Othello, Ambassadors Theatre, London. National Youth Theatre of Great Britain.

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This is a fantastic production of Othello. The adaptation, by Frantic Assembly, was first performed by the National Youth Theatre in 1996 and this is an updated revival of that show.  The action has been brought into a contemporary setting, a dodgy looking pub where the tension and bravado are palpable and only the tough survive. Othello’s army is a neighbourhood gang. Shakespeare’s language fits in surprisingly well and the themes feel current and accessible.

The opening is a long wordless dance sequence that sets the scene. Its shows us the relationships between the various gang members, and their place in the hierarchy. The choreography is energetic and modern. The, usually awkward, fight scenes are handled with aplomb. The set looks simple but even this is extraordinary and comes into its own in moments of heightened tension.

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Every actor is very good. Megan Burke is a hard-as-nails Emelia, who won’t be talked down when it comes to getting justice for her friend. Rebecca Hesketh-Smith is a sweet but upfront Desdemona. Curtis John Kemlo plays Roderigo as puny and weak, bringing an interesting new perspective to the role. Mohammed Mansaray, as Othello,  is tender in love and harsh in anger.  Jamie Rose steals the show as Iago, playing him as a shifty, cheeky chappie, with sly winks and gestures, letting the audience in on his secrets, while behaving abominably. I see a Bond villain in the making.

 

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Photos courtesy of Helen Murray

 

The director is Simon Pittman, he has done a remarkable job, drawing clear and strong performances from all the characters. The tempo is quick and up to date, but he is not afraid to pause the action to press a point. The closing scene is masterful.

This production is playing selected dates between now and December. The future of British theatre is here and playing at the Ambassadors Theatre.

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Jekyll and Hyde, National Youth Theatre, Ambassadors Theatre, London

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The National Youth Theatre’s production of Jekyll and Hyde is a deconstruction of the original novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, rebuilt with a modern feminist twist by writer Evan Placey. Combining Victorian settings and morals with modern day language and values adds a new dimension to the duality theme of the story.

The decision to have a female Jekyll is not only brave but astute, and this production perfectly captures the zeitgeist with the discussion about sexism in film and theatre so much in the news. The writing is forthright, the jolt of the coarse language spoken by the Victorian ladies near the start of the play becomes clear in the second act, there is no doubt that Evan Placey is a talented author, of whom we will hear more in the future.

Aside from the writing there is much to recommend in this production. The acting throughout is accomplished. Jennifer Walsh in particular is excellent as Florence, a young adult coming to terms with the fact that although no one else is going to stand up for her, she has the power to stand up for herself.  Elizabeth McCafferty confidently makes the transitions between Jekyll and Hyde both striking and convincing. Mohammed Mansaray has a funny scene as a priest, which he delivers very well.

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The direction is brisk and contemporary, so that even in the midst of 19th century London, we feel linked to the current day. The director, Roy Alexander Weise, is not afraid to be confrontational, daring to breach our comfort zone in order that we feel the characters’ anger. The costume design is remarkable and clever, the ensemble changes from church house to flop house in the blink of an eye.

 

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Pictures courtesy of Nobby Clark

 

Jekyll and Hyde has a few rough edges, but challenging, thought provoking productions like this are exactly the remit of The National Youth Theatre and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this show.

Follies, National Theatre, Southbank, London.

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Follies is probably Sondheim’s most traditional musical, in that it has set pieces, dance routines, show girls and, separate songs that don’t bleed into each other. However, it is still complex; the story has great depth and some of the songs are operatic in nature.

It is expensive and complicated to produce, it has a large company, with demanding roles throughout the cast. It needs an orchestra. Full productions of Follies are rare, the last proper one in London was thirty years ago, so when there is a high quality, committed revival such as this on offer, the opportunity needs to be grabbed.

It’s Sondheim, so the material is fantastic. It has some of his most famous songs, the storyline is elegant, and it is almost upbeat for Sondheim, (that means everyone in the cast isn’t going to live out the rest of their lives in abject misery!). It’s the National Theatre, so the production values are top notch. Dominic Cooke and Bill Deamer as director and choreographer have both done a wonderful job. I particularly loved the way each dancer at the reunion had their younger version dancing with them. I also loved the way all the mature dancers paraded down the stairs in a dignified manner wearing evening gowns, while their younger incarnations scrambled in over the rubble at the back of the stage, in their high heels, basques and feathers.

Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee, Philip Quast and Peter Forbes are the four leads, so the acting and singing are outstanding. Imelda Staunton does an emotionally draining rendition of “Losing My Mind” and Philip Quast’s voice is as amazing as it always is. It has Tracie Bennett and Geraldine Fitzgerald in supporting roles so it has incredible strength in depth. Tracie Bennett is in full on scene stealing mode with “I’m Still Here” sung with a mixture of pain and defiance.

Follies at the National Theatre is fantastic, and given all the elements that went into making it, there was never any doubt that it would be.

