an audience.
My faith in theatre restored I head into May with lots of exciting things planned including Jez Butterworth’s Ferryman at the Royal Court a trip to Paris for some French theatre and back to Scotland for Glory on Earth at the Lyceum. I’m rubbing my hands in glee – lucky me.
Think about all the plays that are on. West End, Fringe, Regional – there are 100s upon 100s. And when you work in the industry at any level you’re constantly aware of colleagues working on different projects. Some you’ve heard about from inception, others arrive fully formed in your inbox or social media feed.
And it’s easy to feel a bit envious about all the amazing work your friends are making – perhaps even wish you’d had that opportunity. So it’s worth remembering in this often super presented social media world that no production is easy and every birthing has it’s complications whatever level you are – from first outing to seasoned vet.
I’m not the former or the latter and not quite in the middle. I’ve have had a few things on. And when you’re part of the process as the writer (hopefully) usually you are a party to all the hiccups that occur in even the best laid plans.
In my experience so far:
- I’ve had many more funding rejections than approvals (very few of us tweet about the nos);
- lost actors/ directors/ crew at the 11th hour;
- had power cuts;
- had to cancel first night because a show wasn’t ready;
- had to clean dirty dressing rooms myself (despite paying the theatre a massive hire fee);
- had contracts changed;
- dates moved without consultation leading to knock on problems;
- had actors/crew shout at me about how little they are getting paid/ that they haven’t been paid (often unaware of the irony that I’m not getting paid at all);
….you name it it’s happened.
In those moments I’ve pow-wowed with the team to problem solve, had extra rations of wine and cried to my friends or other half. I certainly haven’t publicised my pain to the world.
I guess this blog is just my way of reminding myself that there is no easy path in life, every ‘break’ only comes after much pressure is applied and that when I look at others’ timelines and the old green eyed monster is whispering I need to remember it’s tough for us all whether we talk about it or not… So we should celebrate each other’s successes and remember every production is a little miracle – especially in this age of ‘austerity.