Sunday, July 21, 2013

Fixing the Fluffs: 'With Great Pleasure' at the BBC Radio Theatre

Since my days  of acting in and directing  ‘amdram’ plays,  I’ve been fascinated by the backstage process, and I’d applied a few times to attend recording sessions at the BBC Radio Theatre. At last I succeeded in gaining  tickets to two programmes in the ‘With Great Pleasure’ series, recorded on July 7th.  

Maybe the  fact that the Wimbledon Men’s Final was played on that day played helped  my luck with  the ticket allocation. Although we arrived a half hour early, the café ‘holding’ area was packed and  our tickets were numbered 2003 and 2004. We were among the last to be called and just about managed to squash into gallery seats.

Celebrities in turn select favourite pieces of poetry and prose, interspersed  with reminiscence about their own careers. Hannah Gordon was first – a  tiny  Scotswoman I remembered from ‘Watercolour Challenge’, a programme I was addicted to when it first aired. Contestants painted scenes in UK beauty spots for five afternoons, overseen by Gordon, and on the Friday an expert awarded a prize of a box of paints.

The chosen poems, and details of Gordon’s experience at a dour boarding school, were delivered in her characteristically gentle style, although the opening poem, ‘Albert and the Lion’, read by Michael Pennington, needed a more robust sense of humour.
Each celebrity is accompanied by  two readers, which  in Gordon’s case were Pennington and  Eleanor Bron. Their  voices admirably suited poems, by Wendy Cope, Noel Coward and  Siegfried Sassoon. Gordon herself read a charming anecdote from Willy Russell’s ‘Shirley Valentine’, called ‘Nativity Play’.
 Lenny Henry proved more immediately topical, not least to me because I saw him play the lead in a 1950s American play called  ‘Fences’ just the other week (see below). As well as performing a speech from that play, he called on Nadine Marshall to read from Andrea Levy’s ‘Small Island’ - Hortense’s shock when she arrives from Jamaica and sees the tiny room in a run-down lodging house that is to be her home. 'Hortense's story is my mother's story', said Henry.

Extracts from Neil Gaiman’s ‘Anansi Boys’, Dickens ‘Dombey and Son’ and  Shakespeare’s  ‘Othello’  were all well received, as was  Jude Adekediki reading  an extract from Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’.

I like the strong contrast between the two sets of extracts  and the presenters –one subtle, heart-warming and gently humorous, the other more vividly dramatic, and more political.

I listened to the first of the series last Monday afternoon,- Lenny Henry's programme -  and enjoyed it as much at the second hearing.
What you don't get from the broadcast performance, though are the ‘fluffs’ -the bits that have to be re-recorded because the actors have stumbled over their words. Efficient female producer Mary Ward Lowery,  took notes and made the cast repeat their lines - remarkably few of them in fact, although I felt sorry for the young actor who struggled with Achebe's convoluted prose style. At a stroke the seemingly confident  performers who, moments before, commanded  the stage, became schoolchildren  forced to repeat lines until they got  them right.
 'It sounds a bit flat,' remarked Hannah Gordon about one of her repeats . The producers's reply was brisk:  'Well, liven it up then!'.  I thought this was one of the most enjoyable afternoons of the year so far.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

'Fences' at the Duchess Theatre


We've been spoiled with serious American dramas in London recently. Works by Arthur Miller, Clifford Odetts and Tennessee Williams all prod the underbelly of the American Dream.  They give more to chew on than the usual tourist-pleasing  musicals.

Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson's name is less well known. He  wrote a cycle of plays that set out to explore over ten decades the experience of people who lived in an area of  Pittsburgh where he was brought up. It's  a perfect vehicle for our home-grown Lenny Henry, fresh from his triumph as Othello.

The run-down Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1957 is  a predominantly black area. Lenny Henry plays paterfamilias Troy, first seen in overalls as he brings home his Friday wage-packet from his job as a garbage-collector. His workmate  Bono (Colin McFarlane) and he take turns at a gin bottle in a brown paper bag as they relax around the verandah of Troy's house.  Troy clearly out-swigs Bono but his mainstay is his strong-minded wife, Rose (Tanya Moodie).  
We learn from the admiring Bono that Troy's early promise as a baseball player was cut short by the prevailing racist attitudes of the era.  However, Troy as a home owner enjoys a measure of status and independence ; the house was bought from the compensation money for his brother's war injuries.
When Troy's son Cory (Ashley Zhangaztha)  seems to have inherited his father's aptitude for baseball, we might expect Troy to encourage him. The opposite is true. The tension between talented son and resentful father provides much of the drama in the first half of the play. Troy is  a man determined to enjoy his life despite the odds stacked against him. He doesn't shrink from  the price of  an alternative kind freedom, which adds to an already complex character. As he  alienates  his wife and son, as well as most of the neighbourhood, he becomes a tragic figure.
It's rare to see an audience so united in a standing ovation, rarer still that  I'm prompted to join them.  Be warned that the second half, although challenging, has a beautifully rendered scene  that will have you dabbing your eyes all the way down the Strand.

Friday, July 05, 2013

A Play of One Half: Happy New at Trafalgar Studios 2

A theatre scheme that offers bargains on unsold tickets is bound to result in a few disappointments. It's surprising , though, how few there are, and I've seen some  superb plays, usually on weekday matinees or Monday nights. Short notice is a major feature.

So when I saw only half of  'Happy New' because I couldn't face  going back after the interval it was a rarity

I was sorry  because the acting was terrific, with Joel Samuels and William Troughton playing  Lyle and Danny, brothers who shared a childhood of traumatic neglect. This has forged a close bond but Lyle is left as  perpetual caretaker to the damaged Danny,  who is unable to leave the flat they share. He is incarcerated by his obsessions and given to strange outbursts.

An intriguing, fairly low key start seems promising: two young men in shorts lie on beds, their faces covered in cream and sliced cucumbers. Their history as brothers and fellow-sufferers in an Australian setting is established. As part of an annual ceremony they concoct  a weird 'punch' with ingredients that   include a bottle of household cleaner  and a pot of paint.

With the arrival of Lyle's feisty girlfriend  Pru, played at full throttle by Lisa Dillon,  to announce that she can no longer tolerate the situation, the play goes into  chaos mode. The  script comprises convoluted monologues delivered loud and fast.

This is a rare failure for the author; according to the programme notes, Australian Brendan Cowell has won lots of awards and seen his plays performed in Sydney, Auckland and Berlin. Director Robert Shaw founded the company Inside Intelligence and has a wealth of experience.


The play has a harrowing theme ; in the first half it depicts a  completely shocking event which seems worse because it's unexpected.  In my opinion, the  Trafalgar Studio 2 in Whitehall, a superbly designed small theatre, did this play no favours. The action was literally in-your-face to an extent that I've only experienced once before, at a play called 'The Island' by South African author Athol Fugard, in the 1970s. I  about two feet away from a naked actor washing himself with water from a bucket. Staged in a tiny theatre in Croydon, it doused me almost as thoroughly as the character in the play.

A comparable shock value  play  was  'Life Price' that I saw at the Royal Court in the late sixties. It involves a sadistic street gang whose crime was so horrible it closed after two weeks. Tickets were  free during that time. A cheap-skate even then, I attended with my local amdram group and we toughed it out.

I soon shook off the Croydon experience, and I'd  have forgotten 'Life Price' if I hadn't written into a  semi-autobiographical novel.

Fortunately, I've seen a couple of excellent cut-price plays since 'Happy New', that  I'll be happy to write about soon.