Zigger Zagger, National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, Wilton’s Music Hall, London

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From the second the opening whistle sounds and the cast of 50 begin their football chants, the audience is dragged in – to a world of youth tribalism, disaffection and tough choices. Wilton’s Music Hall is the perfect size for this play, large enough that the cast doesn’t outnumber the audience, small enough that the cacophony of sound envelops you to feel part of the crowd.

Zigger Zagger is a late 20th century parable, ostensibly about football hooliganism but also about loyalty and fitting in. The protagonist, Harry Philton, excellently played by Josh Barrow, is a school leaver searching for belonging and is drawn to the local football terraces. He is aware of its limitations as a life choice so investigates the alternatives.

Among these are: Police, Army, Religion, Apprenticeship and, settling down. These options are caricatured, often in musical or poetic form. Adam Smart is particularly funny as the Youth Careers Officer. In between each option we are brought back to the terraces for a song and each time we feel the allure of being part of the crowd.

The soundtrack is great, T.Rex, Mud, Bay City Rollers even the Sex Pistols. The crowd songs are classical and traditional, with some chanting thrown in for good measure. Zigger Zagger is a boisterous and entertaining evening, with some great performances, and an interesting reminder of a specific moment in this country’s development.

 

The Host, National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, The Yard Theatre, London

The Host

“The Host” is an up to the minute play, set in a council block in Croydon. Nominally about refugees and our response to them, it is also about the meaning of family, and about cultural identity.

It is a well written play with colourful, but current, language. It is excellently performed by the 5 member cast. Rebekah Murrell and Zakary Douglas-Zerouali have a great chemistry as the two leads Yasmin and Rabea. Rebekah plays Yasmin with a nervous intensity, full of (mostly) repressed anger. This is balanced well with Rabea’s more resigned accepting nature.

Nessah Muthy, the playwright, is on this year’s BBC new talent hotlist. On this form, you can see why, although some of the issues felt unresolved, and the finale felt a little like the end of the first act, the script is good and she has a great ear for the rhythms of conversation.

The set and direction are good, the messy, claustrophobic flat is simply set up and, having the offstage cast on view at the back made us feel that we were never far from our neighbours.

This is the final play in the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain’s enjoyable East End Season at the Yard Theatre. I hope they repeat the idea next year.  However, they are doing a revival of “Zigger, Zagger”, the play about football hooliganism at the Wilton’s Music Hall early next month. I am looking forward to seeing it!

 

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, Duke of York’s Theatre

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Six catholic schoolgirls in uniform arrive on stage to sing a hymn, Mendelssohn’s “Lift Thine Eyes”. They have angelic voices, it is beautiful. After the song they begin to talk, the language is sinful and the subjects are carnal. The juxtaposition is funny and moving.

This play is the story of their day trip to Edinburgh to sing in a choir competition. Over the course of this twenty four hours they meet various characters from the places they visit. These characters are played by the girls themselves and this combined with the strong accents and dialect made following the action hard work in places. However, the script is witty and coarse and the singing is fantastic, especially the classical pieces and hymns. Many of the rock songs are Electric Light Orchestra covers.

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour is a well observed play. It is insightful, in that it makes us aware of the difference between the world that their convent schooling is preparing them for and the actual world that they will inhabit when they leave. This play makes you question how qualified ecclesiastic schools are at preparing children for a life in a secular society.

An entertaining and thought provoking show, with a very talented cast. I am sure we shall hear of many of these actors again.

Angels In America, National Theatre, Southbank, London.

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Angels in America is operatic in its scale. It has huge universal themes, it takes on religion, politics and the future of the planet. At its core though, are three individual small stories that investigate the meaning of love and abandonment. It can be at times; grandiose, bombastic, histrionic and at others; tender, bitchy or warm. The show is set in 1985 New York at the start of the AIDS crisis, with Ronald Reagan just having been elected for his second term.

It is an awe inspiringly big production. The set is amazing. There are not many theatres in the world with stages large enough to contain the more expansive pieces, but there are also intimate scenes set in small a room or around a single hospital bed. I will be surprised if Ian MacNeil does not win an award for his set design. The direction is very clever, the angel is astonishingly large, when it arrives, yet the scene involving a small puppetry diorama is equally compelling.

The cast is astounding and their performances are excellent. Every single person in the production is at the top of their game, so it almost seems unfair to pick out favourites but…. Andrew Garfield is a revelation, I’d only seen him as Spider-Man before, and this is quite different! Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is fab-u-lous (three full syllables) as Belize, he is given some of the best lines in the show, and he delivers them well.  Nathan Lane plays Roy Cohn and manages to make him cruel, contemptible and charismatic.

This show is a marathon at over seven and a half hours for both parts, but it passes surprisingly quickly. I did not feel the time going at all. I commend its ambition, I admire its uncompromising stance and I revere its wonderful production values. Angels in America one-off theatrical experience.