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Friday 22 July 2011

For Once, play by Tim Price, Hampstead Theatre, presented by Pentabus Theatre, 4* out of 5

April and Gordon are the middle-aged parents of a teenage boy, Sid. They live in a small village in the English country-side where Gordon is much involved in the various committees, organising the villages social activities. Each member of the family tells their part of the story of how a terrible event has affected them, their relationships with each other and their relationship with the other people in their village. Conflicts and tensions emerge and are brought to a head.

At the base of any good play is good writing. “For Once” is a very good play and Tim Price a very skilful and talented playwright. The characters he has created have depth, are intelligent and well rounded. Their development and their interaction are presented with sensitivity and insight. The production under the direction of Orla O'Loughlin is of high quality. Tim Price has given the actors some very challenging scenes to play. Geraldine Alexander (outstanding!), Patrick Driver and Jonathan Smith rise to the challenge.

The Pentabus theatre's brochure says that at the heart of their work is “our rural location which affords us a unique perspective on, and relationship to, the world”. This is very well demonstrated in “For Once”. The Hampstead Theatre is to be commended for giving city audiences the opportunity to see the work of Pentabus in this gripping, moving play.


Sid                              Jonathan Smith        
April                            Geraldine Alexander
Gordon                       Patrick Driver

Design: Anthony Lamble
Lighting: Phil Gladwell
Sound: Chris Shutt

Loyalty, play by Sarah Helm, Hampstead Theatre, not quite 3* out of 5

Laura is a journalist for the Independent Newspaper. She is the partner of Nick, Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair in the months leading up to the Iraq War in 2003. They have 2 children and a Polish nanny.

The play enacts Laura's reminiscences of the period leading up to the Iraq War to the point when the post-Iraq-war report by the UN inspectors is issued which confirmed that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. Most of the play is set in Nick and Laura's bedroom, a sex-free zone, appropriately equipped with telephones, a line-encryption device for secure phone calls and panic buttons to ward off would-be assassins. Contrary to the Notting Hill set, Laura and Nick live in Stockwell. Nick's boss, Tony Blair, is amazed that anyone closely associated with his government would choose to live in a downscale area of London whose existence he is only dimly aware off. “The Oval” cricket ground is the nearest landmark significant enough to have entered Blair's consciousness. The possibility that Blair might be feigning geographical ignorance in order to wind his Chief of Staff up with a bit of banter, does not seem to enter Laura's mind.

The deal between Nick and Laura is that Nick tells her everything that goes on in his job and she can listen in to all conversations. In return, she will not write about any of these topics nor leak any sensitive information. As a result, we the audience, find out through Laura's ears and eyes about the conversations taking place between Tony Blair, George Bush, Rupert Murdoch and other protagonists in the period leading up to the Iraq War.

The tension in the play is about, where the loyalties of the main characters and especially Nick lie, as the UK is being “cheated” into participating in an Iraq War by the Americans. Nick is smart and somewhat conflicted. Tony Blair is a ruthless, charismatic politician with the ability to get right-thinking leftish, middle class intellectual party-members to do what he wants in order to please him. These individuals think that at the last moment he might decide not go to war with Iraq or, even better, persuade the Americans not to do so either. Failing that, he will at least finally address a cause of the great British Foreign policy frustration, something on might describe as the penis envy of British foreign policy makers: in return for UK support in Iraq, he will get the Americans severely downgrade their very special relationship with the Sate of Israel below the level of their special relationship with the United Kingdom. The expectation is that the US government will put pressure on Israel to make significant concessions to the Palestinians. This is particularly important to Laura who was Jerusalem correspondent for her paper once and worked closely with a Palestinian camera-man there who during the Iraq War has taken an assignment with the Reuters news agency in Iraq.
Sara Helm's play Loyalty is based on her actual experiences, as the life partner to David Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff. She presents it to us as a piece of fiction based around actually identified real characters. Thus, it appears that she intends for this play to be understood as largely factual. A big problem with this is that since it is also presented as fictional, she does not engage her responsibility for its factual content. Nevertheless, the main interest of this play for the audience is that its author has been through the experience in real life.

Unfortunately, as a play, its quality is slightly below the BBC drama department's efforts to depict significant recent political events such as the expenses scandal in the UK Parliament. For people who are the target group of news papers such as the Independent, Guardian and Observer, this play confirms the views they mostly hold about Blair, Bush, Murdoch and themselves, as well as their thoughts about what went on in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Other than Laura, Nick and their Polish nanny, who at one stage half-jestingly draws a parallel between Blair and Hitler, the characters of the play are stereotypes with no inner life, no inner conflicts and not many ideas. We learn nothing about them, except that they are exactly like they have been depicted by their political opponents. What is more interesting to see is how a journalist and a senior civil servant try to live as a couple given their largely incompatible responsibilities. Laura and Nick and the way their relationship survives the Iraq War is what is best about the content of this play. The set and production for Loyalty are of good quality and the acting performances very competent.

As a play, Loyalty suffers from its one-sided political stand-point: good is good and evil is evil and sometimes the twain shall speak to each other on the phone. Only Nick is more complex: he is good, but as a good civil servant he must also sit on the fence and help evil to commit its evil deeds, in the hope that evil will suddenly turn good and live happily ever after.  The stereotyping of decision makers such as Blair and Bush raises the question whether the theatre is a suitable medium for “faction” of this type. 

Having all your expectations and opinions confirmed does not really make for great theatre. Compared to what other theatres in London have been able to achieve with new writing talent and political subjects (Tricycle, Royal Court, Arcola and Finborough to name a few) “Loyalty” at the Hampstead Theatre is a rather disappointing experience.

Patrick Baladi
Stephen Critchlow
Anna Koval
Lloyd Owen
Maxine Peake
Michael Simkins
Colin Stinton

Creative Team:
Writer: Sarah Helm
Director: Edward Hall
Designer: Francis O'Connor
Lighting: Ben Ormerod
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Casting: Gabrielle Dawes

Sunday 17 July 2011

The Village Bike, Play by Penelope Skinner, Royal Court Theatre, London, almost 4* out of 5

The Hungarian writer George Mikes once observed: Other people have sex, the English have hot-water bottles. Judging by Penelope Skinner's play, the English have come a long way.

Becky and John are a young couple living in rural middle-England. Becky is expecting baby and senses that pregnancy has made her less sexually attractive to her husband. Her plan is to do whatever it takes to get good sex back into her marriage: yoga, riding a bike and a sexy nightie form part of the arsenal with which she would like to seduce her man. John however has become broody, completely focussed on the impending pregnancy and determined to read everything about motherhood and interpret his wife's outbursts accordingly. The one thing he has absolutely no inclination to engage in with his newly pregnant wife is sex. Becky however is determined to get what she's after: there's the stash of old porno films that used to enliven her sex life with John in the past. Failing that, there's the middle-aged, widowed village plumber who might well be a candidate for fun and games. Even better there's Oliver, a dashing young man who sells her the second-hand bike she wants, in order to keep fit, and whose wife's away for the summer.

The Village Bike is original, direct and funny. It is about sex, it turns many stereotypes upside down. The first act of the play is outstanding. The second part re-establishes the old order of things as the woman who goes after what she wants is faced with the consequences of her behaviour on the people around her. Women cannot not get away with what men easily get away with. Women have to pay a price that men don't.

By having her play follow prevailing moral double-standards that disadvantage women in fulfilling their desire for sex, Penelope Skinner missed an opportunity to follow through on the comedy, dark humour and above the subversiveness of the first act. Nevertheless, The Village Bike is a strong and entertaining play.
Skinner is an alumna of the Royal Court Theatres play-writing workshops. With the Village Bike she has given us a dark, funny and dramatic play of high quality. The director Jo Hill-Gibbens has done an outstanding job to ensure that the production moves along without a dull moment and holds the audience's attention. An excellent cast is led by Romula Garai as Becky. She is among the most talented British actresses of her generation and gives a sympathetic, totally believable portrayal here of a young woman who is ready to take risks in order to get what she wants. 

The Village Bike - Becky (Romola Garai) and John (Nicholas Burns) 

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Nader and Simin – A Separation, Film written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, 4* out of 5, highly recommended

Nader and his wife Simin are at the family judge about their divorce. They had planned to leave Tehran and go abroad with their 11 year old daughter Termeh. But now Nader's father is showing symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease and Nader does not want to leave. Simin wants Nader to think about his daughter's future rather than his father's present. She does not really want to divorce him at all. If he would go abroad with her before the visa expires in 40 days. 11 year old Termeh has her own agenda: keeping the family together, whether in Tehran or abroad. But Nader is determined, proud and stubborn when it comes to defending what he thinks is right and is his right. He will let Simin go. He will agree to the divorce, but he wants to keep Termeh. Simin is more pragmatic than Nader but a strong and determined woman. Without her daughter she will not go abroad. So, Simin moves to her parents who are supportive of their daughter and respect their son-in-law. When Simin and Nader arrange for a housemaid to ensure their Nader's father is supervised, they find Razieh and Hodjat, a very religious couple living in relative poverty. Hodjat has lost his job and needs to satisfy his creditors. Razieh, who is pregnant and has a young daughter, is seeking work without Hodjat's knowledge, to make ends meet. Then events take a dramatic turn.

This film is a high quality family and court room drama full of suspense. The problems the protagonists have to deal with and the way they react are familiar. We can identify and empathise with every character. The inner and outer conflicts are the consequences of events and character traits that we have come across in ourselves and people we know.
The fact that the story plays in today's Iran adds a special twist. The legal and state institutions are unfamiliar and seem strange to us. One instance is the emergency telephone helpline Razieh calls for sorting out a practical question according to the precepts of Iranian Shiite version of Islam. But the protagonists' actions and feelings, their aspirations and the manner in which they navigate their state and legal institutions seem very familiar, easy to understand and to empathize with for any Western audience.
Don't miss this suspenseful, thoughtful, high quality drama. Great cinema, the film thoroughly deserves the Golden Bear Prize it received at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year.